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But Monsters Are Always Hungry, Darling

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December 24, 1928

 

It started just like the snowfall: a handful of snowflakes, tiny ones, falling from the sky at first, until you blinked once and suddenly you were knee-deep in it, watching it rise. Years from now, I’ll think about this day and try to remember what I was doing before it all went to hell, and what I might have done differently to stop it.

 

I wasn’t meant to come into work today, but I did. I knew the office was going to be a ghost town with the coming holiday, but that never meant much to me, and I had things to do. There were always things to do. In hindsight, I should have been more prepared for it than I was. I’ve been here long enough to know that this city’s a breeding ground for crisis after crisis, and I should have known better than to think that any illusion of equilibrium could ever be more than that. An illusion.

 

I got careless, though. Things were quiet for once, and the turn of the year was promising a fresh start. For just a moment, I fooled myself into thinking that everything was alright.

 

And then the phone rang, and it was the beginning of the end.

 

  

 

chapter 1 header

 



It was the same story the world over, and that story never changed: it’s always the forbidden fruit that tastes the sweetest.

 

‘Sweet’ wasn’t the word Viktor would choose to describe the dregs of gin that he swirled in the bottom of what should have been a coffee mug, but words burned and died at the back of his tongue with every swallow anyway, so what was the point? He couldn’t remember if this was from the unmarked bottle Mila had smuggled into the office from a ‘friend of a friend of her uncle’s’ back in Germany, or left over from the batch Christophe had distilled in his bathtub for Halloween. But good alcohol had a way of making him forget to care about its origins. It made him forget to care about many things.

 

So when the phone began to ring at just past seven on his wristwatch, it was hard to care about that too. Makkachin, his poodle and the only good thing this life ever had to offer him, lifted her head up from where she’d been resting it on his feet, blinking sleepily at him. I know, he tried to convey as he ruffled her ears with his free hand. Maybe they’ll go away.

 

They didn’t, and the ringing continued.

 

Sighing, Viktor downed the rest of his gin and pried himself away from the table. His apartment was a glorified shoebox on Delancey Street overlooking a row of dumpsters down below, and it took all of five and a half strides to get to the phone. He dragged his feet the whole way, because there was only one person in this city who knew his number - it was the same person who’d insisted on paying extra for a private line anyway, because leaving your work at the office was a luxury that you signed away from the moment you started out in this industry.

 

“I thought I had the day off,” he said once he finally picked up the phone.

 

“Good morning, I’m doing well, thank you.” Any derision in his employer’s response was lost in how the man always spoke as though he were dragging his words through gravel. “Have you been drinking?”

 

“No,” Viktor lied. His eyes were smarting, and he remembered now that that ‘hair of the dog’ had been the last of his liquor, and that his apartment was now completely dry. Damn it. “Please tell me this call isn’t about paperwork.”

 

“It’s not. Have you heard?”

 

Makkachin nosed at his hand. Viktor obliged her and let her lick the salt from his fingers. “I feel as though I’m about to.”

 

His boss had always been a man of measured sentences, and Viktor understood the paranoia that came with conducting shop talk over the phone, private line or not. But there was only so much information you could get from not so many words, which was how Viktor learned only that there was a murder last night - when wasn’t there a murder in this city, that was the better question - and for some reason, the Feltsman Detective Agency had officially been invited to consult.

 

“Sounds like a mess,” he said at the end of it. “Why don’t you give it to Mila? She’s been hungry for a case since her last one went cold. Tell her it’s my Christmas gift to her.”

 

“Trust me when I say that I considered that option. It would have been preferable, considering your… circumstances.”

 

‘Circumstances’? Was that the term they were using now? Funny how just a week ago, it was ‘accident’ that was being thrown around, and a week before that, it was a far uglier word altogether. Maybe time just diluted everything in the end. Oh, but that wasn’t really true, was it? God, he wished it was.

 

“But I’m afraid neither of us has a choice. They requested you by name.”

 

“Who did? The police?”

 

He got a grunt that sounded vaguely like assent. “They said it looked like something that would benefit from your expertise.”

 

What expertise? “Why?” he asked instead.

 

The voice on the other end of the line spoke three words by way of reply. Three simple words, and all of a sudden, he was two years younger, standing in the middle of an opulent living room whose walls threatened to swallow him whole. And he was ‘making amends’ with a man who was more legend and whisper than flesh, who could have snuffed out Viktor’s life without so much as looking up from his morning newspaper. God fucking damn it. “How on earth can they be sure?”

 

“They can’t, of course. But they were insistent that you go visit the crime scene, and I promised I’d at least try to make that happen.”

 

“Uh-huh.” Viktor rubbed at eyes. He was already feeling the headache, which had greeted him from the moment he woke up and he’d tried in vain to chase away with a little more gin, start to come back with a vengeance. “Right.”

 

“That could be the end of it, for all we know.” Through the lull in their conversation, Viktor thought he could pick up on faint strains of Christmas music from the radio in the background. Emil must have already come into the office. “Listen, I hate this just as much as you do. If you could just drop by… confirm their suspicions, call it, and bill them for half a day. You could be home before the snow hits. Well before Christmas.”

 

When did that ever matter? Viktor bit back the retort that was already sitting on the tip of his tongue, and tried to rationalize it somehow. A few hours out of the apartment wouldn’t kill him. Besides, hadn’t he been against this stupid forced vacation, which was starting to feel more like a suspension every time he thought about it, from the very start? Maybe that was something. “I’ll be up in a bit.”  

 

“And Vitya?”

 

That right there was another loaded word. He could count on one hand the number of people who’d ever used that nickname with him, and on one finger the number of people who still did. As with all words, it was used sparingly, and Viktor found that he could never see what was coming on the other side of it. Sometimes it was warmth, which came in terribly short supply nowadays. Sometimes it was anger, or frustration, an entreaty born out of something desperate, or an attempt to sweeten a sucker punch a second before it came. Sometimes, it was this: Don’t die. For the love of God, please don’t die. “Mmmm?”

 

“Sober up a bit before you go.”

 

 


 

 

This was what he knew: the crime scene he was looking for was enclosed somewhere within the walls of the Waldorf-Astoria, a pair of twin hotels built side-by-side on Fifth Avenue by relatives who, rumor had it, hated each other’s guts. This meant not only that a murder was committed in what was supposed to be a sanctuary for the rich and famous, but also that the murderer somehow got in, did the deed, and got out without being caught when all of it happened smack in the middle of Midtown. Viktor hoped the cops had already started work on figuring that out, because he had no idea where to begin.

 

He was halfway through the courtyard when a familiar, annoyed voice cut through the din of about a couple dozen cops, hotel employees, and the few guests that hadn’t joined the exodus of check-outs in the morning. “You’re fucking late, old man.”

 

“Hello Yura, you seem to be in a better mood than usual today.” He held out the crumpled paper bag which still held about a quarter of the food truck breakfast he’d been working through on the walk over. “Pretzel?”

 

Yuri made a face.

 

“More for me, then. Where’s Yakov?”

 

“Back at the office. He said the scene was going to be crowded enough as it is, we shouldn’t add to the problem.”

 

Viktor glanced at the pockets of crowds behind them. Well, he wasn’t wrong. “But he sent you. Was it to shadow me, or to make sure I’d show?”

 

“Don’t see why it can’t be both. I agreed because Emil wouldn’t stop singing, fuck all of that.”

 

Viktor laughed. Yuri mumbled something else, but he picked the absolute worst time when Viktor was taking a bite, and all he heard was the rustle of paper near his face. “What?”

 

Yuri glowered, obviously not enthused at having to repeat himself. “I said, how are you holding up?”

 

Viktor fixed him with a sickeningly sweet smile. “You don’t have to worry about me.”

 

At that moment, he spotted a familiar face in policeman’s blue walking towards them. He immediately turned to greet him, grateful for the sudden distraction.

 

“Hello, Otabek - pardon me, Sergeant.” He noted the new insignia on the man’s uniform with delight. Ranks like these came at a premium of one to two grand apiece, but if there was one person in the New York Police Department who would have actually earned his rank, it would’ve been Otabek Altin. “Congratulations.”

 

“Thank you.” He nodded, and Viktor thought he almost saw a bit of a smile on that face. What a change. “How much do you know?”

 

“Not nearly enough,” Viktor admitted. “Who found the body?”

 

“Night shift. There were reports of gunshots heard from a high floor at around five in the morning. The hotel was evacuated right away, employees took a headcount on the ground and came up one short. That’s when they called the station.”

 

“Did anybody see the shooter?” Yuri asked. “Or shooters?”

 

“It was chaos all the way down, apparently.”

 

He snorted. “I can imagine.”

 

There were a few good pieces of information to pick out of that exchange, yet Viktor’s takeaway was: “They put you on night shift?”

 

“I’m on the prohibition squad.” Otabek hesitated. “Officially.”

 

“Ah.” Viktor considered saying something about his lifestyle being ‘dry’, ‘officially’ as well. “It’s a bit of a jump from prohibition to homicide though, isn’t it?”

 

“There’s a pretty fertile middle ground shared by the two.” Otabek looked at him curiously. “I thought Mr. Feltsman told you.”

 

Right. Right. Viktor scarfed down the rest of his pretzel and mumbled, “I want to see the body first.”

 

“Of course. This way.”

 

The penthouse suite was the Waldorf-Astoria’s crowning jewel, or at least that was what all of the promotional flyers and pamphlets he’d read had claimed. Nobody would be calling it that anymore, he thought as he stepped into the bedroom and took in the chaos. It looked like a storm had passed through here: chairs were overturned, one of the curtains was ripped halfway off the rod, and exactly none of the pillows remained on the bed, all of them strewn throughout the floor nearby. A couple of them must have been pierced, because Viktor saw clumps of feathers scattered in a handful of places. That was a shame.

 

An unfamiliar man, practically a kid in a police uniform, was crouched on the floor over a broken bottle, collecting the shards with a pair of tweezers. Viktor noted the color of the liquid that had seeped into the carpet and thought, huh, this hotel wasn’t dry. Good to know. He wondered how Otabek felt about that.

 

But all of these observations were just delaying the inevitable, so Viktor finally let his eyes fall onto the body. Poor Josef Karpisek lay dead on the king-sized bed, having lived sixty years and taken in about half that number of bullets which now riddled his corpse. A few other bullets had been buried into the headboard and parts of the wall on either side of the bed. Assuming he didn’t miss any, Viktor counted fifty in all. So fucking inefficient. But it got the job done in the end, so that was something.

 

Though he would go over it later, he didn’t need the detailed write-up Yuri had made on the victim, something Yakov probably forced him to work on at the last minute. Karpisek was a household name. He was a politician, or he had been one anyway, and one of the very few ‘good’ ones at that: he’d been all about ‘cleaning up the city’, from his stump speeches to the ads he took out in the local papers. If only he hadn’t been murdered, he might have given the sitting mayor a run for his money in the coming year’s elections. That was an even bigger shame.

 

“Oh yeah.” Yuri counted out the bullets and scribbled something into his notebook. “That’ll do it for sure.”

 

“Was there any other physical evidence you found besides what we’re seeing right now?” Viktor asked.

 

“There were three separate scraps of fabric on the floor, two here, one near the door.” Otabek pointed out the spots which had been marked with number cards.

 

“Do we know what the guns were?”

 

“So far it all looks to be from the same gun. Something with a .45 ACP cartridge. Witnesses from floors close to the penthouse reported extremely rapid fire.”

 

Otabek was giving him a look, like he was supposed to make some kind of conclusion from that. Well, Viktor knew what he was trying to get at, but he didn’t like it. “Everybody and their mother could get their hands on a submachine gun. Soldiers use them, civilians use them… hell, I could walk down to the police station right now, pick off everyone I know there who’s fired a Tommy Gun, and you wouldn’t have enough men left to cover Battery Park.”

 

“True, but using all fifty rounds in one go, on a single target from point-blank range?” Otabek shook his head. “Not our style. We all know what this looks like. You see it too, don’t you?”

 

The worst part was that he did. The latest victim that Viktor knew of was actually a cop - he’d seen the story on the front page of the New York Daily Mirror that morning, and page six had offered a gruesome photo of the corpse that looked like Swiss cheese. He’d seen these kinds of kills before, heavy-handed messages spelled out in too many bullets that might as well have been a signature:

 

With love and death, and everything in between - La Cosa Nostra.

 

“Then I have a question for you. Why loop us into the investigation at all, if you already know who did it?”

 

Otabek sighed. “The department isn’t… keen…” He glanced over at Yuri, clearly weighing his words carefully, “on directly pursuing this further at the moment. Normally we would, but because of what happened three months ago… it is what it is.”

 

So he’d hit the nail on the head after all. He should have felt better about that than he did. “Very classy, Sergeant.”

 

“The order came from the top.” Otabek scowled. “What, you think I wanted this? I wouldn’t have called you here if I could help it. Especially after what happened to you…”

 

Viktor felt his blood run cold. When he turned face him, Otabek refused to meet his eyes, which confirmed the worst. How the hell did he know? A glare shot at Yuri was only met with a shrug; not him, then. Shit.

 

Who else knew?

 

Did this whole damn city know?!

 

“Sorry. That wasn’t necessary.”

 

“It’s fine.” Viktor gritted his teeth, took a moment, and forced a smile. “I get it. Your hands are tied, and you can’t sweep this under a rug because the victim might have been mayor one day. Fine. I still find it hilarious that you seem to think I’ll magically be able to get you - what, exactly? Proof? A confession?”

 

“You are the best interrogator we’ve got at the Agency,” Yuri offered. “Much as I’m loathe to say it to your face.”

 

“You don’t interrogate the Mafia,” Viktor hissed.

 

“Still, we know for a fact that you’ve been able to walk into Crispino Tower uninvited, and walk out with all of your limbs and fingers intact.” Otabek shrugged. “That’s more than we can say for most of the city.”

 

“If you’re going to accuse me of something, just do it already.”

 

“I’m not. Viktor - ” Otabek was about to say something, but he visibly wrestled with it before changing his mind. “We just want you to talk to them. Please? That’s all. And who knows, even just showing up there for their sake… might win you back some people’s favor, you know?”

 

Those words ended up cutting a bit too deep for Viktor to take without flinching. He wanted to say that he didn’t care about any of that, that it had been years since the ground caved out from beneath his feet and that he was fine, he was fine now. None of that ended up making it out of his mouth. “I want to speak to some of the hotel employees.”

 

Otabek directed him to a few of them, giving him names, occupations, rough gists of their statements to the police, and notes on where they were when the shooting began. Very few of them actually had anything to contribute; nobody had been on a floor high enough to hear the shooting firsthand, and although it didn’t take much effort to coax them to talk, they really didn’t have much that was useful to say.

 

Otabek’s notes seemed to indicate as much, so at least they were consistent.

 

They caught the concierge just as he was straightening up his station at the front desk, preparing to leave. “I already told Sergeant Altin everything.”

 

Yuri started, “Do we look like Sergeant Altin to you - ?” but Viktor stopped him with a hand on his shoulder.

 

“We’re not with the police, sir.” He placed himself between Yuri and the concierge, offering up a business card with his name and office number on it. “We’re with the Feltsman Agency, they called us in just this morning. We’re doing a bit of catch-up.”

 

The concierge accepted the card, albeit with much grumbling under his breath. He looked about ten seconds away from telling them both to hit the road. Viktor would have to wear him down just a little more before that happened.

 

“I understand your frustrations, sir. Hopefully this will be as quick and painless as possible.” He took out a cigarette, and started patting his pockets with a concerned look, even though he knew precisely which one had a lighter in it. “Say, do you have a light?”

 

Yuri gave him a confused look. The concierge blinked, crouched down to rummage under the counter, and handed him a lighter from the hotel’s Lost and Found box.

 

“Thank you so much.” Viktor offered him a brilliant smile, all teeth and pleasantries, waiting until the man made eye contact before blinking. “You’re a lifesaver.”

 

“… You’re welcome,” he muttered.

 

“So we just need to hear it from you one more time.” Viktor took out a small notepad from his coat pocket, flipping to an empty page halfway through. He then plucked the pen out of Yuri’s hand, pointedly ignoring the glare he got that promised something worse than a fifty-bullet murder. “5:00 was around the time that the shots started, is that right?”

 

“Roundabouts. I didn’t really hear all that much from here. I didn’t know for sure what was happening until the front desk got flooded with calls from inside the hotel.”

 

“That was when you started to evacuate, is that right?” When the man nodded, Viktor pressed, “Why not a lockdown instead?”

 

“By the time we were sure what was going on, half of the guests from the upper floors had already started rushing out anyway. I don’t think we could’ve convinced them to stay unless we had guns on them ourselves.”

 

“Alright. And you were posted here the whole night?”

 

“That’s correct. Ten-thirty to six, been working that shift for five years now.”

 

Viktor checked his watch. The concierge had been here five hours longer than he should’ve been. “Did anyone happen to check-in or check-out, or did any of your guests enter or exit the hotel between the time when your shift started and the evacuation?”

 

The concierge paused, and fixed his eyes onto the bell on the counter, to his right. “No, nobody was in the lobby besides me until the evacuation started.”

 

“Hmmm.” There was a tell if he ever saw one. Scanning the front desk area, Viktor spotted a a decorative keychain marked ‘Sacramento’ with a bunch of keys on the concierge’s desk. He decided to put his theory to the test. “You been to California recently?”

 

“Beg your pardon?” He followed Viktor’s eyes to the keychain, and visibly brightened. “Ah, that was almost a year ago. The missus and I, we wanted to escape the winter for a bit, you know?”

 

“I should think about doing that myself. They’re saying we might have a bad one this year.” Viktor spoke casually, but he kept his eyes focused on the concierge’s face. “Did you drive?”

 

“Oh no, we took the trains.”

 

“Really. You remember the route? And how long did it take - just so I know what to tell my boss. I’ve still got a few vacation days to burn.”

 

“Uhh…” The concierge squinted as he tried to remember. He turned his head, likely without realizing it, to stare at a set of travel brochures stacked to his left. “Let’s see… we were on the Union Pacific line ‘til Ogden, Utah. Then then we switched to the Southern Pacific… it might have taken five days in all? We stopped at a couple of places on the way.”

 

“I’ll keep that in mind.” Viktor set his notepad onto the counter and started scribbling on the page: ‘Spoke to concierge at Waldorf-Astoria, 12/24/28, 11 AM’ . “So, to sum up: no-one was in the lobby for the entire duration of your shift, until the evacuation began, that is. You were missing one when you did the headcount of the guests in the courtyard, which was when you called the police. That sound about right?”

 

“Yes, that’s right.”

 

“Perfect, I think we have everything we need.” Yuri’s head whipped up in surprise at that, but Viktor ignored him for now. This was the most important part, he thought as he handed the concierge his notepad. “Could I get your signature here, please? Anywhere on the page will do. It’s just to note that you and I had this conversation - standard practice, nothing to worry about.”

 

The concierge signed with his right hand, which gave Viktor all that he needed to know.

 

“Thank you. You’ve been a great help to our investigation so far.” He took the notepad back, gave him that same brilliant smile again, and shook his hand. “Take it easy, okay?”

 

Yuri kept a wary silence until they were safely out of the hotel, at which point he was practically bursting. Viktor appreciated his restraint. “What the fuck was that back there? You barely asked him anything!”

 

“Mm-hmmm.”

 

“And why are we already heading back? Didn’t you want to interview the other employees too?”

 

“No, there’s no point to that. Not now, anyway.”

 

“How the hell would you know?”

 

“Because we’ve heard enough.” Because certain aspects of human nature, while unquantifiable, were predictable. Case in point: the universal tendency to associate one’s own creation - or fabrication, in certain scenarios - with their dominant hand. And so… “I need to figure out why that concierge was lying to my face.”

 

 


 

 

The Feltsman Detective Agency was located in a converted old townhouse in the Upper West Side, close to where Amsterdam Avenue met Broadway. The main floor had been completely gutted and converted to a receiving area and a couple of private interrogation rooms. A common lounge for the detectives sat at the back of the house near the stairs, which led up to the private offices on the second floor. As luck would have it, when he and Yuri stepped inside, Mila and Emil were both sitting in that lounge, playing cards.

 

“Welcome back!” Mila’s greeting of choice was a hug that threatened to crush your ribs. Viktor saw it as her way of causing just enough of a scandal to make you think about saying something, but then preempting that by taking your breath away. “I thought we weren’t seeing you here until January.”

 

“I thought that too.” He caught Emil’s eye and nodded his way. “Yura tells me you’ve been driving him crazy with Christmas music.”

 

“What can I say? It’s the most wonderful time of the year.” Emil grinned, and most definitely did not take a peek at Mila’s cards on the table while she was distracted. “Oh, Yakov wanted to see you as soon as you got in.”

 

Ah. Of course. “You sure he meant me and not Yuri?”

 

“Nope, pretty sure it was you…”

 

Viktor waved a hand in front of his face. “I was kidding. I’ll go see him now.”

 

That might have been a lie, if only because his office was the first in the line at the top of the stairs, and if he spent a few more minutes sitting at his desk, flipping idly through the pages of his notepad than strictly necessary, well that was neither here nor there. Eventually, he convinced himself that this was a conversation that was going to happen whether he liked it or not. So he stood up, bit the bullet, and made his way to Yakov’s office.

 

Yakov had the biggest one, which only made sense. The window behind his desk faced the street, which was a drastic improvement; Viktor’s own window offered him an exciting view of the next house’s side wall. Yakov didn’t look up from the papers on his desk as he walked in, just motioned for him to take a seat. There was another privilege he enjoyed: enough office space to have multiple chairs.

 

“I trust you’ve visited the crime scene?”

 

“I did. Ran into Yuri there.” Viktor sank into the only chair where his view of Yakov wouldn’t be obstructed by cardboard boxes or piles of paperwork. “He’s getting better at fieldwork, isn’t he?”

 

Yakov grunted. After having known the man for over two decades, Viktor thought he would have been able to decipher all of the little wordless noises that he made by now. But occasionally he’d come upon a vague one like this: it was either an agreement, or a dismissal of the topic altogether. “Do you agree with the police’s conclusions?”

 

Dismissal, then. “I think it’s too early to tell,” he said honestly. “I know the method is telling, but it could be a coincidence. Or a copycat.”

 

Yakov nodded. “I understand that the police are hesitant to meet with La Cosa Nostra directly. If such a meeting were to be witnessed - or worse, noted by a member of the press - the optics would not be ideal.”

 

“They don’t want to meet with them,” Viktor forced through a strained smile, “because they’re afraid.”

 

“Be that as it may, opening a dialogue with them seems to be the easiest way to either further this investigation or put it to bed, depending on what that dialogue yields.” Yakov finally put the papers away, and propped his arms against the desk. “It would put the NYPD in our favor. And I’m aware… though I’m thankfully not familiar with the finer details… that this is something you’re able to arrange.”

 

Viktor glared at the paperweight on top of Yakov’s backlog of case files. It was a tiny replica of a church with colorful domes. It was a cathedral in Moscow, Yakov had said, and far more impressive in real life. Viktor didn’t know; he’d never even been across the Atlantic.

 

“I won’t force you to do anything you feel might be dangerous, Vitya.”

 

That nickname again - what was it, twice in one day today? He was getting rather tired of this game. “I’ll go,” he said. “Just not right away, I want to look into a few other angles first. Is that all?”

 

“One more thing.” Yakov opened one of his side drawers and rummaged through it for a while, before retrieving a single business card and handing it to Viktor. “Now, I want you to hear me out before you say no.”

 

Viktor ran the pad of his thumb over the card. The first thing he noticed was an address in Tribeca, and a phone number with a comical number of 8s in it. The name was unfamiliar,  but the letters ‘M.D.’ at the end certainly were not, and… ‘Psychoanalytic Clinic’ ? “No,” he said, quickly and with vehemence.

 

“What did I just say?”

 

“You can’t possibly be serious. No.”

 

The only reason Viktor didn’t get up right then and there was because Yakov would probably just follow him back to his office. “I can assure you that it’s not what you think it is.”

 

“I think it’s a slap in the face. Whatever happened to trusting my judgment?”

 

“Your judgment,” Yakov ground out, “ended with you sneaking yourself out of the hospital a week early, against your doctor’s orders!”

 

“I’m fine!” Viktor finally snapped. “How many times am I going to have to say that before you believe me? And why is it that everyone I run into seems to know what happened? You promised you’d contain it!”

 

That seemed to start a crack in Yakov’s wall of righteous fury. “But… I did,” he said, after a long pause.

 

“Otabek Altin knows.” Every word of that came out like a barb. “Which means I’ve got two days, maybe three, before someone from the press gets their hands on it.”

 

“I’ll look into it. I’ll fix it.”

 

Viktor laughed, because they both knew what Yakov meant by ‘fix’.

 

“I will,” he insisted. “But Viktor… you know that if you’d only listened to me, none of this would be a problem now, right? If you hadn’t been so reckless, there would be nothing to fix.”

 

The last remnants of his laughter left a bitter, bitter taste in Viktor’s mouth. “I never should have picked up the phone this morning,” he murmured.

 

“It’s too late for that now.” Yakov gestured towards the business card. “That clinic, it’s… how do I explain it? It’s nothing like an asylum, if that’s what you’re afraid of. They follow that new European model - similar clinics in Vienna, Berlin, Paris - ”

 

“Moscow?” Viktor guessed.

 

Yakov nodded. “You meet with a professional, one-on-one. The meeting happens in a study, or in an office like this. No admittance. No drugs - not without your consent, at the very least. And you just talk to them, that’s all.”

 

Viktor turned the card over and over in his hand. “That’s all?” he echoed.

 

“That’s all.”

 

“And what if I don’t want to talk to them?”

 

“It was a traumatic experience, Vitya.” Third time’s the charm. “No matter how much you try to pretend otherwise. What happened to you was… harrowing, and the way seem to have chosen to deal with it is cause for concern. I would feel infinitely more at ease if you were at least talking about it to someone.”

 

What was he supposed to say to that? No matter how he explained it, it was clear that Yakov had already made up his mind. Bruises faded, after all, and Viktor barely even thought about what had happened anymore. He was content in assuring himself that one day, sometime in the future, he’d have forgotten about it completely, and on that day he’d just be able to breathe again. Sure, maybe it would take a hell of a lot more time, but it would be on his time.

 

That was what healing was, right?

 

“No promises,” was what he ended up going with. It was enough to at least placate them both for now.

 

He spent the rest of the afternoon holed up in his office, poring over old newspaper clippings, speeches, interview transcripts - everything Yuri had collected and prepared for him as a ‘primer’ of sorts on their victim, Josef Karpisek. Viktor went through each of the documents line by painstaking line, trying to find a loophole or figure out some way to further the investigation without having to engage the Mafia.

 

It looked bleak.

 

The snow that had started at noon turned into a storm by three. Yakov sent everyone home early, so that they could beat the storm. But Emil, Mila, and Yuri all had families to go home to, and that was a luxury that Viktor didn’t have. So he kept on working.

 

At around six, Yakov passed by his open office door, dressed in his coat and hat, finally ready to leave. He lingered at the top of the stairs and peered into Viktor’s office with narrowed eyes. “You’re still here?”

 

“Didn’t want to waste this momentum,” Viktor said.

 

Yakov shook his head. “Go home,” he admonished him. “You can stay and get locked in, but who will feed your dog?”

 

Well. He couldn’t argue with that.

 

As they stood in front of the building, with Yakov locking the main door behind him, a silly, errant idea formed in his mind: one that involved asking Yakov if he wanted to have dinner, or something like that. It was strange, he knew, and awkward; it had been so long, so much had changed, and he was too old to still be entertaining this kind of sentiment. There were a thousand other things as well, he was sure. The idea persisted, despite all that.

 

But he couldn’t find the words, and maybe this was a good thing.

 

 


 



Home was on the fifth floor of a five-storey walk-up in a row of mismatched low-rise apartment buildings on the Lower East Side, where you had to jiggle the key in the lock just so, and your welcome was a shower of happy barks and dog kisses. The next best thing, Viktor had discovered, was Casa Roja, a cozy little speakeasy tucked away in the back of a barber shop on 28th Street. There were thousands of these places in Manhattan alone, he knew - Otabek and his squad didn’t have a prayer of shutting them all down, and at this point Viktor wondered if he was even really trying - but there was something about the lights, the aged pine countertops, and the permanent cloud of smoke that agreed with him enough for it to become a regular haunt of his. That it was on his way home from the agency was just another happy coincidence.

 

“I have to say, I didn’t think I’d be seeing you in here until after the New Year.”  

 

And knowing the owner certainly didn’t hurt, either. Viktor turned at the voice that had greeted him just as he was starting to shrug off his coat, taking in the familiar sight of Casa Roja’s tireless bartender, Christophe. “Is that my cue to leave?”

 

“Nonsense.” He waved off Viktor’s half-hearted attempts to put his coat back on. “It’s always good to see you. The usual?”

 

“What can I say, I’m an old-fashioned kind of guy.”

 

Christophe rolled his eyes. “You realize that joke would be a lot less effective if you didn’t look like that, right?”

 

Viktor gave him a wink for his troubles.

 

The night was more or less uneventful for the first hour or two. There was a small stage against the wall on the opposite end of the speakeasy, and a couple of jazz acts came and went. A couple of old fashioneds came and went too, not necessarily with the bands, but enough so that each successive one tasted more and more like forgiveness, plying him with false warmth. If nothing else, it was quieter in here than it was outside, and depending on what he needed, Viktor would often take his place at this bar to either clear his thoughts or focus them. Even against the music, and though the patrons talking amongst themselves, the quiet din was infinitely more agreeable than the chaos of the city outside. That was how it always was, he guessed. Speak softly, or Otabek and his men break in, and all the fun is over forever. Speak softly, love, so no-one hears us but the sky.

 

It must have been close to nine when he walked into the bar.

 

He was the most beautiful stranger Viktor had ever laid eyes on. And maybe somebody was smiling on him from somewhere above, because this stranger chose to slide into the empty stool between Viktor and one other patron who’d been glowering into his drink since the night began.

 

Viktor made it a point not to stare, but it was hard not to; he wasn’t wearing a coat, and the neat silhouette cut by his suit, tailored to an inch of its life, drew Viktor’s eyes to the lines of his body in a way he couldn’t quite explain. He certainly looked far more put-together than the rest of the clientele this place usually attracted, jet-black hair slicked back without a single strand out of place. But up close like this, his features had an almost unbearable softness to them, making Viktor yearn to touch him just to see if he was real. His almond-shaped eyes, which called to mind a rich red Merlot under the bar’s light, held something in them that was steely but wounded, something Viktor couldn’t read.

 

Christophe suddenly appeared out of nowhere, and Viktor set his eyes on his drink again. “Evening, sir. What can I get for you?”

 

“May I please have - ah.” The stranger’s voice was as delicate and refined as the rest of him, and carried vestiges of an accent that Viktor wasn’t quite sure how to place. “Three parts cognac, two parts orange liqueur, and two parts lemon juice, thank you.”

 

“In a cocktail glass with an orange slice for garnish?” When he nodded, Christophe chuckled. “I don’t get many orders for it, but a French-style sidecar is divine. I’ll be right back.”

 

It was hard, focusing all of his attention on his nearly-empty glass, or following the knots in the wood of the countertop so as not to stare. Usually whenever someone sat right next to him in this bar, there was a good chance that it would lead to a conversation. But the stranger kept to himself, sitting rigidly straight with his hands folded in front of him. Allowing himself a small, stolen glance, Viktor caught sight of the timepiece around the man’s wrist, which gave him pause. What was he thinking, wearing something like that in a neighborhood like this?

 

About a minute later, Christophe came back with his drink: something rich, a gradient of orange in a cocktail glass, with the promised orange slice on the rim. The man on the other side of him scoffed after Christophe left, at which the beautiful stranger turned to him and said, “May I help you, sir?”

 

“You’re kidding, right?” He gestured towards the glass as though it held something vulgar. “That looks like a fucking lady’s drink.”

 

“Maybe you’re right.” The stranger hummed, tilting his head thoughtfully. “Is there any reason you’re so fixated on what another man puts into his mouth, that you would disturb a complete stranger in a public place just to discuss it?”

 

The man’s eyes widened in shock, and he sputtered out something unintelligible. Whatever it was that he said, it didn’t even get dignified with a reply, so he eventually threw a fistful of bills onto the counter, cursed, and took his leave.

 

Before that, Viktor was already half-laughing, half-choking into what was left of his drink. Narrowed eyes zeroed in on him, and made his skin prickle. “Something you’d like to share?”

 

“That depends. Are you going to eviscerate me with your tongue like you did to him?”

 

“I could eviscerate you with something else.” A pause, and a deliberate rake of the eyes over his frame, down and up, made his skin do something else. “Or, I could do other things to you with my tongue, if you prefer.”

 

Viktor waited a beat, letting that roll over him to make sure he’d heard it right. “Normally I would ask you to buy me a drink first.” He fingered the rim of his glass. “But I already have one.”

 

“And what great misfortune that is.”

 

Screw it. Viktor chugged back the rest of his drink, and set the now-empty glass onto the counter. The man smiled, a slow curve of the lips that was at once devilish and sweet, and ordered another old fashioned for him.

 

“I don’t think I’ve seen you in here before.” Viktor waited until his new drink arrived before swivelling around to face the man completely. “So? Any reason you’re sitting here instead of celebrating Christmas Eve somewhere else? Say, somewhere warmer and quieter?”

 

“Well, let’s just say that I’ve had an extremely terrible day.” He sighed. “And you?”

 

“Me?” Viktor had to think about that. How had his day been? He’d gone to bed last night thinking he wouldn’t have anything to look forward to besides bathtub gin and quality time with his dog until after New Year’s Day. All of a sudden, he’d been dragged into a murder investigation with La Cosa Nostra all but confirmed to have been involved. Otabek knew about his ‘circumstances’, which probably meant that the whole police department knew too, and the cherry on top was that Yakov was explicitly expressing doubts about his sanity. “My day was… actually pretty unremarkable. All things considered.”

 

“Really?” There was that tilt of the head again, coupled with the slightest twitch of the man’s lips. His eyes glittered when they caught the light. “I don’t know whether to envy you or feel sorry for you.”

 

Viktor shrugged. “Or eviscerate me.”

 

“You would like that, I bet.” He polished off the rest of his sidecar, and Viktor told himself that he only watched the bob of his Adam’s apple because it happened to be in the line of sight. When he set the glass back down, he opened his mouth as though to say something, only to close it as though he’d reconsidered. He went through one more cycle of this before standing up, thumbing open the front of his suit jacket with a single flick of his wrist. “I need to make a phone call,” he finally announced. “You wouldn’t mind saving this seat for me, would you?”

 

Before Viktor could answer, he peeled off his jacket, draped it over the seat of his barstool, and walked away without looking back.

 

Viktor didn’t know how long the stranger was gone. Other patrons left the bar, replaced by newer ones, all faceless and interchangeable. But nobody touched the seat next to Viktor, or the fine jacket that, upon closer inspection, looked about as out of place in this neighborhood as the man’s watch had been.

 

What strange wind brought him here, Viktor wondered.

 

The main act of the night eventually showed up. He didn’t need to see her to know; cheers and hoots and wolf whistles followed her as she made her way to the stage. The sequins of her dress flashed as she moved and breathed, such drama… but it was her gloves that caught his eye, satin of a deep, deep red, that under these lights made it look like she’d drenched her arms to the elbows in blood.

 

Viktor finished his drink as she started to sing. It went down easy, and he was really starting to feel quite warm. Usually this was a sign that he’d had enough, and should really start thinking about heading home. But he couldn’t dream of tearing himself away now. Not until that beautiful stranger came back to him.

 

When he did come back, it was with something of a stumble, very nearly colliding with Viktor from behind. He clung to the edge of the countertop and let out a breathless little laugh. “Heyyy you…”

 

“Welcome back.” Viktor took one look at him and chuckled. “Wow. Does Chris store his good liquor in the phone booths? Because I would really love some of whatever you’ve just had.”

 

The stranger giggled, though Viktor doubted it had anything to do with his joke. He latched onto Viktor’s arm and began to tug. “Come on, I want to show you something.”

 

“Hmmm?”

 

The tugging turned harder, more insistent. “Come on!”

 

He reached into his pockets and withdrew a few bills - more than enough to pay for his and Viktor’s drinks twice over - and deposited them onto the counter before pulling again. Viktor got up after him, barely remembering to grab his coat and the man’s discarded suit jacket. Then he let himself be dragged through the throng, unsure of where exactly they were going, or what he was supposed to expect.

 

Eventually, as they passed the stage and the coat check counter, he realized that they were headed towards the bank of phone booths by the door. Was there someone on the phone who wanted to speak to him? But why? And how, when they’d never even exchanged names?

 

Viktor realized that that train of thought had no merit when the stranger opened the door to one of the booths, and he found the receiver resting on top of the phone. He was also being shoved inside, and he scarcely had time to turn around before warm, warm lips were pressed against his own. In his surprise he let out a gasp, which the man took advantage of by sliding his tongue between Viktor’s parted lips, taking that as an open invitation.

 

He… certainly didn’t know what to make of this. He felt himself kissing back before he could really help it, responding more out of instinct than any sane, conscious choice. What was he even supposed to do? It was so hard to decide, so hard to care when he tasted cognac and oranges, and something else that was indescribable, yet far more intoxicating.

 

Busy fingers found the buttons on his suit jacket, wandered upwards, and pulled until the garment slipped from his shoulders. Teeth raked against his bottom lip, either a question or a demand - more likely the latter, Viktor thought, when his arms had scarcely cleared the jacket before his waistcoat met with the same treatment, and was discarded… somewhere. Somewhere, Viktor didn’t know, because those same hands were tugging on his tie, teasing open the buttons at the top of his shirt, and wait. No. Wait.

 

“Wow. Okay.” It took all of Viktor’s strength to break the kiss, at which the man simply sought greener pastures for his lips. “Ah, so this is all certainly… very enjoyable - ” He bit back a groan when the man’s teeth found the shell of his ear. “But - but you also seem very, very drunk.”

 

The beautiful stranger’s mouth was occupied, but he made a sound that Viktor felt more than heard. It sounded like: ‘so what?’

 

“Well, I just… I can’t be sure if this is something that you really want, and how much of it is just coming from the alcohol.”

 

The man finally lifted his head, pulling back to assess Viktor from arm’s length. There was barely any light in the phone booth at all, only the feeble glow from the bar filtered through the glass of the door. Viktor couldn’t make out the man’s expression.

 

“What is it?”

 

“Oh, I’m just waiting for the moment where you tell me, explicitly, that you don’t like this.”

 

Viktor swallowed, with a bit of difficulty. “I can’t do that.”

 

“So you do like this.”

 

“That’s not - ” Viktor wanted to shake him if it would help to get his point across. And… when had his hands moved to the man’s waist? Because that was where they were resting, and he didn’t feel a pressing urge to remove them just yet. “Listen, if you weren’t so completely, obviously inebriated we wouldn’t even be having this conversation. For one reason or another.” He flashed a soft, cloying smile that had often worked for similar situations in the past. “Come find me again when you’re sober, and I’d be more than happy to continue then, if you still are.”

 

But the man dropped his gaze, staring at Viktor’s shoes as he shook his head. “Tomorrow’s… too much of a gamble.” His voice quavered for a moment, as though he were already in mourning. “What if one of us doesn’t make it?”

 

“… What?”

 

When the man’s eyes met Viktor’s again, they were flashing. He ran his palms up Viktor’s chest, slowly, threading his thumbs through the elastic of Viktor’s suspenders and coaxing them lazily off of his shoulders. Viktor started to protest, but the man pushed him more insistently against the wall, wedged a knee between his legs and… oh. Oh.

 

“What if the world burns tonight?” Those sinful lips hovered dangerously close to Viktor’s, drinking in the muted, desperate noises Viktor tried in vain to suppress. “What if the cops finally find this place and make it rain bullets on us all? Or what if I slip on the ice and crack my head on the sidewalk, and forget all about you? That would be a tragedy, wouldn’t it?”

 

Viktor barely heard half of it. “It… would.”

 

“Then we should celebrate while we have reason to. While we can.”

 

And then Viktor was being kissed again, and any protest he could have come up with was swallowed away. Not that he really had one, words were just not possible right now, and thoughts were only barely so. Although there was a moment of clarity when Viktor felt buttons coming undone, and his tie loosened enough to pull his shirt open at the neck, that clarity came with a momentary panic: his throat was exposed, and he opened his eyes, trying to decode the man’s expression.

 

Surely he could see, right? Was there enough light in here? Could he tell? Did he even know what he was looking at?

 

But he only blinked a few times, brought his hands up to cup the sides of Viktor’s face, and kissed him again.

 

 

  

phone booth kiss

 

 

 

There was something gentler in the way the stranger kissed him now, not hesitant but fervent, like he’d suddenly realized that Viktor was made of glass. He felt a brief flash of bitterness at that thought, but it was chased away by a far more urgent need. Viktor finally allowed his hands to roam, grazing his knuckles against the impossibly soft material of the man’s waistcoat, threading his fingers through that perfectly-arranged hair. He nipped at the man’s bottom lip, relishing the low moan he got as a reward.

 

Time must have continued to pass, but if it did it only did so outside of the phone booth, inconsequential. Viktor was aware of that, just as he was aware that they were not the only people in this speakeasy, and that sooner or later, someone was going to see them. Hell, someone could very well already have seen them. Yet he didn’t care, about that or about anything. Because this beautiful stranger had slipped a hand down his pants and wrapped a hand around his cock, and he was driving Viktor mad.

 

“It’s okay. It’s okay.” Viktor had his face buried into the crook of the man’s neck, smothering the shameful noises being ripped out of throat with every stroke. He clung to that infuriatingly fancy waistcoat like his life depended on it. “Just like that,” he murmured into Viktor’s hair, encouraging him. “You’re stunning. God.

 

Viktor didn’t trust himself to form words.

 

He’d been moving his hips, which he didn’t realize until he was already close. And he didn’t realize that until he heard the abrupt banging on the phone booth door.

 

The man stopped, and withdrew his hands in the blink of an eye, leaving Viktor… frustrated. Confused. He thought he heard Christophe’s voice: something about him hating to ‘break up the party’, but a few paying customers had started kicking up a fuss, and so would they mind taking this elsewhere?

 

Okay. He really should have seen that coming.

 

“There’s that fancy hotel up on 34th and 5th,” Christophe was saying. “That’s only a couple of blocks from here… they’re not cheap, but they ask no questions. And you look like you could afford it, no problem.”

 

“I’m familiar with it.” The man had already shrugged on his suit jacket, and was in the process of straightening his tie. “Apologies for any inconvenience we caused, sir. It won’t happen again.”

 

Viktor didn’t see the face or number on the bill that the man withdrew from his pocket and pressed into the bartender’s hand. But it was enough for Christophe’s eyes to go wide.

 

Thankfully, by the time Christophe turned to face him, Viktor had just finished buttoning up his pants. He froze. “Ah… um - ”

 

“Why are you still here?” Christophe hissed. “Are you crazy? Go after him!”

 

Viktor nodded quickly, put his waistcoat back on, and grabbed the rest of his clothes before dashing to the exit.

 

It was a monumental struggle to get dressed, at least to some half-decent state as he weaved between tables and fellow patrons in various states of drunkenness. He’d just pulled his coat on by the time he found the exit. A cold breeze immediately punished him for his hubris, and he buttoned his coat up all the way.

 

The most beautiful stranger he’d ever laid eyes on - and wasn’t it crazy, that he still didn’t know this man’s name? - was leaning against a street lamp, holding a lit cigarette in his hand.

 

 

  

the most beautiful stranger under a street lamp

 

 

 

It was only now that Christophe’s exact words about that hotel sank in, and Viktor realized that he was probably talking about the Waldorf Astoria - the very same hotel where Josef Karpisek had been murdered. Maybe it really was a small world, after all. “Well? Where to now?”

 

He would have loved to kiss away that smirk he got in response. “Look who’s so keen all of a sudden.”

 

Right, but Viktor hadn’t been the one who’d started it, dragged them both into that phone booth and started something so reckless that even Christophe was scandalized - and knowing Christophe, that was a high bar to clear. But he had a point. “Maybe we’re going about this all wrong. Let’s start again.” He walked over to the streetlamp, crunching snow beneath his shoes with every step. He held out a hand. “I’m Viktor, by the way. And you are?”

 

The stranger took a long, lazy drag from his cigarette. Viktor watched the smoke as it left his lips, curling and twirling gracefully in the air, until it vanished into the sky. “Cold. Re-evaluating some of the choices that I made.”

 

Ah. Now, finally, he was starting to make sense. “Well, how about that,” Viktor said with a laugh.

 

“Don’t give me that look.”

 

“What look?”

 

“Like you’re wounded at the loss of something that wasn’t even promised.”

 

Viktor didn’t even know what to say to that. Oh, if only you knew. “I don’t have a lot of faith in promises.”

 

“That’s a wise policy.”

 

He pushed himself away from the streetlamp, and made his way over to where Viktor was standing with a gait that had Viktor’s eyes drawn to his hips. He grasped the back of Viktor’s head with his free hand, pulled him into a slow, languid kiss that somehow tasted like ‘goodbye’.

 

And then he pulled back, forced his cigarette between Viktor’s lips, and lifted Viktor’s chin. “Don’t follow me,” he whispered. “I’ve got a gun.”

 

Viktor’s eyes watered as he coughed once, sending a much less graceful cloud of smoke into the air. The most beautiful stranger laughed, traced the line of Viktor’s jaw with his lips, and walked away without looking back.

 

All too soon, Viktor lost sight of him in the fog and snow.

 

 


 


Christmas Day came and went the same way it did last year, and the year before. Viktor woke up just before noon to Makkachin standing with her front paws over the edge of his bed, whining to be let out. He took her for a walk around the block, letting her sniff at everything and jump into mounds of snow that had accumulated from the storm. He checked his mailbox when they headed back home, didn’t find a postcard or an envelope with a return address in some exotic, farflung land, and wondered why a part of him still felt disappointed.

 

Christophe arrived an hour before his shift at the bar, dropping off a handle of bathtub gin with a birthday card and a ribbon tied around the neck, because he was a godsend like that. No, he said, he had no idea who Viktor’s mystery man from last night was - it was the first time Christophe had seen him at the speakeasy, and he was sure because he never forgot a face. How strange.

 

That mysterious stranger occupied most of Viktor’s thoughts through the day after Christmas. He went into work as usual, but wound up just phoning it in all morning, rereading the same first ten pages of Yuri’s Karpisek file and delaying the inevitable. Just after lunch, Yakov poked his head into Viktor’s office and reminded him about therapy again.

 

“You need to get it done before the year ends,” he said. “More importantly, get it done before those vultures of reporters dig up dirt on what happened to you, and question your competence to be the lead investigator for the Karpisek case.”

 

Viktor squinted. “I thought you said you’d handle that for me.”

 

Yakov scowled. “Let’s just say that the timing was… unfortunate.”

 

Viktor waited to let out the string of curses sitting on his tongue until he was sure his boss was out of earshot.

 

Afternoon was much of the same. He managed to reach the end of Yuri’s primer, but the results were still inconclusive. Though he ran on a platform that clearly opposed organized crime, not once throughout his entire career did Karpisek ever mention La Cosa Nostra explicitly. Neither did any of the man’s known associates check out as confirmed enemies of the faction. He called Otabek to ask if they’d had any breakthroughs with the physical evidence, but of course these things took time, and with the holidays…

 

Yeah, Viktor knew how it was. He pulled on his coat and headed out. He needed to think, and preferably not about that beautiful stranger from Casa Roja for just a few minutes.

 

He didn’t succeed, not really.

 

When he got back to the agency, Yakov was standing in his office doorway, blocking his entry. “I’ll pay you.”

 

Viktor groaned. “What now?”

 

“Go see that therapist, and I’ll give you a bonus. Simple as that.” Yakov must have seen something in the look on Viktor’s face, because he let out an exasperated sigh. “You’ll get it at the end of next year, assuming you pass scrutiny. If you get him to sign off on your case, testify - in writing - that that trauma didn’t break you, and that you’re really acting and making decisions on a sound mind, I’ll pay you for it.”

 

“Obviously your offer assumes that I’ll still be alive at the end of next year,” Viktor muttered under his breath.

 

“See? That right there,” Yakov barked, “is exactly why you need to do this. For the love of God, Viktor - ”

 

“Fine,” Viktor finally bit out. “I’ll go tomorrow. Okay? Can you please let me into my office now?”

 

If he thought his morning had been unproductive, now was even worse. He brought out the business card Yakov had given him yesterday, staring at the words until they became individual letters, and then staring some more until even those started to lose all meaning. ‘Psychoanalytic Clinic’, right. He almost wished that he hadn’t known how to break those words down into their roots, because not knowing what they meant would have been infinitely better than knowing, and being forced to face everything that they implied.

 

He swallowed back another blooming curse word, with a bit of difficulty. Damn it. He tried again. This time it went smooth.

 

Viktor jumped to his feet, grabbing his coat. He had to get out again. He couldn’t breathe in here.

 

“Taking off early today?” Emil called out from behind a filing cabinet on the main floor.

 

“Going to interview a person of interest,” he lied. “They’re on my way home. I’ll see you tomorrow!”

 

He spent the rest of that afternoon playing fetch with Makkachin in the snow.

 

 


 

 

Navigating Tribeca during rush hour was a special kind of hell that Viktor wouldn’t wish on anyone. It hadn’t been anywhere near this bad three years ago, he recalled. Then they’d gone and opened up the Holland Tunnel, and ever since it felt like this place was always a congested mess.

 

It wasn’t hard to find the clinic once he turned on the right street. The unit number was displayed on a golden plate next to the front door, and it stood out against the brick face of the two-storey building. Viktor lingered outside until exactly five minutes to six, at which point he took one last drag, crushed his cigarette underfoot, and walked into the building.

 

“Good evening, sir.” A pretty, smiling receptionist greeted him when he stepped through the door. “Do you have an appointment?”

 

He almost wanted to lie. “Yes, in five minutes actually.”

 

She leafed through a short stack of papers on a clipboard. “With Dr. Leroy, is that right?”

 

Viktor frowned. “Ah, no.” He started searching his pockets for the business card, blanking on the name. “It was someone else, I think - ”

 

“Ah, never mind, I think I found you. Mr. Nikiforov, is it?” When he nodded, she smiled in relief. “Whew. I thought I’d messed up the paperwork for a moment there. Please, have a seat.”

 

Somehow, sitting down only made him even more restless.

 

He ended up not having to wait too long. At exactly six o’clock, he heard a door open from somewhere further into the building. A hefty man sporting a gray suit and a bushy mustache walked into the waiting area. Their eyes met for a moment, and Viktor started to wonder. Doctor?

 

No, that wouldn’t have made sense… his name wasn’t -

 

“Mr. Nikiforov?” the receptionist called out. “Second door to your left.”

 

As he made his way through the short hallway leading out of the waiting area, Viktor went over the plan in his head one last time. At the end of the day, all he had to do was convince this doctor that he was sane, that he hadn’t been traumatized by what happened to him, and that he was most certainly not basing any of his decisions on this nonexistent trauma. As long as he stayed calm, made sure not to get talked into a corner, and added a dash of pleasant charm, he’d be fine. He would.

 

He found the door he was looking for. He knocked thrice on the wood, which was met with a muffled ‘It’s open’ from inside.

 

In and out. You’ll be fine, Viktor told himself as his hand closed over the doorknob, and he opened the door.

 

 

 

first meeting

 

 

 

And: No you won’t, the universe seemed to reply, when he found himself staring at the most beautiful stranger he’d ever laid eyes on, who was not so much a stranger anymore.

 

 

 

hello dr katsuki

 

 

 

“… Dr. Katsuki?”