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The Gentleman's Guide to Killing Time

Chapter Text

London was an ugly city, and Michael couldn't say he liked it much.

The noise, really, was the worst part. It was an ever-present roar, voices and engines and whistles, the rattle of carts and the clatter of hooves. The buildings loomed. Smothering gray clouds hung low over black streets. Thousands of people bustled past every minute, more gray and black, moving with swift and secret purpose. Even insulated from the crowd by a window, it was dizzying, deafening. Gavin had spent the last day and a half slinking along as close to Michael as he could get.

Which said a lot, considering the smell.

From far away, as foreign as the accents all around him, a clock tower tolled nine. Michael gritted his teeth and wiped his hands on the arms of his chair. Gavin sneezed.

"So much for big-city punctuality," Lindsay scoffed, fidgeting on the hard waiting-room bench. "Woulda expected better."

"Maybe they got lost," Michael said, watching the floodwater crowds roll by the window. "Hell, maybe they ain't comin' to work today."

"How'd you say you knew these fellas again?"

"Ain't said I knew 'em, I said they might could help."

"'Cuz of them savin' your ass from the Central Pacific?"

"First of all, I wun't in need of no savin', and second of all, it was only a couple bags of silver they saved."

"Oh, only. Seem to recall that particular piece of savin' put you in a mood for close on two weeks."

"Three whole goddamn fuckin' dollars," Michael muttered under his breath, scratching Gavin behind the ears.

"You're still in a mood about it!"

"Fuck you, no I ain't!"

Before they could snip at each other any further, there was a quiet knock. Michael whipped around to see a fat, dark-skinned Black woman standing at the bottom of the stairs. She wore a practical dress, heavy work boots, and a wary expression.

"Good morning," she said. "Are you two here about a case?"

"Who the hell are you?" Michael demanded.

The woman's face went hard. Lindsay elbowed Michael in the arm.

"Don't be rude, jackass," she said. "Yes ma'am, we're here about a case. My name's Dr. Tuggey, that's Mr. Jones. We're lookin' for Free and Gruchy."

"Detective Gabriel, pleasure to meet you," said the woman. She stepped down off the stairs, priming her handshake. "You're—"

Gavin hopped up from behind Michael's chair and trotted towards her. She scrambled backwards up the stairs like a mouse had run across her feet. Gavin paused and cocked his head to one side, tail drooping.

"Oh!" Gabriel squeaked. "Oh. You've—got a dog. I see. We generally don't allow, um, pets—could you please keep it away from me—"

Lindsay got up and snagged Gavin's bandanna as he started to pick his way forward.

"Sorry about that," she said. "I been tellin' Michael he oughtta keep him on a lead, but he won't do it."

"He ain't gonna hurt nobody who don't deserve it. And he ain't your dog, neither, so I don't know why you think you get any say in it."

"He's gonna get lost or hurt or killed and it's gonna break your damn fool heart. Here, you hang onto him."

She hauled Gavin back to Michael's side and handed him off. Michael got a firm grip on the bandanna and scowled. Gavin wagged his tail and licked his lips, hopeful. Michael rolled his eyes.

"Anyhow," said Lindsay. She went and shook Gabriel's hand, although Gabriel did not come down off the stairs to meet her. "Pleasure to make your acquaintance, Detective Gabriel."

"And yours as well, Dr.—Tuggey, was it?"

"Got it in one."

"Wonderful. Yes." The handshake was still going. Gabriel realized this at about the same time Michael did, and extracted her hand accordingly. "Ahem. Well, if you're looking for Free and Gruchy, you're in the right place, although you may have something of a wait. They're out to breakfast, I believe."

"'Course they are," Michael muttered.

"If you're in a rush, I could take a statement," Gabriel said. "Although—perhaps without the dog. You could put him outside, maybe?"

"The dog stays with me," said Michael.

Gabriel deflated, swallowed, steeled herself. "Very well. I will keep that in mind."

"There's no rush, though we might could use the extra hands," said Lindsay. "It's a helluva thing."

"Oh, dear. Shall I get my notebook?"

"Prob'ly gonna need it."

"Nuh-uh, everybody hold your goddamn horses," Michael cut in. "You work with Free and Gruchy?"

Gabriel went chilly. "Yes, sir, I do," she said. "I'm their assistant detective."

"Assistant detective, uh-huh. And how long you been assistant detective?"

"A little over seven months."

"Michael, quit it," said Lindsay, exasperated.

"If she's been assistin' for seven goddamn months, how come they never mentioned her?"

"'Cuz they're men?" Lindsay guessed.

At the same time, Gabriel said, "Likely because I'm Black."

The two of them locked eyes. Lindsay raised her eyebrows. Some of the chill went out of Gabriel's expression.

"Guess that would come into it, huh," said Lindsay.

"It certainly doesn't help. They forget about me with alarming regularity. I suspect it's the combination that does it."

"Well goddamn, tell us what you really think," Michael muttered, fidgeting.

"I rarely manage to restrain myself," said Gabriel. She turned back to Lindsay. "At any rate, all our cases are shared between the three of us, so unless you've got some reason to wait for the men specifically, I can get the process started."

Before Michael could open his mouth, Lindsay said, "We'd sure appreciate that, thank you, ma'am."

"Then let me go and get my notebook, and I'll be back right away."

She cast one last worried glance at Gavin, then went back up the creaking stairs, leaving the three of them alone with the tremendous noise outside. Lindsay turned to Michael, happy as a clam until she took in his expression.

"Oh, what?" she said.

"I don't like her."

"Why, 'cuz she don't like your dog?"

"'Cuz she's tryin' awful hard to seem trustworthy when she ain't no damn such thing, and 'cuz she's gettin' all huffy about folks havin' reasonable suspicions."

"She got huffy 'cuz you were rude to her."

"Not any ruder'n I am to anybody else."

"And you don't get nearly enough shit for it, either. If everybody else got as huffy as you deserved, maybe—"

Before she could pin his ears back, the office door opened and a pair of men entered, both on the taller side of average, one considerably scruffier than the other. The neat one had a friendly face and a birdlike manner that was capped off by his beaky nose. The scruffy one's eyes snapped right to Michael and Lindsay, and then flicked to Gavin. His hands were in his pockets, and something about his posture indicated that he was armed.

Michael's hand drifted to the Colt, hidden under his thick woolen jacket. The scruffy man caught the motion and echoed it—although there was no gun where his hand drifted.

"Ah, hello there!" the neat one said. Without waiting for a reply, he strutted over and stuck out his hand. "You must be Mr. Jones. I'm Detective Free, and this is my partner, Mr. Gruchy."

Michael shook their hands. Free had a grip like a dead fish, and Gruchy's wasn't much better. Lindsay introduced herself, too, reaching practically over Michael's head to shake their hands. At his side, Gavin started inching forwards, sniffing hopefully. Michael pulled him back before he could get too far.

"Gavin, quit it," he snapped.

"I—you wot?" Free said, looking like Michael had just hit him in the face.

"My dog," Michael said, gesturing to him. "Gavin."

"Oh," said Free. "Awh, look at the wee little pup! He's so cute, look at him, B!"

The squeaky enthusiasm in Free's voice was more than enough to set Gavin to wiggling. He strained against Michael's grip, wagging just as hard as his little body could and making lovable faces at Free.

"Takes after his namesake," said Gruchy, looking Gavin over with muted amusement. "Especially in the nose department."

"Namesake?" Michael said. "No way in the damn hell—"

Lindsay pressed her knuckles to her mouth. Free crouched down and squished Gavin's face in his hands, cooing like a drunk dove. Gavin wriggled in absolute glee, smacking Michael's wheel with his tail.

"Doc, you maybe forget to mention somethin' about the namin' of this damn dog?" Michael growled.

"You know how Jack likes to read all them gossip papers?" said Lindsay, choked with laughter.

"You gotta be goddamn kiddin' me."

"You're not serious," Gruchy said, at the same time. "The dog's actually named after him?"

"Told you, B, didn't I," said Free, wrinkling his nose at Gruchy. Gavin wriggled up into his lap and licked his face, wagging his tail so hard he could barely stand up. "Ack, augh, not the slobber!"

"Get him," said Michael. "One of y'all's bad enough, I cain't take two."

From the stairs, there came a long-suffering sigh.

"Good morning," said Gabriel.

"Morning, Gabriel," said Gruchy. "Free's made a friend."

"I can see that."

"I presume you've met Mr. Jones and Dr. Tuggey?"

"We were briefly introduced. I was just retrieving my notebook."

"Oo's a good wittle doggie, then?" Free gushed, all over Gavin. He kept talking after that, but it turned to total gurgling, squealing nonsense. Michael finally had enough and pulled Gavin back by the bandanna.

"Get offa him, c'mon, we got shit to do," he said. "Gotta go makin' a damn fool of yourself every place we go."

Gavin whined, turning huge and pathetic eyes on him. Michael scowled at him. Dejected, he planted his butt on the floor and drooped as hard as he could.

"You've upset him," Free said, pouting. "Poor thing, he's only excited to make a friend!"

"Oh, he is, huh?" said Michael.

"All right, this has all been very amusing, but I think there was work to be done, wasn't there?" said Gruchy. He took Free's arm and hoisted him back onto his feet. "Come on, B, up you get. We ought to at least hear Mr. Jones out, after all the help he's been."

"Come off it, scarcely a nudge," said Free.

Michael tried to sink into his chair. Lindsay turned to him anyway.

"Michael," she said, "you been nudgin' folks behind my back?"

"No."

"That's not true," Gabriel said helpfully.

"They nudged first!"

"That is true," said Gruchy.

"Oh, you mean the Central Pacific thing," said Lindsay. "In that case, I'm glad he had enough sense to do somethin' nice for y'all. He spent enough time grumblin' about it, I wasn't sure he was grateful at all."

"Can we all quit runnin' our fuckin' mouths and get on with catchin' the goddamn Vagabond?" Michael snapped.

The silence that followed was, despite everything, pretty damn satisfying.

"The Vagabond?" Gruchy said, a squeak in his voice. "You mean the Vagabond?"

"You hard of hearin' or somethin'?"

"I thought he was hanged," said Gabriel.

"It din't stick."

"If I may, how do you know?"

"Oh, 'cuz I got a postcard from him."

Something inside of Free clicked into place. He straightened up, clasped his hands behind his back, and set off like a toy soldier. Michael could almost hear the gears going as he paced.

"When did you receive it?" he asked. Even his speech was more precise, more even.

"First of July."

"And you're sure it's from him?"

"Damn sure."

"How do you know?"

"He signed it."

"Wonderful! Have you got it with you?"

"'Course I do."

Free held out a hand. Michael hesitated. The fingers fluttered at him, impatient.

"Come on, what's the delay? Let's have it."

"Got some dumbass shit written on it," Michael muttered, digging the photograph out of his pocket. Reluctantly, he handed it over. Free plucked it out of his hand and peered at it, turning his head this way and that. Gruchy craned over his shoulder to look, too.

"L'Arc de Triomphe, eh?" said Gruchy. "Doesn't get much more Parisian than that."

"Taken in the summer," Free said, looking over the picture. "This past summer, you can tell by the hats. If you received it on the first of July, then it must've been sent in late May or so. The photographer's standing. . . ."

His eyelids closed, although his eyes—no, just the left eye—kept moving. The fingers of his right hand traced something out in the air. Gruchy watched Michael and Lindsay, paying Free only the barest sliver of attention. Gabriel, in the stairwell, was taking notes.

"Corner of Grande-Armée and Presbourg," Free said, his eyes snapping open. "Now, whether or not the photographer was your man, that's a different question. Let's see about that signature—"

He turned the photograph over. Michael's face burned. He rubbed the arms of his chair, looking anywhere but at Gabriel and Free and Gruchy. He could just about hear the eyebrows raise.

"Well," said Free. "He's concise, at least."

Gruchy shuddered and took a step back. "Makes my bloody skin crawl just looking at it."

"What does it say?" Gabriel asked, just the faintest note of impatience creeping into her voice.

"Allons-y, mon chéri," said Free. "Signed: R."

All the hairs stood up on the back of Michael's neck. His legs tingled, the precursor to pain. It was probably all the rolling around on cobblestones outside that had done it. That was probably it, and nothing else. He rubbed his shoulder, the puckered skin where neat stitches had pierced him and violent hands had made themselves idle. If his chest ached, it was only the old wound, aggravated by the rainy weather.

Nothing else.

"Ah, how perfectly disgusting," Gabriel said blandly, making another note.

"Hideous," Gruchy agreed. "Clearly he wanted to be chased. D'you reckon it's a trap?"

Free didn't answer, peering down at the note. He ran a fingertip over it, where the pressure of the pen had left tiny indents in the paper, grooves on a phonograph engraved by some careful needle, where He had—

Had taken five minutes off of gruesomely murdering people to write a little taunt, because the Vagabond hadn't taken enough of Michael's life yet.

"It could hardly be anything but a trap," Gabriel was saying. "Although I'm not convinced that's all it is."

"Why not?"

"Look at Free's face."

Gruchy looked. His eyebrows raised. His hand drifted back to the spot where his gun wasn't.

"All right there, B?" he said.

"It's a fascinating little insight, isn't it," Free murmured, still engrossed in the note. "The photograph's useless, of course, but this. . . ."

"What about it?" said Michael.

Free shook himself. He gave the photograph back and watched much too closely as Michael stuffed it back in his jacket pocket.

"It's interesting, I'll say that," Free said. "You're certain it's the Vagabond, though? Couldn't be a copycat?"

"No way in hell."

"Do we know how he survived the hanging?" Gabriel asked. "A friend on the inside, perhaps?"

"Somethin' likkat," said Michael. Gavin sat up straighter and put his chin on Michael's armrest, sniffing. Absently, Michael ruffled his ears. "Y'all just gotta help find him, though. I'll handle the catchin'."

"You, all by yourself?" Lindsay asked, folding her arms.

"Fine, me and you and Gavin."

"That's what I thought."

"I'm curious as to why you need our help for the finding bit," said Gruchy. "If you've got the rest so well handled."

"'Cuz I don't speak no French, and I don't aim to learn none."

"English, neither?"

"Fuck you, is that English enough?"

Free snorted. Gruchy glared at him. Gabriel heaved another long-suffering sigh.

"Have you got any other information that might help us with the search?" she asked.

"Like what?"

"A description, perhaps."

Michael gestured to Lindsay. His face was still hot, and he didn't trust his tongue to stay coarse enough to fool all the listening ears. He fooled with Gavin's fur while Lindsay talked.

"White fella," she was saying, while Gabriel wrote it down. "Average height or so. Dark hair, blue eyes, left-handed. Prob'ly missin' the right hand."

"What happened to it? Or rather: is what happened to it distinctive?"

"Burnt up," Michael said, not looking at anybody in the room.

"Severely, or—"

"What part of burnt up ain't you understand?"

Gabriel took a deep breath. Free took a step back, hiding behind Gruchy. Gruchy made a face like he couldn't decide whether it was funny or painful.

"Mr. Jones, please don't interrupt," he said. "Gabriel, you were saying?"

She let the breath out again. "Was the hand burned severely, but salvageably, or to the point that it would need to be amputated, Dr. Tuggey?"

"I never saw it," said Lindsay. "But from what I heard? It was charcoal."

Free turned aside and gagged. Gruchy winced.

"At least he'll be distinctive," Gabriel said.

Free flapped a hand, knuckles pressed to his mouth and eyes watering. He'd turned an interesting green color, and when he spoke, his voice was choked.

"Physically, yes," he said. "What about—behaviorally? What was he like, what sort of—places did he go, what sort of friends did he make?"

"Oh, he made friends with damn near everybody," said Lindsay. "Real charmin', right up until he was fixin' to kill you. Kept mostly to himself except to be helpful, liked whorin' more than drinkin' and drinkin' more than gamblin', but none of 'em to excess—oh, and he thought it was real funny to give away coats made outta people as presents."

Free gagged again, this time so vigorously that it made him stagger. He caught himself on Gruchy, who steadied him with a hand on his shoulder. At Michael's side, Gavin started inching forward, snuffling and worrying. Michael hooked a finger through his bandanna.

"So that would be the unprintably profane bit, wouldn't it," Gruchy said thinly.

Michael snorted. "Buddy, that ain't even the half of it."

"As regards the note," said Gabriel, "would you say he had an uncommon interest in Mr. Jones?"

"More'n uncommon, he was head over heels for the dumb sonnuva bitch," said Lindsay.

"Doc," Michael growled.

Lindsay threw her hands up. "Michael, for somebody who gets so pissy about folks keepin' the truth from you, you sure do get awful reticent when it comes to your own shit."

"Ain't none of their damn business."

"It is now!"

"It don't have no bearin' on nothin', and you got no business spillin' it out to God and everybody!"

"Who are you protectin', Michael?" she shot.

He shut his mouth, ground his teeth and took deep breaths through his nose. Gavin whined. Michael pried his fingers off the bandanna and patted his flank.

"That's what I thought," said Lindsay. She turned back to Gabriel. "Haywood was obsessed with him. Spent well over a year tryin' to get his attention and then, once he had it, racked up another six kills tryin' to impress him."

"Did he, Mr. Jones?" said Free.

"What, you think my word's any better'n hers?"

"No no, I meant: did he impress you?"

Michael went cold. Free was still watching him, oh-so-closely, like a finch figuring how best to get the grain out of a sack. Instead of answering, Michael took a jab of his own.

"Who poked your eye out?" he asked. To his satisfaction, Free's gears slipped.

"That's hardly relevant," he said stiffly.

"Couldn't've put it better my damn self. All y'all need to know is: six folks died. Two of 'em, I got their skins for Christmas."

"Well!" said Gruchy, clapping his hands together and smiling like it hurt him. "This is officially the most horrifying thing I've ever been a part of. I'm so glad we decided to take this on. Cheers, B."

"This may seem like a silly question," said Gabriel, "but how did he survive long enough to be hanged in the first place?"

"Beats the hell outta me," Lindsay said. "Wasn't a force on Heaven nor Earth could keep him down for long. Tried shootin' him, poisonin' him, beatin' the hell outta him, you name it. Sonnuva gun just wouldn't stay dead."

"Goddammit, Doc," Michael growled, too late, because Gruchy's eyes were already narrowing.

"Mr. Jones, Dr. Tuggey, I don't know how things were done in your little . . . yankee cowboy town," he said, "but here in civilization, we don't shoot, poison, or beat our suspects."

"Well I don't know how y'all do things in this grimy-ass shithole y'all call a city, but where I come from, we don't fuckin' insult the folks who're payin' us," Michael retorted.

Gruchy winced. Free patted him on the shoulder.

"Well done, B," he said, chipper as ever. "Take that wrong foot you got off on and pop it straight in your mouth!"

"Sod off, Free," said Gruchy.

Chapter Text

"What an absolute character," said Dan, sinking into his chair. "Good lord, I feel like I've spent the last half hour rubbing sandpaper on my face."

"He's remarkably abrasive," Gabriel said. "I quite like Dr Tuggey, though. She seems sensible."

"She certainly seems your type."

Gabriel's cheeks darkened. "That's highly unprofessional, Mr Gruchy."

"Is it? Sorry. Jones must've rubbed off on me a bit. Gav, got an opinion?"

"Hmm. Well, if it was a taunt, it's certainly served its purpose. You'd think, though, wouldn't you, that we'd have known about it before now. Nothing we've heard about the Vagabond paints him as the sort to take a holiday."

"I meant about Jones, B."

"Oh. Yeah, he's all right. Got a good head on his shoulders, all that."

"Does he?"

Gav folded his arms and gave Dan his full attention. He raised a skeptical eyebrow.

"What're you getting at?" he asked.

"It's got to be the doctor."

"What?"

Dan waved a hand. "Jones is a moron. He's practically illiterate. The doctor's the real detective, she's got to be."

"You'll hurt your knees, jumping to conclusions like that."

"What d'you think is more likely, B? That we've got some cowboy idiot savant, or that a man's taking credit for a woman's work?"

"Well—I don't know, but I don't think he's a moron. Gabriel, you don't think he's a moron, do you?"

"Not entirely," she said slowly. "But I also doubt he's given Dr Tuggey as much credit as she's due. I doubt he'd get anywhere at all without her. Up and down stairs, especially."

"There, you see?" said Dan. "Gabriel's always right, listen to her."

"Yeah, she's just said he's not a moron."

"I said not entirely a moron."

Gav waved her off. "Near enough. It doesn't matter too much, though, 'cos we've got enormously bigger fish to fry."

The room got quiet. Gabriel flipped through her notes. Dan coughed. Gav rubbed his glass eye, noticed himself doing it, and clasped his hands behind his back.

"Do you think it's really the Vagabond?" Gabriel asked.

"I bloody well hope not," said Dan.

"Jones seemed convinced," Gav pointed out.

"Jones, as we've been over, is a moron."

"Then Tuggey seemed convinced, too."

"Well—all right, I'll give you that. Still, I find it hard to believe that the fellow could be hanged and walk away from it."

"Be honest with you, so do I. But I s'pose he could've paid off the executioner, or something."

"People pay off the executioner for a tight knot and a long drop," Dan said. "Neither of which they'd have out in Nowhere, Nevada. That far from civilization, you choke to death as a public spectacle. Even if it didn't kill him, even if somebody cut him down afterwards, he'd be in no condition to do much of anything except drool."

"I'm sure you're right, but by the same token, I'm sure we haven't got the full story—and maybe Jones hasn't, either. The only thing we can be reasonably sure of is that there was an inside man involved who, one way or another, got the Vagabond off the hook and smuggled him out alive."

"There is another possibility," said Gabriel.

Gav shook his head. "No, it's not a copycat, Jones was sure of that, too."

"That wasn't my idea. The other possibility is that the Vagabond was never caught in the first place. Jones hanged the wrong man, and the right man wants him to know it."

"Oh," said Gav, a light dawning over him. "That'd do it. Gabriel, you're brilliant."

"Thank you."

"The bloke they hanged, then—Haywood—he makes himself suspicious with an unfortunate infatuation and an even more unfortunate occupation, falsifies a confession for attention, and gets more than he bargained for. Meanwhile, the real Vagabond walks away unscathed, and Jones is none the wiser. Yeah, that's properly elegant, that is."

"And Jones is too caught up in the celebrity of it all to even consider he's made a mistake," Dan said. "That definitely fits, all questions of intelligence aside. Tuggey must've dragged him here to put it right."

"Must've?" said Gav.

"You tell me which one of them seemed more helpful to the investigation," Dan returned.

"Regardless," Gabriel said, before they could get any farther into it. "We can at least be relatively sure the person who sent the photograph was in Paris as of this summer, and that he's trying to get Jones to chase after him. Correct?"

"Sound as anything," said Gav. "It also makes the description they gave us useless, which is something of a relief. Probably safe to assume the Vagabond's been on holiday, since we've not had any . . . er, at least, any extra bodies turning up. Distinctively, er, affected."

"Also sound," said Dan, watching the way Gav's hands twisted round each other behind his back, trying not to scratch. "The whole thing went so massively public, he'd have to be an idiot not to lay low for a bit."

"Cease killing people, yes," said Gabriel. "I don't know that someone like that is capable of laying low. From what they told us, he was desperate for attention."

Dan frowned. "I thought that was just the Haywood bloke."

"He didn't send the photograph, B, or the—the gifts," Gav said. "I think Gabriel's got something there. Whatever the Vagabond's been doing in Paris, he's made a proper spectacle of it. I'm sure people who know what to look for will have noticed. People of marginal repute, for example. Bored people who adore dramatics."

Making a face, Dan said, "You reckon we ought to ask Casimir."

"I reckon it couldn't hurt. Either he knows someone, or he knows someone who knows someone."

"I'd hate to drag him back in it so soon."

"Come off it, he's most likely bored off his face by now."

"Fair play, I s'pose."

"You just don't want to have to deal with him again."

"Well done, B, well detectived, you got me. I really don't want to have to deal with Casimir again."

"Seconded," said Gabriel.

Gav rolled his eyes and heaved a tremendous sigh. "Look, both of you, all I'm going to do is write to him. That's all!"

"And he'll promptly find some way to involve himself," said Gabriel.

"Specifically because he's bored and loves other people's drama," said Dan.

"After which, it will be completely impossible to remove him."

"Of course. He's a parasite, they dig in."

"You're both being immensely rude," Gav interrupted. "For absolutely no reason. Cassie's lonely and bored, you can't blame him for wanting to get tangled up in—in intrigues and the like."

"He'd certainly jump at the chance to string you two along again," said Gabriel.

"Exac—wait a moment," said Dan. "What d'you mean, you two?"

Gabriel raised her eyebrows at him. Dan folded his arms and sank down in his chair.

"Not as though I appreciated it," he muttered.

"Well, I'm writing him and you won't stop me," said Gav. "You can write your own contacts in Paris and see if they turn up anything better, which I'll bet you five quid they won't."

"I'm not taking that bet, 'cos knowing Casimir, he's probably already slept with the bloke and he'll write us back oui oui, I know precisely who it is and he had a funny-looking cock."

Gabriel snorted and clapped a hand over her mouth. Even Gav had to fight down a smile to glare properly.

"You're being facetious, but he might well have."

"What, a funny-looking cock?"

"No, you bell-end, Cassie might've met the Vagabond! Which, actually, is even more reason to write him about it, 'cos he could be in serious danger. The decent thing to do would be to warn him about it."

"Regrettably, that's true," said Gabriel. "Still, I'm saying it now so I can say I told you so later: involving him is going to bring nothing but trouble."

"I'll bear that in mind," Gav said diplomatically. "So! Whilst I do that, Gabriel, why don't you see what you can find out about all the Vagabond murders, and Dan, if you wouldn't mind too terribly, find out everything you can about Mr Jones."

"You're serious?"

"Oh yes," said Gav, nodding earnestly. "Much as I like him, I'd still really like to know where he got the two thousand dollars he promised us."

Dan smiled. "D'you know, now you mention it, so would I."


 

Although it was like swimming against the current of a massive river, Michael and Lindsay and Gavin eventually got back to their hotel. Lindsay busied herself putting things away and making some kind of food while Gavin rolled all over the bed, drying off from the permanent drizzle outside. Michael eased himself over to the table and waited for the pain to subside.

Hell, he'd decided, was paved in cobblestones, and whoever built this damn city had come from there.

"So," Lindsay said. "How 'bout them detectives?"

"Huh?" said Michael.

"I know you got opinions. Share."

"Why do you care? Don't you got your own opinions?"

"Plenty of 'em, and I'm curious to know if they line up with yours. Plus, sometimes you see things I don't. We'll start easy: you think Free's really got that photographic memory they talked about in all the papers?"

Michael snorted. "Hell no."

"Mm-hm, that's about what I figured. How 'bout Gruchy?"

"Jealous, overprotective. If him and Free ain't an item, he sure wishes they were."

"I'm impressed, Michael, I ain't think you'd get that one."

"Contrary to what everybody thinks, I sometimes do learn shit."

"Yes, you do. You learn anythin' that changed your mind about Gabriel?"

"Did you?" he retorted.

"I'll take that as a no."

"Good, 'cuz it was one."

She sighed. "Are you pissy 'cuz you're in pain, or 'cuz you're nervous?"

"Neither," said Michael.

"Oh, so both."

"Go to hell."

"Michael, you coulda just told 'em from the get-go, instead of lettin' 'em find out later," she said anyway.

"Find out what? Ain't nothin' to find out."

"You ain't gonna be able to keep what went on between you and Haywood a secret forever."

"Yes I damn well am, you just watch me."

"Even once we find him and he starts gabbin'?"

"They won't believe him."

"You sure?"

"I'm gonna make sure."

Lindsay turned, slowly. "And just what is that supposed to mean?" she asked.

He shrugged. "I'm savin' 'em from deeper shit later on. You and me both know how much trouble you get in believin' a word that comes outta Haywood's mouth."

"Even when he's tellin' the truth?"

"Especially when he's tellin' the truth. Truth's just a shortcut to gettin' you to believe all the lyin'."

"Just 'cuz you fell for it don't mean they will."

"Way I remember it, you fell for it about ten times as long as I did, and you ain't stop fallin' for it 'til I showed you the damn coat."

"Way I remember it, you was in the same damn situation, as regards believin' and coats, only you had a whole-ass confession to ignore!"

Michael clenched his teeth, gripping the arms of his chair. Gavin came over and poked him in the knee, which sent a shock of pain through his whole leg.

"Quit it," he snapped, pushing Gavin away. Gavin came right back again, sat down next to him and rested his chin on the arm of Michael's chair. With a sigh, Michael gave in and scratched him behind the ears.

"Michael, I get that you're ashamed," Lindsay said. "I get that you wish it hadn't happened the way it did. But it did happen that way, and it's important for Free and them to know. It's gonna sound a helluva lot better comin' from you than it will from Haywood."

"I ain't worried about Haywood talkin' at 'em," he said. He kept his eyes on Gavin, because it was easier that way. "I'm worried about him killin' 'em."

"Then the more they know, the better. It'll keep 'em safe."

Michael shook his head. "What keeps you safe with Haywood is bein' more fun to fuck with than you are to kill. Ain't no way I can make sure they don't run into him. All I can do is make sure they survive 'til I find him."

"And what do you think he's gonna do when you do find him?"

"Oh, easy," said Michael. "He's gonna kill everybody I know and then get me hanged for it."

Bristling, Lindsay said, "Well that ain't—"

"Unless," Michael went on, "I can convince him to shoot himself first."

"Is that your damn plan, Michael? Is that dumbass, shitty-ass, sorry-ass excuse for an idea your goddamn plan?"

"Yes it is."

"You couldn't've said so before now?"

"No I could not."

"And why not?"

"'Cuz you woulda changed my mind."

"I'm still gonna change your mind, 'cuz we're gonna find out a way to do this that don't involve puttin' dozens of folks in Haywood's sights."

"It is way past too damn late for that. They're already there. He's already pickin' out thread."

"And the best idea you got is tryin' to convince him to kill himself instead?"

"You got no faith in me at all, huh."

"You ain't earned no faith at all."

"I got him the first time."

"And look how well that turned out!"

"Pretty goddamn well, considerin' he walked right up on the gallows and dropped without a fuss!"

"Only after the two of y'all put a dozen people in the ground, and then less than a week later, he walked right back off again! It don't count if it don't stick, Michael!"

"Has anybody else died?"

"Prob'ly! But I guess since they ain't been in front of your goddamn face, you don't give a shit! You don't give a shit about anythin' but beatin' Haywood, and it shows, goddammit!"

"I give a shit about you!"

"You give a shit about me 'cuz you have to," she said, jabbing a finger at him. "'Cuz without me, you'd be up shit creek without a paddle. You give a shit about me 'cuz you're scared of bein' alone, and 'cuz I'm the only jackass dumb enough to stick with you. Fix your shit, Michael. I thought we were past this, but the second Haywood came back into the picture, it's like you lost your damn mind all over again."

"How many times are we gonna have this same fuckin' fight?"

"Not too many more," she threatened. In full storm, she stomped out of the kitchen, snatched up her hat and coat, and threw open the door.

"Where the hell are you goin'?"

"Anyplace you ain't!"

She slammed the door behind her. Startled by the noise, Gavin jumped up and started barking, tail between his legs.

"Shut up, you fuckin' idjit," Michael snapped.

True to form, Gavin only took this as encouragement to untuck his tail and bark louder. Cussing under his breath, Michael looped an arm around him and mashed him up against his shins. It was like pouring boiling water all over himself, but he gritted his teeth and bore it until Gavin calmed down.

"Dumbass dog," said Michael. The pain had left him scattered and breathless. He laid his head down on the table and tried to take deep breaths. This was probably going to be the rest of his day, just sitting here waiting for the pain to stop, and now he'd have to do it without Lindsay to look after him.

Well, fine. At least they weren't stuck together on a boat anymore. Or a train. Or a wagon. Their arguments had bigger spaces in between when she could get away from him to cool off.

There were days when he missed having a partner who came over violent. It was a lot harder to convince Lindsay to lay off when she never did anything that made her feel particularly guilty. Sure, the bad times weren't as bad, but the good times were hardly good at all, and showed up whenever the hell they pleased with no kind of predictability. He'd quit starting fights on purpose about four months ago, because with Lindsay there was no kiss-and-make-up. There was only fix your shit, Michael.

It was a lot harder, being the worse half.

While his attention wandered, his hand slipped into his pocket and retrieved his little dropper-bottle of laudanum. That, at least, Lindsay hadn't taken from him, though she kept an eagle eye on how much he used and refilled the damn thing on a schedule instead of when it was needed. He took three drops straight from the dropper, more to numb his brain than his legs. The intensely bitter taste smacked some life back into him, hauling him back to the here and now.

Gavin nosed at his hand, sniffing hopefully. Michael nudged him back.

"No, this ain't for you," he said. "Told you once, I told you a dozen times. No laudanum for dogs."

Gavin's tail swished. His spotty tongue lolled out, eyes bright and hopeful, ears pricked. Michael bonked his forehead on Gavin's, squished his face, kissed his nose.

"I shoulda been a dog," he sighed. "Dogs ain't got no problems."

In answer, Gavin sneezed. Michael let him go. Gavin shook himself off before starting a circuit of the hotel room, nose to the ground.

"I swear to God, if you piss in here again, I'll tear your dumbass li'l balls off," Michael warned. "You piss in the street like everybody else in this godforsaken shithole."

Gavin pulled up in front of the pantry, snuffled industriously, and plonked himself down. He sat up very straight and tall and proper, looking to Michael like he expected a parade.

"Good job, you found the food," said Michael. "You ain't gettin' none of it."

The very tip of his tail patted the floor. His ears drooped ever so slightly. He fidgeted and licked his lips. Three wrinkles grew on his forehead.

"I said you ain't gettin' none, and it don't matter how pathetic you look."

Like a flower wilting in the noonday sun, Gavin sank down to the floor. He put his chin between his paws, gazed up at Michael, and heaved a sigh so heavy it deflated him down to half his size. Michael clicked his teeth and rolled his eyes, shaking his head.

"All right, all right," he grumbled, making his way into the kitchen. "You made your point. Shoulda left your ass at home."

Still, amidst the shower of doggy affection that always came with giving food, he was pretty glad he hadn't.

Chapter Text

Although Lindsay came back less than an hour after she'd left, she kept giving Michael the cold shoulder well into the next morning. Ordinarily, he would have stuck it out, pitted her stubbornness against his own, but they were in the belly of the beast and he needed all the allies he could get.

"Hey uh," he began, when breakfast was done with and he'd cleared up all the dishes. "Sorry. 'Bout yesterday."

"What part of yesterday?" she asked.

"The yellin' part."

"What part of the yellin' part?"

"Bein' a jackass and not listenin' to you," he mumbled.

"Good enough. You gonna listen now, or you need a couple more days to cool off?"

"Couple days wouldn't hurt," said Michael, because there was no way it wouldn't devolve into another fight.

"Couple days, then. You be thinkin' about what you wanna say and how to say it civilly. Meantime, I guess we'd better find some way to occupy ourselves while we wait on those detectives to turn somethin' up."

There was a hint of a question on the end of her sentence. Gavin picked up on it and meandered over to her, curious. She made a face at him and brushed some biscuit crumbs off the table, which he gobbled up with gusto.

"I figure we oughtta be lookin' into those detectives," Michael said. "Somethin' ain't right with all that."

She raised an eyebrow. "You ain't seem too suspicious yesterday."

"I was hurtin' too bad to seem suspicious. They got mixed up in cult shit, some way or other, and I wanna know how it panned out. It wun't that long ago, we oughtta be able to dig up plenty of shit if we just ask around."

"Michael, I know you ain't been to too many cities, but just askin' around ain't exactly the best option. There's prob'ly ten thousand people just in this corner of London, and maybe ten of 'em paid any attention to what went on with Free and them."

"They're neighbors, 'course they give a shit."

"Not in the city, they don't. Most people here prob'ly don't know those detectives from a hole in the ground, and couldn't care less."

"You mean to tell me, with all these folks crammed up ear to mouth, don't nobody gossip?"

"I'm sure they gossip, Michael, it's just there's ten thousand things to gossip about and each individual thing gets spread awful thin, unless it's real juicy. Anyway, they wouldn't talk gossip to us, 'cuz we're foreign."

"Nuh-uh, they're foreign."

Lindsay stared at him until the dumbness of that statement sunk in. He cleared his throat and scratched the back of his head.

"Couldn't hurt to try," he mumbled.

"It might could, if it means you goin' all over the place on cobblestones."

"We can start with the deputies, then, they oughtta know somethin'. Unless you're gonna tell me they don't got deputies in the big city."

"They got police, which ain't quite the same thing, and I don't think they'd take too kindly to us comin' around and askin' 'em questions about one of their own."

"Bullshit, they prob'ly hate Free's guts."

"Yeah, but I bet you they hate Americans more."

Michael threw his hands up. "Then how the hell are we s'posed to find anythin' out?"

"Newspapers," said Lindsay. "Now, since most of it happened in Paris, we might not be able to get too many details, but bein' that we heard about it all the way in Nevada, there must've been a hell of a lot of buzz up closer."

"That all folks do over here? Sit inside and read all goddamn day?"

"With weather like this, you can't hardly blame 'em."

Michael glanced out the window. It was still raining, cold and gray and smothering, like November had sunk its claws into the earth and planned to die there. It had been over a week since he'd seen the sun.

What he did see was a familiar pair of figures, loitering under a single umbrella opposite the hotel and casting sneaky glances through the crowd.

"Y'know what," Michael said slowly. "Why don't you go and see what newspapers you can rustle up? I'm gonna stay here and not hurt for a while."

"Who's out there?" said Lindsay, getting up to crane over his shoulder.

"Free and Gruchy. Did we ever tell 'em what hotel we were stayin' at?"

"I did. You figure they're here to talk to us?"

"Don't know. I don't guess they'd be standin' around likkat if they were."

"So why'd you wanna send me off? 'Cuz if you think somebody's gonna do somethin' stupid, I'm stayin' with you."

"Naw, it ain't that. I bet they wanna talk to us mano-y-mano, and I wanna see which mano goes on which. They're tryin' to figure out how to split us up, that's why they ain't come in yet."

"And how'd you come to that conclusion?"

"'Cuz it's what I'd do. If they were lookin' to pull some dumb shit, they wouldn't do it in broad daylight. Naw, they're just tryin' to weasel more out of us about Haywood, that's all it is."

"I'd hope so, that's what we're payin' 'em for."

Michael bristled. "If you say word-fuckin'-one to them about—"

"Calm down," Lindsay interrupted. "I don't like your convoluted dumbass plans, but I ain't gonna go behind your back to fuck 'em up. I'll fuck 'em up to your face or not at all."

"Much obliged," he sneered.

"You don't have to be if you don't feel like it. It's just regular ol' honesty and courtesy."

"Yeah yeah. You gonna go, or what?"

She sighed and rolled her eyes. "Fine, I'll go. You want me to take Gavin with me?"

Gavin perked up, looking between Lindsay and Michael expectantly.

"He stays with me," said Michael.

"Just in case, huh?"

"Just in case."

Lindsay kissed the top of his head and patted his shoulder. "I won't go far," she promised. "And I'll be back in a couple hours, at most."

"Thanks," he mumbled, his face going hot.

"Still just common courtesy. But you're welcome."

On that note, she headed out.


 

Dan spotted Dr Tuggey before she spotted him, a bit of good fortune that boded well for the rest of the conversation. He made a great show of noticing her, took off his hat and waved it in the air and called out.

"Dr Tuggey! I say, Dr Tuggey!"

She stopped and turned. He jogged up to her, putting the finishing touches on his embarrassed smile.

"Terribly sorry to bother you. I hope I'm not intruding?"

"Not too much," she said, looking him over. "Michael's still in the room, if you're lookin' for him. I could let you in, he prob'ly won't."

"As it happens, I'm not looking for Mr Jones. I was looking for you."

Her eyes narrowed. "Oh?"

"Yes. Yesterday in our little tête-à-tête—but perhaps we shouldn't discuss this in public. Er, let's just say that both Mr Free and I are interested in a slightly less . . . short interview, and I'd hoped I might be able to get one from you. If it's not too much trouble, of course; I'm given to understand that this is Mr Jones' venture, and not yours, so if it's beyond your reasonable duties, then—"

She held up a hand, making a face. "I don't know what you mean by duties. I got just about as much stake in this whole thing as Michael does, and I'm just as determined to see it done. Walk with me."

"Ah? Brilliant, thank you."

The two of them set off at a moderate pace. Dr Tuggey had the sort of walk that people moved aside for, which presented a stark contrast to how Dan was usually forced to navigate the pavements. He trailed along in her wake, feeling much smaller that she was even though the top of her head barely came up to his eyes.

"So, what'd you wanna know?" she asked. "And before you ask, I was outta town when Haywood was hanged and for about six weeks afterwards, so there ain't much I can tell you about how all that went down."

"That's perfectly all right. May I ask what called you away?"

"Nothin', I was on the run. Haywood made it real clear he was fixin' to kill me, so I got the hell outta Dodge and didn't come back 'til I heard—from a reputable source—that he was dead."

"Sensible enough," said Dan. "When you say he made it clear he was planning to kill you, what—if you don't mind talking about it—what exactly does that entail?"

She blew out a breath and rolled her eyes. "Hell, it sounds like nothin' at all when you say it out loud. He had a way about him. Had a way of talkin' sideways, makin' threats that didn't sound threatenin' unless you already knew what he was talkin' about. But you can be damn sure he was plannin' on killin' me. Pickin' out thread, Michael would say."

"I see. So no overtly threatening language."

"Nothin' that'd hold up in a court of law, and prob'ly not for no reason."

"Right. I can't imagine Jones was too pleased about that situation."

"Scared shitless," said Tuggey.

"I'm honestly a bit surprised you didn't take him with you, if things were so dangerous."

"The point of runnin' was to not have Haywood follow me. If I'd taken Michael, he'd've been right on our heels."

"Ah, yes, that obsession you mentioned. Out of curiosity, did that start before or after Jones became convinced he was the Vagabond? Or rather: was Jones receiving attention from the Vagabond before he was receiving attention from Haywood?"

"I follow. Far as I can tell, Haywood didn't know Michael from a hole in the ground the day he turned up, and Michael didn't even hear about the Vagabond 'til about a year later. But Haywood was obsessed with him from Day One, and Michael was suspicious of Haywood from Day One, and for the most part we all thought it was fun and games 'til the bodies started turnin' up."

"Was Jones as, er, obsessed with Haywood as Haywood was with him?"

"I don't think so, but it was hard to tell. Haywood did an awful lot of foolin' with him, stringin' him along, like. Michael prob'ly coulda hanged him six times over by the time he finally got around to doin' it in practice."

"It sounds like perhaps he wasn't convinced he had the right fellow."

Tuggey eyed him up. "Haywood confessed, Mr Gruchy. Haywood also made him one of those signature coats and forced him to wear it for weeks. And Michael had a front-row seat to at least one of the murders, so no, I think he was pretty goddamn convinced."

"He witnessed it?" Dan cried. At the barrage of odd looks from passers-by, he cleared his throat and reigned himself in. "That might've been an important bit to mention, you know."

"He's ashamed of it," said Tuggey. "Ashamed he couldn't stop it, guilty he didn't try harder. He does that with most of the folks Haywood killed after meetin' him. It's like he can't stand for it not to be his fault."

Tugging on the collar of his shirt, Dan said, "Can't imagine what it must be like to live with that."

"Frustratin' as all hell. He only does it 'cuz he wants to be in control. If everythin' bad happens 'cuz he screwed up somewhere, then he can keep anythin' bad from happenin' by just not screwin' up. And it's bullshit, of course, but try tellin' him that."

"Er, right," said Dan. He was having some difficulty keeping his thoughts together, pulled off course by a leaden weight in his stomach that somehow managed to be smug about its own existence.

"Sorry, I'm gettin' us all off-track," said Tuggey. "Point is, Michael's got every reason in the world to be convinced about Haywood, and plenty of reasons to not wanna talk about it. I can try to convince him to un-clam, but I don't think it'll do any good."

"I appreciate that. I'll do my best not to pry too hard—although I will have to tell Free, of course, and he can be slightly less . . . gentle, about these sorts of things."

"Yeah, he seemed it. You have anythin' else you wanted to ask? 'Cuz we're almost at the chemist's and I don't know if you wanna keep talkin' while we're indoors."

"To be perfectly frank with you, I wanted to know as much as there was to know about Mr Jones, but I think I've found something much more interesting instead."

"Oh?"

"Well, we were thinking, you know, that perhaps Jones hanged the wrong man, and the real Vagabond was playing cat-and-mouse. But if Jones witnessed one of the murders, then I suppose that goes right out the window."

"It does," said Tuggey. "And I understand why y'all might think that, but I'm gonna need y'all to understand that Michael and me know what we're talkin' about. Y'all don't have to start from scratch, and it's a li'l bit insultin' that you're tryin' to."

"That—is very fair. I'll pass that along. Er, thank you, Dr Tuggey, for your time. We'll be in touch."

"Lookin' forward to it. Y'all feel free to come by anytime, we're at y'all's disposal."

"Thank you, I'm sure we will. Good afternoon, doctor."

"Afternoon."

She went into the chemist's. Dan stood about for two minutes, then meandered back to the hotel. He found Gav already outside, brimming with excitement.

"I take it your interview went well," he said, as Gav fell into step beside him.

"Fantastic," Gav effused. "He's an absolute madman. I wish I could've stayed an hour."

"Get anything useful?"

"Dan, you won't believe this," he said, gleeful. "Nothing!"

Dan's steps faltered. "What, nothing? Nothing at all?"

"Nothing I didn't know yesterday, anyway. It's incredible, he's horrendous, I think I'm in love."

"Oy, steady on."

"Not like that, untwist your knickers. Just wait 'til you hear the things he called me. I've never heard anything like it. Oh, and did you manage to get anything of use out of Tuggey?"

"Quite a bit."

"Really?"

"You needn't sound so surprised."

"Tell me everything. Come on, chop chop!"

Briefly, Dan summarized what Tuggey had told him about Jones and Haywood. Gav's bubbly demeanour bubbled off, leaving him still and pensive.

"Then how. . . ?" he muttered to himself, watching something far away. Dan took his arm and guided him away from the curb.

"I . . . may have forgotten to ask about how Haywood slipped the noose," he admitted.

"No no no, not that. It's half an idea at best. I'll tell you when I've found the other half."

Dan heaved a sigh. "Back to this again, are we?"

"When it's important, I'll tell you. Honestly, B, you can't take every instance of me mumbling to myself as some sort of sign that I'm leaving you out of crucial bits of the process. I'm only wondering, and I'm not even sure what I'm wondering about!"

"Right. Sorry. I might be a bit on edge."

"A bit."

"Have you written Casimir yet? Speaking of bits."

Gav punched him in the arm. Dan wrinkled his nose at him.

"I did it yesterday," said Gav. "'Cos I hate to waste time, and it'll be a week at least before we hear back from him."

"All right. Meantime, then: what were these inventive names Jones was calling you?"

"Oh, I'm so glad you asked," Gav said, about to float right off the pavement. "If vulgarity were a sport, he'd be an olympian. It started with him slamming the bloody door in my face. . . ."

Chapter Text

Barely two minutes after Lindsay had left, somebody came knocking on the hotel room door. Gavin ran to it, barking his head off, and absolutely refused to come away. Michael had to tempt him into the water closet with a biscuit (or what passed for one out here) and shut him in. Only then did he answer the door, still grumbling to himself.

"Good afternoon, Mr. Jones!" Free chirped. He was shiny as a button, bouncing on his toes. "I wondered if I might borrow a few minutes of your time."

"No," said Michael, and shut the door in his face.

"It—you what?" Free squeaked, affronted.

"I'll talk to you when I feel like talkin' to you," said Michael, raising his voice to be heard through the thick wood. "'Til then, you can mosey on."

"This is really no way to treat a collaborator, Mr. Jones."

"Good thing you ain't one."

"Then what am I?"

"Hired help."

"Hired—hired help?!" Free sputtered. He might have stomped his foot. "I'm a professional!"

"So's a maid. Now go away before I sic the dog on you."

"I'd like to point out that you asked for my help."

"Uh-huh, and I sure as shit ain't payin' you to turn up on my goddamn doorstep."

"Well, but . . . please?"

Michael pulled up short. "Huh?"

"Could I please come in and talk to you? Only for a little while, and it is very important. Please?"

"No."

"I can't make you let me in, but you can't make me go away, either. I'll just stand out here being annoying 'til you give up."

"And I'll break both your fuckin' knees, how's that?"

"You'll have to open the door to do it."

"Jesus fuckin' Christ," Michael sighed. He yanked the door open. Free nearly fell in his lap, only staying on his feet by virtue of an awful lot of flailing. He grinned at Michael, wall-eyed.

"So is it going to be the knees, or—?"

"You can have five minutes and then I'm throwin' you out the window," said Michael.

"Wonderful! It's only the ground floor, I think I'll survive."

"Ain't said if I'd open it first," Michael muttered, as Free skated in past him.

"What was that?"

"Said your eye's crooked."

"Oh, damn and blast, I hate it when it does this," said Free, dropping into a chair at the table. "You wouldn't happen to have a clean kerchief or something, would you?"

Michael shut the door and joined him at the table. In the water closet, Gavin snuffled and huffed and pawed at the door. Free raised an eyebrow at the sound, but didn't comment. The eyebrow raised a lot further when Michael tossed him his handkerchief.

"I did say clean," Free said.

"You don't like it, you can stay crooked," said Michael. "I don't give a shit if you wanna walk around lookin' like a half-breed ki-yote been smacked upside the head with a shovel."

"And I'm partial to not getting infections that close to my brain. It is somewhat important."

"That where you keep the photographs?"

"You're being facetious, but it is, actually."

"Naw, I figured it was mostly paper and gunk up there. Li'l grit in your brains might do you some good, fill in some of the holes."

"Speaking from experience? It seems like your brains are so full of grit they've given you a dirty mouth."

"And you sound like you been chewin' on soap. How's it do for slickin' up that stick you got up your ass?"

"Oof, substandard at best. And I've been farting bubbles for a week."

Michael cracked up. He swallowed it down as fast as he could, but the damage was done. Free looked like he'd just lassoed the moon.

"Guess you got a sense of humor after all," Michael said, folding his arms. "Whattaya know."

"I'm so glad I've passed your test. Could I have the actual kerchief now?"

"The hell you mean? That's the only one I got."

Free's smile dried up. Michael shrugged.

"Damn shame. Guess you're gonna be lookin' goofy this whole chat. Unless you brought your own, of course."

With a sigh as big as his nose, Free pulled out his own handkerchief and shook it out. He turned aside to remove his glass eye, rubbed it like he expected a genie to come out, and made a ridiculous series of faces as he put it back in.

"There," he said, still blinking and scrunching his nose. "Now that that's out of the way—"

"Still crooked," said Michael.

"No it isn't!" Free squawked.

"Sure is. Maybe worse'n before."

"You're having a laugh."

"Do I look like I'm laughin'?"

"Yes," Free said petulantly.

"Don't surprise me none, 'cuz you sure look funny. You want a mirror or somethin'?"

"Fine, I suppose I could indulge you, since I did show up unannounced and you've made it abundantly clear that you're not going to let this go."

"I sure ain't. No way in hell I'm gonna be able to take you seriously when you look like a frog what swallowed a stick of dynamite. There's a mirror in the other room over there."

He cocked his head at the water closet. Free thanked him primly and minced over, taking the opportunity to glance around the rest of the hotel room.

The second he opened the door, Gavin launched himself at his chest.

Free squawked like a kicked chicken and just about fell on his ass. Gavin thudded to the floor, shook himself off, and went right back to jumping all over Free, barking his dumb little head off.

"Good grief, I—yes, hello! I'm very excited to see you, as well, but could you please stop—ow—stop with the jumping, and—yes, all right, thank you, I heard you the first dozen times—"

"Aw shit, sorry 'bout that," said Michael, fighting down a smile as Free was completely overwhelmed by Gavin's delight. "Least he's happy to see you."

"All right, all right, that can be enough!" said Free, grabbing a double handful of bandanna and forcing Gavin to keep his front paws on the ground. Gavin wriggled like his life depended on it. "Shh, no, stop it. Look, I'll stay down here and we'll be friends, but you cannot jump on me anymore, all right? I really don't like it, it's very rude of you."

Gavin whined and tried to back out of his bandanna, squashing his ears to his eyebrows and digging his toenails into the floor.

"He don't understand a word you're sayin'," Michael said. "Too dumb. Only thing he understands is food."

"Is there any of that about?" said Free, finally starting to fray as Gavin redoubled his efforts to get loose.

"Somewhere, prob'ly. You just hang onto him, I'll see what I can rustle up."

As soon as Michael headed for the pantry, Gavin went wild. He thrashed and whined and barked and finally tore himself out of Free's grasp. He bounded over to Michael, who snapped off the tip of a carrot and handed it to him. While Gavin was crunching it, Michael turned to Free.

"You gonna go fix your eye, or what?"

"Ah, yes, I was—right," said Free. "Won't be a moment."

He ducked into the water closet. Michael fed Gavin another piece of carrot.

"Always gotta go makin' friends, huh," he said.

Gavin stuck his nose in Michael's lap, hunting for more food. Michael handed him the rest of the carrot, whole, and Gavin hurried off under the bed with it. Presently, there came the sound of a great deal of crunching.

"Spoilt rotten," said Michael.

Emerging from the water closet, Free glanced around the room, frowned, and leaned over to try and see under the bed.

"What's he eating under there?" he asked.

"Vegetables," said Michael. "Keeps him outta the shoes."

"Aw, bless him," Free sighed. He returned to his chair, folded his hands on the table, and smiled at Michael. "But! I didn't actually come here to see the dog, as much as I would've liked to. I did come to talk to you."

"Ain't that a cryin' shame," said Jones. "Your five minutes are up."

Free stared at him. His mouth opened and closed a couple times. He looked to Gavin, down at himself, and back at Michael. His eyebrows raised like he was giving a toast with them.

"Oh, you're good," he said.

"Yeah yeah. You gonna walk out, or you want me to throw you?"

Getting to his feet, Free said, "I . . . think I'll walk. This time, anyway. We'll put a pin in the throwing."

He flashed a smile. Michael stared him down. Free cleared his throat and pointed at the door.

"Right. Yes. So I'll . . . yes."

"Uh-huh," Michael said.

Free took one last look around the hotel room, shrugged helplessly, and tottered out. As soon as he'd gone, Gavin poked his head out from under the bed, concerned.

"You eat that whole thing already, or what?" Michael asked.

Apparently he had, because he crawled out from under the bed and went sniffing around the room. He pulled up at the door, made a thorough investigation, and scratched at it.

"Naw, he's gone," said Michael. "Sorry, pal. Maybe next time he'll take you with him."

Gavin looked up at him, pitiful and tragic. Michael rolled his eyes.

"I know you like him, but we cain't keep him," he said. "You'll get over it. He'll get over it. Better we all just go our separate ways and don't get caught up in nobody."

Gavin's face got even sadder. His ears drooped. He licked his lips and whined.

"Don't gimme that. Ain't like you're short of friends, anyhow. Everybody in the goddamn world falls in love with you the second they set eyes on you, you got nothin' to whine about. Least you could do is stop draggin' me along with you. I don't aim to make no friends, now nor ever."

Rather than taking this to heart, Gavin moped over and put his chin on Michael's knee. When Michael went to pet him, Gavin licked his hand. Michael pulled back. Gavin tried to climb into his lap.

"Quit. Quit it, you dumb fuckin'—goddammit, Gavin—"

Gavin sat himself down in Michael's lap and leaned hard against his chest, sniffing his ear. Michael grumbled and made faces and, eventually, put an arm around him. Gavin's tail gave two solid thumps against the armrest, and he licked Michael's ear.

"Yeah, yeah, you don't gotta get clingy about it," Michael grumbled. "Bet you'd forget all about me inside of a week if I let you go with him. Y'all get along like a house on fire."

Gavin mashed his head against Michael's shoulder, leaning on him with all the weight of his body. Like a scab ripping off, something in Michael's chest came loose and pain swelled out, thick and hot and sticky. He clenched his teeth, dug his fingernails into his armrest, blinked back the sting in his eyes and sniffed the tickle out of his sinuses.

"You dumb fuckin' mutt," he said thickly. "You dumb fuckin' idjit, when are you gonna leave me the hell alone?"

Gavin's only answer was to sneeze in his ear.


 

By the time Lindsay got back, Michael had managed to pull himself back together. Gavin, for once, gave nothing away—probably by virtue of having forgotten about it.

"Gruchy catch you outside?" Michael asked, as Lindsay deposited an armful of newspapers on the table.

"Sure did," she said. "Free come in to see you?"

"Yep."

"What'd he ask you?"

"Nothin'."

"Nothin' at all?"

"He woulda, but I ain't give him the chance. What'd Gruchy want from you?"

"Said he wanted to know all about you. They got some damn fool idea that you'd hanged the wrong fella, but I set him straight on it. And before you start yellin', no, I ain't mention anythin' you didn't want mentioned."

"Fine. Did he follow you all the way to the newspaper place?"

"No. I went down to the chemist's and waited for him to go away. Then I went to the newspaper place."

"Huh," said Michael, impressed. "And what's all this shit you brought back?"

"These're called newspapers, Michael. See, sometimes folks want to know what's goin' on in places they care about, so somebody thought up the nifty idea of writin' it down and sellin' it so—"

"I meant what's in 'em, you jackass."

"Words, mostly."

"Doc," he growled.

"Oh, fine. It's all the stories they ran about Free and Gruchy from March to June."

"Is that when all the cult shit was goin' on?"

"Most of it. Now this's only one press, mind, there were prob'ly dozens of others also runnin' stories all throughout, but it's as good a place to start as any."

"Hope you ain't expectin' me to read all that shit," said Michael, eyeing the stack.

Lindsay sat herself down and took the top paper. "I'm expectin' you to try. Somethin' in particular we're lookin' for, or just anythin' suspicious?"

"We prob'ly got a couple days to kill while they get their shit in order," said Michael. "So we're gonna start with everythin' suspicious, and narrow it down from there."

Shaking her head and smiling, she said, "Some things never change."

"What's that s'posed to mean?"

"Means you're as bull-headed as you've ever been, and that's somethin' of a comfort. Means there's still a few things Haywood didn't manage to take from you."

"He ain't take shit from me," Michael snapped.

"He took damn near everythin' from you, Michael, and you still ain't got most of it back. Go and make some coffee or somethin'. We're gonna need it to get through this stack of crap."

Michael clenched his teeth, narrowed his eyes. Lindsay seemed at ease, although she hadn't looked up from the paper since she'd pulled it down. He stayed still until the lack of coffee-making drew her attention.

"What?" she said.

"What did you tell him?" said Michael.

"For God's sake," she sighed.

"You said you ain't tell Gruchy anythin' I ain't want told, so what did you tell him?"

"You are the most suspicious sonnuva bitch in all Creation."

"And you ain't answerin' me."

"I already told you! He implied you mighta hanged the wrong fella, and I set him straight on it."

"How?"

"I don't remember, you jackass."

"If you don't remember, then how do you know you ain't say nothin' about—"

"Michael, for Christ's sake, why does every goddamn conversation we have turn into an interrogation?"

"'Cuz you never fuckin' answer me."

"I did answer you. You just decided I must be hidin' somethin' 'cuz I didn't tell you what you wanted to hear. I don't remember what exactly I told him. I do remember that I didn't say anythin' about what you and Haywood had goin' on behind closed doors. With the amount of shit you forget on a daily basis, I'd think you'd be a li'l more understandin'!"

"Maybe you don't remember exactly what you told him, but you damn well remember somethin' about it. You bring up Heyman or the Hullums to him?"

"This is what I mean about Haywood takin' things from you! It's like I don't even know you anymore, and you sure as hell act like you don't know me. There was a time you woulda trusted me with your life, and now you don't even trust me to have a goddamn conversation!"

"I don't trust you not to run your fuckin' mouth in the wrong direction."

"When have I ever? When have I ever spilled your shit to anybody? Haywood did that to you, Michael, not me!"

More retorts lined up on Michael's tongue like bullets in the chamber. On the other side of the room, Gavin slipped under the bed, tail between his legs. Michael swallowed down the words, flexed the clench out of his hands, and let out a breath through his nose. His left leg was starting to jitter. His heart was trying to crawl up his throat. The skin on his right forearm itched and burned. As deep as he breathed, he couldn't get his lungs to fill up all the way.

"So coffee, then," he said.

"Coffee would be good," said Lindsay, taut.

Michael turned on a dime and got to it. He could feel her watching him, like cold mist against the redness of his face, like wind on his shaking hands. His Colt poked him in the side as he moved around, heavy and warm. Even knowing how little good it would do him, it was still something of a comfort.

After five minutes of chewing it over, he finally said, "Sorry."

Lindsay let out a heavy sigh. "I know you are, Michael," she said. "I just wish you could stop puttin' yourself in situations where you have to be."

Chapter Text

After almost a full day of peaceful research, Dan was braced and ready for a spanner to come clattering into the works. When it did, it came with the exact trajectory he'd expected, although there was only so much he could do to keep it from mucking up the machinery.

"We ought to stay at the office for tea, I think," Gav mentioned, apropos of nothing.

"Dare I ask why?" said Dan.

"Oh, 'cos I've invited Jones and Tuggey."

"No you haven't."

"There's only so much we can find out by digging, B. We're much better served going at it face to face."

"Didn't Jones chuck you out on your arse yesterday?"

"He only threatened to. I think that's just how he communicates, he doesn't really mean it. Anyway, they're probably on their way already, so there's no point arguing about it."

"You might've mentioned it before!"

"Nah, 'cos then you would've argued about it."

"Could've at least asked Gabriel, for courtesy's sake," Dan grumbled.

"I did!" said Gav, tremendously pleased with himself. "She said it was all right."

Dan turned to her. Despite her apparent immersion in her notes, there was a smile playing about her lips.

"Un-believable," said Dan, throwing his hands up. "Whatever happened to working out where he got all his money from, then? I've only been running myself into the ground looking for clues."

"Easiest way to do it is to ask him. And if your conversation with Dr Tuggey is anything to go by, he also knows much more about the Vagabond than he's let on, and-and he's our best shot at working out where the vicious little blighter's gone, at least 'til we hear back from Cassie. Three birds with one stone, B!"

"That doesn't help if all three birds just tell the stone to piss off and then shit on it."

Gabriel made a strangled noise and turned her face away. Pouting, Gav folded his arms.

"Just 'cos you haven't been able to get anything out of him doesn't mean I won't."

"You didn't, though."

"Only on the first try! One never gets it right on the first try. Besides, I think he likes me. I'll crack him one way or another."

"His dog likes you. I doubt he's ever liked anyone or anything, and I doubt he's ever going to. Talking of dogs—Gabriel, you know he'll be bringing it, don't you?"

Her expression got much less amused, but she still didn't look up.

"I've accepted it as an unfortunate necessity," she said. "I'm not going to let my personal discomfort interfere with a case."

"Oh, la-di-da, you're a consummate professional, you."

She turned a withering look on him and raised her eyebrows. His lips inverted into his mouth and he shrank down in his seat. Gav elbowed him in the side.

"Keep going, Dan, you'll get the whole leg down," he said.

"Sod off, nobody asked you!"

"Ahem," said Gabriel.

Dan shrank down farther. "Er. Sorry. That was rude and uncalled-for."

"Thank you."

Someone banged on the door. All three of them jumped.

"Jesus Christ, Michael, don't act like you're tryin' to bust the thing down," Tuggey scolded, muffled but intelligible.

"Whoops, and there they are!" said Gav, getting to his feet.

"Didn't give it much bloody lead-time, did you?" said Dan.

"I don't control when they turn up. Could've been hours, or never."

"It's four o'clock on the bloody dot and I know you told them when to show up."

"Can't prove it!" Gav sang, gliding across the room.

Gabriel shook her head. "I can't believe you've put up with this for nine years."

"He used to be worse," said Dan.

Gav threw open the front door and grinned. "Good afternoon, Mr—awwh, it's you! Allo there, little doggy!"

This last as Jones' dog threw itself at Gav's thighs. Gav forgot about Jones and Tuggey on the instant, every ounce of professionalism lost to the aether. Tuggey nudged the dog aside—and Gav with it—so she and Jones could enter.

"Howdy," she said. "Sorry 'bout the dog, Michael insisted."

"Free don't seem to mind too much," Jones pointed out.

"Free ain't the only one in the room," said Tuggey. She waved at Gabriel. "Hopefully he stays over here, but he does tend to uh, to cavort when he gets this riled up."

"I appreciate the warning," said Gabriel, who looked like she was preparing to jump onto her desk.

"Would he like a biscuit, then?" Gav gurgled. He had the dog by the ears, although it was making a good faith effort to thrash out of his grip. It started barking, shatteringly loud in the tiny office.

"Seems like a yes," said Tuggey.

"Of course he would, every doggy wants a biscuit," said Gav. The moment he let go, the dog leapt on him, still barking, and bounced off on a trajectory towards Gabriel.

Jones' arm shot out like lightning. He caught the dog by the bandanna and hauled it in. With his elbow, he mashed it against the wheel of his chair.

"Quit it," he said.

The dog whined at him, trying to get loose. He glowered.

"I don't care how sad it makes you, quit it. You're scarin' folks. Free, go and find him somethin' or other to munch on, he'll shape up once there's food involved."

"Oh? Er, right, will do," said Gav. He picked his way to the tiny kitchen behind the main office. The dog watched him go with big, pleading, crooked eyes.

Tuggey also came round, gently interposing herself between the dog and Gabriel. "I swear he didn't used to be this bad. I don't know what's got into him."

Shrugging, Jones said, "New place, new folks, he's riled up. And he don't get to run around no more, so he's prob'ly goin' stir-crazy."

"He ain't the only one," Tuggey sighed. She turned and added, "Howdy there, Detective Gabriel."

"Howdy," said Gabriel. "Um—no, hello, sorry, I don't know where that came from, hahah. Hello again, Dr Tuggey. How are you?"

"Not too gabby—shabby, pthbt, not too shabby, oh boy, I'm forgettin' how to talk. And yourself, how's you?"

"Good! Well. Doing well. Keeping busy. Glad you could make it, we've missed you terr—your—your assistance, with . . . the case. We've—could use it. Yes. That's all."

"We would've left you alone a bit longer," Dan said, stepping in before Gabriel went up in smoke. "But Free insisted, after how productive our last conversation was. Or, in the case of Mr Jones, decidedly un-productive."

Jones shrugged. "I ain't got time for dumbassery and y'all're gonna know about it."

"Except when it comes to Gavin," Tuggey pointed out. "Got all the time in the world for his dumbassery."

"He cain't help it. He ain't got nothin' but dumbassery. Might as well ask him to stop breathin'."

Gav returned from the kitchen, bearing scones, and garnered dog-Gavin's undivided attention. Jones let go, and the dog trotted over and planted itself right at Gav's feet, keen as a whistle.

"Now that's a change of heart," said Gav. "Will you lay off our Gabriel if I keep you on a steady diet of crumbs?"

"He'll forget there's anybody else in the room," said Jones.

"Splendid. There's already an extra scone for him, it shouldn't be any trouble at all."

"Sucker," said Jones, more amused than Dan had thought possible.

Gav looked up sharply. "You what?"

"Nothin'. Were we gonna sit around yammerin' all day, or was there shit to do?"

"I think you'll find that in our office, Mr Jones, we adhere stringently to pleasantries," said Dan. "We'll talk business over tea, and not before."

"Ain't you just the tightest-stuffed shirt in the goddamn closet," said Jones. "Watch your biscuits, Free."

Gav squawked and yanked the plate away just before the dog stood up high enough to steal a scone. The dog jumped after them and just barely missed.

"You cheeky sod!" Gav cried, offended. Dog-Gavin barked until Gav pinched off a corner of one scone and crumbled it on the floor, at which point the dog lost all interest in everything else in the known universe.

"Yep, see, there you go," said Jones, gesturing.

Gav went gooey again. "Aw, bless. Right, quickly then, before we lose him: Jones, everything about the Vagabond case has gotten horribly garbled getting here from Nevada—as Gabriel's found, to our immense frustration—and she was hoping you could clear it all up for us."

Jones' face dropped back into a scowl like a turtle into its shell. "Thought it was gonna be pleasantries first."

"Oh, Gruchy and Tuggey and Gabriel—if she likes—can all go and have pleasantries, but I hate wasted time, and obviously so do you, so I say it's all a load of toss and we'll go on without them."

"Fine by me. What needs clearin' up?"

"Gabriel, if we could borrow your notes? Gruchy, play host, would you?"

Dan ground his teeth, fuming. "Will do, Mr Free," he said. He marched into the tiny kitchen and put a significant amount of effort into not slamming the door behind him. After putting the kettle on, he stood in the middle of the room, pressing his fingernails into his palms and taking deep breaths. Jones and Gav were still going back and forth, though Dan couldn't make out any words from here.

When the kettle whistled, Dan filled up a pot with tea, scrounged up five cups, and brought the whole ensemble back to the main office on a tray. Gav was perched on a chair, giving Jones his undivided attention while Gabriel took notes. The scones—and therefore the dog—had been handed off to Tuggey. As Dan entered, Jones stopped talking, Gabriel set down her pencil, and Gav perked up.

"Ah, just in time," he said. "It's a remarkably concise case, when it's not spread over eighteen newspapers and two continents. Care for a summary, Gruchy?"

"If that's not too much of a waste of time," said Dan.

"Not at all! It pays to be sure we're all on the same page. Gabriel, why don't you summarize? Make sure your notes match mine."

While Dan made himself busy distributing the tea, she took up her notepad and read from it.

"Mr Bernard Burns," she began, "the first victim, was supposedly murdered by members of the Brotherhood of Ephemera—a cult—for attempting to quit their ranks. His killers hired three men to dispose of the body, and one woman to handle the payment of said men. When investigations interfered with this plan, two of the cult—Mr and Mrs Hullum—arrived to handle the situation themselves. The three men skipped town and were summarily chased down and arrested, and provided written confessions that Mrs Hullum had paid them to dispose of the body. Clear so far?"

"You've not mentioned that Mrs Hullum used to be married to Burns, before he died," said Gav. "Otherwise, lovely."

Gabriel made a quick note before going on. "Mrs Hullum was subsequently arrested, but a lack of concrete evidence and a great deal of involvement from her very rich husband meant that she was not convicted. Less than two weeks after the verdict, she and her husband were both murdered by the Vagabond."

Gav nodded, watching Tuggey and Jones. Tuggey had her full attention on dog-Gavin, who in return had his full attention on the plate of scones. Jones sat staring at nothing, his face carved from grim stone, his cup of tea untasted in his hand.

"Less than two weeks after that, the woman they hired to handle their payouts—one Miss Turney—murdered the bank manager in an equivalently gruesome manner."

"I said nasty, I ain't say equivalent," Jones snapped.

"You said his head wound up on your doorstep without the rest of him," Gav pointed out.

"I know what the hell I said."

"Dr Tuggey said he was paralysed and tortured for days."

"And I say that ain't equivalent, 'cuz Risinger still had all his guts in him and his skin on when we found him."

"All right, moving on," Gav said quickly, going greenish. "Turney killed the bank manager, and—?"

"And attempted to frame Haywood for it," Gabriel said, looking between Gav and Jones, "presumably aware that he was the Vagabond. When this attempt failed, she contracted two locals—Diaz and Collins—to kill Jones and Haywood. These two locals died in a shootout, while Jones and Haywood did not. The following night, Haywood shot Turney point-blank in front of half a dozen witnesses, and subsequently presented Mr Jones with . . . the remains of Mr and Mrs Hullum."

Dan sat down, nursing his own cup of tea. Jones' grimness was starting to seem a lot more sensible. The only one in the room not affected was dog-Gavin, who was still happily slurping up scone crumbs from the floor. Gabriel cleared her throat and kept going.

"Due to threats to the other deputies' lives and doubts cast upon his own credibility, Mr Jones did not attempt to arrest Mr Haywood. Instead, he and Dr Tuggey covertly introduced a low dosage of morphine into Haywood's daily coffee in order to subdue or otherwise incapacitate him. Due to an accidental, near-fatal overdose, however, he caught on to their plan and threatened Dr Tuggey's life."

"After which, I got the hell outta Dodge and didn't come back for eight weeks," Tuggey said.

"Thus proving that you're the only person in this mess with any sense," said Gabriel.

"The facts, Gabriel," Gav said, annoyed. "We're almost at the end, don't get sidetracked. You've skipped a bit, anyway. Where're the Lovelock murders?"

"I was getting to them."

"You were getting to them in the wrong order. They happened before Tuggey left. Correct, Mr Jones?"

"Hell if I know," Jones said. "Everythin' gets . . . kinda blurry from Turney on."

"It was before," Tuggey said. "I examined the bodies when they brought 'em back. But we were already workin' on Haywood by then, it just took a li'l while before it went to hell."

"Noted," said Gabriel. "So, before Haywood's overdose, another member or members of the Brotherhood bailed the three hired men out of jail in order to kill them—also in a gruesome fashion, and one that in some way advertised that it was cult-related."

"Yep," said Jones.

"Then the overdose, the threats, and Dr Tuggey's subsequent escape. Then Haywood got in contact with one of the remaining members of the Brotherhood, lured him to Achievement City, and murdered him—at which time, Mr Jones finally had sufficient proof to have Haywood hanged. Out of curiosity, do we know why this particular member was chosen?"

"No way of knowin' for certain, but I bet Michael's got an inklin'," said Tuggey. She dropped a few more crumbs for dog-Gavin before taking a scone for herself and passing the plate along. She had to nudge Jones with it twice before he noticed.

"Huh?"

"Take a biscuit. You got an idea why Haywood picked Heyman?"

"Oh," said Jones. He took a scone, and Tuggey passed the plate on to Gav. "'Cuz he beat Haywood to killin' the railmen, and Haywood was ticked off about it."

"That's really the only reason?" said Dan, discomfited. "Just 'cos he was ticked off?"

Jones shrugged. Dog-Gavin noticed that the scones were in motion and went to follow them. Jones headed him off by tossing a corner of his own scone on the floor in front of him.

"It wun't ever about reasons," Jones mumbled, flexing his right hand. "He ain't never had a reason to kill anybody. He just found excuses to do it anyhow."

A chill raced through Dan. He passed the plate of scones to Gabriel without taking one. He didn't have much of an appetite anymore.

"This just gets better and better," he said. "Have we learnt anything from this, Free? Tell me we have, I'd hate to think we've sat through all this penny-dreadful nonsense for nothing."

"Plenty!" said Gav. "It always pays to have the facts in order. The more we know about where Haywood came from, the easier it'll be to work out where he's gone. It's all trajectories, innit."

"You got any ideas yet?" Tuggey asked. "'Cuz Paris is an awful big target, and time ain't exactly on our side in all this."

"Oh, yes, I've a very good idea," said Gav. "Haywood's got an affinity for symmetry and holds tremendous grudges for even the slightest offense. I don't think it's any coincidence at all that he picked Mr Heyman to murder, and I don't think it's a coincidence that he wound up in Paris, either—although I don't know that he's still there. His reasons might have gone up in smoke."

"The rest of the cult," Gabriel realized. "Two of the Americans were from Nevada, weren't they? I think—hang on, I had it written down—"

"I'll spare you the trouble," said Gav. "One of the main players in our cult woes was the widow of one of the murdered quote-unquote railmen. Her partner may have been an accomplice in the murders. It's probably impossible to know for certain, especially now that—especially now. Regardless, if I've got as good a handle on Haywood's modus operandi as I think I do, then he came tripping along to Paris 'cos he'd got a taste for killing cultists and wanted to round out the set."

"Ain't they all dead?" Tuggey asked, frowning.

"Er . . . almost all of them, yes, which is why I suspect he may no longer be in Paris. It's possible that one or two of them slipped out, before—well, it's possible one or two slipped out. Some of the bodies, you know, were never actually recovered, after—you know, several of them they only ever found bits, so it's not impossible—after the—"

"What Free's saying is, there's likely to be stragglers, and it wouldn't be surprising if Haywood's hunting them down," Dan supplied. "Right?"

"Right," said Gav, with considerable relief. "It's a fine game of cat-and-mouse, and since there are almost certainly more surviving members of the Brotherhood than there are of Haywood, they should be easier to find."

Tuggey nodded. "Sensible. So how're we gonna find 'em before Haywood does?"

Gav got that look of missed-stair panic that most frequently followed an incisive question from Gabriel—who, for her own part, looked enchanted.

"Er . . . to be determined," Gav said, squirming. "But looking for three needles in a haystack is still easier than looking for just one."

"Not by a whole hell of a lot," said Tuggey.

"Well—well perhaps not, but still, you know—"

Gabriel, wise and merciful, chose that moment to step in. "There are some dangling leads left over from the Paris business," she said. "We ought to be able to pick them up without too much trouble."

"Yes, exactly, that," said Gav, falling all over himself with relief. "And, besides that, it'll certainly be safer than going right for Haywood—wouldn't you agree, Jones?"

He looked to Jones—who had dozed off in his chair, while dog-Gavin nibbled sneakily and industriously at the scone in his limp hand.

"Mr Jones?" Dan said loudly.

Jones started and blinked himself awake. Tea slopped all over the floor. His hand clenched on the scone, crushing it to powder. Dog-Gavin, of course, found this delightful and set about gobbling it all up right away. Jones didn't seem to notice, bleary and unsteady.

"Huh?" he said.

"Are we boring you?" Dan asked.

"What? No, I . . . just thinkin' about other stuff, I ain't. . . ."

Tuggey folded her arms and gave him a hard look.

"Michael," she said. "How many drops did you take for your last dose?"

"Uh," he said. He scratched his ear and brushed some additional crumbs off his lap for the dog. "Three. Ish."

"Ish, all right. Is that a four ish or a five ish?"

"Closer to five," he mumbled, turning red.

"Uh-huh, I thought you seemed a li'l extra agreeable today. You wanna try and tough it out here, or you wanna head on back?"

He chewed it over, struggling to keep his eyes open, polishing the arms of his chair with his palms.

"Guess we better head on back," he said at last, although he didn't sound happy about it.

"Glad to hear you say so." Tuggey turned to Gav, Dan, and Gabriel. "Sorry, y'all. He gets about four chances a day to choose between bein' functional and bein' in pain, and I guess he got tired of hurtin'."

"Don't talk about me like I ain't here," he snapped, although there were no teeth in it.

"All right; I'm sorry. Let's go home and you can bitch at me as much as you want."

"I don't want," he said under his breath. Tuggey either didn't hear him or pretended she hadn't.

"Gabriel, Free, Gruchy, I guess we'll be seein' y'all," she said. "Thanks for havin' us over."

"You're welcome back any time," said Gabriel. "Um—I assume."

"Yes, of course," Gav said. "Always glad to have you, drop by again whenever it's convenient. We'll have Haywood dredged up for you in no time. Cheery-O, ta-ta, don't let us keep you."

Thus faffing, he escorted them out of the office. He only paused to squash dog-Gavin's face and coo at him one last time before shutting the door on all three of them.

"Well!" he sighed, gleaming. "That was splendidly informative, wasn't it?"

"I genuinely can't tell if you're being sarcastic," said Dan.

"Of course I'm not; why would I be?"

"Perhaps because we're not actually any closer to finding Haywood?" Gabriel suggested.

"Pssh, miles closer," said Gav, waving her off.

"And how d'you figure that?" Dan asked.

"'Cos, B, I've worked out how to get Jones to talk. Seems his jaw isn't quite as tight when he's properly medicated. That's our ticket, and it always has been."

"It's not, it wasn't, and it never will be."

"You're not still convinced he's a fraud, are you?"

"Now more than ever. Tuggey was coaching him through the whole thing."

"Oh, she was not. Gabriel, you agree with me, don't you? She never coached him."

"I don't know," Gabriel said carefully. "All I'm sure of is that we still don't know the full story. It still doesn't add up properly. I'm inclined to think it's Jones who's holding back, but . . . I may be biased, on that count. I'm not convinced it matters."

"It matters," said Gav. "Oh, lovely Gabriel, it matters so very very much, 'cos Jones is the only thing standing between us and an enthusiastically grisly end."

"What?" Dan cried.

"Oh, Jesus wept," said Gabriel, putting a hand over her eyes.

Gav turned to Dan, still gleaming, but now in the manner of stained glass.

"Haywood killed Heyman 'cos Heyman stole his victims," he said brightly. "Haywood came to France to kill the rest of the cult. But who killed the rest of the cult before he could, B?"

Dan's stomach plunged into his boots. He swallowed. He shut his eyes.

"We're properly fucked," he said.

Chapter Text

Michael drifted in and out of consciousness all the way back to the hotel. He could barely move, exhausted beyond measure, but he'd pass out on the street before he'd let Lindsay push him. Once they were back in their room, with the door shut and Gavin nesting under the covers and a pot of coffee brewing, his determination collapsed, leaving him even more worn out than before.

And to cap it all off, the pain was starting to come back, because cobblestones were from hell.

"I am sorry, for all that," Lindsay said, drawing Michael out of his stupor. "It wasn't my place to mention your medication in front of strangers."

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. "My fault for gettin' greedy with the laudanum."

"I wouldn't call it greed. There's only so much hurtin' a body can take."

"Then why're you so stingy with the refills?"

"'Cuz there's only so much laudanum a body can take, either. I know it's shitty and you hate it. I'm just tryin' to keep you alive."

"Wish you'd trust me to keep my damn self alive," he muttered.

"I do. I don't trust opium not to kill you anyhow. You'd be better off if you could stop takin' it altogether."

"Go to hell."

"Figured you'd say that. You're welcome keep that wolf in your house and pretend it's a dog, but I sure ain't gonna take my eyes off it."

"Well thanks for watchin' my wolf, I guess," Michael sighed. He was too tired to argue about it. Maybe, if he leaned into the exhaustion just a little further, he could be unconscious before the pain caught up with him.

He might have drifted off; it was difficult to tell. The next thing he knew, Lindsay was handing him a warm cup of coffee, and Gavin was snoozing at his feet.

"I know you'd prob'ly rather sleep, but you oughtta drink somethin'," Lindsay said. "And I don't trust the water around here unless it's been boiled."

Michael grunted an acknowledgement and sipped the coffee. It was much too sweet, but he couldn't bring himself to care. Lindsay stayed at his elbow, watching.

"You feel like eatin', or—?"

"One damn thing at a time," he said.

"All right. I don't mean to push, I'm just tryin' to figure out when I oughtta get started on supper."

"You don't gotta ask me."

"I will anyhow, 'cuz I like gettin' to sit down to supper with you."

Michael didn't answer. He drank his coffee. Lindsay put a hand on his shoulder and kissed the top of his head. Without meaning to, he leaned into it, into her, his eyelids heavy and his chest aching.

"I shouldn'ta dragged you into this," he mumbled, staring at his coffee because he couldn't raise his eyes.

"I'm glad you did," said Lindsay. "I feel like hell for runnin' off and leavin' you the first time. Feel like I gotta make up for it, somehow or other."

"You don't gotta. Sensible thing'd be not to stay. If I don't manage to get Haywood before he gets me, he's gonna come after you."

She squeezed his shoulder. "If you don't manage to get Haywood, I will."

Something between a laugh and a scoff came out of him. He shook his head, reached up over his shoulder and put his hand on hers.

"Sorry I'm such a jackass all the time," he said. "You shouldn't oughtta put up with it. It's all right if you wanna leave."

"I think I'm gonna stay anyhow."

"Don't know why you would."

"You bein' a jackass ain't a permanent condition. You got better before, you can do it again. It's just gonna take a li'l work, that's all. You just gotta put some effort into bein' less of a jackass."

Even with the coffee in his system and the prickling approach of deeper pains, he was fading. Lindsay's hand was sturdy on his shoulder, her presence warm at his side.

"Doc?"

"Hm?"

"It ain't a choice between bein' functional and bein' not in pain. It's a line between bein' in too much pain to function and bein' too numb to function. No matter how hard I try to stay on it, I just wind up fallin' off one side or the other, and either way I go, folks get shitty with me for it. It shouldn't oughtta be this hard."

"I know, Michael," Lindsay said. "But there ain't much to be done but to keep on goin' anyhow. I wish I could make it easier for you."

"You already do. I'm gonna be up shit creek with no paddle when you leave."

"I ain't leavin', Michael."

"You will," he said, with absolute, exhausted certainty. "I'm glad we ain't get married. I wouldn't wanna try and keep you. I ain't good enough for you anyhow. Just waitin' on you to figure it out."

Lindsay sighed and bumped his shoulder with her hip. "I think you'd better take a nap, before you get to sayin' even more shit you'll wish you hadn't. I'll wake you up in a couple hours and we'll get back to those newspapers."

"If it's for readin', don't wake me up."

"We'll see. Now c'mon, let's get you outta that chair. Those sores are gonna come back if you start sleepin' in it again."


 

Michael dreamed he was back in Nevada.

There was a cold rain pattering on the roof, trickling down the windows. Wind whistled across the barren plains outside. The bed was small and hard and low to the ground. The room was dim, built from rough-hewn pine. Michael was clothed from the waist down, lying on top of the covers, without his chair or his dog or his gun.

And He was in bed with him.

A slender finger traced out aimless patterns on Michael's chest. Long, dark hair brushed against his arm and shoulder. Pale blue eyes turned towards the ceiling, a smile curling at the cruel, cruel mouth.

"Unseasonable," He said, the slow drawl, the peach-sweet syrup. "Whole town's gone flood, if it keeps this up."

Michael said nothing. It was safer to say nothing. Easier. A moment would come when a kiss would be welcome, and then Michael could be surer of His docility, His domestication. The wolf in the house was less dangerous when it was loved like a dog.

"Sure hope it don't, though," He went on. "That'd be mighty difficult for you in particular. I'd hate to see you get stuck in here with me."

A volley, a deliberate prod. Michael had to answer.

"Wouldn't mind too much," he said. "So long as I got you."

With a smile, He kissed Michael's collarbone, his neck; curled up against his side and draped Himself all over.

"Bless your heart," He said, twinkling. "Keep me for as long as you want, chéri. I'm all yours."

Michael glanced at the window. Muddy water was rising past the bottom of the glass. Michael put an arm around Him, pulled Him close, kissed Him.

Not too fast, not too slow; keep it simple, gentle, steady as the rain. The old ways were the best. Breathe in, breathe out. Lie. Survive. It wasn't like he had anywhere else to go.

"Don't mind if I do," he said.

There was the smile, the melting, the concession; another kiss, a long, slow, soft, breathless moment. He was safe, for now. He could sink down, for now. Let the water close over them and pretend he wasn't drowning.

Breathe. Breathe. Sooner or later, he'd forget to be afraid.


 

When Michael woke, it was still raining. The room was dim, lit by orange lamplight, smelling of tea. He propped himself up on his elbows, blinking the blur from his eyes. His tongue tasted like wet cotton. His stomach churned. He could've scoured himself with hot sand for an hour and still not felt clean.

"Evenin'," Lindsay said brightly. "Don't worry, you ain't slept all that long. It's just now goin' on seven."

"Huh," said Michael. It was about all he could manage. He rubbed his shoulder, digging his fingers into the scar tissue. His right hand was stiff, the forearm aching, like he'd been clenching his fist in his sleep. It wouldn't have surprised him.

"You feelin' up to supper? I could whip somethin' up real quick."

He shook his head. Fumbling, he moved his legs off the bed, one at a time. He wondered if Haywood would've hated these legs, hated their weakness and their dimpled skin, hated the scarring from all the sores that cropped up from sitting all day, every day for over a year. Maybe he wouldn't have cared, or would have complimented them as freely and as frivolously as he did the rest of Michael. It could be so difficult to tell where the line fell between his pretending that Michael was perfect and his outrage that it wasn't true.

"Michael?" Lindsay said, a note of worry in her voice. "Everythin' all right?"

"Fine," he said. "You mind makin' me a cup of tea?"

"You got it. Cream and sugar?"

"Whatever."

"I'm gonna put cream and sugar, 'cuz you ain't been eatin'."

"All right."

Once he was back in his chair, he felt a little safer. He wasn't stuck, even if he couldn't go very far. At least he still had that.

"You got any plans for tomorrow, or just more of the same?" Lindsay asked. "'Cuz we still got about a zillion newspapers to get through, but I know you ain't too keen on all that."

"More of the same," said Michael. He pulled up to the window and peered out. There was a thick fog, or maybe a thin rain, and passers-by were scarcer than usual. All of them walked with their heads down, collars turned up against the chill. Satisfied, Michael went to check the door.

"It's still locked," Lindsay mentioned as he went.

"Uh-huh," said Michael. He checked anyway. It was locked. "Where's Gavin?"

"Up under the bed. He was gettin' bored and I ain't wanna take him out before you woke up, so I gave him one of the bones leftover from the broth the other night."

Michael stopped and listened. There was, indeed, the faint sound of industrious gnawing coming from under the bed.

"Fine. You gonna take him out now?"

"Once your tea's done. You really oughtta eat somethin', if you can. Ain't no part of this that's gonna be easier on an empty stomach."

"I'll think about it."

"All right. You just let me know."

"Have you eaten?" he asked.

"Not yet. I was waitin' on you."

"Well, quit it. Don't want you starvin' on my account."

The kettle whistled. Lindsay busied herself with making tea. Michael rubbed the arms of his chair.

How unfair it was, that his dreams could leave him still unsettled when he woke. He would've called them nightmares, and that might have made a little more sense, only nothing about them was rightly nightmarish. If he'd told anybody else, they would've raised their eyebrows and patted him on the head and gone there, there. They were just dreams, just the tossing and turning of his soul while he slept, so why in the hell did they leave him feeling so sick and cold and shrunken?

"There's your tea," Lindsay said, putting the cup down on the table in front of him. Michael hauled himself out of his thoughts, blinking.

"Oh," he said. "Thanks. You gonna take the dog out now?"

"If you're all right bein' alone."

"I'm fine."

"Not in too much pain or nothin'?"

Now that he thought about it, he was in plenty of pain—the old boiling sensation over both his legs, a hard red knot at the base of his spine, a deep soreness in his arms and shoulders and neck. He shrugged and sipped his tea.

"Same old, same old," he said.

"Go ahead and have a dose of laudanum, then, it's been a good while since the last one."

"I don't need it."

"If you say so. How 'bout I take your bottle with me and run on down to the chemist, get you a refill?"

"Uh-huh, how 'bout you take my bottle so I don't go takin' unapproved amounts of laudanum, you mean."

"Michael," Lindsay began, gearing up for a scolding. Michael's stomach sank.

"I ain't mean that," he said. "Or—I did, but it was dumb. Uh . . . sorry."

Lindsay pursed her lips, breathed deep, and sighed out some of the tension in her shoulders.

"Thank you for that. So long as you got enough to be gettin' on with, I don't have to refill it tonight. I was just offerin'."

"Take it. I don't even know where the damn thing is."

"It's in your coat pocket, where it always is."

"Jacket," Michael blurted, his whole chest tightening with panic, disgust, dread.

Lindsay frowned. His face went hot. He rubbed the arms of his chair and looked somewhere else.

"It ain't a—it's a jacket," he mumbled. "Call it what it is."

"In your jacket pocket, then," said Lindsay. "Anyhow, I'll be back in half an hour or so. Unless you wanna come with me?"

He shook his head. Lindsay collected Gavin from under the bed—a difficult task, since he wasn't finished with his bone—and took him out into the drizzly night. Michael waited by the window until they walked past and out of view, Lindsay with her collar turned up and Gavin with his nose to the ground. As Michael let the curtains fall closed, the solitude closed over him much the same.

With shaking hands and rubbery arms, he returned to the table and drank the rest of his tea. He barely tasted it, although it was sweet enough to make his teeth ache. Sugar was one of Lindsay's hidden vices, only uncovered now that they had the disposable income to afford it. It hadn't been too hard to find the gold bar hidden under the floorboards of Narvaez's old house; the little bump in the doorway to the kitchen had been begging to be torn up for as long as Michael had lived there. Finding the second gold bar in Haywood's old house had been more difficult, and not just because Haywood was better at hiding things.

Michael shuddered, wrapped both hands around his teacup for whatever warmth it would provide. In all the mire and haze of that summer, his memories of Haywood's house were clear as day. It had been like entering a mausoleum, or a slaughterhouse. He would almost have preferred to do it alone, but Lindsay had insisted on coming along, so he'd had to spend the entire time looking over her shoulder as well as his own. The overpowering smell of juniper shavings had mostly covered the stench from the basement, but not all the way.

Four different times on the journey to New York, Michael had caught a whiff of juniper, and every single time, he'd dissolved into such a state of terror that it took a dose of laudanum just to get him breathing right again.Something deep in his gut remained convinced that any minute now, he'd look over his shoulder and see Haywood, grinning and bright and bloodthirsty.

Looking back on it, Michael couldn't believe he'd fallen for the innocent act, not just once, but twice over. Even with the weight of his own confession against him, even with the testimony of a survivor, Haywood had still managed to convince Michael to like him. Maybe that was part of the game, too—to see how far he could push and still bring it back, to see how much he could ruin and salvage again.

Or maybe it wasn't nearly so purposeful as all that, and Michael was blaming malice where stupidity would do. Maybe Haywood had honestly, sincerely thought that Michael didn't mind him being a monster in his spare time. Was it possible to be that deluded and still function in society? It seemed unlikely; much less likely, at least, than the idea that Haywood just liked watching Michael squirm. He'd showed that taste over and over, long before any confessions came out, long before Bernard Burns even turned up dead in that ravine. Haywood had always delighted in embarrassing him, in cornering him, in pushing him until he snapped. Michael didn't know how he'd put up with it for so long—how he'd thought it was fun—nor how he'd ever convinced himself to let go of his misgivings in the first place. He'd known Haywood was bad news from the moment he'd set eyes on him, and he should've known better than to mistrust his gut.

It wasn't going to happen again. No matter what came, no matter how it came, Michael wasn't going to fall for it a third time. Even if it killed him, at least he'd die in the light of the truth.

There was only so much hurting a body could take.


 

Over the following week, Michael and Lindsay made significant headway against the stack of newspapers. Though accounts conflicted wildly, there were a few points on which they mostly agreed. There had been some kind of cult or cult-like activity in Paris over the summer of 1887; this was mostly undisputed. Free and Gruchy had gotten mixed up in it, somehow or other, and Free had been kidnapped but rescued soon afterwards. The killings had continued, though, until a massive fire burned down some theater with every surviving cult member inside (or, to judge by Free's discomfort, nearly every surviving member). It was likely Free and Gruchy had been present for that, too, although there was a suspicious lack of first-hand information about it, especially when compared to how often Free was quoted about all the events that had come before.

"Somethin' ain't right with all this," Michael said, setting down his latest newspaper and rubbing at the headache behind his eyes.

"What makes you say so?" Lindsay asked.

"Ain't nobody mentioned Gabriel, for one."

"Could just be 'cuz she's a Black woman."

"Could be," he admitted, begrudgingly. "But that ain't all there is to it."

"It does seem pretty suspicious that the whole cult burned down all together. Nobody's said what caused the fire, neither."

Michael chewed his lip. Gavin came over and put his chin on his knee, hopeful. Michael fed him a pinch of scrambled eggs and ruffled his scruff.

"That ain't all of it, neither, though," he said. "Somethin' don't add up. They're hidin' somethin', and I don't like the size of it."

"You got an idea for how to find out what it is?"

"Best I got is talkin' to 'em. Free gabs like a woman and Gruchy's got a face you could read from a mile off."

"I don't appreciate that woman crack, but you can come along to tea-time with me today. There's plenty of talkin' that happens at those."

Michael made a face. "No thank you. I don't wanna do it on their turf if I can help it. You can tell them to come see us next tea-time, or somethin'."

"All right, Michael," said Lindsay, exasperated but playing along. "I'll see what I can do."

Chapter Text

In the week since Jones and Tuggey had arrived, Dan had learned an awful lot.

He'd learned, for example, that while a great many American newspapers had been happy to follow Jones about like his dog, none of them particularly cared where he'd come from or how he'd gotten to where he was. He'd learned that trying to get any information out of Jones himself was like talking to a brick wall, albeit one that was insulting you the whole time. It was impossible to tell if certain questions were less welcome than others, because all of them received identically gruff rebuttals. Gav found this delightful, Dan found it infuriating, and Gabriel just skipped the middle-man and focused her efforts on Dr Tuggey.

In this way, Dan had also learned that the good doctor was suffocating, and it was Jones who was using up all her air.

"I hope I ain't infringin' too much on y'all's hospitality," she said, on the third day that week she'd joined them for tea without bringing Jones. "I don't get too many opportunities to socialize these days."

"It's perfectly all right, we're more than happy to have you," said Gabriel. "I know how difficult it can be to adjust, transplanting overseas. It helps to have people who are already adjusted on your side."

"You're welcome," Gav said, raising his cup to her.

"I wasn't actually talking about you."

He drooped. "Oh. I thought we were at least marginally helpful, with the moving over from France bit."

"At least marginally," Gabriel allowed. "It was less of a move than from Nigeria to France, though."

"Is that where you're from?" Tuggey asked.

"Nigeria? Yes."

"What's it like? I don't know hardly anythin' about the place, though I might like to."

"It . . . wasn't to my liking," Gabriel said carefully.

Tuggey shut her eyes and nodded. "Gotcha. Great place to be from, I guess."

"Yes," said Gabriel, a smile curling at the corners of her mouth. "That's a nice way of putting it. I don't suppose you hail directly from Nevada?"

"Nope, came outta Ohio," said Tuggey.

"And what's Ohio like?"

"Oh, it's a great place to be from."

Gabriel's smile snuck out a little further. Tuggey grew one to match.

"If you don't mind my asking, why Nevada?" said Gav. "It seems an awfully long way from everything."

It took Tuggey a second to pry her attention off of Gabriel. "It is, and that's the why right there. Good doctors are awful sparse that far out."

"Ah, and I'm sure people will pay through the nose for one."

"You kiddin'? Everybody out there's broke, that's why they're out there. If I'd wanted to be rich, I woulda stayed in Chicago, or someplace like it."

"Is that where you went to school?" Dan asked.

"Mostly," said Tuggey, guarded. Dan held up his hands.

"I'm not trying to pry! I just wasn't aware there were any schools where women could get to be doctors, that's all."

"Obviously there are," Gav said. "Or else she wouldn't be one. Right?"

Tuggey unclenched a little. "Right. Though they don't take too kindly to that in the big cities. Out on the frontier, people'll take whatever they can get, woman or otherwise."

"I suppose it's an exciting place to be a doctor," said Gabriel.

"No days off, anyway," Tuggey sighed. "Couldn't go two hours without some fool gettin' stepped on by a cow or bit by a snake or gettin' sun stroke. Or freezin' to death, or puttin' somethin' they shouldn't in their mouths. And that ain't even to mention the fightin'. Those dumb sons of guns would try and beat each other in church."

Gabriel snorted, shaking her head. "Somehow, that's unsurprising. How long were you out there?"

"Close on seven years. Can't wait to get back."

"Really?"

"I like bein' needed. Plus, it's fun bein' the smartest person for a hundred miles."

Dan raised his eyebrows. "Don't let Jones hear you say that."

"He knows he's a dumbass," Tuggey said, shrugging. "I bet this's a pretty excitin' place to be a detective, huh."

"Dull as dirt," Gav said petulantly. "Eighty percent of the population is made up of fools, ten percent is damn fools, nine percent are too proud to hire detectives, and the last percent are desperate to get caught 'cos they can't stand people not knowing how bloody clever they are."

"Gabriel keeps very busy doing all the detective work Free thinks is too boring," Dan put in.

"Very busy," said Gabriel.

"Sounds about right," Tuggey said. "What do you do, Mr Gruchy?"

"Me? I do everything else."

"Strange definition of everything," Gabriel said under her breath.

"All right, I do whatever Free asks me to do. Better?"

"Certainly more accurate."

"He used to do everything else," Gav said. "Now they split it between the two of them."

"Plus all the dull work?" Tuggey asked, raising an eyebrow at Gabriel.

Gabriel smiled and tucked her chin. "And that makes you the very first person to notice, congratulations!"

"Damn, I sure hope they pay well."

"Better than they might. I wouldn't still be here if I was being treated too unfairly."

"Good. I was about to put my ass-kickin' boots on."

While the two of them continued this back-and-forth, Gav leaned over and spoke out of the corner of his mouth.

"I could've sworn there were four of us in this conversation, you know," he said.

"What, you're not relishing the opportunity to listen in? Gather some data?"

"It doesn't work if I don't get to steer."

"I think you're jealous."

"Jealous? Of what?"

"Of not getting to gossip with the ladies, obviously. Next time we do tea, we'll have Gwen round."

Gav punched him in the arm. "We absolutely won't."

"Who's Gwen?" Tuggey asked, politely interested. Gav stuffed his hands in his lap and Dan straightened up.

"My wife," he said. It still sent a burst of warmth through his chest.

Tuggey's eyebrows nearly leapt off her face. "Oh?"

"Yes. She isn't fond of being out in public, and she certainly isn't interested in getting tangled up in the detective business, so she generally doesn't come round the office. But if you wanted to meet her, you could always come by our flat instead of having tea here. I'm sure she'd be delighted."

"She would not," Gav hissed.

Gabriel leaned over and said something into Tuggey's ear. Tuggey's face smoothed with sudden comprehension.

"Right, I gotcha," she said. "Well, if she feels like comin' by, I'd be glad to meet her. Can't say for Michael, of course, he ain't much one for meetin' folks or bein' out in public, either. But we could always try. I'm sure Gavin'd love her."

"Yes, almost certainly," Gabriel said, her face pinched.

"Speaking of Jones," said Gav. "You ought to bring him by later, if possible. We've heard back from our contact in Paris, and Jones ought to be present for discussions."

"Wait, we have?" said Dan. "Since when?"

"Since this morning."

"And you've not said anything?"

"It would've been unfair to Mr Jones and Dr Tuggey."

Dan levelled a finger at him. "It's dramatics."

"No it isn't!"

"It is, and you know it. Gabriel, isn't it dramatics?"

"Oh, unquestionably."

Pouting, Gav folded his arms. "You're not going to get me to tell you what he said no matter how much you prod, so you may as well give it up. I'm waiting for Jones, and that's that."

"What a damn child," Tuggey said, rolling her eyes. "No wonder Michael likes you so much."

"He does?" Gav squeaked. "Er—ahem, that is to say, great—great minds think alike, don't they. So . . . there."

Tuggey gave him a good, long look, shook her head, and got to her feet.

"I better be gettin' back, anyhow," she said. "He gets nervy if I stay gone too long."

"I'll walk you to the door," Gabriel offered, rising as well. "When should we expect you back?"

"God only knows. Could be this evenin', could be tomorrow. All depends on how bad Michael's hurtin', and that changes by the hour."

"Well, feel free to drop by at any time. I'm nearly always here, and Free stays upstairs, so there should be someone to let you in."

"Much obliged," said Tuggey, tipping an imaginary hat to her. "Y'know, if y'all are itchin' to get on with this letter from your French friend, y'all might could come by our hotel instead of us comin' here. Makin' that whole trip to and from is awful hard on Michael."

Gabriel winced and clicked her teeth. "Of course it is. With all the detectives in here, you'd think we would have worked that out on our own. I'm sure it's no trouble at all for us."

"No, none at all," Gav put in. "We'd be delighted. We could accompany you back, actually!"

"Best not," said Tuggey. "Unless you want Michael to take your head off. Give us a couple hours to get sorted and settled, it'll go that much better."

"A couple hours, then," said Gabriel. "I shall count the very seconds."

Tuggey ducked her head, pressed her thumbnail to her lips, and hurried out. Gabriel shut the door carefully behind her.

"Why did I say that?" she muttered. "What sort of idiotic—why would I say something like that?"

"Ooh, I dunno, maybe it's something in the water, innit, Gavin," said Dan, scowling at him.

"What? What've I done?"

"He does?" Dan parroted, mocking. Gav turned red.

"Sod off, you pillock! It's not like that."

"No? Then what is it like, hm? Puzzle that one out for me, Detective."

"You're just jealous 'cos I find him interesting. It's Cassie all over again."

"Oh, God forbid, not another one. I can't take two."

"Speaking of Dubois," Gabriel cut in. She'd gotten her composure back in place, with no hint it had ever slipped. "I think it would benefit us all to know the contents of that letter, Free. Before we go to see Jones and Tuggey."

"Why? It won't make any difference."

"Considering everything I know about Dubois, I cannot bring myself to believe that's true."

"You'll hear it when they hear it. It's not as though I'm going to do anything without telling you first. Even if it's dramatics—and it isn't—it's harmless dramatics."

"No," said Gabriel.

"Seconded," said Dan. "Sorry, B. If it was anyone else, I'd let you have it, but Casimir? We need as many sensible heads up against it as we can get, and as quickly as possible."

"No fun at all," Gav grumbled. He withdrew a letter from his jacket's inner pocket, which he tossed on the table. It was at least four pages long. "Have it, then. Most of it's faff, anyway."

Gabriel picked it up and started reading, holding the paper with as few fingers as possible. Gav fidgeted, made faces, and—before she was even done with the first page—spoke up again.

"Er, Gabriel?"

She looked up, already dubious. "Yes?"

"Er . . . what did you say to Tuggey? About—about Gwen."

Gabriel softened. "All I said was, She's his sister." She hesitated, then added, "I hope that was all right."

Gav's shoulders slumped as he let out a breath. "Yes. That was perfect. Thank you."

With a nod, Gabriel got back to reading. Dan reached over and squeezed Gav's hand under the table.

"Sorry if I got a bit pushy," he said.

"You did, but I appreciate the apology."

"Sorry. I'll tone it down."

"Thanks."

"Oh, you have got to be joking," Gabriel burst out.

"Oh dear, what's he saying?" Dan asked.

Her only answer was to hand him the letter. He skimmed it until he found the offending paragraph. He put his head in his hand.

"I don't know what I expected," he said, "but somehow this is worse."


 

Scarcely two hours later, Dan and Gav and Gabriel arrived at Jones and Tuggey's quaint little hotel room. Jones looked even surlier than usual, although he did dredge up a sliver of a smile at the two Gavins fawning all over each other.

"Hey again," Tuggey said to Gabriel. "Long time no see."

"Too long by far," said Gabriel. The moment Tuggey looked away, she winced and kicked herself.

On the floor, Gav gurgled as dog-Gavin licked his face. Dan rolled his eyes.

"Free, could you please muster half an ounce of professionalism?" he said. "We are meeting a client at the moment."

"He doesn't mind, do you, Jones?"

"I don't give a shit if you wanna go makin' a jackass outta yourself."

"There, you see?"

"Except when we got shit to do. Doc said somethin' about some French fella, who the hell is he?"

"Mr Casimir Dubois," Gabriel said, dripping with distaste. "He's very rich, very well-connected, and very tiresome."

"Uh-huh. And y'all asked him for help?"

"We did, 'cos he's also very useful," said Gav, picking himself up and brushing the dog hairs off his vest. Dog-Gavin shook himself and started for Gabriel, who plastered herself to the door. Jones caught the dog before he got any farther and pulled him to heel.

"Whatever. He got any leads?"

"As luck would have it, though he's not encountered anybody who might be the Vagabond, he's got a lovely little idea for how to find him."

Jones' eyes narrowed. "Which is?"

"Well, the gist of it is, he thinks he can get Haywood to come to us."

He snorted. "The hell he can. If Haywood was gonna come to us, he woulda done it six months ago. We're s'posed to come find him. That's how the game works."

"Hear it out," said Gav. "He's well enough connected in the underbelly of Europe that he can pull a few strings here or there and get some fairly large players in motion. Famously evil people, you know, the sort who're too rich or too clever for the law to touch."

"What's he plannin' to do with 'em?" Tuggey asked.

"In brief?" said Dan. "Throw a party."

Jones looked like someone had just dumped a bucket of cold soup on him. He blinked twice, tongued his cheek, and clicked his teeth.

"Uh-huh," he said.

"Granted, it's not the most, er . . . subtle of plans, but Dubois isn't the most subtle of people."

"I think it's quite good," Gav chirped. "With such a high-profile gallery of rogues in attendance, it'll be a mark of prestige to be invited. The crème de la crème of criminals, you know? From everything we know about Haywood, he seems vain to a fault—they always are, that sort—and he'll want to inflate his own ego by rubbing elbows with the upper echelons. That, or he'll be picking out a victim."

"Y'know, that might could actually work," Tuggey said.

"See? Told you," said Gav.

"I never said it wouldn't work, I said it was a long shot," Dan retorted.

"But you meant it wouldn't work, you just didn't like to say so out loud."

"I would've said it if I'd meant it, and I didn't say it, so don't come in here with your told you so's like there's been a disagreement."

"Jones, you don't look convinced," said Gabriel. Jones glanced up at her, then returned to staring through the wall. He chewed his lip, some dark cloud haunting his countenance.

"Naw," he said slowly, his fingers fiddling with the fur behind dog-Gavin's ears. "Naw, he'll turn up all right, but that ain't why."

"No?" said Gav. "Why, then?"

Jones' lip curled, the corner of his mouth twitched. Dog-Gavin whined and licked his hand. Jones pulled on his ear, withdrawing from his reverie.

"Hell, 'cuz we're gonna be there," he said. "He's gonna know damn well it's a trap, he ain't stupid. But y'all better keep a close eye on your French pal, 'cuz I'll bet five whole dollars Haywood's fixin' to kill him."

"Surely not," said Dan, aghast. "I thought the Vagabond only killed outlaws?"

"He'll find an excuse," said Jones. "Come to think of it, everybody's gonna be wise to the fact it's a setup—you don't get a reputation by bein' an idjit. When the sonnuva bitch who did the settin' up shows up dead to his own party, that's gonna be one hell of an introduction for Haywood. Plus, there's gonna be a whole shitload of people the law's gonna go chasin' after while he slips right on out, 'cuz there's a damn guest list fulla criminals who nobody couldn't lock up yet. 'Cept Haywood ain't on that list—far as anybody but us knows, Haywood's dead—so who the hell's gonna go lookin' for him?"

"You are," said Tuggey. "To judge from experience."

"Yeah, that's my fuckin' point."

"That's an awful lot of leaps to make at once," said Gav, wrinkling his nose.

"Who the hell asked you?"

"Well, you did, when you wrote your little letter."

"I ain't ask you for no criticisms."

"Mm, not in so many words, but you did ask for my help and expertise, which really amounts to the same thing."

"Dr Tuggey, what's your opinion of the matter?" Dan asked.

"I just gave it," she said, eyeing him up. "De facto, I think Michael's prob'ly right. I don't like it, and I think he's fudgin' the details, but on paper, I agree with him."

"Do you? Or does he agree with you?"

"The hell's that s'posed to mean?" Jones demanded.

Dan turned to him, mustering his grit. "It means I think you're a fraud."

"Gruchy, you pillock," said Gav, punching him in the arm.

Something in Jones thunked down, caught like a gear, and spun up to a roar. His hand white-knuckled on dog-Gavin's bandanna. His eyes lit up like electric filaments. If looks could kill, Dan would've been incinerated on the spot.

"Somethin' mighty goddamn fishy goin' on with the three of y'all, ain't there," Jones said, in a voice like an oncoming train. "Y'all prob'ly thought I ain't noticed, on account of me bein' a fraud and all, but fraud or not, I ain't stupid. It ain't just that y'all two are fuckin', neither, 'cuz Gabriel wouldn't have no investment in that. Helluva thing, ain't it, that cult shit y'all got mixed up in."

All the blood drained from Dan's face. Something cold and squirmy awoke in the pit of his stomach.

"I—I don't see how that's—"

"Shut up," Gav hissed at him, taut with panic.

"Helluva thing," Jones went on, "about them grisly-ass murders, all clustered up likkat, and how y'all got so damn grateful for a letter that ain't hardly say nothin', and about half of it bullshit nobody in their right goddamn mind would believe. So happens, I met a couple of them cult sons of bitches, and they talked some real big shit about sacrifices and sponsors. Funny how well it seemed to work out for 'em—'til they turned up dead, anyways. Most back-bitin', back-stabbin', disloyal, dishonest pack of shitheels I ever did see, but I guess that's what you get when everybody's in it for greed. Funny how quick Famous Detective Free got home after bein' kidnapped. Awful funny how Famous International Detective Gavin Free won't talk about that fire."

Gav gulped. Jones' mouth curled up in a hard little smile.

"'Specially considerin' the fella who was s'posed to've done all that killin' got himself killt before he could go on trial. How damn convenient. How damn convenient, that the whole cult all got real good and dead before any of 'em could even get arrested. That's what we in podunk yankee cowboy town call mighty goddamn fishy. So really I only got one question for y'all, and then I'll be gettin' on my fraud-ass way: how many of 'em did you kill personally?"

Gav stared at him in whey-faced terror. Dan couldn't speak for the churning in his stomach, the constriction of his throat. Gabriel was still as a statue, her eyes flicking between the three of them.

"You have," Gav croaked, "no proof. Of anything. It's—baseless speculation, at best."

"Boy, ain't that just what an innocent fella would say!" Jones hollered, slapping the arm of his chair. "'Cept oh wait, no it ain't, that's the guiltiest fuckin' shit I ever heard. How many of 'em did you kill, Free? Your deal get better the more blood you spilled?"

"No!"

"You turn this real funny green colour when you're fixin' to be sick. Lookin' a li'l green now, Free, that perfect memory of yours dredgin' up some shit you'd rather forget?"

"Stop it," Dan snapped, stepping between the two of them. "Stop—"

And found himself looking down the barrel of a revolver the size of Death itself.

"Back up, Gruchy," Jones growled. At his side, the dog bared its teeth and hunkered down, bristling like a wolf in winter. "'Cuz I'll go on and tell you: it'll go through you and Free both from here."

"All right," said Dan, backing up slowly, shuttling Gav along behind him. "Just—put the weapon down. There's no need to escalate this."

"Nope," said Jones. "I'm hangin' onto it, 'cuz the last sonnuva bitch who told me to put it down damn near blew my brains out with it, and he ain't stopped bein' a thorn in my side ever since. Fool me once, and all of that shit."

"Michael, put the damn gun down," Tuggey said. "You made your point, and these dumbasses ain't gonna hurt anybody."

"Oh, like Haywood? Like everybody told me Haywood wun't gonna hurt nobody? Like you told me Haywood wun't gonna hurt nobody? I'm bein' goddamn merciful just by not havin' shot 'em yet."

"Mr Free was possessed, and he isn't anymore," said Gabriel.

"You what?" Gav cried. Dan elbowed him in the side, watching Jones' trigger finger and the dog's long, jagged teeth.

"No bloody sudden moves, you idiot," he hissed.

"I am explaining the situation, as I understand it," said Gabriel. "The business with the cult, Mr Jones, resulted in Mr Free becoming possessed by an entity of demonic nature. In the process of attempting to control the entity, the members of the cult who were present were killed and the theatre burned down, likely not coincidentally."

"By who?" Jones snapped.

"As I understand it, the possessing entity."

"You expect me to fuckin' believe that shit?"

"I don't particularly care whether or not you believe it, but I will tell you, Mr Jones, that if you shoot or otherwise harm my employers, I will have you arrested regardless of your reasoning."

"Uh-huh." He turned to Gav. "You all un-possessed now, or whatever the fuck?"

"To—to the best of my knowledge, yes," said Gav.

"Ain't that just a vote of fuckin' confidence. And you still ain't answered my question."

"For God's sake, Michael, let it go," Tuggey sighed.

"Like hell. I wanna know what he has to say about it."

Gav took a deep breath. His gaze flicked between the revolver and Dan's chest.

"None," he said. "I, personally, of my own accord, have never killed anyone."

"What about you, Gruchy?"

"I shot one of them in the head to save Free's life, which isn't a secret and never has been. The rest either killed each other, or died in the fire."

Jones chewed on this for much longer than was comfortable—but at last, he tucked the revolver back into its holster and wiped his palm on his trousers. The dog followed his lead, licking the snarl off its lips and un-bristling. It fidgeted, and Jones tugged on its ear.

"Still think I'm a fuckin' fraud?"

"You may colour me convinced, Mr Jones," said Dan. "But if you ever point that weapon at Free again—"

"It ain't loaded," Jones said, shrugging.

"It what?"

"You jackass," said Tuggey, slapping the back of Jones' head.

"Ow, the hell was that for?"

"What on God's green earth is wrong with you?"

"You woulda preferred me pointin' a loaded gun at 'em?"

"Why in the hell do you even have the damn thing if you ain't gonna load it?"

"One: to scare the shit outta folks who come over aggressive, and two: so's if they decide to shoot me, they gotta bring their own."

"Un-goddamn-believable," said Tuggey. "You just get worse and worse."

"Perhaps . . . we'd better pick this up in the morning," Gav said, wringing his hands. He was sweating, a faint tremor in his fingers. "When everyone's had a bit of time to—to get sorted and settled."

"So it ain't been all that long since the last time you had a gun pointed at you," Jones said, slipping back into that mechanical whirr.

"It's been less than six months, and I don't appreciate it any more now than I did then," Gav retorted.

"Huh. And how long's it been since you got Gruchy hurt by playin' pathetic?"

Gav went absolutely frigid.

"Good evening, Mr Jones," he spat. He spun on his heel and marched for the door. Dan followed, pressing his fists, and Gabriel fell in behind him. He could feel Jones watching, cold and hard and precise. He was halfway tempted to ask Tuggey to come with them, just to get her out of the blast radius.

Just before the door closed, Jones fired off one last parting shot.

"Haywood's gonna eat y'all for breakfast," he said, derisive.

Dan whipped round. Gabriel caught him before he could catch the door and fire back.

"Don't," she said. "Let him have it."

"I'm bloody well about to."

"Free's still walking, Gruchy. Would you rather go after him, or Jones?"

Though it took all the willpower Dan had, he turned his back on the hotel room and followed after Gav.

Chapter Text

At two o'clock in the morning, Michael was still awake, still dressed, still sitting in his chair and staring out the window. Lindsay had tried to drag him into a conversation, but he'd refused, preferring silence to more fighting. He'd already done enough damage letting his mouth get away from him during the meeting with Free and Gruchy.

Idly, he rubbed his right forearm, flexing his hand. There was a soreness in it that went down to the bone, like he'd gripped his Colt so tightly that it had worn out the muscles and strained the tendons. Maybe he had, too; in the blinding light of truth and terror, panic and spite, he'd lost sight of everything else. Maybe when the clockwork ran without him, it didn't know its own strength.

He glanced back at Lindsay—still sound asleep, with Gavin curled up at the foot of the bed. He turned back to the window, at the crowds finally thinned to a trickle and the orange glow of the street lamps. The sky was smothered under a grimy brown fog. No passers-by paid his window the slightest attention.

Assured that he was not being watched, he pushed up his right sleeve.

The scar was still there, pale and shiny, a canyon carved and mended in a single night. He ran his fingertips over it, feeling the raised edges, the twin scar on the back of his arm, the hairs that had never grown back. If he turned his arm just so, flexed his wrist and twisted it into the light, he could see the handprint. Two fingers wrapped around the top of his arm, a thumb around the bottom, the hand too small for the three to meet. He could almost smell the blood, the burned flesh and gunpowder. That scar was smooth, too, the skin stretched tight and dull, like. . . .

Leather.

The corner of Michael's mouth twitched. He clenched his hand and flexed it, working out the stiffness. He pulled his sleeve back down and tucked the arm close against his stomach. His shirt and jacket sat heavy on his shoulders, too warm even though the night was cold.

It was real, and it had happened. He had the scars to prove it. All the supernatural fuckery, all the ghosts and sponsors and deals, it was all real, and he had undeniable proof of it.

So what did that mean about Free and the fire at the theater?

He mulled it over for a good long while, staring out the window but not seeing anything through it. Almost any other story would have made more sense. They could have excused his deductions a thousand other ways, including just calling him an idiot and laughing, except they'd been much too shaken up to do it. He'd hit on something, that was sure. It was possible that his original conclusions had been right, and Free was a murderer and the other two were covering for him. If they'd been lying, though, it was one hell of a fib—but then, all three of them already seemed to think he was an idiot, so maybe they were just throwing stones to see how deep the well of his gullibility ran.

And maybe they'd never hear the plunk, because he was pretty sure he believed them.

Michael flexed his hand, feeling out the soreness, the tug and pull of the scars. It was real. It had happened. No self-doubt or delusion could take that certainty from him when it was burned into his skin. The Devil was real, and Haywood was a monster, and dozens of people were going to die if Michael didn't find him.

The back of his neck prickled. His eyes slid back into focus. Across the street, someone had stopped, a lone figure in the lamplight. He was tall, lanky, dressed for a funeral. Michael's heart kicked up to a thunder. The man's face showed in profile, and it was familiar. . . .

The head turned towards Michael. The other half of the face was a bloody pulp, blasted to bits, skull shards and brains and teeth ripped loose by the Colt's bullet. The mouth gaped, a hand raised to point at Michael, as a second figure shambled from the darkness, eyeless and bloody and furious—

Michael cried out. In the blink of an eye, the phantoms of Trevor and Alfredo vanished.

On the bed, Gavin leapt up and Lindsay stirred. Michael stayed where he was, unable to pry his hands off the arms of his chair, unable to catch his breath. Gavin ran over and stood up on the windowsill, barking at nobody. Lindsay sat up, rubbing her eyes.

"Oh, what, Gavin?" she mumbled. "God dammit, dog."

Still, Michael couldn't speak, his tongue nailed down in his mouth. His head spun. His pulse was deafening. He couldn't breathe. All the skin on his arms and back and chest was crawling, a thousand needle-teeth sinking into the back of his neck.

"Michael?" Lindsay said, distant, muffled. "Jesus Christ, what the hell—?"

He was shaking. He was going to throw up. He couldn't move. His ears rang, deafened by gunshots almost a year old. The air was thick with it, the blood and the mud and the lightning, the gunpowder, the freezing rain. He couldn't feel his fingers. His vision narrowed down to a tunnel.

Vaguely, he became aware of something licking his face.

Piece by piece, Michael came back. Gavin had his front paws on Michael's leg, whining, licking his chin and mouth. Lindsay had turned the lights on and shut the curtains. She had a hand on his wrist, two warm fingers pressed to the pulse. Her face was pinched, her hair mussed, the bags under her eyes heavy and gray.

Michael pried his other hand off the chair and grabbed Gavin's bandanna instead. The fabric was weathered, Gavin's fur coarse against the backs of his knuckles. Gavin took this as invitation to climb the rest of the way into his lap, still licking his face. Lindsay caught the back of the chair to keep them from tipping over.

"Michael?" she said again.

"I'm—yeah," he managed, but only just. Breathe. He had to remember to breathe.

"What happened?"

He shook his head. His tongue was thick and clumsy. He got an arm around Gavin and mashed him up against his chest, hoping the warmth would settle out the shivering.

"Night—nightmares," he said. "Just—nightmares. I think."

He hoped.

"Is that all," said Lindsay, relieved. "I thought it was your heart again. Or worse. You looked like you'd seen a ghost."

A high, crazed laugh slipped through Michael's lips. Gavin started, whimpered, and licked Michael's ear. Michael buried his face in Gavin's fur, sick and shaking. He needed a dose of laudanum, needed it more than the air in his lungs or the blood in his veins. Anything was better than this terror, this dread, this guilt. Lindsay put her arm around him.

"All right," she said softly. "Poor choice of words."

"Will you get me my laudanum?" he croaked, muffled by the dog.

"Are you hurtin'?"

"No, I just—I just need it."

"You can't solve all your problems with laudanum."

"Please."

She squeezed him and sighed. "No, Michael. I'll stay up with you, I'll even have a cup of whiskey with you, but I won't give you any laudanum if you ain't in pain."

He swallowed down the rage, the desperation welling up in his throat. Gavin fidgeted in his lap. He forced himself to loosen his grip.

"Fine, then," he said.

"All right. Why don't you come away from the window and—"

"No."

"Michael, ain't nothin' out there."

"I said no."

"Fine, fine. Whatever makes it easier on you. Gimme a minute to go and get your drink, then."

He nodded, and she moved off. Michael waited until he heard the cabinet open to stick his hand in his jacket pocket, hoping, praying.

His fingers brushed warm glass.

Keeping Gavin pinned in his elbow, he whipped the bottle out, unscrewed the cap, and emptied the dropper into the back of his throat. He pressed his face back into Gavin's fur to muffle his gagging. The bottle was capped and back in his pocket well before Lindsay came back with his drink. He let Gavin jump down from his lap and accepted the glass from Lindsay with trembling hands.

"You wanna talk about it?" Lindsay asked, settling down on the foot of the bed. Gavin hopped up and stood at her side, sniffing at her glass.

"No," said Michael. He downed half his drink, mostly to wash out the taste of laudanum.

"All right. You wanna talk at all?"

"Talk if you wanna talk."

"If I don't talk, I'm gonna fall back asleep, so I'm gonna talk. I ever tell you about the time Geoff got a cactus stuck to his nuts?"

Michael shook his head, had another gulp of whiskey. Lindsay settled in and took up petting Gavin.

"Well," she said, casting her eyes skyward, "it started, like it usually does, with this dumb mutt right here. . . ."

Half an hour later, with no warning at all, Michael passed out cold. He didn't wake up again until past noon the next day.

Blessedly, he did not dream.


 

Despite Michael's certainty that it was a bad idea, he found himself back at Free and Gruchy's office less than two days after they'd stormed out of his hotel room. Lindsay was not with him, although Gavin was. She hadn't exactly been happy to let him go without her, but once he'd told her it was for the sake of apologizing, she'd allowed it. She'd also promised to meet him at the office once she'd gotten done buying food and refilling his laudanum, which nestled neatly into the space between a comfort and a threat. There had been enough laudanum left to ensure he could get to the office without being immobilized by pain, although depending on the length of the conversation, it might not have been enough to get him back again.

He'd just have to hope Lindsay didn't get caught up anywhere.

The knocker was too high up for him to reach, so he pounded on the door with his fist instead. Since Gavin was already snuffling and wagging and generally working himself up, Michael went ahead and got hold of his bandanna.

It was a good thing, too, because Gabriel answered the door. Her face turned to stone as soon as she saw them. Her hand clenched on the doorknob.

"Can I help you?" she asked icily.

"Is Free here?"

"I don't know; let me check." She leaned back and called, "Mr Free, are you here?"

"Who is it?" Free warbled from within. At the sound of his voice, Gavin's head snapped up, his ears perked and his tail went straight out behind him. Gabriel tensed, but did not falter.

"It's Mr Jones," she answered.

There was a beat of silence.

"Then no, I'm not here at all."

Gabriel turned back to Michael. "I'm afraid he's not in."

"Free, you dumb fuckin' shithead, I came to apologize," Michael yelled past her.

"And I'm not here, so you'll have to come back later!"

Michael let go of Gavin. He bounded forward. Gabriel yelped and leapt out of the way. Gavin barreled right past her, barking like crazy.

"Whoops," said Michael, rolling in through the unguarded door. "Slippery li'l bastard. Hold up, I'll get him."

As expected, Gavin was all over Free, jumping and barking and wagging himself to pieces. Gruchy was on his feet, red and taut with anger.

"Just what the bloody hell do you think you're playing at, Jones?" he snapped.

"Told you, I came to apologize. Gavin, come!"

Both Gavin and Free started at the sharp command, landing in a tangle of limbs. Gavin clambered to his feet and trotted to Michael's side, ears back and tail down, making roorooroo noises under his breath until Michael patted him.

"This really is immensely rude of you, Mr Jones," Free said, clipped. His hair was all messed up. "Your apology itself warrants an apology, I'd think."

"I ain't got time to waste on you bein' a whiny li'l bitch about it," said Michael.

Gruchy turned crimson. "How dare you—!"

"And I haven't got the patience for you rolling in here like some damned locomotive with the wrong end of a cow strapped to the front," Free retorted.

"Oh, I got the wrong end of a cow? With all the fuckin' bullshit y'all made me plow through?"

"If you weren't such a dicky prick, maybe we'd have told you sooner! You're the one always whinging about relevance. Oh, durr, it ent relevant, I know everything and I'm not going to tell you any of it 'cos I ate my own bollocks for breakfast."

"Suck ten dicks, you piece of shit."

"You suck ten dicks!"

"Fine! Go and round you up twenty dicks and we'll have us a goddamn dick-suckin' hoedown, and maybe—"

Free burst out laughing, so hard that it folded him in half.

"Shut up! Shut the hell up, what the fuck are you laughin' at?" Michael snapped, more to keep himself in check than anything. Free only laughed all the harder.

"Dick—dick-sucking hoedown!" he wheezed.

"A dick-suckin' hoedown, you dumb fuck, you think this shit is funny? You think I'm jokin'? I wanna see you suck a dozen dicks, right here, right now! You want my respect, you gotta earn it!"

Free keeled over into Gruchy's arms, squeaking like a rusty hinge. Michael cracked up, unable to hold the line any longer. Gruchy looked around like the both of them had started speaking in tongues. At Michael's side, Gavin whined and danced, upset at being excluded from the merry-making.

"Ahh, all right, do your apology, then," said Free, wiping his eyes. He coughed up another laugh and pressed a fist to his mouth as though to stuff it back in.

By a similar token, Michael swallowed down his own chuckles and set his composure back in place. Once he'd gotten his face straightened out, he made a quarter-turn to face Gabriel, who was still pressed up against the wall next to the door.

"I believe you," he said to her. "These two assholes, I don't know about, 'cuz they're assholes, but I believe you. Which . . . I guess means I believe all this demon shit. Now I'll be goddamned if I know what to make of it, but what I do know is that we got shit to do, and . . . I need y'all for it. So I guess I'm sorry for gettin' shitty, and sorry for pointin' guns around, and I'd be much obliged if we could get the hell back to work. And—sorry for lettin' my dog loose at you, too, Detective."

Gabriel pinched her lips and straightened her blouse. "Your apology will be taken into consideration, Mr Jones."

"Fine." He turned to Free. "There's somethin' else y'all oughtta know about Haywood, and I wun't gonna say nothin' about it 'cuz I ain't think y'all would believe me, but since we already done brought up the demon shit, I might as well. He made a deal with the Devil so's nobody can kill him, exceptin' himself and God."

Free blinked. Gruchy's look of open-mouthed shock quickly turned into a wince.

"Lovely," he said.

"You're certain?" Free asked. "You know this for a fact?"

"I ain't got any better explanation for how he survived bein' shot, shot at, poisoned, beat to hell and back, and oh, yeah, hanged by the neck for six days."

"Six—but that's impossible!" Gruchy cried. "That's insane, nobody could survive that!"

"He did."

Gruchy wrestled with himself. He let out a breath and rubbed his face. "Then that's going to make things significantly more complicated, isn't it."

"You think?" said Michael. Inside, his heart was leaping like a fish out of water. It was impossible, it was insane, but they believed him.

"Oh, be nice, he's just come round to your side," Free said. "Gabriel, you know things about—religion and all. What's your take on all this?"

"I don't see that it makes a great deal of difference," she said carefully.

"You don't?"

"I was under the impression that the goal was to catch him, not to kill him."

"Well, but something will have to be done with him once he's caught," Gruchy said. "Apparently hanging him isn't the best option, and perhaps the firing squad wouldn't do too well, either."

Gabriel raised her eyebrows. "Are the prisons in England so dreadfully full that there's no room for one more?"

"Are you suggesting that a mass-murderer should not be executed?"

"I am suggesting that a careful and methodical approach to his execution is more likely to be successful than a more immediate one."

"Yeah, good luck arrestin' a fella who's already s'posed to be dead," said Michael. "'Specially without no evidence of him killin' in Paris."

"You don't know there'll be no evidence," Free pointed out.

"Especially if he's back to making coats," Gruchy said, and shuddered. "That constitutes fairly concrete evidence, I'd think."

Michael shook his head. "He got away with it for thirteen years. He ain't about to start slippin' up now."

"He already has," said Free. At Michael's scowl, he gestured excitedly. "By writing you! He thinks he's invincible. He's drunk on the celebrity of infamy. He wants to be found. He wants to be caught. It's the fatal flaw of every murderer."

Michael stared him down. "And he survived havin' it for thirteen years."

"Yes, Mr. Jones," said Free, smug as a cat in a larder, "but he didn't have me after him."

Chapter Text

In the scant two weeks since Casimir had written suggesting the idea of a party, he'd proven himself to be not only a proper social butterfly, but a miracle-worker.

Dan sat alone in the office, reading the guest list for the eighth time over. It had come by the morning post, along with a four-page letter detailing the venue, catering, and entertainment. Casimir had reserved an entire manor-turned-hotel on the outskirts of Chelmsford, partially to accommodate the guests and partially to ensure that no innocent bystanders would be present (apart from the hotel staff and the caterers, who he seemed to have forgotten about). An array of hors d'oeuvres, desserts, and finger foods—along with a staggering assortment of wines and cocktails—had been arranged for. A string quintet of notable quality would be playing for the evening, both for ambience and for dancing. He'd even sent along a handsome cheque to cover the cost of appropriate attire for Dan, Gav, Gabriel, Tuggey, and Jones. Taken all together, it must have cost him every last cent he had to his name.

The party was scheduled for the 9th of December, less than two weeks away now, and Casimir had been adamant that this date was set in stone. Because of this, Gav had taken off for the venue with Jones and Tuggey; firstly, to see if preparations were actually already under way; secondly, to see if Jones could even get in with his chair; and thirdly, to ensure he'd memorized the layout well beforehand. Dan and Gabriel had been left at home to work out how, exactly, they were meant to attend in any kind of safety, considering the guest list.

Which was, to put it mildly, insane.

There was Maximillian Shinburn, alias Baron Shindle, who'd stolen nearly a million pounds from American banks and bought himself a title in Belgium; his rival, Adam Worth, whom Scotland Yard had been gnashing their teeth over for a decade; Fredericka Mandelbaum, who'd been the making of half the thieves and safecrackers in Europe. There was Black Bart the Poet; there was the Little Redhead of Bala; there were the Twin Foxes, Albert and Ebenezer. There were French anarchists and Irish Republicans, German smugglers and Spanish guerrillas, Dutch dukes and Polish poisoners and Russian revolutionaries and more politicians than you could shake a stick at. Over a hundred people had been invited—some from as far as New York—when even two of them in a room together would make the hardest-boiled policeman weak at the knees.

"We're all going to bloody die," Dan muttered to himself. "Haywood be damned, we'll be dead the moment Gav's nose comes in the door."

At the sound of a quiet knock, Dan looked up. Gabriel was hovering in the doorway, her face pinched and her eyes red.

Dan started to get out of his chair. "What's happened?"

"No, no, it's—I just need to talk to you, if you've got a minute."

"All the time in the world. Come in, sit down. D'you want tea, or—?"

She shook her head. As though she might pull a muscle if she moved too fast, she seated herself across from him. Dan settled back down, heart in his throat. Gabriel shut her eyes, folded her hands in her lap, and took a deep breath.

"I don't think I can continue working on the Vagabond case with you," she said.

Blindsided, Dan took a moment to absorb this, and then another moment to think about how best to respond.

"I'm very sorry to hear that," he said carefully. "Is there something Gav or I could do to make it possible for you to stay on? 'Cos we really could use your help, but I also know you wouldn't be saying this if you didn't have a very good reason."

"I—I don't know. I thought it wouldn't be an issue, after Jones—after what Jones said about Free and the Théâtre fiasco, I thought there was no possible way we'd keep on working with them, but now here we are, and I haven't got a contingency plan, so . . . so I don't know."

"If it's something to do with Jones, I just want you to know that I'll be behind you one hundred percent. We'll kick him to the bloody curb if he's been antagonizing you."

She was already shaking her head before he'd finished. "It's nothing to do with Jones, except—obliquely, I suppose."

"Damn, there goes my opportunity to kick him to the curb. Oh well."

The smallest of smiles pulled at Gabriel's mouth. She wiped her eyes and took another deep breath.

"I suppose it would be easier for you to come up with possible solutions if you knew what the problem was. It—it's Dr Tuggey. I may have . . . I may have developed some highly unprofessional feelings for her."

"Oh, Christ alive, is that all?" Dan cried. "Gabriel, don't scare me like that, I thought someone had—I thought I was going to have to hurt someone."

"No, no, nothing like that! I didn't mean to worry you, I just—I haven't been thinking particularly clearly."

"It's fine, it's perfectly all right. I'm just relieved it's not serious. Or, more serious, I s'pose, er—so, problem solving, yes, that's the ticket. I may not be the best person to ask about this, though, seeing as I—well, I wound up marrying my employer."

"I thought you were partners?"

"Not at first. At first I was a suspect, and then—but that's a story for another time. Point is, I may have a slightly less dim view of client-detective relationships than . . . anyone else."

"Except perhaps Free himself."

"Possible, but he does have this tendency of assuming the rules don't apply to him. At any rate—is it enough to have us watching your back, or is it something where you need to not see her at all, or. . . ?"

"It—my issue with the situation is that I'm concerned my judgement is clouded. If she's in some way a threat, or being less than honest with us, I'm not sure I'll be able to act on it accordingly. Or even see it properly in the first place."

"I feel as though we've perhaps established that neither of those are the case. We've certainly been acting under the assumption that they're not for the past . . . oh, two weeks or so."

"Have we?" Gabriel inquired.

"Well, I have, anyway," said Dan, scratching the back of his head. "Couldn't see any reason why not to, if I'm honest. Even Jones isn't mad enough to have made that up, about Haywood and his deal, and he's come clean to us about where he got his fortune from, as well as why it took him so long to actually arrest Haywood—I can't say I'll ever like the fellow, but I haven't got any reasons left to mistrust him."

"He's certainly given us explanations; I don't know that he's come clean. Did he confiscate two bars of gold bullion from Haywood's safe after he was hanged? Probably. Do I believe that he had no idea where they came from or to whom they should be returned, and that he informed the authorities about them, and that he was allowed to keep them uncontested? No, I can't say that I do. Likewise, I believe that Haywood convinced all the major players that Jones was mad; I am not willing to accept that Jones himself was convinced. He may have decided to be truthful with us, but he hasn't decided to be honest."

"Ah," said Dan. "Well, colour me chagrined. Silver lining, though: now I can get back to being suspicious of Jones, hahah."

"The problem is that I can't make myself believe the same about Dr Tuggey," Gabriel went on, wringing her hands. "I can't afford her that same suspicion, and I know it's distorting my view of things. It makes her into a victim where she might otherwise be an accomplice. For all I know, she might be doing it on purpose! Maybe Free's cold enough to not have his feelings affect his work, or maybe he's just foolish enough to assume they won't—but I'm not. I can't be objective about this, and it makes me think I shouldn't be working on it at all."

"Gabriel, even clouded and subjective, you're still the best of us," said Dan. She looked up, startled, and he shrugged. "D'you honestly think Gav isn't a bit cloudy when it comes to Jones? He thinks he hung the bloody moon. I'm sure Gav thinks he's still perfectly objective about it, but Gav's an idiot when it comes to his own feelings. And look at me, I'm a gullible rube who you could string along with spider silk! I'll do everything I can to watch your back for you with Tuggey, and I can get Gav to do the same, but the bottom line is: we need you. The holes in our collective judgement are much smaller when you're about, even if they're not completely patched."

She turned her face away, biting her lip. "Stop, you'll make me cry."

"Sorry. All I'm saying is: I trust you to get it right. Maybe not on the first try, but—nobody ever gets it right on the first try anyway. If it's genuinely just your objectivity you're concerned about, then Gav and I have got your back. If that's not enough, then . . . well, then we'll take whatever you can give us. I trust your judgement, and that extends to your judgement on whether or not your judgement's off. Er. D'you think that sentence could've used a couple more judgements? I don't think there were quite enough."

That got a smile out of her, although it came with an eye-roll.

"I'd love to stay on," she said. "Right in the thick of it with the four of you, and that's exactly why I think I shouldn't. I can't condone using a case as an excuse to be—to be close to her, which is what I've been doing. I've got to get some distance."

"All right. D'you want me to break it to Gav? I can work round giving him a reason, if you'd prefer he didn't know."

"I'm sure he already knows. If you wouldn't mind being present for that conversation, though, I'd appreciate it."

"Of course. Though I'm not sure either one of us is going to be able to talk him out of bringing you along to this damned party of Casimir's."

"That's fine; I was planning to go. It's much too dangerous a gambit already without me thinning the odds."

Dan pressed a hand to his heart and sagged. "Oh, thank God for that. Have you seen the guest list? We'll be lucky if we live long enough for Haywood to kill us."

"Scotland Yard is certainly going to be excited about it. They could send two hundred officers and they'd still be stretched thin. I can't imagine Haywood will have any trouble coming or going."

"Ideally, that's what Haywood will imagine, too," said Dan. "Er . . . speaking of Haywood and Casimir, you know, I've been having some—perhaps, er, string-along thoughts, and ordinarily I'd offload them on Gav and let him tell me all the ways I'm being thick, but, d'you know, he's really not listening, and . . . I hate to ask you for anything, 'cos I know you already do sixty percent of everything round here, erm. . . ."

Gabriel's lips pinched together. She let out a slow breath through her nose.

"In this instance, I'm more than willing. I've been having some thoughts of my own concerning Haywood and Dubois, and Free has also not been listening to me."

"D'you think between the two of us, we might be able to get through his thick head?"

"I doubt it," she sighed, "but we might as well try."


 

For how slowly it had passed day by day, Michael's first month in England had flown by. It seemed like only yesterday he'd been discovering the torment of cobblestone streets and permanent rain—and now here he was, gussied up like one of the insufferable rich so Free could make sure he passed muster before the Party.

Which was tomorrow.

He tugged on the starched collar of his shirt, aiming to loosen the bowtie. The jacket fit funny, bunching up against the back of his chair, and the fat belt-like thing kept poking him right in the diaphragm. All three of his shirts were scratchier than horsehair. He was glad he couldn't feel anything below the waist, because it was all sure to be just as uncomfortable. The shoes alone gave him phantom pains—black and mirror-shiny, with low heels and round toes, made of patent. . . .

Leather.

His eye twitched. He shook himself, massaging his right forearm. The persistent ache had been getting worse over the past month, cropping up at first weekly and then daily and then almost constantly. Sometimes it was so bad that he could barely use his hand, fingers stiff and clumsy, like the whole limb had been left out in the cold. He wasn't sure what it meant, but he was sure it boded ill. They'd left Gavin back at the hotel room to keep from getting dog hairs on everything, which was feeling more like a mistake with every passing minute.

At the sound of creaking stairs, Michael snapped out of his musings. Lindsay was coming down into the main room of Free and Gruchy and Gabriel's office, wearing the single most ridiculous garment he'd ever seen in his life.

"Ah, there she is!" said Free, hopping up. "Oh, it's marvelous, look at you! I knew red would suit her, didn't I, Dan? I said red would look well on her."

"You did," Gruchy allowed, barely glancing up from his newspaper.

Free minced over and led Lindsay the rest of the way down the stairs, inspecting her like an engineer preparing to take his locomotive down a mountain. On the other side of the room, Gabriel got up, had a moment of panic, and sat back down again. Lindsay looked over and gave her a shy wave.

"Sannu, Oluwaseyi?" she said.

Gabriel made a noise that could have shattered glass. She clapped her hands and tapped her toes, grinning an enormous grin that lit up her whole head.

"You remembered! You remembered my language, I'm so proud!" She broke off into a tangle of foreign words, glowing. Michael caught one word, and it was Lindsay.

"I got no clue what you just said," Lindsay said, smiling.

"That's fine, I can teach you all of that, too."

"Sure, I think I'd like that."

Gruchy cleared his throat. Gabriel remembered herself and straightened up, putting her composure back on.

"Yes, well," she said. "Um. Perhaps when this party business is done with."

"Won't be long now," said Free, coming back around Lindsay's other side. "I think this will do. Could use some alterations here or there, but on short notice, it'll do. Jones, what d'you think?"

"I think it's dumb as hell," said Michael.

Free pouted. Gruchy raised his eyebrows. Gabriel bristled, but never got the chance to say anything about it.

"This comin' from the fella who looks like a pig in a shirt," Lindsay said to Michael, grinning her head off.

"Hardy-harr, go to hell. You look like a cow in a dress."

"You look like you rolled down a hill and crashed in a tailor's."

"You look like if a butcher's exploded."

"Yeah? You look like if a pig sty exploded."

Gruchy snorted. Free let out a distressed squawk and stomped his foot.

"Stop that at once! Dr. Tuggey, you look positively radiant, and Jones, you wear it tremendously. I think you're very handsome."

"Oh, you think I'm handsome, huh?" Michael said. "You, the fella who did all the pickin' out of clothes?"

"What d'you mean by that?"

"I meant what I meant. If you're too dumb to figure it out, that ain't my problem."

"But Jones," Free whined. "I try to be nice to you, Jones, I try to be complimentary, and this is the thanks I get?"

"The hell you want, a ribbon? Biggest suck-up in England? 'Cuz you sure as hell ain't winnin' nothin' for your taste in fancy dress."

"Good contender for the suck-up award, though," said Tuggey.

Free folded his arms and turned up his nose. "Fine! Next time you can pick your own clothes, and look like absolute garish messes, how d'you like that?"

"Done deal, 'cuz there ain't gonna be no next time," Michael said. "Anywho, I don't see you gettin' all gussied up."

"That's 'cos I'm not going. Check-and-mate, stew on that."

Michael's stomach sank. "You ain't goin'? Why the hell not?"

"'Cos I'm a famous international detective, and they're all famous international criminals, and I like having my blood and things inside me."

"Gotta admit, it's hard to miss a nose like that," said Lindsay.

"Why is it always the nose?" Free sighed.

"It's a big target," said Gruchy, deadpan.

"So it's just gonna be me and Lindsay and Gruchy and Gabriel, huh?" Michael said, rubbing the arms of his chair.

Free glowed. "Careful, Jones, you sounded almost disappointed for a moment there."

"Least I don't sound like a dicky bitch. Ooh, keh-full Jowns, cain't understand a goddamn word you're sayin'. Take the fuckin' dick outta your mouth before you talk."

"Aw, cheers."

"There'll be one more with us, anyway," said Gruchy. "I'm . . . also bringing my wife."

Lindsay raised her eyebrows. "You sure that's smart?"

"Smart or not, she insisted," Gruchy said, shrugging. "Besides, so far as I know, Haywood's got no quarrel with her, and neither has anyone else we're likely to run across. Nobody's going to have any idea who I am, 'cos nobody ever does—and doubly so for her."

"Haywood don't need no quarrel with her," said Michael. "She so much as looks at him funny, she's gonna wind up on a list somewhere."

"Mrs Gruchy is an intelligent woman," said Gabriel. "She'll be all right."

"Quite," Free said, clipped. "Since I can't be there, she's acting in my stead."

"That photographic memory run in the family?" Lindsay asked.

If Michael had been watching any less closely, he wouldn't have seen the twitch of hesitation on Free's face, like the first answer that came to mind wasn't the one he wanted to give.

"It does," he said. "So, even if Haywood doesn't make himself obvious to her at the time, I may be able to determine if he was there after the fact."

"If he's there, he'll be obvious," said Michael.

"Agreed," said Lindsay. "I can't imagine anythin' in the world he'd like more than a big ole shiny party with a bunch of vicious hypocrites. That's so much his style, it's practically tailored."

"Don't say that in front of Dubois, his head will swell up 'til it pops," Gruchy intoned.

"Speakin' of," said Michael. "We ever gonna meet this Dubow fella, or what?"

"Dubois," Free corrected.

"Whatever."

"He's not getting in 'til tomorrow," Gruchy said. "I'm sure Gwen or I could introduce you at the party, if you'd like. Though it bears saying: there's no un-meeting him, so tread carefully."

"You really are a pillock," said Free. "Monsieur Dubois is a lovely person, and I think you'll get on with him fantastically. Dr. Tuggey, you'll despise him."

"Golly gee, what makes you say so, Detective?" she asked, side-eyeing Gabriel. Gabriel bit her lip and hid a smile behind her hand.

"Oh, 'cos he won't like you. You're much too sensible and straightforward, and not nearly gullible enough to be fun."

"Cheers for that," said Gruchy.

"Sounds like a goddamn riot, can I take this frumpy shit off yet?" Michael interrupted.

"If you must," Free sighed. "Personally, I think it suits you much better than that silly cowboy mess you're always wearing."

"Personally, I don't give a shit. They gonna let my dog into that party?"

"I can't imagine so," said Gruchy.

"Figured. Free, you wanna look after him while all the shit's goin' on?"

Again, there was that flicker of hesitation. "I . . . reckon I could, if you wanted to bring him by before you go. But I don't know that it'll be necessary, I mean, hahah, surely he'll be all right on his own for an evening?"

"Y'all can keep each other from gettin' bored. 'Sides, I thought we was all plannin' on stayin' the night up there, so's nobody gets got when they're comin' home."

"Ye-es, yes, that was the plan, but, er . . . d'you know, I was planning on meeting you up there, really, in the morning, so—"

"Oh, good, then you can bring him along with you," said Michael. "Unless you got somewhere else to be tomorrow night?"

Free gulped. Gruchy's hands were tight on his newspaper. Lindsay folded her arms and took a breath like she was about to start scolding.

"Actually, I would prefer it if the dog did not stay in this office, even for one night," said Gabriel. "The smell, in particular, is going to linger, and I have to work here."

"Ah, right, of course," said Free, with considerable relief. "Then—sorry, Jones, I don't think I will be able to look after Gavin for you. This time, you know, in future perhaps it could be made to work. After all this party business. I get the feeling a—really a great many things will be resolved, really, after this party business. If all goes to plan and nobody dies, hahah. Always contingent upon that."

"Uh-huh," Michael said.

Chapter Text

Gabriel sat down and clasped her hands on the table, wearing her most serious face. Dan straightened up, and Gav—after a nudge—gave her his full attention.

"We need to talk about Dubois," she said.

"Oh, for Christ's sake, not this again," said Gav, rolling his eyes. "Look, I know you don't like him, but honestly, there's more important things to be done. I don't know why you're still on about this, it's ridiculous. You're usually so professional about these things."

"We need to talk," she said, "about the probability that he's the Vagabond."

Gav's jaw clenched. His lips pinched together. In his lap, his hands twisted together, fingers fighting the urge to scratch.

"It's zero," he said. "Moving along."

"B, I really think we ought to have this out," said Dan. "It's starting to look a bit—I don't want to say damning, but it's uncomfortable. Even I've picked up on it, and I'm thick as a post."

"You are thick as a post, and so is anybody who thinks Cassie is the Vagabond."

"The descriptions match," Gabriel said sharply. "The personalities match. The timelines match. You cannot tell me it's pure coincidence that Dubois popped up less than a month after Haywood disappeared. You've been putting this off far too long, Free. You're going to have us walk into a trap set up by the most prolific and gruesome mass-murderer of our time."

"If you paint anyone with broad enough strokes, of course they'll seem similar," Gav retorted. "At the basest and vaguest level, certainly there are similarities, but the details disprove the theory. It's always in the details. His handwriting is completely different to the Vagabond's, for one thing, and yes, I've checked. The Vagabond is immensely vain, while Cassie despises himself. If you're assuming the Vagabond is Haywood, it falls apart even further—Cassie's hand is well intact, not charcoal at all, and the order of his tastes in recreational vice is totally off. And, the biggest nail in this very small coffin: the Vagabond came to Paris to kill cultists. Cassie got involved with the cultists 'cos he was trying to get killed. No, even with the timeline coincidence, it hasn't got a leg to stand on."

"What about that selling his soul business?" said Dan.

"An unfortunate turn of phrase, he said so himself."

"I don't know if I told you this, but that foolishness of the heart you suspected? He told me it was over someone named Michael."

"You did mention it, and I still don't think anything of it. D'you know how many Michaels there are in the world? Bloody thousands of 'em. Could be anyone."

"Then did I tell you about his quote-unquote liaison with someone who looked uncannily like Jones?"

"No, you didn't. What about it?"

"Well—that's about all there is to it, but it's there."

"So Cassie's type happens to include people who look a bit like Jones, so what?"

"Why are you so adamantly opposed to considering this as a possibility?" Gabriel asked.

"I have considered it, and I've determined it isn't possible," said Gav, annoyed. "Bloody hell, I'm not so stupid and naïve that I'd be going along with this party business if I thought the Vagabond himself had planned it! Have a bit of faith, the both of you. It's insulting."

"You don't think you might be just a touch biased on the matter?" Dan suggested. "Just slightly inclined towards giving Casimir the benefit of the doubt?"

"No."

"I would respectfully disagree," said Gabriel. "And I say so because for the past month you've persistently referred to the Vagabond and not once called him Haywood, which I suspect is because Haywood sounds too much like Dubois for your liking. For goodness' sake, even the names are nearly direct translations of each other!"

"I've called him the Vagabond 'cos that's who he is. Haywood's dead, he's not our concern. Dan was absolutely right, that nobody could survive being hanged by the neck for six days."

"Have you heard Dubois talk? It sounds like the voice of a man who's had significant trauma to his laryngeal region."

"D'you know what it doesn't sound like, Gabriel? A man who's been hanged by the neck for six days, 'cos that man would be dead. I'm not saying Jones lied to us about it, necessarily, but he said himself that everything was blurry after Turney's murder. That's the one Jones witnessed, and then the rest of his case was circumstantial at best. Even if he had enough to get Haywood hanged—and rightly so—he's still got no proof that Haywood was ever the Vagabond. You've seen the way Jones jumps to conclusions. Or perhaps rolls to them."

"He wasn't completely wrong about the Théâtre business," Gabriel said.

"He was completely wrong, 'cos he thought I'd murdered two dozen people!"

"You did."

Gav went silent, shrinking back in his chair. Gabriel held her ground. Carefully, Dan put a hand on Gav's back.

"That wasn't Gav," he said gently, "and it's reductive and cruel to say so."

To his surprise, Gabriel backed down. "You're right. I'm sorry, that was out of line." She took a deep breath before continuing, "But I still don't think Jones is wrong about Haywood. Fudging the details, perhaps, but by broad strokes correct."

"D'you really think that, or d'you just like the sound of it 'cos Tuggey said it first?" Gav demanded. Gabriel flinched.

"All right, let's not—let's not go bringing all that into it," Dan said.

"I'm not the one who brought up bias, Dan," said Gav. "I know what I'm doing. I know what I'm about. Cassie is not the Vagabond, and I'll prove it to you tonight when we catch him at that damned party. Now, are there any other silly objections, or can we get on with it?"

There were none.


 

In the second it took Dan to cross the threshold of the venue, he went from feeling rather overdressed to feeling very under-dressed, hugely outnumbered, and massively outclassed.

The grand ballroom of the Hylands House was full to bursting with guests, each more colourful, more brightly bejewelled than the last. The clamour of conversation drowned out the string quintet. Golden light filled the space, blazing from gas lamps on the walls and no fewer than three chandeliers overhead. There were long tables laden with canapés and brochettes and gougères, pastries and tarts and gelatos—one of them boasting an ice sculpture of a swan quite large enough to kill a man if it toppled over. The bar was doing a bustling trade. It was unclear how much of the musical tinkling was due to glasses, how much to jewellery and coin, and how much to concealed weaponry.

Gwen's hand was tight on his wrist. He patted it, more to reassure himself than her. They were spared few enough glances as they entered, and soon had made their way to a nice out-of-the-way spot in the lee of the grand staircase. It was farther than he'd thought they'd make it—although to be fair, most of the guests were already preoccupied with each other, throwing round smiles so sharp they were causing collateral damage.

"Good grief," said Dan. "This is all a bit of a to-do, isn't it."

"You're not wrong," Gwen said faintly. "Dan, I don't know who half these people are. It's awfully concerning."

"If we're lucky, you won't find out. I assume at least some of them are—our people? Boys in blue, sort of thing?"

"Plenty," Gwen said distastefully. "They're rubbing quite a few elbows, many of them on the bar."

"Somehow, that doesn't surprise me. Seen Jones anywhere yet?"

"Not yet, but one imagines he gets lost easily in crowds."

"Very true. Seen Tuggey or Gabriel anywhere, then?"

She closed her eyes, flipping through her internal picture-book. "By the food, I think. Mostly obscured, but that red dress looks familiar."

"Shall we make our way over?"

Gwen hesitated. Dan took her hand and kissed it.

"Don't go getting cold feet," he said. "You've only been beside yourself about getting to meet Tuggey for weeks now."

"I don't know. What if it goes poorly?"

"Up 'til now, you were completely convinced it wouldn't, though you've yet to mention why."

"No, and I won't, either, 'cos it's not my place. But—Jones, though, you can't tell me you think Jones won't notice."

"I can't imagine that Jones will care. At worst, he'll roll his eyes at you and get back to business. Come on, love, the sooner we get this over with, the better. We have got a job to do."

"Right," said Gwen. She braced herself and let out a breath. "Right. All right, then. Let's—get it over with."

Dan kissed her hand again. "At your own pace, love. I'll be with you the whole way."

Together, they made their way through the crowd toward the hors d'oeuvres. Once they got up closer, Gwen spotted Jones—backed up against a wall next to a potted plant, scowling mightily at everything in sight. Gwen snagged a champagne flute off a passing waiter's tray and drained it. Still clutching the glass, she forged onward. When they got within twenty feet, Jones fixed his attention on them like a hawk.

"This is all a bit of a to-do, isn't it," Dan said glibly, gesturing to everything. "Glad you made it in, though, we were worried for a bit, what with the stairs and all."

"Uh-huh," said Jones.

"Er, right. But where are my manners? Mr Jones, may I introduce my wife, Mrs Guinevere Gruchy."

Jones gave her a once-over that hit all the most sensitive spots—wig, eye, nose, throat, wedding ring, chest—and neither extended a hand nor made any kind of expression at all.

"Uh-huh," he said again. "Y'all seen anythin' yet?"

"Oh," said Dan. "Er. N-no, I don't think so, we've only just arrived. We've—we've not even seen Cas—Monsieur Dubois yet, actually."

"Whatever. Y'all do see anythin', don't go chasin' it. Last thing you want is to wind up someplace without no witnesses."

"We'll bear that in mind, thank you," Gwen said. She cleared her throat before continuing in a slightly higher register. "I take it you haven't seen anything, either?"

Jones gestured to the crowd, annoyed. At best, he came up to the height of the average navel. "What the hell do you think?"

"You've picked out a good spot for watching, at least," she said. "Out of the way, you know, not easily seen."

"If he's here, he knows exactly where I am," Jones said grimly.

"Right?" said Dan, uncomfortable. He glanced back over his shoulder and wiped his palm on his trousers. "Well. We'll keep our eyes open, then, and—let you know what we see, I s'pose."

Jones grunted an acknowledgement. Helpless, Dan turned to Gwen, who shrugged.

"Er, best of luck, then," she said.

"You talked to Lindsay yet?" Jones asked.

"No? Not yet, anyway."

"Huh. You might should."

"D'you think she's seen something?" Dan asked. Jones gave him a disparaging look.

"I was talkin' to the missus, numb-nuts," he said, and Gwen lit up so bright that Dan couldn't even be annoyed about it.

"We were just looking for her," Gwen said. "Any idea where she's gone?"

Jones cocked a head in the direction of the ice sculpture. "Headed that way last time I saw her. With Gabriel, 'course, 'cuz somebody done st—glued 'em together at the hip."

"They certainly do stand next to each other," said Dan. "Gwen, shall we see if we can find them?"

"In the absence of any better ideas, I think we shall. Be seeing you, Jones. Do take care."

"Yeah yeah," said Jones, polishing the arms of his chair with his palms. "Don't get your dumb ass killt, or whatever."

"We've made it this far, it'd be a shame to break the streak now."

"Uh-huh. Hey, Mrs G?"

"What?"

With a look of smugness that rivalled Gav's worst, Jones whispered, "Crooked."

Gwen kicked the wheel of his chair. "It is not!" she hissed.

"All right, come on, enough of that," said Dan, dragging her away while Jones snickered. "Last thing we need is a spectacle."

"B, I'm not crooked, am I, B?" Gwen asked.

"No, of course not."

"You're not even looking!"

"I don't need to look, B, 'cos I know you weren't crooked when you came in and you're not crooked now, either."

"Just check, it goes off sometimes. You could just check."

Dan took her face in his hands and looked right into her eyes.

"It's fine, love," he said. "It's always going to be a bit off, but nobody's going to notice."

"Jones noticed."

"B, Jones would notice if a fruit fly had its hat on backwards, all right? No one else can tell, I guarantee you."

Gwen pouted. Dan kissed his own fingertips and pressed them to her lips. She batted his hand away, blushing.

"Stop that. We're meant to be finding Tuggey and Gabriel."

"So we are. Let's see—" He stood on his toes and peered over the heads of the crowd. A flash of red caught his eye down by the end of the tables. "Ah! And there they are, as promised."

Once again, Gwen and Dan forged through the crowd, which was considerably thicker near the food. There were a lot of incautious elbows and nervy pardons, funny looks and gracious deflections. They made it down to the end of the tables unscathed, and found Gabriel and Tuggey in a relatively sparse corner away from the bar.

"Well!" Dan began, blotting his forehead with his kerchief.

"If you say that bloody to-do line again, I'll kick you," Gwen whispered.

"What a party, eh?" Dan said instead. "Glad we found you, it's a circus in here. You're looking radiant, the both of you."

"Thanks," said Tuggey. "Oluwaseyi carries it better than I do, though."

"Nonsense," Gabriel said, elbowing her.

"You look like you're enjoyin' it more, anyways," said Tuggey. "And is this Mrs Gruchy?"

"Ah—yes. Dr Tuggey, may I introduce my wife, Guinevere."

Gwen held out a hand. Tuggey shook it.

"Pleasure to finally meet you," she said. "Mr Gruchy's told us an awful lot about you."

"Perhaps not quite so much as he should," Gwen said demurely. "Then again, there's some news that's dreadfully difficult to break, isn't there?"

Tuggey's eyes went wide. Her face split into a tremendous grin. She clapped Gwen on the shoulder like she'd just won a prize.

"Well, hell, ain't that the truth!" she cried. "Now I really wish I'd got to meet you sooner, damn!"

Dan shared a puzzled glance with Gabriel. He raised an eyebrow. She made a face and shrugged.

"I know, but there's always a certain anxiety," Gwen was saying. "I wasn't sure, you know, between Jones and everything, and there was never a good time, and of course I didn't want to bring it up 'cos it would've been terribly awkward—"

"Honey, and I'm glad you didn't. Woulda scared me to death. I wish we could chat about it, but—maybe when we ain't got so much else to worry about."

Gwen sobered, nodding. "Tomorrow, maybe," she said. "If nothing's gone horribly wrong."

"Big if," Tuggey sighed.

"Er, speaking of which," said Dan, sidling back into the conversation. "I don't suppose either of you have seen anything yet?"

"Plenty, but nothing I'd call relevant," Gabriel said. "Or at least, Lindsay's not mentioned anything."

"Not a thing, yet," said Tuggey. "We been keepin' our eyes on Michael, figurin' that's where the uh . . . the action was gonna happen, if it's gonna happen."

"There's been no sign of Dubois, either," Gabriel said pointedly.

"Yes, well, I'm sure he's just waiting to make an appropriately dramatic entrance," said Gwen, with an imperious flick of the hair. "In fact, if you two are content keeping your eyes on Jones, I think Dan and I ought to go looking for him. Wouldn't want someone else to find him first."

"Sure wouldn't," said Tuggey. "'Specially with Michael's accountin' of the plans for the evenin'."

"Precisely," said Gwen. "And on that note: we'll check in with you two and Jones until or unless something happens."

"That, at least, I agree with," Gabriel said. "This crowd is so thick, we'd be hard-pressed to see anyone unless they were already right next to us."

Tuggey shivered and put a hand on Gabriel's arm. "Don't, I'm already feelin' claustrophobic."

"Sorry."

With a few more pleasantries exchanged, Dan and Gwen moved off into the crowd for the third time. Dan stayed on Gwen's blind side, their arms linked lest the crowd pull them apart. He wasn't sure how long they wandered, but eventually the currents took them to a patio area, where a pair of braziers fended off the evening chill and the crowd was not so impossibly thick. Here, at last, they struck gold—or rather, the gold leapt up to meet them, though it was dressed all in black.

Casimir spread his arms wide, sailing across the patio with a grand smile upon his face. His attire could only be described as impolitely dramatic. There was so much brocading on his vest that it was nearly a corset. His jacket was properly Shakespearian. It had a cape.

"My dearest Guinevere," he effused, sweeping up her hands. "It is too long since I have seen you. And your dress, magnificent! Who has made it for you? He must be a genius, an artiste, a visionary!"

"English, Cassie?" said Gwen, blushing rose-pink. Casimir sparkled and kissed both her cheeks.

"I study, I plow endlessly the fields of my mind, and I learn," he said. "I can work very hard when I wish—but only when I wish, n'est-ce pas?"

"Mais bien sûr," Gwen said, cracking a smile.

Casimir held up a hand, frowning. "No no no, only English, please, I insist. I do not work so hard only to come and speak in French. It is good practice, and I am always needing more practice." He turned a twinkling eye on Dan and added, "And, besides, I will talk less."

"Sold," said Dan. He shook Casimir's hand. "Hello again, Casimir. You're looking well."

"Not so! You must not lie to me if you will do it poorly, Daniel."

"Then you're looking sober."

Nodding, Casimir wagged an approving finger.

"Have you met Mr Jones yet?" Gwen asked. "He's just inside, down by the canapés. We could introduce you."

"Indeed I have met him, yes," said Casimir. "Only briefly, but met nonetheless."

"Oh, of course you have, silly me. It's your party, after all."

"Not at all, not at all. There are many more things to feel much sillier about; this by comparison is nothing."

"Speaking of silly things, will Lucien be making an appearance?" Dan asked.

Casimir's smile faded like a candle starved of air. He put his hands in his pockets and looked somewhere else.

"I do not know," he said, and shrugged. "I hope not, but I make no guarantees."

"We can always hope," Dan sighed.

Leaning in and speaking quietly, Gwen said, "Has anyone else uninvited made an appearance?"

"Not to my knowledge," Casimir said out of the corner of his mouth, watching the bright windows of the house. "But I will keep my eyes open on the weather."

"You mean keep a weather eye open?"

"Is that how it is said? Then I will keep my weather eye open."

"Close enough. I think we'll be mingling as well. And, er, Cassie?"

"Yes, my sweet?"

"Stay safe, won't you? You're in a precarious position here, and I'd—well, I'd hate for anything to happen to you just 'cos you were trying to help us."

Casimir smiled, clasped her hand, and kissed her knuckles.

"I promise you, for me there is nothing to fear from the little Mr Haywood," he said.

"Jones doesn't think so."

His smile grew, his eyes twinkled. "I think the mind of Mr Jones will change before the night is done."

"Don't do anything stupid," Dan warned.

"Daniel, I am shocked and insulted," said Casimir. "I? Do stupid things? Surely you have me mistaken for someone else."

"That's not even remotely reassuring."

"No? Then your mind I will change, also. Guinevere, I am so glad I am afforded the chance to see you in your lovely dress. I hope it treats you well tonight."

"I'm glad you got to see it, too, Cassie. All your hard work didn't go to waste after all."

"It rarely does so. Au revoir, my friends; we shall reconnoiter in the morning, yes?"

"If not sooner," said Dan.

"Indeed. Enjoy the party, take care!"

Blowing effusive kisses, he drifted backwards into the crowded ballroom and was lost. Gwen shook her head, smiling.

"Five quid says he's taken Jones to bed by morning," she said.

"No, d'you know what, I'll take you up on that," said Dan, folding his arms. "Five quid says he tries it, and Jones knocks his bloody lights out."

"Done."

They shook on it.

"I'll tell you something else," said Gwen, turning a sly eye on Dan. "I told you he wasn't Haywood."

"Yes, dear, you did," Dan sighed. "And for once, I'm very glad I was wrong."

Chapter Text

Michael was getting nowhere at blistering speed, and it was starting to drive him crazy.

The crowd was a never-ending storm of gaudy clothes and gaudier jewelry, haughty faces that gawked at him shamelessly. He felt like some freak in a carnival, some cheap roadside attraction to be mocked and jeered at. He didn't belong here, washed up like driftwood in this sea of flashy, hateful, able-bodied people.

It might have been bearable if any of them had been Haywood, but it had been over an hour, and there had been no sign of him. It didn't help that Lindsay and Gabriel had abandoned him, that Gruchy and Free had vanished into the crowd without so much as a backward glance. He had to wonder if any of them were actually looking for Haywood, or if they'd just taken the opportunity to enjoy themselves for once, without Michael around to spoil it.

Or maybe they had found Haywood, or Haywood had found them. Worse yet, maybe Haywood wasn't even at this stupid party. Maybe when Michael and Lindsay got back to their hotel room tomorrow, Gavin wouldn't be waiting for them.

Not all of him, anyway.

Without thinking, Michael fished the laudanum out of his pocket and doped his drink with it. He was halfway through the glass when the bitter taste caught up with him, when he realized what he'd done. His heart skipped a beat. He struggled to fill his lungs.

Stupid, stupid, stupid. He couldn't afford mistakes now. If he passed out in his chair, how long would it be before Haywood showed up and wheeled him away, and nobody any the wiser? How long until the ogling crowd closed in?

Hell with it—he wasn't going to just sit here like a busted wagon, waiting for the looters and thieves. If people were going to stare, he'd stare right back. If they were going to say nasty things about him, they could do it from within punching range. He had a job to do, people to save, a killer to catch, and he'd be damned if a room full of judgmental assholes was going to stop him. Decided, he slugged back the rest of his drink, dumped the glass in the potted plant next to him, and pushed off.

It was hard going, for more reasons than one. Almost no one got out of the way when they saw him coming, and most wouldn't even move when prompted. 'Scuse me didn't work, and move didn't work, and hey, jackass, fuckin' move also didn't work. A sharp elbow to the back of the leg earned him affronted cries and bared-teeth scoldings, which he ignored. More than once, he was pushed out of the way like so much furniture. A fistfight very nearly broke out when he ran over a woman's toe and she pinched his ear like he was a misbehaving child—the only reason it didn't is because someone physically pulled her out of arm's reach before Michael could take a swing. Being close up didn't stop people from talking about him, either, like they couldn't care less whether or not he heard. Within minutes, he desperately missed his quiet corner by the potted plant and was so completely disoriented that he was sure he'd never be able to find it again.

Someone put their hands on the back of Michael's chair for the hundredth time. He went to wrench at his wheels when the smell of juniper washed over him. Every gear and spring inside him lurched out of place. His heart stopped. His lungs collapsed. Time slowed to a crawl. The crowd went silent. There was breath against his ear, a hoarse whisper that froze him solid.

"Bonjour encore, mon chéri."

Everything went blurry. The room spun, all glimmer and shine. The smell of juniper faded and his breath returned. His heart stuttered back to life only to thunder in his ears. His hands were clumsy on the wheels. The crowd swirled like a sandstorm, towering over him, blinding and choking and—

There.

It was only a glimpse, but Michael knew. It was in the set of his shoulders, the tilt of his head, every fluid step, every gentle motion. Michael followed, single-minded, abandoning all pretense of courtesy and never, never, never losing sight of him. . . .

There was a side door half-hidden behind the musicians. Michael saw him slip through it. He didn't take a single breath as he forged through the crowd, didn't blink once as he ducked behind the stage, lost the sound of his own heartbeat as he shoved the door open and struggled his way through it.

It was dark outside, misty but no longer raining. The smell of cold, wet earth rose up all around him. Moonlight spilled down through tattered clouds. Slick black trees pressed close against the wall, letting in only slivers of lamplight from the front drive.

And there, not more than ten paces away, flesh and blood and breathing again, was Haywood.

He leaned his shoulder up against the wall and smiled. His eyes sparkled. His clothes were velvet-black, well-tailored. He was wearing gloves, also black, but not leather. He'd cut his hair. He was hollowed out, thinner, paler, like he hadn't been sleeping well or eating right. He looked—

Fine. He looked fine.

"Howdy," he said. He was hoarse, half-strangled even after so much time out of the noose.

"What the hell are you doin' here?" Michael croaked. His voice wouldn't come out any louder. He was shaking. He couldn't breathe.

"Waitin' on you." His face softened and he added, "I knew you'd come."

"Wellp," said Michael. "Here I am."

Rain trickled down the drainpipes, dripped from the trees. Faint music drifted through the wall. Wheels crunched on gravel as somebody's carriage went down the drive. Their breaths fogged in the air. Michael watched Haywood, and Haywood watched right back, and neither of them moved.

"What do you want?" Michael asked.

"Bless your heart," Haywood said. Michael's hands clenched on his wheels. "I already got what I wanted. Question is: what do you want?"

"I wanna go home, you sonnuva bitch," Michael snapped. "I wanna go home, and live my dull-ass life in my dull-ass town, and not have nothin' excitin' happen to me ever again. I wanna be able to sleep at night. I wanna go a goddamn week without havin' to think about you."

"I gave you six whole months," he said, wounded.

"Like it was a fuckin' gift? Fuck you. I wish I'd never had to see your goddamn fuckin' face again."

"Then why did you come?"

"'Cuz somebody had to!"

Haywood chewed his lip and fiddled with something in his pocket—undoubtedly a knife. Michael kept his rage clenched between his teeth, not daring to let it slip away.

"Right now, in this moment," Haywood said softly. "What do you want?"

Clouds scudded over the moon, plunging them into darkness. Michael looked as hard and as deep as he could into those unblinking eyes, searching for any hint of a spark, any glimmer of hellfire. A terrible weight pressed on his chest. A smooth river stone rose up into his throat. His hands trembled and his bones ached with cold and somehow, somehow, he'd always known it would come to this.

"You," he said.

Haywood crumpled like he'd been punched in the gut, staggered to him, tripped and tumbled right into his arms. Michael caught him, and he was real and warm and alive, and before anything else could be done, Michael yanked him in and kissed him.

Haywood's knees went out from under him. Michael's whole soul caught fire, blazing hot and blinding. He gasped like a drowning man, grabbed a handful of Haywood's hair and held on for dear life even as Haywood held him. Every breath was bliss, every touch was ecstasy, the taste of his lips and tongue sweeter than summer wine. Michael tore to shreds on the sheer relief of being near to him again.

He pressed the muzzle of the Colt to Haywood's heart and pulled the trigger.

Click, click, click, click, click, click.

Haywood didn't even break off until all six shots had failed. He kept his forehead against Michael's, his hands tight on his shoulders.

"Sorry, chéri," he said, breathless and laughing. "'Fraid it's still workin'."

Michael shrugged. "Worth a shot."

"Or six."

"Cain't nobody say I ain't try."

They fell back together again. Michael stuffed the Colt back in its holster, the better to hang on to Haywood with both hands. His right arm was so sore he could barely even do that. He had to keep his head above water, his eyes above the fog. Haywood clung to him, desperate, trembling, pliable. Before Michael could decide which way to twist, Haywood decided for him.

"You wanna—"

"Right now," said Michael.

"My room, or yours?"

"Mine."

Haywood grinned. "Yessuh," he said. "I most surely am."


 

The first time Haywood said his name, it was an accident; slipped in a whisper-gasp through unattended lips, loosed into the world like a gunshot, like a trigger pulled by an incautious finger. It struck Michael right in the heart, shattered his ribs and his resolve and left him raw and bleeding.

The second time Haywood said his name, it was a prayer, more honest than any please or thank-you, and more desperate, and more relieved. It rang of church-pews and hymnals, of power and glory, of a love so great and terrible that to know it was to be driven to his knees.

The third time Haywood said his name, it was a plea, and Michael obliged.

"Fuck, Ryan," he said, like the blood spit out after a beating, like the taste of bitter laudanum.

As it happened, it was also exactly what he proceeded to do.


 

After two hours seeing neither hide nor hair of Haywood, Dan was finding it difficult to stay focused. The party was in full swing, the crowd showed no sign of clearing out any time soon, and the smell of strong liquor permeated the space to such a degree that it was making his head spin and his throat dry out. Since Tuggey and Gabriel had posted up by the bar, Dan had elected to remain behind while Gwen checked in with them. It wasn't helping as much as he'd hoped it would; without Gwen on his arm to keep an eye on him, the temptation to snag a passing champagne flute and drain it was almost overwhelming.

"Stay sober or you will literally die," he muttered to himself, pressing his fingernails into his palms. "That's what's at stake here, Gruchy, you pillock. Remember what happened last time. Stay sober or you'll die."

It garnered him some odd looks, but at that point he was wound too tight to care much. The noise of the party covered most of it anyway.

Blessedly, Gwen returned before temptation overwhelmed him. He took her arm and kissed her cheek, which earned him a gentle slap in return.

"It's not polite to do that in public, Mr Gruchy," she scolded.

"Sorry. I've missed you terribly."

"I've been gone five minutes."

"And I've missed you terribly for all of them. Any news from the other ladies?"

"None," Gwen said sourly. "No sign of our uninvited guest, nor any sign that there might be a sign of him. I think Gabriel and Tuggey have pretty well decided he isn't coming, and Jones most likely has, as well, considering he cleared off half an hour ago."

"He did?"

"Oh yes, saw it myself. Can't blame him, though, really, considering."

"What about Casimir? Shouldn't we be keeping an eye on him?"

Gwen swished her skirts. "No, not at all, I'm sure he's very safe. That's the thing about Jones clearing off, or didn't I mention? Cassie left with him."

"Wait, left with him, or left with him?"

Gwen's only answer was to waggle her eyebrows. Dan rolled his eyes, heaved a tremendous sigh, and dug out five pounds.

"Thank you," said Gwen, plucking her winnings from his hand. "And you can go and retrieve them in the morning, too."

"No, come off it!"

"What? I'm only giving you a chance to earn your money back, B! Maybe I'm wrong, eh? How'll you know unless you go and check?"

"Un-bloody-believable," Dan muttered, stuffing his hands in his pockets. "Always sticking me with the dirty work. It's disgraceful."

"Look at it this way: if we find our man tonight, you won't have to look after Cassie or Jones."

"Right, now I'm motivated to catch the bastard. Enough of keeping a weather-eye open, I'm going hunting."

"Sore loser," she teased. "Shall I come with you?"

"I couldn't bear to be without you."

She pinched his cheek. "Aw, bless."


 

Though they mingled for another half hour, neither Dan nor Gwen saw anything of particular note. Now that sufficient drink had been consumed by the attendees, chatter and gossip turned to dancing, most of it boisterous and ill-conceived. The ice swan was smashed, to a great deal of raucous cheering. Gwen coaxed Dan into one dance, and at one point he was certain he saw Tuggey and Gabriel engaged in much the same manner, laughing over their own clumsiness. He did not see Jones or Casimir anywhere. As the fear of imminent death and desecration faded, a dread of the dully awkward morning filtered in to replace it. Gwen, too, was flagging by then, though probably more from disappointment than anything else.

"When do we call it, B?" Dan asked, murmuring close in her ear while they danced.

"I don't know," she sighed, resting her head on his shoulder. "Maybe when everyone's gone home. Maybe whenever we like. The boys in blue ought to be keeping an eye on the place all night, so it's not like we'll miss anything."

"We'll play it by ear, then."

"I really thought it would work, Dan. I really thought this was our ticket."

He kissed her temple and gave her a squeeze. "Nobody gets it right on the first try, B. We'll work something else out."

The music drew to a close. The movement of the crowd slowed, broke up, like a flock of birds dispersing over a field. Just as Dan was beginning to wonder why another piece hadn't started, the crowd's attention was drawn, heads raising and elbows nudging. Dan followed their collective gaze to see someone mounting the main staircase. It was not Casimir, but rather an older gentleman, silver-haired, dressed in white. He paused on the first landing, raised a glass and flicked it once. The sound carried farther and clearer than it had any right to, and the crowd quieted down to give their full attention.

"Ladies and gentlemen," said Lucien, smiling round at all of them. His hard, cold eyes landed on Gwen and paused there. "And otherwise."

She shrank against Dan. He gripped her arm. Several in the crowd snickered, elbowing each other. Lucien moved on.

"I wanted to make a little speech, before the evening wore on too long. Ah, but don't worry, I'll let you get back to the excellent catering posthaste."

A titter rolled through the crowd. Lucien's face crinkled with a smile.

"First of all: thank you all so much for coming to my little soirée. It's quite the turnout, and especially on such short notice! I am tremendously pleased that all of you could make it, and I'm sure most of you—apart from a privileged few—must be wondering what it's all about; well, here's the part where I tell you. It so happens, my dear friends, that we have among us tonight a very special guest."

"Get me out of here," Gwen hissed in Dan's ear. She was shaking so hard it made his teeth chatter. Dan clasped her hand and started, very slowly, sidling through the crowd, making a pretence of craning to get a better view of Lucien.

"Some of you may know him," Lucien went on, smiling, grandstanding. "He's made something of a name for himself over the past decade or so. Of course, he wasn't strictly speaking invited, but I'm delighted to have him here all the same."

Gwen stood on someone's foot. They snapped a sharp reprimand at her and she flinched. Their eyes lingered a moment too long, their brow knitted with suspicion.

"Sorry, excuse us, those gin and tonics hit awfully hard, don't they, hahah," said Dan, sweating through his shirt, pulling Gwen along as quickly as he could. Lucien was still talking, ever so slowly, as though he was waiting for Dan and Gwen's attention in particular.

"His name," Lucien said, "is Ryan Haywood."

Gwen went stiff as a board. Dan froze. He could feel Lucien's eyes on him, freezing cold.

"And he is the Vagabond."

The penny dropped for the rest of the crowd. A murmur rolled away from the grand staircase. The whole lot of them backed up a step. Shoulders tensed, hands drifted to concealed weaponry, heads turned this way and that like an explosion had gone off somewhere. Lucien's smile only grew, tepid, amused.

"I see many of you have indeed heard of him. I would not trouble yourselves overmuch; we are many and he is but one. Still, if you have seen anyone out of place tonight, anyone perhaps a touch too charming or taking too much of an interest, I would be delighted to know about it. I would very much like to speak with the fellow—purely for professional reasons, of course."

"Lucien, you mad bastard, what do you think you're playing at?" someone shouted from the crowd. There was a murmur of agreement. Lucien's head turned, predatory. His smile was nothing short of ravenous.

"Georgie, my dear, watch your language," he said. "There are ladies present."

"This is a bad joke, bad form! What the hell was the point of all this?"

"Gracious, what a silly question. Have you been drinking?"

Another laugh rolled through the crowd, this one decidedly nervous. A circle was clearing round the speaker, a lone man with a bristly moustache and a shabby suit. He was, indeed, holding an empty glass.

"The Vagabond hanged," he spat. "He can't be here 'cos he's dead."

Lucien's eyes glittered. "Why do you think I wanted to speak with him?"

The man blanched. The circle of empty space around him had grown quite large. He shrank down, cradling his empty glass to his chest, eyes darting. He gulped.

"For those of you not familiar with the mythos," Lucien said, turning his attention back to the room at large, "I'm certain you could ask Constable Cartwright to explain it to you, since he is feeling chatty tonight. In the mean time: please, everyone, enjoy the rest of your evening! The food is plentiful, the wine flows freely, the music plays on. So eat, drink, and be merry! For tomorrow, you may die."

He raised his glass, smiled a horrible little smile, and drained it. After a long, uncomfortable pause, the rest of the crowd followed suit, muttering half-hearted toasts under their breaths.

"Excuse us, sorry," said Dan, picking up enough of his brain to continue working towards the exit. "Breath of fresh air, you understand, hahah."

It was much easier to get out than he'd expected, mostly because half the crowd was going the same way. Dan kept a tight hold on Gwen, and she stuck close to him. Fortunately, everybody else was much too preoccupied being scared for their own skins to notice anything amiss. The two of them slipped right out the door and into a cold, windy night. Dan put an arm round Gwen and kissed her hair.

"All right, love, we've made it," he said softly. "Where to?"

"Anywhere," she managed. "Anywhere else. We—we ought to find Jones, or Gabriel, or Cassie. Somebody. It's all gone wrong."

"My vote's for Gabriel and Tuggey, I doubt Jones or Casimir are going to be in any state to help 'til morning. Haywood's probably hooked it already, anyway. I would have. I'll tell you what, I don't envy that constable, either, he's going to have a hell of a time getting out in one piece. Ah, look, there's Gabriel and Tuggey right there, they must've come out just before us—"

Speaking gently, Dan coaxed Gwen over to where they sat, hip-to-hip, on the low stone wall next to one of the braziers. As Dan and Gwen approached, Gabriel got to her feet.

"What's happened?" she said, a note of panic in her voice.

"Weren't you inside just now?" Dan asked. Tuggey shook her head, frowning, so he went on. "That Faye bloke—Lucien Faye, Gabriel, you remember him, Dubois' so-called benefactor? Well, apparently this is his party, and he got up and—to keep it short—told the whole bloody room that Haywood's here."

"Son of a bitch," Tuggey spat.

Gabriel put a hand over her eyes and squeezed her temples. "That would explain the sudden exodus, and I don't suppose—but perhaps it's wisest not to discuss this in public. Have Jones and Dubois come back?"

"No, I think we've lost them for the night."

"Perhaps we should go to them, then."

"No, I mean I really think we've lost them for the night, Gabriel. Gwen thinks it, as well—unless your mind's changed, dear?"

She shook her head. "It hardly matters. The game's up and we've lost. We might as well go home."

"Gwen, are you all right?" Gabriel asked, frowning. "You seem shaken up."

"I thought—look, it's been a very long night, and that speech didn't help."

"I see. We'll come back to it in the morning, then. Are you going to check in on Jones, or would you rather Lindsay and I take care of it?"

"I don't see that it's necessary."

"Yeah, but it oughtta get done anyhow," said Tuggey. "Michael's got a way of gettin' himself into trouble."

"I was going to drop by first thing in the morning, before we talked to Sc—er, our boys in blue," Dan mentioned. "You know, just in case he's . . . indisposed, tonight."

"That ain't too likely," said Tuggey.

"You'd think so," Dan sighed, "but you haven't met Dubois. He's the sort of trouble everyone's trying to get into."

Gwen elbowed him sharply in the ribs. "Don't be uncouth."

"Sorry, dear."

"Why don't we meet you at Jones' room in the morning?" Gabriel said. "We'll drop by tonight and put an ear to the door, and start on a fresh plan once we've all slept. Say, nine o'clock?"

"Sensible enough," said Gwen. "If he's not in there, you might check Dubois' room before you panic. It's number two-sixteen. Dr Tuggey, since Jones might be—have you got a place to stay tonight, is what I'm asking."

"Oh," said Tuggey. "Uh . . . good question, hm, guess the whole place is booked up pretty full, so. . . ."

Gabriel cleared her throat and took one of those deep, steadying breaths. "I wouldn't mind particularly—if, of course, it's not objectionable to you, I mean—but I've seen the room they've put me in, and it's ridiculously large, and I'm sure some sort of arrangement could be worked out—only if you're amenable to it, and if your own room isn't available to you, I wouldn't want to press, but—"

"Yes, I'd be mighty grateful if I could stay the night with you," Tuggey said gently, taking Gabriel's hand. "Thank you."

"Ah? Yes. Well. Wonderful. I—right."

"All the better to watch each other's backs, I presume," said Dan, because Gabriel was sweating like a witness on the stand.

"Precisely that," she said, sagging with relief. "Good. So—we'll see you both in the morning, yes?"

"Nine o'clock," said Gwen. "I imagine it's going to be plenty of lost sleep for all of us, so we certainly won't comment if you happen to be late."

Both of them blushed. Before it turned awkward, Dan bade them goodnight and made his escape with Gwen, heading for their room in the main part of the house.

"Two-by-two, eh?" he remarked.

"I choose to believe it's 'cos everyone is so staggeringly well-dressed," said Gwen.

"Not the threat of being murdered in our beds?"

"All right," she admitted, rolling her eyes. "I suppose that could be a factor."

Chapter Text

"Well," said Dan dropping onto the overstuffed bed to pry his shoes off. "That was a colossal waste of time, wasn't it. At least we're not dead, chalk that up in the win column. And everyone's so bloody terrified of getting skinned that nobody's likely to hunt us down. So two wins to one loss, really."

"I'm hoping against all hope that Jones or Cassie or at least Gabriel might've got something out of it, even if Haywood himself didn't turn up," said Gwen. "I'll tell you what, though, Cassie's going to get a stern talking-to about letting the plan slip to Lucien."

"Be generous, B, he probably had to. Couldn't very well say, oy, I need you to throw this tremendous party but I can't tell you why. And of course, it being Casimir, he had to do the party. Besides, I reckon that Lucien's got a fair bit of—of torque on our Casimir's arm, regardless of the situation."

"Couldn't care less, Cassie's still getting a talking-to for going on associating himself with such a horrible person. Give us a hand with the corsetry, would you? I'm dying."

Dan heaved himself back to his feet and helped Gwen out of her dress. Once she was down to the slip, he wrapped his arms round her waist and kissed her neck. She leaned back against him, warm and languid.

"It's a lovely dress," he said, "but I still think you look better out of it."

"Dan, my feet hurt," she whined. "Carry me to bed."

"What, as though my feet don't hurt?"

"You've not been wearing heels and a dress that weighs thirty pounds."

"Come off it, ten at most."

"Da-an."

"All right, quit your whinging. Ready? Here we go, ups-a-daisy!"

He picked her up by the middle. She squawked and kicked, slapping at his arms.

"Not like that! Put me down, put me down!"

With a mighty heave, he chucked her onto the bed, throwing himself down after. She battered him with one of the pillows until he surrendered, then hit him twice more for good measure.

"Oy, quit! I've said you win, be done with it!"

"Big fat lumbering brute," she accused. "Hauling me off like some milkmaid, how dare you?"

"More of a farmer's wife."

She hit him again. He snatched the pillow out of her hand. She pouted at him, turning away when he tried to kiss her.

"Don't place nice, Mr Gruchy, I'm upset with you," she sniffed.

"I'm very sorry, Mrs Gruchy. What shall I do to make it up to you?"

"My feet hurt. And my back. I want a massage."

"Then you'll have one," he said. He planted a kiss on her cheek before she could stop him.

Flapping a hand, she ordered, "Take off all that frippery first. I hate being the only one in my underthings, I feel as though I'm being taken advantage of."

"Yes, dear," said Dan, already unbuttoning his vest. "How much frippery would you like gone?"

"All of it."

"All of it? You're just going to have me hanging about in the nude?"

She gave him a sly look. "It looks well on you, Dan, but I think you look much better out of it."

"Pillock," said Dan, chucking the pillow at her face. She laughed, but made no move towards relenting, so he stripped down and settled himself cross-legged at her feet. She propped her ankle on his shin and smirked at him.

"Come on, Farmer Dan," she said. "Put those big, strong hands to use."

"Ow, now, if I didn't know better, madam, I'd think you was enticing me to lollygag," Dan said in his best Dorset accent, setting about massaging her foot. "Which would be mad, o'course, you being a lady and me being but a simple country man."

"A simple country man with a simple country mind," Gwen sighed. "And a simply divine country cock. They don't grow to half that size in the city. What have you been feeding it?"

"Nothing to do with the diet, madam, all to do with the method. Hand-fed for the most part."

Gwen snorted. Dan pinched her toe and winked.

"Though he does enjoy a bit of spoiling, now and again," he went on. "If there's anyone about to spoil him, o'course. The wife gets dreadful tired of him sitting up pecking all night."

"Dear oh dear," said Gwen, pinkening. "The poor thing!"

"Oh aye, 'tis a pity," said Dan. "O'course, then I get no sleep neither, 'cos she's up all night moaning."

Gwen giggled, her toes curling. Dan slid a hand over her ankle, up her calf.

"You wouldn't happen to be too tired for a bit of pecking, would you, madam?"

"Not so fast, Mr Gruchy, I'm having my massage first," Gwen scolded. "You're not getting out of it that easy."

"Worth a try," Dan sighed, dropping the accent. "But I was actually asking. For future reference, obviously, once I've done with your massage."

"I don't know, Dan, I'm already exhausted and sore and we'll have to be up and working first thing in the morning, as well. . . ."

"That's all right. Some other time, then."

"I hate to leave you with nothing, though."

"I'll live. Be honest with you, I'm knackered as well. Sleep'll do me a sight more good than anything else."

"All right, if you're sure."

Dan yawned and pillowed his head on Gwen's thigh. "'M sure."

"Then sleep you shall have," said Gwen, patting his head. "But I'll tell you what: you're finishing my massage first."

"Slave-driver," Dan accused, propping himself up on his elbow. Gwen kneed him affectionately in the jaw.

"Chop chop. The sooner you get it done with, the sooner you can sleep."

Grumbling, Dan picked up where he'd left off on her foot. She sighed and leaned back on the pillows. She was half asleep by the time Dan had done with both feet, but he rolled her over and started on her back massage just the same.

"D'you know, I've had a thought," he mentioned, working the stiffness from her shoulders.

"Mm?"

"About tomorrow morning. I'm not sure it's a good thought, but I thought I'd tell you and you could help me work it out."

"Go on, then."

"Well, I thought, d'you know, I reckon Jones has gone to Casimir's room, 'cos I can't imagine Casimir would've gone to his. And of course Tuggey's staying with Gabriel regardless, 'cos she's sensible and hanging about alone would be stupid, and dog-Gavin's back in Hoxton where he won't be in the way—"

"Do get to the point, Dan."

"Sorry. I just thought, wouldn't it be a good opportunity to go poking about in Jones's things, and see if he's hiding something?"

Gwen was quiet for so long that Dan thought she'd fallen asleep. When she did stir, it was with a distinctly businesslike sniff.

"What're you expecting to find?"

"Won't know until I look, will I. But we know he's hiding something, and maybe tonight's confirmed it. He seemed awfully sure Haywood would turn up, and he didn't, so—maybe it's not just that he was wrong, you know?"

"I think you're ascribing malice where pride will do."

"Maybe I am. I'd still like to have a look round."

"We did all agree to meet up in Jones's room."

"Yeah, at nine o'clock, but the world doesn't start at nine, B. I can be in and back out again before seven, if you'll let me out of bed that early."

"What time is it now?"

"Going on two, I think."

"Bloody hell."

"If you think it's a foolish idea, I won't do it."

"It is a foolish idea, and I think you ought to do it anyway. Gabriel thinks Jones is hiding something, as well, and since the two of you agree, I'm inclined to believe you."

"So why didn't you feel that way when it came to Casimir being Haywood?"

"'Cos you were wrong."

"La-di-da. Be nicer to me or I won't break into Jones's room for you."

"Oy, Dan?"

"What?"

"I've never really said this before, but I'm . . . proud of you."

Dan stopped, blindsided. "You're what?"

"Proud of you. Proud of how you handled yourself tonight. There was an awful lot of strong drink floating about, and it was terribly stressful, and you held up, and I'm proud of you. I know it can't have been easy. I just want you to know that I noticed."

"Oh," said Dan. "Well. I—thank you. Genuinely. That means a lot."

"Welcome," said Gwen. She rolled over and looped her arms round his neck, drew him down and kissed him. "Now go to sleep so you can break into Jones's room for me in the morning."

"Anyone would think you were buttering me up."

"Dan? Love you."

He sighed, kissed her, and lay down by her side. "Love you as well, Gwen. Even when you're being a bit of a pillock."


 

Michael's room was dark, lit only by a sliver of lamplight that had fallen through a gap in the curtains. The roar of London was muffled, distant, like he'd stuck his head in a bucket of water. The sheets lay tangled at the foot of the bed, though the room was chilly.

Ryan was curled up against him, head on his chest and an arm around his waist, warm and soft and not asleep.

"I hope you understand the caliber of fuck-up we're dealin' with here," Michael said. His voice was too loud, coarse against the velvet darkness.

Ryan let out a breath, somewhere between sigh and laugh.

"Cataclysmic and irrevocable," he said, lips brushing skin.

"I don't know what the fuck either of those mean."

"Earth-shatterin' and un-fixable."

"You coulda just said that in the first place."

"I very much could not."

The silence closed over them again, vast deserts, heavy snow.

"Six whole days," said Michael.

"Yessuh," said Ryan.

"You really spent six whole goddamn days decidin' not to be dead?"

"Only took me twice as long as Jesus," said Ryan, twinkling. "You figure that makes me half a Messiah?"

Michael rolled his eyes. Ryan laughed to himself and kissed Michael's collarbone.

"I thought it was funny."

"How many people you killt since the last time I saw you?"

"None."

"Bull-fuckin'-shit."

"None, chéri, I swear," said Ryan, propping himself up on his elbow, the better to make pitiful faces at Michael.

"And I don't believe you," said Michael. "And don't call me sherry. We ain't playin' that game no more."

"Funny stance to take, in your current position."

"Shut up. Truthfully, how many people have you killt since Heyman?"

Ryan met his eyes, spoke softly and with conviction.

"None, Michael," he said. "None."

Michael scrutinized every wrinkle in his brow, every twitch of his eyes, the precise angle of the corners of his mouth. He counted his breaths and measured his heartbeat by the hand around his wrist.

"All this time," he said, "and I still cain't tell when you're bullshittin' me. And I think maybe it's 'cuz you're always bullshittin' me, and you always have been."

"Michael," said Ryan, pleading.

"I don't believe you, and I won't believe you, 'cuz it's exactly what I wanted to hear."

"Had you considered that maybe that's why I've been abstainin'?"

"I'd considered that you'd say damn near anythin' to buy yourself another fuckin' minute of my time."

Ryan shrugged. "Regardless of whether or not I'm tellin' the truth, it does seem to be workin'."

"I will hit you."

"If it'd help. I won't hit back."

"Would you shut the fuck up? Jesus fuckin' Christ."

"If you want to go, then go," Ryan snapped. "Nobody's keepin' you here. You can leave anytime."

"Like hell. I ain't lettin' you outta my goddamn sight again."

"What do you want, Michael?"

"You don't give a shit what I want, and you never have."

"I left for you. Without a word, without a single partin' shot, against all my better instincts and every ounce of mayhem in my bones, I left. For six months, Michael, I tried to give you what you wanted—"

"And then you dragged my ass right back in 'cuz you don't fuckin' get it! I don't want you gone, Ryan, I want you dead."

"I tried!"

It shouldn't have hurt as much as it did. Michael clenched his teeth and shut his eyes, because he knew the face Ryan would be making—pitiful, painful, pleading—and knew that he wouldn't be able to resist falling for it. This was just a performance, all flash and no substance, like fool's gold in a stream bed. In the absence of interruption, Ryan kept talking, twisting the screw, prying at the joints on Michael's resolve.

"For six months, Michael, I tried, on account of knowin' that's what you wanted. You have no idea how much I wish I coulda stayed dead. I tried to get back there, so you could sleep easy. It never worked. No matter what I did, it never worked."

"Then you ain't try hard enough," Michael snarled, pouring rage like tar over the cracks in his heart.

"Why do you think I asked you to come back?"

"'Cuz you're a lonesome dumbass who don't know the meanin' of the word no!"

"It can be both!"

Michael, who had braced for an insult, lost his footing. He looked at Ryan. There were tears in his eyes, his face twisted with pain and fear and shame. He was shaking.

"Ryan," Michael said.

"I just wanted to see you again," he said, hoarse and broken. "I wanted to tell you how—how sorry I am, for what I did to you. I thought that dyin' would be apology enough, that never comin' back would be enough, but—I couldn't. I didn't know what else to do but call for you, hopin' you could figure out some way to make it stop. And I kept my promise, Michael. It's the hardest thing I have ever done, but I kept my promise. Heyman was the last one."

"What in the damn hell," Michael said, "makes you think that matters?"

Ryan split down the middle like a rotten log. Unattended, the tears in his eyes spilled over.

What? he whispered. Hardly any sound came out.

"I ain't too good with readin' or writin', but I do my 'rithmetic pretty well," Michael went on. "And by my countin', you been killin' about four folks a year for the past thirteen years. What makes you think that takin' six months off means a damn thing?"

"I—but—" he stammered. "It—it's been almost a year, Michael, I—"

"Oh, has it? 'Cuz I recall you sayin' you was only tryin' to die for six months. What you been doin' for the last five, Ryan?"

Ryan didn't answer, floundering. As it turned out, Michael had a few screws of his own he could twist, and God, he'd missed it.

"You wanna know why you couldn't kill yourself?" he said. "It's 'cuz you ain't wanted to die bad enough. It's 'cuz somewhere up in that fucked-up head of yours, you thought there was a chance that maybe, if you stuck around, there'd come a day when I'd love you, or some shit. But that day ain't comin', Ryan. Hell will freeze over first. I'd let you blow your brains out right here and now, if I thought you wouldn't shoot me first. Shit, I might take that chance anyhow, just for the pleasure of watchin' them fireworks."

It was a gamble, but he'd stacked the odds pretty far in his favor. His heart thumped in his chest, his legs burned and his head throbbed. Ryan stared, breathless and wounded, shivering with a rising tension. Michael kept his right hand clenched tight around its pain, straining tendons against scar tissue and the memory of fear.

Ryan lunged for the Colt. Michael caught him around the waist, too late. A knee slammed into Michael's hip, whiting him out with pain. The next thing he knew, the gun was pressed to his forehead, right between his eyes—and behind it, Ryan, furious and weeping.

"Do it, then," said Michael.

Ryan's jaw clenched. His finger curled against the trigger. He was shaking so hard it made the bed springs rattle.

"Go on, do it!" Michael spat. "Right 'tween the eyes. The hell're you waitin' on? You won't even fuck up anythin' you'll need for the coat later."

"Why did you do this?" Ryan said, choked up. "If you hate me that much, then why—?"

"'Cuz I knew your selfish ass wouldn't shoot me 'til after you'd fucked me, and I wanted a couple extra hours 'fore I went on to Hell."

"And you somehow stopped carin' already?"

"A couple hours stuck back with you convinced me I'd rather be dead."

It hit like a punch to the gut. Ryan's finger twitched on the trigger. Michael held his ground. Tears dripped onto his chest, cold. The Colt's muzzle pressed into his forehead, even colder, pinching skin against bone. He had to force himself to breathe, but he breathed.

With a trembling hand, Ryan took the gun from Michael's forehead and put it under his own jaw, never looking away, never blinking. Michael met him stare for stare, unmoving, unmoved.

"Go on," he said, more gently this time. "Maybe Hell might actually want you."

With a final splintering, a last crackle of electric light, Ryan squeezed his eyes shut and pulled the trigger.

Click.

He shattered.

A sob burst from his mouth. The gun tumbled from his hand. Michael picked it up and set it on the nightstand while Ryan crumpled against his chest—a child in tantrum, a sore loser in the jaws of defeat, a cringing, pathetic, disgusting wreck.

Finally, Michael had gotten some truth out of him.

"All right," Michael said, putting an arm around him. Ryan flinched from the touch, but Michael only pulled him closer. "All right, quit cryin'. You already look like shit enough."

Ryan made an effort to pull himself together and couldn't do it. Michael held him close and stroked his hair, repeating all the meaningless words of comfort he thought he'd forgotten. There was a sickness in his stomach that grew thicker with every passing minute, a twinge of guilt in his heart working its way up to a spasm. He pushed them both down, remembering the look on Heyman's face when his guts had spilled on the floor, the way Ryan had laughed after shooting Mad Meg Turney, the slimy heat of the Coat against his skin.

Even if this was cruel, it wasn't unjust.

It took many long minutes, but at last Ryan ran out of steam. He settled into a hiccuping quiet, his face and Michael's chest both soaked with his tears. Michael waited until he stopped trembling, until the silence grew warm and deep and velvet once again.

"If I put your soul back in you," he said. "Would it fix you?"

Ryan shook his head without raising it. "The things that are broken in me can't be fixed," he said. His voice was thick with crying, hoarser even than before.

Taking Ryan's chin in his hand, Michael lifted his head for him and met his eyes. His ribs constricted around his lungs, his heart skipped a beat. Ryan watched him, expectant, teary-eyed. Michael did not kiss him.

"How 'bout I try anyhow?" he said.

Ryan studied his face, his eyes. The corner of his mouth twitched. He huffed out a breath.

"You wanna break my deal so you can kill me yourself," he said.

Michael shrugged one shoulder. "Yep," he said.

Ryan faked a smile, then laid his head back down on Michael's chest.

"So long as it's you," he whispered.

Michael slipped an arm around his waist, stroked his hair and kissed the top of his head.

"You are so full of shit," he whispered back.

Chapter Text

First thing in the morning, before the sun was all the way up, Dan snuck through the manor and down to Jones' room. The place was quiet, inhabited only by butlers and maids and mice, none of whom paid him much attention. He loitered outside of Jones' room until the corridor was clear. He put his ear to the door. When a good thirty seconds went by without a sound, he tried the doorknob.

To his great surprise, it was unlocked.

Dan eased the door open, prepared at any moment to be shot at. No bullets came through. He poked his head in. The room was dark, the curtains drawn. Before anybody could see him about his business, he slipped inside and shut the door behind him.

Ensconced in darkness, he waited for his eyes to adjust, his ears to attune. All seemed quiet, so he inched forward, trying to get a good angle on the bed. Light spilled through a gap in the curtains, providing just enough illumination to see by. There was a lingering Christmasy smell in the air.

Once he was in view of the bed, Dan stopped again—this time, because it was clearly occupied.

Jones and Casimir were both asleep, tangled together under the covers. Dan went hot from scalp to toe and held his breath. The ticking of his pocket watch was deafening in the silence. Jones' wheelchair was sat next to the bed. With a tremendous amount of chagrin, Dan recalled that Casimir's room was on the second floor, up two flights of stairs that would have been insurmountable for Jones. If stealth had been any less imperative, he would've kicked himself.

Instead, he crept backward toward the door. He'd come in without waking them, which meant he could get back out the same way. He took slow, quiet breaths through his mouth. His heart pounded. He reached out and closed one sweaty hand on the doorknob.

Where he stopped again, because he'd just had a terrible and irresistible idea. Casimir, of course, wouldn't care a fig about being caught in bed with another man, especially by Dan. He would probably think it was funny. Jones, on the other hand, would suddenly find himself in a terribly compromising position, which could provide some much-needed leverage to get him to—as Tuggey had put it—un-clam.

Dan let himself back out into the corridor and shut the door. He took a moment to compose himself, straightened his shirt, fixed his hair. Before he could think too much about it, he pounded on the door.

"Jones, are you in there?" he shouted.

There was a muffled yelp, followed by the distinct sound of cursing. Dan bit back a grin and thumped on the door again.

"Jones! If you're alive in there, we're going to have words about sneaking off!"

Before Jones had any time to respond, Dan flung the door open and marched right in.

"Can't see a bloody thing in here, God's sake," he spat. He went right to the window—not even glancing at the bed—and flung the curtains open. Dawn flooded into the room. Dan spun on his heel to watch it go.

Jones was halfway upright, blinking and shirtless and fumbling. Next to him, Casimir threw off a concealing mantle of blankets and sat up.

"Bonjour!" he sang, sleepy-eyed and content and very, very naked. Jones froze in abject terror. Despite himself, Dan felt a twinge of pity.

"Ah," he said. "I see you've met Monsieur Dubois."

Slowly, slowly, Jones turned to look at Casimir, who was looking back with an insufferably smug expression.

"Of course you did," said Jones.

Casimir grinned and stuck his tongue out between his teeth. Dan's stomach sank. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck. His hands broke out in sweat.

"Er," he said, finding his glee suddenly gone. "I can't help but feel I've missed something."

"Gruchy, you remember how I was tellin' you about the Vagabond turnin' up?" Jones said, staring Casimir down. "That's him."

Dan's throat squeezed shut. His heart stopped. Casimir's gaze slid off of Jones. Something bright and cruel glimmered from the depths of his eyes. He smiled like he'd just told the greatest joke of his life, and Dan was the punchline.

"Enchanté," he said.

Jones struck him squarely in the jaw. His head snapped back and he collapsed on the bed, out like a light.

"All right, we got us a couple minutes before he wakes up," said Jones, rubbing his knuckles. "I don't got any spare rope or nothin', but I figure a couple silk ties oughtta do the trick."

"What . . . would you mind telling me, please, exactly what the bloody hell is going on here?" said Dan, his heart hammering in his ears, his stomach twisted up in horrible knots.

Jones snorted. "Buddy, you ain't seen nothin' yet."


 

Ryan came to about three minutes after he'd been knocked out, while Michael was tying his wrists to the bedposts. He didn't manage anything like coherence until ten minutes after that, by which point Michael was dressed and in his chair and as far away from the bed as he could get without leaving the room. Gruchy had posted up by the window, standing around gawping and being useless but at least not getting in the way.

The first real sentence Ryan said was: "Still got a hell of an arm, Michael."

Gruchy shrank back and gulped. His face was pinched and waxen. Michael wondered what voice Ryan had been using on him all this time—and if the one he was using now was even his real one.

"Shut up," Michael said.

"If you'd wanted to tie me up, you coulda just asked."

"Shut up."

Ryan turned sparkling eyes on Gruchy and grinned. "Though I can't say as I'm terrible displeased by your choice of a plus-one."

"Jones, couldn't you at least have covered him with something?" said Gruchy, squirming.

"Hell no. If he ain't got no cover, he ain't got nowhere to hide a knife. 'Sides, if he decides to run off, he's gonna do it nekkid."

"Poor Dan," Ryan said. "You always did get mighty uncomfortable whenever it came to sex. Though it does shed some light on certain decisions made by your spouse."

Gruchy lurched like a train slipping the tracks. "He never—"

"Don't," Michael interrupted. "He's baitin' you. Don't rise to it."

Ryan pouted at him. "You never let me have any fun."

"Fun time's over. Shut the hell up."

Before Ryan could disobey, a knock came at the door, and Free called, "Anyone in there?"

And before Michael or Gruchy could answer, Ryan sang out, "Entrez-vous, ma jolie!"

"Wait—" Gruchy tried, but it was too late.

The door opened. Free took four steps inside and stopped dead. His eyes went wide. All the blood drained from his face as he took in the scene.

"Oh, Cassie," he said softly, aching and hurt. Ryan smiled at him.

"Howdy, Gav," he said. "Nice of you to drop by. Purely out of curiosity: how long have you known?"

"No," said Free, heedless. "No, this isn't—you're not—you're a twin brother, or something, I refuse to believe you—you—after everything. . . ."

Ryan glittered. "So a while, then."

Free fought with himself. His fists clenched. His throat worked. His eyes filled with tears. He trembled where he stood, struggling for breath, turning green.

"What the bloody hell was that dress made of?" he whispered.

Ryan threw his head back and laughed, tickled pink. Free lunged for him, but Gruchy was quicker, and caught him before he got close.

"Gav, don't—"

"What was it, you bastard? What did you put me in?"

"Ain't no thing, darlin', don't you worry your pretty li'l head about it," said Ryan, hiccuping with laughter.

"Who—"

"Nobody," Michael cut in.

"Michael, now, don't go tellin' the detective his business," Ryan said.

"Oh, so you were bullshittin' me when you said Heyman was the last one."

Ryan pulled taut. The amusement fell off of him like snow off a slanted roof. His jaw clenched. His left hand made a fist so tight that the ropes bit into his wrist.

"Cain't have it both ways, jackass," Michael spat.

"I never said it was anybody."

"Sure as hell implied it."

"That, or you already made up your mind about what the truth is. Ain't no point in honesty if this is th' only thing it earns me."

"You can say whatever the hell you want, and it won't make a lick of difference in what you earned."

"Then maybe I'll say what happened to the Hullums," said Ryan. "Maybe I'll say how Heyman died. You told your new li'l friends about that?"

"Be my fuckin' guest, you lyin' piece of shit," Michael said, fighting down the trembling fear in his chest. "Tell us a goddamn story."

"Perhaps that's not the best idea, actually," said Gruchy, sweating.

"No, let him," Michael insisted. Now or never. If he hadn't played his cards right, it was too late to take it back. "I wanna hear the fat fuckin' fibs he comes up with."

As suddenly as it had gone, Ryan's sunny disposition flipped right back on again. He let out a low whistle, shaking his head.

"Chéri, I plum forgot how much I love watchin' you work," he said.

"Free, go and get Lindsay and Gabriel," Michael ordered, never taking his eyes off Ryan. "We all got some thinkin' to do."

"Me?" Free squeaked. "Why me?"

"I think you'd better go, Gav," said Gruchy. "It's got to be either you or me, and I'd rather not leave you in here with—this."

"Aw, ain't that sweet," Ryan said. "Ever gallant, Suh Lancelot."

"Don't talk to me, please," said Gruchy. "Gav, you might want to get a move on."

Free gulped. "Right. Yes. Er—won't be a mo'."

He backed up until he was out of view of the bed, then turned tail and scurried out. The door clicked shut behind him.

"I like that please, Dan," Ryan mentioned. "I bet Michael's none too fond of it, but I liked it."

Michael rounded on him. "If you don't shut your fuckin' mouth, I'm gonna cut your goddamn tongue out."

And that, finally, shut him up.


 

It was half an hour before Free got back with Lindsay and Gabriel. Gruchy had spent the whole time fidgeting and squirming and pacing, chewing his lips and shooting covert glances at Ryan whenever he thought Michael wasn't looking. Ryan, for his part, stayed shut up. He took to fidgeting after a while, too, making pained faces and rolling his shoulders—probably because he'd seen Gruchy looking. Michael stayed in his spot. The activities of the night before had jostled something in his spine, and his legs were burning like they'd been stuck in a bonfire. With Ryan watching, though, he didn't dare to take a dose of laudanum. That was a leverage he didn't want to be on the wrong end of.

When Free, Lindsay, and Gabriel did come in, they were all grim-faced and tense. Free went right to Gruchy, while Lindsay and Gabriel stopped just as soon as they got in view of the bed. Ryan dredged up a smile and twiddled his fingers at them.

"Son of a bitch," said Lindsay.

"Well," said Gabriel. She straightened her shirt, folded her arms, and turned a hard eye on Free and Gruchy. Free winced and rubbed his face.

"Go on, then," he mumbled.

With a great deal of vitriol, Gabriel said: "I told you so."

"Honey, I'll sure bet you did," said Ryan, gleaming.

"Shut the hell up, you piece of shit," Lindsay snapped.

"Good to see you too, Lindsay. Though I'll admit, I didn't figure you woulda stuck around after Michael went and framed you for killin' Ray. Didn't think I'd be catchin' up with you again." His eyes went hard as diamond and his voice dropped a full octave. "So soon."

She balked. A flicker of fear crossed her face. Ryan saw it, and liked what he saw.

So Michael crossed the room, grabbed one of Ryan's fingers, and pulled back until he yelled.

"Say it again," he growled. "Gimme a goddamn reason, I'll snap this fuckin' finger off like a twig."

Ryan squirmed and didn't manage to say anything other than no. Michael watched him, keeping tension on his finger, keeping his anger clenched between his teeth. It wasn't like Ryan could strike back. It wasn't like Ryan had never hurt Michael for no reason, when Michael was helpless, when Michael was begging him not to.

So Michael went ahead and broke his finger anyway.

Ryan yelped and thrashed. Free leapt back with an equal—if not greater—cry. Gruchy swore. Michael squeezed the broken finger until Ryan begged him to stop.

"Call that a warnin' shot," Michael hissed. "Keep your goddamn mouth shut."

He let go and backed up a foot. Ryan writhed in the bed, his breath coming short and choppy, his eyes squeezed shut. Michael wiped his hands on the arms of his chair. His arms and shoulders prickled. He almost cracked his neck and stopped himself at the last second. Instead, he rolled his shoulders to work some of the tension out.

Even if he wasn't sure it would still stop his heart after all this time, it was better not to risk it. Old habits might die hard, but Michael wasn't about to.

"So I been thinkin'," he said, keeping his voice level while Ryan struggled to catch his breath. "First thing we oughtta do is everybody take a turn tryin' to shoot him dead. Prob'ly won't work, but it cain't hurt to try. Gabriel, somebody said you was a religious type, you oughtta go first."

"Just—just like that?" she asked, strangled. "You're asking me to just—shoot him, in cold blood?"

"If you're too fuckin' chicken, somebody else can do it. Gruchy, you're military, ain't you?"

"I am not, under any circumstances, going to shoot a naked, unarmed, restrained man," Gruchy said. His voice trembled with some restrained emotion. "This is sick, Jones. This isn't the way to go about this."

"Fine, be a li'l bitch about it. Free, you gonna pussy out, too?"

"I—I don't—"

"Yeah, that's about what I thought. Doc, c'mere and shoot this sonnuva bitch."

She straightened her dress and her face and crossed to the bedside. Haywood glared at her, eyes red, face twisted with pain and impotent rage.

"You got a gun to hand?" Lindsay asked.

"On the table, but it ain't loaded. Oughtta be some ammo in the li'l drawer."

Michael watched Ryan figure it out, watched confusion turn to realization turn to raw fury.

"It ain't—" Ryan choked. "You—"

"Me," said Michael, while Lindsay loaded the Colt behind him. "'Cuz unlike you, I learn."

Lindsay clicked the barrel of the Colt closed. She sighted down it, gripping her wrist with her off hand, aimed right at Ryan's head. Ryan never looked away from Michael. He was crying again. His broken finger was swollen and red and ugly.

"You got an idea for what we're gonna do if it goes off?" Lindsay asked.

"It won't," said Michael.

"In case it does, and we gotta explain the gunshot. Whether or not it kills him."

"You put it right up against his head, so's you cain't miss," said Michael. "It won't go off."

"If it does," she pressed.

"Untie him and call it self-defense."

"No, d'you know what, this is going too bloody far," said Gruchy, stepping forward. Free caught him by the arm.

"Dan, stop," he said.

"You can't murder him in cold blood and then call it self-defense!"

"Keep your voice down," Gabriel said, glancing at the walls.

"It—it's all right, the place is empty. We're the only ones who stayed the night," said Free. "But Jones, I think Dan might have a point, you know. Eventually we'll have to explain the whole thing to Scotland Yard, and they really don't take kindly to that sort of thing."

"One: your damn Yard can kiss my flabby ass," said Michael, "two: it is self-defense, on account of him bein' a clear and goddamn present threat to me and everybody I know, and three: it ain't murder if it's in the name of the law, which this damn well is. I already fuckin' hanged him. I'm just cleanin' up. You miss the part of the plannin' where we talked about this? 'Cuz this was always the plan."

"It bloody well wasn't!" Gruchy cried.

"No? It was always my plan. I said y'all were just here to help me find him, and Lindsay and me were gonna deal with the rest. So y'all can leave any goddamn time if you're gettin' squeamish."

"But—look, the rest of you can't be on board with this!"

"Sure can," said Lindsay, resting the muzzle of the Colt against Ryan's temple. "Everybody's all aboard but you, Gruchy, and this train's leavin' the station."

Click.

Ryan didn't even flinch. Lindsay did. Free did. That cold, lizardy smile crept out across Ryan's face.

"Shoulda known that wouldn't work, honey," he murmured. "On account of what you did to Jon."

She locked up. Ryan's smile got bigger, his eyes glittered. She pulled the trigger again.

Click.

"Oh," said Ryan, horribly pleased with himself. "So you kept that just 'tween you and me, huh?"

She struck him across the face with the butt of the Colt. His head snapped to one side. Blood spattered on the white sheets. She grabbed him by the hair and jammed the Colt under his jaw.

"Michael, I think you mighta neglected a certain component of this setup," she said, trembling with rage. "Somebody wanna find me somethin' to gag this motherfucker with?"

"Darlin', just wait 'til you hear about what Gav did," he said, talking through his teeth because he couldn't open his mouth any farther.

"Right, yes, we're gagging him," Free said, taut as a high wire. "That's more than enough—"

"Two dozen folks," Ryan said. "I'm almost jealous."

Lindsay hit him again. A wild laugh burst from his mouth. He came up thrashing, teeth and claws, bright as broken glass.

"Did they scream for you, sugar? Lord, I bet they wriggled, I bet they begged! Was it messy, Gav? Was it red?"

Lindsay stuffed her kerchief in his mouth, but the damage was done. Free stood there gasping like he'd been shot, white as a sheet and shaking. His eye darted. His hands clutched the air. Gruchy took him by the shoulders.

"Gav, no, no no no, don't do this, for God's sake, not now—"

Free only wheezed, insensate. Gruchy shot a look around the room and landed on Gabriel.

"Get him out of here, please," he said.

For a second, Michael thought she would object; but then she looked at Ryan, at Lindsay tying the gag in place with her sash, and her face hardened.

"We won't go far," she said.

Gruchy handed Free off to her, and she took him out of the room. A silence swirled in his wake. Gruchy turned back around, scowling.

"How long are you planning to keep this up, Jones?" he asked.

"As long as I gotta," Michael retorted. "How long you gonna keep bein' a bitch about it?"

"As long as I have to," Gruchy said.

Michael snorted. "You shoulda gone with Free. If you ain't gonna shoot nobody, ain't no point in you stayin'. Hey, Doc, you wanna see what happens if you try and shoot him in the knee?"

Ryan gulped and shied away. Lindsay cocked the Colt.

"I might do," she said.

"You absolutely will not," Gruchy snapped.

"Oh, won't I?"

"Correct me if I'm wrong, doctor, but it would be somewhat more difficult to pass that off as self-defense, especially since it won't kill him!"

Lindsay eyed him up. He stared her down, his fists clenched so tight that all the veins in his wrists were standing out. Those were bruising hands, Michael thought. There was a rage in them that could only be grown through practice. It was the brand of blind fury that would take a bullet and like the taste.

Lindsay must have been able to see it, too, because she uncocked the Colt and tucked it into her pocket.

"Fine," she said. "So as soon as Oluwaseyi gets back, we'll take him someplace where nobody'll hear the gunshots, and we won't leave 'til we're done."

"Best idea I heard all day," said Michael.

Chapter Text

After an hour, Gabriel and Gav still hadn't come back.

Tuggey had taken to pacing. Jones was polishing the arms of his chair, watching everyone in the room with equal suspicion. Dan stayed up against the far wall. His pocket watch ticked into the silence, as loud as the creaking of Tuggey's footsteps on the old floorboards.

"Somebody oughtta go and check on 'em," she said at last. "Gruchy, why don't you go and check on 'em?"

"Why don't you?" he asked.

"'Cuz it's your partner who had the hysterics."

"It happens from time to time. I trust Gabriel to take care of him."

"You don't think somethin' mighta happened to 'em?"

"I can't rule it out as a possibility, no."

"Then why—"

"'Cos I'm not leaving this room whilst Mr Jones is still in it," he said.

"Don't interrupt me," she retorted. "Why are you bein' so ornery about this?"

"Terribly sorry for interrupting. To your question: it's 'cos I'm not leaving this bloody room whilst Mr Jones is still in it."

"Mr Jones ain't the problem in this room."

"Not the only one," Dan allowed.

"No, I count me three problems in this damn room."

"Drop it," said Jones. "He ain't gonna listen."

"Brilliant deduction, detective."

"Eat shit, Gruchy. Lindsay, go and find Free and Gabriel."

"One: don't take that tone with me," she said, "and two: why don't you go?"

"'Cuz if they're upstairs, I'm gonna be shit outta luck, dumbass."

"Is that why, Michael? Not just 'cuz you wanna stay in here with Haywood?"

Jones reddened. "You can eat shit, too. We ain't talkin' about this here."

"Cat's already outta the bag, you damn stubborn fool. That's what you get for thinkin' with your dick."

"I got one angle of leverage with this sonnuva bitch, and it's horizontal," Jones retorted.

Haywood burst out laughing so hard he choked on the gag. Jones' face turned the colour of beet stew, but he carried on regardless, his gestures sharper and his words harder for it.

"You don't like my goddamn methods, you can handle him your damn self," he said to Tuggey. "Except, hang on a minute now, last time you tried to handle him, you ran the fuck off soon as shit started hittin' the—would you shut the fuck up?"

It was unclear, at that point, whether Haywood was laughing or choking, but whichever it was, he didn't stop. Tuggey folded her arms and glowered at the both of them.

"You know damn well you ain't had this in mind when you climbed into bed with him," she said. "And I know it, too, 'cuz of the two of us, I'm the only one with enough sense to get the hell outta Dodge when shit and fans start interactin'."

"He woulda caught up with your dumb ass sooner or later, if I hadn't got him first."

Haywood made a noise halfway between flattered and mocking, and Jones snapped like a steel cable.

One massive arm shot out. One huge hand closed on Haywood's throat. The laughter cut off abruptly. Haywood thrashed like a wounded snake, screaming into the gag. Jones' grip tightened and Haywood went rigid, hyperventilating. Jones tipped his head to the side, eyes half lidded, cold and precise.

"Oh," he said softly. "You don't like that, huh."

Haywood whimpered, squirming in his grip. Jones shoved him back against the headboard and he yelped, dissolving into gasps and muffled pleas.

"Remind you of somethin', Ryan?" Jones asked. "Remind you of someplace you might shoulda stayed?"

He tightened his grip again. Haywood choked, jerked fruitlessly against his restraints. Tuggey didn't move or speak, looking on with approval, vindication. Jones squeezed, tighter and tighter, until Haywood's lungs heaved at nothing, his face reddening, his struggles growing ever more desperate.

"Shit," Jones said, shaking his head, amused. "I don't even need two hands."

"Stop it," Dan blurted. Tuggey and Jones both turned to him. He braced himself against his spine and repeated: "Stop it right now."

"It won't kill him," Jones said, casual.

"Then what's the bloody point? Stop it or I will stop you."

Jones ground his teeth. Tuggey frowned. Haywood was fading, fading. The grisly sound of his choking filled the room. The hand on his throat was white-knuckled. Dan clenched his fists and started forward.

Jones let go.

Haywood broke out coughing and gasping so hard it was a wonder he didn't aspirate the gag. Tears streamed down his face. Jones shook out his hand, watching with a look of utmost disgust. The expression did not shift an inch when he turned it on Dan—and in good turn, Dan didn't shift an inch, either.

"You better be real goddamn careful about gettin' to feelin' sorry for that piece of shit," Jones said, fire on his breath.

"Don't mistake human decency for sympathy, Mr Jones," said Dan. "Although I can see how you'd get confused, since evidently you haven't got a shred of either one."

"Not any goddamn more, I don't, and if you'd seen what I seen, you wouldn't neither. Not for him. It will get you killt."

"If that's the hill I die on, then so be it."

Jones narrowed his eyes, hands clenching, gears whirring. "All right, fine then," he said. "You wanna take care of him so bad, you fuckin' take care of him, you dumbass sonnuva bitch."

He shoved off for the door. Dan leapt back to keep from losing his toes under one of the chair's wheels.

"I will, thank you," he said primly.

"See your ass in Hell, then," Jones snapped. "Good goddamn luck, hope he kills you quick-like."

"Mr Jones, belabouring your point won't change anything," Dan retorted. "I will die before I'll condone torture. I will die before I allow it to happen. I will not be moved on this point."

Jones fought with the door, but managed to throw it open without assistance. Dan followed him out into the corridor, where Jones rounded on him like a cobra.

"You willin' to let Free die for it, too?" he demanded.

It was like a punch to the gut. Dan's breath failed him. In his silence, Jones went on.

"'Cuz that's how Haywood likes to play his game. He'll kill you, oh sure, but first he'll skin poor li'l Free alive and let you watch him bleed to death. Hell, if he likes you, you might even live long enough to get that skin back, just so's you got somethin' to remember him by. It'd be an awful tight fit, but he could make it work. He's got practice. Haywood don't give a shit what you condone, or what you stand for, or where the hell you're willin' to move. You cain't afford no human decency with the man, Gruchy, 'cuz it'll come back to you in blood."

Dan took a deep breath, counting back from ten, pressing his fists.

"I fail to see, Mr Jones, any logical progression by which torture could prevent that from happening."

"No? I sure as hell can. Awful damn hard to skin anybody when you ain't got no hands."

"They must have different anatomy books in America. I wasn't aware strangulation could cause one's hands to fall off."

Jones clenched his teeth. His knuckles whitened on the wheels of his chair. Dan's knees twitched, but he held his ground.

"Haywood has made a damn career outta torturin' folks," Jones said quietly. "Ain't nothin' I can do to him that's unjustified."

"Torture is never justified, I don't care who you're doing it to. It accomplishes nothing."

"What if I'm just tryin' to get the satisfaction of watchin' him squirm?"

"Then you had better keep the word justice out of your mouth, Mr Jones!" Dan roared. "You had better pray that someone stops you before you make a damn career out of hurting people for your own satisfaction!"

Jones bristled. "It ain't like that."

"It is absolutely, unequivocally like that. I have seen it happen. I have seen men make excuses for each other's atrocities and I have seen it destroy them, absolutely and unequivocally. You will not make it out intact. You will not make it out alive."

"Funny, Haywood don't seem too destroyed to me."

"Haywood survived being hanged by the neck for six days, so I don't think he quite counts!"

"What the fuck do you care how I end up?"

"I don't! You can go straight to Hell for all I care! But I will not have you dragging me, and Free, and Tuggey and Gabriel down with you!"

"Y'all can come down with me or die up on that dumbass hill of yours," Jones said coldly. "Haywood's got a real good angle on moral high-ground, on account of bein' up on top of a pile of bodies."

"That's a very pretty metaphor for complete nonsense. I understand the necessity of working out a way to kill him—I'm all for it, by all means, let's put him out of everyone's misery—but the only thing you will accomplish by resorting to torture is the destruction of your own cause."

"Real pretty words, for total goddamn bullshit," Jones sneered. "My cause is pretty damn pleased about gettin' back what's owed to it. One good turn, and all of that shit."

"Your personal pain doesn't give you the right to leverage your authority like this. That man is our prisoner, Jones. There's a minimum standard of decency with which you treat prisoners, regardless of what they've done, or else you pave the way for atrocities. It is easy to hurt people. It requires no skill or nuance or forethought. Torture is easy and useless and regardless of how good it makes you feel, it is not moving us any closer to actually achieving our goals. Even if all you care about is your own personal gain, then you're still shooting yourself in the foot."

Jones ground his teeth. Something cruel and cold glittered in his eye.

"Come to think of it, I changed my mind," he said. "You ain't gonna be wearin' Free, at the end of it all. Free's too much fun to fuck with. But you know what, Gruchy?"

"What?"

"You're gonna make a damn fine coat," said Jones, and spun on a dime, and shoved off down the corridor.

Dan let him go. Once he'd breathed out the red mist filling his head, he went back into the room. Tuggey watched him, scowling, her arms folded and her toe tapping. On the bed, Haywood was still struggling to breathe. Drool was seeping out the corners of his mouth, soaking the gag.

"Dr Tuggey, Mr Jones seems to have taken off," Dan said, curt. "Perhaps you ought to go after him; he seemed to be in a bit of a state."

"Yeah, I heard," she said. "And there is no way in hell I'm leavin' you alone in here."

"You don't trust me not to let Haywood go?"

"I don't trust Haywood not to get loose anyhow."

"Gabriel and Gav can't have gone far. I think I can handle him for the five minutes it'll take you to find them."

"You think, but you can't."

"Let me put it to you this way, then: where d'you think Jones has gone, and what d'you think he's going to do when he gets there?"

Dan hadn't the foggiest what the answer was, but apparently Tuggey did. She pursed her lips, glanced back at Haywood, and let out a long breath through her nose.

"Do not, for any reason, leave him alone in this room, you hear me?" she said, wagging a finger at Dan. "Do not untie him, do not talk to him, do not touch him. Do not get close enough to touch him. You understand?"

"I understand."

"Good." She turned for the door and hesitated. Carefully, she took out Jones' revolver and offered it to him. "I think you better hang on to this. Just in case."

"If Jones is to be believed, it won't do me any good."

"It might not be able to kill the sonnuva bitch, but it sure will slow him down. Plus, this damn thing's so loud, we'd hear it from clear across the county, even if you don't hit him. Take it."

Dan wrestled with himself, but in the end he accepted the revolver from her. "If for no other reason than to keep it out of Jones' hands," he said.

"Not for long, but whatever makes you feel better," she said. With that, and one final glance back at Haywood, she hurried out.

The first thing Dan did was to unload the revolver. He retrieved the box of ammunition from the nightstand. The rounds from the revolver went back in the box, and the revolver went into the drawer. Dan went to the window. It took a good minute of wrestling with the latch, but he did manage to open it.

He tossed the entire box of ammunition out into the mud, shut the window, and dusted off his hands.

"Bloody lunatics," he muttered. 


 

The panic caught up with Michael about forty feet down the hall from his room.

His anger slipped, knocked out of place by the looming thunderheads of Gruchy's temper. Within seconds, he was a gasping wreck. His hands shook too hard to turn his wheels. His vision fogged over. The pounding of his heart rattled his whole chest. He couldn't breathe. He couldn't move. The smell of juniper filled his lungs like hot dust. His skin crawled, everywhere Ryan had touched, everywhere he'd touched Ryan. Breaking bones and muffled choking clogged his ears, sickening. He couldn't feel his fingers. He couldn't breathe.

There was no time for this. Not here, not now. A trembling hand plunged into his jacket pocket. He barely saw the bottle of laudanum.

He didn't know how much he slugged back, but it felt like a lot.

A fresh wave of panic hit along with the bitter taste. He gagged. The bottle slipped through his fingers. Laudanum spilled all over his trousers, the floor. He lurched after the bottle and toppled forward. He landed hard. He couldn't get up. He couldn't breathe. His heart—he'd hit his head, his neck was at a funny angle, was his heart beating? He couldn't feel his own pulse, couldn't get his arms underneath him, couldn't breathe couldn't breathe couldn't breathe—

"Oh, Jesus Christ, Michael!"

Hands closed on his shoulders, and Lindsay hoisted him back into his chair. He was coughing, choking on the laudanum, tears slipping down his cheeks. She said something else, but he couldn't make it out. She touched his face, his wrist, found the dropper clutched in his hand and the laudanum staining his fingers.

"My h—my—Doc, my heart—" he gasped, clutching at her.

She said something, he couldn't make it out. It came with a pat on the chest. She took the dropper from his hand and pressed his fingers to his throat, still talking. Michael's pulse hammered against his fingertips, jackrabbit-quick but strong and steady. Lindsay picked up the laudanum bottle from the floor and put the cap back in it. Holding Michael's other hand, she asked him something, repeated it until it got through.

"Did you take any?"

He managed a nod. His teeth were chattering. Too much, too much, he couldn't afford the numbness, the fog, even if his legs were ablaze with pain, even if his whole body was shrieking with it like wet branches on a bonfire. If he lost consciousness, what nightmare would he wake up to? He shouldn't have left the room, shouldn't have taken his eyes off Ryan, shouldn't have taken any goddamn laudanum—

"Shh, shh, that's all right, it's all right, Michael," Lindsay said, brushing the hair off his forehead, squeezing his hand. "Give it a half hour to kick in, you'll be all right. Just keep on breathin' 'til then."

"Who—" he choked out. "Who's with—we cain't—"

"Gruchy's with him. Don't worry, I'm gonna go right back."

His hand clenched on hers like two gears biting together.

"Don't leave me," he begged.

"Easy, Michael, I ain't leavin'. I ain't leavin' you. How's about you and me go find Oluwaseyi, and then she can go stay with Gruchy and you and me can stay with Free. Think you can manage that?"

He shook his head. "Where—where's Gavin, I—where's my dog?"

"He's back in London, where we left him. We paid off that li'l bell-boy to look after him 'til we got back, remember? We'll go and get him once we got Haywood locked down. Just breathe, Michael, you're gonna be all right."

"I don't—I—Doc, I don't know . . . don't know how much I took, I—I ain't—"

Lindsay looked down at the bottle of laudanum, at the spill on his trousers and the floor. Her jaw clenched. Her lips thinned down to a line. She went behind Michael and put both hands on the back of his chair.

"All right, change of plan," she said, setting off down the hallway with him. "First thing we're gonna do is find you someplace to throw up."

He didn't have enough of his wits about him to object. Lindsay wheeled him along until they found an unlocked room with a water closet. She set him up in front of the toilet and told him to get to it before hurrying off to somewhere—although she promised she wouldn't go far.

Michael made a good faith effort, but being that he hadn't eaten anything since before the party last night, there wasn't much he could do to get the laudanum back up. Lindsay had him drinking water until the moment he passed out.

The last thing he remembered before oblivion was the smell of juniper.

Chapter Text

Dan's pocket watch ticked, slicing the silence into perfect crescents. He'd been alone in the room with Haywood for nearly two hours, with no sign that reprieve was coming any time soon. He kept his eyes anywhere but on Haywood. The hours of confinement were starting to take their toll—Haywood's arms were swollen, his skin waxy. The broken finger looked bad. There were red marks on his throat where Jones had choked him, a split in his lip and one on his eyebrow from where Tuggey had beaten him. The gag was soaked through with spittle. Certain extremities, left exposed to the chilly air, were starting to turn blue.

"D'you know what, to hell with Jones, actually," Dan muttered. He got up, sidled over to the bed, and tossed Casimir's—Haywood's ridiculous opera-cape jacket over his hips, thighs, and unmentionables. "Bloody disgraceful, innit."

Haywood said nothing, just watching him, as he'd been doing for the past hour.

Dan made a face and returned to his chair by the writing desk. He checked his pocket watch—half past eleven, which meant they'd been at this for nearly four hours, and Gabriel and Gav had been gone for at least half of it. He fidgeted. He glanced at Haywood—still watching. He got up and looked out the window. The box of ammunition was still lying in the mud, now soaked by a slow drizzle. He checked his pocket watch again. He went and poked his head into the corridor—empty. He returned to his chair, feeling Haywood's eyes on him the whole way. He checked his pocket watch. He chewed his tongue.

Finally, he broke.

"Would you like something to drink?" he asked.

Haywood studied him with bloodshot eyes, suspicious. He nodded.

"All right," said Dan.

Once again, he crossed to the bed, but this time coming closer, unwisely close. Doing his best to touch as little of Haywood as possible, he untied the gag and extracted it from Haywood's mouth. As soon as it was out, Dan took two quick steps back and levelled a warning finger at him.

"But if you say a word, it's going right back in, d'you understand?"

Haywood worked his jaw and coughed. He let his head fall back against the headboard, eyes closed. He nodded.

"Good," said Dan. He backed up until he was well out of reach. "Lucky you didn't bloody choke on it, frankly."

Haywood didn't answer. Dan went and peeked into the room's washroom, even though it meant turning his back on Haywood.

"Merci," Haywood croaked.

Dan clenched his teeth and glared over his shoulder. Haywood was right where he'd left him, still pathetic, still exhausted. Dan frowned.

"I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that," he muttered.

Haywood kept quiet from then on, but Dan could feel him watching. It made his skin crawl, his stomach bundle up in knots. He found a pitcher of what appeared to be clean water in the washroom, a few cups in the cabinet. He paid close attention to his peripherals as he searched, his ears pricked for any sound out of place. He rinsed the cup out, filled it back up, and brought it to the bedside. Haywood just watched him, caught somewhere between puzzlement and distrust. Dan stood at the bedside and gave him a stern look.

"If you do anything foolish, anything at all, I'll knock you out and have Tuggey back in to handle you," he said. "D'you understand?"

Haywood nodded, swallowed. The tip of his tongue poked out between his lips, though it didn't wet them at all.

"All right," said Dan. "Drink up."

He set the cup against Haywood's lips. Haywood chugged half the thing in one go, and would've kept going if Dan hadn't taken the cup away. Haywood chased it, sputtering and gasping, until the restraints stopped him going any farther.

"Steady on, you'll drown yourself," said Dan.

Haywood gave him a look of such piteous, confused desperation that it cracked his resolve. Dan sighed and rolled his eyes.

"One word," he said. "And only one."

"Why?" said Haywood.

Dan chewed his lip. He stepped back from the bed and leaned up against the wall, cradling the cup in his hands. He averted his eyes.

"I don't hold truck with torture," he said. "I don't care what you've done. It's counterproductive. It's inhumane."

"Even—"

"Ah-ah!" Dan cut him off, glowering. Haywood subsided. "Thank you. The longer you can keep quiet, the longer I can leave the gag out. D'you want the rest of your water?"

Another nod. Dan brought it to him. He drank it down with only marginally less desperation than the first time. When he'd done, Dan returned to the chair by the desk, holding the cup in both hands. Haywood watched him, silent and wary. Dan fought with himself for a good minute and a half before he spoke.

"I'm going to ask you some questions, and you're going to respond to them in answers of one word or less," he said. "Anything more, and I'll gag you again until it's time for your next drink. Understood?"

"Yes," said Haywood.

"Right." Dan sat and chewed his cheek, scraping his thumbnail along the lip of the cup. "I don't expect honesty, but I would appreciate it, if you can muster it."

Haywood didn't answer. Dan took a deep breath.

"Did you mean to set off Gav?"

"Yes," said Haywood, unflinching.

"Well. Chalk one up in the honesty column. Did you really have to put together that whole extravagant mess just to get at Jones?"

"Yes," with considerable amusement.

"Of course. Did you intend to kill him?"

Haywood sobered instantly. "No."

"Did you intend to hurt him?"

"No."

"Then what was it for?"

Haywood made a face. Dan sighed.

"In five words or less," he said.

"Just wanted to see him," said Haywood.

A pang shot through Dan's heart. He took slow, deep breaths, waiting for the pain to subside, waiting for his head to clear.

"Did you ever intend to hurt Gav?" he asked. "One word, please."

"Never."

"Did you kill Bones—er, Brouillard?"

"No."

"Did you kill Christophe? Or any of the James family?"

"No."

Dan hesitated, chewing his cheek.

"Are you in much pain?" he asked.

"Yes," said Haywood.

His hands looked bad, blue fingertips and white knuckles, not to mention the broken finger. The swelling in his arms had turned them both sunburn-pink. Dan could almost feel the strain in his own shoulders, the twinges in his ribcage, the sharp pins in his elbows and the stiffness of his spine. It was stupid, he knew it was stupid, but by God, he'd rather be an idiot than a monster.

"If I let you have one hand free at a time," he said, "five minutes, can I trust you not to—"

"Yes," Haywood blurted. Dan gave him a hard look, but saw nothing in him other than pain, fear, hope.

"All right. But I'm putting significant faith in you, so don't disappoint me."

Haywood shook his head. Dan relocated to the bedside and carefully, carefully undid the knot round Haywood's left wrist. The moment it came loose, he leapt back out of arm's reach; but all Haywood did was cradle the hand to his chest, flexing his fingers and wincing. He rolled his shoulder, his wrist, then shifted his position in the bed.

"Much obliged," he said.

Dan made a face. "Well, as I said. I don't hold truck with torture."

Haywood shifted again, taking some of the strain off his other arm. He kept his eyes down, watching his fingers as he flexed and curled them, as the colour of his skin approached normal. Still, the arm would be useless for an hour, at least, even if it was left free. With the repeated blows to the head, Haywood probably wouldn't be in much state to use it anyway. Dan risked a glance at the door—nothing came of it. Tuggey would have to be back soon, or Gabriel, or even Jones. He could only imagine what the reaction would be if any of them came in and saw Haywood half untied.

He gave it the full time anyway, counting the seconds by the ticking of his pocket watch. Five minutes didn't feel like long odds when they'd already been gone for hours.

"All right," said Dan. "That's your time, I'm afraid."

"Yessuh," Haywood sighed. Wincing and hissing air through his teeth, he put his wrist back at the level of the restraint. Dan scooted up and leaned in to tie it.

The blow to his head was blinding.

Dan staggered back and fell. The world spun. His ears rang. Sparks swam before his eyes. Terror flooded his veins, ice-cold.

"Oh, shit," he gasped, floundering, crawling away. "Oh shit, oh shit, oh fuck—"

There was movement. Dan screamed and scrambled. Haywood came down on him like a ton of bricks. A blade pressed to his throat, a knee pressed on his diaphragm. Blue eyes blazed down at him with hellish fervour.

Haywood grinned.

"Now, Dan," he said, ever so pleasant, ever so composed, "are you gone make this difficult?"

"No," Dan wheezed, not even daring to clutch at Haywood's wrist.

"That's good. It'll all hurt a good deal less if you don't struggle."

"Wait—please—"

The blade vanished. Haywood's hand closed round his throat and squeezed. Darkness swarmed Dan's vision. He thrashed like his life depended on it.

He blacked out.

 

He woke up tied to the bed.

There was a blistering ache behind his eyes. He tasted blood. His knees and ankles were lashed together so tightly that he couldn't move without bones scraping one another. His wrists had been tied to the bedposts. Though he tried to struggle, all he could manage was a discombobulated squirm.

"Afternoon."

He froze.

Haywood was across the room, dressed in Casimir's clothes, wearing Jones' holster and revolver. He got to his feet and plucked an enormous knife off the desk.

"Please," Dan gasped. "Please, no, God, please—"

"Hush," said Haywood. Dan buttoned his lip. He was going to be sick. He was going to scream.

He was going to die, just like Jones had said he would.

Haywood walked to the foot of the bed and stopped, tilted his head to the side. He smiled.

"You think I'm gone kill you, Dan?" he asked, as though he was talking about nothing more consequential than the weather. Dan gulped.

"I . . . think you haven't got to," he said. His voice shook horribly.

Haywood's smile got bigger. "It's very rarely ever been necessary for me to kill anybody. Do you think I want to kill you?"

His hand was relaxed and casual around the knife. The other hung loose at his side, the broken finger held in an impromptu splint. His eyes were bright. There were contusions on his wrists from the restraints.

"I think . . . you do," said Dan. He met Haywood's gaze and held it, forced himself to hold it. "I'd hope that Casimir had more regard for his friends."

Haywood's smile split open. He came round the bed, trailing the tip of the blade along it, and sat down. Dan watched him, only daring to hope because the alternative was unthinkable.

"Oh, Dan," Haywood sighed, indulgent. "Casimir ain't real, honey."

Light gleamed off the blade. Dan flinched. Cold metal pressed to his throat. His heart kicked up to a frantic tattoo. He squeezed his eyes shut until tears came out. He shook so hard he couldn't breathe.

"It's a cryin' shame Michael neglected to load his gun today," Haywood said softly. "Else I could just shoot you and be done with it. You be sure to pass on my regards, when next you see him."

He touched Dan's cheek. Dan braced himself, and thought of Gav.

Warm lips pressed to his forehead. He whimpered. Haywood patted his face.

"Au revoir, mon ami." he murmured.

And then he was gone.


 

As soon as Michael came to, he wished he was dead.

There was a thick, hard pain in his stomach, like he'd drunk down a bucket of pitch. His head was full of cotton, his mouth full of the taste of bile. He felt like he'd been thrown down several flights of stairs and trampled by a cow. He was so dizzy he couldn't tell if he was sitting up or lying down. With a groan, he pried his eyes open—no small feat, as someone had glued them shut while he was unconscious.

"Tuggey, he's awake."

Blinking the blur from his vision, Michael found that he'd been left in his chair. Somebody had tied a towel around his neck, which was dribbled with drool and vomit. Nearby, Free was sitting at a little table, looking back over his shoulder. As Michael watched, he turned back around and flashed a sickly smile.

"Morning, Jones," he said. "Well, afternoon, really."

"Who's with Ryan?" Michael asked, though it came out so slurred there were practically no vowels in it.

Free frowned. "What?"

"Haywood. Who's with him?"

"Still just Dan, so far as I know. We've—and by we I mean Gabriel—she's had a look round for help, but every last officer we had in from Scotland Yard seems to have hooked it, God only knows why. You've been out—probably a few hours, from what Tuggey's said. I wasn't exactly here, when she brought you in."

"Where's Gavin?"

"Er . . . right here?"

"My dog, idjit."

"Oh. Presumably, still in London. I've not heard any different, anyway."

Lindsay came bustling up then, bearing a steaming cup of something. She untied the towel from around Michael's neck and checked his pulse.

"Still pretty damn sluggish, but better," she said. "Free, you wanna wash this towel out?"

"Aw, what, me? Why me?"

"'Cuz Oluwaseyi's been takin' care of you all mornin'."

Free grumbled something, but did take the towel. Lindsay turned back to Michael and continued checking him over.

"How're you feelin', Michael?"

"Like shit," he said.

"I'd be surprised if you didn't. Surprised you're awake, actually. It's only been about three hours."

"Somebody oughtta . . . with Ryan, somebody. . . ."

"Somebody will. Here, I made you some coffee, it oughtta get you feelin' less—"

Michael grabbed her wrist before she could pick up the cup. She jumped and tried to pull back. He tightened his grip.

"Right now," he growled. "Somebody go check."

On the other side of the room, a large, dark blur arose. With some squinting, Michael determined that it was Gabriel.

"I'll go," she said.

"By yourself?" said Lindsay.

"If there was going to be trouble, we would've heard it by now. If I'm not back in ten minutes, you're welcome to come looking for me. Actually, do—do come looking for me, please, if I'm not back in ten minutes."

Lindsay extracted herself from Michael's grip, the better to appeal to Gabriel. "At least take Free with you, ain't no call to go anywhere alone."

"I really doubt that would be any help at all."

There came a distant, offended, "Oy!"

"Well—then let me go with you."

"You're more needed here. Lindsay, I'll be all right. I promise."

Still, Lindsay hesitated. Gabriel crossed the room and took her hand.

"Nothing and nobody has managed to kill me yet," Gabriel said quietly, "and some of them have been trying very hard. Gruchy may be a bit dim, but he isn't stupid enough to let Haywood get loose. If he was, I doubt we would have gone this long without Haywood himself turning up to let us know. Gruchy's still at his post, Haywood's still contained, and I'll be back in ten minutes. All right?"

Lindsay took a deep breath. She squeezed Gabriel's hand. "All right. Ten minutes."

With a smile and a kiss on Lindsay's cheek, Gabriel left. Lindsay watched her go and stayed watching even after the door had closed.

"When's the last time anybody checked?" Michael asked, although his mouth ran out of steam about halfway through and left him mumbling the rest.

"I don't know," said Lindsay, returning to him. "I been too busy makin' sure you don't die. Now, I'm puttin' on my doctor hat. Drink your coffee, and don't argue with me no more."

For lack of anything better to do , Michael complied.

Chapter Text

Almost an hour after Haywood had gone, there came a knock at the door. Dan's heart leapt up into his throat and choked him. He froze solid, though with the stiffness in all his joints, he wouldn't have been able to move much anyway.

"Gruchy?" Gabriel called through the door, and the sound was like a choir of angels.

"I—yes, I'm—yes," he answered. She must have been able to hear his voice shaking, because she burst in on the instant. As soon as she caught sight of him, she, too, froze.

Dan waved, although his fingers were terribly stiff. "Er . . . things have gone a bit pear-shaped," he said. "Which is to say, er . . . sorry."

Gabriel didn't answer. She glanced over the room. With no preamble or warning, she whipped round and threw open the closet door. There was nothing inside. She stood in front of it for a good five seconds before darting to the washroom. That, too, yielded nothing. She hurried back and checked underneath the bed. When she came back up, the steely determination on her face had been replaced with gaunt horror.

"God in Heaven, Gruchy, are you—are you hurt? Is—how long—oh, where's my head, I ought to—"

She started untying the silk tie binding his left wrist to the bedpost. Her hands shook, leaving cold-sweat smears on his wrist and hand.

"Bloody hell, Gabriel, am I ever glad to see you," said Dan, shaking just as hard. "Is everyone all right? No one's—"

"Everyone's fine, we didn't even—how long—?"

"An hour at least, I don't know where he went, he just sort of went, I didn't even—"

"Are you hurt?"

"Hell if I know, do I look hurt?"

The tie came loose. Dan went for the other wrist whilst Gabriel started on the one round his knees.

"You look like you've been knocked on the head," she said.

"I—yes, that's right, he—Christ alive, Jones is going to kill me." He laughed, more from terror than anything else.

"Jones isn't in a state to do much of anything at the moment, so I think you're safe."

"It won't last. I mean it, Gabriel, I think he's actually, literally going to murder me."

"He'll have to go through me first." She got his knees loose and moved on to his ankles. "Anyway, I think we might have slightly bigger problems."

Dan winced. His fingers were much too clumsy to undo the knot round his wrist. Gabriel got his ankles free before he managed it, and came round the bed to help.

"No idea how Haywood managed this, hahah," said Dan, because it was either joke about it or scream until he passed out. "And I've only been tied up for one hour, you'd think, wouldn't you—"

"He didn't," said Gabriel, picking at the knot with her fingernails. She tipped her head downwards. "He cut himself loose—though it does raise the question of how he got hold of a sharp object."

Dan looked down. Indeed, there was a black cravat caught between the bedpost and the mattress, the knot still intact but the fabric sliced clean through. Dan gulped. A cold blue line tingled on his throat, the memory of steel.

"Haven't the foggiest, honestly," he managed.

"You didn't give him anything, or—?"

It hit Dan almost as hard as Haywood had. "Oh, fuck me running, it was in his bloody jacket!"

"Should I ask why you—there, got it, finally."

Creaking and groaning like an old sailing ship, Dan lugged himself to the edge of the bed. His arms curled to his chest and refused to be moved from there. When he tried to get up, his knees wouldn't hold him. Gabriel took his elbows to help. His arms were so tender that it made him flinch.

"Sorry, I'm sorry," said Gabriel, easing him back onto the bedside.

"It's fine, I'm all right, they're only sore."

"Is there something I can do?"

"I just need a moment, that's all."

"You're sure? You really don't look well."

"He knocked me over the head pretty bloody hard, I'm not surprised. Christ, I've no idea how he managed—after four bloody hours like that, he should've been totally incapacitated. It's properly supernatural, that is."

Gabriel didn't respond. Dan sat and nursed his swollen joints, easing them back into function one painful movement at a time. After a couple of minutes, Gabriel sat down beside him.

"How did it happen?" she asked—not accusatory, not frustrated, but frightened, resigned.

Dan sighed and scrunched his face, because his fingers weren't up to rubbing his temples.

"I don't know, really," he said. "Call it a war of attrition. He behaved himself for long enough that I—I s'pose I thought it couldn't hurt if I—no, that's not it, either. He looked like he was in a tremendous amount of pain, and after what Jones and Tuggey put him through, I thought a little human decency was in order. So I covered his—you know, his, er, dignity—with his jacket, which—really I should've known—"

"You might have checked first," Gabriel allowed, "but you couldn't have known."

"Reckon I could've if I weren't thick as a post," said Dan. "Anyway, when that went well, I gave him something to drink and asked him a few questions, and when that went well, I let him have a hand free so the damned thing wouldn't fall off, and when I'd got comfortable with that, he cleaned my bloody clock."

Instead of berating him, to Dan's surprise, Gabriel bit her lip and looked away.

"I'm sorry we left you alone for so long," she said. "Someone should've been here. I should've been here."

"You were looking after Gav. It's my own stupid fault, anyway."

She shook her head. "I was looking after Free for the first two hours. After that, I was making excuses not to come back in here, because I was—frightened."

"Of Haywood?" said Dan, startled.

"Well, that too, I suppose. No, I—I was frightened of what I might have to see Lindsay do. What I might have to come to terms with."

"You didn't think to try and stop it?"

"Gruchy, when people like me stand in front of violence, it doesn't stop for us," she said. "I know that's not a good excuse, but it's what I've got."

"No, no, I . . . that's reasonable," said Dan, uncomfortable. "I reckon nobody could really blame you for that. Or at least nobody ought to."

"And nobody ought to blame you for trying to be decent. In any other circumstance, it would've been the right choice. We shouldn't have left you alone. Any of us."

"Be honest, I almost preferred it to being stuck in here with Jones and Tuggey. Almost, mind you, almost. I don't suppose they've gone on?"

"They haven't. Jones . . . isn't well. Something to do with his heart, Lindsay said."

"Oof, bloody hell, maybe we'd better not tell him, then." At Gabriel's formidable scowl, he added: "Joking. I'm—that was a joke. Or at least a very poor excuse for one, hahah."

Gabriel sighed, shut her eyes, and pulled Dan into a hug. He was suddenly glad his arms weren't working, because he would've had no idea what to do with them.

"I'm glad you're not dead," she said, muffled in his shoulder.

"D'you know, so am I. Might not be a long-term arrangement, though, considering."

"Don't say things like that, Gruchy."

"Sorry."

She sniffled and pulled herself together, straightening up. "We'd better go and break the news to the others. We're not exactly long on time."

"No," said Dan, with a sinking feeling in his gut. "I reckon we aren't."


 

Once Lindsay got done bossing Michael around, she went off to do something about food, leaving Michael alone with Free. The coffee had managed to get him a little less stupid, although it hadn't done much about the exhaustion. He decided conversation was less objectionable than passing out again, and struck one up.

"So what the hell happened to you?" he asked.

"Me?" said Free, startled.

"No shit, detective."

"Well, from time to time I have these little moments, and they're very bothersome. They go away on their own, it just takes a bit."

"I knew that already, I'm askin' you what happened."

Free made a face, fidgeted, sighed. "The trouble, you know, with having a head full of photographs, is that . . . well, it's tremendously difficult to forget anything. Even things you might want to. Sometimes all of a sudden there's too many photographs and not enough—enough grit to compensate. D'you know of the zoetrope?"

"No, the hell's a zowee-whatever?"

"I've got one at home, I'll show you when we get back. It's a device that tricks the mind into seeing motion. There's about two dozen little pictures on a carousel, each in a slightly different pose, and when you spin it, it looks like one picture that moves. My head's full of them, all spooled out on a wheel so big it holds three decades' worth of photographs. Convenient, for when I want to look something up, but sometimes I get . . . stuck. Stuck in a little zoetrope of something remarkably horrible, going round and round and round. Every detail preserved in perfect quality."

"Huh. And when you was all possessed or whatever the fuck, you still got photographs of all that?"

"Regrettably, yes, and I've only just got out of them, so could we save the rest of these questions for another time?"

"It don't matter either way," said Michael."How'd Haywood find out?"

With a wince, Free said, "I told him. When—d'you know, he puts on a very convincing person-act. A sort of a friend and a confidante. He made himself interesting enough to get my attention, then useful enough to keep it, and then somewhere along the way he stopped being Dubois and became Cassie and I've been writing him weekly for the past six months. I—frankly, Jones, I've known he was Haywood since I saw that postcard he sent you."

"Handwritin'?"

He shook his head. "Nothing so obvious as that. He was clever enough to use a different script as Dubois. No, it was something much smaller, the tiniest detail. It's always in the details. Dubois had a favorite pen. It's got a chipped nib. You'd barely notice it, except when he puts a dot. There's a particular asymmetry to it, absolutely distinctive. Recognized it the moment I saw his note to you, but I thought—well, I assumed it must've been that Dubois had met the Vagabond, and the Vagabond had written using Dubois' pen, and that was all there was to it. But then Tuggey gave that description, and . . . I got very willfully stupid about the whole thing."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. A weight settled on him like a quilt stuffed with lead shot. "Been there, done that."

"I suspected you might've," said Free. "And whilst I'm being willfully stupid: did you love him?"

Michael snorted. "If I was any more sober, I'd kick your ass for that."

"Kick being a liberal verb, I presume."

Michael took a half-hearted swing at him. Free yelped and flailed.

"I'm gonna beat your ass to next Tuesday, soon as I'm sober," Michael said.

"While you're not, though. . . ?"

Whatever joy Michael had gotten from that brief exchange dried up. He rolled his eyes and wrinkled his nose. He looked someplace else, because it was bad enough to have Free watching him without having to watch back.

"I was in love with the man I wished he was," he admitted.

"Ah," said Free. "You could have just said no, really."

Michael swung at him again, this time catching him on the shoulder. Free wailed and clutched his arm, halfway out of his chair.

"Ow, that hurt!" he whined.

"That wouldn'ta hurt a goddamn fly."

"It hurt me."

"The hell're you made of, old fruit?"

"I'm a young fruit, thank you very much."

Before Michael could come up with a snappy reply, the hotel room door opened.

And both Gabriel and Gruchy walked through it.

Michael's heart stopped. Time slowed to a crawl. Every detail stood out sharp and bright, cutting through the fog in his head like a knife.

Marks on Gruchy's wrists, from restraints. A rising bruise on his temple. Swollen fingers, a cat-scratch on his throat, a gaunt and fragile exhaustion. The terror on Gabriel's face, hidden under a mask of composure. No blood. No gun. No knife.

No Ryan.

"Where the hell is my dog?" Michael blurted.

"Uh, who's with Haywood?" said Lindsay.

"Dan, Christ alive, what's happened?" Free cried, leaping to his feet.

"I'm all right, B, I'm not hurt—"

"—something of a situation—"

"How can you say you're not—"

"—li'l bit of an understatement—"

Slamming his hand on the table, Michael shouted, "Where the hell is my dog?"

The chatter ceased. All eyes turned to him. He was shaking. The coffee wasn't sitting well. He couldn't tell if the room was spinning, or if it was just his head. He couldn't breathe. Terror sunk its claws so deep into his gut that it pierced his spine.

"Haywood's loose?" Lindsay said.

"Haywood's loose," said Gabriel.

"Michael, we are gonna go and get your dog right now," said Lindsay. "Everythin' else, we'll figure out on the way."

Michael wasted no breath on replying. He backed himself out from the table, or tried to. His arms still weren't working right. Lindsay came to him and pushed him to the door unprompted. Gruchy and Gabriel and Free got out of their way. As they went past, Michael fixed Gruchy with the hardest, coldest look he could muster.

"If that dog is dead," he uttered, "so are you."

In what was probably the smartest move of his dumb little life, Gruchy didn't say a word.


 

It took forever to get a couple carriages from the stables, and forever to get to the train station, and forever to get boarded and in motion back towards the city. The train crawled across the countryside like a caterpillar, stopping every five minutes in every moss-eaten backwater town it came across. Gruchy and Gabriel took the time to explain what had happened. Michael barely listened. It was a familiar enough story.

Seemed harmless. Looked like he was in pain. Thought it couldn't hurt. Should have known better.

Michael only spoke up once.

"What'd he say to you?" he asked, staring out the window at the wet, brown hills, the steely sky, the constant rain.

"Not much, and I don't remember most of it," Gruchy said. "I asked him a few questions, before it all went wrong, but—I don't suppose the answers would mean anything, even if I could remember them. He—I mean, he threatened to kill me. I remember that. He said something about Casimir not being real and something about it being a shame he couldn't shoot me then and there, and then he just—left. I don't know."

"Why couldn't he shoot you then and there?"

"Presumably, 'cos I threw all the ammunition out the window. Or were you not listening for that bit? He's taken your firearm, as well."

"Yeah, and I was listenin' when you said how you gave him his fuckin' knife, too," Michael snapped. "How long before Gabriel came in to get you?"

"Maybe an hour?"

"And he saw you throw my bullets out the window, so he sure as hell coulda finished you off if he'd felt like it. Did he say why he wun't gonna shoot you?"

"I don't remember."

"You remember somethin', now spit it out, you piece of shit."

"Everything I remember, I've already said! I'd tell you if I knew—God knows I've been useless enough already—but I don't know and I can't tell you."

"You did get a good knock on the head," said Free, patting his hand. "Not surprising you've gone a bit blurry about the whole thing."

"That, and it's bloody difficult to remember anything when you're scared out of your mind."

"Jones," said Gabriel, "in your opinion, how likely is it that he'll be waiting for us in London?"

The train hit a bump in the tracks. Michael's stomach dropped and didn't come back up again. He shut his eyes and rubbed his forearm, trying not to be sick. There was a blurred vision in his mind's eye, a lit lantern on an empty table, moonlight spilling through unshuttered windows, a precarious isolation. His hands itched for the scraggly comfort of Gavin's fur.

"Pretty likely," he mumbled. "Unless—did he know where we were stayin' at? 'Cuz if he—shit, he might be followin' us there, we shouldn't oughtta—but—Jesus, I don't know, sonnuva bitch. . . ."

"Breathe, Michael," said Lindsay, putting a hand on his shoulder. Michael slapped it back off.

"Don't fuckin' touch me!" he snarled.

"Christ, all right," Lindsay said, leaning away from him, rubbing her wrist. Michael bit his tongue and swallowed down bile. One more outburst like that, and Gabriel would s—

Skin him alive. Hah hah.

Mousy and cringing, Free said, "He knows your hotel room. I . . . in one of my letters, I told him we could meet there, before the party, if he got here and we weren't at our office."

Michael's stomach reached his boots, dragging all his guts in knots behind it. He turned back to the window. All the anger he'd had ran out of him like water from a punctured canteen.

"Knew I shoulda left that damn dog at home," he muttered.

If any of them could hear how choked up he was, at least they didn't say anything about it.

Chapter Text

The hallway to their hotel room was like the approach to a gallows.

Michael kept his teeth clenched, his throat tight. He'd recovered enough that he could get himself along. Lindsay hovered too close by his shoulder anyway. Free and Gruchy and Gabriel were all behind them, silent and gaunt.

His hands shook too badly to get the key in the lock. Lindsay did it for him. He pushed the door open, braced for the horror, for the ruin.

But not for Gavin to slam into his chest like a cannonball.

"Whoah, shit!" Michael cried, toppling over backwards. Lindsay caught him before he fell and set him upright. Gavin bounced off and tore around the room before jumping back into Michael's lap. He wiggled so hard it was a wonder he didn't come apart, licking all over Michael's face like he hadn't seen him in years.

"Jesus—you fuckin'—hi, howdy, hey, get the fuck offa me, you dumb fuckin' mutt!"

Gavin launched off of him and went bounding around the room again, barking his head off. He crashed into the desk and sent a flurry of newspapers to the floor. He ran back to Michael, who'd recovered enough presence of mind to grab onto him. Gavin set about licking his face like it was covered in bacon grease, wagging his tail so hard he could barely stand up.

"Well," Free sighed. "Thank God for that."

"I never thought I'd be glad to see a dog," said Gabriel.

"Aw, is he growing on you, then?"

"I wouldn't go that far."

Michael buried his face in Gavin's fur, mostly so the others wouldn't see him crying. The musty smell of dog filled his lungs, completely overpowering any lingering hint of juniper or laudanum. Gavin fidgeted and whined and licked his ear, but didn't try to get away.

"You dumb fuckin' mutt," Michael mumbled. "You goddamn goofy moron."

Lindsay put a hand on Michael's back, wordless. Mustering himself, Michael let Gavin out of his lap and went into the room, sniffling. Lindsay followed, and the other three after her. Gavin made the rounds, sniffing everybody's shoes and accepting their affection with a great big doggy smile. Even Gabriel reached down and gave him a cautious pat on the head.

Michael wiped his nose on the back of his hand, putting his face back on while everyone was distracted. Now that the terror of losing Gavin was gone, he could see a little more clearly, think a little quicker. The room seemed to be in order, apart from what Gavin had messed up in all the excitement. Nothing was obviously missing, and nothing was conspicuously new—apart from some doggy nose prints on the window. Relief was replaced by unease, a prickling sensation on the back of his neck.

"Well, Jones," said Free, kneeling on the floor and rubbing Gavin's belly. "What's next?"

"I . . . don't know," Michael admitted. "I ain't got much precedent for shit not goin' wrong."

Lindsay made a face. "Figure we'll just have to wait and see?"

"I don't know about wait," said Free. "We ought to at least take the time to work out where all our Scotland Yard officers got off to after the party, and why. And—if nobody objects—I think we ought to start with that Constable Cartwright."

Gruchy frowned. "Constable who?" he said.

"The fellow who spoke up during Lucien's speech."

"And who the hell is Lucien?" said Michael.

"Lucien, you know, Lucien Faye? I'm sure I told you about him."

"So tell me again."

"He's Dubois'—or, Haywood's—benefactor. Supplied his fortune, living arrangements in Paris, all of that. Apparently he arranged this party, too, although it's unclear if he knew Haywood and Dubois were the same person. We've never been able to work out who he is or where he came from."

"Well-spoken fella?" Michael asked, a tingle under his fingernails. "Put together, unsettlin' as all hell?"

"You know him?" Gruchy exclaimed.

"Oh, sure," said Michael. "That's the Devil."

Everyone in the room—even Gavin—stared at him.

"Oh," Free said faintly. Gavin got up, shook himself off, and started sniffing around Free's face.

"The—" said Gruchy. "The—you mean the Devil?"

"Did I fuckin' stutter? Haywood's sponsor. The Devil. Ain't that fuckin' hard to figure out." Michael squinted, taking in the pale faces, the eyes wide with shock. "Y'all ain't make no deals with him or nothin', did you?"

Free got to his feet. Gruchy took his elbow, maybe to help hold him up. Free rubbed his glass eye. His hands were shaking.

"No," he said, "but not by a very wide margin. Christ alive."

"Small blessin's," said Lindsay. "So then—temporarily ignorin' how Michael's got a firsthand description of him—why and how does a policeman know the Devil?"

Dryly, Gabriel said, "Have you ever met a policeman?"


 

"So," Gav said, over the second round of tea. "I think we're all agreed that talking directly to Scotland Yard about this is a poor idea, yes?"

"Being that all forty officers abandoned their posts, and given your constable's evident familiarity with the embodiment of evil on Earth, I would say yes," said Gabriel.

"If the Thing Himself set up the party, it's a good bet everybody there was on some kinda contract or other," Jones said. "Officers included. Explains how he got 'em all to show up, and why everybody cleared the hell out after Haywood got mentioned."

"Christ alive," Dan muttered, pinching his nose.

Evening was wearing on towards night, and all five of them (plus dog) were still holed up in Jones' and Tuggey's hotel room. Dan was barely holding together, staving off hysterics mainly by force of will. He'd caught a glimpse of a whiskey bottle in one of the cabinets while Tuggey had been making tea, and hadn't been able to stop thinking about it since. At least he could be sure that none of them were going to leave him alone in the room—or possibly any room, ever again.

"But if everybody there was on invite from uh—from Lucien," said Tuggey, "then why would they be scared hearin' about Haywood?"

Jones snorted. "What, you think the Devil looks after his own? They all got double scared 'cuz they realized they was on the wrong end of the game."

"Then why allow us to get at Haywood?" said Gav, scowling at his tea. "It doesn't make any sense. Unless it was planned, in which case—"

"What part of the Devil don't look after his own went over your dumb li'l head?" Jones shot. "We ain't gonna get anywhere tryin' to catch the goddamn Devil himself, and that ain't what we're here for, anyhow. Haywood went someplace, and Haywood's got him a plan, and you can bet your ass we're in it."

"Hoity-toi, Mr Detective," said Gav. "Then why did Haywood let himself get caught, hm?"

Bristling, Jones said, "The hell you mean, let?"

"I mean that according to Dan, he wasn't tied up first thing this morning," said Gav.

"Please don't drag me into this," Dan whispered, putting his face in his hands. What he wouldn't do for just a drop of whiskey, just a taste to numb the sting. . . .

"Which begs the question, Mr Jones: what were you doing all night?" Gav said anyway.

"Don't take a detective to figure that out," said Tuggey. "'Specially havin' put an ear to that door last night."

"It fuckin' worked, din't it?" Jones snapped, rounding on her.

"I'll use one of your own questions, since it's so pertinent," said Gav. "What did he say to you?"

"Same thing he always says: a load of bullshit."

"Bullshit can be exceptionally revealing."

"If it meant anythin', I woulda figured it out already."

"Maybe you would, maybe you wouldn't. Always helps to have a second set of eyes, especially when you've hired them to help."

"Set bein' a liberal word," Jones said nastily.

"Michael, quit bein' a piece of shit and answer the question," Tuggey cut in. "It's suspicious as hell that Haywood stuck around 'til mornin', even more suspicious that he didn't try to kill you."

"No it ain't, 'cuz unlike all of y'all, I know what the fuck I'm doin'."

"And did you know what you were doing when you left Gruchy alone in a room with him?" Gabriel inquired.

"Sure did," said Jones. "If he'da killt Gruchy, we wouldn'ta had to worry about how to get him arrested."

Dan's blood curdled in his veins. Tuggey and Gabriel both shrank back from Jones, their eyes going wide.

"You're not serious," Gav said quietly, pained. "Tell me you're not serious."

Jones took in his expression, the circle of horrified faces. He polished the arms of his chair. He wrinkled his nose.

"Naw," he mumbled. "I was just hurtin' and stupid. Just wanted to get a dose of laudanum 'fore I went back in, and . . . fucked it up. I ain't mean for Gruchy to be th' only one in there."

Gav's eyes narrowed. His expression did not soften. "I see."

"Yeah, I figured that might be it," said Tuggey. Her relief was palpable. "Seein' as I ain't leave the room 'til Gruchy convinced me to go after you."

"'Course he did," said Jones, giving Dan the stink-eye. Dan sat and weathered it, acutely aware of how much easier this conversation would be if he were drunk.

"Look," Gabriel said. "I think we can all agree that mistakes were made on every side. We can continue pointing fingers, or we can work on the actual problem, which is that Haywood has gotten away and we're back to square one. Now, are we going to be adults about this, or are we going to continue blaming each other like children?"

Jones ground his teeth, but at last he said, "I ain't in no fit state to be dealin' with y'all, and y'all ain't in no state to be dealin' with me, neither. We ain't gonna get nowhere tonight."

"Mr Jones, I appreciate your candour," Gabriel said. "In that case: Mr Free, Mr Gruchy, shall we go?"

"I think that's a capital idea, Gabriel," said Dan, lurching to his feet. Anything to be out of this room. The whiskey bottle was burning a hole in its cabinet.

"Oh, you think so," Jones muttered. Tuggey glowered at him and he buttoned his lip. Dog-Gavin noticed that people were in motion, and got up as well. Jones took him by the neckerchief before he could get anywhere.

"We'll meet back at our office in the morning," said Gabriel. "Perhaps once we've all slept, we'll be in a better state to work out what to do about Haywood and the evident corruption in Scotland Yard. I think we ought to stick to our decision not to bring this to the police—it may prove counterproductive."

"Hell," Tuggey muttered. "Guess it could, too. Y'all gonna be all right out there?"

"We'll find a way to keep safe. I hope you'll do the same."

"We'll figure somethin' out. Take care, Oluwaseyi."

Gabriel softened, just a little. "You as well, Lindsay. See you in the morning."

"Uh—what was it, uh, na gode?"

"I think you mean sai gobe," said Gabriel, finding a smile to put on. "Or you could say sauka laufiya, arrive safely. Na gode is thank you."

"Oh, whoops. Sauka laufiya, then."

"Sai gobe, Lindsay. I'll see you tomorrow."

Tuggey nodded, and Gabriel walked out. Dan paused in the doorway.

"Gav?" he said.

Gav stood up, setting his teacup back in its saucer. He took a deep breath and turned to Jones.

"You brought us into this, Jones," he said. "I hope you recognize that it's your responsibility to get us back out again."

"I ain't responsible for y'all and I ain't never gonna be," said Jones. "Y'all want out, then get y'all's damn selves out."

"We both know it's too late for that now."

Jones shrugged. "Shoulda thought of that 'fore you let Haywood get loose."

Gav's lips pinched together. Without a word, he collected his hat and coat and walked out. Dan shut the door behind him. Together with Gabriel, they left the hotel, huddled against the cold and glancing over their shoulders. Dan's stomach was a hard knot. He could still feel the lips touching his forehead, the knife against his throat. His arms hadn't yet stopped being sore.

"What was all that about?" he asked, once they were a couple blocks down the street.

Gav shivered and pulled his coat closer about him. "He was telling the truth the first time, about leaving you in there to die."

"Bloody hell," said Dan, sickened. "Can't say as I'm surprised, but—bloody hell."

"Are you sure?" said Gabriel.

"Oh yes," Gav said. "Like everyone else, he's got a tell. I just hadn't got the context for it 'til now."

"Should I ask what it is?"

"He talks like Haywood when he's lying."

Dan's blood ran cold. Gav kicked a stray pebble, sending it clattering down the street until it splashed into the gutter. Gabriel sank into her coat, her face pinched with disgust.

"Ah," she said. "How desperately, profoundly unpleasant."

"My thoughts exactly," said Gav.


 

A long, cold silence swirled through the hotel room, filling the empty spaces where Free and Gruchy and Gabriel had been. The rain was turning to sleet. Somewhere far away, a clock tolled. Gavin eased himself out of Michael's grip and went to sniff at the door. Michael rubbed the arms of his chair, looking anywhere but at Lindsay.

"Michael," she said.

"What?"

"Did you lie to them, right just now?"

His stomach knotted up. He frowned. "I don't know what you mean."

"I mean whether you left Gruchy in there for Haywood to kill."

"No," Michael lied. "Wish it'd been that purposeful, 'stead of just bein' stupid."

Lindsay pursed her lips. She sighed, looking down into her tea. Her attitude did not soften.

"I got somethin' I'd like to ask you, now that we ain't got company," she said. "And if you yell at me over it, it's gonna be a problem, so don't."

"I'll see what I can do," he said.

Lindsay chewed it over for a good five seconds. When she spoke, she kept her voice down, her eyes on her tea.

"Framed?" she said.

Michael's heart skipped a beat. He fought down the panic, beat back the instinctive outrage that came to replace it. There had been so much strain on his clockwork lately, it was a miracle it hadn't jammed again since the laudanum incident. He just had to keep the gears turning a little longer, just until he could take some time to recover, just until nobody was looking.

Besides, if he fucked this up, Lindsay might not refill said laudanum, come morning. With the way his legs were starting to burn already, that would be a death-sentence.

"What about it?" he said, struggling to keep his voice level. "I told you what happened with all that."

"You ain't exactly account it as framin' me."

"So?"

"So, Michael, which was it? Did you put a couple unwise words out and Jeremy took it the wrong way, or did you frame me for killin' Ray?"

"That's a pretty damn dumbass question, Doc."

"Is it?"

"You think Ryan gave you an honest accountin' of the matter?"

That one landed squarely on her common sense. Lindsay winced, inclined her head. The sickness churning in Michael's stomach crawled up his throat, sludgy with unsaid words. He swallowed it back down. There was a time and a place for all that—and it was never and nowhere. Nobody had to know the truth.

Least of all Lindsay.

"You got anythin' you wanna say, while we're sayin' things?" Michael asked. Hopefully, it would get her to change the subject, and they could move on, and Michael could steal a few moments alone to oil his machinery, piece his slipped gears back together, clean up the wreckage Ryan had left. . . .

But Lindsay, ever the contrarian, shut her eyes and nodded. Gavin went over to her. She rubbed his ear absently.

"When . . . when Risinger came to me," she said, "after they lynched him, it—it looked real bad, from the outside, but wasn't near as bad as it looked. I coulda left him mostly intact, and he prob'ly woulda survived it, discountin' infections and the like. But that ain't even occur to me 'til later. 'Til about an hour before I turned up on your doorstep. I finished what Barb started and I did it without a single twinge of guilt."

Something squeezed around Michael's heart and he couldn't shrug it off. "But it caught up with you?"

"It caught up with me. I ain't been able to outrun it since. Sometimes I can still hear him screamin'. I don't know how I could do that to a person, even a person who'd done what Risinger did, I—I don't know who that was. I don't know who that was, who cut him like a damn gelding and left him there to scream."

"And you went to Ryan with all that 'cuz. . . ?"

She swallowed, green around the gills. "'Cuz I figured he wouldn't tell me I'd been wrong."

"Did he?"

"No. He thought it was all fine and fair, which tells you just about all you need to know about whether it was. But . . . he did send me on to you. Said he couldn't give me the condemnation I needed. Said the most he could give me was secrecy." Something halfway to a laugh escaped her. "And hell, Michael, the man sure can keep a secret."

"Sure," said Michael, "for as long as it suits him."

"For as long as it suits him," she sighed. "Can I—can I ask you one more thing?"

"If you want."

"Do you think less of me? Now that you know."

"Hell naw, Doc. Risinger got what was comin' to him."

Instead of looking relieved, Lindsay shrank into herself.

"Yeah," she said. "I was afraid you might say that."

Chapter Text

Rather than going home, Dan and Gav elected to stay at the office for the night, mainly for the sake of not leaving Gabriel alone. There was no spare bedroom, but she loaned them enough blankets and pillows to be getting on with. Dan didn't expect to be sleeping, but it was a nice gesture nonetheless.

Round about nine o'clock, he wrapped himself up in a quilt like he'd got the 'flu and settled in the waiting room with a pot of tea. Gav and Gabriel continued pretending to be busy for almost an hour, casting occasional covert glances at him. At last, Gabriel bade them goodnight and went upstairs, and Gav came to sit next to Dan.

The low mutter of the gas lamps filled the room. Sleet hissed against the window. Gav took Dan's hand, cold fingers, warm palm. He didn't say anything at all.

Dan lasted a good minute and a half before he broke down into a complete sobbing wreck.

"There, there," Gav said, leaning up against him. "You're all right, B. It's all right."

"It's not," Dan choked. "I thought—I thought I was going to die, I thought—he's out there, and it's my fault, it's my—it's my—"

"Shh, stop that. You were a bit thick, that's all. That big heart of yours gets you into more trouble, I swear. But you're all right. We're all of us all right."

"Not for much bloody longer!"

"Well—nah, I reckon we'll catch him before he does any real harm. It's me, after all, I'm the best there is."

Dan shook his head. "Jones was right, he played us like—like bloody fiddles, all of us—"

"It was only the first try, B. One never gets it right on the first try. We'll get him next time."

"Next time he's going to kill us."

"You don't know that."

"After what Jones did to him? He's going to kill us."

Gav tucked his lips between his teeth and looked somewhere else. Dan shivered, choking on terror, guilt, despair. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed his face, trying to swallow down the sandpaper in his throat.

"God damn it, I need a drink," he muttered.

"It wouldn't help."

"I know it won't help, but it'll make it hurt less when I'm fucking slaughtered."

"For you," Gav allowed.

The pang that shot through his heart had some sense tied to the back of it. Sniffling, Dan straightened up and disentangled his hand from Gav's. He opened the quilt and folded Gav into it, holding him close and warm. They stayed like that for some minutes, neither speaking, while Dan pieced his composure back together.

"Are you all right?" he asked at last.

"No," said Gav.

Dan squeezed him, kissed his hair and rubbed his arm. "What d'you need?"

Gav was shivering, his hands wringing the air like a wet washcloth. "You weren't really planning on sleeping, were you?"

"Couldn't even if I wanted to."

Gav nodded. He took a deep, steadying breath.

"I need you to help me take apart that dress," he said.

Dan took a moment to absorb this. "All right. I assume you've brought it with you."

"It wouldn't very well be anywhere else, would it? It's in my bags."

"Of course it is. Silly of me. Are we expecting to find something in particular, or. . . ?"

"I don't know, Dan. I reckon there's as good a chance we will as we won't."

"If we do, I reckon it could help us get Haywood put away."

"I reckon we don't need any more help, after what he did to you."

"After what we did to him? With him knowing everything he knows? We'd be lucky if they didn't arrest us."

Gav swallowed. "Ah. Right. There is that. And—no, I doubt we'll find anything useful, I just—I just don't want that dress to go on existing. I don't want to leave it intact. I don't want to keep anything he gave me, even if it was important, even if I loved it, even if—even if—"

He broke off, curling into himself. Dan held him close, cursing his own self-centered stupidity. There was no telling how long Gav had been choking on this, waiting for somebody to ask the right question. There was no telling how deep a hole it had burned in his heart.

"It's not really about the dress, is it," Dan said softly.

"I don't want to go back," Gav whispered. "I don't want to go back to living in winter, pretending to be—pretending half of me isn't there, pretending all of me is someone else. I don't know if I can bear it, but—but how can I keep any of it, knowing where it came from? How could anything I got from him be good? Even if it kills me, I've got to cut it off."

"B, listen to me," said Dan. "Haywood didn't give you a damned thing. Everything you've got, you had long before you met him. Just 'cos he helped you find it doesn't mean he's got any claim to it."

"Oh, so if you woke up tomorrow and found out I was a—a monster, you wouldn't worry that there was something wrong with you? That—that buggery was as morally corrupt as everyone always said?"

"Not really, 'cos I already know what's wrong with me, and I know it was much worse when I was married to a woman. A—someone who's a woman all of the—look, the point is, maybe along the way, you've picked up some bad from him, but the fundamental basis of who you are isn't his to ruin. You're you despite him, not because of him."

Gav shook his head and sniffled. A tear chased down his cheek and he wiped it off with his cuff.

"D'you remember what I said, when you were getting all jealous over me and him? I said, I've never met anyone who was so like me. And it was true. I think it's still true. And—and if he's this, then what does that make me?"

"Well, first of all, you were talking about Casimir, not Haywood," said Dan. "Who very obviously was—was fabricated. Whole cloth. I think Casimir was like you on purpose, 'cos I think he got more and more like you the more time went on, probably for the sake of getting into our good graces. Mine, 'cos I like you, and yours, 'cos—well, you also like you, by a rather extraordinary amount."

Gav snorted, and a big glop of snot spilled over his lips. Dan had his kerchief out quick as thinking. Shaking his head, Gav took out his own kerchief and wiped his face.

"I wish I had as much faith in me as you do," he said thickly. "I could've been him, Dan. I was that close to taking Lucien up on his deal. Even knowing who and what he is, it's still tempting. Even after everything I've been through."

"Well, Gav, I reckon that's just the nature of the beast. Nobody'd ever take him up on it if the benefits didn't seem to outweigh the detriments—on the surface at least. But since you've got firsthand experience what the detriments are like, you know better."

"That's not it at all. The—fixing the eye isn't the tempting bit, Dan. It felt—"

He stopped. Dan waited. In his own time, Gav went on, although his voice scarcely exceeded a whisper.

"It felt good," he said. "Having—having Orphinaeus with me. I felt—not strong, necessarily, but powerful. I felt powerful. Like nothing could hurt me. Like I never had to be afraid, or helpless, or—or guilty, ever again. Like I'd never have to be wrong. Christ alive, d'you know how much I'd give to never have to be wrong?"

"I can't say exactly," said Dan, "but it seems like it wasn't quite as much as they were asking."

This gave him some pause. "Well—no. I s'pose not. But if it'd been anything other than hurting people, I don't know that I would've turned it down."

"It wasn't anything else, though. That's the whole bloody crux of it. Even with Jones egging you on, you wouldn't hurt someone."

"I might've done," he admitted. "If you hadn't been there."

Dan bit his tongue. A thousand words seethed in his chest. If he hadn't been so dreadfully sober, he would have spat them all out then and there like a gout of flame—but Gav was still hurting, and Dan was still keyed up to the extreme, and now wasn't the time to get aggressive about it.

So instead, he asked: "Why?"

"Why? Well—I dunno, honestly. I reckon maybe we could've got some information or something out of him."

"Really. What information had we got up to that point?"

Gav opened his mouth. He frowned. "He was being awfully contrarian, though, wasn't he. Jones must've got something out of him after—after I left."

"No. They gagged him and then went on hurting him anyway."

"Oh," said Gav. He fidgeted. "I mean, I reckon that's fair enough. Difficult to do anything to the fellow that's unjustified."

"You can justify doing practically anything to practically anyone, that doesn't make it right."

"B, he's tortured and killed dozens of people."

"All right. Say the next fellow we come across has tortured and killed half a dozen people. Still justified?"

"I mean, I think so."

"And the fellow after that, he's only tortured and killed one person. How about him?"

"You—you could make a case."

"Of course you could. How about the next fellow? He's not killed anyone, but he's hurt an awful lot of people."

"Er. . . ."

"Call it a yes, we can justify it. Sort of a sum-total magnitude of harm, yeah? There's another fellow, he's not killed anyone or hurt anyone, but he looks terribly shifty and he probably knows who done it. I'm sure we can beat the information out of him, all prior experience notwithstanding. This'll have to be the time it works. And it feels like we're doing an awful lot, doesn't it? We're putting in all this effort, we must be getting results."

"Dan, I really don't like where this is going."

"Don't you? It's all justified, I've given you my justifications. Now this next fellow, I don't know if he's done anything wrong, but he's brown and he doesn't like us tramping all over his country, so we'll just convince anybody who'd try to stop us that he's naturally inclined to criminality. Cor, we could convince 'em he's not even human, then we can have his wife and children in, too! And anybody who tells us we're wrong is obviously just too weak to handle it, a traitor to the great glory of England and a liability to our cause, so—"

"Dan, stop," Gav choked.

Dan reigned himself in, only now tasting the fire on his breath. He took his arm from round Gav's shoulders and held his hand instead, giving him the space to get away if he needed to. Gav leaned out from him, but didn't leave.

"Sorry," Dan said. "I got a bit carried away there. I haven't really . . . spoken to anyone about it. At all. Nobody wants to hear."

"Did—" Gav stopped, biting his lip. Dan took a deep breath.

"You can ask," he said. "Might as well."

Carefully, Gav said, "It was in the army, yeah?"

"Yeah."

"All those fellows you got sent home with? The boat full of blokes too mad to stay on?"

"The very same. About ninety percent were like me—seen too much, had one too many mortars go off next to their heads. Most of the others had been tortured. There were five who . . . were torturers. They'd started with the Afghani soldiers before moving on to civilians and then . . . well, then anyone who tried to get them to stop. Sometimes each other."

"A slippery slope, eh?"

Dan shook his head. "I don't think so. I think it was just the same as what—as what Haywood did with me. A war of attrition. Seeing what the rest of us would let them get away with, and then pushing in by inches and degrees until we'd given all the ground we had. The whole bloody regiment started falling apart, 'cos the rest of us had to pick up their slack and do our own jobs and watch our every bloody step to keep from winding up in the. . . ."

"The wrong place," Gav said softly.

"The wrong place," Dan agreed. "Our Major had the central group split up and put under supervision, and they . . . collapsed. Without the constant pressure and reinforcement, without the—the fraternity they'd built up, they fell apart. As though they'd forgotten how to do anything other than torture people."

"What happened to them?"

"They're dead," said Dan.

Gav blinked. "What, all of them?"

"All of them that were on my boat. Drink or opium or suicide, for the most part. I don't know if it was guilt over what they'd done or—or just thinking it was weak to ask for help. I'm inclined towards the latter. None of them ever showed much capacity for guilt that I saw. I'll grant, our fellows who—who went through it, they didn't fare much better, but at least a few of them have survived. Maybe only 'cos people back home find victims a bit easier to stomach."

Chewing his lip, Gav rubbed Dan's hand with his thumb. His sighted eye was on the side opposite Dan, so if he was looking at something, it was hard to tell what it might be.

"You can ask," Dan said again, more quietly.

"Were you involved?" said Gav, and he was terrified.

"I knew it was happening," Dan admitted. "I never saw it. I very, very purposefully never saw it. That was my excuse not to do anything about it. I wish I had. It might've put me in the ground, but . . . I wish I had."

Gav leaned against him again, letting out a poorly concealed sigh of relief. "I'm sorry, Dan."

"Just promise me you won't fall in with Jones and Tuggey. Promise me you'll not take up hurting people just 'cos you can justify doing it."

"I promise," he said. The lack of hesitation was heartening. "But—Dan, you know this isn't really an equivalent situation, yeah? This isn't the army. There's six of us, not a whole regiment. And there's only one of Haywood."

"I know. Maybe I'm a bit over-sensitive to the whole thing. I just—I can't let it happen again. I can't stand by and do nothing. If I'd stopped all this sooner, maybe Haywood wouldn't even have got away."

"'Cos you wouldn't have felt compelled to help him?"

"'Cos being decent to him wouldn't have put him in a position to get loose. And I'm still not convinced he would've tried. It's like you've been saying all along—he wanted to get caught. Maybe he was expecting Jones to shoot him, I don't know, but if I suddenly found myself looking down the barrel of days or weeks of torture, whatever I'd been expecting, I'd be pretty bloody motivated to get the hell out."

"You can't just throw in a you were right, Gav and expect me to be convinced. This is a bit on you, you know."

"I know it's on me. Of course it's on me. I just—ninety percent, all right? Just let me hand ten percent of this to somebody else. Let me at least believe that it's not completely my fault. That I'm not the only one in the wrong here."

"No, it's about a seventy-thirty split, at most. I mean, if I'd listened to you and Gabriel from the start, we would've had Haywood in proper custody before the party was even done with."

Dan squeezed his hand and kissed his head.

"I appreciate that. I know it's not easy for you to admit."

"Good, thank you, it really isn't."

"Still feel like taking that dress apart? I could use something to do with my hands."

"Yeah, might as well," Gav sighed. "Reckon we all know what they say about idle hands."

"That's not funny," said Dan.

"I wasn't being funny," said Gav.


 

Michael found himself on a stage of ember.

A low crackling suffused the air, logs on a dying fire. Tendrils of smoke rose around him. Sparks drifted through the air like fireflies. He turned slowly, taking in the blackened walls, the soot-stained brick, the smoldering curtains. The stage crunched like gravel under his boots, each quarter-step sending a ripple of orange light scurrying away under the ashen mantling.

Behind him, he found an audience.

There must have been hundreds of seats, all smoldering and crackling, lined up in neat, ravaged rows. A shadow sat in each one, a translucent figure of smoke. Above, a balcony stretched back into the dark, more smoke, more ember. As Michael watched, the shadowy figures began to take shape.

In the front row, a couple, a woman and a man. Her jaw had been torn off, his throat flayed apart. Their entrails sat in their laps, spilled out like popcorn. Beside them, a middle-aged man—drenched in blood, sawed open from waist to jaw. Between his exposed ribs, Michael could see his heart stuttering, floundering like a bird with a broken wing. Next to him, a young woman, pale and startled, a vapor of blood floating around her head like a halo, a thin red dribble tracing from the underside of her jaw to the low neckline of her dress.

And there were more—all ages, all races, all mutilated, all watching him. The seats filled, the balcony, the boxes. Michael backed up. His heart lodged in his throat. His hands shook. His legs would barely hold him.

There was one empty seat, front row center. Leaned up against the armrest next to it, ash and coal and blistered metal, sat a long-nosed Carbine rifle.

I tried, he whispered to no one, to all of them. I tried, it ain't my fault!

A hand closed on his arm.

Michael screamed and whipped around. Trevor lunged at him, snapping at his throat with the half-mouth he had left. Michael shoved him back. Bits of brains and skull spattered on him. Trevor's tongue lolled from the blasted ruin of his face. The remaining eye was bright with fury, hatred, betrayal. He clawed at Michael's throat, howling in agony. Michael fought. Fingernails pierced his right forearm. He kicked and struggled and at last threw Trevor off. He lost his footing. He fell in a puff of soot.

Hands burst from the blackened stage. Michael screamed again. Alfredo clawed his way from the ash, blood pouring from his empty eye sockets. Michael scrambled to get away. His legs weren't working. His arm was rigid with pain. Alfredo grabbed him by the throat. Trevor shambled to them, dropped to his knees and ripped at Michael's belly. Michael thrashed and screamed but couldn't throw them off. Alfredo bore down, choking him. Trevor's fingers pierced his belly. Something bit his arm—Heyman, red and messy, and after him came Turney, and the Hullums dragging their guts behind them, and Heyman ripped a chunk of flesh from his arm and Trevor plunged a hand into his guts and his throat collapsed and his chest caved in and he couldn't breathe couldn't breathe couldn't breathe—


 

Michael woke up screaming. His arm was agony. Blood soaked his sleeve. He couldn't move his hand. His trouser leg was drenched, his chair, his shirt. The stench of blood and sulfur engulfed him, choking.

Suddenly Lindsay was there, Lindsay crying out in horror, peeling back his sleeve. He couldn't look away. Blood poured from his arm. Bone showed through the gash. Gavin clambered into his lap, trying to lick the blood from his arm and hand. Lindsay shoved him off. Michael's ears rang, deafening. All he could feel was pain. His world narrowed down to a pinpoint. The room faded. Lindsay's voice faded. Sensation faded. Like a pea squeezed from its hull, Michael slipped out his own ear and landed with a soft squelch on his left shoulder.

His right forearm was a bloody wreck. The scar had split open, as fresh and as deep as the day it was carved. The fingers of his right hand were curled like the legs of a dead spider. His skin was milk-white under the blood. It was a lot of blood.

Lindsay darted over, carrying one of the pillowcases from the bed. She twisted it into a rope, wound it around Michael's arm so tight it made the fabric creak. She was crying. Her breath came short and sharp. Her hands were bloody up to the wrist. She was talking, but the words were muffled, underwater. It didn't matter much; he was too far away from his own mouth to talk. He looked around and saw that she'd leashed Gavin to the bedpost. Gavin was straining to get back to Michael, barking and whining—although that was hard to hear, too.

Lindsay grabbed the back of Michael's chair and turned him around, pushed him to the door. Michael tried to call out for Gavin. His mouth didn't move at all, and if he made a sound, he couldn't hear it. With a mighty thrash, Gavin slipped his bandanna and bolted through the door before it closed behind them. Michael settled in against the side of his own head to watch as Lindsay rushed him off, Gavin loping alongside.

There wasn't much else he could do.

Chapter Text

"It ain't great," said Lindsay, in the understatement of the whole damn century.

Michael was propped up in his hospital bed, a condition that was all the more unpleasant for being familiar. His right arm was bandaged up to hell and back. He'd been drifting in and out of consciousness for a long time, he wasn't sure how long, only that a lot of nurses and doctors had come and gone again. Lindsay hadn't left him. She hadn't let them take Gavin away, either. Gavin himself was lying next to Michael in the bed, snuggled up under his arm with his chin resting on Michael's leg. He hadn't even gotten up when Free and Gabriel and Gruchy had filed in, although he'd given the bed a good thumping with his tail.

"No shit, it ain't great," Michael said. His voice came out weak and shaky. He bit back revulsion at the sound of it.

"Do we know what happened?" Gabriel asked.

"Not a damn clue," said Lindsay. "First I knew about it was wakin' up to him screamin' bloody murder. Wasn't a soul in the room with us, nor anythin' sharp anywhere near him."

"I ain't do it to myself, idjit," Michael said, anger driving back the better part of his exhaustion. "If y'all'd just ask, I know what happened."

Lindsay turned to him. "Sorry, Michael. Go on and tell us."

Michael glanced over all of them, their expectant faces and suspicious eyes. Gruchy wouldn't look straight at him, which was for the best, because if Michael had been forced to confront that damn pitying look head-on, he would've climbed out of bed and wrung Gruchy's neck. He played with the fur behind Gavin's ears and turned his attention instead to Free.

"Haywood's got his right hand back," he said.

Gabriel frowned. "What do you mean byback?"

"Yeah, it seemed in reasonably good condition," Gruchy said. "Good enough to be making dresses, at the very least, and I never saw him have troubles with it. D'you mean the missing fingers?"

"No," said Michael. At this rate, he'd be up and about in ten minutes, powered by the flames of pure rage. Even with one arm and no legs, he was pretty sure he could get a couple good hits on Gruchy before Gruchy started hitting back. It would be worth it for the pure satisfaction of smashing his mustache through the back of his head.

An awful snap, like a carrot breaking in half between his fingers, warm and fleshy and with so much screaming inside. . . .

Michael shuddered. He swallowed down the taste of bile. His fingers, seeking better occupation, smoothed down the hair on the back of Gavin's neck. The anger in him bled out, leaving him paler and colder than before.

"Now, be fair to him, that handdid get all burnt up," said Lindsay, filling in the space of his silence. "But it stands to reason he woulda got it back before now—and apparently did. It don't make a whole lotta sense to assume Haywood's got anythin' to do with this."

"I really think we ought to hear him out," Free said quietly. All eyes turned to him, but nobody objected. Gruchy shrunk into his shirt like a tortoise. Michael nodded to Free, keeping his face stony—although something in his chest was threatening to rip loose, something with pressure behind it.

"Haywood did this," he said. Without his rage to sustain him, he was starting to fade, and stringing full sentences together was getting harder. "Night he killt Heyman. Made some kinda deal to fix it. His hand for mine. 'S how it got burnt up in the first place. My hand's back to bein' fucked. Means his is back to bein'. . . ."

"Not fucked," Free filled in.

"Yeah."

Lindsay made a face. "Don't explain how he was makin' dresses in the meantime."

"Was his hand functioning when you were with him, Mr Jones?" Gabriel asked.

"I don't fuckin' know," Michael sighed. His eyes drifted closed of their own accord. He didn't bother to open them again. What was the point of all this, really? Ryan had his hand back. Michael's was ruined. He was down three limbs and most of his blood. There was so little left that Ryan could take from him, and it was only a matter of time before he got around to it, so why not spend the last days resting, just resting here with his dog and his laudanum and his one working hand?

"It wasn't functioning in the morning," Free was saying. "The left one, yes, but even when J—even when his finger got broken, he wasn't moving the others on the right hand. I doubt he could. Jones, to your knowledge, were his deals renegotiable?"

"I don't know what that means."

"Could he change the terms."

A gear caught. The machinery in Michael's head winched his eyes back open. His heart beat a little less sluggishly. A breath of air swept the dust from his clockwork.

"I'll bet he could, too," he said. He shrugged his right shoulder, though it sent a shock of pain through his forearm. "Been achin' somethin' fierce these past few weeks."

"With increasing intensity and frequency?"

"Yep."

"Now that I'm thinking about it, his hand seemed rather stiff when we saw him earlier in the evening."

"'Course it did. He traded it for me. Explains why it took him six months to write. He ain't wanna give up his hand that soon. Din't want me knowin' he was still alive, neither, which is why he ain't make the full trade back."

"But now that you already know, he's got nothing to lose."

"Sure. That, and it's gonna be that much harder to catch him with one hand outta commission."

"Oof, hadn't thought of that. Of course he'd be eager to put you in hospital. Being able to do it remotely—even better."

"I really don't think that's how it happened," Gruchy cut in.

Michael glared at him. "Nobody gives a shit what you think."

"Well, actually, I do," said Free, clipped. "Go on, Dan."

Gruchy fidgeted. He looked to Gabriel, who nodded an encouragement at him. He took a deep breath and huffed it out again. He spoke to the space above Michael's head.

"It's just that—Lucien doesn't seem the sort—the—you know who I mean, he doesn't seem the sort to explain the full consequences of—of anything unprompted, and after what Haywood's been through, I don't think he would've asked. I reckon he felt—you know, powerless and in pain, and he was desperate to be . . . less that. And if he traded the hand for you last time, he'd have no reason to believe, would he, that it'd be different this time. You were gone again, after all, so—yeah. No, I don't think it was on purpose at all. He wasn't thinking about anyone but himself."

Michael blinked.

"That . . . makes sense," he said.

"You needn't sound so surprised."

"How'd you figure all that?"

Frowning, Gruchy said, "I thought it was obvious."

"Gruchy's a very talented judge of character," said Gabriel.

Gruchy turned a look on her that could only be described as: Really?

"Of emotional state, then," she conceded.

"Huh," said Michael. "Ain't like it matters too much anyhow. The facts ain't changed."

"I think it most likely does matter, actually," said Gabriel. "It's the difference between Haywood knowing you're out of commission and him not knowing."

"I ain't outta commission."

"Yes you damn well are," Lindsay said.

"Fuck you. Soon as the laudanum wears off, I'm gettin' the hell outta this white shithole. Ain't got time to lie around."

"You're gonna make time, you damn stubborn jackass, or else I'm gonna tie you to the goddamn—"

While Lindsay went on scolding, Gruchy leaned over and muttered something in Free's ear. Free gave him a skeptical look, and Gruchy shrugged.

"D'you know, Jones, I've just thought of something," Free said, when Lindsay paused for breath. "With you in hospital—and if Haywood's as unaware as Dan thinks—all of a sudden, now, he won't know where to find you. I'll bet he wouldn't even think to look here."

Michael narrowed his eyes. "You really think of that, or did Gruchy just tell you to say it 'cuz I wouldn't hear it from him?"

Both of them got a panicked look, exchanged a glance. Michael snorted.

"That's what I thought. All y'all go the hell away before I get pissed off."

"But—" Free began.

"Whoops, now I'm pissed off," said Michael. "Get the fuck outta here."

"No, but—"

"I think y'all best mosey on," Lindsay said. "Michael's been through a helluva lot, he needs his rest."

"You can fuck off, too."

"Uh-huh, sure. Free, you wanna finish your thought before you go?"

Free pouted, drew himself up, and said, "I did say it 'cos you wouldn't hear it from Dan, 'cos he was right and you needed to hear it."

"If you're gonna suck his dick that hard, get a room," Michael sneered.

"And that's our cue to go, cheers," said Gruchy. He took Free by the shoulder and steered him for the door. "Dr. Tuggey, thank you for keeping us appraised of the situation. We'll keep looking for Haywood whilst Mr. Jones recuperates."

"Much obliged," said Lindsay. "I'll walk y'all out."

She offered her arm, and Gabriel took it. Together, the four of them left. Their conversation continued just outside the door, slightly too muffled for Michael to make anything of it.

He passed out again before Lindsay came back.


 

Michael slid back into consciousness late that night when the rain stopped. Moonlight spilled in through the windows, painting the room blue and silver. Lindsay had fallen asleep in the big armchair with Gavin in her lap.

Somebody else was standing just inside the doorway, watching him with bright eyes and a cold smile. Michael's chest squeezed down so tight it nearly collapsed his lungs. His legs tingled. His right arm ached. All the hairs on his body stood on end, like there was a storm coming.

It was not Ryan, but the resemblance was so uncanny that there was only one person it could be.

"You said you wouldn't come after me," Michael said, keeping his voice down, keeping one eye on Lindsay and Gavin to make sure they were still breathing.

The Devil shrugged, smiling. "Technically, I haven't," he said. Michael's heart stuttered. The voice sounded just like Free's.

"Then what the hell are you doin' here?"

The Devil's eyes twinkled. Michael glanced at Lindsay and Gavin again.

"You needn't worry about her," said the Devil. "She's asleep. For that matter, so are you. If you're uncomfortable with the setting, we could continue this conversation somewhere else."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. "And what'll it cost me?"

"Well, you'd have to have a conversation with me. Call it five minutes of your time. Nothing more, nothing less."

"Five minutes of my attention, right now, for this conversation," said Michael, pinning his full focus on the Devil. "And afterwards, I come right back here, unchanged."

"Unless you agree not to. Fair?"

"I ain't goin' anywhere with you if you're gonna get threatenin'."

"That wasn't a threat, Michael," he said softly. "You would know a threat from me, if you got one. We'll talk somewhere else for five minutes, beginning once we've left here, and then you will return here, as sound of mind and body as you are now, unless you have agreed not to. Is that amenable?"

Michael chewed it over. He watched Lindsay and Gavin, fast asleep, breathing slow and steady. He clenched his teeth and focused on his own breathing.

In for seven. Out for eleven.

"Fine," he said.

"Wonderful!" said the Devil. He gestured, and an archway opened in the wall, leading to a foggy alleyway. "Walk with me, won't you?"

"Even if I'm goin' with you, I sure as hell ain't gonna be walkin'."

"Michael, you are dreaming, you know. We needn't constrain ourselves with the shackles of reality. I can let you walk again, at least for as long as we're together. Free of charge."

Michael stared him down. "If I'm gonna go anywhere," he said, like he was talking to an idiot, "I'm gonna need my chair."

The Devil relented and waved his hand again. With no shift or motion, Michael was in his chair. Holding that victory close to his chest, he set off. Every push sent a shock of pain through his right arm. It was bearable—barely, but he could make it five minutes. The Devil fell into step beside him. As soon as they crossed onto the cobbled street, the archway into the hospital room vanished behind them.

"As I was saying," the Devil said, "the reason I'm here, Michael, is that you and I have a smidge of unfinished business. By my accounting—which is tremendously precise—you have one more question, and I still owe you one answer. I do apologize for not getting back to you sooner, but I have been very busy. Still, I thought to myself: Michael seems like he could use an answer right about now."

Michael kept his eyes forward. The cobbles rattled his bones, jamming pains into his spine like needles. He couldn't grip well with his right hand, couldn't do much more than mash the meat of his thumb against his wheel and shove, and it was getting more and more unbearable every time. The streets were deserted. A bright moon stared down from a starless sky. All the lamps around them were dark. He thought, very carefully, about what he was going to say next.

"I don't see what's in it for you," he said.

"Fairness, balance, symmetry, all those lovely things," said the Devil. "I hate to leave loose ends, and I especially hate to go back on my word. There's no point in making deals if I'm not going to hold up my end of them. You've got one more question, by rights, as per our agreement—and as per our agreement, I must answer it truthfully."

"I recall," said Michael. "Supposin' I don't take you up on it, though."

"Oof, well, then this is going to be a rather awkward five minutes, isn't it?"

"Uh-huh, and then you're gonna turn up whenever it's least convenient to pester me again."

"Come now, Michael, let's not be coy. I'm not here 'cos I want something—that's bad business. I'm here 'cos you want something."

"I want a helluva lot of things, and none of 'em from you."

The Devil clicked his teeth, shaking his head. "Tsk tsk, we both know that isn't true."

"How the hell do you—" Michael cut himself off, almost swallowing his tongue. The Devil turned a knowing, twinkling eye on him.

"Yes?" he said.

Michael took a deep breath, seven by eleven. His wheels were cold in his hands, rimed with ice.

"You don't know what the hell I want, and you don't know who the hell I want it from."

"A daring supposition! I know an awful lot of things, Michael. I could tell you any one of them. The secrets of the universe are at your very fingertips! But of course, you don't care about those. The secrets or, apparently, the fingertips."

A volley, a deliberate prod. Michael didn't fire back, chewing his tongue. His breath fogged in front of his face. Something wasn't right. Something about the space around them was winding him up, winching his springs too tight and straining his gears. The shop windows were empty. Every sign above every door was blank. The shadows, spilled molasses-thick into alleyways and under sewer grates, were. . . .

Moving. Teeming with movement, like every space the moonlight didn't touch was filled to the brim with millions of black ants. There were no eyes, but Michael could feel them watching. There were no mouths, but they were hungry.

"A darin' assumption," he said, buying the time to figure out what was going on.

"Is it? I suppose so. I only thought you might be interested in knowing what happened to God and the legions of Heaven, that's all. Where the real loophole lies in Ryan's deal."

It was tempting bait, but Michael still didn't rise to it. He watched the shadow of a lamppost as they approached it. When he passed, he stuck out his uninjured hand.

It was like sticking his fingers into cold honey. Michael's stomach twisted. He yanked his hand back. The shadow clung to it like tar until Michael wiped his hand on his trousers. His fingers came away stained with rust, as raw as if he'd swiped them across a steel file.

Maybe some mysteries were better left untouched.

"I can see it doesn't interest you," the Devil sighed. "It's tremendously frustrating, what you're doing. I do so hate guessing games. I'm trying to be courteous, and you're ignoring me."

"I'm thinkin'," Michael snapped. "And if you knew as much as you say you do, you'da known that."

"And if you were as smart as you thought you were, you'd know I can tell when you're lying to me," said the Devil. "Time's a-wasting, Michael my boy. You did only want five minutes, so . . . tick, tock, hahah."

Michael stopped right in the middle of the road and turned to face the Devil. The Devil mirrored the motion, hands in his pockets, watching with an idle and vicious curiosity.

Like a child, Michael thought, cutting up field mice in the barn with his mother's kitchen knives.

"What are the conditions," Michael said, "under which your deal with Ryan Haywood breaks?"

The Devil grinned a great gleaming alligator grin. He leaned back on his heels and shook his head.

"Oh, very good, Michael," he said. "Now you've got the idea."

"I want my answer," said Michael, clenching the arm of his chair—one arm, because he couldn't move his right hand at all.

"Before you get too invested, might I propose an alternative?" the Devil said. "Give up your answer, and I'll give you back the use of your right hand. As though the injury had never occurred."

Michael's heart leapt, even as his stomach plunged. The pain in his forearm rose up red and angry, swelling out to fill him to the shoulder. Blood was soaking through the bandages. His legs were starting to jitter, more pain, more points of weakness. No dog, no gun, just a chair he could barely move and a lot of empty talk, and the hand he had left wasn't even the one he could shoot with. But even if he had everything, dog and gun, allies and arms, none of it would help him put an end to Ryan. It was just more to lose.

"What if I want both?" he said.

The Devil's eyes grew bright. "Risky business, but it can be done—for the right price, of course."

His guts knotted up with dread. "Whose?"

"You know whose," the Devil said.

Horror settled over him like a snowfall, cold and suffocating. Of course, Lindsay's. Of course, because who else did he care for enough to make it matter? Maybe it would look like an accident, or maybe there would be no clear reason at all. It could stay between just him and the Devil, forever. Maybe she'd be more sympathetic if she had a little pain of her own to follow her around. How much use was her right hand, anyway? Michael needed his, if he was going to stop Ryan. He needed his answer. What was one hand in the grand scheme of things, when dozens of lives were at stake?

"How soon?" he blurted, shivering all the way through his chest. The Devil's smile only grew. His eyes were glass, dead and empty. Michael's stomach churned.

"Let me put it to you this way," he said. "I charge interest. So—really, as soon or as late as you want."

"What—what're the charges?"

"That depends on how long you make me wait, doesn't it."

Michael sucked down a deep breath. He kept his hand clenched on the arm of his chair, held his pain close and sturdy like a shield. He couldn't look at the Devil as he said it.

"I want my answer," he said. "And nothin' else."

"Then you'll have it."

The Devil leaned in, still smiling, his palms pressed together as though in prayer. He spread them like a book and revealed a clock face sketched out in golden light. It showed one minute to midnight, with the second hand just ticking past eight.

"But you'll have to stay a little longer," he said softly. "Is that all right?"

Michael bit his tongue. Here was his opportunity, golden and shining, and if he passed it up, would he ever get another?

Ten, nine, eight.

But he couldn't just agree, not without bargaining—who knew how long he'd be there, or if he could get back. Even if he was dreaming, would he ever wake up?

Seven, six, five.

Damn the Devil, damn him straight back to Hell, damn his smug little smile and his sparkling eyes, damn his sweet little hands and his sweet little words and his sweet little games—

Four, three, two, one—

"No," Michael blurted.

He jolted awake to the sound of a clock tolling. He was back in bed, tucked under the covers in the lamplit hospital room. Thin dribbles of rain skated down the windows, casting long orange shadows across the floor. Michael looked down at his left hand, the one that had touched the shadows in his dream. The fingertips were still scraped raw. A shudder ran through him. On the chair, Gavin lifted his head and sniffed.

"I'm fine, boy," Michael said, keeping his voice down, clenching his fist to hide the injury. "Go back to sleep."

Instead, Gavin creaked down off of Lindsay's lap and stretched. She shifted, but did not wake. Gavin moseyed over and climbed up onto the bed with Michael. He gave his face a cursory sniff. Michael patted his shoulder. Appeased, Gavin flopped down next to him, tucked his nose under his paw, and fell right back asleep.

"Dumb dog," said Michael.

His eyes drifted up, back to the armchair. Lindsay lay still, her chest rising with a slow breath. Her hair was mussed, frazzled, pulled down from its habitual bun. The shadows of raindrops skated down her face, tracing out full cheeks, thin lips, a faint dusting of stubble on her jaw. As he watched, she frowned, wrinkled her nose, shifted again. Her right hand came up from where it had been pinned against the chair by her hip. The fingers were pale, too pale, like no blood had been reaching them. Michael gulped. His own right arm tingled, imagining the sensation. He watched until her nail beds turned pink again. He scratched Gavin behind the ears.

"Boy," he whispered, "if I ever think some dumb shit likkat again, you better bite me."

Gavin's only response was a fart.

Chapter Text

It had been five days since Haywood had disappeared, and yet there had been no sign of him.

Jones was still in hospital, recuperating from whatever had happened to his arm, and Tuggey was sticking to him like glue. Gav and Dan had continued to stay at the office with Gabriel, which was driving all three of them up the wall. It didn't help that all efforts to track down Haywood were at a complete standstill.

The police didn't know anything and refused to find out, some of them going so far as to mock Gav for the complete failure of the party business. If they had been unhelpful fools before, now they were snide unhelpful fools. Even the Paris police told them, through a brief telegram exchange, to get fucked—Monsieur Dubois had cleared out two weeks ago, they said, several thousand francs in debt and neck-deep in charges of sodomy, and they didn't want him back. Gav had been so distressed by this news that he'd wired the Ravin Rouge, where Casimir's illicit business had most often taken him and which was populated almost entirely by innocent, cross-dressing bystanders.

There had been no reply.

None of their network of informants in London had seen anything, either. They promised to keep an eye out and to spread the word that Haywood was a person of interest—and to be avoided at all costs—but not a one of them had any clue where he might be. No mysterious or gruesome corpses had been found. No charming young man selling leather coats had turned up, either.

Such was their desperation that they'd turned to the Press, begging for scraps on where Blake Belladonna or Karine Jenzen or any surviving members of the Brotherhood of Ephemera might have fled. Every lip was sealed, though it was impossible to say whether it was due to deliberate recalcitrance or plain ignorance.

All the while, Dan watched as the immediacy of the threat faded from everyone's mind but Jones'. Gav had started browsing the papers for other cases, late at night when he thought no one was looking. Tuggey and Gabriel were easing back into their careful courtship, one soft word at a time. Even Dan had caught himself walking out alone, more preoccupied with remembering what he needed to pick up from the grocer's than with the possibility that he'd be murdered.

Jones, of course, noticed all of this, and called them all idiots, and was completely unable to do anything about it.

On the evening of the fifth day, while Dan and Gav were bickering over what to do for supper, Gabriel came downstairs with a couple of valises in hand.

"Going somewhere?" Gav asked, hovering between puzzled and accusatory.

Dan elbowed him. "Don't say it like that."

"I am, actually, going somewhere," said Gabriel. "I think we're all three of us sick of being cooped up in here together, and I'm sure the both of you would like to go home for once. I've decided I'll be staying with friends until this whole thing blows over."

"Sensible enough," said Dan.

"You've got friends?" Gav exclaimed.

Gabriel raised her eyebrows. "Yes?"

"Since when? You've never talked about them."

"No, I haven't, as I prefer to keep my professional and personal lives separate. I assumed you did the same."

"You assumed wrong, then. We've got one friend, and it's you."

"Well—I don't know if that's quite true, B," said Dan, uncomfortable. "You've got friends, anyway."

Gav waved him off. "Acquaintances at best. Correspondents, really."

"A load of them came to your wedding."

"Yeah, 'cos I invited them, what's your point?"

Dan opened his mouth to respond, thought better of it, and sighed instead. He put a hand on Gav's shoulder and patted him.

"We'll talk about it later," he said. "Gabriel, would you like for us to walk with you?"

"I would appreciate that tremendously," she said. "It isn't far."

"Oh, good, 'cos it's bloody freezing out there."

After a brief pause for Gav and Dan to collect their things, the three of them headed out. As promised, Gabriel's friend's flat was only a ten minute walk from the office—granted, at a brisk pace, since the evening was so chilly that ice was forming between the cobbles. The friend herself was a young Muslim woman who greeted Gabriel with great affection and Dan and Gav with muted tolerance. She invited them in—purely, Dan suspected, out of mandatory courtesy—and Dan just as politely refused. He and Gav left with a promise to meet up with Gabriel at the office first thing in the morning.

"Don't see why we couldn't've come in for a bit," Gav mentioned, as they waited for a cab.

"She really didn't want us to," said Dan.

"How d'you know?"

"Dunno. You can just tell sometimes."

Gav clucked and shook his head. "And you say you're bad with women."

"I am bad with women, B, that's why they never want me to come in."

"Ooh, I dunno, I could think of at least one person of a womanish persuasion who might," said Gav, and pinched his bottom.

"Well," Dan said, blushing up to his hairline. "I mean. Since we will have the place to ourselves. If you don't think it's too much of a risk."

"Dan, lovely Dan, if I'm to die, I'd rather it be with your cock in me."

"We're in public, you bell-end!" he hissed. Gav only smirked and nudged him with his shoulder.

"Not for much longer, eh?"


 

It took a while for them to get round to dinner, which was fine by Dan. Once they had, they brought it back to bed with them, sitting in companionable silence while cracker crumbs collected in their laps. Halfway through his meal, Gav wound down like a clock someone had forgotten to wind. He sat motionless, staring at nothing, an untasted cheese-and-cracker sandwich pinched in his fingers.

"Gav?" Dan said. "What's wrong?"

Gav took his time answering, as though weighing whether or not to spoil the evening. In the end, he spat it out.

"Something horrible is coming," he said, "and it'll be all the worse for the waiting."

"Bloody hell, B. What makes you say so?"

"I hate to call it a hunch, but . . . call it a hunch. We took my dress apart, and there was nothing there. We've hunted through every back alley in London, and there was nothing there. We've dug up every bit of dirt we can find on Haywood-as-Cassie, and there was nothing there. Something's not right. We're missing something."

"I'll say. We still don't know where Haywood's gone, for one—though I reckon he's found a nice little hole to crawl into and he won't be coming out 'til spring."

"I really don't think that's what's happened."

"What do you think has happened?"

"I don't know. It feels like—I don't know, I can't put my finger on it. The way he's behaved doesn't make sense. Why call Jones here and set up that whole elaborate mess just to let himself get caught? He must've had something in mind. You don't go to all that trouble for no payoff."

"Reckon being tortured changed his plans."

"I've no doubt it did, but I don't think it convinced him to run," said Gav. "This is a fellow who decided to murder someone 'cos he was annoyed with them. That doesn't seem to me like the sort of person who runs off with his tail between his legs."

"Oh, I reckon that's exactly the sort of person he is," Dan said, leaning back and lacing his fingers behind his head. "He's a schoolyard bully. Soon as somebody hits him back, he hooks it, snivelling all the way."

"How long was it, Dan, between when Heyman stole Haywood's victims and when Haywood murdered him for it?"

Dan frowned. "Fucked if I know, B, how long was it?"

"Over a month."

"Well, yeah, but it's only 'cos he didn't know where to find the fellow before that."

"And how long did he spend pretending to be a deputy before Jones caught him out?"

The rest of Dan's confidence faded. He shifted, putting his hands in his laps, pulling his knees up towards his chest. His forehead burned. His neck prickled. The bruises Haywood had given him had not faded yet, stained onto his skin like henna.

"Well," he said. "I mean. That's—he spent a good while pretending to be Casimir, as well, didn't he."

"Precisely! And he let that party bit simmer for nearly a month. He knew Jones was here, knew exactly where to find him. If the Paris police are to be believed, he was already in dire straits by then, financially and legally."

"Ah-hah, but it wasn't his party, B, it was Luc—well, it wasn't his party, anyway. He couldn't spoil it by turning up early."

"All right, Dan, let me put it to you this way: if you had to pick a virtue, totally at random, that's absolutely essential to dress-making and leather-making, what would it be?"

"Er . . . attention to detail? A strong stomach? Wait, you said a virtue, so—"

It came creeping up on him like a thick London fog. The blood drained from his face. He swallowed. He met Gav's eyes.

"Patience," he said.

"Something horrible is coming, B," said Gav. "And it'll be all the worse for the waiting."


 

And still, come morning, nothing had changed.

Gav and Dan had breakfast at home, met up with Gabriel at the office, and spent the day carrying on with business as usual. A few unremarkable letters came in, including one from the ever-dreaded Mrs Breckenridge, who was once again attempting to leverage Gav's expertise for an insurance scam. Gav found and sent home a missing child, Gabriel tracked down a few pieces of stolen jewellery, and Dan made at least four pots of tea.

Business as usual, except for the cloud of dread hanging ever lower above their heads.

Come evening, by mutual accord, the three of them went to check in with Jones. He was out of bed (against doctor's orders), pushing his chair about by himself (also against doctor's orders), and snarking at nearly full capacity (probably, Dan thought, against doctor's orders).

"Y'all turned anythin' up yet?" he asked, when approximately half the proper pleasantries had been taken. "Wait, hold up, lemme guess: nope, still as useless as ever."

"Well, Dan's had a thought," said Gav.

"Have I?" said Dan, taken aback.

"What is it?" Gabriel asked.

"Your guess is as good as mine. You might as well ask the dog if he's thought of anything. And that's an insult to the dog."

Jones shrugged. "Hey, you said it first."

"He reckons Haywood's planning something," Gav said anyway.

"'Course Haywood's plannin' somethin'," Jones snapped, before Dan could clarify that it had in fact been Gav's idea, and Gav bloody well knew it. "What, you thought he was just gonna fuck off and not come back?"

Gav pouted. "It's not as though he's never done that before. Constantly fucking off, wasn't he."

"Uh-huh, and then fuckin' right back on again, 'cuz he don't know how to let shit go. 'Course he's plannin' somethin'."

"So you agree with Mr Gruchy, then?" Gabriel said, just a hair shy of innocent. Jones glared at her, clenching his teeth and flaring his nostrils.

"He ain't completely wrong," he ground out.

Gav gurgled and patted Jones' head. Jones swatted his hand away.

"Touch me again, and I'm gonna smash you like a baked potato and feed you to the dog," he threatened. The dog, apparently aware that he was being talked about, perked up and wagged his tail hopefully.

"Aw, bless," said Gav. "He wouldn't eat me though, would you widdle Gavvy-wavvy puppy boy, 'e wuvs 'is Auntie Gwen, yes 'e does—"

While Gav mashed dog-Gavin's face, Gabriel and Tuggey exchanged a look behind his back, both of them struggling not to laugh. Jones rolled his eyes. For once, Dan was inclined to agree with him.

"That dog's eaten evidence before, he sure as hell won't care if it's you," said Jones.

"Of course he would, he'd be heartbroken, wouldn't you, my ickle doggy-woggy friendy-poo—"

"Jesus Christ, I'm gonna throw up," Jones muttered. Gav laughed as the dog took to licking his face, enamoured of the attention.

"Sorry, Jones, I think you've been usurped," said Dan.

"I been who what now?"

Dan raised an eyebrow. "Usurped?"

"I heard you, who the fuck surped me?"

"No no no, you-surped."

"The hell I did."

"That's just how it is, I'm afraid."

"All right, cut that out," said Tuggey, although she was choking back laughter.

"What? Can't let him run about surping people willy-nilly. Or roll about, as the case may be."

"Dan," said Gav, scandalized.

"Laugh it up, jackass, I'll roll your ass up and fuckin' smoke you," said Jones.

Before Dan could fire back, a knock came at the door and an orderly poked his head in.

"Mr Jones?" he asked.

"What?" Jones snapped.

"Er—there's a letter come for you, sir."

Jones froze solid. His hand clenched like a vice. He stopped breathing. Dog-Gavin extracted himself from Gav's grip and returned to Jones' side, sniffing about with grave concern.

"I'll get it," said Tuggey, oblivious to the sudden drop in temperature. She got up and took the envelope from the orderly. "'Preciate it."

"My pleasure," he said, and excused himself. Tuggey brought the letter back to the table.

"Michael, you wanna—"

She stopped, taking in his expression. She looked down at the letter in her hand. Carefully, she set it in the centre of the table. She wiped her hand on her blouse.

The quiet that followed was so deep, all Dan could hear was the ticking of his pocket watch. The envelope was small, plain. There was no stamp, nor return address, nor a postmark. It wasn't even sealed.

It was addressed in Casimir's handwriting.

 

M. V. Jones

St Leonard's Hospital, Room 12

To Be Delivered On or After 16th Dec., 1887

 

"Someone will have to open it," Gabriel said at last.

Tuggey put a hand over her mouth, pale and sickly. "Jesus Christ," she said. "He knows where . . . how did he—how long has he. . . ?"

"He was here," Gav whispered, staring at the envelope. "Dropped it off by hand. Bloody well walked right up to the front desk and—and—"

"Someone," Gabriel insisted, "will have to open it."

Nobody moved.

"Right, then," said Dan. Before he could think too much about it, he picked up the envelope, fumbled it open, and pulled the contents out as quickly as he could. There was a plain card inside, which Dan dropped on the table like it was on fire. Only five words had been written.

 

Camden Town

Daniel 8:24

—R.

 

"All right," said Gav, feigning relief. "All right, that's not so bad. It could be worse. I was expecting much worse. That's fine. That's not an issue."

"What—" Dan's voice came out as hardly a croak. He cleared his throat and tried again. "What's that number, is that a—a time, or something?"

"It don't mean nothin' to you?" Tuggey asked. There was an edge of panic to the words.

"No, I mean—not to my knowledge, I don't know what it's got to do with me."

"It's a Bible verse," Gabriel said, very, very quietly. All eyes turned to her. "The book of Daniel, chapter 8, verse 24."

"And his power shall be mighty," said Gav, reading the words off the air, "but not by his own power; and he shall destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people."

Dan's blood turned to treacle. His heart froze solid and brittle. It was a struggle to suck down enough air to speak with.

"Oh," he said. "Lovely. And what's in Camden Town?"

"I've got a hunch," said Gav. "There's a new church; St Michael's. They've had it closed whilst they put in a chancel."

"We oughtta tell the police," said Tuggey.

"Ain't got time for that," said Jones, lurching into motion like some great gear inside him had suddenly caught. "Free, pull your shit together, we're goin'."

"What, now?" Gav cried, recoiling.

Jones shoved off for the door, his dog at his side. "Whoever he got might not be dead yet. We're goin' now."

Tuggey got up. "Michael, you ain't in no shape to be—"

"Try and fuckin' stop me," he snarled.

She didn't.


 

St Michael's was a long, rectangular building with a peaked roof, sat in a well to-do neighbourhood near the centre of London. Each short side was adorned with a huge stained glass window in six panes. More stained glass barred the sides like rib bones. A small atrium protruded from the nearer side. The area was well-lit, well populated by both pedestrians and traffic, noisy and reeking from the wharf tucked behind the church.

Dan and the others stood under an awning down the street, huddled together against the freezing rain, staring at the darkened building.

"Leastways somebody prob'ly saw somethin'," Jones muttered, his eyes darting over the crowd. "Heard it, at least."

"I wouldn't count on it," said Gabriel.

"How come?"

"Short of gunshots, people rarely hear anything."

As though to prove her point, a pair of drunks down the street took up shouting at the top of their lungs. It was unclear whether they were trying to sing and, if so, whether it was in English.

Jones muttered something that sounded suspiciously like goddamn shithole and started for the church. Dog-Gavin trotted along at his side like he was tied there.

"Hang on, you can't just go in there," Dan said, chasing after him. Gav hurried along at his elbow. Tuggey and Gabriel weren't far behind.

"The hell I cain't," said Jones.

"Jones, look, it's pretty obviously a trap—" Gav tried.

"No it ain't. That ain't his style."

"But—"

"Man up or go home."

"I'll do no such thing. Why don't you . . . woman-down and listen to reason for once?"

"No."

They arrived at the atrium. There was a low step, but Jones hit it at such a speed that the chair popped right up onto it—especially impressive considering the state of his right arm. He threw the door open and barged through. Dan ducked in after him, reaching out to catch his chair, to do anything to slow him down before he got himself killed.

He needn't have worried, because what was inside the atrium was enough to bring the lot of them to a crashing halt.

The floor was carpeted with rose petals. The candelabrum above the guest book was lit, dribbling wax and golden light over everything. Above the doors to the nave, nailed to the moulding, a set of intestines had been strung up like a garland.

"Bloody hell," Gav choked.

"I think you'd better wait here, B," said Dan, dread knotting up his stomach.

"I reckon that's a good idea," said Gav. "Only—"

"Gavin, stay," Jones ordered. He pushed off again, through the doors into the nave. Dog-Gavin started to follow. Dan caught him by the bandanna.

"No you don't," he said. "B, hang onto him, would you?"

"I—yes. Right. Will do."

Dan handed the dog off. Tuggey and Gabriel followed Jones into the nave. Dan took Gav's face in his hands and kissed him.

"If you hear anything suspicious, run for your bloody life," he whispered.

"But—"

"Take the dog and run, B. I mean it."

Gav set his jaw, pinched his lips, and nodded. His skin was white as paper.

"I will," he promised.

Dan kissed him again, then slipped through the doors after the others. Rose petals scattered under his feet. The smell of river water and lacquer enveloped him. He braced himself, took the last deep breath he was liable to get, and turned his eyes towards the pulpit.

It was worse than he could possibly have imagined.

Lamplight poured thick and sickly through the huge stained-glass windows at either end of the nave, casting cobweb shadows over everything. Halfway down the aisle, the rose petals turned to blood, great splashes of blood, dark against the marble floor. Jones and Tuggey and Gabriel had stopped at the shore of it, staring at the brand new chancel, the statuettes of saints and angels, the gold leaf and velvet curtains. Dan washed up next to them, lacking the presence of mind to do anything else.

Propped up against the pulpit, seated like drunks in an alley, there were three naked bodies. Each had been gutted like an animal, the organs spilled into their laps. Each throat was slit from ear to ear. Each was maimed beyond recognition.

The one on the left was the worst, a particular fury to its mutilation. All the flesh had been flayed from its legs, left in a grisly pile beneath the exposed bones. Its right arm had been cut in half lengthways, split from the fingers to the elbow. There was a sewn-up wound in its shoulder, fresh enough to be bloody. It was impossible to tell if it was Haywood's work or a preexisting condition.

The second body wasn't much better. The skin had been peeled from its chest, showing the musculature beneath—and then that same skin was stretched over its arms and stitched to its back, a straight-jacket crafted from its own flesh. One eye had been gouged out. A lit candle sat in the empty socket, scarcely more than a stub, dribbling wax down the ruined cheek.

And the third, the most intact, with the top half of a liquor bottle jammed so deep into its mouth that the jaw had dislocated, so deep that glass was poking out the underside. Its hands were like blood-soaked nettles, bristling with shards of glass. Its heart had been cut out and nailed to its sternum.

All three bodies were missing their faces. Only bone and blood remained, dead eyes left lidless and staring. A number had been carved deep into each exposed skull.

 

11      10      9

 

"Well," Gabriel said, shaken and horrified and making a damn good show of composure regardless. "That's a countdown."

"To what?" Tuggey managed. Her voice, however quiet, echoed off the walls and arches, drifting round the empty space like a mote of dust.

Jones got a look, a razor-keenness somewhere between disgust and pride. He leaned back and breathed deep. His hands tightened on the wheels of his chair. His eyes flicked over the three bodies, taking in every detail.

"Us," he said.

 

END OF ACT I

Chapter Text

Us.

The word hung in the air like the tolling of a funeral bell. The bodies stared with their glazed and lidless eyes, viciously mutilated, a countdown carved into their exposed skulls. Dan's bones filled with snow, his stomach with tar. The red print of Haywood's lips glowed on his face, the cold blue line of a knife's blade against his throat. He gulped, rubbed his wrists, glanced at Jones to make certain he wasn't watching too closely.

"What makes you say so?" he asked, fighting to keep his voice level.

Jones pointed to each of the bodies in turn. "That one's me; got the arm and legs all done likkat. That one's Free, with the eye poked out. And that one—you a drinker, Gruchy?"

"On my bad days," he said, his mouth dry as cotton. His hands were pins and needles all over, vicarious pain for the effigy of himself. He glanced over his shoulder. Dog-Gavin would surely cause a commotion if anything were to happen outside—and surely loved Gav too much to let anything happen to him without a fight. Gav was better off out there than he'd be in here.

Peeled chests and spilled guts would not be coming into it.

"Uh-huh," said Jones. "Bet you five dollars the next two bodies are gonna be for Doc and Gabriel."

"They better not be," Tuggey snapped.

"You'll see," said Jones.

"Jones, how long do we have before the next set?" Gabriel asked. "A few weeks?"

Jones shook his head. "Few days. He left the skin on 'em, so it ain't like he's plannin' on makin' nothin'. Whole city's gonna go nuts once word gets out, he knows he ain't got the time to fu—to mess around."

"And neither do we," said Tuggey.

"Sure don't. Hey, Gruchy? Next time I catch the sonnuva gun, don't let him go."

"Next time you catch him, don't give me a reason to," Dan retorted.

"You still hung up on that? You can honest-to-God look at these screwed-up bodies and still give one single shit what happens to Haywood?"

"I don't give a shit what happens to Haywood! It's not bloody well about Haywood! It's about having principles, God damn it, it's about having an ounce of humanity!"

"And look how fuckin' well that worked out, you dumb sonnuva bitch! Three people are dead 'cuz you had to go and feel sorry for him!"

"Three people are dead 'cos Haywood decided to kill them! I've spent the past nine months feeling sorry for him, so clearly that's not what did it!"

"Perhaps we could have this argument later," Gabriel cut in. "Not in front of the corpses in question. Gruchy, Lindsay, go and get the police. Take Free with you, none of us ought to be alone. Jones, you and I will stay here to make sure the scene isn't disturbed."

"Since when do you give orders?" Jones demanded.

"Since nobody else bothered to."

"Is it—hang on, though, is it wise to be contacting the police?" Dan asked. The church loomed over him, ringing with the echoes of his curses. "I mean, we know they're involved with . . . you know, with Lucien and all. . . ."

"I would rather contact them and let them be useless than not contact them and have them arrest us. Lindsay, please take Mr Gruchy along."

"Yes ma'am," said Tuggey, making a beeline for him. Her dress swept the rose petals on the floor aside like the bow of a ship breaking the water.

"Gav needs to see this," Dan said, backing down the aisle to buy himself a little time. "It won't go well, but he needs to see it before the police come round."

"We ain't got the time to deal with him havin' another episode, c'mon," said Tuggey, taking his arm.

"Listen to me, we're hobbling the whole investigation if we don't bring him in!"

"And who's gonna take care of him?"

"I will," said Jones.

"You bloody well won't," Dan snapped. Tuggey jerked on his arm, unbalancing him.

"Fine, we'll send him in," she said. "Oluwaseyi, I'm guessin' you know how long a wait to expect?"

"I do."

"Good. C'mon, Gruchy, quit draggin' your feet."

"I'm not leaving Gav with—"

She dragged him right out the door. Gav was waiting so close outside that she nearly bowled him over. He scrambled back. Dog-Gavin bolted through the door into the nave. Gav made a grab for him and missed.

"You mingy little—" he hissed, and then noticed Dan and Tuggey's expressions. He straightened up, dusting himself off. "Er, hello, yes, I was listening. Heard the whole thing. Anyway, Dan, I'm going in. You ought to go and get the police, like Gabriel said. There's a station only a few blocks from here, it won't take but a moment."

"I'm not letting you go in there without me," Dan insisted. "Jones can't—"

"Jones will learn," said Gav, as though he wasn't scared witless. "You did. Off with you, now. The sooner you go, the sooner you'll be back."

"Gav—"

Dan made a grab for him, but he dodged it. Tuggey pulled Dan away, out of the atrium, as Gav stepped through the doors to the nave.

"Don't make me drag you, Gruchy, it's undignified," Tuggey said.

"But—you don't understand, it's—he's—"

"He made a choice. Dumb or not, let him have it. We got work to do."

Outvoted and outmanned, Dan was forced to comply.


 

Free had been curled up in a corner panicking for the last half hour, and Michael was really starting to envy him. For one thing, Gavin wouldn't leave him. Even when Michael called him away, he just went right back. It was especially unfair because Free was in no state to be comforted. He just sat there staring at nothing, taking short, sharp breaths and shivering occasionally.

But mostly it was that Michael would have loved to curl up in a corner somewhere and whimper until it wasn't his problem anymore, and he couldn't, because there was no force in Heaven or Earth that could make this not his problem anymore.

Gabriel had stationed herself by the back doors, standing guard. It was the sensible thing to do, and it had the added benefit of putting her as far from the corpses as it was possible to get. Michael didn't have as much of a problem with this. No corpse had ever done him harm, at least not in his waking hours. It was living bodies that were the problem.

The candle in the middle corpse's eye-socket had burned itself out—judging by the amount of wax, it had been burning for two, maybe three hours. Only two or three hours since Ryan had been here, arranging his victims just so. Everything had been done with an unmistakeable attention to detail. The stitched-up wound in the "Michael" body was exactly the same size and shape as the one in Michael's own shoulder, sewn together with exactly the same number of stitches—and a piece of sinew cut from the body's right arm. Its lungs and liver were poking out with the rest of its guts, leading Michael to suspect that Ryan had gone rummaging in its ribcage. It wasn't difficult to guess what for.

The "Free" body had some scrap of cloth under its hand, stained red with blood—Michael hadn't been able to get close enough to tell what it was. There were gouges in the bone around its eye socket, hinting at a much messier removal than the real Free had gone through. "Gruchy" had two wedding rings embedded in its finger, half-hidden under the dozens of glass shards. The heart nailed to its breastbone was much too big to be human. Knowing Ryan—and knowing Gruchy—it was probably a pig's.

Even the blood on the floor had been scattered with the same artistic abandon as the rose petals. It wasn't hard to imagine Ryan stringing up his victims somewhere over a few buckets, letting them drain out so that the only mess at the scene was the one he made himself. No signs of a struggle, no footprints or smears or unsightly drag marks. It made for a much more chilling display if it looked like there hadn't been a fight.

Michael fidgeted. He pressed his hand to his right arm, like he could tamp down the rising pain. His eyes drifted back to the burnt-out candle, the grand splashes of blood, the rose petals all stirred up by their comings and goings. Something wasn't right. He'd missed something. This was more than a show of force, more than a message, more than a warning. It was artwork. It was planned, crafted, made to be seen. And if there was one thing Ryan loved, it was an audience. . . .

With a horrible sinking feeling, Michael realized that Ryan hadn't left two or three hours ago. Ryan was still in the church.

He froze where he sat, scarcely daring to breathe. Keeping his head fixed in place, he scanned the room by movements of his eyes alone. There weren't many good hiding spots, but with such a spectacle sitting front and center, there wouldn't have to be. The confessional was ideal—out of the way, preserving a good view of whoever was looking at the bodies, with just the right touch of irony. It was too dark in the church to tell if there was anybody inside. Hopefully it was also too dark for anyone to see where Michael's attention had landed.

At the very least, Ryan had been content to sit in there for the past half hour, even though Lindsay and Gruchy had left. Michael thanked his lucky stars they'd let Gavin in when they'd gone—it was probably only because of the overpowering stench of blood and death that Gavin hadn't already rooted Ryan out of his burrow and ripped his throat out.

It was a clemency that Michael didn't intend to grant much longer.

He became aware of a steadily growing commotion outside. Gav perked up, sniffing at the air. Free remained unresponsive.

"That'll be them," said Gabriel, moving behind the nearest column nearest. "Jones, you might want to get out of the line of fire."

Presently, someone banged on the door.

"This is the police, nobody move in there!" they shouted.

Michael darted forward, along the left edge of the aisle. He reached the confessional and threw open the door just as the police came bursting into the church.

Sitting on the bench inside, there was a human heart, and a note.

Michael's fervor cooled to a sour disappointment. He picked the note up with two fingers and squinted at it, puzzling out the words line by line, mouthing the letters while they squirmed under his eyes.

 

I learn, too.

2 Timothy 3:1

Does it matter yet?

 

Michael clenched his fist on the note. His stomach tried to eat itself. His skin made a determined bid to crawl right off him. He couldn't get enough air. The wound in his right arm burned, all the way down to the bone.

"Oy, you there!"

Michael's head snapped up. A policeman was jogging towards him, waving a threatening hand. Five more were working their way up the aisle, exclaiming over the state of the bodies. Michael tucked the note into his pocket before the policeman got there.

"What're you doing, skulking about back here?" the policeman demanded. "This is a crime scene, you know."

"Found the missin' heart," Michael said. Lindsay had just come into the church, followed by four more policemen. Gavin was still sticking with Free, although he was watching Michael, nervous.

"Missing heart, what're you on about?" said the policeman, sneering.

Michael moved aside and gestured to the confessional behind him.

"Cor, blimey, there's a heart in there!" the policeman exclaimed. "What d'you think you're doing, hiding a whole bleeding heart in there? That's impeding the investigation, that is!"

"Me? I ain't even touch the dang thing!"

"Aha, lying to an officer, as well! You've been caught red-handed—literally!"

Michael looked down at his hands. There was blood staining both palms. He looked over his shoulder. Three lines traced his path from the edge of the blood splash to the confessional. He turned back to the policeman.

"Blood on floor," he said, pointing. "Wheels on floor. Hands on wheels. You need me to draw you a fu—a dang picture?"

The policeman took a half step back, holding up one hand while the other went to his billy stick. "Don't you get aggressive with me, now, it'll go very poorly for you. Sergeant, we've got a fighter!"

"You're fixin' to," Michael growled.

"Clever ruse, with the chair, but we've caught you out just the same," the policeman spat.

"What in the goddamn hell are you talkin' about?"

"Returning to the scene of the crime? Hiding hearts about with the blood on your hands? Cursing in a church? Clearly you're our man, have to be a blind idiot not to see it. Speaking of: I'm putting you under arrest, for—"

"What is going on here?"

The policeman jumped clear out of his shoes. A tall, mustachioed man stormed up like a whole tornado, looming with such intensity that the policeman shrank three inches and plastered himself to the nearest wall.

It took two whole seconds for Michael to realize that the man was Gruchy.

"I—well, d'you see, I—hang on, who're you?" the policeman said.

"State your name and rank, officer," Gruchy ordered. The policeman snapped up into a salute like a thing that ran on springs. His voice leapt out just as automatically.

"Lieutenant Rudolph Darby, sirrah!" He recovered himself, cleared his throat, and added: "And who—again—who're you?"

"Captain Daniel Gruchy, Second Brigade of the Peshawar Valley Field Force, Lieutenant," Gruchy said. Michael had never heard the word lieutenant drip like that. He would've needed a towel to clean it up. "You may have heard of me. I work with Detective Gavin Free—and, as it happens, so does Mr. Jones, here, whom you have so intelligently decided, based upon nothing whatsoever, is the very murderer we have brought him all the way from America to catch!"

The lieutenant turned the color of old milk. His eyes darted. Gruchy leaned in and he shrank another three inches.

"Now," Gruchy said, in a voice that was as furious as it was quiet. "You're going to apologize to Mr. Jones, Lieutenant, and you're going to stay out of his and our way, or you may explain to your superior officers why this case has suddenly become the greatest Press fiasco your department has ever seen. Do I make myself clear, Lieutenant?"

"I, er, yes," he squeaked.

"What was that?" said Gruchy, raising an eyebrow.

"Yes, sirrah!"

"That's more like it. Now stop wasting everyone's time and get back to work. Dismissed."

"Well—hang on, though, I—"

"Dis-missed!" Gruchy boomed.

The lieutenant bolted like he'd just been shown a red-hot poker that was destined for his asshole. Gruchy watched him go. The soldier's mantle fell off him, and he sagged back into himself, becoming unremarkable once again.

"And yet no apology, I notice," he muttered, rubbing his wrist. "Sorry about that, Jones. If you wouldn't mind getting Free back on his feet, I've got to sort out this blasted circus before they try arresting anyone else."

"Where the hell did all that come from?" Michael asked, dumbfounded.

"I haven't a clue what you're talking about," said Gruchy. "Excuse me; they seem to have noticed Gabriel."

He straightened his spine, put back his shoulders, and marched across the church like he owned the place. The lieutenant who'd tried arresting Michael saw him coming and dove for cover under the nearest pew.

"Sure you don't," Michael said under his breath. Still, in the interests of not getting arrested again, he went ahead and made his way back to Free, although pushing his chair left his right arm in agony. Gavin greeted him warmly and tried to lick the blood off his hands. When Michael wouldn't let him, he went for the wheels instead. Michael let him have at it, mostly for the sake of keeping him quiet and out of the way.

"Hey," he said to Free. "You in there, or what?"

Free didn't respond. Michael sighed and rolled his eyes. More and more police were dribbling into the church, now with photographers and notebooks and measuring tapes. Gruchy was herding them to the best of his ability, but they were more like cats than cattle. Lindsay and Gabriel were off to one side, holding each other's hands and talking quietly.

Michael's good hand snuck back into his pocket. He rolled the crumpled-up note between his fingers. Even if he'd had a Bible on hand, it would've taken him a good long while to find the passage in question, since he wasn't even sure where 2 Timothy was. Hell, he'd forgotten there was one Timothy in the Bible, let alone two of them.

"What the hell is 2 Timothy 3:1?" he muttered.

Like old, old machinery wheezing to life, Free stirred.

"This know also," he said slowly, mush-mouthed. "That in the last days, perilous times shall come."

A chill raced down Michael's spine. He shrugged it off. His right arm was throbbing, each beat of his racing heart sending another shock of pain through the wound.

"You back?" Michael asked Free, watching the swarm of policemen bully each other through their horror at the state of the bodies.

Free's only response was to shiver, sink back into himself. Gavin whined and licked his face. Michael clenched his teeth. Through great effort, he managed to pull his train of thought away from Ryan and onto the problem at hand.

"Sermon on the Mount," he said. "Free, gimme the Sermon on the Mount. Startin' from the beginnin'."

There was a long pause. Sweat beaded on the backs of Michael's hands. His arm throbbed. The first photograph was taken, going off with a blinding flash, a loud pop, the drifting scent of sulfur. Gruchy glanced over at Michael and Free, scowling.

"Blessed are the poor in spirit," Free mumbled, "for theirs is the kingdom of Heaven. Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the Earth. . . ."

He continued on, his voice growing stronger and calmer by degrees. Michael sat and listened until his patience wore through.

"Sonnuva gun, thing's a lot longer'n I remember," he said under his breath.

"You asked for it," said Free. Michael started. Free was glaring at him, still pale and woozy but very much present.

"How long you been back for?" Michael demanded.

"I don't know. How long have I been gone?"

"'Bout an hour? No, less, I ain't heard the clock go yet."

"What clock?"

Michael gestured. "That big-ass—uh, big ol' clock y'all got. By the river."

"Big Ben? You can't hear Big Ben from here."

"Maybe you cain't. I can hear it all the way from your dad-gum office."

"No you can't. That's physically impossible. I've been living there for years and I've never heard it."

"Prob'ly 'cuz you done gone deaf from livin' in this noisy crap-hole."

Free got to his feet, unsteady. Within seconds, Gruchy was there to take his arm.

"Steady on, B, easy does it," he said. "Your knees will be having words with you about all that sitting on the floor."

"They're filing a complaint," Free admitted, wincing. "Are Tuggey and Gabriel. . . ?"

"Ready to leave whenever you are."

Free nodded. He started to look back at the bodies and stopped himself before he got there. He shivered.

"I think I'm ready now," he said. "Jones, shall we get out of here?"

Another photograph went off, flash and pop. Gruchy twitched. Gavin whined and leaned against the wheel of Michael's chair. Michael went to pet him and remembered about the blood on his hands. He wiped his palms on his trousers instead. The pain in his right arm was nearing unbearable.

"Fine," he said. "We got work to do, anyhow."

Chapter Text

Although Lindsay wanted to take Michael back to the hospital, he insisted they go back to Free's office. He sold it to the others by pointing out the lack of prying ears, but mostly it was because he didn't want to go back to the place Ryan had sent his letter. Deep down, he knew the office wasn't any safer—nowhere was safe—but at least he'd never seen the Devil there.

"Right," said Gruchy, settling in after passing cups of tea to everyone. "Three bodies, no leads, police are useless and we're all in mortal danger. Business as usual, eh?"

"Not quite," Free said. "Generally at this point, we don't know who did it."

"Grand, so we've got a leg up. Though we will have to work out who the victims were."

"I doubt that'll be too difficult," said Gabriel. "That scene must have been time-consuming to set up—call it six hours for each victim, on average. They would've been taken between two and six days ago, and they would've been local. Free, I assume you've got the week's papers to hand, does anyone stick out?"

Free was already flipping through invisible pages, his eyes closed, his brow furrowed. "No, but they mightn't have been noticed. If they were the underbelly sort, you know, or party guests."

"Party guests seem likely," said Gabriel. "They were all Haywood's type and I doubt their disappearance would be in the papers."

"On the other hand, they'd be more difficult targets," Gruchy said. "Haywood's been on holiday. He might go after easy pickings while he gets his eye in."

"Ah, ministers," said Free. "They would've been ministers, or priests, or something of the sort. He said so in his note. And shall destroy the mighty and the holy people, all that."

"Have we got any missing holy men?"

"None that've been reported, but I reckon if we check the guest list, we'll find a few. Good news is, since the setting up was so involved, people will have noticed it. Particularly, I think, the St. Michael's clergy."

"Damn, wish we hadn't left. The police will have questioned everyone in the area to death by morning."

"Asking all the wrong questions, as usual. We'll check in with the women and children, see if they've made any odd friends lately. Meantime: Gabriel, d'you think you can check on the movements of our partygoers?"

"I ought to be able to. I don't know if I can do it without stirring up the hornets' nest. The Press are going to be out in full swarm the moment they catch wind of this."

"That's all right; they'll mainly go after the police, and we could use the head start. Try the Gazette first. Oh, and take Dan with you, they like him."

"Haven't I wrangled enough tonight?" Gruchy whined.

"Poor Dan, yes you have, but I'd rather not make it that easy for Haywood to get his sets matched. Tuggey, if you don't mind, I could use a bit of medical expertise with those corpses."

"I'll see what I can do," she said. "Might be a li'l harder without havin' the bodies on hand."

"We'll do our best regardless. Jones, I assume you've got your own procedures to attend to?"

"Uh," said Michael.

"No? That's all right, you've had a hard week and blood loss isn't kind to the faculties. Let us know when you've caught up and we'll see what resources we can pool."

"How—hang on, what—?"

"Practice, my boy," said Free, tapping the side of his nose. "When you've done as many as we have, this bit gets easy."

"I ain't your goddamn boy," Michael snapped.

Free pouted at him. "It's only a turn of phrase."

"Turn it someplace else."

"Phrasing aside, the night's not getting any younger," said Gabriel. "Gruchy, shall we go?"

"Let me finish my tea first," said Gruchy, petulant. "Bloody unciv—er, inhumane."

"Well saved, slightly too late."

"Sorry. I'll catch it sooner next time." He took one more gulp of tea and got to his feet. "Lead on, then."

The two of them collected their things and left, letting a gust of freezing wind into the office. Gavin went and snuffled at the door. He came back drooping to poke Michael's hand with his cold, wet nose.

"You sure you wanna let 'em go out there?" Michael asked, playing with Gavin's ears.

"Of course I don't, but the sooner we catch Haywood, the better," said Free. "Odds are, he's recovering from his little production. It's exhausting work, and our window of opportunity's not getting any bigger."

"He coulda already got the restin' done with."

"I don't think so, Michael," said Lindsay. "I don't think any of those folks had been dead more'n a day."

"Still ain't got no guarantee he ain't out there," Michael muttered, rolling his shoulders.

"I don't need guarantees, I've got logic," said Free.

"You got more pride than sense, that's all you got."

"Would you like to go get them? Bring them back here to sit about and do nothing all night? 'Cos all that sounds like to me is, one: a waste of time, and two: a big fat target."

"And sendin' 'em out there sounds like a dumb fuckin' risk to me, but apparently you ain't hearin' that."

"I've thought about this, Jones. I'm a professional. I know what I'm doing."

"The hell you do! Haywood just sent us a fuckin' murder-gram, told us straight up we're on his list, and you think he's just gonna go home? The sonnuva bitch got up outta his hospital bed with a bullet in his lung just for the pleasure of blowin' somebody's head off. You don't know shit."

"Obviously you don't either, 'cos so far, you've done a piss-poor job of predicting Haywood's behavior."

"Better'n you!"

"No, actually, not any better than me, and I've got the numbers to back it up!"

"Hey, uh," said Lindsay, looking between the two of them.

"Gimme your fuckin' numbers, then, you stuck-up piece of shit! What the hell have you ever gotten right about him?"

"I knew he'd turn up to that damn party, didn't I?"

"Yeah, completely fuckin' missin' the fact that he set it up, himself!"

"Y'all," said Lindsay.

"And so did you! You thought he was planning on murdering himself, you damn fool!"

"I'm a damn fool? You had every goddamn piece of evidence that Dubow and Haywood were the same fuckin' person, and you ignored it. I said he was gonna come 'cuz I'd be there, and he did and that's why. I said he was gonna start killin' folks on a grudge, and he did and that's why. I said—"

"You never said that at all. What you said was—"

"Hey, jackasses!" Lindsay cut in. "Not to stop y'all from stubbornin' each other to death, but what're y'all plannin' on doin' about any of this? 'Cuz it's been a hot minute and, uh, Oluwaseyi and Gruchy are prob'ly a li'l far off for anybody to go after 'em."

Free opened his mouth. He closed it again. Michael rubbed the arms of his chair and looked someplace else. The heat in his chest sizzled down like fire under a thin rain. His blood cooled. His ribs tightened around his lungs.

"Well!" said Free, sitting back and folding his arms. "I'm sure they'll be fine. Like I was saying all along. So there."

Michael shrugged. "Hey, it ain't my husband out there. No skin off my back if they don't come home."

"Michael," Lindsay snapped. There was enough fear in her that she didn't manage to hide all of it. Michael sank down in his chair. His stomach filled up with sludge.

"Whatever," he muttered. "They'll prob'ly be fine anyhow."

Somehow, this didn't manage to fix anything.


 

Less than two streets from the office, the back of Dan's neck started prickling.

He tried ignoring it first, assuming it was just the usual paranoia burning the midnight oil, left sleepless by recent events. Gabriel didn't seem to notice anything amiss, although she was on edge. It wasn't crowded at this time of night, and a quick glance over his shoulder didn't reveal anyone suspicious.

The more time went on, however, the more certain he became. They were still almost a mile from the Gazette office. Not a single cab had passed them so far, or else he would've flagged one down. His hands sweated. He checked the reflections in every shop window they passed. His backward glances caught a distant figure, unassuming, about forty paces behind them.

Dan took Gabriel's arm. She glared at him, starting to pull away, to object.

"We're being followed," he said, as quietly as he could. She stiffened, although her steps did not falter. Her hand closed on his wrist.

"Haywood?" she asked.

"I don't know. We've had him for at least a quarter mile."

She nodded, letting out a slow breath. "Can we lose him?"

"We can try. First we'll need to get somewhere more crowded. Bishopsgate isn't far, it'll be bustling this time of night. I don't s'pose you've got any friends in that area?"

"One or two. I think I can find us somewhere safe to go, anyway."

"Good. You lead, then. With any luck, we'll have lost him before—"

The gunshot deafened him.

His body lurched like a locomotive snapping its brake line. Gabriel jumped. He grabbed her by the shoulders and sprinted into the nearest alley. Screams filled the street behind them. He dragged her out the other side of the alley, across the street, down another twisting warren. Hot fluid soaked through his shirt. They staggered out onto Shoreditch Street, lined on both sides with pubs. The crowd swallowed them like floodwater.

"Left," Gabriel said, muffled and out of breath.

Dan hustled her off. His back was pins and needles all over. His ears rang. His limbs were numb. Even here, people were looking round for the source of the shot. Dan kept his head down, avoiding eye-contact, keeping his arm round Gabriel's shoulders. The sound of police whistles faded into the distance. Gabriel kept giving directions until they washed up on a doorstep. Dan hammered on the door and turned to her.

Only to find that the blood on his shirt wasn't his own.

"My God, Gabriel!" he cried, horrified.

"I'm all right, it's not as bad as it looks," she said. She was shaking. She held her right arm close to her chest. Blood had spilled down the front of her blouse, bright red.

"We've got to get you to hospital, you're—"

She shook her head. "It's fine, Faith is a nurse. It's safer here."

"But—"

Before he could object further, the door opened. The tall Black man behind it swore under his breath and shuttled them both inside. He shut and locked the door behind them, drew the curtains.

"There you are, easy does it," said Dan, helping Gabriel into a chair. "D'you know where you're hit?"

"Back of the shoulder, I think, I—I can't feel most of my arm. . . ."

"Believe it or not, that's good news. Means it probably missed your lung."

"Mama!" the man shouted. He turned to Gabriel and spoke rapidly in a foreign language. She answered in kind, wincing and struggling for breath. He frowned and glanced back at the door, jaw clenching.

A middle-aged Black woman—Faith, presumably—hurried into the room and immediately shooed Dan away from Gabriel.

"Olu, girl, what have you gotten yourself into?" she demanded. She spoke with an accent Dan couldn't place, except that there were echoes of it in Gabriel's voice. She also got right to work taking Gabriel's clothes off, so Dan quickly preoccupied himself peering out the gap in the curtains. His heart thundered in his ears. His pulse throbbed in his hands and neck. The prickling sensation had not gone away.

"I made some new friends," Gabriel was saying, "but they—ow, careful, are you trying to peel me?"

"Friends, don't you talk to me about friends, girl, you are only ever making enemies. Who do you think you are? Your family will have to bury you at this rate, you will make everyone cry."

"They'll wish they had cried for me when I was alive. I've had to do—ow—all the crying myself, and never a sniffle in return. Ow, God, why do bad things happen to good people?"

"Because they go out looking for them. You are greedy for tragedy. Sheee! Oh, Lord, look at this mess! Thomas, go and get my bag, this wretched girl is full of bullets."

"Yes, Mama," said Thomas, and hurried back into the flat. Dan almost glanced back, but stopped himself in time.

For the next half hour, he stayed at his post while Faith and Thomas fussed over Gabriel, and Gabriel explained what had happened. The level of melodrama did not decrease with time, although the constant patter of voices made a reasonable salve for Dan's frayed nerves. He didn't spot Haywood—or anyone else suspicious—out in the crowd. Gabriel's blood cooled on his shirt, turning thick and sticky against his skin. Eventually, Thomas approached him.

"Mr Gruchy, yes?" he said.

"Er, yes," said Dan, managing to pull most of his attention away from the window. Belatedly, he shook Thomas's hand. "I don't think I caught yours, Mr. . . ?"

"Efobi," he said. "You have a lot of blood on your shirt."

Dan looked down at himself, as though he hadn't noticed. "I have, haven't I. It—it's all right, really, I don't think any of it's mine. Er. Though frankly that's not much of a relief, I mean, since . . . considering where it did come from, honestly, it might've been better if it had been mine—not to say that, er. . . ."

"OK, enough," said Mr Efobi, rolling his eyes. "Do you want a shirt without blood on it, or not?"

Dan gawped, blindsided. "I . . . wasn't aware that was an option," he said. "I'd hate to impose, I mean, there's obviously much more important things to be done, and it's not as though I haven't got other shirts at home, obviously—not that I don't appreciate the offer, of course, it's tremendously kind of you, it's only—"

"Gruchy, just take the shirt," Gabriel interrupted. Faith (Mrs Efobi?) had gotten her mostly bandaged up, and she was nursing some kind of drink. Dan turned away again hurriedly, even though nothing more immodest than collarbones was out.

"I will very gratefully accept a clean shirt, Mr Efobi," he said, red up to his hairline.

"OK," Mr Efobi said again. "Come back with me."

Mr Efobi led him back into the house, where between the two of them they managed to find a shirt that suited Dan's sensibilities and wasn't much too narrow for him.

"I, er, I'll get this back to you as soon as I can," said Dan, fiddling with the cuffs as he emerged from the one tiny bedroom. "It doesn't show up much on the jacket, anyway, which is . . . small blessings, I s'pose. Thank—by the way, thank you. Again. Er . . . if it's not prying too much, d'you mind if I ask how you know Gabriel?"

Mr Efobi shrugged. "I got arrested, she got me home alive."

"Ah," said Dan. "What—no, never mind, that's none of my business. I'm glad you were both here, anyway. We . . . would've been in fairly serious trouble without somewhere to go. I only hope we've not dragged you into that trouble."

Mr Efobi made a face. "I would rather be in trouble with your man than with God."

"Er, right. Fair enough. I—shall we see how the—the ladies are getting on?"

A smile stretched Mr Efobi's mouth. He shook his head and gestured to the doorway. "So stiff, guy. Relax. Nobody's going to eat you here."

"Sorry, no, it's just been a bit of a—sorry. I'll . . . yes. Right."

Keeping his head down, Dan scurried out past Mr Efobi, who chuckled along after him. Back in the front room, Gabriel was mostly dressed again and Mrs Efobi had gone out. There was a distinct smell of cooking coming from nearby.

"Doing all right?" Dan asked Gabriel, resisting the temptation to go back to his post at the window.

"I am in so much pain I can't see straight," she said. "How are you?"

"Sorry, that—that was a stupid question, obviously you're not all right. But—will you be? It's only—sorry, I'm just going to—"

At the insistence of his instincts, he went and checked the window again. The crowd had returned to its base state, although there were now several police officers dotted along the street. Dan let the curtains fall closed and stepped away. Mr Efobi said something that made Gabriel smile and shake her head.

"I think I'll be all right," she said to Dan. "At the very least, we're out of harm's way for the moment. Although that might just be the alcohol talking."

"It does have a—a tendency to do that," said Dan.

"Since you've asked me a stupid question, I'll ask you one: is this actually going to do anything to make it stop hurting, or are the numbing properties exaggerated?"

"I'll put it to you this way," Dan said. "Eventually you'll just stop caring that it hurts."

She made a face, shrugged her good shoulder, and sipped her drink. From the next room, Mrs Efobi called for her son. He let out a sigh and shook his head before going to her.

"She's determined to feed us, bless her soul," said Gabriel. "Two o'clock in the morning and just gotten done sewing up bullet holes. She's a mother right down to the very core."

"Er, right," said Dan. Gabriel turned a curious look on him. In a fit of discourtesy, he asked, "Are you. . . ?"

"Me? No, no no. I think I'd like to be, someday, but—no. Too much else to do. And—no, never mind, just that."

"Right. Yeah. No other reasons, of course. Can't imagine any other reason why a lovely young woman like yourself wouldn't want to be getting married to a man."

"All right, so it's obvious, don't rub it in."

"Gabriel, you told me about Tuggey."

Gabriel blushed. "Oh," she said.

"It's all right. If I'd just been shot in the back, I'd be having trouble remembering my own name."

She conceded the point. After a moment's consideration, she asked, "Are you a father, Gruchy?"

"Not much of one," he said, while the old, old ache blistered in his heart, the old, old pain turned his knuckles blue. "It didn't . . . go well."

"I'm sorry," said Gabriel.

Dan shrugged. "Gabriel, er . . . it's safe here, yeah? These people will look after you?"

She narrowed her eyes. "I think so. Why?"

"Well—I wouldn't want to abandon you, obviously, since you've just been shot, but if you'll be all right and, you know, relatively safe—I know nowhere's really safe, of course, but. . . ."

"Perhaps, if it's not too much trouble, you could find your point."

"Sorry. I've got to go warn Gav."

She stared at him.

"Gruchy," she said, "of all the stupid ideas you have ever had, that is by far the stupidest."

"I know, but I can't just leave him unawares—or Jones, either! Look, all of this, from Day One, has been about Jones, and of the five of us, you and I are the ones he cares about least. That means we're more obstacles than we are targets, yeah?"

"I've literally just been shot, Gruchy."

"I know that, but he could've kept shooting, and he didn't. Maybe we were meant to run, to hole up and hide away."

"And that's what we should continue doing. If something happens, I can't go out there looking for you. Free and the others won't think to until morning. It isn't safe."

"Gav isn't safe. Tuggey isn't. It's been too long already. I've got to warn them. Or—hope that they're still there to warn."

At the mention of Tuggey, a flicker of fear had crossed Gabriel's face. She bit her lip, squeezed her eyes shut, and hung her head.

"I don't suppose there's anything I can say that will change your mind," she said.

"Please don't try. I'll worry myself to death in here if I stay. And if anyone's going to get murdered tonight, I'd rather it was me."

Gabriel sighed. The drink, combined with the considerable blood loss, was already making her sway.

"Just be careful, Gruchy. Heaven knows we'd fall apart without you."

"Frankly, I think you'd all get on much better, but I'll be as careful as I can be." He hesitated, then added, "Thank you for understanding."

"Thank you for not abandoning me out there," she said. "I wish I could return the favour."

"Technically it is still me abandoning you. Just . . . in a slightly safer place than the middle of the street. So—I'm sorry. I'll try and get word to you as soon as I can do it safely."

She managed a smile, though there was more pain in it than warmth.

"I shall count the very seconds," she said.

Chapter Text

By four in the morning, Free's confidence was waning. He'd taken to staring out the window, twisting his fingers together and chewing on his lip. Lindsay was asleep upstairs. Gavin had settled on the cushiest chair he could find and was snoozing, occasionally waking up to make sad faces at Michael.

Michael, for his part, had tried to do without his nightly dose of laudanum. He'd rather be awake and in pain than asleep and vulnerable. Unfortunately, he'd been in so much pain that he couldn't do much other than wallow in it, so he'd had to resort to laudanum anyway. The fog had just rolled in—metaphorically and, outside, literally—and it wouldn't be long now before it dragged him under.

"You expectin' 'em back tonight, or what?" Michael asked, determined to make the most of his remaining minutes of consciousness.

Free started, like he'd forgotten Michael was in the room. He turned away from the window and made a face.

"Not really, no," he said. "The Gazette's our go-to paper for snooping. We've got something of a rapport with them. But of course, they always want something in return, and Dan's always got to pretend to be the worst storyteller imaginable—consistency, you know—so it's never a quick trip."

"Uh-huh," said Michael. "Hey, speakin' of him pretendin' shit, he put on one hell of an act back with the police."

"Ah, did you get to see Captain Gruchy?" Free said, a twinkle in his eye. "Love that one. The police always shape up when he pulls rank at them. Which is especially funny 'cos he was a corporal when the army let him go."

Michael snorted. "Yeah, he don't seem nowhere near disciplined enough to get anyplace high up."

Instantly, Free went cold. "His squad was ambushed and slaughtered," he said. "He was the only survivor. And afterwards, he found his way back and manned his artillery for the better part of a sixteen-hour conflict anyway, so they gave him a medal, called it square, and let him go home."

"Oh," said Michael, with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach. "Explains the drinkin'."

"It didn't need explaining, and especially not to you," Free snapped.

"All right, Jesus, take it easy. I'm just thinkin' out loud."

"Think about something else, then."

"Sure. Hey, while you're already pissed off at me: what happened to the first wife?"

Free's hands clenched together behind his back. His nostrils flared.

"Are you having fun?" he demanded. "Is this—diverting to you? Prying up the floorboards on other people's lives just 'cos you can?"

"It ain't just 'cuz I can, it's fuckin' important."

"No, it isn't. It's got no bearing on anything—or at least anything that's your business!"

"It sure as hell will when he decides to start beatin' on folks again."

"That's just the thing: no it won't. I've already said more than I should about his past, and you're still chasing leverage 'cos it makes you feel smart. I know this game and I'm better at it than you are."

Before he could stop himself, Michael said, "It's all I got."

Free's eyes widened. With the laudanum slicking his tongue, Michael didn't manage to shut his mouth in time to keep the rest of the words from spilling out, either.

"If somebody decides to hurt me, goddamn leverage is all I got," he said. "I cain't run. I cain't fight. Hell, I cain't even fuckin' shoot anymore. I cain't do a damn thing to protect myself, except talk."

"Well neither can I," said Free, feathers ruffled. "But that's what I've got Dan. . . ."

Free trailed off. He tipped his head to one side and fixed his full attention on Michael.

"Jones, how old are you?" he asked.

"The hell's that got to do with anythin'?"

"I'm curious."

"Fine, twenty-seven, what's it to you?"

Free winced and shook his head. "Twenty-seven, oof. That explains some things."

"What things? And how the hell old are you?"

"It's rude to ask a lady her age," said Free. "But I remember being twenty-seven. Very clearly, in fact. D'you know what I was like at twenty-seven?"

"Judgin' by how you act now? An infant."

"I was horrible," said Free, ignoring him. "I was absolutely unbearable. Nobody could stand to be around me for more than five minutes at a time 'cos I was that full of myself. Even my own family. No friends, no colleagues, nobody to stand up for me. And I acquired a tremendous amount of leverage at every opportunity, 'cos I literally didn't have anything else."

"Uh-huh, so what changed?"

"I met a very sad, very drunk, very lonely man, and he stayed up 'til four in the morning losing poker to me. I asked him why he didn't go to bed, and he said, 'cos I'd rather stay with you."

A smile pulled at the corner of Free's mouth. He gazed out the window, like he was expecting Gruchy to come strolling down the street with flowers any minute now.

"He doesn't even remember it, but so far he hasn't changed his mind," he said softly. He shook himself and turned back to Michael. "The point is, Jones, I think you'll find that people work much better when you don't take them apart. And that a partner will carry you much farther than a lever."

The word partner sank into his chest like a knife. His throat tightened around a rising lump of bile. The arm of his chair creaked in his grip. Gavin lifted his head, sniffing blearily.

"I ain't interested in partners," Michael said, fighting to keep his voice level.

"Could I ask why not?"

"'Cuz the more folks you gotta rely on, the more you got to lose."

"Some might say you rely fairly heavily on Dr. Tuggey."

"So?" said Michael, dumping callousness over his heart to stifle the flutterings of panic. "I'm rich as hell now, I'll buy me a new doctor if I need one."

Free's lips pinched. He turned back to the window.

"I wouldn't be surprised if you did," he said.

"Someday Gruchy ain't gonna be there to throw your punches for you," said Michael, a deliberate jab to send Free scurrying back to his rabbit-hole. "Then you're gonna wish you hadn'ta gotten attached."

"Someday, someone is going to love you, Jones," Free said, and it sounded much more like a threat than Michael's had. "When that day comes, you'll either have to take those walls of yours down, or starve in them."

Michael snorted. "I can see why you and Gruchy get along. Y'all both spit the same flavor of bullshit."

"Do we?"

"Sure as hell do. Shoulda heard the shit he was talkin' about Haywood."

"I think I must have been absent for that bit."

Michael's clockwork spun up to a whirr. "'Course you were. He wouldnt'a said it where you could hear. Unless he already told you 'bout what went on 'tween the two of 'em when you wun't lookin'."

"Ding, there it is," Free said, about as smug as he was annoyed. "If your points had any merit, you wouldn't have to resort to lying."

A gear slipped, and the whole machine lurched to a stop.

"I don't know what the hell you mean by that," said Michael. His voice shook in time with the pounding of his heart.

"Ding, there's another one, very nearly word-for-word. Give it up and go to bed, Jones, you're making an ass of yourself."

"What the fuck are you talkin' about?"

"We've each got our own leverages. Mine happens to be that I can tell when you're lying. Don't make me go full detective on you, it'll be tremendously unpleasant. Though richly deserved, after how you behaved over the Paris business."

"Gimme your best fuckin' shot, you one-eyed freak," Michael spat, his bones all bathed in frigid moonlight.

"All right. I know you asked Haywood to kill the Hullums for you."

Michael's whole world narrowed down to a pinpoint. His lungs went flatter than paper. The boiling, crawling sensation that was so familiar in his legs spread out over his whole body. A white bead of frost crackled in his chest, growing by splinters and shards until it threatened to crowd out his heart.

"It's all about fitting, really," said Free, staring out the window, passionless. "Haywood's got a fondness for a good fit. Why would he mention the Hullums in front of us if he didn't have something to say? Why would he give you a coat made from strangers' skins? Why, indeed, would he go so far abroad to get these strangers in particular? To hear you tell it, he had very little stake in their capture and conviction, apart from using it as a way to get closer to you. You, on the other hand, took the whole thing incredibly personally, 'cos it was your first real case and you had an awful lot to prove. You've also said that you knew Haywood was the Vagabond well before the Hullums were killed. And, most importantly, you're a vicious little bastard who cares more about his pride than other people's lives."

"Now hang on just one fuckin' second—"

"No, you're right; only the lives of people whom you don't think deserve to be people. I wonder, were you more upset that the Hullums were killed, or that you had to resort to Haywood to get it done? If he'd never given you that coat, would it have even registered on your conscience?"

"They got what was comin' to 'em," Michael snarled, trembling head to foot and so sick he could barely breathe.

"I reckon it would have," Free went on anyway. "I reckon it ate you alive, 'cos otherwise, you never would've turned on Haywood. It was the night the two of you murdered Mr. Heyman together, correct? Got a taste of the real thing and found you didn't have the stomach for it. You'd like to pretend it doesn't get to you, but it does. Nobody psychologically robust abuses opiates the way you do."

"You—I never—it wun't—" Michael sputtered. His head spun. He couldn't breathe.

"I've been playing this game for nearly a decade, Jones," Free said, still just standing at the window, still not even looking at him. "And I'm much better at it than you are. You can either come over to my team, or you can keep losing. Your choice."

"Go to hell," Michael managed.

"Oh, no judgement, of course," said Free. "There's no real leverage in any of this. You've got more than enough information to have me arrested and hanged—and I don't even mean the Paris business, I mean the fact that I like to wear dresses and have an intimate relationship with a man. This isn't a threat. Just think of it as . . . me being honest for you. It would have been much less painful if you'd done it yourself, but here we are."

Michael fought to get himself back under control. Breathe. He just had to breathe. He just had to buy himself enough time and space to come up with a plan, to wait for his brain to unfog. At least the laudanum made his panic harder to sustain.

He could do this. He could manage this. Free was quick, but he wasn't invincible. Michael already had a pry-bar in him, wedged up under the toy soldier armor. One end sat underneath two dozen dead bodies, and the fulcrum rested snugly on sodomy. Even Free had admitted it. So long as Michael played his cards right, they could keep each other's secrets indefinitely.

And in the mean time, Michael could make sure that when Free did spill the beans, nobody would believe him.

"Whatever," he said, turning away and making for the kitchen. "I'm gonna go pass out someplace, have fun standin' there bein' smug all night."

"Good night, Mr. Jones," said Free.

Michael left the room as quick as he could without seeming to hurry. He found a quiet corner, hid himself amongst the linens, and shivered uncontrollably until the laudanum put him under.


 

For the first twenty minutes after leaving the Efobis' place, everything was fine. Dan found his way back to Shoreditch street, which was swarming with civilians and police alike. He kept his head down and focused on breathing normally, and nobody bothered him. If Haywood was out there, he was keeping enough distance that even Dan's paranoia couldn't sense him.

Moving northward into Hoxton, the crowds thinned, and the night closed in. Three o'clock was approaching rapidly. The puddles were whitening round the edges, and Dan's breath clouded the air in front of him. A smudgy fog spilled out from the canal, enveloping the neighbourhood. It glowed orange with lamplight and muffled all sound, until London itself became a ghost. There were so few pedestrians, and the fog was so thick, that he might as well have been alone out there.

That was when the paranoia caught up with him. That was when the following footsteps came close enough for him to hear their echoes.

Dan didn't turn round, didn't so much as glance back. He was still a quarter-mile from the office, and witnesses would only get more sparse from here. The Shoreditch police station wasn't far, eight or ten minutes' walk—he could hide out inside, have them send a patrol to check in on Gav, wait for dawn and the expiration of Haywood's daring.

Assuming he could get there without being shot in the back.

At the next cross street, Dan took a hard left. Hopefully Haywood wasn't familiar enough with the area to know that it was a detour. Dan's back swarmed with invisible ants. His gloves were soaked with sweat. It took everything he had not to break into a sprint. He didn't trust the fog to obscure Haywood's aim that well. So long as he kept walking, so long as he acted like nothing was amiss, maybe he could live long enough to regret this monumentally stupid excursion.

Round the curve in Nile Street, and a blue light glimmered through the orange fog. His heart leapt. He swallowed it down. Steady on, one foot in front of the other. He crossed his fingers and hoped Haywood didn't know what the blue light meant—or if he did, that he lost his nerve at the sight of it.

Less than a hundred yards to the station, now. The footsteps sounded closer behind him, but there was a notable clamour ahead. A paddy-wagon trundled past, bearing a load of caterwauling drunks. Dan kept his eyes on the blue light. His back muscles twitched like a horse's flank.

Fifty yards to go. The thunder of his pulse drowned out any footsteps. The fog stung his eyes, tasted of chemicals. He could make out the front steps of the station now, the bright light spilling through the windows. Twenty-five yards. Another carriage passed, and two pedestrians going the other way. Fifteen yards, ten, five—

Dan sprinted up the steps, threw the door open, and leapt inside like it was pouring down rain. The heat and light and noise of the Shoreditch station enveloped him. He moved away from the door, shivering with more than cold, his breath coming short and his vision blurry.

There were at least eight officers present, going about their business with the gruff annoyance particular to the night shift. Several people were being booked, a few more were giving statements, and a good number were sitting about in the waiting area, many of them in their pyjamas. Dan wandered up to the front desk and rang the little bell.

"Sign the ledger and have a seat," an officer called back, with the sort of intonation that indicated it was the thousandth time he'd said it that night.

"Er, look, sorry, but it's really rather urgent—"

"So is bloody everything! Sign the ledger and have a seat, sir!"

Dan glanced back at the station door, but didn't press the point any further. Getting chucked in jail for the night for being bothersome would be infinitely worse than waiting an hour. He put his name down in the ledger and went to sit in the waiting area. He picked a seat as far from the door as he could get.

A minute passed, then two. Dan couldn't keep his eyes off the door, fidgeting and sweating. Nobody paid him the slightest bit of attention, as usual, but they didn't seem to be paying attention to anything else, either. Maybe he should have mentioned the shooting to an officer—he couldn't imagine they weren't looking into it, it wasn't every day that somebody opened fire in the middle of the street. That was probably why they were so short-staffed, why they all looked so aggravated and unsympathetic. Regardless, their inattention wouldn't be an issue; their presence was enough. Even Haywood wasn't brazen enough, mad enough, to walk right into a police station full of—

The door opened again, and Haywood walked in.

Right into the station, right up to the front desk, not a shred of trepidation on him. He rang the bell and waved a hand for attention.

"'Scuse me," he called, in a very passable Cockney. "I've got a—"

"Yeah yeah, sign the ledger and have a seat!" the officer spat.

Haywood clicked his teeth, scribbled something on the ledger, and turned round. His eyes locked with Dan's. Too late, Dan wondered if he could've made it out the door while Haywood's back was turned. He wondered if he could still make it, if he sprinted, if he shouted, if he just did something. Haywood ambled over and sat down across from him. A casual flick of his greatcoat showed a glint of silver at his hip. Dan's fists clenched on his thighs. Haywood's eyes twinkled.

So he was still armed, probably with Jones' revolver. Judging by what it had done to Gabriel's shoulder from forty paces, a shot at close quarters could take someone's head clean off. There were eight officers in the station, twice that many bystanders, and none of them expecting a gunman in their midst. Even if Haywood didn't get the chance to reload, it would be a massacre—and there was no guaranteeing he wouldn't get that chance, either. Judging by Jones and Tuggey's testimony, in combination with the business at the Hylands House, every bullet in the station wouldn't be enough to stop him.

Haywood tipped his head towards the door.

Dan gulped. He nodded once.

With a smile, Haywood patted the revolver through his greatcoat and got to his feet. Dan followed suit. Scarcely daring to breathe, he tottered to the door. At least he could get Haywood away from the crowd, out onto the streets where the bystanders were sparse, where they wouldn't be trapped like rats in a burning storehouse. At least he could mitigate the damage.

Dan emerged into the cold night air, down the steps and onto the street. Haywood followed so close that Dan didn't even have to hold the door. The needle-sharp point of a knife dug into his back, just over his kidney. Haywood spoke into his ear as he walked Dan away from the blue light of the station, back into the orange murk. His voice was quiet, friendly.

"Now Dan," he said, "I'd like you to come and get a drink with me. You can run, if you want, but fair warnin': I'll put a bullet in your back, and I don't mind how many folks it has to go through 'fore it gets to you. You wanna come and get a drink with me, or you feel like runnin'?"

Dan's throat was made of sandpaper. His lungs were full of gnats. He pressed his fingernails into his palms, though his gloves dulled the sensation. He kept his eyes fixed forward.

"I'll go with you," he croaked.

"I suspected that might be your preference," said Haywood, amused. "And lest you worry: I'm buyin'."

"That is not even remotely what I'm worried about."

"No? Well, all right then, I ain't one to look a gift hoss in the mouth. You're buyin'."

Like it was all a joke. Like he thought it was funny. Dan bit back revulsion, fury, terror. He could resist later, when he didn't have a knife pressed to his back, when there weren't two dozen bystanders within shooting distance.

"Do I get to pick the pub, as well?" he asked.

"Honey, I'm a monster, not a fool," said Haywood. "Watch your step, now. It's gettin' icy out, and I'd hate for you to slip and hurt yourself."

Dan took the hint. He kept his mouth shut and his eyes forward as, street by street, Haywood steered him off into the night.

Chapter Text

At six in the morning, when Lindsay came back downstairs, Gruchy and Gabriel still weren't back. An hour later, when the sun came up, Free started pacing, harried and sleepless. When the morning mail came in at eight, he pounced on it like a coyote. What little hope had come into his face quickly soured as he rifled through the stack. He threw the whole thing away without opening a single letter.

"Something's gone wrong," he muttered, darting to the window and peering through the curtains. "Something's gone wrong, we ought to have heard from them by now."

"Gee whiz, wonder what it could be," Michael said, digging into his fifth sausage of the morning. His appetite had come back with a vengeance during his half hour of sleep.

"Don't be an asshole," said Lindsay. "We can head on down to that newspaper office soon as everybody's done with breakfast. If Oluwaseyi and Gruchy ain't there, somebody might at least know where they went."

"If they even made it that far," Free said bitterly. "But—yes. It's as good a place to start as any. But maybe someone ought to stay here, in case they come back. Hate for us all to wind up chasing our own tails. Then again, nobody ought to be alone, now more than ever, so. . . ."

"We'll leave a note, sayin' where we went," said Lindsay. "That way, they'll either know to wait here, or they can come right to us."

"Right. Yes. Sensible solution, good thinking. Should've thought of that myself, really. Is there coffee? Usually a sleepless night doesn't hit this hard, hahah, I must be getting old."

"There's coffee, and you're welcome to it. This much worryin' would make anybody old."

He flashed a smile at her and came to the table just long enough to pour himself a cup of coffee. Before even taking a sip, he was back to pacing, glancing out the window every five seconds.

"Maybe they . . . found something," he mumbled. "That could be it. They've just got caught up in the—the thrill of the chase, or they did write and it got lost in the post, or. . . ."

Lindsay looked to Michael, half exasperated and half pleading. Michael sighed through his teeth, scarfed the rest of his sausage and eggs, and slammed back the last gulp of his coffee.

"Sick of sittin' around here doin' nothin'," he said. "Y'all mosey along in your own time, I'm goin' now. Where's this newspaper place you were goin' on about?"

Free abandoned his coffee instantly. "It's a bit of a hike, we'll just get a cab," he said, crossing to the door. "Tuggey, will you be coming along?"

"Yep, just lemme write up a note real quick. When should I say to expect us back?"

"No later than—call it noon. No later than noon."

"Annnnnnd done. I'll set it right there on the table, oughtta be hard to miss. OK, let's—"

A key turned in the lock. Lindsay jumped. Free froze in place. Gavin leapt up, intent and bristling. Michael caught him, a vision of teeth and knives flashing through his head.

"Oh, hahah, well, of course Dan and Gabriel have got keys," said Free, sweating like a stuck pig. "I'm—I'm sure it's just them! Good, sorted, problem solved!"

The door swung open, and there indeed was Gabriel—her arm in a sling and her whole body tight with pain, but upright and alive. She tottered inside, looking around with bloodshot eyes. The last fragile slivers of hope clung in her like broken glass in a window frame.

"Jesus Christ!" Lindsay cried, darting to her. "What happened? Is it bad? Do we need to get you to a hospital?"

"I'm all right," said Gabriel, allowing herself to be shepherded to the nearest couch. "It's not terribly important right now."

"The hell it ain't! What's this sling for, y'all get into a fight out there or somethin'?"

Gabriel's lips pinched together. She took a deep breath and raised her eyes.

"Where's Gruchy?" she asked.

"Where's—what d'you mean, where's Gruchy?" said Free, his voice gone high with panic. "He was with—how can you not know—how can you not know—"

Gabriel shut her eyes and hung her head. She wrapped her good arm around herself and fought back tears—and lost. With a sob, she crumpled. Lindsay held her, fear turning to dread on her face. Michael turned away, from her and Free both. For lack of anything useful to do, he held on to Gavin to keep him from getting in the way.

"You can't just not answer me!" said Free, stamping his foot. "Gabriel, what happened, where is he?"

"It was . . . we were about fifteen minutes out, I think," Gabriel choked out. "Gruchy—Gruchy noticed someone following us, we were trying to—to decide what to do about it when. . . . There was a gunshot, and then we were running, and it—it's all such a mess, I don't know what happened, but he got me to a—a friend's house and then—and then—"

"Shh, shh, it's all right, it's OK," said Lindsay, rocking her gently. "So you got shot in the back, is that what happened? And then Gruchy got y'all to a friend's place. Did they patch you up there?"

Gabriel nodded, struggling for breath. "They did, they . . . I don't know, it hurt so much, I couldn't focus, I couldn't think, and Gruchy—he was so worried, so worried that something was going to happen to—to all of you. I tried to stop him, but—but—and I came back as soon as I could, I got here as soon as I could, he said he'd—he was coming here. I told him I couldn't come looking for him, I told him and he left anyway, I couldn't—I couldn't—"

The last of her composure fell apart like rotted wheat in a downpour. She buried her face in Lindsay's shoulder, weeping.

"That doesn't make sense," Free whispered, on the verge of tears himself. "He wouldn't just leave. He must've gone somewhere else, must've—found something, or something. . . ."

"He's dead, Free, Haywood killt him," said Michael. "And I fuckin' said so, too."

"Michael, for Christ's sake, have a li'l goddamn sympathy," Lindsay snapped, glaring at him over Gabriel's back.

"I don't give a shit, the dumbass brought it on himself," Michael retorted. "I told him he'd wind up a fuckin' coat, and he let Haywood get loose anyhow. Punishment fits the fuckin' crime."

Free sank to the floor. Gavin slipped Michael's grasp and hurried over to him, ears flattened down in worry. Free made no move to touch him, white as a sheet and shaking head to toe. Even when Gavin started licking his face, he didn't react.

"Gavin, quit it," said Michael. "Get back over here, leave him alone."

Gavin glanced at him, whined, and climbed up into Free's lap. One fumbling hand fisted in his fur. His tail swished and he leaned the full weight of his body against Free's chest.

"Dumb fuckin' mutt," Michael muttered, looking someplace else. "Fine. Leastways we got a li'l while to catch up. Haywood's gonna be takin' his time with—"

"Michael Vincent Jones, shut the fuck up and get outta my sight," Lindsay spat. "If you can't act human, you can leave."

"Oh, what, like you give a shit about—"

"Leave!"

Michael clenched his teeth. He exhaled a cloud of steam through his nose. With more force than care, he spun his chair around and shoved off for the kitchen.

"Fuckin' sissy bullshit," he muttered, but only once he was out of the room. It didn't help as much as he'd hoped it would.

There wasn't enough rage in him—maybe not in the whole world—to drown out all the guilt.


 

Dan regained consciousness one piece at a time, and each piece was worse than the one before. He was hungover, first of all; but that had happened before and it wasn't as splitting as it could've been. He was lying on some kind of mattress, scratchy and hard, like maybe a prison cot. That had happened before, too, and though it wasn't ideal, it was recoverable. Vague memories from the night before filtered in—a long, long night at the pub, tucking away drink after drink after drink, a foggy stumble along the Thames with his arm slung over Haywood's—

Dan sat bolt upright and almost threw up. His vision clouded over with sparks. When they cleared, things were exactly as bad as he'd feared.

He was in a small, noisy room, hardwood floors and wood-panelled walls, a grove of support beams with exposed, slanted rafters overhead. The clamour of London was magnified in here, a constant chattering rumble that made the walls shiver. A melange of smells filled the air, from the unmistakeable reek of the Thames to something rich and oily that put him in mind of a carriage repair shop. There was one window, much too small to crawl through, showing only a steely grey sky. Beneath it was a rectangular table, and on the table was laid out such an assortment of sharp implements as Dan had never seen before. In terror, he cast about—but he was alone.

And chained to the wall by his ankles.

His stomach sank down into his stockinged feet. The chain was black iron, about ten feet long in total. It was fed through a pair of iron rings which had been hammered directly into the support beam inside the wall. The shackles were so tight round his ankles that he could barely slip two fingers inside each one. They were fastened with iron padlocks.

"All right," Dan muttered to himself, rocking back and forth and shivering like mad. "All right, could be worse. Could be worse. Not dead, that's one thing. Silver linings, Gruchy."

Not dead, and not injured, either (unless the hangover counted). His hands were free, which was a major point in his favour. He still had almost all of his clothes, and though it wasn't warm in this little room, he at least wasn't in any danger from the cold. Within the five-foot radius of his chain, there was a wooden chair and a small, round table with a tin cup on it, into which rainwater was dripping steadily. There was a chamber pot in the corner. His pocket watch was still in his pocket, although it was the only possession he'd been allowed to keep—probably because it was indistinguishable from any other soldier's pocket watch.

Spartan, but not inhumane. That boded well for his survival prospects; you didn't provide accommodations for someone you were planning to kill right away. The chain-and-shackle setup indicated that, whatever the plan was, it involved keeping him here for several days at least. The chamber pot was both a pleasant convenience and a massive oversight on the part of his captor.

Those things were heavy when they were full.

Inching along on his hands and feet, Dan made his way to the wall. The smell of sawdust leaked from behind the iron rings, confirming them as a recent addition to the room. Dan gave a few cursory tugs at the chain, to no avail. He braced both feet against the wall and heaved with all the strength he could muster—also, unfortunately, to no avail. He thudded back onto the floor and wiped the rust off his hands. The taste of stale liquor and vomit stained his breath brown. His head was still spinning, sloshing waves of pain up against the sides.

"Would've been kinder to just knock me over the bloody head," he mumbled, rubbing his forehead with the back of his wrist. "Fucking git."

The room's one door opened. Dan shrieked and plastered himself to the wall. Haywood slipped inside, as placid as ever. He looked Dan over with muted amusement and toed the door shut.

He was bearing a tray of what looked, horribly, like breakfast.

"Mornin', Dan," he said. "How're you feelin'?"

"Where are we?" Dan blurted. Haywood shook his head.

"Now Dan, what'd be the point of gettin' you blackout drunk if I was just gone tell you where we'd gone soon as you sobered up? I'm guessin' that head must not be on all the way straight just yet, so I'll let that one slide. Feelin' up to breakfast, or you need to throw up some more first?"

Dan bit his tongue. Calm, he had to stay calm, get his wits about him. Nothing was going to be solved in the next ten minutes. As hungover as he was, he probably couldn't have run more than a few feet without falling over or vomiting, anyway.

"Breakfast . . . would be much appreciated, thank you," he said. His voice shook terribly and cracked every other word.

Haywood smiled. "As ever, I am enamoured of your persistent courtesy. Now you just wait there 'til I give the word, and there won't be no trouble."

Dan swallowed. He glanced at Haywood's hip. Poking out from under his jacket was the hilt of a knife.

"Certainly don't want any of that," Dan managed.

"We most certainly don't," said Haywood, amused. As he crossed to the little table, Dan caught sight of Jones' revolver strapped to the other hip. Haywood set the breakfast tray down and stepped back, well out of reach. "C'mon over."

Walking on eggshells, Dan made his way over. The chain clinked with every step, the shackles chafing against the bones of his ankles. He eased himself down into the chair. The smell of fresh bread wormed up into his nostrils, more cloying than sweet. There was tea, though. Tea seemed manageable. He reached for it, stopped himself, and looked to Haywood.

"Oh no, honey, you don't need my permission," said Haywood. "Consider yourself more a guest than a prisoner."

"That's a bit difficult, with the—" Dan wiggled his leg, rattling the chain.

Haywood's eyes sparkled. "Never said you weren't both. Just more of one than th' other."

Calm. Stay calm. Whatever was coming would wait until after breakfast. Dan picked up the tea and had a sip. It was unsweetened, barely more than lukewarm, not useful as an improvised weapon. It helped settle Dan's stomach a little, but the fact that Haywood was stood there watching him limited its efficacy.

"Can we have a conversation?" Dan asked, moving on to the bread. There was jam, but no knife to spread it with, so he had to make do with dipping corners in the pot.

"Bein' that we're already havin' one, I'd say so," said Haywood.

Dan nodded. He kept his eyes on his food, his hands in motion but not moving too quickly.

"Are you going to kill me?" he said.

"Sooner or later," said Haywood, without any gravitas at all. "Most likely not today."

He'd been expecting it, but much like a solid punch to the gut, that didn't really take any of the oomph out of it. He breathed through it, tearing crumbs off a piece of bread.

"And are you planning on killing Gav?" he asked.

"Similar answer."

"I don't suppose there's anything I could do to change your mind."

"Doubtful, but I wouldn't begrudge you too much for tryin'."

"Right. That's . . . encouraging. And last night—were you trying to kill Gabriel?"

"Lord, no, Dan. It ain't her time yet. When I kill Miz Gabriel, it's gone be face to face."

"Then why did you shoot her in the back?"

"Couldn't think of a more expedient way to get y'all separated."

"And you decided to switch targets 'cos she . . . became inconvenient, or—?"

"Honey, I love you to death, but you sure are thick as a post," Haywood sighed. "I told you I'd be seein' you again, and I did mean it. Miz Gabriel's much too smart to go out all alone, and much too noble to leave anybody behind—most especially anybody who'd just been shot. But I figured you'd come out eventually, with somebody or other, and if I got you worried enough,I could thereafter get you alone."

"Me? Why me?"

Haywood just smiled and said, "Eat your breakfast, Dan, it's gone get cold."

For the sake of not rocking the boat, Dan complied. He choked down the rest of the bread and a few more gulps of tea. There were some apple slices, too, of which he managed one. Haywood stayed right where he was, leaned up against the support beam and watching.

When sufficient time had passed, Dan said, "Why are you doing this?"

"You're gone have to be a li'l more specific," said Haywood.

"Well, it's only—you could have run the night of the party. You could have written Jones at any point, or not at all. You could have—really, you could have been doing this business the whole time. I'm struggling to understand why you've chosen now."

"Does it matter?"

"I reckon it might, on the off-chance there's some way to get what you're after that doesn't involve killing people."

"There ain't," said Haywood.

"That you've thought of yet. I know I'm not tremendously intelligent, but I could try to help."

"I doubt you could, on account of the killin' bein' the goal."

"I'm sorry, but that doesn't make much sense. If that's all there is to it, then why've you taken a year off?"

"Explorin' other hobbies, familiarizin' myself with th' environment. Wouldn't be wise to start the same ol' career in a brand new town, not knowin' anybody or where anythin' was."

"You say that, but you've been in Paris all this time, not London. Look, I won't be coy with you, it's obvious to anyone with eyes in his head that this is about Jones and only Jones. Which—d'you know, I sort of understand, this whole lashing out bit, you just wanted to see him and he took it as an opportunity to be incredibly cruel to you—"

"Daniel, honey, it ain't wise or polite to talk about things so far outside your business," Haywood said sweetly.

"I think it's a bit my business, since you have sort of dragged me into it. Of course it's horrific, what Jones put you through, I'm not arguing that. Regardless of what you've done, you didn't deserve to be—"

In one smooth motion, Haywood drew the revolver and shot Dan's teacup into a million porcelain splinters.

Dan screamed and threw himself out of his chair. All he could hear was ringing. The floorboards shuddered underneath him. Haywood yanked him up by his collar and jammed the red-hot muzzle of the revolver into his back. Dan froze. Haywood leaned down and spoke into his ear, though his voice was muffled.

"From now on, Daniel, you're gone keep quiet," he said, "and you're gone be still, and you will not, Daniel, you will not fuckin' talk to me about Michael. You understand?"

Dan nodded, too terrified to speak. Haywood shoved him down, whipped round, and kicked the breakfast table clear across the room. Jam splattered everywhere, wood cracked, crumbs sprayed the floor like shrapnel. The tin cup came plinging back and rolled to a stop right in front of Dan's face. Without a further word or a single backwards glance, Haywood stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him.

Gingerly, Dan put a hand to his back. There was a circle of stinging pain where the revolver had pressed into him, a lingering smell of burnt cloth. His sleeve and hand and leg were drenched with tea, freckled with tiny shards of porcelain and gunpowder. He still couldn't hear anything but ringing. There was a purple splotch on his vision from the muzzle flash.

"Fuck me running," he whimpered.

But of course, one never got it right on the first try. He'd just have to hope that the second didn't kill him.

Chapter Text

For the past three hours, Free had been dead to the world. It had gone past getting on Michael's nerves and was starting to make him nervous. Maybe it was just the fact that Gavin wouldn't leave him, but something about watching such a lively person turn into a vacant, sleepwalking shamble set his teeth on edge. Somehow it was worse when there was no corpse in the room.

Of course, nobody else had been able to get anything done, either, especially not with Gabriel being hurt. The whole machinery of the place had come to a crashing halt, and there was absolutely no way it wasn't purposeful. Four people were dead now, and here they were wasting time having feelings about one of them. Unless somebody did something soon, the numbers were only going to get uglier. It took Michael a while to come up with a solid plan, but he planned until it was solid for the sake of less lost time later on.

Just as noon tolled across the city, he brought his proposal to the others.

"We cain't stay here," he said, parking himself in the middle of the waiting room. Gabriel, in the midst of having her bandages changed, looked up at him. Lindsay tutted and shook her head. Free, as expected, didn't react.

"I'm mighty curious where you think we're gonna go," Lindsay said.

"Anywhere, it ain't my damn city. But here ain't safe, and all y'all know it. This is the barrel and we're the fish."

"Much as I hate to say it, I think he's right," said Gabriel. "The last thing we want is for Haywood to know where to find us."

"Yeah, what she said."

"Michael, there is no place in this city we can go where you won't stick out like a sore thumb," said Lindsay. "It ain't gonna be hard for him."

"So? Don't mean we gotta make it easy."

She slapped her hands down in her lap and glared at him. "And how hard are you plannin' on makin' it for us? 'Cuz right now, we got three folks who can't fully take care of themselves, one dumb dog—who also needs takin' care of—and me. You want somethin' to get done past livin' 'til tomorrow, you better step up and do it yourself."

"I was plannin' on it. We're gonna split up."

"The hell we are," she snapped, tightening with fear.

"For the record, I no longer think he's right," said Gabriel.

"Listen: if we're split, Haywood's split. I stick out like a sore thumb. Y'all don't. So maybe he's always gonna know where I am, but that don't mean he's always gotta know where all of us are."

"And then you're gonna be dead, you dumbass, what then?"

"Then it won't be my problem no more, but that ain't how it's gonna go. I told you a month ago how it was gonna go: he's gonna kill everybody I know, and get me hanged for it. It don't matter if he can find me now, 'cuz I go last."

"So you're just gonna take off on your own, huh? You're just gonna handle this all by your goddamn self?"

"Nope," said Michael. "I'm takin' Free with me."

Both women turned to Free. He didn't react at all, although in his lap, Gavin raised his head and peered around, puzzled at the attention.Lindsay and Gabriel looked back to Michael.

"I cannot imagine any arrangement that would work out worse," Gabriel said. "Do you intend for the two of us to sit about twiddling our thumbs and waiting to be murdered?"

"Nope again. I intend for y'all to get on the next boat back to the U. S. of A. Haywood ain't gonna leave London while I'm in it. He ain't gonna kill me 'til he's killt Lindsay and prob'ly Gavin—y'all are gonna take him, too, forgot to mention. Even if Free and me don't manage to lock Haywood up, he's gonna be real good and stuck anyhow."

"Michael, can I talk to you in private for a minute?" said Lindsay, getting to her feet.

Michael's stomach churned. "You got somethin' to say, you can say it in front of everybody."

"I could, but I'm tryin' to be courteous. Can I talk to you in private for a minute?"

He chewed on it, rubbing the arms of his chair, and gave in. He cocked his head towards the kitchen and led the way into it. Lindsay followed. She closed the door behind them and folded her arms.

"What kind of shit are you tryin' to pull?" she asked.

"I just told you. I'm makin' things as difficult for Haywood as I can."

"What you're doin' is triage. You're sendin' me away 'cuz you know I can get away. You're sendin' Gabriel with me 'cuz you figure I wouldn't go otherwise. You're sendin' Gavin with us 'cuz you don't plan on survivin'. What fucks me up about this, Michael, is that you think Free's an acceptable sacrifice."

"He is," said Michael.

Lindsay smacked the side of his head. He took it without retaliating.

"Did that knock the dumbass outta you, or should I keep goin'?" Lindsay demanded.

"You seen Free lately? That don't look like a fella who wants to be on this goddamn earth. I ain't gonna make him do nothin' without askin' him, but I guaran-fuckin'-tee you, he won't give one shit what happens to him. When he comes back from la-la land, the only thing he's gonna give a shit about is gettin' the motherfucker who killt his husband. That's why I'm keepin' him. That's why you and Gabriel and Gavin are goin'. 'Cuz y'all got shit left to do beyond Haywood, and Free and me don't."

"I said I wasn't leavin' you again, and I damn well meant it."

"Doc, I am askin' you to leave," he said. "I am askin' you to go have a future, someplace else, with some-body else. Somebody you actually love."

"I actually—"

"Somebody who actually loves you."

She hit him again. This time he swatted her hand away.

"That bullshit might work on your dog, but it don't work on me," she snapped. "I actually love you, you dumb fuckin' idjit, no matter how hard you try and make it for me, and it's a goddamn insult to pretend like I don't. Fix your shit, Michael."

"I am never gonna be able to give you a goddamn thing," he retorted. "I am never gonna be any more than I am now. I cain't fix my shit no matter how many times you say it, 'cuz my shit's unfixable. Go be with somebody who makes you happy. Get married, have a goddamn family, grow old. I cain't give you any of that. Bein' stuck with me is makin' you miserable, and if you keep it up, it's gonna make you dead. Leave, Doc. Disappear. You're good at it."

She took his face in her hands, squashed his cheeks, and looked him dead in the eye.

"I am not leavin' you," she said. "Get you out a big ole pack of cards and deal with it."

"You—"

She shook him. "You ain't gonna out-stubborn me, so don't even try. Use your dumbass head and think of somethin' else."

"Don't," he said softly, "interrupt me."

Something shifted in her, some fundamental gear turning away from anger and towards fear. Michael clenched the arms of his chair and bit the bullet.

"You can go," he said, "or I can tell your shiny new future what you done to Risinger."

Lindsay smacked him a third time, even harder.

"Ow, what the fuck?" he cried.

"Don't you what the fuck me, what the fuck yourself!" she retorted. "Jesus Christ on bicycle, you sound like Haywood."

"No I don't. I ain't foolin', Lindsay, I'll—quit that!"

After the fourth resounding strike, he caught her wrist. She hit him with the other hand.

"Listen to your goddamn self, you jackass, since you won't listen to me! Don't shit-talk me, don't you give me any of your bullshit—"

"Hit me one more goddamn time, and I'm gonna break your fuckin' wrist," he snarled.

"I wish you would, you manipulative li'l—"

"Ahem."

Both of them whipped around. Free was standing in the kitchen doorway, woozy but present, with Gabriel and Gavin right behind him. Michael and Lindsay stared in open-mouthed shock for two full seconds before both yanking their hands back from each other.

"It's the strangest thing," said Free, "but Americans really have got louder voices than anybody else in the world."

"It must be all the wide open spaces," said Gabriel. Her voice was steady, even though she was swaying on her feet. "One must have to shout to be heard."

"Oluwaseyi, listen, I can—"

Gabriel held up a hand. Lindsay buttoned her lip.

"We—all four of us—are going to have a very long talk," Gabriel said. "And in this very long talk, we are going to make absolutely certain that there are no damning secrets left between us. I am sick of watching you all twist yourselves in knots trying to get a choke-hold on each other. It's a stupid game and I've had enough of it. We cannot afford to be fighting amongst ourselves. We cannot afford to lose anyone else."

"If you think for one fuckin' second you're gonna get a word outta me, you got another think comin'," said Michael, clinging to his rage to tamp down the shivering in his chest.

"I've already got your words, Jones," Free said. "Which were, and I quote: they got what was coming to them. Shall I provide the context, or would you like to?"

"There ain't any point t' any of this bullshit."

"The point is that my husband is missing, and you, Mr. Jones, you are more than happy to let him die 'cos it's what was coming to him. You were more than happy to torture Haywood until he had no recourse but to flee, 'cos it was what was coming to him. I expect you'll adopt a reason why I deserved to be murdered, too, once my acceptable sacrifice has been made. Your condemnations arrive only when it's convenient to you, borne on the back of a tremendous hypocrisy; in all of this, Mr. Jones, you have never stopped to consider what's coming to you. But we are, all four of us, going to find out."

"You don't know a goddamn thing about me," Michael growled, scared shitless.

"Don't I? Grand! Then here's your opportunity to prove it."

Michael ground his teeth, clenched the arm of his chair. His left leg jittered. His right hand was numb with pain. The clockwork in his head wouldn't move, like it had been wound up so tight that the spring had snapped. There was a bead of white frost in his chest, frigid and sharp and familiar.

"Fine," he said.


 

Over the course of the next two hours, Michael told them everything.

A lot of it was fuzzy, from laudanum or fear or time, but the gist of it was in honesty. For once, nobody interrupted him. It took at least one dose of laudanum to get all the words out—he had one, and Gabriel had one, too, although hers was smaller. When he was done explaining, silence hung over the office, muffling the constant racket outside.

"Well," Free said, his voice plinking down like water into an empty bucket. "Certain things suddenly make a great deal more sense."

"Uh-huh, y'all's turn," said Michael. He hunched his shoulders and tried to sink into his shirt, pretending nobody was looking at him. Gavin, who'd had his head in Michael's lap almost the whole time, sighed and nuzzled against his hand. Absently, Michael petted him.

"No, not just yet," said Free. "A few points of clarification, first. When you asked Haywood to kill the Hullums, were you or were you not aware of his methodology?"

"Think so," Michael mumbled, keeping his eyes down. "Knew about the—the coats, anyhow. Pretty sure nothin' else, 'cuz it fucked me up pretty good when I heard about . . . what all had happened to 'em. Apart from the skinnin'."

"Understood. And until he gave you the coat, you weren't being threatened or coerced into staying with him?"

"Hell if I know, I was too far up my own ass to see a damn thing."

"Right. The person I wished he was, I remember. But afterwards?"

"Every single goddamn day."

"Final question, then, and probably the most important: you mentioned that he was, in some respect, attempting to—to groom you into becoming his partner in crime. Why didn't you accept?"

"Ain't that fuckin' difficult to figure out, if you ain't a crazy person."

"Aside from the obvious, then."

"The hell you mean, aside from the obvious?"

"I mean why did you try to stop him from murdering Heyman, after going along with it ninety-nine percent of the way? Especially immersed in all those threats of violence—some of which clearly came to fruition. Why risk your life for Heyman, someone you'd already decided was an acceptable sacrifice?"

Michael squirmed. A thousand lies leapt to his tongue, easy, simple, believable. He swallowed them all back down like vomit.

"I don't know," he said, his tongue blistering with the honesty of it. "I think we had some dumbass plan to try and frame him as the Vagabond, and I had some dumbass plan to. . . ."

"To use Heyman's death to get him hanged," Free said, unflinching, unsympathetic. "Correct?"

"Well . . . yeah. But it wun't nothin' to do with that, neither, 'cuz both those needed Heyman dead to work. I don't know why I tried to stop him. I don't know."

Free pursed his lips and nodded. He turned to Lindsay and Gabriel.

"Ladies, any further questions?" he said.

"One," said Lindsay.

Michael braced himself for the worst. He still wasn't prepared for it.

"Why did you have to talk to the Devil before you got Jack and Jeremy to arrest him?"

"'Cuz I needed to know what happened to Narvaez," he said; true enough.

"Ray?" she asked, startled. "Way you framed it ten minutes ago, it was to figure out if hangin' him would kill him, and you ain't get a straight answer on that anyway. What's Ray got to do with any of this?"

Another gout of lies hiccuped into his mouth. Again, he swallowed them, though they burned his throat and made his eyes water.

"I needed to know if he was gonna kill me anyhow," he mumbled.

"Say what?" said Lindsay, frowning.

"I needed to know if he was gonna kill me anyhow," Michael repeated. "'Cuz if I wun't any safer stickin' with him than tryin' to get his ass hanged, I might as well get his ass hanged, and that's what I did. 'Cuz Narvaez died. 'Cuz I'll bet he promised Narvaez a whole bunch of pretty shit about never hurtin' him, too, but sooner or later Narvaez got to be more fun to fuck up than he was to fuck. That's why. 'Cuz I got a good look at my future, and it was made outta leather."

Quietly, Gabriel said, "Implying that you wouldn't have hanged him otherwise?"

"If otherwise posed less threat of me gettin' skinned alive? Hell no, I wouldn'ta done it."

In the silence that followed, Michael heard what he'd just said.

"Until—I meant until the odds were better, it wun't gonna be a permanent arrangement," he added.

Still, nobody said anything.

"It ain't like none of y'all never did nothin' shitty to save your own skins!" he snapped. "I had nothin'. Everybody I knew either thought I was crazy or left me. I had to watch every fuckin' word that came outta my mouth for fear it'd get somebody killt. I couldn't get five minutes to my goddamn self 'cuz of what he was libel to do when my back was turned, and I owned that. I wore it every single goddamn day. I was prepared to wear it for the rest of my fuckin' life if it meant keepin' him from killin' anybody else. I din't have a damn thing left except my own skin and him, and you bet your ass he planned it that way! Nobody in here gets to shit on me for tryin' to survive. Nobody in here has a goddamn clue what I been through. I did every fuckin' thing I could, and it still wun't enough, and y'all are still shittin' on me for tryin' to get as many of y'all out alive as I can! You think it's easy figurin' who's got a chance at survivin' and who don't? You think it's easy comin' to terms with the fact that everybody I know—that everybody I know—"

His throat swelled up and choked him off. Furious, he scrubbed the tears from his eyes, even as snot dribbled out his nose. Gavin wriggled up into his lap and snuffled at his face. Michael shoved him off. Undaunted, he came right back again, trying to stick his tongue up Michael's nose.

"God dammit," said Michael, pushing him away again.

"Gavin, come here, pal," Lindsay said gently. When Gavin didn't come, she got up and led him away by the bandanna. Michael raised his head to watch them. A flicker of movement to his right caught his eye.

Free was holding out his kerchief.

"I don't need your goddamn pity," Michael choked.

"This is a handkerchief," said Free.

"Jackass," said Michael, and snatched it from him. He blew his nose so loudly it startled Gavin.

Gently, Lindsay said, "Michael, you don't have to do this alone this time. You don't have to spend all this care and pain lookin' after us. We can do that ourselves."

"Sure as hell cain't. Look at what happened to Gruchy and Gabriel. I said they shouldn't go. I said it, and nobody listened, and look what happened. I brought 'em into this, it was my job to get 'em out safe, and I fucked it up. All right? I fucked it up. Losin' folks just hurts less if they had it comin'."

"I am, frankly, somewhat offended that you think my choices are your responsibility," said Gabriel. "And certainly offended that you think I'm lost. Gruchy and I chose to go out last night. We chose to split up after I'd been shot. We took a series of calculated risks. We miscalculated. These things happen."

"This happened 'cuz I ain't manage to convince y'all not to go!"

"Free, correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't recall Mr. Jones saying anything to us before we left," said Gabriel.

Free squinted and tipped his head to the side, his eye darting, and nodded. "That's right. He only spoke up once you'd left."

"See? What'd I fuckin' tell you? If I'da said somethin' when it mattered, Gruchy wouldn't be dead!"

"Dan is not dead," Free snapped. "I won't believe it 'til I'm holding his damn corpse in my arms. The only thing we get by assuming he's dead is an assurance that he will be. I'm getting him back. You can help or not, but I'm getting him back."

"All this hopin' is just gonna break your damn fool heart," said Michael, ringing like a church bell with vicarious pain, unable to dampen the sensation because it wasn't coming from inside.

"Then let it break," said Free.

Chapter Text

For eight hours, Dan was left completely alone. It was now obvious where he was being kept—to the point that he had to wonder why Haywood had even bothered trying to keep it a secret. The tolling of the hours was so loud it shook the whole building. Dan's room must have been right above the belfry, one of those squirrelly little places that nobody but the caretakers knew about. There was a ray of hope in that—maybe, if he was very lucky, one of them would find him and set him free while Haywood was away.

At least he wouldn't have to worry about winding his pocket watch.

After spending the first hour coming down from his panic and terror and dread, Dan got to the primary occupation of every prisoner: abject boredom.

He slept off about half of his hangover, although the deafening tolls at every hour kept it from being restful. He took a more detailed inventory of the room, checking under his mattress, peering at the sharp implements on the worktable, investigating the chair and the chains and the chamber pot. He put the tin cup back under the leak in the roof, mostly so he'd have something to drink later. He examined the new bullet hole in the back wall and cleaned the porcelain shards off his clothes. With completely incongruous chagrin, he realized that he'd gotten tea all over his borrowed shirt—although there was nothing he could do about that now.

When the hunger pangs started setting in, he made a game of picking up as many crumbs off the floor as he could reach. He slept some more, just deeply enough for his nightmares to reach him. He drank the half-cup of water that had leaked through the roof. He counted the support beams. He wiggled the iron loops his shackles were threaded through. He worried about Gabriel. He worried about Jones and Tuggey.

Most of all, he worried about Gav, and whether he'd be all right without his Dan.

By the time Haywood returned with the evening meal, Dan was almost glad to see him. He was more glad Haywood hadn't come back while he was fiddling with his restraints.

"I'm sorry about earlier," Dan said, first words out of the gate before Haywood could set the tone. "It was—rude. Discourteous. It won't happen again."

Haywood put his head to one side, considering, and smiled. He set down the food on the workbench, retrieved the breakfast table, and put it back in its spot. Part of the flat bit had broken off, and it didn't stand quite straight anymore, but it was still serviceable.

"Apology accepted," Haywood said. "For my own part, I recognize that my reaction was disproportionate, and for that, I apologize, too."

"Oh," said Dan. "Well, er—all's forgiven, not to worry. Hahah."

Haywood shook his head, amused. He retrieved the tray and set it on the table before retiring to his spot at the nearest support beam. "C'mon over, Dan."

As Dan made his way over, the smell of lamb stew reached him. His stomach let out a mighty growl. He sat down and dug in, forcing himself to eat slowly. As last time, Haywood stayed and watched him—but this time, it was Haywood who struck up the conversation.

"Figure you most likely know where you are by now," he said. "So that's at least one question answered."

Dan nodded while he finished chewing. "It's rather difficult to miss, I'll be honest. To the point that—well, I don't want to press, of course, but I've got to wonder why all the secrecy."

"It's a matter of principle, Dan. I wouldn't want you comin' under the mistaken impression that I'd just tell you anythin' you wanted to know."

"Fair enough. I've got to say, all else aside, I'm frankly impressed by your managing to get me up here without anyone noticing. It's not as though Westminster is a remote location, is it."

"It is somewhat more populous than a person might find ideal for such business," Haywood allowed, with the transparent humility which tended to form atop conceit like scum on a pond. "But it was mighty foggy out, and late besides, and you were awful drunk."

"Yeah, about that: was the getting drunk bit really necessary? Only it's a damnably difficult habit to kick, and I'm frankly a bit chuffed about being chucked off the wagon."

"Oh, sure. Sober folks have smart ideas like leavin' clues, plus the manual dexterity to carry 'em out unnoticed. Drunks folks are clumsy and dumb, and that suits me much better."

"Right. Well. Can't argue with that."

"You findin' everythin' to your likin' up here? Not too cold or nothin'?"

Dan had another spoonful of stew and a sip of tea while he considered his answers.

"I could do with another blanket, if it's not too much trouble," he said. "And—perhaps one small favour, if it's amenable to you."

"A blanket I can manage. What's the favour?"

"I . . . would like a change of shirt. The one I've got now is borrowed, and—well, it would be tremendously discourteous for me to let anything happen to it, really, wouldn't it?"

There was a razor-thin pause before Haywood chuckled.

"Sure, Dan," he said. "I can get you a change of shirt. I'd hate to be responsible for causin' discourtesy on your part."

Somewhere deep and secret in Dan's heart, a glimmer of triumph shone. One inch given; only a mile to go.

"Thank you," he said. "Really, genuinely. I know it's a bit silly, considering, but—thank you."

"I think you'll find I'm much more amenable to silly requests than serious ones."

"What about silly questions? I don't mean to pry, it's just that, you know, I haven't got anyone else to talk to, really, and I feel like I'm already going a bit barmy."

Haywood raised his eyebrows. "If it's conversation you're lackin', I'd be more than happy to provide. Why don't you start? I'm mighty curious to know how you came to be workin' with Gav."

Damn and blast. But there was nothing for it—a little take required a little give.

"Oof, well, it's all a bit foggy," he said, chasing a bit of carrot round and round the bowl with his spoon. "It was—almost nine years ago, now, and I don't think I was sober more than a couple of hours together back then."

"That's fine, Dan, I ain't writin' a biography."

"Right. Er, so, somehow or other we both wound up at the same inn. Tiny place out near . . . where was it, Middlesborough? Masham? Someplace northern, anyway. There were only eight of us there, counting me and him. Haven't a clue what he was doing there, nor me, if I'm honest. Anyway, one morning another of the guests turns up in a snowbank with his head bashed in, and it all went—pretty much as you'd expect, from there."

Haywood shook his head, bright-eyed and innocent. "No, do tell."

"Ah. Er, well, the ah, the prevailing theory, at the outset, was that I'd done it."

"Oh?"

Dan rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah. I'd got blind drunk the night before, hadn't I, and . . . let's just say I had a temper."

"Had, sure," said Haywood, without a hint of sarcasm and yet managing to convey it nonetheless. Dan winced.

"Yeah, well, it was worse when I was drunk all the time. I'd had a flaming row with the bloke at some point in the past few days, and I couldn't remember where I'd been the night before, so of course all the fingers pointed at me. Except—well, except Gav's. He's never really explained how he knew, but he was convinced from the start. Had me on to do his legwork for him, which it's a miracle I managed, considering I must've gone through two pints of sherry that weekend. Always had a terrible soft spot for—anyway."

He took a deep breath. His mouth was watering. He fed it a spoonful of stew and a gulp of tea, which barely helped.

"Gav caught the bloke out in one of his little dramatic reveals he likes to do, and the bloke went for him. Got me instead. Fractured my jaw and broke my arm in two places, but . . . er, he didn't fare as well, let's just put it that way. Afterwards, Gav asked me if I'd like to stay on, and since I hadn't got anything better to do, I said yes."

"Aw," said Haywood, blushing like a bird in spring. "That's even sweeter than I hoped."

"It's not the worst way to go about meeting your spouse," Dan allowed. "Er . . . I don't s'pose you got his version of it, back in Paris?"

"Matter of fact, I did."

"Really? He wouldn't happen to have told you why he was so convinced that I hadn't done it, would he? Only he's never told me, and I—well, not to put too fine a point on it, but I might not get the chance to find out."

A flicker of something crossed Haywood's face, an expression too quick to catch. It looked, if Dan had to name it, like guilt. Maybe that was only the result of wishful thinking, but maybe it wasn't.

"'Fraid he never mentioned," Haywood said.

"Ah. Shame." Dan took a deep breath and sighed it out again. "Worth a shot, anyway. Would it be all right if I asked you for a story, as well?"

"Dependin' on the story."

"Ooh, ah, I didn't really think this through, did I. How about—look, in the interest of not standing on any toes, why don't you pick? I'm content with anything, really, I'm only in it for the sound of a human voice, hahah."

Haywood cast his eyes skyward and settled in against the support beam. A smile turned up the corners of his mouth.

"Well," he said, "this one time, our Sheriff got a cactus stuck to his unmentionables. . . ."


 

For a little over three hours, Dan traded stories with Haywood, feigning ease while remaining acutely attuned to Haywood's mood and manner. He gleaned an awful lot of information, although most of it was what Gav would call faff.

He learned that Haywood's sense of humour fell somewhere on the near side of macabre. He learned that his alliances were less mercurial than anticipated, that he preferred to earn and maintain the longstanding loyalty of a group and make them into a combination ally and alibi, a safe place to run home to—much as he'd been doing with the regulars of the Ravin Rouge in Paris. He learned that the extravagant vanity of Casimir was based solidly on the narcissistic truth, especially where matters of cunning or artistry were concerned.

He learned that Haywood was intensely, painfully, desperately lonely, and had been for a very long time.

"D'you know, I've been wondering something," Dan said, when eleven o'clock had finished deafening them and conversation could resume. "And feel free to tell me to piss off, I'll understand, of course—although I really would appreciate not being shot at again, if at all possible."

"It'd have to be a remarkably poor question for that, Dan," said Haywood. "I don't feel much in the mood for shootin', nor any other particular aggression, for that matter. I'll leave it up to your discretion whether or not you think your question's gone change that."

"My discretion cannot and should not be trusted, thank you, but I'll ask anyway. I get the feeling you're planning something tremendous here, and I also get the feeling I'm not meant to see the completed work. I'd sort of like to know what it'll look like, though. Purely out of curiosity."

Haywood's eyes narrowed. His posture didn't change, but the intent behind it did, like a jaguar sighting a bird with a broken wing.

"That," he said slowly, "is a mighty unwise question, Dan."

"There, well, there, hahah, you see, I told you my discretion couldn't be trusted," said Dan, biting down with every atom of grit he had to keep from panicking. "Only I thought—stupidly, of course, bit stupid of me—I couldn't see what harm it could do. Sort of obvious you're plotting to kill the lot of us, isn't it, s'pose that's all there is to it, shouldn't have asked—"

"All there is to it?" Haywood sneered. "That's far from all there is to it. That'd be crass, crude, and common, Dan. You saw my work at St. Michael's. Do I seem like an all there is to it sort of person?"

"No—no no, of course not. That's why I was asking! Phrased it poorly, sorry, I'm a bit off my head, you understand, I meant—I meant to say, really, that the . . . the relevant bits, you know, the bits that it'd be detrimental for me to know and possibly, you know, communicate, if I got loose—"

"Which you won't."

"Exactly! Exactly, so where's the harm in it? I know you did say that you wouldn't just go telling me anything willy-nilly, I just—look, I'll level with you, you can just make it up. You can just make up whatever you like, total lies, complete bollocks, and I won't be able to tell the difference. I just don't want to be left alone again, yeah? I'm bored to death up here. I'm—I've said, I'm going a bit barmy. As you can tell. Hahah. Sorry. Stupid question. Forget I asked. I'm sure your—your intended audience will appreciate the completed work, when it comes about."

Haywood watched him so closely it was like being dissected. Dan sat and squirmed, sweating through his clothes, fighting to keep his head together. His tongue was rotten in his mouth, struggling to spill more idiot words out onto the floor. Haywood pushed off his support beam. Dan couldn't help but flinch.

"I'll be back in five minutes, Dan," he said—calm, composed, giving nothing away. "I'm gone get you that blanket, and a change of shirt, and somethin' to drink. Then I'll show you what I got planned."

"You—you will? Oh. Er . . . thank you?"

Something, not quite a smile, turned up the corner of Haywood's mouth. He turned and left without a further word, shutting the door quietly behind him. Dan put his head down on the table and stuffed his knuckles into his mouth to muffle the sound of his whimpering.

True to his word, Haywood returned only a few minutes later, bearing a blanket and a shirt and a glass of something amber. He tossed the blanket and shirt onto the bed and brought the glass to the breakfast table. Dan shrank back, his heart pounding. Haywood set the drink down in front of him—up close, close enough for Dan to strike him, but watching so intently that Dan didn't dare to move—before resuming his spot against the beam.

"Drink that, if you don't mind," Haywood said.

"Can I ask what it is?" Dan said.

"Bourbon whiskey," said Haywood. "For the most part."

"I'd prefer not to, then, if it's all the same to you."

"Unfortunately, this time, it ain't."

"Will you at least tell me what the other part is, that isn't the most part?"

"Laudanum."

"Then I'd really rather not."

"Trust me, honey, you rather would."

"I'm afraid I'm a bit short on trust at the moment."

Haywood took out his knife. Every last one of Dan's organs, internal and otherwise, tried to cram into a space just below his diaphragm. Haywood stayed where he was, though, just turning that gigantic knife in his hands like a toy.

"'Fore I answer your earlier question, I got a question for you, Dan," he said pleasantly. "And you ain't gone like it, but I'm gone need an answer anyhow."

Dan swallowed. "What is it?"

"Ear or finger?"

The floor dropped out from under him. His heart stopped. It took all the strength of his body to suppress the impulse to struggle, to thrash and scream and fight. He gripped the table to hold himself down.

"Wait, just—just wait a moment," he choked, trembling. "There's no call for this. I—I've been quiet, I've kept still, I did what you asked—"

"I'm aware of that," said Haywood. "That's how come I'm givin' you a choice. Ear, or finger?"

"Look, whatever it is you're after, there's better ways to get it! I'll help you, I want to help you—"

"Oh, sure," he said, nodding. "You can help a whole lot by pickin' what you can do without: ear or finger."

"Haywood, please, you haven't got to do this—"

Haywood flipped the knife in the air and caught it, a casual gesture, an unmistakeable threat. Dan's own throat strangled him before he could talk himself to death.

"Dan, honey," Haywood said, stern. "Make a decision, now, or it's gone be both."

His head filled up with scalding steam. His tongue clove to the roof of his mouth. It took him six tries to swallow down the scream boiling in his chest.

Calm. He had to stay calm. Cooperation in the short term, resistance in the long term, and he could panic when the threat of violence had gone. He just had to live long enough to do it. Calm people lived.

"Just—just give me a moment to get my head together," he croaked. "I just need a moment to think."

"Oh, sure, take your time," said Haywood. "But Dan? The next word outta your mouth better be ear or finger, one."

Dan squeezed his eyes shut. The world spun underneath him. There was no air. He shook like mad, guts in tangles, skin crawling. His fingers ached with the premonition of pain. Haywood's attention was ice against his face. His ears rang. The shackles bit into his ankles.

Resistance in the long term. Stack the odds as far in his favour as they would go. No disfigurement was preferable, but if he was going to have a good chance at escaping, he'd need his hands intact.

"Ear," he whispered.

Haywood made a quiet, pleased noise. Dan risked opening his eyes to find Haywood smiling at him.

"There now, was that so hard?" Haywood said. "I'd call that the wiser choice, anyhow. Losin' fingers does tend to play hell with a person's manual dexterity—speakin' from experience."

He held up his mutilated hand and wiggled the remaining fingers. Dan bit his tongue to keep from throwing up.

"Told you you'd be wantin' that drink, though," Haywood went on, jovial as ever. "Go on and take your medicine now, Dan, and then you can change your shirt, and then we'll get on to your question."

"What? My med—what?"

Haywood tipped his head to one side and put on a bemused face.

"You ain't think I was gone do it with you conscious, did you? Naw, you drink up, and you'll sleep through the whole thing."

Before he could think better of it, and before Haywood could rescind that offer, Dan swept up the glass and slugged back the whole thing. The whiskey burned his throat and sinuses, dripped like molten wax through his chest. However much laudanum was in it, the taste was so overwhelmingly bitter that it made him gag. It lingered in his mouth like horseradish. He had to fight not to throw up.

He hadn't a clue how Jones ever managed it.

"Why?" Dan wheezed.

"Oh, Dan," Haywood sighed, rolling his eyes. "You made it clear you don't hold truck with torture, and—way I see it—one good turn deserves another."

"I'd think the better turn would be not cutting off my bloody ear!"

Haywood smiled a dangerous, reptilian smile. He ran his thumb up the length of the blade, like a painter testing the cleanliness of his brushes. Dan went cold right down to the marrow of his bones. His head filled with visions of corpses, their guts spilled out into their laps.

"Once your medicine does its work, you're gone be unconscious for a good couple hours, Dan," Haywood told him, watching the knife. The lamplight settled in his eyes, half-lidded, like thieves' lanterns. "You got any idea what all I could do to you in a couple hours, and still have you wake up at th' end of it? 'Cause, Lord have mercy, Dan, I got some ideas."

Dan swallowed, shaking so hard it made his teeth rattle. Haywood smiled, met Dan's eyes, and tucked the knife back into its sheath.

"Don't push your luck, honey," he said. "Now. While we're waitin' on that medicine, go change your shirt, and I'll show you what I got planned for my magnum opus."

"Can't be worse than silence," Dan managed.

But as it turned out, it was.

Chapter Text

Free settled in at the breakfast table with a cup of coffee. The sun was just rising. Gabriel was the only one who'd slept at all, mostly because Lindsay insisted she had to. Free had promised to fill her in on all the secrets that were spilled in the meantime, which were much fewer in number than Michael had hoped. Progress had ground to a standstill again, and was only resuming now that Gabriel was up and about—although by the look of her, she could've used a few more days in bed.

"The problem," Free said, "is that we've got too much evidence. We've got bodies, we've got Bible verses, we've got party guests and police both apparently in collusion with supernatural forces. We've got ourselves, murdered in effigy. We've got a countdown. We've got rose petals and missing hearts and notes delivered to your hospital room. We are being buried in clues, which means, of course, that whatever's going on underneath is very simple. We've just got to dig it out. So. Let's take a look at the dirt, shall we?"

Gabriel nodded, stirring another spoonful of sugar into her tea. "Our first priority ought to be working out who the victims were. We'll be able to find out when and where they were taken from, which ought to give us a better idea of where Haywood's holed up. It might also help us narrow down who might be next."

"Not quite," said Free. "Though we'll want to do that second, I think. First-and-a-half, call it. First we'll want to work out where he caught up with Dan. We know it must've been somewhere between here and your friends' place, which narrows the playing field considerably. Dan would've known he was in danger, would've known he was being followed. He gets paranoid about that sort of thing."

"Then he wouldn't've come straight back here," said Lindsay.

"Almost certainly not. But he was determined to make certain we were safe, so I reckon he headed for the police."

"And Haywood caught up with him before he could get there," Gabriel said.

"Precisely. But, Dan wouldn't go quietly. At the very least, some station along the way—probably in a more secluded area than Bishopsgate—will have had a complaint about shouting."

"Nuh-uh," said Michael.

"Oh boy, here we go," Lindsay muttered.

"Don't get shitty with me. Free, you was just talkin' about us gettin' buried—all this shit with Gruchy, that's more dirt."

"You've made it very clear what your stance on rescuing my husband is, and I thought I had made it very clear that it's unwelcome," Free snapped.

"It's. More. Dirt," said Michael, prodding the table for emphasis. "'Course you're gonna go chasin' off after your husband first-thing. 'Course it's gonna be all you can fuckin' think about. Why did he take Gruchy? Why now? Why three fuckin' hours after we turnt up the first set of bodies? Y'all was right, that shit had to be exhaustin', but he pushed on through and took Gruchy anyhow, quick as he could, 'cuz it was important. Important enough to shoot somebody in the middle of the fuckin' street over. And it had to be Gruchy, too, 'cuz otherwise he wouldn'ta waited around for him to come back outta y'all's hidey-hole. Why?"

"The rhetorical questions are patronizing and unnecessary," said Free. "If you know, then just say it."

"I'm thinkin' out loud, you fuckwit," said Michael, while Lindsay and Gabriel exchanged a monumental Look behind Free's back.

"You mean you don't know?" Free said, aghast. "And you're saying it out loud?"

"Yeah, jackass, that's what I just fuckin' said."

"But what if you're wrong?"

"Then I'm wrong, what the fuck ever. All I know is, Gruchy wun't the point. He was the goal, but he wun't the point. It don't add up. I cain't tell you what the shape of the damn thing is, but I know this shit with Gruchy sticks out like a sore thumb, and we're s'posed to get distracted by it."

"There was something important at the church," Gabriel said suddenly. "A dead giveaway, if you'll pardon the expression. Something not obvious at the time, something the police would've disturbed. Something only Free could retrieve after the fact."

Michael snapped and pointed at her. "That. That's it. 'Cuz if Free's thinkin' about the case, he's gonna solve it. So instead, Haywood's gotta make sure he's only thinkin' about findin' Gruchy. That's why he's dumpin' all this dirt on us all at once, just like Free said. And it's gotta be on or about the bodies, too—he ain't have to fuck 'em up that bad, except to get Free all fucked up about it so's he couldn't look too close."

"Why let us see it in the first place, though?" Lindsay asked. "That don't make no sense, either. If it was somethin' he didn't want us to know about, why show it?"

"'Cuz it's art, Doc," said Michael. "It's made to be seen. He cain't help himself."

"Look, this is all very well and good, but you're ignoring the fact that those three people—whoever they were—are already dead," Free said. "Dan is not. Haywood took him, so Haywood's with him. If we find Dan, we find Haywood. All this bloody faff is pointless. We ought to check in at the police stations between here and Bishopsgate, 'cos that's where he'll have tried to get to."

"You can sit here bein' stubborn all goddamn day, but it ain't gonna get you any further. So what if somebody saw Haywood take him? They ain't gonna be able to tell you where he went."

"And neither are three corpses!"

"OK, for the sake of not being at this all day, how's this," Gabriel interrupted. "We'll take a cab down to Bishopsgate and back up, check in at all the stations within reasonable walking distance. Free, while we're in transit, you and Jones can go over the scene at the church to make sure there's nothing we've missed. Arguing about it is a waste of everyone's time, and Gruchy may not have a lot of that left."

That shut him up. He went from annoyed to sallow in half a second flat.

"Right," he said. He scrunched up his face and rubbed his glass eye. "Right. Sensible plan, Gabriel. Well thought. Shall we go now, or—perhaps wait for the morning post?"

"Unless anyone's got objections, I think now would be best. Jones, be thinking of which details might be relevant. I daresay it'll be easier for Free if he's got something specific to focus on."

"Whatever," said Michael. He put the remainder of his breakfast down on the floor. Gavin darted over to scarf it for him. "If it'll keep him from goin' useless again."

"That's the idea," said Gabriel, but she didn't sound too hopeful.


 

When Lindsay and Gabriel went into the first police station, Michael started in on Free. The cab was cramped at best with all five of them in there, and the jostling made it difficult to focus. Now that they were parked, and the pain in his legs and back had settled to its background level, he could breathe talk a little easier. The driver had hopped down to stretch his legs and smoke a cigarette, so Michael wasn't too worried about being overheard.

"That book," he said.

"What?" said Free, like he'd forgotten Michael was in the cab with him. Michael gestured, annoyed.

"There was some kinda book at the church, in that first li'l room. You was in there a good long while, you happen to see what was written in it?"

A thin line appeared between Free's eyebrows. His mouth turned down at the corners. His one eye darted, while the glass one stayed fixed in place.

"It's a guest book," he said. "Looks like it was left over from a wedding."

"Recognize any of the names?"

"Not off the top of my head, but I can check it against the guest list for the party."

"Shoot."

They sat in silence for a good minute. Free wrinkled his nose and shook his head.

"No, none of them match," he said.

"Damn. Any of 'em in Haywood's handwritin'? Either of his handwritin's, I guess."

"No to that, as well."

"Double damn. Fine. Anythin' else in that room? Notes or somethin'?"

Free glanced around, shied away from nothing. He turned his head like there was someone sitting next to him he didn't want to talk to.

"Nothing of note."

"Check up under the guts."

"Jones—"

"Check up under the guts, specifically 'cuz you don't wanna look at 'em."

Free gulped. He was already greener. His lip curled up until he shook his head and let out a breath.

"Nothing. Just the moulding."

Michael pursed his lips and drummed his fingers on the arm of his chair. "Naw, guess that woulda been too easy. Inside, then. You get a look at everythin' inside before your head crapped out?"

"Enough of it," Free mumbled, rubbing his face. "Nothing on the right side—pews or the wall or anything."

"Why not?"

He pointed to his glass eye, annoyed.

"Oh," said Michael. "Whatever, it din't look like there was nothin' there anyhow. Anythin' notable about them flower petals?"

"Apart from the fact that there were probably a hundred pounds' worth of them? No."

"Nuh-huh, it was a couple bags at most."

"Pounds the currency, not pounds the weight. At the very least, someone will have noticed a purchase that big."

A gear caught in Michael's head. "Not if he din't buy 'em. You said that guest book was for a weddin'. You figure they mighta had some decorations left over?"

Free clicked his teeth. "Ah," he said. "More dirt, eh?"

"Everythin's easier to look at than the bodies, and takes more time, too. Speakin' of—anythin' about 'em stand out to you?"

"Everything about them, in horrific detail. Have we got to do this?"

"Yup. How 'bout any identifyin' marks? Tattoos or whatever."

Pressing his knuckles to his mouth, Free choked out, "No, none."

"You sayin' that 'cuz you looked, or 'cuz you don't wanna look?"

"There were no identifying marks."

"Fine. How 'bout that bloody cloth, what's that?"

His brow creased. "What bloody cloth?"

"In the middle one's hand."

The rest of Free's face scrunched up to match his forehead. His eye darted behind its lid.

"I can't tell, except—it's not bloody. It's just red. Small, maybe a handkerchief."

"Huh. That mean anythin' to you?"

"Why would it?"

"Your body."

"No. The candle means something, the—what was done to the chest, but the kerchief—no."

"What's the candle mean?"

"Reference to my being possessed."

"And the chest?"

He swallowed. "Let's just say it has to do with dresses."

"All right, whatever. All three of 'em, there was somethin' on their foreheads, I couldn't make it out. What was it?"

"It's numbers, it's a countdown, like Gabriel said."

"She ain't say which numbers."

"I can't," said Free, shaking his head, trembling. "I can't, I can't look that close—"

"Yes you can, 'cuz you gotta."

Free pressed the heels of his hands to his eyes, shivering harder and harder until he was practically vibrating.

"Eleven-ten-nine," he blurted.

Michael blinked, frowned, sat forward. "You sure?"

"Yes, I'm sure, what sort of a stupid question is that?"

"It ain't stupid. What the hell kinda countdown starts at eleven?"

Free opened his mouth. He closed it again. Some of the color came back into his face. He looked at Michael for the first time since they'd gotten in the cab.

"D'you know," he said, "that's a good question. If he were planning on murdering all of us in effigy before the real thing, you'd think it'd start at ten."

"Twelve," said Michael. At Free's puzzled look, he tipped his head and added: "The dog counts."

Free sucked down a slow breath and sat up straight. "The dog does count, doesn't he."

He reached down and plucked at Gavin's bandanna—Gavin's red bandanna.

"Two for the price of one?" said Michael, while his stomach turned inside-out and his blood ran cold. Gavin licked Free's hand, oblivious.

"Misdirection," said Free. "He's saying, I'm going to kill Gavin, but not exactly which Gavin. He wants us to think it'll be me, but he can't resist leaving a bit of the truth. It's not a proper effigy otherwise."

"It still don't explain why he started countin' from eleven."

Free chewed his lip, playing with Gavin's ears. He made a face and clicked his teeth again.

"No, it doesn't," he admitted. "Unless he's lumping the dog and me in as one, but that's . . . sloppy. Inelegant. I reckon it's too much to hope for that one of us isn't on the list at all."

"Hang on," said Michael, as his machinery spit something into his lap. "Wait a second, whose guts?"

A faint light came on in Free's eye. "Above the door? All our victims still had theirs. Although, I might point out, we've already got an extra—an extra heart kicking about."

"That's a pig's, most likely. Figure the guts might be pig guts, too?"

"I wouldn't have the first idea how to distinguish that."

"Me neither. Lindsay might could. If they ain't pig guts, then we got us a fourth body somewhere. Number twelve."

"But who could that possibly be? You said yourself, you go last, and your body was number eleven. That points to the countdown starting at eleven, and sort of reflecting back on itself. You go last, Gavin goes second-to-last, and Dan. . . . Well, maybe that's good news, as far as Dan's concerned."

"Maybe so. Yeah, maybe it was pig guts, too. More dirt."

"If we're running about looking for a fourth body that doesn't exist, that's going to slow us down considerably."

"It don't make no damn sense," said Michael, as much to himself as to Free. "What the hell is he makin'?"

"Other than a mess? I don't know. And we still don't know who our bodies are, either."

Inspiration struck like a flash of lightning, although Michael would have preferred it hit somewhere else in his head.

"Who was that dumb sonnuva bitch who talked back to the Devil?" he asked.

"What? You mean Constable Cartwright?"

"Whatever. Anybody seen him lately?"

"You think he's one of our victims?"

"I know it. If he had a partner, they're Body Number Two. Or Ten, I guess."

"And Nine's a soldier," Free realized. "Two policemen and a soldier, for symmetry. Which means he'll be looking for a detec—"

"A detective and a doctor, uh-huh. Who on that guest list—"

"Not the guest list, Jones, Scotland Yard. He's taking police, 'cos the last thing the police will do—"

"Is tell fuckin' anybody that someone's snatchin' cops, talk about your goddamn Press circus!"

"God, but that's a dangerous game to play. They go absolutely ballistic whenever something happens to one of their own."

"I know," said Michael. "I used to be one, and so did Ryan. We gonna warn 'em about who's next, or what?"

"I don't know that they'd listen. They'll be tremendously upset that I even worked it out, frankly."

"You?"

He rolled his eyes. "We, then, we worked it out. They've been so deliberately useless already, I can't help but think that any prodding will turn them outright hostile. Which, come to think of it, was probably intentional on Haywood's part."

"Coulda been luck."

"He won't be feeling very lucky when everyone who looks like him is getting bludgeoned in the streets."

"There's two kinds of luck," said Michael, shrugging.

"Three," Free said.

"Three?"

"Mm. Good, bad, and dumb."

"Huh," said Michael. "Just like us three."

"Awh, don't say that, you'll hurt poor Gavin's feelings! You're not dumb, are you, my wittle smarty lovely puppy boy—"

"The dog's the good one," said Michael.

The resounding slap on the shin he got was well worth it. He was still snickering when Lindsay and Gabriel got back.

"Anything?" Free asked, settling his prim face back on like a hat that the wind had knocked off.

"Nothing, I'm afraid," said Gabriel. The outing was already starting to wear on her, but she was forging through it. "If it was near here, Gruchy didn't make enough of a fuss for anyone to involve the police."

"Damn," said Free. "Cross Shoreditch station off the list, then. On to the next?"

"On to the next," said Gabriel. "And in the meantime, perhaps Mr. Jones can tell us what's so funny."


 

Michael and the others spent the whole morning running around London, checking every police station and the surrounding neighborhoods with steadily increasing dread. Michael and Free didn't dig anything else out of the scene at the church, so Michael spent most of the time chewing over the possible significance of the number eleven. If it was supposed to mean something to him, it didn't—though it was possible it should have, and he'd just forgotten. In the interests of not getting yelled at, he didn't mention what a waste of time all this police station searching was. It would have been a lot more fun to be smug about it if everyone else hadn't been so upset.

Just as one o'clock was tolling across the city, they dragged themselves back to Free's office, defeated. There was a pile of mail inside the door with a little box on top, all of which Lindsay scooped up so that Michael wouldn't run it over. She brought it into the waiting room with her, ignoring the letters and newspapers to frown at the box. Gabriel lowered herself into the nearest chair, waxen with pain and exhaustion.

"All right, so—reckon we know Dan never made it to a police station," Free said, brittle. "And maybe didn't end up making that much of a fuss. Doesn't necessarily mean anything, just that—would someone mind putting the kettle on? Could use a cuppa."

"Free," Lindsay said slowly. "Were you expectin' a package?"

The room cooled by ten degrees. Free put a hand over his eyes.

"Oh, God," he said.

Everyone else looked at the little box in Lindsay's hand. Gavin picked his way over, sniffing furiously. Michael caught him before he could get up next to her—if he made a jump for the box, they might only catch a glimpse of what was inside before it disappeared down his gullet.

"Someone will have to open it," Free said, like he was reading it off a placard. A hollow laugh chased the words.

Lindsay took a deep breath, set her jaw, and opened it. She stared at the contents. She gulped. Carefully, she set it down on the table.

Inside, sitting on a blood-stained jeweler's cushion like an engagement ring, was a human ear.

"Oh, fuck," Free spat, leaping to his feet. He paced to the other side of the room, knuckles pressed to his lips.

"We don't know for sure that's even Gruchy's," Lindsay said. Free was already shaking his head.

"It is," he choked. "It is, I—I can. . . ."

He pressed his knuckles back to his mouth. Tears welled in his eyes. Michael looked away, uncomfortable. Gavin snuck forwards, pulling Michael along with him because Michael couldn't hang on to him and his wheels at the same time. Michael hissed at him to sit. Reluctantly, Gavin did so.

"There's a note," said Lindsay.

"Of fuckin' course there is," said Michael. "What's it say?"

She picked up the box's lid between her thumb and forefinger and peered into it. Her jaw was tight, her lip curled with disgust.

"Isaiah 53:5>," she read. "Does it matter yet?"

"Jesus fuckin' Christ," he muttered, sick to his stomach. "Goddamn piece of shit, sonnuva bitch."

"I assume it means something to you," said Gabriel.

"It means he's a goddamn piece of shit and a son of a fuckin' bitch, that's what the fuck it means."

"Michael," Lindsay warned.

"Go to hell."

"What did you say to him?"

He ground his teeth. He made the mistake of glancing at Free. He swallowed and looked anywhere else, shame creeping beneath his skin like hot oil.

"I told him it din't fuckin' matter if he'd been abstainin' or whatever the fuck, 'cuz he'd done killt too many folks already," he mumbled.

Gabriel's face pinched with further pain. Free lowered his face into his hand.

"You dumbass," Lindsay said. "You fuckin' moron!"

"What? It's true, ain't it?"

"That ain't mean you had to say it!"

"What the fuck was I s'posed to do, lie to him to make him feel better?"

"Yes!"

"It's too late for that now," said Gabriel, straightening herself out. "What's said is said. At the very least, now we know the . . . the approximate size and shape of the bone Haywood's got to pick. Jones, you've got a better handle on his psychology than anyone; in your opinion, how likely is it that Gruchy's still alive?"

"Hundred percent," Michael said, seizing the change of subject. "He said somethin' once, right after Risinger got himself killt, about how fingers and ears and all that could get cut off without it killin' whoever they came from. If he'd killt him, we'da got his whole head. Plus, Free and me figure Gruchy goes third from last. Unless Haywood ain't plannin' on killin' the two of y'all—which is outta the question, believe you me—Gruchy's still got some time. Couple more murders' worth."

"Five," said Free, from across the room. "Numbers eight through four. Although two of those will almost certainly be Tuggey and Gabriel, so we've got about three murders until—until."

"OK," said Gabriel, fragile. "Silver linings. Though . . . in the light of that verse, perhaps a bit tarnished."

"What's the verse?"

"If I recall correctly, it's Jesus dying for our sins."

"But he was wounded for our transgressions," Free mumbled, "he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed."

"That would be the one, yes."

For a good while, nobody said anything. Lindsay put the lid back on the box and settled into a chair. Gavin whined and fidgeted and tried to lick Michael's hand.

"I don't like that yet," Free said quietly.

Come to think of it, Michael didn't like that yet too much, either.

Chapter Text

The hangover from laudanum was different to that from pure drink, but it was just as bad. Dan's head was so swollen with pain that it had split open on one side. The constant clamour from below rattled his brain in his skull, scraped against his teeth like a dentist's hook. He barely managed to drag himself out of bed before he was sick. The world spun. Everything hurt.

For God only knew how long, he drifted in and out of consciousness. Dawn came and went. The hours tolled away beneath him, so agonizingly loud that each one threatened to make him vomit again. At some point, the tide of oblivion went out, leaving him high and dry and aching. His hand found its way to the side of his head, where the pain was the worst.

It found a lot of bandages.

Dan lay on the floor, staring at the exposed rafters, feeling out the shape of his horror. There wasn't as much blood as he would have thought—a few clots in his hair, a little red-black grit on his neck, but for the most part, very clean. He couldn't press on the bandages without pushing needles of pain through his skin, so all he could tell was that the space underneath was swollen and wet. If Haywood's knife was as sharp as it seemed, at least he could expect a clean cut and a reduced chance of infection. Especially if Haywood had been as meticulous about sanitation as he'd been when stitching up the wounds in Gav's chest, back in Paris.

Silver linings.

It wasn't too much later that Haywood turned up bearing breakfast. Dan stayed on the floor. He didn't have any appetite to speak of, and all movement was painful.

"Mornin', Dan," said Haywood, setting the tray down on the table. "How're you feelin'?"

Unnnh, said Dan, because it was true, accurate, and complete.

"Admittedly, I may have been a li'l liberal in my calculations," Haywood said. "Figured it was better t' err on the side of caution."

"Ear on the side of. . . ?" Dan mumbled. "Hah-hah."

"Poor thing," said Haywood, shaking his head. "Still a li'l out of it, huh. C'mon and have your breakfast."

Dan made no move to get up. If he ate anything, it wouldn't stay down. There was a sigh, a squeaking of floorboards, and then a pair of hands shoved under his armpits to haul him off the floor. Pain lanced through Dan's head. He sucked in a breath through his teeth.

"I know, I know," Haywood said, dragging him to the chair. "Believe you me, I do know. You'll feel better with a li'l breakfast in you."

"Could've . . . could've got you, just now," said Dan. "Could've walloped you and—and—and gone on. Idiot. Careless mistake."

Haywood propped him up at the breakfast table and fussed over him to make sure he stayed upright. "Sure, honey, sure you could. Much obliged that you neglected to. Have some tea, now, it's gone get cold."

He placed the cup in Dan's hand, moulded his fingers against it like clay to a pot. Dan pulled it in closer, examined it, considered it.

And threw it into Haywood's face.

The return blow caught him right on the bandages, sending him clattering to the floor in a tangle of chair legs and chain. His head rang with pain. He flailed like an upturned beetle, lashing out more to keep Haywood off him than to inflict any further harm.

"That's for cutting off my fucking ear, you rank cunt!" he snarled, slurring like a drunk at midnight.

Haywood caught him by the wrist and put a boot on his throat. Dan punched him in the side of the knee. Haywood buckled and went staggering. Dan scrambled to get on his feet. Haywood got to him first.

A swift blow to the gut knocked him on his back. He took a wild swing. Haywood caught his wrist again—a sharp twist, a sharp snap, a blinding, howling pain. Before he could recover, Haywood planted his knees on Dan's biceps. Dan kicked, but only bruised his ankles against the tight shackles and taut chains. A hand grabbed him by the jaw, bruising tight. A blade pressed to his throat. Nausea bubbled up in his stomach like the blow had knocked it loose.

"Fixin' to lose th' other ear, Dan," Haywood growled, drenched in tea, not even out of breath. "Fixin' to lose an awful—"

Dan wrenched his whole body to one side. Haywood went sprawling. The knife slipped from the three-fingered hand. Dan lunged after it. His fingers brushed the hilt just as his chains pulled taut and cracked his chin against the floor.

Haywood got him by the hair and slammed his head on the floor several more times, rather more forcefully.

Sparks and darkness filled his vision. His ears rang. Something thunked into the floorboards next to his head. Glass shattered. The floor shuddered. The door slammed.

It was not until almost an hour later, when Dan regained enough of his faculties to find the porridge all over the wall and the gaping stab wound in the floor next to his face, that he recognized how unfathomably lucky he was to still be alive.

The pain from his new injuries joined that of the old, a thick soup of red and black and blue. His wrist was broken. His head wouldn't stop spinning. He'd pulled several muscles in his shoulder and chest, wrenched something in his back. His ankles were a solid mass of bruises, his socks sticky with blood where the shackles had scraped or bitten too deeply. He dragged himself back to his mattress, curled up with his back against the wall and fought down nausea, anger, dread. He started shivering. He put his face against his knees to soak up the tears before they fell.

"Idiot," he hissed.

The only response he got was a discontented growl from his stomach.


 

Free had been going through cups of coffee like a chain-smoker. They'd put the ear in the icebox—out of sight, but nowhere near out of mind. By request, Michael had been making an effort to think silently while everybody else finished being upset. Even Gavin was subdued, lying at Michael's side and half-heartedly chewing up a notebook.

"Right," Free said, just after two o'clock. It was the first word spoken in over half an hour. At the sound, Gavin thumped the floor with his tail. "Jones, what have you got?"

"You gonna argue with me, or you gonna hear it to the end?" Michael asked. "'Cuz you ain't gonna like it all that much."

Free took a deep breath. He drained his latest cup of coffee.

"I'll do my best," he said.

"Fine, whatever. Lindsay, you said y'all talked to some cops about that dumbass at the party, and they ain't tell you nothin'. They seem shaken? Pissed off?"

"Well, they sure didn't seem happy we were askin', I'll tell you that," she said, rubbing her chin. "Oluwaseyi, what's your take on it?"

"My take is that Cartwright is missing, and those that know why are more concerned than those that don't," said Gabriel. She wasn't doing well, either, and was doing a worse job of hiding it. "I also got the distinct impression, as Lindsay implied, that none of them were going to talk about it to outsiders."

"Yep, that's about what I thought," said Michael. "We gotta find us a police doctor and a—detective, or somethin', I ain't sure how he's gonna fix on Gabriel."

"There aren't too many Black people involved with the police," she said. "He won't be spoiled for choice, that's certain."

"Will that matter to him?" Free asked.

"He's a leather-worker by trade. I imagine that matching skin colors is something he places a great deal of value upon."

"Jesus," Lindsay muttered, and shivered. Gavin got up and stuck his nose in her lap until she petted him.

"Fine, so maybe that's where we start at," said Michael. "The colored—"

The instantaneous change that came over Gabriel's face was enough to nip that phrasing right in the bud. Michael cleared his throat and started over.

"The uh, the one cop's prob'ly gonna have some kinda involvement with the doctor. Prob'ly the doc's gonna have some kinda shit on his record, fuckin' up a surgery or somethin'. We tell 'em what's comin', and hope like hell they listen."

"And what about Dan?" Free asked.

"What about him?" said Michael. Under the withering look he got from Lindsay, he added: "Uh, what I meant was, uh, if we catch Haywood, he cain't do nothin' else to Gruchy. So. Yeah."

"It might be a challenge to get him to tell us where he's keeping him," said Gabriel.

"I figure I can get it outta him," said Michael, rubbing the arm of his chair. "One way or another."

"For God's sake," Free muttered. "Fine. Police doctors with a mark on their records and dark-skinned officers. That's—"

"You can just say Black, it's not a dirty word," said Gabriel, annoyed.

"Yes, fine, all right. That's still a wide net to cast, can we narrow it down any further?"

"Don't know," said Michael. "I'd need to know more about the bodies we already got."

"Such as?"

"Hair color. Eye color. Whether they was men or women. Moles, scars, freckles, that kinda thing."

"Left to right: hair was brown, blond, black. Eyes: blue, blue, and brown."

"You're awful composed about this all of a sudden."

Free waved a hand. "I'm reading it off the notes Tuggey and I put together, which is why we put them together. Shall I keep going, or have you heard what you needed yet?"

"You ain't hardly said nothin' yet."

"They already don't match."

"Fine, maybe it ain't in the details."

"Don't be ridiculous."

Gabriel leaned over and muttered in Lindsay's ear, "Heresy to Mr. Gavin Free."

"It is, 'cos it's always in the details," said Free, with a sort of tonal foot-stamping. It was enough to get Gavin's attention, although he seemed to think it was funny more than anything. "We're—oy, stop that, I'm ranting, get off—"

Michael took pity on him and pulled Gavin away, much to Gavin's displeasure. "Sit down, you goddamn fool, folks're doin' business."

Gavin squirmed in his grip, trying to get out of his bandanna. Michael got him by the scruff and pushed his butt onto the floor.

"I said sit down," he growled.

Gavin sat, but he wasn't happy about it.

"Thank you," Free said primly. He cleared his throat. "As I was saying: we're just looking at the wrong details, that's all. Perhaps there's a purpose behind why they don't match. Tuggey, Gabriel, you can stay over there and disparage all you like, while Jones and I get to the bottom of it. Right, Jones, so I reckon he's just more fixated on the skin than anything else. Moles and freckles and scars?"

Except. . . .

"No, I am thinkin' about this all wrong," said Michael. "None of this matters. It's more fuckin' dirt. The net's wide on purpose. He knows how you work—how we work. He knows we're gonna get caught up on the details. Hell, I'll bet he's got him four or five doctors to choose from, and however many Black cops there are in this shithole, and he's just gonna jump on whichever's easiest."

"That's . . . a possibility, I suppose," Free said, begrudging.

"Gonna make it awful hard to get ahead of him," said Lindsay.

Michael ignored them both. Something was coming. His machinery was in motion, turning, whirring, brass and gold.

"What the hell is he in such a fuckin' rush for?" he wondered. "Coulda spent days or weeks on those first three—days or weeks on each one—but he put 'em all together all at once and din't even take the skin off 'em. Then Gruchy right after, and this fuckin' ear shit today. We ain't hardly had a second to breathe, you bet your ass he hadn't either. Why is he movin' so goddamn quick? He ain't one to hurry. Nothin' and nobody will run forever, so why's he. . . ."

Gears crashed together, gnashing their teeth because they were spinning too fast to catch. The conclusion raced towards him, the perfect, elegant solution, the—

"If I'm not urgently needed for the muttering, I'm going to try and get some rest," said Gabriel, heaving to her feet. Gavin hopped up and jostled Michael's chair, sending a shock of pain through his arm and legs. It crashed into his brain like an earthquake. His machinery collapsed underneath him. Whatever brilliant truth he'd been assembling was lost amidst the wreckage.

"God dammit all to hell!" he snarled. Gavin skittered away, ears pinned back and tail between his legs.

"I beg your pardon?" Gabriel said archly.

"What was I sayin'?" Michael asked—begged, combing through the mess for some hint, some glimpse, some anything. "Free, what was I sayin'? What did I just say?"

"He ain't one to hurry," Free said. "Nothing and nobody will run forever, so why's he, and then you stopped."

"Fuck," said Michael. "Fuck, shit, God dammit, fuck!"

He slammed his hand down on his armrest. Free jumped. Gavin darted under the nearest piece of furniture and burrowed in until only his butt stuck out.

"Michael, calm down," Lindsay warned. "This ain't helpin'."

"I had it," he said. A lump was rising in his throat. His eyes prickled. "I had it, I was right fuckin' there, God dammit—!"

"If it was important, it will come back," said Gabriel.

"Would you shut the fuck up?"

"No, sir," said Lindsay, rising like a thunderhead. "You do not talk to her that way."

Michael caught up with himself, washed up on the shores of greatness. The inspiration-turned-rage turned again into shame. He rubbed the arm of his chair. He looked someplace else.

"Sorry," he said. "Ain't your fault. Just—yeah. Sorry."

"I appreciate that," said Gabriel. "I apologize for interrupting."

"Whatever," Michael muttered. He would've given a lot to be able to crawl under the furniture with Gavin and not come out. "Prob'ly a waste of time anyhow. We better start lookin' up the folks we think he's gonna go after. The more of 'em we can put the word out to, the better."

"All right," Free sighed. "If that's the best we can do, we'll do that, and just . . . hope that whatever Haywood's hurrying for, Dan can slow him down a bit."

"He any good at that?" Lindsay asked, settling back into her chair.

The tiniest glimmer of pride shone in Free's eye.

"From my experience?" he said. "He's the best."


 

Dan spent the hours after his ill-fated breakfast drifting in and out of consciousness. His nausea did not fade with time, although his hunger sharpened to a needle point. The tolling of the hours brought on successive waves of dizziness, many of them so severe that he could do nothing but press his back to the wall and moan until they passed. He had trouble keeping his thoughts together. He had even more trouble keeping his emotions in check.

Rage and despair seized him by turns, interspersed with dread and longing. What he wouldn't give to be back home, with Gav fussing over his injuries and Gabriel tutting at him, stiffening his upper lip with tea and scones. And how slim his chances of ever getting back there! It was entirely likely Haywood would leave him up here to starve, and that was the best-case scenario. Damn Haywood and his adolescent temper—and damn Jones for dragging them all into this mess, and damn Gav for going along with it, damn those silly women for being too damn obsessed with each other to inject any sense into the proceedings, damn that stupid useless bloody dog. . . .

And damn his own stupid, useless self, because it was obvious to anyone with eyes whose fault all this really was.

By the time Haywood came back, Dan was almost glad to see him. Whatever was about to happen, it was better than continuing to wallow in misery until he starved.

"Evenin', Dan," said Haywood, more clipped, more professional than usual. The tray also had more food on it than Dan was accustomed to seeing.

"Evening," he said. His voice was hoarse. His mouth and throat were parched. He struggled to uncurl himself, stiff in every joint. While he did, Haywood went and set the tray on the table.

"Li'l early this time," said Haywood. "On account of me havin' business elsewhere tonight."

"I see. And is that a . . . a breakfast, up there, also?"

"Tomorrow's. I don't quite know when I'll be back, and I'd hate for you to go hungry on account of me."

"Oh, cheers," said Dan, rolling his eyes. He realized, just a little too late, what a bad move this was. "Er, I meant—really. Thank you. That's . . . awfully decent of you."

Haywood shrugged and retreated to his usual spot. Dan made his way to his chair. Every movement sent shocks of pain through his head, his wrist, his ankles. He kept his face stony. Better Haywood didn't know how bad it was. In this one instance, showing weakness really was dangerous.

Dan spent the next few minutes working his way through bread and cheese, a sliced apple, a tin cup of plain, cold water. Haywood watched him, rather more closely than usual. He didn't appear to be injured in any meaningful way, except that he was showing a bit of favour to the knee Dan had struck. It seemed the greatest casualties were to his wardrobe.

"I note with displeasure that I still ain't got an apology for th' incident this mornin'," Haywood said, when Dan had mostly finished with his supper and was nursing the last of his water.

"When I get an apology for the ear, I'll consider it," said Dan.

Haywood narrowed his eyes, wrinkled his nose, and tipped his head, conceding.

"Fair's fair," he said. "Though I did have my reasons."

"So did I, and mine were rather more transparent, I think."

Haywood fidgeted. A flicker of expression crossed his face, there and gone again too quick for Dan to catch it in the dim light. He stuck his hands in his pockets and sighed.

"This really the hill you wanna die on, Dan?" he asked.

"I've got about a dozen hills, and since I'm going to die anyway, any of them will do. If you're not going to apologize, you could at least explain."

"You seem to need an awful lot of things explained to you. One does wonder how Gav puts up with it."

"Generally when I'm with Gav, I haven't been hit in the head quite so many times." He hesitated, then added, "Also he just . . . doesn't explain things 'til the very end, generally. Sort of gets them all in one go. Terribly frustrating for me, but it keeps him sane. I don't guess you had similar issues with J—no, never mind, sorry, forget I said anything, hahah. One too many knocks on the head, I've gone a bit forgetful."

Haywood considered him for a long, dangerous moment, terribly still, completely opaque—like he was deciding whether or not to be angry.

"Then don't you worry about it, Dan," he said at last. "Those knocks on the head are all on account of me, anyhow. Wouldn't be fair of me to hold you accountable for their effects."

"I appreciate that," Dan said carefully.

Below them, with a great rattling and clanging, five o'clock tolled. When the ringing had faded, Haywood remained staring out the window, fiddling with something in his pocket.

"Suppose an apology might be in order, for all that, come to think of it," he said. "Temper got outta hand, as it can be wont to do. All that wasn't worth a li'l . . . indignity. And I am sorry."

"I appreciate that, too," said Dan. "This is—I mean, not to put too fine a point on it, but this is the second time. I'm a bit concerned—I think rightfully concerned—about what the third's going to be."

Haywood shook his head. "That ain't nothin' to concern yourself over, Dan. Won't be a third time."

"Look, I don't expect much from you, but you could at least be honest with me. And if not with me, then for Christ's sake, with yourself."

"'Scuse me?" Haywood said, turning a sharp look on him. Dan waved a hand, though his heart was racing.

"I've been that fellow, you know. I've been Mr Temper-out-of-hand. Mr It-won't-happen-again. It does. It will. It's not something you can switch off in a day. I'm sure you really mean not to do it again. I'm just as sure that you will. All I'm asking is that . . . is that you don't make promises you can't keep."

"If you could keep from bein' so immaculately infuriatin', it'd be that much easier," Haywood said sweetly. The tone rang with echoes of gunshots, peppered Dan's sleeve with shards of porcelain.

Dan raised his hands, surrendering, backing down. The movement sent a shock of pain through his broken wrist, made the swollen limb throb that much harder.

"And I'll try," he said. "Of course I'll try, bloody hell, I don't like getting my arse handed to me. I can't promise you, though, and I won't promise you, 'cos—I'm an idiot, and an impulsive one at that, and I will probably at some point be infuriating again. That's honesty. I wish I could—could not do that, but . . . yeah. Sorry, lost my train of thought a bit there. Point is—of course I'd like to not get hurt again. Obviously. But you're not a rat-trap, Haywood. You've got a say in the matter, too."

"I'm very aware of that, havin' restrained myself from puttin' that knife through your throat."

"Yeah, sorry, I'm not going to be grateful for having my wrist broken and my head bashed in just 'cos you went homicidal over a bit of tea. You're already holding all the cards, here. What are you trying to prove?"

Haywood's jaw clenched. Dan bit his tongue and cursed himself for a fool.

To his immense surprise, Haywood let out a breath and turned away. The clenched-jaw tension remained, humming with the sound of insecurity.

"It ain't about provin' nothin', Dan," he said. "It ain't about nothin' at all. It ain't, strictly speakin', purposeful. As you more'n clearly suspect."

"I think perhaps it's more purposeful than you give credit for," said Dan. "It served a purpose for me, anyway. Just not necessarily one I thought about 'til much later."

"And what was that purpose?"

"It was about proving that I was strong. That no one was going to get away with hurting me, in any way, no matter how slight the injury. I was so afraid, so afraid of being hurt, it was like . . . it was like—damn my head, what am I saying here, had it a moment ago—"

"Like th' only way you could be safe was to be powerful," Haywood said softly, almost to himself. "And th' only power that mattered was violence."

"Yes," said Dan. "That's exactly it."

The sound of machinery filled the space like bathwater, warm and cloudy. Haywood kept his face averted, gazing over the workbench and its array of sharp implements. Dan kept his eyes on Haywood, fighting the rising headache and a fresh tide of nausea to hold his thoughts together.

"If it's not too much trouble," he said, keeping his voice as gentle as he could, "I would very much appreciate some sort of splint. For the wrist. And perhaps a change of bandages. Something to clean up my feet with, that's already looking a bit. . . . Any—really any medical care, honestly, would be appreciated. I don't mind if I've got to do it myself."

"Don't know why you're so concerned," said Haywood. "Ain't gone matter for very much longer."

"'Cos I'm in pain, now. I'm struggling, now. If it's not going to be that much longer, I would really like to spend what's left with a minimum of discomfort."

"I did have plans for tonight, Dan."

"I know you did, but if you want to feel slightly less powerless in the face of your own anger, the first step is taking some bloody responsibility for it."

God, it was a stupid thing to say, an idiotic risk, but at this point, he hardly had any other kind. Haywood chewed on it, scraping his thumbnail up and down the handle of his knife. Dan kept his sweating hands in his lap, his tongue between his teeth. He scarcely dared to breathe, lest it topple Haywood from the razor's edge of his patience.

At long, long last, though, Haywood hung his head and sighed.

"I'll see what I can do," he said.

Chapter Text

Haywood took his sweet time assembling his medical supplies, but he did bring them along within the hour. Dan counted wooden splints, clean cotton bandages, and big bottles of something amongst them. He'd stayed in the chair, mostly because moving around was too much work, although he had put the tin cup back underneath the perpetual leak in the roof.

"Welcome back," he said feebly, as Haywood pulled to a stop a few yards away.

"Pleasure's all mine," said Haywood. "You gone throw anythin' at me this time?"

"Ahah, no, I don't think so. It's in my best interests not to, really, isn't it."

Haywood inclined his head. Still, he approached carefully, watching Dan for any sign of insubordination. Dan stayed still. He felt rather like dog-Gavin, told sit-stay and being very eager for his biscuit. Haywood pulled up the chair from the workbench, removed the tray of breakfast from the table, and replaced it with his bag of medical supplies. He settled in across from Dan and extended a hand over the table. With the sinking suspicion that he was about to get his wrist twice broken, Dan placed it in Haywood's outstretched hand.

"Much obliged," said Haywood. "I'm gone have to figure out where it's broke at, and whether it's set right, 'fore I get to splintin'. Will most likely hurt a good deal, but I brought along a li'l somethin' for that, if you're interested."

"Is it whiskey?" Dan said, already sick of the joke. Having Haywood's skin touching his was making his whole body curdle like old milk.

"No, suh," said Haywood. "Sherry."

"No thank you. Can we get on with this?"

Haywood shrugged. "Sure thing, Dan."

The hand on his wrist squeezed. Pain lanced up his arm. Dan yelped. Haywood's other hand snatched his lapel. He froze, clutching the back of his own chair. Haywood smiled at him.

"Sure you don't want that sherry?" he asked, a twinkle in his eye.

"I'm sure," said Dan. His mouth was dry as cotton.

"Your choice. Try and hold still, now. The more you wiggle, the more it's gone hurt."

"You don't say."

Haywood just smiled and got back to work, albeit with a gentler hand. He found the break—or rather, the dislocation, since (according to Haywood) nothing was actually broken. This was not the good news he made it out to be, since it meant he'd have to re-locate it manually.

"You really sure you don't want that sherry?" he asked, applying slow pressure to Dan's swollen wrist. "There's more'n enough."

"You could drown me in sherry and it wouldn't be enough," said Dan. "I'd really prefer not to start."

One of those flickers of expression crossed Haywood's face, much too quick for Dan's addled brains to catch it. He bent his head to his task, which was as arduous as he'd promised.

"You know," Dan, desperate for any distraction after only a few minutes, "apart from the bedside manner, you've got a—a flair, you know, for . . . what's the word, the nursing profession."

"Oh?" said Haywood; intent upon his work, unconcerned, perhaps even distracted.

"Well. A steady enough hand, anyway. And you were—aaah hahah fuck, oh, good Christ in Heaven—no, I'm all right, I'm all right. Hah. Fuck. Where was I?"

"Don't worry, honey, that oughtta be the worst of it, done. You were talkin' of steady hands."

"Right. Right! Yes. Really those dresses you made for Gwen, they really were lovely. She—well, she loved them, anyway. It does make one wonder, sort of, you know, what . . . might've been."

Haywood's brow creased. "In what sense?"

"In that—oof, I don't know, but I can't imagine this was your first choice for profession. Was there something you wanted to be, other than—than this? D'you know, as a child, or what have you. If that's not too personal, of course."

"Oh, I don't know, Dan. Did you ever wanna be anythin' other than a soldier?"

A little give, a little take. Nothing could ever be for free, could it?

Dan let out a breath. "Frankly, I never wanted to be anything at all. Took the army job 'cos it paid well, and I had a wife and child to support. Plus my sisters, as well. Two of them."

"Sisters, really? Always got th' impression you was an only child."

"Well. I sort of am, now. They don't really . . . speak to me, anymore. Since the—yeah. You understand. We were poor as dirt, growing up, and it paid well, so . . . army job. The wife situation was sort of, er . . . accidental? It was mainly about keeping my sisters off the streets 'til they could get married. Which they did. I never—I wasn't invited, but . . . they did. So that's all right."

Keeping to the bare bones didn't numb the sting as much as he'd hoped it would. The words were hollow, scaffolding built over a deep well of grief that had never grown any shallower. Haywood, however, took it as though it was no more consequential than the weather.

"One does wonder," he said, "if it ain't pryin' too much, how you wound up married to this fine lady of yours, considerin' your current proclivities."

Dan shrugged, unnerved and more annoyed than was safe for him. "The usual way, I reckon. We met, she sort of fell in love with me, I s'pose, and it was expected of me, so . . . I did. Honestly I don't think she minded too much, that I wasn't—that I didn't feel the same way about her. She was . . . frightened, I think, of ending up like her Mum. Pregnant every year until it killed her. And my mum, as well, same thing. And most people's mums, really, innit. She didn't have to—Sarah, that is, she didn't have to worry about that with me, which was perhaps part of the draw. I liked her well enough, and I most likely could've . . . I could've bared—borne? Could've stood it, d'you know. For Maggie. I could've tolerated it for the rest of my life, if I hadn't—well. You know that story. I think I've told you that story."

"You have," said Haywood. "And there was never anybody else? Other'n her and Gav?"

"Well," Dan said again, fidgeting. "Well, sort of, you know, I mean, the army being what it is, and all, and we were all very young and very . . . men, you know, things are wont to happen from time to time. . . ."

A faint, fond little smile curled up the corner of Haywood's mouth as he tied the splint in place. "Your thing happen to have a name?"

"Akash," said Dan. It was a name that had not passed his lips in a long, long time, and if he had his way, it would never do so again.

"Funny sort of name."

"Hindi. It only sounds funny 'cos you're Eng—er, American."

"Guess so. Does Gav know about Akash?"

"Er . . . not—no," said Dan, which was the baldest-faced lie he'd yet told. It was damn near impossible to keep secrets when your partner was a detective and you were a talkative drunk. Still, Haywood swallowed it whole, so Dan resisted the temptation to embellish. Indeed, a measure of silence passed between them, while Haywood moved his chair round the side of the table and got to work changing the bandages on Dan's ear.

"Theatre," he said at last. "Wanted to be on stage, when I was a young'un. Got hold of a book of Shakespeare, somehow or other. My father didn't approve, of course, but I was awful fond of it, 'specially Hamlet. Played an awful lot of Hamlet that year."

His face grew distant, tinged with some cold and buried sadness. He looked, for a moment, so much like Casimir that it hurt.

"Hamlet, mainly," he murmured. "Hamlet and Horatio."

Something about that was important, significant. Gav would've had it in an instant. He would've known just the right questions to ask, the proper puzzle pieces to pluck out that would allow him to construct the full picture. Jones probably could've spun half the man's life story from it. It meant nothing to Dan, though. All he knew was that it was painful for Haywood, and causing Haywood any kind of discomfort, physical or emotional, was an express ticket to getting one's head smashed in.

So he said: "When was the last time you slept, Haywood?"

Haywood snorted, and the ennui was lost.

"Now Dan, don't go pushin' th' envelope beyond your means. You and me both know you don't particularly care for my well-bein'."

"No, I ask 'cos I'm concerned you'll pass out somewhere and I won't get breakfast tomorrow, either."

"Breakfast's already right there next to the table, Dan, so don't you worry none." He finished up the bandages on Dan's head and patted his shoulder. "Now, why don't we see about those feet of yours, while I'm here? Come and sit on the floor with me, it'll make you blush otherwise."

As Haywood knelt on the floor in front of him, Dan did indeed blush. He lowered himself to the floor as quickly as his throbbing head and splinted wrist would allow. Haywood gave him an insufferable smile.

"Since we're askin' pryin' questions," he said.

"Oh, God," Dan muttered, putting a hand over his eyes and propping his elbow on the seat of his chair.

"Never said you had t' answer. I was only wonderin' why it is you do come over so bashful at any slightest mention or indication of physical attraction. And how, considerin' your marital status and the clear existence of offspring."

"It's not uncomfortable when Gav does it," said Dan, before he'd thought about it.

"Do I make you uncomfortable, Dan?" Haywood asked.

"Er—well, you know, I didn't quite mean—"

"What is it precisely that causes you that much discomfort?"

It was said with the sort of tone that indicated, very clearly, that there was a wrong answer. Dan just had to hope that the truth wasn't it, because he was in no state to be thinking up proper lies.

"I'm concerned that you, er, that you might—that is to say, it worries me, 'cos, er—well, 'cos if there were—if there happened to be, right, any—any sort of . . . genuine-ity, behind the, er, behind your . . . flirting, then, er. . . ."

"You mean to say," said Haywood, rescuing Dan from his incessant fumbling, "that if I were in fact attracted to you, then you'd be in an ugly predicament."

"Well . . . yes."

"Bless your heart, Dan. Don't flatter yourself."

"I beg your pardon?"

Haywood cracked up. Dan chose to take it as a good sign.


 

It was the evening of December 19th when they finally made some headway on the case.

Free had been pestering the coroner's office and finally got through to someone who owed him a favor; to pay it off, they'd disclosed the identities of the three victims from the church, although it had come with a warning that it was Free's fault if the spiller-of-beans lost his job.

"Constable Jacob Cartwright, Constable Forsyth Wells, and one Corporal Marcus Mann," Free read smugly. "Told you they were police, didn't I."

"You figured it out eventually," said Michael. Free pouted at him.

"Before you, anyway. I'd say that settles it—he's definitely after policemen in particular, and possibly ones who've had prior involvement with 'Lucien'."

"Definitely is a strong word," said Gabriel.

"Three points make a line, old girl."

She turned such a withering look on him that he withered right down under the table.

"Detective, I meant," he croaked.

Rolling her eyes, she continued: "We ought to find out if Corporal Mann was police-adjacent. If he wasn't, it might well be coincidence, and it widens Jones' net considerably."

"Might do," Michael said. "But Haywood's gotta narrow it down somehow, too. He ain't gonna get just anybody. This is art to him, and he likes—" He waved a hand.

"High-quality materials," said Free.

"That. Whatever he's makin' on the big scale, the important part is killin' us before he kills us. Uh. Y'know what I meant, I meant—"

"In effigy, I think is the phrase you're looking for," said Gabriel.

"Yeah, whatever. He wants 'em to match, that's the point. Net might be wide as hell for us, but it's awful fine-mesh for him."

"Well, then there's maybe a couple things we can do to narrow it down," Lindsay said, scowling at the latest in an endless succession of pots of tea.

"Also that metaphor made no sense," Free whispered in Michael's ear.

"Kiss my whole ass on the mouth," Michael hissed back.

"That makes even less sense."

"You're right, that fuckin' beak of yours would get in the way."

Gabriel cleared her throat. Both of them straightened up like scolded schoolboys.

"Yes, sorry Dr. Tuggey, you were saying?" Free said.

"Way I see it," she said, with the air of repeating herself, "there's one thing y'all have all been too polite to figure it mattered."

"She'll be a woman," said Gabriel.

"She'll be . . . one particular type of woman," Lindsay said, squirming—and in that instant, Michael realized:

Gabriel didn't know.

It clicked for Free, though, and he opened his mouth with the obvious intention of saying so. Michael punched him in the arm. He yelped and turned a look of betrayal on him.

"What was that for?"

Instead of answering, Michael said to Lindsay: "That's a damn narrow window. Cain't be too many folks likkat around, and even so, they'll be damn difficult to find. For Ryan, too."

"Not if you know where to look," she said, shaking her head. "Free, you've told me you knew a whole bunch in Paris, I'd bet real money there's a dozen groups just like that here in London."

"Well . . . yes, actually. I know of several."

"You know where to find 'em?"

"I might do," Free said cagily. "Generally I prefer to keep that, er, separate from work, though. Especially since—well, it's not safe. For . . . for them. It's not safe for them to have me hanging about. Draws attention. And since I've yet to hear back from the ladies in Paris, it um . . . it's an avenue of last resort."

"Could someone tell me what, exactly, we're talking about, please?" said Gabriel. "I would work it out myself, but I've recently been shot in the back, you see, and it makes it somewhat difficult to think clearly."

"Well," said Lindsay, with a great mustering of courage, "it's kinda like the Gwen situation, only—if Gwen was the whole package."

A series of expressions flicked across Gabriel's face—confusion, realization, pain, distrust, guilt—before she managed to stuff them all back behind the mask.

"I see," she said. "Then Mr. Jones is correct, and that's a narrow criterion indeed. However, based on our knowledge of Haywood's activities in Paris, I think it is safe to assume he knows where and how to find similar such . . . communities in London. Fortunately, it seems Mr. Free does, as well."

"Yep," said Lindsay, turning her face away, struggling with the tide of some great inner grief. "Lucky us."

Free glanced between the two of them, frowning.

"Has something—" he began, before Michael punched him in the arm again. "Ow, sod off!"

"Lindsay, why don't you and Mrs. G go lookin' for our doctor," Michael said. "And then I can stick with Gabriel while she pokes around with the cops."

"I'll be doing that myself, will I?" she asked archly. "Just me and the bullet hole in my shoulder?"

"Sure will, 'cuz if I open my big fat White mouth, all I'm gonna get is yelled at," said Michael.

She had to concede that one to him. "I suppose you're intending to bring the dog, as well."

"Ain't gonna leave him alone, that's for damn sure."

"Then you'll either have to put him on a leash or send him with Lindsay and Gwen."

"How come? Folks libel to come over skittish, like you do?"

"Yes, and don't trivialize it."

Michael threw up his hands. "Damn, all right, 'scuse the hell outta me."

"That's just how he talks, Gabriel, he doesn't mean anything by it," said Free.

"First of all, he does mean something by it," she retorted, "and second of all, the fact that he trivializes everything is not a point in his favor."

"Oh," said Free. "Well—I mean to say. . . ."

Gabriel shut her eyes and let out a breath. She held up her hands, either in surrender or to stop further conversation—but either way, a gesture of peacemaking.

"That came out more harshly than I had intended. I suppose the . . . the stress of all this has been getting to me. If you'll excuse me, I'll be upstairs."

She got up and left. Nobody stopped her, although Gavin tried to follow until he was caught. When the stairs had stopped creaking, Free pointed up them and looked to Lindsay.

"What's got into her all of a sudden?" he asked.

"You are such a fuckin' dumbass," Michael muttered. Gavin slipped out of his grasp and went to Lindsay, gravely concerned.

"You what?" Free cried.

"I was talkin' to the dog."

"Free, maybe . . . maybe you and me oughtta get goin'," said Lindsay. "Hangin' around here ain't doin' anythin' but wastin' time."

"Well—yes, but—"

"Oluwaseyi's been shot, hon," she interrupted. "She feels like it's her fault Gruchy got taken. She feels like she ain't been doin' enough to get him back, even though all she oughtta be doin' is restin'. She's stressed, and that's all. Don't go diggin' where the dirt ain't stirred."

"I wouldn't, only you're acting odd, as well, and Jones. Clearly there's something I've not been told, and I don't like it."

"Shitty-ass detective," Michael said under his breath.

"You what?"

"I was talkin' to the dog."

"No you weren't!"

"I was talkin' to the dog about you, then."

"I will work it out, if you make me, but you won't like it."

"Jesus Christ, Free, drop it," said Michael. "Some things ain't your goddamn business."

Free pouted, but didn't argue any further. Instead, he composed himself and got to his feet.

"Fine. Dr. Tuggey, we'll have to drop by my flat before we go. I can't go anywhere dressed like this. It's near enough to walk, since Jones isn't coming with us."

"You sure that's wise?"

"It's the middle of the afternoon. Haywood wouldn't—"

Free pulled up short and turned to Michael, questioning. Michael shrugged.

"Haywood probably won't attack us in broad daylight," Free amended. "Anyway, standing about waiting for a cab is bound to be more dangerous than walking."

"I guess," said Lindsay, scratching her jaw.

"Grand! I'll just go and tell Gabriel we're off, then. Won't be a mo'!"

And he dashed off up the stairs before anybody could stop him.

"Nosy sonnuva bitch," said Michael, shaking his head.

"He can't help it, he was made that way," said Lindsay. The weight of the past five minutes showed in her tone. Gavin put his chin on her leg and sighed. She gave his head a cursory pat.

"He sure as hell can help it, he just chooses not to," said Michael.

She smiled a strange little smile and played with Gavin's ear. "Gee, I don't know anybody else like that."

His face went hot. "Shut up. Hey, since y'all are gonna be goin' all over hell and gone, take Gavin with you."

She raised her eyebrows at him. "You sure about that? You prob'ly need him more than I do."

"Whatever. He'll just get in the way if I keep him."

"Well, if you're sure. . . ."

"I am sure. But you better bring him back, you hear?"

"OK, Michael, I'll bring him back," she said. "Him and me both in one piece. I promise."

"Yeah yeah, whatever," Michael mumbled.

Free returned shortly, and he and Lindsay and Gavin set off together. Fortunately, Gabriel came back down within a couple minutes, before Michael's head had the chance to run away with him. She was a little chillier than usual, but trying not to be. Together, the two of them managed to flag down a cab. It was about ten times harder than when they had Free around to do it. Michael grumbled about that fact while he and the driver struggled to hoist him up into the cab, and then afterwards grumbled about how much bullshit it was that they couldn't just make carriages that he could get into on his own.

When he ran out of grumble, the noise of the city outside filtered in to replace it. Gabriel stayed staring out the window, her face lined with worry and pain. Her arm was still in its sling, bouncing against her chest every time the carriage hit a bump—and every time, she winced.

"Shoulder still botherin' you?" Michael asked.

"Given that it's barely been two days, yes, it's still immensely painful."

"Doctors give you anythin' for it?"

"I haven't been to see any doctor except Lindsay, and it wouldn't do me any good if I did. Many of them seem to have it in their heads that people like me don't feel pain."

Michael snorted. "Sons of bitches." He fished the little bottle of laudanum out of his pocket and offered it to her.

"I . . . appreciate the gesture, but I don't think that would be wise," said Gabriel, taken aback. "Perhaps once our business is done."

"Whatever," said Michael. He took a couple drops for himself and stuffed the bottle back in his pocket while he coughed.

The carriage rattled along, weaving all over the road like the driver was drunk—which, for all Michael knew, he might've been. Gabriel went back to staring out the window. There was a certain resentment in her expression that, by Michael's estimates, had nothing to do with having been shot.

"Hey," he said. Gabriel pursed her lips and let out a slow breath.

"Yes, Mr. Jones?" she said.

"I don't know what kinda hangups you got," he said, "and I don't care too much either way, 'cuz it ain't my damn business. But Lindsay's my friend, and if you get shitty with her, you and me are gonna have problems. You ain't obligated to feel any type of way about her, but you ain't gonna get disrespectful, neither."

"Disrespect is your wheelhouse, Mr. Jones, not mine."

"Good. Let's keep it that way."

The cart rattled over a particularly rough patch of cobblestone. Michael gritted his teeth against the sparking pain in his joints. Gabriel made a similar expression and put a hand to her collarbone.

When the moment had passed, she said: "You are aware, aren't you, that she's in love with you?"

An arrow shot through his heart, hollow and aching. A blush started creeping up from his waist. He fought to keep it down.

"She was," he said.

"I assure you, she still is."

"Whatever. You know she's ass-over-teakettle for you?"

"She's what?"

"Head-over-heels, dumbass."

She let the insult go, dropping her gaze and tugging on a coil of hair. "There . . . have been certain indications, admittedly."

"Oh, no shit, huh? What kinda indications, like smoochin' on you every time y'all are alone?"

"That's a very personal question, Mr. Jones, and not one you're going to get an answer to."

"Don't need it. Any dumbass can tell you only take an interest in women, and up 'til today you ain't never had to think too hard about it. Tell you somethin' else: you still don't gotta think too hard about it, 'cuz Doc's a woman all the way through, and anybody who gets put off by accessories ain't worth her time anyhow. So you go on and get as fucked up over it as you want, 'cuz at the end of the day, that's your loss."

Gabriel drew herself up and pinned a sharp look on him.

"I have thought very hard about it, in fact," she said. "I spent a great deal of time coming to terms with it, as I will, in my own time, come to terms with everything that affects my sense of self. Your advice is both unasked-for and unnecessary."

"Advice? Who was givin' advice? That was a threat."

Something tugged at the corner of Gabriel's mouth. She swallowed it down and turned to look out the window again.

"Then it's even less appreciated, and you ought to be ashamed of yourself."

"I sure won't."

"Although," she added, "she's very lucky to have a friend so invested in her well-being."

"It ain't that. I just don't want her cryin' on my shoulder about it later. I got shit to do, cain't be caterin' to her—feminine emotions, or whatever the hell."

"Of course not," said Gabriel.

Michael got the impression she knew exactly how much bullshit he was full of, and for once, she didn't mind.

Chapter Text

Michael and Gabriel spent the whole afternoon talking to what must have been every Black officer in London, and achieved little more than a heaping helping of exhaustion. Although the officers had at least heard Gabriel out, they'd all eventually written her off as a silly woman with silly fears and told her to run along. Michael had once made the mistake of bringing up the two (possibly three) murdered officers to drive home the fact that no part of it was silly. It had almost gotten them arrested, and within an hour, every door was suddenly being slammed in their faces. They returned to the office bedraggled and snappish, hoping Lindsay and Free had done a little better.

Which they obviously had, since some kind of street kid stopped their cab outside the office, saying that Mrs. Gruchy was waiting for them at a place called The Maiden's Head in some mutton-mouthed neighborhood or other.

"And how the hell're we s'posed to know she sent you?" Michael demanded.

The kid nodded, wagging a finger. "Ah, she said you'd say that, sir, she reckoned you'd take that approach. Told me I was to tell you: crooked. That's what she said. Said you'd understand it, sir. Damned if I do, though."

"Does it mean anything to you?" Gabriel asked Michael.

"Yeah, it's Mrs. G all right," Michael said begrudgingly. "Guess we better go then."

The kid watched them expectantly, one grimy little hand outstretched. Gabriel put a couple coins in it, and the kid saluted before scampering off. Michael had to tell the driver where to take them, as he'd been having to do all day, because the driver was selectively deaf to Gabriel's voice.

The Maiden's Head turned out to be a seedy little hole in the ground, the kind that made up the vast majority of London. The one visible wall was blackened and streaky and completely windowless. There were a dozen narrow stairs leading down to a narrow alcove with a single gas lamp above a peeling door. Michael sent Gabriel ahead with his chair before dragging himself down the wet, dirty steps. A distinctly piss-like odor clung to him, combined with old tobacco ash and whatever else London mud was made of. Gabriel had to go stand up on the steps to make room for the door to open past Michael's chair. A wave of noise and smoke and the smell of stale beer washed out.

And Michael was struck so homesick that he couldn't move.

Bragg's saloon back in Achievement City seemed a million miles and two lifetimes away, a place so far removed that it might as well have been imaginary. Swallowing down the lump in his throat, Michael pushed through the doorway. Gabriel followed and shut the door behind them. They went down a hallway, so narrow that Michael's chair barely fit through it, and got past the bouncer with only a little bribery. There was a corner, another two narrow steps down, and then they were into the bar.

The first impression turned out to be the only similarity between The Maiden's Head and Bragg's. For one thing, the place was tiny and damp where Bragg's was spacious and dusty. For another, there were drinks other than beer and straight liquor being served, and what was probably considered art on the walls—although it featured a lot more naked people doing a lot more activities than Michael was used to seeing in art. He spotted a couple dark corners where real people were taking up similar activities, apparently not caring that they were in full view of God and everybody. There was more smoke than just tobacco, although he didn't know (and didn't want to know) what the other components were. There was no music, probably because they couldn't fit a piano inside.

But by far the biggest difference was the people, who seemed, every last one of them, to be men in dresses. Michael was by then used to sticking out like a sore thumb in any given room, but the out-of-place feeling that stole over him then was completely different.

"Good grief," said Gabriel.

"You said it," said Michael. At least the dim light hid how red his face was.

As usual, it took less than a minute for people to start pointing and staring, although there was more giggling than he was used to. It took very little time for someone to bring him a drink, which was equal parts flattering and uncomfortable. He and Gabriel had to waste a few minutes convincing the patrons that they weren't here to cause any trouble, after which it was a long slog to the back room where Lindsay and Free and Gavin were waiting for them with two other women.

Gavin leapt right on Michael like they'd been apart for years, of course, making the introductions a lot less dignified than he would've liked. While Michael was getting his face summarily licked, Free introduced the two women as Miss Jenzen and Miss Belladonna.

They were like day and night to each other. Jenzen greeted them politely, much more prim and proper than the seedy bar warranted. She had a frank, open face that was a complete mask. If she had opinions about anybody in the room, she kept them well concealed. She wore white gloves and lace, although both had seen better days. Belladonna, meanwhile, hunched in the darkest corner of the room like an owl, brimming with so much suppressed hatred that steam was coming out of her ears. The sharpest of her glares was reserved for Gabriel. The only soft looks she had were for Jenzen.

On the inside of her left wrist, dimmed and blurred by the passage of many years, there was a very familiar tattoo.

Michael's back and arms and shoulders prickled like his chair had sprouted thorns. His wrists burned. Needle teeth sank into the back of his neck, drawing blood. His pulse filled his ears like the roaring of surf. Belladonna caught him looking and covered the tattoo with her other hand. Michael got his hand around Gavin's bandanna and gripped tight.

Just in case.

"Sorry about the venue," Free was saying. His—or should he sayher?—her voice cracked, and she cleared her throat. "We thought it was safer to come here than to risk bringing these two back to our office. And thank God you're here, actually, 'cos they've been having me read scripture for hours to prove I'm not still possessed."

"And why did you drag our asses all the goddamn way out here?" Michael demanded. He never took his eyes off Belladonna. "Thought we was only puttin' a warnin' out."

"Oh, initially, we were," said Free. "Miss Jenzen and Miss Belladonna were actually exactly the people I hoped to find in all of this. They're more than likely at the top of Haywood's list, not the least 'cos both of them would recognize him on sight. Or didn't I mention? They were involved in all that cult business back in Paris."

"You don't say," Michael said.

"Mm. The reason I asked you and Gabriel to come is that Miss Jenzen has offered to provide some insights into what Haywood was doing during the several months he was in their company, and I wanted you to be here in case you had questions."

"I got questions, all right," said Michael, "but they ain't about Haywood."

"They—they aren't?" Free said, thrown off-balance. "But if we know where he's been, we can—"

"I know where the hell he's been, and we know where the fuck he's goin'," Michael snapped. Gavin planted his feet on the floor and put his head forward, picking up on Michael's nerves.

"Don't interrupt me," Free retorted. "Weren't you wondering why he'd taken such a long holiday? Aren't you curious what he was doing for all that time, why he was hanging about with people he knew were planning to kill him?"

"No, 'cuz I know already. He thought it was funny, and that's it." Michael turned to Jenzen, struggling to keep his temper contained. "I wanna know about that cult, and what the fuck it was for, and who made it, and who else is in it."

"Michael, I don't see how that's gonna be relevant to what's goin' on right now," Lindsay said carefully.

"'Course you don't, 'cuz you're a dumbass. It's important. It's been followin' me around for years. I wanna know."

"Year and a half, at most," Free muttered. Michael chose to ignore him—her.

"I can tell you about the Brotherhood," Jenzen said carefully. "But I would like first to know what your involvement with it has been."

"Karine, this is pointless," said Belladonna. "These people have never meant us anything but harm. If we owe them anything, it is violence."

"This isn't about them, Blake," said Jenzen. "This is about making up for the harm we've done."

Belladonna made a derisive noise and turned away.

"You got a tattoo, too?" Michael asked Jenzen.

She turned back to him, unruffled. "Yes," she said, and touched the center of her chest. "I take it you've encountered similar ones."

"Oh, sure," said Michael. "Plenty of 'em. I also encountered a fella who said you din't get 'em 'til after you'd killt somebody for the Brotherhood. That true?"

Still, Jenzen did not flinch. "It is. Although the practice is generally not described to outsiders. Were you recruited, or did you ask to join?"

"Did you know a fella called Heyman?" Michael asked, ignoring this last question as hard as he could. At his side, Gavin fidgeted. Jenzen looked like she was going to press the point, but in the end, she let it go.

"I knew of him," she said. "He was one of the founders, along with a few others."

"Uh-huh. Others like Ashley and Matthew Hullum?"

Jenzen's eyes narrowed. "Yes."

"Good. I'm the reason all three of 'em are dead."

That got her attention, and Belladonna's, too. Lindsay frowned and folded her arms.

"Way I heard it, you were tangentially involved, at most," she said. "Mainly, it was Haywood's doin'."

"Oh, he killt 'em, sure," said Michael. "But I'm the reason why. Now the only other thing I know is that the Hullums killt another cult fella named Burns, and that they did it 'cuz he chickened out and tried to leave."

A flicker of confusion crossed Belladonna's face. She glanced at Jenzen, who did not return the look. Jenzen's mask stayed firmly in place, as did her attention.

"That wasn't the story we were told, but it wouldn't surprise me," she said. "The way I understood it, Peake was—as Dr. Tuggey put it—tangentially involved with the founders. Burns was one of them, along with Heyman and the Hullums. When Peake recognized that things were turning south, he fled to Paris and started over. The Brotherhood, you see, was like a weed; it was in our tenets to ensure we always had roots down somewhere. He ensnared a few others along the way, and then once he arrived in Paris, continued to lure in as many more as he could. I still don't know why he took up with the Brotherhood. He never explained or even hinted at it while he was alive."

"Greed," Belladonna sneered. "It was always about greed."

"For y'all's founders, too?" Michael asked.

"I can only tell you what we were told," said Jenzen. "I don't know if any of it is true."

"That ain't no different from the usual. Shoot."

She made a constrained gesture and sighed. "The founders believed they had, through certain studies and experiments, discerned the true nature of the immortal soul, which was: that it was not truly immortal.They believed it was separate from the mind, the body, and—most controversially—the heart. That it was like . . . a shadow, cast by the light of being, and that at the moment of death, that shadow was captured. A daguerrotype, if you will, or a photograph. That, they said, is why damnation and salvation were immutable fates. Without a living being to shape it, the shadow was transfixed in the state in which it died. Damned or saved, there was no changing it afterwards, unless the soul itself was destroyed."

"Did they not believe in the Second Coming?" said Gabriel.

"They had evidence that it's already happened," Jenzen said, not looking at her. "I don't know exactly what it was, only that . . . they had convinced a great many people that it was true. Or so we were told. That was why they started this campaign to determine the mortality of the soul. All those damned would remain damned for eternity, unless they could find some way around it. They reasoned that if the soul was nothing more than a shadow, then it could be destroyed without killing—or even significantly changing—the person it belonged to. It became the core of their philosophy. Nihil vere permanens, they said; nothing is truly permanent. If the soul was destroyed, then all acts that might lead to damnation could be carried out with impunity."

"Hold up," said Michael, raising a hand. He hoped the dim light would conceal how much it was shaking. "What was that last thing again?"

"They figured if they had no souls, they could do whatever they wanted and not worry about goin' to Hell afterwards," said Lindsay.

"Thanks. Go on."

Jenzen inclined her head. "As far as I know, they never found a way to actually destroy the soul. The Albain brothers—priests, before they came to us—were working on it, before they . . . when I knew them. That was part of why they—why we decided to call upon demonic forces. We wanted answers, or at least a hint."

"Unfortunately, you seem to have picked the infernal equivalent of a rabid dog," said Free. He—she glanced at Gavin, cleared her throat, and added: "No offense intended. I'm just glad to be rid of the thing."

"They did," said Jenzen. "Purposefully. They had intended to work their way up to—how would you say it—bigger fish. I almost think they might have had better luck starting with the marquises and dukes of Hell. Those at least can be reasoned with, if the texts are to be believed."

"Sounds like they just got plain ol' greedy," Michael said. "They decided to use their demon whatever-the-fuck for stuff other'n gettin' answers, so they never got no answers. Bet you every last sonnuva bitch in Hell can smell that shit a mile off."

"Not so," Belladonna said. "The founders, they never wanted any answers. Peake never wanted any answers. They wanted money. Greed was the whole of it, beginning to end, and all else was—pah, a screen of smoke, a shiny thing to lure in evil men. All of the men were greedy. The women, we wanted only security."

"Well y'all sure picked a dumbass way to go about it," said Michael.

Belladonna bristled. Gavin bristled right back, a growl bubbling in his throat. Michael tugged on his bandanna and shushed him. Jenzen laid a hand on Belladonna's arm, restraining.

"It was stupid," Jenzen said. "But you must understand, Mr. Jones, how impossibly appealing their offer seemed. I could be free to exist in the only way I could bear, without fear of what might happen to me after death if I failed to repent for it. Blake could destroy the man who made it his life's work to abuse her, and know with certainty that she would not be punished for it. I am told it was similar for Mrs. Willems. You must understand the temptation of a life that was safe from God."

"There is no life that is safe from consequences," said Gabriel. Her tone was gratingly self-righteous. Michael had to resist rolling his eyes.

"We were not attempting to escape consequences, Detective," Jenzen said coldly. "We were attempting to circumvent an eternity of torment for daring to want a happy life."

"And in doing so, caused the deaths of five innocent people, three of whom were children!" Gabriel retorted. "You spat in God's face, turned your backs on Him, and brought immeasurable harm to dozens of lives. A lifetime isn't enough to repent for what you've done!"

"Your God already hated me. Your God hates all of us, everyone in this room! Why should I spend my life on my knees for a creature that insists I live in misery for no reason but its own self-importance? This God that wipes out civilizations for the crimes of a privileged few, this God that abuses and forsakes and ignores us, this God that is so wrapped up in Himself that every breathing second of my life must be lived to His plan, by His rules, for His glory. It is a cruel vanity to give a thing free will and then insist that it obey you anyway. It is a hideous joke to create a world with so much suffering in it.Why should I beg and scrape and plead to a monster?"

If Gabriel had ever heard such a heaping pile of blasphemies before, it didn't help her swallow them any easier. Her face darkened, her jaw clenched, her eyes lit up like fanned coals. She took a slow, deep breath that sounded like the rising of floodwaters.

"My God," she said softly, "is not that God. My God is love, and peace, and safety. My God gave us rules and guidelines to show us the way to help each other, to lift each other, to build good lives and good societies on earth that was once soaked with blood. My God is the God who breaks the chains of slaves, when the privileged few hold the whips and the silent masses look away. My God came to live among us, to understand us, to love us. My God saw the worst of humanity, the cruelest and wickedest we have ever been and will ever be, and still decided that we were worth saving. My God has stood with me, and protected me, and heard me. I don't know what God you have found that is so callous, Miss Jenzen, but it is not mine."

"A staggeringly liberal interpretation of the Bible," Belladonna sneered. "I have to wonder if you have read it."

"I have read it, and unlike many, I've seen it for what it is—which is a book, written by men."

Belladonna's expression changed, like someone who'd heard a familiar tune in a place far from home. Jenzen's eyes narrowed. Gabriel went on, waving a hand.

"Angry men," she said, "spiteful men, frightened men. Men who lived so long ago that their grandchildren's children were dead centuries before I was born. Men whose words have been translated so many times by so many other men—like pottery, smashed and rebuilt over and over again. I've chosen to look past the jagged edges to find the clay it's made of."

"How do you know they didn't get it right?" Jenzen asked. "How can you possibly convince yourself that all these men, for all these centuries, have all gotten it wrong, especially when so little has changed? How can you look at the world we live in and think that anything up there loves us?"

"Faith," said Gabriel.

"And what if your faith betrays you? What if you're wrong?"

"Then I will still have lived as kindly, as patiently, and as lovingly as I could, and the good I did will not have been in vain, andGod will have to settle for the rest."

Belladonna rolled her eyes and drawled something in French. Jenzen clenched her jaw, nodded, and got to her feet. Belladonna followed suit. Gavin hunkered down, but didn't make any move to go after anybody.

"Thank you all for your concern," Jenzen said to the room at large, "but we will find our own way. It has stood us in good stead so far."

"No, hang on, look," said Free, patting the air. "All this sanctimonious theology faff aside, there really genuinely is a maniac out there who's more than likely planning on killing you. I know having known him as Casimir makes him seem rather harmless, but—"

"I have lived my whole adult life, Mrs. Gruchy, surrounded by men who would kill me," Jenzen interrupted. "None of them have managed it. This one is not special, and he does not frighten me."

"He is, and he should," said Michael.

She turned a scalding look on him. "Just because he frightens you does not mean the rest of us should cower."

Michael sucked in a breath to snap back, but Free cut him off before he could.

"Miss Jenzen, you're among your peers, and we're telling you: this is different," Free said. "Haywood isn't some belligerent drunk or bigoted policeman. Even if he can't get to you, he's going to get after someone like you. Someone like us."

"I still see nothing to set him apart from all the others."

"How 'bout the fact that when he catches up with you, it's gonna be long and messy and painful?" Michael said.

She looked him dead in the eye and repeated: "I still see nothing to set him apart."

Michael could not think of a single thing to say to that. Lindsay, however, could.

"Miss Jenzen, believe you me, I know that feelin' you're feelin'," she said. "I been livin' that life a good long while, and that fear is a good ol' friend of mine. And I'll tell you: Haywood still scares me. More than all the others, 'cuz all the things I do that keep me safe from hateful men won't keep me safe from Haywood. He's already decided he's gonna kill me, and he might've already decided he's gonna kill you, too. Now correct me if I'm wrong, but that's a li'l different than the kind of danger we're used to livin' in, ain't it?"

Jenzen actually considered this. Behind her, Belladonna was shaking her head.

"Karine may be unused to it," she said. "I am not. We have enough friends and resources to keep us safe. I have run as far as I am willing; God, as your policewoman says, will have to settle for the rest."

"I'm not theirs and I'm not a policewoman," Gabriel said archly.

Belladonna shrugged. "Je s'en fous."

"Yes," Jenzen said, with finality. "Yes, Blake is right. We've weathered all the storms that came before. We'll weather this one, too."

Shaking his head, Michael clicked his teeth. Lindsay cut him off before he could actually say anything.

"Let it go, Michael," she said."We made our case, and these two seem to have made up their minds. That bein' so, I don't guess we got too much else to talk about."

"Spares us the trouble of having to worry about innocent victims," Free muttered, petulant.

"Cut that out,"Lindsay said. She got to her feet and extended a hand to Jenzen. "Miss Jenzen, it was good meetin' you. I hope we get to meet again sometime, in better circumstances."

Jenzen shook her hand. Belladonna did not. Michael moved Gavin over to his other side, just because he was looking libel to snap at anybody unfamiliar who came too close.Belladonna left with a curt farewell and no backward glances. Jenzen followed, but Gabriel waylaid her before she was out the door.

"Miss Jenzen, I . . . owe you an apology," she said quietly. "For how I behaved at our last meeting. I know it's too late and it doesn't fix anything, but—I'm sorry. I'm sorry for how I treated you. And I want you to be sure that I'm not going to put you back in prison, regardless of how you got out."

Still, Jenzen's face did not soften. "Your apologies would have meant more," she said, "if I had not just been subjected to another round of self-righteous judgement."

Gabriel buttoned her lip and dropped her gaze. Jenzen walked out.

When she had gone, Lindsay turned to Free.

"Mrs. Gruchy," she said quietly, "that was beneath you."

"I'm not going to be lectured like a schoolgirl," said Free, getting to her feet and dusting off her skirts. "They've made their beds, and now they get to lie in them. Better one of them than a woman who hasn't participated in ritual murder. Gabriel, you agree with me, don't you?"

Gabriel lowered herself into a chair and put a hand over her eyes. Gavin lifted his head and snuffled in her direction. Michael kept a firm grip on his bandanna, even though his aggressive spell seemed to have passed.

"I am not joining this argument," Gabriel said,"because I am very tired and in a great deal of pain, and I don't have the patience to deal with anything else today."

"Oh, fine," said Free, huffy. "Jones, I know you agree with me."

"Sure," Michael said. "But I tell you what, your husband would be pissed as hell if he was here."

Michael could not have wounded her more deeply if he'd taken out a knife and stabbed her. All the fight went out of her. She looked like she was about to either cry or throw up.

Lindsay, by the look on her face, had never been more proud.

Chapter Text

Dan woke at exactly two o'clock in the morning, roused by the tolling of the great bells. Grumbling to himself, he fumbled out of his blankets with the intention of making a quick trip to the chamber pot before burrowing in for the rest of the night.

Before he got off of the mattress, he realized that he was not alone.

A familiar creeping sensation stole over him as he watched the huddled figure. His palms sweated. His heartbeat kicked up to a thunder. The floor shivered with the work of the great machinery below. Dim orange light filtered in through the single tiny window, and by it, Dan could not quite make out whether or not Haywood was asleep.

For at least a minute, Dan held perfectly still. He kept his breathing slow and measured. Haywood, too, was still—his back propped up against his usual support beam, his knees drawn halfway up, his chin on his chest. The longer Dan watched, the more certain he became; Haywood really had nodded off up here, and the tolling of the hour had not woken him.

Still, Dan didn't move. The rattling of his chains might do what the bells could not. In one of the many dull hours between meals, he'd found that he could just wrap his hands round that support beam if he lay flat on his stomach with his arms fully extended and his chains painfully taut. It wouldn't put him in a position to do much other than get stamped on. The way his head was spinning, starting any kind of fight at all was a losing proposition.

So he had to make sure that there was no fight.

Dan's plan coalesced slowly, each piece as flighty as a robin. It was difficult to hold the whole thing together at once, even though it was simple.

He would creep to the chamber pot, have to hope that Haywood hadn't emptied it earlier. He would bring it with him out to the end of his chains. He would lift it above his head, high as it would go, and then, like a tree to an incautious lumberjack, topple forwards full-length to smash the bloody thing over Haywood's head with as much force as luck and gravity would give him. Ideally, it would injure Haywood badly enough that he would be incapable of doing any further harm to Dan (it was too much to hope for that it would kill him outright). At the very least, so long as Dan's aim was true, he could count on inflicting sufficient head trauma to level the playing field between the two of them for the subsequent struggle.

And probably ensure that at least one of them died of sepsis in the near future, but every silver lining had its cloud.

Getting to the chamber pot wouldn't land him in any trouble if Haywood happened to wake up during it; this stage could therefore be done at his leisure. If, however, Haywood caught him at any point after that, especially standing with the thing raised up over his head like some kind of abominable snowman, it would go very poorly very quickly. Dan decided this stage should be done at three o'clock, when the tolling of the bells would best cover his movements—if it didn't wake Haywood.

Although it was as good a plan as Dan was likely to come up with, he forced himself to wait before putting any part of it into action. As expected, anxiety crept in through the holes in his thinking, widening them until they could not be ignored.

How, for example, was he going to lift and carry the chamber pot with his wrist in a splint? He could remove the splint, but he had no idea if he'd be able to pick up something that heavy, let alone hold it up above his head. For that matter, how was he going to free himself once Haywood was out of the picture? Unless he was carrying the keys to Dan's shackles about with him, kicking his arse would invariably do more harm than good. At best, it would put a steep time-limit on working out an escape plan. At worst, it would mean starving to death, and a few days with heavily restricted food had already put Dan much closer to that than he'd been since childhood.

The more Dan thought about it, in fact, the worse of an idea it seemed. God knew that waiting longer was only going to leave him in worse shape, and God knew he might never get a chance like this again, but was it worth it if the chance was sure to fail? No—better to keep playing it safe, hedge his bets and wait for a better opportunity. Haywood might have been petty, self-absorbed, and possessed of a hair-trigger temper, but he wasn't a complete raving lunatic. It was possible to reason with the man. It was possible to barter, to whittle, to steer him. It was possible that Dan could buy himself enough time to survive this ungodly mess, if only he could keep Haywood from killing the people who would come to his rescue.

Which meant he had approximately two murders' worth of time.

It was an ugly fact, a hideous metric, but there was really no other way to put it. Haywood's sketch of his grand masterwork still lingered on the far wall, white chalk against the dark wood. In an ideal world, nobody else would be killed, but Dan knew very well that he wouldn't be able to turn Haywood's course in time to save everyone. He wasn't sure he could manage it at all, in fact, but it was better to hope.

He only realized how long he'd been mired in thought when the clock struck three. Haywood jolted awake on the first bell, another confirmation of how ill-conceived Dan's original plan had been. Dan grumbled and rubbed his head. He hoped Haywood was too disoriented to wonder why he was already sitting up.

"Lord have mercy," Haywood sighed. To Dan's dismay, he didn't get up and leave. Instead, he shuffled off under the workbench—well out of Dan's reach—and curled up on the floor with his back to the wall.

Dan had just started to lie back down when a very different sort of plan occurred to him.

"Oy," he called, his voice rusty with sleep.

A glimmer from under the workbench indicated that Haywood had cracked an eye open. Dan balled up the spare blanket Haywood had brought him and bowled it across the floor. It didn't make it more than halfway, and Haywood did not come out to get it.

"Suit yourself," Dan muttered. He thumped back down onto his mattress and pulled the remaining blanket up to his chin, feeling a fool.

But a few minutes later, there was a squeaking of floorboards and a rustling sound, and a few minutes after that, when Dan risked a glance over his shoulder, Haywood had cocooned himself in the blanket under the worktable.

And was watching Dan with both eyes.

Discomfited, Dan nestled deeper into his bed and resolved not to turn round again until dawn. Haywood's gaze bored into his back like loose springs in a mattress.

In the sleepless hours that followed, Dan really started to wish he'd taken Haywood up on that sherry.


 

Come sunrise, Dan once again found himself awake while Haywood remained asleep. Light filtered through the tiny window in shades of dust and gold, along with the shouting and clamour that was emblematic of a London morning. Dan sat around for the better part of an hour before giving up and having his (cold, gummy, stale) breakfast. He kept one eye on Haywood throughout, but all Haywood did was roll over and grumble when eight o'clock tolled. By eight-thirty, Dan's gnawing anxieties had got the better of him, spurred on by the sunlight pouring through the window.

"Oy," he said, and oy several more times at increasing volumes until Haywood finally stirred. "Sorry to wake you, but the rain's stopped, and pretty soon I'll have naught to drink."

Haywood gave a few owlish blinks before crawling out from under the workbench. With the blanket wrapped round his shoulders like a cape, he shuffled out, hunched and yawning.

"Good bloody morning to you, as well," Dan muttered, once he'd gone. He took the opportunity to visit the chamber pot, which had indeed been emptied recently and therefore would have done him little good the night before.

It might just have been the sleepless night, but Dan's head was still spinning, accompanied by a shallow nausea and a deep, throbbing pain. It might just have been the days of boredom and confinement and slim eating, but his whole body was weak and shaky, even with breakfast in him. It might just have been the long winter weeks of rain and overcast, but the sunlight pouring through the tiny window was bright enough to make his eyes ache.

It might have been just those things, but it was probably that Haywood had really, seriously injured him when he'd bashed his head on the floor half a dozen times.

Before Dan could get around to panicking about this, Haywood came back bearing a tray of teacups, all full of water, which he set down on the breakfast table.

"It ain't pretty, but it'll do," he said. "Trust th' English weather t' always be the most inconvenient it can."

"Known for it," said Dan. "I assume it's not like that in America."

"Oh, folks'll complain about the weather regardless of where you are. Too hot down South, too cold up North, too unpredictable out West. Complainin' about the weather's a human condition."

"Reckon so. Er . . . did you sleep well?"

With an indulgent smile, Haywood shook his head and rolled his eyes.

"Honey, you're tryin' too hard," he said.

"Sorry."

Even so, Haywood took up his usual spot, settling in for a conversation. "Slept well enough, considerin' the venue. Much obliged to you for sharin' a li'l warmth."

"Oh, no trouble at all. Actually—hang on, where did that blanket go?"

"I'll bring it back, don't you worry none," said Haywood—which, Dan noted, did not answer his question. "You know by now I ain't one to punish kindness."

"No no, not at all. And I really do appreciate it, have I mentioned that?"

The corner of his mouth curled up and his eyes twinkled. "Could stand to mention it more."

Before Dan could respond, the room's one door opened. Dan's heart leapt. A flurry of wild hopes and fears and plans raced through his head.

All of them turned to powder when it wasLucien who stepped in.

Haywood straightened up. The smile he flashed was less than sincere. He didn't look surprised to see Lucien, but he didn't look pleased, either.

"Mornin', suh," he said.

"Good morning, my little rook," said Lucien, as pleasant as ever. "Good morning, Mr Gruchy."

Dan looked him up and down, his skin crawling. He'd thought, after Jones' revelation, that it would be difficult to reconcile himself to the idea that Lucien was the Devil. After all, Lucien had seemed to be flesh and blood for months, had been little more than a nuisance throughout—a cruel and repulsive man, but a man nonetheless. Dan had expected, in the event that their paths crossed again, to have to struggle to believe.

In fact, there was no struggle at all.

"It's generally considered polite, Mr Gruchy, to return a greeting when greeted," Lucien said. His eyes were cold and dead. There was something in his posture, now that Dan was looking for it, that reminded him of the demon Orphinaeus. It was hungry. It was scheming. It was rotten.

"Go politely back to Hell," said Dan. He didn't quite manage to keep his voice from shaking.

With a shake of the head and an indulgent smile, Lucien turned back to Haywood. "Such unpleasant company you keep! If I weren't on a schedule, I'd teach him some manners for you, but alas, business must come first."

"I assume this's the bill comin' due, then?" Haywood asked, wiggling the remaining fingers of his right hand.

"That's it precisely."

Haywood faked another smile. "Dan, if you'll excuse us for—"

"Oh no," Lucien cut him off. "That won't be necessary."

A flicker crossed Haywood's face.

"Come again?" he said, turning back to Lucien.

"We can—and indeed, shall—conduct our transaction here," said Lucien, ambling into the room. He went to the workbench and began reorganizing it, one implement at a time. "Unless, of course, you'd prefer to default on your loan-plus-interest."

Haywood swallowed. "I don't believe I would, suh."

"Wise choice. It always pays to be in good standing with the bank." Having cleared a suitable space, he turned back round and set his palms against the table behind him.

Lucien hopped up. A woman landed.

Haywood recoiled like Lucien had transfigured himself into a snake. The woman was young, slender, White and dark-haired and barefoot. She wore only a white silk slip that barely reached her knees, one of the straps hanging off her shoulder. Dan's stomach lurched. He went hot and slimy all over. The woman smiled, a twinkle in her eyes, and held out a languorous hand to Haywood.

"Time to pay up, my little rook," she said, her accent sharpened to a New England point. "Don't make me wait."

Haywood's eyes darted—the door, the woman, Dan, the window, the woman. His hand clenched on the knife at his belt, white-knuckled. Sweat beaded on his forehead.

"You—you already waited a good long while," he choked out. "I don't see what difference a couple minutes might make, nor a—nor a change of venue."

She smiled and shook her head, tutting.

"Oh, my sweet boy, because it's not about the sex," she said. "It's about the humiliation."

Haywood backed up a step. His throat worked, swallowing down revulsion. The Devil's smile dried up.

"Ryan," she snapped. Haywood flinched like it had been a gunshot. With all the sweaty-palmed dread of a child who expected a beating, he went to her.

Dan stood up.

"Stop this," he said, swaying on his feet. His voice shook, but at least he got the words out. Haywood shot a panicked look at him. The Devil's smile grew back.

"Mr Gruchy, sit back down," she said, pushing her fingers into Haywood's hair. "Ryan knew my price when he made the purchase."

"Obviously not the whole price!"

"Maybe not," she allowed. Her legs wrapped round Haywood's waist, pulled him in even as he tried to pull back. "But he agreed to it. He knows what he's worth."

"I'm not going to be party to this."

"Of course you are," she said. "Unless you'd rather take his place?"

Dan's stomach shrivelled up to the size of a raisin. Haywood didn't look at him, but there was still a hideous hope in his face, a trembling like prayer. The Devil rolled her hips against him, holding Dan's gaze. Her fingers trailed down his chest. Her tongue parted the soft pink flesh of her lips. Every last inch of Dan's skin went hot and slimy, like he'd been submerged in a pool of stagnant sewage. His head pounded. His wounds throbbed. His blood thickened like treacle. He swallowed.

The hellfire light in the Devil's eyes caught with the same vicious lust that lurked in Orphinaeus, the same bloodthirsty gluttony that had gutted a man, raped him while he died, and laughed about it.

Slowly, painfully, horribly, Dan sat back down.

"See?" said the Devil, putting her hands to work, her mouth by Haywood's ear. "He knows what you're worth, too. May as well get it over with."

Haywood rested his forehead on her shoulder, eyes squeezed shut, jaw clenched. One hand slid up her thigh, under her dress. Dan looked away, so sick he could barely breathe.

"That's right," the Devil crooned. "You remember. Who's my good boy, Ryan?"

He whispered something, so hoarse and painful that Dan couldn't make it out.

"So he can hear you," said the Devil.

"I am," Haywood said, revolted.

She laughed. "Bark like dog."

"Lucien—"

There was a resounding slap. Haywood yelped.

"Bark like a dog, boy," the Devil snarled.

Dan put his hands over his ears—his ear and the wound where his other ear had been, even though pressing hard enough to muffle the sounds was like jamming a knife into the side of his head. He curled up as small as he could go, bit his tongue until he tasted blood and pressed his knees against his eyes until he saw sparks.

It didn't help much, but it was better than nothing.


 

Dan would not have thought, through any of the preceding days, that his noisy cell could be so full of silence.

The Devil had gone away. Haywood had not. The sharp, bitter smell of sex suffused the air. Morning was turning to afternoon, and swarms of unspoken words darkened the sun like locusts. Dan kept his eyes down and his mouth shut, even through the silence, even through the sobbing that followed it. He couldn't face the state Haywood was in, couldn't face what had happened.

What he had let happen.

He shouldn't have sat back down, and he knew it. He should have kept fighting, kept arguing, kept objecting, even if it had gotten him killed. Wasn't that what he'd said to Jones, all those aeons ago at the party—that he'd die before he'd allow torture to happen? And yet, when it had come right down to it, when it had really mattered, he'd done exactly the same thing as last time, what he'd sworn to himself he wouldn't do again: he'd shut his mouth and looked the other way.

And as if that wasn't enough, his long-term plan lay in wreckage at his feet, a ship with sails in tatters and the oars smashed by a passing storm. There would be no steering Haywood now. All trust, all compassion, all leverage was lost, flotsam on a wide, uncaring sea. If it had been only Dan's life at stake, he would almost have welcomed the coming oblivion, if not as penance then at least as freedom from his own guilt.

As it was, he'd just signed Gav's death warrant—and Gabriel's, and Tuggey's, and Jones', and yes, even the dog's.

Movement caught his attention, yanked him out of his grim musings. Haywood had gotten to his feet. His face was sallow, blotchy with crying. His eyes were distant. He did not look at Dan as he crossed the room, somewhere between a shamble and a stagger. He didn't even bother shutting the door behind him, leaving it to drift closed under its own weight.

Dan suspected, with a deep sinking feeling, that he was never going to come back.

Chapter Text

Michael spent the next two days after the conversation with Jenzen and Belladonna waiting for their bodies to turn up. He and the others had retired to Free and Gruchy's apartment, since it was a little more comfortable and a little roomier than the office, but the change of location failed to put Michael at ease. He kept an eagle-eye on the mail slot in case another note was delivered. He ate through half the food in the pantry, more to feed the churning of his mental machinery than because he was hungry.

He was consumed, at all times, by the notion of a soul that was not immortal.

He'd pushed it off as long as he could, telling himself over and over that Jenzen had been lied to, that the Brotherhood were crackpots and swindlers and fools, that it would be pure idiocy to be taken in by such a wild, blasphemous claim. That was even assuming Jenzen had been telling the truth, which was doubtful at best, and there was no telling who she'd been talking to or who might have made deals with her. Really he should forget the whole thing and get on with catching Ryan. They'd have plenty of time to figure out what to do with him once nobody else was in danger of being murdered. He shouldn't let himself get distracted by stupid what-ifs.

But what if. . . ?

It felt right. It felt like the answer to the riddle, the keystone to the arch, the single missing gear that would finally make the whole machine run smoothly. Ryan's deal wouldn't matter—destroy his soul, and the Devil's stake in the game was gone, and Michael could end the whole horrible ordeal with one bullet. It would be so simple. All the chaos and hardship and pain would just . . . go away. It would be so easy.

That the Brotherhood hadn't figured out how to destroy a soul didn't deter him. They'd gotten distracted, tangled up in the weeds, chasing their fame and their money and their power. Michael had two of those already, and wasn't much interested in the third. He knew what he wanted, and he knew better than to play around with pawns.

There was a way to get his answers. It was just a matter of figuring out what he was willing to sell for them.

While Michael occupied himself in vigilance and thought, the others found similar occupations. Gabriel spent most of her time resting, at Lindsay's insistence. Lindsay herself bounced between fussing over Gabriel and fussing over Michael, while also taking charge of making sure Gavin got walked and everyone got fed. Free sat quietly and wrote letters, and made notes, and made tea, and made—to Michael's eye—no progress. Gavin made the rounds bothering various people for food or walks or attention, whining and barking at passers-by, getting into things he shouldn't and peeing on furniture and generally making a huge nuisance of himself.Even he seemed anxious.

As the first day wore into the second, and the second day wore into night, the sense of dread hanging over Free's flat grew ever deeper. It had been (according to Free, who was better at keeping track) almost a week since the initial set of murders, four days since Gruchy's ear had turned up in the mail, and silence ever since. They were due for catastrophe. Michael was sure they were over-due.

And yet, when the evening mail came, there was no cryptic note along with it, nor any suspicious packages. The newspapers reported no bodies and no missing persons. Free and Gabriel assured him that this was not because no one had been killed and no one had gone missing; it was just that none of the victims were sufficiently newsworthy. Terrible things happened all the time in London, they said, but you only heard about them if they weren't happening to poor people.

"Y'all got some ass-backwards ideas around here," Michael grumbled into his second helping of mutton and rice.

"It's that way in every big city, Michael," said Lindsay. "Might even say everywhere. Nobody in Achievement City ever gave a hoot about what went on in the tent city, to my knowledge."

"'Course not, they was. . . . Uh, y'know, they was uh. . . ."

"Poor?"

"Vagrants. Like uh—like Shifty Larry and Cook and them, always out pannin' for silver and bein' dumbasses."

"They were out lookin' for silver 'cuz they were poor. Same reason Collins took to—"

"Don't," said Michael; and he knew he'd said it wrong, because every eye at the dinner table turned to him. He rubbed the arms of his chair and avoided looking back at any of them. "Don't . . . go speakin' ill of the dead."

Lindsay took mercy on him and dropped the topic. Free and Gabriel had the courtesy not to pick it back up. Gavin came over and stuck his nose in Michael's lap, hopeful for a bite of mutton.

Michael couldn't stop looking over his shoulder for the rest of the night.


 

In the pitch-black corners of five o'clock in the morning, Michael was awoken by a hand on his shoulder.

Consciousness hit him like a train. Free jerked back from him, expecting a swing that never came. Michael rubbed his eyes and got his wits about him. His mouth tasted like old laudanum, bitter and dry. His legs were tingling all over. The wound in his right arm ached, bone-deep. He was in the spare room at Free and Gruchy's apartment. He'd gone to bed early while Lindsay and Free had gone through more medical nonsense about the bodies. Gavin wasn't with him.

"Jones?" Free said softly, like he was trying not to wake somebody else. "It's happened."

"Yeah, I figured. We get another note?"

Free shook his head. "A whore stumbled onto the scene, fortunately after Haywood was done with it. The police haven't been informed yet, but we haven't got long."

With a grunt, Michael heaved himself upright and started to get dressed. Free backed up, but didn't leave the room.

"She ain't go to the cops, this hooker?"

"No. The police are not well-liked amongst that particular community. I'm given to understand Dan and I got one of her friends out of a jam at some point, and so she came to us."

"She still here?"

"In the foyer."

"The who?"

"The front room, Jones, don't be dense. I thought it would be safer than sending her away on her own, especially since—er, well, she is . . . not to put too fine a point on it, but she's Black, and she only mentioned the one body, and so I thought. . . ."

"Ain't the worst thought you ever had. Is Gabriel with her?"

"And Tuggey, both."

"Where's my dog?"

"We had to lock him in the master bedroom, he was frightening the witness. And not in the usual way, either. He looked like he was going to tear her throat out, given half a chance."

Michael paused halfway through buttoning up his shirt. His machinery wasn't up to speed yet. Rather than sit around waiting for it to spit out an answer, he shook his head and got on with things, leaving it to gnaw in the background.

"Fine. She in a talkin' mood?"

"Not when I left, but Gabriel said they'd try to calm her down. If they haven't managed it by the time we get back, I think we ought to leave Tuggey and Gavin with her and take Gabriel down to the scene."

Michael grunted. There was no part of him that wanted to leave Gavin and Lindsay behind, especially not now, but it was the most sensible thing to do, since they were the only two who weren't detectives.

"It ain't far, is it?" he asked, struggling with his socks. "'Cuz Gabriel ain't doin' too hot, and we shouldn't oughtta take her out all over hell and gone if Ryan's—if Haywood's back on his bullshit."

"I doubt we could stop her regardless, but no, it's not far. It's about three miles, strung up in Victoria Park, as our witness said. We will have some difficulty getting a cab this time of night. Or, morning."

Michael's stomach sank, heavy with dread. "In a park?"

"I know. It's an awfully risky move on Haywood's part. I think he's getting desperate."

"Good news for catchin' him."

"Bad news for Dan."

Which was, despite everything, a sobering thought.

"Is it uh . . . is it that lady we met the other day, what's-her-face?"

"Jenzen? I don't know. I've no way of knowing until I've seen it."

"Uh-huh. Unless you go off to la-la land again when you do."

"It's not stopped me from doing my job yet," he said, annoyed. "Now hurry up, we've only got a couple hours before dawn."

Michael finished getting dressed and moved on to getting into his chair. It was a mark of how impatient Free was that he actually offered to help (to which, Michael told him to fuck off).

When they finally got to the front room, things seemed to have settled. Lindsay was pouring out cups of tea. Gavin was scratching at the bedroom door and whining. Gabriel was sitting with her good arm around a young Black woman's shoulders—awfully young, probably still a teenager if Michael had to guess—who had a flask in one hand and a cigarette in the other. There were four more cigarette stubs on the table in front of her, one of which was still smoldering. The dress she wore made her profession clear enough. Her hands were shaking. There was blood on her shoes. She glanced up as Michael and Free entered. Her eyes were red.

"Here's Mr. Jones now," Gabriel said, in the gentlest voice Michael had ever heard come out of her. "Do you think you'll be able to answer a few questions? It won't be many."

The girl shuddered and took a drag off her cigarette, a pull from her flask. From the way she was swaying, Michael figured she'd had to refill it at least once already tonight.

"Reckon I'll have to, won't I," she said. Her accent was like Free's, intensified. "Best get it over with, yeah?"

"Only if you want to," said Gabriel. She glared at Michael and said, "Mr. Jones will be as gentle as he can, I'm sure."

"Gentle," the girl scoffed. "I don't need bloody gentle, I need a bottle of Jameson and a lifetime's supply of chloral, is what I need. Christ alive, I'm never gonna sleep again."

Another shudder raced through her, followed by another deep drag off the cigarette.

"Fine, I don't do gentle anyhow," said Michael. "You got a name?"

"Fucking hell, you didn't say he was a Yank," the girl muttered. "It's Rita to you."

"All right, Rita, I'm gonna keep this real short: when you found the thing, was there anybody else around?"

"Other than my john? Nobody. And maybe not even him, the fucking molly."

Free stiffened, but didn't say anything. Michael decided he'd ask about it later.

"This John fella, he a friend of yours?"

Lindsay made a face. Rita snorted and had another drink.

"Never seen him before in my life. Picked him up down in—I dunno, some fucking dive or other, 'cos he looked well-off enough. Asked me to walk with him in the park, and I reckoned he was just one of them freaks what likes to fuck outside, so I says yeah, and he takes me down the park, but then soon as we're out of sight he fucks off. Just poof, like that, into thin air. So I'm cutting about like an idiot looking for him, I'm thinking today's gonna be the day some fucking freak finally kills me, and that's—that's when I found it."

She shuddered, took a drag off her cigarette and a gulp from her flask.

"Can you describe it?" Free asked.

"I can't," she said. "I won't. I ran like the Devil himself was on me, and I ain't going back, neither."

"No one would ask you to," Gabriel assured her, and shot a warning look at Free. He rolled his eye and folded his arms.

"Can you tell us exactly where it was, then?" he asked. "So that we can find it?"

"Fucked if I know," Rita said. "Strung up in a fucking tree, that's all I can remember. Like a—like an animal. Christ alive."

"But—"

"That's enough to be getting on with," Gabriel assured her. "Thank you for all your help. I'm glad you came to us."

Rita shook her head, took out another cigarette, and lit it off the burning end of the one she was already smoking. "Just don't ask me to go back. I'm not going back, now nor ever, if I can help it."

"Your fella," Michael said. "What'd he look like?"

"I don't pay no attention to what they look like. He was just some White bloke, you all look the same to me."

Gabriel made a very interesting face and bit her lips. Lindsay offered Rita a cup of tea, which was refused in favor of another slug of liquor.

"Dark hair?" Michael asked, a tingle under his fingernails. "Blue eyes?"

"Fucked if I know," Rita said again. Her words were starting to slur together. "Coulda been. I don't pay no attention to what they look like. I just picked him up in some fucking—some dive or other. He looked rich enough to be getting on with."

"You mentioned that, yes," said Free, eyeing Michael up. "I think we'd better get going, if we're going to beat the police to it. Victoria Park isn't all that big, and there's one grove of trees in particular I think would be the only place something like this could be carried out. Dr. Tuggey, do you think you could stay and take care of Miss Rita?"

A flicker of panic crossed Lindsay's face, but she tightened her resolve and nodded.

"If I don't hear back from y'all in a couple hours, I'm gonna get to takin' actions, though," she said.

"Please do," said Free. "Gabriel, will you be so good as to accompany us?"

"I will," she said, getting to her feet. "Rita, I've got to go, but Dr. Tuggey will look after you. You've been incredibly brave, and I don't think we can thank you enough for it."

Rita shrugged. "If I didn't, who would? Poor bitch oughtn't to be left strung up like that."

Despite all the quick plans and farewells that were spoken afterwards, those were the words that echoed in Michael's ears the longest.


 

Michael had thought, after the first three bodies, that he'd seen the worst Ryan had to offer.

But Ryan, as always, had proved him wrong.

The body was hung up by its feet from a sturdy tree branch in the middle of a grove. The smell of pond scum thickened the air, covering the stench of death until they were right up on it. Dawn was just beginning to brighten the sky, but under the tangled canopies, night lingered. The gnarled trunks were splashed with blood, so dark it looked black. A sloppy mound of organs had been piled beneath the body. All its ribs had been snapped and the front half of the ribcage removed—no sign of where it had been put. Once again, the skull was exposed, the eyes left in place. A sharp-edged 8 was carved into its forehead.

The body's skin was draped over the branch like an animal pelt. It still had a full head of hair. The face was intact, right down to the thick false eyelashes and the smeared rouge and the cherry-red lips.

Free gagged the moment he set eyes on it and scurried off to be sick. Even Gabriel turned away, swearing under her breath. More than ever, Michael wished he had Gavin with him—and more than ever, he was glad he didn't, mostly because he wasn't sure the dumb little idiot wouldn't try to eat the victim's innards. Steeling himself, he moved in closer, determined to see past the spectacle Ryan had so deliberately created.

The first thing he noticed was that the victim was, in fact, female—it was pretty obvious, with the naked skin hanging out to dry. The second thing he noticed was the manner of death: the throat had been cut while the skin was still on the body. There was a tremendous amount of blood on the scene, so haphazardly splashed that Michael suspected the victim had been killed right here. If so, she must have been skinned here, too—killed, cut open, skinned, organs removed and arranged just so.

Something tickled at the back of Michael's brain. He cast about and found a reasonably-sized stick nearby. Just before he poked at the pile of organs, though, he looked back over his shoulder.

"Hey, Free," he called. "You got your pictures or whatever?"

"Mr. Free is no longer with us," Gabriel said quietly.

"Sonnuva bitch," Michael muttered. "All right, guess we'll just have to hope he got everythin'."

"What are you—"

Michael nudged the pile of organs with the stick, then began to excavate it the same way he might dig up the hot coals at the center of a dying fire. The noises this made were unimaginably gruesome. The smell was worse. Michael eventually found what he was looking for, buried at the very bottom of the pile and bristling with the victim's ribs, almost like Ryan had been pinning it down.

It was not, however, what Michael had expected, for all that he'd been looking for it.

"What the fuck?" he said. His skin crawled.

"What is it?" Gabriel asked, nervy, keeping her distance.

"Come and take a look, and you can tell me if it is what I think it is," he said.

"I would prefer not to leave Free alone."

"Then bring him with you, maybe his photographs still work."

While Gabriel collected Free, Michael examined the body. It was difficult to tell, through the exposed muscles, the white marbling of fat, the gutting and skinning, but he thought he could see more wounds on it, ones that had been made after the skin was taken off. The hands, at the very least, had been mangled all to hell. Something about that sickened him in a way that the intentionally sickening spectacle couldn't.

To remove the skin so carefully, so cleanly, that the face and scalp remained intact, and then to make such a furious mess. . . .

Gabriel arrived with Free in tow. Michael poked the thing in the middle of the pile with his stick.

"What's that look like to you?" he asked.

"A crime against humanity," she muttered. She cleared her throat, put her face back on, and said: "I think it used to be her—the victim's womb."

"Yep," said Michael. "That's about what I thought. The uh—there's similar, uh, up on the body, the . . . related parts, uh—"

"For goodness' sake, Jones, now isn't the time to decide to be polite. Just use whatever words you've got."

"He fucked up her cunt after skinnin' her."

Gabriel's throat tightened with disgust. She turned away.

"Do we know if that's unusual for him?" she asked.

"I don't. Only woman I ever seen him kill, he just shot her and left her." He paused, considering the aftermath of Mad Meg's death. "Although, that ain't to say that's all he wanted to do with her."

"Should have shot him when I had the chance," Gabriel muttered.

"Boy howdy, you just now figurin' that out?" said Michael. She threw a sharp look at him and shook herself.

"If you've seen all you need to see, we should get out of here. The police can't be far behind us, and if they catch us on the site of another murder, we'll be lucky if they bother to arrest us."

"Huh?"

"As opposed to killing us on sight."

"Oh. Then we better hurry up and find the note so's we can get the hell outta here."

"Note?" said Gabriel.

If Michael's legs had worked, he would've kicked himself—but there was no time to waste on lying about it.

"There'll be a li'l note somewhere, like the one he sent with Gruchy's ear," he said. "I'll tell you how I know when we ain't gonna get killt by the cops."

Gabriel nodded and set off to find it, leaving Michael with Free. He kept his eyes and ears peeled, and not for the police. His skin was still crawling. Something in his gut was convinced that the danger had not passed, that any second now—

The point of a knife pressed to the back of his neck.

Michael didn't move. Although the fear was familiar enough that it didn't paralyze him, one good jab of that knife definitely would. Free didn't react at all, standing where Gabriel had left him, staring at the corpse and just as dead to the world. A gentle, gloved hand came to rest over Michael's throat, the thumb and forefinger nestling under the corners of his jaw—not strangling, just holding him in place.

"Gettin' sloppy, Michael," Ryan said. Chills raced down Michael's spine. He tried not to let it show.

"Pot callin' the kettle black, Ryan," he said. His voice shivered against Ryan's hand like wind against a windowpane. "Where's Gruchy?"

"That's your first question? Tsk tsk, you're gone make me jealous."

"You're the one who took him, jackass."

"Oh, sure, but I don't much care for him. Where's Lindsay?"

His blood ran cold. "She ain't comin'."

"Ain't that a cryin' shame. And after all the trouble I went through settin' this up for her. You recall that ole gray wolf she and I cut up?"

"I recall," Michael said through his teeth. Free was right there, close enough to reach out and touch, but seeing and hearing and doing nothing.

"Remind her of it for me," said Ryan.

Michael could have screamed. It took everything he had not to lash out at Ryan, not to fight or struggle or twitch. The knife was still pressed to the back of his neck, needle-sharp. His Adam's apple dragged against Ryan's palm as he swallowed. He was pretty sure Ryan wouldn't kill him.

He was pretty sure Ryan could put that knife through the back of his neck and not kill him.

"Was this one a hooker, too?" Michael asked. "Like the one you brought over here to see it?"

"I ain't gone make it that easy for you, chéri. But I am surprised Miz Rita managed to tell y'all about me. I figured she was too drunk to notice that much."

"She din't. But Gavin could smell you on her."

Ryan chuckled. "Bless his li'l heart. Guess he misses me just as much as I miss him."

"He's gonna rip your throat out first chance he gets."

"Like I said," Ryan murmured, putting just the tiniest amount of squeeze on Michael's throat. "Just as much as I miss him."

"Cops are gonna show up and shoot your dumb ass dead," Michael said, because he had nothing else to fall back on but empty threats.

"There ain't a cop alive that can kill me, and you do us both a disservice by pretendin' otherwise," said Ryan.

"Gabriel's gonna come back and kill your ass dead."

"If Miz Gabriel comes back 'fore I'm gone, Miz Gabriel's gone get another bullet in her." He paused, then asked: "What happened to your arm?"

"Go to hell, you know what the fuck happened to my arm."

"I most assuredly don't."

"I ain't playin' this dumbass game with you. What the fuck are you doin' here, Ryan?"

Ryan sighed. "Same as always, Michael. Waitin' on you."

He took his hand off Michael's throat, leaned forward, and tucked a slip of paper into his jacket pocket. The smell of juniper washed over Michael. Ryan's face lingered in the corner of his eye, close enough that his breath tickled Michael's stubble; close enough to touch, close enough to. . . .

His heart skipped a beat. His stomach twisted into a hard knot. The knife stayed pressed to the back of his neck.

"You ain't gonna get away with this, you sick sack of shit," Michael said. His whole body was starting to jitter, inheriting the tremors from his legs.

"I ain't tryin' to, chéri," said Ryan.

Frost-brittle leaves crunched to their right. The knife whipped away. Michael spun around as quick as he could, but even so, he barely caught a glimpse of Ryan as he vanished into the dark. Gabriel emerged from the trees a moment later.

"If it's here, we'll have to come back for it," she said. "I can hear—Jones?"

The amount of fear she could fit into just his name was remarkable.

"Yeah," he said, turning away from where Ryan had gone, praying the next thing he heard wouldn't be a gunshot. "Let's get the hell outta here."

Chapter Text

The cab they'd taken to the park was still waiting for them when they left, which was lucky, because with Free out of commission they would've had no chance of getting another one. As it clattered back towards the apartment, a couple of police wagons passed them going the other way, bells ringing. When quiet had overtaken noise and the park faded back into the fog, Gabriel spoke up.

"How close were we to dying, just there?" she asked. She almost managed to come off as casual.

Michael rubbed the back of his neck. His fingers met something cool and sticky. He pulled them back to find them stained with blood.

Without speaking, he showed them to Gabriel. She gulped.

"Ah. I see. Would you happen to have any theories as to why we're not currently dead?"

He shrugged. "Like I been sayin'. He's got him an order all planned out, and I go last. I guess you don't go 'til later, too."

Another quiet mile passed. Free was white as a sheet, jouncing all over the place in the seat next to Gabriel. Both his eyes were equally glassy.

"What did he say to you?" Gabriel said at last.

Michael shrugged again. He rolled his shoulders to try and get some of the prickling out of them. He could still feel the hand on his neck, the warm breath against his face.

"Mostly bullshit, same as always," he said. "Mostly makin' sure I knew that whole thing back there was for Lindsay. And—"

He drew the note from his pocket. The paper was bloody, although he couldn't tell if it was from his own hand or from Ryan's. He held it out to Gabriel between two fingers.

"I ain't read it yet," he said. "If it's got a Bible verse on it, we might could get Free back."

Gabriel pursed her lips and took the note from him.

"Time's a-wasting," she read. "Ezekiel 7:8. Does it matter yet?"

A shiver ran through Michael. He squeezed his right hand until the pain overwhelmed his fear. When he let it go, though, the fear had not been washed away.

"Well, he's nothing if not consistent," Gabriel said distastefully.

"Huh," said Michael. "Hey, Free, what's that verse?"

Free wobbled in his seat as the carriage went over a bump in the road. His eyes remained blank and distant. Though Michael and Gabriel waited a good half minute, no words came out of him.

"I think it'll just have to wait," Gabriel said gently. "I've got a Bible at the flat. I'll look it up when we get there."

"Yeah," said Michael. He rubbed the arms of his chair and looked someplace other than at Free. "Leastways we can be pretty sure Haywood ain't gonna be there."

Gabriel raised her eyebrows. "Can we?"

"Oh, sure," said Michael. "He ain't gonna start killin' us for real 'til he's killt us all in—effy-whatever. You included, 'cuz he sure enough does have some kinda bone to pick with you. Point is, he ain't gonna hurt Lindsay 'til he's killt at least one more person."

"No," Gabriel said, "he's not going to kill Lindsay until he's killed at least one more person."

Michael blinked, clicked his teeth, and banged on the roof of the cab.

"Hey!" he shouted. "This thing go any faster?"

 

Still, whether because of their haste or in spite of it, everything was fine when they got back to Free and Gruchy's apartment. Rita the prostitute was passed out in the spare room, while Lindsay and Gavin stayed on watch. Gavin, of course, was overjoyed to see Michael, to the point that once he'd gotten done cavorting around the room, he settled into Michael's lap and refused to be moved.

"Jesus, I'm gettin' so sick of this," Michael muttered, rubbing Gavin's chest. "Freakin' out over goddamn nothin'. Least he could have the courtesy to fuck shit up thorough-like."

"Y'all all right?" Lindsay asked, with eyes for Gabriel alone.

"We're all right," said Gabriel. She set Free in an armchair before sinking into one herself. "Or, at the very least, no more physically injured than we were when we left. It's . . . a horrific scene. Indescribably horrific. I'm glad you weren't there to see it."

"Hate to say so, but me too. Was it. . . ?"

"You remember that ole gray wolf?" Michael said. The words were sour on his tongue.

"Jesus Christ," Lindsay whispered, putting a hand over her mouth and turning away. She wrapped her other arm around herself and squeezed. From the way she was breathing, Michael suspected she was trying not to throw up.

Wincing and unsteady, Gabriel got back up and went to her. She put a hesitant hand on Lindsay's elbow. Lindsay leaned into the touch, so Gabriel put her arm around Lindsay's waist and pulled her close.

"I am not going to let anyone hurt you," Gabriel said, so quietly that Michael was sure he wasn't supposed to have heard it.

"You don't have to look after me," Lindsay replied, just as quietly.

Gabriel gave her a squeeze. "I know."

With a deep, shuddering breath, Lindsay pulled herself back together.

"We got work to do," she said. "I know Free ain't with us just now, but—we got a process, don't we? Might as well get to work. Time's a-wastin'."

She must have heard, in the awful silence that followed, some echo of Ryan's voice. She turned to Gabriel. Almost guiltily, Gabriel handed her the note.

"Mother-fucker," Lindsay hissed.

"If you'll excuse me one moment, I'm going to retrieve my Bible," said Gabriel.

"Yeah," said Lindsay, putting the note down like she expected it to bite her. "Yeah, that's a good first step."

Gabriel gave her one more squeeze before leaving the room. Lindsay eased herself down into a chair. Gavin put his nose in the air and snuffled at her, but didn't get out of Michael's lap.

"He was there," Michael said.

Lindsay put her hands over her face. "Jesus Christ."

"You said it." He hesitated, then said, "He said he din't plan on gettin' away with it."

"Say what?" she said, raising her head. Michael shrugged.

"I said he wun't gonna get away with it, and he said he wun't plannin' on gettin' away with it, and then he took off. I don't know what to make of it."

"He ever say anythin' of that ilk before?"

"Not so far as I can recall. I don't guess he ever said anythin' about . . . I dunno, long-term plans to you?"

"Never a word."

"It don't make no damn sense," Michael said, mostly to himself. Gavin sneezed in his ear. "Yeah, thanks for your contribution, boy."

Lindsay snorted. She straightened up as Gabriel returned, leafing through an old, worn Bible.

"I have an approximate idea of what Ezekiel Chapter 7 is," Gabriel said, "and it's standard fare as far as Haywood goes."

"End times?" said Lindsay.

"Wrath and vengeance," said Gabriel. "I get the feeling he shares Miss Jenzen's rather dim view of God, and either discounts or actively rejects the large swaths of the Bible that are about peace and love."

"I dunno about large," said Michael.

"'Course you don't, you've never read the thing," Lindsay said. "All you ever got was Padre Sorola's sermons, and he loved him some fire and brimstone."

"That ain't true, we had preachers back in Kansas."

"And what'd they preach about?"

"Fire and brimstone, I guess," he mumbled, playing with Gavin's ruff. Gabriel clicked her teeth and poked one of the pages.

"Here it is, Chapter 7, Verse 8: Now will I shortly pour out my fury upon thee, and accomplish mine anger upon thee, and I will judge thee according to thy ways, and will recompense thee for all thine abominations."

"Yup, same old, same old," said Michael.

"Maybe not," said Gabriel, folding the Bible closed on her thumb. "He's not taken any words directly out of God's mouth before."

"Gettin' a li'l full of himself, huh?" Lindsay said.

"He's always been full of himself," said Michael. "That ain't the point. He wouldn't be pickin' these verses if they din't mean somethin' to him."

"Does he think this is . . . revenge, for something?" Gabriel wondered, frowning at the Bible. "Is this revenge?"

"How d'you mean?"

"Judge thee according to thy ways and recompense thee for all thine abominations."

"I get the judgin' part, the rest is gobbledegook."

"Recompense is like payback," said Lindsay. "It's sayin' you're gonna get what's comin' to you for all the wrong you done."

"The wrong we done? What the hell wrong did we do?"

"Jones," Gabriel said, like he was being dense.

"What?"

"Michael, you and me both have tried to kill him," said Lindsay. "You saw how upset he got about that the first time."

"I'm not certain it's even about that," said Gabriel. "I'm thinking back to something Gruchy said on the night he was . . . the night we lost him. It was something along the lines of: all of this has always been about Jones, and the rest of us are accessory, or something like that. And taken in combination with what Jones said to Haywood about his abstinence from murder not mattering. . . ."

"Does it matter yet," Lindsay said. "He seems real hung up on it, for sure. Second time we've gotten it, word-for-word."

"Third," Michael admitted. He dug around in his pockets until he found the first note, now brown and flaky with dried blood. He reached around Gavin to set it on the table for Lindsay and Gabriel to read. Both of them winced.

"Where'd that one come from?" Lindsay asked, while Gabriel leafed through her Bible.

"The church," said Michael. "It was in the confessional. With my—uh . . . with Number Eleven's heart. I think."

"Lovely," Gabriel said distastefully.

"And you ain't think to tell us about it 'til now?"

"I forgot about it 'til now."

"You been carryin' it around in your pocket, and you forgot about it."

"I got a lotta shit goin' on, Doc, goddamn."

Lindsay shook her head, but didn't push the issue. Soon enough, Gabriel came up with the Bible verse from the first note.

"2 Timothy 3:1 says: This know also: that in the last days, perilous times shall come. No surprises there, at least. Our times have certainly become perilous."

"Yeah," said Michael. Something was tickling at the back of his brain, trying to turn the machinery and lacking the proper gears. "Hey, uh, we got at least one more from him, din't we? What was the other one?"

"Two more," said Lindsay. "One came with the letter to the hospital, and one came with Gruchy's ear."

"Oh, shit, did we leave that back at the—?"

"Nope, it's in Free's icebox. I don't know what the hell he thinks we're gonna do with it, but we got it. The notes, though, I think we don't got anymore. Physically, I mean. I bet Free's got 'em, if we can bring him back around."

"The first one was destroy the mighty and the holy people," said Gabriel. "The one with—with the ear was Christ on the Cross."

"Naw," said Michael. "Naw, since we ain't got Free just now, I think you better look 'em up, and read both of 'em whole. There's somethin' about all this."

Gabriel glanced at Lindsay, who nodded to her.

"Remind me again what the first one was? Book of. . . ?"

"Daniel," said Lindsay. "I remember 'cuz Gruchy thought it might've been somethin' for him."

"It might well have been, in hindsight," Gabriel said. "Do either of you remember the chapter and verse?"

"Uhh," said Michael. Lindsay made a face.

"It's fine, I'll find it. It'll just take me a bit longer."

For the next ten minutes, the three of them collected all four Bible verses that Ryan had sent (while Free stayed dead to the world and Gavin took root in Michael's lap). Lindsay wrote the verses down in order on a piece of paper so they wouldn't have to go looking again. As she read through the finished list, the tickle at the back of Michael's head grew stronger.

 

Daniel 8:24. And his power shall be mighty, but not by his own power; and he shall destroy wonderfully, and shall prosper, and practise, and shall destroy the mighty and the holy people..

2 Timothy 3:1. This know also: that in the last days, perilous times shall come.

Isaiah 53:5. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.

Ezekiel 7:8. Now will I shortly pour out my fury upon thee, and accomplish mine anger upon thee, and I will judge thee according to thy ways, and will recompense thee for all thine abominations.

 

"Well, it ain't a coherent story, we know that," Lindsay said, setting down her pencil. "Each one's pretty well tailored to the place it came from."

"At least the last two are," Gabriel said, peering at the list. "Really, the Isaiah sticks out like a sore thumb. All the others are wrath and destruction, but not that one. There may be something in that."

"It's the only one that didn't come with a body, maybe that's why."

"Technically, the first one didn't come with a body, either."

"Oh. Right. I guess I just figured since it brought us to the bodies, that it . . . counted, I don't know."

Gabriel's frown deepened. "No, I think you've got something there. It's inconsistent. It's more to do with the notes themselves than where we got them from. Almost as though. . . ."

"As though?" Michael prompted.

"As though the point of the murders is to send us more notes," Gabriel said slowly. "But that doesn't make sense, either, because then there's Gruchy's ear to consider."

"Plus, he could just send us notes without killin' anybody," said Lindsay.

"That, as well. We're missing something. His behavior doesn't make sense, which means we're missing something."

"He couldn't just be crazy? Doin' things that don't make no sense 'cuz he's a lunatic?"

"In my experience, lunatics don't have the presence of mind to get away with as many murders as he's carried out. He may be delusional, self-obsessed, and violent, but he's also patient, methodical, and careful. You don't see that in madmen. They haven't got the faculties for it."

"There is no way a sane person could do what all he's done."

"To the contrary, only a sane person could do what he's done. It may not make sense to us, but it's guaranteed that it makes sense to him."

Lindsay fidgeted, but she let it go. "Fine, so I guess we gotta figure out what's goin' through his head. Ain't that gonna be fun."

Both at the same time, Lindsay and Gabriel turned to Michael.

"What the fuck are y'all lookin' at?" he snapped. Gavin flinched and put his ears back. Michael reigned himself in, patting Gavin's flank to reassure him.

"You knew him better than anybody in this room," said Lindsay. "Maybe better than anybody in the world."

"The hell I did."

"Like it or not, Michael, he trusted you."

"He was fuckin' with me, and that's it. It was all bullshit. Never meant a goddamn thing to him."

"For someone who can be so frighteningly perceptive, you really are rather dense sometimes," Gabriel sighed.

"Excuse me?"

"Jones, he's obsessed with you. Lindsay said so from the beginning, and Gruchy worked it out as well. This entire fiasco has revolved around you, because Haywood revolves around you. No one's asking you to feel any particular way about it, but you've got to acknowledge the facts."

"The fact is, all he ever did was fuck around with the workin's in my head, 'cuz he thought it was funny to watch me fuck up!"

Gavin jumped down from Michael's lap and went to sit by Free instead. Michael tried again to tamp down his temper, but it busted out again as soon as Lindsay spoke up.

"He coulda been fuckin' with anybody, Michael, and he picked you."

"Bull-shit, he did it to everybody, I wun't special. Hell, he gave everybody he knew one of them goddamn coats!"

"Not everybody, and nobody who knew what they were. He never confessed to anybody else. Never tried to make a partner outta anybody else, either."

"That's double bullshit. Narvaez!"

"Ray went directly from buddy to body," said Lindsay. "And you can't argue with me about it, 'cuz you weren't there. The way he treated you was different, Michael, and that's God's honest truth. The way he felt about you was different, and I know, 'cuz him and me talked, and him and Jack talked, and Jack and me talked, and we had notes to compare. He felt differently about you than he did about Ray. I can't say as to whether he treated y'all differently, but I know he felt differently."

"He suckered you in," Michael retorted. "Just 'cuz he was playin' a different game don't mean he felt any type of way about it. He was just makin' you feel sorry for him so's he could get away with more shit. So you'd believe him later when he told you I was crazy!"

"For Christ's sake, Michael, the man's an opportunist, not a goddamn psychic! We backed him into a corner and he used whatever he could grab hold of to get back out."

"Oh, you think so? 'Cuz he told me he'd been plannin' it since I got that confession outta him, and Jack told me he'd been feedin' 'em bullshit for months, so you can shut your goddamn mouth about it!"

"And he was infatuated with your dumb ass for the better part of a year before any of that happened! What part of wringin' a confession outta him don't count as backin' him into a corner, you dumb sonnuva bitch?"

"The part where he did it with a gun to my head, you stubborn mule!"

Lindsay opened her mouth. She closed it again. She frowned and shared a glance with Gabriel.

"He what now?" she said.

"Hang on, he was holding a gun to your head while he confessed?" said Gabriel. "Sorry to butt in, I understand you two are having a proper flaming row, but I'm confused."

"Well—thought I told y'all about this already," said Michael, rubbing the arms of his chair. "I confronted him about it after talkin' to some folks who . . . mighta run into him before. In his—y'know, other hat. And then there was a li'l scuffle, and he told me all the shit he'd done, and the next day I got pushed down that damn ravine, so I ain't have no time to think about it, really."

"Purposefully, I suppose," Gabriel said. "It still doesn't make much sense, though. Clearly, he was invested in your knowing the truth, which doesn't mesh well with a later attempt to kill you. Unless he thought better of it."

"Or if he wasn't tryin' to kill him at all," said Lindsay. "But by all rights, Michael should've died. It's a damn miracle he didn't."

"Miracles, I don't know about, but he does have a known association with a being of considerable power who might, given sufficient incentive, be persuaded to carry out something like this."

"Jee-zus, I hadn't even thought of that. Hell of a thing to deal with the Devil over, but it makes a certain kinda sense. Sure put Michael in a position to rely on him, which I guess was what he wanted."

Michael squirmed. "Well, maybe," he said. "Except he ain't the one who pushed me. Turney did."

"Turney?" Lindsay exclaimed. "How the hell do you know it was Turney? Last I heard, you never saw who did it."

"Devil told me," he mumbled.

"Say what?"

"I said the Devil told me. And before you get to jumpin' on that, yes, I'm sure it's true, we had us an arrangement. Hell, I'm pretty sure Ryan figured it out, too, and that's half of why he went and shot her. Other half was prob'ly 'cuz she wouldn't lay offa him or me. He was always gettin' pissed as hell when she . . . got to. . . . And when Trevor. . . ."

The machinery rolled right along, dragging his carefully constructed illusions through its gears and making mincemeat of them.

"Uh-huh?" said Lindsay, fighting down a smile.

"Sonnuva bitch," Michael said faintly.

A month's worth of ignored evidence crashed through his skull. Conversations he'd written off came rushing back full-force, twisted into the light to reveal the scar tissue. The ghosts of heartache past lunged from the darkness, tearing into him with jagged teeth and broken fingers. His head spun. He couldn't catch his breath.

He turned his eyes to the notes, and the message started to come clear.

"Free thought that first one meant he was killin' holy men," he said. The words came slow and sloppy at first, but grew faster, sharper as the picture resolved. "But he ain't kill no holy men 'cuz it was never about that part. All that shit about bein' mighty but not by his own power—he's talking about himself. That's his deal with the Devil. The first thing he puts to our attention is that nobody but himself or God can kill him. Thing two—that's the Timothy one, ain't it?"

"Perilous times, yes," said Gabriel.

"No," said Michael, pointing at her. "In these last days. Why last days?"

"Presumably, because he's going to kill us all, but you seem to have got a different idea."

"I do. Thing three was the ear. With the ear he brings up Jesus—but he ain't talkin' about Gruchy, 'cuz he couldn't give two shits about Gruchy, he's still talkin' about himself. It took him six days to come back from the dead last time, and he made some wisecrack about that makin' him half a messiah, and I figure that's what he's sayin'."

"And then next time he goes takin' words outta God's mouth, uh-huh," said Lindsay.

Michael slapped the arm of his chair hard enough to make Gavin jump up into Free's lap for safety. "Would y'all quit buttin' in with your dumbass bullshit? I ain't done!"

"So get to your point faster, jackass," Lindsay retorted.

"He's callin' himself a martyr, you dense fuckin' cow. Callin' himself a martyr and talkin' about fixin' shit and gettin' my attention back onto that conversation we had. This time he talks about judgin' and gettin' revenge 'cuz he's still pissed off at me. At me, for that one conversation we had. I go last, but the countdown starts at eleven—starts on an odd number, even though if he was gonna kill us all in effy-whatever, it'd have to be even. He brings up the deal, he brings up the time he died already, he brings up the wrath of God. All of that means somethin'. All of that means this ain't just a killin' spree."

"Then what is it?" Gabriel said, like she knew he wanted somebody to ask and was just indulging him.

He sat back in his chair, let out a breath, and said: "It's a suicide plan."

Chapter Text

"You think Haywood's tryin' to kill himself," Lindsay said, looking Michael up and down.

"I'm goddamn sure of it," he said. His machinery was running better than it had in months. He could breathe again. Things were finally making sense.

"Would you care to explain?" Gabriel asked.

"I told him the reason he couldn't kill himself was 'cuz he still hoped I'd give a shit about him someday, and the dumb sonnuva bitch believed me."

"You don't think that's the case?"

He snorted. "Oh, hell no, I was just tryin' to get him to roll over. Figured he'd be easier to handle if he was all in his feelin's about shit—and I was right, up 'til the audience showed up and he decided to start performin' again. Halfway makes me wish I woulda loaded that gun, we might coulda been done with this weeks ago."

"OK," said Lindsay. "So if it is a suicide plan, then—what's that get us? We any closer to findin' him now?"

"Uh," said Michael. He scratched the back of his head. "Well not, y'know, right away closer or nothin'. But I figure it'll be easier now that we know what he's after. Hell, worse comes to worst, I bet I can end the whole thing if I just—"

He mimed putting a gun to his head and pulling the trigger. Lindsay's jaw clenched.

"You won't," she said.

"I said if worse comes to worst."

"And I said: you won't."

"You know," Gabriel said slowly, "that's actually not a terrible idea—let me finish, Lindsay. If Jones is right about Haywood's motivations, then if Haywood believes Jones is already dead, he has no reason to continue with the rest of his killing spree—correct, Mr. Jones?"

"That's what I figure. The way all this is goin', I don't think I could convince him to try offin' himself without me again. He's too pissed off to let it go."

"So the trick becomes convincing Haywood that Jones is dead. Ideally without actually killing him."

"He ain't gonna be easy to convince," said Michael. "You remember what Free said about Gruchy? I'll believe he's dead when I'm holdin' his damn corpse in my arms. I don't guess Haywood would believe it any easier."

Gabriel made a face. Lindsay sat back and folded her hands in her lap.

"Are you startin' to see why this is a dumbass waste of time?" she asked. "Right now, we need to catch him, 'cuz if we don't, more people are gonna die. That's our first priority, and it's gotta stay that way. Now we got a whole 'nother murder's worth of evidence to go through, so I think we'd best get to it. And somebody needs to get Free back."

They all turned to look at him. He was still sitting right where Gabriel had left him, staring straight ahead, expressionless. Gavin had settled down in his lap, industriously licking the London mud off his paws and onto Free's trousers.

"Gabriel?" Michael prompted.

"What?"

"You been hangin' around longer'n any of us. How do you usually get him back?"

"I don't. The only time it happened around me, he came back on his own. Ask Lindsay, she's a doctor."

"I ain't a head-doctor," said Lindsay, wrinkling her nose. "Anyway, Michael got him back last time, he can do it again."

"Dumb luck," said Michael.

"It wasn't."

"Go to hell."

"Michael."

He rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. "Fine, but y'all gotta go in the other room, and it ain't 'cuz I'm embarrassed. It's 'cuz the less crap we're pourin' into his head, the quicker it'll go. Now go on, shoo, go check on that hooker or somethin'."

Lindsay shook her head, getting to her feet. "We gotta start expandin' your vocabulary. If you're gonna be in polite company, you need some politer words."

"He had some fascinatingly vulgar ones back at the scene," said Gabriel, scooting to the edge of her chair with a wince. Lindsay helped her up, as fussy as a mother hen.

"Oh, I'll bet. Speakin' of, though, I think I might need a li'l more thorough description of what all y'all found, if you're up to it. Once we're done checkin' in on Rita, maybe you can give me the low-down."

"I'll do my best, although I didn't exactly take notes."

"Your best is plenty good enough by me."

Still talking, they left the room. Michael waited until he was sure they weren't eavesdropping to turn back to Free because, despite what he'd said, he found the task to be pretty embarrassing.

"Hey," he said. "You in there, or what?"

As expected, there was absolutely no response. Free was pale, swaying ever so slowly with his breathing. His eyes were unfocused, staring out at nothing like—

The stillness and pallor of him, the empty, lifeless glass of his eyes. . . .

Michael clenched his right fist. The pain that shot through his forearm was enough to snap him out of that recollection, although the smell of snow and the creaking echoes of hanging rope lingered.

"You got some Bible verses up in there?" he asked Free. If his voice shook, at least nobody was around to hear it. "How's about uh—shit, I dunno, what all's in there that ain't too fire and brimstone? Uh . . . wellp, why not start at the beginnin'? Let there be light, and all that."

Still, nothing. Gavin had moved on from licking his paws and was now just licking Free's trousers, with the same kind of idle disinterest as an old woman knitting a scarf.

"Too vague, fine," said Michael, desperate for the sound of any living voice, even his own. "Birth of Jesus, that's a good one. Almost Christmas, too. Hey, Free, what book of the Bible is Jesus born in?"

At last, Free started to move, like a music box wound up just enough to make noise. No light came on in his eyes, and his voice was dull and rusty.

"And, lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them," he mumbled, "and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the Angel said unto them: fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy. . . ."

"Yeah, that's the one," said Michael, uncomfortable. "Kinda startin' in the middle, but, uh . . . that's fine. It keeps goin' after that, you got the rest of it in there?"

A thin line appeared between Free's eyebrows. Gavin raised his head and sniffed the air, like he'd caught a whiff of bacon. Free's hands tightened on the upholstery, slowly, but until they were white-knuckled.

"And fear not them which kill the body, but are not able to kill the soul," he whispered. "But rather fear him which is able to kill both soul and body in Hell. Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? And—"

His mouth snapped shut like someone had grabbed his jaw and forced it. Michael's blood ran cold, though his heart was pounding in his chest. Gavin stood up and sniffed around Free's face, his ears laid back, his tail between his legs.

"Free?" Michael said. His voice shook. "Hey, Free, you uh—you OK?"

Free shivered where he sat. He wasn't blinking. He wasn't breathing. Gavin whined and licked his face. Knowing where that tongue had been, Michael took him by the bandanna to pull him out of Free's lap.

A hand flashed up quick as lightning and caught his wrist. Michael yelped. Free's head whipped around at the noise. There was something horrible in the depths of his one real eye, something sharp and dark and transfixing, something that cut off the blood flow to Michael's head the same way Free's grip was strangling his wrist.

"And there was war in Heaven," he said, his voice gone low and threatening. "Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought and his angels—"

"What the fuck are you talkin' about?" Michael said. He jerked his arm back.

And couldn't. Free's grip was a vice, his strength sudden and inhuman. He shook Michael, insistent.

"And prevailed not," he hissed.

"Let go of me!"

He tried again to break loose. Free dug his fingernails in. Michael couldn't look away. His ears rang. It was like falling. He couldn't breathe.

Gavin stuck his head up between the two of them and licked Free's nose. Michael yanked his arm out of Free's grip and backed up out of reach. With a hearty sneeze, Gavin shook himself. Like a candle sheltered from the wind by a cautious hand, Free came back into himself.

"Jones?" he said. He blinked, scrunched up his face, rubbed his glass eye.

"Free?" Michael said again. His hands were shaking, so he clenched them on the wheels of his chair. His right leg worked itself up to a jitter, tight with pain.

"We're . . . flat?" Free mumbled.

"Yeah. Been here a while. Hey, what the fuck was all that?"

"'S all what?"

"Just now! You was talkin' all this shit about—dragons, or some damn thing, I don't fuckin' know."

"I was? I—I s'pose I was. That's . . . odd. Hahah. Nothing to—to worry about, I'm sure, just a . . . just a symptom. Of stress. I'm sure."

His hand snuck to his chest, trembling fingertips pressing into his shirt like they expected to find blood. Gavin wedged his nose under Free's palm, demanding to be petted.

"Oh," Free said faintly. "Hello there, you."

"Don't let him lick you," said Michael.

Free dragged a hand down his face, keeping Gavin at bay with the other hand. Michael fidgeted. He glanced towards the other room. If Lindsay and Gabriel had heard anything, it hadn't worried them enough to get them to come back.

"Are you uh . . . you doin' all right?" Michael asked.

"Not particularly," said Free. "How—how long have I been out?"

"Hell if I know. Maybe an hour or two?"

"Right. Right, all right, that's not so bad. That's much less bad than usual, hahah."

"Damn, what's usual?"

"Half a day or more. Especially with. . . . Where've Gabriel and Tuggey gone off to?"

"Lookin' after that hooker."

"Ah. Still here, is she?"

"Passed out, but yeah, still here. Hey, you ever get to spoutin' weird-ass shit about dragons before, or is that new?"

"Not—I really—I don't think that's the important bit, just now. Wasn't there a murder on?"

"Figured you wouldn't wanna talk about it this soon. Said some shit about angels, too, you remember that?"

Free rubbed his eye again. His face was twisted up with discomfort.

"I'd really rather not talk about any of this, if at all avoidable."

"All right, just one more, then. This might be a real dumbass question, but are you sure you ain't still possessed?"

Free swallowed. He looked down at himself and blew out a shaky breath. He worried Gavin's ear between his fingers.

"I'm sure," he said. "I don't know what this was, but it wasn't . . . that. It wasn't that. I'm sure."

Michael shrugged. "If you say so, pal."


 

Almost twenty-four hours had passed with no sign of Haywood.

Within the first eight, Dan had given up on him coming back. His strength had already been waning, and so he'd cut his losses and tried everything he could to get free. He'd fished the needles out of the medical supplies Haywood had abandoned by the breakfast table, and had broken all of them trying to pick the locks on his shackles. He'd re-dislocated his wrist trying to pull the wall mountings out. He'd smashed four of the teacups and used the porcelain shards to carve at the wall itself until his fingers bled. He'd scraped most of the skin off his heels and the tops of his feet trying to slip loose. He'd shouted until his voice died. He'd broken the chair apart and bashed at his chains with the legs of it, knowing it was stupid and futile and useless, until exhaustion overtook him and he could fight no more.

While dressing his own wounds, so starving and thirsty and pained that he couldn't see straight, he'd found the bottle of sherry amongst Haywood's other disinfectants.

The rain had picked back up, filling the cups on the table through the leaky roof, so he wouldn't have to worry as much about dehydration. Sherry had a lot of sugar in it, which would help to keep him from starving, and it would numb some of the pain. There was also laudanum—more than enough laudanum to kill him stone-dead if he took all of it. Better that he not risk taking any. His head was so foggy by then that he was practically already drunk—he was still dizzy all the time, still nauseous, still struggling to focus his eyes and collect his thoughts. It had occurred to him, in a vague sort of way, that drinking might exacerbate whatever was wrong with his head. He'd pretended it hadn't occurred to him and carried on regardless. He wasn't trying to die. He would never try to die, especially not here, especially not now.

It was just that he was going to die anyway, and the room reeked of piss and shit and sick and sweat, and his wounds were going to get infected and there was no hope of escape and if he happened to drown at the bottom of a bottle of sherry, it would at least be quicker than starving to death.

Lying face-down on his hard little mattress, soaking his limp little pillow with tears, his good hand wrapped round the half-empty sherry bottle, Dan had to wonder why he'd ever thought it would end differently. He was a useless wreck, always had been, always would be. Anyone who'd ever had faith in him, who'd ever trusted him, was a fool—a damn fool. They probably weren't even looking for him anymore. They were probably better off without him. He'd blown any chance he had of changing Haywood's mind, of changing anything about this mess. It was all set in stone. Haywood might as well have carved it in stone, instead of scribbling it on the wall with chalk. Dan couldn't change it now. He couldn't save anyone, couldn't fix it, couldn't stop it.

But, he realized, in the bleary and inevitable way of the extremely drunk, that he could break it.

Thoughts sloshed through his head, soupy and sea-sick. It would be easy. It would be quick. It would be painless. He dragged himself out of bed. He pulled himself an arm's length along the floor. A shock of pain lanced up his right arm. He couldn't be bothered to care about it. What did a little pain matter to him now? It was all temporary. It was all going to stop. He was going to make it stop, at least in the microcosm of Dan. If nothing else, he could save himself.

For a given value of save.

He let his throbbing head fall and bit back sobs. What about Gav? He couldn't leave Gav. But what was the use, when he was going to die anyway? He couldn't stop Haywood now. He was going to die in this horrible little room, one way or another, so he might as well make it easy and quick and painless.

"Easy," he mumbled, dragging himself another arm's length. Blood smeared on the floor behind him, seeping from the ruin of his feet.

"Quick," he sighed. Another arm's length. His shrunken stomach lurched. His blood was like syrup in his veins.

"Painless," he promised himself. Another arm's length. He couldn't raise his head. He couldn't focus his eyes. He found the bag by feel alone.

"Easy," he panted, fumbling through it. "Quick. Painless."

His fingers brushed cold glass. He pulled the bottle out, squinted at it until he could see the brown liquid inside. Liquid death, right there in the palm of his hand. A plunge into the welcoming darkness, and then. . . .

Well. There wasn't much doubt or much hope over where he'd end up.

He fumbled with the cap, weeping. His mantra failed him, scattered like dust across the turbulent waters of his mind. He didn't need to think about it—better that he not think about it—better that he just take the plunge and let it be done—

Somebody took his hand.

Blearily, he looked up. All he could make out was a slender White face. The laudanum was pulled from his fingers.

"No," he begged, clawing to get it back. "No, please, no—"

"I'm sorry, Dan," Haywood said softly. "Not yet. It ain't your time yet."

With the last sliver of strength he had left, Dan screamed and swung the bottle of sherry at Haywood's head. Haywood caught it effortlessly, then took that away from him, too.

"I know," he murmured. "I know. But you'll think better of it once you're sober."

If anything happened after that, Dan never remembered it.


 

When Dan came to, the sun was up, and his wounds were bandaged, and he was so sick he wished he was dead. The first thing he did on regaining consciousness was roll over and throw up. Within moments, Haywood was there with a bucket and a damp cloth to clean it up.

"Mornin', Dan," he said. "Don't guess you're feelin' any—"

Dan grabbed him by the hair and yanked on him. He didn't have the strength to do much other than pull Haywood's head to an awkward angle.

"You bitch," he slurred. "You fucking bitch, you—you—how dare you come back here, how dare you—how dare you. . . ."

"Let go of me, Dan," Haywood said gently.

Dan shook him. "I'll kill you. I'll kill you, how could you—?"

"Daniel, let go. You ain't thinkin' straight, and it's fixin' to get you in trouble."

"In trouble? When you left me here to fucking rot, when you—when you—you had the gall to stop me, when you left me here!"

"I ain't mean for it to happen this way, Dan. I lost track of time. I'm gone do my level best to minimize your discomfort from here on. Can't do too much if you won't let go, though."

Dan chewed his tongue, struggled to get his breath. Haywood took his wrist and extracted himself. Dan yanked his hand back and shied away until he found the wall.

"Much obliged," Haywood said, and got back to cleaning up the mess on the floor.

"Don't pretend you didn't mean to," Dan said. As the words came out, a messy, sleepy part of his brain informed him that they were probably a bad idea.

"I didn't," said Haywood, eyes on his work.

"Did. You did, too. After—after—it's 'cos you decided I deserved it, after—"

"After?" Haywood said quietly.

Whatever part of Dan was determined to keep living, however small it was, it managed to keep the rest of him from saying anything else.

Chapter Text

It took about four cups of tea for Free to collect himself, and Michael took the time to think his way through what he'd decided to refer to as Number Eight. It was easier, anyway, than thinking of it as Lindsay. Dawn came, bringing noise and light and the gray exhaustion of a sleepless night. Lindsay and Gabriel took it upon themselves to figure out what to do with Rita, who was still passed out in the other room. Eventually, they decided that when she woke up, they'd give her as much cash as they could spare and let her decide what she'd prefer to do with it.

"That ain't gonna go too far towards keepin' her safe," Michael said.

"We know," said Lindsay. "If she wants to stay here, we'll figure out a way to keep her, but—" She shrugged.

"She may not want to stay, and that's her choice," said Gabriel. "The best we can do is give her the tools to take care of herself and minimize her association with us. We aren't a safe place in all this."

"I'd appreciate it if we could keep her long enough for a few questions," said Free, setting his teacup down. "If she can remember where he picked her up, we can find out if anyone there saw where he came from. Although it . . . might not be wise to go anywhere right away. Fool me once, all of that."

"Do you think your friend at the coroner's can get us a report on this one, as well?" Gabriel asked.

"Hopefully, but it'll take some time. Anyway, there's very little hope of anyone being able to work out who she was. Er . . . speaking of which, I don't suppose the two of you noticed anything helpful at the scene?"

"You don't remember any of it?" Michael asked.

"Nothing from about—oh, ten seconds after seeing the body to reciting Bible verses here. The camera can't capture and project at the same time. But you found something?"

Michael gestured to Gabriel, who described the mutilations in much cleaner language than he could muster. She handed the narrative back to him when it came time to go through Haywood's actual involvement at the scene and the interpretation of what the various notes meant. Free listened quietly the whole time, frowning in some places and nodding along in others. He picked up the paper with all four verses on it and looked it over when Michael had finished speaking.

"Dr. Tuggey," he said, like he was making a decision.

"Mm-hm?"

"Was Haywood ever—for lack of a better word—interested in you?"

"Never, praise be to God."

"And were you ever interested in him?"

"Hell no."

He scrunched up his nose. "It doesn't make sense," he muttered, his eye flicking over the words.

"That's what I been sayin'," said Michael. "Some of it makes some more sense, now we know he's plannin' to die at the end of it, but this one in particular is screwy."

"You never made any unwanted advances?" Free asked.

"Who, me?" said Lindsay. "Never made any advances at all. He ain't my type. Closest we ever got was both havin' a candle lit for Michael."

"Jealousy. . . ." Free said, rolling the world around his mouth. He spat it out and shook his head. "No, that's not it. This is—this is certainly screwy. God, I wish Dan were here, he'd have it in a heartbeat. Did Haywood have a particular hatred for women? Either of you, if you had opportunity to notice. Or Gabriel, if you noticed anything whilst he was being Cas—Dubois."

Gabriel shook her head, making a helpless expression, and gestured to Lindsay.

"Not that I saw, either," she said. "Couple women in particular who got up under his skin—or—you know what I meant. But on the whole, he never seemed to mind 'em. Michael, you see anythin' different?"

"Not all that different," he said. "There was . . . somethin', though. Turney, she was one of those women who got to him. He—maybe I'm rememberin' this wrong, I don't know. . . ."

"No no, go on," said Free, giving his full attention. Michael fidgeted and blew out a breath.

"Wellp, as I recall it, he usually only got to threatenin' violence when violence was already on the table, if you get what I mean. Couple times when it was just me and him were—but other'n that, unless somebody was shootin' or threatenin' to shoot, or I guess there was one time with Risinger—anyhow, point is, she came onto him and he pulled a gun on her. She turned herself on me and he bashed her head on the wall and just about put a knife in her back. Called her Jezebel or some shit likkat. And then the next time she tried it on him, he uh . . . followed through. I guess."

"So he didn't have a problem with women unless they were making advances, would that be fair to say?"

"It mighta just been Turney, I don't know. Never saw any other women try and put the moves on him."

"I did," said Lindsay. "But none of the others were stubborn enough or dumb enough to try it twice. He made it plenty clear that it wasn't appreciated."

"And Turney," Free pressed. "He just shot her, is that correct? In front of a load of witnesses, yes, but there was nothing more to it than that?"

"Yeah, 'cuz of the witnesses. I don't know if it woulda been different if they hadn't been there."

"Presumably," Gabriel said slowly, "the witnesses could have been avoided. Couldn't they?"

"I guess," said Michael. "But it was his idea to have 'em be there anyhow. If he'd wanted to take his time, he coulda let her run and caught up with her . . . later . . . so why in the hell—?"

Free made a satisfied little noise and sipped his tea.

"You seem like you've worked something out," Gabriel said.

"Possibly. It's nowhere near certain yet."

"Not a damn thing is," said Michael. "Spit it out."

Free's confidence shrank down like a tortoise into its shell. He glanced around the room, fidgeting. Gavin came over to see what was wrong (or possibly to see if Free's tea was up for grabs).

"Well—it's speculative, really, speculative at best. I don't know that it's at all worth acting upon, and honestly it might point us in entirely the wrong direction—"

"If it's dumb, I'll tell you so. Spit it out."

"Look, I really don't—"

"You wanna play on this team, Free, or you wanna see how long it takes you to find Gruchy all on your lonesome?"

It was a low blow, but it had the intended effect. Free winced and bit his lip.

"I think our latest body may have been an accident," he said, "and Haywood might be trying to pass it off as purposeful 'cos he doesn't want us to know he's slipping."

"Your definition of the word accident must be different to mine," Gabriel said distastefully.

"No, it's not that he didn't mean to kill her, obviously he meant to kill her, but—I don't think he meant to kill her, if you understand."

"He had somebody else picked out for Number Eight," Michael said, as the gears meshed in his head. "But somethin' happened and he killt this lady instead. He fucked up his plan, then had to scramble to fix it up."

"Which may explain both the additional mutilations and the—well, the fact that he waited about for you in person. That's idiotically risky on his part."

"Hell, 'cuz he had to make sure we knew it was for Lindsay."

"Exactly."

"And it was even more fucked up than last time, 'cuz he really din't want us lookin' too close."

"Yes, exactly!"

Gavin barked, hopping up and landing in a bow. Michael caught him before he dashed all the way around the room, although he couldn't stop him from knocking over a stack of newspapers on the table.

"Are we certain this isn't just more misdirection?" Gabriel asked, keeping one wary eye on Gavin.

Free's excitement evaporated on the instant. "No, not at all. I did say it wasn't at all certain. Ordinarily I wouldn't have said anything, but—well, if Haywood is slipping, if he's . . . becoming less in control of himself, that begins to look very poorly for Dan very rapidly. I'm holding on to the hope that whatever knocked him loose was something Dan can't replicate."

"Somethin' like hatin' women?" Lindsay asked.

"Ideally, something like that, yes. But judging by what you and Jones have said, I suspect that what we're dealing with here is something very similar to what happened with Turney. He could have taken his time. He didn't—until after she was already dead. It was vital to him that he kill her right away, and maybe it was even more vital that he not be left alone with her. Did you notice the blood on the trees?"

"He killt her there," said Michael.

"Yes!"

Gavin jumped up and barked again. Gabriel flinched back in her chair. Free pressed his fingertips to his mouth, wincing.

"Sorry, sorry, shh, Gavvy-boy, steady on! Sorry, didn't mean to get him all—"

Michael reeled Gavin in as he tried to get loose. Gavin wriggled and whined. Michael mashed him up against his legs and held him there.

"Cut it out, you're scarin' folks," he said. Gavin whined some more, but eventually gave up and wilted.

"Thank you," said Gabriel. "As to the victim: it's also possible Haywood set up the scene, the same way he did at the church."

"There's nothing to suggest he didn't kill the first three in the church, either," Free said. "Just that he set up the scene afterwards. He'd have to have some sort of secondary location, abduct them to there, kill them, then bring the bodies back and mutilate them. You at least have to agree that the mutilations were done on-site."

"It's difficult to imagine how he'd manage otherwise," Gabriel admitted. "But we know he's got a secondary location, because he's got to be keeping Gruchy somewhere. Jones, correct me if I'm wrong, but Haywood doesn't seem the sort to mind having an audience."

"Oh God, no," Free whispered. He put a hand over his mouth, like the words had slipped loose without his consent and he was keeping the rest in by force. A twinge shot through Michael's chest.

"Simplest idea is that he sets 'em up where he kills 'em," he said. "'Specially in this case. That body couldn'ta been there more'n a few hours, otherwise the cops woulda got to it already."

"Right, yes, my thinking exactly," said Free, with considerable relief. "It was an isolated spot in a public place. The sort of spot our friend Rita thought might be used for illicit outdoor trysts. I think—and I've really got to stress how speculative this is—I think this woman may have been another prostitute. They can get very pushy, especially round the gambling dens. Maybe she pushed him just a little too hard, and he . . . snapped."

A shiver raced through Lindsay. "Jesus," she said.

"Leastways, you won't have to worry about Gruchy doin' that," said Michael. Gavin made another bid to get loose, and Michael mashed him again. "Hey, quit."

"That's just the thing, though," said Free, winding his fingers together in his lap. "Dan . . . Dan, though I love him dearly, is not very smart. And while I'm certain he won't be making any advances, he can get pushy sometimes, especially where torture is concerned—"

"You don't say," said Michael.

Free ignored him. "And he's got a lot more chances to get it wrong than this woman did."

"What do you think his odds are?" Gabriel asked, somber. "Of getting it wrong."

"Oh, a hundred percent," said Free. Something not completely unlike a smile chased across his face. "A stopped clock's only right twice a day, after all."


 

Contrary to what Dan would have expected—or even believed possible—Haywood was in a better mood than he'd been in before the Devil showed up. There was a fresh bruise on the side of his face, cat-scratches on the backs of his hands, and his limp was a little more pronounced, but none of it seemed to bother him. He was exceedingly patient with Dan's half-drunken outbursts, and spent most of the morning and afternoon cleaning the little room until it gleamed. When Dan had stopped throwing up quite so much, he brought toast with jam, and a whole pot of tea to go with it. By then, Dan was sober enough to have a proper conversation, and curious enough that he could no longer keep his mouth shut.

"You seem. . . ." he said, and immediately lost his confidence.

"Hm?" Haywood prompted, half-turning from where he was scraping old porridge off the wall.

"Er—if I had to put a word to it, perhaps—well? You seem well."

Haywood shrugged. "I been worse."

"I don't s'pose you'd tell me where you went off to."

"Not in any great detail, though a person might think it wouldn't be that hard to figure out."

Dan knocked—gently, very gently—on the side of his own head. "Not for most," he said.

The corner of Haywood's mouth curled up. He turned his eyes back to his work. "Most likely better that way, anyhow."

A little lead weight descended into Dan's stomach and dragged it down. He glanced at the drawing on the far wall, at Haywood and his new bruises, at the assortment of sharp implements on the table. It might have just been his imagination, but he fancied there were fewer of them than the last time he'd taken inventory.

"Oh," he said.

"Told you it wasn't that hard to figure out," said Haywood.

"Should I ask?"

"You can, if you want, but you might not like th' answers."

Against his better judgement, he asked: "Who was it?"

"Nobody in particular," said Haywood, shrugging. "Whoever she was, she ain't one anymore."

"Christ alive," Dan muttered. "I thought—I thought you only killed criminals. Wasn't that. . . ?"

"Oh, she was a criminal, too, don't you worry none," Haywood said, a sickening reassurance. "Saw firsthand multiple instances of thievin', gamblin', and prostitution."

"And that's a capitol offense, is it? In your—in your hideous little world, that's worth killing for?"

Haywood turned an astonished face on him, all the more galling for being sincere. "Lord have mercy, Dan, no. That only sufficed to get my attention. I didn't kill her 'til she told me 'bout the li'l boys she was whorin' out on the side."

"She told you that, did she?" Dan sneered, unable to bite back his disgust any longer. "Just volunteered that conveniently damning information of her own free will?"

"Sure, Dan. Why, I can get anybody to tell me anythin', if I so put my mind to it."

"Frankly, that's complete bollocks, and you know it," he said.

"Oh?"

"I've known a dozen men like you, all—all braggadocio and no facts. The torturers in our regiment thought they could get confessions, too, only all the information they ever got was so wildly inaccurate that it was useless, and three-quarters of their victims never confessed at all and they made it up whole-cloth. You can't get proper confessions by torturing people. Human minds don't work when they're in pain."

Haywood adopted an odd look, somewhere between amused and pitying.

"You seem to have somewhere acquired an incorrect impression of my methodology," he said. "The confessin' comes ahead of the torture, not th' other way around."

"Does it?"

"Oh, sure. I don't know how I'd live with myself if I did harm to somebody who ain't confessed themselves to me. Any ole fool can hurt somebody. Takes a consummate professional to get into their good graces first."

"Yes yes, clever you. I note your methodology seems to have fallen apart when it comes to me."

"Dan honey, you confessed yourself to me eight months ago," Haywood said, patronizing. "I know a good many women who'd buy me a drink if I told 'em I'd cut th' ear off a drunk who beat his wife and child. Good many more who'd ask me why I chose an appendage so far above the belt. Now I know you and me never was all that friendly, but it seems we got close enough."

"Were you always planning this?" Dan asked, struggling for breath, fighting to keep his voice level. "Right from the start, was this what you had in mind?"

Haywood wrinkled his nose. "Never hurts to have a li'l leverage on hand. I don't know that I planned to do anythin' with it, nor even that I planned to get ahold of it. But I ain't one to look a gift hoss in the mouth, and since you were courteous enough to provide th' information, I figured I might as well use it."

"You know, I'm beginning to see where Jones was coming from, with that lack of human decency bit."

"Only just now? Colour me impressed."

Dan bit his tongue. As enticing as vitriol was, as good as it might feel to rip into Haywood with everything he had, it wouldn't do him any favours in the long run. If he wanted to keep from losing any more appendages, he had to keep his head first and foremost—especially since it was already a bit wobbly.

So he said: "I'm also beginning to see why you think you deserved what Jones did to you."

Haywood stiffened.

"Ain't no think about it, Dan," he said. There was an edge to his voice. Dan set himself against his spine and pushed on, watching for the cracks in the dam, the trickles of suppressed fury that might signal an impending collapse.

"I'm sure it's comforting to believe that," he said. "After all, if you deserved it, you don't have to come to terms with how pointlessly cruel it was."

"I thought I told you," Haywood said, like the thunder of a distant flood, "not to talk about Michael with me."

"Fine, let's not talk about Jones. Let's just talk about the pertinent bit. I think we've had this conversation before, haven't we? In Paris. C'est impossible de mériter être torturé."

Haywood ground his teeth. His hand was white-knuckled on the hilt of his knife.

"Not ringing any bells?" Dan pressed. "You had plenty to say about it then."

"I don't speak it anymore," Haywood said quietly.

Dan blinked. The constant spinning of his head made it hard to catch his balance. "You what?"

"I don't speak French anymore." Each word came through his lips like thorns plucked out by shaking hands.

"But—wait, hang on, how? I mean to say, you were fluent not six months ago, I don't understand—"

"I got Michael back," said Haywood, with such venom, such pain, that it cut right through Dan's armour. "So I lost everythin' that I traded for him. The fortune, the friends, the livin' arrangements. The language. The hand. All of it. All of it, for nothin'. All of it, gone, just to be told—"

He broke off, clenched his teeth on whatever words were coming after. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly, tapping the hilt of his knife as quick as a woodpecker. His fist clenched, flexed, relaxed again.

"That bein' the case," he said, as calm and collected as if the outburst had never occurred, "I'd be very much obliged if you could refrain from speakin' French to me."

"All right," said Dan, fighting against the rising swell of pity in his chest. "I'll refrain. In Paris, you told me you'd been tortured. I said you hadn't deserved it, and you—"

"It was Marseilles. Not Paris."

"Right. Er . . . right. But you never told me why you thought you'd deserved it."

"Ain't terrible difficult to figure out, Dan. A person might get th' impression you already figured it out, and you're just askin' dumb questions to try and make this a conversation, instead of what it properly is, which is you runnin' your mouth."

"I think you've underestimated how dumb I am," said Dan. "'Cos, the only thing I can think of is that—well, you think that all the killing and torturing you've done makes you deserve to be tortured. But that still doesn't make sense to me. You seem—and correct me if I'm wrong—you seem to believe that what you're doing is just. Or at least justified. So then why would you deserve retribution for it?"

Haywood turned a smile on him that was so sharp it could've cut through bone unhindered.

"Since you are so dumb, Dan, I'll lend a li'l assistance: now would be the time to stop talkin'."

"'Cos what it looks like to me is guilt," Dan said anyway. "You've placed yourself into the same category as your victims, and—"

"Daniel," Haywood said sweetly, "if you say one more goddamn word, I am gonna cut your tongue out."

In a split second, Dan weighed his odds, and found that the balance was no longer on his side. He shut his mouth. Better to let the words he'd already said take root. Too much tending would spoil the crop.

"Sagacity at last," said Haywood, smiling and hateful. "All this does remind me that I got other business t' attend to. Try not to get bored to death up here; it'd be mighty inconvenient."

Still, Dan held his tongue. With a derisive huff, Haywood dropped his cleaning supplies and headed for the door. He stopped in front of the sketch on the wall, took out his knife, and carved a sharp slash through one of the two letter L's.

Dan waited until the knife was back in its sheath to fire his parting shot.

"You can stop," he said.

Haywood paused, standing in the doorway. He didn't look back, but he was listening.

"You haven't got to live like this," Dan went on, certain that he was going to be shot at any moment. "I know it seems impossible to escape, impossibly bleak and painful to give it up, but—it hasn't got to be. You can stop."

Without responding, without a backward glance, Haywood walked out.

Chapter Text

Despite how fresh the horror of the latest murder was in all their minds, and the growing sense of dread over Gruchy's fate, there was nothing to do but keep working. Morning wore on towards noon, the mail came, and hungry stomachs were filled with whatever they could scrounge from the dwindling pantry. The morning newspapers were plastered with the story of Number Eight, shouting the gory sensation of it in letters so big and bold that even Michael had little trouble reading them. Free took this as confirmation that whoever the victim was, she hadn't been affiliated with the police—otherwise, her death would have been as hushed up as the first three.

Gabriel had taken out a big map of London (part of London, she kept insisting) and marked the church, the park, the office, and the flat. When Rita finally woke up, just after one o'clock, she was able to tell them enough about the place Ryan had picked her up that Free figured out where it was. Afterwards, Michael gave her the purse he'd compiled. She took one look inside, stuffed it into her cleavage, and took off without so much as a goodbye.

"How much was that?" Free asked.

"A hunnert dol—well, pounds, I guess," said Michael.

"Christ alive, no wonder!"

"Figure it's enough to get her set up?" he asked, avoiding looking at anybody.

"I think it's a generous sum, even under the circumstances," said Gabriel.

"Yeah, well. Rich as hell, all that, can we get back to work?"

And so back to work they got, connecting the marks on the map, discussing the extent of Ryan's area of operations, and figuring as best they could when and where he'd pop up next. They still didn't know where the first three bodies had been taken from, but since they were all from the same precinct and two of them were partners, Gabriel said it was likely they'd been out drinking together and Ryan had caught up with them then.

"Sensible, it would explain how he was able to handle three able-bodied men by himself," said Free, scratching his chin. He glanced at Michael. "Er—no offense, of course."

"Gee, thanks for pointin' out how offensive that ain't," Michael drawled. "Otherwise I mighta been offended."

"Sorry."

"It'd make this the second time he started with a bar," said Lindsay, before they could get any deeper into it.

"Then maybe we were closer than we thought, with the Maiden's Head," said Gabriel. She offered the pencil to Free. "How far is it from where he picked up Rita?"

Free took the pencil and placed the point on the map. The spot was far outside the triangle of marked sites, down near the curve in the Thames river. Gabriel wrinkled her nose.

"OK, never mind," she said.

"It was a good thought," said Lindsay. "We'll mark it anyhow."

Free did so, then stuck the pencil in his mouth and gnawed on it. His eye flicked over the map, caught on something, stilled. He whipped the pencil out of his mouth and shook in in the air.

"Gabriel, d'you remember where you got shot?" he asked.

"I couldn't tell you exactly, but I know it wasn't more than a few streets from Bishopsgate, and on the way to the Gazette."

Free tapped a spot on the map. "Here, maybe?"

"Thereabouts."

He circled the area and tapped it again. "He didn't want you going past here," he said. "'Cos you were getting outside his area of comfort. I'd be willing to bet he hung about 'til Dan came back, rather than following the whole way."

"Or, possibly, he just wanted to keep away from the crowds at Bishopsgate," said Gabriel.

Free wrinkled his nose. "Maybe. Jones, what d'you think?"

"Hell if I know. That whole business ain't like him."

"Are we sure it was Haywood, then?" said Lindsay. "Ain't like we're awful short on enemies. Coulda been somebody from the party, maybe. Or one of those cult folks, they got somethin' of a grudge against y'all."

"And then Haywood just happened to take Dan afterwards?" Free asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Could be. He's an opportunist. Maybe he was waitin' around for somethin' like that to happen. Hell, are we sure Haywood's even the one who's got Gruchy?"

"Yes, 'cos it was his handwriting on the note that came with Dan's ear. The simplest explanation is that Haywood's behind it, and until I've seen any evidence to the contrary, that's the supposition I'm working on."

"All right, OK, no need to get snappy," said Lindsay, raising her hands. Michael decided not to mention how Ryan had practically admitted to shooting Gabriel; the point was already made.

"It was a reasonable thought," Gabriel said. "And we shouldn't discount it entirely. It's possible Haywood isn't the only force at play here, and if he isn't, we need to be prepared."

Free let out a breath. "Right. That's fair. Now—Jones, what might cause Haywood to do something so uncharacteristic?"

"Bein' in a hurry," said Michael. "I'm sure he woulda liked to wait around for Gruchy to wind up on his lonesome naturally, but he couldn't spare the time for it. Had to get it done quick as possible to make sure you din't have time to get close to catchin' him."

"Needn't have bothered," Free muttered. He cleared his throat and shook himself. "Still. At the very least, we know he's avoiding populated areas. Victoria Park was pretty well deserted, St. Michael's was closed for renovations, and he took his pot-shot at Gabriel on a relatively quiet street, whilst she and Dan were on the way to much busier ones. So that's—Gabriel, write this down would you? Write down secluded."

Lindsay got up before Gabriel could. While she hunted for a pen and paper, Michael asked, "Cain't you just make a list in your head?"

"Can you photograph an imaginary list?" Free retorted. "No, don't be stupid."

Michael rolled his eyes. "Jesus, take the bugs outta your asshole."

"All right, secluded, got it," Lindsay said, making a big show out of writing it down. "Anythin' else?"

"Jones is a twat," said Free.

"Oh, go to hell."

"Write it down, Jones is a twat, I mean it."

"Least I ain't a goddamn—"

"Children, a woman is dead," said Gabriel. Both of them folded their arms and sat back.

"Pubs," Free mumbled, rubbing his glass eye. "Write down pubs, as well."

Lindsay did. "How 'bout in a hurry, does that go on there, too?"

"Yes, that's fine."

"One thing we ought to consider," Gabriel said, "is where exactly Haywood went off the rails—if we're continuing under the assumption that he did."

"I reckon we haven't got much of a choice," said Free. He pulled himself together and sat up straight. "But you're right. If this whole excursion was off the rails, we'll have to take that into account. Not necessarily discard anything we find, but consider it separately."

"Either way, he got back on those rails at the end," Michael said. "And I'm willin' to bet he started on 'em, too. Even at his most fucked up, his temper never ran away with him more'n a couple minutes at a time. Hell, he held off on killin' Turney for weeks, 'til he had him a good enough excuse to show for Geoff and them."

Free chewed his lip, wrinkled his nose, and turned to Michael with the air of someone edging up to a cliff face.

"If you had to take a guess at how it went," he said, "what would you guess?"

"You askin' me for speculations now?"

"We haven't got much else, so yes."

"Huh. Wellp, way I see it, he prob'ly set out to get his doctor or whoever, all to plan. Somethin' happened, though, and he couldn't find the sonnuva bitch—and since he's in such a big damn hurry, that wound him up real good."

"Plus, I bet he wasn't countin' on how much work it is to look after somebody," said Lindsay. "Even bare minimum, just makin' sure Gruchy gets fed and watered, that's three or four hours a day. Double that if he's keepin' the room clean and providin' any kind of medical care—which if he's tryin' to have Gruchy survive long enough to kill him later, he's gonna have to."

"Did we ever come to any sort of consensus about where his secondary location might be?" Gabriel asked. "Because it seems to me that might be an excellent place to start."

"We're already fuckin' started, would y'all let me finish?" Michael snapped. "One goddamn thing at a time."

"Just 'cuz you're havin' fun takin' a ramble through Haywood's head don't mean it's any use," Lindsay retorted.

Michael reddened. Free held up a hand before he could start yelling. Gavin came oozing out from under the coffee table, his nose twitching, his ears laid back.

"I did ask him," said Free, "and I would like the full answer. I promise we'll come back to the secondary location business if this goes nowhere. Word for word where we left off."

Lindsay pursed her lips and shook her head, but didn't say anything. Gabriel exchanged a look with her that spoke volumes.

"Please continue, Jones," Free said, gesturing to him.

Michael rubbed the arms of his chair. Gavin came the rest of the way out from under the coffee table, shook himself, and stuck his head under one of Michael's hands.

"Yeah yeah," said Michael. "So Ry—so Haywood's feelin' pressed as hell, wound up too tight to breathe, and then this h—uh, this lady puts just a li'l extra squeeze on, and that's it. He needs to kill somebody, she's makin' herself objectionable, and he figures—wellp, she'll do. Takes her out for a walk in the park like he did Rita, slits her throat, gets to work."

"It doesn't explain the extra mutilations," said Gabriel. "Unless we assume those were directed at Lindsay, the way the St. Michael's bodies were directed at you and Free and Gruchy."

Lindsay shook her head. "The skinnin', that was at me. Hangin' her up like that, takin' off the ribs and pullin' out the guts, that was at me. The rest is . . . somethin' else."

"You're certain?" Gabriel asked. "The mutilations couldn't have been a reference to certain other genital mutilations he might have known about?"

Lindsay flinched. She rubbed her arm and looked someplace else.

"I . . . guess they coulda been," she said. "I don't know."

"I don't think that's how he woulda made that point, if he was aimin' to make it," said Michael. "And I don't think he was aimin' to make it, neither. He seemed pretty well convinced that Risinger got what was comin' to him."

"This is all very fascinating, but it's rather a bit off the rails," Free said around the pencil, which he'd stuck back in his mouth. "He had the spot in the park picked out. If Jones is right, he must've had the spot picked out. It's not a quick thing, is it, doing that to someone. And he was planning on doing it—thank you for your input, Dr. Tuggey—at least the properly time-consuming bits. Not to mention the clean—"

He stopped abruptly. He snatched the map towards him, biting down on the pencil so hard the wood cracked. He slapped the table.

"Naked!" he cried. Gavin jumped about a yard straight up in the air and came down barking.

"What?" said Lindsay, while Michael fought to get Gavin back under control.

"The bodies have all been naked, what is he doing with the clothes?"

Gabriel put a hand to her head. "Dumping them in the river, of course. Or—St. Michael's is right next to a wharf, and the spot in Victoria Park is—"

"Right next to a pond, that's the criterion, that's how we find him. Secluded, on the water, within walking-distance of a pub 'cos you know he's not taking a bloody cab when the driver might remember him."

"Yeah, well hang on, don't get too excited," said Lindsay. "There's still prob'ly more than one place like that. Are we gettin' help, or are you plannin' on splittin' us up? 'Cuz either way, I get the feelin' somebody's gonna get shot, if we try and catch him in the act. Not to mention the victim, whatever might be happenin' to them."

"That's just the thing: we won't have to!" Free exclaimed. "'Cos of Gavin. If Haywood's picking out his spots beforehand, and they're not well-trafficked, Gavin ought to be able to smell him all over. And if his reaction to Rita is anything to go by, he'll let us know. Then we'll know where he's coming back to, and we can catch him without anyone getting hurt!"

"It's not the worst plan I've ever heard," Gabriel said. "Provided Jones is on board."

Michael chewed on it, while Gavin wriggled and huffed and basked in the spotlight. He couldn't say he liked it, but he couldn't think of any real objections to it, either. He tugged on Gavin's ear to get his attention.

"Whatcha think, buddy?" he asked. "You wanna go sniff the sonnuva bitch out?"

Gavin put his ears back and licked Michael's face, knocking damn near everything off the table with the furious wagging of his tail.

"That looks like a yes," said Free.

"He's just excited 'cuz I got in his face, that's it," said Michael, straightening up. Gavin slipped out of his grasp and went charging around the room. "But fine, whatever, I guess we'll do it."

Free rubbed his hands together and grinned. "Right! So, first thing's first: let's pick out our spots. . . ."


 

Throughout that afternoon and all of the following morning, the five of them went tooling around on a backroads tour of London. The whole city was done up in cheery colors and shiny tinsel for Christmas, which made the hidden, ugly spots even uglier by comparison. Each location was more or less secluded, from hidden places in public parks to abandoned buildings to back alleys enclosed by dead-ends on all sides. Each of them was walking-distance from a bar and within a hundred yards of a body of water, whether that be a canal or a pond or a cesspit. Each was slimier, smellier, and shittier than the last.

Gavin was having the time of his little life.

It had been a long while since he'd been allowed to sniff around to his heart's content, and never anywhere as fascinatingly stinky as London. Being slightly removed from the crowds put the spring back in his step and the wag back in his tail. The constant attention from Michael, Free, and Lindsay didn't hurt, either. Michael resolved to make sure Gavin got more time outside, no matter what it took, no matter what became of the rest of them. Just because the people were all caught up in their nonsense didn't mean the dog should have to suffer for it.

"I'm beginning to think this was an enormous waste of time," Free sighed, twenty minutes into their sixth location of the second day—a nook tucked away under a bridge over the canal, plastered with decades of vandalism but currently uninhabited.

"Yeah, well," said Michael. Gavin was industriously digging up and eating a treasure-trove of cat poop. Michael tugged on his bandanna half-heartedly. "Hey, c'mon now, you're on the clock, partner."

"If nothing else, we've at least set eyes on a good many candidate sites," Gabriel said. All the running around had taken an even bigger toll on her than on Michael. Although she'd held up well for yesterday's excursion, she'd spent the last three sites today sitting on whatever would hold her weight, and this was the first time she'd spoken unprompted in over an hour.

"Guess that'll have to be enough," said Lindsay. "We been all over hell and gone, and—in my professional medical opinion—y'all need to go home and rest."

"Who's y'all?" Michael demanded.

"You and Oluwaseyi."

"I'm fine."

"You got both legs dancin', you're damn near throwin' up every time you gotta push the chair 'cuz your arm's hurtin' so bad, and you ain't had a dose of laudanum in about nine hours. You keep pushin', you're gonna be laid up for a couple days, and you'll wish you'd listened to me then."

Before Michael could object, Free said, "And we're not really getting anywhere, anyway. It's been lovely for Gavin, and—well, nice to feel like we're doing something, but if we're not actually making any progress, we're wearing ourselves out for naught. It was a long shot, and—I reckon we missed, that's all. Once we're back at the flat, we can start working on Haywood's secondary location. I reckon that might get us a bit farther."

"I guess," Michael grumbled. He tugged on Gavin's bandanna again. "Hey, c'mon outta there, time to go. You wanna go eat some real food? Dinner?"

That got his attention. His ears perked up. He shook himself, sneezed, and turned an adoring look on Michael. Bits of dirt and poop were caught in his whiskers. Michael wiped them off with his thumb.

"Now you got crud all on you, lookin' like a damn idjit," he said. "Don't lick me with your gross-ass mouth, Jesus Christ. C'mon, c'mon, get goin'. I'm gonna make you pull me up them damn stairs, too."

While Michael extracted Gavin from his amusements, Lindsay helped Gabriel to her feet and Free took one last look around. Together, the five of them headed back down the canal to the stairs that led up to street level. Here, Free carried Michael's chair up, Gabriel took charge of Gavin, and Lindsay stood at the bottom of the steps in case Michael fell and needed to be caught. They made it back to the street without incident, got Michael back in his chair, and started trying to flag down a cab. Now that they were amongst the crowds, Gavin stuck close by Michael, making himself very small.

"Yeah, me too, buddy," Michael said under his breath, patting Gavin's flank. "Me, too."

Gavin's nose twitched. He lifted his head, sniffing. A glimmer of tooth showed from under his lip. The fur on his shoulders stood up, slowly.

The hairs on the back of Michael's neck followed suit.

Keeping as still as he could, Michael scanned the crowd. It was fast-paced, dizzying, a swarm of black and gray like a flock of starlings. A slow drizzle obscured anything more than a dozen yards off. Something in the air felt wrong, some lowering unease, some misplaced figure or uncanny movement, some whiff of danger. . . .

The snarl that tore out of Gavin was murderous.

He lunged forward. Michael grabbed for him. His hand closed on empty air. Gavin lit off down the street. The crowd scattered from him like a runaway train. He charged past them full-tilt, rabid with fury.

"Gavin, no!" Michael shouted, shoving off after him. His heart pounded. Lindsay was already running. Gavin was nothing but a blond blur.

Ryan turned about a second and a half before Gavin leapt for his throat.

The two of them hit the ground in a tangle of limbs and fur. Ryan cried out. Gavin thrashed, his teeth clamped on Ryan's arm like he was going to tear it off. Onlookers screamed and scrambled back. Lindsay barreled through them. Michael followed. Silver flashed in Ryan's hand. Michael's heart stopped.

A Black man charged out of the crowd and kicked Gavin so hard he went tumbling down the embankment towards the canal. The sharp yelp of pain went straight to Michael's spine. His vision went red.

The next thing he knew, Lindsay was hauling him off the Black man. His knuckles were bloodied and his breath was on fire. The Black man picked himself up off the ground, lip split, eyes struggling to focus.

"The bloody 'ell is wrong wi' you?" he spat.

"You kicked my dog!" Michael snarled, struggling with everything he had. "Sonnuva bitch kicked my fuckin' dog!"

"It was your mangy mutt what decided to try and fuckin' kill a bloke in the street! Damn thing ought to be put down!"

"You touch him again and I'll kill you!"

"Michael, stop it, shut up," Lindsay hissed, dragging him back towards his chair.

"He kicked my dog!"

"Your dog had the sense to get the hell outta Dodge, and so did—"

"He what?!"

In a blind panic, Michael cast about. Gavin was nowhere to be seen, just a sea of knees and skirts and boots, icy puddles and a spatter of blood on the cobblestones. He struggled like his life depended on it.

"Gavin!" he shouted. "Gavin, you dumb sonnuva bitch—!"

"Mad as 'is bloody dog," the Black man muttered, wiping the blood off his face.

"Honest to God, Michael, shut the fuck up," Lindsay insisted, wrestling him into his chair.

"Let go of me, let go of me, god dammit—"

"Right, what's all this, then, what's all this? Make way, you lot, police coming through!"

"Officers," the Black man said, straightening himself out as a pair of policemen forged into the clearing in the crowd. "This ruddy lunatic over 'ere set 'is dog on some poor sod, then went for me when I got the ruddy thing off."

"Oh, he did, did he?" one of the officers drawled. "Just like that, this gentleman attacked you?"

"He did, as well," somebody shouted. "Saw the whole thing, I did!"

A clamor of affirmations rose up from the crowd. The other policeman took out a notebook.

"He kicked my fuckin' dog!" Michael screamed. It took everything he had not to lay Lindsay out flat so he could go after Gavin.

"If you don't calm the hell down, Michael," Lindsay said, choking on frustration as she fought to keep him still.

"And where's the, er, victim?" the policeman with the notebook asked.

"Cleared off, sir, but you can see where the dog 'ad 'im, right there on the pavement, sir."

"Can't blame him, neither!" somebody else shouted, followed by another volley of peanuts from the peanut gallery.

"Mm-hm, right, and the dog?"

"Don't know, sir, I never saw where it went, 'cos this madman over 'ere attacked me."

The onlookers didn't even wait for the police to question this one before hollering their support. A good many of them were pointing and gesturing, most even in the same direction. The policeman who didn't have the notebook took out a pair of handcuffs.

"Right," he said. "Seems pretty open-and-shut, this one. We'll need you, sir, to come back to the station with us to give a statement, and you there—" He turned to Michael. "You're under arrest."

The whole crowd erupted in cheers.

Chapter Text

Dan was just waking up from his evening nap when Haywood staggered into the room, covered in blood.

"Christ alive!" Dan exclaimed, scrambling to get upright. His head gave a mighty throb. He overbalanced and toppled onto the foot-end of his mattress.

Haywood set his back to the door and slid down it, his left arm clutched to his chest, tears streaming down his face. In a few seconds, he went from hissing through his teeth to all-out bawling, pushing his heels against the floor and his head against the door. He was white as a sheet. His left hand was limp, the sleeve tattered under all the blood.

"Is that—" Dan said, aghast. "Are you—is that your blood?"

Haywood didn't answer, but he was making eyes at the medical supplies, left where they lived by the breakfast table. Dan started for them. Haywood snarled like a wild animal and launched himself across the room. He snatched up the bag before Dan had gotten an inch and dragged it off under the work table.

"All right! All right, easy does it," Dan said, raising his hands. "I just want to help."

"No you don't," Haywood retorted, hoarse and frantic. "No, you don't, don't you lie to me—"

"I'm not lying! I'm not—I'm not lying. Look, whatever's happened, you're going to have real trouble taking care of it one-handed, yeah? I can at least tie the knots, or something."

"You're just—just tryin' to—you're just tryin' to—" He was struggling for breath. His eyes weren't focused.

"I'm not going to hurt you, Haywood. I just want to help."

"You don't! You don't give a shit about me, you—you don't—"

"It's not about you, all right? Seeing people in pain distresses me. For God's sake, Haywood, just let me help."

Haywood considered it for six sharp, uneven breaths. With the bag clutched to his chest like an infant, he made his way across the floor. Dan came out to meet him under the breakfast table, chains clinking along behind him.

"All right, let me see it, let me see it," he said, keeping his voice as gentle as he could. Reluctantly, Haywood extended the injured arm. Dan sucked in a breath through his teeth. "Well, yes indeed, that's less than ideal, isn't it. We'll need to get this sleeve off, can you get this sleeve off for me?"

Haywood struggled out of his jacket, but his shirt sleeve was plastered to the wound with blood. While Dan was rooting around in the supplies for something to cut it with, Haywood pulled out his hunting knife and cut it off. Dan left it to Haywood to peel back the cloth, too, now searching for some kind of disinfectant.

"Looks like you've been bit, yeah? We'll want to clean that up first-thing, then, no telling where its mouth has been. Which one does that again? Loads of bottles in here, my head's not on straight, wouldn't want to do the wrong one."

"Vinegar," said Haywood. He had not put his knife away.

"Right, right, that's the one. It'll more than likely need stitches, as well. Can you do stitches with your right hand? 'Cos I can't do them with either of mine, hahah."

Haywood nodded. Unless Dan was much mistaken, he was about ten seconds away from being violently ill.

"There's laudanum in here, as well. D'you want—?"

A shake of the head, followed by a tightening of the throat and a hitch of breath. Dan took Haywood's shoulder and turned him sideways so he didn't throw up on the medical supplies. Fortunately, Haywood was too busy being sick to stab him.

"That's all right, that'll happen," said Dan, while Haywood spat the dregs out. "Look, I don't mean to step out of line, but—have you considered going to hospital? 'Cos I really think we could both do with a stint in hospital. You more than me, obviously, but—"

"No," Haywood croaked.

"All right. All right. We'll just . . . do our best, then, shall we? Now—this one's the vinegar, yeah? Good, just making sure. This'll sting a bit, hang in there. . . ."

Over the course of the next hour, they attended to Haywood's wounds as best they could. Whatever had attacked him, it had been thoroughly savage. The whole forearm was a mess, of the sort that even an experienced surgeon would have trouble cleaning up. In places, the flesh was torn down to the bone. It was gruesome, arduous, painful work.

But on the bright side, Haywood wasn't going to be using that hand for anything in the near future, or probably ever again.

When the stitches were laid in and the bandages wrapped tight, Haywood took himself back to his usual spot against the nearest support beam, although he stayed sitting on the floor. Dan went back to his mattress, mostly for the sake of being at some remove from the blood and sick on the floor.

"Will you tell me what happened?" he asked, in the same gentle voice he'd been using to coax Haywood through the wound care.

Haywood shut his eyes, leaned back on the beam, and shook his head. He was deathly pale, eyes and cheeks sunken. Every movement seemed to cost him an enormous effort.

"All right," said Dan. "I—I don't mean to press the point, but I really think you ought to go to a doctor. Right away, immediately. They might be able to save the hand. And if it gets infected, it could kill you. Er . . . maybe. I don't exactly know how all of that . . . works."

"No, Dan," said Haywood; exhausted.

"I'm only saying so 'cos if you die, I won't be long after."

"You're sayin' so on account of the hope that you'll get loose."

"Yeah, that as well. Listen, I've been dizzy for a week, my wrist's a shambles, I know all this mess on my feet is getting infected—we both need proper medical care before we get any worse."

"Won't live long enough t' appreciate it, Dan."

"That's completely up to you, Haywood, and you haven't got to go through with it. Look, at least for yourself, it's going to be awfully difficult to complete your—your work when you're this badly injured."

"And if I go to the doctor, I'm gone go to jail very shortly thereafter."

"Right, which is why you ought to take me with you! I can't make you any promises, I don't control the legal system, but—Gav and I have got a fair bit of clout, and what we can't arrange, Jones could just buy. I know at least half a dozen criminologists who'd sell their—who—who'd be deeply invested in ensuring you're granted a stay of execution for at least a few years, if not indefinitely. And every ruddy theologian in the world, I reckon! That's not even counting how long it'll take to get from arrest to the actual—'cos, you know, here in civilization, it generally takes a bit, regardless of how, you know, how obvious—look, whatever happens, it's got to be better than this, hasn't it?"

Haywood ground his teeth, his eyes squeezed shut and his lip trying to curl. He let his head fall back against the beam and let out a sharp, defeated breath.

"Please," he said.

"Wh—sorry, what?" said Dan.

Haywood shook his head. He looked like he was about to be sick again. "Not you."

"Ask and ye shall receive, my little rook."

Dan shrieked and nearly jumped out of his skin. The Devil, wearing his Lucien face, was stood up against the work table, hands spread behind him, feet crossed at the ankles, like some sort of renegade professor of literature going off-syllabus to talk about Wilde or Byron. There was a glimmer in his eyes that could only be called hellish.

"How—you were never—how did you—?" Dan sputtered, trying to press himself backwards through the wall. The Devil ignored him. His eyes were for Haywood alone.

Haywood gestured weakly with his injured arm. "I need. . . ."

"I know," said the Devil. "As though it had never been wounded?"

Haywood nodded. His eyes were still closed.

"Very well. I think, in addition, perhaps some lenience is due on my part."

Haywood's eyes opened. The Devil smiled at him.

"I recognize that I've put you through a great deal recently. More, indeed, than was fair. If it's amenable to you, my little rook, I'm willing to—how shall I put it?—outsource this one to third parties."

A weight lifted from Haywood's shoulders. He nodded again. The Devil's eyes gleamed. Dan held perfectly still, hardly daring to breathe.

"Use your words, darling," the Devil said gently.

"Yes," said Haywood.

The Devil's face crinkled up with a smile. He raised a hand and clicked his fingers twice. On the other side of the room, the door opened.

And the corpse of Matthew Peake walked in.

Dan clapped both hands over his mouth, muffling a cry. The thing's head snapped round. Orange light blazed in its eyes, one twice as bright as the other. Dan's stomach balled up to the size of a marble and plummeted into his boots. The corpse's face twisted with a horrible, leering grin.

"Oh, allo, Danny boy," said Orphinaeus. "Fancy meeting—"

"Be quiet," said the Devil; mildly, but leaving no room for argument.

Orphinaeus shut its mouth—Peake's mouth, embalmed by some demonic energy, as whole and as bloodless as the day he'd died. If Dan looked closely, he could see the fleshed-over spot where Elyse's bullet had gone through the forehead. Orphinaeus kept its hungry eyes on Dan and licked its teeth. The Devil turned back to Haywood.

"My proposal is this," he said. "In exchange for the repair of your arm, you will tender Mr Free to Orphinaeus."

"No!" Dan cried, lurching to his feet. Darkness swarmed his vision. His knees buckled. He crashed to the floor, reeling and nauseous.

"How do you mean, tender?" Haywood asked—suspicious, uncertain, and Dan couldn't dare to hope, but the alternative was unthinkable.

"You plan to kill him, don't you?" said the Devil. "I propose, instead, that Orphinaeus should have him. There are certain rituals—simple enough, and easy to learn if you know whom to ask—and, once it's done, I don't expect much of Mr Free will survive anyway. What I'm asking, in short, is a minor compromise of your artistic integrity."

"Don't," said Dan, struggling to control his tongue. "Haywood, don't. Don't. Anything but that, please, anything but this. You don't know—you don't understand. . . ."

"Mr Gruchy, that can be enough," said the Devil.

Dan's jaw locked like a steel trap. Pain shot through his head, down his neck. He cried out, clutching at the taut muscles. The sound was muffled by his own clenched teeth.

Haywood looked to him, alarmed, fragile, guilty. The Devil crossed the room, crouched in front of Haywood, took his chin in his hand and ever so gently turned his face away from Dan.

"Eyes on me, my little rook," he said softly.

"I—I don't know if I . . . ain't there somethin' else I could. . . ?" Haywood mumbled. His eyes drifted to Orphinaeus, who was stood there panting like a rabid dog. The Devil tightened his grip on Haywood's chin, hard enough and sudden enough to make him yelp.

"I said: eyes on me."

"Yessuh," Haywood whispered.

The Devil smiled, kissed him on the lips. Dan choked down bile.

"Very good," said the Devil. "Now, about my little proposition?

Haywood squirmed. He kept his eyes on the Devil, but every other part of him was trying to get away. Blood was seeping through the bandages on his arm. The Devil did not let go of his face.

"It don't—it don't strictly seem equivalent, suh," Haywood managed. His voice was shaking, choked. Dan dug his fingernails into his own cheeks and prayed.

"I know you hate it, I know," the Devil crooned, wiping the tears from Haywood's face with his thumb. "But it wouldn't be worth anything if it were easy."

Haywood sniffled and swallowed. His eyes drifted towards Dan, then snapped back to the Devil.

"What about him, too?" he asked. "Fix him, too."

The Devil shook his head, pitying. "Some things simply can't be bought, my love. If Mr Gruchy wants something, he'll have to ask for it himself."

Dan beat the floor with his palm, the most fervent no he could manage without words. Orphinaeus chuckled. Haywood glanced at it again, sickly and pained. He shut his eyes, bit his lip, and took a long, shuddering breath.

"He can have Gav," he said.

Dan buried his face in the floor, biting back screams. His whole body shook as hatred and despair flooded him in equal measure. Before he could do anything fatally stupid, though, Haywood finished his thought.

"But he don't lay a hand on Dan. Fair?"

Dan raised his head, staring at Haywood through smeared eyes. Haywood wasn't looking at him, and the Devil wasn't looking at him, and finally, at last, Orphinaeus wasn't looking at him, either. Orphinaeus was looking at Haywood. In fact, Orphinaeus was looking at Haywood like it was going to rip his throat out on the spot.

"I haven't any objection," said the Devil. "Orphinaeus, don't put your hands on Mr Gruchy."

It growled like a dog. The Devil turned a cool look on it. The growling stopped.

"Now," the Devil said, extending a hand to Haywood, palm-up. "Let's get that taken care of, shall we?"

Haywood took a deep, bracing breath, clenched his teeth, and took the Devil's hand.

There was an explosion of light, a concussive whoomph and a blast of heat. Haywood screamed. Dan threw an arm over his eyes. The stench of gunpowder and rotten eggs filled the room.

When Dan straightened up, working the supernatural tension from his jaw, the Devil was gone—and so was Haywood's wound.

The bandages had burned away, though a few cinders were clinging on. Crusted rivulets of dried blood mottled his hand. The stitches were still there, aimless wandering over unmarred skin.

Orphinaeus was still there, too.

"Fancy that," it sneered, slinking forward like a creep at a pub. "The old gaffer didn't say nothing about laying hands on you, did he. I haven't forgot what happened at that psychic bitch's little conference. And you've got such a lovely screaming voice, too."

Haywood got up, drawing his knife. He was unsteady on his feet, his hand clumsy. Orphinaeus laughed, advancing still.

"Fat lot of good that little prick's gonna do you," it said. "I'm gonna poke a hole in your belly and fuck you through it. I'm gonna—"

"Haywood, get behind me," said Dan, wobbling to his feet.

Haywood glanced back at him. Orphinaeus lunged forward. Haywood scrambled to dodge it. He backed away, knife at the ready, eyes flicking between Dan and Orphinaeus.

"I'm serious, Haywood, who d'you think is a bigger threat to you: that thing, or me?"

"You can't do shit to me," Orphinaeus spat.

"And you can't lay a hand on me, so I reckon that makes us even."

"I've got plenty I can do to you without using my hands, you fat faggot."

While its attention was elsewhere, Haywood darted back to Dan's corner. Orphinaeus made another grab for him as he went, like a cat swiping at a bird. It gave chase until Dan stepped in front of Haywood and put out a hand. Orphinaeus stopped in its tracks, grinding its teeth.

"So do it, then," said Dan. The pressure of being pinned between adversaries was like a steel vice, clamping his breastbone to his spine. His kidneys ached, expecting a knife. His throat tightened, expecting teeth. His hand trembled. He did not take his eyes off Orphinaeus.

One of the Peake-suit's teeth cracked with a muted pop. Its fists were clenched so tight the fingernails were drawing blood from the palms. The eyes blazed like fanned coals.

"You're gonna regret this someday, Danny boy," Orphinaeus growled. "Alive or dead, you can't run from me forever."

"Who was running?" said Dan.

With a snarl, Orphinaeus lurched forward. Haywood tensed. Dan held his ground. Orphinaeus shuddered to a stop mere inches from Dan's outstretched hand.

"What's wrong?" Dan asked, so terrified he was about to throw up. "I thought you were comfortable in your loophole."

"Peel you like a fucking onion and fuck your guts to mush," it snarled, and spat in his face, and stormed out of the room. It slammed the door so hard that the wood split at the handle.

"Always a pleasure," Dan said under his breath, wiping the spit off with his sleeve.

Haywood moved behind him. Dan whipped round so fast his brain sloshed against the side of his skull. Stars clouded his vision and bile rose into his throat. The room tilted to an extreme angle. Haywood caught him under the armpits and lowered him to the floor. By the time Dan's vision cleared, Haywood was at the breakfast table, packing up the medical supplies.

"I'm very much obliged for th' assistance, Dan," he said quietly. Dan could almost imagine that his voice was tinged with remorse, or at least regret.

"'S fine," said Dan, struggling to put his head back together. "I er . . . you know. Nobody deserves what that thing would do to them."

"I'd beg to differ, Dan."

"I know you would. It doesn't change my mind."

"Dan, honey, we both know you only stopped him on account of bein' concerned for your own well-bein'. Don't let's pretend there's any deservin' about it."

"Maybe you know that, but I don't."

"After I sold Gav to him? After I condemned your spouse to him, for nothin' more than a—"

"I know what you did, Haywood, I was here," Dan spat. "And make no mistake about how fucking livid I am about it. You still don't deserve Orphinaeus."

Haywood slammed his hand down on the table. Dan jumped, sending a shock of pain through his head.

"If you're gone lie to me, Daniel, you could at least have the courtesy to try harder!" Haywood shouted. He was trembling head to foot, wound up to the edge of snapping.

"That's going to be pretty bloody difficult," Dan retorted, "'cos I genuinely believe every word I've said."

Haywood turned. His eyes were bright with tears. His voice, when he spoke, was choked.

"Then you're more of a monster than I could ever be," he said.

Before Dan could find any way to respond to that, Haywood walked out. Dan thumped his fist on the wall.

"I'm getting sick of you bloody flouncing out like that!" he yelled, mostly because he was pretty sure Haywood couldn't hear him.

Whether he heard or not, he didn't respond.

Chapter Text

Somewhere along the way, they'd taken Michael's chair from him, and it wasn't looking like he was ever going to get it back. The jail was enormous, crowded, loud and smelly, a far cry from the six-cell lockup in Achievement City. The prisoners were shuttled along like cattle, and like cattle they had pretty much given up on civility. Once the guards had hit Michael in the face enough to force him to stop hitting back, they dragged him out of his chair and chucked him in a large cell with about forty other people, though the space was built for ten at most. Through a vicious gauntlet of jeering, kicking, and spitting, he'd dragged himself to a back corner, where he was promptly forgotten about.

It took four hours for somebody to retrieve him from the holding cell, by which time he'd gone past worried, through frantic, and clear out the other side to exhausted. He didn't have the energy left to worry. He barely put up a fight when a couple of officers carried him bodily out of the holding cell and to a smaller, dingier cell. This one had two beds, a window, a toilet, and basically nothing else. There was one other occupant, who watched with a keen disinterest as the officers dumped Michael in with him and sauntered off.

"Rough night, eh," said the other prisoner.

Michael didn't respond. He dragged himself to the empty bed and hauled himself up, almost too exhausted to feel any shame.

"'S wrong with your legs, mate?" the prisoner asked.

"Nothin'," Michael said. "What's wrong with your fuckin' face?"

The prisoner snorted. "What'd they nick you for? Wait, I'll guess: drunk and disorderly?"

"Go to hell."

"'S what I thought. Shame, though, innit, your timing. Tomorrow's Christmas Eve, and I don't reckon you'll be out of here in time for any festivities. We don't do nothing in here to celebrate, unless you count sermons, which I don't. Bad luck for you, mate."

"Fuck off."

"All right," he said affably. "Bit of a tip for you, from a vet'ran: don't go talking that way to anybody else in here, yeah? Not everybody's so disinclined to violence as me. You got a name, mate?"

"No," said Michael.

The prisoner shrugged. "Suit yourself. Buckley's my name, if you fancy having it. Breaking and entering, though I never broke nothing."

"Shut up, Fuckley!" somebody hissed from across the cell block. "Heard your shitty fibs a thousand fucking times already!"

Buckley cocked a thumb at the bars. "Don't mind them. They don't believe me. Reckon nobody would, it's a tall tale at best. But I'll tell you: those blokes that do the cleaning in Parliament will just let you walk right in, they will. All it takes is a smile and a bit of confidence. A pretty face don't hurt, neither."

Michael rolled onto his side and pulled the thin, scratchy prison blanket up to his chin. Buckley sighed.

"If I'd got away with it, I would've gone down in history, I would," he said. "I was halfway down the side of Big Ben, crown jewels in hand, before—"

Out in the darkness of the cell block, someone made a loud, wet farting sound. A shout of quiet down in there echoed from the guard's chamber.

"All right," Buckley continued, in a voice so low that Michael could barely hear it. "Hadn't got the jewels just yet, but I did get all the way up. Most of the way up. Inside, anyway. Counts for something, doesn't it?"

That turned out to be all he had to say on the matter, and soon after, he settled down and went to sleep. Michael lay awake for many more long, cold hours. His aches and pains kept him from sleep, and when exhaustion overwhelmed him, it couldn't do so for long. He drifted in and out, washed by the tides of shallow dreams.

All of them were about Gavin.


 

In what was obviously punishment for upsetting him, Haywood didn't bring Dan's evening meal until nearly midnight. He dumped it on the breakfast table without a word and left immediately afterwards, continuing the trend of childish behaviour. Dan must have struck a significant nerve to convince Haywood to leave off talking—arguably his favourite thing to do. Dan wished he could be proud of that fact, or at least count it as a success, but all he could do was worry about Gav.

There had to be some way to change the course of events. There had to be something Dan could do to prevent Orphinaeus from getting back into Gav. He didn't like to use the phrase fate worse than death, but if there was ever a time it applied, this was it. He had to find a way to stop Haywood before he got round to Gav. If worse came to worst, he might even consider making a counter-deal with the Devil himself. By Dan's arithmetic, there was no way he was making it to Heaven anyway, so he might as well put his soul to good use.

But, for the moment, it wasn't that dire, and he did have a better plan. The trick would be pulling it off without getting himself killed.

Dan hardly slept that night, kept awake by dread and terror and the ever-worsening pain in his head. When Haywood came back in the morning with breakfast, he was still in a sour mood, but at least gave Dan a curt mornin' to work with.

"Morning," said Dan. "Look, er, about yesterday—"

"Shut up, Dan," said Haywood, more exasperated than anything.

"I just wanted to say—"

"And I just want you to shut up, Dan."

"Thought I might have earned a conversation, since I did sort of save you from—"

"Nobody asked you to do that, Daniel, but somebody did ask you to shut your goddamn mouth."

"All right, I'll just go and fuck myself, then," said Dan, throwing his hands up. "After you sold my spouse into demonic slavery, I thought the least you could do was hear me out, but apparently that's too bloody much to ask."

One of those little flickers of expression crossed Haywood's face. Dan braced for retaliation, but it never came. He scribbled a frantic mental note, clinging to the idea with his fingernails before it slipped away.

When all else fails, guilt prevails.

"What did you want to say?" Haywood asked, staring out the window and scraping his thumbnail up and down the grip of his knife.

"Thank you," said Dan, "for looking out for me. It's not the best you could've done, but it's more than nothing."

"Not the best?" Haywood said. "What else could I have done?"

"You could have turned it down."

Haywood scoffed, like the very notion was laughable. His jaw was clenched, his eyes hard.

"Yes, you could," Dan pressed. "You could have turned him down and gone to hospital instead."

"We already discussed why that wasn't an option."

"It was an option, Haywood, you just decided not to take it 'cos you didn't like the consequences. Is this better? Is what you've done now better than winding up in prison? Going crawling back to that thing that violated—"

Haywood drew his revolver and pointed it right between Dan's eyes.

"Don't," he said, so softly that Dan could barely hear him. "Don't talk about him that way."

"It's honestly depressing," said Dan, "how much you rely on violence to shelter you from things you don't want to hear."

Haywood thumbed the hammer back. Dan's heart leapt into his throat. He swallowed it back down. He didn't have time for caution, or sense.

"Shoot me, then, if it'll make you feel any better," he snapped. "But d'you know, I somehow doubt it will. If killing really felt all that good, you wouldn't be so desperate for recrimination."

Still, Haywood did not answer him, did not lower the revolver—but didn't fire it, either. Dan pressed on.

"I've got one question for you, Haywood. One question. D'you really think—d'you really believe—that the price for your arm would've been the same if I hadn't been in the room?"

Another flicker of expression crossed Haywood's face, and this one lingered just long enough that Dan caught it—doubt. The revolver sank by a couple of degrees. Dan scarcely dared to breathe.

"I'm mighty curious as to what you think can be done about it now," Haywood said, passing off the tremor in his voice as a chuckle.

"I'm glad you asked, actually, 'cos I've got a plan. If you'll hear it. Or you could just shoot me, I s'pose."

From below, with a great rumble and groan, the machinery turned the hour. Nine bells rang out, deafening, shaking Dan and Haywood like dice in a gambler's cup. As slowly as the ringing faded, Haywood lowered the revolver, uncocked it, tucked it back into its holster.

"No, Dan," he said. "We ain't gone play this game."

"But—"

Haywood turned away. With careful, measured steps, he walked to the sketch on the back wall. With a slow and shaking hand, he took out his knife. With one straight cut, he crossed out the first of two O's.

"Haywood, please," said Dan. A lump rose in his throat. His heart fluttered like a bird with a broken wing. He was going to be sick. If he could just find the right words to say—

But Haywood left before he could.


 

Michael's first day in prison passed in a haze. Because his chair was gone and the prison had yet to furnish him with a replacement, he was forced to stay in his cell. Because they'd taken his laudanum, he couldn't do much other than wallow in pain. Breakfast was cold and disgusting, his cellmate Buckley was quiet but insufferable, and despair crept closer with every passing minute. In the afternoon, when the rest of the inmates were having yard time, a couple of officers arrived at Michael's cell. Without a word of explanation, they let themselves in, hoisted him up by the arms, and dragged him off. By then, he was too tired to fight. If they were going to kill him, at least he wouldn't hurt anymore afterwards.

The two officers brought him, not to a shallow grave, but an interrogation room. They dropped him in a chair, shackled him to the table, and left, still without saying a word to him (although plenty of words about him, all of them disparaging).

For an hour, he was left completely alone.

When someone finally did come into the room, Michael had his head down on the table and his eyes closed. He hadn't actually fallen asleep, but he also wasn't willing to pick himself up without a damn good reason to. The officer pulled out the chair across from him, sat down gingerly, and scooted up to the table.

"Well," he said, in a low and pleasant voice, "now that we've got some time to ourselves."

Michael froze solid. His blood turned to quicksilver. His lungs filled with a glitter like locust wings. Slowly, he raised his head.

The Devil sat across from him, hands folded on the table, smiling.

"What do you want?" Michael said. The Devil clicked his teeth and shook his head.

"Michael, Michael, we've been through this. It's not about what I want."

"Then what're you doin' here?"

"Why, making good on my promises, of course! I do still owe you an answer."

Michael rubbed the heels of his hands together, shifted in his chair.

"What if I changed my mind about the question?" he asked.

The Devil's eyes twinkled. "Well, ordinarily, I wouldn't allow it, but since you never got the answer to the first one, and 'cos I'm curious . . . just this once. Just for you."

Somewhere out in the yard, a fight broke out, shouting and jeering and the clanging of steel. The interrogation room was cut off from all outside light, only a single gas lamp casting flickering shadows over the brick and mortar. Though the air was cold, Michael sweated. The Devil was perfectly still.

Like an alligator, waiting.

"How do I destroy a soul?" Michael asked.

The Devil hissed in a breath through his teeth, wincing. "And you were doing so well. You can't."

"I cain't, or it cain't be done?"

"Mm, that's another question. Sorry!" He put his hands flat on the table and got to his feet. "But it's been tremendous working with you, and I wish you the very best of luck. Ta-ta, I'll leave you to it."

He was most of the way to the door before Michael's resolve broke.

"'Nother game," he blurted.

The Devil stopped. He turned. On anyone else, his expression would have made Michael blush up to his scalp.

"Ah," he said. "Now that's a different story altogether. Shall I presume the same rules as last time, or would you like to renegotiate?"

Michael held up one trembling finger. He kept his eyes fixed on the Devil, fought to hold his voice steady.

"You get me outta here," he said, "and I get my dog back—whole and alive, that dog—and then you can have another game."

"Is that all? Gracious, you could at least give me a challenge. But all right; your freedom and your dog, and then we'll play again."

"My dog whole and alive."

"Yes yes, all right. Your dog, whole and alive, and your freedom, for another game." He approached the table, extended his hand like a mariner's spyglass. His eyes were brighter than the full moon. "Deal?"

Staring at the outstretched hand, Michael clenched his teeth. Everything in him screamed not to take it, to find another way—but he was out of options, out of time. Every second wasted was a greater chance he'd never see Gavin again, a second closer to another gruesome death weighing heavy on his shoulders. Compared to that, one little deal was nothing. He'd already done much worse.

Michael reached up to the very end of his shackles and took the Devil's hand. The Devil gripped just a little too tightly, as though preparing to crush Michael's knuckles if he tried to pull away. The flesh was cold and rigid and undeniably fake.

"Deal," Michael said.

Searing pain shot up his arm. He yelped, recoiling. The Devil's grip tightened like a vice. Light filled the room. Heat flooded up Michael's arm, through his chest, across his shoulders. His other hand spasmed and clenched against the table. The stench of burning hair plumed into his nose and mouth, choking.

By the time he could see and breathe again, the Devil was gone.

Michael wiped at his stinging eyes, bent over the table just to reach his own hands. The afterimages lingering in his vision looked nothing like a person, and from the shape of them, he was glad he hadn't gotten a clearer look. His throat burned. He was still coughing when the door opened again and a policeman stepped in.

"Mr. Jones?" he said, stiff.

"Yeah, what about it?" said Michael, pulling himself together. There was a hard knot of dread in his stomach. He did his best to ignore it.

"Your bail's been paid," said the officer. He stood aside and gestured behind him, where Free was waiting with Michael's chair. Free smiled and waved.

"Took you long enough," Michael grumbled. "Y'all gonna unchain me, or am I takin' the table, too?"

The officer came into the room and slapped down a sheet of paper and a pen in front of him.

"Sign this," he said. "Habeas corpus, all that."

Michael looked to Free, who nodded. Michael took up the pen and scribbled something vaguely resembling a signature.

He was halfway through it before he realized he was using his left hand.


 

The moment they were into a cab, headed away from the jail, Michael untied his tongue and forced himself to get back to work, no matter how much he wanted to curl up in a little ball and sleep 'til spring—or at least until the laudanum kicked in.

"Bail, huh," he said.

"For a given definition," said Free. "I do try not to bribe them, 'cos I know they'll nick me for it someday when it's convenient, but sometimes there's just nothing else to be done."

"Huh. Where's my dog?"

"We . . . haven't found him yet, I'm afraid. We've been looking! We've been looking. Just . . . haven't found him yet."

"Where's Lindsay and Gabriel?"

"Back at the flat by now. Our top priority's been getting you out, of course, but—sort of within the limitation that we could be murdered at any moment."

"And you just came here all on your lonesome?"

"Careful, Jones, you almost sound ungrateful. I have just got you out of jail, after all."

"Took you goddamn long enough, too," Michael muttered, rubbing the arms of his chair. It had been over twenty-four hours. Gavin could be anywhere by now.

Free pouted. "It's not easy, you know, it's not like it's easy. I can't just go swanning in there and have them set you loose, it takes diplomacy and things."

"Sounds like it mostly took a lotta money. How much'd they take you for?"

"I'm not at liberty to discuss it."

"OK, where's my dog?"

"Like I said, I don't know. Lindsay and Gabriel were looking for him whilst I got you."

"Wellp, we're fixin' to be lookin' for him, too. Tell that driver fella to take us back to the river, we gotta pick up where we left off."

"No, Jones, we're going back to the flat to meet up with Lindsay and Gabriel. They'll be worried sick about us otherwise."

"They don't know how long it takes to get somebody outta lockup in this town."

"One: jail, two: city, and three: Gabriel most certainly does."

"I ain't goin' nowhere 'til I've found my goddamn dog."

"What if they've already found him and brought him home? You'll be running about for nothing, and endangering the both of us besides. We ought to at least check."

"One: I know for damn sure they ain't found him, 'cuz they wouldn't know where to look, two: we're gonna be in danger no matter where we go, and three: there is no way in hell Doc's gonna let me leave again once I get back there."

"And you think I'm going to let you go on?"

"Yep, 'cuz you got about as much gumption as a two-day-old kitten. I'm findin' my dog. Ain't no two ways about it."

The cab rattled along in relative silence for a while. At sundown on Christmas Eve, London was a little quieter than usual, but it was still an anthill. A forlorn clock tolled the hour, six long bells fading to silence. Michael scraped his thumbnail along the armrest of his chair.

His left thumbnail.

It wasn't really in the Devil's cards, he thought, to make this a quick affair. He'd seemed eager enough, at the jail, but the creature lived and breathed desperation. If things weren't desperate, the Devil wouldn't show up—of this much, he was certain. It was possible Lindsay and Gabriel had already found Gavin and brought him home, whole and alive, and then Michael would spend the next days or weeks or months on tenterhooks, waiting for the other infernal shoe to drop.

It was also possible that he'd spend those days, weeks, or months looking for Gavin, and never find him until the situation was so dire that he'd trade anything, anything just to get him back.

"When I got pushed down a ravine," Michael said quietly, "and I was lyin' there left for dead with my back broken, that dog ran six miles on dirt so hot it burnt his damn fool paws to get help. I'd be dead if it wun't for that dog. I'd be dead ten times over if it wun't for that dog. And I'll tell you what, Free, I am gonna find that dog if I have to jump outta this carriage and haul my ass around London-town on my elbows. You ain't gonna stop me, and Doc ain't gonna stop me, the goddamn Devil himself couldn't stop me. I am gonna find that dog."

"Well . . . all right," said Free. He knocked on the roof and shouted a change of course up to the driver. As the cab took a sharp corner, he settled back into his seat. "But only 'cos Dan would never let me get away with turning you down, after a monologue like that."

"Huh," said Michael, turning to stare out the window.

"So where's the place to look?"

"Huh?"

"You said Tuggey and Gabriel wouldn't know where to look. Where is the place to look?"

"Horses," said Michael. "Anyplace with horses, 'cuz it'll smell like home. And if not, then a saloon, or—whatever y'all got instead of saloons."

"It's enough to get started, but Jones, it's going to be a very long night if we've got to check every stable and pub in the vicinity."

"I don't give a shit. I'm findin' my goddamn dog."

"Yes," Free sighed, "you said."

Chapter Text

Six o'clock rolled into seven, then eight, nine, ten. Christmas Day arrived with a great ringing of church bells, bright and noisy and very far away. The ever-present flood of people thinned down to a trickle, most of them very drunk. Michael was in so much pain he could hardly see past the end of his nose—but the pain was the only thing keeping him awake, so he had to bear it. His hands were caked with grime. Cold needled at every inch of exposed skin, dug claws into his joints and pulled a constant dribble of snot from his nose. They'd combed a hundred blocks on foot, but London just went on and on and on, an infinite tangle of slums and ghettos and tenements, and none of them with any sign of Gavin. Michael had called until his voice gave out. Free had picked it up, but not with much enthusiasm.

"Jones, this is pointless," he said, dragging his feet down another narrow, ugly street, yawning into his hand in a great cloud of steam. "We've got to get back to the flat. Tuggey and Gabriel will be worried sick about us."

"You go," Michael croaked.

"I won't leave you alone out here, especially not in the state you're in. We'll pick it up in the morning, come on."

Michael shook his head and continued forward. Free took the back of his chair in both hands. Michael was so exhausted that he didn't even try to break loose.

"You're going to kill yourself," Free said. "And I'm not having any of that."

"Get off."

"No. You can't find Gavin if you're dead, and you certainly can't catch Haywood. We're going home. Tuggey and Gabriel need us, too."

Michael swatted at Free's hands, but couldn't do much more than smear the London crud on them. Free turned his chair around and started back up the street with him. Before he got half a block, Michael braced himself against the armrests and pitched forward onto the cobblestones.

He was in so much pain already, that little extra jolt was nothing. It did take him a second to get his wits about him, though, and in that time, Free came around the chair and tried to pick him up.

"Christ alive," he grumbled, heaving on Michael's arm (and not getting very far). "Come on, I've had enough of this. Haywood's not the only dangerous thing out here, you know, if you keep pushing our luck like this, we're going to get jumped, Christmas or not."

Michael set his jaw, propped his elbow on the cobblestones, and dragged himself two agonizing feet down the pavement. Free made a disgusted noise and got him under the armpits, although he still couldn't pick him up.

"Jones—I'm serious—you're going to get us—killed!"

"So leave," said Michael, prying Free's hands off of him. He made it another two feet before Free sat on him, right between his shoulder-blades.

"No," he said.

Michael had no energy to spare on rage. He dug his fingertips into the cracks between the cobbles and dragged both of them another foot. The world was fading into a gray haze, and he couldn't tell if it was real fog or if it was only in his head. It didn't matter.

Free grabbed a double-handful of sleeve and peeled Michael's injured arm back from the street. "Jones, honestly. We're not going to find him. Especially not like this! We'll pick it back up in the morning, I promise we will, just stop, for God's sake."

He shook his head, pulled his arm from Free's grip, dragged them both another foot.

"Jones, if you don't stop it, I'm going to knock you on the head!"

"Fine."

Another drag and pull, another foot of cold, hard, pointless progress. Free hopped off his back and knelt down in front of him. He put both hands on Michael's shoulders and locked his elbows.

"Please," he said quietly. "Please, Jones. We've lost enough without losing you, too."

His face swam in and out of focus. His hands were cold on Michael's shoulders. Somewhere out in the freezing night, a clock tolled, just once. Michael's heavy eyes drifted down to his own hands, covered in grime; the cobblestones, black and dull as leather; and finally to his own reflection, gazing up at him with hollow eyes from a crack between the cobbles.

He let his head fall. The stones were cool against his burning forehead. His fingers curled, but could pull him no farther.

"I cain't leave him," he mumbled.

"I know," said Free.

"He needs me."

"I know."

"I need him."

"Yes, Jones, I know. And I know he'll be trying to find you just as hard as you're trying to find him. It's time to make sure he's got something more to find than a corpse."

Michael sniffled. He thumped his fist on the ground, so weary that it barely made a sound.

"Can we go home, Jones?" Free asked. "Can we, please, go home now?"

He said nothing. Free patted his shoulder and got up, returning a moment later with his chair. Michael did what he could to assist in the effort of getting back into it, but it wasn't much. Free took off his coat and draped it over Michael's chest, tying the sleeves behind his head like a bib.

"Catch your death out here, mucking about in the wet like that," he chided. "But I won't have you being our little match-girl of the year, no freezing to death on Christmas. Right, off we go. Be sipping tea by a nice cozy fire in no time at all, and then first thing in the morning, we'll pick up right where we left off. And you know I mean it literally, 'cos it's me, so don't worry about that. We'll pop up this way, bit of a shortcut, should put us back in Hoxton in ten minutes—don't mind the rubbish, it's a feature. Also wouldn't go looking too closely at anybody, they don't tend to like that, just keep your eyes to yourself, there's a lad. This place here used to be a pastry shop, d'you know, five years back. Lovely chocolate bread, shame about the money laundering. . . ."

Free prattled on, his voice as numbing as the bouncing of Michael's chair over the cobblestones. The fog settled in deeper, until all he could see was street lamps. His hands rested useless in his lap. His chin nodded onto his chest. His eyes, filled to brimming with orange fog, drifted closed.

A soft sound pierced the veil, cut through all the layers of exhaustion and despair, a golden thread in a vast, smoggy labyrinth.

The whistle-pitched, piteous whine of a dog.

Michael grabbed his wheel. Free smacked into his back. The lump in Michael's throat sealed it like a cork in a bottle. All he could do was point.

"What? What is it? And bloody hell, are your fingers all right?"

He didn't know or care. The whine came again. Free heard it this time. Without another word, he swung Michael's chair around and hurried him into a dingy little alleyway. It was barely wide enough for the chair, strewn with broken crates, upended barrels, newspapers and rotting scraps and tattered cloth.

"Gavin," Michael croaked, the last of the breath left in his body.

And from a darkened corner, limping and bedraggled and missing his bandanna, there he was.

Michael went to him as quick as he could, gathered him into his lap and wrapped his arms around him and buried his face in his fur. He reeked. He was shivering. He leaned hard against Michael's chest and snuffled in his ear. His tail gave two exhausted thumps, spattering blood on Michael's trousers. Half of it was missing.

The fog in Michael's eyes spilled over and ran down his face. He held Gavin as tight as he dared, terrified of crushing him with the force of his relief. He bundled Free's coat off his chest and wrapped Gavin in it instead. Gavin leaned right back up against him, hunched against the cold.

"Gonna be all right, partner," said Michael, folding Gavin in against the heat of his own body. "Hey, merry Christmas, you're gonna be all right. We're goin' home."

"Jones," Free said. The muted horror in his voice was so distinctive, so familiar, that Michael knew what he was going to see long before he managed to raise his eyes. Gavin shivered against his chest. Free kept his hand on the back of Michael's chair, white-knuckled. Michael held off as long as he could, drawing strength from Gavin, praying that somehow, some way, if he held his resolve and thought only good thoughts, he could make it be anything else.

He raised his eyes. It wasn't anything else.

It was Body Number Seven.

Either Ryan was losing his edge, or he was in a much bigger hurry than Michael had thought. The face was missing, the number carved into the skull, and the guts spilled, as usual. Otherwise, there was only a gunshot wound through the shoulder, and that was it. Michael didn't have the energy to even begin to think about what that meant. He stared at the body, numb. Gavin shivered in his arms, the stump of his tail oozing blood onto Michael's trousers.

"Wellp," said Michael.

"I—we've really got to get back," Free said, choked. It was a mark of how un-fucked the body was that he'd managed to keep his head. "We'll—phone the police, I reckon, they'll . . . actually, d'you know, I reckon we shouldn't phone the police, and we ought to get out of here right now, come along, Jones, let's go, right this way—"

He grabbed Michael's chair for the hundredth time that night and steered him back out of the alley. His pace was brisk enough to jostle Gavin around in Michael's lap. Michael held on tight. Amongst the soup of pain and dread, the guilt and the exhaustion, at least there was Gavin.

He wasn't going to lose him again.

What he did lose was a considerable chunk of time, drifting in and out of consciousness as Free got all three of them back to his flat. Lindsay and Gabriel were there, alive and whole and loud, and at some point Lindsay settled in and tended to Gavin's wounds without taking him from Michael's lap.

"Poor li'l thing," she crooned, while Gavin squirmed and whimpered. "Somebody took a chunk outta you, huh."

"Y' got . . . food an' water f'r him, or. . . ?" said Michael. Even keeping his eyes open was a struggle. The room was warm, and he was just so damn tired. . . .

"We got him, Michael, it's OK," she said. "He's gonna be fine."

Hearing that, Michael finally gave up the fight and passed out.


 

When he came back around, the sun was up, he was in bed, and Gavin was with him. Somebody had cleaned the grime off his hands and face, peeled his filthy clothes off and tucked him up in his underwear. There was a cup of tea on the nightstand, long gone cold. His laudanum was next to it. That was the first thing he reached for, before he was even fully awake, because every inch of him hurt so much that he could barely move.

While he waited for the laudanum to kick in, he settled back in bed and scratched Gavin behind the ears. Gavin turned bleary eyes on him and patted the mattress with his tail, which in turn made him flinch and whimper.

"Shh, don't, then," said Michael, laying a hand on Gavin's rump. "I'm happy to see you too, boy. You don't gotta say nothin' about it."

Gavin put his ears back and snuffled at Michael's face, licked his mouth. For once, Michael let him. It was worth it just to have the reassurance that he was there, still alive and still Gavin.

As the pain subsided, clarity came. Although the end of the night might have been nightmarish, Michael didn't hold out much hope that it hadn't been real. Only a day and a half after being mauled in the street, Ryan had killed somebody else. It went some way towards explaining why Number Seven was so intact, but it didn't paint a hopeful picture for the future.

So far, there wasn't a damn thing anybody could do to keep Ryan down. He was more persistent than a weed, more evasive than a mosquito, more tenacious than the stink of a skunk. The son of a bitch just wouldn't quit.

And maybe, Michael thought, petting Gavin's shoulders, maybe that had more to do with the destination than the journey. Maybe Ryan was as desperate to get dead as Michael was to kill him. He had to consider, here in this brief moment of clarity, that he'd been. . . .

Wrong.

Every moment of this mess could be traced back to that one conversation, wrapped together in a strange bed, a foreign darkness, a familiar contempt. Maybe Ryan—and this was the most insane thought Michael had ever had—maybe Ryan had been telling the truth. Maybe he really had tried and failed to kill himself. Maybe he'd really been abstaining from murder all those months, desperately keeping his promises. Maybe he really had called on Michael as a last resort, and really had wanted to cooperate, and really had run off only because Michael had been so insistent on hurting him.

And sure, the point was probably moot—it was too late to reason with him now. He was a spiteful child throwing a tantrum, just one who happened to have a murder habit and supernatural luck and who was completely un-killable, maybe even by his own hand.

The realization settled down on Michael like a fine dusting of snow. He looked down at his hands—blistered, scraped, so recently swapped in their aptitude. Stiff and aching, he curled the pinky and ring finger of his right hand against the palm, imagined the sulfurous flames that would have rendered it useless. He turned the left one over, examining the forearm, feeling out where Gavin's teeth would have made a bloody wreck of the tendons and muscles and everything below them. The hand drifted to his own throat, wrapped around, squeezed—but not hard.

Not that it would have killed him. Not that it could have killed him. He just didn't want to upset Gavin.

"By no hand," Michael said, staring through the ceiling and marveling at the sheer, vicious pettiness of it. Of course there was a loophole. He'd always known there was a loophole. He'd just never considered that it could be so pointlessly cruel.

His words, not mine.

Almost a year ago, up in the clocktower in Achievement City, shrouded in moonlight and Michael's pain, the Devil had said Ryan could die by no hand but his own or God's. It was tenuous, a wicked technicality, but it made the rest of the mess shift into order. Ryan had been shot and beaten and poisoned and hanged, and maybe he'd tried to do all those things on his own time, too, but one thing was for damn certain:

He'd never used his bare hands.

Piece by piece, the puzzle solved itself. An arrogant child, lured into a deal that was always going to be unfair, had overestimated the worth of his own immortal soul—and the Devil, the incarnation of spite on Earth, had willfully misinterpreted that child's demands despite the fact that he'd already won the game. He'd put Ryan in a big copper pot, sealed the lid, and spent the last thirteen years slowly, slowly, slowly turning up the heat. He'd deliberately made Ryan so miserable as to drive him to self-destruction, after robbing him of any means he had to carry it out—all the while letting him believe that his failures were entirely his own fault.

Kind of like—exactly like—what Michael had done to him on the night of the party.

Crackling with a bone-deep chill, Michael's own words came drifting back to him, spoken with such terrible confidence, such hideous ease.

Awful hard to kill anybody when you ain't got no hands.

The Devil must have laughed himself sick over that one. Michael didn't want to imagine what might have happened if Gruchy hadn't been there. It was hard to face it, but he had to admit that maybe there was a point to all that holier-than-thou bullshit he'd been spitting. There was no guaranteeing Ryan wouldn't have gone on to murder five more people anyway, but at least Michael wouldn't have felt so responsible.

Maybe if they'd all just sat down and talked about it, they could've figured this out two months ago, and sent Ryan on peaceably to Hell like all of them wanted. Maybe if Michael had been able to put his hurt away and look at the bigger picture, he could've ended it a year ago in Achievement City. Maybe if he'd just left well enough alone, he never would've gotten tangled up with Ryan in the first place, and none of this would be his problem.

But it was his problem, his responsibility, his shit, and God help him, he was going to fix it.

There was a brusque knock at the door, which then opened without waiting for a response. Lindsay bustled in, bearing a tray of breakfast.

"Oh good, you're up," she said. "We were scared you were gonna sleep clean through the day. Merry Christmas, by the by, I don't know if you'd missed that it's Christmas. How're you feelin'?"

Michael eased himself upright, keeping a hand on Gavin. "Shitty. Like I fell down a whole 'nother ditch."

"You sure looked like you did, I tell you what." She pressed a steaming cup of tea into his hand. "Here, take that one, it's warm. You want these eggs, or should I give 'em to Gavin? There's more back in the kitchen, too."

"He can have 'em. What's Free figure about that body?"

Lindsay blew out a breath and pulled up a chair. She set the plate of eggs on the floor, and Gavin followed it down, creaky and whimpering. Presently, there came the sounds of gregarious scarfing.

"Well, he figured him a couple things," said Lindsay. "You sure you're ready to hear 'em?"

"Yeah," said Michael, because explaining the revelation he'd just had was too far beyond him at the moment.

"I was hopin' you wouldn't say that. I ain't sure I'm ready to tell you."

"Oh," said Michael. He scratched the back of his head. "Uh . . . hey, listen, Doc, I'm uh . . . I'm, y'know, sorry. For—for runnin' off likkat. Without tellin' y'all anythin', or—yeah. Guess you musta been worried sick, and I—shit, I dunno, it was shitty."

"Right on all counts," said Lindsay, "but I understand why you did it. Free did some explainin', mostly 'cuz Olu laid into him pretty hard about it. I'm just glad y'all made it back in one piece. Well—mostly in one piece, I guess."

She reached down and patted Gavin's back. He wagged his stump tail and whimpered.

"Poor li'l thing," she sighed. "Hope like hell it don't get infected."

A minute or so passed in silence. Gavin finished his eggs and climbed back up on the bed. He lay down against Michael's side, let out a burp, and promptly went right back to sleep.

"Doc?" said Michael.

"Mm-hm?"

"Since you ain't feelin' up to uh, to body-stuff just now, uh . . . you think you might could—I gotta get dressed, so's I can—'cuz I ain't really feelin' up to . . . y'know, and I know you ain't feelin' up to talkin' about all that, so maybe Free can talk about it, but I cain't go out there in my shirtsleeves and all. . . ."

Lindsay got to her feet. "Sure thing, Michael. I'll start you up another plate of eggs while I'm out there."

"No, Doc, that ain't—" He took a deep breath, put a hand on Gavin for strength. "I . . . need . . . help. I'm gonna need—help. Gettin' dressed. If that's somethin' you might could help with."

To her credit, she only stared in open-mouthed shock for about a second before recovering.

"Sure thing, Michael," she said. "I can help."

Chapter Text

"Oh, good, you're still alive," said Free, the moment Michael came in the room. He was settled in at the coffee table in the front room with an untouched sandwich and a pot of tea and Gabriel's map. Gabriel was there, too, poring over a newspaper and nursing her own cup of tea. She set both of them aside when Free spoke.

"Careful, Free, you're startin' to sound like you might actually give a shit," said Michael. Gavin was in his lap, and Lindsay was pushing his chair, and the one made up for the other.

"I was—talking to the dog," Free said archly.

"'Course you were."

"Morning, Jones, happy Christmas," said Gabriel. "I, for one, am not too proud to say I'm glad to see you up and about. We were all of us worried sick about you."

"The hell you were," said Michael, blindsided.

Lindsay deposited Michael at the table and continued towards the kitchen. She paused to pat Gabriel on the shoulder and kiss her head.

"He's glad you're OK, too," she said.

"Ah, thank you for translating."

"You want another cup of tea, while I'm in the kitchen? 'Fraid there ain't gonna be no Christmas dinner this year, but I can at least keep the tea comin'."

"I'm all right for now, thank you."

Lindsay nodded and went to the kitchen. In Michael's lap, Gavin eased his nose out towards the coffee table like a snake, sneaking up on Free's sandwich. Michael nestled the crook of his elbow around Gavin's neck to keep him from getting any farther.

"So that body," he said to Free.

Free tore off a chunk of his sandwich and fed it to Gavin anyway, much to Gavin's delight.

"That body," he sighed. "It's a poor way to spend Christmas morning, but I don't reckon we've got much choice if we want to live through New Year's. Gabriel's been thinking we'll want to become much more difficult to find in the very near future, and I agree. By my arithmetic, we've got between forty-eight and seventy-two hours before—well, we've got between forty-eight and seventy-two hours."

"Yeah, sure, but what about Number Seven?"

"Right," said Free, glancing at Gabriel. "Well. Not a great deal to say about it—him, really."

"Him? It was a man?"

"Rather obviously so, I thought. Couldn't you tell?"

"I wouldn'ta even seen the damn thing if you hadn't pointed it out to me."

"Don't—don't call him a thing, please, he's not a thing," said Free. His eye flicked towards Gabriel again while his hands twisted together in his lap. "He's a person. He was a person."

Michael shrugged. "Fine, whatever. I ain't see the fella 'til you pointed him out. All I saw is enough to know that Haywood got him. Everythin' else—" He swiped his hand over his own head.

"Good God, you really were out of it," Free muttered. "Well—he was a Black man. Shot point-blank in the back with a large-caliber round, which, judging by the state of his heart and lungs, more than likely killed him instantly."

"Prob'ly my Colt," said Michael.

"Almost certainly. The body was—er—defaced in the usual way, clearly marked as Number Seven. You spotted that, of course."

"Yep. We know who he was?"

Free and Gabriel shared a glance. Free coughed into his hand. Gabriel stared him down until he was forced to speak up.

"Well," he said, looking anywhere but at Michael. "Judging by the state of his teeth, you know, and general size and shape, and of course it isn't a foolproof identification, but. . . ."

"Spit it out."

"I reckon it was the bloke who kicked Gavin."

Michael's stomach lurched. He took a deep breath, rubbing the arms of his chair.

"Wellp," he said, "shit."

"That does sum it up succinctly," said Free. "I'm beginning to think you weren't all that far off, about Haywood attempting to get you hanged."

"If only we hadn't resorted to bribery to get you out of jail more quickly," Gabriel said, giving Free a harsh side-eye. "You might've had an airtight alibi."

"I didn't know, how was I meant to know?" said Free, pouting. "With the information I had, getting Jones out immediately was the best option."

Gabriel pursed her lips, but didn't press the point.

"Was there a note?" Michael asked.

"Sort of," said Free. "He'd written tick-tock on the wall behind the body. In blood, of course, 'cos he's never met a theatric he didn't love."

"But no Bible verse or nothin'?"

"I didn't hang about to look."

"You got photographs, though."

"And I've had a glance through, and didn't see anything promising."

Lindsay returned from the kitchen with a big plate of eggs and sausage. She stopped just out of arm's reach of Michael's chair and put her free hand on her hip. Gavin nosed towards her, sensing a tastier meal than the remains of Free's sandwich.

"You're gonna have to get that dog outta your lap if you wanna eat anythin' today," Lindsay said, looking him over. Gavin put his ears back and licked his lips and looked just as pitiful as he possibly could. Michael took him by the armpits and eased him down onto the floor. Gavin yelped and whimpered and tried to climb right back up again.

"Yeah yeah, but you can have the sausage, though," said Michael. "Doc, give him a sausage so he'll stop feelin' so sorry for himself."

Lindsay gave Gavin a sausage. Gavin immediately forgot what he was upset about and scarfed it down in a flash. Michael started in on his own breakfast, although within seconds, Gavin had his chin up on his knee and was making mournful eyes at him.

"Dog's gonna get fat," said Lindsay, settling in next to Gabriel.

"He's healin' up, he needs his strength," Michael said around a mouthful of eggs. "You'd be eatin' too, if somebody'd cut off part of you."

"Bitten," said Lindsay.

"Huh?"

"It wasn't a clean cut that took his tail off. Looked like it was bitten, or chewed."

Michael made a face. He looked down at Gavin, who licked his chops and flicked his ears up hopefully. His nose twitched. He scooted in a little closer.

"Musta got caught on somethin', or somethin'," Michael muttered. He shook himself. "Free, that alley was full of crap, you sure you din't just miss the damn thing?"

"I'm almost positive that's what happened, actually," said Free. "Once the police have done with the place, I'll go back and see what I can find."

"You, all by your lonesome?"

"Yeah, 'cos I've not had an effigy yet, have I? Safest for me to go. And the police won't mind too much, I'm always sticking my nose into their business."

"Prob'ly hard to avoid," said Lindsay. Gabriel smacked her arm, fighting down a smile.

Free's lips pinched down to a thin line as he sighed through his nose. He glared at the two of them for a full two seconds before turning back to Michael like the interruption had never happened.

"Anyway," he said, "if Haywood sticks to his plan, it's not my time yet, if ever. I reckon it's safe enough, at least for the—"

All at once, with no warning, everything slammed into place. Michael dropped his fork. The rest of his breakfast went right after it. Gavin went after the breakfast.

"Sonnuva bitch!" Michael cried. Gavin scrambled back. Gabriel jumped and pressed a hand to her heart.

"What?" said Free, alarmed. Michael grabbed him by the lapel.

"Time," he said, shaking Free. "Tick-tock, time's a-wastin', it's about time! The kinda countdown that starts at eleven is a clock. It starts at eleven 'cuz it ends at twelve, which—"

"Which means that Number Six is Haywood's effigy of himself!" Free squeaked. Michael shook him again.

"It's you. Six is you, Free, that's why you ain't had an effy-whoever. It's 'cuz you are an effy-whoever."

Free turned milk-white, curdling before Michael's very eyes. "Oh," he said.

"We gotta get outta this apartment," said Lindsay, getting to her feet. "Olu, you know of anyplace we can go that might be safer?"

"One or two, but I suspect Free will have better ones."

"I suspect Haywood's got a good handle on how Free thinks. I don't think he's got any inclination of how you think, 'cuz he hasn't bothered to figure it out."

Gabriel sat with this a moment, then nodded. "Then yes. I've got a couple places where we could go to ground."

"Good. We'll start packin'. Free, you wanna help me pack, or you need to freak out a li'l bit first?"

Free cleared his throat, swaying where he sat. Gavin snuck back out from under the coffee table and started wolfing the remains of Michael's breakfast. Free glanced at him. A twitch of a smile pulled at the corner of his mouth. He looked like he was going to be sick any second now.

"As—at times like these, you know, I think—Dan had a sort of thing he'd say, at times like these," he managed.

"What?" said Michael.

"Fuck me running."


 

Dan spent the morning after Haywood's latest dramatic exit staring at the sketch on the wall. It was a grim picture, to say the least—a clock face drawn up in chalk, with letters where the numbers would go, each of them a tombstone. There were M's for Michael at eleven and one, G's for Gavin at ten and two, D's for Dan on the perpendicular. Then it was L for Lindsay, eight and four, and O for Oluwaseyi on seven and five. The top of the clock, number twelve, was an R. Directly opposed, at number six, was written: G/G.

"For Gwen or Gav," Haywood had said as he'd drawn it, and tossed a sly look over his shoulder. "I ain't particular."

"That's not funny," Dan had told him, his words slurred by the molasses onslaught of the laudanum, his dread and horror dulled by it.

"I ain't bein' funny, Dan," he'd said. "I'm bein' respectful."

And now, just over a week after that awful conversation, the entire lefthand side of the clock was crossed out—the first three in chalk, and the last two by Haywood's knife.

Unless Dan had lost track of more time than he realized, it was the single worst Christmas morning he'd ever had.

There was absolutely nothing for it; he had to do something, and he had to do it right away, or he was never going to see Gav again. He held out no hope that Gav could be rescued after the ritual was carried out—if Haywood didn't kill him out of misplaced mercy, Orphinaeus would shred everything it could get its filthy claws on like an alley-cat thrown into a bathtub. Whatever leverage Dan had managed to gather would have to do. Whatever sympathy he'd garnered would have to be enough. Whatever loyalty he'd scraped off the baking pan of Haywood's narcissism would have to carry him through to the end.

A stopped clock was only right twice a day, but he could always hope the hands would align in his favour.

Haywood was late with breakfast, perhaps as punishment for Dan getting too mouthy at their last meeting. There was a fresh bruise on the side of his face, and his knuckles were dusted with scabs. Dan did not comment on this. Dan, in fact, did not say anything, paralysed by the pressure of having to get it right.

Eventually, from his usual spot against the nearest support beam, Haywood broke the silence—a good sign, in Dan's opinion.

"Somethin' I been wonderin' about, Dan," he said. "And I was hopin' you might could clarify th' issue for me."

"I can try," Dan said. He made a face and poked himself in the temple. "Clarity isn't my strong suit just at the moment."

Haywood tipped his head in allowance. "I was wonderin'," he said slowly, like he was still deciding whether or not to ask. He sucked down a sharp breath and sighed it out again. "I was wonderin' if you knew what had happened to Michael's arm."

Which was rather like being chucked directly into a pit of lions.

Dan choked down another bite of porridge, buying himself a precious few seconds. Haywood was demonstrably bad at spotting Dan's lies, but that meant he was also a poor judge of the truth—especially when, as in this instance, the truth was upsetting. On the other hand, if Haywood already suspected the truth, it meant he'd listened to what Dan had said to him yesterday and had thought about it in the interim.

Whilst murdering another poor bastard, but every silver lining had its cloud.

"I'm not completely sure," Dan said at last. "I wasn't there, when it happened, so I've only got the gist of it."

"That's plenty," said Haywood.

"Well—as far as I recall, it just sort of happened, in the middle of the night, for no real reason at all. It would've been just after you—just after the party business, I think, either that night or the night after. Just split right open like a sausage—cor, blimey, that's a bit gruesome, isn't it, sorry—"

"What did he suspect had caused it?" Haywood asked. His voice was cold, wary. His hand was clenched on his knife.

"Er . . . well, my memory's a bit fuzzy, honestly, and he does go on a bit, doesn't he? I mean to say, hahah, one doesn't really listen to everything he says, you'd be there all day, wouldn't you, it's—"

"Dan," he warned.

"He reckoned it was 'cos you'd got your hand back."

Said hand tightened on the knife. Haywood clenched his jaw and looked out the window. Dan pressed, just a little, testing the waters.

"He also reckoned you'd done it on purpose," he said. "I disagreed. I reckoned you weren't told all the terms and conditions before signing, as it were, and that you were a damn sight too distressed to ask."

Still, Haywood said nothing. Dan took in his tense posture, the shudder in his breathing, the pallor of his face. He leaned over the table and spoke as gently as he could.

"Was I right?" he asked.

Haywood rounded on him like a cobra. "'Course not," he spat. A flush crept up his neck, stained his cheeks red.

"At the risk of calling you a liar, that's a big fat fib, Haywood."

"Not everybody's so dense as you are. 'Course I knew."

"Yeah? Then why've you asked me what happened?"

Haywood floundered. Dan made a face and shrugged, doing his best to stay on the near side of pity.

"Not everybody's trying to make decisions after eight hours of torture, either," he said.

Haywood pushed off his beam, took a quick and threatening step towards Dan before reigning himself in.

"Daniel honey, I do sincerely wish you'd stop bringin' that up," he said, his voice gone light and airy and dangerous.

"If you'd ever let me finish, I wouldn't have to," said Dan, sweating through his shirt. "Look, nobody in their right mind would expect you to be thinking clearly after what you went through, and nobody with an ounce of regard for you would ask you to. You weren't meant to make a good choice. I don't believe you intended for Jones to get hurt. I believe someone did, but it wasn't you."

"Then you're even more of a damn fool than you look."

"So you did mean for him to get hurt? Can't say I blame you, after what he put you through. Anyone would be—"

Haywood snatched the breakfast table in both hands and threw it clear across the room, splattering the remains of Dan's porridge all over the wall. Dan flinched, but stayed in his chair. Rising to the occasion would inevitably get him killed. At least one of the two of them had to stay calm.

"Daniel," Haywood said quietly, shivering with repressed fury, "stop talkin'."

"'Cos the fact that you think Jones deserved retribution implies you think what he did was unwarranted," Dan said anyway. His heart thrummed like the engine on a locomotive, fires stoked to full and brakes broken. "Which is sort of what I've been saying all along, isn't it."

"And I've been tellin' you you're full of shit for just as long."

"Yeah, I'd noticed. But you're also saying that you decided to hurt Jones on purpose, which implies—if it's true—that you don't really believe what you're saying. So which is it?"

"Maybe I didn't!" Haywood burst out. He clenched his fist, tapped the hilt of his knife so fast his fingers blurred, took a deep breath and went on in a tone so soft and sweet it could only mean trouble. "Maybe, Daniel, I didn't think about what I was doin' when I went to get my hand back. That don't mean there was no ill will about the makin' of that deal. Just means I wasn't thinkin'. Ain't anybody's fault but mine, and don't nobody deserve recompense but me."

"I'd agree with you if I hadn't seen the sorts of deals the Devil makes. And if I didn't know what you consider to be appropriate recompense."

"That's enough, Daniel."

"It's not, 'cos you're still not listening to me. You just can't bear the notion that maybe torture isn't a reasonable punishment for what you've done—any of what you've done. It's the only thing you can think of, 'cos it's all you know, but I'm telling you, Haywood: you don't deserve to be tortured. You've never deserved it."

"Daniel, honey, sweetheart, if you don't shut the fuck up. . . ."

Dan mustered his courage, set himself against his spine, and made the final leap.

"And neither has anyone you've killed," he said.

Haywood lunged for him. Silver flashed in his hand. Dan's joints locked. He braced himself against the back of the chair. His chin tucked instinctively.

The knife was so sharp, he didn't even feel it until the hilt hit his stomach.

In shock, he looked down at Haywood's fist, pressed flush against his body. He looked at the other hand, clutching his shoulder in a vice-grip. He looked up into Haywood's face—hideous with rage, the mask ripped off at last to reveal the impetuous, terrified child underneath.

When it came, the pain was indescribable.

A tiny, choking whimper escaped him. He couldn't draw breath. He couldn't move, pinned in place like an insect. Pain flooded through his abdomen, fountained into his chest and legs. His vision blurred and narrowed. His ears rang. Dizziness and nausea swamped him. His whole body broke out in a cold sweat.

"Say it again, Daniel," Haywood growled. His voice was muffled and distorted, underwater. "Say it one more fucking time."

Dan wheezed, insensate. Haywood wrenched the knife, in and up. Something tore. Blood gushed into his lap. The pain was a detonation, concussive. His vision went white. An ugly choking sound was the only thing that escaped his throat.

"Say it again!" Haywood snarled.

He could only gasp and whimper, fumbling at Haywood's wrist with trembling, bloodied fingers. Like a candle starved of air, his vision darkened. Where pain had burned bright and hot, the cool, dark waters of oblivion followed. One of his legs kicked out involuntarily, like the last twitch of a dream of falling. Just before the numbness reached his head, he saw Haywood's face slacken with horror.

The last thing he heard before slipping from consciousness was:

Oh, shit.

 

END OF ACT II

Chapter Text

It was warm in the basement, and Michael's mouth was full of blood.

Rough-hewn wood pressed into his back, pushing splinters through his coat. Ryan knelt on the dirt floor in front of him, straddling one of his thighs and singing to himself. He was drenched in blood. His hands were charred black beneath it.

Behind him, leaned up against a wooden beam in much the same position as Michael, Gruchy languished. The side of his head was soaked in blood. One hand was draped over his abdomen. His guts were spilling through his fingers. His eyes were half-closed. Michael couldn't tell if he was breathing.

Gruchy, he croaked. His voice hardly made a sound. The blood in his mouth spilled out, over his chin and down his shirt.

"Don't you worry none about him, chéri," said Ryan. He reached into Michael's guts and took out something red and squishy, set it aside like folded laundry. "He ain't important. Now just breathe, I'll be done with this real soon."

He's hurt, said Michael—another gout of blood, another little mess.

"He's dead," Ryan said, laughing. "But it's all right, Michael, it was nice and quick. He ain't hardly feel a thing. None of 'em did."

Michael looked around in a panic, but there were no other bodies in the room. Gray mud was seeping through the back wall, translucent, like liquid smoke. There was a smell of lightning. Ryan took out another of Michael's organs and put it next to the first.

"And chéri, I've never been more proud," he said. "Sweet of you. Awful sweet of you to make it quick for 'em. Li'l frustratin' for me, but I can't complain too much."

The gray ooze was getting thicker, pooling on the floor, swelling out in blisters where once there had been trickles. Michael couldn't keep his eyes off it. There was something intentional about the way it pushed through, something like limbs amongst the formless masses. . . .

"'Course you did," said Ryan, although Michael didn't remember saying anything to prompt it. He pulled out a long string of guts and coiled it up nice and neat like rope. "Mighty merciful, most especially goin' in the proper order. I do appreciate that."

They weren't just limbs, they were arms, forming hands and fingers, gripping the floor and ceiling and support beams, dozens of arms, hundreds of arms, hauling the great dripping gray mass through the wall. It was immense, filling the basement, towering over Michael and Ryan. The room swelled to the size of a house and couldn't contain it, the size of a theater, the size of a city. In horrible silence, the hands sank their fingers into the earthen walls, the wooden beams, tore them away like it was all made of warm beeswax. There was only blackness beyond, vast and empty.

Ryan, Michael wheezed. He wasn't looking. He didn't see.

"Shh, it's all right, chéri. It'll all be over soon."

Six of the grasping, clutching hands crumpled Gruchy up like paper, stuffed him into the gigantic mass and vanished him. It oozed through the basement, took the scene apart and swallowed it all, until only it and Ryan and Michael were left. Michael tried to cry out, but his voice had deserted him.

"It'll all feel better, once this is done," said Ryan, heedless of the thing eating the world behind him. "Soon it'll be easier to—"

A flock hands descended upon him, crumpled him up and absorbed him in the space of less than a word. They came to Michael, grasped his head and his shoulders and his arms, pulled him in like a dozen doting mothers all at once. He couldn't struggle. The thing pressed up against him, warm and wet like sweaty blankets. A mouth unseamed from the mass, telescoped forward and hissed into Michael's ear with quiet, unshakeable conviction:

 

Listen

 

Michael sat bolt-upright in bed, gasping like he'd been under water. Gavin jumped up in the bed next to him and barked. Across the room, Free sat up, rubbing his eyes.

"Oh, what is it?" he said, his voice thin and gritty with sleep.

Michael put his arm around Gavin, shushing him. The remnants of the dream clung to him like the smell of smoke. Gavin yodeled and huffed and eventually settled for licking Michael's face. A whistle-pitched whine lingered in his throat, warbling in time with the wagging of his stump tail.

"I'm fine, partner, I'm fine," Michael assured him, although he was no such thing.

"If you say so," said Free. He yawned into the back of his hand and blinked owlishly.

"I was talkin' to the dog, jackass."

"What time's it?"

"How the hell am I s'posed to know?"

Somewhere far off in the darkness, a clock tolled, six solemn bells just on the edge of hearing. Michael rolled his eyes.

"Six o'clock," he said.

"'S good enough. Coffee?"

"You askin' or offerin'?"

"Asking."

"Then no, make your own goddamn coffee."

"Jones, what've I ever done to you, Jones?" Free asked, pouting. "You're meant to be looking after me."

"Jesus Christ," Michael said under his breath.

"I can't be bothered with things like coffee," Free went on. "'S why we've not solved the case yet, isn't it, it's 'cos I've not been able to concentrate properly. Dan would make me coffee."

"Dan's a sucker. Make your own fuckin' coffee."

"But Jones," he whined.

Michael lay back down and put the pillow over his head. Gavin stuck his nose under after him. Michael shoved him back, not too roughly—and apparently not roughly enough, because he came right back under, whimpering and wagging his tail.

"He always said it helped," Free said, hopelessly hopeful. "With the nightmares. Said it helped to have something easy to do."

"I ain't him," said Michael, muffled by his pillow.

"It was just a thought. Would you drink coffee, if I made it?"

"If you made it? Hell no."

"Aw, what? Well, I'm going to go make it anyway. More for me. I reckon Tuggey and Gabriel will drink it, and then there'll be none for you at all."

"Fine, y'all can have you a li'l coffee hoedown. Too early for all that shit."

Muttering and pouting, Free got up and left the room. Silence filled the space where he'd been. With nothing left to hold it at bay, the dream came creeping back. Michael shivered and put an arm around Gavin, trying to ignore the ringing in his ears.

Listen.

It had been less than two days since Body Number Seven had turned up, and things had already gone to hell. The five of them were holed up in a moldy undertaker's cottage on the outskirts of London, more than an hour's train ride from Free's flat. Apparently, the owner was a friend of Gabriel's, although she wouldn't say who exactly they were or why they weren't there anymore. The grounds (cottage and cemetery together) were bounded by a tall stone wall, and the cottage's windows didn't open, and there were thick crossbeams to bar the doors and padlocks for the gates. There was also a telephone, which Michael was determined not to mistrust—specifically because Free and Gabriel had expected him to.

But it was all necessary because, as of yesterday evening, there was a warrant out for Michael's arrest.

Some wise-ass in the police department had put together Body Number Seven, the fight at the canal, and the first four victims. Michael suspected there was a certain amount of grudge involved—it wasn't like he'd made himself too friendly to the London police, and a few officers in particular were probably out for his blood. He was sure the Devil had something to do with it, too. The clear implication was that, unless he followed through on his promise of another game, everything he'd been given for it would be taken back.

Including Gavin.

In all honesty, he didn't mind all that much. The sooner he could get it over with, the better. He was pretty sure the Devil would come to collect as soon as he was left alone for any length of time—problem was, Lindsay and Free and Gabriel and especially Gavin weren't keen on leaving him alone at all. In his more paranoid moments, he was convinced they knew he'd been up to no good. He'd been laid up for most of the past couple days, completely wrecked from the hours of wandering London's streets looking for Gavin, or else he would have taken steps to get away from them already. He was glad he hadn't, though. It had taken him until last night to realize that the Devil's deal was, at least in a minor way, busted.

He could make the argument that, since Gavin hadn't come back to him completely whole, the entire deal was forfeit, but he doubted he'd get away with it. A small concession was probably the best he could hope for, although he wasn't sure what he could ask that wouldn't put him into the same copper pot of boiling spite that Ryan had wound up in.

The smell of coffee wafted into the room, bringing Michael out of his thoughts. Gavin had taken up licking his arm, methodically soaking it with dog spit. Michael ruffled his ears and propped himself up, wiping off the slobber on his sheets.

"Leastways I know you ain't got no agenda," he said. Gavin thumped the bed with his tail and whimpered. "Hey, quit. Get up, c'mon, you prob'ly need breakfast or somethin'."

By the time Michael had gotten dressed and made his way to the kitchen, the other three were up and about, too. There was coffee, and porridge, and toast with jam, none of which appealed much to Michael. He had some coffee to make his morning dose of laudanum a little less unpleasant, and a piece of toast to appease Lindsay.

"How're you feelin'?" she asked, while he choked down a stale, tasteless mouthful.

"Fine," he said.

"Are you?"

"OK, I'm pissed off and exhausted and hurtin', but seein' as how that's always the case, I just shorten it to fine."

"Are the nightmares usual, too?" said Free. Michael glared at him.

"You shut your tattlin' mouth," he hissed.

"We all know it's usual, Michael, calm down," said Lindsay.

"I am calm, go to hell."

"All right, that's enough of that," Gabriel said, easing herself into a chair at the table. "We've bought ourselves some time, coming here, but not an abundance of it. If I recall correctly, the way things stand is thus: Free is next on Haywood's list, Jones is wanted for five murders he didn't commit, we've yet to find the Bible verse we suspect accompanied the latest victim, and we're still no closer to finding Gruchy or Haywood. I think that's more than enough to be getting on with, don't you?"

"Right," said Free, sobering instantly. "Yes. Though frankly, I don't know that having the Bible verse would help, really, would it. We know what he's about at this point, and I reckon the notes are mainly vanity projects on his part. They've not brought us any closer to finding him so far, and really it's more dangerous than it's worth for any of us to go back to the scene of the crime."

Lindsay set a hot cup of coffee down in front of him. "Mr. Free, I do believe that is the single most sensible thing I've ever heard you say."

"Well, it—it's Gwen, at the moment, actually," Free mumbled, staring into the cup as he wrapped his hands around it. "Haven't brought the dress, though, have I, so. . . ."

Lickety-split, Lindsay took off her shawl and draped it over his—or probably her—shoulders. Free looked up, startled. Lindsay pinched his—her cheek.

"Merry Christmas," she said. "Li'l late, but we been busy, so."

"Oh," said Free. Her cheeks turned pink. She pulled the shawl tighter around her, clasped it closed with one hand. "Thank you. I—feel a bit of a pillock now, though. I've not gotten you anything, have I."

"Don't worry about it. You been busy. Anyhow, you got me that dress, way back when, so I figure you were just early."

"I got you that dress, 'scuse the hell outta you," said Michael.

"You just paid for it, she picked it out."

"Yeah, I got it!"

"Money ain't a substitute for care and effort, Michael."

"Whatever," he muttered, sinking down in his chair. "Fuckin' months ago, anyhow, it don't count."

"Actually, it was twenty days ago," said Free. She sipped her coffee.

"Gracious, has it really only been twenty days?" Gabriel said, rubbing her forehead. "It certainly feels like months."

"Hey, bright side, makes me feel a li'l less shitty about how much we've gotten done," said Lindsay.

"We done fuckin' nothin'," Michael said, snapping the remainder of his toast in half. "'Cept lose Gruchy, fuck up my arm and Gavin's tail, get Gabriel shot, wind up on a Wanted list and oh, yeah, let five whole people get killt. So we done less than nothin' in twenty days. We was better off twenty days ago."

"That's not true!" said Free. "We've—er . . . we found Haywood, didn't we? Briefly, obviously, but we did. And we've worked out what his plan is, and—most importantly—used that knowledge to keep him from killing me. So it's not all bad, we've done some things."

"Uh-huh. And how long's it usually take you to solve your cases, when you get 'em?"

"You—look, you can't really put a hard time-limit on these things, it takes as long as it takes, it's really not fair, apples to oranges, you know—"

"So like a couple weeks?"

"Usually a few days," Free mumbled into his—her coffee. "Sometimes as long as a month, though."

"'Cept y'all usually don't know whodunnit."

"No, but we usually know where to find them."

"Yeah, I been havin' thoughts about that," said Lindsay. "I been sayin' for a while now that Haywood and Gruchy are in the same place, and that if we wanna find either of 'em, we're best off lookin' for Gruchy. Haywood's not gonna be leavin' him alone more'n a few hours at a time, 'cuz he's gotta keep comin' back to feed him and such. So we really oughtta be lookin' for someplace where Haywood could keep Gruchy, without either of 'em gettin' found. That'll put us on the right track, 'cuz I bet there ain't too many places in London you could keep a whole livin' person without anybody findin' out about it."

"You might be surprised," Free said. She looked about ten years older all of a sudden.

"He's gotta have access to food and water, first off," Lindsay forged on. "Gotta be someplace out-of-the-way, so folks won't stumble on it. Gotta have somethin' to muffle the noise, or otherwise Gruchy woulda just yelled 'til somebody found him. Gotta have sanitary facilities of some kind. And he's gotta have some way of keepin' Gruchy from just walkin' out, too, so prob'ly doors he can lock and windows too small to climb out."

"Locked doors wouldn't stop Dan," said Free. "He's a dab hand at lock-picking. And even when he's not got the tools for it, I've seen him kick down more than a few doors."

Lindsay nodded. "So maybe he's got him restrained. Prob'ly not tied all the way up, 'cuz that ain't a long-term solution, but somethin' to keep him from runnin' off. And the infrastructure to support it, too."

"I may regret asking this, but how do you know so much about keeping someone prisoner?" Gabriel asked.

"It ain't all that different than keepin' an unruly patient," said Lindsay. "Some folks don't wanna stay at the doctor's when they oughtta, and so you gotta hang on to 'em."

"What're you lookin' at me for?" Michael demanded.

Lindsay just raised her eyebrows before turning back to Gabriel. "Usually we don't get it done by tyin' 'em up or whatever. Usually we just watch 'em, but that takes two folks 'cuz it's twenty-four hours a day, and that obviously ain't gonna work for Haywood. But every livin' bein' needs food and water and someplace to put it when it comes out the other end, and nothin' and nobody is gonna be easy to keep if they don't wanna be kept, so Haywood must've got him one hell of a spot, to have kept Gruchy this long without anybody findin' out."

"Could be keepin' him drugged up," said Michael. "Couple drops of laudanum at every meal, he won't be doin' nothin' but sleepin'."

Lindsay made a face. "That's an awful expensive solution, and dangerous besides. He'd have to keep dosin' him higher and higher the more time went on. It'd get to bein' fatal pretty quick, especially if Haywood missed a dose for some reason."

"He ain't tryin' to keep him alive a long time. Just long enough to kill him at the right point."

"Guess it's possible," said Lindsay. "But it's risky for sure. Plus, I don't think it'd be the only thing he's usin' to keep Gruchy down. He ain't stupid."

"It may not be the case," Free said slowly, frowning into his—her coffee, "that nobody's found out. It may just be that nobody's thought to say anything."

"Oh, so now you're gonna tell me this town's so fucked up, there's places you can keep a whole-ass person locked up for weeks, and won't nobody think it's suspicious?" Michael demanded.

"That's a significant understatement, actually," said Free. "And it's not been weeks, it's been days."

Michael bit back his objections. He choked down a bite of toast, though it tasted like ash. He reached a hand under the table and found Gavin already waiting for him, wiry fur and wet nose and hopeful snuffling. Michael fiddled with his ear. There was an itch at the back of his head that wouldn't go away, a lingering smell of lightning and mud.

Listen.

"OK," Michael sighed. "Where do we start?"

Chapter Text

Michael had never been anywhere near an asylum before, and if he'd had any choice, he wouldn't have come near this one, either. It was a broad, low, morose building, brick walls laced with ivy roots and every window barred. The horses that had drawn their carriage stamped and whickered, muddy past the ankle from the long slog up the drive. The grounds were circled by a stone wall, topped with iron spikes that glistened in the damp.The whole place was silent as the grave.

"Hell of a goddamn start," he muttered, glancing over the gray, barren grounds. A fog was moving in, swallowing the distant lights of London. Gavin trotted all around the wide front doorstep, nose to the ground, doing his best to tie everyone up with his brand new leash.

"It is singularly horrible," said Free. He—well, probably she, since she was still wearing Lindsay's shawl—she was standing as far from the door as possible, her hands clenched on each other behind her back. "But I reckon it's the best place to keep somebody unruly when you don't want too many questions asked."

"Have you ever been to a place like this?" Gabriel asked Lindsay, keeping her voice down. "In a—professional capacity, I mean."

"Once or twice, back in the Chicago days," she said. "I ain't itchin' to get back into one."

"No, really? Can't imagine why."

The front door opened, letting out a wash of warm air. Michael reeled Gavin back in, much to Gavin's displeasure. A handsome, brown-skinned man stepped out of the asylum, his black hair perfectly coiffed and his thick beard perfectly trimmed. He wore a white coat over a blue suit and a bored, vaguely annoyed expression.

"So, Free, darkening my doorstep yet again," he said, eyeing Free up. "Which of my patients have you come to upset this time? Or are you checking yourself in, finally?"

"Neither," said Free, whose hands had clenched so tightly behind her back that she was cutting off the circulation to her own fingers. "Dr. Kohli, may I introduce Mr. Jones, Dr. Tuggey, and Detective Gabriel. Everyone, this is Dr. Kohli, head of East End Asylum. He's convinced I'm mad."

"Doctor, are you?" said Dr. Kohli, fixing on Lindsay immediately. "Where'd you go to school?"

"Chicago," said Lindsay. "And you?"

"Cambridge. I didn't know they let women be doctors."

"The times, they are a-changin'," Lindsay said diplomatically.

"If you don't mind, Dr. Kohli, we did have business," said Free. "You may have noticed that Mr. Gruchy is not with us today."

"Who?" said Kohli, frowning at him.

"My—Daniel Gruchy, you know, my partner?"

"Oh, right, Corporal Wife-Beater. How's that sister of yours holding up?"

"She's fine," Free said icily.

"Come inside, then, the lot of you. We'll talk in my office. Bloody freezing out here, innit."

Without waiting for a response, he turned on his heel and went back inside. Rolling his—her eyes, Free followed, and Gabriel went after her. Michael looked to Lindsay.

"You figure they'll let dogs in this place?" he asked.

"Well, he ain't say nothin' about it, so—" She shrugged. Michael shrugged back. The two of them went into the asylum, though Lindsay had to take Gavin's leash so Michael could keep both hands for his wheels.

The interior of the asylum was markedly different than the exterior. The gas lamps were kept bright, the walls and floors were clean and shiny, and it was so warm that Michael was sweating before they'd gone ten paces. Nurses were scattered here and there, some accompanying patients and some not. The patients themselves seemed calm enough, watching with mild to moderate interest as Dr. Kohli and the rest of them swept through.

"Gotta say," said Lindsay, looking all around, "this ain't like the other asylums I been to. Quieter, for one thing."

"Yeah, we do things a bit differently here at East End," Dr. Kohli said over his shoulder.

"Stupid name," Free muttered under her breath. "Nowhere near the bloody East End."

Kohli either didn't hear or ignored her. "My contemporaries all think I'm a hack, of course, but they'd think that regardless of what I did, so I might as well try my more modern methods. Funny, innit, how treating lunatics like people is a fringe position. And Free, I don't think you're mad, I think you've got an abnormal brain and I want to study it."

"Whilst it's still in my skull, or. . . ?"

"No preference," said Kohli, showing a bit of tooth in his smile.

The office he led them into was small and cluttered, with nearly every horizontal surface occupied by books, papers, folders or files. One large window behind the desk looked out on the grounds (or rather, at the moment, the fog). Kohli dropped into a worn high-backed chair behind the desk and plucked up the newspaper in front of him.

"You're on this butchery case, aren't you?" he said, sparing Free a glance. "The Press seems to think you are, anyway, and it's grim enough, so I reckon you've stuck your nose in. Five bodies in a week, now that's a lunatic I'd like to dig into. 'Course, you must've known that, seeing as you've brought him."

"I—what?" said Free, thrown off-balance.

Kohli gestured to Michael. "The police gave me a nice, thorough description, in addition to what the papers have been running. They reckoned he might turn up here some way or another, what with all the shouting in the street and the random acts of violence."

"This is a poor time for jokes, Dr. Kohli," Gabriel said quietly.

He glanced at her with a dismissal written all over his face, and his eyes got stuck. His lips pinched together under his beard. He sighed and dropped the paper, sat back in his chair and spread his hands.

"Look, right, we all know you're in dire straits or you wouldn't be here," he said. "I know that dog—" he pointed sharply to Gavin— "has already mauled one poor sod, and I'm not aiming to be the second. I know your Mr. Jones here is wanted for those murders, and I'm inclined to think he hasn't done them, which means the bloke who did is still out there. Now, I could have Mr. Jones—and all of you, actually—detained here until the constabulary pop round to lock you up, but the good news is, I want something from you, as well. So, I reckon we can work something out."

"What is it you want?" Free asked, pulled taut. The gentle gurgle of a simmering anger slipped out under the lid of her composure.

"I've been keeping up with this case," said Kohli, tapping the newspaper. "There's loads of chatter about it, have you heard? A case study in depravity. Nobody's ever seen the like, and every alienist and psychologist in Europe wants a go at the bloke. Now, I reckon I've seen enough of your work to know you're going to catch him, sooner or later, and once you do: I want to keep him for you. I don't want him arrested, I don't want him convicted, I don't want him hanged. I don't want a living soul in the bloody criminal justice system—if any of them have got souls—to know about it. I want this lunatic of yours all to myself, alive and well, 'til I've got at least one book out of him."

"Hell no," Michael spat, clenching his hands on his wheels. "That sonnuva bitch is goin' straight to Hell, and no-place else."

Kohli raised a thick, immaculate eyebrow. "Well well, is that the rancid stench of a vendetta I smell?"

"Suck a dick and choke on it."

"Jones, that's not very helpful," said Free. "Dr. Kohli, this murderer out there has got my partner. He sent us his ear. He—"

"Have you still got it?"

"He's aiming to kill us. The four of us, and Gruchy as well. What I need from you is this: is Gruchy here?"

The other eyebrow joined the first. Kohli sat forward and folded his hands on his desk.

"You're asking me for a major breach of patient confidentiality, Mr. Free," he said.

"And you're asking me to help you shelter a mass-murderer from the law."

"Wouldn't be the first person I've sheltered for you."

"A simple yes or no will do."

"I've got no patients under the name Gruchy, no."

"You've met him a dozen times, you mingy little slag, just—"

"Now Free, that ain't too helpful," Michael interrupted, because Kohli was clearly enjoying the tirade. "But hey, while we're stopped, I got a question."

"Fire away, Mr. Jones," said Kohli.

"You get folks in here losin' pieces a lot? Fingers and toes, that kinda thing."

"Of course not," Kohli said, scowling. "What sort of bloody carnival d'you think I'm running, here?"

"So I guess you'd prob'ly notice, if somebody turned up one day missin' a li'l off the top or the sides."

"I'll say! I'd have someone's head on a bloody platter."

"Uh-huh. And you put any heads on platters lately?"

"No, I have not, thank you very much."

Michael smirked and inclined his head. "Naw, much obliged to you, Doc." He turned to Free. "Gruchy ain't here. Let's mosey."

Free opened her mouth to object. Gabriel elbowed her in the side. Kohli got to his feet, floundering.

"Now wait, wait just one moment, you don't know that. He—could've been brought in after the injury occurred!"

"Then you'd prob'ly remember him," said Michael. "Unless you get a lotta folks comin' in with missin' ears."

"Look, I run the place, but I don't personally see every single patient who comes in the moment they walk through the door. I've got to sleep sometimes, not to mention the care and keeping of the other two hundred bloody patients. If it's been less than a week, no, I can't guarantee I would've seen him."

"Ain't that a cryin' shame," Michael said. "Considerin' who woulda brought him in."

Kohli's mouth formed a perfect O. His eyes got wide and bright. He rounded his desk and dashed right out of the office, shouting for a nurse.

Michael gently took Gavin's leash from Lindsay and flicked it like a horse's reigns. With the other hand, he gave his wheel a good shove, just to get in motion. Gavin trotted after Kohli, pulling Michael along behind him.

"Whoops, uh-oh," said Michael. "And now this damn dog's draggin' me off. Aw, sheeit, here I go, no stoppin' him now. Gonna drag me through the whole buildin' at this rate."

"Jones, you're a weasel, but I must admit I'm growing rather fond of you," said Gabriel, holding the door open for him.

"Ain't so bad yourself. Now hurry up, before Dr. Difficult catches on."


 

Despite Kohli's claims of a more humane approach—and the clear evidence that he was in earnest about it—there was still a part of East End Asylum that was essentially a prison. Free took them straight to it, moving with the assurance of habit and the speed of hope. The Secure Wing, as she called it, was two stories, and Free wanted to start on the upper floor. When Michael pointed out how much of a problem this would be for him, personally, she suggested they split up. Lindsay and Gabriel promptly pointed out how much of a problem that was for everyone.

"Fine," Free sighed, making faces and fidgeting. "But it's not going to be pleasant."

And indeed, about halfway down the first floor hallway, it got unpleasant.

"Well well well, if it isn't the Nose of London, snuffling round where he's got no business, as usual."

The young woman's voice stopped Free in her tracks, like a parent caught out in some shallow hypocrisy by their child. She turned slowly, fixing her face.

"Hello, Margaret," she said, clipped and professional. "And how are you?"

Inside her cell—and it was a cell, no denying it—the woman called Margaret watched with flinty eyes and a razor smile. She had a head full of unruly black hair, a face full of freckles, and the heavy kind of build that would weather a famine and come out the other side punching.

"Been a while since you visited," she said, ignoring the question. "Years, it feels like. But I know you remember. How long has it been, Free?"

"Eighteen weeks," she ground out.

"Cor! Eighteen whole weeks. I'd almost think you didn't want to see me. Who's your friends?"

"You know, as charming as your company always is, I didn't actually come to see you, so—"

"Oh, I know that," said Margaret, sneering. "You'd love to forget about me, wouldn't you. You'd love it if the whole fucking world forgot about me."

"Language, young lady."

"Carve a chunk off my arse and choke on it," she retorted.

"I like her," Michael said aside to Lindsay.

"Margaret, we've been through this a dozen times," said Free. "The only reason you're in here—instead of in prison—is 'cos of my respect for your father and his love for you."

Margaret blew a loud, wet raspberry and made a rude gesture. "He ruined my life and killed my mum. I ought to get to pay him back for it."

"For God's sake, Sarah died of the 'flu, you—insufferable young woman."

"It wouldn't have killed her if she hadn't spent bloody years of her life being beaten on by that fucking ogre. It's his fault she's dead and it's his fault I'm locked up in here."

"That's your fault, Margaret."

"What a load of bollocks!" she said, laughing. "He ruined my life, and you've got the gall to blame it on me?"

"I never said that, nobody ever said that. No one's denying you had a rough start on life, and no one's denying he was in the wrong, but it was your choice to hunt him down and try to kill him after he very graciously excused himself from—"

"After he very graciously abandoned us, you mean."

"Your mother asked him to go, and he went. His respect for her wishes doesn't constitute abandonment. Would you have preferred that he stay?"

"Yeah, 'cos then you wouldn't've stopped me from killing him. He ruined my life."

"You made a very poor choice that would have ruined your life if I hadn't stopped you!"

"For nothing, then, 'cos it's already ruined. I've made up my mind, and you're not going to keep me off him forever. I'll get out someday, and when I do—" She mimed slitting her throat with her thumb and made a grisly noise through her teeth.

"Miss Margaret," said Gabriel, uncomfortable, "would you mind terribly if I asked how old you are?"

"What's it to you?" Margaret said. "And, for that matter, who the hell are you?"

"My name is Oluwaseyi Gabriel."

Margaret snorted. "What sort of a mealy-mouthed name is that?"

"It's the name I was given," said Gabriel, with impressive patience, "and I'm very fond of it. I'm also a detective, if that helps."

"Had my bloody fill of detectives, I'll tell you that. You work with the Nose?"

"Sometimes. At the moment, I'm just trying to understand the situation, and knowing your age will help me to do that."

Margaret tossed her head imperiously. "Fine. I'm twenty-th—"

"She's fifteen," Free interrupted coldly. Margaret glared at her.

"Is that true?" Gabriel asked Margaret, using the same gentle, quiet voice she'd used on the girl who'd stumbled upon Number Eight.

"And what if it is?" Margaret said. "Being a murderess is a better career than most get. Plenty of girls are already married and pumping out children at fifteen."

"No, they absolutely are not," said Free, aghast. "Who told you that?"

Gabriel fixed her with a warning look. Free shut her mouth and folded her arms. Gabriel turned back to Margaret.

"You attempted to murder your father, is that correct?" she asked. "And Mr. Free prevented you from carrying it out?"

"Not by a wide margin," Margaret leered. "And then he locked me up in here to rot 'til the day I die, like I'm some shameful deviant instead of an angel of divine retribution."

"Oh, come off it," said Free, rolling her eyes.

"That ain't helpin'," said Lindsay, but Margaret was already snapping back.

"I'm doing what's right!" she insisted, banging her hand on the table. "I was bringing justice, and you got in the way! You protected that monster, 'cos you're a selfish git who's never given a flying fuck about anyone but yourself!"

"I stopped you to save your life," said Free. "You could have left well enough alone and had your whole life ahead of you, but no, instead you went on this mad crusade for—"

"I'm not mad!" she snarled, leaping out of her chair and knocking it to the ground.

Free yelped and ducked behind Michael. Gavin barked, lunging in front of both of them. Michael wrapped the leash around his hand. Lindsay and Gabriel exchanged a quick, worried glance. Margaret took a deep breath, clenching her fists, and let it out again.

"I'm not mad," she said again, in a much more composed voice. "I had every right to do what I did, and you had no right to stop me."

"If I hadn't, you would've hanged, you stupid little tart," Free shot over Michael's shoulder.

"OK, all right, I think that's enough of all that," said Lindsay. "Obviously y'all got some difficulties to work out, but we got places to be and things to do, so I think y'all better pick it up some other time."

"You're absolutely right, Dr. Tuggey," said Free, pouncing on the opportunity. "Ta-ta, Margaret, it's been lovely, see you in another eighteen weeks—"

"Oh, I doubt it'll be that long, Free," Margaret said, in a voice that would have been threatening if it came from an adult. "I really doubt it."

Free ignored her, shooing Michael and Gavin along and nattering about work to do. Gabriel hung back, and therefore Lindsay hung back, too.

"Miss Margaret," Gabriel said softly. "Would you mind terribly if I prayed for you?"

Margaret guffawed. "What, here and now?"

"Not unless you desperately want me to."

"I don't give a flying fuck what you do on your own time."

"All right. Then I will. Would you mind if I came and visited you again, in the future?"

Margaret said something else, but by then Michael was too far away to hear it. He glanced over at Free, whose polished demeanor had dulled as soon as they'd gotten out of Margaret's eyesight.

"Does Gruchy know?" Michael asked.

"He's got no idea," said Free, keeping her eyes straight ahead and her face steady. "And if there's any mercy left in Heaven, he'll never find out."

Chapter Text

Although they combed the asylum top to bottom, Michael and the others found neither hide nor hair of Gruchy, and not a single whiff of Ryan. The failure of their venture was confirmed by Dr. Kohli, who caught up with them on their way out. He'd checked with all the nurses and looked through all the records from the past week, and nobody matching Gruchy's description had been brought in.

"Well! Grand, thanks for nothing," Free said to him, a brittle veneer of unconcern over a deep and abiding dread.

"Nothing?" said Kohli, raising an eyebrow. "When you've had free roam of my whole bloody building all afternoon? I don't call that nothing."

"Nothing useful, then."

"Useful or not, we had a deal. I still want that lunatic of yours, when you catch up with him."

"Your interest has been noted, Dr. Kohli," said Free. "Ta-ta, can't stay to chat. Places to be, lunatics to catch."

It wasn't until their carriage was off the grounds of the asylum, slogging through the thin rain and the thick mud, that somebody broached the subject of Margaret.

"Free," said Gabriel, "who is that young woman?"

Free waved a hand, not looking at her. "Oh, daughter of a family friend, delinquent youth, you know the sort."

"Guinevere," she said sternly.

Free deflated. She put her head in her hands, her eyes closed and her face tight with pain. Gavin went to her, worming out from under Michael's chair to stick his nose up between her knees. Michael coughed into his hand. Free made a constrained, helpless gesture.

"That's uh . . . she's Gruchy's kid," said Michael. "Ain't she?"

Free nodded. Lindsay sucked in a breath through her teeth, wincing. Gabriel pursed her lips and sighed.

"I was afraid that might be the case," she said. "What happened?"

"Seems pretty obvious, doesn't it?" Free mumbled. "Couple of years back, she tried to kill him. I stopped her, and put her away here under a fake name. Dan doesn't know. Thinks it was a nasty bout of the 'flu."

"What was it, actually?" Lindsay asked.

"Arsenic," said Free.

Lindsay shook her head. "Ain't creative, but it'll get you dead enough. So then why's she in an asylum instead of in prison?"

"Honestly? 'Cos it'd break Dan's poor heart. He'd rather die than see his little Maggie behind bars—let alone, hanged! He'd rather die than know that—than know what—"

"What became of her?" Gabriel guessed.

"What he made her into," Michael said. Free pointed at him.

"He'd think it was all his fault," she said. "He'd never forgive himself, never. It'd kill him. It would absolutely kill him, and I . . . couldn't. I couldn't. If I'm being honest, I don't think she'll ever change her mind, and I don't much care, either. She can rot her whole life away in there, so long as Dan never finds out about it."

"That is a human child, Mrs. Gruchy," Gabriel snapped. "Not some hardened criminal, not some mass-murderer, not some soulless monster you can throw out with the rubbish. She's a child. She needs help."

"She doesn't want help," said Free. "She won't listen, to me or to anybody."

"She's fifteen, of course she won't. That doesn't mean she ought to be abandoned."

"You're welcome to try and get through to her. Doubt you'll get very far, but you're welcome to try."

"If the fate of a child weren't involved, I'd be tempted to let you stew in your own mess until you cleaned it up, but Margaret doesn't deserve your incompetence."

"You're angry with me now, but just you wait. She's got a talent for getting under one's skin."

"Yeah, hey, not that it ain't fun to watch Free get h—uh, her ass handed to her, but we got shit to be doin'," said Michael. "This place was a big fat dead end, so where do we go next?"

"You tell me," said Free. "You're the one who knows Haywood best."

"Yeah, but I dunno how the hell he'd keep somebody. . . ."

He trailed off. His hand drifted to the back of his neck. There was a small scab there, a pinprick from the point of Ryan's knife. Like a snowfall, bits and pieces of old news settled over his machinery, blotting out the fine details to clarify the whole picture.

"Risinger," he said slowly.

"What—what about him?" said Lindsay, fighting down a squirm.

"What if . . . it wun't enough?" said Michael. "What if the lynchin', and what Lindsay done to him, what if that wun't enough for Ryan? It sure as hell wun't enough for Turney, we know that, but—somethin' about that whole thing ain't never sat right with me. The cut that paralyzed him was awful precise. Damn precise, or otherwise damn lucky. And he—Haywood threatened to do somethin' similar to Turney, too, when she was gettin' too friendly with me. Before we found out what happened to Risinger. Even Turney pointed out how fuckin' suspicious that was, 'cept I ain't listen to her 'cuz she was a piece of shit."

"You—you figure Haywood killed Risinger, too?" Lindsay asked.

"No, Turney killt Risinger. I'm as sure of that as I am of anythin'.But I don't think she cut his spine. Haywood said somethin', right before he killt her, about—takin' credit for somebody else's work. I think Haywood cut Risinger's spine for her, whether or not she knew it was him that did it. I think that's the kinda skill you might could get real good at, with enough practice. I think that's the kinda thing that'd keep somebody real still, for a real long time."

"Christ alive," Free whispered, burying her face in her hands.

"If that's the case," said Gabriel, "they could be nearly anywhere."

Lindsay shook her head. "Not for long. Gruchy'd need near constant care just to keep him alive more'n a couple days."

"A hospital, then?"

"Lemme put it to you this way: if Haywood paralyzed him like Michael thinks, then by now, Gruchy's either in a hospital or he's dead. That's the only two ways about it."

"Hospitals, then," said Free, hoarse and choked. "Hospitals it is."


 

But much like the asylum, the hospitals gave up no real clues. There were plenty of men in London who matched Gruchy's description to a greater or lesser extent, some even with the tell-tale missing ear, but every rabbit hole they chased down met a dead end. It was well past midnight when they returned to their hidey-hole outside the city. Gabriel went straight to bed, waxen and exhausted from all the running around. Gavin trailed along behind her, keeping a respectful distance and a pitiful droop.

"Hey, Doc," Michael said, when the bedroom door had closed behind them. "Is uh . . . is Gabriel doin' all right?"

Lindsay shrugged and blew out a breath. "I suspect she ain't doin' as well as she wants everybody to think, but I've tried bringin' it up to her and she insists she's fine, so—" Another shrug.

"Surely, you can convince her to stay home," said Free. "Even just for one day. I'm sure even a day of rest would do her a world of good."

"I'm sure it would, too, and I'm just as sure that I ain't gonna change her mind."

"Well . . . you could try, couldn't you?"

"You think I ain't been tryin'? She don't wanna sit this out. Not even for a day."

"But that's ridiculous, she's been shot!"

"Would you stay home? Even for just one day?"

"Well—no, but—but it's my husband, isn't it."

Lindsay sighed and put a hand on Free's shoulder. "Gwen, lemme tell you somethin'."

"It's Gav, actually, at the moment. Or Free, whichever you prefer."

"OK, Gav, lemme tell you somethin'. This here house is full of crazy people. Now I know we all like to pretend that Olu and me are the sensible ones—and we are—but she and I both got way too steep of a disadvantage to be sensible all the time. She ain't pushin' herself this hard purely outta dedication to the cause. I suspect it's either that she's worried what'll happen to her if she don't, or she just ain't got any experience not pushin' herself as hard as she can. Maybe both! I sure as hell know that's the pickle I'm in."

"Wait, hang on, what?" said Michael, scowling. Lindsay turned to him, wearing a look of strained patience.

"If I don't keep up, y'all are gonna leave me behind," she said. "I know that, even if y'all don't. I get to be too much trouble, y'all are gonna run off where I can't trouble you. I push even just a tiny bit too hard, and y'all push back as hard as y'all can. I'm walkin' on a wire here every single day, and I gotta do it as fast as y'all go on normal ground. Olu's doin' the same trick with both hands tied behind her back. I want her to rest. I'd love it if everybody here could take a day and not push themselves just as hard as they possibly can. I don't expect I'm gonna get that, so instead I just gotta hope we catch up with Haywood before one of y'all drops."

"Hey, if you got any bright ideas on how to make that go faster, I'm all ears," Michael said.

"I don't, but Olu does."

"Let's hear 'em."

She glanced at Free. "It ain't my place to take the words outta her mouth."

"So go get her."

"Were you not here when we were just talkin' about how she's pushin' herself too hard? Let the woman rest, Michael, for cryin' out loud."

"I'm not going to sit about doing nothing 'til morning," said Free.

"Generally we call that sleepin', and you really oughtta," said Lindsay.

Free scoffed. "I do it all the time. Sleep is for when one's not on a case. There's too much to be done. Let's hear this plan of Gabriel's, come on, chop-chop. The sooner you tell me, the sooner you can sleep."

"I really ain't comfortable—"

With a soft creaking of floorboards, Gabriel came back in. Gavin was not with her—Michael suspected it was because he was already asleep somewhere warm.

"The walls aren't that thick," Gabriel said to Lindsay's alarmed look. She lowered herself into the nearest chair and sighed. "I ought to have mentioned it before now, anyway."

"Olu, honey, you don't have to cater to these sons of bitches," said Lindsay, coming to sit next to her. "You oughtta be restin'."

"Listening to all of you argue isn't particularly restful," she said dryly. With a deep breath, she turned to Free and said: "I think it's time we stopped looking for Gruchy."

"You what?" Free cried.

"Hell, for once, I actually agree with you," said Michael.

"And we ought to stop looking for Haywood, as well."

"What?"

"We're no closer to finding him than we were a week ago. We're running ourselves into the ground for nothing. But: we're fairly certain Haywood's next target is Free, correct?"

"I guess, but—"

"And we're relatively safe and secure here, yes?"

"That don't mean—"

"Yes, we sure are," said Lindsay.

"Just what are you proposing, Gabriel?" Free demanded, as angry as Michael had ever seen him.

"I'm proposing we set a trap," said Gabriel.

Michael snorted. "Hell no. I'm goin' to bed, this is fuckin' stupid."

"Would you just hear her out, you stubborn sack of shit?" Lindsay snapped.

"Why? The whole thing's dumb as hell."

"You ain't heard the whole thing, idjit."

Michael ground his teeth and sighed through his nose. Lindsay gestured to Gabriel to continue.

"Thank you," Gabriel said. "The way I see it, we've got a reasonably good handle on Haywood's goals. We know he's desperate and taking big risks. We also know that wherever he's gone, we can't find it. If we get him to come to us, everything gets simpler."

"And then Dan starves to death whilst we're trying to make Haywood talk, what're you on about?" said Free.

"You don't have to make Haywood talk, he just does that," said Lindsay. "He won't want Gruchy dead out of order. Right, Michael?"

"I guess," Michael said again, rubbing the arms of his chair.

"Right, so he'll have a vested interest in not lettin' him starve to death."

"It's just gonna make him wanna get away that much more. And anyhow, how the hell are we s'posed to get him to come here when we don't know how to find him?"

"I'm not sure," said Gabriel. "I was hoping we could . . . workshop that, together. Lindsay thought perhaps we could take an advert out in the paper, or—"

"Oh, so you've talked about this with her, have you?" Free cut in.

"Don't interrupt her, Mr. Free," said Lindsay, drawing herself up like a thunderhead.

Free did not say anything else.

"Lindsay thought," Gabriel said again, "perhaps we could take an advert out in the paper, or something similar, since we've got a network in place there already."

"Yeah, and then the cops come a-knockin' and we all get arrested," said Michael. "Take an ad out in the paper, horseshit."

"So we find some other way of gettin' the information to him!" said Lindsay, throwing her hands up. "Jesus Christ, why's the whole thing gotta be perfect before you'll listen to a single damn word of it?"

Listen.

A chill slipped through Michael's veins like a needle pulling thread. All the hair on his arms and the back of his neck stood on end. A warm, sweaty feeling enveloped him like wet blankets.

"I'll . . . think about it," he mumbled, looking somewhere other than at Lindsay or Free.

"You can't be serious," said Free, trembling where he stood. "You can't seriously be suggesting that we stop looking for Dan. I know the other two are, but—but I would've expected more from you, Gabriel."

"I'm suggesting we go about finding him in a slightly different way," said Gabriel. "One that might actually work. I'm not talking about leaving him for the wolves."

"That's exactly what you're talking about, and I won't have it! You don't care what happens to him, any of you, he's just a—a means to an end, and you'd happily let him die if it meant getting your hands on Haywood sooner—or even if it didn't!"

"Hang on, now that ain't—"

But Free stormed out before Michael could finish his objection. Michael sighed and rolled his eyes and shook his head.

"Don't you roll your eyes at him, Michael Jones," Lindsay said, folding her arms and glaring at him.

"I wun't."

"You sure enough did. And you made it real clear to Free just how few shits you give about gettin' Gruchy back alive, so don't go actin' like he's bein' unreasonable for rememberin'."

"He is bein' unreasonable, though."

"You are such a jackass," she muttered. "C'mon, Olu, we both oughtta be restin'. We'll pick up with the jackasses in the mornin'."

"Thank you for trying," Gabriel said, as Lindsay helped her to her feet. "Could have done with a little more space to defend my own points, but I appreciate your enthusiasm."

"Sorry. I'll stand a li'l further back next time."

"Y'all're really just gonna walk outta here, huh," said Michael, seething for reasons he couldn't quite place.

Lindsay sighed and made a face. She ushered Gabriel off towards bed, only turning back to Michael when the bedroom door was shut.

"Just—why don't you try and have a li'l sympathy for once in your damn life, Michael," she said. "You ain't the only one who's hurtin'."

She went to follow Gabriel to bed. Michael fought with himself and lost.

"Hey, Doc," he said, just before she made it out. "It uh . . . it ain't a bad plan. And I will think on it. Y'know. To try and make it actually work."

"Well, at least you ain't a jackass and an idjit," she said, and left.


 

Michael woke at the tolling of four o'clock. The other bed in the spare room was unoccupied. Free was nowhere to be seen. Michael lay perfectly still, keeping his breathing slow and quiet, listening for any sound amiss, waiting for the other shoe to drop.

But it never came.

Carefully, he propped himself up. The room was completely empty—no bodies, living or dead, and no signs of where any of them might be. His chair was still next to his bed, right where he'd left it. Expecting Ryan to come through the door at any moment, he maneuvered himself out of bed and into the chair. He plucked up the dressing gown next to the bed and put it on backwards, just so he wasn't out in his shirtsleeves in the cold. As quietly as he could, he made his way out into the cottage.

It didn't take long to find Free, sitting at the kitchen table with a cold cup of tea. There was a sort of carousel on the table in front of him, on which was mounted an open-top drum with nine or twelve flat black sides, a vertical slit in the middle of each. Free was turning it with one finger. Michael stopped as soon as he noticed the tears on Free's face. Clearly this wasn't any of his business, or anybody else's. He turned to go back to bed, hoping like hell Free hadn't noticed him.

"Don't go," Free choked.

Michael hesitated. He rubbed his mouth, looking around for assistance. Gavin, Lindsay, and Gabriel were nowhere to be seen. Nobody was anywhere to be seen. It was just him and Free, alone in this kitchen in the dark. It was familiar enough that it made his skin crawl. It was familiar enough that he wanted nothing more than to leave the room, the house, the whole damn country.

"Please," said Free, quiet and vulnerable and in pain. "I—please."

With a gigantic sigh, Michael turned around and moved out of the doorway. He kept his distance from Free, wary of being clung to.

"All right, ain't like I got anyplace else to be," he said.

Free sniffled and wiped his eyes, unslumping himself. He cracked a wet smile, like a soggy envelope torn by incautious fingers.

"Thank you," he said. "I just—it's all just been a bit much, hasn't it. I told Dan he ought to—but of course he's never listened to anyone in his life, and that tremendous idiot heart of his never stops getting him into trouble. I told him it'd be the death of him. D'you know what he said to me, when I told him that?"

Michael said nothing. Free sniffled and wiped his eyes again.

"He said, if that's the hill I die on, then so be it. And oh, ta-dah, would you look at that, it's going to be. Or it already has been. Stupid, soft little idiot. Damn fool. I hate him."

Michael had to look away. It was too raw, too painful, like watching a surgery. He rubbed his palms on the arms of his chair.

"Haywood prob'ly ain't killt him," he mumbled.

"And you're sure of that, are you? You're not just saying it to make me stop crying?"

"I don't give a shit if you cry," said Michael, in the face of all evidence to the contrary. "Haywood prob'ly ain't killt him yet. He's got an order all planned out, he ain't gonna break from it unless Gruchy pisses him off real bad."

"Also not outside the realm of possibility."

"The hell you want me to say, then?"

"I want someone to tell me it's going to be all right," Free said, a pair of tears slipping down his face. "I want someone to tell me that my husband is coming home. I don't care if it's a lie, so long as they're lying well."

Since that was far outside Michael's capabilities, he decided not to even try. Free was too good at spotting when he was lying. It would probably only make things worse.

"What uh . . . what's that thing?" he said instead, pointing to the little carousel.

Free gave another soggy sniffle and wiped his nose on the back of his hand. "It's a zoetrope," he said. "Told you about them, didn't I? Spin it round, and—and there's sort of moving pictures inside. Have a look, just through any of those little slits there, I'll show you."

Mostly just to humor him, Michael came to the table and looked through one of the dozen slits in the side of the drum. Inside was a grainy photograph of a bride and groom, caught halfway through a moment of laughter. With one finger, Free spun the carousel—and sure enough, the photograph leapt to life. The bride and groom collapsed into each other's arms, the movement jerky and too rapid, before snapping back upright and collapsing again. Michael sat up and looked down into the drum, watched the same half-second moment loop over and over on the inside, each instance offset from the one next to it by just a hair's breadth of time. As the carousel slowed, the movement did, too, until the instant when it ceased being a moving picture and became a series of pictures, moving.

"Huh," said Michael. He spun the zoetrope again, using just one finger, as Free had done. Something in his chest ached terribly, watching this useless toy play its brief and harmless moment.

"Dan got it for me," Free said. He had his chin propped on his hand, watching the zoetrope with tears slipping down his cheeks. "Wedding present. Must've been hideously expensive to get it made, and I told him—I said, well that's very nice, Dan, but a bit useless, you know, since this is sort of—it's a rather poor imitation of how I remember everything anyway, isn't it. And he said actually it was mostly for him, 'cos he—"

Something halfway between a laugh and a sob escaped him. He took a kerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose like a trumpet. Michael said nothing, keeping his eyes on the zoetrope as it spun down to stillness again.

"He said he wanted to remember one thing the way I do," Free managed. "Even if it was a poor imitation. That he wanted to—that if it was going to be anything, he wanted it to be this. To be us. 'Cos—"

He broke off again, biting his lip and struggling to breathe. He pressed his knuckles to his mouth, trembling where he sat, tears slipping down his cheeks every time he blinked. The pain in Michael's chest swelled until it was unbearable, until he was sure it would kill him if he didn't do something to ease it.

So carefully, as carefully as he could, he put a hand on Free's shoulder.

"It's gone be all right, Free," he said. "Gruchy's gone be all right. We'll bring him home."

"You don't believe that," Free said thickly, leaning into the touch anyway.

"Well, I don't gotta believe it," said Michael. "It's true."

Which might have been overdoing it a little, because Free burst into tears and threw his arms around Michael's neck and started sobbing into his shoulder.

"All right, OK, uhh . . . there, there," said Michael, patting him on the back. "Don't cry."

Free thumped him on the chest. "I'll cry as much as I damn well please, you mingy little spud."

"Fine, goddamn, 'scuse the hell outta me for tryin' to be comfortin'."

"You're such a useless lump."

"Pick a dick and suck on it."

Which made him laugh. Michael wasn't sure if he'd been aiming for that. It certainly wasn't the worst possible outcome.

It would've been better if it had gotten Free to let go, but hey—you couldn't have everything.

Chapter Text

To his immense surprise and mild displeasure, Dan woke up.

He didn't hurt, exactly; there was a bone-deep exhaustion, a sickly numbness, a trembling fragility, but no real pain. When he opened his eyes, the room was blurry. He did not try to sit up, too weary and weak to even consider it. The tolling of the hour was muffled through the cotton in his ears.

With nothing to occupy them, his hands wandered to his belly. They found a swelling, a tenderness, a lot of bandages. His fingers came away wet and sticky. He couldn't bring himself to think about that enough to let it worry him. He wiped his hands on his trousers and tried to go back to sleep. This was complicated by the fact that his eyes kept drifting back open to wander the room, disturbed by impulses his conscious brain couldn't grasp.

Eventually, he became aware that he was not alone.

A vague blotch on the far end of the room resolved into Haywood, sitting on the floor with his back against the wall, elbows on his knees and head hanging. The sketch of his death-clock hung above him like the sword of Damocles. Dan couldn't tell if he was sleeping or not.

"Oy," he said. His voice was so feeble, even he could barely hear it.

But Haywood raised his head. The movement was slow, rusted. He didn't say anything.

"I don't feel quite right," said Dan, mumbling the words out as best he could. One hand gestured vaguely. He noticed the blood on his own fingers and had to take a moment to remember where it had come from.

"Laudanum," said Haywood. His voice was hoarser than usual, thick and stuffy.

"Ah," said Dan. "Why. . . ?"

"On account of th' injury, Dan."

"Right, the . . . right." He touched his stomach, the bandages and stitches. "I . . . hospital? Can I—no, sorry, that's not how I'm meant to . . . can we. . . ?"

"No, Dan," he said quietly. "It ain't a matter of hospitals anymore, nor of doctors. There's a hole in your intestines. Did my best to patch it up, but it don't really matter now what anybody does. It's gone get infected, and th' infection's gone kill you. Nothin' to be done about it. I'd call it four days, at th' outside."

"Oh," said Dan. The words were all sensible, strung together in a sensible order, and yet Dan could make no sense of them. They wafted through his head like dandelion tufts, scattered and aimless. "But—that's not right, you've got . . . things, and that, I'm not meant to. . . ."

"Means I got a steep time limit, that's all," said Haywood. He didn't sound pleased about it. He didn't sound annoyed, either. Mostly he sounded small and frightened and hopeless.

"So quit," Dan said. "So—just quit. I—take me to see Gav. That'll make it right. I'll be all right, just—rather see Gav, first."

Haywood let his head hang heavy, tangled his fingers in his hair and drew his knees up to his chest.

"Haywood?" Dan said. There was a lump rising in his throat, a weight crushing his chest. "Haywood, I want—let me see my hus—my—Gav, I want to see Gav. Please? Haywood, please?"

"Shut up, Dan," he choked, clenching his fists until his knuckles turned white. "Just shut up, for the love of God."

"No, no, listen, I can fix this. I can—got a plan, I can fix it so you haven't got to do . . . so the deal, right, I can fix it. Let me—the bit with Orphinaeus, that bit, just hear me out, yeah? I can fix it."

"You're dyin', Dan, stop tryin' to help," said Haywood, miserable. Once again, the words failed to sink in, even stated so directly.

"'S easy, really, it'll be easy," he wheedled. "Gaping loophole. Did it yourself, too, so—good for the pride, and all that. Ego. You like that sort of thing. Just hear me out, yeah?"

"Dan, please. Please stop, please just stop."

"No? No, all right. Fine, yeah, so—when all else fails, right? Hahah. You've—you did all this to me, and you can't even listen when I try and . . . and help you. When I try and do something good, even when you've—done all this. Can't even spare five minutes?"

Haywood took a deep, shuddering breath. He sniffled. Something not completely unlike a laugh escaped him.

"All right, Dan," he said. "Seems like the least I can do."


 

As the high of the laudanum faded, pain and clarity both returned—and of the two, the latter was far worse. Though Dan managed to drink some broth, it tasted like poison. Haywood stayed after Dan finished his rambling exposition, not speaking, not sleeping, not doing much of anything but staring into the middle distance and looking miserable. His face was gaunt and sallow. His hands shook constantly. When he changed Dan's bandages, around noon, his eyes were sunken, bloodshot. By then, the pain in Dan's stomach had swelled to unbearable proportions, so much so that he couldn't think. He asked for another dose of laudanum. Haywood gave it to him without a moment's hesitation.

Half an hour later, as the pain subsided and another brief window of clarity passed over Dan, he finally recognized that Haywood had been crying.

"Haywood," he said—the first word spoken since the exchange of laudanum. He eased himself upright and propped his back against the wall, if for no other reason than to keep himself awake a little longer.

Up against his usual support beam, Haywood lifted his head half an inch. His trembling fingers twisted together. He did not speak.

"I want to know why," said Dan.

Haywood shook his head.

"You've killed me," Dan insisted—and God, how wretched those words, how cold! "I want to know why."

"Does it matter?" Haywood croaked.

"Yes," said Dan.

Haywood chewed his tongue, staring out the one tiny window at the grey skies beyond. His hands were like a pair of birds, taking each other apart feather by feather. He shut his eyes, hung his head, and took a deep breath.

"I grew up rich," he said. His cottony accent had shed like eiderdown, leaving something harder, drier, colder. "Rich, and happy, and spoiled rotten. My grandfather made a fortune on coal, and my father doubled it. We had everything we could ever want, growing up. Could do whatever we wanted, and at most all we'd get was a couple hits with a switch. Consequences—my brother Aiden used to say, consequences are for the poor, James. If we couldn't talk our way out, our father would just buy it. But we were God-fearing people. Our father liked us to pretend we were God-fearing people. Nobody who really feared God would've gotten rich by way of starving his workers and their families."

"The company store?" said Dan. He was no stranger to the workhouses, the factories and mines that trod their workers into the mud and then forced them to dig.

"Of that ilk. I never saw it up close. We just put on our faces and went to church every Sunday and kept all the scandals quiet, by money or by blood. Those two things could solve any problem, any time, no matter how deep the shit you were in. Nothing could touch us."

He laughed to himself, shaking his head. There was a deep, bitter pain on his face, a hollow betrayal. His voice, when he spoke again, was flat and dead.

"When I was twelve and a half, they caught me kissing Ducky Robinson in the woods behind our estate," he said. "I'd known for a while that God didn't love me. That was the day I found out nobody else did, either. My father beat me so hard I went blind for three days."

"Christ alive," Dan whispered.

"No, I got the long end of that stick. My brothers dragged Ducky off and beat him to death. I lived because we were rich. He died because he was poor. After a month of keeping me locked up in the attic, they sent me away to live on my uncle's pig farm in Virginia to be a tanner. You know what's involved in tanning, Dan?"

"I don't," he admitted.

"Piss and shit," said Haywood, with no particular vitriol. "That's what they thought of me. That's how dirty I was to them. Piss and shit, and Uncle Noah's secret Negroes who nobody had ever told about the war. They hated me, too—for what I was, for where I'd come from, and for what my being there said about our family's opinion of their worth. Yet somehow, they managed to restrain themselves from beating me. Uncle Noah didn't. He beat everyone just the same."

Dan held his tongue. He tried not to imagine it, that wretched child cast out from privilege on high, shunned and reviled—but too late, he'd already imagined it. He was about to remark on this striking kinship with the Devil when Haywood picked his story up and kept going.

"Five months later, my sister Irene showed up. She told me—" He broke off, something halfway to a chuckle slipping through his teeth. He shook his head, as though in disbelief. "She said God had told her how to save me. Said if I could learn how to love a woman, our parents would take me back in, and all would be forgiven. I don't know if she believed it, but I did."

"How—how old. . . ?"

"Thirteen. I was thirteen, she was sixteen. I remember, because the first time was on my birthday. New Year's Day. I don't remember how many times she visited after that, or how often, but it was enough. She was with child by Christmas."

"Oh, God," Dan said, so sick he could barely breathe.

"God," Haywood sneered. "God had nothing to do with it. I begged for God to save me, every day for almost two years, and God never came. Or maybe He really did talk to Irene, and that was my salvation. But the Devil heard me, and the Devil showed me a way out. He made it so nobody could kill me. So I could fight back. They couldn't beat me to death. No matter what they did, they couldn't do to me what they'd done to Ducky. Not unless God Himself took the time to make it happen, and I knew God didn't care enough about me for that."

"You . . . killed her."

"Not right away. Not until she told me about the baby—which was after that day's lesson, of course. She asked me to run away with her, get married somewhere where nobody knew we were kin. Start a new life, just me and her and our children. Multiple. So I said no. She said my soul would burn in Hell if I didn't. So I said let it burn. She said she'd tell our father and uncle and brothers that I'd raped her, and they'd whip and beat and rape me for weeks and weeks until I died of it. So I cut her open like a pig and let her bleed to death. Turned out she wasn't lying about the baby. I found it. Smaller than the palm of my hand, barely more than a maggot, but it was there. I let her hold it while I skinned her alive."

Dan threw up in his mouth, pressed his knuckles to his lips and choked it back down. Haywood didn't notice, lost in recollection, his fingers tracing aimless patterns on his wrists.

"Fed what was left of her to the pigs," he said. "It wasn't clean. Wasn't much I could use, but I made her into something useful. Tanned her hide like the animal she was, piss and shit. They got suspicious of me about the time I got done. I told my uncle's Negroes about the war, and they burned his house down with him and his wife and children inside. I went back to Pennsylvania. I got my brother Aiden next, when he was coming home to his wife and child, and I made him into leather, too. Then my brother Delmar. Then my mother, home all alone. My father found us when I was halfway through skinning her. I put a knife through the back of his neck. Didn't kill him. It's the best luck I ever had. Kept him alive for six days afterwards. There wasn't much left of him by the time I was done, but I did get a burnisher out of it."

"So—yeah, all right," said Dan, desperate to halt the tale before it got any worse. "Starting to get the picture of why . . . why you might've reacted so—reacted the way you did, about being in the same sort of . . . category as your—as—yeah. Yeah."

Cracking a smile, Haywood rubbed at his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. "It wasn't about that, Dan. It was about saying they didn't deserve it. About saying I don't deserve it. I know good and damn well what I've done is worse than what they did. I have to deserve it. I have to. Because I know they did."

"I think I understand," Dan said. "I can't—I can't say I condone it, or that I could forgive it, but I think I understand."

Haywood shook his head. "No one understands. The first ones, sure, but nobody understands the fifty that came after."

"Well . . . have you told anyone before?"

Haywood hunched his shoulders up and looked at the far corner of the room. When he spoke, his voice was all but lost amongst the clamour of the clock below.

"I don't understand," he said.

"Seems simple enough to me," said Dan. "That . . . woman, the—the first L up there on your thingy, what was her. . . ?"

"I never told you her name."

"I'm sure she had one, though."

Haywood ground his teeth, but eventually said: "Valerie."

"Valerie. If I'd had a sister like yours, and I'd caught wind of somebody—somebody doing, you know, that sort of thing with—with little boys . . . I mean, I would've been hard-pressed not to kill her."

An odd look came over Haywood's face. Dan was too woozy by then to decipher it, his window of clarity closing rapidly, but at least it wasn't anger. He went on talking, just in case it helped.

"Be willing to bet the others were . . . similar, really. Similar to the people who hurt you. 'Cos killing them once wasn't enough. Wasn't . . . couldn't numb the pain of what they did to you. Couldn't fix it. Couldn't make you whole again. And you've just kept on going and going and going 'cos . . . 'cos what else have you got? But it's never going to work, Haywood. Fifty attempts ought to be enough to show you that. It's never going to work."

"I think," Haywood said slowly, "you remind me of my father."

Given the context, not comforting words.

"I'm sorry," he said.

"Not your fault," said Haywood. "Just misfortune, I think. Just some real bad luck."

Dan couldn't think of anything to say to that. His consciousness was fading, and all his acuity along with it. He would have laid his head down and slept, if he hadn't been sitting up. Getting into a horizontal position seemed a Herculean effort. He'd just wait until he passed out sitting up—that seemed much easier. He let his eyes drift halfway closed, putting a soft vignette across the world.

"Do you believe in ghosts, Dan?" Haywood asked, oh-so-quietly.

Dan frowned, wondering if he was hearing things in this new and softer delirium. "Do I—ghosts?"

"Ghosts," said Haywood. A smile cracked his face open like old leather, split down some ancient seam. "You hard of hearin', or somethin'?"

"I . . . oof, I don't know about ghosts," said Dan. "Don't reckon I've ever seen one, but. . . . Do—do you?"

"Didn't used to," said Haywood. "But I think I might, now. I'm starting to think everybody's a ghost, one way or another. Look close enough and there they are, just under the skin. You can take the skin off, but you can't get rid of the ghosts."

"Who—and I know this is a . . . a poor question but who does—er, whose . . . ghost has Jones got?"

"I don't mean it literally, Dan. You don't have to talk to me like I'm crazy."

"Sorry, I'm not—I'm a bit. . . . Sorry."

Haywood sighed, tapping his fingers on his elbow. He made a fist, flexed his hand, tipped his head back and rested it against the beam behind him, eyes closed.

"Ducky," he said. "And you're right, Dan. Right about those fifty attempts. I'm not trying to make it work anymore. I'm going to kill Michael because he's all I have left to live for. Because as long as he's alive, I won't be able to kill myself. God won't do it. No one else can do it. I have to."

Dan would have liked to object to that, would have liked to point out all the ridiculous flaws in his reasoning, but it was all too much effort and he was just so damn tired.

"Well, best of luck," he said instead. "Just . . . going to have a quick kip, me. Now I lay me down to sleep, and all that, hahah."

"I pray the Lord my soul to keep," Haywood murmured. "If I should die before I wake. . . ."

But Dan was asleep before he finished it.

Chapter Text

In the morning, Michael was greeted by a sight so uncommon, so out of place, that it made him forget all about Ryan and the impending murder of all his friends for a full minute.

There was a cat in his bed.

"What the fuck?" he said, also forgetting that Free was asleep in the other bed.

The cat lifted its big gray head, blinking and twitching the tip of its fluffy tail. Free jolted awake, just as bleary and not nearly as affable.

"Whzt?" he said. He fumbled for something on the nightstand and knocked over a half-full glass of water, which rolled off the side and shattered.

"Whose fuckin' cat is this?" Michael demanded, gesturing to the cat, who hadn't noticed any of the commotion. It yawned, showing off about ten teeth. It smelled like a grandmother's linen closet, unopened for a decade.

"Oh, bollocks," said Free. He rubbed his face, looking at the mess of broken glass all over the floor. "Slippers, where're my. . . ?"

"Hey, where the fuck did you come from?" Michael said to the cat. Its tail twitched again as its eyes narrowed. A purr set up in its chest, so deep and loud that it rumbled the whole bed. "No, cut that out, get outta here. Free, come get this fuckin' cat off my bed."

"What? Just shove her off."

"You kiddin'? There's glass all over the goddamn—don't lick me, Jesus Christ, we ain't friends likkat."

"Why can't you just take her out, then?"

"'Cuz my legs don't work, jackass."

Grumbling, Free crawled off the foot of his bed. He put on a dressing gown and some slippers, shuffled around the mess on the floor, and hoisted the cat off of Michael's bed—or tried to. The cat dug in its claws and stuck to the mattress like a tree sticks to the earth.

"No, don't do that, you old biddy—Jones, make her let go, would you?'

One by one, Michael unhooked the cat's claws from the mattress. The cat lashed its tail and laid its ears back, but didn't lash out.

"Bloody hell, this thing's an antique, innit," Free remarked once she was loose. "C'mon then, nan, out you go."

"Don't put her outside, she'll freeze to death," said Michael, as Free carried the cat away.

"Dunno what I'm meant to do with her, then."

"Just—put her in the kitchen, or somethin', 'til we figure out where she came from."

Free shrugged and took the cat out of the room. While he was gone, Michael got out of bed and as dressed as best he could on his own. It was easier now that his injured hand wasn't the dominant one, but there were still some things he couldn't quite manage, like the buttons on his cuffs and the laces on his shoes.

He had to wonder if that would cost him, somewhere along the line, folded into a secret back-pocket of the Deal where it could be pulled out and played like an ace up the Devil's sleeve. Michael couldn't put that game off much longer—it was better to begin it on his own terms than to wait for the Devil to show up when he wanted to—but he still had no idea what he was actually going to do to keep from losing his soul.

Maybe nothing. Maybe there was nothing at all he could do to keep that from happening. Maybe he'd dug his grave too deep to climb out of this time, and he'd just have to hope it would be worth it, get as much as he could get for it, see if there wasn't a way to weasel out later. . . .

Which, come to think of it, was probably the exact line of thinking that had put Ryan in shit so deep it was turning into coal.

Michael caught himself staring at his own left hand when the door opened and Free came shuffling back in. Somebody was up and about in the kitchen, filling the cottage with the smell of sausage and coffee.

"Good news is, she's getting along with Gavin," said Free, nudging the broken glass under his bed with one foot.

"Who?" said Michael.

"The cat, Jones. Honestly. It's been two minutes. I reckon she's the caretaker's, and she's wandered off from wherever he's gone, got lost, and come back here."

"Oh. Yeah, sure, whatever. Hey uh, listen, I know you wun't too keen on Gabriel's plan, and all, but—"

"What plan?" Free said coldly.

"Y'know, about gettin' Haywood to—"

"I know what you're talking about, I'm refusing to dignify it by calling it a plan."

"Listen, jackass, no matter—" Michael cut himself off. He took a deep breath—in for seven, out for eleven—clenched his fist and flexed it again. "Free, I know you wanna find Gruchy. I get it. But the only way were gonna find him, if we keep goin' the way we been goin', is if we get real goddamn lucky. Gabriel's plan might could work even if we don't get lucky. I think we oughtta try it."

"I think you don't give a damn about finding Dan."

"You think I don't give a damn about findin' Haywood?"

"Gabriel's plan separates the two, so I feel that point is moot."

"Once we got him here, you can ask him where Gruchy is, dumbass."

"Once we've got him, you're going to kill him," Free retorted.

"I'm gonna try, that don't mean it's gonna work. Do I look like I got any kinda plan? 'Cuz I don't got any kind of plan. I'm just tryin' to keep anybody else from gettin' killt. Namely you. Jackass."

Free's lips pinched down to a line.

"I will go along with this on one condition," he said. "One. And if I don't get it, I'm not going along. D'you understand?"

"What's the condition?" said Michael, who had a sneaking suspicion.

"Nobody does anything detrimental to Haywood's health and well-being 'til we've found Dan."

"Horseshit, how the hell you expect to get him to—"

Free leveled a warning finger at him and cut him off. "I'm not budging. If you want to do the bloody plan, you'll do it my way or not at all."

"And who the fuck put you in charge?"

"What d'you mean, put? I've been in charge!"

"The hell you have! I been runnin' this show since day-goddamn-one, and I ain't about to quit now."

"Running the show? That's a laugh! Running it into the bloody ground, maybe."

"Just 'cuz I suck at it don't mean anybody else is doin' any better."

"As though you've given them the chance, you pigheaded twit!"

"Don't fuckin' call me a twit, you whiny li'l bitch."

"Whiny? Whiny? God, you really do trivialize everything—"

"Myeh myeh myeh myeh, sorry, I don't speak Whine."

Free smacked him on the side of the head. Michael shoved him. Flailing, Free tripped over his own feet and went down hard. Michael clapped a hand over his mouth to stifle a laugh.

"Oh, shit, you OK?" he said, snickering.

Free sat and stared through the wall, his shoulders up around his ears, his breath hitching. In the space of three blinks, his eyes filled with tears and spilled over. Michael gawped, instantly out of his depth.

"Hey, wh—uh, OK, all right," he stammered. "Don't—I meant—shit, hell, uhh. . . ."

Free shook his head, sniffling and wiping at his eyes. It didn't stop him crying, though. Michael cast about for inspiration, or assistance, and didn't find any. He threw up his hands and sighed through his teeth.

"Look, if it's that troublin' to you, then—fine, I won't . . . do no harm to Haywood, or nothin', 'til we got Gruchy back. OK? Will that—is that what you're after?"

"You don't mean it, though," Free choked. "You're just—just saying it to make me stop crying."

"Well, yeah, but I ain't one to go back on my word, so I guess I'm stuck with it now."

The look Free turned on him was so awfully Gavin-like that Michael could no more have pushed back against it than he could have stopped a train with his bare hands.

"D'you really mean that?" Free asked. "You'll promise?"

"Fine, yeah, I promise, will you get up off the goddamn floor and quit cryin' now?"

Free picked himself up, sniffling. His real eye was bloodshot, giving him a freshly-punched appearance.

"I'm all right," he said. "Sorry. Bit of a mess, me."

"Yeah, well, it's your husband, or whatever," said Michael. "Let's go and figure out how to get the dumb sonnuva bitch back, I guess."

Free smiled at him, albeit damply. "Thanks, Jones."

"Suck a dick, Free."

"Aw. I love you, as well."

"Suck ten dicks, Free," Michael retorted, reddening.

Free just gurgled and minced out of the room.


 

It took about four hours, all told, for them to hash out the plan. Michael spent the majority of it with the old cat in his lap, simply because it was too much trouble to try and make her stay anywhere else. He'd had most of a plan put together before they even started, but because Gabriel didn't like it, and Free didn't like it, and Lindsay especially didn't like it, they wasted a lot of time going around and around trying to make it less dumb.

By the end, he wasn't sure they'd succeeded.

The first part was the easiest, and went off with only one small hitch (the cat did not want to be left alone at the undertaker's cottage, and it took some doing to keep her from following). The rest of them boarded a train back to London, trying to draw as little attention as possible. They returned to Free's flat, where they stayed about twenty minutes. From there, they went to the office and spent a whole hour watching all the windows and doors and speaking only in hushed voices.

Michael made the call, when the time came. The others—including Gavin—left the office and caught a cab. Michael waited ten minutes before following. The instant he got out the door, he felt eyes on him. Whether or not they were Ryan's remained to be seen.

It took so long to catch a cab that eventually he gave up and made his own way to the cafe. He was shot a lot of dirty looks upon entering, but parked himself at a prominent table in the middle of the room anyway. His skin prickled all over. His heart pounded in his chest, jackrabbit-quick. He wiped his sweating hands on his trousers, leaving smears of London mud. He waited another thirty minutes, while being pointedly ignored by customers and staff alike.

At last, somebody sat down at the table behind Michael's, their back to his. A whiff of juniper accompanied them. Michael set his jaw and kept his eyes straight ahead.

"Y'all been avoidin' me," Ryan said quietly.

"Oh, you think?" said Michael. "Gee, I wonder why the hell that might be."

"No call to be inflammatory, Michael. Just seemed a li'l odd, considerin' y'all ain't bothered too much with hidin' up 'til now."

"I know Free's gonna be Six," said Michael, "and I know that puts you at Twelve."

A waiter came by. Ryan ordered a blueberry scone and a cup of tea in a flawless London accent, just polite enough to be unmemorable. The waiter went away. Ryan settled back in his chair until his hair touched Michael's.

"Only just now, you figured that out?" he asked. "Losin' your touch, chéri."

"It ain't gonna work, Ryan."

"Y'all ain't had too much luck stoppin' me so far, I don't imagine it'll be all that different now."

"That ain't what I meant. You ain't gonna be able to kill yourself. Your deal ain't gonna let you."

Ryan started to turn around, stopped himself. There was a rapid woodpecker-sound as he tapped his fingers on the table.

"What makes you say so?" he asked—too casual, too light.

"By no hand."

The tapping stopped. It was awfully loud in the cafe all of a sudden, the pressure of the sound increased against a gaping silence.

"I do know how much you hate bein' called a liar, Michael," Ryan said, in a voice that raised the hairs on the back of Michael's neck. "But sometimes you don't give a person too much of a choice. I'd prefer to believe you just got a wrong idea in your pretty li'l head, but I guess we both know by this time what's more likely."

"I was wrong. I figured you were lyin' about tryin' to kill yourself, but now I got it all straightened out. The Devil screwed you over. He's just—"

There was a familiar, metallic click. It was the sound of the Colt's hammer being pulled back. Michael shut his mouth and sat perfectly still.

"Did you come here alone, Michael?" Ryan asked.

"Maybe," said Michael. "Did you?"

"I suspect, Michael, that if I start shootin', I'll hit somebody you like 'fore the barrel's empty."

"Joke's on you, I don't like anybody."

"Then maybe I'll just start with you, and not waste th' ammunition."

"I wish you would, you dumb sonnuva bitch, if only 'cuz it'll prove me right sooner. Fuck up your dumbass clock bullshit, too."

"It ain't bullshit, Michael, it's artwork."

"It's a fuckin' clock, it ain't like it's complicated. So goddamn full of yourself. Artwork, hell."

"Th' only reason I ain't shot you yet is on account of knowin' how hard you're tryin' to get shot. I ain't gone give you the satisfaction."

"Damn, if I'd known it was that easy to get you not to shoot me, I'da been talkin' crap about your art bullshit way sooner."

"It ain't bullshit!" Ryan snapped, slapping a hand down on the table. A few heads turned, curious glances and raised eyebrows. Ryan reigned himself in.

"Still cain't keep a lid on it, huh," said Michael. It was hard to keep up the smug act when his heart was going a hundred miles an hour. "Shoulda known better'n to come out where I can make a fool of you in public."

"Th' only fool here is you, chéri."

"You're a goddamn riot. The hell're you gonna do, start shootin'? Police'd be all over your ass in ten minutes flat, and then I could take my ass on home."

The waiter came back, bearing a little plate with a scone on it and a cup of tea. He set them down on Ryan's table and went away again. Ryan sipped his tea and set it back in the saucer with a clink.

"Chéri, you and me both know you ain't gone leave me alive," he said, "and you do us both a disservice pretendin' otherwise."

"When'd I ever say I was gonna leave you alive? I ain't quite figured out how to get it done yet. I just know you ain't gonna be able to pull it off yourself."

"You can say it as much as you like, Michael, it ain't gone make it true."

"You trust that sonnuva bitch?"

"Yes, I do. Don't talk about him that way."

"You trust the whole-ass Devil. Actual goddamn Satan, you trust."

He sipped his tea again. "Satan and I got a lot in common. He's looked after me just fine, so far, so I do hope you'll forgive me if I don't take your figurin' at face-value."

"I ain't figure that part of it, Ryan. He told me about the loophole. He bragged about it."

There was no clink of teacup returning to saucer. The weight of Ryan's attention was like a quilt full of buckshot draped across his back. Prayer had never granted Michael any favors, but he caught himself doing it anyway.

Please. Even if there was nobody to hear him. Please. Even if they weren't inclined to answer. Please, just don't let Ryan catch him lying, here and now, with that gun in his hand and all these people around.

"The hell he did," Ryan said, ever so softly—not disbelieving, but furious.

"Oh, sure," said Michael, shaking where he sat. "Right after I got done shakin' his hand."

The teacup rattled against the saucer as Ryan set it down.

"You didn't," he said. His voice was even hoarser than usual. "Michael, tell me you didn't."

"I would, only I recall you ain't too fond of bein' lied to."

Ryan turned. Michael grabbed his wheels, went to whip around and stopped halfway when Ryan clutched the arm of his chair, when he saw the panic, the raw unguarded fear on Ryan's face.

"Michael, tell me you didn't," he begged.

"Oh, so now you're scared," said Michael, choking on his own voice. How long had it been since he'd seen that face? How long since he'd been this close, since he'd looked into those eyes and they'd looked back, and that ugly spark had crawled through his veins like a parasite?

And Jesus, had Ryan always looked so tired?

Ryan glanced down at his own hand, clenched white-knuckled on the arm of Michael's chair. His jaw tightened. His eyes hardened. He fixed his face and withdrew, got to his feet. Michael's stomach turned a somersault. He braced himself for the gunshot.

Instead, Ryan picked up his tea and his scone, came around to Michael's table, and sat down across from him.

"Tell me what you promised him," he said quietly.

Michael bit back the immediate sarcastic retort. He pulled up to the table. His hands were sweating so much, they would wash themselves clean in a matter of minutes.

"A game," he said. "We already played one, and I won it, but I think he wanted me to."

"What game?"

"Checkers. Hey, while we're askin' questions: where's Gruchy?"

A flicker of something like pain crossed Ryan's face, there and gone again in the blink of an eye.

"Y'all agreed on checkers this time?" he asked, his voice a touch more strained.

"Naw," said Michael. Wheels were beginning to turn in his head, grinding through the rust of inaction and fear. "Nobody said what game."

Ryan nodded. His eyes were distant, sunken. His hand trembled as he sipped his tea.

"And what'd you get, in exchange for that game?" he asked.

"Sure as hell ain't tellin' you."

"I can't help you if I don't know what I'm workin' with."

"Help? You wanna help, you can tell me where Gruchy's at and then take yourself on to jail."

Ryan hesitated. "Dan's hurt," he said to his scone. "Badly. Fatally. He ain't gone make it more than few more days."

Michael's stomach clenched. It wasn't true, obviously; either Gruchy was still alive and well, and Ryan was banking on love and desperation to lure Free in—or else Gruchy was already dead, and had been since the ear turned up, and this was just Ryan squeezing the last drops of usefulness out of his corpse. Either way, Michael had been ready for the ploy.

What he hadn't expected was how shitty it would feel.

"How'd it happen?" he asked.

Ryan shrugged. The corner of his mouth twitched. "Still can't keep a lid on it," he said. "He said he'd like to see Gav, 'fore he goes, and I'd like to make that happen for him, if it ain't too much trouble."

"So bring him on home, ain't nobody stoppin' you."

"I don't think he'll survive bein' moved that far."

"Why, 'cuz you put a knife through his neck, like you done to Risinger?"

"That ain't where the knife ended up, no. Still can't move him, though. If anybody's gone see him, they'll have to make the trip."

Michael snorted. "Goddamn. You really think anybody's gonna fall for that shit? Losin' your touch."

Another flicker of pain, halfway concealed behind a smile. "Bein' that I was courteous enough to show up for your trap, I thought one of y'all might could reciprocate."

"Is Gruchy even still alive, or is that just more bullshit?"

"He's alive, but like I said, it ain't gone be for much longer."

"Uh-huh, so where is he? 'Cuz it's gonna be real hard for Free to show up to your dumbass trap if you don't give him someplace to go."

Ryan pursed his lips. He had another sip of tea. His hands were still shaking.

"Did you hand over your soul, or not?" he asked.

"Gee, I ain't never heard of that place," Michael sneered. "Is that down by the river?"

"No. Could you take this just a li'l more seriously, please?"

"Fine. Ain't nothin' been handed over yet. But hell, I might, if it'll get you took care of for good."

"I ain't worth that, Michael."

"You don't get a say in what you're worth to me," Michael retorted.

Ryan raised his eyes. Michael's heart leapt into his throat, stopping them both. His blood went cold and his skin went hot and his stomach sank to his boots. He cleared his throat, swallowed his heart back down.

"Anyhow," he said, "you wanna stop all that from happenin', all you gotta do is quit."

"Now you sound like Dan," said Ryan, not without a certain fondness, not without a certain regret. "I tried quittin', and you didn't want it. Too late to take that back now. 'Sides, if I give up, poor Dan will have died for nothin'."

Michael leaned in. "He'll have died for nothin' no matter what you do, 'cuz you killed him for nothin'."

A fiery gleam lit up in Ryan's eyes. His hands clenched. His lip curled. He leaned in, mirroring Michael's posture.

"Then I might as well keep goin'," he hissed.

Michael could have kicked himself. Before he could say anything to salvage it, Ryan got up and turned to go. All the words fell out of Michael's head, flushed out by panic like a flock of birds from a charging hound. His arm twitched with the impulse to catch Ryan by the wrist.

But Ryan stopped on his own, half-turned, not looking at Michael.

"Solitaire," he said.

"What?" said Michael.

"Solitaire," Ryan repeated, "and let him deal."

He walked away, ducking through the crowd with ease. Michael let him go. He put his elbows on the table and his head in his hands. He breathed, slow and deep.

In for seven. Out for eleven. The hard part was over. The danger was passed.

Momentarily, somebody else slid into the chair across from Michael's. He didn't look up, still wrestling his temper back under control.

"Free's tail get onto him, or what?" he said.

"Who?"

Michael's head snapped up. The person sitting across from him was not Lindsay—nor Gabriel, nor Free. It was a White policeman, pallid and feverish, leering at Michael over Ryan's abandoned tea and scone.

"Who the fuck—" Michael snapped.

"Ah-ah," said the policeman, "wouldn't want you drawing too much attention, Mr. Jones. Any funny business, and I'll arrest you straight away, and you won't be getting loose again. But that's not what I'm here for, nah. I think we can work something out, you and me."

"Who the fuck are you," Michael growled, "and what the fuck do you want?"

"Officer Peake," said the officer, extending a waxen, sweaty hand. "And as for what I want—how much time have you got?"

Chapter Text

Michael let Officer Peake's hand hang over the table. He made no move to shake it. He would have preferred to stick his hand in a pile of fresh horse shit.

"I got about ten minutes," Michael said, "so whatever you want, get to it."

"Nah, nah," said Officer Peake, shaking his head and baring his teeth. "You've got this all wrong. I think you've got as long as I want, or you can pop right on back to jail."

"Then why the fuck did you—" Michael cut himself off. The son of a bitch was clearly trying to get a rise out of him. He still had his hand out over the table. Michael still did not shake it.

"That's better," Peake leered. "See how smooth things go when you know your place?"

Michael decided that he was going to kill Officer Peake.

"Now, since you've decided to be a good little boy, I'll tell you what I want," Peake went on. "You know Mr. Free, yeah?"

"Who?" Michael said, glaring.

Peake's lip curled. "Gavin Free, famous bloody detective?"

"Never heard of him. Listen, pal, how 'bout I just give you a shitload of cash and you head on your way. How much you want, two hundred bucks?"

"I don't give a shit about your money," Peake snarled, slamming his hand down on the table so hard it knocked Ryan's tea over. Michael jumped in his chair. All the hairs on his body stood up. His skin crawled. His stomach balled up tight. He was grappled by a quiet, unshakeable conviction:

This man was not a police officer.

"OK, all right, damn," said Michael, while the tea dripped onto the floor. "This Free fella, whatta you want him for?"

"None of your concern, love," Peake oozed, approximating a smile. "Just need a pointer in the right direction, that's all."

Michael snorted. "Jesus. Shitty-ass cop."

Peake's eye twitched. His fingers dug into the table, the knuckles bending backwards. He really did look severely unwell, like an amputee getting ready to succumb to gangrene, manic with fever.

"One more quip like that and I'll bash your fucking head in," Peake said. "I know you know where the fuck Free's gone, and you're gonna take me to him."

"And I already told you: I don't know who the fuck you're talkin' about, so I cain't help you."

Peake lunged over the table, grabbing for Michael's lapel. Michael rolled back out of reach. Heads were turning throughout the cafe, sideways glances and pointed muttering. Peake reigned himself in, though not by a wide margin. There was a ghastly crack from inside his mouth as he ground his teeth. Michael's stomach turned a flip.

"Hey, ain't no call to get violent, now," said Michael, raising his hands. Many eyes were watching, many bystanders. He couldn't tell if Peake was armed. "How 'bout you and me take this someplace a li'l more private?"

"Perfect idea," Peake said, lurching upright. "Lead on, Jonesy."

Point two: whoever and whatever else Peake was, he was also a complete moron.

Michael led him out of the cafe, although it made his back prickle something fierce. He caught sight of Lindsay, waiting out in the crowd, and she caught sight of him. As she started for him, he shook his head. She stopped. Peake grabbed the back of Michael's chair and turned him to a nearby alley.

"I think that'll do, yeah?" he said, pushing Michael towards it. "Nice spot for a nice little chat."

"Take your fuckin' hands off me," Michael said, choking down rage, "or you're gonna lose 'em."

Peake laughed and smacked Michael's cheek twice. Michael caught his flaccid hand and wrenched. The wrist snapped like a twig.

Peake didn't so much as flinch.

The last gears meshed in Michael's head. Peake was definitely not a cop. Peake was probably not even human—or at least not anymore—which meant there was one very simple explanation for why he was after Free.

Point three: this slimy motherfucker was a demon in a person-suit.

"Hey, officer," Michael said, as the alleyway closed around the two of them. "How 'bout you tell your boss that if he wants somethin' from me, he can come and talk to me in person."

"Yeah?" said Peake, chuckling to himself. "Just itching to get back into prison, ain't you."

"Listen, we both know you're a dumb sonnuva bitch, but even you ain't that dumb. Try again, you demon fuck."

One-handed, Peake threw Michael and his chair clear across the alleyway.

The brick wall slammed into Michael's shoulder. Wood split. He bounced off and landed hard in the mud. His head spun. His ears rang. The demon came down on him like a ton of bricks, shoving his face into the mud.

"If it's a demon fuck you're after, it's a demon fuck you'll have," it said into his ear, its voice like the scrape of metal on teeth, hot sticky breath and greedy hands. Michael threw an elbow into the thing's ribs. Bone cracked. The demon didn't even notice.

Point four: uh-oh.

Michael shoved himself off the ground. The demon shoved him back down with incredible, horrific strength. All the terror he'd missed out on for the past five minutes flooded him, as suffocating as the mud in his mouth and nose. He thrashed. The demon laughed and ripped his jacket in half like it was made of paper. While its hands were occupied, Michael scrambled to get out from under it. He only managed to get face-up before the demon grabbed him by the throat. Its legs clenched on his waist. Its hands were like wet leather gloves, full of broken bones and dislocated joints. Michael struck it in the face. It cracked his head on the ground so hard he saw sparks.

"Cor, you're a feisty one," it leered, baring bloodied teeth and rotting gums. "Gonna fuck that right out of you."

"Our Father," Michael said, struggling for breath, "who art in Heaven, hallowed be Thy name—"

The demon crushed his throat against his spine. He thrashed, panicking. The demon bent its head to his. A feverish, rancid tongue swiped across his cheek and wriggled into his ear. He grabbed a fistful of hair and yanked. The hair came out like dry grass.

"It don't work if you don't believe it, Mikey boy," the demon said, laughing. "Nobody's gonna save you now."

A shadow fell across its hideous face. A breath of cold wind gusted over both of them. A low growl announced the arrival of the cavalry. The demon looked back over its shoulder.

Gabriel stood in the mouth of the alley, a thunderstorm about to break, a tornado readying to touch down, a force of nature with a clear and present object for her fury. At her side, Gavin bristled and snarled, every last crooked tooth bared.

"You," Gabriel said.

The demon shrieked and bolted like a kicked cat. Gavin lunged after it, but Gabriel kept a firm hold on his leash. The demon scrambled over the wall at the back of the alley, crashed through something on the other side, and took off, shouting obscenities until it was lost to the roar of London. Gavin settled, shook himself, and trotted over to stick his nose in Michael's face while Michael coughed his windpipe back into shape.

"Holy shit," Michael wheezed, reeling. "So uh—hey, yeah, hey partner, I'm OK. Just lemme get—don't lick me, c'mon now, lemme get back up in the chair—"

Gabriel came over and offered her good hand to Michael. He took it, and she helped him into his chair. His hands were shaking. He wiped the spit off his face, the mud and blood and grit. His skin was still crawling. He resolved to boil himself in lye as soon as he got the chance.

"Thanks," he said to Gabriel. "So uh . . . so y'all know each other, then, huh."

"More than I'd like," said Gabriel, shaken, but firm. "I thought we were rid of it, but apparently I was wrong."

"It's the one that got Free, ain't it."

"Yes. Are you hurt?"

"Am I—? No, naw, I'm fine. Where's Lindsay and Free?"

A couple of heads poked around the corner of the alleyway. Free waved, looking sickly but unharmed. Michael caught himself waving back and had to resist the temptation to slap his own hand out of the air. Free and Lindsay both eased into the alleyway, as though expecting the demon to come back any minute. Gavin was enough at ease, though, that Michael didn't think it was too likely.

"We get that tail on Haywood?" he asked Gabriel.

Her lips pinched down to a thin line. She folded her arms.

"Yes, but I've got some questions about your priorities. You've just been attacked by a demon, and you're worried about Haywood?"

"Shit, I've had whole-ass conversations with the Devil Himself, and he don't even worry me as much as Haywood," said Michael.

"My point stands," said Gabriel.

He paused, wiped his hands on the arms of his chair. The left armrest was cracked down the middle, chipped where the demon had thrown it into the wall. There wasn't any other obvious damage, although he suspected the wheel on that side wasn't going to be turning properly for a while. Gavin stuck his head under one of Michael's palms, offering strength.

"Uh," Michael said. "Uh, well, y'know. Speakin' of. . . ."

"Oh, hell, Michael," Lindsay sighed. "What now?"

"Uh, wellp," he said. It was too late to take it back now—and anyway, he'd already asked Ryan, so what more harm could it do to ask again? "While we're waitin' for that tail to get back, uh. I might could use some—some advice. On a couple things."

"Such as?"

"Uh," he said, "well, uh, mainly on how to get through playin' a game with the Devil without, uh . . . losin' my soul. In it. To him."

Lindsay put a hand over her eyes. Free winced. Gavin climbed up into Michael's lap and sat down, licking the last of the demon's spit from Michael's cheek. Gabriel let out a long, tired breath and shook her head.

"Well," she said. "At least you've got the sense to ask."


 

Between the laudanum and the pain, the dizzy spells and the ever-thickening fog in Dan's head, it was difficult to track the passage of time. It might have been a few hours since Haywood had left, or a few days of him coming and going. The only thing Dan was sure of was that right now, it was afternoon, and he was alone.

Or at least, he was sure of it for about a minute after waking, when he didn't see Haywood in the room. The sensation of being watched crept up on him, oozing out from under the pain like a creature crawling through the leaf-litter. It took him even longer to figure out why. At last, though, his heavy head tilted itself back and turned his eyes upwards.

Something was looking down at him from the rafters—two glowing orange eyes, one twice as bright as the other.

Dan froze, halfway under the blankets in his makeshift bed. His stomach clenched like a fist. His head spun, threatening to topple him.

Light gleamed off of white teeth as Orphinaeus grinned.

"Allo, Danny boy," it purred.

"You stay the hell away from me," said Dan. His voice was thin, feeble. There was nothing he could do about it.

"Ain't kind of them to leave you up here," said Orphinaeus. It hopped to the next beam, like some huge, hairless chimp. "All alone. Fancied you could use a bit of company."

"I'm fine, actually, cheers. And by cheers I mean: piss off."

"Naughty, naughty, naughty," Orphinaeus said, creeping along the beam on hands and feet. Its eyes stayed fixed on Dan. "Our old gaffer don't like rudeness. All the monkeys learn to cower properly sooner or later, and he does love the teaching of 'em. Nobody's quite so big when they're getting raped in every hole and pried apart at the joints like a roast chicken."

Dan shuddered and choked back vomit. The instant he looked away, Orphinaeus leapt closer again.

"But even that's nothing compared to the fun I'm gonna have with you," it went on. "Soon as I've got my Gavvy back. Can't wait to make him watch what I'm gonna do to you. We'll have such fun, you and me and Gavvy."

"Doubt it," said Dan. He was having trouble catching his breath. "Considering you—last time you couldn't lay a finger on me without clawing your own eye out."

It snarled. Its hands clenched so tight on its perch that several of the knuckles dislocated.

"Your bitch won't be there to save you next time," it said. "I'll scramble his little faggot brains like an egg."

"You'll try. I think his f—his brains are a bit too much for a—a pathetic bug like you."

Orphinaeus bounded across three beams, coming to a stop right above Dan's head. He tried not to cower, but he couldn't keep from flinching.

On the bright side, he was already in such bad shape that he probably wouldn't survive long, if Orphinaeus did lay into him.

"You think that lovey-dovey shite is gonna save you twice?" it growled. "I've killed angels. A couple fucking monkeys is nothing."

"Sorry, hahah, make that a pathetic, lying bug like you."

It dropped from the rafters. Dan scrambled backwards. Pain lanced through his abdomen, pinning him down before he got two feet. He couldn't breathe for a good five seconds afterwards. His eyes struggled to focus. Orphinaeus tipped its head to the side and grinned.

"Archangels," it said. "'Cos the stupid blighters burnt themselves out and Daddy wasn't there to fill them up again. My favourite was Michael, when me and a few boatloads of poxy Spaniards set sail to rape the Americas. Dearest darlingest Michael tried to sink us—but it couldn't. I fished it out of the sea when the sun came out. Made sure it died as it lived. On its knees."

"Yeah, doubt that, too," said Dan. His voice shook. A sickly heat was creeping out under his skin, radiating from the wound in his stomach."Gabriel made—our Gabriel, our human Gabriel—she made awfully short work of you in less than ten words."

Orphinaeus snarled, then tried to pass it off as a laugh. It crawled closer, mangling Peake's face with its horrible grinning.

"Ooh, cheers for the reminder, Danny boy. When I'm done with you, I'll go and breed that—" and here it called Gabriel something so hideous that it made Dan's blood boil— "'til she's begging me to slit her throat."

"Lay one filthy finger on her and you'll wish you were back in Hell," Dan spat.

In a single simian bound, Orphinaeus was upon him. It grabbed his throat in one hand and with the other, dug its thumb right into the wound in his belly. Pain burst through him, blinding. He cried out. Orphinaeus cackled.

"Danny's got a brand new hole," it sang, pressing its thumb deeper and deeper into him. "All wet and juicy for—"

"Did you really think I wouldn't know?"

Orphinaeus yelped like it'd been shot and leapt off of Dan. Gasping and coughing, dizzy with pain, Dan dragged himself backwards until his back met the wall. When he could focus his eyes again, it still took him a moment to puzzle out where the voice had come from.

Lucien—the Devil himself—was stood on the other side of the room, hands in his pockets, leaning against the workbench. Something about his expression went straight to the caveman centre of Dan's brain, hissing with the lifeblood of a thousand ancestors who hadn't been eaten.

Don't. Move.

"I didn't do nothing to him," Orphinaeus said, petulant and terrified, plastered to the wall like wet spaghetti. "I wasn't gonna do nothing to him."

"I was, I think, very clear in my instructions to you," said the Devil. "What did I say, Orphinaeus?"

"But I didn't do nothing!"

"What did I say, Orphinaeus?" the Devil repeated. A hairline crack appeared in his composure, his permanent, disaffected politesse, and the rage behind it was so hot it glowed.

"You don't scare me," said Orphinaeus, trying to climb backwards up the wall. "You're not so fucking big, not anymore."

"I said: don't put your hands on Mr Gruchy. And what have you done, Orphinaeus? You've put your hands on Mr Gruchy. I gave you every possible inch of wiggle room and you still blundered right into it. Do you understand what that means, you cock-brained cretin? You have broken my deal."

The mellifluous voice split open like a festering wound. Orphinaeus bolted. The Devil caught it by the throat, across the room in the blink of an eye, and lifted it up as though it weighed no more than a feather.

"Hell's got nothing I ain't seen before," Orphinaeus choked, kicking in his grasp.

"That's just the thing, my dear: Hell won't enter into it," said the Devil. "What's that phrase your little cult liked so much? Ah, yes: nihil vere permanens."

The look of absolute, pants-shitting terror on Orphinaeus' face was almost, almost worth all the anguish that had led up to it.

"Wait—please—!"

Flames engulfed it. It screamed. Skin cracked, bones splintered, fat dripped like candle wax onto the floor. Orphinaeus kicked wildly, clawed at the Devil's hand. It might as well have been a slip of silk clutched in the grip of a marble statue. The body spasmed, shuddered, went limp. A red centipede the size of Dan's arm swarmed out of the gaping mouth, frantic. The Devil plucked it up in his other hand. With a second concussive whoomph, it, too, burst into flame. The screaming became a tea-kettle whistle as the centipede thrashed and writhed, as Peake's body melted through the Devil's fingers, crumbled to ash and tar at his feet.

When the flames subsided, there was nothing left of Peake or the centipede—of Orphinaeus—but a greasy stain.

"Mr Gruchy, my sincerest apologies," said the Devil, as though nothing at all had happened. Dan couldn't look away from his hands—swollen, inhuman, turned white as maggot-skin by the flames, each with a dozen claw-ended appendages and—

With a flick of the wrist, they resumed their human shape, so swiftly and so naturally that Dan had to wonder if they'd ever really been otherwise.

"What . . . did you do to it?" Dan asked, too out of sorts to think about whether or not he should be making conversation with the Devil.

"Destroyed it," he said. "Rest assured, it won't be bothering you—or indeed anyone—ever again."

"Oh," said Dan.

The Devil turned more fully towards him, spoke in a voice that was low and soothing.

"I would appreciate it," he said, "if you wouldn't mention this little episode to Ryan."

Dan's pulse slowed to a crawl. The air became as thick and cool as custard. The ringing in his ears dimmed down. His spinning head tipped over and wobbled and finally held still.

"Oh?" he said.

"Mm. I would be so appreciative, in fact, that I might be willing to buy your silence. In exchange for your health and well-being, perhaps?"

"No," said Dan.

"Your freedom, then."

"No."

"You drive a hard bargain, Mr Gruchy," said the Devil, chuckling. "All three?"

"I'm ans—I'm not bargaining. The answer is no."

The Devil raised his hands, rolling his eyes. "All right, all right, bare essentials aren't attractive to you, I understand. There's plenty more I've got to offer. Money, perhaps? One can never go wrong with vast sums of money. Or fame! Genuine fame, not living in your spouse's shadow—"

"What bit of no went over your head?" Dan interrupted.

Again, that hairline crack in the perfect composure, the flicker of deep hellfire. The Devil smiled.

"Shall I move on to threats, Mr Gruchy?" he inquired. "I do so hate having to threaten. I'd much rather part on pleasant terms."

"Part on—on whatever terms you like, mate, so long as you piss—so long as you—as you leave," said Dan. His tongue was so heavy in his mouth, so thick and clumsy, and his head was full of cotton, and everything hurt so much and all he wanted to do was sleep. . . .

The greasy remains of Orphinaeus caught fire again, fluttering and blue like a dessert en flambé. The Devil took a single step forward—stopped, sealed the cracks, shrugged.

"Well, if it doesn't interest you," he sighed, affecting a helpless expression. "Just be aware that without intervention—divine or infernal—you are going to die in the next few days. And our dear Father hasn't been too keen on intervening lately. Been a bit shy on salvation, as well."

"Then what the fuck are you so bloody desperate for?"

The Devil's smile widened. Even in his addled state, Dan could tell it was not a nice face.

"You are going to die a very slow and painful death, Mr Gruchy," the Devil said, "but I do hope you enjoy it, because what comes afterwards is going to be ever so much worse."

"Piss off," said Dan.

In the blink of an eye, the Devil was gone. Dan sagged against the wall. He had no idea how much time passed before the door opened again—only that by the end of it, he was in so much pain that he wished he was dead.

"Dan?" Haywood said, standing stock-still on the other side of the room. Dan raised a hand in greeting. There was blood on his fingers. He couldn't remember where it had come from.

"Good news is," he said, breathless and nauseous, "er—it's worked. Hahah. 'S good news."

Haywood came to him. Dan was delighted to see him bearing laudanum and fresh bandages. Bandages? He couldn't remember who needed bandages. Something was wrong. Something didn't feel right. If he could just get a good night's rest. . . .

"How?" Haywood asked.

"How—how what?"

"How'd you get Orphinaeus?"

"Oh. Put his hands on me. 'S just like I told you, just like I said. Devil—or—no, it was you, wasn't it, said don't put your hands on Dan, and then . . . yeah. Both hands. Like a charm. Poof. I don't—look, I don't feel quite right, can I—I think I need to go to hospital. Haywood? Oy, Haywood, what're you. . . ?"

Haywood sat, frozen like a statue, his eyes wide and his face pale and his breath completely stopped.

Staring, in something like dread or horror or both, at his scarred, mutilated, trembling hands.

Chapter Text

Although Michael had explained the situation right away, everyone elected to wait to talk about it until they were safely back on the train. Free's tail—another grimy street kid—had lost Ryan in the crowds around some place called Westminster, from which Free concluded that Ryan had guessed he was being followed and gone there specifically to lose the tail. He'd given the kid a couple of coins, and then a couple more to buy his silence. After that, they all went on a long and convoluted roam around London, switching cabs and ducking in and out of buildings for over an hour until they were reasonably assured that Ryan was not following them. As such, Michael was forced to spend a good amount of time squirming and stewing, and by the time they actually got around to talking, he was about ready to just shoot himself.

"So," Gabriel said, as the train rattled out into another gray evening. "I've had some thoughts."

"Oh boy, oh goody, OK," said Michael. One sweating hand found Gavin's head, ready and waiting for him. "Might as well get it over with."

"You said one of the things you exchanged this game for was Gavin being returned to you, whole and alive," she said. "That's correct? Those were your exact words?"

"I dunno about exact, I cain't say for sure, but that's the gist of it."

She nodded. "And he was missing part of his tail when you found him, yes?"

"Yeah."

"Then not only is the deal broken already, it's not even your fault. You absolutely don't have to follow through on anything you promised."

"Uh-huh, I don't think that's gonna go over too well. The sonnuva bitch is made outta spite. If he don't get his game, I'm goin' back to prison and Gavin's . . . I ain't gettin' Gavin back twice, that's all I'm sayin'. Ain't gonna be an option."

"And what makes you think the alternative will be better?" Gabriel asked. "There isn't a way you come out of this a winner, Jones. You've already lost by making the deal in the first place."

"Fuck you too, then. Don't know why the hell I asked."

"Olu, honey, Michael needs our help," Lindsay said gently, laying a hand on Gabriel's arm. "Leave the judgin' up to God, OK?"

Gabriel bit her lip and let out a breath. She nodded, put her hand on top of Lindsay's.

"You're right. I'm sorry, Jones, that was callous of me. I do think it should be said, however, that simply refusing to play is an option. It's an option with consequences—perhaps not ones you're willing to accept—but it's an option."

Under the hard scrutiny of Lindsay's glare, Michael said, "Well—I appreciate you givin' it some thought. Like to hear some other options, too, though."

"I reckon you could just—I dunno, win," said Free. "I mean, if you win, right, then—that's it, job done."

"Yeah, easy-peasy, lemme just do that," Michael sneered.

"Jones, you haven't got to be snide, Jones. You could pick a game you're good at, or one that's difficult to lose."

"Like what?"

"Oof, I dunno . . . checkers?"

"Been there, done that. I only won 'cuz he wanted me to."

"You sure he don't want you to win this time, too?" Lindsay asked.

"I don't think winnin' or losin' is the point. The point is him gettin' whatever it is he wants." He chewed his tongue, then added, "So, y'know, I guess Gabriel's prob'ly right about that part."

She shrugged, making a face that communicated that, while she was indeed right, she wasn't necessarily pleased about it.

"Well, we gotta start from where we are, not where we wish we were," said Lindsay. "Maybe since the Devil ain't get you everythin' you asked for, you can make a case that some things are off-limits. Like your soul, take that off the table."

"It might buy some time, but it ain't gonna fix this shit," Michael said. "Every time I play, I'm gonna wind up deeper in the hole. That's how gamblin' works."

"Not quite," said Free. "Occasionally, you've got to win big, or else you'll stop playing. Or somebody's got to win big. There's got to be, right, the promise of a big win, or else there's no appeal."

"Promises ain't gonna get me nowhere. Ain't no way to fix it so's I win."

"Of course there is."

"Oh?"

"Cheat."

"Cheat?"

"Yeah!"

"Against the goddamn Devil Himself, who's got all kinds of crazy-ass powers and shit, who can kill my ass dead as easy as he can blink, and me bein' the shitty-ass liar I am—you want me to cheat?"

Free pouted. "Well it's not perfect, obviously, but it's an option. Also, you're not a shitty liar, I'm just that good."

"The hell you are, and I'll tell you straight-up: cheatin'will not work. Last game he pulled up a whole-ass checkerboard outta thin air. You think he's not gonna know I'm cheatin'? Hell, he might be listenin' to this conversation right now, for all I know!"

"If you bring your own checkers, though—"

"Oh, yeah, like that's gonna make a shitload of difference."

"Actually," Gabriel said slowly.

"Jesus Christ, not you, too."

"Jones, if the game always ends how the Devil wants it to," she went on anyway, "what do you suppose that means?"

"Uh, that he's literal Satan and he's got powers and shit? What the fuck, y'all, this ain't some two-bit card sharp in a saloon."

"Regardless of how he's doing it, if the gamealways goes how he wants it to, he's always cheating," said Gabriel.

"Yeah, but—"

It clicked. Time slowed. Michael's pulse strengthened like he'd only been using half his heart before now.

"Oh," he said.

"If you cheat the cheater, does the win still count?" said Lindsay. "And, actually, now I'm thinkin' about it, how do you prove he was cheatin'? 'Cuz it's gonna be his word against yours, and uh . . . hm. That's a li'l tricky, ain't it."

"An impartial third party, perhaps?" Free suggested.

"And just where the hell you think I'm gonna get one of them? Dumbass."

"My arse is smarter than your whole head."

"And your head's about as smart as my ass."

Free made a complicated noise that could only be described as offended. With a loud, squeaky yawn, Gavin set his chin on Michael's knee. Michael sighed and scratched him behind the ears.

"You sure as hell ain't comin'," he said. "Got yourself in more'n enough trouble already."

"I don't guess . . . one of us could go with you," Lindsay said. She didn't sound excited about the prospect.

"Abso-fuckin'-lutely not," said Michael. "I put y'all far enough in harm's way just talkin' about all this. No, nobody's goin' but me. I ain't budgin' on that."

The whole compartment let out a sigh of relief.

"I assume you know where to—er, how to . . . get in contact? With him?" said Free.

"Some ideas. I figure it's pretty much: if I go lookin' for him, I'll find him."

"You got a sense for when you'll have to go?" Lindsay asked.

"Whenever. Sooner's prob'ly better. Tonight, even."

"Tonight? No no no, hell no, you ain't nearly well enough to be doin' any of this tonight."

"Doc, the longer I wait, the worse this is gonna get. Even if I fuck this up and lose, I might could get him to tell me where Gruchy's at. Sooner we get that done, the better."

"Jones, I don't—" Free began, and stopped.

"What?"

He took a deep breath, making faces. "If . . . if it comes down to it, you know, to a choice between finding Dan or—or not getting yourself in deeper trouble. . . ."

"Yeah yeah. I'll go with findin' Gruchy, don't worry."

"That's not what I was going to say."

It was like a swift punch to the chest. Michael looked up, astonished. Free shrugged, twining his hands together in his lap.

"It's just—well, you know, at a certain point, you become a liability, that's all," he said. "Or . . . another body on the pile. Getting the information won't help if you're too dead to communicate it. So—if it's an acceptable risk, yes, obviously, find out where Dan is. But if it's not, you know, don't. I wouldn't ask you to—to sell your soul for him. He wouldn't want anyone to do that for him, even if it meant—he wouldn't want that. So . . . don't."

"OK," Michael said, at a loss for how he was supposed to respond to this. "I guess I won't."

"But I really do appreciate that you were willing to," said Free. "I mean that, it's—it's very noble of you, I just—yeah, sort of, you know."

On the other side of the compartment, Gabriel tucked two fingers into the collar of her dress and pulled out a thin gold chain. It turned out to be attached to a cross, also gold, also thin. She took the necklace off, re-did the clasp, and held it out to Michael.

"I think you might have some use for this," she said. "More than I will, anyway."

He stared. "You uh . . . you really think that's gonna help?"

"I don't think it could hurt."

"I ain't exactly, uh . . . ain't exactly a religious fella. I don't think it works if you don't believe it."

She raised her eyebrows at him. "Then it's a good thing I believe, isn't it."

Michael accepted the necklace from her. His fingers were too clumsy to work the clasp, so he got Lindsay to do it for him, then tucked it into his shirt.

"Uh," he said, "thanks. I guess. I'll give it back when this's all done."

"You don't have to," said Gabriel. "Consider it a slightly belated Christmas present."

"Oh. OK, sure. Guess that means I better . . . get you somethin'. Or somethin'."

She fought down a smile and inclined her head. "Let's just worry about surviving, for now," she said.


 

On the way from the train station to the undertaker's cottage, they stopped to buy a pack of cards. Michael spent a good long while scrutinizing the shop, the salesman, and the cards themselves, but could find no evidence of further demons. Still, it didn't really set him at ease. There was a dread in his stomach too heavy to be removed by any means.

The old cat was still waiting for them back at the cottage, along with a second cat that looked (and smelled) like it had just crawled out of a trash can. Gavin spent about a minute sniffing it before trotting on to the kitchen and pawing pointedly at the pantry. The old cat hopped right up into Michael's lap, while the new one rubbed itself all over his wheels.

"I think they like you," Lindsay remarked, not without a hint of jealousy.

"Well, I wish they'd quit," said Michael.

Over the course of dinner, Lindsay fed enough scraps to the new cat that it eventually forgot all about Michael. They decided that it was probably a suitor of the undertaker's cat, one who'd latched onto her in one of the alleys she'd traveled through to return here. It was also decided that they might as well let it stay, and therefore somebody would have to wash it. They drew straws, and Free got the short one.

"You've rigged it, somehow," he muttered, lifting the cat up by its armpits. "Absolutely rigged, I don't believe it for a second."

"Get you some cheese to go with that whine, Free," said Michael.

"Tell you what: if you drink the bathwater when this is done, I'll never whinge again."

"Sure thing," said Michael. "And then I'll barf it all on you."

Free gagged and hurried from the room.

"Did you rig it?" Gabriel asked Michael.

"Yup," said Michael.

"You're horrendous."

"I'm practicin'."

A pall fell over the room. Michael took the pack of cards from his pocket and turned it in his hands, just for the sake of occupying them.

"You still plannin' to go tonight?" Lindsay asked.

"Yeah," said Michael.

In his lap, the old cat yawned, laid its head down, and prickled his legs with its claws. Fortunately, his evening dose of laudanum had kicked in by then, so it didn't hurt much. Michael scratched it behind the ear with one finger, and it purred like a locomotive. Across the table, Lindsay and Gabriel exchanged a look, had a brief and wordless conversation.

"Well," said Gabriel, easing onto her feet. "It'll be an early start tomorrow, I'm sure, and I'm exhausted from all this running about. I think I'll be heading to bed."

"Sounds like a plan," said Lindsay. "I'm gonna stick around here for a couple minutes. Clean up the dishes, and everythin'."

Gabriel put a hand on the back of her neck, leaned down, and pecked her on the lips before leaving. Gavin stopped by Michael's chair to get a pat on the head before following Gabriel out.

For a while, the only sound in the dining room was the old cat's purring. From the washroom, there was a muffled splash, followed by a disgusted wail.

"So uh," Michael said to Lindsay. "You and Gabriel seem like you're uh . . . gettin' on pretty good."

Lindsay ducked her head and shrugged. "I guess so, yeah. We had some rough patches, but—for right now, we're good."

"Well. Uh. Good."

She looked up at him. He looked someplace else, rubbing the arms of his chair.

"Mean to say," he went on. "At least somethin's goin' good."

"Michael, I'm—I dunno if I've said this already, but I'm sorry," she said. "I'm sorry I ain't been there for you as much as I should. Seems like you been goin' through Hell all on your lonesome."

"Shit, Doc, I cain't blame you for that. I been pushin' everybody away as hard as I can." He paused, then asked: "You uh . . . you given any thought as to what you're gonna do after—after all this is done with?"

She blew out a breath and shook her head. "I ain't had that much time to think about it."

"Yeah. Sure, naw, yeah, that makes sense. Just wonderin'. I uh. I wanted to say, too, uh . . . I'm—I'm sorry. For bein', y'know, an ungrateful piece of shit. And for pushin' you away all this time. I ain't ever really stop to think about . . . y'know, I guess all that shit with Haywood was pretty fuckin' hard on you, too, and—yeah. Yeah. I'm sorry ain't been there for you like you been there for me. And I'll try—I'm gonna do better. Just kinda . . . in general."

Lindsay held out her hand to him. He took it. She folded her other hand over his knuckles and squeezed, gently.

"I appreciate that," she said.

A long ways off, a clock tolled the hour. The cat's tail twitched, and one ear flicked back, and she dug her claws into Michael's leg again. He gave her another little scratch behind the ear and she settled back down again.

"Y'know, I'm—I'm kinda glad we ain't get married, back then," he said, while he had an excuse not to look at Lindsay. "More I think about it, y'know, more I think you was right to turn me down. I been all kinds of fucked up, and I think . . . I needed that space. I ain't know it, but I needed it."

"I figured," said Lindsay. "That's pretty much the only reason I turned you down."

He sniffed, cleared his throat, scratched the back of his head. Her hands were warm on his, calloused and strong.

"I uh . . . I ain't gonna ask again," he said. "Just wanna put that out there. I ain't gonna ask again, 'cuz I know shit's changed and you got other stuff goin' on these days, but also—y'know, if ever you get to a point where uh . . . I mean, y'know, I'm—I'm here. If you ever decide you wanna pick that conversation back up. I'm here."

"You mean that, or are you just sayin' it 'cuz Haywood ain't on your mind right now?" she asked softly.

"There ain't hardly any time I don't got Haywood on my mind," he said. "That's why I ain't gonna ask again."

She squeezed his hand. He squeezed back. Tucking her lips into her mouth, she let out a slow, shaky breath.

"You really plannin' to go through with this, tonight?" she asked. "'Cuz it don't have to be tonight. It could wait."

"It could," said Michael. "It ain't gonna."

"You know where you're gonna go to?"

"Out in that graveyard someplace. I think that oughtta do."

"That's gonna be pretty hard goin'. It's awful muddy out there."

"I know. That's why I figure it'll do. Last time, I had to go up in the clock tower. Over the bank, you remember that fuckin' clock tower?"

"I recall. Don't surprise me much, either. Awful lot of . . . awful lot of bad came outta that place. Or near it, anyhow."

Another silence descended upon them. Free cooed at the cat in the washroom, somewhere between enamored and desperate.

"I cain't throw no stones over Risinger," said Michael. "I know you want me to, now that I ain't bein' such a dumbass, but I cain't. Maybe back when it happened, I coulda, but not no more."

"That's OK, Michael. I just—can I ask you somethin', maybe?"

"'Course you can."

"How—how do you live with it?" she asked. "All the wrong you done. How do you still get up in the mornin', without it eatin' you alive?"

He snorted. "What makes you think it don't eat me alive?" he said. "Those nightmares I get, they ain't ever about what was done to me. They're about what I done. They're about . . . Trevor and Alfredo, and the Hullums, and Heyman. Ghosts. All my dreams are fulla ghosts, and I ain't found no way to get rid of 'em yet. All I know is, I ain't gonna add any more. That's all that makes it livable."

"Any more?" said Lindsay, frowning.

"Well—"

And for the first time, it started to sink in. Whether or not it was right to kill Ryan, whether or not it was deserved, was he, Michael Jones, willing to live with the doing of it? Was that a ghost he was prepared to take on? He'd always assumed that being rid of Ryan in the living world would scrub his conscience clean of him, too—that the nightmares would stop, the guilt would dissolve, and every memory of their time together, good and bad, would fade like thin paint in the desert sun. It had kind of worked before—sort of, with time—but now that Ryan had come back from the dead once, would Michael ever really be able to believe he was gone?

For the first time, he wondered if this was really what he wanted.

Lindsay squeezed his hand again, drawing him back to the present. She offered him a smile, though her eyes held something of pain.

"Either way," she said, "I'm with you."

Chapter Text

It took more than ten minutes of slogging through the graveyard mud for Michael to find the Devil.

He was seated in a wicker chair at the foot of an open grave, framed in a single shaft of moonlight. There was a little white table in front of him, an empty spot across from him. He waved as Michael approached. Michael kept his hands on his wheels, his aching arms occupied with shoving him the last few yards through the cold, sticky mud. He pulled up to the table across from the Devil—his back to the open grave.

"Hello again, Michael," said the Devil, and his voice still sounded like Free's, and his face was still a clear parody of Ryan's, and both still made Michael's skin crawl. "I must admit, this is a little unexpected, but a pleasant surprise, nonetheless."

"'Scuse me if I don't believe that for one second," said Michael. He was struggling to get his breath back, between the weight of the Devil's attention and the yawning chasm of the open grave behind him.

The Devil smiled and shrugged. "I'm a busy fellow. So! One presumes there is to be a game, yes? Shall I also presume the same rules as last time?"

"Hold your horses, pal," said Michael, raising a finger. "We got some settlin' to do first."

"Settling?" the Devil said. His breath did not fog the air when he spoke. "Might I inquire what for?"

"You promised me I'd get my dog back whole and alive. He ain't come back to me whole."

"Don't be ridiculous."

"I ain't. You din't hold up your end of the deal."

"Michael, I assure you, I did," said the Devil, laughing.

"And I assure you that you fuckin' din't. You got eyes all over the damn place, why don't you check? That dog's missin' half his tail, and I don't call that whole."

The Devil's eyes narrowed. Something sparked within them, something of fire and brimstone. When he smiled again, it was a much less easy expression.

"Well," he said softly. "How about that."

"How 'bout that," Michael sneered. "Now, since you din't hold up your end, I could just walk the hell away right now."

"Walk being a liberal verb."

"Kiss my ass," Michael snapped, before he knew what he was doing. He reigned himself in, even as the Devil smirked. "I could call off the whole damn deal, if I wanted to. But that ain't what I want. I'm still willin' to give you your game, since I got most of what you promised me. There's just gonna be a couple amendments."

"Oof, I don't know about a couple, Michael. That seems excessive."

"One, then."

"Depending on the size of the amendment, I think I could be amenable to that."

"I get to pick the game. That's the balance I want from you. I get to pick the game."

"Fair, and furthermore, unobjectionable," said the Devil. "I agree to your terms, Mr. Jones. What's our game?"

"My game," said Michael, sweating through his shirt despite the cold. "Solitaire."

The corners of the Devil's mouth twitched. "Very funny."

"I ain't kiddin'. I pick solitaire."

"That isn't very conducive, you know, to the sorts of arrangements I usually make."

"Boo-hoo. You agreed to let me pick the game, and solitaire's the game I picked. If you don't like it, you can walk away."

"And what, precisely, am I meant to get from this arrangement? It doesn't seem at all equitable."

Michael raised his eyebrows, blinking. "Gee, I dunno, I never even thought about it," he said. "On account of you sayin', multiple times, that it wun't about what you wanted."

It had to be the stupidest thing he'd ever said, but God, it was worth it, just to watch that too-perfect composure finally crack. The Devil's eye twitched. His smile was so forced, it barely looked human.

"But hey," Michael went on, "if it's that important to you, I bet we could work somethin' out. We can talk for as long as it takes me to win. Hell, I won't even ask you to tell the truth."

"Ahah, and then if you lose—"

"I play again 'til I win, and then you go away."

The Devil pouted at him. "This really isn't very fair of you."

"It's plenty fair," said Michael. "You got 'til I win to make me an offer I might actually wanna take."

"Hmm, I suppose I could see it working," said the Devil, stroking his chin. "One condition, if I might: I get to deal."

"What for?"

"So you don't cheat, of course. Not that I think you'd cheat, but I've been round this block so very many times."

"Fine," said Michael. He took the brand-new pack of cards from his pocket and slapped it down on the table between them. "There you go."

Again, a faint twitch of the eye, a sharpening of the smile. The Devil took the cards out of the pack and shuffled them, as swift and self-assured as if he'd been doing it his whole life. The rattle of the cards was the only sound in the graveyard. Michael's ears started ringing. He forced himself to breathe.

In for seven. Out for eleven. No matter how this shook out, it would be over soon.

The Devil laid out the cards, picture-perfect. It was a promising spread, two aces right off the bat and a good mix of black and red cards. Steeling himself, Michael began.

He put the two aces up to start the foundation piles. A king and a seven were underneath them. He drew three cards from the stock, his hand shaking. The Devil propped his chin on his hand and watched, eyes half-lidded and mouth curled up at the corners.

"So talk," said Michael, barely able to see through the haze of fear.

"So ask," said the Devil.

Goddammit.

"You screwed Ryan over pretty good, huh," said Michael, because it was the first thing that popped into his head and he couldn't spare the effort to figure out if it was a good idea or not. "All that by no hand shit. He cain't kill himself except for with his bare hands. That right?"

The Devil shook his head. "Genuinely, Michael, you do impress me. It's taken you, what, a year to work that out? Ryan's had fourteen years, and he still hasn't."

"Why?"

"Because he's stupid."

Michael bit back his instinctive outrage. He drew another three cards from the stock—the first three were useless.

"That ain't what I meant," he said. "I meant: why'd you screw him over?"

"It's my job, darling."

"Boy, that sure does make me wanna take anythin' you offer me. Hot diggity."

"I don't think there's any point in lying to you about it. You know well enough by now the sorts of deals I make, and I know enough about you to know that I'm not going to earn your trust. The idea, at this point, is to find the thing you want so much, you're willing to look past the consequences."

"Uh-huh. And if it cain't be found?"

"You underestimate me," the Devil purred.

Michael turned over another three cards, then another three, none of them playable. He got to the bottom of the stock, searched for a move to make, found none. He couldn't remember if he'd played anything from the stock already, so he flipped it over and started again, one two three cards turned over. The Devil didn't say anything, so maybe he hadn't lost yet—probably he'd just missed an obvious move.

"So there wun't nothin' personal about it?" Michael asked, eyes on the cards. "Nothin' he did that maybe pissed you off a li'l extra?"

The Devil threw his head back and laughed. "Michael, my dear, sweet boy—I'm older than humanity itself, and you think anything any of you do has the power to upset me?"

"A gnat in the eye still hurts like a bitch."

"Bold of you," said the Devil, "to assume you're as big as a gnat."

"If we're so goddamn insignificant, why the hell're you fuckin' around with us?"

"Like I said: it's my job."

"You gettin' paid?"

"In a manner of speaking."

Michael reached the bottom of the stock again, still no moves made. The Devil said nothing, eyes twinkling and a wicked little smile playing about his lips.

Of course. Nothing could ever be easy.

"I think this one's a bust," Michael said, choking on his pride. "Deal again?"

"Certainly," said the Devil. He swept up the cards, cut and shuffled, dealt again. The new spread wasn't half as promising as the last—all red, no aces, no face cards. Michael drew, one two three. All three were black cards, one the ace of spades. He tried not to let hope get to him, but it struck through his heart like an arrow.

"So who's payin' you?" he asked. Focus. Breathe. He had to keep his head above water.

"Mm, it's not really like that," said the Devil. "Does the spring in a clock get paid? The cogs? The grease in the wheels? No, but they've got jobs. Their payment is the functionality of the machine."

"Uh-huh." One two three, and two more aces, one of which allowed him to clear a pile and make space for a king. It was a hell of a run. "You sayin', what, you gotta be a jackass or otherwise the whole world falls apart?"

"Nothing of the sort. It was simply a convenient shorthand of explaining to you the nature of my quote-unquote job. Don't read too much into it."

Three more cards from the stock—none of them playable, the Two of Hearts on the bottom. That was going to be a problem.

"Boy, you sure do seem like you're fishin' for somethin'," said Michael, considering the cards. He could feel the Devil's eyes on him, heavy on his hands like tree sap. "You got somethin' you wanna talk about, why don't you just talk about it?"

"Gracious, no," said the Devil. "It's not about what I want. It's about what you want, Michael. What do you want to know?"

Michael ground his teeth, played on in silence for a good half a minute. He was still making good progress, filling three out of four of the foundation piles, but that buried Two of Hearts was going to cost him the game.

"That demon sonnuva bitch," he said, more to buy himself time than anything else. "The one who got Free. Who is he?"

"Was," said the Devil. "It doesn't much matter what he was, because he isn't one anymore."

"What happened to him?"

Michael didn't even need to see the smile for it to raise the hairs on the back of his neck.

"He failed to hold up his end of a deal," said the Devil.

"You killt him?"

"Death, as you understand it, doesn't really apply to that class of creature. What happens to them is significantly more . . . permanent."

Clear and obvious bait. Michael wasn't ready to take it yet. He flipped the stock and kept playing. The Two of Hearts stayed buried. The Devil's attention stayed on Michael.

"Uh-huh," Michael said again. One two three, if he could just get at that damn black seven, he could win, but it was in the wrong place in the stock and there were no more cards beneath it he could spend to change the order. He'd lost, again. He kept playing, because there were still a couple more moves he could make.

"You seem disinterested," the Devil remarked. Michael's heart skipped a beat.

"If you wanna hold my attention, you gotta do better'n that," Michael said. "I don't give two shits about what happened to that demon f—sonnuva bitch, so long as he's gone. I wanna know if you sent him."

"Does the wolf send a worm to knock the little pigs' houses down?" the Devil said dryly.

"So we're pigs now? Damn," said Michael. "Either that's one helluva growth spurt, or you been playin' with some big-ass gnats."

"Oh, you're so insufferably clever, Michael, you're so disgustingly incisive, how do you stand yourself?"

"I don't," said Michael. He flipped the stock again—pointless, he'd already lost, but he wasn't going to say so just yet. "Who sends the wolf?"

"He goes where he pleases."

"That don't seem to fit in with your job."

"Michael, darling, use your words. I promise it won't kill you to be direct."

"Fine. Where's God?"

The Devil sat back, gleaming. He sighed and turned his eyes skyward and rolled his wrist, like an aging actor relegated to the audience, talking of all the grand performances he'd once given.

And not watching Michael anymore.

"Our Father was a tinkerer," he said. "He loved to build these complex machines, wind them up and watch them go. But everything had to be just so. Any error, any hint of corrosion, any slightest slip, and He'd throw the whole thing out. It's what He did with me. Then with all His other angels, when He decided they weren't to His liking. Then it was every living being who didn't conform to His ever more stringent specifications until, at last, there were none left. The watchmaker is gone, Michael. There's nobody out there to wind the spring. All that's left is the long decay while we wait for silence. I'm just . . . killing time."

While he talked, Michael drew, one, two.

"And this is what you picked?" Michael said, shivering head to toe."God's gone, the world's endin', and you decided you wanted to spend your last days pissin' on ants?"

The Devil shrugged. "That's just the shape of my machinery. I was constructed to disobey. I was built to be thrown out. I was made to be cruel. No one can help the way they're made."

"The hell they cain't," he snapped. Was it possible? Had the Devil really not noticed? "Pick up a screwdriver and get to fixin'."

"To what end? The clock's going to stop sooner or later anyway, and when it does, it won't matter a whit what anyone did, good or bad, grand or myopic. Even salvation and damnation won't last—the quote-unquote immortal soul is anything but. It's the one thing that silly little Brotherhood got right. Nihil vere permanens; nothing is truly permanent."

"So you can destroy a soul."

"I can, yes," the Devil said. A sly look came into his eye, a familiar glimmer, as his attention returned to Michael in full. "Was there one in particular you had in mind?"

"Might be," said Michael. He drew three from the stock, finally got the Seven of Clubs and cleared the five cards beneath it—a remarkable run, but not incredible or sure-fire. There were two cards left in the stock. His hands were damp with sweat.

"Well, then, perhaps we can come to an arrangement," the Devil said, his wheels turning on well-greased axles. "Of course, souls don't come cheap, regardless of what you're doing with them. The destruction, especially, is . . . taxing."

"I'll bet," said Michael. He flipped the last cards, put the Two of Hearts on its foundation pile, and sat back. "But you're outta time to sell it, 'cuz I just won."

The change that came over the Devil was instantaneous.

"You cheated!" he snarled, upending the table and leaping to his feet. The cards scattered, burst into flame before they hit the ground. He was ten feet tall, his form swelling and distended like a bloated corpse, glowing with the heat of his fury.

"Oh, did I?" said Michael, shaking so hard it rattled the wheels of his chair. That grave was so deep and cold and hungry behind him. . . . "How do you know? Unless, oh I dunno, you rigged the deal or somethin'."

Enormous wings burst from the Devil's back, white an