“Good to see you, boy!”
Luck’s father shakes his hand and slaps him hard on the back. “They teaching you anything worthwhile up in that fancy place?"
Luck smiles. “Some, sir.”
“Well, they aren’t feeding you, that’s for sure.” His father laughs his deep belly laugh. "You're still skinny as a plucked chicken!"
“Come on, Dad,” Berga guffaws, coming to Luck’s rescue. “Dames go for the skinny guys nowadays. Want ‘em to like those guys in the pictures.”
“Siddown, son,” Mitch Gandor says. “Let’s chat.”
Even after two years at Princeton, Luck is still intimidated by his father’s office. The shades are always pulled, and the wood-panelling makes him feel like he's in a casket—one of the gaudy ones they bury politicians in.
His father lays out three mug shots on the table as soon as Luck sits down. "Have a glance at these fine gentlemen."
“These our guys? I don’t recognize them.”
“Yeah,” Berga answers. “Runners, and some mook went and messed them up. Bad.” He punches his fist into his palm for demonstration.
“They were selling to a certain establishment of ours in Chicago when they got snatched.”
Luck looks up. “Chicago? I didn’t know we’d expanded that far.”
Berga and their father exchange a look. Keith continues to stare into the flames and says nothing.
“I want you to take care of this for me, Luck,” his father says. “Go to the Windy City and find our boys.” He jabs a finger at the photographs. “The Gandors don’t leave their people in the lurch.”
Luck stands up. Chicago in December. He can’t think of anywhere he'd less like to go. “I’ll leave tonight.”
“Attaboy. Oh, and Luck?”
“Don’t screw this up, and we’ll have a new Capo by the end of the week.”
Luck smoothes his hand over the wood-grain of the door.
“Thank you, sir.”
The coffee on the train is weak. One of the guys he shares his floor with in the old Fraternity house is Italian, and makes the most fucking fantastic coffee Luck has ever tasted. Thinking about it makes him unreasonably homesick for a place that isn't even his home.
A hand curls around the seat beside him.
“That smells terrible.”
Claire sits down next to him, falling into the seat and crossing his legs. Every time Luck sees him, his motions have become smoother, his body more lithe. More deadly.
“Fancy meeting you here."
Claire pats him on the arm. He’s wearing a conductor’s hat and jacket and looks generally pleased with himself. “You know me. I like trains.”
“I know you do.”
Claire’s face and hands are both freshly scrubbed and slightly pink, but Luck can still smell blood, coppery and thick under the lighter smell of his cologne.
“You here on a job?”
“No. Happy accident. I came across a conductor trying to force himself on a young lady in the Sleeping Car. He’ll have a bit of trouble conducting in the future.”
Luck raises a brow.
Claire raises both his hands and makes a squeezing motion in midair.
A strangling. So he’s imagined the blood. A sense memory, perhaps, brought on by Claire’s satisfied grin and the easy looseness in his limbs. Claire looks positively post-coital after killing someone who deserves it.
“So.” Luck tugs at the brim of his hat. “You a conductor now?”
“Hmm?” Claire goes cross-eyed for a moment, looking up. “Hey, I guess I am.” He pushes the hat down over his eye jauntily. “I was getting tired of the circus anyway.”
Luck laughs. “It’s that easy?”
“’Course it is, Luck. I can be anything I want to be, anytime I want it. The world—.”
“Is yours,” Luck finishes for him. “I know.”
Claire’s crooked grin gets even bigger. “Yeah. And you’re part of it.” The hand he lays on Luck’s thigh sense a familiar flash of heat through him, but one he’s long since learned to quell. “So you can have whatever you want, too.”
Claire disappears about an hour before the train pulls into Chicago Union Station. Luck isn’t worried—he knows the hotel, and even if he hadn’t, there’s little doubt in Luck’s mind Claire could track him down wherever he went. There’s no use speculating where he’s gone off to—knowing him, he’s probably punching tickets by now.
Even before he began with his whole ‘the world is mine’ shtick, Claire had done whatever he wanted.
The station still smells new, woodchips and sawdust and new paint. A woman’s heel stomps on Luck’s foot in the crush of people leaving the platform, and it stings all the way out onto the shining wax floor. Several conductors direct traffic, but none of them is Claire.
All he’s got of the guy he’s supposed to be meeting is a name, and his father’s assurances that he’ll know him when he sees him. He’s buying cigarettes from the coffee cart when he realizes someone is watching him.
The man falls into step beside him as Luck heads for the doors.
“Mr. Philips?” Luck inquires
“You must be Mr. Gandor, then.”
Adrian Philips is young, much younger than Luck had been expecting, though he’s still older than him—probably by five or six years. Blond scruff stubbles his jaw, and his hair is just a little too long around the ears to be fashionable. He has a voice that has spent a lot of time around unfiltered cigarettes, and he’s handsome in a rough, broad-shouldered sort of way.
Whatever his deal is, he couldn’t have been anymore obvious than if he’d been carrying a painted sign.
“Call me Luck,” he says, as they shake. “I wasn’t expecting a cop.”
“Private detective,” Philips grunts, though he looks grudgingly impressed. “I got an outstanding debt with your old man, that’s all. I don’t work with gangsters.”
Luck suppresses a gin. “Noted.”
A black town car with tinted windows pulls up to the curb as they emerge from the station. Luck opens the door and steps back. “After you, detective.”
Chicago traffic is bad, so by the time they’ve circled back round to the station twice and headed downtown, Luck knows where their guys are being held, where they were when they got snatched, and who it was who’d done the snatching. He knows the Russo family by reputation only—that they’re ruthless and hold on to grudges like there might be a shortage coming up.
The car is small and Philips is a big enough guy that they have to sit pretty close. His cologne is cheap—nothing like the stuff the guys in Luck’s fraternity wear—but Luck likes it. He talks with his hands, which are even bigger than Claire’s, and when he starts on the Russos, his voice takes on a dangerous edge that makes the skin on Luck’s arms prickle.
When Luck lets himself into the suite at the newly-opened Drake Hotel, Claire is laid out on the bed, dressed all in black. The conductor’s hat and coat are draped over a chair in the corner of the room.
“Who’s the dick?” Claire asks, as Luck shrugs out of his own jacket and loosens his tie. He’s mussed from the train ride and smells of sweat and stale coffee.
“Local.” Luck starts on his buttons next, on his cuffs and down the collar of his shirt. “He knows the area and he owes us a favor. Says he can get us into the Russos’ place.”
According to Philips, their guys had been snatched from the train yard in the early hours of the morning three days ago, when they’d been taking a shipment of dubious legality, some sort of side deal that had gone south.
Claire sits up, watching Luck remove his shirt with unusually intense focus. The weight of his eyes makes Luck’s heartbeat quicken, breath come a little more shallow.
“The Russos are bad news. They’ve got this one assassin’s supposed to have a couple screws loose.”
Luck raises an eyebrow. “There might be some violence. Coming along?”
Claire’s grins don’t get any happier than that.
About a half an hour later there’s a timid knock on the door. Luck answers it to find a very twitchy-looking bell boy.
“Mr. Gandor, sir.” Sweat trickles down from under his tasseled hat. “T-There’s…I mean….someone’s on the telephone for you, sir.”
Luck hasn’t been to Chicago in years, but clearly the Gandors have a reputation here. What else has changed in the few years he’s been away at school?
He tries to give the boy an encouraging smile, but that just makes him look even more terrified, so he gives it a rest. “Lead the way.”
The hotel manager lets Luck use his office for privacy, even after Luck protests that it really won’t be necessary. He’s had more than enough experience at making sure his end of a conversation stays bland.
“It’s Philips.” It’s a good line—hardly an echo at all. In the background Luck can hear the wail of a saxophone. “I’m at the Russo’s place. I think they know something’s up—got way more guys down here than they should.”
“They packing any heat?”
“They’re not waving it around or nothing, but they’re armed.”
Luck can’t say he’s unduly surprised by this turn of events—enough people seem to know he’s here already, and it isn’t too much of a stretch to imagine that the Russos might have some people at the hotel.
“I’ll figure something out,” Luck tells Phillips, before breaking the connection.
Three ugly thugs snatched up in the middle of the night, goons with guns, and nothing but him, a detective with a limp, and his acrobat brother. Sounds like one of the foreign spy novels his roommate likes to read when he thinks no one’s around.
“You know what we need?” Claire asks, when he describes the situation to him.
Claire slaps him on the back, smile wide and knowing. “A woman.”
It’s raining when they make it out onto the streets, cold sheeting down from the black sky. Luck can’t seem to stop shivering.
If he’s uncomfortable, it’s nothing to how the half-dozen or so girls on the corner must be feeling, huddled under the tiny awning of an abandoned bodega. A couple of them look round when the car pulls up, although most stay grouped around one girl who appears to be crying into a handkerchief.
Claire leans around Luck and opens the door. A girl in a gauzy black and gold dress that’s too big for her stumbles up.
“You fellas lookin’ for something?” she asks. The effect of her sexy purr is mitigated by the chattering of her teeth.
Claire’s smirk is so charming Luck feels his own face heating. “Yeah, we are. Lily.”
The girl’s face falls so fast Luck’s surprised it doesn’t drop right off into the gutter. “Hey.” She shouts it over her shoulder. “Lily!”
A girl in a shimmering silver dress has her arm around the crying girl, muttering something to her, stroking the side of her head. She looks round when she hears her name.
“What are you yelling about, goof?” she shoots back. She looks their way and her expression transforms. She lets go of her friend, patting her one last time, before pushing her curls back in line and sauntering out onto the sidewalk.
She doesn’t stand out in the rain either, but comes right into the car with a “Budge up, handsome.”
Claire shuts the door behind her before kissing her hand.
“How’s tricks, Lily?”
“Oh, you know. Grand.” She tips her head back toward the huddle of girls. “Better than Ruby’s, at least.”
Luck leans toward the window. “She alright?”
“One of her regulars got rough. Knocked her around pretty bad.”
Claire goes very still. “Does that happen often?”
“Not too often. Don’t get in a lather about it. She’ll be fine.”
“What’s the guy’s name?” Claire presses.
“Cripes, I don’t know. Joshua something. Joshua Mefield. Why?” She narrows her eyes. “You gonna do something about it?”
Claire holds up two big hands in defense. “Wouldn’t dream of it.”
From the gleam in his eyes, Luck is fairly sure there’s going to be one less abuser going off to work in the morning.
“Never mind that,” Lily says, waving it off. “Just tell me who your handsome friend is.”
Claire’s grin widens. “He’s my brother.”
Lily’s gaze flicks between them, no doubt noting Claire’s fiery red hair and Luck’s hazel eyes. Their drastically different builds. “Brother, huh?”
“Yeah, I know. Kinda hard to believe, isn’t it?”
“There something special the two of you’s looking for?” Lily asks, as the car pulls away from the curb. “Something brotherly?”
Claire meets her conspiratorial grin. “Got the time?”
“Got the scratch?”
Claire tosses her an unsealed envelope. She flips it open and counts through the bills with practiced motions of her long, painted fingers. “Isn’t enough for the whole night,” she concludes, making the envelope disappear into her purse.
“We just need you for a distraction,” Luck tells her.
“Aww, Mr. Stanfield. When you gonna go all the way, huh?” She puts an arm around Luck. “I bet your brother wouldn’t complain.”
Lily is giggly and bubbly, playing the vamp well, but Luck can see something shrewd and considering in her eyes. She is not a woman to underestimate.
“Maybe next time,” Luck says, airing out his own enigmatic smile, the one that every year seems to spread further across his face, thickening to plaster. “But we’ve got a different sort of job for you tonight.”
“Who’s the vamp?”
Philips’ martini glass is too small in his hands, and watching him fondle it makes Luck think about how his fingers would be callused. He imagines them tracing patterns down his back, rough skin catching, sensation rippling out in spirals—
Luck realizes, with a jolt, that he’s taken too long to respond. “Sorry, who?”
Luck follows Philips’ gaze over to Lily. Her pale shoulders shake as she laughs with a group of girls over at the end of the bar. Two men in cheap suits with less-than-discreet bulges ruining the lines flank a nondescript door. Lily hasn’t engaged either of them, but neither of them can keep their eyes off her. She’s definitely worth every dollar.
“Friend of my brothers,” Luck demurs, with a pointed look toward the bartender. This isn’t the place to be airing their intricate plan.
A distraction, a rescue, and a shoot-out if necessary. Not the most delicate thing he’s ever done, but his father doesn’t require subtlety .
He’d been planning on a diplomatic approach, but Claire’s presence makes everything different. It always has.
Philips squints through the smoke and the noise, to where Claire is leaning at against the craps table, watching the progress of the dice.
“The redhead? Don’t look much like you.”
“No,” Luck agrees.
The Vamp. The Redhead. The Dick. Luck swirls his whiskey and wonders what people must assign him when they see him, what noun they boil him down to.
The Mic. The Mobster. The Princeton Brat. The Fag. Things he feels like are stamped across his forehead, that he’s built up that smile to conceal.
“You gonna drink that?” Philips nudges his drink with his own glass. “Or just fondle it?
Luck chuckles, taking a sip. He’d bought the cheapest stuff they had—no need to draw attention to himself by being flashy.
“Want to keep a clear head.” He sips again, and it burns all the way down.
“I think that’s the opposite of what I need right now.” Philips tips back the rest of his martini, shaking his head as though trying to clear it.
Out of the corner of his eye, Luck sees that Lily has gotten one of the guards in conversation, if conversation consisted in hair-flipping and pushing her breasts in his general direction. Claire is throwing dice. Beside him, Philips has ordered his third vodka.
Luck wonders what a guy like Philips must have done to get involved with someone like his father. Borrowed money, probably. A bet gone bad, or a sick kid. Something tragic.
"We gonna get this show on the road, or what?" Philips asks agitatedly, glancing over his shoulder for the twentieth time in the last minute or so.
"Hey." Luck lays a hand on is arm. "Cool it, okay? Don’t draw attention.
Philips looks down at Luck's pale fingers on the crease of his elbow. Luck pulls away swiftly. The world is going shiny around the edges. He takes another sip of whiskey, which doesn't help in the slightest. Phillips is looking at him with something forlorn twisted up in the curve of his mouth, and Luck reaches out his fingers to touch that too. Philips catches them before he can reach.
"Sorry," he says.
"S'okay." Luck lets Philips hold his hand. His hands are even bigger than Claire's. He's pretty sure he’s noticed that before.
He pulls his hand back, sharply. The thoughts drifting across his mind don't feel like his.
With a great deal of effort, Luck drags his eyes away from Philips' face. His gaze keeps getting snagged, catching on things like the bridge of his nose and the fuzz of his eyebrows, the edge of a scar he can see from under the growth of a five o'clock shadow. He looks for Claire, but the craps table is empty, and when he turns swiftly to see if he can locate Lily, the whole room swoops hard to the left, as if the entire speako has been shunted out to sea.
Luck's gaze falls on his barely-touched whiskey.
But no, he’d watched the bartender pouring his drink, he'd been here the whole time, there was no one—
"I'm sorry," Philips says again. A hand cushions his head as it falls toward the shiny wood of the bar top. "I didn't have a choice."
Luck's senses are shutting down one at a time. Darkness creeps in on him, obscuring all but the tinniest point of light, but he can hear the squeak of cheap leather shoes and smooth click of a hammer being drawn back.
"Don't look like he drank much."
"He drank enough." Philips still sounds so close, like he's speaking in Luck's ear. "He won't give you any trouble."
"He'd better not," a second voice drawls, as smooth as a revolver. "'Cause we wouldn't want nothing to happen to that pretty sister of yours, would we? Nothing untoward.”
“He won’t, okay?” A sound like a fist being slammed down, rattling the bar. “Now tell your boss to keep his fuck—.”
“We’ll tell him what we want to, yeah?”
“This is the Gandor guy?” Fingers wrench in Luck’s hair, pull him up off the bar, before throwing him back down again. “This ugly mic?”
“Lay of him, okay?” Philips sounds tired now.
“Why, he someone special to you? Looks like a three-letter-man to me.”
The last of the light has disappeared from his vision, and his ears are beginning to fail him as well. The last thing he hears as he drifts into unconsciousness is, “We’ll do whatever the fuck we want to him.”
Consciousness comes and goes—comes when someone hits him across the face, goes when he’s tossed down onto something rough and frigid, when a door slams and a lock clicks. Comes when he can hear two voices through the wall, a man and a woman’s—arguing. When a couple of familiar voices guffaw. Goes when he catches a whiff of something so foul it makes him choke. He welcomes the darkness then.
When he next swims up from the blackness, it’s to find one of his eyes is swollen shut, crusted with something sticking and congealed. Pain throbs a continuous drumbeat in his head.
“Luck.” Rough hands shake him by the shoulders. “Luck. Open your eyes!”
He doesn’t recognize the voice right away, but he’s been beaten, drugged, and has never heard it so thin before, so shaken.
The hands immediately let him go. “There you are. Had me worried for a minute.” It’s too dark to be sure, but Claire seems paler than usual. “How you feelin’?”
Luck spits blood onto the cement floor. “I’ve had worse mornings at Princeton.” At least here he only has to deal with his own bodily fluids.
Claire laughs, moving behind him. “Lemme just—.” A slick hiss of metal and a tiny exhalation of breath on the back of Luck’s neck. The ropes drop from around Luck’s wrists and he rises from the stool he’d been propped on, squeezing his eyes shut as the world spins. Claire braces him with a hand at the small of his beck, and Luck can’t help leaning into the touch.
“Thanks,” he says after a moment. “I’m alright.”
“Of course you are,.” Claire tosses him a gun. “No way you’re getting outta my world that easy.”
Luck fumbles the gun, but he doesn’t drop it.
“I wasn’t tied up for very long.” His hands still have feeling in them. “How long did they have me?”
Luck checks the magazine and chambers a round. “Felt longer.”
“Must have been the drugs.” Claire’s hands hang loosely at his sides. Luck’s seen him use a gun, but he’s never seen him carry one. “Let’s get out of here.”
Luck doesn’t have to be told twice.
Through the door and into a dingy, industrial hallway. A sub-basement, maybe, which means they’re most likely not in the club. That’s too close to the lake to have any sort of basement at all.
“I found your boys, by the way,” Claire says, as they make their way down the hall, Claire in front, Luck covering him from behind. “Or,
pieces of them.”
That must have been the smell, then. Or maybe they’ve got tons of bodies in this place. A manufactured dumping ground. “Lily okay?”
"Fine. She got out when she saw you go down. She's not a hero. Smarter than that."
There are more doors in the hall—Luck tries a couple along the right side of the corridor, but they’re all locked. The third opens when his hand is less than an inch from the handle, hitting him hard in the shoulder. Two men in grey-banded fedoras freeze in the doorway.
They don’t freeze for long. “Rats!” one of them hisses, going for his sidearm. Luck’s hands shake as he raises his own gun.
Something black flashes past him, and suddenly the gun isn’t in the man’s hand anymore. Or, rather, it is, but the hand is no longer attached to his body, so it won’t do him much good.
He gets just enough time to look at the stump of his arm, eyes, widening, before there’s another flash of black and blood sprays wet and hot across Luck’s face. Before he has the chance to shoot, a knife is sticking out of the second man’s forehead, trembling like a dart on a board.
Claire pulls the blade out, wiping blood and thicker things on the man’s pressed trousers. Straightening up, he reaches for Luck, trailing his fingers through the spatter of blood across his cheek, grinning crookedly. “Sorry.”
Two more guys end up with knives in their throats by the time Luck and Claire make it back out into the freezing Chicago night, by way of a metal ladder at the end of the hall. Claire insists on going first, and Luck tugs himself up the ladder behind him, arms shaking and head swimming as the drug still works to escape his system.
Claire pulls Luck up the last few feet, wrapping an arm around his back as they limp down a gravel track toward the dark shape of a car. They’re outside the city somewhere. Luck can hear the distant whistle of a midnight express.
“Lucky you have a car.”
“Yeah.” Claire adjusts his grip under Luck’ armpit. “Not so lucky for the fella I borrowed it from.” Claire props Luck up against the side, the metal chill under his fingers. He rests his aching head against the roof as Claire adds, “Get something for you.”
He turns a key, opening the trunk.
There's scarcely enough room for a child to curl up comfortably, and there certainly isn't enough room for a grown man. Philips is curled in on himself, chin tucked down to his chest, hands trussed behind him, legs curled in a fetal position. His cheek and jaw are crusted with blood from a gash on the side of his head, the wound already looking dark with the beginnings of infection. His eyes flutter open as Claire drags him up by his collar.
"I thought about finishing him off myself," he says conversationally, fingering the knotted handkerchief that serves as a makeshift gag, "But I thought I'd save him for you. After all, I'm not the one he betrayed."
Phillips can't hide the fear in his eyes, whites showing around the dark blue, but he doesn't struggl. He just looks at Luck, something tired in the set of his shoulders and jaw.
I don't make deals with gangsters.
Claire tosses him the blade, still warm and slick from the blood of other men. Luck doesn't fumble that.
"The Russos have your sister."
Philips goes still for a moment, before nodding.
"They got to you before I came into town."
"You could have told me. We could have gotten her back for you."
Philips head shakes slowly from side to side, a single tear trembling at the corner of one eye.
"She's probably already dead," Claire says. "The Russos play dirty."
Philips' whole body jerks, like Claire's words are a whip brought down across his back. Luck raises the knife and Phillips closes his eyes.
They blink back open again as the ropes fall in tatters to the floor of the trunk. Luck rips the gag out of his mouth. “Get out of here.”
Luck rips a jacket down from inside the closet, tossing it into his suitcase. There’s something seething under his skin, hot and volatile and fighting to get out. He wants to break things, smash them up.
The bathroom door opens, issuing steam and Claire, hair dark with water, drops breaking free of his hairline to trail down his neck.
“You’re a good guy, Luck.” The white terrycloth robe gapes at the neck, revealing a slice of a lithe, muscled torso. “Much too good for that bastard.”
Luck jerks his stained undershirt up over his head, tossing it on top of his suits. “What are you talking about?”
“You’ve gotta stop falling in love with people who don’t deserve you.”
Luck’s stomach turns to ice, even as he feels himself flush with anger. Love. For all of his talents and his psychosis, Claire can be infuriatingly simple.
He slams his suitcase shut. “So you know, huh?” His voice is brittle as spun sugar from the state fair.
“Of course I do. I know everything about you.”
“Is that right?” Luck has the sudden suicidal desire to attack Claire, to hit every inch of him, until all of that bare skin is bloody and destroyed. “You know everything about me, huh?”
“Yeah, I do.” He smiles. “’Cause the world is—.”
“Oh, the world is yours?” Luck snaps. “Great, Claire. Really fucking stupendous.” A world that made him wrong, backwards. That made it just as easy for a city detective with blue eyes and callused hands to play him as it had been for Lily to wrap those dimwit guards around her finger.
Claire…Claire looks genuinely hurt, and it gives Luck a little squirm of pleasure to see it. Let someone else feel it for a change, let someone else—.
Claire moves toward him in a blur. Luck braces himself for the hit, for the big hand clamping onto the back of his neck to start squeezing down. Instead, his shoulders hit the wall and lips collide roughly with his own, fingers snarling through his hair and holding on.
Luck has kissed people before—girls, and several of his fraternity brothers, always drunk enough that everyone could deny it in the morning. None of them had ever kissed him like this, like they’re drowning.
Luck doubts he could push Claire away if he tried, and he doesn’t try, just groans into his mouth as the robe slips and he feels his skin against his hands, taut and fever-warm. When they finally break apart, it’s Claire who pulls away, breath coming in gasps, pupils blown wide.
“Why—Why did you do that?” Luck’s voice cracks. He sounds nothing like himself.
“Because I love you. I’m your brother.”
Luck stares at him for a few seconds, before he tips his head back against the wall and laughs. He squeezes his eyes shut. “You know, ordinarily, this isn’t what brothers do.”
“I’m not ordinary.” Claire hasn’t moved his hands from Luck’s neck—they’re a warm, living anchor, the only thing preventing him from floating up toward the ceiling. “And neither are you.”
“Don’t I know it.” Luck lets out his breath. It feels like he’s deflating, hot air escaping and leaving him shaking and exhausted. “Let’s just go home. I’ve had it with this city.”
Claire spreads his arms, robe drooping even further. “Think they’ll let me on the train like this?”
Luck reaches for the last thing in the closet. “Here.” He sets the conductor’s hat on top of Claire’s soaking hair, tipping it down over his forehead. “Now you’ll blend right in.”
“That’s the spirit.” Claire tightens the belt of the robe. “Now…where’s my coat?”