BLACK AND WHITE
"Jeez, Max… you look worse than me."
Alex chuckled softly and rolled over in his bed. I smiled.
Through the hospital windows the city was just roaring into early morning life, beneath a milky blue sky. The first few commuter cars were rushing past, going nowhere.
"Look on the bright side," I replied. "Had I really screwed up, you'd be all over Manhattan right about now."
Alex laughed again. "The boys tell me your some sort of hero down at the precinct. I heard you nailed the Hood."
I shrugged. "It wasn't enough. It's only just beginning, Alex. For better or worse."
I tossed a newspaper on his lap. It was an early edition I'd picked up from a vendor on the way over here. The delivery van was still unloading. Seemed the local hacks had been quick off the mark.
Alex read the headline: 'SHOOT-OUT LEAVES EIGHTEEN DEAD.'
Then he saw the picture, skimmed the article and said, "Oh Jesus."
The Hood had succeeded in assassinating the worst targets he could have. Salvatore Demeo. Demeo's bodyguard. And Punchinello's daughter. As soon as word got out that the late Hood had been behind the killings, New York would explode.
"And this is the Russians, right?" Alex said, all hope dropping from his voice.
I nodded. "New player on the scene. Calls himself the Man In White. He's shaping up to unite all the Russian gangs under him. Dime's mob, the St George boys, Potemkin's crew – all on the Mafia defensive."
Alex nodded forlornly. "Any idea who this Man In White is?"
"The answer to that was apparently hidden in the reporter's deposition the Hood wanted," I said. "I checked the box on the way over here. Turned out to be a dud, after all that. I'm guessing Tierney switched the boxes."
"She's turned traitor. We don't know for how long, but the Chief's planning a major investigation. Check out just how far this Man In White's set root in the department."
"Where is Tierney?"
"No-one knows. She disappeared from the shoot-out last night and hasn't been seen since. My guess is she's gone back to the Russian."
"With all the information the department has on the case so far…" Alex sighed. "And probably that deposition, too."
"Exactly," I replied.
"Then this whole thing… oh, man…"
I started to regret breaking the news to Alex, a little. He'd barely got out of the shock-coma. But who else could I tell? I needed him back on the force, as soon as possible. Things were about to blow up in New York and we'd most probably be on clean-up duty.
"One thing, though," Alex said suddenly. "Why would the Hood hold me hostage so that you'd get that deposition if the Man In White already had Tierney on the department? Why go to all that trouble for nothing?"
"I've been thinking on this myself," I replied, "and all I've got is that perhaps the Man In White deliberately kept the Hood out of the loop. After all, loyal though he was, the Hood was disposable to the Man In White. In fact, when he realised the extent of his plan, taking the Hood out of the picture was about the only sensible approach he had. Think about it – this whole gang war would get pretty brutal. I'm guessing the Russian didn't want to keep the Hood subsidised or, worse, see him switch to the other side under a better offer. The guy was a mercenary, after all. Best to have the Hood removed from the picture entirely. It wasn't worth the risk of having someone that lethal switch to the other side. I'm assuming Hood sent me off on that little errand because the poor bastard was confused and still trying to prove his loyalty."
"Then it seems like this Man In White betrayed everyone, then."
"Yeah," I said. "Except Tierney. As far as I know, the two of them are still on close terms. He had her on clean-up duty – hired her to take out me and the Hood and all the other loose ends. Maybe he'll get rid of her now."
"Doubt it," Alex said. "She knows too much. Too valuable. If he wants rid of her she'll turn up dead."
"Then this is one rotten piece of work," I frowned, exasperated.
"You've got that right." I'd never seen Alex look so utterly despairing. "You know, this has really put a damper on my recovery. And I can't help but feel that all this is my fault, you know? If I hadn't screwed up over that reporter…"
"Don't be a fool, Alex. We underestimated the Russians, right from the start. We're all to blame, but it's no use doing it now. We've got to stay focussed on the current situation and prevent more people needlessly dying."
"Yeah," Alex sighed. "Yeah, you're right."
We didn't say anything else. Nothing else needed to be said. Outside there were voices on the street, the roar of cars was growing louder. New York was waking up to a nightmare and I'd seen it all unfold, helpless.
Someone out there, probably congratulating himself as he read the morning papers, was the Man In White. Watching over everything, cold and detached like the eye of God, as his pieces are manoeuvred ever closer across the chess-board. He'd put his enemy in check, pulling off a little number that would have made Kasparov wince. Lined the city up in his favour, through an intricate web of backstabbing and heartless murder.
Nothing was in black and white, not in human beings. Nothing was clean-cut. One minute you're drinking and laughing with friends, the next they're holding a gun to your head. I thought back to what Tierney had said. About how we were all so sick of not being able to stop the Mafia.
She just wanted to protect her loved ones. That's the only reason. The only truth.
The rest was all in greys.
Outside the hospital a little girl was kicking around a newspaper, sodden by the leaking drains. I lit a cigarette and watched the pages flutter apart. Words, lives, truths, damp and shattered, tumbled round her feet. I caught glimpses here and there – 'death,' 'Russians,' 'mob.' None of it seemed true. She glanced up at me and laughed. I flashed her a smile. Couldn't bring much more effort into it.
Her mother called her away.
I was still staring at that damp newspaper. The black ink was running. All those clean-cut words, smeared in grey.
Thinking of Michelle, I crushed out the cigarette and went home.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Just to point out, if there's anyone who hasn't gotten it yet, and I apologise if you haven't – blame my writing – the Man In White is the Max Payne series' very own smooth operator, Vladimir Lem! Just thought I'd clarify that, and hope it makes the ending a little more satisfying. Any loose ends here (Tierney's disappearance and so on) I've left open for when I inevitably feel the call of a new retcon, probably soon, although I've got a few other projects on the go at the moment. Leaves me only to say, thanks for reading, thanks for reviewing (any support is endlessly encouraging) and goodnight!