A/N: This contains spoilers up through the current pages, and references some of the side/supplementary material.
Lackadaisy and its characters belong to Tracy J. Butler.
Ivy's voice skips around the garage, away through the dusty afternoon heat.
"...If it wasn't pecked out, how did you lose it? I'll bet you glared too hard one day and had it just go popping out like a cork."
Elbow-deep in the engine of a Ford Model T, the man looks up at her.
Glaring is apparently the only expression he's capable of, yes, but at least he's good at it. It pulls that eye patch further under the shadows of his brow, makes his remaining eye – which is yellowish green, needlegrass drying in the sun – appear unnaturally bright.
They hold this position for a moment, standing on opposite sides of the car.
("Ah, Viktor. You remember Reuben Pepper, don't you? My friend from Kansas City?" Ivy had craned her neck to look at Atlas where he stood behind her. "This is his daughter Ivy, she's staying with us for the summer. Keep her safe for me while she's here.")
Ivy grins impishly.
She's never understood the amusement boys her age seem to get, doing back-flips off of park statues or drawing mustaches on family photos: the joy of being an irreverent fool beneath the gaze of a stoic and utterly helpless victim.
And to think she's been missing that for all this time. What a terrible shame.
"Pretty good guess, huh? Was I close?"
A growl tumbles around inside the man's chest. One big slab of a hand leaves an oil smudge when he wipes it across his face, and then her godfather's mechanic – his rum runner, her appointed caretaker (ha!) or Viktor Vasko, whichever title was preferred – returns to his tinkering.
Or clanking, one might more suitably call it, because the noise is far too clumsy and indelicate to really be thought of as tinkering.
("I am not nursemaid, Atlas," the stranger had answered. His accent hammered out every consonant. "Tell this child she does not belong here.")
Ivy hooks both feet into the front wheel spokes and hoists herself up to peer at the engine. All of its squiggly pipes look like intestines, and she ponders how Viktor can fit those thuggish arms into such a cramped space.
She has already watched him replace the back springs, patch bullet holes in the center-door sedan's side. Now he is switching out the valves for wider ones, which will purportedly help the car get more air and make it go faster. And here is the connecting rod, the piston, the intake pipe, the top water connection, the fan. Ivy knows all of this after several hours' worth of questions, working around Viktor's stilted, succinct answers and entirely immune to the glares he is blitzing her with.
"Right then. So we know that you didn't lose your eye in the War or working for Atlas, didn't gamble it..." Ivy tips back, unsteady for a moment, curls her tidy hands under the metal frame "...didn't gamble it away on cards, sell it to a gypsy fortuneteller, stick it with a knitting needle or have it pecked out by mad sparrows, so that lessens our options considerably. Of course, there's always the possibility that..."
She leans forward in a conspiratorial manner. The rope of her braid slips off of one shoulder and swings out before her.
("I've already added it to your salary." Atlas had squeezed Ivy's shoulders, halting her tirade. "But really, Viktor, think of this as returning a favor.")
"...Were pirates involved in any way, perchance?"
Viktor keeps working. He does not even look up at her this time. But he mutters something into the bowels of the car, something that sounds like "Hlučný pavián."
The grin vanishes.
"What did you just call me?"
It is clearly an insult. And to be so insidious as to use a language she doesn't understand! What arrogance. What nerve. What gall.
She pokes him.
"Hey! Are you listening? Hey!"
The muscle of his shoulder is all coiled rope where Ivy jabs it. He has proven entirely unable to appreciate her sophisticated wit thus far. And judging by the size of him, which seems immense enough that it should lend him a kind of gravitational pull, Ivy guesses he is the sort more prone to solving things with his fists than his head.
Most definitely a thug.
"You know, Viktor, you should get into the habit of showing me a bit more respect. So for starters, how about calling me 'Ivy', or maybe even 'Miss Pepper'? And while we are on the subject of pirates, I bet you've got a rap sheet about a mile long. Which means this is the only place you're going to find work, these days, and it is pertinent you remember my godfather is your employer. That's why I was sent here, you know, to brush up on my proprietress skills. Do you know what that word means? A proprietress is like a proprietor, only tailored to suite a lady. I might become the heir to all of this, so Atlas wants to show me how things are done."
Well, no. That had not quite been the reason.
Summering, that is what Dad had called it.
("You'll be summering with your godfather and his new wife in St. Louis. Don't you think that will be fun?")
He had talked the whole thing up like Ivy was some Brontë heroine, off to delve her potential in a windswept English manor full of drafty halls and dark secrets. Which would have been awfully romantic, come to think of it; she would not have minded being banished, if that were really the case.
But her godfather and his new wife, known mostly through biannual greeting cards that reeked of Maduro cigar smoke, ran a food joint. And Ivy Pepper was old enough by now – twelve, thank you – to know when she was being shuffled.
This had definitely been one of those times.
("Behave for them, sweetheart! Your mom and I may not be able to write much from Switzerland, but..." whatever else he'd said had been lost beneath a whistle of the Sunshine Special.)
Atlas and Mitzi May lived down by the landing, in an apartment above the café they owned. It is not that they were really at all bad for that first week of her visit, Ivy would later point out. No, they were just that tepid brand of 'nice enough' which gives one no right to complain, and thus leaves one in a compromised position between honesty and altruism. They had gotten her whatever she wanted, given her the passing acknowledgment often practiced by childless couples, and in general let her go about her business...
...They'd just been fantastically dull, was all. Mitzi worked the register, Atlas did the bookkeeping, and Ivy'd had only Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's company (plus eventual calcification from boredom) to look forward to.
At least until that whole 'secret wellspring' business had been discovered, of course.
And that had been the end of it.
Ivy is now balanced enough on the sedan's wheel to rock back and forth. New springs creak beneath the sound of her chirping voice.
"...Though honestly, I'm surprised at Atlas' lack of common sense. Anyone who's ever read a Sherlock Holmes story would've been able to figure out that hidden door, it all but pokes you in the eye. No pun intended, Viktor. But really. The gaps in the woodwork, the hinges, the draft from the stairway..." Ivy uses bobs of her head to substitute counting on her fingers. "...Then you look at about eye-level, check for a keyhole, and there it is! I think it is a miracle he hasn't been found out yet, don't you?"
Viktor straightens up, cleaning his hands with an oil rag as he lopes across the gritty cement floor. Ivy abandons her post to follow after him. She has finished etching her initials into the car's paint anyway, I.J.P.
(The J is for Joan, after her both her grandmother and the French saint.)
"But what were we talking about before? Oh, right. So how did you lose your eye? Do you not remember, maybe? I hear amnesia can happen after especially traumatic accidents, though that's usually with the stupid hysterical women in novels and you don't strike me as the hysterical type. But we could hypnotize a confession out of you anyway, if you're interested. Here, my cousin taught me all about it, watch my hands while...You're not watching."
His back is, in fact, turned towards her, as he moves things around in the bed of a truck. There is a sound of bottles rattling, a creak of splintered wood pulling against rusty nails. Viktor starts to pile up shipping crates on the ground beside him, Nectar Bottling Works on top of Larkin Soap, Libby & McNeil Parboiled Roast Beef followed by a old Winchester Model 1895 carbines case, and all of them with that same bright, sparkling sound of glass hidden inside. Each one is set down with mounting force, wham-wham-wham.
He's not watching.
He's not even paying attention.
And how can Ivy have any fun when her captive audience isn't captive? A modern, liberated woman does not allow herself to be ignored, especially by someone with all the mental aptitude of a brick wall.
"Well, we had better figure it out soon. Because right now, I think there are only two options left. Either you were just plain born without an eye, or you lost it in some..."
The next part must be well-timed, she knows. Everything hinges upon the delivery.
In two leaps Ivy is leaning her elbow on a case of whiskey he's trying to move, even though black letters stamped onto its side say the crate should contain Baker's Breakfast Cocoa. She gives her head a debonair tilt, glad she decided to wear the breeches today for a more mature and distinguished air.
"...Freak, high-velocity, ballistic goose-related accident."
This, finally, elicits a response, even if it is just to pause for another searing glare.
Ivy's grin splits wider. Her tail gives a flick.
"That's it, isn't it? How embarrassing. No wonder you don't like to talk about it. What kind of goose was it?"
Viktor lets out a strained sigh through his teeth. Tension brings his shoulders together as though bracing to lift a heavy load. One hand reaches to adjust his cap, which Ivy has noticed he does when considering something.
"If I tell," he says, "you stop your noise, ya?"
Ivy nods immediately. So all you had to do was rough him up a bit? Ha.
Viktor dips forward to be level with her. His claws dig into slats of the crate.
"I trade it."
Ivy has to stop herself mid-nod. "Yeah, I...Wait, what did you say?"
"I trade it."
She leans further on the case. He gives up and walks over to the garage's tool chest instead.
"You traded it?"
Clank-clank-clank through the greasy wrenches.
"Well, what for?"
"You are a parrot, maybe? Ya, a drink."
"I...what...What kind of drink, then?"
"A drink as like Odin," he replies gruffly, back still turned. "To be all-knowing."
It is an absurd thing to say, of course, utterly ridiculous, but Ivy's flippancy stumbles on the paring tone he uses to say it. She trots over to glimpse his face and finds it without the slightest trace of a grin: without even a hint of the amusement he must be getting from mocking her like this, brushing her off as if she doesn't matter.
The choleric cyclops. The big ornery ox.
"Aw, dry up. No you didn't. Just how gullible do you think I am?"
And so Ivy trips on, determined to keep the score in her favor.
"...Wait a moment, now, I think I've read that story somewhere before. Isn't that from a myth?...Yes, yes it is! Ha! Has anyone ever told you what a terrible liar you are? Because that's probably the worst one I've ever heard. Only a child would believe that. Really, how did you lose it?"
"I already tell you."
"Oh? Well! If you're all-knowing, tell me how many fingers I'm holding up behind my back right now."
"Two," he responds flatly. More tool chest drawers open, then he moves to start checking under cars. "Now tell where you hide the tire iron."
"How did you know I hid the – "
His next look actually does manage to silence her. Not because of its ferocity, no, but because of the sudden and distinctly triumphant glint to it.
"You just now said so, pavián."
And moments later Viktor has reached behind a cargo box, is swinging the iron around in one hand as he walks back to the Model T. He has looped a soft band of tire over one shoulder, as well, and crouches down by the front left wheel.
Ivy crouches down next to him. She'll have to get her knees dirty. "Tell me where that story is from, the one about the eye. I know I've read it somewhere bef –"
"You say no more noise." Viktor is trenchant. "So, no more noise."
He really shouldn't interrupt her like that. She finds it exceedingly rude. "Yeah, but you didn't actually tell me what – "
"You will break your word, then," he warns.
Ivy's jaw snaps shut.
(When she gets home again, she consults an old case of books in Dad's study. As it turns out, the myth Ivy half-remembers is a Norse one – and why should he know that, anyway? – about the god Odin, who went to the Well of Wisdom at Yggdrasil which was guarded by a giant.)
Ivy sits back to stew in her small, impotent anger. Viktor actually looks at her this time, rather than just through her with that single, scowling eye.
("What will you pay for a drink from my well, Odin?" the giant of the story asks. "And why do you desire it so much?)
Viktor's expression does not change, at least not so far as she can tell, but he leans over to set the tire iron in Ivy's hands. The sudden weight of it surprises her.
"You know how a lever works?"
Ivy can only nod.
("I wish to see the world for what it really is," Odin replies. "Name your price.")
Viktor hooks the iron between rim and tire, gives a few demonstrative yanks.
"Use like that."
Ivy, determined to prove herself now, curls both fists around the metal bar.
("What say you, then, Odin, to giving me one of those far-seeing eyes of yours?" And Odin hesitates only for a moment before answering, "So be it.")
Ivy makes a rude face at Viktor once he turns away and leaves her to pry the old tire off, which sufficiently ends using up air she could have otherwise employed to yell at him. It is stuck on there, alright, but after enough mutters and curses she works it free.
("Drink then, Odin," the giant laughs. "But know it will be the beginning of a great suffering between your kind and my own.")
And she is able to throw a few more curious glances at her supposed bodyguard – still a ridiculous concept, what would she need one of those for? – in the meantime. They continue with their clanking toil, changing the tires on every car in Atlas' garage and preparing them for the evening that rolls quietly in; shadows spill out from the alleyways to fill the whole street. Lamps begin flickering on. Moths gather about them to thump against their glass globes.
(Odin thought merely of the wisdom which was to be his, and drank the chalice down. Then he had to pay the price: when he went away from the grotto, he left at the bottom of the dark pool one of his bright, burning eyes.)
"So!" Ivy finally says. If she hurries, maybe she can get spruced up and sneak down into the speakeasy again. "Viktor! I have to ask..."
Viktor does not interrupt her this time. He shuts the sedan's hood and starts putting tools away, moving from one job to another at that same mechanical, tireless pace he uses for everything.
"...Will you tell me what really happened to your eye, now? Please? I won't bother you anymore if you do."
He walks over to the trap door, kicks it open and switches on a string of lights before clomping down into the gloom. "Huh. I believe that, pavián."
"It's true! I always keep my word, even – Hey!"
The cellar door slams before she can follow after him. There is the click of a sliding bolt, a grunt of satisfaction that the wood does not quite mute.
Ivy bends down to form an amplifier with her hands. "I can just get back in through the other side, you know!"
Which she does.
She is less successful in learning the story behind Viktor's missing eye, though she is forced to discard her theory that he was born without it: because several days later, a photograph hanging in the Little Daisy draws her attention.
It is small, grimy, light patches barely articulated against a darker background. Larger prints, in more expensive frames, draw focus away so that it seems forgotten there on the wall. From a distance she cannot even tell what the photograph depicts.
Then Ivy's nose almost touches the glass, and she realizes: it is a line of soldiers in a trench.
Rain glistens on their canvas jackets and slicks the mud walls. They are holding tin coffee cups. Plumes of steam rise to meet freezing air, everything softened and made oddly surreal by the browns, umbers and sepias. The men lean or rest against sandbags, Enfield rifles peering up over their shoulders. Most are looking directly at the lens, probably in response to whatever the photographer has just said to catch their attention.
And there in the center – paused in this moment of distraction, helmet seated at a crooked angle, brows raised over two perfect eyes – is Viktor.
Well, so much for that hypothesis.
(And for Odin, it was a heavy price to pay. For he had gained a knowledge of the world and its ways, but he had lost one of the windows through which his heart could understand it.)
As a modern woman of the 20th century, Ivy has taught herself to hate the word 'quaint.'
It stands for the stagnant, the out-dated, the nostalgic past to which one desperately clings as time marches forward without them, nothing Ivy wants to be associated with. (To say nothing of the word's unsavory origins.) And she does try to use a telephone as often as possible, honest. Or a typewriter, even if the beastly contraption always looks like it's ready to spring from the desk and bite her.
Still, she cannot help but describe sitting by the window – her room looks out toward a park, now covered in snow – while penning letters to her godfather as a 'quaint' thing to do. And she cannot help but enjoy it.
Her gray sweater sleeves get rolled up to prevent ink stains.
...Hello! I hope business is going well. You've shown up in the papers a few times recently, and I do what I can to follow along, but it's not the same as hearing it from you. I'm thinking of clipping the articles out to save somewhere...
The past year had seen a dramatic change in Ivy's interest towards St. Louis crime, not to mention the idea of 'summering.' She will always waits for the Post-Dispatch, three days old by the time it reaches her, and sit down with a cup of Earl Grey to immerse herself in reports of gang activity: the Green Ones and the Marigolds, the Egan's Rats and the Lackadaises, the police force and the Treasury Department both lagging far behind.
She tells her baffled parents this new hobby is out of an intensified interest in the city lifestyle. She does, naturally, hope to attend school there some day, and one is always put at an advantage by knowing the facts.
...but I'm in need of some pictures for it. Do you think Mrs. M can send me a few? Especially that one where's she playing ukulele and sitting on the piano, she looks beautiful. By the way, does she ever pick that thing up anymore? The ukulele, I mean, not the piano. That would be strange.
Of course, Ivy knows the real reason.
If she cannot be privy to her godfather's business all of the time, she can at least hear about it from an outside source. It is like watching a great drama unfold in three acts, tragic and dark and enthralling as its characters hurtle forward towards triumph or destruction.
Classes are going well, I'm sure Dad has told you. We're reading Macbeth now, which I must admit I prefer to Romeo and Juliet because it has witches and prophecies and the main characters are not a besotted pair of gits. It is also much shorter than all of Shakespeare's other tragedies, which I think speaks more to the purity of purpose in its plot than a lack of creativity. Not that he thought of it entirely by himself in the first place, you know. Apparently Shakespeare got the Macbeth story from Raphael Holinshed's 16th century 'Chronicles of Scotland' history. Which still has the witches and the particulars about being of no woman born, because back then there was nobody around to make sure what went into their history books was entirely the truth, so it is alright with me.
Reading the paper also helps Ivy brush up on her knowledge of what's in vogue with the St. Louis underworld. The hats they wear, the cars they drive, the firearms they prefer, that sort of thing. It helps her get a clearer image of what Viktor and the new man, Mr. Heller, have been up to.
I don't have much else to say. I thought this letter would be longer, I got out a whole bunch of paper. It's funny how that can happen once you start writing things down and realize that you've just been flipping the same thing over in your head a bunch of times without letting it go anywhere. Does this ever happen to you?
Wait, I forgot to tell you that my parents and I are going to visit relatives in Jefferson City for the Christmas season. That's too bad, because it means I won't get to see you during the holidays, but I'll be sure to send you presents. I'd like to spend New Year's with you some time, too.
She shakes the bent nib of her pen.
Alright, that's everything. Please write back soon.
Ivy Joan Pepper
The I, J and P are made to arc elegantly over the other letters. Ivy adds a flourish on the 'Y', too, though she presses too hard at the tail's end and leaves a blot.
The harsh stab reminds her.
P.S: I read that fedoras are what they're wearing in Chicago these days, so put that out as a suggestion to Viktor if he ever gets bored of his silly flat cap. It makes him look like a golf caddy. I've told my friends I know someone who was involved in a freak, high velocity, ballistic goose-related accident, and they want to know what sort of plane he was flying during the smash-up.
Also let him know I've been reading Popular Mechanics lately, so we'll have something to talk about when I visit. Which is no small sacrifice, given I'd much rather be reading Vogue or Austen than pedantic pieces about pistons. I didn't mean to make that alliteration, but there you have it.
Tell him I said hello.
Ivy seals it up and sends it off.
She had written her first four letters to Viktor specifically, but after getting no reply had switched to addressing him in post-script. Hopefully, the tactic would work. Atlas is fine as a second-hand source, but hearing all the gruesome and lovely details from someone right in the thick of the action would be even better.
A response comes two weeks later, along with a wrapped package. The letter is written in a quick uphill font and smells of Maduro cigars.
I've said it before, but Mitzi and I never get tired of hearing from you. You write such enjoyable letters. (Don't let your father know I told you that. He brags about you often, of course, but wants to cultivate your humility as well. He obviously doesn't know what the primary function of a godparent is.) Mitzi in particular would like me to convey her thanks for your compliment. She still has the dress she's wearing in that picture, although I cannot speak for the ukulele. I always preferred her singing, to be full, frank and honest.
We raided my desk for photographs and articles yesterday. I haven't been through the whole stack (those should be included in the big package), but hopefully there's something that will pique your interest.
Most of the memorabilia piques her interest just fine, if only for how amusing it all is. Atlas is always striking a dignified businessman's pose. Mr. Heller is endlessly perturbed. Mitzi makes everything into a glamor shot. Viktor looms like a colossus.
I related your post-script to Viktor, mostly to ask him what sort of nonsense he's been telling you. He lost that eye shortly before he became my employee. No geese or airplanes were involved. He's gotten all the letters you postmarked to this address, at least, though whether he reads them or not I can't say.
Mitzi and I send our love. You're welcome to visit us next summer.
And slipped in with the other articles is one from January of 1920, reporting a violent striker's rally down at the Municipal Docks. It includes a list of arrests made, with passing mention given of an immigrant worker being held on bail. The unnamed man is charged with multiple assault and battery, having injured six men before being subdued.
Ivy picks this line out because it has been circled by Atlas' red fountain pen, much the same way as one circles something in a catalog.
P.S: I'm afraid it's just business here as usual.
"Ivy Pepper, right?"
The man is tall, wiry, gray fur against crisp golden eyes. He is ease and fluid confidence as he towers over her and leans against the Little Daisy's counter: but his leering smile spoils the image.
His companion, a shorter tom with cream coloring who is standing by the door, rolls his eyes in exasperation.
Ivy snaps her compact closed.
She is standing behind the register, makeup products spread out in front of her. Vanity Fair lies open, posing questions about what would go best with the red summer frock she is wearing, while a copy of the Riverside Chaucer sits beneath it.
Her eyes stray, again, to a Smith & Wesson .38 revolver peering out from inside the man's poorly-cut suit jacket.
Logic tells Ivy to lie.
Bravado wins anyway.
"Maybe. What's it to you if I am?"
"Well!" The man tilts his fedora up. The action seems planned in its nonchalance. "If I may be so bold, Miss Pepper, you are a far sight prettier than you look in your photographs."
"Al, watch your mouth!" his friend tries to interject. He's carrying a gun as well, tucked into the waistband of his trousers. There are sweat stains growing around the arms of his white shirt.
Ivy glances over at the clock, which tells her it is 8:35 PM on the balmy June evening. Atlas and Mrs. M have gone out on an invitation from Mr. Sweet. Ivy has cleaned and closed up the Little Daisy on their instructions, probably a peace offering given that she's been left behind, and is hanging around down here because it is more interesting than the apartment.
She had first seen the two men reflected in her hand mirror, had paused her powder brush in the middle of an upward stroke to watch. She had followed them with her peripheral vision as they got out of their car and crossed the empty street. A Closed sign hung in the door, and she had laid the silverware out for Monday's breakfast, but the lights were still on.
And Ivy had just been turning around as the two men walked in, all bright smiles and dark suits.
She had figured them as either newcomers to the Lackadaisy or latecomers to the Little Daisy, but either way she had said:
"I'm sorry, we're closed."
Then one of them – Al, apparently – had stepped forward.
Ivy tries not to let her eyes keep wandering to the handguns (a Smith & Wesson, yes, and was that a Browning pressed up against the other's side? An M1911 like Mr. Heller carries, she thinks, one of those pistols that loaded itself on the recoil so you could shoot it over and over and over without having to stop) but the way Al is leaning makes it rather difficult. She wonders what they want, why knowing her name and face is important, how carrying a gun links the two together.
Newspaper articles scroll through her memory.
Ivy raises her eyes again.
Al's hand is still on the brim of his hat. He is still looking down at her. He is still smiling, too, with the slitted mouth that has just called her pretty but expresses the idea that he would like to pull her limbs off like a doll's.
Or at the very least, kidnap her.
"Flattery will," Ivy hates the forced accent of bravery in her voice, "Flattery will get you nowhere."
Al throws back his head, reveals silver-capped teeth, and laughs too hard at such a pathetic joke.
Ivy has slipped from behind the counter by now, red frock swishing about her knees. She tries to make each motion look demure, aimless as she backs towards the hidden door, turns her eyes to the keyhole, and really, this certainly cannot be happening. This is the sort of thing that happens to other people.
Al stops laughing to call over his shoulder. "Yep, that's a mix of beauty and brains right there. Hey, Jack! Didn't I tell you we'd have a good audience tonight?"
The shorter man, Jack, growls in frustration.
"And I told you not to waste my time with your half-ass impressions. What the hell are you supposed to be, anyway? It's either Al Capone or an English dandy, but damn if you know the difference."
"Don't listen to him, Miss Pepper. My manners are completely in earnest. Always time to be a gentleman, that's what my mother says."
"You killed your mother," Jack points out. He massages the corners of his eyes. "Why do I have to keep reminding you? You put cyanide in her almond cookies."
"Aw, damn. That's right. I keep telling people she's abroad. But you have to admit, that was a fairly clever way to do it."
Jack's short temper fails him. "For God's sake, Aloysius. Shut up and grab the kid so we can go, will you? Be damned if you're not the most useless lunatic in this business."
Al's carefully wrapped composure bursts open. "I thought I goddamn told you never to call me that, you stupid..."
But then he remembers Ivy, and the lacerated grin is back on.
"...Excuse me. Forgive us, Miss Pepper. Our manners are somewhat lacking when it comes to the shared company of a lady like yourself. But as my friend mentioned, what do you say? Feel like going for a ride?"
A drawstring cinches somewhere inside of her.
"I don't think I do." And because she cannot help herself, because her lungs are filling up and soon enough she will not be able to talk, she finishes it by saying, "Sorry."
Her back touches lightly against the wall. Al takes this opportunity to draw his revolver, dropping the hammer to turn its clockwork cylinder around once.
"Are you sure about that, now? I'll give you a moment to consider."
His expression tells Ivy that he expects her to be surprised. That he has been rehearsing this moment over in his head, maybe for weeks, and has imagined the various faces she might make as the gun's smart little barrel angles down to face her. He expects her to be surprised, as if she hasn't known the gun was there this whole time and has not been wondering what caliber bullet it shoots or what it will sound like when fired or what it will feel like if it hits her.
As if that were somehow better.
"Well, Ivy? Answer the question. It's not nice to disrespect your elders by ignoring them, you know."
Then the fear all comes down in one great press, and Ivy feels herself sink.
It is like diving too deep in the water with too little breath, pulse slogging out an uneven throb against her eardrums and the skin of her throat and way down into her stomach, being crushed crushed crushed inward beneath the weight of it.
Three little thoughts escape her, bubble up towards the surface and flash as they go:
One is how very bothersome she finds the idea of being taken hostage. Philistine of Atlas' rival, whoever he was.
Two centers on the fact that there is a torpedo named Aloysius (Al-oo-ish-us!) standing in front of her, and that is probably why he killed his mother with cyanide-laced almond cookies. Which was, to give him credit, a pretty clever idea.
And Ivy Pepper's third thought is as to how the newspapers will handle this story.
They will use that fastidious black font, yes, those sensational words like young girl and abduction and vicious, yes, make the whole thing into a profitably crass topic. They will run off a couple thousand prints of the story, misquote people and probably dig up some family secrets along the way, yes.
Then something else – less grim or more interesting, whatever the readership demands at the time – will happen so that Former Bootlegger Atlas May's Unfortunate Little Girl is forgotten, yes, her story destined for a rain gutter somewhere. Maybe as paper cushioning for a vase being mailed.
Or maybe next to another bored child with her cup of Earl Grey tea, yes.
This last revelation breaks the surface, drops a plunge line to where Ivy is drowning and watching the men walk towards her.
She sucks in a breath.
Al bends to grab her.
Then Ivy's left arm is snapping back, swinging wide, flexing as neat claws are unsheathed. And she opens three diagonal slashes across Al's face, brow to jaw, deep enough to draw blood and send him rearing back with a yowl.
Ivy runs for the front door.
There is the whip-crack of a gunshot, bang.
Something slices by her in a backwash of air. Ivy manages a yelping gasp when the bar stool on her right explodes, and tries very hard not to imagine her skull in place of that stuffing spewed everywhere.
It almost works.
Jack brings them both pounding onto the tile in a massive launched tackle a moment later, pinning both of her arms down. She twists smoothly around and hardly thinks at all before burying her teeth in his arm all the way to the gum line.
"Ow, shit! Shit, shit, shit! The little bitch just bit me!"
He cuffs at her, curses more. Ivy bites, kicks, rakes her hands over face and chest and stomach. One finger hooks around his pistol, which has been pulled loose in the struggle. A quick jerk flings it away.
There is a pressurized thunderclap, a shower of ceiling plaster, a second bang.
"Good Christ! Al, you stupid jackass! Quit gawking and get over here!"
Jack rolls over and pins Ivy against the floor, rolls off in time for a knee to plant itself in her back. Her arms are forced back, up, as Al kneels over her.
Jack stands, dusts his pants off, and keeps shouting.
"Right, so why don't I hold your gun while you tie her up? Dammit! Do you even think before you shoot? That could've hit me, you trigger-happy son of a bitch."
"Sorry, sorry! God! I'm better with edge weapons, haven't I always told you that? And what was I supposed to do, let her get away? I'm not the one who got disarmed by a kid."
"No, you're just the one with half of his face shredded off. And what would have happened if you'd killed her now?" Jack snaps. He crouches down, and there is another click next Ivy's ear. Someone is holding a gun to her head, and the most thought she can give it is how unnaturally cold the iron seems. "I know you wouldn't care, sure. Hell, you'd probably like whatever horrible thing it would be that they'd do to you, but think about what would happen to me, will you? It's both our heads on this, remember."
Al doesn't answer, keeps working the strip of cloth over and between Ivy's wrists. He is talking under his breath.
"...Bunch of chicken-shits can't bother to do the job themselves, I'm sick of getting kicked around by those miserable cigar-chomping bastards who think they're so damn important..."
He gives a particularly hard yank on the knot for emphasis.
Ivy cannot see Al's face – her own is turned aside, cheek pressed on the tile – but she imagines him wearing that tightened, ferocious expression Mr. Heller sometimes gets when he is in the middle of a tirade.
Except Mr. Heller's suit fits him properly. And he would never allow someone to wound him like that on a job. Of course.
Al finishes wrapping her hands.
He gets off. Ivy doesn't have time to wriggle away, though, before Jack has stomped a foot between her small shoulder blades again and knocked the wind out of her. The revolver still hovers. He is still chattering.
"...Probably gonna get some kind of disease from this bite, too." His heel grinds in. "Little brat. And how important can Atlas May be? Hell, this isn't even his daughter. Why that dumb shit thinks he'll pay a ransom like that for her, I have no goddamn id..."
Ivy stops, too, curious.
Jack's weight, crushing her against the floor, shifts around. The sharp bite of gun barrel against her skull disappears.
"Who the hell– "
What happens next is really several things happening on top of each other, which stirs them into a cacophony of action and reaction in Ivy's memory:
Jack never gets to finish his sentence.
The shop door crashes open.
Al shouts something.
Two more erratic gunshots, bang bang.
The weight above Ivy is lifted, sent swinging away, and she hears Jack collide with a shelf behind the counter in an eruption of glass.
Footsteps rush past her.
She rolls over, up, out of the way.
And Ivy stares.
Has to stare. Needs to stare. Can do nothing but stare.
He doesn't look at her.
Al takes a second to recover from the surprise before leaping back, weaving forward, fluid potential set in motion and knife steel in one hand. The blade makes a tight arc to carve against Viktor's face, flashes over his left forearm to throw blood across the black-and-white tile. And as the knife flits back for a third try, the hand clutching it is seized.
The wrist is snapped back, the whole arm with it as Viktor bends it sideways, around, drives the blade hilt-deep under Al's ribs. Al exhales hard, coughs up a mouthful blood as his lung is pierced. Viktor doesn't even bother to pause after that, though, throwing his momentum into a hay-maker across the man's face that sends him against a shelf.
And Ivy wouldn't have expected a jawbone breaking to sound like that, but this day has been full of surprises.
Jack, meanwhile, is getting up off the shattered heap. He pulls a huge shard of glass from his palm and goes over the bar in one leap with the revolver raised.
Bang into the wall, as Viktor smashes against him.
Bang into the ceiling, as they grapple for the weapon.
Bang as the six-shot cylinder is emptied, and one swift crack that dislocates Jack's shoulder.
Ivy has scraped her way under a table, kept herself moving by a series of ultimatums (if she could make it to her knees, to the next tile, to the booth...). She works at pulling her arms beneath her body, next pulling her legs through until the knot is in front of her, and is rather insulted to discover that it is not even well-tied. She is keeping her eyes trained on Jack's semi-automatic pistol, which gleams dull and forgotten in the corner where she'd thrown it.
And Ivy listens to the shouts and crashes, adrenalin etching it all out in excruciating detail.
Viktor is all huge chest, arms and swinging blows as he fights, rage-rage-rage unhindered by concerns for finesse or reserve. She hears more things break, marvels that the two men are still coming at him. Terror has obviously gutted out their common sense: because even unarmed, her appointed guardian can probably finish them both off. Smash one's head open against the floor, maybe choke the other. He is certainly strong enough to do it.
That is, after all, why Atlas had hired him. He is going to carry on like this until they stop moving, until they decide that they have had enough, and his limbs with all their horrible strength are locked into set motions that seem almost fated the moment before each blow falls.
Viktor is going to kill them.
Another set of china breaks. Pictures on the wall crash down.
The cloth comes loose with one final tug.
Ivy keeps a hold on it as she darts from beneath the table. Her knees smack hard when she falls to grab the handgun, and a shout rips away from her throat. Not his name, exactly, but close enough so that Viktor turns in the same instant that she slides Jack's pistol across the floor.
Definitely a Browning.
Ivy curls in around herself there in the open, covers her ears, but keeps watching the gun until the moment when Viktor lunges forward to snatch it up.
She closes her eyes, then, too.
But the image goes on forever in her head anyway, duplicates itself all down through the past and present like a reflection of something placed between two opposing mirrors: the image of Viktor lunging, and turning, and firing.
Each shot punctures the air along with her ears.
Bang, bang, bang.
Everything comes to the surface then, and Ivy finally screams. She screams over and through the final pistol report, against the ruined walls and seats and glass, just screams.
And then, and then, and then, and then.
And then it is quiet.
Maybe a few more coffee cups tipping from their shelves, maybe a few harsh pants from a pair of blacksmith-bellow lungs, a snarl of either disgust or satisfaction...Other than that, though, it is almost peaceful.
Ivy tries to draw another breath. It snags.
Someone who sounds an awful lot like her starts to make funny wheezing noises.
Al's dishcloth is still clutched in one hand, her body still wrapped around itself in an effort to hold herself in. Ivy opens her eyes, and winces as the colors around her – blood on the floor, on the counter, on the walls – surge and recede against them. Drowning, surfacing, now for drifting.
She notices the clock. It is 8:50 PM, the second and minute hands ticking on as though nothing unforeseen could ever happen.
The whole thing had taken fifteen minutes.
Ivy starts twisting the cloth in her fingers as they shake.
And from miles, miles away, she realizes that someone is speaking.
Does that mean her? Probably.
Maybe she should answer.
Ivy gives the rag another spin with her quivering hands.
The tone becomes hardened and impatient. The syllables of the word strike down, rise up like a hammer swing.
Ivy's breathing jerks back from hyperventilation to let her answer. "Huh?"
"Are you hurt?"
Viktor has dropped to his knees, interposed himself between Ivy and the men spattered (no, no, no, Jack is the spattered one. That hole between Al's eyes is very neatly made) across Mitzi's checkerboard tile. His cap is bundled up in a back pocket. Grains of glass flicker where they are embedded in his hands. One side of his mouth has been punched and is beginning to swell. He stinks of motor oil and copper and gunpowder. There is a latticework pattern of blood across his shirt, red against black like a coat of arms.
Ivy dredges her voice out of a swirling fear and awe to answer him.
"No," she shakes her head. Shake-shake-shake, stuck in a cycle of uncontrollable tics. "No, no, I'm f-fine…"
The dishrag stills in her hand. It cannot be bound any tighter around her emotions.
Ivy looks from the strangled cloth back to Viktor. His good eye is fixed on her, the rest of him suspended in that cautious stillness used around a timid animal.
He is waiting for Ivy to recoil in disgust.
Expecting it, even, this man who has just killed two people for her.
Ivy finds herself angered by this realization, and studies the gash in his forehead closer; a drip of blood ribbons down from it, over the ruddy fur, around an eye that is green like needlegrass drying in the sun.
This image fixes in her memory, stilled and inviolate.
Tethering ropes lash themselves to it.
One hand loosens around the cloth.
And, with the narrowed focus of oncoming shock, Ivy reaches up to clean his face.
She does it in quick strokes, purses her lips like a concerned nursemaid while sopping up the blood. Viktor says nothing, makes no move to stop her, bows his head to let her reach. There is still his slight frown, yes, but some odd degree of understanding has slipped behind it.
Honestly, Ivy thinks she would prefer the glare. It would be something familiar in this bottomless silence.
"Nuh-not," she finally fumbles, "not too scared, was I?"
"As for a first battle, you ask."
Viktor's breathing is level, but the percussion of a heartbeat can still be seen trapped inside his throat. One two three three two one. It is a much nicer rhythm to focus on than the deafening bang bang bang that feels trapped in her brain and molars, so she tries it out for herself.
One two three three two one.
Ivy coughs out a laugh at the bitter satire in his voice.
"Yeah. Th-that's it. "
Viktor pauses, and then carefully moves to raise his hand. Ivy lifts her own away.
"That one," here he mimics the motion of a diagonal slash across his face, "you do this to him?"
Viktor's expression is still unreadable. "Very well, dievka. Very brave."
"Well th-thank you."
"Ne máš za čo."
Ivy does not ask.
(There probably isn't a direct translation anyhow, for that single nod and the mollified way he says it.)
The trance is broken after this. Viktor stands and goes to the phone for a hurried conversation, which is when Ivy wonders at the fact that no one nearby has called the police yet: and she knows, then, why Atlas was able to build his empire here without worry of notice or suspicion. It would seem he lives in a rather disinterested neighborhood.
Better not to risk it, of course. Better not to get involved, of course.
Because that was, of course, business as usual here.
Bang bang bang.
Everything tilts sideways a bit more.
One two three three two one.
So Ivy stays quiet, sitting on a bar stool with both hands in her lap, for all the time it takes Viktor to carry the bodies downstairs. For all the time it takes him to slosh water over the tile, to right the fallen pantry shelves.
She is quiet when Atlas rushes through the door, twenty minutes later.
"Lord," her godfather mutters. "Lord, what a mess."
She is quiet when Mr. Heller follows him in, surveys the café-turned-shooting gallery through his pince-nez glasses. "Mm, yes. A bit excessive even for you, Viktor."
Viktor, standing beside her, grunts.
She is quiet.
She is quiet, but all it takes is a look from Mitzi. A sad sigh of "Oh, Ivy."
"H…" she begins.
This is all it takes to tip the last of Ivy's resolve over, then she is pitching forward to retch unceremoniously onto the floor. Large, heavy hands hold back her hair until she is done, and she falls against Mitzi as they go upstairs.
But not before Ivy hears Atlas speak in a shaken tone, "Well, Viktor, good man. It looks like I owe you a raise."
Her last glance is of Viktor leaning up against the counter. A heaviness has dropped itself down the ramrod of his back.
"Do not trouble yourself, Atlas."
But a certain amount of trouble is necessary, in the week that follows.
The sign out front reads 'Closed for Repair.' Mitzi claims she'd planned to redecorate anyway, so the refurnishing and replacements and replastering isn't too much of a problem.
And Ivy spends hours scrubbing the floor, scrubbing the floor, scrubbing the floor, long after the blood is cleaned up. The smell of Old Dutch Cleanser makes her queasy for months, but she doesn't really mind the chapped hands it leaves her with: this is the mark of her initiation, this is hers, she's a part of the act now.
Viktor calls her 'dievka' from then on. Not quite 'Miss Pepper', no, but preferable to whatever 'pavián' must mean.
And time passes.
But every once in a while, afterward, Ivy will be lying awake at night.
She'll be staring at the ceiling, picturing Viktor out there in that 1921 Model T with its new wheels and too-powerful engine, caught in that cycle of lunging and turning and firing.
When this chain of thoughts start, she threads her hands together. Squeezes her eyes shut. It helps focus things a bit, when she's asking that Viktor be kept from harm and pain.
And if all that fails, she presses the request for his gun to be loaded.
Sometimes she'll feel guilty about praying for that sort of thing, though, because she will be reminded of the way wasted lives look when spattered over checkerboard tile. So to be safe, Ivy always finishes the same way, by thinking that it must at least count for something: how even if the blood was spilled on her account, he had bowed his head to let her clean it.
"Stop that. Unfold yourself and sit like a respectable woman, you're ruining the spacial harmony of the vehicle."
"It's cold," is Ivy's retort. She has her legs gathered up against her chest, trying to take up as little room on the car seat as possible.
Mordecai Heller cranks the shift stick with a few mechanical turns of his wrist. "I recommended putting on a warmer coat, Ms. Pepper. I'm not to blame if you can't acknowledge the fact that it is February in the Midwest."
He always says it that way: not Miss Pepper, but circumspectly sharpening it into Ms. Pepper, like she is some withered spinster. And in that colorless, chirurgical voice of his, too. But because he has a point, and Ivy regrets forgoing a wool coat for a canvas wrap-over just because it didn't match her hat, she changes the subject.
"I don't know why you're in such a bad mood, Mordecai. Atlas told me he gave you and Viktor the weekend off, you could have taken him up on it. And I don't know why he thinks I need a chauffeur to begin with, either. A cab would've been fine."
Mordecai actually sniffs in indignation. Uptight high-hatter.
"It would seem your godfather is taking precautions, following the incident of last summer. And as for 'weekends off,' Ms. Pepper, you will find that many members of my profession – "
"Profession. You're the only man who'd classify blowing people's brains out over coffin varnish as a profession. I'll bet you have a resume, too. Can I see it sometime?"
" – Of my profession choose it for the compromise of liberty and order it allows. I take my own holidays, and certainly not after something so trivial as moving a few extra bodies." Mordecai glances forlornly at his wrists, which are missing their cuff links. He'd lost them last night. Ivy's noticed he likes to adjust them when considering something. "Our Slovak friend is a disgrace to the trade, moping around his abode like this."
Ivy's fingertips, poked out of her sleeves, worry a loose thread on the flat cap she's holding. Taking out five men in a back alley with only a crowbar and a handgun seemed like more than 'moving a few extra bodies.'
When she doesn't bother to say anything, Mordecai continues in his freezingly superior tone.
"You realize, of course, that he's going to have a delightful hangover this morning."
Ivy curls up more. The frigid air still cuts through every gap. Who'd thought it was a good idea to make a coat with no a collar?
"Psh, no he won't. Viktor can show up to work just fine after drinking enough to put two men completely under the table. That's why Zib never bets against him anymore, you know."
"Regardless, he'll be less than pleased to deal with your... ebullience at this time of day. Why your little errand seems so necessary, I'm sure I don't know."
Ivy flattens her ears to pull the cloche hat down and says nothing.
She is on winter vacation, which means going to St. Louis as a belated birthday present: she'd turned fifteen last week, the hat had been a gift from Mom and Dad.
They hadn't really made it to any sort of celebration, though, considering she'd arrived the night of Viktor and Mordecai's "humdinger." Or "barn-burner," or whatever other ridiculous terms Mordecai had referred to it as.
Neither had been hurt (Viktor, hurt? Her champion, her prize fighter, with any more injury than he could just shrug off? Absurd), but Atlas had treated them both to drinks (Mordecai had nursed a scotch. Viktor had made it through two bourbons, a brandy, a gin and tonic and three shots of whiskey) and told the two to entertain themselves for the weekend.
Viktor had forgotten his hat, after leaving the Lackadaisy with an echo of Slovak behind him. Something about seeing it dropped there, like it didn't matter, had chafed against her.
And now Ivy turns the cap in her hands, riding through a bloodlessly cold Saturday morning to give it back. Stupid, of course, but she sees something very noble in it.
It is, after all, Viktor's Hat.
"I just wanted to pay him a visit. He seemed out of sorts last night," Ivy finally replies. "Muttering about 'sentimental types' and all."
"That's just Viktor's mood, Ms. Pepper, especially after a larger job like that. I've always told him he lacks the emotional tenacity required for this work."
"Lacks the...If Viktor really hated his job, he'd quit. Atlas doesn't coerce him." Ivy rubs her paws together, huffs into them. The breath crystallizes in front of her. She'd wonder why Mordecai isn't cold, but then he probably always runs a few degrees chillier than everybody else. "Huh, I'd love to see someone try to coerce Viktor into anything."
"Precisely. He is not gifted with a pliancy of temper which would facilitate the strict obedience normal to this business."
"We're talking about strict obedience now? Didn't you just finish saying you enjoy the precarious dichotomy of liberty and order which this distinguished vocation allows you perpetuate?"
Mordecai always talks like there's a thesaurus lodged in his throat. Ivy can't help but mimic him every now and then.
"My own motives," he minces, face screwed tight "are besides the point. The point," and Mordecai casts a funny glance at her then. Ivy wonders how he keeps those glasses so polished, keeps the gilt rims so able to reflect light with such steely precision, "is that Viktor's reason for staying with this organization is anyone's to guess."
He turns his attention back to the road. The car bounces over a pothole. Ivy sets her booted feet down on the floorboards and watches the city roll past, glad he's stopped bothering her.
Hoity-toity grouch...Maybe she'd buy him a new pair of cuff links. He was, after all, Viktor's partner. Or backup. Sidekick?
Lackey, that was the word.
Eventually, the center-doored Model T bears a right onto North Market. The street is lined with scraggly trees and brick apartments, all hunkered down shoulder to shoulder: the car rolls to a stop in front of one, 1367 in brass numbers on its front. Mordecai has to back up and re-adjust until he is parallel with a car on the opposite side of the street.
"Be quick about this." Mordecai doffs his hat in a patronizing gesture. "And don't become emotional when he orders you out, Ms. Pepper."
Ivy hops out of the car into even colder, brittle air, looks over and notices the rusty I.J.P scratched above the front wheel. She turns to catch the door before it closes.
"Don't become emotional when I tell you this vehicle sports an asymmetrical marking, Mr. Heller."
Then Ivy trots around the car, mounts the apartment steps and waits a moment. Sure enough, Mordecai has slid from the driver's seat and stalked over to check.
She goes in.
There are rows of pigeon-hole mailboxes in the foyer. Ivy finds the one with Viktor's name and door number. Apartment 1A, Vasko. A little mirror hangs there, too, so she pauses to fix her makeup.
And after a moment of curiosity, switches the cloche hat for Viktor's cap tilted at a coquettish angle. More newsboy than golf caddy, now that she studies it.
Her boots stride along the hall, clop clop clop to stop in front of the second apartment down.
A few raps on Viktor's door give no reply.
A few more raps earn her a harsh shout of "Ach! Choď do čerta!" which she gathers does not mean 'Wait a moment, please.'
Puffing up her cheeks, Ivy takes the liberty of grabbing the knob and turning.
The door is unlocked, which means the force she had intended to use for banging one hip against it sends her swinging into the room. The earthy scent of coffee wafts toward her.
"Viktor!" She wobbles upright. "Hello!"
Admittedly, Ivy had been expecting some sort of crumbled bachelor's pad. Water stains, chipped paint, that sort. Instead the door opens onto a small, well-kept living room with patterned wallpaper, a hanging clock, two overstuffed armchairs with little flowers stitched into them, and a table by the window. A little picture frame lies there, tipped face-down. On one of the chairs sits a bulky, wrapped package.
Ivy clops across to a kitchen and finds Viktor by the stove, just turning around as she walks in.
His eye goes wide at the sight of her.
"...Good morning, Viktor! You should really answer your door! You'd get more guests that way, and this isn't a bad apartment for it. Small, maybe a little drafty, but you've done a good job with the homey touches. Not so keen on the blue colors for this kitchen, though. I know a few drape patterns that would look nice, maybe some yellow...What's that face for?"
Mordecai's prediction was, as Ivy knew it would be, mostly false. Viktor looks more rumpled than usual, sure, in a long-sleeved undershirt and trousers with the suspenders hanging at his waist. He slouches, and his good eye might be a bit bloodshot...
But what's most noticeable, really, is that stricken, disbelieving look he's giving her.
"What are you doing, dievka?"
His voice sounds hoarse.
"Well you don't have to say it like that. What's wrong? If it's a comment about the coat you can just keep it to yourself, I've already been taken to task for it. But don't you think it at least matches my – oh."
Ivy fingers the brim, realizes she's still wearing his cap. She swipes it off and slaps the cloche hat back on. Viktor makes to step forward, arm already raised in that familiar cast-off motion.
The words spin out in mid-air. His expression keeps flipping between confusion and irritation, and the hand swings back down by his side. He blinks, as though sunlight from the window bothers him.
"...How do you get here?"
Ivy knows what he means, of course. While Viktor's command of English cases – the imperative in particular – is excellent, his verb conjugation leaves something to be desired. But the opportunity all but prostrates itself before her.
"I should think you'd know, Viktor, seeing as how it's your house. By the way, what are your neighbors like? The whole hallway smells like cabbage."
He files his glare down, into that stern look that comes as if from beneath the brim of a helmet.
She goes for a straight answer in turn.
"Mordecai drove me."
One furrowed eyebrow edges upward. "Drove you."
"Viktor, conversations take a lot longer if you repeat everything the other person says. Yes, Mordecai drove me. Atlas wouldn't let me walk or take a cab, so that was the only option... You know, I wish I could handle a gun. He wouldn't think I was such a stupid damsel-in-distress then."
That eyebrow angles up a little higher. "And what do you say, to make Mordecai do this for you?"
Ivy's smile somehow manages to widen. "Had to warm the clay a bit, but I promised to order another set of Lenox plates so we'd have an even number to display. He's been harping on that for months, so the offer got him."
Ah. There it is. The slightest upward quirk on a corner of Viktor's mouth, before it is ironed over into anger again.
"Why am I here, you mean?"
Viktor crosses his arms. "What else would I ask?"
"Right." Ivy walks around the kitchen table. At this angle, she can see a two-globe coffee maker sitting on the stove behind him. "You forgot your cap last night. I thought you'd like it back."
He stares at her, then at the offered hat, but does not take it. Now his expression seems undecided between a grudging sort of thanks and the disgruntlement of being intruded upon.
(To the outside observer, of course, Viktor simply looks mad. Because an outside observer would not have made a hobby of studying Viktor's face and learning just how much is said there.)
Ivy feels something brush against her finger, brings his tweed cap up to see that dangling thread again. She pulls at it. "This thing's getting a bit worn out, don't you think? Maybe we could replace..."
Her suggestion prompts Viktor to rescue it.
Ivy steps out of reach. "Just let me cut this piece off, at least. Where do you keep your scissors? Assuming you own scissors, that is, and don't just rip everything with your bare hands."
"Is fine, dievka," Viktor insists.
But she's already turned heel, walked back towards that table in the living room. It's a sturdy little mahogany with brass-knob drawers, a lace cloth thrown over it. "It's not fine. If you insist on looking like a newsboy, you should at least look like a presentable newsboy."
She hears a distinct thump, a rattle of dishes.
"I don't know what it means, but I heard that!"
"So you are able to hear, then. And all this time I am thinking it is just noise, noise, no time for listening," he calls back. His voice is now fitted to the contours of a worn, almost comfortable aggravation. There is a whine of cabinets, the clink of a refrigerator opening.
"I'll have you know I'm an excellent listener. I picked up French like it was nothing, and I could probably learn...oh come on, you stubborn thing."
Ivy has to shimmy the drawer a few times before it opens. It is bursting with papers, bills, unclassifiable junk that accumulates in spaces which are out-of-sight and out-of-mind. She finds a rusty letter opener. That'll have to do.
As Ivy pulls the blade out, her eyes raise to the tabletop.
Its white cloth is yellowed by age, stitched through with threads of cold light from the window. And she notices, again, the picture frame lying there face-down. Had she knocked it over when she tripped in? No, it'd been like that right when the door opened.
Curious, unthinking, Ivy props it up to look.
A young woman looks back.
The photograph is creased, had been folded up in a pocket at some point or another. The woman stands in a shop doorway, head tilted and right hip cocked. A skirt and blouse emphasize the broad outline of her body: wide shoulders, round breasts, sturdy legs, proud neck. Her heavy and capable hands twirl a flower, as if she has been caught in the act of admiring it. Her fur is tortoiseshell patterned, eyes sharp and crinkled with amusement. A kerchief holds back waving dark hair.
Her mouth is opened in a laugh.
The woman is all vivacity and bright, dauntless joy, and that laughing smile sends it spilling forward, shares it, graces it on whoever is taking this picture as she spins an edelweiss between her fingers.
Ivy lets the frame drop as quickly as she can without breaking the glass.
She counts down slowly, holding cold hands against warm cheeks. Three two one.
(This must have been his girlfriend, his lover. His something. You don't smile like that for just anyone. And you don't fold up just any photograph to carry in your pocket, before putting it by the window on a tablecloth of lace. Turning it face-down, even.)
One two three. She presses the dangling thread between her thumb and the letter opener, cuts it free.
(It's expected, of course. It's obvious. He is twenty-three years her senior, after all, a short lifetime between his beginning and her own. A first love and a first loss and a first bitter draught, all those normal rites of initiation. Hell, in Viktor's case it's probably a first lifetime shortened, too: though whether it was out of duty or rage or someone else's greed he probably doesn't remember...But in the back of her mind, Ivy knows she cannot imagine him ever being anything but scowling, middle-aged, full of that tense power so practiced it looks like languor. He fears nothing, needs nothing. He is complete and self-contained.)
She wrestles with the drawer when it sticks again. Three two one.
(Now this smooth coherence is run across with impact fractures. Jagged little questions drop away. Who is the woman? Where is she? What had happened to her? What had Viktor been like, when he was young and in love and as unmindful of his transience as Ivy had been? A curious development, this.)
And Ivy is perfectly composed when she walks into the kitchen. The sight of Viktor's back as he pours coffee means nothing new to her, nothing at all.
One two three.
She exhales. A long, whooshing breath.
"What is that face for?" he asks.
His easy resignation changes to a discerning frown, and she notes that his hand – which once folded up a photograph to carry in his breast pocket, a photograph which was given to him by the Woman with the Edelweiss. Maybe there's writing on the back, each word lovingly chosen and carefully formed – is large enough to hold two mugs comfortably in one palm.
Ivy feels strangely shy.
She studies her boots while treading lightly over, laying his cap on the table. It flops down to join a dish of sugar, a pile of mail and a revolver. Viktor sets the mugs down and brushes his hat off.
"You will go now?"
"Ah, good idea!" And because he looks somewhat surprised at this response, she explains. "…Yeah, I should get going. Mordecai's probably gnawing his arm off. Or, well, no, he'd probably have to gnaw both arms off to keep things symmetrical. Did you know he keeps a schedule for even things like 'morning tea' and what times he'll wake up and go to sleep and pick up his paycheck, and...? No, I can't ruin his plans for the day much more."
Ivy spins to leave, quickly quickly before Viktor figures out what she's learned; that he did not, in fact, spring fully grown from the head of some war god. She's halfway across the living room before his voice snags her by the ear.
Thud thud thud is his easy gait across the floor. Ivy turns an ear toward the crinkling sound of paper.
( But she does not look at the photograph. Does not wonder how long Viktor carried it in his pocket before putting it in the frame, does not wonder if he misses the woman. Does not.)
Viktor has gotten the package which was sitting on one of the chairs and holds it out to her with a stiff arm. Now his expression is rather pinched and reluctant, as if he's palpitating a sore shoulder.
"Me?" she cannot help but ask, marveling at her display of perspicacity.
"What is it?" Ivy's hands close the awkward distance. "Is it a birthday present?"
And there's that same comfortable impatience in his voice again. "What is wrapping it for if I tell?"
"Ah." She clutches the package to her chest. It feels soft under the heavy brown paper: it isn't bronze knuckles, at least, which has alsways seemed to her like the sort of gift he would give. "Well said. Do you want me to open...?"
Viktor has already turned back to the kitchen, though, rubbing one corner of his forehead. Ivy is particularly glad for this, because he can read her so well that something in her face is sure to betray her.
"...Thanks! I'm sure I'll like it!"
Viktor gives a gruff reply, but she can't quite make out what it is before the door shuts.
And Ivy flies, her heart going at an odd trip all along the hallway, down the steps, out into street and the cold again. Mordecai is back in the driver's seat. Both of his hands are on the wheel, at the requisite positions of 10 o'clock and 2 o' clock exactly. He is flexing and relaxing his fingers around it, the way he must do when he cannot adjust his cuff links.
"What is that, Ms. Pepper?" Mordecai asks as Ivy clambers in. From the way he says it, she might as well be holding a shrunken head.
"A gift. Your massacre interrupted a party, remember?" Her feet tap out an ecstatic rhythm on the floorboards. "So much for that bum's rush you were anticipating! I guess that must mean he likes us after all, in his own way."
(In spite of all his turning-down of old photographs, too, not allowing the past and present to intersect.)
Mordecai pulls the choke, waits four seconds rather than five before pressing the ignition button, and the car shakes itself to life around them.
Ivy pulls the package open, folds aside paper and twine. Mordecai looks over, manages one of those coughing laughs which never extend beyond his teeth.
It's a scarf.
It is long, meant for someone about twice her age and height. It is made of heavy wool, a startling yellow color which should remind Ivy of something but does not. It is second-hand, nappy, abrasive to the touch.
And when Ivy puts it on, buries her nose in the fabric, she finds it incredibly warm against the cold: therefore it is the best gift she's ever gotten.
"The Charleston?" their new violinist repeats. He drags his bow over the rosin. "Excellent suggestion, Miss Pepper."
Ivy leans to check the clock, keeps her elbows resting on the stage. 11:45 PM.
"The Charleston, Ain't She Sweet, anything cheerful would be perfect. But it's New Year's Eve, I'm too happy to hear 'St. Louis Blues' for the hundredth time. "
He pockets the rosin and starts tightening strings.
"Understood, understood. Ah, the responsibility that comes with having such a direct command over the supple heart and its emotions. That's where the real communication happens, you know, through the art that speaks where words would fail."
"...Rocky, should I tell Lawrence to cut you off?"
Roark, called Rocky, gives her a vampiric grin.
"Haven't had a drop tonight, Miss P. Not my business to make any distinction between inebriation and sobriety when I'm in such a cheerfully intoxicated mood already without its aid."
What's even stranger, of course, is that Ivy believes him. She laughs and twirls away through the crowd (it's not really intoxicating, she thinks, more keening or delightful, a burning sparkler) to find her date.
There he is.
She starts toward him.
The fashionable way to walk, Ivy knows, is in quick, forceful steps. At once boyish and flirtatious, then add a coy smile or a toss of short hair. Other times she wonders if it'd be better to rock her hips, arc her back, tilt her neck the way Mitzi does.
(The way the Woman with the Edelweiss probably does or did.)
But either way, Ivy likes knowing that her date's eyes are on her before she reaches him, as she takes up his hands, as the jazz band leaps into a ragtime beat. She likes watching his face as she moves, and it reminds her of the rifle somehow: the burnished clarity of aiming, the pure rush of knowing she'll hit her mark.
"Wait, Ivy," and she likes the way his drawl makes her name swing from his mouth, makes it sound lovely and unusual and interesting, "you said we could..."
"I know, I know." She shifts her hands to his narrow shoulders, moves to make the sash of her dress sway. "One more and we'll go, alright?"
"Aw, come on. We're not gonna miss New Years if we leave for a few minutes, honest."
He smiles in earnest, his hands clasp her waist, his pianist's fingers press gently into the notch of her hip bones. Ivy shies back in a flit of nervous hesitation, but she keeps her eyes where they are.
"One more dance, on the level."
Her date – Caleb Briggs, a wiry boy she's rescued from the trammels of his university classes– sighs in resignation.
Al-raight, it comes out as.
Then his left foot kicks back, Ivy's gold shoes mirror him, and both ride an upswing of music along with the crowd around them...Caleb is still talking, Ivy notices. She has to press her torso up against his to hear.
"I said," he repeats, exaggerating the motions of his mouth, "could we at least move somewhere else, then?"
Ivy kicks out sideways, feet snapping around his.
Caleb glances away. Ivy takes the moment to admire his profile: Caleb is a tabby, a scholarly type with delicate features, and his eyes almost match the color of her dress.
He looks back with a wriggle of discomfort down his spine.
"Because that guy's been glarin' at me for at least twenty minutes now. Man can only take so much feelin' like he's about to be shivved." Another furtive peek. "Or pounded into the ground like a post."
Elbows jostle the pair sideways. Zib's saxophone hits a spinning note. Caleb whirls her toward the card tables in sync.
Her eyes immediately fall on Atlas, who sits there with an arm around Mitzi. He's laughing at something, either a good joke or a bad one made good by the warm tickle of alcohol.
"Atlas?" Ivy laughs breathlessly. "You're imagining things."
Caleb seems content to keep her facing forward like a shield.
"No. The giant next to him."
It takes her a few seconds. The flat cap is fixed so securely in Ivy's mind that her gaze does not stop, the first time around; it only glances over the well-dressed man who stands behind her godfather, arms crossed. Then he reaches up to loosen a bowtie, to scowl deeper, and the distracted veil lifts away.
"Oh, that's Viktor. Don't worry, he glares at everybody..."
Then she is pulling out of Caleb's grasp, waving in a way that makes her feather boa shake.
"...What on earth is he wearing?"
"Looks like a three-piece suit...Where are you going?"
"It's Viktor! In a three-piece suit!"
"Wait! Ivy, wait!"
But by then she's sailing through the crowd, navigating around the Lackadaisy guests, waving and waving and not caring whose top hat she knocks off.
"Sorry, Mr. Sable!"
And for now, in her guided, projected joy, Ivy forgets about any kind of affected walk. She storms over in big straight-backed strides, casting forward a grin about as subtle and coy as the glare of sunlight on water.
She's still waving when Atlas looks up.
"Ah, here she is!"
"Ivy, honey, wonderful to see you." Mitzi eases away from her husband. Atlas watches her go. "Is that the Lanvin dress you bought?"
"Hi Atlas, Mrs. M. Happy New Year...Yes, it is. Not bad, you think?"
"Very nice. I've never seen anyone pull off chartreuse before, but there's a first time for everything." Mitzi fingers the stem of her wine glass and raises one perfect brow. "So where's your victim for the evening?"
"Don't say it like that, Mrs. M, Caleb's a really... " Ivy's head spins around. She spots her date hanging back with a positively anemic expression on his face. "Caleb! Caleb! Over here!"
Caleb scuffs his Italian leather shoes.
"Ah, ah, I'm goin' for a drink. Be right back!"
The words are not out of his mouth before he is careening away through the dazzling mass of people, throwing a few anxious looks behind him along the way.
Well, that's peculiar.
Ivy fidgets with her beads in agitation. They clack together before dropping into place.
"Ivy, where on earth did you find that one?" Mitzi asks around a repressed smile.
"That's Caleb Briggs. He has lunch in the café on Tuesdays and Thursdays. You've met him, I think, the one who always orders coleslaw with his Reuben instead of sauerkraut? He's a student over at the university."
"Really? He looked a bit young for that. But that might be due to the anxiety attack he appears to be having. "
"He might seem a bit nervous right now, but he's very nice. Very smooth. Hard to find someone who can do the Foxtrot right these days, you know, and he's not a bad dresser either. And while we're on that subject..."
Ivy steps around Mitzi.
Viktor, who has been observing in silence, is unreceptive to the smile she gives him. But his ears prick forward, which is all the invitation she needs.
"...you're looking awful spiffy. What brought this on? Not expecting the apocalypse at midnight, are we?"
There is a booming laugh. Ivy looks back around her godfather to see a heavy-set man at the card table, Mordecai sitting to his left. Curlicues of smoke make the air around them heady.
"Hello, Mr. Sweet," she says flatly. "Happy New Year."
(Asa is nice enough, but Ivy has always privately wished that he wouldn't squint.)
"Best wishes to you too, Ivy," Asa Sweet chuckles, taking another drag on his cigar. "Still the same precocious little bear-cat, huh Atlas?"
Her godfather winks at Ivy before answering. "I wouldn't call her precocious anymore, Asa, she's looking at colleges already."
"Ah, no kiddin'!"
(Squinting, watery, thin eyes. Like you could scrape sand off the bottom of them.)
"Yeah, Dad was pulling for Fontbonne or Maryville." Ivy starts fidgeting with her necklace again. It's gold, to match her shoes and headpiece. "But I was talking with Caleb about the university earlier, and it turns out they have a very good rifle team."
Asa's eyebrows arc cheekily. The cigar turns in his teeth. "Really! Say, Atlas, what possessed you to teach the dame that?"
Ivy answers first.
"I'm self-taught, mostly. I've even hassled Viktor into going shooting a few times."
She veers her sight back to its original target at the mention.
"...Though that's been getting increasingly difficult. It's not because I'm better than you, is it? You promised you wouldn't be sore about that."
Viktor looks away.
One claw has worked into the knot of his bowtie and is prying it loose. Ivy plants both hands on her hips. "Cut that out."
"Cut out what?"
"That." Ivy gestures toward her own throat, where the neckline of the dress arrows down. "Messing up your tie. I say you look nice, then you go right ahead destroying it like an antsy schoolboy."
"Nothing wrong with this. "
His jacket is small, too, now that she looks closer. It tightens to restrict the motion of his arm as he wriggles.
"Says you. Here, let me see."
Ivy clips forward, swats his hands away, lifts onto her toes. Viktor acquiesces with a mutter of Slovak, the barest of bends. They meet in the middle.
An irritated puff of breath ruffles her bangs, a feather in her headpiece bobs against his ear, and Ivy has to clamp down on a smile. It's just so amusing to see him like this: amusing, really, to be reminded that Viktor – in some general, masculine sense– is the same as that poor handsome boy off drowning himself in vermouth.
Not that Viktor is a boy, of course.
(Or hasn't been for a very, very long time, rather.)
Viktor is not handsome, either. He is heavily and coarsely made, with a right eye gouged out and a tatting of scars down his arms and neck, probably over his back and stomach as well. But this odd closeness allows Ivy observe all of the separate, abstract parts that compose him: wide chest, rooted stance, obstinate jaw, is that cologne he's wearing? A circumspect whiff tells her no. Just hard lye soap over the usual earthen smell.
Thwip, the tie slides into a perfect bow.
(And if it were one of her boys, someone fun, someone frivolous, she'd probably drape her arms on his shoulders now.)
Ivy steps back and drops her hands.
Viktor is still frowning, although the hard line of his mouth looks different.
"Ya. Better hanged quick than strangled slow."
"Don't be stupid. If we really wanted to hang you, there are plenty more unorthodox ways to do it. And if you hate the outfit so much, how about taking this jacket off?" She gives the lapel an insistent tug. "It's too small anyway."
"I tried to talk him into getting fitted for a tuxedo," Mitzi calls over one bare shoulder. "You can guess how well that went."
"Oh, I see. So it's just a matter of persuasion, then. Say, Viktor, have you ever played Century Club? I'll place bets on you. We'll shake everyone down for all the winnings they're worth."
"That smile you have, it is never good news to see it."
"Yes, this smile. Try it sometime." Ivy realizes she's still tugging on the lapel and lets go. Viktor shakes out of the coat immediately. "Please? Come on, it's New Year's. Nobody mopes on New Year's. What dances do you know? Any? I'll teach you something quick, then you can go grab a lucky lady you've had your eye on and waltz her into a stupor."
He's started rolling his sleeves up. "You tease now, dievka."
(Always dievka with him, lowercase. Never her name. Not like the Woman with the Edelweiss, who is capitalized even in her anonymity. And this thought makes Ivy turn her eyes back toward the crowd before answering.)
"...Took you long enough to realize."
"Go back to dancing."
"I would, but my date's missing in action." No sight of Caleb over by the bar, and it wouldn't take that long to just get a drink. "You think he got lost?"
"Maybe. That one, by the look of him he could not find his way out of an empty room."
The odd shyness disappears under a wash of laughter. She gives his tie a yank. "Be nice."
"This is nice."
Ivy considers for a moment. "I suppose I can't argue with that. At least you haven't saddled him with a nickname yet, like you did to Christopher Green."
"The hlúpe teľa? You are talking about that one again?"
"Viktor, someday I'm going to find out exactly what insults you've been hurling at everyone all these years. What was it you used to call me, 'pavián'? Pah-vey-ahn? But yes. That one." Ivy cocks one hip and sighs. "Poor Christopher. I heard they were able to reset his collarbone, but I haven't seen him in weeks. Who'd have thought safety regulations at a glass factory would be so loose? Someone should write a letter."
Viktor takes an unusual amount of time to respond.
She laughs. "Yeah, I guess you are. Regardless, I should go figure out where Caleb's gotten to. I'm responsible for him, you know."
(But Caleb, it turns out, is lost for the evening. She's later informed that he'd gone outside for some fresh air and a smoke. Her informant turns a missing eye towards her as he speaks, saying Caleb had needed to leave in a hurry but had asked that she be thanked for the date. Better to forget the "kus vôla" anyway.)
Ivy starts heading back to the dance floor.
She is interrupted by a chorus of shouts, an abrupt end to the music as midnight creeps up in measured, successive rings. A photographer has set himself up at the front of the room, raises his fingers and starts to count down.
"Viktor, Hurry up!...Hey!" she tries to shout, dragging him forward. "Viktor, smile!"
Everyone else starts struggling to be seen over the milling crowd, drinks spilling down suit fronts and toes being trodden on as they arrange themselves.
Mordecai manages to look utterly bored by it all. Atlas grabs Mitzi about the waist to dip her back in a gallant kiss, and the cheering drowns Ivy out. But Viktor has heard her say something, at least, because he turns his surly face aside.
The feather boa loops around his neck. Ivy rocks onto her toes again, pulls herself up close so she can shout in his ear.
"I said smile, you big curmudgeon!"
The clock strikes twelve.
The camera goes off.
It illuminates any dark patches left, amidst the intoxicating, keening, delightful riot of color and sound that is the Lackadaisy speakeasy on New Year's, 1926. And it captures a perplexed Viktor Vasko (at the word 'curmudgeon', which she will later have to define) with a smiling Miss Ivy Pepper hanging off of his shoulder.
Then they all raise their glasses as one, up into the golden light to clang and flash like a carol of bells, and drink to another prosperous year.
They drink to Atlas May, as well, that good fortune follow him all the days of his life.
"You know, in spite of the name..." Dr. Leo Quackenbush continues. His face is a patchwork of shadow in the garage light. "...the primary target for this sort of injury is actually the soft tiss-ah, here we are."
Thunder cracks outside. Rain patters off the roof and leaks under the garage door. There is the smell of blood mixed with the smell of gasoline, and a scrape of metal against bone.
Ivy keeps her eyes steadfastly on Rocky, who leans against a nearby car looking like he wants to throw up: or else trained on Viktor's face, where he lies on the table in front of her.
Leo's tweezers dip before her vision.
They drop a bloody bullet into the pan she's holding. It lands with a metallic ring.
(Atlas is dead. Mitzi is alone. Mordecai is gone. Viktor is hurt.)
"And the second slug passed through our gentleman's left knee from the back, so I suppose this will be his good leg." Dr. Quackenbush nudges the glasses up on his nose, where sweat has been making them slip. "But as I was saying. The soft tissues. Nerves, muscles, tendons, that lot. The patellae, the kneecaps themselves, are usually left intact."
He motions to Rocky. The jazz violinist gets up and hands him a suture kit, nimble fingers shaking as he does.
And Leo Quackenbush keeps talking, probably for their benefit. An unnecessary charity; the doctor has already been charitable enough for the evening, agreeing to make a free 2:00 AM house call for a patient who couldn't walk.
(Atlas. Mitzi. Mordecai. Viktor.)
"Why call it kneecapping, then?" Rocky asks.
He's been trying to keep a stiff upper lip all night, which Ivy commends him for. He'd helped her get Viktor this far, had brought a doctor – a Lackadaisy patron who happened to be a veterinarian, but beggars could not be choosers – while she'd stopped the bleeding. Ivy decides to buy Rocky pancakes sometime.
Leo Quackenbush adjusts his glasses again. His finger leaves a print of red on the metal bridge.
"Patellae can be shattered by a direct blow, which has been the trend for longer, but it seems firearms are the growing preference these days. By the way, that bullet appears to be a .38 caliber. The type your own Mr. Heller prefers, if I remember correctly... and for God's sake, Mr. Rickaby, don't you have anything stronger to use for disinfectant?"
"You're not going to get much better than 150-proof moonshine, Doc. That magical little intoxicant right there will eat through most cups that you put it in." Rocky wrings his tie again. He's still soaked from the rain outside. "And yeah, Ol' Serious Face and Viktor had an altercation."
(Atlas, Mitzi, Mordecai, Viktor.)
Leo snorts, pauses to raise a needle up in the dingy light. Thread glints like spiderweb as he pulls it through.
"Well, it's fitting. No surprise that he made sure to get both legs instead of just one, I suppose. Neurotic, that man, but always efficient. The way the scar tissue is going to develop, it'll be a miracle if this one ever bends his legs again."
Leo slides the hooked needle through skin – Ivy'd had to cut the pant legs open at the knee, Leo'd had to cut flesh open to get at the bullet lodged there – and begins to pull things back together.
The pacing stitch keeps time with Ivy's thoughts.
Her hands tighten around the stainless steel dish.
(Viktor, Viktor, Viktor, Viktor.)
Atlas has been dead for a week. That's why she'd been here in the first place, for the funeral.
Mitzi has not been allowed an hour of solitude in the intervening time, has been asked what was going to happen, who was going to pay the salaries, who was going to assume charge, "What are you going to do, Ms. May, now that you're alone?", questions questions questions until Ivy'd wanted to walk downstairs and break a few bottles over the whole dense-headed lot of them.
Now Mordecai is gone, she's been told, after a disagreement with Viktor.
They'd been arguing, Mordecai trying to convince Viktor to retire before things got worse, had shouted with their voices ricocheting around the empty speakeasy. Viktor had apparently called Mordecai a traitor and a liar, and something else in Slovak that was clearly not a compliment.
Mordecai had walked to the door, adjusted his cuff links, turned and fired twice.
"Who, Vinegar Tom?" Rocky tries to laugh at Dr. Quackenbush's prediction. "Ha, the one who needs a miracle is who or whatever tries to make this grizzled old brawler do anything. Right, Ivy?"
Ivy wonders if noise is reaching through the cocktail of sedative and anesthesia Viktor has been given.
"Right," she agrees. "But don't be so loud."
Rocky claps his mouth shut with a nod. He goes back to sit on a car hood, feet shuffling on the cement floor. Viktor's head turns towards the sound. A groan, or maybe a question, starts in his throat.
Leo glances up.
"Make sure he doesn't move, Miss Pepper."
Ivy nods as well, goes back to observing Viktor's face.
It is so strange to see him like this, splayed over the wooden worktable cleared of its wrenches and car parts: those are scattered haphazard on the floor now, where Ivy'd knocked them with a few sweeps of her arm. Damp air makes the fur of his throat stick and clump. His chest rises and falls against the thin shirt, up down up down, and Ivy has never seen quite that same sort of exhausted defeat on his face before.
She leans in and is surprised to find Viktor's good eye cracked open. He's not really staring at anything, though, or else it is very far away and uninteresting.
Leo's hand pauses its stitching motion. He searches around to spot Rocky. "Get back over here and pass me something to wrap this with. You're a terrible assistant."
Ivy watches the green eye pull its aimless stare inward.
Rocky slides off the hood. "Sorry, sorry. I'm just not shaped to the manual labor mold, you know? These are artist's hands."
"Artist, is that your excuse for incompetence? And what do you suppose sewing flesh back together like this is, recreating and restoring the delicate precision of a body?"
A twitch skitters around Viktor's jaw. Probably pain creeping up through the murkiness.
"Oh," Rocky ponders, digging through Leo's medical bag. "You know, Doc, that's an intriguing way of putting it. 'Delicate precision'. Would you mind terribly if I used it in a poem sometime? I'll credit you, forty percent."
"Forty percent of what, may I ask?"
"Of whatever happens when your genius is recognized by the populace."
"Usefulness would be a better reward to pursue, Mr. Rickaby," Leo deadpans.
Rocky's blue eyes flit between the doctor's extended hand and Viktor's ruined knees. The Adam's Apple bobs in his skinny neck.
"Right. I'll be sure to keep that in mind."
The steady up down up down motion of Viktor's chest is slightly faster.
The violinist keeps rummaging, and seconds later produces a ream of white gauze. "Is this alright?"
"Perfect. Give it here."
Leo reaches across to take the bandages, which look ghostly in the low light.
The muscles of Viktor's shoulders bunch together. His claws grip the wooden table for purchase.
Ivy's voice unsticks itself from her ribs.
"Dr. Quackenbush. Wait."
...That is what she'd planned to say, at least.
In reality, she gets about as far as 'Doctor' before Viktor's hand flashes up. Flashes over.
Leo's arm is seized near the shoulder, snapped out at an angle Ivy has seen once before.
There is a shout as Viktor bolts upright. A shattering of glass as the light-bulb overhead breaks. A crash and an Anglo-Saxon oath as Leo is flung against another table. The swinging light flickers several times more, makes everything look as if it is captured on a stuttering film reel: insane and disjointed and set to the pace of Viktor's wild, pitched breathing.
One last burst of sparks, a still-frame of Rocky as he lurches forward.
The light goes out.
Rocky shouts something about Viktor's mother over the thwack of flesh being struck - not a jawbone, but probably a nose - then another crash, a sliding whine of surgical tools being thrown. Ivy hurls both arms up as something hits the wall near her head, though it's hard to hear over her own pounding heart, and how did she get all the way over in this corner?
Ask another one.
She's not afraid, is she?
Why yes, Ivy realizes, as her arms refuse to unlock.
Terrified, in fact, as she listens to roars and crashes through the dark.
Ivy can't see her own hand in front of her face: but the sound rolls inside her chest like cannon fire, blows the top of her head off and lets everything spatter out in ugly patterns. Through the dark comes all that rage rage rage which has never been directed towards her before, never allowed Ivy to understand what everyone does so clearly and immediately about him. And she can't move, won't move, because something might strike her in this moment of blindly desperate anger. He might –
He might try to stand up.
In fact, it's very likely that he will.
Viktor is going to stand up, on legs which have been shot out from under him by his former partner, and he's probably going to fall when he does.
Ivy is on her feet and tripping forward before the thought can even finish.
A snarl, another clatter. Something clips against her ear.
One two three.
Air is disrupted in front of her. Ivy darts one hand out, grazes it against his arm in passing. Something jumps like an electric charge. She grinds her teeth, fills her lungs.
"Dammit, Viktor! Stop it!"
One more toolbox falls over, then the crashes stop. The shouts stop. The curses stop.
The shaking breaths do not.
The shattered bulb is still swinging lazily overhead.
Three two one.
"...You hear me, Viktor Vasko? Get a hold of yourself. Hasn't anyone ever told you it's bad business to pummel your surgeon?"
Ivy hears Leo limp behind her, shoving Rocky aside to paw through the medical bag. The two whisper to each other - "No, sedatives. I need the syringe, get out of my way and find a light...Not a match, you buffoon, with the fumes in here we'll be blown into the next county..." - and Rocky coughs on what is probably blood blubbering from his nose.
(Okay, she'll buy him a whole stack of pancakes.)
And now her eyes can pick out disconnected patches of Viktor's form, illuminated by rippling gray light from a window. One shoulder's longbow curve rises and falls, up down up down.
Words form through the ragged breathing.
Atlas is dead. Mitzi is alone. Mordecai is gone. Viktor is hurt.
Ivy pretends her voice is clear and bright when she next speaks.
One two three.
"That's right, dievka. And don't even think about throwing something at me again, or I'll slap you so hard the sides of your brain will swap. Understand, you cantankerous clod?"
Viktor hisses through his teeth in reply.
A quietly triumphant huff comes from Rocky, a drawer slides shut, and with a few rattles the light flutters back on. It does so just in time to catch Leo sinking a needle into Viktor's arm.
And Viktor himself, sitting with legs over the side of the table and wearing a unfocused frown. A drop of blood clings to his boot heel before splashing to the floor, running down his leg from the torn stitches. He rotates his gaze between the decimated garage, Rocky's face and her own.
"Je mi l'uto, je mi l'uto," he grimaces, head in hands. "Odpusť mi."
Ivy doesn't know what the words mean, but she can guess.
"It's okay. Rocky's nose might set crooked, but women always go for that rugged sort of look anyway. Don't you think so, Rocky? You can tell all the girls it happened in a boxing match. Twelve rounds for the bantamweight title."
"Debbinetly." Rocky grins around the hand he's clutching his face with. "Bud I'mb at least a lightweight."
"Dr. Quackenbush," she calls next, "how's your arm?"
Leo tries to give his shoulder a quick roll forward and back, flinches. "I believe Mr. Vasko has dislocated it."
"Do you want to keep working?"
"Can you keep working?" Ivy presses, drawing herself up.
Leo glares, opens his mouth, but something in her expression seems to change his mind.
"...Most likely, yes. Damnation. Not the worst psychological manifest of wartime trauma I've ever seen, but certainly the most inconvenient."
Three two one.
Ivy turns her attention back on Viktor, who looks groggier already.
"See? We're tough, we'll be alright. So let Leo finish patching you up so he can go pop his arm back in its socket." And because the sentence seems to dangle, "You big ornery ox."
Viktor lies back of his own volition, a feat in and of itself. Ivy tries to catch Dr. Quackenbush's eyes for an order or request, but he already has them turned down to his work again. She sidles around the table to help wrap and wad gauze, set the splints, provide an extra pair of hands.
"Sometimes I think you're more trouble than you're worth, you know that Viktor?... But only sometimes. Mostly, though, you're pretty good to have around. Never been able to find someone with the same knack for souping-up engines or opening mason jars when they get stuck. And that's why you need to hold still and stay with us, alright? Alright."
There is a lacuna of silence before he gives a rasping sigh.
And she can guess what this means, too: because the voice in which it is spoken takes Ivy back to sitting on the black-and-white tile with a bloodied rag in her hand, and to words which seemed to have no direct translation.
She leans forward.
The very corners of his mouth twitch up in a smile.
"...Which reminds me, Viktor, now that you're in no position to refuse the question, what does 'dievka' mean? No, I should start out by asking what 'pavián' means, because you always said it like it meant 'monkey.' Or baboon, maybe. Pesky, chattering, noisy baboon."
His shoulders jerk in a private laugh.
"...I'll get you for that one, Viktor Vasko. Just wait."
So Dr. Quackenbush works, with intermittent assistance and loud exclamations whenever his shoulder is jostled. Rocky places a cold wrench against the back of his neck until his nose stops bleeding.
Viktor mutters to no one in particular, words tripping and running over each other beneath the sound of rain outside. He says something about Mordecai, about Atlas. He says something that is barely distinguishable and oddly rhythmic, "Otče náš, ktorý si na nebesách, posväť sa meno tvoje", other things whose meaning Ivy cannot interpret.
He says the words Svätá Jana, which sound like a name in their emphasis.
Ivy listens, sometimes talks, as if this will suppress whatever the local anesthesia can't. One of her hands briefly clasps his, one thumb brushes over the ridge line of knuckles. Then she reconsiders, and is glad when Viktor doesn't seem to remember it afterward.
And eventually, the worst is over.
Leo is passing her bottles of medicine and painkiller, rattling off doses and frequency while wincing as the motion hurts. Rocky is opening the garage and starting up the Fordor. She hates to move Viktor any further than absolutely necessary right now, but they'd never get him up the stairs to Mitzi's apartment.
(But not Atlas' anymore, Atlas Mitzi Mordecai Viktor.)
"Well, Miss Pepper," Leo remarks dryly, hefting up his bag, "thank you for this wonderful evening. I think you can guess the likelihood of a repeat performance. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to try driving home with a disconnected humerus."
The sarcasm in his voice passes right over her head.
"We'll keep in touch, Leo. Thank you for everything."
He slams the door when he leaves. Ivy and Rocky set about getting Viktor into a back seat, with his stumbling, curse-laden aid to move things along.
"That was amazing, Ivy," Rocky finally comments as he climbs into the car. "You're like a walking shield."
"Oh, stop, it wasn't that bad. It wasn't even his fault."
Ivy is glad her hands are steady when she opens the passenger door.
("Hey, Viktor. What does 'Svätá Jana' mean?"
"…Where do you hear that?"
"Oh, you said it. Sorry about the annunciation."
"I said it."
"Copious amounts of sedative was involved."
"Pah. Why do you want to know?"
"Killed the cat, that is what they say?"
"And satisfaction brought it back. Please?"
"…One man in the 35th, he wants to be a priest. Always saying we are looked after by the French saint, the one who protects the soldiers –"
"Joan of Arc?"
"Ya. Svätá Jana.")
The mirror is still there.
Its glass is spotted and streaked now, so it's mostly out of habit when Ivy pauses to frown at her reflection. Both arms are full, so all she can do is blow that stray bit of hair back in a huff. It drifts upward, a filament in the light of the foyer, and floats right back down.
Ivy shifts her groceries around and continues along the hall to Viktor's apartment. Canvas sandals are quieter than boots, thup thup thup with her shadow stretched down the carpeted floor. The whole building is silent.
He'd probably still be asleep.
Ivy checks a clock as she passes. 7:15 AM.
He'd better still be asleep. She doesn't have time to lecture the stubborn idiot.
(And besides, she's supposed to be angry with him.)
Mitzi probably wasn't planning to open the Little Daisy for breakfast, but Ivy figures she should show up for her 8:00 shift anyway; they'd cleaned up the most of the mess from Saturday night, at least. Rocky's cute cousin had become an employee of the Lackadaisy, for reasons which were still rather unclear. Mitzi had spent most the time with Wick, though why or what they talked about was not disclosed to her either. Zib had smoked thirty packs of cigarettes and was still in a twitchy mood.
And as Viktor had been less that pleased with her past two visits (the one with Rocky and Freckle two days ago had ended badly, to say the least, though Rocky's nose had stayed intact), Ivy decides not to knock.
One twist of the tarnished knob tells her Viktor hasn't locked his door. He never does.
Her eyes drift around when she steps in, over to where the radio had sat before he'd smashed it. A hairline crack has raced up the window from where Viktor slammed it shut.
The armchairs are both empty this time, but the clock, table and face-down picture of the Woman are still in place. His only addition to the room in the past few years has been a hardy little plant, which nods in a breeze from the window to greet her.
"Viktor?" she whispers. "I picked up some milk and eggs from Milo's, I thought I could...hm."
The kitchen is empty as well. No piles of mail or brewing coffee this time. Ivy set her bags down, puts a match to the stove and crosses to another door.
She hangs back a moment before sticking her head into the bedroom.
It's small, filled with sluices of morning light and the sound of easy breathing. Viktor lies flat on his back atop the covers, fully dressed and with one arm dangling over the side. How on earth could he sleep with the sun in his face like that?
...Well, no wonder it's so bright. The curtains aren't shut.
Ivy makes to go draw them. Her toe lands on a finicky board.
Then Viktor shifts his head towards her, gives a dusty snort in his sleep, and Ivy realizes that bundle of cloth on the dresser is his eyepatch.
She remains there, foot forward.
One two three.
Closes the door.
Walks back to put a kettle on the stove.
Studies how the white of her frock, the blue of the kitchen, throw oblong colors over the kettle's iron sides.
And she does not think about how the scar twists, digs over the clamped lids where Viktor's right eye used to be.
Chipped plates and cups are stacked together in a cabinet. Ivy finds a set, notes long tendril cracks that span the glazed surfaces. Diaphanous white-green onion and vibrant red tomato are sliced, chop chop chop against a dish.
And she does not think about how the scar tissue is silver-brown, raised and knotted like a root.
One swift flick of her wrist cracks two eggs in a bowl. Fork tongs break them apart, unify them in a spinning whirl of yellow. They pour out to hiss and sputter against a black skillet.
And she does not think about how the scar is obviously a knife wound.
And she does not think about how it marks one instance of rage rage rage out of many, marks his initiation into that endless act of lunging and turning and firing. Into a world where he would befriend Mordecai Heller and get a pair of legs that couldn't walk down the stairs in return.
(Hateful, enviable scars, that could seal around the memory of knives and broken bones and two .38 caliber bullets to the kneecap and mend all the inside, hidden places.)
The kettle starts up a brazen shriek. Ivy drops bags of Earl Gray into two ceramic mugs. Steam rises to bead her whiskers when she pours the water. Veins of first amber, then brown cloud it as the tea steeps.
And she does not think about what a striking color the eye had been.
And she does not think about how it had looked up at the cameraman in the trench, beside a man who told his comrades about saints to comfort them and who would never become a priest.
And she does not think about how, as the Woman with the Edelweiss had laughed and given him that bright, guardian's smile, it had probably folded up at the edges to smile back.
Ivy goes to the refrigerator. The handle is cool against her palm. Bottles chime together when she opens the door. She studies the interior, closes it before going to the table and reaching into her grocery bag. Paper crinkles. Her fingers close around the curved shape of a milk bottle, set it on the table. Glass rim catches the light and scatters it, flings raindrops of it against the cabinets and ceiling and her hand.
And she thinks, really, that it's just an eye.
He's lost worst.
(For he had gained a knowledge of the world and its ways.)
Ivy takes a long breath to force back the prickling sensation in her throat.
"Well?" she goes to the stove again. "Are you going to kick me out, or just stand there and glare at me?"
Viktor, who has been leaning in the doorway for five minutes now, does not answer.
He looks smaller somehow, Ivy notes. Maybe because of the way his shoulders are dropped, or how his arms are crossed. It gives her a clear view of a scar that runs from his left wrist to elbow. At this distance, though, she cannot see the matching one curved around his eye.
(Even then, you can't see it until you really look.)
When Viktor finally speaks, it is in a voice hoarse with anger.
"I did not ask you to come back."
Words squeeze through the narrowing aperture of her throat. Come out in pressurized fragments.
"No. You didn't. But here I am anyway. Funny how that keeps happening."
"Stop." She flips the eggs. Watches the gold and red and black all swim together oddly in her vision. "Just let me finish talking before you go back to ignoring me, alright?"
Ivy pulls a sugar bowl from the cabinet and slams it down so hard she's astonished it doesn't crack. Crystals of white scoop out, rush down, gritty against her vision as they dissolve in the dark tea.
"...You know how frustrating it is to never have your letters answered? How many did I write you back then, four in a row? Five? I'll bet you never even read them. Probably threw them out or something, everything always has to be on your terms that way. No communication or interaction unless you can bring yourself to bow to it."
Both hands close tight around the spatula and panhandle, in case an urge to throw something at him overpowers her.
"So if being around me is such a huge burden, why haven't you left yet? Did you want to wait until I made you mad enough, so you couldn't blame yourself for pushing away one of the only people willing to put up with your lousy attitude? One of the only...the only one dumb enough to keep coming back for the same thing over and over? And there you are now, ready to toss me out like it doesn't mean anything. Stubborn, thick-headed ox can't even understand what's good for his own stupid self...! "
(She imagines something bright red ribboning down through ruddy fur, around an eye that is green like needlegrass drying in the sun.)
And she, Ivy supposes, has sustained her own losses. Made her fair share of trades, illusion for insight.
But she, she has gained something in the bargain.
"...You want me to leave? You think it'd be better for me to go away and let you mope or cut your losses or whatever it is you plan on doing?"
(For he had gained a knowledge of the world and its ways, but he had lost one of the windows through which his heart could understand it.)
And again, there is that impotent rage of the near-miss, of the just-beyond-reach. But now it is run together with a sharp, lodged sadness as the words come clumsily, as her heart swells up inside her chest to crack against her ribs, as needles of heat sting behind her eyes and converge at the bridge of her nose.
To hell with the question of wanting her here. Of thinking he doesn't need her.
Something, at least, had to be gained amidst the losses. Something, at least, had to act as an interpreter.
Three two one.
"...I guess that's too damn bad, Viktor. I'm not going anywhere."
Her words bounce oddly off the tiled floor and cabinets, held in by the confines of the room.
Viktor walks over.
Out of habit, Ivy keeps her back turned. Keeps it turned so she will not know how long it takes him, will not let Viktor know how long it takes from the way her eyes stay fixed or become impatient.
She scrapes the egg onto two plates. It's burned around the edges.
Viktor stops to stand in front of her, says nothing. Ivy pivots to look at him.
His face is tense. Wrought. She interprets a quick tremor around his jaw and brow as strain from standing up too long.
"You should sit down," Ivy snaps. Says it with firmed shoulders and neck, telling him the conversation is over. "You might re-open something, and our magnanimous magnate isn't around for me to blackmail again."
He still doesn't move. Still doesn't say anything.
One two three.
(And nine hundred million repetitions of the same, give or take a few, in the lifetime that stretches between them. One two three three two one, representing all of the fragments she will never be able to see or know. But that whole span of time has brought him to here, to her, to this bizarre sort of unified Present just as tangible as the losses and the Past that separates them, and this is all Ivy can think of right now.)
Something in the air wavers.
Tips. Lets go. Falls.
"For God's sake, Viktor. Say something before I clock you with this frying pan."
He extends one hand to take the plates from her.
"...You are getting tears in the breakfast."
She wipes at them with the back of her hands.
"Omelets make me emotional that way sometimes. It's really a pain on Saturday mornings, that's all anyone ever orders for breakfast except Rocky and his damn pancakes. It must be the onions in them, I guess. In the omelets. Not the pancakes. I...Oh, God, what am I even trying to say?"
(But he had lost one of the windows through which his heart could understand it.)
With a frustrated, haggard rush of breath, Ivy lets the muscles of her back all go in a slump.
One two three three two one.
Then she bows her forehead, rests it very gently against Viktor's chest as he stands in front of her. Her arms stay hanging at her sides, because the bandages where Leo dug buckshot out of him have been re-wrapped recently.
Viktor doesn't raise his arms, either, but he doesn't do anything to stop or move her. She didn't think that he would.
They hold this position for what feels like a long, long, long time.
Her neck starts to hurt, so Ivy turns her head sideways to press one cheek and ear against him instead. She keeps talking.
"...I'll bring by some more food tonight, because apparently you can't stock a refrigerator to save yourself. Mitzi was saying we should add gumbo to the Wednesday lunch menu, so I'm nominating you as a recipe test subject. Not that you have much of a discerning palate, you probably don't make much distinction between fillet Mignon and hard tack biscuit..."
Ivy wonders what Viktor's face looks like right now.
But finding out would mean having to move her ear away from the percussive one two three three two one in his chest. It would mean moving away from the feeling of rooted safety and Present Tense and understanding that it brings her.
And she doesn't feel like doing that just yet.
"...So I'll stop by again around 6:30 or so. And I'll come by tomorrow morning with the paper. And the day after that, we'll have to lock you in to keep you from coming back to work, especially with the disasters Rocky and Freckle will be causing over in Defiance."
The clock says it is 7:45.
Ivy moves to pull away and give his chest one solid, assuring pat. He winces.
"Sorry, sorry!...But you got all that, right, Viktor? I'm leaving, but I'm not really going anywhere. You're stuck with me."
And once she pulls away, he will step back as well, and the distance will remain between them, and –
Then one large, heavy hand curls around the back of her head.
It fists itself loosely there, and Viktor holds her in place for one, two, three beats more before letting go. An odd sigh sags out of him, like he can finally put something heavy down.
"Love is a simple plant like the climbing ivy: once it takes root, its talent is to spread."
End Notes: The quote is from a poem called "My Heart Ran Forth", by Jessica Powers.
You, dear reader, deserve a medal for simply finishing this story, and I thank you very much for spending some time with it. However, I'd also love to hear your thoughts, suggestions, constructive criticism, mad ranting, raving, why you liked it, why you hated it, whatever you've got.
Again, thanks for reading!