mxpw's A/N the First: It was a lot of fun writing this story with Frea. I haven't written anything in a long time, so this story means a lot to me for a lot of reasons. One, it gave me an opportunity to work with Frea again, a very rewarding and entertaining experience. Two, it pushed me to write, and not just write something, but to actually finish it too. That was important. I really wanted to finish this. Not just because I think it's a pretty good story, but it's something Frea and I have actually been working on, off and on, for a couple of years. It's the culmination of a lot of conversations and a lot of late nights. I hope that you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Frea's A/N the First: Hello, all! Look! I'm back! And writing Chuck fic again, which is a little improbable...or so you would think. There are two truths to this story: first—I'm not writing it alone. This story wouldn't have been possible without the awesome support of my fantastic cowriter, mxpw (yes, I said cowriter, not beta; if there's something awesome in this story, he wrote it, and I filled in the blanks). So even though it's posted under my name, please don't forget to give him the credit, too! And secondly—this story is finished. That's right. It might have been started two years ago and set to the side, but it's finished now. Everything is written, there won't be any waiting for months while Frea gets her act together. We've even got a posting schedule, but we're cruel, mean, horrible people, so we're not going to share it.

I also want to stop and take a moment to thank our lovely beta readers, Steampunk Chuckster (there was a lot of keyboard smashing from this, which I guess you could call beta reading, once you listen past the dying whale noises) and quistie64, who is nothing but a delight and was awesomely willing to look this story over extremely last minute. Thank you to you both, ladies, and to the people I've pestered over the past few weeks for details.

A couple of things to note: there's a lot of set-up to this story, and certain characters might not show for a bit, but I promise you, the payoff will be worth it. With that said, kick back to the 1940's playlist you can find in my profile, put on your best fedora, and let's go back to 1949...

The Mountain and the Mole Hill

The minute I stepped out of the stairwell, I knew I wasn't alone. I liked to think it was my keen sense of danger, but really it was the fact that my office door was ajar, the doorknob dangling by a thread. With a sigh, I shut the stairwell door behind me and tiptoed down the creaking hallway. My office was on the fifth floor of the old McDonald Building downtown, but as a believer in not courting death, I took the stairs. The last time I used the elevator, it jumped almost a whole floor, which might not be a problem had we not been already going down. I had no idea how Bill handled it. He said that being an elevator man's a noble profession. I say that it should come with life insurance.

My office door was solid, with a nameplate across the front that said Carmichael Investigations. Nothing fancy, just how I like it. Sarah always said that I'd never make a name for myself with such low-key presentation. That was fine, I'd tell her. I didn't need to make a name for myself: I wanted to help people. She would roll her eyes, but sometimes, probably when she thought I wasn't paying attention, I'd catch a small smile on her face.

Now that I was close, I could see the lock had been jimmied, and rather haphazardly at that. I frowned, more at the shoddy workmanship than the hassle of getting my door fixed. Whoever had busted my door either didn't care that I'd know right away or they had no pride in their work. Which was worse? Indifference or incompetence? Both could lead to a dirt nap.

I pushed the door inward, my right hand on my M1911—I was cautious, not stupid. In my line of work, stupid gets you concrete shoes and a ticket to the bottom of the Lake.

It must have been my lucky day: nobody had started shooting, which I considered a positive sign. My office wasn't big but there was enough space for a small waiting room with three uncomfortable chairs and a beat-up rolltop desk. Not exactly the homiest of rooms for potential clients to wait or for Sarah to work, but she had never complained. Of course, since she had up and quit on me, the room now stood emptier than an echo. If whoever had broken in was still around, they were in my actual office. That door, too, was ajar.

Very few in Chicago would jimmy my lock and actually stay on the premises just to show they could. That smacked of the Bishop.

I took my hand off my gun. No need to lead with my worst dance steps, after all. Pushing my shoulders back, I opened the office door and stepped inside.

Two men waited in my office.

The man straining my already-beleaguered desk chair was the massive Mr. Colt. Mountainous was actually a better description for him. Under his perfectly tailored dark gray suit—I always felt a wave of sympathy for the poor tailor responsible for making clothes that would actually fit him—was a granite wall of muscle and sinew. The one time I had shaken his hand, I'd nearly had to see Ellie about a broken hand. If I remembered correctly, he carried two Colt New Service revolvers. Why he bothered with them when he could easily crush a man's skull with his bare hands was a mystery to me.

His companion was not nearly so substantial. Where Colt was walking muscle with a brain—at least I suspected he had a brain, I'd yet to see the proof—Mr. Delgado was a bird of prey, built for agility and speed over strength. He moved with slippery grace, the scars on his face giving him a rakish appearance, and I knew by reputation that he was every bit as dangerous as his partner.

"Ah, Mr. Carmichael, it's so good to see you," Mr. Colt said. His voice, a deep basso thrum, shook the walls.

"We let ourselves in. I hope you don't mind," Mr. Delgado added.

I took my hat and jacket off, placing each carefully on the rack. Three years ago, I would have tossed both and hoped for the best, but Sarah had broken me of that habit. Now, everything was all careful movements and even more careful presentation. Clients might have liked the frumpy look in the middle of a case, as it shows hard work and no time for frivolities. Nobody, however, likes hiring a bum-looking private detective, as it never inspires confidence.

Hat and coat successfully squared away, I turned. "You're in my chair."

"Is that any way to talk to prospective clients, Mr. Carmichael?"

"You're not clients and you never will be, gentlemen."

Mr. Colt rolled his shoulders and it was like two hills shaking in an earthquake. He stood up—I practically heard my chair groaning in relief—and walked around my desk, taking up position behind Delgado, who was in the lone chair in front of my desk. I frowned. That was Sarah's chair.

I ran a hand down my tie, straightening it, and sat down. Since Sarah wasn't there, I swung my feet up and around, resting them on the corner of my desk. It was my "thinking pose." It looked relaxed, but that was just plain deception. It kept my hand close to my gun.

"You haven't even heard our proposal, Carmichael," Delgado said.

"It's always the same thing with you two," I said. "I'm not interested."

"Pity. Say, I'm feeling a bit of a cold coming on," Colt said, and fingered the bowler hat in his hands. "The sniffles. What time is it?"

Delgado reached into his vest pocket and pulled out a scuffed gold watch. He made a contemplative noise in the back of his throat. His eyes never wavered from my face as he said, "Nearly three."

"Don't mind me if you have somewhere else to be..." I trailed off.

Colt ignored me to look at his partner. "Oh, good, still early enough to see a doctor. Say, isn't that when your lady friend starts her shift at Our Lady of the Lilies? That's not too far. Maybe I'll pay her a visit, see what she can do for me."

It took all my self-control not to immediately reach for my gun. Instead, I plastered a charming smile on my face. "You should really get that sniffle taken care of. If you don't have your health, you don't have anything."

Delgado smirked and put his watch away.

"If you want, I'll even put in a good word for you," I said. "See if she'll help you on the cheap."

Neither man spoke, they simply stared at me. I flashed them an affable smile: I wasn't going to be the one to blink first.

Finally, Delgado spoke. "Mr. Karpazzo has a proposition for you."

I leaned farther back in my chair and stared up at the ceiling. "And what does the Bishop have for me today?"

"Mr. Karpazzo," Delgado said with emphasis on the name, "would like you to find something for him."

"And what is this 'something' he wants me to find?"

"A man by the name of Bryce Larkin."

"You know I don't do that kind of work."

Delgado turned toward Colt, who nodded. Delgado reached into his suit and pulled out a bulging envelope, which he tossed onto my desk. It bounced once before settling in front of me. I picked it up without looking away from the ceiling and thumbed it open. The feeling of money against my thumb was enough to make me jump and look down. Indeed, there was more money inside than I'd ever seen in my life.

"Huh," I said. It was more than my normal fee.

"Five thousand now, five thousand when you find Larkin."

"What?" I looked from the money to the men. "Ten thousand dollars? Let me guess. He's the guy that really took Lucky Lindy's baby, isn't he?"

Delgado smoothed his lapels. "Mr. Karpazzo is very insistent that Mr. Larkin be located as soon as possible."

"There is a five thousand dollar bonus for finding him within the next three days," Colt said.

Fifteen thousand dollars. For a single case? With that much money, I'd be set for the year. I could find a new secretary, spruce up the office a bit—Sarah always complained the place was so drab—maybe even go on a vacation. But I couldn't take it. It didn't matter how much they offered; I wouldn't be able to live with myself if I took the money from a man like Vincent Karpazzo. I put the envelope back on the desk and pushed it toward Delgado.

Delgado frowned at my refusal.

"Sorry, gentlemen. I don't do that kind of work and I don't work for men like your boss."

"Mr. Carmichael, be—"

"I've told you boys this a hundred times, I don't know why you always seem so surprised when I say no." I leaned forward. "There are other dicks in the city. Tell Karpazzo to go to one of them."

"He is," Colt said.

That was news. If the Bishop was spreading that much dough around, something big was going down. I'd been tapped into the Chicago underground for almost four years and I'd never heard of anybody throwing their weight around like this. For a second, I was tempted to take the case, just to figure out what the hell was going on. Casey would probably appreciate an inside track on a lead like this. Might even pay me for it too.

And wait, what was I thinking? If I took the case, Karpazzo would have his hooks in me good and tight. I'd go down swinging before I became another one of his goons, and he knew it. I'd said so to his face and I'd spent the next week sporting a fat lip to prove it. Perhaps it was even why he kept trying to entice me to his side. Some might claim the man is ornery, but I had a feeling he just didn't like to lose.

But Charles Carmichael also liked to know what was going on in his city, so I said, "He offering everybody this much?"

"As I said, Mr. Karpazzo is very determined that Mr. Larkin be found as soon as possible."


"That's not important."

"It is to me."

"Take the case, Mr. Carmichael, it looks like you need it." Delgado looked at the stacks of papers that had once been my desk.

"We heard you've been in a bit of a bind lately," Colt said.

"Yeah, this place is starting to look like a bit of a flop house."

Hurt rose at the insult. I thought my office had character, even if Sarah's word for it had been "disaster." I plopped my feet on my desk again. They'd made their offer, I'd turned them down, and now it was time for this farce to end. "Gentleman, I hate to be rude, but unless you have the names of the winning horses for tomorrow, I'd like you to leave. I have work to do."

"Noticed your office was missing something when we let ourselves in," Delgado said.

I froze. Now I was no genius, but even I knew where Delgado was going with this.

"What was her name?" Colt asked.

I decided to play dumb. I was usually pretty good at it, so it wasn't that hard. "Who?"

"That sweet dame of yours. Waters? Walters?" Colt said. He unbuttoned his coat and it fell open, revealing the two revolvers on either side of his chest.

"Walker," Delgado said. "Her name is Walker."

"Right. Real shame about her, Carmichael."

"I really don't see what this has to do with anything," I said.

"We heard you've been trying to lure her back," Delgado said. "Also heard it hasn't been going too well. Maybe we should pay her a visit, on your behalf, and see how she's handling all this free time."

I put my hands on my desk, and started to rise. "I think it's time you boys leave now."

Delgado stood up, picked up the envelope, and nodded once. "You know how to contact us if you change your mind. And Mr. Carmichael? I strongly urge you to change your mind."

Colt placed his bowler on his head and buttoned his coat, show of intimidation over. Both he and Delgado moved to stand in front of my door.

However, just because they declared the meeting over, that didn't mean they got the last word. I stood up, unsnapping my holster as I did, and waited for both men to turn my way. "Oh, before you go, I want you to know something, and tell your boss the same. I'm a pretty easygoing guy, but if you go anywhere near Dr. Bartowski or Miss Walker, I will take this gun here." I stopped and pulled the M1911 from its holster. I didn't point it at them, but goons or not, I'm pretty sure they got the message. "I will take this gun, I will shoot my initials into your chests, and I will leave you some place where even the pigeons won't go near you." I cocked the pistol. "Do we understand each other?"

Colt outright leered as he cracked his mammoth knuckles together. Delgado just smirked. "Understood, Mr. Carmichael."

They left and I sagged back into my chair like a deflated balloon. Even though I'd done this dance with the Bishop's thugs what felt like a hundred times before, it never got easier. Just another two-step straight into disaster, and this time it looked like they might get personal. I'd have to go down by the hospital and warn Ellie, maybe talk to security when she wasn't looking. Finding a way to get word to Sarah would be more difficult, as the woman was bound and determined to vanish off the face of the Windy City.

First though, I needed to find the number for the locksmith. Just another glamorous day in the life of Charles Carmichael, PI.

Frea's A/N the Second: Well, that's it, story's over. Everybody can go home.

Okay, maybe you should come back Wednesday instead. Need incentive? Here's a little sneak at what's coming up...

Her chest rose as she brought in a big breath. She seemed to steel herself, like she was about to do something unpleasant but necessary. "I need you to find a man for me," she said. She reached into her purse and pulled out a picture, which she handed to me.

He was ridiculously handsome, the kind of man who'd fit right at home on the silver screen, with stylish dark hair and light eyes. "Nice looking fellow. Who is he?"

"My fiancé."

I looked from the picture to the woman. Made sense. "All right, what makes you think he's missing?"

"I haven't heard from him in more than a week. I'm worried."

Poor schmuck. Had to be dead. Not much else could keep a man, even one who looked like that, from coming back to the Southern belle currently sultrying up my wreck of an office. A Southern belle, regrettably, that I myself would have to turn down. "I'm sorry, sweetheart," I said. "I don't take missing persons cases. But if he's been gone a week like you say, you should go to the police."