mxpw's A/N the First: Thank you for reading the story. It's awesome seeing the reviews you guys leave, especially all your theories. It's great fun to see you guys speculate when I know everything. Thanks to our beta readers and to my cowriter. I may be her hero, but I'm still just a regular guy, just like everybody else. Thanks for reading!
Frea's A/N the First: Snort.
A Dame That Can Think For Herself
I made it a block. I wasn't proud of the fact that I stumbled into an alley by a barbershop and chucked my breakfast onto the pavement, but there wasn't much I could do. Sarah never flinched. Her hand rested like a warm, solid weight on the back of my neck as I heaved. When I closed my eyes, all I could see was the way Bryce Larkin had fallen and the angle of that knife sticking out of his back. The smell of the blood seemed to cling to the insides of my nostrils as I braced a hand against the barbershop and divested myself of most of my stomach lining.
"Sorry," I said, humiliation making my cheeks burn like twin fires on my face.
Sarah reached into her purse and pulled out a pack of clove gum. I gave her a grateful nod as I took a piece. The clove burned the back of my throat, and the sharp taste grounded me in the moment. "How much have you had to eat today?" she asked.
"I stopped at a bakery by Ellie's parents' old place." Of course, I'd only been able to afford a roll, which I'd had to wolf down on my way to the Broken Monkey after being so rudely awoken by Casey, but shame kept me from saying that out loud.
Sarah gave me one of her classic looks. "You need to take care of yourself better. Here, let's walk along, away from…that." She didn't look at the mess I'd left behind in the alley but tugged on my arm, getting me moving again. "Why do we need to go to the Broken Monkey?"
"Whoever killed Bryce, he was smoking…something. I've smelled it at the Monkey before. Maybe somebody was following me, and they picked Bryce's note off of me. It wasn't there when Shaw searched my pockets." Something occurred to me. "Sarah, why do you have a gun?"
"That's not important now. You think going back to the Monkey will help?"
"Bunny—she's the one that sold me the Lady in Red cigarettes, the ones that led me to Carina and…" In a flash, I realized something: Bryce's note to me had been written on a piece of paper for the Lady in Red brand. I hadn't thought anything of it at the time because it just seemed like one of those scrap pieces of paper you find to write a convenient note on. But what if the paper had been deliberate? Bryce had sent me to Carina, but why? And for what? Had it been to warn me that she was a spy? Or was there something there he had wanted me to see?
He had picked a very inconvenient time to be dead, honestly.
"And?" Sarah prompted, as I'd stopped talking in the middle of a sentence.
I shoved all of the supposition about the Lady in Red back inside. "And maybe he bought his cigarettes at the Monkey while waiting? It's a long-shot, but it's all we've got."
"Chuck, if you go back to the Monkey, Shaw's going to find you again."
"Or worse, the Bishop will," I agreed. "We'll go in the back way."
Sarah merely sighed. "Why am I not surprised there's a backdoor into that place?"
"Did you know Bryce?" I blurted out. It seemed like if she and Carina knew each other, and Carina knew of Bryce, maybe the circle was smaller than I thought.
Sarah shook her head, the movement tight and anxious. We walked along with her arm tucked into mine, and the clove was almost enough to cover the pervading taste of sick in the back of my mouth. "Not personally, though I knew of him. I suppose you're curious about that, and you've a right to be. I'm afraid I may have told a few white lies to you, Chuck. I wasn't a nurse in the War."
That much was clear. "You worked for Wild Bill, too?"
"I did, yes, with Carina. I left it all behind after the War."
"Why?" I asked. "If you worked for the OSS, you had to be good at your job."
"I could ask you the same question," Sarah said.
The lady had a point. I'd always had a head for numbers and math—it came from having a father who was a professor of mathematics at Northwestern, even if he'd ignored me all my life—and an eye for code-breaking. They'd asked me to stick around. I'd given them a cold shoulder or two in reply.
"Why not tell me, then?" I asked. "I wouldn't have held it against you."
"I wanted a new start. Well, another new start."
She started to make the regular turn to go to the Monkey, but I tugged on her arm. "No, this way." Truth was, I was kicking myself over not having used this entrance earlier, but to be fair, Sarah's leaving for Detroit had shaken me some. Maybe it was ironic that she hadn't gone to Detroit, and I was even more shaken up. "What are you talking about, new start? Like, a new start after the War? Leave it all behind and just be Sarah Walker?"
Sarah let out a long sigh. "My name's not Sarah Walker," she said.
I blinked. "I've been calling you the wrong name? You should have corrected me. I feel mighty foolish now."
"No, it's okay. I wanted everybody to think my name was Sarah Walker. It's really Sarah Wechsler."
"Oh." I thought of the days of Freedom Fries and Liberty Dogs, of a paranoia that had swept over the country when all things German were denounced. "You weren't a Kraut spy, right?"
Her lips thinned. "No, I wasn't. I'm as American as you or anybody on this street."
"Whoa, sorry. I was teasing. It's this way." I led the way down a seedy alley not unlike the one I had so recently soiled with my breakfast. Four garbage bins were stacked too neatly in a row. I moved one to the side and revealed the trap door beneath, which I immediately bent to pry up. "So, tired of people lookin' at you sideways? That's why you changed your name?"
"That, or my father is Black Jack Burton."
The trapdoor slipped in my fingers, nearly crushing them. I let out a very masculine yelp. "Your f-father is Black Jack?"
"And so's Carina's."
For a moment, there was nothing I could do but kneel there on one knee by the trapdoor, and stare. "Let me get this straight," I said when the ability to speak finally returned. "Your father is Black Jack Burton, the most notorious con-man known to this city. And if that's enough, you've got a sister in the CIA, and you yourself were—"
"I ran missions in France and Germany behind enemy lines during the war, that's correct," Sarah said, her chin lifting slightly. "And she's my half-sister, if we're going to be technical about this."
That certainly explained why I had thought it was Sarah every time I'd heard Carina approaching. They were of a height and even of similar builds, though Carina was redheaded as the day was long, and Sarah's hair was a brilliant blonde that seemed haloed now in the mid-afternoon daylight. Not much seemed familiar in the way of facial shape, though, but if they were only half-sisters, that much seemed fair.
"Wow," was all I could think to say to that. "How many years have we known each other and I never even suspected."
"It's perfectly fine, Chuck. You haven't suspected a lot of things."
"What's that supposed to—" I started to ask, but as I did, the trapdoor lifted on its own. I scrambled back, reaching for my weapon, but Sarah already had her gun out and leveled right at the head of…
"Morgan?" I asked.
Halfway out of the trapdoor, he paused and adjusted his Lundberg Stetson, squinting on account of the bright sunlight after the dark tunnel, no doubt. His eyes tracked from the ground to the point of Sarah's gun, and he yelped. "Whoa! Is this a stick-up? I didn't do it, I swear!"
Sarah's gun vanished almost into thin air. Something about the movement sat at the back of my brain, lodged there like a splinter. That much unconscious grace… "Sorry," she said, and broke my train of thought.
"Morgan," I said, and Morgan swung about in fear. When he saw that it was me, he deflated in relief. "What are you doing, using the back entrance?"
"Bishop." Morgan pulled himself the rest of the way out of the tunnel, accepting the hand I offered to help him up. "Kicked in my door last night, so I figured I'd lay low for a little while."
"At the Monkey?"
"Yes, that seems to be the brilliant idea going around today," Sarah said, giving me a pointed look.
"It's all right. I'd already left for my shift at the Trib, so no harm done." Morgan blinked at Sarah a few times. "So he found you! Why do you have a gun? Has the Bishop come after you, too?"
"No, but I thought better safe than sorry."
Morgan beamed. "Smart! I like a dame who can think for herself—and a dame with a gun."
"I'm flattered," Sarah said in a voice dryer than the climate of Morocco.
"I'm sorry about your door," I told Morgan.
"It's all right. I took your warning to heart, and I know how to dodge good old Vinnie Karpazzo. He had a goon outside the Trib offices, but I—"
"Wait, are you meaning to tell me he's stalking you at work now?" I asked. The Bishop had upped the ante, if he was willing to send men to track Morgan down at work.
"It's all right, I paid one of the newsboys to do my shift for me. I was busy looking for sources on that murder at the McCallister Building."
Sarah frowned. "What murder at the McCallister Building?"
If the Bishop was stalking Morgan at work, then that meant all of the "safe zones" were officially off the table. Vincent Karpazzo was ruthless, yes, but he was also a mobster's gentleman, which meant he had rules he strictly adhered to. He believed a man should have the right to earn an honest paycheck, so workplaces were off-limits to him. Scruples, he always claimed, kept him from getting between a man and his money.
The blood threatened to rush out of my head at once, leaving a vacuum running just inside my ears. Everything sounded deafening, up to and including the cacophonous crash of my heartbeat against my ribs.
"Yes, the—Chuck? You okay, buddy?"
"Ellie," I said, and lurched as I turned toward the mouth of the alley. Somehow, my gun was already in my hand. "If he's chasin' you at work, he'll—Ellie. Our Lady of the Lilies—"
Realization dawned on my friends' faces at the same time. I didn't stick around to follow through. Like that, I was free of my daze and sprinting down the alleyway as fast as my legs could take me. I'd warned Ellie to lie low, to stay out of danger, but like me, she'd always had more compassion than sense. She wouldn't leave her patients if there were any in danger. And if the Bishop was willing to sully Morgan's workplace, he wouldn't quibble about harassing Ellie at hers. Hadn't she said a couple of nurses were on the take?
I exploded onto the street and took off running toward the hospital. It might already be too late. No, I couldn't think about that, I couldn't even imagine any of it. An eye for an eye, Mr. Carmichael, I could hear him saying in my head, over and over and over.
"Chuck!" Sarah's voice cut through as she grabbed my arm—the good one, thankfully. A taxi pulled over to the curb. She pushed me into the back of it, shouting directions at the driver.
We left Morgan behind.
"Drive fast," I said, and Sarah held me back from lunging forward. "As fast as you can, it's an emergency."
"Look, buddy, we've got speed limits in this town for a reason. I hit one fellow, I lose my license."
Desperate, I clawed at my vest until I pulled my pocket-watch loose. "You get us to Our Lady of the Lilies in under ten minutes, you can have this."
"Chuck," Sarah said. "You don't want to—"
The cabbie took one look at the watch. "Deal," he said, and pushed on the gas pedal.
Sarah yanked me back until I was flat against the back seat next to her. "Chuck, that watch is the only thing you have left of your father. Are you sure…"
"Ellie's more important to me than some watch." I barely even remembered my father. My parents had checked out, and checked out early. I guess they thought raising kids was too difficult. I didn't have any siblings. I just had Morgan, whose father had met his end in the bottom of a bottle, and Ellie.
And if Karpazzo hurt a single hair on Ellie's head…
It took a century and a half, even though the cabbie pushed the rattletrap well beyond the speed limit, before we pulled up in front of the hospital. I threw the watch in his direction, ripping the fob right out, and stumbled out of the cab. I probably knocked over a stretcher going in, but I didn't care. Neil, the day security guard, saw me coming and strode forward.
I grabbed his arm before he could take me down. "Dr. Bartowski—is she in? Did she come in today?"
"Yeah, she's back in her office. What's the matter with you, Carmichael?"
"No time to explain." With Neil staring after us in complete bafflement, Sarah and I hurried down the hall and up the stairs to Ellie's tiny office. I ran straight for the door.
"Erm, Chuck, maybe you should knock—"
I hit the door with my shoulder and plowed through, tripping and nearly falling into a heap in the entryway to Ellie's tiny office.
Ellie dropped her sandwich. Both she and the tall, blond man who'd been sitting across her desk rose to their feet in alarm. "Chuck?" Ellie asked. "What are you—Sarah? You're back? What's going on? Is something the matter?"
A quick glance told me there were no thugs or Bishops to be found. Instead, I'd stumbled upon two people eating cold cut sandwiches.
"Uh," I said. "Wow, okay, so…I can explain."
"You're not hurt, are you?" Ellie asked, looking me over. "What's wrong with your vest?"
I looked down. My bad leg was shaking—all the walking, running, and fighting I'd done on it in the past couple of days had not been kind to it—but even worse, my vest was torn at the front where I'd ripped the pocket watch free. Hastily, I buttoned up my coat over it and straightened, yanking off my hat and trying to fix my hair. "I'm not hurt," I said, though my arm stung a little. "And the vest is—it's no big deal. You're okay?"
"Why wouldn't we be?" the other doctor asked. "You must be the great Chuck Carmichael I've been hearing about."
"Most days," I said, feeling a little dazed as I shook his hand. "And you're…Dean? No, Devon, right? Devon Woodcomb?"
"One and the same."
"This is my…friend, Sarah Walker," I said, as I couldn't very well introduce her as my secretary anymore, as she'd up and quit on me.
Pleasantries were exchanged, with Sarah getting an equally enthusiastic handshake from Devon. I'd heard about the new doctor at Our Lady of the Lilies, but Ellie had always made him seem distant and not like they were friends. Yet there were clearly two subs on the desk, and Devon seemed to be standing unnecessarily close to Ellie. I narrowed my eyes at her, wondering what she hadn't been telling me, but she was looking agog at Sarah.
Before my blonde ex-secretary could dodge out of the way, Ellie practically strangled her in a hug. "Where have you been, lady? Chuck has been looking all over for you. We've been worried sick."
"I didn't mean to make you worry." Sarah's smile radiated discomfort. "I've just—my mother's been ill."
I dropped my hat, which saved me from gawking at Sarah, but only just. Her mother was sick? She'd never mentioned her parents prior to telling me her father was none other than one of Chicago's most notorious kings of crime. Finding out she had a sick mother just made me feel poorly about every frustrated thought I'd sent her direction since she'd left.
Ellie seemed to agree, for she grimaced in sympathy, giving Sarah another hug. "Oh, you poor thing. I'm so sorry. I've been teasing Chuck here about losing his Effie, and I had no idea. Is she getting better? I hope she is."
"Yes, thankfully, it wasn't as bad as we thought it could be."
Devon clapped me on the arm, managing to hit my wound precisely enough that I saw stars, horrible, horrible stars. "So what brings you by, Chuck?" he asked while I blinked away after-images of agony. "We're having a bit of a late lunch. There's more, if you're hungry."
We needed to put some distance between us and the city in case the Bishop was coming, or if he had men watching the hospital. But the thought of food had my stomach gurgling so obviously that a blush sprang up on my cheeks once more.
"Has he eaten?" Ellie asked Sarah.
"Not that I know," Sarah said.
"I happen to be in the room, in case you've forgotten," I said.
"And you sound hungry, my good fellow." Devon clapped me on the shoulder again, and it took everything I possessed not to whimper as aftershocks raced down my arm. "So why don't I go get a couple of chairs from my office and we'll have us a fine feast."
"Sounds excellent," Sarah said, giving me a pointed look.
"That sounds excellent," I echoed her. "But if you'll excuse me, I think I need to pay a friend a quick call first."
Though I expected her to stay, Sarah put a hand on my elbow and smiled at Ellie. "We'll just be a moment," she said, and followed me out of the office. "Who are you thinking about calling?"
"The Bishop may be trying to kill the only woman that I can call a sister. I'm calling the cops."
"Oh, Casey. That's fine, then."
I squinted at her. "Who did you think I was going to call?"
"Never mind that." She rooted through her purse and handed me a quarter.
The coin in my hand seemed to burn with my own personal shame. I'd gone from employing this woman to borrowing money from her, though Sarah didn't look at all bothered by the fact that I didn't have two dimes to rub together. Pride, I'd discovered in the lean early days when meat had been a luxury I could ill-afford, was an expensive thing to have, so I swallowed mine and thanked her for the quarter.
"I'll save you a sandwich."
I stepped up to the payphone near the lounge, plugged in Sarah's quarter, and dialed the precinct from memory, bypassing the operator. The desk sergeant grumbled, but soon enough, Casey picked up the phone, answering with a brusque, "What do you want? I thought I told you to lay low."
"I may have forgotten to mention that I witnessed a murder last night," I said without preamble.
The other end of the line went mostly quiet. I could hear Casey's breath, which sounded like an enraged bull. "Carmichael, if you're joshing me, I will stick my boot up your ass so far that you'll be gnawing on shoelaces, you got me?"
"That's…colorful, but no. Tommy Delgado. I'm assuming your boys pulled him in with the morning's catch."
Another pause followed and Casey's breathing seemed louder and angrier. "Go on," he said, and I imagined him standing there with his hand in a vise-grip around the phone, fingers tightening until the handset creaked.
"I didn't do it."
"But you saw it happen and you know who did."
"I didn't see their face," I said, which wasn't quite a lie. "But the Bishop wants me, and he's breaking all of his rules to get to me. He had goons outside Morgan's place of occupation this morning, if you catch my drift."
"Carmichael, I never want to catch your drift. Why are you telling me this now?"
Casey let out a long, drawn-out breath. "Where is she?"
"At the hospital. I'm with her, but…look, Casey, they're all after that guy named Larkin. They're not going to find him alive—don't ask me how I know, I didn't see that one happen. He took something, a device. I don't know what it does but everybody and his maiden aunt wants it, and I think somebody might've killed him to get it. Whatever it is, I need to get to the bottom of it, and fast."
"And you want me to babysit?"
"There's nobody I trust more." Except for her, and I had a feeling she was more interested in saving my bacon right now than Ellie's, wherever she was. Something niggled at the back of my mind again. I brushed it aside. "Please, Casey. She means everything to me."
"You owe me."
"Anything, you say the word, it's yours."
"Give me fifteen minutes."
The line went dead with a click. I hung up the receiver and stood for a minute, trying to process everything. To say that it had already been a very full day would've been like pointing out that the Cubs only liked to break my devoted heart a little. But Casey was on his way. The Bishop's thugs knew better than to tangle with him, though Casey would relish such an opportunity. He'd been aiming for the Bishop for years, but every time he drew near, the Bishop managed to slip away. Hell, Karpazzo had even learned from Mr. Capone's mistake: his taxes, I'm told, were immaculate.
This time when I went to Ellie's office, I made sure to knock. "I just spoke with Sergeant Casey," I said.
Ellie, however, cut me off by holding a hand up. "Sit," she said, pointing at a chair. "Eat. You look half-starved, so you can fill me in when you've got something in your stomach. And while we're on the subject of your health, when is the last time you got any sleep?"
"Oh, come now, Ellie, I'm an adult," I said, though I didn't protest when she all but shoved me into one of the chairs Devon must have brought in for Sarah and me. "I can take care of myself, I promise."
"Yes, but some days I am convinced you're not very good at it." A sandwich was placed in front of me, and it smelled glorious. My first instinct was to dive upon it like a rabid wolf, though I had the feeling that would only prove Ellie's point. So I picked it up and took a medium-sized bite. The crunch of the lettuce, the cold ham, and the tang of the olive oil dressing, however, made me think twice about eating slowly. I inhaled the sandwich, earning a laughing pat on the back from Dr. Devon Woodcomb and an I told you so eyebrow raise from Ellie. Sarah, mercifully, stayed quiet, though I noticed that she, too, was eating her sandwich a little more quickly than was theoretically circumspect.
I finished off the dill pickle and swore my stomach gave a happy sigh.
"So," Ellie said once I'd dusted the crumbs from my fingers. "Just what is it that's going on, Chuck?"
I looked uncertainly to Devon, who was chewing just as cheerfully as he seemed to do everything else. He raised his eyebrows back at me.
"It's okay to speak in front of him," Ellie said, rolling her eyes at me.
I cleared my throat. "I went to see the Bishop last night."
"Why would you ever do that, Charles?"
"Yes, this is a question I would like an answer to, as well," Sarah said.
Devon gave me a sympathetic look, but it was obvious that no help was coming from that quarter, so I pinched the bridge of my nose and started to explain. I left out Larkin's death and Carina, but when it came time to explain what had happened the night before, I faltered. I didn't much like talking about my guardian angel in front of others.
"She was there," I finally said. "She rescued me, but there was a scuffle, and—you know Tommy Delgado? The Bishop's second in command? He was supposed to get information out of me or kill me, I can't tell, and there was a scuffle and—so much blood. She killed him to protect both of us, and now the Bishop wants my head on a platter."
I could see the whites all around Ellie's irises. "Chuck…"
"He sent somebody after Morgan—don't worry, he's fine—but I can't take the risk that he'll go after you. So Casey's on his way over. I'll owe him a few, but the Bishop shouldn't get to you, not if you have Casey around."
"I'm not leaving the hospital."
"El," Devon said, and had Sarah and I both looking at him in surprise. "Chuck here has a point. I know I'm new in town, but this Bishop fellow sounds like bad business."
"Right, so all of us should go," Ellie said, grabbing my wrist.
"Somehow, I'm at the middle of this, Ellie. I'm the one who has the best shot at figuring it out, and I owe it to this case to do so."
Ellie's glare had probably made ornery patients shut up and listen for years, I thought. Normally, it would have worked on me, even. "You're going to get yourself killed," she said. "And then what will I do? What will Morgan do? Chuck, you have people that care about you. What about them?"
"I'll keep him alive," Sarah said, and all three of us looked over at her in surprise.
"And when you vanish without a trace again?" Ellie asked.
Sarah flinched. "Ellie!" I said. "That is remarkably unfair. Sarah was free to go. She never owed me anything."
Ellie looked temporarily horrified. "It was. Sorry, you just—I'm scared, Chuck. You've been in over your head before, but this time you've really crossed the Bishop. And what am I supposed to do? Go into hiding like a good little girl?"
"You could do your best to annoy Casey," I said. "He gets complacent, see, without somebody to prod at him."
"I understand that you're trying to lighten up the situation, Chuck, but—"
Ellie broke off as the door opened. One of the nurses stuck her head in, looking harried. "Dr. Bartowski," she said. "There's some kind of commotion going on downstairs—Neil just called up to tell me—"
"He's here," I said, and immediately all four of us were on our feet, rushing for the door. "That has to be him. Ellie, is there a back door to this place? Something not really commonly known?"
"This way," Devon said, turning down the hallway. Ellie and Sarah hurried after him with me bringing up the rear. I wasn't as quick on my feet, thanks to the old war injury, but I could move along decently well. We'd wasted too much time. I should have told Casey to meet us somewhere else and gotten Ellie out of there lickety-split rather than trying to explain the situation and hoping she agreed. With the Bishop breathing hot fire down our necks, the time for social niceties had passed. I readjusted my hat and loped along, hoping that the Bishop didn't know Our Lady of the Lilies as well as my two doctor friends did.
We sped across a tile floor that had just been mopped and for the first time in my life, I saw Sarah Walker stumble as her heel caught a wet patch. I grabbed her arm to keep her upright and nearly jumped out of my skin when she let out a pained gasp.
"Sarah? What's wrong?"
"It's—it's nothing." But she looked deathly pale all of the sudden, like she'd injured her arm somehow, and I'd managed to do exactly as Devon had done to me and had grabbed said injury. But if she was hurt, why hadn't she said anything? What could she have done to her arm that would lead to such a reaction?
And it was odd, but that was the same arm that my guardian angel had…
"Chuck!" Ellie was the first to realize I'd stopped, for she swung back around and grabbed my wrist. "Why did you stop running? You're the one who keeps telling me we're all in danger. Come now."
But I couldn't move. I could only stare at Sarah, who seemed to sense my eyes on her, for she swiveled about suddenly instead of running after Devon.
She was my angel.
How had I never—
"Look out!" Ellie's eyes went wide again, and enough of my cognitive function returned that I could turn and see the men barreling their way down the hospital corridor, shoving nurses and patients to the side. Leading the way was my old friend, Mr. Colt, with two giant henchmen in his wake. All three of them wore matching expressions of horrible anger.
Sarah grabbed Ellie by the elbow and more or less shoved her toward Devon. "Get them out of here," she told me. "Now."
"You're her," I said.
For a brief second, her face fell, but then she was giving me the annoyed expression I'd always seen whenever I'd taken on a case for free, usually when I couldn't even afford to pay the electric bill. "Now's not the time," she said, and kicked off her heels. "Go, Chuck."
It wasn't a tone to be argued with, so I took off running after Ellie, who'd thankfully come back to her senses. Together, the two of us hit the stairwell, following Devon. I made it all the way to the first floor before the arithmetic caught up with me: I'd left Sarah—my angel, Sarah, whoever she was—I'd left her to face three men on her own.
Immediately, I turned. "Where are you going?" Ellie asked, clutching my coat.
"Get outside, find Casey. He'll keep you safe." I broke free of her grip. "I need to help my partner."
Before Ellie could stop me, I ran back to the stairs, taking them two at a time. Everything was jumbled inside of my head—Delgado's death, Larkin's death, my secretary was back, my secretary had regularly been saving my life for the past three years—but I had to put it all aside. I had to figure I was probably about to die. I was decent in a fistfight, thanks to my time at Camp Lehigh, but Mr. Colt was the size of two elephants smashed together and tied to a lion. Even my guardian angel—even Sarah would have a hard time with that.
I wasn't wrong. The first thing I saw when I rounded the corner into that hallway was Colt tossing Sarah back against a wall. I shouted, but Sarah landed on her feet, nimble as a cat, and socked Colt with a roundhouse that knocked him back a good two feet. One of the other thugs, who'd been watching in the background, looked over and spotted me. He immediately shoved his sleeves up and started walking in my direction.
Oh, Beelzebub, this was not going to end well. All I could see was the ripple of muscle in his arms and torso as he came toward me. And then he stopped and did some complicated motion with his hands and arms, like he was going to fight me like an old eastern film star. His hands curved through the air, and he let out a "Hee-yah!" that sounded frankly terrifying, before dropping into a fighting stance.
I pulled out my gun and fired once. He fell as Sarah dove through Colt's legs and kicked at the back of his knee, sending the large man into the wall. The third man rushed me so fast that he grappled the gun away from me, but before he could turn it in my direction, I stomped hard on his foot. While he hopped on the other one, yowling, I hit him with a haymaker that would've made Mr. Sugar Ray Robinson proud. It made my hand feel like it was splitting in two.
The thug dropped the gun and I dove on top of it, scooping it up. Sarah ducked a wide swing from Colt. I pointed the gun at my guy and said, "Don't even think about it, sir," with a lot more bravado than I felt.
He put his hands up, but only to try and grab the gun again. I fired out of reflex. He toppled, both hands clutching his thigh as he lay on the ground moaning. It was a good thing he was already in the hospital. Ears ringing from the gunfire, I whirled, ready to help Sarah take on Mr. Colt, and didn't duck in time.
Mr. Colt tossed Sarah like a fish at the market. She barreled into me hard, knocking me back against the wall, and we slid to the floor together in a heap. Thankfully, I took most of the blow, though it rattled me good. And then Colt stood over us both, cracking those locomotive engine-sized fists together.
"This," he said, voice rumbling like a foghorn, "will be fun, I think. Lots of sharp tools around. Maybe I'll scalp you both and have something to hang on my wall."
Quick as a snake, Sarah grabbed the gun out of my hand and fired off three quick shots. Colt dodged backwards, protecting his face, and while he was distracted, Sarah yanked me to my feet and ran, pausing only to scoop up her shoes. I only needed to glance over my shoulder to see Colt looking around in confusion before he spotted us and gave chase.
"Why didn't you kill him?" I asked Sarah as we rushed down the stairs.
"I've killed enough of the Bishop's men this week." She leapt from the landing to the bottom of the steps and my jaw nearly dropped.
"How did you—"
"Again, not the time, Chuck."
I may have muttered something under my breath about daredevil show-offs that I wasn't too proud to repeat, but I made it down the stairs, following Sarah. My guardian angel. Sarah. My secretary. Behind us, I could hear Mr. Colt making his way down, but when you're the size of Mt. Washington, you fortunately don't move very fast.
Sarah and I hit the exit doors at around the same time, bursting through them into the cold October air. We raced down a back alley, past trash bins and orderlies with lit cigarettes, and careened together onto the street.
"Carmichael!" Casey's voice made me look over, and there he was with Ellie and Devon across the street. Sarah and I hurried across, just in time for Casey and Mr. Colt to have a staring contest across the avenue. If I hadn't been gasping for air, I would have held my breath.
Eventually, Mr. Colt tipped his bowler hat at us and walked away.
"I heard gunshots," Casey said, glaring at the two of us as though we were at fault (which we were).
"Nobody's dead this time," I said. "But they're gonna limp after this."
"I don't even want to know. I'm getting you out of Chicago. You've caused enough trouble."
But when he reached for me, I dodged backward. "I can't," I said, and my voice sounded tinny, like it was coming through an old B-17 radio. I'd fixed so many back in the day, maybe it was fitting that I'd become one. I didn't know. Sarah was my guardian angel. Sarah had lied to me for years. Sarah was a spy.
I could feel her eyes on me, but all of a sudden, I couldn't look at her. How much Sarah knew came into horrifying, startlingly clear focus. She'd seen the jovial, frustrated detective in the office and she'd saved the daredevil detective in the streets, but she'd never said a word. Hell, I'd waxed poetic about my savior to her a time or two, and she hadn't given me any reaction, any clue that…
"What the hell you talkin' about, Carmichael, you can't? You damn well can. Get your skinny ass in the paddy-wagon like a good—"
"I can't," I said again, and dodged once more when Casey tried to reach for me again. Away. I needed to be away. I needed to get away and think. My stomach was burning and my leg hurt, my arm was seeping, and thoughts were coming too fast and too hard, like baseballs bulleted at me from a bat.
I looked at Sarah finally, and her face was stricken and pale.
"I can't," I said a third time, and started to stumble away. "Casey, get Ellie and Devon out of the city. I'll ring you when I can."
"Chuck," Sarah said, reaching for me.
This time I nearly tripped while I was trying to get away from her. "No," I said. "No, don't. I—I—it's too much."
"I can explain," she said, looking desperate.
But all I could feel was the complete and total humiliation. How much of an idiot had I been this entire time? I hadn't even suspected it was Sarah. Me, the big city detective, who'd prided himself on being able to read people at first glance, and the woman I was closest to in my life had been lying to me for three years.
I'd been low before, but never so low as this.
So I looked at Ellie. "Sarah got shot," I said, the words sounding foreign on my tongue. "She needs a doctor to look at her." It was a dirty trick: I knew there wasn't any way Ellie would let Sarah simply walk away, and I didn't want her following me.
I left, feeling like an automaton walking down the avenue on mechanical legs, springs and gears whirring. My hat was crooked, my vest was ripped, and my coat was a mess, but I walked on, leaving the four of them behind. My legs carried me right up to the El station next to the hospital.
A train blustered its way onto the platform as I hopped over the turnstile. Fat raindrops started to fall from the sky, early October weather finally making itself known after a long stretch of balmy late summer. I stepped onto the train, but I didn't take a seat. Instead, I gripped the guide-bar, but the cold metal didn't draw me back into the moment. I saw the flash of bright blonde, the blue of Sarah's traveling blouse, as she raced up the stairs. I saw, quite objectively, the way she looked frantically about the platform.
Sarah's eyes found mine. Across the platform, we gazed at each other mutely as the doors closed between us, separating us for what felt like forever. With a rusty jerk, the train pulled away.
Sarah was my guardian angel. The entire time, it had been her.
The entire time, Sarah had been the one I'd been in love with, and I'd never had a clue.
Some detective I was.
Frea's A/N the Second: I wish I had something really pithy and witty to say here, but my heart's too busy breaking for these crazy kids. WILL THEY EVER WORK IT OUT? Too bad you're going to have to wait until Monday to find out! Need some incentive? This happens:
"How'd you know it was me?"
I used the gun to gesture at the cigarette still burning in the ash tray. "Your cigarettes. I smelled them in the room."