Frea's A/N the First: Aaaaand I'm officially, 100% back. I know I've missed the bulk of uploading this story because I've been away, but I do want to thank everybody who's tweeted about it or left us reviews or has generally been supportive. You've been a wonderful audience (I couldn't ask for a better one!) and the fact that you're still here speaks volumes. Especially now, when the story's about to get really twisty. Also, thanks to our awesome beta readers!
mxpw's A/N the First: Guys, I want to level with you here. There's something very important that I've been neglecting to tell you: wear sunscreen. Sunscreen is great. It saves that precious skin of yours, and it makes it so, so soft. And possibly salty, depending on the brand you use and—Frea, dammit, no more writing my author's notes for me. You make me sound creepy.
Frea's A/N the Second: I can't help it, Max, you're the greatest writer I've ever known and my hero.
It took a couple of blocks for it to sink in: I was holding my guardian angel's hand.
People look at you funny when you say you've got a guardian angel. Some boys during the War, they'd talk about heavenly auras and singing, but my angel was different. When she fell to earth, it was usually to deliver a kick to the square jaw of some thug. Her heavenly light was the darkness of back alleyways and usually accompanied by the sound of fists hitting flesh. She'd saved my life a time or two (or twelve), and my hide a great deal more often than that. But apart from her elbowing me out of the way once when Sasha Banacheck wanted to show off her vintage tommy gun, my angel had never touched me.
But she gripped my hand as we legged it as fast as we could, away from the Lazarus Room. Her hand was so warm in its glove, probably just as warm as the blood dripping down her side as we hustled through the night. She never made a sound. I was the one groaning, as running and my old injury couldn't quite figure out the steps to tango together.
It took me nearly two blocks to realize we really weren't being followed. "Stop," I gasped. "Stop, you'll hurt yourself more—let me look at that—"
My angel immediately angled away from me. In the yellow wash of the street lamp, I could see that the scarf she had twisted around her head wasn't actually black, but a dark, dark red. I was more concerned with the red leaking down her side. "I won't hurt you," I said. "But you're bleeding."
She scoffed. I supposed that was fair, to think I could hurt such a talented fighter as this woman. Something about the noise triggered a thought in my head, but I brushed it aside, tugging on the woman's hand until she was in better light.
She immediately ducked her head. "How bad is it?" I asked. "How bad did he get you? I could kill him. First he threatens Ellie and Sarah, then he hurts you—"
"It is fine." Her voice, quiet and rich, seemed to cut through the night itself like a knife through frosting. "I am not hurt much."
"Not hurt mu—you're bleeding and…" I trailed off as something about her voice finally clicked into place, the final cog for the machine to work. "You're Russian."
"Da," she said.
My angel was Russian? She had been Russian all this time? I wasn't anti-Soviet like Morgan could be, or at least I hoped not, but the idea socked me in the jaw nonetheless. Somehow over the years my angel had followed me, I'd tried to fill in the gaps in my mind. She had brown hair, she liked funnel cakes (on account of the one time she'd had to save me at a carnival and I'd spied some powdered sugar on her sleeve), and she was a Chicago native like me, just trying to put down some of the ilk that polluted the streets.
"Is that…problem?" the angel asked. I couldn't see her face, but I could hear the defiance in her voice. It was like she was daring me to agree.
"No," I said, and nobody was more surprised than me when I meant it. "It—it just startled me some, is all. I guess I assumed some things about you and, oh, holy smokes, you're still bleeding. Can we please get acquainted after you're all fixed up so you don't die? I'm rather fond of you. I'd like to keep you around, if I can."
"Feeling is mutual."
"Really?" I couldn't help but ask.
"No, I save your life because I am bored and there is nothing on radio."
"You make an excellent point." I reached for her side, which she was nursing, but she of course angled her body even farther away from me. "I had some medical training, for the War. You're losing a lot of blood. I can help you, if you'll let me. If you'll trust me."
I had to hold my breath because for twenty seconds, she didn't move. I couldn't see what color her hair was under the scarf, couldn't make out any of her facial features due to the mask and the fact that her face was in shadow, but somehow I knew that there was a battle going on under the surface. So I held my breath and waited, trying not to panic. She did understand that she'd been shot, didn't she? I only wanted to help her.
Finally, she looked up, but not fully. I couldn't see her eyes. "Da," she said again. "But not here. Here is not safe."
I looked around. I wasn't as familiar with this part of Chicago. "Where—" I started to say, but I turned, and she was gone. I yelped in surprise.
Immediately, she poked her head around the corner. "Are you coming or no?"
"Yes, c-coming." How had she done that? I readjusted my hat and galloped after her. Did they teach everybody how to mysteriously vanish in the Soviet Union? "Where are we going?"
She said nothing.
"How is your side? I don't have any medicines or…"
Again, there was silence. It was like walking with a ghost. She was slim—svelte, actually—and with the way she hunched forward, clutching at her side, it was impossible to tell her height, but I thought she might be a couple inches shorter than either Sarah or Ellie. I couldn't see her hair or her face, but the exposed nape of her neck was truly lovely, smooth and pale so that I could see the notches at the very top of her spine.
"Where are we going?" I tried asking again.
I bit my lip to keep from babbling. I'd just seen a man die. Sure, it wasn't the first time, but that didn't exactly lessen the trauma. There had been a whole stretch of my life where I'd looked at everybody around me and wondered how we would all punch our final tickets, if it would be the Germans or the Italians or even the Japanese. I certainly hadn't felt anything good or even amicable toward Delgado, but that didn't mean I'd wanted to see him shuffle off this mortal coil right in front of me, even if his two-bit rat of a partner had shot the probable love of my life. If I was shaking a little, I figured I was entitled.
She led to me to a church. There was probably some fitting symbolism to be found there, my angel dragging me to a church. I was more focused on trying to get peeks of the wound, but she managed to keep herself angled away. Maybe I wanted to get a look at her face (a gent gets curious), too. How terribly it must have hurt her, but she remained just as silent as she'd been on the walk to the church. I've never been a spiritual man, but everything felt hushed and reverent as we crept through St. Genesius's.
"How do you know about this place?" I whispered as she eased open a door, leading us into a kitchen.
She put a finger over her lips and began gathering things from the cabinets.
Something rather radical occurred to me. "You don't live here, do you?"
After all, she was my angel. Coming from a church wasn't that much of a stretch.
Her lips flattened into a thin line. "No. I do not live here."
"Let me get that," I said, nodding to the supplies in her arms. "You shouldn't be on your feet."
"I am not weak or—what is word? Fragile."
"No," I said. "But you have been shot, so please. Sit down or something, you're making me nervous."
I gathered up the gauze and bucket from her. The angel winced as she sat on the counter by the sink. "You should really see a doctor. My good friend, Ellie Bar—"
"No. No doctors."
"I'm not a surgeon. If the bullet is still in your—" I looked and could finally see where the blood was coming from. "—arm, it could get infected. I saw men lose fingers, toes, and even whole limbs to infection."
"No doctors," the angel said, and I sighed. Before I could start to gently peel the sleeve away from the wound, she grabbed a knife and stuck the tip in the ripped hole of her sleeve. "I do not require help."
"Let me do this for you." Her hand was warm under mine when I took the knife. It felt strange to be cutting cloth off, but I tried to be as gentle as possible. She winced only once, but I don't know if it was the knife slipping or simply that the bullet hurt. When I got a look, I let out a low whistle.
"What is it?"
"I don't think the bullet's still in your arm, Miss." What was her real name? It was likely something exotic like Serafina or Estella. "It looks like a graze, but a nasty gash. It'll need at least a couple of stitches."
"I can do that."
"This is your dominant hand. Just hold still while I clean this out." There wasn't any iodine, so I turned on the faucet. I tried to be careful when I poured water over her arm, but she flinched anyway. "Sorry. Begging your pardon, I don't mean to make it worse."
"It is fine."
Before I poured another round of water on the wound, I cleared my throat. When they'd fixed up my leg, back in that grimy London hospital, the nurses had always talked to keep me distracted. It still hurt, but the pain became more manageable. "Bet you're wondering why I was tweaking the Bishop's tail."
"It is stupid thing to do."
"Yes'm," I said, as I couldn't really argue. "And now he's going to be after us both something fierce. Figures, you know?" I poured the water, and this time she didn't flinch. Instead, she looked up for the first time and met my gaze. Close as I was to her, I could see her eyes. They were a bright, almost glowing green.
That was odd. I had expected blue, or brown, perhaps.
Because it felt like my stomach was threatening to flutter right out of me, I looked away. The wound looked clean enough, so I pressed gauze to it in hopes of quelling the blood flow. "It's this case," I said. "Everybody's looking for this wag, and nobody's willing to tell me why. The Bishop wants him, the debutante spy wants him, even the Bureau wants him. And they're willing to kill, pay, or arrest any poor sop off the street to get him."
"Why not leave case alone?"
I shrugged and met her eye. "Guess I just like a good mystery," I said, feeling a little breathless.
She looked away first this time. "Going to the Bishop was foolish."
"I won't argue with that. But Miss Miller was chasing down a different lead, and I got mighty tired of lacking answers, so I decided to go straight to the source. Here, hold this." After putting her hand over the gauze so that she could hold it down, I turned back to the other counter. She had collected a sewing kit from the cabinet, and I could only hope that the nuns of St. Genesius kept their needles as sharp as their habits.
"We'll have to lie low," I said, focusing on threading the needle. My fingers always felt too big and awkward to sew properly, though Ellie had made sure I knew how to patch up my trousers when it was obvious my own parents weren't going to pay enough attention to pesky details like their growing son. "The Bishop will be up in arms over this, and his reach is long. Ellie's already lying low, and my friend Morgan, and I wish I could get word to my secretary—I know she's in town, she might be in danger. But you'll be careful, won't you…"
I turned to look at her and nearly jumped out of my shoes.
The counter beside the sink was empty.
"Hello?" I asked uncertainly, hoping that she'd just vanished around a corner like she had earlier. "Uh, Miss? Miss Angel?"
It was no luck. There wasn't a soul in the kitchen of that church but mine.
Angering the Bishop meant that nowhere in the city was safe, but that didn't stop me from walking all over town, looking for the woman who'd slipped so quietly out of that kitchen that I'd likely been talking to empty air the whole time. Humiliation burned like a flame in my chest, but I didn't stop looking. I'd found my angel, had touched her, knew what color her eyes were, even, and just like that I'd lost her again.
It was just the way of one Charles Carmichael, evidently.
When four a.m. showed up and she didn't, I gave up and caught a cab out of the city. Ellie kept her parents' place up, though she didn't make it out of the city much. Whenever it grew too hot in Chicago, I crashed there, folding my too-long frame onto the cot in the guest bedroom because taking Ellie's bedroom felt wrong and using the master bedroom felt worse. The little wind up clock on the nightstand told me I got a solid three hours of sleep before pounding on the door drew me out of dreams of my angel and her alluring eyes.
I didn't bother with more than a loosely buttoned shirt and my trousers, though I did keep the M1911 cocked and in my hand when I went to answer. I could only hope the Bishop's men weren't calling on me for a reckoning.
It wasn't the Bishop's men, but the person on the other side of the door certainly was hopping mad enough to be.
"'Morning, Sergeant," I said, yawning widely as I let Casey in. "What drags you this far out of town?"
Instead of answering my question, he shoved a copy of the Trib in my face. "You have something to do with this, Carmichael?"
"Something to do with—" The headline caught my eye. POLICE FIND DEAD COMMUNIST SPY IN SHERIDAN HOTEL scrolled across the entire top of the page. "Now, hold up."
"You called me and told me you had a tied up spy, and now he's dead and on the front page of the paper." Casey shoved past me in disgust. "You have any coffee?"
"In the cupboard. Help yourself." I was too busy gaping at the paper. The spy had most definitely been alive when I'd left him. Carina had assured me she only wanted to question him. With my eyes still on the paper, I followed Casey into the kitchen. "Do you know who killed him?"
"If I knew who killed him, do you think I'd be here, asking you? I do my job, Carmichael."
Could Carina have…? The paper said he'd been hung from the ceiling, and Carina Miller certainly didn't look strong enough to haul up a full-grown man and hang him from a noose, but she also didn't look like a spy. My knees abruptly turned to gelatin; I took a seat in the tiny little breakfast nook before I could do anything embarrassing like collapse in front of Casey. It only took me a couple of minutes to read the article, but it took much longer to sink in.
"Witnesses spotted me?" I asked, looking in horror at the sentence that essentially signed my death warrant. "I got made?"
"Nobody caught your name," Casey said, putting the drip percolator on the stove. He lit the burner expertly. "But yes, I have several reports of a tall, curly-haired man going into a hotel suite several hours before a striking redhead. Making new friends, Carmichael?"
"After a fashion. It wasn't an assignation, if that's what you're asking."
Casey snorted. "You'd have to give up your precious angel for that to happen."
For a moment, I saw that same angel perfectly, like she was sitting at the table with me, her eyes so quiet and bright behind her mask. I could almost smell the faint traces of oranges and gardenia.
"Yes," I said, and it must have been a trifle too late because Casey swung around to peer at me in suspicion. "I mean, no. I'm not hung up on a fictional creature, Sergeant. That would be ridiculous. But the redhead, I told you about her. She was looking for that Larkin fellow. We talked to the spy—this Anton Sarkoloff—but I swear to you, Casey, he was alive when I left."
"I believe you," Casey said, returning his glare to the percolator. "But it's not without its problems. How likely's it that your client might've offed the Russian?"
I frowned. "About thirty percent? I don't trust her, but she swore she wouldn't kill him."
"Where is she now?"
"We didn't exactly pull out our social calendars and compare them. The last time I found her, it was because of a clue left for me on cigarettes. I imagine she's gone to ground now. Corpses tend to spook you some."
"I'd like to get my hands on her, if I can."
"Get in line," I said, staring at the picture of police carrying a blanket-covered stretcher out of the Sheridan's back door. "You might believe me, Sergeant, but what about the other cops? Somebody's bound to put it together that you got a call over a dead Russian, and you happen to sometimes collaborate with a tall, curly-haired detective."
Casey inclined his head as he poured two mugs of fresh drip coffee. "We've got time."
"How much time?"
"A day, maybe a day and a half, and then the city comes down on both of our heads, Carmichael. Whatever this is you're mixed up in, you'd better solve it fast."
I looked at the coffee and wanted to sigh. "Yes, I'm rather getting that feeling as well."
A smarter man than me would have started running, would've hopped a train to Kansas City or Philadelphia, but Chicago's always been my home. Even when I was in England, decoding messages for the OSS, I dreamed of the skyline, as familiar to me as the back of my hand. I thought of the brackish, icy waters of the Lake, of the icier wind that could cut a man to the bone even in twelve layers.
I didn't run. I was too angry. How dare these people bring this trouble to my town? The proverbial cat had left the dead mouse on my doorstep, and it infuriated me. My friends were in hiding because of it, my angel had been shot, and I'd been damn near arrested and shot myself. So it was with anger and not fear that I caught the train back into the city, slouching with the bums who lollygagged the day away in the alley across from my building. Not a single Bishop stoolie came in or out in the entire time I watched. Apparently, they thought I wasn't stupid enough to return to my home turf. That was foolish on their parts: I could really be that idiotic.
I heard Sarah's admonitions, Morgan's protests, and even the angel's assertions of my idiocy as I crept up the backstairs to my office. The door was still ajar, the knob dangling pitifully. Inside, however, the chaos from the day before had become an actual tornado of destruction. My office chair had been overturned, my lamp bulbs smashed and the shades slashed. The drawers to the filing cabinets leaned out like drunks, shed of their innards so that paper coated the floor like a second, messier, inkier carpet.
"Huh," I said, staring at the carnage.
I couldn't see any point in wasting time. For all I knew, the Bishop had somebody watching my office. So I waded through the dreck, kicking aside file folders and receipts and various sundry items. There, in the center of the floor, rested my shabby rug, picked up at some market when I'd first started out. I'd chosen it because it was so ugly it offended the eye, and for some reason, the bad guys never thought to look beneath it. So I pried it up to get to the false floor I'd built, and the safe underneath.
I didn't have that many valuables, so the safe was mostly for something necessary for every private eye in Chicago these days: extra firepower. The M1911 was my old service weapon from the War, of course, but I knew it wouldn't be enough. It pained me to ignore the Ithaca 37 I'd picked up years ago, but I knew it wouldn't exactly be inconspicuous when walking the streets, even in Chicago. Instead I picked up my S&W 27, a gift a client had given me soon after I'd first started, a reward for finding some stolen family heirlooms. I kept the M1911 in my shoulder holster, as my S&W 27 fit better at my hip. Extra ammunition was loaded quickly into the pockets of my coat, and I strapped my old service knife to my ankle for good measure.
Footsteps rang down the corridor as I closed the safe. I panicked and slammed the false floor down, kicking the rug into place before I realized that the footsteps were familiar. And then I was rushing to the door for an entirely different reason than people were trying to kill me.
For a half second, the worry crossed my mind that the click of those distinctive heels could belong to Carina, but no, there she was, Sarah Walker. My ex-secretary and the woman who'd kept my life together for years.
She gave the office door with its dangling knob a look. "Chuck?" she asked. "Is everything…oh, my god."
I pulled my hat off my head to pass it from hand to hand. Why was I nervous? This was Sarah, who'd worked with me day in and day out, who'd taken all of my calls and sorted out all of my cases. She'd always been that stunningly pretty, which had left me tongue-tied in the beginning before the angel started showing up to save my bacon. "Uh, my office got tossed," I said, intelligently.
Real worry flashed across her face before her lips curled slightly at the edges. "However can you tell?"
Immediately, I felt the nerves deflate a little. This was still Sarah, after all. "Oh, come now, that's hardly fair. It's a little messier than usual, wouldn't you say?"
"Mm, maybe. Are you all right?"
"I wasn't here, and my locksmith's out of town. I'll be fine."
"Oh." Sarah took a deep breath, smoothing out the wrist of her sleeve as she did so. She was dressed smartly, I realized, in a three-button traveling coat and matching skirt. "Chuck, I…I wanted to apologize. It occurred to me after we parted ways yesterday that perhaps I wasn't fair to you, storming off like that."
I gave her my best sheepish grin. "I just thought it was that the lamp had a curfew."
"That the lamp…oh! The lamp. Yes. That." Sarah gave sort of a nervous laugh. "I wanted to make sure things were okay between us."
"Things will always be okay between us," I said, which was the Gospel truth in my book.
Sarah's smile seemed a little sad, almost. "Thank you. You're one of the good ones, Chuck. You'll stay out of trouble, won't you?"
I squinted at her a bit as I put my hat back on. "If you don't mind me saying so, this feels something like a good-bye."
"It is." Sarah reached into her purse and pulled out an envelope, which she handed to me.
I thumbed it open and frowned. "This is a bus ticket to Detroit. Who's going to Detroit?"
"I am, Chuck. I've decided to move on with my life, and it wasn't fair that you didn't know where I was." Sarah took a deep breath. "You…could come, you know. It looks like it's getting troublesome, Chuck."
For a moment, I was tempted. The minute Sarah had walked into my office looking for a job that first day, I felt like part of my life had finally made sense. Missing her these past few weeks had hurt worse than heartburn. But Chicago was my town. "Troublesome? What makes you say that?"
Sarah simply looked first at me, and then at my office. I had to concede the point with a nod.
"Chuck, you keep going like this, you're going to end up in the Lake. I don't want that for you."
"I've got somebody watching out for me, I'll be fine," I said, though I had no idea if that was true. I'd never been involved with killing one of the Bishop's men before. There weren't too many ways out of this one unless the Bishop ended up mysteriously dead. "Chicago's my home, Sarah. I can't leave it. But you deserve to be happy. So, you know, go to Detroit, find your happiness. You'll write, won't you? I promise to write back."
Sarah didn't answer right away. Instead, she searched my face and it struck me that her eyes were so impossibly, wonderfully blue. I'd known that, of course, but in that moment, they seemed to overtake her whole face, so that it was impossible for me to look away. "All right, Chuck," she said. "If you say so."
She leaned forward, and for one heart-stopping and intense second, I thought she was going to kiss me, and my palms went damp in anticipation. But she only laid her lips against my cheek for a second. It was simultaneously too short and long enough to make me grateful I'd taken the time to shave off my whiskers before leaving the house that morning.
My throat felt oddly dry when I said, "I wish you the best in Detroit."
"Do me a favor and stay alive," she replied, and turned on her heel. I watched her go, slipping out of my life for the second time in the same number of days. This time, it felt infinitely more permanent, and like a part of me was walking out that door right alongside with her. It made my chest ache, so I pushed it down and strode off in the opposite direction.
After the couple of days I'd had, I really needed a drink.
Frea's A/N the Second: Oh, god, she's leaving again. Sarah! Noooooooo!
Here's your preview for what's coming on Thursday:
"Guess I'll see myself out."
"Don't get dead, kid."
"Thanks for the drink." After I slammed back the rest of the drink, I picked up my coat and put it on. In the corner of my eye, I saw something white flutter out of the pocket. That was strange. I kept my papers in the pockets of my trousers. Coat pockets were for gloves and sandwiches wrapped in wax papers—and extra ammunition, for today at least—for when I need to do a stake-out.
Curious, I bent to pick up the little twist of paper that had fallen to the ground. It took me a second to smooth it out.
The message on it wasn't complex:
We need to meet. Barker's Pub, East 21st, 2 pm. Don't be late.