The Case of the Little Bloody Slipper by Carlie St. George
Published 11/2/2015 | 11,441 Words
It was half past eleven when I saw her. She was standing at the top of the staircase, with restless fingers and defiant eyes, wrapped in blue silk that clung to her hips.
Jimmy Prince is a private detective with a tendency to make bad decisions, take on hopeless cases, and ask too many questions. But no one is answering his inquiries about Ella, the mysterious dame who slipped into the Prince family gala, stayed for a dance, then disappeared at midnight leaving just a single bloody glass slipper behind. With the help of his trusty assistant Jack (a street-savvy teen runaway who is as tough as she is resourceful), Jimmy finally catches a break when one of Spindle City’s most powerful players, the Godmother, lets slip that Ella is part of a much larger conspiracy and not at all who she seems. With every new clue, Jimmy finds himself a step farther down a path that threatens to uncover some of the city’s best kept, and most deadly, secrets.
In Spindle City, all kinds of tales get told… for a price. Asking the wrong question is a guaranteed one-way ticket to the long and silent ever after.
Taking on this new case might just be Jimmy Prince’s biggest mistake yet.
It was half past eleven when I saw her. She was standing at the top of the staircase, with restless fingers and defiant eyes, wrapped in blue silk that clung to her hips. Her legs went on, and on, and on.
I knocked back my drink and crossed the room.
I wasn’t at the ball for pleasure. I hated high society, the polite conversation, the looks people gave you if you bothered to earn your keep. I was here to work: jealous husbands and wives, they kept me out of the flophouse, and Mr. Maroni and that blonde doll on his arm weren’t going to follow themselves. But this dame in the blue dress, you couldn’t ignore a looker like that, even if you knew she spelled trouble. Sometimes, that was part of the fun.
I snatched another drink from a server and shoved my way through the crowd, deliberately stepping on the foot of some good-looking egg trying to stammer out a hello. The man hopped around like a one-legged bird, glaring up at me. I stared at him until he went away.
“Thirsty?” I asked the woman, holding out the glass.
She took it with a raised eyebrow. Her fingers were long and graceful, clean but for a tiny smidge of soot between them, conspicuous against her smooth copper skin. I didn’t know any fancy dame who would dirty her hands with actual dirt—and were those bruises on her knuckles, or just a strange trick of light? “I don’t like bullies,” she warned me.
“Then you’re in the wrong crowd. People here? Snakes, all of em. Bullies, backstabbers, and thieves.”
She eyed the crowd of weak sisters and dancing dandies. “They don’t look very much like thieves.”
“Hypocrites, then. The things these people get away with, just because they have a little dough.” My eyes fell on Howard White and his wife, Patricia. They were talking to Old Lady Tremaine, sitting in her wheelchair by her two daughters. Tremaine had come down with the Needles, what? Ten years ago? And all she’d lost was the use of her legs. “It’s crazy, what the pills cost. Can you think of a reason why they deserve it more than anyone else?”
She followed my gaze and quickly turned away. “Are you saying you’re a sympathizer? Or ETN?”
I wasn’t anything but a gumshoe. Still, this conversation was turning dangerous fast. Never could keep my mouth checked. “Care to spin?” I asked instead.
She glanced away, seeking out something—the time, I realized, as I looked towards the clock. Little lines in her forehead, caused by… what, exactly? Anxiety? Fatigue? Annoyance, dealing with a palooka like me? But she took my hand and led me out to the dance floor, her sharp chin up, proud. Some kind of unspoken challenge met.
And damn, this sister could spin.
She didn’t know all the steps, but she still moved with confidence and grace, her whole body swaying to the music like it owned her. “So, you gonna tell me your name, or you want me to guess?”
“Ella,” she said. “And yours?”
“Prince,” I said apologetically. It was about the only thing I would apologize for. “Jim Prince.”
Ella’s body jerked to a stop. “Prince? As in Evelyn Prince?”
Funny. Most people thought of Father first. Well, this was Mother’s event, a charity raising funds for orphaned monkeys or something equally ridiculous. “The one and only.”
Ella recovered from her surprise and we resumed dancing. Her dark hair kept falling in her face. “You don’t like your mother,” she said, “and you don’t like this crowd. Is there anyone you do like?”
No. Well. I liked Jack okay. “Only you,” I told her.
She laughed. “You’re terrible.”
The song was coming to a close, the notes slower and slower. “We’re all terrible people, aren’t we?”
Ella sobered. “Yes,” she said. “And we’ve all done terrible things.”
We stopped moving a moment before the song ended, looking into each other’s eyes. Maybe we didn’t like what we saw there because we both looked away.
Ella backed off first with a smile and a sardonic curtsy. I responded in kind. “Taking a powder?” I asked.
Ella looked at that clock again, pointed. Five minutes to midnight now. “It’s always ticking,” she said, kissing me on the cheek. “But thank you for the dance.” She was walking away before I could open my mouth. Only then did I notice her shoes. They looked like glass, although they couldn’t have been, not without two bloody feet. I had half a mind to go after her, but I heard someone calling my name. Mother. Swell.
I turned to see her only a few feet away, talking to Sarah White, AKA Snow. Snow was an actress; she was also Howard White’s only daughter and, with the booze and the powders and the oh-so-glamorous lifestyle, nearly as much of a nuisance to her family as I was to mine.
I tried to make my escape, but Mother was already squeezing Snow’s shoulder and heading my way. She was a tall woman, wide-hipped, handsome, and wearing enough ice to smother a small cat. Disappointingly, her secretary was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s Hank?” I asked, glancing around. “Didn’t know you two could detach at the hip without a croaker to make the cut.”
“Henry,” Mother said, “is just fine, I’m sure.” She sighed, looking me up and down. “Darling, would it kill you to clean yourself up a little?”
“Put on a fancy suit,” I told her. “I even tied a tie.” The tie was askew, and the tux stained with ketchup, but I liked to think that gave it character.
She barely suppressed a sigh. “You always had to stand out,” she said. “You never could just play along.”
“I know,” I said. “I’ll never get a wife that way. Thank almighty Christ.” It wasn’t the idea of getting hitched that bothered me, but who I’d be chaining myself to. Mother and I never saw eye-to-eye on that, or much else, for that matter. Not in a long time.
Mother shook her head. She’d never get it. “Well, I’m off for my speech. Wish me luck, darling.”
I didn’t. She wouldn’t need it. I tuned the whole thing out, searching the crowd for either Ella or Hank. I couldn’t find either anywhere. Maroni had disappeared as well, but I couldn’t bring myself to care. I’d start snapping pictures of him again tomorrow.
There was a smattering of applause as Mother wrapped up. I couldn’t listen to them anymore, all their self-congratulations. I slipped out into the night, pulling a gasper from my pocket. As I slid it between my lips, I saw something on the brick steps that led down to the street.
I walked over and squatted down. Lying on the middle step was one of Ella’s glass shoes. It was still intact and lying on its side. It was also covered in blood.
Turned out, no one had ever heard of Ella before. Plenty of people saw her, but no one could claim her, and when I finally managed to get Hank on the horn, he told me she hadn’t been on the guest list. Only thing I had to go on was that blood-splattered slipper, so I pocketed it and headed back to my office. It was where I slept, more nights than not.
I caught some winks at my desk and dreamt I was in one of the burning shacks, screaming I wasn’t sick. When I woke up, sweating, I saw Jack perched in the opposite chair, staring at me. She was a street kid, scrawny, pale and unkempt. Fifteen, but looked twelve, and the best damn receptionist I ever had—but quiet, lately. Something secret and ugly on her mind.
“Jesus, kid,” I said. “Wear a bell or something.”
Jack pointed at the bloody shoe on the desk. “Did the guy kill his moll or something?”
It took me a minute to realize she meant Maroni. Ha. As if that boob had it in him. “Different case,” I said.
“Didn’t know we had a different case.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Side case, you mean?”
“What’s life without work?”
“What’s life without dough?” But she hopped up on my desk anyway and didn’t give me any more grief about it. “Tell me the tale,” Jack said, so I told her about the woman in blue silk. She bobbed her head as she listened.
“Well?” I asked. “Solved the mystery yet?”
The rude finger I received indicated that she had not.
“I can’t tell you where your skirt went,” Jack said. “But I can tell you where she’s been.”
“Better than I’ve got,” I said. “But if you say a shoe store, I swear to Christ…”
“Not just any shoe store,” Jack said. “You think you can just buy these slippers anywhere?”
Like I knew anything about women’s shoes. I got up to make myself a cup of joe. Whiskey sounded better, but Jack always gave me hell for having whiskey before nine in the morning. “All right,” I said. “I give. Where do you get these singular shoes?”
Jack smiled at me. “Godmother’s.”
I put whiskey in my coffee. Jack didn’t even complain.
The actual name of the shop was The Hazel Twig, but no one called it that. It was a well-respected store that sold everything a young doll might want to impress a beau of good breeding, or that a potential beau might want to buy his new squeeze. It was also a front for the worst kept secret in Spindle City: the bordello that operated from the basement below. It was something of a running joke, the only shop in town men would be giddy to go to. The woman who ran both businesses was known only as the Godmother, and I liked her, as well as you could like something that might eat you alive.
I walked inside and found her sitting at the counter, talking to a girl wearing less clothes than some dames slept in. I pulled out a gasper and lit it as they looked up. Seemed as good a way of saying hello as any other.
The woman started toward me, letting the sleeve of her dress slip off her shoulder, but the Godmother waved her away. She disappeared into the basement as the Godmother turned back to me. “Prince,” she said, smiling. She had too many little teeth. “It’s been awhile.”
I stood in front of her. The Godmother was not a beautiful woman. She might have been, ages ago, but now her face had bubbled and expanded. She looked like a dying brown toad that couldn’t even be trusted to breathe without the occasional reminder. You didn’t want to look at her, but you sure as hell didn’t want to look away.
The bordello was the worst kept secret in Spindle because the Godmother had arranged it that way. Her real business was favors. You didn’t want to owe her one.
“Too long,” I lied. I pulled out Ella’s shoe from the inside pocket of my trench coat and placed it on the counter. She picked it up delicately. “Looking for the lady who wore these. Word is, you’re the one to ask.”
“Whose word?” the Godmother asked. “Words are such deceptive little things, aren’t they?”
“I trust this word.”
“That’s a very silly thing to do.” The Godmother set the shoe back down. “But you’re right, I do remember selling these. One of a kind. Such a waste.”
“More interested in the sister than the slipper.”
“Don’t know much about the sister. Pretty girl. Good skin, big, brown eyes. Can’t say I remember her name.”
The Godmother didn’t forget anyone’s name. I wished I knew her angle in this. “Nobody knows her name,” I said. “It’s like she came right out of the wind. Got into a party you can’t get into it, and then disappeared again.”
The Godmother leaned forward, elbows on the counter. Her forearms were twice the size of mine, and intimidating as hell. “A proper mystery,” she said, clearly delighted. “Your mother’s party, I presume?”
I grimaced. “Yeah.”
The Godmother laughed. “There are worse women, Prince. You’ve got to learn to see with more than just your eyes.”
“I see just fine.”
“Do you?” The Godmother leaned further onto the counter. “Take this dame you’re dizzy for –-“
“I ain’t dizzy for no dame.”
“So you think.” She laughed again, and I could feel her breath against my cheek. It was hot and reeked of peppermint. I tried not to pull away. “If this girl was ugly, would you want to save her? Would you be chasing her around the city, clutching a filthy, bloody shoe?”
I snatched the slipper off the counter. “If you’re not going to help me, Godmother, I’d just as soon breeze.”
“I am helping you, Prince. You’re a little dumb, but I like your kind of dumb.” She patted my cheek, quick and condescending. “Not everyone will find you so charming. You don’t want to go after this one.”
My back straightened. “I don’t like being told what to do,” I said. “And I don’t like being threatened.”
Her smiled slipped. “Threatened is better than dead. And if you don’t want to get cut down yourself, you might start thinking about who could sneak into a Prince exclusive. Might not be the kind of person you’d like to cross.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, turning for the door.
As I left, I heard her call out. “Say hello to Jacqueline for me. If you piss off the wrong person, I’m going to get that kid to work for me.”
There were a few dying people lying in the streets. I drove around them, although a good flattening might have been a mercy. The sickness was spread by spit or spunk or blood and came on extremely fast, the first symptoms usually appearing within twelve hours of infection. Intermittent numbness in your feet and legs were always the first symptom, which is why people called it the Pins & Needles: your legs went dead, and then so did the rest of you. Fever followed the numbness. Headache, fatigue. Ascending paralysis, delirium, difficulty breathing. Up until that point, medicine could keep your ticker going, if you had the clams to dish out for the treatment. Once you started hemorrhaging from the ears, though, no amount of medicine would save you. It was still better than it had been twenty years ago, when the Pins first came to Spindle City and there hadn’t been anything standing in its way. That led to the Regeneration. To the Burning Days.
I didn’t know what I’d do, if I got sick. I sure couldn’t pay for the pills. My parents could, but could I let them? I didn’t want to owe them my life. I didn’t want to owe them anything. Nothing was worth that debt.
Jack was hanging up the phone when I got back to the office. “My mother again?” I asked. She called once a week, usually to tell me about somebody’s attractive daughter.
“Mrs. Maroni,” Jack said. “I don’t like lying to people who pay me, Prince.”
“I pay you,” I reminded her. “If you don’t like it, you can go work for the Godmother. She says hi, by the way. She plans to pluck you from my corpse.”
Jack snorted. “I’ll never work for her.”
“Make good money, if you did.” I didn’t love the idea, not for Jack, but I had to admit she’d be a lot better off working for the Godmother than for me. Wasn’t just about the dough either, although Jack certainly needed that, more than I could give her. She couldn’t even afford a room to rent. I told Jack she could bunk at the office, but she just shrugged and said she liked the streets. “They’re a better home than home,” she’d say. I never asked her what home had been like.
Jack shrugged, sliding from her seat and following me to the back room where my desk was. “She’s a good owner, as far as owners go. She’d treat me well, but I don’t want to be anyone’s thing.” Jack poured herself a cup of joe and hopped up on my desk, restlessly tugging on her red curls and chewing her lower lip. “Besides, I’d hate the work. Lying under some sweaty gink or broad, encouraging em on, faking your way through O-sounds? Thanks but no thanks.”
“It’s better,” I told her, “you like the person you’re sharing the sheets with.”
“Wouldn’t make much difference for me.” I frowned, but Jack was already moving on. “Godmother have anything to say about your missing dame?”
“Not much,” I admitted. “Clammed up pretty hard. Warned me off the case, though. Said I was over my head and swimming with sharks.” I frowned. “She did have one good piece of advice. Why would someone work that hard to get into a charity ball?”
“Newshound?” Jack asked. “Someone looking for a scoop?”
“Didn’t see nothing in the paper. And the party wasn’t that juicy.”
“Too refined. Never seen one who could pass for a society lady.” Although was Ella a lady? She certainly had poise, but there’d been that smudge of dirt between her fingers, not to mention the bruised knuckles, and she hadn’t known the steps to a simple dance. Still, most pro skirts I’d known could never have gotten through the front door. And even if she was the best kiss-for-coin I’d ever seen, why the charade? Did the Godmother send her? Was Ella hoping to seduce someone? I didn’t see her making eyes at any man but me, and I wasn’t important enough to be a target.
There was more than one kind of target, though.
“A dropper?” I suggested.
Jack looked up. “A hired gun?” she asked, surprised. “Lot of big names at that party. Wasn’t Howard White there?”
“Wife and daughter in tow,” I said, nodding. White was the CEO of WH Pharmaceuticals. About fifteen years ago, WH came up with the pills that kept the Pins in check. They’d also made damn sure they were the only racket in town dealing those pills. Rumor was, organizations like Equal Treatment Now didn’t just smuggle medicines and distribute them to the poor; some said they burned down pharmacies and assassinated doctors. But if Ella had been hired to kill someone, the job must have gone south because no one at the party had gotten popped.
“How do you find hired killers, anyway?” I complained. “I’ve never seen an ad.” The Godmother probably knew, but she wasn’t talking. And I could go down the Fox & Tiger and ask Moll Chen, but only if I was nursing a death wish. Moll ran the dope in Spindle, and crossing her was the last bad idea you’d ever have. It was hard to say who was more dangerous, between the two, but if I pissed off the Godmother, she’d probably just shoot me. Moll Chen, on the other hand, was known for setting people on fire.
Of course, I also didn’t have much else to go on. And I pretty much specialized in bad ideas, anyway.
“You wanna go poke the Dragon?” Jack demanded, when I ran the notion by her. “Is your head leaking?”
“Only a little.”
She shook her head. “You can’t do this, Jimmy. I know it’s your job, poking your nose where it don’t belong, but some rocks… it’s not safe, overturning them. There are poisonous things underneath.”
I frowned at her. “Something try to sting you, Jack?”
She didn’t look at me, tugged some more at her hair. “Not me.”
“Hey, kid.” I tipped her chin up gently. “Whatever’s been bugging you lately, whoever you’re scared of? I won’t let them hurt you. You know that, right?”
“I know you’d try.”
“No,” Jack said. “Trying means a lot. Trying’s good. Just…”
She glanced at the window nervously. We were on the sixth story, but I closed it anyway. “You know someone who crossed Moll Chen?”
Jack shook her head. “No. Or, I don’t know, I don’t know if it was Moll. More than dragons can kill you in Spindle, and all kind of tales get told on the street. You’ve gotta learn when to believe them, and when to sew your lips shut. Some kids don’t learn that lesson. You don’t see those kids after a while.”
I leaned back in my chair. “Who dusted out?”
“Boy named Gus. Year older than me and sweet, but not all there, you know?”
I nodded. “We tried to look out for him,” Jack said, “from the perverts and the kids who’d kill him for a crumb of bread. But Gus liked to wander off. Sometimes, he’d break into people’s basements, not to steal stuff, just to look. One day, maybe a month back, he says he broke into a big house and saw this skirt kill some egg. Gus wasn’t so good with names, but he knew faces.”
She closed her eyes, took a breath. “Prince, it was Anthony Martin.”
I remembered Martin. He was the star witness in a case against WH Pharmaceuticals. The night before trial, he was found dead in some alley. Robbery gone wrong, bulls said, though that never really explained why his toes and heels had been hacked off. “And your friend disappeared?”
“He wasn’t my friend,” Jack said. Her white knuckles and the furious line of her mouth told another story. I didn’t call her on it. “Few days after he told me, maybe a month ago now, he was just—gone. Took the air.”
“He did like to wander off,” I reminded her. “You said he was slow, right? Maybe he got confused. Maybe he didn’t see what he thought he saw.”
Jack shook her head. “He saw it. I didn’t want to think so, but… I told him not to tell people. I told him, but he just didn’t understand having a secret.”
Jack did what she could do. I wanted to tell her that, but I didn’t think she’d listen. Guilt was a funny, stupid thing.
“I can look into it,” I offered instead. “You know me. Always room for another side case that won’t pay.”
She didn’t smile like I’d hoped. “That’s exactly why I didn’t tell you. Think I want you to take the air, too?”
“I’m not trying to hire you, Jimmy. I’m saying you don’t know when to sew your lips shut; you’ve never had to learn. And I love that about you, I do, but you go storming into the Dragon’s den, asking Moll if she’s misplaced any hired guns, you’re gonna be the one missing some toes and I’m gonna be out of a job.” She kicked me gently in the leg. “We’ve got to play this smart, okay?”
I took her little hand in mine and squeezed it. “Okay,” I said, reassuring as I could. “But you know smart’s not my style.”
Jack finally gave me a ghost of a smile. “Well,” she said. “Thank Christ you’ve got me, then.”
Instead of trying to track down droppers, Jack and I decided to focus on potential targets. Not an easy task, with such a rotten crowd, but Howard White certainly seemed like a good place to start, considering he was the most despised man in the whole city.
Unfortunately, White didn’t think a lowly gumshoe was worthy of his time, because he sent his wife to meet me in the lobby instead. “He’s a very busy man,” Patricia White said, greeting me with a smile as sincere as an elected highbinder greasing palms and kissing babies. “I’m sure you understand.”
“Yeah,” I said, shrugging. “Sure. Who wouldn’t make time for the mug saying some whack job might want them iced?”
Patricia raised a cool eyebrow. She was a tall woman, nearly as tall as my mother but considerably slimmer, with a sharp chin and high cheekbones. Her hair, more salt than pepper, had been tied back in a tight, elegant knot. “Death threats are nothing new for Howard,” she said, giving my cheap rags the up-and-down. “We must get them five times a week. The proper authorities are already aware.”
No doubt they were—old families like the Whites all had the bulls on the payroll. I should know. “Look, you don’t think much of me. That’s fine. I don’t think much of you, either, or this flimflam operation your ball and chain’s running, choking Spindle City for every dime she’s got. But my gut says you and yours could be in danger. If I’m wrong, it doesn’t matter. If I’m right? Isn’t that worth five minutes of your precious time?”
The expression on Patricia’s face didn’t flicker at all. “The missing woman you were inquiring about before, this is your so-called assassin?”
I nodded. “I’d put her at about 5’10”,” I said. “Brown skin, black hair—”
“Last seen in a blue dress and only one shoe? Yes, I remember. She sounds quite perilous indeed. I’ll be sure to give your description to Security immediately. Now, was there something else, or do you need help locating the door, too?”
Oh, there was something else, all right. I opened my mouth to tell Patricia exactly where she could shove that door, and felt a hand on my arm. I turned.
Snow White stepped up beside me. Milk skin and blonde curls, spilling down over her shoulders—Snow was one hot number, and knew it, too. Her lips were coral pink and stretched in a smile, as sweetly insincere as Patricia’s had been.
“I’d be more than happy to show him out,” she said, and didn’t bother waiting for her stepmother’s approval. I followed her out the door, down the front steps and to the street, past the bustling crowd of businessmen and beggars and vendors. We ended up in a dark, narrow alley, far away from any watchful eyes. She glanced over her shoulder and hesitated for a long, drawn-out moment before spinning back to face me. “I need to talk to you,” she said urgently, clutching my arm and pressing in close.
“Yeah. Somehow I’d put that together myself.” She frowned at me, and I laughed, leaning against a brick wall. “I appreciate the drama, Snow, but some advice, shamus to starlet? Calling my office would have been a lot less conspicuous than what you just did. Now, what’s the word?”
Snow’s frown deepened for only an instant before she smiled up at me. “You have to allow me a little fun,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to star in some thrilling tale, all deceit and mystery and murder.”
“No one’s been murdered yet,” I said. Hoped, anyway. “Best just spill what you came to spill.”
“All right,” she said. “I saw your missing girlie.”
“Ella?” I straightened up in a shot. “When?”
“Oh, at the party.” Snow slid a gasper in her mouth and dug around in her purse for an unbearable amount of time, until I finally grabbed my own lighter and impatiently lit the cigarette for her. “I stepped outside during your mother’s speech and overheard the most interesting conversation. Some doll was asking your girl just what she thought she was doing, dancing out in the open, being seen. Why she hadn’t done the job yet. She was saying all kinds of horrid things, actually, something about a child and a dead man, and how she should have dropped the target herself. It was really getting good when some rube came stumbling out, looking for an autograph and a kiss. By the time I’d gotten rid of him, the ladies were gone.”
“You recognize the other dame?”
“Of course. But wouldn’t it be more fun to guess? I could lay out clues: ginger hair, discolored palm, a truly horrific fashion sense; honestly, that shade of mauve—“
“Snow,” I snapped. “Give me—“ I stopped. “Are you talking about Stacey Tremaine?”
“Oh, you are a good detective.”
Stacey Tremaine, a button man? It was almost too much to swallow. I narrowed my eyes. “Why are you helping me?”
She fluttered her eyelashes. “Isn’t that what friends do?”
I had exactly three friends in Spindle, and none of them were the blonde, winsome woman in front of me. Snow and I had danced once or twice. Eaten from the same platter of canapés. I didn’t dislike her, exactly, but I sure as hell didn’t trust her. Everybody had an angle—or maybe Snow was just that bored.
She sighed when I only stared at her. “Daddy may be abysmal, but he’s still my father. If your Ella really is trying to kill him, if anyone is? I want them stopped.” She shrugged. “Besides, you annoyed my stepmother. That makes you my friend.”
I snorted. “You can annoy my mother sometime and return the favor.”
Snow only smiled and shook her head. “I better get back. I’m sure Patricia’s found a dozen more things for me to do.”
I frowned at her. “You’re working for your parents?”
“Only lending a hand, and it’s temporary, I assure you. Mostly, I’m doing it to prove another friend wrong.” She sighed again and dropped her cigarette, smashing it under her heel. “But who knows?” she asked, flashing those dimples at me. “Maybe it’ll be good for me. Maybe I’ll learn something.”
I stopped at a payphone to give Jack the scoop. She didn’t like it any, if her cursing was anything to go by. The Tremaines were a dangerous enough family without the youngest being a professional triggerman. Snow had been dialing up the cloak-and-dagger routine for her own amusement, but there was genuine cause for alarm, and Jack could see that. I didn’t know if Snow could.
I told Jack she could find a hole to dig and stay dug for a while, till things quieted down, but she said she owed me one, said she’d gotten used to buying food instead of stealing it. She didn’t owe me shit, but I couldn’t make her see it any other way, and I needed the help. I told her to hit the stacks, see what she could find out about the Tremaines, because clearly I didn’t know enough, just that they were rich, and there weren’t many of them left: the old lady, Deanna, and of course, Stacey. Both sisters had the same button nose and white, freckled skin, but Stacey had red hair and that telltale birthmark, a splotch of brown covering nearly her whole palm.
While Jack did research, I drove over to Tremaine Manor. I had been there a few times as a child for whatever event my parents had dragged me to. This time, I snuck onto the property, climbed a tree, and watched what I could with my binoculars. It wasn’t my most sophisticated plan ever, but it sure beat the hell out of asking Stacey Tremaine if she’d killed anybody recently. Jack, anyway, would hopefully approve.
My best view was into the parlor. Old Lady Tremaine was sitting there, talking to some gorgeous blond goose with a thin mustache, chiseled jaw, and a black briefcase at his side. Old Lady Tremaine wrote something down with her pale, shaking hand. The man opened the briefcase for her. It’d been stacked so full of green that bills spilled out onto the floor.
She shook the goose’s hand and said a few words. I decided not to follow when he left, and for a while, I watched Old Lady Tremaine do nothing at all. Then she yelled out, and Stacey walked in.
Stacey and her mother’s conversation got boring pretty fast. Stakeouts were almost always boring. That briefcase was the most exciting thing I’d seen in five years. When she eventually left, I decided to climb down and follow her in my car. I considered sneaking into the house instead, but I didn’t know where Deanna was, and I wanted to see where Stacey would go.
Normally, I’m a good tail, but I lost Stacey somewhere in the Garden District. Without knowing where she was going, I decided to head back to the office. Jack wasn’t there, hadn’t left a note. I looked at the clock and saw it was past midnight. I had a few tugs of whiskey for dinner and fell asleep at my desk, staring at Ella’s shoe.
“What do you dream about?”
The sound of Jack’s voice woke me. I didn’t open my eyes. “Kid,” I said. “You’ve got a creepy way about you.”
What had I been dreaming about? Dancing barefoot with masked men and women, looking for someone in glass shoes. A little boy hiding in the corner, screaming as the bulls took him away. “I’m not sick!” the boy screamed, no, Jack screamed. “I’m not sick!” Just then the Godmother tipped back her head and swallowed Jack whole.
It sounded like juicy material for head doctors, but dreams wouldn’t find me Ella. “You got the wire on the Tremaines yet?”
“Have I ever let you down?”
She hadn’t, so I opened my eyes. Jack was sitting in the chair, her feet frenetically tapping against the cheap carpet. She was a morning person. It sickened me. “After Old Lady Tremaine’s husband died, she remarried another rich gink, Aditya Shah. Shah had a kid from a previous marriage too, a little girl named Ella.”
“When?” I asked, baffled. I had vague memories of Deanna and Stacey as children, identical dresses and sneering faces, but there hadn’t been a third daughter; I was almost positive.
“Twenty years ago,” Jack said. Twenty years ago, I had been ten. I didn’t like to think about ten. “But they were only married a year before Shah kicked it.”
I leaned back in my chair and pulled out a half-empty deck. “Old Lady Tremaine is unlucky with husbands,” I said, lighting a cigarette.
“Yeah, or she’s real lucky with husbands.” Jack practically bounced in her seat now. She wasn’t allowed another cup of joe before noon, and to hell with what she thought about it. “Word is, Shah was pretty unpopular about the time he died. He’d spoken out against the Burning Days, and there were rumors he was involved in the ETN. He—Prince? You okay?”
I’m not sick! I’m not sick!
“Yeah,” I said. “Aces.”
Jack stared at me suspiciously, but continued. “Could be Old Lady Tremaine popped him herself. Can’t be sure. It was ruled an accident, but—”
“But she could have bought the bulls,” I said, pinching the bridge of my nose. “Yeah. That’s an old song.”
Jack shrugged. “Yeah, well, maybe Shah’s ghost had his revenge, after all. Old Lady Tremaine did get sick.”
Yeah, she got sick. But she didn’t die, didn’t bleed, didn’t burn, all because someone said her life was worth more than someone else’s, because she had power, because she had money—
I blinked. Jack was leaning forward, staring at my right hand. The forgotten gasper between my fingers was collapsing into a pile of ash. I put it out.
“Tell me about her,” Jack said.
“Don’t be a bunny. You’re smarter than you look.” She smiled at me, weary. “Tell me about the girl you lost.”
If I was going to tell that tale, I needed whiskey. I fished the flask from my desk drawer and took a long, long swallow. “There wasn’t a girl,” I said.
“For Christ’s sake, Jimmy—”
“Close your head. I’m telling it, all right? Wasn’t a girl that needed saving. It was a boy. Tommy. Kid like me, only not, cause he was poor, real poor. There’s never a good time to be real poor, but twenty years ago was an especially bad time.”
Jack looked down. “The Burning Days,” she said.
I pointed at her. “You’re a smart kid.”
“They stuck him in a shack?”
“You’re getting ahead of the story. Don’t you want to know how we met, two boys from opposite sides of the tracks, forming a bond greater than coin or country?”
If my bitterness hurt Jack, she didn’t show it. “Someone told you not to go Cheap Street, so off you went to Cheap Street. That’s an old song too, Prince.”
Yeah. Probably was. I took another pull of whiskey. “Tommy got sick?” Jack prompted, when I fell silent for too long.
I shook my head. “No. Never did. But when his dad started bleeding from the ears, I knew I had to get Tommy out. The bulls were rounding up whole families back then, taking them to quarantine if even one person… so I stole him away. Took him home and hid him in my closet, sneaking food when I could, like he was a puppy.” I laughed. “Stupid to think I wouldn’t get caught.”
She didn’t tell me otherwise. “Who caught you?”
“My mother.” I hadn’t been careful about the food; that was what tripped me. I remembered Mother standing there, staring at Tommy, while I’d stood frozen with a drumstick dangling from my fingers.
“I thought she was going to help me. We were on the same side, back then.” I drove her crazy, sure, but I’d also made her laugh. She hadn’t been laughing that day. She’d moved forward to shove Tommy back in the closet, but then my father came in, and she gave up the fight before it began.
“It was Father who called the bulls,” I said. “But it was Mother who let him, Mother who stood by and held me back as they took Tommy away screaming. We should have been taken too, but my dad had a briefcase. Then the bull in charge had the briefcase, and they let us stay.
“They didn’t tell us what they were doing. Not until later. But we all knew. You could see the orange and yellow and red from anywhere at night, and the whole city stank of human meat. It smells different, you know. It’s not like cooking a steak at all. They said it would help purge the disease, regenerate Spindle City. They said everyone who went up was already dead. But sometimes, in the right spot, you could hear people scream.”
I drank again and fell silent, staring down at my desk. I heard Jack push her chair back and stand up. “I shoot huggers,” I told her, not looking up.
“Close your head,” Jack said gently.
She stood behind me, tucking her chin in the crook of my neck and wrapping her arms over my shoulders. I closed my eyes and gripped the flask tighter in my hand.
Jack made me drink four cups of joe before I got behind the wheel, which mostly just meant I had to pull over twice to piss before I made it to Tremaine Manor. I also stopped to pick up the paper. A man had been found in the Garden District. His body had been dumped in an alley, and his toes and heels had been cut off.
When I got to the house, I didn’t bother with the tree or the binoculars. Instead, I crept onto the grounds and snuck around the house until I found a small window leading to the cellar.
If Old Lady Tremaine had been hiding her stepdaughter away from prying eyes, the cellar seemed a likely possibility. The attic was another, but the cellar was a hell of a lot easier to break into.
There was a narrow, rickety bed in the corner with a thin blanket and a rolled up shirt for a pillow. Three roscoes and a blade were tucked beneath the mattress; also, a tiny, dirty teddy bear, and a thick cord of rope. This was where Ella slept, all right, and she was either a dropper or extremely concerned with her physical safety. If Stacey was a dropper too, it stood to reason Deanna was as well, and Old Lady Tremaine was… what? The high pillow, the woman holding all the cards? She was too weak to kill Ella herself. Had one of the sisters done it for her? Why now?
It was the first time I’d admitted to myself I thought Ella was dead. And if she was dead, what was I doing here? Avenging her? What the hell good had that ever done?
I reached under the mattress again, double-checking for anything I might have missed, and found a jagged hole cut into the bottom. There was a small book shoved inside, a diary, maybe. I dug it out and flipped through the pages.
It was a diary, all right, but told more in sketches than words. They weren’t half-bad, either, although more than a little disturbing: Old Lady Tremaine towered in her wheelchair, a violent curl to her fingers. Stacey sharpened an already sharp knife; Deanna held a cleaver that dripped blood to the bottom of the page. There was a lengthy count of X’s on the inside cover, and Ella had drawn herself any number of times, usually hiding in the margins. Her hands were often red and smeared. Sometimes, she was smiling.
Less creepy were the sketches of a young man: chubby, dimpled cheeks, a blue cap, and a guileless smile. He popped up dozens of times, dancing, swinging around a teddy bear—one that looked an awful lot like the ratty bear beside me. And then, suddenly, there were no more pictures of the boy, just pages and pages of black ink, quick, angry scribbles obfuscating whatever had once been written or drawn beneath.
Several sheets of the journal had been torn out. I didn’t see a wastebasket or any crumpled papers, but the tiny hearth near the window caught my eye. I remembered the ash between Ella’s fingers and crossed over to squat beside it, digging my own hands in the soot, absently making circles with my thumbs. I hit something that was not smolder and ruins, something more solid than dust. I plucked out the charred remains of a journal page and stared at the sketched face for a long, long while.
As I left, I felt a prickling at the back of my neck that usually spelled trouble. I tended to ignore it, not because that sense was wrong, but because it tingled more days than not, and if you looked in your rearview mirror too much, you wouldn’t see the pole you were about to crash into. I did check my rearview mirror, but if I had a tail, I couldn’t find it. And I had to get where I was going. This needed to be done face to face.
Easier said than done, as I turned into the driveway and was nearly pulled from my car by an unfriendly Bruno. His buddy had a bean shooter the size of my head, and she seemed intent on playing twenty questions. I was pretty sure I’d be eating that iron if I didn’t give the answers she wanted to hear.
“It’s funny,” a voice called. “You’d think ‘boss’s son’ would have more sway.”
I glanced up. Hank was leaning against the gate in one of his fancy suits, smiling at me. Looked casual about it, but I could see how he was favoring his ribs. I’d been in too many scrapes not to notice the signs, although the shiner he was sporting was an especially obvious one, turning the bronze skin around his eye a deep, ugly purple. Should’ve made him look rough, or at least not so damn pretty, but Hank always looked the same: loose, languid, magnetic. Mischief wrapped up in a waistcoat. My heartbeat quickened.
“Well,” I said. “I’ve always had a way with people.”
He laughed. He had a nice laugh, easy. The goons looked at him, confused—probably didn’t know what a joke was. “Mr. Delgado?”
“Oh, let him go.” Hank raised an eyebrow at me. “Mr. Prince may not like his mother, but I think we can all agree he probably isn’t here to bump her off.” He squinted at me. “That blood on your shirt, Jimmy?”
I glanced down. It was salsa leftover from yesterday’s lunch, but somehow that didn’t sound very tough. “You know how it is,” I said, shrugging. “Sometimes, the price you pay is red.”
He tipped his hat in agreement, then absently tried to push up glasses that weren’t there. “What happened to your specs, Hank?” I asked him. “Ella Shah break ‘em for you?”
Hank straightened a little, and I didn’t like the way the grin slipped from his face. In the several years I’d known him, I’d learn you could rely on him for five things: a smile, a pen, and three gats at the ready. Maybe I didn’t wanna know what it meant, that he’d lost one of them so quickly.
“Best come inside, Jimmy,” Hank said. “Sounds like we need to have a talk.”
Hank led me to the study where Mother was sitting at her desk, signing thank you cards to the people who had donated at the ball. She glanced up as I barged in, and if I hadn’t been looking for it, I’d never have noticed the tiny jump of her shoulders. “Jimmy,” Mother said. “This is a surprise.”
I flung myself into a chair. “Stop,” I said. “I don’t want to play games. I know.”
Mother glanced briefly at Hank, leaning against a wall behind her. “You know what, exactly? Nobody has just one secret.”
“I know Ella Shah was supposed to kill you at the party. I think she was going to do it during your speech.” That’s why she’d been looking at the clock. It’s always ticking, she’d said and had swept away a few minutes before midnight, returning to her vantage point.
“And to think, I made her flapjacks once upon a time.”
I blinked. Hank coughed.
Mother rolled her eyes. “Fine, I asked the cook to make her flapjacks. It was still a nice gesture.” She tried to sign a card and came up dry. Hank wordlessly handed her a new pen.
“You knew her?”
“I only met her the once. I doubt she even remembered me, she was so young. I thought she died with Aditya.” She saw the question on my face. “Yes, I knew Aditya Shah. You could say we worked together.”
Worked together? My mother didn’t have a job. I didn’t even remember what Shah did for a living. Jack had said he’d protested the Burning Days, that people thought he was a member of… oh. Oh. Holy shit.
My mother smiled. “Equal Treatment Now has never been as violent as the papers would have you believe. We don’t kill people or burn down warehouses. We do rob warehouses and smuggle medicines in. We skim off charity funds for gorillas.” She signed her name with a flourish and set another card aside. “But what we really try to do is help sick children, Jimmy.”
I stared at her. “But Tommy…”
Mother looked up at me. For the first time, she set her pen aside. “I tried, Jimmy. I tried to find him before they—before he died. But… ”
She glanced at Hank, who murmured something in Spanish. I didn’t know the words, but they sounded worn, a reminder starting to fray around the edges.
Mother smiled at him, but it was weary and disappeared entirely as she turned back to me. “We did reach one of the burning shacks just in time,” she said. “And we relocated the healthy few and let the rest die on their own terms, but Tommy…”
But Tommy burned anyway. I refused to let that knowledge hurt. It was old news, twenty years old, and it wouldn’t help me find Ella. Still. “You could have saved him,” I told her. If my voice cracked a little, well. Only Hank was around to hear, and apparently he could keep a secret. “You didn’t have to let the bulls take him. You could’ve stood up to Father.”
She laughed again, a sad little chuckle that escaped her throat and went off to die somewhere. “Darling, no one has ever talked your father out of anything in his whole life. In that respect, you two are really quite similar. Neither of you will pretend to be anyone but who you are.”
“So, he doesn’t know?”
“About ETN? Of course not. He’d turn me in if he did. And if I’d tried to stop him calling the police, they’d have stuck me in that shack right beside Tommy.” She tipped her head to the side, examining me. “I think you would have tried anyway. That’s noble, in a way, but it’s also more stupid than I can afford to be. I wish you’d work on your self-preservation instincts. A mother shouldn’t outlive her child.”
“I’m not the one who was scheduled to get popped.”
“That’s true,” Mother said. “I was very lucky our assassin had a sudden change of heart.”
I sat up straighter. “Change of heart?”
She frowned at me. “Yes. She sent me a message yesterday, warning me about Claudia Tremaine and her daughters. She was eminently polite about the whole thing.”
So Ella was alive after all, or at least had been this time yesterday. Was that even her blood on the shoe?
“How did you think I survived?” Mother asked. “Did you—oh, I see. You thought I killed the assassin.”
Well, at least she didn’t sound put out about it. “Technically,” I said. “I thought Hank did it.”
Hank burst out laughing. Bent over, even, which clearly cost him some with those bust ribs. “You thought I whacked a button man? I’ve never been so overestimated. She wiped the floor with me, Jimmy.”
“What, you carry all that iron just for show?”
“I carry iron because my hand-to-hand skills are lousy. Three roscoes mean absolutely zilch if the other guy knocks you out before you can even draw.” He snorted. “Eminently polite, my sweet ass.”
“Settle,” Mother said. “Don’t pick up my son’s dirty tongue.”
There were entirely too many things I could say to that, none of them clean and most of them racy. I bit them back and asked if it was Hank’s blood on the shoe. But he said Ella had left him more bruised than bloody, so I turned back to Mother. “What will you do now?”
“Well,” Mother said, “I have roughly thirty—”
She scowled at Hank. “Fifty-four cards left to sign. After that, I need to find out who in ETN betrayed me and, also, who hired the Tremaine girls—although, unfortunately, I think I may already know the answer to both.”
“You do?” I asked. “Who?”
She didn’t hear me, or ignored me. “Possibly I should send my own button man, but it may not do any good. Their security is so very tight. Clearly, I’ll have to work on my own. Oh, and then there’s a charity function in two weeks over at Edith Larkin’s home. You will try to come, won’t you? She has a lovely, single daughter about your age.”
I met Hank’s eyes and shook my head. “Good to know some things never change,” I said, standing.
Mother kissed me on the cheek. “That’s a very dangerous thing to think, dear.”
Hank followed me out to my heap, presumably so Mother’s goons didn’t decide to jump me after all. “I don’t suppose it’s any use,” he said, “telling you to be careful.”
“Nope,” I said, shrugging. “Feel free to tell me if Ella passed on anything useful, though. You know, before she knocked you flat and shoved you in a broom closet.”
Hank snorted. “She wasn’t what I’d call chatty,” he said, leaning against my car beside me. “I caught her snooping in the study, going through the papers Evelyn keeps under lock and key. ETN business, mostly. Whatever she saw there must have been reason enough to stow her bean-shooter for good.”
I nodded, trying to think through it all. My head was reeling from everything I’d learned, and I still had more questions than answers. Where was Ella now? What did she see that caused her change of heart about my mother? Whose blood was on her shoe? Why was there blood on her shoe? And how exactly did the Godmother fit into this, anyway?
“Seriously, Jimmy,” Hank said. “This is big, whatever it is. There are players involved you don’t want to mess with.”
“Yeah? You worried about me, Delgado?”
I looked at him, surprised. “I can take care of myself,” I said, and then grinned, resting my fingers on the grip of my gat. “Got something big in my pocket here that should keep me out of too much trouble.”
He laughed. “What you’ve got in your pocket probably gets you into more trouble than out. And having something big and knowing how to use it are two very different things.”
I raised my eyebrow. “You’ve got much experience with big gats, Hank? Ones you carry all seem kinda small to me.”
“Oh, Jimmy. I’ve got experience with all kinds of gats.” He opened the car door for me and shut it when I sat down behind the wheel. “You ever wanna learn how to use yours, you give me a ring.”
“I’ll keep it in mind,” I told him.
“See that you do,” Hank said, and I watched him walk away.
I pulled out of the driveway and headed home, deciding I’d better stop there before going back to the office. I was still wearing yesterday’s sweat and salsa, and Jack wouldn’t be shy about how bad I smelled. I made it to my front door, but I didn’t hear the footsteps behind me until I turned the key. By then it was too late. I saw a gray flash, probably the side of a gun, and then I saw nothing at all.
I woke up, gagged and tied to a chair. The only thing good about it was that Jack wasn’t around when I opened my eyes. Maybe she’d dug herself a hole, after all.
Deanna Tremaine walked in front of me, holding a meat cleaver. Somewhere, the Godmother was probably laughing.
“You’ve been following my sister,” Deanna said, trailing her fingers down the aching, left side of my face. It took me a minute to realize we were sitting in the tiny bathroom in my apartment. Every time I tried to look around, things started spinning. Concussion. Great.
“You’ve also been following my stepsister. I need to know everything you’ve found. My mother wants to have a word with her, you see, and she’s so good at staying hidden.” Deanna trailed the side of my face again, this time with the meat cleaver scraping gently into my temple. I gagged as blood started to pour down my cheek. It was suddenly very hot, and I felt dizzy again.
She gripped me hard by the chin, pushing her fingertips into my jaw. “None of that,” she said. “It’s early yet. We haven’t even started on the toes.” She pulled off my left shoe, threw it behind her. “My sister does this one by one, but I really don’t have the patience for that.”
Deanna slammed the meat cleaver down. I screamed and almost immediately puked. Bits of vomit oozed out the sides of the dirty dishrag in my mouth, but most of it had nowhere to go. I gagged hard against it. Deanna helpfully pulled the dishrag out so that I didn’t choke. She put it back in as soon as I tried to cry out. I shouldn’t have bothered. My neighbors were all crazy or deaf or snow-birds who couldn’t even help themselves.
I stared down at my left foot. There was a hole in my sock that hadn’t been there before, and blood poured out of it onto the white tile. A few inches away, two wrinkled, little white sausages were spinning to a stop.
“Looks like I got two and a half,” Deanna said. “See? This middle one here is just barely hanging on.” She pinched the toe between her fingers, considering, but apparently decided to leave it. She repositioned so she was crouched beside me, the blade hovering just over my Achilles tendon. “When I take a heel, I always start here. I don’t just slice the tendon, though. It’s better to saw into it, back and forth, like you’re cutting down a tree.”
She took the gag out of my mouth. “I don’t know where Ella is,” I said. I should have lied about that—if Deanna believed me, she’d kill me—but no one was coming to my rescue. Hank couldn’t help me, and the only other person in my corner was Jack. But she wasn’t a killer and only fifteen besides. I wondered what would happen to her, when I was gone. “I can’t help you find your stepsister.”
Deanna tapped the cleaver against the tile, almost thoughtfully. “You seem on the square,” she said, “but I need to be sure.” Then the blade was against skin, hovering for one long, horrible moment, before carving into it.
Everything went red and liquid, burning and melting and oozing all at the same time. I got lost there for a while. Dimly, I heard something pop, a small explosion, a balloon burst, and then the rag was out of my mouth. I must have vomited again because I was suddenly choking, struggling to breathe. There were two hands on my shoulders. “Prince. Prince.”
I focused my eyes as best as I could. Beautiful dame: black hair, brown skin, pink bow-shaped lips. Her hands had more ash on them than before. Gunshot residue.
“Ella,” I said. “I have your shoe.”
Ella stared at me for a long moment before finally laughing. I laughed with her, probably hysterical. I didn’t care. It was a nice feeling sometimes, being alive.
Deanna couldn’t share it. Her body was lying in the bathtub, her legs awkwardly flung over the side next to the shampoo. There was an exploded halo of red on the shower wall behind her and a small hole right between her eyes. The pop, I realized. Not my tendon, after all.
Ella worked at the ropes. “You shook things up,” she said. “Shook ’em up too hard.”
“I’m not good at letting things go,” I admitted. “People stack the deck. Can’t win that way.”
“You can’t play to win.”
“Everyone plays to win. Otherwise, you’d put a bullet to your brain the day you were born.” Things were tilting again. Deanna’s body looked like it was dripping down the drain. “Besides,” I added, closing my eyes. “You looked like you were behind the eight-ball. I wanted to help.”
“It was only one dance,” she said. “Only one kiss.”
“Great dance,” I murmured. “Great kiss. And… I’ve done terrible things too.”
I felt her lips on my lips, or thought I did, and then things were dark fand quiet again.
I woke up once and didn’t know where I was, but Jack was there and she didn’t look hurt. I put one finger to the side of her mouth and pushed the corner of her lip up into a crooked smile. She grabbed my hand with her tiny fingers. “Go back to sleep, Jimmy,” she said, so I did.
The second time I woke up, I was clear-headed enough to realize I was in my bedroom. It was dark out. Had to be late. Jack was a little barnacle at my side, her head tucked against my chest and sound asleep. It took me too long to realize that someone else was in the room, watching me. Her face was no less ugly encased in shadows.
“If you’re here to kill me,” I said, “could you wait until tomorrow? I’ve had a hell of a day.”
“Two days, actually,” the Godmother corrected. “You’ve been sleeping off and on since yesterday afternoon. And I wouldn’t have gone to the trouble of putting you back together if I was planning to bump you off.”
I glanced down. My left foot and ankle had been heavily bandaged. I’d lost two toes but kept my heel and my head. Not bad, all things considered.
I looked back at the Godmother. “And I suppose I owe you a favor for this?”
She smiled. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t call it in yet. I’ll let you get on your feet first.”
That was not entirely reassuring. I glanced around the room and saw someone had moved Ella’s shoe to my dresser. “Ella,” I said. “Where is she?”
“By this time? Probably dead.”
I stared at her.
She chuckled. It was not a pretty sound. “A few days before the ball, Ella came to me for advice. She wanted out from under Old Lady Tremaine’s thumb. Something about her stepsister killing her only friend, a young man who’d seen more than he should have.”
I remembered the face sketched over and over in Ella’s journal, the dancing boy with the guileless smile. Sometimes, he’d break into people’s basements, Jack had said. If only I’d stopped by the office before going to Mother’s, Jack would have recognized that face. She’d have known that she and Ella shared a common friend besides me.
“Ella didn’t want a job,” the Godmother said, “just an out. But when I offered her passage out of Spindle, she froze up, too scared to take it. Breaking free of someone is a hard business, and Ella’s been Old Lady Tremaine’s property since she was five years old. Not many know how the Tremaines made their fortune, but absolutely no one knew there was a third girl never allowed to be seen. Not even me.”
“I saw her,” I said.
The Godmother nodded. “I gave Ella the glad rags,” she said. “She’d already been given her next assignment, and it was an easy push, convincing her she that deserved a place at that party, that she could do her job and look like a lady doing it. No one will stay in the shadows forever. All they need is a bit of encouragement. I bet Old Lady Tremaine was furious when she saw Ella on the dance floor.” The Godmother’s grin was wide and vicious.
“So, why didn’t she go through with it? Putting my mother on ice?”
“Maybe it was the spin she took with you, Prince.” The Godmother’s grin grew even sharper. “Maybe it was a kiss.”
I snorted. “I may be dumb, but I’m not that dumb. Don’t play me for a sap. No kiss ever stopped a finger from squeezing a gun already ready and aimed.” I studied her. “What did you whisper?”
The Godmother put a hand to her heart, a grotesque parody of innocence. “If I whispered anything, it was only the truth. That Ella should be suspicious about her father’s death, that he and your mother had once been friends, and the people who bought his head were the same bad numbers who wanted your mother retired now. And that the dame who actually did the deed was the same woman who’d kept Ella under lock and key, the one who’d ordered her best and only friend’s execution. But Ella’s a sharp broad. She knew better than to trust any whisper of mine.”
“So the ball was a cover,” I said. “She was looking for proof that Mother and Aditya had been friends.” And found Hank along the way, poor guy. I tried to picture it: Ella stuffing him aside, going through Mother’s things, finding what she was looking for, and rejoining the party.
Walking downstairs, wrapped in blue silk.
“She took a spin with me and split,” I said. “Used my mother’s speech for the getaway. But the blood…”
“Ella’s,” the Godmother said. “A cut to the right knee, slowing her down, courtesy of Stacey Tremaine—who was, apparently, more than happy to laugh about how Ella’s father really died. Ella got away, though, and I told her to lie dormy till I found her a ride out of town. She was supposed to leave yesterday morning, but she found out about you, poking your nose where it didn’t belong. Missed her carriage, saving your life. By now, Stacey’s probably caught up to her, carving up her toes.”
The Godmother chuckled again and stood up from her chair. “Gumshoes,” she said. “Always want to be the hero. By trying to save her life, you condemned Ella to die.” She headed for the door, stopping to look around just as she reached it. “Try and make some smarter decisions, Prince. You have a girl there who needs you alive.”
I glanced at Jack, still sound asleep, and called out to the Godmother before she left. “I don’t get it,” I said. “I don’t know your angle in this. You aren’t a do-gooder. You’re in it for coin. Why did you help Ella out at all?”
The Godmother smiled again. “Oh,” she said. “I got my due. And Old Lady Tremaine has been one of the two thorns in my side for years. If you want more than that, you’ll have to pay up. How much is the scoop worth to you?”
I looked back at Jack. “Never mind.”
“Good. You’re getting smarter already.”
Jack stayed with me for the next two days, helping me up to the bathroom and such. Deanna’s body was gone, but there was still a faint stain on the shower wall where the blood wouldn’t come out. I tried not to look at it.
When Jack tried to hide the Sunday paper, I knew. “Give it to me, kid,” I told her. She did.
There had been an explosion at the edge of the city, a WH warehouse. All that remained were a few body parts, a hand, and a foot encased in a glass slipper. Jack watched me put down the paper. “I’ll go steal some crutches,” she said. When she came back two hours later, I slowly limped my way down to the morgue.
I slipped a doc as many berries as I could spare, and she let me take a look. The hand was clearly Stacey’s. You couldn’t miss that giant splotch of brown. But it wasn’t the hand I’d come to see. “Show me the foot,” I told her.
The doc got the foot. The flesh was burned black, and the heel had been hacked off, toes too. I winced just looking at it. I’m sorry, Ella, I thought. I only wanted to help. Then I looked closer at the foot. It was wide with very little arch.
I looked up at the doc. “You still got the shoe?”
She sighed deeply. “The bulls haven’t picked it up yet, but if you plan on taking it home to sniff, that’s gonna cost extra.”
“I don’t wanna keep it,” I said, annoyed. “I just want to see you put the foot back in.”
The doc sighed again and got the shoe. It took her almost a whole minute to jam the foot back inside. But Ella’s foot had fit perfectly in the little slipper.
I gave the doc an extra few berries. You should always tip for good news.
Old Lady Tremaine was found dead a few days later, drowned in her own bathtub. They ruled it a suicide; could have been. Could have been the Godmother. Could have been my mother. The mystery made my skin itch, but that didn’t make it worth solving.
That night, Jack got ready to leave. “You can probably get around without me now,” she said. And I probably could, with the crutches, but it wouldn’t exactly be duck soup.
“You can keep sleeping on the couch,” I told her. “You don’t need to go back to the streets.”
She shrugged. “It’s a better home than home.”
“Cut the crap. Home’s not just where you sleep, and it sure as hell ain’t where you come from. Home’s where you make it, who you make it with. And I have indoor heating.”
Jack stared at me. I saw her swallow, and she quickly turned her head. “Well,” she finally said. “I guess it doesn’t smell too bad in here.”
“You’re a menace,” I told her.
Jack laughed. She stuck around.
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