"You're sure this isn't part of your stash, Yuri?"
"No, sir, but I sure could do with a good drink right now."
Yuri finally shifted his gaze from an oblong crack in the ceiling to smile innocently at the officer sitting across from him, but Lieutenant Flynn's frown only deepened. He impatiently tapped the empty liquor bottle on his desk with his index finger.
"You know I don't like calling you in for these kinds of things because you're my friend, Yuri," the lieutenant said, ignoring his friend's disbelieving grunt, "but it's my job. I have to make these busts, or else drinking and drunks will be rampant across the city."
"Who cares? Times are tough. Let the people have a little fun every once in a while," Yuri replied, his grin melting. "I don't see why the police have to be so uptight about something as simple as alcohol."
"Because it's the law."
"I know. And I follow it—well, ninety-five percent of the time—but it's a stupid law. No one else listens to it, anyway…well, aside from the rich folks, and I'm sure I've seen more than a few of them show up in speakeasies."
Flynn's scowl faltered as he reached for a notepad on the corner of his desk. "You've seen members of the upper class in the speakeasies? Who were they? On second thought, could you give me the names of anyone you saw?"
"Hell if I know," Yuri said with a shrug. "And aren't you going to ask me why I was in one of the speakeasies?"
"You were brought in for questioning because Lieutenant Leblanc's men found you in one," Flynn pointed out. "But I have a feeling you're not going to tell me a thing, as usual."
Yuri nodded faintly. "Yeah, I know."
An uneasy silence settled over the office. It was small and cramped—especially cramped on this warm summer afternoon, Yuri noticed as he wiped a few beads of sweat from his forehead with the side of his wrist. He leaned back in his metal chair and wondered briefly why Flynn hadn't flipped on the overhead fan yet.
"You're really not going to give me any information today, are you?" Flynn asked after a lengthy pause. "Please, Yuri…"
"I don't have anything new to say. It's the same story as always," Yuri said, casting a glare in his old friend's direction. "I was there, but I wasn't drinking or anything. I was just mixing the drinks for cash—cash for the people in the lower quarter. Then Leblanc and the Tweedles showed up and started arresting people left and right. End of story."
"I'd prefer if you called them by their names—Officers Adecor and Boccos," Flynn said, tapping the bottle again with the tip of his pencil. "And the mere fact that you were even in a speakeasy makes you a suspect in a case we've been working on lately. I want to believe that you were just mixing drinks-"
"Good." Yuri slid the chair back and stood. "If you believe I wasn't drinking or smuggling alcohol then we're done here."
"Yuri Lowell, you were still there-"
A quick knock on the office door saved Yuri from whatever protests Flynn still had up his sleeve. The young lieutenant sighed and pulled his gaze away. "Come in."
A woman opened the door and gave him a quick salute. "Sir, the commandant's called another meeting for the investigation. He wants you to come right away."
"You're in luck this time, Yuri," Flynn said bitterly as he pushed himself to his feet. "And thank you for letting me know, Sodia."
The uniformed woman nodded to him and shot a quick glance at Yuri. "Would you like me to keep an eye on him while you're gone, lieutenant?"
"No, that's fine. He can go. We've held him long enough...and we'll probably be seeing him again very soon."
Sodia gave him a significant look. Flynn returned it with a raised eyebrow.
Yuri had half a mind to pump his fist in the air, but he thought better of it when he saw the accusing gleam in Sodia's catlike eyes. He was all-too familiar with the redheaded sergeant; she was Flynn's subordinate, but she was a smart woman and she hated criminals with a passion rarely seen in the Zaphias district's officers. She was fiercely loyal to Lieutenant Flynn too, almost to the point that Yuri thought it was unhealthy.
Yuri watched as Flynn paused at the doorway and pulled a trench coat over his shoulders. "You can go this time, but if they catch you in a speakeasy again I won't let you off so easy. You'll be spending another few days in jail with a lot more questioning," he said.
Yuri gave his friend a mock salute. "Yes, sir!"
Flynn smiled fleetingly before his stoic visage returned. He followed Sodia out into the hallway without another word.
Yuri waited until they were gone before he heaved another sigh of relief. Sometimes, he realized, he was very lucky to have a friend on the force. Flynn didn't like letting him off the hook like this—he absolutely hated letting a criminal of any sort go free (which was probably why he and Sodia got along so well)—but he just didn't have enough evidence to keep Yuri back for something like alcohol possession, and his tests were coming up spotless. The jails were getting too full because of the success of recent alcohol busts, and Yuri had already spent more time than he would've liked in the damp, lonely cells.
Yuri left Lieutenant Flynn's office and returned to the main lobby. The police station was relatively quiet that afternoon—it seemed as though most of the officers were already out and about in the city. He cast a quick look through the room, seeking out his three 'favorite' officers, but they weren't in sight.
The Tweedles and Leblanc must be busy today, he thought with a smile. Any day he didn't have to face them was a good one.
One unfamiliar voice, however, rose above all the rest.
A teenage girl threw herself at the front desk and a very nonplussed young officer. "I need to see Lieutenant Flynn right away!"
"I'm sorry, miss," the young man said, attempting what was probably supposed to be a calm smile, "but he's in a meeting right now. No one can go see him."
The girl's slight hands tightened around the edge of the desk. She bit her lip and looked desperately at the other officers in the lobby.
"Please," she begged. "It's really important. I really need to see him!"
"You'll have to wait until he's out of his meeting."
"When will that be?"
"I don't know…"
Yuri walked past the girl and to the front door. She looked vaguely familiar; had he seen her somewhere before? In the theater or out on the streets, perhaps? But he doubted he could ever forget someone who looked like her—the girl's short, brightly-colored hair stood out far too much.
It'll come back to me later, he thought with a nonchalant shrug as he pushed the door open and walked out into the warm, late afternoon sunshine.
The middle quarter was bustling with an unsurprising amount of activity. Women armed with shopping bags or young children were walking amongst men in gray suits, all ready to complete the long list of tasks they had waiting for the day. Yuri tipped his fedora over his forehead and joined the crowd, blending in with the hodgepodge of citizens.
His next destination was home, all the way back in the lower quarter of the Zaphias district. It was a modest area—too modest, he thought, his mind wandering instantly to the poverty-stricken members of the district he lived with. Yuri himself had grown up in the lower quarter with Flynn, and unlike his friend, he had opted to stay there after a brief stint with the police force.
"Yuri!" A familiar voice called him from the busy market street. Yuri tore his hungry eyes away from a cart of fruit and grinned when he saw Hanks, one of the older denizens of the lower quarter, waving at him from the end of the block.
"Hanks! What are you doing out here?" Yuri asked as he approached his neighbor.
"You talk like I'm not allowed to leave the lower quarter," Hanks joked. "I knew you'd be coming back from the station around this time so I thought I'd come meet up with you."
"Yeah, yeah. You don't need to worry about me."
Hanks raised a grizzled eyebrow. "You're always getting yourself in trouble, Yuri. Though I should be pretty used to your misadventures by now, shouldn't I?"
Yuri only shrugged, another devious smile crossing his lips. They were walking down the shabby staircase to the lower quarter now; the walkway was so familiar to him that he knew he could stroll down the steps with his eyes closed and never worry about tripping.
"You know, you don't need to go to those speakeasies just for our sake," Hanks said, lowering his voice as he cast a quick glance over his shoulder.
"Don't bother. The police never come down here unless they know they're going to make a bust," Yuri said with a casual wave of his hand.
Hanks frowned. "I know you can make fast money in those places, but you're only digging a deeper hole with the police. I don't want to see you get thrown in there forever…or worse."
Yuri snorted. "'Or worse'? What can they do to me that's worse than that, old man?"
"I'm not saying they'd put you up on death row, but they might send you away to a bigger facility if they think you're too much trouble for this district to handle."
"I'll be fine, so don't worry too much. You'll lose the rest of your hair."
Hanks couldn't help it—he cracked a small smile before he went on.
"Just be careful," he continued. "I know you're only trying to help us, but we don't want to see you in trouble."
"Relax. I'm not one of the alcohol smugglers so I shouldn't get in too much trouble, and Flynn's willing to cut me a little slack because he's too busy worrying about the risky criminals," Yuri said. He paused at the base of the stairs and scowled. "Hey, Hanks…isn't it a little quiet around here?"
Hanks motioned in the direction of the lower quarter's fountain. Yuri followed his gesture and hissed a curse under his breath.
The fountain—although green and covered with a thin layer of disgusting algae—was completely empty.
"Damn it! It's broken again!" Yuri said as he moved closer to the well. He ran his hands along the stone—it was still slightly damp, as though it had been running only hours before.
"Broke down just last night after the raid," Hanks said, joining Yuri beside the fountain. "It flooded over for a while, but we cleaned everything up before you got back."
"Damn," Yuri murmured again. He looked up and saw buckets of water lined in a row beside the houses. "I thought we just had this thing fixed!"
"Looks like the repair job wasn't good enough. And after all we went through to get it fixed in the first place…"
Yuri's hands clenched at his sides. It wasn't fair for the people in the lower quarter—they barely had enough money to get by, and now that their main source of clean water was gone, they were going to have to drink the vile canal water again. Children would be sick, the elderly would be frail…even the healthy adults would be weakened without a good source of water. Some of them could afford to buy fresh water in the market, but not all of the residents had enough money for that.
The police force would be no help at all, despite their promises to "defend the people." Just the thought of it made Yuri's stomach churn.
If I were still on the force… No, he thought, shaking his head. He couldn't think like that. It wouldn't do the lower quarter any good if he kept himself in the past.
"We'll have to scare up some more money to have it fixed again," Hanks was saying when Yuri finally broke himself away from his reverie. "It'll take an awful long time…we just went and sold almost everything to get it fixed the first time, and it was a shoddy job."
"We'll just have to…" Yuri suddenly stopped. He knew exactly what he had to do. Flynn had taken away the money he earned the night before, but tonight he could still make more, couldn't he? It would be easy as long as there wasn't another raid.
"I see that look in your eyes, Yuri Lowell," Hanks said, putting a rough hand on his shoulder. "Don't even think about it."
"Think about what?" Yuri said with a sly grin. "I'm not thinking about anything but a good rest. Those damn police kept me up all night for questioning and Flynn didn't even get me in his office until earlier this morning."
"Lieutenant Flynn is a good officer," Hanks said. "He never minds coming down to help us."
"Yeah, but that stubborn guy's too preoccupied with his new duties to help us now. He was sent into a meeting before he even finished questioning me. It sounded like he had a lot on his plate."
"Well, it's good that he's getting more responsibility on the force. You know what they think of people who come from our side of the district."
"Yeah," Yuri agreed with another tired shrug. "Anyway, I'm going to go get some sleep. I'll see you later, Hanks. Thanks for coming up to wait for me."
"Don't mention it. And don't get in anymore trouble tonight, you hear?"
Yuri turned around to hide his smile. "I won't."
At least I'm not exactly lying, he thought as he returned to his home on the other side of the lower quarter. I won't get in any trouble at all, so long as I'm not caught.
The speakeasy was a little more crowded than Yuri expected it to be, given the bust that had taken place less than twenty-four hours ago. But the pub that had been raided the night before was several shabbier blocks away—perhaps the people here felt a little more at ease because this particular establishment was overlooked.
Yuri wove effortlessly through the crowd, taking in the rich, mingling scents of liquor and cigar smoke. He waved to the people he knew and exchanged brief, knowing smirks with those he recognized as fellow survivors of the recent bust.
"Yuri Lowell! Still alive after a day with the boys in blue?"
The barkeeper—a man Yuri had known since his evening visits to the local speakeasies began—clapped him on the shoulder. "Already back for more trouble?"
"Just some work tonight, same as always," Yuri replied, stepping out of the way as a rowdy group pushed by with half-empty bottles in their fists.
"Good, good." The barkeep smiled and rapped his knuckles against the counter. "How are you feeling today? Musically-inclined? The band could use some work."
Yuri winced as a trumpet player on the stage hit a particularly sour note. "Yeah...no."
"Waiting on tables? Maybe some of the usual drink mixing while I get some stuff from the other room?"
"Sure, I can mix drinks. It's the only thing I'm good at, really—you know I hate waiting tables."
The barkeeper tossed Yuri his towel and ushered him behind the polished bar. "Be good while I'm gone, and don't get any of the mixes wrong."
Yuri gave the barkeep a brief nod and busied himself with polishing glasses while he waited for an order. He liked this pub more than the others he had worked at in the past—he was well-known in parts of the district for the drink mixing he did to get the money he spent to help the lower quarter (although he did keep a small handful for himself—how else could he get by?). This one was clean and well hidden beneath what seemed like a respectable general store.
Yuri spun a clean glass around with his fingers before an unusual flash of red caught his eye. At first he thought it was just a gleam of a woman's jewelry, but what he saw when he glanced up was almost enough to freeze the blood in his veins.
Two men with hooded cloaks stood in the corner, their folded arms obscured by long, baggy sleeves. Eerie scarlet lights shone from where their eyes should've been.
The Red Eyes?
Yuri had only heard passing rumors about them before. They were gang members of some sort, but he wasn't quite sure which one they were from. Why were two of them here? This wasn't a gang-run speakeasy, as far as Yuri knew.
"Hey!" A heavy pound against the bar broke Yuri's concentration. He blinked several times and focused his gaze on the dark corner again, but the Red Eyes were already gone.
"Are you going to stand there and stare off into space?" a youthful voice prodded.
Yuri looked down and frowned. There was a boy standing at the other end of the bar—he couldn't have been any older than maybe fourteen, and even that was stretching it. A pair of wide, childish eyes glared up at him from beneath a mop of spiky brown hair.
"Hey, kid," Yuri pointed a finger at the boy. "I don't serve alcohol to children. I already get in enough trouble working here as is."
"I'm not here for a drink!" The boy slammed his fist against the polished wood of the bar again, and Yuri resisted the urge to smack him with the towel. "I'm looking for some people."
"How'd you get in here, anyway?"
"With my group!"
"Your...group?" Yuri raised a skeptical eyebrow.
The boy flashed an insignia on the sleeve of his shirt. "The Hunting Blades! You know!"
The Hunting Blades, yet another gang. Was this speakeasy becoming a new hangout?
Yuri waved a lazy finger at the insignia. "How do I know you didn't just steal that?"
"Come on, help me out! I'm looking for a big, tough guy—his name is Clint—and a girl. She's got short brown hair, sort of up in a ponytail on the top of her head?"
Yuri shook his head. "Nope, haven't seen them. And you'd better get away from here before the real barkeeper comes back. He doesn't like it when kids leave their dirty fingerprints all over his bar."
The boy raised his hands and waved his gloved fingers. "Good thing I've got these on, huh?"
Yuri sighed quietly and went back to cleaning glasses as the boy left. It looked like it was going to be another slow night, he thought with a scowl. Fewer orders meant even fewer tips. He wanted to raise enough cash to fix the lower quarter's fountain—that was his new goal.
A woman suddenly screamed from the center of the room. A bottle hit the floor and shattered into a thousand pieces. A familiar whistle screeched and tore through the eerie silence that had settled over the bar.
Yuri saw a huddled group of men pull out their official police badges.
All hell broke loose in a matter of seconds.