chapter twenty eight

a glow of holy purpose

The riverboat obtained for the vodka-soaked section of the evening was quadruple tiered monstrosity dubbed The Tallahassee. The bottom deck consisted of a few small staterooms and a very well appointed grand oak dining room and lounge, where Grandfather, the Russians, the Bishop, and a small clutch from Marigold carried on with their food, flowers, and faux funeral. An open phonograph played a steady selection of jittery jazz records the gangsters changed at will. The "hilarious" fake eulogies and toasts were ongoing. Mordecai was hesitant to enter the party - it was easy to remain invisible to the Russians in the Marigold ballroom stuffed full of civilians, here not so much - so he opted for due diligence and went on a self-guided tour of the vessel.

Decks two and three were staterooms, a chart room, game room, and a library. At the end of deck three was an oversized balcony that overlooked the water, with a short staircase he used to get to the top deck, the sun deck. The staircase opened onto the back of a small stage - the beginnings of one, anyway. Two harried young men were busy building it.

"Go downstairs," the builder barked. " No show yet."

"Apologies," Mordecai replied. "When is it?"


"Thank you," Mordecai said, and headed back down the stairs. So, two hours. Just two hours. How could just two hours feel so interminable? He was well practiced in presenting an exterior of icy calm and did so now despite his simmering blood. She was all he could think about. He was concerned for her safety - at this point who knew what insane doublecross might be in the works - but more than that he simply wanted her with a longing that bordered on desperation. It physically hurt. With every cell in his body he wanted her voice and scent and touch, he wanted the two of them back in his apartment, together in the bed behind a triple locked door, curled up with the opium pipe, warm and safe away from this floating pen full of hateful drunk отморозки pigs.

Just two hours.

He stood on the oversized balcony and watched the giant paddlewheel turn, white knuckling the railing. He breathed deeply as he made his way back down to the party on the bottom deck, willing the frigid air to cool the broiling in his chest. He slipped into the party as silently as possible and made a beeline for Asa, already feeling the Russian's eyes on him, clocking him as the four-eyed fancy boy who'd been putting it to Innochka all weekend.

He made his way around a drunk foursome who hovered at the coffin, which, having been vacated by Grandfather, now held bottles of vodka. / "Brother! My brother! We've roamed the same hills!" / an older one said, opening his arms to Mordecai as if to hug him. The foursome howled with laughter. Mordecai merely dodged and scowled until the full implication of the comment hit him. He nearly turned back swinging. That greaseball? That repulsive animal forced himself on Innochka when she was just a girl?

/ "How much did she charge him, you think?" / he said, and they burst into laughter once more. Mordecai grit his teeth and made himself keep walking. If he turned back they would know he understood Russian and he was inclined to keep that particular upper hand. He sidled up to Asa, seething.

"You all right?" Asa asked.

"No," Mordecai replied.

Asa nodded and sipped at a tumbler of vodka, observing the crowd. "Yeah, they're really eyein' you."

"They know Innochka and I… they know she was with me all weekend," Mordecai began softly, shaking his head. "You should hear the way they talk about her. "

"From the looks of you I'll pass," Asa said. "Where is she, anyway?"

"The show mentioned in the invitation is a weapons demonstration. Apparently she is at the location setting it up," Mordecai glowered. "Out in the middle of nowhere, in the cold, while the rest of her crew are having a party."

"That's uh ... that's plain awful."

"Plain awful doesn't begin to describe these reprobates," he said. "Do you happen to have a grenade?"

"Not on me," Asa replied, chuckling. "But if I did, it'd be all yours. Sorry they're talking down on your girl. No man should have to listen to that. Hell, I'd pull the pin myself."

"Kind of you to say."

"Of course. Got your back." Asa gave him a brief, companionable pat on the shoulder. Mordecai felt a now familiar burst of warmth for the man. It was good, he supposed, to have a friend at this particular juncture, and at some point Asa had become, he supposed, his actual friend. But he didn't have much time to wrap his head around this internal redefinition of his employer. "Uh oh," Asa muttered to him. "Five o' clock Heller, he's waving you down."


Asa gestured towards Grandfather, who was in turn gesturing towards Mordecai. The old man had exchanged his coffin and shroud for a too-big suit and an armchair. One hand held a zebrawood cane topped by a solid gold goose's head, and on his thin wrist was a diamond encrusted watch. A heavy gold ring with a fat red ruby threatened to slip off the middle digit of the hand that pointed a shaking finger at Mordecai.

/ "That young man. Yes. Him. Bring him here." /

The gangsters surrounding Grandfather turned towards Mordecai, to a one smirking, resentful, suspicious. Mordecai glanced at Asa, straightened his suit, and approached Grandfather. The gang's collective gaze was so heavy they could have tied it to his ankles and drowned him in the Mississippi.

"Grandfather," Mordecai said with a respectful dip of his head.

/ "Get him a chair and a shot!" / Grandfather snapped impatiently at someone behind him, as though under normal circumstances these would have already been provided. He gestured for Mordecai to sit. When he spoke it was in nearly perfect English.

"You, I keep hearing about you! I do keep hearing about this young man." He patted Mordecai's forearm with his old, spidery hand. Mordecai's ears flattened but he didn't snap his arm away.

"Good things, I hope," he replied as someone handed him a shot of vodka. "Thank you."

"Yes yes, very good! They say you are the best Marigold. The most, ah...competent. You have done well for the Family. You've brought us much prosperity." He raised his shot to Mordecai and threw it back. "I hope to hear Marigold compensates you well for your talent."

"What would you consider well?"

"What you feel you deserve."

"In that case yes, I'm quite happy with my current remuneration."

"But surely that remuneration could be larger."

Mordecai shrugged. "Numbers are famously infinite."

Grandfather chuckled indulgently. "Indeed, they can increase and increase. Especially if one moves from a small, local organization to a large international one. That number can increase exponentially. As can the opportunities. The cars. The women. You like Russian women, I hear? Yes, our ruskayas are very beautiful." He leaned in towards Mordecai and whispered, "In Moscow there are thousands just like Innochka."

"No there aren't. And I don't think Mr. Sweet would appreciate your attempting to poach me right out from under his nose."

Grandfather's eyebrows raised. "Loyalty!" he exclaimed. He turned to his men. "See that? Loyalty! Mr. Heller, we need men like you in the Family. Strong men, competent men. Loyal men."

Mordecai gestured to his crew. "Are these men not sufficiently loyal? Is your exponential remuneration not working out as you'd hoped?"

"Remuneration never fails! Everyone has their price, my boy."

"Apparently they don't, if you can't keep your organization properly staffed. Tell me, what's driving them away?"

At this Grandfather snapped to attention, as though seeing Mordecai for the first time. "You assume something is driving them away?"

"You'll forgive me, but given the evidence I must. No promises of cash or other perks would entice me to join an organization I haven't done due diligence on. That would be foolish." He glanced around at the youthful faces on many of the Family gangsters. "Such temptations might work on the greenery, " he said, "but not on me. "

Grandfather stared at Mordecai for a long moment, wheels turning.

"Interesting," he said. "Interesting."

Mordecai didn't reply.

"So you're an interested man," Grandfather continued. "Thoughtful. Money, cars, and women don't tempt you, so what is it you want?"

Mordecai considered this.

"A persistent sense of well being," he decided.

Grandfather laughed. "A persistent sense of - ?"

"Well being, yes. Isn't that what everyone wants? Isn't that why we're all here tonight? You travelled thousands of miles and sacrificed entire livelihoods for the persistent sense of well-being the donation of the reliquary would provide, did you not?" Mordecai narrowed his eyes. "Does your soul feel saved, Grandfather?"

Grandfather frowned. "And how does a saved soul feel, Mr. Heller?"

"I wouldn't know. I don't have one."

Grandfather laughed. "I see. I see. Has no soul, wants a persistent sense of well being." He laughed a little harder, tapping a nearby gangster on the arm. "He sounds like a case for Pablo!"

"Without a priceless reliquary with which to purchase salvation I'm not sure what Pablo could do for me."

Grandfather's eyes widened. / "Ah. This is why Innochka likes him," / he scoffed to the nearby gangster. / "Busting my balls just like she does." /

/ "Do we really want two of them?" / the gangster muttered back.

/ "Hmm. True. She always has some opinion," / Grandfather muttered. / "And he's an insolent prick." /

Mordecai bristled but remained silent, observing.

/ "Ivan, you know Dimitri's not gonna put up with this guy. Especially this guy. I give it a week before he shoots him in the neck." /

/ "Dimitri is a good boy and will do as I say!" / Grandfather snapped.

"May I ask what's being discussed?" Mordecai asked, placing an innocent lilt in his voice.

"I was saying you like to bust balls," Grandfather said.

Mordecai considered this. "If you're referring to the strategic crushing of testicles I wouldn't say I like it, but it can certainly be effective in the course of my work."

At this Grandfather and the nearby gangster paused.

"What? You - you doubt that? I can assure you it gets results. I can demonstrate on your captain here if you like."

"No! No no," Grandfather said with an uneasy chuckle. "No, uh, ball crushing at my funeral, if you don't mind."

"This one or your actual one?"

The old man jerked like he'd been hit. The gangster next to him scowled darkly.

"About that - " Mordecai continued, but he felt a heavy hand come down on his shoulder.

"There you are!" Asa said jovially.

Mordecai frowned. "You were well aware of my location."

"Nope, I was looking all over for you! My favorite guy, right here!" Asa said to Grandfather. "He's been keeping you entertained, I take it? Real joker, this one. Real weird sense of humor. That's all. Just a real weird, real dark sense of humor on this guy."

"Asa - ?"

"But you know, if you get to know him, you'll see that he's, uh… he's great, he's really something."

"Yes, he's….definitely ... something," Grandfather said slowly.

"Mind if I borrow him for a minute?" Asa asked. "Gotta talk to him about a thing."

"A thing, eh?" Grandfather chuckled. "About a guy?"

"Heh. You know it."

"Of course," Grandfather replied indulgently. "A, uh...a pleasure, Mr. Heller."

"Likewise," he said, and followed Asa out of the party onto the deck.

"What thing?" Mordecai asked, annoyed. He slipped on his coat heavy with cash and passports, his breath a white puff in the frigid air. "What guy? I believe in my newest contract it stipulates that you're to inform me of all -"

"There's no thing, there's no guy," Asa said, lighting a cigar.

"Then - why - ?"

Asa shook his head. "Just trying to be a good host. Looked like things were getting tense. "

"I imagine it did," Mordecai huffed. "Your hospitality is wasted on him. He was attempting to hire me out from under you."

"He was? Wow," Asa replied. He considered this for a moment and shrugged. "What was he offering?"

"There's nothing he could offer," Mordecai scoffed. "If I wanted to go down with a ship I'd have stayed on at the Lackadaisy."

"Eesh," Asa said. "That bad?"

"Innochka's been trying to leave for ten years."

Asa nodded slowly. "I see. Well if they're that bad off that's something to consider. Kinda wish you'd told me about this so I could report back to upper management, sounds like something they'd want to know about."

"I only learned the full extent of it this weekend. Otherwise I would have. Remember I've never been a fan of this undertaking, not since the beginning."

Asa raised an eyebrow at Mordecai.

"That's not to say there weren't certain … benefits … in my case in particular," he conceded. "However it is to say they're unreliable, dishonest slavers who are not to be trusted with anything valuable." He took a deep breath, glaring down into the swiftly moving Mississippi. "Or beautiful."

"Man," Asa said softly, smiling incredulously at Mordecai. "Man oh man."


The Tallahassee finally docked at the location, pulling in perpendicular to the river so the stern was flush with the dock, as river boats did. A series of targets, boxes, and sandbag barriers were set up on the bank opposite the bow, some dangling from trees.

Mordecai went to the loading bay to await her with a stomach full of butterflies. She walked alongside a few young assistants that cowered from her as they wheeled crates full of guns onto the boat, her body language tense. All Mordecai's anxiety and anger dissolved once he caught sight of her, like he was famished and she was food.

"Ochki," she whispered when he met her halfway down the ramp. She wore a festive red sequined headband with a full ostrich plume stuck at the back of it. Her eyes were steel gray and furious, her mascara smeared from tears. She was so ravishing he swore she could stop time. "Grandfather fucked me again. "

"I know," Mordecai whispered back. "I apologize for doubting it. Were you aware that- "

"I need you." She grabbed his arm, pulled him down an empty stateroom corridor, took him by the collar and kissed him with a hunger that decimated his brain. He had something important to tell her, and something he wanted to ask, but all that was vapor. All he could do was clutch her and aggressively return her affection.

One of the assistants popped around the corner to ask Innochka something and immediately retreated upon seeing them wrapped around one another. Mordecai barely cared. They were doing this in public and he barely cared. He officially didn't know who he was anymore and he barely cared about that either. He cared that he'd backed her against a door, behind which was a stateroom, in which was the promise of solitude and almost certainly a bed. Mordecai blindly pawed at the doorknob. Locked.

"Mmm. Ochki," she whispered, her voice ragged. "Where is the Splinter?"

"The - the Bishop," Mordecai replied against her neck. "Grandfather gave it to the Bishop."

"I'm taking it."


"I found it, it's mine, I'm taking it."

"You're - ?"

/ "Innochka! Chop chop!" / came a voice.

Piotr rounded the corner and rolled his eyes when he saw them. Mordecai instinctively disengaged from her.

/ "They're gathering on the uppermost deck, hurry up." /

/ "Give us a minute." /

/ "No. We don't have a minute." /

Mordecai straightened, narrowing his eyes at the intruder. He wanted that minute. / "I don't particularly care for your tone." /

Piotr jerked in surprise at Mordecai's sudden switch of language but recovered quickly. / "Well I don't particularly care for your Russian," / he snapped. / "Now if you'll quit necking like teenagers I have my show to run. Or I'll just stand here and watch and maybe comment." /

Piotr crossed his arms and leaned against the wall, testy as a younger sister. Innochka broke from Mordecai and stalked towards her associate.

/ "It's not your show, Piotr," / she spat. / "It's my show. Okay? They come to see me. They buy from me. I make us millions, you just hang targets in trees like a shit monkey and haul guns like a shit donkey. Okay? Bitch of a man." /

She checked him hard in the shoulder as she blew past him, then turned the corner and stalked down the hall.

/ "And fix your face!" /" Piotr called after her, undeterred. He made to follow her. / "Your makeup's a fright!" /

Mordecai tapped Piotr on the shoulder.

/ "What!?" / Piotr snapped.

Mordecai calmly grabbed him by the lapels and slammed him into the bulkhead. / "You are irritating her," / he snarled in his face, / "and that is irritating me." /

Piotr hunched his shoulders and held his palms up, eyes wide.

"Mordecai!" Innochka called down the hall, sounding amused. / "Don't mangle Piotr, I need him." /

/ "Consider fixing your own face," / Mordecai hissed, releasing him. Innochka took Mordecai by the elbow and led him away, leaving Piotr behind to catch his breath. Mordecai took her hand in his as they walked, then raised it to his lips and kissed it.

"My Ochki," she whispered, smiling. "My knight with shiny armor."

"It's knight in … shining …." he began, but his voice faded as he felt a glow of holy purpose rise within him. The decision, of course, had long been made - the passports and money and heirloom in his coat could attest to that - but now he'd been formally anointed by her words. The foundation of his reality that slid askew the first time they kissed had finally re-shifted and re-settled into its new form, and it was this.

He turned to her, his chin held high.

"I accept," he said.


"I am your knight in shining armor, Innochka, " Mordecai whispered. "Touch a blade to my shoulders and claim me."

She stopped. Tilted her head at him. "Ochki…" Her eyes went soft. Her lips parted. She rose up to kiss him but an assistant with a crate rolled by. Innochka put her hand on it to stop it. The assistant looked up at her in fear.

/ "Take this back down," / she commanded, never breaking eye contact with Mordecai, / "and trade it out for the Monitor." /

The assistant nodded and scurried back down the ramp.

Mordecai's eyes widened. "A Colt Monitor? The - the military BAR?"

"Mhm. Matches your suit." She reached into her coat pocket and retrieved a switchblade with a snake skin handle, which she flipped open and touched to each of his shoulders in turn. "Your sword, my knight," she whispered, then kissed his lips.


The Colt Model 1925 Machine Rifle, which was also known as an R75 Monitor, was an exceedingly rare, exceedingly light, but exceedingly powerful three-position automatic weapon, perhaps the rarest and most sought after Colt had ever produced. Featherweight, but with the power of a cannon. Mordecai and Innochka followed the crate that contained it up to the top level of the boat. The Family was already there, long past drunk and incredibly loud. Innochka gave Mordecai's hand a final squeeze and went up the little staircase to the stage where the assistants finished setting up the guns, placing each one on a podium, unloaded, next to a few open boxes of the appropriate ammunition.

"Asa," Mordecai said. His employer stood next to the paddlewheel chomping on the last of a cigar, watching the show set up.

"Hey," Asa said. "Found your girl I see."

"Yes, she's…"

"Taking off her clothes," Asa finished, and indeed she was. She slid the coat off her shoulders to reveal an outfit that was essentially transparent. She wore nothing but the feather headband, red heels, red garters and stockings, red underthings, and a sparkling, see-through red negligee robe lined with red ostrich feather. Her breasts were mostly visible beneath red lace - for "recoil" purposes, Mordecai imagined. That's what Piotr had referred to as a "dress"? Mordecai hated it, hated that every man on the boat would see her this way. He hated that she must have been freezing in so little clothing. She hadn't fixed her makeup; mascara ran down her face.

She stopped short upon seeing Asa and Mordecai gaping at her. She ignored Asa and stared at Mordecai. With a casual brush of her hand she let her thigh peek out from beneath her robe to reveal her python pistol holstered against it. When she let the robe fall the gun was once again concealed by red ostrich feathers.

"Wow," Asa breathed.

Mordecai shot him a look.

"Sorry, wasn't looking," Asa chuckled, turning away. "See? Not looking. Wouldn't dream of it."

Asa turned and stared resolutely out over the Mississippi, inadvertently leaving Mordecai and Innochka a moment to themselves. She stood next to the Monitor, which she'd ordered the assistants to place on the podium nearest the stairs. She loaded the Monitor - only the Monitor - and looked pointedly down at Mordecai.

He nodded. She registered his understanding and turned away. Mordecai heard Piotr attempting to wrangle everyone to be seated for the show as annoyingly chipper jazz pumped out of the record player.

There was the flick of a lighter next to him. Asa, trying to re-light his cigar, still stared determinedly out at the Mississippi to spare Innochka's modesty.

Mordecai froze.


"It's - it's all right," Mordecai said quickly.


"You're forgiven for looking. It's part of her job."

"Nope. I got a lovely view right here," he said, gesturing at the river. He shook his head incredulously. "Some guys have all the luck. But that's your luck. Not mine."

Mordecai glanced up at the stage. Innochka rolled her shoulders. Piotr was out in front of the curtain making some sort of speech as the drunk Russians made their loud way into their seats. There wasn't much time.

"Speaking of - of luck," Mordecai began, positioning himself behind Asa, "it's lucky one of those Slavic inebriates hasn't fallen into the river. Do you know what one should do if one falls into freezing cold water? Because I doubt they do. It's important to hold one's breath, because one's automatic instinct is to gasp, and that can drown you. After the initial shock wears off, swim to shore as soon as possible and keep moving till you get to the nearest town. But the most important thing is to hold your breath. If you can hold your breath in freezing water and get out quickly, you'll - you'll be fine. Or so they say."

"Good to know," Asa chuckled, the tip of his cigar finally glowing red.

"You've, uh...you've been a good friend to me, Asa."

He turned to Mordecai in surprise. "I … thanks, Heller. You know I've actually really tried?"

"It hasn't gone unnoticed," Mordecai replied, glancing uneasily up at the stage. "Or unreciprocated. I've got your back as well. Please ... please know that."

Mordecai braced himself. It was then that Asa seemed to gather that something was off. And it was. But it was also too late.

"Remember to hold your breath," Mordecai said, took three quick steps forward, and with all his strength shoved Asa Sweet over the railing and into the Mississippi. His shout of surprise and splash were inaudible over the drunken audience, over the jazz. A life preserver hung beneath the railing, and, thinking quickly, Mordecai threw this over as well. With luck it might reach him, but Mordecai had no way of knowing. Asa was already gone, swept away by the current, and with barely a sound.