The loading area behind the Little Daisy Café was a hidden area, shielded by flanking buildings, accessed only through a shared back alley. It was private, so far as any place in a city was private—which, Mordecai thought, meant it was not private at all. Why, anyone with the skill and forethought could find their way to one of the nearby rooftops and see anything that happened in that little courtyard. Anyone. Anyone at all.
Lying belly down on his trench coat, which was spread wide over the worn tar paper of the roof of the Daisy's neighboring building, Mordecai appreciated his superb view of the area below. He did not, however, appreciate the superb acoustics. The little brick-lined space acted as effectively as an amphitheater's shell.
"The light is on the rooftops and the shingles shine like flame, but there's nothin' burns so brightly as the smile of a sweet dame! Send me sorrow, send me sadness, I don't care so long as I get a single final vision of her smile before I die!" Rocky Rickaby caterwauled in transcendent rapture, contributing nothing but squalls as his associates unloaded a delivery of…merchandise.
"Sheddup," Victor grunted, sourly. "Just sheddup. That cousin of yours move t'ree times vat you move, make half the noise." His thick Slavic accent was familiar to Mordecai, who understood every word without effort, and even understood a few of the words Victor left unsaid.
"She smiled at me!" Rocky yodeled. "She smiled! At me!"
"Mizz May, she smile lots. Too much, maybe. Don't take it so personal. An' if you got to take it personal, don't sing." Victor glared at the dancing, shuffling idiot, then heaved one of the larger crates onto a dolly.
Rocky's cousin Freckles stuck his head out of the back of the truck. "That's all, Mr. Vasko. You want me to stay here and help them get the stuff stowed away, or you want me to stay with you while you take the truck back for another load?" The boy was diligent, dim, and he bothered Mordecai, for where Mordecai was a brilliant craftsman in death, the boy was an enthusiast, an unsettling combination of stupidity, genius, talent, and glee. He left Mordecai both humbled by his raw ability and feeling vastly superior, for at least he killed as a decent job of work, not out of blood-lust.
"Ain't pickin' up no more boxes," Victor growled. "Dat's all. You stay." He jerked his chin to direct Freckles off the back of the truck, then hoisted himself slowly and painfully up into the cab, drawing his tail safely inside before slamming the door, backing out and driving away.
Stubborn fool. Why can't you take a hint? Mordecai wondered, watching him leave. Get out. Retire. Quit. Just…don't be here for the end. Please.
The end would come, sooner or later. The way things were going, Mordecai would place odds on sooner.
Mordecai was good at odds. He was particularly good at odds he helped rig. He was absolutely helping to rig the end of the Lackadaisy Club. It was for that one purpose he'd joined Asa Sweet and the Marigold gang. Atlas May was dead, and there could be no rightful response from the universe but to wipe away all his works, leaving no trace of the disaster of his death.
Mordecai had known perfectly well that Sweet and his associates would rush to sweep up the bootleg routes, claim the customers, pick up the best of the talent, and ensure that within months it would be as though Atlas and his bootleg empire had never existed. That was why he'd offered to work for Sweet. Maybe when the Little Daisy and the Lackadaisy were gone, when nothing remained, the hurt in Mordecai's gut would go away.
He didn't know how to deal with that pain. He wasn't good at feelings. He knew he wasn't good at feelings. He hadn't been even before the head-shot he'd suffered years back, during a job in Saratoga, that had left him not quite tracking ordinary things.
Now there were too many feelings, and worse, they didn't make sense – they didn't fit the facts as he knew them. He hated that. He hated lying in bed adding up the details of the night of Atlas' death and, over and over again, coming up with totals that didn't quite fit and feelings that fought bitterly with the few facts that did total up reasonably.
Below, Freckles steadily dragged the dolly back and forth, unloading crate after crate into the freight elevator that led to the lower levels beneath the Little Daisy. Rocky, though, was showing off some fancy footwork, doing fast spins, soft-shoe shuffles, dancing half-way up the peeling wooden fence that surrounded the courtyard, his tail streaming behind him as he raced off his glee.
"The light of the city is sweet Mitzi May, her…gawk…"
Mitzi stepped out of the back door, accompanied by Ivy. Rocky dropped into a miserable bunch, half-kneeling on the dusty, badly- poured macadam. Mitzi's eyes barely flickered as she registered the words of Rocky's song. Her mouth tipped up in a gentle, controlled smile, not in the least mocking. Ivy's eyes more than made up for it, blazing with laughter, and her whiskers starred out in amusement.
The fool should know better than to sing about his boss, Mordecai thought. Not that Mitzi would make Rocky pay for his impudence. Mitzi had never made her ogglers pay for their presumption. That was a fact - one of many facts that spun around in Mordecai's head, never quite settling down long enough to be summed into the ever-changing totals. Mitzi May, Atlas' wife, had admirers – many admirers – and if she didn't outright encourage them, she didn't turn them away very hard, either.
"Now, honey, you got to watch what you're doing 'round here," Mitzi drawled, sweetly, clucking at Rocky. "It isn't safe, fooling around and forgetting to watch out. You never know what might happen."
I might happen, Mordecai thought, for all the world as though the warning might be heard. I will happen, someday. Mitzi, I asked you to get out before I happen. Why won't you listen?
There was an answer to that – an answer found in yet another of the jangled, jarring facts that wouldn't sum up. Mitzi would not leave because she loved Atlas. He knew that. It was one of the few places in life where his own chaotic feelings overlapped another person's, one of the few things he entirely understood. He understood the love, the loyalty, the bitterness, the loss, the turning away: all the things that had gone into that final night. All of the things he and Mitzi May had shared, standing there in front of the Little Daisy, mere yards away from where he now lay.
She'd stood there, hunched, drooping, ears laid back, tail almost limp, her sheer kimono-styled wrap blowing in the steady wind that poured down the Mississippi valley. He'd held the pistol…
…held the pistol.
He'd looked at her, knowing...
Not knowing. Feeling. But…
It didn't make sense. He knew what had happened, he knew the chain of actions that led to Atlas lying dead. But they didn't add up right, and every new hint or trace of a clue he found made them add up even more badly. He knew it was Mitzi's fault, in the end. And he knew they'd both been there, at the end, mourning, the gun between their two hands, the event like a chain that bound them to each other. But all the things that went into that moment did not tally properly.
Why had Asa warned Atlas? Of what? What could he have known of the events that led to Mordecai and Mitzi and a gun, with the rain pounding down on them and the wind howing like Joshua's horns at Jericho?
He couldn't think about it. He didn't understand, and there were too many pieces that didn't add up. And it hurt. It hurt, and it confused him, and…
He forced himself to look up from the tableau that continued in the courtyard below. He tidied his sleek black leather gloves, checked to be sure he hadn't damaged his suit on the gritty tar shingles. Thought about other things. Thought about why he was here, instead of somewhere else. Anywhere else.
The last "job" with the Savoys had been…messy. Messy, inelegant, and worst of all needless in all senses of the word. The hit had been ill-considered and the results catastrophic without being useful. It was precisely what Mordecai disliked, leaving him with an itching desire to bathe long after the blood and squashy bits had been washed away. He neither liked nor disliked killing, as such. It was work that would be done by someone, and he did it extremely well where others might do it badly.
Only now, with Asa Sweet and the Savoys, he wasn't doing it well, and it…offended him.
Mordecai didn't feel that way about most of his sanguinary endeavors. Or he hadn't, back when Atlas had been riding high and giving the orders. He could trust Atlas to use him well, as a fine sword can trust a great swordsman. Mordecai could trust Atlas to know who had to die, and how, and why. Mordecai could trust Atlas, and he knew Atlas had known to trust him.
Atlas had died trusting him.
Mordecai had held out the pistol, and Mitzi's kimono had fluttered in the night shadows. Its white daisy flowers had shone, picked out by the streetlights. Grief had poured off her like fear off of Mordecai's victims, just before the trigger was pulled… the gun that killed Atlas had seemed almost to float between their hands.
His mind flinched away.
-but, yes, he thought, shifting back to the prior topic. That last job for Sweet had gone badly. Sweet had pulled him off that project afterward, not trusting him to behave like the professional he was. It was a studied insult, half accusing Mordecai of having been at fault for the disaster, half of being unable to stand the aftermath. Either was a slap in the face. Assigning him to stake out the Lackadaisies was more than an affront, it was a punishment. Or a test. Or both.
He scanned the surrounding rooftops, not simply out of habit, though it was a habit, but also to assure himself that he was a pro, that he did maintain his standards. On top of all his other losses, he could not afford to lose what it meant to be Mordecai…and his identity as Mordecai seemed increasingly fragile of late. He had felt so secure in himself as Atlas's Mordecai. It had not occurred to him that Asa Sweet's Mordecai might be someone else entirely, that the Mordecai he had been would dissolve and disappear, lost in the chaotic stupidity of Sweet's unexplained projects.
The boys had finished loading the crates onto the freight elevator and had taken the load on down below, accompanied by Ivy. The girl had draped herself across the heaped boxes like a sultry movie star, attempting steamy looks from under lowered lashes, unaware of how unconvincing she was as a would-be Theda Bara.
Victor had been given to both fuming and laughing over Ivy's antics. Mordecai had seen them as no more than inappropriate silliness, until the other man had explained what she thought she was doing. Once he'd understood, it had seemed neither inappropriate nor silly, just…ineffective.
Mordecai read books. Not just non-fiction books; no, he read novels. Plays. Poetry. All the wrenching human feelings made sense to him when other people wrote them out. He understood them, could even share the feelings, the intentions, the whole confusing mess, when it was put down in black and white letters that stood still on the page. It stopped making sense when he tried to see the same things in real life, though, and he had to turn to people like Atlas, Victor or Mitzi to sort it out for him. His…confidants.
Yes. Mitzi had once been a confidant. He'd once had people who were close to him.
The gun had shimmered in the faint light, poised between his hand and Mitzi's, and the rain had trickled down inside his collar. It had been warm as blood.
He was determined not to dwell on this, and once more wrenched his mind back into the present.
Below he could see that Mitzi had remained behind in the courtyard. When the others left, she slumped, her straight back and shoulders drooping. Her head bowed down, and one little paw rose up to brush a stray curl from her brow.
It was all her fault, he thought, angrily. He knew it. She knew it….though she seemed to resent the obvious facts of her responsibility. But it had been her follies, her weakness, her failings that had led to Atlas' death. She'd allowed his death into Lackadaisy as certainly as if she'd done the deed herself. He knew it.
He'd been there. He'd been part of it. But it had been her fault.
She had to pay for that, too – not with death, but with the final, cleansing sweep that would remove all of Atlas' works. She could not be allowed to keep what she had betrayed. She could not be allowed to redeem herself by restoring Atlas' empire. He would see her fail, and pass into shadow, and be lost to his memory.
Then, perhaps, he wouldn't lie in bed at night in his ascetic rented room, ticking through every new fact, every old detail, haunted by a soft, round form in a silk nightgown with a fluttering kimono wrap, standing before him as he held the pistol between them, her hand fluttering , rising, falling, almost but never quite taking the gun in his memory. Perhaps he would be free of that terrifying moment of shared grief and loss and love and mourning. Free of the confusing moment when he'd had no one in the world so close to him as the wife of his dead mentor. Free of the shared choices, shared actions, shared guilt…for if she was guilty, then so was he.
He shook his head, angry, so very angry. He barely kept his tail from lashing, only fierce control maintaining his stillness.
He didn't know what to do with all this mess. When Atlas had been alive, he'd been free of all the confusion – free to do his work well, and leave it behind when it was done, so that he could enjoy his books, his silences, so that he could mix with the Lackadaisies and know he was accepted as he was, with no pressure and no uncertainty.
He took off his pince-nez and cleaned them. Set them back on his nose. Scanned the rooftops again, and flicked a look back.
Mitzi stretched, wearily, as though stretching might drag life back into her. She spread her arms wide.
A perfect target, Mordecai thought, dry and disapproving, his ears laid back against his skull. Couldn't miss that chest shot unless you paid me to miss.
It was then that he saw the flicker of movement, the flash of sunlight on metal. His eyes narrowed and he shifted, fast as a snake, studying the roofline.
There. The sniper was there….several houses away and almost entirely hidden by the roof beam, by the bulk of a cluster of chimneys, by the fall of a shadow from the tower of an old Victorian brick monstrosity. Another trigger-man, armed with a rifle, judging by the length of metallic gleam. He was taking aim at Atlas May's widow, who stretched her arms wide open and welcoming, who was alone in the courtyard below.
It was a long shot, and challenging, but Mordecai knew he could make it if he were the shooter. If he could, then why not someone else? Mordecai was vain, but not stupid. What he could do, others could, also.
It would be a harder shot to take down the gunman from here with just a pistol. But a pistol was all Mordecai had…and if he missed, the odds were still good that Mitzi would live. The gunman would be startled, would probably run. Mitzi would dive for cover, and not come out until she knew she was safe again.
He drew the great pistol from its shoulder holster and steadied his wrists in a brace against the roof rim, letting his focus drift a touch to heighten his sense of motion. There…there it was, again, the movement of a man preparing a shot. He let out his breath, and fired.
He wasn't sure if he'd made the hit or not. Another shot rang out, there was a flash of movement. It could have been someone hit, drawing the trigger in reflex. It could have been a miss, but still a reflexive shot.
He could hear the crash of trash cans from below, as Mitzi dived for cover. A faint smile twitched up the whiskers on one side of his face, then was gone.
He stayed where he was, ducked down behind the raised parapet of the roof, silent as night itself. He peered warily over the edge and watched. There was no movement from the sniper's roofline, but that meant nothing. The shooter might be dead, hidden behind the peak, or might be alive and racing away, having dropped down into the hidden walkway between buildings, or…anything.
The neighborhood had gone silent after the two shots, as though all that part of St. Louis held its breath. Only the cheeky sparrows chirped on. Then, slowly, sound returned: a babble of voices from the street front beyond, the slam of a door as Ivy, Rocky and Freckles came racing out of the Little Daisy.
"Mitzi! Oh, goodness, are you all right? Oh, please say you're all right! I swear, if you're not all right I'm going to get a gun and go out and kill whoever did this myself!" Ivy was chattering, fierce as she had ever been. There was a crash and clash of metal as they pulled Mitzi out from behind the trashcans. Rocky, damn fool that he was, was mouthing threats as fierce as Ivy was, with far less excuse for thinking he had any right to make them. The little crazy boy with the angel face they'd tried to put in Mordecai's place was jittering, and making polite-boy noises, but there was a manic energy in his voice that would have had Mordecai looking twice if the boy had been working with him.
"Hush, hush, I'm fine," Mitzi said, comfortingly. "Nothing bad happened, darlin', nothing bad. Prob'ly just a backfire. No, now, Ivy, I'm fine. Just a bit surprised is all. You go on in, make me up a lemonade—you know, honey, a real lemonade with some of that gin that y'all just put away. I'll be down in a few minutes. Just…give me a bit of room. All right?"
"I'll stay with you," Rocky said, sounding fearless…or, more accurately, trying to sound fearless. "You shouldn't be out here alone. I'll look after you!"
"Sugar, I'm sure you would," Mitzi agreed, pleasantly. "But I need you to make sure everything's ready with the band for this evening. You go down and tell Zib we're expecting some nice coeds from the college who like to dance, eh? Serious jitterbug. You go on, now."
She had always been good at moving the men where she wanted them, Mordecai thought. Even him.
It was one more reason he wondered about that night, one more reason to hold her accountable. He knew what had happened. He knew at least some of who'd been there. What he didn't know was how, and why, and who'd pulled the strings – and, Mitzi could pull strings. She plucked men's hearts like she plucked her ukulele, as supple in her way as Asa was in his.
The door closed again below. He heard the soft, steady pace of Mitzi's shoes on warm macadam. He could tell she'd moved almost exactly to the center of the courtyard. He could, he swore, hear her breathe, could almost hear her heart beat.
It was as though from that night on they'd lived in a shared circle of silence, with the rain beating down and the wind fluttering her kimono, with the gun between them and Atlas dead. He and Mitzi, who had two great things in common: Atlas's life, and Atlas' death. Even here, high above her, secret from her, they were together…and he was Mordecai Heller, and had no idea what it meant, or what exactly he felt, or what to do about any of it. If she'd arranged Altas' death, if he'd known she'd arranged it, he'd have killed her already. If he'd believed she was entirely innocent, he'd have forgiven her, and maybe even forgotten her. But this? This shared guilt, and loss, and love? This shared secret hidden from everyone, filled with questions neither of them had answered, and neither of them could escape?
What the hell was that, anyway?
He was angry. Angry with her, and angry for her, and angry just on general principle, and he didn't like it. He was here on this stupid stakeout Sweet had dreamed up, and it was…nothing sane.
He'd saved her life, he thought, and he couldn't even tell her. Hell, if anything she was supposed to be scared-of him, of Asa Sweet, of secret snipers on the roof ridge. Instead she thought it was a car backfiring. Or not. But she didn't know…
And he wanted her to know. He didn't know why, but he did.
He'd wormed around, no longer on his coat, but sitting on the tar paper, his shoulders leaning on the wall of the low parapet. He twisted, holstering his pistol, then primly shifted his jacket into line, smoothed his trousers, ran his paws through his hair, checked the neat white trim of his fingers, stroked his whiskers into alignment. The process soothed him. When he was finished he felt almost steady again.
He could still hear Mitzi, feel her moving. Other men might fall in love with her. He was Mordecai, and instead of being in love, he was something else. But whatever it was, it was a something else that mattered.
Carefully, delicately, he slipped his hands up to his lapel, finding what he'd already known would be there. The little red marigold burned like a drop of blood on the black wool of his jacket, stem settled deep in the tiny silver boutonniere flask-pin that kept it in place and fresh for the whole day. He slipped it loose, and studied it. It was a pretty thing. It was…his. A hallmark. She'd know he'd been there.
A second later, down in the courtyard, Mitzi saw a flash of color tumble down from above. She flinched, reflexively, still hyperaware from the previous gunfire. Only after a second was she convinced this wasn't another attack. She straightened up, and looked around the courtyard, frowning…and not the pretty, pouty frown she'd reserve for Wick or some other man she wanted to manage.
The marigold glowed almost as brightly on the macadam as it had on Mordecai's lapel. She drew her breath, recognizing it even before she'd bent and picked it up.
The stem was still damp. The petals were lovely, ruffled and staggered and velvety, a deep blood red glowing with ember fire: one of Mordecai's many little affectations, appealing to his love of elegance.
There was no knowing if this was a sign he'd protected her, threatened her, or what. Just that he was here…or had been. Watching…watching her unseen. Asa Sweet's Mordecai. Atlas's Mordecai. Deadly. Slightly mad.
It got on her last nerve.
No doubt it was supposed to.
She raised her head and in a voice well accustomed to making itself heard over a drink-sodden audience, roared, "Mordecai Heller, you rat bastard! Get down here!"
Of course, he didn't.
Of course, someday he would.
When he did…that would be another story.