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Blackwater

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-- July 1931 --

Cities always looked better in his rear-view mirror; growing smaller and smaller on the horizon until they were lost from his line of sight. As they should be.

Arthur hated Blackwater. Its high buildings that shot out of the earth and concealed the beauty of the sky. The way its hoards of unemployed searched for work that wasn’t there while the rich strolled by indifferent to the plight of their fellow man. How like a disease it was continuing to spread, killing the rolling plains one house at a time. Most of all he hated how after five years of living there, the city had seeped into his skin and was every bit a part of Arthur as the scars on his face or the blood on his hands that no amount of water could wash away.

He pressed the gas pedal harder. Tall grass and roaming horses flashed by as the wind whipped around them. Albert’s straw hat was nearly a casualty of Arthur’s desperation to put some much needed distance between himself and the city, but his hands flew up in time.

“I understand you’re upset but if you’re going to drive like a mad man, pull over and I’ll hop out. There are cougars lurking about, but those majestic creatures are endangered so quite frankly my chance of survival on foot is arguably higher than with you behind the wheel.”

“Sorry, Al, it’s just—” Arthur broke off and slowed down the car.

“I could help you more if you’d just talk to me and explain why the devil—”

“Nothin’ to talk ‘bout. Just need some time away, is all.”

“Oh really? The bruises all over your face and hands. Your broken nose. That bullet wound near your shoulder that you are trying but failing to conceal. None of these are topics worthy of conversation?”

As much as he cherished Albert, sometimes he wished the man wasn’t so skilled at cutting through his bullshit. This is what happens when you make friends with journalists. Can’t leave shit be.

“Albert—”

“Let’s not forget the fact that you showed up at my apartment after hours just dying to explore the great outdoors. I enjoy spontaneity as much as the next fellow and share your love of leaving city life behind to bask in the countryside, but really, this is a bit much. Where are we even going?”

“Al—”

“Thank heavens I was home. Given the state you’re in, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had just stolen my car and vanished forever into the ether.”

“Hey, now. I’d never do that. I’d at least leave a note.” Albert gave him a flat look that returned Arthur’s eyes to the dirt road ahead. “Look, I appreciate your concern but you can’t help me with this. Talkin’ won’t fix nothin’ and if I’m being honest, you’re far more involved than I like.”

“You never struck me as the sort to run away from your problems.”

The car was brought to a screeching halt that startled a hidden murder of crows, sending them flying and cawing into the night air. Arthur turned to him. “Now you listen, I ain’t running away. I just need a few days to sort things out.”

Time. Arthur just needed time. To think. To breathe. To forget. He was all washed up. Rung out and hung up to dry like some well-worn rag. What a fool he had been. All because he had been too close to see what lay before his eyes. Now everything was such a goddamn mess and Arthur could barely keep his head above the water. He slumped against the driver’s seat and dug around in his pocket for his cigarettes. A search undertaken in vain. He had already smoked through the whole pack.

While he was a fool, Arthur wasn’t stupid enough to sit there and curse the heavens that yet another misfortune had befallen him. He had walked right into this one. Eagerly.

There had been a woman. There was always a woman in these stories, wasn’t there? Not her fault though seeing as the poor girl was dead. Her murder had sparked this whole rotten affair. Some private detective he was. Hadn’t caught her killer yet and wasn’t even sure he still wanted to.

There had been a man too. If Arthur had known then what he knew now, he would have shot John Marston the moment he first laid eyes on that bastard. Would have saved himself a world of trouble.

Albert spoke up. “If you’re still in danger I beg you to reconsider this brief sojourn and—”

“And what? Contact the police? You know as well as I do the clubhouse is full of rats. They’re all in on it and the ones who ain’t will be killed if they don’t fall in line.”

“Then perhaps Mr. Matthews? You’re like a son to him. Surely he would protect you.”

“It’s not me that needs protectin’. It’s everyone else and from each other, no less. This war between Dutch and Hosea. It’s coming to an end and no one will leave unscathed. It’s gonna be a bloodbath.”

“What about John? Does he—”

The silence was instant. Albert subconsciously pressed his back against the door, trying to put some space between him and what Arthur knew was an enraged stare akin to those beastly predators his friend was usually so fond of. His fingers gripped the steering wheel, knuckles whitening and standing out among the purplish-blue bruises that marred his fingers. Bone-weary as a drifter walking for days without a lift, he rested his head between them. Albert placed a gentle hand on his broad back, as if Arthur was deserving of some sort of comfort.

He couldn’t think about John.

He just couldn’t.

Every time those brown eyes flashed through his mind, warm as the nights they had spent entwined, Arthur wanted to wrench open his skull and pluck out every last memory.

-- March 1931 --

A cigarette lazily perched between his chapped lips threatened to fall as Arthur peeked through the blinds at the messy streets below. Spring was dead on arrival. Winter still clinging on through the slush on their boots, through the bitter wind that had collars pulled high and hats tipped low. The line for the soup kitchen was getting so long it damn near wrapped around the block. Poor bastards. Some of them hadn’t been employed in over a year. If Arthur had the money, he’d go out there and start handing out bills so they could buy a real meal but work had been frustratingly light as of late. It was the nature of the job. Can’t really pay to have mysteries solved or the unsuspecting spied on when most could barely keep their families fed.

“Sir, you can’t just go in there!” Tilly said in that no-nonsense tone that always came out whenever her feathers got ruffled. Her heels clicked against the floor as she came after him. “Who do you think you are? You need an appointment.”

He shot at wary glance at the tall figure who loomed by his doorway, obscured by the frosted glass, trying to figure out if God or Satan was about to dole him out a favor. Not that he believed in any of that, but if he did, Arthur would place his chips on the latter. Probably some filthy rich tycoon looking to get his dirty work done or perhaps a rich Nancy boy with daddy’s money looking to get out of a jam. Two types of men Arthur strongly disliked, but money was money no matter whose hands it came from. He was always hard-pressed to turn down a potential client no matter how foul. Unless the gentleman gave his girl lip. That was different. Then Arthur would toss his ass out in the cold if Tilly didn’t do it first. Arthur walked to the front of his desk and leaned against it, hands resting lightly on the mahogany wood behind him.

“This can’t wait,” a hoarse voice rasped. Christ, there was someone out there who apparently smoked more than Arthur did.

He came into the office with all of the arrogance of a man used to getting what he wants; stride steady and gaze narrowing as it locked on Arthur, as if he was expecting more. His half-assed attempt at slicking back his black hair meant some of it still fell limply over his eyes. Dark and beguiling, they had a spark to them not unlike gunfire at night. An expensive suit, charcoal and pinstripes, hugged his lean frame. Something was off though. Maybe it was the way the fabric was a bit tight around his broad shoulders or maybe it was the thin, angry scars that tore across his young face, but Arthur recognized a fellow imposter when he saw one. Both of them too raw for the finer things in life. No silver spoon ever graced that mouth. Must be new to his wealth. Self-made.

“S’alright, Miss Jackson,” Arthur said as Tilly followed the gentleman in, ready to drag him out by the ear. She was wearing that yellow dress he always liked, added a bit of sunshine to their admittedly somber office. “I’ll take it from here.”

“If you say so,” Tilly replied, shooting the man a look that could cut through steel before shutting the door behind her.

“You oughta give that girl a raise. Ain’t ever seen a secretary so ready to go to bat for her boss.”

“Miss Jackson is a fine woman and I don’t deserve her.” Arthur turned his head to blow out a stream of smoke. “You got a name?”

“John,” he replied firmly, fiddling with his dark gray fedora before extending his hand for a firm, brisk shake. “John Marston.”

“Well, Mr. Marston.” Arthur stubbed the cigarette out in his glass ash tray and gestured towards the chair before his desk. “Unless you’re always this impatient you must have quite the story to share.”

“Don’t beat around the bush much, do you?”

“Not if I can help it.”

“Ain’t sure where to start.” John sat down. “Hell, I don’t even know if I should be here.”

Arthur crossed his arms and stared down his nose at him. “How ‘bout you just start from the beginning and I’ll be the judge of that, hm?”

“You hear about the suicide aboard the Serendipity? During the New Year’s Eve party held there?”

Not only did he hear about but he knew the victim too. “Enlighten me.”

“Her name was Heidi McCourt. We were friends. I was at the party and ran into her not long before—” he broke off and sighed, “—before she shot herself in the head.”

“That’s bad business. Ain’t easy losing someone like that.”

“That’s the thing though. Miss McCourt wasn’t suicidal. At least from I could see. She was always so happy.”

“Sometimes the saddest people are the ones who always keep a smile on their face.”

John’s shoulders slouched as if the statement somehow punctured his body, deflating him like a balloon. He muttered in a bitter tone, “That’s true, I suppose.”

Hands balled into fists on his knees. Nostrils flared. Legs straight on the floor like he was ready to bounce up and leave. This was clearly hard for him but not because of the loss. John didn’t seem like someone who asked for help much not because he didn’t need it, but because he had long been forced to solve things on his own. Arthur knew anger. Knew it too well. But he prided himself on his self-control and no longer letting his baser instincts get the best of him. John didn’t seem like that though. He had a thinly-veiled rage about him, though what a successful and handsome businessman had to be mad about was anyone’s guess.

Hoping to settle his nerves, Arthur extended his cigarette case, engraved with a stag, towards John whose long fingers plucked one out. A slight nod of thanks accompanied the flash from his silver lighter. The tension coiled in his body seemed to unwind with every smoky exhale.

“She was tellin’ me all about this new acting gig she got. How she was finally gonna leave Blackwater. Don’t see why she’d kill herself when she had so much to look forward too.”

“If you suspect Miss McCourt was murdered, why you here and not the police?”

“I tried. Spoke with Detective Milton about it. He oversaw her case. Told me they found her alone in a locked room, gun still in hand, no signs of struggle. Claimed her diary detailed how devastated she was over her failed acting career.” John brought the cigarette to his lips and took a deep pull, brows creasing in annoyance.

“Apparently that’s as good as a suicide note.”

“Apparently,” John snorted. “I tried pointing out that someone could’ve held the gun to her head, used a key to get in and out. The coroner said she shot herself at midnight, but she wasn’t discovered for hours. Anything could’ve happened! But Milton told me my time would be better spent with a shrink to deal with my overwhelming grief. The prick.” Arthur grinned at that. No better word to describe Andrew Milton. John must have misinterpreted his response, for he bitterly added, “I’m not crazy though. I know there’s more to the story.”

“I don’t think you’re crazy.”

John blinked. “You don’t?”

“Well, I don’t know you,” Arthur teased, “you could have a few loose screws. But I knew Miss McCourt. Met her out west when she was tryin’ to make it big in Hollywood. Ran into her a couple of times here. Like you, she never struck me as the suicidal type and I saw her at her worst. Failure inspired her, made her want to work harder. That whole devastated actress angle Milton threw at you is nonsense.”

“So you’ll look into it?”

“For a price.”

John immediately dug into his wallet, fat and full of bills that Arthur would very much like to get his hands on. Where’d all that money come from? Maybe he was a vulture; one of the select few who benefited from the stock market crash.

“This enough?” John placed a crisp twenty dollar bill in his hands. “If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, but I just feel like I owe it to her, y’know? She was one of the few nice people in this shit stain of a town and her death has been buggin’ me for months.”

“Ain’t a fan of Milton nor Blackwater?” Arthur pocketed the bill. “It’s like you’re tryin’ to get me to like you, Mr. Marston.”

“Maybe I am.” John replied, sweeping a hand over his clean-shaven face. If Arthur didn’t know any better, he’d think it was an attempt to cover up a bit of color in his cheeks.

Tilly’s fingers tapping away at her typewriter and cars sloshing through the damp streets filled the sudden silence. ‘Arthur Morgan Private Investigator,’ emblazoned on the window cast a shadow over John as his attention drifted from the faded wallpaper, to the disarray of his desk, to the half empty decanter of whiskey on the windowsill. Everything and anything that wasn’t Arthur’s unwavering stare. It was a hard one to be subjected to and from an unpleasant face too. Worn with lines and nicks carved out of his skin like crevices in the earth. Always rough with stubble even though he just shaved, damn it. Arthur fit right in with the criminals he brought to justice. Fit in right along side them on death row too, if he was being honest. Making John uncomfortable wasn’t his intention. A by-product of being in his line of sight as he got caught up in his head thinking about where to start. Heidi’s family and friends, of course. The police file. Witnesses.

The body can speak louder than words though and Arthur knew how to listen.

“There something you’re not telling me?”

John kept his head down but his gaze flashed up and lips pulled back, baring his teeth. A come-hither look but one that was less like a flirtatious dame and more like a wolf beckoning his prey. “You’re good at reading people, ain’t you?”

“Have to be in my line of work.”

It took him a couple more drags before he growled, “If it turns out she was murdered, I don’t want the killer coming after me or anyone I care about. You better keep my name a secret.”

“Of course, Mr. Marston.” Arthur raised his hands as if he was trying to ease an ornery stallion. “What’s got you spooked?”

John grimaced at his word choice. “When I spoke with Miss McCourt on the ferry, there was this blond feller hanging ‘round her. She didn’t introduce us, but I swear I’ve seen him in the papers before. If it’s who I think it is, his name is Micah Bell and he’s—”

“A career criminal, yeah, I’ve heard of him.” Arthur scratched the back of his head. Last he heard Bell had been magically pardoned for a triple homicide up in New Hanover. Not that he’d tell John that. He was right to be scared of him. “If my boyfriend was a thug like that, I don’t rightly blame Miss McCourt for withholdin’ introductions.”

That got a laugh out of John. Far more relaxed now that he knew his identity would remain a secret, his body grew less rigid, demeanor more playful. It was almost cute how he slipped an arm just past Arthur’s wide frame to crush his cigarette in the ashtray, rather than ask him to fetch it.

Arthur tilted his head. “How’d a pretty boy like you get those scars?”

“Fell down some stairs,” John said without missing a beat.

“Fell down some—boy, I heard some shit lies in my day, but that?” Arthur cracked up, shaking his head. “These stairs jagged? Run down the side of a mountain?”

“We ain’t even on a first name basis and already you’re poking into my life.” He gave him the kind of smile that if Arthur had a daughter and John came to his doorstep looking for her, he’d greet him with a shotgun. All trouble and not worth any of it. “I’m not the mystery you’re being paid to solve.”

Arthur shrugged. “I’m always open to extra work.”

John bit his lip as he dug into his pocket and pulled out a small packet of matches. When he handed it over, his index finger stretched to brush Arthur’s ever so slightly. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up in rebellion, not excitement. What the hell was he playing at?

“If you need to reach me, I’m the owner of Beecher’s Hope. The address and number are on there.”

“That fancy café? Didn’t take you for a coffee slinger.”

“We all gotta make a living somehow.” There was that smirk again. More of a slash than anything and hinted at another secret. John placed his hat back on his head. “Nice meeting you, Mr. Morgan. Let me know what you find out.”

After John strolled out as fast as he came in, Arthur poured himself a healthy shot of whiskey and returned to the window. The afternoon sunlight outlined the buildings blocking his view of the Upper Montana, gilding them and the rest of the city in gold. Pretty apt for, what did John call it? Oh yes, this shit stain of a town. Beautiful, but only on the outside. For a sweetheart like Heidi McCourt to be murdered here was more than plausible, though the act itself made little sense. Funny. Honest. The sort of woman who’d have your back if things went haywire. Pretty little thing too. How she hadn’t gotten snapped up by Hollywood, he’d never know—but then again, good looking dames were a dime a dozen out there. Crime doesn’t need logic though. If Heidi was murdered, Arthur would find out who did it and why.

“Don’t think you can hide in there!” Tilly called out. “Come on out and tell me what on earth he couldn’t wait to get you mixed up in.”

“Hell if I know,” Arthur muttered under his breath before throwing back the shot.

Chapter Text

Friends in the right places. That’s the real trick up every private detective’s sleeve. They’re lying if they say otherwise. Sure, having no qualms about wading into the depths of human depravity was useful. A willingness to get one’s hands dirty didn’t hurt neither. But nothing opened up the world quite like a web of contacts. Reporters. Cops. Criminals. Politicians. A spider like him could glide from one strand to another to get to what or who he needed. They always wanted something in return and Arthur was, generally speaking, willing to pay.

Then there was Albert Mason.

“I’m always willing to brave the dust-ridden trenches of our archival rooms for a dear friend, but the department really should consider tidying up back there.” Albert led Arthur through the Blackwater Ledger maze. Rows upon rows of cluttered desks, noisy typewriters, frazzled newshawks. Guess miracles do exist. That’s the only explanation for how any work got done here. “A man could suffocate!”

One would’ve thought they were a pair of beauties strutting up the street with the way they collected stares. It was to be expected. Arthur always looked one drink away from punching someone. Meanwhile the stress that wafted through the office like the smoke hanging above the newsroom seemed to bounce off Albert. Unwaveringly cheerful, he fit in here about as well as he did out in the wilderness. That suited Arthur just fine. They wouldn’t have become friends if Albert hadn’t managed to get himself chased up a tree by a camera-shy grizzly bear. Words may be his trade but wildlife photography was his passion.

“If you have things to do, don’t mind me.” Arthur said as they snuck into the blissfully empty office of a senior editor who was out pounding the pavement. “Don’t know how many times I’ve bothered you ‘bout a case.”

Albert set the old newspapers on the desk between them. “You’re never a bother, Arthur. You should know that by now.”

He should. It’s a hard thing to learn when one’s past was all tied up in strings attached.

“Frankly, it’s a relief to escape the drudgery of having to listen to the bickering over at city hall. If I have to write one more article about some overstuffed blowhard spewing lies disguised as promises, I’ll fling myself out one of these windows.”

This corner office provided plenty of options; all of them oversized and streaked with thin rivers of water. Arthur wasn’t holding his breath for an appearance by the sun today. “Ten storeys down will get the job done but if it comes to that, wait ‘til after your birthday. I already got you somethin’.”

There was a flash of amusement in his brown eyes. “Are you going to tell me why you’re interested in the Serendipity Tragedy or are you going to keep stalling?”

He rubbed the back of his neck. “Let’s just say the real tragedy might be that someone has gotten away with murder.”

Albert leaned back in his seat, loosening his green tie. “Is it wise for you to be involved in a case where you know the deceased?”

“No,” Arthur snorted. “Not at all.”

Open-and-shut-cases don’t hog the headlines. With only a few articles to sort though, reacquainting themselves with the official story was easy. Just before midnight, Heidi McCourt slipped off to rest after claiming she felt ill. Fireworks greeted the new year and she said farewell; the deed concealed by the celebrations. A horrified janitor discovered her body six hours later in a locked guestroom with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Sorrow over a failed career was the culprit.

Arthur jotted a couple of new details into his journal. A diary was reported as the source of the motive and he obtained the names of two potential witnesses: Molly O’Shea and Abigail Roberts. Like a certain enigmatic businessman he was trying to not think about, the two ladies were both friends of Heidi and had attended the party. There was no mention of Micah Bell. Not that Arthur was surprised. Newspapers were probably the last place he’d want to be. After the electric chair, of course.

“It’s odd that no one went searching for Miss McCourt when she—” The door burst open and cut Albert off.

“English, we’ll be doublin’ the money ya owe me! The absolute shite you put me through. Jesus Christ!”

Officer Sean MacGuire stormed inside as if his singular goal in life was to make as much racket as possible. It probably was. The Irishman was a lifelong leech who thrived on attention. Clad in the dark blue uniform of the Blackwater Police Department, with his gold buttons polished, young face clean-shaven, and red hair neatly trimmed, Sean almost passed for an upstanding citizen. He knew better. Sean was barely a stone’s throw away from the petty thief Arthur had arrested back in the day.

“In case you haven’t noticed, we’re in a goddamn newsroom,” Arthur sneered, shutting the door once more. “Keep your voice down unless you want the entirety of Blackwater to know our business.”

“I could’ve lost me job! Twice!” Sean extended the file folder in his hands towards Arthur only to pull it back. “Not that you care. Oh no. Just as long as ol’ Sean gets you what you want. Milton and Ross are like fucking dogs! Just a hint of trouble in the air and they come sniffing around like a pair of bloodhounds. The bastards.”

“Ain’t my fault you’re as subtle as a slap to the face and can’t sneak around your own workplace.” Arthur tried to grab the folder again, but Sean held it out of reach.

“Look Mason! Got ourselves a fucking comedian here!”

Albert shifted to the right so Arthur could grab Sean by his collar, dragging the smaller man across the table. “You’re gonna see somethin’ real funny if you don’t give me that damn file.”

“Easy, Morgan. Easy!” Sean squeaked, dropping the all-important item. “I was just playing with you!”

Grumbling under his breath, Arthur relented and tossed the promised money onto the table. Sean snatched it up with the speed of a seasoned pickpocket.

“Nearly had a heart attack. Ross is always prowling around. Milton though? Bastard rarely leaves his palace and today of all days he does! Can’t say I blame him for being a hermit. Half the place hates his guts and his office is beautiful. But why the fuck does he need a fireplace in there? Doubt his arse gets cold considering he’s always sitting in his fancy chair like some smug lord lookin’ down upon the peasants and—why do you keep staring at me like that, Mason?”

“Sorry, it’s just, whenever our paths cross I’m always left wondering how exactly you managed to secure a position with Blackwater’s Finest.”

Arthur snorted so hard his nose hurt. Sean took no notice. “I’m Irish! I walked in lookin’ for directions and walked out with a job.”

“Ah,” Albert replied, stroking his thick mustache and beard. He was the only man at the Ledger who refused to shave. “With hiring practices like that I suppose our high crime rate shouldn’t be much of a surprise.”

“Two comedians. Great.” Sean pulled up a chair. “What’s so interesting about this stiff?” When he placed his feet on the table, Arthur smacked them off. He’d toss him out the window if the police station wasn’t right across the street.

Albert filled Sean in on the particulars while Arthur sifted through the autopsy report and various grisly photos. Death always left a trail; clues that let dead men—or women in this case—tell their tales. His eyes searched for an oversight. Something small. Something that could poke a hole into the original conclusion. Arthur was far too sober to be staring at a star-shaped hole in his friend’s skull, but then again there probably wasn’t enough scotch in the world to make any of this alright.

“See the shape of it? The burn mark? The gun was pressed to her left temple.” Albert and Sean watched Arthur’s finger hover just above the photo. “There should be gunpowder on her hand though.”

When he picked up the photo of the exit wound, Sean bristled and buried himself in the written report. “Christ. Never once have I regretted not working in forensics.”

The bullet made a goddamn mess. Blew the right side of her head open, exiting close to her ear. Or what was left of it. The knowledge that he had seen worse did little to help. Arthur closed his eyes, remembering when he watched Heidi write out postcards to her siblings. ‘Greetings from California’ splashed over the Golden Gate Bridge. The pencil had been in her right hand. Yet that wasn’t the one she had used to end her life.

Albert, who had paled considerably, squinted at the photo. “Seems the bullet exited lower than it entered.”

“It was fired at a downward angle, that’s why.” Arthur tossed the photo on the table in disgust. “She wasn’t holding the gun.”

“Look at this.” Sean slid the report forward and tapped the toxicity results. A fair amount of alcohol had been found in her blood. “Definitely not a dry party. Drunk as a skunk, she was!”

Fury curled inside, coiling up within him like a tightly wound spring. His jaw clenched in the same way it had when he first found out Heidi had died. It was like hearing the news all over again. Just worse. Sometimes the line between suicide and homicide could be blurred. Not here.

“Why cover up a murder and purposely do a terrible job at it?” Arthur said this mostly to himself but Albert and Sean looked equally confused.

Milton was a seasoned lawman. None of this would have gotten past him or any coroner worth their salt. It’s like they wanted someone to find out. Or maybe they were so blindingly arrogant, so satisfied with their padded pockets that they didn’t think anyone would go looking for, let alone discover the truth. That seemed more likely. There was probably more to it though. There always was.

Arthur sighed heavily and ran a hand through his hair. Already exhausted and nowhere near noon yet. “Might wanna suggest finding a new coroner to your superiors.”

“English, if we got rid of every corrupt officer, the department would be a ghost town.” Sean tilted his head with a cheeky grin. “Hell, I’d be fired first.”

--

In a parlor with more flowers than a greenhouse. choking on thick air sweetened by honeysuckle as he awaited the lady of the house, one thing was very clear: Arthur shouldn’t be here. Even her Persian cat seemed to agree. It paced near the doorway eyeing him like the maid had, as if he was liable to steal something. Not that Arthur had any right to complain. After all his lack of better judgement had brought him here. Now he sat under the gaze of a ghost. Heidi McCourt bored down from above the fireplace mantle, her likeness almost perfectly captured except for her eyes. Too cold and piercing. Hers were more like the soft blue hydrangea resting along the windowsill.

Therein lay the problem.

Albert had called it earlier. Arthur was close. Too close. Proximity can fog up the glass, make things harder to see. His objectivity was already suffering, having sided with the client’s belief that the victim was murdered before he had definitive proof. Now that he had it, the smart thing to do would be to pass the case off to another private investigator. One with distance. Greed had sunk its claws in him though. Good and deep. It wasn’t just the money. Arthur wanted answers, wanted to make sense of it all, wanted to do right. As if good done now can make up for all his past wrongdoings.

A black telephone sat on the ottoman before him. Its silent existence almost taunted Arthur. He needed to call his client but had been dragging his heels.

John Marston. Every time his sly smile flashed before his eyes Arthur pushed it away with both hands. Between his careful words and coy mannerisms, the scarred gentleman had occupied his thoughts far more than was professional. Their conversation had been in fun. Until it wasn’t. His finger still burned from where John had slowly traced it with his. Not an invitation or even a suggestion so much as recognition. I see you, it said, but Arthur didn’t want to be seen.

Maybe he was making too much of it. Arthur quickly fished out the matches from his pocket and dialed the number.

“Beecher’s Hope.” The voice on the other end was as raspy as it had been when they last spoke. Somehow it grated on his ears yet he still liked the way it seemed to linger in the air.

“Mr. Marston, it’s—”

“What a nice surprise, Mr. Morgan. Didn’t expect to hear back from you so soon. You always this eager?” John had paused before the final word for emphasis.

“My rate is $25 a day plus expenses,” Arthur said curtly, in no mood for his nonsense.

The long silence that followed was filled by voices and laughter muffled by jazz music. It was a jaunty tune. The kind you can dance to, if you liked that sort of thing. “This is the one time in my life I didn’t want to be right. You sure?”

“Unless Miss McCourt pointed the gun down at herself and then wiped her hands after the act, while drunk then yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

John exhaled loudly through his nose. Arthur supposed it was nice, in a twisted sort of way, to have another share one’s frustrations. “How’d the police not catch that? You’d think—” The rest of his sentence was lost to the lively music. Someone was having a grand old time with their trumpet.

“The hell kind of café you got there, Mr. Marston?”

“You should come.” Arthur could practically hear John smirking. “I’ll give you a private tour.”

“I’ll pass. Coffee ain’t all that interesting.”

“Guess it depends on who’s servicing you.” John spoke slowly, letting the words dance over his tongue.

Arthur grabbed the bridge of his nose. “I have business to attend to. Call Miss Jackson to discuss payment options.”

He hung up so quickly that his hands fumbled and the phone nearly fell off the ottoman. The cat peered at him like he was an idiot and was right to do so. He had been on the nose about John. This was all his fault. Arthur had been sloppy and now he had to nip whatever the hell this was in the bud. Set the fool straight the next time he saw him. Russian Roulette was a safer bet than dabbling with a client and Arthur had no intention of getting shot anytime soon.

“I apologize for not being fit to receive you when you first arrived, Mr. Morgan.” Dorothy McCourt swept into the room briskly, still adjusting her silver earrings. “It’s been a while since I had any gentleman callers.”

It almost hurt to look at her. Aside from the short, wispy hair clouding around her head like a storm cloud and the fine lines streaking out across her face, Dorothy was what Arthur suspected Heidi would look like had she been given the chance to reach her fifties. Likely thrown on in haste, her black dress was wrinkled and the imprint of a pillow still rested upon her cheek. Arthur felt like a cad for forcing a grieving mother out of bed. Still, she held her head high as if nothing was wrong. Whether it was for his sake or hers that Dorothy wanted to maintain the illusion that everything was well, Arthur didn’t know and wouldn’t ask.

“No need to apologize, Mrs. McCourt. Your cat kept me company.”

“Would you like some sher—I mean, a glass of water?”

Arthur grinned. “I’m a detective, not a cop. Never been one to say no to a drink.”

“You were an officer of the law though.” Dorothy bent down and pulled out a bottle of sherry hidden beneath the plush sofa. “If memory serves, Heidi mentioned something along those lines when you and I first met.”

“I was, but not a very good one. Hold the same opinion of prohibition then as I did now.”

“Which is?”

Arthur watched the rich brown liquid fall into the crystal tumblers. He’d bet every last dollar to his name that Hosea Matthews made that alcohol possible. Outside of speakeasies, the pharmacy was the easiest place to get a drink. Only a prescription was required and doctors handed them out like candy thanks to kickbacks. Hosea kept those shelves stocked.

Seated at the top of an empire built on bootlegging and racketeering, the Matthews Outfit was the major crime syndicate in West Elizabeth. Despite the ban, booze flowed as freely as tap water here since the early twenties thanks to his ability to work with rather than against most of his competitors. There were still squabbles every now and then. Violent murders of traitors, federal agents, and those who couldn’t toe the line were all too common. But no blood was shed on his streets unless Hosea had deemed it necessary. It also didn’t hurt that he had nearly every politician and lawman on this side of the Lannahechee on his payroll.

Except Arthur.

Hosea was more of a father to him than the real one. Certainly far more than Dutch had been as well. Arthur loved Hosea so much that he wanted nothing to do with him.

He clinked his glass with hers. “Not worth the trouble it breeds.”

Dorothy gave him a smile before taking a sip. “Forgive me, Mr. Morgan, but you don’t strike me as the sort of man who pays old widows social calls. What can I help you with?”

By all rights, he should be a better liar. Criminals and cops practically swam in falsehoods. Yet Arthur had long been transparent as gin and his fabrications never went down as smoothly. He was forced to rely on half-truths and his personal favorite, withholding information.

“I wanted to see how you were doing. We only spoke briefly at the funeral. I should have called on you earlier.”

“I’m about as well as can be expected, I suppose. I still feel like I’m drowning most of the time.” Dorothy set down her already empty glass. “I think what troubles me most is that I didn’t see it coming. Heidi was my daughter. She lived in this house up until the end. Yet somehow I didn’t notice her unhappiness.”

If Arthur was an amateur, he would’ve dropped the detective act right then and there. Sympathy would’ve led him to show his cards. Instead he held them tight to his chest. It’s not that he didn’t trust Dorothy. It’s just he didn’t need her barging over to the station, rightfully demanding the heads of every officer in sight. So long as the police didn’t know what he knew, Arthur could move freely throughout the shadows until the time was right to step back into the light.

“You can’t blame yourself,” Arthur said firmly. “No one could have seen it. She was always so happy.”

“She was, wasn’t she? I mean, Heidi was quite sad when she lost her job with her previous employer but that went away after a successful audition for a film. She had plans to move back out west and with her sweetheart, no less.”

“Oh? I wasn’t aware Heidi had found a special someone.”

“Yes, his name is Micah Bell. When I first met him I thought he was a bit rough around the edges and not at all right for my dear Heidi, but he turned out to be a perfectly charming man. He came by not too long ago.” She patted his hand in a painfully maternal fashion. “You’re both dears for wanting to check up on me.”

Right back to feeling like a cad. Based on what he knew, Arthur lacked the imagination to picture Micah Bell as charming, but he took Dorothy’s word for it. At least the primary suspect was in town and Arthur could pay him a visit eventually.

He finished off his drink and cleared his throat. “Who was her previous employer?”

“Believe it or not, Hosea Matthews. She worked in the gardens at that fancy house of his by Quaker’s Cove. I wasn’t thrilled when she first told me, but he paid her well and treated her right. Until the end. I had half a mind to march down there and demand to know why he fired her.”

Arthur refrained from asking for another glass of sherry. He needed something a hell of a lot stronger.

Chapter Text

If you wanted to get rid of a body, this was the place to do it. The sprawling Matthews Estate overlooked where Flat Iron Lake forked; it was a toss up where the stiff would wind up. This and other trying memories were difficult to shake as he stood before a fortress of white wood siding, a wraparound veranda, and many, many green shuttered windows from which guards peered out.  Unconcerned about his safety Hosea had been hard pressed to live in “a bloated country home plucked out of a dead century,” as he called it, until an attack on his apartment left scores of innocents dead and him singing a different tune.

According to the valet, Hosea was out for a ride so Arthur happily ventured down to the stables. There was no finer creature than the horse. Hosea threatened to buy him one every Christmas but Arthur always declined, lest he wind up here every weekend. A tiny, broken piece deep inside, buried beneath hard truths and harder memories yearned to start a ranch out west. Instead like a tree his roots clung to the soil of West Elizabeth, seeping deeper and deeper with every passing year.

“Ain’t you a beauty,” Arthur cooed to a Thoroughbred mare, her dark bay coat shined even in the shade of the stable roof. “Someone takes good care of you.”

“Thank you, sir! I try to.”

A gangly, pale man peeked out seven horse stalls down, eyes growing comically wide when he caught sight of Arthur. What was his name? Kieran? Something like that. Better known as the lovestruck fool who Arthur teased mercilessly whenever he encountered him loitering around the bookstore beneath his office, desperate to catch the eye of a certain employee. In a pair of high riding boots, brown slacks, and a blue button-down, the soft-spoken young man fit the bill as a stable manager.

“Oh! Mr. Morgan! I mean Detective Morgan! I—I didn’t realize, uh, are you here to investigate something?”

“I don’t know. You do somethin’ that needs investigating?”

“No, sir! I’ve done nothing wrong. I swear!”

Jumpier than a sinner in a church, Arthur wasn’t sure how useful Kieran would be to gleam information from but took a shot in the dark anyways. “Did a Heidi McCourt used to work here?”

“I—I can’t say, sir.” Kieran shuffled into a stall, hiding behind a stoic Appaloosa. He began to brush its spotted coat. “I only started working here a few months ago.”

Horseshit. Their employment periods overlapped despite Heidi’s termination. Lying to a lawman meant that Hosea had likely pulled another little lost black sheep into the fold. Kieran didn’t seem like much of a rum-runner or racketeer though. Maybe that’s why Hosea liked him. The unsuspecting had a way of being useful.

“Y’know lying to me ain’t a wise thing to do, boy.” Arthur started forward, trapping Kieran in the stall. “You started here six months ago and Miss McCourt was let go at the end of November. Am I supposed to believe you two never crossed paths?”

“I only met her a handful of times! No more than that. Miss McCourt worked in the gardens and greenhouse, I think. Don’t know much about her except that everyone was sad when she passed.”

Arthur sighed, realizing he had already reached the extent of what Kieran could tell him. With time to spare and Mary-Beth not around to stop him, he couldn’t help but slip into his habit of being a absolute louse. His eyes narrowed into slits. “Where were you on the night of December 31st?”

“W-What?” Kieran dropped the horse brush. Bug-eyed and head swiveling for an escape, it was like watching a squirrel trapped in the middle of a busy road. “I didn’t do nothing. I swear! I was here the whole night.”

“Got anyone who can verify your alibi?” One step forward had Kieran staring at him like he was an oncoming car.

“Arthur, are you terrorizing my employees again?”

The dry voice halted his shenanigans as swiftly as it did when he was fourteen. Dressed similarly to Kieran, except for his striped blue vest and a dark, wide-brimmed hat, Hosea came across as a world-weary old cowboy back from the trail. That’s what he wanted people to think; writing him off as a relic tended to be a grievous error. A silver-haired and tongued chameleon who changed as the world around him did, his gaze and mind were as razor sharp as the knife he carried in his boot.

Arthur gave him a sheepish grin. “Maybe.”

Hosea gave Silver Dollar one last loving pat, before passing the reins to Kieran. “Don’t mind him, Mr. Duffy. He’s really a child masquerading as a grown man.”

“Should’ve used the strap more when you had the chance, old man. Ain’t my fault I was raised with no manners.”

“See what I mean?”

Poor Kieran had a crooked smile, clearly unsure whether he was allowed to laugh and at whom. This was how it always was. Playful jabs were terms of endearment. The faux frostiness melted the instant they stepped outside. Hosea wrapped an arm around Arthur and gave him a squeeze.

“Son, it’s good to see you. What brings you by?” His smile faltered. “Is something wrong?”

“No, no, nothin’ like that.” Arthur patted the worn hand before it fell away. “How’s that cough of yours?”

“Let’s just say I’ve finally found something that’s even more stubborn than you.”

Arthur snickered. “Where’d you find that kid again? He always seems one mild inconvenience away from a nervous breakdown.”

“We caught him hiding up at our operation near Wallace Station. Ran off from the O’Driscolls. Figured he’d do better down south; far from anyone who might recognize him.”

“An O’Driscoll? Here? Christ alive.” Arthur shook his head slowly. “I wouldn’t trust him to pass the salt at the dinner table and here you are givin’ him a job! How’s that fit into your peace with Colm?”

Hosea had that sly old fox grin of his plastered on. “It doesn’t.”

The gardens held no collage of colors yet. On the cusp of April, the rosebushes were still wrapped in burlap; the seeds surrounding the mausoleum were Bessie rested had yet to sprout. They walked in silence. The air had grown heavy with things better left unsaid. Guilt was a constant companion. Arthur knew its every shape and form, knew how it weighed him down for trudging out a new path rather than following the course set by the man who was his father in all but name and blood. Hosea gave Arthur no grief for staying on the right side of the law when he strayed back to the left but he still kept the door wide open in case his wayward lamb ever wanted to rejoin the flock.

“I’m investigating a murder.”

If Hosea resented that only an ulterior motive or a special occasion would bring Arthur to his doorstep, he kept it to himself. He simply replied, “I figured as much. Who was the unlucky victim?”

“Heidi McCourt.” That stopped the old man in his tracks. Hosea squinted at him as if he didn’t believe what he had just heard. “I have the evidence. It couldn’t have possibly been her who pulled the trigger and the police did a purposely sloppy job at covering it up.”

Grim-faced and stare set straight ahead at nothing in particular, Arthur could practically hear the gears turning inside. “And you’re wondering why I fired her?”

Arthur would have winced if he wasn’t used to Hosea being a straight-shooter; able to cut right to the point without theatrics.

“Miss McCourt used to be a model employee, but around September or so she stopped coming in on time. Some days she wouldn’t show at all.” Hosea broke off into a cough, then cleared his throat.  “When she was here, she was always distracted. My understanding is that the young lady found herself a new man and he was eating up all her time.”

The lines across his face suddenly seemed deeper. A trick of the light, but still, it made Hosea seem far older than he was. “I thought my actions contributed to her end and, well, I can’t say I feel any relief to hear the truth. Miss McCourt was well-liked and believe me I got an earful when I let her go. Can’t think of anyone who’d want her dead.”

“I hate to ask but Micah Bell doesn’t by any chance work for you now, does he?”

“I’m almost offended you’d ask such a thing.” Hosea waved a dismissive hand before Arthur could rattle off an apology. “I’m a degenerate but I have standards. Loose cannons like that are bad for business. Mrs. Adler is as wild as I’ll go.”

“I only asked ‘cause take a guess at who was eating up all of Miss McCourt’s time.”

A blank stare was followed by a bark of laughter. “Arthur, I’m no Sherlock but—”

“If he is the murderer, why’d the cops protect him? Police across five states have been gunnin’ to see him fry for at least a decade now.”

“Powerful friends, most likely. How else would he have escaped the chair so many times?” Hosea gave Arthur a pained look. “You be careful, alright? He’s around. Caught the bastard nosing around my area of the docks. Like a damn rat he scurried off and vanished down Mercer Road before my men could catch him.”

Mercer Road? Wasn’t that where Beecher’s Hope was located? “It’d be suicide to stir up shit with you.”

“He ain’t all there. To be honest, I doubt Mr. Bell is working alone. An awful lot of dust has been kicked up as of late. Dutch is after Colm again and—” Hosea smiled weakly. “Nevermind. Just know if he or anyone give you any trouble—”

“I’ll be fine,” Arthur said quickly, hating that he wanted to know more. It had been over ten years and yet the urge to follow his shepherd and to keep tabs on the other still simmered under the surface. “You have enough to worry ‘bout without tossin’ me into the mix.”

“I’ll always worry about you, Arthur. You know that.” Hosea placed a hand on the angel carved into the stone walls of the mausoleum. “Where you off to now?”

“Beecher’s Hope.”

“When you get there, be sure to tell them you prefer tea.”

“But I don’t.” Arthur frowned.

Hosea gave him a cryptic smile. “Trust me.”

--

Beecher’s Hope was the sort of place Arthur avoided. Porcelain plates accompanied by too many silver utensils. Fresh flowers on every lace-covered tabletop. A white canopy turned pink by the waning sun under which ladies in furs enjoyed their overpriced coffee and pastries. The math wasn’t adding up. Sure John masqueraded as a refined gentleman, but he was a rough bastard. Same as him. Yet he owned a place like this?

Arthur swept past a host who quirked an unimpressed eyebrow at his rudeness, stepping into the bright and elegant interior that was surprisingly empty save for three rough men laughing and smoking their way through a poker game. A waiter cleared his throat as he vanished into the kitchen prompting one of the card players, an older man whose gray hair had abandoned the top of his head in favor of the sides, to rise. His aged face held all the reluctance in the world at having to stand, but he still approached with all the good humor of an old friend.

“Hello there! You lost, buddy?”

“Don’t think so. Is Mr. Marston in? I need to speak with him.”

“Maybe,” he smiled a bit too cheerfully, thumbing his brown suspenders. It was hard not to notice the gun tucked into in the waistband on his pants. “Don’t think I’ve seen you ‘round before.”

“Not much of a coffee drinker, I suppose. I prefer tea myself.”

“Well, lucky you!” The man slapped him on the back and strolled over to the counter, leaning over next to where the register sat. “I saw him earlier today.”

The man pressed something under the ledge and a panel in the wall behind the counter slid to the left. A wave of music and chatter left Arthur biting his lip in a desperate attempt not to smile as he swept off his fedora and entered the crowded room. Smoke pooled high above; chandeliers glittered like stars lost behind clouds. A lively band had couples spinning around a circular stage in a fast foxtrot. Dames decorated the counter along the far wall; two bartenders slid glasses around them as they showed off their legs and smiles in equal parts. Busy tables identical to the ones outside filled out the peripheries, yet the faint calls of a black dealer could still be heard over them from a back room. All-in-all, it was a fine place to blow a lot of dough in a short time.

“Thought coffee wasn’t interestin’ enough for you.”

Despite the black bow-tie, sleek white waistcoat, and a carnation boutonnière, John still came off as thoroughly indecent. It was the smirk’s fault; the hint of teeth that overrode any sense of propriety that his prim and proper evening attire projected.

“Guess curiosity got the better of me.” Arthur shrugged, before searching his pockets. “Your choice in a front is kinda brilliant. Cops won’t look twice at some snooty café.”

“That was the idea,” John replied, looking down as if he had the capacity to be bashful.

“I was right though.” He placed a fresh cigarette between his lips as John came up the small flight of stairs. “You are a vulture.”

Silver lighter ready, John replied, “Ain’t rightly sure I know what you mean.”

The flame flickered between them. Against his better judgement, Arthur leaned forward and enjoyed a much needed drag. He was supposed to set John straight about the boundaries of their relationship—bastard had a smug glint in his dark eyes—but the music seemed to be drowning the rational part of his brain out. “I mean you picked the right time to get into this sort of business.”

“Don’t know if I’d call myself a scavenger.” John flicked his head for Arthur to follow. “I’m just providing people with what they need.”

“A hangover?”

“A distraction.”

The younger man led him through the diverse crowd, only pausing to whisper something to a waiter. Some of the occupants were dressed to the nines, others looked as though a stiff drink was all they could afford. Once they had arrived at the best seat in the house, above all the action, John looked down at the dance floor where couples had slowed to the sounds of Gershwin. Meanwhile Arthur was looking at him and was pretty certain he had the better view.

“You dance, Mr. Morgan?”

Arthur snorted. “I’m too old for that nonsense.”

“How old is that? I’ll have to be careful.” John nodded in thanks at the waiter who had appeared with a pair of double scotches. “Didn’t realize dancing came with an age limit.”

“Ain’t you nosy?” Arthur rolled his eyes when John clinked their drinks together. “Thirty-six.”

“Excellent. Only ten more years ‘til retirement then.” John smirked behind his glass. “Tell me, what do grumpy old men get up to when they’re not working? I’d like to prepare ahead of time.”

“I’m always working on somethin’ one way or another.” Arthur shrugged, relishing the delightful burn of the scotch but trying not to show it. “I suppose gettin’ out of the city is always nice.”

“You seem like a man who enjoys a good game of cards.”

“Sure.” Arthur dragged out the word, before taking another sip.

“You strike me as the sort who likes to place his money on a sure thing. You want to know what you’re getting into before raising the stakes and aren’t one to hedge your bets. That’s the smart way to play.”

God knows where this conversation was going. “I take it you don’t play that way then?”

“No but being smart ain’t somethin’ I’m accused of very often.” His smirk became a genuine smile. “I like playing the odds; taking my chances on a long-shot. Sometimes it blows up in my face, but usually the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward.”

Arthur sighed heavily. He hadn’t known John Marston for even a week and yet he was fairly certain he might just be the most irritating man Arthur had ever encountered. Was it even possible to have a straight conversation with him? “Why do I get the feelin’ we ain’t talking ‘bout gambling no more?”

“What else could we be talking about?”

“Stop it.” He crushed his cigarette in a crystal ashtray. “Coyness doesn’t suit you. Y’know exactly what you’re doing.”

“We’re just talking. Pretty sure folks still call it that, unless there’s a new term that I’m not aware of.”

“Well, you can talk all you damn well like but whatever this is.” Arthur gestured between them, cursing himself for being inept with words. “It’s not going any further. You’re a client. Period.”

John’s lip curled slowly, as if his words were a challenge not a rejection. “How professional.”

After throwing back the rest of his scotch, Arthur set the empty glass down firmly and spoke with a hard edge to his voice. “Look. I came here to warn you. That’s it. The police didn’t miss the evidence that Miss McCourt was murdered, they ignored it. Worse yet, Mr. Bell was the man you saw on the ferry and he’s not only in town but trying to provoke the person who keeps this joint wet.”

“Funny. I was beginning to think you don’t like me. Yet it almost sounds like you care about my well-being.”

“I don’t, but I’ve seen speakeasies become battlegrounds. Can’t have my meal ticket getting shot so keep your ear to the ground, alright?”

The round of applause that greeted a red-haired singer masked John’s retort, though Arthur got the gist of it, what with the scowl and all. When she plopped herself on top of a grand piano her long evening gown reminded him of a burning green candle, the way it dripped down and pooled around her on the shiny, black wood. The singer had on far more make-up than necessary. Perhaps to stand out in the low light as she began to croon out a dreamy love song with an Irish lilt. It left couples clinging to one another on the dance floor and Arthur’s blood cold.

“Who’s the canary?”

“That’s Miss Molly O’Shea. You’re lucky to catch her tonight. She only sings here a few times each month.”

“You know Abigail Roberts too?”

John’s face froze. “Why?”

He’ll take that as a yes. “According to the newspapers, they were both friends of Miss McCourt and attended the New Years party.”

“Oh.” John finished his own drink and his voice became scratchy. “Well, whenever you want to meet either, just ask.”

“Good to know.”

Arthur eyed his downtrodden drinking partner wearily. He was sulking. Actually sulking. Probably not used to getting turned down. If only the idiot would realize it was for his own damn good. Young, handsome, and with more money than brains, John could easily find someone far better than some miserable old bastard.

“You aware Miss McCourt worked for Mr. Matthews as a gardener?” John shook his head. “Up until late November. She was fired for showing up late constantly or not at all. Apparently being with Mr. Bell was a time-consuming endeavor.”

“That doesn’t seem like Heidi though. She was one of those people who always arrived five minutes early to everything. You don’t think—”

“Mr. Matthews isn’t the sort who’d do that,” Arthur snapped without thinking.

“You speak as if you know the man.”

“Don’t you?”

“Barely, but we get along fine. He offers a fair price despite his stranglehold on the liquor business.”

“Well, look at that.” Arthur tilted his head. “You are capable of having a business relationship that is strictly professional.”

A deep blush swept over his scarred cheeks. To his great annoyance, Arthur liked it very much. Fortunately, before he got the urge to say something stupid just to make it happen again, the friendly armed gatekeeper from before came huffing and puffing up the stairs. Not wanting a heart attack on his hands, Arthur gave the old man his seat. Too winded to speak, he gestured lamely towards the doors.

Two men stood side-by-side surveying the room like hawks in search of field mice. Immaculately dressed, all white bow-ties and blacker than black tailcoats, they fit in far too perfectly and vanished from their line of sight. They would have escaped Arthur’s notice entirely, if their names weren’t Dutch van der Linde and Micah Bell. He regretted giving up his chair; the impact of seeing his old mentor after so long hit Arthur like a freight train dead on.

“Damn it, Uncle!” John snapped. “I told you not to let Mr. Van der Linde or any of his sort in here! All they do is stir up shit and—”

“Unlike you, I value my life! You don’t say no to a man like that. What should we do?”

“What I should do is stick a scarecrow out front.” John rose sharply. “It’d do about as good a job as you but at least I wouldn’t have to pay it.”

Not liking remotely where this was going, Arthur latched onto John’s wrist. “Don’t go to them.”

John stared at Arthur’s hand, blinking twice, before a scowl took over again. Like a stubborn child, he tried to tug his wrist free, before prying the fingers off one-by-one. “I have no choice. Last time he attacked an oil executive and I nearly got shot in the process. I want him and Mr. Bell gone.”

“Then I’m comin’ with you.” Arthur got in John’s face as the fool opened his mouth to protest. “Shut up. This ain’t up for discussion.”

Chapter Text

For all his bravado and determination to keep John from getting himself killed, Arthur walked towards his former mentor with all the enthusiasm of a man marching to the gallows. He was far, far too sober for this. The last time he had felt this unsettled was when he returned home from the war. A “hero” for failing to get himself torn apart by machine guns while better men around him fell one-by-one. Everything was as he had left it. His house still stood tall upon that hill. Hosea and Bessie still looked at him with all the pride in the world. The fools in Washington were still making a mess of the country. Hell, even his job as Deputy Sheriff in Valentine was still waiting for him. It made him sick. All of it. Everything was the same but it didn’t feel that way, for Arthur was no longer the man he once was.

Sure, Dutch was older. Some new lines were etched into his face, particularly near those suspicious eyes, always darting about and still devoid of warmth. His impossibly black hair was a bit longer, slicked back, and curled at the ends with not a single strand out of place. Gold wristwatch. Bejeweled cufflinks. A suit that probably cost more than what most earned in a year. He was immaculate in a way Arthur could never hope to be. Money had never gotten in the way of him appearing pristine but now that he was the success he had always envisioned himself as, Dutch was not shy about flashing his wealth. Nothing had changed. Not really. Once again, what had changed was Arthur.

“Dutch.”

His heavily ringed hand briefly froze in the air, martini sloshing slightly in the glass. “Arthur.” He breathed out, as if he didn’t quite trust what he was seeing. Dutch set his drink down slowly. “How long has it been, son?”

A rhetorical question. A week was too much of a gap for Dutch, let alone six years—which in turn was hardly enough for Arthur. Before he had the chance to muster up some half-hearted response, John cut in.

“Mr. Van der Linde, I must apologize. Had I known you were hard of hearing I would have spoken up when I told you I don’t want you or any of your associates in my place of business.”

Jesus Christ. Maybe the only way to keep John safe in all this would be to cut out his tongue. Boorish as anything, John clearly saw Dutch’s presence as an insult and he would not stand for that no matter how dangerous it was to make an enemy of him. Dutch turned his head painstakingly slow. For a moment Arthur thought he was going to grab John’s face and smash it into the bar like he had that one time a bartender had gotten smart with him down in Tumbleweed. He hoped not. He rather liked that handsome face.

Instead his lips pulled back into a smirk. “Mr. Marston, I’m surprised by your hostility. I am simply here for the same reason everyone else is.” He toasted Molly who was belting out an upbeat love song over a sea of dancing couples. She positively lit up when he did it. “To have a good time and enjoy the entertainment.”

“I don’t give a damn what you’re here for,” John snapped, gesturing towards the gambling room in the back where Micah Bell had slipped off to. “Get out and take your friend with you.”

Dutch decided to take a leisurely sip of his drink before responding. “You ought to be more careful, Mr. Marston. So quick to throw out guests. You never know when one day when they might all disappear.”

John got right in Dutch’s face but the older man didn’t even blink. “Is that a threat?”

“It is if you want it to be.”

“Mr. Marston,” Arthur quickly interjected, pulling the younger man back. “I saw one of your waiters tryin’ to get your attention from the upper level.” John opened his mouth to argue, but he cut him off in a voice that brooked no argument. “Go see what they wanted.”

Between the clenched fists, squared shoulders, and a pout that would put the most spoiled child to shame, Arthur thought he might have to drag the fool away but instead John grumbled, “Alright, but when I get back you better be gone.”

After the young man skulked off, Arthur shifted his weight as he got caught up in a silent debate. Experience told him not to sit down. Curiosity was a poor compass; engaging in conversation would only end bad. Dutch, as usual, made the choice for him in the end however, snapping his fingers and ordering an old fashioned. Arthur sat down on the bar stool, not bothering to conceal his annoyance.

“Why are you in Blackwater?”

He quirked a thick brow. “For you, of course.” Arthur snorted into his drink and Dutch gave him the sort of heated stare that if it had it been fifteen years ago, he would have shrunk into his seat. “Son, it’s been fifteen years. Isn’t that a tad too long to hold a grudge?”

“You tell me.”

“Is it so hard to believe my intentions are pure? That I miss my son and want to see how he has been keeping?”

His hand tightened around the cool glass as he tipped it back; the ice cube and orange rind brushed against his lips. Arthur hated how he yearned for those words to be true; hated how he couldn’t lower his guard around Dutch. You’d think he was still the street urchin two hucksters had plucked off the streets over two decades ago, starving for more than just food.

“A phone call would’ve sufficed.”

He snickered, looking at Arthur with a deep fondness that was about as sincere as an excuse tossed out during a hasty morning exit following a night of passion.

“Too impersonal. I merely wanted to remind you that despite all that has happened between us and the years apart, my arms will always be open and ready to welcome you back.”

Dutch was doing that thing where he would smile and say everything Arthur wanted to hear to distract him from the noose slowly tightening around his neck. Not to kill. Not this time at least. Just to keep him right where he wanted.

Whenever their paths crossed Dutch never failed to extend an olive branch. Always held a bit too high so he’d have to work to get it. Nothing ever came easy with him. If Arthur hadn’t reached up for it when they last spoke, when he was nearly out of his mind with grief, he certainly wouldn’t do so now. Arthur would never go back to life on the wrong side of the law, though he may hop and skip along that fine line when necessary. Dutch knew this though. Why bother to pretend Arthur was the reason he came to Blackwater? He was here to cause trouble. That’s all he ever came for.

“Whatever you’re up to, Dutch, it ain’t gonna work.”

Rather than respond immediately, he bit off the two olives from the toothpick in his drink, one at a time. “Tell me, who is Mr. Marston to you?”

He blinked at the question; rye burning as it lingered on his tongue. Why bring up John out of the blue? Whatever the reason, Arthur was certain he didn’t like it. Dutch had always been able to see through any mask he put on, but nevertheless Arthur strove to maintain an oblivious expression as he replied casually, “Just someone who owns a speakeasy that I very much would like to keep drinkin’ at so I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do anything to shut it down.”

“Shut down the only place in West Elizabeth where I can get a decent martini? Don’t be ridiculous.”

“Who’s this, boss?” A male voice behind them asked.

Micah Bell looked a hell of a lot better than when Arthur saw him last. Covered in blood—none of it his—hair wild and hands cuffed; waving his right to remain silent in favor of vowing revenge on those who had sold him out as the police dragged him away. Now clean and suited up, to the ignorant he’d pass for a regular well-to-do citizen. There was a disdain in his eyes though, directed not at Arthur but rather at everything around him. The kind of malicious glint that radiated out of every mugshot, every picture snapped for the front page. The kind that said he wouldn’t mind setting this place aflame, if only to liven things up.

“Ah, there you are. Allow me to introduce you to Detective Arthur Morgan. Son, this is—”

“Micah Bell,” Arthur replied gruffly, ignoring the extended hand. A smarter man would’ve played nice but he had never been one to boast about his intelligence.

“So you’re Dutch’s boy?” Micah sneered, retracting his hand. “Funny. The way he talks about you, I thought you was actual family.”

“You don’t need to share blood to be family,” Arthur shrugged. The grin that crept across Dutch’s face was painfully genuine.

“Never would’ve figured you for a cop.” Micah tilted his head back and stroked his handlebar mustache. Funny that neither man cared in the slightest that facial hair had long fallen out of favor. “No, you seem more like someone who spends their days knee deep in horse shit; chasing after chickens, you know, fresh off the farm.”

“Actually that kinda sums up my time when I was still with the force over in Saint Denis.” Micah’s relaxed stance stiffened. “Lot of bureaucratic shit to wade through, but it was worth it when I got to help take down murderous cowards who were stupid enough to think they could evade the law forever.”

Micah’s fingers twitched. Arthur had a feeling he was aching to grasp his not-so-concealed gun and bury a bullet in his skull. Try it, fool.

“Watch it, cowpoke. You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”

“That’s the thing.” Arthur leaned forward. “I know exactly who I’m dealing with and I can’t say I’m much impressed.”

“Play nicely in the sandbox, children,” Dutch chided, his tone heavy with exasperation. “You’ll have to forgive Mr. Bell, Arthur. He’s had a rough go at it, what with his girl passing suddenly and all.”

“That’s bad business,” Arthur said, eyeing Micah’s blank expression. “I’m sorry for your loss.”

“So am I.”

“Yes, it was certainly unexpected. Such a tragedy. Miss McCourt was quite the girl. Wasn’t she, Arthur? I believe you knew her.”

These words fell from his lips slowly, like he wanted Arthur to know each one was carefully chosen just for him. Meanwhile, Micah seemed wholly bored and would much rather be anywhere else than here.

“That she was.” Arthur met Dutch’s intense stare, refusing to give any indication he was thrown by this knowledge of their friendship.

“The thing I miss about her most is that Miss McCourt was such a delightful conversationalist. That woman could shoot the breeze about anything. Politics and philosophy. Her friends. Her employer. The moral bankruptcy of Hollywood.” He smiled affectionately. “That girl could talk.”

“Dutch! I didn’t expect you to come see me tonight.” By the accent, Arthur knew Molly O’Shea was standing behind them even without turning around. With her set over, the band had resumed with some hot jazz number that might have his foot tapping if he wasn’t so tense.

“I’ll always make time for you, my dear.” He grasped her waist and pulled her in for a quick kiss. “You should know that by now. Why don’t you sit down and—”

“Actually Dutch,” Micah said, peering at his wristwatch. “We’re cutting it close.”

He glanced at his own. “That we are. Better get going then.” Dutch clamped a firm hand on his shoulder. “It was good to see you, son.”

“You’re leaving already?” Molly’s voice cracked with disappointment. “But you just got here!”

“Next time, dear.”

Her glare did not lessen even after Dutch and Micah vanished through the doors, though she did plop down next to him with her arms crossed. It was hard not to notice how Dutch hadn’t even bothered to introduce her to Arthur. Guess the man still held about as much regard for his women as he did the law.

As promised, John returned and was all smiles until he got close enough to sense the storm cloud hovering around the two. He glanced back and forth, probably wondering which one was less likely to bite his head off. Must have figured they were an equal risk, for he quietly slid two drinks towards them before slinking off again. Arthur downed his despite knowing that it would only serve to further blur the line Dutch had drawn between himself, Heidi, and Hosea.  

--

“Do you think he knows we’re looking into Heidi’s murder?”

A few days later and John was back in Arthur’s office, demanding his curiosity be sated. He had strolled in uninvited and without an appointment again but he had apologized so profusely to Tilly that this time that she let him in with only an eyeroll instead of an earful. Now his slender body was stretched out lazily along the old sofa in the corner like he owned the damn thing. The Venetian blinds shadowed his face in bars as John stared up at the ceiling, lips pursed in puzzlement. Meanwhile Arthur had his arms crossed and was leaning against his desk, debating how much to light to shine on the situation for John.

“Nah. You’re safe. He would’ve asked you to stay if that were the case.”

“You shouldn’t’ve sent me away like that.”

“It was for your own damn good. You even got the slightest idea who Dutch van der Linde is, boy?”

John shrugged. “He’s just some arrogant low-life who holds a much higher opinion of himself than he should.” Arthur opened and closed his mouth, no doubt looking like some floundering fish. John gave him a teasing grin, sitting up to rest on his elbow. “I know he’s trouble but I ain’t a cop, Mr. Morgan. I don’t got some encyclopaedia of criminals in my head like you do.”

“No, but for a booze peddler you should have a better understandin’ of the industry you’ve blundered into.” Arthur rubbed his temples. “Y’know how alcohol flows like water between West Elizabeth, New Hanover, and Lemoyne?” John nodded. “That’s thanks to a peace deal between the three major crime organizations. Stay out of our affairs and we’ll stay out of yours is the long and short of it. What that means is they only have the law and the defiant to contend with.”

Like a rapt pupil, John sat up straight and gave Arthur his full attention. “I take it Mr. Van der Linde is the latter?”

“Yes.” The uneasy teacher scratched the back of his neck. “The big three don’t allow for competition and he’s got a real problem with that. Say you wanted to make and sell your own booze. Hosea’d put you out of business in a week. Dutch hates that. He sees “cutting out the little guy” as selfish and greedy. Likens it to the government trying to control people’s freedoms, which he had no patience for.”

“Bit rich for him to have a problem with greed.” John smoothed out the wrinkles in his pants before draping his arm along the top of the sofa. “Doesn’t he make most of his money from protection rackets?”

“Ah, so you do know a bit about him.” Arthur gave John a slow grin and the younger man returned it instantly. “Yes, he does, but he still dabbles with bootlegging. He thinks the market should be open and free like it is in New Austin and Ambarino where his operations are. Sees himself as a hero whenever he goes up against them.”

“And you reckon that’s what he’s up to again? To cause trouble for Mr. Matthews?”

Arthur nodded. “Heidi may have gotten caught in the middle of their ongoing feud.”

“Well.” His Adam’s apple bobbed as John swallowed this information. “All the more reason to have him thrown out if he shows up again. I don’t want that kind of trash in my bar.”

“Y’know I cant figure out if you have no sense of self-preservation or if you’re just an idiot.”

John smirked and came forward slowly. “Both, I suppose.”

Personal space was not a concept John had any regard for. Standing entirely too close, Arthur could see the hollows of the scars carved into his face, the way his lashes fanned out on his cheeks as his gaze fell, the faint shadow of facial hair threatening to become stubble. A treacherous part of him wanted to hold that handsome face in his hands. Another part wanted to go a bit lower, grasp those broad shoulders, and shake some sense into the infuriating fool. John had trapped him against his desk again. Once more he slid his arm barely an inch away from Arthur’s hip, but this time his goal was to steal two cigarettes from the opened case. Between his lips, he lit them together. Their cherries flared. Dark eyes met his from behind the smoke. John reached up to pass one over, but Arthur got there first. He plucked the cigarette right out and took a drag.

“Was that supposed to be alluring, Mr. Marston?”

“Sometimes I do things simply to see how others react.” John tilted his head back slightly, drawing Arthur’s eyes to his neck as he blew out a stream to the side. Another scar peeked out from his collar and he couldn’t help but wonder how far down it went. “Try it sometime. It’s fun.”

“Are my reactions livin’ up to your expectations?”

“Snide comments and feigning disinterest? Yeah. Pretty much.”

“Well, so long as I don’t disappoint.”

He eyed John’s lips while biting his own. The younger man froze up for a moment, perhaps in surprise, before tilting his head up. The heat between them was palpable; the kind that got collars tugged and jackets shed. When John’s eyes fluttered shut, Arthur leaned in and breathed against his lips.

“Move.”

John flinched, blinking stupidly a few times as his two brain cells scrambled to put together what just happened. When he stepped back, he made an exaggerated, sweeping gesture with his arms, beckoning the way for Arthur who smirked as he passed by.

“You’re right,” Arthur laughed. “It is fun.”

“You know, I’ve been wondering if it’d be better to find someone not connected to Mr. Matthews or Mr. Van der Linde.” John scowled at the desk now in between them. Arthur leaned back in his chair knowing that his expression was annoyingly smug. “Given how important professionalism is to you and how bias might complicate that, I’m surprised you haven’t suggested it yourself.”

“You want someone else? There’s the door.” Arthur snapped, gesturing towards the exit. “Whether it hits your ass on the way out is no concern of mine.”

The younger man stood there, glaring at the cigarette in his fingers like it had hurt his surprisingly delicate feelings and not Arthur.

He sneered at the lack of movement. “That’s what I thought.” John soured further. “Oh, don’t look so upset at your bluff being called. Look at it this way, I’m the only detective in town who can poke around their business without getting shot on the spot. You need me.”

“And you’re fine with all this? Going behind their backs?”

“Not really, but if I wanted a comfortable job I would’ve become a pencil pusher or something equally soul-crushing. My money is still on Mr. Bell though.”

“What if it turns out Mr. Matthews had her killed for spilling secrets?”

“Then he’ll have to face the consequences of his crime.”

Disbelief swept across his face, but John kept quiet under Arthur’s hard stare. Dutch had been so eager to share that bit about Heidi talking about her employer. It wasn’t a lie. What exactly did she say though? Maybe it was nothing. Maybe it was everything. Why tell Arthur though? Did he expect him to go running to Hosea? Did Hosea already know? The lines were there but he couldn’t read between them. Not yet at least. Deep down he wanted to believe Hosea didn’t have a hand in her death, that his grief had been real, but he was too cynical a bastard to place much faith in his hopes.

“Where do we go from here?”

“Work is the only place you’re going, Mr. Marston. Meanwhile I’ll be payin’ Mr. Bell a visit.” When John’s brows furrowed, Arthur added, “Without him knowing.”

His face fell. “What if he catches you snooping around?”

“Do I look like an amateur to you?” Arthur scoffed. “And no, you’re not coming so don’t bother asking.”

“C’mon, let me help.” John trailed a finger along the edge of his desk, stalking forward like a wolf pretending to be patient while eyeing his prey. “I can be very discreet and keep an eye out. You’ll be able to search the place faster.”

Even though having a second person would speed up the process, Arthur still snorted so hard at the comment that he started coughing around his cigarette and had to pound his chest with a fist to settle himself down. John went to pat his back but decided at the last moment to let him suffer and kept his hands to himself.

“Mr. Marston, you don’t know what that word means.” Arthur wheezed. “Hell, I doubt you got a subtle bone in your body.”

A sharp knock at the door was followed by Tilly marching in holding a box full of newspapers. “Courtesy of Mr. Mason.” She placed it on the sofa. “Want help getting through your new reading material? He’s collected quite the stack for you.”

Not exactly surprising since Arthur asked him to round up anything he could find on Micah.

He cleared his throat. “Only if you’re not busy. I don’t want to trouble you.”

Tilly waved a dismissive hand before digging into the box. “Oh, by the way, Mr. MacGuire called to confirm it is the Blackwater Hotel, as you suspected.”

A devious smile tore across John’s face. He made a grab for him but the fool was already out the door. An exasperated look met a bewildered one before Arthur went after him. John was still grinning like an idiot while buttoning up his coat, cigarette dangling from his lips. Practically sparking with excitement, Arthur felt old as sin in comparison to the impulsive younger man. Did he get some sort of kick out of doing dangerous things or did he just like irritating the hell out of Arthur? Probably both.

“This ain’t up for discussion,” John said, putting on his hat. “When I make an investment I like to see it through and that can’t happen if Mr. Bell shoots you.”

Arthur had half a mind to toss John in the closet and lock the door. “Did you not ask me to keep your identity a secret? If he’s there and he sees you, that’s it.”

“He won’t be there. If I’m wrong though—” John plucked the remaining hat off the coat rack and plopped it hard on Arthur’s head. “—you’ll protect me.”

By the time he took the hat off, John was already halfway down the hall. He stood there, flabbergasted, until Tilly’s chuckling from within his office caught his attention.

“You know,” she began, coming forward to lean in the doorway with a sly smirk. Arthur hastily threw on his coat, grumbling the whole while. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were sweet on that feller.”

Arthur shot her a nasty over the shoulder glance as he stormed out. “It’s a good thing you know better then, hm?”

Chapter Text

Fog off the Montana had rolled in swiftly. It smothered the streets in a milky gray that was thick and moist and determined to weigh everything down. From what he could see the pavement was covered in a sheen and dotted with puddles waiting to be splashed. Every dark figure that emerged from the mist recalled soot-covered civilians wading through the rubble and smoke of their blown-apart homes. Arthur pulled up his collar. The warm weather couldn’t get here fast enough.

Arms crossed and hat tilted low, John fit into the murky landscape as much as the streetlight he was leaning against; seemingly closed off like all the boarded up storefronts that ran rampant throughout the outskirts of Blackwater.

“Knew you’d come.”

His voice hinted at a smirk and Arthur rolled his eyes. “Don’t flatter yourself, boy. I’m only here ‘cause if you die it’d be a hell of a tragedy for my wallet.”

“Boy?” John turned slowly, body straightening and arms unfurling. He reached forward and laughed in that soft manner of his, adjusting the lapels of Arthur’s hastily thrown on trench coat. “Don’t look so glum.” His fingers caressed the fabric as he smoothed out the wrinkles with care. “This could be fun.”

“Marston,” Arthur snapped, smacking the unwanted hands away and brushing him aside to hail a cab. “You and I got very different understandings of that word.”

“Whatever you say, old man.”

John gave him such a warm smile though as the taxi rolled up that Arthur almost felt bad for wanting to throttle him. The ride wasn’t unpleasant. John managed to show an ounce of restraint and kept a respectable distance; overt flirtations and wandering hands halted by their one-man audience up front. The cab driver was a fine fellow but his penchant for small talk left Arthur cold and he let John deal with that. Buildings and shadows grew the deeper they drove. The rush hour flood from his memories was now a dying stream at best. The fortunate trickled out of their workplaces into the streets still damp from the earlier rainfall. When would those waters swell again?

Try as he might, it was hard not to sneak a couple of side glances at his partner-in-mischief. Brimming with excitement as Blackwater flashed by in his dark eyes, you’d think they were going on an adventure. Why anyone so young and full of life had the slightest interest in a miserable old fool such as himself was baffling. That hoarse voice of his. Whiskey over gravel—hell, maybe just all gravel—was quite animated, picking up whenever he got passionate about a topic or was firm in a belief. In other words, often. Unfortunately, John caught him staring and gave Arthur a wink, which set him right back to scowling out the window.

Standing seven storeys tall at the corner of Main Street and Tallulah Place, the Blackwater Hotel still had that upscale tenement look despite a major expansion some years ago. A large flashing sign bared its name in pay-attention-to-me letters while lights streamed up high between the windows, illuminating the six new floors. A doorman clad in a dark green uniform stood in the shadow of the new front façade which projected out onto the sidewalk, watching the new arrivals curiously.

“So what’s the plan?” Arthur asked jokingly in a low voice. As if he’d ever follow John’s lead. He was particular in how he went about his work. Simple but thorough and preferably without any improvisation. Know what you’re getting into. Know how you’re getting out. Get the job done right. Don’t leave any loose ends. Untested and unproven, he couldn’t count on the younger man to get any of those things right.

John paid the driver and waited until he drove off to respond. “Figured we was just gonna wing it.”

Arthur gave him a hard look. “Not with all we got on the line. Last thing we want is for Mr. Bell to find out we’re onto him, which is what’ll happen if we blunder into this like fools.”

“Well, how ‘bout this?” John spoke slowly, clearly trying to throw some hairbrained scheme together on the spot. “Why don’t you seduce the hotel clerk and distract ‘em while I take a peek at the reservation book?” He grinned slyly. “Unless you’re too shy.”

“It is nothing short of a goddamn miracle that you’ve made it this far in life, Mr. Marston.” John ducked his head briefly, only to return with a deep scowl. “What did I just say? If Mr. Bell catches wind someone was in his room, we don’t want no one to be able to place either of us here. You don’t want to attract attention. Not with a face like that.”

John immediately tilted his fedora down further and pulled up his coat collar to hide his scars.

“Great. Now ya look like a hoodlum.”

“There’s no pleasing you, is there?” John snapped. “Why the hell ask me what the plan is when you clearly know how you want this to go down?”

“Suppose I was curious.” Arthur shrugged, heading towards the entrance ignoring both John and the doorman. He waited until the doors closed behind them to add, “I’ll ask for a room. You make yourself useful in some other fashion.”

The interior had lost its character. Sharp and sleek in that oh-so-modern way, square patterns overlapped along the walls, ceiling, and front desk while black chevrons were littered across the marble floor. Full of gold trimmed edges, tall plants, and curtains that shimmered in the chandelier light, it looked like every other damn building built within the last five years. The hotel clerk was also new; a young man about John’s age with a smile as thin as his frame.

“Hello, sir. Welcome to the Blackwater Hotel,” the clerk said in a much rehearsed voice. “Do you have a reservation with us?”

“Afraid I don’t. I’d like to book one now, please.”

“Certainly. Do you have any preferences? We have a selection of suites available or perhaps a—good heavens!”

Arthur spun around. The umbrella tree near the entrance was on fire and at risk of spreading up to the dangling curtain. How John made the jump from seduction to arson, well, Arthur wasn’t sure he wanted to know. But hey, he’d take it.

While the horrified clerk dashed off to the hotel restaurant calling for help, he flipped the large reservation book on the desk around and dragged his finger down the rows upon rows of names. Three pages in, he stopped on a ‘Kilgore’ in Room 712. Perfect. Arthur returned the book to its original position as the clerk hurried back into the lobby holding an ice bucket full of water. He dumped it on the burning tree, emitting a great sigh of relief when the fire went out.

“Are self-combusting plants a common feature at this hotel?” Arthur teased as the clerk opened one window after another.

“No, sir. I haven’t the faintest idea how that happened.” He dabbed his forehead with a handkerchief then smoothed out his uniform, trying to regain some semblance of composure. “Perhaps someone tossed a cigarette in there.”

“Or a match,” John offered, strolling out of the restaurant looking far too pleased with himself.

“We’d like a room on the seventh floor,” Arthur said quickly, hoping to steer the clerk’s attention away from the idiot with ‘troublemaker’ written all over his semi-concealed face.

Still flustered however, the man didn’t even look up as he flicked through the book with one hand in search of an available room while the other dialed a number, the phone receiver securely clamped between his ear and shoulder. “You two need the room for an hour or the whole night?”

Jesus Christ. “It’s not what you think. We’re not—”

“The whole night,” John said in a huskier than normal voice. The urge to throttle him came roaring back.

After ringing the janitor, the clerk gave him the keys to their room—which Arthur made sure had two beds—and sent them off towards the elevator. Despite the persistent puppy dog eyes, he refused to speak to John the whole ride up. Naturally, the floor numbers ticked by painstakingly slow. To make matters worse, the elevator operator was eyeing the two of them suspiciously. If he had to lay the blame, it’d be on their lack of luggage.

“I don’t see why you’re so upset,” John grumbled. “No one got hurt.”

Arthur gave a single grunt as his dignified response. The dismissal shut John up until the operator had closed the iron gate behind them and was on his way back down.

“As for the clerk, it was just a joke!”

“Hysterical, Marston. Really. You should be a comedian.”

John purposely walked backwards in front of Arthur, forcing him to slow his brisk pace as they traveled down the narrow corridor, full of identical green doors and bizarre paintings in ornate frames.

“Besides, he didn’t look like he cared one way or another what we may or may not be up to.”

Arthur heard little of what John said. His eyes were on the blond man heading down the hall not too far up from them. He reached for his unaware partner but the sudden movement spooked him and John took a large step backwards. Right into a maid who emerged from 706, their room, along with her trolley. John landed with a thud and a slew of curse words, taking the cart down with him. Arthur side-stepped both and hid in the entrance of their suite. Laughter, courtesy of Micah, rattled down the hallway. Nosy guests unlocked their doors one-by-one, no doubt alerted by the loud clang of metal against marble. The maid, a young thing looking very prim and proper in her black and white uniform, stood there, body paralyzed by shock.

“Are you alright, sir?” Some woman asked.

“Just peachy,” John groaned, face miraculously covered by his hat. His head shifted slightly in the direction of Micah’s laughter.

The maid dropped down. “I am so sorry, sir! I didn’t see you coming. Let me help you up!”

“That’s fine.” John pushed her hands away. “I’m just gonna…lay here.”

“But sir, we should—” Arthur flashed a ten dollar bill at her and shook his head, mouthing the word ‘no.’ “—alright, you just stay there and I’ll clean up.”

While the maid began to retrieve and fold her scattered towels to the sound of closing doors, Arthur plucked a compact mirror out of his pocket. His thumb brushed over the raised ‘E’ on the silver cover before he opened it, turning it until he caught Micah in the reflection. The man pulled his key out of his pocket, a smile still curling his lips. Once he had gone inside his room, Arthur immediately set about righting the trolley and helping the maid collect all of her fallen supplies. Meanwhile John peeled himself off the floor and disappeared into their own suite.

Despite her puzzled expression, the maid still accepted the bribe. When her heels and the trolley wheels along the marble floor faded away, Arthur went to Micah’s room. Just their luck he was still in the building. Oh well. He’d have to leave for dinner at some point. Arthur slid a paper clip in the tight crevice along the frame before returning to their suite.

“You owe me ten dollars.”

“I don’t owe you shit, Morgan. That whole thing was your fault and you know it.”

Bright whites and geometric shapes dominated the décor. Place was goddamn obnoxious. Sparkling lights, a fireplace, two plush beds, and a giant circular mirror for the vanity—good thing John was footing the bill. The man in question had plopped himself down on the leftmost bed, coat and hat tossed unceremoniously on the sofa.

“Y’know, I also asked for the whole night ‘cause I had a feeling this might take longer than expected. If we happen to use the room for other purposes—” John reclined onto his elbows with a coy smile. “—so be it.”

Even though he was going for alluring, all Arthur could see was someone desperately trying to pretend he hadn’t just hurt himself. “Lemme look at your head.”

“What? No. I’m fine.”

Arthur didn’t wait for permission. He joined John on the soft bed and manhandled him to search through his hair. You’d think he was trying to hurt him. John wriggled like a fish caught on a line. Then again, if it had been the other way around Arthur imagined he’d be reacting in a similar matter. There were few things more loathsome than being fussed over.

“Damn it, I’m fine. Let go of me.”

“What’s the matter, Marston?” Arthur leaned forward, lips hovering by John’s ear. “Thought you were dyin’ to get me to put my hands on you?”

John flushed a delightful shade of pink and stumbled over his response. Arthur would have kept teasing him if his fingers hadn’t come across a rather large lump that was already starting to bruise.

“That’s it. I’m gettin’ you ice.” Arthur rose and made a beeline for the door. “Stay put.”

“We don’t have time for this. We need to figure out how to get Micah outta the building.”

“He’ll leave on his own time. Don’t worry ‘bout him. I set somethin’ up to let me know when he’s gone.”

John made to get off the bed himself, but Arthur froze in the doorway and pointed a finger of warning at him. “No one got a good look at you earlier. Let’s not ruin that, hm?”

To Arthur’s great surprise, he sat back down. Must’ve cracked his head pretty hard to be so agreeable. The shock was likely evident on his face for John explained, “You’re right and I, well, I don’t want to ruin things like I usually do.”

Uncertain how to respond, Arthur left.

--

The next hour and a half was spent doing periodic checks on Micah, sketching the view from their hotel room, and making a second trip to get an increasingly grumpy John more ice. When Arthur finally returned with the fallen paper clip, John was out the door before he had even pocketed the all-important item.

“Slow down, Marston. Don’t want to fall again. You may be blockheaded but I reckon that your skull can only take so much damage in a single evening.”

“Shut up and help me break in,” John scowled, leaning against Micah’s door.

“You ain’t breakin’ into nowhere. Go loiter ‘round the corner near the elevator. If he comes back early, let me know.”

“How should I alert you?”

“Whistle and then run back to our room. Alright? Don’t let him see you.”

John looked ready to argue but thought better of it. “Alright.”

The lock was easy to make short work of with a hairpin and Arthur smiled wide upon hearing the magical click. The number of times his criminal past had come in handy was rather embarrassing. Inside the layout was similar to theirs and almost as tidy, though there were some clothes strewn about and two empty bottles of whiskey. He began searching everywhere: opening cupboards and drawers, peeking under the furniture and behind closed doors, rummaging through his desk and closet. Among the more normal items like expensive cigars, spare change, and movie theater tickets were things like ammunition and a set of oddly-shaped knives that seemed designed to inflict as much pain as possible. Crazy bastard.

“What am I missing?” Arthur mumbled, standing in the middle of the suite.

He ran his hands along the bookshelf and furniture, searching in vain for hidden compartments. The main thing that struck Arthur was that for someone who had been staying here for a number of months, it didn’t seem that lived in. Maybe Micah simply didn’t collect a lot of material objects. Maybe Micah wanted to be able to pack up and leave at a moment’s notice. Needless to say, there was nothing of Heidi’s. No mementos. No pictures. Nothing.

When Arthur passed by the tall oak dresser just outside the bathroom again, he did a doubletake. Micah’s wallet was sitting there. Inside he found some cash and a small scrap of paper with a phone number on it. Heavy-handed with a rightward slant, this penmanship had been etched into his memory. He remembered being fourteen and watching Dutch write out words for him to copy, amazed at the fluid motion of his hand and how he didn’t even have to think much when he wrote. It was as natural as breathing for him. Arthur stole a pen from the desk and jotted down the number in his journal.

The door burst open. Arthur reached for his gun, but then saw it was John. “Are you tryin’ to get yourself killed?”

“He’s back already!” John rushed forward. “What do we do?”

Arthur looked down at the wallet in his hands. “Shit.” He tossed it back onto the dresser.

The doorknob jiggled. Arthur lunged forward, grabbed John’s wrist, and yanked him into the bathroom. The door had been left wide open so they had to press themselves as deep into the room as possible to make the most of what little darkness there was. This forced them to stand in the bathtub. Micah entered. Arthur and John stood side-by-side, barely breathing as they listened to him pace about the room; footsteps growing louder as he drew near. Unable to move John behind him, Arthur’s arm shot out to block him, while his other hand drew his Colt. He held the barrel firmly, ready to jump out of the tub and knock the bastard unconscious if necessary. Micah had his back to them though, standing before his bed and mumbling under his breath.

“Oh, for the love of—” Micah snatched his wallet off the dresser. He shot himself an annoyed look in the mirror before marching right back out.

They were silent and still until his steps in the hallway could no longer be heard. Once out of the bathtub, Arthur switched on the light. The two released a pair of uneasy exhales that sounded closer to laughter than exasperation. John came forward as he holstered his gun, his brows furrowed in a silent question. Arthur froze up when fingers lightly brushed the scar on his chin. Instinct told him to pull the curious hand away but his body had other plans. As John traced the shape, Arthur’s eyes fluttered shut. It had been a long, long while since someone had touched him so gently.

“Shrapnel,” Arthur muttered. “A parting gift from the Germans.”

His skin still burned from John’s touch after the hand fell away.

“Thought you were a vet.” He smiled at Arthur in that same way people always do when they found out about his time in the war. As if it was something to be proud of. “Got that sort of look about you.”

Arthur glimpsed at himself in the mirror. “Yeah, I suppose I do look like cannon fodder.”

John’s eyes lit up as he laughed. It was warm and genuine. The sort of sound you want to hear again and again. But that alone left Arthur unsettled, left his hands fidgeting at his sides. He needed a cigarette. Or a drink. Or both.

Not liking any of this one bit, Arthur tossed out harshly, “Whatever happened to whistling?”

“I blanked. I just kept thinking about him finding you and well—” He shrugged instead of finishing his explanation and was unable to meet Arthur’s annoyed stare. “Did you find anything?”

He sighed as the two went back out into the open. “Searched high and low but all I found was Dutch’s number. There’s nothing here to suggest he even knew Heidi.”

John shoved his hands in his pockets, face darkening as he meandered about the room. “Wish I hadn’t waited so long to contact you. He’s had two months to cover his tracks.”

“This isn’t a setback. Miss McCourt and Mr. Bell were supposedly together long enough for her mother and the press to consider them sweethearts. Yet he has nothing to remember her by and from what I could tell wasn’t really sad when Mr. Van der Linde brought her up. He seemed more impatient to get the conversation over with than anything.”

“I don’t rightly know what to think ‘bout all this.” John ran his fingers along the spines of books along the dusty bookshelf.

“Ain’t too sure what to think either but something’s off. Of that I am sure.”

“Huh. Seems Mr. Bell is a fan of Walt Whitman. Leaves of Grass is the only book on this shelf that isn’t covered in dust.”

Arthur blinked and then immediately plucked it from the shelf. He flipped through and found another small slip of paper, this time bearing four sets of numbers.

“Combinations for a lock?” John suggested.

“Maybe. Could also be coordinates.” These numbers were also added to Arthur’s journal. “You got a sharp eye, Mr. Marston. I’ll give you that.”

John looked like he was ready to blurt out something but couldn’t muster up the courage to do so. Instead he gave Arthur a small, sad smile that said absolutely nothing and continued to bother him hours later. They had long since parted ways. John went off Beecher’s Hope while Arthur made his way over to Pearson’s for a quick dinner before deciding to walk back to the office. Fog long gone and air crisp, it was a fine night for it.

Neon signs and lonely streetlights lit the way as the streets grew less crowded the further north he ventured. The solitude was something to relish and that’s just what Arthur did. He thought about the case, about how strange the whole day had been, about the stack of newspapers waiting for him to dive into. Most of all he thought about John. When Arthur had agreed to help him, he had only been expecting to grapple with one mystery, not two. Arrogant and foolhardy one moment, then unsure and quiet the next. Maybe the former was meant to cover up the latter. Maybe the man was a puzzle and he didn’t have all the pieces yet. Arthur tried not to think about him, knowing that his thoughts would spiral into territory he’d rather not venture. Too bad he couldn’t just clear his mind and think of nothing as he walked.

It was also too bad that he was being followed.

Was it Micah? Perhaps. They were trying to be cautious, slipping by mostly unseen in the corners of his vision. In measured steps his pursuer hung far back enough that their intentions would not be obvious to an upstanding citizen—but Arthur knew that walk, knew how to remain close without detection. Whomever it was, they had done this before. Many times. Too bad for them, so had Arthur.

He didn’t pick up his pace or glance over his shoulder. A rookie mistake. Might as well wave at his pursuer if he were going to do something like that. Instead he watched him—Arthur was fairly certain it was a man—through reflections in the cars the drove by and darkened windows of buildings closed for the night. Arthur lit up and smoked absentmindedly, keeping his stroll leisurely until he ducked into a pitch-black alleyway. Arthur placed his still burning cigarette on one of the many iron fire escapes that zigzagged their way up numerous buildings in Blackwater, then ran up the lane.

His unwanted shadow hung near the entrance, keeping a close watch on the little light in the dark. Not realizing Arthur was no longer ahead but rather behind. He had gone around and snuck up on the man, grabbing him by the throat. He slammed his pursuer into the brick wall and dug into their trench coat. The gun he found got tossed aside.

He growled in their ear, “What do we have here?”

“It’s me, Arthur! Relax!”

“Lenny?” Arthur let go and stumbled backwards into the opposite brick wall. The whites of his bewildered eyes were the only thing Arthur could see of Lenny Summers. “The hell you think you’re doing, kid? I could’ve killed you.”

Lenny made his way back out into the moonlight, rubbing his neck gingerly. “Hey, I ain’t no kid! I’m nineteen.”

Always ready to get his hands dirty, be it sneaking booze past border patrol or helping Arthur when he needed a second man for something, he had always liked Lenny. Youthful and clean-cut, you’d never guess he belonged to the Matthews Outfit. Lenny was a good kid. Real sharp. Capable of so much more than just being a tool for the mob. He wouldn’t hear a word of that though. He was saving up for law school and was determined to pay his own way, having turned down the handout Hosea immediately offered when he discovered his youngest recruit’s ambitions.

Arthur retrieved Lenny’s gun and handed it back to him. “My mistake, Mr. Summers. You tend to forget how much wisdom one has at nineteen when you reach my advanced age.”

Lenny punched his shoulder with a chuckle. “Sorry about what happened back there. I was just—”

“Following orders, I know.” Arthur sighed deeply as the two resumed walking. “May I ask what the hell is Hosea playing at?”

“Mr. Matthews has just been worried about you, that’s all. Ever since he found out Dutch and Micah are working together.”

He stopped walking. Hosea knew damn well Arthur could take care of himself. Was he really worried or was he watching him for some other reason? “You tell him to quit it. I’m certain you and all his other employees all have better things to do than spy on me.”

“Sure, Arthur.” He laughed with a sheepish shrug. Sure, he could tell him that but whether Hosea listened was another story. “Hey, uh, how did I mess up? I don’t want to do that again.”

“I got a keener eye than most, don’t worry ‘bout it.” Arthur tapped Lenny’s hat. “But it was hard to not notice the same-shaped shadow that had been following me for some time.”

“Gotcha. I’ll take it off occasionally next time. Thank you.”

“Don’t mention it, kid.”

Lenny gave him a disgruntled look but his smile broke through and wrecked the whole thing. He left Arthur alone with his thoughts once more. If he was being honest, the company left much to be desired.

Chapter Text

Given how often their lunches slid right into it’s-five-o’clock-somewhere drinks, it was rare for Arthur, Albert, and Sean to be together and somewhat sober after a morning at the courthouse. Different reasons. Same case. Arthur gave a damning testimony having uncovered that an insurance salesman had collaborated with a scheming wife to profit off her husband’s not-so-accidental-death. As someone who had dealt with lawyers far more than any person who valued their sanity should, Arthur answered every question lobbed at his credibility like old Gehrig up at bat. Knocked them clean out of the park and practically seated the accused in the electric chair. Not that Arthur enjoyed any of it. When the case was adjourned only Albert’s insistence on “real food” kept him from leaping out of the witness box straight into a liquid lunch.

Now barricaded in his office with a gin in hand, feet parked on his desk, and sultry jazz flowing in through the open door, who could stay sour? To his left, sitting cross-legged on the couch and fingers gliding across his typewriter, Albert was oblivious to the world beyond his approaching deadline. Meanwhile Sean was spying on the street below for no other reason than he was nosy and was prattling on about the latest beauty who had caught his eye.

“I’m telling ya, Arthur. She’s gorgeous. Got this blonde hair with all these curls. Eyes green like the Emerald Isle herself. Breasts bigger than my—”

“Does this one know you exist?”

“Course she does! Introduced myself the moment I saw her at Grimshaw’s. May have laid it on a bit thick ‘cause she called me an idiot afterwards. But I can tell she likes me.”

“Did it occur to you,” Albert said as a little ding prompted him to slide the carriage back over, “that perhaps she likes you because she works at Grimshaw’s?”

Sean peeled himself away from the window to wag a finger at their snickering. “Laugh it up, boys. One day you’ll both be green with envy when I have the best lookin’ woman in the city on my arm.”

After setting his empty glass precariously on the windowsill, Sean wandered towards the new map on the wall. It had cheap thumbtacks pressed into six different spots across West Elizabeth, New Hanover, and Lemoyne. “What’s all this?”

“Those coordinates came from Mr. Bell. Thinking ‘bout swinging by the one near Owanjila tomorrow afternoon.” Albert’s furious hands froze, but quickly resumed. Undoubtedly a plethora of animals had flashed through his mind’s eye. “Wanna come, Al? All expenses paid.”

“Only if my presence won’t inhibit your snooping, but yes, I’d love to.” Albert pulled the paper free with a satisfied sigh and shuffled it with the others. “Can’t think of a better way to spend a Saturday.”

“You need ta get out more, Mason,” Sean laughed richly, shaking his head. “What about me, English? Do I get an invite?”

“Trapped for hours in a car with you, MacGuire? I’m not that much of a masochist.”

“Hey now! Mason here can’t even keep a sentence shorter than six words. He’ll talk your ears off long before I do!”

“That’s not true. I’m not that verbose.” Albert paused to count his words and scowled at Sean who was grinning like a jackass. “In my defense, if Arthur told me to stop talking—which he wouldn’t because he has the patience of a saint—I’d actually respect his wishes.”

Sean shrugged. “Just as well. You’re both boring as shite anyways.” He plopped his hands on Arthur’s desk and leaned forward like an overly eager prosecutor. “Expenses paid, huh? Y’know I’m curious about this mysterious backer of yours.”

“Not much to tell except they drive me crazy.”

“Ah, so it’s a dame then! Sounds like your sorta girl. Plenty o’ sass to spare. Probably a real looker too. Want to keep her to yourself, eh Morgan? Didn’t think ya still had it in you, old man!”

His lips twisted into what Arthur knew was a sinister smile and Sean stepped back, laughing nervously. He kept quiet, purposely dragging out the uncomfortable moment until he simply asked, “Didn’t your afternoon shift start ten minutes ago?”

Sean blinked, then yanked his sleeve back to glance at his wristwatch. “Shit.”

Tragically, he rushed out before Arthur or Albert had a chance to laugh at him.

“I should head out as well. Gotta submit this before the evening edition.” Albert waved his report, then gestured with it towards the box full of newspapers by his feet. “Shall I take these?”

“Yes, thanks again. Miss Jackson and I were able to paint a fuller picture of Bell’s background.” Not the sort you could hang up in a gallery, what with the bank robberies, numerous assaults, and murdering folks alongside his father and brother.

The bell above the main doors chimed again. Sleek and stupidly handsome in dark red and black like some sort of modern devil sent up just to torment him, John strolled in like he owned the place. Not wanting the younger man to see him lazing about, his feet dropped to the floor abruptly and Arthur accidentally spilled the remainder of his drink on his tie. Albert’s brow quirked as Arthur grumbled at his own idiocy under his breath and roughly dabbed the stain with a handkerchief.

“Aside from our adventure into the wilderness tomorrow, do you think you could also assist me with another later on this month?” Albert asked as they left his office. “There’s this beautiful owl that has made its home in the Blackwater clock tower—”

“You’ll break your neck,” Arthur frowned, purposely ignoring how John had cleared his throat as if they couldn’t see him standing right there.

“Not if I have a knight-in-shining-armor ready to rescue me.”

“Sure, why not?” As if Arthur could ever say no to Albert.

John crossed his arms and huffed, “You gonna introduce us or not?”

“Sorry,” Arthur said without an ounce of sincerity. “I ain’t sure whether my friend here will be better off knowing you.”

“Probably not,” John admitted sheepishly.

“Perhaps I should be the judge of that.” His befuddled expression gave way to a smile Arthur didn’t like one bit. He held out his hand, “I’m Albert Mason. I write for the Blackwater Ledger.”

The tension in John’s body seemed to dissipate and they shook hands. “John Marston.”

After wishing everyone a good day, Albert turned to Arthur before leaving. “Seems only one of Mr. MacGuire’s guesses were wrong.”

Regret hit him like a slap across the face. Great. Another cross-examination to look forward to. Too smart for his own good, Albert had clearly deduced John was the infuriating man of means behind the McCourt case thanks to their teasing. His suit was a dead giveaway too. The fabric was well-cut and not stiff but rather draped his body. He even had a golden timepiece chain peeking out of his pocket.

Arthur sighed. “Whatchu want, Marston?”

“Not sure if I should answer that in front of a lady.”

Tilly snickered from her desk, looking up from filing her nails. “You don’t need to worry about offending my delicate sensibilities, Mr. Marston.”

Jesus. Everyone was against him today. Arthur shot Tilly a withering look before following John into his office. “Don’t encourage him.”

She scoffed, feigning offense. Once the door was shut, John had the decency to look somewhat apologetic, laying in wait by his desk with a bashful smile that knocked all the hot air out of Arthur. He needed a cigarette. Now.

“Guess you were right.” John nodded towards the map. “What do you think is there?”

“I usually am.” Arthur patted his pockets. “Could be anything. Safe houses. Stills. People with whom Bell’s connected. Buried treasure. Hell if I know. But I’ll find out.” He began to search his desk. “You gonna tell me now why you came? I assume you know how to use a phone.”

As Arthur reached for the cigarette case, John’s hand lightly pressed down on his and closed it once more. “Maybe I missed you.”

“Can’t say the feeling is mutual.”

John nodded towards their joined hands, leaning in with a smug grin. Then his nose scrunched up and wrecked whatever sly remark he had lined up. “You been hittin’ the bottle hard lately?”

Cheeks burning, Arthur pulled his hand free and tugged sharply at his tie. “Workin’ with you will do that to a man.”

Genuine laughter broke through that semi-permanent smirk of his and damn if it wasn’t endearing. John raised a hand hesitantly, reaching forward only when Arthur’s own fell away with a heavy eye roll. His nimble fingers worked on the offending article of clothing with care. It was kind of sweet in the way their brief tenderness in the hotel had been. You’d think his brain was a carousel with how often that moment had circled back to him over the past few days. Here it came around again and that alone told Arthur to pull John’s hands away. But he didn’t. Blame it on the gin. Blame it on curiosity too. John was sure to ruin the moment, but how?

“Figured I should do this seeing as how it’s my fault.” Head dipped in concentration, John looked up at Arthur from beneath his lashes. “Usually I have to butter up people a bit more before they let me undress ‘em.”

There it was. “Enjoy it. This is as far as you’ll ever get.”

John shoved the tie into his hands and it took every ounce of his willpower not to laugh in his disgruntled face.

“Listen, you can’t keep comin’ here. Whenever Dutch is around, Hosea always gets—” Arthur’s hand rolled in the air as if the motion could conjure up the right word. “—overprotective. He had me followed and I might still be under watch. What if someone sees you?”

“Someone already has. That’s why I came here. I’m being followed.”

Arthur swore under his breath and went to the window, searching for anyone loitering around or staring up at his office. No one stood out. “I told you going to the hotel was a mistake. What’d they look like?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t been able to get a good look.” If possible, his voice grew more hesitant. “You think he’s trying to hide something? Matthews, I mean.”

“What?”

“Well, you said yourself that Heidi may have gotten caught up in their feud. What if Matthews is having us watched ‘cause he, uh, you know, wants to stop us from getting too close to the truth?”

Arthur gave him a flat look. “That’s not his way.”

“He’s a gangster,” John dragged out the word as if saying it slower would help Arthur better comprehend it. “You think he’s been this successful for this long without having to silence people? Outside of the police, Van der Linde is the last person he’d want anyone to leak secrets to.”

“Marston—”

“You must really think I’m stupid, huh? You think I can’t tell that you’ve got ties to them both?” Too bad MacGuire wasn’t still here. The speed in which John went from calm to furious was worthy of a ticket. “Here I was thinking you had a blind spot a mile wide, but that’s not it. No, you’re trying to protect them!”

“Marston, will you—”

“You’re just some criminal disguised as a lawman, ain’t you?”

“You got me.” Arthur raised his hands in surrender. “Guess the jig is up. Had a good run though. Fifteen years and all.”

He scowled darkly. Rather than backtrack like most do when they got carried away, John doubled down. “Am I supposed to be impressed? Good deeds don’t make up for a wretched past.”

“You’re right. They don’t.” Arthur crossed his arms. “I don’t pretend to be a good man but I wonder though why you’ve been throwin’ yourself at me like a bitch in heat if you think I’m so depraved?”

John recoiled like he had been slapped. Arthur expected him to dole out the same, albeit in a more physical manner, but instead he bared his teeth. It was a nasty grin. More of a snarl than anything. “Maybe I like dangerous men.”

You’d think they were a pair of gunslingers. Air thick with hostility. Two opponents staring the other down. Fingers itching to pull the trigger. No shot were fired though; John made for the door. As maddening as he was, beneath the angry bluster was a plea for help that Arthur heard loud and clear and impossible to ignore. All fire and no brains, he had to stop him. Find a way to get John to stay here, stay safe, and work on a plan together to catch whoever was following him.

“You’re right, okay?” Arthur got there first. His arm shot out and held the door shut. “Hosea is like a father to me and Dutch, well, it’s complicated. I ain’t got no blind spot though and I’m not protecting no one ‘cept you, though I have to question why I even bother. It’s that I know them. If they want someone to disappear, they disappear without a trace. Heidi’s murder was sloppy.”

John tried to shove past, but Arthur grabbed onto both his arms and shook him once out of frustration. “If you go looking for trouble, boy, you’re gonna wind up creating it yourself.”

“I’m already in trouble, you stubborn bastard,” John sneered. “Standing still won’t get me out of it.”

--

Rhodes flickered in the distance. The far off city shone out in a darkness so all-consuming it was hard to tell where the water ended and the sky began. White dots were flecked across both, but only one had his ugly mug staring back at him. Arthur turned away, breathing out smoke as he rested his back against the rail. The crowd along the Blackwater Pier was slowly petering out. John stood next to him, uncharacteristically quiet with his hat low and hands deep in his pockets. Both had their eyes on the darkest corners, searching for a shadow that had been a no-show thus far.

“I still think sneaking into the Matthews Estate would’ve been better than this.”

“Marston, if you’re so hell-bent on suicide I have a gun you can use.”

It had taken a good while to unruffle John’s feathers. (Not all of them, he wasn’t a miracle worker). What had worked was his suggestion to lure his pursuer out by agreeing to go where John wanted—a place Hosea wouldn’t want them sniffing around. Together they carried on down the long boardwalk towards the ferry terminal. A tall, but narrow building with nautical touches inside and out, it was busy at all hours. Day brought people to and fro across Flat Iron Lake, whereas night saw illicit alcohol seep in and out of the city. Not wanting to get too close to any of the guards on patrol, Arthur was about to head back when a shadow slinking along the building’s white wooden panels stopped him. Not the person they were after, but Arthur wasn’t about to let this slide. He had two options: alert the guards and risk losing sight of the mysterious individual or investigate the matter himself.

The choice was obvious. If caught, he would just surrender and explain who he was. Arthur crushed his cigarette with his heel. “Go back to Beecher’s Hope.” John didn’t move. “I’m not asking.”

“Since when do I take orders from you?”

There was no time to argue. He sidestepped John, using the crates that were littered about the docks to conceal him as he crept forward. Stubborn as ever, John tagged along and managed to keep up. After two guards passed by, they hurried to the iron fire escape that the figure was quickly scaling. Two steps at a time, Arthur and John zigzagged their way up as the figure vanished inside the single door at the top. Upon reaching the third floor however, his partner grabbed onto the back of his trench coat and pulled him to the wall. An armed guard emerged from the door on the sixth floor. Shit.

“You have a gun,” John whispered in his ear, “keep an eye on the guard. I’ll get us in.”

The question of how died on his lips when John wiped out a switchblade. He dug it into the crevice along the bottom of the window behind them. Below the unsuspecting guard, John worked diligently, applying the right pressure as he rocked the knife slowly to wedge it in. Someone had done this before.

“And here I was thinkin’ you were entirely useless.”

John forced the window up. “Shut up and get inside.”

An empty hall of closed office doors greeted them. It was mostly quiet, save for the movement on the floor above. Could be another guard. Could be their breaking and entering accomplice. With most of Hosea’s employees down in shipping and receiving on the ground floor, he’d wager the latter. Caution was still practiced as they crept towards the stairwell. Up on the fourth, they were drawn towards the sole light at the end of the hall. Hosea’s office, if he recalled correctly.

“Hey there!” A man yelled. “Stop!”

Where the voice had come from was a mystery. Didn’t have a chance to figure it out though. Arthur only caught a glimpse of someone dashing out of the office before John grabbed his sleeve and shot off like a startled deer down the adjacent hallway. A flurry of noise erupted in all directions. Echoing yells. A piercing whistle. Their feet skidded on the floor as they rounded a sharp corner. Heavy footsteps battered up the stairs and grew louder as they drew near. Arthur tried to pull free, but then bullets started spitting. Getting caught in the crossfire was not on his list of things to do. Arthur shoved John into the first closet they came across.

Couldn’t have picked a worse one. A broom brushed against his back as it fell over and more than one tin bucket clattered against the floor. The space was already cramped without two grown men added into the mix. Arthur couldn’t see John but he could hear and feel him panting hard; their bodies flush. His breathing grew more agitated when a small group of people rushed by. It was impossibly loud, grating on his ears in the dark, tight space in which they were trapped. Arthur tried to shut him up. He wrapped an arm around John’s waist roughly and clamped a hand over his mouth. John tried his damnedest to break free, trying to throw him off while using his free hand to tug at the unwanted ones holding him tight.

“Calm down,” Arthur growled in his ear, ready to cuff John upside the head when he knocked their hats off.

He stopped and not a moment too soon. The heat between them and his writhing was stirring up something within that wasn’t as easy to repress as the sigh of exasperation weighing heavily on his tongue. Angry puffs of air still blew down over Arthur’s fingers. That should have been his first hint his stillness wouldn’t last, but Arthur didn’t clue in until a devious smile grew under his hand.

John’s hand shot out and braced against the wall, pushing back to grind his ass against Arthur’s burgeoning hardness. The things people do to get their way never ceased to amaze him. His breath hitched, caught somewhere in his throat as John now moved with intent. You’d think the layers in between would lessen the sensation, but it only fueled the fire shooting down his veins. Between his clothes and the closet, everything was too tight, too hot. John rocked against Arthur as if torture was the goal; punishment for having the audacity to not want them to get caught. A wretched sound, something between an annoyed grunt and a broken gasp came from Arthur before he could stop it. John’s soft moans escaped through the spaces between the loosening fingers over his mouth. Much like a bear awakening from hibernation, a ravenous hunger gnawed at his insides. He wanted more, wanted to let go and give in—but Arthur was never one to be guided by desire no matter how strong it was.

His hands abandoned their place and grabbed hold of John’s hips, wrenching him away. “You want us to get caught? What the hell is your problem?”

“My problem was that you had your hand on my mouth,” John shot back, his whisper equally venomous. “I no longer have this problem.”

“Goddamn son of a—”

“Don’t grab me like that next time,” he snapped, before laughing harshly. “I don’t know why you’re so mad. You seemed to enjoy it.”

Footsteps halted just outside the door, silencing Arthur’s rebuke. All movement within stilled.

“Are we trying to alert the police of our presence?” Hosea’s voice was as dry as ever and Arthur could imagine the weary look on his face. “No? Then why the hell are we having a shootout in a goddamn office building?”

As far as Arthur knew, Hosea had no history of heart problems but he was fairly certain that would change the moment he opened the closet door. On the plus side Arthur would die from embarrassment, leaving John to deal with the fall out.

An unknown male voice replied, “An intruder fired at us first, sir. We caught him coming out of your office.”

“Whoever it was, they were probably sent here by Dutch.” Hosea sighed, his voice growing fainter as he walked away. “Have the grounds searched and those bullet holes fixed.”

Neither moved until all the footsteps had gone their separate ways. His hands fell from John’s hips, prompting the younger man to turn and face him. Eyes having adjusted to the dark, both men were having trouble looking at the other. John’s mouth opened and shut a few times, but nothing came out.

“Leave it, Marston,” he grunted, shoving him aside as he left the closet.

Arthur didn’t want to talk about anything, certainly not about what had happened. For once John listened. After retrieving their fallen hats, he silently followed Arthur back to Hosea’s office. The man himself was inside, opening and closing different drawers by the sounds of it. Briefly Arthur considered going over to speak with him, but he had to keep John hidden. They remained around the corner until he left. The fact that Hosea didn’t seem too disconcerted led Arthur to believe the intruder didn’t take or leave anything. Odd. Maybe the intruder didn’t get the chance to complete whatever had brought them here in the first place. Arthur wanted to leave, but John approached the office.

“Did you bring that hairpin?”

“What possible reason is there to break into there?”

“To satisfy my curiosity?” John replied as if was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Christ’s sakes.” Arthur pushed John aside and knelt down with the pin in hand. “When we find nothin’, I don’t want to hear you open that mouth of yours for the rest of the night.”

After picking the lock, Arthur leaned against the wall and watched John poke around the room. Illuminated only by moonlight through the windows, John moved carefully. Aside from a large oak desk and numerous filing cabinets, the spacious corner office was sparsely furnished. It lacked a personal touch since it was just a front, existing only as part of their cover up of what they were really shipping in and out of Blackwater.

John picked up a picture frame inside of the top-right desk drawer. “Aww, you were so cute. What happened?”

He snatched the photo. It was from Hosea and Bessie’s wedding day with a much younger and happier Arthur standing in between the newlyweds. In no mood to give a history lesson, he placed it back in the drawer and flung it shut. John’s eyebrows raised and he backed away, choosing to explore a filing cabinet instead. Arthur went to the balcony door, opening it to fully admire the view of the crescent moon and the water below.

After a minute of rummaging, John spoke up. “Come look at this.”

Beneath the thick file folders full of tax forms and old receipts was an old Smith & Wesson Model 10 and what appeared to be a couple of photos. Pictures in hand, Arthur returned to the door to see them better. They were of an unsuspecting Heidi walking down a street. Based on the Christmas lights lining the store windows in the background, these were probably taken not long before her death.

Arthur rubbed his eyes and gave the photos to John. “This might just be the worse set-up I’ve ever seen.”

“Set-up? How do you figure?”

“Use your head, Marston. Would you keep evidence like this in your office if you murdered someone?”

“Well, no.”

“Exactly.” Arthur went back to the filing cabinet. “How much you want to bet that’s the gun responsible for her death?”

John returned the photos to him. “You think that intruder planted the evidence?”

“That’s exactly what I think.”

Face full of confusion, John slouched against the wall. “Why waste time framing Matthews for murder when there are tons of other crimes he could be prosecuted for?” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Looks like you were right about him. God. I feel like an idiot.”

Not wanting to start anything, Arthur kept his thoughts to himself and placed the photos back in the cabinet and closed it. “I’m gonna sneak you out and then I’ll come back and speak with Hosea about everything.”

Arthur reached for the doorknob, but muffled voices had him snatch his hand away as if burned. With the balcony as their only hiding spot, out they went. They couldn’t stay here though. One glimpse out the door window and they would be seen. When Arthur leaned over the side of the balcony, John flew into a panic.

“No. Hell no.” John grabbed the lapels of his coat. “We’re not jumping.”

“Relax. I was thinking more about climbing down from one balcony to the next.” John backed away, bumping into the door, shaking his head. “Get away from that door.” John shifted to the right just as a light turned on inside. “What? You scared of heights? C’mon, Marston. It’s only four floors and if we fall, well, hopefully that water is deep enough.”

“I can’t swim!” he blurted out in a frustrated whisper. Arthur waited for John to say he was joking before his hand flew up to smother his laughter. “Shut up. This isn’t funny.”

Arthur climbed over to the other side, hanging onto the railing. “Oh, trust me. It is.” He lowered himself down carefully, feet dangling briefly until they located the next iron banister. “Look, I’ll climb down first and grab ya when you come down. You won’t fall in.”

It took a bit of maneuvering, the bricks below the upper railing gave him something to balance against as he lowered himself further down onto a third floor balcony. Arthur then leaned back against the bars, looking up at John who was climbing over the railing at a snail’s pace.

“I’d like to get outta here before sunrise.”

“Shut up!”

When John finally got both feet over, he glanced down at Arthur for reassurance; eyes bulging comically when they lingered too long on the water below. He reached up, ready to grab his legs once he got close enough. John began to lower himself down when his head snapped up. Whatever had caught his attention had startled him and he let go of the railing. Arthur watched John fall straight into the water with a terrified yelp and disappear into its depths.

Chapter Text

John floated like a man wearing cement boots. Lost somewhere beneath the surface, every second that passed by without him emerging from the water squeezed Arthur’s chest tighter and tighter, robbing him of air and words. Hanging onto the iron rail, Arthur leaned over as far as possible without falling in himself, hoping to catch a glimpse of a struggle below the waves. No splashes. No ripples. Nothing. The lake had swallowed John whole. Off his hat, coat, and suit jacket went. Considering he was about to jump into water that may be too shallow and John might already be dead, it’d be fair to say Arthur cast aside his common sense too.

Down, down, down he went. Water rushed up, flooding his senses and chilling him to the bone. It stung something fierce. Like thousands of tiny needles were piercing him from every angle, carving into his skin. He tried to block it out, warp his pain and fear into motivation to find John faster. Where was he? Arthur swam up for a big gulp of air, before diving back down. Dark and murky, he may as well have been swimming through ink. Arthur searched for anything solid; anything that wouldn’t slip through his outstretched fingers.

Thin fabric swaying in the current brushed against his palm. He excitedly grasped what felt like a coat belt. Now loose and lost, it became his compass needle. Arthur swam forward. Underwater waves began to sweep over him as a blurred, thrashing figure came into sight. John was tugging desperately at his waterlogged trench coat, fumbling with the buttons in his panic. Arthur couldn’t see much but he could see the raw terror in the younger man’s eyes.

His frantic movements cost him dearly, John had slowed by the time he arrived. Arthur pulled and pulled until the coat ripped open. The buttons floated away, drifting past limp limbs and a slack mouth that air no longer bubbled out of. Trying not to panic himself Arthur grabbed John and brought their lips together, blowing air into his mouth. He slammed his eyes shut in a silent prayer. Please work. Please work. Don’t let him die. Arthur couldn’t bare the thought of another person dying because of his foolishness. Relief surged through him when John responded, lips moving against his as he shimmied out of his coat. The moment he was free, Arthur wrapped his arms around him and kicked hard towards the surface.

When they broke through, Arthur filled his lungs greedily until they were near ready to burst. His head swiveled, stopping on the shore south of them. They had drifted a bit, but not enough to be a cause for concern. Arms now free, he tried to swim for the shore. Easier said than done with a fully grown man clinging to him like a koala bear.

“Use your goddamn legs!” Arthur half-yelled, half-sputtered thanks to the waves slapping his face.

It was to no avail. John coughed like his throat was being torn open; choking on air and water alike. His ragged gasps were cut painfully short as mouthful after mouthful came up.

Arthur didn’t fear death. He had stared it straight in the eye too many times not to consider it an old, surprisingly patient friend. Death would have to go on waiting though. With no plans for a watery grave, he mustered up his last bit of strength and powered through to the shore. Probably swallowed a gallon of water with John weighing him down. Hardly mattered though once his fingers touched dirt. Arthur bucked John off his back with all the pent up frustration of a worn out bull and collapsed into a heap.

He was too old for this shit.

Heart still beating furiously, Arthur simply lay there. One breath after another with his forehead pressed to the earth, it felt like an eternity has passed before his heaving chest eased. It was worse for John. Hunched over and clutching onto his stomach he retched up a belly full of water; body seizing up with every violent cough.

“Marston, look at me.” Arthur rolled over, wincing as every muscle within protested. “Calm down. You gotta breathe.”

“What the hell—” John coughed hard when he received several whacks to the back. Probably didn’t help, but hey, it made Arthur feel better. “—do you think I’m tryin’ to do?”

Ah, good. The ungrateful bastard was going to be just fine. John spat out some more water, then dragged the back of his hand across his mouth before curling in on himself. Arms locked around his legs, troubled stare fixed on his knees, you’d think he was trying to shrink himself out of existence. He was still breathing heavily despite his coughs having subsided. The right thing would be to, you know, say something. But Arthur was as good at that as John was at staying out of trouble. Some tiny, ridiculous part of his inner being wanted to pull him closer. At the mercy of the night air, it was a damn wonder you couldn’t hear their bones rattling under their skin. Arthur laughed to himself. What fools they were. A pair of drenched rats sitting and shivering just beyond the faint shadow of the ferry terminal.

“C’mon,” he nudged John’s shoulder slightly with his fist. “Let’s go.”

John didn’t move, of course, because he just had to make everything difficult.

“You saved me,” he mumbled, face lost behind scraggly black hair as his head hung low until he lifted his gaze. “Why?”

Brows knitted and expression grim, who knew what John was thinking. Did John really think he’d just let him die? Was his opinion of him that low? Perhaps it was better not to know. There was never any other option in his mind but to save him. He should have put his foot down, should have not let his idiot-in-crime get anywhere near the ferry terminal. John could have died twice tonight all because Arthur couldn’t say no. His gaze was unwavering; the only warm thing left about him. It made him wonder if they were doing the same thing: searching for answers but finding only questions staring back. They were close. Too close. Now was the time to put some space between them, but Arthur remained still. For he was cold and selfish and full of want for things he didn’t deserve.

“It’s bad for business if a client dies,” Arthur grunted after far too long a moment, gripping John’s arm tightly and forcing them both to stand. “Let’s go. I ain’t gonna freeze to death on account of you being a brat.”

“Oh, shut up.” John ripped his arm away, teeth bared as his perpetual undercurrent of anger came back to the surface. He was definitely going to be alright. “This is all your goddamn fault. Climbing down balconies. What a stupid idea that was.”

“And what, letting go was some stroke of genius? Maybe I should’ve let your dumb ass drown.” Arthur rolled his eyes as John pouted like a child at his ruined suit. “Can’t swim. Can’t follow basic instructions—”

“How is it my fault two men with shotguns showed up?”

Arthur snorted. “How does a man go twenty-six years without learning to swim?”

John roughly wiped the dripping hair still plastered to his face aside before stomping ahead. “No one ever cared enough to teach me.”

Despite his foot being firmly in his mouth, Arthur managed to make it up the rocky slope. It led them back to the dim streetlights of Sisika Avenue, full of closed storefronts and darkened alleyways beckoning them forward. Well after midnight, the street was mostly barren and silent save for those up to no-good. In other words, themselves, and whoever was fast approaching. Two men with light footsteps and low voices. Given the time, location, and their rotten luck, Arthur would put his chips on them being Hosea’s men. Guess it was time to take another chance that might end poorly.

“Go to Beecher’s Hope.” Somehow this simple sentence made John puff up like a rooster, clearly squaring up for an argument. “This ain’t up for debate.”

He placed his hands on John’s damp back and shoved him into an alleyway. Hissed curses followed, before John began calling out his name in frantic whispers. Arthur ignored him all the same.

Let’s see what else this night had in store.

--

“Let me get this straight. You were out for a stroll, saw someone breaking into the terminal, and rather than alert anyone you decided to follow them.” Hosea paused to cough, then cleared his throat. “Then after the shootout you broke into my office to see if I missed anything and then sneaked back out by climbing down the balconies like some hapless monkey, only to fall into the lake.”

“Yes.”

Hosea rubbed his eyes. “Where did I fail you?”

Who needed an electric heater and a thick blanket to ward off hypothermia when mortification can heat up a body just as well? Back in the older man’s office, Arthur had half a mind to run and dive right off the balcony again if only to quell his burning skin. Never one for an audience especially when his idiocy was the star of the show, for Hosea, Kieran, and Lenny to have front row seats, well, maybe drowning wouldn’t have been so bad after all.

“Ain’t your fault. Can’t fix someone who was born a fool.”

“Well, you got me there.”

Arthur smiled in spite of himself. This was the sort of embarrassment that would come back years later and make him cringe just as hard. Escape wasn’t in the cards though, what with being buck naked and all. Clothes hanging on a makeshift line above he glared up at them, thoroughly annoyed he couldn’t will them to dry faster. Hosea must have sensed Arthur was weighing the pros and cons of a public indecency charge, for two fingers worth of overpriced brandy from his desk drawer found its way into his hands.

Kieran spoke up. “What I don’t understand is why you didn’t just exit the building normally? No one here would’ve stopped you.”

“What I don’t understand is why you’re here, O’Driscoll. This don’t concern you or Mr. Summers.”

“I ain’t an O’Driscoll!”

“Ignore him.” Hosea gave Arthur a look of fond exasperation, placing a hand on his shoulder. It was a look Arthur had used himself many times—on his late dog, Copper, whenever the rascal got up to mischief. “He gets cranky when he’s tired.”

“He must always be tired then,” Lenny teased, causing the others to laugh.

“Putting up with fools like you would leave anyone tired.” Patience left at the bottom of the lake; damp clothes be damned! Arthur wrapped the blanket around him tighter and made to get up.

Hosea’s grip became firm. “Don’t go. You obviously have something to tell me if you willingly came forward and didn’t hide from these two.”

Arthur lowered himself back to the floor. “I do, it’s just…”

Despite his interactions with John, he was determined to maintain some form of professionalism with regards to the case. Arthur wasn’t suspicious of the younger men—if Hosea trusted someone that was usually good enough for him—but confidentiality was important. Too many people whispering about Heidi, or worse, about Dutch, would only spell more trouble both he and John didn’t need.

Trust Hosea to put two-and-two together. “On second thought, gentlemen, I’d like to have a private conversation with my tight-lipped son.” He smiled warmly. “Why don’t you two go home? It’s been a long night.”

Naturally, Lenny and Kieran didn’t object. Arthur waited until he was sure they had left and weren’t eavesdropping to speak up. “You check that middle filing cabinet in your search earlier?”

“No, the cabinets are for show. The papers inside are all fabrications. Why?” Hosea didn’t wait for an answer and opened the top drawer. The contents inside got a good, long stare before he started laughing. Arthur had expected bafflement or denial, not this. “Well son, if you still got that old pair of handcuffs on you, I’ll come quietly.”

“How can you laugh at someone tryin’ to set you up?”

“How can you not? This is ridiculous. How am I supposed to be arrested for a crime written off as a suicide by the police themselves?”

“The planted evidence was for me to find, not the cops. Tryin’ to get me off their scent and on yours instead, only they probably didn’t count on me catching ‘em in the act.” Arthur sipped his brandy, purposely delaying his next words. Its warmth pooled uneasily in his stomach. “You do make a good suspect, I suppose. Mob boss orders a hit on a rat for leakin’ secrets to their enemy.”

“A compelling theory if Miss McCourt actually had secrets to share.” Hosea didn’t look offended, but he wandered to the window and stared out with a morose expression. The moonlight made caverns of the lines of his face, aging him far beyond his years. “Did Micah see you when you were at the Blackwater Hotel?”

“No, I made sure of that. Suppose someone else could’ve.” Arthur narrowed his eyes. “Y’know I nearly broke the kid’s neck when I caught him followin’ me.”

“I know. I hope you apologized to him.”

He opened and shut his mouth a few times before mustering up a response. “Hosea, I don’t need you spyin’ on me. I’m a grown man. I can take care of myself.”

Why does defending one’s adulthood always leave him feeling like he’s fifteen again?

“Despite your current appearance,” Hosea said dryly, gesturing towards his huddled form beneath the heavy green wool. “I don’t doubt that. I’m just worried, that’s all. We might as well speak plainly. You and I both know Dutch is behind all this.”

His own words came back to him like a bad memory Arthur desperately wished he could forget. Heidi’s murder was sloppy, he had said to John, as if it absolved his two mentors of the murder. It hadn’t occurred to him until tonight that maybe it was supposed to be sloppy, maybe it was supposed to be easy to expose the truth. Her death was a weapon.

“I don’t like to jump to conclusions,” Arthur countered, even though that was exactly what he was thinking.

“Conclusions are fickle and can easily be rewritten.” Hosea went back to his desk and poured himself a healthy shot. “We both know he’s behind all this. Dutch can’t ever leave well enough alone. Every five years or so he tries to provoke me into a war and tries to lure you back into the fold. He’s never gotten over you choosing me over him.”

Arthur thought back to his last conversation with Dutch. How despite everything—all the pain, all the time that had passed—the space at his side was always open and waiting for him. “He made the choice for me as far as I’m concerned.”

The two shared a smile that was full of old hurt. Some wounds never heal. They just sit there on the surface of your skin. A scab just waiting to be picked at.

“It’s just,” Arthur continued, “this feels different. Having an innocent woman killed just to start shit? I don’t know. Just don’t seem like Dutch.”

“You sure about that?” Down the brandy went without so much as a wince. “I figure he’s trying something different this time ‘round. He’s learned the hard way that attacking me directly is suicide.” He looked up. “Any chance you know how long Dutch and Micah have been working together?”

“Newspapers place him across West Elizabeth and New Austin over the past year, so I’d wager about that. What’s interestin’ is the cops nabbed him for a triple homicide just north of Valentine in October but he was a free man come early December.”

“Hm. Dutch must’ve pulled some hefty strings.” Hosea slid the bottle towards him and Arthur topped off his drink. “I wish I knew what he was thinking.”

He choked on his brandy. Hosea quirked an eyebrow, shooting for confusion but Arthur saw clean through it. “I know what you’re gonna ask, Hosea. You know how I feel about that.”

“I’m not asking anything of you, Arthur. All I’m saying is that I wish I knew what Dutch was planning so I could put a stop to it before it gets out of hand.” He shrugged. “I can wait though. His plans will come to light soon enough.”

Sure, Hosea would never outright ask him to poke into Dutch’s business, but he would plant the idea in his mind just the same. Let it take root, grow, and fester until it was a monster of its own that could no longer be contained, let alone ignored. Sometimes Arthur wished the two would stop toying and dancing around with each other and just deal a knockout punch. Other times he felt wretched for harboring such thoughts. Despite all of his provocations Dutch had never been able to lure Hosea into a war. Gang violence was a self-inflicted wound, Hosea would contend, it did nothing except tear apart families, hurt his bottom line, and benefit the police. Whenever the mosquito popped up, looking for more blood to draw, the older man always batted him away as opposed to crushing him. Arthur wanted that to happen once more, but Detective Morgan knew it was too late. Things were already out of hand.

Arthur tried to conceal his slowly building resentment by inspecting his semi-dry clothes. They needed more time, but unlike Hosea he was not a patient man.

“Curious she was shot with an old police revolver.” Wearing leather gloves, Hosea examined the suspected murder weapon. He placed the gun in a bag and emptied a file folder for the photos before giving both to Arthur. “Remember when you and I had a pair of these always at our sides?”

“Yeah, those were the days,” Arthur replied, the wistfulness in his voice sounded odd to his own ears. “Before the war and all. Back when you were still pretendin’ to be a good man.”

Hosea laughed and opened the door, bending down to pick up something. “For a former actor, I’ve always been terrible at charades.”

Forever curious he tried to peek around Hosea, his body was blocking the mysterious bundle. Arthur’s face and spine went perfectly straight however when the older man turned around.

“Before you go. Here.” Hosea handed him his coat, jacket, and hat with a sly smile. “Fell off when you fell in, I suppose.” He waved him off before Arthur could come up with a half-decent lie, chuckling as he left the office.

Both had a bad habit of letting the other get away with far more than they should.

--

Fabric sticking to his skin uncomfortably and the corners of his vision blurred ever-so-slightly, Arthur made his way back to his car as fast as he could. As much as he wanted to sleep, deep down he knew his rapid fire thoughts would deny him that privilege.

Too many questions without answers. Too many holes that had yet to be filled. Heidi was just a pawn sacrificed for some future move Dutch had up his sleeve. The police were paid to keep quiet until the time was right to air the truth, or at least their version of it. Arthur’s involvement threw a wrench into their plans and tonight was about getting him off their scent. But why go through with a murder charge? It wouldn’t hold up in court nor weaken the Matthews Outfit. Why have someone shadow John if Arthur was the one they were worried about? Dutch had followers, not employees, who were loyal to a fault but Hosea had the manpower to squash them. What could he gain from all this? All these uncertainties felt a bit like trying to hold onto sand and watching it seep away between his fingers until he was left empty-handed.

Finding John leaning against his old blue sedan—this is what he gets for parking it behind the speakeasy—didn’t improve his mood. Arms crossed and head bowed, it was odd to see someone so slick and sleek appear unkempt. Whoever he borrowed clothes from definitely wasn’t his size. White shirt too tight, black pants too baggy, and dark hair a disaster from rubbing a towel roughly against it—Arthur made a mental note to tease him later on.

He perked up upon spotting Arthur, though his keenness soon faltered. “What’s wrong?”

“Go home.” He dug into his trench coat for his keys. “We’ll talk another time.”

“No, we’re gonna talk now,” John said, matter-of-factly. “Tell me what happened.”

“What’s wrong?” Arthur abandoned his search. “What’s wrong is you’ve gotten us into the middle of a goddamn gang war, that’s what.”

He did a double-take. “What are you talking about?”

Arthur wasn’t one to air his grievances. He couldn’t bring himself to tell John how frustrated he was at being caught between Dutch and Hosea. Again. Worse yet, trying to stop whatever was going to happen between those two was like standing with your arms spread wide to block an avalanche. If Arthur wasn’t careful, he and John and who knows how many others would get swept away and buried by the onslaught.

“This whole thing is just Micah and Dutch tryin’ to goad Hosea into a fight they can’t win. Tonight was about getting us off their scent. Things are going to get bad, Marston. Real bad. You should get out now while you still can. Hell, I oughta skip town ‘til the dust settles.”

He could practically hear the alarm bells going off in John’s head. Rather dramatically, he grabbed Arthur’s shirt. “I’m not going anywhere and neither are you. You can’t quit. What about Heidi? What about the police? If we don’t do something, what’s to stop it from happening again and again?”

“Nothing,” Arthur muttered, prying the unwanted hands away. Undeterred, John continued to block the car door. “But that don’t mean you gotta get dragged any further down into this mess. You can still get out and should—if you know what’s good for you.”

“I’m in it. Same as you. Jumped in with both feet when I barged into your office.” John was doing that thing where he leaned in real close, close enough so that the heat of his body graced Arthur. It left his throat parched and hackles raised. “Let’s just keep at it, alright? We’ll figure things out. You’ll see. We can’t give up now.”

“It’s late,” Arthur grumbled, abruptly stepping back and pulling out his keys. “We should get going.” John nodded but instead of walking over towards his brand-new red and black Cadillac, he appeared to be heading back to his bar. “Where are you going?”

“Oh, uh, just going back to work.”

They weren’t even standing next to each other anymore but the waves of anxiety pouring out of John right now might just be stronger than what Flat Iron Lake had to offer. If he was ever arrested, the cops wouldn’t need to strap him to one of those polygraph machines to know when he was lying. Got all squirrelly and tripped over his words like a drunk stumbling around in the dark.

“It’s after three in the morning.” Arthur open his car door slowly but didn’t get in. “Beecher’s Hope is closed.”

John scratched the back of his head, trying to avoid Arthur’s searching stare under the flickering street light. “I don’t want to wake up anyone at home.”

Arthur blinked, not sure if he heard him correctly. “You live with someone?”

“Yeah, um, this girl—woman! I mean. I live with a woman. Or well, technically she lives with me. It’s kind of a funny story actually…”

“Marston!” Arthur slammed his car door shut and stormed over. “I swear if you’ve been married this whole time I’m gonna kick your ass on your wife’s behalf.”

“No! No! We’re not married. Honest!” John backed away from Arthur, only to bump into a brick wall. A wet dog caught tracking mud all over the kitchen couldn’t have looked more guilty than he did. “We’re just living together because, well, she’s kinda the mother of my child.”

Leaving that bottle of brandy behind was a mistake.

Chapter Text

Some idiot was blaring his car horn. Loud enough to wake the dead, it was only appropriate that Arthur rose with a groan. Tempted as he was to flop face-first back into his pillow, the clock said half past nine and who was he to argue? He staggered over to the mirror; memories from last night floating just above his head and out of grasp. They could stay up there. Collect some cobwebs for all he cared. Eyes bleary and bagged. A face full of scruff. Still in yesterday’s clothes. His reflection may as well have reached out and slapped him. It would’ve stung as much as the harsh truth that he was on the wrong side of his thirties and had long lost the ability to escape the consequences of hard nights.

The ice cold shower that followed didn’t help much but at least it washed away the stench of the lake. Now at his desk, Arthur flipped past the most recent pages of his journal. Notes from the police report. Beecher’s Hope spread across two. A sketch of John he spent far too long on. He jotted down some thoughts beneath a quick drawing of his soaked clothes hanging to dry. There were more question marks than he liked. A soft creak came from his living room and suddenly there was an ugly swoosh across the paper. John. He tossed the pencil aside. Until now Arthur had forgotten he had brought that sorry bastard home. As with most strays, it was the pitiful puppy dog eyes that did him in.

Having refused to “steal an old man’s bed,” John was out cold and scrunched up on the lone couch. Guilt sent Arthur back into his bedroom to retrieve a blanket. Part of him wondered why he was going beyond the call of duty to help the most troublesome client he had in years. The other part warned him not to explore that question any deeper. After yesterday’s chaos and the revelation about a secret family, he should be furious with John. But he wasn’t. His anger had worn itself out. For now.

As he laid it on top of him, one eye opened. “Rather have you warm me up.”

Arthur threw the blanket over his face. John laughed and stretched. Hair mussed up, clothes crinkled, and expression dopey, guess Arthur wasn’t the only one in dire need of a cup of coffee. Or three.

“Thanks for—” John gestured lamely at the couch, speaking around a wide-mouthed yawn, “—everything.” Against his better judgement, Arthur sat down and shrugged. “I mean it. About the case too. I don’t rightly know what I’d do if you quit.”

He fell quiet, embarrassed by how his resolve had wavered in the face of the unfolding disaster. Arthur wasn’t one to cut and run. Especially when Hosea and Dutch were involved. No, he was going to keep digging the hole he found himself in even if it caved in and buried him alive. All he had to do was make sure John and his family got out before it did.

“Sure,” Arthur said slowly. “I ain’t the sort of man who’d leave another alone with the wolves.”

John gave him a strange look, before pulling up the blanket as he surveyed the apartment. Didn’t take long. The place was small. Not like Arthur needed much space anymore. “You been here long?”

Between the sparse furniture and even fewer decorations, it was more like a hotel room than a home of five years. Didn’t help there were lots of neutrals and whites too—the landlord’s doing, not his. There were some personal touches. A jar with a flower. A picture of his mother. His father’s old hat upon the bookshelf. A photo of Copper on the wall. If there was a fire, those are what Arthur would grab—right after collecting the overstuffed photo album tucked away in the corner of his closet.

Truth was he felt more at home at work than here. “Long enough.”

The sun seeped in through the curtains, casting John in light and shadows. Arthur lingered on the three freckles upon his left cheek; how dark his irises really were and the heat within them. His fingers twitched. Perhaps in envy of the way his own eyes were able to trace all the parts of John they could not. If he could, Arthur would touch those scars of his. Too haphazard for a knife’s blade, claws were the only other possibility. Arthur lacked the imagination though to dream up how a city boy like John wound up in such a situation. Maybe he had a secret fondness for the outdoors like Albert and Arthur had done them both a disservice by not properly introducing the two.

“Like what you see?” John teased.

“Haven’t decided yet.” You’d think a detective would be better at not getting caught red-handed. Then again, his attraction towards the sly bastard had never been much of a secret. To think he ever thought there could be some semblance of professionalism between them. “Suppose I need a longer look.”

John dipped his head, which didn’t conceal his smirk in the slightest.

“Didn’t think you were the type to fish for compliments,” Arthur said dryly. “It’s a fine face. In a certain light.” He tilted his head. “Guess I’m more curious about what’s behind it. That takes time to figure out.”

Maybe it would’ve been kinder to stay away from that particular truth; keep things light and easy. Whatever response John had been expecting, that wasn’t it. That sad smile of his came back. The one that irritated Arthur because he couldn’t decipher it. That’s what had him hooked. The intrigue. Even though he was fairly certain the line was sinking him further into the depths like an anchor rather than up to the surface. Arthur wanted to know more and more but John was the sort of open book that seemed to gain new pages every time he finished a chapter.

The smile vanished almost as soon as it appeared; predatory once more. Like John couldn’t allow the two of them to walk too far down that path, lest they discover something disagreeable. John went right back to pushing his luck, dragging a lazy finger along his stubble.

“You should grow out your beard.” May as well have been a hot brand with how his skin began to sear. “Bet you’d look real fine.”

Damn him. Arthur couldn’t even toss out a rebuff. Compliments always left his tongue parched of words. Maybe that’s why he was terrible at doling them out as well. One finger became five, cupping his jaw while his thumb skirted the corner of his lips. Arthur hated how much he wanted to lean into his touch, how much he wanted to mirror John’s movements. That desperate moment in the closet came back so swiftly it almost swept him off his feet. Nerves got the better of him and he knocked the hand away. Regret set in hard as John’s brows furrowed with hurt.

“Is this about Abigail and Jack?” he blurted out. “Look, I’m sorry I didn’t tell you earlier. I thought—”

“Abigail? Abigail Roberts?” The newspaper article with her name flashed in his mind’s eye, as did John’s hesitation when Arthur asked him about her. A loud exhale blew from his nose and John tensed up, ready to bolt. “You thought what? That living with a fellow witness isn’t, oh I don’t know, something worth mentioning?”

“I thought you wouldn’t be interested if you knew I had a family!” John said, as if his explanation was the most obvious thing in the world.

“Thinking with your cock as usual,” he muttered, rubbing his eyes. “Guess it’s to be expected when you ain’t got much of a brain to use.”

“I’m surprised you even know that word.” John scoffed. He threw the blanket off and stormed over to the kitchen. “Does yours even work anymore? Or has it been so long that it just shoots out dust?”

Arthur sat there stunned. Newspaper soaked with alcohol couldn’t flare up near as fast as John. Cupboards were hastily thrown open as he searched the kitchen, cursing under his breath the whole while. Yelling at someone in the midst of a temper tantrum was a sure-fire way to make it swell into an all-out blaze, so Arthur forced himself to speak calmly.

“I’m not what you want, Marston.”

“Well then you’re stupider than you look,” John spat out, rummaging through his pots and pans more roughly than necessary.

He sighed heavily again, crossing his arms. Arthur kept desire at arm’s length; the world and all its beauty barred off like artwork at a gallery. Look, don’t touch. It was safer. For Arthur couldn’t bare for something priceless to shatter again by his own hand. Maybe he should try to explain it. But John, who went after everything he wanted without a second thought, who was currently grumbling about how indecisive Arthur was, wouldn’t understand.

“If your goal is to wake my neighbors you’re doing a bang up job of it. It’ll be you answering the door though if they come knocking.” John gave him a dirty look but settled down a bit. He even placed two coffee mugs on the counter instead of one. “Didn’t figure you for the domestic type.”

“I’m not,” John confessed, husky voice still drenched with bitterness. He reached inside the fridge. “But I like to have a nice breakfast every now and then. With you sittin’ on your ass and the fact Abigail can’t cook for shit—” John abruptly pulled his head out, smacking his skull along the way. “Don’t tell her I said that!”

--

Color him surprised. After retrieving his Cadillac, John led him not to some obnoxiously fancy house in the classier part of Blackwater, but rather another apartment in the newest district. While Arthur’s building was a big white slab where a murder in the stairwell wouldn’t seem out of place, this one was straight out of a storybook. Striped awnings over the windows, walkway lined with flowers soon to bloom, and a park full of young families around the corner. The whole area was cute, uniform even. Likely the result of Blackwater’s ongoing desperation to leave its frontier city image in the dust; forever trying to prove that it was as modern as Saint Denis or any of the big eastern cities. Arthur felt so out of place he almost didn’t leave his car. John had a similar bout of immobility, though he suspected it was for an entirely different reason.

“C’mon, Marston.” Arthur knocked at his window. “I’m dying to meet the woman who’d willingly have a child with you.”

John smacked the car door right into Arthur as he stepped out. “Oh.” His smile was as sweet as a cocktail. One laced with arsenic, that is. “Sorry.”

Their bickering lasted up the elevator, down the hall of black doors, and was loud enough to draw forth a young woman as John fumbled with his keys. The smell of jasmine and ylang-ylang hit Arthur almost as hard as her stare did; the kind that could level a man if he weren’t careful and made him want to buy her a drink. The woman stood there wearing little more than a jade silk robe; half of her dark hair was coiled up in pin curls while the rest were newly freed. She had only managed to get mascara on one set of her lashes too. Not that she seemed too fussed about it. There wasn’t an ounce of hostility until her gaze drifted over to John. The woman scowled and promptly swung the door shut in their faces.

“You sure you live here?”

“Yes,” John grumbled, digging for his keys once more.

The door opened again. “John Marston! Where have you been?” John tried to slip in, but she pulled the door and blocked him. “Would it have killed you to spare a thought on someone other than yourself for half a second and give me a call?”

He pushed the door open. “I was thinking ‘bout you! I didn’t want to wake up you or Jack!”

Abigail demonstrated just how unmoved she was by his excuse by putting her hands on her hips and stepping in front of him. “I would’ve preferred to have been woken up by the phone instead of laying awake for hours thinkin’ you were dead in a ditch somewhere!”

“I would’ve turned up at the morgue eventually.”

“If that happens one day, I swear I’m gonna make sure your tombstone says—” Abigail moved back to let them in as she swept her hand through the air. “‘Here lies John Marston. Died as he lived. Like an idiot.’”

“Can’t think of a more fitting epitaph,” Arthur grinned.

“Oh God,” John groaned as Abigail lit up, entering his apartment with none of the urgency from before. “Something tells me introducing you two was a mistake.”

Abigail paid him no heed, extending her hand. “You must be Detective Morgan.” They shared a firm shake. “It’s great to finally meet you. I suppose I have you to thank for John being alive?”

“Not sure whether a thanks is really in order but I am glad to meet you, Miss Roberts.” Arthur swept off his hat as he entered their home. “I didn’t realize Mr. Marston had been so open about the case. Seems leaving out certain details is something he’s rather good at.”

“That and acting a fool.” Abigail took his coat and hat while an increasingly red-faced John glowered at them. “Don’t worry. Unlike John, I can keep my lips sealed. I want Heidi’s murder solved just as badly as you do.”

A slow grin crept across his face. “Maybe I should be working with you instead of him.”

A consummate hostess, Abigail led him through until she caught sight of John again and took in his appearance more closely. After excusing herself to interrogate him, Arthur strolled about at his leisure. Sturdy woods, warm colors, and fresh flowers, their apartment was a refuge away from the ills of the world beyond their doors. All along the walls, on the bookshelves, and atop their grand piano were happy memories. Abigail cradling her newborn son. Uncle and Jack napping underneath a tree—solving the short-lived mystery of who was snoring behind a closed door near the kitchen. Jack taking what looked like his first steps. Mother and son opening gifts. The photographer with the loving eye only appeared on the other side of the camera once. Above the false fireplace John stood before Beecher’s Hope, a bit thin but handsome as ever, while a heavily pregnant and radiant Abigail cut the ribbon before the entrance.

“Hello,” a tiny voice said from behind the loveseat. Arthur leaned over trying to get a better look at Jack, but the little boy ducked down.

“Who said that?” Jack giggled but didn’t come out. Arthur lowered himself to the floor so he would be at the boy’s eye level once he did. “Hm. Must be a ghost.”

“Boo!” The little boy jumped out. Arthur grabbed his chest in an overly dramatic fashion and set off another round of giggles.

Unbeknownst to the sweet little boy, his initially feigned horror became very real. A bit like a sucker punch the mop of dark hair and chubby cheeks sprinkled with freckles knocked the air out of him. Jack was so much like the child who hid behind Grandpa Hosea when he stepped off the train at Valentine Station. Home from the war at long last, Isaac was baffled by the soldier rendered speechless at the sight of him. Not that he blamed his son, the only parent he knew was dear Eliza. She was there too, hands twisted in the fabric of her dress. Conscription had stolen him away just before she gave birth. Up until that moment at the train station, all he had of his boy were photographs. That was all he had left now.

Guess there was a ghost in the room after all.

“I scared you!”

“You sure did, kid.” Jack’s grin as mischievous as his father’s. “What’s your name? I’m Arthur.”

He proceeded to introduce himself before showing Arthur some of his favorite toys that were scattered all over the rug. Arthur listened and asked Jack questions, ignoring how strangled his voice sounded. Arthur tried not to think about Eliza and Isaac most days. But then John came along and made a mess of things, stirring up feelings Arthur thought he had long starved off. Even if he never met the infuriating young man, it wouldn’t have changed much. No matter how much work he drowned himself in, how much he stripped his home and life of everything that reminded him of his late wife and son, it was no use. You can bury people, but you can’t bury memories.

Abigail came into the room, brows pinched as she folded John’s wrinkled clothes and set it aside. “John barricaded himself in the shower before I could get a straight answer out of him.” Her expression immediately softened into one of amusement at the sight of Arthur sitting on the floor helping her son stack wooden blocks. “I see you’ve made a new friend, Jack.”

The boy was too fixated on making sure his tower was structurally sound to give much of a response.

Once Arthur declined Abigail’s offer for a drink, she draped herself on the loveseat, leaning over to smooth back Jack’s hair and rummage through the thin silver case on the glass coffee table. The silk barely covered her calves and with a cigarette now resting carelessly between her fingers, Abigail looked every part the Hollywood starlet. Except she wasn’t that good of an actress. Try as she might to maintain her cool expression, the undercurrent of concern that had drenched her wisecracks and jabs was bubbling up, ready to spill over the edge.

“John’s not hurt or anything, is he?”

“He’s fine.” Arthur said soothingly, handing Jack a wooden block. “Except for his ego.”

“Well, that I can live with.”

“Had to fish him outta the lake.” Abigail arched a thin eyebrow at this. “Not much of a storyteller myself so I’ll leave that to Marston. He’s not lying though. I took him home ‘cause he didn’t want to wake you two.”

“That’s his problem. His heart’s in the right place but he just doesn’t think.” She was about to light her cigarette when her hand snapped up to her hair. Her eyes went wide briefly and she set the cigarette aside to resume unraveling her pin curls. It was so endearing Arthur redirected his gaze to Jack, lest he be caught in the act of staring twice in one day.

“I want to thank you though. What you’re doing for Heidi? It means a lot to John and me. What happened to her, well, it never sat right with us. Seems like she got caught up in something a whole lot bigger than we could’ve ever imagined.”

“Don’t thank me yet. Still got miles to go with how things are shaping up. Leave the worrying to me though. You just focus on your boy.”

“Well, I can’t promise I won’t worry, but I’ll certainly worry less knowing you’re taking care of John.”

Color him confused. Maybe slap on the shade of frustration for good measure. Were they together or not? This was a home, through and through. One they had built together as a family. Yet her finger lacked a ring and John’s brazen conduct suggested he wasn’t planning to change that anytime soon. With too many questions but none of them his place to ask, Arthur scolded himself for his curiosity. The nature of their relationship shouldn’t matter to him.

Instead of responding, Arthur took the safe route. “How high do you want the tower to be?”

“Real big! Big like you.”

“Like me? You’re gonna need a lot more blocks, kid.”

Arthur scooted towards the overflowing toy box, shoving the items around in search of more for the boy. Abigail eyed him thoughtfully. Small talk would be the polite thing to do, but Arthur never had much use for manners.

“Is it alright if I ask you some questions, Miss Roberts?” She nodded. “You were good friends with Miss McCourt, I take it?”

“About the same as John. I met her back in ‘28 when we first moved to the city.”

The photograph of them at Beecher’s Hope caught his attention once more. Arthur did the math. New city. New business. New baby. Hell of a year.

“John has been right a whopping total of once in his lifetime.” She nodded towards the large picture. “I wasn’t keen on the speakeasy part but John said that’s where the real money is.”

The end of her sentence came out almost shyly, like she wasn’t used to her wealth yet and felt vulgar for discussing such a thing. Abigail quickly redirected the conversation. “I didn’t spend much time with Heidi on the Serendipity, but we spoke briefly when she came in with Mr. Bell and then later on when she wasn’t feeling well.”

He nodded. None of this was any different than her account in the papers.

Abigail seemed to pick up on this. “I wish I could help you more. Suppose I’m a boring witness, aren’t I?”

“You’re not boring. Not in the slightest.” She bit her lip at that. “What do you know about Mr. Bell or Mr. Van der Linde?”

“Not much except they belong behind bars even if they weren’t the ones who done it.” Abigail ran her hands through her short hair, loosening up the tight curls. “New Year’s Eve was the only time I saw those two in person.”

Wait. Dutch was on the ferry the night Heidi was murdered? That was new. Before Arthur could pry further, Jack smacked the blocks and laughed as they toppled over. He beamed up at him, proud of the mess he had made. Yup. Definitely John’s kid.

“Let’s stack ‘em again.” Arthur immediately hunkered down with Jack, who was thrilled to rebuild his tower. They didn’t glance up until John entered the room; semi-respectable and fresh-faced once more. His face erupted into a toothy grin as he took in the two on the floor.

“Mr. Morgan is a natural with children,” Abigail rose from the loveseat and smoothed out her robe. “You could learn from him.”

John shot Abigail a look that was about as frosty as a summer’s day before she left the room.

“Pa!” The two-year-old bounded forward and clamped onto his father’s leg. John ruffled Jack’s hair as he pointed at a well-loved copy of The Tortoise and the Hare peeking out from under the couch. “Read to me?”

“That one again?” Arthur passed it up to John. “Funny how kids get stuck on things, huh?”

Engrained into his skull, John didn’t follow the words as he read, preferring to keep his eyes on the boy in his lap and holding onto him like he was scared Jack might fall off. Maybe he shouldn’t have declined the offer for a drink. The simple act of a father reading to his child was smothering Arthur with more emotions than he was equipped to handle. Sorrow from the familiarity. Anger that he couldn’t get a grip on himself. Envy that John had exactly what he had lost: a beautiful, headstrong woman full of undeserved patience and a darling, inquisitive son brimming with wonder and delight. Arthur hoped John would always keep them safe. Heaven knows he was going to try to.

“Why didn’t they wake him?” Jack asked, pointing at the sleeping hare.

“Uh. I don’t know.”

“Maybe none of the other animals liked the rabbit,” Arthur tossed in. Jack’s face scrunched up as he considered this. John shot him a tiny smile before continuing.

The longer he stared, the more his heart fluttered, skipping beats like a broken phonograph needle bouncing along a record. This John was so different from the one he was used to and it had Arthur feeling something he couldn’t put a name to.

“You okay there?”

Two pairs of brown eyes stared curiously at him. One dark, one light. That’s interesting. Maybe they would darken as Jack aged.

“Sure,” Arthur replied, hoping it sounded convincing. John’s grimace told him otherwise. “You got any other secrets I should know about?”

John didn’t miss a beat. “If I told you, that’d spoil the fun in finding ‘em out.”

Heels tapping along the wooden floor had the two Marstons out of their seats. Abigail came into the room all done up. “In case I’m not back in time, remember to put Jack down for his nap at two.” She put on her white gloves. “And make sure he cleans up this mess before I get home.”

“Yes, mam,” John said, giving her a two finger salute that Abigail rolled her eyes at fondly.

While Jack gave his mother a hug goodbye, Arthur pulled back his sleeve. Almost noon. Ready to leave as well, he followed the family into the foyer.

Abigail adjusted her little black hat; the brim covered one eye. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Morgan.” She held out her hand. “Come over anytime you like.”

“Thank you, Miss Roberts.” Arthur shook her hand again. “Before you go, I was just wonderin’ how you knew who I was when we first met?”

“Oh, you matched John’s description. Tall, blond, and devastatingly handsome.”

A wolfish grin not unlike John’s greeted him before she closed the door behind her, leaving Arthur standing there kind of hoping all six floors would open up beneath him and swallow him whole.

John’s snickering cut off when he noticed Arthur had slung his coat over his arm. “Aw, c’mon. Don’t go. Abigail didn’t mean no harm.”

“I’m heading up to Owanjila to investigate one of the coordinates we found.”

“You are?” John blocked the door. “I feel like I should come. Jack loves car rides. We can—”

“Absolutely not,” Arthur snapped. “We don’t know what’s up there and frankly I like the idea of you being involved in this case even less now that I’ve seen all you have to lose.”

“Why must you paint everything so black?” John crossed his arms when Arthur placed on his hat and stayed quiet. Don’t engage, he told himself. It was a ploy to keep him from leaving and he was in no mood for any games. “God, you’re such a stubborn old bastard. I hope a grizzly bear gets you.”

“You’d miss me and my ugly mug if I was gone,” Arthur added before John tossed the door shut in his face.

Chapter Text

The sun was shining brighter than it had any right to. It warned the grasses not yet parched of the scorching summer ahead as if the memory of its heat wasn’t burned into every speck of soil throughout the prairies. Still irrepressibly green and flat, stretching onwards until it bled into the Montana where jagged cliffs and trees bloomed alike. One hand on the wheel, Arthur smoothly rounded a sharp curve. Speed limit acknowledged but ignored, chasing after a bit of old exhilaration in vain; the memory of racing Dutch and Hosea on horseback across the countryside. Before the dirt trails became solid roads. Back when they’d take a bullet for the other rather than be on the firing end. With the world and wind whipping by through the windows, you’d think there would be a smile on his face.

“Jesus! Who pissed in your cereal, Englishman? You oughta be happy your boy Sean’s here to watch out for ya. Who knows what’s creeping around that lake?”

Arthur used the rear-view mirror to direct his sour expression to the smug Irishman stretched out in the back. “We’ll never find out seeing as your big mouth is bound to scare everything away.”

Bored stiff on his day off, Sean badgered Albert into letting him join their excursion up north. Lying in wait like a damned cougar, Sean pounced and sank his claws in through pleading eyes and promises to follow orders. Arthur was even worse at saying no to his friends than Albert, so that was that. Now all three were now bound for Owanjila. At least Sean’s presence saved him a trip to the police station. He readily agreed to bring the gun found in Hosea’s office in for a ballistics analysis. Under-the-table, of course. Truthfully, Arthur wasn’t that put out by him tagging along but Sean didn’t need to know that.

“Haven’t you ever heard the saying ‘two’s company, three’s a crowd?’” Arthur asked, trying not to smirk.

“Some lonely shite must’ve come up with that. More like three’s a party, am I right?” Sean chuckled at his own joke. “What’s four then?”

“A reason to stay home.”

Sean snorted. “I love ya, Arthur, but you’re a miserable sod. I’m waiting for the day you finally go full hermit and fuck off into the wilderness.”

“That’s my retirement plan.”

“At least he can shoot straight and without hesitation,” Albert pointed out, lifting his celluloid rounded sunglasses that made him look like an owl to give Arthur a familiar, pleading look. Be nice, you old grouch. “Heaven knows I won’t be much help if something nefarious is going on in those woods.”

“Exactly!” Sean slapped Arthur’s arm. “Mason’s not gonna be much help while he’s off communing with nature.”

“I would’ve used ‘observing’ over ‘communing,’ but your point still stands.”

“You know my da used—”

“Oh God,” Arthur and Albert groaned.

“Pull over,” Albert said, “I can’t bare another one of these stories.”

“And leave me stuck in here with him? I say we toss Sean out and find a cliff to drive off.”

“Sounds good. Eternal damnation can’t be that bad.”

“You old bastards think you’re so fucking funny,” Sean grumbled while the two up front snickered. “Maybe that passed for humor back in your day, but it’s 1931 boys! Ya need to get with the times.”

“Actually, gallows humor is quite popular given how miserable the country has become since the stock market crashed.”

“Oh, shove off,” Sean said fondly, stretching out once more as the car slowed for a red light ahead. “Now as I was saying, my da used to…”

Rather than listen to yet another story about Sean’s father, Arthur’s thoughts drifted back to the hot-headed one he had encountered earlier in the day. What mischief were John and Jack getting up to while Abigail was out with her friends? Given he had been ready to grab Jack and hop into his car regardless of the potential for danger, it was hard to imagine John staying at home the whole time. All five of them in the car would have been a nightmare. Sean’s foul mouth teaching Jack words he didn’t need to know. John probably shooting him come-hither looks every time their eyes met in the mirror and himself getting stupidly flustered each time. It’d be a miracle if they arrived at the lake in one piece.

“Oi! King Arthur! Too high and mighty to listen to the tales of peasants or follow the rules of the road?”

“Huh?” The light was green. “Shit.” Arthur accidentally slammed on the gas pedal, jerking the three men back in their seats.

Before Sean could mouth off again Albert spoke first. “Leave Arthur be. He’s clearly daydreaming about his mysterious backer.”

“Wait, you met her?” He leaned forward and shook Albert’s arm excitedly. “Tell me everything. What she look like?”

“I swear you two are worse than a pair of gossipin’ old hens,” Arthur groused, forcing himself to keep his eyes on the road ahead. What was supposed to be a straightforward drive was beginning to feel like they were about to careen into unfamiliar territory.

“Hm.” Albert stroked his beard. “Tall, dark, and scarred.”

Sean let out a quick burst of laughter. “Scarred? You fancy a jailbird or something?”

“Oh no, nothing like that. The object of our dear Arthur’s affections undoubtedly sparred with some ravenous beast and lived to tell the tale. If I was a betting man, I’d wager the Canis lupus.”

“The what? I don’t speak French.”

“That’s Latin, dumbass,” Arthur snapped before shooting Albert a murderous glare. “Why couldn’t you have kept your mouth shut? If Sean spots him now he’ll know—”

“It’s a man?” Sean practically shouted, slapping down hard on his thighs as his mouth fell ajar.

With no hat to hide behind, Arthur gripped the wheel harder and contemplated whether barrel rolling out of the car was too drastic a response. Damn him and his stupid mouth—nothing good ever came out of there. His self-loathing had less to do with what he said and more that he had said anything at all. Between Albert’s pitying look and Sean’s open bafflement, Arthur was certain he was going to be the first man to die from embarrassment. Death couldn’t come soon enough.

For as long as he could remember Arthur had been attracted to both women and men. Didn’t need more than his own two hands though to count those who had been privy to this. At first it was a secret born out of fear of others more so than the wrath of an angry God he struggled to believe in. Castrated men hanging from makeshift scaffolds worked as well as any crucifix upon a wall. Arthur had hoped if he ignored what his heart wanted that the desire would go away, but that worked about as well as it always did.

Then, as with today, carelessness led to exposure. So convinced Dutch and Hosea would discard him upon discovery, he almost didn’t believe his ears when they didn’t lash out. They spoke of safety, not sin, and in that moment Arthur didn’t think it was possible to love two people anymore than he loved them. Two decades later hatred and legality kept it a secret but any shame had long since worn off. To Arthur, it was just another part of him; a part tucked in alongside his memories and mistakes, his hopes and fears. His romantic affairs or lack thereof were no one’s goddamn business but his own.

Until he slipped up like an idiot, that is.

Slow as Sean may be on the uptake sometimes even a snail still moved forward. “My God. It’s not enough that dames are fallin’ all over themselves when you walk by but now you gotta woo all the fellers in town too? You’re insatiable, Morgan!”

“You sound like a man who wants to get kicked out and left alone in the wilderness.”

Unfazed by the idle threat and determined to ham it up, Sean placed a hand to his chest but his cheeky grin skewed his attempt at sorrow. “I thought we was friends! Can’t believe you told Mason and not me.”

“I didn’t.” Albert was presently refusing to look at him, wholly engrossed in cleaning his sunglasses with his shirt. “He figured it out without my help.”

“I ain’t blabbed yet ‘bout all your other crimes, have I? Actually, unless Scarface has got ya finally renouncing priesthood, an arrest can’t even take place.”

“Renouncing what?” Arthur scowled as Sean hooted with maddening laughter while Albert tried to hide his own by turning towards the window. The shaking of his shoulders gave him away. “Look, despite what Al says, he don’t mean nothing to me.” Oh hell, why was his face so red? “He’s just a client that drives me up the wall.”

Sean grabbed his shoulder and gave it a hearty squeeze. “Sure, Arthur.”

--

A dam stood here once. According to Hosea, at least. You wouldn’t know it though with the way time had swept away all the clues of man’s interventions. Beyond the lake that teemed with wildlife, nature had reclaimed its own on the land too. All those bridges and paved roads were for folks from the east who once came in droves searching for the “Real America.” Back when money flowed out of pockets as fast and steady as the Montana. Now old trees with too many roots were tangled up and gutting out the foundation of their forgotten summer cabins. Many had collapsed upon themselves like the good times had or were otherwise cleaned out by roaming tramps. Arthur hoped civilization had learned its lesson and would stay the hell away. But he wouldn’t count on it.

“Here we go again,” Sean muttered as Albert, tripod in one hand, camera bag in the other, stretched his arms wide and took a deep breath.

“Just look at this place! No painter, no matter how skilled, could hope to recreate its true majesty upon a blank canvas.” Albert marched forward; stride full of purpose. Owanjila Lake glimmered in the afternoon sunlight, almost too bright to behold. “I as a mere photographer can only hope my pictures will have half of the vibrance that my subjects today will no doubt possess.”

“Mason, you’re the only bastard I know that can wax poetics about damp grass and deer shit.”

“Well, it’s pretty easy to do.” Albert pointed his camera at Sean, who flashed a toothy grin just in time for the click. “The poetry of the earth is never dead.”

“Whatchu gonna title that one, Keats? ‘Loudmouth in Repose?’” Arthur came over with his Stevens M620 shotgun in hand. Albert’s chuckle faltered and he shook his hands in protest. “Al, this ain’t up for discussion. It’s not just the four-legged predators I’m worried about, but two-legged as well.”

Albert accepted the shotgun reluctantly. “If it’ll give you peace of mind, I’ll keep it. Don’t expect me to use it though. I would hate to—oh!” He pointed towards a pair of beavers sitting on the shoreline rubbing their faces. Ever so carefully, he crept forward with his camera ready along the slick boulders towards the unsuspecting chubby rodents, nearly slipping twice.

As usual, Arthur went after him but Sean hooked an arm around his, pulling him back towards the road. “And you call us hens! C’mon, Mason’ll be fine. Let’s go find us some action.”

If there was action to be found, it certainly wasn’t around the lake. Whole place seemed on the verge of forty winks. Birds perched high above without song. No fishermen trying their luck. Towering pines barely swaying up at their peaks. There was a lumber truck parked just off the road and he was more surprised to find it empty than with the driver snoozing at the wheel. It was the sort of stillness a weary soul could bask in but Arthur wanted sound, movement; something strange he could sink his teeth into. He was like a hound who had lost his sense of smell and was left to guess which direction to pursue. How do you search when you don’t know what you’re looking for? Sean didn’t complain about the wild goose chase though. He kept quiet and alert, as promised, and the face of guilt began to rear its ugly head.

“Listen about earlier.” Arthur kept his voice low. “Appreciate you not being an ass ‘bout the whole—” He made some vague gestures with his hands. Might as well have been grasping at invisible straws. “Y’know.”

“Ah, think nothing of it. I don’t care where ya stick your pecker so long as it’s nowhere near any dame I’m after.”

Arthur dragged a hand down his face but for his own sanity chose not to respond as they left the lake for the trees. Their footsteps sent rabbits and squirrels darting out of the mess of shrubbery. He watched them go, eyes lingering on how their little tracks mingled with the many, many deer prints littering the forest floor. Sure was an awful lot going back and forth, back and forth.

“Alright there?” Sean asked, quirking a brow as Arthur traced their shape in the wet dirt.

“The gait’s wrong and the steps are too heavy.” Arthur beckoned Sean to follow with a flick of his head. “They’re fake,” he continued. “It’s an old bootlegger trick. Footprints will lead the cops straight to the hooch. Gotta disguise your trail somehow.”

“I bet the Prohibition boys would love to get their hands on someone like you. Y’know all the ins and outs huh?”

“I’d rather die than work for—” Arthur frowned and spat out, “a federal agency.”

“Don’t tell Milton that. Been prattlin’ on about how he’s after the top job at the Bureau of Investigation. Can you imagine? That arrogant shite is as crooked as an eleven dollar bill.”

A steady whirl close to that of an engine soon became their second guide. They picked up the pace, slinking through the trees, only slowing when a long and solid lean-to came into view. Arthur and Sean crouched down and hid behind a couple of high bushes. Five massive black pot stills sat in a row while ten armed individuals milled about, some operating the machinery while others loaded jars of fresh, clear alcohol into crates. Untreated wood and a roof covered in leaves helped the distillery blend into its surroundings. A pile of shoes with what looked like deer hooves on their bottoms were piled near a fire hydrant, undoubtedly installed by the bootleggers. This was no hick moonshine operation. This had Hosea written all over it.

“You boys done yet?” A woman snapped in a scratchy voice. ‘Out of the Woods’ was written across the back of her plaid blouse and Arthur had a feeling that truck he saw didn’t hold any lumber. “I’d like to make it to Riggs before dark.”

When a couple of the men waved her off, Arthur could practically hear her eye-roll before she resumed marching to and fro with a shotgun resting against her shoulder. He didn’t need to see under her yellow cloche hat to know she was Sadie Adler. The widow-turned-fearless-rum-runner who Arthur, Hosea, and Charles Smith had rescued while on-the-run after a meeting between the Big Three was broken up by police. After getting lost in a snowstorm, they came upon her lonely house, only to find a pack of O’Driscolls had gotten there and had put an end to the life she once knew. Clad in men’s clothing with a grimace that screamed “shoot first, ask questions later,” it seemed like she was trying to build a new, wholly different life for herself.

Arthur had a choice to make. He knew he should just back away and pretend he hadn’t seen anything here today. Don’t get involved. Don’t sink deeper into this mess. Don’t stick your neck out. But everyone down there was at risk. Who knows when Dutch would strike?

“Gentlemen!” Arthur called out, ignoring Sean’s startled gasp as he ventured down despite all the guns suddenly set on him. “And Mrs. Adler.”

“What are you doing here, Arthur?” Sadie asked, before spinning around towards the group. “Lower your goddamn weapons!”

One-by-one the guns went down, but confusion still rankled their faces. Must be new recruits. All the old timers had seen his mug plenty. Sean waited until Arthur was out of the line of fire before slinking on down with his tail between his legs. Charles set down a heavy crate, the glass bottles clinking slightly, and came forward with that neutral expression of his. Arthur had known him for almost a year and still wasn’t sure what to make of the reserved, thoughtful man whose quick-thinking and quiet leadership had made him indispensable to the Matthews Outfit in such a short amount of time.

“It’s good to see you,” Charles said. “Who’s your friend?”

“This is Sean MacGuire. He works for the Blackwater Police but don’t worry ‘bout him. He’s trustworthy.”

Despite his words, several narrow stares came Sean’s way. He returned them in full.

“Listen,” Arthur said to the group, “I’m currently involved in a case where I found a list of six coordinates. I take it Hosea’s got another distillery near the Aurora Basin?” Charles gave a curt nod and Arthur sighed. “That means the remaining ones lead to operations run by Colm O’Driscoll and Angelo Bronte. The list was in Micah Bell’s hotel room.”

Charles and Sadie shared a displeased look while the others whispered among themselves fervently. Guess it was common knowledge Micah and Dutch were working together. Although Dutch’s next steps were unknown, it was clear he was planning to stir up a whole heap of trouble.

“After we finish up this batch, we’ll start dismantling the stills and set up elsewhere.” Charles informed the others. “I’ll get word to Mr. Matthews and those down in Tall Trees.”

A man about Arthur's age with thinning red hair and a muscular build stepped forward. “You sure that’s necessary? We can fight off whatever Van der Linde throws at us. We’ve done it before and can—” A gunshot pierced the side of his neck. Blood erupted from the gaping wound as he slumped to the ground, puddling around his slack face.

“Keep away from the stills!” Charles shouted as everyone scattered.

Flashes of gray flickered through the trees. Colt M1911 in hand, Arthur slid behind a thick tree trunk, firing off several shots. There was movement from all angles; a full ambush. Bright white sparks flared from the muzzles of the Tommy guns on both sides. Bullets fired in quick succession, masking the yells and curses. Arthur rushed forward. A bullet whizzed past his ear. He grabbed a corpse and held him up by his suit jacket like a shield, pushing forward and aiming to kill. His makeshift armor wouldn’t last. Not with the way the onslaught was tearing open the torso. A gunman peeked out too far from behind a large, jagged rock. Arthur shot him in the skull, dropped the riddled body, and slipped into his new cover.

For a moment he thought he heard Sadie yell out in triumph but he couldn’t see her. Arthur had lost sight of the others. The ringing in his ears blocked out much of the noise, allowing him to focus and down those before him. No sight of Bill Williamson yelling at everyone to push forward or Javier Escuella slipping threw the chaos with the same ease he might stroll down a street. Maybe they were already dead. Or maybe these weren’t Dutch’s boys at all. Sure as hell weren’t cops—too rough and undisciplined. Who, then?

While laying on his back reloading, Arthur spied Charles above, balancing on a sturdy branch. He handled his rifle with care, sniping only those who were aiming for the stills. Knowing him, the moonshine wasn’t his concern. All those fighting near were unthinkingly dancing among landmines and Arthur didn’t want to be around when the inevitable happened. Breaths punched in and out of him and nerves crackling with excitement, Arthur kept low as he took out a man who had spotted the skillful sniper above. Charles gave him a wave in thanks.

He hated this. He hated how easily killing came to him. It was like breathing, like walking. Thought was not part of the equation. Though the battlefield may be different, the feelings were the same. This was what he had been chasing earlier in jest. Among all the death, Arthur was alive and in his element. Thank heavens John wasn’t here, risking his life for someone so undeserving.

Wait.

Sean.

Where was he?

Arthur lifted up the stiff next to him whose brain was half spilled out onto the dirt, using him for cover as he dashed back into the fray. He refused to believe Sean was among the corpses, battered and oozing, life unfairly snatched away. He kept his eyes up, hunting for ginger beneath the low tipped hats. Arthur could handle this. The wretched screaming, the way bodies dance cruelly when bullets ricochet through them, the beating of his heart in his ears, the stench of the aftermath and knowing his hand in it. For he was depraved, reverting to his true self when the threat of death loomed above like a ready guillotine. These battles were impersonal. He knew little to nothing of his enemy and cared for them even less. What Arthur could not handle though was the thought of yet another person he cared for dying because of him.

“Let go, you pig fucker!” Sean yelled, voice loud and clear in a gap between the gunfire, trying to yank his pistol out of a larger man’s grip as they fought in front of a still.

“Sean! Get away from there!”

The Irishman dropped down, angled his pistol up and fired right into the man’s gut. Arthur grasped Sean’s arm, ripped him up towards him, and together they ran. A bullet finally made good on all their worries, piercing the already dinged-up vat, and sending a fireball up into the air with a deafening bang. Another still close by exploded too. Men engulfed in flames ran forward with the fire spreading along the ground and up their clothes. It brought Arthur right back to the war, back to those horrible flamethrowers, and having to watch soldiers on both sides burn alive.

“Arthur? Arthur!” Sean was shaking him, pointing at a man running off in the direction where Albert was.

No discussion necessary. They tore back through the thin trees and bushes as if they weren’t there, desperate to catch him before he got back out into the open. But he was wiry and swift and vanished down a slope. Arthur and Sean stood at the top briefly before going their separate ways. At the base, Arthur crept forward quietly, hoping to hear an outburst of panicked footsteps. The bastard surprised him, knocking the wind out of Arthur as they both crashed to the ground. Arthur grabbed his assailant’s hands as they swung down, trying to bury a dagger into his face; the blade barely an inch above his nose.

There was a loud smack of wood against bone and his attacker’s eyes shot open before he went limp. Arthur threw him off and stared up at a bewildered Albert, holding his shotgun like a bat.

“I didn’t kill him, did I?” Albert nudged the unconscious man with his shoe.

Arthur was breathing too heavily to respond. So was Sean when he ran over, but he pointed at the rise and fall of the man’s chest. Albert let out a great sigh of relief.

“What the hell-are you doing here?” Arthur panted, trying to fend off Albert who was trying to brush all the dirt off him as he sat up. “Get back to my car!”

Albert gave him a glare that told Arthur he had some choice words for his suggestion to abandon his friends but was too polite to utter them. Rather than argue, Arthur clapped him on the back in thanks, before he and Sean snapped their handcuffs around the man’s wrists and ankles respectively.

“Rise and shine,” Arthur growled, slapping the man’s face a bit.

“Go fuck yourself,” the man mumbled, though it was loud enough to distinguish an Irish accent. Arthur’s back straightened as it dawned upon him that he had an O’Driscoll in his hands. So much for that peace treaty. What was going on? If there was one person Dutch hated more than Hosea, it was Colm. They wouldn’t be working together, would they?

“Ah, he’s a Belfast boy. Just shoot him.” Sean spat at his feet. “Loyalist cunt.”

Arthur shook his head, not in the mood for politics. “I’d rather hear what he has to say.”

--

“What a waste,” Charles murmured, watching the dead join those who had already gone up in flames. Fifteen had fallen, six of which were his men.

After the shootout ended and the initial fire had been put out, everyone—save for Albert who agreed to borrow Arthur’s car and bring an injured man to the hospital in Strawberry—pitched in to dismantle what remained of the distillery. They worked in near silence, for Sadie had knocked out the captured O’Driscoll the moment he started spitting insults. Arthur almost wished someone would strike up a conversation, if only to drown out his swirling thoughts. It was his fault the O’Driscolls had been able to sneak up on the distillery. Arthur had distracted them from keeping watch. Charles and Sadie dismissed his apologies however, telling him not to worry about it. Why did everyone always let him off the hook? He was also troubled by how at home he felt in life-or-death situations and the way certain memories still had the power thirteen years later to seize up his bones. Do soldiers ever really leave the battlefield?

“Wait ‘til Colm finds Hosea’s got a woman workin’ for him. He’ll laugh himself to death.”

“He won’t be laughing when I slit his throat from ear-to-ear,” Sadie said with full confidence. Drenched in blood and none of it her own, Arthur didn’t doubt her for a moment.

“You all made a big mistake,” the O’Driscoll sneered, flicking his sweat-slicked hair aside, undaunted by his present predicament. “Colm knows it was Hosea who attacked his men up in the Grizzlies.”

Charles and Sadie shared a confused look before the former spoke, “You must be mistaken.”

“Shut up you lying sack of—” Sadie shot him right between the eyes, then stared everyone down before grabbing a shovel and heading back to the pit where the charred corpses lay.

Arthur, Charles, and Sean held equally grave expressions. The Van der Linde Gang was too small to take on the Matthews Outfit directly, but the O’Driscolls weren’t. They were probably behind that attack in the Grizzlies and had framed Hosea. If he started up a war between two of the biggest mobsters, Dutch could waltz on in afterwards and reap the benefits. At least, that was likely the plan. Too bad Arthur had to go and gum up the works by accidentally uncovering it.

Chapter Text

When a man fumbles at something as simple as lighting a cigarette, he either needs to lay off the hooch or deal with whatever was making him sweat under his collar. Fingers fidgeting as he tucked the offending object back into the carton and Beecher’s Hope growing larger with every step, Arthur found himself almost wishing he was a booze hound. He had already called John to discuss Owanjila and the results of the ballistics analysis. Nothing warranted him being here but his feet felt otherwise. Arthur didn’t want to think too hard as to why.

Evening at the speakeasy was less rowdy than its late-night counterpart. From the stage, the band played moody jazz for the customers wading in; a mix of happy couples, not-so-happy regulars, and clusters of young ladies chatting over their cocktails. A kiss blown his way left Arthur looking around for the recipient until an outburst of giggles told him who it was for. Ready to barricade himself in the safety of a stiff drink, he almost walked right past a familiar face.

“Detective Morgan?” Kieran Duffy gawked up at him. “What brings you here?”

Clean-shaven and in a three-piece suit far beyond the price range of a stable manager—probably a gift from a certain gangster—Kieran could’ve passed for a new man if he weren’t as jittery as a rabbit among hounds. His foot was little more than a blur, shaking away while his eyes lingered on the mossy-green coat slung over the chair next to him.

“Bad business.” Arthur dropped his hat on the table as he sank down into the vacant seat. Look at them. A pair of suckers suffering from a case of nerves. “I’m here on account of a police raid. Been doing some work for ‘em on the side. They’ll be arresting everyone shortly.”

Kieran paled, surging forward to grab his arm. “You’re kidding!”

“Afraid not, O’Driscoll.” Arthur struggled to break free from Kieran’s vice-grip and resorted to prying off one finger at a time. “The place is surrounded. Everyone’ll be spending the night in the big house.”

“Can’t you get them to wait ‘til tomorrow? I’ve been tryin’ to work up the courage to ask Miss Gaskill on a date for months.”

The admission almost did him in. Don’t smile. Don’t smile. “How ‘bout this? I’ll put in a good word and see that you two get placed in the same cell.”

“Oh God.” Kieran slumped back in his chair. “I knew I should’ve taken her to the movies.”

“Arthur, are you teasing poor Kieran again?”

All dolled up and in a sleek maroon gown, Mary-Beth Gaskill was as lovely as ever. All smiles too despite catching him in the act. Used to seeing his friend and office-neighbor in simple dresses and big, comfy shawls that he teased she wore strategically to put curling up with a good book in the mind of customers, Arthur couldn’t maintain his serious expression.

“Maybe,” he admitted sheepishly, rubbing his neck.

“Oh, you’re a louse.” Mary-Beth said fondly, smacking him lightly on the shoulder with her little matching handbag. “Kieran, if there’s one thing you need to know about Arthur is that he acts all mean and tough, but deep down he’s a real sweetheart and hates when people discover the truth.”

“Now you—you listen here, Miss Gaskill.” Damn it. He must’ve flushed bright red given Kieran’s suddenly oversized grin. Well, it served him right. “Don’t you go ‘round telling people that.”

The music shifted into a livelier Cab Calloway tune, drawing forth couples young and old to the dance floor. Mary-Beth perked up and placed a gentle hand on his arm. “Arthur, we need to catch up. I’ll bring you along the next time I see the girls.”

He barely got out a goodbye before Mary-Beth led a quietly distressed Kieran into the crowd. She made short work of his two left feet syndrome, immediately launching into a mini lesson on how to do a simple foxtrot. Pretty soon Kieran stopped glancing at other couples and kept his eyes on her, where they belonged. The happy young couple reminded him a bit of when he courted Mary Gillis, now Mary Linton, long before the war. Things were different back then, what with chaperones and tighter rules. He wondered how she was, if she knew just how great a bullet she dodged by leaving him. Otherwise Mary would be six feet under and not poor Eliza.

Feeling old and liable to end up with a cavity if he kept watching them, his gaze sought the exit. He found John instead. He was behind the bar, dapper as ever, placing three martinis on the tray held out by a waiter. A warmth, like whiskey on a cold night, spread across his chest when their eyes met and his feet moved forward despite his inhibitions. He had many things on his mind but the case wasn’t one of them. So much for professionalism.

“Thought I scared you off,” John smirked. “Didn’t figure you’d set foot in here again. What brings you back?”

“What brings most people to bars?” Arthur set some money down on the counter. “Gimme a double.”

Rather than select a bottle from the rows upon rows of stacked shelves behind him, John pulled out something special from a cupboard near his feet. After pouring Arthur his drink, he slid it and the cash towards him. “On the house.”

“Spoiling me now?” Arthur’s eyebrow quirked as he took a sip. It was a single malt scotch, rich and smoky. “What’ll your other customers think?”

“Perks of knowing the owner.” He shrugged, before crossing his arms and resting his elbows on the counter. “For a man who wanted a drink so bad, I’m surprised you didn’t stop at one of the six speakeasies between here and your office.”

A single malt was meant to be savored but damn if Arthur wasn’t two seconds away from downing the rest of it in one go.

“You keep count?” Arthur defected, clearing his throat. Maybe he should’ve ordered a triple.

“I like to know my competition.”

“You don’t have any. Not as far as I’m concerned.”

If he was better with words, he might have said something sly, something that could trip up the smug bastard who enjoyed leaving him flustered far too much. It was the truth though and John was happy for it, sloshing a bit of the scotch in another glass for himself. He clinked their glasses together and drank.

“What happens…” John glanced both ways discreetly before beckoning Arthur closer with a curl of his finger. More come here than come-hither, but Arthur didn’t move, opting for a suspicious stare. It was bad enough the other bartender, a short feller with fast hands and wandering eyes, kept sneaking peeks at them.

“Christ’s sakes,” John grumbled, before leaning over the counter. His lips brushed against Arthur’s ear. “What happens now that we know the bullets are a match? You never told me.”

“You can’t be trusted,” Arthur replied, repressing a shiver. “That’s why.”

Truth be told, he didn’t have his next steps mapped out. He had to visit Dutch. That much was obvious. But how? He knew of the investigation into Heidi’s murder, but not Arthur’s knowledge of his bigger plan to start up a war between the Big Three. This social call had to be framed carefully so as not to alert Dutch that he knew more than he should. Worst of all, it would require acting which was about as fun as a root canal.

“We’re supposed to be partners. You can’t keep me in the dark.”

“We’re not partners. That’s not how this works.”

“I’m the one footing the bill so I decide how this works.”

“Not with me you don’t,” Arthur shot back.

Neither could be cowed by the other man’s anger but that didn’t stop them from their fool’s game of trying to stare the other down. It was the stark familiarity that gave Arthur the upper hand in the end. He had seen this before with Dutch and Hosea. John loved the fight almost as much as he loved getting his way. So he did what Hosea would do: deny him both.

“I don’t want you anywhere near him.”

Knowing exactly who he meant, John’s shoulders sank. Down went the scotch too though it must’ve burned something fierce with how hard he winced. The distillery shootout had solidified John’s baseless fear that Dutch was going to hurt Arthur. Knowing him, he’d try to weasel his way into the visit. Not a chance. Not this time.

This conversation was a dead-end and Arthur wanted to steer John away before he got any ideas otherwise. “Why you behind the bar? I thought the owner was just supposed to lord over the place and bask in self-satisfaction.”

“Took a night off from that to let one of my bartenders head home early. His wife is ill.” He bit his lip. “I’d do it more often if the view was always this nice.”

Arthur gave him a flat look. “You ain’t subtle, are you?”

John flashed him a guilty-as-charged smile that he couldn’t help but return. Always wanting and never the wanted, Arthur wasn’t used to being pursued. It was kind of nice, if he was being honest, though it baffled him greatly. What to do about it was the real issue.

“Were you this obnoxious with Abigail?”

“Weren’t like that. We were friends.” John broke off and growled, “What’d you do want, old man?”

The gatekeeper—Uncle, if Arthur was remembering correctly—came up to the bar with a face crinkled with a mixture of worry and irritation. “Boy, you are as sour as vinegar! I came over here out of the goodness of my heart!” John rolled his eyes but Uncle persisted, “I wanted to let you know the police are coming. Seems Ross and a lot of other fellers would like a word.”

“What?” John exclaimed, not masking his horror. “How long we got?”

“Oh, you ready to grace me with your attention now? How kind of you!” Uncle put a finger to his lips. “Hm. They called, oh, ten minutes ago? So not long, I suppose.”

“You useless sack of shit!” John stalked forward, causing Uncle to back up into Arthur. “Why didn’t you tell me earlier?”

“Why John, you know I got lumbago! You can’t expect me to move as fast as a youngin’ like you! You oughta be grateful I even let you know you miserable—” John seized his shirt, pinning him to the counter. Uncle’s arms flailed. “Morgan! It’s Mr. Morgan, right? You’re a good man, ain’t you? You wouldn’t this hapless idiot harm an old feller like me, would ya?”

“That’s just it.” Arthur swirled his scotch around. “I ain’t a good man.”

Uncle grabbed Arthur’s sleeve. “Oh, I don’t believe that for a second! Surely you must have a little pity for an old, sick man such as myself? You must have a heart somewhere in there!”

Arthur gave a deep sigh. “Marston, there are too many witnesses to kill him.”

Suddenly hesitant under the gaze of spectators, John let go but raised a finger to his face. “Help me get this place in order. ‘Cause if I go down, you lose your meal ticket.”

That lit a fire under the old man. Chronic back pain momentarily cured, he hurried over to the stage to speak with members of the band while John rounded up the bartenders and wait staff. They spread out to make the wet speakeasy look bone-dry. Obvious drunks and glasses with alcohol were taken away. (Arthur managed to throw back his scotch before it was plucked out of his hands). Big spenders were cleaned out of the gambling lounge; a curtain and couch were used to conceal that particular door. He laughed openly when John and Uncle spun the shelves stocked with liquor around, the backs of which were decorated with pastoral artwork. Common sense told him to leave, but he ignored it. Save his own neck while John, Mary-Beth, Kieran, and hell even Uncle, got hounded by the cops? Nope. Not happening.

“Sorry to interrupt your evening, folks,” Uncle said into the microphone on the stage, bringing the curious whispers to a hush. “We got some unwanted visitors from the clubhouse on the way. But don’t y’all worry, we’re tidyin’ up the place and things will go back to normal soon,” he paused, then added quickly, “Pretend you don’t know they’re coming!”

Just as the music resumed, loud banging on the walls brought everything to a more permanent halt. When eight axes began to hack open the north and south walls, the place erupted into commotion. Police officers chopped and kicked at the destroyed wood, rushing in like water through a broken dam. Beecher’s Hope was flooded with men in short dark blue coats, thick black waist belts, and caps bearing golden laurel insignia. Arthur leaned back against the counter and watched as people ran every which way. Revolvers holstered, but batons out, the cops easily encircled and forced the crowd back. Thwarted escapes were accompanied by furious yells and terrified shrieks. Guess Uncle got his wish.

“I thought you were joking!” Kieran shouted. Holding onto Mary-Beth, he was trying his damnedest to reach the bar.

“I was!” he replied, pushing people aside to grab the young couple. He shuffled them behind the counter so they wouldn’t get jostled around anymore.

The stampede carried on until a loud whistle halted the chaos; heads turned one-by-one towards a senior officer dressed in civilian clothing who had just entered. Edgar Ross held up his golden police badge high for everyone to see. It glimmered in the chandelier light.

“Everyone settle down, settle down. I’m Inspector Edgar Ross of the Blackwater Police Department. This is a police raid and we’d appreciate your cooperation—”

“What the hell is going on?” John stormed over with all the self-righteous indignation that Arthur would expect from a man who was actually innocent.

“Quite the café you got here, Mr. Marston,” Ross said dryly, his thick, greying brows and mustache quirked slightly as he eyed the scantily-clad dancers and band members who were scowling at him from the stage. “Never seen so much fuss kicked up over coffee and pastries.”

John got right in his face. Forget being arrested for peddling booze, harassment was going to put him behind bars. “I like to entertain my customers. Is that illegal now too?”

“No, but the sale of intoxicating beverages is.”

“Enjoying the show, Mr. Morgan?” A familiar voice drawled. Felt hat in his hands, Andrew Milton strolled over far too casual for Arthur’s liking. When a heel has a spring in his step, something’s up. Definitely here for more than just a raid. He was dressed like his colleague, right down to the black tie and freshly shined shoes. “Somehow finding a degenerate such as yourself here isn’t remotely surprising.”

Two took bribes and valued their public image and careers more than justice. The remaining one took the law into his own hands and turned a blind eye towards bootleggers. Yet there was no love lost between the three corrupt lawmen. Arthur sparred with Ross and occasionally Milton in the courtroom. When hired to find proof of innocence to save murder suspects from frying, he was usually successful. Both could never take a not guilty verdict in stride. Arthur’s known connection to Hosea only worsened their dismal opinion of him, though that was something he took pride in.

“Evenin’ Detective,” Arthur grunted, not pleased he had missed John’s sarcastic response to Ross. “Yeah, secret’s out. I too like to go out on Friday nights.”

“That’s Deputy Chief of Police to you, Mr. Morgan. But I know how loose you are with that term considering you still apply it to yourself.”

“Maybe I just like to annoy you, Detective.” Arthur picked a pick of lint off his gray suit. “Funny seeing two senior officers here. Paperwork not keeping you fellers busy?”

“Come now, you know we prefer a more hands-on approach.” The riddled skin of his scarred face seemed tight around the smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “Besides, I’ve always enjoyed going on raids and Inspector Ross was kind enough to oblige.”

Milton shifted back in repulsion as Arthur got closer, lip curling. “Why don’t you quit wastin’ my time and tell me what you want?”

He beckoned his colleague over with a flick of his head. “It might interest you to know that Mr. Morgan’s breath reeks of scotch.”

“Probably not the only one,” Ross replied in a bored tone, eyeing the crowd.

John pushed Ross aside to get to Arthur, only for three officers to seize him. His arms were wrenched back to snap cuffs on. Everyone, excluding Uncle who had mysteriously vanished, burst into protest.

“You can’t bring me in!” John squirmed violently as they got rough with him. “The Volstead Act didn’t outlaw drinking and you can’t prove the alcohol was sold here!”

“I know perfectly well what the law says, Mr. Marston,” Ross smirked, clearly enjoying watching John thrash as they dragged him towards the hole in the wall. “We also know exactly who you are and what you do. You’re nothing more than a common criminal.”

“You have no proof of any wrongdoing,” Arthur called out, trying to keep the alarm out of his voice. “I drank before I got here!”

Others joined in with his useless lie but the cops didn’t care about proof. Otherwise they would have torn the place apart searching for hidden liquor. This was about shaking John up. Many police whistles were blown in vain; the uproar couldn’t be silenced. Arthur tried to worm his way through, but his large frame made it difficult. He kept trying. He had to get to John. The fool wasn’t helping himself by cursing out every cop who came into his line of vision and trying to kick at them. They would beat John to a pulp if they got him alone.

Milton tapped his shoulder. “If you want to save your friend, I suggest you come with me.”

Oh, this should be good.

Cops moved people aside to let him and the senior officer through the speakeasy and out the jagged opening. The harsh outline of police cars and nosy onlookers shadowed by the evening hour clashed with the gentle pinks and deepening purples of the sunset. Clouds loomed in the distance. John was trapped in a circle of jeering cops; glare darting like a caged animal. Arthur could do nothing as they shoved him around. A sucker punch to the gut sent John to his knees.

“We’ll make you a deal,” Ross said to John as he gasped for air. “You give us Matthews and we’ll leave you alone. We know he’s the one keeping this two-bit gin joint wet and every other just like it in West Elizabeth.”

“This offer is extended to you as well, Mr. Morgan,” Milton added.

“You coward,” Arthur growled, about to barge forward when six guns were aimed at him. “Too yellow to go after Matthews yourselves so you gotta force others to do your dirty work?”

“You’ve been taking his bribes for years, what changed?” John laughed breathlessly, a dangerous glint in his eyes as he tilted his head up towards Ross. Hair tousled and teeth bared, he looked positively feral, like he might snap at their throats if he broke free. “Put me in jail and I’ll expose every one of you. Good luck gettin’ that Bureau job, Milton.”

Both senior officers soured. He kept a straight face but wished John hadn’t said that. Milton was now appraising Arthur like an art collector might a forgery. “How’d you know about that?”

“Who doesn’t know at this point?” John sneered. “You haven’t shut up about it.”

Milton and Ross glanced around, wondering which of their fellow officers had let that secret slip. Thankfully, a certain Irish patrolman wasn’t here.

“You’re playing a dangerous game, Mr. Marston,” Milton warned as Ross gave an unspoken order to release him. Arthur was instantly by John’s side. “You’d be wise to work with us, not against.”

“You’re both morons,” he spat, rubbing his wrists as he stood up. “I don’t even know Mr. Matthews.”

Seething with rage, John was almost vibrating and likely drawing upon what little willpower he had not to swing a fist at the cops still mocking at him. Arthur’s presence, fists clenched and face hardened with fury, kept them back. Meanwhile several went inside to alert their colleagues of the sudden turn of events and try to save face, using lack of evidence as their excuse.

“You know, I’d like to say that playing dumb doesn’t suit you.” Ross pulled out a cigar, offering it to Milton who politely declined, before placing it between his lips. “But I can tell with you, Mr. Marston, it’s not an act. Have a good evening.”

Arthur hooked an arm around John to stop him from tearing after Ross.

--

It didn’t take long for things to get back to normal. Well, as normal as they could be with surprise windows now decorating your business. Furniture was piled in front of them for now while ruffled feathers were smoothed over with free drinks. Uncle, who had been laying low with the drunks in John’s office, claimed to know someone who could fix the damage for a good price. Once everything was settled and tired of watching John bite people’s heads off, Arthur forced him to take a walk.

“What the hell is the point in paying for protection? Hosea owes me a goddamn refund,” John grumbled, pacing back and forth while Arthur sat on the gazebo ledge. “What do they expect us to do? Grab Hosea, stick a bow on him, and hand him over?”

“Quit your whining and be glad it wasn’t a proper raid.”

Heavy clouds had rolled in, the air thick and ready to make good on the promise of unwanted rain. They stole the dwindling light the sky had to offer and chased away most others. Park goers headed for shelter; children who had been flying kites now dragging them along the ground. Arthur and John silently watched the streetlights lining the perimeter flickered on one after the other.

“Marston, you’re gonna wear a damn hole in the floor.” John carried on though, of course. “Maybe they want more money out of Hosea. Maybe someone else bribed them to harass you.”

“If you weren’t busy with Heidi’s case, I’d hire you to find out who’s behind this. What if they come back? What if—the hell you smiling at?”

“You,” Arthur said simply. “You crazy bastard. Fighting off cops, giving lip to two mugs who can ruin your life, looking ready to kill the lot of ‘em with your bare hands…”

“Huh.” John sat down next to him. “You sound kinda impressed.”

“Well, the extent of your stupidity is impressive.”

“Shut up.”

He suddenly realized how close they were and his response died in his throat. Not that John noticed. Too busy staring wide-eyed at something behind Arthur. “It’s him.”

“Who?”

“The bastard that’s been followin’ me. He’s over by the park sign.”

The park was wide and open with more flowers than trees and trails zig-zagging in every direction. Can’t sneak up on a man here. Can’t escape the full view he had of them from the sign. Can’t lead John away in the hopes of being followed neither. Arthur didn’t want to risk the person escaping through Blackwater’s back alleyways. There was only one thing to do.

“Don’t!” John yelled as Arthur spun around and jumped over the ledge of the gazebo.

Not expecting Arthur to charge like a bull, the unknown man stood stunned for a moment before taking off as well. He could hear John calling him, language becoming increasingly colorful. Tough luck, Arthur was going to catch the slippery shadow and make sure he regretted ever going near John. He tore across the lush grass; thankful the rain hadn’t yet started. A few stragglers in the park watched but were smart enough to keep well back. The fleeing man was swift, but his legs were longer and more powerful.

To his surprise, John managed to catch up. He barked out, “And you call me crazy?”

Running alongside each other, they were making ground, but it wasn’t enough. The man was closing in on the park gate. A shared glance made Arthur and John diverge. He went right, then hoisted himself up and over the iron fence onto the sidewalk that wrapped around the park. Some pedestrians jumped aside, others he dodged as Arthur hurried to the gate. The man ran out. He swerved to avoid John. Arthur grabbed hold and threw him up against the fence.

“Gotcha you son of a—” He let the man drop. “Javier?”

Somehow despite running for his life, Javier Escuella was mostly unfazed, only having to adjust his red tie. His indigo trench coat, sleek like John’s, wasn’t even wrinkled. Even his black hair was still perfectly slicked back save for a couple of strands that hung over one eye. Meanwhile Arthur and John were winded; his legs and lungs burned.

Javier gave him a genuine grin which made the pencil mustache he was now sporting curl. “Morgan! Long time, no see, huh?”

Arthur pinched the bridge of his nose. Goddamn it, Dutch. He risked a peek at John. Good thing he did. Rage front and center once more, Arthur had to block him before he could tackle Javier. “Settle down, Marston!”

“Settle down? Settle down?” John went under Arthur’s arm and pointed a finger in Javier’s face. “This asshole has been following me for two weeks!”

Javier tried to bite John’s finger but he snatched it back in time. He snickered in delight, beckoning John to come at him with both hands. Guess Javier hadn’t lost his sense of humor nor his love of riling up fools.

“It’s my fault,” Arthur grumbled to John. “This is Mr. Javier Escuella. He works for Dutch. Both him and Hosea have no regard for my privacy.”

“Yeah, sorry about all this.” Javier shrugged, arms wide, sounding anything but apologetic. He rested his back against the iron bars, pulling out a pack of self-rolled cigarettes. He offered it first to both of them but when neither accepted, Javier shrugged again and slipped it back into his coat. Probably to infuriate John further, he took his sweet time lighting up. Javier struck a match against his shoe—seemed he had taken to wearing spats—and blew out a lazy wisp before continuing his explanation. “Just doing my job, amigo.”

“Your job? I oughta have you arrested, you piece of shit!”

“You could do that.” Javier nodded. “Same as I could let the pigs know all about you. Saw you had a bit of fun with them earlier. Maybe they’re still close by. What’s say you and I go track them down together? Wanna join us, Morgan?”

Arthur shot the two hot-headed men warning looks, ready to grab them both if they couldn’t behave.

“It’s nothing personal.” Javier pulled the cigarette from his lips, eyes not leaving John’s. “Dutch just wanted to keep an eye on his favorite son and the people he’s involved with.”

At least he had an excuse now to visit Dutch: to tell him to stay out of his private life.

Not remotely intimidated, John leaned in close. “Yeah, well, you tell Dutch to go fuck himself. I’ll kick his ass the next time I see him.” When Javier blew smoke in his face, John slapped the cigarette right out of his mouth. Arthur yanked John back by his arm before he could strike again. “I’ll kick your ass too!”

Jesus Christ, Marston. Pipe down!”

“Ay, so tough and feisty!” Javier crushed the still smoking cigarette beneath his shoe. “I love it.”

Only when Arthur had snaked an arm around his slim waist and escape became futile, did John settle. “Listen Javier, you tell Dutch to mind his own business. I don’t appreciate him harassin’ folks I know.”

“Tell him yourself. I’m no messenger boy.” Javier smiled again. “Am I free to go, Officer Morgan? Or you gonna write me up?”

“Get outta here.” Arthur grumbled.

He tipped his hat in goodbye. Before Javier left, he gave John a wink. “See you around, cabrón.”

“Asshole!” John started wriggling again. Arthur let go and received a hard shove for it. “You’re an asshole too! Why’d you stop me? Javier Esc—whatever the hell his name is, deserves my fist in his face.”

Arthur pushed him right back. “Didn’t realize you were dyin’ to get knifed. You don’t know Javier like I do. He’d gut your dumb ass before you landed a single punch. Would’ve served you right too.”

“And you just let him go? What if he goes after Abigail and Jack?”

“Javier’s not like that. He’s a good man. Just blindly loyal to the wrong person and kinda unpredictable.” Wait, that was a terrible response. “He’d never hurt your family though.”

At the end of his rope, John ran a hand through his messy hair. Arthur clapped a hand on his shoulder but John brushed it off and walked away. He sighed, wishing he wasn’t so inept at comforting people. He never knew what to say or do when others were upset.

To his surprise, John came back abruptly with a frown. “Don’t do that again.”

“Do what?”

“Risk yourself to protect me. I ain’t worth getting hurt over.”

A couple of raindrops landed on their coats. “When a client pays me as well as you do, I’m gonna make sure they stay alive.”

White-hot lightning streaked down from the darkened sky over the Great Plains, emitting a crash of thunder that shook the earth. There was a mutual groan, both equally excited about the prospect of getting soaked.

“I know a shortcut back to Beecher’s.” John motioned for Arthur to follow. “C’mon!”

Getting caught in a downpour had a way of taking him back, though Arthur went as willingly as a death row prisoner clawing at the walls. Back to when he was twelve, shivering in the shadow of towering newspaper buildings, fighting with other orphans for the warm spots around the grated vents that let out heat and steam from the underground press rooms. Back to when he stood between Dutch and Hosea, refusing to move despite their drawn guns. Back to when he stood in a flooded trench, ankle-deep in mud and water soiled by drowned rats and waste alike, terrified his boots might leak and he’d wind up with gangrene.

It was impossible to linger on those awful memories though, what with bags of forgotten trash to leap over in the alleyways and sharp corners to weave around with John by his side. They tried their best to stay dry, slipping underneath every awning and balcony, avoiding the large puddles and the waterfalls that fell from roofs. With the speakeasy just across the way, Arthur was about to dash across the road when John grabbed his hand and pulled him back into the alley. He stumbled, back colliding with the brick wall. Cars flashed by the narrow exit. The light must have changed.

“Thanks.”

“Don’t mention it.”

Thin streams trickled down the brim of both their hats. Most of John was lost. Clothes as dark as the night around them. He couldn’t see much, but he could see John’s face; riddled with confusion until it eased into one of determination. Arthur’s heartbeat swelled when hands slowly slid up his chest.

“Marston,” he murmured, more of a question than a warning.

“Call me John,” he whispered, grasping onto the lapels of Arthur’s coat. He pulled him into a kiss.

It wasn’t what he had expected. For a man so brash and reckless, there was none of the relentlessness, none of the raw desire that underscored their interactions. John pressed his lips to his gently, telling Arthur he could pull away at any moment but hoped he wouldn’t. As if Arthur could move even if he wanted to. His hands hung by his sides; arms stiff with indecision. As tense as his muscles were, his heart was impossibly light. When they broke apart, Arthur didn’t want to let go of that feeling. He chased after it, wrapping his arms around John and bringing them back together.

No good would come from this, but it was hard to care as their parted lips glided over the other’s. He tasted of the rain and rye from before. It was cold and it was wet. His soaked trench coat weighed heavily on his shoulders. But John was warm. So warm. When he moaned into the kiss and pressed himself even closer to Arthur, he was glad for the wall and that their bodies were flush. He didn’t trust his legs. John deepened the kiss. Tongue prodding then dipping in; Arthur’s own came to meet his. He cursed himself for treading into troubled waters willingly, for wanting to inhale and sink straight to oblivion. The problem was he would take John down with him if he did. This thought alone made Arthur turn his head away. Skin slick with rain and chilled by the night air, he kept a firm hold on John though. Not willing to let him drift away. Their chests were hard against the other as they tried to catch their breath.

“John,” Arthur panted, trying and failing to sound stern. “We shouldn’t.”

“You’re probably right.” His gaze held its usual spark of defiance. Arthur wondered if his were the same for he felt that same fire, that same want within.

“Let’s hope I’m wrong then,” Arthur murmured against John’s lips before he kissed him again.

Chapter Text

It was a quarter to midnight. A cloud of regret hung heavy in the air along with the stench of sweat and stale cigarettes. Two cups of joe deep, Arthur sat hunched along a stained bar counter, eyeing the Blackwater Hotel through the window under the brim of his hat. Next to him was Albert, trying to decipher and elaborate on his own notes jotted hastily during a fiery city council meeting. Anyone who spent more than five minutes here could gather this joint sold more than watered-down coffee. Dames with long faces and soulless stares were working the mugs here while waiting for phone calls that’d bring them to one of the rooms across the street. One was wrist-deep in his coat pocket. Arthur had tossed out enough polite rejections over the past few days that the girls had given up on him, but not on his wallet apparently.

“Other side, sweetheart.”

Although murmured without malice, she fled through the door behind the bar so fast you would’ve thought he threatened her with his gun. Hard to blame her for being flighty; all of the girls were roughed up. If Arthur wasn’t determined to keep up the ruse that he wasn’t a violent son of a bitch around Albert, he’d go upstairs and show the owner a thing or two. An assault charge would get in the way of his surveillance of Micah Bell though.

“Madam Grimshaw would probably throw a fit if she saw this place,” Albert commented dryly.

“That she would.”

A man with his coat collar hiked up emerged from the hotel. Though his face was concealed, Arthur knew who that white fedora with the brown band belonged to. The pair tossed some coins on the counter before quickly exiting. Tailing someone was simple enough. Heaven knows Arthur and Albert had done it enough times, be it for a case or a scoop. They struck a balance between far back and close so as not to arouse suspicion nor lose sight. Their surveillance had been a bust thus far. The only mischief Micah had dabbled in was visiting illegal gambling halls and speakeasies. Those had been cross-town adventures. For the man to keep his pace brisk, head low, ignoring all the cabs driving by, something new was in store.

“You might be able to get up close and personal with that clock tower owl ahead of schedule. By the looks of it, reckon he’s headed to City Hall.”

Albert did a double-take. “Isn’t Sean on patrol in that area on Wednesdays?”

They swore under their breaths as the familiar red bricks, white pillars, and cupola for a crown came into view. Blackwater’s City Hall was one of the nicest buildings the town had to offer. Strange choice for Micah to visit though. Terrible for loitering at night, what with all the little lights concealed in the overhang of the first and second floors and even in the large gazebo south of the entrance. The light spread easily across the grounds, flat and wide open with only a couple of trees thrown in. With nowhere to hide, a pack of smokers clustered around an oak had caught the attention of Officer MacGuire.

Chest puffed out and angling to make a racket, he strolled on over with all the bluster of a rooster. “Alright ya dawdlers, on with ya!”

More than one replied with, “Go fuck yourself, Irish.”

Sean erupted into a tittering laughter. “What would you know about that, hm? The lot of ya don’t look old enough to have chest hair let alone have ever gotten your peckers wet. Come on now. Past your bedtimes, ain’t it? I’d feel like a right bastard writin’ up children so—yeah, that’s right!” The crowd began to disperse, grumbling the whole way. “Get the fuck outta my sight!”

With a smug grin, Sean went right back to twirling his baton as he walked back towards City Hall. None the wiser that Micah Bell, who had concealed himself in the shadow of a storefront, was staring him down. From the alleyway they had ducked into, Arthur and Albert watched as Micah’s gaze rose up the clock tower. Almost midnight. A meeting must be scheduled. Albert clutched his arm and pointed at four black hats steadily approaching from the east. Right on time. All were well-dressed, donning masks, and not shy about carrying heat.

Clearing away hoodlums was one thing, but Arthur didn’t want Sean caught in the middle of whatever this was. Arthur and Albert scrambled down the alleyway, emerging and running across the empty road to enter the grounds from the leftmost side. They tried to remain in the dark patches and keep their steps light on their mad dash towards the building. Unable to grab Sean without Micah seeing, they would have to get his attention some other way.

“C’mere!” Arthur whispered, his heart pounding feverishly as they raced the clock.

Tall but skinny, he easily lifted Albert up to the white railing where he pulled himself over onto the first floor roof. His silhouette vanished as he hurried towards the front. Soon after Sean rounded the corner quickly, eyebrows lost somewhere in his police cap thanks to the odd route his night had taken. Albert must’ve neglected to whisper that Arthur was there for Sean slapped a hand over his mouth upon seeing him. No time for explanations. He hoisted Sean up to the roof just as easily. Arthur was about to run off when to his surprise both Albert and Sean immediately extended their hands. Short on time and with Micah prowling nearby, Arthur backed up, ran, jumped, and grasped onto them. The two men managed to pull him up just as Micah came around with his knife out.

“Where the hell—” Micah placed his hands on his hips, head swiveling in search of Sean.

“Mr. Bell?” a deep male voice called out. Micah swore, tucked his knife back into his coat sleeve, and returned to the front.

Sean hissed, “English, you gotta lose some weight. Swear I just put out my back—”

Arthur shot him a murderous glare and his mouth snapped shut. The three kept low and crept towards the white railing. In the light of the entrance, Micah stood opposite of the four. Arthur couldn’t get over how exposed they were. Anyone could see them. Trust must be absent from this meeting. Can’t pull a fast one outside of the shadows.

“My, my, a paranoid bunch, aren’t ya?” Micah snickered, gesturing casually to the sawed-off shotguns in their hands.

Aside from Dutch’s men, those four could be anyone. O’Driscolls. The police. The Matthews Outfit. A new threat. They looked fresh from the theater in their top hats and fancy overcoats. Two even wore the comedy and tragedy masks. All of them kept their voices annoyingly low as if they knew there were eavesdroppers afoot. The pale moonlight left Arthur’s peripheral vision. To his horror, Albert had blocked it in his attempt to perch himself along the bannister like a gargoyle. He scooted away when Arthur and Sean tried to grab him, keeping his camera ready the whole time.

Comedy gave Micah a small book. He barely glanced at it before slipping the item into his coat, only to whip out his hand. He backhanded the man before him, nearly knocking off his mask. The two clowns in the back instantly had their guns on Micah. He raised his hands in surrender. Done too slow and with too much contempt for Tragedy’s tastes, he struck Micah across the face with his pistol. His fedora fell off. Albert leaned forward.

“That all you got, boys?” Micah stumbled back, but swiftly recovered and spat a well-aimed glob of blood into his eye. He laughed at the recoil and then mimicked the mask’s oversized frown.

The tell-tale click of a camera set off a chain of events. Sean whipped his baton hard. Five heads turned in the direction of where it clattered hard against the pavement. Arthur wrapped two arms around Albert and yanked him out of sight. Footsteps scattered across the pavement. When he peeked through the bars however Micah was still there, rubbing his jaw, eyes on the roof. Arthur ducked. They kept silent and still until they heard him leave as well.

“So, uh, quick question.” Sean sat up. “Just what the hell was that?”

“More trouble for our poor friend here, I suspect,” Albert replied, resting his back against the railing. “Don’t look at me like that, Arthur.”

“What if they saw you?” Arthur rubbed his tired eyes and continued to lay on the cold concrete. Out of the corner of his eye, Blackwater almost passed for pretty with its lonely streets and countless buildings gilded by a hazy golden glow. Too bad the lights marred the night sky.

“A necessary risk.” Albert countered with a sly grin. “Front page material once you figure out what the story is—assuming this is tied to the larger mess.”

Everything was connected. Of that, Arthur was sure. There was too much overlap. The murder. The impending mob war. The murder weapon in Hosea’s office. The attack on the O’Driscolls. The meeting here tonight. A bunch of dots lay before him and it was up to Arthur to draw lines in between like how Annabelle and Bessie used to connect the stars and tell him stories as he laid on the grass between them. Unlucky for him that in the end it’d resemble a spider web instead of a simple celestial pattern. At least Arthur knew what he had to do next though. He needed to get closer to Dutch and Micah. Get his hands on that book.

“I’d bet my life on it.”

--

Heidi McCourt was buried in the last lonely patch of the Old Blackwater Cemetery. Names on weathered tombstones flickered by as Arthur weaved through the rows of graves. Old gunslingers and desperados gave way to young folk snuffed out by the war or the influenza that followed. When they first met ten years ago, that warm day in Golden Gate Park where they shared stories and a flask under a tree, Heidi wore a white lily in her hair. That’s what he had brought for her today. A whole bouquet of them. Call him sentimental.

“Sorry you got caught up in all this.” Arthur swept off his hat and placed the flowers beneath her name. “John and me, we’re gonna get to the bottom of things. We’re gonna make sure your killer don’t walk free and untangle this whole rotten mess.”

The graveyard was quiet save for the wind rustling the grass and a shovel striking dirt in a fresh grave. Didn’t have much to distract him from his sorrow. What a shame it was Heidi hadn’t lived to see her thirtieth birthday in June. She probably would’ve thrown a hell of a party that Arthur would’ve willingly suffered through. He hated how many women’s lives were cut short by violence; by the men in their lives. His mother, his wife, poor Annabelle, and now Heidi. Not Bessie, though the way cancer ravaged her was nothing short of brutal. As the silhouette of a man grew and slowly shadowed Heidi’s name, Arthur reminded himself dwelling wasn’t doing; wouldn’t make things right.

“Hello, son.”

“You came.”

“Don’t I always?” Dutch said this without an ounce of warmth, taking in the hollowed grounds wearily. “Interesting choice for a meeting.”

There was an accusation in his voice that had every right to be there. Arthur had picked this spot to ruffle his feathers a bit and aid the lie he had cooked up. “Figured I could kill two birds with one stone. Apologize to Miss McCourt and talk to you.”

“What could you possibly have to be sorry for?”

“That’s between me and her, I’m afraid.”

Dutch gave him a look of fond exasperation and clapped a hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Walk with me.”

Like hoisting himself up into a saddle or pulling a trigger, there was an overwhelming familiarity in walking beside Dutch and following his lead. For eight years this had been his place, their well-worn pattern. Now it was an act; part of a larger plan to get Dutch to trust him. Not enough to be let back into the inner circle but one of the outer rings where he could snoop and shift around without getting too close, too involved. As much as Dutch liked to claim he’d welcome him back with open arms Arthur knew better. He nurtured his grudges like they were his children. Dutch would never forgive Arthur for betraying him for Hosea. Same as Arthur would never forgive Dutch for putting him in that position. Any sense of trust struck up between the two would be surface-level only. That’s all he needed though. Arthur needed access to both him and Micah. He had to get in on one of Dutch’s schemes.

When they stopped before the cracked headstone of Greta van der Linde, Arthur read out, “‘Loving mother to her son Dutch,’” he paused, “Thought you said your folks were from up north?”

“I did. What my mother was doing down in Blackwater, I haven’t the faintest idea. That inscription is just proof she never lost her sense of humor. I ran away when I was fifteen and never saw her again.”

“Do you regret that?”

Dutch paused for a long moment, then spoke in a dejected tone. “I have no use for people who refuse to open their eyes and see the world for what it is.”

“Yet you still talk to me after all these years,” Arthur mused. “But you’ve always been one for lost causes.”

Dutch eyed him. “You’re not lost. Confused, but not lost.”

Arthur didn’t know what to make of that and didn’t ask. “Well, I am confused ‘bout why you and Hosea think it’s alright to spy on me.”

“Oh, is that what you wanted to talk about?” he replied casually, as if violating a man’s privacy wasn’t a big deal. “Hosea and I disagree on many things but not when it comes to you. We only want what’s best.” It took all of Arthur’s willpower not to erupt into protest. What’s best for them, not for him. “That hot-headed spendthrift is—”

“Leave him alone, Dutch.”

“—leading you down the wrong path. I know Mr. Marston is the one paying you to investigate my connection to Miss McCourt’s murder.”

If he wanted to show some cheek, Arthur could point out he had never told Dutch that Heidi had been murdered. It wasn’t in his best interest though for things to turn sour. That would come in due time. “He wants the case solved, Dutch. He wanted me to investigate every connection. But that’s neither here nor there now seeing as I’m through with the case.”

Dutch narrowed his eyes. “Oh?”

“Ain’t at liberty to discuss the particulars.”

“Well, now your apology makes sense,” he paused. “Must’ve been something substantial for you to move on.”

An agitated silence grew. “You’ve never been good at that” was left unspoken but Arthur heard it loud and clear. “Let’s just say new evidence forced me to pass the case onto someone less close to it all.”

Out came the cigar. Dutch struck a match along his mother’s gravestone as he digested this information. Didn’t seem too hard to swallow given how pleased he looked. “Hosea’s been implicated, hasn’t he?” Arthur feigned walking away and as expected Dutch blocked him. “You did this before. All those years ago in Valentine when you found out he had gone back to his old ways. Rather than arrest him you resigned.”

Every word of it was true, though they had never spoken about the matter. “Just how much of my life have you spied on?” Arthur growled, though he instantly regretted it when the older man smirked around his cigar. Dutch excelled at getting under people’s skin and Arthur had basically handed him the scalpel.

He took a deep breath and squared his shoulders, reminding himself that things were going well. Dutch had taken the bait and connected the planting of the gun in Hosea’s office with Arthur’s resignation. “If he’s guilty, the police can arrest him. I’m not gonna be the one to send him over. I wouldn’t do that to you neither.”

There was a flash of a genuine grin behind the puff of smoke. Long gone when the air cleared. Guilt prickled under his skin and twisted up his guts worse than snarled barbed wire. You’d think after all this time, after all the lies and deception and utter bullshit that Dutch had put him through that Arthur would be free of remorse when he tried to serve him a taste of his own medicine. Instead Arthur was always the one left with the bitter taste in his mouth.

“How’d Mr. Marston take you resigning from the case?”

Arthur stiffened and spoke carefully, “Disappointed, but he’ll manage.”

Dutch smiled the kind of smile that children give each other when they know a secret that they shouldn’t. Arthur didn’t like it one bit and wanted to move away from the subject of John as fast as possible.

“So, uh, you enjoyin’ your time in Blackwater?”

“It’s tolerable.” Dutch tilted his head. “Without the case, I imagine you have some free time on your hands.” Arthur crossed his arms and he laughed, pulling the cigar from his lips. “Well, don’t look so sour about it. I simply require some assistance with a matter.”

Here we go. “What kind of assistance?”

“Nothing too trying. I am in need of your knowledge.”

Arthur barked out a laugh. “Well, that’s a first.”

Dutch paused, jaw working as if his next words weighed heavily upon his tongue. “You know Saint Denis. None of my men do.”

His request hit Arthur like a ton of bricks. For a moment, he forgot about the case and blanched, “Saint Denis? No. I can’t—I won’t go back there. You of all people should know why.”

“It pains me to ask this of you,” Dutch wrapped an arm around him. “But I need you, Arthur.”

“Dutch—”

“I wouldn’t ask this if I didn’t think you were the only man for the job. Believe me, I sympathize greatly with your desire to never return to that cesspit of depravity. But it won’t be for long. A few days at most.”

His hands were fidgeting so much that Arthur shoved them in his pockets. He refused to look at Dutch, furious he would ask such a thing and at his own rotten luck that he couldn’t say no. Arthur should’ve seen this coming. Saint Denis was one of the coordinates on Micah’s list. Dutch was going to strike a stronghold of Bronte’s and pin it on Hosea like he had with the O’Driscolls.

Guess he had been quiet for too long. Dutch, not knowing an affirmative answer was on the horizon, must have decided his unruly son needed a bit more encouragement. “Maybe you can buy something nice for Mr. Marston while you’re there.”

He shrugged off the arm coiled him and made a beeline for the cemetery gates, not looking back when Dutch added, “The train departs at ten to eleven tomorrow.”

Arthur may have gotten what he wanted but now he had something new to worry about.

--

Somehow shutting himself inside the narrow phone booth was less claustrophobic than remaining outside among the crowds of people bustling about the train station. Arthur reached for the mounted telephone. Made of a smooth black, in his warped reflection Arthur could see that he was staring at the rotary dial like it was liable to bite him. He pulled out John’s business card from his wallet and bit his lip when he found the man’s home number newly scrawled on the back. The sly bastard must have stolen it at some point when they were drying out at Beecher’s Hope.

There was so much they needed to talk about but Arthur couldn’t figure out how to go about it without making a fool of himself. Where do they go from here? “To bed” would be John’s response. That was all well and good but Arthur himself didn’t know what he wanted from the man who occupied his thoughts far too much as of late. Always directionless. Always torn between wanting more and more and the guilt the came with that. The thought of John getting hurt because of him kept Arthur up at night. He needed to end it before they both got in too deep but couldn’t bring himself to do it. Maybe when he got back from Saint Denis.

“Hello?”

He couldn’t help but grin at the raspy voice on the other end. “Hello John, it’s Arthur.”

“I was wondering when you’d call.”

“Look, this ain’t a social call.”

“Oh?” Arthur could practically hear John smiling. “I can go somewhere more…private.”

He pinched the bridge of his nose. Arthur knew John well enough now to know what he was hinting at. “Get your mind out of the damn gutter and listen to me.”

John’s laughter made Arthur wish they were together and not on opposite ends of the city. “Alright, alright. I’m listening.”

In his hesitancy to speak to John, Arthur had yet to tell him about the Micah incident and the impending out-of-town trip. Left it for the last minute like a coward. He figured he could wait on the former until he had a better sense of what exactly he witnessed. As for the latter, he had spent the better part of yesterday trying to come up a half-decent explanation that wouldn’t set the younger man off. A lost cause if there ever was one.

“I’ll be out of reach for a few days,” Arthur said, hoping John wouldn’t ask too many questions. “Have to go to Saint Denis. If you need anythin’ just—”

“No.”

Arthur blinked. “Excuse me?”

“No, you’re not going,” John said more firmly. “You must think I’m some sorta idiot. I know Saint Denis was on that list we found. The last time you went to one of those coordinates you nearly got yourself shot to death!”

“John—”

His voice only got louder. “Dutch is gonna make trouble out there and you just can’t help but stick your nose in, huh? You’re supposed to be focused on Heidi, not the stupid war between him and Hosea!”

“You are an idiot,” Arthur snapped. “I’m only going out to that hellhole because of Heidi. If we’re to move this investigation forward—”

“You willingly got pulled into one of Dutch’s schemes and I’m the idiot?” John laughed harshly. “How can someone so smart be so stupid as well?”

“Will you keep your voice down?” Abigail said in the background. “Any louder and I reckon the neighbors will hear.”

“Arthur’s going to Saint Denis to help Dutch,” John told Abigail.

There was a pause before she replied, “Why would he do a stupid thing like that?”

“I’m tryin’ to figure that out!”

“Give me the phone,” Abigail demanded.

“No, I ain’t done yelling at him yet.”

“Will you two knock it off?” Arthur eyed the growing line of people waiting for the phone through the glass door. “Whether you like it or not, I need to get closer to Dutch and Micah. Working alongside them is the only way to do that. I know what I’m doin’ and I don’t need you two worryin’ yourselves into a fuss over me.”

Were they listening? It was anyone’s guess. There was a flurry of movement and frustrated grunts. Seemed like Abigail was trying to get the phone out of John’s hands. They must have settled on placing their heads together and holding the phone between them because he could still hear John’s agitated huffs when eventually Abigail asked, “Isn’t there some other way?”

“Afraid not, Miss Roberts.”

“Does Mr. Matthews know Dutch is planning to attack Mr. Bronte? Maybe he can protect you?”

“Can’t tell him nor anyone else for that matter. Any intervention from the Matthews Outfit or the police will only end poorly. They’d suspect me of betrayal. Listen Miss Roberts, I have to go—”

“This is exactly what Dutch wants! If you get hurt or die, Hosea will lose his mind. How can you not see that?”

Arthur couldn’t take the anguish in John’s voice and he lashed out, “Marston! Calm down for Christ’s sakes! How many goddamn times do I have to tell you—” There was a sharp clatter as Abigail called out to John. The line went dead. Arthur tapped the switch hook several times. “Hello? Marston? Son of a bitch…”

That couldn’t have gone any worse.

--

Back against the large window and knee propped up on his seat, Arthur worked on his sketch of the masked man passing Micah the mysterious book. His eyes avoided the left, a page full of words that had gushed out of him when he finally got home the night after he saw John last. He kept a firm hold on his journal, whole body rocking back and forth slightly along with the train. Bill Williamson sat across from him; arms crossed, head down, snoring away. Lucky bastard was out like a light before they even hit Riggs. It had been a few years since he saw him last and they hadn’t been too kind. Bill had put on a few and his hairline was now receding. Javier Escuella was to his right. He was mostly engrossed in a copy of The Maltese Falcon but occasionally his gaze drifted over to Arthur.

“Somethin’ you wanna say, Javier?”

“Hm.” Javier dragged this out. “Not really.”

Arthur rolled his eyes. Of course, Javier had every right to be suspicious. Fiercely protective of Dutch who had saved him when he was young and destitute, he didn’t take well to anything he deemed a threat towards his savior. Bill was the same. Not that Arthur begrudged them for it. After all, he was once them. Could be worse too. Arthur would rather sit with them than with Dutch and Micah. As much as he wanted to get close to them, being stuck in a small space with Micah for hours on end? That’d have Arthur throwing himself from the train long before they reached Lemoyne.

When Arthur closed his journal and rose to exit, Javier shut his book too. He raised his hands. “I’m just goin’ for a smoke. Relax, son.”

Javier buried his nose in the pages once more.

There were plenty of smoking parlours on the way to the back of the train, but Arthur passed them by. Peace and quiet was what he sought. No chance for small talk this way. It was a long walk from first-class, through the dining cars, weaving past other restless passengers who were tired of their cramped, cheaper seats. Once outside he inhaled deeply, leaning forward to rest his elbows along the iron rail, admiring the way the sun glinted off Flat Iron Lake as they sailed over Bard’s Crossing.

Just as Arthur reached down for a cigarette, the door creaked open. “There you are, Morgan.”

Arthur rose to his full height, not bothering to pretend he was happy to see Micah. “You need something?”

“No, not particularly. I just feel like we got off on the wrong foot, cowpoke.”

Although he had toyed with the idea of trying to get on this weasel’s good side, Arthur doubted he could muster up a performance of that caliber. Micah knew he had participated in his arrest four years ago in Saint Denis. A betrayal turned into a shootout that left too many innocents riddled with holes and bleeding out on cobblestones. Even at his worst, Arthur could never tolerate senseless violence—which seemed to be a pastime of Micah Bell.

“Well, if you’re aimin’ to fix that I’d suggest you not call me that and head on back so I can smoke in peace.”

Micah wasn’t deterred in the slightest. He shut the door behind him and rested against it. Unable to escape, Arthur shoved the carton back into his pocket and crossed his arms.

“Hell of a shiner you got.” Arthur nodded towards the nasty bruise along the side of his smirking face. “Looks like someone got the better of you.”

“No one gets the better of me, Morgan,” he said testily. “Some idiot tried to mug me a few nights back. Last mistake he’ll ever make.” Micah had said this so effortlessly that if he didn’t know better, Arthur would’ve believed it. Although it was a lie it took a lot of brass or perhaps idiocy to hint at murder over small talk. It was meant to be an intimidation tactic. Even if it weren’t true, Arthur couldn’t ever imagine being scared him.

The laughter that followed came to a sharp stop when Arthur didn’t join in. “You know seeing as we’ll be working together, we might as well try to get along.”

“Or we could stay the hell outta each other’s way.”

“What’s your problem with me, Morgan?”

“How long you got?”

Not one for jokes at his expense, Micah’s lip curled and he stepped closer to Arthur, trapping him between himself and the rail. “Detective Morgan. So high and mighty. Heard you was some sort of war hero too.” Each word was slow and deliberate. “Yet we all know you was and still is one of us even if you try to paint yourself as otherwise.”

“Not all of us take pride in being murderous degenerates.”

“Some lawman you are.” Micah’s face got uncomfortably close to his. “Left the force to go your own way and administer justice as you see fit. Let your two daddies run wild.”

Christ, he was desperate to get under his skin. Micah didn’t have Dutch’s finesse though.

Arthur shoved Micah back. Not hard but enough to warn him to not push his luck. “Well, when snakes like you slither on out of the gallows time and again to kill more innocent folk, it’s hard to continue to place faith in the system.”

“Dutch always said that was your problem. Your lack of faith.”

“I’m sure he did.” Arthur raised his chin and stared down at Micah. “Look, you’re wastin’ my time and yours. Why don’t you go back inside? You and I? We ain’t got nothin’ to talk about.”

Clearly, Micah felt differently. “You know I was surprised when Dutch told me you were through with Heidi’s case. Figured you’d want to see it through.”

“It’s in better hands now.” Arthur shrugged. “You seem pretty unfazed for a man whose woman was murdered.”

“Not much I can do about it now, can I? Suicide. Murder. She’s dead and nothing’s gonna bring her back.”

The bitterness in his voice made Arthur’s brows furrowed. Either he was genuine in his sorrow or an excellent actor. An innocent man would’ve sought him out upon learning his sweetheart was murdered. Try to offer some sort of help, especially if they had been at the scene of the crime. Micah had never given his account of New Year’s Eve to the police. Arthur didn’t know yet if Micah had pulled the trigger but he’d placed all his chips on the man’s involvement in her death.

“Y’know I can’t for the life of me figure out what Heidi saw in you.”

“Why are you here, cowpoke? We all know you disapprove of the racketeering business.”

“I’m here ‘cause Dutch asked me to help keep you fools alive. When you attack Bronte, you’re gonna need to get out of Saint Denis fast and I know all the ins and outs.”

Micah gave him a look of disbelief. “So, what, I’m supposed to believe this a form of charity?”

“Call it what you want. I don’t care. I just know what happens when Dutch and his boys get cornered. I want to keep innocents from getting caught in the crossfire. Last thing Saint Denis needs is another shootout.”

“Real funny, Morgan.” Micah wagged his finger at Arthur, opening the door behind him. “Real funny.”

The door wasn’t even closed before Arthur had a cigarette in his mouth. Didn’t do much though. Several deep drags brought him no relief. He flicked some of the ashes over the side, watching them fall away, and began wondering if perhaps all of this was a mistake. Oh well. He was in it now and would see it through. At least John wasn’t here though. Of that he was grateful.

Chapter Text

Somehow Saint Denis had gotten worse in his absence. There was more of everything. More buildings, more noise, more beggars and orphans and prostitutes leaking out of the alleyways into streets clogged with tourists and traffic jams and construction projects with spiraling costs. Too many in too little space; all chomping at the same slice of the American Dream and there wasn’t enough for everyone. Arthur was coming in fast on the frenzy, zigzagging down an iron fire escape after having left Micah’s hotel room empty-handed. Just his luck that the mysterious book was likely on his person. If he was a woman getting his clothes off would be a straightforward, if harrowing, endeavor. Now Arthur was going to have to get creative.

Couldn’t exactly hit the ground running. The crowds were as thick as Lemoyne air in August. Over the last decade the northeast end fell in line with the rest; all glitz and little substance. Fake bohemians—the real ones left when tourists “discovered” the slums—smoked over their café coffees not-so-secretly laced with bourbon. Streetcars and cars sparred for supremacy over the cobblestone roads; each driver convinced their time was more important than others. Fools stopped for pictures, striving to keep both the destitute and Arthur’s irate face at having crashed into them out of their shots. The most ridiculous sight though was Molly O’Shea fighting the flow of traffic. Arms weighed down by too many shopping bags and not crass enough to shove her way through, she was bobbling around like a buoy in rough waters.

“Miss O’Shea! You tryin’ to get mugged?” It came out harsher than intended and her face pinched into that look high-class dames give you when they’re rearing up to launch a nasty retort. She held her fire however when he scooped up all her purchases with ease. “You clear out a whole store?”

“Just about.” Molly adjusted her floppy cloche hat and then slipped her gloved hand into the crook of his arm like Eliza used to. He ignored the pang in his chest and let her hold on. “Couldn’t decide between ‘em so I just bought ‘em all.”

Arthur had to laugh. “What’s Dutch gonna say about that?”

“Oh, he won’t notice. He don’t care what I do.”

Her voice had petered out by the end. Arthur wanted to say something to lift her spirits but figured he shouldn’t stick his nose where it don’t belong. What did he even know about Molly? She was Dutch’s woman, an alright singer, and martinis made her accent stronger. In other words, not much. Nevertheless, he couldn’t bring himself to drop her off at the Hôtel Bordeaux like a package for someone else to deal with. So that was how Arthur found himself looking out at the Lannahechee from ten floors up again. Various shades of gold were splashed across the fabrics, furniture, and floor of Molly and Dutch’s suite. How far they had come from worn bedrolls on the open plains.

“You don’t have to go!” Molly reached forward when Arthur set down her bags, only to withdraw and tuck a wayward curl behind her ear with a nervous chuckle. “It won’t take me long to get dressed.” She gestured to the couch. “Make yourself comfortable.”

A decent man would scram; good manners quickening his steps. Instead Arthur made a show of sitting down and the moment when Molly vanished into the bathroom with a new dress in hand, he bounced into action. Drawers and cupboards thrown open. Furniture peeked under. Suitcases rifled through. Arthur searched with the same speed he would have looted the place all those years ago, knowing a certain gangster could return at any moment.

“Dutch said somethin’ about you living here once? You don’t seem like the type.” Molly said from behind the closed door. “Not to be rude or nothin’.”

Arthur’s lips curled into what was probably a pathetic smile. “No, you’re right, Miss O’Shea.” Finding nothing in the desk, he got down on his hands and knees by the bed. “Don’t quite know how I managed to stay here for five years.”

A bold-faced lie. He came because it was as far removed from his old life as possible, occupation aside. He stayed because Eliza and Isaac had loved it. So exciting and different from the small towns out west. Countless playmates thanks to gaggles of children on every block. He couldn’t tell Molly that though. He couldn’t tell her how time hadn’t eased the pain of their loss. He definitely couldn’t tell her how he had tried to put down roots for them, not knowing staying in law enforcement had salted the earth so that nothing would grow.

“Living by the water is nice, isn’t it? Grew up by the Liffey myself. It always looked so beautiful at sunset with the way the light hit the water.”

He had a feeling Molly was talking more to herself than him. Not that Arthur minded. There was nothing worse than having to talk about himself. “You miss home?”

“More than I thought I would,” she admitted after a long pause, opening the bathroom door. Partially under the bed, Arthur shot up so fast he nearly toppled over. Fortunately, she was too busy struggling with a silver bracelet to notice. Her velvet dress, the look and color of crushed grapes, swished around her feet.

“I visited Saint Denis quite a few years back with a couple of girlfriends. That was when I first met Heidi.” Molly held her wrist out. “You were friends with her, right?”

“I was.” Arthur said without missing a beat, despite his growing suspicion this was a set-up. The way she had invited him in, the casualness of it despite them being near strangers, it stood out like a sour note in a symphony. He didn’t want to jump to any conclusions though. Molly might just be lonely. After all, she had struck up a conversation with him of all people.

He successfully closed the bracelet’s clasp and Molly smiled in thanks. “How’d you two meet?”

“At a costume party. I went as Lillian Gish.” She went to the vanity to dab perfume on her neck. “She and her date were dressed up as police officers, I believe.”

Funny how the world works. That was the week Heidi came out for a visit. October 1924, if he recalled correctly. Arthur had lent her the costumes.

Wait. Why not do that tonight? Disguising themselves as cops would allow them to move more freely. They wouldn’t appear out of place and better yet, it would force Micah to change his clothes. He could grab some old uniforms from his former colleagues. A decent bribe should keep the questions at bay.

“Guess this was before she met Mr. Bell.” She eyed him in the mirror. “You don’t like him much, do you?”

His hunch might be right on the nose. There was a deliberate edge to her questions. Possibly Dutch asked her to strike up a seemingly innocent conversation to gauge whether he had really given up the case. Arthur wouldn’t give her the slip though. Not yet. He’d proceed with caution and let things play out.

“What she saw in him I’ll never know.”

Molly started laughing, using her gloved hand to conceal a toothy grin. “Well, um, you’ve seen how he is ‘round Dutch. He can be charming when he wants.”

Oh, Arthur had seen plenty. Charming wasn’t the word for it. Micah spent most of his time buttering up Dutch like a damned biscuit.

“And sometimes you fall for someone you know is wrong for you but you can’t help how ya feel.” Molly said softly, then blurted out, “Don’t tell him I said that!”

“I won’t, Miss O’Shea.”

She visibly relaxed. “Enough of that. Call me Molly.” She plucked her white fur wrap from the closet and draped it around her shoulders. “Alright. Let’s get on with it.” Arthur blinked in confusion. “You’re taking me to dinner.”

“I am?”

Molly raised her chin. “If Dutch van der Linde thinks I’m gonna spend another night cooped up in this hotel room, he’s got another thing coming. You used to live here. You must know the best restaurant in town.”

“Hm. That’d be a rundown jambalaya joint just off Toulouse that operates outta an old vaudeville theater.” Molly made a face. He opened the door for her, trying not to laugh. “C’mon. I have to stop by police headquarters first but after that I’ll take you someplace nice.”

Why not? Dutch was the one paying.

--

In the shadows of the docks, Arthur stood alongside eight others. Stacked shipping containers kept them out of sight. For now. Whole place had that damp, rotten wood smell. The kind that clings to your nostrils long after you left. Not that Blackwater was any better. The old Saint Denis harbor just had an extra century of filth under its belt. Murky water sloshed against the pillars; a putrid dark green like the money that had colored it. The air was sour with the fumes from the cargo ships that drifted up and up and mixed with smoke from the stacks jutting out of the magnificently-lit city. Arthur wondered if one day the lights would burn so bright it’d make night seem like day when walking among them.

“I hate to break it to you but none of you really look like Saint Denis’s finest.” Dutch grinned at the eight men in blue. He was the only one donning evening wear, planning to join Molly while his most trusted men (and Arthur) set off to attack Bronte’s pride and joy: his exports.

Arthur was a fool and suspected he’d always be but that didn’t make him feel any better about it. His history of doing stupid things was long and winding. Repeatedly aiding and abetting two gangsters. Suicide runs across No Man’s Land. Thinking he could escape the consequences of his past. Letting his desire for John override all reason and restraint. Place your bets. Chances were tonight would be yet another addition to that esteemed list.

He adjusted his police cap. “Considering they once hired a degenerate like me, I’d say we fit right in.”

Dutch conceded the point with a generous nod before peering over his shoulder at the long boardwalk. Flashlights held by genuine officers of the law shone in the near distance; beams highlighting the monotonous work of the longshoremen and those masquerading as such.

“I’m sure we all can appreciate the delicate nature of tonight.” There was a murmur of agreement. “We can’t afford any mistakes, gentlemen.”

The plan? Get in. Destroy the hooch. Escape in one of the getaway cars. Return in a different vehicle. Mistakes were inevitable but Arthur kept quiet. If it were up to him, they’d keep driving and not look back but Dutch wanted to linger.

“You know, it’ll be easier to get out if we deal with Bronte’s thugs the first time around,” Micah said slowly, eyeing Dutch cautiously. “Toss the bodies into the water and be done with it. Quick and quiet.”

Arthur made a face. “If someone sees cops killin’ random folk, this whole thing is gonna come down on our heads. Is that what you want?”

Bill, who had been tugging roughly at his too-tight collar, spoke up. “Me and Javier scoped out the place and there’s too many of ‘em. The cops are on his payroll too. We think it’d be best to sneak by rather than start anything.”

Micah ignored Bill entirely and gave Arthur a withering look. “Don’t see what you got to complain about. You’re just the lookout. Your hands will stay clean.” He shrugged casually. “Besides, that’s what we’d normally do if Dutch weren’t so concerned about your delicate sensibilities.”

“Now listen here you—”

“We don’t have time for in-fighting.” Dutch shot Arthur the same silent look to behave that Hosea liked to use. “Bronte’s shipments are loaded onto the cargo ships starting at eleven o’clock.” He glanced at his golden wristwatch. “You have 23 minutes. Stick to the plan.”

“Alright. Sorry boss.” Micah raised his hands in surrender. “Just don’t want your plan to hit any snags, is all.”

“I’ll catch up,” Arthur told Bill when everyone went their separate ways. “Gonna check on the cars one last time. Make sure they’re well-hidden so no cops will spot ‘em.”

“Alright, Morgan. Just don’t take long.”

Lie out of the way, Arthur left the docks, passed by the trains parked for the night, then stepped back out into the streets busy with pedestrians and traffic. Sleep and Saint Denis didn’t exactly go hand-in-hand. No one spared him more than a moment’s worth of attention thanks to his get-up. Or maybe his surly expression. Javier had joked he looked like a dog just waiting to bite off someone’s hand.

Déjà vu had been hitting him hard all weekend but now it dealt a near knockout punch when he caught a glimpse of his distorted reflection in the car window. It was fitting. Officer Morgan had long abandoned the straight and narrow. He retrieved the key taped along the front-left wheel well and opened the back door. Micah’s clothes lay in a heap and Arthur began rummaging through them. Cigarettes, lighter, a candy wrapper, hotel key, a necklace with a heart-shaped pendant, gum, and—that’s it? He shook out the shirt, pants, and coat, then felt all along the fabric. No hidden compartments. Nothing. Another bust. Where was that damn book?

“Probably back in Blackwater, dumbass,” Arthur muttered, squinting at the odd necklace before placing it back into the black coat.

Of course neither Dutch nor Micah brought anything that would cast suspicion their way. Not with a private detective nearby. Hell, other than asking him to devise an escape plan, they had kept Arthur in the dark about how exactly they were going to destroy the booze. Arthur would have to keep doing “favors” for Dutch in order to seem more trustworthy. Or at least to create more chances to poke around. John was going to throw a fit.

Upon returning to the docks, his uniform helped him scare off some loiterers and get past a night guard. Back into the shadows however to scale a stack of wood planks that stood twice his height. It gave him a decent view. Javier and Cleet (or was it Joe?) were by a large crate full of fireworks. A number of Bronte’s men were directing a ship as it reversed towards the loading point. None of the longshoremen looked at Officer Williamson when he strolled by.

So far, so good, though the brainlessness of it made his guts churn. Stealing the ship once it was loaded would’ve been easier and safer. “We’re above petty thievery,” had been Dutch’s sound rejection. The real reason? He couldn’t frame Hosea that way. A man who distills his own alcohol has no need to steal. To aid the ruse, Dutch had pretended to be Hosea throughout the weekend when he thought Arthur wasn’t paying attention. Even their suites were booked under “H. Matthews.” Watch his men leave false clues behind. Hosea would find some way to fix things, but the whole situation felt like being trapped behind the wheel of a car he knew would crash, for he had cut the brakes himself.

A loud splash made Arthur sit upright. A man with bulging eyes and his throat slashed from ear-to-ear stared upwards; blood rapidly darkening the water around him. A strangled yelp was followed by a loud thud. Someone was tackled to the ground. Jeering erupted over the familiar smacks of knuckles battering flesh. Curious heads turned and searched for the commotion, only to snap back as a series of fires ignited along the docks.

That’s why he was the lookout. To keep him out of the way.

“Goddamn it, Dutch.”

Police whistles sounded off. His boots hit the boardwalk hard. Micah was the one on the ground, stabbing his stiletto knife over and over into the torso of a dying man trying in vain to choke the life out of him. Arthur kicked the man aside, then grabbed Micah by the scruff of his uniform and tossed him behind an overturned boat as gunfire broke out. Arthur slid behind a metal shipping container. Bullets pinged each time they missed him.

“Quick and quiet, huh?”

“Quit whining and shoot, damn you!” With two revolvers firing, Micah shot his way over to Arthur’s spot. “I’m sure even a man with your limited intelligence can figure out another way to get us outta here.”

Arthur took out a sniper perched on the railing of a ship. His body dropped straight into the water. “What makes you think I care whether you get out alive?”

“Call it a hunch.” A grin crawled slowly across his face. “Dutch is kinda fond of me and he’d be awful sore if his son let him down. Again.”

Angry yelling in both languages swelled with the flames; the latter jumped from one wooden crate to another. Faster and faster as more bottles shattered. Heart pounding with exhilaration, Arthur ran into the fray. Micah followed. Boxes, barrels, and stacks of supplies gave them the cover needed to weave up the cluttered boardwalk. He called out for Bill and Javier in the gaps between the gunfire.

Smoke began to obscure his view. Thick and suffocating despite the open air, Arthur spun around disoriented as if lost in a fog. Feet pounded the boardwalk; streaming in, not out. Back-up for Bronte. Arthur found Micah, grabbed his arm, and crouched down to reload. The impending threat gave him his bearings. Outnumbered and soon to be overwhelmed, trying to round up the others was a lost cause. They needed to get out of there or they would all die. They needed a distraction.

“Over here!” Javier yelled from behind a shipping container.

Another crate of liquor went up in flames. Arthur and Micah shielded their faces and dove next to Javier as the glass blew up. The shards briefly illuminated the dense fumes like sparks against the night sky. The gunfire and the screams became muted as an idea took hold. He hoisted himself up, scanning the area for the box of fireworks. The fire and smoke made it hard to tell what was what on the docks. Javier came up beside him, shooting at anything that posed a threat. Out of the corner of his eye, he spied Micah shooting everything in his path as he fled without them.

Arthur locked his eyes on the crate. He nudged Javier. “Go!”

Once Javier dropped down, he fired. The bullet pierced through the wood. Too many fireworks exploded simultaneously, setting off an enormous blast of color and sound. Ears ringing, he couldn’t hear what Javier was saying but got the gist from how he kept tugging at his arms. They ran as fast as their legs would allow. The world was awash in reds and blues. Hopefully the others were using this chance to escape. Sparks flew as bullets riddled the freight cars. Arthur and Javier weaved through the trains then split upon hitting the sidewalk. Police cars now blocked the quickest way to the getaway car. Half the officers were trying to clear out nosy civilians to make room for the firetrucks. The others were bound for the chaos in the harbor.

The pressure in his ears finally eased as he dashed up a nearby alleyway, dodging trashcans and the destitute sleeping on flattened cardboard. His heavy breathing and hurried footsteps echoed along the winding brick walls. Sirens wailed in the background. Pursuers hot on his tail, Arthur couldn’t slow. If he could just get to the car, he might have a chance.

Arthur rounded a corner and hoisted himself over a fence. The car was across the street. His heart sank. Gasoline poured out from the shot-up tank, pooling along with the blood of two men with half their faces blown off. Down the road, Micah slipped into a wide gap between two apartment buildings. By the time Arthur caught up, he was climbing up hastily stacked broken furniture towards a fire escape ladder hung too high from the ground. Once he latched onto the lowest bar, Micah kicked the furniture upon spotting Arthur, forcing him to jump back as it toppled over with a loud crash.

“Sorry cowpoke.” Micah drawled as he ascended the fire escape two steps at a time. “It’s every man for himself.”

“Son of a—”

Bronte’s men had split up apparently, for they were now closing in on either side. Can’t climb. Can’t hide. Can’t escape. A fly in a spider’s web. It would be a fool’s errand to try to shoot his way out but Arthur had never been the type to surrender if only his life was on the line. He raised his gun to the south, more than ready to die, but the group began pushing and shoving frantically. A black and yellow taxi drove through, knocking aside those who had failed to get out of the way. There were screams of agony as Arthur flattened himself against the brick wall. The cab whipped by. It tore through the other half of Bronte’s men, though they were luckier and scattered in time. The taxi skidded to a halt and the passenger door was thrown open.

“Arthur!” John yelled.

His feet were moving before his brain caught up, unable to make sense of how John was here. The only logical explanation was that Arthur was dead. One of those bullets rang true and this was a delusion of a dying mind. But then John grabbed his coat, yanked him in, and sped off before Arthur had even shut the door. This was real. The impatient bastard.

“Picked a hell of a weekend to stay sober,” John said. “I searched every goddamn gin joint and no one could place you.”

Maybe all that running and blood pumping was catching up to him. His thoughts became as jagged as his breaths. John was here. John came here for him. It was too much to take in and not sure how to feel, he lashed out.

“Have you lost your goddamn mind, Marston?” Arthur snapped, slamming the door shut as John made a hard left. In the rear-view mirror, he watched some of Bronte’s men scramble up from the pavement. “You got some nerve showing up here, boy. What the hell were you thinking?” Arthur immediately cut off John. “Let me guess. Thinking didn’t factor into it, huh?”

“Jesus! Is that the thanks I get for saving you?” Tie missing. Hair messy. Eyes darting. Arthur was half tempted to take the wheel from the wild and frantic creature next to him. “Ungrateful son of a bitch.”

His words lacked any bite though. John kept goddamn smiling at Arthur, unable to conceal his relief at finding him.

“I followed the fireworks.” John said this like Arthur should be proud of him. “Figured it wasn’t, y’know, normal for like a hundred to go off at once. Then I just drove around ‘til I spotted you. Saw Micah too. Where’d he go?”

“To hell, with any luck.” Hopefully he would fall off a roof or something.

“Look, we’ll be alright. We’re gonna get out of this. You give me directions—” John adjusted the rear-view mirror. “Shit.”

Three black sedans were racing up behind them. John’s gaze narrowed as he shifted gears before stomping on the gas pedal. Both were thrown back as the car accelerated. He made an abrupt right onto Canal Street. Countless faces flickered by and oversized, flashing signs came at them from every angle. Theaters and sleaze parlors littered both sides of the road beckoning the thick night crowds in. People drank openly here. Not like any cops were around to stop them, what with most of the police force down at the burning harbor. Even on a normal night, most citizens considered it their moral duty to undermine prohibition.

“Where are you going?” Arthur shouted as John barely avoided hitting a drunkard who had stumbled onto the road.

“How the hell should I know?” John retorted, narrowly escaping a near collision with a streetcar. He swerved around other drivers impeding his recklessness, ignoring the blaring of horns and crude gestures. “I’ve never been here before!”

“Take a left!”

John followed his instructions but their pursuers kept on them. When they soared past the Bastille Saloon, the light by John’s window exploded. They yelped in surprise. Great. Those fools were shooting at them now. Equally worried about a bullet to the skull or John crashing and sending them headfirst through the windshield, Arthur reloaded his Colt and climbed into the backseat. Gunmen were hanging onto the sides of their cars. John wasn’t an easy target though, weaving back and forth, occasionally passing into the wrong side of the road. Despite his white-knuckled grip on the wheel, there was a confidence in him, dodging oncoming traffic and red lights and terrified pedestrians with ease.

“You done this before?”

“What?” His eyes flashed with either excitement or terror. Maybe both. “Drive like a madman through the streets of Saint Denis? No, can’t say I have.”

More bullets came, shattering the window behind him. Arthur covered his head and neck as glass shards rained down. The taxi’s wheels skidded as John veered hard to the right. Out of patience, Arthur stuck his arm through the broken window. Why kill the gunmen when he could eliminate the threat altogether? As always, an incessant clock ticked in the back of his mind. Its soft beat grew louder and louder as he fired at their wheels. Tires screeched as the drivers lost control. A few of the gunmen tumbled off. Another car slammed into a streetlight and another sailed right into it.

A sharp right threw him into the passenger door. Arthur burst into a wheezing laughter when no one followed. He ran a shaking hand through his hair as he slumped down and lay on the broken glass. His body rocked with the motions of the car. Wholly spent and still not convinced this wasn’t a bizarre dream, even his voice sounded exhausted. “What will you tell the driver you borrowed this taxi from?”

“Borrowed? I stole it.”

Arthur closed his eyes and sighed through his nose.

--

Foreboding when even graced by daylight, the Saint Denis Cemetery was thoroughly unpleasant to traverse after midnight. Grounds and graves blanketed by a rolling fog, the dim lights didn’t do much except cast long shadows. Towering stone walls toppled with iron spikes loomed above Arthur and John. After ditching the wrecked taxi in a vacant lot, he had decided to take a shortcut through the cemetery back to the Hôtel Bordeaux. He was supposed to debrief with Dutch and the others but frankly he just wanted to grab his stuff, grab John, and go home. Before his emotions had been scattered but now they had settled into a classic: quiet, seething rage. The silent treatment didn’t sit too well with John however.

“For Christ’s sakes! Slow down, will ya?” John tugged at Arthur’s arm, startling slightly when a dog started barking somewhere among the graves. “Why are you so mad? I was tryin’ to help!”

Not one to be ignored, John blocked Arthur, arms wide. “Did you really expect me to just—just sit around at home? And what, twiddle my thumbs ‘til you came back? You want me to let you die next time? Is that it?”

In the days that followed, Arthur still had no clue what came over him when he shoved John into the large wooden doors of a mausoleum and kissed him. If you could call it that. Their lips were together but it was all teeth and noses colliding and fistfuls of fabric. John retaliated by biting his bottom lip hard enough to draw blood, breathing out a huff of laughter as Arthur hissed. He chased after John’s lips, the metallic taste still upon his as they came together once more. John was everywhere. A hand tugging at his hair, holding him close, his tongue in Arthur’s mouth, at the forefront of his thoughts. Arthur could feel the hint of a smile when John dragged his teeth along his jaw, sinking down on the soft flesh below his ear. Arthur moaned and tilted his head back, giving John free range to nip and suck.

“I wish I understood you,” John whispered into his neck.

You and me both, he thought, pulling John closer. Chests pressed together, Arthur could feel his warmth but it wasn’t enough. Desperate to run his hands along his skin, Arthur rucked up John’s shirt and delighted at how the slender waist felt under his greedy touch. When John ripped open the uniform jacket, Arthur could not remember the last time he had gotten so painfully hard in so short a time. Arthur parted John’s legs with his thigh and felt his own need pressing into him. Lips stinging as they parted, the loss of him earned a small whine in protest, though he writhed under Arthur’s hold.

“Arthur,” John croaked, watching him sink down and tear at his belt, “you don’t have to.”

He wanted to. God, he wanted nothing more. John’s weak protest was cut off by a guttural moan when Arthur wrapped a firm hand around his cock, drawing him out. Thick and throbbing and hot, already leaking with need, Arthur dragged his tongue slowly along the underside before wrapping his lips around the length. John’s head banged against the mausoleum doors. They creaked loudly and he swore, hands leaving Arthur’s head to rub the back of his own. Arthur cracked up and withdrew with an obscene pop.

“You idiot,” he grumbled fondly.

Knowing some smart ass remark was on its way, Arthur rendered John incapable of speaking by devouring him. He was a man starved. It had been years since Arthur had done this. Years. Desperate meetings behind speakeasies in the wake of deep mourning had brought him only shame and so he chose to go without. This was different though. This was to feel, not to forget. For a moment Arthur worried he would not please John but the younger man’s gaze held nothing but open lust, carding his fingers through his hair so tenderly that Arthur couldn’t meet his gaze for slow. Out of practice, his mouth grew tired so he pulled back and sucked on only the head, while his hand worked on the shaft. John didn’t mind, didn’t even bother to suppress his wanton moans, somehow amplified by the silence of the graveyard. Arthur half worried he would come from the sound of him alone.

“Arthur, Arthur,” John’s breathless panting was becoming more frantic.

As much as he delighted in the way his thighs trembled, straining to not thrust forward, Arthur grabbed hold of those slim hips and took more of John into his mouth again. John was here. John was alive. John had put himself into danger because of him. It was all too much and Arthur was at a loss how to communicate what he wanted to. He hoped his mouth could still impart how he felt; that his tongue could press into him what he wanted to say. John came with a sharp cry, Arthur’s name on his lips and fingers ensnared in his hair.

Unable to hold himself up, he slid down the door, only to crawl towards Arthur. Somehow not out of energy, John breathlessly kissed and pawed at him, not bothered by the taste of himself. Arthur groaned at this but he pulled John’s hands away, shaking his head in lieu of speaking. John sat there, looking lost and hurt, as Arthur took himself into his own hand. He had barely begun to work himself before he spilled out onto the grass.

The silence was stark. They sat there. Waiting for their hearts and breathing to slow. Waiting for the other to speak. Arthur didn’t want to talk about anything. He didn’t want to fight. He didn’t want to think. He didn’t want to do much of anything except maybe drink himself into oblivion. Arthur tucked himself back in and stood up wearily. Almost every muscle seized up in complaint and Arthur never felt so old. John was still on the ground, still confused as ever.

He extended a hand but John simply stared at it. “Is this the part where you yell at me?”

Arthur blinked, baffled by both the question and the bitterness in John’s voice.

“Sorry, I just—” He winced. “Say something, will ya? What are you thinking?”

“Thinking that you talk too damn much,” he murmured. Thinking about how beautiful John was. How reckless and wonderful and maddening he was. “How much I wish we met under different circumstances.” Arthur looked at him dead-on. “Dutch knows. He knows you’re more than just a client. If he knows that, he knows about your family and—”

There was a flash of something in his eyes. Something sinister. It darkened his whole face and strangely reminded him of Dutch. That look of pure malice when threatened.

“I won’t let anything happen,” Arthur promised. “To you or your family.”

“You think I want anything to happen to you?” John snapped. “I know you’re mad but you’d be dead right now if I weren’t here.”

“You could’ve died, you fool.”

“Why is my life more valuable than yours?” Arthur was not having this conversation. He tried to walk away but John grabbed onto him. “You wanna trust Dutch blindly then that’s your business but I don’t and—”

Why? Why go to all this trouble for him? “You barely know me.”

“I know enough. You’re good and kind and honest.” Oh God. If John was going to keep talking like that Arthur was going to have to gag him. “You treat me real decent and just don’t push me away. Alright? We’re safer together. You know we are.”

Arthur raised a tentative hand to John’s cheek, thumb brushing lightly over the scars. Doubtful he could push him away even if he wanted to.

Apparently his silence was good enough for John, who beamed and placed his hand over his. “You know, it’s a nice change kissin’ you with dry clothes on.”

He squinted at him. “That first one don’t count. You was half drowned.”

“Let me make it up to you.” He leaned in but Arthur turned his head and the kiss landed on his cheek. John laughed and broke away, nodding towards the cemetery gates. “C’mon, let’s go home. Ain’t nothing but trouble for you here.”

“I can’t.” There was so much he needed to tell him. “Soon.”

Chapter Text

The sun was higher in the sky than it should be. Light streaked through his fingers, glaringly bright, before his lazy hand fell away. Let the moon take its place for all he cared. Warm, well-rested, and wrapped protectively around John, Arthur wasn’t too inclined to move. Hardly helped that he was ready to fall apart like an old car held together by spit and glue; muscles only too eager to remind him he wasn’t young anymore. Worn pillows. Threadbare sheets. Peeling wallpaper. Must have tucked themselves away at some sleazy motel. Not that it mattered. Arthur pressed a kiss to the back of John’s neck. He could get used to this.

John tilted back to reveal a sleepy smile. “Hey.”

“Hey,” Arthur murmured, a smirk tugging at his lips that were still sore from yesterday. Guess he was wrong about John being all bark and no bite. Damn teeth were as sharp as his tongue.

“How you feelin’?”

“Like shit,” he grunted. “The fact we’re gonna have to get up soon don’t sit too well with me.”

“Stay here then.” John rested his cheek back on the pillow. “I’m sure you can find something better to do.”

“Like what?” Arthur had barely finished speaking before John rocked his backside against him. “Christ.” He grabbed John’s hip. “Ain’t been up for more than five seconds and already you’re startin’ up with that?”

“You can’t blame a man for trying.” Grin now impish as he turned over, Arthur rolled his eyes. “After last night? C’mon. To hell with ‘em! They can wait for you.”

A soft hum in agreement was his sole response.

Before they had passed out unceremoniously, he had told John everything. Aside from having to stop the impulsive fool from hunting down Micah, he had taken it all in stride. Even the part about Dutch being an ongoing project. Arthur sighed through his nose. What a weekend. No closer to solving Heidi’s murder yet he had sunken deeper into this mess between Dutch and Hosea and blackened his soul a bit more—if that was still possible. The interconnections didn’t lessen the sour taste in his mouth. Too bad there was a whole wide world beyond their motel room, full of problems and people and things beyond his control. Things he needed to deal with. Arthur wanted to shove it all away with both hands and just stay here, stay with John, and forget they were caught in the middle of a worsening storm.

As John arranged Arthur’s arms to his liking, he shot him a questioning look. Is this alright? Arthur nodded and John settled in. Funny he sought permission for that. As if intimacy required more caution than sex. Perhaps it was as foreign to John as it was to him.

He wondered about John and how there came to be two of them. One kind-hearted and boyishly earnest. Loving father. Compassionate employer. Loyal friend who would be damned before he let Heidi’s killer get away with murder. The other was selfish and relentless, who tried to cover up secrets he saw as shameful behind bravado and extravagance. As curious as Arthur was, it’d be hypocritical to try to pull out all the dark things John had tucked deep inside. If you shook Arthur the skeletons in his closet would rattle loud and clear.

Some things were as plain as the scars on his face though. No amount of expensive clothes or fancy cars could hide how his mannerisms and way of speaking revealed someone who had grown up poor, uneducated, and unwanted. Arthur wanted to tell John he didn’t care, that he was the same. Bringing it up however would undoubtedly embarrass John, maybe even upset him. Heaven knows his temper was like a firework. All it took was a simple spark to set him off.

“I can hear you thinking.” John’s breath was hot against Arthur’s neck. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Ah, they ain’t even worth that,” he paused, fingers playing with the fabric of John’s white shirt, now heavily wrinkled. “Just…I don’t want you stealin’ or killin’ no more. Especially on my behalf. You got a family who needs you.”

He raised himself enough so they were eye-to-eye. “I don’t think I killed anyone. Maybe broke a couple of legs.” His attempt at light-heartedness fell flat and John frowned. “They were gonna kill you. I—I didn’t think. I just stepped on the gas pedal.” His hold on Arthur tightened as his stare grew intense. “I ain’t sorry.”

Arthur shushed John. “Don’t get yourself all worked up.”

“I ain’t a good man,” John blurted out. “I’d do it again if I had to.”

“I ain’t askin’ you to be a good man. I’m askin’ you to be smart. You need to walk the line for your family’s sake. Can’t do much for ‘em behind bars or six feet under.” John lay his head back on Arthur’s chest and from there a warmth blossomed, spreading under his skin down to the tips of his fingers and toes. “Nothing is more important than family, John.”

“I know.”

--

One in the afternoon was the punctual hour in which Arthur showed his face. Front desk at the Hôtel Bordeaux directed him to the Jade Dragon. Like a diamond covered with grit, the rundown exterior gave no indication of the vibrance within. Its namesake was splashed across the whole back wall, the swirling greens of the beast clashed with the reds and oranges gushing from its wide mouth. He remembered how Isaac had gawked up at the mural, dazzled by the monster. The hostess, a tiny woman with her black hair chopped into a bob, easily weaved through the bright red tables crowded with diners slurping long noodles. Arthur’s large body lumbered through with the grace of an ox; slowed down by numerous apologies.

Up the spiral staircase hazy purples and harsh greys dominated the color scheme; the dragon now blowing smoke that turned into flowers. Not exactly shy about its past, though the opium had been cleared out long ago. A jazz lounge now occupied the space. “Mr. Matthews” and his associates were dispersed among the couches and high tables. No worse for wear, bruises and scrapes aside. Molly perked up, but the others failed to notice Arthur. Too captivated by the clarinetist doing a mean improvisation during a Duke Ellington number.

Arthur approached Dutch and Micah from behind; a finger pressed to his lips. Molly kept quiet. “Enjoying the show?”

While Dutch gave him a look that was not unlike that of an exasperated parent watching their child act up in public, Micah had a more satisfying reaction. Choking on his drink, the barstool scraped the floor as he rose to beat his chest. He waved off Dutch’s attempt to pat his back; eyes bulging with every cough. Shock over a dead man walking or from his inability to breathe? Arthur didn’t know and sure as shit didn’t care. Meanwhile Molly had kept her attention on the band, conveniently covering her mouth with a long drag from her cigarette.

“Easy, Bell.” Arthur grabbed his shoulder to hold him still for a few unnecessarily hard whacks on the back. “Wouldn’t want ya to drop dead on us.”

Wincing and wheezing, Micah squirmed away. Dutch’s gaze flickered briefly between them before he lowered the mask of faux gentility again. “I was beginning to wonder if I needed to send out a search party. I hope there was no trouble.”

“Nothing I couldn’t climb my way out of.”

Micah sputtered again, ignoring the annoyed stares from the stage. Dutch snapped his fingers a few times to get one of the waiters to pull up another chair. Once seated, he reached out and adjusted Arthur’s coat collar. Regret flared up as the hands lingered. He had failed to cover his tracks from a man who was a sleuth in his own right. The lounge was dark but not enough to conceal the passionate trail John had left along his neck last night. He was also in yesterday’s clothing, having swung by the bullet-ridden car before getting a room to collect his belongings. A wise decision. The loose ends were tidied up and the car was now gone.

“Did you enjoy your leisurely morning?”

Used to being put first; subordinates at his beck and call, Dutch was annoyed with him. Normally this would trouble Arthur, but thoughts of John kept the guilt at bay. The feeling of him in his arms. The conspiratorial smiles shared while scarfing down lunch. Their parting kiss—less of a goodbye and more of a come-back-soon—behind Spalding’s. How he couldn’t wait to return to that department store to see what gifts John had picked out for Abigail and Jack.

Arthur wasn’t sorry in the slightest. “After all the smoke and bluster that went down last night? Yeah, I did.”

Sadly, Micah didn’t choke to death. Eyes watery and face red, he cleared his throat and asked, “Where’d you get off to, Morgan?”

“Bed. I don’t much like crawling around the city late at night like some sorta rat.”

Micah gave him a heated stare before muttering, “Need some air.” He made a beeline for the hallway that led to the balcony.

Dutch watched him go. “I must say, I’m very pleased with how things unfolded yesterday.”

That comment left Arthur so dumbstruck he almost neglected to thank the waiter who had brought him a glass of water. “Really?”

“The police are baffled. Bronte’s men are running around like headless chickens. And we’re going to slip on out like thieves in the night. It couldn’t have gone better.” Dutch clamped a firm hand on his wrist. “All thanks to you, Arthur. Javier told me you set off the fireworks. You got my men out just like you promised.” His voice cracked as his words became heavy with sorrow. “Reminds me of the old days.”

Last night couldn’t be farther from the old days. Back then they had been a team united under the lost cause of breaking the chains of civilization. Everything was on the level. Violence minimal. Last night? Dutch had withheld the truth, destroyed half of the Saint Denis Harbor, harmed or killed who knows how many innocents, and nearly gotten all his men slaughtered. An absolute disaster. But Dutch was smiling—the real McCoy too—stormy eyes full of joy and the skin around them crinkled. Despite his anger, he was so, so proud. It made Arthur shamefully happy. Oh, how he hated the way he still basked in the warmth of Dutch’s approval like a flower starved of sun. It was the same damn thing with Hosea. Would he ever learn?

Yet this pride also worked like a scalpel carving its way across his chest, leaving Arthur raw and exposed. It foretold of more chaos to come. Dutch had long been reckless, but never to this extent. God, he needed to talk to Hosea. He would know what to do.

“I’m surprised Mr. Bell isn’t back yet.” Dutch removed his hand as he rose, tossing some cash on the table and beckoning Molly with a flick of his head. His loyal subjects were immediately on their feet. “Could you tell him to meet me at the hotel when he returns?”

“Sure, Dutch,” Arthur said with a slow smile that probably made him look like a crocodile.

“Will Mr. Morgan be returning with us?” Molly asked hopefully.

“No, dear.” Dutch eyed Arthur. “I’m sure he has his own arrangements.”

Confused as she was, Molly knew not to pry. Arthur remained still and silent until the coast was clear. The saxophonist was in the midst of a somber finale. No complaints, but not quite what he needed. A ten-dollar bill and a request for something loud earned him a wink from the beautiful songstress. The tempo swelled into an upbeat tune as he ventured down the lonely hallway. It got people out of their seats and onto the floor, dancing to a song sung in Haitian Creole. Micah came through the balcony doors. Arthur was on him before he could run.

“Now, now take it easy, Morgan!”

“You pathetic sack of shit.” Micah tried to slip past but Arthur grabbed his jacket and threw him against the wall. “You really think I’d just let you walk away from this?”

Ever the actor, Micah pulled off apologetic well. “It was all just a big misunderstanding! I didn’t mean nothing by it.”

“Really?” Arthur growled, just loud enough to be heard over the music; its rhythmic patterns like poetry in the air. “‘Cause the way I see it you tried to kill me.”

There was no talking his way out of this one so Micah resorted to violence. Trying to worm his arms free while swinging his head forward to smack into his. Arthur simply shifted back. “You ain’t going nowhere, boy.”

“You can’t do shit, Cowpoke! You got no proof and Dutch knows you had it out for me since we met.”

His fingers dug into Micah’s biceps. “Shut. Your. Mouth.”

“Who’s he gonna believe?” he sneered, not remotely cowed. “The man who has been nothing but loyal or the son who broke his heart?”

Maybe they should settle this over a round of poker. His tells were obvious. Micah was trying to rile him up as a distraction. A not-so-sneaky hand drifted into his leather coat. Arthur got there first, grasping the stiletto knife in the hidden pocket. He threw it aside and it clattered against the floor, sliding far out of reach.

“Why waste time tellin’ him when I can just kill you myself?”

Micah laughed until Arthur backhanded him. His snickering broke upon hitting the floor, choosing to snarl instead. Arthur sidestepped the lunge at his legs. If Micah had more than two brain cells bouncing around, he’d scream for help. Beating drums and high notes could only cover up so much. Maybe his pride was getting in the way. Maybe the fear of retaliation. Arthur would kick him in the teeth if he tried. Down but not out, Micah got to his knees. Ready for round two.

“We all know you’ve gone soft. Ever since your wife and brat were murdered.” Arthur must have reacted because Micah smirked while rubbing his jaw. Why douse the flames when you can throw fuel at it? His voice grew more confident. “Yeah, I know all about that. You’re weak, Morgan. That’s why Dutch made you the lookout. That’s why you gave up the case, huh? You don’t have what it takes to do what needs to be done. You’re too yellow.”

“You willin’ to bet your life on that?”

His hands surged forward, wrapping around Micah’s neck, yanking him up and off the floor. The pulse beneath his fingers accelerated as Arthur robbed him of air. It would be so easy to snap his neck. He had done it before. Plenty. When Dutch wanted a personal touch to his executions but wanted to his hands clean. When he had been ambushed in a dugout and was forced to choke the life out of some poor bastard who was there for the same reason Arthur was: his country told him it was the right thing to do. Micah tugged frantically at his grip, feet scrambling and kicking back at the wall.

“What needs to be done is for someone to put you in the ground. Long time overdue.”

Micah’s eyes were bloodshot and bulged again; mouth hanging agape around incomplete gasps for air. When he tried to claw at his face, Arthur squeezed harder. The hands grew limp and fell away. Frustration pent up for far too long, his own were shaking from the release.

“Dutch ain’t the one you gotta worry ‘bout,” Arthur hissed, ready to call Micah’s bluff. He didn’t know a thing. “You should be askin’ yourself what I did to the man who took them away from me.”

Arthur let Micah fall to the ground in a graceless heap. He lay there, nails scraping the wooden floor as he gulped down air faster than his ravenous lungs could handle, coughing and cursing with equal contempt. The shock hadn’t left his face. Why didn’t you kill me? He ignored him, bending down to pick up the discarded knife.

“Mine now.”

“You son of a bitch—” Micah choked out as a new song started up that had the walls throbbing.

“You owe me.” Arthur wagged a finger at him, stalking forward. “The only reason I let you live is ‘cause you’re right. I ain’t the man I was.” When Micah tried to scramble away, Arthur grabbed a fistful of his hair. “But as you can see, I can very easily slip back into my old self.”

A lot was left unsaid. Better left for a courtroom. Truth was as long as proof and motive eluded him, Micah was safe. Arthur didn’t want to let hate prevail over justice. Still, he needed to put the fear of God in him. Not for his sake, but for those he cared about.

“Quit wastin’ my time, Morgan,” he rasped, words spat out like acid on his tongue. “What do you want from me?”

“Ain’t quite sure yet,” Arthur mused, “but I will collect. You can be sure of that. Same as you can be sure that if you ever come after me or anyone I care about—” He made the blade come out and eyed it with disgust, remembering how Micah had nearly stabbed Sean with it. “—I’ll make sure the morgue won’t be able to piece you back together. We clear?”

The raw terror on Micah’s face was answer enough.

--

“I swear, Arthur.” Karen stabbed her fork into her scrambled eggs with such vigor she had to push the dark sunglasses back up her nose to hide her black eye. “If she comes after me one more time, I’m gonna shoot her straight between the eyes! Grimshaw’s a rabid dog as it is. An absolute bi—”

“Karen!” Mary-Beth scolded, her voice little more than a hiss. “We’re in public!”

“We’re at Pearson’s,” Karen countered, wagging her fork with the egg still on it. “Not the Louvre. Besides ain’t no one playin’ any attention to us anyhow.”

“Hey now, this is a respectable joint,” Pearson countered, his wide back facing them as he scrubbed at a wet dish. “I expect all my customers to maintain a certain level of decorum.”

Arthur snorted into his coffee while Tilly raised a thin brow. “You even know what the Louvre is?”

Karen chewed on her food and the question. “It’s a palace, ain’t it? In Paris?”

“It’s an art museum.” Thanks for that one, Albert.

“Well, lookie here! Ain’t you smart.” She took another bite and smiled at him. “When did ya go and get all refined on us, Arthur?”

“If I’m refined, high society’s standards sure have declined.”

That got his three favorite women giggling and Arthur was glad for it. Clashing schedules made get-togethers tricky so when he returned from Saint Denis and found an invitation from Mary-Beth taped to his door, he jumped at the chance to join their mid-week breakfast plans.

Pearson’s Diner was your average greasy spoon. It had that whole futuristic look, all smooth and sleek with metallic surfaces that light and reflections bounced off of. A no frills sort of place. Simon Pearson cooked your meal right there; all the appliances were behind the u-shaped counter that forced customers to sit elbow-to-elbow on barstools. Sure, there were fancier joints with better food, but Pearson had a habit of spoiling his regulars. They always came back and tipped wildly too. At times it felt like they were stealing from the man.

“You know my offer still stands, Miss Jones.” Simon threw the checkered dish cloth over his shoulder as he turned around. He was a navy vet who liked to share his war stories but respected that Arthur was the opposite. Now heavy-set, rapidly losing his stringy brown hair, and semi-worried he’d never find a wife, Simon had a habit of speaking like his glory days were behind him.

“Mine too,” Arthur added, lifting his eyes from the newspaper he was half-heartedly reading. The explosion in Saint Denis was still front page news.

Karen shook her head, golden curls bouncing freely. “Pearson, this place is so narrow I’d have to crawl over people to take their orders when it’s rush hour.”

“That’d probably be great for business,” Tilly mumbled. Karen smacked her arm playfully.

“Get somewhere bigger and we’ll talk. As for you, Arthur, what are you gonna do with two secretaries?”

“Dunno but I’ll find something.”

“You and Tilly would just chit-chat all day and nothing would get done,” Mary-Beth teased before biting into a fresh blueberry muffin that had magically appeared in front of her.

“Hey, I’m a professional. I could handle working alongside a friend. Not sure about Karen though.” Tilly swatted away Karen’s elbow, then shook her hand when Pearson went to refill her glass of orange juice. “Why did she hit you anyways? You show up drunk again?”

“Nah, she didn’t like me givin’ lip to the customers. A bunch of rotten regulars came in and I wanted to steer clear. This Bell fellow is a nasty piece of work. He came in all bruised up and mouthing off about some queer detective—” Both Arthur and Tilly stiffened in their seats. “Angry johns always take their frustrations out on us. I told him off when he came over and ol’ Grimshaw didn’t like that.”

“I could set up some tables outside,” Pearson mused while thumbing his suspenders. “I’d need a waitress to handle that and—oh, excuse me.”

“Not necessary!” Karen called out as he went to attend to another customer. “You all need to quit worrying. I’m fine. Things are looking up!” She raised her chin. “Got myself a man and a good one too.”

While Mary-Beth and Tilly got all excited, Arthur wondered what exactly Micah knew and how, until he realized the latter had an obvious answer: Dutch. No names had been uttered though. Probably had been sworn to secrecy. Still, he didn’t like it. There was no way to know if Micah knew about John.

“He’s real sweet and makes me laugh,” Karen continued, “He don’t care what I do for a living or that I went to the big house for robbing that bank—and he’s a cop no less!”

His concerns were halted for a moment as Arthur recalled Sean going on about a buxom blonde he was enamored with. His back straightened as a bolt of joy shot up his spine. “He an Irishman?”

“How’d you—oh you friends with Sean? That fool blabbed about me, huh? I oughta kick his ass next time I see him.”

Oh hell, Arthur was grinning like an idiot. Suddenly all those folks in his past who tried (and failed) to set him up with their friends made sense. There was a unique happiness in two people he cared about coming together. “Go easy on him. He’s a loudmouth to be sure but he’s crazy ‘bout you.”

“I’m real happy for you, Karen.” Mary-Beth had that dreamy touch to her voice; romance forever her favorite subject. “Maybe we can go on a double-date!”

“You still with Kieran?”

“Yes.” Her whimsical expression faded. “Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Thought you wanted a man,” Karen grinned. “He looks like a baby.”

“No, he—What about you, Arthur?” Mary-Beth said quickly, trying to change the subject. “Tilly says you got your eye on someone.”

The newspaper made an agitated snap as Arthur opened it fully to hide his blushing face. Mary-Beth and Karen pushed it down, lit up and ready to start asking questions six ways from Sunday.

“If Miss Jackson knows what’s good for her employment status,” Arthur grumbled, “she’ll keep quiet.”

“It’s a client?” Mary-Beth practically squealed. “How romantic!”

“If by romantic you mean unprofessional, then sure.”

Arthur cast a weary glance Tilly’s way. Curious she hadn’t tossed out a pithy retort. Turned out her attention was directed out the window to the silver-haired gentleman savoring a cigarette. Hat tipped low, in a casual suit with an unnecessary cane hanging off his arm, and leaning against a run-of-the-mill green Cadillac, no one paid Hosea any mind. You couldn’t tell the sedan was bulletproof, nor that the owner was the most dangerous man in the city. Out of town until yesterday, Arthur had called and said he’d swing by after work. Guess Hosea had other ideas.

He hastily folded the newspaper and tossed enough cash to cover all their meals on the counter. The three women erupted into protest. “Consider it an apology for havin’ to leave early,” Arthur said, hands raised. “It was great seeing you ladies again.”

Karen and Mary-Beth wished Arthur goodbye warmly, but Tilly’s response was a frigid, “See you at the office.” He winced, half wondering if she’d call the cops if he didn’t come back by a certain time. He patted her wrist before leaving, regretting he couldn’t explain everything just yet.

“You losin’ your patience as you age, old man?”

“Something like that.” Hosea’s laughter was marred by a sudden hacking cough as he opened the back door.

“Alright there, Hosea?”

He threw away his cigarette. “Get in the car, Arthur.”

Arthur slipped into the backseat with all the enthusiasm of a witness facing a brutal cross-examination. It had been a long time since Hosea had this car in rotation. Despite his career choice, attempts on his life were infrequent thanks to the bridges he had built and the pockets he had padded. The interior was a soft brown and a bit boxy, but there was plenty of room for two men to sit comfortably. The biggest surprise was Lenny in the driver’s seat who gave him a cheeky salute as he entered.

“This is partially your fault.” Hosea told Arthur, shutting the door behind him. “Mr. Summers is under the impression I’m going to get shot in the head.”

“That’s only half of it.” Lenny started up the engine. “All that heat in the papers? Just don’t think it’s wise to be behind the wheel, is all. The windshield ain’t bulletproof.”

The other reason became apparent when Hosea pulled a flask out of a hidden compartment in the back of the passenger’s seat. Lenny and Arthur shared a concerned look in the rear-view mirror as Hosea took a long pull, sighed heavily, then said, “Alright, start from the beginning.”

Arthur told him everything. Well, everything except John. Hosea remained pensive throughout, listening more than drinking, fortunately. The bizarre meeting between Micah and the four masked men. How a ploy to make progress on Miss McCourt’s case led to chaos in Saint Denis. His and Micah’s narrow escapes from death at the hands of the other. That was when Hosea interrupted.

“Should’ve went through with it,” Hosea said, face serious. “You know I’d make any charge against you disappear.”

“If I killed Dutch’s prized lapdog, he’d never speak to me again and it’d kill any chance I had at solving the case—so don’t you go and put a hit on him.”

“Don’t worry, I’ll respect your wishes.” Elbow on the window ledge, Hosea rested his forehead in his hand. “But I won’t pretend to be happy about them.” He took another sip, then passed the flask when Lenny reached over his shoulder for it. Instead of drinking, he closed and tossed it to his feet. Arthur and Lenny both chuckled at the way Hosea pursed his lips.

“I hope when the pair of you are old and gray, some young jackass gives you both a hard time.”

Lenny mimicked Hosea’s voice as he made a right. “Kids these days!”

“Ain’t got no respect,” Arthur added.

Hosea rested his head again, not having to reply when they started laughing because his face said it all: I’m too old and tired for this horseshit. There was a fondness though; a little twinkle in his eye.

The drive to Arthur’s workplace fell into a deep silence. As it began to stretch on, his hands fidgeted in his lap. Used to being sassed and interrogated more thoroughly, he asked in a low voice, “You mad?”

“No, I’m not mad. You did what you had to do.” There was a long pause. “Now I’m going to do the same.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It means I have to stop this wildfire before it spreads. I’ve arranged a meeting with both O’Driscoll and Bronte up in Valentine. My hope is to clear the air and see if I can stop them from—” He felt the blood drain from his face. “—Now Arthur, I can’t make any promises.”

Despite the deceit and manipulation, all the old wounds and heartache, how he was still trying to control Arthur and all the harm he caused, he didn’t want Dutch to suffer, let alone die. But he couldn’t see how Hosea could possibly steer those two cutthroats away from revenge. They were like Dutch, always hungry for blood and money. Hell, they only agreed to the peace deal Hosea brokered because they knew it’d be better for their wallets.

Goddamn it, Dutch.

“Let me come.”

“No.”

“You let me come last time.”

“Don’t you have enough on your plate as it is?” Hosea snapped as the car stopped for a red light. “I’ll take care of it. Last time I need a big, scary thug—” Arthur gestured at himself with both hands. “—to discourage violence. This is just going to be a simple conversation.”

“No conversation with those two is simple and you know it. Who’s to say they won’t pull some shit? Ain’t no way O’Driscoll is gonna be agreeable especially after his failed ambush on you. You gotta go into this with your eyes wide open.”

Arthur could hear himself talking but couldn’t believe it was him saying it. When he died, they wouldn’t need to hire a gravedigger. He would’ve already dug it himself.

The light turned green.

Chapter Text

-- December 1914 --

The news from Europe wasn’t good. In the papers they had watched the rhetoric reverse as the pictures grew grotesque. “Over by Christmas” now a cruel joke. Narrow ditches were slowly snaking their way across the Western Front as both sides dug in. It was unfathomable that scores of men were living and fighting and dying in the mud like vermin. Not even Dutch nor Hosea could help Arthur make sense of it other than reminding him it was best not to dwell. The war was countless miles away. A whole wide ocean in between them and the bloodshed that couldn’t possibly seep its away over here.

Snow had blanketed the frozen plains. White stretched out from their roaring campfire, rolling on and on until it met the gray horizon that promised of more to come. Little civilization in sight. They had fled Valentine two days ago after a robbery gone wrong. Bessie was knitting a new pair of mitts, quick to hide them under the shawl on her lap each time the unsuspecting recipient jerked awake beside her. All five were exhausted from a snowball fight—which Arthur handily won. While Hosea nodded off yet again, Dutch and Annabelle were curled up together and conversing in whispers and heated glances.

“Arthur dear, what are you drawing over there?”

“Nothin’.”

“Nothing?” Bessie’s caramel ringlets flecked with snowflakes swayed as she tucked away her completed handiwork. “Somehow I find that hard to believe.”

With the other three preoccupied, Arthur took a deep breath and turned his leather journal around. It was a drawing of the two couples as they were now, in love and basking in the firelight. His family.

“Not even half done and already it’s beautiful.”

Arthur flushed at this and immediately resumed sketching. What a louse he was. These four had filled many of the cracks in his heart born from years of neglect and sorrow. Yet here he was, envy prickling under his skin with every stroke, struggling to ignore how deeply he longed for someone to call his own. Mary wouldn’t have him though and it was hard to imagine anyone ever would.

She brushed snow off his gambler’s hat. The only good thing his late father ever gave him. A tiny smile tugged at his lips. Bessie was a salt of the earth woman, hardy and practical with a gentleness that belied great strength. Hosea adored her so, regularly promising to give her everything though Bessie asked for nothing. Meanwhile Annabelle, the black sheep of an old money Bostonian legacy, had everything but threw it away along with good breeding and social status in favor of living life on her own terms. Dark features sharp and eyes alive with the barely contained wildfire that crackled within, Dutch could not only withstand those flames but embraced the burn. He often joked Hosea was his better half, but Annabelle was like a missing part that made him whole.

Arthur wondered which man would propose first.

Dutch kissed Annabelle softly. Her legs shifted; toes probably curling in her boots. When their lips parted, his hand remained on her face. “What’d you get me?”

“Oh, you cad.” Annabelle pushed him away, keeping him at arm’s length when he made kissy sounds while trying to pull her back in. “How many times are you going to ask? I’ve known children with more patience than you.”

He leaned back on his hands, smile playful. “I don’t like surprises.”

Annabelle’s nose tilted upward. “Well, that’s just tough ‘cause I do.” Her pursed lips repressed a grin until Hosea’s head slumped against Dutch’s shoulder.

“Don’t you start giggling.” This was the wrong thing to say because Annabelle had to slap a hand over her mouth. “The old man needs his rest.”

“I heard that.”

He wrapped an arm around Hosea, chuckling until it petered out into a sigh. “Go back to sleep.”

“Alright there?” Hosea yawned. Dutch grimaced, possibly annoyed his partner-in-crime could read him without so much as a glance. “We’re gonna be fine.” He spoke with full confidence, patting Dutch’s leg. “The leads will pick up in the spring. They always do. We have more than enough to get us through the winter.”

“I know, it’s just…” Dutch trailed off, staring solemnly at the fire.

“Have faith,” he teased. “Though even if you don’t, I have more than enough in you.”

“You’re right.” Dutch rested his head against Hosea’s. “You always know how to put me back on course, huh?”

“Someone has to captain this ship.”

“I resent that,” Dutch murmured, smiling growing as he heard Hosea snicker.

-- May 1931 --

A sleepy town was a double-edged sword. As a former local lawman, Arthur could attest to that. No matter how little trouble there was to get mixed up in, fools always managed to stir up some of their own. Arthur, Charles, and Hosea stood behind Kieran in varying states of amusement, watching him aim his gun at a rusted weathervane atop an abandoned stable. Somehow the auction yard still reeked of shit despite being riddled with cracks and long barren of livestock. By last June, the plains of America were already browned and wilted. April hadn’t brought enough showers to suggest this year would be any different. Guess even nature wasn’t on Valentine’s side.

Charles wore an easy smile. “There’s no way you can hit that.”

“‘Course I can!” Kieran protested, emboldened by drink. In all fairness, he wasn’t the first would-be gunslinger to have been struck by this idea. The rooster’s chest bore a bullet hole. “Ain’t that far!”

“Distance isn’t the problem, Mr. Duffy.” Unlike his three companions, Hosea was painfully sober. Probably wanted a clear mind for the meeting tomorrow.

“Aw, let him try!” Arthur wrapped an arm around Hosea’s shoulders; all smiles as he dangled from the precipice of sobriety. “I wanna see if he can.”

“This is my fault. Don’t know what I was thinking leaving a child in charge for an hour.” Stern look aside, Hosea’s voice was light with the promise of laughter. He slinked his arm around Arthur’s waist. “Trust you to find the one speakeasy in town.”

“Now that ain’t fair. How was I supposed to know he was a lightweight?”

Hosea poked his side, causing Arthur to squirm with an involuntary giggle. “Anyone’s a lightweight when trying to keep up with a man your size.”

“There’s two of ‘em.” Kieran nodded up at the roof with his free hand. “I can’t miss!”

“How many barns have two weathervanes?” Charles asked rhetorically.

There was a beat of silence. “Well, then, all I gotta do is hit the right one.”

He shot and missed spectacularly, shattering the remaining window instead. While Hosea patted Kieran’s shoulder sympathetically, Arthur swore, dug out a ten, and slapped it into Charles’s waiting hand. He was about to whip out his gun and show that rooster a thing or two when Arthur found himself being dragged away. Charles had linked and locked their arms. Hosea was doing the same thing with Kieran, leading them up the street bathed pale moonlight and lined with pockets of abandoned buildings and dilapidated fences. Arthur didn’t put up a fuss. He was acting a fool and mighty glad John wasn’t here to see him. Then again, maybe he’d be just as ridiculous.

“Where are you now?” John had asked earlier that day when Arthur called him upon disembarking. The train up north hadn’t nearly been as fun as the one back from Saint Denis. No risky closet rendezvouses this time. If Arthur closed his eyes, he could still feel John. Pressed against him. Hot mouth along his neck. Greedy hand down his pants.

“Valentine.”

“My sympathies.”

Arthur had snorted upon imagining John’s disgruntled expression. “Take it you won’t be tracking me down this time?”

He sighed as if some great travesty had occurred. “As much as I like annoying you, I’m stuck here overseeing the repairs at Beecher’s.”

“You ain’t missing much.” His fingers played absentmindedly with the phone cord. “Hosea’s just meeting with two blowhards. I’ll be back tomorrow evenin’.”

“You’re doing work for Hosea?” John inhaled sharply. “You be careful, alright?”

Worry had wedged its way into his husky voice. Arthur thought to tease him, but the concern left his heart fluttering. He rested his head against the cool glass of the phone booth and murmured, “Of course.”

Valentine was a forgotten town. One that couldn’t decide whether it wanted to stay in the nineteenth century or make the leap into the present. Not enough money to ease the landing, he supposed. That’s what drove the young away; sent them running with open arms to the big cities. Dwindling opportunities even before the crash. New Hanover was still farm country. You either had to saddle up or hit the trail like Arthur had. To think this had been a refuge during the war and the immediate years after, back when they walked these streets donning tin stars on their chests. After the fallout with Dutch, Arthur and the newly-wed Mr. and Mrs. Matthews wanted a slower pace and Valentine more than provided.

“I don’t reckon anything has changed since I was here last,” Kieran commented. “Kinda feels like a place frozen in time, y’know?”

“Reminiscin’ on your days as an O’Driscoll, boy?”

Charles gave him a look. Arthur rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly.

“I do got one fond memory,” Kieran started chuckling before he finished his joke. “The day I ran away.”

The fact that Smithfield’s—Arthur paused to eye the “Historic” claim in its sign dubiously—was about to close didn’t stop Hosea from marching in, whipping out both his charm and wallet. The three took a seat by the window. Wooden interior. Creaking floorboards. Decorative animal skulls. Wallpaper thoroughly faded after thirty years. Even back when Deputy Sheriff Morgan had dined at the saloon-turned-restaurant, he saw it for what it was: a relic preserved only to tap into the rise in Old West tourism during the previous decade.

Kieran drummed his fingers along the table. “Mr. Matthews said you and him lived here once?”

Arthur grunted but then realized that was a pathetic response even by his low standards. “We did. We were trying to turn our lives around.” While he had worn the badge easily, wanting to do good and be good for once in his life, Hosea was no lawman. It took Arthur a bit longer to realize that truth for himself. Square pegs, round hole. “Should’ve figured it wouldn’t last.”

“You don’t think people can change?” Kieran asked, frowning.

“Nah. Way I figure—” Arthur broke off. Who was he to openly ruminate on the nature of man when he was about as bright as a dying light bulb? “—I figure we just become more of ourselves as the years roll on.”

While Kieran bit his lip, seemingly mulling this over, Charles eyed him in a way that told Arthur he soundly disagreed but didn’t have enough alcohol in him to be argumentative. If Charles looked close enough though, he’d spot the compliment tucked between the words. At first Arthur had thought of him as just another crook. A competent one at that. Charles knew the ins and outs of racketeering, had a healthy dose of antagonism towards the law, and didn’t flinch at the harsh realities of the job. It was no surprise he had skyrocketed through the ranks of the Matthews Outfit. Then he saw Charles run into a burning building to save lives. Saw him help beggars in the street. Saw how he kept violence as a last resort. That was the real him.

Determined to steer the conversation in a better direction, Arthur asked, “This is gonna seem like a strange question, but—”

“Place is ours, boys! Drink up!”

A cheerful Hosea came over with coffee and lots of it. After Kieran poured himself two cups worth, he offered the fresh pot to Arthur. He shook his head but then Hosea took it, poured a healthy amount, and set the mug firmly in front of him. Arthur blew at the hot liquid a few times before drinking, glaring at an indifferent Hosea the whole while.

“You were saying?” Charles prompted.

“Oh, uh, any of you ever seen anyone from the rival gangs wearing drama masks?” Charles, Hosea, and Kieran shared puzzled looks. “Y’know, the comedy and tragedy faces?”

“Sounds like a good way to get caught,” Kieran replied.

“Exactly, it’s too, well, theatrical,” Charles said. “Anyone in the business knows it’s better to avoid attracting attention.”

Arthur and Hosea both opened their mouths—likely to make the same “tell that to Dutch” joke—but Charles got there first, “I’ve never seen his men dressed outlandishly. Whoever you saw? Had to be amateurs.”

“You sound like a detective,” Arthur smirked, taking another sip while considering his answer.

Laughing at this, Charles turned towards Kieran who was already working his way through his second mug. “We can handle things tomorrow if you still don’t feel up to it.”

Truthfully, Arthur didn’t know much about Kieran Duffy save for his love of horses, that Mary-Beth had taken a real shine to him, and that he kind of liked him too. Young but not green, Kieran had a kind heart and somehow hadn’t been crushed by his rotten lot in life. Nothing spooked him though like the O’Driscolls. Arthur had hoped a few drinks would settle his nerves.

“Don’t you worry ‘bout Colm. He ain’t even gonna see you.”

“Wait, that’s why you’ve been drinking?” Hosea frowned. “Kieran, you should’ve told me you were uncomfortable. I wouldn’t have brought you along had I known.”

“It’s alright. Honestly! I wanna be here. I can’t be scared of them O’Driscolls forever.” Kieran finished gulping down his coffee. “Means a lot that you trust me enough to take Lenny’s place.”

“Where is Lenny at?” Arthur asked.

“Shipped him off to the capital,” Hosea replied. “Howard Law is having its annual open house.”

Arthur smiled wistfully. “That boy is gonna make somethin’ of himself.”

“If the O’Driscolls act up, well, I figure I owe ‘em a bit of payback.”

Hosea wagged a finger at Kieran. “Now, now. There’s a reason I didn’t ask Mrs. Adler to join us.”

“Wish you did. That’s a woman who gets results.”

“Not the kind I’m after. How am I supposed to negotiate with a corpse, Arthur?”

--

The tension in the room was thick enough to smother a man and Arthur knew exactly whose face he would hold down the pillow over. The years had not been kind to Colm O’Driscoll. Withered and pale like snakeskin, though the rail-thin businessman hadn’t shed it all. There was something still decidedly serpent-like about him. The flick of his tongue as he licked his lips. The way his eyes darted as he took in the fine china, abstract paintings, and the sunshine streaming through the windows of the café cleared out just for them. There was a cool breeze outside but it didn’t warrant the oversized fur coat draped around his shoulders. Trying to scream big money. To Arthur? Well, he just looked like a big idiot.

“Hosea,” Colm greeted with false pleasantry. “How’s business, old man?”

“More or less the same.”

Although able to keep personal feelings out of business negotiations, he had a long and winding memory. When Colm exacted revenge for the loss of his brother, Dutch wasn’t the only one who had lost Annabelle. Hosea never bothered to put on a fake smile or muster up an ounce of charm when it came to him.

“That’s nice.” He clicked his tongue, eyeing the young hostess who took his hat and coat from him. “Me? Aside from the horseshit between us, the Bureau of Prohibition has been buzzin’ around again.”

“I’ll have to keep an eye out then.”

Charles shifted his weight; arms crossed and face serious. A mirror of Arthur who stood on Hosea’s right. Initially he didn’t want a pair of bodyguards, but they had convinced him otherwise. Good thing too. Colm had his own. A pair of O’Driscoll boys who were trying to stare the both of them down, as if Arthur and Charles couldn’t simply snap them over their knees.

Colm’s lip hitched. “I see your hiring practices have declined.”

Kieran was lurking on the balcony of the Saints Hotel next door, rifle aimed at Colm’s head through the window. Arthur wouldn’t mind if his, or if any of the other snipers’ fingers slipped right about now. Outside of a blink, Charles didn’t grant Colm any sort of reaction.

“If Mr. Smith is a step down, my business is moving in the right direction.”

“Hm. I see you’re trying to bring your boy back into the fold as well.” Ah, time for a new tactic to ruffle feathers. “Finally ready to follow in daddy’s footsteps?”

He wasn’t supposed to talk let alone give lip, but Arthur lacked the restraint of the other two. “I can’t quite figure out whether you like to hear the sound of your own voice—” He leaned forward. “—or if you’re just plain stupid.”

A late arrival saved him from any possible reprimand. Two well-dressed men, their guns bulging in their sleek suit jackets, opened the restaurant doors. Angelo Bronte strolled in like some sort of pin-striped king. A balding crown on a head held high, his eyes narrowed at being surrounded by peasants. Although Arthur had tangled with Bronte’s men, usually with a pair of handcuffs, he had only met Angelo once before when Hosea fashioned the three-way peace treaty in this very room. Then, as with today, Arthur could smell arrogance from where he was standing. Or maybe it was just his overwhelming cologne.

“Mr. O’Driscoll, Mr. Matthews,” Angelo reached to shake his business rivals’ hands. Colm wiped his palm on his pants the moment he turned to face Hosea. “So nice to see you both again.”

“Signor Bronte,” Hosea replied hospitably. “Thanks for coming on short notice.”

“Ah, it’s no trouble. It’s nice to get out of Saint Denis for a bit while there’s still ash in the air but—” He gestured casually outside. “—this? Not exactly what I had in mind.”

“What, you gettin’ soft?” Colm eyed Angelo like he was something you’d scrape out of the bottom of a trashcan. “Oughta take a step back if you can’t handle a bit of heat.”

“Mr. O’Driscoll.” Every syllable of his surname was dragged out. “Given you look like a man with one foot already out the door and in the grave, may I ask for your advice on places to retire to?” His two goons sniggered stupidly. Colm’s lips drew back into a snarl. “Tell me, has Ireland gotten its shit together or is it still a disaster?”

Arthur’s eyes drifted skyward. Hosea must have dabbled in black magic to get these two morons to come to an agreement last time.

“Fellers!” Hosea clapped his hands together before beckoning a waitress holding a bottle of champagne over. “Let’s get some drinks in us before we—”

A gruff, familiar voice bellowed. “Drop your weapons!”

Commotion erupted outside. No gunshots, just yelling. Civilians were reduced to blurs as they dashed by the windows. The all-female waitstaff dropped the façade and drew their concealed weapons. Half hurried off throughout the building to protect those inside. The rest stayed and flipped the tables for cover. Colt in hand, Arthur grabbed Hosea, pulled him down, and held him close. Pressed to the wall near the doors, Charles had his out too. Ready to take out whoever entered. Colm and Angelo were in similar protective positions, though the former had pulled his guns out and aimed at the door as well. Was it the cops? Couldn’t be. The sheriff’s office had one hand in Colm’s pocket, the other in Hosea’s.

“Hold your fire!” Kieran shouted at the others.

“That’s it. Nice and easy, kid,” the voice from before continued.

Laying on the ground, both Arthur and Hosea watched Kieran through the window as he slowly lowered his rifle and raised his hands. That voice. Wait. Was that Bill Williamson?

“Afternoon, gentlemen,” Dutch greeted as he threw open the doors. “Didn’t miss anything, did I?”

He strode in with the same pomp as a showman strutting across a stage. A captivated audience watched Dutch place his coat and hat on the available rack, not bothered by the ten guns set on his heart. Hands wavered and faces grew grim as Hosea rose. Perhaps they were disappointed by the lack of a reaction. You had to look close to see beyond the blank stare. There was a hardening of his gaze like water turning to ice. With no execution order given, one-by-one the guns were holstered. Every curse word ran through Arthur’s head and almost came out when Dutch winked at him. Why? Why did he always have to pour fuel all over the fire?

“What the hell are you doing here?” Colm spat out, wincing as if not shooting Dutch physically pained him.

“Oh, I wasn’t invited?” Dutch tilted his head. “And here I was thinking my invitation got lost in the mail.”

Angelo stormed towards Hosea. “Is this your idea of a joke, Matthews? First, you bring me to this pathetic town that reeks of shit. Then you bring in this, this washed up, wannabe gangster—”

“Listen, Sergio.”

“Angelo.”

“Right, right.” Dutch waved his hand as if brushing off the correction. “Hosea had no idea I was coming. You see, whenever people talk behind my back I always find out. So I thought I’d save us all a bit of time, drop by, and see what’s what.”

“What’s what, Mr. Van der Linde.” Bronte got in his face instead. “Is that you owe me thousands of dollars for destroying my liquor and my harbor.”

“Really?” Dutch turned his back to him and poured himself as small glass of wine. “I heard through the grapevine Mr. Matthews was behind that.”

“Hosea has been trying to keep the peace for years. He ain’t dumb enough to do something like that or attack my men randomly.” Colm pointed at Dutch. “But you are.”

Dutch raised his glass to him; voice raw with delight. “What are you gonna do about it, old friend?”

There was a prolonged pause. One that made Arthur start envisioning whipping out his gun and laying waste to everyone who tried to harm Dutch. As furious as he was, Arthur would be damned before he let anything happen to him.

“Nothing,” Colm shrugged. “We’ve read this story before, Hosea. Old Dutch comes along and makes a whole heap of trouble for you. We step in, stand by your side, and he runs off with his tail between his legs.”

“Not this time though,” Bronte continued. “Why waste men and resources when we could just let you two kill each other?”

The lying, the deceit, the bloodshed. Organized crime was foul and rotten to its core. Colm and Angelo despised one another but not enough to not go behind Hosea’s back. This had been their plan all along. To bow out and loom like vultures along the sidelines, eager to pick over the battlefield once the fighting ceased. This was exactly why he had sidestepped Dutch and Hosea’s footprints and tried to stamp out his own course despite knowing their paths were forever intertwined. The promise of violence to come left Arthur with a sense of dread.

“Thank you, gentlemen.” Hosea said dryly. “I appreciate being stabbed in the front rather than the back.”

“Come now.” Colm gave Hosea’s arms a quick squeeze. “We’re doing you a favor. Our neutrality will ensure nothing gets in the way of you crushing this idiot.”

“Speak for yourself,” Bronte sneered. “If this buffoon comes anywhere near my city again, I’ll make sure the authorities won’t be able to find a body.”

A sour-faced Dutch emptied his wine glass while Hosea spoke in an eerily calm voice, “I think we’re done here.”

No elaboration was needed. His order applied to everyone. The three mob bosses filed out with less boldness than which they arrived. This was a hell of a gamble. One that would cost them greatly if Hosea came out on top and with minimal losses. Dutch could be heard calling off his men while Hosea slipped off to speak to his employees strewn throughout the café.

When Arthur sighed heavily and slouched against the wall, Charles joined him. “I don’t understand what his plan is. War never leads to anything but more misery and won’t result in lasting profits—if that’s what Dutch is after.”

“I doubt there’s much of a plan. If there is, it’s about as solid as a door riddled with bullet holes.”

It was then Arthur realized he couldn’t hear Hosea’s voice anymore. After a hasty goodbye to Charles, Arthur ran outside. Bill, Javier, and Micah were loitering by the general store. Kieran was still up on the balcony, who pointed him north. He ran up the road, past the two black limousines taking Colm and Angelo back to whatever hole they crawled out of. The shootout that never was had emptied the streets and made Valentine a temporary ghost town. Pretty fitting. For Arthur, the place was as haunted as Saint Denis. He ran past the post office, his old barbershop, the restaurant where he met Eliza. There was nothing to keep the ghosts at bay as he searched for Hosea. If Arthur wasn’t careful, he might get caught up in the past and let it blow him around like the dirt swirling above the parched roads.

Don’t think about the house the five of them shared.

Don’t think about those nights out on the veranda where Hosea and Bessie took turns reading bedtime stories to Isaac.

A familiar flash of silver hair slowed his pace and brought him back to the now. Up ahead, Hosea had an unlit cigarette in his mouth, struggling to strike a match. Arthur was about to call for him when Dutch emerged from in between two buildings and blocked his ex-partner’s path. Arthur crouched behind a parked car. Dutch lit the cigarette for Hosea.

Smoke wisped away from his lips. “I hope you’re goddamn happy.”

“I am. That went remarkably well.” Dutch pocketed his golden lighter. “There’s a certain thrill that comes along with thwarting your plans.”

Hosea resumed walking. “I don’t know whether to be mildly or greatly concerned that I still occupy your thoughts so much after all this time.”

“Why be concerned when you could be flattered?”

“And you didn’t thwart anything. I wanted to prevent a four-way war and keep them from teaming up to destroy you.”

“Why Hosea. I’m touched you still care.”

“I don’t. If they absorbed your territory it’d tip the scales of power in their direction.” Hosea replied curtly, flicking ash away. “You used to be smarter. What happened to you?”

“Age makes fools of us all.”

Hosea laughed genuinely and Dutch beamed like he always did whenever he got a smile out of him. For a moment they were rendered speechless when the weight of the walls built up between them came tumbling down on their heads. But there was too much to say, too much water under the bridge. Up to their noses in it, they hastily rebuilt their barricades and fired at will.

“This is going to end badly, Dutch. For you and countless others, though I know you don’t care about the latter.” He blew out a stream of smoke and coughed. “Tell me, how do you see this ending? You on top and all wrongs against you righted? The bootlegging industry open and flooded with questionably distilled liquor. The return of turf wars and constant violence with police. Innocent civilians caught in the crossfire…”

“I’d admonish you for your thoroughly un-american dismissal of the free market, but the more I think about it, you’d probably feel right at home in Washington. Perhaps I am the odd one out.”

“Actually, I was going ask you if you were planning to run for office since hypocrisy is a shared quality among politicians. Exactly how free is the market where you have your protection rackets?”

His smile was unnerving. “While your eyes remain closed, I have mine on the big picture.”

“You were always good at that. Neglecting the little details.”

“Such as?”

“There’s no such thing as neutrality. This war you want so bad will help them, not us.” Hosea took another long drag. “I’m not going to fight you, Dutch.”

“Why? ‘Cause there’s no money in it?” he snapped.

Hosea laughed around his persistent cough. “You’re not worth my time. I’ve wasted enough of it on you as is.” Dutch grabbed Hosea’s arm and forced him to turn around. He was met with a face full of smoke. “What do you want, Dutch? You want me dead? If you’d hold your damn horses for once, you’ll get your wish sooner or later.”

“I thought you knew me better than that.” Dutch threw his arm aside, glowering like the thought of Hosea’s death actually upset him.

“I thought I knew you once.” Decades worth of hurt weighed down Hosea’s voice. “I was wrong.”

Dutch frowned, but then suddenly snatched the cigarette out of his lips, leaning back with a wide grin when Hosea reached for and failed to reobtain it. It was playful and cheeky like a certain other dark-haired man Arthur knew. As much as he missed John, he was more thankful than ever he was not here. John was going to worry himself silly when he learned of the impending war Arthur was in the middle of. Hosea can say he wasn’t going to fight but Dutch wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted.

His joy faded however, glancing between the cigarette and Hosea’s annoyed face. Dutch’s face slowly contorted into something close to rage. “How long?” he spat out, casting the cigarette aside. “Have you told Arthur?”

“Don’t talk to me about Arthur.”

The speed of this retort and the venom within cut through the confusion that had swelled up in Arthur’s head at this strange turn in the conversation. He didn’t know what they were talking about but knew it was time to intervene.

Dutch smirked as Arthur came out of the alley he had been eavesdropping in. “I love him just as much as you do.”

Hosea laughed richly, but it was the sort of laugh that left hairs and heckles raised. “You don’t love anyone but yourself. You know it. I know it. And Arthur sure as hell knows it. You stay the hell away from him.”

Horror flickered across his face when Arthur appeared by his side. He tried to pull Hosea away. “Don’t. Let’s go.”

Grinning from ear-to-ear, Dutch leaned back against a car. “Or what?”

Hosea brushed Arthur off and pointed a finger at Dutch. “I took everything from you once. I can and will do it again.”