Martin stared up at the faded gold lettering painted on the door, wiping a clammy palm against the fabric of his trousers. The other gripped his manila folder tightly, refusing to loosen his grip for even a second, not after all the trouble he’d gone through to get it.
Delano & Sims, the words read. Private Detectives.
He’d talked to one of them over the phone yesterday, a man with an achingly posh accent, who’d said to come at precisely fourteen hundred hours and not a moment later. That clipped, dry tone had almost been enough to scare him off, but...no, he needed this too much to run away.
Martin took a deep breath, and knocked.
“Come in,” a voice called, and he pushed inside.
The first thing he noticed were the swirls of cigarette smoke so thick that the weak light overhead glowed a thin silver. His eyes immediately began to water at the intensity of the smell, and he desperately wanted to bury his nose in his collar.
There was an exasperated sigh from one shrouded corner of the room, and then, “Christ—Jon, open the window, would you?”
“Oh, right, sorry,” There was a clatter as the blinds lifted, and then a solid thunk, and suddenly fresh air and natural light was pouring through the open window, throwing the room in stark relief.
“Sorry about that,” the man next to the window said, leaning heavily on a handsome wooden cane. He was just a wisp of a thing, dressed in a sweater vest like he was some sort of professional academic, with salt and pepper grey hair and dark, keen eyes. “Forgot we had someone coming.”
This must be the person I talked to over the phone, Martin realized. Sims.
“Do me a favor and try not to kill our clients, Jon.” He quickly turned to look at Delano—who else could it be?—who was stepping away from the fan now juddering to life, swirling the quickly dissipating smoke. It was almost startling how different the two partners were; where Sims was thin and short, Delano was tall and wiry, with inky black hair and cool, gunmetal eyes. The weathered leather trench coat and chunky boots had obviously seen some better days. “We need all the ones we can get.”
Martin’s face flushed as he was struck by how unfairly attractive these two people were.
“Duly noted,” Sims drawled, limping over to the heavy desk stacked high with papers. He set the cane aside and propped himself against it with a quiet sigh, then gestured toward one of the ratty looking chairs. “Take a seat, Mr. Blackwood.”
Martin shifted uncomfortably. “Oh, I don’t…”
“No need to stand on decorum, not around here.” Delano pointedly plopped into the chair behind the desk, grin wide and toothy. “Jon just likes to pretend that we’re more professional than we actually are.”
“We’re professional,” Sims protested, sounding deeply offended. “Just...unorthodox.”
“Well, alright,” Martin said, and lowered into the surprisingly comfortable chair.
Delano cleared his throat. “Right. So what brings you to us, Mr. Blackwood?”
Martin thought for a moment, not wanting to speak rashly, or to give away anything too personal. “Well, I’ve heard rumors that you two are capable of...discretion, so to speak, and I would prefer that this doesn’t get spread around.”
“Ah.” Sims’ eyes quickly flicked up and down his body, one eyebrow raising. “Out of curiosity, can I ask who referred you to us?”
“Tim Stoker?” Martin shuffled. “He said that you helped him out of a similar bind not too long ago.”
Sims and Delano glanced at each other, their eyebrows doing a complicated little dance, though what information could’ve been conveyed through such a medium, Martin had no clue. They turned to look at him again in unison, expressions very serious.
“When you say similar…” Delano trailed off.
Martin immediately shook his head. “Oh, nothing to do with the Circus. I’m not stupid enough to get involved with them after what happened with Tim and his brother.”
They both relaxed immediately.
“That’s good for you,” Delano told him. “We’ve run afoul of Nikola and her merry band far too many times for comfort. If you’d said you’d gotten on her bad side, I’m afraid we would’ve had to ask you to leave.”
Martin glanced at Sims, who was staring very hard at his feet, then Delano, who was observing him calmly, patiently, the way a bird of prey sights down a mouse. “Oh.”
“Quite,” Sims murmured.
“Anyway,” Delano gave a wide, grandiose gesture. “Please. Why have you come to us?”
The manila folder suddenly felt very, very heavy, and he fiddled with one of the corners, rubbing the material between his fingers. “Well...I work for this, um, this shipping company. I mostly do busywork, administrative tasks, that sort of thing. It’s not very glamorous, but it—it pays really well, despite the company being kind of small.” Martin traced the grain of the paper with one finger. “I think it handles a lot of….specialty items.”
“And the name of this company?” Sims asked, pen poised over the little notebook he’d appeared from seemingly nowhere.
Anxiety plummeted his stomach into his toes. “I’m sorry, but I don’t feel comfortable giving away that information.”
Delano’s eyebrows rose. “Discretion, remember? Besides, we’ll need to know if we’re going to be able to help you.”
“If we decide to help you,” Sims muttered.
Martin took a few fortifying breaths, swallowing the nausea down. “Right,” he murmured. “Right. It’s, um...Tundra shipping company? Run by Mr. Peter Lukas.”
Sims went very, very still, pen poised above his notebook, expression fixed like it’d been molded into his face. Delano loomed forward, the gunmetal of his eyes gleaming like the sun reflecting off of a loaded barrel. “Is that so?”
Martin glanced toward Sims, wondering at his demeanor, then turned back to Delano and nodded. “Yeah. You two—you know him?”
“Do we.” Delano let out a dry chuckle. “Continue.”
“Right.” Martin shook his head. “Well, one day I was doing some bookkeeping, just...routine stuff, you know? But I noticed something off with the numbers, like...really wrong. And I double checked my math several times just to make sure, but…” he swallowed. “I think that someone may be cooking the books, or...or something. I don’t know.
“Anyway, I went back the next day but the numbers had been changed, and—and Mr. Lukas called me into his office and said some really weird stuff that I think may have been a threat? It was hard to tell.” Martin shook his head, biting his lip. “There’s been other stuff, too. Contracts with companies that I know don’t exist, visitors at odd hours. I think something really rotten is going on, but I don’t think that I can handle it myself.”
Delano and Sims shared an unhappy look. Then Sims pushed away from the desk and began to circle the perimeter of the room, his eyebrows furrowing into a thunderstorm on his brow.
“We’d love to finally be able to pin something substantial on the bastard—on Lukas,” Delano said. “But insinuating those types of claims without a shred of evidence...that’s a nonstarter. We’re going to need a little bit more than that.”
“But I do have evidence?” Martin asked, lifting the manila folder. “I took photocopies of the pages, and notated where the discrepancies were.” He wrinkled his nose. “I wasn’t about to just write on official financial records. There’s also some of the weird contracts I was talking about. I kept copies of everything.”
Sims, who’d walked out of sight while Martin had been talking, suddenly appeared behind him, reaching for the folder. “Can I see?”
“Be careful with it, that’s the only copy,” Martin said nervously, but handed it over.
Sims walked back over to the desk, hopped up on the edge, and eagerly tipped the contents of the folder on the space between him and Delano. They quickly sifted through the papers, wordlessly handing things to each other like a seamless, well-oiled machine.
“This is good.” Delano’s voice was almost hushed, almost awed. “This is...really good, actually.”
“But you see why I can’t go to the police with this, right?” Martin twisted his hands fitfully. “You see why I need your help.”
“Of course not,” Sims said dismissively, though there was an eager gleam in his eyes. “The police are so deep in Lukas’ pocket you might as well have kissed your life goodbye if you’d gone to them.”
“Oh.” Martin swallowed, trying and failing to come up with anything more intelligent than that. “Oh.”
Delano drummed his fingers against the desk pensively. “Speaking of, it wouldn’t be a good idea to pursue this recklessly. We appreciate you bringing this to us, but it does put you in a significant amount of danger. Do you have friends or family outside the country you can stay with, Mr. Blackwood?”
“Um…” He had cousins in Poland, he was pretty sure. Whether or not they would take him in was another question entirely. “Possibly.”
Sims reluctantly gathered the papers up and slid them back into the manila folder, before holding it out. “Come back when you’ve got something lined up.”
Martin lifted a quelling hand as he got to his feet. “I’d...prefer you hold onto it, honestly. It’s probably safer with you.”
Sims blinked, then shrugged and set the folder back down. “I see.”
“We’ll be seeing you later, Mr. Blackwood.” Delano’s grin was a sharp, toothy thing. Despite its grimness, Martin found himself inexplicably comforted by it.
“Please,” he corrected before he could help himself. “Call me Martin.”
“So,” Gerry said, long after Martin had left and the excitement had faded. He filled a glass with some ice, then tipped a finger of whisky over the top. “What do you think?”
“I don’t trust him,” Jon said almost before Gerry had finished talking, accepting the glass with a quiet murmur of thanks. “It’s a bit too good to be true. After years of searching, someone just...emerges with hard evidence of Peter’s wrongdoings?” An incredulous snort. “I don’t think so.”
Gerry propped himself up against the edge of the desk, staring at the dark bags under his partner’s eyes, the cynical curve of his mouth. He looked exhausted. “You never know,” he said mildly, taking a sip of his whiskey sour before continuing. “I think we’re about due for a lucky break.”
“We don’t get lucky breaks. We get fooled into thinking that we have a lucky break, only to get royally fucked later,” Jon snapped, thumping his cane against the ground for emphasis. “You should know that by now.”
Gerry frowned. “Don’t take this out on me.”
Jon metaphorical hackles went up, and for a moment it looked as though he were about to start shouting—but then he abruptly deflated and looked away. “No, you’re right, it’s just…”
Gerry sighed. It was difficult to stay angry at Jon when he bore such a striking resemblance to a kicked puppy. “I get it.”
They fell silent for a moment, sipping their drinks, lost in their respective thoughts.
“Shall we go?” Gerry asked, setting his glass aside.
Jon paused for a moment longer, before letting out a long, gusty sigh and draining what was left in his drink. “Sure.”
The elevator was still broken, so unfortunately they had to take the stairs. While Gerry knew better than to offer any assistance, his heart still clenched at how tight with pain Jon’s jaw had gone by the time they reached the bottom. They stopped for a few seconds to let Jon get his breath back, before continuing toward home.
About a block away from the office, they froze at the sound of pounding footsteps growing unmistakably closer.
“Hear that?” Jon murmured out of the corner of his mouth, the dying light of the sun glinting off the switchblade in his free hand.
“Mmhm,” Gerry hummed, slipping a hand into his pocket.
Martin was very, very lucky that Gerry recognized him as he rounded the corner; otherwise, it was very likely that Jon would’ve run him through. As it was, Martin crashed into them both, gasping frantically for air, cheeks flushed, eyes wide with abject terror.
“Martin?” Jon demanded, shoving the switchblade away. “What the hell are you—”
“They’re after me,” Martin gasped out, scrabbling at Gerry’s coat. “They—I don’t know how they found out, but they, Peter, he—”
“Shit,” Gerry muttered, suddenly becoming aware of the second set of pounding footsteps growing nearer. He took a moment to assess their surroundings, before grabbing Martin’s shoulders and hauling him into the nearby alley. “Martin, hide behind that dumpster. Jon, distraction time.”
Despite the situation, Jon’s eyes lit up with an exhilarated gleam. Gerry had just enough time to fondly think, adrenaline junkie, before Jon tucked his cane over his wrist, twisted his hands in Gerry’s lapels, and shoved him against the wall for a bruising kiss.
Gerry gasped into Jon’s mouth, his hands instinctively falling to cup Jon’s slim hips. He deepened the kiss, humming encouragingly when Jon shoved his jacket over his shoulders, exposing the thin black t-shirt beneath.
Jon was just beginning to press little kisses down the juncture of his jaw and neck when the harsh beam of a torch fell on them. Jon, who’d been a drama queen long before he’d joined am dram in uni, pulled away with a theatrical gasp, his annoyance almost startlingly genuine. Gerry tucked his face out of the way and adjusted his jacket, affecting embarrassment.
“Do you mind?” Jon asked.
“Oh,” the person on the other end of the torch said, sounding distinctly uncomfortable. Gerry tried to peek a look, but the beam was too strong for him to see into the darkness beyond it. “Sorry to disturb you sirs, um...you wouldn’t happen to have seen a person—?”
“No, we haven’t seen a person.” Keeping one hand curled in Gerry’s jacket, Jon took a step back, lifting his chin defiantly. “Now if you’ll excuse us, we were busy.”
“Right,” the person muttered, and then the torchlight abruptly vanished, dropping them once more into the dying light of the sun.
They stood there for a moment, Jon breathing hard, cheeks flushed. Gerry tipped his head back against the wall, letting his eyes flutter shut as his pumping heart slowed.
Then the grip in his collar loosened, and Jon let out a pained groan and sank against the wall. “Fuck.”
“Alright, take it easy,” Gerry murmured. He pressed a kiss against Jon’s hair and rubbed a soothing hand against his back. “You did beautifully.” Then louder, “Martin, you can come out now.”
There was a brief pause, and then a shadow tentatively emerged from behind the dumpster. Martin looked far less rattled than he had when he’d first run around the corner, though there was still a healthy flush to his cheeks. He peered up the alley, wringing his hands. “Are they…”
“For now,” Jon said, grimacing as he dug his knuckles into the tight muscles. “We should leave before they get back.”
Martin’s eyes honed in on him. “Will you be okay?”
“I’ll be fine,” Jon snapped, straightening. “You should be more worried about yourself. You can’t go home, right?”
The question seemed to remind Martin of the current situation, because his eyes went a little wild again. “No, they...I left to do a bit of shopping, and then came back and, and there they were.”
They fell silent for a moment, considering that.
“Well, there’s nothing for it,” Jon said brusquely. “You’ll have to come home with us.”
“What?” Martin gaped.
Gerry was already nodding. “We don’t have much room, but we can make up the couch for you.”
That only seemed to make Martin all the more aghast. “Wait! Wait, won’t that put you in danger?”
Gerry looked up and met Jon’s gaze.
“We have...a certain degree of protection,” Gerry hazarded delicately. “It won’t do much against the likes of Peter himself, but lesser threats…”
“You’ll be fine,” Jon completed. “Now unless you want to run into them again, we had better get going.”
Martin glanced mutely between them, looking like he wanted nothing more than to argue. Then his shoulders slumped, probably realizing that he had no other choice considering how dire the situation was.
“Alright,” he murmured, defeated. “Let’s go.”