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July 1, 2012
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When she awoke, she feared that it had all been a dream, that she was back in the vat, floating in empty shapelessness

Only she saw no acid-eaten steel catwalk, but a pristine ceiling of white tiles, with a glaring electric bulb in the center. Where was she?

She heard movement and voices, muffled and unclear, as through deep water. Embarrassment flooded her, and her gum-vision rippled in agitation. How many people were here? Had they been watching her? She was naked.

With the desperate speed of a girl who wakes up in a stranger's bed after a wild party, she pulled together a body, clothes, colors, her flesh stiff and sore, the way she used to feel after sleeping too long. How long had she been out?

It seemed to take hours, but she finally congealed into a fetal position, fresh eyes squeezed shut in desperation, new ears burning.

A boyish whistle, all too sharp and all to near. "That was keen, Da!"

"Hush, Ted."

Ricketts? She squeezed her eyes shut tighter. Oh, God. Who else?

"Well, if you ask me, I think it's a disgrace, pouring my granddaughter into a washtub like so much dirty dishwater. She should have the best bed in the hospital."

A soft groan escaped her. Cripes!

"She would've just sloshed out of it." She could hear the old such-and-so rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"That's not the point," Gran sniffed. "Annabelle saved the entire city. She deserves the royal treatment. They gave that horse-faced Earhart woman from Kansas a ticker-tape parade, and she just flew an airplane for a few days." A pointed pause. "She's married, by the way."

Belle shot up into a sitting position. "Gran!"

Ricketts chuckled. "Morning, sunshine."

She cringed, instinctively covering herself, although she was fully clothed. She was in the floor of what looked like a hospital room. There was a bed in one corner, and a child-sized cot beside it. A pair of suitcases stood beside a wardrobe, and there was a hamper filled with rumpled laundry. It looked like a room that had been lived in for some time.

Belle stood and gingerly stepped out of the wasthtub, and Ted rocketed into her so hard that she felt her flesh give like a spring mattress. His arms clamped around her waist, tight, tight, tight.

"I was worried," he half-sobbed. "I thought you were dead."

She laughed nervously, stroked his hair. "Hey," she said softly. "Hey, hey, hey. None of that." She knelt down to his level, just like at the Bijou, when they had first met, and wiped away the tears that fell only on one side of his face. His other eye, the one that the Hanged Man had taken, had been replaced by a black patch. Her smile faded.

That night happened. And it's not going away.

"What a champ," she murmured. "I'll take you with me on patrol any day."

His face was crisscrossed with ghost-white, puckered scars, but Ted's grin beat them all. He was going to make some lucky woman very happy.

"You'll do no such thing, young lady." And now Gran was on her, twisting her ear with authority. Belle pretended to wince in pain. "Do you have any idea how worried I was? That horrible Skull rumbling in the sky, and you off God-knows-where? Mr. Ricketts had to tell me. The shame of it all!"

Belle glared at Ricketts. "You told her my secret identity?"

Gran planted her fists on her hips in a way that Ricketts found remarkably familiar. "He didn't need to. My own granddaughter chews gum all the time like some tomboy and acts like a perfectly serviceable dress is some horrible prison, and you think I wouldn't notice?"

"That dress was a nightmare!" Belle bawled.

"Pshaw! Besides, I saw you save that Siberian girl from 28B. Stand up. Let me take a look at you." She did, and Gran inspected her with the severity of a drill sergeant. "You look like yourself, I suppose." Then, to her surprise, she enfolded her in a hug as soft as a moth's wings. "Praise God."

"Gran, I'm sorry I didn't tell you. I just --"

"I am so proud of you." She could feel Gran's words on her skin-clothes. "As far as I'm concerned, you don't need that mask."

"Gran, geez," she mumbled. "I gotta have the mask. It's the rules."

Her grandmother finally let her go, wiping her eyes with a handkerchief. "I just wish…"

Belle leaned forward. "Yeah?"

"…that you could find some nice man and settle down. Look at Mr. Ricketts, here. Now, there's a fine specimen."

She threw up her arms and stomped one foot angrily. "Aw, cri-mi-ny, Gran!"

"I'm just saying, if that horse-faced Earhart woman from Kansas can find a husband --"

"Gran," she gasped, appalled, "the man -- is -- right -- here."

"Why, so he is." She turned to Ricketts, peering at him shrewdly through her spectacles. "Mr. Ricketts, how do you feel about my granddaughter?"

Before he could answer, Belle had swept between them and was gently pushing Gran to the door. "Say, Gran, why don't you go down to the cafeteria and see what's on the menu. I'm starving!" That much was true; she felt like she hadn't eaten in weeks.

Ted jumped up, waggling his hand in the air. "Oooh! I'll go!"

"Fine," she gasped. "You'll both go. Now, just --"

Ted bolted out the door, almost dragging Gran by the hand. Belle sighed and sank into an empty chair before she realized that Ricketts was still there. She looked away, blushing furiously, knotting her fingers together in her lap.

"You know," he said softly, "you did the same thing the last time we were at the hospital together. It's a cute habit."

She winced and forced her fingers to squirm apart. "How did I get here?"

"Arcturion and I showed up just after the Hanged Man's house of cards fell. We requisitioned a taxi. All it took was a badge. And a gun," he added wryly. "You were a puddle by then. We scrounged up the washtub, loaded you, Ted, and Salucci in the back, and high-tailed it to the hospital."

She remembered the white light and the mechanical growling noise and nodded. Headlamps and an engine. "Jeez. How long was I out?"

"Two months."

She gaped at him.

"I guess when you finally get hurt, it sticks. The city's mostly recovered. The Army's taken over while the police rebuild. The big criminal operations are on the run, thanks to you, although a few of the smaller and cagier bosses are still in business." He grimaced. "I'm sure Flaherty's buying up as many of the new cops as he can afford."

"What about Salucci and the Board?"

"Salucci's still in intensive care." He grimaced. "You really did a number on him."

Belle bit her lip. "Not my finest moment."

"Rando's locked away at Warden's Cliff, along with Deadeye, Stanley Steamer, and most of Salucci's gang. No one's seen the paper woman, but my friends in Chinatown say the Triads have been looking for something in the sewers. Stands to reason it might be her."

"What happened to Icebox? Please tell me the women's prison in this town is worse than Warden's Cliff."

"It doesn't matter; Kolodka won't spend a night in it. She's hired Frank Marney, the best Mob lawyer in town, and he's painting her as an innocent White Russian on the run from the Bolsheviks who got mixed up with the wring crowd. Odds are she'll get off scot-free, if she can bat her eyelashes at the judge without freezing him solid."

"Darn," Belle scowled. She took a deep breath and asked the most daunting question of all. "And…the Hanged Man?"

Ricketts's eyes turned dark and haunted. "There were a lot of bones in that ash heap," he sighed. "No way to tell for sure which were his."

"Oh." She looked down at her hands, feeling guilty, helpless, and lost. "Ted…"

"You saw his face. The doctors did what they could for him, but the Hanged Man knew what he was doing. Those scars will never heal." His mouth twisted in on itself. "I guess you don't know what that's like."

She glared at him. "Actually, I do. I showed mine off to everyone here for two months. Or did you think I was just showing off in that washtub?"

"I'm sorry." He rose and stalked to the window, staring at the night skyline. Belle watched him for a moment in silence.

"Ted has nightmares now," he said quietly, almost to himself. "He never used to have them before. Ever since he was a baby, he always slept like…like the dead." His laugh was awful. "Who the hell came up with that one, anyway?"

A gnarled and twisted shadow fell between them.

"The Hanged Man was right," she whispered. "You do hate me."

"Jesus Christ, Belle." He turned from the window and stared at her, incredulous. "You saved my son's life. How do you think I can hate you?"

"B-but you just said…his face…"

"What, you think I would have been happier if you had just let him die?" He shook his head. "Belle, you need to get your head on straight. Ted told me how you fought off the Hanged Man, the way you risked your life to save him. If I hate anyone, I hate myself. I couldn't keep that monster from grabbing my boy."

He sat back down in his chair and stared up at the ceiling, his face slack. Belle squirmed in her seat, wanting to reach out to him, but unsure of how best to go about it.

Finally, he lowered his head and seemed to come back to himself. "I saved something back for you while you were…unconscious. I figure now is a better time than never to give it to you."

He reached behind his chair, pulled out a newspaper, and handed it to her. It was dated the morning after her showdown with the Skull. The picture showed a long file of gangsters being led out of the Plaza Nightclub in handcuffs by Army soldiers. She looked at the headline and smiled.

GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD!

"Now, that's going on my clipping wall," she said.

He gave her a puzzled look. "Huh?"

"Nothing." Before she knew what she was doing, Belle looped her neck out and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. She felt stubble and tasted the rich aroma of aftershave. "Thanks," she said shyly.

Ricketts rubbed his cheek and looked twenty years younger. "Don't mention it," he said.

Belle hopped onto the edge of her chair, rubbing her hands together happily. "So, what's next?"

"I don't know. Dinner, maybe a movie…"

"No, no, no; I mean in the war on crime! Now that the Skull's gone, who's next on the list?" She frowned and folded her arms. "You were going to give me a list, right? C'mon, Ricketts, what kind of a G-man are you?"

He grinned ruefully. "I'm not one. Not anymore."

Her jaw literally hit the floor.

"Yeah, I resigned as soon as the Army got the city in hand. Figured I could make more of a difference at the local level, helping out folks one-on-one. If you must know, I was inspired by a young lady who was too stubborn to do anything else."

"Who?" She blinked, then blushed. "Oh, yeah. So, what, you're not my partner anymore?"

"Actually…"




The next day, the two of them stood in the hallway of a low-rent office building, outside a door. The lettering on its pebbled glass read:

RICKETTS & ZARKOV
PRIVATE INVESTIGATORS

Belle, who had ditched her usual costume for a red-and-gold copy of a day dress she had spotted in Gran's Sears catalog, planted her hands on her hips and whistled appreciatively.

"Not bad, you old such-and-so. Only you forgot to put my name first."

"Next time you pay the full deposit on an office in this part of town, you can get your name on top," he growled.

"But I'm the hero." Belle stuck her lower lip out in an angry pout and added in a undertone, "You're just a dumpy old sidekick."

Before he say something he would probably regret, there was a thunder of rushing feet on the stairs and Bum Frank darted down the hall to skid to a panting halt between them.

"Boss," he gasped. "Boss…"

"Breathe, Frank," Ricketts said.

"Spit it out!" Belle cried.

"Awright! Creezus." Frank stood up and wheezed. "There's some guy coming down here with a fez on. I hear tell he's looking for a mummy."

Ricketts rubbed the bridge of his nose. "What happened, did it just walk away?"

Frank gasped. "How'd ya guess?"

Belle's eyes lit up. "Gangbusters! Dibs on the big desk!" She dived under the door, her body flattening out with slick ease.

Ricketts gave Frank a desperate look. "What the hell was I thinking?"

The hobo shrugged. "Don't ask me. Good luck getting her to go dutch, G-man."

"Thanks," he groaned, and shouldered his way into the office, where Belle was already perched up on the big desk, peering out the window like a pirate in the crow's nest.

His scowl dissolved into a weary smile. Maybe life wasn't so bad, after all.




Helmut Arcturion stood within the high-security vault of Subbasement 3 and admired his second-greatest invention.

The Galvanic Generator was safely encased in a box of Tomorrow Industries' current-neutral insulating glass, its chrome sphere winking softly in the overhead lights. It looked so innocent, little more than a child's toy, but events had proven just how dangerous its potential was, and the government had quietly terminated its contract for further research and development in the face of the resulting public outcry.

This was quite agreeable to Arcturion, who had never been comfortable with the military contract. Better that the Generator sit here, a holy relic of progress, until humanity was enlightened enough to understand its true purpose.

Dorjan Miksa had understood that, until the role of the Phantom Skull dominated his mind. Emil Sorenz's scope had been smaller and meaner; he had never been let in on their grand design. Although, Arcturion wondered now if that might have been a mistake. Sorenz might not have died if he had known. But, then, not even Dorjan had known everything, by that time. He had played the role of the villain for so long that the Phantom Skull had consumed him.

A spasm of sorrow rippled over Arcturion's face. "I am sorry," he whispered, his fingertips trailing on the cool glass.

The idea had come to him in the dark days of the Depression, when the city had become a hub of bootlegging and crime. Arcturion had spied one of Sorenz's receptionists with her nose buried in a cheap pulp magazine, reading about mystery men and gangbusters, and wondered: why not create a genuine mystery man? The world was in the grip of a nightmare made real; it could use a dose of fantasy made flesh.

He had approached Dorjan with the concept, but his partner had always been ambitious and unorthodox, and he took it a step further. To be truly loved by society at large, he said, their mystery man had to be an organic outgrowth of that society. If they created him in a lab like a consumer product, their experiment would be doomed to failure. Instead, they should manipulate conditions in the criminal underworld to force the desired outgrowth.

To create a hero, they must first play the villain.

Their play had involved a great deal of theoretical electrical engineering, deceit, and an almost suicidal devotion on Dorjan's part. But the electron transference had worked, and they went to work in earnest. While Dorjan assembled the Board of Crime, a collection of freaks gathered from dark corners of the city that only he, with his unquenchable curiosity, had explored, Arcturion used his political and economic influence to smooth the path of prearranged crimes of ever-greater ambition and theatricality. In less than a year, the Phantom Skull had become the subject of newsreels and headlines from coast to coast, and ruled the Salucci crime family with an iron fist.

It was only a matter of time before Dorjan's organic outgrowth happened.

At first, everything seemed fine. Slouch Hat, whomever he was, launched a fierce and violent war on crime, and the public had lapped it up; Arcturion had even glimpsed that gullible receptionist with a copy of Slouch Hat Magazine tucked in her purse.

But soon, he heard rumblings from his friends at City Hall: Slouch Hat was almost as bad as the criminals he punished. He murdered without compunction and endangered civilians without remorse. He had even engaged in a running gun battle with police. He was like a violent reaction to an untested vaccine, unpredictable, unexpected, and uncontrollable. All of Arcturion's attempts to contact him and bring him to heel failed utterly, and he began to fear that matters were spiraling out of his hands.

And so, he had contacted Dorjan's electric ghost, and arranged for the robbery at the Test Production lab.

The great flaw in their original plan, Arcturion had decided, was too much faith in the hero as organic outgrowth of society. A more direct hand was needed -- not complete control, but a strong nudge. Watching Sorenz's shy, dreamy-eyed receptionist, and the way she devoured tales of adventure and derring-do, Arcturion had been reminded of Wagner's brave, idealistic warrior-maiden Brunnhilde, and decided to see if he similarity was more than superficial.

He had only told Dorjan part of the scheme. The date, the time, the prize; that Vittorio Salucci, who had once committed a massacre on live radio to lure Slouch Hat into a trap and nearly succeeded, should spearhead the robbery. The unbalanced Dorjan, who smelled a chance to end their social experiment in his favor, readily agreed. The unwitting Sorenz had chalked up Arcturion's demand for his receptionist's presence as yet another flight of fancy from his partner the dreamer.

The little that he left to fate had exceeded his wildest hopes. The reborn miss Zarkov had captured the public's imagination in a way that the grim Slouch Hat never could, and her grand, operatic battle to the death with Dorjan Miksa would be the talk of the nation for years.

There had been complications. He had suspected that Dorjan would kidnap him to obtain the Generator, but not that his traitorous partner would mesmerize miss Zarkov into being an accomplice, which had nearly ruined his hopes for her. The death ray on top of Tomorrow Tower had also been a complete surprise, and it made him wonder if Dorjan might not have had ulterior motives all along. And then there was the Hanged Man's final play, for which Arcturion would blame himself forever. But miss Zarkov had come through with flying colors, and while the loss of life was regrettable, he was certain that the outcome was well worth it.

He turned his heel on the Generator and closed the door, waiting until the bolts had shot into place with heavy finality before walking down the hall to the elevator. He plugged his key into the executive access lock, turned it, and pressed the button for his penthouse. Soon, he was rocketing up the steep spire of Tomorrow Tower, looking through the glass wall at the city's saw-toothed skyline.

The elevator slowed to a pillowy stop, the doors opened, and he stepped out into his penthouse, where American hope and re-invention was already hard at work. A team of men was mopping up the mess from Gum Belle's battle with Madame 415, sweeping away the dead confetti and dried gobbets of heroine, picking up the fallen décor, patching up the shredded upholstery. Arcturion left them to their work and slipped outside, to the observation railing where he had long been accustomed to watching the stars and admiring the city. Golden sunlight bathed his face, and a fresh, sweet breeze tickled his face like a mischievous lover. He felt like Wotan looking over Valhalla for the first time.

There had been sacrifices, yes. Betrayals, broken promises, human weakness. But what sacrifice was too great for perfection? And what was drama without tragedy? He thought of the whispered near-confession he had made to the unfortunate Ted Ricketts at the Legacy Opera House and smiled.

He was the patron god of heroes. Only he understood the value of valor. Only he had the will and determination to sacrifice all to bring hope where there was none.

His industry was Tomorrow. And tomorrow was a new day.


THE
END
Hey, I said it would be shortish. I had wanted to do a little follow-up with all the Board members, setting things up for future stories, but really, I think all that stuff can wait for later. This is an epilogue, not a whole extra chapter. Anyone guess the final twist? Or was my long-laid plan just to unwittingly jump the shark? ;)

I hope everyone enjoyed the story. I know it's a load of my mind to get done with this draft. Not much to say at this point, except a big thank-you to everyone who's stuck with this thing for the long haul, to those who came for the eye candy but stayed for the characters, and to all the good friends who have been so generous with their encouragement, constructive criticism, and feedback all these years. I hope to get all of you a copy of the revised and published edition sometime in the future. Until then, keep your radios tuned to this station, fill that popcorn barrel high, and get in early to watch the cartoons and newsreels. I'll see you all at the matinee! :D

(Special thanks to :iconstretchygalfan:, who caught a typo in record time. Thanks, man!)
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Jul 31, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
And you had one final twist left for us, you devious dog! To think that it all had been planned was certainly an interesting twist, even more so that the Phantom Skull purposely became that electric spectre in the first place!

Thank you for creating a riveting story like this and I really hope that Belle goes on to become better known and take her place amongst all the other heroes of popular culture.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Thank you very much, man! I'm carefully weighing the response to the final twist, as I am well aware that one twist too many can ruin an otherwise perfectly serviceable story.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Sep 12, 2012  Hobbyist General Artist
That is very true. LIke the ending of that film, 'Thirteen Ghosts'. It's like they switched writers right at the end!
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:iconbill930505:
I felt like I read a whole comic book without any pictures, which is a good thing.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Thank you! As a writer, I'm glad to know it visualized strongly for you.
Reply
:iconunit-zer0:
Unit-ZER0 Jul 12, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
This. Was. AWESOME! Excellent work! The twist at the end was spectacular, the idea that to have a hero, you need a villain was really good. The concept that Acturion has had an agenda since the beginning floored me. This is what great fiction is made of - the twists. To read the whole adventure, and then to find out that there was a "plan" behind it all at the very end... and to do so in a way that doesn't feel forced or contrived... My hat is off to you Sir.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Thank you very much! I'm very happy to know that the story worked for you, and that the twist didn't come entirely out of left field. I was worried I had "M. Night Shymalan"'ed it. ;) I take it that you felt satisfied by the end?
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:iconunit-zer0:
Unit-ZER0 Jul 20, 2012  Hobbyist Writer
Most Definitely, cant't wait to read about the new detective agency's first case!
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:icontranquila:
A glorious ending. Thank you very much for publishing this for us to read. I find myself wishing an animation studio would see it and pick it up. I believe it would make an excellent series.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Thank you, Tranquila! You've always been very supportive of this project, and I'm happy that you enjoyed it all the way to the end. :D
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