White, you could say, was the color of the day at the Plaza Nightclub, which made the six big men at the owners table so very conspicuous. They all wore dark suits with matching snap-brim hats pulled low over their eyes. Several wore black leather gloves, and their oily patent-leather loafers lurked under the shimmering table, perfectly camouflaged among the shadows. They had snuffed the candle; its white wick was a twisted, blackened stump.
The owner himself, Vincent Salucci, sat both among these men and apart from them. He, at least, wore a double-breasted white jacket, but it did little to make him look less menacing. He was a lion of a man, with broad shoulders and thick arms. His hair was streaked with gray at the temples, and he kept it brushed back from his heavy brow. His shadowy eyes glittered like hungry beetles. Two long, puckered scars ran down each cheek, marring his tanned, handsome face with ghastly symmetry. His meaty hands were locked together on the table. Too many rings sparkled on his fingers.
Its all set, boss, just like you said, one of the men told him. He was a slouchy, weak-chinned man with a wide, florid tie and the air of a rat. When the ship comes in
Youll take care of it. Salucci smiled. Thats good, Eddie, real good. I want this job to go off without a hitch. He wants this stuff bad, and you know what hes like when -- what do you want? He glared at the tall waiter, who stood behind him with a silver tray and several drinks.
The waiter flinched back from his black eyes, but Salucci noticed he showed much less fear than the other waiters did. Beverage service, sir. His voice was strong and even. The owner filed him away for future reference. He had steel in him. Maybe he could do something with this young man.
We all got some, he said with a wave of his hand. Now, get lost.
The waiter bowed and glided off. Salucci watched him until he disappeared behind a white plaster pillar. Now, remember, everything has to go just right. You get in, pick up the late shipment, then leave the payment and get back here fast.
I got you, Mr. Salucci, said Eddie.
Great, Eddie, great. Now, when you get back, I want you to a faint beeping sound from his wrist made him pause. He pulled back his sleeve to reveal a silver wristband set with a single flashing red light. A hush fell across the table. Eddie tugged nervously at his tie. The beeps swept across the table, lit by the tiny red bulb, a wave of blood given voice. The white scars on Saluccis face seemed to tremble. Get going, boys. Call me on the secret phone when youre done.
Eddie nodded, the men left, and Salucci was left alone at the table. He watched the red light flash for a few seconds and finished his drink with the thirsty gulp of a man about to go before the firing squad. Then his ring-studded hands pushed away from the table and he stalked off to take care of business.
* * *
Vincent Saluccis office was lushly appointed, with an imposing mahogany desk, a high, deep leather chair, and gold in all the tasteful places. A large portrait of Napoleon dominated the wall behind the desk, and it seemed to stare at Salucci as he entered the room. He stared right back at it as he licked his lips and touched a nub on its gilt frame. With a click, the wall behind his desk swung back, revealing the hidden meeting room that had dominated his life for the past eight years.
It resembled the boardroom of any well-off corporation, dominated by a long, varnished teak table. Three plush, leather-upholstered chairs sat on each side and another one at the end. The head of the table, by the far wall, had no chair, but it was flanked by a pair of tall, steel transmission antennae like silent sentries.
Salucci seated himself at the end of the table and flipped open a concealed compartment on the armrest of his chair. There lay a flat, steel box, the same color as the plate on his wrist, with a large red button that flashed in time to its insistent beeps. He pressed it and the beeping ceased as the meeting rooms lights dimmed. Soon he was shrouded in darkness, with no sound but his uneven breathing and the distant, merry music of the club band.
A loud, cacophonous crash, like a struck gong in the palace of a Chinese emperor, shattered the silence into a million pieces, and between the two sentry pylons, a crackling, ghostly white light began to flicker and coruscate. It danced formlessly for a second, shivered as though dipped in a vat of icy water, then snapped into sharp and hideous focus. The grim and terrible image of a deaths head now stared across the table at Salucci, its electric eye sockets gouging orange and blue afterimages before his eyes. No sooner had it materialized than the echoes of the gong faded away, to be replaced by a deep, cavernous voice that echoed throughout the room like the thunder of doom.
Vincent Salucci, criminal kingpin the Phantom Skull summons you!
Salucci swallowed. Yeah, he said in a tight voice. I noticed.
Silence! The white light blazed angrily for a second, then subsided. All is in readiness for tonight?
You bet. The mobsters voice grew more confident. Eddies on his way to the docks right now, the surprise you put together is ready to go, and the getaway car works like a charm.
Excellent. Soon, we shall have the Jeweled Tiara of Tortuga. It is worth millions. Millions! But it is insignificant. The true treasure, the mighty Galvanic Generator, shall be mine! The voice shivered with anticipation that bordered on joy.
Salucci cleared his throat. Pardon me for asking, but whats so important about this Generator? We cant fence it. And if its ransom you want, there are other --
Abruptly, the white skull blazed red, and the room was bathed in pulsing, crimson light. The temperature went up an easy five degrees, and Saluccis suit suddenly felt as uncomfortable as a wool sweater in the Sahara desert. The Phantom Skulls voice roared in anger. FOOL! You dare to question the motives of my brilliant mind?! Your pitiful brain could not begin to comprehend the power contained within the Galvanic Generator. It is the key to all my plans. Retrieve it for me, and you may name your reward. Fail me question me Salucci shrank in his chair. And you shall know my terrible wrath firsthand! Are my orders clear?
Oh, yeah. Saluccis strong baritone voice came out as a frightened squeak.
Slowly, the flaming light dimmed, faded, and returned to the unnatural pulsing white. Very well. Pray to your simpletons gods that the city sleeps well tonight, Vincent Salucci for when the sun rises, it shall be plunged into blackest night by the hidden hands of the Phantom Skull!
* * *
Midnight was a bad time for fearful and timid men at the city docks. Wicked deeds took place at this wicked hour, and the workers and the good folk stayed away. Only the most desperate made this part of the city their home, and they were preyed upon unmercifully by men like Eddie the Rat.
One such bottom-feeder was Bum Frank. Bum Frank had earned his occupation as a proper title because he had the unique distinction of never having worked an honest day in his life. His father was an unknown. His mother had died giving birth to him (the midwife swore that she had said a certain four-letter curse word instead of Frank, but the doctor had taken pity on him). He had spent his childhood bouncing from orphanage to orphanage, and, when he had grown tired of that, from street to street. He had gone from uptown, to midtown, to the Shingles, until his life ended its whirlwind tour on the riverside, at the very bottom of the citys social strata.
But Bum Frank hadnt fared too badly. He caught the furry rats and hid from the human ones. He could build a fire out of two tin cans and a cup of water. He didnt have to pay taxes, the cops never gave him the boot (where to? The river?), and he wasnt alone. Oh, his fellow bums burned their lives away here, and they gave him the respect that was due a senior member of their brotherhood but he had someone else. Someone who gave his washed-up life meaning. That was why he stayed here, rather than hop the rails for Sacramento or the Big Easy, and kept his eyes peeled and his ears pricked.
So, while all the other bums were tucked away safely in whatever burrow they called home on this rainy, misty night, Frank crept from shadow to shadow. Hed heard rumors down the grapevine that something would happen that evening, and when he saw the long, gray freighter glide like a ghost downriver, he knew the grapevine was the real deal. He steeled his nerves, told himself that his special friend was counting on him, and made his way with great care along the slippery boards towards the pier.
* * *
The freighter Confidence moved with eerie silence upriver. Its engine and props had been outfitted with special devices to keep its passage quiet and secret. The lighthouses at the bay had doused their lamps at a prearranged signal, just in time for it to pass in total darkness. The coast guard had scoured the river for months to clear away amateur fishermen or would-be squatters who might see it. The police had even made a pass along the docks, although Frank and many of his more experienced fellows had managed to evade capture. All of these precautions were undertaken without protest; all parties involved knew the importance of the freighters cargo.
The Confidences captain, Elmer McGee, stood on deck and watched the murky shadows of the docks with worry in his eyes and beer on his breath. His men had similar expressions, but worse smells; they were all under pressure, but most made do with the old mash.
As he strained to pierce the dense fog, McGee slowly became aware of a particular shadow in the night a shadow that moved. He whipped out a flashlight, trained its beam on it, and gasped to see what looked like a black Packard, headlights dimmed, rolling soundlessly through the darkness. He made a sign with his free hand and forced himself to stand tall (or as tall as he could, given his inebriated state) as the Packard whispered to a stop and his men moved to take up what arms they had against the new arrival.
The Packards doors opened, and two men stepped out. One was short and skinny, in a trench coat that seemed a little long for him. He held a Thompson submachine gun in his bony hands, and the heavy weapon looked even heavier next to his small frame. The other was as different as could be, a broad-shouldered, beefy fellow in a battered bowler hat and a practical wool overcoat. He bore no weapon, but raised his hand and held up his wallet. McGees flashlight caught a badge there, a blinding flicker of gold.
Special Agent Lionel Ricketts, FBI, he said. His voice had the gravelly undertone of a fellow who drinks in his off hours. You McGee?
The captain sighed with relief, and his men lowered their makeshift weapons. Thats right, sir, he said with a friendly smile.
Ricketts didnt return it. The camel flies at midnight.
McGee blinked. The beer was running laps in his brain, and the statement didnt register for a second. The camel flies at midnight?
Thats what I said. The skinny man hefted the Thompson gun to punctuate his statement.
McGee nearly fainted, but then his addled brain dredged the proper response from his memory. The camel flies at midnight but not for Bolsheviks. The skinny man lowered the Thompson a fraction of an inch and he began to breathe again. Now um -- what was the reply? -- The White House is haunted?
Only by the spirit of freedom, Ricketts said without hesitation. Were both legit, McGee. Hooray for us. Now lets dump this Great War spy garbage and get this over with.
The freighters crew rushed to comply, lowering a gangplank so the two Federal agents could come aboard. Ricketts scowled at everyone, his wide hands thrust in the pockets of his heavy overcoat. His partners face was smooth and emotionless, though his grip was rock-steady on the Thompsons stock. As his men hauled a large, banded crate the size of a refrigerator from the hold, an increasingly relieved McGee half-stepped, half-staggered to Ricketts and held out his hand.
Pleasure to meet you, sir, he said.
Ricketts gave his hand the once-over, as though he might have palmed a poisoned dart, but shook it. Youve been drinking, McGee.
McGee blinked and swayed on the spot, weighed his chances at telling a proper lie and getting away with it, then shrugged.
Ricketts smiled tightly. Got any more?
* * *
Bum Frank, who was pressed against the wall of a dilapidated warehouse, relaxed, his tired gray face a little less lined than it had been on the way over. This looked like it was government business. His friend would want to know about it, but there was nothing fishy here. That meant he could deliver the news in the morning, no rush, no fuss. And if there was one thing Frank hated, it was rushing and fussing. If he wanted that, hed get a job.
As he turned to leave, a curious sound caught, like the purr of a mechanical cat, caught his attention. As he paused in mid-step, unsure of what to do, the wall began to vibrate beneath his fingers. It wasnt much, but it spread from his fingers to his hand from his hand to his arm from his arm to his chest. His teeth chattered, his toes trembled, and Bum Frank cried out in terror as the warehouse door exploded in a shower of splinters and something burst out.
FBI Special Agent Lionel Ricketts spun around, his overcoat flapping behind him, the lukewarm beer in one blocky hand forgotten. A blur from his coat pocket, and an automatic pistol appeared in his free hand. Something large, boxy, and steel-gray was bearing down the pier -- right for the Confidences gangplank. Pull up that ramp! Now! he said at the top of his lungs, as his partner Jenkins snapped the Thompsons safety off.
The sailors dashed for the gangplank. Ricketts noticed, with a sinking feeling in his stomach, that: 1) They werent going to make it; that 2) The ramp was sturdy enough to hold the something easily; that 3) The something was on a collision course with his Packard; and that 4) He loved his Packard very much.
Ricketts threw himself back as the something plowed into his car. The black bear of Detroit steel crumpled like a tin can, flew a good thirty feet in the air over their heads and cannonball into the river. His partner crouched by the railing, his overlarge trench coat gathered around him like the leathery wings of a bat. Ricketts bellowed for the sailors to clear out, as the invulnerable something flew up the ramp and skidded onto the deck. It spun once -- there was the friction-wail of protesting tires -- then it rocked back and forth and lay still. He caught a glimpse of wheels (six of them, four in the back, two in the front), rivets, layers of battleship-gray plating, tiny slits, a turret like the worlds largest and most unappetizing New York cheesecake, and then Jenkins opened fire.
Chattering white light filled the deck around Jenkins as he let loose a hail of lead. The terrified sailors threw themselves down; out of the corner of his eye, Ricketts saw McGee guzzling from a fresh beer and realized that hed dropped his in the scramble. Bullets pinged and spattered off the something -- in the muzzle-flash, he see it was an armored car, a real custom jobbie. The Thompson was no good. He made a swift, chopping signal, and the two G-men backed away as one towards the crate. Whoever had the balls to do something like this wanted the cargo, Ricketts told himself, and he wasnt above using the blasted nuisance as an inanimate hostage to draw them out where he could ventilate them. He snapped off a few rounds with his automatic, just to keep the jokers on their toes as Jenkins loaded a fresh cartridge into the Thompson.
The partners exchanged resigned glances and steeled themselves for the worst. Theyd been in a lot of tight scrapes, but none like this. There was no backup and the sailors were all panicky and spooked; theyd just get in the way when things really broke out. Bullets did absolutely nothing to this metal monstrosity. And, just to make things better, the home offices orders were as clear as Veronica Lakes complexion: Do Not Leave the Items, Under Any Circumstances. Period. So Ricketts and Jenkins were stuck there, in a lose-lose situation, waiting for the the anvil on wheels to make its next move.
That didnt take long. The cheesecake turret turned with a clank, a pair of muzzles locked into position on each end, and with a hydraulic thud, a shower of round, fist-sized objects clattered across the deck. A newsflash from his Great War days screamed through Rickettss head on an invisible tickertape: GRENADES! GRENADES! GRENADES!
But instead of fire and shrapnel, the little spheres burst open in clouds of noxious green gas that flooded the deck in a soupy, venomous fog. Ricketts pulled his handkerchief from his pocket, held it and his bowler hat to his mouth, and breathed slowly and shallowly: old instincts honed by German chemical attacks in the War that had never really left him.
All around him, he saw sailors drop to the deck like flies. McGees beer bottle tumbled from his limp fingers and he fell flat on his face. Jenkins, following his partners example, had his hat to his face, but he was shaking his head and blinking his eyes; Ricketts knew that his slight build meant the gas would affect him sooner. Soon enough, the Thompson drooped along with Jenkins chin and he slumped against the crate, his coat a swaddling cloth for a thirty-something slumbering babe.
Ricketts thrashed his arms frantically, cleared a space of fresh air around him, but even so, his vision began to blur and he fell to his knees. He bit his tongue, hard, and the pain brought everything back into focus. The Confidence was littered with bodies. He couldnt tell if they were dead or just asleep. He desperately wanted to pluck the Thompson from his partners limp fingers, but he couldnt fire it and keep his mouth and nose covered at the same time. So he clutched his automatic like a dieter and his last candy bar and made ready to shoot the first thing that moved. But the gun felt very heavy, his trigger finger was as stiff as a Navy man in Tahiti, and he knew hed get only a few shots off at the most.
The rear doors of the armored car swung open on noiseless hinges. Burly gorilla-men in suits and hats stepped out, their faces concealed by army surplus gas masks. They carried hunting rifles in their hands. It was a smart move, he had to admit; birdshot would do nicely for crowd control, but it probably wouldnt damage the cargo. Ricketts bit down harder on his tongue as they fanned out. These boys were cute, all right. But hed do his damnedest to make them regret the day they decided to tangle with the Bureau.
The closest one was five feet away. He kicked Jenkins in the side, so hard that he rolled over, to see if he was out. Satisfied, he turned and saw Ricketts on his knees, his hat over his face and his heavy .45 pointed right at him. The mobster stiffened, hesitated for a fraction of a second, and Ricketts pulled the trigger. The right lens of the mobsters gas mask shattered, something dark and wet splashed out, and he dropped like sack of bad oranges.
The others trained their guns on him. But the shot had used up the last of Rickettss strength. His arm dangled at his side, and the .45 slid from fingers that were as weak as cheap draft. His eyelids felt like someone had tied the Empire State Building to one and the Sears Tower to the other. He started to fall forward, but thrust out his hands at the last minute. Long splinters dug into his palms from the unfinished deck, but the pain registered as a pinprick in the cottony fuzz of his brain. A lanky man with an enormous, flowery tie swam in and out of his vision. His expression was unreadable behind his mask, but the barrel of his rifle was steady and even and yawned right in Rickettss face.
Look at you. The Lone Ranger. The lanky mans voice sounded like it was filtered through three garbage cans and a washing machine. Its your lucky day, kemosabe.
And with that, he flipped his rifle around, smashed its butt right into Rickettss face, and the world collapsed into emptiness.
* * *
Bum Frank cowered behind the warehouse, his breath ragged, his eyes bulging. He hadnt wanted to run, but once the short guy opened up with that big Thompson, the last of his nerve had failed him and his legs had carried him away. But he had heard the sailors gasping cries, Ricketts last shot, and the resounding crack of Eddie the Rats cruel blow. Then there were shouted orders, clumsy movements on deck. Frank knew that he needed to contact his friend. He didnt courage to stop them, but he could still do something right.
He reached into the pocket of his tattered old suit jacket with one hand and pulled out a golf ball-sized wad of what looked like chewing gum. It was warm in his hand, even though the river air was chilly and damp. His other hand produced an ancient fountain pen and a bottle of ink. With trembling hands, he smoothed out the wad of gum on the nearest plank, filled his pen, and started to write. The nib sank into the putty, but never stuck to it. He scratched out two short sentences, then peeled the odd substance from away from the plank, kneaded it back into a ball, and threw it against the ground as hard as he could. It hit the dock and rebounded with a sound like a dribbled tire.
Frank watched the ball bounce off into the night, almost as if it knew where it was going. He hoped it did. He wiped his brow and sat down to wait. Hed play lookout until his friend came, and then it would be back to his makeshift home for a slug of scotch and a nice, warm --
Freeze, old-timer, said a muffled voice. A man in a straw boater and a gas mask stood behind him, the short G-mans Thompson in his hands. Move it. He jerked the submachine guns barrel a quarter of an inch towards the Confidence.
Frank raised his hands and led the way. He tried to swallow, but his throat was too busy being afraid to do a good job of it. He tried not to look back, towards the city where hed sent the little ball, but his thoughts and prayers were with it all the same.
He hoped his friend got it soon. Because sometimes something right got him in a mess of trouble.
* * *
At the Bijou Palace, Ted watched the newsreel and felt miserable. He was a skinny, sharp-faced twelve-year-old, with watery gray eyes that never seemed to blink and a slouchy posture that resisted every correctional effort known to man. At the moment, he was slumped very far down in his seat indeed, because Ted had snuck into the Bijou Palace without a ticket, and his father would thrash him if he ever found out.
On the screen, an elegant beanpole of a man in a tuxedo shook hands with a gruff, ursine Army general while the narrator trumpeted a new defense contract between Tomorrow Industries and the United States military. But Ted wasnt really listening, because there was an usherette prowling around. Her bright red uniform, with its gold trim and buttons, made her was easy to spot as she moved swiftly and silently along the aisles. He caught a glimpse of her yellow hair in the gray light of the newsreel.
The tuxedoed man stood before a bank of microphones. Today heralds a new era in electrical technologies, he said. The usherette was only three aisles away. She raised her head and swiveled it about, scanning the rows of patrons behind and in front of Ted, settled on the dumpy old man on his left and the lip-locked teenagers on his right. He felt like a prisoner on Death Row eating his last meal. For an eternity of a second Ted was sure she hadnt seen him -- and then the corners of the usherettes mouth made little dimples as she grinned she crooked a tapered finger at him.
In Teds defense, it must be said that he was no professional law-breaker. In fact, he was usually a pretty good kid, all things considered. But in dire situations, we sometimes do things we regret, stupid deeds that are born from the primitive alligator parts of our brains. Ted committed one that was so far down in the alligator part of his brain that it lived in the ids sewers and ate figment chickens for a living. He bolted up from his seat, spilling the dumpy old mans popcorn all over his lap and stepping on the two kissing teenagers on his way out. All he saw was the look on his fathers face if he was caught; hed rather die than suffer that look.
He made a mad dash for the lobby doors, poured on the speed. He burst into the lobby, skidded across the polished marble floor, and stumbled out of the front doors into the street. He had just pelted around a corner into a slimy, dark alley when slender, strong fingers grabbed his shoulder. Ted winced, in fear rather than pain, as he was turned gently but insistently back to face the usherette.
Up close, even through his panic, Ted could tell that she was quite lovely. Her blond hair was cut short, but tastefully so, and it spilled out from under her uniform cap in easy waves. Her face looked freshly scrubbed, with rosy pink highlights that set off her green eyes. Her lips were the same bright red as her uniform, and they worked industriously as she chewed on something and stared at him. Ted stared right back. Finally, the usherette took a deep breath, pursed her lips as if in disapproval, and blew an enormous pink bubble, the largest Ted had ever seen, as big as her head. It wobbled there for a second, as if it would float off and take them with it. Then it burst with a soft pop, as bubbles always do, and flattened itself across the usherettes pretty face. Despite the gravity of the situation, Ted laughed as she slurped the gum back up with ease. Not even a strand of hair was out of place. But her bright eyes now regarded him with impish good humor.
Want to tell me why you made like Jesse Owens back there, sport? The accusation felt more like an icebreaker.
Ted looked at his feet, which were suddenly much more interesting than her knowing smile. Didnt wanna get caught, he mumbled.
Snuck in, huh? Her voice was sympathetic. Why would a nice kid like you break the rules like that?
I wanted to see the new chapter of Slouch Hat.
The usherette nodded sagely. The silent crusader who defends the poor and the helpless with his twin automatics and his zeal for justice? she said in a melodramatic voice. Yeah, I know him. And just between us, if Slouch Hat was here, hed be very disappointed in you, sport.
I know. It was just what he had been thinking, and he both loved and hated her for saying it.
Bet you feel pretty bad right now. Ted nodded, his eyes wetter than ever. Yeah, you sure do. She popped her gum and chucked him under the chin. You wont do this again, will you? Ted shook his head. Thats good. Because if you did, Id know, see? She blew a small bubble, held it on the tip of her tongue, and swallowed it back up again. Despite her flippant attitude, Ted believed her.
The usherette held up her free hand, waggled her fingers like a magician, and produced a shiny new quarter. Now go get yourself a ticket for real, sport. If you hurry, you can still catch your serial.
His eyes brightened. Really?
She smiled and pressed the quarter into his hand. Really. Be good, sport.
Ted scampered off and presented his quarter to the bored fellow at the box office, who gave him a ticket and a quizzical look. Werent you just here? he asked.
Yeah, but that blonde usherette caught me sneakin in and set me straight outside. He hung his head in shame. I wanted to get in right this time.
The box office man rubbed his chin. Thanks, son, but we dont have any blondes on our staff. He licked his lips hungrily. Id know if we did.
Ted frowned and turned back to the alley. But shes right over --
No one was there.
* * *
The usherette sat on the roof of the Bijou and watched Ted go inside. She opened her mouth and strung out her gum, its bright pink color a perfect match for her rosy skin, twirled it around one tapered finger and rubbed her hands together. When she pulled them apart, the gum was gone. She screwed up her face in concentration, worked her throat like an uncouth diner dredging up tasty bit of half-digested food, and started to chew again.
The usherette kicked her dangling feet, which were clad in gold heels that matched the trim on her uniform, and watched the night sky. It was a quiet night. Maybe shed turn in early. If nothing was happening at this hour, she doubted things would pick up any time soon. And besides, she wanted to watch the new Slouch Hat just as much as Ted did.
She had just stood up and had taken a few steps towards a rooftop air vent when something small, fleshy and pink flew through the air straight for her face. The usherette caught it deftly with one hand. It was a tiny ball, much the same color and consistency of her gum, and she didnt seem surprised in the least when it unrolled itself, like a dog coaxed by its mistress into performing a parlor trick, into a note written in a blotchy, spidery hand:
Robbery at docks. Pier 13. Come quick.
The usherette clenched her fist and the fleshy strip quivered and shrank into her palm. She closed her eyes, and her uniform softened and melted across her body, reforming itself into a form-fitting, bright red jumpsuit with gold gauntlets and boots. Stylized golden buttons ran in two rows down her chest. A matching belt miraculously molded itself around her waist as gold piping popped up on her sleeves and leggings. Her usherettes cap thinned itself out, wrapped around her head, and resolved into a domino mask. She shook her head, and her short hair snapped into a gleaming sheet that ran to the small of her back, even as a shiny red headband rose from her scalp to hold it back.
The usherette-who-was-not rolled her neck, worked her shoulders, adjusted her boots and gloves, then flipped her hair over her shoulder and smiled.
No Slouch Hat tonight.
* * *
Eddie the Rat watched two of his boys open the crate. It didnt take too long; they had come prepared with wire cutters for the bands and crowbars for the planks. The rest of his men riffled through the sailors pockets for money or valuables. Eddie let them have their fun; better to blow off some steam before the getaway. Porkpie Pete, who had snagged the little G-mans Thompson, looked sullen as he kept his weapon trained on the hobo theyd found sneaking around.
Dont worry about your take, Pete, he said. You can keep the Tommy gun. It was the perfect thing to say. Eddie was good at that; he could read folks like a book. That was why the boss trusted him so much. Pete brightened up and quit holding the Thompson like he wanted to shoot the rest of the boys with it.
The hobo was on his knees, quivering like a gelatin mold on a magic-fingers bed. Eddie crouched next to him. His gas mask made him look like a man-insect hybrid. What were you doing, sneaking around? His tone was friendly and unforced. Its dangerous for a senior citizen like you to be out so late at night.
Porkpie Pete chuckled. If hed had his mask off, it would have sounded something like, Dur hur hur, but came out as more of a Moo hoo hoo.
To Eddies surprise, the hobo kept his mouth shut. Maybe hed had too much cheap wine but his breath smelled clean. Come to think of it, Eddie had seen this piece of trash plenty of times in the course of his unsavory duties but hed rarely seen him drink. A worm of doubt burrowed into his gut, and he exorcised it by slapping the hobo hard across the mouth. Blood and spittle ran down the old mans chin in equal measure, and his trembling was replaced by rigid shock.
You better tell me, said Eddie, his voice no longer so friendly, or youll get what that fella got. He jerked his thumb towards the unconscious Ricketts.
The hobo turned a nasty shade of green, but he set his mouth, glared at Eddie, and spat a bloody tooth right at the gangsters new tie. Eddie didnt even have to look at it to know that it was ruined. Blood never washed out. He knew that, too.
I liked that tie, he said, his words as clear and cold as a winters morning. I ask you a question, and you spit in my face. I say your tongues broken. A switchblade snapped open in his hand. What if I cut it out, save you a trip to the doctors?
Porkpie Pete took the cue and forced Franks mouth open. Moo hoo hoo. His were the simple pleasures.
Eddie set his rifle aside, careful to place it well out of his subjects reach, and pulled the offending tongue out as far as it would go. Surprisingly, the old coot didnt make a sound, apart from his labored breathing as he tried to wrench away. Eddie didnt take offense. The wharf trash would make plenty of noise real soon. He balanced the switchblades cutting edge on the fleshiest bit of the tongue and prepared to slice it in two with one quick slash. Frank could feel the blood well up in his mouth. He told himself it was all for a good cause. Petes Moo hoo hoo repeated itself over and over, a broken record. Eddie took a deep breath -- whether to intensify the experience or to steel himself for it, Frank never knew -- and --
Yo, Ed! We found the stash!
Eddie sighed and folded the switchblade back against his palm. Well finish this later. Frank sagged in Porkpie Petes arms, rolling his tongue around in his mouth, as if to make certain it was still there. His breath was ragged and shallow, and a cold sweat stood out on his forehead. Through a haze of panic, he saw one of the gangsters hold up what looked like a power plants hairball, a steel sphere studded with vacuum tubes and coils of copper wire. Another masked man held up a small, flat leather case. He opened it, and something bright blue and sparkling caught Franks eye.
Eddie took a piece of paper from his pants pocket, glanced from it to the ball and back again, gave whatever was in the case a close look, then clapped his hands and pointed a pair of finger six-guns at the armored car. The gangsters whooped and started to load up the strange device and the flat case with a mix of glee and greedy caution as Eddie opened the drivers side door and produced what looked like a knobby red piece of cordwood. Wires wrapped around it like artificial ivy. His footfalls clanged as he took it downstairs to the hold.
Frank didnt wonder what any of these mysterious objects were. His mind was obsessed with survival, and his eyes were focused on the rifle that was so very close by. They hadnt tied his hands. He could lunge forward and grab the gun. But Porkpie Pete had the Thompsons muzzle pressed to the back of his skull. Frank tried to shuffle forward a few inches on his knees, just to see how alert the thug was, and felt it dig into his scalp.
No funny business, Pete said. Moo hoo hoo.
Frank bowed his head and resigned himself to the inevitable: Eddie the Rat would come back, slice out his tongue, then slit his throat and watch him bleed to death. Not a very good death. But then, Frank reflected, he hadnt had a very good life. Why should he expect special treatment at the end?
Eddie returned with a jaunty spring in his step. He snapped his fingers to get his associates attention. Okay, boys, everythings all set down there. Wrap up what youre doing and well blow this joint.
Everyone laughed too loudly. They hurried to finish robbing the sailors, while Porkpie Pete shoved Frank next to the ships railing and undid his belt. What you gonna do? he asked.
Moo hoo hoo. Pete held the belt tight in both hands, reached around, and lashed him to the rail with it. Then he stepped back, admired his handiwork, and started for the armored car.
Being left alone on a ghost ship with a bunch of unconscious (or dead) men was not Franks idea of nice evening. Hey! he shouted. Hey! Eddie the Rat half turned to look at him. What you gonna do?
Eddie gestured to the hold. Time bomb. Nuff TNT to bust open Chapel First National. Next ten minutes, its all going off next to the boiler. Ship goes down, evidence goes with it, and the cops run here while we run away. He tapped the side of his head. Pretty smart, huh?
Not really, said a voice above him.
Eddie and ten gangsters whirled around, weapons at the ready. Porkpie Pete hung back, his stubby fingers fondling the Thompson. They all looked up.
On the roof of the pilot house, limned by the full moon, stood a shapely young woman clad in a button-studded red and gold leotard, her gauntleted hands on her hips, her heeled boots spread wide. Her belt-length hair, the same bright yellow shade as her buttons, rippled in the river wind, and her jade-green eyes surveyed the stunned gangsters from behind a red domino mask. It was a dramatic entrance, only slightly marred when she blew a huge pink bubble. Everyone else was so flabbergasted that they actually heard the soft pop when it burst.
Boss! Bum Frank half-sighed, half-sobbed.
Sorry Im late, Frank, the woman said, as though she had just missed the hors doeuvres at a cocktail party.
No biggie, boss. You still got ten minutes.
She quirked her mouth to one side. Ten minutes for these twelve? Might have to break a sweat.
Eddie regained his composure first. Excuse me, lady --
He grit his teeth. Who the hell are you, and how are you going to take us down?
She placed one hand on her breast, a look of shock on her face. Who am I? Have you criminal scum never heard of Gum Belle? And as for your second question Im going to do it like this.
She made a fist and shot her arm out. Way out. It sailed fifteen feet, more like a harpoon than a limb, and connected squarely with one gangsters masked jaw. There was a sickening crunch and the mask crumpled as if it had smacked into a brick wall. Gum Belles arm whipped back to normal before the man had collapsed to the ground. She hadnt missed a single chew.
Eddie leveled his finger at her. Waste her!
The crack of ten rifles going off at once shattered the still night air, but not a single shot hit its mark. Gum Belle was gone. One of the gangsters, a walking wall of muscle nicknamed Brick Mick, looked up just in time to see a pair of high heels slam into his face. He crashed into the deck hard enough to send the men next to him sprawling, the masked woman riding him like a surfboard.
No sooner had he slid to a stop than she sprang off his unconscious body, tucked her head beneath her legs, wrapped her arms around her knees, and smashed into the next man like a giant medicine ball. He yelped and flew over the side as she bounced along the deck, and several prone crooks, with a mix of dull smacks and meaty thuds. The rest scrambled out of the way as she ricocheted off the armored van and uncurled in midair with a rubbery squeak.
Gum Belle dropped into a kneeling position as she touched the deck, her shimmering hair falling over her shoulders like a lions mane. She grinned and blew another bubble as she stood up and tugged her gloves tight. Thats five down, Frank, she said, as the rest circled warily around her. How much time left?
Eight minutes! But you better do it fast, cuz --
But the last part of his warning was drowned out by a coughing burst of automatic fire: Porkpie Pete had opened up with the Thompson at last. Its barrel blazed with light and smoke as he pumped round after round into Gum Belles chest. The bullets sank into her body like raisins pressed into fresh bread dough, and she staggered back, her boot heels clicking across the deck as he emptied his entire clip into her.
Only when he stopped to reload and let the barrel cool down did anyone realize that she was actually tap dancing.
Nice try, boys, she said as she finished with a heel-toe flourish. She struck a grotesque figure, her bright, unmarred costume dimpled with dozens of bullets lodged deep in her soft flesh. Now let me show you how its done.
She puckered her lips as though blowing another bubble. There was a low hissing sound, like a tire airing up, and her body ballooned out in all directions. The pressed-in bullets clattered all over the deck like so many pellets of dog food. Before Eddie had time to notice that all of them were in pristine condition, the hissing had stopped and Gum Belle had swelled into an enormous red and gold sphere twelve feet across. With a grin, she plunged her head into her inflated body, tipped back, and barreled across the deck like a giants kickball run amok, sending his men scattering. As they ran, her arms and legs lashed out from the globe of her body and struck this one on the neck, jabbed that one in the chest, tripping, pushing, punching, kicking
Soon, only Eddie and Porkpie Pete were left standing. As Gum Belle banked around the far side of the deck for a second pass, Pete let loose with the Thompson again, the last-ditch effort of a man stunted by the simple pleasures. The hot lead drummed hollowly off the Belle-Balls skin like hail off a canvas tarp, seemingly impervious to harm, but just as she was almost upon him, one of the heavy slugs punched through and ripped open a fist-sized hole. Gum Belles over-inflated body whizzed up into the sky with a high-pitched, flatulent noise, flying about in crazy loops as it became flat and shapeless.
Thats telling her, Porkpie! crowed Eddie.
Moo hoo hoo hoo hoo!
Now lets hightail it out of here, before a round, rippling shadow overhead made him look up. Aw, no.
A red-gold sheet settled on the two gangsters, a pie crust of justice over rotten apple filling. Instantly, it began to pleat and fold itself around them, pinning them close together, until they reappeared, wrapped snugly in layers of rubbery flesh. Gum Belles head rose above them on a wavy, stalk-like neck.
Give up? The layers constricted briefly, and were met with panicked promises. Thats just dandy. She blew another bubble, popped it, then looped her head back around to Frank. What do you say? Five minutes left?
Frank swallowed nervously. That sounds about right, boss. Five minutes or so to get everyone off.
Her brow furrowed in confusion. Whats the hurry?
When he told her, her mask nearly fell off her face.
Gum Belle lashed around to face the still-struggling Eddie. How do we defuse the bomb? she said, her green eyes narrowing dangerously. Tell me! Her body clenched around him, and his breath came in labored rasps through his gas mask.
So intent was the young lady on the bomb that she didnt notice Brick Mick had come to until he slammed the drivers side door behind him with a bang. Before she could react, the metal cheesecake turret spun again, the twin barrels clanked to life, and a spray of gas bombs hit her square in the face. As she gasped in surprise, they blossomed into sickly green fumes. Gum Belles eyes rolled back in their sockets, her head fell into a stack of her own coiled neck, and the red and gold bands that ensnared Eddie and Pete quivered and fell away. The crooks staggered to the van, piled in, and took off, the juggernauts six heavy wheels leaving deep tire tracks in the unconscious womans shapeless body. Bum Frank coughed and sneezed and struggled against the belt that kept him tied the deathtrap that was now the freighter Confidence, but to no avail. He couldnt get free. Not in five minutes.
* * *
Good thinking, Brick, said Eddie as he drove. She wont bother us no more. All the same, he kept an anxious eye on the rearview mirror.
As the van rounded a corner, the midnight blackness vanished in a blossom of orange and yellow light and a rolling explosion rocked the van on its shocks. While the light rippled away, and the blast tumbled off into echoes and aftershocks, Eddie allowed himself a tight smile, a smile that turned into a toothy smirk when the van turned onto Riverside Drive and they got a good look at the pier. A twisted hulk of jagged and flaming metal, the iron skeleton of the betrayed Confidence, sank slowly into the churning river.
* * *
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GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD: