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December 20, 2008
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…a spray of gas bombs hit her square in the face and blossomed into sickly green fumes. Gum Belle’s eyes rolled back in their sockets and her head fell into a stack of her own coiled neck. The crooks’ van roared off, its six heavy wheels leaving deep tire tracks in the unconscious woman’s 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.

Just then, FBI Special Agent Lionel Ricketts awoke with a gasp and a pounding headache. The Confidence was littered with bodies, and there was a big pile of some rubbery red sheeting in the middle of the deck. The custom armored jobbie was long gone, but the cloying stench of the gas was everywhere.

“What a mess,” he grumbled. Leave it to the criminal element to vomit all over six months’ hard work. Jenkins was still curled in a fetal position next to one of the gangsters, whose gas mask had come off somehow. Come to think of it, there were a lot of knocked-out goons lying around. Maybe McGee’s crew had driven them off. Hope budded in Ricketts’s chest until he saw the empty, shattered crate. Then the frost set in. He jammed his bowler on his head and scowled.

“Hey! G-man! Over here! Hey!”

He looked over his shoulder. There was a bony, haggard-looking wino propped up next to the railing, his arms tied behind his back. Ricketts felt like punching his scruffy face in, but his public servant’s instincts stepped in and he settled for stomping over to him and freeing him instead. “What the hell are you doing here, fella?” he asked as he undid his bonds.

“We gotta get outta here, G-man,” the wino said. He had the rolling, reeling air of a panicked horse.

Ricketts grunted. “What’s the rush? Perps are long gone. Except for those late sleepers…say, did you see what happened to th -- ”

The wino jumped to his feet and rubbed his freed wrists. “Gotta get out!”

“I heard you the first time, fella.”

“No, G-man. We gotta get out. There’s a bomb down in the hold.”

It was proof of Ricketts’s professionalism that all he did was sigh and hang his head. “Great. Let me guess. It’s by the boiler.”

The wino nodded.

“Figures. TNT?”

The wino nodded.

“Timed?”

The wino nodded. “Going off in…uh…”

“Don’t tell me if you don’t know.” He stood up and frowned. “We’ll say three minutes. We’ll get as many people off the ship as we can before then. Save Jenkins for last. He wouldn’t want anyone to take any trouble on his account. Let’s get a move on.” He hoisted the McGee over his shoulder with a grunt of effort and started for the gangplank.

“Aren’t you going to stop the bomb?” asked the wino.

“Bombs are why we have bomb squads.” Ricketts said irritably. “These guys were pros. That thing probably has eight failsafes just in case someone stupid like you tries to play the hero and cut the green wire instead of the red one.” He carried the captain over to the gangplank and rolled him down to the pier like a human log. “Now pick up that sailor and get him off this ship before I shoot you in the face.”

“But…we should help…” the wino glanced at the pile of rubber sheeting. Ricketts plunged one hand into his coat pocket and he shut his trap and grabbed the nearest sailor by the wrists.

Ricketts picked up another man. What the hell was that old drunk’s problem? He wanted to save a big pile of red rubber? Why? He jogged down the gangplank, set the man down next to McGee, and returned to the ship. He passed the wino on his way up. The little guy had some strength. As he hoisted up another sailor, Ricketts was drawn to the red sheet in spite of himself. As he took three more men to safety, he found himself making flimsy excuses to pick up the bodies (gangsters, for the most part) nearer and nearer to it. He started to notice odd things about it from trip to trip: its pattern of odd golden circles and stripes…its soft, almost gooey texture in the moonlight…the strange, soft ropes heaped around it. And it was maddening that he didn’t remember anything like this on deck before the gangsters hit. Maybe they’d left it behind. But why abandon incriminating evidence? And why need something like that for a simple robbery?

The camel’s back broke on his tenth trip, when Ricketts thought he saw a strand of straw-colored hair poking out an especially pink and disturbingly fleshy heap of rope. He dragged his newest charge (Bastardo Boccelli, the eldest of the infamous Boccelli brothers) over to it for a closer look.

Sure enough, there was a long lock of blond hair sticking out of the heap. Was this what the wino wanted to save? Ricketts reached after it, felt around. There was more hair…a smooth headband that had the brittle smoothness of a Chiclet…lips?

It couldn’t be.

He grabbed a fistful of hair and pulled. Something came loose with a sound like a pile of rubber bands being shoved aside, and, sure enough, he held a head in his hand. A woman’s head. But it certainly didn’t look dead. On the contrary, it looked more alive than most, with rosy pink skin, candy-red lips, and…a mask? Stranger still, the head was attached to the rope, almost like it was a very long and flexible neck. But that was impossible.

A strained grunt from the wino reminded him that he had a job to do. He tossed the pretty blonde head to one side, whereupon it bounced across the deck, rolled over on one ear, and said, “ow!”

No. Ricketts froze. No. It did not just…

“That was one hell of a wake-up call,” said the pretty blonde head in a sweet contralto voice tinged only slightly with annoyance. “Some gentleman you are, to pick up a lady, then drop her the first night you meet her.” It ground its teeth together in a morning-after expression that Ricketts knew all too well from his own late night…which made it all the more disturbing. “God, my skull is pounding. Anyone get the number of that truck?”

Ricketts was almost too astonished to speak. “That…would be…ah…that would be the gas,” he said in a hoarse voice.

“Well, that explains everything,” the head replied, and suddenly, in a bizarre display of grace, it reared up on its long neck, a pink serpent with a woman’s face perched on top.

Ricketts was no coward. He had burst into innumerable dens of human depravity, slogged through the hellish trenches of the Great War, risked his life for his countrymen time and again, and suffered terrible personal loss without losing his mind. So he managed to stifle the scream that pressed against his throat and scrambled back, tripped over Boccelli’s prone body, and fell down heavily on his backside. He sat there, panting, his Adam’s apple bobbing up and down as he watched the head sway about on its snake-neck, its long curtain of golden hair swinging gracefully behind it as it looked this way and that. A slender, gauntleted hand attached to a long, red-and gold-striped arm like an eel slithered up from the nearest pile of “rope” and shaded its eyes. Its jaw worked; was it chewing something?

“You got Frank on evacuation detail?” The hand pointed to the wino, who staggered back on deck, looking quite winded.

Ricketts tried to say something, but all that came out was, “Ah.”

“He’s too old for that sort of work.”

“Ah.”

“You’re right. We are awfully short on time. How many minutes are left on that bomb? Three?”

“Ah.”

Two? Oh, dear. Well, don’t you fret, big boy. I’ll take care of everything.”

The calm, patronizing tone finally broke through his astonishment. Ricketts lumbered to his feet and leveled one thick finger at it. “Now, see here, missy, I don’t know what you are, but I’m a Federal -- ”

The gold-gloved hand clapped firmly over his mouth with a slurp like a suction cup. Another wormed up and wagged a finger in his eyes. “Later. Frank!

The wino raced up to the head as if this was an everyday occurrence. “Boss! You’re alive!”

A cocky grin. “Naturally. This nice Federal such-and-so woke me up. Now, lie down, both of you. It’s time to abandon ship.” Frank plopped down like a dog playing dead, but the suction-cup hand had to force Ricketts to the deck with gentle, insistent strength.

The head closed its eyes and its grin became a frown of concentration. The pile of rubber quivered like a giant jellyfish, then, unbelievably, it collapsed and flowed across the deck, rippled and glistened in the moonlight like oil. Ricketts felt it press against him, then under him, and all of a sudden he was stuck to the deck like a fly on honey. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the red-gold tide spread over the entire ship in the space of ten seconds. The hand unstuck itself from his face with a hollow sound, then dissolved into the coated deck with nary a ripple. The head winked at him.

“I know it’s your first time, so…hold onto that cute little bowler.” And with that, it, too, melted away, neck, hair, and all.

Ricketts turned to Frank, who grinned sheepishly and shrugged his shoulders. Ricketts scowled, clapped one hand on top of his hat (he hoped no one else saw him follow her instructions), and nearly had a heart attack as the ground rippled beneath him. He wondered why.

He didn’t have to wonder long.

Something huge now curled up from the foredeck, a silent wave, and he saw that it was a huge sheet of red and gold, littered with plastered men and empty crates that were cemented in place just like he was. It rose above him with awful speed, and he nearly lost it when a particularly fat gangster who looked like he could fall off at any second passed directly over him. He averted his gaze, desperate to look at something else, anything else, only to find identical wave sweeping up from the aft deck. He moaned, pressed his bowler tighter to his head, and couldn’t help but watch as the two sheets converged and knit together into a dome. He saw over a dozen men not twenty feet above around him before it blocked out the moonlight. For a few seconds, all Ricketts heard was a chorus of snores, Frank’s calm, wheezy nose-breathing, and his own half-panicked gulps at air.

And then there was a hissing sound, and the blood rushed to his head as the floor curved up to mirror the dome. The darkness reverberated with countless tiny creaks and groans as it settled and solidified around them into a giant, hollow rubber ball.

“What the hell’s going on here, fella?” Ricketts whispered to Frank.

“Stopped asking myself that a long time ag -- whoa!

There was a muffled blast, a wave of heat lashed at them through the rubber, and Ricketts’ heart vaulted into his throat as the ball soared up into the air at what felt like a hundred miles an hour. He half-screamed, half-moaned as it spun end over end and mercilessly stirred his insides like the world’s most insane carnival ride. After what felt like an eternity of rising-sinking-turning-spinning, everything stopped. Ricketts’ breath caught in his throat, and his queasy guts seemed to tremble. His hand pressed a palm-shaped dent in his bowler. He could hear his heart pound.

And then they went down.

This time, Ricketts opened his mouth and howled outright.

The ball hit the water with such force that his teeth snapped together. After the first splash, there were a thousand pattering noises all around them, like they were in the pocket of the world’s biggest rain slicker. They rocked back and forth, children in a living crib, and then Ricketts heard the strangest sound yet: the rhythmic, lapping noise of either massive oars or the largest set of flippers he’d never seen. Either thought made his mind reel dangerously.

But the paddling stopped soon enough, there was a slight bump as they touched what he assumed was the dock, and, somehow, it seemed that sphere heaved itself up. He didn’t want to imagine how. They rolled about leisurely for a few seconds, presumably to get further inland, and then, with a groan and a snap, the ball burst open onto the pier, leaving bodies and debris scattered everywhere.

The irresistible hold on Ricketts’ back released as the red and gold substance liquefied and shrank back in on itself like an ice-cream cone melting in reverse. Before he could get to his feet, it had pulled itself up, twisted together, and reformed into a curvy young woman in a form-fitting red and gold jumpsuit, boots, and gloves.

Now that she looked like a human being, he could recognize the pattern he had seen on deck, the twin rows of buttons, the piping, the belt. And he certainly recognized her face. But she seemed a little worse for wear. The tips of her long hair were singed and blackened, her face was smudged and slightly rosier than before, and her jumpsuit was charred and peeling.

“Oooh, that was rough,” she said.

“Great job, boss,” cried Frank. “You showed them creeps something fierce!”

The woman shrugged gingerly. “They got away. I don’t call that a great job.”

Despite her bizarre abilities, Ricketts realized that she felt just the way he had not three minutes ago. “You…” his brain fumbled for something appropriate to say, and settled on the obvious. “You saved my life.”

She smiled wearily at him. “You’re welcome, Mr. Federal such-and-so. All in a day’s work.” She plucked a crispy shred of burnt material off her jumpsuit and winced. Underneath, he saw soft flesh that reminded him more of taffy than skin.

“You okay?” he asked.

“I’ve been better.” Her throat worked, and suddenly she was chewing on a piece of gum again. She pulled a long, soft strand of it from her mouth and pressed it to her exposed arm. Ricketts had just enough time to notice that the two shades blended together perfectly, and then the pink flushed, deepened, and became the same shining red as her costume. Gold piping popped up a second later. “You’d better call for backup,” she said as she started to clean up the rest of her battered outfit. “I’ll keep an eye on things here.”

He hesitated for only a moment, then dashed off as fast as he could to find the nearest telephone booth. Shadowed eyes watched him, but the human scavengers that haunted the docks saw something dangerous in his stride and left him alone.

It took him only a moment for him to dial up the local precinct, but a good ten minutes to convince the captain to send some men over. The blockhead didn’t believe he was a real FBI agent, and furthermore, he hadn’t been told of any secret government shipment. As if the Bureau would trust a night-shift donut-gobbler. Ricketts had to pull rank and all but threaten him with a government audit to bully the moron into doing his job.

By the time he made it back to the pier, he was in the foulest mood he’d been in all evening. The sad reality of his situation hit him like a fresh skunk when he saw the blazing, skeletal wreck of the Confidence hiss and sputter on its way to the bottom of the river. Everything was bathed in warm orange light, but his heart felt as cold as ice.

He’d done a terrible job. The Bureau had depended on him to carry out his duty, and all he’d managed was to shoot one lowlife and let the rest escape with two of the most valuable items in the nation. He’d even managed to blow up a civilian ship in the bargain. He knelt by Jenkins’ supine form, checked his pulse. It was uneven. His breathing was shallow, too.

Ricketts swallowed hard. It would be the last straw if he’d killed his partner to boot.

A delicate hand patted his shoulder. “Don’t beat yourself up, big guy. We don’t always win, you know.”

He remembered crawling on his hands and knees through the wastes of No Man‘s Land, a hundred busts gone bad, the shattered, six-year-old wreck of his poor wife’s coupe, his son’s tears. “I know.”

“Then you know we always rebound.” She kicked herself up in the air, landed on her rump, and bounced on it like it was a basketball.

His smile was tired, but real. “Yeah. Yeah, I guess we do.” He held out his hand, tucked the other in his pocket like a Victorian gentleman. “Special Agent Lionel Ricketts, FBI. At least, until word of this reaches my boss. Then I’m a crossing guard.”

She took it, her fingers curling across the back of his palm. “Pleased to meet you, Lionel. You can call me Gum Belle.”

“Cute.” He squinted at her, tightened his grip, and, quick as lightning, his other hand whipped the handcuffs from his jacket pocket and linked their wrists together. She gasped. “Just a formality. Come with me, explain what happened aboard that ship to the Bureau, and maybe we can salvage this train wreck.”

Gum Belle pursed her lips, appraising him. “You’re a nice man, Lionel -- ” her hand slid effortlessly from his and wriggled through the cuffs “ -- but I’m a professional.” She held her free wrist in front of his flabbergasted face and waved at him. “Pretty fast moves, though. Bully for you.”

His face fell. “You won’t help me out.”

“I never said that, big guy.” Sirens wailed in the distance. A brisk river breeze brushed her hair to one side. “We’ll have to do this again sometime. Don’t do anything stupid while I’m gone, big guy.”

She winked, stood up, took a deep breath, and blew. Hard. A bubble swelled from her mouth and grew with alarming speed, eclipsing her face in seconds. Her cheeks puffed out, her eyes squeezed shut, and her stomach sank in as she pumped more and more air into it. It swelled to the size of a soccer ball, then a beach ball. The breeze tugged at it, threatened to rip it from her lips…but her lips weren’t there anymore. Her mouth had become the bubble.

She took another draught of air, clenched her fists and exhaled again. Her body collapsed, her arms, legs, and chest becoming flat and flaccid, as if she was pumping her life’s blood into the bubble. It expanded with a hollow hiss and promptly swallowed up the rest of her head. Even her hair turned a gooey pink and layered itself onto its round, translucent substance. Her flattened body followed suit.

In seconds, a featureless pink globe danced in the river wind. As the breeze took it away, Ricketts thought he saw the hint of a face, the lips curved in a mischievous smile. He watched it recede into the distance, then snapped out his hand and clamped it around Bum Frank’s wrist.

“You’re not going anywhere, buddy,” he said without looking back.

Frank sighed. “I didn’t think so.”

                                                         * * *


The pink bubble went unnoticed as it drifted across the city skyline, over the docks, past the squalid Shingles, around the opulence of uptown, and at last to Midtown, where it landed on the roof of Arlene Sachs’s Boarding Home for Moral Young Ladies. With a burble, it deflated into a pile of shapeless pink goo that soon reworked itself into Gum Belle, her body miraculously healed of all but a few scratches and burns. She crept to the edge of the roof and peered down. Not a light was on in the house. A good sign.

She planted her hands on the ledge, extended them, and vaulted onto the fire escape with a soft clatter of boot heels. She then turned to the nearest window and worked her fingers under the jamb. She frowned. It was locked. It had never been locked before. Oh, well. She relaxed and oozed her whole body around the frame and past it with an almost inaudible squelching sound.

Inside, Gum Belle appeared once again as featureless pink putty, but soon resolved back into herself. She was in a tiny, cluttered room that was plastered with serial movie posters and littered with pulp magazines. The latest issue of Black Mask lay on the nightstand like a hotel-room Bible. The closet door was slightly ajar, and a cunning observer would have noticed that there weren’t any clothes inside.

Gum Belle yawned and her body changed again. The slightly exaggerated curves softened and shrank, the headband and mask seemed to melt away, and the hair pulled itself back into the shorter, unruly style Ted had seen. Her clothes slid up and away from her arms and legs, leaving them bare, even as they loosened and flowed down like a sheet. The buttons and belt disappeared, as did the piping, and the once-shiny fabric became soft and woolly. In less than a minute, a somewhat ordinary-looking, fresh-faced young woman wearing a red flannel nightgown and an exhausted expression had replaced the refugee from a comic book. Slippers grew on her feet like fuzzy crimson fungus. She blinked her green eyes sleepily, smacked her lips, and headed off to bed.

As she sank into sleep, Gum Belle found herself thinking of Frank, and Ricketts, and Eddie the Rat. Little Ted even crossed her mind. But underneath it all, one burning question wormed its way into her dreams: what was so important aboard that ship?

                                                         * * *

“You have done well, Vincent Salucci.” The Phantom Skull’s eerie voice echoed through the meeting room. “You are certain your men were not followed?”

At the other end of the long table, Salucci nodded. “Eddie’s careful. He knows what to do.” He liked being on the opposite end of the room from the Skull. In fact, he liked being as far away from him as possible. He had never even met the fellow face-to-face. That was fine. He never wanted to.

“Good. Very good. Then I shall not have to convene the Board on this matter.”

Salucci’s lips thinned into a horizontal white line to match the twin vertical ones on his cheeks. “That won’t be necessary,” he said. “I’m your top man in this city.”

“Of course you are.” The Phantom Skull’s leering, projected grin seemed to widen…or perhaps it just wavered oddly with an electrical surge. “Indeed, had you failed to rob the ship, my confidence in you would have been greatly shaken.”

“That didn’t happen.” He said this too quickly, and it sounded more like a protest than a refutation.

“Didn’t it, now?” A hint of malice, like a trickle of cyanide poured into a bottle of fine wine, threaded its way into his words. “When you spoke to your representative on the telephone just now, there were long lapses in your conversation. Far too long for a simple statement of ‘mission accomplished.’ Perhaps matters went awry tonight, Vincent Salucci. Perhaps your man acquired my treasures, but lost something else in the bargain.”

Salucci flushed. “You don’t know what Eddie said to me. And they’re our treasures. Ours.”

“Ah. I had forgotten.” He didn’t even try to make it sound true. “But your denial speaks volumes, Vincent Salucci. Let us hope that your next telephone call is more…agreeable to our interests.”

“Don’t worry.” Our interests. What a joke. They were the Skull’s interests; they always had been. But that didn’t make his situation any more comfortable. A drop of sweat trickled from his hairline down his vigorously tanned forehead.

The French telephone on the nearby wet bar rang, and Salucci nearly jumped out of his chair to answer it. “It’s Eddie,” said the voice on the other end of the line. “I’m at the loading dock right now. We’ll be right up with the late shipment.”

“Swell, Ed, swell. Nothing was damaged in transit, was it?”

“Nope. Me and Mick and Pete are on our way right now.”

“Where’s the rest of the crew?” The Phantom Skull’s image seemed to burn a little brighter. Another bead of perspiration ran along his temple.

“Tell you about it in person. Is He…?”

Salucci didn’t need to ask who He was. “Yes. So get a move on.”

“Yessir.” Click.

He set the receiver back in its cradle with a hand that trembled almost imperceptibly. This was bad. Oh, this was very bad. When Eddie had called him from the truck phone (another of the Phantom Skull’s miraculous inventions: a telephone that didn’t need a line or a switchboard), it was to tell him they’d run into some trouble at the docks; that he shouldn’t worry, and all the witnesses were dead. Salucci had assured him he understood, that the unexpected happened to everyone, and that as long as they had the goods, everything would be just fine. Of course, his responses were couched in that mystifying code that they’d cooked up in the old days when the Feds wiretapped everything, the same one that called stolen goods a “late shipment” and a getaway “transit.”

Unfortunately, the Phantom Skull was too smart for such games; he had seen right through it. And now there was more rotten news: out of the dozen-plus men he’d sent out, only three had returned. But his man on the inside had assured him there would only be two Federal agents and a handful of drunken sailors. It was hard to believe that so many top soldiers, backed up with the armored car and the advantage of surprise, had almost failed at their job. It was embarrassing. Embarrassing for his men, embarrassing for him. He feared (and Vincent Salucci was not a man who frightened easily) that the Skull’s opinion of him was sinking by the minute, and the Phantom Skull’s opinions often led to decisive and extreme actions…especially if those opinions led him to judge an ally as a liability. Salucci had seen what happened to such “expended assets” when he was done with them, and it wasn’t pretty. If such a fate awaited him…

But he was just being paranoid. The job hadn’t gone off without a hitch, but it had gone off all the same. Soon his mysterious patron would be preoccupied with his latest acquisition and business would get back to normal. Maybe even better. And all this would be accomplished without ringing up that hideous collection of freaks the Skull called the Board of Crime. Salucci poured himself a stiff slug of whiskey from the bar and downed it in one gulp; his hand stopped shaking almost at once.

He had finished his second drink and started on his third when Eddie, Pete, and Brick Mick entered the boardroom. Eddie had the slim leather case in his hand, while Mick and Pete together carried the strange device that was so important to the Phantom Skull. Privately, Salucci thought it looked like a refugee from Frankenstein’s lab, but prudence told him not to mention such a comparison to the Skull. Somehow, he didn’t think it would amuse him.

“You have it? It is undamaged?” The luminous death’s-head glowed so brightly that Salucci had to shade his eyes from the glare.

“Yessir -- I mean, nossir -- I mean -- here it is, sir.” This was Eddie’s first time meeting the Phantom Skull, and his weak-chinned face was the color of old yogurt. Salucci felt sorry for the poor slob. He poured him a stiff drink while Mick and Pete lugged the contraption closer to the head of the table.

“Thanks, boss,” whispered the button man gratefully after he chugged it down.

“No worries, Ed. You did good.” He clapped him on the back with friendly force, even though he was still livid inside over how the dope had managed to botch the job. Mick and Pete soon joined them, and they watched nervously as the Skull’s image slid lower for a look at the Galvanic Generator. “So, tell me why the three of you are here and everyone else is gone,” Salucci said under his breath.

Eddie regained some of his color. “It ain’t my fault, boss, I swear. Y’see, there was this drunk -- I seen him around the wharves -- and - ”

“A bum? You’re telling me a bum did this?”

Eddie shook his head emphatically. “No, boss, no. What happened was -- ”

But his explanation became a squeak of terror when the white skull flared such a deep crimson that his pale face became the color of fresh blood.

“YOU FOOLS!”

                                                         * * *

“Gone. Gone. Just like that.” Director Abrams snapped his fingers. His pouchy eyes glared at Ricketts and Jenkins.

“Yes, sir. Just like we said.”

“And what was it you said?” The branch office director waddled out from behind his desk. He was a sallow, stooped-shouldered man with stiff legs and a penchant for coarse brown suits and high-collared shirts that made him look like a priest with no fashion sense. “A surplus tank from the Great War blasts mustard gas everywhere, you pass out, and then some -- some plastic pin-up girl in red upholstery shows up and saves you from certain doom?”

Ricketts coughed nervously. “That part is conjecture, sir, as Agent Jenkins and myself were unconscious for most of the…ah…‘certain doom’ part.”

“Because of the magic gas.”

“Yes, sir. Because of the ma -- because of the gas. But I’m certain that our witness will confirm -- ”

“What witness? Some tramp who got lost on his way to the bar? That’s your witness? Unbelievable. Just unbelievable. Two grown men lying like schoolboys with their hands caught in the cookie jar.”

Ricketts’s face reddened. “And just what is that supposed to mean, sir?”

Abrams glared at him. “What I mean, Agent Ricketts, is that this was a top secret operation, straight from Washington. Everything was kept hush-hush, on the orders of Tomorrow Industries, which was why the Bureau only sent two top agents to make the pickup instead of a full escort. And I use the term ‘top agent’ lightly. If you had any idea of how many precautions we had to take, of how much money we spent…oh, God, my stomach...” Abrams belched, grimaced, and plopped back down behind his desk. He took a bottle of antacid tablets from a drawer and shook out a handful. Abrams was famous for chewing them up like a human garbage disposal; office rumor had it that he had once dispensed them instead of candy for Halloween because they were all he had in his house. “Someone tipped these goons off,” he said as he popped a few tablets and began to chew. “Someone on the inside. Someone who knew when the delivery was, where the delivery was…and how easily he and his partner would roll over and play dead when the perps made the grab.”

Ricketts’s face darkened. “Why don’t you name names?” The words felt raw. Jenkins made a whimper of protest, but he cut him off. “If we’re going to be accused, then don’t pussy-foot around. Sir.” Abrams’ face worked, but he made no sound other than the dry crunch of antacid tablets. “We have eyewitness accounts of the robbery. Just ask McGee and his men.”

“They’re in the hospital. Alcohol poisoning. Rummy sailors drank bootleg hooch when they were supposed to be on the job. I swear, if Prohibition were still around, none of this…gah!” Abrams let loose another pained belch and stuffed the rest of the antacids into his mouth. “Damned politicians, going all soft…gotta take a hard line…”

“It wasn’t the alcohol that poisoned them, sir; it was the gas,” Ricketts explained with what was, for him, uncharacteristic patience. “I saw it in the War. Drunken men react more violently to inhaled chemicals. Jenkins and I were sober, so it just knocked us out. But McGee -- ”

“-- Can’t testify, leaving the Bureau to rely on your word. How convenient for you two,” Abrams sneered, oblivious to Ricketts’s now-clenched fists. “But have you given any thought to how Tomorrow Industries will react to this fiasco? Helmut Arcturion will be furious when he hears about this.”

“Why would you say that?” said a quiet voice from behind him.

Abrams coughed in surprise, spewing half-chewed antacids across his desk. Ricketts’ eyes went wide and his hands went slack. Jenkins kept his poker face as always, but his little fingers fumbled nervously with his hat.

A tall, aristocratic man in a spotless tuxedo stood in a shadowed corner behind Abrams’ desk. His hair was neatly parted down the middle, and his pencil moustache was as sharp as a rapier. Both were oiled until they glowed with a mellow sheen in the electric light. He had the face of a Roman senator and the hands of a pianist. They held an opera hat and a gold-knobbed cane. His ice-blue eyes surveyed them with an imperious patience, as though they were squabbling peasants who needed a noble’s firm, guiding hand.

“Tomorrow Industries is quite pleased with the bravery and composure of these two men,” he said, with a stiff, formal bow to both Ricketts and Jenkins. Neither of them knew how to respond: Jenkins nodded his head, Ricketts loosened his tie.

Abrams, however, spluttered inarticulately for a few seconds, then got up from his chair and offered it to the man in the tuxedo. “My apologies, Mr. Arcturion,” he stammered. “I had no idea you were here.”

“That much is obvious,” said Arcturion, a slight curl to his lip. “Otherwise, you would not have presumed to know my mind.” Ricketts suppressed a chuckle at the humiliated look on Abrams’s face.

Arcturion seated himself and promptly transformed the splintery old desk chair into a throne fit for a king. He turned his piercing gaze to Ricketts. “Now, then, agent Ricketts. Describe tonight’s events for me, in as much detail as you can.”

He did as Arcturion asked, even though he felt like an ant being cooked under a magnifying glass. When he had finished, the owner and president of Tomorrow Industries leaned back and steepled his fingers in front of his face. Abrams cleared his throat and bent down to speak to him. Not that he had to bend very far, since a standing Abrams was only a little taller than a seated Arcturion. But it was the thought that counted.

“With all due respect, Mr. Arcturion, I feel these two are hiding something. Ricketts has had disciplinary trouble throughout his career, and Jenkins was passed over for promotion recently. If you ask me, I think the two of them may have been…intentionally lax in their duties.”

Ricketts half-rose out of his seat. “That’s a filthy, god-damned lie!” Jenkins started; Abrams glared at him. But Helmut Arcturion simply arched an eyebrow and lowered his chin. “Mr. Arcturion, I apologize for losing your property, but you should have been more willing to work with us on security. Putting two agents on such a high-priority detail was just plain risky, sir. You gambled that no one would find out, and you lost. I hear you’re a smart man, sir, one of the smartest in the world, but in my experience, smart men make the biggest mistakes. With all due respect.”

His two fellow Bureau members stared at him as if he had just ripped off his own head and tossed it out the window. But Arcturion nodded approvingly. “Few have ever dared to speak so plainly to me, Agent Ricketts. I applaud your courage, and congratulate you for your insight.” He tapped his breast with the gleaming knob of his cane. “It is true that the loss of my greatest invention is my fault. In point of fact, I would be prostrate with grief over this catastrophe right now…were it the real Galvanic Generator.”

Jenkins flinched. Ricketts felt like someone had just swung a heavy weight in his face. Abrams managed to gasp, belch, and groan at the same time.

“Again, I congratulate you, agent Ricketts. You and agent Jenkins made for a very convincing decoy.”

                                                         * * *

“This is a fake! Naught but a worthless collection of vacuum tubes and transformers!” The Phantom Skull’s voice was so thunderous in its fury that the bottles on the bar rattled and clinked together in terror. “Your bumbling henchmen stole the wrong item!”

Eddie the Rat, cowering almost double behind a chair, raised one spidery hand. “That’s impossible, mister mighty Phantom Skull, sir,” he whimpered. “We searched the whole ship, from top to bottom. There was only one crate aboard, and it had the jewels and the Generator. We did just like you said!”

“And still you managed to bungle it!” The crimson light deepened to such a dark shade that they all felt like they were trapped in some unholy womb. “You have become lax. Weak. An example must be made.” The light began to pulse, in time with Salucci’s racing heartbeat. Waves of heat buffeted the four gangsters, until the boardroom felt like a sauna, and their ugly, scarred faces were shiny with sweat. “Behold…THE WRATH OF THE SKULL!”

The pulsating red glow quickened, became a flickering strobe. The heat became unbearable. Salucci’s suit felt like a straightjacket. His hair hung limply over his forehead. He sank to his knees. He felt like a million needles were piercing his skin at once. Hot, salty tears rolled down his cheeks. He felt as weak as a newborn puppy. Through his streaming eyes, he saw Eddie lying next to him, jerking around like a stuck fish, clawing at his garish wide tie as if it were throttling him. Brick Mick was barely standing; his huge frame heaved with effort, his tongue lolled out of his mouth.

Only Porkpie Pete, he of the stolen Thompson submachine gun, seemed unaffected at first glance. As a matter of fact, he stood perfectly straight, as if nailed to the spot. But there was no mistaking the look of abject fear on his face, or the way his eyes fairly popped out of his head. His mouth dropped open like a nutcracker’s, and a sound was dredged up from the depths of his throat, the worst sound Salucci had ever heard. Porkpie Pete was bawling, the quavering, helpless wail of an infant in pain.

And then his skin burst into flames.

For split second, he was a human fireball wearing a suit and hat. But then the wool and cotton and silk and straw caught fire, and there stood a pillar of waving orange light that cried and screamed and blurted inarticulate half-words in its agony. Salucci desperately wanted to tear his eyes away, but he couldn’t. None of them could. It was like watching a freight train hit a bloated, gassy corpse. Horrible, yes…but perversely fascinating.

In time, the flames died away. Pete’s clothes were long gone, his straw hat a few wispy charred strands floating on the thick, hot air. His flesh had been seared away, leaving a skeleton that remained upright, its jaws open in an expression of eternal surprise and pain. The bones were charred gray, but the leading edges -- the eye sockets, the tips of the teeth, the fingers and toes -- glowed like stray embers. Salucci crawled away from it with all of his meager strength, but even that evaporated like steam from a teakettle when the skeleton turned its skull around and locked its empty, accusing gaze onto his face.

Salucci screamed, this time in panic, but then, with a clattering sigh, the skeleton sagged and collapsed into a pile of ash. The red light slowed to a mournful, sated throbbing, then faded back to a smug white. “Now you see, cretins.” The Phantom Skull’s voice flowed thick with menace. “Now you see the depths of my displeasure. I -- want -- the Galvanic Generator!”

Eddie was on his knees, hands clasped in supplication. “Please, Mr. Skull, give us another chance! It must’ve been that girl…”

“Girl?” asked the Skull.

“Girl?” asked Salucci.

“Girl?” asked Brick Mick.

“The girl who damn near kicked your ribs in, Mick. Christ,” Eddie said, his fear temporarily eclipsed by exasperation. “She was a real looker in a funny red outfit and a mask, Mr. Skull. She…She was like rubber. She punched Lou from twenty feet off, turned into a big ol’ ball and knocked the Boccelli brothers around like they was bowling pins. Hell, she wrapped herself around me and…and Pete like a piece ’a duct tape.” He pointed one trembling finger at the fine gray powder on the floor. “It’s all true, sir, I swear!”

His excuse was so outlandish that Salucci felt certain that the Phantom Skull would immolate him, too. But instead, the apparition’s tone became thoughtful. “Interesting. A new vigilante in our midst. This explains our losses.”

Eddie nodded feverishly. “Yessir, yessir, that’s just it, sir. She busted us up good. But she’s history now. Mick here gave her a face fulla gas. She was out like a light when we split, and the bomb went off like a charm. No way anyone survived that. Not even her.”

The telephone rang. Salucci smoothed back his damp hair, wiped his sweaty hands on his jacket, and picked it up. A tinny voice spoke rapidly into his ear, and the rest of the room watched as his face went from businesslike, to concerned, to angry, to slightly relieved. “Thanks for the tip. Watch your mailbox for a special delivery.” He set down the receiver and turned to the Phantom Skull. “That was our source on the inside. We got good news and we got bad news. The good news is that we have the real Tiara of Tortuga. They couldn’t fake that. The bad news is that the Generator’s already at Tomorrow Industries’ headquarters uptown. They delivered it by rail last week.” He paused to give the Skull time to rant about how unacceptable this was, but the mysterious mastermind stayed silent. “And there’s more.” He took a deep breath, braced himself. “Everyone on the Confidence got off without a scratch. Our source says this rubber chick scooped ’em all up and left ’em for the cops. That means our boys are in custody. They won’t talk,” he said quickly; he knew how the Skull handled stool pigeons. “But the feds got two eyewitnesses, a hobo named Frank and some FBI gofer named Ricketts.”

The Phantom Skull’s laugh was like a funeral bell at a vaudeville show. “It appears our lady friend is more resilient than we thought. Tell me, Edward the Rodent” -- Eddie flinched -- “was our mystery madam kind enough to leave us with her name?”

“Y - yessir. She called herself…ah…Gum Dame?…Gum Broad?…Gum Belle! That’s it, sir! Gum Belle!”

“A pun? How pedestrian.” He chortled. “Gentlemen, we shall have to alter our plans. This ‘Gum Belle’ is an unknown quantity. We shall have to neutralize her before we can secure the Galvanic Generator. Vincent Salucci…tomorrow, you shall convene the Board.”

Salucci shuddered. “How many?”

“All of them.”

The three gangsters gasped. The Phantom Skull sometimes rang up one or two members of the Board when things went south. But the whole group at once…? The last time that had happened, the entire underworld had trembled at the mention of a single man. “Are you sure? I mean, this skirt’s no Slouch Hat…”

“No, she is not. That is why you will do as I say. But before we take action, we must learn more about our adversary and…tie up loose ends. Now, listen carefully, all of you…”

                                                         * * *

Bum Frank pulled his ragged coat tight around him and sat in an alley a few blocks from the station house. He had had it up to tuchus with the FBI. At first they’d just asked him simple questions: where were you tonight at midnight? You been in any trouble with the law lately? Simple stuff that he’d heard dozens of times on vagrancy arrests. But then some hotshot in a tux had stopped by the door, whispered to the officers, and just like that they had put him through the wringer, threatened him with everything from jail time to deportation unless he told them more about Gum Belle.

But Frank knew his rights, and even if he hadn’t, the boss’s faith in him was the most precious thing he’d ever had. Like hell he’d give it up just because some stuffed shirt with a fancy cane owned the police.

After hours of alternating questions and threats, the cops had finally given up and kicked him out on the street. Like that was a big punishment for a homeless guy. But getting tied up, bounced around, damn near cooked, and smacked about by a bunch of badges must have been rougher on him than he’d thought, because Frank felt worse than he had in years.

He gave the alley a savvy once-over. It would do for the night. A bit close to the station house for his tastes, but he sure as hell wasn’t making it all the way back to the docks tonight and it was out of the weather.

Frank had just lifted his right leg into the nearest dumpster when the alley filled with light. There was a car idling at the mouth of the alley, a real nice white sedan. As he watched it purr there, torn between diving into the dumpster and trying to make a break for it, a chauffeur -- a real, honest-to-God chauffeur, with the smart uniform and the snooty nose -- came around the side of the sedan, snapped open an umbrella, and opened the passenger side door. A broad-shouldered cat in a suit to match the car stepped out. His graying hair was slicked back over his scalp, and his hands were covered with rings that looked like they were made out of the Crown Jewels. Two matching scars ran down his leathery cheeks.

Frank’s gut told him to run like hell, but when you have one foot in a dumpster and one on the ground, it’s not too easy to follow your gut. And before he could do anything else, the man in the white suit walked up to him and flashed more green in his face than Frank had seen in his life. For the first time in his life, he ignored his instincts and stood there, one leg up, one leg down, his eyes on the wad of cash in front of him.

“I know what you’re thinking, Frank,” said the man in the white suit. “You’re thinking, ‘what if I had that money?’ Am I right?”

Frank nodded with some difficulty; that money was hypnotic.

“Well, it’s your lucky day, buddy. I heard what happened to you. Stupid flatfoots picking on a poor guy like you. So I thought I’d help you out. Treat you to a hot meal, a fresh bed, and a grand in cash. You know, simple Christian charity.”

Frank’s mouth watered, and he reached for the money. But as he did, he saw the man in the white suit’s other hand, still tucked in his jacket pocket; noticed the slippery ease of his smile. “What’s the catch?”

The man in the white suit waved the fan of bills dismissively…but his other hand stayed put. “No catch, Frank. I just want to know about your lady friend. You know. The one you call boss.”

Frank’s gut was ringing every alarm in the house, and he responded by tugging his leg out of the dumpster. “I’ll tell you what I told the cops,” he said.

“And what was that?”

“Nuts!” He spun on his heel and dropped into a painful, loping run. He had to get into the open. He wasn’t far from the station house, there had to be a cop somewhere nearby. He’d get him to take him in; he’d pull down his pants and wave his ding-a-ling in his face if that was what it took. Anything to get away from this slimeball and his bad money and his worse questions.

Frank’s breath rattled in his chest and burned in his throat. He wasn’t in the best of shape, and the weather was nasty and his day had been rough. But the wide, clear street was only a few feet away. He fumbled in his coat pocket for one of the boss’ little balls…maybe he could write her a message if he lost this guy. She’d know what to do. His fingers found his fountain pen, a few scraps of paper, a shriveled weenie that he’d been saving for later…where were they? Where were they? Where --

Vincent Salucci pulled his other hand from his jacket pocket with slow and deliberate ease. It held a delicate, silenced .22-caliber pistol. He leveled it at the fleeing Frank, balanced it on his off arm like an Olympic marksman, and, just as Frank neared the mouth of the alley, he pulled the trigger.

There was a sound behind Frank like a snake burping and his neck burned. Blood trickled down his spine in a warm, wavering stream. Frank lurched around, still moving for the street, but his feet weren’t working so well. He had a moment of clear and lucid thought -- Did that muther just shoot me? -- before he slammed into the alley wall and collapsed onto his face.

He didn’t move.

                                                         * * *

                                   Don’t miss the next exciting chapter of

                                   GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD:

                                             “DEATH FROM ABOVE!”
Thrills! Chills! It's technically Sunday in the Midwest, so it's time to put up the next chapter. For a higher-resolution view of this week's title card, go here: [link]

What will happen to our heroes, now that the Phantom Skull's ire has been roused? Is Bum Frank done for? Can Lionel Ricketts ever catch a break? And what does Belle do during the day?

Find out now! [link]
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:iconemcalcuadrado:
emcalcuadrado Featured By Owner Apr 26, 2014
Galvanic Generator, why they want a medical device? 
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:iconsteel-worker:
steel-worker Featured By Owner Nov 24, 2013
Amazing!What a surprise about the generator's affair!Clap And congratulations about your narrative style so effective,specially on describing Belle's awesome capabilities!:o (Eek)
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:iconkaaslave:
kaaslave Featured By Owner Oct 24, 2010
Nicely done! :D
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Nov 8, 2010
Thank you very much! I hope you enjoy the rest of the story.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 2, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
I've read the first two chapters so far and am absolutley loving this stuff!

I take it this is set in a sort of 1940's to 1950's Gangster setting? Or earlier? I'm not too good with history dates so I'm probably off.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 2, 2009
Simple enjoyment is the greatest compliment a craftsman can receive. Thank you very much!

The story is set pre-WWII, sometime in the 1930s. ~IWfan53 has pinpointed it at around 1938, due to circumstantial evidence, but I'm not dealing in history so much as I am atmosphere. Just think The Shadow and Dick Tracy and you're halfway there. ;)
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 5, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
No problem! Gum Belle is a very compelling character. DC and Marvel both have a few stretching male heroes, but practically never any females. And the odd few that do turn up are cursed to obscurity.

That's the period I was trying to think of! I think I'm getting the image each time I read your work.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 5, 2009
It's a shame, because I think that elasticity is a great power, both visually and practically. It takes creativity to use well, which I appreciate.

Unfortunately, Plastic Man and Mr. Fantstic are the two most recognized elastic heroes, so pretty much everyone follows their competing molds: crazy cartoon or boring-assed stick-in-the-mud. But Elastigirl and, to a lesser extent, the reinvention of Madame Rouge in the Teen Titans TV show, seem to have sparked some interest in, and respect for, elasticity, which is nice.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Yeah, I love seeing that power being put through it's paces. Always entertaining.

That is true about those two, but then again Plastic Man is the very first hero to have that power. I haven't seen the Teen Titans Madame Rouge yet (haven't seen her in the comics either, I just saw her in the DC encyclopedia). But there is a big fan following for women possessing the power here on DA, I had no idea until a day or so before I came across Gum Belle!

I used to write a super hero fiction of my own and in the last chapter I did introduce a third with the elasticity power, but I haven't written for that series in ages and was never following any real plot, just doing things very episodic.
Here's a link-[link]
But I may have to change the girl's name seeing as it kinda treads on the toes of another of DA's stretchy girls....
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 14, 2009
Yeah, I give Cole credit for Plastic Man; he was an amazing artist and writer, but it's a shame that practically no one but him has really put the character to good use (Baker's short-lived revival a few years back being a rare exception; hot damn, but that book was funny!).

Madame Rouge is practically two different characters, depending on which version you see. She originally appeared in DC's influential Doom Patrol comics back in the '60s (I have most of her appearances); Wolfman and Perez used her briefly in their legendary New Teen Titans series, where they killed her off. She's made a few appearances since, most notably in the JLA: Year One miniseries from the late '90s, where she starred in a three-part arc with the JLA and the Doom Patrol teaming up against the Brotherhood of Evil.

In the comics, she was an elegant Frenchwoman who initially used her skill at acting and make-up to serve as the Brotherhood's representative/deep cover agent. Later on, she was given elastic powers to make her better both as an infiltrator and as a combatant. Bruno Premiani, the phenomenal Italian artist who did the Patrol back then, did absolutely top-notch work with Rouge, and Arnold Drake was quite creative with the way he used her. Then the series degenerated into camp and broad strokes, and soon ended, with Rouge killing the DP, with the aid of a former Nazi U-boat captain (no joke!).

The series keeps Rouge as an infiltrator, but that's where the similarities end. Instead of a Frenchwoman, she's a Natasha Nogoodnik type, and her elasticity is supercharged into a sort of T-1000 indestructability. She gets some amazing sequences, especially in a very nicely done solo episode called "Trust," but Season 5 was unfocused and sloppy in its plotting and development, and the writers lost track of the Brotherhood, who were supposed to be the season's big villains, in favor of an enormous dogpile of every teen superhero the show had ever had versus every villain the show had ever had. So Rouge went out like a punk. Very disappointing. But they gave her a very sweet character design that looked very good when she did any elastic shenanigans. It was the best I'd ever seen, until I encountered :iconwunderchivo:'s awe-inspiring work.
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