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There was a sound behind Frank like a snake burping and his neck burned. Blood trickled down his spine in a warm, wavering stream. He had a moment of clear and lucid thought -- Did that muther just shoot me? -- before he slammed into the alley wall and collapsed.

Vincent Salucci walked over to his car and picked up a telephone receiver mounted on the back of the driver’s side seat. There was a moment of static on the other end of the line, then Eddie the Rat’s nasal voice came through. “Yeah, boss?”

“The courier’s down. Pick him up.”

“Sure thing, boss.”

Soon enough, the lumbering, armored, six-wheeled monstrosity of a van that they had used for the Confidence job screeched to a stop at the other end of the alley. Eddie, Brick Mick, and a few recently-promoted soldiers jumped out, picked up Frank’s prone body, and hauled him inside.

“You sure about the drop-off point, boss?” Eddie asked over the phone, as the van pealed off down the street.

“Orders are orders,” Salucci told him. “Just make sure you search the guy first. You find any of those message balls Pete saw, you know what to do.”

“Right.” Click.

He hung up the receiver and told the chauffeur to take him back to the club. The Phantom Skull was playing a dangerous game. He didn’t know what the rules were, or even what the stakes were like, but he knew that it was a bit too risky for his tastes. He just hoped that the Skull could out-play the competition.

Still, though, the game was fun while it lasted. Salucci hefted the .22 that the Skull had given him just for that job and took out the clip. Had he not know what to expect, he would have been shocked to see that, in place of bullets, it held a neat vertical row of miniature darts. He marveled at the Skull’s ingenuity. With toys like this hand-held tranquilizer gun, it was no wonder that the odds were stacked in their favor.

                                                         * * *

Ricketts trudged up the nine flights of stairs to his apartment. To him, it was more like slogging through the nine circles of Hell. He was dog tired, his body hurt in places he didn’t even know existed, and no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t push out the dent his hand had made in his bowler hat.

What a terrible day. He’d been shot at, smashed in the face, almost got himself blown up, and had barely managed to keep his job. He owed his life to a woman in a red jumpsuit and his position to a man who wore a tuxedo to bed. The whole experience would have been humiliating, if he had the energy to feel that way.

Arcturion had revealed that the Generator was safe and sound in his company headquarters, and that he had arranged the Confidence double-blind to lure out thieves. He suspected that powers unknown sought the Galvanic Generator for their own sinister ends. Ricketts believed him. Of course, Arcturion had had to put up his own family jewels as bait, but he didn’t seem to worried about them. “They’ll turn up,” he’d said.

If Ricketts were in his place, he’d have said something a bit more colorful about the whole business, but maybe it was for the best that he was one of the little guys. He and Jenkins had been dismissed for the night, each in varying degrees of shame. Jenkins had got off easy; Abrams had forced him to take some sick leave to recuperate from his injuries.

Ricketts, however, had attracted the director’s full wrath. “I want you to take a vacation,” Abrams had told him when it was just the two of them. “Spend some time with your son. Give some thought to what you want to tell Internal Affairs when I write you up on charges of gross incompetence.”

He had come within a hair’s breadth of slamming Abrams’ head into his desk, but settled for a surprisingly calm, “When can I return to work, sir?”

Abrams’ smile had reminded him of a shark just before it swallowed a guppy. “When I say so, Ricketts. You’re suspended, starting this week. If you’re smart, you’ll own up to botching this job. It’ll save me face, and it’ll get you a nice, under-the-table retirement package. But if you don’t…well, let’s just say you won’t be doing much of anything for a while. Don’t answer now,” he’d said, cutting off Ricketts’ angry rebuttal. “As I said, give it some thought. I’ll call you when your hearing’s scheduled. Now get out of my sight.”

That had set him fuming all the way home. Something wasn’t kosher, and Abrams’ petty office politics were only part of the problem. Arcturion’s precautions were way too elaborate for one pet science project. Eccentric as he was, this little maneuver of his had almost lost men their lives, and from what Ricketts knew, that was a price that the utopian genius had never been willing to pay. Either he was hiding something, or this gizmo was more important than even Abrams had let on. No matter what the truth was, Ricketts didn’t feel too good about the future.

Damn near the only good thing about the whole fiasco was that Gum Belle woman, Ricketts thought as he reached the tenth-floor landing, and she was bad news, even she was a real looker. Not a day after running into her, and his hat had a pothole and his beloved Packard was history.

He shuffled down the hall to his apartment at the back of the building. Half of the lights weren’t working, and their miserly old landlord had a black hole for a wallet, so the tenth floor sat in a state of perpetual twilight. Ricketts knew he shouldn’t really be living in this building anymore. It was the kind of joint that was tailor-made for new immigrants with big families and broken English, a place where fresh country kids broke their big-city dreams. It wasn’t the right home for a stable joe with a government job and a kid to feed. He should have bought a house by now, a nice Craftsman jobbie with a Sears furnace and new wood floors. But somehow, Ricketts had never been able to save his dough very well, and Marjorie’s death had put a big pinch on his meager savings. Then the Depression had hit like a tidal wave, and that was the end of it. The Bureau had an in on cheap home loans, but Ricketts made his own way or ate dirt trying. So here they stayed, he and his boy.

He reached his front door, fumbled in his trousers pocket for the keys. Things weren’t so bad here. The tenants knew where he worked, so they kept a respectful distance -- except for his old bat of a next-door neighbor, who badgered him every day to either electrocute the communists who kept shaving her cats or marry her granddaughter, depending on the time of day. Their landlord was paranoid of Federal attention (and rightly so; Ricketts was certain the place was slopping over with health code violations), so he cut a healthy deal on rent. And there were lots of good kids for his son to play with.

Rickettse fished the keys from his pocket, unlocked the door, and switched on the lamp. The cozily cramped apartment greeted him with the sort of merry slovenliness that only a man and his son can create without a wife and mother around to beat them up for it. Toys, crayons, and comic books were strewn across the living room floor. There was a small ocean of old newspapers dotted by half-full coffee-mug islands. Piles of dirty and clean dishes filled both halves of the sink. The bookshelf held a haphazard hodge-podge of law tomes, crime journals, rote books, and the Collected Cases of Slouch Hat, volumes one, three, seven, and fifteen.

But there was an order to their chaos. The toys and crayons were kept safely out of the pathways to the kitchen and bedrooms, and there were no coffee cups or newspapers cluttering the radio. The dishes in the sink were all labeled by the days of the week, for Ricketts prepared his son’s meals ahead of time in case work kept them apart. And among the schoolbooks on the shelf, Ricketts saw his son’s completed homework for Monday propped up against the Federal Law Enforcement Guidebook, left there before his boy had gone to bed. The two of them didn’t see each other very often, but they still kept up a correspondence-course relationship. It was worse than he would have liked, but still better than nothing.

Ricketts took off his hat and coat and put them on the rack next to his son’s jacket and cap, then lumbered off to the kitchen to grab a beer and a sandwich. Just because he felt like he’d gone ten rounds with Max Baer didn’t mean he’d lost his appetite.

As he ate, he examined his son’s homework. It was an essay: What I Want To Do When I Grow Up, by Theodore Ricketts. He read the first paragraph, and as he did, a smile slowly dawned on his face.

What I want to do when I grow up is to be a good cop like my Da. My Da works really hard at his job, but I am very proud of him because he catches the bad guys and stops people from getting hurt. He is just like Slouch Hat, only better because he doesn’t shoot people if he doesn’t have to and he’s always there to help me when I have trouble with my homework or I need a ride to school, not just when I’m attacked by robots or falling into a pit of lavalligators. I want to be just like him and work with crime fighters like the Slouch Hat to keep everyone safe.
</blockquote>Ricketts suddenly felt very full, and only partly because of the sandwich. He swallowed the last of his beer, cleaned up after himself, and set the essay back on the shelf. Then he headed off to bed, unbuttoning his shirt and loosening his tie as he went. His fondness for spirits had made him a little bit chubbier over the years, but a careful observer could tell that most of his thick body was still muscle, muscle that Ricketts was careful to maintain with a harsh workout regimen that still resembled his old military exercises from the War.

He paused and looked into his son’s bedroom across the hall. Its door was open a crack, and he could see him there, fast asleep in his bed, his skinny frame curled into itself under the covers. He observed him for a quiet moment, the only sounds the boy’s soft, even breathing and the windy, rolling passage of cars on the street far below. At that moment, he would have punched Abrams in the nose and given his two weeks’ notice, money be damned, house be damned, future be damned. He wanted to be there when his son wrote his next essay.

But, just as when Gum Belle had saved him from the bomb, reality came back and served him his papers. He wouldn’t be much of a father if he wasn’t much of a breadwinner. And that meant making some kind of decision on Abrams’ damned offer. But that could wait. For now, he needed to get some good, old-fashioned shut-eye. Ricketts made to open the door to his bedroom, but his dead feet tripped over themselves, and he slammed face-first into the doorframe.

He rubbed his nose and swore a blue streak…loudly. There was a gasp and a grunt from behind him, and he was cursed with the guilty knowledge that he had just awakened his own son with seaside language. Ricketts turned back to him, a pained smile on his face. The boy looked at him with sleepy gray eyes. “Sorry, Ted,” he whispered. “You old man’s getting clumsy in his old age.”

Ted returned his smile sleepily. “’Sokay, Da. You do good at work?”

Ricketts yearned to tell him the truth: that the day was horrible, that he’d almost been killed and almost been fired and certainly been humiliated…then stopped when he realized that, to be honest, none of that really mattered. “Yeah,” he said with a curious, warm feeling in his belly. “Yeah, I guess I did, son. Stopped some bad business from happening. And I met a real nice lady.”

“Was she as nice as Ma?” Ted asked. There was a sleepy slop of emotion in his question, a strangely potent one. It resonated with Ricketts and he knew the reason why: they both suffered from the same wound.

“No one was as nice as your Ma,” he said firmly, and was grateful to see Ted’s relax under the covers. He moved quickly to change the subject. “How was school?”

“Okay, I guess.” His angular face worked, as if he too were struggling with something, then he said, “I met a real nice lady too.”

“Really?”

“You betcha, kiddo.”

Ricketts laughed softly. “Sounds like we both did all right.” He opened his bedroom door, and then something someone at the office had mentioned came back to him. “Tell you what, Ted. I’m off this weekend.” He didn’t bother to mention that it was mandatory. “You want to go see the new Slouch Hat over at the Bijou tomorrow? I hear they got a brand new Errol Flynn picture up there, too.” He pantomimed thrusting a sword at an unseen foe. “We’ll make a day of it. Whaddaya say?”

Ted’s excited, sleep-dusted grin turned his knees to jelly. “Sure thing, Da!”

“Then it’s a deal.” He stifled a yawn. “G’night, kiddo.”

“G’night, Da.”

As Lionel Ricketts shut the bedroom door behind him, his day didn’t feel so bad. No, it didn’t feel so bad at all.

                                                         * * *

There were two guys standing over him. They were big guys, with fists to match, and they knew how to use them to work a sap over real nice. They pounded him in the gut, they pounded him in the face, they pounded him in the ear, they pounded him all over till he was as flat as a chicken-fried steak in a greasy spoon.

In between this pounding potpourri, they asked him questions. Who’s your boss? Where’s her hideout? How’d she get her firepower? What’s her real name? How do you get in touch with her? More and more and more, over and over and over. All about the boss.

Somewhere in his punch-drunk brain, Bum Frank was rather offended. They never asked about him.

He was tied to a chair in the middle of a gloomy, dark room filled with pipes. He didn’t know how he’d managed to get there. One thing was for sure; he hadn’t walked there. At least, he didn’t think he’d walked there. He certainly hadn’t tied himself to the damn chair. If he had, he would have picked a much more comfortable chair, not this old wood thing that rocked him back and forth with every blow like a cradle from hell. And he certainly wouldn’t have invited these big guys to turn him into hamburger.

Now, if they’d tied me to a feather bed…but then a ham-sized fist plowed into his jaw and the thought was lost.

To make matters worse, they’d found what he had been unable to scrounge up: the boss’ little balls. The big apes had been real excited about that. He guessed they were going to do something with them, but what he had no idea. He just hoped that the boss found him, before he ended up dead, or worse.

Vincent Salucci stood on a gantry that overlooked the basement floor and listened impassively to the tired, meaty thump of his boys turning Bum Frank into ground chuck. They’d been doing the rounds on him for hours, but the slob was stubborn as shoe leather.

He sighed and lit a cigarette. He had long since resigned himself to the fact that Frank wasn’t going to talk, but he had his men keep it up just to make the guy suffer. After all, not only had the Phantom Skull forced him to kidnap this joke himself, he had put him in the nasty position of depositing him in a place where he had little, if any, control. The sooner he retreated back to the secure corruption of his chosen realm, the better. But he was going to get the most cheap thrills he could before he did.

Salucci took a long drag on his cigarette and checked his watch. Three o’clock in the morning. The Board was coming over tomorrow night, and he had to meet them in person, much as he dreaded the prospect. He’d need a good night’s sleep if he wanted to avoid any potentially fatal faux pas at the meeting. He’d watch the show for a few more hours, then give Frank a rest. After all, if what the Skull had planned for him came out right, this was the calm before the storm.

One of his boys landed a nice right cross. Even from a distance, Salucci could hear the gratifying clatter of broken teeth hitting the dirty concrete floor. He polished off his cigarette, dropped it on the gantry, and ground it out with his toe. He hated to do this to an innocent guy, but some people just refused to see reason.

                                                         * * *

It was the sunlight that did it. It fell in long, warm bars through the window blinds onto her face. At first, she didn’t want to get up, and insisted to herself that she was still asleep, as everyone does when they’ve really had enough sleep but are too lazy to admit it. She even squeezed her eyes shut and tried to will the sun away. But the day waits for no one, not even vigilantes, and soon Gum Belle gave up the ghost and sat up, her eyelids heavy and her blonde hair sticking up in every direction. She sat there, blinking sleepily and casting reproachful looks at the bright sun, then bothered to look at the dresser clock.

That woke her up rather nicely.

“Oh, that’s just grand,” she snarled to herself. She tossed back the covers, hopped out of bed, and snapped open her blinds. There was the proof, quite literally clear as day: the sun had nearly reached its zenith in the late morning sky.

It was ten-thirty in the morning, and Gum Belle was over an hour late for her day job.

Damn, damn, damn. This tolling mantra ran through her brain as she shut the blinds in case any peeping toms were out this time of day, then closed her eyes and concentrated. One of the nice things about making clothing from your own body was that it was much less of a hassle to get dressed. The woolly nightgown lengthened, wrapped snugly around her body, and in no time at all had transformed into a smart-looking red blouse with gold buttons and a matching skirt, while her fuzzy slippers shrank into a pair of fashionable flats. Perfect for running like the dickens, Gum Belle thought grimly as she grabbed a battered old black purse from the nightstand, threw open the door, and dashed downstairs.

In the kitchen, Arlene Sachs, a formidable old warrior of a landlady, was just washing up the last of the breakfast dishes when Gum Belle pelted into the room, skidded briefly on the freshly waxed floor, and snagged a banana from the bowl on the table. As soon as she saw her, Arlene thrust out her ample chest. “Miss Zarkov, we need to have a talk about how you spend your evenings.”

Belle slid across the kitchen, nearly slammed into the refrigerator, and opened the back door. “Can’t talk now, Miss Sachs. Gotta go to work.”

Arlene was not to be so easily deterred. “I’m warning you, you’ve broken the house curfew for the last -- ”

“Bye!” She was out the door in a flash of red like a flamenco dancer.

“Lazy girl.” Arlene thrust out her jaw, which was so square that it put Superman’s to shame, and turned back to her dishes.

It was only after they were all done that she saw the discarded banana peel her most insubordinate boarder had left on the formerly spotless floor.

                                                         * * *

When one can bounce down the road as a ball, leap from rooftop to rooftop as a spring, float through the air as a bubble, or glide over the skyline as a paper-thin sheet, it’s easy to imagine that going from place to place would be less of a hassle and more of a leisurely decision-making process, rather like choosing a slice of pie at an Automat.

But these methods of transportation all rely on the human body doing what it was never meant to do in the first place. As a result, they tend to attract attention, especially in broad daylight. And the last thing one wants to do, especially when one is trying to keep up at least the appearance of a normal life, is to attract attention. The logical result of this line of reasoning is that, despite her desperate desire to get across town as fast as she could, Gum Belle was forced to do what every working stiff did to get from one place to another: she took public transport

The city’s public transportation system had been renovated several years ago. It was now a subway in Midtown that rose out of the ground into sturdy elevated train lines Uptown and in the Shingles. These served a dual purpose: as elegant statements of progress in the upscale neighborhood and as safety precautions for commuters in the slums.

It was a very nice system, but the city had still cut corners where it could. For instance, the elevated lines were new, but the subway still used the old, cramped stations, the ones with the very steep, narrow stairs that led down to the terminals. The city averaged an easy twelve accidents a month from panicked commuters slipping on these old stairs and ending up with broken bones or minor concussions, but such accidents were a small price to pay compared to the exorbitant expense of actually remodeling the stairs. Lionel Ricketts, who kept an eye on city affairs out of professional interest, knew that this expense was so high because the construction unions, which were owned lock, stock, and barrel by Vincent Salucci and his associates, charged astounding prices for that particular job. This was mainly because most of the lawyers who handled the subway accident litigations against the city were also good friends of Mr. Salucci, and nickel-and-dime lawsuits were more profitable than a one-time building contract. Ricketts could also have told any interested parties that all of this was completely under the table and totally untraceable, whereupon he would have popped open a beer and drowned his frustration over the whole scheme.

Gum Belle, whose interest in city affairs was limited to where the bad guys where and how quickly she could knock them out, had never given much thought to the subway terminal steps. But she found out the hard way that the sentiment went both ways: the subway terminal steps didn’t give much thought to her, either. As she zipped down them, her bright red clothes drawing stares from the other commuters, her heel slipped on one treacherous riser and, just like that, she tumbled, head over heels, down the whole flight and smacked face-first into the hard tile floor.

A small crowd of concerned citizens crowded around the unfortunate young woman while a much larger crowd of callous citizens passed her by without a second glance. She looked quite the mess; her right ankle was twisted a good ninety degrees in an improper direction, as was her left wrist. As she sat up with a pained groan, the cross-hatched impression of the floor tiling already fading from her pink face, the commuter nearest her stepped forward and proffered a large hand. “Are you all right, lady?” he asked in a rough voice.

Gum Belle quickly rubbed her nose, which had been pushed very far to one side, and molded it back to its usual position. “No, thank you. I’m all right.” She flexed her wrist and it suddenly seemed to the crowd that it didn’t look quite as bad as they had thought at first glance.

“You sure?” asked the big man. “That ankle looks pretty bad.”

Gum Belle’s embarrassment and frustration came to a boil in one ill-timed moment. “I think I know when I’m all right,” she snapped. “Thanks for asking, Captain Marvel, but -- ”

The retort died in her throat. The large hand and rough voice belonged to Lionel Ricketts, who regarded her now with both skepticism and suspicion. “But what?” he asked

“But you don’t have to worry about me,” she finished and clambered unsteadily to her feet. Ricketts moved to support her during one particularly sharp sway, and while he was thus preoccupied, she slid her ankle back into place. “See? Good as new.” A loud buzzer from the terminal; the perfect excuse. “That’s my train. Have a nice day, big guy!”

Ricketts watched the young lady board her train, his broad face puzzled and pensive. There was something about that girl, something that seemed very familiar. She had been hurt, all right; that fall had been nasty. But she had looked just fine. And that red outfit…Ricketts’ eyes narrowed as he lit the pilot light in his policeman’s brain. But before it could get the deductive process started completely, his son’s voice carried over to him from the opposite station.

“C’mon, Da!” he yelled. “We’re gonna miss the train!”

Lionel Ricketts shook his head, blinked, and his policeman’s brain shut off, replaced with the much less suspicious father’s brain that was supposed to be on all four cylinders today. He turned and lumbered off to join Ted on their way to the Bijou.

                                                         * * *

Ninety-Third Street was a gleaming Mecca of progress and prosperity in the middle of the Uptown district. It was a favorite destination of tourists, who migrated there in flocks to goggle at its sharp, art-deco skyscrapers with their sculpted, stylized ornaments and ranks of windows that marched to the heavens.

The elevated rail line on Ninety-Third ran above the street, treating passengers to a sweeping artificial canyon of glass and concrete. Gum Belle was too anxious to enjoy the view, however. She clung to a handrail with fingers that curled around the metal like tiny pythons and tried to avoid bumping into anyone as the train neared the station. She gnawed her lip, unaware that her teeth sank into it a tad deeper than was normally possible. When the train jerked to a stop, she flailed about a bit more than the other passengers did, swinging back and forth on an arm that seemed more like a stiff rubber band than a limb. As soon as the doors opened, she squeezed through the crowd with slightly too much ease; had her fellow passengers not already lock-stepped into their worker-drone mindsets, they would have noticed that she squirmed through gaps in the human wall that were too narrow for someone of even her willowy proportions.

The large and sluggish crowd milled about on the platform and slowly descended wide metal steps to the sidewalk in a waterfall of human molasses. The tired graveyard shift already on the platform descended on the waiting train like a pack of fleas on a fat dog. One of these passengers, a young, freckle-faced clerk from Nebraska, arrived too late to grab a seat. He settled for the handrail. As he grasped it, he was shocked to feel furrows in the smooth metal rod. He eyed it curiously; it was like something very strong had grabbed a section of the rail and twisted it around like a screw. The clerk wondered at this minor miracle, then stifled a yawn and lapsed into idle daydreaming. Whatever it was, it wasn’t his problem.

Gum Belle fairly sprang down the sidewalk, careful not to lengthen her legs to gain a greater stride. Work wasn’t too far from the station, and there was no point in showing off…at least, not right now. She unconsciously bit off a piece of her inner cheek and started to chew it. The gum relieved her tension, even though she knew it made a bad impression on some people. Thank God for her real job, where she could be herself.

She dipped past a strolling band of tourists and arrived at her destination: Tomorrow Tower. It was the highest skyscraper on the block, almost a quarter again as tall as its nearest rival, the BennyLux Building. Tomorrow Industries’ headquarters was a monument to its owner’s vision of a bright and shining future for all mankind. It wasn’t just a place of business, it was a place of humanity, a Dagwood sandwich of architecture, blistered and studded with towers, antennae, balconies, crenellations and embellishments of all shapes and sizes, wildly creative, yet simultaneously tasteful and elegant. Every time she saw it, Gum Belle was astounded that the thing made sense, yet there was the proof of Helmut Arcturion’s genius: he saw value in everything, and found a way to integrate even the tiniest innovation into a harmonious whole. She wondered what he thought about all day, ensconced in his penthouse at the very top of this wondrous feat of engineering. Her vigilante’s instincts burned to find out…but, like Lionel Ricketts, Gum Belle forced herself to focus on the task at hand.

The lobby was a cathedral of marble and glass. The floors and walls were purest crystal, and through them she saw a soundless clockwork symphony of gears underfoot and a perpetual-motion ballet of up-and-down pistons on either side. Overhead, a maze of message tubes, some as small as straws, others as large as sewer pipes, whisked memoranda, blueprints, prototypes, and God knew what else to departments all over the building.

A bank of golden elevators took up the entire far wall. Gum Belle made a beeline for them. Just as she pressed the UP button, a firm hand clamped around her arm. She turned and saw one of Tomorrow’s security guards, clad in the double-breasted uniform that had been one of the secret inspirations behind her own clandestine costume. His face was kind, but his grip was implacable.

Gum Belle opened her purse and showed him her identification badge. “If you don’t mind, I work here,” she said.

“Not anymore.” A pinched, wasted figure in a lab coat stepped from behind the guard. His hatchet face wore a smile that seemed out of place with his stress wrinkles and swiftly thinning hair. “Tomorrow has no room for slackers, Miss Zarkov,” he said.

Gum Belle refrained from rolling her eyes only by a sheer act of will. Of all the tight-assed hypocrites in the world, she had to work for this one. “Doctor Sorenz, I can explain everything. I forgot to check the schedule, and -- ”

“Save me your excuses, Miss Zarkov. That one worked once. It won’t do so again.”

His tone made it abundantly clear that his mind was made up. So she smirked at him in her most winningly arrogant way. “That one didn’t work? Okay, then. I missed my train. How’s that one sit with you, chief? Here’s another: I slept in because I didn’t think you’d actually come in for once. After all, Tomorrow has no room for slackers, right, chief?” Shades of her nocturnal bravado started to creep into her voice, and she chewed her gum slightly more vigorously. “Like that one? I got a million of ’em. Try this: my dog ate your doctorate. He thought it was a piece of his own --”

Sorenz’s face turned an ugly shade of green. “I have no need of a secretary with your flippant attitude in Applied Electronics, Miss Zarkov. I require punctuality, hard work, dependability…”

Gum Belle thrust out her hip and planted her free hand on it. “Better fire yourself then, chief. Not living up to those high standards of yours, are you?”

“That’s enough,” he hissed.

“All that science and you still can’t grow yourself some new hair? No wonder Arcturion bumped you down from the top spot. Probably didn’t show up to work there, either -- ”

“That’s enough!” Sorenz trembled, his fists clenched like bony baseballs, as the men and women waiting for the elevator turned and stared at him. He twitched and trembled and gave them all such livid looks that they promptly found other things to interest them. “You’re fired, Miss Zarkov,” he said in a low, but barely controlled, voice. “You can expect your final paycheck at that rat-trap of a flophouse you stay in.” He snapped his head over his shoulder. “Get her out of here.”

The security guard steered her towards the doors. “Let’s go, ma’am,” he said.

Gum Belle’s green eyes flashed. “I’ll show myself out.” Her arm flowed from the guard’s grip like water through a pipe, and before the guard could recover his footing, she had left Tomorrow Tower like a crimson whirlwind.

                                                         * * *

The twisted man in the blood-red cape and cowl crouched by the huge bank of flashing buttons. “So, Slouch Hat,” he said in a booming, melodramatic voice. “We meet again…for the last time! You won’t leave this room alive!”

“You’ve got one thing right, Crimson Spectre,” replied the man in the double-breasted suit and cape. “One of us won’t be leaving.” His goggles flashed, he ran a finger along his fedora, then whipped out his twin trusty .45 automatics -- and Lionel Ricketts stifled a yawn. This was nothing like Slouch Hat, he thought; the genuine article would have shot the Crimson Spectre in the back, planted incriminating evidence on him, then torched the whole place by the time these actors had finished saying their lines.

But his son was in the complete rapture of childhood. Ted leaned so far forward in his seat that his nostrils almost touched the back of the man in front of them. His face was slack as he gave the show his complete, undivided attention; he hadn’t blinked since it had started.

As for himself, Ricketts had trouble staying awake. Others had no such problems. One woman in particular had been trying his patience with loud comments and exhortations all through the show. Even now, as the action started, she let loose a high-pitched whistle of encouragement for the hero. He winced at the noise. The Crimson Spectre had just used a fancy ray (which looked awfully similar to a couple of well-timed scratches on the negative) to disarm Slouch Hat, and the two were engaged in a bout of ferocious fisticuffs, made all the more furious by a sped-up frame rate.

“Get ’im, Slouch!” cried the woman at the top of her lungs. “Knock his god-damned block off!”

“Shhhhhh!” A sibilant chorus from the crowd.

Ricketts noticed that, once the fight started, Slouch Hat lost about a foot in height and got a lot tubbier. As a policeman, he’d seen dozens of other tiny errors, from Chief Ignatz’s outdated uniform to the way the walls trembled a bit too much when the Crimson Spectre slammed into them. Not to mention the fact that Slouch Hat himself never fired a shot. He was always getting sapped, ambushed, or blasted with super-science gizmos. He’d also heard the same horn-laden background music at least three times in this chapter; he didn’t want to think about how often it had been used in previous installments. Ricketts wasn’t too impressed, but he made himself look at least halfway interested, just in case his son tore himself away from the screen to say something.

Slouch Hat delivered a punishing right cross to the Crimson Spectre, who staggered back against the wall. Ted gasped. The woman whooped and actually threw her fist in the air. From the corner of his eye, Ricketts saw a small strike team of ushers slide down the aisled towards her position.

As the masked avenger moved in for the kill, however, the villain threw a lever, activating a rather obvious trap door in the middle of the room right beneath Slouch Hat’s feet. There was an ear-splitting scream as he fell, then a burst of flame from the bottomless pit.

“Aw, c’mon, Slouch! That was a no-brainer! C’mon! C’mon! C’mon -- hey!” The ushers had surrounded the woman and were escorting her from the building, to no small applause from the adults in the audience.

The Crimson Spectre laughed as the screen wiped to a stylized image of a man in a cape and a wide-brimmed hat. “Don’t miss the next exciting chapter of Slouch Hat versus the Spectre of Doom: ‘Crushing Walls!’” appeared over the image in stylized, urgent block letters. “At this theatre next week!”

The woman continued her protests as the ushers led her past Ricketts’ row. He took one look at her, saw a glimpse of green eyes and yellow hair, and did a double-take. Yup. There was no mistaking her. It was the woman who had fallen down the subway stairs, the one who had miraculously been unharmed. Only this time she was wearing a red sun dress with gold flowers on it.

Red and gold…boisterous…loud…with blonde hair and green eyes…

No. It couldn’t be --

“Wasn’t that great, Da?” Ted asked breathlessly.

“Huh? Yeah, kiddo. A real actioner,” Ricketts said absently, and the connection faded before he even completed it. It was just a fluke. Nothing more. Besides, the shorts were starting up, and he was determined to enjoy the afternoon, not waste it thinking about things he didn’t even have the right to investigate anymore.

Ted’s train of thought was considerably more single-minded. “What about when Slouch Hat jumped off that balcony onto the train? Wow!”

“That was something.” Ricketts remembered that shot. The train had been going very, very slow.

“And when he fell down that trap door…” Ted smacked his fist into his palm. “Wow!”

Out of the corner of his eye, Ricketts saw another usher stir in a shadowed corner. “Say, kiddo, maybe we ought to keep it down a bit,” he whispered. “Other people are in the theatre.”

Ted squirmed uncomfortably, but he smiled. “Sure thing, Da. Sorry.” He settled down and watched the current cartoon; Popeye the Sailor was trying to save Olive Oyl, who was being dragged behind a motorboat on water skis. Every so often, a buoy or outcropping would appear in front of her, and she’d stretch her legs up, over, or around the obstacle.

The rest of the audience, including his son, laughed, but Ricketts was reminded uncomfortably of Gum Belle. He wanted to bring her in. He wanted to bring her in bad. Not to arrest her, and certainly not to pursue anything romantic, but she’d seen things that no other eyewitness had…and she was a powerful wild card. From what he’d gleaned from Bum Frank before they’d headed off to the station house, she’d managed to take out twelve professional criminals all by herself. And she’d left them alive, no less, which was more than could be said for Slouch Hat.

Popeye ate his spinach, grew tanks inside his biceps, and was now pummeling Brutus unmercifully for stealing his girl. Ricketts stroked his lip. Someone with Gum Belle’s abilities would be a fantastic asset to the Bureau, if she could be persuaded to work under a little more supervision than she was probably used to.

On second thought, that attitude of hers would probably make that difficult. The word attitude brought to mind the woman from the subway, and his sleeping suspicions stirred in his ostensibly deactivated policeman’s brain. Part of him regretted not stepping in on her behalf. Had that indeed been Gum Belle…

Ah, well. Maybe he could talk to Bum Frank. The precinct would hold him for at least a few days as standard procedure. Perhaps he could arrange a meeting. If she agrees, Ricketts thought, I’ll get unsuspended for sure. Maybe even earn a promotion.

He smiled. The look on Abrams’ face when that happened would be worth whatever he had to do for her cooperation.

The Flynn film was quite fine, and both father and son enjoyed themselves. Ricketts found himself thinking of Gum Belle whenever he saw Olivia de Haviland onscreen, an annoying distraction that he nonetheless did little to stop. When the end credits rolled and the lights came back up, he took his son’s hand and together they left the theatre.

As soon as they’d cleared the lobby, though, Ricketts’ policeman’s eyes saw her instantly. The bird’s nest of yellow hair, the bright crimson dress, the gold embroidery. And then she turned as if in response to some unseen stimulus, and he saw her blow a bright pink bubble.

That cinched it. It was her.

“Wait here, Ted,” Ricketts said, and shouldered his way through the crowd after her.

Ted followed his instructions for precisely five seconds, then ran after his father, determined not to miss a bit of the action.

Neither man nor boy saw the two workmen standing on the roof. One was short and skinny. The other was built like a stone wall. They crouched on the edge of the roof, which was lined with plaster gargoyles. An assortment of tools was laid out on the ground next to them: a sledgehammer, a chisel, two crowbars. Plaster and stone dust littered their clothes and their tools. A compact crystal radio played honky-tonk jazz at their feet.

The short man took a pair of binoculars from his overalls and peered down at the crowd. “There he is,” he said at last. His rodent-like nose sniffed the air. “I’d recognize that dumb hat anywhere. The Phantom Skull’s some kinda genius to know he’d be here.” He made a finger six-gun. “Go for it, Mick.”

“Sure, Eddie, sure.” The human wall leveraged his crowbar under the nearest gargoyle. They had spent the afternoon loosening up the base, but Mick’s face still turned red with effort and the muscles in his neck stood out in cords as big around as steel cables. The plaster creaked ominously.

“C’mon!” Eddie hissed. He made it a point to ignore the unused crowbar they’d brought with them; this physical stuff wasn’t his forte.

With a final groan of effort, Brick Mick, whose face was now the color of his namesake, tipped the gargoyle over the edge of the roof. Eddie watched the plaster monster hurtle down to earth like a fallen angel. “Try getting outta this one, Lone Ranger,” he said under his breath.

                                                         * * *

Ricketts caught up with the woman just as she blew another bubble. She cocked an eyebrow at him and chewed her gum briskly. “Can I help you, handsome?” she asked. She looked bored on the surface, but he sensed a sly playfulness under the surface.

“Yeah, as a matter of fact -- ”

The woman looked past him and her face brightened. She reached around him and shook Ted’s hand.

“Hey there, sport!” she said. “Fancy seeing you here.”

Ricketts frowned. “Ted, I thought I told you to -- ”

“Do you mind?” asked the woman. “This is a private conversation. Some people…” She lowered her voice conspiratorially. “You pay for your ticket today -- look out!

Her wide, bottle-green eyes were looking up. Ricketts followed her lead, saw the falling gargoyle, and moved faster than he ever had in his life. He shoved Ted and the blonde away from him, so hard that they fell to the ground, then turned to run.

Before he could take a single step, the gargoyle slammed into the pavement, breaking it into glittering gray fragments.

On the street, one of the women in the crowd shrieked and fainted.

On the rooftop, Eddie the Rat dusted his palms with a smile.

On his belly, Ted Ricketts raised his head and burst into tears.

                                                         * * *

                                   Don’t miss the next exciting chapter of

                                   GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD:

                                                   “MEETING OF
                                                                MONSTERS!”
Thrills! Chills! And happy holidays! ;P

Is this the end of Lionel Ricketts? What is the Board of Crime? And has Belle violated her landlady's curfew for the last time? Find out: [link] !

For a big version of this week's header, go to: [link]
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:iconsteel-worker:
steel-worker Featured By Owner Nov 25, 2013
So cool!Nice work bringing up those references of pop culture from that era.Belle's personality is captivating!:happybounce:
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:iconwunderchivo:
WunderChivo Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2009
Gasp! And other such overly-outrageous yet stupendously appropriate utterances! :)
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Jan 3, 2009
Pay no attention to the usherette cussing at the screen. ;)
Reply
:iconuncle-ben:
Uncle-Ben Featured By Owner Dec 28, 2008
Nooooooooo!

Stupid cliff hanger or roof crasher ....
Reply
:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Dec 30, 2008
Heh. Now you know how all those kids in the '30s felt. And those poor anime-watchers in Japan who catch each episode in real-time. ;)
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:iconuncle-ben:
Uncle-Ben Featured By Owner Dec 30, 2008
Yeah. And I get it a lot around here too.

-waits patiently for next episode-
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