Ricketts looked up, 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.
Ted hit the pavement hard as people ran everywhere around him. He rolled and flailed to keep from being trampled. Something red darted past him, like a serpent. There was an earth-shaking slam, like a giants fist punching the pavement, and gray dust billowed across the sidewalk. He raised his head, saw his Das bowler hat roll out of the dense, gray cloud, and wept.
Well, well, well, said a merry contralto voice. Looks like I caught a whopper.
The dust was clearing. There stood a pretty woman with long blonde hair and a bright red and gold costume that resembled an aviators flight suit. She was leaning against the gargoyle, and was chewing something with relaxed ease as she held her arm a good ten feet up in the air like an anglers pole, where Lionel Ricketts, former prizefighter, war veteran and FBI Special Agent, dangled like a prize fish, a gold-gauntleted hand wrapped several times around his ankles.
The crowd stared at the spectacle, every eye wide, every mouth open. But Ted rushed up and embraced his father, who wore a rather befuddled expression on his face. Da! he cried.
Looks like Ill have to throw him back, said the woman in red. She lowered Ricketts gently to the ground, and her unflappable calm was broken when Ted lunged forward and hugged her, too. Her crooked smile softened, and she tousled his hair. Youre welcome, sport, she said, almost too soft for anyone to hear. Ted gasped, then looked at her with wide eyes. She winked.
And then the applause started. Slowly at first, tentatively, with a few hesitant claps from an elderly man in a tweed suit. Then a young mother with her toddler in her arms. Then a husband and wife
a pair of kids
a traffic cop
the smarmy man at the box office. In no time at all, there was a chorus of cheers, shouts, and praise from over two dozen people all around them.
The woman in red snaked her neck down next to the prone Rickettss ear. Thats twice Ive saved your bacon, big guy. Does that mean were going steady?
He gave her a sour look. Youre lucky Im suspended, or else Id --
But the rest of his reply was drowned out by a mass of curious people who swarmed around them, gawking at the woman in red like she was a display at the Worlds Fair. Reporters seemed to rise up from the ground, lobbing rapid-fire questions like verbal machine guns.
Who are you, miss?
Whats your name?
How did you do that?
Are you related to Slouch Hat?
Why did you choose that costume?
Where did you come from?
The woman in red stretched her torso high above the crowd and held up her hands, which had suddenly grown to the size of trashcan lids. Please, folks! Thats enough. I know youre curious, but Gum Belle only spills the beans to one man
and thats Lionel Ricketts, the best darn federal such-and-so I know!
Everyone stared at Ricketts, who had just pulled himself to his feet. He had enough time to say, What did she just--? before the jackals pounced on him.
Gum Belle whistled merrily. Go get em, big guy. Mommas got work to do. And before he could say another word, she stretched out one hand, grabbed the edge of the Bijous roof, and pulled herself up and out of sight.
* * *
Aw, nuts, Eddie said. Not only was the Lone Ranger just fine, but the Gum broad was with him, too.
You want we should dump another rock on im, Eddie?
Naw. Shed probably eat it or something. He shrugged out of his workers coveralls, revealing a garish silk shirt and a pair of baggy slacks underneath. We better clear out, Mick. The bossll want to know about this. He whipped a handkerchief from his pocket and gave studious attention to wiping their fingerprints from every available surface.
Hey, Eddie? My costumes stuck.
Eddie grumbled a few choice epithets, snapped open his switchblade and sliced Micks coveralls off at the straps.
Gee, thats awful nice, Eddie. Why couldnt we get dressed like that?
Because the damned things wouldnt stay on, thats why. Use that turnip on your shoulders once in a while. He put a hand to his exceptionally large ears. Can you believe that? Theyre cheering that crazy broad, Mick. Cheering her! And she dont even wear a skirt!
Worlds going to the Bad Place, Eddie. My pa always said so. Those folks just aint law-abiding Christian people.
Eddie stared at him for a second. Neither are you, Mick.
Mick blinked. Oh, yeah.
And what does your pa have to do with anything? Youve mentioned him eight times this afternoon. I swear, do you want to go back to Nebraska? Eddie packed up their tools, his gaze on the ground in front of him.
Cause I can make it happen. I snap my fingers, youre on the corn truck back to Flatland. You want that?
Then shut up about your old man and help me find that radio. You just had to turn it to that honky-tonk music, didnt you? Couldnt let me stay on the Yiddish station, could you?
Jeez, you hate Yiddish so much, Mick?
There was no answer.
Did you just try and eat that radio again? asked Eddie as he turned to him. If I have to warn you one more time, its Flatland. Yhear me, you big -- Eep.
Gum Belle stood not five feet away from him. Brick Mick was on his belly, wrapped up in her right arm like a trussed Thanksgiving turkey.
You looked better with your gas mask on, shrimpy, she said, and blew a rosy pink bubble.
Eddie gulped. His gaze darted from left to right, looking for a way out. He wasnt good at straight-up fighting. A bit of muscle between him and the other guy was more his style. He slid his right foot back a fraction of an inch, shifted his weight to his toes. If he ran for it, maybe he could reach the fire escape, ride the ladder down, and drop into the crowd before she could catch him. She couldnt catch him if she couldnt see him. Mick would be dragging her down. And he was a fast runner. Yeah. Yeah, running for it was the best option right now.
If youre going to make a break for it, shrimpy, youd better do it soon. I dont have all day, she said with a languid, inhumanly exaggerated yawn. Maybe Ill just knock your block off right now. She clenched her free fist with an audible creaking sound, like leather being pulled to the breaking point, and grinned.
The last of Eddie the Rats courage evaporated like cheap booze on a hot grill. He turned with surprising speed and dashed for the fire escape at full tilt. Gum Belle watched him go with a boredom that edged on contempt. Something tickled her wrist. She glanced down and saw that Brick Mick was trying to bite through it. His teeth were sunk in all the way to the gums as he whipped his head back and forth like a terrier in a man suit.
Wont work, dumbo, she said. Im too tough for that. Eddies desperate footsteps were fainter now, nearing the opposite edge of the roof. She blew a fresh bubble. Mick took a break from his frenzied escape attempt to watch his partner.
Shrimpys pretty fast, said Gum Belle. It was the same condescending complement that a hunter says about a panicked deer. In the distance, she could hear Eddie wheeze with effort. He was only ten feet away from the fire escape ladder. Peanuts for stamina, though. What do you say, dumbo? You think hell make it?
Inarticulate, frightened noises from the human turkey.
I dont think so, either. Her grin was wicked. Still, I always like to give them a bit of hope.
Mick would have said something, but her wrist had glued itself to his teeth and tongue. He couldnt even breathe through his mouth now.
Case in point. Youll be good now, wont you? Just breathe through your nose. In, out. In, out
Eddie hopped on the fire escape railing and kicked off the safety release. The telescoping ladder rattled down to the street, tattered old movie posters blurred past him in an abstract montage, and the ground soared up to greet him with the promise of sweet escape. Eddie let go of the railing, leapt off, and hung suspended in midair for five seconds until he realized that a slender, gauntleted hand held him up by the scruff of his neck. He was only able to get out Aw, nu -- before the attached arm pulled him back up the ladder, banged him against the wall a few times in a deliberate display of excessive force, then whipped him back onto the roof and dragged him face-to-face with a pair of golden, high-heeled boots.
Nice try, shrimpy, said Gum Belle. Now let me get to your level. The boots kicked out in an extreme gymnastic split, and one pointed toe caught him square in the nose with a nasty cracking noise. When he hit the ground, she was spread-eagled before him. As he gingerly touched his bleeding nose, one of her legs wormed out and wrapped around his throat, while the other curled around his waist. Its heel jabbed a particularly sensitive area just below the zipper on his slacks. He squealed.
Comfy? Good, she said. His pants hissed against the rough rooftop as Gum Belle dragged him over to her. Eddie was very much aware that her hand was on his shirt collar, her right foot was wound tightly around his neck, and her left was very close to performing a great jewel theft
just as her torso undulated in front of him, and she wrapped her body around his midsection. Her neck looped back over his shoulder blades, and soon her upside-down face was thrust into his, her sheet of blonde hair obscuring everything else. For a moment, he thought she was still smiling
until he realized that those ruby-red lips were turned down in an angry frown.
Enough fun for one day, shrimpy. You just about killed a very nice federal such-and-so. Thats bad enough. But he had a sweet little boy with him who wasnt even there when you bozos robbed that ship. Thats worse. But you know what takes the cake? The coils around him tightened dangerously
especially in the old jewel vault. You got away last night, shrimpy. I hate it when the bad guys get away. I just hate it. She constricted him even more, and Eddie found it rather difficult to breathe. So youre going to open that disgusting little mouth of yours, and youre going to tell me who youre working for, what was in that crate and what you did with it. And if you dont tell me these things -- her neck wrapped around his forehead with terrible strength -- I may just lose my self-control, and make a real mess of things. No worries, though. Im wearing red. Her blinding white teeth glittered as she chewed her gum.
Eddie moaned. I - I - I cant t-tell you, he stammered. He - Hell kill me!
And I wont?
Nothings worse than his way.
I can be pretty creative.
He felt a slender finger squirm into his ear, and whimpered, I cant! I cant! I dont even know what everything in that crate was for!
Then whos your big boss? Im getting bored again, shrimpy. The finger slithered farther into his ear canal, much farther than any finger could, and he knew it was dangerously close to his eardrum. After you, I can start in on dumbo here. Hes already housebroken.
Eddie puffed and wheezed incoherently.
Last chance, shrimpy. One
buckle my shoe
Wait! Eddie sobbed. The Phantom Skull
it was the Phantom Skull
He wants the Galvanic Generator, but Tomorrow Industries has it. He dont want any loose ends to mess up the next job, so he had me and Mick try and waste that Lone Ranger Ricketts.
Who is this Phantom Skull?
The coils condensed around him. No! No! I really dont! I swear, I swear, I swear! No one knows! Not even Mr. Salucci! He gasped. Oh, God. Im a dead man.
On the contrary, Edward the Rodent. A new voice, deep and cavernous, like a hollow well. You have done precisely as I wished.
Who said that? Gum Belle raised her head and scanned the empty rooftop, twisting around so she could use the two captive criminals as human shields.
I congratulate you on your innovative interrogative techniques. I imagine they are quite effective in the bedroom, as well. With a sinister chuckle, something small and rectangular hovered up into her line of vision: a compact crystal radio. A pulsing white aura radiated from its casing.
What are you?
Have you not guessed? I am
the Phantom Skull!
Gum Belle snorted. The Phantom Skull? More like a kiddy radio.
You simple siren! The radio wavered in rage, then righted itself. I am merely transmitting my will through this primitive device, thereby watching you in person, as it were, against two of my best soldiers.
She snickered. If these two are your best, buddy, you are in for a world of hurt. As it were.
The Phantom Skull seemed unperturbed. Soldiers are expendable. Lieutenants
call them what you will, but you will find that my direct associates are more than up to the task of dispatching you.
Good for them. Gum Belle grinned. I like a good scrap. Why dont we meet down by the hopscotch field after school? We can even play tug-of-war afterwards. Ill be the rope.
Your insouciance is refreshing. The crystal radio hovered closer. Your talents are impressive.
She tossed her head like a blonde eagle. Oh, I know.
Think of what they could accomplish when guided by my scintillating intellect! Work with me
and we shall rule this city with an iron fist!
For a second, the masked woman looked speculatively at the glowing radio. Then she rolled her eyes and blew a huge bubble that burst all over it. The Skull spluttered in rage.
The names Gum Belle, not Power Mad, she said. Im here to help the good people and thrash the bad ones. Guess which list youre on, naughty boy?
The white light around the radio glowed a baleful red for an instant. She felt a sharp, searing pain, and the gummy second skin peeled away, black and brittle. You refuse me?
The voice was no longer droll, but cruel and barbed, a wicked knife held to her throat. Gum Belle felt a flicker of fear, but she kept it out of her eyes.
After your man shrimpy here put a boys life in danger? Hell, yes. But Ill cut you a deal: turn yourself in, give back what you stole, and maybe I wont punch your fat head clean off your shoulders when I find you.
A grim, tolling laugh. Hollow threats and empty words. It appears that, despite my best efforts, you are determined to meet the same sticky end as that meddling Slouch Hat. So be it. I shall read the headlines after your demise with relish. This shall be our last conversation. Farewell.
The white light around the radio grew brighter, brighter, brighter than the sun, and, with an electrical buzz, blossomed into a snow-white explosion. Gum Belle didnt feel any pain, but her whole body prickled, and everything went
loose as the blaze blinded her momentarily.
When the spots faded from her vision, she found herself in messy coils all over the roof. Eddie the Rat and his dumb meat wall were gone, and the crystal radio was little more than a lump of charcoal. Gum Belle sighed and pulled herself together. She felt more than a little sheepish. This was twice in as many days that shed lost control of herself. Slouch Hat would be ashamed of her.
She had just shrank back to normal and was testing her numb limbs to make sure they still worked when she heard someone clambering up the fire escape. Gum Belle spun around and dropped into a fighting stance, just in time to see a ruddy-faced Ricketts pull himself up the ladder and onto the roof. She sighed and relaxed. Oh. Its just you. Wheres your kid?
Teds in the lobby. Lots of witnesses there. No masonry to drop on him, either. Safest place for him till the boys in blue come to lock the scene down.
She smirked. I thought you were suspended.
His grunted. That doesnt mean I dont know police procedure. And I wouldnt be suspended if you had come with me last night and gave your side of the story. My boss didnt buy a damn word of mine.
O he of little faith.
And now every reporter in town thinks Im your publicity man, or your
Gum Belles smirk widened into a sultry smile, and she sashayed towards him, her curves suddenly grown ridiculously voluptuous. Whats the matter, big guy? You dont want to be my...something?
Ricketts swallowed hard, but his face tightened. Thanks, but my son doesnt need a mother who wears a mask.
He half expected her to be hurt, but instead, she just gave an easy shrug and her body slimmed down with an audible hiss. Suit yourself. But when I bring in Vincent Salucci, being my press agents going to be a pretty sweet gig. Ricketts laughed. Whats so funny?
Nothing much -- except that Vincent Saluccis untouchable in this town. Half the force is in his pocket. So are the judges. Anyone who isnt on his payroll is scared to death of him.
She cocked an eyebrow and gave him the once-over. Youre not scared of him, big guy. Does that mean youre on the take?
His ruddy face flushed a darker shade of red. Watch it, lady. I dont hit women, but I can always make an exception.
Now it was Gum Belles turn to laugh.
She doubled over, her pink face now red as she gasped for air. She waved a golden hand weakly at him, as if in surrender. Sorry, its just
youd hit me?! She guffawed and collapsed into a heap of boneless mirth. That -- thats -- you
she wagged a finger at her chin and tittered. Go ahead. First ones free.
Ricketts jaw clenched like a bear trap. Very funny. Regular barrel of laughs. Dont know why I ever thought of asking for your help, anyway. He turned back to the fire escape.
Gum Belle crossed her legs a good eight times until she looked like a pretzel, and rested her chin in her hands, her smile bright and eager. Help you with what, big guy? Remember, I never said no.
He paused, and then returned to kneel next to her. I want you to help me do the right thing, miss
what the hell should I call you?
Were chums. Belles fine.
Belle. Youve got moxie.
A mischievous smile. I know.
What about putting it to good use? Working on the right side of the law?
Oh, so Im on the wrong side of the law, am I? She held out her wrists. Going to try that handcuff trick again, Dick Tracy?
Ricketts took off his bowler and rubbed his temples in exasperation. Lady, I know you think youre doing a public service, but Ive seen the way these things work out. People like you stir up men like Vincent Salucci. You make them do worse things instead of bad things. Before Slouch Hat came to town, Salucci ran the rackets, the bootlegging, and a little prostitution on the side.
She raised her voice. And those are good things?
No, but once Slouch Hat started burning down speakeasies, Salucci got
Gum Belles face turned serious. The Phantom Skull.
Ricketts eyes went wide in astonishment. You know about him?
Know about him? I talked to him just this afternoon, Gum Belle said airily. Used a lot of twenty-five-cent words. Made radios float in mid-air. Offered me a job. You know, the usual. She stayed mum about that searing red light of his.
Ricketts hand inched towards his coat pocket. And you didnt accept
If I did, I wouldnt be talking to you. Her eyes flashed to his hand. And I thought suspended Federal such-and-sos werent allowed to carry weapons.
He smiled grimly and unlimbered his old .45 from its shoulder holster. They arent. But sometimes, they forget. He replaced the gun and looked her square in the eye. Sorry I doubted you, but the Phantom Skulls a rumor, a cops bogeyman. Youre the first person I know whos even talked to him. But every lawman in this city knows that hes the reason why Slouch Hat isnt here anymore.
Gum Belle stood. Thats reason enough for me to pay him a visit.
Do you know where to find him? Ricketts asked. She started to say something, but it died on her lips. He took a certain pleasure in the look of consternation on her face. What are you going to do, rough up every two-bit hood in this town until you get a lead?
The thought had crossed my mind, yes.
Do me a favor and dont. That was what got Slouch Hat killed. Him and a lot of innocent people who were caught in the middle.
She snorted. Sorry, big guy, but sometimes you have to play their game. And they play it rough. She made a fist, and it swelled to the size of a bowling ball. Ricketts tried not to stare at it.
What do you think this is, a ping-pong game? he shouted. There are lives at stake, Belle! Just look at what they tried to do to me. What they almost did to my boy. Thats what happens when you play rough, woman: they play rougher. You know how the Great War got started? A couple of guys with chips on their shoulders bought a lot of hardware, got a lot of friends, and, when neither of them backed down, they both started killing people. You know why? Cause they were both afraid of looking stupid. So, which is it: you going after the Phantom Skull because you think it will make the world a better place, or because you dont want to look stupid?
But Gum Belle only smiled. Dont be a stick in the mud, she said and tweaked his ear. Ill do what I want, when I want to do it. Youre a sweet guy, Lionel, but dont try to run my life. And with that, she flipped over the edge of the roof.
Ricketts raced after her, but when he reached the edge and looked down, all he saw was an empty alleyway. He pounded his fist on the masonry. Dammit, he growled.
Okay. That was the way she wanted to play? Hed teach her that she wasnt the only one who couldnt be bossed around.
* * *
For only the second time in its long and bloody history, the Board of Crime convened in toto at the Plaza Nightclub at five oclock in the evening, before the establishment opened for regular business.
There was no fanfare at this momentous gathering, no red carpets or glittering flashbulbs. The Boards members arrived singly and covertly, in nondescript cars with falsely registered license plates, to the loading dock of the Plaza Nightclub, where they were met with fearful courtesy by Eddie the Rat and Brick Mick, who held open doors, offered to take coats, and avoided making eye contact with these strange and frightening people -- a term used loosely if at all. The five men and women filed through the empty white dining room, and the plaster and marble seemed to darken and rot in their wake. They stepped into Saluccis office and took their seats without a word.
Vincent Salucci himself sat his customary place at the end of the table, his fingers steepled in front of his face so as not to betray the twitch and tremble of his lips as they surrounded him. Freaks, he thought. Freaks, psychos, monsters. They terrified him. Despite his influence and riches, even the weakest of the six members of the Board were more powerful than he could ever hope to be.
Closest to him on his left sat a hulking, barrel-chested man who made Brick Mick look like a kindergarten bully. He stood eight feet tall if he stood an inch, and his enormous frame was squeezed into a yellow-and-black checkered suit that looked ready to burst at the seams. His chair creaked and threatened to collapse, despite the artful reinforcement that had been applied to it long ago.
You look bigger, Stan, Salucci said in what he hoped was an easy, conversational voice.
Been doin some tinkerin, Stanley Steamer said in a rumbling voice like a boiler given life. With a pneumatic hiss, he removed his purple, feathered fedora with a hand that had steel rods for fingers, hinges for joints, and wing nuts for knuckles. The left side of his head was shaved bald, the right side covered by a steel plate. Tiny copper pipes and multicolored wires ran from it to the thick, muscled cords of his neck. One of his eyes was replaced by what looked like a series of microscope lenses, and they revolved in place with a whir of hidden motors. Stanley tried to smile, but only his upper lip moved; his lower jaw had been replaced by what looked like the scoop from a baby steam shovel. Good of ya ter notice. The machine-man rolled his beefy shoulders, and Salucci tried not to wince at the ratcheting, mechanical clanks that came from under his clothing.
Salucci was given the chance to look away when Eddie the Rat started to pass around coffee in delicate china cups. As he stirred cream and sugar into his coffee, he heard a metallic popping noise, and saw that Stanley was busy squirting oil into his.
Next to Stanley Steamer sat a much more agreeable sight, though no less chilling, in her own way: the Ice Queen, resplendent in her rich furs and glittering diamonds, her snow-white skin and raven-black hair frigidly flawless. She raised her teacup to her lips and took a delicate sip. Karol Salucci, she said in her rolling Russian accent. It has been a long time, da? Perhaps you and I could
catch up? her crystalline blue eyes sparkled with unspoken promises.
Maybe some other time, said Salucci in a dry voice. Her lips, wine-dark and full, turned down in disappointment. He hated to deprive a woman, but the icicles that now dangled from the edge of her teacup made him reconsider a night alone with her.
On the Ice Queens left, nearest the Phantom Skulls end of the table, sat a lean, relaxed man in a denim shirt and jeans, a bolo tie, and travel-worn, scuffed riding boots. He tipped his black Stockman hat to Salucci, as if the latter were a woman, and the shadows deepened around the circular, crosshair-shaped scar around his milky left eye.
The mobster grit his teeth, but didnt rise to the bait. Deadeye, he said coldly.
Salucci, replied the lean man in a sandy, weathered voice. Some shindig you got tonight. He took an uncouth gulp of his tea; a trickle ran down the sides of his mouth in a tiny river. Could use somethin stronger, though. He took a battered flask from his black leather vest, poured a dollop of amber liquid into his cup, and then slugged back the rest of his tea. He smacked his lips. Thats the ticket, he sighed.
The Chinese woman across the table from him wrinkled her nose at his lack of dignity. She wore a high-necked Cheongsam dress, brilliant white silk embroidered with red snakes and cicadas. Her hair was worn in the traditional Qing style, parted in the middle and pulled back in a severe bun, and her exotic, beautiful face was slightly pinched and businesslike, as if the tension of her hairstyle had extended to the rest of her head. She acknowledged Salucci with a tiny nod.
He returned the gesture as sincerely as he was able. Madame 415, he said with all the poise he could muster. I cant tell you how happy we are to see that you have decided to come this evening.
Madame 415s smile was a formality. Flies never visit an egg that has no crack, she said. I can only trust that the Ghost Tiger has good reason to make such unusual demands of my time.
Salucci tried to grin, but only managed a grimace. He wouldnt convene the Board without good reason, he said. More tea?
She pursed her lips. If you insist. Salucci made a frantic gesture and Eddie the Rat bustled over with a fresh cup.
Personally, Vincent, old bean, I find your tea to be a veritable slice of the Indian colonial subcontinent, said the soft, egg-shaped man who sat next to her. He smiled, revealing brown, crooked teeth sandwiched between a sharp pencil moustache and Vandyke beard. His neck vanished beneath his many stubbly chins. He was dressed to the nines in a tuxedo with a red, wine-stained cummerbund that threatened to burst under the pressure of containing his enormous belly. A red satin-lined opera cape was draped over his chair, and a gigantic turban of crimson and silver brocade encompassed his marble-round head; a huge bejeweled aigrette soared above it like a gaudy crest of arms.
Verily, it is a drinkus delecti, as they say in Latin. He sipped his tea with exaggerated daintiness, his sausage-fat finger stuck out like a hitchhikers thumb. Unfortunately, he slurped instead of sipped, drawing a glare from the ever-dignified Ice Queen. My apologies, my dear Miss Kolodka; I shall have you know that I was practicing the unique imbibatory practices of the Japanese islands, wherein the louder one drinks, the greater his evidenced satisfaction.
The Ice Queen sniffed and made a point of looking away from him.
She is quite taken with me, I daresay, said the fat man to Salucci in a loud and unconvincing sotto voce.
Shut your hole, Rando, said Deadeye.
Rando seemed to gain twenty pounds of pure indigence. What? You dare risk the wrath of the Magnificent Rando, who studied the mystic arts under Mesmer himself?
Deadeye smoothed the brim of his hat. I do. So shut your hole, Rando, or Ill shoot you a new one.
Stanley Steamer chortled like a train whistle.
The Magnificent Randos baby-fat face darkened and he raised his hands high like a stage magician about to cast a spell, but then his eyes widened and he went silent. Stanley Steamer hunkered down in his seat and poured so much oil into his coffee that it turned black. The Ice Queen seemed to sink into her furs and fingered her diamonds nervously. Deadeyes arms fell into a relaxed, spring-coiled gunslingers stance. Only Madame 415 seemed unfazed, her face and body language cool and composed
yet she produced a delicate white paper fan from her sleeve and whipped it open, obscuring the lower half of her face as if warding off a Chinese demon.
The sixth member of the Board of Crime had arrived.
He was a whip-thin man, short and slight, though his slender build was not gaunt but corded with wiry, efficient muscle. He wore a simple black suit, a funeral suit, single-breasted and austere, pressed at right angles and completely spotless. His black shoes were shined to a glistening antiseptic sheen. His hands were small, almost delicate, and he covered them with dark leather gloves at all times. A black silk tie cut across his bleached-bone shirt like a scar. Unlike some other members of the Board, he looked normal in every way
except for his head.
His face was ashen and devoid of color, from his dry, dust-colored hair to his pale, glassy eyes, to his thin, bloodless lips. This corpse's countenance leered at the Board of Crime at a crazy forty-five degree angle, for his neck was bent sharply in the middle like a snapped twig. Broken vertebrae were clearly visible just beneath his skin, and even after all these years, a deep trough ran across its soft, bruised flesh, a mark of his cursed past.
He moved slowly and easily, this cursed man, with deliberation and care. His was not the cultured elegance of the Ice Queen, nor the hard-bitten instinct of Deadeye, but the cold and dispassionate motion of a clockwork killing machine.
Eddie the Rat scurried over and pulled out the last chair for the sixth member, who straightened his lapels with a sharp tug, laced his gloved fingers together, and looked around the table with a moony grin. Hail, hail. The gangs all here. His voice was choked and whispered
but it carried. The rest of the Board looked away from him. His dead eyes darted to Salucci, and he turned his head with a sickening crack as he sat down. And how are we today, little brother? You never call.
Ive got nothing to say to you, Hanged Man, Salucci said tersely. His fingers strayed to one of the scars on his cheeks.
Poor baby. The Hanged Mans laugh was like gravel poured down a piece of sheet metal. Im all aflutter, he said, twiddling his thumbs. The motion was eerily precise; the rest of his body didnt move an inch. All of these fine fellows in one room again
its just like the good old days. He gave a long, rattling sigh. I still miss Slouch Hat sometimes. Now there was a man with will. Did you know I still have his goggles, Vincent? I put them on the other night. Couldnt see a thing. Of course, the lenses were a bit messy, but still
Salucci shuddered. Youre sick.
The Hanged Man rested his head on the back of his chair with another chain of bony snaps. At least Im not a puppet. The lights dimmed and he grinned like a nightmare at Salucci while the other members of the Board turned to look at the head of the table. The gong crashed, the ghostly light flickered across the room, and the Phantom Skulls image appeared in the darkness like an Imperial seal.
My friends, said his disembodied, cavernous voice. You have answered my summons, as I knew you would. I have gathered you all here, as in days of old, to present a great opportunity for our organization
and to combat a grave threat to its continued survival.
The ghostly deaths-head wavered, became shapeless white light, and congealed into a grainy projection of what looked like a steel ball with engraved latitude and longitude lines like a globe. Only instead of continents, its surface was studded with dozens of tiny antennae and electrical sockets.
This is the Galvanic Generator, Helmut Arcturions greatest invention
and the key to our ultimate victory.
Whats it do? asked Stanley Steamer. He had pulled open his shirt to reveal what looked like a cast-iron boiler instead of a stomach, and was shoving coal from his pocket through its miniature grating.
I am glad you asked, Mr. Steamer. The Generator does precisely what its eponymous title espouses: it provides unlimited electrical energy to whoever possesses the proper receiving device. Unlimited, I say! The image wavered again to show a tiny silver box. This is the prototype receiver. Our goal, ladies and gentlemen, is to retrieve them both. With such tools at our disposal, I can at last complete my greatest invention and rule the city unopposed! We shall live like kings!
The assembly seemed intrigued by his proposal, but Madame 415 sneered. Leave such a task to Saluccis running dogs, Ghost Tiger. Eddie the Rat looked vaguely offended. Our station is too high for such lowly tasks as robbery. You know this. A murmur of assent from the Board.
Do you think me a fool, Madame?
The Board fell silent. Madame 415s sneer curled even further, but she refrained from saying anything more.
Bah! Even your abacus brain, honed by the secret arts of the mysterious East, can be blinded by its own arrogance! Vincent Saluccis hired muscle cannot acquire the Galvanic Generator, for it is secured within the bowels of the greatest fortress in the city.
The projected receiver vanished, replaced by a picture of Tomorrow Tower. The members of the Board stirred in their seats. Madame 415 scoffed and snapped her fan shut; it slid into her sleeve and vanished. The Hanged Man ignored the ruckus and continued to watch Salucci with his dead, unblinking eyes.
It was the Ice Queen who spoke up first. I like this challenge, Tsar Skull. The Tower of Tomorrow is as impregnable as St. Petersburg in winter. To steal from it would be most
Yes, yes, but it is easier said than done, my ravishing Russian rose, admonished the Magnificent Rando. Undoubtedly, the alliterative artifact is in a location so secure that only Arcturion himself can go near it.
You are correct for once, you pompous theatrical moron.
The Magnificent Rando sniffed.
Which is why we shall steal Arcturion before we steal the Generator.
Deadeye whistled appreciatively. Kidnapping and grand theft? You got balls, Skull.
A pity he does not have the brains to match, retorted Madame 415. Arcturion is the most famous man in the city. To attack him is to stand before the wrath of Heaven.
Then it is well, Madame, that I have no intention of attacking him. Helmut Arcturion has but one weakness: a fondness for the opera. Tomorrow Tower transformed into a sweeping postmodern cathedral of crystal and steel. Indeed, he has gone so far as to found the Legacy Opera House, the finest acoustical structure in the world. He attends in his private box every night. We shall abscond with him tomorrow, during the performance of Wagners Die Walküre.
The Board exploded in protest, though the Hanged Man stayed silent. The Skulls light flared red. SILENCE! His voice echoed like the crack of doom, and a hush fell over the Board. I confess myself
disappointed in your lack of faith. The red light pulsed deeper. Must I teach you a lesson in humility?
Stanley Steamer buttoned his shirt and fidgeted. The Ice Queen sweated profusely and shrugged her shapely marble shoulders from her furs. Deadeye took his boots off the table. Madame 415s breathing quickened the slightest bit. The Magnificent Rando swooned like a transgender society matron.
The Hanged Man chuckled softly.
There will be ample enough distraction to make our getaway
courtesy of our latest enemy.
With a ghoulish crack, the Hanged Man finally turned his head to watch as the Phantom Skulls projector played black-and-white footage of Gum Belle trussing up Eddie the Rat and Brick Mick. His glassy eyes moved rapidly back and forth, taking in every detail, and his bloodless lips parted in a tiny smile.
Where have you been all my life? he whispered.
But the rest of the Board was not so enthused. The Ice Queen clucked with disapproval and muttered under her breath in Russian. Deadeyes circular scar twitched as he scrutinized Belles movements, his poker face unreadable. Madame 415 sipped her tea and looked nonplussed. The Magnificent Rando quivered in apprehension like a tub of jelly.
But it was Stanley Steamer who spoke first. Thats no dame, Skull. Thats a friggin wrecking machine.
That is Gum Belle, the citys newest self-styled protector. It was her insufferable interference that thwarted our first attempt to obtain the Galvanic Generator.
Deadeye shook his head ruefully. Shes our diversion? He took a bracing slug from his flask.
The Ice Queen scoffed. Do not be ridiculous. She would not get past the front door in such scandalous clothing.
Her control of her body is admirable, as you see. I expect that she can appear in any attire she wishes. But she shall gravitate towards a piece of tempting bait that I have placed at the Opera House. When she takes it, pandemonium will surely break loose
with the cooperation of this assembly, of course. In the confusion, it shall be easy enough to spirit away Arcturion -- and handily deal with this troublesome thorn in our sides. You eliminated Slouch Hat, my friends. This coltish crime-fighting coquette should be no trouble.
The Hanged Man loosed another rasping laugh. You really think so? Youre blind, Skull. He bared his teeth in a wolfish grin. Let me handle her. I promise, itll make the front page.
Absolutely not! I brought you here, Hanged Man, to appraise you of this situation -- but your revolting services will not be required. You attract too much attention. Salucci strained his ears. Had the Phantom Skull almost sounded
For a moment, the Hanged Man looked ready to leap across the table and throw himself at the projector. But then he pushed back his chair, got to his feet, and smoothed a few choice wrinkles from his jacket. Suit yourself, he hissed. He rolled his neck about with a sound like a skeleton in a trash compactor. But I killed Slouch Hat. Me. The sooner you remember that, the sooner that little tarts out of your hair. He sauntered to the door.
Where are you going, you insubordinate psychopath? I have not dismissed the Board!
The Hanged Man didnt break stride. Talk to me like Im my brother again, and Ill hunt you down like a dog. Eddie the Rat and Brick Mick cowered away from him as he opened the door. He glanced back, and the shadow of a smile flickered across his face. Wont that make the front page? His laugh was a death rattle as he closed the door behind him.
Everyone was too shocked to speak. It took all of Saluccis willpower not to drop to his knees and beg the Phantom Skulls forgiveness, and he could tell that the others were trying to control themselves, too. They were used to his brothers fearless manner, but to speak with such disrespect to the Skull was unheard of. Only Madame 415 seemed unperturbed, her pert lips turned up in a wry smirk of appreciation.
The Magnificent Rando coughed. I can assure you, sir, that gentlemans sentiments in no way reflect upon the remaining five sixths of the Board of Crime, and furthermore --
Shut your hole, Rando, said Deadeye softly.
At first, Salucci feared that the Phantom Skull would erupt, a wrathful Vesuvius contained in a single room. But his sepulchral voice was remarkably calm when he finally spoke. Vincent Salucci?
Yes? he asked, his throat dry. The Skull almost never spoke to him during Board meetings.
Ensure that your simpleton of a sibling stays out of this affair. If he intrudes, I shall be as
agitated as I was last night. Do I make myself clear?
Crystal. The word trailed off near the end, he was so parched with fear. He motioned to Brick Mick, who managed to pour him a fresh cup of tea without spilling it all over his white suit.
Then matters shall proceed apace. I hope that Helmut Arcturion enjoys his opera. After tomorrows performance, the only songs sung in this city shall be hymns to the glory of
THE PHANTOM SKULL!
* * *
Lionel Ricketts stood in an alley across the street from the Plaza Nightclub and tried not to think about what he was doing. It was hard going, since he had never been much of a man to kid himself, and even if he had been, there was no denying that a suspended Federal agent who staked out the lair of the citys biggest mobster without a judges say-so was being very, very stupid. Ricketts was many things: stubborn, hardheaded, surly, and rather tactless at times (Marjorie had told him these things lovingly and often), but stupid was not one of them.
Then why was he doing something that was irrefutably idiotic? Because of a broad, he muttered to himself as he thrust his hands deeper into his coat pockets. Always because of a broad.
Belle had made it perfectly clear what she thought of playing things safe. If he knew her style (and Ricketts thought he had a pretty good idea), the masked nut would probably skip the street punks and go straight for the Phantom Skulls front man: Vincent Salucci. And, while the former was a man of total mystery, it didnt take Sherlock Holmes to tell a gal where the latter spent every night.
The stream of traffic outside the Plaza thickened into a sludge of fancy roadsters and cabs as the rich and trendy flocked to the popular watering hole. Ricketts pressed himself back against the shadows of the alley to keep from being seen. If Belle thought Salucci would spill the beans about his partner, she had another thing coming. But just because he wouldnt talk didnt mean things couldnt get messy. And if that happened, a lot of innocent people would be trapped in there. More than a few might get hurt. Ricketts would be damned if hed let that happen, all because some show-off dame in a mask used her fists instead of her head.
The front doors opened, and the crowd of guests started to pour inside. Ricketts kept his eyes on them. After running into Belle several times, he had a pretty good handle on her limitations. She didnt seem to have many, but one of them was a problem with color. Red and gold werent exactly subtle, but every time hed run into her, in or out of uniform, they were what shed been wearing. And, glory hog though she might be, he suspected that shed try to show up as inconspicuously as possible, so she could get close to Salucci without arousing suspicion. That meant walking through the front door like everyone else.
So, all he needed to do was look for the blonde in the bright threads and cut her off before she made it to the club. If he could talk some sense into her, he would. If not, hed just have to get loud, act drunk, drop his pants, do everything he could to blow her cover before she made anyone trigger-happy.
Ricketts watched the crowd closely. In the War, hed been a sharp marksman, and the twenty-odd years since then had done little to worsen his eyesight. It helped that the Plaza was lit up like a wedding cake at Christmastime. Ricketts saw a lot of furs, a lot of black tails, and enough jewelry to sink a pawnshop. He saw a fair amount of red, a fair amount of gold, but not the two in combination. And, try as he might, he didnt see a single pink bubble pop in the throng.
Maybe it was time to cross the street, get a little closer to the action. After all, there was a possibility that shed come dressed in actual clothes, rather than the
whatever-it-was that she usually wore. He tugged his bowler low over his brows, snapped open his shoulder holster, and took a step out of the alley.
Dont bother, said a raspy voice behind him.
Ricketts spun, his .45 out and ready. He saw only inky shadows. Whos there? he asked. The words were steady, and even though the gun was sweat-slicked in his hand, its barrel was as unwavering as the rock of Gibraltar.
No need to get excited, said the voice. It was like sand being poured into an electric mixer. A whip-thin silhouette peeled itself from the shadows and paced towards him. Its midnight hands were held at chest-level, palms out. I just thought Id tell you not to bother going to the club. A bone-dry, choked laugh. At least, not without a reservation.
The silhouette drifted into a pool of light from a nearby streetlamp, and Ricketts saw that it was a slender man in a black suit, with matching shoes, tie, and gloves. His neck was cocked at a bizarre angle, as if he had an extra joint in there that God neglected to take out, and his face was as gray as the ashes of the dead. Ricketts recognized him immediately. Vittorio Salucci.
The dark man laughed softly. They call me the Hanged Man now, agent Ricketts. He pointed one gloved finger at his twisted throat. Can you tell me why? Ricketts raised his gun, aimed it right between his eyebrows. Please. You think that pop gun scares me?
Ricketts licked his lips, tightened his grip on the trigger. It should. This baby can blow a hole in a bulls stomach at twenty paces. Id like to see what itll do to your head at five.
A bored shrug. Ive been dead before, G-man. Youll have to try harder than that to get a rise out of me. Though I must admit, Im antsy to know what the FBI would do to a suspended agent who shot an unarmed man.
What makes you think Im with the Bureau? And how do you know my name?
Vittorio threw his head back with a gut-wrenching snap and laughed. His face stayed pointing at the sky, as if locked in place, while he reached inside his jacket pocket. Ricketts squeezed the trigger a fraction of an inch. Relax. Im just here to talk. The Hanged Man pulled out a folded newspaper and held it out. You made the front page, he said.
Ricketts peered at the paper. Sure enough, there was a shot of him, looking like he had just been punched in the head, standing next to a grinning Gum Belle. The headline read, FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION TEAMS UP WITH MASKED MYSTERY WOMAN! G-Man Ricketts First To Work With Vigilante.
Aw, Christ on a crutch, he moaned.
What are you complaining about? Id kill for press like that. Pun intended. The Hanged Man bowed, as if to touch his toes, and his neck flopped back to an upright position as he tossed the newspaper aside. He straightened back up, the lamplight pooling in his glazed eyes, and his bloodless lips widened in a nauseating smile. Lets be friends.
Without warning, he lashed out like a rattlesnake and snatched the automatic from Ricketts hand. Ricketts was stunned for a fraction of a second, just long enough for the Hanged Man to flip the gun barrel-first and level it at him. The G-man lunged forward, dipping and weaving in his old boxers stance, and threw a hard left hook at him. But the Hanged Man only stepped back, his smile unwavering and chill, and as Ricketts swung around for another punch, he pistol-whipped him across the face. There was a wet, pulpy sound, like a melon smacking the pavement, and Ricketts plowed into the alley wall, clutching his cheekbone.
The Hanged Man wrenched his head from side to side. Stupid pig, he said. His clockwork humor had vanished. Ill give you to the count of ten to act your age and play nice. Otherwise, I shoot you in the gut. I saw a lot of boys die like that in the War. Its a beautiful way to go. Very loud. Takes forever. Real spectator sport. Ricketts breathed heavily and scowled at him. He gave another bored shrug. Here we go, then.
Ricketts held up his hands, and the Hanged Mans pleasant act returned as easily as flicking on a light switch. He took the clip out of the .45, slipped it into his pocket, then removed the one bullet in the chamber and handed the gun back to Ricketts. Lets you and me talk, man to man. He clapped his arm around Ricketts shoulder; his hand was as hard and cold as a tombstone. Just between you and me, I like to hurt people, Ricketts. Did you know that?
Rickettss scowl deepened, calcified like a stubborn stain. I know more about you that Id like, Vittorio. I know you gave your little brother the scars on his face. I know you were passed up to head the family because youre a certified loony. I know you got your neck stretched at Sing Sing and walked away. And I know the only way you killed Slouch Hat was by stabbing him in the back.
Sticks and stones, G-man. Sticks and stones. His grip on Ricketts shoulder tightened, and he steered him closer to the mouth of the alley. Blurs of light and steel flew back and forth; traffic was still intense. I said it before, youll have to try harder. Ive been to the other side; it takes a lot to get under my skin. But Ill tell you a secret, Ricketts: someone did just that tonight. I offered to remove a stone from my brothers shoe, as a personal favor to him. And what happens? He lets some saccente tell me its none of my business. And, just to spit in my face, this idiot tries to tell me what to do. No one runs my life.
They had reached the sidewalk. The road stretched out on either side of them. I hate to make trouble for my baby brother, Ricketts, but its been a long time since Ive had a real challenge. And Ive got a lot of nervous energy. If I dont find some way to let it out, Ill be up all night.
Thats a crying shame, Vittorio, said Ricketts tersely. You go through all this trouble just to tell me you cant sleep?
The Hanged Man frowned. A blossom of white light hit his face, the glare from the headlights of a huge city bus. No, Ricketts. I went through all this trouble so I could rest up. And make this look like an accident.
He shoved Ricketts sprawling into the middle of the street.
The bus didnt even slow down when it ran him over.
* * *
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GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD: