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The child vanished over the side with a piercing scream.

"No!" Gum Belle lashed out her arm, sent it spooling down the stairwell, willed it to move faster...faster...before the girl hit the lobby floor and burst open like an overripe melon. She felt the strain on her shoulder, very much like the tenuous sensation of a rubber band stretched to the breaking point. Gum Belle's fingers lengthened, brushed the girl's bare toes, but she couldn't get a good hold, and --

Suddenly, her arm whisked past the girl and pooled in the lobby like too much toothpaste. Had she missed? Gum Belle stretched her neck out and peered over the edge with half-closed eyes; she didn't want to see an innocent life splattered all over the lobby.

She didn't. The girl hung suspended by her ankle only one flight above the floor, held aloft by a big, meaty hand. Her shift had fallen up over her face, and her underclothes were on display for public view -- especially by her brother, who took the opportunity to laugh so hard at his sister that he fell onto his back and rolled back and forth like a turtle.

The meaty hand pulled the girl back to the stairs. Her little feet pattered quickly across the wooden risers until she reached the landing, where she sprang on her helpless brother. Gum Belle tore herself away from the gratifying sight of a girl engaging in two-fisted vengeance to reel her arm back as quickly as she could...but not before a very familiar face poked into the stairwell, saw it, and followed it up to view her unmasked face.

"Belle?" Special Agent Lionel Ricketts asked, shading his eyes with one big, meaty hand. "What're you doing here?"

"Shit!"

The kids broke out of their brawl to clap their hands over their mouths; their round eyes had the somebody's-been-a-potty-mouth look that any self-respecting child can pull at the drop of a hat.

"Git along," she said, and waved them up the stairwell as she stood up, swaying unsteadily on her heels and pulling her skirt down where it had ridden up over her bustle. "And don't tell my gran!"

They giggled off a moment too soon. Heavy, clomping footsteps rose to meet her, and there was Ricketts, dressed in a three-piece Sunday suit that did few favors to his heavily abused bowler. His partner from that Confidence incident was close behind, with little Ted bringing up the rear.

The G-man stopped short when he saw her. He made a choked snorting sound. "You look like my Ma," he said.

She sighed and started to pick up her load of milk bottles. "It's a long story, big guy. Now, if you would step aside like a nice Federal such-and-so, I have to -- "

"Take out the trash?" he said, trying, and failing, to keep a straight face.

Gum Belle's color rose to a fierce pink. "I'm just helping out folks around here with their chores. So if you're not going to lend a hand, you can just get the hell out of my way."

"Such language!"

She squeaked and looked up at the stairs. There was her grandmother, tapping her foot and glaring at her through her square spectacles. The kids peeked out from behind her, mischief leaking out with every titter. Belle's eyes narrowed, and she shot a dark look at them, which intimidated them about as much as a double-scoop ice-cream cone.

Ricketts groaned softly and stepped past her. "Hello, Mrs. Zarkov," he said. "What is it this time? The commies shave your cats again? Or is that granddaughter you're always wanting me to marry finally here?"

"As a matter of fact, Mr. Ricketts, those Bolsheviks from 10A stole my dear Silkyboots's hair just the other day. Fat load of good you've been doing about it! And yes, this is my granddaughter, Annabelle."

This time, it was Gum Belle’s turn to groan. Ricketts craned his neck around so slowly that she could almost hear the muscles creak. His right eyelid twitched, and the corners of his lips had a great deal of difficulty staying down.

"Annabelle?" he said, in a tight voice that was almost a guffaw. "Annabelle?"

Granny Zarkov bobbed her birdlike head up and down. "Mmmm-hmmm. My dear son Emil's daughter, God bless his soul. Never did raise her right, though. Always been a bit of a tomboy."

Ricketts smirked. "I can tell."

Gum Belle snorted and tossed her head like a bull.

"It's nothing some good, old-fashioned discipline can't cure," said Granny Zarkov. She ceased to be a grandmother and became a strange cross between a marriage broker and a used-car saleswoman. "What do you say, Mr. Ricketts? You and that son of yours need a woman in your lives. How does next Friday sound for a first outing? Don't look so shocked, dumpling," she said to her granddaughter, "I'll chaperone you every step of the way."

The G-man spoke up before Belle could say something both very loud and very improper. "I'm sorry, Mrs. Zarkov; I'm sure she's, ah, full of surprises, but I've got a meeting at the office in half an hour. We'll have to finish this up some other time. Pleased to meet you...Annabelle," he said with a slightly exaggerated tip of his hat.

"On your way, dumpling," Granny Zarkov said sweetly as they left. "Don't want to keep the milkman waiting on Monday."

Annabelle Zarkov, alias Gum Belle, vigilante by night, royally humiliated young woman by day, picked up the trash and milk bottles, and stomped furiously downstairs.

                                                         * * *

Director Abrams's face was all smiles and cheer as he waddled around his desk to greet Ricketts and Jenkins. "My two top agents! Welcome, welcome! Take a seat, take a seat!"

"What's the trick, sir?" Ricketts growled as he pulled back his chair. "Last time I heard you say top agent, it wasn't exactly flattering."

Abrams's smile faltered. "The only trick, Agent Ricketts, is this." He tossed Saturday's evening edition onto his desk blotter, the same edition that the Hanged Man had shown such interest in. "Moved from insubordination to vigilantism, eh?"

Ricketts started to say that he had nothing to do with it, but such was Abrams's fury that he ran roughshod over him.

"Well, it worked. The home office thinks this Belle freak might have potential, if we can keep her on a close leash."

"She won't bite, sir," Ricketts said hastily. "She's completely against anyone tying her down. It was all I could do to get her to back off of Vincent Salucci for a few days."

Abrams leaned back in his chair and chuckled. "Back off? That's the last thing the Bureau wants. You two are her new keepers. This is straight from Hoover himself. We've got a Federal commission for her if she helps us take down Vincent Salucci."

"If you think she'll let herself get deputized -- "

"If she doesn't, then Hoover won't be happy." Antacids crunched between Abrams's teeth like breaking glaciers. "If that happens, you two will be lucky to spend the rest of your miserable careers in Archives. So get the job done, or else."

"Yes, sir." Ricketts made the last word sound like a very filthy oath as he pushed back from his seat.

"I'm not finished." Abrams scowled and took a vellum envelope from his desk drawer. "Helmut Arcturion sent these your way. Guess he wanted to thank you for sleeping on the job."

The envelope's smooth, creamy paper opened easily and without complaint. Inside, Ricketts found four tickets. "Die Wa...Die Walk...?"

"Die Walküre. It's an opera, Ricketts," Abrams said with a nasty smile. "Hope you've got a tux back at that roach motel you call an apartment. You'll need it."

                                                         * * *

The afternoon sun beat down on Gum Belle like a blacksmith's hammer. Her usually luxuriant flaxen hair was now limp and stringy, her rosy face flushed and bothered. Her body sagged in its complicated dress as she sank down on the fire escape outside her bedroom window.

Passersby clipped along below without a care in the world. They didn't look very hot. Then again, she supposed she had been a bit spoilt. For three years, she had effectively been running around naked everywhere; her clothes had always been embellishments to her skin. Who knew real fabric would be such a bother?

Well, it was time to fix that. After glancing around to make sure no one was looking, Gum Belle let herself relax. Totally.

With an inward sigh, her face and hair lost definition and color, followed closely by her exposed hands. The corset held its shape well enough, but the rest of her dress went floppy and loose as her body oozed out of its every collar and cuff. Soon, nothing remained of Annabelle Zarkov but a puddle of pink, shapeless goo.

She was used to it, for after she had received her marvelous gifts, this was as close as Gum Belle came to a natural form. For months after the accident, she could barely hold a shape for ten minutes before ‘going gum,' as she called it.

Fortunately, she had been lucky enough to have a good two months of sick days saved up (Tomorrow Industries was ahead of its time in employee benefits), and so she could afford to lock herself in her room at Arlene's all day and all night, trying to get a handle on what she had become. Everything was new to her, even eating; sometimes, she lost her mouth before she could finish her meal. But little by little, week by week, she had mastered her traitorous self, brought it to heel like a wild hound.

And soon, like all masters with a trained dog, she taught it to do tricks. At first, she had done simple stuff, like changing her hairstyle, or easy limb stretches. But when she got to the more marvelous stunts, like quick-change clothing or squeezing under doors, Annabelle Zarkov had stopped viewing her condition as a toy to play with and acknowledged it as a gift that had some very practical uses.

After that, she had gotten serious. She had started training harder, had found isolated places with lots of obstacles to practice with, had tested (and exceeded) her limits again and again -- and before she knew it, she was living a double life.

Now, three years later, that life had turned inside-out. Instead of going gum at the drop of a hat, she had to work to relax; and meek little Annabelle Zarkov was the larger-than-life Gum Belle's alter ego, rather than the other way around. She liked the new her, and the new her liked excitement. All was right with the world.

Lately, though, things had started to change. In only a few days, the dustiest, dreariest parts of her life had returned with a vengeance. After years of putting her calling as a vigilante front and center, all of a sudden she was having problems with the simplest things. Finding a place to live? Eating oatmeal with her grandmother? Worrying about money? Slouch Hat never had to worry about such abuses!

Why couldn't life be more like the serials? Flash Gordon went into space all the time, but he never had to fuss over breathing. The Shadow went through bullets like candy, but he never had to stop to reload. What was the point of having all these powers if she got punished for sneaking out at night to use them?

And then there was Ricketts. He knew her secret identity! Belle had Gran to thank for that, her and those stupid old cats of hers. Her liquid body quivered, came dangerously close to reforming itself as the bulbous feline vision of William Taft threatened to break her out of her meditative state.

Now the Feds could lock her down whenever they wanted. If Ricketts told them. Knowing what a stickler for the law he was -- sorry; it was THE LAW to a fuddy-duddy like him -- better than even odds said he would.

What could she do if he did? Her control still wasn't fine enough for her to disguise herself as a different person, so she couldn't take up a new identity. And if she had to turn away from the masked life, she'd die of shame (and boredom). Would she have to work against the police? She didn't want to, mainly because she didn't want to emasculate the boys in blue by handing their keisters to them day in and day out.

Maybe she'd have to sit Ricketts down. Talk to him, woman to man, see if they couldn't hammer something out. The big guy was a good enough sort. And she knew he could bend the rules. There was an off chance, slim, but better than none, that he might actually make her job easier. After all --

Glorp.

Something had hit her. The pink goo that was Annabelle Zarkov shook, stirred, and swiftly recovered its shape, appearing in a simple red shift with gold stitching. There was a pink ball stuck to its hem. She plucked it off, ran her fingers over it, and it opened like a flower to reveal a message, written in a familiar chicken-scratch writing:

Meet at docks. Urgent. Re: Skull.
Gum Belle whooped for joy and literally bounced to her feet. Goodbye, cabin fever; hello, fisticuffs! Her shift flowed into her costume and she jumped off the fire escape, her body flattening out into a thin sheet to sail across the skyline.

So excited was she that she didn't notice a small, nondescript roadster roar to life and peel off from the curb in her wake.

                                                         * * *

It didn't take long to find Frank. The sun's dying rays picked him out, slumped in the tight alleyway between two warehouses. As soon as she approached him, she knew something was wrong. Bum Frank had never been the healthiest hobo, but now he looked like death warmed over and put back in the fridge to set. His face was one giant bruise, and when he smiled at her, she noticed gaps between his teeth. Well, more gaps than usual.

She shook her finger at him, the digit elongating with every wag until it rapped the top of his head like a nun's ruler. "You been fighting again, Frank?" she asked lightly, but her hands widened to envelop him like a living cast. "Let me take you to the Red Cross."

"No time, boss." Frank's voice was hoarse and wet. "Salucci...nabbed me. Got out just in time...just in time..." He fell into a fit of nasty, rattling coughs. Gum Belle frowned. He didn't even have enough strength to cover his mouth, which was both disconcerting and rude. She wasn't sure which was worse. "Got out just in time to warn you."

"Oh, Frank," she said quietly, "What did they do to you?"

"Beat me to hell asking about you. But they talked too much while they was doin’ it." He beckoned her closer and whispered in her ear. "Salucci's going after that Tomorrow bigwig, Arcturion. Tonight, at the Legacy. You gotta stop him, boss. You gotta. The Phantom Skull wants something of his bad."

He seemed ready to say more, but instead he collapsed, his breathing shallow and labored.

When Gum Belle stood, her flawless brow was creased. Not greatly, but more than anyone, Frank included, had ever seen. She flicked a stray lock of hair from her face and gave him a sugar-sweet smile. "You rest up now." She plunged a hand inside her abdomen as easily as if it was a pool of water and came out with Gran's dress. "Here. Don't give me that look; it's nice and thick. Use it as a blanket. And since when have you ever looked a gift horse in the mouth?"

Frank didn't say anything, but gave her a hangdog look that never failed to make her either lose patience with him or give in.

"Fine, fine. When I get done beating the snot out of whatever sad sack the Skull sends my way, I'll get you something warmer. That doesn't have petticoats. Or a bustle." She sighed. "Please let me take you to the hospital, Frank."

He shook his head stubbornly.

"Okay. But lie low. And drop me a line if anything happens."

As she bounded across the docks, Gum Belle faced an unexpected obstacle, one she could not simply flow around or punch through. Helmut Arcturion was always well protected, and the Legacy Opera House kept better tabs on its usherettes than the Bijou Palace did. It would be hard to go undercover there. And tonight's show, some German squawk-fest called Die Walking or some such, was sold out.

Belle tugged her lower lip in thought, oblivious to the way it stretched out and snapped back like an overextended rubber band. If it were any other building but the Legacy, she could just slink through the ductwork or bubble up through the plumbing.

But the Legacy, like anything else connected with Tomorrow Industries, was different. In her old job as Sorenz's secretary, she'd seen enough of Arcturion's memos (usually admonishing Sorenz for his lack of optimism about the project) to know that its guts were made out of space-age gadgets and gizmos. Who knew what might happen if a human clog got caught in that mess? She was pretty sure of her own indestructibility, but Gum Belle didn't want to be responsible for blowing up an opera house.

The faintest sound, like the scuff of a very soft shoe, made her spin her head a hundred and eighty degrees. "I heard you, whoever you are!" she called. "Come out before I get nasty." She sprouted a mass of extra arms like an octopus and started to snake them around the pilings.

Before she could search very far, a particularly dense patch of shadow stepped away from an alley and into the light, its hands raised. Gum Belle stopped short, all but two arms reeling back into her torso. "Well, I'll be," she said. "It's...um...that other guy."

"Jenkins."

"Well, Mr. Jenkins Other Guy, why were you following me?"

The short man stuffed his hands into his trench pockets and looked a little evasive. "Ricketts asked me to."

She folded her arms across her chest and looked down her nose at him. "Oh, he did, did he? Doesn't trust me to play nice, does he?"

Jenkins shook his head. "Not that way. Hoover's orders. He'd do it himself, but he's busy. Asked me instead."

Gum Belle knew she should have been angry about Hoover, but she found that having Ricketts fob her off to someone else more infuriating. "And what's so important that he doesn't have time to get in my way, Mr. Other Guy?"

Jenkins's stone face was unmoved. "His son. Going to the opera tonight. Each got two tickets today."

"Well, you can just tell him -- wait a sec. Did you say the opera?"

An affirmative grunt.

"At the Legacy?"

An affirmative grunt.

"Why didn't he invite me?"

"Didn't want you to get kicked out like at the Bijou. Kidding," he said hastily, for Gum Belle had fixed him with a dangerous look. "I don't like crowds. Thought I'd skip the show."

Gum Belle's warning snarl melted, replaced with a sly, sparkling grin. "Are you sure, Mr. Other Guy? Cause, just between we two, I love crowds..."

                                                         * * *

Half an hour later, in the secret boardroom of the Plaza Nightclub, Vincent Salucci slammed down the receiver of his imported French telephone. "That was our man on the inside. The Feds want Gum Belle on their payroll."

"Is that so?" drawled the Phantom Skull from the other end of the table.

"She'll move in on my operations! With government sanction! Do you have any idea what that means for my --"

The light in the room didn't turn red, but it became so brilliantly white that Salucci quailed from it. "SILENCE! Do you believe your petty gamblers and short-sighted thieves' guilds are of any concern to me? Mention such inanities to me again, and I shall roast you alive, Vincent Salucci."

Salucci picked up what was left of his courage and bent across the table at the glowing white Skull. "Oh, yeah? Well, our man also says that Arcturion invited Ricketts and his partner to the opera tonight. They'll be with him in his private box. We gotta call off the job."

He went to the bar and picked up the phone, but it suddenly burned red-hot. Salucci yelped and jumped back.

"We will do no such thing. Tonight's operation will continue as planned. Your men let the vagabond escape last night as I instructed?"

"Yes, but -- "

"And you are certain that he heard precisely what we wanted him to hear?"

"Yes, but -- "

"Then all is in place. Arcturion will be mine by midnight. Mine! Mine, I say!"

Salucci gaped at the flickering face before him. "You can't be serious! It's one thing to kidnap the richest scientist in the country, but with two Federal agents right there? They'll bring the hammer down on us so hard we won't know what hit us!"

"Bah! Do you not remember the glorious simplicity of my master plan, fool? Ricketts and his pitiful partner shall be sufficiently preoccupied. Worry not."

"But -- "

"WORRY. NOT."

Salucci threw himself into his chair and drummed his fingers on the table. This whole heist stank like a hog farm in summertime. Maybe Vittorio was right about the Skull. Salucci almost stood up and walked away right then and there, but stopped himself. It wouldn't be good to back out now. He'd lose face. The Skull might set the Board of Crime on him. Not even Vittorio could protect him from all of them; hell, he might even take the Skull's side. A gang war would be the perfect opportunity for the Feds to bust everything wide open, especially if they had a pet freak on their side.

No. He'd stick it out. But he'd remember the Phantom Skull's disrespect. When the time came...when things weren't so risky...he'd make him regret it.

                                                         * * *

Ted examined himself in the bathroom mirror. "I look like a penguin."

"Nah. A real gentleman, that's what you look like. Be grateful the rental shop had a tux in your size."

Privately, Ricketts wished they had rented one for himself, as well. His old wedding tuxedo still looked just as sharp as it had thirteen years ago, but in that time, he had become more...imposing. Especially in the gut. Still, it fit. Especially when he didn't breathe. Ricketts stuck his thumbs under the cummerbund and wriggled it around. If his son felt like a penguin, then he felt like a stuffed sausage.

"Please can't I stay home?" Ted whined.

"No," he said sharply. "You want to move up in the world, kiddo, you have to know a little about something called culture."

"Then why don't we go to the opera more often?"

"Because it costs an arm and a leg, that's why."

Maybe you'd have the money for it if you didn't eat all that pork, tubby, said Marjorie's voice, which had long ago been adopted by his Catholic guilt reflex.

"So, if you want to get more money, you have to go see something that you can't pay for?" Ted screwed up his face in thought. "That sounds kinda dumb."

"Maybe it is, but that's not the point." He sighed. "A show like this is pretty special for people like us. It'll be good for you to watch something besides Slouch Hat."

"I don't think it'll be good for me," Ted grumbled.

"Nobody asked you, kiddo," replied his father, with gruff affection. "Besides, if I have to sit through three hours of Germans screeching at each other, I shouldn't have to do it alone, right?"

Ted slouched in his tuxedo; the rental's tails nearly touched the floor. "Why didn't you ask Miss Zarkov?" he asked.

"What, and give her grandma funny ideas?" He guffawed. "No thanks, kiddo."

"But I thought you...um...you and her..."

Ricketts cocked an eyebrow, his face carefully neutral. "Me and her what?"

His son slumped even further. "I thought you liked her. Like you liked Ma."

Ricketts felt like someone had just swung a heavy weight into his face. For the briefest of moments, all his carefully cultivated masks of civilized life fell away, and his son didn't see Lionel Ricketts, tough father, or Lionel Ricketts, G-man extraordinaire, but the simple, unadorned, exposed Lionel Ricketts, man. It was like breaking the screen during confession.

His son looked at the ground. "It's...Father Faber says -- I mean...if you do...I won't be..."

Lionel Ricketts knelt down to look Ted in the eye. He wanted to say that he had never loved any woman as much as he loved Marjorie. He wanted to say that, even after years of the accident, there were still some nights when he lay awake and stared into the black, yawning hole in his heart where his wife had been. Nights when he almost fell into that hole. He wanted to say that the only thing that kept him from keeling over and dying on sometimes was looking into his son's face and seeing the little bits of her that broke the surface.

He wanted to say all these things, but an emotion that he could not define snatched greedily at the words and sucked them back into his throat, and he lunged forward and swallowed Ted in a fierce hug. When he felt his son's slender hands return his embrace, it was as if a sun had glowed to life in his chest.

They stayed that way, locked together, for a time. When they let one another go, Ricketts looked away and wiped his eyes on his sleeve. "Let's shove off, kiddo," he said in a husky voice.

                                                         * * *

When it first opened its doors, the Legacy Opera House had been met with scorn and derision. A glass opera house had never been done before, much less in the middle of a metropolitan area. It went against convention. It was a crass construction, a publicity stunt, like staging Aida in the middle of Barnum & Bailey's Three-Ring Circus, with the elephant cast in the title role.

These objections were valid, for the Legacy was a radical construction, especially to the conservative mindset of the average opera lover. From a distance, it looked like a crystal cathedral. Up close, one saw the intricate latticework of steel and iron that held up its many panes of glass into fascinating, multifaceted shapes. Rooms floated within this glassy frame like a pieces of fruit in a tremendous Jell-O mold.

Yet everything about Arcturion's design was designed to enhance the operatic experience. In his offhand dabbling in sonic theory, the great scientist had discovered that glass could conduct and reflect sound waves. With correct placement and angling, they could even serve as highly accurate sounding boards and speakers, without the interference inherent in electronic transmission.

In short, the Legacy provided a personalized musical experience to every member of the audience. Its countless panes of glass were all precisely aligned to take the original sound of a performer's voice or instrument and, without amplification or modification, distribute it to every seat and room in the house. This allowed all the attendees, even those in the cheap seats, to feel like they were on stage with the players, or in the pit with the orchestra.

Hence the enormous crowd of men and women outside the opera house when Lionel Ricketts and his son arrived. These were not the smartly dressed dandies who frequented the Plaza Nightclub. They wore tuxedoes instead of suits and gowns instead of dresses. There was less jewelry on display, but what there was wouldn't have felt insecure next to the Crown Jewels. Shapely arms glistened in elbow-length satin gloves. The lorgnette was still a fashion accessory. Nobody stared at the humble Ricketts and his stooped-shouldered son, but they gave them a wide berth, as if they were carriers of a contagious disease. Proletariat-itis, perhaps.

All told, Ricketts would have preferred the staring.

His first impulse was to turn around and head straight back to the subway station. But a rich, cultured voice rang out from the crowd, jovial and welcoming.

"Agent Ricketts! I am so glad you could come!" Helmut Arcturion swam through the crowd, a broad, sincere smile on his elegant face and two beefy bodyguards in rather familiar double-breasted uniforms on his heels. They shook hands. "You had no trouble making it here, I trust?"

"No, sir. Subway took us uptown in no time."

At the mention of the subway, Arcturion's brow creased. "How very thoughtless of me. I had forgotten about the terrible accident involving your automobile. I should have sent my driver for you." He bent his head in Old World supplication. "I insist that you let him take you home after the performance." The scientist's hawkish gaze snapped over to Ted. "And this is...?"

"My son, Te...er, Theodore."

Arcturion clicked his heels and bowed. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance, young master. Is this your first opera? Yes? Then you are in for a treat. Though I would have preferred to introduce you to Wagner through Das Rheingold, or perhaps Tristan und Isolde..." His voice trailed off briefly as he considered which three-hour musical juggernaut would steamroll a neophyte the least. "Regardless, I am quite pleased to see you both. I assume that Agent Jenkins will be here shortly?"

"He's...on assignment," Ricketts said.

"A pity. You shall have to convey my sincerest condolences to him; he shall miss a superb performance." Arcturion reached into his waistcoat and checked a platinum pocket watch that was probably worth more than everything in Ricketts's apartment. "Since he will not be joining us, I suggest we adjourn to the lobby. We have fifteen minutes before the first vorspiel."

The lobby was a cavern carpeted with the milling rich. Fluted columns rose several stories above their heads to support a vaulted ceiling, where an enormous crystal chandelier sparkled and glittered over them like a diamond star. Arcturion led them through the crowd to a long, curving staircase that led to the second-floor landing. They were to see the opera in his private box, he explained, but he was expecting one more guest, and it would hardly be polite to take their seats without a full party.

That was when the disturbance happened.

Ricketts heard it first, the low click of men tutting and the sibilant gust of women whispering to one another. He turned in the direction of this wealth of wealthy disapproval and heard a woman's laughed, not the polite titter or giggle of a lady, but a full-blown guffaw that made him grit his teeth.

No. Oh, no. Not her. Please, please, please not her.

A zaftig society matron and her significantly younger chaperone sidestepped out of the way, and there she was, in all her inappropriate glory, wearing a stunning, scoop-necked crimson gown with matching elbow-length gloves. She dripped with gold baubles, a hot-fudge sundae to every other woman's crème brulee. Her long hair was piled up on her head in a display that would have been more at home in a Hollywood costume drama, and she had even made herself an old-fashioned opera mask, something red, gold, and feathery that she held to her face with one hand.

She was such a strutting peacock of a woman, grinning and curtseying to every man in the room, that it took him a minute to even realize that she had one of her own, a little fellow in a slightly worn, ill-fitting rental tux. It took Ricketts another minute to recognize him.

Unfortunately, Helmut Arcturion was a little quicker on the uptake. "Agent Jenkins!" he cried. "Your partner informed us you were working."

Jenkins mumbled something about being called off.

"You put your second ticket to good use, I see." Arcturion bowed. "Enchanté, miss...?"

"Smith." Gum Belle did a little curtsey -- though not, Ricketts noted, an exceptionally deep one. "The pleasure's all mine, Dapper Dan."

Arcturion bowed again, then turned his attention to Jenkins. As they exchanged pleasantries, Ricketts glowered at her and mouthed, What the hell are you doing here?

She looked mildly affronted. Being polite.

You called him Dapper Dan!

She shrugged.

"Ah!" Arcturion broke off from his conversation and gazed up the stairs. "And now our company is complete."

Desperate for anything to look at besides the pliable pain in his neck, Ricketts followed the scientist's gaze. He expected some fuddy-duddy scientist, a four-star general, maybe a Rockefeller or a Carnegie.

Instead, he saw her.

In a room full of elegant, beautiful women, she was the wheat among the chaff. Tall and leggy, with alabaster skin and midnight-black hair, she didn't walk down the stairs as much as the stairs escorted her to the floor. Ears, wrists, and fingers glittered with diamonds, though, unlike Gum Belle's scattershot jewelry box, this display did not seem ostentatious. She wore a long mink coat that reached almost to her ankles, and when she extended one shapely, white-gloved hand to her escort, she dipped her chin deep inside its plush furs and flashed her sapphire-blue eyes at them all.

Arcturion kissed her fingers. "Miss Kolodka," he said.

"Mr. Arcturion," Miss Kolodka replied in a low, rich voice that rolled with an Eastern European accent. "And who are these...people I see before me?" Even her pout was poised. "Could it be that we must share your box?"

"Yes, and gladly. Tonight, we shall sit with heroes fit for Valhalla." Their host introduced the two G-men, and gave a brief account of their Confidence heroics (during which Belle nodded politely and jabbed Ricketts once or twice in the ribs). Arcturion's guest, whose full name was Krasavitza Kolodka, listened with polite attentiveness, but didn't seem too impressed. Ricketts wasn't surprised; Arcturion had presented her as "a counter-revolutionary Russian political activist on leave in these United States," which was a fancy term for White Russian. When put up against the Bolsheviks' brutality, the Phantom Skull was probably a lightweight.

Arcturion took his befurred dream by the arm and together, they led the way up the spiral, gilt staircase. "Miss Kolodka recently made a very generous donation to the Tomorrow Fund," he said. "In return, all she asked was to spend the evening with me. When asked for by name, how could I refuse?"

Miss Kolodka's laugh was throaty and musical. "In truth, this is my first opera. I prefer the ballet. Have you ever been to the ballet, Miss...Smith, was it?" Her sapphire eyes flashed over Ricketts's shoulder at Gum Belle, and Ricketts felt a chill.

"Not really my thing," Gum Belle said absently. She leaned over the railing and peered down at the lobby. "Where's the concession stand?"

Miss Kolodka sniffed and turned away. As she chatted with Arcturion about the Tomorrow Fund, Ricketts let Ted pull ahead and slid his bulk next to Jenkins.

"I thought you were going to watch her,” he said from the side of his mouth.

"She wanted to come." There was no apology in Jenkins's voice or manner, just a simple statement of fact.

"Mr. Jenkins Other Guy is very nice," Gum Belle put in. "He doesn't have anger issues, unlike some people I know."

Ricketts glared at her.

"And he let me drive."

Jenkins fiddled with his cufflink. "She knew a shortcut," he said mildly. Gum Belle held up her hand, flattened it, and drifted it in front of her face like a paper airplane.

Ricketts massaged the bridge of his nose. "Don't change the subject. I know you're not in for high culture -- "

Her nostrils flared. "What do you call Black Mask?"

" -- and you hate sitting in one place for three hours. So, you want to tell me what you're doing here or not?"

She wagged a finger in his face. "That would be telling."

He wanted to grab her by the shoulders and shake her, but Ricketts had a hunch that she'd just get a kick out of that, so he shoved his hands deep in his trousers pockets and went back to his son. He'd have a long talk with her after the show. If she didn't drive him nuts before the first intermission, that was.

                                                         * * *
Thrills! Chills! Due to DeviantArt's size constraints, this week's episode has been broken up into two parts.

For part two, go here: [link]

For a full-size version of this week's header, go here: [link]
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:iconsteel-worker:
steel-worker Featured By Owner Dec 13, 2013
Once more:Amazing!I really like your style for narrating and describing every situation.Clap I'm in concordance with everything about Wunderchivo's pointed as his fave momentsNod ,sadly,I'm not so eloquent as he is.I can't wait for seeing what's next!:happybounce: 
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:iconwunderchivo:
WunderChivo Featured By Owner Feb 9, 2009
Dang, man. So many great moments and absolutely nothing to do with action or violence.

Fave moments:
-Belle's curse in front of gram, and the following scene with Ricketts. Oh the ignominy! Good thing Belle bounces, eh? :)
-Belle in a puddle. Holy Noodles! I mean, the way she changes into each new form is utterly engaging, and almost always "visually flirtatious". You've hit on a really great vibe with the "gum" theme for all her forms. I can always see your descriptions in my mind's eye and 'Wow' if it ain't a kick in the pants each time.
-Ricketts and Ted. ESPECIALLY the part after "Ricketts felt like someone had just swung a heavy weight into his face." If ever a grown man could crumble to the same vulnerable state as his boy, that was it. Had to wipe my eyes abit there.
-Belle's entrance to the Opera house. Man, all the wonderful allegories to capture Belle's standout. :D
-Miss Kolodka. Mmmm. Oh Glory, what a wonderful image of voluptuous, sleek and nigh untouchable midnight grace. I'm drooling.

Also, I wanted to thank you for not letting Frank end up as the poor patient on Hanged Man's operating table in previous Episode V. I was biting my nails, man!
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Feb 10, 2009
Merci! (Four years of college French pays off!) I take it as the highest of compliments when others tell me that a given story works on more levels than the gratuitous.

-I like putting Belle in mildly embarrassing situations. I figure that what's good for the goose is good for the gander (or is it the other way around in this case?). And it's a nice way to give her a few weak points now and then, which is hard to do, given her abilities.

-It's amazing how a name can define a character; had I gone with the Plastic Pearl, Belle would have had a different personality and flavor (Gum joke -- har har). And I appreciate the superlatives on the descriptions. I am a sucker for writing visuals and atmosphere -- probably to excess. Shadows, elasticity, and character sketches: I can while away a thousand words on these alone and not advance the story one bit. Action is harder. Action is much harder. Action and dialogue both.

-Awwww. Thank you.

-I will not lie. I enjoy pointing out how completely tasteless Belle is sometimes. She's got natural style, but I would both dread and anticipate moving her to, say, France. At a dinner party. In the palace at Versailles. ;)

-I've been doing more with Kolodka lately. She's grown into more of a foil for Belle's superficial side. Really, I think most of the members of the Board function as foils for either Belle (especially Hanged Man) or (in the case of Deadeye) Ricketts. Maybe that's why I dig writing them so much.

And how could you think I'd let Frank end up the guest of the Hanged Man? Old Vittorio does have certain...exacting standards...(DUM-DUM-DUMMM!) :D
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:iconuncle-ben:
Uncle-Ben Featured By Owner Jan 18, 2009
No! Your going to leave it on a cliff hanger again as whatever it is that happens on stage just starts.

-squints eyes at the new female- Eeeevvvvviiiiilllllllll .... I can feel it.


And it's probably sound related as the building is made to make sounds on stage go to every audience member ....

It'll probably knock everyone out, too....

-quickly goes to part 2-
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