Maybe her little stakeout wouldn't be so bad if the opera were more exciting. The first act had almost done her in, all lovey-dovey German squawking and sappy hand-holding by some guy named Siegmund and some girl named Sieglinde. Bleah! The second act started off a little better, with a tall, grim-looking fellow with a patch over one eye and a spunky blonde who wore a nifty suit of armor that Gum Belle thought would look very swank on her -- in a different color, natch. There had been a sword fight in there second act, too, which was all well and good, but it had ended much too quickly (and too cleanly) for her tastes. Black Mask would have given her more juicy details.
The less said about the third act, the better. Sure, there was some action in the beginning, but then it all went to pot. Right now, the blonde was pleading with the grim-looking one-eyed man for something or other. Gum Belle made a face. She'd rather die than beg like that. Not that she was in danger of dying anytime soon, if the Phantom Skull stayed the course and played pinochle all night. But the way the opera was going, she was about ready to wish for death.
At least she wasn't the only tortured one in the box. Ricketts looked nearly as bored as she felt, and on her right, Sal Jenkins was staring at the ceiling with his hands in his pockets. She felt slightly irritated at the both of them. As if there wasn't anything better to stare at. Hello! Gorgeous vigilante, over here!
The only two members of their party who were enjoying the show were Helmut Arcturion and, wonder of wonders, Ted Ricketts. The sport had struck up quite the conversation with their host during the intermission. Belle had caught snippets of it; it seemed that Ricketts the younger had taken quite a shine to the opera, and the two of them had been as thick as Gran's oatmeal ever since.
That left little Miss Snooty-Pants out in the cold. The Russian princess fumed and glared at Arcturion, which had been her favorite pastime for the past forty-five minutes. Gum Belle wasn't one to take undue delight in the discomfort of others (no one had ever dared tell her that her concept of what was undue might be a little unusual), but it was fun to watch Kolodka squirm. It let her know there was at least one person in the box who was more out of sorts than she was.
As the armored blonde clasped her hands and belted out yet another verse, the White Russian finally threw in the towel. She bent down, picked up her bag, and whispered something in Arcturion's ear. He nodded absently and waved his hand back to the entrance of their box as she stalked off, her sharp nose so high in the air it was sure to be mistaken for a radio tower by the nearsighted. As she passed Gum Belle's seat, their eyes met, blue and green, and Kolodka put her lips to Belle's ear.
"I could not help but notice that you are as -- how do you say? -- fed up' as I am of this Teutonic rubbish. I am on my way to the smoking-room for a few minutes' respite. Would you wish to accompany me?"
Gum Belle wasn't as sharp as Lionel Ricketts, but there was a tiny lump in the back of her head that was inclined to be a little suspicious and critical. It was no policeman's brain, to be sure -- more like a policeman's spleen -- but it was surprisingly good for being so seldom exercised, and it sent out an urgent telegram that she should stay put.
But the rest of her, overwhelmed with heavy Wagnerian leitmotifs, was disinclined to read anything but Black Mask and vacation brochures. And right now, a trip to the sunny smoking-room was just what the doctor ordered for a bout of the bored-stiffs. "Sure thing, Princess," she said, and followed her outside.
The smoking-room was built along the lines of Carnegie Hall's in New York. There was a beautifully painted mural on the wall, depicting a shady woodland clearing, its stately frescoed firs overgrown with flowering oil-based vines. Tasteful settees were scattered throughout, while a countertop of mulberry-colored hardwood ran the length of the west wall. A shuttered door at the north end led to the restrooms. The only thing that didn't seem to fit with the tasteful décor was the ceiling, which had been papered over recently; Gum Belle could still see hints of dark paneling peeking out at the corners.
Miss Kolodka lowered herself onto a settee and pressed a hidden button on the countertop. Immediately, the polished wood flipped up to reveal a bank of mirrors and a cunning set of brushes and swabs. She screwed a gold-papered cigarette into a snow-white holder, lit up and proceeded to make little rearrangements in her makeup. Occasionally, she would glance at Gum Belle, as if wondering whether this gaudy little American would take advantage of her generous offer and join her. For her part, the gaudy little American just held her mask to her eyes and tried not to smile. She hadn't needed to paint her face for years, one of the advantages of having a bit of control over how rosy your skin and lips were.
"You will forgive me for saying so, you have the air of a Cossack about you, Miss Smith," Kolodka said as she touched up her wine-dark lipstick.
Gum Belle shrugged. "Gran says our family's from Siberia. But she also says William Taft doesn't need to lose weight, so she's a loon."
Miss Kolodka pressed her lips together, released them, and admired herself with clinical detachment. "Do not be so certain. You have a certain...grubost that is only found among the brave don Cossacks."
Gum Belle frowned. "What makes you think that?
"Your wardrobe." Her wine-dark smile widened. "Only a farmer's daughter would come to the theatre wearing such tactless clothes."
Gum Belle's bottle-green eyes flashed, but her voice was light and airy as she said, "Yeah, Gran says my pop was a farmer. Until he left to fight for the White Army in the Old Country."
"What a noble man," Miss Kolodka drawled. "I am sure he has many tales of his struggle to defeat those godless Bolsheviks."
"I wouldn't know. He died out there."
"Then his sacrifice will be remembered."
"No one remembers him but me and Gran, Princess. But if being who I am means I'm lower class or something, then..."
Gum Belle stopped, not because she regretted her words, or had run out of them, but because each one was now accompanied by a little puff of chilly smoke. A thousand bitter needles pricked her all over, and her self-made dress felt stiff and heavy. "Is it cold in here?"
Miss Kolodka's dark smile widened into a grin. "I do not feel a thing, my little firebird. But I am used to the cold." Her skin sparkled like her diamonds, as if it had grown a thin layer of frost. "And if you must use titles, peasant, use them properly. I am no princess, but a queen.
"The Ice Queen."
She raised one gem-studded finger, pointed it like a ballet instructor critiquing a flawed step, and a burst of piercing arctic wind, harsh as the devil's icebox, threw Gum Belle against the wall. There was a brittle, cracking sound, and a chunk of her dress broke off like frozen taffy. The skin underneath was marred with a lattice of spider-web cracks, resembling flesh not so much as badly mended pottery. Before Gum Belle could stop herself, fresh pink gum flowed up to seal the gaps.
Miss Kolodka stood, her frosted body twinkling like a thousand stars, and sneered. "You do not hide your true nature well, Miss Smith'...or do you prefer Gum Belle?"
"Guess." Gum Belle spun her upper body around like a top, her sequined dress knotting together as her waist and spine wrapped themselves around each other, her arms shooting out like flails. Miss Kolodka dodged the first, but the second caught her across the cheek, the opera gloved-wrist smacking her with enough force to knock her down. Diamonds tinkled and scattered across the frigid floor. By the time she got back up (no easy task in formal heels), Gum Belle stood before her in full costume, gauntleted fists raised.
"The Phantom Skull sent you," she said. It wasn't a question.
"Da. But you truly are a fool if you think he only sent me."
The bathroom door exploded off its hinges, and something very big, very heavy, and very badly dressed hit Gum Belle in the face like a freight train with knuckles, and her head caved in like a jack-o'-lantern after a cold snap. Two massive hands, one rough and calloused, the other unnaturally smooth and hard, grabbed her shoulders and pitched her to one side like a straw doll. The sound of glass breaking against Gum Belle's hips and the easy, mellow glide of wood beneath her buttocks told her she had just plowed right across the counter, before her body slammed heavily against the wall.
Something hissed like a rising piston not three feet away. With a twinge of effort, she went gum, melting away just as a huge metal fist punched a crater into the wall behind her. Right above her stood a giant of a man in a garish suit, with wingtips big enough to hold a taxi cab and a hat tasteless enough to blind the New Yorker. His frame was lumpy and massive, and as he turned to look at her, she saw that his jaw was a hunk of solid steel. His left eye whirred as its many lenses focused on her.
"You're quick," he said, then raised one Frankenstein foot and stomped on her.
It was a mistake. As soon as the giant's wingtip squished into her body, Gum Belle flowed up his leg, wrapped around his torso in a pink tide, and, in a matter of seconds, had him all tied up like the world's biggest taffy machine gone mad. A pink bubble rose up out of the gooey mass, popped, and, like a budding flower, became a fresh blonde head, as the rest of her darkened into shades of red and gold. She grinned around a mouthful of gum and winked. "Gotcha, Super Chief."
The giant made a deep, industrial rumbling noise deep in his throat, like a Model T trying to start up on a winter morning. Gum Belle's grin faded a bit when she realized it was laughter -- and that the cheap papering had disappeared from the ceiling.
Something thin, sharp, and very...uncomfortable sliced through her mass from top to bottom, and the giant ripped himself free. As Gum Belle flowed to her feet, she saw that another player had joined the game. This one looked fresh out of Chinatown, complete with the snazzy high-necked gown they wore in the teahouses down there. Her pinched, angular face was serene and calculating as she held a white paper fan before her face. It dripped with gobbets of pink flesh, and Gum Belle knew what had just slit her in half.
"The Ghost Tiger is a fool," the Chinese woman said. "Your qi is weak. Your skills are pathetic." She slipped into a martial-arts crouch, the fan held out before her in one hand. "To employ so many of us here is an insult."
Gum Belle tossed her head. "Yeah. He should have sent more."
They were brave words, but the Phantom Skull hadn't just been whistling Dixie about his generals. Already, the Ice Queen had recovered from the smack to the cheek; she was sporting a nasty bruise, but a nastier snarl. The giant flexed his metal fist, and something that looked like a miniature chainsaw popped out of his sleeve and whirred to life. The Chinese slid sideways to flank her, arms, body and wrists moving in a strange, fluid dance. A second fan snapped to life in her free hand.
Gum Belle backed against the wall, trying to keep an eye on all three of them at once. "You're here for Arcturion, right?"
The Ice Queen's mocking laughter spiraled through the room on wicked white clouds. "Nyet, Cossack. We are here for you."
* * *
Ted Ricketts never heard the two ladies leave. He was too busy watching the valkyrie Brunnhilde plead to her father Wotan for mercy.
He didn't understand German, but that wasn't a problem. The music told him everything he needed to know. Its force and power electrified his brain. He had never experienced anything like it, not even during the last chapter of a Slouch Hat serial.
During the intermission, he had talked with Helmut Arcturion, in the hopes of learning more about the opera, and found that the great scientist was as different from his father as night from day. Literate, energetic, eternally optimistic, wildly talkative, he was the parent Ted sometimes wished he had, on the lonely days.
"You remind me of myself when I was younger," Arcturion had declared after the second act. "In Austria, as a laboratory aide, I used to save my pennies for months just so I could buy a seat in the upper balconies. Back then, I had only one secondhand tuxedo, and it was so threadbare and ragged that I had to sneak into the auditorium just as the lights were coming down so that the ushers would not pick me apart for it. But I envy you. To begin with Wagner...! Ah, had I only been as lucky! I am only sorry that you were unable to see Das Rheingold; the story would have made more sense."
And so Helmut Arcturion had filled him in on the plot and characters, details that had been murky, thanks to the language barrier. The blonde warrior woman was named Brunnhilde. She was the half-divine daughter of Wotan, the king of the gods, who was so wise and powerful that he had plucked out his own eye for knowledge.
But in order to safeguard the gods in Valhalla and the heroes he exalted there, he needed a golden ring, which contained all the might and power of the world. Since he couldn't get it himself, he had sired Siegmund and Sieglinde, the wolf-wild Wälsungs, that they might use their bravery and heroism to win it for him.
This seemed like a contradiction to Ted. If Wotan was so powerful, then why couldn't he just take this ring for himself, rather than push people around like chessmen?
Arcturion smiled. "Because he is a patron god of heroes. Only he understands the value of valor. Only he has the will and determination to sacrifice all to bring hope where there is none. Even his own daughter."
* * *
The giant moved first. He leapt for her with surprising agility for such a big lug, bringing his chainsaw-arm down in a savage cutting blow. It chewed into Belle's shoulder, but her flesh only softened and stuck up its works until its motor kicked out with a wet cough. He didn't even blink, but threw his hand back and up. The saw ripped free, and she was sent sailing across the room.
Gum Belle tucked her knees against her chest, curled up into a tight red-gold sphere the size of a large softball, ricocheted off the wall, and sank into the Ice Queen's gut. Kolodka coughed and dropped to her knees as the vigilante bounced away from her and smacked the giant in the face. There was a delicate, tinkling sound, a rubbery boing, and he stumbled back, clutching the shattered lenses of his mechanical eye. The ball sailed up to the ceiling, swept out a long leg like a tentacle; the Chinese woman's fans skittered across the chilled tiles and into the bathrooms. Another leg, a pair of arms, and the softball settled to the ground like a bizarre four-limbed octopus before unfurling into a more womanly form.
A pink bubble swelled between red lips. "Say uncle."
"Quai loh brat." A long, pale blade, thin as spring ice, pierced the small of her back and burst through her chest. Gum Belle twisted her head around and saw the strange sight of the Chinese woman, her arm replaced with what looked like a delicately folded spear made of the finest rice paper. "What do you know of family?"
"I know enough." Gum Belle smiled, and kicked out with both feet. The Chinese reared back at the blow, distorting herself into a paper cutout of herself, and fluttered away. Free, Gum Belle landed on the ice-cold tiles, her wound sealing itself as she stood.
But she was surrounded. The giant snorted heavily as he paced around her. Oil leaked from his broken eye, but the other blazed with fury. His steel fists clenched and unclenched, their joints squealing like rusty hinges. Kolodka backed away towards the bathroom, hands outthrust before her; the temperature was growing colder by the second. The paper cutout crackled and folded in on itself and the Chinese woman was back, smoothing a wrinkle in her dress that more resembled the seam in a piece of origami.
Gum Belle licked her lips. Time to end this dukeroo before it spilled out into the rest of the theatre. She tensed down, compressing what passed for her musculature like a rubber ball getting ready to bounce, then stopped. Something didn't feel right. She felt stiff. Slow. Almost...brittle?
The Ice Queen smirked at her.
She stretched herself towards the lobby, but it was too late. Sheets of living paper pasted themselves over the doorframe. A steel hand grasped her waist and held tight. A fresh wave of arctic cold sank into her. It stayed there, grew and deepened and festered like a tumor, and Gum Belle found that her body, stretched thin and ill suited to keeping itself warm, was frozen solid. She couldn't even blink. Her hand was a few feet away from her nose, but its gauntleted fingers were now white rather than gold, sparkling with frost and tiny icicles.
Yet her mind still worked. As she struggled to send commands to her unusually uncooperative flesh, she was startled to see a small, dumpy man in a cheap tux and a flashy turban waddle into her field of vision.
There was a jewel in his turban. At first, she thought it was red, but as the lamplight struggled in its facets like a fly in a spider's web, it seemed to be blue, then green, then amber -- all the colors of the rainbow. They danced before her eyes, blurred together, formed shapes, people. Gran, disapproval on her face. Slouch Hat, arms folded in disgust. Ricketts, turning his back on her.
Wait! she wanted to say. Wait! Wait! I can still save the day. I can still be a hero. I can...I can...
The colors swallowed her, and she saw no more.
* * *
Wotan had just put Brunnhilde in a magical slumber. When a true hero kissed her, the valkyrie would awake, destined to be with him forevermore. As she closed her eyes, Wotan's sang a melancholy, tender melody, a lullaby from a father who would never see his favorite daughter again.
Ted's eyes stung. He glanced briefly at Arcturion if they were both moved by the sight, but the great scientist was not watching the stage. Instead, he had turned around and was looking with an odd expression at Miss Zarkov's vacant seat, as if he wanted to say something important to her. As Wotan fell silent and the strings took the sleepy, sad melody in his stead, it seemed to Ted that the action on the stage was reaching out to them, enveloping them in events grander than any serial picture or pulp story he had ever seen or read.
Wotan thumped the stage with the butt of his staff three times.
"Loge! Loge! Hieher!"There was a sound behind Ted like two sacks of grain being dropped to the floor, and the opera burst into flames.
It started, as all things do in an opera, with the orchestra. As the three beats of his staff echoed through the Legacy Opera House, it was as if he had summoned something new, something light and mischievous and altogether uncontrollable. The violins struck up a merry, dancing melody, which in turn was picked up by the flutes, then the woodwinds, then the horns, until it exploded in a whimsical whirlwind like a storm of sparks bursting forth in the night sky. Magic fire blossomed forth on the stage, beginning, as the music did, with a few dancing candle flames, then leaping tongues that licked at the sky; squat, flickering stalwarts like blazing pumpkins; twisting, writhing orange pillars that seemed to mate together above Wotan's head; a swift, red river that traced a perfect circle around Brunnhilde's sleeping form; until, with a thunderous crash of the cymbals, a flock of beautiful fire-wrought birds swept through the opera house. Ted turned his head to follow one of them that had flown into the box -- and froze.
Arcturion's bodyguards were gone. In their place, there stood two men, one skinny, the other heavyset. The skinny man had a weak chin, a moustache, and a bow tie that was three times as loud as the music. The heavyset man was thick of muscle and crude of brow; his tuxedo looked like it was two sizes too small and tight in all the wrong places.
The skinny man cleared his throat. "Arcturion," he said, as the audience oohed and ahhed over the flickering birds. "You're coming with us." He crooked a finger at the heavyset man. "Get 'im, Mick." The heavyset man nodded and lumbered forward as Wotan's voice rang out again:
"Wer meines Speeres Spitze fürchtet,A new theme, strong and strident, driven by surging brass and swelling hope, leapt from the orchestra pit like a herald of destiny, and Lionel Ricketts stood up, the firelight dancing in his eyes.
durchschreite das Feuer nie!"
"If you want him," he said to the Phantom Skull's pawn, "you'll have to go through me."
Mick's fist blurred towards Ricketts's gut, a low, wicked blow designed to end the fight before it could even start. Ricketts danced away, light on his feet, hopping back in an old boxer's stance. His fist jabbed out, once, twice, thrice. The stitches in his tuxedo's shoulder popped. Mick's head bobbed back, bloody rose petals scattered across his nose and lips; he staggered, leaving himself open, and Ricketts threw his good left deep into his meaty stomach.
Mick coughed once and dropped. The skinny man blanched and scurried back.
"Not so fast, John Law," said a sandy, weathered voice, and a newcomer stepped into the box.
He was of an age and height with Ricketts, but lanky and lean, with long, strong hands. He wore a formal suit that was straight from a cowboy movie: polished and spurred cowhide boots, a silk waistcoat, a string tie, and an old-fashioned frock coat. A felt Stockman hat shaded his grim, craggy face. He tipped it to Ricketts, revealing a glistening scar shaped like a crosshair around a cloudy left eye. "You're the one the boys call the Lone Ranger."
He flicked back the hem of his coat to reveal twin revolvers strapped to his hips. A sardonic smile twisted the corner of his mouth.
"Well, my name's Deadeye. And I hate the goddamned Lone Ranger."
Both Arcturion and Ricketts started forward, but the weathered man's guns were out and leveled at them before Ted could even blink, hammers cocked, rock-steady and quicksilver-fast.
"Go ahead, John Law" he snarled. "Take another step and I'll make your boy an orphan. As for you, scientist, my orders say I can't kill you...but they don't say nothing about your posse. Ed!"
The skinny man reached dragged in a bruised and disheveled Miss Kolodka, her baby blues wild with fright, her breath coming in quick, fleeting gasps.
"Mosey along with us like a good boy, scientist," Deadeye said. "I don't reckon I got the need to tell you what happens to her if you don't."
Arcturion took one look at Kolodka's terrified face and nodded. "Just don't harm the lady."
A crooked smile crept up the side of the gunslinger's face. "Don't worry. I won't."
Mick and Eddie escorted the scientist out of the box, taking Kolodka with them. Deadeye released the hammer on one revolver, spun it back into its holster, and paced backwards toward the door with easy, measured steps, his spurs jingling, his other gun trained on the space between Ricketts's eyes.
Onstage, Wotan took one last look at his daughter, lost in her enchanted slumber, then walked into the distance, shoulders slumped, to leave her in her ring of fire. The curtain began to fall, as the gunslinger and the policeman stared each other down.
"What now?" Ricketts asked him over the audience's enthusiastic applause.
"You pay the price for crossing the Skull, John Law."
"You'd shoot an unarmed man?"
Deadeye's flinty eyes looked him over. "I hear you're a fine hand with a shooting iron. I'd like to see how you sling lead in person, but orders are orders." He looked dispirited for a second, like a veteran baseball player when a game is called on account of rain, then glided into the hall. The minute he had moved out of sight, Ricketts lunged after him, his meaty left cocked back.
The gunman was slowly backing up towards the stairs, his boots dark stains on the bright crimson carpet, his guns holstered. That should have tipped Ricketts off, but either the urgency of the moment overrode his old wartime instincts, or perhaps this new war was so different from the old that those instincts no longer worked.
No matter the reason, the results were the same: Ricketts charged Deadeye like a bull, ducking and weaving, waiting for him to draw so he could put on a burst of speed and slam into him before he had a chance to fire.
The carpet buckled. Ricketts's feet were pulled out from beneath him. His chin hit the floor. His teeth snapped together. One broke. It was the capped one, the one that Max Baer had punched out back in '23. He spat it out and tried to rise, but he couldn't move. His hands were stuck in something warm and soft. He glanced down at them, and saw that they were sunken into the plush red carpet up to the wrists. Only this close, it didn't look like a carpet. In fact, it looked more like carefully brushed and arranged bakelite.
It pulled away from the floor, rising up in a red ribbon, twisting around until it enfolded Ricketts in thick, flat strips, soft as cotton, stronger than steel. A gold pattern rippled across its length. Slowly, like an eel swimming through the ocean, a head twisted around on a boneless neck to look at him. The elements of its face were familiar: the fresh-scrubbed pink skin, the ruby-red lips, the masked, grass-green eyes. But the skin had a strange pallor, the lips were slack and lifeless, and the eyes were blank and empty as Belle chewed her gum with all the emotion of a cow working its cud.
Deadeye leaned against the banister, rolling a cigarette. He licked the paper, smoothed it shut, stuck the cigarette in the corner of his lips, then snapped a match to life with his thumb and lit it.
That was how long it took for Ricketts to waste all his breath cursing anything and everything he could think of.
"Thought you'd see it coming, John Law," said Deadeye. "I bet Stanley Steamer a five-spot on it. Ah, well. Sometimes you win, sometimes..."
He jumped away as tendrils whipped out from the red and gold cocoon. They wrapped around the banister, the fluted pillars, the crystal chandelier. Gum Belle reeled Ricketts above the moneyed mob in the lobby, the world's largest spider dragging its prey into the center of an enormous web. The gummy folds began to pulse around him like a titanic heart, tenderizing his muscles, grinding his bones together, squeezing the breath from him.
A ropy arm dropped down like a fishing line, snatched up an elegantly dressed woman, then reeled her up screaming. A second one hoisted a fat, bearded gentleman by his ankle and dangled him over the marble floor. It was followed by another arm. And another. And another. Soon the audience was screeching and panicking, pushing towards the ticket office, the cloakroom, the stairs, desperate for escape as a forest of tentacles seethed and writhed above them, the rich and indolent swaying from them like cured hams.
The gunman scowled, his crosshair scar twisting. "Reckon she'll start dropping them soon. Funny. Rando just told her to make a scene while we skipped out free as jaybirds. Guess she's just got a mean streak in her. Like Salucci's asshole brother." Deadeye took one last puff on his cigarette then flicked it into the hallway floor. "Reckon I'll hit the road. Don't want blood all over my good suit. Happy trails, John Law." He tipped his hat again and sauntered down the stairs. Even over the din of the crowd, Ricketts heard his spurs chime with every step.
"Belle..." he said.
Whip-snap! A sixteen-year-old debutante in a shimmering silver dress shrieked as she was lifted high in the air.
"Belle, you gott -- Ah!"
His ribs ground together. The pulsing heart quickened. The glassy-eyed blonde head turned slowly and stared at him.
She didn't even smile as she crushed Ricketts's chest like an egg.
* * *
Don't miss the next exciting chapter of
GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD: