Deviant Login Shop  Join deviantART for FREE Take the Tour
×

:iconstretch-ink: More from Stretch-Ink


More from deviantART



Details

Submitted on
January 25, 2009
File Size
58.1 KB
Thumb

Stats

Views
785
Favourites
5 (who?)
Comments
16
Downloads
15
×


Ted Ricketts dashed from Helmut Arcturion’s opera box, only to see a red-gold cocoon pulsing high above the lobby floor. Rubbery tentacles swarmed around it, each bearing a frightened opera patron, but it was his father’s face, red and straining, eyes bulging as the cocoon crushed the life out of him, that rammed an ice-cold spike of terror through his heart.

“Da!” he cried, his voice high and shrill.

Gum Belle’s head looped around on its waving, fleshy stalk of a neck, and Ted barely had enough time to glimpse the vacant, dead look in her eyes before another tentacle peeled from her body with a soft, floppy flick and whickered through the air at him.

But Ted, though only an average student in the classroom, was an attentive pupil during recess, which had taught him many valuable skills, thanks to playground bullies. One of them was: when attacked, surprise.

He ran forward. The tentacle undulated lower and whipped at his ankles, but he hopped over it like a jump rope, juked to the right. Another plunged at his head; he ducked just in time. A glance over his shoulder showed the first tentacle looping around in midair, its end twisting around itself to form a sharp point like a drill bit. A slight change in air pressure, a half-realized instinct, told him to hop aside, just in time to avoid a heavy pinkish-red rope as it slammed into the balcony floor with enough force to send crystalline shards flying up around him; a long, jagged piece like an arrowhead plowed a long, shallow trough across his cheek. Ted clutched it, stumbled to one side, saw something small and ember-red by his feet. A cigarette. He stooped and picked it up just as a fourth arm, long and sinuous, wrapped around him like a living blanket, yanked him off his feet, looped his ankles together.

Her warmth was all around him. It was angry, writhing. Mad. A sharp squeeze made his muscles feel numb and tender, like rare steak. A harsh, jarring jerk and the world turned upside-down. The tentacle raised him up and back, tightened, loosened just a bit. Like a pitcher just before he threw a fast one.

A different heat, wicked, primal, flared between his fingers, and Ted let go of the cigarette. He saw a glimpse of charred paper, smelled the acrid-sweet aroma of burning tobacco, heard a muffled, bubbly hiss, a startled “Ow!” --

-- and suddenly the tentacle was gone, and he fell, fell, fell, to break his bones and bleed his last on the lobby floor.

                                                         * * *

She was in a gray, fuzzy place. It was soft there. Comfy. Stifling, but in a good way. Like a sleeping bag made out of dryer lint. It was nice there. Much nicer than the outside. She didn’t know what went on there (thanks to her prudent philosophy of not paying any attention to it), but she had the faintest idea -- call it woman’s intuition -- that it was bad. She didn’t like bad things. Bad things deserved to be put away. Beat up and put away. Or just beat up, if you were short on time.

Let someone else do that for once, though. Now, she was sleepy. Very, very sleepy. The nice man in the turban had told her to take a nap. A nap sounded like fun. Not as much fun as beating up bad things, but much more relaxing. Just pull the blankets tight, and all your troubles just died away…

A sharp stab of pain, somewhere in her arm. She smelled something. Smoke? And burning rubber…

“Ow!” she cried, and suddenly her nice little lint house with its nice little lint blinders was burning, burning. Bright lights and terrified screams poured inside, and none of the blankets the nice man in the turban had given her could keep them out. Gum Belle coughed, shook her head (all the remaining lint seemed to have stuffed itself in there to keep away from the fire) --

-- and came to just in time to drop Ted Ricketts.

Not twice in one day! Gum Belle hawked back a nice wad deep in her throat and spat. A long, pink thread that resembled a toad’s tongue crossed with a gob of silly putty smacked wetly against the young man’s backside, and, with a gooey snort, she sucked it -- and Ted -- up. But before she could spit him to safety, the little sport hauled back and slapped her so hard he left the mark of his hand deep in her impressionable cheek.

“Look what you done, Miss Belle!” The poor kid was shaking, on the verge of tears.

The last of the lint cleared from her head, and Gum Belle saw everything. Heard everything.

Remembered everything. The screams and the cries. The frightened stares. The smoldering cigarette stuck to her arm, its hand-rolled paper split and spilling tobacco all over her costume.

And Ricketts. Gum Belle gasped, and every extended inch of her shuddered. He had gone limp, his face a sickly shade of reddish-green, his chin slumped on her coils. She could feel every shallow breath he took against her body. As she set everyone else down, she lifted him back to the landing. With great care, like a fastidious child unwrapping a delicate birthday present, she slithered away from him. No sooner had she reformed herself than small hands heaved into her soft stomach and sent her reeling back.

“Stay away!” Ted howled. “You just stay away!” He pushed her again. She could have bent with his blows, let them bounce off her, but she was hardly aware of them. She spread her hands impossibly wide for the boy.

“Sport,” she said, “Please -- ”

“Don’t call me sport!” He ran at her again, but she twisted out of the way this time, and he stumbled and sprawled flat on his face. When he rose up on his elbows, his cheeks and chin were smeared with a cloudy pink watercolor of tears and blood. “You’re no good. You’re -- no -- good!

His words hurt worse than any thug’s punch, hit harder than any gangster’s bullet. Gum Belle staggered back a few steps, hit the rail on the landing, and nearly overbalanced, arms flailing, heels squealing on the ruined floor. That was her fault, too. Everything was her fault.

Booted feet tromped up the stairs. Figures in blue coats with gold buttons marched between her and those she had hurt. Legacy security. They had nightsticks in their hands and fear in their eyes, but they did not quail as they set themselves against Gum Belle.

“Stay right there,” said the chief of the lot, a broad-faced man with scarred knuckles. “The police are on the way.”

She gaped at them. For once, her poise had deserted her. She teetered on her high heels like a hamstrung stork. This was a joke, right? She was the good gal. Gum Belle shook her head slowly. “No way,” she said. “No way.” She started to inch sideways along the railing. “No way I’m going to jail.”

It was the wrong thing to say. She had forgotten how well trained Tomorrow’s security force was, or maybe the Legacy got the cream of the crop, but their charge was sudden and overwhelming. Cudgels bludgeoned her from all directions, while blue-jacketed arms cinched around her waist, her legs, her underarms. The chief clamped her neck in a chokehold. She could smell his aftershave. It was cheap and loud. She was drowning in a sea of dyed wool and brass buttons and brutal strength. One cudgel smacked her in the nose, and it flattened like a blob of clay as they bore her to the ground like the Lilliputians trussing up Gulliver.

“THAT‘S IT!”

Those words, roared in a furious contralto voice, were heard by over a dozen Belle-shocked opera lovers, just before she inflated suddenly like a balloon tied to an industrial air compressor.

Security guards bounced off her like toy soldiers. One of them tumbled over the railing and fell smack dab into a rose bush in the lobby. The bush was ruined, but he made out with only a minor concussion. The others were on their feet and running at her, but she braced herself against the railing with stubby, swollen limbs, puffed out her cheeks, and blew. A small gale exploded from her mouth and knocked the men in blue down like ninepins as she pushed off with her feet, swung over the railing, and let go, pursing her lips to control her flight as she whizzed through the lobby, landing on her two feet at both her girlish figure and the front doors. Before the guards outside could stop her, she flipped past them, transforming from handsprings to a real spring in the blink of an eye. As she bounced down the road, she could hear sirens in the distance, and feel the tears on her cheeks.

What have I done

                                                         * * *

Ignoring the pointed glares from his brother, the Hanged Man kicked his feet up on the boardroom table and swirled a snifter of anisette as he listened to an old gift from the Phantom Skull, a special radio that was tuned to police radio bands. The little gadget had proven immeasurably useful back in the bootlegging days, but it had never given him as much amusement then as it did now.

“Suspect is a blonde female, height and weight…um…variable…”

The Hanged Man cackled, a sound like a skeleton dancing in an autumn wind. “You never said anything about assault and attempted murder, Skull,” he said, and raised his glass in salute. “And here I thought you’d gone soft.”

“Watch your words, vermin,” rumbled the Phantom Skull. “My plan was flawless! Our adversary merely proved more bloodthirsty than expected.”

The Hanged Man sipped his anisette, and insolent mockery capered in his dead eyes. “I always knew that little spitfire had it in her. Maybe you’ll let me pay her a call now.”

“No, you fool!” The Skull’s white glow darkened a shade, and the temperature rose a few degrees. “There is no need. Now, the police and our vigilante friend shall chase one another like dogs after scraps. And all the while, the fruit of my triumph shall ripen beneath their very noses. Vincent Salucci! You have prepared the equipment I specified?” the Skull asked.

“Yes. Madame 415 has some friends in the dry-cleaning business,” his brother replied.

“Then all we need to do is extract the location of the Galvanic Generator from that imbecile Arcturion.”

“Let me handle it.” The Hanged Man grinned like a hungry wolf. “I’ll make that rich little porker squeal.”

“You will not ruin this victory for me with your crude methods. I shall handle this matter personally.”

The Hanged Man’s glassy eyes narrowed over his drink. So the high and mighty Skull wasn’t above a few petty grudges. He risked a meaningful look at Vincent, but his brother was too busy looking nervous and scared to catch it. The Hanged Man’s scowl deepened. Disgrazia.

The doors swung open soundlessly, and Deadeye strode in, spurs jingling, followed closely by the rest of the Board. The Hanged Man chortled at the sight of the Ice Queen’s bruised face and the Steamer’s crystal ruin of an eye. Even Madame 413 looked a little wrinkled around the edges. Only that fat coward Rando looked untouched, as he, Eddie the Rat, and Brick Mick (who looked like he had indigestion; the Hanged Man wondered whether it was his darling little blonde bombshell or her G-man beau who had given it to him) escorted a proud and unbent Helmut Arcturion into the room.

The Hanged Man leaned forward eagerly at the sight of him. Oh, what a haughty little piece of meat this was. He was even smoking, the insolent fellow, as if he were out on a Sunday jaunt in the park. Marvelous.

Rando cleared his throat and addressed the Board. “As you can see, ladies and gentlemen, our chairman’s faith in my mental prowess was not unfounded. Here you see our quarry, delivered without a scratch, thanks to the Magnificent -- ”

“Shut your hole, Rando,” snapped Deadeye.

“Ah, Helmut,” the Skull purred. “So good to see you again.”

“Again?” Arcturion regarded the Phantom Skull with courageous contempt. He flipped open a cigarette case from his tuxedo jacket and put a smoke between his lips. “I would have remembered meeting something as buffoonish as you before.”

The Skull flared crimson, and Arcturion’s cigarette dissolved into ash.

“Leave us.”

There was no arguing with that voice. There was death in it. As the Hanged Man filed out with the others, he twisted his head around, with the click and snap of broken vertebrae, to take one last look.

Helmut Arcturion sat at one end of the table, and the Phantom Skull’s electric visage hovered at the other. Like the two eggheads gearing up for a game of chess.

Vittorio Salucci opened his mouth wide and tipped back the last of his anisette. Let them stare each other down. Let them pussyfoot around until the world collapsed around them like a house of cards.

He had a game of his own to play.

                                                         * * *

He felt like someone had poked him in the ribs with the tip of a sledgehammer. Twenty times. Lionel Ricketts opened his eyes, and a bank of fluorescent lights ambushed them. He squeezed them shut again, cursing, but his throat was dry, and all that came out was a wheezy mumble.

A cool glass was held to his lips. Ricketts was thirsty, but he had woken up in in too many hospitals during the War and suffered too many stomach cramps to gulp it down. He drank the water slowly and in small intervals. When his throat felt less like a freshly graded road, he risked peeking out at the world again.

No matter where you were, hospitals were all the same. Everything was either a sickly shade of pond-scum green or a white so antiseptic that it went full circle and looked dirty. He was on his back in a metal-framed bed that was built for someone of average height, weight, and build, which meant that it would never be comfortable for anyone. For him, it was too short, too narrow, and too hard. For others, it might be the complete opposite. He only knew one person who could make herself comfortable in a hospital bed, but he didn’t want to think about her right now. She might still be lurking around with that sledgehammer of hers.

Small fingers clutched his. He turned his head with an effort and saw his son, who stared at him as if he were Jesus newly risen. Jenkins stood behind Ted like a watchful shadow, holding a new glass of water. Ricketts reached out for it and was surprised at how heavy it felt; he had to cup it in both hands like it was an artillery shell. Even then, his grip was terrible, and he spilled as much as he drank.

“Ugh.” His voice was still raspy, but at least it worked. “Anyone get the number of that truck?”

Jenkins nodded. “Try a name. Zarkov.”

Ricketts slumped in the bed. Those words stung more than his bruised ribs. “They got a warrant out for her?”

“Assault. Aiding and abetting. Attempted murder,”

“Murder?”

“Yours.”

Ricketts tried to say differently, but he had always been bad at lying. He just nodded, and went on. “They find Arcturion?”

Jenkins’s face and manner were as unruffled as a frozen pond as he related how events had turned out. The Skull had gotten away clean. Arcturion’s chauffeur had fallen asleep, and had never picked up his boss. The last thing he remembered was chatting with some tubby stage magician in a turban. To the preoccupied bystanders, the kidnapping had gone unnoticed, just some lucky personage and his entourage, who were able to get out during the chaos.

The closest thing to a lead they had was a reporter for the Sentinel, who had tried to badger the scientist about the Galvanic Generator outside the front door, but he hadn’t even seen where he was headed before the screams tipped him off to a juicier story. The early edition was all over it. The headline: BAD BELLE! Jenkins had brought a copy.

Ricketts tried to massage the bridge of his nose, but his fingers were still numb. Leave it to today’s doctors to drug a guy till he couldn’t even work out his frustrations. “She said she told the Skull off.”

Jenkins shrugged. “Then she changed her mind. Or lied.”

He shook his head. “I saw her eyes, Sal. She…”

“She resisted arrest, partner. Now she’s on the lam. That’s all we need to know. I checked her grandmother’s apartment an hour ago. She’s gone.”

Ricketts knit his brow and sighed. Ted held his hand even tighter.

“You’re gonna be okay, right, Da?” he asked.

The G-man reached out and patted Ted’s cheek. Every part of him felt worn-out, ready to snap, an over-the-hill, cracked-up Model T about to fall apart, and the only things that held his junked carcass together was the young voice with the idealism he couldn’t find anymore, and the young hand with the strength he had lost.

“Don’t you worry about me, kiddo. I’ll be out in time to see the next chapter of Slouch Hat with you. Your old man got through the War, he can get through this.”

Ted rubbed his eyes with the back of his sleeve, and Ricketts put his arm around his shoulder and drew him close.

“Excuse me,” said a curt, tart voice from the front door.

Ricketts looked up to see a tall nurse, built like a stick. Everything about her meant business, from her starched white uniform and severe, square-rimmed spectacles to her coppery hair, which was triple-bolted in a shining knob at the base of her neck. She carried a square metal tray with a plate of green and brown mush.

“I’m sorry,” she said to Jenkins and Ted, “but visiting hours are over. I’ll have to ask you to leave.”

His partner flashed her his badge. “We’re staying.”

The nurse looked mortified. “Not if you want him to get better, you’re not. He needs sleep. Too much talk will keep him up all night.” She swept a hand at Ricketts in a dramatic gesture, as if he were a corpse in a stage play. “Just look at him.”

“I’m not dying.”

“You will if you don’t follow the doctor’s orders.”

Ted gave a watery gasp.

“Now, unless the two of you want to deprive this good man of his dinner as well as his rest, I suggest you do as I say. Well?” She snapped her fingers. “Chop-chop!”

Jenkins didn’t budge, but the nurse’s speech had so frightened Ted that he tugged and begged and prevailed on his uncle Sal to follow the her advice, until he agreed. The three of them shared heartfelt farewells, cut short when the nurse tapped her toe on the tile impatiently. As soon Ted and Jenkins left the room, she marched to the door and shut it.

Then she locked it.

Fear and realization washed over Ricketts in an icy wave. Here he was, unable to hold a glass of water right, alone with a stranger. It was the perfect way for Salucci to finish him off. Died in his sleep, the doctored autopsy would say. Complications related to injuries sustained on the evening of…

The nurse turned to him, a prim, wicked smile on her face. “I thought they’d never leave.” She sashayed up to him with deliberate slowness, her white uniform rustling across her narrow body until she stood over him like an angel of death. “I couldn’t restrain myself a moment longer.”

Ricketts reared back on his mattress, ready for her to force pills down his throat, or ram a needle into his arm, or just put a spare pillow over his mouth until he stopped moving.

PTHBBBBBBBBBBT!

It was like eight whoopee cushions going off at once, a windy, rubbery blatting sound that would have been better off in a cartoon. The nurse’s flat chest shot out, her narrow hips swelled, her bony legs and arms gained a bit of muscle and definition, and suddenly, the stick-woman became a looker worthy of a pin-up mag. She sighed with relief, shook her head, and her coppery hair spilled out of her bun to brush the small of her back, the red highlights melting away to leave only tawny yellow. Finally, her square spectacles jerked back as if by invisible hands, pressed against her face, and reshaped itself into an all too familiar mask.

“Whew!” Gum Belle collapsed in a chair next to his bed, fanning the air around her face. “I’ve been holding that back for ages!”

Ricketts was less than three feet away from a wanted criminal. He should have called the guards. He should have panicked. He should have attacked her with his bedpan.

Instead, he glared at her. “What took you?”

She laughed softly. “I had to get a change of clothes from the laundry,” she said, picking at the straining uniform; hints of red and gold could be seen through the gaps between its buttons. “My usual colors aren’t too popular right now. Thank God for air ducts, huh?” She said it lightly, but he could feel the shakiness underneath. She’s barely keeping it together.

Gum Belle smiled blithely at him, started chewing a wad of gum she’d dredged up, and looked about the room with bright, slightly moist eyes. She swung her feet back and forth, drummed her fingers on her lap, and looked very much like an overgrown schoolgirl called in to the principal’s office. Finally, as Ricketts picked at his mush to spare her any embarrassment, she broke the silence.

“I’m sorry, big guy.” From the corner of his eye, he saw that she was wringing her hands, wringing them so hard that the fingers were twisting and knotting together like neurotic snakes. “I didn’t mean to…I didn’t…you know I would never…”

It was all the proof he needed, if he had ever needed it at all. “I know.”

She sighed, and slumped down so completely in her chair that she flowed right out of her stolen uniform and stood before him in a well-fitting (if miscolored) facsimile. “It was a frame job,” she said, and launched into a blow-by-blow recap of what had happened since she and Miss Kolodka had skipped off to powder their noses during the third act of Die Walküre. She was so enthusiastic during her tale of the bathroom brawl that she actually started throwing punches instead of punctuation, and Ricketts had to rein her in before she busted a window.

“That was some setup,” he said when she had finished.

“What, you don’t believe me?” she cried.

“Calm down, sister. It’s a lot more sensible than thinking that you really wanted to kill me and chuck my son like a football. And the tubby character with the fancy headgear fits with the description of a guy who put the old Mickey Finn on Arcturion’s driver.” He chewed his broccoli slowly, his policeman’s brain chugging away behind his eyes. “But it’s funny...”

Gum Belle’s whole body stretched towards him slightly. “Yeah?”

“My boss told me that only Legacy security could carry weapons inside. That’s why we left our pieces at home. But Deadeye had a pair of six-shooters, and from what you told me, that giant in the monkey suit was a walking armory all on his lonesome.”

“So…?” She was quivering like a taut rubber band.

“So, how did they get in?”

Gum Belle bounced up and down with little springy noises and clapped her hands. “I knew it! I knew you’d find a clue, you smart old such-and-so!”

“It’s just a thought,” Ricketts said, and he felt his ears burn.

“Maybe old Skully-boy found a loophole!”

Ricketts shook his head. “I think it was an inside job,” he said. “Someone snuck them in. Someone who knew the Legacy backwards and forwards. But without a suspect, I’m stumped.”

A grim look settled on Gum Belle’s face, and her eyes flared like green sparks. “I think I can help you there.”

                                                         * * *

Lionel Ricketts was discharged the next day. He took a few things with him when he left, such as his son, his partner, and a few gifts that well-wishers had left for him: a large bouquet of flowers, a baker’s dozen get-well cards, and a large, heart-shaped box with garish red and gold wrapping. He claimed it contained chocolates.

When he got home, he made ready to report back to work. Ted begged his father not to go, but Ricketts was both unyielding and reassuring. He promised the boy he’d be home for dinner, ordered him to stay inside, and made a good show of looking well long enough to slip out the door and limp off to the office. Before he left, he put the flowers in a vase on the kitchen table and propped up the cards on the radio. The heart-shaped box he packed away in his briefcase.

Back at headquarters, Director Abrams ranted about Gum Belle, cursed her for an embarrassment to the Bureau, and bluntly told Ricketts and Jenkins that, if he had his druthers, both his top agents would be condemned to walk the Alaskan beat indefinitely. Unfortunately for the director, word had reached Hoover in Washington of what had transpired, and the big chief apparently applauded Agent Ricketts’s heroism in trying to rescue Helmut Arcturion. So he was dismissed, with a thinly veiled threat to keep away from Gum Belle at all costs…or else.

After a quick word with his partner, Ricketts took the elevated rail to Uptown. After a brief consultation with his briefcase, he unerringly found an excellent luncheonette, a local secret, a few blocks down from Tomorrow Tower. He ordered two Dagwood sandwiches, a beer, and a bottle of muscatel. He ate one Dagwood, drank the beer, then slipped the second sandwich and the muscatel into his briefcase, presumably for later. He sat on a bench outside the luncheonette and read the paper for twenty minutes, then threw a paper-wrapped bundle in a wastebasket and went about his business.

Several hours later, Whiskey Jones, a local vagabond, wino, and hobo, a good friend of Bum Frank’s, stumbled across the basket. While rummaging through its contents, he found that very bundle, and was pleasantly surprised to find that it contained a few crusts of bread, a bit of pickle, and a nearly full bottle of muscatel with YUCK! scrawled across the label in red ink. Being a man of discriminating taste, he spent the afternoon toasting the mysterious wine snob’s health.

                                                         * * *

Ricketts had never been inside Tomorrow Tower, and, like many first-timers, the rush of moving people, pistons, elevators, and message cylinders in the lobby nearly made him sick. But the receptionist at the front desk made up for it. She was a looker, which helped his stomach, and knowledgeable, which helped his head. She gave him directions, as well as a visitor’s pass and two words of caution. The first was the standard bit against going out of bounds.

The second was more topical. “The Chairman’s new secretary told me that he isn’t in a very good mood,” she said, her wide smile turning down at the corners, “so you might want to keep your visit short.”

Ricketts tipped his bowler. “Don’t worry. I’ll only stay as long as I have to.”

A golden elevator transported him up sixty floors in sixty seconds. Its rear wall was glass, with the blurred, bland concrete lining of the elevator shaft behind it, but when he reached the thirtieth floor, the shaft fell away, and Ricketts flinched to see a panoramic view of the city spread out before him. His briefcase twitched in his hand. He scowled at it.

“Just startled me, is all,” he grumbled.

He got off on the sixtieth floor and walked down an alabaster hallway. It was lined with photographs of all the marvelous inventions Tomorrow Industries had given the world: the Hindenberg, a commercial success thanks to stable hydrogen; the universal transmitter, which enabled radio broadcasts around the world; the latest in shatter-proof glass (it could take an artillery shell at medium range); and many, many more, all bearing plaques with the motto, We Can Do It Again.

Ricketts took a left, two rights, then went down a long, curving passage with round walls. There were no photographs here; instead, transparent pipes filled with crackling bolts of electricity ran along its length as far as the eye could see.

They stopped at a heavy steel vault door. He inserted his guest pass into a slot on its right side, and it swung open with a buzz. Inside was a small area with a cluttered, Old World feel to it. There was a grandfather clock to tell the time, a rack for his hat and coat by the door, and even an umbrella stand, in case he happened to be a lost British banker. Heavy leather-upholstered chairs with clawed feet crouched like hungry tigers next to a coffee table with a platter of dry pastries.

The messy mahogany desk opposite these amenities was manned by a frazzled young secretary who seemed ready to check herself into the nuthouse during her next break. She acknowledged him with a harried nod, then gave an agonized moan and started to paw through her piles of memorandums and manuals.

Ricketts turned away for a second. When he faced her again, he closed a loose clasp on his briefcase and cleared his throat. “I think you’re looking for that yellow sheet with the orange stamp,” he said.

The secretary snatched up the slip of paper as if it were solid gold. “Omigosh, you’re right!” She wasted no time, but signed it in three places, stamped it again (this time in blue), stuffed it into a brass message cylinder, and sent it whisking off. “You’re a lifesaver!” she gushed.

Ricketts shrugged. “I try,” he said, then stumbled, for it seemed to the secretary that his briefcase was too heavy for him. He set it down, gave it a good kick, then favored the secretary with a strained smile. “Maybe you can do me a favor back. I’m here to ask the head of your department a few questions. Are you sure there isn’t any way you can make an exception for me?”

The secretary’s nervous eyes skipped around the room. “I dunno,” she said anxiously, “I’m new here, and I don’t really know the score -- I mean the regulations. He hates it when I talk all casual-like. Casually. Oh, geez. Oh! I mean, Jesus. I mean, fiddlesticks. Oh…”

Her attention circled back to her workload, like a plane with a busted rudder, and Ricketts had to bend down and lean over the desk to keep her attention. “Look,” he said, slowly and calmly, “This is urgent. Tell him it’s about the Legacy Opera House. And if he refuses, and the door just happens to be open…well, I’ll take the heat.”

Suspicion, confusion, and tattered naiveté flew across the secretary’s face, but she smiled nervously. “One second.” She pressed a red button on her desktop. “Excuse me…um…sir?”

“I’m not to be disturbed!” snapped a brittle, waspish voice from a hidden speaker.

The secretary quailed, but Ricketts patted her shoulder, and she soldiered on. “Someone to see you, doctor. He says it’s about the…uh…the Legacy Opera House?”

Seething white noise hissed from the intercom for a few seconds, then the brittle voice spoke again. “Send him in.”

Ricketts thanked the secretary, picked up his briefcase, which was now quite a bit lighter than before, thanks to its time in the corner, and stepped inside the inner room, only to be blinded by a burst of dazzling white light.

Blue spots danced before his eyes, and he barked his shins against something heavy and sharp-edged. He hissed in pain, there was a delicate glass crash, and the acrid stench of ozone assaulted his nostrils. Rough hands pulled him aside, and Ricketts half-raised his fists, blinking like a camera shutter to clear his vision.

He was in a pristine, white-walled room stocked from floor to ceiling with complicated gadgets. Most had too many buttons. Levers were another common accessory. Wires, coils, and vacuum tubes were plugged, twisted, and screwed into sockets at every conceivable angle. Even on the floor, where the remains of one particularly complicated device lay scattered beside the table he’d bumped into earlier.

“Let him go, Isaac,” snapped the waspish voice from the speaker.

The strong hands lifted, and Ricketts turned to see a burly young buck with a thick brow and big mitts move to stand beside a thin, wasted man in a rumpled lab coat. A fringe of flyaway hair hovered over the latter’s bald scalp and drawn, hatchet face, where pinched, oily black eyes scrutinized his new visitor with rapacious intelligence.

“You’ve ruined three weeks of work, sir,” he said shortly.

“Sorry. It’s just that I was…”

“Stupid?”

“Blind.”

“Both.” The hatchet-faced man spun on his heel and tinkered with an instrument that looked like a set of rabbit-ear antennae crossed with two Bundt cake pans and a box of spark plugs. Ricketts threw his arm before his face just in time to block another burst of sparks as they crackled from between the antennae. The hatchet-faced man, however, wasn’t even fazed. “My secretary says you’re here about the Legacy, mister…”

“Lionel Ricketts. You’re Dr. Emil Sorenz, I presume?”

The dark, brutal eyes jerked over to look at him, and the puckered lips frowned. “Isaac, go eat lunch.”

Isaac lumbered off with remarkable speed, presumably to ransack the same luncheonette that Ricketts had visited, while Sorenz crouched over the shattered machine and started sorting the remains, marking each piece with a letter or a number with a permanent marker before placing them in a wooden box. “If this is in regards to my whereabouts last night, I already gave the police a deposition. You should have asked them for it and done us both a kindness. ”

Ricketts put his free hand in his coat pocket and settled into the room like a friendly bear in a honey refinery. “Indulge me,” he said.

Sorenz grunted. “I was here all night, doing work, which Helmut most certainly was not. There are fifteen reliable witnesses to corroborate that statement.”

“Only fifteen?” Ricketts cracked.

“Do you want a list?” A bit of color had risen into the sunken cheeks, and the bony jaw was tight.

“Just leads. I wanted to know a little about the Legacy’s security system. I hear you helped design it.”

“Yes. Yes, I did. Though I’m sure Helmut would have told you otherwise.” He snorted. “As if he could spare a precious moment to help, between his operas and his charities and his fool’s errands.” He marched down an aisle between two long tables laden with wires and gobbets of machinery, the disemboweled corpses of old experiments. Ricketts had to jog to keep up. “The Legacy employs a unique sonic resonance device to sniff out firearms. It’s based on the acoustics of the building itself. Whenever one is detected, security is alerted automatically. I designed it myself.”

“Is there any way it could be fooled?”

Sorenz sucked his teeth impatiently. “Not unless you know someone who can create a gun oil that can absorb sound waves.”

“I don’t. How about you?”

Sorenz laughed lightly, but his eyes had that cagey look again. “Tomorrow Industries employs many scientists, Agent Ricketts, but precious few miracle workers. Though, if you asked Helmut, he would have given you some rubbish about how we are all capable of miracles. He always was too optimistic.”

Ricketts looked about the room, balancing on the balls of his feet. “You know, you’re the first person I’ve ever met who referred to Mr. Arcturion by his first name. Or in the past tense.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

“Only that it sounds like you think he’s dead or something.”

“He might as well be,” Sorenz snapped. “He’s been kidnapped, and there hasn’t been a ransom note. Mark my words, Agent Ricketts; Helmut Arcturion is no saint, even if the rest of the world pretends otherwise. He stepped on a great many poor souls to build his ivory tower. I imagine one of them finally decided to take his revenge.”

“Such as…?”

Sorenz’s cagey eyes shifted away. “I wouldn’t hazard a guess. And before you change that dim little mind of yours and decide that I make a pretty good suspect myself,” he added, jabbing one bony finger at Ricketts’s tie, “I was working here all night. Isaac and miss Noble outside can attest to that. And I would never harm Helmut. Never.

Ricketts gently, but firmly, pushed the agitated little man‘s hand away. “Just out of curiosity, you mind telling me why?”

“I’d like nothing better.” Sorenz led him to his private office, where the walls surrounding his spotless desk were covered with a diplomas, certificates, a mounted telephone -- and one yellowing picture in a battered black frame. It showed two young men standing at an excavation site, undented hard hats on their heads, spotless shovels in their hands, and a massive latticework of girders and rivets rising behind them like the bones of a postmodern dinosaur. It was easy to tell which was Sorenz: even at the age of thirty, with a head of hair that was much more full and black, he still had the same parsimonious expression, his eyes were narrowed against the sunlight like a confused owl, and his suit was wrinkled and rumpled about his stoop-shouldered frame. Helmut Arcturion, by contrast, was even more of a Valentino when he was in the prime of life, his teeth straight, white, and even, his hair slicked back beneath his hard hat, his ever-present tuxedo miraculously spotless. Even his shovel looked dashing.

“We had such dreams.” Sorenz said. His voice was surprisingly tender, misted with the nostalgia of old age for the idealistic energy of youth. “Such grand dreams. And we founded this company to make them real. But the sweetest honey makes the best bait.”

Ricketts frowned, and bent closer to the picture. There was a third man behind Arcturion and Sorenz. He was broader of shoulder and longer of limb, eerily handsome, with a wide, chiseled face that seemed perhaps a bit too perfect. The only thing about him that seemed genuine were his large, glittering eyes, which combined Arcturion’s vision with Sorenz’s single-minded determination. Ricketts flinched. The guy was almost too much, even for a photo. “Who’s that?” he asked.

Sorenz coughed. “Dorjan Miksa, our third partner. A brilliant man. We wouldn’t have made half our advances without his groundwork.”

Ricketts tore his gaze away from the photo with an effort. “If he’s so influential, then why don’t I know who he is?”

The scientist’s face and manner grew bitter and hard again. “Shortly after we completed Tomorrow Tower, Dorjan was killed in a tragic accident. He thought he could split the atom.” He sighed. “The poor fellow was disintegrated. Helmut buried his mistake along with his body. We thought it best not to mention him too often.”

The telephone rang. “You will excuse me. I imagine this is another summons. As acting chairman in Helmut’s absence, I am required to attend to all of his many odious functions.” He picked up the receiver and wisely set it on the his desk blotter until Ricketts had left.

                                                         * * *

Vincent Salucci burst through the door, panting. The Board of Crime looked up from the pile of clothes on the table to stare at him. In the corner, a pale, disheveled Helmut Arcturion stood stock still, the cigarette between his fingers smoldering into a gray dust. There was not a scratch on him, but his face was pale in the reflected glow from the Phantom Skull.

“Yes, Vincent Salucci? What is it?”

“I just talked to our man on the inside,” Salucci panted. “We have a problem at Tomorrow.”

The Phantom Skull’s image wavered, turning his death’s-head grin into a scowl. “Tell me.”

                                                         * * *

An eerie silence descended on Applied Electronics in Sorenz’s absence, a silence broken only by the hum of electricity and the click of automated circuits. Ricketts paced around aimlessly, until he passed a bank of capacitors and found himself in a chamber he had not seen before. It was a large circular room, divided in two by a thick slab of Tomorrow’s patented artillery shell-proof glass; a section of this was hinged to serve as a door. The half of the room they were in now held a large control panel, with the mess of dials, levers, and buttons that Ricketts had come to expect. Wires and cables snaked from it, some to plugs in the wall, others to squat tanks in the corners, but most of them ran under the floor and reappeared on the other side of the glass. That half of the room was lined with bone-white ceramic tiles, and was completely empty, except for a low bench-like table at one end and a steel shaft like a piston on the ceiling at the other end.

Attached to this shaft was a bizarre gadget. It looked like an old pillbox gun from the War that had been victimized by an electrician. Its barrel had been replaced by a cattle prod’s distant cousin, copper wiring was wrapped around the stock in tight loops, large silvery rings were housed along its length, and a radio antenna stuck out of the operator’s end like a long, thin, sighting mark. Ricketts was reminded of the wild, ugly mutts that used to lurked around the train yard when he was a kid. They weren’t much to look at, but they’d rip a kid’s throat out in the blink of an eye.

He was still puzzling out the room when a thin pink pseudopod wriggled from between the clasps of his briefcase, bulged into a bud at one end, and formed into the anxious, irritated, and highly excitable head of Gum Belle, whose rosy skin was flushed a shade darker than usual.

“Geez, big guy,” she said loudly, “Do you have any idea how stuffy it is in there?” She stuck out a tongue the size of an oar’s blade at him.

“Get used to it,” he told her. “We’ll be leaving soon. Sorenz didn’t do it.”

The tongue rolled itself back inside Gum Belle’s mouth like a startled window shade. “What? He designed the Legacy’s security, he hated Arcturion, he got a cushy job out of the deal, and he’s a mad scientist. What do you want, a signed confession?”

“I checked Sorenz’s record and deposition while we were at the Bureau. It’s spotless. Not even a citation for littering.” Ricketts ticked off points one by one on his fingers. “His family’s loaded. His alibi checks out. He’s worked here forever, without any official complaints. There isn’t any motive there except for hate, and even that’s not strong enough. They’ve known each other for fifteen years, maybe longer, and Sorenz still works with Arcturion -- well, worked with him, at any rate. That tells me he’s more of a complainer than a criminal.”

A pair of boneless arms wriggled into sight, in order for Gum Belle to plant her fists on either side of the suitcase, as if it were a pair of particularly boxy hips. “Oh, yeah? Well, what about power? Sorenz said he just made chairman of the board again.”

“Yeah, and he doesn’t want the job.”

“But he was always griping about it when I was working here.”

“Because he’s a complainer,” Ricketts said patiently. “Just like my boss.” He cleared his throat and asked, as casually as he could, “And, speaking of bosses…are you sure you don’t just have it in for him because he fired you?”

In a flash, her head towered over him on a ramrod-straight neck. “And just what is that supposed to mean?”

Ricketts was saved from having to answer by the sound of the office door opening. Gum Belle gave him a stern look, then slurped her extremities back inside the briefcase just before Sorenz entered the room. Whatever the call had been about, it hadn’t improved his disposition any; in fact, he looked even grumpier than before. “I see you cannot resist snooping, Ricketts.” he growled.

“It’s my job, doc,” Ricketts said with an attempt at a wry smile.

His attempt was not appreciated. “At least you didn’t touch anything -- did you?”

When Ricketts told him he hadn’t, Sorenz’s mood slackened a little, though he still seemed dangerously close to snapping. “Thank God you are smarter than you look. This happens to be one of the more dangerous devices in the entire building.”

“What is it?”

“I classified it as an Electron Discharge Ordinance, but Helmut called it the lightning gun, a title which was as preposterous as it was catchy.”

The gun seemed to stir behind the glass, and the G-man’s cheek twitched. “What does it do?”

“It was designed to deliver a concentrated bolt of electricity to a predetermined target.” Sorenz had started to sound like a lecturing professor, though Ricketts didn’t point that out; he had a feeling it was one observation the good doctor wouldn’t appreciate. “In theory, the EDO has sufficient stopping power to vaporize steel. You can imagine what it could do to exposed flesh.”

“Sounds like a no-miss weapon, doc.”

Sorenz snorted angrily. “Feh! Do you have any idea how difficult it is to control a man-made lightning bolt? It kept wanting to ground itself at the nearest target, unless we poured tremendous amounts of electricity into it to keep the shot on track. As a weapon, it was next to useless, not to mention very expensive, and a tremendous drain on electrical resources. The project was terminated ten years ago. We still use it to test the conductivity of various metals, electronics, power cables, and the like.”

Ricketts sensed an opening. “‘The like?’”

The scientist fidgeted, but not terribly much. “A little over a month ago, we hooked it up to the Galvanic Generator. It was a reasonable way to see how much output Helmut’s latest darling could deliver, once properly charged; firing the lightning gun at a sustained rate is equal to the average hourly electric use of this entire city. We anticipated reaching perhaps 25% of the Generator’s output.”

“And?”

Sorenz smiled grimly. “After three days of continuous operation, the Galvanic Generator only accessed two of its 4,000 relays. I won’t bother you with percentages. Suffice to say that the machine’s efficiency far exceeded any of our projections. As you might expect, Helmut didn’t bother giving any, and so was able to claim that he had anticipated such a result all along.”

Ricketts scratched his chin. “You don’t sound too happy about it.”

“Why should I be?” Sorenz gave him a queer look, part suspicion, part horror, part sympathy. “Agent Ricketts, progress is all well and good, but an item of the Galvanic Generator’s raw potential could be disastrous in the wrong hands. It could supply free power to the entire world, but its potential for harm is ever so much greater. Thomas Edison gave us the both the light bulb and the electric chair. Helmut devised a gateway to limitless energy. I doubt humanity is ready for such a burden. But he wouldn’t listen to me, the stubborn fool.” He seemed to shrink in his lab coat. “I fear this interview is at an end. If you don’t mind showing yourself out, I have some papers to check before Isaac returns from lunch.”

They shook hands, sized one another up one last time, and parted ways.

Yet Ricketts was drawn to the lightning gun. He walked around the control panel, stepped inside the tiled room, and stared at it. Sorenz’s words echoed in his mind. Its potential for harm is ever so much greater. He found himself thinking of the Confidence job, and shuddered.

His reverie was broken when his briefcase all but exploded off its hinges and Gum Belle unfolded herself to stand right in his face. “Look at this thing!” she crowed, thrusting one long finger at the lightning gun. “Look at it! How can he build something like this and not be evil?” She fiddled with a lug nut, her hand blurring into a golden wrench so she could get a better grip. “I wonder why the old grump never let me see it.”

“Probably because you would’ve done just what you’re doing now. Quit it.” He slapped her wrench-hand away, and Gum Bell shrank back, rubbing her wrist.

“What’s up with you, big guy?” Her wounded expression melted into a wide, gloating grin, and her teeth smacked on a fresh wad of gum. “Is it cause you know I’m right?”

“Damned thing just reminds me of the War,” he answered testily. “Would’ve fit right in on both sides. Just aim down No Man’s Land, pull the trigger, and hope you hit more of theirs than you do of yours.” His face darkened. “I don’t know why I stopped you. Maybe you should tear it to scrap.”

She opened her mouth to answer, but Ricketts never found out what she was going to say, because at that moment the transparent wall darkened behind them, as if smoke were billowing inside it, the glass portal sealed shut with an oily swoosh, and just like that, they were locked in. Ricketts cursed and banged on the wall, while Gum Belle knelt down, flattened her hands, and tried to slip them under the door.

But against the latest in Tomorrow safety glass, their efforts were to no avail: his fists barely made a sound against the thick glass, while her limbs couldn’t break the airtight seal, no matter how thin she made them. They were forced to give up and wait.

Ricketts threw himself down on the low bench. It seemed to be made of the same ceramic as the walls, and was just as cool, hard, and uncomfortable. Gum Belle sat down beside him; her plush derriere apparently rendered her immune to such discomfort, for she leaned back and sighed. “We’re all alone, the door’s locked, the windows are fogged over, and I’m already getting bored,” she said with a mischievous smile, “If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you pulled this little stunt so we could…you know.”

He gave her a flat stare. “No, I don’t ‘know.’”

She turned her head three hundred and sixty degrees and lifted her chin to show him her good side. “Do I have to spell everything out for you, big guy? If you wanted to spend some quality time together, why didn’t you just say so?” Her top set of buttons undid themselves without being asked. Ricketts inched away, hands held up.

“I already told you, Belle, I don’t want my son mixed up in this business.”

She sniffed, her lower torso scooted down the bench. When she pulled her upper half back to meet it, they were on opposite ends. “Okay. But you’re already mixed up in it.” Her lower lip quivered. “Why is everything always business with you?” she bawled melodramatically. She paused in her lamentations to blow a fresh bubble and fix her hair.

Ricketts held his head in his hands. “Oh, God.”

Suddenly, Gum Belle stopped her mock weeping. And for good reason:

The lightning gun was up and running.

Blue-white energy coruscated between the focusing rings and across the copper wires like crawling ghosts. A high-pitched whine came from the cattle prod, and the piston hissed as it rose and spun, aimed the weapon at them. Ricketts pushed himself down the bench towards Gum Belle; Gum Belle wiggled towards Ricketts. They met in the middle, as the gun tracked them with cold precision.

“If this is your idea of quality time -- ”

He never finished the sentence. The web of light spun and flared, the whine rose to a piercing tingle, and, with a crack like thunder, a bolt of white-hot electricity lashed out at them.

                                                         * * *

                                   Don’t miss the next exciting chapter of

                                   GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD:

                                                       “CRIME
                                                            OF THE CENTURY!”
</b>
Thrills! Chills! Will Gum Belle and Ricketts meet a shocking fate? What has the Skull learned from Helmut Arcturion? And what is the name of that charming receptionist at the front desk?

Find out now! [link]

For a full-size version of this week's header, go here: [link]
Add a Comment:
 
:iconsteel-worker:
After reading all this comments and replies,I do admit that I have no special observation to point,except that,after exposing your referential sources, I do find indisputably that every event and characters reactions are convincing and well planned.Thanks for sharing those curious facts about Nicola Tesla.
Reply
:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Apr 3, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Lightning gun, eh? That tower of Arcturion's sounds like a facinating place to have a good, long wander around.

I enjoyed the parts focussing around Bell in the suitcase, they were a good 'side story' of sorts.
Reply
:iconstretch-ink:
Thank you! Good to hear that you liked Belle's little incognito trick. Those parts were a lot of fun to write.

Historical Note: Helmut Arcturion is based on the world's greatest electrical scientist, Nicola Tesla, who really did invent a "lightning gun," at the behest of some military types.

However, Tesla was a dedicated believer in the use of electricity to bring about peace and harmony, so he split the schematics up into three parts and mailed them to Washington, London...and Moscow. So, if the great powers wanted great power, they'd have to cooperate and trust one another to get it.

To this day, no one has built a working lightning gun.
Reply
:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Apr 5, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
I've heard of Tesla! The film 'The prestige' had him as a character in it, played by David Bowie I think.

He's a very interesting person, I haven't read a lot about him but he does seem like a true enigma, fascinating and mysterious.

Didn't know about that lightning gun fact, and that was pretty clever of him to send the schematics in multiple parts to three different countries.
Reply
:iconstretch-ink:
I was in a play about him in college, entitled "Tesla Electric," and I've been fascinated by him ever since. I belive that without Nicola Tesla, the modern world would literally not be possible. He pretty much discovered alternating current, created the neon sign, and invented the bedrock of our entire system of electrical distribution. Truly a great man, even if he was a complete nutball. He wore nothing but tuxedos, lived in a posh hotel because it was always clean, and essentially had "visions" of fully-realized scientific concepts. They made fun of him in the old Fleischer Studios Superman cartoons: he's the mad scientist in the introduction, the one wearing a tuxedo and controlling an army of killer robots.
Reply
:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Apr 7, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
He sounds like a real character, and a brilliant mind too. I can see why you find him so facinating.

And you're probably right about the modern world not being possible without him.
Reply
:iconservomoore:
"Height and Weight... Variable."

Best line I have ever read in a story of an elastic person.
Reply
:iconstretch-ink:
Pity the police dispatcher, for he must say something. :D

Thanks!
Reply
:iconsuperblade:
In perfect honesty, Stretch, I'm kinda disappointed... This story started out great, but it's falling into several 'ruts.'

First and foremost, the end of EVERY chapter is a near-death experience. Now, nearly dying now and then is a great cliffhanger, yeah, but after the fourth straight time, people start thinking, "Either find a new way to end the chapter or kill the guy already!". There are other ways to end a chapter: A stunning plot revelation, the villain musing about something, betrayal... You've got a lot of talent, Stretch. Don't let it go stale before it even hits the shelf.

Next, Gum Belle has a distinct personality. That's fine. But for God's sake, she nearly killed her closest 'friend' AND his kid. This chapter would've been a great time for some character exposition on Belle's part, but instead, nothing changed. She got angry, then she came back a little shaky, and now she's back to before. Same with Ricketts.. She practically crushed his bones, and he's up and around after a day?

I really like this story, Stretch. Please, watch what you do with it...
Reply
:iconstretch-ink:
Thank you for the comments and concern. I'm sorry that the story seems to be disappointing you; I hope that what I have planned after chapter ten makes it up to you.

I will do my best to explain myself, though. ;)

For starters, I'm not exactly trying to go for a 100% "realistic" story with this project, and in more ways than just having a heroine that makes bubblegum out of her own body. ;) "Gum Belle" falls into a certain genre of story that is less concerned with realism than it is with a thin veneer of realism; it is serialized pulp action.

For example, Indiana Jones, who is also a throwback to the pulps, gets the tar smacked out of him on a regular basis, but give him a scene change (or, in some cases, a quick intercut or two) and he's miraculously as good as new. Of course, I hope to avoid any sort of "Nuke in the fridge" moment, but I trust you get the idea. ;)

Ending every chapter with a cliffhanger is, of course, intentional. But there's more to it than just ramping up the suspense and tacking on an ending: it's a throwback to the serials that were the impetus behind the whole story. Those things ended nearly every week with at least one of the main characters facing certain death, only to weasel out of it in some way, shape, or form in the following week. Great way to make the kiddies come back every week, back when audience expectations weren't quite so lofty. ;) I realize that the cliffhanger is not an entirely realistic way of ending a chapter, but I do think it a particularly appropriate one, given the kind of retro story I'm going for.

Much of the same logic can be applied to the character problems you describe, although I cannot entirely fob those off on convention. ;) While Ricketts's recovery falls squarely under the Indiana Jones Scene Change rule, Belle's stubborn refusal to change as a character is simply a part of her personality: she's a showboating egomaniac with a heart of gold who is much better at dealing with external problems than she is with her own failings as a person. It's easy for her to accept that a villain hypnotized her into nearly killing dozens of people -- she thrives on that kind of stuff -- but she has real problems realizing that she had it in her to nearly kill dozens of people -- that would be an admission that she could ever do something wrong. That she shows what weakness and uncertainty that she does in Ricketts's presence is a big thing, for her.

Future story events will hopefully deal with these issues, but they might not deal with them in quite the comprehensive manner that you might like. After all, Marion and Indy only really have it out over their old wounds for one scene in "Raiders," whereupon they get along famously. And don't get me started on how Willie goes right back to kissing Dr. Jones after he locks her in a cage and sends her plummetting into the heart of a volcano. :D

Again, thank you for the comments, and I do apologize again that things aren't quite working out to your satisfaction. I do hope you'll stick with me to the end.
Reply
Add a Comment: