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.
Gum Belle had stretched herself across the room like a sheet, attached to the ceiling by suction-cup hands. A wavering stream of white light bled around her like a halo, and her midsection bulged as something hammered against it. The sheet drooped a little as she fell into a fit of laughter, her mouth spread grotesquely wide as she giggled. Behind her, the white light pulsed faster. Okay. Now thats a little uncomfortable. Like when you turn the shower up too high.
Ricketts frowned. A few of her buttons had started to run. This aint no shower, sister. We gotta bust that lightning gun before it turns you into a puddle.
Her three-foot-wide face looked down at him with disdain. I can turn myself into a puddle, thank you.
Dammit, Belle, look at yourself!
Ricketts rubbed the bridge of his nose. This was bad. If Belle went after the lightning gun, shed leave him exposed. As for him, he had his old .45, but he had no way to get a clear shot without it getting a clear shot on him. And he had the sinking suspicion that a direct hit from the Electron Discharge Ordnance wouldnt feel too ticklish to him. He sat down on the ceramic bench to think.
Inspiration strikes in strange places. For Ricketts, it struck him in the rear.
Belle! Think fast!
He picked up the bench and chucked it at her.
Privately, he didnt have much faith in miss Annabelle Zarkovs brainpower, so asking her to think fast had been more of a prayer than a request. Fortunately, his prayers were answered: Gum Belles features ran waxy as she let herself melt, just in time for the bench to punch through her like a fist through a wet paper bag. Electricity crackled against ceramic as the lightning gun tried in vain to blast a nonconductive material, then the bench slammed into the machine with a weighty clang. The EDO swung to one side, firing wildly; tendrils of white light snaked across the fogged windows as it sluggishly turned back to Ricketts. The G-Man whipped out his trusty .45.
He never got off a shot. The red-gold puddle at his feet zipped down the room, clamped around the lightning gun from behind like a huge amoeba, and squeezed.
Glass and metal squealed and crunched; a fountain of sparks and steam burst from the exposed piston. It was the last sound of a dying dream. Without warning, the dim outline of the lightning gun collapsed as Gum Belle shrank down around it, first into a ball, then, with a sinuous flowing motion, into her normal self. She wobbled on her feet, her normally rosy face a little pale.
Ugh. She put a tapered hand to her lips. One sec, big guy. She turned to the side, and Ricketts was unwholesomely reminded of a cat hawking up a hairball as the vigilante regurgitated an unrecognizable mass of twisted metal, tangled wires, and ropy pink strands of goo. She stood and wiped her lips with the back of her palm. Thats better.
For you, maybe, he said, trying to ignore his roiling stomach. But were still trapped in here.
No sweat, big guy, she chirped. I figured out how to fix that while I was melting.
What, melting makes you think better?
Sometimes, she said brightly.
Great, he muttered. Fortunately, she didnt hear him as she knelt down next to the door. This thing is hinged, right? she asked him.
And hinges come in two parts, right?
So, all you have to do is get something between the two parts
Her head and hands collapsed, squelched against the hinges, and melted inside them like water into a sponge before exploding back to normal, bursting the hinges along with them.
Isnt it? Gum Belle pushed against the door and it fell outwards with a clang. Together, they rushed out into the lab.
Across from them, manning the late lightning guns control panel, was Sorenzs lab assistant, Isaac. His eyes went the size of aggie marbles at the sight of them, and the weighty man moved from behind the panel, hefting a weighty wrench.
A red-gold tentacle lashed around it and tore it from his hand, while Ricketts grabbed him by the collar, spun him around, and tackled him face-first into the wall. Delicate instruments were ruined. The G-man didnt give a rats ass.
Whats going on? He grabbed Isaacs wrist and twisted it behind his back. The lab assistant howled in pain. Tell me, or I break it. Another wrench. Now.
Isaac grimaced. He
told me to make sure
Make sure of what?
That you didnt leave! Lemme go! Lemme go!
Sure. Ricketts let him go, then laid him out with a good left hook. He rubbed his knuckles. Gum Belle nodded approvingly at him.
Not bad, big guy, she said.
I dont care. Lets just finish this.
They sprinted for Sorenzs office. Gum Belle shot out her head like a paddleball and smashed through the office door. When it rebounded back to her shoulders, her face was puzzled.
* * *
Sorenz tapped his foot against the hard metal floor of Subbasement 3 and scowled as the last of its staff filed into the freight elevator. The doors closed with a steely whisper. He watched as the dial mounted above them went from S3, to S2, to S1, to B3, to B2, to B1, and, finally, to M. His pinched face tightened like a mummys skin, but the arrow stayed put. Good. No suspicions yet.
He relaxed just a little as he turned to face the head of the new security detail. His name was given as Mr. Van Cleef. He was a tall, lanky man with the air of a viper and a nasty ring of white scar tissue around his eye. His uniform didnt fit properly. None of the new guards uniforms did. Sorenz tried to ignore this.
Lets go, he said. The words were laced with venom and resignation.
My sentiments exactly, doc. Lead the way. Mr. Van Cleef pulled two of his men aside. Make sure we dont get bushwhacked.
The men nodded and pulled snub-nosed automatic pistols from their jackets. Snub-nosed automatic pistols, Sorenz reflected grimly, were not standard issue for Tomorrow security guards.
He tried not to ignore that, too.
Van Cleef stuck to his side like flypaper, the rest trailing behind, the last lugging a huge seven-foot-long crate on an overworked and under-oiled dolly.
Subbasement 3 was quite unlike the rest of Tomorrow Tower. There were no Art Deco reliefs here, no glass floors or optimistic plaques. S3 was the most secure area of a secure building, designed solely to keep its secrets in and intruders out. The floor was heavy steel, thick as battleship plating, the walls and ceilings featureless concrete. The only light came from stark white bulbs mounted behind ruthless metal grilles. It felt like a prison, and that was how Sorenz thought of it. A prison of bad ideas.
A prison that he was about to break open.
Self-disgust rippled through him as he marched down the hall. Emil Sorenz was not a pleasant man, nor was he a social man. In fact, whether or not he was even a good man was a matter of some debate (especially among his many dismissed receptionists).
But he had always considered himself an honorable man. An ethical man. He had always prided himself on his self-control, his morals, the high horse he had ridden on the straight and narrow road. His decisions had made him lonely and his life bitter; he had dined on ashes, while his partner drank deep from the cup of fame and fortune. But he had never strayed from his private compass. That was some compensation, wasnt it?
Only now, as he prepared to betray everything he had held so dear, did Dr. Sorenz find how hollow and empty his small trophies had been. His self-control was brittle, his morals rusted and broken. All it had taken was a single telephone call to send him tumbling from his high horse to the rotting gutters that lined his slender road, and his compass now spun blindly like a broken wheel.
* * *
The girl at the front desk, the looker who had kept Ricketts on his feet when he first entered the lobby, was reading a cheap romance novel when the main elevator doors opened and Lionel Ricketts and a strangely familiar girl in a red skirt and blouse dashed across the lobby to her desk. She looked up from her romance and her sunny smile cracked at the harsh look on the burly mans face.
Still, a job is a job, and she tried to do hers. Can I help --
Sorenz. His eyes snapped suspiciously around the room. Where is he?
She marked her place and closed her book. It was going to be one of those days. Im sorry, Mr. Ricketts, but the president is a very busy man. Stonewall him. Hope he leaves. Forget about him when he does. Go home. Pretend today never happened.
Oh, hes busy, all right, said the woman in red. She was chewing something
gum? Like I ever saw him do a day of honest work.
Her needling contralto sparked the receptionists memory, but it was the concentrated jade insolence in her eyes that sealed the deal. Annabelle Zarkov? she asked. Is that you?
Annabelle snapped out of her brooding glower instantly, and favored her with a sunny grin. Pearl? I thought you were still a switchboard gal.
Nope. I got a promotion.
Some people get all the luck.
Tell me about it. We all miss you down at Arlenes. No one can push that old hags buttons like you could.
Annabelle looked obscenely pleased. Aw, shucks.
Did you find a place? The receptionist was worried; apartments were hard to come by in this season.
Kinda sorta. Its a little cramped, but I manage to squeeze it all in. Her cheeks dimpled at some hidden joke. Tell you what, lets meet up for lunch sometime, and
Glad to see this trip wasnt a friggin waste, Ricketts muttered.
Oh, keep your bowler on. Annabelle leaned sinuously across the front desk into proper gossiping distance. Listen, Pearl, the big guy heres in a bit of a rush. Could you do me one and let me know where old Sourpuss Sorenz is?
Pearl bit her lip. I really shouldnt
Cmon. A winning, toothy grin. Ill toss in a few pointers on how to really mess with Arlene.
Everyone has his or her price.
Okay. Dr. Sorenz took a delivery down to S3. Something to do with the N.N.W.W.
Annabelle winked. Gotcha.
Ricketts scratched his head. N.N.W.W.?
Short for Y.K.W, she said.
Annabelle rolled her eyes. Dont mind him. Hes hopeless. Any idea when hell get done down there?
You know how he is. Hell be double-checking every little detail for hours.
Annabelle clucked her tongue in sympathy. Tell me about it. This one time, I accidentally squirted mayo all over some papers -- well, accidentally isnt the right word; more like good-naturedly -- and he went all Peter Lorre on me
Ricketts rubbed the bridge of his nose.
You might as well come back tomorrow, Pearl said, with all due sympathy. Whatever hes up to down there, its super-serious. He dismissed everyone from the whole level. Come to think of it, she mused, one of the men making the delivery seemed to know you, Mr. Ricketts.
I dont know any delivery boys, grunted the surly man in the bowler hat.
Are you sure, sir? He was a wiry man with a scar around his eye. He must be new around here; Ive never seen him before.
Ricketts started. How long ago did you say this was?
Two minutes or so. Why?
Call the cops. He jammed his hat on his head and took off. And dont let anyone out of the building!
Annabelle gave her a cheery wave. See ya, Pearl.
She spun around in mid-sprint, running backwards on her gold pumps. Banana peels! Arlene hates banana peels! She shouldered two executives out of the way and vanished. The receptionist stood up.
But werent you just fired?
* * *
So, what does it mean? Ricketts asked.
What does what mean?
You know. Her soft hip brushed his. Ricketts tried to tell himself it was because of the close confines of the delivery elevator. It was a tough sell.
No, I dont. He stared at the dial above the door, trying, as all elevator passengers do, to make it move faster with the power of his mind.
Some guys, you have to spell everything out for them. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her run one gauntleted hand down her ample chest, smoothing out a wrinkle in her costume. N.N.W.W. Nudge-Nudge, Wink-Wink. Get it?
A long arm twined around his waist. You Know What.
He turned to face her. She was grinning like a cat. This has nothing to do with Sorenz, he said.
She stretched her neck out, putting her face a hairs breadth from his. Youre the one who brought it up.
The elevator bell chimed. Ricketts had never heard a more welcome sound in his life.
That was before the doors opened and two men in ill-fitting security uniforms showed them the business ends of their .38s.
Gum Belle didnt even bother letting Ricketts go; she simply thrust out an arm and a leg, and the goons fell like sandbags from ten feet away, one punched in the nose, the other kicked in the crotch. The lamp above the elevator exploded harmlessly as one of them let off a parting wild shot.
In the flickering, shadowy glow from the busted outlet, it was hard to tell whether Gum Belles face was smiling or snarling. We were having a private conversation, boys.
Ricketts extricated himself from her lasso hug and bent over the two unfortunate dopes. Even in a bad light and a bad fit, he recognized them both. Bastardo and Bruto Boccelli, he said. Saluccis behind this, all right.
Her green eyes flared like witchfires. Best news Ive heard all day. She somersaulted over his head; a red-gold ball bounced to earth and ricocheted down the hall.
Her voice floated back to him. Cmon, big guy! You dont want to miss the fun!
Lionel Ricketts sighed and tried to keep up.
* * *
The man who called himself Van Cleef clapped Sorenz on the shoulder. A hand-rolled cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth like a small bone. Done the right thing, doc, he said in his sandpapery voice. Takes a big man to know when to fold.
The acting president of Tomorrow Industries didnt answer. He was too busy opening the outer vault of S3-O, short for Subbasement 3-Omega. It was the most secure area in all of Tomorrow Tower, constructed to Helmut Arcturions precise and maddeningly bizarre specifications. Its door took up an entire wall from floor to ceiling, and was built entirely out of an experimental alloy, a light silvery blue in color, that was nonconductive, immune to any temperatures under 350,000 degrees Fahrenheit, and could take a howitzer shell at point-blank range without a scratch.
A hefty deterrent to any thief, but Arcturion knew as well as anyone that doors can be picked as well as broken, and had devised a more insidious security measure. Typewriter keys of all shapes and sizes covered the wall like mechanical ivy, an enormous interactive lexicon of all the characters used in every language and code known to man. Twenty, when pressed in a precise sequence, activated the foolproof set of locks and tumblers that opened S3-Os outer vault.
Otherwise, concentrated sulfuric acid would destroy everything inside -- and outside, as well.
Only Emil Sorenz knew the code. So he shouldnt have been nervous. But he was. Phantom errors, roused by fear, shame, and guilt, floated through his mind, moaning and rattling their chains and slamming doors so loudly that he couldnt concentrate. He pressed this key, that one, another by his feet. One false move, and they would all be dead, courtesy of his kidnapped partner and his blasted eccentricities.
Even so, Sorenz was briefly tempted to mistype the code. Better to die than to risk delivering the Galvanic Generator into the hands of evil. But Tomorrow Industries had invested too much in the Generator project. If it were destroyed now, everything that the company had worked towards would be gone sooner than the smoke from Van Cleefs disgusting cigarette.
Besides, S3-O had another security measure in place. He had called it blasphemy, while his partner had called it progress. But if blasphemy could save the world, he reflected grimly, then so be it.
The keys clicked as he entered the last few characters, and both anxiety and relief knotted together in his chest as hidden mechanisms thumped and rumbled behind the impenetrable super-steel.
The door swung open on well-oiled hinges. Sorenz waited while Van Cleefs gang clustered inside -- only to be met with another door, its smooth surface marred by only two imperfections: a small slot, like a bank deposit flap; and an unlit bulb behind a pane of unbreakable glass.
Van Cleef flipped his cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other without using his fingers. Sorenz saw a hint of annoyance on his craggy face, and took heart as only a fearful man can. Now was the time to try and reason with him.
You may as well turn back, he said, with as much courage as he could muster, which wasnt much. The vault is impervious to harm, and I cannot open it. I tried to tell your master over the telephone that he was wasting his time, but he ignored my advice. Leave now, and I give you my word of honor that I shant alert the authorities.
Van Cleefs eye twinkled within its crosshair-shaped cage. Thats a right generous offer. Real shame I cant take you up on it.
You fool! Sorenz cried, with mounting hysteria. Theres no way youll ever be able to --
One long stride, and Van Cleef was in his face, his cigarette smoldering a centimeter away from Sorenzs eye. You best watch what you call me, pardner. The Skulls a few steps ahead of you, see? Now keep your tongue hid and watch.
He took a small box from his pocket and opened it. Sorenz caught a glimpse of dark, gleaming hair before Van Cleef put it into the slot.
Silent anticipation was writ on every face and held in every held breath as a barely audible ticking sound started up from behind the door, as if a cunningly concealed clock was secretly counting down the seconds, a lifetime of uncertainty distilled into a single moment. For the head of Applied Electronics, it was the sound of danger, not just to his company, his country, or his city, but also to the two coins left in his threadbare purse: his convictions and his pride. If the door opened, then he would be forced to admit the unthinkable; if it stayed shut, then Helmut Arcturions way would always be right.
For this was his partners masterstroke, a macabre final lock that used a shard of the past to open the gates to the future. The ticking sound came from delicate electronic eyes and scopes and sensors and sniffers that lined the doors innards. They were state-of-the-art, devised by Arcturion himself with the aid of the worlds top chemists and biologists, but they were far from perfect. Only so much was known about the mysterious building blocks that made up flesh and bone and sinew, after all. But the instruments were precise enough to recognize the family traits of a man who was both long dead and bereft of any heirs or living relatives. The only known way to unlock the inner door was the sole remaining marker of the original donor: a shard of bone, safely held in an ironclad deposit box in Switzerland.
Whoever these men were, they had not intruded on Swiss security. Nor had they come bearing bones. They had brought hair. Very fresh-looking hair at that.
The horrible ticking coiled deep in Sorenzs brain. It would stop soon. It had to stop soon. It would drive him mad if it did not stop soon. And when it did, when the door refused to open, then perhaps Van Cleef would let him go, and Sorenz would scurry back to his cloistered life, and wait for Helmut, and he would apologize for his pig-headedness, and Helmut would apologize for his pig-headedness, and they would be friends once more; he would swallow his pride, they both would; only please, please, please, let the door stay shut.
The bulb winked on behind its shatterproof window.
Sorenz felt his heart stop.
As the door slid into the floor with a click of released catches and the rumble of hidden wheels, he felt his last tattered scrap of hope slip from between his fingers. Sorenz swayed on his feet, ready to fall, as the crooks hooted and hollered and danced, reveling in their triumph as they surged into the vault to claim their prize.
It wasnt a sound, really. More like a ghost of a sound. Like a distant firecracker on a lazy July afternoon. But Van Cleef heard it, heard it loud and clear, and his long horse face was sharp-edged and alert as his dead, milky eye whipped back to the outer door. He grabbed the nearest thug and whirled him around.
We got us some company, he snarled. Open the crate.
* * *
Gum Belle couldnt keep to just one shape. From ball, to spring, to serpent, to bizarre cephalopod, she altered her appearance like a magical quick-change artist as she raced down the bare, cold halls of Subbasement 3.
She wasnt showing off. Flexing her metamorphic muscles was the closest she came to chewing her nails, or pulling her hair, or all the other nervous habits that boring people had. And she was nervous, terribly nervous. The bad guys were close to taking the Galvanic Generator, which, since they were bad guys, meant that a great many innocent people out there were in one heck of a lot of danger. Could anyone blame her for being a little
keyed up? Yeah, that was it. She was just pissed off.
And for good reason. For the second time in as many days, the Phantom Skull had trumped her. Just who the hell did he think he was? Until now, she had never lost. Never. (Okay, okay; sometimes she had setbacks. But those didnt count.) Her defeat at the Legacy stung something fierce. It was one thing to best her woman-to-mastermind. But the Skull had made her hurt people, had forced her to do something she would never have done in her right mind. Humiliating criminals was part of her job; she enjoyed it. But she was struck with an almost painful need to really let loose on the Phantom Dull and his Board of Grime. She wouldnt kill them. But shed make them wish she had.
Voices and fast footfalls echoed ahead of her, along with the splintery snap of breaking wood. Had she been a little more rational, these sounds would have tipped her off that something was amiss, but Gum Belle was cocky enough, and angry enough, and just anxious enough to willfully ignore them. She pulled a few back-flips, first on the floor, then on the ceiling, and flowed around a corner to meet her quarry face-to-face.
Aw, nuts! Eddie the Rat squeaked. Its her!
Heya, shrimpy. I hear youre messing around with private property again.
The goons backed away from the half-open crate, hands raised. As they retreated, Gum Belle saw a hunched figure with flyaway hair crouched in the far corner of the room. Her lips thinned at the sight of him.
Oh, God, he said hoarsely. Its you. The one from the papers. Please, dont hurt me --
Shove it, Sourpuss Sorenz, she snapped. We know you tried to fry us. He looked a little surprised, even confused at that, but she didnt give a spit what he thought about being caught red-handed.
The wheezing gasps behind her meant the cavalry had arrived. FBI
Ricketts put one hand on his knee and tried not to fall over as he held up his badge. Youre under
ah, jeez, why did you have to
how did you go so fast, Belle?
Creative thinking, big guy.
Damn, but you sure like to shoot the breeze, said one of the false security guards, who stood with the rest near a half-open crate. He was a tall, limber guy with skin like a tanned leather. A circular scar wound around one eye, and a slightly bent cigarette burned at the corner of his mouth. Rickettss flushed face went beet-red.
Deadeye. He raised his .45 and pointed it in the furrowed space between the lanky mans eyes.
A smile as dry and empty as a desert wind. John Law. He raised his hands, almost lazily, and looked them over with a critical eye. I figured youd be too stupid to stay home, seein as how God gives out tin stars out stead of brains. specially when I saw the guest book. As for you, miss Belle
He inclined his head to her. Mighty obliged to see you.
Glad to hear it, ugly. She struck one of her classic poses, the Avenger, the one where she planted her fists planted on her hips and lifted her chin just a little, hair dramatically rippling in the breeze. One of the great advantages of total control over her body was the ability to make her hair ripple dramatically even in a hermetically sealed corridor. Everyone knew you couldnt have a proper pose without dramatic, rippling hair. She liked to imagine herself as the Statue of Liberty with boxing gloves. Now, surrender, before I get rough.
Do what she says, Deadeye, whispered Eddie the Rat. I dont wanna have her get rough on me again. She done it twice now. Twice. He swallowed hard, and his Adams apple wobbled in his throat like a baited worm.
But Deadeye stayed as cool as an icebox. Christs drawers Ed, youre as yeller as Rando. But true is true. I seen what you can do, miss Belle, and I cant rightly say I want a piece of it. He spat out his cigarette, ground it beneath one booted heel, and gestured to the crate. Its all yours.
Youre smarter than you look. Gum Belle crossed the eight feet to the crate in a single stretchy step. Go call security, big guy, while I take the Generator back to --
A huge, steel fist shot out of the box and literally flattened her against the ceiling. Packing straw exploded everywhere, like feathers in a pillow fight as a massive shape burst into view. Ricketts snapped off three quick shots. Two bullets pinged off the shape like air pellets; the third went wide. Sorenz cried out and dropped to the ground. As a dazed Gum Belle slowly peeled herself off the ceiling, she heard a pneumatic hiss, right before an enormous hand snatched her up and threw her to the ground like clay on a pottery wheel.
Glad ta see ya, toots, rumbled the shape, and before Gum Belle could reform herself, a nozzle irised open in his palm and a gout of dripping, white-hot flame poured down on her.
* * *
Not for the first time, Lionel Ricketts asked himself why he was here. He could be at home, with his son, taking it easy instead of staring at the remains of Gum Belle, who was now reduced to little more than a charred, greasy puddle. The stench of cooking rubber was everywhere. Through clouds of oily black smoke, he saw Deadeye. He had tossed aside his stolen uniform, and stood now in the rumpled, well-worn riding clothes he had worn underneath. He cinched his six-shooters around his waist and smoothed the brim of his Stockman, both of which he had retrieved from the crate.
Like I was just about to say, John Law, I was mighty obliged to see your partner, seein as my buddy Stan was real keen to settle a score with her.
Ricketts was no coward. He had gone toe to toe with some of biggest boys who ever practiced the sweet science. But Stan took the cake with both hands and ate it like a saltine cracker. Not only was he as big as a Chevy, but also he looked like he was half Chevy, to boot. He wore a hideous checkered suit with a pair of wingtips big enough to float down the Colorado River and a smile that was bolted onto a lower jaw made of scrap and solder.
She busted my eye, he explained in a deep, metallic voice. In the orange light from the burning Belle, the lenses of his replacement glowed like pools of fire. I fixed it. Now Im gonna fix you.
Ricketts tried to stay calm by gripping his gun tighter. It was like using a thimble to bail an ocean liner. Youll be assaulting a Federal officer.
Gee, I never done that before. Stan paused and tapped his chin with a sound like hail on a tin roof. Then he shrugged. Aw, well. First time for everything.
He lumbered closer, while Deadeye paced along the rear wall, his hands rock-steady over his six-guns. Ricketts steadied himself in front of the door and kept his .45 trained on the space between them.
It aint lookin too good for you, John Law. The flames seared deep shadows in Deadeyes harsh face. He slid another cigarette from his breast pocket with one hand, while his other hand crept closer to his holster. Stan dont think much of lead, seein as how a third of hims made of it.
A quartah, Stan said, a little defensively. No moren a quartah, outside odds. You ask me, G-man, Im all steel. Just ask all the ladies! Haw-haw!
Deadeyes lip twisted. Stan, a body tries to be funny, and you up and get technical.
Stan shrugged. Sorry. Cant really help it. Technicals what I am. He kicked a three-by-three chunk of crate aside like a twig and cracked his knuckles with the sound of an engine turning over.
As the giants shadow fell on him like a curtain, Ricketts juked to the right, then lunged to the left. The guy was big, and had a hell of a lot more poise than Brick Mick, but either he was a touch slow, or he didnt expect a bulky Irish Fed who was just past his prime to be so light on his feet. His fist pummeled the air past the G-mans ear; Ricketts spun around, aimed his .45 at the base of his fleshy neck; there was the loud report of a gunshot, the clatter of metal on metal; and Ricketts staggered back, shaking his smarting gun hand. As for the gun, it had been shot out of his fingers before he could pull the trigger.
Before him stood Deadeye, still as a statue, his smoking revolver held low on the hip. His whole body was like a tense steel spring, and when he spoke, his lips barely moved. Fancy footwork, he said. Do the honors, Stan.
The iron giant moved for him, arms raised like a bear. Disarmed, Ricketts had no choice. He bobbed and weaved inside the man-mountains reach and shot his strong left between his jacket buttons.
He hadnt counted on Stans abs being as hard as his chin. As Ricketts howled and clutched his split knuckles, Stan chuckled and hoisted him up in the air like a rag doll. Cold steel fingers clinched his neck, and he coughed and spluttered and watched, empty-handed and out of options, as the gangsters filed out of the vault, carrying a small steel box. He didnt have to ask what was in it. He glared down at Deadeye as the gunslinger holstered his revolver and sauntered closer.
Fraid this is the end of the line, he said, but Ill give you a fifty-fifty chance. Im gonna ask Stan set you down in a minute. When he does, I want you to make a dive for that peashooter of yours. Its over there, in the corner. I checked it out. Its loaded. Safetys off. Bullets in the chamber. You get lucky, you get to feel good about yourself afore Stan pulps you with his fists, or I drill you like a duck on the wing, dependin on which one of us you hit. You get unlucky, you still just get to die quick, which is moren youll get from the Skull.
Ricketts rolled his eyes. Youre a real softie.
Dont let it get around. Deadeye said dryly as he crouched down and held his cigarette to the flaming pile of Gum Bele. Now, jest lemme take a bit of smoke, and --
A pink tongue shot out of the flames, wrapped around his wrist and hurled him against the wall like a softball.
Before he collapsed to the floor, Stanley Steamer had dumped Ricketts like a clingy girlfriend. His mechanical eye whirred frantically and a low, furnace-like rumble came from his throat as the burning black smear on the floor twitched and writhed like a crushed spider. A dozen slender, gummy vines braided themselves around the sputtering fire, extinguishing it with a hiss. They quivered and pulsed, then rose into the air like a dancing snake. Gobbets of reddish-gold flesh that had been spattered across the room flowed to it like eager puppies.
Ow, said a disembodied voice. Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow. Do you have any idea how much that smarts? The snake squashed in and stretched out, massaging and kneading itself as colors and patterns swirled into focus. Ropy limbs slopped across the room, pulled themselves into shape. Bust and hips filled out, while the waist trimmed itself down. An unruly explosion of yellow hair combed itself into place, grew a headband. Flat heels shot up. Bare hands sprouted gloves. Two flashing green eyes bobbed to the surface of a featureless face, spun around like olives in a martini glass, then settled into position above a pert nose. Ruby lips painted themselves below, followed by a crimson domino mask. Ricketts massaged his windpipe and scrabbled for his gun as Gum Belle pushed her teeth into place with one slender finger and flexed her fists, a little charred, a little winded, but grinning all the same.
Ding! she chirped. Round two, tall, dark, and clanky.
Stanley Steamer roared like a freight train and charged.
Nearby, Emil Sorenz was curled, child-like, against himself. Dark blood spread around him in a slowly widening pool.
Ricketts felt a pang of guilt, sharp and painful. Only one man had fired and missed here.
He pressed two fingers against Sorenzs wrist. The pulse was weak and stuttering, but the scientists eyes fluttered open and stared at him -- through him -- with all the intensity of fifty lonely years.
he whispered. The Skull
the Skull is
Who? Ricketts leaned in closer. The Skull is who?
The Skull is
a tiny red bubble popped between his lips, a disgusting parody of Gum Belles trademark.
His last what? Whose last? Rickettss head spun. This was nonsense. Talk, Sorenz!
But Emil Sorenz never told him. He never told anyone anything ever again.
Behind them, the battle between Gum Belle and Stanley Steamer raged like the wind against the waves. The machine-man threw punch after piston-powered punch, but the lissome lass bent like a rubber reed, sinuously looping around him. Her fists whipped about like yo-yos, striking him with explosive force from every side, but each blow might have been a love tap from a tinkers hammer, for all the damage it did. Gouts of flame burst from his palm; the loops widened to avoid them, then shrank down to crush and constrict. The iron giant grunted. Ricketts heard the groan of trying metal and the creak of strained rubber.
And the click of a hammer.
Ricketts threw himself behind the remains of the crate as Deadeye jumped up and ripped off a staccato hail of bullets that struck a whining tune against the steel walls. The G-man poked his gun up to return fire and saw the gunman sprinting away with a retreating jingle of spurs.
He glanced to the side. The cybernetic colossus and the crime-fighting cutie were locked together, practically motionless. Muscles as thick as (and twined with) electrical cables strained beneath Stanleys skin, and the human serpent that was Gum Belle quivered like an overstretched rubber band. Their faces were close enough to kiss; she bit her lip in concentration; his one real eye was fixed on her with ferocious intensity. Ricketts could feel the power pouring off them in waves, like an impending heatstroke. But he found it impossible to leave. Only a few days ago, he would have cut Belle loose without hesitation if it meant saving the Generator.
But not now. She had turned from an annoying vigilante to his partner while he wasnt looking. Either life was sneaky, or she was. If it was both, then he was in trouble.
She made up his mind for him. Go, she said through clenched teeth. And dont run like a hippo this time, big guy.
He nodded and touched his hat in salute. Ill leave a few for you.
And he was off. His bruised ribs felt like burning brands in his chest as he sprinted past nameless doors and glaring bulbs like unblinking, sightless eyes. He kept close to the wall, his .45 at the ready. The narrow, twisting corridor was like a shooting range. If Deadeye caught even a whiff of him too soon, hed be a goner. Best to be a little cautious, use the corners as well as he could, and do his best to shoot first and regret later. But he couldnt move too slowly, or
Around the bend, a bell chimed.
A familiar bell.
He fumbled in his coat for his wallet, took out his Bureau badge, then cupped it upside-down in his palm and tilted it until the smooth tin backing showed him what he was about to get into: the elevator, doors open, with the victorious criminal element filing inside.
Ricketts cursed. He wasnt the only one being cautious: Deadeye still had the heel of his hand on the butt of his pistol, and was backing into the car like a paranoid, homicidal Roy Rodgers. It was time for drastic measures. Taking a deep breath, the G-man took the badge between his index and middle fingers.
He never told his son this small fact, and it followed him into his grave, but Lionel Ricketts had been quite an accomplished hand at throwing things as a boy. Not good enough to make the major leagues, but certainly accomplished enough to make champion stone-skipper. One of his secret regrets as an adult was that there werent any lakes in the city wide enough and secluded enough where he could dust off his old skills without embarrassing himself.
But, as they say, there is no time like the present, and when Ricketts crouched down, put the badge close to the floor, and tossed from the shoulder, the shiny tin badge flew down the hall towards the elevator as sure and as smooth as when he had been a wee lad.
Deadeye saw it immediately, and he fired once, strictly out of reflex, before the badge slid to the elevator threshold, but one shot was all Ricketts needed. With Deadeyes gun pointed at the ground instead of at the end of the hall, he barreled around the corner, .45 blazing. The gunslinger clutched his side and ripped out a stream of frontier oaths as he stumbled back into the elevator car. The G-man poured on a burst of speed, but the revolvers roared twice more, and he went prone on instinct. When he raised his head from the hallway floor, the doors had shut, and the arrow above them was rising, slowly but surely, to the lobby.
He pounded his fist against the down button until his hand ached, but Ricketts knew it was hopeless. He had botched it. By the time he could get the elevator to come back, the Phantom Skulls men would be out of Tomorrow Tower and well on their way to using the Galvanic Generator to do God only knew what wickedness.
He sat down and rubbed the bridge of his nose. There were no stairs here, and, though there were air ducts, he was no Gum Belle. Hell, the only thing that could make his day any worse would be if she lost her contest and that beast in a bad suit came up behind him and crushed his head like an egg. In a despairing act of pride, he stooped down to pick up his badge.
Which was pinned between the elevator doors. Ricketts lunged forward, thrust his hands into the gap, and worked them open.
Before him, he saw a shaft of darkness, broken only by the dim shapes of moving cables. As his eyes adjusted, he saw a floor number written on the far wall. No emergency ladders, though.
Guess it was time to make another leap of faith.
Ricketts kissed his badge for luck, then jumped into the empty darkness, a Hail Mary on his lips, and opened his hands wide.
God was with him once again. He snatched the cool, twisted steel of the first cable he touched, and he immediately felt the force of the machinery jerk him up, up, and away. As he rose, Ricketts began to climb, his old Army training coming back with a vengeance. He could almost hear his old drill sergeant, Leroy Libby, a tubby, mustachioed man who looked like Teddy Roosevelt on hooch.
Dammit, Ricketts, you goddam worthless mick snot! Are you gonna sit there in the mud and cry, or are gonna decide to grow a pair?! Now get up there, be a man and touch the top in five seconds! Failure is not
an option, he huffed. Failure is not
Good thing Belle wasnt here. He probably looked like a gorilla right now.
* * *
God, that gorilla stank.
He stank of sweat, and he stank of grease, and he stank of hot pennies and overheated cars and Grans old kerosene iron that she refused to throw out, even when Belle told her over and over and over again that it was going to explode one of these days, and then wouldnt she be sorry, and Gran dont give me that look, that things a bomb waiting to happen, and theres this thing called electricity, you should try it sometime, and are you even listening to me, you arent even listening to me, I dont know why I even bother, you stupid old bat.
But mostly, he stank of evil.
Evil didnt really have a stink. But evil things were never clean things -- first rule of pulp fiction -- and so they reeked to the conscience. And Gum Belle liked to think that her conscience had a very well developed sense of smell.
Sadly, she couldnt very well get away from this moral stench, because it was taking all of her strength and willpower to keep Stanley Steamer the Stinky Evil Gorilla from rampaging after that poor old such-and-so Ricketts and turning him into Grump Tartar. Stan was the strongest person shed ever had the displeasure to meet. Maybe even stronger than her. Of course, he wasnt her match in beauty, but hey, you cant win them all. She would have loved to tell him that, instead of just thinking it, but she didnt have much energy to spare for the old back-and-forth.
Neither did he, for that matter. They were locked in a stalemate, but it couldnt last. Hed really done a number on her with that flaming gunk of his, and that spontaneous regeneration really took it out on a girl. Gum Belle felt tired and sore, like after the Confidence disaster, only worse. She had to put an end to this, before it put an end to her.
Stans mechanical eye clicked and hummed as its lenses refocused, and a handy idea popped into her head like a fresh bubble. If shed pissed him off by busting his little widget once before, she might as well try and distract him by doing it again. She couldnt spare her arms or legs for it, but that wasnt about to stop her.
Gum Belle twitched her nose, sharpening it a little, then pursed her lips in concentration and shot it out like sharp little piston. At such close range, it wasnt hard to hit her mark; the lenses exploded with a musical tinkle, and Stan grunted in pain. Cold steel and copper wires were all around her nostrils. And
and something else. Hard and smooth and flat
The big gorilla grinned, and Gum Belle realized, with a pang of discomfort, that he wasnt distracted at all. I was hoping youd do that, doll, he rumbled, and now the plate under her nose was hot, really, really, hot; there was a flash of red brilliance that hurt her eyes; and a pencil-thin beam of red light shot out of his ruined socket, sliced her nose to ribbons, and punched through her head like a nail gun through a football. Gum Belle yelped in surprise, and Stan dipped his chin down, her flesh bubbling and sizzling as the ray followed his gaze and sheared through her coiled body with deadly ease. Before she could repair the damage, he flexed his mechanical muscles, and Belle burst apart like an overworked length of taffy to splatter into a corner.
Fresh fury boiled up within her like a bilious stew. Her body shook and burbled as murderous thoughts roared through her like wildfire. Shed rip that thing right out of his stupid skull, shed tear his jaw off, shed send him to the scrap yard, she --
She lost it. Her self-control, already tenuous, broke like a brittle twig, and a familiar, gooey looseness took over as she went gum.
Oh, she had never been so humiliated in all her days.
Stanley Steamer grunted in surprise at what looked like the worlds biggest lump of silly putty. Sorry, doll, he said, but I gotta get going. He held out his hand, and the deadly mouth opened in his palm.
Gum Belles shapeless body shook as he unleashed another blast of fatal fire.
* * *
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GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD: