The bike had almost made it when the train clipped its rear wheel, shearing it off as neatly as a chef joints a chicken. The motorcycle spun clockwise with the force of the impact, slamming hard towards millstone wheels and razor rails, throwing Ricketts off-balance, ruining his concentration. Given the gravity of the situation, there was only one course of action he could follow.
Ricketts yelped, teetered backwards, and fell.
It happened with the cottony slowness of a dream. The bike was torn out of his field of vision, crumpled with tin-foil ease by the remorseless 3:10. An unrecognizable bit of metal, mangled beyond nomenclature, whizzed past his forehead. His arms pin wheeled through the air, his shoulder holster flailing uselessly in their wake. The .45 tumbled from his mouth and out of sight, but that didnt matter too much.
Because he was about to die.
Ricketts had just decided to try screaming his way out of his predicament when a sudden, wrenching force dislocated his arm in a very businesslike manner.
Pain pulled a Lazarus on his lungs, and the G-,an sucked down enough breath to howl in agony. His tendons twanged like abused guitar strings, and he didnt need to see his shoulder to know that it had just twisted around in a crude imitation of Belles morning workout. From the corner of his eye, he saw his shoulder holster, one end wound around his wrist, another caught on an emergency railing on the nearest passenger car, a slender tether that kept him suspended in midair next to the 3:10, its straps hanging inches from the blurring tracks.
So, instead of splattering like a bag of tomatoes all over the pavement, a locomotive was now dragging him through the air by an overworked leather strap and an overwrought left arm. It was about as close to a miracle as he could expect. What next?
Ricketts clenched his teeth and tried not to black out as he prayed for a two-for-one special.
* * *
Gum Belle was crossing Tomorrow Towers lobby with twenty-foot strides when the bug shed planted on Ricketts went off like crazy. Something was wrong.
Unfortunately, that was about all it could tell her. Gum Belle had given the little thing enough of her attention to sound an alarm, which was useful when she wasnt otherwise occupied and/or needed a dramatic entrance. Not so much when she had a deadly plot to stop.
Easy enough to fix that. Reaching out with her mind, she parceled out a little more of her concentration to the bug as she ducked through the doorway like a walking slinky. As she took off down the street in a great loopy lope, Ricketts appeared before her minds eye, twisting in the wake of one of the citys elevated passenger cars like a sack of mail in one of those Old West train robbery movies. As she watched, the engine rounded a sharp corner at a dangerous speed, and the big guy was slammed against the iron trestles that held up the tracks. His hand missed being sliced off by the barest of margins, but the buzzsaw ties were sawing through the leather cords that tied him to the train as they ripped past.
And that was when his coat smacked her in the face.
Hacking and spluttering, Belle tore the ratty old thing off, then stuck out her tongue and made a disgusted sound. Yeesh, big guy, you ever hear of a Laundromat? Her tongue took a more pensive turn as she snaked one finger up to her chin. Well, I guess I never use one, either, but still
She jury-rigged her concentration back together, then resumed her bouncing, twisting charge to stop the second half of the Phantom Skulls plan.
She didnt stop to help Ricketts.
* * *
Dangerously soothing dark blobs swirled over Rickettss field of vision. If he wished, he knew he could dive into any one of them and sink into a blissful, dreamless sleep, an enchanted fantasyland where hed never again know pain, or stress, or danger.
Hed never again know life, either. But that didnt make the blobs any less tempting.
His dislocated arm went numb. That was much, much worse than the pain, because it meant that he had reached his limit. There was a very strong chance, his policemans brain informed him, that he would lose his arm entirely, if he stayed where he was for much longer. The arm in question was his left arm, his haymaker arm. It would be tragedy to go through the rest of his life without a good southpaw haymaker.
A jerking sensation from his shoulder made him look up, only to see his holster, cut in half by the relentless force of wood and steel. Perhaps tragedy was too dramatic a word. The way things were going, he might as well go with laughable.
Something tickled him just behind his ear, and what felt like a Mercedes racing leech slithered with surprising speed across his earlobe, along his jaw, and down his neckIt wasnt slimy, but it had a clinging stickiness that made him do a whole-body wriggle of disgust, the same wild shiver that anyone lapses into when something unexpected and abhorrent touches the skin.
Quit it, big guy! shouted a familiar, oddly tinny, voice. You want me to lose my grip?
He went dead still, his eyes darting around, looking for her. Belle?
He saw it, tiny and pink, a slithering, undulating piece of sentient silly putty, winding up his numb arm. A nubby paw pinched itself into existence from its mass and waved at him.
His bladder almost let go.
Another juddering jerk, leather streamers lashed his lacerated face, and suddenly he was hanging by a single stubborn strand of cured skin, the remains of his poor shoulder holster. Stop showboating up there and do something!
Hang tight, big guy; Ill save you
again! He almost saw it smirk. The rosy glob reached his wrist, paused at the holster like a ten-year-old contemplating the deep end of the swimming pool.
A towering shape rushed at him, and Ricketts threw his whole body forward as the 3:10 rushed past a telephone pole. The wood pillar howled through the space hed just left, while Ricketts tumbled clumsily through a nest of girders and struts, the rails clattering and roaring overhead. As he snapped his head to one side to avoid a length of rusted iron that would have chopped his skull in half, he raised his eyes heavenward. His narrow escape had swung the holster right into the maw of the tracks, and as he watched, one of them chopped clean through the last line of leather holding him aloft. With a final jerk, he was cut free.
That was when that little pink leech on his wrist ribboned out, lashed around his wrist, snared the frayed half of the holster that was still tied to the train. It lengthened, spooling out like an overextended loogie, and swung him, with amazing strength, out from beneath the rails and back into the sunlight. Squinting against the wind, Ricketts watched as it started to undulate, working in straightforward contractions, a liquid muscle. Pulling him closer to the train.
The size difference between them must have been a thousand to one, at least. Math was never his strong suit, even without the threat of an imminent and messy death to muss up his calculations. But it was hauling him in like a prize trout. There was no pause for breath (did it even have lungs?), no break to change grips, no strained shout for help. The ties smacked against its length, childrens fingers plucking at a rubber band.
It was scary.
The loogie-leach gave a tiny squeak of effort as he came within reach of the railing. You know, big guy, God helps those who help themselves.
He spoke from between teeth clenched down on pain. Yeah, yeah. Get ready to pull hard. The G-man grasped her length in his good hand, waited until the train was on a straight trajectory, and kept an eye out for telephone poles, counting the seconds between them. One-one-thousand
Just as the pole flew past, buffeting his back, Ricketts brought his knees up to his chest and kicked against the trestles. He swung up and out, the wind rushing in his ears, until he reached the end of his upward arc and hung there, parallel to the 3:10, fifteen feet away from the emergency rail. It might as well have been ten miles.
He pulled. She pulled. He flew. She snapped. A tall shadow cleaved through empty space.
In the rushing dark space between the two cars, Ricketts lay on his side, clutching his dislocated shoulder and gasping for air, his body crisscrossed by sloppy coils of pulsing pink string that somehow looked just as exhausted as he felt. He didnt know how long he lay there. But he didnt go unconscious, which was a good thing, and he hadnt lost his hat, which had to have been an act of divine intervention.
Ricketts rolled over onto his back. The little pink glob was perched on the railing next to him, somehow managing to look sultry despite lacking arms, legs, or a head. It must have pulled itself together while he had been counting his blessings and trying to keep from blacking out. He scowled halfheartedly at it.
Almost. Glad to see you managed to tear a piece of yourself away from the action to give me a hand up.
The glob quirked itself up in a motion that was both highly animated and insufferably arrogant. It was more of a tentacle up. And I planted this little beauty on you ages ago.
When did you
A sudden memory jumped into place. He had tried to bluster Belle down on the roof of the Bijou Palace after Brick Mick and Eddie the Rat had tried to drop a small gargoyle on him. Shed tweaked his ear, called him a sweet guy. Hed never thought to check behind that ear -- why would he? -- but ever since, shed always shown up in the nick of time...
He would have sworn the glob went a deeper shade of pink.
Since youve been keeping a
whatever that is on me so well, what say you tell me what youre up to?
Nothing much. The glob shrugged, a motion that took most of its mass to do expressively. Just trying to stop the Skull from stealing the second half of the Generator. I think. Stan was sort of blubbering when he told me, so Im not sure I got all the technical details. How about you? Catch Deadeye yet?
Ricketts wrenched his arm back into its socket with a grunt of pain. His shoulder was tender, and he wouldnt want to try any left hooks for a while, but hed live. Sonofabitch caught the train a lot cleaner than I did, and he still has the Generator. Ill punch his face in next time I see him. If my arm doesnt fall off first.
Or if he doesnt get off the train at the next stop while youre here flirting with me.
Very funny. But his halfhearted glower shifted into a genuine frown. The platform wasnt far away. Pain and peril had worked a number on his sense of time, but even so, they should have stopped by now. Ricketts raised his head, nostrils flaring.
Instead, they were speeding up.
* * *
The conductor was a tubby little man with a round face and a mass of lively black hair. He jiggled when he laughed.
He also jiggled when he was terrified. His hand inched for the intercom, but the press of a steel barrel against his skull stopped him cold. I have to tell the passengers something, he whispered. Therell be a panic if I dont.
Let em. Deadeye drew his second revolver and pointed it at the door. If anyone tries to bust in, Ill shut em up for you. Right neighborly of me, wouldnt you say? Keeping the Colt pressed to the conductors temple, Deadeye crossed to the windshield and squinted down at the tracks. Wonder what happened to John Law, he mused. That two-wheeler of his warnt rightly suited to riding the rails.
The gunslinger sucked his teeth as they passed under the shadow of a skyscraper, light and darkness dappling his face in tiger ripples. Might be the tin star had made it aboard. Deadeye had been too busy breaking into the conductors station to keep track of him. It wasnt likely, even with John Laws dang-blasted luck. But, just in case, it might be worth it to
The whine of the engine deepened to a halfhearted yawn, and the ripples slowed to a lazy river. Deadeyes scowl deepened, his crosshair-shaped scar twitched, and there was a sharp bang. The windshield went the color of old ketchup gray cheese. His foot flicked out, and the conductors body, jiggling still, but terrified no more, rolled to the floor. Its head still had a few curls left.
All you had to do was keep yer foot on the pedal, son.
A quick rummage under the dash, and soon the train growled back to full throttle, Deadeye spun the chamber of his Colt and headed for the door.
If John Law was on board, then this would be his last ride.
* * *
So, just what are you up to, again? asked the tinny voice perched snugly above his ear.
Ricketts scowled. I thought this was a bug, not a party line.
Whats the matter? He could her the pout in her voice. Dont you like my small talk?
Dont start. Ricketts ducked to avoid a low-hanging girder as they passed under a bridge. Im a little busy to talk right now.
He had to shout to be heard. This was because sound doesnt carry well when one makes the impulsive decision to run along the top of a speeding train. Well, in reality, it was more of a brisk stagger. Wind resistance, and all that. It was a crazy plan, right out of the movies, but it was the best way for Ricketts to keep the element of surprise, which was all he had, now that his piece was gone.
Of course, crazy was a slippery slope. If he didnt watch himself, hed end up perched on the nearest water tower, shouting, Top of the world, Ma!
Cmon. Im bored, Belle said. Lets try something more interesting, big guy. What are you wearing right now?
He sighed. Christ, Belle, what do you think?
Not your coat. I should know, cuz it hit me in the face. Hee-hee.
The train caromed around a corner, and the car roof shifted beneath him. Ricketts splayed his feet out, pressing his hands to the roof in a desperate attempt to avoid a one-way ride to the street below. Belle chattered on as if they were on a particularly indecent country drive. Im wearing my uniform
and nothing else. A sly giggle.
Your uniforms just a part of yourself, he gasped as the car righted itself.
Ooh, then that means Im wearing nothing. What do you think about that?
Ricketts gathered himself into a low crouch and marched on. I think it means youre trying to get me killed.
Come on, now. She sounded almost offended. Im not that annoying, am I?
Dont make me answer that question right now. The G-man squinted against the wind and smiled, all grim satisfaction and five-oclock shadow. All right. The engines just a few cars up. Deadeyes probably in there, keeping the conductor in line. Now, all I have to do is open the side window, climb inside, jump him, recover the Generator, stop the train, and free all these people.
His smile faded.
All without falling, attracting attention, getting myself shot, or endangering any civilians.
His shoulders slumped.
Yknow, I never realized just how nuts that plan was until I said it out loud. You think I can do it?
A brief, worrying pause. Yes?
He rubbed the bridge of his nose. Youre lying, arent you.
Another pause. No?
Christ, my sons a better fibber. Hang on tight. Ricketts lumbered into a middle-aged sprint, his feet thumping hard against the roof, his body curled into a half-crouch to keep the wind at bay as he picked up speed, barreled across the length of the car, then leapt across the gap to the next one.
He tried to roll with the landing, but it isnt easy to jump up and down on a moving locomotive, and he ended up landing in a clumsy skid. Before he knew it, there was nothing beneath his feet, and his hips had glided out into a terrible, yawning emptiness that was alarmingly familiar. Ricketts scrabbled for purchase, kicking wildly at the windows of the car, planting his palms flat against the roof, pushing with all his strength to force some traction. Some overextended muscle quivered in his shoulder, and he almost lost it. Finally, his toes hooked onto something -- the windowsill below, maybe -- and Ricketts used it to balance and support himself as he clambered back to the roof like an ape, using his boxers biceps and favoring his right arm. When he was on top again, the G-man rolled over onto his back and wheezed for breath.
Too close, he panted.
That was when the bullet punched straight through the roof an inch in front of his nose.
Gasping and cursing, Ricketts rolled to his feet and into a clumsy, crouched run, while Deadeyes revolvers roared below. Corrugated steel exploded into a sieve all around him, bullets shrieking through the air, and Ricketts bobbed and weaved, his arms thrown up to protect his eyes from flying shrapnel, his will bent on the slender break between this car and the next. If he could just jump down, open the door, head Deadeye off, catch him on the back foot
Eight bullet-holes burst open in a neat circle around him. The roof gave in like tin foil, and Ricketts fell.
He thudded to the floor like a whale from heaven. Wind howled through the hole in the roof, and jagged fingers of broken sheet metal clawed at the edge of his vision. The G-mans head spun like a drunken top. When it staggered to a stop, the huddled, frightened blurs before his eyes resolved themselves into people. One look at their drawn faces, and he wished hed fallen a little harder. Blissful unconsciousness would be better than the pleading looks he was getting right now.
And he didnt see Deadeye anywhere. Crap.
A high-pitched whimper came from somewhere near his feet. It was made by a little girl, no older than seven, her hair in yellow powder-puff pigtails. Her eyes, grown huge with fear, rolled from Ricketts to something over his shoulder. That was all the warning he got before he heard the click of a drawn hammer and felt the cool, terrifying reason of cold steel on the back of his skull.
Walkin on top of the cars? Tarnation, thats a crazy plan. Ricketts could almost hear the smirk in Deadeyes voice. Stand up, nice and slow. Put your hands on the back of your head, just sos I can be sure you aint got a shootin iron left.
Ricketts did as he was asked, slowly and deliberately, careful to keep his fingers in plain sight. He could have told Deadeye that he didnt have a gun, but that might have made the man jumpy, and the last thing Ricketts wanted right now was a jumpy man with a loaded gun on him at point-blank range. What, you arent going to shoot me in front of all these witnesses? he asked as he laced his fingers together against his scalp.
These folksre scared plenty. No need to set an example to keep em quiet. I may be a snake in the grass, but I aint the Hanged Man, neither. The revolver nudged his brainpan with mute eloquence, and Ricketts began to walk. He kept his footsteps steady and even. Deadeye didnt sound spooked yet, but that didnt mean he might not decide to blow a certain someones head to ground beef and watermelon paste if he felt it might make his life easier. Being that certain someone with the jeopardized head, Ricketts did nothing to indicate this murderous option would be a time-saver.
But as he approached the engine room, he slowly moved his thumb across the flat of his skull, behind his ear, working his nail beneath Gum Belles bug. He hoped she was as flexible mentally as she was physically, because he was about to bet everything on her.
Playing it safe was one thing. Playing without a plan was another.
He had just peeled the bug free when they reached the door to the conductors station. Deadeye clapped him on the shoulder and yanked him to a rough stop. Open it, John Law. Keep that hand where I can see it.
Ricketts was no Gum Belle when it came to slight-of-hand, but the bug was small, his hands were big, and instant death works great as a motivator. So he palmed the bug, grasped the door handle, and slid it open.
The first thing he saw was the conductors body. Ricketts rubbed his aching eyes with the back of his hand, like an exhausted child. No matter how hard the chase, no matter how ruthless the punishment, no matter how tired he thought he was, he was never too tired to care.
Sometimes, he thought, the bad guys had all the luck.
The revolver left the back of his head, and the door thumped shut. Awright. Turn around. Hands out.
Ricketts did just that. Deadeye stood in front of him, close enough to make missing impossible, but far enough away to be an awkward tackle. His milky eye was as cold and heartless as a snowdrift; his good one simmered with bad intentions. The gunslingers breath came in hitching hisses, and his shirt had a dark stain around his grazed side. A cigarette dangled from the corner of his mouth, and it had burned down to around the halfway point. Ricketts came to the realization that this meant Deadeye could theoretically fire eight bullets in less than two seconds in a perfect circle and blow smoke rings at the same time.
In crime-fighting circles, this is known as a confidence-booster.
I cant help but notice that you dont have your cheatin mans automatic with you. Deadeye pursed his lips. What possessed a reasonable fella like yourself to play cowboy without a shootin iron?
Principle. I dont give up easy.
Deadeye snorted. You do with a gun to yer head.
Ricketts didnt reply to that. Too much wit might get him killed before he could do something spectacularly dumb.
I could shoot you now, Deadeye mused. But I got a liking for ya, in spite of myself.
Youll let me go, then?
Naw, but I am of a mind to give you a fightin chance. Deadeye puffed on his cigarette, his face inscrutably screwed up. Ricketts held his breath. He hoped hed read the man right. If he hadnt, hed find out real quick. He didnt have to hold his breath long. The gunslinger did that little no-fingers trick where he flipped the cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other and nodded, contented conviction in every line and muscle.
Well do this right, he said. You on one end of this here room, me on the other. Aint room enough to skedaddle, aint room enough to miss. Whoever draws first, wins. Fair as fair can be.
Whew. And if I say no?
The gunmans lazy smile told Ricketts a bit of trepidation had been the right move. I understand ya got yourself a son, John Law. Might not want to make him ashamed of the way you died.
Ricketts snarled. Son of a bitch. Youve got all the guns. This isnt fair, its murder.
In case you aint noticed, Im not much bothered by that.
Rickettss stomach shriveled in on itself, and he almost thought hed played his act a bit too hard, but then Deadeye shrugged and pulled his second revolver from its holster.
But I aint afeared. You can use one of my pieces if you like. He proffered it to Ricketts, barrel-first so it would take extra two seconds to flip its business end around. Two seconds was more than enough time to blast the G-mans head off if he tried anything stupid. Deadeye was smarter than he looked. Be careful, now. That theres a real mans gun, and I aint sure if youve ever held one, John Law.
Shut it. Ricketts took the gun in his left hand and made a good show of inspecting the weapon, familiarizing himself with its layout, feeling the grip in his other hand, snapping open the chamber to check the bullets. He even went so far as to raise the weapon to his eyes, pressing the muzzle to his palm. Get ready, he muttered.
What was that? Deadeye snapped.
Looks steady, Ricketts deadpanned, right before he snapped the chamber shut and held it back out to Deadeye, by the barrel. But Id rather use the other one.
A suspicious curl of the lip. Why?
His heart scrabbled up into his throat in a mad dash to get while the getting was good. Ricketts paused to swallow it back down. He tried to cover up his little flinch with a nice, steely glare, and made to pass it off as wounded pride. Youve smoked that crappy cigarette of yours down far enough to let me know youve had time time enough to plan a mean trick on a nice guy.
The gunslingers eyes narrowed and his lip peeled back from his teeth. Deadeye was a lean mongrel of a man, and now his hackles were up. His thumb, the one on the hammer of his revolver, twitched. Ricketts pretended he didnt notice. He might as well have make-believed that Pabst Blue Ribbon was Guinness.
Then Deadeye grinned. It was similar to his snarl, only he showed more teeth when he did it. Call em Feds or call em Pinkertons, yer all suspicious bastards. Gimme that. He snatched back the proffered revolver, trained it on Ricketts first, then held out its mate, barrel first. What the hell. Its yer funeral.
Thanks. Ricketts inspected the second revolver just as he had the first, but this time he paid actual attention to its heft, its length, its handling. Because if this little last-minute scheme didnt go off, this antiquated six-shooter might be his only live through this fiasco.
While these panicked thoughts raced behind Rickettss eyes, his opponent unlimbered the holster and gun belt that sat on his left hip and tossed it to him. Rickettss dislocated shoulder and bruised wrist ached as he buckled it on. It was the left holster. Dammit. The whole arm was already going stiff. And he was supposed to draw from that side now?
Deadeyes smirk turned smug. The bastard knew.
Ricketts jammed the revolver into the holster with a snort.
The gunslinger holstered its mate in a smooth motion, his eyes hungry. Okay, John Law. Find yer niche in this here tin can.
They backed away from each other as one man, deadly serious funhouse reflections facing off, matching their mirror-selves step for step and wince for wince, until they stood at opposite ends of the cabin, a scarecrow and a bear silhouetted against the side windows, the conductors blood slishing beneath their feet as they settled into their stances. Rickettss was low and steady, a policemans shooting-range stiffness. Deadeyes was measured and wide, a killers loose ease. The gunslinger took a deep draft of smoke, snorted it out through his nose, and spat the cigarette to one side.
Then he drew.
Deadeye had been playing before. Ricketts saw it in the set of the mans eyes, in the stubbly angle of his jaw. His smirk was gone, as ephemeral as the smoke from his cigarette, and he was fast. So damned fast. The gunslingers arm moved in an explosion of speed and muscle, a deadly blur, murder turned blink. Ricketts tried to match him, but he might as well have been trying to ride a hippopotamus at the Kentucky Derby, for all the grace his bum left granted him.
Oh, God, he thought, I hope this works.
* * *
Deadeye had been in more shootouts than he could remember, and he had always left them vertical. The trick was to be both accurate and slick. All the speed in the world isnt worth spit if you cant hit the yellow side of a hay bale with your first shot. And the whole point of being a quick-draw artist the first shot?
So even though the Colt was in his hand while Ricketts was making sure that his remained in its holster, Deadeye still took a split second to aim. When had lined up his shot, he found that he had just enough time to imagined the tin stars chest blown open wider than the horizon line in Kansas. What an obliging hand he was, to give him that opportunity. With an expression of mild regret on his face, he pulled the trigger. There was an orange flash, a report that sounded like a cannon going off, a chuck wagon beef-stench.
And the pain.
The right side of Deadeyes face screamed with it, riddled with what felt like shards of searing glass. His arm and chest burned with white-hot lances of it; his lungs were threatening to go into shock. But those were only appetizers. As his knees wobbled and started to give, the gunslinger looked down at his gun hand.
To say that the Colt was gone would be an exaggeration. It had only exploded. The revolver was now little more than a burst metal banana peel dripping with cooked pink goo that didnt resemble flesh at all.
It got off lucky. Deadeyes right hand and arm was a mangled horror of torn muscle, shredded clothes, and raw nerve endings. Blood pattered to the floor in fat, loud drops. Slivers and shreds of steel sizzled in his flesh. The agony almost drowned him. It brought him to his knees and made him as weak as a sick dog. But Deadeye was made of leather and beef jerky, a hard man for a hard past, and he clutched his hardscrabble consciousness like a 49er hoarding his gold and puzzled it out with remarkable cunning. Rattlesnake. Jammed muh barrel. Ya cheated.
Well, Mr. Pot, Mr. Kettle believes you rigged the game.
Deadeye growled under his breath, but didnt defend his honor among thieves.
Ricketts knelt down by the shattered remains of the revolvers barrel and picked out what remained of Belles bug. It came up brittle and flaky in his hands, less like gum and more like the tread peelings from a car chase. The fact that it wasnt trying to hog all the glory for itself meant that it was most certainly toast. Apparently, saving his life twice in one day was just about its limit. He sighed and tucked the dead bug into his pocket, then cuffed Deadeye to the nearest handrail by his good hand. The gunslinger cursed in his impotence, as helpless as Gabby Hayes at a spelling bee.
Ignoring him for the moment, Ricketts moved to stop the train and recover the generator. He didnt bother with the controls, but stooped down right by the conductors seat: hed caught a glimpse of pedals there when hed been walked inside, and it was a safe bet that one of those was an accelerator. With the conductor dead, Deadeye had probably weighted it down with something. Ricketts was guessing a toolbox, or maybe one of the 3:10s fire extinguishers.
What he found was about as implausible as King Tuts tomb in Manhattan. The engine began to whine to a stop as he turned to Deadeye and hefted a familiar black case. Using the Generator as a dead weight? You couldnt find anything better?
Deadeye just cradled his mangled hand and grinned.
Ricketts didnt like that grin. It fathered a terrible sensation in his belly, like a trap door swinging open onto a bottomless pit. Keeping his eye on the gunman, he fumbled at the cases clasps, lifted the lid
And saw an empty box.
He glared at Deadeye, mutely demanding an explanation. The gunslinger snorted. Dont try a game of Texas Hold-Em with the Skull, tin star. Hes liable to play faro behind yer back.
* * *
Tomorrow Towers lobby was a bit of a mess. A running battle between the local racketeers, the FBI, two members of the legendary Board of Crime, and an elastic vigilante with a distressing lack of concern for property values had that effect on a public place. The room was littered with papers, the contrails of panicking staffers. Shards of broken glass sparkled with sharp-edged temptation on the floor, little casualties of Deadeyes warning shot. Puffs of packing straw danced through the air like the bastard children of dust motes and tumbleweeds.
Yet the brass pistons and clockworks of industry still worked and whirred behind their crystal walls, the pneumatic tubes still sent their messages on their merry way, and Pearl the receptionist kept a fragile professional mask pasted over her loose-knit terror as a detective questioned her about the days events. Off to the side, near the front doors, the squirrelly, spooked workers and tourists stood in an unruly mob, giving statements, asking questions, worrying, fuming, and generally pretending to be fine. A few brave, butterfly-winged souls sobbed quietly in the corners.
He said he was a G-man? asked the detective.
Pearl nodded, stiff and straight, a kewpie doll with a bad case of oncoming shock. Yes, sir. He was a great big man. Bowler hat. Looked like he had gas. I think he might have eaten at the luncheonette down the street. They use too many onions. She paused, then added, for good measure, And beans.
The detective scribbled some shorthand on a pad of paper and forced a polite smile. Thats very interesting, miss. Was there anyone else with him?
Oh, just Annabelle Zarkov. She used to work here.
His eyebrows shot up. In the vaults?
No, in Applied Electronics. Dr. Sorenzs department. The detectives glittering eyes fastened onto hers, eager and hungry. But she wasnt part of the robbery, Pearl said hastily. It was that new security guard. Van Cleef. The one with the scar around his eye. Hes the one who robbed Subbasement 3. Along with that Gum Belle woman whos all over the papers.
The detective bowed his head in acknowledgment, but his polite smile was gone. This Zarkov woman
what does she look like?
Pearl stammered and stuttered, but before the detective could lean on her again, a short, batlike shadow drifted between them. Thats enough, it said in a quiet voice. The detective scowled, then drew back as a wallet badge flashed out of one of the newcomers trench-coat wings and flashed a badge at him. Jenkins, FBI.
The Feds? The detective pushed his hat back on his scalp and frowned. Youre taking over this case?
Not yet. Jenkinss gaze twitched over to the receptionist. Taking over your interview, though.
The detective jammed his notebook and pencil into his pockets and fumed off to make himself feel better by nitpickicking the patrolmen cordoning off the elevators.
Once he was out of earshot, Jenkins produced two pieces of candy from somewhere in his oversized trench, gave one to Pearl, kept the other for himself, and quietly, with a delicate sensibility that would have surprised his partner, engaged her in hushed conversation.
Neither of them took any notice of the wastepaper basket in the corner. No one did.
Why should they have? The wastepaper basket had not committed robbery, nor had it been robbed. The wastepaper basket could not give a statement, nor could it take a statement. The wastepaper basket had not harmed anyone, nor had it been harmed. Indeed, it was guilty only of an overabundance of scrap paper.
But it was scrap paper that moved.
The movement was slow and cautious, a rustling swirl, like the careful undersea advance of a cunning octopus. Strings and shreds of churning paper knit together and kissed one another, folding together around a secret. A secret that had been tossed to its depths by a little man with buckteeth and a tacky tie. A secret that the paper had cunningly covered before the police arrived. A secret that everyone was looking for. A secret that had made Stanley Steamer smile and Deadeye grin. The secret.
Unnoticed by the busy police or the shocked witnesses, a womanly shape rose from the wastepaper basket with only the softest crackle and crinkle to mark its emergence. As it glided to the front doors, the sunlight hit upon a Chinese woman of indeterminate age, her face too sharp and severe to be called beautiful, cradling a round belly under her traditional white dress.
Given her obvious condition, the police gave her every consideration.
As the she left Tomorrow Tower and crossed the street to a waiting car, the woman who was pregnant with a secret raised a white paper fan to her smiling lips.
* * *
The Magnificent Rando finished locking the warehouse door and minced up to the Ice Queen, adjusting the fall of his opera cape along his shoulders as he spoke. Feeling cold, my Slavic snowflake?
Flanked by a matched set of handsome Slavic bodyguards, so alike in their blond good looks and white suits that they might have been twins, the Ice Queen burrowed deeper into her mink coat and didnt bother to hide her contemptuous sneer. I am always cold, Rando. I do not need you to remind me of it. Her glacier-chip eyes narrowed and she waved a diamond-studded hand in the general direction of the mildewy cavern around them. It stinks of the river in here.
We are on the river. In a manner of speaking. He chuckled. She didnt. He decided to give the joke an emergency transfusion of exposition. Docks and whatnot. Heh.
She looked away.
I imagine this very warehouse may have been the determinate destination of the Galvanic Generator, he said. The counterfeit one, at the least.
This was one attempt at conversation too deadly. The Ice Queen arched one perfect eyebrow, and the ambient temperature went down fifteen degrees. Rando fidgeted in his cheap tuxedo and marshaled what little pride he had to keep from rubbing at the gooseflesh that prickled to life across his skin. He hoped her displeasure wouldnt last long; his pride generally had a short shelf life.
How much longer will they take? she asked. I am bored.
Not long. Randos teeth chattered more than he might have liked. Theyre going through every crate they can. But they didnt know where it was hidden.
Impossible. These are Arcturions men. They must know. The Ice Queens frozen-berry lips puckered into a very unlovely shape. The Skull should have forced him to tell us exactly where the receiver was. Then we would not have to wait for these fumbling peasants.
Another double-digit drop, and Randos pride tucked tail and ran. He rubbed his arms furiously with both hands, blew hot air between his palms, and tried to suck in his belly. It was getting harder these days, but Rando refused to believe that he was getting tubby. Stout, maybe. Robust, very. Fat? Never.
The Ice Queen was a little
exacting, but he recognized her concerns. Time was everything on a job like this, and there was no telling if (he preferred the deniable if to the more depressing when) the forces of law and order might show up and turn it into a violent altercation. Rando hated altercations, especially those of the violent persuasion, but there was no helping it, especially since Her Highness and her bodyguards refused to lift one finger to help. So had Rando, but at least he had conscripted the bulk of Tomorrows security force to do their searching for them.
He hadnt been able to enlist all of them, for the Slavs had shot five in the opening ambush, and during the untidy chaos of the subsequent surrender, the Ice Queen had frozen seven solid in a fit of pique. Something about not showing her proper respect; Rando had been too busy hypnotizing the first batch to listen to her wintery tirade before she had ordered one of her blond killers to shoot the chilled seven. Randos shoes squelched in what looked like slush on the ground, and he shuffled off to one side, leaving a ruddy smear in the dim light. He took great pains not to look at it.
In all, they had ended up with eighteen mesmerized thralls, eager and willing to tell Rando anything he wished, courtesy of the Sapphire of Svengali
anything except tell them where the Generator was. Arcturion had posted the security men here to guard not an item, but a warehouse full of crates. Hundreds of crates. The warehouse was stuffed with them, of every size, from jewelry-box thin to bowling-lane long, all of them filled with random bits of electrical machinery. Even though they knew what the receiver looked like, and even with eighteen slaves at hand, it might take hours to sift it into the open. Had one of the guards been able to sound the alarm during the attack, there would have been no way to locate it before the police arrived.
The entire warehouse, then, was a deceptively simple piece of sleight-of-hand. Rando admired it, from a professional standpoint, but he feared that the Ice Queen might not share his enthusiasm for parlor tricks, no matter how grandiose. In fact, she might even grow annoyed with the comparison. His gooseflesh got gooseflesh when he thought of whom she might do as a result.
Rando felt his thralls excitement before it called them over. The weaker-minded ones were like that: they got too eager to please, and the feedback could get overwhelming at times.
Master, moaned the guard. I have found your prize.
The other thralls stopped what they were doing and either stood at dazed attention or slumped down on the floor like forgotten toys as Rando sprinted down the warehouse floor, the Ice Queen and her two hulking White Russian escorts not far behind. The run was nearly too much for his delicate constitution, and the magician nearly fainted before he was able to reach his destination: an open crate, filled with
Straw? Straw? This is what you made me walk all this way for, Rando? The Ice Queen peered down her nose at the empty crate, her pale face etched in imperious impatience.
There was a long second of silence. Could he mesmerize her before she decided to vent her frustration on him? Probably not. Coward though he was, Rando found a perverse comfort in the notion that he was about to die at the hands of the most beautiful woman on the eastern seaboard.
Then the Ice Queen smiled.
Randos jaw didnt quite hit the floor, but it came admirably close.
Very good, miss Kolodka purred. This is the only empty box in the whole building.
She snapped her fingers, and the White Russians shouldered Rando aside and swept the straw out of the crate in deep, brusque armloads. In a matter of seconds, the crate was clear, and the Russians stepped aside. Rando scuttled forward to stand at the Ice Queens elbow. For once, she didnt mind.
The crate was bottomless. This was no exaggeration: its bottom had been removed. In its place, they saw a steel door with a combination dial. It wouldnt have looked out of place on a bank vault. Randos heart sank at the sight of it.
What an unfortunate circumstance. Not even the combined muscular fortitude of all my mesmerized minions could dislodge so ferrous a portal. He sighed. Mayhap Salucci can summon a safecracker.
He started for the entrance, but Kolodka snapped her fingers again, and the White Russians slid into place to block him. Rando flinched again, his fight-or-flight reflexes on high alert, but the Ice Queen just laughed softly. It didnt make him feel any less threatened.
There is no need to worry, Rando, she said.
He stroked his moustache fretfully. Large quantities of muscle tend to induce that response in me.
Kolodka wagged a finger at him, a surprisingly schoolmarmish motion. You forget, magician, I, too, am a mystic. And I am in no mood to wait here any longer.
The Ice Queen bent back down over the steel door, and her smile fell away as she raised her snow-white hands over the crate, her eyes glittering with fresh concentration. The Ice Queen raised both pale hands over the crate. The temperature began to drop again, more sharply this time, and everyones breath came out in little white puffs; the Slavs went pink in the cheeks, and Randos nose went numb. Frost spread across the floor like a creeping fungus.
Only Kolodka showed no sign of discomfort. Her pale skin was as flawless as ever, unmarked and uncolored by the plummeting temperature, and her expression was chill and eager, her eyes wide and intense, her mouth slightly parted, almost aroused by the chill. Alone among them, her breath remained invisible, as if she had refrigerators for lungs. Rando shuddered, and not just from the cold.
The interior of the crate now looked like the inside of an icebox, miniature snowdrifts swirling between walls covered in crackling rime. Rando leaned in to take a closer look, and the black cold nearly sucked the air from his body. It was a tiny wasteland, Siberia in a box. There was a stark beauty to it.
He glanced at the Ice Queen and corrected himself: there was a stark beauty to her.
The steel door had gone from forbidding grey to distressed blue, and its chromed knob and lever looked increasingly cheap and brittle. The Ice Queen pressed her hands down, as if forcing more clothes into a packed suitcase, and the snow swirled around even faster. Bitter lattices of frozen water glistened to life on the doors surface. She clenched her fist, and the blue steel shuddered. Odd squeaks and groans whined up from the crate, queer, tortured sounds. The hinges rattled, convulsing like dying men. Kolodkas lips widened in a sadistic grin. There was a brittle popping sound, as of a sheet of ice about to break.
It was his only warning. Rando and the Slavs took a step back as the door shattered with a squalling crack. Silvery needles of it flew from the inside of the crate in a deadly cloud. He and the bodyguards were far enough away to avoid it. An arctic wind batted the away from the Ice Queens perfect face. The thrall, however, fell to the ground, his puppet strings cut, his face and uniform a bleeding, studded ruin. Rando turned aside and was violently sick. Kolodka adjusted her furs and waited for him.
When he rejoined her beside the crate, he saw a velvet box, rather like an oversized jewelry case, in the remains of the hidden safe. Very well done, mdear, he marveled. We must do this again, sometime.
The Ice Queen speared him with a glance and smiled viciously. Yes, we shall, she purred.
The color drained from Randos face. Are you
going to get it?
Her smile twisted in offense. A queen does not stoop for anyone or anything. She leaned forward, and her words drifted to him on waves of arctic wind. You do it.
With a gulp, Rando pulled on his formal gloves, then whisked a few remaining bits of the door aside with a handkerchief before pulled the box from its hiding place. Opening it, he saw what they had been looking for, a tiny contraption of steel and wire, no longer than a ladyfinger. Its such a little thing, he murmured.
The Ice Queen snorted and plucked the box from his hand. So are you. Shutting the lid, she tucked the receiver into a pocket of her voluminous furs. I am weary. Let us leave this unseemly place. Without waiting for him, she stalked off, snapping her fingers. The White Russians fell into obedient lockstep behind her, leaving Rando to jog and jiggle his way after them, his tubby legs having a little trouble with their long strides.
They were halfway to the front door when they heard the screams.
Short screams they were, screams of alarm and surprise from the mob men they had posted outside as lookouts. There were perhaps three gunshots -- it was hard to tell -- and a gut-wrenching metallic crunch that could only be their getaway car being mauled. Two more pistol-shots, he was sure of it, a pair of meaty thuds
then silence. Rando took a prudent shuffle or two away from the doors. What was that?
Her. The Ice Queen looked supremely annoyed, as though held up in traffic, or perhaps suffering the attentions of a Jehovahs Witness. She spat a quick command in Russian, and her bodyguards took up ambush positions near the front doors as she glided behind the nearest pile of crates.
As Rando hustled to join her, he found himself whispering. Her? What do you mean, her? But he already had a sick feeling in his stomach.
Something knocked three times on the front doors.
They were twelve feet high, the doors, and though they were rusty around the seams and their runners were poorly oiled, solid steel tends not to be impressed by polite raps.
These were hardly polite.
The first knock dented them inwards five feet.
The second knock made them jump off their tracks.
The third knock sent them flying across the room. Rando ducked down like a panicked toddler and squinched his eyes shut.
Halloo? sang a contralto voice from his nightmares. Anybody home?
* * *
Gum Belle frowned and planted her fists on her hips. Well, this is a fine how-do-you-do. All the trouble she went through to make a grand entrance, and this was how they thanked her? With nobody?
Well, not exactly nobody. More like nothings. There were only Tomorrow security guards milling about, staring at her as though she had just jammed both her feet in her mouth. Now, granted, while she was the only person she knew who could (and would) do such a thing in public, Gum Belle found their reception depressing at best, and insulting at worst. She had expected bad guys. Where were the bad guys? Keeping her fist on her hip, she swept one finger up in a boneless curve to scratch her head. Clanky had said the big job was going on right now, and, judging by the mess around here, his tip seemed spot-on.
Twisting her finger around, she beckoned one of the guards forward. Hey, pally. Seen any villains running around?
The guard just stared at her, his mouth slightly agape.
Gum Belle rolled her eyes. Yes, yes, I know Im wanted for whatever the Skull framed me for, and Im so beautiful that I ought to be in pictures. Trust me, Im every bit as nervous as you are. Just to lighten the mood, she did a little shimmy and worked her belly into a simple granny knot.
The guard didnt even blink.
Okay. This was just wrong. No laughter she could handle, but there should at least have been one or two panicked screams. She took a step forward. Is there something wrong with you, pally? Did they drug you, or --
She saw the bodies heaped on the floor behind him a split second before the eight bullets smacked into her head.
It had been a while since Gum Belle had been shot. She had forgotten what a minor inconvenience it was. They never caused any lasting harm. The worst that might happen was that the blunt force would knock her off-balance.
Which was precisely what happened. Damn those high-heeled boots.
Gum Belle fell, right on her ass. Rearing her lead-misshapen head up on a suddenly serpentine neck, she saw a pale thug in a white suit with a big automatic that would have made Ricketts insecure. It shot lead boulders instead of bullets. One of them plowed into her forehead and sheared a fat glob out of her skull. She didnt flinch, but kicked out with both feet like a mule, corkscrewing them together into a stiletto-heeled battering ram. It hit the thug with the force of a small truck, and Belle smiled with satisfaction around the beehive of bullets in her noggin as he crashed through a crate and vanished in a fluff of straw.
Then some inconsiderate fellow cut her head off.
There was a moments disorientation, a tumbling, crazy jumble of sensation as Belles vision rolled end over end. She saw her headless body, writhing like a dying snake, and another goon, the mirror image of the first, with a wicked-looking saber in one hand.
Then she closed her eyes and let go.
* * *
Dont miss the next exciting chapter of
GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD:
THE INSIDE MAN!