There was a moments disorientation, a tumbling, crazy jumble of sensation as Gum 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.
It was over remarkably fast. The mangled face smiled one last time, then melted into shapeless goo. The body thrashed a bit longer, its distended neck lying limp across a good fifteen feet of warehouse floor. It resembled a fleshy fire hose, only its open end oozed a slow drip of something that was neither water nor blood, but a tarry pink substance. The White Russian padded past it, wary and professional, his eyes focused on the twitching body, his saber shaking ever so slightly.
Something soft and gentle wound around his ankle.
The White Russian lunged forward, but the whatever-it-was did not want to let him go just yet. It tightened its grip, pulping the tender bones in his foot as it lifted him screaming into the air. The saber fell from his stunned fingers, and he watched it fall as the headless body rose up on all fours like a sinuous crab, up, up, up in a slow, lazy arch, until he could see the distorted curve of its chest directly across from him, twenty feet up. Looking up, he saw the severed neck curled around his ruined ankle; it was still slowly bleeding that pink, gooey substance. As he watched, it gushed out in a sudden flood, ran back in on itself, and resolved into a fresh head, as flawless and as fresh-faced as the one that had turned into a puddle scant seconds ago.
Sorry about the big fake-out, she said. I just cant help myself sometimes.
By way of reply, the White Russian tugged at the rubbery snare around his ankle and swore loudly in his native tongue.
Gran would give you such a swat if she heard such language. Her frown melted into a cheery grin. Ill just drop you, instead.
Her coils sprang open. The Russian crashed to the floor in a mewling heap as Gum Belle lifted herself into a parody of a standing position, wobbling liquidly as she towered over the warehouse floor. She shaded her eyes with one gauntleted hand and took the lay of the land.
Boy, this place is a mess, she said, too loudly for it to be an aside. Tomorrow needs a better cleaning staff. A shiver of concentration, and she was clad in an oversized, oddly colored French maid outfit, a red-plumed feather duster appearing in one hand and her headband shooting up into a frilly headdress as she peered down from her lofty vantage point at the warehouse floor. Well, whaddaya know. There are two nasty stains right there, hiding behind those crates.
She grinned as the guy in the turban squeaked and scrambled away, but the Ice Queen merely glared imperiously up at her, a faint smirk on her lips as she waved her pale hand. An unexpected chill around her feet, followed by a numbing stiffness, and suddenly she was trying to stand on a pair of brittle, frozen legs. In heels. Again. It was all she could do to stand there and not topple over like an Eiffel Tower made out of gummy bears.
Rando! the Ice Queen shouted. Now!
The magician screwed up his face in concentration. Gum Belle spun her neck around 180 degrees; she wasnt about to get hypnotized a second time.
Instead, she was in a perfect position to see the mesmerized security guards plow into her calves in a shambling charge. Gum Belle squawked as her frozen legs shattered. She fell to the ground, keeping enough presence of mind to bounce back a few times as the poor saps tried to fall on her in a clumsy tackle. Landing on her back, she whipped out her limbs in great scything sweeps across the floor, knocking the guards down without much more than a few scrapes and bumps to remember her by. With a grunt, she willed her legs to bud anew and sat up, smoothing her maids skirt down over any embarrassing bits. Shed love nothing more than switch into her signature jumpsuit again, but she had a funny feeling that there wouldnt be much time to change into something more comfortable right now. Icebox was playing for keeps this time.
The guards were getting back up again, all clumsy, herky-jerky marionette-movements. Gum Belle cast a quick gaze around the room, spinning her neck 360 degrees in search of the baddies, but they had gone to ground once more. Gum Belle didnt blame them. She wanted to clobber someone right now, and they were smart to stay out of her way. She crouched down into a fighting stance, trying not to feel too ridiculous in that frilly, décolletage-baring skirt.
A quick thought, and it strained a bit more over her chest as she filled it out even more. There. Now she felt just ridiculous enough.
The click of a safety was the only warning she had. Belle twisted aside like a living question mark as the Russian with the pistol limped across the floor in a wounded strafe, firing at her wildly. The crossfire caught three of the helpless guards, who fell without even a whimper. Belle made a disgusted sound and crouched down, her skirt splaying about her as her legs compressed like pneumatic shocks. As the four remaining Hypnoteers lunged for her, she jumped up in a spring-loaded somersault, arcing high over the Russian like a frilly French nightmare. Before he could wheel around to take a better shot at her, she rebounded off a high wall of crates and shot down at him. Her rear end plowed into him like a plush cannonball, and he slammed to the floor next to his friend, decidedly unconscious.
Gum Belle rolled to her feet and kicked his personal howitzer away, then threw herself to the floor as the standing guards rushed her from all sides, their nightsticks raised. Before they could hurt one another any more, she twisted around on the floor, slithering into tight coils around them, binding them together, wrapping carefully around their noses and mouths. Her expression grew pained as she felt them struggle, thrash wildly, then slow into blissful emptiness. Belle fell away before they could go any deeper, checking their pulses with whichever part of her body happened to be handy. Her lips thinned into an angry line as she reeled herself upright.
All right, she shouted. Youve had your fun. Now, are you going to hide behind innocent people some more, or are you going to make things easy for yourselves let me put you into traction right now?
A silken laugh from the Ice Queen, somewhere just out of sight. It echoed through the maze of crates, impossible to pinpoint. That is hardly an attractive ultimatum, Cossack.
Belles hands swelled into boxing-glove fists. It is if you know whats worse than traction.
She couldnt see it, but Belle imagined the smile vanishing from the Ice Queens face.
Ill give you till the count of three to throw the turban over here, give up Arcturions doohickey, and come out with your hands up and your faces where I can punch them.
No, wait! Rando stumbled into view, his turban askew, his round face flushed and flustered. He saw Belle and raised his pudgy hands to the sky. They were empty. I surrender, I surrender!
His right hand flicked to the turban.
Belle never learned whether he was trying to put her to sleep again or just straighten his Official Mesmer Fan Club Secret Decoder Hat; she wasnt about to take any chances. She whirled her arm into a softball-pitch swing, and her fist shot across the room and into Randos jaw. His head snapped back, his teeth clicked together, and he fell to the ground, playing cards and silk handkerchief ropes hemorrhaging from his sleeves and pockets. The turban rolled off into a corner, and Belle stifled a giggle.
He had a bald spot.
She tied Randos wrists and ankles with his own props (hopefully, he wasnt a member of the Official Houdini Fan Club, too), but her eyes were on the rest of the warehouse, her head revolving like an owls as she checked every corner and scanned every shadow for the Ice Queen. As she did, she performed what Ricketts might have called an aggressive frisk of Randos body. He didnt have the receiver on him.
To paraphrase Eddie the Shrimp: Nuts.
Detection and deduction werent exactly Gum Belles forte, but she wasnt as dumb as the French maids outfit made her look. The tip of her tongue stuck out from between her pursed lips as she fit pieces together in her head.
The Ice Queen had been in charge of this job. The Siberian mooks had been hers, the silver Rolls out front had had her tastemarks all over it, and she had probably shoved the magician onstage as a distraction -- after relieving him of the goods, of course. Her bug had burned out before shed had a chance to learn the outcome of Rickettss little ploy aboard the train, so there was no way of knowing if the he, and the Generator, were safe. She had to assume the worst. If Icebox got away, the Skull would have everything he needed to do
Actually, he had never been stupid enough to tell her exactly what he wanted to do. That was damned inconsiderate of him.
Well, whatever the Skull was planning, it definitely fell into the NO GOOD category, and he needed what the Ice Queen had just stolen to pull it off. Given the stakes involved, it might be best for everyone in the city who wasnt a garish villainous type if Gum Belle could sneak up on Her Royal Frostiness and take her down without any further risk.
She dropped down onto her belly, put her hands flat at her sides, pressed her ankles together, and did a convulsive little movement that was something between a shimmy and a full-body shrug. Gum Belles face smoothed into a mask of concentration as she felt herself lengthen, her (well, almost) natural curves flattening and shrinking, presenting a lower profile. A quick shake of the head, and her hair rolled itself up like a lampshade, her headdress flowing into a cap to keep it hidden and out of sight. Arms melted away, legs melted into a slender tail. Dipping her shoulders down, lowering her chin, the Belle-serpent slithered into the warehouse gloom to search for the Ice Queen.
* * *
Uptown Central Hospitals Emergency Room was crowded, and for good reason. In one afternoon, it had been flooded with fifteen shaken witnesses from Tomorrow Tower, nearly a dozen gunshot wounds from Deadeyes attempt to gun down Ricketts in the street, twenty-five victims of a wide array of automobile-related accidents suffered during the gunslingers getaway, and the real kicker, a full commuter trainload of civilians, all of whom needed to be checked for possible trauma. The end result was the kind of orderly chaos that can only happen in a hospital, with nurses, orderlies, and doctors running around with calm faces and agitated feet, directing this person to this examining room, ordering these victims to that operating theater, and everywhere a symphony of groans, grumbles, gripes, sobs, sighs, and self-diagnoses.
Ironically, the men behind this carnage, Deadeye and Stanley Steamer, didnt have to suffer the indignity of the waiting room. A small army of police and Bureau agents had rushed them to Wardens Cliff Penitentiary, where the prison doctors would treat their wounds posthaste. It was a sure sign of a broken world that the innocent had to take numbers and wait their turn.
Lionel Rickettss number was 82. It was printed on a waxy sheet of paper that made onionskin look like cardboard. He was worried that it might melt away in his palm before he had a chance to show it to the nurse at the desk. He shifted in his waiting-room chair, which pinched his sides terribly, and glared at the man who had brought him here in the first place. I told you I would be fine at home, he growled from the side of his mouth.
Sal Jenkins, who could have fit two toddlers on either side of him in his chair, flipped through the nearest issue of Ladies Home Journal and shrugged. Open wide and say that.
Ricketts wanted to rub the bridge of his nose, but his other hand was busy pressing a bloody handkerchief to the gash on his cheek. Goddamn you, I cant. It hurts too much.
Wont be fine at home, then. Jenkins took out a penknife, trimmed a particularly tasty-looking recipe from the magazine, and slipped it into his coat pocket. Cuts deep.
Really? I hadnt noticed.
Probably need stitches.
God, youre sunny today, Jenk. You want to remind me that the Skull has the Generator, too?
Nah. Doing that on your own.
Ricketts snarled and pounded his fist hard against the arm of his chair. What I dont get is the switch they pulled.
You mean how?
No, I mean why. Why the elaborate getaway, with the armored car, the mechanical horse, the hijacked train, the squad of mooks? Why go through all that effort to protect an empty case?
Jenkins frowned. To fool the cops?
He snorted. Deadeye alone was enough to mow down the first wave of cops, and that doesnt count Stanley Steamer and that tank from the docks. That heist was foolproof, Jenk. No one with that kind of firepower would need to be cute once he had the goods. If it hadnt been for Belle and me, theyd have gotten away clean. He sat up, his eyes gimlet-bright. Unless they knew we were coming.
Jenkins set down his magazine and cocked his head. Sorenz?
No. He wasnt expecting us. Sure, he might have passed the word along when he answered that phone call in his office, but by then Deadeye was either on his way over or already at Tomorrow Tower. No, they needed to set things up earlier, at least a few hours in advance. Ricketts leaned back in his chair, a slack expression on his face. And not just today.
Number eighty-two, called the nurse up front. Number eighty-two, the doctor will see you now.
Ricketts looked down at his palm. His little slip of red tape had not melted away. He extricated himself from his chair and waved to the nurse, but his face was grim and serious, and before he left, he spoke in a low voice. Jenk, weve got a problem.
Worse. Jenk, while they patch me up, I want you to call someone for me. Were going to try to beat the Skull at his own game.
* * *
Gum Belle snaked through the maze of crates and tried not to sneeze. It was hard. There was packing straw everywhere; the Board had really ransacked the place good. She resisted the urge to rear up and take a more high-angle view. If she poked her head (or even an eyeball) up, the chances were good that the Ice Queen would freeze it right off. Belle had already lost her head once today; she was in no mood to give a repeat performance. Not only would it be annoying, but what was the good of complete control over her body be if she fell into a rut?
Instead, she stayed low and used her ears. The Ice Queen had been wearing heels. Impractical for grand theft doomsday weapon, but Belle was familiar enough with Her Frosty Highness to know that appearances were everything for her. Why else would she wear a mink stole to the harbor?
(Gum Belle tried not to think about her maids outfit, or her own stiletto boots as she squirmed through the three-sided gap between a crate and the lid propped up beside it. At least she had the good taste to make her own silly clothes.)
Anyway, shoes. Right. Gum Belle had always stunk at math, but heels plus concrete floor equals noise was a pretty simple equation, which was a good thing for her. All she had to do was to stay away from the exits and listen for the clickitty-clack of snobby feet. Gum Belles ears unconsciously enlarged like twin phonograph horns as she devoted more attention to them -- so much, in fact, that she didnt see the slick spot on the floor until she squeaked across it and skidded into a shivering, rubbery knot next to a pile of crates.
After a moments furious struggle with her uncooperative body, Belle poked her head up through her own mess and peered at the floor. There was a dribble of water droplets on the concrete in front of her, followed by a glittering web of frost, and closer to the front door
The Belle-knot jerked tight, then shivered into a red-gold spring and bounded across the warehouse floor. How could she have been so stupid?
Heels plus concrete equals noise, but concrete plus ice equals
* * *
The Ice Queen had nothing but disdain for the bourgeois American concept of the ice rink, but she could appreciate the value of the concept when it came time to slide across a floor instead of walking on it. It was easy enough to coat the soles of her shoes in ice to match the floor. Less friction, less noise. As for the trick of keeping her balance, it had nothing to do with her chill powers, and everything to do with taste. Class. Nobility. She patted her immaculate ink-sweep of hair and smirked as she glided towards the door. Three things that garish Cossack would never kn --
Something soft hit her in the back with incredible force, and her nobility flew right out from under her -- along with her feet. The Ice Queen sailed through the front door, tumbled end over end like a tossed doll, and hit the docks face-first. Splinters plunged into her palms; a jagged piece of soft wood tore a run in her silk stockings. Her stole slipped off one shoulder as she rolled to a stop, and gooseflesh rippled across one exposed, fish belly-pale arm. The river sloshed beneath her, while behind her, she heard and a strange smacking sound, as though a child were dribbling a rubber ball against the dock. She raised her head, wiped a dribble of blood off the side of her face with the back of one palm, and saw a garish, gold and red spring the size of a man. It was bouncing back and forth, back and forth, a tasteless puppy eager for another game of fetch. The Ice Queen scowled.
Cossack, she spat.
Hussy. Gum Belle flashed her a cheery smile.
Krasavitza Kolodka wobbled to her feet, wrenched her stole back around her, and narrowed her eyes. The shadow of a nearby dock crane fell over her face and made it cruel. You have meddled with your betters for the last time.
She raised her white, diamond-frosted fingers.
Gum Belle didnt see the attack, but she felt it: a wave of cold so intense that her body crackled and went stiff. She fell out of the way -- it was the best she could do -- before a jagged, ten-foot-long spike of frozen river ice ripped up through the dock, the old boards exploding in a cloud of wood chips. She rolled to her feet, forcing her half-frozen limbs to keep moving, running jerkily as the dock tore itself apart all around her in an explosion of frozen swords and claws.
Two massive, glittering jaws roared up on either side, the planks bursting apart around them, their rimed teeth cruel and barbed. Gum Belle elongated her legs and sprinted ahead of them before they crunched together and shattered, spraying her cheek with dirty slush. An ice-sculpture buzz saw howled up to block her path, and she skidded to a stop, turning clumsily on her stretched-out legs, looping past the glittering edge of the blade.
But there was no escape. Everywhere was the crash of splintering wood, the shriek of grinding ice, and, somewhere in the chaos, the mirthless tinkle of the Ice Queens laughter, hidden behind a sweeping gale of snow that howled down out of the clear sky.
* * *