Recess is only fun for those who are too old to have it anymore.
To these individuals, who enter adulthood looking back over their shoulders through rose-colored glasses, recess is a childhood idyll, of pint-sized sportsmen playing stickball under a golden noonday sun, of chubby-cheeked cherubs in pinafores and pigtails playing jump rope, of breathless laughter and joshing jackanapes.
These sad optimists were the ones who misspent their own recess nose-deep in a book that was two grades higher than their reading level. How else could they have missed the real thing?
For recess is a concentrated mirror of real life, the parents concerns and rat-race jockeying reduced and distilled into a more flavorful and totemic versions of themselves, the muted colors and subtle shadings heightened and rendered more brightly and creatively than before. The child idolizes and imitates its parent, and what troubles the one often traumatizes the other.
Francis Chapel Elementary School was no exception to these unwritten rules. Here, the old dramas played themselves out as they always did, the careful social groups and layered strata of juvenile life meshing and grinding away like the pieces of a half-understood clockwork engine. When measured by this standard, Ted Ricketts was one of the smaller cogs. He was too quiet and contemplative to be approachable, too tall and lanky to present a bluff front to ward off attention, and too feisty to duck his head and mumble his way through the trials of life. His was a hard but colorful road, and littered with potholes.
Right now, one of them was swaggering his way. Ted didnt bother to look up from his game of jacks. He could hear Bobby Baird coming a mile away.
Bobby Baird was the son of a beat cop. It was common knowledge, even among the grade-schoolers, that his father was on the take, which bespoke the monumental amount of effort that Baird the Elder invested in his chosen profession. Bobbys old man was a rough-hewn, imposing block of Scots muscle, and Bobby took after him. He was a big boy. He had big feet, big hands, big shoulders, a big chest, and, especially, a big head. Bobby was the kind of kid who eschewed walking in favor of stomping; his voice was set at permanent blare and his mouth at permanent sneer. If the school ever let him bring a nightstick to school, he would have twirled it. The same would have been said for his moustache, if he were old enough to grow one.
The ball smacked the asphalt with a sound that reminded Ted of Miss Belle, and his mouth twitched as he scooped up another pair of jacks. His opponent, Rose Flaherty, didnt raise her chin from her cupped palms, but she nudged him with her elbow, hard enough to make him miss the next bounce of the ball. Ted stumbled and glared at her as she started her turn. No fair, he said.
Bobbys looking for you, Rose said in a bored voice, tossing a lock of auburn hair out of her face as her nimble fingers plucked up jacks as neat as could be. Next time, I wont warn you.
I saw him, Ted replied hotly.
You want me to put away the jacks for you? I know youre wearing those pants of yours with the worn-out pockets. Theyll just fall right on out when you run away form him.
How did you --? An imposing shadow stomped between them. Ted looked up and saw Bobby looming over him like a ginger-haired boulder. The bully held a newspaper in one chubby paw. BAD BELLE! ran across the top of the paper in heavy block letters, and the picture was almost too much to live down: himself, runny-nosed and bawling, watching medics cart his father into a waiting ambulance.
Hey Ricketts, looks like you made the front page, Bobby sneered. Is it true what the paper says, that your old man rolled over for that Gum Belle down at the Legacy last night?
He almost died there, so leave Ted alone. Roses face remained artlessly bored, but her voice had a dangerous edge to it.
Young master Baird leveled a heavy look at her, a field gun revising its aim. Everyone knows youre a pushy loudmouth whos always sticking her big Jew nose where it dont belong. Stay out of this, little girl.
Or what, youll hit me? You do that, Bobby Baird, and Ill run you right out of this school.
Bobbys sneer faded a little as he considered this untimely unmanning of his promising career. With an almost audible thunk, he shifted his tactical gears. You gonna let a woman defend you, Ricketts? Gaw, youre just like your old man. I hear he hid behind that blonde freak, too.
The tangled emotions from the previous night rose up in Teds throat like a rotting hairball. You watch what you say about my da, he said in a husky voice.
Or what, beanpole? Youll sic your girlfriend on me? The bully guffawed, and more than a few children joined him. Ted felt his ears burn. Hey, didnt I hear you telling everyone about how you actually met that walking rubber band last week? The way you went on, it was like she saved your life or something.
She did, Ted growled, so you shut your mouth, before I shut it for you.
The seething anger in his voice surprised Bobby, who took a step -- not a stomp -- back. It surprised Rose Flaherty, who went so far as to raise her eyebrows at it. It surprised the ring of children who had gathered around them, who whispered and muttered among themselves, bookies faced with a new play from a long-shot loser.
Most of all, it surprised Ted. He touched the bandage on his cheek, and the scratch Miss Belle given him at the Legacy throbbed angrily beneath its gauze dressing. She had tried to kill his father. She had tried to kill him. So, why was he defending her? An image rose up, unwanted and unexpected, of a young lady in an usherettes uniform, playfully pulling a quarter from behind his ear with a sunny smile
Someone elbowed him in the ribs. It was Rose Flaherty, who looked at him as though he had just done something unspeakable. Ted frowned at her, and her eyes flicked up. He followed them, and saw an incensed Bobby, who was sorely put out by someone completely ignoring his taunts for the first time in his life.
Im sorry, Ted said in genuine confusion. Could you repeat that?
The assembly giggled again, this time in his favor, and he found himself grinning. He knew he shouldnt grin. To grin right now would be to wear meat swimming trunks to a shark convention. But he couldnt help himself.
Bobby drew himself up to his full height (and even fuller width). I said Id like to see you try, squirt.
He glared at Ted in defiance, in challenge, and the laughter stopped.
It was one of those moments that teetered on the balance of a very narrow and sharp point, and Lionel Rickettss son saw the many possible ways in which it might fall as clearly as if he had lived through them all himself. The only question now was which one to choose.
It only took a second. Ted pocketed his jacks and his ball and stood up. He felt all eyes on him, Bobby Bairds the biggest and heaviest of all. Far past the ring of children, he saw several distant grownups near the school, watching with what he imagined to be worried expressions. He turned his attention back to Bobby, and found the bully twitching with anticipation, his heavy face working, his ham-hands clenched white-knuckle hard. Somehow, the sight of those fists didnt fill him with fear. He kept his hands in his pockets as he spoke.
Im not going to fight you, Bobby, because you dont deserve a fight, he said. Youre a coward and a thug, just like your da, and you like finding things that make other folks ashamed of themselves so that you can feel good by making them feel bad. Ive seen it lots of times.
Well, I dont feel ashamed of my da, cause I was there and you werent, and I know that he did the right thing. And I dont feel ashamed of Miss Belle, cause I was there and, he paused, and here the knot of emotion in his throat seemed to disentangle itself and melt away, and she didnt mean to do what she did. If she had it to do all over again, she would have done the right thing, too. And now, Im going to do the right thing, and walk away. He turned around and started to do just that. You can hit me in the back, if you want to, Bobby. You never do the right thing. He caught a glimpse of Rose Flahertys face. It was a sun blazing into his heart.
A heavy, bovine roar from behind him was the warning he didnt need. Ted half-turned, and saw Bobby bearing down on him, thundering across the space between him with all the bigness at his disposal. Ted sprinted away from him, a curious tinkling sound ringing across the asphalt in his wake. Bobby didnt bother to look down to see what made it, until his feet tried to land on the ground and slipped on something small and pointy, instead.
As the mighty Bairds legs flew out from under him, he had just enough time to see the crazy smile on that goober Rickettss face as another jack tinkled from the beanpoles trouser leg.
Bobby hit the pavement with all the force that a stampeding, overweight bully can bring to bear, which, for the illumination of those who are not stampeding, overweight bullies, is not small potatoes. Since he had been rearing forward to begin with, he took the bulk of the impact on his chin. Bobby had precociously weak teeth, courtesy of his fathers well-considered and highly admired opinion that dental hygiene was for women and Dutchmen, and he felt one of his molars crack and unleash a thunderbolt of pain. Jacks needled him in all sorts of painful and humiliating places, and the tears were starting from his eyes even before Ted pounced on his back and twisted his arm painfully behind him.
Bobby couldnt see him, but he knew the kid was still grinning. Another harsh jerk at his arm, and he yelped in pain. Everyone was cheering and shouting all around him. He hated them all.
There was another painful wrench on his arm, and his hate melted into blubbering terror with remarkable speed. Say uncle.
These were uncharted seas, and the capsized Baird was sinking fast. What else could he do?
Uncle, he cried. Uncle!
Yet, in a Promise everyone that youll never make them feel bad or threaten them ever again. Swear it.
I swear, I swear, I promise, I puh-puh-promise! O, the indignity! O, the shame!
Now apologize to Rose for what you said about her.
What? No way am I gonna apologize to -- there was a sudden shift in pressure, and Bobbys short-lived resolve melted like a sugar bastion in a thunderstorm. Okay, okay! Im sorry, all right? Now, let me up, will ya?
Rose, who was still sitting down, quirked one languid eyebrow. I dunno, she said. Somehow, I just dont think youre being sincere about it.
ImsorryIcalledyouapushyloudmouthandImsorryIsaidyouhadabigJewnose, he bawled. He paused to snort back a fresh rush of snot and tears and screamed his apology to the heavens with all the sincerity that a coward could muster. Im sorry, Im sorry, Im sorry!
She tilted her eyes up at Ted and shrugged. I guess that works.
The weight left his back, and the pressure disappeared from his arm. Bobby lumbered to his feet, blood trickling from the corner of his mouth, his face wet and flushed. Jacks stuck to the front of his shirt and clung painfully to his pants legs. He stood in a beaten slouch, shooting impotent glares at his former victims, who now laughed and whooped at him to his face. For all his great size, he now looked quite small, indeed.
The ring of humiliation was broken as the tall silhouettes of Miss Proctor, their teacher stalked up to them from her observation post at the other end of the playground. Children scattered like dandelion seeds, until only Ted, Rose, and Bobby remained. Miss Proctors long face was livid, and Bobbys keen self-preservation instincts told him what to do. Before she could demand to know what happened, he whipped up some tears (it wasnt that hard; he still had some left from the last time) and threw himself on her mercy.
It was Ted, Miss Proctor, he said in his best blubber. I just wanted to ask him if his pop was all right in the hospital, he added, remembering the incriminating newspaper, an he punched me in the mouth. He opened his wide and spoke without closing it. Thee? He bwoke mah thoof.
Roses lips thinned. Why, you dirty, lying little --
Thats enough, Miss Flaherty. Go back to class.
But, Miss Proctor --
Now, young lady! As Rose left, her last glance at Ted a silent apology, she turned to Ted. Mister Baird, go see the nurse. As for you, mister Ricketts, I expected better discipline from the son of a G-man. I shall write your father a note and send you home with it. You can expect a great deal of punishment for your disobedience today, young man.
Young mister Ricketts hung his head as she led him away. Ahead of him, Bobby was jogging for the nurses office. When he was sure Miss Proctor wasnt looking, the bully stuck out his tongue and thumbed his nose at him.
Ted sighed. Hed never had a chance to pick up his jacks.
* * *
You cannot run forever, Cossack!
Stop calling me Cossack, Gum Belle muttered.
She was currently hiding in an alley formed by two closely packed warehouses, rubbing her chest in a vain attempt to keep the cold out. Her teeth ground together with an angry, rubbery squeal as she squinted through the blizzard that howled across the docks. Oooh, if I could just get one good crack at her
The whirling snow slowed. For an instant, she thought she saw a human shape silhouetted against the whiteout, before a block of ice exploded out of the planks beneath her like a frozen sledgehammer, launching her skyward. Gum Belle barely had enough time register the fact that she was getting her sweet little patootie handed to her as she flew towards the front of the nearest warehouse, which had suddenly grown a new facade of wickedly sharp icicles. Thinking fast, she Belle thrust out her arms and legs, spread-eagled, and forced herself to billow out into a sheet. Sure enough, the sudden change in her width and thickness allowed her to catch the air like a parachute, slowing her headlong plunge for Skewer City. The icicles lengthened, thrusting out for her, but she drifted aside, wadded herself into a clumsy ball, and plummeted headlong for the decking. She hit it with a dull thwack and rebounded like a garish pinball through the snow, barely avoiding a butchers block of icy cutlery until she bounced off an icy pillar and soared through the snow clouds into the warm sunlight. Two loose, half-formed arms grasped at a girder with tendril fingers and Gum Belle unwound herself on the roof of the tower-mounted dock crane. She was all wrinkly, even her skin, like a Raggedy Ann doll with some stuffing missing.
She scowled. Old Icebox was going to pay for ruining her outfit.
Crystal axe-blades whirred past her head as the Ice Queen rose up from the snow on a glacial throne, supported on a huge pillar of frozen river water. Her skin and hair sparkled with frost, and her smile was cruel and sneering. Gum Belle half expected her to make some high-class taunt, but she just waved her hand in a lazy gesture and chilly white daggers congealed out of thin air, plunging for her head. The vigilante dived aside and thrust out her fist in a wild, looping punch. The Ice Queen flicked her fingers, the air around her blurred with a double-digit drop in temperature, and Gum Belles hand and wrist shattered before they even reached her face.
This time, there was pain, and she winced as she withdrew her maimed arm. Imported Siberian winds howled at her, and the Ice Queen stood up in her throne and raised both arms, just like the witches from the fairy stories Gran used to tell her. There was a hissing rumble from down below, and Belle extended her neck over the side of the roof to see a great mass of frozen water climbing the base of the crane. On every side, the dock had vanished in an arctic wasteland of churning, creaking blades and sparkling death. The tower wobbled dangerously. Gum Belle panted as she reformed her hand. It took too much effort, and she knew she was close to her limits.
At least she could get in out of the cold before it killed her. Gum Belle slithered off the roof, through an open window, and into the cranes control box. Inside, it was cramped and filled with labeled control levers, but it was a little warmer, and Belle felt her stiffness start to ease up. The Ice Queen made no move to stop her. Why should she bother, when all she had to do was sit down there on her throne and watch? Belle would have given her a rude gesture, but her new hand was still a bit numb. If she could just get one good hit in
The ice climbed further up the tower, and the control box trembled. Through the windshield, Gum Belle saw the claw dance heavily on the end of its cable. Something about it made a little spark in the mischievous corner (okay, okay, more like quarter) of her brain, and she smiled. Maybe there was a way, after all.
She crossed over to the control panel, her hips dipping around the operators chair to settle themselves in. Heavy machinery wasnt really her thing, unless she was taking it apart to get at the bad guys inside, but Gum Belle could read, and everything was clearly marked. She punched the red buttons marked ON, and was rewarded with the throaty cough of starting engines. Taking a wheel in one hand, a lever in the other, and budding a third arm to take up a crank, she unspooled her neck out the window to get a birds eye view of the action.
No way was she about to miss this.
A spin of the wheel, and the cranes housing circled around, until its arm was poised over the throne. A quick turn of the crank, and the claw rolled forward to cast its shadow over the Ice Queens face. She looked up.
Just in time for Gum Belle to pull the lever.
The claw yawned open and dropped down. The Ice Queen threw up her hands. The air shimmered around her again, but it might have been enough to shatter an elastic limb, but against a ton-and-change of steel and the force of gravity, it was like putting a sheet of plywood in front of a boulder. The claw fell over the Ice Queen, smashing into the throne. Its glacial dais buckled, then crashed into the churning river in a nest of crumbling floes. The snow swirled to a stop as the ice below cracked and rumbled to a standstill. The temperature shot up an easy thirty degrees in a second. It was over.
Gum Belle leapt up from her seat and pumped all three fists in the air. Gangbusters!
And then the horizon line started to tilt. The air around her filled with the creak and whine of straining steel. Gum Belle twisted her neck around and looked down. She had that sinking feeling. So did the crane. With the dock slashed to ribbons and its base half-crushed by frozen fists, it might have had a leg to stand on, but it didnt have any ground to work with. Only the stubborn trestlework of the tower kept it upright, and its girders were twisting like slow-motion taffy. As she watched, one of them snapped apart like an overwrought length of piano wire. The control box lurched sickeningly to one side, and she felt gravity pull at her through the window. The crane was falling.
As it hurtled for the river, she leaned halfway out of the cab and flicked both wrists out like twin whips. The control box was spinning wildly with the momentum of the fall, but the cranes arm was a big target, and she lashed her hands around it with ease. Kicking off from the cab floor, she swung through the air in a wide arc, letting the spin of the arm and the length of her limbs carry her out and away from the path of the cranes fall. Gum Belle unwound her wrists from the crane just before it landed, flattening two warehouses with an explosion of sound and splinters before it punched through the docks and into the river. A monstrous plume of brown water soared into the air and spread into a sloppy rain that splattered all around her as she half-rolled, half-bounced across the litter of flotsam that surrounded her. She very nearly slid into the river before she was able to wind her calf around one of the remaining pilings and drag herself to an intact portion of the docks. The gurgle of rushing water and the thump-thump of packed and floating wood were all around her. The ice was melting away as if exposed to some magic flame, shrinking into nothing before her eyes.
She found the Ice Queen lying amid the ruins of her tundra throne, surrounded by so much snaggletoothed wreckage that it made something of an island, a floating clog that refused to go downriver with the rest of the garbage. Gum Belle gingerly octopus-walked up to her, doing her best not to disturb her fragile mattress. She didnt look hurt, apart from a few bumps and bruises here and there. Maybe that shield had done something useful, after all. She shrugged. Oh, well. Out was out. Time to snag the receiver, put the squeeze on princess Kolodka, and meet Ricketts at the hoosegow to plan their next move.
Hopefully, it would be against Salucci. Shed always wanted to crash a party at the Plaza. A grin stretched across Belles face at the thought of fighting crime in an evening dress. Elbow-length gloves. With sequins, tons of sequins. Open-toed heels. Red nail polish. Oh, and an absurd amount of jewelry (gold, of course; she couldnt afford any other kind). It would be nice to go out for a night on the town for once, she thought as she started to search her vanquished foe, her fingers wriggling through the Ice Queens stole for secret pockets. All bad guys had to have secret pockets, right?
She heard the sirens before she saw the men. Gum Belle raised her head, frowning, as red and blue lights spun crazily across the ravaged docks and an even twenty policemen rushed in from every direction, guns in hand. One of them had even brought a flamethrower. Gum Belle bit her lip at that one. She stood up slowly and raised her hands, her fingers worming out of the Ice Queens clothes and reforming into unthreatening normalcy.
Hey, fellas, she called, as calmly as she could. I dont suppose youre here for little frosty-boots here, are you?
The cops exchanged glances. One of them flicked his eyes down to the unconscious woman and muttered something in an undertone to a man with the air of a detective. The latters face hardened, and she knew that someone had just recognized Krasavitza Kolodka, the innocent Russian noblewoman who had been held hostage at the Legacy Opera House, and who was now being molested by that viscous villainess Gum Belle. It was enough to give a girl fits.
This isnt the way it looks, she told the detective, flicking a nervous look at the guy with the flamethrower, she was robbing Tomorrow Industries.
Nice story, lady, he barked, but I just came back from Tomorrow Industries, and no one saw a looker like Miss Kolodka there. But they did see you, running in this direction. You can add destruction of city property to your list of crimes now, freak.
Gum Belle bit her lip harder and swallowed some particularly unladylike language. Of course, the ice had to melt before the cops showed up. Not it looked like shed just decided to trash about a quarter of the docks for no particular reason. Off to her left, a warehouse slid off a half-ruined section of dock and crumbled into the river. She winced. Maybe a quarter was a bit optimistic.
Listen, if you just go check out that warehouse over there, youll see some goof in a magicians outfit, two Russian mooks, and a platoon of hypnotized security guards who can tell you what was going on here. I wasnt part of the Tomorrow heist; I was trying to stop it. Me and Ricketts.
Would this be the same Ricketts who you tried to murder last night? The detective smirked. You got some beachfront property to sell me, too?
Har de har har. They pay you to be a wise guy?
No, they just pay me to be wise. And right now, I think its wise for you to put your hands behind your head, step away from the woman on the raft, and come downtown with us. The cops settled deeper into their shooting stances, and Officer Flamethrower checked his weapons pipes and seals with disquieting proficiency. Gum Belle watched him, incredulous. When did they start training police to burn people?
The detectives crisp voice carried to her from across the dock. I wont ask again. Surrender or we shoot.
Gum Belle looked from him, to his fellow officers, to the walking gasoline tank. Then she looked down at the unconscious Ice Queen and smiled. Not while I have a hostage, she sang, and before the detective could shout the order, she had coiled herself around Kolodka and dived into the river. Taking a deep breath that made her whole body swell with air, she twisted her feet into a mix of a propeller and a pair of flippers and jetted through the water like a living torpedo, racing for the safety of the docks underside. Gunfire cracked all around her, and bullets skipped through the water on every side. A few hit her distended body, but bounced harmlessly off her insulating skin. As she reached the docks, Officer Flamethrower raised his weapon of choice, but the detective grasped his arm and wrenched it away before he could fire.
Are you crazy? Youll toast the girl!
I thought that was the point, detective.
Not that girl, the other --
Gum Belle was gone.
The detective whipped off his hat and threw it to the ground.
* * *
Lionel Ricketts sat in his favorite armchair, sipped his beer, and stared out of his kitchen window. The sun had reached its zenith half an hour ago, and was now dipping down, casting the skyline in blocks of bleeding shadow and ruddy orange light. Every so often, an errant ray of sunlight would lance through the gap between his blinds and jab him square in the eye. Hed squint and turn his head aside with a soft grunt. When the ray grew tired of playing, as it inevitably did, it would vanish, and Ricketts would return to his beer and his window. He didnt really taste the first. He didnt really see out of the second.
Jenkins ambled in from the kitchen, plopped down next to him in Teds favorite chair, and popped open a beer of his own. Hows the cheek? he asked.
Itll be fine, Ricketts said, a bit more testily than he probably should have. The doctors had made some overly familiar remarks at his expense while they sewed up the gash in his cheek. It had taken more stitches than he wanted, and more time than he had liked. But Jenkins had done as he had been asked, and their man was on his way.
How long did he say hed be?
After lunch, Jenkins said.
Jesus Christ, but hes a cocky bastard.
Or just a hungry one.
Ricketts leaned forward and checked the radio clock. It was almost one-thirty. Unless hes gone to Topsys for a five-course meal, he should be here any second now. Get ready.
Jenkins said nothing, but returned his beer to the fridge. When he returned, he was holding a snub-nosed automatic pistol. He settled himself in a corner of the room, within the blind spot created by the inward-opening front door. Ricketts drained his own beer, threw away the bottle, and stood up. A steely weight settled against his hip. He looked down and saw Deadeyes spare revolver, still jammed in the waistband of his pants. He snorted and pulled the Colt into his hand, admiring its clean simplicity in the dying light. He had completely forgotten about the damned revolver. Best to hide it. This confrontation would be hard enough without accusations of withholding evidence. He lumbered over to the hall closet and buried the gun at the bottom of a box of winter clothes.
Ricketts had just shut the closet and returned to the living room when a sharp rap on the front door told him it was time. He and Jenkins caught one anothers eye and a silent signal passed between them before he crossed to the door and opened it.
There stood Director Abrams, stoop-shouldered and sour-faced. He held a briefcase in one hand, and his eyes were narrow behind his glasses. When he saw Ricketts, they almost vanished altogether in fresh creases of suspicion.
Whats the meaning of calling me all the way over here? He wrinkled his nose in disgust as he stepped into the living room. He never even looked at the wall by the door. If you have a status report on the Belle case, you should deliver it to me in my office. Is this where you really live, Ricketts? What a dive.
Its all I can afford on my wages, sir.
Hmph, grunted Abrams. So, thats what this is about. Money.
You got it, sir. Ricketts raised his finger, and Jenkins lunged forward, swiftly but silently closing the door, his gun covering the director with unwavering accuracy.
Abrams whirled, and saw the gun. His face went an ugly shade of whey, and his free hand fiddled with the lapel of his coat. What is this? What are you doing? His voice was hoarse and tremulous. This is
this is all highly irregular.
So is playing the mole for scum like Vincent Salucci, sir.
It took almost half a minute for Rickettss words to filter through Abramss brain. The change they wrought was sudden and hardly reassuring. The director hunched down even further, and his knuckles went white around the handle of his briefcase. His free hand stopped fiddling with his lapel, but it hovered with a tense stillness around the opening of his suit coat.
What did he pay you, Abrams? Ricketts said quietly.
I dont know what youre talking about.
Like hell you dont. Ricketts ticked off the points on his fingers, one by one. The Skull knew precisely when and where to attack the Confidence. That information was strictly classified. They also knew that Bum Frank was Belles informant the very night we debriefed you about him. After I was suspended, I had enough free time to visit the Bijou, where Saluccis thugs were conveniently ready to drop a gargoyle on me. You were there when I got the tickets to the Legacy, and it wouldnt take a genius to know that Belle would probably tag along. The Skull made a play on my life before he stole the Galvanic Generator. I called the office before I went to Tomorrow Tower this afternoon.
Abrams said nothing, but his face had gone blast-furnace white, and his eyes darted across the room behind their spectacles, from doors to windows to men. His free hand remained as still as swamp water. Jenkins sidled along the wall to get a better angle, his eyes shining attentively from the shadows of his hat.
Ricketts continued. To be as successful as the Skull has been, he needed an agent within the Bureau. Someone involved in every move, someone important enough to be clued in. Someone who could give him advance notice once everything was decided, after it was too late to change plans.
And that someone is me. Abrams nodded sharply, his mouth a taut, puckered line. What youre saying makes sense, Ricketts. Damned good sense. You could do pretty well for yourself by reporting it behind my back. All it would take is a telegram to Hoovers office. If you could make it stick. Hoover and me are good chums, did you know that? But he might just believe you, if you went over my head and gave him the intelligence first.
Abrams tilted his head to the side and peered at him askance, slightly above the rim of his glasses. His mouth puckered even more as he thought.
But you didnt do that, did you? No, instead you had Jenkins call me here so you can confront me yourself and put me under the gun. Youre too clean to want in on the action, so I can only assume that you want information.
He set his briefcase down and adjusted his glasses, an insufferable smile on his face. Ricketts resisted the urge to punch it in and kept his voice low and reasonable. Youre right, he said. We need information if we want to stop the Skull, and we know itll take too long for IA to dig it out of your slimy hide, so were doing it off the record. Belle might not have been able to stop the Board from stealing the receiver, but if I know her, shes still out there, and shes spoiling for a fight. Shell have it out with the Skull, or shell have it out with you. Which one it is depends on how much youre willing to give to the cause. His grin was fierce, toothy, and the furthest thing from jolly there was, outside of a crocodile. So this is your last chance, sir. Talk.
* * *
About a mile and a half upriver, a puffy red-gold shape emerged from beneath an old loading dock and bobbed up and down in the water. From a wet sweep of yellow hair, an oversized ear emerged, tilting about like a radio dish, listening. The shape sighed as the sound of sirens faded off into the distance. They were probably on their way to check downriver, then. Served them right for underestimating her swimming skills.
Lashing her lower body around the nearest piling, Gum Belle pulled herself up onto the loading dock and unrolled the Ice Queen so that she lay next to her. As she resumed her normal shape, she wiped at her chest and legs, making a disgusted face.
Yeesh, Icebox, she muttered, your coat shed much?
But Icebox was still out cold (tee hee). Gum Belle rolled her eyes. For such a big talker, she sure hadnt been able to take a punch. Then again (and here she rubbed her wrist where its predecessor had been broken off), the woman gave as good as she got.
It wouldnt take long for the police to double back and do a more thorough search. Time to retrieve the receiver whatzis and hunt down Ricketts so they could get the Generator back. Gum Belle got down on her knees and opened Kolodkas coat, searching for anything that might be a concealed bulge or half-open pocket.
She was so intent on looking for the prize that she didnt see its bearers lashes lift a fraction of an inch.
Frigid, pale fingers clamped down on Gum Belles wrist, and a horrible, nauseating wave of cold rolled up her arm. She tried to pull away, but her malleable body had seized up in shock, and all she could do was watch as the Ice Queen sat up, her winter-sky eyes blazing in hateful triumph.
At last, she snarled. I was growing tired of this pretense. And my coat does not shed.
Frost irised out from her palm and spread across Gum Belles arm, her uniform, her face, even her hair. Feathery crystals danced at the edge of her vision, and she could actually feel her flesh changing, realigning, her molecules wrenched from liquid freedom to solid prison. And still the cold kept coming, deeper, darker, deadlier, until her body blazed with blue agony, and the crystals that crawled across her began to lace together, layering into solid sheets of ice.
What little color Kolodka had drained away as her assault rose to a frigid crescendo, her cheeks going blue, then white, then finally something that was so pale it was nearly translucent. Her lips were an ugly near-black color, and her smug smirk had faded to a barely-open gasp of concentration. As the ice covered her vision, Gum Belle knew instinctively that she was going further than ever before on whatever twisted road of power she walked.
At last, with a sharp intake of breath, the Ice Queen let go. She closed her eyes, swaying on the spot, trembling. Had Gum Belle tickled her with a feather, she would have fallen over in a dead faint. Too bad there werent any feathers around. Nor was there anything recognizable as Gum Belle. Instead, there was a block of ice, about seven feet tall, with a vaguely humanoid shape locked deep inside. Had one squinted at it, one might have detected a hint of red, perhaps a shade or two of yellow.
They stayed like that for several minutes, one a statuesque beauty, the other a beautiful statue, until the Ice Queen opened her eyes and stood. She still trembled, and her skin kept that awful glassy color, but she had that annoying poise of hers back, and the first thing she did was to straighten a few errant locks of hair and readjust her mink stole. I could shatter you into a million pieces with a single kick, Cossack, she said. You might survive it. You might not. I have seen how you
thaw. Then again, I wonder if you are not already dead, and I am speaking to a particularly poorly dressed corpse. She shrugged. No matter. Alive or dead, a glacier takes longer to melt than a snowflake. I believe I shall leave you whole. She stepped back. In fact, I shall do you a favor and send you on a holiday. You need not trouble yourself with this pitiful city any longer.
The Ice Queen raised her hands, and a frozen razor leapt from the water below and sliced through the dock. With graceless ease, all that was Gum Belle, Annabelle Zarkov, the usherette-who-was-not, the enchanting Miss Smith, and a certain ornery box of chocolates splashed into the river and bobbed off towards the bay.
Farewell, Cossack. Think of me when you are adrift at sea. With a wave and a bow, the Ice Queen turned on her stiletto heel and walked away.
The river gurgled obligingly and swept Gum Belle down the channel, past the docks, away from the moored freighters and crumbling warehouses. The world spun and bobbed sickeningly around her, and it moved with frightening speed. Her brain was sluggish and trapped, but in half an hour, Gum Belle figured she would be drifting out on the open ocean, the most attractive buoy around. Or the uncaring river would smack her into a boat or a levee, and shed be nothing more than scattered chunks of red and gold ice, spread out so far and so wide that, even if she thawed out before she reached open water, she wouldnt be able to reform herself until 1984. Panic started to claw at the edges of her dimming consciousness. She had a terrible vision of her little raft capsizing, and her spending the rest of her life underwater, with what was undoubtedly an unflattering expression literally frozen on her face.
Right now, living with Gran didnt sound bad at all.
* * *
Abrams finished fiddling with his glasses, and his hand dipped slowly into his coat. Ricketts tensed, and Jenkins adjusted his aim, but the director only pulled out a bottle of antacid tablets and tipped a few into his mouth.
I hate to disappoint you, Ricketts, he said, but I think you called me over here and committed rank insubordination and its not me.
He blinked. What?
Go ahead. Check my phone records. Question my secretary. Send that telegram to Hoover. Im not your man. He stopped smiling. But somebody is. Youre right on that score, Ricketts. Ive had my suspicions for months. Ever wondered why Ive been staying at the office all the time? Its because I was digging through the personnel files.
Ricketts peered at him. His policemans brain told him not to trust a word that was coming out of Abramss double-talking mouth, but his gut, which rarely spoke up in such matters, warned him that to act solely on suspicion right now would be a grave mistake. If you were so sure back then, why didnt you let us in on it?
Why do you think? Because, for all I knew, you were the mole.
And what am I now?
The key to the whole mystery. He made a face. Youre a loose cannon Ricketts, but youre a sharp cop. And I was too busy looking at the big picture to think of the more intimate details.
So, if its not you, and its not me, then who is it?
With a sad smile, Director Abrams bowed his head and raised his hands. Who do you think?
The soft click of a removed safety behind him was little more than a punctuation mark. Ricketts curled his hands into fists and glared at the Phantom Skulls inside man.
There was another knock at the door, this one lazy, almost playful. It was a hungry cat calling on a fresh mouse.
I never thought it was you, Jenkins.
His partner stood against the wall by the door again, his weapon aimed square at Rickettss chest. There was no smug triumph on his face, but there wasnt crushing guilt, either. Sal Jenkins looked as Sal Jenkins had always looked: bland, unassuming, expressionless, emotionless. Almost completely beneath notice.
The perfect spy.
Your mistake, he said, in the same tone that another man might say nice weather.
Ricketts blinked back furious tears and nodded. It had been his mistake. Jenkins had been in on the Confidence rendezvous. Jenkins had met Bum Frank that fateful night. Jenkins had known about Teds love of the Bijou Palace. Jenkins had offered Belle his extra ticket to the Legacy. And Ricketts had trusted Jenkins enough to clue him in on their afternoon plans.
Why did you do it, Jenk? His voice was raw and broken.
For the money. Dont want to be hired help all my life.
Ricketts laughed bitterly. So why play along?
Skull needs Abrams. Let you figure out the rest. Doesnt matter anyhow.
There was a third knock on the door, this one soft and polite. Jenkins put one hand on the knob without taking his gun or his eyes off Ricketts and Abrams. Pickup man, he explained.
He flicked the knob. The door swung open wide, the hinges keening softly. In the dusky, garish pumpkin-light, the Hanged Mans moon-pale face leered out of the shadowed hall like a hungry goblin. He grinned when he saw Ricketts.
Well, well, well, he rasped. If it isnt the G-man who slept with a bus. I found something of yours downstairs.
He tilted his head with a horrid crack and reached behind him. Rickettss soul guttered as he saw Ted, his sons shoulder clutched in the crooked monsters skeletal grip.
Hes been nice and quiet on the way up. The Hanged Man grinned like a wolf, and his gloved fingers stroked the boys bruised windpipe. You might say I left him speechless.
It was too much. Ricketts roared and charged, his fists raised. Jenkinss gun snapped over to him. There was a flash of light, a roar of gunfire, and everything went still.
* * *
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GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD: