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Ricketts roared and charged, his fists raised. Jenkins’s gun snapped over to him. There was a flash of light, a roar of gunfire, and everything went still.

He looked up from his place on the floor. Abrams lay over him, holding him down. “Sir, what are you…?”

The director shook his head. “Suicide, man. Think.” He coughed weakly. Ricketts’s mouth went dry.

“You didn’t…?” The thought of another man taking a bullet for his temper was almost too much.

Another cough. “Heartburn.” Abrams fumbled around on the floor, snatched up an antacid tablet, and had the decency to wipe it clean on his vest before popping it into his mouth.

Ricketts didn’t have much time to wonder who, if anyone, had been shot, before a heavyset bruiser of a man with a sizable bulge in his coat stepped into the room and hauled the director out of his line of sight. As another grabbed Ricketts and held him in a nasty chokehold, he saw a smoking hole in the ceiling, and heard a whimper of pain. Looking down, he saw Jenkins, his knees buckling, his gun arm jerked up towards the ceiling by the Hanged Man, who had clamped his free hand like a black leather vise around his wrist. As he watched, those dark fingers clenched tighter, and there was a grinding pop of overstressed bone.

“Idiot,” the Hanged Man hissed. Something akin to annoyance stirred in his eyes as he ducked inside, dragging Ted and Jenkins with him. “Guns make noise.”

As if on cue, doors had started to open out in the hall, and there was a chorus of crying babies from all directions. Before anyone could see into Ricketts’s apartment, the Hanged Man’s leg jackknifed out, and the front door slammed shut. Letting Jenkins go, he locked the door before shoving Ted to the thug who had picked up Abrams.

“Hold him,” he said, then bowed with the grace of a skeletal marionette. As he straightened with a crick and creak of vertebrae, his grin was vulpine and eager.

“What do you want, Vittorio?” Ricketts growled.

“Not you, if that’s what you’re so worried about.” The sound of his laughter made Ricketts’s ears want to bleed. “No, the Skull wants your boss. Alive, if you can believe it. Your partner set the whole thing up while you were in the hospital. I volunteered to make the pick-up.”

“How nice of you. I thought you didn’t like the Skull.”

“I don’t. But I wanted the excuse to pay you a visit.” His glassy eyes rolled around in their sockets, taking the room in. “What a dump. Nice radio, though.” His grin widened. It was more tooth than gum. “Did your wife pick it out for you?”

This time, Ricketts nearly burst free of the hired muscle. If it weren’t for his dislocated shoulder, he would have succeeded. His language during this attempt was enough to make Ted’s ears burn, even as the boy’s eyes blazed with pride. The Hanged Man only raised his eyebrows and chuckled, a sound like a clogged garbage disposal.

Meanwhile, Jenkins had risen to his feet. He had holstered his gun, and now he rubbed his wrist gingerly. “Better get Abrams out of here. Can’t use the hallway. Too many witnesses.”

The Hanged Man’s grin curdled slightly. “Use the fire escape. There’s a car waiting in the alley. Try not to shoot anyone on your way down, amateur.”

Jenkins’s face darkened, but he crossed to the living-room window, opened it, then jammed his automatic in the small of Abrams’s back. The director made a frightened sound in his throat as the two of them headed out to the fire escape platform. Ricketts kept his eyes on him the whole way. Just as his former partner rounded the bend to the stairs, his shoulders seemed to sag. Ricketts’s mouth tightened and unfamiliar emotions boiled and writhed in his belly. As they descended the rattling iron stairs, the Hanged Man jerked his neck in their direction with a disgusting crack.

“Follow them,” he hissed, to the man who was holding Ricketts. “I don’t trust that G-man with anything important. If a man can double-cross, he can triple-cross. Tell the car to wait until I come down.”

The thug hesitated. “What about you?”

The Hanged Man’s eyes glittered. “I have some business here. Don’t worry about Agent Ricketts. He’s a civil fellow. Aren’t you, Agent Ricketts?”

“Yeah. I’m a real gentleman.”

“See? Now, off with you. Unless you feel like telling me my business. You don’t feel like telling me my business, do you?”

The thug held Ricketts tight against his body. So the G-man felt his Adam’s apple quiver as he swallowed. “Nossir.” The stone grip around his throat and under his armpit slid away, and the tub of muscle managed to squeeze through the window and down the fire escape. Ricketts stood still, his knees loose, torn between lunging through the window, saving his son, and pounding the snot out of the Hanged Man.

The latter’s smile was all too knowing as he paced leisurely to the window, his ruined vertebrae clicking and clacking lightly as he kept his face turned to Ricketts. He paused by the window and raised an eyebrow, smirking.

“One chance to run after them, G-man,” he said. “No? Then you value your son more than you value your boss.” He rammed the window shut and snapped the latch home. “I like that attitude. It reminds me of myself. Anything for family. Or you’re itching to take a crack at me. I like that, too.”

Ricketts tried to ignore him. His eyes were on Ted’s frightened, pale face. “You have what you want,” he said, his voice raw. “Now, let the kid go.”

“But I have so many things I want to show him. I’d show them to you, too, but I think you have more important places to be. Am I right?”

He crouched down, into his boxer’s stance. “My boy needs me, Salucci. There’s no place more important to me right now.”

“That’s good, because I want to have a word with you before we go.” The pallid wraith of a man stalked closer to him, the easy, sharp smile back on his face. He raised his hands, palms forward, and his cloudy eyes, while not exactly sparkling, glittered with something that resembled good humor at a funeral. “I am sorry about that incident with the bus by the way. I was out of sorts. It was unprofessional of me.”

“You’re apologizing for trying to kill me?”

Another grotesquely good-humored laugh. “No, no. For doing it so messily. Next time,” he whispered, “I’ll make sure it sticks.”

“I believe you.” Ricketts backed away from him, towards the hallway to the bedroom, flicking a reassuring glance at Ted. His son gave a nearly imperceptible nod, and pride blossomed in his breast as they lost sight of one another.

“So, what do you want to talk about?”

The Hanged Man’s ink-stain suit blotted out the living room, and his pallid face glowed in the electric lights. “Who else? Your partner.”

“Jenkins? Isn’t he your best friend?”

“Questions, questions, questions. And all of them the wrong ones.” His smile turned sour at the corners. “Don’t be stupid. Your real partner. That marvelously limber strega who has the Skull so worked up. Tell me about her. The way she talks. The way she smiles. The way she smells.” His nostril flared, and he licked his lips. “I imagine the whole room reeks of taffy when she bleeds.”

The hallway felt uncomfortably close against Ricketts’s shoulders, almost like the sides of a coffin. His bedroom seemed miles away, and the key to his dresser was on the bed. In the time it would take for him to grab the key, unlock the drawer, and grab Deadeye’s revolver, the monster before him would probably have time enough to flay him alive and sing the national anthem.

But the door to the bathroom yawned behind his shoulder, black as the Hanged Man’s suit coat, but he didn’t dare glance at it, for fear that his hopes would show in his eyes. He decided to keep talking for a bit while he waited for the chance to make his move.

“Why, Vittorio? You want me to set up a date for you?”

If the Hanged Man was insulted, it didn’t show in his answering chuckle. “I can do that for myself. But I wonder, why do you work with her? She’s a lawbreaker.”

“Her heart’s in the right place. That’s what counts.”

“And she thinks you’re clever.” The crepe-draped good humor oozed out of his eyes. What remained turned Ricketts’s insides to water. “She’s fooling you, and she’s fooling herself. Define yourself by the rules, keep yourself in a set shape, and you only go so far. My large friend back there is a button man. He uses his fists, does as he’s told, and works his way up in the organization. You’re a cop. You obey the law, fight the good fight, and take what wins you can. Teddy back there is a kid. He goes to school, gets in scrapes, and learns how life works. What do you all have in common? You all limit yourselves to what you should do, instead of what you can do.”

Ricketts’s bum left arm brushed against the bathroom doorframe, and he covered his excitement with a wince. “And that’s a bad thing?” He licked his lips and thought of his straight razor, sitting on the toilet tank, only a few feet away...

“Bad?” Something that approached genuine emotion edged into the Hanged Man’s voice. “Why, it’s downright un-American.”

Another step, and the door was there. “I’ll tell Hoover,” Ricketts said, and darted into the bathroom. Inside, it was dark, everything limned out in the snowdrift glow of white porcelain, but Ricketts didn’t care; his eyes were fixed on the bright square of the hall, watching for the crooked monster outside as he patted around for the razor with his right hand.

But he felt nothing beneath his fingers. Ricketts’s thoughts turned panicked and blue. Where was it? He ripped his gaze from the hallway, just as his fingertips brushed against the leather razor case.

He had just enough time to realize it was empty before the Hanged Man sprang at him from behind, from inside the bathroom.

So fast…Ricketts thought, before one wiry arm rammed him into the medicine cabinet. Mirrored glass tinkled against his shirt, slicing open fabric and skin with equal ease. Ricketts gasped in pain as the cool steel of his own razor tickled his Adam’s apple. The Hanged Man leaned forward, one hand frozen on the razor’s handle, the other gripping the G-man’s shoulder like a black vise. His ashen face split open in a horrible, knowing leer at the answering hiss of pain.

“Dislocated your arm, eh?” He tutted. “It looks like Deadeye took more out of you than I thought he would. The man’s a great shot, but he’s dangerously close to having a conscience. Makes him predictable. Tell me, how did you beat him?” When Ricketts didn’t answer, he pressed the razor close enough to send a thin sheet of blood rippling down the big man’s collar. “I’m the one asking the questions now. Tell me.”

Ricketts told him, scowling all the while. The Hanged Man squeezed his shoulder to make him skip the details. It was more enjoyable to him than merely asking. When he heard the part about Gum Belle jamming up Deadeye’s revolver, he licked his lips with a black tongue.

“Good girl,” he hissed. Good, good girl. I figured she had it in her. I don’t suppose you heard about what happened to old Stanley, did you?”

Ricketts blinked.

“She ripped his arms and legs off, the poor slob. I heard it all from the walking dry-cleaner himself, when he made his one phone call. She did it from the inside. Slowly.” The Hanged Man’s eyes half closed, and a tremor ran through him that threatened to slit Ricketts’s neck in half. “She’s perfect. Perfect.

“Perfect for what?”

“I’m the one asking the questions, remember?” The heel of his hand ground Ricketts’s shoulder against the unyielding tile. Over the answering scream, he spoke with philosophical calm. “Do you know what it takes to live a life without rules, Ricketts?”

“W - what?”

“I’m asking the questions.” This time, he punched the shoulder. Ricketts writhed in clenched-jawed agony, and the blood trickled faster from the cut on his throat. “It takes courage. More courage than most men have in their lifetimes. Mine had to end before I found it. Do you know what’s on the other side, when you die? Don’t answer; you’ll probably pass out when I punish you for saying something dumb again, and I don’t want that. Yet. Long story short, when I saw the truth of what’s waiting for us at the end, I decided to spend the precious gift that is life without fear or conscience. In that sense, I suppose you could say that I am the first man in a world of children. And Belle…” he drew a deep, shuddering breath. “Belle barely remembers that she’s supposed to look a certain way, just as she barely remembers that she’s supposed to act a certain way. The body reflects the mind, you see. She’s dangling in morality’s web by a few threads. A few well-placed cuts are all it takes to send her falling free. And when that happens, I will no longer be alone in this world.”

“You’re insane.”

For once, Vittorio Salucci’s smile seemed genuine, the anticipation on his face almost boyish. “Thank you.”

There was a deep grunt of pain from the hall and the sounds of feeble struggling. Crick-crack: the Hanged Man cocked his head, his ear pointing towards the living room while his eyes stayed locked on his captive like deadly marbles. “I think young Theodore is restless. I’d best go soothe him. After all, I’ll be taking care of him from now on.

His mouth unhinged in a horrible grimace, and it all snapped into place for Ricketts.

“Ted, no, get out -- ”

A black-suited knee sprang into his groin, and the words rushed out of Ricketts in a wheeze of agony. He sank to the ground. Quick as a heart attack, the Hanged Man stomped first on his shoulder, then on his wounded cheek. With twinkle in his eye and a quick twist of his heel, he popped all the stitches. The pain tore through his brain like a hacksaw. Ricketts jerked once, but his body had reached its limits. As his vision blurred into empty darkness, he saw the razor flash as the Hanged Man snapped it shut.

                                                         * * *

The Confidence job had forced the winos’ congress to relocate. The docks had been good to the city’s most entrenched and respectable homeless, but the six-wheeled death car and the exploding freighter had sucked the romance out of the locale and replaced it with cops. It was a good thing they hadn’t stuck around to see that afternoon’s sequel; it would have broken their hearts.

The word was still being spread about the new digs. Bum Frank had an ear for the word, which was why a certain someone had enlisted him into her service in the first place, but most of the rank-and-file hadn’t got wise yet, which left the crème de la trash.

There was Tubby Tucker, the roundest hobo in town, who resembled W.C. Fields after a pie bender; Esmeralda, who claimed to be a Gypsy queen, but who was really a wop Tarot card nut from Queens (it would hurt her feelings to remind her, so everyone kept their yaps shut); Scratch, who was not only on speaking terms with every junkyard dog in town, but also had a good sampling of their fleas on him at any given time; and Whiskey Jones, the town’s oldest and most professionally devoted wino, who still had maybe an inch of his brain above the water-to-wine line.

They were survivors among survivors, experts at living off the streets, magicians at making a something called life from a nothing called failure. Between them all, they could scrape together a four-course meal from one dumpster and a half-empty toilet tank.

Unfortunately, they didn’t have either of these luxuries in their new home without a home. The dilapidated Strangline Train Yard was a forlorn, rotting sore of rusty sheet metal, abandoned train tracks, scrap lumber, surrounded by a tipsy chain-link fence erected not to keep undesirables out, but to wall decay in. It sat on the outskirts of town like an ulcer, waiting for the city limits to expand before it caused urban development indigestion. At least sat by the riverbank, so they had a fresh supply of only mildly oily water to drink. Not that that mattered to Whiskey Jones.

And at least they had a fire, courtesy of the scrap lumber and Scratch’s wilderness skills, and food, courtesy of Whiskey Jones, who had found a can of beans under his hat. He had explained, in a wobbly lecture, that he had had no idea where the can of beans had come from, although he had a vague recollection of a French countess and four white horses. At which point, Esmeralda, with many a sweet nothing, had plucked the can from his fingers and given it to Scratch, who wasted no time in opening it with his penknife.

Now, they all sat around the sullen, spitting cook fire in the purple glimmer of early evening, watching the beans cook in a pot that used to be a hubcap from an old Chevy. Tubby Tucker, who fancied himself a Ford man but whose stomach had declared a change of allegiance, had appointed himself head chef, and, in lieu of spices, meat, vegetables, or any other sundries, had opted to stir the beans as majestically as he could. This entailed him whipping out the gleaming aluminum spoon he kept in his vest pocket and lording it over the cook fire like Louis XIV over his wig collection. Scratch was drawing a risqué picture in the dirt, while Esmeralda hunched in her tattered shawls and looked as mysterious as a hungry wop Tarot card nut from Queens can without losing it completely. Whiskey Jones had a full-time job just staying upright.

Frank had lain down on an old heap of burlap sacks that was close enough to the cook fire to watch the beans, but far enough away to ensure that he would be the last person to get his share of the grub. Considering the characters he was with, he’d wind up holding the can and maybe the fire, but that was okay. He wasn’t hungry as much as he was tired. Salucci’s boys had done a real number on Frank, and the hospital had shown him the business end of their penny loafers as soon as they were sure he wouldn’t hit the bricks looking like a juicy headline. His face hurt all over, especially his nose, and although the swelling had gone down in his eyes, it was still hard for him to see sometimes, as if one of the fists to the head had knocked a bolt loose in his peepers. With the boss lying low, he couldn’t do much except rest and hope to avoid the attention she’d attracted.

He had just closed his eyes when a wet, hacking sound came from his left. Frank closed his eyes tighter, wincing at the pain, but the sound came again. It was as if someone had given a foghorn bronchitis. With a sigh, he sat up, rubbing his sore head, and saw a nervous Whiskey Jones standing next to him, hacking up another cough. If he had to guess, Frank would have but money on either a hairball on tuberculosis. He edged a few inches away and eyed Jones warily. “What is it, Whisk?”

Whiskey Jones rubbed his stubbly jaw. “Ya look like hell in a grocery cart, Frank. Wha’ happened?”

“I don’t want to talk about it.” Frank sighed. It made his mouth hurt. “Those beans done yet?”

“Askin’ about ’em ain’t gonna make ’em cook faster.”

“Sorry. You got anything to drink?”

“Ya mean booze?”

“No, I mean half and half.” Frank threw up his knobby hands. “Yeah, I mean booze.”

“Sorry. I’m off the sauce.”

Frank blinked. Whiskey Jones smiled ruefully and doffed a hat that had been a Fedora once, until it had contracted a bad case of amnesia.

“I got cornered by a lady from the Salvation Army,” he said.

“That’s no excuse,” Frank replied.

“She wuz a pretty lady.”

“I didn’t know they had those.”

“Neither did I. That’s how she cornered me.”

“So, what do I call you now? Coffee Jones?”

“Aw, Frank, don’t be that way…”

Esmeralda raised her head from within a nest of bangles and skirts. “The wind has changed,” she said in her most enigmatic voice.

Frank scowled at her, but only for a second, at first because it made his mouth hurt even more to scowl, but then he felt the air grow chilly. A low moan drifted over the bank like a ghost, and a gust of cold air made the fire flutter and the shadows spin. A mist started to rise from the river.

With a shiver, Scratch looked up from his dirt doodle and glared at Esmeralda. “You’re a big help, you know that?”

She made an obscene gesture, then shuffled closer to the fire. They all did, even Frank, dibs and courtesies forgotten in the quest for warmth. Tubby Tucker took a mouthful, chewed them with great ceremony, and then swallowed. “How are those beans going?” Frank asked.

“They’ll be ready when they’re ready, gents,” intoned Tubby Tucker. He dipped his spoon in the hubcap again, raised it full to his lips, and blew on it.

“Those have got to be the slowest-cooking beans I ever seen,” Scratch growled. He peered at the can. “I can’t even read the label.”

Tubby finished swallowing and licked his lips. “Red Tag. I can tell by the aftertaste.”

Scratch groaned. “Red Tag? Don’t you know they use dog meat?”

“What manner of dog?” Tubby Tucker said around a mouthful of beans.

The mist thickened, and they huddled closer together. Scratch swore at the fire. “This matchstick is about as useful as twenty feet’a rope.”

Whiskey Jones brightened up. “I got that, if ya want it.”

They all stared at him. The camp was silent, save for the hiss and pop of the burning wood, the burble of the simmering beans, and the quiet smack of Tubby Tucker’s lips as he chewed.

“You have got to be kidding me,” Frank said in a voice gone flat with disbelief.

“Naw, I found it when a crew wuz clearin’ out Warehouse Eight down southside. Some crazy guy’d rented it out seventy-five years ago or summin’.”

“What crazy guy?” asked Scratch.

“I dunno. I didn’t ask. Maybe it was William Randolph Hearst.”

“William Randolph Hurst -- ” Tubby Tucker paused to blow on a fresh spoonful of beans “ -- is still alive.”

“Really?” Esmeralda asked. “I heard he locked himself in his mansion and died there.”

“Maybe he just got lost,” Scratch sneered. “I hear it’s as big as Tomorrow Tower in there.”

Esmeralda held her arms out wide and wiggled her fingers.

“No, it’s not,” snorted Scratch. “You’re a goddamn liar, Ez.”

Esmeralda flicked his fingers at him in an eloquently obscene gesture. Whiskey Jones kept right on talking as if the two of them weren’t on the cusp of killing one another.

“So, the rich guy’s dead, so he can’t rent out his warehouse no more, which means the owner wuz gettin’ rid of his stuff. It wuz all out there on the docks. Pianos, statues, Confederate bills, a globe as big as Tubby’s gut -- ”

Tubby Tucker scraped his spoon along the bottom of the hubcap-pot. “I take offense at being compared to an instrument of geography.”

Frank held up one hand. “What I want to know is, all this stuff was there for the taking, and all you got away with was got twenty feet of rope?”

Whiskey Jones threw his shoulders back and his chin high. “Not just rope. Yacht rope. The kind they use on yachts.”

“You don’t have to tell me they use in on yachts, Jones,” Frank sighed. “I know they use it on yachts. Why else would they call it yacht rope?”

Scratch clawed at something irritating under his collar. “And why didn’t you get some of that Reb money? Maybe we could’ve, I dunno, found a blind butcher to sell us some bacon.”

“That would be dishonest,” intoned Esmeralda.

Frank chuckled. “Tell that to Tubby, Ez. He’s the one who’s damn near done with the beans.”

Everyone turned to stare at Mr. Tucker, who had the impeccable timing to be standing before the fire with the handle of his spoon sticking from between his pursed lips. “Meye fake othemph mat dat,” he said.

Esmeralda shot to her feet, a decidedly un-mysterious expression on her face, and Scratch drew his penknife with a curse. Tubby withdrew his spoon, replaced it in his pocket with all due ceremony, and raised one thick finger.

“Friends, I can explain -- ”

Frank let the others pound the crap out of him. He wasn’t in the mood, and besides, pounding the crap out of someone isn’t as fun if you’ve just recently had the crap pounded out of you. Instead, he wandered over to the riverbank and peered out into the cold, foggy gloom. Through the mist, which, come to think of it, was awfully unseasonable for this time of year, he could see an untidy mass drifting past them. It was hard to make it out, for it was an easy twenty feet away if it was an inch, but it looked like a cluster of wharf trash: boards and shattered boxes, a few snippets of cable, an empty tin can or two swirling along in its wake. He had just dismissed it as unsalvageable and was on the cusp of turning around and watching Tubby’s beating (Tubby was well known for his highly amusing and girlish scream, any mention of which he took great offense at) when something cold and solid brushed against his half-shod foot. Frank knelt down and fished it out of the river. It was pale and slick in his hands, and as he turned it towards the fire, it glistened with a rippling sheen. He recognized it at once as ice.

And it wasn’t alone. More chunks floated into sight, drifting through the winter fog, big chunks of it, tiny icebergs, monster floes, slushy-sloshy rugs of the stuff. And, in the middle, bobbing up and down like a frozen buoy, was the biggest of all, a crystalline boulder the size of a man. With its curious, rolling motion, it almost seemed to be beckoning to him. Frank frowned at it, following it with his eyes. There was something familiar about that glacier…

A log popped in the fire, casting a burst of orange light across the river, throwing a whitish glare across the uneven planes of the big chunk. When it faded, Frank saw something trapped in it, like a fly in an ice cube. Only this fly looked more like…

“The boss!” Frank scampered into the river, felt it wrench at his legs, then skidded to a stop and hopped to shore. “Whisk! Whisk!”

Whiskey Jones turned from the important business of wrestling with the others for the last mouthful of beans and laid a bleary eye on Frank’s panicked face. “Whazza matter?”

“That rope. You still got it?”

“Y’mean the yacht rope?”

“Yacht rope, licorice rope, whatever,” Frank groaned. “So long as it’s rope. You got it with you?”

He half hoped that Jones had just been blowing smoke, or that he had stashed the rope in a conveniently inconvenient spot. Instead, old Whisk swayed into the shadows of the depot and came back with a coil of heavy, tarred cable over his shoulder. No sooner had he set it down with a grunt, than Frank had snatched up one end and tied it around his waist. The hemp was stiff and bristly in his palms, but Frank had been in the Scouts, in his blinkered days before the revelation that hard work was for suckers, and he’d earned his knot-tying badge. The others watched, open-mouthed, as he took the other end of the rope and lashed it to the nearest fencepost. Frank gave the line the most vigorous yank he could. The post held fast, but he wasn’t a strong man. Who knew if it could support his weight?

One glance at the swift-passing glacier, and he knew there was no time to find out.

Frank charged into the river. The current was cold and swift, and when it reached up to his thigh, it casually swept his feet out from under him. He barely had enough time to suck down a panicked breath before it plunged him beneath the surface.

As little light as there was above, below, everything was muddy blackness and swirling motion. The clammy water clawed at him with icy nails, and he imagined that his lungs were tearing themselves apart. At this rate, he’d drown in less time than it took Tubby Tucker to polish off a can of beans. Frank’s clothes felt like lead rags around him as he worked his arms and legs in a clumsy dog-paddle, following the bubbles that tickled his nose as they rose up to meet the air. Precious, precious air; Frank wanted it more than he’d ever wanted fire, clothes, spare change, or even coffee.

But the river wanted him just as badly, and so they fought, wish against wish, strength against strength, while the rope twirled weightlessly without and Frank’s life burned away within. It was a war of second-long campaigns, waged with armies of pressure and force. Frank kicked and thrashed, the river pushed and froze, and when Frank opened his mouth to suck down a mouthful of rotten, oily water, he found himself gulping down rotten, oily air instead. He had won!

As he wheezed and spluttered, the rest of his senses returned. His ears were flooded with the gurgle and splash of the angry, cheated river, but he also caught the cries of his friends. They sounded shrill and far away. When he blinked the water from his eyes, he could barely see them, mismatched silhouettes gesturing wildly against the orange glare of the fire. They were small, and growing smaller as he watched. But where was the boss?

The river sullenly kicked him around, and he saw her, not six feet away. Now that he was closer, Frank could see that her ice prison was a lot bigger than he thought it was. It was likely seven feet square, and cloudy as a head of beer. He’d been lucky to see anything in there, let alone pick her out from so far away.

He realized all this as he splashed for the muddy glacier with great energy and greater clumsiness, squinting through a dripping twilight whenever he came up for air, groping for purchase with every stroke.

His arm thrashed into a chunk of something chilly and solid. A rough-hewn shape the size of a softball bobbed past him. The temperature dropped, dropped, dropped, all around him, and the river gained a new strength, as hard and bitter as a winter wind. Frank felt his meager strength falling away, and his legs began to sink below the surface, where hungry, icy fingers first caressed, then pulled. A unique numbness, vaguely alarming but rather pleasant, began to steal inwards towards his heart. Frank’s head drooped, and his splashes shrank, slowed, then finally stopped. He began to sink.

Then he smacked face-first into the frozen Gum Belle.

It was as shocking as if she had punched him in the nose herself. Frank snapped his eyes open and spat out a mouthful of water. She was right in front of him, and the dim sight of her form roused a new and curious strength in his body that the river, with all its gurgling wiles, was too slow to smother. Frank surged forward, reaching as high as he could with outstretched fingers. Slipping and sliding, he somehow managed to hook first one hand on the top of the glacier, then the other. Rather than try to pull himself up, in a surge of self-preservation, he hugged the glacier with his arms and legs. This probably saved his life, for rather than rolling on top of him, Belle’s prison instead tipped forward, dragging him on top of it as it threatened to spin around and drown him. Frank shifted his weight wildly to keep him on top, while the river did its best to spin him back to its chilly womb. The ice, which was, after all, only that same river given shape, sucked angrily at his warmth, and Frank’s teeth chattered as he shouted, “Pull me in!”

By now, he couldn’t see his friends, but he felt the rope go taut around his waist, then a tugging pressure as he they hauled back on the line. In their eagerness, they nearly ripped him away from the boss, but Frank wrapped his limbs around the sides of the glacier. He didn’t do it nearly as completely or as stylishly as the boss would have, but he did it well enough for it to matter. Soon the dark waters glittered with ripples of orange-yellow firelight, he heard Esmeralda’s voice raised in a cry of “Heave!”, and the silty riverbank ground beneath them she and the others dragged him and the boss ashore. As an exhausted Frank slid to land, four pairs of hands took him in an urgent embrace.

“Frank, that was the hardest I’ve ever seen you work in your life,” he heard Tubby Tucker say.

Esmeralda began to haul him towards the inviting orange light. “Let’s get you to the fire.”

“No.” When his friends kept carrying him anyway, he kicked and flailed until they put him down.. “No!” He panted for a second, dripping and tottering on his numb legs, then jabbed a thumb back at the block of ice that he had risked everything to save.

“She needs it more.”

                                                         * * *
Thrills! Chills! Back on schedule!

Go to Part II now: [link]

For a full-size version of this week's header, go here: [link]
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:iconwunderchivo:
WunderChivo Featured By Owner Oct 4, 2009
Oh my, oh yes. To peer just a teeny bit into the darker depths of Vittorio's mind gives me great glee, to dine on even a fraction of the wonderfully stark and intense philosophy that tethers his "free-spirited" callousness. What enjoyable layers. :)

Is it possible that for all the sheer depravity and homocidal core of his being, that the macabre italian still has anything remaining in him remotely close to romantic fancies? "I'd dearly love to see what you're made of..." with a horrible grin and a long-expired bouquet of roses in one hand, and a twitching switchblade in the other. Can't wait for that confrontation!

The entire scene until Hanged Man made his exit, was incredibly real. I saw his ghastly face twisting to each new comment and expression, and I felt every painful hit that Ricketts endured. It was very vivid. Thanks for an amazingly captivating read.

And now we finally get the spotlight on Frank Bum for a lot more than his usual cameos. It was great to see the poor guy go above and beyond his regular obligations with so much courage, despite the usual beatings he endures both socially and physically. It was a very brief glimpse, however, of his fellow gang of ragtags. I really, really hope he gets more than another can of beans for his trouble. ;D
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Oct 7, 2009
Heh-heh. Yes, Vittorio is much like ogres, onions, and parfaits -- he has layers. ;) You'll see a few of them revealed in future chapters. Suffice to say that, yes, he does have feelings, which make him a very, very dangerous man. The confrontation between him and Belle has been set up in my head for quite some time. I even have a first draft of it ready to go (which will probably go through a complete rewrite when I get to it).

Glad you enjoyed that scene with him and Ricketts. Looking back on it, I see some stuff I would tone back and clean up, but the craftsman is always his own worst critic. Same goes for Frank and his crew (though I did get a big giggle out of writing Tubby Tucker sneaking beans on the side; some of the most fun I've had at the keyboard in months). Oddly enough, I'm not entirely sure what's going to happen to the poor, beat-up old bastard. Guess I'd best start writing again so's I can find out. ;)
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Only comment here? That's a first! Hanged man must be a psychologist, or just very obervant to notice that dark side to Belle. It'll be interesting to see how that plays out.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 7, 2009
Hmmm...Well, let's just say that he sees a very real side of Belle, the side that likes beating up crooks. She gets a thrill out of violence, which is always a dangerous road. He's an astute SOB. As evidence, several commenters around here seem to think he's right.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 9, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Well that's an unnerving fact about a character that on the surface seems so cheerful and innocent-ish. But then again a hero has to have a flaw or two otherwise they aren't as interesting.
It'll be interesting to see how it plays out in the future.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 14, 2009
Curious that you should see that in her; others have found Belle to be a heedless, grandstanding bully, as you can see from the comments here. Personally, I find truth in both views -- and I also find it interesting that multiple people can take such wildly divergent views of the same character. Don't know whether that means I've done my job as a writer or not, but it gives me a certain satisfaction.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
Well I guess you can take that as a sign of a character with multiple dimensions. So maybe you've done a really good job as a writer.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2009
Thank you! :D
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Apr 17, 2009  Hobbyist General Artist
No Problem! And that must be the shortest reply I've seen from you!
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