As he poured himself another drink, Vincent Salucci could almost believe that the Skull was smiling. He glanced at Helmut Arcturion, who still looked nothing like a captive as he sat in Deadeyes chair and tinkered with the intricate contents of an aluminum box the size of a cigarette case. The mans hair wasnt even mussed as he twirled a miniature screwdriver between his fingers. Salucci wondered just what he was working on. Whatever it was, the scientist had a funny look on his face, as though he was enjoying his own private joke.
Your men have done as I requested?
His sinister backers reverberating voice jarred Salucci out of his musings. Yeah. The ones who arent being grilled downtown. He had to work hard to keep the bitterness out of his voice. We hooked the Generator up to the Plazas fuse box, just as you instructed. But I dont know why.
You have no need to know why. All will be revealed soon.
Salucci gestured at the boardroom door. Fine, but whats with the Fed? You never mentioned hed be holed up in my office. One wrong word from him, and well have G-men swarming all over the damned place.
Wrong words, indeed. The Skull chuckled. Worry not. Your precious inside man watches him. When the time comes, the only wrong words he will utter shall be for our enemies ears.
It was one enigma too many. Salucci slurped down his cocktail and resigned himself to eternal ignorance as he thumped heavily into his chair. Its leather upholstery, ostensibly from the finest dealer in the city, came across as slick and slimy against his skin, and the taste of liquor in his mouth made him nauseous. He felt sick, and tired, and more than a little helpless.
Of the six members of the Board of Crime, only three were here. Rando was meek and submissive with his black eye and mussed turban. The Ice Queen had enough makeup kits lined up on the table to choke an Avon lady and was furiously touching up the damage Gum Belle had done to her face. Off in a shadowed corner, barely touched by the Skulls unnaturally bright light, Madame 415 stood as motionless as a paper doll, her features folded into a neutral mask.
Salucci realized, with the crushing heft that only comes with belated insight, that there was no one in the room that he could truly talk to. He could never have a conversation with any of these people about the price of gin on the black market, the hassle of the Flaherty gang over in Midtown, or the pleasure of a quiet evening at home with the radio and a Long Island iced tea. None of these people thought in those terms. Even to Rando, a pompous, overweening coward, such matters were too small to consider. And the inverse was true: the Skulls motives and methods had always been too large for him to comprehend. He had been a child fumbling in a dark closet, and now, he knew, the closet door was locked behind him.
For once, he wished the only other remaining member of the Board was here, but the Hanged Man had arrived with Abrams, given the latter a sealed envelope, then left without so much as a snide remark. No one had seen him since. More likely as not, he was off on one of his little expeditions in the Shingles. Usually, Salucci would be relieved, but right now, he wanted a brother, even a brother as twisted as Vittorio. Instead, he found himself alone, foundering in dark waters.
Such helplessness sparked a reckless bravado in him. Salucci sat back and folded his hands behind his head. Arcturion.
The scientist looked up from his box.
Whats that youre working on?
Arcturion opened his mouth, but it was the Skull who spoke. A unique device that shall channel the power of the Galvanic Generator.
Your greatest invention, huh?
Then why is your prisoner inventing it for you?
For a moment, he had an idea of how it felt to be Vittorio. Everyone, even Madame 415, stared at Salucci in surprise. Even the Skull was momentarily at a loss for words.
The design is my own, Vincent Salucci, but Mr. Arcturion is more familiar with the receiver array. I require his expertise to fine-tune the device. Otherwise, your nightclub may be blown to atoms.
It sounded like bullshit to him, but as wild as he felt right now, Salucci knew better than to press the Skull to hard. He was angry, but not suicidal. How is it going to make the city kneel at your feet? He didnt bother to say our feet.
The Skull didnt bother to contradict him. Wait and see. Is it done?
Arcturion made a few minor twists and jabs with the screwdriver, then nodded. I need only the array.
Salucci thought about the reputed power of the Generator and decided that, were he in the Skulls place, he wouldnt have trusted Arcturions word. For all he knew, Arcturions modifications might have included a self-destruct button for the Plaza Nightclub. Apparently, the Skull came to the same conclusion, for, with a crackle of electricity, his image rose into the air and hovered over the scientists chair, held to his twin projectors by a pair of buzzing lightning bolts. His eye sockets remained empty, but Salucci could feel their scrutiny as they bathed boxs innards in white light. Meanwhile, Arcturion settled in his chair and lit one of his funny-smelling cigarettes. He might as well have been going over his tax records with his accountant.
At last, the Skulls insignia floated back to its usual place. Salucci waited for the light in the room to turn a familiar crimson, but nothing changed, not even the tone of the Skulls voice.
Miss Kolodka, give him the array.
The Ice Queen looked rather put out to be interrupted in the midst of repairing her face, but she dragged herself away from the forest of mirrors and applicators that surrounded her long enough to remove the receiver array from some hidden fold in her fur coat. She slid it across the table to Arcturion. The scientist caught it with two fingers and placed it into a hidden socket that had been squirreled away somewhere within that magic box of his. He closed the lid, screwed it shut, and offered it to the Skull with a polite smile.
A small slot opened in the side of one of the Skulls projectors. Plug it in. There was a dangerous flare of red. Carefully.
The smile vanished from Arcturions face, but he made no other sign that the Skulls warning had affected him as he slid the box into the slot. There was a harsh whisper of metal grinding against metal, a faint, receptive click -- and the slot slammed shut. Arcturion jumped back, sucking his fingers, as the Skulls visage suddenly blazed anew with victorious radiance. Salucci raised a hand to shield his eyes. The Ice Queen flinched away from her mirrors. Rando slid halfway under the table. Even Madame 415 eased away.
at last! My triumph is at hand!
Despite his black mood, Salucci found himself leaning forward. Finally, hed learn just what the Skull was up to. What horrible technology could be lurking inside that innocent steel casing? What secret weapon would be unleashed upon an unsuspecting world? After so much effort and hardship, what would be their reward for their faithful service?
With a tiny bleep sound, the Skull vanished.
Well, Rando said after a moment, that was unexpected.
* * *
I want my lawyer. Gimme my phone call, so I can get my lawyer. Eddie the Rat propped his size-seven shoes on the jail cells mattress and straightened his garish tie with a silky zip. I aint talkin till I get my lawyer.
The detective seated across from him sighed. He had good reason to sigh. Between being emasculated by a Fed at Tomorrow Tower, a Mexican standoff with Gum Belle, and a fruitless search of the riverfront, hed had a long day. Look, Ed -- can I call you Ed?
Can I call you Dick?
He pressed his lips together. The day was getting longer and longer. Ed, your buddies may not be as loyal to the outfit as are. You were the number-two man on this job, which makes you the number-one fall guy. Theyll probably rat you out before your boss pays your bail. No pun intended. Matter of fact, weve got your gorilla of a driver under the hard lights right now. Mulally says hes singing pretty as Judy Garland.
A snort through a snout. Micks too dumb to be a squealer.
It doesnt take much brains to know weve got enough witnesses who saw you with the Generator in your hands to put you away for ten to twenty, easy.
Eddie just grinned. Hed lost one of his front teeth in the crash. So?
So, you have two options. You can talk now, or you can listen to your pal Mick talk in court. Trust me, Ed, its not much of a choice.
Youre right, Dick. It aint much of a choice.
The detective smiled and pulled out a notepad and pencil from his jacket pocket. Eddie beckoned him closer. The pencil hovered over the notepad as visions of promotions and pay raises danced in his head. Whenever youre ready, Ed.
The button man closed his eyes and took a deep breath, his mouth quivering with nerves, then gave a resigned nod. I, Edward Razzio, do hereby confess that I would feel a lot more comfortable with my lawyer around. His eyes snapped open and he spat in the detectives face. Now stop dicking around, Dick, and give me my phone call. I got rights.
The detectives face showed a flicker of frustration before he walled himself off again, but not before Eddie saw it. He gave a gap-toothed sneer as the policeman put his pencil and paper away, pulled out his pocket square, and mopped the spit off his brow and nose.
You win, Mr. Razzio. Bernardo Boccellis using the jail horn right now. When hes done, you can call your mob lawyer. I just hope youre this smug when the judge sends you off to Wardens Cliff. He rapped the barred door with his knuckles. The guard outside rattled a key around until it opened.
He had just stepped through when the jail door crashed open. There was a rattling boom of steel on brick as a broad-shouldered man in a bowler hat and bloodstained shirtsleeves stormed down the hall. The side of his square-jawed face was a crimson mask, and as he stomped up to them, the detective saw that he had patched a square-folded handkerchief onto his cheek with a few ragged squares of duct tape. He flipped open his wallet and flashed them a badge.
Ricketts, FBI. His voice was a ragged growl. Im here to see the Rat. So stop breathing through your mouth and get out of my way.
The detectives dismay gave way to distaste. The Feds had already given him the brush once today. He wasnt about to let it happen again. Hes under state custody. He drew himself to his full height and ignored the fact that he still had to look up into the G-mans eyes. Unless you can give me something more official than that tin star, Im going to have to ask you to leave.
Ricketts scowled and thrust his wallet into his pocket. So long as youre asking, he said, then took a step forward and broadsided the detective with a cannonball left hook. The detective fell like an officious brick as the guard fumbled for the nightstick at his belt. Ricketts bobbed to the side and kneaded the mans intestines with his right fist. The guard made a sound like a hyperventilating hippopotamus and collapsed.
The jail erupted into a chorus of hoots and jeers as the other prisoners capered in vicarious delight. Ricketts ignored them and stepped into Eddies cell, rolling his left shoulder with a grunt. Maybe it was his height, maybe it was the cold, hard expression on his bloody face, but the lone ranger looked a lot scarier than the detective had been. Eddie took a last measurement of him, and concluded that the deciding factor was, in fact, the fists. He decided to play things a little nicer.
Whatever I did, Im sorry, honest, I am. Just dont --
Ricketts took his tie in one hand and hauled him to his feet. By the short end. Eddies face turned purple as his tie tightened into a silk noose with bad fashion sense.
I dont give a damn if youre sorry or not, Eddie. Rickettss face was a furious mask of crusted blood and barred shadows. Wheres the Hanged Man?
Eddie gasped, but out of surprise more than suffocation. Why?
Wrong answer, Ed. Ricketts stomped the crooks feet flat against the floor, braced him against the wall with one hand, then yanked back on the tie with the other. Eddie made a gargling noise that would have been a scream on a good day.
No one goes looking for the Hanged Man. The last guys who did never came back.
How do you know?
Because -- ack -- because I sent them there. His face started to turn black.
Ricketts dropped him. Eddie fell with all his usual grace and aplomb, which meant that he lay in a fetal heap, coughing and wheezing. But he still found the energy to scramble back as Rickettss shadow advanced on him. Beneath his bowler hat, the G-mans expression was hard and terrible.
Dont think this is over. I just didnt want you to black out, he said quietly. Eddies eyes bulged with terror. Tell me where you sent those men, before I make you wish I had.
The crook raised his skinny paws and begged like a good boy. Okay, okay! Hes in the Shingles. Theres this tenement he burned down years ago; hes turned it into his own little chamber of horrors. I hear he kills people there, that he does terrible things to them. That he makes them entertain him before he lets them die.
The G-man clenched his fists and his jaw. Why doesnt anyone do something about it?
Dammit, hes the Hanged Man. Only his brother and the Skull can do anything about him, and they know what would happen if they didnt let him blow off steam once in a while. Hell, you saw what happens when he gets antsy. He shoved you into a bus. He sat up, rubbing his throat. Besides, he only takes the ones who wont be missed.
Ricketts punched him in the face. Eddie yelped as his lips went red. Something white and crimson clattered to the concrete floor: his other incisor. Aw, nuth.
Ricketts grabbed him by the chin and yanked his face up so that could look each other in the eye. When Salucci pays your bail, he snarled, you tell the Hanged Man he took the wrong one. You tell him Im going to make him wish hed died at the gallows. And you tell him Im going to make what Slouch Hat did to your outfit look like a pat on the back. He wrenched the button man forward, until his blunt nose almost touched Eddies twitching one. You hear me?
Eddie gulped. It was as close as he could come to a nod.
Ricketts snarled and shoved him away. The back of Eddies head hit the brick wall with a sound like a walnut bouncing off a block of granite.
The G-man walked out into the hallway. The other prisoners had gone silent. Their eyes followed him with shadowed fear. Something uncomfortable twisted in his gut, and he tried not to think about all the laws he had just broken. There wasnt time for such niceties. He closed the cell door and crouched down, fumbling for the guards key ring so he could lock it behind him.
Then the lights went out.
* * *
There wasnt much by way of conversation at the moment. Belles frozen expression of shock and terror was something of a buzz-killer, especially since there were no more beans left. Whiskey Jack was sprawled out on the ground, snoring. Esmeralda played with her dog-eared deck of tarot cards. Scratch had wandered off somewhere, grumbling. Tubby stirred the fire with a rusty iron rail. He watched as a dripping Bum Frank shivered like an overworked wind-up toy and chipped away at the ice with the sharp nib of the fountain pen that he usually used to write to the boss.
You never told me you work for a block of frozen rubber, Tubby mused.
Frank stopped long enough to defend his reputation. Its nih-nuh-not wuh-wuh-work, he said through chattering teeth. I h-h-help the buh-boss because I wuh-want to.
Is that why you call her boss?
Frank rubbed his benumbed arms and retuned to digging a hole in the ice. The fire had shrunk it down to only a few inches in thickness, and it was sweating hard. Maybe, if he could just get through to her, the boss could work herself free and he could get back to dying of pneumonia.
There was a glassy crackle from the ice, and he felt the nib sink into something that felt like hard-serve ice cream. Frank pulled it out and noticed a little dab of frosty pink on the tip. With a gulp, he risked a glance at the bosss face. Sure enough, there was a nice little gouge scooped out of her nose. Frank winced. Suh-sorry, boss.
There was a rush of dusty, scrambling footfalls from the beyond the campfires edge, and a panting Scratch rushed up to them, one of his ragged mutts hot on his heels. Its incredible, he panted.
Esmeralda stopped her tarot hand in mid-deal. What?
See for yourself. Come on!
He ran back into the night. Tubby and Esmeralda hurried after him. After a moments indecision, Frank sheathed his pen and followed.
Beyond the heat and light of the fire, the darkness was unusually thick and pure. Beneath its shroud, the rivers ghost clawed at his innards. Franks breathing came in shallow, wet gasps, and the shadows draped around him like algae. He was just about to sit down and take a rest when he thought he saw a glimmer of reflected light from one of Esmeraldas many brass bangles. When he stumbled in that direction, he came across an overturned boxcar. As his eyes adjusted to the light, he fancied he saw three figures standing atop its buckled side. Frank began to drag itself up to join them, using the ruined cars axle and undercarriage as handholds. He could feel rust smearing itself across his palms and fingers as he climbed. He heard Esmeraldas voice. It was hushed and terrified.
Whats happening to it?
Its finally getting what it deserves, Tubby replied. He sounded as though he had just lost a son.
Either Frank was close enough to be seen, or he must have made more noise than he thought, because Scratchs hand groped out of the darkness, found his wrist, and pulled him up to join them. Frank sat down for a moment to catch his breath.
Then he stood up, and it hissed right out of him again.
Miles away, across the river, lay the city, sprawled out before him like a jewel of steel and glass, lit from within by the glow from a million bulbs of crystal, wire and gas. It blazed the darkness away with a thousand garish colors and a hundred sculpted shapes. Creatures of science and industry scurried and swam through its body; headlights scampered down asphalt arteries; wheeled serpents twisted along elevated capillaries, their bodies dotted with electric-lit windows like urban camouflage. Frank had never bothered to look at the city as a whole before. It filled him with such hope and dismay that he forgot the gnawing cold creeping toward his heart. It was a crass, beautiful thing, a brilliant whore of a town. It and the boss deserved one another.
And it was dying.
The light was leaving, all across the city. From the radiant diamond penthouse atop Tomorrow Tower, to the guttering shantytowns in the Shingles, the colors and the brilliance, the life and the wonder, was being snuffed out, window by window, floor by floor, bulb by bulb. Skyscrapers vanished before his eyes. The searching rays of spotlights were swept aside like overwhelmed sentries as the night rushed in to claim its own once more. The trains slowed, then stopped. Frank saw tiny shapes, little more than shadow puppets, waving and rushing about in wordless fear, before they flickered away. Now, only the cars remained. Frank heard their horns, rendered strangely mournful and desperate by the distance, as a hundred accidents crunched and crashed together without the streetlamps to keep them apart. Soon, their lamps winked out, too, and the city became a screaming corpse.
Jesus, he breathed. He fumbled in his pocket for the crystal radio hed found down by the Bijou palace after the mob boys had let him go. It didnt work so well any more -- something had burned out in it -- but maybe there was a station still up somewhere. The clipped, urgent voice of the newscaster would be a sign, that there was still hope, that there was civilization, that there was still a chance.
Instead, there was a blazing pain in his hand, and Frank dropped the radio as though it was a hot coal. Something white and painful flashed against his eyes, and as he blinked the spots away, he saw the radio lying on its side, glowing with a harsh blue-white glare that rippled and moved like nothing he had ever seen. In the distance, windows across the city wavered back to unlife with the same ghastly corpse light, creeping like a fog from a million radio sets. It was as though a black magician had held the metropolis up to a still pool of dark water and dropped a pebble into the reflection. Frank shuddered. He wanted it to go away.
the Phantom Skull!
The voice was deep and cavernous, dripping with smug superiority and contempt. It came from somewhere near his feet. Frank looked down and saw that the radios dial had lit up and was spinning wildly, as though trying to tune in to every station at once. The Phantom Skulls too-large voice boomed from its tiny speaker.
As of this moment, your city is mine. I control my birthright, the Galvanic Generator. I control your electricity. I control your lives. You shall serve me, as you once served Helmut Arcturion and his fools dreams. Resist, and my power shall render you to atoms.
The four of them stood there in stunned silence for a second. It was Esmeralda, of all people, who spoke up first. Nut job.
I believe a preemptive demonstration is in order. Perhaps the Skull heard them. Perhaps he could hear everyone. Perhaps he just liked to hear himself speak. His clangorous voice rumbled with humorless laughter. Please, ladies and gentlemen, remain in your seats and witness
The ghostly glow on the radio winked out, as did the swamp-light city that the Skull had conjured. The winos congress shifted uneasily on the boxcar.
Nice job, Esmeralda, said Scratch. You pissed him off.
Its not my fault --
An earsplitting crack drowned out the rest of her words, as though someone had just let unwrapped a case of thunder at their feet. The boxcar trembled beneath them as a writhing tentacle of pure white light as big around as a brownstone streaked up from somewhere in the city and into the sky, where it dissolved into a gauzy screen of the same witchfire that had appeared around Franks radio. For what felt like an eternity, it hovered above the buildings like a sinister fog, until it sparked and shrank in upon itself, brightening into the horrid sigil of a grinning skull.
And then the lightning rained down.
A dozen or more pillars of electricity, streaming into the city like roots into the ground, jittering and snapping for longer than an instant, longer than a second, pouring God only knew how much deadly energy with doomsday precision at specific points spread out all over town.
What is he doing? Tubby whispered.
Frank had been in the city longer than any of them, and he knew it like the holes in his socks. Even from a distance, he could tell which buildings were where, right down to the butcher shop on Ninth and Ransom that gave out day-old stew meat to the first four hobos at the back door every Friday. Hed been hauled to every one of those locations on the Skulls hit list at some point in his vagrant career. He knew them all. An uncontrollable shiver scampered down his spine. It had nothing to do with pneumonia.
The precinct stations, he said. Hes hitting the cops. All of them.
* * *
Ricketts hadnt had the good fortune to hear the stations radio, although hed caught a hint of a rumbling voice and a note of mocking laughter. But hed seen the rippling white glow from the jailhouse door. There had been a glimpse of terrified inmates, a wavering multifaceted glow from the street outside, and then hed been plunged back into darkness again, blinking away the greenish-purple ghosts of ghosts. Whatever was going on, it wasnt good. It sounded like most of the stationhouse had rushed outside to watch the spectacle. Ricketts felt vaguely embarrassed at their green attitude. You never ran into danger. Unless you were Belle, of course, and she wasnt here. The mere mortals handled business first.
His hand fell on a cold, jingling circle of steel. He picked it up and held it in front of his eyes. It was the guards key ring. Palming it, he reached back and felt around for Eddies cell door.
It wasnt there. Ricketts snapped his head around. Through the spots before his eyes, he saw that the door was standing wide open.
And there was no sign of Eddie.
Something hard smashed him at the base of the skull. Ricketts fell over, weak as a serial plot. The keys were pried from his limp fingers, and he saw Eddie standing over him, panting, the guards nightstick in his hand, a terrified expression on his face in spite of his triumph. He ran off, the keys rattling as he started to unlock the cells. Thuggish whoops and pounding feet were everywhere as the men who had pulled off the crime of the century ran to freedom. He heard the meaty slap of fisticuffs as they ambushed the cops outside. A fresh-faced patrolman fell to the ground just outside the barred window, bleeding from a broken nose.
Ricketts wasnt doing much better. As he lugged himself to his feet, his head felt like a bag of pulverized bricks, and the lacerated side of his face was disconcertingly numb. He staggered for the front office and the telephone. He had to call this in. Maybe the other precincts would be able to round up the boys before they got back to Salucci.
Thunder exploded in his ears. Ricketts winced as he picked up the phone and held it to his ear, but there was no dial tone.
There was no reply. Had the thunder deafened him? Ricketts jiggled the cradle; the rattle of cheap technology came through loud and clear. He decided to try again.
Operator, this is a Federal emergency, please respond. Operator!
Nothing. Not even a crackle. Ricketts slammed the handset down in frustration and turned to leave.
That was when the lightning struck the stationhouse.
Blinding brilliance burst through the windows, evaporating wood and glass as it streamed in. Ricketts saw the silhouette of the fresh-faced patrolman for a blinks blink, before it disintegrated in a rush of glowing electricity. Every outlet in the room started spraying sparks like a Fourth of July celebration, and the temperature in the room skyrocketed as gray ash started to crumble from the ceiling. It used to be plaster.
Ricketts ran. He could see the individual bricks in the wall, limned in reddish-white light as some terrible and familiar force burned them away. The cuffs of his shirt and pants caught fire, and there was the smoldering stench of his own burning hair. He staggered for the jail wing, meaning to pull the detective and the guard away, but there was a buzzing rip in the air, and the jail was gone, just like that.
The ceiling began to tear itself away. The heat was suffocating. Ricketts dodged a falling light fixture as he scrambled for a rear door. The knob was brass, and tiny threads of lightning hopped from its hinges and danced across its surface. Ricketts kicked at the wood with all his might, and it splintered away, down a flight of steep pine stairs. He lunged after it, squeezing his eyes shut against the searing heat. His last thoughts were of Ted. Please, oh, please, oh, please, oh, please, let me see him again --
The stationhouse exploded.
* * *
Dont miss the next exciting chapter of
GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD:
THE SECRET GUARDIAN!