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"Vincent Salucci, prepare for war."

"War? Against her? Are you kidding?" Vincent Salucci's eyes threatened to pop out of their sockets. "We just watched this skirt go toe-to-toe with Madame 415 while you cooked her with your secret weapon -- and she still won."

The Ice Queen caressed his shoulder, fingers like tapered icicles through the fabric of his suit. "You forget, darling," she purred, "that I am twice the woman that Oriental laundress was. I have defeated the Cossack before; I will do it again. For you." She smiled, almost warmly; Salucci tried to smile back. "I'm sure you can, Krasavitza, but…"

Her smile grew frosty. "But what, darling?"

Rando stepped forward. "What our esteemed host is trying to say, Miss Kolodka, is that your past victory over our adaptable adversary was…less than permanent." His piggy eyes gleamed. "Isn't that right, Mr. Salucci?"

The Ice Queen's sharp-boned face hardened, and her icicle fingers clamped bitterly on Salucci's shoulder. "Rando, you corpulent little troll. Vincent would never suggest such a thing." Her ice-chip eyes narrowed. "Would you, Vincent?"

"Of course not," he said quickly.

She kissed him on the cheek and left gooseflesh behind. Rando scowled beneath his oiled mustache.

Meanwhile, Salucci tried to get a word in edgewise. "Skull, I damn near got a riot on my hands. Everyone saw the lights go on, and most of them stayed in school long enough to put two and two together. I can count on my own men, but the rest are ready to bolt. What am I supposed to tell them?"

"That it was all part of the plan. Inform your antisocial associates that I have restored the city's power as a sign of victory and a token of my munificence. Tell them that when Gum Belle arrives -- in the grandest fashion possible, for she is as predictable as she is narcissistic -- they shall have the pleasure of finishing her off."

"Now hold on a second. I don't see what a roomful of gats is going to do to that…thing."

The Skull's spectral grin seemed to widen; nearby, Ricketts felt a dryness in his throat. The big thinker obviously knew something, and couldn't be good.

"Gum Belle's trials today have cost her much. Madame 415 nearly eliminated her with simple physical damage. Your bullets, although less elegant, should work just as well. Once she has suffered sufficient physical trauma --"

"-- it shall be my turn to crush her." The Ice Queen flashed her sharp, white teeth in a ferocious grin. "Come along, Vincent; I want to listen to you another of your magnificent speeches."

With a commanding look at Salucci, she held out her arm. He took it with a resigned expression, and they left the conference room together, followed closely by Eddie and Mick. Rando stared hotly after them, but a commanding rumble from the Skull made him whirl back to attention.

"Rando, in the remote chance that Miss Kolodka's enthusiasm proves insufficient to the task, our flexible foewoman may yet reach this, my innermost sanctum. In that event, I shall rely on you to restrain her." His empty eye sockets crackled dangerously. "Do I make myself clear?"

Rando's face went cheesy and pale. "Crystal, sir," he croaked.

"Good." His empty gaze turned to Ricketts. "With any luck, Agent Ricketts, you may yet witness my triumph in person."

Ricketts tried to put on a brave face. "Bully for me."

                                                         * * *

The searchlight was coming around again. Bum Frank ducked behind a trash bin as its beam swept across the mouth of the alley. After it passed, he poked his head up and returned to watching the Plaza Nightclub. The boss was counting on him. Before she left to stop the Skull, she had asked him to return the G-Man's coat for her, then to come here and keep an eye on things, and that was exactly what he was going to do. Even if he didn't want to do it.

He wanted to do good by her this time, because the coat job had been a bust. It had taken all his courage to scurry through the darkened streets, and he'd had to hustle when a few rioters caught sight of him and decided to play kick-the-can, starring his can as the can. He'd lost them in the end, only to find that the G-Man's boy wasn't at home, like the boss said he'd be.

He had started to search the apartment, just in case the boy was hiding (Frank was very good at sniffing out good hiding places), but some crazy cat lady and a couple of wild Russian kids had rushed in, screamed something about an emergency action committee, then started smacking him with random household objects. Frank had taken a broom to the face, a table-tennis paddle to the shins, and someone named Taft had hit him in the chest with a furry cannonball. That had been his cue to seek greener pastures.

Now he was hiding in an alley watching a mob front and hiding from an oversized glim every forty-five seconds. Some pasture.

The first thing he had noticed was that the electricity was still on. It wasn't obvious: the neon sign had been shut off, the curtains were drawn, and it seemed that the lights had been turned down enough to resemble flickering candles. Except for the gorillas disguised as doormen outside, anyone passing by would think the Plaza was held hostage, just like the rest of the city.

But Frank was a survivor, and he relied on more than just his eyes. He could hear the band playing and smell the rich flavors of gourmet food. It sounded like New Year's in there. With the city shut down, who wanted to party, unless they were backing the blackout?

The party hadn't lasted long, though. First that Irish mobbie, Flaherty, had left. Then, not more than fifteen minutes later, the Skull in the sky had wavered and vanished, like one of those cartoon chemistry poison clouds, and the lights had popped back on, all over the city.

The searchlight mounted on the Plaza's roof had up started not long after that. It was a big industrial number, the kind that Frank had always imagined next to the red carpet at one of those Hollywood premieres. Salucci normally waved it around to attract business. Now it was sweeping the street as if it were mounted on a prison guard tower instead of a swank night spot. Frank had spotted the glint of steel at the roof's edge, and he guessed that there were snipers ready to back the gorillas out front if anyone decided to make trouble. Every time the light splashed its electric eye across the wall of the alley, he grew more and more nervous. He'd do anything for the boss, but this situation wasn't helping his allergy to guns any.

Maybe it was time to let discretion carry the day again. Frank had nothing against discretion -- it was his strongest virtue, after all -- and surely the boss wouldn't mind, so long as he left her a note before he left. He started to rummage through his pockets for a pen and some paper, first in the G-man's borrowed coat, then his ratty old standby that he still wore underneath.

There was a sound behind him, a cross between a falling sheet and creaking leather, and a hand clapped him on the shoulder with enough force to knock him down. "Hey, Frank, what's up?"

He jumped three feet straight up. The hand stayed on his shoulder, gripped him with soft strength, and set him down gently. Gasping, Frank sank down against a trash bin. The hand put two gloved fingers against his forehead, and a concerned pink-scrubbed face dangled upside-down in front of his face. Its brows wrinkled behind its domino mask.

"You're burning up, Frank." The boss paused to blow a quick bubble, popped it, slurped it back in. "You look like you've seen a ghost."

Her neck and wrist trailed up above him. Looking up, he saw the rest of her clambering down the fire escape like an octopus. "Sorry boss, it's just that you sure know how to sneak up on a guy."

The boss's head zipped up as she jumped down to the alley, bouncing lightly on her heels before coming to a stop six inches away from him. She smacked at her gum and aimed a look of wry concern in his general direction.

"Yeesh, Frank, calm down. I'm not the Bride of Frankenstein. Although…" She screwed up her face in concentration, and her hair twirled up into a blonde version of Elsa Lanchester's famous look, complete with red lightning-bolt accents. She quirked her head to one side, giving him a good profile shot. "Whaddayathink?"

The searchlight was sweeping back around. Frank grabbed the boss by the arm and yanked her down next to him. Her plush body gave against his.

"Why, Frankie, I never knew you felt that way." She gave him a sly look and patted her horror-themed hairdo. "It looks that good on me, huh?"

He started to explain about the searchlight, but she gave an oversized yawn and waved him off.

"Why are you being such a party pooper, Frankie?" She made a huffy sound and the blonde soufflé on her head collapsed impatiently. "The Skull and his buddies lost. Now, all I have to do is play clean-up." She popped both her gum and her knuckles with ravenous glee.

"Easier said than done, boss," he said. "Even if you get past the spot, Salucci's holed up in there real good, with an army of gangsters."

"An army?" She paused, blinked, then hopped to her feet and wrapped her arm around his. She was grinning like a maniac. "Is today the best day ever, or what? C'mon!"

She started to drag him towards the street. Frantically, Frank dug in his heels and clawed at her arm. It was like trying to tear Silly Putty.

"Now, hold up, boss! I ain't bulletproof, y'know!"

She groaned like a grade-schooler who has to wait for her parents to finish eating so they can take her to the circus. "All right, all right. We'll sneak in. God!"

He gulped. "We?"

Her arm began to unwind from his, then stopped. He felt her fingers slither over the fabric of his sleeve, freeze, then tighten like slender nooses.

"Are you wearing Lionel's coat?" she asked him in a dangerously soft voice.

He shrank back. "It's cold out here."

"I told you to give it to Ted!"

"It's not my fault, boss," he whined. "He wasn't home."

She twisted her neck around to glare at him. "So you just kept it? What kind of sidekick are you?"

"Sidekick?"

"Well, you're not my partner, that's for darned sure. My partner wouldn't disrespect the dead."

The boss puffed up like an angry bullfrog, then shrank back down with a sigh.

"Sorry, Frank. I'm just…tired. We'll find Ted later. Right now, we have to make sure that the Skull doesn't hurt anyone else."

He gulped again. "We?"

But she was already staring off into the distance, thinking. As the searchlight swung around again, he noticed how threadbare her uniform looked, how her hair had lost some of its luster and bounce. Even her skin seemed a little worn out, thinner, like onionskin.

"Boss," he asked tentatively, "are you sure you're all right?"

She grinned. "Nope!" Suddenly, her neck shot forward like a piston, pressing her face a fraction of an inch from his own.

"I hope you like that coat, Frank, because you're going to work for it."

                                                         * * *

Several minutes later, a figure stumbled out of the alley. The searchlight jerked to a stop The rooftop snipers hefted their guns. One of the gorillas stepped forward and called out a friendly greeting:

"Move and you're dead!"

The figure shakily raised its hands. The gorilla squinted. It was a man, and although the searchlight bleached out his features, he had the unmistakable air of a hobo. He wore a heavy wool coat that looked a few sizes too large for him; its dark fabric was at odds with its red satin lining.

"Hey, buddy, you got any grub?" the hobo asked in a quavery voice. "There's a depression on, y'know."

The gorilla jerked his thumb impatiently at one of the Plaza's side alleys. As the hobo started to stagger off in that direction, he suddenly remembered something Mr. Salucci had told him. "Wait a minute, buddy."

The hobo froze. His eyes darted towards his coat, then flashed back up.

"You seen that crazy rubber dame from the papers anywhere around?"

For a moment, it seemed at a loss for words. Then he staggered drunkenly and shrugged. "Nope, but I seen plenty of pink elephants."

The gorilla guffawed. "I bet you have, old-timer. Get a move on, before I change my mind."

The hobo waved, then wavered into the side alley. The gorilla let him go, unaware that he had just missed the biggest catch of his life.

                                                         * * *

While Frank rooted around in the side alley trash, a contralto whisper floated up from inside his coat. "Is the coast clear?"

"Just a sec." He wiped a meatball clean on his trousers leg and sat down down on the kitchen stoop, then ran his eyes along the roofline as he popped the meatball into his mouth. "Looks wide open to me, boss," he whispered. "You were right; they think I'm just a sad sack who's down on his luck."

"Isn't that what you are?"

"Nope. I'm a sidekick."

A satiny red tendril wormed up from his collar, molded itself into an ear, and pressed itself to the door. "It sounds pretty quiet. I'm going in. On the count of three. One…two…three!"

Frank lurched to his feet and made a big show of yawning, his back still pressed to the door. As the hem of his coat lifted above the ground, the red satin lining silently pulled away from the inside of his coat, puddled on the asphalt for a split second, then slithered under the door.

The boss was in. Frank polished off his meatball and walked off down the alley. It took every shred of courage he had not to run.

When the fireworks started, he wanted to be as far away as possible.

                                                         * * *

There was a laundry hamper near the door. Gum Belle slipped inside, just another piece of fabric among many, and was quickly disappointed. All the clothes here were white. Where was the variety? It was like when Henry Ford said that the Model T came in any color you could want, so long as it was black. Well, not everyone wanted black. Or white. Some people wanted red. Maybe a little gold.

Oh, well. If she had to debase herself to wearing real clothes as a disguise, at least she could tart it up a little. One of the perks of her unique condition was that she didn't have to be too picky about her measurements. In a few minutes, she climbed out of the hamper wearing a white cocktail dress that was just on the wrong side of decent, with a figure that filled it out a bit more generously than usual and enough gold jewelry to choke a pawn shop. No one had been considerate enough to leave any shoes in the hamper, but she molded herself a pair of heels in deepest shade of red she could manage. They weren't quite black, but they'd be close enough to pass a casual glance.

Slurping her hair up into a short bob in case anyone was on the lookout for her signature style, she set off through the kitchen. The cooks were too busy to give her a second glance, which she found a little disappointing; even one catcall would have been nice. Some people just didn't appreciate good taste.

She had just reached the door to the main dining room when it rattled open and a brunette girl in a dress that matched hers and a tray around her neck nearly ran smack into her.

"Thank God you're here," the brunette said. "You're just in time."

Gum Belle fluffed her hair and smiled eagerly. "Well, I have been known to save the day now and again." Then her brain hiccupped like an old engine, and her smile flipped over. "Waitaminnit. Just in time for what?"

"To take over for me. I gotta use the ladies' room." She paused, her eyes suddenly tight around the corners. She leaned in closer, peering at her. "I don't think I've seen you here before."

"Uh…"

"New hire, huh? You must be one of Mr. Salucci's one-night stands."

Gum Belle did her best guilty-as-charged grin and held off on punching the brunette's face in. One-night stand?

"Well, don't worry, fresh meat." The brunette lifted the tray from around her neck and looped its strap around Gum Belle's. "Just push the souvenirs, keep acting trampy, and you'll do fine. Don't pester Mr. Salucci; he's with a real high-stepper tonight, and she's liable to bite your head off. Oh, and for future reference, we wear white heels on the job," she added as she ducked into the nearest restroom.

"Sorry; I threw on whatever I could come up with -- hey, whaddayamean trampy?"

But the brunette was gone. Oh, well. She'd been called worse. Cossack, for instance. And now she had a cover job while she searched for the Skull. Throwing her head back, she stepped through the kitchen doors and into the dining room.

Wild horses would never have dragged it from her, but Gum Belle had always wanted to spend an evening at the Plaza. It might be a mob front, but it was still the classiest club in town, even when it was lit by candlelight. The glittering white tablecloths, the coiling alabaster columns, the gleaming marble floor -- it was the world's most perfect dollhouse, and she wanted it. Girls in uniforms just like hers (except for those stupid heels) flitted between tables, chatting with tuxedoed customers. Most of them had trays like hers. Several sold stuffed animals on sticks, others hawked snacks or cigarettes. Waiters glided in and out of the kitchen bearing plates of delicious-smelling grub. A bartender at the back was pouring drinks as fast as he could line up glasses. The air was alive with the clink of silverware and glass and rough-edged streetwise lingo, and the band was really swinging; Salucci must have spent a fortune on them. Gum Belle found herself tapping her foot and stopped herself, but not before she felt a big, happy grin break out on her face. Why couldn't crime-fighting and nightclubbing go together more often?

A waiter almost ran her over on his way to the kitchen, and she remembered that she was supposed to be pushing whatever was in her tray. What was it, now? She looked down, squinting in the dim light, and saw little boxy packets…too small to be cigarettes, too short to be cigars. She held one up to the light, read the label, and her grin stretched almost unnaturally wide.

Gangbusters.

Seconds later, she was skipping between tables, bawling at the top of her lungs. "CHEWIN' GUM! GETCHER CHEWIN' GUM! TEN CENTS A PACK! BIGGEST DAMN CHEWIN' BUBBLES IN TOWN!"

Gum Belle blew a whopper, glanced around to see if anyone had caught on, then shrugged and slurped it back into her mouth, smacking it loudly as she leaned over an olive-skinned man playing poker. "HEY, MISTER! YA WANNA BUY SOME CHEWIN' GUM?" she shouted, right into his ear.

The olive-skinned man jumped in his seat and almost dropped his cards. He glared at her, raised his hand as if to smack her, then reeled his composure back in and flipped her a dollar coin. "One pack for each of us, dollface. Keep the change."

"Thanks!"

"Don't mention it. Just do me a favor and bug the Andrelli boys at that table by the bar. I hate those guys, and you're the most annoying skirt I've seen in months."

Gum Belle saluted him. "Can do, sir. Lookie! Free magic show." She held up the dollar, spun it between her fingers, made it vanish with a quick wave of her wrist. "Ta-daaa!"

The other gangsters grinned and applauded. In between bows, she dealt out their packets of gum. As she turned to leave, she clapped the olive-skinned man on the shoulder and smiled. "By the way, nice seven high there, dollface."

His friends gave her a dime tip each.

A few tables later, she had about six bucks in change rattling around at the bottom of her tray. The tips were nice, the attention was even better, but what really sent her over the edge was the people. Everywhere she turned, Gum Belle saw faces she recognized. Faces from newspapers, newsreels, and magazines. Jazz Man Jones, Bruno Boccelli, Magpie Mario, Tiny Tim, the Black Widow…the only big shot that she didn't see was Michael Flaherty. Annabelle Zarkov had girl friends, like Pearl, who read the film trades and cooed over Bing Crosby, Clark Gable, and Cary Grant. She supposed that she felt the same way they did now, only Gum Belle wanted to split her celebrities' lips instead of smooching them. Her mouth watered; it was like Christmas in here. She didn't know which present to unwrap and stomp flat first.

But not yet. Not yet. If she started to bust up the joint before she found the Skull, the biggest present of all might turn out to be a lump of coal. She didn't see him anywhere, but that wasn't too surprising; old Skully seemed like the sort of guy who fought from the rear (har har).

The band finished up its set, the crowd applauded, and the dance floor cleared. Gum Belle, who had just pulled a pack of gum out of an amused "Shark" Meglo's ear, perked up when she saw who was striding up to the microphone onstage. It was Salucci himself, looking every bit as dapper as Frank had described him. She even recognized the scars on his cheeks. They crinkled as he grinned at his friends.

"Okay, folks, it's the witching hour, and everyone's favorite rubbernecker isn't here yet. Maybe her coach turned into a pumpkin?"

Shark guffawed. Gum Belle scowled as she edged away from the table. Let the funny man crack wise; it would take only a few moments for her to make it to the stage, and then she'd see how funny he really --

"Luckily for us, if she isn't here to put on a show, I know some other ladies who will."

He gave a sharp whistle, and Gum Belle saw the cocktail girls make a beeline for the stage. The mobsters whooped and cheered. Much like them, she was good enough at math to put two and two together: there was some sort of floor show coming on. She felt a thrill of excitement. Annabelle Zarkov had always been a bit (well, maybe a lot) of a wallflower, and Gum Belle had always been too busy to go out on the town. She had never seen a floor show before, much less starred in one.

Salucci had already backed out of the spotlight, but she could still make out his white-jacketed form standing next to a fountain shaped like a mermaid pouring water out of an urn. Gum Belle bit her lip and glanced around. No one had seen her hesitate yet. She could circle around, tackle Salucci, beat the Skull's hidey-hole out of him while everyone was distracted…

But then she wouldn't be a star.

Saving the day could wait. She bounded forward, making sure to smack Shark in the back of the head with the corner of her tray. "Sorry!" she chirped over her shoulder, then elongated her stride by inches to catch up with the other girls, who were rummaging around at the bottom of their trays just out of the spotlight. She followed suit, and saw a panel at the bottom. She flipped it open and saw a cheap blonde wig, a red Bakelite headband, and a matching sequin-studded domino mask.

She giggled madly. Oh, this was going to be good.

They put their trays down next to the bandstand, put on the wigs, headbands, and masks, then the other girls started to strip out of their dresses. The crowd wolf-whistled and stomped its feet.

Gum Belle was momentarily puzzled -- sure, she was a bit of an exhibitionist, but no way was she giving these creeps a free show -- until she glimpsed the sequined red-and-gold leotards underneath the dresses. She gulped. Of course, the inconsiderate floozy who had left her this disguise had neglected to leave her a costume to go with it.

But there was no way out of it now; if she backed out, all her painstaking undercover work and exceptional tip-gathering would be for naught. The girls were already halfway out of their dresses. Gum Belle wriggled madly to match them, avoiding a few elastic shortcuts only because she didn't want to spook anyone -- yet. She cobbled together a costume in her head, felt it bubble up on her skin like sequined gooseflesh as shimmied the dress down to her ankles. It was easy to match what the others had on -- after all, she wore outfit that theirs was based on pretty much every night.

No more time; the girls were already trooping out onstage. A quick kick, and Gum Belle's dress flew off into the tables, where it landed with a roar of lust from the crowd. She blew them a kiss, struck them a quick pose, and hopped onto the stage, where she met with all the right attention from all the wrong people.

She had so made the right choice.

The band segued into a sleazy, vampy melody. The girls formed up into a Rockettes-style dance line and started to sing. Gum Belle mouthed along like a champ.

Strike up the band, turn on the lights,
And keep your eyes on us.
We've got you bad boys dead to rights,
This bubble is a bust!

Put up your hands, put down your guns,
And come along with us.
We've got you villains on the run,
This bubble is a bust!

Don't you fuss, and don't you fight.
We're here to take you in (you finks!)
You've been naughty, now you're caughty,
Cuz evil never wins (we think!)

So give up the ghost, throw in the towel,
And don't make such a fuss.
We've got you mobbies in the bag,
This bubble is a bust!
They broke out of the line and sashayed through the room, mussing hair, tickling chins, thumping tables with their hips. Gum Belle winked and waved and started to circle around to Salucci, who was barely twenty feet away. Soon she'd be close enough to kiss him -- or break his nose. She made a face when she saw that the Ice Queen was with him, and doing her best impression of a leech by trying to suck his face off. Gross! When the two of them came up for air, she noted with some satisfaction that the Ice Queen had enough makeup pancaked over that black eye of hers to keep a French mime in business for years. With any luck, a bit of it would be punched off her face by the end of the night.

                                                         * * *

Vincent Salucci tried not to shiver as Krasavitza cuddled against him and smiled as he watched his guests have a good time. It looked like this evening might be salvaged after all.

His speech had gone off great. Desperation had made him eloquent and his guests gullible. The mesmerized Abrams was now applying pressure to the mayor, explaining that the Skull had turned the power back on to soothe the rioters, but that he could just as easily shut it off again if the city didn't capitulate. It was a bluff, but it had worked; they were already hammering out terms.

Even better, Gum Belle hadn't made an entrance yet. The way Salucci figured it, that meant she was too dumb to realize that stopping the Skull was still in the game. By the time she did, the city would be theirs legally, and she would be an outlaw. At that point, it would only be a matter of time until they corralled her.

Just about the only thing that bothered him was the Hanged Man. His brother hadn't been seen all night. Usually, that meant he was off committing "fun" in the Shingles, but Ricketts had said something about his son, and that worried Salucci. Vittorio could pick any urchin off the street and mutilate him, but he had gone after the G-Man's boy. Why?

A silk-gloved hand rose like silver smoke and caressed his cheek. "Smile, darling. It is the eve of battle. You may not live to see another day."

Salucci felt a frown on his face and perked it back up. "I'm sorry, Krasavitza. I was just thinking."

"Your apology is accepted." She ground her hips against his, and the whole side of his body went numb. "But why must you put on this awful display? It makes me sick to see so many…Cossacks."

"I paid for the outfits when Gum Belle first hit the news," he shrugged. "I figured it would make a fun show."

She sniffed and leaned back against the mermaid fountain, tugging off one glove with a whisper of silk on skin. "Your lack of taste appalls me, Vincent. They should be doing the metelitsa."

"The what?"

"My point precisely." Krasavitza trailed her bare fingers in the water from the mermaid's urn. Tiny ice cubes tinkled and splashed from her fingertips and bobbed in the fountain pool like life preservers.

While she watched them dance, Salucci wandered off to get a better look at the show. Almost immediately, one of the girls pranced up to him, a big smile on her face. She patted Salucci's cheek roughly. "Hiya, handsome," she chirped around a mouthful of gum. "How's about you brush off the upper crust over there take me for a spin?"

He glanced over his shoulder. Krasavitza was still distracted. "Sounds good to me."

Her smile widened, and she started to pull him off to a secluded corner. Salucci let her. He had exercised his employer's prerogative with the girls before, but this one excited him enough to make him drop his guard a bit. And she wouldn't freeze his pecker off, either.

The girl hooked her arms around his neck. They were soft, warm, clutching. He grinned. What Krasavitza didn't know wouldn't hurt her -- or him.

They were just about to start necking when the temperature in the room plummeted. The band faltered, their instruments warbling as ungloved fingers stuck to subzero metal keys and stops; the unfortunate brass players found their warm lips glued to their mouthpieces. Everyone milled about, gooseflesh rippling across their skin. The girl craned her neck over his shoulder, a frustration and exhilaration warring across her face.

Uh-oh.

He turned sheepishly. Krasavitza was toying with the fountain again. This time, instead of ice cubes, tiny, perfectly sculpted translucent limbs danced through the water. Salucci saw a woman's head, its eyes empty behind its domino mask, its mouth open in a soundless O of terror.

"Step away from that harlot," she hissed.

She didn't have to speak any louder than that: the room was so deathly silent that a hiss carried plenty.

"Listen, Krasavitza, I can explain --"

"Silence!" She held up a hand and the spit froze in his mouth. "Look at her shoes."

He did. All the girls wore white heels. It was regulation attire. This one wore black. Or, at least, hers looked black at first. There was a reddish tint to them, he saw, like those dark Chinese lacquered boxes.

"Step away from the Cossack, Vincent." She didn't sound angry, he realized. She was…worried?

"Share and share alike, Icebox." Suddenly, the girl wrapped her arms possessively around him…and around him…and around him. In a second, he had gone from making whoopee to tied up in a tight cocoon of soft, warm flesh.

At the bar, Eddie the Rat dropped his tumbler. "Oh, nuth!" he shrieked "Nuth, nuth, nuth! It'th Gum Belle!"

The oiled whisper of drawn guns echoed around him. Vincent could see Bruno Boccelli straining at the leash, two heavy revolvers clenched in his fists.

"Don't shoot!" Salucci's voice broke, and he winced. Thank God Flaherty wasn't here.

"Let him go, Cossack," snarled the Ice Queen. Ice crystals crawled across the floor around her feet and ivied hungrily up chair legs. Water carafes and glasses exploded like crystal bombs around her, their contents frozen solid.

"As soon as he tells me where the Skull is." Her gum squelched obscenely between her teeth as she spoke; her breath was sweet and hot on his ear. "Better speak up, Vinnie, or I'll put the squeeze on you."

Her toils clenched around him with an awful strength, and his sphincter took an early vacation. As warm wetness trickled down his pants leg, Salucci realized why Eddie and Mick were so terrified of this woman. He should never have backed the Skull against her.

"Last chance, Vinnie." She squeezed harder, and suddenly he couldn't breathe.

"Enough!" Krasavitza thrust out one hand, the ice crystals on the floor rushed forward in a prickly tide, and Gum Belle's arms went stiff and hard around him. He heard a hiss of pain as she leapt aside, the coils shattering as she jumped. He had a brief glimpse of her armless body twisting about in midair before pink tentacles budded from her shoulders, looped around his waist, and threw him like a rag doll. He hit Krasavitza with enough force to knock them both down.

Meanwhile, the other mobsters moved closer, guns raised, eager to fight, but afraid to be the first to fire. The band and the other girls did the prudent thing and scattered. Gum Belle whipped off her sequined mask, revealing a marginally less gaudy duplicate. Her costume loosened, layered, split into a red Marlene Dietrich-cut tuxedo; her wig and fake headband popped off as a crimson top hat sprouted on her head like a satin mushroom. She swept it off and bowed with a dazzling grin that no one would ever describe as humble.

"Greetings, folks!" She planted her top hat back on her head and rubbed her hands together eagerly. "For my next trick, I'm going to make a whole roomful of scum disappear."

"What are you waiting for, you idiots?" Salucci yelled. "Kill her before she kills you!"

Gum Belle leapt into the air as trigger fingers yanked and muzzled belched. The bandstand disintegrated under a hail of hot lead as she wrapped her arms around a support beam and swung up into the rafters, her tuxedo already melting into her usual jumpsuit. She skipped from rafter to rafter, idly snapping her arms down to thump a random crook into the floor before springing to another perch, or looping a leg around to lance a goon from a completely different direction. Blind gunfire zipped wildly around her, zinging everywhere except where she wasn't; harsh curses boiled beneath her, agitated and bubbling. To her, it was like shooting fish in a barrel on her honeymoon, a pulp cover come to life.

"Gangbusters!" she howled. "Gangbusters, gangbusters, gangbusters!"

Shadows shifted and skittered behind her as the spotlight swiveled around, sweeping through the rafters. She was just taking aim at Magpie Mario when it found her, trapping her in a tunnel of white light. Two dozen eager guns barked from beneath her, and bullets tore into her body, ripping holes into her with wet, gooey plopping sounds. She felt them tug and yank at her, nipping away the second wind she had taken after giving Madame 415 the mother of all swirlies.

Quickly, she launched herself into the air and dived headfirst into the mass of men below. She plowed through them like a blonde freight train, laughing as she curled into a rough ball and steamrolled a path to the center of the room. Reforming into a crouch, she rose up, spinning, unfolding like a flower with fists for petals, new-minted arms lashing out in all directions. Men toppled like tuxedoed dominos; tables splintered as they were flung aside to crash into fresh goons. Gold-gloved hands wormed everywhere, plucking guns from stunned fingers, socking slack jaws senseless, tweaking flared nostrils, yanking pants down around vulnerable ankles. The greatest gathering of gangdom in the city's history flailed about, helpless, hindered by its own huge mass, a whale incapable of rolling upon a nimble jellyfish.

Bruno Boccelli leapt at her, a grizzled, bulldog-faced giant, his revolvers roaring. Twisting into a free-sculpture dodge, she socked him in the jaw once, twice, thrice. Bone broke behind his jowls, and he fell. She swung around and hit Magpie Mario with a looping cross; his gold peeper popped out of its socket and bounced along the floor. He scrabbled after it, wailing. As Jazz Man Jones rushed her, brass glittering on his knuckles, she caught a glimpse of Salucci's broad-shouldered figure racing for a back office. Launching into a spring-armed handspring, she kicked the Jazz Man in the head and flipped over him, through the mass of mobsters, bouncing after Salucci in hot pursuit.

She had just vaulted over a frantic Eddie the Rat when a frigid wind tore through the club, snuffing the table candles, plunging the room into near-absolute darkness. There was a heavy thump behind her, like an artillery round going off, and a frozen cannonball slammed into the side of her face, flattening her cheekbone like putty as it lifted her off her feet and punched her head-first into the wall.

Gum Belle puddled to the floor and writhed to her feet, shaking plaster dust out of her hair. By the glow from the spotlight, she saw the Ice Queen beside the mermaid fountain, her dark eyes glittering as she flicked her fingers through the streaming water. A dozen pale daggers leapt from the mermaid's urn, twirling through the air at her in a flock of icy teeth, glowing in the gloom. Gum Belle twisted and flipped, flowed around, under, and past them, squeezed herself tissue-paper thin to let them pass. Twelve gangsters dropped to the floor dead, bloody icicles sticking out of their bodies like white flags of surrender.

The gunfire stopped as everyone dived for cover. Gum Belle collapsed herself into a pile on the floor, rolled behind a pillar. A new flurry of sharp projectiles punched into the marble at her back with gritty, grinding sounds, then stopped. She allowed herself a smile of satisfaction and blew a loud raspberry over her shoulder.

Her only response was another heavy, juddering thump. Gum Belle bounced out from behind the pillar an instant before another cannonball shattered it to pieces. Chunks of marble rained and clattered around her. There was an ominous groan from the ceiling, and the gangsters backpedaled, leaving a sizable ring around the two of them. Panting, Gum Belle nodded at them. "Thanks for the space, fellas." She spat on her palms, rubbed them together. "This won't take long."

The Ice Queen's eyes glittered with anger. "The Cossack is correct about one thing, gentlemen. This will be --"

Before she could finish, Gum Belle coiled her arms around a chair-sized piece of pillar, whirled it around like a shot putter, and sent it flying. The Ice Queen raised her hands to shatter it with one subzero blast, but the hunk of marble sailed wide -- missing her, but bullseyeing the fountain.

The poor mermaid never stood a chance.

The Ice Queen threw up her hands, shielding herself from chips of stone and copper shrapnel. Water exploded from the exposed pipe, flooding the floor, shoving aside furniture, crashing into her in a frothing wall. In an instant, her expensive furs wilted into a sodden, heavy mess, and her fine gown became a clingy silver shroud. Her makeup ran in torrents down her face, into her eyes, blinding her.

The world was an inky, blurry mess as the water slowed to a burbling rush. She wiped mascara and foundation out of her eyes, cursing at how horrid she must look as she pawed at her freshly-exposed black eye.

Then a fist sank into the Ice Queen's stomach. The wind rushed out of her; she gasped, staggered. Something slithered through the water at her feet, nearly tripping her. She hopped blindly out of the way, throwing out waves of dense cold in an indiscriminate attempt to shield herself. Her wet clothes crackled and hardened painfully; the floor became an ice rink. She slipped, fell hard on her tailbone. Pain flared up her back, and she bit down on her tongue to stifle a shameful cry.

Finally, her makeup washed away, and she could see again. "Light!" she shouted. "Give me light!"

The rafter spotlight swung around to focus on her. "The Cossack! Search for the Cossack!" She swore in Russian, harsh and indelicate, and threw up a hand to shield her eyes from the glare.

But the glare was the least of the Ice Queen's worries. Her hair dangled in black, slushy strands as she wobbled to her feet, her face a crusted mask of frozen face paint. Water gurgled in a still-widening pool around her feet; it turned to a half-opaque, slippery soup as she staggered through it.

"Where are you?" Her fine fox fur was a horse-collar ruin. She hurled it off, flinging it into the mass of peasants and incompetents around her. "Where are you?"

"Krasavitza Kolodka, everybody," chirped that infuriating voice from somewhere out in the darkness. "Isn't she lovely? A regular black-eyed peach."

An unfortunate someone snickered next to her shoulder. She whirled about to slap him across the face, and his head shattered into wine-dark chunks.

"I am the Ice Queen, a witch of the land, a royal -- "

"-- mess," the Cossack said, her voice echoing. "Such perfect hair! What a delicate face! Such fine clothes!"

"Silence! Silence!" She stomped her foot, and her heel broke, sending her sprawling across the slick floor."

"Oh, and look at her shoes."

The Ice Queen ground her teeth together, snarling, incoherent.

"By the way, your bra's showing."

She flung her arms around herself, tugging at her now-heavy dress. She could feel coarse, stupid eyes crawling over her, undressing her, dishonoring her. "Turn off that light," she hissed. "Turn it off, do you hear?"

"Why? I thought you liked being the center of attention."

Howling, the Ice Queen thrust out her hands. A sweep of semisolid water rose from the floor, hardening into titanic talons that moved with hers. With a wrench, she ripped the spotlight from its perch and hurled it across the room. Men screamed and died as it clattered across the floor like a child's toy.

Alone in the hiding darkness, her lips curled in an ugly grin as she stumbled back to the center of the ring. She could not see, but that did not matter. No one else could, either, and that was good. There were standards, after all. Standards of behavior, etiquette, dress. She could not be seen to lapse in those standards. Once this was over, she would make Vincent take her home. She would change into something soft and warm, drink some tea, and forget all of this indignation. Blindly, she patted her hair back, dragging it into something that resembled her favored style. "Now we can settle this politely."

She never saw the shape rising from the rubble until it socked her square in her good eye. The Ice Queen's head snapped back, her broken heel slipped on her own ice, and she fell to the floor, her head cracking hard against the marble tiles. She groaned once, then lay still.

Gum Belle rubbed her knuckles and smiled nastily. "Honey, I know more about politeness than you do. Enjoy your matching shiners." She turned to the crowd. "Now, if you slobs would please get out of my way, I've got a supercrook to stop." She gave them a nasty grin. "You better not be here when I get back."

They were still stampeding for the front door as she entered Salucci's office.

Gum Belle winced. Not only was the man nowhere to be seen, but his taste was awful. A bust of some French guy? A mahogany desk? Books? This was a bank manager's office, not a hive of villainy. Where were the black drapes, the sinister sigil, the big radio transmitter with lots of lights and spinny dials?

There was a withered-looking man at the desk, droning into a telephone, but his conversation was about as wicked as Gran's cat talk. Dammit, was life nothing like the pulps? She shot her arm over the withered man's head (he didn't even flinch, gosh darn him) and punched the frame of a depressingly elegant picture on the wall.

There was a click, a whisper of well oiled hinges, and the wall slid open. Blue-white light spilled into the office, flowed over her like a living thing, flickering and cold. At its center was the grinning, ghastly face of the Skull, leering at her with something that might have been triumph above a chromed pedestal of some sort. He laughed, a deep, cavernous rumble like two steel coffins clanging together.

"Here she is at last. Enter, Gum Belle. Enter in awe of…the Phantom Skull!"

She would have rolled her eyes, if they weren't smarting so, but deep down, she remembered how the Skull had nearly vaporized her tonight, and her confidence flagged a bit. Quickly, she threw up a wide grin over a heavy swagger as she entered

the lair of the Crimson Spectre!

It looks just like it did the last time Annabelle saw this picture, back at the Bijou Palace. Once again, the Crimson Spectre crouches by a huge bank of flashing buttons at the far end of the room, his cowl dangling over his face like dead seaweed. "So, Slouch Hat," he says in a booming, melodramatic voice. "We meet again…
for the last time! You won't leave this room alive!"

"You've got one thing right, Crimson Spectre. One of us won't be leaving."

She claps her hands like a happy schoolgirl. There he is, so dashing and heroic in his double-breasted suit and cape and flashing goggles: Slouch Hat! He runs a finger along the brim of his fedora, then whips out his trusty .45 automatics.

The Crimson Spectre punches a button, and a wavering finger of light jabs out from a big dish and ripples over the .45s, turning them flashbulb-white before evaporating them completely. Annabelle gasps, even though she knew what was going to happen. Oh, that dirty fink!

Without hesitation, Slouch Hat charges the Spectre, his fists raised. The Spectre meets him head-on. They trade blows around the room, knocking over chairs, desks, a cabinet of volatile chemicals. Flasks break and spill their contents over them both. Cloudy smoke boils from their clothes into the air with a nasty sizzling sound. Slouch Hat locks his lantern jaw tight against the pain, but the Spectre squeals behind his hood like a rat.
Annabelle can contain herself no longer. "Get 'im, Slouch!" she yells. "Knock his god-damned block off!"

She tears herself away from the fight to look over her shoulder, checking to see if an usher's coming to drag her away like last time. Only there's no usher anywhere. Or any other audience members. In fact, there's no Bijou Palace at all, only blocky stone walls, heavy wood doors, fancy machinery. For the first time, she realizes that she can't even hear the rattle of a projector.

Gangbusters! she thinks. I'm in the movie!

Annabelle looks down at herself. Her skin has been bleached cinema-pale, and she's dressed in a cottony grayscale skirt and blouse, the sort that the damsels in distress always wear in these pictures. She mock-cowers against the wall, her hands held up to her face, and stifles a mischievous giggle. "Slouch! Slouch!
Save me!"

Slouch Hat lands a whopper of an uppercut, and the Crimson Spectre staggers back, his head smacking hard against a control panel. He slumps down, his head lolling. Slouch Hat stands above him, fists on hips, chin tilted up -- it's her Avenger pose! Oh, joy!

"You've lost, Spectre," he says. "Release the girl."

The Crimson Spectre reaches beneath his hood to rub his jaw. "Fool! The Crimson Spectre never loses!"

He reaches up and flips a switch on the control panel. Just like before, a trap door drops open beneath Slouch Hat's feet. Annabelle yawns and reaches out to grab her hero. Only her arm refuses to stretch. A sudden stab of fear punches into the base of her brain like an ice pick.
My powers…where are my powers?

Slouch Hat falls with an ear-splitting scream. There is a burst of flame from the bottomless pit. The Crimson Spectre laughs in triumph.

It's the same cliffhanger as last time. But there's no wipe to the next title card, no call to duty for everyone to come back next week. The Crimson Spectre chuckles loathsomely, wringing his hands together with eager energy as he creeps towards her. His bloodshot, staring eyes are cracked windows in a dead house.

Annabelle backs up against the wall, whimpering as his shadow falls over her. He takes her wrists in his hands and hauls her to her feet. She shrieks and struggles and strains, but her body is skin and muscle over inflexible bone, and she can't slip free.

Chortling, the Crimson Spectre drags her closer and closer to the yawning trap door. Smoke coils up from it like a charnel pit. She can almost smell it. "Do not fight it, my dear. Soon you will be with your darling Slouch Hat again."

He forces Annabelle to the pit's edge. Heat wafts up at her, making her eyes smart. A horrible red light flickers far below, but it seems to grow as she watches, crawling up the sides of the pit like a blind, groping thing.

"Soon now, my dear…very soon, you shall be  



slack and empty-eyed like a sleepwalker, her eyes glazed over. Salucci sat in his chair, watching, his face pinkish-pale in the bloody light. Jenkins was by the bar, the Thompson dangling from the crook of his elbow, his face an empty mosaic of shadows beneath the brim of his hat. Eddie the Rat stood behind a helpless Arcturion, a nasty, gap-toothed grin on his face. Brick Mick loomed behind Ricketts's chair, holding him in place with his meaty hands.

Next to Gum Belle, Rando held his hands to his temples, his face screwed up in concentration. "She's fighting the illusion," he said through gritted teeth. "I'm not sure how much longer I can hold it."

The Phantom Skull's booming, hollow laughter filled the room. "Not for much longer. Soon, I will have built up enough galvanic force to reduce her to ash, and victory will belong to…the Phantom Skull!"

Red light pulsed through the boardroom, and a low moan rose from the Skull's dais, like a great dynamo winding up. Invisible electricity crackled through the air, making it seem heavier by the second.

The hairs on the back of Ricketts's neck prickled and stood up. The Skull wasn't just making empty threats. He was going to disintegrate Gum Belle in a few minutes, and then it would all be over. He had to find some way to break Rando's hold over her, but how? Mick had his empty gun, Jenkins had him covered, and Rando himself was all the way on the other side of the room.

He stared into Gum Belle's blank eyes, pleading with her. Wake up, Belle, wake up! It's



all a bad dream, she thinks, It's all a bad dream. Wake up, Annabelle, wake up!

Only she doesn't wake up, and the light is clambering closer and closer. A low, deadly moan rises from the pit. She scrunches her eyes tight, shakes her head wildly back and forth, but the Crimson Spectre's laughter seems to echo inside her head, and his gloved hands clamp down even tighter on her wrists. Her back arches painfully as he leans on her, bending her closer and closer to that horrible glow. Frantically, she tries to



think, remembering the same glazed look from his own near-death experience at the Legacy. How had he gotten out of that one? Ted had said something about Deadeye's cigarette, how a quick burn shocked Gum Belle awake.

A quick burn…

As inconspicuously as he could, Ricketts felt around in his vest pockets, searching for the one long shot that might be able to save them all.

The dynamo moan crawled higher and higher. A sharp, charged scent filled the room. Ricketts's fingers paused on something small, hard and rectangular. He slipped it into his palm, felt its weight, smooth and cool in his hand.

He glanced up. Mick's hands were still heavy on his shoulders, but his attention was focused on Gum Belle. He wasn't alone. Even Jenkins's shadowed face was tilted in her direction. He wished he could see his old partner's eyes to make sure, but there was no time left.

Quietly, he flicked the lid up on his secret weapon, thumbed the switch. It turned on with a near-silent whoosh. Before anyone could react, he lunged forward, flicked his wrist, and whisked it across the table like a flat silver skipping-stone ringed with fire.

There was a confused gasp around the table. Jenkins's head snapped over to him. Mick slammed him back in his seat.

But no one stopped his old cigarette lighter. It smacked against Gum Belle's hip with a sizzle of fire on flesh, and



the film flickers around her for a moment. The Crimson Spectre's hands go smoky and unreal. Annabelle throws herself forward, passes through him. He whirls about with a scream of rage, his cracked-window eyes glaring.

Annabelle's hip hurts. She looks down and sees a smoking hole in her dress, as though someone had just touched a lighter to it. Beneath, she sees a brilliant swatch of red and gold.

Suddenly, everything falls into place, and she tears at her cottony, helpless-damsel costume, ripping it free with both hands, popping the buttons off the blouse, ripping the skirt straight down the middle.

The Crimson Spectre falls back a step. "Wait!" he shouts. "Stop!"

"Shut up, please." With a final tug, Gum Belle wrenches free of her false clothing and stands free, in glorious Technicolor. She can feel the life and vibrancy returning to her skin like the fresh flush of spring.

Just for good measure, she plants her fists on her hips, tilts her chin up, and gives him the Avenger.

The Crimson Spectre cowers for a second longer, then charges her, his hands outstretched.

She cocks back her fist, punches, and feels the glorious freedom return as her arm stretches out, crossing the distance between them in a heartbeat. She dusts her knuckles square on the Crimson Spectre's chin. He sails through the air in a perfect arc, plummeting into the pit, screaming as the film shakes, rips, snaps apart, revealing




tubby Rando unconscious on the floor, her fist's John Hancock writ large on his bruised chin. Blinking, Gum Belle saw the Skull, Salucci, Arcturion, Shrimpy, Mick, and --

"Ricketts! What's the big idea, letting me think you were dead all this time?"

The old such-and-so pointed behind her. She spun around, and saw his partner, Mr. Jenkins Other Guy, the muzzle of his Tommy gun sweeping towards her. She didn't stop to wonder at his about-face, but kicked out with one leg, wrapped her ankle around his Thompson and crushed it with a python grip. He scrambled behind the bar as the Skull roared in rage.

"Fools! Stop her! Stop her!"

Brick Mick let go of Ricketts's shoulders. That was his mistake. The G-Man jumped up in his chair and brought his fist up in a whale of an uppercut. Mick's head jumped so far back that Ricketts couldn't even see his face for a moment. Ricketts bobbed in close, ducked a sloppy haymaker, and got off two quick jabs in his belly. Mick doubled over, and he smashed him across the skull. The heavy thug rendezvoused with the carpet, his forehead doing a quick double gainer off the edge of the table on the way down.

Eddie the Rat drew a .22 from his inside pocket. Gum Belle twisted her head around, gave him a glare, and he dropped it and raised his hands. "I thurrender! I thurrender!"

She guffawed. "Omigosh! What happened to your teeth?"

"Belle, the Skull! He's building up enough juice to end you --"

The words rushed out of Ricketts as Salucci tackled him to the ground. Gum Belle started to stretch over the table to help him, then stopped as she felt the air prickle around her like a nest of needles. She twisted her head around and saw the Skull, his empty sockets glaring at her. There was a high-pitched whine in the air, like a mosquito circling around for a bite, and the edges of his visage crackled like living lightning bolts.

"You think you can defeat me, you elastic idiot? I am…the Phantom Skull! I am…the underworld!"

"Then I guess I get to conquer the underworld tonight." Gum Belle snapped out her arms and wrapped them around the twin projectors on either side of the dais. Bracing her feet against the floor, she yanked backwards and started to pull. The fragile metal creaked and buckled, and the Skull's image wavered madly.

"Wait! Stop!"

"Shut up, please."

Meanwhile, Ricketts roared and shoved Salucci off of him as he rose to his feet. He darted a quick punch at Salucci's jaw, but the mobster ducked and dove for the door, followed by Eddie the Rat. Ricketts started to follow them, but a shot rang out from the bar, and the wall puffed plaster inches from his face. He caught a glimpse of Jenkins behind the bar, a smoking automatic in his hand, before he threw himself to the ground, ducking behind the table. Eddie's .22 was on the floor. Ricketts snatched it up, flicked off the safety.

"Give it up, Jenk!" he shouted. "Salucci's done for, and so is the Skull!"

His only answer was a bullet biting into the table above his head. Ricketts shuffled over a few feet, then rose, the .22 at the ready. Jenkins was aiming where he had been moments before; he swiveled around just as Ricketts pulled the trigger. The .22 hopped in his hand, and Jenkins spun, crimson spurting from his shoulder, his hat tumbling from his head. His automatic barked, but the shot went wide. He half-collapsed against the table, the automatic wavering, and Ricketts leveled the .22 between his eyes.

"Drop it," he said

The automatic thumped to the carpet.

Gum Belle yanked back again. The projectors bent sharply; the delicate bolts and weld lines at their bases popped and split. There was a quavery, staticky whine from the pedestal. The Skull was fading, his image wobbling until it was just a blur of blue light. His voice echoed wildly, as though coming from a deep, empty space.

"Can't…be…woman…"

With a burst of sparks, the blue light stabilized into a face, strong-featured and sharp, with deepset eyes. Dorjan Miksa's face. His mouth was drawn down in a flickering bow, his dark eyes furious and impotent.

"Not fair. Not fair. Not fair. Revenge. Revenge. Rev --"

Gum Belle gave a final tug, and the projectors snapped in half. The Skull's voice unraveled into a mad, electric howl; his face widened, distorted, grew to all mouth, warbling in pain. Ricketts clapped his hands to his ears. Jenkins moaned. Gum Belle's body rippled like a choppy red sea. Only Arcturion seemed unaffected, his face blank, his eyes downcast.

Finally, the scream faded to a high wail, which trailed off to a sad, discordant little blip. Gum Belle retracted her arms, the remains of the projectors clattering to the floor.

A hand touched her shoulder, and she spun about. Arcturion stood there, his face grave. "I understand how you feel, young lady, but all things must come to an end."

"Was he…alive?" she asked.

"Perhaps. There is no way to know." Suddenly, the great scientist looked very tired. "But the Phantom Skull was a tortured, bitter electric shadow, lashing out at the rest of the world. The Dorjan Miksa that is worth remembering died long ago. It's over now."

"No, it isn't." Director Abrams entered the room, leading a trembling Eddie the Rat with a letter opener to the small of the back. "I woke up just in time to catch this small fry, but Salucci managed to squirm away. Who knows where he is now?"

Ricketts scowled. "I do. He's going to see his brother."

                                                         * * *

                                   Don't miss the next exciting chapter of

                                   GUM BELLE CONQUERS THE UNDERWORLD:

                                         "THE HANGED MAN'S GAMBIT!"
Thrills! Chills! Finally! ;)

Gum Belle has defeated the Phantom Skull, but the Hanged Man yet lurks. What fiendish surprises does the most depraved member of the Board of Crime have in store for our heroine? What has he done to Ted? Will he help his brother at the last? Can this whole story be wrapped up by the end of the year?

Find out now: [link]

AUTHOR'S NOTES

I have a hard time with climaxes. I am a finale micromanager; I always try my hardest to make things as big and dramatic as I possibly can, and my self-criticism reaches a fever pitch as I try to bring things to a rousing crescendo without going overboard. As a result, there is often a huge delay between the pre-climax chapter and the climax for me. I should have expected it this time, but it still came as a frustrating surprise.

In this case, I had a really hard time, because there were so many characters and threads to wrap up. There wasn't just the Phantom Skull to deal with, but the Ice Queen, Rando, Salucci, Brick Mick, Eddie the Rat, an army of crooks, the mystery of Ricketts's missing coat, one last appearance by Bum Frank (minus his buddies; I think they may go off into the wings during revisions), a bit of nightclub glamour, and the setup for the next chapter.

That's a lot to handle in around 10,000 words. To make matters worse, I wasn't exactly sure how things would go. There were a lot of false starts, deleted scenes, dead ends, and bad writing. I had to take a long break to let things percolate and sort themselves out. Eventually, they worked out in a fairly satisfactory way. I still wish I could have had Frank do a bit of heroics (I toyed with him shutting down the Galvanic Generator for a bit), but in the end, I think this is about as good as it will get for now. I hope it doesn't disappoint!

For a full version of this chapter's header, go here: [link]

P.S.: Yes, there is a metelitsa; yes, the Ice Queen really is this stodgy; and, yes, I get a giggle out of its translated title: [link]
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:iconsaiyanzero236:
SaiyanZero236 Featured By Owner Mar 30, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
Not trying to be offensive or anything, but does the Hanged Man make you think of Two Face?  Regardless, great story, I read it on the bus
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:iconstory-1:
story-1 Featured By Owner Apr 13, 2011
i have to say its a very well written story, discription is very good, and in the early parts of the story there is some excellent character development.
however due to the build up to the climax and the final battle against the phantom skull, much of the character development was squeezed out to introduce action sequences. I have nothing against the action sequences they are very well done, but in the next few chapters it would be interesting to take a step back and look at some of the links and relationships to develop them further. for example
it has been hinted at in a couple of scenes of Gum Bells interest in Rickett, it is unclear weather this is her usual provocative behavior or weather there is something more.
i have to say that i have not read the whole story completly yet, but i feel some more background on especially the villains would also be nice.
just some suggestions, best wishes on your contunued writing you have quite a bit of talent.
Reply
:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2011
Thank you very much! I agree that this chapter sacrifices character exploration for action, but that's a necessary evil of this sort of climax. I'm not sure how much of the other chapters you have read, but more time is devoted to relationships in previous chapters. The final chapter will also return to issues of character.

I have long considered writing stand-alone stories for the Board, going deeper into their backstories and such. I'm not sure if any casual readers would be interested in this sort of thing (there would be little "fan service," if you will), but I think it might be interesting.
Reply
:iconlordlmao:
Lordlmao Featured By Owner Dec 15, 2010
I have to ask a question that I assume you are asked daily. How do you do it? I read stories like this and I smile wider than ever the malleable miss could, okay not true but close enough. I Wish I knew how to do what you seem to do so well. Everything I write makes me rather annoyed when I gaze upon prose as profound and perfect as yours. So I ask something that I imagine you are tired of hearing, but it must be asked, do you have any tips for a man high on imagination but somewhat lacking in the field of motivation and overall talent?
The finale shall no doubt amaze and astound me far more than any fireworks display these eyes of mine have seen. I cant wait.
Reply
:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2010
First off: thank you very much for the high praise. I don't believe my work is "profound" or "perfect," but it's enough for me to have made you smile. :D

As to your question...it's a toughie. I've always liked to write and tell stories. If I don't write for a long time, I get cranky and upset. It's something I have to do, even if slowly and infrequently. It sounds like you have the desire to write, too, and that is a very good start.

The best book on writing I ever read was Stephen King's On Writing. King takes no prisoners, and he tells no lies. His advice is solid, sound, and it works. Here's some, in a nutshell:

1) Read as much as possible -- the more you read, the more you learn what works and what doesn't, as well as different forms and styles. Don't stick with just one author or genre, but pick up anything that catches your fancy. The more you absorb, the more your own voice will emerge.

2) Try to write every day. Writing is like exercise: the more regularly you do it, the easier and better it gets (trust me, as one who has often fallen off the wagon, this is a tough one to stick by). Even if you don't like what you've written, it's better than a blank page -- and you'll be motivated to improve yourself.

I had written more, but then I realized that these two make up the core of it, really. Study and practice. Just like any trade or skill. There's a certain degree of natural instinct involved, too, but I could say that for any art or craft. It's work, moreso than some other forms of art. It's solitary, and detail-oriented, and, if you do it right, it's work. But when you get done with a piece, show it to the world, and learn that it made someone smile...well, then, it's all worth it.

Hope this helps. Now, I gotta get back to work on that finale...;)
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:iconlordlmao:
Lordlmao Featured By Owner Dec 16, 2010
Thanks. it really does help mate. Thanks for the reply.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Dec 17, 2010
No prob! LMK if there's anything else I can do to help.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
Your hard work payed off, that was dynamic.

And again I can't really pick out a favourite scene, but the scuffle with the Ice Queen and Rando's illusions stick out most of all. I cannot wait to see the confrontation with the Hanged Man.
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:iconstretch-ink:
Stretch-Ink Featured By Owner Dec 6, 2010
Thank you very much! The Queen and Rando bits were two of my faves, as well, although they were also some of the trickiest to work out.

I'm currently trying to dynamite my way through the rock wall that is "Belle" 18, which is proving to be the most difficult of all. I hope the Hanged Man faceoff works, although it is a real gamble in many senses. Hopefully, it will be up by the end of the year.
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:icondragon-the-tribrid:
Dragon-the-Tribrid Featured By Owner Dec 20, 2010  Hobbyist General Artist
I remember falling on my own tailbone one frosty January so I know how the Queen must've felt when she landed on hers!

Try not to worry about gambles, after all they can pay off big! But still, think things through and look before you leap, all that stuff.
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