Table of Contents Editoral
Tim Gallagher................................2 Writer Biographies...........................5
A Head For This Sort Of Thing.
Mrs H’s Knitting Circle
Out Of The Fog
Matthew P. Mayo...........................17
The Dame Wore A Tesseract
The Great Magnetic Train Caper
The Predator From The Past
The Undressed Widow
The Yellow Star
Michael Patrick Sullivan...............65
Cover “Scarlett Fatale”
John Donald Carlucci
Issue #3 Publisher John Donald Carlucci EditorJDC@Gmail.com
Editor-in-Chief Timothy Gallagher
Editor Katherine Tomlinson AAMDragonlady@Gmail.com
This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 License. To view a copy of this license, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/3.0/ or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA. All right belong to the original artists and writers for their contributed works. May 1st, 2008
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Editorial By Editor-in-Chief Tim Gallagher
reetings, pulp monkeys, and welcome to the third issue of ASTONISHING ADVENTURES MAGAZINE! I know that it’s been a while since issue #2, and I apologize. But thanks to the tireless efforts of our own primate publisher, JDC, issue #2 is now finally available through Amazon.com. Just type “Astonishing Adventures Magazine” into the Amazon search engine and you’ll be one step closer to owning our little piece of pulp heaven.
Quite a bit has happened since our last issue. Editor JDC became Publisher JDC. Our lovely Dragon Lady, Katherine, became editor. Yours truly was promoted out of the monkey cage and chained to the Editor-in-Chief ’s desk. Jackie Chan and Jet Li finally made a movie together. Pulp icon Doc Savage celebrated his 75th anniversary. And the pulp world lost a good friend when Dave Stevens, creator of The
DOC SAVAGE, still going strong after 75 years.
THE ROCKETEER by Dave Stevens
copyright Conde Nast Publications
copyright Dave Stevens
Editorial Rocketeer, passed away at the age of 52. I fondly remember reading The Rocketeer when it was first published by Pacific Comics waaaaay back in the early 1980s, and then following it’s rather erratic publishing schedule as the magazine jumped to Eclipse Comics, Comico, and then Dark Horse. Dave had a wonderful art style, a genuine love and feel for the 1930s pulp era, and was the catalyst for the resurgence of all things Betty Page (he modeled the female lead of the series on Miss Page). Although there weren’t many stories, the ones that did see print were action packed and even managed to in-clude Doc Savage (and his friends Monk and Ham) and The Shadow as guest stars. They couldn’t be identified as such for legal reasons, but those of us in the know were just that much more thrilled by their appearance. Dave Stevens, we hardly knew ya, but rest
A pen-and-ink sketch of THE ROCKETEER by Dave Stevens copyright Dave Stevens
well, friend. Getting back to the issue at (and in) hand, you’ll notice that this issue is a wee bit smaller than our previous efforts. There are a number of factors responsible for this, none of which are very interesting so I won’t bore you with them. Nevertheless, those factors left us with a severely truncated production window, and a few changes had to be made in order to get this bit of pulp goodness out to you. Therefore, what you hold in your hand is the very first all-story issue of ASTONISHING ADVENTURES MAGAZINE! That’s right, cover-to-cover rip-snorting tales formulated to snap you out of the doldrums of your everyday life. We’ve got old friends returning this issue, like Michael Patrick Sullivan with another installment of the Auslander; Roger Alford and his undead avenger The Black Spectre; D.A. Madigan and the intrepid Doc Nebula; “Mrs. H’s Knitting Cir-cle” by Mark Caldwell; “The Dame Wore a Tesseract,” by Geoffrey Thorne; and “The Predator from the Past’” by Christian Dabnor. But wait, there’s more (he said in his best Ronco announcer voice)! We have new friends joining us as well this time out. There’s Scott Harper and the creepy “What Lurks in Twilight Hollow?”; Matthew Mayo and “Out of the Fog;” and finally we’ve got, after much hounding, pleading, and a gun to the head, a story from the Mad Pulp Bastard himself, Bill Cunningham, “A Head for this Sort of Thing.” Quite the line-up, and one I’m sure you’ll enjoy. I want to take this opportunity to thank each and every writer who submitted a story (or, in some cases, stories) for our third issue. The re-sponse was overwhelming, and I am saddened that we weren’t able to print them all. The good news is, we’ve already got stories for issue #4. Speaking of issue #4, that puppy will be in your little monkey paws in just two short months. We’re doing our darndest, now that the Amazon problem has been licked, to get back
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on our quarterly publishing schedule. Weâ€™ll have plenty of great pulp stories for you, along with our usual articles and interviews. Check the website regularly, because there will be previews of the articles and interviews there, and an occasional surprise or two, just to whet your appetite for the next issue. Finally, wish a hearty and Happy Birthday to our publisher, JDC. The cranky old cuss is lay-ing this issue out on his birthday in order satisfy your pulp cravings, so be nice to him. Send him a nice e-mail. Or a present. Or money. Or a redhead. Okay, enough ramblings from me. Put the soundtrack to Sky Captain and the World of To-morrow on your iPod. Sit back, relax, and prepare to enjoy. â€˜Til next time, pulp monkeys! Tim, Lord of the Monkeys
Writer Biographies M
atthew Mayo is a magazine and book editor and author of three Black Horse Westerns: Winters’ War, Wrong Town, and the forthcoming Hot Lead, Cold Heart. He also edited the recent anthology, Where Legends Ride: New Tales of the Old West, for Express Westerns. He lives in downeast Maine with his wife, Jennifer, a documentary photographer, and two happy dogs, Guinness and Nessie, in an old farmhouse. When he’s not editing or writing poetry and novels, he is kayaking with his wife, shoveling snow, or mowing the lawn. Drop in for a cup of joe at www.matthewmayo.com. This is Matthew’s first story in AAM.
Scott Zicree (The Twilight Zone Companion) said was “great fun” and “genuinely plays like [an] episode” )evidenced by the number of YouTubers who think it’s real). His screenplay, Blood in the Water (aka Storm Tide) is recommended by Script PIMP and was named a 2nd-round finalist in a Script Magazine Open Door Contest. Additional screenplays were named as quarterfinalists in the Screenwrit-ing Expo Competition, and he’s hoping for great things with his latest opus, Gangland Hollywood (shameless plug). His work has been discussed in the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, US NEws & World Report, The Dennis Miller Show (radio) and Inside Edition. This is Roger’s (and The Black Spectre’s) third appeart an early age Christian Dabnor was captured ance in AAM. His websites are: hollywoodnoir. by the Steam Pirate Captain Ron-son. He blogspot.com, and www.lightningbugfilms.com. was made to perform various musical numbers for .A. Madigan is currently husband and the Captain’s amuse-ment until the Captain was stepfather to (respectively) the most wonkilled in a boiler accident. Scared that he might be blamed for the accident, he decided to make derful woman and the three most wonderful girls himself as obscure as possible by working in IT in the entire universe, which is all that matters, in Cannock, England, land of trees, opticians, really. When he isn’t sitting around boggling and murder. Should you wish to contact him, his with slack-jawed awe at just how unbelievably email is email@example.com. Christian chalks lucky he is, he writes deeply weird and even outright de-ranged stuff, which eventually gets up his second story in AAM with this issue. published somewhere on the Internet. He blogs oger Alford (firstname.lastname@example.org) extensively at Miserable Annals of the Earth is a writer and filmmaker, as well as the Layout (www.miserableannalsoftheearth.blogspot.com) Lemur for this very magazine. His produced and A Brown Eyed Handsome Man (www. plays include two staged “radio dramas,” The City abehm.blogspot.com). He has written seven sciBurns at Night and The Sheik of Hollywood. fi/fantasy novels and one military memoir, and He created the popular Internet mash-up video someday he hopes to be paid for at least some of Twilight Zone: Planet of the Apes, which Marc
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that foolishness, too. This is D.A.’s third story in for Val-kyrie Quarterly and Ragnarok. One day AAM. He can be reached at docnebula@gmail. he may finish a novel. He is looking for a short com. anecdote for his biography. It should be witty, self-deprecating, thirty-four words long, and make eoffrey Thorne (email@example.com) him sound less like a professional geek. Including is the prize-winning author of mul-tiple short a beauti-ful woman would be a bonus. Mark is stories, including the critically acclaimed The Soft really uncomfortable writing about himself in the Room (Simon & Schuster). He has written sci- Third Person like this. This Mark’s third story fi shorts and novellas for Simon & Schuster and appearing in AAM. Phobos Books, and was a finalist in the prestigious cott Harper (AuthorScott@hotmail.com) Writers of the Future contest. He has written has had 16 short stories published, has selfcomics for Bench Press Comics, Hometown Ink, NE Graphix, and is currently publishing published three novels, and is working on his The Red Line through Ludovico Technique. His fourth. He was recently hired by the independent short story, Eshu & The Anthropic Principle film company James Tucker Productions, which was included in the Triangulation: End of Time is based in Pasa-dena, California, to write scripts anthology (Parsec Inc.). He is the lead writer and for two direct-to-DVD films. In early October, executive producer of the criti-cally acclaimed, 2007, Scott began working loosely with the local original Web-based TV series, Geoffrey Thorne’s film production company 11th Dimension Films The Dark (the darklines.blogspot.com). He lives as a writer. 11th Dimension Films is currently in Los Angeles, but is hoping for a pardon any day working on pre-production of a short film he wrote for them. He can be found at the following now. This is Geoffrey’s second story in AAM. sites: www.lulu.com/sjhlhjh, www.myspace.com/ hen evil is afoot, Michael Patrick Sullivan scott_harper_author, and www.authorsden.com/ is a fuzzy slipper. At other times, he’s an scottharper. This is Scott’s first story for AAM. award-winning writer of stuff in which someone or those of you just meeting Bill Cunningham, invariably gets shot. He embarked on a career as the self-proclaimed Mad Pulp Bas-tard, for a writer after learning at an early age that being The Rid-dler was not a viable career choice. He’s the first time here, he is a screenwriter, producer, starting to feel he may have been misled about that. and marketer of movies, as well as the author of Michael can be contacted at m@redrighthand. short pulp fiction and other media. He also is net. This issue marks the third appearance of his the master and proprietor of the great website Pulp 2.0 (d2dvd.blogspot.com), a daily must-see character, The Auslander. destination for any pulp aficionado. This story ark Caldwell (firstname.lastname@example.org) is is Bill’s first at AAM, but he’s been promoting the second British author appearing in the magazine to his large audience since our very this issue of AAM. Born in the 1970s, Mark humble begin-ning, for which we thank him grew up in Nottingham and War-wickshire. He profusely. studied building engineering at the University of Liverpool, and then a postgraduate course in software technology. A job taking the Internet around libraries and making virtual reality models followed. Ten years on he has worked on a variety of websites. He has written and illustrated articles
“A Head For This Sort of Thing”
“A Head For This Sort of Thing” By Bill Cunningham
he first thing he felt was the light, that near-blinding, blue-cold beam penetrating his eyes, made extraordinarily sensitive by his internment. He wanted to raise his arm to shield his corneas from the piercing glow, but he found his arms restrained somehow. “Hmm”, thought the Doctor, “they must have me in some sort of magnetic restraints. Interesting. Whoever they are, they aren’t stupid.” The restraints were indeed thoughtful as the Doctor’s reputation had preceded his presence in the echoing chamber. When he was in his prime, not too long ago he told himself, he had killed a man with his index finger. The man, his defense lawyer, had deigned to think he could win his case by having his client declared insane. This was not to say that the Doctor was a powerful physical presence. Average height and a shade on the thin side, the Doctor wasn’t a specimen that one would immediately consider formida-ble but rather a being of intense focus and resolve. His victims could attest to his ability to strike swiftly to the heart (or knee or groin) of a problem. That’s what the Doctor considered himself - a problem solver. His mother had always told him he had a “head” for that problem-solving. He stood beside his droning barrister and grinned. He immediately took the man’s measure and calculated exactly how he would get the legal monkey to shut the hell up. “Problem solved,”
he thought as his arm lashed out and drove his bony finger straight through the man’s eye. In an instant the Doctor felt his way around the man’s eye socket to the cluster of blood vessels networking the area. He gave his sharp fingernail a twist and sud-denly a fountain of blood erupted from the man‘s socket. As the Bailiff caught the lawyer, the Doctor quickly took his chair and pa-tiently folded his hands in his lap, oblivious to the screaming and blood that filled the air. But this was just one, near insignificant item in a long list of offences committed by the mad genius the authorities had dubbed “Doctor Lucifer.” Now, the Doctor took measure of his surroundings. High, grey walls of concrete came into his limited view. Whatever was holding him in place was powerful enough to prevent him from lifting even his chin. He would have to rely on his eyes and ears to provide him with enough data to concoct a solu-tion for his escape. The Doctor fought against his own insecurity in this re-gard - he had a nearly pathological abhorrence of confinement - and brought the rest of his mental prowess under control. “Listen, learn and interpret,” his brain told him, “focus on the problem at hand.” “So, how can I help you?” A simple voice echoed back to him. “Welcome, Doctor. We have a few questions for you.” “Most certainly. Could I trouble you for a cigarette?”
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“No, I’m sorry, Doctor. That won’t be possible.” “But I do have an addiction to nicotine…” Suddenly, the blue light shining into his eyes shifted spectra and be-came a blaze of crimson. “Now, Doctor why would you want to lie to us? We are, after all, here to ask a few simple questions. Then if the answers we receive are satisfac-tory, you will be allowed to leave your confinement. There is no deception here - at least not on our part.” The Doctor wanted to smile at the voice, but held himself in check. Better now to shift tactics, be cooperative and follow his own advice to learn. “Okay then. I suppose you have the upper hand. Might I ask a simple question?” “That is a very big admission for you Doctor,” intoned the Voice, “and the year is 2321 by your calendar.” The Doctor let them think he was letting the information sink in, but in reality he had already surmised that he was somehow out of time. It wasn’t unreasonable in that Doctor Lucifer made arrangements upon his “death” to be secretly placed in cryogenic suspension by a corporation that wasn’t even aware of its client‘s true identity. A shadow corporation Lucifer had created with monies from his “activities” - illegal enhancile drugs, corporate technol-ogy theft, espionage, organ theft and marketing - had made all the arrange-ments. What was worrisome was the fact that these future-men had pierced his identity even though Lucifer had taken great pains to erase his data shadow. Curiouser and curiouser. “Now that is interesting…and what would persons of that year want with me? I am after all, just a simple Doctor.” The light turned red again. Lucifer had successfully confirmed his the-ory - the lamp was some sort of lie detector. He would have to be careful. Tell the truth, but only in answer to direct questions. Nothing more, nothing less. Think ten steps ahead as always. Turn these
future men into pawns, playing his sort of chess game. “We want to know how you killed The Pistoleer.” The Pistoleer was at first a rumor amongst the denizens of the Metroplex’s downtown. Where crime had once run rampant, the mysterious gunfighter came out of nowhere, vowing to rid the city’s lower levels of crime. Some had posited the theory that the hooded hero with two blazing chrome guns was a cyborg. Others said he was a ghost from the past with supernatural pistols which never failed to hit their mark. Both theories had their elements of truth - whatever The Pistoleer aimed at, he hit, and he moved with such precision and rapidity that to the naked eye it appeared he never had to reload. He appeared out of nowhere launching an unholy bar-rage of bullets on crime. “The Pistoleer was a putz…” Lucifer was disappointed. These unknown future-men had gone to all of this trouble to resurrect him, and they only wanted to know how he killed a second-rate , gallivanting adversary like The Pistoleer. “Interesting. Tell us more.” Lucifer was instantly bored. The Pistoleer had been an easy problem, one that had been so simple and so apparent to even the simplest of intel-lects that Lucifer was disgusted with himself over how easy it had been. “How do you destroy a man who can hit anything he aims at?” Lucifer waited for a moment to allow the problem to sink in. When no answer or question was forthcoming he was doubly bored. “You simply take away any targets.” Lucifer allowed a smile to escape his lips. Good. There might be some challenge from this voice after all.
“A Head For This Sort of Thing” “I lured him into a trap where he couldn’t use his guns. He could fire away to his heart’s content, but the bullets would ricochet back at the direct angle from which it was fired. I could get into the physics involved, but…” “A simple angular, kinetic force field… but how did you lure him into the trap?” “That was even simpler. I made him think he was rescuing that kid partner of his, Ballistic. The pervert.” “What makes you say that?” “You don’t crawl around the shadows of the city with a kid dressed in tights without tongues wagging. The Pistoleer had problems that he didn’t want the world at large to know about.” “And so, you trapped him and Ballistic in a room encompassed by an angular force field generator.” “Well not quite. Say, could you loosen these bonds? It’s a bit stuffy in here.” “What do you mean when you say not quite?” “You don’t want to know about that, do you?” the Doctor teased. He tried shifting a bit, but found he couldn’t. “Tell us, Doctor. Tell us and we‘ll free you.” “No, I don’t think so. A player doesn’t show his moves to his opponent. Not without knowing what his opponent is thinking.” He smiled toward the glimmering blue light. “I think I’ll hold onto this bit of information.” “Then you’re never going to be free.” “Says you. Whoever you are.” “What are you afraid of Doctor? The information is purely that - infor-mation. The statute of limitations have expired on any and all of your activi-ties. Besides, The Pistoleer, even with the good that he accomplished, was in fact a wanted criminal in the eyes of the law. It is a new world, sir.” “ALL RIGHT. SHUT IT ALL DOWN!” The powerful new voice cut through the tension and squashed any random sound as silent as a grave. Suddenly the blue light widened,
and for the first time Lucifer could clearly see his surroundings… Long twisted cables spider-webbed the room as men in tight-fitting lab coats, more like lab skins, surrounded him. Each man had a tablet in front of him staring at digital readouts of Lucifer’s responses. Lucifer’s eyes followed the cables as one of the lab techs called out, “Would Control please go to auto on the articulating arm?” Suddenly, Lucifer felt his head move. Not exactly what he was used to as his head pitched with the movement of his eyes. It took him a moment to focus and he looked down… and it horrified him. He was a head - a disembodied cranium perched on a robotic arm. Flu-ids ran through micro-fibre tubules into his cortex. The cyberarm rotated around letting Lucifer get a good look. “How?” A technician dressed in a form-fitting work sheath watched the read-outs on his Stat board. “Welcome to the Museum of Supernatural History, Doctor. You are, in fact the 43rd display we have imagineered since we opened.” “Museum of Supernatural.. Forty-three you say? Might I ask where the hell is my body?” “Sorry, Doctor. Cryogenics of your era, were… well, screwed to put it mildly. It took all of the nannites we had on hand just to reconstruct your brain patterns.” Lucifer let it all sink in, and as it did a small tear formed on his cheek. All his plans, fouled by technology…or perhaps just a lack thereof. Hmmmm… “What do you want?” “Well, I should think that would be quite obvious by now Doctor -- we want information. We have a display opening up on The Pistoleer that His-torical Research is fighting us on. Now what did you mean by “not quite?” “So, I’m not alive?” “Yes, and no Doctor. As long as you stay
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hooked up to these tubes, you’ll be fine. You can think and breathe, after a fashion anyway, and talk to the public.” “Public?” “Yes we have a wonderful display for you. You’re going to be the hit of the museum. People from all over the known worlds will come and look at you, and ask you questions. It will be wonderful. You will be wonderful.” “Display?” The word wasn’t so much a question as a deep seated fear come home to roost. The Technician leaned forward and whispered, “Well of course, that is unless you fail to cooperate. We wanted to keep your personality profile in-tact. You are quite the character you know, and you could make this mu-seum very unique.” “Intact… I see,” said the Doctor. He looked around at all the eager faces waiting on his every word. He was trapped. After all those heroes he killed, all those banks looted, all those giant mutant gorillas he built to ter-rorize the populace into recognizing his genius. The infamous Doctor Lucifer was trapped. Or was he? “ I killed Ballistic, but of course I had my fun with him first,” smiled the Doctor. The Techs’ faces lit up. They consulted their tablets. “He was a skinny little prick, er kid, and I really hated that stupid grin on his face. Al-ways smiling like it’s the happiest thing in the world to run around in tights and shoot people who are trying to kill you then go home to play ward to a retired playboy. Tell me those two weren’t mad for each other. Of course my intellect was head and shoulders above them.” The Doctor let out what may have passed for a laugh, but ended up sounding more like an old-style modem connection. The techs frowned and made notes on their boards. They would have to fix that. The Director walked forward and smiled. “Very good, Doctor. Just the sort of facts to get
the public through the doors.” “I thought as much. So you must show me my display case. Only the finest for Doctor Lucifer and all that…” “Yes Doctor. I think we could do that.” Doctor Lucifer thought about it. This wouldn’t be bad at all. Here it was - the future - and he had just the head for dealing with it. Now all he needed were his other appendages. But all in good time. “Do you think you could make me a pair of arms? I present much bet-ter when I make gestures.” “Now now, Doctor…don’t go getting any ideas.” “You wound me, sir.”
“Mrs H’s Knitting Circle”
“Mrs H’s Knitting Circle” By Mark Caldwell
Is that a problem?” The sap felt good in my hand. It felt good as it connected with the back of his head. He’d have surprised me if I’d not smelt the foreign smoke hanging from his lower lip. I caught him and lowered him to the floor. I could hear my mother’s cry echoing from the past: “Clubbing security guards isn’t lady-like G! Now go to your room.” Sorry dear Mama, but Gina is still a tomboy. Now though I’m a tomboy for the Government. Well - sort of the Government; I work in the FBI bookkeeping pool. That became more hazardous when Mrs H. invited me to her knitting circle. The gramophone played in the background, its trumpet covering the bug behind the painting. The chatter of ladies gossiping and the rhythmic clatter of needles came from it. Mrs H. had no intention of her husband finding out what really went on at her get-togethers with some of the ladies from his office. “So G., how are our finances?” asked Mrs H. “We’re up four percent on last month, Dorothy. We’ve siphoned more out of the special projects budget and I’d predict a similar increase next month, so long as no one goes on a spree for purses.” A laugh ran round the group. None of us were the type to go on a spree for purses or shoes for that matter. I doubt most of us owned more than two purses - three at most. “Excellent. What progress have you made
with the Énigme’s electrician friend?” “He’s a push over. I flashed Mr Theodore Sparks an ankle and a smile. He talked. A bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. One day he was a sweet dear, the next he’s acting like a syndicate tough and two days later he’s in hospital all banged up like he went the distance with a heavyweight.” “Anyone else got any pieces for this jigsaw?” “I might have something Dorothy,” piped up Dot, a skinny young thing from archiving. “The night your friend wound up in hospital they pulled a group of the usual suspects out of a car downtown. All of them dead on account of hitting a brick wall while their car was upside down and doing an unhealthy turn of speed. The car belonged to one Dale Hoover, no relation to your husband, small time hood known to the MPD. He’s the other man G. saw with Sparks at The Dark Horse. I slipped him onto the watched list. He flew down to Mexico with an unknown blonde. Énigme flew down to Mexico two days later.” “28” was what it said by the light of the flash. My hunch had better be right. With the guard unconscious I’d not get a second chance. They’d move everything or tighten security in hours. I flipped the Wood’s glass filter over the flash. The number glowed with a strange blue light: “23”. Bingo! Here was the misplaced Federal Secure Storage Facility Number Twentythree hiding in plain sight. The door was locked
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and the lock looked like it would take a while to pick and all I’d get from applying brute force was a bruised shoulder. I checked the guard’s pocket: bus tickets, a match-book and a pack of Turkish smokes; change, a revolver, handcuffs and keys. Trying to be quiet I slipped them one at a time in the lock. By the third a line of perspiration formed on my brow. The fourth one clicked loudly but turned. I opened the door just enough to slip inside and have a look. Row upon row of shelves filled the warehouse from floor to ceiling. Nothing stirred inside, not even a rat. I dragged the guard inside, propped him against the wall and thanked my lucky star he was a scrawny lightweight and not an eighteen-stone bruiser. I wasn’t taking any chances though; I handcuffed his wrists together round a column, locked the door then leant a fire extinguisher against it. Keeping to the shadows, I crept along the shelving till I came to stack Q. Now all I had to do was find lot three-six-one and get the hell out of Dodge. I worked my way past lot one hundred, past a case Dot thought held the Ark of the Covenant, past two hundred to three hundred, past three hundred and sixty - a glass jar holding a gremlin preserved in greening alcohol still chewing on the length of high voltage cable. Here was the prize - three hundred and sixty-one - a small wooden box. It should hold the jade statue. I lifted it. It felt heavy enough to be a statue. A small lock held the box shut; none of the keys on the key ring would fit it. I pulled a hairpin from my hair and went to work. Two of the tumblers had moved when I heard the crash of the fire extinguisher tumbling. Men’s voices and feet running echoed around. Looks like G. may be in trouble Mama. We’d been back and forth over it for almost three whole discs on the gramophone when Mrs H. asserted her authority and drew things to a close. “Ladies, we’ve been at this from every angle.
We need to know if Énigme got his hands on the figurine. We need to know if he used it to hypnotise everyone at the President’s daughter’s party at the East Room in the White House. We need to know if he gave something he obtained to Dale Hoover or if Hoover stole it from him and that’s why he went after him to Mexico. Dot, you need to get the records of where that piece was being kept and anything else that might help her. Pass them to Tanya through the usual drop. Tanya, you’re going to check if the figurine is missing. If it’s not we’re barking up the wrong alley and we need to find a new alley to bark up. Now I think we should do some knitting for appearances’ sake. Tea anyone?” The feet were almost at the end of stack Q. I squeezed deep into the shelf between the gremlin and the wooden cases. Black really is this year’s new black for cat burglars. I bet I could get Mr Sparks sparking in this outfit. In the cramped space I worked at the lock till all five tumblers gave. I heard feet and voices working through the warehouse systematically - now some from my left, some from my right. I flipped the box open and pulled the packing out. A big, shapeless, lump of concrete. No figurine. Bingo Mama! Now to get out of here. I uncurled. My foot caught on something. A crash of breaking glass on the floor. The gremlin-in-a-jar ruined one last plan. Giving up my attempt to slip quietly into the night I uncoiled and dropped into the spreading pool of alcohol on the floor. Men appeared at the ends of the row. Only one way I could go – up. I felt cold liquid soaking through my gym shoes as I climbed. The wet rubber sole slipped out from under me and I dropped, catching myself as a bullet cut the air I’d left empty. I’d have shot back, but neither Mrs H. nor Mama would have approved. So I did the only thing I could: I kept going up. From the top of the stack I jumped across onto P then N then M.
“Mrs H’s Knitting Circle” If Dot’s plans were right there would be skylights above M. I ran along till I saw the moon above me. The footsteps were close below me. I jumped up, grabbed a beam and pulled myself up. I smashed the glass with my flashlight. I was out onto the roof and running. There’s a ladder at the North end of the roof, so I went South. Someone could come up as easily as I could go down. The roof went up and down in a series of inverted Ws. At the crest of each rise I checked over my shoulder. I was on the final crest when I saw someone behind me. Seconds later I heard a gun fire twice. I ran on. No going back. I rushed forward and down. A foot on the brick parapet, I pushed hard and leapt for the next roof, eight feet away, praying no one was waiting to shoot me from below. My foot made contact. I rolled forward. Then I was up and off again, leaving my pursuers behind in the night. We were idling in the cane chairs in Mrs H.’s conservatory enjoying the late afternoon sun. Penelope Kerns from records had been ferreting away for a week while I’d been busy confirming the figurine was missing. “I’ve been running some routine efficiency tests through the indexing at the INS. It was easy to slip Dale and his companion in. Dale stayed in Mexico two weeks then crossed the border in El Paso on a forged passport. He vanished but word on the street is that the syndicate has a contract out on him for unpaid debts.” “How about Énigme?” asked Mrs H. “Not a trace of Énigme since he flew South.” “And Dale’s companion?” “The blonde didn’t come back with him. She was a lot harder to dig out of the system. So far I’ve got this much. She was going by the name of Roxie Ryan, working as a singer at a speakeasy near DC when she hooked up with Dale. Before that job there are no records of Roxie. However there was an Angelica French
involved in the theft of a bullion shipment from Johannesburg to London; a Lauren Rollins who was seen going around with a noted Swedish chemist for a month and vanished leaving an open safe, the plans for a secret, metal-refining process missing and the chemist’s body with a knife through the heart; a Della Molina who temped for a shipping firm in San Francisco and who accidentally directed a large consignment of specialist mining equipment to China where it vanished; an Adele Molina who worked for a shipping company in Liverpool, England, and misplaced a consignment of munitions on their way to the British army in Singapore. All of them match Roxie’s description. There are more possible candidates in the file - each with a crime to go with it.” “This young lady has been systematically stealing a shopping list from around the world for at least four years. Why, we don’t know, but I think we can all see she must be stopped. We need to know how Énigme fits in. Is it his or her scheme or are they in it together? Think on that ladies for next time and while you’re thinking I’m going to take a trip down to Texas to do some fact finding for a charity report. Don’t know which charity yet and I’m going to borrow Gina from my husband. I’m sure he won’t mind you coming along to take notes for me. I really shouldn’t travel alone.” We’d been down here two days when we got the tip off we’d been waiting for. A freelance hood turned up dead in a car out in the Chihuahuan desert. K. couriered us a copy of the report: it wasn’t the stuff of pleasant bedtime reading. He’d been out there a couple of days in the trunk of his car-turned-coffin-turned-oven. He’d been shot from behind at close range with a forty-five. The car was hidden in a gulley three hundred yards off Route Fifty-Four near Carrizozo. Footprints led back to the asphalt. It took a couple of hours flashing the stiff’s mug shot around and a fifty dollar portrait of the
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president to a motel manager to track down where he’d been staying. He’d booked in on the Sunday, paid for a week in advance but they’d not seen him since Tuesday. There wasn’t much of interest in his room. A case packed with cheap suits, a part read dime novel, a half-drunk bottle of whiskey, and an eight-by-ten mug shot of Dale Hoover. On the back were printed a few pertinent details: height, weight, age, eye colour, hair colour, known associates, known hang-outs and the value of the contract, payable on elimination: five thousand dollars. The manager hadn’t seen Dale. We were almost done for the day when we showed his picture to a waitress. She’d not seen him but a trucker wanted a look. He’d picked Dale up a few miles out of town and dropped him at the city limits. Dale said his car had broken down though the trucker didn’t remember passing any abandoned automobiles on the side of the highway. That’s when it had gone wrong for our new friend. Smoke had belched from his rig’s engine. He’d nursed it to the only mechanic in Chihuahuans before it gave up the ghost. Less than an hour later he’d seen Dale driving out of town heading South fast. He swore blind it was Dale behind the wheel. We asked around some more the next day and found the two-room flop he’d rented. There the trail went cold again. We went back and forth at it for a while. Why go South? If he knew they were close enough on his tail that a two bit hood got the drop on him he’d be driving straight into a hotbed of cheap guns for hire looking for a big pay day. We called Penelope but he’d not slipped across the border, at least not legitimately. That left only one conclusion: going South had been a ruse. We went North. Corona, Vaughn, Santa Rosa, Edgewood, Moriarty and Estancia were dead ends. We’d got a day left before we’d be catching a flight back to DC. Our luck changed in Mountainair.
We had breakfast in a diner across from the railroad station when I saw him walking down the sidewalk like he didn’t have a care in the world. We paid for our unfinished breakfasts and headed outside. He bought a paper from the stand then went into the ticket office. We walked in close on his heels. He was buying a one way ticket to Albuquerque. Mrs H. went to get us two. I followed him onto the platform. I was planning on keeping my distance but as I stepped from the darkness into the harsh New Mexico sun he was standing right in front of me looking me straight in the eye. “What’s your game sister?” he asked, as he looked me up and down. I went blank. My mouth went dry. “Come on sister, I ain’t got all day and I know you and your friend ain’t no pair of nuns spreading the word of the good Lord.” I could hear the tracks humming with the train running in fast in the distance as I paused too long fumbling for an excuse. “We’re just getting the train to Albuquerque. Not that it’s any of your business.” “Oh it’s my business, babe. It’s been my business since the pair of you started asking questions about me in three states. What - you didn’t think people would tell me? A pair of high society broads splashing lettuce around and asking questions about a low life like Mr D. Hoover by name?” “I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr Hoover. I’ve never heard of you before this minute.” “Well you won’t have a problem with me watching you and your friend get on that train then while I stay right here will you? In case you try anything funny Mr Forty-Five Caliber here is pointing straight at your sweet self.” I glanced down, he was holding his paper in an odd way. It wasn’t worth gambling it was hiding an automatic. Me and Mrs H. were getting on that train and there was nothing we could do about it. It galled me we’d gotten so close to him and he was going to slip through
“Mrs H’s Knitting Circle” our fingers. Mama G’s not as smart as she thought. I decided playing dumb wasn’t working so I might as well change tack and see what I could get out of him. “So why’d you come back up from Mexico, Dale?” “So you know who I am now.” “Yes and so do a lot of people.” Rhythmic clickety-clacks joined the hum from the track. “You working with the Syndicate?” “No I’m with the FBI.” “The FBI using G-Women now?” “Not officially, but this place is crawling with law enforcement. So’s the train. I came out here to see if you’d give yourself up quietly. We know the syndicate has a price on your head. We’ll offer you protection if you’ll tell us everything.” “You think I buy that?” “Start by telling me what’s happened to the blonde and Énigme.” “You really don’t know when to give up, do you?” “I’d say the same about you. We found the body in the car. The lab boys will match the bullet from his body to your gun. Then it’s a murder rap for you. So tell me about the blonde and Énigme and tell me how you shot the guy in self-defence when he came for you.” I felt the train pulling in behind me. Doors opening. “I already told you, I ain’t telling nobody nothing.” That’s when he dropped the paper and pushed me to one side. I hit the platform and rolled to one side losing my purse. Mr Forty-Five Caliber spoke twice. A guy in a sharp suit that had big city written all over its cut crumpled. Someone behind him stepped back into the shadows of the carriage. Moments later a canvas bag smashed through one of the carriage
windows. Somewhere nearby a woman was screaming. Hoover fired into the train. Maybe he could see something I couldn’t. Staying down I tried to see where my purse was. Everything had happened so fast that my piece was still in it. It lay at Hoover’s feet. I decided to raid our funds if I got out of this. The knitting circle needed shoulder holsters. A volley of shots came from the carriage. None of them found their mark but they set Dale’s feet moving and he started backing down the platform. Keeping low I scrambled for my bag. The clasp jammed. Mama would be having conniption at my unladylike behaviour. Another big city hoodlum with a hawkish nose leant round the door leading with his revolver. Dale dropped to one knee and fired three times as the revolver’s rounds went over his head. The hoodlum fell but he’d drawn Dale’s attention back to the carriage. A man shaped more like a great ape emerged round the front of the locomotive. He’d an ugly looking lupara in his hand. There was no way Dale could see him. He was rising to his feet as the lupara belched two barrels of fire catching him in the right shoulder. I felt the catch on my purse snap open. Blindly I reached inside feeling for my gun’s butt. Instead I found my compact. Dale’s right arm hung useless at his side. He’d dropped Mr Forty-Five Caliber. The Syndicate’s man put the lupara casually on the platform and hoisted himself up using his simian arms. My fingers closed on something. My hairbrush. The suited hominid bent down and picked up the lupara. Dale sagged to his knees facing me as the ape walked down the platform. He was casual, his gun wasn’t even loaded. I wriggled round in to a classic prone firing position. Just like my daddy taught me, much to
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Mama’s consternation when she found out. Blood was pooling on the platform, his face turning white as the blood poured from his wounds. The ape flipped open the gun’s breach and reached into his pocket. He pulled two shells from his pocket and slipped them into the gun. My fingers found something else. I prayed it wasn’t my lipstick as I pulled it from the purse. He was loading the other barrel now. Theatrically he flipped the gun closed and pointed it at the back of Dale’s head as he knelt on the platform in a pool of his own blood. “Any last words I should pass on to Mr Cesar, scum?” I didn’t waste my breath on a quotable line. Dale was rasping - didn’t look like he had a dying breath left. I flipped the safety off my point twotwo Caliber and fired. I didn’t take any chances. I put four in the ape’s chest and followed up with two more to the head. He toppled over backwards like a felled tree with a wooden expression on his face. No two ways about it, Mama’s going to look like she’s sucking on a lemon when she finds out about this.
“OUT OF THE FOG”
A Tale of Flench and the Freebooter
“OUT OF THE FOG” By Matthew P. Mayo
mucker at the town stables. But that was a long “What a morning,” Flench grumbled. time ago. Twenty years and more. He squinted “Can’t tell a cat from a dog, the fog is that thick.” into the fog. Never had he seen a horse such No one was yet on the street. With each pulling as this. Covered though it was with layers of step, the thick ooze of the narrow lane wormed creaking, rattling leather and bronze armor, the between his toes through the holes in his wraps. hide rippled damp and silver in the close fog of Surely, no one would begrudge a beggar respite this already thick day. A war horse? Here? from the mud at so early an hour. He angled Despite his fear, he hurried along the walk toward the higher cobbled walk under the eaves to keep abreast of it, then when he was afraid he of the street’s shops. would lose sight of it where the lane and walk From just behind, a coughing snort and a diverged, he stepped from the cobbles and into gout of warm air slapped Flench’s neck like a the thick mud of the street once again. sopping rag. Something stuck, then slid down The morning mist swirled and parted in his bony spine. A bloated-carcass stink clouded gusts like attendant clouds as the horse stopped. his nostrils. Eyes watering, he crouched and A massive fist came to rest on the thigh nearest scrambled for the cobbles. him. Above it, a battered leather brace, and As he slapped at the sliding gob of phlegm above that, a scarred, corded forearm. At with with his good arm, he gritted his remaining teeth the man’s knee rose the knurled hilt of a sword and snarled, “By all that’s—” from beneath layers of leather armor, well within From what he could see of the beast as it grasp. sauntered past, it stood half-again taller than any Flench’s perpetual gray squint sagged. As he horse from the village, or indeed from any of the looked up the fog parted to reveal a nearly bare domains bordering Carana. And the man upon torso broader than a royal guard’s battle shield. it, though Flench saw only a lower leg, bared but A large, sheathed dagger dangled from a leather for mid boots of worn, thick leather and ringed thong about the man’s neck, and a short cloak of with protruding nubs of jagged metalwork, must spotted white furs hung from his shoulders. The surely stand a full two heads taller and half-aman’s head still wasn’t visible, but such a body man wider than anyone Flench had seen in his sitting atop the high-cantle saddle was enough to fifty-two years. The only other man he could freeze the little man where he stood. recall of such size was Chancellor Regent Greigle, “What.” who at one time had been big and rugged like The voice seemed to echo off the close this character, but had since gone big and fat. buildings. Flench knew it was directed at him In his youth Flench had spent several years as but he did not know what to say. He looked
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to the left, to where the horse’s head was still hidden in the thick mist. Indeed he could barely see the full height of the animal’s withers. How big could it be? The hooves, fringed with dark, mud-matted hair, were like tree stumps sunk in the ooze of the street. Flench wanted to scamper from the sopping lane, but found he could not move. The rank stink of stale musk, that of a great beast worked hard and left unwashed, rolled and broke over him, so strong he could almost see it, taste it, and he fought the urge to gag. The horse snorted. The saddle creaked and popped under the man. “What is this place.” Again, it was not posed as a question but a statement. Yet Flench knew it required an answer. And from him. He opened his mouth to speak, but it was so dry. He closed it, swallowed, licked his lips, and finally said, “This be Carana. Sir.” After a few seconds, the man sighed and said, “Then I am not where I want to be.” The voice, despite its initial tone, was not unfriendly. Just big. Flench swallowed again and said, “I expect we none of us are, come to think on it.” A grunt greeted the remark. Then, “One place is as another. I require drink. And meat.” Flench waited for more but the fist on the thigh remained immobile. This big fellow had a way about him that was both interesting and irritating. Acts like he’s of more value than he ought, considering he’s a stranger and all, thought Flench, straightening somewhat. The horse stepped in place, its flank twitched, its tail switched. Something about the beast was always in motion. It occurred to Flench that the man was waiting for him to respond. “You’ll want the Brimmin’ Flagon. End of this street. Tasty brew, they serve there. It’s been a time since I’ve quaffed it myself, of course.” He looked down, frowning as if a rat had just crossed his foot. The man made no response. Flench brightened and said, “Just beyond is the
village stables. Good place. I used to work there.” “I’ll see you at this Flagon, then.” The man heeled the big horse and they walked on, still in no hurry. Soon they were lost from Flench’s sight in the thickening mist, the receding sound of the massive hooves squelching muck the only sign they had been there. Flench sighed and said, “Well, if this one don’t act like lord and master. And we already have one of those, thank you. Who needs another?” He walked on, thinking of the man’s few words, then stopped and rasped a calloused hand across his stubbled chin. “Now Flenchy,” he said in a whisper. “Another one—no, no. But a different one. … ” Flenchy laughed, working his bony shoulders higher, and closed his flapping coat with his good hand. He straggled through the mud toward the Flagon and soon disappeared in a swirl of fog. II: By the time Flench reached the tavern the big man had long been dismounted and gone inside. The giant war horse stood in the street, one ear twitching, and jets of steam billowing from its flexing black nostrils. Flench recognized the stink of its breath. The horse groaned low as he approached. Flench stopped. The beast’s ears had slowly flattened back against its skull. Flench knew it was set to menace should he venture one step closer. He did not. He looked about him to warn others, but what little of the street he could see was empty. He doubted anyone would dare creep near the horse, and he was glad its eyes were shrouded in great cups of black leather, halfconvinced was he that they would gleam red if looked upon. A shudder rippled up his back and shook his thready cloak. He tugged the heavy door open and stepped inside. As the door thunked into place he let his eyes adjust to the dark room before him. It had been a month or more since
“OUT OF THE FOG” he’d had enough coin to be allowed in. And even then Shale, the owner and barman, had booted him out once Flench’s last drop was drained, offering nothing but a scowl the entire visit. To think they were once friends. Times had changed. Still, smiled the old beggar, the stranger had offered, in a manner of speaking, to buy him a round. Or two, perhaps. Given the man’s bulk, it would not be difficult to spot the stranger, even if the tavern was not otherwise empty. Flench hadn’t seen much more of him than his boots, and yet when he looked on the man, seated aside the cold hearth with his back to the door, Flench found the sight of him almost familiar. The stranger, wide of shoulder and with a head of straight black hair that covered his neck and obscured the near side of his face, must have guessed it was Flench at the door. A burly arm beckoned the frail man once, then dropped back to the table, to the bowed handle of a chipped stoneware flagon. Flench licked his lips and smiled. A good start to a poor day. He clumped across the room, not daring to meet Shale’s gaze. His gimpy leg dragged a bit as he swung it forward with each step. He was sure he was leaving mud on the flagged floor. Good. He rounded the table and sat across from the stranger. And got his first look at the man’s face. It was younger than he expected, and not unkind. The eyes were dark and the nose scarred in the middle. He was clean-shaven and there were small scars low on one cheek. Here was a brawler. But for all that, the man was young. Surely he could have seen no more than twenty, twenty-five years. “You irritated my steed.” “You heard that?” said Flench, eyes wide. “But how? He only grumbled a bit.” The man, chin down and head bent forward, looked hard at Flench. A mouth full of even teeth aligned perfectly behind thin lips, spread wide in a smile. The action changed his dour
appearance like sunlight kills night. “I only guessed. He is foul most of the time. And since you are something of a horse man, you would be curious enough to step close. But not too close.” Flench relaxed, sawed a hand across his chin, and stared at the man’s drink. “He is one to watch.” The man grunted in agreement and wagged his hand at the tavern owner, then gestured a lazy finger toward his new companion. For the first time, Flench noticed that the man carried with him not a little of the horse’s strong odor. He shrugged, knowing how ripe his own smells must be. In short order a flagon appeared, but the tavern owner stared at Flench, distaste sneering his mouth. A few quiet moments passed, then the stranger said, “Serve the man.” And that was all it took. When the barman had stalked off Flench thanked his new friend and swallowed fully half of his drink. He set down the vessel and wiped his mouth on his sleeve. He should have felt embarrassed, but he lost that useless trait years before. If the stranger noticed Flench’s thirst, he made no show of it. “How do you know I know my horses?” The man upended his drink, gulped, and belched through nearly closed lips. “Your curiosity didn’t get the better of you.” He set the vessel down. “That horse has killed the curious.” “Was a time I knew my animals. And could tend them, too. But now. . . . ” He held up the brittle stick that was his left arm, the hand clawed and curled into a useless fist. “I’m not fit for such work. Not for a long time since.” The man said nothing, offered no indication that he had heard Flench. Only when a second flagon for each had been set before them did he speak. “How?” He flicked a finger at Flench’s cradled limb. The little man regarded him for a moment,
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then said, “Twenty years or more now, a man as big as yourself—maybe bigger—came to us. No one knew from where. Alone he was.” Flench leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Bold as day, he rode right up that hill,” he jerked his head toward the stone wall behind the bar man, who watched them from the gloom of his corner, “and killed the old Chancellor Regent.” Flench sipped his ale. “And he’s been up there on the hill since. Comes down to tax us, threaten us, beat us, kill us, steal from us—our food, our beasts, our children … anything worth money elsewhere. What he doesn’t use he sends off on caravans in the night. …” Flench leaned back and looked at the crippled hand in his lap. “He beat you.” Flench barely nodded. “Did you earn it?” The old man’s head snapped upward and for the first time he stared straight into those dark eyes. “If you think trying to stop him from stealing my wife is enough to earn me this,” he held up his arm again. “Or this,” he smacked his gimpy leg with his good hand, “then yes. I earned it every time they beat me.” He sank back into himself. “Finally, I ran out of strength to go back there.” “You’re a tough bird. Or they aren’t so very good at clubbings.” The man smiled again. “Barman, bring us meat. And bread and cheese.” He smacked a hand on the table top and the drinks jumped. So did Flench. “Where is this woman of yours now?” “She’s up there. One of his servants.” “How do you know she’s not long dead? Twenty years is a long time.” The little man’s jaw muscles worked and his face looked as if he just tasted rancid meat. “No. She’s alive.” “You aren’t as old as your body tells.” Flench almost smiled. “The same could be said of you.” The food arrived and they both ate without speaking. Finally the big man angled his bench
and leaned back against the stones of the cold fireplace. “She was pretty. This woman of yours.” Flench nodded. “My friends told me not to marry a pretty girl. That it would only bring trouble.” “Friends are useless.” Flench could think of nothing to say to this. He saw the barman watching him and the liquor emboldened him enough to sneer at the plump fool. III: Chancellor Greigle wagged a hand toward the sideboard on which rested the steaming pot. When after a few seconds there was no response he looked up from the stack of scrolls in front of him and squinted at the large, thick woman clearing the table of refuse from the previous evening’s festivities, when his friends, chief among them, Olleck, had visited. “You have grown nearly useless to me. But you know that, don’t you?” The woman looked up at him with wide, angry eyes, at the long, flabbed arm outstretched from the silk robes, dangling the wagging cup by its ring. “More kalfa,” he said again, bouncing the cup off his knuckles as one would a child on a knee. The plates clattered to the table as she moved to refill his cup. “My god, woman, the way you bull through my home, one would think you owned the place and its many treasures.” He whipped his arms upward and yawned long and loud, pushing back from the table. He sat watching the woman, his robe having slipped open. He glanced down at the mass of successive rolls of hairless bronze flesh jutting from him and almost touching the table’s edge. He pulled in with long-buried muscles, hardly noticing the shifting of the ample flesh. It had been a long time since he’d seen his own knees. He sighed, no matter. He still had his height and his virility. Which proved that just because you couldn’t
“OUT OF THE FOG” see a thing did not mean it did not exist. He chuckled and rubbed his face. He was cool this morning, the fog had not yet turned sticky. The faintest wisp of violet and rosewater tickled his nose and he smiled. It had been a fine bath last evening with two of the young ones from the village, barely aware of themselves. They were so new. But oh, such pleasures he would soon experience from them. He yawned again and rubbed his palms against his naked apron of flesh. She stood by him with the cup, not looking at him. He wagged his hand toward the table and she reached across him to set the cup there. Grinning, nostrils wide as if he’d smelled something rank, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her to him. She grunted and pushed against him with her wrists, as if touching him with her fingers was repugnant to her. He let her struggle for a few moments, then pulled her back to him, keeping her off balance. With her face close, he nudged her black-gray hair aside and shouted into her ear. “Do you hear a thing I say?” He released her and laughed, shaking and slapping his girth. “Useless, I tell you.” He sipped the hot brew and watched her over the rim of the cup. She piled dishes on others, her ragged hair hanging nearly to the table. “You should have done that last night,” he said, leaning back again. “I don’t know why I keep you. With every year you grow less helpful. Less appealing. You aren’t so much use in the bed any longer, either.” She brushed scraps of bread and fruit rinds to the floor, not looking at him. “Do you know, my friends warned me against keeping any servant about the place too long. They get to know you too well, they said. Learn things about you, they said. But still I kept you on.” His face brightened and he leaned forward. “Do you know what Olleck said?” She ignored him, her raw, red hands moving nimbly amidst the mess of the tabletop.
“ ‘Never trust something you have struck,’ he said. I find that curious. ‘Dog, child, horse—no matter. It will always turn on you,’ he said. ‘Of course,’ I told him. But a woman? I wonder.” He sipped his kalfa, watching her through narrowed eyes. IV: “How far from here is Aldona? It’s a market town.” The big man was looking at him now, his massive arms folded across his chest. The skin cloak across his shoulders had no doubt looked better. It hung in tatters and fur was worn away in patches. Still, Flench hadn’t seen such muscled arms in a long time. “I’m not sure I’ve ever heard of the place. It must be far if I’ve never heard of it.” After a moment of silence, Flench said, “Why do you ask?” The stranger looked as though he wanted to punch Flench, then his features softened. “A man there owes me money.” Flench was quiet a moment, his lips pursed, then he leaned over the table and said, “A fortune?” The man snorted a burst of laughter, big and full. He rumbled with it. The tavern keeper looked up briefly from doing nothing. “You are an irritating little man. But I like you.” The stranger breathed in deep through his nose. “No, not a fortune. But enough to keep me from starving until I find a way to steal a fortune.” “You are a freebooter. I knew it.” Flench felt stronger somehow. His jaw stuck out and he smacked the gouged wood of the tabletop with an open hand. He felt more like a man than he had for quite some time. “That big bastard up there in the keep on the hill is sitting on lots of money.” He squinted at the stranger. “More than a fortune.” The stranger returned the look, not moving. Flench leaned in over the table and said, “And nobody likes him. He’s robbed us
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all. We have nothing left. The same for all the villages hereabouts. Oh, this is bountiful land, but our labors only benefit Chancellor Regent Greigle. For miles and miles there is nothing but poverty.” He spat the words, then leaned back himself, comfortable in his rage. It must have been the grog, for after a few minutes of silence, Flench couldn’t help himself. “You know,” he said, leaning forward again. But the big man no longer seemed interested in Flench. He looked around the dim room, but the little man knew he was listening. “You look familiar to me,” continued Flench. He swallowed and steeled himself. “You look like you could be the son of the Chancellor Regent. The heir to a mighty fortune. … ” A low, menacing noise, like that of the horse, rose from the man’s throat. Then his face softened and he said, “What is it you want to believe, old man?” “I want. … ” The big man laughed again. It was a loud, rolling noise, and he leaned forward, poking a thick finger at Flench’s face. His voice was low, even, like steel grinding against smooth stone. “You want your past returned to you, old man, and that cannot be given. Except by madness. Or perhaps death.” He smiled and drummed his massive scarred hands against the rippled muscles of his bronze stomach. The sheath knife hanging from a thong about his neck jiggled in place, and the leather braces on his forearms creaked in the gloom of the dim tavern. Flench felt the ember deep in his gut grow faint, then cold. What a fool he’d been. Once again. He nodded, almost as if he were agreeing with some private thought. His mouth slipped back to its accustomed frown. He didn’t even look up when the man stood, the bench squawking against the worn flags of the floor. “Come now, old man. You clearly wish I were someone I am not. And I wish I was someone rich.” Flench stared at the withered hand in his lap.
He heard clinking, then two coins dropped to the table and settled amid the crumbs and drops of sloshed ale. The stranger stood there and sighed, then big hands squashed flat against the worn wood and he leaned toward Flench, close enough that Flench could smell the man’s own odor mingle with the grog fumes on his breath. After a moment the man spoke, low and even. “Come outside.” Flench looked up, but the stranger was halfway to the door. Not daring to meet the glare of the barman, Flench rose, stuffed into his coat pocket what crusts, cheese rind, and drying scraps of meat and fruit remained on the platter, then shuffled to the door. By the time he made it out there, the stranger was settled in the massive wood and leather saddle. He nudged the horse and its great hooves squished and squelched in the muck of the street as it backed up even with Flench. They stood a moment like this, then the stranger said, “Point the way.” Flench stood still, unsure if he heard correctly. Then he raised his good arm and extended a finger past the horse’s long head, up the rising cobbled road leading out of town. “Up there. At the top of the hill. You can’t miss it.” The stranger nodded, staring ahead, not moving. “If only I had known you then. … ” said Flench. The big man laughed and shook his head. “I am here now.” Flench watched for a long while as the massive man and horse, together as if one creature, walked slowly up the hill that led to the fortified home high atop. It was only when he lost sight of the stranger in the distance that Flench noticed the fog lifting and the sun burning through. Surely, such a morning held promise.
“OUT OF THE FOG” V: “There was a time when you weren’t so hideous. There was a time when thoughts of your body kept me from my work.” Greigle grew silent then, his eyes staring at something beyond the fog that drifted in from the open balcony, the gauzy orange curtains lifting and falling with the lightest of breezes. He grunted and his face resumed its lined scowl. “Now look at you,” he said. “Useless.” “Do I not always take care of your problems?” she said, not looking up. “Ahh, today she dares speak to me.” He watched her jawline harden, her hands swat at the wood surface of the table, batting crusts out of the way, clunking glasses, tossing cutlery in a pile. She was an angry thing today. “So that is what this is about. Another ‘problem’ has arisen? Need I remind you they are not my concern. They are the little girls’ problems. Happily, they eventually prove profitable.” He sighed. “At least the little boys don’t have such problems.” “No. But they grow up to make them.” Her voice was hard, cold. He leaned back, his chair creaking, the rolls of flesh thickening about his neck. “Can I help it if I, once a mighty warrior, am now a fine gardener, too?” His sudden laughter was deep and rolling, a full belly shaker. She faced him, anger marking her lined face, her jaw muscles hardened. The wet rag hung dripping from her clenched hand. She looked as though she might speak, but turned away. “Sometimes problems never really go away, do they?” he said. “If allowed, they linger … for ten, twenty, even twenty-two years!” He extended his large pink hands toward her as if presenting her to a crowd. “But most of them just go away,” she said in a whisper, stepping toward the open window. She craned her head forward, almost ignoring him. “But sometimes they come back.” “What do you see?” He shifted in his chair. He didn’t really want to rise just yet.
After a moment she turned back to him and said, “Nothing I have not seen before.” She looked in his eyes and smiled—smiled!—for the first time in a long, long time. And in that smile he almost saw the young, beautiful thing she had once been. The one he had plucked from the muck of the village and brought to live here with him so long ago. Those were grand times. Until her own problem had made itself known. And afterward, still he kept her about the place. Yes, he was a good man, all in all. She left the dirty dishes on the table and hurried from the room, her laughter—she laughed!—the perfume of her youth, trailed behind like soft water over smooth stones. He looked after her, puzzled, and decided he would never understand her. Perhaps Olleck was right. It was time to let her go. She had been with him far too long. She herself had become a problem. A fully grown problem. He grunted and closed his robe. Tomorrow, he decided. Tomorrow she goes. He sipped his kalfa and opened another tax scroll. The figures were most impressive. Richer than ever, he noted, smiling. It was proving to be a decent morning, after all. Full of promise. The slow clatter of a horse’s hooves on cobbles rose to him from the courtyard below. And from somewhere deep in his great house echoed the fruity sound of a woman’s laughter.
ASTONISHING ADVENTURES MAGAZINE An Alt.World Story
“The Dame Wore a Tesseract” By Geoffrey Thorne
ray didn’t like guns. They were heavy, oily, clunky things that tended to put holes in people he cared about. He wasn’t sure he actually cared about the red draped dame currently clutching his arm in terror but he was dead sure he didn’t want anybody airing her out before he found out what her deal was. “I think someone’s trying to kill me,” she’d said in that hot breathy thing she called a voice. Then she’d turned her head to hide a tear while at the same time affording him a view of her ample cleavage that would have made a seeingeye dog walk through a plate glass window. Gray just smiled. She looked like a high-end little number, the talk of the society pages, but there was some grit under those cherry colored nails if Harris Gray was any judge. And she was familiar too, now that he thought of it. It was like they had some kind of history together that he couldn’t remember. She was good, whoever she was, that was the point. Even though there was obviously more going on with her than she wanted to spill, Gray had the feeling that getting to the heart of her matter would dig up the goods on his own situation. That situation got a little less murky with each passing second. He was from someplace else. Another country? Another city? He wasn’t sure yet but it wasn’t here. As familiar as these environs were, he could feel in his bones
that they weren’t exactly his. He was a cop or something in that other place. He had a partner, a woman, he thought, who went from place to place with him setting right what somebody had put wrong. There was definitely more to it but that was the gist. “Well,” he said in the kind of low rumble that made girls knees weak and guys make way. “We can’t have that, can we?” He was just about to get down to brass tacks with her when the gunsels and, more importantly, the widowmakers they toted, came pounding up the stairs to his office. “Let’s get you out of here,” he told the Dame as the two silhouettes appeared in the smoky glass window of his office door. In the second it took him to grab her and his trench coat, he realized she’d never make it down the fire escape in stilettos that high. The only other option was the closet. She let out a little squeak as he whipped the door open and shoved her in with the dusty moose bust and the golf clubs he never used. “Quiet,” he hissed as he shut her in. “Let me handle this.” He shut off her protest with the click of the door just as two of the biggest gorillas he’d ever seen kicked their way into his digs. The gats looked like toys in their big meaty hands but Gray knew they meant business. “You Gray?” said the one who looked more like an orangutan than a gorilla. “Who wants to know,” said Gray, making
“The Dame Wore a Tesseract” a show of hanging his trench back on the ancient coat rack. Suddenly there was a ring of cold steel pressed hard into his throat– the nozzle of a very competently made Tommie gun. Gray froze, letting the trench flap in his hand. “Crack wise with us, flatfoot, and you’ll be whistling out the side of your neck,” said the one that looked more like a gorilla. “Get it?” “Got it,” said Gray. “Good.” The gat receded slightly but the apes closed in. “We got a message for you, Gray,” said the first one. “Something simple, I bet,” said Gray. Ape Number Two cracked him across the jaw hard enough to let him know that a break was in his future if he kept up the smart guy act. “The Boss wants to see you,” said Ape Number One. “And the Boss is…?” “Maxie Sparks,” said the ape. “Never heard of him,” said Gray. It was a lie. He knew the name and felt he should know more, considering the little chill it sent through him. He just couldn’t match the handle with a face or a rep. Not yet. “Yeah, well, he’s heard of you,” said Ape Number Two. “He wants to see you.” “Guess I want to be seen then, don’t I?” “Believe it, smart guy,” said Ape Number One. “Two o’clock at the Chateau Noir. You know it?” “I read the papers,” said Gray. The Noir was a gin mill masquerading as a short order restaurant just on the edge of the city’s bowery. It was the kind of place the lowlifes went to get a taste of the highlife and the society set stepped down to get some mud on their spats. It was also the sort of joint where you could catch a bullet if you didn’t stay sharp. “Don’t be late,” said Ape Number One, moving out of the little office.
“Yeah,” said his partner, following. “’Cause if you’re late, you will be late. As in The Late Halo Gray.” “That’s Harris,” said Gray, irritated, but he wasn’t quick enough. The gorillas were already halfway down the stairs, well out of earshot. “Guess you don’t have time for me anymore,” said a voice that made Gray think of purring cats. He turned to find the dame peeling herself out of his closet and, it seemed to him, nearly out of the too-tight skirt she wore. The hem was caught on the rusty hinge of the closet door, dragging it a little down and exposing just a hint of the porcelain flesh beneath. Red garters, thought Gray. Nice. “Nix,” he said aloud, deftly flicking the hem free of its entanglement. “For a doll like you, I always make time.” She wouldn’t give her name– apparently answering to Doll or Babe was jake with her– but she was quick with directions to what she considered a safer place for them to talk. “You seem to attract a lot of attention,” she said as he escorted her to his car. “No problem,” he said. “It’s your dime.” She had him take her out somewhere along the coast, up into those hills the lower classes always thought of as mere backdrops for their day-to-day dramas but which were in fact home to the authors of not a little of their misery. The Rich clustered in the hills above the city like fat self-satisfied dragons, crouched on their ill-gotten hoards of gold. On the way she told him a little of her troubles– that she’d been followed by men in dark suits and automobiles, that she’d received mysterious phone messages threatening her if she didn’t accede to the caller’s demands. “What do they want?” said Gray, now actually interested beyond the desire to cash the
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check she’d be giving him for the time spent. “I better let the doctor tell you.” “And who’s the doctor,” said Gray. “He’s my boss,” she said as if that was the only answer he needed. After that there was silence between them, which was okay with Gray. He was fine taking in the scenery both inside the car and out. It wasn’t every day you chauffeured a bombshell like this right past an honest-to-gosh castle complete with moat. That was the hills for you: a hotbed of eccentricity fueled by cash. Judging by the ease of her “turn here’s” and “it’s just a little farther’s” Gray could tell the Dame was right at home. Good, he thought. At least I’ll get paid. He also began to feel a need to make a phone call that he couldn’t explain. The house was not what he expected. It wasn’t as big as the others they’d passed, nor nearly as posh. It was made mostly of bricks that were the same color as the Dame’s ensemble. There was a row of tall windows in the front, blocked by drapes of similar hue. There was a thick oak door with a big brass knocker in the center and a bigger handle on the right. Instead of the sturdy brick and iron constructions favored by the surrounding estates these grounds were ringed around by a massive but otherwise commonplace hedge. No gate, thought Gray as the car passed through the only break in the greenery. Trusting souls. The road leading up to the front door wasn’t even paved– just a dirt thing of the kind farmers might prefer but which the rich would never cotton. “This place has been in the family for generations,” said the Dame as if guessing his thoughts. “The Doctor likes it this way.” “What kind of doctor is he, anyway?” said Gray. “Tell me that at least.” “Not the going-to kind, if that’s what
you mean,” she said as the car came to a stop. “He does experiments.” “Yeah,” said Gray as he watched the Dame shimmy out of her seat. “I’ll bet he does.” “Doctor?” she said as the door opened into the shadowy house. Gray’s hand was on the steel in his coat pocket as soon as she saw that her key hadn’t been necessary. The door was already slightly ajar. “Easy, sister,” he said, moving past her. “I’ll take it from here.” He might not like guns but he wasn’t stupid enough to think you could get by in this town without one. He slid into the house like a ghost, moving silently from room to room, ready to put at least six holes in anything that wasn’t on the up and up. “Okay,” he said after a time. “Looks clear in here.” The Dame followed in his footsteps with saucer-wide eyes, taking in the wreck that had clearly once been a really choice set of digs. “There’s been a break-in,” she said in a near whisper. “Yeah,” said Gray, sliding the gun back into his pocket. “What was your first clue?” In fact somebody had done a hell of a lot more than just rob the place. From the smashed furniture and the craters in the walls, you’d think a war had been fought inside the house. Somebody had come here looking for something, hadn’t found it, and had taken out their displeasure on the heirlooms. Gray said as much and asked what the hell was going on. “You think I know?” said the Dame, aghast. “More than me,” said Gray. “So check the place out, if you want. See if your boss is hiding in some nook somewhere. But, when you get back, you spill. Okay?” She nodded and drifted off into the house.
“The Dame Wore a Tesseract” Gray found the only chair with all its legs still intact, sat and checked his watch. He still had a good hour and a half before the meeting with Maxie Sparks, plenty of time to sniff around the doctor’s place. He cast around ground zero, once the parlor or dining room, he guessed, before its destruction. Now just a scrap yard. He noticed a black cord running along a nearby baseboard and smiled. There should be a phone at one end and he still had that urge to make a call. He even had a number suddenly in his mind. “That you, Gray?” said a voice over a hurricane of static. “What the hell’s going on? Why are you on the failsafe line?” “Who’s this?” said Gray, feeling he should know. He gave the receiver a shake, hoping it would clear the static. It didn’t. “It’s Dyson,” said the voice. “Wipe those cobwebs away, Agent. We have a situation on our hands.” Gray didn’t like this guy’s tone and said so. What kind of screwball twist had he wandered into anyway? “Gray,” said Reinhardt. “I want you to listen closely. We don’t have much time.” “Less than you think, pal,” said Gray. “Unless you start talking sense.” “Gray,” said the voice. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” When Harris Gray heard those words it was as if someone had popped a cork somewhere in his mind. Suddenly his life, his real life, came rushing back to him like the hot sting at the end of a right cross. He was from somewhere else. He was from somewhere so else it would make Oz and Wonderland depressingly mundane. He was a Cleaner for the Altworld Organization and he was back on the clock. “Sorry, Sub Director,” he said once he
was himself again. “Memories got scrambled when I rezzed into my dupe.” “This one’s a cop or something, right?” Gray could tell from Dyson’s voice that the older man was skimming the operation specs as they spoke. “He’s a private detective,” said Gray. “You always get lucky that way, don’t you, kid?” Gray shrugged, knowing his superior couldn’t see. Cleaners moved from reality to reality by inhabiting the bodies of their counterparts in the billion variations of the planet Earth that made up this corner of the multiverse. Was it his fault that on most of those worlds his counterparts had a head for law enforcement? “Is Agent Maguane with you?” Gray thought about the Dame, listened to her knocking around in the recesses of the house. He thought about all those curves, the way she filled out that dress. Hard to believe tough little Kat Maguane was somewhere in there but it wasn’t unlikely. You mixed your quanta with whatever body was compatible from Alt to Alt. Sure, a lot of the time, when you arrived in a new world, you did take over your own counterpart’s body. Mostly though you played the lottery. Hell, you were lucky if you got to keep your original gender six times out of ten. The Dame could be Maguane. She was the right size; she had the right stare but, all those curves… It wouldn’t do any good to just come out and ask her. She was probably in the same boat he’d occupied before making contact with Dysonscrambled marbles. Sometimes borrowing an alternate body jumbled the memories until they were like raw eggs running through a sieve. Gray’s mind was back to normal but Maguane would need to hear her own code phrase before pulling herself together.
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“Possible,” he said. “I got somebody with me who’s a good candidate.” “Well, give her the trigger and get her on the clock,” said Dyson. Even over the static Gray could hear relief creeping into his superior’s voice. “You’ve got to get this thing under control fast.” “Let’s hear it,” said Gray. “You’re in a Null, Gray,” said Dyson. “And that is…?” the fog, though thinning, was still present in his mind, making it easy to recall the things he should know but not to actually dredge them up on his own. “A null,” said Dyson, “is an Alt with nothing in it that could possibly attract the Furies.” A hodge-podge of ugly images flashed through Gray’s mind– trans-dimensional mechships, shatterballs, soul benders and billions of other horribly lethal devices culled from a trillion conquered realities– shape-shifting agents using guile and brutality to grind those Realities into submission– the Furies. Gray hated them like the cancer they were. “Someplace the Furies would never go?” said Gray. “Sounds like heaven to me.” “We use the nulls for safe houses and arms dumps, Gray,” said Dyson. “We set up our own people, undercover, to do research or make exchanges we don’t want the Furies getting wind of.” “I’m not liking the direction this is going,” said Gray. Somewhere above him the sound of the Dame’s clunking around stopped. “One of our people, Dr. Adam Belanoff, was stationed in that Null because of some sensitive research he was doing,” said Dyson. “If his process is successful we might have a new weapon to use against the Furies.” “Powerful, I’m guessing,” said Gray, suddenly distracted. “How does being able to bring magical weapons into thermodynamic realities sound to you?” “It sounds- it sounds.” Something
scraped against Gray’s left heel, drawing his attention down. There was a small metallic square wedged between him and the wall. Still trying to wrap his mind around what Dyson had said, he bent to pick up the offending object. “We lost contact with Dr. Belanoff yesterday,” said Dyson. “Mm-hm,” said Gray, distracted. The metal square was a picture frame. The glass had been smashed out but the photo itself– that of a youngish, dark-haired man in glasses with the beginnings of a puckish grin on his face– was still intact. Was that Dr. Belanoff? “Gray,” said Dyson’s staticky voice. “Damn it, man, stay focused.” “You think the Furies pinched the Doc,” said Gray, snapping to. “You want me and Maguane to sniff out where they stashed him and get him back.” “Yeah, that’s the gist,” said Dyson. “But there’s something else.” “Who were you talking to down there?” said the Dame when Gray found her. She was on the second floor, in another of the destroyed rooms, on her knees, leafing through the slew of paper that covered the place like snow. She looks like a Madonna, thought Gray, taking her in. A smoking hot, blood-colored Madonna. It was weird seeing her that way, knowing that, despite the curvy package, she was really just his junior partner, Agent Katerin Maguane. No wonder he’d found her so familiar when she’d walked into his office. “A friend,” said Gray coming close. “Forgot I was supposed to call him earlier.” “Nothing deadly, I hope,” said the Dame. “Nah,” said Gray. “He wanted advice on a gift for his wife. Perfume.” “Sweet,” she said. “And he expects you to help with that?” “We’re close.”
“The Dame Wore a Tesseract” “What did you tell him?” she said. “I said I’d always been partial to Twilight Time.” Just as Gray had done when Dyson spoke his code phrase, the Dame stiffened at the sound of hers. Reality hopping could scramble the brain and it helped for Cleaners to have a post-hypnotic trigger or two to bring them back to themselves. The change in her demeanor was dramatic. Where at first she had been little more than a collection of curves and carnal promises now she was all angles and hard edges. Hell, she looked almost naked without a weapon in her hand. “You’ve got to be kidding me with these heels,” she said finally. “Welcome back, Maguane,” said Gray. “That you, Gray?” “In the flesh, kid.” “Kid?” she said, gesturing expansively at her hourglass figure that had to have been poured into the red-on-red ensemble. “I don’t think a kid should even be allowed to look at something like this.” “Roll with it, Maguane, we’re on the clock,” he said. “So we’re in deep again,” she said. “You don’t know the half of it,” he said. “Rogues?” she said as they gave the house a final once-over. She’d suggested they collect the Doctor’s scattered papers. The calculations and formulae were gibberish to them but, maybe one of the tech heads at HQ could make sense of them. “What’s a Rogue?” “Ex Cleaners,” he said and held up another pair of heels. She frowned. “Nothing over two inches, Gray,” she said. “Come on.” “Every once-in-awhile,” he continued, “we lose one to the other side or, worse, they just go into business for themselves.” “How does something like that happen?”
“Cleaners get to see the multiverse, Maguane. They get to go places and do things most people can’t even dream about,” he said. “It’s heady. Sometimes people give in to the temptation to take something or kill someone because none of it seems real anymore.” “Or they get hooked on the rush,” she said, finally settling on a pair of black pumps she could live with. “Exactly,” he said, clearly happy the shoe excavation was done. “Dyson thinks we’re dealing with a Rogue pack.” “Why?” she said, sliding on the left shoe. “Think about it,” he said. “This place is invisible to the Furies. Something about it keeps the people here from getting past some version of the 1930’s. But somebody was tailing Dr. Belanoff, somebody was threatening you– uh, Belanoff’s assistant.” He had to remind himself that Maguane hadn’t lucked into having an analog for herself in this reality. She had been forced to share her quanta with a native: the Dame. “And you think it’s these Rogues and not Furies?” “It’s the same thing,” he said. “In fact it’s worse. The Furies are monsters but at least they’re loyal to each other; they have a code. Rogues only care about collecting wealth for themselves and they don’t lose a wink if somebody gets hurt on the way to a payday.” She pulled on the right shoe and stopped, giving him a strange appraising sort of look. “That sounded almost personal, Gray,” she said. “Something you’re not telling me?” “Yeah,” he said. “My ex-partner is one of them.” Every rookie Cleaner knew Chasis Verdent’s resume- multiply decorated, crack shot, tireless combatant, master tactician. Her rep was nearly as impressive as Gray’s own. But, while Gray was still in the field fighting the good fight
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against the Furies, Verdent’s name was on the Wall of Lost Agents. Trainees got her story as a cautionary tale about the costs of overconfidence. Everyone assumed lost, in her context, meant Killed in the line. “Not killed,” said Gray, when the Dame– Maguane, damn it¬– told him her version of Verdent’s story. “But she’s dead to me.” They sat quiet for a while then as the car made its way out of the hills and back down to the city. Sundown Avenue was thick with people coming and going from the shops and movie theatres that lined either side. On one level the whole thing was maddeningly familiar– The Dynasty movie house here, Tipley’s Museum of Unbelievable Events there– each building a variation of the ones he knew from the Earth of his home Alt world. Only the color scheme was disconcerting. While all the people were dressed in the expected variations of hue usually found on a busy city street, the street itself existed only as permutations of gray. It was a strange architectural quirk but not the weirdest one he’d seen in his travels. A soft buzzing intruded into his reverie and he realized his partner was talking to him. “Come again?” he said. “The drill,” she said. “Where are we going?” “I’m going to my meeting with Maxie Sparks,” said Gray. “You’re waiting in the car.” “Gray,” she began to protest. He shot her a dark look. “By the book, Maguane,” he said. “We go with the flow of the place we’re in. Sparks wants to see me, not you. If I don’t come back, you find Belanoff on your own and finish the job.” “By the book,” she said but it was clear from her expression she’d rather write her own
edition. “You’re on time, Gray,” said the sharkskin-covered tub of guts at the end of the bar. “I like that.” Maxie Sparks, local mob boss and all around square G had a taste for the good life that he displayed at every possible moment. He drank champagne when everybody else was slugging beer, draped himself in Darby Street originals when Made in Americana would do, even kept a sweet little pearl handled .45 in the holster under his left arm. “You wanted to see me,” said Gray, taking a seat at the bar’s far end. Behind him, flanking the door and, in theory, blocking any hasty retreats, stood the two apes who’d delivered Maxie’s invite. “Yeah,” said Maxie, snapping his fingers and running a hand through his pomaded hair. “We got business, whether you know it or not.” “If you say so,” said Gray, looking as non-committal as possible. Maxie laughed. Somebody appeared and handed him a tall thin flute of something sparkly. “I do say so,” said Maxie. Then, to the Apes, “See that? That’s the right attitude for business.” He took a languid sip form his glass, stood and moved down to the stool beside Gray. “Doctor B had a good business attitude too. Me and him had an arrangement.” “Doctor B?” said Gray. “Am I supposed to know who that is?” “Come on, Gray,” said Maxie. “I know the Doc’s little lab rat came to see you. My boys have been on her since the war started.” “The war?” said Gray. “Jeez, you don’t make it easy, do you?” said Maxie. “The war between my outfit and Cranzetti’s crew. It’s mostly a misunderstanding.” “Wars usually are,” said Gray. “The boys tailed her to your place where they lost her,“ he shot the apes a poison look.
“The Dame Wore a Tesseract” “But she could only have been there about one thing. The Doc’s gone and she don’t know where.” “Let’s say he is,” said Gray. “What makes you think this Cranzetti’s got anything to do with it?” “Cranzetti ain’t playing by the rules, see,” said Maxie, suddenly dour. “He’s getting help from some outside organization. Knocking over pieces that ain’t in play.” “Yeah,” said Gray. “I’m still waiting on the part where this has something to do with me.” “The Doc, Gray,” said Maxie. “The Doc was one of mine, okay. We had a deal where he would whip me up some of them future-static tinker-toys of his and I would keep not breaking his legs.” “Tinker-toys?” said Gray. “Future-static?” Maxie smiled and pulled something out of his vest about the same size and shape as a pocket watch. Gray watched as he flipped up the lid, tapped whatever was hidden inside and then was suddenly sitting at a table on the far side of the bar. In the time it took Gray to notice the shift, Maxie was suddenly sitting beside him again, looking like a bear who’d just chowed down on some unwary campers. “Ain’t that a scream?” said Maxie. “Bet you’re the life of the party,” said Gray and, without thinking, reached out to touch the weird device. “Ah-ah. No touchee,” said Maxie, snapping it shut quick and shoving it back into his pocket. “That’s what you call me investing in my future. Gotta think ahead, y’know. Otherwise the sharks dig in.” “Huh,” said Gray dryly. “Guess the Doc’s got the same philosophy.” “Hey,” said Maxie, seemingly wounded by Gray’s disdain. “Did I beg the guy to lose all that money in one of my joints? Did I tell him to run up markers all over town?”
“So Belanoff’s in your pocket,” said Gray. “Still not seeing how that links up with me.” “The Cranzetti’s pinched him, Gray,” said Maxie as he downed the last of his drink. “Them and their out-of-town buddies. They know that’s against the rules.” “Look, Maxie,-“ “Mr. Sparks,” said Maxie. “You and me ain’t close enough for Maxie, yet.” “Mr. Sparks,“ said Gray, looking the larger man directly in the eye. “Tell me what you want from me or tell these monkeys of yours to mess me up. All this winding around the point is getting me dizzy.” Maxie set the glass down on the bar and sighed. “Get the Doc back from the Cranzetti’s for me and I’ll pay you twice your day rate,” he said after a time. “There,” said Gray. “Was that so hard?” “You’re kidding,” said his partner when he rejoined her in the car. “Nope,” said Gray, starting the engine and getting some distance between them and The Chateau Noir. “Sparks and Belanoff are in business.” He then related Maxie’s little floorshow with the “pocket watch,” eliciting a low whistle from his partner. “What do you think it is?” she said. “Who knows?” said Gray. “Portable tesseract? Trans D invector? I’m no techhead. Howcum you didn’t tell me he’d been handing out A Level tech like Halloween candy?” “Hey, it’s not my fault,” she said testily. “Sure, I knew he liked to gamble but I never figured he’d break the Alt Organization’s canon to make good on his debts.” “All right, “ said Gray. “Let it drift. In a way this actually helps us.” “Oh, yeah,” she said. “How’s that?” “Now we know where he is.”
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The one upside of hopping around the realities was, once the disorientation wore off, Gray had access to any information his counterpart or host might have known before their quanta mingled. Apparently this reality’s Gray had a pretty good working knowledge of all the local mobsters and their various hangouts. In this case that meant Gray did know exactly where to go to look up one Angelinico “Gino” Cranzetti. He knew but he wasn’t happy about it. Florence Beach was well south and well west of both the bowery and Sundown Ave. Unlike Maxie Sparks, who, despite his personal affectations, was content to have most of his operation hidden well behind the scenes, Gino Cranzetti was as up front as they came. Florence Beach was more like a wellarmed slice of Old Sicilia, transplanted to the Americanan West. It took Gray a good two hours to get his car to Cranzetti central without being tagged. “Nice digs.” “Yeah,” said Gray, looking up at the expansive two-story hacienda. “Heaven on Earth.” “I think they call it Terra Firma in this Alt.” “They can call it Mud for as long as we’re staying,” he said. He leaned across her, flipped open the glove box and withdrew what looked like a few extra clips for his .38. In reality a disguised quantum disrupter, standard issue Cleaner ordnance. “Ok,” he said, getting out of the car. “When I get the Doc out–“ “Hey, wait just a minute,” she said. “You’re not leaving me out here again.” “Sure, I am,” said Gray absently scanning the wall around the Cranzetti compound for a quick way over.
“I don’t think so, Gray,” she said, joining him in the alley. “You need me in there.” “No,” he said. “If this goes south, somebody’s got to get the Doctor’s notes to HQ. That’s you.” She looked like she wanted to protest. Actually she looked like she might burst out of her blouse at any second. Eventually, perhaps seeing the wisdom of his plan, she nodded. “You got anything I can put them in?” she said. “A briefcase or a mail bag or something?” “Check the trunk.” He tossed her the keys. “Keep the motor hot.” He slipped easily past all six of the guards on the compound’s west side and made a beeline for the main house. Through one of the massive windows he set eyes on the object of his search. Dr. Belanoff, looking less like a kidnap victim and more like a pissed off houseguest, paced back and forth in the Spanish-styled living room shouting and gesticulating wildly. Gray couldn’t hear the words but one thing was sure; Belanoff was not a prisoner. “What the hell?” he said to himself just before something smashed into his head and everything went black. Gray woke to the taste of his own blood and the sound of voices raised in argument. He was lying on something soft, a leather couch maybe, and his arms were taped together at the wrists. “I told you this would get out of hand,” said someone. ”I think we should just abort the project altogether.” “Not without the Step disk,” said somebody with a deeper voice that Gray decided instantly not to like. “The buyer was very specific.” “I don’t think that’s an option,” said the first speaker. “Maxie’s got it hidden somewhere.”
“The Dame Wore a Tesseract” “And whose fault is that?” Careful not to move any other part of his body, Gray slowly opened his eyes. The skinny drink of water in the grey suit he recognized as Dr. Adam Belanoff. The other guy, the bald giant with the meat cleaver hands, Gray’s compound memory told him was none other than Gino Cranzetti. “I’m not denying culpability,” said Belanoff. “I’m simply saying we might have to cut our losses.” Gino, obviously unhappy with that, was about to outline an alternative plan when he noticed Gray watching. “Hey,” he said, a thick, foreign-sounding accent sliding into his voice. “Look who’s up.” The two men closed in on Gray, with Gino moving around behind to check the bindings on his wrists. Still tight. “You one of Maxie’s boys?” said Gino. “Or a ringer?” “I’m a PI,” said Gray with some difficulty and then, fixing his gaze on Belanoff, “Somebody thinks he’s in trouble.” Belanoff reached into his jacket and yanked out Gray’s wallet. “Harris Gray,” he said, reading the ID. Then, looking a bit puzzled, “You don’t think this is the same one?” “Don’t matter,” said Gino, drawing an ugly and completely alien looking firearm from his jacket. “Whoever he is, he’s crashed his last party.” Gray had always assumed he’d die in the line of duty. With a job like his, slowly expiring in your own feather bed surrounded by grandkids just wasn’t in the cards. Somehow he’d always thought he’d go out, guns blazing, taking not a few of his enemies with him. Guess not, he thought as the alien weapon leveled itself at his forehead. He was just wondering if going to Heaven would feel the same as hopping between Alts when the a body smashed through one of the bay windows on his left.
Gino got his ugly weapon up fast but not quick enough to get off a shot. Instead he was treated to the rippling wave of energy emitted by a quantum disrupter. The instant the wave hit, Gino tumbled backwards over a nearby end table and lay still. Belanoff, stunned motionless by the sudden carnage, was easy pickings for the second wave which sent him flying as well. As Gray watched, a voluptuous figure in red stepped over the broken window pane and into the room. “Thought I told you to stay in the car,” he said as his partner moved to cut his bonds. “You’re not the boss of me,” she said. “And you’re welcome.” Somehow the noise of the exploding window failed to bring more guards. Gray wondered about that but, as he had a standing policy not to look too deeply down the throats of any gift-bearing equines he might meet, he let the problem drift. While his partner tied up Cranzetti and relieved him of his unusual weapon, Gray slapped Belanoff awake. “Stop,” the younger man sputtered. “Stop that.” Gray hauled him to his feet and nudged him out the broken window with his own retrieved weapon. “Get the lead out, Maguane,” he said. “We’re leaving.” “You can’t take him back to Sparks,” she said, amazed that he’d even suggested it. “Have to,” said Gray. “It’s the only way we can get close enough to retrieve that– what did you call it, Doc?” Sullen and bruised, Belanoff mumbled something that the others couldn’t decipher. “You’re already a parsec into my bad side, Doc,” said Gray, glaring balefully at him in the rearview. “Speak up.”
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“It’s a Step disk,” said Belanoff, sullen. “It generates a field that allows magically charged items to operate outside their home Realities.” “And you gave something like that to Maxie Sparks?!” said Gray. “What kind of moron are you?” “It wouldn’t have mattered,” said Belanoff. “He only has the one magic jewel and that’s only good for short teleports. It’s little more than a party favor.” “I don’t know what kind of parties you’ve been going to, Doc,” said Gray. “But I guarantee you won’t be attending any more.” They rode the rest of the way in silence. “Nice work, Gray,” said Maxie Sparks when the odd trio returned. “And quick too. I might have to put you on the pad, permanentlike.” Gray let the comment drift and shoved Belanoff into an empty chair. “Thanks,” he said. “I’ll pass.” Maxie rose from his traditional spot by the bar and sauntered over to where Gray’s partner had a gun on Belanoff. “And who’s this piece of candy?” he said. “This the kind of crew you partner up with, Gray, I might have to switch rackets.” “Don’t you teach your apes to talk?” said Gray. “She’s Belanoff’s assistant.” “No she ain’t,” said Ape number one. “How’s that?” said Gray. “That ain’t the Doc’s gal,” he said. “I ain’t never seen this chickie before.” Before Gray could process what the Ape was saying, the Dame’s gun swiveled away from Belanoff and up under Maxie’s oversized chin. “Everybody just say where they are,” she said. Everyone did, most notably the two gunsels whose hands had been drifting toward their own weapons. “Maguane!” he said. “What are you doing?” “That was always your trouble, Harris,”
she said. “You go through so many partners, you can’t tell them apart.” “What are you talking about?” “Oh, please,” she said. “It hasn’t been that long, has it? I mean you were just talking about me an hour ago.” Even as she said it, Gray’s mind spewed out the answer. “Chasis?” he said. “Chasis Verdant?” “Bingo,” she said. “You get the big prize.” “You can’t be,” he said. “Sure, I can,” she said. “You said it; I work for myself now. I’m a rogue.” “And so am I,” said Belanoff, standing up beside her. “What did you do with my partner?” said Gray, trying to squelch the rage he felt. He had an urge to do something stupid like going for her throat but that would get them all killed. “I’m sure your little newbie is around somewhere,” said Verdant. “God, you’re so predictable. Keeping the same code phrase, Twilight Time. Come on. You had to know eventually I’d use something like that against you.” “Actually I hoped I’d seen the last of you, Chasis,” he said through his teeth. He then noticed the strange expression that washed over Maxie Sparks’s face. Was that recognition he saw in the dark blue eyes? “Maybe we should go now,” said Belanoff. “You’re right,” she said. “This isn’t old home week. Get the Step disk and I’ll get the ship to boot us out.” As Belanoff began to rummage around behind the bar, Verdant motioned for the two apes to drop their weapons and get their faces on the floor. Then she backed Maxie up against the nearest wall and tapped a button on her crimson blouse. “It’s Chasis,” she said when the button began to glow. “Boot in one minute.” “It’s not here,” said Belanoff from
“The Dame Wore a Tesseract” somewhere behind the bar. “What’s that?” said Verdant. “You said you knew where he kept it.” “I saw him put it here,” said Belanoff rising. “It’s gone.” “Too bad, Chasis,” said Gray. “Looks like you’re out of luck.” “Not at all,” she said. “I’ve still got the Doc here and all his notes. If he doesn’t find the disk before we boot, we’ll just have him build another.” “I don’t think that’s going to happen,” said Gray. “Please,” she said, getting hot again. It was one of her problems, Gray remembered, that temper. “You’ve been played. This whole kidnapping thing was just a grift so we could get the step disk back from Maxie. We knew he’d never let the Doc near it under normal conditions. We had to have Maxie so twisted around he didn’t know which way was up.” “You started the gang war.” “Of course.” “You faked the kidnapping.” “Yes.” “You killed your own partner,” he said. “He knew the risks.” “And using me?” he said. “What was that?” “Icing,” she said. “I try to screw up the life of every Harris Gray I meet. It’s kind of a hobby.” “Find another one,” said Maxie Sparks, and disappeared. The expression on Verdant’s face would have made Gray laugh if he’d had the time. He didn’t. Instead he vaulted back over the bar, taking hold of a very surprised Belanoff’s wrist. There he found a modified retrieval device, similar to ones used by the Cleaners. “No!” said Verdant and fired her weapon at them both. Gray ducked and tried to pull Belanoff down after him but failed. The blast caught him
square in the chest. Belanoff screamed as his quantum cohesion was violently disrupted. In a instant he dissolved into a haze of glowing specks floating where his body had been. “It doesn’t matter,” screamed Verdant, firing as she backed towards the door. “I still have the notes. The client will settle.” “I don’t think so,” said Maxie Sparks, suddenly by her side. With a puckish expression, Maxie held up the Step Disk for Verdant to see. “Looking for this?” With an almost animal cry, Verdant pivoted, intending to strike Maxie with the butt of her gun. Using speed one would never guess he possessed, Maxie ducked out of her way and drew his own weapon, an undisguised quantum pistol. “Who,” said Verdant, nearly incoherent with rage at that her mission lay in tatters around her. “Who the hell are you?” “The name’s Maguane, bitch,” said Maxie as he fired at her. “Katerin Maguane.” Verdant also screamed and faded away as the disrupter’s beam hit her but there was something odd about her disappearance. Something less final. “Nice to see you, Kat,” said Gray, emerging from behind the bar. “You too, partner,” said Maxie holding up the satchel containing Belanoff’s notes. “You think we can get out of here now? This guy’s body totally chafes.” “Yeah, kid,” said Gray as he tapped in the code on his own retrieval device. “We’re done.” Dyson seemed happy enough with their report- step disk retrieved, Belanoff neutralized, Verdant– well, that was dicey. Without a body and without being able to track her shift vessel between Alts there was no way to be sure if she’d been killed or if she was recuperating somewhere, mulling her next strike. Gray wouldn’t discuss it and Maguane knew better than to press. He was different after
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that, though. It was subtle, maybe something somebody who didn’t spend nearly every waking hour with him wouldn’t notice, but the change was definitely there. There’s a shadow in him, she thought more than once. And it’s shaped like Chasis Verdant. He was a colder on the job, less friendly to the locals he encountered in the various Alts they visited, quicker with a kill shot than he had ever been. Darker. Darker Gray. It scared her, seeing him like that. Not for herself or even those people foolish enough to cross him these days but, strangely, she was frightened for Gray himself. She knew there was only one cure for this thing in him now, only one thing that would ever shine light on that shadow inside. She knew it and so did he. They would see Chasis Verdant again. She knew it the way she knew the slow perfect curve of her blaster’s grip. They would meet. More than that, Kat Maguane knew that whenever it was, wherever it was, one way or the other it would be the last time.
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER”
DOC NEBULA and
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER” By D.A. Madigan
rand Central Station was a terrific body slam of people – packed to the rafters with every conceivable configuration of shoving, shouting, shrieking humanity, a motley mob of sprawling, brawling, and occasionally, crawling human beings, each individual member of which snarled, barked, howled, or hurled vile imprecations as to everyone else around them’s parentage, appearance, personability, and/or personal hygiene, as he or she prodded, pummeled and punched their individual paths through the madding, jam-packed horde towards whichever platform their designated transport was departing from or arriving at.
to the joker, what with the glamour job he had wrapped around his arm – flaming red curly hair running like hot lava down past shapely shoulders bared by some kind of filmy fashion that was no doubt illegal in any state starting with a vowel; a body that might have been put together by fallen angels bent on man’s corruption, and a face that could have launched every ship in the U.S. navy with a wink and a smile. Who would ever notice the nebbish riding drag, when you had all those curves to ride your weary eyes around on?
“Sniffer” could. It was what the boss paid him for, the same thing the editors at four different “Sniffer” Carnegie, once one of the finest papers had ponied up top dollar for when he’d investigative reporters the Big Apple had ever seen, still been on the beat – Sniffer’s uncanny ability scanned the flocks shuffling in a surly manner to notice things that would ease on by the average across the floor below him with a cynical sneer greasy eyeball. pasted to his rat-like visage. “That’s Leslie Ambrose Lawless,” the former “Say,” he said, elbowing the near-Titan reporter opined, blinking rapidly. “M.D., Ph.D. standing next to him on the observation deck, in about eighteen different rackets, including “know who that jamoke is, ape?” Carnegie then astrophysics.” He paused for effect, then went on defied all conventional decorum by pointing dramatically -- “Doc Nebula, as ever was!” directly into the heart of the seething mob. Sniffer was proud of the Doc Nebula tag, Carnegie’s enormous companion bent a stony for he himself had invented it. When Lawless glare downwards. “Sniffer” seemed to be indicating had first burst on the global scene a couple years the male half of a couple moving adroitly through back, every paper in town had tried to hang the milling masses below. The fellow himself was a sensationalistic nickname on him, mostly nondescript; slim build, short hair, probably no consisting of tired, desperate attempts to work more than average height although it wasn’t easy some twist on the joker’s odd last name – Outlaw, to tell from so far above him. Well dressed in Lawman, The Law… none of it would fly. Then a swell suit. It was tough to pay any attention that gasbag Kent over at the Planet had tried
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calling the doc “Speed” Lawless, after he won the first international mag-lev Grand Prix by a handy three minutes, breaking every land-bound velocity record in human history. That monicker might have took, except that the day before the race, Lawless had also published an article in Science magazine detailing his theory that there were ‘dark nebulas’ that made up the seemingly empty space surrounding the more visible galaxies. Sniffer had seen that and the phrase “Doc Nebula” had fairly leapt into his mind. He’d called Lawless “Doc Nebula” in his own write up of the race, and damn if every other reporter in the world hadn’t glommed onto it instantly. So “Doc Nebula” the dude became, like it or don’t… and Kent at the Planet could go suck eggs.
“Boss says stay here and keep observin’,” he noted. “He’ll find out for hisself what mag-train the Doc is gettin’ on.” Sniffer’s companion whistled. “That dame was some dish,” he allowed. “I’d do a tail job on her any time.” “Yeah, you giant monkey,” Sniffer sneered. “An’ she might not pick you out of the crowd, neither, if we assume Nebula found her on a street corner sellin’ apples and pencils so’s she could feed her seein’ eye dog.”
Below, on Platform 12, the ‘solar hot dame’ accompanying the object of Sniffer’s attention whispered in Doc Nebula’s ear, “Do you know The giant next to Sniffer, whose name was that dreadful little man who just reported on you, not ‘Ape’ but who rather rejoiced in the sobriquet Cain?” of “Molehill”, because somebody else in their She was the only being in existence who would mob was already called “Mountain”, scratched ever call Doc Nebula ‘Cain’ because she was the his shelf-like brow in what passed with him for thought. “No kiddin’,” he said. “You think he’d only one privy to his real name… or what his real name had once been, anyway. And she was also give me an awtergraph?” the only entity in the world whose words could Sniffer snorted. “What I think, ape,” he never be overheard, because she did not speak to sneered, “is that this is the stuff the boss pays Nebula aloud, but rather, by directly stimulating me to report on.” The former newshound flipped the sensory centers of his brain with a few precisely open his q-phone and hit the buttons. A split directed microvolts of electricity. second later, the line was picked up and someone “Yes, Jasmine, I know him,” the man mostly grunted a one syllable acknowledgement. known these days as Doc Nebula replied, silently “Carnegie here,” Sniffer barked into the phone. subvocalizing the words, understanding that his “Thought somebody might wanna know… Doc companion could ‘hear’ them just as easily as he ‘heard’ her. “Of him, anyway. He used to be Nebula just showed up at Grand Central.” the best investigative reporter in New York City, There was a pause while Sniffer listened. maybe on the whole Eastern seaboard. He’s gotten “Yeah,” he said, “he’s got some dame with him… himself mixed up with some bad mobs, though. redhead, solar hot. They’re heading over to the Funny thing… he’s the one who first came up with mag-lev platforms… yeah, I wouldn’t expect the ‘Doc Nebula’ tag for me, back after I had you the Doc to ride iron like the riffraff, neither… I whip up the Lawless identity and we made the big push to get my new mug and name plastered all dunno. Platform 12, looks like. Awright.” over every TV set on the planet.” Sniffer folded his phone and put it away.
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER”
“The deception was necessary, Cain,” the databanks. “He’s among many whose personal ‘woman’ said compassionately. “When The Eight fortunes were protected from redistribution by Legs of the Spider went after your family…” Retrograde… obviously, a minion of TELOTS.” “I know,” Nebula responded silently. “I know it had to be done, and I’m grateful you were up to it… purging my real name and history from every data file in the world, and creating somebody new for me to be out of whole cloth. But…” He shrugged. “I miss ‘em, sometimes… I wish I’d thought things through better before I gave you your first commands.”
“That’s who I’d figure Sniffer to be working for now,” Doc agreed. “He’s on my list, but I hadn’t worked my way down to him as yet. There’s quite a few in the Eight Legs I was giving more priority to.”
“I think he may be… what is the expression? Cutting ahead in line,” Jasmine said dryly. “I wish I could confirm that it was he Mr. Carnegie was The ‘woman’ shrugged prettily. “I myself could speaking to…” not anticipate there would be another cybernetic “Yeah,” Doc said. “Kind of foxed myself with organism as formidable as myself existent in 2012, these Q-phones, didn’t I? I thought the idea of Cain,” she said, “and I am a 43rd level self aware Jacostic Algorithmic Simulations and Modeling completely private personal communications that Inductive Network . If I myself could not deduce nobody, especially the Feds, could tap into was a such a thing, how would you have been able to good one, but…” He made a rueful moue. “Buy yourself a Q-phone and you can dial any number, guess?” any where, talk all you want, no additional charges It was Nebula’s turn to shrug. “Dunno, Jazz,” at all… and if your party is also using a Q-phone, he said. “But if I’m half the genius the news nobody can eavesdrop on the quantum link channels keep calling me, I should have at least connection, either. I guess just about everyone figured it for a possibility.” has one now…” “Perhaps,” his companion said. “Have you “As with all the technological innovations you ‘figured a possibility’ for who Mr. Carnegie was have introduced, Cain,” the ‘woman’ said warmly, speaking to?” “your intention was to maximize individual freedom and privacy. You yourself have noted “Some middleweight,” Doc said, rubbing to me frequently that nothing is all good or all his jaw, “Sniffer ain’t big enough to stooge for bad, but always some mixture… ‘you never get anyone too far up the ladder. Offhand I’d say it’s something without giving up something’, I think probably a heel named Jaegermeister… Henry is how you usually put it.” Jaegermeister. Owns most of the meatpacking businesses between here and Chicago, but that’s “Yep,” Doc subvocalized. “You get what you just the laundry where he washes all the cash he pay for, and you pay for what you get. Always.” rakes in from drugs, prostitution, protection, the “And don’t forget,” Jasmine went on, “your nastier forms of porn, fixing elections, and murder marketing of the Q-phones has released everyone for hire.” in the world from the constant financial drain of “The one they call the Butcher,” Jasmine said, a monthly phone bill.” after a microsecond searching her own extensive “I know,” Doc said, absently. “I didn’t mind
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putting those pirates out of business one little desk, no less than seventeen separate toy engines bit.” rolled through the enormously complex scale model labyrinth, a bewildering series of computer “And q-phone sales provide you with more controlled switches making certain they never capital to invest in HELP INC.,” Jasmine added. collided. “All around, I’d say they were very well worth it… even if you cannot now eavesdrop on a criminal’s If there was anything the Butcher loved more conversation, except by using my own sensors to than food, more than money, more than power, it actually overhear what he himself says out loud was his trains. He deliberately kept his office dark on his end.” and gloomy, so he could run the trains with their lights on, and so he could see the thousands of “Yes,” Doc affirmed. “All right. Well, they tiny, scale model signals along the tracks blinking spotted us, sweetheart, even if it’s not quite as big to each other in idiot’s semaphore. a fish as I was hoping to hook. So far, so good. Now let’s move on to Phase 2.” The Butcher looked like a prime candidate for one of his own slaughterhouses, although to be “As you wish,” the female voice in Doc’s head fair, he would have been a pretty fatty meal. 400 agreed. “Your stratagem seems to have gone as corpulent pounds on the hoof, he could get up out planned so far. Do you anticipate difficulty?” of his motorized chair if he had to – but he’d built his whole day to day existence around avoiding “Babe,” Doc sighed, “no battle plan ever such a necessity at all costs. The Butcher thought survives contact with the enemy, and contact of himself with great satisfaction as being like with the enemy is what we just had. So, yes, I Mahomet’s mountain… he didn’t go anywhere, anticipate difficulty… hell, these days I could sleep everything came to him. in and I’d still ‘anticipate difficulty’. But going on the presumption that Sniffer just reported my Regardless of his penalty weight, though, The whereabouts to Jaegermeister… or somebody else Butcher’s brain was as agile as a squirrel in a tree. in TELOTS… here’s what we should be doing You don’t build up an illicit fortune of 100 million now…” bucks and an association with the Eight Legs of the Spider by making stupid plays, after all. In a high priced penthouse 80 stories above Manhattan Island, Henry “the Butcher” So Doc Nebula was heading for Montreal – Jaegermeister drummed fingers the size of sausages setting a good example for the riffraff by eschewing on his solid teak desk. “Nebula,” he snarled. “That expensive private vehicles for mass transport, punk.” The Butcher shifted his massive bulk, fat too. The rabble wouldn’t know, of course, that rippling like a tidal wave of garden slugs beneath Nebula himself had invented the new mag-lev the shiny facade of his expensively tailored silk technology and owned a controlling interest in all suit. the new mass transit companies that made use of it. The Butcher wouldn’t have known that, either, Across the Butcher’s vast office, the greatest before he’d accepted the invitation to join up with set of scale model electric toy trains in the known TELOTS. But The Spider knew pretty much universe sprawled like a mysterious lost city of everything worth knowing in the world. Do clickety-clacking plastic and moving metal. Even gooders like Nebula could run, but they couldn’t as the Butcher declaimed to himself behind his hide…
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER” The Butcher had only a vague notion as to the actual details, but he was aware that Montreal – McGill University, specifically – held one of The Spider’s biggest operations – a secret subterranean lab where the top secret global brainwashing program known only as MONROEVILLE was headquartered. The Butcher had only the sketchiest idea of what went on in MONROEVILLE, but he knew it was the kinda thing that a do gooder like Nebula would do anything to smash. Still, chances were, Nebula’s trip was pure coincidence… but the Eight Legs of the Spider hated Nebula anyway; whoever brought in his head was eligible for a billion bucks, at least, in reward money. A billion bucks added up to a lot of power, and would give him a lot more influence in TELOTS.
Their cabins are necessarily pressurized; to have a hole blown in one while in mid journey is entirely disastrous. At 11:22, as the train to Montreal neared apogee, catastrophe struck. An on-scene observer might well have noted a cobalt blue finger of light drawn for a fraction of a second between a central car in the train and an invisible spot much higher in the sky than the conveyance itself, striking from outside Earth’s atmosphere. What happened next would best be explained by a theoretical computer model showing what would occur if a mag lev train were to suddenly have its magnetic polarity reversed in mid passage – it would literally tear itself into tiny pieces within seconds.
Rendered into particles too small to be much affected by gravity, the expanding cloud of The Butcher licked his grubby, wormlike lips metal debris that had formerly been the 11:15 to at the thought. Montreal dispersed chaotically through the upper atmosphere. The hugely fat crime boss picked up his q-phone again and dialed a number he had With great satisfaction, the Butcher regarded committed to memory. He had no operatives of the distant smear of light marking the destruction his own actually on the train Nebula had boarded, of Doc Nebula high above Manhattan. It was the but he’d be willing to bet that wouldn’t be a greatest disaster to hit a paying passenger service problem for people higher up the TELOTS food since the Titanic went down, and within five chain… The Spider’s web reached everywhere, minutes every news channel would be covering it the Butcher had learned. and every man, woman and child on the planet would be glued to a tube watching it. Stock in And just in case that failed, he’d put a back up the new mag lev companies would plummet, an plan of his own in place, too… additional blow to anyone who might want to carry on for the now dead Nebula… and best of The 11:15 to Montreal left from Gate 12 exactly all, disasters made people hungry. The Butcher on the tick. Magnetic trains move in low orbital expected a spike in profits across the boards, from arcs, jumping up from their point of departure, pork rinds to chicken nuggets… a little gravy, on curving with a deceptive seeming laziness through top of the billion buck reward he could expect the upper ionosphere, then gently realigning on from The Spider. the positive poles at their receiving station. Their velocities are only subsonic at the very beginning A little gravy that would buy him a whole lot and very end of their journeys, although the all of HO scale model train track. And a few new but frictionless electromagnetic aura surrounding engines, too. them in flight prevents disruptive sonic booms.
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While a world of losers, dopes and natural born suckers mourned the loss of their hero, Doc Nebula, the winners that ruled that world would rejoice that at long last, the biggest wild card ever dealt was finally off the table.
moving to follow Nebula through the crowd. Sniffer fingered the illegal rail-gun he had stowed in a side pocket. All plastic parts except for the half-inch slugs, which would show up on any scan as simple, harmless staples. Still, it could fire a clip of fifty such ‘staples’ at barely subsonic speeds in Sniffer tapped Molehill on the elbow, which less than three seconds, and was lethally accurate was about as high up on the walking mass of at any range out to 15 feet or so… and after muscles as he could easily reach. “Down there,” fifteen feet, well, wave it around like a firehose he said. “In the crowd. It’s Nebula.” and you had good odds of getting lucky, since all one of these babies had to do was wing ya to do Molehill scowled. “He didn’t get onna an instant kill from sheer body shock. train?” “He’s goin’ inta the men’s room,” Sniffer said, Sniffer explained as he would to a child. “He a second or so later. “Okay, ape. Get your gat got on the train, you big dope, along with that out. We ain’t doin’ nothing fancy here; we go fine piece of female footsie he had with ‘im, and in and spray everything sittin’, standin’ or layin’ you, like everybody else, didn’t pay attention to down. DNA will confirm the kill if we come out anything but her. But Nebula’s smart, see? He with even a good sized piece of him.” made the ol’ switcheroo. Turned his jacket inside out, changed sunglasses, and left the dame on the “I bet I could take him in a fair fight,” Molehill train. But he can’t fool me. The frail’s on her way groused. Nonetheless, he unholstered his own to Montreal, sure, but that’s Nebula, right down much more old fashioned Glock 9 as he said it. there.” Doc Nebula hated violence, and especially Sniffer was no genius, but he had a pretty hated guns, and avoided such whenever possible. good idea that ‘the frail’ was never going to make But it wasn’t always possible. it to Montreal; like everybody else on that train, she was about to become collateral damage in a Sniffer put a hand out to push the mens’ room big hit aimed Nebula’s way… which was too bad door open. As he did, he heard a muted thump, in her case, but hey, them’s the breaks. a grunt, and a much heavier thud from behind him. Had the ape tripped over his own feet? It Even someone as low on the pecking order as wouldn’t be the first time – Sniffer glanced back Sniffer had heard of the billion dollar reward on over his shoulder, preparing an acidic comment. Nebula’s head. His boss had ordered him and the ape to make sure Nebula got on board the train “Whazzup, Sniffer?” Doc said, smiling and report back on whether he did or didn’t… but pleasantly as he stood above Molehill’s unconscious where was the angle in that? Sniffer and Molehill body. “The bigger they come, etcetera, etcetera… could take out Nebula on their own, and a billion do you want to come along quietly, or do I have to bucks would… hell, with a billion bucks, Sniffer demonstrate my mighty kung fu powers on you, could hire the Butcher to be his personal towel too?” boy. Sniffer wasn’t the most courageous guy in “Try to blend in, you gorilla,” Sniffer sneered, the world, but a billion bucks will make nearly
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER”
any man brave… if he’s got a gat in his hand, “Good,” Doc said. “I figured you must be anyway. “Kung fu this, Lawless!” Sniffer rapped able to. Let’s see exactly where Sniffer’s calls have out, wrenching his body all the way around and been going to…” bringing the rail-gun up to fire. The Butcher was starting to have a bad feeling Abruptly, the gorgeous redhead Sniffer had about the whole thing. been certain was on her way to certain destruction Sniffer wasn’t answering his q-phone. aboard the 11:15 was standing between Sniffer and Lawless. “Please, Mr. Carnegie,” she said, The Butcher was sure Nebula must have “don’t shoot!” been aboard the mag-lev train. Why wouldn’t he Sniffer boggled – and Doc leapt through be? But the very nature of the explosion made the redhead, kicking the rail gun out of Sniffer’s it almost impossible to confirm Nebula’s death. astonished hand, then turning on his other heel to Even high flying NSA probes were having a hard time getting enough biological remains together drive a hard elbow into Sniffer’s solar plexus. to run DNA on. In fact, so far they hadn’t found “Awp,” Sniffer gasped, collapsing into a near any organic remains at all. It worried him. He lotus position on the ground as his lungs emptied wished Sniffer would answer his phone. themselves of air. “Hog Butcher for the World, Tool Maker, “I doubt he can tell you much of anything Stacker of Wheat,” the crime boss heard, helpful,” Jasmine said. emanating cheerfully from the shadows all around the white circle of light cast by his desk’s reading “Nope,” Doc replied cheerfully. “But I bet his lamp. “Player with Railroads and the Nation’s q-phone can.” He bent to rifle Sniffer’s pockets. Freight Handler… eh? Eh?” “And don’t forget to call the cops about this illegal side arm,” he advised. “Remind me to unload it “What the hell?” The Butcher was a much before they get here, too.” more erudite man than he appeared to be; he recognized the lines from Sandberg’s immortal “Whoever he works for will just get him poem, although he’d never connected them to sprung on some technicality,” Jasmine opined as himself, as he was a Brooklyn boy, born and bred. Doc continued going through Sniffer’s pockets. “Who’s out there?” Even as he asked it of the darkness, the Butcher had a tight feeling in this “Whoever he works for will hopefully be in no throat and gut that he knew exactly who was out position to do any such thing,” Doc said, standing there. But… how? again with Sniffer’s Q-phone in his hand. “You can see the numbers he’s dialed, right?” When Doc Nebula stepped into the light, smiling Jasmine confirmed that she could, Doc went pleasantly as he glanced around the Butcher’s vast on, “And while I know no one can listen in on array of model trains. “It’s good to be the king, a Q-link, you can at least trace where one went hm? Or should I say, chief conductor?” to…?” The Butcher’s face darkened. “Don’t you laugh Jasmine cogitated on that for a long at my trains,” he said, shaking a warning finger at millisecond… then confirmed that she could, Nebula. With his other hand, he was excavating indeed, do exactly that. in his central desk drawer. He had a gat in here
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somewhere… but how had Nebula managed to get past all his men? Nebula rolled his eyes. “Jaegermeister, you used an orbital particle cannon on one of MY trains.” He spread empty hands. “You seriously think I shouldn’t even laugh at yours?” The Butcher hauled a very old fashioned .357 Magnum out of his desk drawer. “I seriously think,” he growled, leveling it across his desk at Nebula with both pudgy hands, “that unless you can digest lead, I’m about to be a billion bucks richer.” He squinted. “But how’d you get by my guards? I got like thirty of them all over this floor. You can’t turn invisible, can you?” Nebula shrugged. Actually, with Jasmine’s light projection capacities, he could turn effectively invisible in certain environments, although unusually observant people might see a slight blurring where light bent around him… no point advertising that, though. “I hacked your security software and activated the knock out gas grid,” Nebula said, cheerfully. “You know, you wouldn’t need something like that if you could actually trust the people on your own payroll.” The Butcher said something unprintable. “You and that goddam supercomputer of yours,” he said. “Tell you what. You tell me where it is and gimme the access codes, and maybe I’ll let you live.”
Although it was still half an hour to noon in the outside world, the Butcher did indeed like to keep his office gloomy… but now, it had perceptibly begun to brighten, even with the lights dimmed and the heavy shades drawn. “What are you…?” the Butcher squinted towards the heavily screened window wall behind his desk, trying to keep one wary eye on Nebula as he did so. “Don’t worry,” Nebula said reassuringly, remaining perfectly still. “This building isn’t a moving target, so the satellite’s optics can take their time focusing. We’ve got maybe five minutes before the light beam actually lazes. After that…” “You’re bluffing,” the Butcher said, a note of doubt worming into his voice. “After you hijacked all that money the first time, the Spider started protecting all their assets with Retrogade. You can’t possibly have hacked a military satellite.” “Not just any military satellite,” Doc said firmly. “The very same one that blew up my train. I thought it was only fair.” He interlaced his fingers in front of him and then flexed them over his stomach in an exaggerated display of patience. “Retrograde isn’t really such a much, Butcher. The Spider is totally paranoid about unauthorized intrusions into their personal finances these days, and so they prioritize Retrograde’s protection to their own private bank accounts. The coverage in other places gets a little thin. And to be fair, I think the Spider is currently under the impression that I’m a leetle bit dead, so I don’t think they’re taking all the precautions they could.”
Nebula grinned. He doubted very much the Butcher would believe him if he told the exact truth – that his supercomputer looked very much like a plastic credit card, mirrored on both sides, almost completely indestructible to anything 21st Century technology could bring to bear… and it The room had continued to brighten as Doc was currently, as she nearly always was, riding in Nebula spoke. The Butcher’s face was wreathed in his shirt pocket, just over his heart. “Nah. I have sweat now. “I don’t believe it,” the meat magnate a better idea, Jaegermeister. You blew up my train finally said. “You’ll die with me, Nebula.” from orbit, now I get to blow up yours.”
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER” Yeah, Doc Nebula thought, and Jasmine might die, too, which is much, much worse. She’d argued vociferously against Doc making a personal appearance in the Butcher’s office, but in the end, she’d had to agree it was the only way to accomplish what needed to be done. At which point, she’d insisted Doc take her with him… when his plan had been to drop her off before coming over here. As long as the tiny interface that actually contained Jasmine’s 23rd century central processing unit and memory molecule chains remained intact, Jasmine herself could continue to function at optimal efficiency, tapping into any surrounding electronic network via her own internal q-link apparatus. If that CPU and attendant memory molecules were vaporized, though, Jasmine would be just as dead as her biologically living partner.
said impatiently. “There isn’t a court in the world that would convict any member of The Spider right now, Butcher, and you know it as well as I do. I’m hoping to get that situation cleaned up in another ten or twenty or thirty years, but for right now, that’s just how it is. But… if you really want to shut down the laser before we both fry… you can do it. It’s easy.” The Butcher’s fat face, greasy now with muck sweat, squirmed with an uneasy mixture of hope and suspicion. “How?” Doc grinned. “Just type your password in to your personal computer and transfer all the funds in your personal private accounts into another account I’ll provide you the number for,” he said. “Retrograde isn’t going to keep a member of TELOTS from doing a bank transfer, right?”
The Butcher went gray – or maybe it was the Neither Jasmine nor Doc could be sure way the air in the office kept getting brighter. that being hit by an orbital laser cannon would “You’re gonna take it all? Everything? Not leave destroy her… but she was far from certain she’d me a thing?” survive it, either. “Goddam stubborn bitch,” Doc “I’m going to leave you with your life, which subvocalized with affectionate irritation to his is more than you would have left to the passengers partner. on board the 11:15 if I hadn’t had them all “I love you too,” Jasmine responded primly. transferred to a later train,” Doc said implacably. “Come on. You got maybe 90 seconds left and “Now sell him the deal, would you, please?” then it’s all moot.” “Yep,” Doc said out loud. “This is your big The air was perceptibly warmer now. The chance, Jaegermeister. If you’re all noble and self sacrificing, just sit there. We’ll die together, and office’s central AC had kicked into high gear and The Spider… well, I’m sure they’re all honorable; you could hear the circuits laboring mightily they’ll give that reward to your next of kin, I under the strain. The Butcher grimaced – pointed the gun in his hand – then threw it down with a guess.” curse and started frantically typing at his desktop “Shut it off,” the Butcher said, his voice gone keyboard. suddenly weak. “I… look. I’ll turn myself in Retrograde’s security systems were thorough to the Feds. I’ll go State’s evidence against The – through the keyboard itself, the TELOTS Spider. Honest injun…” supercomputer confirmed the Butcher’s “Don’t teach your grampa to steal sheep,” Doc fingerprints, did a DNA scan on his ample
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perspiration, and after a standard password was put in, Retrograde used the built in web cam for a retinal scan. But it all took less than ten seconds. Jasmine q-linked the number of the target account over, and seconds later, the funds transfer was complete. The Butcher was a pauper… and the intense light filling the office had already begun to wane. “What am I supposed to do now?” the Butcher asked dully, staring around at the ruins of his life. “I got nothin’… the end of this billing cycle, the repo guys are gonna take everything.” Like every other elite member of the global ruling cabal, the Butcher kept very little in actual hard wealth on hand; every asset he had was leveraged to the utmost to magnify his economic position. But the funds transfer that he had just made was real enough; while most of the currency moved had been ‘virtual’ with nothing backing it up in the real world, nonetheless, the Butcher’s accounts were now empty, his credit rating maxed out, his financial status zero. When the bills started to come due – which they would, within days – everything he ‘owned’ would go up on the auction block.
in the world and draining many of them of all funds. He had not done it blindly; the standards he and Jasmine had agreed upon before launching the attack were such that only those who had inherited great wealth without ever working for it, and who had done nothing worthwhile with the money since, or those who had amassed great wealth through predatory financial tactics, would be targeted by Jasmine’s ‘redistribution programs’. Doc had envisioned a world where a nonproductive or actively predatory ruling class no longer existed; where everyone everywhere would have access to the wealth that they themselves had justly earned through their own ethical efforts… and no more than that. He and Jasmine had been shocked to discover that the private wealth of much of the globe was protected by a sentient cybernetic system on the same level of sophistication as Jasmine herself… and that the people who ran that system had taken Doc’s attempt to ‘hijack’ the contents of their personal, secret bank accounts as a declaration of war.
And war it had been, ever since… a war Doc and Jasmine could only hope to very slowly, very Doc had seen it before; it was, in fact, his carefully wage, as their opponents were powerful preferred method for dealing justice to those nearly to the point of omnipotence. But it was a who were otherwise entirely above any human war that tonight, Doc Nebula had won one more law. Doc had as little bloodlust in him as any victory in. human being possibly could, but he got a great “What am I supposed to do now?” the Butcher deal of satisfaction from seeing men of vast ill gotten gains, who had trampled all over others on repeated, staring at his heavy hands. their way to a privileged position in the monetary Doc reached into a coat pocket and then stratosphere, reduced to the same poverty they had condemned so many others to with their flipped a white rectangle of pasteboard onto the Butcher’s desk. Printed on it was a toll free rapacious financial tactics. number that was already becoming famous around This was what Doc had done that had earned the world. “Give them a call,” Doc said. “They’ll him the original enmity of the world’s global fix you up with an honest job, see you have a roof elite. Upon first obtaining Jasmine’s services, he over your head and 3 square meals a day while had launched a cybernetic attack on the world’s you get your feet under you.” Doc paused, and financial markets, hacking in to every account went on, more gently, “They can get you into a
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER”
good exercise and diet program too, if you want. find you a job to do and give you a place to stay You become a HELP INC client, you get access to while you get set up again. As long as you play top notch health care.” fair, you’ll do okay.” The Butcher picked up the card. “HELP INC,” he read off. He looked up at Doc Nebula wonderingly. “This is you? I heard of these guys… I thought they were some kinda white slavery racket some of the big boys was running.” He scratched one side of his head with a ham sized hand. “I mean, I heard they give out jobs, help people buy houses, even offer a cash stake… I couldn’t see no sense to it unless it was tied to some kinda unbreakable labor contract or something.” “That’s how you would see it,” Doc said. “After the big crash in ’09 there are a lotta people out there who would sign up for anything if it meant a cot and a mug of soup… but this isn’t a racket. I set it up to help people, for real. That cash stake you’re talking about… what HELP INC does is, they sit down and calculate all the taxes anyone has ever paid… income, sales, Social Security, gasoline, whatever. They subtract the actual value of the real services these people have gotten back in return… usually, not much. The rest is what gets provided… not a loan, but an actual refund of monies extorted by force for which no value was ever received.”
The Butcher looked miserable… but Doc felt little sympathy. It was no more than he deserved, and no worse than millions had it… millions who had been condemned to lifelong poverty, by rackets the Butcher, and his fellow economic predators, had been running since mankind left the caves. “I don’t get it,” the Butcher said, finally. “What do you get out of this? I mean, there’s gotta be some angle for you… right?” Doc shook his head. People like Jaegermeister, whose whole life had been spent in pursuit of one dishonest buck after another, couldn’t understand true altruism. Doc could tell the Butcher that all his life, he’d just wanted to make the world a better place, and that’s all he was trying to do… but the Butcher would never understand it. Well, not yet. Maybe after a few years of honest work…
Doc stepped back into the darkness. As he did, Jasmine used her light projection abilities to draw even deeper shadows around him like a cloak. He left the disconsolate former crime boss to ponder his own future. Hopefully, without the The Butcher looked horrified. “That’s crazy!” corruptions of his former power available, and he said. “You can’t just refund people’s taxes like faced with the necessity of starting again from that! Who do you think you are, the government scratch, he would make the right choices… but if he made the wrong ones, well, Doc could always or somethin’?” pay him another visit. “We’re all the government, Butcher,” Doc “You got a good look at Retrograde’s security said, patiently. “Of the people, by the people, for procedures, right?” Doc subvocalized to Jasmine the people, remember?” as his stealth-shielded mag-lev hoverboat lifted “But don’t get your hopes up on that score,” from the Butcher’s penthouse roof. Doc went on. “Guys on your end tend not to “I recorded everything,” Jasmine said. “There’s qualify for the cash stake… you cheat on your taxes your whole life through the rigged system, a very tricky algorithm built into the central so you don’t get much back. But, still… they’ll password sequence, and the DNA scan will be
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very hard to outsmart… but I have a few ideas. cigarette holder held nonchalantly between two Let me think about them for a little while.” black gloved fingers. A looker, if a little mannish for his taste… “Good,” Doc assented. That was the real prize they’d set out to get… they’d wanted to get “Nice desk,” the black clad woman purred, her right next to an actual associate of The Spider voice smoky in the gloom. “Nice trains, too.” and watch while that associate got into his or “Who the hell…” The Butcher was annoyed, her own private bank account, past Retrograde’s advanced shields. Security procedures would vary but not afraid. Like many men of his age and from one financial platform to another, of course, former economic stature, he was almost genetically but standard cyber-protections were no concern; incapable of feeling fear for any woman. This one what Doc and Jasmine needed insight into was wasn’t even armed. One good slap would put her Retrograde’s specific protective tactics. And that in her place… was what they’d gotten, tonight… that, and they’d “Blackjack,” the woman said, her voice a cleared another one of The Spider’s pawns off the sibilant sigh. board. It would be a long war, but tonight, Doc had renewed hope for its outcome.
The Butcher felt incredulous. He’d heard the name Blackjack; a top notch bounty hunter who worked almost exclusively for the Eight Legs of the Spider, but still nominally an independent operator. He would never in his life have figured such a person could be a dame.
Behind them, in the gloomy penthouse office, the Butcher had wheeled himself over to one wall and opened a hidden panel there. He didn’t keep much cash on hand, but what he had would have to do. He tapped his fingers in a particular sequence on a particular section of the paneling and then, when a well hidden access hatch slid open, placed his thumb against a scanner plate on the heavy metal door thus revealed
“What do you want?” the Butcher demanded. Hope dawned. Maybe the big shots were using her as a courier. Maybe she’d brought his billion dollar reward…
The Butcher was hauling the last of several small chamois bags full of Krugerrands onto his lap when he heard a light footstep behind him. He swore. Nebula had doubled back on him, just to make sure he was cleaned out…
The Butcher’s face went white as a sheet. “But… I…” His hand went to the controls on his chair. She still had no gun out. He could ram the chair into her. His massive bulk would probably squash her like a bug –
He wheeled his motorized chair around, to see a woman he didn’t know leaning a hip against one corner of his desk. Short black hair, good looking face, black, loose clothing… smoke curling up from a cigarette in an old fashioned, very long
Blackjack flicked the cigarette holder in her hand, as if knocking ashes off her cigarette. A line of bright red light shot from the tip, into The Butcher’s left eye. There was a hiss and an odor of scorched meat, like a brief bubble of flatulence.
“I don’t know if you heard,” Blackjack said, smiling cruelly. “There’s a standing five hundred thousand dollar bounty on anyone who betrays The Spider.”
“THE GREAT MAGNETIC TRAIN CAPER” The Butcher’s body sagged limply down in his chair. The bags of Krugerrands jingled musically as they fell to the carpeted floor. “Little bonus,” Blackjack mused aloud, walking over and bending lithely to recover the bags of gold. Of course, none of this could compare to the billion bucks she planned to collect on Doc Nebula’s head. Pity he’d been gone by the time she’d gotten over here. If she’d been closer when Retrograde raised the alarm over the weird funds transfer… but never mind. Nebula’s luck couldn’t last forever. Eventually, it would run out. And when it did, she was going to be the last thing he ever saw…
ASTONISHING ADVENTURES MAGAZINE A Herbert Smythe Adventure
“The Predator From The Past” By Christian Dabnor
ear reader, let me regale you of the time I was called upon by Her Majesty’s Government to investigate a series of vile and bloody murders. I was in my town house, working on my latest invention, with the assistant of my manservant Jarvis. It would be a most useful invention in my area of interest, a pair of spectacles that would allow me to see restless spirits. The lenses were made of two layers of crystal, between which ‘Spirit Gas’, a formula of Haitian design, flowed.
He grunted slightly as he turned the valve. There was the hiss of steam and a ghastly groan of stressed metal, before the pump shuddered into life. The vibrations of the pump were somewhat uncomfortable, and the gas escaping around the rims of the spectacle a little annoying, but they seemed to be working. There would be no way of knowing for sure until they were put into practical use. I would need to find a decent graveyard or somewhere similar to try them out.
Above the racket of the pump’s motor, I heard a knock at the door. Jarvis nodded curtly and went to answer it. He returned with Inspector Greaves “Of course, sir,” responded he, in his somewhat of Scotland Yard and two of his Sergeants in tow. monotone fashion. They looked a little startled by my appearance. “Jarvis, pass me the pliers and a piece of chamois leather would you?”
I folded the leather over the frames and applied “Good day, my dear Inspector. Jarvis, could pressure with the pliers, forcing them into shape. you turn the pump off please?” My voice had something of a vibrato sound to it, due to the “There you go Jarvis, these should do the action of the pump. trick.” “Naturally, sir.” “Very good, sir.” The valve squealed as it was shut off. I heaved the backpack with the pump and gas canister onto my back, the weight causing me to “Now, what can I do for you, Inspector?” I stagger a little. I put the spectacles on. asked “Could you turn on the pump please Jarvis?” Unfortunately, I was unable to reach around to turn the device on. “With pleasure, sir.”
He tucked his stovepipe hat under his arm and bowed stiffly. “Mr. Smythe, it seems that once more, Her Majesty’s Government is in need of your,” he paused, “unique skills.”
“The Predator From The Past”
“Excellent, things have been somewhat dull shoulder where it attempted to gain purchase.” of late,” I said, as I shrugged off the cumbersome “I see. An ape, possibly?” backpack, “haven’t they, Jarvis?” “They have, sir.” “Mr. Smythe, it appears that there is an unknown horror stalking the streets of London,” said the Inspector, his tone somewhat melodramatic, “and it struck again last night.” “Well take me to the scene my good man. Jarvis, prepare my investigatory tools! We must away to business!” sir.”
“Nothing would give me greater pleasure,
“No, the jaws appear to be too long, and the teeth are not of an ape-like fashion. No. This is something unknown to me. Jarvis, pass me the plaster of Paris.” I set a wooden frame around the bite marks on the front and poured in the plaster of Paris. Others of a more religious persuasion often proclaimed this to be a blasphemy and an affront to the dead, but I was a man of science, not superstition. Whilst this was setting, I looked around the place. The only other thing of interest I found was the impression of a foot in a flowerbed. It had three taloned toes at the front, and a single one at the back. I took a cast of this, also. It seemed a trip to the Natural History Museum was in order.
I followed the inspector to the scene of the ghastly incident, him taking a Hansom Cab, rather than accompany me in my steam carriage. Before us lay the body of a streetwalker, her clothes Professor Hoyle’s footsteps echoed down the were in tatters, and her pale flesh rent by what long hallway as he came to greet us. He shook seemed a savage animal attack. After inspecting her wounds, I laid a sheet across her to afford her my hand in a friendly fashion, but merely gave the Greaves a cold nod (my regular readers may some modesty. remember the unfortunate events in The Tale of “It appears, my dear Inspector,” I proclaimed the Sleepwalking Assassin, which gave rise to his with confidence, “that this poor girl was attacked dislike of the Inspector). by a creature of approximately the height and “Mr. Smythe! What a grand pleasure it is to posture of a man.” see you again! What fantastical adventure brings The Inspector looked amazed. “How did you you here this time?” deduce that?” “Professor, you may be aware of a series of gruesome killings that have taken place around “A simple, logical deduction. Do you see these bite marks, here?” I pointed to her shoulder. “They the city of late,” I said as we walked towards his appear on the front and back of her shoulder, as if offices. His offices had the odour of musty tomes and pipe tobacco. We sat at a low table and he the creature leaned forward to bite her.” poured me a glass of port. “Could it not have been a dog?” he asked. “Yes, the Midnight Reaper, I believe the more sensational press is calling the killer. What of it?” “It is a possibility, but one would expect there to be light scratch marks down her breast and
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“I have taken casts from the teeth of the killer, “Or maybe you don’t trust me? Is that it?” as well as one of its feet. Jarvis, the casts if you Hoyle retorted. A little harshly, I thought, but would,” I said, motioning for my manservant. he’d been through a lot. Hoyle cleared space on his desk. “Now, now, gentlemen, let’s not bicker when “With all expediency, sir.” there’s work to be done. I agree with Inspector Greaves, you are far too important to the academic The Professor’s eyes lit up as he saw the casts. community to lose.” “And you say that these are freshly taken?” He withdrew a pair of pince-nez in order to examine His chest puffed out at this flattery, as I knew the casts more vigorously. it would, but he didn’t change his mind. “This very morning.” “Remarkable. These seem to have come from a deinonychus antirrhopus, a feathered dinosaur, hitherto believed to be extinct! If you could capture this beast, it would be most fortuitous.” He was giddy, like a schoolboy. He immediately stood and turned to a bookshelf, running his finger along the spines of the leather-bound books, before coming to what he was looking for. He rapidly flicked through the pages (I winced, in his haste, he was mistreating a book, something that I generally found abhorrent), then displayed an image to me, of a dinosaur. It was a bipedal beast, with a vicious maw, and a tail which seemed to counterbalance its body. It had wickedly claws and looked of an entirely predatory nature. I shuddered involuntarily.
“I’m coming with you, whether you like it or not.” The Inspector stood. “In that case, I shall have to have you confined to your home. I can’t risk having a civilian running around while we tackle this beast. It’s dangerous for you and it’s dangerous for my men.” “I will be writing to your superiors about this! You cannot imprison an innocent man, and certainly not twice!” (Once more I direct readers to The Tale of the Sleepwalking Assassin)
“I’m sorry Professor, it’s my last word on the matter. Good day to you.” The Inspector stood, doffed his cap and exited the room. I understood his reasoning, but I also knew the anguish that must be afflicting the Professor. I resolved to “I will endeavour to do so, Professor, but capture the beast. should it become a risk to the public, I will have to “Professor, if you cannot go to the beast, then put it to rest.” How could one set about capturing I will bring the beast to you! Now, I must bid you such a beast? “May I borrow this book, so that I goodbye and make my preparations.” may plan my tackling of this creature?” The Professor, however, was being churlish “Of course, of course. This may be the greatest discovery of our lifetime! It would be entirely and only waved his hand briefly at me. remiss of me not to assist you in any way possible. Maybe I could even join you?” Back at my townhouse, I sat, pondering how “There’ll be no place for civilians on this, to entrap this beast. I had numerous inventions, Professor Hoyle ,” the Inspector said gruffly, “We but what would prove most useful? And how couldn’t guarantee your safety.”
“The Predator From The Past”
would I find it? There had to be a pattern to the “Jarvis, I fear we must enter the sewer system. fiend’s attacks. Armed with a large-scale map of I hope you don’t mind getting a little dirty.” London, a list of the locations where bodies had “It would be my pleasure to accompany you, been found, and some coloured pins, I and Jarvis sir.” set about plotting the attacks. Although they seemed to centre around a midpoint, it was too wide to pinpoint anything exactly. I started to read more about the creature. With regards to it’s habitat, it was from the cretaceous period, so was used to a cold, wet climate. I surmised that it would be right at home in London. This did not, as I’m sure you will appreciate, help expedite my investigations. There had to be some commonality amongst the locations, but what was it? I paced my chambers, but to no avail. It must be something not on the maps. “Jarvis, prepare my steam carriage. I feel we must visit the locations. And bring my Electricity Gun and Web Cannon.” “Without hesitation, sir.”
I opened the trunk of the steam carriage and retrieved my galoshes. I had learnt previously that investigations could occasionally take one to less than pleasant locales. Jarvis then helped me to don the harness which carried the Electricity Gun, and he carried the Web Cannon. The hunt was to begin in earnest.
The arched sewer tunnel echoed with a constant dripping sound, and the tramping of our footsteps. My lantern cast eerie shadows as it swung to and fro. “Imagine if you will, Jarvis, the days when this muck flowed in the streets of our city. What rank odours must have assailed the nostrils then,” I commented to my companion.
“Yes, sir. Fascinating, sir.” His voice was muffled slightly beneath the cloth he had tied We arrived at the scene of the very first murder - a priest of note and good reputation. around his face. There was nothing out of the ordinary, even to my “By my estimation, we need to proceed in a trained eye; so, I took a photographic image of the general area. The second was equally devoid of north-easterly direction, for approximately a mile, inspiration. However, true to the age old adage, to find the epicentre of the attacks,” I said, looking the third time was lucky. The cadaver had been down at my wrist-compass. found on soft ground, and fortunately, the prints It was then that I thought I heard something. of the beast were still visible. I held up a hand to both stop and silence Jarvis, “Jarvis! Bring me the photographic images! I then pointed to the tunnel from whence I thought the sound had issued. We hefted our weapons do believe I have it!” and proceeded as silently as possible. Every time either of us made a noise, we froze, fearful that the “Well done, sir.” noise was, in fact, the beast. It wasn’t long before It was as I suspected. A sewer grate could be I caught a glimpse of a shadow, as it disappeared seen on all of the images. down one of the many tributary tunnels. It was that of a man!
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“Jarvis, we must make all haste - either there is head, stunned. a man in danger, or he has something to do with “It seems our adversary is a little tougher than these vile attacks.” expected.” “Yes, sir.” “If you wouldn’t mind standing to one side, Silence be damned, we ran down the corridor. sir,” asked Jarvis, “allow me to deal with the The tunnels were labyrinthine, so at each junction, beast.” we had to listen for the sound of fleeing footsteps I did as he requested and he fired the Web and pray that they were not merely echoes. Cannon. The thick ropes tangled around the However, fortune was with us and we caught up with the mystery figure, who was struggling to creature, and the hooks sank deep into the tunnel wall. unbolt a steel door. “I should have known,” I said, pointing my Electricity Gun at the figure, “Baron Kaspersky, the Crime Tsar, agent of the perfidious Russian underworld. Stay where you are.” “Smythe. A not entirely unexpected pleasure.” He turned to face me. I recoiled at the scar that covered one side of his face. He obviously noticed my horror. “Why so surprised Smythe? You are the cause of my disfiguration, or had you forgotten our last meeting?”
“Good show Jarvis!” “Thank you, sir.” I think he may have smiled slightly at that point, but I wasn’t quite certain. “It seems we are not out of the woods yet, though,” I exclaimed, pointing at the thrashing predator. It was beginning to rip through the web, which was somewhat remarkable, as it had been used on elephants before now. “Follow me!”
We ran through the door from whence the creature had come. It snagged my topcoat with “The Promethean Sphere. How could I? You sought to drown our city in liquid fire. It one of it’s claws, but Jarvis pulled me, ripping was somewhat ironic that you should be burnt my jacket slightly. We shoved the door closed moments before the beast slammed into it. yourself, was it not?” Fortunately there was a thick iron bolt and we “I have been living down here since, unable drove it home. There was an anguished cry and to show my face up... there. You have turned me then a beating against the door. But that was not into a pariah. I tried to fit in, but people shunned our only problem. me. I had had my fill of women, but now they “How is it your saying goes? Out of the frying only turn in disgust,” he said wistfully, “but now I am to have my revenge. I’m sure you’ve seen the pan and into the fire?” handiwork of my pet. Allow me to introduce you Kaspersky had a small, elegant pistol levelled to him.” at us. Behind him was a large device, like a huge Unbeknownst to me, he had been working on hoop. Imagine, if you will, a clock. At 12 o’clock, the bolt behind his back. The door burst open, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock, there were softly and the creature sprang forward in a flash of fang pulsating crystals. That was not the oddest thing and claw. I fired my Electricity Cannon. The about the contraption though. Although we were creature staggered back slightly, then shook it’s underground, it looked as if it led to a large, open
“The Predator From The Past” plain, where rain lashed the ground. The Baron’s hair and greatcoat were whipped by a wind that issued from the tunnel.
“I think we should retrieve the contents of this room for further investigation. I have a feeling “What do you think of my time tunnel, that these items may prove to be of interest in the Smythe? Impressive is it not? You see, the future.” creature you have seen is just the first of many. “Definitely, Sir.” Once I have fitted more of them with Pain Collars to enrage them suitably, and starved them, I will unleash them on the surface world en masse, so that they may inflict mayhem and misery on those that have shunned me,” he raised his arms aloft, as if exalting the heavens. “You’re mad, Kaspersky, simply mad. Those creatures will turn on you as well,” I reasoned. “That is not a problem. This device,” he held up what appeared to be a small gramophone “emits a sound that repels the beasts, whilst being inaudible to man. Whilst I have this, I am entirely safe. Now, Mr. Smythe, it seems we must part company. For ever.” It was at that point, to my good fortune, that the door behind us splintered. Jarvis and I rolled in different directions as the feathered thing burst through. It seemed to try to stop itself, offended, as it was, by Kaspersky’s device, but the momentum it had built up was too great. It’s claws skittered at the concrete floor before it fell and slid sideways towards Kaspersky. His one good eye widened with fear. As the beast hit him, he tried to fire his pistol, but he was thrown of balance and the bullet hit the crystal above him on the Time Tunnel. As he and the creature tumbled backwards into the tunnel, the vista behind him faded away. Then the device collapsed in upon itself before seeming to blink out of existence. The only mementos of his being here were the small gramophone like device that lay on the floor and the bullet-chipped crystal. “Jarvis?”
ASTONISHING ADVENTURES MAGAZINE The Black Spectre in
“The Undressed Widow” By Roger Alford
orn into a wealthy family, young Brent Gregor’s life was shattered one fateful Halloween night when an intruder’s bullets killed his father, put his mother in an asylum, and left him in a wheelchair. Young Brent became a brooding recluse locked away, forever alone, in his family mansion.
He was a small, soft-spoken, bespectacled man -the exact opposite of the kind that were featured in the monthly “pulp” magazine for which he worked. They’d just sent the latest issue to press and it was time to take a well-deserved breather before starting the next issue first thing Monday morning.
When he reached adulthood, Gregor spent much of his vast fortune searching the world in vain for a cure. His far-reaching efforts led him to an old gypsy woman who offered a fantastical proposition: by joining with a mysterious entity known as the Spirit Force, Gregor could summon it when needed to not only walk again, but to harness phantom-like abilities: superhuman strength and agility, the power to hide unseen in the shadows, move objects with his mind, and easily pass through locked doors. In return, he vowed to stand for the righteous, to fight evil, and bring justice to those who have none.
The last place he wanted to go was home, However. His wife, Ruth, would be there waiting, though certainly not glad to see him. She had been an innocent, pretty young girl when they were married nearly twenty years Earlier. But the truth was that they had little in common and really didn’t much enjoy each other’s company. Not that they ever did.
It was only a few Block’s walk to their apartment on the South Side of Terminal City. Albert took his time, enjoyed the night air, then stopped off at O’Doule’s Bar for a hearty drink. Now...like a ghost, he moves through the He’d only intended to stay for a short while, but shadows of the night, bringing evil-doers to justice! the quiet solitude of the bar at that Late hour was When criminals and lawbreakers are marked with too enticing. It was nearly two in the morning his trademark “X,” they know there is no escape before the barkeep finally nudged him from his stool and made him face the uninviting prospect from...The Black Spectre! of completing his walk home. It was a warm June night And he found himself wishing that he had a hammock and a back yard (with trees) in which It had been a long day for Albert Johnson, but to string it. he wasn’t The least bit anxious to get home from his job as art editor for Thrilling Fables Magazine. After he stumbled up the long staircase inside
“The Undressed Widow” their brownstone building and stopped more than once to Catch his breath and exhale a healthy belch, Albert finally opened the door and walked into the dim, modestly furnished apartment. It was comfortable enough and, other than the back yard, was all that he cared to have. He listened for a moment, then quietly called out for Ruth. There was no answer. Good, he thought, she’s already gone to bed. He wouldn’t have to answer for his late arrival.
the closet. He’d had suspicions about Ruth before, but he’d always dismissed them. Not his Ruth. Of course they had long been unhappy, but he was convinced that she was too much of a lady to do such a thing.
He only managed to take one step towards the closet before he was bashed in the back of the head with something heavy. Albert crumbled to the creaky wooden floor and watched his blood spill around his hands before the second blow made it Not until morning, anyway. impossible for him to react in any fashion. He lay as limp as a rag doll with only enough feeling to He stopped halfway to the bedroom to admire sense a string of wire loop around his neck from the portrait of his beautiful Jessalyn that hung over behind. The only sensation he felt in those last the fireplace. Even in the dim lamplight of the few moments was gasping for air as he choked to room, her youthful, innocent beauty shone like death. a beacon in the night. How he missed her. Ruth had asked him many times to take the portrait *** down, and had even done so herself on several Auburn-haired reporter Vicky Rose arrived at occasions, but Albert had always insisted that that portrait remain. It was the one thing in his house the Johnson’s apartment only minutes after the police did. Her editor, Frank Matson, had greased on which he stood completely firm. enough palms in City Hall to get the first scoop He walked on to the bedroom and slowly on major stories and, better still, quick access to nudged the door so as not to wake Ruth. The crime scenes. On this very early morning, it had last thing he wanted was to spoil the continued paid off royally. peacefulness. As he slowly creaked the door open, She’d dashed out of her apartment right after a dim shaft of light from the room behind him, broken only by his own shadow, fell across the Frank’s call, putting on her make-up as she drove. As determined as she was to equal any man on bed. the job, she was just as determined to never to let It was empty and unmade. them forget she was a woman. “Ruth?” he asked again quietly. There was no Vicky managed a good back-row seat as the answer. This was most puzzling. Not at all what large, grizzled Detective Shayne consoled and he expected. questioned the victim’s wife. Mrs. Ruth Johnson was a bundle of tears as she attempted to describe “Ruth?” he asked once more, just a bit louder. the horrible situation. Vicky noticed that despite In that moment, his puzzlement shifted to worry. her growing years and waistline, Mrs. Johnson still maintained most of her youthful beauty. As he stepped further through the doorway, he noticed her clothing on the floor. Then his This fact hadn’t escaped the police officers that mind raced in a different direction. He looked at surrounded her, either.
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Nor did the fact that she was practically naked Ruth tried to continue, “That’s when they... in her tattered corset (a rather fancy one at that). they held me down and they...” She just couldn’t get the words out. She broke down again. “Please, Mrs. Johnson,” Detective Shayne pleaded, “just take your time and tell me what “It’s okay, Mrs. Johnson,” Det. Shayne happened.” consoled her. “You don’t have to go into that.” “I came home late,” she sobbed, “Albert was working late, so I went out with the girls, you see? Anyway, I got home and saw that he still hadn’t come home. So, I went into the bedroom to get dressed for bed.”
Ruth Pleaded with them, “They took my jewelry! All of it. Even my wedding ring!” Then she fell into an inconsolable flood of tears.
Det. Shayne waited quietly as she sobbed some more, then finally managed to interject, Ruth broke down for another moment, then “Why don’t you put something on and we’ll go gathered her composure. Vicky dutifully jotted down to the station.” down every word as Ruth continued. “I heard Ruth Johnson nodded in agreement, then someone come in the back door, through the kitchen. I just thought it was Albert, but couldn’t proceeded to get dressed right then and there, with imagine why he would come in that way. I walked Det. Shayne and four Policemen still in the room. into the Kitchen to check and as soon as I went During her entire encounter with the police, through the door, this dark, muscular hand she never asked for any privacy. For a modest covered my mouth. I tried to Scream, but he had housewife, she didn’t seem to have much shame. me good. They drug me straight off to the spare This struck Vicky as being rather peculiar. bedroom, and that’s where they tied me up.” As Det. Shayne and the police officers hustled She rubbed at the rope marks on her wrists as Ruth out the front door, Vicky grabbed the opportunity to get a look at the other half of the she choked up on the words. Crime scene. Albert still lay on the bedroom floor “Did you say it was two men?” Det. Shayne where he’d been bludgeoned and strangled just a asked. few hours Earlier, lying in a dark pool of his own blood. His skin was ash-grey and his wide-open She nodded, yes, unable to speak. eyes bulged at the sockets. It was a gruesome sight, but she’d seen worse and immediately snapped a Vicky’s pencil hung in suspense over her pad. few pictures, even though she knew Frank would never print Them. “You said they were dark-skinned. Were they negroes?” Det. Shayne asked further. *** No, Ruth shook her head, then managed to Vicky mulled the experience over in her mind get out, “They looked Italian. Well-dressed.” as she and her studious boyfriend Denny, who worked in the newspaper’s archives, sat in the This didn’t surprise anyone in the room. Least Carousel Ice Cream Parlor later that evening, long of all Vicky, who perhaps knew more than anyone after the afternoon edition had hit the streets. there about the Mob’s reach in Terminal City. Denny could tell she was distracted by the way
“The Undressed Widow” she pensively sipped at her usual double-chocolate malt and just let the chocolate taste settle in her mouth. Before he could ask what had distracted her, she gave out the answer with a question of her own.
Denny pleaded with her on the entire Drive over to the Johnson’s apartment building, but he knew it was futile. Vicky was determined and, as irregular as it may have been, she was going back for another look.
“Do I always assume the worst in people?” He barely managed to keep up with her as she asked. “Or do I just always see them at their she charged up the three flights of stairs to the worst?” Johnson’s apartment. When he breathlessly reached the top, she was already Outside the Denny only answered with a puzzled Johnson’s door, waiting for him, and motioned expression. Before he could ask for clarification, for him to be quiet. He just nodded, too out of she provided it. breath to speak, as he stepped up to the door next to her. “I just wonder sometimes if this job is getting to me. Take this Ruth Johnson story today. Here Vicky reached quietly for the doorknob, then this poor woman was tied up and who knows stopped short as a sudden thought struck her. She what else, then her husband is murdered right in looked up at Denny, her eyes wide. the next Room, and she’s left there all night until the landlady found her this morning. And all I “We may not be alone,” she told him. can think about is if she’s not behind it in some “What?” Denny asked, then immediately got way.” his answer as the door swung open -- they were “How on earth could you think that?” Denny both pulled quickly inside and it closed straight asked. behind Them. Vicky rolled her soft Eyes. “This is going to sound loony, but the whole time she talked to the police, she was...” Vicky stumbled for the appropriate word. “Well, she wasn’t wearing much. I know she was distraught, but if it had been me, I still would have put something on.”
Denny tried to blurt something out, but the black-gloved hand that covered his mouth prevented him from making a sound. He was unable to move as well. His entire body was held firm by much more than the dark, enveloping shadow of a figure that stood behind him. He almost felt numb from the sensation.
Vicky’s gaze immediately shifted from puzzlement to determination. Denny knew that Suddenly thinking of Vicky, Denny looked look well. Before he could even react, she grabbed up to see her standing in front of him, her arms him by the hand and tugged him straight off the Crossed, her expression even more so. barstool. “Let him go,” she commanded their unseen “Come on,” she told him, “I’ve got to have attacker. “Sorry, Denny, I was just about to warn another look at that crime scene.” you.” ***
“Only if he promises not to scream,” The Black Spectre replied as he released his grip, both
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physical and mental. Denny jerked away and quickly swung his gangly form around to get his very first look at The Black Spectre. He also tried to catch his breath without being noticed. Up until that moment, Denny hadn’t really believed that The Spectre was real, despite Vicky’s many encounters with him in the past. He just had to see for himself to be convinced.
“This is Denny, my boyfriend,” she said emphatically. “I know,” The Spectre replied.
The Spectre led them into to the bedroom. Denny paused for a quick look at the portrait of the lovely young girl that hung over the fireplace. Something about that photo looked very familiar to him. A quick tug from Vicky propelled him to follow. He stopped short with a gasp as soon as he The Spectre was exactly as Vicky had described saw the blood-stained chalk outline on the dark him -- the flowing black cloak, the wide-brimmed wooden floor. hat, the black mask that bore the glowing image “I really don’t think we should be here,” of a skull with dark recesses for eyes. And for some strange reason, Denny suddenly felt that he’d Denny stuttered. encountered The Spectre before. “I don’t leave footprints,” The Spectre assured “So, what are you doing here?” Vicky shot him as he floated gracefully over to the bed. With back as Denny straightened up in an unsuccessful a wave of his hand, the corner of the Mattress lifted just enough to reveal a small bundle tied in attempt to look formidable. a handkerchief. “You have to ask?” The Black Spectre replied “What’s that?” Vicky asked, though her as he moved around her like smoke in a soft breeze. As always, he was thankful for the mask suspicions already told her the answer. that hid the joy in his eyes upon seeing her, “Ruth Johnson’s missing jewels,” the Spectre especially under such circumstances. What gave replied. “I wonder how Albert was set up for him more satisfaction than the task of solving the crime at hand was the knowledge that she, too, insurance.” would return to the scene to investigate further. “She murdered him?” Denny exclaimed, She’d barely mentioned the undressed state of much too loud. Mrs. Johnson in her article, but the doubt of Ruth’s innocence was clear in her few, well-chosen Vicky quickly shushed him to be quiet and words. Their minds clearly thought alike and he Denny just as quickly apologized. treasured the time he had with her. “But she was found tied up in the other room,” A similar thought had occurred to Vicky, as Vicky countered. “She must have had help.” well, Only she didn’t find it nearly as comforting. I do assume the worst, she mused to herself. Just “Exactly,” The Spectre agreed as he moved like The Black Spectre. silently over to the wardrobe and with another “Come here,” The Spectre continued, “I want slight gesture, opened it up to reveal Ruth’s lingerie to show you something.” He reached out a gloved and several new, expensive corsets. hand for hers, but she took Denny’s instead.
“The Undressed Widow” “I really don’t think we should be in there,” Denny stammered emphatically.
“Ran across that one back when we were Vicky stepped forward for a closer look. “Lot looking for that Thomas Gregor story,” Denny of expensive corsets for a middle-class housewife. explained. “That name just kind of sticks with Wonder where she got these?” you.” “That, I believe, is the question,” The Spectre That was when she and Denny first met. replied as he produced a business card just like a Vicky’s smile grew just a bit wider. His did, too. magician reveals a playing card for his audience. The Black Spectre was glad that his mask hid “Judd Gormon, Corset Salesman.” the pain that was surely visible on his face at that Vicky quickly took the card from him and moment. found a handwritten phone number and the name Vicky pondered another thought. “Wait a of a hotel scrawled at the bottom. minute, the police found a monogrammed pin on “I think this part is for me,” she told him. the floor, with the initials ‘J.G.’; Judd Gormon or Jessalyn Guilfoyle?” “There’s just one thing that still puzzles me,” The Spectre stated as he moved back through the “I’d say it’s time we found out,” chimed doorway and into the living room. Vicky and Denny, as his confidence got the better of him. Denny quickly followed close behind. He stopped “Poor Ruth,” Vicky shook her head, looking in front of the portrait that had moments earlier back at the portrait as they left. “No wonder she caught Denny’s attention. killed him.” “Who is this girl?” The Spectre asked. “Why *** put her photo in a place of such prominence? The only picture of Ruth is in that small frame over on Judd Gormon quickly packed his suitcase and the lamp table.” practically jumped out of his skin when there was “I don’t know,” Vicky replied. “The police a light knock at the door of his hotel room. He’d been waiting all day for a call and had become were wondering about that, too.” completely unnerved by that time. He quickly “Jessalyn Guilfoyle!” Denny blurted out. Both rushed to the door and leaned against it. He Vicky and The Spectre quickly turned around in wondered if he should even answer, but the knock surprise. Denny scratched the back of his head as had been too soft to be the police. he struggled to pull the thoughts out. He quickly bent down to the floor and looked “It was, gosh... had to be fifteen years ago through the thin gap between the door and the almost,” Denny added. “They were engaged, then threshold. He could just make out a slender pair she got sick and poor thing died before they were of women’s high-heeled shoes. married.” Certainly not the police. Vicky smiled at Denny, very impressed. He
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“Yes?” he asked nervously, hoping to hear Ruth’s voice on the other side. But it wasn’t Ruth.
man, with sinewy hands that seemed to defy his profession. He was certainly strong enough to kill a man like Albert Johnson. And a woman like her all too easily. As soon as Vicky looked away from “Mr. Gormon,” a lovely female voice answered, studying his form, she spied the open suitcase on “I’m so sorry to bother you at this late hour, but the bed. I was really hoping to catch you before you left town again.” “Well, my heavens, it looks like I’ve come just in time,” she remarked. “Excuse me?” Judd asked and swallowed hard. “Yes, you just managed to catch me,” Judd confirmed as he went over to a large travel case in “This is Judd Gormon, the corset salesman, which he kept his sales models. Vicky fanned her isn’t it?” the friendly young woman asked. face with embarrassment. “Why yes, yes it is,” Judd answered as he collected his nerves, unlocked the door, and opened it just far enough to peer out. Through the crack he could see the shining, smiling face of a lovely auburn-haired young woman. What he couldn’t see was the lanky young man that watched from the far end of the hall.
“Mercy!” Vicky exclaimed. “I never thought I’d see the day when I was alone with a man in a strange hotel room looking at ladies’ undergarments.” “Please,” Judd reassured her with a calm voice as his gaze traveled the length of her slender waist, “don’t be embarrassed. Though I can’t imagine why you would need a corset.”
“Oh, thank you!” she exclaimed. “I was afraid I had gotten the wrong room. Forgive me for “I wanted to get something special for my being rude to barge in like this. I’m Mrs. Vicky husband, you understand,” she lied convincingly. Morris. Would it be possible for me to come in “It’s our anniversary this week.” and see your selection?” As Judd’s gaze made its way down her legs, “Why, yes, please do,” Judd answered, Vicky noted two small holes in the center of his relieved, and opened the door wider. He could tie. Just the size of a monogrammed pin. She have sworn he felt a light breeze as she walked then gave a quick glance through the bathroom smartly into his hotel room, as if something had doorway. She couldn’t see The Spectre, but she brushed past him. He wasted no time in locking knew he was there. the door behind her. The Black Spectre listened to their conversation As Judd got a better look at Vicky, he was as he searched the bathroom. He carefully scanned surprised he didn’t recognize her as a prospect. As the edges of the sink and tub. Sure enough, there a traveling salesman, he gave out so many cards were traces of blood along the edge of the sink it was hard to keep track, but thought surely he basin. Then he checked the garbage pail where he would have remembered her. found a bus ticket that was stamped at 3:12 a.m. the previous night, just a short time after Albert As always, Vicky immediately took in the Johnson was murdered. details of her quarry. He was a large strapping
“The Undressed Widow”
Vicky gave another glance through the “Who are you people?” Judd asked. “Where’s bathroom doorway as Judd showed her the last of Ruth? Tell me!” he demanded, shaking his gun for his corsets. It wasn’t quite quick enough, however, emphasis. because Judd noticed and paranoia quickly got “The police have her,” Vicky answered the best of him. nervously. “We found the jewels under the “What’s going on here?” he asked. “Why do mattress. We’re with the Daily Crusader. The you keep looking in there?” police are on their way here, right now.” Vicky smiled back at him reassuringly, “No “Well, they aren’t here yet, are they?” Judd reason. Like I said before, I’m just a little nervous asked as he moved quickly to the door, his eyes about being in a strange hotel room with a man still locked on her. I’ve just met. It’s not proper, you know.” “You, out in the hall!” He shouted to Denny Judd grunted in acknowledgement as he again, “get down on the floor with your hands on casually moved towards his suitcase. His eyes were your head if you want her to live.” locked on hers, and hers on him. She knew The “You’re not going anywhere,” came a voice Spectre would protect her, but she didn’t know about Judd. He’d clubbed and strangled his lover’s behind him. husband just a few hours earlier. Most likely, “Who’s that?” Judd asked, whisking around to he’d be willing to do most anything to escape the face the bathroom door. “I knew someone was in chair. there!” Vicky’s instincts were correct. As soon as Judd The Black Spectre stood before him, one of his reached his suitcase, he quickly reached inside gleaming .45s drawn and aimed straight at Judd. and grabbed a small pistol from under his shirts. Vicky let out a loud shriek that was immediately Judd shook his head in confusion, not followed by Denny calling her name from out in the hall. Vicky knew right then and there that her believing what he was seeing. “I never thought life was in the hands of two men: Judd Gormon you were real!” he stammered. and The Black Spectre. It’s about time, Vicky thought, as she frantically Judd aimed his pistol straight at Vicky and looked for a place to duck. Behind the bed was shouted to the door as Denny tried unsuccessfully the best that she could do. She finally let herself to break it down. “Stop it right now, or the dame breathe just a small sigh of relief at the sight of him. And then just one more when she heard the gets it!” sound of sirens approach in the distance. “Okay! Okay!” Denny shouted from outside “So, the dame wasn’t lying, was she?” Judd and immediately ceased his attempts to enter. chuckled as he raised the gun to his own head. Vicky watched nervously as Judd snapped his The Spectre thrust out his empty hand just as suitcase shut and never took his eyes off her. If Judd pulled the trigger. Judd suddenly felt his arm The Spectre were going to act, she thought, this move up involuntarily and the shot fired into the ceiling. The blast echoed through the room with would be a good time.
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Vicky’s accompanying scream.
him as he handed it to the formidable Detective. It was a Judd Gormon’s card, with the name of the It was only a brief moment before Judd felt hotel and a phone number hand-written at the himself being knocked face-first to the floor by an bottom. Det. Shayne then flipped it over to find unseen force, his arms and hands held down by something else on the reverse. invisible weights. Then something equally unseen struck him across the back of the head. He had It was an “X.” one last thought just before he blacked out: he was glad that he wasn’t being choked.
“So, you found him just like this?” Det. Shayne asked as he stood with Vicky and Denny and examined the scene before him. Judd Gormon was sprawled out on the floor in much the same fashion as Albert Johnson had been, only he was unconscious and with a pistol in his hand. As Det. Shayne looked over Judd, his officers searched the hotel room. In Judd’s suitcase, they found a bundle of love letters from Ruth. Love letters that spelled out their sordid plans and waxed rhapsodic about how much better their lives would be once Albert was out of the picture and they had collected his insurance. “So,” Det. Shayne asked, “how’d you manage to put this all together?” Vicky gave him a knowing smile as she took Denny’s arm and headed for the door. “Sorry, Detective,” she told him, “you’ll just have to read all about it in tomorrow morning’s edition.” Moments later, as Det. Shayne stood at the window and watched Vicky and Denny get in their car on the street below, another of his men found an important clue that had fallen under the bed. “Sir, I found something else,” the officer told
“The Yellow Star”
The Auslander in
“The Yellow Star” By Michael Patrick Sullivan
ith each smattering of blood on his fist, The Auslander forced himself to take solace in the fact that each of these men, for whatever broken bones or bruises they might have, will still be alive after he leaves the thirty-story building on 47th Street. Had these men met him six months ago, the same would not likely be true. They were protecting that which was behind the last door that the foreigner with the shock white hair and deep black trench coat needed to open. He had passed through many doors already, most them over the prone bodies of security guards that weren’t much better than a 4H, though each door was more difficult than the last. Until he reached the door behind which was The Yellow Star of Antwerp. It was an image that came to him in a dream. It was one of those dreams that had periodically been haunting him since the day he woke up in a hotel room with an array of false ID cards, each with a different name. None of those names, he knew, were his own, though he had no proof of it as he had no memory of it…or anything else. All he knew for certain is that his German was better than his English, and with the Second World War raging, that tended to be problematic as roamed the states, following cryptic clues that come to him and dreams. Each journey leads to some kind of Nazi plot,. The pieces aren’t hard to put together, Each plot, he fears, he likely had
a hand in. Each plot also brings back some piece of his fractured mind as well as the dread that when the final piece falls into place, he will once again be more monster than man. His most recent dream led him to New York City’s Diamond District and, instinctively several stories into the tallest building on the block. One the locals simply called “The Tower.” Within its secure walls were enough diamonds to get engaged to every woman, single or not, in the tri-state area. The Auslander was only interested in one such gem. The man of black and white dreamt of a super-weapon, a beam weapon uniquely focused by a specially cut gem. A cut so special, so specific that it would lead Nazi agents deep within The Tower, populated almost exclusively by those they would exterminate with glee. The same Nazi agents for whom he was, now, clearing a path. Nazi agents just two floors behind him. Each guard, each jeweler, each innocent who met with the cracking force of The Auslander’s knuckles was another person the Germans behind him would not have to kill to get to their goal. “The Yellow Star of Antwerp.” The Auslander surmised that to be the name of the deadly stone in question. His blood-soaked hands work feverishly to pick the locks of the final door as the unconscious men in the traditional black suits
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of Orthodox Jews lie heaped around him, sparking a faint memory he’s reasonably certain he doesn’t want to recall. He can hear the sounds of doorknobs breaking plaster as his pursuers violently kick open doors. It’s that sound that nearly masks the clicking of the last tumbler in the lock.
locate the Star and then, somehow, devise a plan for keeping out of German hands.
The shock-haired man, slips through the opened door, using the doorknob to anchor a rapid turn, throwing his weight back into the door, shutting it. He secures the lock, pulls a nearby chair to brace the door and starts scanning for heavy furniture when he finally gets a look at the room he’s entered. Cabinets surround the room, each with dozens of small, flat drawers, and each likely filled with precious jewels enough to buy the building they’re in a hundred times over.
The Auslander turned to him. “Pardon?”
“Which one contains the Yellow Star?” he thought to himself. Fortunately, the Auslander had an opportunity to get the answer from the only other human being he found in that room. Directly in the center of the room sat a bearded Hassidic man at a work bench. His eyes, huge in the lenses of his magnifying glasses, stare at him, more offended than fearful or even surprised. ‘You are not allowed in here,” said the hirsute cutter. “Didn’t Herschel tell you that? Where is he?” He called out “Herschel?” “You didn’t hear what was happening?” The Auslander’s Austrian accent put the fear in the cutter’s eyes that had not been there before. “I hear nothing when I’m working,” uttered the bearded man. The Auslander busied himself once again with securing the door, buying enough time to
“I need to find the Yellow Star.” “My name is Menahem,” said the stone worker.
“My name is Menahem, I said.” He took off his work glasses. “You can’t kill a man if you know his name.” It was something he very much believed until that moment. He knew that proof would soon overtake faith. “I’m not here to kill you.” “You say that now.” “I’m not here to kill you, but right behind me are men that will do so without remorse.” “Who? Who are these men?” “German agents.” “I came here to get away from those goons, and now they follow me here?” he uttered to himself. He looked to the stranger that just burst into his workroom. “If they are German agents, then who are you? It was the question he hated. The question he always got. The question for which had only one answer. The answer that said all and nothing. The answer that marked him as an outsider, not just in the foreign lands he now travels, but even among his own people, especially the well-armed one that were closing the gap. He had only one answer. “Ich bin ein Auslander.”
“The Yellow Star” Menahem wasn’t entirely sure what he meant by that. He knew the words. He spoke German, but it was such an odd thing to say. It was the way the black-clad stranger said it that spoke volumes to him. He would trust the stranger. The foreigner moved a large cabinet in front of the door to block the path of the Nazi’s he could now hear entering the room outside. It was heavy and the moving up it would have sapped his energy entirely were he not running on pure adrenaline. The fact that he could move it was of comfort at first, that he was able to get the piece into position. Then there was the less comfortable truth that if he could move it, then the five intruders behind him would not be stalled by it for too long. Menahem asked “What do they want?” The Auslander answered as he scanned the room for escape roots, of which another door was not going to be one. “They seek to build a weapon of terrible force. A beam weapon.” “A death ray? Like the one that Tesla fell used to talk about. You know he died this year. Near here.” The stranger was not one for conversation and certainly not for small talk. “Yes, a death ray” The Auslander said. “And a vital component for the focusing of this death ray is a specially cut stone. It’s in this room. We need to find it. The Yellow Star?” Menahem searched his memory but came up blank. “I know of no stone called the Yellow Star.” The only Yellow Stars he knew of were not highly prized at all. The black and white stranger didn’t need to hear that. “It must be. My dream—my intelligence puts it in this room. The most secure
room in the entire building.” “Not secure enough, apparently.” The Auslander didn’t bother to tell him that he found the security uncommonly good and that the security was up against someone uncommonly better. “We need to identify that stone,” he said. “And do whatever we must to make sure—“ “Erschließen Sie!” The Auslander was interrupted by the yelling of Nazi agents pounding on the door. “Open up! We will not kill you!” Both the foreigner and the cutter were disinclined to believe them. “We can’t let them get the stone.” The Auslander was resolute. He noted several air vents. None would be large enough to escape through, but perhaps one of them would facilitate the “losing” of the gem once it was found. “I told you, I know of no Yellow Star.” “That doesn’t mean it’s not here,” said The Auslander. “What stones have an unusual or one-of-a-kind cut? Of the stones in here, which ones?” Menahem knew the foreigner would not like the answer. “There are many. I’m known for my ability to manipulate the stones. My cuts are highly sought after. The sound of gunfire then rang out through the room. Submachine guns began to obliterate the door frame, rendering the lock bar nothing more than a useless bit of steel. The Auslander never bothered to lay so much as a finger on his Luger, a prize he’d taken from another German
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agent whose plans he’d fouled and whose life he’d taken. A simple Luger would do him no good. He counted the actions of five machine guns. Five men. In the confined space, he had no tactical advantage and luck was no friend to him. A low, ringing thud came from the door. The German’s had found something to ram their way in with. The blocking cabinet moved. Slightly, but it did. “We need to leave here, my friend.” The cutter got to his feet and took hold of his cane. A plain brown-lacquered wooden cane he brought with him from Europe. “Or rather, you do. Save yourself, boy.” “I’m not about to leave you here. Beside that, the only way out is through and I—“ Crash. The blocking cabinet moved again. “You are mistaken.” Menahem pointed to a cabinet with his cane. “Behind there. A window.” “We’re ten stories up.” “Somehow, I think it’s not a problem for you.” “For you, though,” responded the Avenging Austrian. “I am at peace with my maker. If it is my time, then it is my time. Whether it’s at his hands, or theirs.” The Auslander admired Menahem’s tenacity not in hanging on to life, but in his unwavering willingness to let his go. He thought it was an easy solution. Too easy. It was a road he would not take so readily, but in the back of his mind, he felt some consolation that there was a road map available, should the destination not be
smartly found. “It doesn’t matter.” The Auslander disregarded the cabinet. The gem is what they’re after and even if you don’t know which one it is, I can’t let them find it.” There was another ramming of the door. “We don’t know who you are, but give is the old man and we will let you live.” The Auslander was momentarily puzzled. He looked to Menahem and was met with equal confusion. Then it occurred to him. “The Yellow Star?” Where did you come from?” “Now is no time for chit chat, boy.” “Just tell me. You came here to escape the Nazis. Where from?” “Belgium.” Said the cutter. “Antwerp.” The shock-haired foreigner muttered to himself. “The Yellow Star of Antwerp.” The realization unlocked a piece of memory. Yellow Star was not the name of a gem, it was a code name used to designate the only man in the world who would be able to cut the death ray diamond successfully. The same man with the bum leg and trapped in a room 100 feet over the streets of New York. “It’s you. You’re the Yellow Star. They have the diamond they need, but they don’t have the man to cut it. They’ve come for you.” The Auslander immediately rushed to move the cabinet that Menahem indicated, revealing the harsh blue light of an overcast day. “I will get you out of here, somehow.” Another push from the intruders and the cabinet moves again, enough to reach a hand though. One of the Germans does just that,
“The Yellow Star”
feeling for obstacles. Instantly, and without “In fact,” Menahem, continued, “it seems my thought, The Auslander drew his Luger and fired existence is a hazard to the world. A world that into the gap. A telltale thud indicated the odds still needs you.” have changed, in the favor of the black and white stranger. Another hit at the door. One more is all they would need. “Astounding,” exclaimed the cutter. “Save yourself. Save the world. If not for me “That still leaves us outnumbered, and the then for my people.” remaining for will very angry indeed.” He fully cleared the way to the window, and pulled up on The last hit came and the intruders stormed the pane with all his might, cracking the paint the room, all dressed in black, like the Auslander, that has sealed it shut for untold years. but with dark or dirty blonde hair instead of his distinctive colorless shock. They instinctively “Boy, look at me. I’m old, I have no balance ducked when a single shot rang out from The to speak of and I’m fat. Even if I could get Auslander’s Luger. They looked up to find through that window, I wouldn’t fit on the ledge Menahem falling to the floor, bleeding from the and I wouldn’t be able to move.” He hobbled tiniest little dot in the center of his forehead. toward the foreigner. “It’s clear you have a They also found an empty open window. mission here, and it’s a mitzvah. You know what you need to do.” A jump, a swing and a calculated drop got The Auslander most of the way down. It was the Another arm appeared though the gap in the last two stories down that gave him the limp as door. This one bearing an MP38 submachine he walked down 47th Street. The gun in his coat gun. pocket felt like an anchor. “They won’t shoot,” The Auslander assured Menahem. “They might hit you.” The cutter did not appear even remotely relieved as the window finally broke loose of its seal and slide up.
There was no dream that night. No clue as to his next destination and the next Nazi plot that he probably planned and would certainly disrupt. There was no sleep at all. He lay in a makeshift bed in the back of a boxcar bound for The foreigner climbed into the window and who-knows-where, staring at the rotted wood held his hand out to the misshapen gem-handler. ceiling and replaying that last squeeze of the “Come on, now.” trigger. It dislodged something in his memory. It was familiar to him. It was something he The cutter sat down on his work stool. “I will had done before and he knew that he would, get us both killed. The world does not need me.” eventually, have to pay for that. One of the Germans shouldered into the door, moving it nearly wide enough to put a man through, but not wide enough that they wouldn’t be at an extreme disadvantage trying to cross through.