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Playing House -- continued! [Feb. 3rd, 2010|05:56 am]
CoX Fan Art and Fan Fiction

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[incineratrix]


Chapter Eighteen


They had even managed to get into the systems and take over the elevator controls. The smile masks, the clownish attitudes and dumb names aside, they really were organized, and prepared for this. The more of that Arthur saw, the less he liked it, and the more he knew that choosing the right moment to move was going to be crucial.

When Grinz wasn’t acting the buffoon, or the sadistic game show host, he was on a comm to his people elsewhere in the building. Checking in. Making sure everything was on track. No surprises. Well, no surprises except that Daily Double Bonus Round two-for-one deal, where he’d snagged the middle Pearce kid as well as the baby.

Arthur almost smirked at that one. He hadn’t really thought of himself as the ‘middle’ child. Did it even work that way when the oldest was moved out, and he himself was closing on college age by the time the youngest entered the picture?

He was Gwen’s big brother, that was what counted. And like any good big brother, he was going to protect his little sister. No matter what.

In that, he knew, he and Amelia were in full agreement. Secret identities be damned. If they could get out of this while maintaining cover, fine. If not, Mid-Knight was just going to have to cope. Let him try and scold them about it when they’d done it to save Gwen. Let him just try.

Their elevator car was packed full. Besides them and their guards, it contained Grinz, Simp, a couple of so-far nameless minions, and a skinny guy that the others addressed as Wits. Wits carried a laptop and assorted gadgets; their tech-type geek.

On the long ride down from the penthouse level, Arthur reached over and folded Amelia’s hands in his again. She looked at him, all big worried eyes and a lower lip pinched so hard between her teeth she might draw blood. Behind the worry, though, he could read the righteous temper, the determination. She would not let them down. She would not let anything happen to them. Whoever thought different had better just watch out!

Gwen, snuggled in the joey-pack, also looked at him. Not excited now, not crying either, but upset. Aware that things were not at all normal. Picking up on his mood, and Amelia’s, and those of the masked strangers around them. Her eyes were also big, owl-eyes wanting to know when he, her adored big brother, was going to fix this.

Arthur grinned at the baby, then leaned down as best he could in the crowded confines of the elevator car to rub noses with her, Eskimo-style. She grinned back, swinging her feet as Amelia rubbed the top of her head.

The elevator descended past the lobby, past the basement and sub-basement, and even past the main underground parking garage. It didn’t stop until the maintenance and delivery level, normally not accessible without a special key. But Wits had hacked his way through, and here they were.

The doors opened on dank gloom that smelled of concrete, exhaust, oil, rust and urine. Vague outlines of machinery lurked in the shadows, and the line of bare yellowish bulbs in ceiling-mounted metal cones did more to emphasize the darkness than banish it. Ranks of shelving held tools, spare parts, cleaning equipment. There were hand-trucks and janitorial carts parked in jumbled disarray. Rolls of carpeting slanted against the wall like bizarre branchless tree trunks. Crates. Old furniture.

And six vehicles. One, a pickup that Arthur recognized as belonging to the Kirby Building’s chief custodian. Two laundry vans. A delivery truck from Food Services of New England.

The last two were large white panel trucks, with balloon-and-confetti designs on the sides and lettering that read: “Happy Occasions Party Planning!” in bold, cheerful multi-colored script. Below that, smaller: “Make every occasion a Happy Occasion!” and “decorations, supplies, catering, tableware, entertaining” followed by a website and a phone number.

Grinz must have seen the disbelieving way Arthur and Amelia were staring at the trucks, because he hooked an arm around each of their necks in a companionable, loathsome, avuncular kind of hug.

“Great, isn’t it?” he asked, and laughed. “Nobody even looks twice, and you’d be amazed the places that will let you stroll right in if you’re carrying a bunch of helium balloons and party hats!”

“Don’t forget the punch bowl,” a new voice, a high-pitched female one, purposefully little-girlish, said from somewhere above them. “You always forget the punch bowl, Francis.”

“Once!” Grinz argued. “Once, and I improvised, didn’t I? You act like it’s the end of the world!”

Arthur looked up and saw the voice’s owner standing atop the Food Services truck. He blinked and looked again. Beside him, Amelia was having essentially the same reaction.

“Improvised?” the voice repeated.

She was a grown woman, mid-to-late-twenties at least, but her neon-pink hair was in wild corkscrew pigtails tied with clumps of mismatched yarn. Instead of a mask, she wore thick greasepaint, white foundation with bright pink circles on her cheeks, a wide cherry-red smile around her mouth, and painted-on eyelashes around both eyes. Her dress was a crazyquilt patchwork with puffy sleeves and a full skirt. Shredded stripey tights and unlaced high-top Converse sneakers – one blue, one green – completed the ensemble.

No … as she executed a skillful handstand that flowed into a backwalkover off the edge of the truck, the patchwork skirt falling up around her head, they saw that the polka-dot bloomers with the round yellow happyface patch sewn into the seat were what really completed the ensemble.

“Improvised,” she said again, dropping lightly to the stained concrete floor in front of Grinz. “It was a wedding and you served punch out of an inflatable kiddie-pool with whales on it, Francis.”

“They were dolphins! And how many times do I have to tell you not to call me Francis?”

“Francis, Francis, Francis!” Her shrieking girlish giggle was, if anything, more brain-skewering than Grinz’s.

He turned to Arthur and Amelia, as the rest of the gang very obviously hurried to go about their own assigned duties and tasks. “That isn’t even my name!”

“Francis, Francis, Francis!” she sang. Cartwheel, front handspring, somersault.

Amelia wrapped her arms around Gwen. Arthur moved closer to them, though not without taking his eyes from the woman. Her outfit might have made someone from the Carnival of Shadows flinch, but … she was good …

Then she finished with a whipback and a roundoff, stuck the landing point-perfect, and posed with her hands behind her, one foot coyly tucked around the other, and her face poking toward Arthur’s.

“Are you Arthur Pearce?” she asked, in the most cloying-sugary voice he’d ever heard.

He nodded. Warily.

The painted mouth smiled even wider. Then her palm cracked against his cheek in a lightning-fast, wicked slap that echoed in the underground chamber like a gunshot from a .22. In the following moment of shock, the only noise was Amelia’s indignant gasp.

“Pass that on to your mother when you see her,” said the woman in the patchwork dress. And, laughing, capered away.

**

Chapter Nineteen


“Don’t you hit him, don’t you ever!

Even as he reeled from the slap, her words or the way she said them made Arthur shoot her a funny look, so that Ammy had to replay them in her head to be sure she hadn’t said something else instead.

She totally wanted to go after that horrible pink-haired woman in the patchwork dress. Eyebeams blazing. It was almost on right then and right there, nevermind that they were outnumbered and in a dismal, claustrophobic sub-basement.

But …

Later.

“Omigosh Arthur!” She turned to him. “Are you --?”

By then, he was touching his face with one bound hand, blinking the watering eye on that side. “I’m okay,” he said, despite a vivid red mark on his cheek.

Gwen, unsettled first by the strangers, then by the spooky garage, then by the scary clown-doll lady, and pushed over the edge by the violent outburst – her brother getting smacked! – started to cry again. Ammy hugged and petted her.

“She does this,” Grinz said, flapping his arms in irritation. “She does stuff like this just to make my life difficult.”

“You wants I should go talk to her, huh, boss?” asked Simp.

“No, get them loaded up,” he said, then raised his voice and shouted in the direction the woman had gone. “Gladys! You break it you bought it, you hear me? Pearce isn’t going to want to pay for damaged merchandise, and that won’t make Smyle happy! You know how he gets when he’s not happy!”

Her jeering retort about what Pearce and Smyle could go do to themselves, or better yet each other, was, fortunately, too distorted by the acoustics to be clearly heard.

“Who is she?” Ammy asked Arthur.

He shook his head. There was still a puzzled, dazed affect to his expression. “No clue.”

“And she knows your mom?”

“I … I guess.” He frowned.

“She hit you,” Ammy said darkly.

“Aw, dat’s just Glad Rags,” Simp said. “She does dat. She hits me alla da time.” He paused, and added, with dopey infatuation, “I kinda likes it.”

“Eew.” Ammy recoiled against Arthur, whose mouth had twisted with disgust.

Their guards shuffled them toward the first of the Happy Occasions trucks. They hadn’t gone five feet when something else came into view that made Arthur and Ammy stop short, riveted in horror. A body. A stocky man in jeans, work shirt, tool belt. Facedown and motionless, a thick maroon puddle drying around his head.

“What?” sneered Jolly Jill, seeing their expressions. “You think we’re playing around here? You think this is a joke?”

Two other bodies, a man and a woman in coveralls with ‘Apex Laundry’ stitched on the pockets, lay crumpled beside a cart loaded with canvas laundry sacks. A half-finished balloon animal, blue and orange, was discarded nearby. As if someone had been distracting them with a funny trick, when someone else came up from behind and shot them both at point-blank range.

“Move it, you two,” Merry Sue said, giving first Arthur and then Ammy an ungentle jab in the kidneys with the end of her baton. “Into the truck.”

Its back was open, revealing an interior lined with shelves and benches. Some of the contents did include helium tanks, boxes of decorations, white plastic Greek columns, folding chairs, big rolls of crepe paper, a musty old bower of fake roses and doves, and other party supplies. Keeping very odd company with stuff like ammo boxes, footlockers of military surplus, surveillance equipment and body armor.

They climbed in, Ammy taking it slow because she had a baby strapped to her torso and a diaper bag swinging from her shoulder. Arthur managed fine even with his tied wrists, but that didn’t stop one of his ginormous weightlifter guards giving him a helpful shove that almost sent him sprawling.

“Butt on the bench, lover-boy,” the guy said.

“And you, cutie-pie,” his twin said. “Right there.”

Ammy sat. Arthur sat next to her, close by her side, letting Gwen grab his fingers in her little hands. She was sniffling and hiccuping, whimpering some, but no longer crying. Ammy used the edge of her shirt to wipe away the baby’s tears.

Jolly Jill took the seat directly across from them, holding a stun-gun and looking businesslike. Meanwhile, the others finished stowing their gear and began jockeying for their own spots.

“Say cheese.” Wits pointed a digital camera at the three of them.

“Or say help-we’re-being-kidnapped,” Jolly Jill suggested.

They said neither. Wits took their picture and resumed fiddling with his laptop, fingers clattering rapid-fire on the keyboard. Presumably uploading it and transmitting it along with whatever ransom demand they were intending to make.

The driver of their truck started it up, the engine rumbling. Loud in the confined space. The second truck also started up, and when its headlights came on, they were yellow smile-faces. An external speaker played a few chipper tinkling notes of calliope music before someone switched it off.

Arthur tipped his head to Ammy’s. “Just keep acting apprehensive,” he murmured.

“Who’s acting?” she whispered back.

Grinz and Glad Rags reappeared, still arguing. Ammy couldn’t decide if they sounded more like a bickering married couple or a brother and sister fighting on a long car trip. She also wasn’t sure which would be the more disturbing thought.

“She hit you,” Ammy said again, watching Glad Rags pick up her skirt and flail it to and fro as she did the high-kicking can-can over to the second truck.

Still in a murmur, almost more to himself than to her, Arthur said, “And I didn’t anticipate it, that’s what bugs me. She didn’t telegraph it at all. Just … whack! Out of nowhere.”

The lunatic chick shinnied up the passenger side door and in through the open window, flashing everyone another view of the happyface patch on the seat of her bloomers.

“Can’t predict the crazy?” wondered Ammy.

“I predicted him all right.” He nodded at Grinz, who went around and presumably got into the passenger seat of their truck the more conventional way. “And he’s crazy.”

One of the last maskers trundled the door down, shutting the rear compartment into darkness.

**

Chapter Twenty


Wits had hacked his way into the maintenance garage, and he must’ve hacked his way out too, no problem, because the truck rolled out uncontested onto the pre-dawn streets of Paragon City.

Not that Arthur could see the streets. Only flickers of light came in through the small window between the cab and the rear compartment. Enough to let him see the indistinct shapes of Smyle’s gang, riding tense and silent around them.

The motion, vibration and engine drone soon lulled Gwen to sleep in that magic way babies had. Her head slumped. Amelia supported it, cradled it. When she glanced from Gwen to Arthur, her eyes were dark wells in the pale oval of her face.

They had both been badly rocked by the sight of those dead bodies, three innocent victims, regular people who’d only been going about their business. Shot. Murdered. Left like so much garbage on the stained concrete floor. Because they just had the bad luck to be in the way.

“Oh gosh, Arthur, I’m so sor--” Amelia began, her tone low and miserable.

“Hey,” he said. “Heyheyhey no, don’t. Don’t apologize. None of this is your fault.”

“You shouldn’t even be here though.”

He looked across at Jolly Jill and Be Happy, both of whom showed no interest in their quiet talk. Shifting, he raised his bound hands above Amelia. “C’mere.”

“But --” She stole a furtive look at their guards herself, squirming, embarrassed.

“So what? Let them. C’mere.”

She scootched closer and leaned into him. Arthur worked his arms down around her, to encircle her and Gwen both. The tied wrists were more of an annoyance than anything, as far as he was concerned. He was no double-jointed contortionist, but he’d studied Houdini and the other escape artist masters enough to know he could have slipped the cords any time, given a couple of unobtrusive minutes.

Cuffs would be another matter, especially if his captors had the presence of mind to cuff his arms over a pipe above his head or something, so that he couldn’t readily reach the key concealed within his belt. He didn’t even want to imagine how that conversation with Amelia would go …

It wasn’t the most comfortable of arrangements, sitting half-turned on the hard bench, but he didn’t care. Amelia rested her head on his shoulder, her forehead to the side of his neck. She relaxed, sighing.

“So, don’t worry about it,” Arthur murmured. “I’m glad I’m here.”

Amelia shook with a brief, rueful laugh. He smiled a little too, hiding it in her hair. Pressed his face there in a soft nuzzle that almost turned into a kiss before he realized what he was doing. Caught himself. Then set the cheek that Glad Rags had stung with her slap there instead and closed his eyes.

“Well, okay, it wouldn’t be my first choice of where to be,” he said. “Think about it, though. If I hadn’t come back early? If I hadn’t been there? If I had to find out about it some other way? Had to hear about it, not being able to do anything, not knowing what was going on? I’d be out of my mind.”

“Yeah, I guess so.”

“Maybe I still can’t do anything, but at least I’m here. I’m here with you and Gwen. I don’t have to wait and not know. That’d be the worst.”

She nodded.

“What matters,” he said, “is knowing you’re all right. We’re going to get out of this. It’s going to be fine. Okay?”

“Okay.”

He could have let go of her then, but it would have required more awkward maneuvering to get his arms back … and he didn’t really want to anyway. He needed to hold her for a while. Maybe almost as much as she still needed to be held. She wasn’t making any overtures toward pulling away, at least. She seemed content just to lean there, her head on his shoulder, his cheek against her hair.

And after a while of neither of them speaking, Arthur realized that Amelia had – incredible though it was – dozed off into a light sleep. He continued holding her, though he was sort of trapped then and didn’t have much choice.

Left now to his thoughts, he made them turn away from the girl in his arms.

“Pass that on to your mother when you see her,” Glad Rags had said, following the slap that had taken him entirely by surprise.

Was it because she was so nuts that she wasn’t predictable? Or was it something else? She had phenomenal agility, phenomenal control and precision. Olympic gymnast quality or better. Like him.

A lot of his edge in hand-to-hand combat came from being able to read the body language of his opponents. Their moves were given away by tiny tells and physical cues. Often, he knew what they were going to do in plenty of time to react, to dodge or counter or compensate.

Not with Glad Rags. She had only been going for a slap, for shock effect or to get his attention, and he still hadn’t seen it coming. What if she’d gone at him with serious intent? With a knife? Would he have still stood there like a lump and not been able to even try to get out of the way in time?

He didn’t like that. Didn’t like it at all.

“Pass that on to your mother when you see her.”

What did his mother have to do with it? What kind of possible connection could there be between Collette Pearce and this flunky of Smyle’s?

Arthur knew plenty about his mother’s past, and her family history going back to her grandfather’s activities as a member of La Resistance during World War II. He knew about her father, Arthur’s grandfather, who’d been more of an outright opportunist and thief. He knew the basics of Mom’s personal background and life of crime before she’d met and married Dad … not that it was a popular topic at the dinner table.

He didn’t remember hearing anything about this crazy ragamuffin gymnast, or anyone named Gladys for that matter. She seemed too young to have been one of Mom’s peers or rivals back in the prima ballerina days or the professional criminal days … Glad Rags couldn’t have been more than five years older than Lance at the most, though it was hard to tell for sure through the greasepaint.

So he sat, holding Amelia and Gwen. Sat, and thought, as the truck drove on.

**

Chapter Twenty-One


Gwen jerked her legs and gave a little mewling cry, and Ammy jolted to instant wide-awakeness.

“Hey there,” Arthur murmured into her hair, sounding like he was distracted by worry, but also smiling. “Nice nap?”

Still in the truck. Still driving. Still with his arms around her. The embrace too nice. Too comforting and welcome.

“Oh …” Ammy blinked, and took a deep breath. “How long was I …?”

“Not very.” He chuckled some. “Only long enough for my right arm to fall asleep all the way to the shoulder.”

“Oh gosh.”

“Who cares, it’s worth it. Didn’t want to disturb you, and it’s not like I was going anywhere.”

Gingerly, she straightened up. Gwen mewled again, stirring in the joey-pack. Then the baby’s thumb found its way to her mouth and she slurped at it.

Still in the truck, driving along. The steady roll of pavement beneath tires. Occasional blurs of streetlights, passing at what seemed like far-ish intervals.

“Sorry, though. Can’t believe I did that,” Ammy said.

“Not a problem. Remember that time at the movies?”

“Kinda different.”

“Not that different.”

If you didn’t count the kidnappers, she supposed. Theirs muttered and shifted around them in the truck’s enclosed compartment. From the cab, the tone discernible but the words muffled, came Grinz’s voice. Carrying on half of what was probably a phone conversation.

A phone conversation that, judging by the tone, wasn’t going exactly great. And that was not helping the happy moods of the happyface gang.

Ammy hunched and ducked as Arthur managed to retrieve his arms, only tugging her ponytail a little and hardly disturbing Gwen at all. He rested his bound wrists in his lap, grimacing.

“You okay?” she asked.

“Yeah.” He flexed his hands, wriggled his fingers, working the feeling back.

Ammy checked the cords to make sure they weren’t chafing through his skin or cutting off circulation. Across from them, Jolly Jill watched and held her stun-gun at the ready. Not saying anything, but making sure Ammy knew she was there. Her posture said there wouldn’t be a warning. One attempt at anything cute, like trying to untie him, and zappo.

Now that she was awake, Ammy became aware of a mucky, salty, fishy, tidal tang to the cool, damp air. She heard the distant call of a foghorn, the closer clang of a buoy.

They were out by the water. Out by the wharves and warehouses. Some industrial shipping district. And judging by how long the truck had been going in a fairly straight line without many stops …

Independence Port.

Gwen woke the rest of the way and started making her fussy-hungry noises. Ammy dug out a bottle from the diaper bag. “Where are they taking us?” she asked Arthur. “Where are we?”

“Don’t know,” he said, though she was sure that he had also recognized the telltale indications.

“You’re sure calm about this,” one of the weightlifter guys said. “Been kidnapped before?”

Arthur shrugged. “Well, you know how it is.”

The other one laughed. “When your dad’s one of the richest men in the world, it happens? They train you for it the way normal kids get trained for fire drills at school?”

“I get trained for fire drills at school too,” he said.

Ammy crinkled her nose at him. He nudged her foot with his and dimpled a half-grin that she could more sense than see in the darkened truck.

“It’s nice to nab one for a change that isn’t making with all the big threats about what’s gonna happen when the cops catch up to us,” the first weightlifter said to the other.

“Yeah, or the you’re-gonna-get-it-my-dad’s-golfing-buddies-with-Statesman routine,” his twin replied.

“My dad doesn’t golf much,” Arthur said.

They laughed again. “You’re not bad, kid,” the first one said.

Merry Sue spoke up. “It’s the blubbering and begging that I can’t stand. Whiny brats. Just want to smack the crap out of them.”

This got their captors talking about old times, previous jobs they’d pulled while working for Mr. Smyle. Ammy looked at Arthur, seeing that he was clearly as troubled as she was by this loose criminal chatter. How much of it did they have to hear before “these kids know too much”? And, ransom or no ransom …?

Finally, the truck slowed and then stopped. All she could see through the tiny window between compartment and cab was a greyish haze. Morning, of a very wet and foggy day.

She heard a heavy chain clank-rattle on asphalt, and the sounds of a gate being trundled open. Then the truck resumed moving, wending a slow course through some kind of cluttered maze. A junkyard, a lumberyard, a lot stacked with shipping containers, something like that.

The thin greyish haze of daylight vanished as they drove into some covered space. Then the truck stopped again, this time with finality as the engine was switched off.

“Dis is it,” Simper Fi said. “Here we are.”

“Where?” Arthur asked.

Before the big oaf could reply, Merry Sue whacked him on the arm.

“Hey,” he protested. “I wasn’t gonna say nothin.”

“Let’s keep it that way, you moron.”

“Shouldn’t go hitting people.” Sulkily.

“Thought you liked it.” She whacked him again.

“Dat’s only when Glad Rags does it.”

When the truck’s rear door opened, Ammy gazed out into a vast building the size of an airplane hangar, though no airplanes were in evidence. An old cargo ship was, though. She had ventured into ships like that dozens of times before, rescuing hostages or searching for stolen goods or apprehending bad guys. Those ships always seemed huge, but this one, up in dry dock, was still dwarfed by the immensity of the building’s surrounding space.

All around the dry-docked ship were huge pieces of machinery, pipes, wires, cables, sections of metal hull, propellers bigger than cars, tool racks, crates, wooden pallets and what looked like miles of scaffolding. She saw three forklifts and the kind of vehicle she’d always called a “snort” when she was little, after something from a book about a lost baby bird. It no doubt had a proper name, a cherry-picker or a backhoe or something … but a snort was a snort as far as she was concerned.

A metal latticework of stairs, ladders, walkways and platforms lined the inner walls and crisscrossed fifty or more feet above the floor. Safety signs hung everywhere. Hard hats required. Danger high voltage. Workplace regulations.

But nobody worked here now. The signs were pitted, rusted, faded. The tools were grimy and neglected.

Grinz appeared as she and Arthur were escorted from the truck by their guards. He stopped in front of them, rocking back on his heels and bouncing up on his toes.

“Well, how was our ride?” he asked Arthur, and went on without waiting for an answer. “Have fun? Hope so. Because what happens next, Young Master Pearce, I’m sorry to say, won’t be very much fun at all.”

**

Chapter Twenty-Two


Arthur steeled himself. This, he knew, was it.

Adrenaline flowed through his system, bringing that peculiar tightness-looseness to his muscles, a sensation like heat and liquid strength. His skin tingled and cooled in autonomic response as his blood vessels constricted, the blood within them thickening with clotting agents in case of injury, drawing back from the capillaries to concentrate in the more vital veins and arteries.

The upper, rational parts of his brain not occupied with those physiological reactions had time to flash through various scenarios.

If the clues left at the Kirby Building had not been enough to convince his parents or the authorities … if the digital photograph of them in the back of the truck had been discounted as photoshoppery or some other form of tampering …

He recalled the overheard half of Grinz’s phone conversation, the one that hadn’t gone well …

So, if more definitive proof was needed, this would be the point when the psychotic villain would decide to provide a more compelling piece of evidence. A DNA sample that couldn’t be explained any other way.

Probably a finger. Accessible, identifiable, easy to remove. A cleaver. Bolt-cutters. Easy to bandage up. Not life-threatening.

Just the same, no thanks.

They were headed for go time.

His wrists were tied, and that was going to be an inconvenience. The numbers weren’t in his favor, but he’d faced worse. Positioned as they all were, he doubted anyone would start off by shooting, for fear of hitting their own.

Nobody moved. The gang members in their happyface masks formed a semicircular wall around him, Amelia, Grinz and the back of the truck. Wits was the only one not looking on, bent instead to his laptop as usual.

Even Glad Rags held still, her painted face an exaggerated moue of uh-oh, palms by her cheeks.

She was the one he was most worried about, the only one he was really worried about. Against her, bound wrists would be a lot more than an inconvenience. Against her, even alone and hands-free, he wasn’t sure.

He might not be hands-free, but he wasn’t alone.

Beside him, Amelia had entered her own state of readiness. Nothing visible, no eyeglow yet, no overspilling aura of energy … but he knew. As attuned to her presence and fighting style as he was by now, he could feel it, could almost hear it like the pure rising note of a choir’s single voice.

With one hand she held onto the bottle that Gwen was still busy slurping at, and her other arm folded protectively around the baby. But instead of shrinking toward Arthur this time, she leaned slightly away from him. Giving them both room to maneuver.

Shadowy-dim as it was in here, the gang’s pupils would be dilated to take in all the available light. They were going to get more than they bargained for. White-bright bursts of it. Which they wouldn’t be ready for … and he was used to.

Grinz took a single menacing step toward them. “Booga-booga-booga!”

Then he rocked on his heels again, clapped, and pealed a hyena laugh toward the rafters high overhead. “I can’t even guess what you thought I was going to do, but the looks on your faces! Ha!”

He whooped some more, and the others joined in. Glad Rags caught Arthur’s eye and ticked her index finger at him, metronome-style, tsk-tsk-tsk, fooled you!

What if she could read body language as well as he did? What if she could read it better? What if she could read him, when he couldn’t read her?

She could … she could know. Or guess. Or figure out.

“What kind of monster do you think I am don’t answer that!” Grinz held his own stomach as if he’d laughed so hard he hurt himself. “All I meant was now we’re to the boring bit! The sitting around doing nothing waiting bit! Like at the doctor’s office, or the DMV!”

“Yeah I bet Michael Pearce’s kid knows all about how that is,” Merry Sue said.

“You, chuckle-hole, shut it.” Grinz flicked his fingertips at her, then returned his attention to Arthur. “Now. Young Master Pearce. You may notice that the service doors we came in through have been closed. They are also locked, and will be guarded. Same for all the other exits. And yes, I know, I know, the signs on some of them say that they are required by law to be unlocked at all times for fire safety … we’re breaking the law here, oh no.”

“Oh, no,” Simp echoed, sniggering through his mask.

“I tell you this in case you get tired of sitting around doing nothing waiting and think maybe you and your sweetie and baby-makes-three can make a break for it. No fair escaping after we went to all this trouble.”

“I understand,” Arthur said.

“Do you? Hmm, hmm. Well. This quaint, charming structure around us? Rustic, industrial, bit of a fixer-upper, needs some TLC? You might be wondering why such a prime piece of real estate has gone un-snapped-up. Well, do you see those doors down there? The great big ones, look like something you’d see in a King Kong movie?”

Arthur glanced at the doors, at the far end but impossible to miss because they were indeed big enough to belong in a King Kong movie. Huge metal tracks, supported on immense girders halfway between floor and ceiling, ran toward the doors and out through gaps shielded by heavy strips of decaying black rubber. An assortment of heavy, rusted chains dangled from the tracks.

“It’s the mechanism used to winch ships in and out of here,” Arthur said. “For repairs.”

“Very good! Gold star for you! And do you see the walkways that flank the tracks? The ones that lead up to those control cabins?”

“Yes.”

“A smart kid like you might get the idea of trying to sneak out that way. But, can you guess what’s on the other side of those big doors?”

“The harbor,” Amelia said.

“The harbor, yes, gold star for the cutie-pie too. The shipyard, not a marina, no, nothing so grand as that, no yachts, no pleasure cruises, no three-hour tours.”

“Heh,” said Simp. “I likes that show.”

“But the reason this place closed down and has been sitting here falling into ruin ever since because of what’s out there. A horror of the deeps, a beast from twenty thousand fathoms, a really big, really bad, really bad-tempered ink-sack with attitude.”

“It’s a giant octopus, huh boss, isn’t it? A giant ock-!” Simp choked as Don’t Worry elbowed him hard in the gut.

“I’ve heard of it,” Arthur said evenly.

**

Chapter Twenty-Three


“Here we are,” Grinz said, opening a plain door with the word ‘OFFICE’ stenciled on it.

They were on a metal platform, having climbed a few switchback flights of metal steps and taken a catwalk to get there. Grinz led, followed by Simp, with Arthur and Ammy and their usual quartet of escorts bringing up the rear.

The ‘OFFICE’ had two large grungy windows overlooking the building’s main work area below. The inside, Ammy thought, was equally grungy. Though Grinz beckoned them in with a grand sweeping arm-gesture, as if welcoming them to Windsor.

Warped linoleum on the floor. Cheap wood-paneled walls. Battered old desks with creaky-looking chairs. A line of dented filing cabinets. Bulletin boards covered with yellowed memos and newspaper clippings. In one rear corner, a couch sat along one wall and couple of mangy recliners faced a television dating back to the 1970s or so. A milk crate held a chess-and-checkerboard set, decks of cards, a case of poker chips, and the Baby Boomers edition of Trivial Pursuit. On the shelf above the couch were assorted magazines, some paperbacks – westerns, mostly – and a radio. In the other rear corner was a kitchenette setup, or at least a squat brown refrigerator, a hot plate, a coffee maker, a microwave oven that looked like it would set off a Geiger counter, and a cupboard of mismatched mugs and dishes. Another door stood ajar onto a tiny bathroom that must have been a health hazard, complete with actual strip of ancient flypaper hanging from the light fixture.

Ammy and Arthur inspected this all in silence, by the watery grey light that seeped in through filthy skylights covered by external metal grates.

“Pluh,” Gwen said, blowing a spit bubble. “Plbbtththtp.”

“Oh don’t be like that,” Grinz told the baby. “This is your new home away from home, at least until we get further instructions. So, make yourselves comfy. Not too comfy, obviously … the power’s out, the plumbing’s iffy, and I personally wouldn’t open that fridge on a dare … but this is the best you’re going to get.”

“And don’t bother with the phones,” Merry Sue said, jerking her chin at the huge clunky relics on the desks. Actual rotary dials! “They don’t work.”

“Da TV don’t work neither,” added Simp, helpful. “But da radio’s not so bad. I put new bat’tries in it for ya.”

“Thanks,” Arthur said.

“You’re going to leave us here?” Ammy asked Grinz, clutching Gwen to her.

“I’ll send someone up with a few water bottles and stuff to eat, won’t be gourmet but you won’t starve. Oh, and, goes without saying but … locked door, armed guards, all that.”

“Then …” Arthur lifted his bound wrists, and raised his eyebrows in query.

“I suppose, I suppose,” Grinz said. “Once we’re gone, cutie-pie, you can untie your boyfriend. No hanky-panky, though!”

“He’s not--”

“Thanks,” Arthur said again.

Their captors filed out, their shapes murky silhouettes through the grimy office windows. Grinz shut the door, locked it. Ammy and Arthur released a dual breath, sagging in relief. Gwen kicked and fussed, demanding to be let out of the joey-pack. She’d been a good girl all this time, her indignant bleats said, and now she wanted down, she wanted down right now.

“Just a minute, jellybean,” Ammy said, unslinging the diaper bag and setting it on the least-yucky-looking surface. “I have to untie your broth--”

Arthur dangled a length of cord in front of her face. She gaped at it, then gaped at him. He winked. Dimpled. Blue eyes twinkling with mischief. Cuter than ever, darn him.

“How did you …?”

“Magic?”

“Sneak!”

“That, too.”

“Obba obba obba obba!” Gwen flailed with both arms and both legs.

“Okay, okay!” Ammy struggled with the joey-pack. “This would be easier if you’d … ack … Gwen … hold still …”

“Here, let me.” Arthur reached, then paused. “How does this thing come off, anyway?”

“It hooks in the back,” Ammy said.

He coughed. Realizing how that might have sounded out of context, Ammy blushed and choked on a giggle.

“Um!” she squeaked. “I mean --!”

And then they were both laughing like loons. More to get rid of the pent-up stress than anything else.

“Moving on?” Arthur said, clearing his throat.

“Please!”

He managed to unhook the strap, and Ammy got herself and Gwen untangled from the contraption. Arranging a suitable place to put the baby was more difficult … she didn’t want to set Gwen down on anything in this filthy room … but after layering one of the recliner seats with old newspapers, barricading the open end against the arm of the couch, and spreading the spare blankie she’d packed atop that, it would have to be good enough. Gwen, plunked down in this makeshift playpen, goggled around at her new and interesting surroundings with big round eyes.

“Hey,” Arthur said.

“Yeah?”

“Are you all right?”

She nodded. “You?”

“Fine.”

“I thought for a second or two out there …”

“Me too.”

Ammy sucked in a gasp as she noticed the deep marks braceleting his wrists. “Oh, but your poor hands!”

“They’re okay. Wasn’t too tight. Didn’t break the skin.”

“Let me put something on them anyways, at least.” She rummaged through the bag.

“It’s not diaper rash,” he said, grinning.

“Well this isn’t diaper rash ointment.” She held up a tube. “It’s lotion, see?”

“Is it all girly-smelling?”

“One, what’s wrong with girly-smelling? Two, no, it’s just aloe, so don’t be a smartypants.”

“I give up.” He sat with her, cross-legged and facing each other, on the floor by the recliner. Surrendered his arms. “Not necessary, though.”

“Hush, you.” She squeezed lotion onto her hands, and began rubbing it into the reddened grooves the cords had left.

Partway through, she became aware that he had hushed … neither of them were saying anything … just both watching her hands … and somehow what was supposed to be a practical and ministering touch had turned into … well … something else … into a caress … the way her fingers slipped over the undersides of his wrists, where the skin was tender, sensitive … where his pulse beat fast against her fingertips …

“I … uh …” Arthur finally said. His voice was thick and not entirely steady. “I can, uh, do the, ahem, rest of that.”

“I don’t mind, really.” Her own voice little more than a whisper. Still with head bowed, she stole a glance up at him from beneath lowered lashes. Shouldn’t, but … oh …

And found him looking at her, so close, his eyes such a beautiful blue, not twinkling now but serious.

“I know,” he murmured, turning her hands over in his, holding them, his thumbs moving in slow circles across her palms.

**


Chapter Twenty-Four


If she had any idea how this was affecting him … how she was affecting him …

Except, as Arthur gazed into her eyes, he saw how similarly affected she was, and so maybe she did have an idea after all.

The situation. The circumstance. Strong bonds even between total strangers could be formed by shared peril, risk, fear, intensity. This was …

No. This wasn’t. This wasn’t that at all.

This was everything else being pushed away. No longer mattering.

The defenses and avoidances. The barriers, roadblocks, buffers, obstacles. The denials. Manufactured rules, reasons, lines, boundaries.

Down.

Bringing the simple truths to the surface. The strong bond already there, made stronger.

He held her hands … upturned, offering, vulnerable … soft palms and loosely-curled fingers. Sitting as they were, cross-legged on the floor like this, their knees touched. And he’d only have to lean toward her …

If he did, if he leaned toward her, he could no longer tell himself that she’d draw away. Not and be able to even pretend to believe it this time. He knew she wouldn’t. He knew she’d meet him. Perhaps not without a twinge of hesitation, but more with welcome and giving acceptance.

And it would be …

So good. Wonderful, even.

His thumbs pressed, rubbed. He watched as she caught her breath in a faint gasp, lips parted. A blush, a shiver. She closed her eyes and turned her head, those errant strands that always escaped her ponytail falling across her flushed cheek.

“Arthur …” She clutched at his hands.

“Yeah?”

“I … oh …” A single tear shimmered, a crystalline bead.

“Amelia?” Softly. Now folding his fingers around hers, interlacing them. “Hey …”

Was he starting to lean forward --?

RAP-tatta-tatt-ta!

A swift barrage of knocks on the office door, ‘Shave and a Haircut,’ then the jangle of keys.

Arthur let go of Amelia and was on his feet before a key clattered in the lock. Amelia gasped again, sniffed, swept hurriedly at that lone tear. Still blushing, clearly flustered, she also got up.

Gwen, who had been lolling on her stomach in the recliner, amusing herself by the crinkle-crackle the newspapers under her blankie made as she moved, stopped and looked around, suddenly anxious again.

The door opened. Be Happy stepped in, carrying a brown paper grocery bag. Don’t Worry was right behind him with a case of bottled water.

“Grinz said to bring you these,” Be Happy said as they deposited the bag and six-pack on the nearest desk. “Anything else you need?”

They shook their heads. Beyond him, on the walkway, Arthur could see a couple of the other gang members stationed to keep watch, while most of the rest seemed to be going about their business below.

“Didn’t G say no hanky-panky?” Don’t Worry asked his partner, nodding toward the blushing, flustered Amelia.

“Hanky-panky? Where?” Glad Rags popped her wild pink head around the doorjamb.

“Nah, not much,” Be Happy said. “Still got all their clothes on and everything.”

Amelia made a strangled noise.

Don’t Worry chuckled, then added, “And are you supposed to be up here, Glads?”

“Are you going to keep me out?” she replied, in her saccharine-dripping voice.

“If I have to.”

“Are you going to manhandle me?” She flipped her hip and skirt sideways and posed like Betty Boop.

“Aw, hell.” Be Happy massaged his brow through the yellow mask. “Can we just go already?”

“I want to visit the prisoners,” Glad Rags said. Her outrageously-painted eyes flicked in Arthur’s direction. “I want to talk to that one.”

“Grinz give the okay?” asked Don’t Worry.

“Noooooooo.” She stuck out her bottom lip and pouty-baby-talked, “Izzums gonna tattle?”

The men sighed, shared a look, and must have concluded that it just wasn’t worth the aggravation. “Five minutes,” Be Happy said.

“Five minutes,” she agreed, beaming, patty-cake clapping.

“We’ll be right outside the door.”

“Oooh of course.” She waited, with that big beaming smile, as Don’t Worry and Be Happy went back out.

“If you hit him again --” Amelia set herself at Arthur’s side, glaring defiance at her.

“It’s okay,” Arthur said. Hoping it was, hoping he wasn’t lying to them all. If Glad Rags did intend to finish what she’d started with that slap, at least now his hands were untied.

Glad Rags snorted a loud, disbelieving scoff. “You,” she said to Amelia, “must not think I’m a very nice person. I just want to talk. Though he might not want his precious pretty sweetie-pookie-snoogie-oogums to hear what I have to say.”

“She’s a baby,” Amelia said, scooping up Gwen. “She wouldn’t understand anyways.”

“Uh …” Arthur couldn’t quite bring himself to correct her. He looked at Glad Rags instead. “Anything you need to tell me, you can say in front of them.”

“That’s the way you want to play it, hmm?” She hopped atop the line of desks and began making like she was on the balance beam, arms extended, those clumsy too-large Converse sneakers carefully placed one in front of the other.

“Oh …” Amelia got there on her own, with a resurgence of the blush. She hastened to carry Gwen over to the couch, and perched there with the baby bouncing on her knee.

“If you two were any cuter,” Glad Rags said, imitating an elderly auntie who couldn’t wait to do the cheek-pinching routine, “I … might … just … puke!” With wracking, jerking convulsions of her upper body, she pretended to vomit all over the desk.

“They only gave you five minutes,” Arthur said.

“True.” She did a skillful one-and-a-quarter dismount, pirouetted, and collapsed in a rag-doll flop on the linoleum, grinning up at him. “Your mother is not who you think she is, Arthur Pearce. She’s been lying to you. Lying to everyone. For your whooooooole life.”

He felt himself go still. “What are you talking about?”

“Her secret identity, you silly boy. Your dear mommy, your dear, saintly mommy? That ideal woman against whom aaaaallllll others shall be judged and found wanting? She’s not just a liar. She’s a liar, and a thief, and a criminal, and a murderer!”

Arthur stared at her, speechless. She rolled to a sitting position, flipped her body upright, skipped over to him, and tapped him smartly square in the middle of the chest.

“Your mother,” Glad Rags said, “is Noirenard!”

**

Chapter Twenty-Five


Ammy, on the couch, stopped bouncing Gwen on her knee and looked wide-eyed from Glad Rags to Arthur.

“My mother,” he said, in a slow and careful way, “is not a murderer.”

“Is so!” shot back Glad Rags. Smug. Eager.

“No.” The color had blanched from his face.

“You’re supposed to say, ‘is not!’” she chided him, with another smart tap to the chest.

“This isn’t a game.” Arthur took a step back. “Whatever you think you’re trying to do --”

“It’s called payback.” Glad Rags stepped forward.

He stepped back again. “It’s called a load of bull.”

“It’s called revenge.” Step forward.

Step back. “You don’t know anything about my mother.”

“It’s called comeuppance more than twenty years in the waiting!” Glad Rags smacked Arthur hard on the shoulders with the heels of both hands, knocking him into the other recliner.

“Leave him alone!” Ammy shot upright, the baby curled against her. “Just get away from him, leave him alone!”

Arthur, before the dust even finished puffing up from the musty old plaid upholstery, lashed out with his right leg and swept Glad Rags’ feet from under her.

Patchwork cloth billowed. With a squawk of utter surprise, she landed flat on the seat of her bloomers. One of her sneakers flew off. Her stripey tights ended in individually-colored toe socks.

For a moment, nobody moved. Nobody spoke. Even Gwen blinked and boggled.

“You kicked me,” Glad Rags said. In her astonishment, her voice went almost normal.

Still sprawled in the recliner, Arthur exhaled through his teeth and looked at her. Just … looked at her. Ammy had never seen him look at anyone that way before. It went beyond anger.

“You deserved it,” Ammy said. “Telling lies about his mother!”

She recovered both voice and mannerism. “Am not!”

“Are so!”

“Am not am not!”

“Are so times ten!”

“Am not times infinity and you know it!”

“Then talk,” Arthur said, pushing himself up from the recliner. Just as she’d never seen him look at anyone that way, she’d never heard him so grim.

Glad Rags sulked at him. “You kicked me!”

“Give me a reason and I’ll do it again.”

“You’re a brat.” She sat spraddle-legged on the floor, still sulking.

“Yeah,” he said. “Talk.”

“When I was a little girl,” she said, “my daddy worked for Sotheman and Bartleby’s. Ever hear of them?”

“Insurance company,” Ammy said, familiar with that subject thanks to her brother David the art history expert; it had been the subject of many a boring dinner table conversation. “Artifacts, museum pieces, that kind of thing. They went bankrupt, out of business, years ago.”

“Do you know whyyyyyy they went bankrupt and out of business?” she inquired, all poison-sugary.

Arthur’s lips were pressed into a thin line. Ammy could tell where this story of was likely headed, and knew he could, too

“It was a good job, my daddy’s job,” Glad Rags said. “We had a nice house, nice cars, nice everything. But then my daddy got a special assignment, to oversee the transfer of some archival documents from the Vatican library to the Smithsonian.”

“Sounds like Dan Brown meets National Treasure,” said Arthur, still giving her that look. “You’ve been watching too many bad movies.”

“Bratty-boy, bratty-boy, Arthur is a bratty-boy!”

“Quit that or I’ll kick you too,” Ammy said.

“Bad movie, huh? Bad movie my smiley yellow butt!” She rolled sideways enough on her hip to spank herself. “Because you know what happened next? Oh, yes, I bet you do! A heist! That catsuit-wearing redheaded bimbo --”

He bristled, but held it in. Ammy saw him do it.

“—slinked her way in and stole the documents! Here it was my daddy’s big opportunity, he could have gotten promoted to an executive in the company, they even let him fly our whole family to Washington for the formal presentation, a dignitary from the Vatican and the curator-director of the Smithsonian … and the next thing anybody knew, it was dark, there were flashbangs, the security guards got stun-gassed --”

The office door cracked open. “Yo, Glads … five minutes is --”

“Make it ten,” Arthur said without so much as a glance that way. “Let her finish.”

The weightlifter guy paused. “Uhhhh … sure.” And shut the door again.

“Then, there she was,” Glad Rags said. “Noirenard. I was only six years old but I was in gymnastics, I was in tap, I could see how she moved. Like a circus acrobat!” She eyed Arthur with renewed suspicion. “Also a lot like you.”

He didn’t say anything to that, either.

“And she laughed. She was enjoying herself! She was happy about it! She even stopped long enough on her way out to pat me on the head and say she hoped I hadn’t been too scared. Then she was gone.”

“You think that was my mother.”

“Sotheman and Bartleby’s lost millions,” Glad Rags continued as if she hadn’t heard him. “They turned my daddy into a scapegoat, said it was his fault. He lost his job. It still didn’t save the company, but it ruined my daddy. No one would trust him. No one would hire him. But I knew whose fault it really was.”

Gwen whimpered, waving her little arms at Arthur. Ammy shushed her, rubbing her cheek against the baby’s.

“That was a long time ago,” Arthur said. “The past is the past. Whatever happened back then --”

“We had to leave our nice house, sell our nice cars and nice everything, and move in with Uncle George and Aunt Louise. Mommy left us. Daddy started drinking all the time. I couldn’t take gymnastics and tap anymore. My big sister ran away. My brother got beat up every day at our new school. And one day, Daddy went out into Uncle George’s shed and blew his brains out with a shotgun.”

“Oh, gosh,” moaned Ammy, though she had expected something pretty much like this.

“Guess who found him? With the newspaper clippings about the robbery still in his hand?”

“He killed himself,” Arthur said. “It’s not the same. It’s not murder.”

“Your mother killed my daddy,” she said, staring up at him. “I swore that some day, some day, I would find Noirenard. If I could find her. If she was still alive and not in prison. I’d find her. I’d find her and make her pay for what she did to us.”

“She wasn’t --”

“Oh, and look!” cried Glad Rags. “She wasn’t in jail, she wasn’t poor or unhappy … she had married one of the richest men in the world and was living like a queen, happily ever after.”

“That’s --”

“At least,” she said, “until now. Now is payback time.”

**
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