by Immortalwildcat and Dan Swanson
A church bell tolled midnight as a sleek, open-topped ebon-colored car purred its way up 40th Street and across the Allegheny River out of Pittsburgh. Once across the river, the car turned right onto the Blue Belt and sped away, quickly covering the distance to the small town of Millvale. As the name implied, the suburban town was home to a number of steel mills. Towering smokestacks belched forth clouds of black smoke and gouts of sparks that glittered along with the stars in the cloudless sky. The sports car wound its way between massive buildings where the night shifts continued to melt ore and produce the steel that was the lifeblood of Pittsburgh.
Veering down a road running alongside the river, the car’s destination soon came into view. It stood out very clearly in the darkness, the neon paddle-wheel visible from three blocks away. The Steamboat Club stood at the far end of a packed parking lot. The driver pulled in and drove up to the front door, exiting the car and leaving the engine running.
Inside the club, Monique Montague stood at the hostess desk, ready to greet any new arrivals. She saw the car pull up through the glass doors, and motioned one of the parking attendants to go and park the car. As the young man started out the door, the driver of the car held up one hand and shook his head. “Don’t worry about it, son. I don’t plan to stay long.”
As he stepped inside, Monique was surprised and pleased by his appearance. He was a negro, of above-average height, standing perhaps an inch over six feet, and his body was slim, yet obviously athletic. He wore a dark gray overcoat over a burnt-orange suit, a matching tie draped down the front of his pewter-colored shirt. A dark, wide-brimmed hat with a similarly rust-colored band wasn’t enough to hide the most unusual part of his wardrobe, however: the dark gray domino mask on his face.
Before she could react to his entry, Gregor and Stan stepped in front of the man. “Dunno what kind of funny business you’re trying to pull here, mister, but you ain’t going inside,” said Stan.
“He’s right. We don’t allow no wannabe heroes in here.” Gregor, a dark-haired, brooding giant of a man stood head and shoulders above the dark-skinned masked man. He reached to grab the shorter man’s arm to escort him out, only to have his arm knocked to the side by a sweeping forearm block.
“Oh, so we got us a wise guy, eh?” said Stan, stepping up to flank the masked stranger. His move was cut short by a side-kick to the stomach. He fell back into a sitting position on the floor.
Gregor took a half-step back, crouching down into a fighting stance. “OK, little man. Let’s see what you’ve got.”
The masked man stepped forward and to his right, then quickly stepped back and came forward again, this time to the left. The feint caught the big Russian off-guard, and the masked man moved in under his guard, striking the bigger man with a karate chop to the ribs, followed by an extended knuckle-punch to Gregor’s thigh. Neither blow was hard enough to do any real harm, but the big man reached for his leg as the muscles spasmed. Doing so, he brought his head down lower. A fist smashed upward into his jaw, snapping his head back. This was followed by a knee driving up into his groin; then that same knee smashed into Gregor’s face. He dropped to the floor, unconscious.
Monique stepped around her desk. “Well, now that you’ve gotten your exercise, sir, allow me to welcome you to the Steamboat Club. I hope there is no confusion, sir, but the Mardi Gras masked ball was last week. But I’ll be happy to take your mask if you wish to enjoy the evening’s entertainment.”
“The mask stays,” said the man, speaking in a rich-timbered baritone that filled the room without seeming loud.
“I see,” said Monique, snapping her fingers and waving a pair of red-jacketed bus boys to move the unconscious bouncers out of the lobby. “I’m afraid management has a rather strict policy regarding our customers: we prefer to see their faces.”
“Does that include the ones here for the gambling?” asked the masked man, looking her up and down. He smiled, appreciative of the expanses of coffee-toned skin revealed by her long, tight-fitting gown.
She moved closer, laying a hand on his arm and allowing a significant portion of her body to rub up against his. “You obviously have us confused with some of the… mmm, less-sophisticated establishments along the river. Perhaps, if you’d like, I can show you around the Steamboat, and let you get…” She paused a second, her eyes cast downward. “…better acquainted?”
“Tempting as your offer sounds, Miss…?”
“Monique. And your name?”
“You can call me Oxide. And I’m afraid I’m here strictly for business.” He reached inside his trenchcoat and pulled out a five-by-seven photograph. “Has he been in tonight?”
Monique looked at the picture and let out a light, tinkling laugh. “Him? Oh, forget it, baby; he’s much too pale to make it in the door here.”
“Sure he is,” said Oxide, putting the photo away and slipping a hand around her waist. “Like that would matter. Lou Misenti has his hands in every gambling operation in the Three Rivers region. If he’s not coming in here to check things personally, I want to know who is.”
Monique pulled closer, feeling the heat of his body against her own. She looked up into his hazel eyes. “I know everyone who comes in here, but information has its price.” She slipped her arms up under his, placing her hands on his shoulders and drawing him down to her. Her voice was a whisper in his ear. “So, what are you offering?”
His fingers played along the edges of her dress, where it fell to her waist in the back. “I’ve got plenty to offer, darlin’, but not tonight.” He eased himself out of her caress and moved gracefully toward the door. “Some other time, perhaps.”
Monique ran her hands down the slides of her dress, smoothing it out. “Come back some night without the mask and the guns, and I’ll show you the best the Steamboat has to offer.”
He raised a fingertip to the brim of his hat. “Oh, I’m sure I’ve seen the best already,” he said as he slipped out the door. Too bad the police can’t do a frisking like that, he thought, somewhat bemused.
Oxide vaulted into the car, slipping down into the seat of the modified Jaguar XKD racer. As he drove off, he toggled a switch on the radio under the center panel.
“You there, Dennis?” he asked.
A voice came back over the radio. “Colt? I was starting to wonder if you were going to make it out of there in one piece.”
“The two bouncers went down like bowling pins. I thought the Russian goon was supposed to be tough.”
“That’s what they told me. I don’t get out much these days,” his partner responded bitterly. He didn’t often let his confinement to a wheelchair affect him. He quickly continued, before Colt had a chance to become uncomfortable. “Any luck?”
“Don’t doubt I could’ve gotten lucky with the hostess. She lied about Misenti, but she might still give me a lead. That is, if Bruno’s gadget works.”
“Bruno’s gadgets always work, Colt.” Several miles away, in his estate in the hills of Duquesne Heights, Dennis David smiled. With the prices he paid, he thought, Bruno’s gadgets had better work. “You think she knows anything?”
“If she knows half of what she claims, she knows who’s making the pick-ups for Misente, and probably how much they are. But I don’t know what that’s got to do with this operation you heard about for tonight.” Oxide flipped another switch, and a smaller radio came to life. The sound of a phone dialing came out of the speaker. Oxide started counting the pulses.
“Lou, it’s Monique. Someone just came around looking for you.”
“It’s working, Dennis.” It was a button-sized microphone and transmitter that he’d slipped into her dress.
“You’ll take care of it? All right, then.” He heard Monique hang up the phone, then let out a sigh. “Too bad; he might have been fun.” Colt made a mental note to go back to the Steamboat sometime when he wasn’t on business.
“Satisfied?” asked Dennis over the radio link.
“That it works? Yeah. Local phone number, 732-9932; see if you can get anything from the phone company.” Oxide glanced in one of the rear-view mirrors and saw two pairs of headlights swinging in from side streets to fall in behind him. “Hmm, looks like Lou is a fast worker.”
“Nothing I can’t handle,” said Oxide with a smile. “Call Zeke; tell him I’ll try to drop this garbage off at his place.”
“Will do,” said Dennis, as Oxide turned his focus to his driving.
Oxide gunned the engine as he drove back toward the city. In a flat-out chase, he had no doubt the Jaguar was faster than anything Misenti’s men were likely to be driving. However, he wanted to lure these two down to the precinct house where Zeke, or Police Detective Lance Pautzke, was working. That meant driving the twisting city streets and watching out for pedestrians and other drivers. He had no illusions that the two drivers on his tail shared his worries about innocent bystanders. He stayed on the Blue Belt as it merged with Union Street, keeping well ahead of his pursuers while making sure they didn’t lose sight of him. At 16th Street he skidded into the intersection, the car turning to face south, then gunned the engine. The sleek black car leaped forward like the jungle cat for which it was named. By the time he reached the end of the bridge over the Allegheny, he spotted the first pair of headlights turning the corner to follow him, followed by a second.
“Zeke’s got men at the Grant Street station; wants to know how long till you get there,” said Dennis over the radio as the Jaguar turned right onto Penn Avenue.
Oxide glanced at a signpost as he passed. “I’m passing 14th on Penn; I’ll cut over at 11th to Grant, and it’s about three-quarters of a mile from there. Two minutes, unless some fool gets in the way.”
“Colt, watch those tracks by the train station; those back shocks are a little wonky.” Oxide smiled at the lilting voice coming over the radio. He could picture Mel in her grease-stained coverall, long hair carefully tied back in a braid, leaning over the desk to speak into the microphone.
“Don’t worry, Mel. I know what your baby is capable of.”
“That’s what worries me, you bloody Moor.”
Up ahead, Oxide could see the back side of the train station. The tracks crossed Penn Avenue on this side of the station, and 11th Street was on the other side. He saw a car start to pull out ahead of him from the station parking lot. “Damned idiot!” he swore as he stomped on the brake and swung the wheel to the right. The back end of the car swung to the right, and he cranked the wheel to the left as he hit the gas again, taking off across a parking lot. There was a twenty-foot-wide grass-covered embankment leading upward from the edge of the parking lot and the railroad tracks, and another embankment leading down into the back lot of the train station. “Hey, Mel, got a question for you,” he said as he floored the accelerator.
“I’m afraid to ask…”
“How are the front shocks?” The Jaguar was traveling just under eighty miles per hour when he reached the edge of the pavement. The smooth street tires slipped a bit on the grass, but sheer momentum kept the car moving through the weeds. At the top of the embankment, the car left the ground.
“Did you–? Are you–? Oh, bloody hell, please tell me you didn’t just jump the tracks!” screamed Mel.
The car came down just past the grass on the opposite side of the tracks, the back end of the car dropping down to strike the pavement, sending up a shower of sparks. “As you wish. I won’t tell you. And to answer my own question, the front shocks are just fine.”
Oxide hit the gas again, steering the car out of the parking lot and onto Grant Avenue. The back end was riding lower than usual, and the car was sluggish in the turn. He quickly calculated how much chocolate it was going to take to buy his way off Mel’s blacklist. Looking in the mirrors once more, he saw that one of the cars, which he recognized as a 1958 Corvette, had duplicated his jump, while the older Cadillac stayed on the road and was just turning onto Grant. “Don’t know what your guys have been telling you, Dennis, but Misenti’s hired himself some good drivers.”
Grant Avenue was deserted, so Colt floored the gas pedal and streaked through intersections, down to where he knew the police station stood. The Cadillac and the Corvette were racing after him, side-by-side.
“Aww, come on, you’re not going to catch me in a phalanx like that,” said Oxide as he swerved to the left and toggled a switch on an obviously handmade panel next to the steering column. There was an audible thump as a small explosive charge opened a compartment under the back end of the car, and several dozen spiked balls were released onto the road. He smiled as he saw the Cadillac slow down and fall in behind the Corvette just as he passed the police station. He saw a half-dozen uniformed officers coming out the front door as he hit the brakes and swung the steering wheel around. As the car turned one-hundred and eighty degrees in the intersection, he reached under his coat and pulled out one of two guns from his under-shoulder holster. Pressing a lever with his thumb as he drew, parts of the gun glowed a dim orange. He thumbed a dial, counting the clicks, then aimed and fired at the Corvette‘s front end. From a hundred feet away, he heard the grinding of the car’s brakes as the brake pads and rotors blossomed with rust. The brakes locked up, bringing the car to an abrupt stop right in front of the gathered policemen. The Cadillac, unable to stop as quickly, plowed into the back of the Corvette. The fiberglass body of the Corvette disintegrated to dust around two dismayed hoods.
Oxide tucked the pistol back into its holster as he gunned the engine and sped back up Grant Avenue, past the totaled cars and the officers trying to pull the drivers from the wreckage. Spotting Detective Lance Pautzke, Oxide touched a finger to the brim of his hat as he sped by.
“Colt! You there? I’ve got an address to go with that phone number,” crackled Dennis’ voice over the radio.
“Yeah, I’m here, rich kid. What’ve you got?”
“Address is 8843 Wharton Street. Matches up with the rumors I heard about something going down tonight.”
Oxide swung the car around a corner and started heading toward the Tenth Street Bridge. As the car sped up, he noticed that the rumbling he’d felt from the back after his jump disappeared. Then he realized that the road noise had disappeared completely, and he felt no resistance as he pressed down on the gas pedal. Stunned, he looked out and realized the car was rising above the surrounding buildings. He looked up, and he could vaguely see a circular shape in the sky above him. The car headed toward a darker rectangle set in the circle, and he realized it was an opening. He reached under his coat and pulled the oddly shaped pistol he had used moments before, slipping it into a compartment up under the dashboard. Flying saucers didn’t come along every day, and he figured the oxidizing pistol from which he’d taken his nickname was the most likely reason for this flying saucer to be interested in him.
Moments later, the car was sitting in a large bay, surrounded by robotic creatures pointing what appeared to be weapons at him. As he slowly got out of the car, he pulled the other pistol, a standard M1911 pistol, and laid it on the ground next to him, waiting to see what would happen next.