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The coupe with the fishhooks welded to the fender shouldered up over the curb like the nose of a nightmare. The girl in its path stood frozen, her face probably stiff with fright under her mask. For once my reflexes weren't shy. I took a fast step toward her, grabbed her elbow, yanked her back. Her black skirt swirled out.
The big coupe shot by, its turbine humming. I glimpsed three faces. Something ripped. I felt the hot exhaust on my ankles as the big coupe swerved back into the street. A thick cloud like a black flower blossomed from its jouncing rear end, while from the fishhooks flew a black shimmering rag.
"Did they get you?" I asked the girl.
She had twisted around to look where the side of her skirt was torn away. She was wearing nylon tights.
"The hooks didn't touch me," she said shakily. "I guess I'm lucky."
I heard voices around us:
"Those kids! What'll they think up next?"
"They're a menace. They ought to be arrested."
Sirens screamed at a rising pitch as two motor-police, their rocket-assist jets full on, came whizzing toward us after the coupe. But the black flower had become an inky fog obscuring the whole street. The motor-police switched from rocket assists to rocket brakes and swerved to a stop near the smoke cloud.
"Are you English?" the girl asked me. "You have an English accent."
Her voice came shudderingly from behind the sleek black satin mask. I fancied her teeth must be chattering. Eyes that were perhaps blue searched my face from behind the black gauze covering the eyeholes of the mask. I told her she'd guessed right. She stood close to me. "Will you come to my place tonight?" she asked rapidly. "I can'tthank you now. And there's something else you can help me about."
My arm, still lightly circling her waist, felt her body trembling. I was answering the plea in that as much as in her voice when I said, "Certainly." She gave me an address south of Inferno, an apartment number and a time. She asked me my name and I told her.
I turned obediently to the policeman's shout. He shooed away the small clucking crowd of masked women and barefaced men. Coughing from the smoke that the black coupe had thrown out, he asked for my papers. I handed him the essential ones.
He looked at them and then at me. "British Barter"? How long will you be in New York?"
Suppressing the urge to say, "For as short a time as possible," I told him I'd be here for a week or so.
"May need you as a witness," he explained. "Those kids can't use smoke on us. When they do that, we pull them in."
He seemed to think the smoke was the bad thing. "They tried to kill the lady," I pointed out.
He shook his head wisely. "They always pretend they're going to, but actually they just want to snag skirts. I've picked up rippers with as many as fifty skirt-snags tacked up in their rooms. Of course, sometimes they come a little too close."
I explained that if I hadn't yanked her out of the way, she'd have been hit by more than hooks. But he interrupted, "If she'd thought it was a real murder attempt, she'd have stayed here."
I looked around. It was true. She was gone.
"She was fearfully frightened," I told him.
"Who wouldn't be? Those kids would have scared old Stalin himself."
"I mean frightened of more than 'kids.' They didn't look like 'kids."'
"What did they look like?"
I tried without much success to describe the three faces. A vague impression of viciousness and effeminacy doesn't mean much.
"Well, I could be wrong," he said finally. 'Do you know the girl? Where she lives?"
"No," I half lied.