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|Edition description:||(Not comics or graphic novels)|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)|
About the Author
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By Andrez Bergen
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2015 Andrez Bergen
All rights reserved.
The spiral staircase made me giddy. While it might come across a poor-man's knock-off of one Hitchcock would've deployed to better effect, I was half way up the ancient thing and felt lunch lurch in my gut. Then again, that likely had more to do with why I was here.
I took a breather on the sixth floor, pushed back some loose black fringe and gazed out a dirty window frame with a crack in the glass. Evening had settled over a looming arch of nearby Heropa Stadium.
What was I doing? Why was I here? Age old questions unlikely worth the ticket price.
Thing is, how much should one charge anyway? For admittance, I mean – if we're going to talk baseball park figures.
I slid off my pumps, dropped them to the floor. Continued on in stockings through which I could feel rough fibres of worn-out shag. A flickering overhead bulb added a certain charm to the place, in case I was missing that already.
Let's take it one step at a time. Think about remuneration later.
I stopped before a discoloured, dented door earmarked 1256. Could hear a TV blaring away the other side of the wood, sounded like that popular Western caper, Have Gun – Will Travel. Richard Boone's laconic voice pushed through loud and clear.
Wondered again how much admission cost. Could ask. I was sure these bods'd be receptive to queries. 'Hi, saw your light on, thought I'd drop by for tea and biscuits and check how much you're asking.' That kind of approach.
Nah. Nowhere near worth the effort. Not when a pin and gently handled flat, thin piece of plastic unlocked the bolt. Having waited a few seconds, to ensure no one noticed the B&E, I turned the knob, pushed the door forward just a fraction, and placed a pistol in each hand.
That's all right. I never pay anyhow.
A swift kick, and I found four men dressed in black hand-me-down suits and hats. They'd been busy lounging about a living room that stank of stale cigarettes, booze, fear and old pizza. The quartet gaped my way, not for long, since I let fly with both chambers as I stormed into the midst of these arseholes, selecting targets willy-nilly.
Maybe, all up, the fiasco took ten seconds max.
Carnage was worth it, another crime cartel that'd never again do anyone harm. I switched off the television, pulled up a blind, opened the window to air this place out. Studied the diorama of gore, guts, Margherita crusts, and orphaned fedoras – amidst the gentle snow of stuffing from a satin cushion I also accidentally whacked.
Figured I'd need a costume, just like the other Bops in this city. Something about a mask that (supposedly) makes people quail. A frilly dress and midnight bangs never intimidate anyone – till you shoot them, that is. No capes, though. Capes sucked.
That was precisely when I heard a noise – something crunching broken glass underfoot would make – and spotted the girl in a tattered nightgown over in corner shadows.
The wall above her was speckled in blood. Hands trussed, and a strip of gaffer across her mouth. A little redhead named Junie Mills, aged six, the latest preteen to be disappeared in this town.
I wondered if she'd freak out, but the kid was a million times more resilient than me at her age. She refused to entertain a single sob despite tears gushing down her face, stepped up, and kicked a nearby corpse.
Very carefully, I leaned over to peel off the tape, warbling sweet nothings I forget, and unbound both wrists. Straight after, I located a telephone under a splayed form, and put in a call to police. Cut the connection when the operator asked my name.
"Thank you," Junie Mills uttered in a voice her size. I looked down, smiled as I exchanged empty magazines with new ones in my guns. Wondered what I could possibly say that'd lessen the trauma she'd been through.
Knelt down and placed a hand on both tiny shoulders.
"Whatever these men did to you," I said to the girl, "None of it – none of it – is your fault. Do you understand?"
"And promise me you'll never let anyone walk all over you."
"Now. You hungry?"
Surprisingly, she nodded.
Detouring into a nearby kitchen, I rifled through the refrigerator's contents, shoving aside pizza containers and boxes with unfinished chow mein noodles. Fished out a bottle of Invalid Stout, poured half down my throat. Discovered, in a freezer that needed defrosting, a joyfully sealed tub of caramel ice cream. Got a spoon from a drawer, wiped down blood and gristle from the counter, and deposited both objects atop a triple layer of kitchen paper.
After I lifted the moppet to place her on a stool and stood watching her tuck in, I deduced it was prime time to make an exit.
"You going to be okay?"
Junie nodded, preoccupied as she was shoveling dessert into her mouth.
So I left. Went out the door, fetched my shoes, and proceeded up those revolving stairs to the roof.
I found a spot to stand beneath the dimness of a barrel-shaped water cooler, between some bulky object with canvas tarps thrown over to protect it from the elements, I supposed, and a rusted bicycle frame sans wheels that had already suffered from same. There was a low wall, beyond which spread the urban sprawl of Heropa from left horizon to right, and straight on to dawn. Tall nearby buildings, all art deco numbers, were lit up like stationary fireworks.
A hint of garbage penetrated the cool air, carousing with the unmistakable aroma of grilled sausages.
In your typical hardboiled narrative, we'd begin with something like: 'This city is my lover, my muse, my playground. The city, she never sleeps.'
To my mind, since we're going to throw descriptions at you, the overgrown town below is a dodgy old man likely to peer up my skirt. Call me anti-romantic, a realist, cynic, party-pooper, whatever.CHAPTER 2
Without realizing, I'd vagued out to abstract sounds. You could discern the rumble from the electric sign washed avenue far below – automobiles honking, approaching sirens. I then sensed someone behind me.
"Excuse me, what do you get if —?"
I swung round with one of the Star Model Bs already in my right fist, in the process flicking the nose of a rake of a man standing there. He was lucky that was the only damage.
"— Ow," said he, holding his honker.
"You should never, ever, sneak up on people like that."
"I'm beginning to get the gist," the man agreed between his fingers, and then released them to look for an open wound. There was none. "Still, how else can we get the drop on someone, or make a grand entrance?"
Incidentally, the weiners and refuse had given way to the smell of elderberries.
"Who are you, and what do you want?" I demanded, still aiming at his noggin.
"May I finish my joke?"
"What do you get if you cross a gangster with a garbage man?"
"Is that a test?"
"No, a wisecrack." My stunned lack of response made him push on regardless: "Anyway, the answer is 'organized grime'. Get it? Yes?"
"Yes. Okay. Whatever."
"Lady, life doesn't need to be oh-so-grim."
"You're an idiot."
This intruder coughed or cleared his throat. I wasn't certain which, and didn't care.
He took a step back to grin, murmuring, "Since you don't appreciate good humour, kindly lower your weapon. You do know that it's all fun and games – till you take someone's eye out."
Course I didn't budge. "Give me one half-decent reason why I should."
"Remove an eye, take out my nose, or lower the weapon?"
"The last bit."
"Huh." He now passed fingers through his hair. "Well, now, don't get your knickers in a knot."
"No stress, I mean."
"Are you for real?"
"Good lord – I hope so! There're times, however, I do wonder." The man gifted me an unwelcome shrug. "Sorry. You wanted a valid reason for objecting to the gun you have pointing at me. How about my breaking your arm, and then shoving that offensive instrument up your derrière?"
I guess I looked askance at him, but my next sentence gave lie to the gesture – even if the pistol hand didn't. "That's pretty good reason."
"Not bad, right?"
"Don't get too cocky."
Nodding to himself or his singular audience, he pushed back against a brick wall that led to the stairwell, bringing the face into better light. Unlike most men in Heropa, there wasn't a hat adorning this picture: early thirties, short-cropped blond hair, a strong nose (slightly pink), steep forehead, high cheekbones, intense eyes with laughter lines surrounding them. The combination struck me as a youngish Max von Sydow – handsome bugger, in other words.
"I won't," he said. "However, I'm here to talk."
"There's a shame."
"Depends on how you prefer to spend evenings."
"Then I'll have my arm busted another time. What d'you want?"
Cue suave arching of one eyebrow, and I already hated the guy. "Lee. Call me Lee."
"Do I have to?"
His right cheek twitched, indicating a tactfully repressed smile. "Would be nice."
"Lee, then. Same question."
"Fine." He now examined the nails of his right hand, found them surprisingly engaging. "You left a trail a mile wide," he said like he was reading a script. "Boss Barker's guards outside in the Buick. The man's bookie in the alleyway behind the block, and best gunsel 'Bugs' Jonker laid-out on a metaphoric slab – the security desk – in the lobby. Nice shooting, by the way. All dead as doornails."
"Mm-hm." My arm was beginning to ache. Holding aloft a 1.36 kg weight tended to do that, so I switched hands.
He noticed. "Are you as good with the southpaw?"
"You know, you aren't exactly subtle, are you?"
It was my turn to smile. "Don't see the point."
"Blowing out other people's brains is fair enough?"
"Their hearts'll do fine. These men were low-life evil pricks that hurt genuinely good people."
Apparently tired of goggling cuticles, he squinted as he loosened his tie. "The child trafficking racket? We had eyes on them."
"You? As in police?" The pistol dipped no more than a centimetre, but came back up when he responded in the negative.
Truth being, I was getting edgy. From a long way off I caught a drift of jazz, the sirens were louder, and this individual wasted precious time.
"Look, will you let me know what you want?"
"Sure. How about if I told you there was another way to help people, Mitzi?"
"And you know my name. This gets better."
The man laughed, a deep baritone chuckle. "Infinitely. And I mean, helping people wise, without breaking Heropa's precious laws. Not really. Then again, we can circumnavigate statutes when need be."
This made me breathe out kind of noisily, one of those annoyed sounds that express irritation more effectively than outright telling someone. Still he looked chirpy, however, so I felt the need to tag.
"Mister – Lee – will you cut to the chase of what you're hawking already? Much as I enjoy waiting round for cops to show at a mass murder scene."
"Good call." Reaching beneath his coat – "Don't shoot, I'm just getting my card," he stressed – the gentleman hunted for a few seconds, humming as he did, and then removed and passed over something. It was the promised business card, alright. Embossed, with a triple-C logo. "I represent the Crime Crusaders Crew."
The card swiveled between the fingers of my right hand. "I've heard of them."
"Name's lame, I know, but otherwise we mean well."
"We prefer to be slagged off as Capes."
It might've been my imagination, but the man appeared to momentarily bristle. He folded his arms, leaned further, gave me a quizzical look – and then tossed his head. "Hah. Not quite. Not exactly."
"You're splitting hairs?"
"Not all I split."
"And you're asking me to join." I'd deadpanned the comment, expecting horrified silence or a guffaw, but he surprised me again.
"Yeah. I am."
This forced me tooth and nail to repress laughter. "You're game. Pfft – when I join up, you know, I'll never wear a mantle."
"I'm serious, Mitzi."
"You're seriously something." I narrowed my eyes. "If you want to do something right, for a change, there's a little girl in room 1256 could do with moral support."
"I'm not good with kids. And what do you mean, 'for a change'?"
There was my cue for a soapbox if ever I heard one. "You Bops have your head in the clouds – so bloody busy with derring-do that you forget the ants beneath your booties. Us."
This time the man took out a hanky and brushed down his lapel, like I'd accidentally spat on it in my passion. Anyhow, flashing lights were reflecting off nearby windows, indicating that local law enforcement had finally arrived.
"Gotta go." Still, something occurred to me then. "Hey, I thought you needed a super power to be a Bop – a Cape. All I have are my dad's fake Colt .45s."
The Max von Sydow ring-in had fixed the tie again and was buttoning up his coat against a chill I didn't feel.
"Don't worry. I think you'd bring a lot more to the job description than mere guns and guts."
"Fat chance." I put the shooter away, pocketed his card, and prepared to skip out across an adjoining building.
Before I could jump, however, he hollered, "Mitzi! You'll call me?"
"Shush!" I lashed back. Never knew someone could be so exasperating inside a few minutes of acquaintance. "Maybe. Don't hold your breath – unless that's your dumb mojo."CHAPTER 3
After a few fitful hours I irresponsibly called sleep, I tripped out for breakfast at a diner down the road.
Over bacon, eggs served sunny side up, and several cups of a brew that tried desperately to pass for coffee, I scoured a local rag called the Port Phillip Patriot. The previous evening's fracas made headlines. There was a picture of little Junie Mills with a brave smile, bold copy above that announced 'Bullet Gal' Busts Trafficking Ring! (they'd coined that silly moniker already), and a tag that this was an exclusive written by Gypsie-Ann Stellar, with Jimmy Falk.
The article went on to mention previously kidnapped girls like Jane Drake, Alicia Marble and Violette Barclay, all under ten years of age, the whereabouts of whom remained a mystery. Made me realize, with a certain amount of horror, I ought to've left one of the bastards alive for a spot of interrogation.
I closed my eyes, blew out cheeks, and sat back. Shit.
This sad exposé sat on page two.
The front of the paper was set aside for better fluff to consume over brekky. It bore a big splash image of costumed clods in fight poses; something the text explained had to do with a gold bullion heist gone south. Three of the heroes smiled out from an inset snap, bearing more ridiculous names Milkcrate Man, Major Patriot, and the Big Game Hunter.
I pushed aside my plate and tossed the tabloid.
Heropa lived up to its name in terms of heroes, ones that flouted rules as much as me. Distrusted by police and the legal fraternity they might've been, but they made for good press.
These 'gallant' Bops, the so-called guardians of justice, were a supercilious lot that indulged in power plays – better to call them farces – with felonious peers for rights to keys to the city, along with its treasure. They didn't give a rat's arse about minor, unmasked individuals, the ones in their firing line, forgotten bystanders who were daily abused and extorted by disgruntled minor (normal) ruffians with an axe to grind.
Little people, the real story out there, sat far beneath the mission statement of these Technicolor demigods.
That was the gutter-level niche into which I shoved my derrière, if we opted for Lee's showboat foreign vocab.
I offered services (with a small fee) to the lost and the beaten.
Took the cash only to cover rent and meals. Oh, and ammunition too. Had been practicing gunplay for months on end – might not've yet been a maestro, but I knew how to pull a trigger, and left on the doormat any conscience about doing so.
After dishing up the cash for a meal better left unrated, I fled the diner. Dodged women with squared shoulders, narrow hips, and skirts that ended just below the knee, men in full-cut, double-breasted jackets, wide trousers, and hand-painted silk ties. One thing shared between both sexes?
Excerpted from Bullet Gal by Andrez Bergen. Copyright © 2015 Andrez Bergen. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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