Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: Sarah Rockford in Construction of Crime

VL 1


Tonight, the ebony sky above Los Angeles was bronzed with the light of destroying fire. The Loan and Financing building, only completed in June, was reduced to ashes…

Sarah Rockford looked up from her notepad to where the Loan and Financing building was still being transformed into ash. The fire department was pouring water on it, and already the blaze seemed lesser than it had been. Perhaps it wouldn’t quite make it to the ashes stage tonight after all. She put a parenthetical ‘ruins’ after the ‘ashes’ sentence.

Looking over her scribbled notes, the phrase “only completed in June” struck her eye. Hadn’t she written something similar not long ago?

Sarah tapped her pen against her small chin, thinking. She made a note to follow-up this fact then went to try to grab a statement from the nearest fireman.

“No, we don’t know what started it,” he said irritably. Then, taking a closer look at her, added, “And what’s a girl like you doing out this time of night anyway?”

“Working,” she said simply. “Sarah Rockford; Daily Spinner.”

The fireman frowned at her, looking as though he doubted it. Well he might, for Sarah, at twenty, looked even younger than she was, something that was not helped by the fact that she barely cleared five feet. She tried to compensate by wearing her yellow hair in what she thought of as a professional pulled-back style and dressing in the most sophisticated button-up blouses and skirts the thrift store provided, though it didn’t really help much.

Besides which, she had stretched the truth a fair bit. She didn’t technically work for anyone; she simply hunted down stories and sold them to whoever would pay. The Spinner was just her most regular buyer.

It wouldn’t be fair, of course, to say that Sarah was a habitual liar; her parents (both deceased) had taught her to be honest, but then they had also taught her not to starve, and the latter lesson had sunk in a little deeper than the former.

“Well, Miss Rockford,” the fireman said, still suspicious but accepting her story. “We can’t tell you anything more about the fire, except that it doesn’t appear to be arson and right now we’re trying to make sure it doesn’t spread, so if you wouldn’t mind stepping back while we do our job…”

Sarah complied, wondering as she did so whether she could translate ‘doesn’t appear to be arson’ in such a way to make it sound as though it very likely was arson without driving her conscience to open rebellion. She reluctantly decided she couldn’t.

She did, however, make sure to stay within earshot of the firemen while they battled the blaze. She scribbled city block threatened by raging inferno; saved by heroic firefighters. That was good; she’d be able to get a few more words from some of the men and a flattering portrayal of their labors might encourage them to be communicative in the future. A girl had to think of her future.

As Sarah took notes, one of the men who had been up close to the fire came and spoke to her friend in a low voice. She moved forward eagerly to hear.

“Someone was on the second floor. Never got out.”

“You sure?”

The man nodded.

Sarah’s excitement disappeared with a sickening jolt. A burning building was one thing: spectacular, visually splendid, dramatic. A person burned alive inside it was something else entirely. She didn’t like that kind of story.

She didn’t attempt to press the firemen for more information. They likely wouldn’t have any, and besides that could wait. She drifted back toward the watching crowd, thinking.

How did the fire start? She wrote.

By the time the last embers were extinguished from the smoking ruins, Sarah had been able to glean a few more grains of information. First that the fire was likely electrical; something about faulty wiring reacting with substandard materials. Second was that the company that owned the building had no comment about the fire or its victim. And finally that said victim was a janitor who had been working on the upper floor when the fire broke out and had been overwhelmed by smoke before he could escape. His name was Jose Montago, and he had a wife and three children.

Sarah worked all of this into a moving, dramatic article; praising the heroic efforts of the firemen who held the fire at bay to save the rest of the block (she decided she didn’t have space to add that one of the firemen had assured her it was highly unlikely the fire would have spread in any case, given the still night and the distance between buildings), lamenting the tragic death of Mr. Montago with his widowed wife and orphaned children, and engaging in some pointed, but carefully non-libelous speculation as the to negligence of Diamond Financial.

The article sold, and Sarah had the satisfaction of earning her keep for another day. But she was not finished yet. Something about this fire troubled her. Perhaps it was the dead man, or the apparent negligence that had led to the disaster, but she wasn’t ready to let it go.

Her first move was to look into Diamond Financial. This required a trip to the library to look through newspaper archives, then a journey to the County records building, a little covert flirting with the clerk, and a lot of bald-faced lying to his superior.

Sitting in her rented rooms in her pajamas and going over her notes with a bowl of ramen noodles, Sarah pieced together the following facts. First, Diamond Financial was in deep trouble; they had weathered two lawsuits that, while they probably sailed right by the average person had caught the eyes of the financial world. That is, anyone they were likely to do business with. The result was that, in addition to the large settlements they had been obliged to make, they had lost a good deal of their client base. They had even been the subject of a case study in the Wall Street Journal about the side-effects of lawsuits. In short, they were hanging on by a thread, if that.

The next thing she found was that, right in the midst of this crisis, indeed while they were still battling one of the lawsuits, they had purchased the lot on which the Loan and Financing building had stood and filed an order with a company called Huner Contractors to construct the building for the purposes, so they said in their press release, of opening a new revenue stream in the interests of re-establishing their reputation. The building had only been completed less than a month prior to its bursting into flames.

Most significantly, she found, was that it had been heavily insured. It had cost twenty-three thousand dollars to build, but had been insured for fifty. In other words, they had pulled a clear twenty-seven thousand dollar profit just when they desperately needed money. All because their expensive new building burned to the ground.

Sarah stuck the end of her pen into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully. Everything was shaping up to a grand little conspiracy, one that – she added angrily to herself – had cost an innocent man his life. Everything, that is, except the fact that the fire department had been very clear that there was no sign of arson.

If only she could get around that. Suspicious as the circumstances were, unless she could find some evidence that the fire had been anything but an accident – non-circumstantial evidence, that is – she couldn’t do anything but point out how suspiciously fortunate the company was. And there was no law against being suspiciously fortunate.

Sarah thought a moment, then grabbed her phone and dialed. She waited a moment, then a familiar voice answered.

“Detective Crane.”

“Hello, Detective,” she said. “This is Sarah Rockford.”

“Oh, no; not you again!”

Detective Marvin Crane had been with the LAPD for almost thirty years. He was tough, non-nonsense, and scrupulously honest, which was why Sarah usually went to him if she thought she had a crime on hand. She knew he found her annoying, but at least he treated her seriously, and for a twenty-year-old girl with her living to make, that counted a lot more than manners.

“Yes, me again,” Sarah said. “Listen, you know that fire that we had last night?”

“The one you were hanging around?”

“That’s it. I’ve found evidence that it might have been staged; can you check and see if there’s anything to suggest that?”

“We did,” he answered. “What do you think? We found a dead body and a brand new building burning to the ground. We went over it with a fine-tooth comb, but there wasn’t any sign of arson. There was, however, a lot of evidence showing that it was an electrical fire, because some moron used corroded wires.”

Sarah felt disappointed.

“What made you think it was staged?”

She gave him a summary of her findings. To her relief, he didn’t brush it off. She could almost hear him sitting up on the other end of the line.

“Hm,” he said. “That does look bad. I’ll tell you what, kid; I’ll put out some feelers and see if I can find anything odd about them. Meanwhile, don’t publish anything.”

“You know, I do have to eat.”

“So cover a dog show,” he said. “If there is something fishy going on we don’t want to tip them off that we’re onto it.”

That was too much sense to argue with.

“Fine,” she sighed. “I’ll sit on it for a few days. Let me know what you find, won’t you?”

“I suppose that’s only fair,” he muttered.

“You’re adorable! If I ever decide to adopt a grandfather, you’re first on my list.”

He hung up. Sarah laughed and put down the phone. Progress! At least, some progress, though at the cost of sitting on an especially spicy bit of speculation.

Oh, well. If she had to keep the Diamond Financial angle under wraps, there was another element to the story. It had popped into her head when Crane had mentioned the bad wiring, though she hadn’t been able to do anything with it while they were talking. Now, though, she began to wonder whether it wasn’t odd, possibly criminal even, that the building had been constructed so shoddily. Who were Huner Contractors, after all? Had it been their doing, or perhaps…

Sarah checked the clock; three PM. Still time to make it back to the county records building if she hurried. She stood up, staggered a little and yawned. It occurred to her she’d been doing that a lot recently, and this made her realize she hadn’t slept in almost thirty hours. Perhaps, on second thought, this could wait until tomorrow.

Sarah relaxed her mind for a few hours working on the novel she was writing, and which, hopefully, would one day spare her the necessity of such late hours. She then went to bed on the couch that was one of the three or four pieces of furniture she owned and slept the sleep of the just until the alarm woke her at five in the morning.

Her first move, she decided, would be to track down and interview someone from Huner Contractors. It was a slim hope, but if she could get convincing evidence that the wiring and materials had been sound when they were installed, that might be enough to make a case. At least it certainly wouldn’t hurt.

Huner Contractors, as it transpired, were remodeling a suite of offices out in the suburbs of LA. According to a sign it was for a company called ‘Westlake Realty.’ Sarah parked her ancient Corvair (which had been a gift from a family friend who owned a car lot and who had been unable to find anyone else willing to buy the thing) and went in search of the man in charge.

This turned out to be a cinderblock in human form by the name of Lepton. His stubble-lined face when Sarah accosted him went from angry to interested faster than the changing of a traffic light, while his small eyes did a quick and appreciative sweep of her face and form. Several of the workers, Sarah noticed, had paused to look at her. She suspected that she was probably the most alluring thing not on a magazine cover that had appeared in that spot for quite some time. She mentally put the information down in case she needed it. Modesty, like honesty, was a virtue she could be flexible on.

Pretending to have not noticed the attention she was getting, Sarah smiled her best innocently friendly smile on Lepton. She had to tilt her head back to do so, as she barely came up to his chest.

“Good morning,” she said. “My name is Sarah Rockford; I’m with United World News. I know you must be a busy man, but I was wondering if you had a moment to answer a few questions?”

Lepton’s cinderblock face cracked into a cement-teeth smile.

“Well, if it won’t take long,” he said in a tone that suggested he hoped it would. “Why don’t you come into my office?”

“That’s very courteous of you, but this will only take a minute,” said Sarah. Rule one of being a five-foot beauty was not being in enclosed spaces with a human brick if you could help it. “I’m sure you read that the Loan and Financing Building on Miller was destroyed in a fire the other day?”

Lepton’s expression underwent another sudden transformation. His appreciative interest vanished and his annoyance returned.

“No,” he said. “Why would I?”

“It was in the newspapers,” she said. “But perhaps you’re too busy to read them. I only mention it because I know your company built it.”

“What about it?”

Sarah picked her words carefully.

“I’m writing a piece on the fire,” she said. “And, of course I have to say something about what caused it. According to the fire department, it was faulty wiring and shoddy materials. I thought it only common justice to see what you had to say about that.”

His face grew even uglier.

“You saying I did rotten work?”

“No,” she answered smoothly. “That’s what the fire department says. I want to know what you say.”

As she spoke, she became uncomfortably aware that the other workers had begun to gather around them.

“I say that I’ve been in this business for almost fifteen years. My people’ve worked on a hundred different buildings, every one of them as good as anyone else’s And I think that if anyone wants to say I did a bad job they ought to say it to my face.”

Sarah glanced around at the seven or eight burly men who now surrounded her. This wasn’t at all the reaction she had expected. It was much too severe. It was frightening. But she maintained a brave face.

“Mind if I quote you on that?” she asked.

“I think you’d better leave,” he answered.

She was only too happy to comply. Sarah thanked the man politely and, trying not to turn her back more than necessary, made her way out of the site. The men moved aside to let her go.

Driving away from the site, Sarah drew a deep breath to steady her nerves.

“Now what,” she said aloud. “Are they so touchy about?”

She had gone in with a vague idea that Huner Contractors might have had a hand in the fire. Now she was certain about it.

Today’s research trip required less finesse than yesterday’s: she only wanted to know a bit about which buildings a certain contracting company had built or worked on. Once she had this information, she was able to return to the library to compare it to the record of accidents, fires, and other such problems.

What she found was interesting, but inconclusive. The company had to one degree or another worked on over sixty buildings in the greater Los Angeles area, either building or renovating. Of these, thirteen, including the Loan and Financing building, had either burned down, collapsed, or somehow became unusable. It wasn’t much, but it was notable.

Her next step was to cross-check the thirteen failed buildings with the clients who had ordered the work. The first was a company called “Faylestate Insurance.” They had ordered a new office building, which had collapsed like a house of cards in a minor earthquake two months after being built. The company took in an insurance check for three times what they paid for the building, which, as it turned out, was just in time to pay a settlement in a harassment case.

Then there was the three-story research facility owned by Hyperdyne Systems, where Huner Contractors had done a basement renovation three weeks before it was destroyed in a fire. Two people were killed in that one, and again the company pocketed a large insurance check, covering their third year of net-loss revenue.

So it was again and again. Every single time one of the buildings that Huner Contractors’ had worked on had something go wrong, the company that had contracted it received an insurance check far greater than what they’d paid for the work, and usually just when they most needed an influx of cash. And, what struck her as especially strange, never once did any of them even talk about bringing Huner Contractors to court for negligence or shoddy workmanship.

“Gotcha!” she exclaimed aloud, so that several nearby people glared at her.

Sarah checked her enthusiasm: still it was only circumstantial. Very suspicious circumstance, to be sure, and probably enough for the police to move against Huner Contractors, but nothing definite. A clever lawyer, she was sure, could probably make mincemeat out of the theory, and the fact that Huner Contractors had never been sued could cut both ways: evidence of conspiracy or evidence that the company didn’t consider them negligent. And if once they got through court without a conviction, they’d be home free, meaning no justice for Jose Montago or any of the other people who had died in this scheme.

She nibbled her pen for a moment, trying to gauge how best to proceed. Then, in a sudden flash as though of divine (or demonic) inspiration, she had idea. The site she’d visited that morning was for Westlake Realty. She looked for their name in the business journals and had to stuff her fist into her mouth to keep from shouting in triumph, for they were being sued for malfeasance and their stock was a fraction of what it had been a year ago. If her theory was correct…

Sarah rushed to a payphone and dialed Detective Crane’s number. The phone range several times, then went to voicemail.

“Listen,” she said. “I think I’ve figured the whole thing out; I just need to confirm it. I’m going to do that now: the Westlake Realty building on Pico Boulevard that’s being redone. If it’s what I think it is, we’ll have them dead to rights. I’ll call you back when I get a chance. Oh, this is Sarah Rockford, by the way.”

For the second time that day, Sarah drove out to the construction site. It was about eight o’clock by this point, and the block was deserted; everyone had gone home. The windows looked in on a bare, empty building, and the door was firmly locked.

Sarah slung her bag over her shoulder, took up her camera, glanced about to make sure no one was watching, and approached the door. A few moments with a hairpin was enough to undo the bolt. She slipped inside, closed the door behind her, and ducked out of view of the street.

The main work on the interior seemed to consist of redoing the floors. There were several large holes in the foundation waiting to be filled with concrete. She hopped down into one of them. It was about three foot cubed. Shining her flashlight against the cement that had already been poured, she looked carefully for any sign of wear or weakness, but found none. Disappointed, she hoisted herself back out and went to look at the exposed walls. The beams seemed sturdy enough when she tapped them; no structural issues.

But then she took a look at the insulation they had begun to install. To her untrained eye it looked unpleasantly frayed and dirty. She sliced off a sample with a pocketknife and carefully stowed it in a plastic bag to show to an expert. Then she took her camera and snapped a photo of the whole set up.

It was as she was looking through the camera that she noticed the wiring. This had been completed already, it seemed, but the coverings didn’t look quite right. She felt them, and the black rubber coating fell away in her hands; it was better than half rotted. Underneath, the wires were badly corroded. She wasn’t an expert, but it looked to her as though if you used this system, it was likely to short out and catch the insulation on fire within a few short weeks.

Sarah eagerly snapped another photo, getting in close to the wirework. Once an expert took a look at this, she thought, it would mean ‘probable cause’ and a search warrant.

“Gotcha,” she muttered.

At that moment, a hand – a huge, callused hand – closed over mouth.

“Took the words right out of my mouth,” Lepton snarled into her ear.

Blazing, blind nightmare terror erupted in Sarah’s chest. Shock and danger both combined to elicit a scream that would have been heard across the city if it hadn’t been smothered by Lepton’s powerful grip about her mouth.

“Don’t struggle!” he snapped. “Or I’ll break your little neck.”

The energy that fear had given to her limbs died away, and Sarah froze, stiff and rigid, except for the rapid rise and fall of her chest and the darting motion of her eyes.

“You scream and you die,” he said. “You don’t give me any trouble, maybe you walk away. Understand?”

She nodded, and he took his hand away.

“What do you think you’re doing here?” he demanded. As he spoke, he pulled her arms behind her back and began tying her wrists together with rope.

Sarah swallowed. The first blaze of shock and terror had subsided, and she had gotten some of her courage back.

“Building inspection,” she said. “I wanted to have a closer look at your materials.”

“That your job, is it?”

“Sometimes,” she said. “You do know that people have died because of your work, right?”

“Despite what I said this morning, I do read the papers,” he said, pulling the ropes tight and making her wince. “Sit down.”

“That doesn’t bother you?” she said, obeying. He began to tie her ankles together. “Jose Montego; that’s the name of the man who died the other night. He had a wife and three kids.”

He finished her ankles and began on her knees.

“Do you ever shut up?”

“Really?” she said. “You don’t care at all?”

He pulled the knot tight, then spun her roughly around and started tying her elbows.

“I’m making about twice as much a year as the average guy in my profession, thanks to jobs like this,” he said. “You expect me to go all teary eyed because some chump has the bad luck to be there when it went down?”

Sarah was still terrified, but her fear was briefly eclipsed by anger.

“I suppose that’s expecting too much of something like you,” she said. She winced as he finished tying her up. The ropes were so tight that it hurt to even try to move.

Lepton sat back and looked at her. His granite face was a blend of satisfaction and hatred that was enough to make Sarah’s blood run cold. He was obviously enjoying her helplessness.

“So now what are you going to do with me?” she asked, trying to keep her voice as light as possible.

He picked up her camera, examining it idly.

“That’s the question, isn’t it?” he said. He opened the rear, pulled out the film, and crumpled it up in his hand. Sarah sighed irritably, but it was no more than she had expected.

“There are a lot of things I’d like to do with you,” he said with a leer. Sarah dropped her eyes, shuddering inwardly at the very thought.

“But,” he added, picking up a roll of duct tape. “I’d rather not waste time.”

Sarah eyed the tape uneasily, guessing what it meant.

“You don’t need that,” she said. “I’m not gonna scream.”

“Oh, I think you are,” he answered.

She looked at him, her breathing coming fast as she understood what was in store.

“You said,” she stammered. “That you would let me go.”

“I said maybe,” he answered, pulling off a strip of tape. “And I was lying about that.”

Before she could make another sound, he pressed the tape over her mouth, sealing it shut. She tried to yell, but only a muffled grunt came out.

“So,” he said, gripping her face and forcing her to look at him. “You think I use shoddy material in my work, huh? Well, what would you call a nosy brat who doesn’t know how to mind her own business? You think that’ll make good building material?”

Sarah’s eyes widened with terror. She tried to speak, to plead, but no words beyond muffled grunts came out.

Lepton picked her up, carried her to hole she had briefly explored, and dropped her unceremoniously in. The impact knocked the wind out of her. He tossed her bag down after her.

As Sarah struggled to regain her breath, she heard Lepton walking across the floor, then rolling something over. She looked up and saw the conical maw of a cement mixer looming over her.

Sarah screamed into the tape as the cement mixer began to turn.

“So long, sweetheart,” Lepton called, and tilted the opening forward.

A stream of wet, gray cement began to pour into the hole about her, splattering Sarah with the cold, gritty substance. The cement mixer wasn’t especially large, but Lepton kept filling more and more into it, so that the stream pouring in around her waxed and waned, but never ceased.

Sarah struggled around into a sitting position, but could do no more. Already the stuff had covered the entire bottom of the pit and was rising about her. Her wide, terrified eyes darted about, seeking some means of escape, but there was none to be found. Even if there were, she could barely move, tied up as she was. She thought of her pocketknife: tucked safely away in the front pocket of her blouse and completely useless to her.

Steadily, and with greater swiftness than she would have believed possible, the cement filled in around her. It covered her hips and ankles, buried her bound hands even as they clawed uselessly at the ropes that held them, and began rising up her body. Her knees were a rapidly disappearing island in gray slime. It seemed strange to think she’d never see them again.

For the idea that she had held out against as long as possible was breaking through the ramparts of her mind and filling her pounding heart with unbearable terror: there was really no way out. She was actually going to die like this, right here and right now.

Her knees vanished under the cement. Her chest was covered, making breathing so difficult that she wondered if she might suffocate before it even covered her head. The cold muck reached her neck; it was tugging at her long blond hair.

Sarah tilted her head back, trying to stay alive for as long as possible. Lepton was waving sarcastically at her. The cement filled her ears and crawled up her cheeks. It covered the tape that muffled her screams. She shut her eyes tight and began to inhale it through her nostrils. This would be her last breath…

But it wasn’t. Her nose and part of her face was all that was left above the cement, but it didn’t seem to be getting any higher. She waited, unbearably tense for the final moment, but it didn’t come. Instead, a rough hand brushed the cement away from her face and sets of strong hands pulled her out from under the heavy muck.

Sarah opened her eyes and saw, to her astonishment, Detective Crane and a small posse of policemen. Lepton was subdued, and Crane and another man were hauling her out of the pit.

“Damnit girl,” Crane snapped. “What were you thinking?”

Sarah groaned in relief, though the detective didn’t immediately take the gag off of her, so apparently his question was rhetorical.

Within a few minutes, Sarah’s bonds had been cut and she sat furiously rubbing her limbs to try to get the feeling back while she explained what she had learned.

“See, Lepton and his men had a bit of a side business,” she said. “Most of the time they just did their job, but if a client were in financial trouble, like Diamond Financial, then they offered a special service: they would make or renovate a building for the usual price, but use junk material that cost a fraction of what the real stuff would cost. Meanwhile the client heavily insures the building, justifying it by saying they can’t afford to take another loss right now. Then it inevitably fails or burns down, meaning they collect on it. Since they didn’t torch the building themselves, there’s nothing to link them to the fraud, except the fact that this is what they paid for.”

Detective Crane nodded.

“That about right, Lepton?” he asked.

The contractor snarled.

“I want a lawyer.”

“Oh, you’ll get one,” said Crane. “Not that it’ll do you any good. Attempted murder’s a pretty serious offense.”

Sarah beamed at him as he was led away.

“Okay,” she said. “So, thanks for saving my life, but how did you know…?”

“I got your message,” he said. “Saying you were coming out here to snoop around. As soon as I heard that I got some men together and rushed over. Figured you’d get yourself into a spot like this.”

She smiled and hugged him.

“You’re sweet,” she said.

“You’re taking this whole near death experience pretty well,” he said, with an air of reluctant admiration.

Sarah shrugged. “I’m still here. And besides, just think what a good story this will make: ‘Trapped in pit of death, she watched her tomb forming about her.’ People will eat it up.”

Then she looked down at her cement-covered body and ruined clothes and grimaced.

“I suppose, though,” she added. “I’d better go clean up before I try to write it.”



Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Clown

Frank Catelli sat in his car, watching the children play. He had a newspaper on his lap, but wasn’t reading it. It was only for show, in case someone came up and asked what he was doing. Always best to provide yourself with an innocent excuse for anything you’re doing. In the same way, his final meeting with Nora Eckhart had taken place at the circus, in a crowd of people, almost right under the noses of her employers. In a crowd, no one looked at you twice. And there was no harm in going to the circus.

Frank watched little George Reiner as he played on the slide and smiled a cruel smile.

Enjoy it while you can, kid, he thought. Next few days aren’t gonna be as much fun.

That was the worst part of his job; having to hear the kids cry over the two or three days until their parents decided to pay up. He couldn’t stand the whining. That’s why he always tried to use a place that had a good, strong closet or something, where he could lock the kid up and leave him without worrying that he’d figure a way out and from where he couldn’t hear the screams. He’d gotten a good one this time; an old cottage off in the woods where no one would ever think to go and that had a root cellar with a heavy wooden door. Three or four days of peace and quiet, and a fat pay off at the end of it. He really did have the perfect job.

All that was remaining now was for him to signal Eckhart the nanny, who would then lead little Georgie over to the car, and before the kid knew what was happening, they’d be on their way. He just needed to wait for the right moment, when the other people in the park weren’t paying attention. Wouldn’t be long now; the only other kid was being gathered up by his mother and led away. As soon as they were out of sight…

Frank cursed aloud. A clown in full regalia, big floppy shoes, oversized pants, and an electric blue wig had come waddling into the park dragging a brightly-colored cart full of balloons, popcorn, and other treats. And he was heading right for little George.

Nora Eckhart glanced around. Frank shook his head slightly to indicate she should wait.

The clown, meanwhile, was waving at George, his colorful face seemingly one enormous grin.

“Hi, there!” he said.

George stopped his play, hovering by the monkey bars indecisively. The bright colors and friendly demeanor of the clown interested him, but he was cautious as well.

“Hello,” the boy answered.

“Would you like a nice balloon? Or some popcorn?”

George nodded, but didn’t move.

“My dad says I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”

“And very right of your father!” said the clown in a serious tone. “You certainly should not! So, my name is Cosmo, and this…” he suddenly produced a large hand puppet of a chicken with a top hat and monocle. “Is Lord Cluckington.”

George Reiner laughed in delight at the sight of the puppet. Already, Frank could tell, the clown was getting past his defenses.

“And your name is Georgie Reiner,” the clown went on. “There! Now we’re not strangers anymore!”

“I guess not!” said the boy.

“That’s good, because Lord Cluckington doesn’t talk to strangers either. But maybe he’ll talk to you, if you’re polite to him. Go ahead! Say ‘hello.’”

“Hello, Lord Cluckington,” said Georgie.

“Good-day, to you, young man,” the clown answered in a faux-dignified voice. His ventriloquy, Frank had to admit, was very good. The puppet bowed, and the boy laughed with delight. “It is rare,” the clown went on in the puppet’s voice. “That I should meet such a distinguished and obviously noble child such as yourself. I must apologize for the uncouth manners of my associate.”

“Oh, now!” Cosmo said. “I think that’s going a bit far!”

“I will not lower myself to discuss the matter with you, beyond saying ‘bawk, bawk,’ sir.”

Georgie giggled. Cosmo cast him an apologetic look.

“It isn’t easy living with the rich and famous,” he sighed.

“My daddy’s rich too!” Georgie said.

“Oh?” said the puppet with interest. “Does he possess many grain silos?”

“No,” said Georgie. “He’s in business.”

“Oh, I see,” said the puppet in a politely disappointed ton. “Well, I suppose that is a very worthy calling as well. You don’t happen to have any grain on you, do you?”

Georgie shook his head.

“I have some popcorn, my lord,” said Cosmo. “Would you like to share some with Georgie?”

“Share? I am far above sharing, my good fellow. Bagawk. However, I may make an exception in this case.”

Cosmo produced a bag of popcorn and Georgie eagerly took some of the salty treat, then handed a few to the puppet.

“Much obliged, sir,” said the puppet as it feigned pecking at the corn. He made sounds as though satisfied. “Hm, that is quite enough for me. I am dining with the ambassador of Estonia later. Perhaps you would care to finish the rest?”

Georgie was, of course, only too happy to accept, and Cosmo the clown, with his absurd puppet, said their goodbyes and left the boy happily munching his popcorn on the park bench while he took his cart elsewhere. Nora looked back again, and Frank motioned for her to wait a moment.

“Give him a minute to leave,” Frank muttered. “Then we take him…”

“Hi, there!”

Frank swore as the clown’s painted face suddenly popped up at his window, chicken puppet and all.

“I know you!” said Cosmo the clown, pointing at him with an exaggerated look of excitement. “You were at the circus the other day!”

Frank did a double take. At the circus he had been preoccupied with his job and hadn’t paid much attention to the acts, but now he realized that this particular clown had been there and had performed. Or at least, someone wearing similar makeup.

“Yeah,” he said, feigning a smile. “Great show.”

“The greatest show on Earth!” said Cosmo much too loudly.

“Right. Look, pal, do you mind? I’m kind of busy right now.” He indicated the newspaper.

“Oh, I know!” said the clown with exaggerated concern. “You have been so very, very busy these past few days. Not only fixing up that cottage that no one knows about, but renting this car, paying off Miss Eckhart, and carefully mapping out little Georgie Reiner’s routine. You must be exhausted.”

Frank stared at him. His hand moved to his holster, but he didn’t draw. The smiling face of the clown – the clown that had just accurately described everything he’d been doing to prepare for this job – seemed to hypnotize him.

“But, of course, this is just what you do, isn’t it?” Cosmo went on cheerily. “You kidnap children and hold them for ransom! You don’t care that it scares them; you don’t care if they get hurt. You don’t care about them at all, except that they can get you money.”

“Look,” said Frank. “Just how the hell do you know all this?”

“I am Cosmo!” said the clown with a parody of a stage magician. “I know all!”

“Yeah? You know what this means?” Frank drew his pistol and pointed it at him. “It means beat it and keep your painted mouth shut, clown, or you’ll end up in a body bag.”

Cosmo clapped a hand to his mouth, laughing as though he’d never seen anything so hilarious in his life.

“You think that’s funny?” Frank asked. This clown was clearly off his rocker.

“Well, no, not too funny,” said Cosmo, chuckling. “But Lord Cluckington here, he just thinks it’s a riot!”

The chicken puppet said nothing. Frank stared. Nothing in all his years of experience had prepared him for this.

“Now, Mr. Frank Catelli,” Cosmo the clown said. “That is your name, right?”

“Yeah, so what?”

“Well, the reason I stopped by is that Lord Cluckington really, really wanted to meet you. So, without further adieu….Lord Cluckington, may I present Frank Catelli, sometimes known as Frank Carlyle, sometimes by a host of other names. He is a professional kidnapper of children and he’s planning to kidnap little Georgie Reiner.”

Lord Cluckington considered Frank, then leaned in to whisper in Cosmo’s ear. Frank wasn’t sure whether he should shoot or not; a murder might spoil the whole job, but this clown…

“Oh, you already knew that?” said Cosmo, speaking to his puppet. “Because you saw him? Because we both saw him making these preparations?”

“What are you talking about?” Frank snapped.

“Cosmo the magnificent excels in all the arts of the clown,” he said with a solemn air. “Tumbling, fumbling, bumbling, juggling, but my favorite is impersonations. Specialties include passing drunks, window washers, janitors at car rental establishments, and realtors who happen to have perfect kidnapping cabins!”

Frank stared, then squinted at his face. It was almost impossible to tell under the makeup, but now that he mentioned it, he could just see the slightest resemblance between this clown and the man who had rented him that cottage.

“So, Lord Cluckington,” Cosmo went on. “Since we’ve seen Mr. Cateli at all these tasks, and heard him make all those very incriminating statements, what do you suppose we should do about it?”

Again, the puppet was made to whisper in his ear, and the clown adopted a look of mock solemnity.

“Lord Cluckington says we should eat your soul,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. “But I think we ought to just inform the police. What do you think?”

Frank looked from the clown to the puppet, then lowered his gun and laughed. The job was ruined now, of course, but damn if the clown didn’t know his business. The image of ‘Cosmo’ marching into the police station to swear out a statement against him, corroborated by Lord Cluckington, was hilarious.

“Go ahead,” he said. “I’m sure they’ll listen to the likes of you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t tell them,” said Cosmo. “Lord Cluckington would! He is a very respected person, as you must know. The police will believe everything he says.”

“I just bet they will,” laughed Frank.

Lord Cluckington opened his beak, and a perfect recording of Frank repeated, “I just bet they will.”

For a moment, Frank Catelli froze. He slowly realized just what his position had become. He raised the gun, but Cosmo was too quick. Lord Cluckington shot forward and hit him full in the face. The puppet, as it turned out, didn’t only have a recording device, but also a metal frame.

When Frank Catelli came to, it was to the sight of flashing red and blue lights, his own hands tied to the wheel. Little Georgie was in the arms of his mother, who was talking to the police. Nora Eckhart was already in the back of a squad car, looking dazed. And right in front of him, two detectives were looking over a pile of documents and tapes that appeared to have been left on the hood of his car in a brightly wrapped package.

WALL-E at the Federalist

For the ten-year anniversary of one of my favorite films.

The film is often described as an environmental parable, or a caution against consumerism. Those things are present, but they are subordinate themes. The main thesis of the film is something much more universal, interesting, and timely. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously said in “The Idiot” that “beauty will save the world.” In its own quirky little way, that is the central idea of “WALL-E.”

Little WALL-E has a great appreciation for beauty, as demonstrated in his introductory scenes, and when EVE appears on Earth he almost immediately falls in love with her. Beauty inspires love. His love for her leads him to try to care for her when she shuts down, then to follow when her spaceship returns to take her back. Love carries a sense of obligation and duty, and the courage and senseless determination to carry it out. Because he loves, he will do and face anything for the sake of his beloved.

This same pattern plays out with the captain of the Axiom, the ship where the human race “enjoys” endless leisure in an almost comatose indifference. He is at first merely curious about the strange substance called “dirt” that WALL-E brought into his chambers, and has the computer analyze it. Then, on seeing images of the Earth in its heyday, he is awed by its beauty and falls in love with the planet.

When he discovers what it has become, he realizes that he has a responsibility to his home. This sense of duty gives him the courage to stand up to the autopilot and at last take control of his own destiny. So, beauty saves the world because it inspires love, which in turn inspires duty, and with it the courage to carry it out.

Read the rest here

An Appeal

Hello everyone. For the first time I’m making an open appeal to readers for help. I have a book in the works, which is approaching the end of its editing process. I’m hoping to publish it soon, but there’s only one problem: I don’t have a cover. You can’t sell a book without a cover; that’s what people judge them by.

So I am putting out an appeal to any readers who are artists or who can put me into contact with artists who would be interested in a commission job.

I have an idea of what I want in terms of the actual image and lay out, but stylistically I’m looking for something rather after the fashion of the following:





I.e. Stylistic, stark colors and shapes, and heavy shadows.

If you are interested, or know of anyone who might be, leave a comment below.

Thanks everyone!

UPDATE: That was fast. Found someone and we’re negotiating price / concepts. Thanks everyone!

The Wisdom of Walt Disney Relaunch!

Today we’re announcing the relaunch of my essay collection The Wisdom of Walt Disney: The Themes, Ethics, and Ideas of His Greatest Films. In it I take a closer look at twelve of Uncle Walt’s most important films to dig out the morals and ideas woven into the story: essentially, considering the films as examples of wisdom literature.

In it you’ll find things like why Pinocchio turns into a donkey, how Bambi relates to the experience of war, and why Song of the South is such an important film.

This relaunch features optimized formatting for a more streamlined reading experience, an interactive table of contents, and a new low price. If you’re a Disney fan, or want to develop a deeper appreciation of one of the twentieth century’s greatest storytellers, pick up your copy today!

Thrilling Adventure Stories Presents: The Lepus in ‘Road Work’

Author Note: The characters and setting of this story is one that I’ve been working on for years, and whipped this one up mostly as a fun means of practicing their voices and interactions. I present it for your consideration, with a request for feedback, especially as to the characters themselves. 


Not far from the small town of Mineral Springs, Colorado, a side-road ran down to a little wilderness beside a mountain stream. Picnickers, hikers, and young couples often came down to this little spot in fine weather to enjoy the view, the clean air, and the music of the water as it ran over its stony bed.

On one cloudy morning in August, when the weather was too hot for most people to be out there, you nevertheless would have found, had you gone down that road, a battered old camping van and two teenage boys sitting out in the oppressive heat.

One of the two, a long-limbed, gawky boy with curly brown hair and somewhat quizzical face, sat on a folding lawn chair reading under the shade of a tree. His friend, a skinny, freckled youth of average height and with eyes so dark they appeared uniformly black, stood by the side of the stream, throwing rocks across it. The stream was good fifteen feet across, and what was more he was aiming for a tree that stood an extra twenty or thirty feet back from the river’s edge. Yet the hefty stones with which he practiced more often than not soared straight past the tree, or else struck it with a crack that proclaimed they had considerably more travel time in them had they not been stopped.

“I definitely prefer this kind of environment,” said Harry Davila without looking up from his book. “I think close contact with real substances is much healthier for people than constantly dealing with manmade ones. You know; real stone, real wood, unprocessed water, that sort of thing, as opposed to metal or plastic. I suspect that’s one of the reasons cities are so full of crazy people.”

“If you say so,” said Adam Richard, weighing another stone. He sent it hurtling across the stream, where it struck the tree with a resounding crack.

“Missed,” he muttered.

“You did? What are you aiming at?” Harry asked, looking up.

“That knot in the trunk; you see it?”

Harry leaned forward, squinting across the stream.


“Oh. Well, I can, and I’m trying to hit it,” said Adam. “I got it on my first try, but I can’t get it again.”

“It’s usually that way,” said Harry, leaning back and returning to his book. “First time is just pure instinct, then you start overthinking it and miss.”

“Hm, that’s first time I’ve been accused of overthinking anything,” said Adam. He threw another stone, which missed the tree entirely. He made an oddly high-pitched sound of frustration, then scratched his mousy brown hair irritably.

“It’s so hot,” he said. “Think I can take the wig off? There’s no one around.”

“Di’ll flip if she comes back and sees you letting your ears fly free,” Harry reminded him.

That was too true to argue with. Their friend, Diana Watson, was the conscientious one of the trio. She was also the most irritable, and though that could be fun, Adam decided it wasn’t worth it in this case. She’d gone into town for supplies, insisting on going alone as the other two had a tendency to buy a lot of junk food, but she would be back soon.

“Oh, speak of the devil,” said Adam, his nose twitching. “Here she comes!”

He grinned and leapt about ten feet high and thirty-odd long, landed behind the camper, then repeated the feat several more times, soaring through the pines until he landed beside the main road, where Diana was puffing along with three heavy bags full of groceries and other necessities.

“Hi, there,” said Adam as he landed beside her. “Need a hand?”

Diana jumped slightly at his appearance.

“What are you doing?!” she snapped in a low voice, looking around. “You’re supposed to be keeping a low profile! What if someone saw you?”

“No one around but you,” said Adam, tapping his nose. “I can smell it.”

“Okay, but what if a car happened to be passing by, and…”

Adam tapped his ears, which were hidden under convincingly human facsimiles that were part of his wig.

“What’s the good of having all the powers of a rabbit if I let young ladies carry their own groceries?” he said, relieving her of the bags.

“And what’s the good if trying to stay hidden if you go jumping around a public road?” she answered.

Adam looked at her, smiling a little. Diana had untidy gold-red hair, heavily tanned skin, turquoise eyes behind square glasses, and was wearing dirty overalls, a work shirt, and a perpetual scowl. In his seventeen years of life and their recent travels across the country, he had yet to see anyone better worth looking at.

“You know,” he said. “If we really wanted to keep a low profile, we should have sent someone less likely to attract attention into town. You know, like Valerie Blake in a bikini.”

Her eyes flashed indignantly. Talking about her beauty was one of the surest ways to annoy Diana, so Adam made a point to do it every day.

“Oh, don’t start that!” she snapped. “And who’s Valerie Blake?”

“Uh, the actress?” said Adam. “The insanely gorgeous actress? She was huge in the fifties and sixties. At least in certain strategic areas.”

Shifting the bags to one hand, he traced an hourglass with the other.

“We gotta get you cultured,” he said as they turned down the side road.

“Says the boy talking about the breast size of a woman who must be in her sixties by now.”

“Hey, once a beauty, always a beauty, as you yourself will learn one day.”

Her scowl became more pronounced.

“I don’t think that’s true at all,” she said.

“Oh, don’t talk like that!” he said with faux concern. “Things may look bad now, but I’m sure we’ll all live to a ripe old age, whatever the Brotherhood or the government tries to do.”

“That’s not what I…” she threw up her hands in exasperation. “God, you are so immature!”

“Green as a bean,” Adam agreed. “Speaking of which, did you get beans?”

“Yes,” she said. “I got everything on the list, plus a few cans of beef soup for Harry and me.”

“You know, I kind of miss meat,” said Adam sadly. “It used to taste so good, and I used to have good taste. Though I suppose I still would if anyone cared to stew me up and serve me with red wine.”

Diana, as often happened, had to take a moment to untangle his stream of ideas. She was a certified genius when it came to mechanics, to the point that she had attended MIT by the time she was sixteen, but word play was outside of her range of expertise.

“You are disgusting,” she said, though Adam had seen the corner of her mouth twitch.

“Hey, Di,” said Harry without looking up as they approached the camper. “How was town?”

“Hot,” she said. “How was doing nothing?”

“Cool,” he answered. “And I wasn’t doing nothing; I was contemplating reality. I was saying to Adam that I think places like this, with constant contact with real substances like stone and wood and so forth is really much healthier for the human soul than when you’re surrounded by artificial substances like glass and metal.”

“I don’t think it makes a difference,” she said, flopping down into a lawn chair and gratefully accepting a glass of water from him. “Fundamentally, it’s all atoms anyway.”

“Ah, but that’s not the fundamental substance,” said Harry. “It’s the stone that is the reality…”

The usual debate between Harry – who read philosophy – and Diana – who was an engineering prodigy – was this time cut short when the phone in the camper rang.

“Oh, what does he want now?” Diana sighed.

The camper had been a gift (or what he called an ‘investment in word of mouth’) by their good friend, C. Honesty Martini; a travelling salesman who seemed to have more and more unusual connections than anyone in his job ought to. The camper phone was, as far as they knew, only linked to him.

“Hey, kids!” he said over the speaker. “How’re my three favorite customers?”

“We’re doing okay, Martini,” said Adam before either of his more cynical companions could answer. “What’s up?”

“You, uh, you don’t happen to be anywhere near Lamar, Colorado, do yah?”

Adam looked at Harry.

“About two hour’s drive,” he answered. “As if you didn’t know exactly where we were.”

“Oh, now that’s hurtful! Listen, I just got word from one of my buddies in WEFUA…”

“’Wefua?’” Diana repeated dubiously.

“The official government ‘We Fouled Up Agency,’” he answered.

“That’s not a real thing,” said Harry.

“Sure it is!” said Martini. “It’s just not the real acronym, but it is more accurate and, you know, technically none of us are supposed to know about it.”

“Where have we heard that before?” said Adam.

“Well, anyway, the point is that it seems a truck carrying a, uh, certain chemical got hijacked not so long ago, and last report is they’re probably heading in your direction on the way to Colorado Springs.”

The three friends looked at each other.

“What kind of chemical?” Diana asked.

“The ‘lots of people die’ kind,” said Martini. “What I haven’t mentioned yet is that the hijackers were your old friends the Brotherhood of Alecto. I think you know what they’ll do with it.”

Adam shuddered. The Brotherhood were a conspiracy of intellectual fanatics who believed that society was doomed to collapse and that the best thing they could do was hasten its fall. Them having poison gas and heading for Colorado Springs was a recipe for disaster; one that they could blame on the government, thereby not only killing a lot of people, but fostering unrest and dissent. Exactly the kind of thing they liked best.

Harry, however, was frowning.

“Martini, are you completely sure that’s what’s going on? I mean, you’re not going to accidentally send us to attack an Army convoy, are you?”

“Now, come on!” said Martini with a hurt tone in his voice. “Kid, has Martini ever been wrong yet?”

“We have no way of knowing that,” Harry answered.

“Well, the answer’s no,” said Martini, with a trace of irritation. “So, if you’re not too busy, please go relieve the Brotherhood of that death truck before it hurts anyone?”

“And the reason you’re not going to the government with this information is…” Harry asked.

“Working on it, but you know I am just a salesman from Brooklyn; I don’t exactly have the ear of the President, kid.”

“We’ll take care of it,” said Adam. “Let you know when we’re done…”

“Or when we’re dead,” Harry put in.

“Oh, come on, Harry!” Adam said. “I was just telling Di how she’d live to a ripe old age!”

“And how would we let him know if we were dead?” Diana asked.

“Oh, trust me; there are ways,” said Harry with an evil grin.

“You can tell us about it on the way,” said Adam. “Meanwhile, let’s suit up!”


The scenic overlook gave a glorious view of the highway as it snaked its way back and forth up the slopes of the Rockies on its way to Colorado Springs. The camper was parked near the top of the pass, and three friends stood peering down over the miles and miles of road below. Adam and Harry were looking through binoculars, but the helmet on Diana’s ‘Daedalus Project’ included a built-in zoom function.

“I see it,” she said. “There’s the truck, and three escort Humvees; one in front, two in back.”

Adam turned his binoculars in the direction she indicated.

“Got ‘em,” he said. “Probably some pretty decent firepower in there, though I don’t suppose the Brotherhood has the manpower the Army would have; it’s probably mostly for show.”

“If they don’t have the manpower, how did they hijack it?” Harry asked.

“I suppose we’ll find that out,” said Adam. “Though, I suppose before we start kicking and punching people, we should just make doubly sure Martini isn’t wrong this time.”

“I don’t see why,” said Harry “It’s not like the government can be much angrier at us after we blew up Fort Ovid.”

“Yeah, but I’d really rather not actually be what they accuse me of being,” Adam replied. He pulled his brown cowl over the top of his face and rotated his long, furry ears. If nothing else, it felt good to get them into the fresh air. He double-checked the blunt claws on his hands and feet and thumped the ground once or twice. His ‘costume consisted of the cowl that covered the top of his face and a simple brown jumpsuit that left his hands and feet bare so as to utilize his claws.

“The Lepus is ready,” he said. “How about you, Garuda?”

Diana stood erect. The Daedalus Project consisted of an integrated system of servo-powered gauntlets of a light, strong metal, gas-jet boots of the same, the face-concealing helmet, and, most striking of all, great metal wings that sprouted from the armored back and shoulders. Beneath it she wore a form-fitting outfit of crimson leather that left her midriff bare for ventilation. All of this had been her own design and creation, utilizing technology she herself had invented.

“Garuda ready,” she said.

Harry, who wore a simple mask, such as might be found in a masquerade ball back in the nineteenth century, double-checked his wrist-communicator, of which Martini had provided all three of them for one low, low price (“Guaranteed clear sound and impossible to hack”).

“Aristo ready,” he said.

“All right; let’s go be good guys!” said Lepus. He climbed onto Garuda’s back, holding tight to the handles. She fired the gas jets in her boots, launching them into the air, where her wings carried them aloft with powerful beats. The climbed higher and higher, almost to the cloud level before Garuda banked out and began soaring in the direction of the convoy.

“Drop me off on the truck,” he said. “I’m just gonna make sure…”

Garuda nodded and began her dive. They had practiced this maneuver many times. It probably would have been suicide for a normal man, but for the Lepus, with his muscles and reaction times Enhanced by rabbit DNA, it was perfectly safe, just a little tricky to time correctly.

Garuda dove on a straight path for the truck, her brilliant mind calculating the angle of interception almost without conscious thought. Then, just as they were about thirty feet overhead, she suddenly spread her wings and swept up in a steep arc. And just at the bottom of the arc, as they passed directly over the truck, the Lepus let go of her back, turned a summersault, and landed neatly on the roof of the cab.

He didn’t waste a moment, but almost before he’d fully landed he caught the edge of the roof, swung himself onto the running board, and opened the passenger side door.

“Hi, there,” he said, leaning in and smiling at the driver, who was in army uniform. “This may sound like a strange question, but are you really with the U.S. Military?”

He had no sooner finished speaking than a long, black, hair-lined leg shot out from the man’s back and whacked him with the force of a sledgehammer. The Lepus yelled in surprise and just managed to hang onto the door, which swung outward with him clinging precariously to the edge.

“So, that’s a no, then,” he commented as he flung himself from the door to the hood just before two of the bio-mechanical spider legs reached out and tore it off.

“Lepus? What was that?” Garuda demanded. “What happened?”

“Martini’s never been wrong yet,” he answered dryly as all four of the driver’s telescoping spider legs reached out of the cab for him.

“Should you really be driving, Arachnus?” Lepus asked him conversationally as he ducked under one leg. “I mean,” he caught another and used it to swing himself over a third. “What’s you’re vision rating?” A complicated mid-air twist to avoid two at once. “Five–five–five–ten–ten?”

Arachnus’s five red eyes glared at him, but he said nothing, of course. He wasn’t a talker.

Dodging four biomechanical spider-legs, each one capable of shooting a sticky, web-like substance or impaling him straight through, was obviously a no-win scenario. Lepus sprang off the hood just as one of the legs sought to hit him with its webbing. The webbing only pinned one of the other legs to the hood, while the Lepus soared in a high arc and landed on the back of the tanker trailer itself.

Behind him, the men in the pursuing jeeps had not missed what was happening. The first jeep swerved left, and a man leaned out of the window, a rifle in hand, aiming at the Lepus.

Before he could open fire, Garuda swept down like a bolt of lightning, hit the road in front of the jeep, and swept out her wing. There was no time for the driver to even attempt to avoid it. As the jeep flew past her, the razor-sharp edge of her wing sliced into the side of the vehicle, tearing apart the tires and ripping into the undercarriage. The jeep, running suddenly on two bald tires, jerked violently left, flipped and rolled several times before crashing up against the guard rail on its side.

But even before it had begun its spin, Garuda had to fling up her wing to guard against the barrage of automatic rifle fire coming from the rear jeep as it zoomed past. She fired her gas jets, launching herself into the air, still shielding her vulnerable body with her metal wings as she turned a summersault over the cliff and out of sight, where she finally spread her wings and soared back into the air to rejoin the chase.

As she did so, Garuda saw that the men in the jeep had put away the rifle. Instead, one of them rose out of an opening in the roof carrying a belt-fed machine gun: a weapon that her wings had never had to block before, and which she doubted they would be up to. She banked hard as the man braced the bipod on the roof and opened fire.

Just as he did so, however, the Lepus suddenly landed on the roof of the jeep, caught the gun barrel and shoved it downward. As the weapon was no longer braced on his shoulder, the recoil jerked it violently back and into the man’s face. Lepus then snatched the machine gun out of his hand and chucked it onto the road in front of the jeep, which rocked as it ran over it.

Before the gunner had quite realized what had happened, the Lepus seized him by the back of his shirt, pulled him out of the jeep and tossed him onto the road. That would hurt him, but he figured the guy would survive, as they weren’t going too fast: only about forty miles an hour. This done, he hopped down the hole himself into the back seat. It was then he saw that there were two in the car; the driver and another man in the passenger seat. The latter was already drawing a pistol. As he brought it to bear, the Lepus kicked it upwards, sending the gun rebounding against the roof and probably shattering the man’s hand in the process.

“Back seat driving!” Lepus declared as he leaned forward, seized the driver’s head, and slammed it into the wheel, resulting in a quick honk of the horn and the car skidding and sliding back and forth as though trying to evade enemy fire.

“Ooh, what’s this do?” Lepus seized what he was pretty sure was the emergency break and pulled. A truly terrible sound resulted as the brakes ground against the wheels, probably doing considerable damage to both.

Meanwhile, the man in the passenger seat, though with one hand shattered had yet one more with which to fight. With this he drew a large, wicked-looking knife and stabbed at the Lepus. But the latter’s rabbit-like senses had already detected the move before the weapon had even cleared the scabbard, and it was child’s play for him to catch the attack, turn it, and thrust the blade deep into the wiring under the steering column.

The driver, though dazed, still tried to slam his elbow in the Lepus’s face. Again, he easily caught the attack, dropped it, and punched the man in the side of the head, then reversed into an elbow for the passenger seat.

“You know, I don’t have a license, but I think you really should stop this car,” he said. Then, to make sure he got the message, Lepus braced himself on the two front seats, swung his legs up, and kicked the steering column with enough force to nearly dislodge it entirely. The jeep, now completely out of control and skidding on its brakes, slid straight in the guardrails, though not with enough force to go through them.

“Told you so,” said the Lepus, and leaving the two bruised and dazed men to the care of the airbags (only the passenger side had gone off properly, due to the bent steering column), he leapt straight up through the roof and, as he had expected from hearing her approach, caught the outstretched, gauntleted hands of Garuda.

“Two cars down,” he said as he swung up onto her back.

“But neither of them the one we need,” she said. “And I don’t think crashing it is the right strategy for something carrying thirty tons of poison gas.”

“No, I see your point,” said Lepus. “Aristo, any ideas?”

“Maybe,” came his voice over the wrist communicators “How strong is that tank?”

“Pretty strong if it’s carrying chemicals,” said Garuda.

“So, what happens if you just detach it from the truck?”

She considered.

“It’ll tip over for sure, but probably won’t break. Do you know how to uncouple a truck?”

“Doubt it,” Lepus answered.

“Well, there are a lot of safety procedures we’re going to have to ignore, but basically there’s a release lever under the trailer. Unhook it and pull it out, and tractor should be released; there are also a few wires between the cab and the trailer that you should remove first, because it’s going to be unstable enough as it is without them tugging it along.”

“Lever under the trailer,” said Lepus. “Got it.”

“I’ll keep Arachnus busy while you’re at it.”

“Just be careful; you know what he can do.”

“You be careful; you’re one trying to unhook a thirty-ton trailer while it’s in motion.”

She soared over the truck, and Lepus dropped behind the cab. He saw a pair of wires connecting the cab and the trailer. Garuda said to unhook them, so he grabbed them and just pulled. Hot air blew out of one of them, sparks flew from the other. He dropped them, leaving them to bounce against the ground dangerously close to the wheels. This done, he looked under the front of the trailer and saw what was probably the release lever, though in order to reach it he had to position himself almost completely under the trailer itself, not to mention that it seemed to have to be pulled to the side. Uncomfortably aware of the racing concrete mere feet from his face, the Lepus dug the claws of his left hand into the bottom of the truck bed and reached with his right to take hold of the lever.

It absolutely refused to budge. The pressure of the thirty-ton tank being pulled at forty miles an hour up the slope of a mountain made it absolutely immovable. He tugged repeatedly, but to no avail.

As soon as she had dropped off the Lepus, Garuda landed on the hood of the truck and swept her wing through the front of the cab, shattering the windshield and slicing through the frame. She would have sliced Arachnus’s head off had he not ducked, as she had expected him to do. He came up with one leg driving straight for her side. She blocked it, and a second shot a stream of web at her face, which her other wing caught. The acetylene torch in her gauntlet blazed to life and she sliced through the sticky substance before he could pull her off the truck.

Two more legs swept out, and Garuda fired her jets to fly above them, beat her wings to flip herself over and land on the roof of the cab, which, having had the frame severed, sagged under her weight.

Arachnus sent two legs up even as she landed, catching her under her wings and tossing her back into the air. She steadied herself with a heavy beat, but streams of web shot out from both legs, snagging the wings. She fired the torches in both gauntlets and burned through the web, then banked hard to avoid another shot.

Meanwhile, Arachnus’s lower two legs twisted around the cab and stabbed at the Lepus, who had just managed to make the lever budge slightly before he was forced to release it to roll out of the way of the leg that stabbed down into the truck bed. He caught the other as it thrust at it and used it to leverage himself up, then kicked the first, leaving the end limp and broken, but that wasn’t enough to stop it from whacking him straight up into the air, where Garuda caught him under the shoulders and flew him out of range of Arachnus.

“That didn’t work,” he commented, watching as the working legs sprayed their sticky webbing over the coupling, ensuring the release lever would be even more soundly stuck in place. “But at least I cut those wires you told me to.”

“That just means the trailer has no brakes now,” she answered.

“Oh, well, that seems short-sighted,” he said in a disappointed tone as he swung up onto her back. “You mean now we can’t either uncouple it or stop it?”

“It’s not my fault!” she snapped. “That just the way these things are built!”

“Hey, guys?” said Aristo. “Just so you know, at this rate you’ll be over Colorado Springs in about five minutes, so maybe stop them sooner rather than later?”

“Yeah, we’re working on that,” said Lepus. “Sort of a two steps forward, three steps back kind of thing…”

He paused, suddenly eying the front jeep, then the truck.

“Hold on,” he said. “I think I’ve got an idea. A good one this time!”

“I told you…”

“Garuda, you uncouple the trailer; you’ve got the torches, you can just melt the darn thing, right?”

“I guess, but what about…?”

“I’ll take care of itsy-bitsy, but first drop me off in the at front car.”

“I don’t get it,” she said, putting on speed to catch up to the jeep.

“You’ll see; just wait for the signal.”

With that, he rolled off of her back and dropped onto the jeep even as she called after him, “What signal?!”

He landed square on the roof, then, hearing the commotion inside, caught the luggage rack, swung himself out of the way of the bullets tearing through the roof, and kicked through the rear passenger window.

“Hi, don’t mind me,” he said as the man in the front seat aimed a pistol at him and he batted it aside, laying open the man’s hand with his claws. Another passenger had been dazed by his entrance and Lepus quickly elbowed him to ensure he stayed that way. “I’m just picking up something…”

He pulled himself over the back seat into the trunk, where several heavy steel boxes were waiting with ammo, weapons, and so on. He began to quickly rummage through these, ignoring the shouting and scrambling men in the front of the vehicle. Hearing the driver reach for his own pistol, Lepus chucked a box of 7.62 rounds at him, hitting him square in the forehead, and resumed his search.

“Eureka!” he exclaimed, finding what he sought. He pocketed it, pulled himself back through the rear seats and leaned into the front past the dazed driver.

“Here, I know a shortcut…” he said, grabbing the wheel and spinning it sharply to the right. The jeep swerved violently and drove straight for the ditch that ran along the highway. Before it could impact, Lepus kicked open the rear door and jumped out, leaving the Brotherhood men to plow unceremoniously off the road.

Lepus hit the ground running just as the truck barreled past him. Fort miles an hour was nothing to the Lepus; he matched the truck’s speed, then passed it, his long, clawed, powerful feet tearing across the asphalt. He jumped and caught the side of the hood, then swung himself on top of it to face the driver.

Arachnus was clearly furious; his lips were parted and his glistening black mandibles were deployed. He thrust a leg at the Lepus, who ducked, then jumped the next attack, caught the upper leg, and used it to swing himself into the cab.

“Pull over; we need to check your brake lights.”

Arachnus drove another leg directly at Lepus’s face, but this time Lepus caught it, bent it, and as the sticky web squirted from the end it stuck something to the dashboard: something Lepus had just produced from his pocket.

“Cry baby, cry,” he said, as he pulled the pin out of the tear gas grenade and pulled himself up onto the roof of the cab before leaping back onto the trailer. A second later, there was bang, and the entire cab was filled with choking white smoke.

Garuda, seeing this, swung low and landed on the truck bed before the trailer.

“That was the signal?” she asked as she bent down and started work on the coupling.

“Obviously,” Lepus answered.

“And it was really that hard to just say ‘wait till the gas grenade goes off’?”

“I consider alliteration appallingly unprofessional,” Lepus answered. “Look out!”

Arachnus had left the cab and now stood over it on his lower two spider-legs. His five eyes were milky and clouded, and he seemed to be having trouble breathing, but all that just made him more enraged. His two upper legs drove down at Garuda, and Lepus jumped at them, gathering them both in his arms and swinging them out to the side of the truck as if they were vines, pulling Arachnus around with him and nearly upsetting the cyborg’s balance.

It was as he did this that the Lepus’s keen senses noticed two things. First that the steering wheel had been webbed into place. Second, that they were rapidly running out of road.

“Okay,” he said into his wrist communicator. “We’re heading for a hair-pin turn with no one at the wheel.”

“And no brakes either!” Garuda reminded him.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” said Aristo in a resigned voice.

Before Lepus could respond or suggest a solution, Arachnus suddenly swung his legs back the opposite direction, and Lepus now found himself being flung through the air like a rock from a sling. He hit the road, rolled to his feet, and raced after the truck as fast as he could go, which was considerably faster than the truck, but not quite fast enough.

Arachnus drew both legs back, aiming at Garuda, who was furiously trying to cut the trailer free. In a moment he would either knock her off the truck, or stab her, or web her to the truck bed, any one of which would certainly result in the truck crashing and releasing the chemicals, not to mention probably kill her.

Without breaking stride, the Lepus swept a good-sized rock from the side of the road and without pausing to think or aim flung it at Arachnus. It hit him square in the face, knocking him backwards and out of sight.

Then, even as he caught up with the truck, the trailer suddenly came loose. It dropped forward onto the road, missing Garuda by feet, and sending up a shower of sparks and shattering asphalt as it skidded and turned. The Lepus sprang onto the roof, Garuda launched herself into the air, braced her feet against it and beat her wings as hard as she could, trying to slow it down, to steady it, but it was far too heavy for them to have much effect. It slowed, turned, and tipped onto its side with a crash.

Meanwhile, the truck continued to charge forward. They saw Arachnus, who had somehow managed to hold on, rising over the roof and the smoke, glaring back at them…then he seemed to realize his position and turned just in time to see himself and the truck crashed through the barrier and fly out off the cliff.

Garuda and the Lepus both let out sighs of relief as the found themselves finally standing still.

“We all safe and intact?” the Lepus asked.

Garuda scanned the tanker with her visor.

“Looks like it,” she said. “I’m not detecting any leakage.”

“That’s good to know, but I meant you.”

“Of course I’m alright,” she said with a slightly defensive air.

The Lepus smiled and turned to his communicator.

“Hey, Aristo? All clear here. Best call WEFUA and let them know their poison gas is waiting for them to pick it up.”

“I’ll try the State Troopers; they can pass the message along,” Aristo answered. “Everyone still have all their parts?”

The Lepus felt his ears.

“I do, and Garuda’s parts look as good as ever.”

“Excuse me?!”

“I meant your wings,” Lepus said.

“No, you didn’t,” said Aristo. “You guys heading back?”

“Probably best we keep an eye on it until the coppers arrive,” said Lepus. “You know, we did leave a lot of Brotherhood folk along the way, and it’d be embarrassing to do all that work and then just have them walk up and open it when our backs were turned.”

“Right. See you later,” said Aristo.

The Lepus and Garuda sat down together on top of the overturned tanker full of poison gas, resting their feet on what had been the top catwalk and enjoying the moment’s peace. Diana lifted her visor, her face shining with sweat, and Adam looked at her a moment, smiling.

“Not a bad day’s work,” he said. “Great job cutting this thing through, by the way.”

“Thanks,” she said. “And that was a good throw.”

“Wasn’t it?” he said. “I think I’ve got a gift: maybe I should try out for the Majors.”

She rolled her eyes.

“You’d have to not be a wanted fugitive for that,” she said.

“Yeah, I suppose,” he said. “Plus there’s a prejudice against rabbits.”


“Goes way back,” he said. “See, in the nineteen twenties, the Yankees tried to field a jackrabbit as shortstop. Thing was, it always could catch the ball, but then it just sat there and chewed it. Of course, that wasn’t the reason they dropped it from the team; the real problem came when they signed Kyle “Carrottop” McGraph as Third Baseman. Turns out jackrabbits don’t quite get the ‘nickname’ thing.”

Diana’s serious façade suddenly collapsed in a fit of laughter.

“You are such an idiot!” she gasped, and her voice suddenly held a distinctly Texan twang.

Adam laughed along with her, less at his own joke than in enjoyment of seeing the way her smile illuminated her already beautiful face.

That completes my to do list, he thought. Beat the bad guys, and make Di laugh. That’s what I call a good day.