DECODER RING THEATRE FREE FICTION PREVIEW ON ALL PULP!
Mitch Reynard stared out into the blackness and blinked hard. Four hours of this. It was too much. He shook his head a little to persuade his eyes to stay focused and stamped his feet to fight the chill of the damp spring air. He felt inside his coat for a cigarette. As he fumbled with the lining of his torn pocket, his fingers brushed against the cold steel of the .38 revolver he wore on his shoulder. For a moment he remembered that he had a job to do. Like a truant schoolboy, his eyes turned back to the weary blackness that surrounded him.
He pressed the cigarette between thin, dry lips and felt for his matches. Nothing. He was sure that he’d had half a book. His eyes turned again to the void. He took six steps forward and looked over the edge of the roof he stood upon. He could barely see the walls of the warehouse below him, but he could hear the soft scuff of the men at the front door as they struggled to keep their watch. He could see the orange glow of their cigarettes as they paced. Reynard almost called to them, but six stories below they wouldn’t be of much use to him, and they could no more leave their posts than he could his. He turned back in towards the rooftop. To his left, he thought he could almost make out Jake on the corner of the roof with his Thompson. Or maybe he just thought he could. It didn’t matter – he’d be there all right, and he’d have a light.
Reynard turned out to face the night. Nothing. He decided that this was pointless. Night after night, watching for something that didn’t come. Tonight he wouldn’t have even been able to see it if he’d known what he was looking for.
“No sense being a hero,” he thought, and smiled at the irony.
He turned and made his way carefully across the rooftop to the corner where he knew Jake stood waiting. Waiting and watching. He’d gone fifteen feet before he was sure he could just make out the shape of Jake’s light colored raincoat. Another twenty feet and Reynard could see him, outlined in black and white like a picture show. He began to wonder at what distance it would be safe to call out to the waiting gunman. Didn’t want to surprise him. Jake didn’t much like surprises. Reynard heard a sudden noise behind him. His blood froze in his veins, and for just a moment, he had no idea what to do. He heard another footfall gently brush against the stones that covered the roof, closer this time. Reynard’s instincts took over. His right arm reached across his body as he turned and then straightened, .38 in hand. He heard a familiar voice hiss,
“Reynard! Reynard, what in blazes do you think you’re playing at?”
Reynard sighed. It was Malcolm, the boss’ right-hand. He could just see him striding forward through the darkness. Malcolm was afraid of nothing.
“Reynard! You’re not at your post!” hissed Malcolm.
“Geez, Mister Malcolm, I was just gonna get a match off Jake.”
Malcolm was close enough to be seen clearly now. Reynard could see the bigger man’s immaculately pressed grey suit and the scowl of contempt he always seemed to wear. He could smell Malcolm’s expensive cigar and more expensive hair tonic. Yes, sir. Malcolm was doing all right, that was for sure. He’d been old man Sclareli’s toughest soldier before he was put away, and his nephew’s loyal lieutenant since that dark day. Young Vic Sclareli was the boss, but Malcolm knew where all the bodies were buried, and how to dispose of another one if the need arose.
“Mister Sclareli doesn’t pay you to make social calls, Reynard.” There was menace in the gravel of that voice.
“Honest, Mister Malcolm.” Reynard was sweating now, in spite of the cold. “Lookit,” he said, pointing toward the unlit cigarette still stuck to his dry lips.
Malcolm held his eyes for a moment as best he could in the blackness. Finally, Reynard was sure he saw him smile. Reynard swallowed hard to persuade his heart to go back down his throat. A light sparked as Malcolm struck a match and lit Reynard’s cigarette. The smoke burned Reynard’s lungs and watered his eyes, but he smiled in relief.
“Thanks. Thanks, Mister Malcolm.”
“Keep the book, Mitch,” Malcolm said, pressing it into Reynard’s hand. “We can’t afford any slip-ups.”
“Geez, Mister Malcolm, I don’t mean anything by it, but how much longer are we supposed to keep this up? It’s been two weeks now, holed up like rats in a cage.”
Malcolm’s eyebrow arched. “A very tastefully appointed cage, Reynard.”
“Inside, sure it is,” chirped Reynard, feeling bolder now, “but from out here it’s just a big old warehouse. We don’t even know what we’re watching for.”
“Let’s hope you know it when you see it, Mitch,” said Malcolm, turning away. “For your sake.”
Malcolm stalked back towards the door that led in from the roof to the Sclareli mob’s headquarters – a hideout that had become a fortress. The half-open door cast a red glow against the blackness, thirty, maybe forty feet away. Reynard slipped the book of matches into his pocket. He’d need most of these before dawn. He didn’t understand this. He didn’t understand why they were hiding. They were hunters, not prey. They should be fighting back.
He started to return to his post. He turned and glanced back to Jake on the corner. Good old Jake – never asked questions, never left his post. Except…
Jake was gone.
Reynard froze and looked around. It was still too pitch black to see far, but the black and white outline of the man with the Thompson was nowhere to be found. He took two quick steps in that direction then stopped hard, like a dog yanked by a leash. If Malcolm was watching…
“Mister Malcolm!” hissed Reynard, as loud as he dared. “Mister Malcolm, it’s Jake.” The red glow of the half-open door still hung in the air, but there wasn’t a sound.
Nothing. Like most men that pursued his line of work, Mitch Reynard was a coward. Able enough in a group, or when told what to do, but one way or another the equation was always balanced by fear. After another moment, he realized what Sclareli would do to him if he let an unwelcome visitor slip past him. That tore it. He was more afraid of the boss than Malcolm.
Reynard pulled his .38 again and raced across the rooftop, stumbling in the darkness. As he picked himself up, he turned. The glow of the open door seemed very far away now. It actually seemed to be getting darker. Cautiously, he felt his way forward until he found the low wall that surrounded the edge of the roof. He groped further into the darkness, his tongue dry and heavy in his mouth as he called in a hoarse whisper,
“Jake! Jake? Where are you?”
Reynard’s right hand found the point where the north and east walls met. He turned in towards the roof, feeling with his outstretched hand as he instinctively lowered himself down to the surface of the roof. His eyes could just make out something…
Jake’s battered pork-pie hat, lying on the ground beside a still-smoldering cigar. But no Jake. Reynard scrambled to his feet and heard the clatter of something metallic. He bent forward again and came up with Jake’s Thompson. Reynard’s heart sank.
At that moment, a faint sound carried through the blackness. The beginnings of triumphant laughter, like a far-off song in a haunting minor key, taunting him. Reynard felt the chill of doom grip his heart. He had heard that sound before. At that moment, there was a clatter from across the roof, and the red glow abruptly disappeared. The door was shut. That laughter was inside the Sclareli headquarters. Reynard raced towards the door, shouting,
“He’s inside! He’s inside! Everybody–” Reynard was cut off as he tripped over something lying in the darkness and fell, hard. He turned in a rage. It was Malcolm, dead or out cold, Reynard couldn’t tell. No one was responding to his cries. There was no movement or sound on the rooftop. Reynard knew he was alone. The others had been taken, one by one. He’d only been spared because he wasn’t at his post.
He gripped the Thompson hard and raced towards the door. He found it by the sounds of a struggle from within, and then gunshots, a dozen or more. That gave the alarm. Reynard could hear his confederates on the ground converging on the front door. Reynard waited. Perhaps it was all over.
But then he heard the laugh again. Louder now, and with a crueler, mocking tone. Reynard stood with his hand on the doorknob, his whole body shaking. Few had heard that sound so close for so long. It was more than just laughter; it was a battle cry. There was mirth in the laugh, a kind of reckless joy.
“Oh, God,” Reynard whispered to himself, forgetting that he had long ago forsaken the right to any aid from that corner. He gripped the doorknob harder, unable to force his body forward. Unable to find the strength of will. Alone on that roof, the sounds of titanic struggle beyond the door. And always that laughter. It couldn’t have been more than a few seconds, but to Mitch Reynard, it was an eternity.
From within, there was a sound like an explosion. He could feel the rush of air shaking the old wooden door. He waited a moment. No laughter. Maybe… just maybe.
Reynard turned the knob and raced through the door. He fell forward onto the high catwalk that ran around the top level of the warehouse Sclareli had converted for his headquarters. Reynard had known the place for a year. Neither he nor any other member of the gang had left it for the past two weeks. He would never have recognized it now. The great open chamber that was Vic Sclareli’s pride and joy was in ruins. The only light was from a fire burning near the main doors, evidently the explosive blast Reynard had heard had backfired. The lights flickered and sparked, but from the damage done to a power relay near the door, Reynard could tell there would be no help there. There was scattered gunfire from the lower levels as the remaining members of the Sclareli mob tried to organize their counterstrike. And everywhere there were bodies. They hadn’t been shot; Reynard couldn’t see any blood at all. He was taking them apart with his bare hands.
Suddenly, Reynard looked up, across the open expanse to the other side of the catwalk. There he was. Just a man. A man like any other. Reynard struggled to collect himself. If he could get a shot from here, he might have a–
Reynard’s thoughts came to a crashing halt as the frozen form sixty feet away sprang into motion. Reynard could see six of his confederates rush the man, and the casual ease with which he brushed them aside. The heads, arms, legs… all broken and bent as they were never meant to be. Six men. In a moment. In spite of himself, Reynard gasped.
The dark shape froze, like a wolf with the scent of blood in its nose, and turned in his direction. No. It was impossible. The man couldn’t have heard that sound. Not over the screams, the growing flames, the gunfire. And then the laughter began again.
The man raced towards the edge of the catwalk and threw himself over into oblivion. Red gauntlets thrust forward, fingertips extended to their furthest reach. Something seemed to propel him forward, pushing him away from the solid walls with such force that he barely fell an inch as he jumped. Impossible. It couldn’t be… no man could make that leap.
Half the distance between the site of the last battle and the catwalk where Reynard now stood there was a cross-beam, almost a full six stories in the air. The man reached it as if it had been easy. He gripped the beam with crimson gloved hands and propelled himself around it, seemingly oblivious to the blaze of gunfire from below. He spun himself around the beam with terrible speed and hurled himself into the air, feet first, towards the frozen form of Mitch Reynard.
It was easily the most incredible thing that Reynard had ever seen. The man stretched his arms behind his head, his hands reaching as if they worked invisible controls. Some force of great power seemed now to be pulling him by the feet, pulling him an impossible distance through the air. He actually overshot his mark, hitting the wall above the catwalk feet first and, with another sudden movement of his hands, staying there. He turned and looked right into Reynard’s soul with eyes that were blank, white and seemed to glow with an unearthly fury. And then he smiled.
Mitch felt weak in the knees as the man walked toward him, striding along the wall as smoothly as if he were walking flat upon the ground. Several stray bullets from floor level got his attention enough that he dropped to the catwalk. Reynard felt the cold steel of the Thompson in his clammy hands, but he couldn’t move. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t cry out to the world the terror that gripped him by the heart.
At last, there he stood, not three feet away, towering above Reynard. The long grey coat, the immaculate suit beneath and the grey fedora impossibly still perched on his head. The bright red gauntlets and domino mask. And those terrible eyes. It was him. The man that fifty gunmen had watched for and guarded against, and all in vain.
It was the Red Panda.
The right gauntlet thrust forward at unbelievable speed, gripping Reynard by the throat. The left hand lashed out in a crimson blur and sent the Thompson clattering to the floor. Reynard stared in disbelief at the cold, white eyes hovering behind the colorful mask. This… this thing couldn’t be human, could it? No one could do what he did. No living man could have eyes like that. He could feel his entire body shaking, but was powerless to make it stop. Beneath the mask, Reynard could see the smile playing about his tormentor’s face.
“You’re afraid, aren’t you, Mitch Reynard?” the masked man said quietly, in a voice like a far-off roll of thunder. Reynard started. It knew his name. Mitch Reynard: career criminal, multiple murderer, proud parasite upon the living city, soldier in the Sclareli mob. Despite himself, Mitch Reynard began to quietly sob. The creature of the night that suspended him above the floor in a vice-like grip made no effort to conceal his amusement.
“You fear the Red Panda, do you not?” came the voice again.
Mitch could only sputter and nod.
“As well you might. For you have much to answer for, Mitch Reynard.”
The weeping gangster became quieter, calmer, as the voice washed over him, smooth and even-toned. Reynard could feel something… a coldness…
“All who cause the innocent to suffer in the name of greed will be made to answer, Reynard.” The voice seemed so far away now.
…No, not cold… a… numbness… creeping tendrils of another mind in his…
“The Red Panda is coming to make you pay, Mitch Reynard.”
There were cries from below. The remnants of the Sclareli mob were getting organized for a last offensive – a final push up the stairs to finish off the masked intruder in their midst who had suddenly vanished.
“But I am not the Red Panda.”
Mitch could not bring himself to question this. Of course this was not the Red Panda.
“I am your trusted associate. Don’t you recognize me?”
Mitch smiled in warm relief. It was good to see a friendly face.
“But he is here. Dozens of him. Coming this way.”
The gangster’s brows furrowed in confusion for just a moment.
“He’s not just one man. He’s a small army. Can’t you hear them coming?”
Mitch could hear them. Hear them creeping up towards the catwalk. Of course – it all made sense now. No one man could have fought such a war on crime and the gangs of men who controlled it. No one man. An army. And they were here!
“They will take you, if you let them, Mitch Reynard. And they will make you pay. Pay for every wrong thing you have ever done, even the ones you think no one knows about. If you let them.” The voice felt closer now. Like a warm whisper in Reynard’s ear that fanned the almost extinguished fires of his courage. Reynard felt strong. Stronger than he had in years. The great gloved hand set him back upon his feet and patted him on the shoulder.
“You won’t let them, will you, Mitch?”
Reynard shook his head slowly, as if it took all of his concentration. He moved as one in a daze to his right and picked up the Thompson. At last he had the strength to use it. At last. He crept to the edge of the catwalk. There… just past the shadows… there was the Red Panda. Two of them. And there were more, coming from the left. And another, on the ground with a rifle. One of them suddenly looked up.
“Mitch!” called the masked man.
As Mitch Reynard opened fire, the roar of the submachine gun almost drowned out the ringing peals of laughter from somewhere far above.
Minutes later, as the sounds of furious battle continued, a small, lithe shape moved quietly through Vic Sclareli’s inner sanctum. The Red Panda watched from the shadows as it padded, almost silently, towards an oversized portrait of Vic’s uncle Tony, the founder of the Sclareli criminal empire who currently resided in a maximum security penitentiary for his trouble. Grey-gloved hands lifted the portrait down to reveal a wall safe behind. The hands set the painting on the floor, against the wall. For a moment, the garish colors served to highlight the silhouette of the cat burglar. It was a pleasant sort of a shape – female, athletic and yet softly curved. If the masked man took note of any of that, he gave no outward sign. Her gloved hands began to work the safe. The roar of gunfire in the outer chambers continued, muted though it was by the cork-lined walls of Sclareli’s office.
The Red Panda stepped forward from the shadows, gliding silently towards the intruder. With both stealth and speed he moved towards the girl. Again, the smile played upon his face. She could have no idea he was here.
“How am I supposed to crack this safe with you making that racket?” came a voice that was equal parts sass and laughter. “Or is that you being quiet?”
The Red Panda smiled ruefully. His partner either had remarkable hearing or that was a very lucky guess. He decided to presume the former.
“How are we doing?” he asked coldly.
“Not bad. Most of what we need is in a pile on the desk,” said the Flying Squirrel with a glance back and a smile. “I thought you were keeping them busy.”
“Don’t they sound busy?” came the reply as he pulled a folding satchel from the depths of his coat.
“Who’s the shooter?” the masked young woman at the safe asked casually.
“Mitch Reynard,” replied the Red Panda, as he quickly scanned the files his partner had selected before placing them into the satchel.
“Mitch Reynard? You big softie.” The Flying Squirrel’s voice was amused, but not disappointed. “He’s the worst shot in gangland. He’d be lucky to hit the broad side of a barn at ten paces.”
“It’s still safer in here,” he said, as he completed his task.
“And here I thought you just missed me,” she sighed as she turned the latch and opened the safe. “Are we interested in any cash or negotiables today?”
“I think we’re covered. Grab the ledger and burn the rest.”
“You rich boys don’t know the value of a dollar, do you?” There was a note of genuine disdain in her voice. He tried to think where he’d gone wrong. She turned her head in his direction, her steel grey cowl that blended perfectly into her catsuit turned to the side, waiting. He tried not to smile at the false ears on her cowl as they waggled at him slightly.
“All right, grab the ledger, burn the bonds and we’ll drop the cash off at St. Michael’s.” He was fairly sure she was after the Robin Hood play.
“That’s my Boss. He gets there in the end. Your ledger, sahib.” She handed him a thick black tome that, together with the other documents in the bag, spelled doom for Sclareli’s rackets.
“Good work, Squirrel. This should be the end of the Sclareli crime family once and for all.”
“Nothin’ personal, Boss, but we’ve said that before. Of course, if ‘dead shot’ Reynard has his way…” As if on cue, the roar of the machine gun stopped, leaving only an echo in its wake. They exchanged a look. Without a word, she grabbed the last stack of bills and thrust it into her own satchel as he produced a small, round device from the folds of his coat. He depressed a button and the ball began to whir.
“Down!” ordered the Red Panda calmly, and he threw the incendiary into the safe. The remainder of Sclareli’s nest egg went up in flames.
As the wail of police sirens descended on the place, two almost-invisible shapes leaped from the rooftop and were swallowed up into the night. If the arriving policemen heard the far-off peals of laughter as they stormed the broken fortress, they gave no outward sign.