Featured image swiped from ENM.
Hilscher, their host, quickly made his way to Lung and did namaste. Lung, without cracking so much as a smile, bowed in return. Both men were gigantic, though Hilscher was the more intimidating of the two, as Lung had put on fat in recent years.
Iron Lung was a notorious gangster who ruled the drug trade in most of Southside, especially the massive slum called Harijan Basti. He and Rags had tangled more than once—and it was a testament to his resourcefulness and power that she had always come off the worse in those encounters.
Rags slipped away from the ladies cooing over her and walked brashly up to the huge men. She didn’t bow, but merely placed her fists on her hips and gave the two of them a childish scowl.
Hilscher’s voice came through Nicky’s earpiece. “Ah, Fräulein Rags, you have met Herr Lung, I presume?”
“I have,” Rags said.
Now a small smile cracked Lung’s stony face. He bowed slightly. “Ragamuffin. I am … surprised … to see you here.”
So this was what he was after—sending a message to one of his greatest rivals in the drug trade. Word would get out quickly, if it hadn’t already, that Rags was in Hilscher’s pay.
“I’m afraid Fräulein Rags cannot talk for long,” Hilscher said. “She is working tonight, ja?”
“How unfortunate.” Lung reached into his jacket, and Rags tensed, but his hand came out holding a pack of cigarettes. He stuck one between his lips, and Hilscher offered him a light.
After a few puffs, Lung said, “The Ragamuffin and I have much to discuss—but it will have to wait for another time.”
Casually, Rags cracked her fine knuckles one by one. “Y’know I use riot rounds,” she said quietly, “cuz I got a rule for me an’ my guys: don’t kill nobody. That’s my rule. But I carry just one half-jacketed hollow-point. Got it with me all the time. An’ you know why?”
Lung took a deep pull on his cigarette and slowly blew out a thick stream of smoke, but didn’t answer.
“I got your name etched in that bullet, Iron Lung, an’ one o’ these days, I’m gonna use it.”
Lung leaned down until he was almost eye-level with Rags. His smile again broke through his stony face, like sunlight shining through a chink in a rock wall. “Oh, I’m sorry. It’s terribly rude of me to meet a child like this. Next time we see each other, Ragamuffin, I’ll bring some toys, hm? Sharp ones … but I’ll be the one playing, you understand?”
He looked her right in the eye. He was one of the few men who could, as he was immune to Sammohana, her hypnotic power.
Meeting his gaze, Rags flicked her right wrist, and a long, thin blade shot out of her sleeve. It stopped with its point a hairsbreadth from his neck.
He didn’t flinch, but his smile grew. He held out a hand. “May I have the next dance, miss?”
“Lose the cigarette.” She rolled up her sleeve and cranked her tonfa sword back into its spring-loaded sheath.
“Anything in particular you would like the band to play, Fräulein Rags?” Hilscher asked.
Rags smiled as she gazed up at Lung. She held her radio watch to her mouth and said, “Tango.”
That was the signal. In one motion, Nicky downed the glass of soda pop, raised his prana, and performed a flying leap that carried him over the heads of several astonished partygoers. He landed right by the big double doors. Jeanne, having divested herself of her high heels, joined him. Together, they threw the doors open. There was a resounding boom like thunder, and a pane of one of the high, arched windows blew in. The butler runebot, standing directly behind the open doors, reeled backwards as a hole appeared in the center of its Mind Rune. It flailed its arms and released an ear-piercing screech as the damned souls in its innards scrabbled for freedom.
Nicky and Jeanne slammed the doors shut and threw themselves against them. Something on the other side pounded at them fiercely, and it was all Nicky could do to keep his prana high enough to resist the pressure: the evil spirits wanted to force their way in to grab some hapless victim and drag him down to hell.
The pounding faded as the devils fell out of the physical universe. Nicky put his mouth to his watch and muttered, “Good shot, Ryuji.”
The room was in chaos. Women screamed. People ducked low, perhaps afraid of more shattered windows and flying glass. Alex jumped onto the bar, put her light machine gun to her shoulder, and fired bursts toward the marjara Rajputs lining the walls. Now most of the guests hit the floor.
Hilscher turned on Rags. “You little—!”
Rags jumped and planted a foot directly in his face, sending him reeling back. He hit a table, broke it with a loud crack, and crashed into the floor.
Rags turned to Lung. Lung was himself a master of Sastravidya, the mystical fighting art that allowed its practitioners to bend the laws of physics. Though most humans couldn’t take Rags in a fight, he was an exception.
He threw a punch to her face, but she trapped his wrist, yanked his arm to bring him off balance, and aimed a rapid backfist for his temple. He caught her hand in his, broke her grip on his wrist, pinned her elbows to her sides, and picked her up in a bear hug. She squirmed her arms free and brought both hands down into his cheek bones in a rapid series of knife hand chops.
He let go, but she didn’t drop. She swung herself around to his back, twisted upside down, and wrapped her ankles around his neck. He outmassed her by probably twenty stone, but with her prana, she leveraged him off his feet, flipped him through the air, and smashed him face-first into the dancefloor.
After that maneuver, Rags for a moment looked like nothing but a rumpled pile of white cloth. Then her pantalettes and sneakers appeared out of the writhing mass of chiffon and lace, and she performed a coiling dragon that brought her rapidly to her feet. Lung shoved himself upright with one hand, and then the two engaged again, throwing blows too rapid for the eye to follow.
Nicky didn’t have time to watch—there were the Rajputs to deal with, and Alex’s bursts of machine gun fire wouldn’t be enough to keep them down for long: like all of Rags’s companions, she had her gun loaded with rubber bullets, and though those could injure or kill a normal human, a marjara with high prana could shrug them off.
With a curved, wickedly sharp talwar in hand, a marjara snarled and barreled through the crowd. Jeanne took aim with her AKM and pulled the trigger on its underslung grenade launcher. With a teeth-rattling boom, she sent a sponge grenade straight into his solar plexus, sending him reeling back.
Another marjara landed on Nicky with a punch-knife in his fist. Nicky dodged the blade and, mimicking Rags’s earlier maneuver, hit the marjara in the cheek with a well-placed backfist. The blow rocked his head, but failed to smash his cheekbone.
When the marjara made another thrust with the knife, Nicky grabbed his wrist and, in the same motion, reached under his own jacket to pull his Glock 17. He couldn’t shoot with Rags’s precision, but at this range, even he could use his gun to strike marmas, the Sastravidya pressure points.
In less than a second, Nicky struck eight of the nine points necessary to produce complete paralysis. Then he ducked under the marjara’s swinging left arm, reached behind himself, and, with the tips of his fingers, struck the final point in the small of marjara’s back, causing him to seize up and drop heavily.
The fight had lasted only a few seconds, but Nicky was already feeling it. His skill was almost at Rags’s level, but he had the inconvenience of a medical condition called glycogen storage disease type 0. He couldn’t store energy properly, so a heavy bout of Sastravidya could send him into hypoglycemic shock.
He found a half-empty glass on a table. He didn’t care what was in it. He drank it.
It was booze. Likely the local arrack. Aside from the occasional ale, Nicky didn’t drink much, and the strong liquor instantly went to his head.
But it had sugar. He raised his prana, focused, and allowed the ethanol to keep him loose.
Most of the crooks in the room had gats. Everywhere Nicky looked, men in fancy dinner suits pulled heat. He saw a revolver inches from his face. He kicked it out of the hand holding it. He saw another, an automatic. He spun, grabbed the slide, and yanked it straight off, breaking the gun in pieces.
Someone pointed a rifle at him. He bent the barrel down and gave the thug a head-butt for his trouble.
More automatic gunfire. Alex shot into the crowd. Stupid girl. Most of these people had no Sastravidya. Didn’t she know she could kill somebody?
He was tired. He found another glass. Downed it. Now he was truly drunk. His head fuzzed. He was still limber, but his movements slowed. A knuckle met his left temple and rang his bells, though his prana kept his skull intact. He didn’t white out, but he stumbled, and stumbling could mean death.
As he fell to the right, he twisted and saw a marjara above him, raising a fist. No wonder the blow had hurt. He’d be on the ground in a moment, and he’d be dead soon after.
Another crash of shattering glass. Was Ryuji shooting his Barrett again?
No. The windows burst in, and men in black fatigues, with helmets and visors covering their faces, swung into the room. They had M4s hanging at their chests, the carbine soldiers of the Elysian Empire preferred in urban combat.
Shots. Screams. Nicky struck the floor, but he didn’t die there. He quickly kipped up to his feet. The marjara looming over him was distracted now, so Nicky gave him a rapid series of punches that disrupted his prana and made his muscles seize up.
Most of the men surrendered to the soldiers. A few lay on the floor, flailing and gasping in agony as pouring blood stained their white shirtfronts. Haze filled the air. Overhead, the candles in the chandelier flickered wildly. Several blew out.
Across the room, near the double doors, Rags had Lung in an arm bar. She pulled his left arm back, ramming his chin into the hardwood.
“I’ll break it!” she shouted. “I’ll break it, Lung!”
The wildly flickering light cast shifting shadows across Lung’s face as he lifted his head and, shaking with rage, snarled through clenched and bloody teeth, “Fuck you!”
She broke it. His arm popped from the shoulder socket and snapped near the elbow with a stomach-churning crunch.
Lung didn’t scream. He barely winced. Tough old bastard.
But it wasn’t over. Twenty soldiers had poured through the windows, and seven of them had their carbines trained on Hilscher. Hilscher stood behind the bar now, and he had an arm wrapped around Alex’s chest. With his other hand, he held the point of a knife against her jugular. Her machine gun was gone from her hands. It lay on the floor near an overturned stool.
“Stop right there, Ragamuffin,” Hilscher shouted. “I’m getting out of here, free and in one piece, or the crossdresser gets it!”
“I’m not a crossdresser!” Alex snarled. “I’m a hermaphrodite!”
Nicky raised his hands and cautiously stepped forward. “He really is a hermaphrodite.”
“I said shut up!”
“You don’t want to mess with Alex, Hilscher. He’s a hijra. If you piss him off, he’ll put a curse on you.”
That was enough to make the marjaras nervous. The few still standing shifted on their feet and gave one another uneasy glances.
Struggling to breathe around Hilscher’s iron grip, Alex gasped, “Yeah, you hear that, Hilschie-boy? Let me go, or I’ll bring down some serious bad juju on your ass.”
“Shut up,” Hilscher said again. “I don’t believe in that shit.”
“You might wanna rethink that, Hilscher,” said Nicky, taking another step. “Alex can call on Ardhanari to rot your balls off.”
“Whoa,” said Alex, “can I really do that? That is friggin’ awesome!”
“Alex,” said Nicky, “shut up.”
“Enough outta you, femboy,” said Hilscher. “Everyone lower your guns. You too, little girls. I’m walkin’ outta here.” He backed toward the end of the bar.
“Hold on,” said Nicky, “did you just call me—?”
Alex scrabbled at Hilscher’s wrist, took a ragged breath, and wheezed, “I’ve never told you this before, Nicky, but you really are kinda femmy—”
“Holy shit,” said Hilscher, “what is wrong with you kids? Just shut the fuck up.” He reached the end of the bar and stepped around it, exposing Alex’s legs.
“Bingo,” said Rags. From under the big bow on her back, she whipped out two Jericho 941 handguns and fired both at once. One bullet struck Alex in the inner left thigh, making her slump in Hilscher’s grip. The other bullet struck Hilscher’s knife hand. He sucked in his breath as his knuckles broke, and Alex slid to the floor.
Now that she had a clear shot, Rags emptied her magazines, aiming each bullet with surgical precision at a different marma.
Then the soldiers swept in. In a moment, they had Hilscher on his face, ties holding his wrists behind his back.
Taking a deep breath, Nicky walked up to Alex, who writhed on the floor, clutching her leg.
“You okay?” he asked.
She gasped, “I can’t … I can’t …”
“I can’t feel my balls!”
Shaking his head, he reached down, grabbed her hand, and hauled her to her feet.
“This is only your third mission,” he said. “Nice work getting captured.”
“As I said, that’s the goal.”
“Jerk. Gimme a fag.”
He reached into his jacket, found a pack of cigarettes, and stuck one in her mouth. He followed by sticking one in his own. “Y’know, a girl with Swyer syndrome shouldn’t smoke.”
“Neither should a boy with a glycogen storage disease. How’s your sugar?”
“I’m gonna pass out in a minute.”
“Then eat something.”
He shrugged and lit up.
Forcing them to kneel and cuffing them, the soldiers arrested all of the partygoers, no doubt intending to sort out later which ones they had dirt on and which ones they’d have to let go. One of the soldiers pulled off a helmet, revealing salt-and-pepper hair and a craggy face. He stared glumly down at Rags, who returned the glare with crossed arms and a pouty outthrust lip.
“Miss Rags,” the soldier said.
“Captain Swaggart,” Rags replied.
Frowning, Swaggart shook his head. “Good work, Ragamuffin. We’ll take it from here. Never thought you’d nab both Lung and Hilscher with this cockamamie scheme.”
Rags raised an eyebrow. “I always get my man.”
Swaggart rolled his eyes when yet another figure dropped in through one of the shattered windows. Wearing a black fedora and matching trench coat, this newcomer shook out a rain-soaked cane umbrella, folded it, and leaned on it heavily. He was tall, thin, and sallow-faced, with huge liquid eyes and a decidedly womanish mouth. With a leather-gloved hand, he set down a heavy medical bag before he doffed his hat and waved it weakly toward Rags and Nicky.
Taking up the bag again, he stepped gingerly over the broken glass, walked around several kneeling prisoners, and dropped the bag with a loud thunk in front of Rags.
Rags, arms still crossed, put her nose in the air and turned her back on him.
This was Dr. Darcangelo, the pediatrician. He often accompanied Captain Swaggart on his missions, and since Darcangelo was very close to General Defoy, Swaggart couldn’t do anything about it.
“All right, children,” Darcangelo said in a tired but still oily voice, “who’s injured? Come here, please. Mademoiselle, did you hurt yourself?”
“I’m fine,” Rags grumbled.
“Hmm, really? Nicodemus, how about you? You’ve wreaked havoc with your blood sugar again, haven’t you?”
“And I’m drunk,” Nicky replied.
“And you’re smoking. Yes, of course.” Darcangelo sighed deeply. “Alexis? Dare I ask?”
“Rags shot me,” Alex said. “I got a bruise on my leg the size of a mango, but otherwise I’m good.”
Darcangelo rubbed his temples as if suffering from a severe headache. “Lady Jeanne? How about you? Could you, at least, take care of your health?”
Jeanne pushed her glasses up her nose and slung her rifle back over her shoulder. “I’m all right, I suppose.”
She glanced warily around the room.
Nicky grinned, and his cigarette dangled precariously from his lip. “Looking for your date, Lady?”
She glared at him.
One of the soldiers heaved Rich Watford-Collins to his feet after cinching a plastic tie around his wrists. Rich’s hair was mussed, and he had a trickle of blood running from his scalp, but he appeared otherwise unscathed. He offered Jeanne a sheepish grin.
Nicky leaned toward Swaggart. “Hey, Rich there is okay. You can probably let him go.”
Swaggart grunted and pulled a sheaf of papers from his belt. Thumbing through it, he said, “Rich, huh? His name’s not Rich. That’s Victor Hogue, and he’s a con man. Wanted for thirty counts of fraud.”
Nicky swallowed, and he felt his face grow warm.
Rich’s sheepish grin widened. “Tonight, Captain, I met a young lady who I think could inspire me to go straight.”
“Tell it to the judge,” Swaggart replied.
Rich turned his guilty smile on Jeanne. “I suppose now would be a highly inappropriate time to ask for your number, milady? They will let me have one call, you know.”
Nicky took a few pulls from his cigarette, plucked it from his mouth, and said to Jeanne, “You wanna tell him, or should I?”
Squeezing her eyes shut, she rubbed her forehead. “I’ll tell him. Rich … er, Victor—”
Victor’s grin crumbled. He blanched. But then he burst out laughing.
Once the laughter subsided, with tears of mirth glistening in his eyes, he said, “You fooled me. You really fooled me. I should have realized—”
“No. No, I didn’t mean—”
“It’s all right. I’ve spent my life fooling people. It’s only fair. But a word of advice—you should probably stop dancing with older men, or you’re going to get yourself in trouble.”
Jeanne looked away from him, twisted her mouth glumly, and nodded.
It took two men to haul Lung off the floor. Rags had thoroughly roughed him up: his shirtfront was torn, and his jacket was in tatters. His broken arm hung limply, and his hand was swollen and purple. He curled his bloodied lip and said, “This isn’t going to stick, Ragamuffin. It’s not over. I’ll be out in a few days, and then—”
“Oh, goodness,” said Darcangelo, who walked up to Lung and tried, in vain, to straighten his rumpled lapels, “do you really think you are going to get a trial?” He clucked his tongue. “I’m afraid you’re far too dangerous for that. No, my dear Mr. Lung, you are simply going to disappear.”
Lung stared him down for half a minute, but a hint of fear soon broke through the stalwart anger on his face. Expression almost pleading, he turned his head to look at Swaggart.
Swaggart merely shrugged. Wordlessly, the soldiers threw open the doors and dragged Lung out of the hall.
“Too bad we didn’t find Iron Lung here tonight,” Swaggart said as he made some notes on his papers. “Really hoped we’d nab him.”
“Yeah,” said Rags with a nod. “Too bad.”
“Just one thing left, then.” Swaggart tucked his papers away and pulled the sidearm from his hip. “Men, arrest the Ragamuffin and her companions.”
Darcangelo leaned on his umbrella cane and raised an eyebrow. Some of the soldiers gave each other hesitant glances, but one walked up to Lady Jeanne and sheepishly said, “Um, miss, I’m sorry, but I’ll have to—”
Jeanne pulled her own sheaf of papers out of the front of her gown and slapped the soldier over the head with it. “You can’t arrest me. I have diplomatic immunity.”
“You can’t arrest me, either,” Rags added, arms still crossed as she stared coldly down the barrel of Swaggart’s handgun, “cuz I can kick your butts.”
Darcangelo cleared his throat and languidly tucked his trench coat behind the Smith & Wesson .44 Magnum on his right hip. “I’m sorry, Captain, but if you and your men are going to insist on manhandling children, professional ethics will obligate me to intervene.”
Swaggart rounded on him. “Listen, you limp-wristed little faggot, I’m getting real tired of—”
“Please, Captain,” Darcangelo said, raising a gloved hand, “not in front of the children. We already caught several notorious criminals tonight. You can let the Ragamuffin go until another night, hm?”
A half hour later found the Ragtag Army stumbling out of the dance hall and into the rain, considerably worse for wear. Rags’s white dress had come out in surprisingly good shape, though it now sported several new creases, a lot of dust from the floor, and a splattering of blood that undoubtedly belonged to Iron Lung. Jeanne’s blue gown had several new gashes, and it sagged off one shoulder. Alex’s formalwear was torn, dirty, and soaked with sweat. Nicky had to help her walk. His rented dinner suit was bloody and ripped. He’d have to buy it, so he cursed under his breath. Maybe he could make Rags cough up the money.
“Y’know, Lady,” he said over his shoulder to Jeanne, “you’ll probably be grown up right around the time he gets out.”
She rolled her eyes. “Shut up, Nicky.”
He munched moodily on a chunk of bread he’d found behind the bar. The complex carbohydrate should even out his blood sugar and keep him from having a hypo.
All things considered, they’d had a more pleasant night than Ryuji and Popkin, who were soaked to the bone and huddling under a tarp on a street corner. Ryuji had shoved his sniper rifle back into its case, which he wore on his back. Popkin was hugging herself and sneezing.
“Let’s get out of here,” Ryuji said. “My sister’s going to catch a cold. And I need to clean my gun before it rusts.”
“Great shot tonight,” said Nicky.
Ryuji merely nodded.
A car, an old beat-up Ambassador, pulled up to the curb. Muffin the dog was at the wheel. He had a cigar dangling from his mouth and an English driving cap on his head.
Nicky sighed. “Wouldn’t be a successful night for us without car theft, would it?”
Muffin grinned, exposing sharp, yellow teeth. In a gravelly voice, he said, “All in the name of cleaning up Godtown’s mean streets, Nicky.”
“Sometimes ya gotta do crime to fight crime,” Rags replied as she climbed into the front next to Muffin.
“Get in, kids,” Muffin said. “I’ve got a Thermos full of hot cocoa in here, and Ryuji and Popkin have first dibs. Looks like they need it.”
Wearily, jostling one another with knees and elbows and rifle buttstocks, the kids squeezed themselves into the car.
Rags lifted her radio watch to her mouth. “Doll Face calling Big House. Come in, Big House.”
The radio crackled, and Suzie’s voice filled the car. “This is Big House. Reading you loud and clear, Doll Face.”
“Mission accomplished,” Rags said.
“Good work,” Suzie replied. “I’ll put the kettle on.”
Muffin put the car in gear. Nicky slumped down, exhausted. Ryuji poured a cup of cocoa for a sleepy but eager Popkin. Jeanne stared out the rain-washed window and sighed.
Muffin drove them home.