Down a Dark Alley

Maggie Pryce stared down the barrel of a Tesla pistol held by one of Thaddeus Braun’s thugs. The darkened alley offered no hope of an easy escape. At one end, a dark sedan’s electric engine hummed, waiting to haul her off to meet her doom. At the other end, the glow of streetlights offered sanctuary, just out of reach.

Her life was a litany of bad choices and worse luck. Sure, she’d had a few lucky breaks as well. She’d made a few good calls. But looking back it was hard to tell exactly how she’d ended up facing down the barrel of some two-bit palooka’s lightning rod. Her mind reeled, trying to determine when things had gone irrevocably wrong.

She was pretty sure it was the poker game.

Maggie was one of the best card sharps in the country. Thaddeus Braun ruled a gang whose turf included more than half the cities in the country. She never should’ve sat down to play him in the first place, but he’d put up a stake she couldn’t resist.

It was only now, as Stubby Pete waved her slowly further back into the alley, she realized just how big a mistake she’d made. The sedan waiting at the end might as well have been a hearse.

That stake had never been hers. The cards were stacked against her, literally and figuratively. The only reason she’d been allowed at that game in the first place was because she was the mouse, and the stake was the cheese.

She’d accused the old rascal of pulling a double duke, but since she’d been riffle stacking herself, it hadn’t made him any more inclined to let her off the hook. The truth is, the old villain had out-cheated her, fair and square. She’d tried to sweet talk the British brute, but he brushed off her words like crumbs from his exquisite grey flannel suit. Braun wasn’t interested in any deal she could offer.

The trap had sprung and the mouse was wriggling, not knowing it was already dead.

She’d done the only thing she could under the circumstances. She’d slipped away from the guard, sabotaged Braun’s airship and escaped in her own smaller craft, the Lucky Spade, before his goons could blast it out of the sky.

You didn’t run out on a debt to the man who held half the continent in the palm of his hand, and could crush your skull like a walnut with the other. When Maggie had run, she did it knowing full well she’d have to pay the piper someday.

It looked like someday was today.

The thug, Stubby Pete, leered at her over the pistol. He gripped it tightly, or as tightly as he could with slightly less than the full complement of digits. His bulging biceps strained at the tailored suit, making it clear why Braun felt he’d still be a useful asset after losing half of three fingers on his right hand.

“We got ya dead to rights, Doll. Like it or not, yer gonna be takin’ a little trip to see Mr. Braun.” He waved over his shoulder at the dark grey sedan. Blue electric light leaked from under the hood, limning the grimy alley. The sedan’s engine hummed and crackled, like another of Braun’ thugs waiting impatiently and popping its knuckles.

If she ended up in that car, it was the end of the road.

“Pete, this is all just a big misunderstanding. I was always gonna pay up.” She tried for a smile, hoping to win a little sympathy. “Nobody tries to shine Thaddeus Braun, I know that. I just had to make a few visits to a few friends, to collect the necessary assets. I even sent a letter explaining all that. Didn’t he get it?” She didn’t think poor Pete had enough going on upstairs to be good fodder for reasoning her way out of this, but it was worth a shot. At least it might buy her time to come up with a better idea.

“Right. Sure. You think I was born yesterday, Doll? We know exactly what ‘assets’ you got, and they’re all sitting under that red dress. But I’ll tell ya what. You share those assets with me, and I might try to convince Mr. Braun you were on your way back to tell him that yerself when I caught up with ya. Might make him go easier on ya.”

His slimy gaze slid down from her face, across the curves of her breasts, over her hips and down to her black silk-clad calves.

That was his first mistake. It was the only one she needed.

While Pete’s eyes were lowered, she popped her fist out, knocking the Tesla pistol from his substandard grip. With her other hand, she reached into her cleavage and pulled out a glass vial, shaking it as hard as she could. Pete yelled and spun towards the ground behind him to recover the gun. Maggie popped the cork out of the vial, careful to keep it aimed away from her face. As the liquid inside made contact with the chilly air, it turned a phosphorescent green. A thick fog of noxious green smoke roiled out of the vial, pouring like a pungent waterfall towards the cobbled street.

She usually just dropped the vial and made a run for it, trusting the smoke and fumes to cover her escape. But as Pete’s hand closed around his gun, she had a better idea. She poured the entire contents of the vial over his back and shoulders. It smelled like sulfur and something that had been dead in the gutter a week.

So much for Pete’s expensive monkey suit, but that’s what Braun got for dressing his lackeys like gentlemen. His suit probably cost what she owed Braun, just getting something tailored for a guy Pete’s size. He might be clumsy and dumb, but he could seal a hallway just by standing still.

Stubby Pete was going to be bringing his very own gloomy little cloud with him wherever he went, for at least twenty-four hours. Maggie stifled a snicker. Pete wasn’t exactly a master of stealth anyway. Hard to sneak up on a girl when you couldn’t see your own hand in front of your face for the fog, even if your eyes weren’t swollen shut from the fumes.

She could hear him coughing and gagging as she bolted up the alley. He attempted to shout, but soon realized opening his mouth was a bad idea. She heard him retch. The fumes must have been burning their way down his throat. If he wasn’t such an unrepentant scumbag, she might’ve felt a little sorry for him. She was only a few yards away from the alley opening when she heard a tell-tale buzzing, and a crackle like someone crumpling stiff cellophane.

That idiot was going to fire the Tesla gun blind.

She ducked and dodged, hoping he’d try to use the sound of her feet to aim. The time it took his addled brains to figure out where she ought to be would almost guarantee he missed her. Her kitten heels skidded across the slippery street. She had to push herself off the side of one of the buildings to avoid sliding into it. She scrambled to regain her footing and made tracks for the crowded boulevard ahead. The glow of neon and the chatter of the crowd beckoned her.

As she reached the opening of the alley onto Broadway, she heard the sizzling crack of the gun. An arc of lightning passed by her left shoulder, missing her by only a few feet.

Missing her, but hitting a Studebaker parked at the side of the road. The glass in the car’s windows shattered. More than a dozen heads turned to see what’d happened. A police officer came running from the next block over, yelling and waving a bolt baton.

Great. The last thing Maggie needed was a long talk with the police about why she’d been in that alley. The way her luck was running lately, a trip downtown in a police sedan would end up no better for her than a ride in Pete’s.

She turned tail and ran up Broadway, towards the cop. Police were trained to notice people running away and looking guilty. Running towards him, he’d probably take her for a panicked bystander, trying to escape whatever crazy person had shot the windows out of a parked car. It didn’t require a lot of acting. The panic part was certainly real enough.

She held her breath as the police officer neared her. At least a dozen other people were running towards him as well. A red-faced man in a brown fedora, probably the car’s owner, was yelling and gesturing at the violated Studebaker.

As the officer reached Maggie, a glowing green cloud filled with disoriented, enraged henchman rolled out of the alley. A woman screamed, as the fumes wafting off Stubby Pete reached her. His personal fogbank must have stung her eyes. The lurid blue glow of the Tesla gun looked aquamarine through the haze. It was obvious a very large armed man was flailing within the bright swirling mist.

The cop’s eyes widened and he put on some speed, firing up the bolt baton. He brushed past Maggie with barely a glance.

She smirked a little and pulled a tan scarf out of her handbag, slipping it over her head. She slowed down, blending into the milling city crowd.

At the end of the block, she hailed a taxi.

“Where ya headed, Miss?” The cabbie glanced back in the rear view mirror, a troubled frown on his face as he took in the scene behind her. He seemed eager to get away from the unexpected chaos on what was usually a quiet street filled with predictable fares.

At least, it probably was a quiet street when Maggie Pryce wasn’t in town.

~*~

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