It was a cold March morning, and the fog hugged the streets like the ghostly touch of a dead lover. In the future, Ace knew, the beautiful towers of the Golden Gate Bridge would rise through the mist that rolled across the Bay, visible from miles around. Right now, though, the construction work was only just beginning.
If only all her future knowledge was so benign. The international section of the newspaper had been depressing her more and more in recent months, short paragraphs discussing the political upheaval in Germany as though it held no real significance beyond filling out the column inches. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, she'd imagine booking a flight to Berlin, lobbing her last can of nitro-9 into the right window at the right moment. She knew far better than to make such drastic interventions in the timeline, of course. But it all added to the urge to escape this time period sooner rather than later.
The bell attached to the outer office door began to ring, and Ace dropped the newspaper onto the desk without even bothering to finish the sentence she was reading.
She waited a moment before getting up. React too quickly, and whoever was out there thought she was desperate for work; too slowly, and they'd think there was no-one home and disappear again. She'd never yet been able to afford a secretary, but the office was constructed as though the presence of one was a foregone conclusion. To begin with, she'd sat in the outer office herself, but that only led to long conversations about how she wasn't Ace McShane's secretary, she was Ace McShane, and, yes, as it happened she wasn't a bloke.
The woman who was presumably Ace's latest client stood exactly in the middle of the outer office, as though by doing so she could minimise her exposure to the seediness of the very concept of the existence of a private detective's office. She was wearing an outfit that was as severe as it was elegant: her skirt went all the way down to the ankles without the slightest ornamentation, and her blouse built up her shoulders to the point that they were almost triangular. The whole thing was topped off by a small hat that almost seemed to hover above her tightly permed blonde hair. Everything she was wearing, including the elbow length gloves, was black.
"Good morning," Ace said. "Ace McShane, at your service. If you'd like to come through and take a seat ..." She held the door open.
The woman settled into the bare wooden chair in front of Ace's desk with a hint of distaste. She took out a cigarette and inserted it into a long holder before lighting up, as though trying to dispel the shabbiness of her surroundings and instil some of the opulence she was clearly accustomed to.
Ace suppressed her reflex to cough -- differing attitudes to various drugs was just one of those things you had to take in your stride as a time traveller. "So what can I do for you today?" she asked as she sat down herself.
"I don't do divorces," Ace interrupted instinctively.
"--died three months ago," the woman went on.
Well, that made sense of the colour scheme of her ensemble. And made Ace the most insensitive idiot this side of the Rockies. "Sorry," Ace said.
A flicker of emotion played across the woman's eyes, but it disappeared as quickly as it had arrived. "When he died, I inherited his business concern -- Westerfield Shipping and Export. Perhaps you've heard of it?"
"All those warehouses down on Fisherman's Wharf," Ace said. Gordon Bennett, she must be loaded. Which made it a little odd that she'd come to see Ace herself. She'd worked for people like this before, and they always sent some sort of intermediary to deal with the grubby business of talking to the detective.
"Precisely," Mrs. Westerfield said. "I've received some troubling reports recently, about one of the warehouses in particular. Lights coming on in the middle of the night, noises from within ..."
"And you think that some of your employees are involved in some sort of illicit activity, using the warehouse out of hours for their own nefarious purposes?" Ace said with the slightest hint of a smile. There was only one form of illicit activity that made any money in Prohibition-era America, but Ace wasn't going to come right out and say it. For all she knew, Westerfield was a staunch supporter of the 18th Amendment. There had to be at least one hiding in San Francisco somewhere.
"I certainly want you to investigate that possibility. Or perhaps some vagrants have found a way to break in and are using it as a shelter, I don't know." There were certainly enough homeless unfortunates around, Ace thought, here in the midst of the Depression. "But frankly, at this point I would be relieved if either of those turned out to be the case." She paused for a moment. "Perhaps you're not aware of your reputation, Miss McShane."
"Oh, I have lots of reputations," Ace said. "Which one were you talking about?"
"That for all your ... eccentricity"--she gave Ace an appraising glance that was clearly supposed to indicate that wearing a suit was the height of bizarre behaviour--"you're the best person to go to for situations involving strange phenomena. The sort of thing the San Francisco Police Department simply don't know how to deal with."
"These lights and sounds ... It's not just electric lights and people shifting things around, is it?"
"I don't know how much credence to give to some of the wilder reports," Westerfield said. "But if even half of them are true ..."
"Very well. I charge two hundred dollars a day," Ace said. "Plus expenses." That was from a film, but one of the first things Ace had learned when she'd set up shop was that her clients had just as little clue about what the going rate was as she did. Hiring a detective wasn't the sort of thing you did everyday, after all.
"One fifty," Westerfield replied immediately.
"I'm going to have to work some unusual hours," Ace countered. "If I'm going to find out what's really going on at night."
Westerfield smiled thinly. "Not so unusual for someone in your line of work, I think."
"One-seven-five," Ace said.
Westerfield glowered momentarily, then extended her hand to be shaken. "Done."
"And before you leave now, you're going to sign a letter of introduction for me explaining to your staff that they're to co-operate fully with my inquiries," Ace added. There was at least a typewriter in the front office, even if there was no one but Ace to type on it.
"Very well," Westerfield said, giving a slight sigh at the prospect of having to stay even a moment longer.
Ace grasped her hand and shook it. "Pleasure doing business with you."
* * *
Ace opened her Thermos flask and emptied the last dribbles of tea into the mug before slurping them down greedily. She was always marginally surprised that the Thermoses of the 1930s worked just as well as the ones she'd grown up with -- the tea was still warm after six hours waiting here. So many aspects of the 1930s technology level were frustrating, not least when it came to trying to repair her time hopper, so it was a relief that something worked as advertised.
Below her vantage point was a narrow alley between warehouses. She'd set up camp in the next warehouse over from the one where the strange things were going down, perching herself in the window of the foreman's office that was set up in the rafters, reached by a rickety metal ladder more like a fire escape than anything else. It was a long way past midnight, and the long wait hadn't improved her mood after a frustrating day of investigation. Mrs. Westerfield's employees had denied any knowledge of nocturnal goings-on, and they'd all seemed at least superficially plausible. More to the point, she had found some subtle evidence that the lock on the door she was watching now had been picked, so it most likely wasn't an inside job. But nothing had been stolen -- indeed, everyone swore blind that there was no evidence anything had even been moved -- so what was anyone breaking in for?
Ace had decided over the eight months or so of her detective career that the most important part of any investigation was determining the motive. Understand why and everything else tended to fall into place. Some sort of industrial espionage was a possibility, copying documents from the warehouse records for some reason, but that would surely be a stealth operation, not accompanied by the sturm und drang that had attracted so much attention.
Ace stilled as she saw movement in the alley below between the warehouses. She flattened herself against the wall, turning her head to peer through the window without being visible to anyone who happened to glance up. She saw four figures wearing wide-brimmed hats gathered around the door. Three stood guard, looking in each direction (but not, Ace smiled to herself, upwards) for any possibility of interference, while the fourth busied himself with the lock. He was clearly practised, not just at lock-picking in general, but at the precise set of motions needed for this particularly door, as it swung open quickly.
For a moment, Ace considered heading downstairs and following them in to see what they were up to -- she had a master key, though it had taken two phone calls to Mrs. Westerfield before anyone had been willing to give it to her. But in heading back downstairs she'd lose sight of things for a couple of minutes, and for all she knew that was when everything would happen.
As it turned out, there was silence for another five minutes or so. Ace was just beginning to regret having stayed to watch when all hell broke loose. The windows of the warehouse she was watching lit up with crackling blue-white flame, and a moment later a tremendous noise rippled out across the wharf: an earthquake and a thunderstorm rolled into one, but beneath it the eldritch howling of a universe in pain.
Ace kept watching as occasional sparks flickered across the frame of the warehouse like some sort of electrical discharge seeking the ground. They subsided in frequency and intensity over the next few minutes until the door swung open again and the four men emerged. Two of them were carrying a long box between them. It was a uniform grey in colour, and seemed to be made of some sort of plastic; the whole thing screamed to Ace of not being a product of contemporary human technology. But was it alien, anachronistic, or both? There was something almost coffin-like about it, but the men were far from pallbearers.
A final flicker of lightning from inside the building lit up their faces as they walked away, hustled along by the one who was in charge, the brief illumination revealing more of the men than she'd been able to make out before. Each had a red handkerchief tied across the lower half of his face, only his eyes visible between it and the brim of his hat.
Ace's heart sank: if the Outlaws were involved in all this, she definitely ought to have held out for higher pay. One of the largest gangs in the city, their characteristic cowboy-style handkerchief gimmick was supposed to prove that they were the inheritors of the lawlessness of the gold rush, but she was fairly sure that they'd just watched too many Westerns at the Castro. But however implausible the stories they told about themselves were, she couldn't deny they were a definite threat. And worse still, she was fairly sure she'd seen the scarred nose of one of the organisation's most senior lieutenants, Snake Eyes.
She waited until she was sure they were well out of sight before putting back on her trenchcoat and fedora and creeping downstairs and across to the other warehouse to let herself in. The light had shone brightest through the windows in the far corner of the warehouse, so she made her way over, shining her torch around her as she went in the hopes that one of the gangsters had dropped something significant. But she didn't really expect to find anything: the Outlaws were nothing if not careful. The penalties Little Jimmy handed out for even the smallest failure were severe.
Ace picked her way through the tall stacks of crates and boxes, and picked over the available facts in her mind as she did so. The case was beginning to make a little more sense. That son et lumière show had most likely the side effect of some sort of teleportation process, maybe with a temporal displacement involved as well. Spacetime around San Francisco was already a hopeless tangle of thickened timelines and scar tissue imperfectly patching over fissures in the continuum, which was the reason her time hopper had broken down in the first place ... and the explanation for, oh, at least a quarter of the weirdness that went on throughout the city's history.
If whatever was on the other end of the teleporter didn't have perfect control of the endpoint, then it explained the break-ins to retrieve whatever was being delivered. But that just shifted the motive question to whoever or whatever was on the other end: if you had all this space age technology, why get involved with a grubby bootlegger like Little Jimmy, anyway? For that matter, did Little Jimmy even know about this, or was Snake Eyes branching out into a sideline of his own? He was playing with fire if he was, but ambition and stupidity were far from strangers in his circles.
Ace reached the corner in the back of the warehouse, underneath the foreman's office. This was probably where the deliveries took place, but any trace evidence from the phenomenon didn't hang around for long; Ace's methodical casting around of her torch beam revealed nothing out of the ordinary, mere minutes after the event.
She was just about to give up when her torch was outshone by the same blindingly fierce blue-white light she'd seen before. Covering her eyes with a hand, Ace had a vague impression of ball lightning oscillating up and down, before finally landing on the floor and beginning to disperse. Up close, the accompanying noise was deafening. It felt as though it was reverberating deep within her bones, an unearthly howl filling her up completely.
When it had begun to fade, she saw a human figure lying on the floor, curled into the foetal position. Flickering blue crackles shot out from the figure in all directions. As they dispersed, Ace crept closer, dodging one of the last lightning bolts as it snapped outwards. The figure was wearing some sort of jumpsuit, but its face was hidden by a mop of curly red hair.
"Hey," she said, tapping the figure on the shoulder. "Are you all right?"
The figure began to stir, rolling over, allowing Ace to make out the features. Features she instantly recognised.
"Gordon Bennett. Mel?"
* * *
Ace took Mel back to her apartment, supporting her on her shoulder most of the way. She was clearly disorientated, in a way that reminded Ace of the way she'd felt after the time storm had deposited her on Iceworld. She was nearly certain now that the boxes -- and perhaps people, if Mel wasn't the first to appear -- were coming from another time period.
Ace wasn't sure if Mel had recognised her or not, and the few questions she'd asked, she'd asked over and over again, to the point where Ace had become bored of saying "San Francisco" and "1933". In the end, she elected to put her to bed and wait until she awoke, hopefully at least somewhat refreshed. She sat in the chair in the small bedroom, watching Mel's fitful sleep, eyes twitching and face trembling in the pale moonlight as her subconscious tried to make sense of what was going on.
Ace's own mind was in turmoil, too. The memories stirred by seeing Mel felt so old, and yet Ace also felt the same instant connection she had when they'd first met. Just watching Mel sleep opened the door to feelings she'd never quite been sure she'd possessed. When they'd met on Iceworld, everything had been so hectic and confused, but there was something about Mel that just seemed to invite honesty and openness; even when being chased alternately by dragons and gun-toting thugs, and even when she'd been pretending she didn't, she'd wanted to tell Mel all about herself. Hell, she'd even told Mel her name, and back then that was one of her most closely guarded secrets.
That earlier self felt so young to Ace now, but with years of hindsight the feelings she'd had for Mel became more clear, not less so. Connections formed in the midst of crisis might or might not be the key to lasting happiness, but one thing Ace had learned over the years was that strength was undeniable.
Trying to distract herself, Ace made breakfast in anticipation of Mel's waking. Cooking always took longer than she thought it would in the cramped kitchen with its brand new old-fashioned equipment, but even so Mel was still sound asleep as it was starting to get cold. Ace decided that it had better not go to waste, and ate it herself. Then she decided she'd better have some breakfast for when Mel woke up ...
When Mel finally awoke, it was nearly midday, and all Ace had to offer her was a mug of tea.
"Ace?" Mel said.
"The one and only," Ace said.
"Well, that's ... Where am I?"
"San Francisco, 1933," Ace said for what she hoped was the final time.
"But that's ... the 20th century?" She slumped back into the pillows. "I've crossed millions of years."
"Not fun unprotected, is it? Here, do you want some breakfast? I've got ..." Ace considered: the breakfasts she'd already consumed had used up all her bacon and eggs. "... toast," she finished half-heartedly.
"That would be nice, thank you," Mel said.
Five minutes later Ace returned with two slices, butter melting temptingly into them. Her stomach was full enough that she was able to resist the urge to scarf one for herself and gave them to Mel, who accepted them gratefully.
"So if you're here, then the Doctor must be too," Mel said through a mouthful of toast. "That's fantastic, he can ..."
"Ah, no," Ace said. "No Doctor. I'm strictly a solo outfit these days."
"Really? What made you decide to stick around in 1930s San Francisco?"
"Didn't really decide," Ace said. "My time machine broke down--"
Mel's eye widened. "You have your own time machine?"
"I did," Ace said. "Well, still do, it's just broken. It's through in the other room, I'll show you in a minute if you want. Spacetime's all screwy round here. When I got here last summer, just landing it safely knackered the thing. I've been working on repairing it, but ... well. It's a little bit hard using 1930s technology to repair something built by a 22nd century genius who was ahead of her time even then. I mean, do you know what a 'computer' is, as far as most people round here are concerned? It's a woman who sits in a room doing sums for you. Bit hard to explain that you need one to strap onto your bike." Mel raised her eyebrows and Ace smiled at her. "And don't even get me started on trying to brew up explosives in this benighted era. I'm down to my last can of nitro-9, can you believe that?" Ace sighed. "Even the stuff I have been able to jury rig for the time hopper's been ridiculously expensive."
"You've been having to work?" Mel said sympathetically. "You didn't end up being a waitress again, did you?"
"Oi!" Ace said. "Nah, I'm a private detective, mostly." She smiled, but somehow it felt silly saying it to Mel.
"Ace McShane, P.I.," Mel said, rolling the words round her mouth. "It does have a ring to it -- down these mean streets a time traveller must go ..."
"Something like that," Ace said. "It keeps me busy, though. Like, I said, spacetime's all screwy, which means there's plenty of work for someone who has some sort of clue about all that stuff."
"Is that how I ended up here?" Mel said. "Screwy spacetime?"
"You must have been out of it if you didn't notice all the special effects going on," Ace said. "But yeah, I think so. Where exactly did you come from?"
"We'd taken the Nosferatu II--"
"Iceworld," Ace interrupted.
"You can't call it Iceworld when it turns out to have been a spaceship all along," Mel said, sounding very much as though she were repeating an opinion Glitz had reiterated incessantly. "We were on a waterworld ... a planet called Agula. The dominant lifeforms there were water-based, but ..." She flopped back onto the bed, as though the effort of remembering was suddenly too much for her. Ace sat down on the narrow bed next to her and held her hand until it was ready to continue. "When I say water-based, I don't just mean they were like dolphins or something. They didn't have bodies; they were liquiforms, made of water ... or at least, suspended in it somehow, I suppose. There were huge floating cities all over the world, full of people, but they were all slaves to the Agulants."
Ace knew the chorus to this song well enough. "You were trying to free them, weren't you?"
"Of course!" Mel said. "And it was working, too. We'd made contact with some slaves who'd managed to escape, living on the outer skin of the city, out in the sky, away from their masters. You can't imagine it, Ace, what the sky was like for people who'd lived their whole lives looking down like that. But--"
"You were captured, right?"
Mel nodded. "I managed to escape, though. But not until we'd been taken deep into the city, the half-flooded levels where the Agulants held their court. I ran, but I had no idea where I was going. I had to swim through some sections, but everywhere I went it felt as though the water was ... watching me ..."
"And what about Glitz?"
"He'd, ah ... Well, as he'd probably put it, he had already determined that on this particular occasion discretion was the better part of valour."
"Typical," Ace said.
"Eventually I ended up in some sort of storage area," Mel said. "I kept running, but that's the last thing I remember. I must have been scooped up by some bit of 'screwy spacetime' and deposited here."
Ace's ears pricked up. "Storage area, you said? Big long grey boxes?"
Mel nodded slowly, narrowing her eyes. "How did you know?"
"I don't think it was just a freak timestorm or whatever that grabbed you," Ace said. "I think your ... Agulants have got a full-on portal back to the here and now that they're sending these boxes through. When I found you, I'd just seen a bunch of gangsters taking one of those boxes away from the warehouse."
"Oh, come on, that makes no sense. Why would water aliens from the future be sending things to 1930s gangsters?"
"I don't know," Ace said, "but I'm going to find out."
"Right, good, where do we start?" Mel said. She was levering herself up in bed, eager to get involved.
"No," Ace said. "You're still recovering ... and it's dangerous." But, despite the validity of the objections, a plan was beginning to form in Ace's mind.
"I'm fine," Mel insisted. "And what sort of seasoned time traveller would I be if I was put off by a little danger?"
"I'm glad you said that. 'Cos I can think of one way to get into Little Jimmy's place," Ace said. "But it's not going to work for me."
"Mel ... how good are you at dancing?"
* * *
The speakeasy was filled with hundreds of light bulbs in candle-flame-shaped shades; their light shone as it reflected off mahogany surfaces and gilt edgings polished to within an inch of their lives. Scattered around the tables was a cross-section of society, from office workers out for a good time through police officers who were officially supposed to be in the business of shutting down places like this to someone Ace was fairly sure was a state senator.
It wasn't quite as nice as Doc's Place in Chicago had been, but there was something infinitely reassuring about the way the place reminded her of him. And never more so than when the jazz quartet were playing on stage, as they were now, improvising their way through something that might once have been vaguely related to a Gershwin tune.
Ace sat patiently at the bar until Frankie, the owner, reached her. "Club soda, please," she said.
"McShane, I swear you're the only person I know comes in here but never drinks," Frankie said, as he started to prepare her drink.
"I just like to stay sharp, is all," Ace said.
"This isn't a social visit, then," Frankie said. "You want information, or you've got a favour to ask me."
"You did say you owed me," Ace pointed out. "Marco's the best bouncer you've ever had, you said. How could you ever repay me, that sort of thing."
"Yeah, about that. I was talking to Marco the other day -- his English is really coming on, y'know? -- and he says you did him a huge favour by getting him the job."
It was true enough. Marco -- really Marcus Sertorius Metellus, a decurion of the Ninth Legion washed up here in San Francisco by some wild ebb in the tides of time -- had been homeless and starving when Ace had found him, barely able to function in the 20th century.
"I just think it's a funny thing," Frankie went on, "how everything always seems to shake out so that everyone ends up owing you a favour."
"Maybe I'm just a very helpful person," Ace said.
"I'm sure you are, but still, let's call that one quits, huh?"
"Fair enough," Ace said.
"So what were you wanting?" Frankie said, as he put her drink down on the counter.
"You do business with Little Jimmy, don't you, Frankie?"
"McShane, you don't do my kind of business in this town without doing business with Little Jimmy. The man supplies half the hooch in the whole of Northern California."
"I know, Frankie, I know."
"This about that Westerfield case?"
"Word gets round fast in this town," Ace said.
"I don't know if it gets round, but it always gets to me." Frankie picked up a perfectly clean glass and started wiping it with his bar towel. "You know Little Jimmy tried to buy her out? Right after Mr. W. died, before the funeral even. Offered her way over the odds, too. I assume he thought he could use all that distribution infrastructure to make his deliveries faster. I dunno."
"Maybe," Ace said. It made perfect sense: if the Outlaws owned the warehouses, there'd be no need for all the sneaking about and skulduggery. They'd have been able to take many more deliveries, too. Black out the windows and soundproof the place and you could run the teleporter day and night without attracting any undue attention. "My point is, that Little Jimmy would believe you. If you told him things. About, y'know, business."
"Sure, I think so," Frankie said. His eyes narrowed. "What exactly do you want?"
"Well, let's say a dancer went to ask for a job at his club. And gave you as a reference, saying they'd been dancing for you here for a couple of years now, and on the off chance anyone were to actually follow through and check, you'd just say it was true, even though it wasn't?"
Frankie threw his head back and laughed. "Oh, McShane, you crack me up. Who do you think you are, a G-man in some bad talkie setting up a sting? There's no way even the most junior wannabe in the lowest ranks of the Outlaws don't know exactly who you are. And it's not exactly as though you're quite the type for dancing."
"Which means it's not you, it's some other broad you've finagled into your crazy scheme. I sure hope she can look after herself. Then again, you wouldn't send her in there if you didn't think she could."
"You know," Ace said mildly, "it's not really a conversation if you just keep telling me what I'm about to say."
"So tell me something I'm not expecting to hear," Frankie said.
"I think I might be in love with her."
"Well, OK," Frankie said. "That qualifies."
"It's stupid," Ace said. "I mean, I met her years ago and that was ... well, it changed my life. In so many ways. And now, here she is back in my life again, and we're straight back into doing stupid, dangerous, amazing, exciting stuff together and--"
"Seems to me I'm not the person you need to be telling all this," Frankie said with a twinkle in his eye.
"Will you vouch for her if Little Jimmy calls you?"
"Sure, why not?" Frankie said. He stopped for a moment and put back down the glass he'd been pretending to clean. "It's all coming to an end, you know," he said, more deliberately than his usual easygoing banter. "Me, Little Jimmy, the whole thing. There's this bill going through Congress, they're going to start allowing beer and wine again. Well, the boring sort of wine, anyway. Won't be too long after that before everyone can drink whatever they want again, no need to sneak around. No moonshine, no knowing the password to get into a bar, no cops looking the other way ..." He looked over briefly at the table where the policemen were drinking their whiskies.
"What's your point?"
"Little Jimmy knows all of that what I just said every bit as much as I do. He didn't get to the top of the heap in the underworld without being a ruthless son-of-a-bitch and he's going to fight just as dirty as he always has to stay there. It's all coming to an end, McShane, and that just makes Jimmy all the more dangerous."
Ace took out a crisp $50 bill and laid it down on the counter. "Keep the change, Frankie," she said.
"Oh, no, no, no," Frankie said, taking it over to the cash register and meticulously making change. "Not this time." He carefully unfolded the notes and laid them on top of each other. "For one thing, lying to Little Jimmy is a lot more than fifty bucks' worth of danger." He smiled as he deposited a few coins on top of the stack of notes. "But mostly, I want to see what happens when you owe me a favour for once."
Ace smiled back and scooped up her change as she left.
* * *
With Mel's cover story in place, the only thing left to do before sending her into the lion's den was getting her something suitable to wear. She'd already changed from her futuristic outfit into one of the few dresses in Ace's closet, but it didn't fit her at all well and even if it had, it wasn't exactly the sort of thing that would work for a dancing audition. So they'd come to the Emporium to get her something more suitable.
"What do you think?" Mel asked as she emerged from the fitting room wearing a strappy sequin-covered dress that went down to her knees.
"I think it needs ... this." Ace picked up a feather boa from a nearby rack and draped it across her shoulders. As she leaned in to do so, she was nearly overwhelmed by the urge to leave her arms there, and lean in close to kiss her, but controlled herself. That could wait until after they'd dealt with the case.
Mel looked at herself in the mirror. "I'm not sure. There was one over there ..." She headed off into the depths of the clothing racks and grabbed a slightly longer but lower-cut dress, before heading back into the fitting room.
When she emerged again, she gave a little high kick, showing off the way the skirt was slit almost to the waist on one side. "That's more like it," she said. Ace noticed that she was still wearing the feather boa, even though it didn't match the new dress at all. "Yes, I think this will do very nicely."
"Let's get it, then," Ace said.
"It's quite expensive."
"I think I can bill it to the client as a reasonable investigative expense," Ace said.
"Oh, well then ..." Mel said. "In that case, I want this one and this one and ... oh, definitely this one." She scampered around the shop floor with a grin on her face.
Ace laughed. "Just the one for now," she said.
"Oh, all right," Mel said with mock sulkiness.
As they went over to pay, Ace said, "You know I won't be able to come in with you. The Outlaws would recognise me in a second."
"Don't worry," Mel said. "It's not overly dangerous. I go in, wow them with my dancing abilities, then get made the headline act for the night within a few hours, creep out when it's all over at eleven o'clock and open up the back way for you to get in, and then we can get to the bottom of things. That's right, isn't it?"
"Oh, well, if it's as easy as that ..." Ace said. "I mean, I wasn't worried. I was just disappointed I won't be able to see you dance. Obviously."
Mel's nose twitched with amusement. "Well, you never know, maybe I'll give you a sneak peek of my routine."
* * *
Ace looked at her watch. It was quarter past eleven, just as it had been the last three times she'd checked, and still no sight or sound of Mel. She turned the corner to look into the alley again, and ran straight into a man with a red handkerchief tied across the bottom of his face and a huge scar running across the bridge of his nose, between eyes that he was trying his best to make look scary and reptilian.
"Well, look at this," he said. "If it ain't Ace McShane, P.I." He put sarcastic emphasis on the final two letters.
"Snake Eyes," Ace said. "Since you're never pleased to see me, I'm just going to skip to assuming that that is a gun in your pocket."
"That's right, it is, so don't crack wise," Snake Eyes said. "But funnily enough, just for once I am pleased to see you."
"Really?" Ace said, unable to keep her voice from rising with genuine fascination.
"Everyone knows you deal with all that weird stuff," Snake Eyes said. "That's your thing, apart from being a broad who likes to play at being a detective."
"Whereas you're just a toerag who likes to play at being a person, I suppose."
"Shut up. I want your help"--Snake Eyes looked like he was about to spit to get the taste of the words out of his mouth--"but I'd be almost as happy to kill you. You know what happens when a rattlesnake looks at you, really looks at you? It's got you in its sights, then, and you are going to die, it's just a matter--"
"They call you Snake Eyes because you always lose at craps," Ace interrupted. "It's not really all that scary."
"Didn't I already tell you to shut up?"
"You did, but I don't take orders from bilge-bags."
"I'm warning you ..."
"Look, why don't you just tell me why you want my help? And maybe add in why I should give it to you, too."
"You like weird things, right? Well lately, Little Jimmy's been up to all kinds of weirdness. At first I thought maybe he'd got religion -- it happens, y'know, even in our line of work. He'd keep going on about the imminence of the godhead and all sorts and sometimes I thought I heard him talking to himself in his office."
"The Outlaws works," Snake Eyes said. "It works because it supplies the things that people want that they can't get otherwise 'cos of some stupid law written by uptight pricks in Sacramento or Washington or wherever. It's worked for decades now, ever since the lucky ones out of the forty-niners suddenly found themselves in possession of enough money to do anything at all that they wanted."
The fake history lesson was starting to wear Ace down. "Whatever your point is, can we get to it before midnight?"
"My point is, it's simple, and it works. Give people the things they want but can't get. Take their money. Sure, it's going to have to change when they repeal that dumb amendment, but we can adapt. There are other things people want. Plenty of other things." Ace didn't like the flash of satisfaction in his eyes as he said that, but she ignored it for now. "What Little Jimmy's up to these days, it ain't about that. I told you he was talking to himself in his office? Turned out not so much to himself. He's got this box thing in his safe, the one none of us knows the combination to, and he talks to it." Ace was just about to prompt Snake Eyes to go on when he said, "And the thing is, it talks back. I asked him about it and he told me it was some kind of radio, but I ain't buying it."
"And now he's got you grabbing stuff from warehouses in the middle of the night, where there's a light show like the end of the world," Ace said, trying to forestall a long explanation of things she'd already worked out.
"You know about that, huh?" Snake Eyes sighed. "It ain't right, all of it. It ain't what the Outlaws should be doing. And I want you to help me stop it."
"What's in it for me?"
"Don't act stupid," Snake Eyes said. "Right now, we both want the same thing. It don't take a genius to figure out you're already trying to stop whatever Little Jimmy's got going on."
"Well, if you've worked it out it definitely doesn't take a genius," Ace said.
"All right, wiseacre," Snake Eyes snarled, "how about this? You do what I want, and I don't shoot you. How clever is that?"
"Well, when you put it like that ..." Ace faltered slightly. "My friend gets out safe, too."
"That new Limey dancer?" he said. "She's in on it with you, is she? Huh. I should've figured."
"She gets out too," Ace repeated.
"If I can do that for you, sure. But it might already be too late. Boss ordered her taken to his office as soon as the stage show was over."
"He knew she wasn't on the up and up?" Dread gripped the pit of Ace's stomach.
"I dunno," he said. His voice took on a sarcastic cod-British accent. "Maybe he just wants to get to know her better over tea and crumpets. But he was very specific about it, as soon as they'd hired her."
"How are you going to get us both inside?"
"Oh, that's easy enough," he said. He pulled the gun out of his pocket and waved it at her. "I caught you snooping around and brought you in." He prodded the gun into her back.
"Hey! I admire your commitment to dramatic verisimilitude, but really, not so hard."
"Can it, McShane!"
Ace rolled her eyes and allowed herself to be guided through the front entrance. The guards looked shocked but pleased when they saw exactly whom Snake Eyes had caught. A simple "I'm taking her to Little Jimmy" had sufficed to get them all the way through the warren of passages and rooms that ran not only behind but beneath and through the parts of the club that were open to the clientele to Jimmy's inner sanctum. Ace had been here once before, when she'd been dealing with a kidnapping the Outlaws were mixed up in, and been lucky to get out alive.
As they rounded the corner, she heard a piercing scream from behind the large door at the far end.
"Mel!" Ace shouted, instinctively running ahead.
"Hey!" Snake Eyes shouted after her, picking up his own pace.
Bursting into the office, Ace took in the scene as quickly as she could. At one side, Mel was strapped into something that looked like a dentist's chair, surrounded by things that looked like IV drips that were plugged into her arms in several places. Just as she'd predicted, she'd been given a new outfit for performing on stage -- a short white flapper dress with long tassels, of a sort that had already gone out of style everywhere but on stage.
Standing over her was the huge 6'4" frame of Little Jimmy, fiddling with the equipment with a delicacy that belied his size and strength. On his desk was some sort of viewscreen apparatus, which must have been the box from the safe that Snake Eyes had been talking about.
Little Jimmy turned towards her. "McShane! What the hell are you doing here?"
"Er, I'm Snake Eyes' prisoner," Ace said. She put her hands up. "He'll be along any minute to explain how he caught me sneaking around outside. Honest."
"That rat fink," Little Jimmy said. "I always knew he couldn't be trusted."
"Ace!" Mel said. "You have to get out of here. They'll try to get you too! Go, now!"
"Quiet!" Jimmy snarled, leaning in close to her face.
"I'm not leaving," Ace said to Mel.
"You bet you're not," Jimmy said, pulling a gun from his waist and levelling it at her. "Are you responsible for this broad being here?" He waved the gun to indicate Mel, but too briefly for Ace to take advantage of it not being pointed at her. "'Cos you wanna know something funny? All you did was do us a favour. The High One was very unhappy when we only picked up half last night's shipment. But then you deliver her right to us, no fuss. Very helpful."
"You were right, Ace," Mel said, "the Outlaws are working with the rulers of the planet I was telling you about. But I don't think I really escaped, I think they were herding me to their portal. They wanted Little Jimmy to have me, specifically, for some reason."
"I said quiet!" roared Jimmy.
Just then, Snake Eyes came in. "Hey, boss. I caught McShane outside in the alley--"
"--and cut a deal with her, I know," Little Jimmy said, giving Snake Eyes a look of utter disgust as he turned his gun on him.
"No, boss, it's not like that!" Snake Eyes levelled his own gun at Ace. "I just let her think that to find out what she was up to, I swear."
"Sure you did, Snake Eyes." Little Jimmy turned back to Ace, without moving his gun from where it was trained on Snake Eyes' heart. "Aren't you going to pull your gun on me, make this a proper Mexican stand off?" He paused for dramatic effect. "Oh no, that's right. Everyone knows, Ace McShane never carries a gun." With his free hand, he reached into the other side of his jacket and pulled out another gun. "Whereas I always carry two."
"Maybe I don't carry a gun," Ace said. "But I am carrying a can of explosives that'll blow this whole place to kingdom come. Are you going to risk detonating it?"
"You're bluffing," Little Jimmy said.
"She's really not," Mel said, grinning broadly.
"Analysis complete," came a mellifluous voice from the box on Jimmy's desk. "The subject is correct. This intruder is also a viable subject." The side of the box facing Ace lit up with a red glow, vague shapes moving within it as shades from crimson to burnt orange cycled round inside it. It felt to Ace like watching an aquarium inside a lava lamp. There were occasional vague suggestions of a face in the shifting patterns, but it could just as easily have been coincidence.
"What do you mean?" Little Jimmy asked, turning slightly to face the box without losing sight of Ace or Snake Eyes.
"The intruder is also a viable subject," the box repeated. "Her levels of artron energy are even higher than the current subject."
"You're kidding," Little Jimmy said.
"Clarify," the box said.
"Never mind," Little Jimmy said. "Right, you," he said, waving the gun he was pointing at Ace. "You're next." He backed Ace into the corner next to Mel's chair. He turned his attention to Snake Eyes. "As for you ..."
Snake Eyes swung his own gun round quickly, holding it high to aim at Little Jimmy's forehead. "It's gotta stop, boss. You know this ain't right. It ain't the Outlaw way. You're taking orders from some magic talking box. You're Jimmy Moreno, for crying out loud! You don't take orders from no one."
"You don't understand. You can't understand. This is bigger than everything. What do you want, huh? You think you can replace me, don't you? 'Cos you wanna be the one who everyone's gunning for, I dunno. Don't you get it? We can be gods!"
While they were talking, Ace began to surreptitiously disentangle Mel from the equipment she'd been hooked up to. She had to stop her attempts, though, when Mel laughed suddenly. "Is that what they told you? You're not going to be gods, you're going to be slaves."
"Silence the subject!" the box squealed.
"That does it," Jimmy said. "I'm shutting you up once and for all." Still keeping a gun trained on Snake Eyes, he picked up a spare handkerchief from a pile on his desk to cram into Mel's mouth.
"I don't think so, boss," Snake Eyes said, taking advantage of his distraction to press the muzzle of his gun right against Jimmy's temple. "I want to hear what she's got to say."
"I understand now," Mel said, addressing herself mainly to Ace. "The people on Agula, they weren't just slaves, were they? They were the hosts for the liquiforms. Their blood was the medium they were living in all along."
"Silence!" the box squealed again.
"I'm right, aren't I?" Mel asked.
"Answer the question," Ace said. "Or I blow your little box sky high." While everyone had been listening to Mel, she'd managed to extract her can of nitro nine from the pocket in her trenchcoat where she'd been hiding it. "You can scan this, can't you? You know I can do it."
There was a moment's silence. "Confirmed," the face in the box said.
"So answer the question," Ace said. "And tell Little Jimmy to drop his gun."
"Obey her," the box said to Jimmy. He glowered, but laid his gun down on the table. "A biological substrate is necessary for the mature phase of our life cycle," the box went on to explain. "The young live throughout the waters of Agula, but true consciousness is only possible inside a living host."
"So why have you captured Mel?" Ace asked. "Why do you want me? What's it got to do with artron energy?"
"We must expand," the box said. "The population grows too large, too many of us occupying the same phases. We begin to intermingle, it is ... painful for us. But if we attempted to conquer other worlds in our home era, they would easily destroy us."
"But 20th century Earth's an easy target?" Ace said. "Well, guess what, not while I'm around."
"We found a portal," the box said. "A link across many millennia and light years. But the transition ... damages us. We cannot emerge from the other side."
"Those coffins," Ace said. "They're cryo-units, aren't they? With your slaves locked up inside them? And in their blood, your people."
"It is a glorious endeavour!" the box screeched. "They are honoured to be chosen as the vanguard!"
"Oh, we don't care what you've brainwashed them into thinking," Mel said. "What do you need me for? Or Ace?"
"Artron energy stabilises temporal transitions," the box said. "The vanguard are dormant, but not destroyed. They can be reintegrated by being infused from their current hosts into a being with residual artron energy. We will use you as a temporary host for all our brethren!"
"You wanted me all along. It wasn't just at the end when I thought I'd escaped that you tricked me," Mel said. "It was a trap for me from the very beginning. The escaped slaves weren't free at all, they were just part of the con."
"Your associate was most accommodating in explaining how best to attract your attention," the box said. As the shifting patterns formed a coherent face again for a moment, it seemed to have a smirking quality.
"No!" Mel said. "You're lying. Glitz wouldn't betray me. He's ... changed, I thought he'd ..."
"He merely required sufficient compensation."
"Every man has his price," Little Jimmy said.
"No!" Mel said again, ripping the tubes and tethers off her arms. "You're lying!"
"Would you be consoled by the idea that the level of compensation we finally settled upon was considerably higher than our initial offer?" the box said, the vague face shape inside it twisting into a semblance of a cruel grin.
"Shut up!" Ace shouted, reacting to Mel's distress. "Just explain what's going on. What's supposed to happen after the artron energy reactivates your 'vanguard'?"
It was Little Jimmy who answered that one, and when he did, there was an unaccustomed note of defeat in his voice. "We put them in the booze. The ... offspring, we put the young ones in all the hooch coming out of the distillery."
"Which gets distributed across half the state," Ace said. "And people drink it, and absorb the young into their blood, and they come to maturity inside fresh new hosts and by the time anyone's even got a clue that something's happening, let alone how to fight it, it's too late."
"I didn't understand a word of all that you people just said, about artron this and portal that," Snake Eyes said, peering close to the box. "But I didn't like any of it. Maybe Little Jimmy's right and this is just some sort of wireless receiver. But I bet you wouldn't like it if I bust it up." He swivelled round so that the gun he'd been pointing at Little Jimmy was directly aimed at the shifting face inside. "I don't know what sort of fancy stuff you're made of but there's not much I know of can stand up to a bullet at close range."
"Do not allow him to damage the transceiver!" said the voice from the box. "Without it, the portal will be destabilised."
"That sounds good from where I'm standing," Ace said. "Go on, Snake Eyes, do it."
"Stop them!" the voice shouted. "Moreno, you must stop them!"
Snake Eyes fired.
* * *
The weekend was the first warm one of the year. The clear skies had brought crowds out into the parks to enjoy the Sunday afternoon. Ace was even half-convinced that she'd seen one of the defrosted former Agulant slaves flying a kite. Frankie had reluctantly accepted the job of helping them assimilate, smoothed over by a large sum of money from Ace's repair fund, no longer needed with all the parts they'd salvaged from the Agulant communication device after Snake Eyes had shot it.
It was nearly a month since the showdown at the club. Little Jimmy was still nominally the boss of the Outlaws, but everyone knew who was really in charge now. Already, a lot more gambling tables had appeared in the Outlaws' various establishments, though Snake Eyes himself always refrained. A few days after it had all gone down, Mrs. Westerfield had received a very limited version of the truth, and, after some quibbling, agreed to pay the extra bill for the professional services of the associate Ace had taken on to crack the case.
Said professional associate had stayed in Ace's apartment throughout that time, and Ace had spent many a sleepless night on the couch so that she could have the bed. Not that the couch was particularly uncomfortable; it was more the urges and desires tormenting Ace that had kept her awake. Somehow, between working on the time machine and the rather more mundane cases they'd taken on, and however much Frankie tried to encourage her to come clean about her feelings, it had never quite been the right time for a heart-to-heart.
"There," Mel said. "All done." The interface was installed, and Mel was finally, it seemed, happy with all the diagnostic checks she'd done.
"You're completely sure? I mean, you can spend another two hours playing with it if you like." Ace's gently mocking tone belied the way she had enjoyed watching the concentration on Mel's face as she was swept away by what she was doing.
"It's your time machine, you tell me." But Ace knew that it was; there was something in the way the various parts of the mechanisms hummed that felt right on a subconscious level.
"So," Ace said as she sat herself down. "Where do you want me to drop you off?"
"Well, I can hardly go back to Iceworld, not if Glitz really did sell me out." Mel climbed on behind Ace. "You tried to warn me about him, didn't you? The very first time we met. I should've listened."
Ace twisted her head round to see her. The wind was blowing Mel's hair across half her face, hiding her expression. "Ah, well, you should always listen to me." She reached around to stroke Mel's cheek with her thumb. "Look, cheer up, Doughnut. How about I take you to the end of this century? That is where you came from originally, right? Back home at long last?"
Mel looked wistful. It must have been a long time since she'd been anywhere near her native time period. "Maybe," she said.
"I've been thinking ... You don't have to be a solo operation any more," Mel said, avoiding Ace's gaze in a sudden fit of shyness. "Not if you don't want to."
Ace began to smile uncontrollably. "Are you ...?"
Ace turned around as far as she could in order to kiss Mel. In their awkward position, it could only be a brief kiss, but when it was only the first of many that didn't matter.
"I was wondering when you were going to get round to that," Mel said.
Ace turned back to the controls. "Right then," she said. "Hold on tight."