Hammer and Tongs and a Rusty Nail


For over 25 years, the Wild Cards universe has been entertaining readers with stories of superpowered people in an alternate history.

When a mysterious stranger approaches Wally Gunderson, a.k.a Rustbelt, about running for Jokertown City Council, he doesn’t think twice about it. His first move? Hiring an unlikely campaign manager – Mordecai Albert Jones, the Harlem Hammer. Together they’ll discover the ins and outs of local politics, and whether conspiracy theorist Sparkjob is actually crazy… or just on to something?

 

 

“Call Darcy.”

The voice was faint but crystal clear, in exactly the way Mordecai Albert Jones sometimes imagined would presage the creeping onset of dementia. He paused in dismantling an Imperial LeBaron land yacht, straining to listen past the fading shriek of torn metal. But the scrap yard was quiet; he heard only the thrum of a chill spring wind and clinking of chains somewhere nearby. With a shrug, he tore the junker’s hood down the middle like a piece of tissue paper, extracting the mercury switch from the trunk light.

It was getting difficult to find spare mercury just lying around these days. Many of the heavy metals, really. Either they were valuable, and people stole them—like the platinum in old catalytic converters—or toxic, and over time manufacturers had stopped using them. He couldn’t begrudge a change from the old days that was so much better for the environment, but it meant a growing portion of his diet had to be ordered from sketchy suppliers in eastern Europe. For some reason, a lot of strontium had flooded the market after the horrific events in Kazakhstan. But he wouldn’t touch that stuff with a ten-foot pole. Never would.

“Gosh dang it. Call DAR-SEE.”

Mordecai paused again, his prize pinched between thumb and forefinger. That was definitely a voice. Louder this time. Actually, two voices. It sounded like somebody was having a conversation with a mentally challenged robot.

“Okay. Dialing the pharmacy.”

“No. DAR-SEE.”

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”

The first voice started to giggle. “Doll Carcy.”

“Shall I search for car seats?”

Mordecai glanced at the glass bulb in his hand, its thimbleful of mercury gleaming in the sunlight. Consuming heavy metals was how his ace kept him strong, his bones unbreakable, his flesh impervious. The unusual diet had certainly never seemed to be deleterious to his health. Strontium was better, but increasingly difficult to get without a high tax in moral compromise. Mercury would do in a pinch. But now, listening to the faint surreal conversation unfolding around him, he remembered Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter was supposedly inspired by the mercury poisoning that commonly afflicted hatters of his era, something to do with making felt. Hmmm.

“Tall horsey—aww, nuts,” said the giggly voice. Something plopped to the dirt a few yards from Mordecai, kicking up a cloud of dust with a muted crack.

Okay, that wasn’t a hallucination. Or if it was, Mordecai was already too far gone to worry about it. He walked a few strides and picked up a phone. Fractures spiderwebbed the glass screen.

“Hey there, fella.”

Mordecai held the phone to his ear. “Yes?”

More giggling, but it didn’t seem to be coming from the phone. “Any chance you could call someone for me? It’d be real swell of you.”

That voice…there was something vaguely familiar about it. Which, Mordecai supposed, did nothing to rule out a delusion.

The wind kicked up, and with it, the creak and rattle of chains. “Oh, cripes.”

Aha. Yes. He’d definitely heard that voice before. It’d been a few years, but Mordecai remembered now. He looked up.

Wally Gunderson hung thirty feet overhead, splayed across the face of an electromagnet. The breeze had it swaying like a carnival ride. “Call my friend and tell her—” The metal man broke off in a giggling fit. “—tell her it hap, it, it happappenened again, would ya?”

He sounded drunk, which seemed a little out of character for the ace known as Rustbelt. Not that Mordecai knew him particularly well. They’d been on TV together, kind of, more than a decade ago.

Mordecai frowned. “Are you okay up there? Is that healthy for you?”

It was difficult to read the expression on the iron face. But something about the set of the steam-shovel jaw suggested mild relief. “Whew, you’re real. It sure gets confusing up here.”

Yeah…he didn’t sound right. Poor kid needed help.

“Hold on,” said Mordecai. He set the damaged phone on a stack of tire rims, and the mercury switch atop it. He leapt atop the crane arm holding the magnet, and shimmied to where Rustbelt hung helpless as a pinned butterfly. Mordecai flipped around so that his knees were hooked over the chains, wedged his hands under Wally’s shoulders, then braced his feet against the magnet.

“Oh, they gotta cut the power or I’ll be up here all day, ya know.” Another gust set them twirling like a lazy pinwheel. “Wheee!” said Wally. “I’m kinda strong but—”

“Ready? One-two-three!”

Mordecai yanked on Wally’s shoulders. The joker-ace clanged free. Mordecai launched himself into a backward summersault and landed on his feet.

Wally face planted in the junkyard’s oily dirt. “Oof.” He lay there for a moment, silent and still, which Mordecai found unnerving. But then the metal man rolled over, saying, “Holy smokes. You’re really strong.” He winced, rubbing his shoulders. It sounded like two cast-iron frying pans scraping together. Wally now sported a pair of perfect handprints pressed into the metal.

Mordecai winced. “Should I take you to the hospital?”

Wally saw his frown. “Oh, don’t worry, fella. These bruises’ll go away in time. Tick tock.” Another giggling fit took him. “Hickory dickory dock.”

The stack of steel rims toppled over. The nearest bounced across the dirt to clunk against Wally’s legs. He laughed, pantomiming the exaggerated movements of steering a car. “Vrooom, vroom!”

More rims followed. And an ominous creaking came from various piles of junk and scrap metal, as the taller ones began to sway toward the temporarily magnetized metal man like flowers seeking the sun.

“Let’s get you out of here.” Mordecai grabbed the broken phone and the mercury switch. “You said there’s somebody I can call for you?”

 

Wally lay sprawled on the concrete apron of a repair bay as if making a cement angel, belting out the Minnesota Rouser. Loose tools—wrenches, screwdrivers, and a cordless drill—dangled from his arms, chest, and face.

A pickup truck pulled up on the street adjacent to Mordecai’s motorcycle shop. The woman who emerged from the driver’s side stood practically half of Wally’s size; she cast a disapproving eye over the expired meters of the other cars on the street. Her passenger was clearly too young to drive. Mordecai didn’t have daughters, so it was hard to judge, but he’d put her at about twelve or thirteen.

“RAH, RAH, RAH, FOR SKY-U-MAH! RAH! RAH oh hi, Darcy.” Wally’s head lolled sideways as if his neck were pneumatically actuated and had sprung a leak. The look on his face (Mordecai decided most of the heavy lifting was done by Wally’s eyes) went from a carefree looseness to something a little more focused, almost tender, when he looked at the tween. “Hiya, kiddo.”

“Hi, Wallywally.”

He reached up to touch her face. Mordecai winced, but the girl didn’t recoil from the iron fingers. Wally was surprisingly gentle despite his current state.

She asked, “Did you get stuck again?”

“Yeah.”

“Ugh, Dad.” She rolled her eyes.

Dad. Adoption? Wally definitely hadn’t been a father when he was on the show. If he had, then that other contestant, the winner (What was his name? Jamal…Norwood. He died in Kazakhstan. Mordecai had read about it in the paper. Very sad.) never would have gotten away with his claim against Wally. Not that a guileless kid like Wally ever really had a chance on that stupid show.(Unless the adoption was a response to the accusations on American Hero. Now that was an ugly thought. Also difficult to square with the young man who up and turned his back on TV to go defend helpless strangers halfway around the world. But…)

The tween said, “You have to warn people before you go wandering into scrap yards. Darcy told you.”

“Yeah, I did,” said the driver. “I feel like I was pretty clear on this.”

“Sorry, Darcy. I forgot.” Wally started giggling again, but then his demeanor turned on a dime and he looked ready to cry. “I broke the phone you gave me,” he sniffled.

The new arrivals shared a look. Darcy said, “Ohhh, super. It’s weepy Wally.”

“Guess he was up there a while,” said the tween. “Watch out for your credit cards.” She shrugged, pulled out her phone, turned slightly translucent, and floated out of earshot, her toes dangling a few inches from the pavement.

Darcy placed her hands on her hips and frowned at Wally moaning woozily on the ground. “You always know how to show a girl a good time on her day off, don’t you.”

Mordecai felt bad about not letting him inside, but it had been a job getting him to the shop, and it seemed a bad idea to bring Wally anywhere near the computers. He opened the screen door and stepped outside.

“You must be Darcy.” He smiled, extending a hand. “I’m Mordecai. I’m the one who called you?”

“Thanks for the call.” As she shook his hand, her gaze darted to the sign over the door. He could see the gears turning. And yet, she didn’t flinch from his handshake. Sometimes people did, even if they didn’t mean anything by it. Just a natural self-preservation instinct, he supposed, when you’re meeting somebody who is, quite possibly, the strongest ace in the world.

“Hey, are you—”

Mordecai shrugged. “Yeah. I’m him.”

“Wow.” Darcy nudged the metal man with the hard toe of her shoe, making a gong sound. It wasn’t a kick, really, and was perhaps even mildly affectionate. Or, at least, within arm’s length of affection. “Hey, dingbat. Do you even realize who rescued you?”

“My pal from the junkyard? He’s, really really strong.” Wally sniffled. “Do you think we’ll ever see him again?”

“Oh, for crying out loud—”

Mordecai said, “It’s fine. Will he be okay? I gather the magnet kind of…” He tapped his temple.

“Yeah, it always wears off.” She glared at the prone ace. “Eventually.

Mordecai lifted Wally to his feet. Then the tween came back, slipped her phone in a pocket, and took one of Wally’s arms from Mordecai. It was touch and go for a moment, but she and Darcy managed to keep the metal man upright without getting crushed. The unlikely trio wobbled toward the pickup; Mordecai opened the tailgate for them. Loading unconscious Wally into the pickup bed was another job, owing to the magnetism. Mordecai wondered how Darcy and the tween would have managed on their own.

Wally’s eyes opened. His gaze cast about, and then he focused on Mordecai. “Harlem Hammer.”

Mordecai dipped his head in acknowledgment. He didn’t exactly love that title, but he’d let it slide. Poor kid had a scrambled brain.

“Thank you,” said the metal man.

 

Jube, the walrus-joker who had owned and run the corner newspaper stand in Wally’s part of Jokertown since long before Wally’s card turned, gave him a friendly nod. “Wally Gunderson. Haven’t seen you in a while.”

“I’ve been feeling kinda crummy the last few days.”

The day after his magnet misadventure, he still wasn’t feeling like himself, so he’d asked a favor of his friend Michelle. Ghost (Wally had given up using her real name, Yerodin, otherwise she bristled, and when she bristled she played with knives) was getting the better end of the deal, a sleepover with her friend Adesina, who could fly. It made him feel like a lousy parent, but then, in his addled state, if he’d tried to be a parent to Ghost just then, he would’ve done a real bad job, and felt even lousier.

“Sorry to hear it. How’s the little one?”

“Oh, gosh. She’s good. So good. Yeah…” Wally paused, looking for a natural way to turn the conversation. “Real good. Um, hey, speaking of all this stuff, do you happen to know a real strong fella who’s got a motorbike fixin’ store up in Harlem?”

Jube raised his bushy eyebrows to the point it looked like they would disappear under his hat. Wally had asked him about it once, and remembered it was called a porkpie hat, though he still didn’t know why.

“Mordecai Jones? Of course I do.” Jube’s wire-brush mustache twitched into a frown. “Oh, Wally, tell me you’re not tussling with him. I know you can take care of yourself, but Mordecai, you’re not in his class. He’d ball you up like so much tin foil.”

“Tussling?” It was Wally’s turn to frown. “Oh, you mean fighting. Heck no! Gosh. No, he did something real swell and I want to say thanks,” said Wally, hoping Jube wouldn’t pry for details. If pressed, he’d end up telling the whole story. Truth, he often felt, was like steam. It always leaked out eventually. Especially from himself, who in that regard was little better than a rusted-out teapot.

Jube looked relieved. “Everybody knows Mordecai or, at least, knows of him. But he generally keeps a low profile. I recall he was a little more active back in the old days, though I think even back then he was never entirely keen on the adventuring ace thing.”

Jube paused to make change for a joker woman with kaleidoscopically shifting paisley patterns on her skin; she bought gum, cigarettes, and a copy of the Financial Times. Wally thought the pink newspaper was kinda neat.

“He’s never been a regular customer,” Jube continued, “not being a Jokertown resident. But I do see him once in a while. Loves the Times crossword puzzle, that one.”

Wally perked up. “Oh, that’s super. Thanks, Jube! I know the perfect thank-you gift. Heck, one time I even went in disguise as the president of a crossword puzzle club.”

Jube stared at him, unblinking. “I…How’s that?”

And just like steam, the story started leaking out. Wally was proud of this one; he considered it one of the more clever ideas he’d ever had. “It was back when all them folks were getting snatched. Remember that? Well—”

“Mr. Gunderson!”

A man in a tan suit waved at Wally across the street.

“Aw, nuts.”

Jube rubbed a sleeve of his Hawaiian shirt across one tusk. “Friend of yours?”

“Not really. But he sure acts like it sometimes.”

The man, who appeared to be a nat (though Wally tried not to judge people on their looks), dodged traffic to join them. He was quick on his feet; despite crossing against the light, he didn’t get a single horn honk or finger. Wally hadn’t known that was possible.

“Mr. Gunderson. I wonder if you’ve given any more thought to my suggestion?”

“Uff-da.” Wally sighed, running a hand across his face (grind, clang). “Look, fella, it’s nice of you to think of me, honest, but I’m just not the kind of guy for politics.”

Wally got more than his share of politics with his work for the Committee. So much so that sometimes he wanted to quit and spend that time at home with Ghost—the large amount of time he spent out of the country had been a knock against him during the adoption process. But he never did quit the Committee because it was kinda his fault it existed in the first place. And sometimes it did good things.

Though it wasn’t entirely steady work. As he’d once told his friend Jerusha before she died, the only thing he was really good for was wrecking stuff. Which is why he had been so glad to get the offer to do demolition work for Mr. Matthews’s company, Aces in Hand. That wasn’t steady, either—it wasn’t every day somebody needed a building torn down—though it had picked up recently.

Jube’s eyebrows did that thing again. “Politics?”

Tan-suit man gave him a wide smile, nodding like his neck was one of those paint-can shakers at the hardware store. “Morlock-and-Eloi is stepping down from the city council. There’s going to be a special election to fill the empty Jokertown spot.”

Jube, who knew the neighborhood better than anybody, shook his head. “This is news to me. Why’s she quitting?”

Tan suit shrugged. “Illness, I gather.” He looked down, shaking his head the tiniest bit, the way people do when they hear that the friend of a friend’s cousin’s pet died and don’t want to seem callous.

“You seem to know a lot about J-town politics.”

“Randall McNath, Joker Anti-Defamation League.” Tan suit gave Jube a vigorous handshake. “A pleasure. Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Jube.” Jube chuckled. “You’re clearly already acquainted with Mr. Gunderson. So you don’t need me to tell you that he’d be a fine representative for the people of Jokertown.”

He always said things like that. It was nice and all, him being so concerned about the neighborhood, and a member of the Joker Antidefathingy, and not even a joker himself. But just because it was flattering didn’t mean it was true or, frankly, very well thought out.

“Well, it’s real swell of you to say such nice things, but I tell ya, buddy, I wouldn’t be a good fit.” Wally looked at Jube for support. The walrus-man was staring at Wally hard, his eyebrows low over his eyes. “Right, Jube?”

Jube fiddled with a pile of magazines, absently squaring and re-squaring it. “The more I think about it…It doesn’t sound so crazy to me, Wally. Nothing against Morlock-and-Eloi, of course, salt of the earth that woman, but if I had to be honest, she was never quite the same after the fight club took her. And you’d probably be the most honest guy to ever stand for any public office.”

“Aw, nuts. Not you, too?”

Jube shrugged. “I’m just saying.”

Mr. McNath launched into his paint-shaker nod again. “Exactly! So am I.” He turned again to Wally. “As a member of the Committee, you’ve traveled around the globe, trying to make things right for people. But on the city council, you could do the same for your friends, your neighbors, even your family. Like your work for the Jerusha Carter School—which I applaud, by the way. Little acts of betterment every day, without people shooting at you. It’s getting merchants to shovel their sidewalks promptly, not stopping genocides. It’s improving signage for school crossing zones, not dodging Exocet missiles in a border dispute.”

Wally frowned. “The genocide stuff is important, too.”

For the first time since he crossed the street, Mr. McNath stopped fidgeting for a moment. He just stared. But a moment later he was nodding again. “Yes, yes, of course it is. So, think of the city council as in-addition-to, not instead-of.” He sure talked fast.

But he was sorta convincing, too.

 

As an apology for ruining her day off with the mess at the scrap yard, Wally took Darcy out to breakfast. Hollandays was her favorite place for sit-down morning food, and he often felt the need to apologize for something, so they were regulars. The food wasn’t too bad, though the corned beef hash didn’t come with a slice of Spam on the side the way his dad did it back home. But that was okay.

Their table was quiet but for the clinking of silverware in his hands and the occasional crinkle of folded newsprint. Darcy always read the paper while she finished her coffee.

She sipped, then clinked the cup back into her saucer without looking away from the paper. Once again, their server seemed to appear out of thin air, swooping by to replenish Darcy’s nearly-full cup. The service was particularly attentive today: because Darcy would have to go straight to the precinct from the restaurant, she wore her uniform. Wally wondered if maybe she’d timed it that way on purpose. People got real nice when they saw the badge.

He spread boysenberry jam on another piece of toast, then used it to mop up the last of his eggs Benedict. He could never remember what it was called, but he liked the fancy yellow sauce they poured on top of the eggs. He had the impression it might have been invented there.

Darcy sat up, sloshing coffee. “What the hell is this?”

Wally started. The stainless steel butter knife in his hand dissolved into a fine orange powder. “Oops,” he said, scattering rust across his plate, the formerly white tablecloth, and her coffee.

Looking for their server, he said, “What is what?”

Darcy held the paper up between them, smacking it lightly with the back of her fingers.

He leaned forward, squinting. “Oh, yeah! I forgot all about that. Neat, huh?”

She glanced at the paper again. “You forgot that you’re running for city council?”

Wally caught their server’s eye, pointed at the rust on the table, and the remaining silverware, and shrugged, mouthing, “Sorry.” To Darcy he said, “I mean, I forgot to tell you about it. Only Ghost knows. Oh, and Jube. And that real nice fella who suggested it in the first place. And now you. And I suppose all the people who see it in the paper. But it’s only”—he checked his watch—“seven-thirty in the morning. So you’re one of the first.” He grinned.

Darcy placed the folded newspaper over her plate. “Okay. Walk me through this. You hate politics.”

So he explained the whole thing. He liked the way it made him feel, helping people. Everything the Committee did got so complicated, no matter how obvious and necessary it was. And his other job was just work. It wasn’t a cause and didn’t have a goal, except to make money for Mr. Matthews.

After he finished, Darcy asked, “Did this ‘real nice fella’ give you his card?”

“Nope.”

“Did you ask for one?”

“Nope.”

“And you weren’t the least bit curious about who he was or why he sought you out?”

“Nope.” She watched him as if waiting for more. So he added, “I figured he’d heard about me. Maybe from the other parents at school.”

“But if you wanted to talk to him again…”

“Oh, I see him all the time lately. We just keep running into each other, like, one coincidence after another. Crazy!”

“Uh-huh. But if somebody wanted to go talk to him, how would she do that?”

“I’m sure he’s in the phone book. Oh! I remember now. He works for the Joker thingamajiggy.”

It took a while to unravel that, but she eventually figured out what he meant. He didn’t understand why she was getting grumpy about the whole thing. After all, her job was all about helping people. He said as much.

At that, her expression softened. She put her hand on his arm. “Hey, I’m not trying to rain on your parade. You’re a really good guy and I know you’d take working on the city council as seriously as you take raising your daughter. And thanks to you she probably won’t grow up to be an axe murderer. You’d pour your big stupid heart into it. And probably drive people crazy and maybe, just maybe, do some good along the way. But have you really thought this through? The city council in New York City is a world apart from the city council in Mountain Iron, Minnesota.”

“Back home that was Mr. Lacosky, the principal, and Mrs. Pikkanen, who owns the gas station and bait shop.”

“See, that’s exactly what I mean.” She squeezed his arm before withdrawing. “Are you sure about this?”

He thought it over. “Yep.”

“Then I wish you the very best of luck, and I hope the people of Jokertown will soon be fortunate enough to have you in their corner.” She picked up the paper again. “And anyway, your opponent is completely off her nut. So that’s another point in your favor.”

“Opponent?” That made it sound like a boxing match. He didn’t like that. He’d had the impression there wouldn’t be anybody else. Truth be told, that had been no small part of the appeal of running in the first place. The eggs Benedict turned a little bit sour in his stomach.

Wally leaned across the table, giving the small item in the paper a more careful read-through: Local Activists Throw Hats into J-Town Council Race. He wondered which of his hats he’d have to give up. The fella in the suit hadn’t mentioned that part. He also hadn’t mentioned Jan Chang, who was listed as another candidate for the empty Jokertown seat.

“You know her?”

“Oh yeah. She once accused me of using parking tickets as a cover for attaching extrajudicial GPS tracking units to prominent citizens’ cars without a warrant. Said I was working to usher in a one-world-government junta by making it possible for the Illuminati drones to know exactly where to find and kill those same prominent citizens in a ‘decapitation strike.’” Wally didn’t understand any of that. Darcy raised her cup as if to take a sip, then saw the rust floating on it, and put it down again. “If there’s some crazy claim going around, Jan is probably behind it. Everybody knows better than to believe her, of course.”

That was sad. It made him feel sorry for this lady.

Darcy balled up her napkin and tossed it on the table. “The more I think about it, I’m almost looking forward to the round-table forum. Between you and her, it’ll be one for the record books. I wonder if my DVR can record public-access cable.”

He missed most of that. “What kind of table?”

“I mean the candidates’ forum.” Darcy ran her finger to the very bottom of the little two-inch piece about the special city council election. “There’s a list of events.”

So there was. He sighed. “Aw, cripes.”

 

Mordecai was popping the fuel tank from a 1960 Moto Guzzi Cardellino when a battered, rust-splotched Impala came to a noisy stop (squeaky brakes) on the street nearby. Mordecai knew from the parking job that it wasn’t Darcy behind the wheel. Plus, she didn’t seem to be the kind of woman who tolerated unfixed fender benders and naked Bondo.

Wally blinked in the sun, looking a bit confused, as if he didn’t remember being here a few days ago. He definitely had been, as the cracks in the concrete floor of the repair bay could attest. He took a few steps toward the shop entrance, then froze, looking up. He turned in place, head craned back, presumably searching for magnets. Wiping his oily hands with a rag, Mordecai went to the office.

Rochelle, who managed and kept an eye on the front of the shop when Mordecai was working (though it had been a very long time since anybody had tried to rob the Harlem Hammer), turned as he entered. She indicated Wally behind the counter, the shifting of whose jaw suggested a smile.

“This gentleman is here to see you.”

Wally waved. “Howdy! You probably don’t remember me, but I was here a few days ago. I’m Wally, by the way.”

“I remember. You seem to be doing better.”

“Gosh. I was in a jam and you sure helped me out.”

Mordecai shrugged. “You clearly needed help. I’m glad it worked out and that you’re okay.”

Wally offered his hand. Mordecai moved to shake it, but then he realized the metal man’s iron fingers were curled around something. A frayed tuft of green ribbon dangled from his palm. “I brought you this to say thank you for pulling me down and being so swell about it. Here.”

He turned his closed hand over Mordecai’s cupped palms. The ribbon had been used to bundle together a collection of mechanical pencils, click erasers, and ball-point pens. A mismatched collection, but new and nice.

“Uh. Thank you. But it really isn’t necessary.”

“I heard that you’re a crossword puzzler fella, so I thought, what does a guy who does crosswords need? Pencils! And then erasers, too.” Wally pointed at the click erasers. “But then I also thought, he seems like a sharp one, and I heard sometimes real smart people even do the puzzles in pen. So I got them pens, too.” He pointed again, elaborating, “In case you do the puzzles in ink, see.”

Rochelle, turning red with the effort not to burst out laughing, excused herself. As she headed for the break room, Mordecai said, “Thank you, Wally. This is very nice—”

“Oh! I forgot the extra leads. For the pencils, you know.” Wally fished around in the breast pocket of his denim overalls and retrieved a little plastic cylinder.

Mordecai took this, too. Wally seemed to be waiting for something, so he said, “You know what? I’ll use them every day. I haven’t missed the daily puzzle in years. Thank you.”

“You betcha.” Wally looked around. “Sure is a nice fix-’em-up shop you got here.”

“Uh, thank you.”

“You know, I was in that scrapyard the other day because I sorta accidentally rusted up the handlebars on this other fella’s bike. He got kinda sore about it so I was looking for a replacement…”

Mordecai laughed. “Hey, that’s what we do. If you have the model information, leave it with Rochelle, and have the owner call us.”

“Oh, that’s swell! I’ll pay, ’cause it was my fault.” Wally beamed. Or seemed to. (Damned if it wasn’t tricky, reading that metal face.) But he didn’t appear in a hurry to go anywhere.

“Would you like a tour?”

“Gosh, that’d be neat.”

So they went through the side door into the repair bay containing the partially disassembled Moto Guzzi and the ghostly scent of gasoline. “Neato,” said Wally, not really looking at anything. Speaking over the radio, which Mordecai hadn’t bothered to turn off and which was now playing something from the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the joker-ace said, “Um. So, hey, fella, this’ll sound nuts, but did you know we’ve met before? I mean, before the other day. Years ago.”

Aha. So that’s what this was about. Mordecai wanted to hash this out even less than he wanted to chow down on a barrel of accursed Kazakh strontium. But even though he could see the slow-motion train wreck coming from a mile away, he felt powerless to avoid it. Even the strongest man in the world couldn’t change the path of a loaded freight train once it was barreling down the tracks. Not without hurting a lot of people. He sighed.

“On the TV show.”

“Oh. You do remember American Hero.” The metal man’s tone of voice suggested he hoped nobody remembered.

“I sort of regret doing it. I thought I’d have more opportunities to mentor younger folks.” Mordecai figured he had a good thirty years on Wally.

“I wish I’d never been on the show at all. But I’m still glad I applied to be a contestant. I mean, it was exciting at first and all, and I suppose that without it I wouldn’t have the life I have today, with a daughter and all.” Wally trailed off. “If not for the show, I’d be working in an iron mine right now.”

“I bet you’d be good at that. You certainly have the, uh, look for it.” Did they still use steam shovels? Mordecai didn’t know the first thing about mining. He supposed that nowadays everything was diesel or electric.

Wally took a deep breath. Rivets creaked when his chest swelled. “The thing is, that fella who won? He said I said some stuff I didn’t say. So I just wanted to say that I didn’t say the stuff he said I said.”

And there it was. Way back on the first season of American Hero, Rustbelt had been eliminated from the contest (“discarded,” ugh) after being accused by the eventual winner, Stuntman, of hurling a racial slur at him.

Mordecai closed his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose. Wally seemed decent. Guileless, at the very least. Mordecai remembered the incident, and the flap at the time, and his doubts about the accusation. But the show’s producers had latched onto the narrative twist—it was manna from heaven for people whose livelihoods involved spinning plotted drama from pointless contrived interactions—and that was that. So Wally had gone off to Egypt to defend the helpless, taking a bunch of contestants with him.

But people were complicated. You could never truly know what lurked in somebody’s heart. And Mordecai was so damn tired, furiously tired, of the “I’m not racist, but” types.

When he opened his eyes, Wally added, “Honest.” His skin made a grinding sound and even threw a couple of sparks when he drew his fingertip in a little “x” across his chest.

Mordecai’s gut told him Wally was sincere. He wanted to believe it, at any rate. So he made a decision. Surprising himself a little bit, he said, “Let’s watch the clip, then.”

The shop had several laptops for pulling diagnostic codes from bikes a lot more modern and sophisticated than the Moto Guzzi. And Rochelle had dragged their credit card processing into the twenty-first century with a wireless network. So, after wiping the worst of the grease from the nearest keyboard (an inevitability in a repair shop), Mordecai started searching for, “american hero season 1 clips rustbelt stuntman.”

It took a bit of digging to find the desired needle in a haystack of manufactured drama. But after a few minutes he landed on a listicle titled, “The 15 Most Shocking Moments on American Hero, Seasons I-IX.” Merely reading that made him cringe. He could feel his crossword skill leaking away.

He clicked play. The screen filled with slickly edited footage of Jamal Norwood, aka Stuntman, scrambling to get somewhere ahead of Wally. Mordecai recalled nothing of the hokey weekly challenges, only that they were uniformly inane. And, like this one, often loud. The as-televised segment showed the two aces coming close, Rustbelt’s jaw moving, and then Stuntman whirling toward the cameras, releasing his hold on the Jetboy statue that had been the object of the hunt. Faintly, over the hurricane whoosh of the helicopter, he could be heard screaming, “Did you hear what he called me. What kind of racist shit is that?”

Mordecai turned up the volume as high as it would go and hit replay. It took more than one rewatch, but Mordecai eventually convinced himself he might have heard a barely audible “n—” coming from Wally.

He turned. “Well?”

“I called him a knucklehead.” Wally’s gaze went to the cracked floor. “It wasn’t nice of me. He, just, gosh, that fella was being so mean. I guess he got under my skin. Maybe he did it on purpose.”

Sadly, there would only be one side to this story, as Jamal had given his life in the line of duty, working for SCARE. But Mordecai felt confident that if the man standing next to him was one thing, it was sincere. On balance, he decided, his gut reaction from way back then was affirmed.

“Yeah. I figured as much.”

Wally deflated like a rusted-out lead balloon. “Whew. I’m so glad.”

Mordecai closed the laptop, eager to get back to work. “Worry no more. Go forth and keep doing what you’re doing.”

“That’s actually what I wanted to ask you about.”

Good heavens, there was more?

He nodded at the laptop. “I thought that was it.”

“I thought maybe there’d be no point without clearing up the TV stuff first.”

Jerking a thumb at the disembodied fuel tank, Mordecai said, “I do need to finish this today, so…”

“I’m running for city council so I need a campaign manager,” Wally blurted.

That took a moment to sink in. “I’m sorry?”

The younger ace explained, in a not particularly eloquent but thoroughly transparent way, about a special election in Jokertown.

“Well, I’m flattered. But, for one thing, I abhor party politics, and for another, obviously I don’t live in Jokertown.” Mordecai spread his arms, indicating the shop and, by extension, the neighborhood around it. The spot where they stood was miles north of J-town.

“Nope.”

“Then why ask me?”

“Because you do crossword puzzles and I…don’t. It’s, you know, there are some people who do puzzles and some who don’t. I’m not the kind of person who knows stuff like”—Rusty gestured at the bundle of pens—“I dunno, the French word for ‘beret.’ But I bet you do.” He sighed. “I want to do a good job. But I also know I’m not the sharpest fella. People don’t think I understand that. But I do.”

Despite his better judgment, Mordecai found that admission genuinely touching. And he had no doubt Wally would do the utmost for his constituents. Maybe he wouldn’t have such a healthy skepticism of political games if the players were more like Wally.

“I’ll need to think about it. But first, tell me what role your daughter will play in this campaign.”

“Ghost? Nothing! I mean, she knows I’m doing it, but that’s it. It’s got nothing to do with her.”

“It will until the election. And after, if you win.”

“No it won’t. Not ever.” Wally shook his head. “She was one of them…have you ever heard about them child soldiers? When she was pretty young, some real bad people exposed her to the virus and then they gave her a knife and taught her…” He shuddered. “It’s not what she is, but it’s what they tried to make her. They made her do some bad stuff. Real bad. So I figure, gosh, she’s seen so many bad things in her life. She’s still just a kid, I guess I’m saying, and if I do one thing in life it’s make sure she never again gets wrapped up in grown-ups’ baloney.”

Mordecai never would have guessed the eye-rolling phone-obsessed tween he’d glimpsed a few days ago had been the progeny of a war zone. That spoke volumes about her resilience, but also spoke extremely well of her father.

What the hell. Wally wasn’t exactly a born front-runner. He needed a mentor. And how difficult could it be?

“Good answer,” he said, offering his hand. They shook.

“Cripes,” said Wally, wincing. “You’re strong.”

 

Ghost was haunting the kitchen when Wally emerged from his bedroom. Normally this alarmed him: when she sleepwalked, it meant she’d been having nightmares about her early childhood again. Sometimes Wally had to go through the apartment, count all the knives, and, occasionally, apologize to the neighbors. (She didn’t have many friends for sleepovers. Bubbles and Adesina were real understanding.) He tensed: she was holding something long and thin. But after rubbing the sleep from his eyes he saw it was a paintbrush, not her favorite stiletto. He relaxed.

“Whatcha doing, kiddo?”

When Ghost was deep in thought, the very tip of her tongue stuck from the corner of her mouth. Like it did now. The kitchen smelled like paint.

She leaned over the table, arms outstretched as if she were going to hug her craft project. “Don’t look! Not yet!”

“Okey dokey.” He turned his attention to the coffee pot which, once again, he’d forgotten to set the night before. He resolved to be more organized. If he got on the city council he couldn’t be the kind of guy who forgot to make coffee. He’d have to be the kind of guy who remembered coffee and made sure everybody got some, if they wanted it, but also made sure the people who didn’t like coffee got something else. Like tea, or milkshakes.

He figured the city council was like that.

Once he managed to get a cup filled he rummaged under the sink for the SOS pads and lumbered into the bathroom. He kept the door open so that he could keep an eye on Ghost, balanced the coffee on the vanity, and set about inspecting himself in the mirror for signs of rust. Every blemish got a quick scrub with lemon-scented steel wool.

When finished, he called out, “Can I look yet?”

“Wait!” He heard the scraping of a chair, and Ghost blowing on something. “Okay. You can come back now.”

She floated in the middle of the kitchen table, holding a large piece of poster board in her outstretched arms. It was blank and almost too big for her. But then she spun in mid-air to show him the other side. She’d written

GUNDERSON CAMPAIGN HEADQUARTERS

in puffy glitter paint.

“Oh my gosh. You made this for me?”

She bobbed up and down.

“Well now it’s official, isn’t it? This is super.”

It took a bit of rummaging to find a hole puncher and a good length of yarn, but Wally had it hanging squarely over the kitchen table by the time Mordecai arrived. The dripping had mostly stopped by then, although the “S” in HEADQUARTERS looked a little smeary.

In response to a firm but unaggressive knock, Ghost drifted across the apartment, settled on the floor as she rematerialized, and opened the door. Mordecai stood outside, holding a valise.

“Good morning, young lady. I believe we’ve met. I’m Mordecai.” He offered his hand. Instead of taking it, she curtseyed (where in the heck did she learn that?) and stepped back, motioning him to enter. The boards creaked under him. Wally was glad their apartment was on the ground; he was hard on floors, too.

“You helped Dad. I’m Ghost.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Hi, guy!” Wally waved from the kitchen.

Mordecai joined him, gaze flicking back and forth between Wally and the sign hanging over his head. For a moment, the look on his face got real hard to read. But then he said, “You, uh, have some…” and gestured at his head.

“Nuts.” Wally tore a paper towel from the dispenser. It came away from his forehead smeared blue and stippled with red and green glitter.

He pushed out a chair for Mordecai. But the other man took one look at it and said, “I’d better stand. That’ll break if I sit in it.”

Wally stood. “Here. Take mine. I got the same problem sometimes.” His chair was reinforced. “I insist.”

Once at the table, Mordecai got down to business. From the valise he produced a sheaf of papers, a laptop, and one of the pens that Wally had given him.

“First things first. I went to City Hall yesterday to file your intent-to-campaign form. Here’s the receipt for your check. I can send you a digital scan if you’re doing your campaign accounting electronically. Or should I just give these things to your accountant?” In response to Wally’s blank look, he added, “Or maybe you have a dedicated file for expenses?”

“Oh, sure.” Wally thought about it for a moment. Then he reached over and pulled the empty cookie jar off the counter. “Stick it in here. This’ll work.”

When the crinkling stopped, Mordecai cleared his throat. “Given this is a low-level affair, I think it’s unlikely that anybody is going to come back later and demand to audit your campaign books. Not for something that’ll run its course from start to finish in a few weeks. That kind of thing is usually reserved for big campaigns with official fundraising organizations. And even if there were enough time for the entire process, I’m guessing you don’t want to go through the hassle of filing for a 503(c).”

Wally didn’t get the joke, so he just nodded. “Anything more than 100 sounds pretty expensive.”

“Uh-huh.” Here Mordecai gave the cookie jar a meaningful glance. “Nevertheless, and just in case, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to use an accounting system that’s a little more official. If you see what I mean?”

“Oh, sure. Good thinkin’, pal!”

Wally slid the jar closer and, using Ghost’s paintbrush, covered the word “cookie.” Then in red glitter paint he wrote “money” on the lid. He beamed at his campaign manager over the newly created and very official Money Jar. “I knew you’d be the right fella for this job.”

“Time will tell.” The next set of papers Mordecai produced was fringed with about a dozen yellow adhesive tags. “Okay, speaking of the financials, next is your conflict of interest statement and disclosure forms. By signing these you’re asserting that you don’t own or are invested in any ventures that would directly benefit, financially, from your being on the city council. In other words you’re not doing this to secretly make yourself rich.”

Wally could understand the need for this. He’d seen first-hand dictatorships where the folks in charge got rich while their people had it real real bad. He stole a glance at Ghost, bobbing in a corner as she played on her phone.

“That’s easy. Where do I sign?”

They were still going through the disclosure forms when Darcy arrived, phone to her ear. She gave Ghost a wink as she entered, saying, “Yes, I’ll hold.”

“This is quite a sight,” she added, and then to Mordecai, “Nice to see you again. Welcome to Wonderland.”

Mordecai gave her a friendly nod. “Ma’am.”

She sniffed. “It’s ‘Miss,’ thank you very much.”

She helped herself to a coffee cup and, filling it, said, “Yes hi good morning, I recently met one of your staff members and he gave me his card”—this she punctuated with a meaningful glare at Wally—“but I’m afraid I lost it. If he’s there could you put me through to a Randall?”

Mordecai tucked the signed disclosure forms away, and replaced them on the table with minutes from every city council meeting of the past eighteen months.

“We don’t have to go through these right now, but it would be a very good idea to study them. They’ll give you a good sense of how the council operates, what the major issues have been, and where the various councilors come down on those issues. You’ll see who work with, and against, each other. Knowing the lay of the land will give you a leg up.”

“Holy smokes,” said Wally. The stack was over an inch thick. There sure was a lot of reading to do.

“Oh, by the way, I think this will help when you’re reading those.” Next from the valise Mordecai produced a little booklet titled Robert’s Rules of Order. “City council meetings are run according to a particular method,” he said, tapping the booklet. “It’ll seem strange at first but you’ll get the hang of it.”

Wally leafed through the booklet. (Rules for holding a meeting? Gosh.) “Huh. Meetings of the Committee are done differently. People just yell at each other.”

Meanwhile, Darcy listened to a voice that was only faintly audible to Wally in bits and pieces. But whatever she heard, it made her face twist up in confusion. “Are you sure? Huh, that’s so weird. I could have sworn he said his name was Randall. Can you hold on a sec while I check to see if I jotted it down correctly?”

Then she cupped her hand over the bottom of her phone. “Psst, hey, Mr. Politician, what was this guy’s name? The one from the JADL?”

Wally concentrated. “I’m pretty sure it was Randy. Or Randall? Yeah, that sounds right.”

Darcy frowned and, still looking at him, uncupped the phone. “Well, ‘Randall’ is what I scribbled here. Would you mind checking one more time? Please?”

Wally’s wristwatch started to beep. “Aw, heck.” Across the apartment, he called, “Hey, kid, we gotta go,” and across the table he said, “I’m real sorry, fella, real sorry, but I gotta take her over to the school. Her scout troop is selling cookies. Fundraiser for a camping trip. Ghost volunteered to help unload the truck.”

“No I didn’t,” she objected. “You volunteered me.”

Wally winced. She’d been “volunteered” for the experiment that killed all of her friends and turned her into a killer ace, too. “But you’re excited to go camping, right?”

“I already know how to live outdoors.”

Yeah…she did. Wally was pretty sure that nobody else in her troop could survive in the jungle on her own for weeks. Maybe he’d chosen the wrong activity for her.

“I’ll only be gone half an hour. Promise.”

Darcy, still on the phone, nodded, mouthing, “Of course.” Mordecai said, “This sounds important. You guys go. I’ll keep working on your calendar while you’re gone.”

 

After the door closed behind Wally and Ghost, Darcy looked up from her book. “I have to say, you deserve an award for how well you’re taking all of this in stride.” She nodded at the Campaign Headquarters sign and the Money Jar.

“It’s definitely an interesting challenge.”

“Well, Wally’s lucky to have you on his team.”

“What about you?”

“You mean why didn’t I step up and offer to do what you’re doing? Two reasons. First, I’m a cop and there’s this thing called conflict of interest. Second, I didn’t want to.” She pointed at the Money Jar. “That’s pretty much exactly how I figured this would go down.”

“That’s not very supportive.”

“Don’t get me wrong. Wally is probably the best human being I’ve ever known. But he can be a lot.”

Mordecai sighed hard enough to make his chair groan. She wasn’t wrong. “I’m getting that.”

“But he’d fight tooth and nail and rivet for his constituents. It really is too bad he’s going to lose. And that is where my job will come in.”

“Lose?” Mordecai scoffed. “Miss, I have not begun to flex these yet.” He curled his arms, making his legendary muscles bulge until the stitching in his shirt sleeves complained. Even the floor creaked.

They shared a laugh.

 

The campaign strategy discussion continued over a pile of take-out containers. Darcy had sprung for the meal and, after Mordecai explained to Wally how it was a good idea to categorize things, the receipt had gone into the Money Jar with “campaign contribution: Darcy” scrawled on the back.

Even when he didn’t understand everything, Wally never wavered in his attentive listening. Mordecai could tell he was taking it all very seriously. He found that encouraging.

Working down the checklist on his laptop, Mordecai said, “Okay. Next item. While I was at City Hall, I called up all the other intent-to-campaign forms that had been filed.” Mordecai pulled up a digital scan he’d taken with his phone camera. “The first and, as of yesterday afternoon, so far only other person to join the race is a Jan Chang.”

He turned the screen around so Wally could see. There was no photo but the forms, of course, had her address.

“I oughta go introduce myself.”

Darcy shook her head. “That’s noble, but I know from direct personal experience with her that it won’t go over the way you’re expecting.”

“I sure would like to shake her hand. Just so she knows me and knows I won’t be mean or anything.”

(“Yeah, but what about her,” Darcy muttered.)

“I think it’s a great idea,” said Mordecai, surprising them both. “Perfect way to set the tone for the next few weeks. And because you’re the one taking the initiative, it makes you look good. Even better that you do it informally, without a press release, so people can’t accuse you of a publicity stunt. It’s just two people shaking hands and promising a clean fight. Like boxers before a match.”

“Yikes!” Wally shook his head. “I’m not gonna punch her or nothing like that!”

“Well that’s even better,” said Mordecai, standing. “And if we walk over there, you can meet and interact with your future constituents along the way.”

“Oh, most of ’em already know me.” Wally clanged a knuckle against his forearm. “I’m the metal guy.” He paused for a moment, the look in his eyes momentarily going distant. Then he returned from wherever he’d gone. “Ooh! That should be our slogan! ‘Vote for the Metal Guy.’”

“Hmm. Let’s not settle on it just yet, in case we have other ideas we like. But I’m glad you’re thinking about slogans. Now you’re thinking like a politician,” said Mordecai. “We should settle on one in the next day or so, so we have time to get it printed on your signs.” He nodded at the Money Jar. “That’ll be another campaign expense, by the way, and one of your larger ones.”

“I hope the jar is big enough.”

“But anyway, the people of Jokertown might know and think of you as Rustbelt, founding member of the United Nations Committee for Extraordinary Interventions—”

“Gosh, I’d forgotten the whole name.”

“—and Rustbelt, champion of the Jerusha Carter School, and Rustbelt, local dad.”

(“And Rustbelt, menace to parking meters,” said Darcy.)

“But they don’t yet think of you as Rustbelt, city councilor. That’s what we want. When people think of you, we want them to associate you with the guy who’s going to listen to their concerns. The guy in their corner.”

“Okay, but like I said, I ain’t gonna punch nobody.”

“That’s for the best, I think.” Mordecai zipped his laptop into the valise. “Let’s hit the pavement, team.”

They were almost out the door when Ghost, who had ridden the subway back with her troop leader, said, “Wallywally, your special hat.”

“Cripes, I almost forgot! I got the perfect thing for being a politics guy.” He disappeared into his bedroom and emerged a moment later with a gray silk top hat perched on the iron dome of his head. An elastic chin strap hooked under Wally’s jaw kept it from sliding off. “Snazzy, huh?”

Mordecai looked him up and down. The combination of denim overalls and opera hat was undeniably eccentric, but it wouldn’t merit a second glance in Jokertown.

“You know what?” Darcy said, her mouth curling into a rare smile. “I kinda love it.”

 

The seven-block stroll to Jan Chang’s brownstone took forever because Wally—to his credit—embraced his public debut as a candidate and paused to shake practically every hand, foot, fin, frond, trunk, tentacle, cilium, stalk, pseudopod, antenna, mandible, gill, and claw they passed on the street. (It did go a little more smoothly once they convinced him to stop bellowing, “WALLY GUNDERSON FOR CITY COUNCIL!” every thirty feet.) And he chatted with anyone and everyone. But it was a pleasant spring day, and the cherry trees on Bleeker sweetened the breeze with a blizzard of white petals.

While Wally discussed PTA drama with a fellow parent from the Jerusha Carter School, Mordecai turned to Darcy.

“So. Police officer, huh?”

“Mmm-hmm. The thin blue line, that’s me.”

“What’s your beat?”

“If that’s your roundabout way of asking if I work the Jokertown precinct, the answer is yes. And it’s okay to call it Fort Freak. Everybody does. But it’s not okay to call me a meter maid, even though everybody does that, too. I’m a parking enforcement officer.”

Quietly, watching Wally converse with a person who had the head and neck of a giant earthworm and what appeared to be a humanoid body covered in mackerel heads, Mordecai said, sotto voce, “An endorsement from your fraternity would be a boon for his campaign.”

“I saw this request coming from a mile away.”

“Well, what are the chances? He seems to know lots of people. Does that include your colleagues?”

“Oh, everybody at the precinct knows Wally. Maybe not in the way you’d prefer, though.”

Mordecai started. “You’re not telling me he has a criminal record? I can’t believe that.”

“No, but you should know that for a period of time his list of parking citations was the stuff of legend. Relax, they’re all paid now. I made sure of that. But you know how after he got magnetized you were reticent to bring him inside your shop? Well, let’s just say our budget for paperclips and hard drives went through the roof the last time he visited the precinct.”

“Oh.”

“People still talk about it.”

“In a funny reminiscence kind of way?”

“No. More of a ‘I had to let my perp walk when we lost all the witness statements’ kind of way.”

“So—”

“They’re endorsing Chang. At least until somebody less batso comes along.”

He’d been running the campaign for less than two days, but that stung. “And you?”

“I can’t campaign for Wally inside the precinct any more than I can anywhere else. But we have a few weeks. I’ll work on them. I can change some minds between now and then.”

“Okay. You’re our woman on the inside.”

She shushed him. “Don’t say stuff like that. It’s like catnip to IA.”

Wally’s interactions with passersby dwindled a little as they neared Jan’s place. Halfway down the block, he waved at a familiar figure descending the stairs to the basement of a brownstone. “Howdy, Jube!”

The walrus-joker paused in the act of unlocking the door. He spun, hiding something behind his back. “Oh, well, hey, look at that, it’s Wally Gunderson.” His gaze flitted between Wally and the doorstep of the neighboring building. Under his breath, he added, “On this street.”

“What are you doing here, buddy?”

“I, uh, live here,” said Jube, eyes scanning the windows of the neighboring building. The drapes twitched. He reached for his door. “Well, good to see you, I’d better—”

Darcy stepped forward. “Jube, one moment, please,” she said in what was clearly her cop voice.

The walrus turned again, tipping his hat to her. “Afternoon, Officer Ackerman. Didn’t see you there. Well I’m sure you’ve got places to be—”

She spoke over him. “I believe that on Monday of this past week, you and Mr. Gunderson together encountered a person who expressed enthusiasm for city council politics. Is that correct?”

“Yes—”

“I don’t suppose you recall his name.”

Mordecai had to admire her technique. Everybody knew Jube never forgot a face or a name or the tiniest crumb of gossip. By indirectly challenging this, she hooked him by the pride. He stopped inching toward the door. “Of course I do: Randall McNath. From the Joker Anti-Defamation League.”

She frowned. “Are you absolutely certain?”

Jube looked pained. “Come on.”

“Thank you for your help, citizen.”

He glanced at the neighboring house again. “Well, if that’s everything—”

“Enjoy your day.”

Jube spun for his door, unlocking and opening it at the same moment his neighbor’s door swung open. A woman wearing extremely thick dark glasses stormed onto the stoop of the adjoining brownstone. Jube’s shoulders sagged.

“A-ha,” she declared, pointing at him over the railing. “I knew it. I knew it. I caught you red-handed.”

Wally looked at the number on the mail slot, then compared it to the number written on his arm in puffy glitter paint. “Oh my gosh. Are you Miss Chang?” There was a brief grinding of metal when he scratched his temple, as if trying to remember something. “Oh, hey, I know you! You were in Texas with all them band kids. Me, too!”

The newcomer ignored him, anger focused on the walrus. “I knew you were spying on me for the enemy camp.”

Mordecai raised his hands in what he thought would be a supplicating gesture. “Whoa, hey, we’re not—”

“I won’t be threatened.” Little arcs of electricity leapt the gap between her teeth when she raised her voice, exhorting random passersby to take out their phones and record her assassination. “They can’t get all of us!”

“—enemies,” he finished quietly, backing away.

(Darcy said, sotto voce, “I warned you guys.”)

Jan saw Darcy and, finally, Wally. “Oh, I get it. I get it. I see what’s happening here. The NYPD cites me for some made-up offense, the paper injects me with their subcutaneous tracking technology, and then he watches me through the holes in the walls, reporting every move until the time is right to take me out. Then they install their robotic minion—”

(“Hey,” said Wally.)

“—and before you can say ‘Annunaki overlords’ the rest of the city council has been mesmerized. Then, boom! Rents spike up to a thousand dollars per square foot while economy-destroying tycoons chew up our neighborhoods and turn us into hyper-abstracted financial instruments in a gigantic spreadsheet somewhere.”

Jube asked, “Why would I have to watch you if they’re already tracking you?”

Good question, thought Mordecai. But, having read the room, so to speak, he kept this to himself.

“Well, the joke’s on you, Jube. I’m installing steel plating over the drywall. Every inch.” She tapped her temple. “Try drilling through that! Ha.”

Wally stepped forward. “Gosh. I think we got off on the wrong foot. I just wanted to introduce myself and say—”

Though he was twenty feet away, she shrank from his outstretched hand. “I won’t fall for that. You think I don’t know that they know that a walking Faraday cage would be the perfect assassin for me? Ha.” She leaned forward, sniffed the air, then retreated against the wrought-iron bannister, where the snap and crackle of corona discharge filled the street with the metallic stink of ozone. “What’s in that microsyringe, Mr. ‘Wally Gunderson’?” She raised her gloved hands and waggled her index fingers in the air when she said Wally’s name. “Polonium? Weaponized anthrax? Xenovirus Takis-H? Yeah, that’s right, I know all about strain ‘H.’ Or maybe it’s something special cooked up by your reptoid shadowmasters in Majestic-12.”

“I don’t know what any of those words mean, ma’am.”

“Stooges never do.” Jan stepped inside. “I’m sweeping for bugs after you leave, so don’t bother dispersing your aerosolized drones.” Then she slammed the door. A fading glow of St. Elmo’s Fire limned the door.

Silence, like the fading echoes of a thunderclap, enveloped the street.

“Cripes,” Wally sighed, effectively summarizing the encounter.

Darcy nodded. “Yeah. Definitely recording the forum.”

Wally noticed the package behind Jube’s back. “Hey, whatcha got there, fella?”

“What, this? Nothing.”

“It looks like a sign. Hey, you know, I’m gonna have some signs printed up real soon. Maybe you could…”

Wally trailed off when Darcy laid a hand on his arm. She pointed at the windows of Jube’s brownstone. All but one held a sign reading

JAN CHANG FOR CITY COUNCIL

Wally’s shoulders slumped.

“Don’t take it personally. And she’s really okay most of the time. It’s just, since the city council thing…” Jube shrugged. “I can’t keep replacing my appliances.”

 

Wally lay in bed, reading the city council minutes that Mordecai had acquired.

It was slow going. He didn’t read real fast, for one. And for another, everything the councilors said involved quorums and motions and seconds and points of order and yeas and nays, so he had to keep Robert’s Rules of Order in one hand and the minutes in the other, practically reading both at the same time. It was like a different language. But he kept at it. He had to know this stuff.

He soon noticed that Jan Chang appeared frequently in the public comment sections. She used a lot of terms like “amortization,” “Bohemian Grove,” “credit default swap,” and “Illuminati.” He’d found he needed a dictionary on the nightstand, too, to piece through the meeting minutes, but even this didn’t help with a lot of what Jan said.

He paid particular attention to the places where the councilors for Jokertown spoke up a lot. In addition to Morlock-and-Eloi on the council, there was Mark Benson, whose dentist’s office was just down the street. When it came to Jokertown issues, he and M&E usually agreed, though they’d been on opposite sides of a debate over something called the Annex Nine Phase Two Redevelopment. Whatever it was, M&E had been dead-set against it. Vocally so.

Overall, she seemed to have taken seriously her responsibility for Jokertown and its residents. Too bad she’d gotten sick.

 

“It’s as if he doesn’t exist.”

Mordecai bent steel pipes around a frame, listening to Darcy. One advantage his repair shop had over many others was that he could bend all the metal by hand, thus faster and cheaper than shops that had to use torches and hammers. It was also the only motorcycle shop in the city—and the only establishment in Harlem, period—with a WALLY GUNDERSON FOR JOKERTOWN sign in the window (“THE METAL MAN WITH THE METTLE TO SOLVE YOUR PROBLEMS!”).

“Maybe the JADL fired him,” he said. “That would explain why he’s not in their phone book.”

“No.” Darcy shook her head. “I went down there. They’d never heard of him. And you don’t think that’s weird?”

“If he really did claim to work there…” Mordecai conceded the point. “Yeah, it’s weird.”

“At first I thought Wally had misremembered—”

“I can understand how you might have thought that.”

“—but then Jube confirmed what Wally had told us.” She was pacing now.

“It’s not as if this Randall person, or whatever his name is, actually committed a crime. Just to play devil’s advocate, all he did was convince Wally to run.”

“First of all, are we really sure that’s not a crime? And second, he did so under a false name, claiming false credentials. Honest people don’t do that.”

“Well, sure. I’m not saying it isn’t hinky. But I don’t see the play here. Wally is honest to a fault. It’s not like they’re installing somebody who can be bribed.”

“I don’t have an answer for that yet,” said Darcy, “but here’s the really worrisome thing. Not only did he give Wally and Jube a false name, he up and disappeared after Wally joined the race. Wally said he kept running into this person. But in the past week? Vanished.”

“Maybe he doesn’t live in J-town, either. Like me.”

“Then why does he give a toss about who represents it? And why claim to work for the JADL? Because it opens doors in Jokertown. Even people with compound eyes can read the papers and watch the news. Many places in the world, jokers don’t have it very good.” She stopped pacing. “I am telling you, as a cop, something doesn’t smell right about this.”

“We’ll get to the bottom of it. Or you will, anyway.” Mordecai paused in bending another pipe so he didn’t have to speak over the groan of distressed steel. “Wally’s lucky to have you looking out for him.”

“It’s why we make the big bucks, you and me. Speaking of which, dare I ask how fares the debate preparation?”

Mordecai winced.

 

The candidates’ round-table forum was held in a community room of the local library and sponsored by the Jokertown Cry. The paper had wanted to use the auditorium of the Jerusha Carter School, which was larger and had better facilities, but Jan had refused on the grounds that Wally’s relationship with the school offered his agents ample opportunity to install psychotropic agents in the HVAC.

Tables had been angled at the front of the room so that Wally and Jan could face both each other and the audience at the same time. At Jan’s insistence, she and Wally were seated as far apart as the width of the New York Public Library Jokertown Branch’s Xavier Desmond Community Room would allow. Something about Wally’s body acting like a “subharmonic refractor for ionospheric HAARP beams.”

Ghost and the others sat just behind the moderators’ table. Wally waved at them. A stand mike had been situated in each aisle, for the public Q&A portion of the forum. The moderators’ table didn’t have a microphone, owing to its proximity to Jan and the pretty lights under her skin.

Near the back of the room, a technician fiddled with a digital video camera on a tripod. Wally tugged at his hat’s chin strap. Looking at the camera made it tighten, like it was trying to choke him.

He recognized a few parents from the Carter School. Mrs. Trelawny gave him an encouraging smile. Leaning against the rear wall, maybe so that his bulk wouldn’t block the camera, was an out-of-uniform Officer Bester, one of Darcy’s coworkers. A cryptic look passed between the two police officers; Bester shrugged at her. If she had convinced others to attend, Wally didn’t recognize them.

Mr. McNath hadn’t come. That was a bummer. He’d been such a fan of the campaign, even before it started.

Jan’s supporters had turned out, too. Wally didn’t see Jube anywhere, but three of her fans sat in the same row as Ghost, wearing JAN CHANG FOR CITY COUNCIL t-shirts. He knew the slightly rubbery guy on the end; Mr. Ruttiger had been one of his fellow chaperones during the band trip to Texas. Wally tried not to look disappointed. It woulda been nice to have more people on his side of the aisle. He’d called Bubbles but she was down in Brazil, doing a fashion shoot in Rio de Janeiro and fighting forest fires in the Amazon. It felt crummy wishing she was here instead.

Maybe he should’ve worn something other than his John Deere overalls. Wally tugged on his top hat again, glancing at the camera. Gee whiz, he didn’t like being on TV.

“Relax,” Mordecai said. Ghost gave him a thumbs-up.

The room was approximately a third full at ten minutes after the official starting time of the event, so the fella from the Cry stood up and addressed the crowd. He introduced the candidates and explained the format of the discussion. He had what looked like spider legs for arms. Wally couldn’t remember if he’d seen him around the neighborhood, but then, he didn’t subscribe to the Cry. Or any other paper.

Maybe he shouldn’t mention that.

The moderator took his seat and opened a binder. “We’ll begin by asking the candidates to describe briefly their motivation for seeking a seat on the council, and why they feel they are better suited to serving the people of Jokertown. Mr. Gunderson?”

Mordecai had anticipated the forum would begin this way, so he’d spent hours over the past few days helping Wally practice what he wanted to say and how he wanted to say it. His campaign manager had insisted that Wally’s motivations were “above reproach” (a good thing, Wally learned, after consulting the dictionary on his nightstand), so all he had to do was practice the delivery.

Don’t be intimidated by the audience, Mordecai had said. Just pretend everybody in the audience is naked.

Wally remembered that now, and blushed. The chin strap pulled tighter still. And had they turned up the lights, too? It sure seemed warm.

A camera shutter clicked. The moderator cleared her throat. “Mr. Gunderson?”

“Yep. I mean, ‘Yes.’” He took a deep breath. “I, uh, figure lots of you know me, but maybe some don’t. I wasn’t born here, but this is where I’ve made my home. I have a family and I pay taxes and all my parking tickets, all of ’em, even though, gosh, it sure was a lot of money—”

A frantic motion in the front row caught his eye: Darcy drawing the edge of her hand across her neck while Mordecai rolled his index fingers around each other in the little gesture they decided would mean “move on.”

“Anyway, when I’m not here in Jokertown I’ve traveled all over the world with the United Nations trying to help folks who need it. Like the jokers in Egypt some years back, and some folks in East Timor, and those poor kids in the place that used to be the People’s Paradise of Africa” (Ghost betrayed no reaction) “and a buncha other places, too. But sometimes the help people need isn’t facing down tanks and bullets and bad guys. Sometimes it’s fixing potholes or making parking meters that don’t break so dang easily.” (Darcy rolled her eyes at this digression.) “That makes people’s lives better, too. On the Committee, we come and go and sometimes I don’t get to see how what we’ve done made things better for the folks living there. But this is where I live. And I’m not going anywhere.” (Mordecai wrote that part.) “I like making a difference in people’s lives. I’ve done it around the world, and I will do it here, too. If I can survive getting machine gunned in a war zone, I can survive city council meetings.” (Hold for laughter. Mordecai wrote that part, too.)

After polite applause, it was Jan’s turn.

“Okay. We don’t have all evening, so I’ll give you the executive summary. Guys, my visual aid, please?” The trio with JAN CHANG t-shirts slid a long cardboard tube out from under their seats. Mr. Ruttiger stretched like a rubber band, bobbing over the moderator’s table to hand it to Jan.

She said, “I’ve been tracing the secret currents of power in this country, and in this city, for years. At tremendous personal peril and cost, I might add. So, why am I running for city council?” Jan asked, sliding something from the tube. “I think my research speaks for itself.”

With a flourish she unfurled a large sheet of butcher paper. It was full of little pictures, handwritten phrases, and newspaper clippings, all connected with different colored pieces of yarn, like a tie-dyed spider web. The diagram-collage thingy had a few large labels written in capital letters and circled in black magic marker: FEDERAL RESERVE, MK-ULTRA, BILDERBERG GROUP, REPTOIDS, PAUL MCCARTNEY/WALRUS. A tangle of yarn connected these to each other and to dozens of smaller labels on the poster: mortgage-backed financial instruments, water fluoridation, Jokertown city council, chemtrails, 2008 recession. Wally didn’t get most of it, but the tangle was real pretty, like the cat’s cradles that Ghost sometimes did on her fingers.

“Wow,” said Wally into the sudden silence. “Was I supposed to make a poster, too?”

Jan held the butcher paper aloft until only her fingertips were visible, awkwardly angling it toward the camera. From behind the poster, her slightly muffled voice added, “By the way, everybody in this room is now a target. That’s the curse of knowledge. But they can’t get us all!”

Then she lowered it again. “When I’m on the city council, I’ll…” She cast about, looking for something. “Guys, my prop.” They passed a pair of scissors to her. Little arcs of electricity danced between the open blades as she raised her voice. “When I’m on the city council, I’ll cut this Gordian knot spun from generations of middle-class financial subjugation!” And with that, she set about sawing through the thickest tangle of yarn. Maybe the scissors weren’t sharp; she gave up after a moment and tossed them on the table, saying, “Well, you get the point.”

Wally couldn’t tell if the applause Jan received was as confused as he was, but it sounded like about the same amount as he got. He figured that was a pretty good sign.

“Also,” she added, “rents are too damn high.”

The audience really liked that. Somebody even whistled.

As Jan re-rolled her spiderweb poster, Wally noticed one of the little text bubbles hanging off Jokertown city council—a scribble of red ink wedged between yarn-tags labeled polio vaccine and Count of St. Germaine—read Ann. 9 Phase II Redev. Something about that seemed familiar, but he couldn’t say why.

The moderated portion of the forum mostly focused on issues before the city council, and a few hypotheticals. (Moderator: “Numerous cities across the country have passed ordinances banning single-use plastic grocery bags. Some support this move on environmental grounds, but retailers argue this raises their costs, which are then passed to consumers. Candidates, where would you stand on this issue?” Wally: “Well, them plastic bags don’t look so nice in the spring when the winds blow and they get stuck in trees.” Jan: “Retailers’ plastic bags usually derive from various ethylene polymerizations including high-density or HDPE, low-density or LDPE, and linear low-density or LLDPE. All are highly stable with extremely long lifetimes to degradation, meaning they stay in the environment for decades. Beyond the immediate environmental risk, however, the military-chemical-industrial complex infuses these items with synthetic hormones that are easily absorbed through the skin. These hormones are capable of permeating the blood-brain barrier to attack the pituitary gland, where they prime the victim’s brain to receive the transmissions hidden in digital television broadcasts.” Wally: “Gosh.”)

Then the moderator opened the floor to questions from the audience. The first was addressed at Jan:

“You make a lot of unverifiable claims, so it’s hard to know if what you’re saying is true. You’re very vocal about being targeted and having your life threatened. Why should I vote for somebody who sounds so paranoid?”

“You want evidence of the conspiracy, right?”

Her questioner nodded, then returned to his seat.

“Okay. The evidence is sitting right in front of you.” Jan removed her gloves, waggling her fingers until little arcs of electricity danced between them like the science stuff in the old black-and-white Frankenstein movies. “Some of you call me ‘Sparkplug.’ Don’t you think it’s odd that my only opponent in this race is a metal man? A metal man whose body functions as a natural Faraday cage?” The more she spoke, the louder her voice, and the brighter the arcs between her fingers. They appeared between her teeth, too, as she built to a crescendo. “A metal man who is, therefore, completely immune to my abilities? Who better than a metal man—who, by his own admission, has ample experience with combat and regime change—to assassinate me?”

Wally, trying to remember all that complicated wordy Robert’s Rules stuff, jabbed a finger in the air. “Objection, your honor!”

Jan cocked her head, peering at him through her thick sunglasses. “Do you understand we’re not in court?”

“Oh.” He lowered his finger.

The next question was for Wally. The lady at the microphone read her question from an index card.

“You’ve repeatedly emphasized your association with the United Nations Committee. Yet you were absent from recent events in Kazakhstan, arguably the greatest humanitarian crisis since the Card Sharks released the black trump. How do you respond to those who accuse you of abandoning your colleagues, and who say that Aero, Doktor Omweer, and many others might be alive today if you had joined the fight?”

Silence, heavy as a wet wool blanket, fell across the audience. It was as though the air had been sucked from the room. (“Whoa,” Ghost whispered. “That escalated quickly.”)

Jan’s supporters in the front row looked at each other and shrugged. Both Mordecai and Darcy turned in their seats, craning their necks to get a look at the questioner.

(Jan scoffed. “Kazakhstan was a false flag.”)

Wally tugged on his chin strap. It felt like the elastic was cutting through his jaw. The strap snapped. He removed his top hat, placed it on the table, lowered his head, and ran his hands across his face. He knew people didn’t like the grinding sounds his body made sometimes, but he needed to process the question.

Not because he hadn’t wondered the same thing himself. He had. But because he couldn’t answer the question without bringing Ghost into it. He chewed on this, looking for a way to keep his personal promise to himself and his vow to Mordecai without dodging the question.

The snick of a camera shutter punctuated the silence. Somebody coughed. People started to whisper to each other.

Wally raised his head. Everyone was watching him.

“Nobody knew what was going on over there. Not at first. It took a few days before people understood how bad it was. And by the time I heard about it…I, uh, I got scared. See, I’m responsible for somebody, you know? Maybe you are, too. Well, my person, she doesn’t have anyone else. And I worried, gosh, what if I go and I don’t come back? What happens to her? Now, those fellas you mentioned, I didn’t know them much but I think they were good folks. Thinking about ’em and all the others makes me sad. But if they didn’t make it back, I wouldn’t have, either. Sometimes making the world better means keeping it from getting worse for just one person.” He looked at Ghost, who sniffed and rubbed her eyes. “I know I made the right choice.”

Darcy broke the ensuing silence. “Holy crap,” she said, and clapped. Mordecai joined her. Wally didn’t really hear the applause, though, because he was busy watching Ghost.

The forum concluded soon after that. Mordecai scooted over to shake Wally’s hand, followed closely by Darcy.

“You did a fantastic job. You should feel proud.”

“Thanks, fella,” Wally said. “You sure helped me out. All that reading, oof, it was tough, but…”

Reading. The meeting minutes.

As he watched Jan pack up her visual aids and props, Wally suddenly remembered where he’d seen something similar to the weird abbreviation on her poster.

He raised his voice over the hubbub of people chatting, putting on their coats, and bumping into chairs. To the moderator, who was finishing up his notes, Wally said, “Hey there. Are we allowed to ask you questions, too?”

The newspaper guy blinked. “What?”

“I was just wondering something. You asked us about all sorts of city council stuff, but how come you never asked us about Annex Nine?”

Darcy frowned. “What the hell is—”

Jan’s poster tube clattered on the floor. The sparkly lights under her skin went dark, like somebody had flipped a switch. “How do you know about that?”

 

Mordecai and Wally were hunched over the kitchen table, aka Gunderson Campaign Headquarters, when Darcy burst into the apartment, weaving a sheaf of papers like a pennant.

“I’ve got it. I’ve got it.”

She plunked the papers on the table. “Check this out.”

Mordecai did. The top half of the stack comprised financial disclosure forms, like the one he’d helped Wally fill out. The bottom half pertained to a company called Twenty-First Century Retail Group. Flipping through these pages, he glimpsed the SEC logo.

He showed Wally. “‘SEC’ stands for Securities and Exchange Commission,” he said.

Wally nodded. “Sure.”

“They’re like the police, but for banks,” said Darcy.

Wally nodded. “Sure.”

“I know how to pull disclosure forms,” said Mordecai, “but how did you get all this other stuff?”

“Um, I’m a cop?” She pulled up a chair. “At first I thought there was nothing to her ranting after the forum. But I kept thinking about what Jan said about some kind of real estate swindle, so I went over to the detectives’ desks and asked around. Franny Black has been keeping tabs on these guys. If he’s right, they are into some shady stuff.”

She nudged Mordecai aside and used his laptop to pull up an image of the board of directors of Twenty-First. Five men stood in a conference room. The four with crew cuts were so bulky they must have been sewn into the suits. They flanked a more stereotypical business type at the center of the picture: tan suit, perfect hair, dead-eyed smile full of blinding white teeth. Probably normal-sized, but he seemed a child beside his juiced-up business partners.

“Recognize anybody?”

Wally’s lips moved while he studied the photo. Then he pointed at the guy in the middle. “Oh, hey! That’s the fella from the Joker thingamajiggy. Randall whatshisname.”

Darcy relinquished control of Mordecai’s laptop. “His name isn’t Randall McNath. Or, at least, that’s not what he called himself fifteen years ago. Meet Patrick Wilhelm Howard. He’s rumored to be the best three-card monte dealer the five boroughs have ever seen.” She shook her head, looking at the boardroom photo again. “Same game, larger shells. I swear, the pair of balls on this guy.”

She split the stack into two piles, and tapped one.

“Annex Nine is a wholly owned subsidiary of Twenty-First Century Retail Group. It was spun off six months ago as the overseeing contractor for a major construction project. Luxury high-rise condos with built-in retail space, the usual gentrification crap. Of course, there’s no room for that anywhere in Jokertown…”

“…Unless you knock down a few buildings to make room for it,” Mordecai concluded.

Wally asked, quietly, “Did I do something wrong?”

Darcy put her hand on his shoulder. It was the most affection Mordecai had yet witnessed from her. “No, Wally. Not even close.”

“We might not like it,” Mordecai sighed, “but the tear down/build up cycle you’re describing is pretty common.”

“Annex Nine, Phase Two is Our Lady of Perpetual Misery. And much of the rest of that block.”

“Oh.” Mordecai whistled. “That’s…bold.”

“Bold enough to require some back-room dealings.”

 

Wally crouched in the cosmetics aisle of a drug store, the only place from which he had a clear view of the street and the roadster that Darcy said belonged to their guy. Mordecai and Darcy got to enjoy a bright spring day sitting at a sidewalk café because Randall McNath or Patrick Howard—Wally was a little confused on that point—didn’t know them on sight.

A shopper sucked in his breath to slither past.

“Howdy!” Wally whispered, offering a hand. “Wally Gunderson for city council.”

So it went for a couple of hours. Then:

“Holy smokes! That’s him. That’s him!”

He wished they had brought walkie-talkies.

But it didn’t matter, because Darcy and Mordecai were already on the move, sauntering up the street as the man from the photograph unlocked the car. Wally felt bad about lurking in the store all afternoon, so he got in the checkout line and bought a neck massager, compression socks, and a jar of vitamin C pills. By the time Wally got outside, the guy was too busy yelling at Darcy to notice him.

“I’ve broken no laws. I’m leaving now.”

He reached for the door handle, but Wally’s campaign manager was faster. Mordecai leaned forward, wrapped his arms around the hood, picked up the car, and walked it across the street to lay it gently across two of the drug store’s three angle-in parking spots.

That done, he flagged down Darcy. “Officer? Excuse me, officer? I think this car might be parked illegally.”

She made a show of checking the license plate and looking for a parking placard. “My goodness. Thank you for bringing this to my attention, citizen.”

“You can’t do this,” said McNath. “It’s entrapment.”

“Actually, it’s not,” she said, brandishing a wheel lock. Wally had known her to boot cars even when she was off duty. It had even happened to him, before they were friends. “Nobody enticed you to park illegally.”

McNath moved to intervene, but Mordecai gently laid one fingertip on his chest. “Speaking of enticement, I think you know my friend here.”

Mordecai jerked a thumb over his shoulder. Wally waved. “Hey there, fella.”

Mr. McNath looked unhappy, but he recovered quickly, launching into that paint-can-shaker nod of his. “Mr. Gunderson! Well this is a bright spot to the day. And may I say congratulations on your city council campaign? I’ve been following the coverage in the Cry and I am just tickled knowing the people of Jokertown will soon have you as their most passionate advocate. And perhaps when you’re on the council you’ll be in a position to do something about these rogue elements of the law enforcement community.”

“Okey-dokey. But how come you lied about working for the Joker antithingy? You work with them real estate guys.”

McNath cleared his throat. “Well, you see, public advocacy doesn’t pay the bills—”

“Now you tell me,” Wally said. This wasn’t going the way he thought. But, as usual, Mordecai had his back.

“How will your fellow directors of Twenty-First Century Retail Group react when they find out you confessed to poisoning Morlock-and-Eloi as retaliation for her stance against Annex Nine Phase Two?”

The poison was a guess, but a good one, apparently.

Now McNath looked scared. “You wouldn’t do that. You can’t! They’re all tied up with the Brighton Beach crew. Alexandrovitch, my god, he’d pull my head off.”

Wally frowned. “But did you? Did you hurt M&E?”

McNath looked around as if seeking an escape path. But finding himself sandwiched between Mordecai and Wally on the sidewalk, and with his car immobilized, there was none. McNath’s shoulders slumped. “Please, don’t tell them you heard it from me. Please.”

“Judas priest,” said Wally. “That’s rotten.”

“Phase Two seems like it would be controversial,” Darcy added. “How fortunate for you that my other city council representative was on-board with the project.”

McNath shrugged. “Mark Benson is a major investor in Annex Nine.”

A look passed between Darcy and Mordecai. Wally didn’t understand. “What?”

Mordecai said, “Think back to all the forms you had to fill out.”

Wally concentrated. Politics was hard. “So…this other fella who represents Jokertown…and who argued with M&E about Annex Nine…It’s like he had an extra money jar. A secret one that nobody knew about.”

Mordecai smiled. “Exactly.”

“Huh.” But now that Wally was thinking in politician style, he couldn’t stop. “But I still don’t get it. How come you were so keen for me to run in the first place?”

McNath hemmed and hawed. Mordecai loomed closer to him. Wally knew Mordecai wouldn’t hurt a fly, but McNath didn’t.

“Two reasons. We knew that hiring Aces in Hand for the demolition phase of the work meant you’d be involved. That would give us leverage against you. But we didn’t expect to need it, because we thought you’d be easy to trick. We’d slip Phase Two right past you and finally get the vote we needed to proceed. You’re not somebody known for looking deeply at things.”

“Yeah, I guess so.” It hurt, but not much. Wally already knew this. That’s why he’d gone to Mordecai in the first place. “But you didn’t know I have these guys! Holy moley. I sure am lucky.”

Wally pulled a flyer from the pocket of his overalls and tucked it on McNath’s windshield. Then he knelt on the asphalt and touched the wheel lock. As it dissolved into rust, he said, “Don’t forget to vote on Tuesday.”

 

Though he wore his politics top hat, Wally was uncharacteristically quiet on the walk back to Campaign Headquarters. Mordecai felt bad for him. When McNath told Wally to his face that he was a dimwitted patsy, he might as well have been kicking a puppy.

Wally broke his silence as they neared the apartment. “I guess Jan was right.”

“About the Nazi UFOs piloted by Satanic reptilian Freemasons from the hollow earth? Probably not.” Mordecai shrugged. “But about the real estate stuff, yeah.”

“Gosh. People should be nicer to her.” Wally’s shoulders slumped. “Does all this mean I have to drop out?”

Darcy laughed, hooking her arm through his. “No, you dingbat.”

“It means that after we head over to the Jokertown Cry and explain how you and Jan both uncovered evidence of Benson’s illegal enrichment scheme,” said Mordecai, “there will soon be two open spots on the city council.”

Wally thought this over. “I guess I’d better work on gaining her trust, then.”

“You’ll be quite a team,” said Mordecai, feeling immensely satisfied.

 

“Hammer and Tongs and a Rusty Nail” copyright © 2020 by Ian Tregillis
Art copyright © 2020 by Micah Epstein



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