Mrs H’s Knitting Circle

Astonishing Adventures Magazine Issue 3 Cover

The sap felt good in my hand. It felt good as it connected with the back of his head.

He’d have surprised me if I’d not smelt the foreign smoke hanging from his lower lip. I caught him and lowered him to the floor. I could hear my mother’s cry echoing from the past: “Clubbing security guards isn’t lady-like G! Now go to your room.” Sorry dear Mama, but Gina is still a tomboy. Now though I’m a tomboy for the Government. Well – sort of the Government; I work in the FBI bookkeeping pool. That became more hazardous when Mrs H. invited me to her knitting circle.

–**–

The gramophone played in the background, its trumpet covering the bug behind the painting. The chatter of ladies gossiping and the rhythmic clatter of needles came from it. Mrs H. had no intention of her husband finding out what really went on at her get-togethers with some of the ladies from his office.

“So G., how are our finances?” asked Mrs H.

“We’re up four percent on last month, Dorothy. We’ve siphoned more out of the special projects budget and I’d predict a similar increase next month, so long as no one goes on a spree for purses.”

A laugh ran round the group. None of us were the type to go on a spree for purses or shoes for that matter. I doubt most of us owned more than two purses – three at most.

“Excellent. What progress have you made with the Énigme’s electrician friend?”

“He’s a push over. I flashed Mr Theodore Sparks an ankle and a smile. He talked. A bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality. One day he was a sweet dear, the next he’s acting like a syndicate tough and two days later he’s in hospital all banged up like he went the distance with a heavyweight.”

“Anyone else got any pieces for this jigsaw?”

“I might have something Dorothy,” piped up Dot, a skinny young thing from archiving. “The night your friend wound up in hospital they pulled a group of the usual suspects out of a car downtown. All of them dead on account of hitting a brick wall while their car was upside down and doing an unhealthy turn of speed. The car belonged to one Dale Hoover, no relation to your husband, small time hood known to the MPD. He’s the other man G. saw with Sparks at The Dark Horse. I slipped him onto the watched list. He flew down to Mexico with an unknown blonde. Énigme flew down to Mexico two days later.”

–**–

“28” was what it said by the light of the flash. My hunch had better be right. With the guard unconscious I’d not get a second chance. They’d move everything or tighten security in hours. I flipped the Wood’s glass filter over the flash. The number glowed with a strange blue light: “23”. Bingo! Here was the misplaced Federal Secure Storage Facility Number Twenty-three hiding in plain sight. The door was locked and the lock looked like it would take a while to pick and all I’d get from applying brute force was a bruised shoulder. I checked the guard’s pocket: bus tickets, a match-book and a pack of Turkish smokes; change, a revolver, handcuffs and keys.

Trying to be quiet I slipped them one at a time in the lock. By the third a line of perspiration formed on my brow. The fourth one clicked loudly but turned. I opened the door just enough to slip inside and have a look. Row upon row of shelves filled the warehouse from floor to ceiling. Nothing stirred inside, not even a rat. I dragged the guard inside, propped him against the wall and thanked my lucky star he was a scrawny lightweight and not an eighteen-stone bruiser. I wasn’t taking any chances though; I handcuffed his wrists together round a column, locked the door then leant a fire extinguisher against it.

Keeping to the shadows, I crept along the shelving till I came to stack Q. Now all I had to do was find lot three-six-one and get the hell out of Dodge. I worked my way past lot one hundred, past a case Dot thought held the Ark of the Covenant, past two hundred to three hundred, past three hundred and sixty – a glass jar holding a gremlin preserved in greening alcohol still chewing on the length of high voltage cable. Here was the prize – three hundred and sixty-one – a small wooden box. It should hold the jade statue. I lifted it. It felt heavy enough to be a statue. A small lock held the box shut; none of the keys on the key ring would fit it. I pulled a hairpin from my hair and went to work. Two of the tumblers had moved when I heard the crash of the fire extinguisher tumbling. Men’s voices and feet running echoed around. Looks like G. may be in trouble Mama.

–**–

We’d been back and forth over it for almost three whole discs on the gramophone when Mrs H. asserted her authority and drew things to a close.

“Ladies, we’ve been at this from every angle. We need to know if Énigme got his hands on the figurine. We need to know if he used it to hypnotise everyone at the President’s daughter’s party at the East Room in the White House. We need to know if he gave something he obtained to Dale Hoover or if Hoover stole it from him and that’s why he went after him to Mexico. Dot, you need to get the records of where that piece was being kept and anything else that might help her. Pass them to Gina through the usual drop. Gina, you’re going to check if the figurine is missing. If it’s not we’re barking up the wrong alley and we need to find a new alley to bark up. Now I think we should do some knitting for appearances’ sake. Tea anyone?”

–**–

The feet were almost at the end of stack Q. I squeezed deep into the shelf between the gremlin and the wooden cases. Black really is this year’s new black for cat burglars. I bet I could get Mr Sparks sparking in this outfit. In the cramped space I worked at the lock till all five tumblers gave. I heard feet and voices working through the warehouse systematically – now some from my left, some from my right. I flipped the box open and pulled the packing out. A big, shapeless, lump of concrete. No figurine. Bingo Mama!

Now to get out of here. I uncurled. My foot caught on something. A crash of breaking glass on the floor. The gremlin-in-a-jar ruined one last plan. Giving up my attempt to slip quietly into the night I uncoiled and dropped into the spreading pool of alcohol on the floor. Men appeared at the ends of the row. Only one way I could go – up. I felt cold liquid soaking through my gym shoes as I climbed. The wet rubber sole slipped out from under me and I dropped, catching myself as a bullet cut the air I’d left empty.

I’d have shot back, but neither Mrs H. nor Mama would have approved. So I did the only thing I could: I kept going up. From the top of the stack I jumped across onto P then N then M. If Dot’s plans were right there would be skylights above M. I ran along till I saw the moon above me. The footsteps were close below me. I jumped up, grabbed a beam and pulled myself up. I smashed the glass with my flashlight. I was out onto the roof and running.

There’s a ladder at the North end of the roof, so I went South. Someone could come up as easily as I could go down. The roof went up and down in a series of inverted Ws. At the crest of each rise I checked over my shoulder. I was on the final crest when I saw someone behind me. Seconds later I heard a gun fire twice. I ran on. No going back. I rushed forward and down. A foot on the brick parapet, I pushed hard and leapt for the next roof, eight feet away, praying no one was waiting to shoot me from below.

My foot made contact. I rolled forward. Then I was up and off again, leaving my pursuers behind in the night.

–**–

We were idling in the cane chairs in Mrs H.’s conservatory enjoying the late afternoon sun. Penelope Kerns from records had been ferreting away for a week while I’d been busy confirming the figurine was missing.

“I’ve been running some routine efficiency tests through the indexing at the INS. It was easy to slip Dale and his companion in. Dale stayed in Mexico two weeks then crossed the border in El Paso on a forged passport. He vanished but word on the street is that the syndicate has a contract out on him for unpaid debts.”

“How about Énigme?” asked Mrs H.

“Not a trace of Énigme since he flew South.”

“And Dale’s companion?”

“The blonde didn’t come back with him. She was a lot harder to dig out of the system. So far I’ve got this much. She was going by the name of Roxie Ryan, working as a singer at a speakeasy near DC when she hooked up with Dale. Before that job there are no records of Roxie. However there was an Angelica French involved in the theft of a bullion shipment from Johannesburg to London; a Lauren Rollins who was seen going around with a noted Swedish chemist for a month and vanished leaving an open safe, the plans for a secret, metal-refining process missing and the chemist’s body with a knife through the heart; a Della Molina who temped for a shipping firm in San Francisco and who accidentally directed a large consignment of specialist mining equipment to China where it vanished; an Adele Molina who worked for a shipping company in Liverpool, England, and misplaced a consignment of munitions on their way to the British army in Singapore. All of them match Roxie’s description. There are more possible candidates in the file – each with a crime to go with it.”

“This young lady has been systematically stealing a shopping list from around the world for at least four years. Why, we don’t know, but I think we can all see she must be stopped. We need to know how Énigme fits in. Is it his or her scheme or are they in it together? Think on that ladies for next time and while you’re thinking I’m going to take a trip down to Texas to do some fact finding for a charity report. Don’t know which charity yet and I’m going to borrow Gina from my husband. I’m sure he won’t mind you coming along to take notes for me. I really shouldn’t travel alone.”

–**–

We’d been down here two days when we got the tip off we’d been waiting for. A freelance hood turned up dead in a car out in the Chihuahuan desert. K. couriered us a copy of the report: it wasn’t the stuff of pleasant bedtime reading. He’d been out there a couple of days in the trunk of his car-turned-coffin-turned-oven. He’d been shot from behind at close range with a forty-five. The car was hidden in a gulley three hundred yards off Route Fifty-Four near Carrizozo. Footprints led back to the asphalt. It took a couple of hours flashing the stiff’s mug shot around and a fifty dollar portrait of the president to a motel manager to track down where he’d been staying. He’d booked in on the Sunday, paid for a week in advance but they’d not seen him since Tuesday.

There wasn’t much of interest in his room. A case packed with cheap suits, a part read dime novel, a half-drunk bottle of whiskey, and an eight-by-ten mug shot of Dale Hoover. On the back were printed a few pertinent details: height, weight, age, eye colour, hair colour, known associates, known hang-outs and the value of the contract, payable on elimination: five thousand dollars.

The manager hadn’t seen Dale. We were almost done for the day when we showed his picture to a waitress. She’d not seen him but a trucker wanted a look. He’d picked Dale up a few miles out of town and dropped him at the city limits. Dale said his car had broken down though the trucker didn’t remember passing any abandoned automobiles on the side of the highway. That’s when it had gone wrong for our new friend. Smoke had belched from his rig’s engine. He’d nursed it to the only mechanic in Chihuahuans before it gave up the ghost. Less than an hour later he’d seen Dale driving out of town heading South fast. He swore blind it was Dale behind the wheel.

We asked around some more the next day and found the two-room flop he’d rented. There the trail went cold again. We went back and forth at it for a while. Why go South? If he knew they were close enough on his tail that a two bit hood got the drop on him he’d be driving straight into a hotbed of cheap guns for hire looking for a big pay day. We called Penelope but he’d not slipped across the border, at least not legitimately. That left only one conclusion: going South had been a ruse. We went North.

Corona, Vaughn, Santa Rosa, Edgewood, Moriarty and Estancia were dead ends. We’d got a day left before we’d be catching a flight back to DC. Our luck changed in Mountainair. We had breakfast in a diner across from the railroad station when I saw him walking down the sidewalk like he didn’t have a care in the world. We paid for our unfinished breakfasts and headed outside. He bought a paper from the stand then went into the ticket office. We walked in close on his heels. He was buying a one way ticket to Albuquerque. Mrs H. went to get us two. I followed him onto the platform. I was planning on keeping my distance but as I stepped from the darkness into the harsh New Mexico sun he was standing right in front of me looking me straight in the eye.

“What’s your game sister?” he asked, as he looked me up and down. I went blank. My mouth went dry. “Come on sister, I ain’t got all day and I know you and your friend ain’t no pair of nuns spreading the word of the good Lord.”

I could hear the tracks humming with the train running in fast in the distance as I paused too long fumbling for an excuse. “We’re just getting the train to Albuquerque. Not that it’s any of your business.”

“Oh it’s my business, babe. It’s been my business since the pair of you started asking questions about me in three states. What – you didn’t think people would tell me? A pair of high society broads splashing lettuce around and asking questions about a low life like Mr D. Hoover by name?”

“I really don’t know what you’re talking about, Mr Hoover. I’ve never heard of you before this minute.”

“Well you won’t have a problem with me watching you and your friend get on that train then while I stay right here will you? In case you try anything funny Mr Forty-Five Calibre here is pointing straight at your sweet self.”

I glanced down, he was holding his paper in an odd way. It wasn’t worth gambling it was hiding an automatic. Me and Mrs H. were getting on that train and there was nothing we could do about it. It galled me we’d gotten so close to him and he was going to slip through our fingers. Mama G’s not as smart as she thought.

I decided playing dumb wasn’t working so I might as well change tack and see what I could get out of him.

“So why’d you come back up from Mexico, Dale?”

“So you know who I am now.”

“Yes and so do a lot of people.”

Rhythmic clickety-clacks joined the hum from the track.

“You working with the Syndicate?”

“No I’m with the FBI.”

“The FBI using G-Women now?”

“Not officially, but this place is crawling with law enforcement. So’s the train. I came out here to see if you’d give yourself up quietly. We know the syndicate has a price on your head. We’ll offer you protection if you’ll tell us everything.”

“You think I buy that?”

“Start by telling me what’s happened to the blonde and Énigme.”

“You really don’t know when to give up, do you?”

“I’d say the same about you. We found the body in the car. The lab boys will match the bullet from his body to your gun. Then it’s a murder rap for you. So tell me about the blonde and Énigme and tell me how you shot the guy in self-defence when he came for you.”

I felt the train pulling in behind me. Doors opening.

“I already told you, I ain’t telling nobody nothing.”

That’s when he dropped the paper and pushed me to one side.

I hit the platform and rolled to one side losing my purse.

Mr Forty-Five Calibre spoke twice. A guy in a sharp suit that had big city written all over its cut crumpled.

Someone behind him stepped back into the shadows of the carriage. Moments later a canvas bag smashed through one of the carriage windows. Somewhere nearby a woman was screaming.

Hoover fired into the train. Maybe he could see something I couldn’t.

Staying down I tried to see where my purse was. Everything had happened so fast that my piece was still in it. It lay at Hoover’s feet. I decided to raid our funds if I got out of this. The knitting circle needed shoulder holsters.

A volley of shots came from the carriage. None of them found their mark but they set Dale’s feet moving and he started backing down the platform.

Keeping low I scrambled for my bag. The clasp jammed. Mama would be having conniption at my unladylike behaviour.

Another big city hoodlum with a hawkish nose leant round the door leading with his revolver. Dale dropped to one knee and fired three times as the revolver’s rounds went over his head. The hoodlum fell but he’d drawn Dale’s attention back to the carriage.

A man shaped more like a great ape emerged round the front of the locomotive. He’d an ugly looking lupara in his hand. There was no way Dale could see him. He was rising to his feet as the lupara belched two barrels of fire catching him in the right shoulder.

I felt the catch on my purse snap open. Blindly I reached inside feeling for my gun’s butt. Instead I found my compact.

Dale’s right arm hung useless at his side.

He’d dropped Mr Forty-Five Calibre. The Syndicate’s man put the lupara casually on the platform and hoisted himself up using his simian arms.

My fingers closed on something. My hairbrush.

The suited hominid bent down and picked up the lupara. Dale sagged to his knees facing me as the ape walked down the platform. He was casual, his gun wasn’t even loaded.

I wriggled round in to a classic prone firing position. Just like my daddy taught me, much to Mama’s consternation when she found out.

Blood was pooling on the platform, his face turning white as the blood poured from his wounds.

The ape flipped open the gun’s breach and reached into his pocket. He pulled two shells from his pocket and slipped them into the gun.

My fingers found something else. I prayed it wasn’t my lipstick as I pulled it from the purse.

He was loading the other barrel now. Theatrically he flipped the gun closed and pointed it at the back of Dale’s head as he knelt on the platform in a pool of his own blood.

“Any last words I should pass on to Mr Cesar, scum?”

I didn’t waste my breath on a quotable line. Dale was rasping – didn’t look like he had a dying breath left. I flipped the safety off my point two-two calibre and fired.

I didn’t take any chances. I put four in the ape’s chest and followed up with two more to the head. He toppled over backwards like a felled tree with a wooden expression on his face.

No two ways about it, Mama’s going to look like she’s sucking on a lemon when she finds out about this.

impworks © Copyright Mark Caldwell 1996 - 2018