by Martin Maenza
Fifteen minutes later, I was downing a coffee at my favorite SFPD station house. The stuff was as lousy as I remembered it from back when I worked plainclothes. Still, it gave me something to do while Sergeant Sandy Beach did some quick fact-gathering for me. “I can’t believe how slow that system is,” I said. There was no hiding that I was worried about Zatanna’s safety, and every minute that passed was another minute that something bad could happen to her.
“I’m sure it’s a lot better than when you were on the force,” the African-American woman said. “Didn’t they use courier pigeons then?” She laughed.
“Funny, Sandy,” I said. “I do appreciate you running the plates for me. I owe you one.”
“You owe me twelve, at least,” she said, “but who’s counting?”
“Obviously you. I just hope it’s done before…” The office door opened up, and a familiar heavyset man with dark hair and white temples entered the room. “…Branigan! How you doing, you ol’–?”
Lieutenant Frank Branigan looked me up and down as he passed. “Well, well, Jonny Double,” he said. “Hope you’re staying out of trouble. I’d hate to have to pull your peeper’s license on you.”
“You know me, Lieutenant,” I said, grinning.
Frank Branigan humphed. “Yeah, I do. And that’s what concerns me. You always get yourself mixed up in things.” Sandy’s printer came to life at that moment, spitting out the information she had been searching on. I tried my best not to divert my attention to it; didn’t want to tip Branigan off as to why I was there. If he knew what I was up to, I’d be in for a long, loud lecture, and there wasn’t time to spare for that now. “Sandy, keep an eye on him! Things tend to walk off when our friend, here, is around.” Frank went into his office but didn’t close the door.
Sergeant Beach reached over to the printer, pulled off the paper, and slid it across her desk. I carefully palmed the sheet and slid it into my jacket pocket. “I better be running along, too, Sandy,” I said, then gave her a quick, knowing wink. I made a mental note to thank her properly later.
“See ya around, Jonny,” she said, and returned to her paperwork. “Stay cool.”
As I walked to the door, I noticed a set of handcuffs with a key sitting on the shelf. Those could come in handy. I quickly palmed those as well and would return them next time I dropped in.
Once out in the hall, I retrieved the paper from my jacket. Turned out the plate CRX-159 for the black sedan belonged to one Ronnie Sealer of 1175 Wolfman Drive. I was familiar with that part of town, and it wouldn’t take me long to get there.
Turned out the address wasn’t to Sealer’s home but was, in fact, for his business. The guy apparently ran a small construction company, so the car must have been registered as a company asset. These guys weren’t too bright, though. The car was parked visibly in the driveway; I saw it as I passed by before parking just aways down the street. The office lights were on, too. I would’ve bet my last dollar they weren’t doing any filing inside.
After hopping the fence at the south end of the yard, I crept around the side end of the building. A window was open, allowing me to hear the loud conversation inside.
“She should be coming around any minute,” one of the men said. “Make sure she’s tied good and tight!”
“The gag’s in place, too,” said another. “Gotta make sure we follow the instructions to the letter. He said we needed to make sure she can’t talk or scream.”
“Looks good to me,” said the third. “I’m going out back for a smoke.”
“OK, Joe,” said the first. “Just don’t be gone too long, and don’t mess nothing up back there.”
“You got it, Ronnie,” Joe said.
I barely had time to scamper around the back to the door before the mug came out from it. The guy stepped outside, the door closed behind him, and he reached to his inside pocket for his cigarettes. Before he noticed I was there, I swung a half-full bag of cement mix in the air and smacked him upside the head. His body went limp as he fell to the ground, hard.
I quickly dragged his unconscious body across the yard and behind some of equipment. Last thing I needed was one of the other guys to come out and see their friend catching forty winks. I used the cuffs I lifted from the precinct to chain him to one of the bulldozers. I then used one of my own hankies to fashion a gag, just in case.
All that took me a couple minutes, but not nearly enough time that the other guys would notice Joe’s prolonged absence. With any luck, I’d be able to get the drop on the other two and have this whole case wrapped up in no time.
I was just about to slip inside the back door to surprise the other two creeps when I overheard the conversation inside again. I watched the activities unfold from the window.
“Good evening, gentleman,” said the newcomer, a deep baritone and a very sharp dresser. “Is everything in order?” The man closed the front door of the office behind him. Funny, I hadn’t heard any car pull up.
“Sure thing, Mr. Dante,” Ronnie Sealer replied. “We got the girl just like you asked.”
“Excellent,” replied Dante. “I guess I should pay you for your work.”
“Our other guy’s out back,” the other thug said. “Should we wait for him?”
“No,” Dante said, producing a large tied sack from under his trenchcoat. “He’ll get what’s coming to him soon enough. Here.” He tossed the sack into the air towards the two kidnappers.
Ronnie snagged it by the tie string; whatever was inside was heavy, as it almost dropped to the floor unexpectedly. Ronnie opened the sack and gazed at the contents wide-eyed. “Geez!”
The other guy stuck his nose towards the bag. “Get a load of those rocks!” He reached inside and pulled out a diamond about the size of a golf ball. “There’s a ton of ’em!”
“Yeah,” said Ronnie, mesmerized by the sparkling stones. “A small fortune, easy.”
“True,” the other guy said. “A small fortune.” He then stepped back and pulled a gun from inside his jacket. “But a lot bigger if I don’t have to share.”
“Hey!” Ronnie exclaimed, dropping the bag to the floor. He reached for his gun, too.
Suddenly, there were four loud gunshots, and both men fell to the floor!
The room was silent as the echo of the shots died out. Then, Dante began to laugh in a low, sinister way that grew louder the longer it went.
This was getting out of hand, fast! I couldn’t wait any longer.
Dante turned to Zatanna, her eyes wide in shock at seeing the two men kill one another in cold blood. “Sorry you had to see that, my dear,” he said in a way that anyone could tell he was not. He crossed the room to retrieve the sack of diamonds. “Greed is a very powerful emotion, and in some people it is very easy to manipulate. Of course, they never had a chance.” He snatched the sack and stuffed it back into his coat, where it seemed to vanish. “Once they got ahold of those special stones, their souls were lost. Can’t have any witnesses around, can I?”
“Back off, pally!” I shouted as I burst into the room. Dante whirled around in time to take a right hook to the chin. I expected a pretty boy like him to fold like a house of cards, but he took the blow rather well.
In fact, the smile on his face made me think he rather enjoyed my unexpected arrival. “Ah, you must be the third man,” Dante purred. “I guess I get to take care of you personally.”
“I don’t think so, buddy,” I said as I pulled my .38 Magnum out from the snap-draw shoulder holster under my right arm. “You’re under arrest!”
Dante began to laugh once more. “Arrest? Me? Ha-ha-ha! That’s rich.” He took one step back and stood proud, throwing out his chest. “Your petty laws don’t mean anything to me, nor does that puny weapon frighten me.”
Zatanna was trying to get my attention, but the gag in her mouth muffled her frantic sounds.
“Don’t think I won’t shoot you!” I said, trying to call his bluff. It was like I was holding a pair, and this clown knew it. That’s when he upped the ante on the game.
“Go ahead!” Dante roared. He thrust his arms out to the side, and out of nowhere fire shot up from the floor all around him. I don’t know how he did it, but I was expecting the whole place to burst into flames. The fire seemed to consume him as it rose to the ceiling in great intensity.
To my surprise, it subsided as quickly as it appeared, but Dante was no longer in front of me. I now faced a rather large, demonic-looking figure. My jaw dropped as this new wrinkle to the case unfolded.
The demon smiled. “Surprise!” And fire shot from his fingertips. I barely had a second to dive out of the way and roll to behind the desk. What kind of horror movie had I stepped into?
The demon laughed. “You don’t get it, do you? I’m not what I appeared to be. Salvador Dante is just a guise I used to get these lowlifes to do my bidding.” He fired another blast at the desk, shattering it to splinters.
I rolled away to my feet. This guy was playing for keeps! My only chance was to keep him talking. Guys who like to throw their weight around usually like to gloat, too. “But why use them if you’re so powerful?” I asked.
The demon Dante decided to answer my query with words instead of another blast. “Had I approached Zatanna directly, she would have seen through my mystical disguise in a second. By having them kidnap her instead, I avoided all that.” His long tongue licked his ugly lips as he glanced towards the captive young woman. “And soon, I will add her power to my own, thus bettering my station in the underworld!”
“Since when is pulling rabbits out of a hat gonna move you up in the world?” I asked. I had been inching my way around the room, hoping to get closer to Zatanna. I figured if I had an opening, I might be able to get her free for us both to escape. I certainly couldn’t leave her to this monster.
“You truly are dense, human!” the demon said. He then realized what I was doing. “Hey!” He hurled another blast towards me. I dived to the ground and rolled as the energy shattered the window behind me. As I rolled, I fired a half-dozen shots at the creep; I hoped the shots would slow him down enough. “Aaargh! How dare you?” Greenish black blood oozed from where the bullets pierced his skin.
It was enough time to get me to Zatanna. With the blade I keep in my left boot, I sliced the ropes that tied her to the chair. “Come on!” I yelled as the ropes fell to the floor. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
Zatanna instead stood confidently, removing the gag from her mouth. What was she doing? “Nemod, I hsinab ey ot eht mlaer taht denwaps eeht!” she said in some kind of gibberish. (*) It sounded like someone playing an album backwards on a turn table.
[(*) Editor’s note: Read Zatanna’s spells backwards to find out what they mean.]
“Nooo-ooo!” Dante cried out in anguish as a swirling vortex opened behind him suddenly. Try as he might, he couldn’t move fast enough to avoid being sucked into the abysmal opening. His cries of anguish rang out as he disappeared into it. The vortex then vanished with a single pop.
I simply stared for a second in disbelief. Never in all my years in this business had I ever seen anything like that. I turned to Zatanna, my mouth still open in awe. She merely smiled at me and straightened out her short tuxedo jacket. “I guess I should have told you, Jonny,” she said plainly. “My magic is the real deal.”