“Two, please,” John said upon reaching Xanadu’s ticket counter. He’d dug a crumpled ten star from his pocket and now shoved it over the counter towards the cashier, a startlingly blonde woman wearing a copper nameplate that read Bambi over her snug red bodice.
“Skate size, love?” she asked, blinking her big, brown, Bambi eyes at John.
“I am not putting on skates,” Jagati hissed over John’s shoulder.
“That would be a 50 and a 40, respectively,” he said with a polite smile that Jagati was sure set Bambi’s bodiced heart a-thumping
“What did I just say?” Jagati poked him in the shoulder.
He spared her one cool glance.
“That’ll be eight starbucks.” Bambi pulled two pairs of the wheeled allusteel skates from under the counter and two starbucks change from the till. She set the skates down and placed the starbucks in his hand, explaining, “These are the latest thing, just pop ‘em over your boots and Ben’s your uncle.” Then she leaned closer to add, “And if that one’s not up for a roll, I’m off in an hour.”
Jagati’s eyes narrowed. “As far as I’m concerned, you can take those death shoes and roll them right up your—”
“Thank you.” John took up both pairs of skates by their straps, “But I don’t believe we’ll be staying that long.”
He started inside, then turned back to grab Jagati, who’d not moved from her spot, propelling her through the pleasure house’s inner door.
“Why do the nice fellas always swarm to the wasps?” Bambi sighed as they disappeared through the doors.
Hearing Bambi’s lament, Jagati rolled her eyes.
On entering Xanadu, she wished they’d rolled back farther, because blindness would be preferable to the flashing, dancing lights reflected throughout the warehouse-sized building.
Who on Fortune thought mirrored balls were a good idea?
Or music churned from an organ the size of a scout ‘ship’s gondola?
And then there was the clash of thuds, clangs, crashes, and chimes from the host of carnival games arrayed along the right-hand wall.
As John led her through the tables scattered to the left of the games, the thuds and clangs receded to be replaced by the clamor of a pipe organ that took up half the rear wall, and the air thickened with the scents of cider, chai, popcorn, wasabi nuts, and steamed puddings, reminding her she’d eaten very little dinner.
In time, they reached the low wall that divided the gaming and dining sections of Xanadu from what Jagati considered her personal nightmare.
At her side, she felt more than heard John speak.
“What?” she shouted over the din.
“I said, here we are!” he shouted back, holding up the skates and jerking his chin over the wall, to where it seemed an entire apiary of Nikeans were swarming around the waxed-bamboo rink.
“No,” she said, her expression going flat. “You can’t make me.”
John leaned close, speaking into her ear. “There’s an exit behind the organ on the far side of the rink.”
She angled her head to speak into his ear, putting them cheek to cheek. “Then we can walk across the rink.”
His sigh tickled her cheek. “It’s against the rules to be on the rink without skates.”
“You’re worried about the rules?” she shouted the question, causing him to jump.
“We should always worry about the rules,” he said. “But in this case I’m more interested in being somewhere they,” he jerked his chin over her head, “can’t go.”
She looked over her shoulder and, sure enough, here came Cheekbones and Well-Dressed Thug.
Cheekbones was circling along the gaming wall near the entrance, and WDT was standing at the foyer door, scanning the tables. They kept checking each other’s progress, but seemed not to have spotted their prey.
Jagati turned back to see John holding out the skates, which, after a heartfelt curse, she accepted. “I hate you.”
“Noted,” he said, and held her duffle while she crouched to snap the skates over her boots, then he let her lean on him while he put his own skates on. Straightening, he adjusted his satchel and looked at her. “Ready?”
“Smog no,” she replied, already off balance, even with her duffle now slung over her back. “But let’s get this over with before I decide it’s easier to shoot somebody.”
He nodded and, keeping careful hold of her elbow, led her to one of several open sections in the wall and onto the rink.
It was worse than she could ever have imagined. No matter where she put her weight, something was always rolling, which, duh, she was standing on wheels but…
“You’re doing great,” John said, holding her upright as her legs tried to slide in opposite directions.
“You’re a lousy liar,” she replied. “Where did you learn to skate, anyway?”
“My landladies enjoyed the occasional evening at the rink,” he said, pulling her in close before she did a header over another skater who’d just skidded onto his ass.
She tried to process that, which at least gave her something to think about besides having wheels on her feet. “Your landladies are over a hundred years old,” she pointed out.
“Only Sadie, and she wasn’t yet a hundred when Xanadu opened.”
She rolled her eyes, which was a mistake because of course that’s when both feet got out from under her and she fell on her own ass.
“I hate this,” she said again as he spun around in front of her. “Hate.”
“I know.” He reached down, and with a grimace she offered her hands for him to haul up, which he did with seemingly zero effort.
Had he always been this strong? Not that it mattered, only inasmuch as she was depending on his strength to keep her from being squashed flat by a herd of wheel-shod Nikeans.
It occurred to her those very Nikeans were skimming, rolling, and swooping around herself and John. Probably they ought to be moving, but he continued to hold her close and still and, for all she despised the rolling-feet thing, it was the sensation of being held snugly against him that left her unbalanced.
And, she found, it made for an oddly pleasant moment.
“We’ve been spotted,” John said.
Jagati grit her teeth as John started her moving again. They’d made it a quarter of the way around the oval. She figured if they stayed with the flow of traffic, they might make the exit in ten minutes. Assuming she could maintain an upright position for that long.
I should have just shot somebody.
A glance over her shoulder (which almost led to a face plant on her part) showed the Well-Dressed Thug nearing the wall, eyes locked on them.
“Keep moving,” John said, because the looking over the shoulder had slowed her further. “There’s nothing they can do in this crowd.”
That seemed optimistic to Jagati. She started to tell him so when John shoved her to the left, abandoning her while he sped forward. “Hey!” she yelled, arms flying out and feet swerving in opposite directions. “You are DEAD to me!”
Wouldn’t be the first time. “I’ll be right back,” he called, trying not to wince at the thud of bodies and clash of wheels behind him. At least Jagati was under cover for the next few moments.
Eyes narrowing, John picked up speed as he skated into the open, narrowing in on the black-coated figure standing still at the top of the rink.
As he came round the narrow end of the oval nearest Xanadu’s front, the figure turned and the light brown eyes met John’s gray-blue. The thug’s gloved hand dove under his black rain-specked jacket towards the shoulder holster Jagati detected earlier.
John increased his speed, lowered his head, and put his left arm in front of him, so he was leading with his shoulder.
All around, the other skaters slowed or quickened, angled away or around, making whatever adjustments were necessary to remain upright and in motion, unaware any danger existed beyond common risk of a bruised behind or dented ego.
Which meant no one but John noted the shooter emerging from the black leather coat.
It also meant that when John slammed shoulder first into the thug, sending him to the floor with a skull-cracking thunk, it registered as nothing more than another obstacle to be avoided.
Figuring it would take his opponent a few minutes to recover his senses, John continued on past the fallen man. He slowed long enough to snatch up the shooter, which had skidded out onto the floor, before continuing on to rejoin Jagati.
He found her kneeling in the center of the rink. The other skaters from the pile-up had already recovered and returned to the migration. In their place the tall, elegant woman stood directly behind Jagati, holding a shock stick to the base of her skull.
He pulled up short in front of the two women.
“Guess who else didn’t care about rules?” Jagati quipped.
“You will lose the shooter and give me the satchel,” the woman said, her ink-dark face expressionless in the rink’s flickering lights.
As she spoke, the organ’s music, which had been playing incessantly, went silent.
“No,” Jagati said, “he won’t.”
“She’s right,” John said, “I won’t.” He eased closer as, around them, the skaters began to slow. “And I don’t think you’ll be committing any murders here.”
The woman’s eyes narrowed. “You are so confident in my restraint?”
“No.” He shook his head. “I’m just watching the clock.”
At which moment the piercing screech of Xanadu’s rehabbed pre-war loudspeaker filled the air.
The woman holding Jagati jerked in a whole-body wince and Jagati herself dropped face down to the floor, from which John dragged her to safety at his side.
“Ladies, gentlemen,” a voice blared over the loudspeaker, “it’s that time! That’s right, folks, the moment you’ve all been waiting for. Everyone come to the center of the rink for the Hokey Pokey!”
“The what?” Jagati asked as she literally climbed up John to get to her feet.
“The Hokey Pokey,” John said, his arm sliding round her waist so they both rolled back and away from Cheekbones. “It’s a dance…of sorts.”
As he spoke, two of Xanadu’s employees—recognizable by the copper badges they wore—skated up to Cheekbones and escorted her off the rink.
“It sounds filthy,” Jagati said as he pulled her into the assembling circle of skaters. “Is it?”
They’d finally made their escape after the group dances ended, and now stood in the equipment shed on the other side of John’s promised exit.
“I thought you said it wasn’t filthy?”
“What?” John looked up from where he was removing his right skate.
Jagati, already de-skated, watched him with her arms crossed over her chest. “You said it wasn’t filthy.”
“You mean the Hokey Pokey?” he asked, turning his attention back to the skate.
“Please stop calling it that, and yes the…that. ‘Put your tail feather in and shake it all about’?”
“I don’t know as I’d call that filthy…”
“Whatever you call it, we are never, and I repeat, never, going to speak of this.” She glared at him. “Ever.”
“Understood.” He shucked the right skate and moved on to the left. “Can we at least mention the limbo?”
She made an inarticulate noise, followed by, “I hate you.”
“So you’ve said.” He removed the left skate, tossed both of their pairs of skates onto the top of a box of spare wheels, and gestured towards the shed’s outer door, which led to Wilde Street. “Shall we?”
“Shall we what? Oh, right, Sameen.” Jagati thunked her palm to her forehead as she answered her own question. With all the rolling and falling and shaking of tails, she’d forgotten their objective. “How far are we from the meet?”
“One district over and several blocks in.” He adjusted the satchel and checked the gun he’d taken from WDT, now tucked in his pocket. “It’ll be a wet walk, I’m afraid,” he noted as they stepped out into a rain much heavier than what they’d seen before entering Xanadu.
“At least we’re not on wheels,” she said, hunkering into the warmth of her long, oilskin coat, grateful for the waterproof duffle holding her rifle.
“It could have been worse,” he said, squinting into the downpour.
“They could have been ice skates.”
“Who would do that?” She gave him a sideways glare. “Who would put skates on ice?”
“There’s rather a lot of ice involved in Moosehead winters,” he pointed out. “I imagine the colonists who first settled it needed a way to pass the time.” He glanced her way. “Didn’t they have any skating rinks in Dodge?”
“The day Dodge City installs a roller—or ice, or whatever the hells kind of rink—is the same day I’ll be emigrating to Adidas.”
His eyebrow arched at the extremity of her distaste. “You know you don’t live in Dodge anymore, don’t you?”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
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