Part 6 (1/2)

”We're going to rescue that kidnapped computerman. A mixed gang of teener kids are holding him in the ruins near West Fifty-third Street. We know how to handle a kid gang fight.”

George was not going to let go of common sense. He settled back on the bench and looked around at the green warm comfort of the park, and rubbed one of the bruises on his arm. ”Let's call the police, let them do it.”

”We are the police, lunk.” Ahmed still stood, smiling, depending on the force of his personality, the habit of command, to get George to obey. George looked up at him, squinting into the light of the sky, one eye half closed. Half of a bruise showed at the side of his face, most of it hidden by the hairline.

”Ahmed, don't be a nut. Logical thinking doesn't fight chains and clubs for you. I mean, your brains are great, but we need muscle against a juv army, because they don't know about thinking, and they don't listen.”

”What if they are all in their cellars, lunk, and we want to drop them before they get in deeper and carry Carl Hodges away? What kind of thing could get them all out into the open where a helicopter could drop them with gas?”

George absently rubbed the dark mark on the side of his face. ”They come out when somebody gets onto their territory, Ahmed.

Not an army of cops or a helicopter, I don't mean that. I mean some poor goof is crossing, looking for a shortcut to somewhere else, and they all come out and beat him up.”

”That's for you.”

”How did you figure . . . Oh, yeah, you don't mean yesterday. You mean strategy, like. They come out to beat me up again and the copter drops them with a gas spray, and maybe there's no one left underground to kill Carl Hodges, or take him away.” George got up. ”Okay, let's do it.”

They came up out of the subway at Fifty-third Street and walked together on the sidewalk opposite the bombed-out of old buildings. A distant helicopter sound buzzed in the air.

”Separate, but we keep in touch. Leave your radio open to send, but shut it for receive so there won't be any sound coming out of it. The copter pilot will be listening. I'll circle the block and look in doorways and hallways for trouble. You cut across. We both act like we have some reason to be here, like I'm looking for an address. We're strangers.”

”Okay,” George said. ”I've got a story for them. Don't worry about me.” He turned and walked nonchalantly around the corner, across the street, past some standing ruins and into the flattened s.p.a.ces and the area that had once been paved backyard, with steps down to doors that had opened into the cellars of gone buildings. Flattened rubble and standing walls showed where the buildings had been.

fie stood in the middle of a backyard, near two flights of cement stairs that led down into the ground to old doors, and he walked onward slowly, going in an irregular wandering course, studying the ground, acting a little confused and clumsy, just the way he had acted the last time he had been there.

The setting sun struck long shadows across the white broken pavement. He turned and looked back at his own long shadow, and started when another person's shadow appeared silently on the pavement alongside of his. He glanced sideways and saw a tall,

husky teener in a strange costume standing beside him holding a heavy bat. The teener did not look back at him, he looked off into s.p.a.ce, lips pursed as though whistling silently.

George winced again when a short teener with straight blond hair stepped out from behind a fragment of standing wall.

”Back, huh?” asked the blond kid.

George felt the shadows of others gathering behind him.

George said, ”I'm looking for a pocket watch I lost the night you guys beat me up. I mean, it's really an antique, and it reminds me of someone. I've got to find it.”

He looked at the ground, turning around in a circle. There was a, circle of feet all around him, feet standing in ruined doorways, feet on top of mounds of rubble, the clubs resting on the ground as the owners leaned on them, the chains swinging slightly.

”You must be really stupid,” said the leader, his teeth showing in a small smile that had no friends.h.i.+p.

Where was Carl-Hodges? The area George stood in was clean, probably well used by feet. The stairs leading down to a cellar door were clean, the door handle had the s.h.i.+ne of use. The leader had appeared late, from an unlikely direction. Ire was standing on dusty, rubble-piled ground which feet had not rubbed and cleared. The leader then had not wanted to come out the usual way and path to confront George. Probably the usual way would have been the door George was facing, the one that looked used.

It was like playing hot and cold for a hidden object. If Carl Hodges was behind that door, the teeners would not let George approach it. George, looking slow and confused, shuffled his feet two steps in that direction. There was a simultaneous shuffle and hiss of clothing as the circle behind him and all around him closed in closer. George stopped and they stopped.

Now there was a circle of armed teeners close around him. Two were standing almost between him and the steps. The helicopter still buzzed in the distance, circling the blocks. George knew if he shouted, or even spoke clearly, and asked for help the copter pilot would bring the plane over in a count of seconds.

The blond kid did not move, still lounging, flas.h.i.+ng his teeth in a small smile as he studied George up and down with the expression of a scientist at a zoo studying an odd specimen of gorilla.

”I got something important to tell you,” George said to him. But they didn't listen.

”It's a kind of a shame,” the blond kid said to the others. ”He's so stupid already. I mean, if we just bashed out his brains he wouldn't even notice they were gone.”

George faced the leader and sidled another small step in the direction of the steps and the door, and heard the shuffle of feet closing in behind him. He stopped moving and they stopped moving. For sure that door was hiding something. They wanted to keep strangers away from it! ”Look, if you found my watch I lost, and if you give it to me, I'll tell you about a thing you ought to know.”

If he talked long and confusingly enough, every member of the gang would come out on the surface to hear what he was trying to say. They would all be out in the open. The helicopter was armed for riots; it could spray sleep gas and get every one of them.

He didn't even feel the blow. Suddenly he was on his knees, a purple haze before his eyes. He tried to get up and fell over sideways, still in the curled-up position. He realized he wasn't breathing.

Could a back-of-the-neck karate chop knock out your breathing centers? What had the teacher said? His lungs contracted, wheezing out more air, unable to let air in. It must have been a solar plexus jab with a stick. But then how. come he hadn't seen the stick? The purple haze was turning into spinning black spots. He couldn't see.

”What was it he wanted to tell us?”

”Ask him.”

”He can't answer, dummy. He can't even grunt. You'll have to wait.”

”I don't mind waiting,” said the voice of the one carrying a

chain. George heard the chain whistle and slap into something, and wondered if it had hit him. Nothing in his body registered anything but a red burning need for air.

”You don't want to trespa.s.s on our territory,” said a voice. ”We're just trying to teach you respect. You stay on the free public sidewalks and don't go inside other people's Kingdoms. Not unless they ask you.” The chain whistled and slapped again.

George tried to breathe, but the effort to inhale knotted his chest tighter, forcing breath out instead of in.

It is a desperate thing having your lungs working against you. The knot tightening the lungs held for another second and then loosened. He drew in a rasping breath of cool air, and another. Air came in like waves of light, dispelling the blindness and bringing back awareness of arms and legs. lie straightened out from the curled-up knot and lay on his back breathing deeply and listening to the sounds around him.