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The Night of the Paragon's Shadow

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Dr. Miguelito Loveless moved uneasily into the shadows of the deserted warehouse. His men waited outside, but he went in alone, as the note had specified. Its author had given his word that no attempt would be made here to apprehend Loveless; and Loveless knew well how tightly James West's word could bind.

 

The door creaked as he closed it carefully behind him. A voice spoke from the darkness. "Dr. Loveless, I presume. Punctual as ever."

 

"Good evening, Mr. Gordon." Loveless strained his eyes toward the Secret Service agent's voice. He heard footsteps approach, and then stop, then the sound of a match being struck. Gordon's hand and face appeared in the tiny flare. The agent lit a lamp he was holding and set it on a crate beside him. A weak glow illuminated the warehouse. Loveless looked around, seeing no one else. "I was expecting Mr. West."

 

"No." Gordon's voice sounded odd. "I sent the message. West isn't here."

 

"Pity," said Loveless. "Well, I guess I'll just have to talk to you."

 

"It's so kind of you, sir, to settle for second best."

 

"Do I detect a note of bitterness in your voice, Mr. Gordon?" Loveless asked, interested.

 

"I thought you of all people should understand, Doctor. Do you know what it is like to be overlooked? To be constantly passed over and unappreciated?"

 

Loveless was taken aback. "Why, Mr. Gordon, I had no idea you felt this way."

 

"Where do you think he gets all those wonderful gadgets? You didn't think he designed them himself! And those clever plans, and those inventive schemes--surely you don't believe he's the brains of the outfit?" Gordon pulled another crate over and sat down on it, glaring at Loveless eye-to-eye. "Oh, but you do," he went on. "Your personal vendetta has always been against him. 'Curses, Mr. West has foiled my plans again.' You don't even respect me enough to hate me. And it's been me all along. Me! West is a pretty face with a talent for brawling."

 

Loveless eyed him suspiciously. "Somehow I don't see the honorable Mr. West being so duplicitous."

 

"Duplicitous? Ha! I'd be surprised if he could even spell the word. No, he's not, and there's the rub. You know he's devoted to me; you've used it against him enough times. In fact, he's a paragon of virtue. Brave. . . ."

 

"Loyal," supplied Loveless.

 

"Honest," sighed Gordon.

 

"Honorable," added Loveless.

 

"In short, he makes me sick."

 

Loveless chuckled.

 

Gordon continued. "I'm tired of living in the shadow of a paragon. I thought the Secret Service would provide me with adventure and intellectual challenge. Instead I spend most of my time fending off small-time counterfeiters and rescuing James West." He spat out the last two words with surprising vehemence.

 

Taken aback, Loveless protested, "Somehow I thought your motivations were more noble."

 

Gordon shrugged. "Might've been, at first. But I soon came to realize that protecting the security of the United States basically means maintaining the status quo. We're not doing one thing to improve the lot of mankind."

 

"This is all very interesting, Mr. Gordon," Loveless said casually, head cocked to one side, "but I don't see what concern it is of mine."

 

"West is on a secret one-man assignment in Mexico for the next three weeks. I figure this is my chance to make a break for it or I'll be living in his shadow forever." Gordon leaned forward and spoke with quiet intensity. "I'd like to be where I'm appreciated. I'd like to be where I can make a difference. I'd like to work for you."

 

Loveless considered carefully. "Well, I can certain see that the opportunity to work for one of the greatest geniuses of all time must have a tremendous appeal to someone like you. But what's in it for me? Why should I add another name to my payroll?"

 

Gordon nodded. "A fair question. I can give you three reasons. First, I can be of use in formulating your plans; I have inside knowledge of the Secret Service and a certain knack for finesse, if I do say so myself. Second, if you've got me, the Secret Service doesn't, so in addition to strengthening your own hand, you've weakened your opponent's."

 

"Good so far," Loveless agreed. "What's the third?"

 

"It would make James West really, really mad." Gordon grinned wickedly and Loveless found a matching smile spreading across his own face.

 

******

 

"It just so happens," said Miguelito Loveless, bustling into a well-appointed study the next morning with Artemus Gordon in tow, "that I could use some assistance working out my latest plan." He handed his hat and coat to Antoinette and Gordon did the same. She smiled prettily at him and went off with the coats. "It's brilliant in theory, of course," he went on, seating himself in a plush armchair and motioning Gordon to the sofa.

 

"Of course," the agent agreed.

 

"But I need some help working out the practical details.  That's where you come in."

 

Antoinette came back bearing a tray with a cut glass decanter of brandy and three glasses. Loveless poured a glass for each of them and handed them around. "But first, let's drink to new partnerships."

 

Artemus raised his glass. "To new partnerships."

 

Loveless eyed him closely. "And to the defeat of James West."

 

Artemus said, "I'll drink to that," and drained the glass with gusto. Uh-oh, he thought. I shouldn't have done that. The room swayed a little, blurred, and then came into focus. Everything seemed abnormally clear, feverishly vivid. He turned his head with some difficulty and looked at Dr. Loveless.

 

The doctor's voice resonated strangely in Gordon's ears. "Let's see how that new truth serum I invented works now, Antoinette. Mr. Gordon, do you really dislike Mr. West?"

 

The answer came unbidden to his lips. "Yes."

 

"And you really want to work for me instead?"

 

It was as if the questions were bypassing his willpower; he could only answer without thinking. "Yes."

 

Loveless cackled. "That's all I really needed to know. But there's just one more thing. Are you sincerely motivated to help mankind, or are you looking for glory?"

 

"Both." Gordon tried to stop, but he could not refrain from adding, "Mostly glory."

 

Loveless clapped like a delighted child. "I thought as much!" He regarded Gordon with amusement. "I hope you don't mind, Mr. Gordon, but I'm sure you'll understand I couldn't just take you on faith."

 

"Of course I understand," Artemus found himself saying. "I would expect nothing less." The unnatural clarity was wearing off; in fact, the room was becoming blurry. He blinked and tried unsuccessfully to bring Loveless into focus.

 

The scientist chuckled. "Antoinette, fetch Voltaire. Have our new employee escorted to the guest room to sleep it off." Gordon was vaguely aware of Loveless' giant assistant hauling him up and out of the couch, and then everything faded.

 

******

 

Gordon awoke to find himself in bed. His first impression was that it was very comfortable; as he sat up and looked around he saw that he was in an elegant, well-furnished bedroom. If the little clock was ticking on the carved cherrywood nightstand was trustworthy, he had been asleep no more than a few hours.

 

He got up and went to the door. It opened noiselessly onto a short hallway ending in a staircase. He went down and found himself in the study from which Voltaire had carried him. It was deserted.

 

Having more time to look around, he noticed things he hadn't seen before. A door, left ajar, leading off down another hall. A piano, of course, with music open on the stand. A fire burned low in the fireplace, and an ornate jade chess set was laid out on a low table nearby. Artemus knelt beside it, examining the pieces and their positions.

 

"Don't touch that!" came Antoinette's voice suddenly behind him. "The master would be furious if you disturbed his game."

 

"I wasn't going to," Gordon said, irritated. "This is quite a match he's got set up here. Black to mate in four moves, I think." He scrutinized the pieces for a moment. "I don't see a way out, unless White does something diabolically clever."

 

"Aha, but diabolical cleverness is my specialty, Mr. Gordon!" Loveless appeared from the door to the hall. "Do you play chess, my good man?"

 

Gordon looked up from the chessboard. "I dabble, sir."

 

"Spendid. I suppose Mr. West doesn't give you much exercise that way."

 

"None at all."

 

"Well, then, you're long overdue for a really good workout. You sit there and take Black, and we'll see if White can do something diabolically clever after all."

 

White won the match after all, as Black had suspected he might, and immediately proposed another. Antoinette had gotten bored and wandered away unnoticed during the first game, and the two players spent the rest of the afternoon absorbed in the second match. Loveless eventually won, but with considerable difficulty. "Thank you for an excellent match, Mr. Gordon. You're a fine player, but we can't all be me, you know."

 

"I enjoyed it sir," said Artemus. "I hope you find me a worthy opponent."

 

******

 

It was not until after the evening meal, superbly prepared by Antoinette, that Loveless finally broached the topic of his latest plan. "I've decided that force is simply too crude, Mr. Gordon. My next plan involves no explosions, no deadly diseases, no hallucinogenic poisons. Instead, I'm going to strike at the weak point of the American frontier. Can you imagine what that is, Mr. Gordon?"

 

Artemus shook his head. "Dependence on the industrialized East for finished goods?"

 

"Close," said Loveless, "very close. You've picked an economic problem, though not the one I chose to focus on. No, I'm interested in the banking system. What happens when a bank gets robbed?"

 

"Well, it depends on the banker. A lot of them belong to self-insured syndicates; some of them make up the loss out of their own pockets."

 

"Yes," said Loveless, "and the system works fine as long as bank robberies are relatively few and far between. But what if a hundred banks were robbed at once?  How would the system handle that, pray tell?"

 

"It couldn't," Gordon admitted. "Not simultaneously. The banking system would collapse."

 

"Precisely," said Loveless, and smiled, showing all his teeth. "A wonderfully disastrous scenario. And one man--in the right place, at the right time--could seize advantage."

 

"That man being you."

 

"Of course," said Loveless. "There's just one problem. I can't seem to project a better than 25-50% success rate. I've hired a number of small gangs through a variety of agents and aliases. I've no fear of being traced if they're caught. But I need to give them some sort of advantage. So many of these robberies fail, you know." He might have been discussing a fallen meringue.

 

Gordon turned the problem over in his mind. He speaks so casually of the human misery he'll cause. He turned his attention to the job he had to do. An idea slowly began to form. "Why don't you warn the banks?"

 

Loveless grasped the ends of his chair arms with both hands and pushed forward in his seat. "Are you mad, Mr. Gordon?"

 

"No, no, I've got an idea." Gordon remained silent for a moment, then snapped his fingers. "Look, you send a bank an urgent anonymous telegram that there's going to be a robbery. They get all keyed up, get some deputies together, post lookouts, stay at top attention for as long as they can." He gestured with his hands as if directing imaginary troops. "And then nothing happens. A couple of days later, they get another telegram, and they go through the same drill. A few more days--another telegram. Now they're getting skeptical. Now they're getting tired and sloppy and careless. Now you attack."

 

Loveless sat back and regarded Artemus Gordon for a long time. "The boy who cried 'wolf,'" he said.

 

"Precisely."

 

"It just might work," Loveless admitted. "I can have a telegraph hook-up arranged--I'd need an operator."

 

"Yes, of professional quality, and the same one to send out all the messages."

 

"Why?" Loveless seemed surprised.

 

"So that the warnings are all the same."

 

"Well, if they're all in the same words. . . ."

 

Gordon stared at Loveless. He remembered seeing the scientist do some simple sending and receiving at the communications center in Junction once, but he hadn't gotten the impression that Loveless was any kind of expert, and this seemed to confirm it. He's probably well versed in theory, thought Artemus, but lacking in practical experience. "An experienced operator--like the fellows who will be receiving our warnings--gets to recognize the pattern, the rhythm, as it were, of different senders. It's as distinctive as handwriting. If all the warnings are from the same source, they'll be dismissed as a hoax a lot sooner than if the senders are discernibly different."

 

"So I need to hire one indefatigable and trustworthy expert telegraph operator," said Loveless. Artemus spread his hands in a gesture of modesty. Loveless stared at him for a moment, then muttered to himself, "Mostly glory. Bah." He spoke aloud. "All right, Mr. Gordon, you have the job. I'll have the hook-up installed tomorrow." He made some notes to himself on a pad beside his chair. "I must say I like your idea. You've been working for the wrong side for far too long."

 

"Funny," said Gordon with a half smile, "that's what I used to think about you."

 

Loveless cackled, then jumped up from his chair. "Come along to my lab now and see my experiments. It's so rare I have someone worth showing them to." He led the way down the corridor that Artemus had noticed before, and into a room filled with beakers and burners and elaborate tubing set-ups. A row of cages along one wall held an assortment of mice and rabbits, but the room smelled of chemicals, not animals, and the cages were clean. Loveless pointed to a rack of tubes on one table. "There's the truth serum I tried out on you.  Any government would pay a fortune for it! But there isn't one that I'd trust within a yard of it. And over here--" he bustled to one of the elaborate set-ups--"a device for extracting the fattening qualities from various rich foods. I've almost perfected an exquisite chocolate with virtually no calories. At Antoinette's request, actually." He moved over beside the cages and took out a black-and-white rabbit, stroking it absent-mindedly.

 

Artemus nodded in admiration and pointed to another arrangement, from which a clear liquid was slowly dripping into a small flask. "What's this one?"

 

Loveless came over to stand beside him. "Ah, now this is my piece de resistance. It is a new synthetic neurotoxin, and if I've formulated it correctly--as I'm sure I have--it will cause unspeakable agony to its victim for an unknown period of time before death. Nasty, nasty. I'm quite proud of it. I say unknown, because I haven't had the heart to test it on these innocent creatures." He lifted the rabbit to his cheek, where it nuzzled contentedly. With a final pat, he replaced it gently in its cage, then swung around to face Gordon. "And unfortunately, I haven't had a suitable human to test it on."

 

Gordon remained calm externally, but Loveless' sudden transition from gentleness to cruelty shocked him. He forced himself to smile and say lightly, "Maybe you can try it out on James West next time you see him."

 

Loveless scowled. "Really, Mr. Gordon, you must have some feeling for the man."

 

Gordon shrugged. "Yes, actually, I have to admit I'm beginning to miss him. Like a barking dog, or a toothache."

 

******

 

The next day, Artemus Gordon spent a good part of the afternoon working out a timetable for the false bank warnings to have maximum psychological effect. He worked straight through supper, nibbling on a tray of food that Voltaire brought up and left for him. Finally he left the desk in his room and came down to find his employer. As he entered the study he heard the piano tinkling and two voices raised in song.

 

Then late one night the lord came home

Inquiring for his lady-o

And the serving girls replied to him all

She's away with the raggle-taggle gypsy-o

 

Then saddle for me my fastest steed

The big horse is not speedy-o

I ride far and wide to seek for my bride

She's away with the raggle-taggle gypsy-o

 

He could just distinguish Loveless' thin sweet tenor entwined with Antoinette's full alto; they sang in nearly the same register in close harmony.  What they need is a contrasting voice, thought Artemus, and joined in softly with the baritone line. The two at the piano looked up, startled, but continued without missing a beat.

 

He rode east, and he rode west

He rode south and north also

And it's one night he's come to the wide open field

And there he found his lady-o

 

Why would you leave your house and lands

Why would you leave your money-o

And why would you leave your only-wedded lord

To follow with the raggle-taggle gypsy-o?

 

How appropriate, thought Gordon. And here I've gone off and abandoned my precious Secret Service to follow with the raggle-taggle genius-o. But he had to admit there were worse ways to while away an evening.

 

******

 

The telegraph connection was installed the next day in an outbuilding near the main house. Artemus decided it was probably a clandestine tap into a nearby commercial station, as there simply hadn't been time for the paperwork to establish a new set-up. He sat down with his list of banks and began tapping out messages and listening to the standard return acknowledgements. Loveless came in and watched him for a while. When Gordon came to a stopping point at the end of a page, Loveless cleared his throat. "Er, Mr. Gordon. . . "

 

Artemus finished checking off the last bank on the page, turned the page over and refastened the bundle of papers on the stand by his set-up. "Yes?"

 

"I wanted you to know how pleased I am with your work so far."

 

Artemus looked up in some surprise. "Thank you, Dr. Loveless."

 

His employer gestured to the bundle of papers. "You've worked hard on this plan and thought it out carefully. You have no idea what a burden it's been for me trying to work without a competent co-conspirator. I'm really quite pleased to have you as a colleague. The Secret Service undervalued your talents."

 

Gordon smiled. "I always thought so."  He turned back to his project. Loveless clapped him on the shoulder and left.

 

******

 

Antoinette, returning from carrying a tray of supper to one of the guardhouses, paused outside the shed where Gordon was busy sending out the last set of messages. Although she could not understand the rapid fire Morse code, she had gotten accustomed over the last few days to the rhythm of the identical message and similar replies repeated over and over. Antoinette turned to go back to the house, when something caught her attention. Just for a moment the tapping seemed to go differently; she listened a moment longer and heard the reply. The response was a little slower than the others, and went on longer. Gordon tapped a very brief reply, and then resumed the familiar pattern. Antoinette went into the house, thinking.

 

The door to the laboratory was ajar, so she went in without knocking. Loveless, sitting on a tall stool, was leaning intently forward as he poured a colorless substance from a test tube into a beaker filled with pale blue liquid. Antoinette waited until he was finished pouring. "Dr. Loveless--" she began, but he cut her off.

 

"Not NOW, Antoinette, this reaction is critical."

 

"But there's something I think you should know," she said.

 

"LATER!" he thundered without turning around. Antoinette fled.

 

******

 

The raids were scheduled to go off at 10 a.m. the morning of the 17th. Loveless had invited Artemus, Antoinette, and Voltaire to his study to toast their moment of triumph. At 9 a.m. Voltaire generally made the rounds of the estate, and on the 17th Gordon waited patiently for him at the stables. As Voltaire approached, Gordon waved him to come in. "I'm worried about Loco," he said. "He's been favoring his right back leg. Hawkins took a look yesterday, and said he didn't see anything wrong with the hoof, but I was wondering if you would take a look."

 

"Uh," said Voltaire, and moved into the stall. As he bent over to pick up the big grey's hoof, he presented a perfect target for a syringe of sleeping medicine that Gordon happened to have with him. Voltaire grunted again and fell softly over. Gordon led Loco into another stall, then covered Voltaire with hay. "Sweet dreams, friend," he said. Having calculated the dosage carefully for Voltaire's unusual size, he was confident that the giant would be out cold for at least two hours.

 

At 9:45 he and Antoinette joined their employer in the study. Loveless handed them each a glass, and began peeling the gold foil off a chilled bottle of champagne. "Where's Voltaire?" he asked impatiently. "I don't want anyone to be late."

 

Gordon set down his glass. "I thought I saw him at the north guardhouse a while ago," he said. "I'll go get him." Loveless nodded, and Gordon left. Antoinette watched him go.

 

"Something bothering you, my dear?" Loveless asked her.

 

"Well, it's something I noticed the other day." Antoinette took a step backwards, wringing her hands. "I tried to tell you, but--"

 

"Forget the excuses, woman, just spit it out!"

 

"I think Artemus was using the telegraph to send an extra message."

 

Loveless stepped forward and grasped her hand, asking intently, "Extra message?"

 

Antoinette nodded. "The clicking just wasn't the same. And the answer sounded different too." She hesitated. "I thought he might be talking to James West."

 

Loveless released Antoinette and paced for a moment. "Then he's double-crossed us, and he's making good his escape right now. Let's go!" He strode to the door and beckoned several guards to follow him.

 

Antoinette caught up her skirts and ran to catch up with his rapid pace. "Are we going to the north guardhouse?" she asked.

 

"No, my dear, that's exactly where he wants us to look for him. We'll head toward the south part of the complex." He turned to speak to the guards. "Mr. Gordon has betrayed us and he'll be trying to get away. He must be stopped. Hank, get on the communicator and warn the guardhouses not to let him out. Charles, you're the sharpshooter? Good. You and Angelo come with me." The men nodded and obeyed.

 

As they exited the south end of the house, Loveless climbed up onto the gate of the verandah and scanned the horizon. "There he is!" he said suddenly, pointing. "See him?"

 

Angelo shaded his eyes with his hand and looked in the direction Loveless had indicated. He saw Gordon walking unhurriedly toward the south gate of the estate. "Don't look like he's runnin' away," he observed.

 

"Of course not, you fool, he doesn't want to arouse suspicion," Loveless growled.

 

At that moment Gordon looked back at the house and saw the little party watching him. Uh-oh, he said softly to himself and began walking more briskly. He recognized Charlie with his rifle and broke into a dead run.

 

"Shoot him in the leg so he can't run away," Loveless told Charles. "I don't want him dead." He turned to Antoinette and smiled. "Not yet." A single shot rang out, and the running figure in the distance stumbled and fell. "Nice work," said Loveless. Two figures emerged from the guardhouse and moved toward the man on the ground.

 

Gordon sat up cautiously, eying the house. His leg was throbbing, but he thought he might be able to limp to safety, since the gate was not far. He got laboriously to his feet and turned southward again. Two guards stood blocking his way, their hands hovering just over their guns. Artemus sighed.

 

******

 

Loveless bustled back into the house, barking orders as he went. "Antoinette, pack up the chess set and any other valuables. We're leaving. Angelo, get the men ready to evacuate. See if you can find Voltaire. Leave a couple of guards by the door. Charles, run ahead and get the gurney from the storage room behind the laboratory, the one with restraints on it, and push it into my study." He turned to Artemus, who was being dragged along by a couple of men. "You're going to regret this a very great deal, Mr. Gordon," he hissed.

 

When they reached the study, the rolling table was ready. Loveless pointed to it. "Put him up there and strap him down," he said and disappeared down the laboratory corridor. Gordon struggled, but one of the guards drew his gun and the agent gave up, recognizing the futility of the attempt. They were buckling the last few straps when Loveless returned from the lab carrying a syringe and a cigar box.

 

He came over to where Gordon was strapped down and grinned at him. "You can still be of assistance to me, Mr. Gordon," he said cheerfully. "I now have a human to try out my neurotoxin on." He set down the syringe and opened the box. "You see, I have a timer here and a notebook for my observations."

 

"Very thorough," Artemus conceded. "But I hardly need to remind you, sir, as one scientist to another, of the pitfalls of drawing conclusions from contaminated data."

 

"Contaminated? How so?" Loveless quirked an eyebrow at him.

 

"Well, I'd expect you're interested in the drug's effect on an otherwise uninjured person, not someone who's just been shot. I'm likely to die on you much too soon." Gordon tsk-tsked. "Besides, I'm not sure how you plan to quantify the pain experienced, but I'm sure this injury is going to interfere with the purity of the reporting."

 

Loveless glanced at the splotch of blood just above Gordon's knee and then at the agent's face, which was pale and drawn despite his jocular manner. "Hurts, does it? Well, never mind, Mr. Gordon, once you get this into your system you won't even notice that pesky little scratch. As for your other point--I must admit that conditions are less than ideal, but we scientists are sometimes forced to make sacrifices." He grinned. "And so, occasionally, are our subjects.

 

"Now, before I begin I have a few questions for you. First of all, how did you happen to turn up at such an opportune moment?"

 

"Do you remember an employee named George Franks?"

 

Loveless thought for a moment. "Yes. He blundered in some trifling matter or other. I was going to have him killed, but he went and died on us."

 

Gordon shook his head. "No, sir, he ran away and came straight to the Secret Service. We faked his death and gave him a new identity--I don't know it, by the way--in exchange for information on your current doings and whereabouts. This gave us an idea of how to put a man on the inside."

 

Loveless nodded. "Interesting. I shall have to be more careful about executions and such in the future. Next question--how did you outwit the truth serum?"

 

"Well, we had to be prepared for every contingency," Gordon began. "Frankly, we'd be underestimating you if we didn't assume you'd try something of the sort. The Service hired a professional mesmerizer to implant posthypnotic suggestions, false answers that would be triggered by the administration of the serum."

 

"Hmm." Loveless considered carefully. "I'll have to figure a way around that. Too bad I can't have your help. Dammit, I could have used you! How could you possibly prefer to work with West rather than me? What's he got that I don't have?"

 

"Oh come now, Dr. Loveless, we discussed that at our first meeting. Don't you remember? Devotion. . . . ?"

 

"Courage," Loveless said, remembering.

 

"Loyalty," Gordon added.

 

"Honesty," groaned Loveless.

 

"Honor," Gordon finished.

 

"You make me sick," said Loveless. Gordon chuckled. Loveless went on. "I still think you're making a terrible mistake." He held the syringe up to the light and pushed the plunger up until a drop appeared at the tip of the needle. "But you won't live long to regret it."

 

"I don't know about that," said a cold flat voice from the doorway. Gordon and Loveless turned their heads simultaneously to see James West standing there, gun in hand, the unconscious guards sprawled on the floor behind him. "Put the needle down, Loveless, or you're one very dead megalomaniac. Your plan has failed; our agents intercepted all the robberies you planned, thanks to our advance warning." He nodded to Artemus.

 

Loveless scowled and put the needle down. "Always the spoilsport, Mr. West."

 

West shrugged modestly. "It's a bad habit. Mother always told me it would get me into trouble."

 

"She was right," said Loveless. He looked at Gordon. "You didn't say anything about a rescue plan."

 

"There wasn't one," said Gordon. "This must have been all Jim's idea."

 

Still speaking to Gordon, Loveless turned a careful eye on West. "I thought you said he was a pretty face with a talent for brawling."

 

"You said that, Artie?" West looked shocked, and Loveless smiled.

 

Until he heard Gordon's answer. "I know I originally said I wasn't going to use it, but it worked better than I thought."

 

West grinned at Loveless. "I came up with that line."

 

Loveless stamped over to his desk, climbed up and sat on it, folding his arms. "Mr. West, I believe I once explained to you how much I disliked you for your strength, your size, your unreasonable confidence and your unreasoning loyalty. I could forgive you all of those, given time. But you also have Mr. Gordon, and that I can never forgive.

 

"Mr. West, as you know, nothing gives me so much pleasure as does causing you pain. And right now I'm going to force you to make a very painful decision. I'm going to make you choose between your friend and your duty." He lifted a panel from the desktop to reveal a ticking clock dial and a flashing red light. "When I sat down, I activated a self-destruct mechanism that will level this house in about fifteen minutes. You may have observed that, owing to a minor mishap involving firearms, Mr. Gordon is unable to walk out of here without assistance; moreover, it will take you some minutes and the use of both hands to free him from the table. Now, you can take me into custody and leave Mr. Gordon, who will be killed in the explosion before you can return. Or you can rescue Mr. Gordon, thereby allowing me to escape."

 

West regarded him coolly and raised his weapon. "You neglect a third option, Dr. Loveless. I could just shoot you."

 

"Shoot an unarmed man who is not directly threatening you?" Loveless chuckled. "I know you better than that."

 

West lowered the gun and sighed. "All right, Loveless, you win." He walked over to Artemus' table and gestured toward the door with his gun. "Get out of here."

 

"Jim! You can't just let him go! The assignment--"

 

"Your assignment, Artie, was to stop his latest scheme. You've done that. I imagine it will be a while before he sets up his next one." He bent down and began unfastening the straps. "There'll be other times to capture Loveless, but there won't be another time for you if we don't get you out of here."

 

"The rabbits!" Artemus said suddenly. The shoulder strap released, he propped himself up on one elbow and addressed the scientist just as he was leaving. "Loveless, wait--you're not going to blow up the lab animals too!"

 

Loveless turned. "No, Mr. Gordon, I've already let them go. When the self-destruct mechanism is activated, it automatically opens an escape route built into the wall behind their cages." He paused, his hand on the door. "Mr. West, next time we meet I'd like to take my revenge personally. I don't care to be cheated of it in the meantime by some small-time counterfeiter. So. . . take care of Artemus for me, will you?" He slipped quickly out the door.

 

Jim and Artie stared at each other. "You seem to have gotten under his skin," said West, bending again to his task of freeing his partner.

 

"I'm glad you showed up in time, or he'd really have gotten under mine," said Gordon. As the last strap was released, he swung his legs awkwardly over the side and stood up. "Let's get out of here before we're blown to kingdom come." He tried to take a step, but the injured leg wouldn't hold his weight, and the room spun. He felt a strong arm supporting him and turned to see Jim at his side.

 

"Loveless was right," West said with a grimace. "C'mon, Artie, let's get you out of here."

 

******

 

A few days later, West came into the train carrying a sheaf of reports and whistling cheerfully, if tunelessly. Gordon, who was sitting on the sofa with his leg propped up on the coffee table, laid aside the forms he was filling out. "What's the good word, James?"

 

"Out of the one hundred attempts planned on various banks in the Southwest, none succeeded," West informed him. He tapped the top sheet. "Members of fifty-seven gangs were apprehended. A lot of jails are busy tonight." He turned over the next page and continued. "Because the safety of the bank employees and customers was the first priority of the men we stationed, six gangs managed to evade capture entirely. In twenty-two cases, the boys rode into town, got wind of our presence somehow, and rode back out again." He tucked the papers back into the folder. "And fifteen never showed up at all."

 

Gordon clucked. "It's so hard to get good help these days."

 

West pulled out the last sheet of paper. "No sign of Loveless. He's pulled another one of his disappearing acts."

 

Artemus sighed. "I'd feel better if we had him under lock and key."

 

Jim shrugged and went over to the sidebar. "Brandy? We've never managed to keep him under lock and key before, anyway." He handed Artemus his drink and said, "You've been awfully quiet since you got back, Artie. I'd almost think you missed Loveless."

 

"What, miss constantly living on the edge with a sociopathic madman?" Artie grinned, then stared into his drink, suddenly reflective. "But I guess I do miss him, in a way. He has a charming side that we don't normally get to see. It's a shame he has to be so. . . twisted."

 

Jim came over with his own drink and sat on the armrest of the opposite couch. "I can see what you mean. It's a tragic waste of human potential."

 

Artie thought for a moment longer, and added, "Of course, I don't miss him half as much as I missed you while I was at that place."

 

"Thanks, Artie," said Jim. "It must have been tough for you, keeping up a front for all those days. How did you ever convince Loveless that you really hated me?"

 

"Well, Jim, some parts of this job were easier than others." Artemus Gordon managed to keep a straight face--almost.