"Basta," hissed Manfredi from two feet below the warehouse ceiling. He and Johnson had first crammed between the wooden top supporting the Jacobs ladder and the corrugated metal roof of the warehouse. For penguins of their substantial size and combat experience, it had been frustrating to hear all what went on thirty feet below and not see it. They abandoned what looked to them like an upside down table screwed to the roof and clung now to the futtock shrouds just below it.
Johnson shushed him. "Wait for the others, dude. We're outgunned." The plea for patience would be about as successful as it always was with his buddy. The stakes were too high to risk more commandos getting caught or worse, though. This gang topped any meanness that Johnson had ever heard of by a factor of twelve.
"Can't you see what's happening? Do you want to witness what this faccia di stronzo does next to the kid --- "
"'Course not. Of course not."
Manfredi and Johnson squirmed and if the futtock shrouds creaked with their shifting weight more than they had before, the entranced gang of eight below did not notice. There were advantages to being heavy, Manfredi thought; for one thing, fighting opponents about three times the heft of your species' norm meant that you had more mass to do damage than if you were trim. Too, you could avoid damage by being more maneuverable than these giants. At least, that was the theory.
Manfredi threw caution to the winds to test the theory. He knew without doubt that Johnson would be right behind as he flung himself headfirst off the shrouds and scrambled onto the Jacobs ladder proper with his usual battle cry.
In their years of soldiering together, Johnson proved a wilder gambler, sloppier eater and worse heartbreaker than Manfredi. The one thing he never did was disappoint and as his incomprehensible war whoop echoed across the high ceiling, Manfredi figured that two against eight were fairly good odds.
"Dauði er víss líf er ekki!"
Darting from under the boxcar sitting on the deadend warehouse railroad tracks, Private put on a last burst of speed to reach the warehouse doors. "Crikey, get a move on, K'walski!"
"It's Rico's fault I'm slow! Come on, big fella, hustle to keep up! It's three for one and all for the mission! Never swim alone!"
"Holdonnamint!" Rico pulled even with his two teammates and burped up a half of halibut, a cache of cod and a smidgen of smelt. He expanded his burly chest and flapped his flippers. A look of near demonic concentration flared on his face. Three titanic belches later, three largish blobs of C-4 materialized at Rico's feet. A hiccup and their detonator appeared.
Kowalski stared. "Wow. This is more dangerous than your --- I didn't know you could do that, Rico."
"Yahhehehfirstym." Even Rico was taken aback at his newest ability. It took Private to regain their momentum.
"Blast it now! We need to know wot's goin' on in there!" Private was beside himself. He raised both flippers for a double karate chop at the massive warehouse doors.
Kowalski fiddled some more with their BlackBerry. "Wait! Let's give this another try!" He punched savagely at the device. "Anything on the Bluetooth headsets?" He turned away from them to mutter testing Tesla's coils testing Tesla's coils testing testing testing.
The silence was pierced only by a stray seagull's skrawk. At the end of thirty seconds and start of his teammates' impatient expressions, Kowalski lost his temper. "We don't have teeth so it makes sense that a Bluetooth wouldn't work when you most need it just you wait until I get a lab I'll make us all into waddling radio receivers using our individual electric fields so we won't require headsets ---"
"That's very interestin', K'walski. I'm sure there's a cryin' need for that. Do you mind if I stay in the here and now? Hiyahhhh!" Private sucked on his flippertips after his ineffectual chop. "Ow."
Rico already had the situation under control. He stuck the explosives equally apart along the long length of the sliding metal doors. Kowalski mastered his hissyfit and fine tuned the plan with great diplomacy. "Rico, I know you've not demolished outside of war games, buddy, so here's a hint. We only need to blast the locking parts of the door. If the blasts buckle both doors or their double track or both, the doors will be that much harder to open --- "
"Hehright." Rico aimed a high one in Kowalski's direction and changed tactics. "Downnao!"
Private and Kowalski hit the dirt.
The grayish interior of the warehouse sparkled with sunflecked dust motes when the sun suddenly sprayed full power through the clerestory windows to the west. It was all a glorious light show to Skipper's fading vision. He was beyond everything. No more pain, no more confusion, just the assurance that nothing mattered any longer. Even the mission didn't matter. Hope itself didn't matter. If the two words feel and dispassion weren't polar opposites, he'd say he felt dispassion. A reflex left over from happiness made his beak smile and he was at peace.
Gacy saw the smile and crooned, "Easy now, we don't want you to think that we don't appreciate you, Skipper, no need to rush The Game --- hold the spreader bar still for me, 'Bama --- why is it shaking --- who are you blokes?"
Skipper grunted as the weight of Gacy flew off him as swiftly as it had landed. "Urgleblottlehuh?"
Somehow the offbalance movement wound up the Jacobs ladder on its axis tightly as a "Hey, rævhål! Look up!" dropped from above like a slung blackjack. Skipper held onto his lunch with difficulty as the torqued netting untorqued to a shivering halt to leave him facing upwards again. His spaced out brain conflated his two veteran soldiers with a ghastly scene from a film he'd seen on a dare, Trainspotting. A human baby having the conjoined heads of Manfredi and Johnson crawled headfirst towards him. Would the horror of this afternoon ever end? A whimper squeezed its way past his willpower. Where had his peace gone?
Gacy's exclamation of disbelief stuck in his craw until he switched to commands. "Two, I see two! We can take them! Potsdam Maneuver, straightaway!" Whatever else he would have said got drowned out by a kaboom! as the two main doors to the building shot past the end of their track. They quivered as if alive and unsure whether to fall outwards a short distance to the wall or inwards to crash flat on the floor. 'Bama recovered from his shock with the resilience of youth and raced to the doors.
"Back! You'll never brace them, you stupid --- get away from them, 'Bama!" But youth also was the home of bravery, substance abuse, impaired judgment and disregard for good advice. 'Bama stood steadfast by the doors as they teetered off-track and then slanted towards the interior of the warehouse. He raised his flippers to hold the doors up and right before they crushed him, he screamed a defiant rebel yell. His Swiss Army knife flew backwards from the impact and Manfredi went for it with a speed he'd been saving for the Penguin Commandos Annual Picnic Sack Race.
Gacy's gang gathered themselves under the onslaught of Johnson, who had flipped past Manfredi down the Jacobs ladder to land by Skipper's hindquarters. Johnson turned into a Berserker, a whirling, screaming dervish who chopped and sweep kicked to knock the surrounding emperors staggering. Because they were larger than he was, they did not fall and so he refined his technique to capoeira as his rage dwindled to cold calculation. The style developed by fighters who had their upper bodies constrained by handcuffs and suchlike served him well to defend his defenseless commander. He ducked and crouched, shifting backwards and forwards to evade their grasp as six of them pulled away from Skipper to engage with their new foe. On a hunch, he broke and bellyslid towards the stacks of plastic models twenty feet north of the Jacobs ladder.
"Get after him, you lot! I'm on the fat one!" Gacy shouted.
Manfredi growled loud enough to reach Gacy's earholes through the echoes of the blast. The gang leader had guts galore or delusions of invincibility to take on an insulted penguin of Manfredi's kind. His next words dug him in deeper into Manfredi's disdain. "Fat or not, you are tiny and I'll make you into Ruby Murray before it's time for Rosy Lea!"
Private may have known the references and returned an appropriate taunt, but Manfredi saved his breath for battle. The emperor penguin lumbered toward him with force and no grace. From twenty feet away, Manfredi spared Skipper a glance. His commander might suffer permanent crippling if tied so tightly for long. Manfredi had been on the losing end of battles enough to discount thoughts of winning quickly and finding time to free a prisoner afterwards. Gacy was between Manfredi and his imprisoned commander, therefore Gacy must fall, and soon.
Johnson slid past stacked boxes of plastic models whose gaudy illustrations advertised the parts within and caught his eye. A monster from an old movie about a screaming female navigating the Amazon River raked bloody claws in his direction. Airplanes from World War II fought endlessly on, colored Messerschmitts and Zeroes and Mustangs posed on each box to form squadrons ready for battle. Hmmm, battle. A tiny idea bloomed like an early crocus.
"Quiet, Rico!" The dust from the collapse of the doors still clouded the air. Kowalski hauled Rico to a dark corner with one flipper and pulled Private along with the other. "Quiet, Private! Standard operating procedure is to scope out the sitch and then form options, trust me on this." The three huddled and felt like cowards when they beheld Manfredi facing down a penguin who topped him by two feet. They could hear Johnson's followers shouting among themselves.
"Stop fighting me, Private! Rico, get your breath back!" Kowalski pushed Rico to his knees to recover from the blast radius which launched the dust nimbus that still spread. Rico put both flippers over his face and hyperventilated. Gradually, the natural remedy of tears washed away what it needed to and he sniffled. He looked around their new surroundings and gestured to the exact middle of the warehouse.
Private swiveled his attention from busting loose of Kowalski's grasp to peer through the cloud of dust, too. "Skippa's there, I can see him! He's not movin'!" The young penguin danced excitedly in the grip. "Let me go! He needs me!"
Kowalski stood his ground. "We won't do Skipper or Manfredi or Johnson any good if there's no plan. Private, that's what Skipper would order."
Private regained a measure of calm. "Righto. Yes, he would. Okay, then." Kowalski released Private and thought fast as the action unfolded.
"Johnson has six goons after him, so he's the priority. Rico, can you sneak quietly in the shadows around the perimeter of this building and meet Johnson on the east side of those storage racks? Private and I will flank them on the west in a pincers maneuver." Kowalski held his breath because sneaking and quietly did not fit Rico's style.
Rico wiped his eyes clear and his beak clean. He nodded before sliding off as quickly as an orca chasing a harp seal and as quietly as a box jellyfish striking. Kowalski triaged Skipper as best he could from a distance and said the necessary. "Private, Skipper is safe at the moment. You and I will --- "
"Wot if he d-died all alone over there?"
That thought had crossed Kowalski's mind. "We'll avenge him. Now pull yourself together like the commando you are." Private stiffened at the sting.
"I may not be smart like you, but I'm not a flippin' flibbertigibbet, K'walski."
"Then prove it." Ack, he'd put his foot in his beak again, but this was not the time to smooth ruffled feathers. "Follow me."
"Aye aye, sir."
"Spoil our Game, will you?" Gacy approached Manfredi, who stood calmly with the knife haft in both flippers and the fish scaling blade pointed straight at him. "Little pigsticker like that won't hurt me --- "
Rico shot within six feet of Johnson before Johnson noticed him. "Rico! Glad to see you, pal!"
There was five feet between the end of the aisle of storage shelving and the wall. The boxes of plastic models on their steel racks could be heaved at the pursuers or maybe he and Rico could gain the topmost level fifteen feet up. Yes, that would work. Then the two of them could run aloft back to where Manfredi faced that smarmy mouthed maniac. Never fight alone was the motto that he and Manfredi came up with after their first barroom brawl in Dar es Salaam.
Johnson didn't know what to make of Rico's next words.
"Oh, behind." Johnson rolled upright with a combat stance that Rico had never seen. Johnson ducked and bounced on both feet, weaving rapid steps to the left and then right and then to the back. "Come on, two against six and one has a gimpy leg, we got this, bud!"
Confidence surged through Rico and so did a chainsaw. "Pizzacake!"
"Where on earth did that come from?"
Rico didn't answer because he had no idea and would not have until much, much later. However, unlike his friend Kowalski, he excelled at hearing his gut instincts. "Hooohooohahahahhasuckas." He waved the spitting chainsaw and the first emperor to come through the end of the narrow aisle screamed. The emperors behind the first one slammed into him as he backpedaled to result in a Lincoln Tunnel rush hour traffic smashup. Squawks and cries of What the --- echoed throughout the warehouse.
If Johnson had teeth, he would have swallowed them. He roared over the chainsaw's clamor. "Rico! You can't just slaughter --- "
But Rico improvised a firm plan from the getgo. He swung the chainsaw as he crowed like a rooster at dawn. Johnson saw that its blade aimed to savage the stacks of boxes. Hard molded pieces of plastic ailerons, tail assemblies, underbellies, landing struts, decapitated monster heads and P-51 Mustang canopies splintered into flying shrapnel that peppered the group. Shredded box illustrations of the Creature From The Black Lagoon Model and Frankenstein's Monster Model blended with the ME-109's Iron Cross insignia to flutter high and drift low in colorful clutter. Rico avoided hitting the steel racks' uprights by a non-existent hair on his chinny chin chin and adjusted aim from wild slashes to graceful figure eights, his growing confidence adding to the wattage of his grin.
Johnson was in love.
After a quick look to see his teammates' entry, Manfredi kept silent as Gacy lunged. When the emperor penguin bent to punch Manfredi into next week, Manfredi stuck the point of the fish scaler blade into the cement floor. Using the sturdiest blade in the Swiss Army knife's armory as a pole vault, he kept it in his grip as the athleticism of his move allowed him to evade Gacy's punch, swing his legs over Gacy's back and stick an upright landing. As Gacy followed the momentum of his punch, he overbalanced and knocked his head on the cement. Manfredi trampled atop Gacy's spine to his tail, poking fiercely with the blade along the way for good measure. He hit the floor waddling before sliding at speed to Skipper's side.
Twelve slices of the pruning blade later, Skipper was freed. Manfredi cradled him to his chest and hauled him a yard away from the strangling Jacobs ladder that would have witnessed a scene to shame Hell. The adrenaline pooling from recent action got to Manfredi and he smacked Skipper's cheek harder than he meant. "Rise and shine! Reveille! Ta TA tatata ta TA tatata --- "
"Fight it off!"
"That jadrool did a number on you, the facciagul. Wake up, I gotta go help Johnson, aw no, aw don't, kid --- "
The lack of adrenaline got to Skipper and his woozy body reacted as his spirit drowned in a sea he'd never explored: hopelessness.
"It's okay, simmer down, aw no don't, it'll be okay, geeze I dunno what to do next don't have a meltdown now --- "
"Faildfaildfaild --- "
"So what? Happens to everybody, this is just your first time, kid." There was a riproaring buzz from the far end of the aisle forty feet away that sounded encouraging. Johnson must have figured out how to tear into his attackers, because it was beyond Manfredi's belief that they were tearing into him. Was that a chainsaw? Was the caterwauling spewing from Rico?
"Come on, let's get you on your feet, upsydaisy there you go nope not yet you're still made of rubber. Eh, well. Just rest. I've got your six."
After twenty relaxing breaths, there were multiple penguins moving at the corner of his eye and Kowalski's unmistakable baritone rang strong. "Manfredi, watch your five o'clock!"
"Rico, you can stop now."
The chainsaw continued from sheer joy of destruction, Johnson estimated, until he tapped Rico's back. "Enough. Stand down, boy."
What flowerbud of mayhem that had sprouted in Rico's gaze bloomed into common sense instead. "Heh. Heh. 'Kay." Rico cast aside the saw.
"They're conked out. Good work, rookie."
Rico examined the six birds of crime piled in a heap of black, white and red. An unattached artificial leg gerrymandered from a slotted spoon and a funnel stuck out of the pile. "Blud."
"Yeah, from some of them. Some more than some others. Let's tie 'em up." There was nothing around. "So Manfredi and the guys probably got Gacy all right and tight, three on one, yeah? Me and Manfredi know what to do about Skipper, no worries. He's just doped up. Gotta say these are nasty gangbangers, Rico." Johnson cuffed Rico's shoulder. "Hey, you are all right! The chainsaw was scary genius." He looked around some more. "Maybe this strapping twine will work --- "
A commotion seesawed in volume from the direction of the Jacobs ladder. "LaterzYonsn."
"Do I hear a chainsaw? More armament from Rico's gut? Change in course to starboard, Private!"
Kowalski saw his warning take effect as Manfredi twisted around without unseating Skipper from his hold. Through reflection back and forth from clerestory to glass display case to the static pair of penguins, a well-lit scene of protection embedded itself in his heart. Skipper's features slackened to resemble death in a look that Kowalski had never seen on him and Manfredi showed a more tender side in the way he made himself into a microfiber pillow for their groggy commander.
"I'm on it, K'walski!" Private curved his slide to aid Johnson and Rico into a parabola towards the Jacobs ladder instead. After hearing a chainsaw and Rico's manic whoop of glee, Manfredi's predicament seemed more dire to him, too.
Gacy whipped his bleeding head around to the newcomers. The skimpy cloud cover blew away for a time and bright afternoon sunshine cascaded into the warehouse except for the farthest corners. In the warehouse section earmarked for sailing supplies, gear for intrepid sailors lined parts of the far wall: davits stacked upright to conserve space vied with unfurled canvas samples of sheets ready for order in full yachting size. Two new penguins slid from either side of a displayed scaled-down model ship that would suit his gents for escape. Hmmph, escape? From these midget narcs? He snarled. "Puny gits, you spoiled our Game!"
Manfredi gentled Skipper's head from his lap to the floor before he moved two yards away to clear the deck for action. "He said that before. What a boring bastardo he is, sir. Do you want me to clock him?"
Skipper gargled in the affirmative.
Gacy ran full out to overwhelm Manfredi by sheer mass despite the knife in Manfredi's grip. Manfredi didn't have a chance to evade the charge until from nowhere Johnson executed an insanely dangerous forward roll like a bowling ball thrown by Mark Sauceda.
Skipper lay in a fetal curl where Manfredi had placed him. Upon hearing a rustling roll and Manfredi's Johnson!, he opened his eyes. His confusion at the unclear sight increased until the two moving blobs presented a mental exercise to help his slow recovery: Two penguins are steaming toward one another. The first penguin leaves Villainy Point at five p.m. traveling at thirty miles per hour. The second penguin leaves Good Guytown at seven p.m. traveling at forty miles per hour. The distance between Villainy Point and Good Guytown is 455 miles. What is the exact time that the collision will occur? He closed his eyes to think better and nearly passed out. He rallied and opened his eyes once more upon hearing the battle cry of another of his soldiers.
"Banzai!" Rico assumed a sumo stance at Manfredi's side as Kowalski and Private slid up beside him. The four took in the view of Johnson colliding with Gacy with enough force to roll chest high. As Gacy stumbled yet did not fall, Johnson uncorked an uppercut using Gacy's own wishbone as a place to stand. The posture lasted long enough for the blow to connect and splinter the end of Gacy's beak. Johnson backflipped off his unlikely perch to land seven feet away from where Gacy stood wavering.
Five penguins gasped as one when Gacy resumed staggering towards them. Johnson cursed and leapt towards the emperor's chest in an awkward upward piledrive. It was a move that could have broken Johnson's own neck.
Four penguins readied for battle, but only one was destined to join the fray. "Stick by Skipper in case Johnson and me flop, guys," said Manfredi as he tossed the knife to Kowalski. "Here. I won't need it. I can't wait to get my flippers dirty on this ciliegia."
Three penguins watched as Manfredi got low when he chopblocked Gacy to counterpoint Johnson's piledrive. At last, at last the emperor fell. Like twisting eels, Johnson and Manfredi wove their flippers around the still writhing Gacy.
"That's teamwork to die for --- " began Kowalski. Manfredi cut him short.
"He's gonna roll over on us! Get rope from the sailing gear racks to wrap up this ugly bird! Sbrigati!"
One opened package of twenty-five foot nylon rope later, Gacy lay bound like an unattractive caterpillar in a slick yellow cocoon. Even more unattractive words spewed non-stop. "Ssssshtupid dumbbb frakkersssssh --- "
Rico, Private and Kowalski listened for a while until Kowalski thought to cover Private's earholes. "Come on, let's see to Skipper." They waddled to where Manfredi and Johnson already tended their commander.
"Trainsh dunno zanser fer trainsh faild agin --- "
"Yeahhh, he's still out. Dayyum, that dope was hardcore," said Johnson. He and Manfredi sat to either side of Skipper. They propped him up between them, but their commander lolled first to Johnson's shoulder and then Manfredi's.
"What'll we do, Johnson? Kowalski gets the furshlugginer BlackBerry up and running to call Command, the Chief arrives to glom the kid like this and his career hits a speedbump." Manfredi slid a flipper behind Skipper's back when he threatened to topple again.
"Gacy and his gang captured is a ginormous plus, Manfredi. The kid's career will weather it."
Manfredi shook his head. "This is Central Jersey Command and you remember what big blabberbeaks they were years ago."
"Oh. Yeah. The Noodle Incident."
"We got busted in rank for it 'cause we had it coming, but he don't deserve any black marks." It was Manfredi's turn to brace Skipper.
Skipper opened one eye. "Yr cute, Edie."
"Shut up, Johnson! You know he's not himself! That is just like you to cackle when things get serious." Manfredi pushed Skipper to droop against Johnson.
It took a moment until Johnson could breathe soberly. "Ooooh! The bird said it's serious! What'll we do oh whatever will we do?"
Skipper's emotions bitflipped once more. "Faildfaildfaild --- "
"Again with the failed? Skipper, listen." Manfredi shook Skipper's shoulder until the head bounced before dropping to the heaving chest. "Stop that. Stop that noise. Hear me. You are not yourself."
"The best skipper I've served under, that's who." Johnson said something serious for a change. Manfredi stowed his shock in his mental foot locker for later inspection.
"Yeah, what he said, sir. Crap, here come the others! Johnson, don't let them see him like this."
"I'm on it." Johnson eased Skipper to Manfredi's side. "Here, cuddle your sweetie." Manfredi spat a wet raspberry in Johnson's direction, but Johnson had already moved to his junior teammates.
"Rico, Kowalski, Private, follow me."
"I want to see Skippa, Johnson. How is he?" Private peered around Johnson's bulk. "He looks terrible!"
"They tranked him, what, you think he'd look spruced up for the Penguin Late Spring Cotillion? He'll be okay. Manfredi has the knowhow to take care of him. Rico, you saw what we gotta do with those creeps before Central arrives, back me up here." A commander would not have to plead, but commanding was never on Johnson's Life List Of Attainable Goals. A little squib of motivational speech cropped up, anyway. "They're pretty much out of it and yet they might come to and escape if we lollygag around."
Rico wandered to the Jacobs ladder and took in the Skipper-shaped outline of cut bindings. His usual genial expression fell. He looked over at Gacy, whose ragged obscenities continued despite his new speech impediment from the cracked beak. Rico regarded Johnson mournfully.
"Aw, no, Miracle Gut, he's really okay! Nothing happened!"
Rico slumped in relief. "Lesgo, Kwoskii. Hryup, 'Rivate." He chose three packages of rope and gestured to Kowalski. Kowalski flipped the knife to him and Rico trudged down the plastic models aisle. The others could hear him kicking broken pieces out of his way.
Kowalski's savvy look sharpened as he ushered Private past the ladder quickly. "Private, there's grunt work to do. The faster we tie them, the faster I can fiddle with the BlackBerry and call Central to send them to the hoosegow, what do you say?"
"I say you lot are keepin' somethin' bad about Skippa from me, is wot I say. I'm no hatchlin', I'm of votin' age as of last Saturday and I want to know now." He stopped dead in his tracks. "Johnson --- "
Johnson spoke straight from the shoulder. "Private, Manfredi and I didn't slide under cover of the boxcar soon enough to spy Skipper get tranked, but we saw Gacy's drips jerk out the dart and frogmarch him into the warehouse. We sneaked in when some goon with a twitchy eye got caboose duty to close the doors. He took that minute alone to drop some meds in his eyes, I guess, because he rubbed them and rubbed them hard. We figured that Skipper would see him do that before he got too blissed out and we figured that Skipper would figure out we'd tippytoe in when the twitchy dude couldn't see straight --- oh søren, Private. Just go with the flow, huh? He'll be fine. Eventually."
Private crossed his flippers. "Wot a whackadoo story, Johnson. It must be true, I'm figurin'."
"On my honor!"
"Mmmm, well, the less said about your honor the better. Come on, then. Rico's waitin'."
Private tied the last of the group of six in his customary way. "Done and done."
"Why, Johnson? They're loofy, all of them. Loofy, and, and bleedin.'"
Kowalski turned an inquisitive eye to the conversation and so did Rico. Johnson got an expression on his face that in a mammal would translate to a curled lip of revulsion. "'Cause they're foulbeaked sons of ronketryner is why. I'm sick of overhearing that nasty talk about The Game. It was nausorating."
"Made up words notwithstanding, Johnson, I've got an option for getting Skipper back to us quicker."
Johnson shrugged and passed out shorter lengths of the nylon rope. "Manfredi'll handle that. Here, gag these bastards."
Kowalski did as he was told, simmering. "I know a few things about rehab. Skipper needs a warm bath to flush out drugs by heightening basal metabolism --- "
"A bath in what? This ain't no day spa." Johnson gagged his prone bird by standing on the back and yanking the rope upwards into a square knot. "That'll hold you, rompehull."
Spewing trivia satisfied Kowalski in the same way that spewing armament did Rico. "I slid past a blue plastic tub of twelve-ounce bottles on the way to the Jacobs ladder. It's large enough, and there's a sink that yachtsmen use to soak rope knots to tighten them in the sailing gear area, right? Someplace along a wall, with a faucet, right?"
Johnson kicked at his gagged emperor. "Oops, I tripped." He squinted at Kowalski. "Er, yeah, the tub had beer in it. You sure that'll do the job? 'Cause Manfredi and me, well, we don't want Central to see the kid, I mean Skipper, get a mark on his record on account of us not being able to keep up with him. You understand."
Kowalski, Rico and Private nodded. "Yup." "Righto." "My beak is sealed."
"So let's go sliding to gag the grungiest penguin I ever want to run into."
Manfredi had done this countless times in countless countries. "How many flippers am I holding up, Skipper?"
"Right on, my flipper is black. Nuts, I already said it was one flipper. I gave it away. Um, okay, which eye am I winking at you?"
"You mean you're blind?"
"Oh God. Oh God. Never mind, we'll take care of you. Oh God."
Gacy had rolled onto his back. He spat at them in between curses. Johnson dodged the spit and allowed the filthy words to roll off him like fog droplets from his waterproof feathers. "Don't let him bite you, guys, he's prolly got rabies. Okay, here's more rope to gag him the right way, which is my way. Have at it. I'll check with Laughing Boy."
Johnson waddled to the rehab site. "Hey, Manf--- What went wrong?"
Skipper's eyes were closed. Manfredi held his sprawled and limp commander on his lap. Bright afternoon sunlight ricocheted this time from west clerestory panes to east clerestory panes and downwards to a cone highlighting the scene. It gave a halo to Manfredi that Johnson would have gone into hysterics over if the situation were more relaxed.
Manfredi blinked rapidly. "Strongest dope I ever heard of, Johnson. The kid's blind."
"God. No." Johnson swallowed what felt like an unpeeled durian.
"I'm here, Skipper. Hang tight." Johnson put on a bright voice. "Are we ready for our bath? Do we wish our rubber ducky? Esswedo! Izzim washy washy inza tubby --- "
Skipper had an expression that said he heard but had no idea how to reply and it made Manfredi mad. "Now you pull this? Always knew you'd gotten too many knocks on the bean, Johnson, but I never thought you'd turn cruel. Don't worry, I'll come visit you in the Home when you get committed."
Johnson looked hurt. "Smart apple. Me and you've been together since Nicaragua and you think that of me? Pffft. No, wiseacre, Kowalski's big fat brain belched an option for patching a broken Sir. Hold position while I fetch some hot water for that tub over there. This might take a few minutes."
"Oh. A bath. Well. If you say so, goomba." Manfredi patted Skipper's head. "We'll be standing by. Figuratively."
Near the opening gape to the outdoors, Rico considered that two penguins sufficed for gagging duty on one penguin. He rummaged in the tub for six beer bottles and set them aside. After he had dumped the ice water and two extra bottles into the floor drain by where the door locks used to be, he headed to rehab with the bottles in one flipper while towing the tub by its rope handle with the other. His grinning offer needed no words.
"Later, Rico, I don't feel up to celebrating just yet, bub."
"Take it easy, leave the beers with me and set down the tub, pal. Wipe that look off your pan, 'cause we could all use a drink before Central gets here. I'm going to time it so they don't get any."
Rico's pout may have worked if Skipper could have seen it, but he couldn't. Skipper shook his head. "Nobeerz'Co. N-Nada."
"My earholes hurt from trying to understand you two." Manfredi sounded like he wanted this day to end. "How is he, you ask? He's awaker and talking more, that's for sure. Sir, get set for your bath 'cause here comes Johnson with a hose."
"'Cause you're dirty inside. We want you clean like a pretty little baby commander again. Hey, I'm glad you can move some, but hold still or you'll fall off my lap. Let 'er rip, Johnson."
Johnson turned the petcock on the hose. "Dayyum sink is sized for a hummingbird, or we could stick him in it." Water gushed until the tub filled.
"Private, where did you get those brass knuckles?"
"Same place you got that taser, I'm thinkin'. Rico."
"He's the go-to ordnance penguin. I'm in the dark as to how he does that. It's uncanny. If I ever get a lab, I'll try to find out."
Private sat on Gacy's thick neck as the penguin's face twisted to the side. The scab forming from his earlier scrape made him look even more villainous. Private drummed a cheery rhythm on the back of his skull with the knuckles. "I've got the music in me, says my old Gran. And music" --- knock --- "will" --- slap --- "out." He slid off. "Have a go, K'walski?"
Taking even a mild revenge held scant appeal. "No, I'm good. Tasering is serious and he's at our mercy. Maybe I overestimated his escape capability, although emperor penguins are huge compared to us. There's no telling what damage they might have done to --- "
"Stop! I can't think about it. We don't need to now, so forget it, K'walski. Think about your sciencey stuff instead."
Kowalski waved the taser where Gacy could see it. The gang leader's brow crinkled in amusement and he might even have grinned behind his gag. "Ew. Some birds like this sort of thing, um, never mind. I'll not give him any pleasure if I can help it. So sorry, weirdo. No fun Games for you today. Gloriosky, there's Johnson with a hose! Let's skedaddle."
Johnson shook the still form on his buddy's lap and changed his curse as he saw Private's approach. The two veteran soldiers exchanged glum glances. "Shoot. He's out cold, and I thought he was improving. Shootshootshoot."
Manfredi sighed. "He's in a better place, Johnson. Let's get with the program." The other penguins stared forlornly at the dusty floor when Manfredi delivered the news as they gathered around the tub tableau. Private and Kowalski let slip perturbed exclamations before Kowalski stepped into scientist mode, his favorite one. He cleared his throat and knelt to dip his elbow into the water to test the temperature. He nodded firmly.
"Not to worry, this will crank his generator again if I know my technique. Alley oop, everyone, lift on three. One, two, three, easy, easy, everything under except the head. If the gash bleeds, lift the shoulder from the water and leave the rest in. Someone get a shop towel to cushion --- good hustle, Private."
Manfredi studied Kowalski's concentration, Private's energy, and Rico's talents and admitted that these new guys had the Right Stuff. "So, we wait?"
Johnson said what he usually did in a waiting scenario. "Who brought the dice?"
The place in which Skipper found himself was indeed better. It was a sunny day in the void of Antarctica. The spring sun warmed the water as much as it ever got warm, and he was not the only penguin sunning himself this morning on the rocky beach. Females of all penguinkind lay supine or prone around him. A few coquetted on their sides, heads propped up on a beguiling flipper. Long lashes fluttered all over the beach, but he was not easy to get. He could play hardball. He lay resolutely on his back, staring up at the sky where no penguin would ever be able to soar. He would make them come to him.
As the morning turned to afternoon and not one bird graced his company, Skipper decided he'd had enough gazing into the empty blue and besides, a sharp rock jabbed at his shoulder. He yawned, stretched and made a big deal of turning onto his side. He was alone. He sat up. The waves lapped as peacefully, the sun shone as merrily, the wind petered out to a mere eight knots and he was totally alone. The place couldn't be deserted, it couldn't. Did he bliss out in the sun while every girl splashed into the water to swim away from him? Did he have B.O.? Did he have bad breath? He dipped into the ocean and gargled a beakful of saltwater, just to be sure.
He set off exploring the sea. Warm, yes, it was pleasantly warm, and some minutes passed as he enjoyed that along with the solitude. The solitude was total, too, because no fish swam in his sight. How strange. Up to this point in his life, the ocean nurtured and even entertained his spirit. Now it scared him. He was about to head back to the solid feel of the beach when a dark shape appeared some distance away. It looked like a friendly dolphin. At least, all the dolphins he'd ever met were friendly. He supposed there were unfriendly ones around, given the odds. He trod water.
The dolphin wasn't a dolphin because the movements were all wrong. As the shape neared, Skipper saw the yellow fringe of feathers surrounding the black head of an emperor penguin. As the shape approached near enough to displace water surrounding him, he saw that the penguin was gigantic above the norm for the breed. He'd be crushed as the juggernaut steamed straight for him. Dive under? Swim to the side? He ordered his muscles to do something. They disobeyed.
He'd be ripped to confetti. He screamed and an ocean entered his throat. There was a better place to be than here.
"I feel terrible."
"Yay! I mean, yay, you're here with us, Skippa!"
Skipper swallowed again and again. The ocean was made of slimy spit and he didn't want to talk at all until he got rid of it, but he had to.
"They're all got, kid, I mean sir. Ciuri are bagged and tagged," said Manfredi.
Johnson shook his head until he remembered that Skipper might still be blind. "Nope. Not Gacy, anyway." He scowled until he thought of a funny. "He sent six jæver after me, but Rico and me got his six! Get it, got his six? Huh? Huh?"
Kowalski turned away from messing with the BlackBerry. "He's still confused, you two. Let me give the report less colorfully. No, Skipper, Rico got hold of C-4 and blasted the doors for our entry with one collateral casualty. One gang member was crushed." Kowalski hit Enter. "I've contacted Central and they're sending a team to skim this scum into a corked container. Never mind that, because how are you?"
Skipper considered his sitch. Nasty tasting beak, wobbly muscles, aching shoulder, fuzzy brain, burning eyes, no more Gacy. "Fantashtic." The ring of peering faces bothered him not a whit. That was funny. He'd laugh later.
He must have nodded off because the clink of bottles woke him. "Getcherbeerhere! Warmbeer!" Rico rasped. Skipper saw five blobs hoist five smaller blobs highlighted against the gray sky beyond the wide open doors. The weather had shifted to a cloudy day, but he felt pretty darn good.
Skipper waved the blob he thought was Rico over.
Kowalski squawked and came at a fast waddle. "Of course not! Don't you dare, sir! I outrank you in this!"
The feeling of déjà vu was likely one of the lasting effects of the drug. Skipper shook his head slowly at Rico, looking pointedly at the brown bottle in his flipper, or thereabouts. "Aw. 'Kay. Nobeer." The others made noises of varying shades of agreement. Five blobs trooped to the drain near the open doorway. Instead of the quiet gurgling of beer being wasted, the crashtinklegrit of breaking glass sounded.
Manfredi was the first to return to the tub of cooling water. "We needed to have some celebration, sir, and didn't that make a wonderful sound? Sir?"
"Got beer splashed all over me, Skipper. Wanna get a whiff of fun?" Johnson leaned over the tub and Skipper sniffed the fumes so hard his eyes filled with tears.
"You knuckleheads," he said to the blobs.
"Skipper's Log, Version 1.1, Post 6, Eyes Only. 24 Hour Later Debrief Minutes Post-Mission Number Six. I am feeling better after Kowalski talked me into going to Sick Call and the corpsman gave me a Vitamin B12 shot. That wasn't so bad until I flashed back on the trank dart hitting and then I tensed up so now my right buttock is sore. I'll know better next time, if there is a next time. I haven't told Kowalski yet that I chose him as my second. He performed well on this mission.
We as a group decided to learn from our enemy. Gacy instituted codes for his gang that outsiders could not decipher. We shall do the same. Manfredi and Johnson continue to bolster this unit with their experience and I've learned a lot from the two. Let the Log show that I gave them permission to name our eighty-first combat routine Hellyeahaction since adopting codes was their idea. What would I do without them?"