‘Hold it right there, gasbag.’
The red balloon turned. The beam of a searchlight from high above momentarily crisscrossed the dark alleyway, catching the smooth surface of his face and the scotch tape scar on the left.
‘… Oh, it’s you,’ he said.
Three big balloons drifted menacingly along the alleyway towards him.
‘Where is it, gasbag?’
‘Listen, Flynn, I don’t have it. We turned up for the job but someone beat us to it. It was empty. The whole shipment was gone.’
‘Where is it, Mordechai?’
Mordechai bobbed up and down in the air. He floated back until he hit the wall. He looked up. But the three bigger balloons came drifting up and spread, blocking any possible escape route.
‘Listen, Flynn, you gotta believe me,’ he said, desperate now. ‘It went down like I said, you said it would be there, we did everything according to the plan! You can’t hold me resp—’
There was the flash of a flame being struck, and the big balloon called Flynn lit a cigarette. He took a long drag through his lip and very slightly swelled.
‘No, no, no,’ Mordechai said. ‘No, Flynn, no—’
Flynn exhaled the smoke and closed his lip and then the glowing end of the cigarette came floating down the alleyway as the three goon balloons closed on their victim.
The hot flame touched the delicate material of Mordechai’s skin.
There was a soft, wet explosion.
Pieces of torn red rubber hit the wall and flopped to the ground.
Flynn tossed the cigarette.
‘Come on, boys. Let’s scram.’
The three large balloons rose quietly into the air, drifting up until they were high above the city, pulled on the currents of the wind to find the unlucky fool who dared steal their shipment.
Night in the city; somewhere in the distance the pop-pop-pop sound of pellet guns as rival gangs settled old scores down in Faraday; out on Hancock the scarlet balloon models were on full display as they bobbed up and down seductively, trying to entice punters; a police siren blared and a voice on the radio came alive and said, ‘Possible one eighty-seven on Ingram, calling all units, calling all units.’
‘Muldoon here,’ the grey-green balloon called Muldoon said. ‘Approaching.’
‘Copy that, Lieutenant.’
Night in the city. Night in his city, the city that never slept. He floated past the scarlet models who rubbed seductively with an electric charge and made those scratching sounds that drive the punters crazy. A few of them called out to him, ‘Muldoon! Muldoon! It’s been too long—’
‘Not tonight, not tonight,’ he said, feeling a familiar ache now. Remembered how his ex-wife used to say balloons were nothing but suppressed feelings. It’s been a year since she’d died, snagged on a thorny branch that had been, must have been, meant for him. Another unsolved homicide to add to the ever-growing tally. Night in this city, where ‘loon life was cheap, where ‘loon death was cheaper.
Past Hancock and down the narrow lanes where the hoppers hopped and the drifters drifted. Down at last to Ingram, finding it by the two bulles waiting at the alley entrance.
‘Muldoon,’ he said. ‘What do we have here?’
‘Lieutenant,’ the bulle on the right said. They were police bulles, big and mean, but it didn’t make them stupid. ‘You should take a look.’
‘It ain’t pretty,’ the other one said.
Muldoon left them there and drifted inside.
Red patches of rubber, red, red against the dirty wall and the black night. Even torn up like that Muldoon could recognise him.
Mordechai the Mouth. He must have busted him a half-dozen times. He was the best scoop in the business, he specialised in robbing other criminals’ shipments. Muldoon guessed someone must have finally caught up with him.
‘Cigarette, half-smoked,’ he said.
The bulle he’d spoken to earlier drifted up. ‘Classic gang execution style,’ he said. ‘Popped him right out with the flame. Nasty way to go.’
‘You know him?’
‘Mordechai? Who didn’t.’
‘Know what his line was?’
The bulle made a raspberry sound. ‘H,’ he said. ‘Same as it ever was.’
‘Think he robbed the wrong guy?’
The bulle bobbed sideways—a shrug. ‘Damned if I know, Lieutenant.’
‘Any known associates?’
The other bulle drifted up to them.
‘Busted him a couple of times at the Eddieandbill Club,’ he said. ‘You could try there.’
‘Half the drifters in ’Loontown hang there,’ the first bulle said.
‘Every dirtbag in the city,’ the second one said.
‘I know the Eddieandbill,’ Muldoon said. ‘Thanks.’
‘No problem, Lieutenant.’
‘Bag him and tag him, will you?’ Muldoon said.
Muldoon left them to it and floated up, up. The city spread all around him. Balloons danced in the sky, congregated around lamps, smoked, cursed, laughed, flirted.
He used to love it.
Circus balloons twisted themselves into knots on the main stage of the Eddieandbill Club. Dancers rose and fell on gentle thermals, skirts twirling, hoppers hopping, silver foil flashing everywhere.
‘You can’t come in.’ A bouncer hopped to block Muldoon. He was a big solid ball of air.
‘Sorry, Lieutenant. Didn’t recognise you there. It’s been a while.’
‘Is that you, Tony Bouncy-Castle?’
He would have smiled if balloons could smile.
‘How’s your sister?’
‘Much better now, Lieutenant. Thanks. Can I get you anything? Warm air? A spray of water?’
‘Not tonight, Tony. I’m on the job.’
‘Mordechai,’ Muldoon said. ‘Mordy the Mouth.’
‘Word was the Flynn Gang were after him,’ Tony said.
‘Flynn? I thought that gasbag was on a twelve stretch out in Blimpsville.’
‘Got out early.’
‘And pulling jobs again?’
‘That’s the word.’
‘Ain’t it always, Lieutenant?’
H. Damned H, Muldoon thought. It filled you up and lifted you high, high as you could go. It got you hopping good. It was better than anything, better than the soft, sweet charge of static electricity rubbing skin to skin. Better than hot air. Better than a hot summer day at the fair. H was everything. And once you got a taste of it, you always wanted more.
‘Anything else you can tell me?’
Tony Bouncy-Castle bounced as he thought. ‘There’s a skirt name of Red, she often comes here. Think she was friendly with the Mouth. You might want to ask around.’
‘I think I will. Thanks, Tony.’
‘Don’t mention it, Lieutenant.’
‘And say hi to your sister for me, will you?’
Muldoon left him there and drifted inside.
Balloon trumpeters played a jazzy tune on the stage. Boppers bopped and hoppers hopped and the crowd thickened around the bar where shots of warm air were handed out to the revellers. Muldoon saw familiar faces: the crime beat reporter for the ’Loon Times, the mayor’s deputy, and the police commissioner, whose ego was as inflated as he was.
Everybody came to the Eddieandbill, from above and from below.
He spotted her near the stage. She was hard to miss. She had the sort of curves that made a perfect teardrop. She was red like sunset over a forest fire. Muldoon couldn’t take his gaze off her. She bopped gently up and down in time with the music. He drifted to her.
She turned slowly. Looked him up and down.
‘What do you want, gasbag?’
‘I was hoping we could have a chat.’
‘Who the hell are you?’
‘Muldoon. I’m with the police.’
‘Somebody popped Mordechai the Mouth,’ he told her.
She was quiet, then.
‘… Oh, Mordi,’ she said.
‘You knew him well?’
‘We swapped air a few times if you get my drift.’
‘Know what he was into?’
‘What wasn’t he?’
She drifted close to him then. Her skin almost rubbing his. Static electricity coursing between them. He felt a spark.
This skirt was dangerous.
‘We can’t talk here,’ she said, quietly.
‘My place,’ she said quickly. ‘It’s on Yost and Montgolfier.’
‘… Thanks, Red.’
‘Muldoon, was it? Be careful.’
She pushed away from him. He stood alone at the bar. The trumpets played on stage. He looked around him, saw some black and green dirtbags in a corner with all their attention, apparently, on him.
‘Alright, then,’ he said, but quietly.
He made his way out and they followed.
‘Stay back,’ he said. He pulled out his police issue long darner and aimed the sharp end at the dirtbags. They floated to surround him.
‘Police,’ he said.
‘We know who you are.’
‘Muldoon, of Homicide.’
‘What brings you here, Muldoon?’
‘Your kind ain’t welcome at the Eddieandbill.’
‘You with the Flynn Crew?’ Muldoon said.
The dirtbags laughed.
‘Flynn? That hopper’s gonna pop.’
Muldoon paused, confused. ‘So who are you with, and what do you want?’
The largest dirtbag darted at him. Muldoon’s long darner flashed but the dirtbag ducked under and then there were two more behind him. They were sneaky. A shove and a sudden blow of air and his long darner dropped from his mouth and he was now unarmed.
‘Stay away from this, copper.’
‘Won’t tell you again.’
Then they were on him. Heavy, nasty bodies, hitting him so hard he lost air. He would have curled into a ball had he not, in fact, been a ball.
They pummelled him and he took it. There was nothing else he could do.
‘Stay out of Big’s business!’
And with that parting shot, they were gone.
Muldoon sagged in mid-air.
Big? he thought.
After a while, he drifted down until he found Red’s place on Yost and Montgolfier.
‘You came. I wasn’t sure you would.’
She floated up to him. That electric charge. He sagged a little.
‘You’re losing air!’
‘It was only a small puncture.’
‘Here, let me.’ Deftly, she put a plaster over the hole. ‘You should go to the hospital.’
‘All they’ll do is pump me full of H. I have a case to solve.’
‘You cops are all the same.’ But she said it without bitterness.
‘You know cops?’
‘You knew Mordi.’
She sighed, a sad whisper of air leaving her lip.
‘He wasn’t the smartest ’loon in town but he was always honest, for a crook.’
‘So what happened to him, Red? Why did he get popped?’
‘I’m sure I don’t know.’
She went still at that.
‘That’s what I said.’
‘Forget it, Muldoon,’ she said then. ‘It’s ’Loontown.’
‘What aren’t you telling me?’
‘Mordechai was pulling another job. H shipment. He hijacked them coming into the city. Either he robbed the wrong guy or …’
‘Or somebody beat him to it.’
She fell silent. Muldoon listened to the city. It was hot in Red’s place and the warm air pushed them both up. He had the feeling she knew a lot more than she’d said.
He tried to work it out: Mordechai went on a job for Flynn but came back empty-handed, so Flynn popped him. That fit together neatly.
So why did he feel something was missing?
‘Has there been a lot of H gone missing, recently?’ he asked her.
‘How should I know?’ Red said.
‘You seem to know a lot.’
She bobbed up and down and over to him. Her skin rubbed against his. That charge …
‘Maybe, yes. I know prices have gone up a lot in recent months. It’s getting harder and harder to get it.’
She was so close that their skins made that pinching, scratching sound of balloon against balloon.
‘Maybe, sometimes. Gets you high. Does that bother you, detective?’
‘Muldoon,’ he said. ‘Call me M—’
Then there were no more words between them, just a frenzy of bobbing and scratching and all that static electricity, drawing them together; so close it was a wonder, afterwards, that neither of them popped.
Flynn was floating in interrogation room no. 1 tied up to a nail when Muldoon came in.
‘You got the wrong ’loon, copper.’
‘I ain’t so sure about that, Flynn.’
‘You got nothing on me, Muldoon. I’m cleaner than a whistle.’
‘You smell of smoke and murder, gasbag, and if I had my way you’d be heading straight to the electric fence.’
‘Look, Muldoon, we can cut a deal—’
‘Then tell me about Big.’
Flynn went quiet. Muldoon could tell he was angry then.
‘Was that him, then?’ Flynn said.
‘Was that him, what?’
‘It was, it must have been. I’d heard rumours, but I didn’t believe them. I thought he died in that gas explosion in Lakehurst couple of years back. He was big into hydrogen then. Big mistake. Real money’s in H, same as it ever was.’
‘They say H is running low,’ Muldoon said. ‘That one day it’s going to run out for good. No more highs. No more party ’loons.’
‘Yeah, well, that’s where the profit margin be, copper. ‘Sides, H is stable. Won’t blow you up like a Roman candle if you go too near an open flame. You get my drift?’
‘Is that what happened to this Big?’
‘That was the word back then.’ Flynn stewed. ‘That inflatable pig bladder of a ’loon! So he came back to take over the H racket. Figures. He was always a greedy little bastard.’
‘Why’d they call him Big?’
‘He was a little bouncy guy, you know? It was ironic, like.’
‘Know where I can find him?’
‘Listen, Muldoon. Him? Him I’ll give you for free.’
Muldoon waited as Flynn thought. It took a while.
‘He used to have a place down by the docks,’ he said at last. ‘If he’s really back in town he might have moved right back in. Big warehouse down on the waterfront, on Charles.’
‘Listen, Muldoon. I won’t get the needle, will I? I mean, a ’loon’s gotta do what a ’loon’s gotta do, you know?’
‘I’ll put in a word,’ Muldoon said. He left him there, tied to the nail; just another lost balloon in the big city.
Night on the waterfront, and the stars twinkled in the gray churning water. A strong wind. The police balloons fought the gale and inched their way forward with anchoring nails so that they didn’t drift out to sea. More than a few ’loons were lost like this, on bad weather days.
Muldoon watched the warehouse.
‘How do you want to play this, Lieutenant?’
‘We go in. Anything moves, you pop it.’
The police balloons drifted closer to the doors. They set a charge against them. Hydrogen foil set by the bomb squad. It went off.
Fire and a burst of hot wind that lifted them all up and would have tossed them to the sky had it not been for the hooks. The doors blew open. Muldoon and the squad rushed in.
… And to the deadly pop-pop-pop of a pellet machine gun.
Muldoon screamed, ‘It’s an ambush!’
A bulle ahead of him got it right in the centre and burst open. Bits of rubber fell to the floor. Muldoon began firing, blindly. It did no good. The place was dark and he couldn’t see. He could hear them popping all around him, just like in the war. He was only a boy balloon then when they sent him to fight overseas. Their enemy were sky lanterns, they showed no mercy. He still had nightmares, sometimes.
Now he was having that nightmare all over again.
In moments it was over. Harsh light flooded into the warehouse.
‘Drop your weapon, Lieutenant.’
Muldoon let it fall. It was no use anyway. He saw his fallen comrades on the floor, like so much discarded rubbish. How quickly a thinking, living balloon could be reduced to nothing, he thought. A ’loon that loved and felt and hurt and knew the joy of flying in the wind, reduced to trash in an instant.
Big might have been small once. A little bouncy castle sort of fellow. Harmless-looking. Even charming.
He was no longer small.
The bouncy castle was huge. Even as Muldoon watched, Big grew … bigger. Pipes led into Big’s body and he shivered and shook as he expanded and floated.
‘My God,’ Muldoon said. ‘You’re full of H!’
‘I warned you not to get involved, Lieutenant. Why didn’t you listen? Now it’s too late.’
Big shook and shivered as he grew. Soon he’d be bigger than the warehouse. Soon he’d be bigger than the world.
Then Muldoon saw her.
She floated above Big’s enormous belly. She was so very beautiful, he thought. She turned and floated into Big’s big lap.
‘You,’ Muldoon whispered.
‘Yes,’ she said; almost sadly.
Then he thought: H.
‘Hoppers gotta hop,’ she told him. And that was all there was to say.
Big’s dirtbags surrounded him then.
‘What are you going to do with me?’ Muldoon said.
‘Do with you? Nothing,’ Big said. ‘I wanted you to watch, Lieutenant. I wanted you to bear witness. I wanted you to see me as I transform!’
He grew and grew. Muldoon could only watch in horror. No wonder H was running scarce across the city. It was all here, fed into this giant, monstrous thing.
Big’s tough, plastic skin rubbed against the walls. The pressure was too much. Muldoon could feel the walls crumbling and the roof cave in. He ducked and pulled—just in time.
A piece of falling masonry caught one of the dirtbags and flattened him with a wet pop. Muldoon grabbed hold of the gun. He dove for escape. The dirtbags had no thought to follow him. Big broke the walls and rose into the sky, the cables pumping H trailing below him. Muldoon made it out, but some of the dirtbags did not.
Muldoon hovered anchored to the quayside. He watched the giant bouncy castle balloon move further and further as it rose. At last the cables stretched to breaking point. They tore away from the enormous, blobby mass and tumbled to the ground, still spraying precious helium as they fell.
Big rose, and rose, and the little red balloon that was Red floated beside him. And as he rose, Big laughed, a huge, belly-shaking, balloon-bursting laugh that echoed all over ’Loontown, and woke up babies from their sleep and drove the scarlets crazy, and skirts and hoppers and foils and drifters all across the city raised their smooth sides to the skies and watched.
Muldoon let the gun drop. There was nothing to shoot at. He thought about his ex-wife, and how he still missed her every day. There was something beautiful about the way Big rose. He tried to right himself, high above the city, but he was too big and too pumped full of H and the winds and the thermals pulled him up, higher and higher. His laughter turned into a high-pitched shrill cry of alarm. Then it, too, was gone, and he rose beyond the clouds and vanished from sight.
All across the city ’loons watched, in the high places and the low dives. They’d seen something amazing, one of their own made somehow more than a balloon, for he had torn off from his mortal coil and earth and sky, and risen. How high will he go? Muldoon wondered. Perhaps all the way up. Perhaps to the moon. If so he’d be the first balloon to ever make it there.
He thought about Red, and how high she could go, and whether, where Big was going, anyone could really follow. He felt a strange sort of hollowness then, but also a kind of relief that it was over.
Sirens blared in the distance. Soon the first responders will arrive on the scene, and it would be time to bag and tag the dead and round up the surviving dirtbags to stand trial.
Beyond the docks the city soon turned back to normal.
Night in the city; somewhere in the distance the pop-pop-pop sound of pellet guns as rival gangs settled old scores down in Faraday; out on Hancock the scarlet balloon models were on full display. The blare of sirens came close. Muldoon sagged, but a part of him was smiling, for the first time in a very long time.
He used to love it. He thought, now, maybe he still did.