"Not even once?" Ichabod Crane demanded with incredulity as they entered the subterranean Masonic cell.
Setting the tray bearing teapot and cups down on a table, Abbie Mills closed her eyes and sighed deeply. "No, Crane. There was no mention of you in any of the history books I read as a child. Or an adult," she added quickly when he appeared to seize on that notion.
In response her appointed companion huffed and tossed his hair, looking more like a supermodel on shoot than she could ever stand to explain to him. "I find this lapse in historical relevancy appalling," he stated without the slightest trace of self-deprecation. "To think that after all I contributed to the war effort, even to lay down my life itself, that my name should be completely erased from the pages of our nation's history, it… !"
He broke off and took two steps forward to invade her personal space, willfully ignoring the way she tensed at this proximity. Crane lowered his head to fix Abbie with what she half-jokingly thought of as his 'momentous face'. "I do daresay that this ranks among some of the grossest injustices ever perpetrated in all the annals of human existence!"
"Yeah, ranks right up there with the Tenth Plague and Jonestown."
This last came from Andy Brooks. Sitting passively in his seat, the post-mortem police officer crossed his arms and frowned at Ichabod. Across from him their other prisoner, the Headless Horseman, expressed agreement by vigorously jabbing his middle finger in Crane's direction. This was the most the red-coated ghoul could manage. Imprisoned at the center of a mystic circle, outstretched arms chained to stone columns and hellish strength drained by UV lamps, the Horseman of Death otherwise posed no further threat.
Ichabod rounded on his ancient nemesis without paying Brooks any mind. "Have a care, monster! Lest you forget, it was I who thwarted your nefarious aim to bring Armageddon down upon an unsuspecting world! Indeed, with one swift sure strike did I cut off your head, laying waste to your master Moloch's plans and charting a bright future for… "
Abbie did not respond to any of this. She had figured out early in their relationship that Crane was rather impressed with himself, more than the average person would consider healthy. Or, to come right down to it, sane. She strongly suspected that his mental self-perception included himself as a titanic shining figure standing on a rotating plinth around which choirs of archangels wept and humbled themselves in testament to his greatness.
While she pondered this, America's unsung hero continued to prattle on. "And to think that I led the charge in bringing our world out of the shadow of tyranny under which it had labored for centuries! Why, my very good friend and trusted colleague John Hancock once said…"
That was another thing she had come to learn very fast. While he might have been shunned from the nation's history, Ichabod Crane did hold the rather dubious title of being America's very first Name-dropper.
"… that barring the nobility, he had never met a person who housed such profoundly monumental traits as myself…"
Translation: you're a king-sized asshole, Abbie thought while she poured a cup of tea and handed it to Brooks, who accepted this small kindness with shame-faced gratitude.
"… and he would endeavor to compose a testament encompassing my most salient and pertinent qualities, to be delivered to Washington himself…"
'Dear George: This guy Crane is an asshole. If you have any suicide missions targeting large axe-wielding agents of the apocalypse, he's your man. Just tell him it's an honor. Win-win situation either way.'
"…after I made sure to verify its quality and grammatical accuracy, of course, the man simply didn't know how to properly dip a quill pen, I had to demonstrate the correct manner to him ad naueseum…"
Behind her the Horseman snapped his fingers to get her attention, then held up two fingers. She recognized this meant he liked two sugars in his tea. Dropping the cubes in another cup, she approached that gruesome specter warily while Crane continued to wax rhapsodic on his favorite topic, lost in the spell of his own conceit. Even bound and chained like this, she did not discount the undead warrior as a threat, any more than she fully trusted Andy not to betray them sooner or later regardless of how helpful he might currently be. Still, while he was their prisoner, they might as well try to appeal to his better side… assuming he had one.
With that Mills produced a funnel she had purchased from a local gas station. Resisting the urge to squirm, she then reached up and quickly inserted the spout into the creature's exposed esophagus before pouring the steaming beverage in. There was an uncomfortable glugging sound, and the Horseman gave her a thumbs-up to indicate he was done, after which she retrieved the funnel.
Damn, I lead a weird life, she pondered while returning to the table. In the meantime Crane still hadn't shut up, and she took the time to appraise him. While hopelessly vain, snobbish, condescending, elitist, abrasive, overbearing and possessed of a growing Messianic complex, she had to admit Ichabod Crane was…
"… forced to correct Adam Smith, my worthy correspondent, on his inferior economic theories so as to render your modern 'Wealth of Nations' not a complete travesty…"
… okay, let's face it, he's just Crane. That's all there is to it.
Behind her, a sinister voice chuckled. 'Have you come to understand the nature of the beast, mademoiselle?'
Abbie whirled about. Sitting in his chair, Andy Brooks' eyes had gone black, his previous hangdog expression metamorphosed into one that was much more confident. She recognized that once again the Horseman was preferring to communicate through his appointed mouthpiece. The man she had once called friend was no longer in evidence, his personality and whatever might still pass for his soul subsumed by the force which animated the headless thing standing not ten feet away.
'I appreciate your predicament. It is difficult to come to terms with all at once,' that suddenly menacing figure intoned in a voice drawn straight from Hell itself. 'I myself failed to grasp the full extent of Ichabod Crane's vainglory in life. You see, there was once upon a time…'
"So, Ichabod, what say you? Will Katrina appreciate this token, almost as lovely as she?"
Smiling, Abraham von Brunt indicated one of the resplendent necklaces laid out on a velvet cloth. The jeweler beamed at hearing his wares so praised, no doubt already tasting the profit he could count upon from this transaction. Being one of the wealthiest men in this part of the world, Abraham was more than capable of affording such a gift for the woman he loved. He counted himself well and truly blessed in all areas where it truly mattered in this life, be it in health, wealth, strength, length…
"I cannot abide this!" an impassioned voice cried.
Abraham's mouth tightened. Well, perhaps there were some areas where he had not been so fortunate.
Striding about the parlor of the von Brunt manor, Ichabod Crane continued to behave like an overwrought actor in a passion play. He would stomp his feet, cross his arms and snort like a bull before spinning around to go marching the length and breadth of the room. Then he would lift one foot and rest it securely on any available piece of furniture (regardless of it being designed for such a purpose), placing one hand grandiosely on his hip and tossing his hair back in the manner of a French chanteuse to gaze haughtily off into the distance at heaven only knew what. Once his contemplation was complete it was back to pacing the floor. This performance and variations of it had been Ichabod's hallmark ever since Abraham's engagement to Katrina was announced. And it was growing steadily worse as the time of their nuptials drew near.
"No, I cannot… will not allow Katrina to be subjected to such an inferior and impersonal excuse for a love token! It is beyond the pale of human endurance that someone incapable of grasping anything so basic might ever aspire to hold a place in her heart!"
Crane surged forward suddenly to slam his hands on the table and glare at them both, causing the startled jeweler to jump in shock. For his part, Abraham did not move a muscle, though it cost him greatly in terms of self-control.
"She is not gaudy in the manner of this cheap bauble you propose to fling at her, she is refined, refined, I tell you!" Ichabod's voice trembled, increasing in volume and outraged reproach with every breath he took. "Katrina is elegant, alluring but modest, unassuming yet insightful, feminine but strong, independent, and above all understated, understated, do you hear?" He then reached down, snatched up a small emerald brooch and thrust it to dangle right before Abraham's nose. "Like this!"
Gazing at that quivering academic caught in the throes of self-righteous ardor, Abraham slowly took the proffered necklace and stated in cold, clipped tones, "Thank you, Ichabod, for your welcome insight into my… fiancée!"
He made sure to emphasize that last. Breathing and perspiring heavily, Crane seemed to finally grasp the import of this word. "Yes… of course, Abraham," he stated, drawing himself up and lifting his chin high to gaze over their heads, a slight jerkiness causing his head to twitch every now and then. "Of course you are… most welcome. I am pleased to offer aid to my two closest… friends…" he spit the word as though it were a disease, "… in the whole world."
With that he turned on his heel and resumed pacing the room in the same exaggerated manner as before. Von Brunt and the jeweler sat observing this performance wordlessly. After a while, however, the merchant turned a puzzled look on his host. "I thought you said he was your friend?"
Somewhat disconsolately, the young landowner sighed. "Yes," he acknowledged in glum tones as Ichabod struck yet another grandiloquent pose with one foot on an armoire. "Yes, he is."
"Hold on, how could you know all this?" Abbie stopped as something occurred to her, and her eyes grew wide. "Wait a minute, are you…?!"
Brooks grinned crookedly. 'But wait, there is more…'
Among all the guests attending Abraham von Brunt's party, Ichabod Crane stood out in terms of sheer sour mood. He answered any entreaties or polite comments directed his way with outright scorn before turning away to wrap himself in his own woeful self-absorption. At least, until…
The former Oxford professor whirled about to be faced with a bewitching vision of loveliness in a dark green dress. "Katrina," he announced stiffly. Crane avoided looking at her for too long, instead attempting to appear engrossed in the arrangement of candles in the chandelier overhead.
Seeing him like this, the willowy woman smiled, toying with the pendant she now wore. "I simply wished to thank you for such a spellbinding gift. The moment Abraham showed it to me I recognized your most discerning eye at work. I was honored beyond all words that it be so."
He twitched a nod in her direction while keeping his restless gaze occupied elsewhere. "Yes, well… it was the least I could do."
"Oh, Ichabod, Ichabod!" Katrina breathed as she stepped closer to him. "Why are you so distressed? Is it not obvious that I could never love a man who did not afford me the natural liberties with which God has endowed us all? Are we not fighting this war to be freed from such tyrannies, able to live as our hearts and souls command?" She hesitantly reached out a worshipful hand to touch his sleeve. "I am bound by both to love only one so worthy in this world… and that arcane man is undoubtedly you!"
His head snapped around, eyes alight with eager surprise. "Yes!"
"I have loved you from the moment I first laid eyes on you, Ichabod Crane!" Katrina fell to her knees and clutched his legs feverishly. "It is as though you cast a spell upon me! There can be no greater sum of parts than rest within you, and I am completely enchanted by your noble mien. Our hearts do beat as one even now, without the need for a mere terrestrial ceremony to symbolize the unification of our spirits!"
"YEEES!" Ichabod thundered in return, striking a dramatic pose with one foot upon a settee and a hand on his hip.
Now the supposedly independent feminist had flung her arms around his shanks as she continued to wail. "Oh, Ichabod, do not torture me for another day with your absence! Let us be bound anew in mutual love and respect, our destinies forever entwined in this brave new world of individual freedom which we craft!"
Crane was in a paroxysm of delight, grinning hugely, eyes wide and head flung back. "It shall be so!" he declared with unbridled triumph. "You shall take my name, with your thoughts and wishes ever subordinate to my own hereafter, as nature intended!"
At this his idolater appeared to give pause. "Err, Ichabod, that wasn't quite what I meant by mutual respect. I thought you valued my opinion and…"
"IT SHALL BE SO!" Crane trumpeted.
"Yes, it shall be so!" Any notions of feminine empowerment and personal liberty were swept right out of Katrina's pretty little head at this pronouncement. She fell to kissing his foot in ardent devotion to the divine presence. "I am yours forever after, Ichabod Crane! Accept this poor unworthy penitent's meager adoration as is your due! All my arts are yours to command! Oh, Ichabod, Ichabod!"
"Ichabod!" he cried out his own name before striding purposefully off as though guided by angels.
"ICHABOD!" Katrina screamed in return while clutching his coattails to be dragged behind him without heed.
Meanwhile every last remaining person in that ballroom, from the dinner guests down to the liveried servants, was staring at this weird sight. Even the small orchestra had stopped playing to let their instruments dangle, wondering if this were some new form of entertainment previously unheard of.
At the center of a small crowd of embarrassed well-wishers, Abraham von Brunt stood holding an untouched champagne flute. He watched the two of them go at it right there, in his home, in full view of a hundred influential people. The other partygoers were uncertain how they might even begin to broach such a topic to their host. Abraham did not move, nor did he speak. Only his eyes might have served to give any indication as to his current thoughts, and they had narrowed down to two very dangerous slits.
It was hard to believe a word that came out of the Horseman's… trachea, but given what she knew about the Cranes there existed an undeniable air of truth to this story. "Crane, are you hearing this?" Abbie indicated where the revenant rider remained imprisoned.
"… truth be told, my admirable acquaintance Benedict Arnold always struck me as a superior commander to Washington. And his dedication to our cause was unrivalled! Which is not to say unsurpassed, for of course I…"
That, or she was simply inclined to accept anything bad about Ichabod Crane.
Brooks nodded as though satisfied at her uncertainty. 'The end proceeded naturally from there.'
Abraham was not having a good day. He had accepted this secret mission from General Washington to transfer documents vital to their kindred, ostensibly out of respect for its significance. While a staunch supporter of the fight for independence, however, his real motivation had been an unspoken desire to take his mind off Katrina, who had officially ended their relationship last night. No mention of Ichabod was made, nor the humiliation they had both submitted him to. She seemed blissfully convinced that he remained unaware whom precisely she was leaving him for. Abraham chose not to enlighten her on what no doubt everyone in the 13 Colonies and beyond had already learned by now.
"I cannot! No, I will not bear it, the very idea is…!"
Of course, the hand of Fate wasn't quite done slapping him around, it seemed.
Ichabod was walking just a few paces behind him as they moved through the forest. In some manner almost supernatural in nature, he had learned of the secret mission being conducted and burst in on their counsel to 'volunteer' his completely necessary services. Crane seemed to believe that anything momentous was his provenance by divine decree. To make matters worse, his previous high spirits at the party had once more been replaced by that overwrought stomping and blustering act. And what had been a carefully banked ember of resentment in Abraham's heart was swift being fanned into a raging torment of pure unadulterated hatred!
"Abraham, stop, I must speak to you regarding Katrina!"
He drew to a halt without turning around. Abraham von Brunt's jaw was clenched so tight as to render speech impossible at this point. By all that was holy, there seemed no end to that preening blackguard's vanity! They had to complete this enterprise, for the sake of the Colonial Army! Yet he chose now of all times to throw salt into his wounds?!
Unaware of seemingly anything outside of his own swollen hubris, Ichabod stood with hands on his hips glaring at the leaf-strewn ground like it had offended him. "I understand you are in distress at her ending of your betrothal, but hear me out! Katrina is not to blame in this matter. For you see…" And here he flung back his flowing locks and uttered in bold tones, "I am the one who has captured her heart!"
Slowly, very, very slowly, Abraham turned to face him.
"Do tell, Ichabod."
In response Crane huffed and proceeded pacing the forest floor. "It is a testament to our friendship that I can forfend any rancor at your placing me in this predicament. But my love for both you and Katrina demands that I clear the air between us! And as your friend I request… nay, I demand…" he stopped and gazed skyward in total rapture, "… that you give us your blessing. At once."
While engrossed in his pontifications, Crane failed to notice that Abraham had drawn his flintlock pistol.
"In truth, I was not surprised that she would fall victim to my charms. Why, Benjamin Thompson himself, who is no stranger to women's affections in addition to being a close personal comrade of mine, was often loath to concede that in the area of classic Grecian physiognomy, his features were far removed from my own."
Von Brunt unslung his powder horn to carefully begin measuring out an appropriate amount into the barrel. Not too much now; don't want to make a mess.
"But my mere countenance was only half the reason for my completely unasked for triumph over you!"
At this point Abraham paused for a few seconds while his pulse subsided to less than deafening levels. A growl emerged from his throat. Then he proceeded to select an appropriate shot, rejecting several as inferior before finding a nice fat sphere which he inserted into the pistol.
Meanwhile Ichabod heaved a sigh and lifted forearm to brow in the classic posture of distress. "In truth, the one for whom my sympathy is truly reserved for in this wretched lover's triangle is Katrina. She could not help herself! Her poor little feminine bird brain was simply overwhelmed by my burgeoning virtues, of which I am gifted in such abundance, I am sometimes almost embarrassed to admit."
Get the ramrod down the barrel, pack it in there nice and tight, and ta-dah, we have a murder weapon. Excellent! Satisfied, Abraham cocked the pistol to his shoulder. "Ichabod," he called out.
"Truly the female brain is simply not large enough to handle such higher orders of mental magnitude, as Franz Joseph Gall often confessed to me in his groundbreaking research regarding what I dubbed the science of phrenology!"
A little more forcefully. "Ichabod!"
"Naturally he found my own cranium to be nigh divine in its dimensions…"
At last the modern-day Narcissus rounded on him. "What is it, Abraham? I am speaking here!"
A smile of perfect contentment touched the other man's lips, and he stated happily, "I'm going to kill you now, Ichabod."
"What?" Crane peered at him incredulously as though he had spoken in a foreign tongue. "You? Kill me? ME?! Have you taken leave of your wits, Abraham?" He thrust his head forward and placed both hands on hips, sputtering in offended dignity. "Without me, this revolution will end in abject failure! Lacking my guidance mankind has only utter ruin and desolation to contemplate in its future!" He flung an arm skyward in impassioned display. "Why, I daresay, without me the stars themselves would plummet from the heavens! The very firmament of Creation would fall around us! Seas would boil, the earth crack open and noxious humors of all sorts proliferate, and Hell itself would follow!"
So declaring, Ichabod Crane lifted one foot and, finding no suitable rock or stump on which to rest it, settled for simply holding his leg in that position while flinging back his hair to gaze fervently into the distance.
Abraham, for his part, had already taken careful aim at his former friend's temple. He could well imagine the musket ball penetrating Crane's forehead, followed by the splatter of red blood and brains emerging out the back, and he dearly wished for some handy portraitmaker to forever immortalize the stupid look on the little rodent's face that would result. He could swear he almost heard the shot already…
Right then a British musket ball took Abraham in the back and sent him pitching to his knees.
When he came to, the dying man found himself surrounded by Hessian military officers. Looming over all of them was a great horned figure whose image wavered like a vision seen over hot coals.
Mortal, that infernal entity declared, in exchange for your soul I offer you…
"I accept," von Brunt gasped out.
You didn't even let me finish. I was going to say…
"Yes, whatever." Abraham felt a sense of cold leeching away all pain and feeling from his limbs. "Just… give me another chance… to kill the bastard…" The world began to spin, darkness descended to claim Abraham von Brunt's soul, and in its place…
… there arose Death.
Andy Brooks blinked, his eyes going back to normal. He cracked his jaw with a groan. "Wow. That was… intense. So what did I say?"
He looked over to where Abbie Mills was staring at him with eyes wide and mouth hanging open in shock. She then rounded upon Ichabod Crane. "My God, Crane, you are an asshole!"
"A giant throbbing asshole," Andy happily took up this point without any need for explanation. Unable to verbally confirm this sentiment, the Headless Horseman settled for once again giving Crane a very emphatic middle finger.
"I beg your pardon?" Ichabod regarded them all in perplexity. "What on earth brought about this sudden attack upon my person? Francis Marion himself could not have staged a more unexpected ambush, and I taught the Swamp Fox everything he knew!"
"No! That's it!" In a frenzy Abbie picked up the teapot and dashed it to the floor before rounding on the source of her frustration. "I have weathered headless horsemen, fire witches, dream assassins and God only knows what that thing in the root cellar was! But I'll be damned if I listen to one more of your self-righteous speeches about how great you are!" She drew a deep breath and screamed, "AND STOP MENTIONING ALL THE FAMOUS PEOPLE YOU KNEW! For your information, Benjamin Thompson and Benedict Arnold? They were both traitors! Big ones! Had to go into exile and live in Europe! Arnold's name is synonymous with backstabbing scumbags! Plus phrenology is bullshit! It's known! AND I QUIT!"
"You cannot quit! Need I remind you that we are sainted soldiers, endowed by heaven to bear witness to any manner of nefarious evils and combat them with our righteous authority!" He then placed one booted foot upon a crate, rested a hand on his hip and flung back his head to gaze loftily into the distance. "Should you abandon that charge I cannot speak as to the disposition of your immortal soul, leftenant, for as Paul Revere once confided in me…"
"STOP SAYING LEFTENANT! The pronunciation has changed in 200 years! And burning in hell would be preferable to spending another goddamn minute listening to… say one more name and I will not be responsible for my actions!"
She practically roared this last when Ichabod opened his mouth to speak. For a while they stared at one another, Abbie daring him to make a move or say a single word. The look on her face even penetrated his staggering vanity, enough to give him pause.
You wanna test me, she thought? Go ahead! Go ahead! See what happens! You namedropping sunnuvabitch!
Finally Ichabod Crane coughed and said, "As I once remarked to Alexander Hamilton, or Hammy, as his real friends called him…"
Abbie Mills, Andy Brooks and Abraham von Brunt stood side by side admiring the sight before them. Even the Headless Horseman managed to look satisfied despite missing a head. For there, imprisoned at the center of a mystic circle, outstretched arms chained to stone columns and a dirty sock courtesy of Brooks' left foot stuffed into his mouth, was Ichabod Crane. The hero of ages could do no more than glare at them now while he remained strung up like a duck in a Chinese butcher shop window.
"I feel really good about this," Abbie grinned in contentment.
She then stepped forth and, to the astonishment of all present, proceeded to pants Ichabod, leaving him standing there with his breaches around his ankles and long johns exposed for all to see. For his part their captive appeared too stunned at this latest humiliation to even resist. Moving back to admire her handiwork, she glanced at her two accomplices. "Anything else you guys want to do?"
When the Horseman eagerly surged forward she added, "Besides killing him." Hell's flagbearer subsided in a sulky manner to consider further.
"Hold on." Hurrying forth, Andy reached into his pocket and produced a red rubber clown nose, of all things. This he proceeded to affix to Crane's schnoz, who remained immobile from shock. Giving it a firm 'Honk!' for verification, he nodded before rejoining their little cabal. "There. Much better."
Abbie felt the need to ask. "Brooks, why did you have something like that?"
"Oh, I don't know, Abbie," he responded curtly. "Why did Crane recognize the markings in my notebook as Egyptian hieroglyphics for speaking to the dead when the Rosetta Stone which allowed modern man to translate that ancient writing wasn't unearthed until Napoleon's time, decades after the Revolutionary War ended? You ever think about that, huh?"
"Let's not go crazy here." She glanced around a little warily, as if afraid any further discussion of this nature might destabilize the very fabric of their world.
Meanwhile the Horseman pondered for a while longer before lifting a finger in 'Ah-hah!' fashion. He took three steps forward and came to a rest before Ichabod. Von Brunt then placed one hand on his hip, threw back his nonexistent head, raised a foot regally in the air, and kicked Crane in the groin so hard it lifted him clear off the ground. WUMPH! There followed a muffled squeal, upon which the prisoner slumped between his shackles like a deflated balloon.
"The finishing touch," Abbie nodded. Following this she led them out the door. As the trio proceeded to leave that sunken crypt and its new occupant, she casually asked, "So you two wanna grab a cup of coffee before we part ways?"
"Sorry, I gotta get to my new digs," Brooks apologized. "So basically I'm going to hell. Wanna join us? We'd be glad to have you on board." Beside him the Horseman flashed a thumbs-up to indicate his agreement.
"Can't," the dedicated policewoman sighed morosely. "This has been fun, but… you guys are trying to destroy the world, and I can't be any part of that. Plus sooner or later my conscience will get the better of me and I'll have to let him out."
Andy appeared to accept this refusal with good grace. "I don't suppose there's any chance we could have Abraham's head now?"
Abbie shook her own in response. "Not even a little. I mean, I'm not really that bad a person. I just…" and here she shuddered, glancing back at where Ichabod hung like a rag doll, "… kinda wish I was, y'know?"
The decapitated demon patted her shoulder to express his profoundest sympathy, and she smiled at him. "Hey, don't feel bad for me, big guy. If anything, you're my inspiration to carry on now! I mean, you put up with that asshole for years. Seriously, how did you manage to do that, anyway?"
He pantomimed drinking, which made her smile. Remembering something, Mills reached into a pocket and produced the funnel from before which she then handed over to the Horseman. He actually looked touched by her gift. Probably wouldn't help her the next time they clashed, but it couldn't hurt. Now as close to friends as sworn enemies on different sides of the apocalypse could be, they all shook hands before departing, the two undead to the abyss, and Abbie back to her own personal hell.
Taking a seat to wait for Crane to come to, she reflected on her choices. It was entirely possible she was now damned, just as he had insinuated earlier. But the thought gave her little distress. Not because Abbie didn't believe in hell. No, it wasn't a question of faith. More like if that's what it took to get away from Ichabod Crane for all eternity, then break out the marshmallows…
I'm ready to roast.