Former magazine editor and newly sanctioned criminal Daat Praen has just stepped into a heap of trouble. Following the lead from an address he found printed on a business card in a used hat he purchased, Daat turned up at a seedy, secretive hideout. That he was there mistaken for a recently killed crime boss seemed like par for the strange new course he had put himself on...
I gulped down hard as I entered the smoke-filled backroom of the bar. What a rogues gallery: Across the half-circle of a table behind the heavy purple cloth were some of the meanest mugs I've ever set eyes upon. There on the far left was Benny Two-Tone, the man who I later learned ran the gambling racket over the entire southern half of Jaidour. Next to him was Mary the Malcontent, the city's best known yet slipperiest pimp. She wore the biggest jewels I've ever seen on either side of her painted face, and a sour expression between them that must have been worth even more. There were two lackeys with her, who sipped tentatively from their glasses and wiped ever-forming beads of sweat from their pimply foreheads. Besides these goons was a fellow by the name of Gaunt, who would turn out to be a very suspicious character indeed. And then there was Sammy the Laugh-Man, a con-artist who was holding the rest of the room's attention with bodily noises and bawdy jokes. Sammy stopped when I entered to give me a look that begged an answer as to why I wasn't laughing.
"What's the matter, you don't think I'm funny?" he asked as I approached the table.
"I just didn't hear you is all," I said. But honestly, no, I didn't think he was very funny at all. His jokes might have made me laugh when I was in elementary school, or maybe drunk at college, but they weren't doing much for me now. I was scared and nervous. It would have taken a hell of a joke to get me rolling.
"I'm just razzing you, boy-o," Sammy said with a cackle. "You know, I expected you to be a lot bigger."
"Yeah, the legendary Bull Mayday certainly does not live up to his legend," Benny Two-Tone added through teeth that clenched an old cigar.
"Eh, well, I've been dieting," I joked with a strained smile.
"That make you shrink, too?" Benny asked, leaning over the table further and squinting at me. In the weak light that hung above the table, he looked like a slick rat.
"Listen, are we here for business or for the rumor mill?" I asked. Just like my favorite pulp heroes. I was a boss now, and I liked acting the part.
"He's right," Mary said. "Besides, Gaunt knows him, don't you?" the old woman asked across her henchman.
"Sure I do," Gaunt said, shooting me a quick glance. Something was up. If Gaunt was claiming he recognized me as Bull Mayday, it would seem as if Gaunt wasn't who he was claiming to be either, wouldn't it?
"Yeah," I said slyly. "We go way back." Gaunt smiled at me weakly. I tried to let him know I was keen on him too, without being detected by the others. I don't think he noticed, or didn't react if he did.
"Great, great, let's get this show on the road," Benny Two-Tone said. "We ain't got all day."
"Right," Mary agreed. "Boys?" she asked of her associates. The weasel faced men produced a pair of briefcases and from them the plans for whatever the group was plotting. "This one ain't going to be easy," Mary said as she parceled out envelopes to each of us gathered. "Everyone has their instructions in the envelopes, which have been sealed and prepared by Louie the Lamb. Of course, none of us are going to know exactly what any other of us know, but it is absolutely essential that we all carry out our respective parts of the operation without a hitch. You got that, Benny?" Mary barked at the man who was slurping up a long noodle of pasta.
"Yeah, yeah," Benny said as he spat out sauce.
"No 'yeah, yeah' this time, Benny," Mary warned. "You lost us the loot last time, and you know what Louie said. You lose it again..."
"I got it," Benny said angrily.
"You lose it again...," Mary began again.
"I said I got it, lady! Gods alive!" Benny said, slamming his fists down on the table and knocking over two wineglasses as he did so.
"You'd better," Mary said. "Gaunt, the biggest weight is on you this time. We're going to have to have all the clearance codes necessary, at the right time. And you can't slouch either, Bull," she said, looking towards me, "we need you in there right on time. We've got ten minutes to make the heist, understand? Ten minutes. Any of you morons drop your balls and you can rest assure I'll step all over them. Understood?"
A round of half-hearted assent went through the room.
"Then we're done here," Mary concluded. When no one rose to let her out of the booth she was cornered into, the crone squawked again, "We're done here! Now scram! Let me out!"
No one heeded her crowing, and so the old woman was forced to push her way free from the table. As she came near me, she smiled and whispered, "I sure hope some of the rumors of your size are true." I smiled and tried to choke down my repulsion, as the woman disappeared through the curtain back into the front of the bar, with her toadies following close behind like two of those annoying little dogs that rich women love so much. It made me wonder what Marv was up to. Hopefully my three-legged buddy was still waiting for me in the alley out back.
"Good to see you, Bull," Gaunt said to me as he slid past. I could tell from his sarcasm that he was trying to rile me up. But just why was he playing along like he knew me? Maybe he was a copper. I'd have to play old Gaunt carefully, keeping him just the right distance from me. Maybe he'd help me get richer if he was a criminal, or maybe he'd help me out of trouble if he was a cop. In any case, I thought to myself, things had just got a lot more interesting.
Once the tiny room had cleared out and it was just me and the awful smell of pipe smoke left lingering in the dark, I sat down at the table to see just what exactly I had gotten myself into. According to the plans in the envelope I had received, I was going to take part in a heist. And it was no ordinary heist; we were going to rob an airship. It looked like I was going to have to climb across a rope suspended two hundred feet up in the air, to conduct the actual take myself. Bull Mayday was apparently a hell of an athlete. I thought about how I could barely do a pull-up, and wondered how I was ever going to uphold my end of the deal.
But it was all far too exciting for me to consider giving up. I was going to go get some fancy clothes and a steak dinner, and then maybe start working on my upper-body strength. No more mild-mannered magazine editor for me. Bull had arrived. I was the real thing.
NEXT TIME: GIRL OF MY DREAMS OR DAME FROM MY NIGHTMARES?