Black Cat Weekly #17 - Nicholas Carter - E-Book

Black Cat Weekly #17 E-Book

Nicholas Carter

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Welcome to Black Cat Weekly #17—another fun issue, with great mystery and science fiction short stories, classic novels, and more! The lineup this time:


Mysteries / Suspense:


“Smart Cookie,” by Hal Charles [Solve-It-Yourself Mystery]
“Shanks Gets Mugged,” by Robert Lopresti [short story]
“Thubway Tham Reforms,” by Johnston McCulley [short story]
“The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat” by Elizabeth Zelvin [Barb Goffman Presents short story]
The Seal of Gijon, by Nicholas Carter [novel]


Science Fiction & Fantasy:


“The Hour of Their Need,” by Amy Wolf [Cynthia Ward Presents short story]
“Dragonet,” by Esther Friesner [Darrell Schweitzer Presents short story]
“Vengeance in Her Bones,” by Malcolm Jameson [short story]
“Taste Taste,” by Larry Tritten [short story]
Secret of the Martians, by Paul W. Fairman [novel]

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Table of Contents

COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

THE CAT’S MEOW

TEAM BLACK CAT

SMART COOKIE, by Hal Charles

SHANKS GETS MUGGED, by Robert Lopresti

THUBWAY THAM REFORMS, by Johnston McCulley

THE MAN IN THE DICK TRACY HAT, by Elizabeth Zelvin

THE SEAL OF GIJON, by Nicholas Carter

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER I

CHAPTER II

CHAPTER III

CHAPTER IV

CHAPTER V

CHAPTER VI

CHAPTER VII

CHAPTER VIII

CHAPTER IX

CHAPTER X

CHAPTER XI

CHAPTER XII

DRAGONET, by Esther Friesner

THE HOUR OF THEIR NEED, by Amy Wolf

VENGEANCE IN HER BONES, by Malcolm Jameson

TASTE TASTE, by Larry Tritten

SECRET OF THE MARTIANS, by Paul W. Fairman

INTRODUCTION

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

COPYRIGHT INFORMATION

Copyright © 2021 by Wildside Press LLC.

Published by Wildside Press, LLC.

wildsidepress.com | bcmystery.com

*

“Smart Cookie” is copyright © 2021 by Hal Blythe and Charlie Sweet. Reprinted by permission of the authors.

“Thubway Tham Reforms,” by Johnston McCulley, originally appeared in Detective Story Magazine, February 11, 1922, as “Thubway Tham Reformth.”

“The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat” is copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth Zelvin. Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, June 2015. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Shanks Gets Mugged” is Copyright © 2005 by Robert Lopresti. Originally published in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, December 2005. Reprinted by permission of the author.

The Seal of Gijon originally appeared in Nick Carter Stories #137 (April 24, 1915).

“Taste Taste” is copyright © 1981 by Larry Tritten. Originally published in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, April 1981. Reprinted by permission of the author’s estate.

“Dragonet” is copyright © 1985 by Esther Friesner. Originally published in Amazing Stories, January 1986. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“The Hour of Their Need” is copyright © 1995 by Amy Wolf. Originally published in Realms of Fantasy April 1995. Reprinted by permission of the author.

“Vengeance in Her Bones,” by Malcolm Jameson, originally appeared in Weird Tales, May 1942.

Secret of the Martians, by Paul W. Fairman, originally appeared in Imagination, February 1956.

THE CAT’S MEOW

Welcome to Black Cat Weekly #17—another fun issue, with great short stories, classic novels, and more! We are still in the midst of year-end royalty and accounting work at Wildside Press, so I will be briefer than usual this time. Just let me say that all four of our acquiring editors have brought in great stories this issue, and I’m including one by Johnston McCulley (creator of Zorro) that features Thubway Tham. Tham is one of my favorite series characters, by one of my favorite pulp authors, and I hope to have more of his stories in future issues. See my introduction to the story for more info.

The lineup this time:

Mysteries / Suspense

“Smart Cookie,” by Hal Charles [Solve-It-Yourself Mystery]

“Shanks Gets Mugged,” by Robert Lopresti [short story]

“Thubway Tham Reformth,” by Johnston McCulley [short story]

“The Man in the Dick Tracy Hat” by Elizabeth Zelvin [Barb Goffman Presents short story]

The Seal of Gijon, by Nicholas Carter [novel]

Science Fiction & Fantasy

“The Hour of Their Need,” by Amy Wolf [Cynthia Ward Presents short story]

“Dragonet,” by Esther Friesner [Darrell Schweitzer Presents short story]

“Vengeance in Her Bones,” by Malcolm Jameson [short story]

“Taste Taste,” by Larry Tritten [short story]

Secret of the Martians, by Paul W. Fairman [novel]

Until next time, happy reading!

—John Betancourt

Editor, Black Cat Weekly

TEAM BLACK CAT

EDITOR

John Betancourt

ASSOCIATE EDITORS

Barb Goffman

Michael Bracken

Darrell Schweitzer

Cynthia M. Ward

PRODUCTION

Sam Hogan

SMART COOKIE,by Hal Charles

Dorothy Sparrow lovingly put down the picture of her three uniformed daughters. Sure, she was lonely, but Cindy, Carol, and Clara had lives of their own, families and careers now.

She turned on her coffee machine. Maybe, Dorothy admitted to herself, she was just a bit spooked by the morning TV news she had just turned off. The police were warning citizens to be especially wary of a gang of thieves who had been spotted in the area.

It was times like these that caused her to especially miss her husband. Last spring George had walked down to the end of the driveway to fetch the morning paper. She had found him on the concrete. The EMTs had explained he had experienced a fatal coronary event—translation, he had a heart attack.

Ever since that moment Dorothy found herself suffering from what her mother had called “the heebie-jeebies.” So the sudden knock on the front door sounded like her heart trying to break loose from her rib cage. Using the chain George had installed for her, she cracked open the front door. Smiling up at her was a blonde, pre-teen girl standing there with a clipboard and a sash.

“Why you look just like Shirley Temple?” said Dorothy.

“Who’s Shirley Temple?” replied the little girl sweetly.

“Things change,” said Dorothy. What can I do for you? I don’t recognize you. Are you lost?”

“My name is Mary Magee, and I live a couple of streets away.” She pointed south towards the new elementary school.

“How nice! We’re almost neighbors.”

“My mom says we’re all neighbors.”

“And where is your mother now?”

“Down the street with my sister, who’s a Brownie. Mom worries a lot about Jess, but thinks I’m old enough to do some selling on my own.”

Dorothy relaxed, actually enjoying a conversation with a young girl. “And what are you selling, Mary Magee?”

“Scout cookies. All your neighbors have been so kind I just know I’m going to win the troop’s Smart Cookie award for most boxes sold.”

“Why aren’t you in uniform, dear?”

“Like you said, `Things change’.”

“So,” said Dorothy, seeing a little of her own daughters in both Mary’s smile and ambition, “I take it you would like me to buy lots of cookies from you.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“How polite you are,” Dorothy said through the crack. “I’m afraid it’s been so long since we’ve actually had a cookie salesperson ring our doorbell that I’ve forgotten what flavors you have.”

“Well,” said Mary, “I can understand now why our leaders had us memorize all nine classic types.” She smiled proudly. “Here we go in alphabetical order. Do-Si-Dos, Lemon Ups, Oatmeal Chip Wheels, Samoas, S’mores, Tagalongs, Thin Mints, Toffee-Tastics, and Tre-Foils. Whew!”

Dorothy clapped her hands. “That’s quite impressive, Mary.”

“So,” said Mary, pulling a pencil from behind her ear and holding up her clipboard. “Which ones do you want and how many?”

“I have to admit,” said Dorothy, “that my all-time favorite cookie—and George’s too—is S’mores. They remind me of a campfire.”

“I’ll put you down for five boxes since they’re your favorite. How about Thin Mints? Folks find they taste really good right after a meal.”

Dorothy’s mouth watered. “I completely agree with you, Mary. You are such a super-salesperson that I just know you’ll win that Smart Cookie award.”

“I prefer cash,” said Mary, “but I can take a check.”

“When’s delivery?”

“Six weeks from Monday.”

“Wait a minute,” said Dorothy, hesitantly. She walked over to her purse and came back empty-handed. “I forgot. We’re totally out of money, and my husband just went to the bank. He should be back in about an hour. Please come back then.”

SOLUTION

Why did Dorothy hesitate and lie about having the cookie money for Mary in an hour?

When Mary returned, she was met at the door by Detective Cindy Sparrow of the local police’s Fraud Division. Detective Sparrow also rounded up Mary’s “mom” and “sisters,” con artists all.

How had Dorothy known the would-be Smart Cookie was lying? As a former troop leader who had supervised her own daughters’ cookie sales, Dorothy was aware there was not nor had there ever been a Scout cookie called Oatmeal Chip Wheels.

-30-

 

 

SHANKS GETS MUGGED,by Robert Lopresti

The Barb Goffman Presents series showcasesthe best in modern mystery and crime stories,

personally selected by one of the most acclaimed

short stories authors and editors in the mystery

field, Barb Goffman, for Black Cat Weekly.

Someone was shining a bright light in Leopold Longshanks’s eyes and asking him foolish questions.

“Who’s the president, sir?”

“Millard Fillmore.”

The paramedic lowered his flashlight, the better to stare at him. “Who?”

Shanks sighed. A dark street in downtown Madison was no place for a quiz on American history. “Look, I know the president, and what city we’re in, and even the day of the week. I lost my wallet, not my wits.”

“This is just standard procedure, Mr. Longshanks. When we find a man lying in the gutter—”

“He knocked me down, that’s all. I would have stood up as soon as I caught my breath.”

“Especially a man of your age—”

Shanks made a face, which made his head hurt more. “What does my age have to do with it? A man turns fifty and suddenly it’s as if he’s from an alien species. I start getting these magazines I never subscribed to, and offers to take discounts, like I’m a charity case—”

“Sir? Are you sure we can’t give you a ride to the hospital?”

“Just give me a lift home. And you—” he said to the policeman who stood nearby, looking bored. “Remember that description I gave you. Especially the sneakers. White high-tops with two wolves on the side—”

“Dos Lobos,” said the cop. “Very popular among gang members this year. Must be a thousand pairs in this county alone.”

“But how many of them have green and red paint spatters all over them? My God, did you even write that down?”

And then Cora’s car came speeding up. She had been dragged away from her bridge game by a terrifying phone call from the paramedics. He was sure to hear about that later. “Shanks, are you all right? They said your head was bashed in!”

“Slight exaggeration, my dear. The mugger knocked me down, and I banged my head. I’m fine now.”

“He really should go to the hospital,” the paramedic told her.

“He won’t,” Cora assured him.

“Damned right,” said Shanks.

“Hospitals terrify him.”

“Now wait a minute!”

“I’m taking you home right now,” she said, putting a hand on his shoulder. “What were you doing downtown at this hour anyway?”

“Going for a walk to plot out a book. Which used to be safe in this town, even after dark.”

“These aren’t the good old days, darling. You should know better. A man of your age…”

“I wish people would stop saying that. At my age a writer is just reaching his creative peak.”

“Get in the car, Shanks. We have to go home and start making phone calls.”

“Phone calls?” He stared at her. “I get mugged and you want to alert the media?”

Cora shook her head irritably as she climbed into the driver’s seat. “He took your wallet, right? That means we have to cancel our credit cards and probably half a dozen other things they can figure out from the dozens of receipts and checks you usually carry around in that thing.”

She was right, of course. Which gave him something else to be mad about.

* * * *

Shanks spent the entire next day wrestling with the paperwork that accompanied a mugging. Talk about adding insult to injury. Going to the DMV for a new driver’s license was just one of the pleasures.

Then Cora made him go to his doctor, “just to make sure.”

Dr. Krebs was unimpressed by the lump on his head. “It’s the lump in your gut you ought to be worrying about, Shanks. You need to exercise and lose some weight. A man of your age…”

* * * *

By the day after that, things had returned to relatively normal and Shanks could get back to work. The only problem with that plan was that his latest novel idea had curled up and died in his hands. Worse, this was the third time in a row that had happened. And this left him with nothing to do but sit in his home office and brood.

He called the cops, mostly to confirm what he already knew: investigating a mugging without injury was so low on their to-do list that nothing short of the perpetrator strolling into the police station with a signed confession was likely to get their attention.

And then, back to brooding. It wasn’t the money, damn it. It wasn’t even the inconvenience of replacing credit cards and so on. It was the principle.

The kid had pointed a knife at him and demanded his wallet. No, let’s be honest. He had said, “Give me your wallet, old man.” And that stung too.

Shanks scowled at the computer screen, where his next novel didn’t seem to be developing.

All right, he thought. If you can’t write just now, what else can you do?

* * * *

“You know,” he told Cora at dinner that night, “I’ve been thinking, and I decided you’re right.”

She stared at him. “Well, let me get a pencil.”

“What for?”

“I want to mark this day on the calendar. Celebrate it every year.”

“Very funny.”

“So, what exactly am I right about?”

“You were complaining that there isn’t room in this house for two novelists. We keep bumping into each other, interrupting when we’re on the phone, and so on.”

Cora frowned. “I vaguely remember saying something like that a few months ago, back when you were thinking of writing a novel about an opera singer and insisted on blasting the stereo at full volume for inspiration. And now you decide I was right?”

“Your wisdom takes time to absorb.”

“No doubt. So, who’s moving out?”

“I thought I’d try renting a little office, maybe over in Morristown. Just for a few months, to give it a try. What do you say?”

His wife looked thoughtful. “Why not?”

“Really?” He had expected more resistance.

“Sure.” She smiled sweetly. “The change might be good for you.”

Ah. Cora thought he was trying a new way to break out of his writing slump. Well, fine. That was a lot easier than explaining what he really had in mind.

* * * *

Back when Shanks was younger and foolish enough to take advice from a brother-in-law, Cora’s brother Bob had convinced him to set himself up as a business. This was supposed to have tax advantages once Hollywood started buying Shanks’s books and pouring down a flood of money. Hollywood cash continued to be somewhere between a drought and a light mist, but he still had the paperwork for a company name.

He used that name to sign up for a small second-floor office in Morristown, a few miles from home. The landlord supplied a desk and a couple of chairs, so all that he needed to bring from home was his computer and a file cabinet.

Then came the important part: decorating. Before Cora morphed into a novelist, she had run an art gallery for a while, and she still had an extra room full of paintings she had purchased from starving artists—most of whom deserved starvation in Shanks’s opinion. With her permission he took some of the more bizarre paintings to his new office. Then he picked up some art magazines at the newsstand.

And finally he wrote an ad to go in the local newspaper:

FIVE HUNDRED DOLLAR REWARD

To the owner of a pair of

White high-top Dos Lobos sneakers

Spattered with paint

Seen in Morris County on April 3.

April third had been the day before the mugging. The ad ended with his company name and the office phone number.

The ad appeared on Sunday. On Monday the phone calls started. As Shanks expected he received calls from a number of people who would be happy to paint their sneakers any color he wanted in return for five large, and most of them were quite irritated that that didn’t feed the bulldog.

One pilgrim seemed determined to call back with every possible combination of colors until he hit on the winner, so Shanks had to pull out his back-up ploy. “Where in Morris County would those sneakers have been seen on April third?”

Uh. The caller had no idea what the right answer was.

Shanks didn’t know either; it was a bluff. But it successfully chased off a few phonies.

On Tuesday morning a woman called. Her voice was young and hesitant. She said her name was Brook. “Why do you want to know about those sneakers?”

This was promising. If he had been writing the scene, that was just the sort of dialogue he would have created. “It’s for an art project,” he explained. “But let’s make sure we’re discussing the right sneakers. What color is the paint?”

“Red and green. What sort of art project?”

“It’s too complicated to explain on the phone. Why don’t you bring them in and we’ll discuss it?”

“They’re not mine. Don’t you know whether it was a man or woman who was wearing them?”

“Sorry. I assumed you were calling for boyfriend or a relative. He can come in too.”

* * * *

Shanks had considered the possibility that the mugger might recognize him, but he concluded it was unlikely. On the mean streets of Madison he had been wearing a raincoat and a soft hat, and the mugger had only seen him for a few seconds under a streetlight. Granted, the bad guy could have spent many happy hours memorizing the picture on Shanks’s driver’s license, but why would he bother? Shanks had decided to introduce himself as Mr. Lipton, the name of the previous office tenant, which was still visible on the door.

On the other hand, Shanks was pretty sure he would recognize the mugger. And the man who came in with the girl named Brook was definitely not him. Paul, as he introduced himself, was the right age, early twenties, but too thin and short, and his greasy hair was too long and light.

He was wearing Dos Lobos sneakers, but they were black high-tops, with nary a paint drip in sight.

It was hard for Shanks to guess Brook’s age. She might have been eighteen but had added a few years to her appearance with makeup and perhaps through hard living.

“You serious about the five hundred bucks?” Paul asked.

“For the right pair of sneakers. Have a seat. Can I get you a coffee? Tea?”

Paul shook his head. Brook, sounding rather surprised with herself, asked for a tea.

“You see,” said Shanks. “I’m an agent for a number of artists.” He gestured at the strange spangled and shiny canvases on the walls. “I put that ad in at the request of a client of mine who wants to remain anonymous for now. He is an artist, a really talented fellow, who works mostly with conceptual and performance art. Are you familiar with the genre?”

His guests shook their heads. Paul was frowning; Brook was wide-eyed.

“Well, you can read about it some of these magazines.” He pointed to a few issues he had spread open on the table. They featured articles about one budding genius who shaved his head and sold the bag full of hair for $10,000, and another who simply stood in front of an empty gallery and shouted obscenities at people who came to see the art.

Shanks figured that compared to those alleged Rembrandts the project he was about to describe would seem like Norman Rockwell.

“This is art?” asked Paul, showing better taste than Shanks would have given him credit for.

He laughed. “The people who pay for it seem to think so. Now, it happens that my client fell in love on April third, and he decided to make an art project out of everything related to that experience. He has kept the clothes he was wearing, and that his new sweetheart was wearing, and the menu from the restaurant—”

“And that’s art?” Paul repeated.

“I think it’s sweet,” said Brook.

Shanks smiled at her approvingly. “Well, it happens that one of the first things my client and his new love chatted about was a pair of sneakers they had both noticed. So, naturally he wants to add them to the assemblage.”

“And he’s going to sell this stuff?” said Paul skeptically.

Shanks gestured toward the magazines. “You’d be amazed at what people will buy if they think it’s art. So, do you have the sneakers?”

“A friend of ours does,” said Brook.

“Ah. Well, tell him to come in with them, and if he can tell me where he was on April third and it matches what my client told me, he gets five hundred dollars.”

“What about us?” asked Paul.

Shanks dropped his bushy eyebrows. “Hmm. A finder’s fee would definitely be in order. Ten percent would be typical. So you get fifty dollars when I approve the purchase of the sneakers.”

Paul wanted to dicker for more, but Shanks suggested he should take it up with the owner of the sneakers. Why shouldn’t the lucky man share with his friends?

* * * *

The friends brought the lucky man with them later that day. He looked confused and belligerent. His name was Carl Nesmith, and Shanks thought he might have been the mugger.

Then he spoke and Shanks knew.It wasn’t easy to keep his poker face on. Nesmith was shorter than Shanks remembered—a knife in your hand adds several inches to your height, apparently—but it was him.

Shanks repeated the cover story he had told Nesmith’s friends.

Nesmith seemed less curious than the others had been. Certainly he didn’t show any interest in Shanks. “Here’s the shoes,” he said. “Where’s the money?”

Shanks looked at the sneakers and repressed a shudder. He remembered lying in the gutter and staring at those big ugly shoes, expecting them to start kicking him.

“Where were you on April third?” he asked. He tried to keep his voice neutral, but he thought it sounded like the stereotype of a police interrogation: Where were you at midnight on the night of so and so?

Nesmith listed a few places, a liquor store, a park, a store. It seemed so mundane; shouldn’t muggers spend their day in opium dens or gang headquarters or something?

“Ah, Verona Park. That’s where my client saw the sneakers. So we’re definitely on the right track.” He beamed at Nesmith and his friends. “I’ll write out the checks. Just fill out these forms.”

“What forms?” asked Paul. “You didn’t mention any forms.”

“Just a receipt and a standard release. You realize, this all becomes part of the provenance of the art work. It needs to be properly documented.”

“Why isn’t the artist doing all this work?” asked Paul.

Excellent question, Shanks thought, silently cursing him for it.

“You know how it is with the creative types.” He raised a bushy eyebrow. “They come up with an idea and then someone else has to do the hard part. But rest assured, he’ll be there to take all the credit.”

All three of them nodded, apparently familiar with that type of person.

“You really need my Social Security number?” asked Nesmith.

“All part of the procedure,” Shanks assured him as he scribbled a signature on the checks. It could have read Longshanks, or Lipton, or Norman Rockwell.

* * * *

It wasn’t until the next day, as he closed up his office for good, that Shanks realized how much trouble he had made for himself. He now knew the name, address, and even the Social Security number of a man he was morally sure was a criminal. What was he supposed to do with the information?

He hadn’t thought that through.

Should he wait in a dark alley and hit Nesmith with a lead pipe? Hardly his style. Besides, a man of his age— Now he was saying it!

Of course, he could take it to the Madison cops. He didn’t know enough law to be sure they would be willing to act on his information. And even if they could, they might consider it too much trouble, but at least that would be their fault, not his.

Besides, he suddenly realized, if they did act he might end up in the news as a comic character, a mystery-writer-turned-vigilante. He liked publicity as much as the next novelist, but for his novels, damn it, not for something that would look like a cheap publicity stunt. “The Miss Marple of Madison.” No, thank you.

Could he remain silent? If he did that, then every time he read about a mugging in Morris County he would have to wonder if someone had been robbed—or worse—by the man he could have sent to jail.

The fact was, he didn’t feel any great commitment to sending Nesmith to jail. The legal system did not have a fine report card on the subject of reform. But he had to do something to decrease the chances that the clown would pull a knife on some other unsuspecting wanderer.

And by the time he had his computer unpacked at home, he knew what to do. He drove over to Truth Town.

* * * *

Truth Town was a store that specialized in stuff that made the average citizen frown and say “Is that legal?” The answer was usually yes, with reservations.

If you wanted to spy on a neighbor, surreptitiously record a phone call, or do a background check on your daughter’s fiancé, Truth Town could sell you the gadgets and guidebooks. With each purchase of one of the more dodgy items, Sam Siriano, the owner, always provided a photocopy of the relevant laws so that his customers didn’t accidentally stray over the line while pursuing their no-doubt blameless purposes.

Oddly enough, most of his customers were people with legitimate uses for the equipment. There were private detectives, and lawyers, and even police officers. And occasionally, there was a mystery writer.

“So, what can I do for you, Shanks?” Sam asked. He was a hefty man with curly black hair and a nose as big and pointy as a hatchet blade.

“Last year you showed me a machine that changes your voice. You still have that?”

“Nah. We’ve got much better models now. The new technology just leaps along, doesn’t it? Take a look at this little angel.” He patted a machine that looked smaller and fancier than the one Shanks remembered. “This new baby lets you sound like a dozen different people, male or female. You want any cameras? I’ve got ones you stick in your necktie, your shoe…”

“Not today, thanks. But I could use your latest book on finding personal data over the internet.”

“I’ve got some beauties on that. You researching a new book?”

Shanks raised an eyebrow. “What else could I want these things for?”

“Natch.”

“So, how much could an unscrupulous man find out about an individual over the web?”

“Depends how much your character already knew.”

“Let’s pretend he knew the target’s name, address, phone number, and Social Security number.”

Sam let out a low chuckle. It sounded like something wild sighting its prey.

* * * *

A week later Carl Nesmith was awakened by a phone call from his credit card company. The caller’s voice was typical clerical: bored, almost mechanical. “Mr. Nesmith, we’ve had to close your account. If we don’t receive some payment this week…”

Nesmith sat up, rubbing his eyes. “What are you talking about, man? I only owe like, what, five hundred dollars on that card.”

“Our records say otherwise, Mr. Nesmith. Frankly, we should have never let your last two transactions through. You’re well past your credit limit—”

“Just wait a minute!” He stood up and stared around his cluttered apartment. “I haven’t used the card in, what, a week.”

“That can’t be right, sir. You purchased a dinner for two at the Chateau Gris in Livingston last night—”

Nesmith was outraged. “No way! I’ve never been to that Chateau place. Someone must have stolen my card.” He found his wallet on the bathroom counter. The card was right next to his driver’s license. Damn. “Look, you’ve made some kind of mistake. What card number do you have?”

The clerk read it off.

Damn.

“Okay, someone’s screwing with my account. That’s my number, but it wasn’t me.”

The clerk sighed, like he’d heard all this before. “Do you have your latest bill, sir?”

Nesmith shuffled hopefully through the a few piles of papers and found nothing. He really had to get organized. “I’ll get back to you.”

He hung up the phone and dug through a stack of junk mail on the coffee table. No luck.

The phone rang again. This time it was another credit card company. “I don’t even have an account with you!”

“I beg to differ, Mr. Nesmith,” said the clerk, this time a really snotty woman. “I have your signature, right here, opening the account last month. And now the money is due.”

“This is fraud,” he shouted. “You have to get the money back from those people.”

She laughed. “Don’t count on that, Mr. Nesmith. Most of these transactions are donations to charities. Have you ever tried to get money back from one of those? You’re better off just paying the bills.”

“With what?”

When that witch was off the phone, Nesmith gave up looking for bills and started looking for beer. At least that was where it was supposed to be. Just as he popped the top the phone rang again.

It was the finance company, telling him his check had bounced and someone would be coming to repossess his car if he didn’t get to their office by five o’clock. After that, he stopped answering the phone, but that didn’t stop them from calling, the bastards.

And then his cell phone rang. Almost no one had that number. He hit the button and heard yet another stranger, this one a man.

“Mr. Nesmith? Please don’t hang up. I have some good news for you.”

“Yeah? And what’s that?”

“The phone calls you have received today were not from the people they claimed to be.”

Nesmith almost dropped his beer. “Are you serious? What the hell do you think you’re doing?”

“Just giving you a little demonstration of what your future could be like. Probably will be like in the near future. Oh, I should begin by asking if you believe that we could do in real life what we just pretended to do? You must know by now that we have your Social Security number, your credit card information—”

“Yeah, yeah, I get it. You’re some kind of computer hackers. Either that or you work for the Feds, right? So, what the hell do you want from me?”

“Very simple, really, Mr. Nesmith. We want you to stop breaking the law.”

His eyes widened. “Law? What law?”

“Most of them. Oh, we don’t care much about whether you double-park or even if you pay your taxes. Stay away from violence and we’ll be satisfied.”

Nesmith finished his beer. He had a headache. “Who the hell are you?”

“I represent an organization interested in rehabilitation. We have compiled a very comprehensive list of your activities, Mr. Nesmith. I guarantee the police would find it interesting reading.”

He bet they would. He was sweating now. “What is this? Blackmail?”

“You can call it that, if you wish. We prefer to say we are showing you the consequences of your choices. If you choose to break the law again…well, the next time you are arrested, the police get our complete file on you. And you start getting the kind of phone calls you received this morning, except that they will be real. You may escape from the police but not from your creditors.”

“What’s my other choice?”

The mysterious voice left him hanging for a moment. “There’s a technical college right in the town where you live. Our foundation has opened an account for you. It should pay for one semester in just about any course you want to take. It is not refundable, by the way, so don’t imagine you can get the money.”

Nesmith’s head was aching. “Are you saying those are my choices? Go to school or go to jail?”

“That’s it, Mr. Nesmith. If you get good grades we’ll pay part of your future tuition as well. So, what’s it going to be?”

He wanted another drink desperately. He wanted to hang up on these idiots and pretend this morning had never happened. Paul was supposed to pick him up in an hour. They were going over to the apartment of a friend who had gotten his hands on some stolen cell phones and—

Nesmith winced. He imagined he could hear the creditors calling again. And the cops.

“That technical college,” he said.

“Yes?”

“Do they have a course in auto mechanics?”

* * * *

Shanks hung up the phone and turned off the voice synthesizer. He didn’t think it likely that Nesmith would change his life and go straight, but he figured this trick was at least as likely to make it happen as sending him to court. In any case, he had made more effort than the cops had.

Shanks frowned at the voice synthesizer, now taking up a chunk of his desk. It was probably too late to return it to Truth Town and try to get his money back.

Money. How much had this little exercise cost him? The synthesizer, the rented office, the ad, reward, and finder’s fee, the modest price of some technical classes for his mugger. It made the actual amount Nesmith stole from him look inconsequential.

Then there was a month of his time wasted on the project, time he should have spent writing. But that didn’t seem like such a major loss these days, not after three novels in a row had dropped dead halfway through the first draft.

Shanks began to wonder if this whole elaborate vengeance scheme he had dreamed up had been nothing more than an elaborate way to avoid starting on another novel. A crazy way to dodge writer’s block.

He shrugged. Whatever it had been, it was over now. Thank heavens he didn’t have to think about it anymore.

Cora walked in, frowning at a folded piece of paper. “Shanks, we just got the credit card bill. What in the world did you buy at Truth Town?”

“Uh.” Any sort of evasion seemed like a bad idea, especially with the evidence sitting on the desk next to him. “A voice synthesizer, dear. See?”

She saw. She was unimpressed. “Another gadget? This is going to be a tight month, Shanks. Do you think you could play with the toys you already have for a while?”

“Absolutely.” He was thanking his lucky stars that he had paid the technical school out of his private account—what Cora called his “mad money” because he usually spent it on gifts for her when she got mad.

“Hmm,” she folded the bill and looked at the voice synthesizer. “Well, I hope it works out for you, Shanks.”

He raised an eyebrow. “What do you mean?”

She pointed at the machine with the hand that held the bill. “Obviously you bought that gadget because it figures in some new book you’re plotting. I know you’ve been going through a rough patch this year, darling. So I hope this idea turns out to be one of your best.”

Shanks stared at her. A series of images flashed through his mind, like pages turning. A man gets mugged. He joins a victim-support group and persuades the other members to join him in an elaborate plot of revenge and reformation…

His heart pounded. For the first time in months his fingers itched with eagerness to get on a computer keyboard. “You know what, Cora? I think this just might be one of my best.”

The reviewers and readers agreed. A Man of Your Age was his most successful book in years.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Robert Lopresti is a retired librarian and the author of more than eighty short stories. His books include Greenfellas, a comic caper in which the Mafia tries to save the environment, and Shanks on Crime. He has won the Derringer Award three times, as well as the Black Orchid Novella Award, and been nominated for the Anthony Award. He has been reprinted in the Best American Mystery Stories and the Year’s Best Dark Fantasy & Horror. Learn more at roblopresti.com.

 

THUBWAY THAM REFORMS,by Johnston McCulley

INTRODUCTION

Tubway Tham, a charming everyman who happens to work as a pickpocket on the New York subways, was one of Johnston McCulley’s favorite characters—he wrote more than 100 stories about the lisping thief over a 40-year period. The character was so popular in Detective Story Magazine that, as a publicity stunt, Christopher Booth (author of the Mr. Clackworthy stories) and Johnston McCulley each penned crossover stories in which his character got the better of the other.

Such luminaries as Harlan Ellison were fans of the character. (Harlan once told me that he had collected all the stories and had hoped to edit a book of them, but was unable to find a publisher at the time.) Wildside Press had at that point already published a pair of such collections, The Adventures of Thubway Tham and Tales of Thubway Tham, and Harlan never followed up with me about his editing a volume. I hope to publish a third Thubway Tham collection in the next year or so.

I

Leaning back in his chair, Thubway Tham grinned broadly and looked across the table at Nifty Noel, whose countenance was inscrutable. The other men who were grouped near the table looked on with bated breath.

In the center of the table there were heaps of currency, cravat pins of worth, and even two gold watches. Thubway Tham held five playing cards in his hand, and so did Nifty Noel. The former had been “called” by the latter. The long and hard-fought poker battle was nearing its end.

“Tho you call me, do you?” Thubway Tham asked, grinning broadly again.

“I do!” Nifty Noel replied.

“Nifty, for the patht few monthth you and your aththothiatcth have been trimmin’ me richly and with great regularity, ath the man thaid. I am willing to admit that. But all thingth have an end. There ith a thilver linin’ to every cloud. And now the day hath come when—”

“Well, what have you got?” Nifty Noel interrupted. “Cease the chatter And show your hand.”

“Boy,” Thubway Tham replied, “I hold in thith hand that which will cauthe you to weep. When you thee thith hand of mine, you are goin’ to thay to yourthelf that ath a poker player you are a fine, ecthpert blackthmith!”

“Yes?” Noel asked.

“Yeth!” Thubway Tham replied. “Here ith where I collect. Here ith where the gold and prethiouth gemth come home to papa! Right here and now, Nifty Noel, ith where you have to go to work again. Your ill-gotten gainth are comin’ my way! I think you have been bluffin’ all the time.”

“I called you,” Nifty Noel reminded him. “You certainly can hand out a mess of talk when you get started and feel like it. But why not do something besides talk? If you’ve got anything, why not show it?”

“Thith ith what you might call a dramatic thithuation,” Thubway Tham explained, grinning yet once more. “Thith ith the great thrill of thuthpenthe. Ath a great and thpecial favor to you, Nifty. I am lettin’ you believe, for one minute longer, that you have thome chanthe at what ith in the middle of the table. But it ith only a bluff, Noel—you have no chanthe!”

“No?”

“No!” Thubway Tham declared. “Jutht catht your opticth over thethe five cardth, Noel! You may throw away the one to the left. I need only the other four. There they are, Noel! Get out your handkerchief and thtart weepin’. Four kingth in a row! Now you may throw thothe pathteboardth you are holdin’ on the table, and I’ll gather in the loot!”

“One moment, please!” Nifty Noel commanded. “Pause an instant! You had me actually thinking for a moment, Tham, that you had a real hand. I was almost scared, Tham. That goes to show how foolish a man is to get scared.”

“I thuppothe you think that four kingth in a row ith a bum hand?” Thubway Tham asked.

“It is a very good hand, Tham—at times. But this doesn’t happen to be one of the times.”

“No?”

“No!” said Nifty Noel. “I am afraid that you’ll have to hurry down to the subway, Tham, old-timer, and proceed to lift a few fat leathers. It is my sad duty to relate to you. Tham, that you are cleaned out!”

“Well, my goodnethth! What with?” Thubway Tham requested to know, the grin leaving his face speedily.

“Kindly observe,” Nifty Noel said. He spread his five cards down on the table before him and waved his hand in a graceful, eloquent, and expressive gesture. Thubway Tham bent forward to look, and those who were around the table stepped up to see better.

“There is your death warrant, old-timer!” Nifty Noel continued. “That string of cards makes four kings look like less than nothing. A straight flush, boy. all diamonds and queen high! And kindly remember, at this juncture, that you dealt this hand yourself. Don’t forget that!”

There came a burst of raucous laughter that caused the face of Thubway Tham to turn red for an instant. Nifty Noel, smiling for the first time since the poker duel had started, raked in the currency, the pins, and watches, and stuffed the loot into his pockets. Thubway Tham was “cleaned.”

II

Detective Craddock, walking slowly along a crosscut in Madison Square, stopped suddenly, peered ahead, and chuckled. Then he advanced again and came to a stop at one end of a bench upon which sat a melancholy figure.

“If it isn’t my old friend, Tham!” Detective Craddock said.

Tham turned his head as though the effort pained him. “Tho!” he said. “A man’th troubleth never come thingly. Jutht when I am feelin’ bad, I have to thee your ugly fathe!”