by Gregory Hansen
Part 1 appeared in issue 107.
By late afternoon, Skidbett and Lyle had four “client agreements” in hand and were way ahead of schedule. They settled in smugly to watch the day’s final applicants on the monitor.
Ten minutes before closing time, the front door flew open and a procession of seedy characters filed into the lobby. They expanded in the small room like a solar system; the center of gravity was a rumpled yet dapper, silver-haired old gentleman in a dark double-breasted suit. Hovering in the outermost orbit — and looking slightly sheepish — was Mr. Bassi.
Skidbett frowned and turned to Lyle, only to find his partner’s face pale and frozen with shock. “No... oh, no,” Lyle murmured, his gaze riveted to the screen.
“What’s the matter?” Skidbett asked.
Lyle tore his eyes from the monitor. “That’s Omar ‘the Undertaker’ Callahan,” he hissed, “head of Varfleet’s most notorious crime family!”
Skidbett shrugged. “Then he’s got a lot of money floating around.”
“What are you, crazy? We can’t con Omar the Undertaker!”
“Of course we can.” Skidbett, intensely competitive, hated to be told what he could and couldn’t do. He gazed at the monitor with growing interest. Two goons were haranguing the receptionist, who so far had refused to buzz the outer door open.
“Skidbett, please!” Lyle’s eyes were wide with fear. “This guy has an army of killers working for him!”
“Surely not an army, Lyle.”
“Oh yes he does! He even has killers to kill his killers, so the first killers don’t squeal!”
“An exaggeration, I’m sure.” Skidbett studied the small screen. One of the goons had displaced the terrified receptionist and was searching the desk for the door release button.
“We can’t do this!” Lyle was nearly hysterical. “Please, my... my parents used to tell me stories, when I misbehaved as a child... Skid, Omar is the bogeyman!”
Skidbett looked back to his partner. “Come on, old friend! This is the perfect con! You saw those guys today, they were falling all over themselves to give us their money. There’s no way I’m laying down for ’Old Man Omar,’ or whatever you call him.” Lyle was trembling with fear, Skidbett could hear him sweating.
“Besides,” Skidbett continued, “we’ll finally be getting the bad guys for once! This ought to make up for all those widows and grandmas we’ve taken over the years. You know, restore some balance to your moral universe. Remember those grandmas on Onario 3? The cooking club, or whatever it was?”
Lyle’s mouth snapped shut, his eyes seemed to glaze over. Skidbett heard the outer door latch snap open and turned back to the screen. The solar system in the lobby condensed, heading for the hallway.
“Tell you what,” Skidbett suggested, thinking suddenly of one hundred percent instead of just fifty. “Why don’t you take the rest of the night off, go think this over.” Without a word Lyle sprang from his chair and scampered out the back exit. Skidbett sat down behind the desk just as the first goon threw open the office door and stalked in, searching the room for danger.
The rest of the group followed, reverently shepherding Omar the Undertaker to the low-slung chair in the center of the office, where he established himself regally and smoothed his pinstriped trousers. Everyone else — roughly a dozen men — remained standing in a protective semicircle around their leader.
When Omar spoke, the sound of his voice was a strained, grunting wheeze, as though his larynx had been crushed at some point (which in fact it had been.) Half squeal and half growl, it somehow managed to sound silly and sinister at the same time. “Mr. Larsen.”
“Mr. Callahan.” Skidbett felt himself rising — expanding — to meet his professional moment of truth. The perfect con, the perfect quarry, his chance for undisputed greatness. He felt an almost euphoric confidence settling over him. “How can I help you today?”
“My nephew told me about your investment program,” Omar began. Skidbett glanced at Bassi, who shrugged apologetically. “Now I want to hear it from you.”
So Skidbett told the story of Lightspeed Investments, using all his considerable powers of persuasion in the process. He mesmerized them, captivated them. He finished his tale to a general murmur of approval.
There was one man, however, who looked decidedly unhappy. He’d worked his way through the crowd until he was standing next to Omar. “Mind if I ask him a few questions, boss?” he said.
Omar looked at Skidbett, smiled and shrugged. “My accountant,” he wheezed, and gestured to the man to continue.
Looking at the accountant, Skidbett felt a strange sort of familiarity, almost as though he’d met the man before, as though he ought to know who the man was. He was feeling a faint glimmer of recognition when the accountant broke in. “May I see a record of your past investment performance?” he asked shrewdly.
“Certainly!” Skidbett blithely replied. He pulled open a desk drawer and retrieved a glossy performance report. It had been forged earlier in the week for just this possibility.
The accountant scowled at it. “Just as I thought,” he spat, tossing the report back onto the desk top. “No Commercial Court seal! In fact, I’ve checked with every government agency on Varfleet and not one has so much as heard of ’Lightspeed Investments.’ No articles of incorporation, no securities license, no prior tax returns... nothing.” The point was a telling one, and a dangerous rumble went up from the assembled gangsters. The accountant folded his arms triumphantly and all eyes turned to Skidbett.
But the wily old con man didn’t panic, he didn’t flinch. Instead, he leaned forward in his chair, fixed the Undertaker in his gripping, green stare, and said, “Exactly.”
Skidbett allowed the group a few moments’ surprised silence before continuing. “Mr. Callahan — Omar — you don’t really want the government poking through your finances while you’re away, do you? And besides, what the government doesn’t know about, the government can’t tax.”
Omar the Undertaker locked eyes with Skidbett for several long moments while the wall clock played a tense, one-note solo. Then he narrowed his eyes, and began to laugh. Soon all of the gangsters were snickering appreciatively, except for the accountant, who glared at Skidbett in angry defeat.
Their mirth was interrupted when a police siren blared into life nearby. Immediately, anxious looks replaced smiles around the room, and the group didn’t relax until the siren disappeared in the distance.
“All right, we’ll do it,” Omar announced, “on two conditions. One, the ship leaves at midnight tonight. Two, we aren’t gone sixty-five years, we’re only gone...” Omar turned to a well-dressed associate, who whispered into his ear, “...five years, two months and thirteen days.”
Ah, thought Skidbett, statute of limitations. He made a show of considering the proposal. “Well, the Renard is undergoing a cosmetic refit as we speak,” he lied. “Leaving tonight will mean accommodations that are somewhat more rustic than you’re used to.” The second part, at least, was entirely true. Omar frowned and nodded his acceptance.
“We’ll also need to add twenty basis points to our management fee for an exclusive engagement.” Omar frowned even more deeply. “We have several other clients who will be most unhappy to find that they’ve missed the boat...” At last Omar nodded again in agreement.
“Very well then, welcome to the Lightspeed Family!”
* * *
Lyle stood alone on the darkened sidewalk in front of the Hotel, watching the Renard lumber up through the atmosphere. He showed no sign of his earlier anxiety; in fact, he was completely relaxed.
The old spaceship’s autopilot was nearly as erratic as Skidbett himself; the random flaring of stabilizer jets bespoke another turbulent takeoff. On board were twenty hardened men, bound for (at best) a very uncomfortable few days in deep space.
As Lyle stood gazing up into the sky, a man approached him from behind. As he drew nearer the streetlights revealed him to be Omar Callahan’s accountant. He stopped next to Lyle and joined him in watching the rocket’s glow disappear into the night sky. Side by side, the resemblance between the two was unmistakable.
“How’d things go?” Lyle asked.
“Just like you said they would, little brother,” came the reply.
Lyle grunted in satisfaction. “How much did Skidbett get?”
“And Omar turned the balance over to you?”
“Yep. Two hundred and sixty-five million shekels.”
Lyle’s heart skipped a beat, it was much more than he’d expected. Just then another vessel lifted off from Varfleet Spaceport, this one sleek and fast, a late-model Huntington Starswift or some similar craft. It arced quickly and surely toward the horizon. At the helm was a jubilant Skidbett Larsen, with a cargo hold full of shekels and a five-year head start. The two men watched it depart.
“Why doesn’t he just program the autopilot to pile that crew into the nearest sun? Seems like it would save him a whole lot of trouble down the road.”
Lyle bristled. “Skidbett’s a con man, not a criminal!” he snapped. “Besides,” he continued in a calmer tone, “the chase is part of the fun of it all, part of the challenge.” He probably didn’t need to make special arrangements anyway, Lyle thought, remembering the Renard’s ominous-sounding relativistic drive and the acrid odor emanating from the oxygenator.
“You say so,” said his brother, bemused. “So what now?”
“We play it straight,” said Lyle. “I’m tired of looking over my shoulder everywhere I go, and I’ve thought for a long time that my skills would translate nicely into this line of work. I believe we’ll make out quite well on one percent per year of Omar’s fortune!” “And your first investment will be...?”
“We’ll build an old folks’ home,” Lyle said definitely, “the finest one in the Galaxy.” The two men locked arms and strolled down the sidewalk toward home.
Copyright © 2004 by Gregory Hansen