The sky over Sharsfryd spaceport was lightening from starless black to a sort of dingy gray that allowed you to see dents in the hulls of some of the ships lying lazily out in the field. Sadie the Ladie made her way down a narrow alleyway toward a faded blue neon sign that proclaimed the unwashed window it hung in to belong to Trooper Keith’s Lost World Tavern.
She pushed open the batwing doors and peered inside, just to make sure there was no one there she would prefer not to see just at the moment. This time of the morning, the place was mostly empty, of course. There was Trooper Keith at the bar, wiping down a beer glass with a towel and eying Sadie out of the corner of his eye while she made up her mind if it was safe to enter. A card game was going on in back, the Princess Sandy dealing as usual. Sadie knew all the players and was both pleased and astonished to note that none of them currently wanted to kill her; or collect money from her, which was usually worse. She would have to visit this place at sunrise more often, she decided, shoved the door open and ambled to the bar.
Stepping over a recumbent customer who was face down on the floor, she perched herself on a barstool. Trooper Keith put down the glass he was drying and came over to see what she wanted. A chewed-up ten-penny nail dangled from the corner of his mouth.
“Peach brandy and an absinth chaser,” she said, lightly.
“You’ll have the same as the gentleman on the floor and like it,” said Trooper Keith, pulling a bottle of killdevil out from under the bar. “At least until the next supply ship hits port.”
“Big night at Trooper Keith’s Lost World?” asked Sadie.
Trooper Keith nodded as he snapped the cap on the bottle and said, “Want this in a glass?”
“Sure. The one you was cleaning, if you don’t mind.”
“I was afraid you’d say that,” he said, reaching for the glass. “Now I’ll have to wash another one.”
Trooper Keith went back to his glass washing and left Sadie to enjoy her killdevil. She turned her attention to the poker game.
Ah, that Princess Sandy. There was a sight. Dressed in all her latest finery for a full night of card dealing and gambler dazzling. She still favored those legendary short skirts of hers. She was wearing fishnet stockings topped off with a nice width of opaque elastic at the tops that were grand for both holding the things up, and concealing a convenient extra card or two just in case. At least that was what Sadie would be doing in that outfit. It wasn’t really practical for Sandy because few of the males in the room would be likely to take their eyes off her stems long enough for her to slip anything in or out of her stocking tops; those that would, mostly represented species that Sadie didn’t care to contemplate, at least not this time of day before she’d more than started drinking her breakfast.
In fact, if Sadie had been the jealous sort – and, let’s be frank, she was certainly that – she’d be jealous of Sandy. Not because of Sandy’s gorgeous looks or charming personality or voluptuous figure; no, because Sadie was pretty much full of herself, not to mention delusional, and thought she was at least that good-looking. But because Sandy almost never lost a poker game.
Now, that was infuriating.
The other players were not as well known to her as Sandy was, but
they were still known. There was a plump, batrachian-looking fellow known as Sadoqua Sam, who appeared to be holding his own, and a tall, lean human named Oscar whose facial expression suggested he hadn’t held much of anything all night, least of all his booze. The last player was a sour-faced Hyperborean named Fedger, who had shown up on the planet about half a year ago. Not much was known about him, so far as Sadie the Ladie knew, though the rumors had certainly flown about for a while there. He was said to be some sort of small-time wizard, of which Pasquintain, where the Hyperboreans now lived, was full to overflowing.
Fedger and Sandy appeared to be having the best of the night, and after a couple more hands, which they took turns winning, Oscar threw down his cards and threw up his hands. He got out of his chair and went for the door, missing it on the first try but not the second.
Of course he had left most of his money behind, in the care of Sandy, Sadoqua Sam and Fedger, and the game looked prosperous indeed. So Sadie slipped down off the barstool and, dragging her libation with her, ambled casual like to the gaming table.
“Would this here now be one of them poker games I’ve heard so much about?” Sadie asked.
Princess Sandy, raking in the cards for another deal, looked up and smiled sweetly. “Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how to play since
that game a week ago,” she said. “Is this one of your senior moments?”
“I thought that was Go Fish we was playing,” Sadie said, seating herself in the chair Oscar had abandoned. “Mind if I join in?”
“By all means, so long as you brought money,” said Sandy. “You did bring money, didn’t you?”
Sadie pulled a handful of the bright shineys out of her pocket and scattered them on the table in front of her. “Fresh minted by the Imperial Bank of Sharsfryd it’s own self,” she announced. Sandy had already begun to deal. Sadie said, “Why don’t you start over again, sweetie, and this time only use the top cards.”
"Anything to oblige," Princess Sandy said, starting the deal over. "I hope you feel lucky, this morning."
“I do indeed,” admitted Sadie. “So lucky, in fact, I don’t intend to do any cheating.”
“Oh, you do feel lucky.”
“Will you two shut up?” growled Fedger, scooping up his hand and giving it an appalled look. “Some people like to concentrate on the cards.”
Along about mid-morning, the customer on the floor got to his knees and made his way to the door, and presumably home after that. Trooper Keith shifted the nail to the other corner of his mouth. And Sandy won a notable pot by bluffing with a pair of fours. Fedger snarled and promised her it wouldn’t happen again.
Sadie had made more or less the same vow, though she hadn’t voiced it. On the next hand she was dealt the four, five, six and eight of clubs and the jack of hearts. She discarded the jack and to her surprise drew the seven of clubs. Sandy didn’t bother to draw any new cards, which sort of worried Sadie, but she kept up with the bets.
Then she realized something. Sandy had won consistently this morning on the bigger pots. And sure enough, the curly-haired beauty pushed all of it in on the next raise.
“Well, that does it for me,” Sadie admitted, tossing in her cards.
“Me too,” said Sadoqua Sam.
“That leaves just you and me,” Sandy told Fedger. “You able to call this bet?”
“How much is that?” Fedger asked, indicating the pot. Sandy told him.
The muscles in his jaw were standing out so far Sadie thought they might pop through the skin. He glared at the money, then glared at Sandy. Sandy just watched him sweetly, with no expression at all.
After a while Sandy said, “You got the money?”
“No,” Fedger admitted. “Just the cards.”
Sandy reached for the pot and Fedger said, “Wait! I have something else.”
He reached down to a satchel on the floor next to his chair and took out a large package wrapped in green cloth. He set it on the table in front of him. The cloth shimmered with some kind of internal light that Sadie disliked the instant she saw it. Fedger let it set there a moment and then said, “I think this’ll match your bet and a little more.”
“See the sign on the wall? Bets are cash only.”
“Just wait until you see this,” Fedger said, unwrapping the cloth.
It was an old-fashioned book, with pages, bound together and covered in some sort of skin that looked like it might come from a reptile. Sadie leaned forward and peered at it. “Is that bound in snake skin?”
“That’s what all his friends said about him,” Fedger said.
“Oh,” said Sadie and leaned back.
“This,” said Fedger, with an expansive gesture, “is a copy of a very famous and quite rare book. I came by it on Klystra, in one of the caves there.”
Sadoqua Sam cleared his throat. Sadie thought he was looking even more pop-eyed than before. “Is that what I think it is?” he said.
“It is,” said Fedger. “If you think it’s the Necronomicon.”
“I’ve never actually seen one of these before,” said Sadoqua Sam.
“I have,” said Trooper Keith, ambling over to the table. He touched the book, flipped back the cover, turned some pages.
“You’re amazing,” Princess Sandy told him. “You mean you can actually read that?”
“Oh, of course not. But I saw one, years ago on Mars. That one was written in Aihai. This one looks to be written in Naacal. That right?” Fedger nodded.
Trooper Keith went on. “Don’t know why anyone would want to translate the Necronomicon into Naacal unless they were on Aigris.
Well, maybe Pasquintain, the language is supposed to have come from Hyperborea back on Earth originally. But in that case, I don’t know how it got to Klystra. But to get to the point –”
(“About time,” said Sadie.)
“Yeah,” he said. “I think this is the real thing.”
“Well, I’ll be damned,” said Sadoqua Sam.
Fedger looked up at Sandy. “Well?”
“It’s tempting,” she admitted. “But we do have a rule that bets are cash only, and it’s plainly posted on the wall there. Besides, just being in the same room with that book makes my skin crawl. The rules will have to stand.”
“To hell with the rules,” said Fedger. He looked up at Trooper Keith.
“It’s the rule and Sandy’s in charge of the game. What she says goes.”
And to emphasize his point, he turned around and started back to the bar.
Fedger sat there a moment, glaring at the cards in his hand. Then he glared at Sandy.
“You asked for this, you four-flusher,” he said, and got to his feet.
Fedger leaned over the book, opened it and found the page he wanted. He started to chant, loudly.
“Tjgas! Txia! Hia! Shwaugnh! Tjgas! Tjgas!”
At the sound of the name Shwaugnh, Trooper Keith, back at the bar, turned and started back to the table. Sadie noticed the air seemed thicker already. And certainly hotter. Sadoqua Sam must have noticed that, too, because he was already out the door.
Fedger kept the chanting up. Trooper Keith came up beside him and grabbed his shoulder with one hand, snatching the nail out of his mouth with the other. “We got another rule, Fedger,” he said. “No summoning.” He shoved Fedger forward. To prevent himself from falling across the book, Fedger had to catch himself with his hand on the table.
Trooper Keith then simply drove the nail into Fedger’s hand and through it into the table top.
The loud chanting became an even louder scream. Above the screaming, Trooper Keith managed to be heard with, “And we respect the rules in this establishment.”
But Sadie thought it might be a bit late for that. She was looking up toward the ceiling, where a point of brightness was starting to grow into a bundle of flames over their heads. Sandy saw it too, and let out a lady-like “Yeep!”
The fireball that was Shwaughn began spiraling around the room. Flames leaped up from various places. Keith moved over to where Sandy was and picked her up in his arms.
“Put me down, you bozo,” she said. “Don’t you think I’m perfectly capable of running in panic out of a burning building?”
“Sweetheart,” said Trooper Keith. “I’m about to loose my life’s work in a burning conflagration. Don’t you think I ought to get some sort of fun out of it?”
“Oh, you’re so silly,” Sandy said. She threw her arms around Trooper
Keith’s neck and, in a much louder voice she added, “Oh, save me, save me my Beauregard, from this deadly inferno!”
And Trooper Keith hauled her to the door.
Sadie was right behind them.
Back at the table Fedger was discovering that Trooper Keith was basically softhearted and hadn’t nailed him to the table so solidly he couldn’t pull free. Or maybe his adrenaline was just pumping. Dripping blood from his wound, the nail still through his hand, he darted for the door.
Outside, Sadie was thinking furiously. Smoke was pouring through the door. The pale blue neon sign was fitzing and blinking and then went out. Sadie suddenly yelled, “That poor Sadoqua Sam! He's still in there!" and she darted back into the building.
“Sadie! Come back,” Trooper Keith yelled. “He was the first –”
“Leave her alone,” Sandy said, waving her feet back and forth as Trooper Keith held her. “She knows what she’s doing.”
Sadoqua Sam said, “That Sadie’s the bravest person I ever knew. I’d leave her something in my will if I thought she’d be alive long enough to enjoy it.
Inside the tavern the flames were leaping up all around. But there was a clear path to and back from the table. Trust Shwaugnh to do things in a slipshod manner.
She raked a couple of handfuls of winnings into the purse she wore attached to her belt and then snatched the book off the table. An elastic band allowed her to slide it into the back of her skirt but then she realized it was a large book. And being a pirate lady, with a sense of fashion and a certain amount of vanity – justified vanity, of course – she didn’t have on anything capable of hiding the book. So she yanked a tablecloth off a nearby table and wrapped it around her.
There was just time to stop by the bar before she ran back outside.
The first thing she saw was Sadoqua Sam. “Sam, Sam!” she cried. “Glory be, you got out of that place in time. I was afraid you were lying back there, all roasted up like a frog dinner back in them flames.”
“I never saw such bravery,” Sadoqua Sam said.
“Well, it were a foolish risk and all but I couldn’t bear the thought of someone I cares about dying such a horrible death.” She looked at Trooper Keith and Sandy. “I hope you don’t mind I took one of your nice table cloths to wrap up in but a portion of my new outfit has burned a hole in a particularly embarrassing place and modesty demands I cover up. Oh,” she said, passing over a bottle of killdevil.
“I did save this. I thought it might be a comfort to you, what with your loss and all, to get roaring, stinking drunk.”
“Thank you, Sadie,” Keith said. “Don’t worry about the tablecloth. The insurance will more than cover our loss. The new place will look even better than this one did.”
“Besides,” Sandy added. “He got a really good offer on the land two days ago. He’s going to be a very rich man for someone who was just burned out.”
“And the new owner won’t have to pay for tearing the building down, either.”
“All’s well that ends happy, that’s my motto,” said Sadie. “Speaking of which, where’s Fedger?”
“He just kept running when he came out of the bar,” said Sandy. She smiled at Trooper
Keith. “You can put me down now, honey.”
“My arms are too tired to put you down,” said Trooper Keith. “I’ll do it when they’re rested.”
She laughed and nestled closer. He said, “Your place or mine?” and she said, “Your place was up over the bar that just burned down, remember?”
“Oh. Your place then.”
“Actually, I seem to recall we were roommates.”
“Uh oh,” said Trooper Keith.
Sadie would have liked to wait around and see how they worked that out but decided it was wiser to just take off.
A Friendly Game At Trooper Keith's