A Den of Thieves

As the street here conveniently happened to be empty at this late-ish hour, the party brazenly teleported to Beetle City without the least disguise. Much as he had disparaged the mansion from afar, Jason had to admit it looked like a much nicer place to live than the cave, especially at night, with its lit windows promising a refuge from the great cruel world outside. He walked up a short flight of pink marble steps and rapped on the great wooden door with a brass knocker shaped like the head of a rhinoceros. This would be the first time the party would enter a building properly since their first meeting with Caleb Vespinus.

"Man, I hope we get to really eat dinner." said Curtis. "I bet these guys eat like kings."

"Yes," said Roland, "as you used to." Curtis had lost a not-insignificant portion of his old blubber since he'd begun living off the land with the rest of them.

"In retrospect, it is odd that you, Curtis, resisted coming." said Jason. "You're usually more than―"

The door flung open, releasing a refreshing blast of air conditioning. Inside was a sprightly and apparently cheery old man dressed casually in sandals, khaki shorts, and a white shirt with the uppermost two buttons open. A mild tan attested to how he'd been enjoying the sun during the daytime. "If it isn't the Fab Four, in the flesh!" cried the man. "May I?" he said, extending his hand.

"Er—of course." said Jason. Having expected someone resembling the Mafia-men of Hollywood fame, he was somewhat taken aback. They all clasped hands.

"Roland Moralheart," said the man, "I had always thought that if I ever were to see you, I'd do so while settling down on an electric chair."

"Yes, and now there's an electric chair with my name on it." Roland joked. Jason was impressed at how well Roland feigned good humor. He was sure the adventurer would've liked nothing more than to give the gangster a lethal zap then and there. "Kids, this is Frank Moodbloom. He's made a fortune in weapons smuggling and price-gouging of natural gas."

"I'm Gyeedian public enemy number forty-three, Droydanian public enemy number twenty-nine," said Frank, "and proud of it!"

"I can't say I enjoy being a wanted man myself," said Roland, "but different strokes for different folks."

"Well, are you guys gonna stand around in that stuffy air all night, or what? C'mon in! The first course will be on the table in five minutes."

They wiped their shoes on the doormat and came into a grand foyer filled with ugly postmodern paintings and exotically shaped lamps. <So far, so good.> thought Jason as he and the mages followed Frank through the mansion. At the very least, the gangsters weren't planning to just kill the party outright; the four were inside the building and as of yet unmolested. Still, Simon was conspicuously on his guard. His gray eyes roved carefully around each room, betraying a greater consciousness of his surroundings than was usual for him nowadays. Roland, too, was watchful.

In fact, it was Jason who detected a hidden danger. When they entered a sumptuous dining-room with an enormous, thankfully unlit fireplace, Jason had no eyes for the thirty or forty gay diners, dressed to widely varying degrees of formality, who were seated there. His attention was wholly consumed by a faint odor of explosive wafting out from under the center of the long, narrow table. For a moment, he panicked, afraid to take another step forward. Then he realized that if the thing was a bomb, its detonation would certainly kill the diners as well, and if it was a gun, anyone could shoot him now just as well as they could while he was seated. At Frank's behest, he tentatively settled down on one of the four chairs set aside for the party, just to the right of Frank himself, who sat at the head of the table.

"…guests of honor!" said Frank, Jason having caught little of what he'd said before. All eyes were on the foursome now.

"Oh, lovely!" a skinny woman with a taxidermied weasel hanging around her neck cried sarcastically. "I bet a good deal that you wouldn't show up."

"Yet here they are." said someone else.

"Yes," said an elderly man wearing a suit, "you are." He had the distinct accent of a certain part of Gyeeds not far from Roland's apartment. "Now, if I may ask—and I'm sure everyone else in this room has a similar question on his mind—what was it that turned you towards crime?"

Jason was in no state to answer properly. His mind was still fixated on that dire scent; he struggled for some way to appropriately deal with a threat he knew so little about. After a second or so of silence, Roland spoke up.

"I won't lie to you, good people. As Adventurer of Gyeeds, I encountered a lot more money than I got paid. The people I worked against were always much better off than I was. It got sickening after a while."

"You know," said the fellow who'd asked the question, smiling, "I think that's part of the reason that all of us are here tonight. One of the things that unites us is our common dissatisfaction with the distribution of money."

"Especially in Droydania!" a young man far down the table suddenly piped up. "I started out as a crook in Colloyus, but now I'm a crook in Droydania. Here, I feel much more justified redistributing wealth, 'cause everything here is backwards!" He slammed his fist down on the table. "The Emperor is the richest person in the verse, and the time you guys took her bracelet was the closest she ever got to danger. Meanwhile, the government subsidizes poverty by pulling rightfully earned money out of the pockets of business owners. Cunning and ingenuity and entrepreneurship aren't rewarded; they're discouraged."

"And so it's only appropriate that we use cunning and ingenuity and entrepreneurship to correct matters." said the older man.

Meanwhile, Jason decided the thing under the table was most likely a bomb. He reasoned that since the explosion would be large enough to kill him—he didn't doubt the bomb was primarily meant for him and his friends—it would also kill everyone else at the table. That brought up the question of who put it there. It surely wasn't part of a plot the gangsters had crafted together, since it endangered so many of them. It must have been planted by an individual who either wasn't attending this dinner at all or who planned to be away from the table when the bomb went off. The difference between these two possibilities was vast, as in the former case, the bomb could detonate at any time, while in the latter, Jason might be able to catch some forewarning.

"If I may ask," said Jason to Frank, "for I'm sure you can understand my concern, who, besides those gathered here tonight, knows we're here?"

"We understand." said Frank, nodding. "In fact, no one does. We know the four of you are endangered more than we are. I even sent away all of my servants for tonight, except for a few cooks. There's a bigger bounty on my head than yours, but you don't have any fake identities for yourselves, and you've been in the news often recently, and so on."

"Great, thanks." said Jason. Of course there was no guarantee that Frank was telling the truth, but Jason couldn't think of a reason he would lie about that.

"We really oughta introduce ourselves." said Frank. There was a general murmur of agreement, and then everyone announced their name and, uh, "occupation" in turn. All were highly successful and powerful crime bosses, or the spouses thereof. Jason recognized a couple from Roland's tales of his exploits as a secret agent and then Adventurer of Gyeeds. Then the appetizers arrived. The chefs who carried them in glanced quizzically at the guests of honor as they hurried back into the kitchen.

The food was very good, and for a minute or so, there was a minimum of conversation as the gangsters stuffed their faces. Roland, Curtis, and Simon were careful not to eat until Jason began, as he had instructed them, so he had a chance to warn them in case anything smelled suspicious. Once Jason took a bite, Roland and Curtis attacked their plates with gusto, Simon eating more modestly. Jason was awfully hungry, but he couldn't cut his food very fast one-handed, even after weeks of practice.

"These are good times, my friends." a pot-bellied man with an expansive mustache by the name of Hugh spontaneously announced to the whole group. "Ironbone has been punished for his idiocy, and the new Mayor of Gyeeds is sure to put Droydania back in its rightful place."

"Do you mean that Lloyd Waverunner won the election?" Simon asked.

"Of course he did!" said Hugh. "Have you been living under a rock?"

"Yeah." said Curtis.

"Oh, yes, yes." said Hugh. "My mistake. It can't have been comfortable to live in that cave."

"It wasn't." said Jason. "But how did the lot of you find us there, anyway? We thought we were completely hidden; to be honest, it's more than a little troubling that you were able to find us."

"Don't worry about it." said Frank. "You were hidden. Even if you went back, the cops would never find you. I can find pretty much anything or anyone I want to through the underground intelligence network."

"The what?" said Jason.

"'Underground intelligence network'. It's a loose collection of people who know people who know people, which acts as a free market for information. Basically, you ask a question, throw some money into it, look away for a few seconds, and get your answer. That's how I found you four."

<That's what I was looking for.> thought Jason. <If that won't let me find Leela, nothing will. I still can't imagine how anyone found us in the first place, though. Might there be some special scrying magic involved? Or could there be intervention by Supernals? They're supposed to be practically omniscient. Yes, they're the most likely culprit. The Devil has his eyes on me, I'm sure of it.>

"'Good times'!" snorted the man who'd called himself "a crook in Droydania". His name was Ian. "How about all those monsters? God only knows who was responsible, but my niece was on that cruise liner that got destroyed by the kraken."

"Calling those creatures 'kraken' is extreme overstatement." Roland muttered only loud enough for Jason and Curtis, who sat on either side of him, to hear.

"Droydania's getting a lot worse, too." Ian continued. "You've heard how Ursamor has been rapidly increasing military spending over the past two years, but did you know that the current total imperial police force is twice what it was in Marimort's day?"

"Marimort?" Jason asked.

"Oh, don't get him―" another gangster began.

"The previous Emperor of Droydania." Ian went on unabated. "It was with him that Droydania truly began to deteriorate. Sure, it's been a dictatorship for centuries, but even I will admit that Droydania wasn't the most terrible of dictatorships around the time good ol' Moodbloom was born. Businesses were tolerated, so long as they paid extra taxes. No one could get welfare for more than five years straight. Political dissenters were fined or bribed, not jailed or executed. But around the time Droydania joined the IDC and met a lot of other verses with global governments, when Marimort took the reins, the country began to worsen. The empire has gotten steadily more oppressive over the last half-century, even as it's expanded into other verses. And when Marimort's senility began to compromise his work, he made the ultimate mistake: instead of choosing a successor from the population based on merit, he just picked his daughter."

"You don't consider Ursamor incompetent, do you?" said Simon.

"No," said Ian, "she knows how to get what she wants, I'll grant her that. The troubling thing is that she seems to want to make her control over the population absolute. The most obvious thing is that in the, uh, eleven years she's been emperor―"

"Twelve." said a young woman named May.

"Thank you, female compensatory correction." said Ian, causing many of the men to chuckle. Jason had heard the term before; it was part of a derogatory model of female behavior invented by a crank psychologist popular on Gyeedian television. "Anyway, Ursamor has cracked down on illegal emigrants, big time. And let's not forget it was she who brought back the death penalty."

"Enough history lessons!" Hugh declared. "Now we must speak of quantum leap."

Quantum leap was some kind of ball sport that involved jumping hurdles, rolling dice, and individual people counting as multiple players for the purposes of scorekeeping. It was a ridiculous spectacle with rules to match; Jason had never felt quite compelled to find out how it was played. The one detail that he'd picked up and that stuck in his memory was that every player had to wear either a blindfold or a pair of noise-canceling headphones at all times. Quantum leapers would've benefited from Jason's olfaction quite a bit.

Jason continued to think about the bomb as more food was served and the conversation went off on increasingly stranger tangents. No one said a word about the party's proposed induction into the ring of criminals; instead, it seemed as if the mobsters considered the foursome to already be part of their gang. They spoke brazenly—bragged, even—of the awful deeds they had committed.

"So the gas began to seep into the chamber just as they realized the door was locked." said Camilla, the woman who wore a weasel. "I still have the video. It's hilarious, in a way. I like to watch it every now and then to relive the good old days."

Jason then took the opportunity to act on an idea that had just recently occurred to him. "It must be nice to have fancy weapons like poison gas." he said. "I've had to make do with very little. The best I've ever gotten my hands on was a time bomb. I made good use of it, though. There were some folks I owed more money to than I could've ever hoped to pay. I put the bomb under a nice, long table—much like the one we're eating at right now—and invited them over to dinner. Just before it went off, I excused myself to the bathroom. Ba-boom!"

As Jason told his tall tale, he glanced around at the gangsters' faces. Most of the lot looked somewhat amused and somewhat surprised; they expected him to be criminal, but he'd been pretty quiet so far. One gentleman, a burglar with a prominent five-o'-clock shadow who'd been quieter than Jason, wore a very different expression, at least for a moment. He looked shocked and deeply disturbed. Quickly, he turned to his plate. Too late: Jason had found the bomber, Hamlet-style. <Excellent! Now, I must prepare for when he leaves the table. I only hope he doesn't know I know.>

With difficulty, Jason then answered questions his story brought up, such as "How in God's name did you prevent news of the deaths from leaking to the media?". He found the other anecdotes he had just heard helpful inspiration in fabricating his own excuses. Eventually, the diners moved on to talking about cars ("In Gyeeds, though, the maglev's the way to go."), television ("Did you see "Vast Wasteland" last Nitrogen?"), battle-sorcery ("Will magic is plenty strong; the problem is that in a real combat situation, nine out of ten Will mages will put too much energy into each spell and run out in two minutes."), and, of course, more quantum leap ("They were one man away from a full p subshell!"). While he was out of the spotlight, Jason thought up a new plan and communicated it to Roland in English, being careful to use gestures and tones of voice that suggested he was merely making small talk.

"Those monsters, though." said Frank, picking idly at his dessert. "They were Stanley's idea, I'm sure of it."

"Stanley's?" said a thin man with a faint pink scar over his right eye. "Surely you jest. Gyeeds had barely finished fighting off the giant ants before he sent troops over to help Droydania deal with its invaders."

"All kinds 'a explanations are possible." said Frank. "Maybe some part of their plan went wrong. Maybe that was the plan. He may've been merely testing Droydania and its allies."

"Why do you think he made them?" The speaker was, of all people, Curtis. He looked critically at Frank, absentmindedly clenching his fork in his fist.

"I don't pretend to know their real origins," said Frank, "which is to say, I have no idea how they came into existence. What I do know is that it was Stanley who deployed them."

"'Cause?" said Curtis.

"Haven't you heard of Gyeeds's weapons programs? Its military has been sinking increasingly more of its money into research in the past few years. No one has heard what it is they've been working on for quite a while. It's only reasonable to imagine they might've made remarkable progress on something by now. And what nation but Gyeeds would have the time and money and ingenuity to create such remarkable weapons as these monsters?"

"No way, man!" said Curtis. "Normal wizards didn't make those things. They're totally different from anything conjurable. And Gyeeds would never just throw monsters at people like that."

"Why not?" said Frank, incredulous. "You know its atrocities. I'm sure any textbooks you read in Dojum make Gyeeds out to be some kind of Gomorrah, as if it hasn't committed enough actual atrocities in its history."

"Gyeeds ain't bad and Gyeedians ain't bad!" Curtis retorted heatedly. "I saw what my dad did, y'know! He and everyone else on Droydania's side always talk about crud like order and peace and stability, but they just wanna keep their own ugly butts on their thrones! They'd super-glue 'em on if they could! And they couldn't care less about anyone else—they have no idea what's important! They don't have hearts; they've got chunks of ice!"

Jason was so taken aback by Curtis's outburst that he nearly missed his cue. The man he suspected had just gotten up from the table and was quickly striding down the hall that, as Frank had indicated to some other guest a while ago, led to the bathroom.

"The little guy's got a point." said Ian.

"Curtis!" said Roland. "Are you…" Looking around, he seemed suddenly to remember the party was supposed to adopt false personalities of sorts in front of these people. Now was not the time to get to know each other better. "I've yet to hear the likes of that from you." he said simply.

<What in the world am I waiting for?> Jason thought. <There's no time to lose.> At once, he took a large bite of dessert, chewed it a little, and stuffed it into the back of his mouth, being careful not to swallow. Then, a panicked look came over his face. He opened and closed his mouth rapidly, but silently, seemingly in growing alarm, as Frank began saying something to Curtis. He tapped Roland on the shoulder and pointed to his own throat.

Roland looked concerned. "Are you choking?" he asked. Jason nodded quickly. "All right, then." He leaped up from his chair, stepped behind Jason, put his arms around the boy, and performed a full-on Heimlich maneuver. It wasn't a comfortable experience for Jason. He didn't even need to spit out the morsel: the force of the air rushing out of his windpipe sent it flying across the table and into the lap of Frank's brother, who was not exactly thrilled. Jason moaned weakly.

"Goodness." said Roland. "Frank, would you have a bed Jason could lie down on for a few minutes?"

"Of… of course." said Frank, caught between sympathy for the respective misfortunes of Jason and his brother. "Go down there and into the second room on the right."

As the gangsters watched curiously, Roland walked over to the indicated door, carrying the limp Jason in his arms. "Come!" he called to Curtis and Simon. Simon arose without hesitation.

"But why…" said Curtis "what the―"

"Don't you care?" Roland said pointedly.

"Well… uh… yeah, yeah!" The prince jumped off his chair and trotted after the other three.

They came into a small room with a huge bed. Roland set Jason down on it; Jason immediately said "Enough." and scrambled off. A leopard-print rug muffled the thud of his shoes hitting the floor.

"What's going on?" said Curtis.

"Not so loud, stupid!" Jason hissed. "There's a bomb under that table and it's gonna explode any minute now. We just need to capture Frank and then we'll be outta here."

"This has been by far your strangest trick yet." Roland remarked.

"Simon," said Jason, "I need you to do something."

"What would that be?" Simon whispered back.

"Go get Frank to show us where the light switch is in here. We'll stun him as he walks in. Quickly, now."

Simon nodded and walked out.

"Curtis," said Jason "can you cast the stun?"

"Sure." he said, standing by the door. "But Pup, why do you want to get that bad guy?"

"The underground intelligence network. It could lead us to Leela."

"Yes," said Roland, "since the Secret-Keeper was so helpful."

"Hey," said Jason, "if it hadn't been for him, we never would've visited the lightbulb factory."

"That would've been no great loss."

"Yes, it would've! Would you like to have kept searching for the Rune of the Primordial Ocean?"

"And a fat lot of good―"

"Sh! They're coming." Jason clicked off the lights.

"I woulda sworn I had the light on in there." came Frank's voice. "I must be getting senile."

The door opened, Frank and Simon walked in, and Curtis stunned Frank. At once, there was an explosion in the living room powerful enough to make the house shake. A chorus of shouts and shrieks followed.

"I haven't had such good timing since I turned Ernest into a cat." said Jason, shaking his head.