“Can I have your autograph?” asked the tiny old lady, speaking in a tremulous voice, looking earnestly at Dick like a lost kitten.
Dick Turpentine, highwayman extraordinaire [OK, maybe that was being too kind — Dick was at best ordinary, but generally considered to be sub-par] stared back at his latest victim in confusion. The old lady wasn’t acting quite like the usual customers he got when holding people up on the highway. [Dick preferred the term “customers” — victims was so negative, and he had enough negativity in his line of work.]
She was a tiny little thing, dressed in a knitted cardigan, clutching her handbag to her chest with one hand as if it contained all the treasures in the world [“Perhaps it does?” Dick wondered hopefully. They say hope springs eternal in the human breast — in Dick’s case, hope was not a spring, but a geyser] and holding out a pen and piece of paper towards him with the other.
Dick hesitated. She looked so defenseless and sweet, but if she was like his dearly departed old granny, those arms probably packed a mean punch. He smiled wistfully, remembering all the times his granny had slapped him upside the head — “Knock some sense into you”, she’d called it.
He certainly did not want to get in range of her arms if she had the same mighty fist as his granny, that was for sure.
Dick reached out gingerly, grabbed the pen and paper quickly like a hen pecking at a morsel of food on the ground with his left hand, and took a step back for good measure.
He was about to put his signature — or to be more precise, what passed for a signature — to paper, but before he could do so, his inner voice intervened.
“Hang on, you numbskull! If she wants your autograph, then it must be worth something, right?”
Dick thought about this a moment. It was a novel concept. He’d never considered the possibility of somebody paying money for his chicken scratchings. But apparently famous people — not that he knew any, but they did talk about famous people on the holovid shows all the time — had people pay lots of money for not just their autographs but for all sorts of junk they used and threw out. And he was famous all over the Kabul City region, wasn’t he?
Heck, they even had posters of him everywhere! He had to be famous!
Dick looked at the old lady speculatively. She reminded him so much of his old granny. It would be a shame to ask her for money …
“But you were going rob her before she asked you for your autograph. So why not simply relieve her of the burden of carrying so much cash and give her something she’ll cherish in return? Hmm …?” Murmured his inner voice in his inner ear.
Greed and kindness fought a brief, but energetic battle all over Dick’s mental landscape, but as if often the case with a lot of people, greed won. Decisively.
“That’ll be 50 dollars for an autograph,” Dick blurted out hastily, half-afraid that further thought would impel him to change his mind.
The old lady cocked her head to the side and stared at Dick as if in shock. “But, that’s highway robbery!” she exclaimed.
Dick smirked and then moved the blaster he held negligently in his right hand around a bit as if to draw attention to it. He looked at the old lady in what he thought was a meaningful way and said, “Why yes, ma’am. It certainly is!”
The old lady stared back at Dick for a moment, holding his gaze — Dick wondered if perhaps she was considering the merits of slapping him upside the head. But then she suddenly smiled a tiny, delighted smile and said, “It would be a steal, I’m sure!”
Dick wasn’t sure what to make of her. She did behave rather oddly. And yet, she was willing to pay him money and that was the important thing, right?
He held his hand out hopefully.
“Ah, no sonny. I don’t have that kind of money on me,” said the old lady, shaking her head ruefully. “But I can get you the money if you come home with me. It’s only one more stop up the road.”
Dick hesitated. He’d always been told not to go places with strangers by his Mammy and this certainly didn’t look like a good idea. But on the other hand, the pickings on the hoverbus had been slim and 50 dollars would go a long way towards meeting his weekly quota.
[The Kabul City Thieves & Outlaws Guild had strict guidelines on how much you had to “extract” from customers in order to keep them happy — not the customers, but the Guild. The Guild had a tendency to become very unhappy should quotas not be met.]
Should he risk it?
Weighing risk and reward wasn’t a strong suite of Dick’s. He tended to be more the act in haste, but repent at leisure kind of guy. Getting his hands on enough cash to pay the Guild’s commission and have enough left over for his own needs seemed like something that needed immediate action, indeed!
Dick decided that the risk was worth it. After all, she was an old lady and even if she had a strong arm, he had a blaster. So how dangerous could one little ol’ lady be?
“OK, I’ll take you there myself,” said Dick, eager not to let the opportunity slip out of his grasp.
The old lady seemed to perk up. “On your hoverbike? On old Black Bess herself?” she asked, looking animated.
If Dick had been anybody else — maybe for instance, if he’d been Jack — he might have worried at this point about how much the old lady seemed to know about him. [But Dick knew Jack, and he just wasn’t the kind to worry about things.]
“Yes, on Black Bess. Would you like that?” asked Dick, eager to get his mitts on the 50 dollars.
Suddenly seeming very spry, the old lady got up, walked to the front of the bus, and was on Dick’s hoverbike before he could get his bearings.
“Well come on then, stop dawdling!” she yelled at him in a querulous voice.
Dick hastily gathered up the last of his spoils, did one final half-hearted menacing wave of the blaster to discourage the few passengers on the bus from making any rash moves, jumped on Black Bess and took off with the old granny clinging on to dear life behind him.