A really, really long time ago, I wrote a few lines as the seed for a short story about a man on the run from his wife’s wrath after selling her dog to a martian. Then I forgot all about it.
A long time after that, I took that snippet and turned it into a novel called “Honest, the Martian Ate Your Dog” as a test for a novel writing app that I was coding for my wife at that time. The novel writing software dropped by the wayside because we both switched from Windows to Mac, but the novel and its universe sort of took over everything that I’ve written since then.
One of the characters to come out of that novel was Dick Turpentine. I always planned to write another book about Dick Turpentine and his highwayman buddies, but never got around to it. Then this year, I wanted to write a short-short about Dick Turpentine and it kind of snowballed into something else …
The story is not done (and I don’t know if I’ll ever get around to finishing it) but here’s the beginning of that tale …
The trouble with people was that they were always just so people-y.
“You should always accept people as they are, warts and all,” Dick’s old granny had always told him. The trouble was that some people were just warts — sometimes even just one huge wart.
Now here he was faced by another people-shaped situation and Dick wasn’t sure what to do.
Not that Dick was the the swiftest when it came to doing any logic-based work. His mind-vault’s coffers were generally on the empty side. In fact, when faced with a stressful situation, he could barely scrounge up two cents to rub together from his mind-vaults.
But being a highwayman had one advantage — you got to meet all sorts.
When he was a wee lad, Dick’s father had often told him, “If you want to work with people, it’s either customer support at the jaggery factory, or being a highwayman. But the jaggery factory’s a sweet gig and you can’t beat it.” [His father would chuckle whenever he mentioned the jaggery factory and his “sweet gig”, but Dick had never understood why. He figured it must be some secret joke of his father’s.]
Dick hadn’t really wanted the bureaucracy of a 9 to 5 job. So he’d opted for the danger, the romance, and the wild-open spaces of a highwayman’s life.
So here he was, facing a sweet old lady who was looking at him with tears welling in her eyes.
But you just couldn’t trust a book by its cover — or a sweet old lady in a knitted cardigan. Dick had learned that the hard way. The last time he’d taken pity on a sweet old lady, she’d turned out to be an undercover Cheese. That had nearly put an end to his highwayman career — it was a good thing that his legs were far more swifter than his mind was.
“Are you a Cheese?” Dick asked, eyeing the old lady with what he thought was a smoldering glance of danger. [Dick had read a few romance novels in his younger days, but never quite got what smoldering meant — he had a vague idea of heroism, being dashing, and muscles, lots of bulging muscles, swirling through the vast empty caverns of his mind.]
The old lady just stared at him in silence. Her hand trembled as she reached up slowly to wipe a tear from her eye.
Maybe she was deaf? His granny had gone partially deaf in her final years. You had to yell into her good ear in order to get her to understand anything. Of course, given that her good ear shifted all the time, Dick had a sneaking suspicion that maybe granny just pretended to be deaf so that she didn’t have to do all the things that those concerned about her — busybodies she called them — wanted her to do.
Perhaps this old lady was pretending to be deaf? Dick considered the idea slowly. He walked around the idea. Looked at it from above and below. He even peered inside it. It seemed worth investigating.
“Are you a Cheese?” Dick asked again, moving closer to the old lady, and speaking louder and with exaggerated enunciation.
The old lady shook her head slowly and then she finally spoke for the first time.
“Are you Dick Turpentine, the highwayman?”
Dick hesitated. This felt like a trap. He’d heard of entrapment — the Cheese apparently asked you questions so you would incriminate yourself. If they couldn’t catch you in the act, they apparently wanted you to admit you did something and then they could nab you.
“But, you are in the middle of a hold up! She doesn’t need to entrap you, you idiot!” said his inner voice.
Dick hated the inner voice. It generally talked down to him as if he was an idiot. In fact, it often called him an idiot to his face. Or whatever passed for a face on the inside.
Well, that tracked. After all, he had started the conversation by stepping out on to the road in front of the hoverbus and saying, “Hold it! This is a stick up!” and if the old lady has been a part of an undercover police team, they’d have nabbed him already. He decided to risk it.
“Yes, I am Dick Turpentine, the famous highwayman!” said Dick, trying to puff out his chest and stand taller.
The old lady reached slowly into her purse. It was like watching a slow-motion sequence in the holovids. She probably wasn’t reaching for a gun given the pace she was going at, but Dick tensed anyway.
He’d never shot anybody before. What would he do if he had to shoot a sweet old lady who reminded him so much of his grandma? Could he do it?
The old lady had finally completed her fumbling in her handbag and pulled out a piece of paper and a pen. She held it out to Dick.
“Can I have your autograph?”