We are hip-deep in the madness that is the Emerald City Comic-Con, so I wasn't really able to do much in the way of a column this week.
HOWEVER! I can share a sneak peek at a really cool new project of mine, since my publisher finally lifted the embargo on telling folks about it.
As regular readers may recall, I've been doing stories for Airship 27's line of "new pulp" anthologies. This has been an ongoing project of mine for the last year and a half or so, actually, but the lead time in book publishing is such that these have only been starting to see print over the last few months. So far there's been the Green Ghost and a couple of Sherlock Holmes novelettes.
But the one that's coming up is my favorite one yet. It features that unlikely pulp-magazine headliner, The Domino Lady.
I wrote about the odd and checkered history of the Domino Lady's journey from her pulp magazine days as a D-lister flop to becoming the public-domain darling of the 'new pulp' movement in this column, four years ago. I never dreamed back when I wrote that piece that I'd get to do my own version a few years later.
But it's happening. Aiship 27 is doing a new Domino Lady collection.
The book will, as usual, feature four novelettes by various authors, and one of them is me. James Lyle is doing the illustrations and just to give you a taste, here is one of them, followed by an excerpt from my contribution to the project.
“The professor will see you shortly, Mr. Rosen.”
Paul Rosen nodded at the hulking butler and the giant left him alone in the professor’s study. The room was dark, but for the dim yellow light from a single standing lamp. There was only one window behind the desk, with red velvet drapes drawn over it. Mahogany bookshelves filled with academic texts lined the walls.
Money, Rosen thought. Psychology must be quite a racket to furnish a place like this. But he’d already known there was money involved; the envelope full of cash in his jacket pocket attested to that. Despite the rich décor—the chairs facing the desk were upholstered in maroon leather, and the Persian rug was large and thick—-there was still something off about the room, something that made Rosen hold himself tense and ready.
The voice came from behind him. Rosen turned to see a bespectacled man smiling at him. He was tall, dressed in a gray suit with a black bow tie. He looked to be in his mid-sixties, with sunken cheeks and a high forehead, graying hair swept back from it in a widow’s peak. “Professor Murdwell?”
“I am he.” Murdwell inclined his head slightly toward the chairs. “Please have a seat.” Without waiting for Rosen, he stepped around him and sat behind the desk, laying his hands flat on the blotter and facing straight forward.
Rosen sat. There was silence for a moment.
Professor Murdwell continued to smile.
Rosen shifted uncomfortably in his chair and finally said, “Well? Your nickel, Doc.”
“What do you know about psychology, Mr. Rosen?”
The question took Rosen off-guard. “I guess it pays well,” he said. “You seem pretty well fixed.”
“I have created a unique niche for myself.” Murdwell’s smile looked a little smug. “Psychology, broadly speaking, is the science of the mind, the study of human impulses and instincts. Most people bumble through their lives with very little thought given to the reasoning behind their actions—were one to question the average man in the street about why he is doing what he does, doubtless the answer would be in some way related to money or shelter or sex or some other basic need. Man is a simple animal.”
“It’s the Depression, doc. People are just scraping by.”
“Yes. But even when a society’s populace is well off, they still are living largely unexamined lives. This gives an enormous advantage to those of us who have made a study of human impulses and the thought processes that are used to facilitate them, or in some cases mask them. You, for example.”
“What about me?” Rosen was starting to get angry. “You got me here with a note implying I did something bad in Colorado, and then enclosed a hundred bucks telling me to be here at three today to get some help for that ‘problem.’ Well, I’m here. Skip to the end. What’s it about?”
Murdwell was unmoved by Rosen’s rising temper. “I knew you would come. My invitation was at once threat and bribe. You might have resisted either one individually, but both together would bring you here at the appointed hour as surely as the sun rising in the east. Once here, I knew you would be nervous and defensive; this room is designed to provoke that response in one of your sort. It is filled with symbols of power and authority, the lighting places me in silhouette, your back is to the door. Were I meeting a different man I would have arranged a different setting designed to maximize my advantage. As it is, you are nervous, restless, feeling threatened, and this is making you angry. You are about to threaten violence.”
Rosen snapped his mouth shut. It was true.
Murdwell spread his hands. “You see? I am an expert. For the last few years I have been putting my expertise to use as a consultant, and as you remarked yourself, it has been lucrative. But now I have a challenge that requires certain special assistance. Your assistance, Mr. Rosen.”
“Me? Why me?”
“Your history with women.”
Rosen sat up straight, stung. “Look here! That girl killed herself—I didn’t—“
Murdwell raised a hand. “Not just the incident in Colorado, though the consequences of that and your subsequent relocation here to Los Angeles did provide myself and my employers with convenient advantages. No, I mean the entire history. You’ve never had a job, is that correct?”
Rosen bristled. “Hell yes I had jobs. I taught golf and tennis.”
“Part-time. Certainly not enough to cover your living expenses. Those were always provided for by your lady friends, until the incident in Denver. Since your arrival here, you have been unable to find any employment… or any new female companions to subsidize your lifestyle. Yes?”
“Lots of people are out of work.” Rosen stuck out his chin. “And yeah, I had some women back in Colorado. So what? You act like I’m a criminal. I haven’t committed any crimes, and as for the ‘incident,’ the cops cleared me the same day they found Jessie’s body. Her suicide note made it obvious what happened. She was just a starry-eyed kid who thought I was…. Well, never mind. The point is I’m not… whatever it is you think I am. I’ve had some bad luck. That’s all.”
Murdwell raised an eyebrow. “I was not clear. I am speaking of your history as a ‘kept man’ because it’s relevant to your qualifications, not because I intend blackmail or some other malice towards you. That’s not it at all. No, Mr. Rosen, I want to offer you a job.”
“What kind of a job?”
“Ah.” Murdwell leaned forward, his eyes sparkling with academic enthusiasm. “Here we come to the heart of the matter. What do you know about the Domino Lady?”
“Huh?” Rosen blinked. It was hard to keep up with the professor; the guy was all over the place. “Just what I see in the paper. She’s some kind of a thief, isn’t she? Girl in a mask?”
“She sees herself as more of a crusader.” A sour expression flickered across Murdwell’s face for a moment but then the smile was back. “She has taken it upon herself to damage several powerful businessmen here in Los Angeles. Often she steals from them, but it is just as common for her to expose their corrupt practices and hand them over to the police. She is not beloved by the local law enforcement at all, but nevertheless her actions mark her as someone who believes in a sort of rough justice.” He thrust a finger at Rosen. “And, you see, this is where I come in. I have been engaged to put a stop to this woman’s activities. My clients—well, let us call them a consortium. A group of prominent businessmen are….”
“Feeling the heat. I get it.”
Murdwell’s smile was thin and knowing now. “Survival, Mr. Rosen. The human animal takes desperate action when it is threatened. At any rate, these men came to me. My expertise in the science of the mind has resulted in my ability to construct… a sort of personality profile, a theoretical model of any given person based on various evidentiary findings. This is a new science, but it has already begun to yield results. There was a case in New York, a town called Lackawanna, where a psychologist divined the identity of a killer based on what he revealed about himself through several taunting postcards he sent to the police. There have been others. A decade from now I would not be surprised if police departments put a forensic psychiatrist on staff simply to construct such profiles of notorious criminals.”
Rosen nodded. He didn’t really understand all of it, but he didn’t want to look stupid.
Murdwell waved it away. “Forgive me. I find this history fascinating but you probably do not. The point is, there are very few of us doing this work and of those… I am the best.” He leaned back and spread his hands wide. “I am also the only one to realize the retail value of this service to the world of business. Think what it would mean in a commercial negotiation to know the entire personality of your opponent, to be able to predict his moves and counter them before even he himself knows what they are! Or of the value to a criminal enterprise to know every reflex and mental quirk of an official in charge of an investigation. The applications are nearly infinite.”
Jesus, he’s doing this consulting thing of his for the mob. Rosen had suspected the doc was crooked. But he was interested now, despite himself. “And you can do this with the Domino Lady?”
Murdwell snorted. “My dear Mr. Rosen, I have already done so. There is a mountain of evidence out there, the profile itself was hardly a challenge at all. It was gathering and collating the data that was the difficulty. Fortunately, my employers are men of some influence, and they were able to find police reports for me… as well as reach out to some rather more unsavory persons who have had actual contact with the Domino Lady. After two months of work I have managed to construct what I consider to be a definitive portrait.” He ticked off the points on his fingers. “There are no photographs but the description remains consistent. She is young, early to mid-twenties, and though she wears a mask that obscures her upper face everyone describes her as beautiful. Her usual apparel is a long dress and some kind of cloak, and she rarely goes armed, though she does carry a syringe full of knockout drops that she has used many times to good effect. Her interactions with both police and criminals, despite occasional violence, largely have been roguish and theatrical—she leaves calling cards, even.”
“I read about those,” Rosen put in. “ ‘Compliments of the Domino Lady.’ “
“Yes, exactly.” Murdwell nodded. “But the outré drama of these trappings—the cape, the mask, the cards-- have obscured the real picture. Everything we know about how she speaks and carries herself… this is no greedy gutter wench trying to score some quick cash. This is a young woman who was raised in high society, a lady of privilege… and something happened to her, that privilege was taken away somehow. The Domino Lady does what she does out of emotion, not economic need. She created a character to act out her anger. I think she has found something else there as well, a sense of adventure and a newfound purpose. She has romanticized herself, constructed a separate persona that she can step into and become someone completely different… a disassociation to a degree that one rarely sees outside of an asylum.”
Rosen found most of this academic jargon pretty rough going, though the word asylum made him sit up a little. “She’s a nut?”
“Hardly. Not in the sense you mean. If anything, she is intensely calculated in her actions. But underneath that… she is still a wounded little girl. She mourns her loss. More than anything else, she rages against the unfairness of the world. As I said, she is a romantic, Mr. Rosen, in the classic sense of the word. Reality dealt her a blow and she seeks to deal it one in return. She wants to believe that goodness and justice and decency can exist. And that is how we’ll trap her.” Murdwell’s smile grew predatory. “We’ll give her something to believe in. We’ll give her you, Mr. Rosen.”
“What? Me? But I’m--”
Murdwell steepled his fingers. “Mr. Rosen. Let me be blunt. I sought you out because you are an accomplished seducer of women. Your skills in that area are such that until the incident in Denver, you were making a fine living at it, and even the unfortunate death of Jessica Vine can be attributed to… let us say, to your inability to moderate your appeal to the opposite sex. Whatever ostracism or humiliation you may have had to endure because of the Vine incident in the last few months, all it says to me is that you possess exactly the quality I need. My principals are prepared to pay you one hundred thousand dollars to seduce the Domino Lady and bring her to me… at which point we will put her out of business.” The smile became predatory again. “Permanently.”
So there you go. I hope that you all enjoyed that little teaser; I think it gives you a sense of what the book's going to be like. I'll have more information for you about who else is in it and where you can get a copy of your very own in a month or so, and in the meantime, I'll be back next week with the report from Emerald City Comic-Con. See you then.