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Here Be Dragons

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Here Be Dragons


  CON JOB, Robert Asprin


  BEST IN SHOW, Mike Resnick

  TRIAL RUN, Chelsea Quinn Yarbro

  THE FAN AND THE FURY, Michelle Poche


  THE SIMULATOR, Karen DeWinter


  ARTIFACT, Teresa Patterson

  LOST IN THE CROWD, Selina Rosen

  HERO MATERIAL, Jean Marie Ward

  SIBLING RIVALRY, Bradley H. Sinor


  THE HOTEL room was American generic. Perhaps a bit larger and better decorated than most, but after all, this was the Hyatt in downtown Atlanta. Not so much better, though, as to justify the inflated room, room service, and drink prices the hotel charged. Especially at times like now when they were hosting a large convention.

  Max spent most of his time on the road, and often wondered exactly why it was that his fellow travelers, businessmen and vacationers, would be willing to pay such high prices for impersonal rooms, short pour drinks, and mediocre food. The only answer he had come up with was that the situation was pretty much the same all across the country, so people became blind to how much they were paying for how little. Either that or they were willing to pay premium prices just to get away from wherever it was they called home.

  Max knew exactly why he was willing to eat the expense. He was planning to make it all back, and then some, by the end of the long Labor Day weekend. He wasn’t a businessman or a vacationer. Max was a professional thief and scam artist.

  To be more exact, he was part of a team that toured the country, following the crowds and the money they brought to sports events, conventions, and festivals. While they had never worked a science fiction/fantasy media convention before, how different could it be? A crowd was a crowd, and the people that make up a crowd are notoriously careless with their money when away from home.

  This DragonCon was supposed to draw somewhere between thirty and thirty-five thousand people. While they had worked bigger events before, they should be able to turn a tidy profit here.

  He started to reach for the phone, then changed his mind. It would be better to get in the habit of using the cell phones. While today’s computerized switchboards made it harder to listen in on conversations, there was no sense in getting careless. Reminding himself to keep his unit recharged, he flipped open his cell phone and cued up a number from his memory file.

  “HELLO?” came the shouted response.

  “Yeah, Doc. It’s me, Max. Pass the word around the team that I’ve got Briar Patch established. It’ll be room 912.”


  “Nine twelve.”


  “Negative. That’s NINE twelve.”


  “Where are you, anyway? It sounds noisy at your end.”


  “What are you doing there?”


  “I thought the convention didn’t start until tomorrow.”


  “No thanks. I think I’ll turn in early so I’m rested tomorrow. Besides, I thought we agreed we shouldn’t be seen together too much.”


  “Yeah, well, don’t forget to get some sleep yourself. Oh, and while you’re down there, see if you can pick up a program schedule for me. Top priority.”

  Max stared at the phone for several moments after ending the call.

  Doc had sounded a bit strange, even for Doc. Of course, Doc had been the one to question this job when it was first proposed.

  “DragonCon?” he had said. “That’s one of the biggest multimedia cons in the country, if not the biggest.”

  “What? You’ve been to it before?” someone had asked.

  “No, but I’ve heard of it. It’s big.”

  “C’mon, Doc. We’ve worked Superbowls before. Weekend-long partying crowds are our bread and butter.”

  Doc had shaken his head.

  “Yeah, but these are fans,” he said.

  “Overaged Trekkies in home-made costumes. So what? They can’t be any worse than sports jocks.”

  “If you say so.” Doc had shrugged, and they had moved on with their plans.

  Maybe Doc was more familiar with these events than he had let on. Maybe that’s why he seemed to be “going native.” They’d just have to keep an eye on him and remind him to stay focused.

  Check in had taken a bit longer than normal, but Max had shrugged it off as being the regular early rush at a big convention. In some ways, he had been lucky to even get a room at one of the main hotels. That’s why they were resorting to the “briar patch” system.

  One of the crew’s usual tactics was to hire someone locally to infiltrate the hotel staff a few weeks before the event, preferably in reservations or on front desk. That would get them a master key to the rooms and access to room bookings.

  This time, however, it turned out that all the rooms had been booked solid months in advance. Fortunately, with their man in place, they had managed to highjack a cancellation and put it in Max’s name. Or, at least, the name he was using this weekend. Unfortunately, they could only manage one room, so they would be using this as their base of operations, their “briar patch” for the weekend.

  The rest of the crew would be using it to change outfits and to stash various things it would be wisest not to carry with them constantly—like large amounts of cash or identifiable items that fell into their possession during the course of the job.

  That also meant that someone would have to be in the room at all times, both to let people in and out, and to keep housekeeping from coming in and finding the very things they wanted to keep quiet. Max had been elected as room sitter and coordinator for the crew, though he expected to be relieved from time to time.

  It was a system that had worked for them in the past, and there was no reason not to expect it to work now.

  The next day, Max was roused by a knock on his door. It was Doc bearing, among other things, a Styrofoam takeout food box and a cardboard beverage cup.

  “Morning, Max,” he said gaily. “Wanted to drop off that program schedule you wanted and swung through the food court on the way to pick you up some breakfast. Wasn’t sure if they had in-room coffee makers here, so I brought you some wake-up juice as well.”

  “ ’Preciate it, Doc,” Max said, seizing the coffee. “What does the event schedule look like?”

  “Big,” Doc said, with a shrug. “It’s like I told you coming into this thing. What do you want a schedule for, anyway?”

  Max frowned at him.

  “I thought we went over this in the planning sessions,” he said. “If we’re going to hit some of the guest rooms, we need to know when they’ll be out. The professional guests are most likely to be traveling with extra money and valuables, and the schedule tells us when they’re slated for appearances, so we know they won’t be in their rooms. All we need to do now is pass a list of their names to our plant at the front desk, and he can tell us what rooms they’re in.”

  “Well, you’d better start on that fast, then,” Doc said,
shaking his head. “Registration is up to their eyebrows with check-ins, and someone is bound to notice if he tries to take an hour off to look up specific room bookings. He’ll have to work it in a bit at a time.”

  “You think it will take him an hour?” Max frowned.

  “Easy,” Doc said. “There are something like eight hundred professional guests at this thing. You’ll see when you try to sort out the schedule. There are fourteen or fifteen separate lines of programming running hourly starting at nine in the morning and going on until midnight or later. I don’t envy you the job of sorting out who’s going to be where and when.”

  Max rubbed a hand across his mouth and scowled.

  “Maybe we’d be better off focusing on the attendees,” he said. “I’m sure there are some major events that most of them will be attending. That might be a good time to hit the rooms.”

  “I don’t know,” Doc said. “The costume competition is probably the best attended, but not everyone goes to that. I heard they cover it with closed-circuit television, so people can watch it in their rooms or in the bar.”

  “This just gets better and better,” Max said, shaking his head.

  “Well, here’s another little goodie to try planning around,” Doc said. “After today, maybe even as soon as tonight, security will only let people into the various main hotels if they have convention membership badges.”

  “What? They can’t do that!” Max said. “What about someone like me who’s a paid, registered guest of the hotel but not registered for the convention?”

  “You’ll probably have to work something with hotel security,” Doc said. “Of course, that will draw attention to yourself as someone who’s wandering through the hotel who isn’t a member of the convention ...”

  “... and we don’t want that,” Max finished for him. “We’ll just have to get convention badges for everyone.”

  “I was afraid you were going to say that.” Doc sighed.

  “What’s wrong?”

  “Well, there’s about a three hour wait in line to register for the convention,” Doc said, “plus it costs something like a hundred dollars apiece. That’ll run our overhead for this job right through the ceiling.”

  Max stared at him.

  “Doc, we’re thieves,” he said carefully. “I didn’t say ‘buy us all memberships’. Steal us some badges. Got it?”

  “Got it,” Doc said with a nod.

  “I can’t believe how tight a lid they’re trying to keep on this thing,” Max grumbled. “Who are they expecting, anyway? The Pope?”

  “No. He was a guest two years ago,” Doc said.

  Max stared at him.

  “I told you it was a big convention.” Doc shrugged.

  “You’re kidding. Right?” Max said at last.

  “As a matter of fact, I am.” Doc grinned. “But it’s still a big convention.”

  Max heaved a sigh.

  “Okay. You got me, that time.”

  “Sure,” Doc said. “If you bothered to check their website, you’d know the Pope canceled two months ago.”

  “Website?” Max said. “This thing has a website?”

  Doc gave him a hard look.

  “Max, my nephew has his own website. You might try living in this decade sometime.”

  “Yeah, well, they teach kids all kinds of stuff in college these days.” Max grimaced.

  “That’s true enough,” Doc said. “But my nephew’s still in junior high. Well, I’d better start working on getting us those badges.”

  He headed for the door.

  “The Pope canceled two months ago?” Max said, the comment finally sinking in. But Doc was already gone.

  But Max’s day was just beginning.

  The next ones to check in at Briar Patch were Allen and Alexis, the brother/sister team of pickpockets. They both seemed a bit down at the mouth, which was surprising—particularly for Alexis. She was petite and curvaceous and always seemed to glow with sunny innocence. It was part of what made her the perfect distracter and let her brother do his work unnoticed.

  “What’s the trouble?” Max said. “You two look as if they just made petty theft a capital crime.”

  “It’s this job,” Allen said. “I’Il tell you, Max, I’m about ready to throw in the towel. Pack it in and write the whole thing off as a bad caper.”

  “Is it the badges?” Max said. “They can’t be that hard to liberate.”

  “No. In fact, that was easy. Here, we even got an extra for you in case you decide to wander around a little,” Allen said, handing over a laminated rectangle on a lanyard. “We didn’t even have to steal them. Doc figured out an angle. You see, if someone loses their badge, they go back to registration and report it, show some identification, and are issued a new badge for a token penalty fee. All we had to do is buy some badges from attendees for twenty bucks over the penalty fee. We get badges and they get replacement badges and a profit.”

  “Isn’t that kind of crooked?” Max said.

  “Well, duh. We are supposed to be thieves, aren’t we?”

  “I meant for the attendees.”

  “So?” Allen shrugged. “It’s not like we have an exclusive on being crooked.”

  “Then what is the problem?” Max pressed. “I think that with crowds like this, the two of you would make out like bandits, if you’ll excuse the expression.”

  “You haven’t seen the crowds,” Allen said. “There are a lot of costumes out there—and I mean a lot. It’s hard to pick a pocket when all they’re wearing is a spangled G-string and some glitter. If nothing else, it kills Little Sister’s bit as a distraction. With so much flesh parading around, she barely rates a glance.”

  Max suddenly realized why Alexis seemed depressed.

  “And that’s not the worst of it,” Allen continued. “Right along with the costumes everywhere, there are the photographers.”

  “Photographers?” Max said.

  “So many of them that sometimes it’s hard to move across the lobby,” Allen confirmed. “They’re mostly focusing on the costumers, but they’re bound to get some of the crowd in the pictures as well. All we need is to have some sharp-eyed bunko expert spot us in a bunch of pictures and the balloon will go up big time.”

  “Well, if you two haven’t been working, then what’s all this?” Max said, waving a hand at the shopping bags the two had brought in with them.

  “Alexis decided we should hit the Dealers’ Room,” Allen said.

  “Dealers’ Room?”

  “It’s kind of like a huge flea market,” Allen explained. “There are three ballroom-sized rooms full of tables and booths selling just about anything. They’ve got T-shirts, DVDs, swords, capes, jewelry, posters, games, and masks. It’s really quite impressive.”

  “If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em,” Alexis put in. “I’m not going to let a bunch of bimbos in wings and bondage rigs make me look like a wallflower. I picked up a few items that will put them in their place and put me back in position as the team’s distracter.”

  “A few items?” Max said, eyeing the bags and trying not to picture Alexis in a spangled G-string. “Say, wait a minute. How many of those dealers are taking plastic and how many are only accepting cash?”

  “I haven’t the foggiest,” Allen said. “To be honest, I wasn’t paying attention. Why?”

  “I just thought of a new angle for getting some money out of this job.” Max smiled. “Hang on a second.”

  He grabbed his cell phone and called Doc.

  “Hey, Doc,” he said when the other answered, “I’ve got an assignment for you.”

  “Can it wait a half hour to an hour?” Doc said. “I’m in the autograph line right now.”

  “Autograph line?” Max said.

  “Yeah. They’ve got a whole Hall of Fame here full of actors and actr
esses from the movies and television series,” Doc explained. “Some of my favorite Scream Queens from the B-films are here signing pictures of themselves and I want to meet them and pick up a couple souvenirs.”

  Max rubbed his forehead between his eyes.

  “Well, when you get done there, I want you to scout the Dealers’ Room,” he said. “Watch to see which ones are only taking cash, and try to get their names. If we can find out what rooms they’re in, it might be a better score than trying to go after the professional guests. Okay?”

  There was only silence.


  “Yeah, I’m here, Max,” came the reply. “I just got distracted for a moment. There’s a Klingon and an Imperial Storm Trooper squaring off for duel.”

  “Did you hear what I said?”

  “Sure. Dealers’ Room. Look for cash only. Get names,” Doc recited. “I’m on it.”

  “Check in with me when you’re done,” Max said, and broke the connection.

  Staring at the phone, he shook his head.

  “Autograph line,” he muttered under his breath.

  The day didn’t get any better.

  Several members of the team never checked in and weren’t answering their phones. Max wasn’t sure if that was because they had been picked up by the authorities, quit the job in disgust, or had been lured off by the various attractions of the convention.

  The members that did check in were mostly discouraged by their lack of success, though nearly all admitted to being distracted by the convention attendees.

  It was nearly eight o’clock when Doc knocked on the door again. Max was not smiling as he let him in.

  “It’s been over six hours,” he said coldly.

  “Yeah, well, it’s worth your life to catch an elevator,” Doc said, putting down his bags and packages.

  “Elevators,” Max said flatly.

  “It’s a mob scene what with everyone trying to get somewhere else,” Doc said. “It must have taken me half an hour to get up here. Anyway, I brought you some dinner.”

  “That’s half an hour,” Max said, accepting the bag of food. “I want to hear about the other five and a half hours.”

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