MERV PUMPKINHEAD'S BIG NIGHT OUT

By Michael Berry


AUTHOR'S NOTE: A number of years ago, I submitted this piece to the editors of a proposed anthology of short stories based on Neil Gaiman's outstanding "Sandman" comic, published by DC Comics. After a reasonably short while, I received word that the editors wanted to buy it. I signed a contract (a very odious one, but that's another story...) and was told my manuscript was being forwarded to DC Comics for final approval. A year or so went by without any further communication. And then one day I received an envelope containing my contract, a check for a kill fee, and no other word of explanation. How puzzling! How rude!

The folks at fault are not the editors, who have been thoroughly professional, but the people at DC, who have been anything but. There's no use moping about it, even though the story is unsaleable to any other market. So here it is, available to you, free of charge.

I'm not the only writer to have been treated shabbily by DC during the course of this project. You can obtain another perspective on the debacle from Karawynn Long. Read her fine story about Delirium and contemplate the book that might have been...


Illustration by Jill Thompson and Vince Locke. Dream and related characters (c) DC Comics

I don't know about you, but my two favorite words in the English language are "quittin' time."

You spend the whole freakin' week busting your butt: painting skies, schlepping books from one wing of the castle to another, fishing the evilest kind of crud out of the plumbing, trying to construct an orrery when you don't have a clue what the hell an orrery is supposed to be. Seems like you're never going to get to the bottom of the job orders, even if you work twenty-seven hours a day.

Stress City, pal. I get migraines like somebody's carving my head with a woodburning kit.

Construction's a demanding trade, a science almost, but do you think anybody appreciates that fact? Forget about it. All you're ever going to hear is how the doorway to the laundry room is thirteen degrees off plumb or that you've connected a sewer main to somebody's hot tub. The stuff you do right, they never notice.

That's why I'm so jazzed when the five o'clock whistle blows at the end of the week. My time's finally my own. For the next forty-eight hours, nobody's gonna be telling Merv Pumpkinhead what to do. I punch the time clock a good one across the chops, and I'm out of there without another look back.

Last Friday, after quittin' time finally came around, I was getting my lunchbox out of my locker. Boris, one of the regulars on my crew, came up behind me and said, "Hey, Merv. Me and Tiny are going to grab a couple of six-packs and head over to his place. He's got cable and the George Raft-Hedy Lamarr version of 'Casablanca' is on tonight. Want to come along?"

Now, I like Tiny and Boris. They're good, honest joes, salt-of-the-earth. But, cripes, I'm stuck with them all week long. Enough's enough. Besides, when you're in a supervisory position like I am, it's not smart to get too chummy with the hired help. They'll just try to take advantage later. Trust me on this.

So I said, "Thanks, but no thanks. I'll see you guys on Monday. Have a good one."

To tell you the truth, I had bigger plans than sitting around with those palookas, swilling cheap brew and watching Ronald Reagan as Viktor Laszlo. For the first time in I don't know how long, there was going to be a card game. A real, no-kiddin'-around card game. Just what the doctor ordered to cure those Workaday Blues.

I went back to my place, put on a fresh pair of overalls and packed a duffel bag of necessities, including some items to barter in case I ran out of cash on the barrelhead. Since we'd agreed that I'd bring the beverages to the game, I also loaded a wheelbarrow full of bottles, cans and ice and headed off. You never know what people are going to want to drink around here, so I'd stocked up on everything from absinthe to Moxie in a two-liter jug.

I was a little late getting to the House of Secrets, having hit a damn pothole on the way and spilled everything in the road. Abel answered the doorbell right away, saying, "Cuhcome in, MuhmuhMervyn. Everybody's huhhere." He was all sweaty, his beady little eyes darting all over the place, his jowls quivering

"Your brother around?" I asked.

"Nuhnuhno. Cain's, uh, guhgone on an errand. He won't be back until tuhtomorrow night." He grabbed my sleeve and pulled me inside. "Come on. Huhhuhhurry."

Some folks think Abel's place is a dump, but I kinda like it. It's got personality. It's also got tons of cobwebs, splintery boards in the floor, skulls on the bookcase, a stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling, weird-ass collector's items from every time and place imaginable, and something you don't even want to think about living in the basement. But hey, it's a damn sight more comfortable than some of the fancy-schmancy quarters at the castle, full of marble that's got to be polished and Persian carpets that need to be vacuumed every hour on the hour. At Abel's house, nobody's going to yell at you if you rest your feet on the coffeetable.

Abel had set up a cardtable in front of the fireplace, and three guys sat around it, diddling around with their chips and not bothering to talk to each other. I recognized two of them right away.

"Hey, Ruthven," I said to the giant, fanged rabbit in the frock coat. "How they hangin'?"

He nodded at me. "Mervyn. Always a pleasure."

The fat man with the broad-brimmed hat, green vest, drooping, gray mustache and wire-rimmed, pinch-nose spectacles said, "Hola, Mervyn. It's good to see you again. Pull up a chair and join us."

"Don't mind if I do, Fiddler's Green, old bean."

I'd never seen the third player before, not in any part of the Dreaming. He was muscular, blond and young-looking, though of course that don't mean a thing. He wore a blue, double-breasted suit with yellow pinstripes, a red tie, two-toned shoes and a green fedora. Very sporty in a "Luck Be A Lady Tonight" sorta way.

He didn't seem eager to introduce himself, so I stuck out a hand. "Merv Pumpkinhead's the name, seven-card tarot's the game. How's it going?"

"Fine, thank you, Mervyn." We shook. He had a grip like a pair of needle-nosed pliers. "You may call me Herman."

"Nice ta meetcha, Herm."

He squeezed harder, enough to break the bones in my hand, assuming I had any. "I said, you may call me Herman."

"Okay, okay. No problem. Jeez."

I got my mitt away from Mr. Congeniality and sat down. Something under my butt went "Meep!" I got up quick and found Abel's pet baby gargoyle on my seat. "Sorry, Goldie. Didn't see you there." The little yellow critter hopped down and went looking for a safer place to roost.

Abel came to the table, a fresh deck of cards in hand.He said, "I've buhbeen, er, umm, looking forward to this all wuhwuhweek. We, uh, we huhhaven't done this in ages."

Fiddler's Green said, "Hoom. Not for half a century or more."

I said, "All we need is Brute and Glob, and it'd be just like old times."

"Brute and Glob," said Ruthven. "A disagreeable pair, indeed. But I rather miss their antics."

I kinda missed them, too, to tell you the truth. Brute was dumber than a wet sack of fertilizer and not any prettier. Glob cheated like a son-of-a-bitch, but if you didn't mind getting fleeced every once in a while, you could learn a thing or two from him.

I wouldn't wish what happened to those two numbskulls on my worst enemy. But that's what you get when you try to pull a fast one on the boss. One strike, and you're out.

Abel opened the deck of cards and did a couple of sloppy shuffles. We drew to choose the dealer, and Fiddler's Green got the high card. We were off.

I got a crappy hand, so I folded early and watched the others battle it out. I'd tumbled to Abel's and the Fiddler's tells decades ago (Abel's sweat glands go into overdrive when he's bluffing, and the "hooms" come fast and furious when the fat man's on a roll), but Ruthven keeps a real poker face. Those red eyes give away nothing.

Herm the Germ, of course, was a complete mystery, and I wanted some clue about his strategy. Nothing obvious caught my attention, though. He didn't tap his toes or whistle or bite his nails, just sat there with his back straight and his eyes on the cards. When the hand was over, it was Herm who came up the winner, his full palace beating Ruthven's pair of knights.

Herman chuckled and rubbed his hands together as he raked in the chips. "The evening is off to a most satisfying start. You may take this as a portent of things to come, gentlemen."

I said, "Just shut up and deal, willya?"

While he shuffled, I reached into a pocket and pulled out my cigs. I was all set to light up, when Herman shot me a look and said, "Do you mind?"

"Do I mind what?"

"I would prefer if you didn't smoke. I find the habit offensive in the extreme."

"Pardon my French, but excusez-moi." I looked around the table for support. "Whaddaya say, guys? Am I within my unalienable rights here, or what? Abel?"

"Uhh, err, I, thuhthat is, uh --"

"Never mind. Ruthven?"

Ruthven's pink little nose twitched.. "Actually, it is difficult to get the smell out of my fur."

"Fiddler's?"

"Hoom. Quitting would do you a world of good, Mervyn. Nicotine plays havoc with one's constitution." He rooted around in his carrybag. "Perhaps you'd care for a few jelly babies instead?"

I considered telling him that losing ninety pounds or so would do wonders for his own freakin' constitution, but there was no point in being nasty. So I just stashed my pack and said, "All right, all right. I'm out-voted. But I want you to know that you're all turning into a bunch of old ladies."

We played for about two hours without a break. Herm didn't win every hand, only four out of five. Ruthven and I took a couple of pots each, but Lady Luck never smiled once on either Fiddler's Green or Abel. The fat man's wagers never went beyond the penny-ante, so he was still in pretty good shape, but after hemorrhaging chips for a hundred and twenty minutes, Abel was down to his last half-dozen.

I figured it was time to put a chill on Herman's winning streak. "How 'bout we take a break, guys? I could use a stretch, a smoke and a can of brew."

Everyone except Herman was quick to agree. We put down our cards and moved to the buffet. It was a pretty good spread. Fiddler's Green and Ruthven had done the catering. Sometimes their hoity-toity tastes get the better of them, but there was still plenty of stuff for a meat-and-potatoes man like myself. I managed to put together one beaut of a sandwich, a triple-decker with roast beef, salami, sardines, Limburger, tomato, pickles, horseradish and sweet Bermuda onion.

I caught Herman staring at my selection of drinks. His upper lip was wrinkled like he'd been offered a cup of raven's droppings.

"Nothing suit your fancy, Herman?"

"Mmmm, no. I'm afraid not. I've been looking in vain for a glass of nectar."

I pulled two 12-ounce cans out of the ice. "What do you mean? We got guava nectar. We got mango nectar. Take your pick."

"I'd rather not."

Glass in hand, Fiddler's Green said, "May I recommend the tokay? It's quite fine."

Herman sniffed. "Perhaps another time."

That was all I could take. Out on the porch, I cornered the host. "Hey, Abel, who the hell invited that bozo? He a friend of yours?"

"Huhherman? Er, uh, no, no. He arrived with Ruthven."

Ruthven doesn't have any friends. He spends all his time flirting with that broad in the hoop skirt. I told Abel as much.

"Wuhwell, Lucien was supposed to join us tonight, but he cancelled at the last minute. Uh, uh, muhmaybe he knows him."

"I doubt it." I fired up a smoke and took a long, delicious drag. "There's something mighty fishy about this chump, and I don't like it. Not a freakin' bit."

Right on cue, Herm came out to join us. Actually, he did his best to ignore me, homing in on Abel, saying, "Bad bit of luck you've been having, my friend. Perhaps you'll fare better once we resume."

"I huhhope so."

"Quite the place you have here," Herm went on. "A veritable treasure trove of antiquities and ephemera. Would you mind showing me around?"

"Of cuhcourse not. It would be my puhpleasure."

Herman steered Abel back inside, leaving me alone with my cig, my sandwich and my thoughts. The first two were great, but the last were giving me major indigestion. Without saying a word to anybody, I set off on a little walk, down past the graveyard and up to a little cave I know.

I got back just in the nick of time. As I closed the front door behind me, Ruthven and Fiddler's Green were in their seats at the cardtable, and Herman and Abel were coming down from a tour of the attic. Nobody asked where I'd been, and I didn't offer any hints.

It was my turn to deal. I executed a spiffy little shuffle and passed 'round the cards. For once, my hand wasn't complete garbage, giving me a fighting chance of winning.

Ruthven and Fiddler's Green folded early, but I could tell from the slick of sweat on his forehead that Abel thought he had a hot hand. I wanted to kick him under the table, but I wasn't sure either of my aim or that Abel wouldn't yelp like a goosed schoolgirl. Herman, a chilly little grin on his puss, kept raising the stakes, and Abel kept right on matching them, down to his last chip.

When they turned their cards over, it was Herm's hand that was full of royal portraits.

Abel looked ready to cry. "I-I guhguess I'm done for the nuhnight," he said, starting to get up from the table. "Muhmight as well get a start on the duhdishes."

Herman reached around, grabbed Abel by the shoulder and pushed him back down. He asked, "What's your hurry, Abel? We're all friends here, correct? I, for one, would be happy to advance you a small sum so that we can continue to enjoy your company at the table." He deposited a stack of chips, probably two dozen or so, in front of Abel. "Is this a sufficient quantity?"

Ruthven, Fiddler's Green and I were all looking at each other, silently asking "What the flick is goin' on here?" but Abel didn't notice. He said, "Thuhthat's very kind. Buhbut I don't know if I shuhshould."

"Of course you should. In fact, I insist."

Fiddler's Green spoke up. "If Abel is uncomfortable accepting your debt, then I don't think--"

Herman cut him right off. "Abel is quite capable of looking out for himself. I mean, despite what you three and his brother happen to think."

Abel gave a little start. "Duhduhdo you know Cuhcain?"

"Oh, yes, quite well. I'm surprised you didn't invite him tonight. He'll be so disappointed when I mention to him that you waited until he was out of town to throw this party."

Abel's eyeballs inflated to nearly twice their size. Given his brother's homicidal tendencies, I didn't blame him one bit for being scared.

"You wuhuwouldn't do that, wuhwould you? Puhpuhplease, there's no nuhneed to say anything to Cuhchcain!"

Herman said,"Well, perhaps not. Still, the night is young, and I'm not yet ready to call it quits. Please accept the loan. I happened to notice a couple or three items in the house that can serve as suitable collateral."

I should have tumbled to it earlier, but suddenly everything made sense. "Hold it, pal," I said. "Just who the hell do you think you are? "

Herman didn't even bother to glance my way. "I don't believe this is any of your business, Mervyn."

"Oh, yeah? Well, I'm not going to stand around with my thumb up my butt while some out-of-town sharpie cheats a compadre out of what's rightfully his. This whole game has been one long con, a scam to get your hands on some of Abel's best-kept merchandise, right?"

"I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm here to enjoy a simple game of cards. I have no interest in taking what isn't mine."

"Hey, bub. Everybody wants secrets. Don't kid a kidder."

Herm turned his attention to Ruthven and Fiddler's Green, who were just sitting there, taking it all in and doing their damnedest not to choose sides. "What would you have me do? Are you inviting me to leave? That's fine, but I'm afraid poor Abel may later rue his lack of consideration for his brother's feelings."

I wanted to take this guy to the cleaners, bad. "How's this? Why don't you play me, one-on-one, no limit, winner takes all?"

He pointed at my pile of chips and said, "That is nothing but pocketchange to me. What else do you have that I could possibly want?"

"Well, let's just see, OK?"

I reached into my duffel bag, rooted among my emergency supplies and came up with something I'd been saving a long time, from the days when the boss was locked up, the Dreaming was a shambles and I was out in the world, scratching a living.

I asked, "Interested or no?"

He didn't actually lick his lips, but he couldn't hide his interest. "May I examine it? This would not be the first time someone offered me a counterfeit."

"Go right ahead."

He looked the small statue over and, when it passed inspection, said, "Wherever did you get it?"

I shrugged. "I used to drive a bus. Folks leave the damnedest stuff behind. You ready to play?"

"Yes."

"Sky's the limit," I said. "If you walk out the door empty-handed, you don't bitch about it later."

He gave it a second's thought, then nodded. "Fair enough. Let's go."

Abel brought us a fresh deck, and we cut for the deal. Herm got the high card. I took my seven cards and made sure I didn't wince when I got a gander at them. Not a hell of a lot to work with, but I figured to make the best of it. I took two cards. Herm took three, definitely a good sign.

Back and forth it went. I got the cups and wands I wanted, but I was weak in the Major Arcana. But finally it came down to put up or shut up. If I didn't match his bet, I lost.

"Well, Mervyn," he said. "Are you going to play or do you fold?"

He was bluffing. He wasn't bluffing. I couldn't tell. Ever so carefully, I let my gaze wander upward, to a point just over Herm's left shoulder. I saw what I needed to see without anybody seeing me see it, if you get my drift.

"No way in Hades I'm gonna fold."

Herman turned his cards over. "Let's see if you can beat that."

"Oooh-kay!" I said, unveiling a gorgeous run of high-value pasteboard. "Read 'em and weep, Herm. Read'em and weep."

Nobody said anything. All you could hear was the tick of the grandfather clock and the growl of Fiddler's Green's belly. Then Herm got all red in the face, smashed his fist down on the table and stood up so fast that his chair skidded across the room, smacking into the bookcase behind him.

Something up near the ceiling went "Kaarkk!," followed by the flutter of wings and a muttered "Oh, shit!"

Everybody whipped around and stared at the raven trying to regain its balance on the horned skull that sat on the bookcase's top shelf.

Leave it to Abel to not know when to keep his big trap shut. "Muhmatthew!" he said. "Wuhwhat are you doing huhhere?"

I wanted to disappear through a hole in the floor, but none of them was quite big enough.

Herman twigged to the situation real quick. "You underhanded little bastard. I was right, afterall. I knew you were a cheat the moment I saw your orange, empty head."

"Heh, heh. You might be jumpin' to an erroneous conclusion here, Herman," I said. "You see --"

"Spare me." He did something -- traced a pentagram in the air, twitched his eyebrows, wiggled his nose, happened so fast I couldn't quite catch it -- and suddenly he wasn't costumed like a chorus boy from "Guys and Dolls" anymore. Nope, now he looked like a refugee from a frat party, dressed in a toga and a wide-brimmed hat. In one hand he held a stick with a couple of live snakes twisted around the top of it, hissing into each other's faces. He'd also traded his Florsheims for a pair of little sandals with wings.

He said, "You asked who the hell I think I am, Mervyn Pumpkin. Well, let me tell you exactly. My name is Hermes. Messenger of Zeus. God of travel, of luck, of healing."

Fiddler's Green said, "Of gambling, of commerce, of thievery."

Hermes ignored him. "I am here in the Dreaming at the invitation of Lord Morpheus. That's right. These days I ply my trade between the worlds, tracking down lost treasures, bartering them among my many customers. Today I supplied your master with an item he had long been seeking, an act for which he was exceedingly grateful."

He hooked a finger under my bowtie and yanked me forward until his face was an inch from mine. He said, "Do you think Morpheus will be pleased with the singular lack of hospitality you've shown me?"

Man, oh, man. I knew the answer to that the way I know my own name. Rules of etiquette are a big freakin' deal to the boss. Seems like people get banished to the Eternal Darkness for using the wrong fork around here. I had a feeling the next words out of my mouth would sound something like, "Homina, homina, homina."

But somebody else spoke up before I could. A voice croaked, "Not so fast!", and Matthew swooped down and landed on Hermes' shoulder. Before Herm could swat him away, the raven stuck his head up his left sleeve and came out with two cards in his beak, a hierophant and a hanged man.

Fiddler's Green took them and said, "Hoom. What have we here?"

Now it was Hermes' turn to go kind of greenish. "I have no idea how those got there."

Matthew said, "I'm no eagle, but I know what I saw. You slipped them up there while Abel was searching for a fresh deck."

Ruthven said, "It looks as if Mervyn isn't the only one guilty of bad manners."

"Hoom," said Fiddler's Green. "I'm not certain Lord Morpheus would approve of your behavior, either, Hermes. Perhaps it would be best all around if we practiced a degree of discretion and said nothing further about this matter." He looked pointedly at our host. "Right, Abel?"

"Yuhyuhyes. Shuhshuhsure."

Hermes mulled it over before saying, "Then I will take my leave." He scooped his winnings into a sack tied to his belt.

I could breathe again. "So, we're even, Herm," I said, giving him a friendly pat on the shoulder. "No harm, no foul. Let's let bygones be bygones."

He stared at me at long time, and the snakes-on-a-stick hissed like they wanted to spit hot poison in my eyeholes. "I don't believe in bygones, Pumpkinhead. You would do well to tread carefully from here on out."

He left without slamming the front door.

"Good riddance," I said. "We still got time for a couple more hands. Everybody still up for it?"

Abel's phone rang.

"Muhmummervyn, it's for yuhyou!"

"Criminy! Now what?"

Seems like someone hadn't tightened all the screws after installing a new chandelier in the ballroom. I had to split and supervise the mop-up.

Before I left, though, I gave Matthew the statue Hermes had had the hots for. What the hell, he'd kept my ass out of the fire, and I owed him one. Besides, I thought the figurine was a pretty good likeness of him.

Matthew keeps it up on a shelf in his cave. He says it's not a raven, though, but a falcon. Whatever. I got more important things to think about.

(c) 1994 by Michael Berry

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