His old employer Don Bruce (A Fairy Godfather... in every sense of the term, as his lavender pinstripe suit, Damon Runyons style mannerisms will attest) drops in to see him, and they chat, and then there follows one of my favourite examinations ever of power, it's application and what real power MEANS.
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I was in my room brooding when a knock came at the door.
"Can it wait, Bunny?" I asked, recognizing her voice. "I'd kind of like to be alone for a while."
"We've got a visitor," came the reply. "It's my uncle. He'd like to say hello."
That was different. Aside from liking him as a person, I was well aware that her uncle was not someone you would ever want to ignore or offend.
"On the way," I called, and started for the door.
Even if I hadn't been forewarned, there was no mistaking the short, heavyset figure sitting at the dining room table. If nothing else, his trademark lavender suit was a dead giveaway.
"Don Bruce!" I said as I approached, then hesitated. As long as we had known each other, I wasn't sure what a properly respectful greeting should be.
I needn't have worried.
"Skeeve!" he crowed, popping to his feet and sweeping me into a massive hug. "How's the old pizano? How's the retirement goin'?"
"Okay, I guess," I said. "How are things with you?"
I had hoped to keep things light, but Don Bruce hadn't gotten where he was by missing things.
"Just 'okay'?" he asked, cocking his head and peering at me. "This wouldn't have anything to do with these students that Bunny's been tellin' me about, would it?"
I shot a dark glance at Bunny. While Don Bruce had been nice enough about my retiring, he had also made no secret of the fact that he wanted me back working for the Mob. As such, I wasn't wild about the fact that Bunny had let him know that I was working again, even if it was just as a teacher.
"Well, yes," I admitted. "This teaching thing is turning out to be harder than I thought."
"The kids givin' you grief?" he asked sympathetically. "Grab some wine and tell me about it."
To my surprise, I found myself pouring out my disappointment with how the class was going. Particularly, how unhappy I was with my own inability to control the bickering and backbiting among the students. I had never really chatted with Don Bruce before other than in a business context, and it was nice to unload my worries on someone who wasn't directly involved in the proceedings. He listened intently, nodding and making occasional sympathetic noises, until I finally wound down.
"I think maybe I can give you a little hand with that," he said when I was done. "Would it be okay with you if I had a word or two with these hotshot students of yours?"
That caught me flat footed.
"Um, sure, Don Bruce," I said. "If you think you can spare the time, that is."
Again, he noticed my hesitation.
"Whatzamatter?" he growled. "Don't you think I'm up to it?"
"No! It's not that at all," I said hastily. "It's just that these kids are kinda mouthy and, well, I'm not sure they'll react to you with the level of respect you're due and are used to."
Don Bruce threw back his head and laughed.
"You hear that, Bunny?" he said. "You wonder why I love this guy? I want to give him a hand and all he worries about is that my feelings might get hurt."
He leveled a pair of hard eyes on me, all trace of laughter gone.
"Just get 'em down here," he said. "Let me worry about how respectful they are."
I looked at Bunny and shrugged.
"Roust the students," I said. "Tell them we have a surprise guest lecturer."
By the time the class was assembled around the table, Don Bruce and I were standing against the wall, conversing in low tones. I was asking him about what he thought would be an appropriate introduction, while he kept insisting that I keep my comments to a bare minimum and let him handle the rest. That sounded vaguely ominous to me, but I had little choice but to go along with him.
As I turned to the group, my heart sank. The three Pervects had their heads together, giggling as they shot glances at Don Bruce, and Melvine was leaning back with his arms crossed with an "impress me" expression on his face, and Tolk was chewing at an itch on his foot. In fact, the only one who looked remotely attentive was Bee, who was watching Don Bruce with a thoughtful, puzzled expression.
"All right, class," I said, raising my voice, "I apologize for the short notice, but I didn't know this speaker would be available until he dropped in for a visit. This is Bunny's uncle, a successful businessman here on Klah, and he's offered to share his insights with us on operating in the real world."
I nodded to Don Bruce and stepped back, mentally crossing my fingers.
He stepped up to the table and took a drink of wine before starting.
There was a titter of laughter from the Pervects.
"Yes, ladies?" he asked, looking directly at them. "Was there something you wanted to ask before I started?"
"I was just wondering where you got your outfit," Jinetta said with a grin.
"Yes," Pologne added. "Do you always dress like this, or is this special for our class?"
This set the three of them to giggling again.
"I dress this way because I want to," Don Bruce said calmly after the giggles had subsided. "When you reach a given level in the real world, you get to do that. In my mind, it's better than dressing to blend with or imitate any given group, or to rebel against an established norm."
"Exactly what line of magik are you in?" Melvine asked, a note of skeptical challenge in his voice.
"I don't dabble in it myself," came the response. "When necessary, I hire it done."
"Then why should we listen—" Melvine began then seemed to think better of it. "Then exactly what kind of business are you in?"
"You might say I head a little family business," Don Bruce said with a tight smile. "Actually, it's not so little. More like what you would call a mob."
There was a moment's silence as the class exchanged glances.
"Excuse me," Melvine said, his tone cautious. "Are we talking about organized crime here?"
"Maybe that's what it's called from the outside," the Don said. "When you see it close up, like from the inside, it ain't really all that organized."
"Um, sir?" Bee said, holding up a cautious hand. "Would your name by any chance be Don Bruce?"
"Guilty as charged," the Don said with a nod, then he winked at me. "That's something you won't hear me say very often."
My students were murmuring back and forth, their tone and manner noticeably more subdued.
"Now then," Don Bruce said, returning his attention to the class, "I believe you were about to ask why you should listen to me. Before I answer that, let me ask all of you a question. Why did you all want to study under Skeeve here?"
That took everyone aback. For a moment, no one spoke. Then they all tried to talk at once.
"My aunt told me—"
"Well, I heard—"
Don Bruce silenced them all with a wave of his hand.
"Let's start at the top," he said. "Mostly, each of you wants to increase his or her value on the job market. Right?"
There was a round of nods from the class.
"To my thinking," he continued, "what that actually breaks down to is the acquisition and use of power."
The nods were slower, and Bee raised his hand.
"Um, not to disagree, sir," he said, "but I just want to help people. I thought that studying under Skeeve would help me to do that better."
"Good answer," the Don nodded. "Very admirable. But you don't see many weak or poor people helping others, no matter how nice they may be as people. To help others, you have to be in a position to be able to help, and that gets back to what I was saying, acquiring and using power. See what I mean?"
"I—I think so," Bee said hesitantly.
"Now, this all gets back to why you should listen to me," Don Bruce said. "I may not be a magician but, as a businessman, one thing I have to know is how to acquire and use power. The problem with young folks like you, with the possible exception of the young gentleman here and the furry guy sitting next to him, is that you wouldn't know power if it bit you on the leg."
He turned his attention back to Bee.
"I couldn't help but notice that you seemed to recognize me or my name. Can I ask if I'm right?"
"Yes, sir," Bee said. "I was in the army with Swatter— Guido—and he often mentioned you with the greatest respect. Just like he mentioned Skeeve."
"The army, eh?" the Don smiled. "I thought you showed more sense than normally comes out of a book. For the record, I have the highest regard for Guido. I only wish he was here to help me make my next point."
"Um, if I may, sir. If it will help—"
Bee closed his eyes in concentration, and suddenly Guido was sitting there in his place.
"Hey! That's pretty good," Don Bruce said then turned to me. "What is that? Some kind of transfer spell?"
"It's just a disguise spell," I said. "It's actually still Bee sitting there."
"Well, it'll do for the moment." He went back to addressing the class.
"Now, my question to you is this: Look at Guido here, then look at me. Then tell me which of us you would least like to have angry with you."
It really wasn't much of a choice.
"Guido," Melvine said. "No offense, sir, but he's a lot bigger."
The rest of the class nodded their agreement.
"Uh huh," the Don said. "Guido is not only big, he's one of the best, if not the best, at what he does—which is to say, controlled violence.
"Thank you—Bee, is it? The point is made."
There was a shimmering in the air, and Bee was back.
"Now, you all made the obvious, expected choice. Unfortunately, you're all wrong."
He smiled at the frowns around him.
"Guido is big and strong, and I'd never disrespect him," he said. "The truth of the matter, though, is that I have over a hundred like him working for me. All of them specialists in controlled violence. If Guido gets mad at you, you have to deal with Guido. If I get mad at you, you can have the whole pack of 'em down on your neck. Are you starting to see what I mean about power?"
The class was murmuring back and forth again, but they were also watching Don Bruce with a new level of respect.
"The key word in what I was saying," the Don continued, "is control. Guido doesn't walk around randomly pounding on people. He knows how much power he has and the repercussions if he misuses it. He's not a bully looking for a chance to show off. He's effective and only uses as much power as is necessary for the situation. Technically, I have more power at my disposal than Guido has. That means I have to be that much more careful about how and when I use it."
He leaned back and smiled.
"All of that brings us back to why you're studying under Skeeve. Now, if I understand it right, most of you were recommended to him or heard about his reputation. I'm willing to bet that you were all a little disappointed when you actually met him because he isn't flashier or more impressive. That's because most of you are still young and tend to look at the surface, just like you were more afraid of Guido than of me."
All of a sudden, he wasn't smiling.
"Well, I'm not young and impressionable. I've been around for a long time and earned my position against some tough competition in conditions where, if you make a mistake, you don't get a bad grade or expelled from class, you get dead. Based on long, hard experience, I'll tell you here and now that your teacher, Skeeve, is one of the most powerful men I've ever dealt with. What's more, I don't think there's anyone that I admire and respect more."
He looked at me and gave a slow nod with his head in salute.
Startled as I was by his declaration, the only thing I could • do was return his nod with equal dignity.
He turned his attention back to the class.
"You might want to hear a little of how he built that reputation. Since he's not likely to tell you himself, let me fill you in on few of the highlights.
"When I first met Skeeve, he was the Court Magical for Possiltum. At that time, he had just backed off the largest, best-led army this dimension had ever seen. What's more, he did it with only a Troll, a Trollop, a Pervect, an Imp, a Gargoyle, a salamander, and an Archer to help him."
"Gleep was there, too," I said.
"I stand corrected. And a baby dragon. Even so, that's fairly impressive odds by anybody's books. As I was saying, when I met him, he was standing in for the king, who had taken it on the lam to get out of a marriage. If Skeeve had wanted to, he could have stayed and run the kingdom from then on. Instead, he straightened the mess out and moved to the Bazaar at Deva, where the Chamber of Commerce hired him for their Magician in Residence.
"On the side, he and a few of his friends challenged the two champion teams on Jahk to the Big Game and beat them out of their own trophy. Then there was the time that his partner, Aahz, was in jail in the dimension Blut—that's the one with vampires and werewolves—and Skeeve had to bust him out and prove his innocence."
That one got a reaction from the class. I had told them I would be sending them to Blut on a field exercise, but I had deliberately neglected to mention to them how I happened to be familiar with the place.
"One bit you ladies might find interesting was the time that Aahz resigned from M.YT.H., Inc. and Skeeve here went to Perv all by himself to convince him to come back. I'm still gathering information as to exactly how he pulled that one off and came back intact."
The three Pervects were eyeing me now with thoughtful expressions. I was glad Don Bruce had either failed to find out or chosen to omit mentioning how that little escapade got me deported from Perv as an undesirable.
"Now, you might think that all that would be enough to build a reputation for anyone. Well, it might, but in Skeeve's case, it's only the tip of the iceberg. Where his real reputation comes from is that he's a true gentleman.
"I said at the beginning that I was telling you all this because he won't. That ain't his style. He don't brag or bluster or swagger. What's more, he don't throw his weight around unless it's absolutely necessary. He don't have to. His track record speaks for itself. More important, Skeeve genuinely likes people. He's polite and respectful to everybody including his enemies, whether they're strong enough to hurt him or not. If you don't believe me, ask around.
"You've all met Massha? Well, when they first met, they were opposite sides of a caper—specifically, that Big Game on Jahk I was telling you about. Afterward, not only did he accept her as an apprentice, he set her up to replace him as the Court Magician at Possiltum. And my niece, Bunny. She had it in her head that she wanted to be a mob Moll, so I sent her to Skeeve as a bit of a test for both of them. As it turns out, he won't let her be a floozie. Instead, she ends up using all the financial training she got at school to straighten out the kingdom's books for Possiltum, and now she's got a rep of her own as a financier and negotiator. As a matter of fact, there's at least one bank in Perv that's been trying to hire her away from Skeeve for years, but she won't budge."
This was the first I had heard about it. I glanced at Bunny, but she was smiling at the class and nodding.
"That's the kind of reputation Skeeve has. Everybody respects him. He earns the kind of loyalty from his friends and associates that money can't buy."
He looked around one more time and rose to his feet.
"Well, I've been ranting here for a long while, and I'll be on my way. Just one last thing, though. Remember when I said I was more powerful that Guido? Well I'll tell you here and now that your teacher, Skeeve, is more powerful than I am. Of everyone I've met or worked with, he's at the top of my list to turn the Mob over to when I retire. Think about that the next time you want to mouth off about how your professors or friends know more than he does."
With that, he waved at Bunny and me and left.
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