I was standing at the bar in the Outpost, which is the only good watering hole in the Plantagenet system, lifting a few with my old friend Hurricane Smith, another practitioner of the hero trade. Somehow or other the conversation got around women, like it always does sooner or later (usually sooner), and he asked me what was the most memorable name I’d ever found attached to a woman.
Now, man and boy I’ve met thirteen authentic Pirate Queens, and eleven of them were called Zenobia, so that figures to be a mighty memorable name, and the Siren of Silverstrike was pretty original (at least in my experience), but when it came down to choosing just the single most memorable name, I allowed that there was one that won hands down, and that was Voluptua von Climax.
“You’re kidding!” said Smith.
“I wish I was,” I told him. “Because a deeply tragic story goes with that name.”
“You want to tell me about it?” he said.
I shook me head. “It brings back too many painful memories of what might have been between her and me.”
“Aw, come on, Catastrophe,” he said.
“Some other time.”
“I’m buying for as long as you’re telling it to me,” Smith offered.
And this is the story I told him that night, out at the most distant edge of the Inner Frontier.
It all began when I touched down on the pleasure planet of Calliope, which abounded in circuses and thrill shows and opera and ballet and theatre and no end of fascinating rides like the null-gravity Ferris wheel, and course there were hundreds of casinos and nightclubs. I mosied around for a few hours, taking in all the sights, and then I saw her, and I knew I’d fallen hopelessly and eternally in love again.
Trust me when I tell you that there ain’t never been a woman like her. Her face was exotic and beautiful, she had long black hair down almost to her waist, beautifully rounded hips, a tiny waist, and I’ll swear she had an extra pair or two of lungs.
She was accompanied by a little guy who seemed to be annoying her, because she kept walking away, which kind of reminded me of jelly on springs, and he kept following her, talking a blue streak.
I knew I had to meet her, so I walked over to her and introduced myself.
“Howdy, ma’am,” I said. “My name is Catastrophe Baker, and you are the most beautiful thing I’ve seen during my long travels throughout the galaxy. Is this little twerp bothering you?”
“Go away and leave us alone!” snapped the little twerp.
Well, that ain’t no way to speak to a well-meaning stranger, so I knocked out eight of his teeth and busted three of his ribs and dislocated his left shoulder and kicked him in the groin as a mild reproof, and then turned my attention back to the beautiful if beleaguered lady.
“He won’t bother us no more, ma’am,” I assured her, and it seemed likely since he was just laying there on the ground, all curled up in kind of a ball and moaning softly. “How else can I be of service to you?”
“Catastrophe Baker,” she repeated in the most beautiful voice. “I’ve heard about you.” She kind of looked up and down all six feet nine inches of me. “You’re even bigger than they say.”
“Handsomer, too,” I said, in case she needed a hint.
“You know,” she said thoughtfully, “you might be just what the doctor ordered.”
“If I was the doctor, I’d be more concerned with helping your friend here,” I said, giving him a friendly nudge with my toe to show there wasn’t no hard feelings. I really and truly didn’t mean to break his nose with it.
“You misunderstand me,” she said. “I heard you were kind of a law officer.”
“No, ma’am,” I told her. “You’ve been the victim of false doctrine. I ain’t never worn a badge in my life.”
“But didn’t you bring in the notorious McNulty Brothers?” she asked.
“No-Neck and No-Nose,” I confirmed. “Yeah, I brought ’em in, ma’am, but only after they tried to cheat me at whist.”
“Whist?” she repeated. “I find it difficult to picture you playing whist.”
“We play a mighty fast and aggressive game of it out on the Frontier, ma’am,” I answered. Which was true. At one point in the second hand No-Nose played a dagger, and I topped him with a laser pistol, and then No-Neck tried to trump me with a blaster, but I finessed him by bringing the barrel of my pistol down on his hand and snapping all his fingers.
“Well, if you’re not a lawman, what are you?”
“A fulltime freelance hero at your service, ma’am,” I said. “You got any heroing needs doing, I’m your man.”
She stared at me through half-lowered eyelids. “I think you might be the very man I’ve been looking for, Catastrophe Baker.”
“Well, I know you’re what I been looking for all my life,” I told her. “Or at least since my back molars came in. You got a name, ma’am?”
“Voluptua,” she replied. “Voluptua von Climax.”
“Well, Miss Voluptua, ma’am,” I said, “how’s about you and me stepping out for some high-class grub? Or would you rather just rent a bridal suite first?”
“All that can wait,” she said. “I think I have a job for you.”
“Is anyone else bothering you?” I asked. “Laying out men who prey on women — especially women with figures like yours — is one of the very best things I do.”
“No, it’s much more serious than that. Come with me, Catastrophe Baker, and I’ll introduce you to the man I work for, and whom I hope you will soon be working for as well.”
So I fell into step alongside her, and soon we were in the Theater District, which is this three-block area with a whole bunch of theaters, and then we saw a sign directing us to Saul Leibowitz’s Messiah, which was the first indication I had that there was more than one of them.
Anyway, we entered the theater, and she led me backstage to a plush office, and she opened the door without knocking, and we walked in and found ourselves facing a very upset man with thinning gray hair and the biggest smokeless cigar you ever saw. She walked right up to him and gave him a peck on the cheek, but he was too upset to notice.
Finally she spoke up and said, “Solly, this is Catastrophe Baker, the famous hero, here to help us in our time of need.”
That woke him up, and he stared at me for a minute. “You’re really Catastrophe Baker?” he said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“The same one who got kicked off Nimbus IV for—”
“They told me they were in their twenties,” I said in my own defense.
“All eleven of them?” he said. “I suppose they must have added their ages together. What did the judge say?”
“The judge complained,” I said. “The press complained. The constabulary complained. But no one ever heard the girls complain.” I turned to Voluptua. “I hope you’ll file that fact away for future reference, ma’am.”
“That’s neither here nor there,” said the guy. “My name is Saul Leibowitz, and I am in desperate need of a hero.”
“Then this is your lucky day,” I said, “because you just found one. Just set me the challenge, name the price, and let’s get this show on the road.”
“Price?” he repeated. “But I thought you were a hero.”
“Heroes got to eat too, you know,” I told him. “And when you’re as big as me, that comes to serious money.”
“All right,” he said. “You name any reasonable price and I’ll pay it.”
“Let me hear the job and I’ll decide what’s reasonable,” I answered.
“I’m producing a new musical,” he began.
“I know,” I said. “I saw the sign for something called The Messiah on my way in.”
“Actually,” he sniffed, “the proper title is Saul Leibowitz’s Messiah.”
“And what’s the problem?”
“I’ll be honest with you,” said Leibowitz. “The play was in serious danger of folding. Then I hired the famous show doctor, Boris Gijinsky, to fix it. Yesterday he added the most beautiful canticle in the second scene, the cast and director were sure everyone would love it, and we were set for our official opening next week — and then, last night, our only copy of the canticle was stolen. I need it back, Mr. Baker. Without it I’m probably destitute by next week.”
“I don’t want to cause you no consternation,” I said, “but I ain’t never seen a canticle before.”
“It doesn’t matter,” said Voluptua. “I know what it looks like, and I’m coming along.”
“Are you sure?” asked Leibowitz. “It could be dangerous.”
“That’s no problem,” I said. “I’ll be there to protect her from danger.”
“Who’ll be there to protect her from you?” he said.
“I’ll be fine,” Voluptua assured him.
He turned to face me. “She’s twenty-six. Just remember that you like ’em young.”
What I mostly like ’em is female, but I didn’t see no sense arguing the point, so I did some quick mental math, and told him I’d do the job for ten percent of the first month’s gross.
“Five percent,” he countered.
“Split the difference,” I said. “Nine percent, and I’m off to find the bad guys.”
He seemed about to argue, then just kind of collapsed back on his chair and sighed deeply. “Deal,” he said.
“Okay,” I said to Voluptua. “Let’s get going.” I accompanied her to my ship, then came to a stop.
“I don’t want to put a damper on your enthusiasm,” I said, “but I ain’t got the slightest idea where to go next.”
“That’s all right,” she said. “I have a pretty good idea who took it.”
“Why didn’t you tell Mr. Leibowitz?” I asked.
“All he’d do is go out and hire a hero,” she explained. “And he already has.”
“So where are we heading?” I said, as I ordered the hatch to open and the ramp to descend.
“Stratford-on-Avon II,” she said, as we entered the ship. I relayed our destination to the navigational computer, and a minute later we’d shot up through the stratosphere. Then she turned to me. “Change course,” she said.
“I beg your pardon, ma’am? Ain’t we going to Stratford-on-Avon?”
“That’s what we want them to think,” she said with a triumphant smile. “And that’s why I said it: in case we were being overheard. But I’m more than just a pretty face.”
She took a deep breath, and I was happy to agree that she was more than just a pretty face.
“Take us to Back Alley IV.”
I passed the order on to the computer.
“We will traverse the MacDonald Wormhole and will reach our destination in seven hours and three minutes,” announced the computer in its gentle feminine voice.
"Well, Catastrophe Baker, it looks like we’ve got some time to kill,” she said, starting to slip out of her clothes. “Have you got any ideas on how to make it pass more quickly?”
I allowed that she was giving me more ideas than I could handle, and then she was in my arms, and I got to say that she felt even better than she looked. A minute later I carried her to my bunk, and we spent a vigorous few hours killing time, and I can testify that she was mighty well-named, and I feel sorry for those who think a climax just has something to do with the end of a video. For the longest time I thought the ship had developed a new vibration, and then I finally figured out that what was vibrating was her. She was a mighty good kisser too, and every now and then she’d get carried away and give me a bunch of little love bites, and a couple of them even drew blood, which probably wasn’t that surprising considering how white her teeth looked when she smiled.
“Approaching Back Alley IV,” announced the computer in what seemed like no time at all.
A minute later it said, “I’m not kidding. We’re entering the atmosphere.”
Another minute and then it said, “Will you get your hand out of there and put your pants on before we land? I’ve never been so humiliated in my life!”
“All right, all right!” I muttered, swinging my feet over to the deck. “Keep your shirt on.”
“Tell that hussy to keep hers on!” said the computer.
We finished getting dressed just as the ship touched down, then opened the hatch and walked out onto the planet’s surface. As far as I could tell, Back Alley wasn’t much of a world: no trees, no flowers, no animals, nothing much but a Tradertown that had sprung up maybe half a century ago judging from the shape of the buildings. It was night out, and four little bitty moons were racing across the sky, casting their light down onto the bleak surface of the planet.
“I don’t mean to be overly critical, ma’am,” I said, “but what makes you think the canticle is here? It’s a mighty big galaxy, and there can’t be five hundred people, tops, in this little town — and as far as I can tell, there ain’t no other towns on the planet.”
“You’re right,” she said. “There’s just this one town.”
“So what makes you think it’s here?”
“Because I know who stole it,” she answered.
“Then why didn’t you say so back in Leibowitz’s office?” I asked her.
She shrugged, which is a mighty eye-catching thing to do when you’re built like Voluptua von Climax. “He’d want to know how I knew, and it would just lead to an awkward scene.”
“Now that we’re here and he’s a few light years away,” I said, “how did you know?”
“Because he stole it for me,” she said. “He’s madly in love with me, and he thought if he stole it Solly would go broke and then he’d have a clear path to my affections.”
Now personally I hadn’t noticed her putting up any blockades to her affections, but even so it made sense that he’d want to get rid of the competition, at least the part he knew about, and it had the added advantage that sometime in the future he and Voluptua could resurrect the show with the missing canticle, whatever that was, and make a fortune.
“What can you tell me about him?” I asked.
“He’s mean through and through,” she told me. “I think you should sneak up behind him and subdue him before he knows you’re there.”
“That’s again the heroing codes of ethics and sportsmanship, ma’am,” I said.
“But they say he’s the dirtiest fighter on the whole Inner Frontier!”
“Good,” I said. “I hate it when a fight ends too soon.”
She stared at me. “How long do your fights usually last?”
“Oh, maybe six or seven seconds,” I answered.
She blinked very rapidly. “Really?”
“Heroes don’t never lie, ma’am.”
“I find that very exciting,” she said, throwing her arms around me and nibbling a little on my lower lip.
I kissed her back, then disengaged myself. “We got time for this later,” I said, “but right now I think I should be confronting this villain and getting back what was stolen. Where’s he likely to be?”
“Probably in one of the bars,” she said, “carousing with drunken friends and cheap women.”
“He got a name, ma’am?”
She wrinkled her nose and frowned. “Cutthroat Hawke,” she replied.
“He any relation to Cutthroat McGraw?” I asked. She just stared at me. “I guess not,” I said. “Well, let’s go find him and retrieve Mr. Leibowitz’s goods.”
She led the way past two well-lit taverns to a little hole in the wall with bad lighting and a worse smell. I stood in the doorway and looked around. There were a bunch of aliens, most of ’em kind of animal, at least one vegetable, and a couple I’ll swear wasn’t even mineral, and none of ’em looked all that happy to see me.
Then I spotted the one human, sitting alone in the farthest corner, and I knew he had to be Cutthroat Hawke. He was wearing a leather tunic, and metallic pants, and well-worn boots, and it was clear that shaving wasn’t his favorite sport. He was nursing a glass of something blue with a bunch of smoke coming out of it, and he didn’t pay me any attention at all when I took a step or two into the room.
“Cutthroat Hawke!” I bellowed. “Your destiny has found you out! Are you going to turn over what you stole and come along peaceably, or am I going to enjoy the hell out of the next half minute?"
“Who the hell are you?” he demanded.
“I’m Catastrophe Baker, freelance hero by trade, and I’m here to right the terrible wrong you done to Saul Leibowitz and Voluptua von Climax.”
“Voluptua?” he repeated, looking around. “Is she here?”
“Never you mind,” I said. “You got your hands full with me.”
“She put you up to this, didn’t she?” he snarled.
“I won’t have you defaming the woman I momentarily love,” I told him harshly. “Now, are you coming peaceably or are you coming otherwise? There ain’t no third choice.”
And no sooner had the words left my lips (which were still a little sore from all those love bites) than half a dozen aliens got up and blocked my way.
“Leave him alone,” said one of them ominously.
“I can’t do that,” I said. “He’s a thief and a villain.”
“He robbed a human,” replied the alien. “We approve.”
“I don’t want no trouble,” I said, “but you’re standing between me and the object of my noble quest.”
He reached for a weapon, and suddenly he wasn’t standing between us no more. And I’m sure he’ll walk again someday, once he gets out of whatever hospital they took him to after I got a little hot under the collar and flang him into a wall forty feet away. Then a snake-like alien started coiling himself around me and squeezing for all he was worth, so I grabbed him by his neck (which was about twenty feet long, but I latched onto the part right behind his head) and did a little squeezing of my own, and I don’t doubt for a second that they can fix all them vertebrae I shook loose if he ever stops twitching long enough for them to go to work on him.
The other aliens suddenly decided they had urgent business elsewhere, and suddenly I found myself face to face with Cutthroat Hawke. Well, let me be more precise: suddenly I found myself looking down the barrel of Cutthroat Hawke’s blaster.
I was too far away to grab it out of his hand, so I decided to try an heroic ruse.
“Hey, Cutthroat,” I said, “your shoelace is untied.”
“I wear boots,” he replied.
“And your fly is unzipped.”
“I use magnetic closures.”
“And there’s something with about fifteen legs crawling up your sleeve.”
“Boy,” he said, “if you’re the best and the brightest, the hero business has fallen on hard times.”
He’d have said something more, but just then the fifteen-legged spider bit him on the shoulder, right through his sleeve, and he turned to slap it away, and whilst he was doing so I kicked the blaster out of his hand and picked him up by the neck and held him a few feet above the ground.
“Now ain’t you sorry you put me to all this trouble?” I said.
He tried to answer, but he was turning blue from lack of air, and finally he just nodded his head.
“And if I put you down, you ain’t going to try to escape or go for a weapon, right?” I said.
And I’m sure he’d have said “Right” if he’d still been awake, but he’d passed out from lack of air while I was asking the question, so I just released my grip and he fell to the floor in a heap.
I examined his pockets, but there wasn’t anything there except a few credits, just enough to pay for his drinks, so I walked to the middle of the bar, stuck a couple of fingers in my mouth, and whistled to get all the aliens’ attention.
“I need to know where Cutthroat Hawke stored his worldly possessions,” I announced.
They all just stared at me, sullen and silent.
“I’d really appreciate your help,” I said.
“Okay,” I said, busting a chair apart and holding a leg up. “I guess one of you is going to have to volunteer to help me look for it.”
Suddenly every alien in the joint was telling me that he kept his goods in a box under his bed in room 17 of the boarding house next door. I walked out, met Voluptua, told her to keep an eye on Cutthroat Hawke (not that he was going anywhere), and then I went up to Hawke’s room.
Sure enough there was a small box under the bed. In it was a diamond ring and a matching bracelet, wrapped up on some old wrinkled paper. I looked around for something that might be a canticle and couldn’t find it, and finally figured, well, at least Mr. Leibowitz could pawn the diamonds to keep the play running an extra week or two, so I stuffed the whole package in my pocket.
I gathered Voluptua and Hawke up, carried him over a shoulder to my ship, bound his hands and feet with negatronic manacles for safe keeping, stuck him in a corner where we couldn’t trip over him, and a minute later we’d reached light speeds and were headed back to Calliope.
Once again Voluptua decided it was too warm for clothes, and she doffed hers and came over and started helping me out of mine. Finally I felt a certain familiar sense of urgency and carried her over to the bed.
“But you’re still wearing your pants,” she protested.
“But unlike Hawke’s,” I said, “mine got a zipper.
And I demonstrated it to her, and then she demonstrated some things to me, and then it felt like the ship was vibrating again, and then she was covering me with painful (but loving) little bites, and finally she plumb wore me out and I fell asleep.
I woke up when I felt a hand in my pocket that almost certainly wasn’t mine, and sure enough it belonged to Voluptua.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“I was just smoothing out your pants pocket, my love,” she said.
“From the inside?” I asked.
Before she could answer I got the distinct impression that something was missing. I sat up and looked around, and it turns out that what was missing was Cutthroat Hawke.
Well, let me amend that. Most of him was missing. What was left were his clothes and a few bones.
I walked over to make sure, though in my experience mighty few people walk off and leave their bones behind.
“What the hell happened here?” I demanded.
She gave me an innocent smile. “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about losing an entire prisoner while we’re cruising along at light speeds,” I said.
She gave me an unconcerned shrug. “These things happen.”
“Not on my ship, they don’t!” I said.
She gave me a very unladylike burp.
I looked from the bones to her to the bones and back to her again.
“You ate an entire prisoner?” I said.
“I’d have saved some for you, my love,” she said, “but they don’t keep well.”
“You ate him!” I repeated.
“What are you getting so upset about?” she said. “I didn’t use your galley, and I cleaned up after myself.”
“If you were hungry, why didn’t you just say so?” I said. “I’d have been happy to stop off at a restaurant.”
“I was going to have to kill him anyway,” she said. “He betrayed me.”
“He was my partner. We stole the canticle together, but then he decided not to share the proceeds with me.” She made a face. “He was a terrible man! I’m glad I ate him!”
“Do you do this a lot?” I asked.
“Steal canticles?” she replied. “This was my first.”
“I meant, eat your partners,” I said.
“My partners? Not very often.”
“Well, I ain’t no policeman,” I said, “so I ain’t turning you in. We’ll let Mr. Leibowitz decide what to do with you.”
“You don’t have to tell him,” she said, putting her arms around me. “I love you, Catastrophe Baker.”
“I know,” I said. “And I got the love bites to prove it.”
“You know you loved them.”
“It was an interesting experience,” I admitted. “I ain’t ever been an appetizer before.”
She laughed, and while she did I took a quick look to see if her teeth were filed.
We talked about this and that and just about everything except our favorite foods, and finally the ship touched down, and a couple of minutes later the two of us walked into Leibowitz’s office.
“That was fast!” said Leibowitz, obviously impressed. “I didn’t expect you back for two or three more days.”
“Us heroes don’t waste no time,” I said. “I’m pleased to announce that the culprit that robbed you is no longer among the living.”
“You killed him?” asked Leibowitz.
“No, your ladyfriend put him out of his misery.”
He looked surprise. “Really?”
“Ask her yourself,” I said.
He turned to Voluptua. “How did you do it? With a blaster? A knife? Poison?”
“You got seventeen more guesses,” I said, “and my bet is that you’re going to need ’em all.”
He got up, walked around his desk until he was standing right in front of her, and hugged her. “As long as you’re safe, that’s all that matters,” he said.
He kissed her, she kissed him, he flinched, and I could see he was missing a little bit of lip when they parted.
“Always enthusiastic, that’s my Voluptua,” he said, turning to me. “And did you bring me back my canticle?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said, pulling the package out of my pocket. “All he had were these diamonds.”
I started unwrapping them when he grabbed the wrapping paper out of my hand, unfolded it, and held it up to the light.
“My canticle!” he cried happily after he’d read it over.
“I always thought a canticle was some kind of a fruit, like a honeydew melon,” I said.
He laughed as if I had made a joke, then summoned his staff to tell them that he’d got his canticle back, and since everyone was busy admiring the canticle and praising Voluptua for her bravery, I decided no one would notice or mind if I kept the diamonds for myself, since they didn’t rightly belong to anyone, or at least anyone that wasn’t thoroughly digested by now.
And that’s the way I left them: Leibowitz, Voluptua, and the canticle.
Hurricane Smith downed his drink.
“So how much was your nine percent of the play worth?” he asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “The damned thing closed on opening night. The critics said it was the worst hymn anyone ever heard.”
Hurricane chuckled. “That’s critics for you. They’re never happy unless they’re convincing you that what you like just isn’t any good.” He poured himself another one. “Still, it was an interesting story. They still together, the producer and the lady?”
“Far as I know,” I answered. “I guess it was pretty interesting at that. Maybe I’ll write it up for one of them true adventure holodisks.”
“Why not?” he agreed. “You got a title?”
“I thought I’d call it A Canticle for Leibowitz.”
He shook his head. “You may get top marks as a space hero, but you ain’t ever going to make it as a writer if you think something called A Canticle for Leibowitz is going to sell more than ten copies.”
“It does lack a little punch,” I admitted. “What would you call it?”
“That’s easy enough,” said Hurricane. “I’d call it A Cannibal for Leibowitz.”
It made perfect sense to me, and if I ever write this heroic epic up, that’s exactly what I’m going to call it, unless some effete namby-pamby editor changes it to something else.