Louis Rickert did not consider himself a “good person,” though he knew for a fact that he was far from the worst that humanity had to offer. He had been a criminal almost since he learned how to walk.
And now, here he was, working for a mysterious crime fighter! Life did indeed throw some curve balls at times.
Well, you don’t necessarily have to be good to do some good. He would never be a genuinely honest man, he knew, but his work for the Bay Phantom seemed to him to mitigate some of his other activities.
Anyway, he wouldn’t be much use to the masked man if he didn’t occupy a modest position in Mobile’s criminal underworld. He couldn’t do that and keep his nose totally clean at the same time. That just stood to reason.
He was in a bar, a speakeasy on the fringe of Mobile’s criminal underworld. It wasn’t the sort of place an ordinary fellow would take a date, but it wasn’t packed to the rafters with murderous hardcore gangsters either. Had Rickert been a bit more knowledgeable about religious doctrine, he might have thought of the joint as a sort of limbo.
Louis was drinking with a man who should have been one of his most feared natural enemies, a shark who could pick off a bottom feeder like Louis Rickert without any effort at all.
Shorty Red, who was close to seven feet tall and almost as colorless as an albino, sipped at a glass of club soda, while Louis consumed one shot of whiskey after another. Both Shorty and the Bay Phantom had cautioned Louis about his drinking, but he was a grown man and could do whatever he pleased. One of the few things he had never been arrested for was public intoxication, or any other kind of alcohol-related infraction. Anyhow, it had never once interfered with his ability to perform his duties for the Phantom-- except for three or four isolated incidents spread out over a period of several weeks.
“Something’s going on,” Shorty was saying, “and the Phantom wants us to look into it.”
“What’s the big deal?” asked Louis. “Sounds like an ordinary protection racket to me. What does he care about that?”
Shorty sighed. “He cares about everything, and he’s right to do so. You’ve got a bad attitude, Louis. We’ve talked about that before. If you don’t like the job, you should stop taking his money.”
“I didn’t say I wasn’t gonna do it,” Rickert replied indignantly. “I just wonder about it. Is that against the law? What am I, a zombie?”
“No, you aren’t a zombie,” Shorty said, turning his cold, colorless eyes on Rickert. “Are you implying that I am?”
Rickert flinched, even though he knew by now that Shorty Red did not and would not ever represent a physical threat to him. The hulking ex-enforcer for the Carter crime family had undergone some kind of transformation over the past few months. Shorty had been one of the most violent and unpredictable criminals on the Gulf Coast-- before he met the Bay Phantom. Though he wasn’t exactly a pussycat these days, he seemed a lot more thoughtful and sensitive, which was a good thing for Rickert, who had quite recently beaten the living hell out of Shorty with a crowbar. The giant didn’t seem to carry a grudge over it, and Rickert knew full well that the Bay Phantom was the reason for that.
“Hell no, Shorty, I ain’t implying nothing,” Rickert said. “All’s I’m doing is... Oh, never mind.”
“I won’t. Listen, this is serious business, Louis. The Carter family has been in disarray since Caleb disappeared and Penny resurfaced. They’re pulling it together, but there was a vacuum for a while. It was brief, but a few unknown factions moved in to fill it. They’re being dealt with, for the most part, But one small and mysterious group managed to gain a minor foothold. They’ve been strong-arming restaurants, but we don’t know what for, and nobody wants to talk about it. Could be protection, could be something else. Most of them are completely legit-- not speakeasies or gambling fronts. They’re frightened, that much is certain. The Phantom wants to know what’s going on and what they’re so afraid of.”
“I got no problem with that,” Rickert said. “My problem is that I could use some more money. Especially if I’m gonna be doing dangerous duties, you know? Hazard pay, I think they call it.”
Here was the crux of Louis’ current dilemma. He had quite a knack for keeping his own best interests at the forefront of his mind, no matter what was going on around him. And what was bugging him now was money. It preoccupied his thoughts to the near-exclusion of everything else.
But money was not an end in itself. It was only the means by which he believed he could achieve his true goal.
Gladys’ interest in Louis had lasted for all of ten minutes. Her current indifference was not reciprocated. Louis was still interested in her, and it was making him crazy.
He couldn’t figure out what had made her turn on him. He wasn’t even slightly balding, and he had almost all of his teeth.
It had to be about money, he reasoned. That’s what it was always about with women. It was a real shame, but that’s how the world worked.
Shorty Red had suggested to him that perhaps a woman like Gladys, who was well-educated and held a responsible, respectable job as a newspaper editor, might not have very much in common with a semi-literate petty crook. That was just plain nuts. The rules of attraction didn’t pay attention to stuff like that.
It was money. Had to be.