Story Excerpt

Unity Con: A Spade/Paladin Conundrum

by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

unity_con-HankBlausteinArt by Hank Blaustein

When Paladin called to ask for my help, I was sitting in a planning meeting with some fen at an ancient Holiday Inn outside of Garland, Texas. We were crowded around a fake wood conference table so old that it had cigarette burns in the laminate. We were in a calm discussion about the best way to handle hotel negotiations when my cell phone rang.

The fen—fannish lingo for a gathering of true fans—all recognized my ringtone.

It was “The Ballad of Paladin,” from the old Richard Boone TV show, Have Gun Will Travel. Paladin took a lot from that show, including her business card, which read:





Of course, Boone’s card read “Wire Paladin,” but you get the idea. Paladin was a fan, even though she rarely admitted it.

And the fen in the room were savvy enough to realize from the ringtone alone who was calling me.

Paladin and I had become quite a team. When some cons had problems, they even asked for us together, which pissed her off. She preferred to work alone.

She would probably be upset at the ringtone. She had given me her cell number just a few months ago. She was stingy with information. Even though we had worked together half a dozen times, she had yet to tell me her real name.

I excused myself and went to the dusty hallway, with its sun-faded red carpet, sneezing once before answering the phone.

“Hey, Paladin,” I said cheerfully, even though I knew this wasn’t a personal call. Paladin rarely called me for personal reasons. Most of those reasons had to do with Casper (no, not her real name either), an utterly brilliant girl we had cosponsored at one of the best boarding schools in San Francisco. (Long story.)

Paladin didn’t bother with hello. “Where are you?”

“Near Garland,” I said.

“Texas? Oh, good,” she said, even though she didn’t sound all that thrilled. “How long will it take you to get here?”

Typical Paladin. She thought I kept track of her. Much as I would have loved to, such behavior was called stalking and was against the law.

“Where’s here?” I asked.

“Unity Con,” she said.

The very name put my back up. The folks running Unity Con had irritated me from the start. I’m a SMoF, just like all the fen in that run-down conference room. We’re known as the Secret Masters of Fandom for a reason. We run conventions, which are multimillion-dollar organizations, and we do it smoothly.

But SMoFs had nothing to do with Unity Con. It was being run by a group of writers who thought they knew how conventions should operate, rather than how conventions did operate.

These know-it-alls started their convention in response to some political ugliness going down in the professional writer community. These know-it-alls were going to show the rest of us how inclusive conventions should be run—forgetting, or perhaps never realizing, that fandom had always welcomed everyone. From the differently abled to people of color, fandom has always kept its doors open.

Of course, the Unity Con dreamers had run into trouble from the start. And Millie, a con organizer from the Southwest, had called me to rescue them from some kind of connish problem a few months back.

Because the Unity Con people were so damn obnoxious, I had said no.

I was beginning to worry that decision was coming back to bite me.

“You know,” Paladin was saying, “they’re holding the con at a stupid ranch outside of Amarillo.”

I did know that. The con organizers had commandeered one of those giant Texas hunting lodges beloved by politicians and the very rich, thinking it would be a draw for the Right Kind of Science Fiction Fans.

Most of the fen I knew hated the idea of some isolated Texas ranch. Fen liked cons in an area with a choice of restaurants, from super cheap to exceedingly high end. Some nearby shopping didn’t hurt either, as well as easy access to public transportation.

“I thought you would be here,” Paladin said. She sounded off. Paladin never sounded off.

“Too political for my blood,” I said. “Besides, the concom is a bunch of idiots.”

“Oh, you have no idea,” she said. “Garland to Amarillo, what, six hours? Get here as quickly as you can. I need you.”

Paladin had said that to me only a few times before. I need you had never quite been in the way I’d hoped, not that I ever told her what I hoped. Honestly, I hoped she never knew that I pined for her because I was embarrassed by it. I wasn’t the kind of guy a woman like Paladin would be interested in, and I knew it without ever being told.

When Paladin said I need you to me, she meant she needed Spade and his investigative abilities, not me and my schoolboy crush. Spade is my fannish name, which my friends had given me after I solved my first convention crime. (I always felt that Nero Wolfe would have been more accurate, since I’m six six, four hundred pounds, and set in my ways.)

“Are you okay?” I asked, because I couldn’t help myself.

There was a moment of silence. I could imagine her face. Her expression probably flattened, and she rolled her eyes just a little bit. If Casper were beside me, she would have whispered, “Are you freakin’ kidding me? You’re talking to Paladin.”

And Paladin wasn’t going to answer a stupid question. So I asked the question I should have led with. “What’s going on?”

“They’re talking murder,” Paladin said.

I nearly dropped my phone. “At a science fiction convention?”

I couldn’t keep the shock from my voice, even if I had wanted to. In all of my years in sf, and with all of my knowledge of the history of the field, I could not recall murder ever happening at an sf convention. Fen die at conventions all the time—we’re not the healthiest lot—but we don’t kill each other.

“Jerkwad’s dead,” she said. “I need you here. Now.”

And then she hung up.

Jerkwad, dead, at a science fiction convention. At that moment, I thought things could get no worse.

I was wrong.


I had known Jerkwad since he had been a skinny teenager named John Johnson. The first time I met him, I was working registration at an early Dragoncon. He had shown up at the desk, with the word Jerkwad written in the area that asked what his name badge would say.

Jerkwad was so young, so thin, and so pimply faced that I assumed he didn’t know the customs of our people. I figured he would want a better name.

So I explained that people would be calling him Jerkwad all weekend, and added that maybe, just maybe, he would want to set up a different alter ego—his game avatar, or a favorite fictional character, perhaps.

He laughed, a squeaky nasal sound that reminded me of a cat about to puke, and said in the loudest voice imaginable, “Hey, everyone! This fat turd who calls himself ‘Spade’ thinks I should change my name to a fictional one. You ever read any Sam Spade? You’re not blond and bony. You don’t look ‘rather pleasantly like a blond Satan’ to me.”

I wasn’t sure what took me aback more—the viciousness in his tone or the fact that he could so accurately quote the first paragraph of The Maltese Falcon where Sam Spade was first introduced.

“Or,” the kid continued in his nasally little voice, “have you somehow confused yourself with Bogie? Because he was a short little asshole with intelligent eyes, not like you, Spade.”

The entire registration area grew quiet. No one had ever seen anything quite like it, at least not aimed at me.

Unfortunately for Jerkwad, I had learned how to deal with assholes decades before our little encounter.

“If you’re going to take the moniker Jerkwad,” I said calmly, “you really should try harder to be original. Most mundanes attack my size and my name. I expect a better, more articulate, and to-the-point attack from someone coming to an sf con.”

I handed him his badge.

“Have a nice convention,” I said.

He looked at it as if it had bitten him, which it kinda had. Because I had spoken loudly, too, and it sounded like I was the one who had given him his nickname.

I had also called him a “mundane,” which was an insult to a hardcore sf fan.

And I had done both in the silence of first-day registration at what was slowly becoming one of the biggest science fiction conventions in the nation.

He never shook the perception that I had given him the nickname, which irritated the hell out of him. He didn’t like me, and he didn’t like the fact that I got credit for something as important as his con name.

Usually guys like him vanished the moment they left adolescence. But he didn’t. He gained professional credentials. He published his work in well-known European venues and some truly dodgy venues here in the States.

He moved to Europe, joined some nasty political movements (there were rumors he was a Neo-Nazi), and attended a few European cons. Mostly, though, he hung out on the Internet. He found all its dark corners and assembled minions of hatred to do his bidding.

It didn’t hurt that he was literate and funny and could write better than most of the critics. Reading his takedowns of other people was always entertaining even while they were appalling.

Even though the politics of science fiction fans veer from libertarian to ultraconservative to liberal to progressive, most fen don’t go after each other for their views. Jerkwad did. He attacked anyone who wasn’t as right wing as he was. Worse, he did it the way he had attacked me, by commenting on people’s appearance or their greatest weakness—the way that bullies in the real world did.

Those bullies were the reason most of us had fled to sf in the first place. We tolerated a lot of socially inept speech in our community, but overt bullying was something that got moved out of the sf convention circuit in very quiet ways. Concoms, at least those staffed by SMoFs, simply did not allow the worst bullies to return. Suffering the pain of bullying was, after all, something we all shared, and we didn’t want to replicate it in our safe place.

Then, a few years ago, the entire sf community got torn apart by a fight over politics in the community’s highest award, the Hugo, and Jerkwad was in the middle of all of it, egging people on.

He started to come back to conventions in the States after that, invited by people who agreed with his politics.

And that, apparently, was how he ended up at Unity Con.

When I turned Unity Con down months before, I had no idea they had invited Jerkwad. Maybe they hadn’t then. Not that it mattered. They had, and he was dead, and some things were never going to be the same. . . .


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Copyright © 2018. Unity Con: A Spade/Paladin Conundrum by Kristine Kathryn Rusch