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Dim Caffeinic Nights

by Spider Joe


Chapter 11

Kovacevic, McPartlan, and Wells, the principal partners of the eminent law firm Lawsuits 'R' Us, had just left. Considering the import of the recent events, they had come themselves to Spider Joe's Cafe Americain (where life was cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price) to review courses of action in light of the injunction that closed the Cafe by special order from Prefect Raoul himself. The Cafe Americain was the heart of the Thieve's District. And when the pulse of the Cafe ceased, the lifeblood of the Thieve's District all but ceased to flow in the veins of night. And when the lifeblood of the Thieve's District ceased to flow, law firms, even prestigious firms such as Lawsuits 'R' Us, suffered from want of active clientele and were reduced to chasing ambulances and handling personal injury and wrongful death suits.

Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, of course, was busy as always, but his house coffee, a specially imported, fresh-ground Marrakesh Espresso was a poor substitute for the coffee bar so fastidiously managed by San Pedro. In the current crisis, Manolo's was no longer a mere hovel of transition between night and light. Manolo busied himself in the kitchen, turning out paella non-stop as quickly as his patrons could consume it. He had recently hired an expatriate hitman/saucier out of Chicago by the name of Franco Gorillo, but new hands need time to train, and there was little call for sweet or pungent sauces in a paella kitchen. It was all he could do to keep up. One or two patrons complained about the service, but they were escorted out the door and never heard from again. Manolo was in no mood to be trifled with, these days. He had lost yet another cook, a victim of murder under mysterious circumstances, reputedly for whistling country and western tunes while grinding fresh saffron.

The main room was all but deserted. Sam had retired. Schultzie was washing down the empty tables, putting up the empty chairs, collecting scattered saucers and cups emptied in haste when the gendarmes evacuated the Cafe. San Pedro yet remained behind the coffee bar like a trooper on sentry duty, never for a moment giving thought to the possibility of deserting his post.

Spider Joe leaned against Sam's piano, thinking about the kafia he had hidden there just two days ago. Has it been only two days? He opened the piano and took out Mac's kafia. Of all the coffee houses in all the cities in all the world, he thought, why did she have to walk into mine? He turned the kafia over in his hands. Did she forget it, he wondered? Mac rarely forgot anything. Or did she leave it? He remembered what Abdul Radish had said about the kafia. Something about a map? That was it. A map in the Kafia. He pulled the scarf from the cords and spread it over the piano. Nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. He looked closely at the texture of the cloth. No clues. The border was finely worked with a delicate gold thread, but beyond this the scarf was completely featureless. Featureless? Of course! A map without features was ... a map of the desert! A map we can all understand, he thought, and remembered a time-honored literary reference: a perfect and absolute blank. Here, then, was a map as featureless as the desert itself. The answer, then lay in the desert.

Spider Joe motioned to Schultzie, who stopped what he was doing and approached, wiping his hands on his apron. "Hey, sure, Mister Spiderjoe," he asked. "What you got?"

"Schultzie, I need to get in touch with Freddie. Can you deliver a message for me?"

"Hey, sure, Mister Spiderjoe," he asked. "What you got?"

"I think I'm going to take some time off and head for the Sahara, maybe do some fishing. I need to put together a little expedition. I'll need horses, a few pack animals with two weeks worth of supplies, and a company of free-riding desert-dwelling hirelings."

"Poles, Mister Spiderjoe?"

"No. I'd prefer Bedouins."

"Nono. I mean fish poles. You're going to do some fishing."

"Okay, Schultzie. Poles, too."

"Okay. Where I find him?"

"He might be hanging out over by the new Maison Rouge," Spider Joe said. "He's still trying to figure out what they do there."

"Okay, boss." Schultzie removed his apron and left. Spider Joe did not doubt that Freddie the Fly (by whom nothing gets) would get the job done. By sunrise tomorrow, he'd be off in the desert, in the company of his free-riding desert-dwelling hirelings.

Chapter 12

It was day, the second day out. For Spider Joe, a denizen of the night, the desert sun was a double torcher. The unrelenting, merciless heat torched his flesh, while the unbearable, pristine brightness of the day torched all finer visual sensibilities. He and his band of desert-dwelling hirelings had been following the serpentine trail of a half-track, a sinuous trail scrawled across the featureless sands of the Great Desert like the dying vestige of twin reptiles, running between the shell-casings and beer bottles left as civilized fewmets superimposed over the piebald smatterings of a recently-passed horde of desert riders. Now, by freak whim of fickle Nature, he was alone in the Great Desert. The night before, a great storm arose, a deadly storm of sand, wind and heat, of the kind his desert-dwelling hirelings called The Great Devil's Dry Scourging Breath of Despair that Kills both Faithful and Infidel Alike but Mostly the Latter. It was a killer storm. It destroyed every trace of track in the sand, and the entire surface of the desert, as far as the eye could see, had been erased, smoothed, and rendered virgin once more. When the storm finally passed, Spider Joe raised himself from a hastily constructed shelter and found that his desert-dwelling hirelings were gone. They had either fled -- frightened (in their charming native naivete) by the awesome might of The Great Devil's Dry Scourging Breath of Despair that Kills both Faithful and Infidel Alike but Mostly the Latter -- or they were lost, scattered beyond all hope, orphans cast mercilessly upon the parched, dusty sea of the Great Desert they called their home. And with them were the supplies.

Spider Joe was covered with dust, thirsty, incredibly weak after the ravaging storm. He could barely move. He looked around for a canteen, a water barrel, something, anything that might contain even a miniscule drop of water. He needed water. But there was nothing. Nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. Not a trace of man, horse, or camel. Not a barrel, pack, can, or box. Nothing but sand, sand, sand. He was not even sure of the time of day, and it would be several minutes before he could discern whether the sun was rising or setting. He had to have water if he was to survive another day in this heat and dryness. Another day? He had to have water. Rummaging through his pockets, he too inventory of his possessions. A Swiss Officer's Knife. Keys. Kafia (that, at least, would be useful). A Popiel Pocket Fisherman (dear old Schultzie!). A gift certificate for the Maison Rouge in Antwerp (expired). A boot knife. Four, maybe five ounces of Mocha Java beans, fresh roasted, just in case. A small folding knife (a Sears & Roebuck Viper). A transparent block made of a glass-like substance encasing a simple scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi." (Spider Joe never went anywhere without it, in the hopes that he would some day figure out how to use it.) A handkerchief. Wallet. Another knife (a Case Old Timer). And that was it. The situation was grim.

Spider Joe grew aware of the sun's setting, playing out its last endgame of daylight as the inevitably doomed hordes of light tried to stave off, even if for mere fleeting moments, the dreadnought rush of night. Had he slept the whole day? The sun, its descent into the horizon growing more rapid, was barely a nightmarish ball of light that cast no shadows on the featureless flatness of the sand. But then, in the distance, Spider Joe detected movement against the backdrop of the setting sun. Was it illusion? Was it mirage? Was it madness? Then, overcome by the heat and glare, Spider Joe swooned. The listless, unfeatured horizon tilted sharply up and to the left, and he collapsed, helpless before the approach of... who?

The stranger came out of the desert, alone, leading his mule. From the west he came, the sun behind him on the horizon, his shadow stretched out ahead of him, an open challenge to anyone who might dare to interrupt his progress. His skin was dark and weathered with hardship and age, like the bark of the long-lived Sequoia. The wrinkles on his skin were war maps, forgotten songs to battles of bygone eras. His eyes were pools of transcendental cunning, windows on a wisdom never taught in schools, unheard of in the normal walks of life, unimagined by the respectable ones -- those with lives, with family, with purpose. His body bent forward slightly as he walked, stooped not by age but by decades of burdens unguessed. On his head rested a floppy, turned-up stetson, its color once white, but now by exposure, use, and abuse transformed beyond any recognizable hue. His levis raised clouds of dust as he walked. They were snugged at the waist with a knotted length of rope. (His old cotton suspenders were too worn to be of much use.) His boots were worn at the heels, and wide enough at the top that they would rock back and forth, left and right as he walked. He carried a vintage pearl-handled Navy Colt .44 in his waistband. In the crook of his left arm he nestled a Sharps .50 buffalo rifle.

From the west he came, and he walked unaccompanied. Unaccompanied, perhaps, but never alone, for with him walked the spirits of those who had gone before -- the wanderers, the explorers, the pioneers, the prospectors, the hardened men and women of the Wilderness. How he came to this distant land no one knew. Why he was here, no one could say. Where he would next travel, no one could guess. And no one dared asked, for he was Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best-loved legends of the Old West.

Chapter 13

The old stranger looked down at the collapsed, senseless, parched, dusty, storm-ravaged figure of Spider Joe. "Lookitthat," he said, "Gawdalmighty! I could never live like that. No sir!" He went to his mule and took a canteen from the pack frame. He unstopped the canteen and splashed water over Spider Joe's face. Slowly, Spider Joe forced himself out of an unconscious vacuum of pain and fatigue to look into ageless eyes dominating a weather-wizened face.

"Who might ye be, stranger?" the old man asked.

"They call me Spider Joe," Spider Joe answered.

"Spider Joe, eh? Mighty peculiar name."

"Who are you," Spider Joe asked, raising himself on one elbow and reaching for the canteen.

"Me? Why, I be Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best loved legends of the Old West. Yessir." He handed Spider Joe his canteen. "And this here's my mule, Bermuda Schwartz. Hee hee! Quite a gal, she is. Named her after one of them sportin' women I met back in Abilene, back in -- oh, ought-six it was, I reckon, right after the old Rio Rojo strike was all mined out. Quite a gal, she was. She was a Minnesotan, y'know. Yessir. We been lookin' for that gal ever since, Bermuda and me. Of course, that was back before I became one of the best loved legends of the Old West."

Spider Joe took a drink from the canteen and returned it. "Are you the one Freddie the Fly told me about?" he asked. "The Ol' Prospector?"

"Wellsir! I ain't sayin' I am, but then again I ain't sayin' I ain't. There's them that might think to call me that, I reckon, but durned if there ain't them's what call me somethin' else altogether."

Grizzly went over to Bermuda Schwartz and began unpacking gear for the night's camp. Spider Joe pulled himself to his feet and moved to help, but Grizzly waved him back. "Better stay back, pardner," said Grizzly Kaekel, "That's for your own good, y'know. Sometimes the ol' gal here gets a mite skittish." While he worked, Grizzly entertained Spider Joe with tales of the Old West, recounting his travels over the last several years. How he got to this part of the world he couldn't say (or wouldn't), but having found himself here he was scouting out the territory before moving on. Grizzly was sure the Sahara had been pretty much mined out, and was now resolved to make his way back to the Old West by a circuitous route. "Y'know, I'm pretty sure these here parts is all mined out," he was fond of repeating, "so as I'm a'gonna pull up stakes and head back to the Old West. By a circuitous route, I reckon." And so he wandered to wherever his travels took him, hunting buffalo and grizzly when he could find them, panning for gold (when water was available), and otherwise tracking Injuns whenever anyone needed their Injuns tracked. To Spider Joe, it seemed like a hard life, one that took its toll on one of the best-loved legend of the Old West. But to watch Grizzly making camp, collecting camel chips, starting a fire, unpacking, and setting up as he must have done thousands of times in his life, and to hear him tell stories of his numerous adventures, or sing some of the best-loved lusty old ballads of the Old West, it was clearly a good life.

When camp was ready, Grizzly Kaekel put his mind to some authentic campfire cookery. He promised Spider Joe he'd whip up some of the best-loved favorite dishes of the Old West. It would be, thought Spider Joe, a feast to fit the mood of a night in camp. True, the mocking derision of a distant hyena was poor substitute for the bark of the coyote or the sentient crooning of the high-country wolf, but it did provide some accompaniment to the crackling of the fire and the nervous agitation of the old, blue spatterware percolator. The campsite was shrouded with the aromas of pan-baked beans, side bacon, good coffee (Spider Joe had donated his last stash of Mocha Java) and sourdough biscuits, and on this night, at least, the absence of any desert breeze was conducive to maintaining the irresistibly pleasant assault on the senses.

They took their meal in silence. Grizzly produced a bottle of '61 Pichon-Lalande for the bean course, saving the '45 Chateau Lafitte for the bacon and biscuits. They felt at peace in the arid stillness of the silent, surreal desert, and while they dined, the ever-vigilant Bermuda Schwartz, tireless and devoted, patrolled the pickets of the camp, sensitive to every nuance of omnipresent Nature.

Chapter 14

In the course of the evening, Grizzly Kaekel turned the conversation toward Spider Joe and his recent adventures, apparently overcome with curiosity about how Spider Joe came to be in the desert. He expressed considerable interest in the map hidden in the kafia and, having asked to see it, walked away from the fire to study it by dim starlight. He questioned Spider Joe about Abdul Radish and his henchmen, and asked some especially pointed questions about Mac the Knife, the Queen of Smugglers. It turned out that he did, indeed, know Freddie the Fly, by whom nothing gets.

"Boy, I tell ye. That Freddie. Hee hee hee. Nothin' gets by him, I swear. Always on the go, a'runnin' this way and that. I knew him, y'know, back in Panama City, musta been around, oh, ought-ten or ought-eleven, I reckon. He was always hanging around them sportin' palaces, he was. Never could figure out what went on in'em."

Spider Joe nodded. "That's Freddie."

"Yessir. Worked himself to the bone, he did, keeping stock on just about everybody coming in or out of the city, kept up with all the goings on, he did. Gawdalmighty! I could never live like that. That place was a real hell-hole, I tell ye. Yessir. Thems was the days. 'Course, it was a lot worse back in Waco in ought-seventy-five. That was before I rode with the Rangers. Why I remember one time when Sourdough an' me ..."

"Who? Sourdough?"

"Yessir. Sourdough Hinshaw. There's some what called him Frisco, and there's some what called him Gabby, but his real handle was Sourdough Hinshaw. Yessir. He used to drive for me back on the Chisholm Trail."

"Drive cattle?"

"Course not. He drove the Chuck Wagon."

"Of course. Look, Grizzly. I'd really like to hear some more best-loved legends of the Old West, but I have some real problems here. The Cafe is shut down, the Thieves' District is probably under marshal law by now, my friend Mac has disappeared, Abdul Radish and the International Vegeterrorist community are on my case, my desert-dwelling hirelings have all disappeared, and everyone is trying to figure out the tie-in between Mac and the Knife of Akkabish. Do you have any idea what's going on?"

"Wellsir! I ain't sayin' I do, but then again I ain't sayin' I dasn't. There's them that might think I do, I reckon, but durned if there ain't them's what would think I don't. But I'll tell you this much, pardner. Them's is mighty strange goings in these here parts. Mighty strange, I reckon. Up yonder at Wadi Akkabish."

"Wadi Akkabish? I've never heard of it."

"Wellsir. It's an old smuggler's hidey-hole, away out there in the desert."

"Can you show me the way?"

"Eh? Show ye? By golly, we'll take ye there, Bermuda and me."

They ate in silence until their hunger had abated, then settled into their bedrolls for a long night's sleep, the fire dying, the sand day-warm, the air night-cold. Overhead, the stars poured pure light onto an insatiable expanse of sand, creating shadowless images unlike anything Spider Joe had ever seen. These couldn't be the same stars, he thought, not the ones he had watched from the skylight in his office at the Cafe Americain, where life was cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price. Those above the city were wan, discontinued sequins in an anemic sky. These were endless, bright, individual stars, delineated against a backdrop of wine-dark moonlessness, distinct and personable. Sleep came easily under such a sky.

And while they slept, the ever-vigilant Bermuda Schwartz, tireless and devoted, patrolled the pickets of the camp, still sensitive to every nuance of omnipresent Nature.

Spider Joe awoke before sunrise the next morning to the smell of sourdough pancakes and fresh-ground sausage frying in authentic cast iron cookware. An ice-filled champagne bucket chilled a carafe of freshly-squeezed orange juice. A tin of maple syrup sat warming by the side of the fire, and a pot of fresh coffee was just reaching an indescribable frenzy of percolation, almost ready. By its aroma, Spider Joe thought it might be an export-grade Sumatra Mandheling (an impertinent little coffee, light on the tongue, with just a nuance of acidity), but it had some of the character of a Guatemala Antigua (roasted -- on someone's idiosyncratic whim -- in the Viennese style) or, perhaps, a simple Colombian Supremo, plainly roasted, carefully ground to a moderately coarse powder, then brewed with consummate care. Ol' Grizzly sure knew how to handle himself at a campfire, Spider Joe thought.

Breakfast, though simple, was satisfying to a fault. Grizzly and Spider Joe finished the coffee (which, as it turned out, was indeed a Guatemala Antigua roasted -- on someone's idiosyncratic whim -- in the Viennese style). A good vintage, too -- March, or perhaps April. As they cleaned up after breakfast, they made the plans for the day. As it happened, Wadi Akkabish was not much more than twenty kilometers away, a long day's march in the desert, to be sure, but one that Grizzly thought they could manage easily in a single day. They broke camp, Spider Joe assisting at Grizzly's direction, but careful to avoid too close an approach to Bermuda Schwartz, whose look, while not exactly murderous, was somewhat baneful when directed his way. By sunrise, they were ready to depart.

Chapter 15

The same sun whose pristine incandescence illuminated the unloving, high-contrast corrugations of the ubiquitously undulating dunes of the Endless Desert, recently ravaged by the rasping, acetylene exhalations of the killer storm that Spider Joe's desert-dwelling hirelings called The Great Devil's Dry Scourging Breath of Despair that Kills both Faithful and Infidel Alike but Mostly the Latter before they fled, though whether by unaccountable accident or in sheer terror (induced, no doubt, by their charming native naivete), none could say, into the mysteries of the uncharted sands of timelessness, shone now on the spires, turrets, towers, and roofs of the Thieves' District, that desolate no-man's land of gloom and despair whose narrow alleys, cobbled streets, and earth-packed byways blotted the bowels of the city like a rat's nest of thoroughfare, insinuous, sanguine serpents of surreptitious salience, which always looked forward to the liberty of the night, for with night, the respectable people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose -- cast behind them their perspicuous scramblings after banal, mercantile successes, closed their shops and stalls, abandoned the streets and markets to the dwellers of the night in a mad rush to escape with their work-a-day agitation to the deceptive, inadequate sanctuary of their house, homes, and hovels, leaving behind them a world of shadowy, intransient images that belonged, beyond disputation, to those who traffic in darkness, to those who, wrapped in the secure confidence of anonymity lent by the haze of lightlessness, sought what paths they could seek, to lead them where they might be led, but always, inevitably, to one place, and one place alone, and that place was the heart of the District, a den that was more than a den, a hovel that was more than a hovel, the unacknowledged center of a world within a world, and that, of course, was Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price.

But things were different now. The music of Sam's piano did not filter into the alleys and streets. The sounds of San Pedro's espresso maker did not punctuate the traffic of the passers-by. Nor did Schultzie's light-hearted hum, that clarion call, that well-known chanson ordinaire of the common man at peace with himself and contented with the labor of his life, present to the ear of the discreet resident a vibrant, though subtle, testimony to the passing of time and, simultaneously, the eternal sameness of time passing. For Spider Joe's Cafe Americain was closed, and closed indefinitely, placed under unrestricted edict by order of Captain Raoul, Prefect of Police, in heinous collusion with the fell ranks of the international vegeterrorist community as represented by Abdul Radish, Dealer in Antiquities. And with the closing of Spider Joe's, the activity of the District was strained, diluted, anemic.

Even Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, where no one ever complained -- and lived -- was feeling the effects of the depression in social conviviality brought about by the (let us hope) temporary demise of Spider Joe's, for without its next-door neighbor, Manolo's was like a pit without a peach. If Spider Joe's Cafe Americain was the heart of the district, then Manolo's Iberian Cuisine was its stomach. And tonight, this stomach was hurting. There was a time -- was it only a few short days ago? -- when patrons of Spider Joe's gathered after a night's work to buy, sell, listen, sing, and drink coffee well into the early morning. Invariably, as the drop-in customers left, the regular clientele would transform themselves from a customer-base to a private party. And then someone would say, "Well, boys. The sun is almost up. It's time to put aside the cares of the night, time to look about us and say 'Well done!' We know we've done something right, and done it well. It's time for good friends to get together, to relax and forget about the cares of the evening. It's Manolo Time," and the party would move next door to Manolo's where they would sup (or break their fast) on paella, make last-minute plans for the following night's business, or simply use the rescue of Manolo's moody cafe to extend the anonymity of blind darkness beyond the conventional restraints of temporal nature.

The mood at Manolo's, however, while low in light of recent events, was doubly despondent this night, for Freddie the Fly, by whom nothing gets, had spread the word that Franco Gorillo, a recent addition to the kitchen at Manolo's, was going away, leaving ("for a time," some said with furtive caution) his staff position as hitman/saucier at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine. Manolo had a reputation for dealing harshly -- and permanently -- with temperamental chefs as well as irate customers. But apparently there was no such problem in the case of Franco. There had been, of course, the usual disagreements that surface wherever professional culinary talents mingle. Manolo, famous for his highly specialized dishes, had refused to allow innovations such as paella a l'orange, kung pao paella, and paella putanesca. According to rumor, however, these had nothing to do with Franco's departure. In fact, he had of late been promoted to handling both the sauce work and routine customer complaints. There was, of course, that almost scandalous little incident of corporate raiding that threatened to come between employer and employee, when a particularly lubricious proposition from Madame Rouge almost persuaded Franco to leave his position as hitman/saucier and join the lounge band at the Maison Rouge, but Franco's loyalty to his employer remained firm. Besides, he had his career path to consider.

But something had come up. Business, with a capital "B." Family Business, with a capital "F." He had put the word out to Freddie the Fly that he needed papers -- passport, visa, ID, the usual -- and Freddie had got the job done. Before he came to Manolo's, Franco had had some trouble in the States, trouble of the kind that often dogs those who follow the tenuous career path of the hitman/saucier. He could never return to the Windy City again. The Big Apple was closed to him. He was too well known in both. The word was out that he would try Frisco, if he could dodge the low-profile nationwide manhunt the Feds had going for him. Clearly, his decision to return wasn't without risk, but he had little choice. He would still be around for contract jobs. At Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, where no one ever complained -- and lived -- there were lots of contract jobs. Lots.

Chapter 16

After traveling for a few hours, they paused for water. Grizzly dropped the tether by which he led Bermuda Schwartz, and walked back to the pack to unsling the canteen. As he approached, the mule nodded in austere greeting.

"She doesn't seem very friendly," said Spider Joe.

"Wellsir," said Grizzly, "I ain't sayin' she is, but then again I ain't sayin' she ain't. There's them that might think she's ornery, I reckon, but durned if there ain't them's what would think she ain't. I'll tell ye, though, pardner, just between you and me, I reckon she can be a real hard case. She do get a mite skittish now and then. Moody, she is. Moody. Especially in these here parts with lots o' bad'uns about, yessir. Bermudey don't cotton much to them mean hombres we seen runnin' around out thisaway. No sir. She don't like no desperados, and she don't like no varmints. And that bunch o' polecats the hang out with that Abdul Radish feller are the worst goldang hellion varmints o' the lot. So she's real careful-like, when it comes to strangers."

"She's not dangerous, is she?"

"Well, I'll tell ye. Once, I seen her take a bite out of a desperado's arm. I did. In fact, I seen her do a whole lot worse than that. But I reckon she's not wholly dangerous in a regular way, if ye take my meaning. You just go real easy when she's around. She'll get used to ye. If you're lucky, ye won't ever have to see her all riled up."

They continued their journey in silence, marching without incident until the sun was ready to hasten its descent behind the horizon. The shadows were just beginning to lengthen into exaggerated caricatures of movement when they found themselves in the midst of a vast plain of dunes. Grizzly guided his small party in and out among the hillocks of sand, following no predictable course, but always careful to choose a path that concealed their shadows in the shadows of the terrain. From the west, they approached a high ridge of shifting sand. He motioned Spider Joe to be quiet, dropped Bermuda Schwartz's tether and stole quietly to the top of the crest. Spider Joe stayed put (a safe distance from Bermuda Schwartz) and watched Grizzly's progress upward to the crest of the ridge.

After a few minutes a intense looking, Grizzly slowly made his way back down the slope of sand, careful not to stir any dust or make any noise that might be carried by the wind.

"What's up?" asked Spider Joe.

"Wellsir," began Grizzly, "That's the Wadi Akkabish, alright, but somethin's mighty strange over there. I seen a bunch o' Mac's boys rounded up and herded into a corral over on the far side. And here on the near side I seen an old halftrack, and Abdul Radish sittin' up in it just as pleased as pie. He must have thirty, forty men with him, all deserters from the Legion, I reckon, and all bad'uns by the look of 'em."

Spider Joe looked around. Nothing was moving, except for the ever-vigilant Bermuda Schwartz, tireless and devoted, patrolling the pickets of the camp, still sensitive, as always, to every nuance of omnipresent Nature.

"So what do we do now."

Grizzly was silent for a moment, his head turned just slightly as he filtered the sounds and smells of the desert through long decades of experience. "Well, pardner, I reckon if we stand here for a bit, we'll get that question answered for us, though not necessarily in any was so's we'd like it."

Spider Joe looked at him questioningly for a moment, then followed his gaze to the surrounding dunes. There, forming like inverse shadows out of the stillness of the desert, was a horde of robed cutthroats, henchmen to Abdul Radish and his band of international vegeterrorists, rising out of the sand like spectres of forgotten wars. They're everywhere, Spider Joe thought, and we are surrounded. Surrounded and outnumbered ten-to-one. We haven't got a chance.

Abdul Radish's brazen henchmen were at ease as their circle closed in, confident that their superior numbers and unbridled ruthlessness guaranteed certain victory. In one smooth, easy motion, Spider Joe pulled the Case Old Timer from his left rear pocket and opened it. Grizzly reached over and put a hand on his arm. "Not yet, pardner," he whispered. "You just wait and watch." The leering Radish gang started to close in, knives and swords in hand. But they had reckoned without the preemptive vengeance of Bermuda Schwartz. And who could blame them? On the surface she was just a Jenny, a mule like any other. How could the evil thugs and brazen henchmen know that she would soon choose to show her true colors? How could they even suspect? For Bermuda Schwartz was no mere mule. She was no plain Jenny. She was, in fact, a direct descendant of the dreaded feral mules of Minnesota. Bermuda Schwartz was a pit mule -- she was attack trained -- and she was ready.

Chapter 17

Bermuda Schwartz was a direct descendant of the dreaded feral mules of Minnesota. There could be no question. She was a pit mule, born and bred. There was no hand on her tether, and untethered she was unrestrained -- and unrestrained, she was ready to unleash her unbridled fury. With nary a bray or wary warning, Bermuda Schwartz attacked. A Donkey of Death. A Mule of Murder. A Jackass of Justice. A Half-Horse of Hell. A Half-Ass of Assault. She was a whirlwind of flashing hooves, slashing teeth, spinning ears, and whip-like tail. It was horrible to behold -- a feral mule on the rampage. Pieces of brazen henchmen were flying everywhere. Evil thug parts littered the landscape. In the frenzy of the battle, though, Spider Joe remained strangely calm. He closed and pocketed his Case Old Timer, and stood there watching with a critic's studied detachment the cataclysm wrought by those hate-hardened hooves of hell. She was a pure, acetylene hybrid of art and war -- a prima ballerina in a suite of ninjitsu perfection, choreographed in a wrathful pas de mule. And yet, more frightening than the fury of her attack, more frightening than her unrestrained ruthlessness, was the unearthly silence that shrouded the sands of battle. Abdul Radish's evil thugs and brazen henchmen fought silently, ruthlessly. Bermuda Schwartz, too, moved in utter silence, without a single berserker bray, slipping from foe to foe like a mule-mute shade of death. Now here, now there, pirouetting on a single forehoof while lashing out in four directions simultaneously with three hooves and a jaw's worth of razor sharp teeth, executing an incredible leap to another hoof, and lashing out in four directions again. Within a few incredible moments, it was over. The evil thugs and brazen henchmen were all dead or unconscious, and the ever-vigilant Bermuda Schwartz, tireless and devoted, returned to patrolling the surrounding dunes, focusing the full power of her keen senses on every nuance of omnipresent Nature, as was her wont.

Grizzly Kaekel stood there between two small dunes, knee-deep in carnage, with an affectionate smile spread across his face. "Yessir, that's some mule. Why I haven't had to fire this ol' Navy Colt of mine since that ruckus at the old train yard in Albuquerque, back in ought-seventy-eight."

Spider Joe had seen fights before -- after all, day-to-day existence was no Sunday School picnic at Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price. He'd been involved in brawls in his time -- big ones, even murderous ones. But nothing in recent memory could match the holocaust wrought by the wrath of Bermuda Schwartz upon these evil thugs and brazen henchmen. For several minutes, he stood in shock, motionless. "The horror," he repeated to himself, over and over. "The horror."

Grizzly crept up to the crest of the ridge, pulled out an old brass shipman's glass and surveyed the Wadi on the other side. After a moment, he motioned for his fellow traveler to join him. Spider Joe took the spy-glass when it was offered, looked through the eyepiece, and focused on the Wadi below. Grizzly had been right about the Legionnaire deserters. There was easily three dozen of them, most of them sitting around fires as evening meals were prepared. Mac's fierce desert warriors had been herded into a fenced enclosure, the gate closed and guarded by two of Radish's Legionnaire deserters. Radish himself sat in the cabin of the half-track, smoking Turkish cigarettes and leering at the swing music playing too loudly on the vehicle's radio. It was not a pretty sight. A picket of camels blocked the most convenient access to the Wadi. A man in a Legionnaire's uniform was bound and gagged, apparently tied to a stake next to the well. He was guarded by a single Legionnaire deserter who lounged beneath a desert canopy, partly shaded from the setting sun by a small grove of thirsty date palms. On the far side of the Wadi, an old, abandoned salt mine strained to leap from the cliff wall, a gaping maw gashed carelessly into the side of a crushed mountain. There was no sign of Mac.

"So what do we do now?" Spider Joe asked.

"Wellsir, first off, I figure we ought to wait until some of them varmints are asleep. Then I figure we ought to scout around a bit in the dark, see if we can spring them hombres of Mac's. Come on. I got me a plan."

Noiselessly, he slid from his perch and angled down the side of the ridge. Spider Joe followed.

Chapter 18

Some have asked about the first issue of Spider Joe's Magazine for Men (Macho Tales! The Kind Men Like!) -- the inaugural issue, prepared exclusively for the 21 cent contributors to the Afong Memorial Turkeython. Still more have complained of the absence of installments of our pastoral comedy corporate epic adventure tragedy, Dim Caffeinic Nights, just when Spider Joe and Grizzly Kaekel, ably assisted by Bermuda Schwartz, a linear descendant of the dreaded feral mules of Minnesota, seem to be closing in on some answers to the mystery. And what of Mac, the Knife of Akkabish, Queen of Smugglers, who (for all we know) is yet dangling somewhere in the desert like a participle? And what of Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price.

Well...hang in there. Spider Joe's Magazine for Men (Macho Tales! The Kind Men Like!) Vol I, No.1, will see the light of day (or the dark of night, depending on your inclination), featuring none other than David Holmes, Consulting Detective. The loose threads of Dim Caffeinic Nights will resolve to a closely woven tapestry of intrigue and excitement (or will be blatantly ignored, but more installments are planned). And all of this soon after we get DAP 7 up and away. In the meantime, just to let you know that I still care, I have a special treat. On the following page is a rare photo of Mac the Knife, Desert Rider. It was taken by Ragno Giuseppi, staff photographer for the National David Inquirer in 1983, when he was in Tunis doing background follow-up research on the French-Greenpeace War. It was there, in the middle of a malevolent desert storm, that he chanced on Mac the Knife, Queen of Smugglers, racing her magnificent Arabian across the dunes, keeping ever ahead of the grasp of the winds of storm. It was at that moment, just as she passed in a flurry of dust, sand, wind, and pounding hooves, that he caught this remarkable candid shot of Mac the Knife, Smuggler Extraordinaire, riding the winds of the storm.

Chapter 19

It was Night. A pall of blackness, dark and deprived of moon, pulled itself over the desert in imitation of a navy-blue polo shirt stretched over the arid, extra-dry pit of a madman's arm, while the bright and endless stars, distinct and personable, glistened laboriously like beads of perspiration on the foreheads of the chefs at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, where no one ever complained -- and lived. Stealth came easily under such a sky, Spider Joe thought as he and Grizzly Kaekel circumnavigated the enemy camp, moving in opposite directions toward their prearranged goals their plan -- to scout, surround, divide, and conquer.

Three -- no, four dozen Legionnaire deserters sat by the campfires, contented after their encounter with an evening meal and secure in the knowledge that their own ruthless numbers guarded the fenced enclosure that imprisoned Mac's fierce desert warriors. Little did they know that there was no one riding the pickets of the camp, that their outriding compatriots had been utterly destroyed in the rampage of Bermuda Schwartz, the Jackass Juggernaut. The evil Abdul Radish, internationally notorious vegeterrorist, had dined, as always, alone, and was now resting under a canopy next to his half-track, smoking Turkish cigarettes and gloating over the pending demise of Mac's fierce desert warriors. It was not a pretty sight.

Although a picket of camels barred the way into the Wadi, Spider Joe moved ahead. His immediate object was to rescue the Legionnaire he had seen tied to a stake next to the well. Sensing a potential ally, Spider Joe hoped to free the Legionnaire, guarded as he was by only a single scoundrel, and obtain his aid in freeing Mac's fierce desert warriors. There was no sign of Grizzly Kaekel, but Spider Joe expected none, for, as befitted one of the best-loved legends of the Old West, Grizzly moved with the same Apache stealth he had perfected when a scout for the U.S. Cavalry on the borders of the Indian Territory (back in ought-78).

Spider Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out the transparent cube. He looked into the depths of the glass-like substance, glancing briefly at the simple scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi." I'm not sure what to do with you, he whispered to the mysterious object, but if you've ever served any one at all, serve me now. He dropped the cube into his handkerchief, pulled up the corners, and spun the makeshift weapon above his head. When he was close enough, he slammed the makeshift mace full-force into the back of the guard's head. The villain fell soundlessly, and in a moment Spider Joe, knife in hand, was ready to slice the ropes that bound the hapless prisoner.

"At last," the Legionnaire whispered. "Rescue!"

"Who are you?" Spider Joe asked. "What are you doing here?"

"You are well-advised to be cautious, for in this camp all Legionnaires are suspect. I may look like an ordinary Legionnaire deserter, but I would never disgrace the uniform that symbolizes Law and Civilization in this savage, desert land. For I am (though it is not generally known) Sergeant Ching of the French Foreign Legion, a master of disguise. I am here on special assignment from the Commandant of Last Outpost. My comrades and I had infiltrated this nefarious band, but we were discovered. Single-handedly, I held off Radish's dreadful horde, long enough to give my comrades time to escape, and was captured for my pains. I was to be executed at dawn, along with Mac the Knife's fierce desert warriors, until your timely rescue."

"I've heard of you," Spider Joe admitted. Though he had little use for Legionnaires of any kind, whether lawful or criminal, Sergeant Beau Ching's unimpeachable reputation was well-known. "You're one of the Three Legionnaires, aren't you?"

"Indeed. So we are called, my compadres and I. The Sergeants Three. My friends, Sergeant Beau Butensky and Sergeant Beau Bierman, made their timely escape, and I alone was captured. But I have heard of you, too. Are you not the notorious Spider Joe, proprietor of that iniquitous den in the city's Thieve's District, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price?"

"That's me. Have I seen you there?"

"Certainly not. The Three Legionnaires do not patronize such establishments ... at least, not while on duty. And are we not always on duty, always vigilant? But take no offense. We are allies in this, at least, and I have every confidence that help is on its way, but it may not arrive in time to save those poor, fierce desert warriors. We must help them."

"That was my plan."

"Are you alone?"

"No. I have some help."

"Who? Where are they?"

"'They' are a 'he.' Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best loved legends of the Old West, is out there, somewhere. He's nearly ready to make his move."

"Then let us hurry. We need to free those fierce desert warriors before Le Generale arrives."

"Kozinsky? But he's ..."

"Then you haven't heard? Kozinsky is alive -- he is deadlier than ever -- and he is on his way."

Chapter 20

It was Night...but not for long. So, thought Spider Joe, already the sun, scarcely half an orb of intrinsic crimson, strove to heave its misshapen form free of the clutches of the insipid horizon, while the smooth, featureless terrain of the eclectic topography struggled to counter the solar wishes, clutching the swath of darkness that quenches its thirst for temperance, though only at night, when the sorely-missed myriad of shadows that cannot exist under the awesome sun -- and so never appear anyway -- are more than compensated for by the black bliss of that single endless shadow that shrouds the unfurnished nighttime sands, and at daybreak, like the distilled essence of a giant jalapeno wringing the infinitesimal, intestinal vestiges of darkness from the flaccid bowels of awakening dawn, grips with a martial fervor the lingering shreds of sullen sunlessness, as if to keep, though momentarily and no more, a short-lived shield against the blaring intemperance of the heated havens of Helos, a whisper of the night undisturbed. And still no word from Grizzly Kaekel.

Spider Joe and Beau Ching were laying plans for the rescue of Mac the Knife's fierce desert warriors. Their design was simple. Advance in stealth, create a distraction, and at the height of confusion fall upon the guards in front of the stockade and effect a rescue, after which they could count on the assistance of Mac's fierce desert warriors to accomplish their escape.

"It's a good plan," said Spider Joe.

"Indeed it is," said Beau. "Simple and effective. Let us go, then, and carry it out."

"Okay. But I'd still like to know what happened to Grizzly." And with that, they crept forward to implement their plan.

It had been decided that Beau would start the diversion. With Spider Joe's boot knife in hand, he made his way through the camp, keeping to the shadows, avoiding snoring ruffians. He carried with him the Popiel Pocket Fisherman and a box of strike-anywhere all-weather matches. Thus armed, he would create all the distraction he needed, for Beau Ching was, among his other useful talents, a master fly-caster, trained in the ancient oriental mysteries of Koi Fu, a secret martial discipline developed by the cloistered fish monks of Hunan Province for use in their fabled Koi pools.

Not thirty yards away, Spider Joe ducked behind a convenient boulder. He felt the reassuring weight of the Case Old Timer in one hand, and his hastily-constructed mace-like sling (weighted as it was with the mysterious transparent cube made of some strange glass-like substance, encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi") in the other, as he calculated the paces between his current vantage point and the prisoner's stockade, mentally timing his sprint to the gate, which would take place as soon as Beau Ching had done his part.

Across the clearing, Beau stopped between two badly-pitched tents and surveyed the open area to his front. He gauged the distance to the halftrack with a practiced eye and slowly readied the Popiel Pocket Fisherman, making sure the controls were set for fly-casting in stealth mode. Then, with an incredibly deft snap of his wrist, the line sailed from the compact rod in his hand to the gas cap of the halftrack, where, as if sentient in its own right, it wound itself snugly just above the threads of the cap. His fingers flew over the nine-button keyboard below the display at the base of the rod. With nimble, practiced strokes, he keyed in the necessary instructions. STEALTH MODE. SLOW. REWIND. Slowly, the line grew taut until the pressure on the gas cap began to increase. Then, ever so slowly, the gas cap began to unwind. So far so good. In a moment, the gas cap came free, falling soundlessly onto the sand. With a flip of the wrist to free the line, Beau rewound it and prepared for one of the most important casts of his life. With consummate care, he fixed a strike-anywhere all-weather match to the end of the line, tying a cunning knot at the perfect balance-point of the match, then readied himself for the cast. He took a deep breath, focusing all his attention on the pole and line in his hand. He concentrated deeply, as no western fisherman could concentrate, at least none untrained in the ancient oriental martial angling art of Koi Fu. He closed his eyes, thinking back to his days in training at the hands of Master Po, and repeated to himself: "The Rod, Line, Match, and Gas Tank are one. The Rod, Line, Match, and Gas Tank are one. The Rod, Line, Match, and Gas Tank are one." And he cast.

Like a silken insect borne on the winds of the world, the match sailed through the night air, secret, silent, and dark. As it approached the half-track, the match head bent forward slightly, as if surging toward its own inevitable doom. At that moment, a succinct shock wave, borne of the energies of the wrist at the other end of the line, sailed up the line to the match, who lifted his head in response and in so doing, scraped the surface along the side of the fill-pipe. Instantly, the world of the match began its Doomsday, a mini-conflagration foreshadowing the holocaust that was to come. And then, unmindful of its pending consummation in the heat of the birthing inferno, it peaked, leaned forward, and sallied into the heart of the fuel-tank fill-pipe. And it was gone.

Within seconds, Hell burst forth full-grown from the innards of the halftrack as it stretched, sagged, and surged into a ball of flame, casting in careless disregard its dismembered portions, orphaning its component parts into a world of burning abandon. The fight was on.

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