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Dim Caffeinic Nights

by Spider Joe


Chapter 21

The halftrack exploded in a surge of shrapnel, debris, and flame, like a four-and-a-half-ton steel petri dish dropped carelessly onto a concrete laboratory floor. If Radish was in there, thought Spider Joe in the brief moment he allowed himself for reflection, he won't be troubling us any longer. He crouched low until all visible Legionnaire deserters were turned toward the pillar of flame and smoke, then dashed around the perimeter of the camp to the stockade. The Old Timer was in his hand, blade open. As if on its own, it cut effortlessly through the cords that bound the crossbar to the gate. He dropped the crossbar onto the sand and threw open the stockade. Mac's fierce desert warriors were ready. Without hesitation, they poured through the gate and at Radish's men. Rough hands, strengthened and hardened by callous years of smuggling rare coffees, spices, and antiquities through the desert regions, grabbed mercilessly at the necks, throats, and arms of the Legionnaire deserters. Fists flew, knives, guns, swords, and pistols were brought into play, men fought and fell. The fight was on.

Beau Ching, Master of Koi Fu, stood on one side of the clearing, lashing out with Spider Joe's Popiel Pocket Fisherman, the deadly line darting through the morning air like death's lesser lightning, here disarming Legionnaire deserters (and deftly flipping their weapons toward Mac's fierce desert warriors), while there maiming and incapacitating others. At the opposite side of the clearing stood Spider Joe, Old Timer in one hand, and his hastily-constructed 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, striking with either hand (or both) at any Legionnaire deserter who ventured within reach. And between them, Mac's fierce desert warriors killed or otherwise neutralized their merciless, evil foes. Initially outnumbered, the advantage of surprise soon turned the tide of battle in their favor -- but not for long. The nightmarish, staccato refrain of a death-dealing machine gun was heard above the din of the man-to-man combat. Oh hell, thought Spider Joe to himself, tell me it isn't a fifty-caliber, or if it is, that it's on our side. For a moment, fighting ceased as all eyes turned to the source of the dreadful blast of terror.

And there, at the top of the rise on the North side of the Wadi, was Radish -- Abdul Radish, internationally notorious vegeterrorist and dealer in antiquities, holding a slim Turkish cigarette in one hand, while the other rested on the shoulder of one of his evil henchman who looked down at Spider Joe from the commanding height over the red-hot, smoking barrel of a death-dealing .50 caliber machine gun. "Well well, Mr. Joe," smirked Radish. "What have we here? As you can plainly see, this is a .50 caliber machine gun, and it is not on your side." He fanned his leering face with his fez. It was not a pretty sight. "You men there," he called to his Legionnaire deserters, "Disarm them! And bring Mr. Spider Joe to me!" Spider Joe looked about at the confused and lost faces of Mac's fierce desert warriors. He noted with satisfaction that some had escaped, including, it would seem, Beau Ching, the inscrutable master of Koi Fu.

Radish's evil henchmen, scowls of glee on their faces now that the tide of battle had turned once more in their favor, began moving from desert warrior to desert warrior, grabbing weapons while they knocked their helpless captives to the ground. It looked as if Radish had won another round -- but not for long.

Before Radish's Legionnaire deserters had half begun wreaking vengeance on the reclaimed victims, a resounding shot was heard, the distinctive aria of a Sharps 50 buffalo rifle. And a split-second later, what was left of Abdul Radish's machine gunner was thrown back fifteen feet from his perch. A second shot was heard, and a plumbiferous .44 caliber shot plummeted plumbaginously into the barrel of the machine gun, destroying forever the usefulness of the engine of death. All eyes turned to the south, and there, at the top of the rise on the opposite side of the Wadi some four hundred yards away, stood Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best-loved legends of the Old West, his smoking Sharps in his right hand, and his smoking Navy Colt .44 in his left. Beside him stood Bermuda Schwartz, poised for combat. "C'mon, boys!" he called. "Go get them varmints."

And so once more, at the intercession of fate in the guise of Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best-loved legends of the Old West, the tide of battle turned. Mac's fierce desert warriors began disarming their nefarious foes, while Radish's evil henchmen and Legionnaire deserters stood in numb terror, overcome by the awesome bray of Bermuda Schwartz, the antediluvian war-cry of the feral mule -- the roar of a pit mule on the hunt. The battle had all but ended, or so it seemed. Grizzly Kaekel's impressive marksmanship kept the entire force of felons at bay while Mac's fierce desert warriors disarmed their opponents and herded them into the stockade. Victory seemed certain -- but not for long.

Chapter 22

It was night no more, long hours of darkness having already spent themselves in a heartfelt effort to shroud the frenzy of battle as the course of the conflict changed tide by tide, first this way, now that, until only the decisive intercession of Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best-loved legends of the Old West, had restored the balance of martial fervor to the side of justice, for as darkness waned over the once cool but persistently warming sands of Wadi Akkabish, an ocularly tantalizing rush of light, starting as a discreet, discrete burst of rosy hue hugging the undulating contours of the parched skyscapes to the east, heralded the pending, passionate preponderance of that great orb that hovers disconsolately at the heart of our planetary system, and with the sun, the fighting spirit of Mac's fierce desert warriors attained an immeasurable state of confidence as they moved hastily but efficiently around the smoking ruin of the littered halftrack, disarming Radish's evil henchmen and Legionnaire deserters, their assurance due beyond doubt to the impressive marksmanship of Grizzly Kaekel, for it was he, his smoking Sharps in his right hand, and his smoking Navy Colt .44 in his left who had dealt the hand of scalpel-keen death that so resolutely altered the course of events during the last half hour, while, as the darkness vanished, so, too, vanished the last echoes of the awesome warbray of Bermuda Schwartz, the feral pit mule on the hunt, who single-hoofedly had felled a score of villains before her attack of aggressive ardor had cooled.

Mac's fierce desert warriors had all but disarmed their merciless, evil foes when, abruptly, cruel fate put forth her hand once more. Spider Joe was the first to feel it, a creeping chill racing up the spine, a sudden onslaught of silence that rode the wings of a the wind blowing newly from the west. And in that silence, a fog of despair drifted across the battleground, invisible and deadly, its path marked by the sudden listlessness of those it touched, one by one, both fierce desert warrior and evil henchman alike. As one, all eyes turned to the south, hoping for assurance or at least some modicum of comfort from Grizzly, but to their unanimous surprise he had vanished. Then, from the west, an iron-hard voice was heard, the stentorian syllables that only few had heard before, but that all feared. It was the formerly-dead General Kozinsky.

"You men," he shouted, his voice acrid with French inflection, "Drop your weapons!"

Mac's fierce desert warriors suddenly found themselves paralyzed with fear, for there on the western ridge of the Wadi Akkabish stood Le Generale himself, once the Legion's Iron Fist, flanked on either side by squadrons of rogue Legionnaires, veterans of his infamous Tunisian campaign, whose renegade rifles were aimed threateningly and purposefully into the camp. Next to Kozinsky stood Grizzly Kaekel, disarmed and bound, a prisoner of the evil horde. Of Bermuda Schwartz there was no sign.

Unable to mask their delight, the evil henchmen and Legionnaire deserters leapt for joy, falling over one another in their haste to disarm Mac's fierce desert warriors. Spider Joe barely had time to conceal his Case Old Timer and the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance, encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi") among his many cleverly concealed pockets. Cautiously, leaving the effectively neutralized Grizzly behind them on the ridge, Kozinsky's men began their slow march down the ridge into the center of the camp. The tide had turned once again.

"So, Spider Joe, we meet again, though under less than advantageous circumstances for yourself, non?" Le Generale sneered. Spider Joe said nothing, refusing to give the villain the courtesy of an answer. "No answer, eh, mon ami? Well, I'm not surprised. Before I was -- shall we say, retired? -- from the Legion, I went to great lengths to tie you to the smuggling adventures of Mac the Knife. It is ironic, no? Now that I have you dead to rights, I no longer have the authority to try and execute you, non? No matter. I'll execute you anyway. Consider it a service to the state I served for so many years."

He motioned with a calloused hand, and two rogue Legionnaires took Spider Joe's arms and led him to the post to which Beau Ching, Master of Koi Fu and one of the Three Legionnaires, had only recently been bound, and next to which a firing squad was assembling, composed of the most ruthless, merciless, and cruel of Kozinsky's veterans. Spider Joe recognized all of them. They each had scores to settle with him, for they had each one been shamed to discover that even at Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price, a villain could be tossed into the street for behavior so unseemly it was intolerable even in the Thieve's District.

When the firing squad was ready, Kozinsky approached, sabre in hand, and formed his executioners into a firing line.

"Any last words, mon ami?" Spider Joe said nothing. "Non?" mocked Le Generale, "A blindfold perhaps? But non! I forget! We are all out of blindfolds anyway. Ha ha ha. You shall have to look into the face of death, mon ami, knowing that nothing can save you. Ho ho ho! Nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch." He turned to his impromptu firing squad.

"Ready!" he called, and his men worked the bolts on their rifles.

"Aim!" he sneered, and a dozen rifles raised and leveled at Spider Joe's chest.


Chapter 23

"Fire!" cried Le Generale Kozinsky, formerly the Legion's Iron Fist and veteran commander of the infamous Tunisian campaign, but before the Legionnaire deserter marksmen could fire their antique Martini-Henry rifles, a bolt of gray shot through the air and into their hastily formed ranks. Bermuda Schwartz had not yet lost her will to fight. Truly, Spider Joe knew, the feral mule must obey its own primeval instincts, and if death were certain, she would sell her equine life dearly in a desperate effort to bring her razor-sharp cuspids within reach of Kozinsky's throat. The devastation she sowed through the ranks of her foes reduced half of Kozinsky's horde (and three-quarters of Radish's vegeterrorist minions) to a state of abject, panicked terror, and quick to take advantage of even the slightest opportunity, Mac's fierce desert warriors leapt at their attackers, revenge in their hearts. But even the valiant desperation of Bermuda Schwartz could not fully turn the tide of this battle. The impromptu, hastily assembled firing squad had been thoroughly disassembled -- half of his force was paralyzed with fear -- but Kozinsky did not, would not, could not allow himself to sacrifice his advantage. With cruel threats and harsh commands, he rallied his men, and personally directed the assault on the valiant pit mule. "Hang in there, old girl," thought Spider Joe, his hands still held fast by two of Kozinsky's ruffians. In spite of his best intentions, he was not optimistic about the outcome of events.

Suddenly, three figures on horseback, resplendent in the uniforms of Sergeants of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, galloped at a breakneck pace over the ridge to the north, spurring their fast-moving white stallions to a speed unimagined by even the most daring of desert horseman. They rode reinless, trusting to the always reliable war cunning of their well-trained chargers, freeing their hands to rain death upon the Legionnaire deserters and evil henchmen. In the center rode Beau Ching, Master of Koi Fu, Popiel Pocket fisherman in one hand, flashing sabre in the other. On the right rode Sergeant Beau Butensky, his .45 automatic pistols spewing fear, fire, and fatality into the ranks of his foe. On the left rode Beau Bierman, aiming deadly twin lever-action carbines from the hip, spinning them one-handed in a glittering whirl between shots. "All for one!" they cried, "And one for all!" and, unflinching and unfloundering, the Sergeants Three guided their valiant steeds into the unserried mob of evil henchmen and Legionnaire deserters, restoring the conflict to some semblance of balance between the forces of good and the forces of evil.

The mob of warriors surged, now this way, now that, and forest of fighting frenzy, while in its midst, Spider Joe looked on, wondering -- ever wondering -- how long this scene could continue, and how he got himself into the desert mess to begin with. Suddenly, Beau Ching was there, and with a flick of his wrist, cast a line around the two ruffians on either side of Spider Joe. "There!" he called. "You are free! Let it not be said that Beau Ching does not repay his debts in kind! And now, back into the fray!" And with that, he saluted smartly and spurred his horse into the mass of foes, slashing and casting as he vanished into the conflict. Spider Joe reached into one pocket and pulled out his Case Old Timer. From another he drew the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi") which he wrapped in a large kerchief and started spinning over his head. "Well," he said, "Time for work," and, resigned to the inevitability of human conflict and the need for good to triumph over evil, he entered the fray as well, mopping up in the wake of destruction left by the Master of Koi Fu.

And so the battle raged on, as battles will do, for long minutes neither side getting the upper hand. Gradually, however, the higher purpose of Mac's fierce desert warriors began to tell. The onslaught of the Sergeants Three added to the conflict all that was needed in the way of morale, inspiration, and impetus. Bermuda Schwartz freed Grizzly Kaekel who, with the calm assurance of one of the best loved legends in the Old West, retrieved his weapons and poured shot after deadly, accurate shot into the evil henchmen and Legionnaire deserters.

Spider Joe paused momentarily from his death-dealing assault with the mysterious cube and looked around. The tide was turning at last. On the north side of the wadi, Abdul Radish's vegeterrorist horde or evil henchmen were on the verge of breaking in rout. On the south side, Le Generale's Legionnaire deserters were forming themselves into a compact circle, in their misguided loyalty preparing to defend to the last their errant chief. Grizzly Kaekel, riding the ever-faithful Bermuda Schwartz, along with the Sergeants Three, rode a murderous picket around the wadi, punctuating with certain finality the futility of trying to run from the retribution of the just.

Within minutes, it was over. Abdul Radish was captured, his evil henchman (those who had not run) throwing down their weapons and begging for mercy. Le General Kozinsky was at bay, the tattered remainder of his Legionnaire deserts around him, their ammunition gone, their sabres and knives bent, nocked, broken, useless. The Sergeants Three, who would countenance no slaughter, were prepared to take them all into custody and deliver them into the hands of the law. Mac's fierce desert warriors, however, now bearing recaptured rifles, were ready to end it all in one murderous volley. The Sergeants Three and the fierce desert warriors, allies only moments ago, faced each other in a deadly game of bluff and will. The tension grew, became a palpable electrified thing that blanketed the entire campsight under the excruciating preponderance of the afternoon sun. Grizzly Kaekel, awaiting the outcome of this conflict, leapt down from the back of Bermuda Schwartz. Next to him stood Spider Joe. Both had had enough of killing. Both were already caught up in the after-battle remorse as they looked at the once-human wreckage littering the wadi. The conflict was not yet over, they knew, and until the mad blood lust of the fierce desert warriors cooled, the outcome of this new standoff was uncertain.

Suddenly, a voice rang through the camp with crystal clarity, a voice untaught to suffer disobedience, a voice of command: "Kozinsky is mine." All eyes turned to see Mac the Knife, the Queen of Smugglers. To her left and right extended a line of warriors of the Lost Desert Tribe, the Chi'Ibn Dayls, who formed her elite guard of hand-picked, fierce desert warrior hunks.

Chapter 24

The tension between Mac's fierce desert warriors and the Sergeants Three, in dispute over the immediate fate of Le Generale Kozinsky had grown to the point of breaking. Mac's stentorian command, however, had recalled them all to their senses -- her command, that is, aided by the stern and solid demeanor of her well-armed Chi'ibn Dayl elite guard.

"Back off, boys," she whispered to the Three Legionnaires and her fierce desert warriors with a wave of her hand. "I started this. Now I'm going to finish it." She gave the Sergeants Three a look of unambiguous menace, and as one they assented.

"As you wish, madame," said Beau Bierman. "We know you to be fair-minded and honorable, and shall stand aside to witness the outcome of this long-pending encounter, for in truth we can do no more."

"Hear! Hear!" echoed Beaus Butensky and Ching.

Le Generale moved forward from the circle of Legionnaire deserters, a malicious, evil grin spreading across his face like an amber oil slick staining the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea. "Now I have you," he sneered. "Your smuggling days are over. No more trafficking in elicit, illegal coffees for you." With a rapier in his right hand and an epee in his left, he moved in for the kill, striding boldly forward into the confident laughter of Mac the Knife, Queen of Smugglers, who mocked him with easy but merciless derision.

"Ho ho, Kozinsky," she called. "Wrong again. Little do you know that I've given up coffee smuggling... for I have sworn off caffeine... forever!"

A collective gasp of shock escaped from the mouths of Mac's fierce desert warriors. Trapped as they were in the desert encampment of the internationally notorious vegeterrorist Abdul Radish and his evil henchmen, they had been unaware of this sudden change in Mac's world view. Behind the Queen of Smugglers, the well-armed Chi'ibn Dayl elite guard nodded smugly. Clearly, they had known. Spider Joe was equally surprised, though his demeanor did not betray it. He had seen this sort of thing before, though never in so dedicated a rogue as Mac. It was Mac, after all, whose contraband enabled the first opening of Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. The steady supply of exotic coffees had earned for the Cafe a well-deserved fame throughout the region, and made it the unequivocal heart of the Thieve's District. Give up coffee, Mac, he said to himself, and see how long it lasts. But give up smuggling? Never!

For his part, Le Generale Kozinsky was utterly unnerved by this revelation, and, as if to punctuate a grim determination to conquer, arrogantly shifted his eye patch from the left eye to the right, his "sword eye." He readied his weapons, called "En Guard!" and made his move. Mac was ready. Effortlessly, in a single, graceful motion and with a seemingly casual flick of her wrist, she eased her rapier from its sheath and parried his thrust. He lunged -- she lightly stepped aside, and thus they set the tone for this long-awaited encounter. For long minutes the battle raged, Kozinsky always the aggressor, slashing, hacking, stabbing with a ferocity unknown but in the mad blood-lust of a tiger at bay. Through it all, Mac retained the calm, confident ease that had become her hallmark, parrying, blocking, stepping aside with no apparent effort, always a step ahead of Le Generale's attack. Soon, the look of grim resolve on Kozinsky's face gave way to surprise, then despair, then abject fear. The end was near and he knew it. It was only a matter of time now. And Mac, ever merciful, chose this moment to end it. Quickly, and with a clean lunge through the heart.

Spider Joe knelt and put a hand to Le Generale's throat, feeling for a pulse. But there was nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. Zippo. Nothing. After all this, he thought. Over so quickly. He looked up at Mac and nodded. Le Generale was finished. For certain.

Mac, her vengeance won, felt emptied of all emotion as she returned to the praise of her Chi'Ibn Dayls and the congratulatory welcome of her fierce desert warriors. She was pleased at the reunion, but felt little joy as she contemplated her victory. Le Generale was dead. But evil though he was, he had been a great enemy. No better foe could be asked for, she reflected momentarily, and then her thoughts turned to getting away, returning to the hidden dunes near the village of the Lost Tribe, returning, for a few days, to the tranquil, solitary pleasures of sand kayaking.

Chapter 25

Spider Joe stood watching Mac's reunion with her fierce desert warriors when a voice beckoned behind him. He turned and saw Beau Ching, Sergeant of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, Master of Koi Fu. Next to Beau stood two other soldiers, whom Spider Joe surmised were the other two Sergeants of the Sergeants Three.

"Three cheers for The Three Legionnaires!" cried Beau Butensky. "All for One! And One for All! And We Never Use Contractions! And this, no doubt, is Spider Joe, the infamous denizen of the Thieve's District and guiding principle behind Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price. Yours is an establishment we know by reputation only, since it is not the sort of place the Three Legionnaires would be likely to patronize, in as much as we do not gamble, do not drink caffeine, do not smoke, and do not engage in petty social aberrations. Allow me to introduce ourselves. You already know my compadre Sergeant Beau Ching, who has succinctly related to us the full extent of that portion of this adventure which you and he shared. And this stalwart fellow on my right is Sergeant Beau Bierman! And I am Sergeant Beau Butensky, at your service!"

"So here we are," said Beau Bierman. "A short while ago, Beau Ching found us a few miles from the Wadi and called us to your assistance. We have barely had time to exchange greetings between ourselves. Sacred Blue, it has been quite a day. Greetings, Spider Joe, and well met."

"Well met, indeed," echoed Beau Ching, Master of Koi Fu. "It may surprise you to know that my compadres and I are on special assignment to Prefect Raoul." (Spider Joe raised an eyebrow.) "In fact, after we secure these brigands we are off to report to Prefect Raoul that his ruse worked, and that by forcing you, Spider Joe, into action, he forced Abdul Radish to tip his hand too soon, thereby falling into a threefold trap that resulted in his ultimate demise, for little did he realize that I had been operating undercover as one of Mac's notorious desert warrior smugglers, and my disguise was penetrated only after being captured by Abdul Radish and his evil henchmen, hence I am sure I speak for him when I offer my assurances that you will be able to open for business as usual after you make your way back to the Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price." This explanation did not seem particularly clear to Spider Joe, but he welcomed it anyway.

Grizzly Kaekel chose that moment to approach, watching with interest as the Sergeants Three put the last pair of manacles on the last of Abdul Radish's evil henchmen.

"Wellsir, we showed them turkeys, didn't we? Hee hee." Spider Joe nodded. (Little did he realize that Grizzly Kaekel is credited with first applying the pejorative term "turkey" to an individual human. But that was back in ought-sixty, before he went on to become one of the best-loved legends of the Old West.)

Spider Joe noticed that Grizzly's left arm was bleeding just below the shoulder.

"You're wounded, Grizzly," Mac said as she joined the group. "You'd better let one of us take a look at that."

"Naw. It ain't nothin'. Just a scratch, is all. Not near half as bad as that little scrape I got back in ought-seventy. Yessir." He whistled for Bermuda Schwartz, who trotted to his side. Her sweet-tempered disposition belying the destruction she had wrought in the ranks of her defeated foe. "Yep," Grizzly continued, "My work here is done. I'll be moseyin' on over the next hill, I reckon."

"Will we ever see you again, Grizzly?" asked Spider Joe.

"Shore, pardner. Hee hee. I'll be around by and by, just to check up on you'uns. Yessir. Wherever there is trouble, I'll be there! Wherever there is injustice, there you'll find me! Wherever there are wrongs to be righted, I will come. Wherever there are scoundrels, I shall rout them. As long as there is freedom, justice, and liberty, I shall ride! For I... I be Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best loved legends of the Old West. Besides, I ain't convinced yet that these here parts is mined out yet. Adios, amigos."

"Vaya con Dios, Grizzly!" they chorused. "Let's do lunch."

"Vaya con Dios!" he replied, and with that he and Bermuda Schwartz rode off alone into the sunset. The remaining companions watched him ride away, his pace unbroken until he reached the horizon where he lingered for one brief moment. He and Bermuda made a perfect silhouette against the enormous crimson disk of the setting sun. He took one long look back at his erstwhile companions, as if to reconsider his departure. But as he came first from the West, to the West he would return, and as he came alone out of the Great Desert, so too would he return unaccompanied. Unaccompanied, perhaps, but never alone, for with him would ride the spirits of those who had gone before -- the wanderers, the explorers, the pioneers, the prospectors, the hardened men and women of the Wilderness. They would be his companions, along with his vintage pearl-handled Navy Colt .44, his Sharps .50 buffalo rifle, and his trusty mule. As he raised his stetson in fond farewell, Bermuda Schwartz reared her forehooves to the sky. For a moment, they were frozen in that pose, old miner and trusty mule, their perfect image capturing the essence of all the best-loved legends of the Old West. Then -- they were gone.

(And no, this isn't the end either! Hang in there!)

Chapter 26

After making arrangements for the departure of her fierce desert warriors, Mac returned to the center of the Wadi, where the intrepid Sergeants Three, lancers of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, were putting handcuffs and manacles on Abdul Radish and his evil henchmen, preparing them for the long march to justice and jail. In her hand was a small foil pouch which she held out to Spider Joe. He saw the words "Jamaica Blue Mountain" in blue letters scrawled on the side of the pouch. "For old times' sake," Mac said, "Have a cup for me."

"Sure will," said Spider Joe, and he slipped the precious contraband into one of his pockets.

"And remember," said Mac, "There will always be other items suitable for smuggling; herb teas, decaffeinated coffee, antiquities, even chocolates. I'm not giving up my career. I'm simply no longer trading in ill-gotten coffees. It's a personal thing."

"Well," said Spider Joe, "I can admire that."

The Sergeants Three lined up their prisoners and prepared for the long trek through the desert.

"You were a good smuggler, Beau Ching," Mac said, watching the Master of Koi Fu leap to his mount. "I hope you are not so good a representative of the law as you were a rogue."

"Only time will tell," said Beau Ching.

"Indeed. Time only will tell. Salaam, my friend."

"Shalom aleichem, Mac the Knife." Then Beau Ching, Beau Bierman, and Beau Butensky saluted smartly (and in perfect unison), spurred their steeds, and started across the desert at the head of a long and meandering column of their beaten foe. Before long, they had disappeared into the growing desert night, leaving behind nothing but the faintest whisper of their cheer, as it, too, pursued them across the vast, formless desert: "All for One! And One for All! And We Never Use Contractions!"

"So, Spider Joe," Mac asked. "Back to the Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price?"

Spider Joe nodded. "It's a living. What about you?"

"I think I'll keep my desert warriors at the Wadi for awhile before we return to the Lost Tribe of Chi'Ibn Dayl. We'll practice a little sand kayaking, maybe some dune skiing. Some of my fierce desert warriors want to work the old sand mine. Grizzly said it's still rich, and any sand ore we uncover might be useful in my more discreet trading endeavors."

"Yes. A mine is a terrible thing to waste."

"So it is. Salaam, my friend."

"Here's looking at you, kid. See you in town." And with that, the friends parted, one toward the hidden fastness of the merciless desert, the other toward the ill-concealed paranoia of the night-shrouded city.

The return journey lasted two uneventful days. Spider Joe traveled alone, as so often he did, with no company but reminiscence, contemplation, his trusty knife, and the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi"), which he carried still wrapped in the large kerchief. And so it was without incident that he returned to the city and to the Thieve's District, even to the very heart of the Thieve's District, to that one den of iniquity that was more than a den, to that one dark hovel that was more than a hovel, to that unacknowledged center of a world within a world, to Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price.

It was night, and night in the city bore more than darkness, for it nurtured the dry desert air that labored through the atrophied stalls of the abandoned marketplace, sowing the ubiquitous abrasion of desert dust into every natural and unnatural cranny and crevice, a shroud of sand, a maliciousness contrivance to encourage the season of dust that never ends for the daytime, workaday people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose -- who each night give up their place in the streets, complacently forfeiting their birthright in the fearful desire to avoid the traffickers in darkness, the lesions of the night.

Tonight, however, an unfathomable aura of unfamiliarity confronted Spider Joe as he approached the familiar milieu. Something was missing in the barren, hesitant stillness of the unseemly quiet night. Of course, he thought to himself. That's what's wrong. No sound. By now, he should be able to hear the sound of Sam's ceaseless piano, or the incontinent, forced laughter of the gaming tables. All was silent ... Nor was there any trace of that sinuous smoke, the exhalations of the tobacco-crazed addicts which reached out its grey-yellow tendrils, insubstantial and deadly, to grasp all vestiges of breathable air, holding in its drift an intermittent interchange with the palpable aromas of the district.

Nor, and it was strange to realize, was there any lingering trace of the smell of paella drifting from the alley next door. In fact, for he was closer now and could make out more of the details of the dimly lit street, Spider Joe realized that there was no alley. For that matter, there was not even a next door ... for where once stood the stucco edifice that was his home and business, there was now ... nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. Zippo. Nothing. For Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price, was gone!

Chapter 27

It was night. The new phase of the moon has passed only recently, and on this night a slender lunar crescent stood immobile and implacable above the maze of winding streets and dark, deadly alleys of the city. And at the center of the city -- in fact, its very core -- was the Thieves' District. And through heart of the Thieves' District, the main artery of the traffic and the commerce of the night, ran Blood Street. And on Blood Street once stood the very heart and life-blood of the Thieves' District -- Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. Once stood, but alas no more. For Spider Joe's Cafe Americain...was gone.

Yes, gone. As if vanished into thin air. And Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, that favorite hovel of transition, had disappeared, too. Nothing on the street was the same, with two exceptions. Abdul Radish's Antique Emporium was still there, though now closed, the windows boarded up, the awnings withdrawn. And so, too, was Upstart Ferret's Fine Books, still in its prime location down the street. Everything else was gone. No people. No building. Nada. Nothing. Nihil. Zilch. Zippo.

There was only one thing to do. Track down Freddie the Fly, by whom nothing gets. He always knows what's going on. But where was Freddie? Probably hanging out around the Maison Rouge, no doubt still trying to figure out what they do in there. If, that is, the Maison still stood. Spider Joe turned and walked south on Blood Street. He was just passing the now-deserted, ruined storefront of Abdul Radish's Antique Emporium, when a voice called to him from the shadows.

"Hsssst! Spider Joe!"

Spider Joe stopped and looked around. He reached into his pocket and grasped the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi"), just in case. It had already proven its worth as a weapon. He looked in the direction of the defunct Emporium, but could see nothing. "Who's there?" he called. "Where are you?"

"Here!" answered the voice, and from the shadows a figure emerged, barely discernible in the darkness. "Don't you recognize me, Spider Joe?"

Spider Joe looked more closely as the figure stepped into the dim light of the crescent moon. He recognized her instantly. It was "Moms" Lattanzi, Angel of Blood Street, the Florence Nightingale of Felons, who had years ago renounced her vows to the Sisters of Incontinent Proclivity in order to perform good works in the very Thieves' District where she had found her calling. She and her intrepid band of volunteers spent their time patching up knife wounds, mending broken bones, and attaching appendages that had come undone.

"Hello, Moms."

"Hello, sonny."

"Moms, I'm real glad I found you. What's been going on? Where is the Cafe!"

"Calm down, sonny. Everything is fine. Just get control of yourself and I'll fill you in."

Spider Joe took a deep breath, counted (silently) to ten, and said,"Okay. I'm in control. Now what's going on? The Cafe is gone!"

"Not gone, sonny. It's just been moved. Prefect Raoul came through here with a crew of engineers and moved the whole shebang uptown. The governor's office told him to get rid of the Thieves' District, so he's moving it uptown. Come morning, this whole place is going to be crawling with the new businessy types who are taking over the old neighborhood."

"So where is the cafe?"

"The whole building was moved over to Rampart Street, lock, stock, San Pedro, Schultzie, and barrel."

"Why are they doing this? It doesn't make sense."

"Who knows. Urban renewal, maybe. It makes sense to them, anyway. At least Raoul can say he cleaned up the District. Manolo is getting a new location, too. He picked a lot next to yours for the new Manolo's Iberian Cuisine. He's been standing on that lot for the last four days, just to make sure no one else gets to it before he does. They way things are going, he'll be standing on that lot for the next six weeks. He'll survive, though. I stop by now and then to drop off food, and Franco Gorillo douses him with a bucket of water periodically, just to help him keep awake. Anyway, Spider Joe's Cafe Americain is not gone -- it just moved to a new location."

"Well, that's a relief. Thanks, Moms."

"You're welcome, sonny." And Moms Lattanzi faded into the shadows, returning to her nightly rounds and her perpetual mission of mercy, while Spider Joe, greatly relieved, set forth to find the reconstructed comfort of Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. There, he would have San Pedro brew up the Jamaica Blue Mountain that was Mac's parting gift, sit behind his desk, put up his feet, and contemplate a return to normalcy. But while he walked toward his new place of business, he was unaware of the figure following him, the silent, nearly invisible figure that blended well -- too well -- into the shadows.

Chapter 28

It was night, the spent sun long embarked on its grim descent to the netherworld beyond the globe, like an ill-proportioned swan diving into the rimless void of a blood-red horizon made stark and repressive by the absence of any semblance of green, thriving life -- for this was the desert, where all men are strangers, their pathetic passage ignored by the potent fury of nature, and meager their cities bare, indecorous, hollow, void, served as the repositories of the flotsam and jetsam of the doom-faring desert tides, and not merely the flotsam and jetsam of never-ending yet futile desert commerce, but the flotsam and jetsam of nature as well -- winds no one wanted, storms spent and dehydrated until they could but tamp waylaid dust into man, beast, and edifice alike, scooting the effluvia of the waste land in the wake of the greatest, most evil of winds, that Killer Storm known as The Great Devil's Dry Scourging Breath of Despair that Kills both Faithful and Infidel Alike but Mostly the Latter, where lay a city, its rooftops, spires, and minarets polished clean by the scouring sands, its unpaved (or, at best, poorly paved) streets and alleys flinching under a thin pall of dust, the refuse of the great desert machine, the ever-present recipient of the Killer Storm's endless bounty, receiving not merely the garbage and offal of the desert, but the outcasts of humanity as well, struggling to maintain some semblance of normalcy in a world made empty by the tranquil dreams of seasons of peace and temperance, seasons that never come. And in that city was a District of Thieves, clinging -- after its recent move -- to the core of the International Quarter, lingering forever in blatant, exaggerated, but not quite vulgar contrast to the human domains seeded by an unremarked swarm of humanity. The Thieves' District had no place for the banal, insipid tea-table existence of the sellers, no place for the maudlin, workaday drudgery of the marketplace, no place for the common run of humanity, the respectable people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose -- who each night abandoned the streets to those who traffic in darkness. And, or so it is whispered on the city streets and spoken aloud in places where reputation is little valued and fact has no more credibility than a mad figure of speech cast out from some profligate's weak complaints, here was no place even for the Great Storms of the desert, who shunned this world of thieves and adventurers. Yes, ravage the world as it may, master the desert as it might, even the Scion of Storms, the Great Devil's Dry Scourging Breath of Despair that Kills both Faithful and Infidel Alike but Mostly the Latter, shunned the Thieve's District, where the mischances and vagaries of random fate were so riddled with conflict, that even on a good day, nay, even on the best of days, the Killer Storm itself followed the habits of generations of Thieves' District dwellers, walking a fine line between death and despair, maintaining an irregular, arrhythmic exchange between lugubriousness on the one side, and lubriciousness on the other.

The first week at the new location had passed placidly at Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. The patrons had survived the usual Friday night fights, though Moms Lattanzi, the Angel of Blood Street, had kept her dedicated staff of resigned Sisters of Incontinent Proclivity unusually busy mending wounds and attaching appendages. The Cafe had even emerged unscathed from the scandal that arose surrounding that incident -- that unmentionable incident -- of Tuesday last. The new place was not the old Cafe, of course, in many particulars, but the ambience was unchanged at the new Cafe Americain. The casino was open once again and thriving, San Pedro was at his place behind the coffee bar, and Schultzie, effervescent as always, bustled as always from table to table, serving each customer with sincere enthusiasm. The regular customers continued to collect at their regular tables, while Sam, rolling his piano and bench from table to table, continued to collect from the regular customers. Prefect Raoul, incessantly apologetic about his illusory role in the affair of last week, had returned to haunting the Cafe nightly. Even Freddie the Fly was spending a fair amount of time at the Cafe these nights, except for those long hours he spent watching the comings and goings at the now-opened Maison Rouge, determined to figure out what goes on there. Though the old Blood Street district had been abandoned by an edict of urban renewal, the new location on Rampart Street quickly became a comfortable home. As always, the music of Sam's piano was a flood of vivacity, spilling over into the laconic, shadowed secrets of the streets and alleys, pleasantly audible above the anxious, furtive whispers of the patrons, while San Pedro clashed cup to saucer in a natural, unpracticed rhythm, punctuating the sometimes joyous, sometimes agonized, but always anxious cries from the gaming tables. Pungent desert air gave way to the pall of smoke that dragged its slow length through the air above the tables, and Time resumed its regular course, passing with painful slowness over the veneer of mortal industry.

Spider Joe looked down from the balcony outside his office. With merciless perspicuity, eyes hardened by years of life on the street, he assessed each patron entering the cafe, nodding a silent but irrevocable "Yea" or "Nay" to his bouncer, Mountain Man Minetti. Among the patrons were the usual crowd of thieves, brigands, and rogues, Prefect Raoul (holding court with some of his most trusted officers), a few Legionnaires, a sampling of lancers of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, sitting at tables by twos and threes, though not a Beau among them. All in all, things were progressing as they should (not counting, of course, that incident -- that unmentionable incident -- of Tuesday last), making it difficult for Spider Joe to explain why he felt so uneasy; or why, when he went out at night, he had the feeling of being watched; or why, in the quietest hours of the early morning, when he would return to the Cafe after breakfasting (as was his custom) at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, he could hear -- or thought he could hear insinuating itself along the length of the alley -- the careless scrape of an unfamiliar shoe on cobblestone, or the rasp of a loose-fitting garment against dusty, white walls.

It was not enough that he had the feeling of being watched or followed. An oppressive mood had settled on him, a mood of mysterious anxiety, relieved only when he could return to his rooms above the Cafe to assure himself that the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi") was secure and safe where he had hidden it behind the false wall in the closet.

And all the while, Manolo, resplendent in his saffron-stained, checkered apron, maintained a lonely vigil in the barren darkness of the empty lot he had claimed as his own, leaving the day-to-day production of paella at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine in the capable hands of Franco Gorillo, the hitman saucier.

Chapter 29

It was night -- late night, though some might say early morning, and the time had come for closing Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life was cheap, and anything could be had -- for a price. San Pedro had cleaned up the bar, Schultzie had washed down the tables, put up the chairs, and was even now giving the floors a fastidious once-over. Sam had polished and rolled away his old upright piano, and had just finished helping count the day's receipts, which Mountain Man Muthu guarded watchfully until they were locked securely in one of Spider Joe's hidden safes. When everything had been secured to his satisfaction, everyone else departed. Spider Joe took one last, satisfied look around and nodded to himself. "Yes," he said to himself, "It's Manolo time." He had arranged to meet Freddie Tosca, Freddie the Fly, at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, that popular hovel of transition between the worlds of darkness and light, for Manolo's was a neutral spot in a world of faction and violence, where the jealous cultures of the Thieves' District could declare a truce, for a time... for all back alleys led to Manolo's, where food was cheap, and no one ever complained -- and lived. They had arranged a meeting at the usual hour, that peculiar hour when the most privileged patrons commenced an exodus through the alleys, moving toward Manolo's in ones, twos, and threes, seeking the distanced, dim, smoke-filled comfort of a place where the sun's rising could be postponed, and the ambiguous comfort of night could be maintained. For a while. Manolo was not there, of course, for he was still standing his lonely vigil in the empty lot he had claimed as his own. It had fallen to Franco Gorillo, the hitman saucier, to supply the food and serve the patrons, and, being a consummate artiste as well as a hardened gunsel, Franco could not always resist the temptation to experiment. On this morning, he was serving Kung Pao Paella -- with sauce. Those who ordered dinner got Kung Pao Paella -- with sauce. Those who ordered breakfast got Kung Pao Paella -- with sauce. Everyone got Kung Pao Paella. Everyone got sauce.

Freddie the Fly walked in shortly after Spider Joe had taken his regular table. He sat down and ordered breakfast. Spider Joe had ordered dinner. They both got Kung Pao Paella -- with sauce.

"Good morning, Freddie. Any news?"

"Not much. The Lost Patrol is in town again."

"What Lost Patrol."

"Frenchies. Legionnaires. They were separated from their command during Le Generale Kozinsky's Tunisian campaign, and have been trying to find their way back ever since. Since then, they've been wandering the desert, looking for the Last Outpost. But that's another story. Anyway, they're here, in the Thieves' District. They'll probably come by your place tonight, have some French Roast, play a little Baccarat, the usual stuff."

"Does that mean I'm going to need some extra muscle?"

"Naw. They'll mix. Besides, the Chasseurs d'Afrique know about 'em. Beau Ching, Beau Bierman, and Beau Butensky will vouch."

"Anything else I should know about?"

"You know Rouge is back."


"Well, she's been asking around. Seems she's working on some kind of proposition for you."

"Knowing Rouge, that could be interesting. How's she doing?"

"Fine. Has the new Maison Rouge all set up, only..." He paused.

"Only what?" asked Spider Joe.

"Only... just what do they do there, anyway?"

Spider Joe decided to change the subject. "Freddie," he said, "I've got a little problem."

"Yeah? What's up?"

"This," Spider Joe answered, and he reached into his pocket and pulled out his Case Old Timer with the four-and-a-half inch blade. "Wrong pocket," he said. He reached into his other pocket and pulled out a mysterious transparent cube made of a strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi"). He put it on the table between them.

"This is my problem," was all he said.

For a moment, Freddie was lost, his gaze fixed on the alluring depths of the mysterious object. He had to shake his head a few times and rub his eyes before pulling himself away. "Wow," he whispered, "Oh wow."

"You've seen this before?"

"No. I heard about it, though. Boy, that's some ... whatever it is. And look what it says in here. 'To Spider Joe -- Luigi.' That's you, right?"

Spider Joe nodded.

"So who's Luigi?"

Spider Joe shrugged.

"You had this made?"

Spider Joe shook his head. "It came to me, Freddie. I don't know from where. I got it off of Upstart Ferret, in return for that little job you and I did for him. You remember. The night those Gendarmes jumped him when he was coming back from a job."

"I remember."

"Well, he gave me this some time later. Said it was old. Very old. He didn't know how old, nor where it came from, but he passed it on to me."

"Yeah? So?"

"So now I think somebody's after it. Some one or some thing."

"How can you tell."

"I don't know for sure. Sometimes I hear someone following me, but when I look around, there's nobody there. I see a movement out of the corner of my eye, but when I look, there's nothing. Everything normal. I sense a presence in the Cafe, sometimes, after closing, but when I look things over, everything seems as it should. Whoever it is, whatever it is, it's good. Real good. And it's not my imagination, Freddie. It's really there, and it wants the cube."

"Wow," whispered Freddie.

"And I'm worried. I need to know what's going on. I think -- I feel -- that my future is somehow tied up with this... this... whatever it is."

Franco Gorillo chose this moment to approach the table. He looked at their bowls of paella -- with sauce -- still untouched. "You're not eating," he said. "Any complaints?" He eased his right hand into his jacket, toward his shoulder holster.

"No complaints," said Spider Joe. "But we got business."

Franco nodded and retired to the paella bar.

"Wow," repeated Freddie. "So what happens now?"

"Well, I need some place to stash the cube, some place where it will be safe. And I need to find out who's tailing me. So I came to you."

"Okay. I got it covered." Freddie thought for a moment. "Look. I'll put a couple of my boys on you. These guys are the best. Like salesmen. You never see 'em. You won't even know they're there. If anyone is tagging you, they'll know it."

"Okay. What about the cube."

"The cube we take to somebody I know. Somebody we can trust."

"And then?"

"We call in a contract guy to sort this out."

"You have somebody in mind?"

"Not just somebody. I'm thinking The World's Greatest Consulting Detective, maybe."

"You don't mean..."

"Yep. I do. We call in David Holmes."

"Thanks, Freddie."

"No problem. Eat your paella."

"Eat your sauce."

Chapter 30

It was Day, when the Sun, its unforgiving omnitude a swollen, blaspheming eye of scathing, immarcescible judgement, submitted and subjected all to its unfathomable, unforgiving perlustration, suppressed any desire to bestow relief from its decanted incandescence upon a population of mortals of whom none were chosen, none elected, none redeemed, and scorched rather than dried, burned rather than warmed, scarred rather than healed a climate in which all were heathens, all were infidels, all were heretics and unbelievers. And in those environs most often ruled by the sable embrace of Night, on Rampart Street in the heart of the International Quarter, day was not the time in which the nocturnal denizens of the Thieves' District preferred to attend to business, for in the Thieves' District, spent by the unambiguous, overexposed frankness of day, the commerce of the night was revived and nourished only by darkness, and those who drank of the heady mead of midnight could only rarely and with great difficulty abide the workaday world of diurnal commerce. Still, while not a creature of mundane, maudlin habit, there were occasions when even Spider Joe would go abroad in the city during the day, fighting crowds, heat, and glare -- enduring almost terminal banality in order to accommodate the sometimes delicate, usually intricate, and always tedious necessities attendant on running such as business as Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. Earlier this same morning -- or, to be less precise, late last night -- Spider Joe had arranged a meeting with Freddie the Fly, hoping to tap into the latter's endless pipeline of information for clues to some of the events of the past few days. Freddie had provided some good advice -- as usual -- and departed to make arrangements for sending word to Mr. David Holmes (the world's greatest consulting detective). "When Holmes gets here, Spider Joe, we'll get this business over and done with." Freddie had concluded the meeting by recommending a visit to Lawyers 'R' Us, the offices of Kovacevic, McPartlan, and Wells (A Professional Corporation) to leave for safekeeping the mysterious transparent cube made of a strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi"). And, lawyers keeping conservative hours as they do, it was this unseemly business that brought Spider Joe out into the daylight.

But it was not to be, not even at eleven o'clock in the morning. The sign on the door said "Partnership Suspended," and the note affixed to the sign explained that Kovacevic and McPartlan had dissolved their partnership with Wells, the notorious, boisterous, and lubricious dissolute. Wells had, by virtue of his long-established connections with the underworld, recently been appointed district magistrate, and his new position altered the constitution of the partnership in no small way. A former associate sitting on the bench would greatly enhance the success (and hence the prestige and income) of the firm, in which, Spider Joe conjectured, Justice Wells still had more than a nominal interest. But if Justice Wells was not available, what about Kovacevic and McPartlan? Spider Joe decided to try the door, just in case. It opened.

"Come in, Spider Joe," said a voice. "And please leave your knives on the small marble table next to the door."

Spider Joe looked around the dimly lit entry hall. He was not quite sure that he had recognized the voice, and could see no one. Nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. Zippo.

"Hurry, please, if you wish to linger. Comply or leave."

Spider Joe reached into his pockets, pulled out his knives, and placed them on the table, one by one. Rawlins. Butterfly. Case Old Timer. Boy Scout. Viper. Silver Streak. Swiss Officer Explorer. In a cautious mood, he decided to hang on to the Gerber Pixie hidden in the lining of his jacket. Just in case.

As he started into the hallway, the voice, now bemused but no less threatening, called out again with confident, calm authority. "Please remove the Gerber Pixie from the lining of your jacket. Just in case. Leave it on the table with the others, please."

Spider Joe complied. As he turned once more into the hallway, the door at the far end slowly opened. Silhouetted in the door frame was that familiar figure. Familiar and dangerous. Dangerous and deadly. Deadly and merciless. It was Mr. Fong, known by the nocturnal denizens of the Thieves' District as Fong...the Merciless.

By day he was Mr. A. Fong, Esq., mild-mannered theater impresario and entertainment mogul. At night, however, he cast aside his workaday life, put behind him the mundane concerns of both family and adult entertainment, and revealed his true colors. For Fong...the Merciless was a member of the dreaded Pong Society or, as it was variously known, the Pong Tong or Fong Tong. Among the respectable people of the city -- those with lives, with family, with purpose -- there were few who did not admire the well-liked Mr. Fong, and even fewer who could even conceive that he was one of the Pings, that all-powerful ruling clique that completely dominated the Pong Tong. In fact, Fong...the Merciless was THE Ping, senior and most supreme archon of all the Ping Tongs, of which the Pong Tong was one. It was Fong...the Merciless, in fact, who had imported the nucleus of this profoundly criminal organization from Hong Kong, where he had been known as the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping. And it was true that there were some naive law enforcement professionals who thought the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping long gone. Wrong. He was alive. He was here. And after years of steady and secret rebuilding of his profoundly criminal organization, he was as deadly as ever.

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