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Dim Caffeinic Nights

by Spider Joe


Chapter 31

Spider Joe and Fong...the Merciless had been acquainted for many years. At one time, they had jointly owned a theater in the Thieve's District, the old Spider Joe Presents A Fong's Chinese Theatre Internationale Adults Only theater, specializing in revivals of film noir Later, Fong...the Merciless had moved on to other theaters, until he owned a virtual monopoly on theatrical endeavors in the city. A power in the international milieu of the Thieves' District, Fong...the Merciless had acquired enemies, and one or two of them were still alive. Hence his caution.

"Well, Spider Joe," he said, "It's been a long time."

"A couple of months, anyway. How 'you been, A Fong?"

"Fine. And you?" he waived a hand, a gesture of casual dismissal. "Don't answer. I've heard. Interesting rumors. Are they true?"

"More or less."

"Can I assist you in solving this mystery? Can the Tong help?"

"I don't know. Maybe. I came here to leave something with my lawyers, but their office seems to be closed."

"Ah, yes. My former tenants. The office was closed while you were...away. Wells, alas, has gone on to the judiciary. His services at the bar are still available, fortunately, though in a manner more roundabout than before."

Spider Joe nodded. When he and Fong...the Merciless had first ventured into the theater business, McPartlan, Kovacevic, and Wells and been instrumental in fixing licenses, setting up exclusive distribution agreements, and preparing nuisance suits against the competition. With the Ferret manipulating the receipts, juggling the accounts, and preparing creative tax records, they had quickly turned an impressive profit.

"As for McPartlan and Kovacevic," A Fong continued, "They have on exclusive retainer joined with me in a new enterprise. For old times' sake, however, I am sure they would want to assist you and could make themselves available should you wish to see them."

"They are here?"

"No. They are at the old theater. They are attending to... Business."

"For the Pong?"

"Wrong. The Tong."

"Oh. They're in the Tong?"

"Not just the Tong. The Ping."


"Of course. They are members of the Ping council that oversees the affairs of the Pong Tong. Their legal expertise is, as you know well, indispensable as business strategies blossom. As overseers of the future services planning board, they sit with me in what our underworld compatriots have come to refer to as the Gang of Four."

"Gang of Four? Who besides you, Kovacevic, and McPartlan?"

"One other. One you shall meet soon enough. Please follow me."

So, though Spider Joe to himself. Fong...the Merciless had revived his Master Plan. Even when they were associated, Fong...the Merciless had been planning his master stroke, an eventual monopoly on the world's supply of Turkey specialty products. Due largely to Spider Joe's assistance in fund raising, he had leveraged enough capital to begin his quest for worldwide Turkey-product domination. Already, he had attained unquestioned control of the local Turkey pastrami racket. This alone resulted in no mean amount of wealth, influence, and raw, unbridled power. For Fong...the Merciless, products from Turkey were everything. Turkey pastrami, of course, was his big money maker. Turkey ham would come next, followed by Turkey bologna, and Turkey franks. He had tried (albeit unsuccessfully) to interest Manolo in Turkey paella franchises catering to the Thieves' District Turkey Enclave. He had tried to interest Spider Joe himself in a Turkish Coffee house, where the Thieves' District literati could gather and discuss literature, business, and law enforcement. He had an exclusive regional contract for importing and exporting Turkey cigarettes. As a public relations move, he had endowed an annual award to honor literary and journalistic achievements in the Thieves' District, and had called it the Turkey Pullet Surprise. He had encouraged an interest in French Turkey cuisine, which had begun with an attempt at Turkey a l'orange, but had ended abruptly after the great pressed Turkey disaster -- some quarters of the Thieves' District were still reeling from that one. For Fong...the Merciless, Turkey things were his life. Turkeys in everything, that is, but movies. No Turkeys there, for there was, after all, a significant dearth of Turkey Film Noir. Now, as he approached the fulfillment of his lifetime ambition, he had by clever bribes and legal machinations recruited McPartlan and Kovacevic into Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping known as the Gang of Four. A master stroke, and one worthy of Fong...the Merciless. And as they approached the theater, still known as the Spider Joe Presents A Fong's Chinese Theatre Internationale Adults Only, they passed Manolo, first in line and resplendent in his saffron-stained apron, maintaining a steadfast watch on the empty lot he claimed as his own.

Chapter 32

It was Night, or soon to be, when the salutary ambience of dissident sunlight would bow to the indifferent, somnambulant quietude of intermittent dusk. The warm, ascetic spirits of day were busy dodging the cool nightwraiths borne on the dust-whisking arabesques of the evening wind, and the slender crescent moon, unacknowledged watchman of the world of night, had already risen, nurtured its claim to a small parcel of skyscape, and settled itself in a low repose to prepared to retire early. As Spider Joe and Fong...the Merciless passed the empty lot claimed by Manolo, the erstwhile master chef of Manolo's Iberian Cuisine (resplendent in his saffron-stained apron) raised a hand in melancholy greeting. Stretched out behind Manolo were the other claimants to the empty lot, dozens upon dozens of aspiring land owners, slum lords, and real estate tycoons, all waiting like vultures for Manolo to miss his step just once -- to falter just for a moment -- to linger too long during a sanctioned rest period -- waiting, waiting to swoop, beak and talon, in a frenzied stoop to capture the prime place in line he had reserved for himself. But Manolo endured, Manolo Solo, with no apprehensions at all about the fact that, once won, the empty lot would return immeasurable and immediate reward for him and his posterity. Spider Joe and A Fong returned the greeting and went on.

It is a marvel, thought Spider Joe as he noted his companion's measured pace, how the decline of day invites a physical as well as spiritual change in the countenance of those who traffic in darkness, those who live steeped in the unspoken, even unsuspected energies of the monolithic shadows spawned of artificial, moon-weary street lights. In the growing darkness, the quiet, casual, respectable demeanor of Mr A Fong was changing, giving way (ever so gradually) to the granite sullenness of Fong...the Merciless. Spider Joe found himself acutely aware of the deadly self-assurance, the unmistakable aura of ruthless menace barely restrained, that now emanated from his companion as they walked together down the thug-haunted streets. In harmony with the darkness looming steadily more imminent, the civilized, mild-mannered demeanor of A Fong, scion of the daylight, well-respected theater impresario and entertainment mogul, withdrew slowly and certainly, replaced whim by whim by one whom few, if any, dared threaten with impunity, one noted and feared for his smoldering, barely suppressed, hair-trigger ruthlessness, one who deserved, as much as any could deserve, the honorific appellation of...Merciless. Even the most feared, most hardened cutthroats of the Thieves' District moved aside as Fong walked silently by, deadly as a viper. And yet, not even the most feared, most hardened cutthroat merited so much as a raised eyebrow of acknowledgement from the immutable, amoral, coal-black eyes of Fong...the Merciless.

They left the empty lot behind them, passed Spider Joe's own Cafe Americain (where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price), passed Manolo's Iberian Cuisine and the new location of Upstart Ferret's, turned left on Blood Street and arrived at Spider Joe Presents A Fong's Chinese Theatre Internationale Adults Only. Though slow to affect abject sentimentality, Spider Joe was, as always, touched that his name still appeared over the art deco double doors (vastly wide and ceiling-high) that had over the past several years served so many as the signpost to a brief respite from the dull, banal, mundane world. Here, even though the matinees were lately filled with bored and unambitious salesmen filling the empty, unindustrious, idle hours of their trade, anyone, even the normal people -- those with lives, with families, with purpose -- could come for a while and find the vicarious solace that obtains in the imagined celluloid caprices of those nonexistent caricatures of mankind. Was it sentimentality, perhaps, that moved Fong...the Merciless to retain this small homage to the business association of their early days? As an entertainment mogul, A Fong was well-versed in the power of applied sentimentality. But who could say? Spider Joe, for his part, could only guess. Of Fong...the Merciless, one does not ask such questions.

The theater was deserted. In imitation of the Thieves' District's penchant for hanging placidly between the sweltering rancor of day and the teeming, shortfused clamor of night, the theater endured the idle, empty hours between Matinee and Evening Show. The marquee proffered its clarion message to the shadow-stricken street: "Now Playing... Robert Mitchum in... Out of the Past." How appropriate, thought Spider Joe. But then, the marquee at Spider Joe Presents A Fong's Chinese Theatre Internationale Adults Only was always appropriate, somehow, regardless of the occasion.

Fong...the Merciless pulled the office door open and held it for Spider Joe, then they walked together in silence through the long, dim hallway that followed the north side of the building around to the stage. Behind the screen, they took a narrow flight of stairs downward to the great underground chamber that Fong...the Merciless had excavated long ago for use as his Secret Headquarters. From here, aided by his ruthless cohorts, he could oversee with omnipotent diligence the machinations of his ever-growing Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping empire, ruled by the Gang of Four.

Chapter 33

In the Secret Underground Headquarters of the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping, lying unsuspected beneath the old Spider Joe Presents A Fong's Chinese Theatre Internationale Adults Only, the security measures were extensive. Fong...the Merciless took no chances. The Great Hall was lined with doors, and at each door stood one of Fong...the Merciless's ninja hirelings, swathed in black, masked, and unmoving.

Ninja hireling guards, accompanying them as they circumnavigated the Great Hall, ran before to hold open the door to the conference room as they entered.

"Now," said Fong...the Merciless, "Now, my friend, tell me what is at work here. Why did you come seeking McPartlan, Kovacevic, and Wells?"

"To give them something. Something to hold for me. For a while. While I sort things out."

"And what is this something?"

Silently, Spider Joe reached into his pockets and pulled out a curious artifact. He placed it on the table. It was a mysterious transparent cube made of a strange glass-like substance encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi."

Fong...the Merciless started. It was a slight reaction, subtle, almost imperceptible, and Fong...the Merciless recovered instantly. No one would even have noticed it who had not known Fong...the Merciless for a long time.

"I will tell you what I know about these things," Fong...the Merciless said. He stared at the cube with fascination, but would not take it in his hand.

"What a marvel this is, Spider Joe. Here is something you can catch and hold. A thing of beauty. And it emanates great power, or seems to. But beware! So, too, can such a thing catch and hold you. It comes into your possession and stays with you, as you stay with it -- it may help you, it may reward you, but yet it may not. It expects your loyalty in return, and it may protect you. But then again, it may betray you."

"How will it betray?"

"Who can say? As you may have guessed, this is not the first of its kind that I've seen. Clearly, though, this one is intended for you, for it bears your name. I have seen others, though I do not speak of them, and have known some who have been betrayed and abandoned by theirs. Of those who hold them, none can be sure of the future. It has been whispered that the cubes promise a bond, a mutual dependence, a mutual appreciation, a symbol, even, of rewards to come -- but this may simply be the whimsy of those to whom they come, the idle thoughts of moments cut loose from the reality of the relationship, and may not be shared by the cubes themselves. They are perhaps motivated by their own species of objective neutrality. Think on your own plight. With this cube in your hand you have done great deeds, or have contributed to the doing of great deeds. But knowing what you now know, do you feel protected by it, nurtured by it, helped by it? Has it shared your achievements, or are they your own? And if your own, has the cube contributed anything, or has it simply been the inanimate, insensate vehicle of your accomplishment? Perhaps those to whom the cubes come are an exclusive fellowship, a Brotherhood, if you like, forged of a common bond. Perhaps, instead, the cubes are no more than another manifestation of abject randomness, the unique result of a singular convergence of disparate, blameless, undirected events. They may have had a profound importance in the past. Perhaps they hold an equally profound importance for the future. I do not know. Not even Fong...the Merciless can know what will be. Not even Fong...the Merciless knows for whom the cube tolls. It will take one greater than I to unravel the mystery."

Spider Joe nodded. He did not understand, but he nodded. He took the cube from the table and secreted it in one of his pockets.

"Now," said Fong the Merciless, "I will assemble the inner circle."

Chapter 34

In the Secret Underground Headquarters of the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping, lying unsuspected beneath the old Spider Joe Presents A Fong's Chinese Theatre Internationale Adults Only, Fong...the Merciless had called an assembly of the inner circle, the Gang of Four. While he and Spider Joe waited at the great, round table reserved for the exclusive use of the Ping, one ninja hireling struck the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping Gong, sending still more ninja hirelings out to the street, while yet another ninja hireling set up a small projector. "We have some time," said Fong...the Merciless. "Let me show you something I've been working on." He signaled to still yet another of his ninja hirelings (Spider Joe could not but notice the veritable wealth of ninja hirelings the proliferated in the Secret Underground Headquarters) to start the projector, and the wall in front of them was filled with the colorized version of 'The Treasure of the Sierra Madres.'

"Really, A Fong," said Spider Joe, "I have no objection to the colorization process in general, but tampering with the cinematographic integrity of this film will not improve it."

A Fong pulled two pairs of glasses from his sleeve and put one on. "Don't be rash," he said, and held out the other pair. "Try these."

"What are they."

Fong...the Merciless said nothing, but gestured with the glasses. Spider Joe took them, held them in front of his eyes, and looked at the projection wall. Black and white. Perfect. "Perfect," Spider Joe said, and Fong...the Merciless nodded. "2-D decolorizing glasses," he said. "My own invention."

They watched the classic tale of greed unfold, watched Bogart as the down-on-his-luck American, watched Walter Huston as the Old Prospector, kicking his heels in glee at the discovery of a rich vein, reminding Spider Joe of another old prospector, one who had gone on to become one of the Best Loved Legends in the Old West. And the word went out while they watched, so that even Manolo, resplendent in his saffron-stained, checkered apron, and maintaining as he did a lonely vigil in the barren darkness of the empty lot he had claimed as his own, heard the call.

The film had not quite ended as the long-awaited arrivals began to assemble with their retinues in the conference hall. By the time the screening was complete, Kovacevic and McPartlan had arrived, and though the Gang of Four was not complete, Fong...the Merciless felt it was time to begin.

The meeting opened with the usual business. Kovacevic, who handled among other things Future Technologies for the Tong, indicated some progress on the solo flight apparatus commissioned by Judge Wells, the Flying Hanging Judge. He reported that he had been measuring the wingspans of all available ninja hirelings, in the hope of finding one who could adequately test the device. "We got this one guy," he said, "What a wingspan! We'll have that SFA up and air-tested in no time." He did not inform his fellow Ping members of the fact that his own wingspan was better suited for the flight test. He was a lawyer, but he was no fool.

McPartlan, Director of Procurement, shocked those present by indicating his intention to marry and retire from the world of nighttime proclivity. He swore his avowed intention to rejoin the mundane world of insipid respectability, and (though it meant returning to the shadowy, ill-conceived milieu of legal maneuvering) confessed the unfathomable desire to become one with the respectable people -- those with lives, with families, with purpose -- even at the expense of his wild, carefree life in the nocturnal milieu of the District of Thieves, even over the objections of the Ping.

Fong...the Merciless, however, refused his request. "Your place is here, friend, with the Thieves. I speak for Kovacevic as well." (Kovacevic nodded.) "And no doubt I speak as well for the Enforcer, who has not yet arrived."

"He's right, McPartlan," Spider Joe said. "You are part of us. Marry who you will, you cannot put behind you your ties to the world of Thieves. Remember what happened to Herschel Dillbecker."

"Who's Herschel Dillbecker?" asked McPartlan.

"That's right," said Kovacevic, "I'd almost forgotten. Herschel Dillbecker. What a wingspan that guy had!"

"Yep," agreed Spider Joe, "It was a great loss, but there are none who would suggest that he did not deserve exactly what he got."

"This is true," said Fong...the Merciless. "In the end, he learned the true meaning of justice."

"Yes," agreed Kovacevic, "He did indeed. But, boy! What a wingspan!"

"Wait a minute," said McPartlan. "Who's Herschel Dillbecker. What happened to him?"

"Better you shouldn't know," said Spider Joe, and Kovacevic and Fong...the Merciless nodded in grim concurrence.

"You'd better listen to what he says," said a voice behind them, and they all turned. The Enforcer had arrived.

Note about Chapter 34 from P. Frantz:

I was a little disappointed that apparently the hireling struck the wrong Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping Gong - the one with the short unmusical bong. For it is well known that whenever the long bong Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping gong is struck, all enmity is suspended, and all those present (even the hirelings) raise their voices and to the accompaniment of the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping Long Bong Gong, sing Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping Gong Songs.

I apologize. I'm leaving. In fact, I'm already gong.

Chapter 35

"You'd better listen to what he says," said a voice behind them, and they all turned. The Enforcer had arrived.

At that moment, however, outside in the streets, it was night. It was Papa Hemingway's birthday. Who's Hemingway? It didn't matter. Franco Gorillo always remembered Hemingway. Even when it was not his birthday. Manolo kept his vigil. Franco Gorillo came out of the front door of Manolo's Iberian Cuisine and saw him. He looked at him. He walked toward the lot.

Manolo looked up. Behind him stretched the line of aspirants to the lot, supplicants to property. They didn't matter. He looked at him.

"Hello," he said.


"How are you doing, here at the lot."

"I am fine, Franco. I am fine," he said. "Thanks."

Franco scratched his head. "I don't see how you can stand it here like this," he said.

Manolo looked at him. "It looks hard, but it is not."

"How so?"

"Franco," he said, "Standing here, waiting here, in this line, it reminds me of the bulls."

"The bulls?" He looked at him.

"Yes. The bulls. It reminds me of the bulls. The power. The energy. The blood coursing through the veins. Of the bull."

"Yes," he answered. "When I was a little boy, there was an Old Man, a fisherman who lived in our village. Carlos was his name."

"Yes. There is passion in the bull."

"Yes. One year, there was no good fishing. The other fishermen did not do badly. Carlos did badly, though. He had bad luck. For him there were no fish."

"Yes. When I stand in this line, it is like standing in the ring with the bull. The future is unknown. The past is forgotten. There is only now. Only the present."

"Yes. When Carlos went out, he would catch no fish. An old boot, maybe, or an olive oil can. No fish. The others knew his luck was bad. No one would go out with him."

"Yes. I know. It is the same with the bulls. Everything a man can live for coalesces at this moment. Life does not matter. He laughs at life. Death does not matter. He spits at death. There is only the bull. The man and the bull." He looked at him.

"Yes. You are right. The Old Man was like that. Once, he went out on his boat, all alone. He went alone because no one would go with him. All the other fishermen, the fathers, they told their sons to stay away from the Old Man. Because he was bad luck."

"Yes. That is how I see it, too. Though even luck does not matter where it counts. With the bull. In the ring. There is no luck there. There is no death. There is no emptiness. There is only the bull. The man and the bull."

"Yes. I think they were afraid. They were afraid his bad luck would come to them."

"Yes. They are simple people. For them, there is only work. Living and working. Except on holidays. And then there is the bull."

"Yes. They say the Old Man went out on the sea and caught a big fish. A great fish. Alone he took the fish, but the sea took it from him. The sea is like a woman. It is frail, sometimes, but it is temperamental. Temperamental and moody. And jealous. And cruel. That is the sea."

"Yes. And glory is there too. People remember. Just like they remember the bull. And the great men who fight the bull. And some of them die. But the people remember anyway. People remember only the very great things."

"Yes. Like the great DiMaggio."

"Yes. But in the ring, there is glory. There is also the bull. Glory and the bull. And the man. He is there also. Glory, the bull, and the man."

"Yes. Soon you will be finished here. We must have a feast."

"Yes. It will be time for a feast."

"Yes. It will be a great feast. Everyone will come."


"Yes. My father found a pearl once."

"Yes," he said, and he looked at him. "But that is another story."

"Yes. And another author."


So he turned and walked away. Manolo remained behind him, though not far behind, for the door to Manolo's Iberian Cuisine was only sixty yards away, separated from Manolo's vacant lot only by Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. And it wasn't Papa Hemingway's birthday. Who's Hemingway? It didn't matter. Franco Gorillo always remembered Hemingway.

Chapter 36

It was Night, flagitious night, and too late the all-endeavoring sun, like a grape once corpulent and moist forced by the crass insouciance of a misplaced, contrapuntal benevolence into a withered pellet of raisin d'etre, writhed in its diminishing ascendence, starting abruptly, as if withdrawing from the shadowed horizon that with obscene dactylology extended graveolent appendages of skyline to grapple with the staid concupiscence of its reddened orbidity, while the true adversary, a twin-horned, cunning moon, extricated itself from the listless embrace of the light-tipped hills to the east and flew unburdened into the wide, ranging arc of intransigent dusk -- and for a while, it seemed as if the sun might have its way, for as the small, red-gold circlet was about to be consumed utterly by the heartless maw of landscape, the sun burst forth again, no longer a demure flash of brilliance but now a raging, blazing, swollen spider of crimson that for a moment seemed to break out of the devouring jaws of engorged earth, and even succeed in elevating itself step by hard-won step above the horizon, to shine cunctatious in crimson glory, not unlike a whisk of light in the darkling hearth, exploding an illusory fantasy of brilliance, an illusion more glorious the more thorough the darkness, until the dark-starved desert scape, opened (out of sight beyond the distant horizon) an invisible pit that gaped, stretched, and lapped at the sun until -- the heartless climax of a pitiable jest -- it was gone, leaving only the glooming dusk under which, in a vacant lot adjacent to Spider Joe's Cafe Americain (where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price), two figures not unknown to the residents of the Thieves' District finished their quiet dialogue, one, well known as a hitman and saucier, about to return to the ramshackle order of the traditional paella kitchen he maintained for the other, who, well known as a restaurateur to whom no one ever complained -- and lived, resplendent in his saffron-stained apron, gathered his strength to endure once more the lonely vigil in the blighted darkness of the empty lot he had claimed as his own; while, unbeknownst to both, beneath their feet, deep in the hidden chambers of the Secret Underground Headquarters of the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping, lying unsuspected beneath the old Spider Joe Presents A Fong's Chinese Theatre Internationale Adults Only, Fong...the Merciless had assembled the inner circle, and the last pillar of the Gang of Four had arrived. "You'd better listen to what he says," said a voice behind them. It was, indeed, the Enforcer, and in welcome one of Fong...the Merciless's many ninja hirelings struck the Great Ping Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping Gong, whose sound reverberated through the immense vastness of the subterranean chambers and caverns measureless to man, which, long ago -- or so the legends said -- had been excavated by Genghis Fong, of whom Fong...the Merciless was the sole living heir.

They all turned. Spider Joe recognized immediately the fourth member of the Gang of Four. Of course, thought Spider Joe. This could only be the Enforcer, the strong arm of the Gang of Four. A wise choice. That Fong...the Merciless had obtained the services of Kovacevic and McPartlan in his fearful criminal cadre was coup enough. That he had recruited this one was truly a master coup, for here stood one of the most notorious adventurers of all time, Goldie the Pirate Queen, Scourge of the Seven Seas, Adventuress Untamed, who had buckled swashes throughout the Thieves' District, nay, even the world, and was deservedly well-known for her ruthless speed with the cross-hilted epees she carried cleverly concealed in a tennis racquet cover. (She kept them with her always, and was never reluctant to use them.) She, then, was the principal Enforcer for the Tong Ping, a legend in her own time since, in a daring, brash encounter with the Chasseurs d'Afrique during a lock-picking escapade that has since become known as the Story of Goldie, Locks, and the Three Beaus, she had escaped the trap set for her by the forces of law and lived to swashbuckle another day. Spider Joe knew the story well, though he did not know what a swash was or how to buckle one.

Chapter 37

"You'd better listen to what he says," Goldie said once more, her stern, steel-like glance punctuating the finality of her tone.

"That's right," said Kovacevic. "A partnership like this is not easily broken. Besides, you could end up like Herschel Dillbecker."

"Wait a minute," yelled McPartlan. "Who's Herschel Dillbecker?"

"You don't want to know," said Spider Joe, and Fong...the Merciless nodded his impartial agreement.

"But I do want to know," said McPartlan. "C'mon, somebody, help me out, here."

"They're right," said Goldie. "You don't want to know."

"He was a salesman, you know," said Kovacevic. "Boy, what a wingspan that guy had!"

Fong...the Merciless signaled a ninja hireling to strike the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping Gong, thereby calling the meeting to order. "Enough of this," he said. "The Gang of Four is assembled, and we have a meeting to convene. The subject of Herschel Dillbecker will not be discussed."

"But who...?" said McPartlan.

"Enough," said Fong...the Merciless, and McPartlan was silent. Of Fong...the Merciless, one does not ask questions.

"But geez, what a wingspan!" began Kovacevic, but he, too, was silenced with a glance from Fong...the Merciless.

The Gang of Four, whose members comprised the dreaded Ping, or inner circle, of the nefarious criminal organization known variously as the Pong Tong, the Fong Pong Tong, the Hong Kong Pong, and the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong, took their seats and listened to Spider Joe's tale.

After he had finished recounting the adventures of the last several weeks, they were all silent for several minutes. They exchanged looks, gestures, even whispers while they contemplated the course of events. Eventually, they all nodded in concert, as if they had reached some sort of agreement. Fong...the Merciless spoke at last.

"Here is what you must do," he said. "First, go to Justice Wells. Let him take this object and keep it safely. His chambers are well-protected, surrounded as they are by Prefect Raoul's gendarmes. The object will be safe with him for a while."

"Perhaps you are right. At least, it may buy me time to pursue some plans of my own."

"Exactly so. And what might those plans be?"

"No clear idea yet. Freddie suggested I call in some help, some real Big Guns to figure this thing out. I think I'll do it."

"Perhaps that is wise. But who could you call for such a problem as this?"

"David Holmes."

"Ah, yes. The World's Greatest Consulting Detective. A wise choice. He would be a most formidable ally. A most formidable foe, as well, I might argue, since we have crossed his path -- or he ours -- on a few memorable occasions."

"Is he a good choice, then?"

"Yes. Though it might do well for you to make no mention of your association, however informal, with the Pong Tong. Mr Holmes is most... how shall I say it?... scrupulous?"

"I see. He's a Goodguy, then."

"Yes, but in spite of this fact he is most fastidious and honorable."

"That's good to know."

"And remember," said Fong...the Merciless, "if there is anything the Pong can do, and if you have any need whatsoever for the services of the Pong Ping or for those of my numerous ninja hirelings, you have but to ask."

"Thank you. But how can I reach you?"

"Come to the theater above, and we will find you. Or contact Justice Wells, who remains our conduit to the world of the Thieves' District. But to be on the safe side, I can have someone keep a discreet eye on Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price."

"Thanks," said Spider Joe. "I will call for you, if there is need."

"If there is need."

And Spider Joe left to find Freddie the Fly.

Chapter 38

Spider Joe returned to Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. At the Cafe, everything was business as usual. The regular customers were in their regular places at their regular tables. Sam was at the piano, playing a lively rendition of "Rampart Street Blues" and singing as only he could sing. San Pedro was brewing a fresh round of Cafe Latte for the boys in the back room, while Schultzie was hard at work, pushing himself into his favorite state of frenzy, the inevitable result of trying to seat new customers while remaining properly solicitous of those he had already seated.

Spider Joe stopped at the bar and motioned for Schultzie to join him. He wanted to know if anything unusual had occurred while he was out, but there had been nothing. Nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. Zippo. Nothing, San Pedro reaffirmed, unless you count that crazy gunman -- probably one of Abdul Radish's now-unemployed vegeterrorist henchmen -- who jumped onto Sam's piano and, waving grenade and pistol, declared himself to be an officer in The Oppressed People's Revolutionary Army for the Liberation of All Oppressed Peoples Formerly Conquered by Devil Roman Oppressor Devils. He announced that Sam's piano had been renamed "The Peoples' Piano of Martyrdom and Death" and insisted that it be flown to Algiers...until someone turned out the lights. After the lights were restored, he was found tucked behind a table in the corner of the main floor, riddled with bullet holes (107 different calibers, one each) and knife wounds (at least 24 distinct types of blades). Someone called Moms Lattanzi, the Angel of Blood Street, who by good fortune was just outside in front of Manolo's Iberian Cuisine, mending the usual Saturday night wounds and attaching the usual Saturday night appendages with the aid of her dedicated staff of resigned Sisters of Incontinent Proclivity, but the vegeterrorist was beyond help. Prefect Raoul came by, arrested some suspects, declared the whole thing a suicide, and asked Sam if he was taking requests. Not exactly a typical night, but nothing resembling that incident -- that unmentionable incident -- of Tuesday last.

Spider Joe asked if there was anything San Pedro needed. There wasn't, so he went back to the casino, where Fingers Ichikawa, the floor boss, kept a tight rein and eagle eye on the activity at the tables.

"Hey, boss," Fingers said, "How's it goin'?"

"The usual. Catch any flak from that excitement out front earlier?"

"Naw. No problems. Hell, the whole thing was over with in two seconds. I didn't even know about it until after."

"Any action here tonight?"

"Nope. The usual. Mostly low rollers. Change in, change out. Got a couple of high rollers on Twenty-three, but they're winding down. Don't know when to quit. Big card game in the back room."

"High stakes?"

"The usual. Three--five. They're regulars, mostly."

Spider Joe nodded. "You seen Freddie?"

"Yeah, he was here. He was shooting craps on Two for a while. Changed a hundred, and when it was gone he walked."

"Know where he went?"

"Nope. You might find him over by the Maison Rouge. He's still trying to figure out what they do over there."



"No. I'll wait for him upstairs. Pass the word if you see him."

"Sure thing."

"You have enough cash?"

"Yeah. We're up maybe eight percent." Fingers paused. "Well, well. Will you look at that?"

Spider Joe turned. There, to his surprise, across the casino floor, he could see Manolo, resplendent in his saffron-stained apron, marking a firm and steady course towards them, picking his away around the crowd gathered at the tables.

"Hello, Manolo," said Spider Joe. "How's the real estate business?"

"Hola. The real estate is fine. It turned out just as I wished."


"And now we are going to have a celebration."


"Right now. Or almost right now. At my place."

"It's a little early, isn't it."

"Si, but this is special. Just old friends. Special customers. You know. Thieves' District people. I've got some paella going. Franco's going to do one of his special sauces. Lot's of food."

"Sounds good," said Spider Joe. He was delighted at the chance to put his cares behind him for a while, to forget about the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi"). "Sounds very good, Manolo. Let's go."

And Spider Joe left the casino in Fingers's capable hands and left with Manolo, taking the back alley to Manolo's Iberian Cuisine where no one ever complains -- and lives.

Chapter 39

It was Night, the time that comes after the passing of the day, for day must pass, as all things must pass, when the swollen bladder of the sun, having once more survived the endurance trial of its daily course without the slightest stop for rest, seeks its long-awaited self-extinguishment, its taut, effluvial form swollen as it lumbers languidly, almost liquidly, toward the privied horizon where it will relieve itself in the wasteland beyond, plumbing the depths of its own corpulent existence as it pulls down around itself the last flood of light, while the glimmering crescent moon, weakly emulating its brighter brother, inundates the black bleakness of nocturnal ambiance, peppering the old, worn buildings of the Thieves' District with mottled moonshade, intermingling wistful aspirations of light with palpable, ribald shadows, the entire effect one of a pied contriteness that just enough conceals the commerce of the night, the hidden darkside economics, the necromercantilism which is the lifeblood of those who traffic in darkness, in which old debts were paid, new ones acquired, and tallies marked for future reclamation; in which the brokers of the night, corporate and discorporate raiders alike trading feverishly in the paper of fantasy, moderate the ebb and flow of the currency of mystery; in which the vultures of the Thieves' District, adventure capitalists, apply their wealth (how gained they will not say) to leverage their acquisitions (of which they will not admit) to lend increase to their futures (for reasons we can barely imagine) -- all spawned in a rush of activity that begins at the instant when the respectable people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose -- abandon the streets, the force of their diurnal claim to the town, the streets, the market place, already emptied, leaving them no recourse but to abandon the streets to those who traffic in darkness.

The crowd -- the usual crowd of vagabonds, rogues, and thieves -- had gathered at Manolo's Iberian Cuisine for a feast of paella, vegetable masala, roasted lamb, assorted breads, salads, sangria, deserts, and coffee -- the usual Manolo's fare. Manolo manned the kitchen, with the able assistance of Franco Gorillo, his formidable hitman/saucier who was on hand to provide a sampling of his more esoteric Special Sauces as well as process customer complaints with utter finality. Mac the Knife was there with her fierce desert warriors and her elite guard of well-armed Chi'ibn Dayl tribesmen. The Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong, as well as the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping, was well represented, along with Fong...the Merciless himself and numerous of his ninja hirelings. Moms Lattanzi, the Angel of Blood Street, was on hand with her dedicated staff of resigned Sisters of Incontinent Proclivity, breaking up fights, mending lacerations, and reattaching appendages. And since Prefect Raoul had issued an edict requiring that such affairs be monitored by the law, the three Beaus, Beau Bierman, Beau Butensky, and Beau Ching, each resplendently uniformed in the well-pressed blue of the Chasseurs d'Afrique, kept a discreet profile while they monitored the affair. Mountain Man Minetti and Mountain Man Muthu were on hand to keep out the riffraff and guard bodies, while Goldie the Pirate, the Enforcer. Even Bermuda Schwartz was there, munching happily on a cheesecake while she kept a protective eye on another guest, none other than Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best-loved legends of the Old West. Just saying "Hello" to all the friends and allies out of the past was enough to keep Spider Joe occupied through most of the meal.

Spider Joe kept a watchful eye out for Justice Wells, hoping to discuss with him the safekeeping of the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words "To Spider Joe -- Luigi"). His diligence was finally rewarded. There was Justice Wells, sitting at his regular table (all of Manolo's regular clients had regular tables), looking deep in thought, his face a mask of agitated tension.

"Well well, Wells," said Spider Joe, "Hello, Your Honor."

"Hello, Spider Joe," said the Judge.

"You don't look well, Judge."

"I'm not. I've been robbed." The revelation was almost paralyzing. In the Thieves' District, there had always been a code of ethics governing the entire gamut of human affairs. Thieves, after all, do not steal from thieves. At least, they shouldn't.

"Robbed? Are you sure?"

"Of course I'm sure!"

"What did they take."

"My cheeseball collection."

"Your what?"

"My cheeseball collection."

"Your what?"

"My cheeseball collection."

"That's what I though you said. Is it serious?"

"Very. Those cheese balls meant everything to me. My collection was nearly complete, too. Oh, I know it sounds silly. But I had'em all. Cheddar. American. Camembert. Monterey Jack. Feta cheese balls, even. Gouda. Brie. Port Salud. Bleu. Roquefort. Swiss."

"Amazing," said Spider Joe, for he was truly amazed.

"And you know, I had just scored a great coup. I had obtained, at great expense and personal risk to my self, the crown of my collection."

"What was that?"

"An authentic Velveeta Cheese Ball, circa 1957."



"I don't believe it."

"It's true!"

"I just don't believe it."

"It's true. I had word of it from Grizzly Kaekel, who claims to have seen it when he went through there back in ought-62. I purchased a plane and flew myself to Chico to pick it up. It was the jewel of my collection, Spider Joe. Now its gone. They're all gone. Gone."

"So what are you going to do about it? Call the cops?"

"Those incompetent fools. Of course not. I'm going to handle this myself. I've called in a private eye. The best."

"Who? You don't mean David Holmes, the World's Greatest Consulting Detective?"

"No. Of course not. Holmes is much too civilized. This deed calls for desperate action. Swift justice. Violent retribution. I'm calling in a hard case, a tough guy."

"You don't mean...?"

"Yes. I've sent for Mark Parity, Ace Detective."

Chapter 40

My name is Parity. Mark Parity. Ace Detective. I work the streets. It's a hard job. Somebody has to do it. So I do it. I don't like it, but I do it. Too stubborn to change, I guess. But I'm like that. I take the cases the cops can't handle. I go places the cops can't go. I do things the cops can't do. That's my job. That's the way it is with me. Mark Parity. Ace detective.

I got the call on one of those long afternoons. You know the type. Hot. Dry. Tempers short. Shadows long. People moody. On edge. Heat lingering indoors and in the shadows, clinging to your body like an old dirty shirt. The street outside smelled like death warmed over. Death and sweat. Death and sweat and five-day drunks. It's not an easy life. But that's what it's like in the gumshoe business. That's the way it is with me. Mark Parity. Ace detective. Some one has to deal with the dirt. The ugly, seamy side of things. And this city has a big ugly. A big seamy. When God made this city, he laughed.

The phone rang at about 3:00 PM. It rang once. It rang twice. I let it ring three more times. I picked up the receiver.

"Hello," I said. "This is me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective."

"Mr. Parity." said the voice on the phone. "I'm glad I reached you."

"Yeah? Well what's up?"

"I need help, Mr. Parity. I need help in a big way."

"A hundred a day plus expenses."

"Money is no object."

"Two hundred a day plus expenses."

"Fine. Fine. If you're worth it, I'll pay it."

"Five hundred in advance."

"When can we meet."

"How about right now?"

"Fine. At your office?"

"Yeah. When can you get here?"

"Ten minutes."

"I'll be waiting," I said, and hung up. I didn't even ask him name. It didn't matter. A case is just a case. Especially for Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

It was a few minutes later when the office door opened. "Hello, Marco, waddaya know?" said a voice. It was my partner. Hammer. Hammer Hinshaw. Master of Disguise. He carries a gun. Used to be a G-man. Now he works for me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

"Hello, Hammer. I think we may have a client."

"Oh. A live one, eh?"

"Maybe. He's on his way over. I quoted him the 'special' rates. He didn't even flinch."

Hammer chuckled. "The special rates? Oh, goodie. This is going to be great. What's he got for us?"

"Don't know yet, but it sounds big."

"Well, then. Who is he?"

"Don't know yet, but he's got money."

"Well, then. When's he gonna get here?"

"Don't know yet, but it should be soon."

And, on cue, there was a knock at the door. I moved behind the desk, while Hammer went to get the door. He opened it and said "Come in." And in came someone I recognized instantly. Hammer recognized him, too. Anyone in the Thieves' District would have recognized Justice Wells.

"Hello, Judge," I said. "Take a seat."

"So," the Judge said. "You recognize me."

"Sure," I told him. "Anyone in the Thieves' District would recognized Justice Wells."

"You betcha," Hammer piped in. He brought over a chair and put it down in front of my desk. "Here, Judge. Sit down and take a load off."

"Thank you," the Judge said, and he sat. I noticed his sandals -- unusual for a Judge, perhaps, but the unusual is not new to me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective. I sat down, took out a smoke, lit it, and took that long first drag.

"What can I do for you, Judge?" I asked.

"Yeah," Hammer said. "What's up?"

"This is in the strictest confidence, sir."

"Sure, Judge. Client privilege and all that. Let's have it."

"Well, to be blunt, I have been robbed."

"Yeah? You sure?"

"Of course I'm sure!"

"What did they take." I was ready for the worst. It wouldn't be the first time a rich, powerful public servant was trapped in one of life's little embarrassments by a petty crime.

"They took my cheeseball collection."

"Your what?"

"My cheeseball collection."

"Your what?"

"My cheeseball collection."

"That's what I though you said." I couldn't believe it. Cheeseballs? I didn't even know the little buggers had any. "Is it serious?" I asked, thinking to myself, is he serious?

"Serious? How can you ask. Cheeseballs are my life. My collection was not widely known, but among cheeseball collectors it was recognized as one of the best."

"I'm sure," I said. "Did you have a lot in the way of cheeseballs?"

"Yes. My collection was nearly complete. American. Cheddar. Monterey. Camembert Jack. Gouda. Feta. Bleu. Port Salud. Brie. Swiss. Roquefort. And, last but not least, an authentic 1957 Velveeta. I had'em all."

"Amazing," I said. It was all I could say. People have died for less.

Hammer was standing behind the Judge, one hand over his mouth, his eyes squeezed shut, his shoulders convulsing with suppressed guffaws.

"Yes," said the Judge. "It's true."

"I don't believe it."

"It's true, though."

"I just don't believe it. Have you been to the police?"

"How could I? Do I just walk into the police station and tell them my cheeseballs walked?"

"I see your point," I said, nodding as sympathetically as I could while Hammer Hinshaw, a volcano of chuckles about to erupt, had brought his other hand up to clutch his stomach, and, starting at his ears, a wash of bright red hilarity had begun to spread over his face. He hadn't breathed for the last several seconds. I wasn't sure how long he could go on.

"So what do you want me to do?" I said, trying to control my breathing.

"I want you to find the culprit. I want him found and punished. And I want my cheeseballs back," and with that, he slammed his fist on my desk. Hammer, who by now was contorted into a mere pretzel of his formal self, could no longer keep his composure. Keeping his knees squeezed together and walking sideways, he inched his way to the door, opened it, and exited into the hall. For a moment, all was silent. Then there was a rasping gasp for air as he released his breath and took a deep, full draught of air. I could see his outline through the glass plate on the door, the plate that announced "Mark Parity. Ace Detective" to the apathetic world beyond. I could see Hammer through the glass, holding his stomach and shaking his head sideways, back and forth, while a small silent shake, a subdued tremor, began to infect his shoulders, growing gradually in force and violence until his entire upper body shook with constrained laughter and his knuckles flew up to rub his tear-filled, unopenable eyes. And for another moment, silence, until, beginning as a slow, subterranean rumble, a chuckle emerged, barely audible but distinctive to those who knew Hammer Hinshaw, a mere snippet of a chuckle which, when it had gathered strength, began to manifest itself as a giggle, a restrained but uncontrollably impulsive giggle defiantly forcing its way through clenched teeth until it met the echoing hall as a vibrant, lively hiss backed by the full force of an unbridled levity, growing progressively louder, broken only by desperate gasps for air, rising in pitch until the crescendo of his monumental laughter reached the roaring state of transcendental, unrestrained hilarity, and in moments, all control was gone. His laugh swept through the old building like a fire. Like a flash flood, maybe. I heard other office doors open. I could imagine the building's other peering through their doorways, trying to figure out what was going on. Finally, not wanting to cause a scene, Hammer took off running down the hall. I could hear his footsteps echoing long after he disappeared. Even when the sound of his passing had distilled to a faint hint of desperate, vanishing footfalls, the sound of his unbridled guffaws still rang through the building, the neighborhood, the Thieves' District, maybe even the city.

"I'll take the case," I said. I knew I had to. I take the cases the cops can't handle. This was right up my alley. Someone had to do the job. And that someone might as well be me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

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