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Dim Caffeinic Nights

by Spider Joe


Chapter 41

Night. Night in the City. No. More than that. Night in the Thieves' District. The night is my turf. I work the streets. They call me when there's a problem. I'm a trouble shooter, I guess. Somebody has trouble. They come to me. I shoot it. I'm Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

"I'll take the case," I said. I had to. One look at the Judge's anguished face and I had to help. Besides, I'm a sucker for the hard cases. The ones the cops won't touch. Especially hard cases with money. That's the way it is with me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

"Call me right away if they contact you," I said. The Judge thanked me and started toward the door. On the way out, he handed me an envelope. A hefty envelope. Full of bills. But that was all he could give me. No ideas. No leads. No tips. No hints. No clues. No suggestions. So now it was up to me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

Half an hour later Hammer came back. My partner. Hammer Hinshaw. He carries a gun. Now he works for me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

"You recovered?" I asked. Hammer had had a hard time listening as Judge Wells told his tale of woe. I don't blame him. It wasn't a pretty story.

"Well, Marco," Hammer asked, "Waddawe got?"

"The usual. The Judge got ripped off. You heard that much. Cops can't help. Or won't help. So he came to me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective." I filled him in.

"Well, goodie. Howzabout we get cookin' on this?"

"Good idea. Let's go to work."

"Any idears?"

"I'm workin' on it."

"Any notes or anything like that yet."

"Yeah. There was a ransom note."


"It was stolen, too."

The phone rang. I let it ring once. Twice. I picked up the receiver.

"Mark Parity," I said, "Ace Detective." I recognized the voice. It was Beau Ching, Master of Koi Fu. He said a few words, I said a few. He hung up. I put down the phone. "That was Beau Ching," I said.

"You... you know him?" Hammer asked.

"Used to. We keep in touch."

We go way back, Beau and me. I knew him before he joined the Chasseurs D'Afrique. I knew him when he used to ring gongs for the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping. Yes. Few people know that he used to be known as the Fong Hong Kong Pong Tong Ping Gong Bong Ching, before that job was taken over by Fong...the Merciless's numerous ninja hirelings. We lost touch for a few years. He became a Sergeant in the Chasseurs D'Afrique. Sword. Lance. Carbine. Blue outfit. The whole bit. And me? I went on to different things. Beau was hero stuff. Not me. Not Mark Parity. Ace Detective. I wasn't cut out for that do-good routine. He went high. I went low. I bought a cheap gun, bribed Prefect Raoul for a license, became a gumshoe. Now 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.

"What's up, boss?" Hammer asked.

"Ching's got a lead," I said. "A tip. The bad guys are getting ready to make their move."

"How's he know?"

"He was into cheeseballs, once. Maybe still is."

"Are we gonna go over there?"

"Not 'we.' I'll go it alone. I'll need you for backup."

"Backup? I hate doing backups!"

"I know. It's a dirty job, but someone has to do it."

"I dunno. Can't we hire some kid to do 'em fer us?"

"Sorry," I said. I gave a few instructions and went out to meet Ching. He was waiting. Right where he said he'd be. Not where I would've looked. He was at Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. I knew the place. I knew Spider Joe. But it wasn't the kind of hangout you'd expect from one of the good guys.

"Evenin', Mr. Parity," Sam said as I walked in. Sam played the piano. Sang. Worked the tables between shows.

"Hi, Sam," I said. It was a gutsy sort of place. You go there when you want to find out what's going on. Or when you want to hide from what's going on. Sometimes, you go there for coffee. Not me, though. Not Mark Parity. Ace Detective. I'd sworn off the stuff. Sworn off for good. I didn't come for coffee. Tonight, I came for information. I wasn't looking for trouble. But I expected it. Trouble always manages to find me. But that's the way it is with me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

Chapter 42

It was Night, and night was an eternal shroud, an ephemeral gauze of concealment cast haphazardly over the world of light -- obscuring the workaday world of those normal people, the ordinary people, those with lives, with families, with purpose, those for whom the world turned daily, those for whom the existential sun each day forced back the intransigence of multiviable shadow, those from whose maudlin insouciance the darkness fled at each sunrise, those for whom night held danger, terror, and diminishing returns, those, yes, even those, who, because they could only fear the night, revered the sun, basked in its ultraviolet incandescence until the celestial orb, spent beyond even its immeasurable vitality, shrugged its Promethean shoulder and let expire its unwonted office of benefactor and, overcome by its nightly rush of misery and despair, drew itself in, cast itself off, tumbled itself headlong into the abyss that yawned perpetually just beyond the west, there to await rebirth, and while retreating, blazing into the horizon as if to escape from the dire inconsistencies of its own madness, for it, the sun, was indeed mad, Nature's premier manic depressive, irretrievably bound in the dreadful rhythm of its daily contrasts in mood from glorious, glowing Hyperion to manifestly cringing, furtive, darkling coward, scooting its slow vastness across the lower ridges of a dimming sky, an astral paranoiac whose wide mood swings between radiance and vacuum, between epiphany and gloom, between aura and shade, and, as always, withdrawing before all else from the District of Thieves, for there the barely tolerated light knows no influence, darkness never fully relinquishes its hold, and the shadows are never quite fully beaten back, not even by the sun at the peak of its noontime power, and, when the uneasy diurnal truce seems to end, the shadows leap with unsparing, startling alacrity from their hovels, and the unsettled, lingering patches of daylight are roiled and pursued, for in the Thieves' District the denizens spurn -- and sometimes mock -- the glory of the sun, and those forced to a state of wakefulness during the daytime hours are obliged to shut themselves indoors and procure artificial lights by which to go about their affairs as if the sun never existed, and sunlight a myth -- and so it would go until dark, when the world would come alive once more, and lavish its attention on the people of the night until, once more, the unleavened sun struggled to rise, rose to struggle against the varied anonymity of night, for, when all was said and done, day even more than night was eternal shroud, an ephemeral gauze, and in the great scheme of perpetually unfolding life, nothing more than a momentary lapse of shadow.

After he left Manolo's, Spider Joe found his way through the alley back to Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price. It had been a long day, but it had ended with a good party. Manolo knows how to throw a feast, he thought, entering through the side door and looking around. Things were far from winding down at the Cafe. It was approaching that time of morning, though. That special time. Another hour or two or noise, coffee, and smoke, and the regulars, Spider Joe included, will know that the time has come. Manolo time. And they will put aside the night's work, relax with friends, and indulge in a breakfast of paella. Yes. Manolo time. And soon.

Spider Joe nodded hellos to San Pedro, busy at the coffee bar, and Schultzie, moving from station to station, table to table, with a grace unsuspected in his short, round frame. Fingers Ichikawa waved briefly as he spun across the floor and vanished into the back -- the casino would be hitting boom time just about now. Mountain Man Minetti was on the door, escorting patrons into the main room and barring entry to the occasional drunk by throwing the inebriate into the gutter out front. Sam was in the spotlight at the center of the room, playing and singing to the delight of the patrons crowding around his piano. It was a good night, Spider Joe thought, just the kind of thing to bring me back to reality after all this cube business. And cheeseballs? Who could have guessed?

Quite suddenly he noticed a surprising but welcome sight. Mark Parity was in the Cafe -- an unusual occurrence for one so firmly, conspicuously aligned against the pleasures of caffeine. Spider Joe walked over to the table. Empty coffee cups, demitasse, saucers and mugs littered the table cloth, leaving barely enough room for elbows. Parity looked up at Spider Joe and nodded, his eyes bright with extreme caffeinic agitation. His fingers twitched nervously on the table. His shirt sleeves were stained with coffee. "Schultzie!" Spider Joe called, "Can you clean this up over here?"

"Sure thing, Mr. Boss," Schultzie cried, arriving instantly to bus the dirty items onto a small cart.

"Can I bring you anything, Mr. Spider Joe?" he asked.

"Yeah. Have San Pedro brew up some of that Jamaica Blue Mountain Mac gave me. Au Lait. With a little sweet. Shaken, not stirred."

"Right away, Mr. Spider Joe. And you, Mr. Parity sir?"

"The same," Mark Parity had said. Schultzie looked at Spider Joe for approval. Spider Joe nodded, but in a code he shared with his staff, he signed discretely with his fingers the word "decaf." Schultzie nodded that he understood.

"Haven't you had enough caffeine for tonight, Mark?" Spider Joe looked at him, and to himself he said "You should never have come here, old friend." The temptation had been too much. Spider Joe could read it in the red, agitated, dark-rimmed eyes, and in the trembling, unsteady hands. He had seen this sort of thing before. It always started with the despair, the misery, the agitation of advanced caffeine addiction. Then would come the new resolve, a sincere but hopeless hope. Then the quitting; the withdrawal; the headaches; maybe some half-hearted treatment at a decaf clinic; the long climb back to a fragile intimation of normalcy; the aspiration to a taste in herb teas; the doomed struggle to stay clean; the failure; the relapse; and finally, that slow-brew ride to Hell. And then, as if that was not bad enough, the despair, the misery, the agitation all over again. Yes. I doubt if anyone could say what brought him to this state, Spider Joe mused. This new case of his, this cheeseball caper, must really be something to have brought on so extreme a relapse. Weeks of caffeine deprivation had come to nought. Mark Parity was back on the drug. Admit it, Spider Joe said to himself. Ace Detective or no, your friend is a javahead, with a big mocha on his back.

Chapter 43

Just a few short hours ago, Mark Parity had been his normal self. Now he was caught. Trapped. Trapped in the evil web of caffeine addiction. Trapped in a dark hole of despair and shame with no way out. Spider Joe sat next to him for a while, trying to figure out how to handle the situation. How do you talk down a javahead on the ropes.

"What's going on?" Spider Joe asked.

"With what?" Parity asked in turn, an excited enthusiasm spreading across his face.

"You know," said Spider Joe. "The cheeseballs."

"Hard to say," Parity said. For a moment the bright fire of his eyes dimmed as he withdrew from his caffeine-induced fantasies. "It's a tough case. I guess that's why they called me. Me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective." Schultzie appeared inconspicuously with the coffees and put them down, careful to put the correct cups in the correct place. Mark did not know he was getting decaf. Spider Joe signed the check.

"Is there anything you can tell me about it," he asked.

"Sorry," Mark said, reaching out for his cup and swallowing the steaming coffee in a single gulp. "Client privilege and all that."

"No leads yet, huh?"

"Nope. No ideas. No leads. No tips. No hints. No clues. No suggestions."

"I know what you mean. Nothing. Nada. Nihil. Zilch. Zippo. Right?"

"Right. Well, almost right. I have had a nibble. A small one."

"What's up?"

"I got the word from Ching. Beau Ching. Master of Koi Fu."

"I know him."

"Yeah? Well, he passed me this lead. Seems someone he knows has a hobby. You know. Sort of a ruling passion."

"What's that?"

"Zebrasoma flavescens."


"Zebrasoma flavescens. You know. The fish."

"Oh sure," Spider Joe said, "The fish. I knew that."

"Yeah. Well, he collects these fish, see. Tropical fish. Nothing but the best. Top of the line."

"Yeah? Well?"

"So one day he gets this fish. A real fancy one. Zebrasoma flavescens. A big time fish."


"So he kept the fish for a while, now he's trying to dump it."


"So you know what they eat? These fish?"


"Yeah. Cheeseballs."

"No kidding. So he took the cheeseballs?"

"Can't say, but I doubt it. But I'm betting they ended up in his fish tank eventually. I did some checking. He's been buying cheeseballs right and left, lately. Used up all the known supplies. Cheeseballs were getting scarce. Price was going up. This guy was getting desperate, though, even if he wasn't a crook. My guess is somebody else copped the cheeseballs and sold them to him."

"So the cheeseballs are gone?"

"Yeah. Dead and gone. I can't blame the guy, though. I can see his problem. Sure, the amphiron frenatus was nice, and it's hard to resist any member of the Coris family (particularly LaToya and Germaine), but the zebrasoma flavescens -- that was something special. Beau knew about it."

"Which Beau?"

"Beau Ching. You see, this fish thing, this was something a Master of Koi Fu could understand. But Beau's a lawman, too. He had to do something. So he came to me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective."

"So you cracked the case, huh?"

"Cracked it Wide open. No holds barred. No mercy. No quarter. When I do a job, I do it right. But that's the way it is with me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective."

The Ace Detective sighed and stretched his arms. The lack of caffeine was getting to him. Spider Joe noticed the trembling hands, the curious up-and-down motion of his eyeballs. Keep him talking, he said to himself. Keep him thinking about other things and maybe he wouldn't notice the decaf.



"I was just wondering if this cheeseball and zebrasoma flavescens mess had anything to do with the strange events surrounding the mysterious transparent cube made of that strange glass-like substance (encasing an ancient scroll with the words 'To Spider Joe -- Luigi')."

"I can't say," Parity said. "I just don't know. I don't know how deep this case is going to go. I only know that somebody copped the cheeseballs. Good cheeseballs, an authentic 1957 Velveeta, even. Big time stuff. And somebody else shows up with cheeseball eating fish. Then these big time fish are going to disappear at the same time all the legal and illegal sources of cheeseballs in this city dry up. No wonder the cops wouldn't touch this one."

"Yeah. That's why they called you."

"Yeah. Mark Parity. Ace Detective."

"Let's go up to my office," Spider Joe said. "I'd like to get away from this clatter for a while." And, he said to himself, get you away from the coffee bar.

"Okay. You got any chocolate-covered espresso beans?"

Poor guy, Spider Joe said to himself. This is going to be tough.

Chapter 44

They stood up, made their way across the main room to the staircase and ascended. As they climbed the steps, they could hear Sam at the rolling piano bar singing his latest number, Programmin' Man Blues,

O I'm a programmin' man
Five hundred lines a day

I'm jus' a programming man, baby
Five hundred lines o'code a day

Codin' for the Bossman
Codin' my blues away

"Nice tune," Mark said as they reached to top of the stairs.

"Yep," said Spider Joe. "He picked it up from Grizzly Kaekel, one of the best-loved legends in the Old West. Sam met him in Chicago, I think, back in ought-nineteen."

"You don't say?"

Spider Joe's office was quiet and cool, a refreshing change of pace from the smoke-washed riot on the floor below. Spider Joe noticed with some satisfaction that Mark Parity had begun to calm down. The sound of Sam's singing filtered up from the hall below.

Programmin' in the de mornin'
Programmin' in the night

Programmin' 'til I fall down dead
Jus' to get that build jus' right

I'm a programmin' man baby
Jus' five hundred lines a day

Text or code it don' matter
Codin' my blues away

"Oooo?" asked Mark.

"Yeah," said Spider Joe. "Oooo. You know. Bluesy." He's recovering fast, he thought to himself. This guy sure can hold his coffee. It was the calm before the storm, though. Spider Joe knew that in the dire extremes of caffeine deprivation, Mark Parity would get mean. And when Mark Parity got mean, he was mean as a snake.

"Well, then," Spider Joe said finally, "I guess its Holmes or nothing for me. You were my first choice. You know your way around here. Him I'm not so sure about."

"Don't worry. He's good. Maybe better than me. Maybe the best there is."

"Then why didn't Judge Wells hire him?"

"Because Holmes's cases have a way of going public. Mine don't."

"Okay, then. I'll do it," Spider Joe said. "I can't trust this to the mail or telephone, though. I'll have to find someone to fly to the States and meet with him in person." They both paused briefly as the sound of Sam's voice sang out loud and strong from below.

The Bossman say "Git out there!"
He say "Five hundred lines a day!"

He say "Holidays included!
You don't need to git away!"

But he shut me down for Christmas
Made me stay home anyway

He want five hundred lines o' code or text
Each and every livelong day

"Check with Franco Gorillo. He spent some time in the states. Just flew in from Paris not too long ago. Probably still has a visa if he came in legal. Things were getting too hot for him there. That's why he came over to button for know, handle customer complaints, make a few sauces."

"Does he know San Francisco?"

"Oh, sure. He's been there dozens of times. He used to be a trapeze artist in a circus there, the Flying Sauciers."

"You think he's available for travel?"

"Yeah. If Manolo can spare him. And if there isn't too much heat on him stateside. I'll make the call for you."

"Thanks. There's the new Thieve's District directory on the table over there."

"I got it." Mark picked up the directory and looked through the list of numbers.

  Telephone Operator                       0
  Telephone Information                    1
  Telephone Billing                        2
  Sam's Telephone Emporium                 3
  Ezio's Underworld Connections            4
  Prefect Raoul, Prefect of Police         5
  Manolo's Iberian Cuisine          unlisted
  Abdul Radish's Antique Emporium          7
  Spider Joe's Cafe Americain              8
  Mac the Knife                            9
  Chasseurs d'Afrique                    911

As he held the laminated Directory of Listings in his hand, it occurred to Mark that phone service in this part of the world was still rather primitive. Since the breakup of NAB progress had been slow.

"Nope. Looks like Manolo's number is unlisted," Mark said. "I guess I'll have to walk over there. I'm used to walking. You walk a lot when you work the street. And I work the street. That's why I'm a gumshoe. Me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective. And I'll check with Ezio about the bookings." And with that he left.

He's going to be all right, Spider Joe thought. Maybe he'll make it this time.

Downstairs in the main hall, Sam was finishing his number. Not even halfway through the last verse and the mob surrounding his piano was already applauding and cheering.

I'm a programmin' man
Five hundred lines o'code a day

I'm just a programming man, baby
Five hundred lines o'code a day

Codin' for the Bossman
Codin' my blues away

Oooo codin' for the Bossman
Codin' my blues away

Spider Joe nodded. Another hit. Programming man.

Chapter 45

The city. My city. The city's like a dame. The kind of dame you remember forever. The kind who stops your heart when you pass her on the street. You never saw her before, but there's something about her. Something familiar. I don't know. A look, maybe. A word. A gesture. The kind of dame you take your chances with. Because something tells you she's going to be a part of your life. A big part. Maybe you're just seeing her for the first time. Maybe you'll never see her again. But you'll remember. Always. It's the same way with the city. When you see her, you know. No matter what happens, the memory of her never goes away. I never trusted people who don't like the city. Me? I trust it. A lot. A guy gets used to things, I guess. I'm used to the city. I'm used to the streets. They make me what I am. Mean as a snake. Me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

I was wrapping up a busy week. A big case on Monday. A big break Tuesday. I cracked the case Wednesday and spent all day Thursday in dramatic confrontations and plot development, setting up meets with some of the principals in the case. And now today. Friday. This is the day. The big one. Today I walk it all home.

I had taken care of some business at Ezio's Underworld Connections, a couple of favors for Spider Joe. Ezio and I go way back. His ran a service bureau. He was the man you saw for credit applications, passports, and travel arrangements. He was also a fence. A good one. When Abdul Radish's Antique Emporium shut down for good, Ezio was there on the bounce, taking up the slack in trade. He even traded in junk. What he calls "unauthenticated artifacts, items of occluded history, and spurious antiquities." Like I said. Junk. I tell it like it is. But that's the way I am. Me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective. Mean as a snake.

I met Hammer at the door of Butensky's apartment. Some apartment. More like a third-floor palace suite. You know the type. Modern. Spacious. Expensive. Leather furniture. Fish tanks. Weird lamps. It wasn't business how Butensky could afford this on his Chasseurs d'Afrique sergeant's salary. As far as I was concerned, he was cleared of the cheeseball caper as soon as I tricked that confession out of Carlo the Cat, the infamous cat burglar. Now Carlo was on the lam, but Butensky was cleared and all I cared about was wrapping up a few loose ends.

All the Beaus were there. The Sergeants Three. They walked on the side of the law. They were the good guys. And me? I walk the line in the middle. The line between good and bad. The line between right and wrong. The line between crime and justice. The line between virtue and corruption. Sometimes I'm an okay guy. Sometimes I have to be mean as a snake. But that's how it is with me. Mark Parity. Ace Detective.

"Come in," Beau Butensky said. "Have a seat."

We sat. Talked over the case. Traded tips.

"Too bad about your fish," I said. "Sorry you had to get rid of them."

"Well," said Beau Butensky, "There is simply no room for them here any more. Now that my spare time is divided between orchids and distributing free low-flow shower heads and other water-saving devices, something has to go. I cannot spend my time making cheeseballs, especially making cheeseball fodder for exotic fish. So when I had to pick something to let go, I picked Zebrasoma flavescens. Most of them are gone now. I've only a few left."

"Are those them in the tank?" Hammer asked. He walked over to the large aquarium and peered through the glass.

"Yes. The fish I was trying to get rid of. The last of the lot."

"Yeah," Beau Bierman said. "And that's what started this whole mess."

"Well," said Beau Butensky, pruning an orchid, "I would rather that my fish problems had nothing to do with all of this. In fact, frankly, I'm inclined to think it was all just coincidental. Are these yellow tang so precious that they could bring down the entire cheeseball market?" He nipped an abusive leaf from a coriolanus sativa. For several moments, nothing could be heard but the sound of his orchid scissors.

Somebody finally broke the silence. "But they were not yellow tang," Beau Ching said. "That is what is most amazing."

"What," said Beau Butensky. "Of course they are."

"Not so. Regrettable, my friend, but species is not what you think. A close approximation, indeed, but not true Zebrasoma flavescens, rather a lesser breed."

"Big deal," said Hammer Hinshaw. "A fish's a fish, ain't it?" He had been enthralled by the serene, silent activity in the aquarium.

"To a Master of Koi Fu," said Beau Ching, "fish are rarely what they seem. And this specimen, exquisite as it is, is not a rare zebrasoma flavescens. The genus is correct, but the species is not. This is the more common vulgar cousin to zebrasoma flavescens. To be precise, this is zebrasoma flatulens."

Hammer Hinshaw, however, was not paying attention. "Oooo, neat! Hey, Beau Ching! What are all those tiny little bubbles?"

Chapter 46

It was night. For night it was after the amber carcass of the dry desert sunset withdrew from the impertinently sketched horizon, coercing with it the more offensive habits of the lingering, ill-bred sun, abandoning only a lingering languidness, a subtle scratch of dulling brilliance scorched across the shaded malevolence of the desert's nightly repose, while the wind -- not the blistering, hot-breathed wind of day that scoops up battering balls of sand to hurl into the faces of the living (and as well into every crack, crevice, and cranny of that desert city, that pathetically man-made bastion against the vague, indelicate, venal contrapuntitude of the untamed and uncaring misbalance of an ecology gone mad, but rather the night wind -- the accommodating exhalation of the sea-cooled evening pouring a subtle extravagance over the city, busying itself with an untaught routine of nightly obeisance, anointing the heads and homes of the day-wrung wretched with the tranquil purity of its benevolent quietude, embodied as it was in the balmy, sleepy caress of an incontinent yet wistful incorporeality, winding its way through the streets of the city, and through the city to the lesser-traveled haunts of the Thieves' District, where, for all its disdainfully low disregard the work-a-day world of the daytime, the world peopled by humans of the ordinary kind, the respectable people -- those with lives, with family, with purpose -- who each day resigned their place in the city, gave over the rule of law to the chaos of night, in terror abandoning the streets to those who rule in darkness, consigning the mundane triviality of the insubstantial commerce to the city's true heart, for the Thieves' District was the heart of the city, and each night opened the secret melodies of its spirit, the inmost converse of its soul to the all-giving breeze, that bliss of night that found the end of its journey at the one center of the thieves' multiverse, that den of iniquity that was more than a den, that hovel that was more than a hovel, that unacknowledged center of a world within a world, Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price.

It was a typical night at the Cafe. The regular patrons had long since taken their tables -- their regular tables, tables that were never available to those inconsequential passers-by who lingered here only long enough to savor, if only for a moment, the true feel, the certifiable ambiance of the District of Thieves. They were dangerous, these tables, when preempted from their accustomed occupants (only over the most profuse objections of an irate Schultzie) and held only tenuously by the aspiring but nervous customer whose life, emptied of all virtue of his indecorous confiscation, remained at risk, almost certainly casting an unassured pall over his enjoyment of the excellent house coffees. Fights had begun over these tables, and by virtue of such violent declension limbs had been lost -- even lives; reputations had been ruined, weaknesses revealed, and power bases destroyed. But such was the way of the Thieves' District, and more especially of Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where the clientele maintain an alert anarchy, controlled more by the vigor of those who looked on than by the terror of any possible combatants, for while challenges and even violence among the challengers was tolerated, it was not within the bounds of decorum that it should interrupt or interfere with the enjoyment of an evening at the Cafe. Any who disturbed the clientele paid a price so great they had no need ever to return.

The night so far had been tranquil, however, with only one birth and two deaths, and the coffee was flowing hot and fast. San Pedro was barely able to keep up with the orders for Guatemala Antigua, Sudanese, Mocha Java, and Kenyan AA, while Fingers Ichikawa was reporting a banner night in the casino. As Spider Joe left his office and descended into the pall of side-lit tobacco smoke that perpetually hung some seven feet above the floor of the main hall, he was content that all was as it should be, save only that Sam was not in his usual place at the piano. He had gone to drive Franco Gorillo to the airport. Franco had volunteered to travel to the States to find David Holmes, Consulting Detective, since his was the only face that came close to matching the passport they had obtained from Ezio's Underworld Connections, S.C.

In Sam's place was his cousin, Slick Levin, who stopped off at Sam's request for a brief sojourn at Spider Joe's on his way to a gig at the Blue Parrot Piano Bar. Slick, like so many, was barely one step ahead of a bizarre credit scandal concerning the second-round financing for his Romeo Club in Taipei. Things had not happened in the order he expected, so he hastily embarked for the Thieves' District where he expected to be joined by his backup band, the Lounge Lizards. Slick Levin and the Lounge Lizards were scheduled to open at the Blue Parrot next week, but for now he was free to fill on for Sam. Not just free, in fact, but eager. "Oh, I don't mind," he told Sam. "Besides, I've got some new pieces I want to try out on a live audience."

Slick had wasted no time in warming up his audience. For his opener, he selected a rousing march he had been commissioned to write for last year's Kaekels Across America convention in Dickeyville, Wisconsin. His piano chopped out a brash, staccato rhythm (MARCH, march, March, MARCH: MARCH, march, March, MARCH: MARCH, march, March, MARCH). Slick began to sing:

We're Kaekels -- across America!
Kaekels -- across America!
Stand by world, for the Kaekel's are a'coming,
Marching to the beat of a Kaekel drummer drumming,
Rank and file and row on row of Kaekel hummers humming!
We're Kaekels -- across the land!

The audience quickly warmed to the rousing tempo. Hands were clapping, feet were stamping, glasses and ashtrays were banging, all in time to the music. Spider Joe walked over and stood near the piano.

We're Kaekels -- across America!
Kaekels -- across America!
Through the streets and neighborhoods we're touring and slumming,
And sometimes in our casual clothes we do a little bumming,
But always unopposed for up the works we are not gumming!
We're Kaekels -- across the land!

"Wait a minute. 'Up the works we are not gumming'?" Spider Joe looked perplexed. Spider Joe was perplexed.

"Don't knock it," Slick said. "It rhymes, do it not?"

"Yeah. It do. Sort of."

"Besides, I couldn't end the line with a preposition."

"Of course not."

"Shall I go on?"

"Why not?"

"Okay. Where was I? Oh, yeah. I remember. Let's see. Strumming, numbing, bumming..."

Marching unopposed for up the works we are not gumming
We're Kaekels -- across the land! (Hey!)
We're Kaekels -- across America!
Kaekels -- across America!

Escalating forth we march with martial cadence strumming
Adding up the ever growing Kaekel numbers summing
Rank and file and row on row, the whole effect is numbing!
We're Kaekels -- across the land! (Hey!)

Slick took a deep breath. "Well? What do you think?"

"I'm speechless."

"Me too," he shrugged. "It's a living."

"Not with lyrics like that, it's not."

"What about the tune.?"

"Martial. Thoroughly martial."

"That's what I thought, too."



And all around them the patrons fell silent. Spider Joe looked at the pensive faces. There were few dry eyes this night in Spider Joe's Cafe Americain, where life is cheap, and anything can be had -- for a price.

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