"Do you have any idea where Mr. Wayne might be?" Yasir asked Sophia as their jeep bounced along, headlights showing only empty desert. "Have you seen him anywhere tonight?"
"At a place called Abdullah's," Sophia answered, holding on to her seat. "But that was some time ago."
"I know it, the owner is a real rascal. Even if Mr. Wayne is no longer there, Abdullah may have some information for us, if we ask him the right way."
"The right way?"
"With money. That may not be necessary, as Abdullah usually finds it to his benefit to be helpful to the authorities when he can. Do not fear, Miss Loren, we will find John Wayne. What sort of trouble do you think he is in?"
"I'm not sure. Someone told me he had been drugged."
"By who? Why?"
"By an American named Drinkwine, or maybe Rake. I think it was supposed to be some kind of test, if I can believe what I was told."
"It sounds like a conspiracy to embarrass the King. There are some in our country who do not favor his policy of close ties with the West, but once we have developed our natural resources and become a modern nation, they will have no influence, Allah willing. I wonder who this Drinkwine is, though. Perhaps he is just a mercenary."
They suddenly came upon a row of two and three story buildings huddled together, the outskirts of Ghadames. Hamad slowed down and entered a narrow, roofed alley, barely wide enough to permit the jeep's passage. Sophia was reminded of her nights in the railway tunnel, though there was really no similarity except for the lack of light, the darkness, something she had always hated since her wartime experiences and was the reason she always slept with a light on whenever she was away from home.
Sophia began to experience the sensation she had felt earlier, that the buildings they were passing, the alleyway itself, was ancient beyond description and alive in some way, watching them. Could this be true? Sophia was tempted to ask Yasir if he felt the same way, but before she could work up her nerve, the jeep exited the alleyway into a more open area and the headlights hit three Arab men standing behind the rear of a building, one of whom Sophia recognized as Abdullah. The jeep roared up to the three and screeched to a halt only a few feet away, Sophia wondering if it was an attempt at intimidation or just more of Hamad's bad driving, though to be honest he seemed to have gotten better. Yasir climbed out of the jeep and began questioning the men in Arabic. Sophia heard the name John Wayne being mentioned, causing a response from an older man standing next to Abdullah, then Abdullah saying something as well.
"Mr. Wayne has recently been here and gone," Yasir said, turning to Sophia. "Apparently he caused some excitement by taking a shot at this man's son. Perhaps you know the boy, Muammar, a local hothead we've been keeping an eye on."
"Miss Loren?" Abdullah stepped forward. "If you could clear things up. I assume that John Wayne took a shot at my nephew because he was jealous of you and Muammar. Is that correct? I am a man of the world, so I understand such things."
"There has to be some kind of mistake," said Sophia. "I can't believe that Mr. Wayne would try and shoot Muammar for any reason, much less because of any jealousy over me."
"He has accepted the situation? Obviously a man of the world like myself. I have learned to be philosophical about affairs of the heart."
"There is no situation!"
"You mean you and John Wayne are still together? Or you haven't told him yet about Muammar? I don't understand."
"We are not together, there is no romance!" screamed Sophia, in Italian she realized from the blank, confused expression on Abdullah's face, though she wondered if it made any difference what language she used. "Mr. Wayne and I are not romantically involved and never have been," Sophia said carefully, in English. "Any more than I am involved with Muammar. There is nothing to be jealous of, there is no romance."
"Don't you like my nephew?"
"I am sure he is a good boy."
"Then there is still a chance? This is his father Abu Meniar, by the way, and a cousin, Achmed."
"It is a pleasure to meet my son's intended," said the greybeard, nodding his approval. "I am sure that you will make Muammar a fine wife, and bear him many sons. He is an ambitious lad, so I am confident that you will not lack for goats and camels. Do you like tents?"
"This is probably where our camels have gone," grumbled Achmed. "Her family has already taken them for her dowry."
"Where is Muammar?" asked Yasir, seeking to regain control of the situation. "I wish to question him."
"He said he was going back to the hotel," Abdullah answered. "That would be the sensible thing to do, but in the young the blood runs hot. I fear that he has gone to look for John Wayne, to have it out with him over his woman. That is the course of action I would have pursued in my younger, less prudent days, especially for such a prize." Abdullah gave Sophia a knowing smile, which she tried to ignore.
"Then we must find John Wayne first," said Yasir. "He is a guest in our country and no harm must be allowed to come to him. If you could help me track him down, I guarantee that your King will reward you handsomely."
"Consider it done," said Abdullah. "How should we proceed?"
"I will search the north side of town, you the south. If you run into your nephew at any point, detain him and bring him back here."
"A wise plan. May Allah be with you."
"And with you."
Yasir got back in the jeep and Hamad stepped on the gas, causing the jeep to bolt forward before Hamad spun it away from Abdullah's and back into the narrow byways of Ghadames. "I am encouraged," said Yasir as they hurtled down an unfamiliar alley, Sophia alarmed by their speed which she supposed was not excessive except in comparison to the snail's pace with which Hamad had previously negotiated such tight passages. "I feel that we are making great progress and that we will find John Wayne before too long. It is only a matter of time, Allah willing. By the way, do Abduallah and more importantly his brother really think that you are going to marry Muammar?"
"It's a misunderstanding."
"A misunderstanding like that with a Bedouin can be serious. Fortunately you are under the protection of the King, so you have nothing to fear."
"Watch out!" cried Sophia, and the jeep stopped just before colliding with a camel that was resting on its belly sideways across the alley, blocking their path. Hamad honked, but the animal just looked at them forlornly, as if inconsolable.
"Stupid beast," complained Yasir. "Hamad could just drive over it, but that would cause problems with the owner and the King would not be amused. Hamad, your pistol."
"What are you going to do?" asked Sophia in alarm.
"Fire a shot in the air. This is an emergency."
Yasir took the pistol and raised it, then lowered it. Past the camel at the furthest edge of the headlights' illumination, at the end of the alley, two men appeared holding up a third between them, dragging the other man along as if he was unconscious. "What's this?" asked Yasir. "Halt. Halt!"
The men did not halt and Yasir raised the pistol and fired a shot into the air, the report deafening to Sophia though not as bad as the sound of bombs falling all around her, it wasn't that bad a nightmare yet. The two men carrying their unconscious friend stumbled briefly at the sound of the gunshot, then quickened their pace and moved out of sight. The camel did not react at all, as if it no longer had the will to live.
Yasir got out of the jeep, joined by Hamad. "It would be safest if you stayed here, Miss Loren. We will investigate matters. It should not take long. Honk if you need us. Come, Hamad."
Yasir and Hamad climbed over the camel and disappeared down the alley. Sophia pulled her robe tighter. She supposed she could follow Yasir and Hamad and see what they were up to, but that was something that she'd do in a movie. She was staying right where she was, until she felt she had waited long enough, she supposed. Then what?
"May I be of assistance, Miss Loren?"
Sophia jumped, though she didn't know why, it was only Drinkwine, or Rake, or whoever he was now, showing up again like ---what was that phrase in English?---a bad penny. Sophia thought about honking the horn, but didn't feel in any immediate danger.
"Mr. Rake?" ventured Sophia.
"He's not here at the moment. My name is Drinkwine, Hummer Drinkwine. You seem abandoned. Is there anything I can do for you?"
"You can tell me where John Wayne is. Or better yet, lead me to him."
"If only I could, but there are rules. Admittedly rules that are completely arbitrary and made up on the spot, but rules are rules. I'm sure you understand."
"I don't understand at all. Just a few minutes ago I saw a man being helped off somewhere by two other men. Was that Mr. Wayne?"
"No, that was someone else."
"Probably just some drunk. This town has a lot of watering holes for a Moslem community, but then, it is an oasis."
Sophia realized something. She had asked this question before, but perhaps she had asked the wrong person. "It was you, wasn't it, who left me a note earlier tonight saying that Mr. Wayne was in danger. Why, and aren't you the one responsible for that danger?"
"So many questions," said Drinkwine with a smile. "All I can say is---ripples. Ripples upon ripples, spreading out in concentric waves. I consider that to be my mission in life, to create them, as many complications and possibilities as I can, which lead to even more complications and possibilities, which lead to---well, who knows?"
"Does this have anything to do with the Committee?"
"Ah, you have been talking to someone, haven't you? Let me just say this about that; I serve many masters, one of whom may or may not be the Committee, and I must also try to make myself happy as well. Is that not one of the primary imperatives of life, perhaps the most important one? So, tonight's farce could have more than one objective, the equivalent of killing two birds with one stone, assuming that I am the actor you seem to think I am."
"Is it part of the Plan?" tried Sophia.
"Could be," said Drinkwine. "For instance, if John Wayne went nuts, was somehow driven to the point where he had to take his own life, then that might prove that there is no Plan, for surely such a fate is not meant to befall the great Duke Wayne, that would be blasphemous, even. Or perhaps Mr. Wayne is just being tested to see if he deserves membership in this mysterious Committee that supposedly runs everything behind the scenes, maybe that's the Plan, who knows? Frankly, I grow weary of such speculation. I would just like to say, Miss Loren, that you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in the flesh. Your pictures, your movies, do not do you justice. I say, with all sincerity, woof."
"Thank you," replied Sophia, believing that at least Drinkwine meant this declaration.
"Don't mention it. Of course it's just another part of the Plan, sexual attractiveness, especially female sexual attractiveness. I'm sure most men would still be happy living in caves if it weren't for women goading them on. Don't you find that hilarious?"
"Sad might be a better word."
"Ah, vive' la difference, I guess. Well, I'd love to continue chatting, but..."
Drinkwine's face relaxed into an affable, almost moronic expression, eyes sweetly vacant over an ingratiatingly crooked smile, posture also changing into a casual slouch, both thumbs hooked into his waistband.
"Howdy, ma'am. Shore glad to see you again, none the worse for wear. Sorry I couldn't be of more help earlier at the club, but there was nothing I could do."
"None other, ma'am."
"He had to go. Poor boy has a severe case of multiple personalities, as maybe you have guessed. You haven't met his Ali Baba one yet, have you? He's a real hoot. We didn't always used to be this fractured, but ol' Hum's been under a lot of strain lately, and also he's been dabbling with certain chemicals that he shouldn't be, but he swears that it's all in the line of duty. Anyway, would you like to know where the Duke is?"
"Yes! Can you take me to him?"
"No, but she can."
Sophia didn't know who Tex meant at first, then realized it was the camel. "How?"
"Just get on her back, hit her with a stick, and she'll take you right where you want to go. She knows the way. John Way---ne, get it?"
Sophia shook her head. "I've never ridden a camel before."
"It's easy. See the reins? Just pull left to go left, right to go right, back to stop or slow down, and whack her with a stick on the butt to get her going. Child's play."
Sophia eyed the camel dubiously. It seemed to have perked up, as if it knew what was being discussed. "She can take me to Mr. Wayne?"
"I guarantee it."
Sophia debated with herself. This seemed like a real bad idea, but if this camel could take her to the Duke, what choice did she have? She got out of the jeep, leaving the necklace behind, and approached the animal cautiously. The camel rolled over and sat up, as if eager to be mounted.
"Climb on board," said Tex, giving her a hand. Sophia grabbed the reins and scrambled on top of the camel's meaty, hairy hump, an odd sensation. The camel quivered under her expectantly.
"Now what?" asked Sophia.
"Here's your stick. Fortunately I have one on me. Whack her butt like you mean it, she'll get up. And oh yeah, you're supposed to say something when you do it, like hey hey! Shows 'em you mean business and know what you're doing."
Sophia took the stick and hit the camel on the rump as hard as she dared, but the camel did not respond.
"No, like this," said Tex, taking the stick back and swatting the camel several times on the rump with no concern for its feelings at all. "Hey hey!" The camel got up, gurgling in protest, alarming Sophia because now she was much higher off the ground.
"How does she know where Mr. Wayne is?" asked Sophia, wondering if she might be finally on the verge of getting somewhere.
"They're old friends. Don't worry, these critters are a lot smarter than they look. Just give her the gas."
"Gas?" Sophia could not imagine what purpose it would serve to give the camel indigestion, much less how she could pull off such a feat, and assumed it had to be some American slang she wasn't familiar with yet.
"Here, let me."
Tex poked the camel in its nether regions and the creature took off with a horrified bleat as if it was especially sensitive in that area. Sophia held on to the reins with all her strength, draped over the beast's neck in a most undignified posture, promising herself that no matter what happened, even if the camel did take her to Mr. Wayne, that she would get even with Tex\Drinkwine for this ride if it was the last thing she ever did.