Dancing with mindless, carefree abandon, oblivious to everything but the pounding, wailing music, Sophia felt a tap on her shoulder. She ignored it, assuming it was accidental contact with one of the other dancers, all of them anonymous in the darkness facing a small stage occupied by the band, a drummer, two horns, two guitar players, each playing as hard if not harder than the people were dancing, Sophia felt another tap on her shoulder and this time looked. It was Chuck, one of the bodyguards to Mr. Hughes who had so rudely kidnapped her earlier in the evening.
"You know who wants to see you," shouted Chuck, attempting to blend in by dancing in a herky-jerky fashion.
"I don't have the time," cried Sophia, surprised and proud of her rudeness, it had come so easily. This time if Chuck tried anything, she would give him the fight of his life. It would be World War Three!
"Please," Chuck begged, gyrating around until he was in front of her. "I'll lose my job."
"Good!" Sophia wished Chuck would go away, he was ruining her mood and interfering with her dancing, but instead Chuck dropped to his knees and grabbed her around both legs.
"Please!" wailed Chuck, loud enough to be heard above all the noise. "Please, help me!"
"Get up," Sophia commanded. Was it her imagination or was everyone starting to look at her, including the band? In a moment they probably would be. "Get up!" she commanded again.
Chuck hugged her tighter. "Pleath, pleath, pleath!" he wailed, sobbing.
"All right, I'll go with you. Just let go of me!"
Chuck let go and they made their way outside. "What is wrong with you?" Sophia demanded, turning on Chuck. "I should kick you."
"Go ahead," Chuck said with a smile.
Sophia knew that meant that Chuck didn't really think she would kick him and so kicked him in the shins as hard as she could without a second thought. She observed Chuck's subsequent pain and antic hopping with more than a little satisfaction. "What do you want?" she asked defiantly.
"Mr. Hughes would like to see you," Chuck said, rubbing his leg.
"He has some information about John Wayne."
Mr. Wayne! Somehow Sophia had almost forgotten about him, as if the music had drugged her in some way. "Where is he?" she asked, meaning Mr. Hughes.
"Over there, in the car. Sitting in the back. You'll have to wear this."
Chuck held out a white surgical mask. "Is Mr. Hughes afraid I'm going to give him a cold?" Sophia asked indignantly.
"Mr. Hughes is just afraid of germs. Deathly afraid. It's a phobia. We humor him. Please, he'll be wearing one too."
Sophia looked at Chuck for some sign that this was a joke, but his bland, wholesome American face remained serious. Reluctantly, she donned the mask. Chuck nodded his approval and Sophia proceeded alone to the car, which wasn't far away. She opened a rear door and inside sprawled in the opposite corner wearing a battered flight jacket over soiled white pajamas and also wearing, as promised, his own surgical mask, sat Howard Hughes, even more unkempt than when Sophia had last seen him. She slid inside and shut the door.
"Nice to see you again so soon," said Hughes. "I wasn't sure that you would come."
"Did I have a choice?" asked Sophia, feeling foolish that she had to talk while wearing a mask.
"Of course, replied Hughes, in a hurt tone. "If you didn't want to come, you didn't have to."
"Your man wouldn't have forced me, like last time?"
"Of course not. That was a mistake, overzealousness on his part. He didn't again, did he?"
"Not exactly. He embarrassed me so I had no other choice. He dropped to his knees in the club, grabbed me around my legs and started crying like a baby until I agreed to see you."
Hughes nodded. Sophia wondered if that was a smile behind his mask.
"I see," said Hughes. "I'll have to have a talk with Chuck. Still, you're here, aren't you? That's what's important."
"What did you want to see me about?" asked Sophia, determined not to let this get too friendly. "Chuck said you had some information about Mr. Wayne."
"I do. The Committee is definitely involved here. Do you remember me mentioning them earlier?"
"You said they were a secret organization that you used to be or were still a part of."
"Exactly. I'm afraid the Committee has plans for the Duke. As far as I can tell, they want to discredit him as an American hero. Bring him to his knees, destroy his reputation."
Hughes shrugged. "Who knows? To say that the ways of the Committee are Byzantine would be an understatement. They often set different factions to work against each other at cross purposes. I suppose I shouldn't criticize since that's my own management style, sometimes that's the only practical way of running a big operation, but that's neither here nor there."
Sophia felt herself getting more and more confused. "Just who is this Committee?"
Hughes sighed and looked down into his lap for a few seconds, as if carefully considering his words. "The Committee is a group of loose-knit individuals who, behind the scenes, run the world. They stage everything that happens of any importance, and sometimes of unimportance as well. They are mostly famous public figures, but not every member of the Committee is a celebrity: some like their anonymity. If you believe their mythology, they have been around forever arranging the affairs of men and causing mischief. There has always been a Committee, according to them. As for their ultimate purpose, I'm not even sure they know. It's all part of the Plan, or G.D., Grand Design, as it's also known, though they would be the first to admit that they have no clue as to what the true shape or goal of the great Plan actually is, or even if there is any. So how can they work to advance it? Simple. They would tell you with complete and utter sincerity that that is an unimportant consideration, because everything that happens, good, bad, or indifferent, automatically just becomes part of the Plan. Do you follow? I'm not sure I do. Sometimes I think the bastards just like to play games, like they're doing now with my buddy, the Duke."
Sophia shook her head, then remembered something. "I met Drinkwine again, but he said he wasn't Drinkwine, he claimed to be somebody named Rake. He also said that Mr. Wayne had been given some kind of drug as part of an experiment."
Hughes looked thoughtful. "Some kind of drug, eh? That could be. Perhaps the interests of the Committee and the Company have dovetailed in this instance, unless Drinkwine is acting on his own, always a possibility."
"Is Drinkwine a member of the Committee?"
"No, they just use him. Frankly, I'm not sure where Drinkwine's true loyalties lie, besides with himself. Where did you see him this time?"
"Just on some street, I don't remember where."
"Doesn't matter. If Drinkwine wants me to, I'll run into him sometime. Maybe I'll send Chuck after him. Have you been able to speak to the Duke yet about any of this?"
"Not yet. I was hoping to find him in this club, but he's not here. Do you have any idea where Mr. Wayne might be?"
"As far as I know, he's aimlessly walking the desert." Hughes sidled a little closer. "You know, Sophia, in this moonlight you are absolutely ravishing. Has it occurred to you that you might be the real reason I came all the way out here, and not because of my loyalty to the Duke?"
"Me, Mr. Hughes?"
"Do you remember in our earlier meeting when I mentioned Jane Russell? That was no accident. You have a lot of the same attributes. To put it more bluntly, Sophia, I have a particular fetish. I'm a breast man, and you boast the most impressive pair I've laid eyes on since Miss Russell's, and you're a better actress. Give me the word, and I'll put all my resources at your disposal."
"I don't know what to say, Mr. Hughes."
"Howard, please. Just say yes. The Duke is my friend and I am worried about him, but perhaps subconsciously, or not so subconsciously, the real reason I flew here was to court you."
"In the Spruce Goose?"
Hughes stiffened and backed away. "Where did you hear that name?"
"That bastard. He's getting too big for his britches. The Hercules Flying Boat, its real name, is a prototype for a military transport plane and is still the biggest plane ever built. They said it couldn't fly, and I flew the damn thing, right in front of the press! It still has a few bugs to be worked out, and if I had the time I would, but that part of my life is over. It's time to move on."
Hughes slunk back in his seat. Sophia wondered if she should leave, but he spoke again. "It's like we have no choice, isn't it?"
"About who we are, the people we become. Did you want to become a movie star?"
"Not really. It was more my mother's idea. She had a chance to go to Hollywood when she was young, but her parents wouldn't let her."
"More evidence. Take me, for example. I am becoming more eccentric by the day, hell, by the hour, becoming a caricature of the eccentric rich man. It's like I'm following a script that I have no control over. I often wonder if the Committee is behind it all somehow. Could they have arranged the mechanical failures that led to my plane crashes that resulted in my addiction to painkillers? Why? To create an object lesson that having money isn't everything, to amuse the masses? I'll say this for the Committee, at least they don't believe that they are the Plan, or that they're bigger than the Plan, they just try to follow it without knowing what it is or even being sure that there is one. They generally seem to favor anything that creates maximum openness, possibilities, confusion, anything new."
Sophia felt her head swimming and decided to try to steer the conversation back to safer ground. "How can we help Mr. Wayne?"
"I'll tell Chuck to find Hummer, I'm sure he knows what's going on if he'll tell us. I suggest that you stay here and wait for the Duke to show up, because it wouldn't surprise me if he did, and then you can tell him what you know."
"I will." Sophia reached for the door handle. "Thank you for your help, Mr. Hughes."
"No problem. And don't forget about my offer, it still stands. Then I could really help you out."
Sophia smiled and got out of the car. Mr. Hughes offer to put all his resources at her disposal was flattering and perhaps even sincere, but she could imagine the strings that would be attached. Men: young or old, rich or poor, they were all the same. At least it made things interesting. She found Chuck waiting a short distance from the car and handed him the mask.
"You wouldn't like to keep this as a souvenir?" Chuck asked.
"You can. Mr. Hughes would like to see you, to find someone besides me for a change."
"I'll do my best. Good night again, Miss Loren."
Sophia went back to the Cafe H, stopping at the door. The music was still playing, but wasn't there something more she could do than just go back inside and wait for Mr. Wayne to show up? She still felt a little guilty that she had almost forgotten about him when she had started dancing, losing herself in the music.
Suddenly, down the street, Sophia saw a tall, broad-shouldered, manly figure, under a wide brimmed hat, walking away in an unmistakable saunter. Mr. Wayne? Sophia tried to call out his name, but her throat was dry and all that emerged was a barely audible croak, and the man went out of sight around a corner. It had to be Mr. Wayne, who else could it be with that walk? Sophia rushed after him, confident that now things would start to get straightened out.