The Cad skidded, almost rolling over and throwing up a cloud of sand, some of which found its way inside, before coming to an abrupt halt which caused the Duke to feel a wave of nausea or seasickness that in a flash of drunken lucidity he realized was not unusual since this desert was nothing more than an ocean of sand, wasn't it? Manfully the Duke restrained an urge to vomit on the seat and poor fellow in front of him, still mindful of his image and determined not to embarrass himself in such a fashion, though considering the circumstances, his humiliating and unforgivable failure to immediately recognize these three as agents of the Commie beatnik Red menace, what difference did it make?
"I believe we have suffered a blowout," Bill Lee said in his querulous, insectlike voice. "If this had happened on a highway back in the States, we'd probably all be dead right now, causing much rejoicing in certain quarters, but fate obviously has other plans. One thing to be said for traveling across open desert, it's much harder to get into a serious accident through reckless driving, though I suppose I could have caused us to roll over if I had turned the wheel hard enough at the right time. An opportunity missed."
Everyone got out. The right front tire was deflated. They all examined it. "Must have hit a sharp rock," said Bill Lee.
No one seemed to be in a hurry to do anything. Everyone leaned against the car and looked into the night. The Duke wondered if he should just leave and resume his journey to nowhere except it wouldn't look right to abandon these three in their distress, even if they were Commie beatniks. Also, the Duke was in the grip of a strange inertia that had sapped his will to do anything. He looked at the funny cigarette that he happened to still be holding and took another long drag. Wouldn't replace hard liquor in his opinion, but it wasn't bad, wasn't bad at all.
"Do we have a spare?" asked Jack.
"I'll check," said Bill Lee.
Bill Lee went back and opened the trunk. The Duke felt relieved that no one seemed to expect him to take charge in this situation, not that he couldn't if he had to despite the handicaps he would be operating under of being toasted and in a mood of Churchillesque depression, but why did people always expect him to know how to do everything, just because of the heroic roles he played in his movies? Couldn't they separate fact from fiction? It was almost like his audience was brainwashed, though if anyone ever suggested that to him he would be inclined to punch that individual a good one in the snoot since only Commies brainwashed anybody, but the Duke had to admit that on occasion he fell for his own impossibly heroic, indestructible silver screen image and believed he was just like the roles he played: how could he not? After all hadn't he been playing them for years, decades even, basically the same range of characters which was why the critics hated him but screw them, what did they know, he'd never met one critic who could act his or her way out of a paper bag or knew squat about the real business of acting, but hadn't he been playing the same range of characters for years, men of action, rough and ready, tall in the saddle, cowboys, soldiers, adventurers, who even when they lost facing impossible odds were never really defeated? He wouldn't be human if he wasn't influenced by playing those same kinds of roles over and over again and think that sometimes he really was like that and hell, wasn't he? Wasn't any man or American in the right situation capable of being brave, honest, forthright, heroic? Maybe not quite like in the movies but it wasn't all bullshit, not by a longshot, and neither was he, put that in your pipe and smoke it, buster! I'm for real, the Duke wanted to shout, but the only sound that came out of his mouth was a muted, unintelligible gargle, probably just as well considering the company he was in.
"Just think," said Allen, gazing at the ghostly moon-illuminated desert that almost seemed alive in some way, pocked here and there by scrubby bushes. "Three of the world's greatest religions grew out of this area."
"What else did they have to do," said Jack.
"Yeah, but think how hip they must have been. Nothing to do but think about God and eternity, they were all more tuned in to the essential mysteries than most of us today. Everyone was a prophet, and thought they could talk to God."
"Still think they can. So do I sometimes, and you too. That's who we're really writing for, isn't it? God, the universe, a thousand and one other names, trying to catch that holy ear. What else is there?"
Bill Lee came back pushing a spare. "Something very odd just happened."
"What?" asked Jack.
"When I opened the trunk to get this tire, it was handed to me. I find that most unusual. Peculiar, even."
"Was it Neal?"
"He wouldn't be hiding in the trunk, he'd be up front driving," said Allen. "Right?"
"I don't think it's Neal," said Bill Lee. "Though all I saw was this pair of hands and forearms handing me the tire. When I took it, the person retreated into the darkness at the rear of the trunk."
"Perhaps it's a miracle," said Jack. "This is the place for it. Maybe you just had a vision. Either that, or a hallucination from all those balls of majoun you've been consuming."
"I don't think so," disagreed Bill Lee. "In my opinion, what I experienced was neither a religious epiphany nor hashish induced hallucination. I'm afraid, gentlemen, that we have an uninvited guest, or stowaway. Shall we investigate?"
They trooped to the rear of the Caddy, where the trunk lid was hanging open like the maw of a great beast waiting to swallow the unwary. Peering into the spacious compartment, the Duke observed several books, a couple suitcases, a typewriter, a gas can, some foreign newspapers, a gathering of wine bottles and other odds and ends flung about, but no signs of life. At the rear of the trunk was a darkness that seemed thick and impenetrable.
"Anyone home?" called Allen, in a friendly tone. There was no response.
"Perhaps it was a ghost," said Jack, making the Duke start. "Maybe our car is haunted."
"A romantic notion," responded Bill Lee. "I think the truth in this case is of a more temporal nature. I suppose one or all of us could climb into the trunk and investigate matters, perhaps getting lost and never finding our way out since there seems to be an infinite zone of blackness in the back, no doubt some kind of existential metaphor, or we could ignore all such un-American doubt, confusion, and angst, and take a direct course of action such as the traditional hero in an American western would favor, eh, Mr. Wayne?"
"Whatever you say, pardner," said the Duke, only sure that he wasn't going to be the one climbing into the trunk to see if anyone was there.
Bill Lee smiled. "I take that as a blessing and your presence with us as a sign," he said, taking a handgun from a coat pocket and aiming into the trunk's darkest depths. "Come out with yer hands up, you sonuvabitch," Bill Lee commanded loudly, "or I'll start shooting, and I'm a dead shot."
There was a stirring, then two pale hands appeared, palms upward in the universal signal for surrender, attached to two muscular forearms belonging to a man in a khaki uniform who was also wearing a kepi hat. "Don't shoot," the man said, in English with a German accent. "I am unarmed." The man struggled out of the trunk through the suitcases and other articles keeping his hands up and stood before them with a strangely victorious smile.
"I know this is the obvious question," said Bill Lee, still pointing his pistol, "but who in the mugwump are you?"
"Hans Hister," the man replied. "I am a deserter from the French Foreign Legion. Perhaps you remember being stopped at an Algerian border checkpoint a few miles back. I was looking through your trunk when I realized that this was a perfect opportunity for me to make my exit from my military duties. I was sure that no one would miss me until it was too late. May I put down my hands?"
"A deserter, eh?" said Bill Lee. "Then it would be within my rights, perhaps even be my duty, to shoot you, wouldn't it?"
"Perhaps, if you were a Legionaire. But you are an American, and Americans don't do that sort of thing, do they?"
"Maybe I'm not that kind of American. It's not that you're a deserter that bothers me, hell, I admire that, but somewhat ironically I can't stand freeloaders. I don't like giving free rides. So what can you do to atone for this crime?"
"I understand that you have a flat tire. I am very good at changing tires. May I be of assistance?"
"Get to it, boy."
Bill Lee and Hans went to the front of the car. "Bill seems to be doing his Southern sheriff routine," remarked Jack. "Hope he doesn't get carried away."
"Do you think he's a Nazi?" asked Allen.
"No, Hans. Maybe I'm leaping to conclusions, but you hear stories about these ex-SS types who joined the French Foreign Legion after World War II. Do you think he could be one of those?"
"Who cares," said Jack. "What does it matter? Now it's the Commie menace everyone's worried about. Nazis, Commies, it's all the same dumbshow illusion. Right, Mr. Wayne?"
The Duke sadly observed that he had finished smoking the funny cigarette down to its last ember. "Do you have any more?" he asked Allen, smiling crookedly.
"I'm afraid not. That was our last joint."
"That's okay. Would you like to try some pills, or majoun?"
"Little rolled up balls of hash. You chew them like candy. I'm sure Bill must still have some."
The only hash the Duke was familiar with was the kind he sometimes had for breakfast, with a couple sunny eggs on top. "No thanks. Maybe later."
They went to the front of the car where, under the watchful eye of Bill Lee, Hans was changing the tire. "Just out of curiosity, where are you gentlemen headed?" asked Hans, grappling with a tire iron.
"Perhaps we're not headed anywhere," Bill Lee purred, rubbing the barrel of his pistol across his face. "Maybe we were just joyriding across the desert. Why, is there some place in particular that you would like to go?"
"Wherever you're headed is fine with me."
"How does Ghadames sound? Ever heard of it before?"
"That's an oasis in Libya, isn't it?"
Bill Lee chuckled evilly. "Clever little kraut, aren't you? Who are you working for?"
"A likely story. We just happened to pick you up, huh?"
"My lucky day, as you Americans say. Or night, in this case."
"Why did you desert?" Allen asked. "Did you have some political reason, or were conditions that bad in general?"
"Neither," said Hans, taking off the flat and rolling it out of the way. "I'm a soldier by trade, so I did not find the regimen of the Foreign Legion disagreeable in any way. In fact, it was most congenial to my nature. As for politics, I have found it wise not to take sides since all seem to have some merit and in my profession such a luxury of emotion is not practical. No, my newfound friends, I confess I decamped from my responsibilities because, quite simply, for once in my life and career as a soldier, I wanted to be on the winning side."
"Windy son of a bitch, aren't you?" said Bill Lee, still playing with his pistol. "Just which winning side are you talking about?"
"Yours, of course. The American one. Everything's going your way now. Do you deny it?"
"Sounds like another conformist rat to me, boys," said Bill Lee. "I say we plug him now and get it over with."
"You don't understand," said Hans, momentarily pausing in his exertions. "Let me explain. First, there was defending the Fatherland. I make no apologies for that. I'm sure you think that I'm a Nazi just because I'm a German, but I was never a party member. I was merely another soldier doing his duty. Maybe there were some things I shouldn't have gone along with as we all did, but that's hindsight. Anyway, as you know, we lost the war. You handed our butts to us, as you Americans say, another of your clever sayings. Then, a few years later, I joined the Legion and was sent to Indochina. Have you heard of a place called Dien Bien Phu?"
"Didn't the French surrender there to the Communists?" said Jack.
"Yes. To a bunch of guerillas, natives, who still live in the jungle. I was one of the few survivors from my unit. So what was my reward? To get sent here, to Algeria, to fight another losing conflict because I can see the writing on the wall, we're not going to win this one either. I can take all the ordinary hardships of being a soldier, but to always wind up on the losing side is no longer acceptable to me. I had to desert. I had no other choice."
"Very touching," said Bill Lee. "All part of the Plan. Now get back to work before I shoot you."
"What plan?" asked Allen. "What's this plan that you and Jack keep mentioning?"
"The Plan, the only one there is. The same one that brought the three of us together and all the others, like Neal, Huncke, Corso, Snyder. You didn't think it was just coincidence that we all found each other, did you? Poor, sweet, naive Allen."
"The gods were at work," said Jack.
"Something like that. Anyway, kraut," said Bill Lee, "just because you're changing our tire doesn't mean you're getting a free ride. You already owe us. Besides, you're a jinx. Who needs your bad luck?"
"I assure you that I will bring you no ill fortune," said Hans. "Just give me a chance. Perhaps I can be of some other service to you further on down the road."
"There's always that to be said, I suppose, but you're a lot older and more weather-beaten than I like 'em, if you know what I mean."
Hans continued changing the tire. No one else said or did anything, then a faint beat began, coming from somewhere.
"Is that drums?" asked Allen.
"The spirit of Raoul," said Bill Lee. "The wind beating on the sand, a portent of death."
"I think it's a band," said Jack. "They sound pretty hot, I can hear horns too. Man, dig that crazy sound!"
Hans finished putting on the tire and returned the jack and tire iron to the trunk. Bill Lee leaned towards the Duke. "Why don't you drive, Duke. I'd like to keep a closer eye on our new friend. Who knows what tricks he might have up his sleeve."
The Duke nodded reluctantly. It wasn't generally known, hell, it wasn't known at all, but he hated to drive almost as much as he hated to ride horses, stupid creatures who shied away at almost anything, dumping him more than once, which was ironic considering his cowboy image but that was the way it was. Groaning inwardly, the Duke went around and eased his bulk behind the wheel. He found the key in the ignition and turned it on, the motor roaring to life. Everybody got in.
"Onward, to whatever awaits!" cried Bill Lee in the back seat.
The Duke put the Cad in gear, stomped the gas and the car bolted forward, veering sharply to the right though the Duke had barely touched the wheel, then pulled just as sharply to the left when he tried to correct.
"Sensitive beast, isn't it?" Bill Lee commented behind him. "Takes a little getting used to."
The Duke couldn't decide if the car was that difficult to handle or if he was that intoxicated, because even when he didn't turn the wheel or stepped lightly on the gas it seemed to make no difference, the Cad didn't slow down or stop swinging from side any less wildly, as if it had a mind of its own. The Duke grabbed the wheel with all his strength and tried to force it into a straight path, but the car kept veering left and right and didn't slow down even when he took his foot off the gas pedal, which perversely remained stuck to the floor. There was nothing he could do: he wondered if he should ask for help, but how would that look, Duke Wayne asking for help in driving a car? He didn't even know where they were going, not that it seemed to matter with the way the car was driving itself, but only had the vaguest sense of direction that he should try to point the car in if it ever miraculously came under his control. None of his fellow passengers seemed to notice his difficulties or their rough ride, which the Duke supposed he should be grateful for, but he was not reassured. Beside him Jack was staring out his side window at the night, while behind him in the back seat---horror or horrors! The Duke gaped: he thought he was a man of the world and nothing or almost nothing could shock him, that was his image and the reality too, as far as he was concerned, but what he was looking at in the rearview mirror was an unmistakably and blatantly homosexual act in the nature of fellatio, he believed the proper clinical word was, being committed by Bill Lee on the young man Allen, who the Duke had considered the most decent and normal of the bunch and was now grinning back at him either sheepishly or delightedly, the Duke wasn't sure which. The Duke whipped around to order the pair to cease and desist their disgusting activity, forgetting for the moment that it was their car he was riding in and probably had no right to order them not to do anything, or at least to ask them in an affronted tone just what it was they thought they were doing, a rhetorical question since they both obviously knew what they were doing and so did he, the Duke feeling morally bound to register his outrage and disbelief at their behavior anyway, but before he could do so he was distracted by Hans, also in the backseat but a non-participant in any deviant acts, whose expression of alarm and pointed finger at something the car was speeding towards bespoke more than his terrified cry.
"Gott in Himmel, a camel!"
The Duke turned back just in time to see a large dromedary getting larger in the windshield by the second, seemingly unconcerned with its impending doom. The Duke desperately spun the wheel but this time the Cad did not deviate from its course one inch, no matter what he did to the wheel, nor did the car slow down when he stepped on the brake, instead it accelerated in one final burst of speed. The Duke had just enough time to make a single babyish cry of "Ga!", then camel and car connected. The Duke thought it was all sheroot, but somehow the camel sailed harmlessly over the windshield, landing with a mighty thump on the roof, before tumbling off behind them as the Cad roared forward its course unchanged one whit.
"Great driving, Duke," said Bill Lee. "You handled that situation with aplomb, almost as well as Neal would have. Must be a natural western talent. You can be my driver anytime."
The Duke said nothing. A red light appeared up ahead, then the shimmering outline of several low-slung buildings. Somehow, they had reached Ghadames. The Duke turned the steering wheel, and the Cad responded docilely. He stepped on the brake, and it slowed compliantly. He coasted to a modern looking building with a glowing neon light on its roof that spelled out Cafe H, and stopped.
Everyone piled out of the Caddy except the Duke. He felt too numb to move. His door opened.
"C'mon, Duke, this looks like a pretty rough place," said Bill Lee. "We might need your protection."
The Duke reached up to touch his neck. For some reason he felt like a monster, Frankenstein's monster, though he had never played such a role in his life. He was trying to feel the bolts, but didn't have any. He was aware the others were waiting for him and felt a narcissistic desire not to disappoint them. Zombielike, he extricated himself from behind the wheel. A pounding noise was emanating from the building, some kind of music, the sound that had reached them in the desert and somehow drawn them here. Without thinking, the Duke strode forward in the walk that was now second nature to him, someone opened the door and with the others plunged into a maelstrom of light, darkness, and noise.