"Shoo! Beat it! Get lost!"
Much to the Duke's dismay, the camel he had so recently violated had followed him down the alley. He picked up a stone and threw it close to the beast. "Get out of here!"
The camel got the message and slunk away forlornly, making the Duke feel guilty that he had hurt its feelings. Get a grip, he told himself. Since when did camels have feelings? He turned his attention to the doorway, looking inside but unable to see anyone or anything besides a wooden folding chair. Maybe no one was there, but the Duke had a feeling that wasn't likely.
After taking a deep breath, he stepped inside ready for anything but stopped dead in his tracks, jaw dropping open, when he saw who was waiting for him. It was famed gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, wearing a bright red evening gown, smoking a cigarette in a holder and sitting behind a long metal table. There was a lantern on the table providing illumination and the wooden folding chair was in front. "Hedda! What are you doing here?" the Duke exclaimed.
"Waiting for you, John. Have a seat."
The Duke sat in the folding chair, feeling like a wayward student being called to account by the school principal.
"Cigarette?" offered Hedda, holding out her case.
"Got my own," said the Duke, getting out his pack of Camels and getting a light from Hedda's. Now maybe things would start making a little sense.
"Been quite a night, hasn't it?"
"Sure has," agreed the Duke. "You know about that, what's been going on?"
"I know everything, John. From my spies. I have excellent sources of information."
The Duke chuckled. "That's for sure, Hedda. You know everyone's secrets."
"Then how did you think you could fool me?"
The smile on the Duke's face froze. He didn't like this sudden turn in the conversation. "Fool you about what, Hedda?"
"You know, John. It's no use playing coy with me. You might as well make a clean breast of things, it's your only hope."
The Duke looked around, though he didn't know what he expected to see in the nearly empty room. "I don't mean to be rude, Hedda, but what are you talking about?"
"Trying to play dumb, eh, John? Well, you were never much of an actor. Let's check your file."
Hedda opened a manila folder that was in front of her. She began looking through some papers, some of which were blank as far as the Duke could tell, while others were filled with meaningless doodles. Hedda picked out one covered with mysterious scrawls and studied it carefully, until she finally looked up. "Do you deny attending a Communist recruitment party in 1934 at the home of one Max Blomberg, screenwriter?"
The Duke realized that his jaw had dropped open again, and closed it. Christ, that was more than twenty years ago, he'd gone to a lot of parties back then. "Ah, I don't know, maybe. That kind of stuff went on all the time during the thirties, Hedda. You probably went to a Commie recruitment party or two yourself without knowing it."
Hedda smiled. "I did, John, and I reported it to the proper authorities when I realized my transgression. Why didn't you?"
"I'm disappointed, John. You can't even make up a good lie. Let's talk about your war record."
"What war record?"
"My point exactly. While other movie stars such as Jimmy Stewart went off to fight in World War II, you stayed behind and insinuated yourself into the very fabric of American life just like a true Communist double agent would. Orders from Moscow?"
"Come on, Hedda, we already talked about this. I had a family to support."
"So did hundreds of thousands of others who still went and did their duty. Why didn't you?"
The Duke felt beads of sweat forming on his forehead, even though the room was cold. "They didn't need me as a common soldier. I was more valuable making movies. If they had wanted to make me a general or even a colonel, that would have been different."
Hedda put down the sheet of paper and picked up another covered with indecipherable markings, perusing it. "You certainly seem to like the women, John."
The Duke displayed his most charming grin. "Yes, I do. No crime against that, is there?"
"Why is it that you've never married an American one? You've been married three times, each time to a woman whose origins were south of the border."
"Every man prefers his own poison," the Duke answered, trying a joke which he immediately sensed fell flat.
"Perhaps, but you have to admit that your preference for foreign women is a bit suspicious. Take Marlene Dietrich, for instance. Do you deny that you had a torrid affair with her, a German national, at the height of WWII?"
"Now wait a minute, Hedda, Marlene hated the Nazis and even helped our war effort against them by visiting our troops in the field to build morale. Besides, she had affairs with everyone. What does that prove?"
Hedda put down the sheet of paper. "You've got an answer for everything, don't you, John? Just like a true Communist. Do you deny that you've had countless affairs with women, both when you were single and married?"
The Duke squirmed. "No, I don't. I'm not proud of it, but I'm a man, not some bookworm. Real men have certain, er, needs. Does that make me a Communist?"
"No, but it doesn't make you a real man, either, does it, John?"
Hedda Hopper was one of the few people in the world that the Duke would let talk to him in this manner. She was just too powerful to cross, even for him. "What's that supposed to mean?"
"Are you familiar with the term satyriasis, John?"
"Should I be?"
"It means abnormal or excessive sexual craving in the male, a craving which cannot be satisfied no matter how many beautiful women he has, for instance. Perhaps that means that he doesn't really like women, he's just trying to prove something or hide the truth about his real sexual desires. Am I getting warm, John?"
"Hedda, I have no idea in this world what you are talking about, and I wish I did. If you've got something to say, just say it."
"Ward, will you come in, please?"
From a rear entrance appeared a big bear of a man, grinning broadly under a white Walrus mustache, the Duke's best friend in the whole wide world, his old drinking, hunting, and card-playing buddy, Ward Bond. The Duke got out of his chair and met Ward happily, shaking his hand. "Ward! What the hell are you doing here?"
"Just thought I'd stop by to help you out, Duke. You know, clear the air."
"Clear the air about what?"
"No, I don't know. Will somebody tell me what the hell is going on here? Wait a minute, this isn't This Is Your Life with Ralph Edwards, is it? Because if it is, I'm going to be mighty pissed."
"This has nothing to do with Ralph Edwards, Duke," said Ward. "This is about the truth."
"It would be better if you just told Hedda yourself, Duke. She knows anyway."
"You know." Ward looked down, a smile playing on his lips.
"Knows what, dammit?"
"That we've been lovers off and on since our days playing football together at USC. I tried to deny it, but Hedda wore me down. She told me I'd feel a whole lot better if I just told the truth and Lord Almighty if she wasn't right, John, as soon as I figured out what the truth was, with Hedda's help. You'll feel a whole lot better too once you get this off your chest and 'fess up, about everything."
The Duke looked at Hedda, back at Ward, then at Hedda again. "What kind of joke is this?"
"No joke, John," said Hedda. "You might as well come clean, you're not going to bluff us. J. Edgar was on to you almost from the beginning."
"Hoover?" the Duke said incredulously.
"He can smell a queer from a mile away," said Ward. "Him and his chief assistant Tolson. They've both got kind of a sixth sense."
"You were too clever," said Hedda. "You gave yourself away with all your he-man posturing and strident super-patriotism. After awhile it became obvious that it was all just an act and that you're not the man you pretend to be."
"But it's not an act, I am that man!" protested the Duke. "What about all your anti-Communist statements over the years, Hedda, does that prove that you're really a secret Communist agent too?"
"I mean, you know what I mean, dammit, does saying that you're against Communism and for the free enterprise system prove that you're really a Commie in disguise?"
"Just the kind of doubletalk I'd expect from a Red fifth columnist," said Hedda, calmly blowing a smoke ring. "You're just digging a deeper hole for yourself, John. I'd stop before it got too deep to climb out of."
The Duke shook his head. What could he say to defend himself against such baseless accusations, if everything he said could be turned against him? "Hedda, it's me, the Duke," he said, hands held out in appeal. "John Wayne. I was the president of the MPA for two terms in a row!"
"What better cover for a Commie fink? I've got to hand it to you, John, you Red bastards sure are crafty. Let's start from the top; are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist party?"
"Do you deny agreeing to use your influence to obtain an atomic bomb, codenamed the Singing Sword, for the kingdom of Libya?"
"I might have agreed to help those two colonels, but I didn't really---"
"Do you also deny giving assistance to certain subversive beatnik elements in their quest to find a magic flower with hallucinogenic properties?"
"Maybe I gave them the name of someone who could help them, but I was just leading them on, you know, trying to find out---"
"Did you recently attend a secret meeting of native malcontents who want to overthrow the Libyan government?"
"Have you ever visited a club called Abdullah's, not once but twice, a known hangout for homosexuals and drug users, and have you ever had improper relations with a member of the dromedary clan?"
How could she know all this? The Duke swallowed. "Hedda, what do you want from me? Just tell me what you want."
Hedda pushed a pen and a blank white sheet of paper at him. "Sign this."
"What is it?"
The Duke looked at the blank sheet of paper. "There's nothing written on it."
"We'll put in the text later. Just sign on the bottom."
"I'm not signing anything, Hedda. You must think I'm nuts."
"Resistance is useless, Duke," said Ward, giving him a friendly slap on the back. "This isn't a movie, this is real life. No one is going to come and rescue you at the last minute. Your only chance to save your hide is to go along with the program, like I did. Make a clean breast of things. Otherwise, God help you."
"God help me, huh?"
"I'm afraid so, Duke."
"Well, Ward, remember that night we were playing cards, both drunk as usual, and you bet me that I couldn't punch you through a closed door?"
"I do remember that, Duke. You did, as I recall."
"That I did, pardner. Now let's see how hard I can hit you without a door between us."
With that, the Duke hauled back and socked Ward on the jaw as hard as he could, knocking Ward back a few feet into a wall. To the Duke's disappointment, Ward remained vertical.
"Nice punch," Ward commented, rubbing his jaw and shaking his head. "Of course, it's just further proof of your latent homosexuality, your repressed desire to have physical contact with other men. It's so obvious, so transparent."
By way of answer, the Duke picked up his chair and smashed it over Ward's head, breaking off a leg and this time knocking Ward to the floor.
"Transparent," Ward repeated in an oddly mechanical voice. "Transparent." To the Duke's astonishment, it appeared that his friend's face had come loose, as if he was wearing a mask. The Duke reached down and pushed the mask aside, revealing a face full of wires, tiny, whirring gears, and a pair of fake but realistic looking eyeballs.
"Seize him!" Hedda cried, and two goons in black sweatshirts and pants who had come in while the Duke had been distracted, slightly smaller cousins to the Masked Marvel, grabbed the Duke by both arms. "Take him outside and tie him to the post," Hedda commanded.
The Duke let himself be marched to the rear exit, then outside into a dark courtyard where a tall post waited. He didn't resist as he was tied up to it, arms behind him.
Hedda came out, lighting another cigarette. The two goons took their places behind her. "Sorry you had to see that, John. I really am."
"Nice try. Tell me, what do you know about the Committee?"
"What committee? The House UnAmerican Committee?"
"No, the real Committee, the one that runs everything behind the scenes. They're considering you for membership. Personally, I think it would be better if you were left as an unwitting pawn of the Plan."
"The eternal question. Does the universe exist for some reason, or are we just here? Do you believe in God, John?"
"Of course I do."
"To me the most interesting question of all. If God really does exist, something that cannot be proven by science, then it seems to me all bets are off, anything is possible, so maybe we do live in a universe that was accidentally created for no reason and everything isn't predetermined, but if God does exist, then how can that be? An interesting paradox, don't you think?"
The Duke hung his head and slumped against the post. "Hedda, I have no idea what you're talking about. I'm tired."
"It'll all be over soon, John. Have you ever heard of Dostoyevski?"
Hedda dropped her cigarette, grinding it out with her heel, then took a small pistol out of her pocketbook and pointed it at the Duke.
The Duke groaned. "I don't know what you're trying to prove, Hedda, but haven't things gone far enough?"
"Not quite, John. There's one more step to take. Would you like a blindfold?"
"Jesus, Hedda. Put the gun down."
"Still trying to give orders, eh, John? I'm sorry, I don't have any choice. You've seen too much. I'll light a candle for you."
Hedda fired once, twice, three times, the Duke couldn't believe that she could miss at this range, then he realized what was happening. Blanks, she was shooting blanks.
"Fake execution," said Hedda, putting the pistol back in her purse. "Just like Dostoyevski. Well, not just like Dostoyevski, he was put up before a firing squad when the warden already knew that he had been pardoned to four years of hard labor, but I've always wanted to pull off a similar trick because to me that incident was a sign of the Plan, or fate, in action, because there's no way in hell that Feodor would have become the artist he became without that occurrence in his life. It's my idea of a homage to the larger, unseen forces that rule us, if there is any guiding control to our lives."
The Duke felt worse than if he'd actually been shot. "Hedda, will you just let me go?"
"That would be too easy. You'll have to free yourself, John, or maybe someone will come along and cut you loose. I can't help you. Ciao."
Hedda left with her two goons. The Duke slid down the post until he was sitting on the ground. He made one feeble effort to free himself from his bonds, then gave up. He no longer cared what happened to him. Was that the plan, to make him totally give up, crush his spirit? Well, they'd succeeded, the bastards, for all the good it did them. The Duke closed his eyes, intending to rest for just a moment before doing something to rescue himself like the All-American hero he knew in his heart that he still was and always would be, but instead dropped precipitously into a deep dreamless sleep as dark as the night around him, the only reality left that made sense anymore.