Leaving Abdullah's, Sophia was just in time to see Mr. Wayne disappear down an alleyway. She wondered if she should catch up to him and tell him about the note, or just follow at a discreet distance, making sure everything was all right. Perhaps her premonition was wrong and Mr. Wayne wasn't in any real danger and the note was just a hoax, as she had first thought. In that case, she didn't want to alarm the Duke unnecessarily, especially considering his state of intoxication.
Sophia turned. Behind her, opposite the direction Mr. Wayne had gone, was a clean-cut young man in a suit and tie standing next to a black car, hands clasped behind him.
"Could you come with me, please? There's someone who'd like to see you."
"Mr. Hughes. Howard Hughes."
Howard Hughes? Sophia had never met him, but knew he was a very rich man who owned several companies, including a movie studio, liked to fly his own planes, and had a reputation as a playboy. What would such an individual be doing here? There had to be some kind of mistake. She had no time, anyway.
"Excuse me, I have to go," said Sophia, turning to follow Mr. Wayne, but before she'd taken three steps a rough woolen blanket was thrown over her head and strong arms enfolded her.
"Bruto! Assassino! Sonofabeetch piece of shit!" Sophia struggled wildly, to her satisfaction getting several solid kicks in and she felt that she was on the verge of breaking free but then someone else grabbed her too and she was bundled into a car, kicking and screaming. Doors slammed shut and they sped away.
Sophia tried to keep fighting, but it was useless. She was being held too tightly and could only kick the back of a seat, which hurt her toe. She cried out for help but the blanket muffled her and she was sure no one would have heard anyway. The irony of her situation did not escape her, that suddenly she was the one in danger instead of Mr. Wayne.
"Watch out for that camel!"
The car swerved, throwing Sophia against whoever was holding her, then back again. She wondered if Muammar had followed her outside at some point and seen her being abducted, perhaps that was her only hope.
"I don't know about this," the driver said. "I know the boss believes in secrecy, and he wanted us to bring Miss Loren no matter what, but this seems a bit much."
"The very rich are very different from you or I," intoned the man holding Sophia, from the sound of his voice the same one who'd accosted her outside Abdullah's. "Do you believe that?"
"That the very rich are very different from you or I."
"I don't know. Maybe. What are you getting at?"
"F. Scott Fitzgerald. He believed that the very rich are a completely different breed than the average Joe."
"A completely different breed?"
"Well, I don't know about that."
"Don't know about what?"
"They can obviously afford to be more eccentric than the ordinary person, like you know who, but does that make them really different? You give me a few hundred million dollars and I could be just as different too."
"That's a cynical, modernist attitude."
"So you think the super rich are that different from the rest of us?"
"I was just repeating a statement for the sake of argument."
Sophia wondered if she was the victim of white slavers. She'd heard of such things: perhaps she was being forcibly recruited to join some Arab sheik's harem. Was that to be her fate, to run around wearing a skimpy costume the rest of her life servicing some old goat until she was old and no longer attractive? What did happen to old harem girls, were they butchered and fed to the dogs? Perhaps she had seen too many movies.
The car slowed to a halt. The man holding her let go and Sophia tore the blanket from her head. She was almost too angry to speak for a moment. "What is this? Who do you think you are?"
"I'm Chuck," the man who'd been holding her said. "This is Dave. We're sorry about the abduction, but Mr. Hughes told us not to come back without you."
"Does Mr. Hughes think I am a cow to be handled this way, so rudely?" Sophia wasn't sure she had used the right words, but if not, she could think of a few more for them.
"Not at all. It's just important that Mr. Hughes sees you. He also wants it kept a secret. No one is supposed to know he is here."
"I can't tell you."
"Because it's a secret?"
"All Mr. Hughes told us was that we had to bring you." Sophia studied her captors. They were no older than she was and reminded her of two errant schoolboys. She was no longer afraid of them, if she had been that afraid to begin with. She looked outside the car where flames sprouted from an oil drum illuminating a hull so massive that Sophia could not see what it belonged too, no matter how much she craned her neck. "What's that, a boat?"
"Close," said Chuck. "It's a flying boat, or the Hercules. It's a transport plane, the biggest ever constructed, made almost completely out of wood. It's unique. Mr. Hughes is very proud of it. Would you like to step outside for a better look?"
They got out of the car, which was parked under a giant wing as wide as a four-lane highway that stretched out into the night further than Sophia could see. She looked up at a propeller whose blades were at least three times her own height. "This thing flies?" she asked without thinking.
"Of course it flies," huffed Chuck. "Has a little trouble getting more than a few feet off the ground, but it does fly. Mr. Hughes developed this plane at great cost for the United States government, which now ungratefully does not want to buy it, forcing him to search for other interested parties, such as a certain desert kingdom, perhaps. Free enterprise."
Sophia pulled her robe around her. It was getting very cold. She looked at a ramp leading up into the belly of the plane. "Mr. Hughes is inside waiting for you in the cockpit," Chuck said. "Have you ever met him before?"
"Do you know what he looks like?"
Sophia thought for a moment. "He's a tall, thin, man, isn't her? Dark hair combed straight back, a thin mustache?"
"That's him," said Chuck. "He might look a little messy to you, though, depending on what you expect. Unshaven, that sort of thing. Also, though I don't know if I should put this thought in your head, if he gives you a tour of the plane or starts talking about it, whatever you do, don't call it the Spruce Goose."
"The Spruce Goose?"
"A smart-aleck news reporter made the name up, referring to the plane's nearly all-wood construction. So if by chance you start talking about the aircraft, please remember to call it the Hercules or the flying boat, unless you want to get Mr. Hughes's dander up. It's just a subject he's very sensitive about."
Sophia nodded. She supposed she could maintain her indignation and insist that she be driven back to town, but didn't think she would be and besides, she was curious as to why the legendary Howard Hughes wanted to see her so badly.
"He's inside the plane?"
"Yes, he is. Waiting for you in the cockpit."
After making a face that said what choice do I have, Sophia headed up the ramp. The fuselage of the plane was a cavernous interior filled with fuel drums and other cargo and was illuminated by an overhead light. Somewhere, a generator hummed. There was a passageway between the cargo that led to the front of the plane and Sophia hesitated. What was the part of the plane that she was going to called? The cockpit? Somehow, that did not sound promising.
Sophia went forward cautiously. She came to a large oval doorway, the door open. Peeking inside she saw a bank of controls and instruments and four seats, two in front and two in back. Someone was sitting in one of the front seats silent and motionless. Sophia wondered if she should knock, clear her throat, or just leave.
"You ever dream?" Howard Hughes asked, not turning around.
"Yes," Sophia answered, entering the cockpit and taking the seat beside him. In the glow provided by moonlight, she was a shocked by Mr. Hughes's untidy appearance: long, dirty hair, a scruffy beard, and his clothes, a wrinkled, white long-sleeved shirt and ripped, baggy pants, looked more appropriate for a tramp than as the attire of one of the richest men in the world.
"What kind of dreams?" asked Hughes, looking at Sophia.
"Nightmares of the war. Hiding from bombing raids with my mother and sister in a railway tunnel. Watching the street fighting when the Germans were driven out of Naples."
"You were just a skinny kid then, right? What did the other kids use to call you, La Sticcolina, the toothpick?"
"I was then. Growing up, there was never enough to eat."
"You'll never forget those days, will you?"
"My dreams are usually nightmares too, always of the plane crashes that I've had. It's such a helpless feeling, the ground getting closer and closer, everything speeding up, then bam! you hit and everything stops but only after what seems like an eternity of screaming metal and breaking glass, then the next thing you know you're standing around in the middle of the wreckage of what was your plane or someone is pulling you out of the debris trying to save you. Then somehow you're in a hospital bed surrounded by doctors and nurses and they're giving you pills, lots of pills, for the pain. That's what I dream of, usually. I relive those memories all the time. Sometimes they don't seem real anymore and I wonder what is. You ever feel that way about your own past experiences?"
"Sometimes," agreed Sophia.
Hughes shook his head. "We lead charmed lives, you and I, don't we? Or perhaps star-crossed would be a better way to put it. I suppose everyone does. It's all part of the Plan."
"The Plan. You don't think all this is some accident, do you?"
"Everything. Who you are, who I am, who the Duke is, everything, it's all according to some Plan. Now whose Plan this is or what the Plan is, exactly, I don't know. No one does. But I am sure, I'm absolutely positive, that nothing happens by accident, that somehow everything is designed to be the way it is. Otherwise, how do you account for anything? By believing that the universe operates randomly, by sheer chance, without any purpose?" Hughes sniggered. "I don't think so. That's why I'm worried about my buddy, the Duke."
"I've heard things. I think he might be in some kind of danger. That's why I'm here, among other reason."
"Did you get a note?"
Hughes looked surprised. "No. What note, did you?"
"I was told to go to this place called Abdullah's because Mr. Wayne was in danger."
"What kind of danger?"
"The note didn't say."
"Who left it?"
"I don't know. Someone just left it at my door."
"Did you go to Abdullah's?"
"Yes. Mr. Wayne was there, drinking. Then three men came in and joined him."
"Who were they?"
"Two Libyan military officers and the third was an American. I think he said his name was Drinkwine."
"Drinkwine. Now that's interesting," said Hughes. "Very interesting."
"You know him?"
"He's with the Company."
"The Central Intelligence Agency. He's a spook. He could have a good reason for being here, but still, it makes me wonder. Did you hear what Drinkwine and the Duke were talking about?"
"Not really. The two officers seemed to be fans of Mr. Wayne and they wanted his help with something, while Drinkwine just seemed interested in bringing them together."
"Umm. Was there anything mentioned about---the Committee?"
Sophia tried to remember. "I don't think so. Who are they?"
"A secret organization I used to belong to. They kicked me out, though you're never completely out once you're in. Anyway, their excuse was that my behavior was becoming too erratic, which is a hoot since they know better than anyone that it's all part of the Plan. Some Plan, that Plan."
Hughes relaxed, leaning back in his seat and smiling, throwing one leg over another and revealing that he was wearing socks but no shoes. "You know, Sophia, you are one beautiful woman."
"You could be the Italian Jane Russell. We made The Outlaw together. I made her a star. You already are a star, but perhaps I could make you an even bigger one."
"What did you have in mind, Mr. Hughes?"
"Sign a contract with me. I must have one around somewhere. Let me help you."
Now it was Sophia's turn to smile. If she was still a struggling actress, she might be tempted, but she wasn't anymore and besides, she had Carlo. "I appreciate your offer, Mr. Hughes, but no thank you."
"I understand. No hard feelings. It's hard to compete with Cary Grant. That's who you've been seeing, isn't it?"
"We're just good friends."
"Of course. In the old days, Cary and I went to a lot of the same Hollywood parties, we made the rounds together. Those were the days. I can't tell you how much I miss them. By the way, do you happen to have any painkillers on you? I've run out."
"No. I'm sorry."
Sophia sneezed suddenly, before she could cover her mouth. To her surprise, Mr. Hughes recoiled from her as if she had just attacked him.
"Do you have a cold?"
"No, I just sneezed."
"There's no such thing as just a sneeze! Do you realize how many germs there are in a single sneeze? Millions! Billions! Bacteria are everywhere."
Hughes grabbed a box of Kleenex from somewhere and started frantically swabbing down the cockpit. "My men will take you back to town. If I learn anything about the Duke, I'll contact you."
Sophia guessed that she was being dismissed. She left the cockpit and exited the plane. Chuck and Dave were standing by the car talking.
"Do you think the Church approves?" Dave asked.
"Of us taking care of Mr. Hughes?" replied Chuck. "Are you kidding? It could be a lucrative opportunity for them."
"It's not what I signed up for, if you know what I mean."
"I have no idea. What kind of Mormon are you? We're just trying to serve our fellow man."
Chuck looked at Sophia and smiled. "Where to, back to town?"
"That would be fine," said Sophia, voluntarily getting into the back seat this time, and they took off, Dave behind the wheel gunning the motor and making the wheels spin, the giant plane left behind in the darkness as silent and mysterious as the Sphinx.