God help anyone who crossed his path from this moment on, the Duke thought as he grimly marched through the unlit shabby byways of Ghadames, not looking for trouble but certainly in no mood to avoid any with all the indignities that he had been subjected to lately as if he was still some wet-behind-the-ears young pup who didn't know which end of the camera was which. Some sonuvabitch was playing games with him and he, the Duke, John Wayne, hero to millions, was going to get to the bottom of things one way or another, he'd been patient for too long, except, dammit, he was lost again and had no idea where he was on these signless, lightless excuses for streets that were more alleys than proper thoroughfares, how the hell was anybody supposed to find their way around under these conditions? The Duke slowed his pace, not because he was both tired and lost, which he was, but because up ahead were the sounds of a serious commotion. Had the crowd back at the warehouse with the Masked Marvel somehow followed him here? The Duke crept forward and peeked around a corner. To his relief, he saw that he had stumbled on Abdullah's, which seemed a lot busier than his first visit, judging from the number of people fighting to get in. The Duke wondered what the excitement was, then remembered the poster he'd seen advertising someone called the Desert Elvis, playing there that night. Apparently he was just in time for the show.
The Duke joined the crowd and was swept inside to as raucous a scene as he had ever encountered in any of his other late-night excursions when he was younger, not that he was that old now, he could still drink most men half his age under the table without even trying, but Abdullah's was jumping like it was ready to explode, with people packed in as tight as sardines. The Duke had more than half a mind to leave, surely there was nothing he could learn in this mass of confusion, then he heard his name being called.
"Duke! Duke! Over here!"
It was his old friend and current director Henry Hathaway, sitting at a table with Rossano Brazzi, waving him over. The Duke made his way through the crowd, saying excuse me with almost every step, and Henry managed to pull out a chair which the Duke accepted gratefully.
"This joint's jumping," Henry said, filling a shot glass with an amber liquid from an unmarked bottle and pushing it in the Duke's direction. "I confess that I'm confounded by his popularity."
The Duke picked up the drink and consumed it one throat burning swallow. Whiskey, just what he needed. "Who, the Desert Elvis?"
"Yeah. Probably some kid they grabbed out of thin air trying to catch lightning in a bottle, or more likely they're hoping to make a few bucks trading on the real Elvis's name. Have you seen Sophia?"
"She's looking for you. Seems to think that you're in some kind of danger."
The Duke was surprised at how gratified he felt hearing that his nubile young co-star was looking for him. "What danger?"
"She didn't know. Someone left her a note saying that you were without providing any details. She and Rossano were looking for me to ask my advice, then they split up and I bumped into Rossano, but now we can't find Sophia. We came here, hoping to run into one if not both of you. Has anything happened tonight?"
The Duke didn't know where to begin without sounding nuts, or, worse, like an unmanly whiner. He grabbed the bottle and poured himself a stiff drink, downing it again in one swallow. "Nothing I couldn't handle," the Duke said, banging the glass down on the table harder than he intended. "Where do you think Sophia could be?"
"She left us a note saying she was going to this other club in town," said Rossano. "We found it, some place called the Cafe H, but Sophia wasn't there, so we decided to try here. Do you think she could have gone back to the hotel, Henry?"
"I doubt it," said Hathaway. "I think it's more likely that she's going to show up here. It seems like everyone else has. Look at all these people. Who are they?"
The Duke examined the crowd, who collectively seemed on the point of boiling over, making an ungodly din. Then, to his surprise and gratification, he saw his old buddy Howard Hughes along with Bill Lee, both no longer wearing their monks' robes. He pointed Hughes out. "See that guy over there, Henry?"
"What about him?" Henry asked, downing his own whiskey.
"That's Howard Hughes."
"That bum? He looks terrible. I knew he was a little eccentric, but what happened to him? What's he doing here?"
"That's what I intend to find out," the Duke said. "Excuse me." The Duke got up and began easing his way through the crowd. For a small place, there seemed to be a lot of distance between him and Hughes, and he was only halfway there when he bumped very hard from behind.
"Christ, this place is lousy with fruits," said the Masked Marvel, a drunken, unsteady Masked Marvel, a sixty ounce bottle of Miller in each hand, now in a dark suit and tie but still wearing his mask. "Watch where you're going."
"Excuse me," the Duke said contritely. "I didn't mean to."
"The hell you didn't," said the Marvel, slurring his words so badly the Duke wondered if he was only pretending to be drunk. "Probably here for the poetry reading, aren't you, fairy boy?"
"Like you don't know. I bet you have your own sheaf of pathetic poesy you want to bore us with. Have a drink with me, you faggot, or are you too good?"
Before the Duke could make any reply, the Masked Marvel dropped his beer bottles and punched him, knocking him back into the tightly packed crowd, who held him up. The Duke regained his senses just in time to see another haymaker about to be launched in the direction of his kisser, when the Marvel was interrupted from behind by a tap on his shoulder.
"I think you've got the wrong man."
The Marvel turned, one fist cocked, the other holding the Duke by the front of his jacket. It was Bill Lee's young friend Allen, naked except for a sweet smile, hands folded strategically over his crotch.
"Holy crap!" the Masked Marvel said. "What the hell are you trying to prove?"
"Nakedness. The poet must stand naked before the world."
"I have been institutionalized, but that's beside the point. I dare you to join me. Or are you afraid? Is that what you're trying to prove with this behavior, that you're not afraid?"
"Haven't you ever seen a naked man in public before?" asked Allen, stepping forward with his hands raised in question.
"Sweet Jesus Christ!" the Marvel bellowed, letting go of the Duke and fleeing, bowling over several people along the way.
"Are you all right, Mr. Wayne?" asked Allen. "Did he hurt you?"
The Duke slowly rubbed his jaw, still sore from being slugged by the Marvel. "I'm fine, thanks. Where are your clothes?"
"I gave them away, to someone who needed them more than me. The issue of poverty is something I have not adequately addressed in my poetry. At any rate, thanks for tipping us about Abdullah. He couldn't help us with the Singing Sword, but he did give us the name of a shaman in the Atlas mountains who might have some very interesting datura. We hope to look him up on our way back to Tangiers."
"Glad to be of assistance," the Duke said, trying to keep from looking down.
"You were, Mr. Wayne. We all have our roles. I think I'll find Jack, he's around here somewhere. Nice meeting you, if we don't see each other again."
"Nice meeting you, too," said the Duke, shaking the young man's hand, then breathing a sigh of relief when Allen left, taking his nakedness with him. He was a man of the world right enough, but there were some things even he wasn't comfortable with. Probably a lot of things, now that he thought about it.
"You don't have the guts," a voice sneered and the Duke whirled around fists up ready for an altercation this time, he wasn't going to be caught napping twice, but found it was only Bill Lee talking to Howard Hughes, who looked shockingly unkempt up close.
"The hell I don't," responded Howard, in his own somewhat querulous, high-pitched voice. "You're talking to someone who flies his own planes, not to mention drives high performance race cars."
"That's not the same as shooting someone, Howard. Believe me, I know."
"I could do it."
"Maybe, maybe not. Talk is cheap, as some wise man once said. But we both know that you're not going to do anything out of character, right?"
"Maybe I'll surprise you."
"I doubt it."
The Duke moved closer so he was practically on top of the two men, adopting his favorite hands on hips pose.
"Duke, what a surprise finding you here," said Hughes. "How have you been? I don't think our paths have crossed since the Conqueror."
"Don't remind me."
"It wasn't that bad a movie, it wasn't bad at all. You made a hell of a Genghis Khan."
"You were the only one who thought so."
"Critics, what do they know. The same with Jet Pilot, that was a great movie too. It's still my favorite, of all the pictures that I was ever associated with."
"Too bad no one else felt the same way."
"The crowd isn't always right, Duke. If I had always bowed to the majority, I never would have accomplished anything. Let me introduce my friend, Bill Lee."
"Pleasure to see you again, Mr. Wayne," Bill Lee said in his old man's voice. "You seem better."
"Better than what?"
"Better than when I last saw you. I had the distinct impression that you were hallucinating, under the malign influence of some evil agent."
"Maybe I still am."
"It's so hard to tell sometimes, isn't it? In my own case, I simplify matters by treating my own hallucinations as reality. I see my young friend Allen just helped you out of a tight spot."
"Yeah, he did. Maybe I'll return the favor some time."
"That would be something. Is there anything we can help you with, Mr. Wayne? I have the feeling that you did not come over to make idle chatter."
"You're right about that, pardner," said the Duke. "I'd like you to tell me, in plain, straight, unvarnished English, just what the hell is going on?"
"Probably a lot of things, Mr. Wayne. Did you have anything specific in mind?"
The Duke was determined not to be hoorawed by this queer customer. "You know what I mean. For one thing, just a little while ago, you and Howard were having some kind of meeting with Vice-President Nixon and Elvis Presley in a storehouse not far from here. You were all wearing robes like you were monks in a medieval order." The Duke felt proud of himself for coming up with that bit of description. "What was that all about?"
"That would be telling," said Bill Lee.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Anything you want it to."
The Duke felt a strong urge to haul back and slug this clown, but resisted the temptation.
"Assuming you actually witnessed this meeting," said Howard Hughes, "how do you know it was us you were seeing? Maybe it was just someone pretending to be us."
"You mean---like actors?"
"Something like that. What were they talking about?"
"I don't know. They kept mentioning some plan."
"Ah, the Plan," Bill Lee said knowingly. "Maybe there is one, maybe there isn't. If there is one, you're a part of it somehow, as we all are. A movie star whose heroic image countless young men will either seek to emulate or reject, an unwitting or perhaps not so unwitting agent of the trend towards a global American monoculture. Ripples upon ripples. Who can say where it all will lead? I hope that clears things up for you."
It didn't clear anything up the Duke was going to say, but before he could he was distracted by someone tugging on his sleeve.
"Excuse me, Mr. Wayne," said Col. Hassan, his cohort Col. Ali by his side. "Have you made any progress?"
"Progress on what?"
"Obtaining the Singing Sword for us," shouted Col. Ali over the noise of the crowd. "We have heard that your good friend Vice-President Nixon is in the neighborhood. Have you spoken to him?"
"Just one little bomb, that is all we ask," Col. Hassan beseeched. "We would be your friends for life, brothers, our destinies intertwined. We know that it is not the most influential Singing Sword, we are not that naive, but for our purposes it would suffice. If you would be so kind as to put in a good word for us in the right places, we would never forget it. Allah would bless you."
"Can I ask you something?" Col. Ali yelled, jostled by the increasingly rambunctious crowd. "Why are you called the Duke? I didn't think that Americans had royalty."
"So why are you called the Duke?"
"I got the name from a dog I had as a kid."
"You got your name from a dog?" asked Col. Hassan in astonishment.
"Well, yeah. Me and my dog used to hang out at this firehouse and the firemen started calling us Big Duke and Little Duke. I was Little Duke, then."
"So---you are named after a dog?" Col. Ali also asked in disbelief.
"I was just a kid. The name stuck!"
The crowd erupted in a paroxysm of joy as a group of black men wearing sunglasses entered the club from a rear entrance and began setting up musical equipment on a small stage. The Duke recognized them as being the same band he'd seen at the Cafe H.
"Who are these guys?" asked Howard.
"The High Yellows," answered Bill Lee. "Ostensibly here on a goodwill tour for the U.S. State Department. You would think that their name might be a covert drug reference, but actually it's a term for attractive white women who fancy black men, which, if true, makes no sense at all as a name for a band of black musicians. Then again, I make no claim to be an expert on black slang."
"I hate black people," said Howard Hughes. "They're animals. I wish they didn't exist. Will that come out about me too?"
"That you're a racist? Yes, Howard," said Bill Lee. "Everything will come out about you. You will be mainly remembered as the archetypal eccentric billionaire."
"I didn't know I was that important."
"You're not. That's the outmoded great man theory of history, which perhaps is not that outmoded. Perhaps today the exceptional individual can wield more influence than even in centuries past because the masses, if you will excuse that over-used term, need things simplified more than ever before by a relative handful of people because the world has become so complex. It's a question of basic survival."
"Bill, what the hell are you talking about? I thought I was supposed to be the crazy one."
"You are, Howard, don't worry. I was just digressing. It's all part of the Plan, anyway, if there is one, if that's of any comfort to you."
"Even these black animals?"
"Especially them, Howard. We're just too vanilla, if you know what I mean, and I'm sure you don't. We need them more than they need us. At least, we need each other equally, yin and yang. Besides, they're musicians. You know the Singing Sword has a musical element in its tripartite nature, an aspect some experts feel is its most important component."
"Bah. There is no Singing Sword."
The Duke wondered if everyone had gone crazy, or was it just him? Before he could ask further questions that would only add to his confusion, the crowd erupted in a new level of hysteria when an Arab boy with a confused yet defiant expression wandered onto the stage, in the company of another sunglasses wearing Negro. The Duke recognized Muammar, the kid from the hotel whose father Abu-Meniar he had only recently broke bread with.
"Here it is, Howard," said Bill Lee. "Your moment of truth. Ready?"
"You sure this kid is going to be the future revolutionary ruler of Libya?" asked Hughes.
"In about ten or twelve years. Those are the C.I.A. projections, anyway. And, as you know, they're never wrong."
"But if I shoot him, then he won't lead a military coup in that time, taking over this country and turning it into a hotbed of anti-Americanism?"
"He won't. Of course, someone else could come along and take his place, some other hothead, the Plan does seem to have a lot of redundancy built into it to deal with the odd or not so odd assassination, but then again, you might change history."
"Proving that there is no Plan, and that the universe does exist at random."
"But it could be just another part of the Plan, since everything that happens, one way or another, can be taken into account that way."
"Right again. You're two for two."
"I don't have a gun."
"No problem. You can borrow mine."
Bill Lee slipped Howard Hughes a revolver. Abdullah introduced the High Yellows and Muammar as the Desert Elvis and the High Yellows began playing, creating a noise level that assaulted the Duke's eardrums almost beyond endurance. The crowd lost its mind even more than previously and began throwing things up on the stage in Muammar's direction, garments, watches, wallets, other items, none of which seemed to impress the boy who stood there stoically. The Duke wished he could just stop all this madness which seemed completely unnatural to him though he had some experience with wild mob scenes being a movie star, but this hysteria was different somehow---because he wasn't its object?---then suddenly Muammar, after slipping on something and doing a split, recovered his balance and began smashing his guitar on the stage, totally destroying it and stunning the crowd into a merciful silence.
"Here's your chance," said Bill Lee. "Do it."
Howard Hughes looked at the pistol, then gave it back to Bill Lee. "I can't. You're right, I don't have the guts. Let's get out of here."
"Not so fast, we've got an ace in the hole." Bill Lee turned to the Duke, holding out the gun. "Care to do the honors, Mr. Wayne? For God, country, whatever other talismans you choose to appropriate? It certainly is providential that you happen to be here at this moment."
The Duke took the pistol, not because he had any intentions of using it, but because he felt it was a lot safer in his hands. Muammar finished smashing the guitar and looked into the crowd, making a short, fiery speech in Arabic.
"Take advantage of this opportunity," prompted Bill Lee. "It might not come again."
The Duke made a face. He knew this kid had a reputation as a troublemaker, but he wasn't going to shoot anybody in cold blood. That wasn't his job, he was just an actor. He was about to say as much when a gun went off next to his head, deafening him even more than he already was by the loud music. The Duke turned and saw Drinkwine, lately Capt. Borneo, wearing a robe and Arab headdress, pointing a gun at the stage. "Allahu Akbar," Drinkwine informed the Duke, tucking his gun away and salaaming. The shot had missed everyone including Muammar, who looked about, confused, then after a frozen moment the audience erupted in panic and attempted to flee the club as one, spinning the Duke around like a top. The Duke tried to point out Drinkwine as being the one who had fired the shot, but quickly stopped when he realized that he was pointing with the gun Bill Lee had given him. Had he been set up? He allowed the crowd to sweep him along in their stampede, helpless to do anything else, and was carried outside. He looked at the gun he still held as if it was some foreign object, then dropped it and ran with all the others, fortunately no one paying any attention to him. At the first opportunity the Duke ducked into an alley and hid behind a barrel. When the sound of running feet had subsided, he poked his head out. There was no one around. The audience, whoever they had been, has all dispersed.
The Duke stood, hoping that no one had seen him running like a scared rabbit, even though there was nothing else he could have done. Someone was sure screwing with him, and it had to be that bastard Drinkwine, but why? He didn't even know the guy, they had never met before this night. Was Drinkwine a Commie in disguise, hoping to discredit him somehow and by extension, America? That was the only explanation that made any sense, if any explanation made any sense at this point. The Duke wondered what his next move should be, then remembered that Sophia was looking for him, Sophia Loren, his beautiful young co-star. He should go and find her, perhaps together they could figure out what was going on, or at least get to know each other a little better. Revived by this thought to an extent the Duke wouldn't have thought possible, he once more moved into the night, no longer even feeling the cold, having no idea where he could begin searching for Sophia, especially after the recent debacle at Abdullah's, but confident that his instincts would see him through as they always had before.