The stars his only guide, still hopeful that somehow this night might fall into place, the Duke slogged ahead. Christ, if only he was back in the States, he was sure that none of this craziness would be happening to him, it was this damn foreign land that had to be the cause of it all, which the Duke knew was a xenophobic reaction but one that he felt was justified in this instance. Hell, he had nothing against foreign countries in principal, he loved Mexico, South America, he was a lot more well-traveled than he let on because any hint of cosmopolitanism didn't jibe with his image, but this sand-swept, camel-infested excuse for a country, Libya, what kind of name was that, what a lapse in judgment it had been for him to agree to make a movie on this location. He must have been drunk when he agreed to that deal, though the Duke knew that wasn't true. The one thing he was sure of was that there had to be, there just had to be, some simple explanation for all the insanity he had been subjected to so far. It was like someone was trying to drive him crazy, send him around the bend, but who would do something like that to one of America's most popular and beloved movie stars? Commies? Another actor? Hmmmm.
The Duke knew he was being paranoid, but he wondered if that was a possibility. He was in a very cutthroat business and perhaps one of his fellow actors who competed for the same type of roles had somehow arranged for certain tricks to be played on him so he would go bonkers, thus ruining his career and putting him out to pasture like the old stud he was. As the Duke thought about it, the idea didn't seem so farfetched. If he was out of the picture in the movie making business, that would open up the field considerably for other actors, like Bill Holden, or Sterling Hayden, hell, several other pretenders. Maybe they had all banded together and decided to get him out of the way by making him go nuts or doubt his own sanity with talking camels and a fake wrestling match, hoping that he would have a nervous breakdown and do something tragically stupid, not content with waiting for his star to fade before wresting away his hard-won Hollywood career. Christ, maybe they were even trying to kill him by making him kill himself! Could anyone in tinsel town stoop so low? You bet they could, the devious bastards.
The Duke became aware that he was no longer lost, as the shadowy shapes of several modest dwellings emerging from the darkness ahead indicated that he had found his way back to Ghadames, a fact that did not overly surprise the Duke as he did not feel that it was his fate to die lost in some foreign desert, it wasn't his style. He forged ahead and soon found himself wandering crooked, narrow, roofed streets that would have made him feel claustrophobic if he had that weakness. The Duke was tempted to knock on a door waking the inhabitants of one of the houses he was passing and asking to be put up for the night, as he did not feel like taking one more step, the locals seemed friendly enough and he was more than willing to pay for any inconvenience, but before he could decide the Duke almost bumped into someone from behind, a person who was wearing a hooded cloak and peeking around a corner. The Duke stopped and waited; the person in the cloak looked left, right, then scuttled across an alley, stopping at a door and knocking three times. A peephole slid open, closed almost immediately, then the door opened admitting the mysterious stranger. As the Duke pondered this turn of events, another cloaked figure came down the alley from the opposite way, stopped at the same door and also knocked three times, swiftly gaining admittance just like the first.
The Duke sighed. Someone was playing games with him, staging this farce for his benefit. What was he supposed to do, knock the door down and barge in? He could be a lot more subtle than that when the occasion demanded it. He cautiously approached the building the two strangers had entered, looking for a window he could spy through, but none were available. Perhaps he should just be on his way, but if there was some kind of plot going on, the Duke wanted to get to the bottom of it, especially if it involved him. He made his way around the house hoping to find another way in, feeling slightly foolish that he was playing this game, but not enough to stop doing it. Maybe he should have just kicked the front door in, it hadn't looked that sturdy, or tried knocking three times himself, but the Duke didn't feel like going back and trying that stratagem and he didn't have too when he found a back door. He tried the handle and the door opened, making some noise but not too much. The Duke eased his way inside, starting to get into the spirit of things now that he seemed to be making some progress. He was in a storeroom: there were barrels stacked on top of each other, and behind them was the glow of a light. The Duke made his way towards it crouched down, his heart beating surprisingly fast. He stopped at the last row of barrels and peeked through a crack. There was a space occupied by a simple, wooden table, bare except for a lamp in the middle, around which were seated four individuals wearing brown cloaks, hoods pulled over their heads. The Duke wondered if his suspicions were wrong and he had merely stumbled into some local religious ceremony, which if he was discovered attending would violate several taboos and cause him much embarrassment and difficulty.
"Brothers," one of the hooded figures intoned in English, in a voice oddly familiar to the Duke. "Are we ready to begin?" There were murmurs of assent and nodding of heads. "Very well. I shall say the words. Repeat after me; there are no accidents."
"There are no accidents," the others repeated in unison.
"There are no accidents," the first said, stronger.
"There are no accidents," the others reaffirmed, even louder this time.
The first pushed back his hood and to the Duke's utter astonishment it was his buddy, the Vice-President of the United States, Dick Nixon. The Duke was no less amazed when the others pushed back their hoods and he recognized another old buddy, Howard Hughes, whom he hadn't seen in years, Bill Lee, who thankfully no longer had the head of a horse, and a young man whom he had never met personally but knew from his recent fame, one Elvis Presley. The Duke could hardly believe his eyes. Why were these guys meeting like this? It seemed highly unlikely if not impossible, and once again the Duke wondered if the explanation was that he was mad or dead, but if he was dead, could the limbo or strange state he was in include people that the last he knew were still alive and well? Unless they were dead too, all of them, without knowing it, for some reason the whole bunch of them sharing this same mini-hell, stuck with each other until the end of time being punished for their misdeeds on earth, except the Duke didn't think he had done anything that bad to warrant such a fate, but he supposed he wouldn't be the one to decide such a question.
"What's the first order of business?" Dick Nixon asked, lighting up a stogie.
"I think we should pick up where we left off at our last meeting," purred Bill Lee, steepling his fingers.
"Great. I'd rather play cards. Anyone up for some poker?"
"You're such a stud when you talk like that, Dick. I find you strangely attractive. Your name makes my mouth water. Dick, Dick, Dick."
"Knock it off, Burroughs. Save your junkie queer act for someone who cares. What's really on your mind?"
"What we were discussing at our last meeting, whether or not even inorganic matter is alive or conscious in some way, and how that relates to the Plan. Did we come to any conclusion?"
"You know we didn't. How the hell could we? Maybe everything is alive or conscious in some way since all matter is made out of the same basic atomic building blocks, depending on whether or not you want to look at things as a hylozoist or panpsychist, but how could you ever know for sure? The rocks might know, but they aren't telling. It's all a matter of faith, whatever you choose to believe. How it relates to the Plan is anyone's guess."
"Assuming there is one," said Bill Lee.
"Assuming there is one."
"Hey Dick," drawled Elvis. "Guess what?"
"Your socks are alive, and they think your feet smell."
"Very funny, Presley. You're a regular wit. Anything else you'd like to add?"
"Not really. I just don't know if I want to be famous any more, not with how I'm going to end up."
"In the army?" sneered Bill Lee.
"Nossir, I mean dying young from living too high off the hog, too much eating and drinking and other things. I like being a rock and roll and movie star, but if that's how I'm going to end up, couldn't I do something else with my life?"
"What did you have in mind, Elvis," the Vice-President asked wearily. "Being a gas station attendant?"
"Nossir. I'd like to be a police officer, maybe even an F.B.I. agent. I've always been interested in law enforcement, I think I have a natural aptitude. I'd also like to get married and raise a family. Maybe I could still sing a little on the side."
"A double life," said Bill Lee. "A musical heartthrob who's also an undercover G-man chasing down the nation's most wanted. That's a movie that begs to be made, probably as a musical."
"Look, Elvis, we've been through this before," said the Vice-President. "When I become President, I'll make you an honorary F.B.I. agent and you'll also get a D.E.A. badge. There'll even be a photo of us in the Oval office shaking hands and grinning for the camera, but there's no way you can ever be a real F.B.I. agent or have a career in law enforcement. It's just not in the cards."
"There you go talking about cards again," said Bill Lee. "That's really all you want to do, isn't it, play poker?"
"Used to be pretty good at it. Still am. Poker is a lot like life, you have to bluff your way through most of the time, though it always helps to have an ace in the hole. Care for a game?"
"But it's not fair!" cried Elvis. "It's just not fair!"
"Fair?" responded Dick Nixon, voice rising in anger. "Fair? Sheee-yit, boy. What's fairness got to do with it? Were you raised by morons? Do you think it's fair that I'm going to become President, though not when everybody thinks, then be forced to resign in disgrace? Do you think it's fair that Howard, one of the wealthiest men in the world, is going to wind up as a filthy, emaciated, sore-infested skeleton with bits of hypodermic needles broken off in his arms? Do you call that fair? Grow up. Burroughs is the only one of us who's going to have a relatively happy ending. He's going to live to a ripe old age as an honored, visionary artist, more respected than any of us. Considering his hobbies, I find that quite ironic."
"What you say is true," Bill Lee said somberly, sounding for the first time like a real person. "My life should end prematurely in hellish torment, but I will outlive all of you and die peacefully. Right now, though, I wish I was dead."
"Joan?" asked Hughes.
"Joan. My William Tell trick. Shooting her was an accident, but, as you know, there are no accidents. Her ghost haunts me now and forever, always real in my sight. Why did my hand suddenly grow heavy, my aim drop that fatal inch? Did I shoot her because I knew she wanted me to, or because otherwise I wouldn't have developed into the artist and writer I am becoming? Is that so important? Unanswerable questions. I only know that somehow I had no choice in the way I have lived my life, any more than any of us have. We're screwed."
"By who and for what reason, if any," said Hughes. "That's always the question. Any opinion, Dick?"
"None I'd care to share at this moment. Anyone else?"
"Just another way we're more similar to the inorganic universe than we like to think," said Bill Lee, back to his old tone of voice. "We are acted upon and react back as we have been made or programmed to. I suppose that's some kind of clue."
"So you think that everything is alive in some way, Bill?" asked Hughes. "Even this table, knock on wood?"
Bill Lee shrugged. "Life, or consciousness, can be defined in any number of different ways. It doesn't have to be human consciousness. Who knows what everything is thinking or feeling? I hold no brief one way or the other."
"Now that we've got that settled," said Nixon, "can we adjourn?"
"One more thing," said Hughes. "Drinkwine's in town. What's he up to, besides no good?"
"I haven't heard anything," said Nixon. "Maybe he's being disruptive just for its own sake. Could you keep an eye on him, Bill, and make any necessary adjustments?"
"All right. Is there anything else?"
"Could we meet in a less remote location next time?" asked Elvis. "I know this is all supposed to be secret and no one is supposed to know that the Committee exists, but I had a devil of a time getting here."
"Me too," said Hughes. "I had to fly the Hercules over thousands of miles of ocean and desert to keep this a secret. It's not something I'd like to do on a regular basis."
"Next time we'll have a more normal meeting place," said Nixon. "We met here this time because I'm scheduled to make a state visit and Bill was in Morocco. Next time we'll meet somewhere in the States, okay? So unless there's something else---"
"What about Hitler?" asked Bill Lee.
"What about him?"
"Does the fact that he survived WW I prove the existence of a plan? He was one of the first ones called up in 1914. Almost no one else from his original unit survived the war, besides one or two others. Why was Adolph spared? Was there some larger force at work? That's another question from our last meeting that we never finished discussing."
"It does seem odd he survived," said Nixon. "Not only WW I, but also the influenza epidemic around this time, not to mention his poverty stricken period. It's as if someone or something else had plans for him. Any opinion, Mr. Presley?"
"Not really," said Elvis. "I'm still mainly concerned with my own fate. I don't see why I have to end up the way I do."
"Because that's the way the cookie crumbles, boy. The universe doesn't play favorites. At least after you're dead, people will be so affected by your memory that they'll claim to have seen you and spread the myth that you're still alive. You can't buy immortality like that. Any other further comments or questions?"
No one said anything. "Good," said the Vice-President. "On that note, I hereby declare this meeting of the Committee, cell number 122, to be over."
There was the scraping of chairs as the four stood and got ready to leave. "Bill, do you have any extra painkillers on you?" asked Howard Hughes. "I've run out."
"Sure, Howard, I know all about that. Come with me and I'll fix you up."
The four put their cowls back over their heads, then left the room, no one bothering to extinguish the lamp. When they were gone, the Duke came out from behind the barrels. He wondered why he hadn't come out earlier, except then he wouldn't have been able to overhear the conversation. It was almost like they had been putting on a performance for him, though, as if they'd known he was listening.
The Duke wondered what he should do and the idea came into his head that he should go back to Abdullah's where this whole misbegotten night had started, as if by retracing his steps that way he could somehow straighten things out. He had a feeling that matters couldn't be resolved so easily, but he didn't have any better ideas and without further doubt or hesitation, both of which had been afflicting him too much this night, went to the front door and shouldered his way outside, as if daring anyone to try and stop him, once again feeling the confidence and all-American sureness of purpose that he was famous for and had immortalized in countless screen roles, back on track whether he actually was or not because this time, dammit, he was determined to get some answers, one way or the other.