Sophia and the Duke walked in silence to the hotel, Abdullah's directions proving accurate. Once there, the Duke felt that it was incumbent on him to make some kind of suitably terse, laconic statement that would sum things up, but "Helluvan evening," was the best he could do without a screenwriter.
Sophia just stared at him uncomprehendingly, and the Duke realized that he had probably mumbled his words, not to mention the fact that there was no way Sophia could have been expecting that line of dialogue to begin with. The Duke cleared his throat and tried again. "I've had one hell of a night. More than I bargained for."
"Me too," said Sophia. "It was like being trapped in a crazy movie."
The Duke nodded. He caught himself staring at his beautiful co-star and averted his eyes, in case his wife was ready to materialize again waving a frying pan. "Well, we've got a full day tomorrow. Guess it's time to get some sleep."
"I'm sorry I wasn't of more help to you, Mr. Wayne, I mean, Duke. I feel like I let you down."
"Don't let it worry you, little lady. You did the best you could, which is all any man or woman can do. Don't think I'm not grateful."
"I still don't understand everything, though. What was Drinkwine trying to prove?"
The Duke shrugged. "Whether or not there's a plan for everything, God's plan, I guess. That's something these liberal types worry about a lot."
"Is there a Plan?" Sophia asked.
The Duke grinned. "We're here, aren't we? Has to be some reason for it, never crossed my mind that there wasn't. Maybe we're all being used for something, even Commie dupes like Drinkwine, because you can't have the good without the bad, can you?"
"I suppose you're right."
Looking at Sophia, the Duke felt a powerful urge to take her in his arms for real this time, but let the feeling pass without acting upon it. "Guess I'll be moving on," the Duke said. "See you in the morning, Sophia. I'm going to try and forget that this night ever happened."
"Good night, Duke. See you in the morning."
With a casual wave, the Duke turned and walked away. He felt in dire need of a strong drink, but Christ, that was how this evening had started, hadn't it? There was no way he was going to start that cycle again. He turned down an alley, his only intention to get to his residence on this location and crawl into the king-size bed that had been brought over for him, he was sure glad he hadn't turned down that perk, not that there had been much chance of that. He wondered again just how much of this evening he had only imagined, starting with that damn Roman ghost Mictorious, who had almost made him believe that he was dead. He knew that time came to everyone, but not to him, not yet. He still had movies to make and women to hold, cigarettes to smoke and drinks to drink, lots of them, or by God his name wasn't---
"John Wayne! The Duke, just in time to give us a hand."
It was Bill Lee, with his beatnik partners in crime Allen and Jack, along with the German deserter from the French Foreign Legion, Hans. The Duke had just turned a corner and practically run into them, as they stood around the open hatch to the Caddy's gas tank practicing an act of self-abuse that the Duke himself hadn't needed to indulge in since the long ago days of his youth, not on a regular basis, anyway.
"We're just about to leave for Tangiers," explained Bill Lee. "It's a long journey, so we've got to fill the tank again. Luckily, this beast runs on almost anything. Care to make a contribution? With your All-American jiz, we could probably fly back."
"Seig Heil!" Hans shouted, arm raised in the Nazi salute as he thrust his spurting member into the gas tank.
"We've decided to adopt Hans," said Bill Lee, leisurely stroking his own weapon. "Do you know that he believes he might actually be the illegitimate son of Uncle Adolph? No wonder he's so desperate to change his luck, the poor bastard. Anyway, I'm glad to see that you survived your ordeal. I knew you would."
"What would you know about that?"
"Drinkwine and I had a bet. Where is he, by the way?"
"Ah, ran afoul of the local authorities, did he? Poor boy. That's all right, Drinkwine has a talent for landing on his feet no matter what the circumstances. He's one of those cats with nine lives. Hmmm...I see that you're reluctant to help us with our refueling effort. Might be your last chance, you know."
"Last chance for what?"
"To pass the test, of course. If I have to spell it out for you, points will be deducted."
"What test?" the Duke asked testily, in no mood to be further trifled with.
"To join the Committee, of course," Bill Lee purred in his junkie voice. "To see if you have the necessary, oh, flexibility, shall we say. So far you have been sadly lacking in that department. Why do you think you've been put through all the hoops you've been put through tonight? Someone's gone to a lot of trouble."
"I don't believe you."
"That there is a secret organization of famous and near famous people split into various factions often operating at cross-purposes who run everything behind the scenes and have ever since time immemorial? It does strain credulity, doesn't it? What do you think, Jack?"
"I don't know, I don't care, and it doesn't matter anyway," said Jack, pumping away at his own organ. "It's all some big dumbshow and we're just zen comedians. I learned that from the Marx brothers and W.C. Fields, whom I saw long ago on the vaudeville circuit."
"So what do you say, Duke, yes or no?" prodded Bill Lee. "Your assistance in this exercise will go a long way in determining your suitability for bigger things and make up for the bad impression that you have so far created. Also, as a side benefit, you should experience a certain amount of relief. You can still get it up, can't you?"
The Duke gave Bill Lee a sidelong glance. In his day there hadn't been a boy or young man alive who had whacked off more than he had and he could still do the job, but the Duke saw no reason to whip out the Bull to prove it, especially in this company. "Sorry, bub, you're on your own."
"If you need some help, either Allen or I would be more than glad to render our services. We are both quite adept at fellatio. Now that would really prove your flexibility, you'd get bonus points for that. You're not afraid, are you?"
The Duke was sure glad that there were no womenfolk around to hear this rough badinage. Even he found it a little annoying, only a little because he knew there was no way this fellow, strange as he was, could possibly be serious. "No thanks."
"You're not the only one being tested tonight, you know."
"Oh? Who else?"
"Can't you guess? Damn, all this palaver is hurting my concentration. Where's a handsome Arab boy when you need one?"
"Moloch!" screamed Allen, thrusting his member into the open gas tank and humping away. "Moloch with its bloody skies of metal murder! Moloch with its angels hung by the balls from the refinery tanks of Standard Oil!"
"Sing it!" shouted Jack and Hans. "Say it!"
The Duke just shook his head and walked away. All of a sudden he felt old. What was the world coming to? He began walking the streets and alleys of Ghadames without purpose, awash in conflicting emotions. Why did he have to get old? Why didn't all the critics like his movies, at least the good ones? What was the point of anything? The Duke realized that in a way this was the question Drinkwine had been trying to raise, no doubt in some clever attempt to brainwash him. Real men didn't worry about things like that, they just did what they had to do, and if anybody was a real man, and a real American, it was him. You just took life as it came and did the best with it you could, it didn't matter whether it had any purpose or not. Still...
The Duke smelled something cooking. He was just hungry and curious enough to follow his nose and went down a new alley, coming upon an Arab with an eye patch over one eye, cooking a hunk of meat on a spit over a open fire.
"Please, join my banquet," the Arab said in English. "I am celebrating."
The Duke took a load off. He prided himself on his ability to get along with the local natives wherever he was, that was part of his persona too. "What are you celebrating?"
"The settling of an old score," the Arab answered, pointing to his eye patch. "Do you see this? Once I had two eyes as good as any man's, but my left was stolen from me by an accursed one humped devil who spit into it with such venomous force and accuracy that I have been unable to see out of it ever since. I swore my revenge and finally, tonight, Allah has rewarded me. Share my bounty."
The Arab carved into the hunk of meat on the spit, then held out a slice on the point of the knife, which the Duke took gingerly, fearing he might burn his fingers, but it wasn't that hot. "I am Rashid. Are you---John Wayne?"
"It is good to see that you are alive and unharmed."
"Why wouldn't I be?"
"A man, one of your countrymen, hired me to stir up trouble for you, giving me explicit instructions as to how I was to accomplish this. I was reluctant, but he overcame my objections. I apologize for any difficulties I may have caused. I knew Muammar would fail to kill you, as he is just a boy whose head is filled with foolish visions of grandeur."
As he was about to bite into his slice of meat, out of the corner of his eye the Duke saw the carcass of a camel. In the light from the fire, he recognized Omar, whose face was a blank, shocked mask of death.
"Someone you know?" asked Rashid. The Duke threw his piece of meat into the fire, causing sparks, and got up. "Before you go, Mr. Wayne, may I ask a favor?"
"Could I have your autograph?"
It figured that at least one person would ask for his autograph before this night was through. "I don't have a pen," the Duke said.
Rashid reached in his robe and produced both a pen and a pad of paper, which the Duke took, but then he had second thoughts.
"Just my name, huh? On a blank piece of paper?"
"If you would be so kind. A memento of your visit to our humble village."
"So you can put in my confession later? Nice try, pal, but I wasn't born yesterday."
The Duke started to hand the pad and pen back, but then had a thought. So this guy wanted his autograph, huh? The Duke wrote something on the pad and gave it back with the pen.
Rashid frowned looking at what the Duke had written. "Who is this Marion Morrison?"
"The real John Wayne," said the Duke, and walked off without looking back. This time he was determined to get to his lodgings without any further stops or side trips. All he needed was a couple hours sleep and he would be as good as new, he would be his old self again, without any doubts or anxieties. He knew he was close and when he came out of the alley there it was, the shack where he was being put up, but to the Duke's dismay there was a light on inside. Now what? Who could be waiting for him, Hedda again? He thought he'd seen her take off with Hughes, but maybe he had imagined that. Maybe he had imagined meeting her at all tonight, maybe he was even imagining this now. Christ! The Duke balled his fists and without further hesitation went in through the front doorway, which was open, ready to duke it out with whoever might be waiting for him.
The Vice-President of the United States, Richard M. Nixon, wearing a brown suit and shoes, sitting in a chair with his legs crossed and smoking a cigar, looked up from some papers he was holding when the Duke entered. The Duke unclenched his fists and looked around warily. "Mr. Vice-President? No offense, but what are you doing here?"
"Ostensibly I'm here to make a speech to the Libyan National Assembly about the need for a strong relationship between our two countries," the Vice-President answered. "The Eisenhower doctrine. But I'm really here to commend you for the strong stand you've taken against the international Communist menace, exemplified by your behavior tonight."
"What about tonight?"
"As you probably know by now, there was a Communist plot to send you over the edge, make you doubt your senses and commit suicide. We got wind of it and tried to send someone to warn you, but it turned out he was the mastermind of the whole affair. One of our most trusted, experienced agents, if you can believe it."
"None other. Duke, on behalf of the United States government, let me take this opportunity to apologies profusely for any trouble he may have caused you."
"He almost shot me!"
"I'm sorry about that. But no harm, no foul, as they say. Damn, I love those sports metaphors. They can be used to sum up any situation, can't they?"
"So everything that happened to me tonight was a Commie plot to drive me nuts, so I'd kill myself?"
"I'm afraid so. Those red atheist bastards would stop at nothing to discredit an American icon like you, and to give us a black eye with our new Arab friends like Libya in the bargain. It would be a feather in their cap. That's the way their twisted minds work, Duke, you know that as well as anyone."
"That's true. But---I saw some people."
"Like your friends Ward Bond and Hedda Hopper, and their behavior was out of character? Think, Duke. What's the simplest explanation?"
It didn't take the Duke long to figure it out. "They weren't who they seemed to be?"
"Exactly. Imposters, Commie agents trained and surgically altered to fool even you. They can duplicate anyone. We have to be constantly on our guard. You can imagine the mischief that could be created."
"The others were imposters too?"
"Like Howard Hughes?"
"Hmmm. As you know, Howard has a variety of far-flung interests and is a man of mystery. It may have really been him that you saw, but it probably wasn't. You may have only imagined seeing him."
"Because of that drug Drinkwine slipped me, LSD-25?"
"Very likely," said the Vice-President. "But don't worry, the effects will wear off soon, leaving no permanent damage."
"How do I know that I'm not imagining you?"
"Heh-heh. You'll have to trust me. I'm surprised that you haven't said anything about the camels."
The Duke raised an eyebrow. "That wasn't a hallucination? They can talk, some of them, anyway?"
"Red agents in camel suits that are unbelievably realistic, as I'm sure I don't have to tell you. They stole the technology from us, a matter still under investigation, probably part of the Rosenburg conspiracy, though some in the government are of the opinion that these camels are actually men who have been changed into camels after a series of complex operations combined with drug treatments, the Isle of Dr. Moreau theory, or perhaps somehow these camels have mutated into an almost human condition, something I don't believe is possible myself."
The Duke whistled. "I knew it was something like that. I knew there had to be a simple explanation."
"There's a simple explanation for everything," Vice-President Nixon confirmed. "You just have to know where to look. That's your greatest strength, that you know this instinctively. Is there anything else I can clear up for you?"
The Duke thought for a moment. "Is there something called the Committee?"
"You mean HUAC?"
"No, another committee, something just called the Committee, that supposedly runs everything behind the scenes. Are you a member? I thought I saw you earlier tonight at one of their meetings, along with Elvis Presley."
"I can't speak for Mr. Presley, but that wasn't me you saw. Probably just another Commie imposter. As for this Committee, it sounds like a Communist front organization to me. I'll have it checked it out and get back to you."
The Vice-President stood as if he was ready to leave, taking a bronze medallion out of a coat pocket. "Before I go, Duke, I'd like to give you this medal, in appreciation of your selfless valor above and beyond the call of duty in resisting the wiles and entrapments of the Red Menace."
The Duke took the medal and looked at it. On one side was the famous Revolutionary war image of the three patriots striding forward, one carrying the flag, the other two playing their instruments, while the other side contained an etching of a cowboy riding a horse, with mountains in the background and a couple cactus in front.
"We don't have a name for this medal yet," commented the Vice-President. "Perhaps we should call it the John Wayne medal of freedom."
"I'd be honored."
"There's just one catch. You can't know why you have it. That's why I have to hypnotize you. You have to forget everything that happened to you tonight, Duke. We can't let the enemy know how much we know, and it would disturb too many people if they knew what the Reds tried to do to you, causing us severe complications in the international arena. I'm sure you understand."
"For your country, Duke?"
How could he say no, to the Vice-President? The Duke kept his eyes on the shiny bronze medallion swinging back and forth wondering if this was going to work, concentrating on the Vice-President's droning voice telling him to forget, forget, which was what he wanted to do anyway and then he was out like a light and everything seemed like a dream as the grinning face of Omar the camel appeared before him one last time, winking and saying "Toodle-loo!"