Tales Of The
ACTION MAN:
Private Player

Story and photos by Roger Neville-Neil

Uploaded to Aural Innovations: December 2003

They say that diamonds are a girl's best friend. And why not? They share common denominators. One is the multiple of the other - in the flesh. Both are rare natural resources waiting to be discovered and mined. They can manifest themselves as precious gems. They are multifaceted. Complex. And yet revealing many different sides of their nature - simultaneously.

When properly cleaved and proportioned their brilliance, sparkle, and fire are greatly enhanced. Painstakingly polished. Sparkling radiantly. Expanding in the spotlight - they flood the senses. Dazzle, entertain and bring a glow of awe that only a femme fatal can truly appreciate, understand, harness and control.

But when that fickle spotlight is suddenly removed, they turn in on themselves. Darken. Contract. Transform. They revert back to their original state. Tiny little black lumps of coal. Like smouldering .22-calibre shadows. Leaving only minute traces of their former existence - a trail of dots.

Dots and shattered lives.

1. DOTS

The dots were black. There were four of them. Smaller than peas and flatter than pancakes. Equally spaced on a white background. They rested at the base of a comb of white capped black stemmed matches on the cover of a matchbook. The matchbook lay open on the table exposing an anaemic albino yawn. It was totally blank. There was no message written inside. Nothing at all.

I picked it up, closed the flap, and turned it over in my hand.
A generous splattering of black ink was centred on a white background with the word "DOTS" superimposed over the dark void. It reminded me of a broken shop window haunted by an ink blot test. And the printing above the rough, dark brown, striking surface on the other side of the matchbook reminded me where I was holed up.

DOTS CAFE, 2521 SE CLINTON, PORTLAND, OREGON.

I casually pocketed the matchbook. Who knows, maybe it might come in handy. Maybe it might even jog my memory. I looked up at the female Dutch agent seated at my table.

"How long ya reckon before he shows?"
Monique frowned. "I don't know. I woke him up when I called."
"Bet that swirled his neurons."
"He did sound pretty tired."
"How long was he out?"
"About an hour or two. He was slightly incoherent, but agreed to talk. He's on his way."
"Think he'll recover?"
She shook her head.
"Sleep deprivation. That oughta throw a quark into his strangeness. Not to mention his charm." I slid my fingers along the rim of the ashtray and contemplated the burning scraps of paper.
"If that doesn't, this will." She rattled a vial of tablets labelled Supradyn.
"Vitamins?"
She smiled mischievously, "Tongue relaxant. Someone must have mislabelled it." She shrugged. "These things happen."
"Dames. Natural born interrogators."

I gazed off toward heaven searching for redemption. But there was none. Word had got round that I was a born-again atheist. I was persona non grata. A hired gun. My soul came cheap. It could be had for twenty-five Cascadian dollars a day, plus expenses. Yeah, good old Samuel L. Jackson and Lemmy.

A lamp hung from the ceiling above our table. It had aspirations of attaining chandelier-hood but had strayed the course. Eight thin metal rods radiated out from its bottom like spokes spitting octopus limbs. Then they turned upward supporting amber lights shaped like candle flames. From all eight spokes hung individual links of chain. From the end of each link swung either a dangling pink manikin arm or pink stubby leg.

The ceiling hardly hid any of the room's suspenseful kitsch-- it was painted a deep pea-green like an algae infested pond. From the corner of the eye, it looked as if submerged manikins were paddling across a vast soupe de jour. Lurking overhead like some ominous Dali mobile.

The walls told their own story. They were painted a reddish-purple. The wall separating the darker, subdued dining side of the cafe from the side we were in was covered with framed pictures. From north to south, images of old television personalities glared at the patrons trying desperately to ignore them. Tom Jones, the Ham's bear running on a log in a lake while a pair of beavers laughed hysterically at his helpless attempt to escape from the Land of Sky-Blue Waters, A Velvet Underground album cover of that big yellow Andy Warhol banana, Jack Webb as Sgt. Joe Friday with drawn snub-nosed .38 aimed to the right, Mr. Spock caught in the act of pinching a model of the U.S.S. Enterprise, Lee Majors impersonating an astronaut, The Mission Impossible crew featuring Leonard Nimoy sans chocolate pudding bowl hairstyle and pointed ears, and last but not least - Elvis in a red jacket. Yeah, a real cultural rogues gallery.

Monique removed a digital camera from her bag and set it on the table. "How did you get involved in this line of work?"
"Just nosey, I guess."
"You don't seem the type. I mean, you seem indifferent... detached... cynical."
"It comes with the territory."
"Cascadia?"
"Uh-huh."
"It's not that much different than any other new country on the political landscape."
I reached over, picked up her camera, and switched off the audio.
"Lemme tell ya a story, sister."

2. ALIEN LAWN ORNAMENTS

"Several years ago, I was asked by a California rock band to keep an eye out for one of their band members. Seems he'd just plain dropped outta sight. Apparently, the routine of playing and touring had turned into a rut for him. He started to doubt his chosen lifestyle and even, to some extent, his own existence. So he mixed things up a bit. Went on the lam. Reinvented himself in his own image. Thought it was good. And set up a brand new lifestyle, uniquely his own. It caught on. It caught on in a big way. And that drew attention to himself."
"What's his name?"
"Let's just call him Tommy, for lack of a better handle to hang on him."
"Does he play pinball?"
"No. Keyboards and guitar. He also sings."
"That rules out Keith Moon."
"But it doesn't rule out some really spaced-out hombres. Like the Rio Kid, The Farflung Fox, and Gnudarve the Transcendental Cowboy."
"Where did he dig them up?"
"That's a long story, sister."

It was in the spring, somewhere in a remote region of the Pacific Northwest - in a misty forest. It was the first warm, wet spring after a wildfire. The forest floor was soft from the rain and the only sounds were those made by a pair of lonely feet. Tommy was lumbering along through the forest among the burned-out Douglas fir and hemlock stumps. He was hunting for morels.

"Was he trying to reassess his principles of right and wrong?"
No, he was trying to avoid all social responsibility. Just like he was trying to avoid the bears, mountain lions, wolves, existentialists, disenfranchised misfits, criminals, and those poor hopeless souls who just wander into the woods and never re-emerge. All of them lurking in those isolated, disturbed patches of earth. He didn't want any of that. He only wanted to find mushrooms. Mushrooms and truffles.
"What about his morals?"
They're elusive. You see, they suddenly flush - popping up - to the surface. Staying for a brief visit. Then suddenly vanish. They are steeped in ritual, folklore, and mysticism. They are ephemeral, honeycombed, musky-tasting, and highly prised. You can make $15-$20 a pound, no questions asked. Earning around $20,000 a year, if so inclined.
"What was he planning to do with them?"
"Saute them with red bell peppers and shallots. Then get totally wrecked."
"They must be toxic."
"No. Not at all. He'd brought along other recreational items to facilitate his quest."
"Like?"
"A field guide, a small knife, a five gallon plastic bucket, a compass, detailed maps of the previous year's forest fires, and enough provisions for a long extended search."
"So what did he find?" "That his compass was useless. It started to drift and spin. Acting like it had become confused and delusional. He knew he was in trouble."

The mist had thickened into an indistinct pallet of moist grey vapour as the distant, dark, shark fin shadows of burnt tree stumps circled around him. They looked like the rotting teeth of giants in an old Universal cemetery commandeered by Cecil B. DeMille - filmed in Cinemascope.

"That's eerie!"
"Not half as eerie as the blinding light that suddenly cut through the mist shrouded trees."
"I would have pissed myself."

Tommy was well beyond that. He was totally pissed by this time. Righteously wrecked and wandering straight toward the light. Closer and closer. Till he thought he could make out figures moving in the light.

He staggered into a brilliant clearing and right into a Shriners' convention of scintillating sprites. They flickered like disturbed dancing flames. Distorting in size and shape. They closed in. Circling around him while they danced. Racing madly, around and around, faster and faster. Taking on a sparkling, silver glow. Then they blurred - trailing off into an armada of dark, viscous eyes sailing on an endless, shimmering, starry sea.

Tommy became extremely drowsy. He tried to fight it, but couldn't. He dropped his bucket of morels, and passed out. Falling into a deep, deep sleep. When he came to, he found himself in a field.

"What about the sprites?"
"They had eaten all of his morels and pulled a runner. Left him holding the tab. He'd been stiffed, but at least they'd left a business card with a cellphone number. It's a common business practice."
"How do you know all this?"
"He told me."
"Did he call the number?"
"Yeah, he did. He said they wanted to set-up another meeting and make him an offer. They told him to come alone and bring another bucket of morels. He was to make the drop-off in the same forest and wait for further instructions. He retained my services with a crisp Cary Grant. He just wanted me to tail him and photograph the exchange. It sounded like a fast way to pocket fifty smackers."
"What happened?"
"I don't know for sure. The little bastards must have snuck up from behind and sapped me with one of those phasers."
"I think you mean tasers. Phasers only exist on Paramount soundstages - they're Star Trek props!"
"Hell, they coulda been armed with socks filled with Cooper head nickels, for all I know. Works just as good as a sap if ya don't have one. Even a roll of coins held tightly inside your fist can sub for a pair of brass knuckles. There's all kinda ways to take someone down, if you're determined enough."
"Sprites wielding blackjacks and brass knuckles? Now I've heard everything."
"Whatever. All I know is... when I came to, Tommy and his morels were missing. I saw nothing. Not a damn thing. All I had was a cockamamie story, a missing client, and Cary Grant to show for my trouble."
"So Tommy and the sprites were never seen again?"
"Not for some time. Then they suddenly resurfaced. But those sprites he'd run into out in that forest were not sprites. They were aliens in a new guise. With a fresh new angle. And a very cleaver cover. You see, Tommy's on the Alien Protection Program. Complete with a new identity. But he still had the same bad habits. That's what tripped him up."

Monique lowered her voice to a whisper.

"Are the aliens secretly here?"
I chuckled. "No, not any more. They're right out in the open. On the grass. Right under all our noses. Flaunting their presence just like all those street mimes and performance artist down in Frisco."
"Doped up?"
"Only the ones disguised as dwarves and gnomes out on Robert Anton Wilson's and Timothy Leary's estates." I shuddered. "They always did strike me as dopey."

Monique shook her head. "I don't understand. How'd they pull it off?"
"Simple. Tommy was set up as the CEO of a new company. The aliens were the major share holders and silent partners. Tommy, his associates, and the company itself were just fronts for the alien operation."

This is how it worked - Tommy and his crew were Cratin' 'em up. And shippin' 'em out disguised as lawn ornaments. Jockeys and coachmen. Some where placed in trendy neighbourhoods. Others in strategic upscale yards. All as free samples, mind you. This was how the first wave established a foothold. First in Cascadia. Next in California. And then in the rest of the United States. Once inside the United States the Free Trade Agreement took care of the rest of North America - Canada and Mexico.

It turned into quite a fad. The New Agers bought into it hook, line, and sinker. Yeah, the aliens really pulled the wool over everyone's eyes."
"A smuggling operation?"
I winced. "Call it what you like, sister."

She was giving me the official Spiegelgracht evil eye.

"Little did Tommy know - this would turn into a real sweet deal. A very lucrative operation. All these aliens, passing right under the government's nose - undetected. Before you could say Jack Ruby, everyone who was anyone had to have one. Lawns filled with alien lawn ornaments. Some real. Some kitschy knock-offs. One operation acting as the cover for the other. It wasn't long before Tommy branched off to cash in on the hot lawn ornament craze. Aliens were dressed in flashy matador costumes embroidered in gold - waving crimson capes, in zoot suits, in pink flamenco threads, and in popinjay gnome glad rags. That's when the trouble really started."

"How could it get any worse?"
I rapped the table with my index finger. "A turf war!"
"Don't you mean tariff?"
"No, they were smuggled in. Tax free."
"Oh, c'mon. A turf war? They're all Grays. They're all on the same side."
"Apparently, it's the clothes that makes the alien. And remember this, they're not playing by our set of rules."
"I thought they were enlightened. More advanced and beyond all that."
"'fraid not, sister. It all boils down to basic sentient nature. The zoot suits didn't trust the matadors. The matadors thought the popinjay gnomes were slackers. The jockeys thought they were getting the short end of the crop circle. And the coachmen didn't trust any of 'em further than the square root of pi."
"But if they didn't get along, how did they ever--"
The Irish lads over at Kells might be able to shed some light on the subject."
"You mean, there's an Irish connection, too?"
"I nodded. "Uh-huh. And take a wild guess who's been running ambrosia for 'em."
"Ambrosia?"
"GUINNESS."
"The Grays?"
"Not all of 'em. Just the Spats and Stripes."
"But why the Irish?"
"They've got a special affinity for being able to see what others can't." I picked up the small silver oil lamp and held it up at eye level. Moving it around erratically as I spoke. "Have you ever heard the limerick about the Farflung Cascadian Forests?"
She shook her head cautiously. "No."

"There once was a man called Grenas,
Who searched the skies with a menace.
He followed a light,
All alone in the night,
Spying bogs where the Grays degas."

"I don't see where any of this leads. What's the big picture."
"Abstract abductions."
"You mean like Edvard Munch?"
"No, more like Toulouse Lautrec channelling Jackson Pollack through Vincent Van Gogh's missing ear."

Monique tried to digest what I'd just told her. She sat silently. Staring at the pictures on the wall. Shaking her head and muttering to herself in Dutch. "Waarom ik?"
"Funny thing is, Tommy never did realize that all he'd done was trade an old rut in for a new one - but this time - it was a rut in sheep's clothing."
"What's the name of the company Tommy's fronting?"
"It could be Zeta Reticuli."
"You're not sure?"
"Even the front is a front. The names change, but the song remains the same."
"What's all this got to do with--"
"There are issues that have never been fully resolved. It's an on going affair. Change is like that. Makes ya stop and think, don't it?"
"I still don't see the connection."
"That just might change, if you can get our man to talk. Remember, you're not back in the EU. You're not in Kansas, any more."

I switched the audio back on, and returned the digital camera to her.

3. CONNECTING THE DOTS

He was a cross between a scarecrow and a six-foot tall Q-Tip and moved like one of those Gerry Anderson marionettes. His long, straight, blonde hair hung down around his collar. Frequently falling across his tired face as he rolled and bobbed his head - lurching toward us - struggling to keep his eyelids open.

Daniel Riddle slumped into the remaining chair at our table. His back faced the vacant pool table and the sidewalk window. His face backed a slow stirring of awareness. Still it remained masked behind the flesh of confusion.

Monique handed him a copy of Colossus, a progressive rock magazine from Europe. King Black Acid was the first band listed on the spacy bronze cover. An explosion of Yellow blazed behind the words - COLOSSUS. Daniel gazed at the cover. He started to smile as he slowly leafed through the magazine.

"Cool...."
"I'm afraid the interview's in Finnish."
"That's okay, I can read some of it."
Monique did a double-take. "You can?"

Daniel pointed to a passage on one of the pages.
"Like, if it's my name!"

I chuckled.

Daniel dug around inside his jacket pocket, "I got something for you, too." He brought out a CD and handed it to Monique.
"Thank You."
"Now you can hear the James Angell album."

I swirled the well of Black Butte around in my glass and shot Daniel with the first question.

"How long until the new album's finished?"
"Six months... nine months...."

I rattled the glass against the table and rasped, "As long as it takes."
Daniel nodded.

"Uh-huh." I glanced at Monique, winking my right eye - twice.

She brought out the vial of tablets she'd shown me earlier and secretly dropped a tablet into Daniel's glass of water while I distracted him. The water started to bubble and fizz.

"What's that sound?"
"You're synapses, I'd guess. You must be very tired. A glass of water would probably do you good. Might freshen you up."

Daniel stared down at his glass.
"It's bubbling."
"Ah, it must be spring water! That's the freshest kind you can get. It bubbles up from the ground."
"Why is it still bubbling in my glass?"
"Your glass is grounded."
Monique smiled. "Yes, that must be why it's bubbling. It's the ground-effect."
"Are you sure?"

I knew it sounded screwy, but he appeared to be too far gone to pursue the matter very far. If he did manage to put two and two together, I had a pretty good hunch, he'd arrive at twenty-two. And not bother to ask for a recount.

Monique and I both nodded and smiled like Japanese tourists having tea with the Queen - at Graceland.
Daniel picked up his glass and liquidated the contents.
"Hey, you're right, I feel better already!"

I removed a coin from my pocket and leaned in toward Daniel. The shiny Ricky Nelson silver dollar tumbled over the knuckles of my hand. It rolled gently up and down. Back and forth. Up and down. Back and forth.

Daniel followed the coin with his eyes as I spoke to him.
"Remember that Asian restaurant we went to a while back? You know, the one where you were playing a chopstick solo on the table. Banging on all the plates and glasses of water. Singing about what you'd do to the cook with your chopsticks - if your meal didn't arrive soon."

Daniel looked bemused.
I continued probing.
"You ate half my dinner. Your chopsticks were flying like hopped-up locusts. Stabbing and snatching the chunks of meat on my plate, leaving only a random pattern of steaming rice craters. Luckily, your dinner arrived before you--"
"Where... was this?"
"Eugene. Some place we found a couple of blocks south of the Wow Hall. It was fall. A large full moon hung from the vaulted branches etched into the night sky. And all along the sidewalks there were dunes of freshly fallen autumn leaves - piled high enough to hide bodies in. All parallel parked at the curbs on the sleepy side streets."
"Don't remember... bodies."

The coin continued to roll across the top of my hand. Back and forth. Up and down. Back and forth.

Daniel's eyes followed the coin's endless journey.
"Mountain Con was on the bill with KBA."

Daniel made a face. It was a blank one. Then he slowly shook his head. He looked surprised as he continued staring into his past.
"They opened...."

I pocketed the coin.
"Probably not that important. No connection. Just trivial details."

Daniel stared straight ahead with a look of awe.
"They opened... the box."

I glanced at Monique and shrugged.
She took over and continued the questioning.
"What box?"

I just sat back, sipped my Black Butte, and quietly monitored her progress. I didn't hear anything that required my services. Everything seemed totally Jake. It sounded like your typical garden variety encrypted rock interview.

Daniel would be playing guitar in James Angell's Private Player at the Ohm Nightclub on Friday night. John Taylor was off with Duran Duran and wouldn't be in the lineup for Friday's show. And later, when the clocks struck twelve - midnight - it would be the summer solstice and Daniel's birthday. Someone would give him a gift. A box. Yeah, the evening sounded like duck soup.

Monique concluded her questioning.
Daniel yawned, "I'm really hungry now. Maybe I better pick up something to take home."

He walked over to the Cascadian National ATM beside the bar. He returned visibly perplexed. "The ATM didn't give me any money. It made loud snarling and gnashing sounds... started to smoke... and then spit this at me." He held out a smouldering slip of paper.

I glanced over at the ATM and spied the faded red dragon logo. "Well, waddaya know, it's one of those old Welsh clones. You'll have to go over to the bar to cash that in. It's their way to make sure you spend money in their establishment."
"Is there anything good you can recommend to eat?"

I raised my glass. "This is the only thing I've ever had to eat here."
He shook his head. "I think, I'd rather have a sandwich."
"Suit yer self." I turned toward the bar and flagged the punk waitress. She returned a gesture of acknowledgement and took her sweet-and-sour time getting to our table.

Daniel ordered two chicken sandwiches to go. While he waited for his food to arrive, he thanked me for the photos I had recently posted to him.

"No problem. All part of the service." I grinned, "Thought you'd like to see 'em."
"Would you like me to put you on the list for Friday?"
I squinted and searched his expression. "Yeah..." I tugged on my earlobe, "that might be an idea."
"Okay, see you then." He picked up his box of food and left us to sort out the details.

That's when I noticed something peculiar.
"What's that?" I pointed at a pile of green Cascadian script sitting on top of the bill.
"Daniel left something toward the tip."
"Count it."

She counted it. Her eyes registered the numbers.
"This is way too much!"
"How much, is too much?"
"Nineteen dollars."
"That's some tip. Better give it back to him. We don't want the waitress to do cartwheels and dislodge that ring in her nose. She's libel to go off like a grenade."

Monique scooped up the money and dashed out the door, her clogs clattering like castanets. She returned moments later looking totally baffled.

"He vanished! He must have dissolved into thin air right after he stepped outside... no Daniel to be seen anywhere... not even a starting car. What'll we do with this?"
"Hang onto it. Bring it to the show on Friday. You can give it to him then."
"What if he doesn't take it?"
"If he don't take it... he don't take it.
"What about the connection?"
"That'll have to wait. Looks like my services have just been retained. Guess I'll be packin' the Canon after all."
"I thought you weren't covering this show."
"I'm not. You are! I'm just going to be there to keep an eye on things, see.

Concern clouded her face.

"Don't worry, you won't be working without a net. I'll collect on a favour. Jeff Hollett just might show up with his video camera. So if ya run into trouble, just whistle."

4. DEAD DAMES DON'T DANCE

I was heading west on Burnside. It was late Friday downtown, and all the nine-to-five Joes had vacated the premises. Probably to indulge their vices, elsewhere. It's the one silver lining in the dark cloud of Portland commuting that frees up parking. At least, until the creatures of the night crawl out of their holes after sunset.

I turned right when I came to Northwest Park and straddled Old Town and the Pearl District. I continued on to Northwest Davis and pulled my puddle jumper over to the curb next to one of the elm trees that surround the North Park Blocks. They were the only thing keeping the green of nature from bleeding into the grey palette of The Ashcroft Jungle.

Monique hopped out of the car and rushed over to the parking meter. She shoved a Dutch slug down the coin slot and gave the winding mechanism a hard, fast jerk.

"Okay, it's jammed."
I grimaced. "You didn't have to disable the meter. Parking is free after 6 pm."
"Oh, I didn't know!"
"I hope the meter maid that discovers your handiwork knows a good chiropractor."
She gazed down at her jackboots.
"Waarom ik?"

I glanced down at my watch. We had some time to kill. Ohm wasn't scheduled to open till 9 pm. So I thought I'd treat Monique to a brief tour of the local crime scenes.

At Powell's Books, I pointed out the Moorcock section. We carefully crept past his novels without being buried alive by his new releases. They have a tendency of flying off the shelves, without warning. So great care must be taken not to utter a single word about "The Lord Of The Rings", even in passing.

At Jackpot Records, I pointed down the side street toward the red neon shield illumining the corner of Southwest Ninth and Oak.

"That's the Salvation Army building. It used to be the hangout of some street punks that murdered a develop-mental teenage girl. Cops found her body on the Eastbank Esplanade along the Willamette River near the Stainless Steel Bridge - beaten and burned."
"I heard about that. That was just a few weeks ago."
I nodded. "Yeah, that sounds about right. They're still looking for one of 'em. They think he may have skipped town."

We continued down Burnside to Southwest Second Avenue and crossed over to its Northwest cousin. There was an old brick building standing there.

The building at 9 Northwest Second Avenue was vacant now. But just a few months earlier, it had been the home of Banana Joe's - a party animal watering hole. Until the authorities closed it down for various operating violations.

The building had quite a checkered past. It was the old Erickson Saloon Building, established in 1895. It was a three-story, red-brick building with a three foot wedge of white trim sandwiched between the first and second floor. A square wooden awning jutted out over the sidewalk - at the entrance - with a single conga line of marquee bulbs hanging from beneath its borders like small, crystal clear, Edison-filamented stalactites. A white latticed widow's walk crowned the building's facade.

Back in the Naughty Nineties, the building housed five inter-connected bars. August Erickson had his saloon furnished with a six-hundred-eighty-four foot-long, horse shaped, mahogany bar complete with an enormous model of a sailing ship moored behind it; gigantic mirrors; a gigantic oil painting of a Roman slave auction; a concert stage in the Cabaret Grill where delightful ladies performed; a pipe-organ; a balcony around the second floor overlooking the sea of sailors, lumberjacks, and roughnecks drinking down below; a gambling parlour up on the third floor; private booths, and small cubicle like rooms called cribs on either side of the hall for more intimate and private entertainment.

It was the biggest, baddest, busiest, and the most spectacular saloon on the West Coast. And it was claimed to have the world's largest bar.

If this wasn't your cup of tea, as far as debauchery goes, you could always venture into Liverpool Liz's Senate. It was a saloon with a fully staffed trollop nunnery upstairs - located just a block away on Northwest First Avenue, Near Couch Street.

Yeah, Portland had earned its reputation for being vice-ridden and corrupt - even back then.

I squinted, sweeping the sidewalk and doorways for clues. An empty pair of women's shoes stood frozen in midstride on the sidewalk near the edge of the curb.

"A street hustler was strangled 'round here, in the wee hours."
"Really!"
"Uh-huh. Cops found her body discarded in one of these recessed doorways. They'd love to locate her black purse. Maybe, if ya got nothing better to do, you'd like to find it for them. I'm sure they'd appreciate its safe return."
"No thanks, I'll be busy enough as it is at the show."
I grinned. "What I wonder is this - how did they know she had a black purse? Sounds like a conflict of interest, to me."
"Are you suggesting that the cops are--"
"Curiosity killed the cat." I pointed toward the shoes. "Maybe those high-steppers belong to her."
"No... They wouldn't still be here if the cops performed their job properly."
"Well, if the cops didn't croak Cinderella, who did?"
Monique shuddered. "Someone tall enough, and violent enough to YANK her right out of her shoes."
"That narrows it down to Americans, Vikings, and basketball players." I gazed up at the surrounding skyline, "Or circus performers."
"Kobe Bryant?"
"No. Not Viking enough.
"A strong-arm man?"
I shook my head, "More like a tag team of trapeze artists... working from a dirigible."
"A WHAT?"
"A dirigible. An airship. Like that elusive Great Cascadian Airship the night owls have spotted lurking over the boonies."
"How would you describe it?"
"Well, I haven't actually seen it, myself. Witnesses claim it's a near silent, cigar-shaped aircraft. They say it's driven by whirling propellers and outfitted with powerful searchlights."
"Where has it been seen?"
"All over Cascadia. It's even been spotted over South California. And places as far away as Texas. Always under the cover of darkness. And generally when most folks are asleep."
"What do you think?"
"Ask me later. The jury's still out."

I glanced at my watch and motioned for her to follow me - across the street - toward the MAX rails on Northwest First Avenue.
"Have they opened up, yet?"
"Close enough."

When we arrived outside the Ohm Nightclub, there was a small queue forming at the door. Daniel Riddle was just inside, milling about.

I managed to catch his attention.
Daniel stuck his head out the door.
"Yeah?"
"I showed Monique some of the crime scenes where those dames were murdered." I chuckled. "We had time to kill."

His eyes bulged, almost telescoping out of their sockets. It looked like he was auditioning for a Tex Avery cartoon. Probably that famous deleted scene where the wolf discovers that that sexy nymph he'd met in an internet chat room, Red Riding Hood, was actually J. Edgar Hoover in drag. It never made it past the social censor - Joseph McCarthy.

Daniel paled as he shouted, "I don't want to hear about it!" He turned to Monique and quickly changed the subject to a more upbeat topic, before ducking back inside the club to prepare for the show.

"Touchy. Guess he don't want me raining on his parade."
"Well, it is his birthday later tonight."
"He'll get over it."

When Ohm opened for business, I checked in with the till tomato. She scratched an alias from the guest list - George Raft - and gently rolled an inked stamp across the underside of my wrist - leaving her mark. A cryptic symbol.

Dan Reed arrived just as monique got to the cash register. He was a Hawaiian with a shaved head. Average height and build. And used to have a band called The Dan Reed Network. Now he was co-owner of the Ohm Nightclub, occasionally playing as Odyssey.

I made eye contact with Dan and pointed at Monique.

He smiled when he recognized me. Glanced over at Monique. Did a double-take, and rushed over to the captivating charmer reverse-mining the till. He waved his hands frantically to get her attention.
"No. No. Never mind that. She's okay. Just stamp her."

I leaned in toward Monique, "I'll meet you later - at the bar. I wanna quick look-see and compare notes with Jeff Hollett."

She nodded as I left her to find out whatever she could from Dan Reed.

The stage in the main room was littered with musical equipment. the screen hanging at the back of it was drenched in a deep moody green light. A piano was standing near the right-hand side of the stage covered with a lush arrangement of flowers and candles. It looked like a lounge grotto suffering from a serious case of sacred shrine envy.

Jeff Hollett was nowhere to be found.

5. SURROUNDED BY NINJAS

Monique and I were sitting at the bar - hoistin' de Haag. The room had filled with an enthusiastic crush of people. All moving in dark indistinct swirls as if they were living wisps of smoke trapped in poorly lit cloud chamber tenement.

The swirling cloud near the bar parted and a shadow approached us. It gathered itself together, taking human form. The form of Jeff Hollett.

Jeff was average in height and build. Had short-cropped light-brown hair. Was clean-shaven and about thirty-three-years-old. He was wearing a t-shirt, baggy light-grey-and-black camouflage pants, and a dark zip-up sweatshirt. It had a hood, and a logo over the left breast. A large red "SG" with the face of a pigtailed blonde - a Suicide Girl.

He cocked his head and gushed, "I was hit by a car."
"What?" I stood up and led him over to the brick-and-mortar wall separating the rooms. Away from the thick of the crowd and their prying ears.

Jeff's eyes were wide. His face was a mask of confusion.
"I was hit by a car. I don't believe it. I was hit by a car!" He looked lost. He looked like someone stuck in a temporal loop - a phonograph needle skipping back into the same old groove. Singing the same old song. Over and over. Unable to get over it.

So I cuffed him. I cuffed him several times.
He managed to pull himself together. So I stopped.
"You struck me?"
"You were hysterical."
"Hysterical? I was telling you why I was late."
"I don't like excuses."
"It's the honest to Lemmy truth." He blinked and shook his pupils. "And never strike me again, okay?"

I glanced over at Monique and made a gesture toward Jeff.
She rushed over, got right up in his face - and slapped it.
I snarled at him, "Better? Or would you like a second opinion?"

Jeff's eyes darted back and forth as the bouncer approached to throw in his two cents' worth.
"What's the problem?"

I hitched my thumbs between my belt and trousers, drew my lips back from my teeth, and stared him down.

"No problem. Just a case of mistaken identity."

The bouncer flexed his eyebrows.
"Izzatso?"

Monique and Jeff nodded in total agreement. Waiting to see who would blink first.
I nodded toward Monique, "She thought he was a West Nile mosquito."
"It better not happen again."
"It won't. She's realized her mistake. Turns out he's a dear fly. So everything's hunky-dory. They're all palsy-walsy now."

The bouncer shook his head, mumbled something about nuts and brass tacks, and plodded off through the crowd.

Jeff groaned, "I feel like a fool. Did you have to spin such a ridiculous screen?"
"I thought it'd appeal to his humanitarian nature."
"Humanitarian nature? He looks like he could bend Ricky Nelson silver dollars in half with just one hand."
"That must be how the Cascadian Mint makes those Half-Nelson coins."
"For Chrissake, I was by a car. Then you strike me. Then she strikes me. But nobody asks me about--"
"Okay, spill it, where did it happen?"
"Third and Burn. At the cross walk near the Paris Theatre. I didn't even know I was hit till I rolled off the hood of the car."
"How's your video camera?"
"Luckily, I had it under my jacket. No visible damage, but I think the battery pack got screwed up. It refuses to function."
"Do you have a spare?"
"No. So there's no way I can capture any--"
"What kinda car hit you?"
"Ah, black."
"Limo?"
"No, it was one of those old foreign models. With fins, I think. Oh, and it had lots of lights."
"How about the driver?"
"A young woman."
"Was she good looking?"

Jeff looked gobsmacked. "Yeah, she was gorgeous. A blonde."
"A gorgeous blonde ran you down?"

He nodded.
"And screwed your camera?"
"Just the battery--"
"Single?"

Jeff shook his head, "No, she's married."
"Just as well. Dames that have to resort to picking up gents by running them over are a bit suspect. You're better off without her."
"Yeah, I guess you're right. Her husband sure looked like he's suffered."
"Physically or mentally?"
"Both. He was really strange looking. Never said a word, either. Just stared at me with those big, black eyes."
"Describe him."
"Short. And I mean really short. With pale white skin."
"Hair?"
"I - I can't remember any."
"Clothes?"
"He was a flashy dresser. Kinda like those guys you see in Spanish bullrings."

I glanced at Monique. "Ole! He's made contact."
Monique whispered, "Remember, he was late. Maybe he was abducted."

I searched the crowd suspiciously. Then winked back at her in Morse code.

"M-A-Y-B-E F-O-L-L-O-W-E-D"
She nodded.
I continued transmission.
"M-A-Y-B-E B-U-G-G-E-D"

Her nostrils flared. She understood the implications.
Jeff snickered, pointing at my eye. "Herbert Lom!"
"Pardon?"
"Herbert Lom was bugged by the Pink Panther."
Monique shook her head. "Peter Sellers bugged him."

Our charade was interrupted by a beautiful, sandy-haired, cocktail waitress that was wearing an outfit shrink-wrapped around her curves. Her name was Nicky. She appeared from out of nowhere. She flashed a big, warm, friendly smile.
"Ready for another, Georgie?"

I wasn't. But I ordered one anyway. She had such a nice, wholesome smile. And a way of walking that reminded me of the agitation cycle of a washing machine - in slow motion.

I was certain of one thing. Nicky was making a killing laundering tips! After she returned with my drink, and treated me to a slow spin cycle, I excused myself. There was something I wanted to ferret out before they begin this beguine.

I strolled into the main room, leaned against the pillar next to the stage, and sipped my drink - real casual like. There was a band on the stage - Surrounded by Ninjas. The music they were playing was atmospheric. A soulful electronic instrumental. It was improvisational and a little jazzy in nature. Performed by two average looking Joes.

Asher Fulero was the thinish cat on the keyboard. Joel Barber was the medium cat acting as disc jockey and sound affect specialist. Both were young looking white Caucasians with dark short-to-medium length hair. Perhaps they were college geeks. Or former college geeks. But when they pooled their talents together - they created an ambient mojo that percolated throughout the brain box.

The stage around them was littered with equipment. Some in cases. Some setup for the headlining act. I drew the Canon from my shoulder holster and started rifling through the items on the stage. I started with James Angell's piano and worked my way around the edge of the stage.

It didn't take long to find what I was looking for.

6. JAMES ANGELL'S PRIVATE PLAYER

When I returned to the bar, I handed Monique a flier. It had handwriting on the back of it - my handwriting.

"What's this?"
"What's it look like?"

She gave it the jewellers' squint. The message read like an old Karnak, The Magnificent, mentalist send-up without the punchline.
Hiding In Plain Sight; Who's Waking Me Up; New York City; Ed Blue Bottle; Ice Cream And Pez; Ooh Love; Treat Song; The Ballad Of Liz And Richard; Call Off The War; Picture Perfect; Dear Dying Friend.

"A set list."
"Uh-huh."
"How many are there?
"This one and the one sitting onstage. I reckon the band might like to know what they're playing - so I left theirs and copied what was on it. Ya know, it just might come in handy," I winked, "it pays to case a joint."

She shot me a curious look. I ignored it and started off toward the main room.

"Hey, don't you need this?"
I shook my head. "Your report. Not mine." I pointed at the flier, "But I do expect to see the full report - sanitized - before you file it with the EU. There are some things that Brussels, Strasbourg, and the rest of 'em don't need to know about Cascadia."

I returned to the pillar standing next to the piano, leaned back against it, and started my long vigil. I sipped my drink. Listened to the music. And watched one band slowly fade into the next.

James Angell possessed an unfathomable aura. It had a distinctive catlike quality. His movements were slow, smooth, and sure, and yet, appeared ready to pounce at a moments notice.

He had a mysterious piercing shaman smile and an intense gaze that tracked, captured, and evaluated every movement that took place around him. His eyes were almost hypnotic. All these qualities added together in a way that seemed to bestow him with a disarming appearance and a presence that was somehow, downright charming.

He was clean-cut and clean-shaven except for the soul patch that dropped like a thick vertical eyebrow from his lower lip. It branched off into a thin inverted "T" at his chin - a narrow pencil-thin slash of a beard that hugged his jawline like matching duelling scars - ending at his jaw just below his ears. They gave him a dash of that swashbuckling flare you'd expect to find sailing off to Catalina - like a sunbleached Errol Flynn - perched up in the rigging of a majestic three-master. Dressed in a black shirt and an open white leisure jacket.

He had been a singer in the early '90s for the pre-eminent Portland band, Nero's Rome. Now he was returning to the limelight with a brand new band named after his solo album. He had received excellent reviews and high-profile celebrity interest, after its release.

David Bowie had rung up to congratulate and praise him on his "Private Player" album. Paul McCartney selected the first track, "Ooh Love", for the Garland Appeal's second compilation CD. And John Taylor from Duran Duran was yet another that loved the album. So much so, that he showed up to play bass in Private Player's lineup at several of their shows in Cascadia.

The current Private Player lineup boasted an all-star cast of characters: James Angel on vocals and piano; Kevin Cozad from Nero's Rome on keyboards and backing vocals; Tony Lash from Nero's Rome on drums; Daniel Riddle from King Black Acid on lead guitar; Sean Tichenor from King Black Acid on acoustic guitar; and Alan Turner on bass guitar and bull fiddle.

Daniel Riddle walked up next to me and struck a match. He held the flame to a long, thin joss stick. Watched it release an aromatic plume of smoke from its glowing tip. Then slid its stem in a tall glass vessel and set it on top of the piano before returning to his guitar and effects pedals on the left-hand side of the stage.

James Angell sat down at his piano and fixed his gaze on me. He gave me a long, hard, studied stare. Reading my posture, expression, and the engraved printing on my Canon lens. I was standing close enough to play chopsticks, a game of poker, or thumb-wrestle with him. Maybe he thought I was out to get him. Or maybe he thought I was just too damn close for comfort. But one thing was certain - we were going to keep a very close eye on each other!

Monique was standing to my left, right in front of Daniel, with a small spy camera in her hand - loaded with a fresh clip of black and white.

I did a quick position check. Scanned the stage and the room. There were two dames down front between Monique and me. They had the intense look of rapture that marked them as potential navigation hazards. The floor space had filled in behind me. Movement would be very slow and difficult from here on out.

I decided to stay put. I'd focus exclusively on the big cheese - James Angell.

Monique was leaning in toward Daniel - taking aim. She would fill in the gaps that I missed. Pick off the other bandmembers as she saw fit, while I got the goods on the piano player. Close-up and personal. And in living colour.

James Angell started tickling the ivories and crooning. His facial expressions were as fluid and as passionate as the melodies his gliding fingers set free.

I raised my Canon, focused on his right hand, and shot as his fingers rested on the keys. The stage behind him was a deep murky green. Alan Turner was submerged in the writhing weeds of its shadows like a lurking gillman waiting for a Ester Williams to swim past him in her breathtaking mermaid bathing suit.

Meanwhile, on top of the piano, the candles burned brightly. One of the white candles had a number "2" silhouetted against its glowing wax. I puzzled over its significance. What could it mean?

I leaned in toward James Angell for a closer look. He glanced at me and then quickly looked away. Totally unfazed by my point-blank shooting style. I pulled back and panned. That's when I spotted the next number. A big, bold, number "3" was displayed on Daniel's guitar. The only thing missing in this sequence of clues was the number "1". Where was it? And who would I find behind it?

Monique was moving in my direction. I signalled for her to take my place. When she pulled up alongside me, I worked my way around her and over to where those two dames were standing down front. They turned as I approached, smiled, and parted. Allowing me a full unobstructed view - of themselves - and the stage.

I slid my multi-image filter over my lens and focused on the candles. Capturing them and James Angell - head-on. The dame on my left made her move - she smiled. There was a cyrillic "M" dangling from the necklace around her throat. It was inlaid with stones. White stones. They looked like diamonds. They sparkled like diamonds. And if they can cut glass jaws - they're real diamonds.

I returned her smile.
She made a slow pass at my ear.
"Who are you with?"
"Myself."
"No, I mean, who are you taking photos for?"
"Puddin' Tame. Ask me again, and I'll tell ya the same."
"Why?
"For my health."

She repositioned her pan and flashed me a mock pout while her necklace flashed mixed messages above her cleavage.
"Only for yourself?"
"Sometimes the band."
"Sometimes... Others?"
"Sometimes. If they behave."

I glanced over at Monique. She was shuffling in place like a caged tigress. A very impatient caged tigress."

"Excuse me, I need to prevent an international incident."
Diamond Lil glared at Monique and shifted her curves.
"What's she got that I ain't got?"
"My car keys. And she knows how to use 'em!"
"Why, you contemptible, WORM!"

I carefully inched around her treacherous topography and returned to the pillar standing next to the piano. Freeing Monique to prowl the front of the stage. I moved in even closer to James Angell and finished off my colour clip. Rewound the film. Dropped it down my trouser pocket. And left for the bar.

Nicky intercepted me halfway.
"Are you okay?"
"I could use another... and leads concerning anyone in here carrying a box. I'll be out on the patio, by the koi pond."

She nodded, smiled, and spun on her heels. The exposed wing-tips of her butterfly tattoo fluttered a mean cha-cha above the small of her lower back as her hips sent her gliding - gracefully across the room.

I grinned.
"Plus expenses."

I removed a fresh colour clip from my trench coat. Twisted on the raised knob - retracting its exposed leader strip. Reached into my trouser pocket. Removed the original clip and some green. Wrapped a George Hamilton around it. palmed it. And dropped the altered fresh clip down my trouser pocket.

I strolled outside to the koi pond wondering what would develop next.

7. PLAYING KOI WITH THE SUN

Jeff Hollett was sitting on the edge of the koi pond, nursing his drink, and gazing off toward the patio area - off toward Northwest couch Street.

The patio was actually a very narrow alley that ran between two old brick buildings. It started at the black, wrought iron between the Hoodoo Antique shop and the Voodoo Lounge. The open space funnelled back past Ohm's stage exit and continued down a very narrow alley lined with chairs and small round tables. This led past a door to Ohm's offices on the west side of the alley and then on to the exit from Ohm's bar on the east side.

The alley dead ended at a koi pond. It was a square, knee-high, cement pond filled with brooding koi; gurgling fountains; and underwater lights. A row of potted plants lined the pond's ledge at the back wall. And a miniature statue of buddha was hovering in a seated position over a big, brown, wooden platform suspending over the back third of the pond - meditating in front of a 3-D Ohm logo backlit in tranquil absinthe and rosť light.

The retractable canvas awning over the patio was rolled back. A bleak noir solstice sky was exposed beyond the maw of mortar-and-bricks looming two-stories above the alley.

I slumped down on the lip of the koi pond, sighed, and watched the Technicolour carp patrol the murky depths. They flickered and danced like spirited serpent tongues wavering in a Mohave mirage littered with offertory coins..

"Finished?" Jeff asked.
"Uh-huh."
"Get what you're after?"
"I'm not sure. I won't know till later."
"Monique--"
"Inside taking photos. You might like to keep an eye on her."
"Why? I thought you were working for her."
"That's what the punters think."
Jeff screwed up his face. "Am I a punter?"
I laughed. "No, Jeff... you're a sitting duck."
"Did you set me up?"
I shook my head. "Someone else did. I think they're playin' us for chumps."
"Who?"
"Monique was the only person I mentioned your name to."
"You mean, the Dutch government, is out to get us?"
"So it would seem. Unless--"
"Unless what?"
"Unless you told someone."
"Me? Why would I finger myself?"
I shrugged. "Human nature. It'll blind side ya... and throw ya a curve every time."

Nicky glided out from the bar and spotted me. She drifted over with a full tray - and a sunny California Car Hop smile.

"Here you are, Georgie." She handed me an Alaskan ale.
"Thanks, angel."

I stood up, moved between Jeff and Nicky, and passed her the rolled up sawbuck. She accidentally dropped it down her apron. Her hand fished around inside the pocket - searching for the elusive note.

When she finally retrieved the sawbuck and held it up to make change - it was unrolled, fanned out, and crisp.

"Keep it."
She grinned, "Your funeral."
"I'll hold the wake on Tuesday."

Nicky maintained eye contact as she turned to leave. She performed a slow shakedown shimmy. Tossed her mane of sandy-blonde dreadlocks over her shoulder, and taxied down the alley at full throttle.

I watched her movements intently. Nicky suddenly came to a full stop next to a sultry dark-haired dame. She hovered around her in a waiting pattern.

Madame X was holding an ornate chinese box. The box was about 4" x 4" x 4" in dimension. A cube covered with some elaborate celestial design. It was difficult to make out much more than that from this distance.

I had a hunch that she was the type of dame that played with loaded dice. Nicky glanced at the box and shot me a concerned look. I tugged at my ear lobe.

She nodded, regained her composure and glided back into the club through the exit door by the stage.

The Mounties may always get there man. But sometimes it takes a woman to catch a woman. Nicky had tipped the scales in our favour with her cleaver Beehive Jive. Now it was just a mater of getting to the honey, without getting stung.

"Jeff, go detain Monique."
"But she's liable to strike me."
"I said, detain her... not frisk her!"
"Ah, sure. What's the scam?"
"Ya see Madame X down there. The one with the interesting box."
Jeff squinted, "Yes, I think so."
"I want to get a closer look at the goods - SOLO - without any interference from Mata Hari."
He rolled his eyes, "Yes, Kimosabi."

Maybe Jeff was onto something. It sure did seem like we had the Indian sign hanging over us. Maybe it was time to change the game - and play by a whole new set of rules.

I downed my drink and swaggered toward Madame X like Keith Richards in search of a couple of mislaid decades. That box of hers was drawn into sharper focus. It certainly wasn't your garden variety fashion accessary by any means.

The box was completely square. With lacquered wood panels. Each panel had a different heavenly body depicted on it - surrounded by a field of stars. The Earth was on top. The Moon positioned straight on - right in front of her. Venus was off to her right side. And Mercury was off to her left side. The remaining sides of the box I couldn't see.

I drew a silver cigarette case from the breast pocket of my trench coat and held it down at my side. I fished for a matchbook in my trouser pocket. And glanced down at the mirror finish of my case.

Mars reflected on its surface as I produced the DOTS matchbook. I raised the case and held it out to Madame X. She was all eyes. And all of them were trained on me. I flicked open the cigarette case like a switchblade.

"Cigarette?"
"No thanks, I don't smoke."

I folded the case with a snap and pocketed it. She tilted her head and narrowed her eyes.

"Weren't you just about to--"
"Compliment you on your taste."
"My taste in what?"

I glanced at her throat. And a little lower."
"Like what you see?"
"Why wouldn't I?"
She smirked, "You tell me."
"Hmm..."
"Cat got your tongue?"
"No. I was just admiring--"
"Admiring what? My Eyes? My smile? Or should I go lower?"
"Let's try lower."
"My legs?"
"Higher."
"How high are willing to go?
"How about your jewels?"
"Physically, or metaphorically?"
"You don't take compliments easily."
"I suffer fools even less."
"That's a fascinating necklace you're wearing."
Her nostrils flared, "Your point?"
"It's Cyrillic, if I'm not mistaken. What does the M stand for?"
"Maneater."
"Maneater?"

She laughed a throaty laugh. "Let's just cut to the chase. Hand over the film, Action Man."

I handed over the film. A few moments later, Daniel Riddle stepped out onto the patio. He he smiled when he spotted me.

Madame X edged closer to Daniel. Her fingers started to fly. She was manipulating the panels of the box. Sliding the Earth panel toward the moon. And removing another - the Sun panel - the last remaining panel I hadn't seen.

There was a strange static crackling in the air. And a weird, ominous pulsing hum. It started to pulse faster and faster. It reminded me of the sound those deadly lampposts made that were mounted on the Martian spacecraft in George Pal's War Of The Worlds.

Madame X raised her arms and aimed the business end of her box. The pulsing was quickly merging into one solid sound. It sounded like it was about to do the dirty deed. Big time!

I lunged for the box. Maybe I could deflect her aim.

Within moments, the patio was engulfed in a bright, blinding light. The scene strobed on my retina and leaked into my mind. Then it bubbled. Skipped. And finally - it melted.

The last thing I heard was Daniel Riddle's voice.
"Coo--oo--ool!"

That's when the solar flare struck. It wrapped me up. It tucked me in. And then, it took me out. Out where the stars shed their ashes.

8. ASHES TO ASHES

After the brightness receded, I tried opening my eyes. I didn't know how much time had passed. Where I was. Or what Madame X was packin' in her box. All I did know could be boiled and distilled down into one awesome discovery - I was in the presence of a gorgeous blonde. In fact, she was more than just gorgeous - she was downright heavenly.

I guess she was filling in for the mother of God. God, himself or herself. Or some other demagogue. Take your pick.

Whoever she was, she looked suspiciously out of place - more like Marilyn Monroe in the Seven Year Itch than the package of goods they peddled to the general riff-raff sitting in the matinee pews on Sundays.

The archangel Harpo was circling overhead in a waiting pattern. Strumming on his harp and occasionally honking his horn. Sigmund Freud was there, too. Standing up on the alter dressed up like a stage magician in black-silk top hat, white shirt, black bow tie and long black tails. He was psychoanalysis' Mandrake, The Magician. He waved his magic wand and dramatically pointed it at Marilyn's long white dress. Harpo honked his horn and the skirt blew up around her waist, exposing her gams, panties and an alien Gray in a zoot suit - who quickly scurried out from under her skirt.

Marilyn Monroe was the mothership. Moored in a lush green forest carpeted with moss and ferns. Beside her a brook babbled, foamed, and drooled effervescent Cascadian spring water. She ignores it and gently smoothed her billowing skirt back down with her hands. She giggled and cooed - unberthing her smuggled cargo - whenever Freud and Harpo gave the all-clear-signal to the aliens for their great escape.

Harpo honked his horn twice and Marilyn's skirt flew up over her head. Groucho was down on his hands and knees purring and rubbing up against her legs. He gazed upward wistfully, arching his eyebrows several times, "You won't catch me complaining about travelling in steerage."

He removed his cigar from his mouth, twirled it between his fingers, and released a broadside of smoke rings.

Marilyn swatted at the smoky spectral doughnuts rising from her nether regions. Then grabbed her skirt and fanned the air around her, frantically.

Groucho rolled his eyes and smiled. "Either Heaven's got might drafty air-conditioning, or I've just discovered the NO SMOKING section."

Marilyn dropped her skirt down around Groucho, totally covering him. His muffled voice lingered and drawled in a faux Southern gentleman's accent, "Mark my words, sir. The South shall rise again!"

Sigmund Freud removed his silk top hat and showed the audience that it was empty. He reached inside and pulled out a boa constrictor. He hands the snake to Marilyn who is holding a green apple in her right hand.

The sky darkened. Lightning flashed - fractalizing across the sky like blinding time-lapse frost patterns forming on glass. Thunder rolled down the alley - crackling and exploding.

A thrashing sound was coming from the dense growth of forest vegetation surrounding us. Something was mulching the daylights out of the garden paradise.

Michael Moorcock emerged from the forest. He was wearing a white Panama hat and safari clothes and swinging a big black machete lined with glowing red runes. Lemmy was right behind him - dressed like a Mexican bandit cradling a Rickenbacker submachine gun.

Then it started to rain condoms.

Lemmy's eyes bulged and his face contorted as he screamed, "Condoms? Condoms? We don't need no stinkin' condoms!"

Sigmund freud aimed his magic wand at Moorcock's black machete. The air between them lit up like Dr. Frankenstein's lab on Independence Day.

Moorcock's machete suddenly transformed into a Nobel Prize in literature. Freud shielded his eyes with his arm and retreated. Harpo honked his horn. Marilyn's skirt jetted up over her head to reveal a crouching Groucho clutching a golden Oscar statuette. Groucho grinned, "Now, er, that's some goose, eh?" Lemmy rushed over to Marilyn. He was either going to make an acceptance speech or sweep her off her feet.

Everyone converged for the specticle.
Richard Byrd came from the north.
Lewis and Clark came from the east.
Sam Spade came from the west.
Scarlett O'Hara came from the south.

During all the confusion, Moorcock finished writing a new novel. He dedicated it to Leigh Brackett.

There was a burst of gunfire. It came from The Bible Veld. Everyone dove for cover. Except for Groucho and Lemmy.

"Don't worry, I'll make like a silk worm - and cover your gams. But why stop there?" Groucho's eyebrows performed a wicked hootchie-cootchie while Lemmy provided an atmospheric bass riff.

The Greys swarmed around Marilyn, Groucho, and Lemmy. They started to shake. They started to move. They started to boogie!

It wasn't long before a mosh pit formed and Greys were surfin' and flyin' through the air. Just as things were shiftin' into overdrive - someone shot out the lights.

Darkness flooded in right on cue. Everything was awash in an antediluvian sea of darkness. It was total and it was absolute. Nothing was stirring. Not even The Action Man.

9. DUST TO DUST

Darkness is a slow beast. It takes its time before moving on. It's like a guest that lingers on long after the party has ended. It's a persistent shadow. Shifting. Darting. But always present. Always watchful. Waiting for its time to rule.

The darkness stirred with voices. Babbling voices. Staccato phrases bled through the background static of crackling synapses.

The dial of consciousness was searching for the correct frequency. Moving from station to station. Homing in on the here and now.
"...trouwens ouk een prima zanger..."

Either it was on the fritz, or I'd ended up in occupied Cascadia.

"So what did you think?"

I turned my head toward the voice - that was all I registered. The voice. Monique's voice. But no picture.
"What's wrong?"
"You seem to be missing."
"How could I be missing? I'm right here in front of you!"
"Don't ask me how. You just are. You and everything else."
"What are you trying to say?"
"I've been struck blind."
"Like Saint Paul?"
"Yeah, I could use an aspirin. Thanks for asking."
"I think you mean Saint Joseph. Saint Paul--"
"Forget it. It's probably just the after affects of bad hooch. Sometimes you go blind. Sometimes you get better."
"Would you like an aspirin?"
"Got one?"
"No."
"Typical government worker. Got all the answers. But nothing concrete to show for it. Thanks. But no thanks."

There was a moment of awkward silence. Then she changed the subject.

"Did you drop this?"
"Drop what?"

Something was pressed into the palm of my hand. I closed my fingers around it. It was a card. A small card. It felt like a business card. I passed it back to her.

"What's on it?"
"You don't know?"
"Humour me."
"It's blank."

I heard the card snap in her fingers. She must have turned it over.

"Except for this cellphone number."
"Got a cellphone on you?"
"Yeah."
"Ring the number and give them the message I tell you."
"Okay." She punched in a sequence of numbers and paused. "Hello?"
"Who'd ya get?"

Her voice sounded surprised, "Ground Control."
"Tell them that The Action Man says: I'm happy. Hope you're happy, too!"

She repeated the message. Said "Yes" a few times and quietly put her cellphone away.

"You're mighty quiet, sister. What's eatin' ya?"
"Who's Major Tom?"
"Elvis' manager."
"Are you sure?"
"Why?"
"They warned you not to mess with him."
"Well, looks like we've found out who's number one."
"Number one?"
"Comes before number three and number two, Dutchess."

I could hear her jackboots tapping a tattoo on the surface of the alley. Unless I wanted to meet the same fate as the parking meter on the Park Blocks - I better treat her with kid gloves.

"The guy who's been pulling the strings in the background. Playing us all like puppets. While he sits back and weaves his web of intrigue."
"So, Who's this mysterious number one?"
"Someone right up front. Someone you'd never expect to meddle in Cascadian affairs. But someone who's had his eye on the prise - the world!
"Arnold Schwarzenegger?"
"No. Someone who is much more cunning. Easier on the eyes and ears. And even more chameleon like than the Grays ever were-- DAVID BOWIE!"
"You mean, the turf war has started?"
You said it, sister. You said it."

I handed Monique my car keys, "Looks like your drivin'"
"Me?"
"You stirred 'em up. You deal with 'em."
"What about you?"
"Me? Hell, I'm gonna be too busy auditioning seeing-eye-canaries. And tripping bastards with my white cane during rush hour."
"Waarom ik?"

I shook with laughter.

My voice echoed ominously down the alley. Mingling with the shadows as it receded off into the dark canyons of the Ashcroft Jungle.

CLICK HERE to read a review of the 2004 released James Angell "Private Player in Concert" DVD.


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