They say that a smart man knows when he is being conned. They say that you can't kid a kidder. And if the patter sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So it's best to just keep your distance and stay clear of trouble.
They also say that a greedy man is easily fooled. That He's an easy mark for a con man. Easily falling prey to the promise of effortless gain. It's the glittering dream of profiting with little or no effort at all that ensnares a greedy man. Landing him in a treacherous web of lies, deception, and deceit. He is unable to escape. And ends up as just another feather in the con man's cap.
It was drizzling pretty steady as I drove west on Burnside. The windscreen blades were playing their good old monotonous metronome swish tune. Rain splashed and dashed across my field of vision in a frantic and futile attempt to evade the swinging blades of aquatic destruction.
It wasn't long before my mobile started playing the old 60s Hawaii Five-0 theme. It was buzzing as it vibrated, like a bumblebee with its teeth wired shut after having been cold-cocked by a disgruntled flower hopped up on angel dust. It's amazing what a hopped up pansy can do when push comes to shove.
I removed my right hand from the steering wheel and swiftly searched the depths of my trench coat pocket. Searching for my annoying mobile. When I found it, I grasped it firmly. Removed it. And flicked it open with my thumb. The image displayed on its screen was pure pulp. It was the image of a very determined baldheaded man. He was gritting his teeth as he peered around a mummy case. His revolver was tightly clenched in his hand - spitting a bright orange flame. It was Special Agent Stoker from the Cascadian Ministry of Defence.
I rasped into the silver grill of my Mobile.
"Hullo, sweetheart. I'm busy driving. Approaching the Gateway District."
"We're in the Mississippi District. Closing in on the Studio. Give me a call when you arrive," he replied.
Hmm, we? Special Agent Stoker must have backup. Or has developed multiple personalities since I last saw him. It also sounded like his alleged suspect had a great big bullseye painted on his back. And was potentially under threat of being seriously crowed by government agents.
"Sure. And could you do me a little favour in the mean time?" I added.
"Lets say, molecule size."
"Did you say molecules?"
"What do you have in mind?" he asked.
"Give the suspect some air. Don't crowd him. Let him breath a little. Nice and easy like - till I arrive on the scene."
I couldn't quite make out the mumbling coming from the other end of the ether. But I could easily fill in the blanks without being too far from the ball park. I grinned and cracked wise. "Relax. I don't think the big bad wolf's gonna huff and puff... and blow all your little piggies minds."
The mumbling grew to an intense crescendo of blue notes and red-hot adjectives. I chuckled. "I love you too, sweetheart." I thumbed my mobile shut and tossed it over to the passenger side of my puddle jumper. Well out of reach.
It was just another typical journey down the rain slicked streets of Portland. I was just going through the motions on autopilot. I continued down East Burnside till I came to NE Grand Avenue. Then I hung a right and headed north. I continued down the street straight and true till it merged into Martin Luther King Jr Blvd. When it came to Russell, I hung a Louie. And headed west until I arrived at the intersection at Mississippi Avenue. I stopped for the light and hung a right. Then navigated the avenue's serpentine path around fenced in areas filled with construction vehicles. And hugged the curves that twisted and turned under the gigantic highway overpasses that fed the Fremont Bridge spanning over the Willamette River. It looked like I was driving under a gigantic aerial slot car track for life sized toy cars.
It never failed to amaze me just how much this area had changed since the late sixties and early seventies. Back when this area could have been considered a slum. Run down hotels proudly advertised their daily and weekly rates. Little grocery stores with wooden screen doors. And shoppers that looked like they pinched every penny they had just to get by.
Many of the big chain department stores used to transfer their expendable employees out to this area. It was the equivalent of being shipped off to Siberia or the Russian front during WWII. One local food chain out this way used to use coke bottle symbols in the employee lounge to indicate how many employees had been sapped down with coke bottles in the line of duty. Until they finally shut down and shuttered up their outpost. It just wasn't safe or profitable to do business out in the battle zone. Only those who had no other choice tried to eke out a living here.
Now everything had changed. Urban renewal came in and gave the Mississippi District a total make over. It was now an up and coming trendy place. A cool place hipsters wanted to hang out in. It was like a mini WN 23rd Avenue wannabe. Aspiring to be a posh area for those with more money then sense.
I drove past Mississippi Studios and hung a right at North Shaver. I entered the local neighbourhood located there. Continued on for several blocks, and parked in front of a large white house that had a wrap around porch. There was a large, middle-aged black man sitting in a chair on the porch. He watched me park in front of his house. He watched with keen interest as I stepped out of my puddle jumper. And noted every move I made.
I reached inside my vehicle and prepared for the evenings activities. I donned my shoulder holster. Made sure it was snug. Then I draped myself in my trench coat. Flopped my fedora on my head. I looked up when I heard the black man's laughter. He was grinning from ear to ear.
"Yeah, you put on that coat," he said. "You gonna need it!"
I forced a smile, and raised my hand to the brim of my hat and tipped it slightly to politely acknowledge him. "I think your right," I replied. "I probably will need it tonight."
As I started off toward my rendevous at Mississippi Avenue, all I heard was his ominous chuckling. Maybe he knew something I didn't. Or maybe he was just amused by the way I dressed for a night out on the town in his neighbourhood. I removed my mobile from my trench coat and selected Special Agent Stoker's Icon. His voice responded immediately.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"Moving in on the venue," I replied. I'm only a few blocks from Mississippi Studios."
"Suspect arrived at 6:30 PM and helped unload the van."
"Did you follow my suggestion?"
"Yes. We gave him plenty of air and hung back."
"Did the suspect see you?"
"What do you take me for, a moron? We blended in with the crowd. We could have taken him at anytime. We know what we're doing. I hope you know what you're doing."
"Yeah, I know what I'm doing. I'm going in and case the joint. Get a good lay of the situation. Just give me a little time. Okay?"
There was a loud sigh before he continued. "Okay. We'll pull back and check the surrounding area and shops."
"Sounds swell, I'll be in touch."
I flicked my mobile shut. Returned it to the depths of my trench coat. Mississippi Studios was now within sight. And I was closing on it's entrance.
Directly in front of me was the complete bar and dining area. The counter of the bar was on the right. Complete with various beer taps and friendly food service workers pleased to take your order. The place for ordering was next to the cash register at the end of the counter nearest to the entrance. Further down the counter there was a grill area. Over on the left-hand side of the room there were rectangular wooden tables with chairs set on either side of them. The tables continued all the way down to the end of the room where a glass door lead to the outdoor patio. Just before you got to this glass door, there was a recess over on the right, this lead to a couple of small uni-loo doors.
Mississippi Studios was located to the left of where I was standing. This was the venue for live bands. It was roped off at the moment. Two chrome stanchions were standing at each end of the entryway. A crimson red swag rope was hooked and hanging from the top of each stanchion. Daring concert goers to try and cross the psychological barrier.
Two patient patrons of the arts were standing at the crimson swag ropes waiting for the venue to open. One was tall, middle-aged with longest hair. He was holding a book in his hands. It was open with a little lamp attached to the top of the page so that he could read no matter what the lighting conditions were like wherever he happened to be. The book seemed to be gathering dust at the moment. He was busy chatting with the other patron standing next to him. They were busy discussing past concerts they had attended. And trying to impress each other with their street cred. Yeah, it was one upmanship on parade.
There was a merchandise table standing inside the foyer. It was pressed up against the far wall. A short brunette was standing on the other side of the table laying out the merchandise. There were CDs and vinyl records arranged on top of the table. The brunette was busy sorting T-shirts and eyeing the empty, uncluttered wall space behind her.
I turned my attention back to the bar. There were a few postcard size fliers on the bar. I picked one up and gave it the once over. It was mostly black with a skull printed on it and a banner at that top that read - FALL INTO DARKNESS. The artwork on the card reminded me vaguely of an old record album cover from the 70's. The back of the card listed four dates that were all Fall Into Darkness events taking place during the week. I slid the card into my trench coat pocket. It could prove to be useful later on.
I stepped away from the bar and made a move toward the glass door at the back of the room. I strolled up the aisle passing hungry patrons sitting at the tables on the left side of the room. I continued to the glass door and stepped out into the patio. The area ahead of me was covered. It took a quick dogleg to the right. This section of the patio was also covered. There were picnic tables with benches for customers to sit on while they ate, drank, and chatted with each other. This section had one final dogleg to the right that took you around the outside of the building. This area was covered only on the right-hand side. It ended at a black wright iron barrier at the street . They reminded me of prison bars. You could sit in stir and watch the pedestrians freely walking up and down the sidewalk of Mississippi Avenue - without a care in the world. Or a clue for that matter.
Over on the right, there was a whiskey cask with the words Jack Daniel's painted on its side in big, bold, black letters. Just above the whiskey cask there was a small sliding window in the side of the building where you could place orders from the bar and grill. A small rack with menus was mounted off to the side of the window.
A black and white film was being projected on the opposite wall directly across from the ordering window. It appeared to be some obscure B film from the 1950s. I didn't recognize any of the actors in the film. Some people were sitting in small groups at a few of the picnic tables nearby, totally oblivious to the film. I didn't recognize any of their faces either. Yeah, the suspect was not lounging out in the patio area. He was holed up somewhere else.
I retraced my steps. Walked back into the bar. Then straight out of the building. And stepped back out on the street. It was time to get a lay of the landscape outside the venue.
I noticed a van parked at the curb. The emergency exit door from the foyer of Mississippi Studios was wide open. It was like the street wall of the venue had just sprouted a magic portal. Roadies were moving between the van and the foyer. Carrying items inside. Items of a musical nature.
I focussed my attention on the van. There was a bloke standing next to it. He had dark hair and was wearing a dark T-shirt. The T-shirt had an ominous symbol on it. A symbol that I easily recognized. It was an Egyptian symbol - The Eye of Horus. He was a member of a secret society know as Cleopatra Records. I contemplated the all seeing eye on his shirt. Could they be a splinter group of the Illuminati? The Americans have a similar eye. It's displayed hovering over a pyramid prominently featured on the back of their one dollar bill. Could these Cleopatra flunkies be a fifth columnists sleeper cell operating in Cascadia? Right under our noses?
My mobile started buzzing. It was that same old Hawaii Five-O theme blaring from its speaker. One of Cleopatra's minions spun his head and gave me the evil eye. I raised the mobile, flicked it open with my thumb, and held it to my ear. Special Agent Stoker's voice greeted me once again.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"Standing in front of the venue," I replied.
"That's where we are!" he exclaimed.
I spun around and looked behind me. Special Agent Stoker was at the end of the block walking toward me. There was a woman at his side. A woman I had never seen before.
I sighed. "I see you. I don't think we need the Star Trek communicators. They only make us look like self-absorbed Americans. You know what I mean, yakking away into their hands because they're too bloody lazy to just walk up to each other and hold a normal conversation."
Special Agent Stoker suddenly jerked like he had just discovered electric eels lounging in his shorts. He quickly pocketed his mobile. He appeared to look slightly sheepish as the woman next to him started laughing. I casually pocked my mobile and waited for them to join me. They walked up to me and stopped.
Special Agent Stoker hadn't changed all that much since I last saw him. He was still slightly rotund. Still sporting a pair of tinted, wire-rimmed cheaters. Sill losing the battle of the hair-line due to follicle erosion. And there was still that crimson port-wine stain birthmark prominently displayed on his forehead - just like the one that Mikhail Gorbachev has on his forehead.
Special Agent Stoker gestured toward the woman standing next to him.
"This is Carol Finchley. I work with her."
She frowned, and quickly added, "For her."
I gave Carol Finchley a casual once over - from head to foot. She had shortish brunette hair. She was also wearing a pair of cheaters. She was wearing a reddish corduroy jacket, slacks, and black boots with large velcro straps. Yeah, she was wearing bitch boots. The only thing missing from her attire was a riding crop. She appeared to be middle-aged. Attentive - like a bird of prey. And there was definitely a predatory stare behind those pair of cheaters shielding her eyes.
Special Agent Stoker cleared his throat.
"Let's go get a bite to eat. We can talk more there."
"Sure, sounds like a good idea."
"We have a lot of catching up to do."
I nodded. "Yeah, I'm sure we do."
I momentarily glanced back at the van, and its gaggle of goons loitering nearby, as Special Agent Stoker and his femme fatal escort started walking away from the venue.
They headed south down the street like they were distracted window shoppers pinched for time. Or uptight spies trying to pass themselves off as Joe and Jane Doe. Using the shop windows for surveillance and covert cover. Their eyes were gazing world outward - not inward. Making sure that we weren't being tailed.
There was something gnawing at my gut. Deep down inside I suspected there was something wrong. Something that hinted of subterfuge, and deception. Why all the rush and concern to make sure I was at the venue like it was of vital importance. They surround the site. Then just walk away leaving it totally unsecured. There was certainly more to this than I had been told. More than I had been lead to believe. Yeah, there was more to all this than meets the FBI.
I shrugged and made a move to close the distance between us. It was time to mind the gap. Time to just play along. And time to find out just what was really going down here.
Our journey down the sidewalk was filled with the unique sites and sounds that Historic Mississippi Avenue had to offer. Many of the shops had a unique and eclectic feel. It was as if a crazed town planner had been slightly high on a renovation drug. And had a tripped out hipster assistant who had Monopoly houses labelled with various different business categories. Tossed them up in the air and let them fall where they may. And then immediately set out to pimp the neighbourhood as a glorious vision of an old High Street transformed into a new Millennial Mecca of delight.
I walked passed shops that twisted the notion of normal establishments. Shops that tempted and confused the senses. Shops that begged to be explored, plundered, and conquered. Somewhere in this display of random chaos, there lurked our final destination. The one place that would suit these government agents to a tee. I kept my eye peeled for this special place that they had selected for a bite to eat. Most likely, well in advance of my arrival on the scene.
I had caught up to Special Agent Stoker and his femme fatal, Carol Finchley. They gave no hint as to where we would end up. So I just took note of the establishments that flowed by as we progressed further south down Mississippi Avenue.
There were bars with aquariums and patrons drinking like fish. Novelty shops. A garden nursery behind closed black iron bars that looked like a jail for mother nature. And a few unique trendy restaurants.
I spotted the Laughing Planet Café just ahead of us. It was a vegetarian friendly fast food chain located at 3765 N. Mississippi Avenue. We slowed down as we approached the entrance and then veered to the right as the sidewalk emptied into an open plaza. There were shops recessed in the square with a few outdoor tables over to the right. And a garden area in the middle of the square right in front of the shops.
The garden area was surrounded with a short cement barrier that had a wide lip running around the top of it where people could sit and admire the view. The garden area was filled with plants that would have been much more at home in a marsh. There were a few small trees growing in it over in the north area of the garden with support rings wrapped around their trunks. And guide wire anchored to the ground. The supports around the trees were the only thing keeping them from toppling over in a dead swoon.
Over on the lefthand side of the plaza, where the shops returned to the sidewalk, there was a red painted building . This was the location of Bridge City Comics. Right next to it there was a blue painted building. This is where Mississippi Chiropractor mended misaligned spines. There was a mural of a big white spine meandering down the building's right-hand side like a gigantic tape worm that had managed to escape its host. Sandwiched between the Chiropractor office and the Jet Boutique clothing shop next to the Laughing Planet Café was a place called Little Big Burger.
Special Agent Stoker made a bee line straight for the entrance of this working man's eatery. Carol Finchley was close on his heels. Caught in his slipstream.
Little Big Burger was a dive. A real scarf and barf shop if there ever was one. It had sodas that went for 2 bucks. Cheese burgers that went for $3.75. And had a sound system that was always blaring, and loud enough to force patrons to use sign language when placing their orders. If this joint was bugged, it was of the 6 legged variety. The electronic variety wouldn't stand a snowballs chance in hell of functioning properly in this dive. The joint was tailor made for clandestine meetings, privacy, a fast culinary lube job, and the potential of field research in the testing of hearing aids.
We stood at the counter and placed our orders. Got our drinks. Then walked over to the very last table near the front window. And settled in while we waited for our numbers to be called to pickup the rest of our meals.
I gazed around the room and sized up our location. They had selected the perfect spot for a private, clandestine chinwag. Only an expert lip reader, like Hal 5000, would have been able to figure out what we were discussing. And even then it would be a silent one way conversation.
We were sitting across from each other - face to face. There were no tables to the side of us. The only other tables were located further inside this bastion of gastric delight. My lips were the only ones visible from that vantage point, and I was clueless. I was lacking several of the puzzle pieces. And I'd be about as useful to a lip reader as a mute mushroom after an emergency vivisection had been performed to remove all its magic. I was totally in the dark.
The numbers for our orders were eventually called. Mine was called last. I walked up to the counter. Picked up my order, and returned to the table. The first thing I noticed when I returned was that my drink had been moved over to the side. I frowned. Carol quickly explained, "I had to move it to make room for our food."
I nodded, and repositioned my drink to a more suitable spot. The plastic lid of my cup popped off when I grabbed it. Like it had never been properly secured. I shook my head and left it where it had fallen on the table. I didn't want to drink from a straw anyway. I preferred to strain the ice cubes with my teeth.
I took a bite of my burger. Flushed it down with a generous gulp of my drink. And wondered how long it would take for them to get down to business. I reckoned it would take about half a burger to cut to the chase. And begin this beguine.
Carol wasted no time filling in the void between blaring songs once I had polished off my hamburger. She started her spiel in a direct manner.
"Your cooperation in this delicate matter would go a long way in securing a favourable report," she said. "You see, your file is coming up for review."
"And what exactly do you have in mind as far as my cooperation goes?" I asked.
"Just establish a few minor facts and details concerning the activities of our elusive subject."
I took a long, slow sip of my drink before I bothered to respond. "Simply observe and report? Nothing more?"
"Just a little bit more," she added.
"How much more?"
"It would be most beneficial for all involved," she produced a sheet of paper and slid it across the table to me, "if these items were established - as actual facts."
I looked over her list of items and stifled a yawn. She leaned back and tilted her head slightly. "I hope I'm not boring you with the details."
"No. No, not at all. It's quite a wish list. Do you expect me to pin all this on him?" I asked.
"With the proper motivation, I am sure you could find it in your best interest to do just that." She reached across the table and retrieved the damning document. And let it come to rest directly in front of her. And smiled.
I yawned again. This time longer. I shook my head to let the wave of drowsiness pass before I asked her, "And what's my motivation?"
"That's a very good question." She looked thoughtful, "What would it take to ensure your full cooperation in nailing this low life scumbag, once and for all?"
"More than you could offer, sister." I propped my elbow on the table. Rested my chin on the my hand. And gave her a lazy stare.
"Don't be so sure about that," she replied. He's gotten away with murder way too long. And I happen to be in a good position to make you a very happy man - if you play along. I can make your life here so much easier. If you make me happy, I'll make you happy. What do you say?"
I glanced over at Special Agent Stoker. He didn't look particularly like a very happy man to me. And he worked closely with her. That spoke volumes to me. There was no need to give it any more thought. Just tell it like it is. And let her know exactly were she stood.
I took a long, slow sip of my drink before I replied, "That might make for a lovely song and dance, but I don't dance." I drew my lips back from my teeth, " No dice, dragon lady. You can cry me a river for all the good that'll do. Just consider yourself lucky that you're getting a no frills, generic, routine report. And that's all you're going to get out of me, sweetheart."
"I wish you'd reconsider."
I shook my head.
"I want you to do something for me."
"Do what I ask."
Then he went silent on me. It was one of those long awkward pauses you might experience on a bad blind date. I let a full minute pass as I digested what he had told me.
I took out my silver cigarette case. Removed one of the cigarettes. And planted it between my lips. I glared at Special Agent Stoker. And defiantly told him to, "Light me!"
He did a double take. "Bite me?"
"I said... LIGHT ME!"
"Smoking is illegal," he stated matter of fact.
"Well, do you want my cooperation or not? Isn't that what you wished for when you rubbed the lamp?"
Carol nodded eagerly. "Yes, light him. Light him this instant!"
Special Agent Stoker hesitated. "Are you sure about this?" he asked.
"Yes, It's time we bent a few rules."
"Be careful what you wish for. When you release this Ginnie, you're asking for a lot of trouble. George has a way of-"
"You just don't know how to handle him." he snapped.
He produced a silver zippo and ignited it with a flick of his thumb. "Its you're funeral."
I leaned forward and got my coffin nail glowing. Took a long drag. And released a steady stream of gray smoke - in his direction.
Carol glanced down at her laundry list and licked her lips. "You'll establish all these items as facts?"
"I don't know. It looks like a load of hooey to me. Like you're out to set someone up. And send them down the river."
"No. Just establishing a few facts."
"Your so called facts might incriminate someone."
She shrugged. "The past has a way of catching up with people."
"So I hear."
"I hear that everybody has their price. Tell me yours."
I raised an eyebrow, "In lieu of thirty pieces of silver?
"Oh, c'mon. He's no saint."
I shook my head and yawned, "And I'm no Judas."
Carol smiled. Leaned forward. And pushed her wish list closer to me. She purred, "Saints and sinners aside, tell me honestly you think of this?"
I glanced at the sheet and back up into her predatory eyes. "You're going about this all wrong, sister. You'll end up making a martyr out of him."
"If you know a better way to handle this, then tell me. Tell me now!"
I jabbed my index finger at the sheet. "You want these bullets established as facts? They look more like a list of charges to me. You might as well save everybody a lot of time. And just ask him to sign a confession, instead."
Carol's eyes went wide. And she grinned, "I like the way your mind works." She turned and fixed her gaze on Special Agent Stoker.
"Why didn't you think of that?"
He shook his head. "There's no way he'd sign a confession for us."
Her grin grew wider. "No. Not for us. But perhaps, he might sign a confession if it's properly presented to him - by the right person."
I shook my head. "Not this person."
"Like I said before... everyone has their price. Including you. So tell me, what's yours?"
Against my better judgement, I told her. I don't know why. I don't know where it came from. I just felt compelled to tell her. And I listened to her silver tongue weave a rich tapestry of promises. It all sounded too good to be true. But it also sounded like it was too good an opportunity to pass up. I became entranced. And the fog crept in and filled the void.
The crimson red swag rope barring entrance into the Mississippi Studios Foyer was no longer holding back the tide. The venue was now open to Joe Public. Now all the punters needed to do was wander into the foyer and take an immediate right turn and walk up to the raised dias standing in front of a door directly behind it. This is where the ticket taker waited to check your ticket, check the Will Call List, or check the bands' guest list. After doing this, he would promptly validate your wrist with a ink stamp. Provided that you met his approval.
Directly in front of me, across the Foyer, stood the merchandise table. The short Brunette merchandise moll stood behind the table with a big pleasant come hither smile. Ready to conduct business and cheerfully shake you down for whatever cash you were willing to part with. The more you spent, the brighter the smile she treated you to. Just like her, the table was fully loaded. It was straining under the weight of all the swag she was fencing for Cleopatra Records.
The merchandise moll had been very busy while I was gone. She had woven a thick, enticing web of temptation. The wall behind her was no longer uncluttered and spotless. It was now more like a clothesline of T-shirts spread across its limited horizon. It assaulted the eyes with images of The Space Gypsy and his latest CD release - Space Gypsy. There were a couple of impressive T-shirts of The Space Gypsy playing his sax from the old glory days when he and The Baron both shared the same band. These T-shirts were going for $25 Cascadian. And then there was the penultimate in leisure wear. A bold, bright, eye numbing, tie dyed Space Gypsy T-shirt going for $40 (Sunglasses not included).
The swag weighing down the merchandise table consisted of the following items:
Warrior on the Edge of Time CDs, Space Gypsy CDs and box sets, Hendersleben 1 Upgoer CDs (The Space Gypsy guesting on their CD) priced at $10, Vinyl singles of The Space Gypsy's Fallen Angel/Eternity (Limited edition of 500) for $10, Space Gypsy on vinyl for $25, the first album The Space Gypsy and The Baron made together - on Vinyl for $25, and Hendersleben 1 Upgoer album also on Vinyl.
To the right of the merchandise table there was a bar serving drinks. It was a double sided bar that served patrons that were in the Foyer and also patrons in the venue itself. From this side of the bar you could clearly see the stage in the main room beyond through the open bar.
I walked over to the desk in front of the door leading into the main room. Presented my identification. And told the ticket checker which list he would find my name.
Mr. Ticket Checker flipped several pages. Spotted my name and scratched it off the list. He asked to see my right wrist. Stamped it. And said, "Have a good time."
I smiled. "I'm sure I will." Then I walked through the door and entered into the world that existed on the other side. In front of me there was a stairway that lead up to the balcony. Immediately to my left was the other side of the bar. And a loo across the room, over by the far wall. A mixing desk was not too far away from it. Other than that, the room was a wide open space - literally. The night was still young. And the faithful had not yet filled the space. But they were steadily streaming in. Like fish to a lock.
I wandered around the room checking faces. I noted where things were located. How the stage was set up. And that the barrier in front of the stage was made up of a line of stanchions holding up a blood curdling barrier of crimson red swag ropes. There were paper signs posted at either side of the stage that read: NO GUESTS BEYOND THIS POINT.
I retraced my steps and climbed up the stairs to the balcony. The balcony had a few people sitting in the seats. But no familiar faces were lurking in the seats. I continued my climb further up - beyond the seats to a small room up at the top. It proved to be empty. Devoid of people. Nobody was lurking, loitering, or performing any illicit acts. So I turned around and headed back down the stairs. Out of the main room. Into the Foyer. And made my way back into the Bar Bar.
As I walked down by the bar by the counter, I muttered loud enough for Special Agent Stoker and Carol Finchley to overhear me. "The Venue is clean. Perhaps, he's mingling."
They just nodded as I strolled down the aisle between the counter and the tables on the left side of the room. I was heading toward the exit. I wanted to check the patio area. There was a slim chance that he could be hiding in plain site. This proved to be another snipe hunt. So I retraced my steps once again and ended up back in the Bar Bar. I approached Special Agent Stoker.
This is when I made a startling discovery. The Space Gypsy was sitting at the very first table - right next to the entrance of the venue. Right in plain site. And nobody in the room seemed to act like they knew he was there in the same room with them. He had totally blended in with the crowd. He might as well have been totally invisible. Even Special Agent Stoker and Carol Finchley were blind to his presence. It was like he had the power to cloud the mind.
The Space Gypsy was wearing a shiny blue suit. His hair was longer than I last remembered it being, many moons ago. It was now long enough to be tied back in a small ponytail. There was a faint stylish mustache gracing his upper lip. And soul patch resting beneath his lower lip. His general appearance reminded me of a famous iconic wild west showman - Buffalo Bill.
The Space Gypsy was not alone. He was sitting at the table with a stranger. A man dressed all in black. He was sitting at the very end of the table with his back to the bar - sitting in the aisle. This gave him a peripheral view not only of the aisle but of both doors of the room as well and a straight on view of The Space Gypsy and the Foyer entrance beyond him.
The man in black had a thick thatch of black hair. And a grim, determined expression. He projected a strong aura of menace, doom, and gloom. I translated this into terms that seemed to be the best fit for the situation at hand. The terms that came to mind were - bodyguard and minder. And there was one thing that I could be sure of - wherever The Space Gypsy went, the man in black was sure to go.
I shook my head. And said to Cascadia's finest, "Your suspect is sitting almost on top of you, Sweetheart."
His jaw dropped. It gaped as open as wide as the Chanel Tunnel when he spotted The Space Gypsy sitting nearby. Right under his nose. "But, he wasn't there a moment ago. Honest."
"Uh-hu. A likely story," I said. "I better go over there and have a few words with Houdini. And hope his magic muscle doesn't take offence."
"Do you think you can get him to sign a confession?"
"He hasn't done anything, yet."
"No, I mean The Space Gypsy. Not his friend."
"Not without having something he can sign," I pointed out. "While I spend some quality time with your suspect and his henchman, could you draft up a brief confession and leave plenty of room at the bottom of the page for his signature?"
I thought for a moment. And added, "Also have an envelope handy for me to put it in. I want to seal it up all safe and sound, after I show you the goods. Try to get these to me - sometime before he hits the stage."
"Sure, No problem. You know, if you can pull this off - it'd be a feather in my cap!"
Carol's voice quickly chimed in, "My cap!"
I drew my lips back from my teeth and rasped, "Eventually, I'll figure out which one of you is the ventriloquist. And which one is the dummy."
The both glared at me. I pivoted on my heels and made a beeline straight toward The Space Gypsy's table. I removed a laminated card from my trench coat. You could call it my calling card. My very own personal trump card.
I sat down in the vacant chair directly across from The Space Gypsy. Placed the holy card down on the table with a snap. Right in front of his meal. And waited for his reaction.
The Space Gypsy stopped eating. And studied the card on the table in front of him. It depicted a knight on horseback fighting a big, green, scaly lizard. At the bottom of the card, in gold letters, was the legend - Saint George.
I tapped the Lizard on the card. "I don't think you'll be slaying any dragons tonight."
He looked up and fixed his gaze on me. He studied at my face. Then gazed deep into my eyes with his piercing blue hypnotic orbs. He was sizing me up. Trying to read me. And divine my intentions.
I grinned. "There's a prayer on the back. Maybe you might like to pray before we get started."
He turned the card over and started reading the words slowly to himself. Letting each line sink in. When he finished reading it, he nodded, and shoved the card in his jacket pocket.
The Spacer Gypsy pointed at the man in black sitting at the end of the table. "This is Blackjack."
Blackjack leaned across the table and held out his hand.
I clasped his hand. And he crushed mine as I said, "I'm George."
Blackjack just grunted and applied more pressure.
The Space Gypsy gave me a puzzled look, "It used to be Brad-"
I held my index finger up to my mouth, "Shhh!" I lisped, "Witness Detention Program."
He lowered his voice to a whisper. "Okay, so they sent you after me."
"How long do I have?"
"That's up to you."
"After the show?"
"If you like."
After the tour?"
He frowned, "Are they here now?"
The Space Gypsy picked up his drink and took a long slow sip. His eyes were roaming around the room as he drained the glass. When he finished, he set the empty glass down and nodded.
"It's about the pizza, isn't it?"
I frowned. "Pizza?"
"He ordered a pizza and offered me a piece. So I took it."
"When was this? Tonight?"
"No. In our dressing room at La Luna."
"But that was ages ago. That was back in the 90's."
"Some people never forget. They offer you something. And later they make you feel guilty that you took them up on their offer."
"Over one piece of Pizza?"
"It was really good. So, I helped myself to another piece."
"It could have been more."
"More then two pieces?"
"It was kind of a band effort. Tommy had a piece. And then-"
"Okay. Okay. I get the picture."
"Are you really sure it's not about the pizza?"
"Yeah, I'm sure. The statute of limitations for pizza rustling expired a long time ago."
"Well, you can't exactly put your finger down your throat and return it, can you?
"No. Not without treating him to what I just ate."
I glanced over at Special Agent Stoker and muttered to myself. "An option that hadn't occurred to me."
"So what's this all about? "
"I'd like to ask you a few questions. There are a few details that need to be clarified. And some facts that I need to establish, before I can proceed further."
The Space Gypsy frowned and turned toward Blackjack.
"Blackjack, do you happen to have a deck of playing cards on you?"
"May I borrow them?"
Blackjack fished around in his pocket for a moment. Produced a deck of cards. And firmly planted them on the table in front of the Space Gypsy. The Space Gypsy picked up the deck and gave me a steely gaze.
"But first I must establish a few details of my own."
"Such as?" I asked.
I glance down at the deck of cards resting on the table in front of him. "A reading?"
The Space Gypsy started to grin. "Not exactly. Let's call it a test" His grin continued to grow. Threatening to push his ears off the side of his head. "Care to make a friendly wager?"
I squinted. "How Friendly?"
"That leaves one of us out." I replied.
The Space Gypsy shook his head. "You shouldn't be so down on yourself, George."
"I'm not. You've got things turned around."
"You've become jaded over the years. I think a friendly game of chance would do you a world of good."
"Jaundiced is a much better word. It's taught me not to bet on games of chance."
"Not even on a sure bet?"
I rolled my eyes. "Nothing is sure."
"This bet is."
"What's the bet?"
"That you can't beat me at one hand of draw poker."
"Against you?" I laughed, "I wouldn't stand a chance in hell."
"I'm not Old Nick, I'm The Space Gypsy. I'll go easy on you. I promise" He narrowed his eyes. "Say, we pick our cards ourselves from a spread of cards - all face up on the table. No tricks. No slight of hand. No luck involved in this at all. Just skill. And to make it as fair as I possibly can, I'll go first so that you can see my hand. Fair enough?"
"Sounds like a sucker's bet to me. You'll just give yourself a royal flush, and then I've lost before I've even started."
"Oh dear, we can't have that. I'll tell you wot, I'll give you a sporting chance." He thought a moment. "I know, how about this, I choose my five cards before we wager. You can see what my hand is, and then you can decide whether or not you wish to take me up on the bet. Fair enough?"
I sighed. "Okay, what kinda wager do you in mind?"
"A friendly one. Let's keep it simple and sociable. Say, we play for a drink. Loser treats the winner. Then we can retire backstage. And you can tell me what brings you here. And ask me all the questions you like."
"Just like that? A private audience with The Space Gypsy."
He nodded. "Just like that. I have nothing to hide. Nothing at all." His baby blues were amping up a vibe of innocent sincerity.
"Alright, I'll bite."
The Space Gypsy picked up the deck. He fanned them in his hand and scanned the cards in the deck "We won't use these cards." He removed two cards from the deck. And placed them on the table - face up. Both of them were Jokers.
I nodded. He shuffled the deck a couple times. Planted the deck on the table - face up. "Cut."
I picked up the top third of the deck. Set it down on the table. He placed the remainder on top of it. Picked up the deck. Then fanned the cards face up across the table so that all of them were visible. All of the cards were present and accounted for.
I nodded. "It's Jake. Go ahead."
He glanced over at Blackjack. "Since this is his deck, I'll select the Jacks in his honour." The Space Gypsy picked out all four Jacks and set them down on the table in front of him - face up. Then he selected the King of Hearts.
"Why the King of Hearts?"
"Peace and love mostly. It represents a cultured, intuitive man. He's amiable and enthusiastic. And gracefully treats others with sensitivity and respect."
"Hmm, draw poker with a Tarot twist. So tell me, why didn't you select The Ace of Spades, instead?"
He shrugged, "I don't need the overkill."
I shook my head. "Looks more like you need your head examined."
"Then you wish to accept my bet?
"Sure. There's no chance of you winning with a hand like that!"
"And you agree to the wager - a friendly drink?
"Yeah, it might make for a more informative chinwag, backstage. I accept."
He held out his hand. I shook it. And then he passed his hand slowly over the cards fanned out on the table. "Choose your five cards."
"Well, I do happen to believe in overkill. So...." I picked out all of the Aces and then the King of Spades. And laid my cards down in front of me. "Four of a Kind - Aces, King-high."
He pointed at the King of Spades. "It suits you. A courageous, active man with mental clarity. He's fiercely judgmental, but he's fair."
"The problem with all that mystic mumbo-jumbo is that it's nothing more than feel good patter. Just strokes the punter's ego. When it comes down to it, it's just a confidence scam."
The Space Gypsy narrowed his gaze. "Or he can be cold, cunning, and a bit of a cynic."
"Is that a fact?" I pointed at his cards. "Here's another fact, it looks like you've lost your bet. I've got all the Aces."
He nodded, "You have a tough hand to beat. But I'll try my best. And since this is draw poker... I'll discard the cards I don't need. And draw new cards to replace them." He removed three of his Jacks. Leaving The King of Hearts and the Jack of Hearts in his hand.
"Okay, Space Gypsy, what three cards do you plan to replace them with?"
"Hmm, looks rather grim, doesn't it. I don't have very many choices." He sat a few moments studying the cards. Then he glanced up and raised an eyebrow. "Care to raise the bet?"
I shook my head. "No. Let's just keep it friendly. 'Cos I just got a queer hunch."
"And what does your hunch tell you, George?"
"That I've just been skunked."
"Really. Those four Jacks you started out with drew me in. They may have suckered me - and hung me out to dry. You might as well just finish me off."
He smiled. "My Pleasure. Now let's increase the love... and see what effect that has on the cards." He reached out toward the cards spread across the table. He slowly selecting his three replacement cards. The Queen of Hearts. The Ten of Hearts. And the Nine of Hearts.
I nodded. "You've got a King-high Straight Flush. The best I can do is-"
"A Ten-high Straight Flush, since I've used up all the Jacks."
"So what do you want to drink?"
He glanced over at Special Agent Stoker. Thought for a few moments. Bit his lip. And then he made me an offer I couldn't refuse.
"I'll take a raincheck on that drink. Let's go to my dressing room. We can talk more privately there."
I nodded, knowing full well... I'd feel guilty about this later on. Maybe not now. Maybe not tonight. But soon. Perhaps tomorrow. And perhaps, maybe for the rest of my life.
We all stood up. Left the table. And headed into the Foyer. The Space Gypsy leading the way like The Pied Piper. I was tailing him. And Blackjack fell right into step. Right directly behind me. I was tempting fate. And praying that Blackjack wouldn't sap me down before I got all the answers I needed. The answers that would make all the puzzle pieces fall into place. And bring the big picture into sharp focus. Then I'd know for sure - who was framing who.
I followed close behind him. We entering through the Mississippi Studio portal. Blackjack close on my heels. We navigated around the ticket desk and the person stationed there. He nodded as The Space Gypsy approached his desk. Nodded as I followed right behind him. And shrunk back in fear, making the sign of the cross, as Blackjack walked by him.
The Space Gypsy continued through the door at the right-hand side of the double bar that separated the merchandise area in the Foyer from the main hall. He veered to the left around the stairway leading up to the balcony. Through the gathering masses of punters on the floor of the main hall. Around the crimson red swag rope in front of the left side of the stage with the sign reading - No Guests beyond this point. He ignored the barrier and continued on beyond the lefthand edge of the stage. We took a fast dogleg to the right. And went straight into the dressing room.
The dressing room proved to be the void behind the stage wall. A narrow passage strewn with stage equipment. Various items were scattered all about the void. There were two wooden chairs halfway down the space across from a shut door. And further down, at the far end, there was a collection of drum kits. All scattered higgledy-piggledy.
The Space Gypsy sat down on the first chair. I sat down at the remaining chair next to it. Blackjack folded his arms and just stood at the end we had entered - barring entrance and exit from the void.
The Space Gypsy gazed around the void and summed up the room like an estate agent. "This is the dressing room. There's one like it upstairs."
I was taking it all in and made my appraisal. "Not as extravagant as the one at La Luna."
He Nodded, "But it'll do."
He reached across the void to the door across from him, turned the nob, swung open the door, and revealed a toilet. The bathroom was stark. And very small. It was barely large enough for the toilet and the sink. The best thing about it was - it was empty.
I grinned. "Good. No squatters. They're so hard to get rid of."
Blackjack shook his head to correct me. I studied Blackjack. He was standing like a sentry preventing people from coming or going. And he could easily hear everything discussed. Every question asked. Every answer given. I needed to know more about him before I felt comfortable pumping The Space Gypsy for details and facts pertaining to this case.
"So tell me Blackjack, where are you from?"
"You work for Cleopatra?"
Blackjack shook his head.
"C'mon Blackjack, I know you must have a larger vocabulary. I've heard you utter a word earlier. There must be much more where that one word came from. Do you work for Cleopatra?"
Blackjack shook his head and glanced over at The Space Gypsy. I focused my attention on The Space Gypsy, "Does he work for Cleopatra?"
"Does he work for you?"
"Then why is he here?"
"I'm working with him."
I shifted my attention back to Blackjack. "So, you're from Seattle?"
Blackjack added another word to his vocabulary. "Yes."
"And The Space Gypsy plays Seattle tomorrow night?"
"Are you here to escort him to Seattle?"
"To see his show tonight."
"From the dressing room? Behind the stage?"
Blackjack buttoned his lip. And kept silent. "Do you have X-ray vision?"
I could hear The Space Gypsy chuckle beside me. "Blackjack, I have a theory. I think you're here to make sure The Space Gypsy makes it to Seattle." Blackjack remained silent.
"What if it transpired that something cropped up that might prevent him from making it to Seattle?"
Blackjack smiled. He smiled an evil smile. Cracked his knuckles. And swelled in size like a puffer fish when confronted with a potentially threatening adversary.
I glanced at The Space Gypsy. "Looks like you're going to Seattle, Space Gypsy. Whether you like it or not."
"I'm counting on it."
"So what's in Seattle, Blackjack?"
"Like a burning bush?"
"No. Flame Tree."
Blackjack didn't strike me as the Moses type. I wasn't sure how many commandments he might have broken so far. But I was pretty sure of one thing - he would have little trouble parting the Red Sea. The waters would retreat just to keep its distance from him. Just to let him pass and be done with him - once and for all. Call it self-preservation. Call it common sense. Call it intimidation. But don't call it a miracle.
This wasn't the first time that Seattle had reared its head as a topic of interest. Someone had mentioned Seattle to me before. In fact they had mentioned a man connected with someone from Seattle. A man that I might run into some day. I had a hunch that that very same man may have slipped in under my radar.
"Blackjack, do you happen to know a Don Darcon?"
He frowned and shook his head. "No."
"Heard of Souls Smoldering?"
His eyes bulged, "You mean Don Darconi?"
I grinned, "Sorry, I didn't pronounce it Italian enough for you."
"You know him?"
"We've crossed paths."
"No. Not in Cascadia. Last I heard he was down in The Bay Area. Back in the US of A. You know, where Alcatraz is located."
Now I had Blackjack's full attention.
"What's your connection to Don Mario Darconi? Is he your Godfather?"
"Has he been in touch with you?"
"He wanted something."
"The Space Gypsy."
"Now what would a two-bit chiseller like Darconi want with The Space Gypsy?"
"I don't know."
"Well, I guess he'll just have to take a number and wait in line. Maybe he'll find somebody else's coattails to hitch a ride on in the mean time."
Blackjack started to fidget. "You know something, Blackjack. I'm surprised somebody hasn't offered to renovate that smirk of his. And replace it with a pair of Venetian blinds."
It's becoming more and more interesting how The Space Gypsy had become such an extremely popular man all of a sudden. He seemed to be on everybody's wish list. Hit list. Shit list. You name it - he's on it.
Something caught my eye. A brunette had suddenly materialized at the other side of the dressing room. She tried to enter but stopped dead in her tracks. Blackjack was preventing her from freely passing by him. It was becoming clear to me that on a wild night out on the town, Blackjack would make a terrible wingman. Unless you happened to be a priest.
The brunette in question had dark hair that spilled straight down past her neck. Cascaded over her soft, bare shoulders. And pooled gently around her upper torso.
She was young, tall, and sexy. Her long, bare gams were sheathed in silver Funtasma platform gogo boots. The short purple top she was wearing was graced with dangling fringe. The fringe acted like a 60s bead curtain - swinging and swaying as she moved. Accenting the exposed flesh around her midriff.
She spotted The Space Gypsy. Made eye contact with him. Waved. And beamed a big friendly smile at him. She glanced at Blackjack. Frowned. And then quickly darted off.
I arched an eyebrow at The Space Gypsy. "Who's the dame?"
"Princess Moon, daughter of Isis."
"No. She's in my band."
"That's a cozy arrangement."
"It's a mighty small dressing room."
"It's strictly business. She's old enough to know better."
"And old enough to turn a few heads."
"She's also in the support band - Hedersleben. I'm on a track of theirs on their new CD."
"Like I said, it's a cozy arrangement."
The Space Gypsy fell silent for a moment. Then started laughing. "You scared the shit out of Tommy!"
I was thrown by the sudden change of topics. It took me several moments to shift gears and catch his train of thought.
"I scared the shit out of a lot of people there."
He nodded and continued laughing.
"I scare the shit out of myself, sometimes. I don't mean to. I don't particularly like to do that. It's something that just happens."
"It was brilliant!"
"A few people might disagree with you. Like Tommy Grenas. And several other people I was making nervous just by the way I was dressed. And then there was that couple that kept asking me to open my trench coat so they could see if I actually had a gat in the sling or not."
"Did you flash them?"
"No, of course not. I just let them stew in their thoughts. It keeps honest people honest."
"I still think it was brilliant."
I narrowed my eyes. "Speaking of keeping honest people honest...."
His grin slowly faded as I continued.
"Let's get down to brass tacks. What have you been up to lately? What are you involved in? And what's going down, right now?"
"Have you seen all that stuff they're saying about me on the internet?"
"Some of it."
The Space Gypsy looked directly into my eyes. His pale-blue eyes were like melting ice as he started to spill his guts. "I'm being blamed for everything!"
"I gathered that. How about narrowing Everything down a bit."
"Where do I start?"
"How about starting at the tip of the iceberg?"
"Iceberg?" "Yeah, the one that just floated across the galaxy and torpedoed the Titanic Starship."
"You mean The Baron's band."
"BINGO. Give The Space Gypsy back his comet."
He smirked. Then quickly frowned for a few moments before he continued. "I'm being blamed for touring North America at the same time as The Baron."
"In the same month as The Baron."
"What's the problem in that? It's a big continent."
"They're arguing that fans will get confused and not know which band is playing."
"Yours or The Baron's band?"
"Yeah. They're saying that fans will come to my shows thinking it's his band. Expecting to see The Baron on stage. And would be disappointed when they discover he's not playing."
"Sounds a bit farfetched."
"I'm sure his diehard fans would know the score. Know who's involved. And would know if the band listed on the bill was yours or The Baron's. So who would they expect to see on stage?"
"Uh-hu. And were you scheduled to play at any time, on the same night, in the same town as The Baron, at any time on your tour?"
"So you wouldn't be poaching his audience?"
"No. He cancelled his tour-"
"If he hadn't cancelled his tour?"
"And both of us were still touring at the same time?"
"Uh-hu. Would you actively be poaching his audience?"
"No. Not actively. If his fans wanted to see my show they're more then welcome to do so."
"Are you running for public office?"
"No, why do you ask?" "You just fed me a bit of political mumbo-jumbo. Run that by me again without the soft peddle job. Are you actively poaching The Baron's audience?"
"No, your honour."
"Do you think that a few of The Baron's fans might turn up at any of your shows?"
"What type of Baron fan might you expect to cross over to The Dark Side."
I chuckled. "It's a matter of perspective."
"Oh, c'mon. You can't be serious?"
"Face it, Sunshine. As far as The Baron's concerned, you're about as popular as Darth Vader with a saxophone."
Blackjack cleared his throat. Narrowed his gaze. And gave me the evil eye - in stereo.
"Let me rephrase the question. What type of Baron fan would attend a show by The Space Gypsy?"
"Nostalgic. Open minded. Enjoys a good show. Likes good music. And wants to have an excellent experience they'll never forget. "
"Do you think that having your band and The Baron's band, playing at the same time, would harm attendance at his shows?'
"No, not at all. It could actually increase attendance for both bands."
"How do you come to this conclusion? In simple layman's terms, or for those of us without P. T. Barnum neurons hardwired in our skulls."
"It's like this, Brad-"
"GEORGE!" "Ah, it's like this George. They want to find out for themselves who has the better band. The better show. Their curiosity is what drives them to come."
"To see who's the best of the space rock spacemen?"
"Exactly. They want to know who has the greatest show on Earth." "An argument could be made that one band found out about the other band's North American tour, and then jumped on the space bandwagon - to cash in."
"I'm probably being blamed for that as well."
"So tell me, Space Gypsy, what came first? The Baron? Or the yegg?"
"My tour was scheduled first. Before The Baron even thought of it. Suddenly, the next thing I know... The Baron is spreading the word around that he's going to tour North America. That he thought of it first And that I'm trying to horn in on him."
"Sounds like you got a mole in your back yard."
"Yeah. I did have." "So you think the mole could be in The Baron's back yard right now. Spilling his guts about your plans. And cozing up with Flopsy, Mopsy, and Cotton Tail?
"The Baron is no Peter Rabbit."
"What fairy tale would you like me to believe?"
The Space Gypsy had me there. I suppose the truth was as much of a fairy tale in the rest of the world as it was here in Cascadia. It was the story we tell our children at night before we tuck them in. About a world where everything ends up happily ever after. And that tomorrow was just a dream away.
I narrowed my eyes. "We'll come back to the truth later. There seems to be a few background details missing in your story."
"How did you get here?"
"We drove in my space capsule."
I blinked. "Space capsule?"
"Yeah. Van. Bus. Space capsule. What's the difference?"
"Credibility, I'd think."
The Space Gypsy's pale-blue eyes took on a faraway dreamy appearance. "Everyday we travel through the dimensions to another city. Spreading positive harmonic vibrations."
"How do you accomplish this?"
"Does it really matter how we manifest ourselves and arrive in your world?"
"It might. Cascadian Customs Agents might take a dim view of an interdimensional smuggling operation taking place on our soil."
"I'm not smuggling my experience. I'm sharing it."
I pointed an accusing index finger at him. "For a price, Space Gypsy. For a price." I shook my head. "That's all that we need, another Rajneesh cult situation. This time from outer space. Believe me, it'll never fly." I started laughing. "A Space Gypsy commune in Cascadia?"
"And what's so funny about that? The building is filling up with my followers as we speak."
"You're perfectly welcome to lead your followers to the promised land. Provided that they all have Cascadian Exit Visas. And those are mighty hard to come by."
"The Black market prices are astronomical. Why do you think I'm still here?"
"The water. I've heard that the rain here is very tranquil."
"The rain here is never ending."
"It comes from another time and place. You are a refreshed soul now."
"Okay, so tell me, oh enlightened one, what actually brought you to North America? And to our tranquil - and soggy Cascadian Country? In straight, down to Earth, terms. Terms that us working class Terrans can easily understand."
"Cleopatra flew me over here."
"How about your band?"
"They were already here."
"You lined them up before you flew over?"
"No, it was Cleopatra's idea. They introduced us."
"How about your new CD?"
"Cleopatra made the arrangements. Got us together to record the new CD. Arranged and paid for the studio time."
"Sounds like Cleopatra is doing a lot for you."
"I imagine they are looking after their investment."
"They call the shots?"
"No. They just keep me informed."
"Do they handle the finer details for you?"
"I hear that The Baron plans to reschedule his tour for March 2014."
"I wouldn't know."
"Why did he cancel on such short notice?"
"I heard that The Baron took ill."
"I heard that it was stress related. Related to you."
"I'm being blamed for his health. For The Baron cancelling his tour. I'm being blamed for everything."
"Of course you realize, if The Baron's health takes a turn for the worse... you'll be blamed for that. If The Baron doesn't manage to make good on the rescheduled USA tour... you'll be blamed for that as well."
He Sighed, "Yeah."
"Face it Sunshine, you're suitable for framing."
The Space Gypsy stood up, "I'm going for an orange juice."
I nodded . "Okay, I'll give you a break. I'll wander around and see what else this joint has to offer. I'll return later, after I've digested all this. I may have a few more questions for you."
"I'll be here."
I grinned and watched him head out of the dressing room. Blackjack let him pass. Folded his arms over his chest. Turned up his menacing vibe. And just glared at me. His thoughts didn't require PSI Power to read. He was coming through loud and clear.
I headed out of the dressing room. As I approached Blackjack I gave him a few parting words. "Don't leave town." The only response I got back from him was the sound of cracking knuckles.
I walked out of the dressing room. My eyes were not accustomed to the darkness. I could just barely make out The Space Gypsy's shape walking out into the crowd ahead of me. There was a band playing up on the stage to my left. They were lit up by the stage lights and some projections. I continued walking by the stage till I came to the crimson red swag ropes holding back the crowd. I stepped around the stanchion. Veered over toward the wall on the right. And headed into the crowd as I followed in The Space Gypsy's wake.
It wasn't long before I experienced the unexpected. I was stopped dead in my tracks by a solid, immovable object. It placed me in a firm bear hug. Darkness surrounded me like an ominous, impenetrable maelstrom. It said one single word in a very gruff voice as the darkness engulfed me. And that single word was a name. And that name was - GEORGE.
I squinted as the voice started to laugh. A shape was staring to take on form. The form was short. Squat. And very hairy. The form had a thick beard growing halfway down its chest. It kind of looked like a New Age Viking. My second guess would have been a very thirsty refugee from The Lord of The Rings that was waiting to drag me off on a quest to liquidate all the ale in the Shire.
"You were with The Space Gypsy!" The voice stated. My eyes finally adjusted. I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw who it was.
"Rudy Laser-Piss," I said.
"At your service, Squire."
"You're looking, er, healthy."
"And happy. This is a dream come true. I finally get to see the Master of The Universe!"
My eyes rolled back and forth in their sockets as I tried to gaze beyond his sturdy form. I was wondering if he had Spacemama with him to help keep him grounded. He didn't. He was a loose cannon.
"So what were you doing back stage with The Space Gypsy?" He asked.
"Having my fortune told," I replied.
"Your fortune? What did he tell you?"
"That I'd meet a short, dark, stocky stranger. And be treated to a couple pints."
Rudy frowned and suddenly released me. "Oh. I don't believe in that palm readin' stuff."
"It's better than the phrenology method."
"Reading the lumps on your head."
"Um, that sounds intense." "Yeah, it is. And so is the blunt instrument backstage that's itchin' to test it out on yours truly."
"The Space Gypsy?"
"No, his strongarm man - Blackjack."
Rudy thought this over for a few moments. "Could you do me a really big favour, George?" He asked.
"Depends on the favour." "Could you get a signature for me?"
I narrowed my eyes. "Who's signature?"
"The Space Gypsy." "Oh, is he here? I thought this was The Baron's band."
Rudy started laughing. "Nice try. The Baron cancelled his tour. Word is that he took ill. Besides, California was as close as he was going to get to Cascadia."
"Smart man. Portland's quite a long trip to take from California. And I hear California's full of Americans."
"I would have gone."
"That would have required an Exit Visa," I pointed out.
"Not a problem. I know people."
"What kind of people?"
Rudy fell silent.
"People who wheel n deal?"
"I don't know. I suppose so."
"Do you suppose... they... work under the table?"
"Um...." "Lets say someone happened to have an Exit Visa they didn't need. What's the first thing they should do?"
His eyes grew wide. And he licked his lips. "You got one?"
I shook my head and grinned. "No, but if someone happened to come across one?"
"They'd need to get a go-between."
"A middle man?"
"Um, Personal Representative," he corrected me.
He fell silent again. I switch topic on him. "I hear that The Baron is rescheduling his tour for March."
"Really? I'd kill to have the chance to see The Baron live."
"You're into The Baron? And The Space Gypsy? Both at the same time?"
"Sure, why not. They're both space gods."
"Which one you reckon is the best?"
"All of them."
"You mean both of them."
"No. All of them." "There's more than just two space gods?"
Rudy laughed. "There are way too many space gods to count. The stage couldn't hold them all."
"Sounds more like an army."
He nodded. "Yes, they are like an army."
I glanced back at the Dressing Room entrance. "I might need to raise an army, in the not too distant future."
"Then look no further - I'm your man!"
"The hours are unpredictable."
"I don't care. Life's unpredictable."
"The pays is lousy."
"I don't mind. I enjoy my work."
"I might need my army tonight."
"And I might need a signature - tonight."
"I'll keep you in mind."
"You do that."
He started to stroke his beard. Then he started to dance. It was some sort of wild New Age berserker dance. Something they do before they go a Viking. Before they end up pillaging churches and plundering towns.
I cautiously moved out of his dangerous, erratic orbit. I scanned the area for other familiar faces. And then headed toward the back of the room. My first destination was the bar. It was time for a drink. And time to think. It was time to locate the government agents.
I ordered a pint of New Belgium 1554 black lager. Turned around. And just stared at the band up on the stage. I didn't have a clue which band was playing. I could only guess. There hadn't been a break in the music since I had been grilling The Space Gypsy. I reckoned that It must still be the first band. The band that The Space Gypsy mentioned he had been working with - Hedersleben. But I wasn't absolutely sure. I hadn't got a good look at all of them. Just the princess.
I shook my head and trudged up the stairs to the upper area. Once I got to the top, I continued a few steps further till I was on the catwalk along the right-hand side of the wall above the audience. I stopped and leaned on the wooden railing that topped the four-foot high protective barrier.
I scanned the audience below me as I sipped my drink. Then I turned my gaze to the left where the balcony was located. The balcony was packed like a can of sardines. Row after row of vacant faces. Dim light rippled across their pasty pans. One face looking as much like all the other faces. A police lineup of mugs. They might as well have been an assembly line of clones. Total blanks. Total strangers. Nothing at all setting them apart from each other.
I removed my mobile from my trench coat and sent a text message to Special Agent Stoker. "Do you have the items?" The mobile rested totally inert in my hand as if it had died and gone to hell. I continued to liquidate my drink. Waiting. Wondering how long this was going to take to play out. And wishing for once that Lady Luck wasn't gunning for me. Wishing that someone hadn't placed the Indian sign on me.
Finally, my mobile came to life. Buzzing in my hand like a disgruntled bumblebee hopped up on angel dust. I read the text, crumpled my drained plastic cup. And let it drop to the floor of the cat walk.
The words on its screen read: "NOT YET. SOON. COURIER ON THE WAY".
Yeah, it sounded like the old waiting game. It was as if they were planning to sweat me out. Wear me down. Wait till there was almost no time at all to act smoothly and calmly. Instead it would be utter chaos. Make their poor devil perform like a trained seal whenever they snapped their fingers. Then give him the bum's rush after they've got what they wanted out of him.
Oh, Lady Luck was coming alright. But it was anybody's guess what she'd be packing. Or how she'd fixed the odds. I'd just have to wait it out and see what developed next. Keep on my toes. And be prepared to make my own luck.
Sometimes lemons pay off. But only if they turned up in threes. A trinity of lemons, that's what I needed. I already had two lemons. All I needed was just one more. The last reel was still spinning. And it was about ready to come into play.
I slipped my mobile back into my trench coat. Turned away from the dead staring faces lining the balcony. Lowered my gaze. And made a move to leave the catwalk.
I focussed on the stairway, watching my feet and the steps of those stairs as my feet mechanically trudged downward. Descending down those dark steps that led even further down into a dark bitter little world. A world of deception. Deceit. And danger.
I walked as if in a dream. Slow and plodding. The faster my mind seemed to race - the slower my progress. I felt like I was swimming through a thick dark fog of molasses. A Le Brea of sinking doom. I navigated a vast quagmire of apprehension as I headed toward a deadly pit that rested beneath the swinging pendulum of time.
Eventually, I found myself standing at the merchandise table in the Foyer. Staring at all the images of The Space Gypsy. Wondering what was looming ahead on the horizon. Wondering what piece would complete the big picture that was missing from the puzzle.
There was an artist easel standing off to the side blocking the emergency exit to the street. A large poster rested against its wooden frame. It was a familiar image. An image I had seen before earlier in the evening, over at the bar. The image was the same as the one on the flier - FALL INTO DARKNESS. Only it was much larger. Grown up. Full size. Proud and defiant. The little flier's big brother.
"Recognize it, George?" a voice asked.
I turned to find The Space Gypsy standing next to me. He was holding a plastic cup. It was filled with an orange coloured liquid. Perhaps the liquid was freshly squeezed California sunshine.
"The picture seems very familiar, but I just can't place it," I replied.
He grinned, "Ignore the skull. Concentrate on the stars. Just the stars."
I narrowed my eyes and focussed intently on the stars. I concentrated for a minute before I gave up. And shook my head. "I'm pulling a blank."
"As dark as space?"
"And as clear as mud."
He chuckled and winked. "Seek and ye shall find." He raised his cup as if he held the Holy Grail itself. Admiring its golden contents. After a long spell of silent revery, he brought the cup to his lips, and drained it. He handed me his cup. Turned away. And just wandered off into the main hall. Leaving me to dispose of his sacred plastic cup.
I shook my head as I watched him vanish into the vast sea of his fanatic followers. I shrugged. What else could I do? I didn't subscribe to his screwy brand of mix-and-match mysticism. Sometimes, one size doesn't fit all. I was defiantly the odd man out at his messianic shindig.
I frowned as I examined The Space Gypsy's spent cup. A few drops remained. Perhaps enough to confirm just what it was he had been drinking. I lifted the cup and waited for the drops to reach my tongue. I cringed after I tasted the drops. It was devoid of alcohol. It was healthy. It was just what it looked like - ORANGE JUICE!
For someone who had visited Timothy Leary, the LSD guru, in a high security Vacaville Psychiatric Prison, he just didn't seem to fit the expected MO of a counter culture shaman. Why the healthy lifestyle masquerading as a 60s flower power flashback? Something was totally out of synch. Something was dead wrong. And something just didn't add up. I quickly made up my mind and made a move to tail him.
The band playing on the stage in the main room was a four piece band. There was a Hammond organ player. A drummer. A bass player. And a guitarist. I could only guess who they were. Probably the second support act on the bill.
I glanced around the room. The Space Gypsy was nowhere to be found. He had disappeared as quickly as he had materialised next to me back at the artist easel in the Foyer. This was going to require a lot of patience and a lot of thought. It was time for another drink.
I belled up to the bar and ordered another pint of New Belgium 1554 black lager. And took a long sip as I wandered over to the right-hand side of the room. There was a counter over there against the wall. It was as good a place as any to linger as I mulled things over in my mind. And kept my eyes peeled for The Space Gypsy.
As I continued my stake out the room, one band flowed into another. The four piece band had ended their set. Removed their gear. Left the stage. And the next band had taken over the stage. Set up their gear. And started to play.
The new band had a one up on the previous band. They were a five piece band. One of their band members was wearing a black Ramones T-shirt. I guess that is what set them apart from their predecessors. That T-shirt and the body that inhabited it. Otherwise both bands rocked. Both bands sounded spacey. Both bands would have been great bands to watch perform... if I didn't have other things more pressing on my mind.
As the band played, the screen behind them came to life. Old black and white Sci-Fi movie images were being projected on it. Starfish aliens from a 1956 Japanese film titled WARNING FROM SPACE, graced the screen. A starfish alien slowly transformed into a Japanese lady. There were also images of space. Swirling colours. Galaxies. Flashes of psychedelic mayhem. A spaceman in his helmet - staring transfixed out at the audience. And that Japanese lady transforming back into a starfish alien.
Perhaps it was an Asian take on the robot in Fritz lang's Metropolis transforming into a woman. Or maybe, it was what you might expect to experience at a sidewalk fish market in Vancouver, British Cascadia - if someone slipped some acid in your tea.
Suddenly that disgruntled bumblebee hopped up on angel dust started angrily buzzing and vibrating in my trench coat. I reached in and removed my mobile to end the impromptu chest massage.
The text message on its screen read: THE COURIER HAS ARRIVED. This is what I'd been waiting for.
I quickly sent my reply - I'LL MEET YOU OUT ON THE PATIO.
My mobile spit back one final message: OK.
I slid my mobile back into my trench coat. And made my way out of the venue.
It wasn't hard to spot the Feds waiting for me out on the patio. Special Agent Stoker and Carol Finchley were seated at a bench. The location they had selected was way off in a corner. As far away as they could find from the few people that were out there. I noted the black leather satchel resting on top of the bench between them. The courier was nowhere to be seen. He must have just came and left. Leaving the satchel in their safe keeping.
I sat down on the bench seat directly across from them. I nodded toward the satchel. "You got the papers?"
Carol patted the satchel, "Right here."
"Okay, let's have a look."
She reached into the satchel. Removed an envelope, and slid it across the table to me. I picked it up and removed the incriminating sheet of paper it contained. Unfolded it. And started to read the words typed on it. "I Nicholas Turner, also known as The Space Gypsy, and Thunder Rider, do hereby confess to the following crimes:" I looked up at Special Agent Stoker. "This doesn't sound like him at all."
He nodded. "I know, but the main office insisted on it. They wanted it all written in legalese."
"Legalese? Versus illegal ease?"
Carol butted in "You agreed to get him to sign a confession."
"I said I would see if he would sign a confession. He still has a free choice to sign or not sign it."
"Once he signs the confession - he's ours to do with as we please."
"And what is it that you please?"
"To try him for treason."
I shook my head. "You can't try him for treason. He's not a Cascadian citizen."
"Then we'll make him a Cascadian citizen!"
I fixed my gaze on Special Agent Stoker. "So when do you plan to present him with the key to the City Morgue?"
"After he gets a fair trial."
"Judged by an impartial jury of his peers?"
"Will The Baron be notified?"
"Yes. In fact he'll be one of the jurors at The Space Gypsy's trial."
"You must be kidding. The Baron is not a Cascadian citizen-"
Carol butted in again, "Then we'll make him an honorary Cascadian citizen!"
I rolled my eyes. "And they'll all live happily ever after."
Special Agent Stoker mumbled, "at least one of them will."
I shifted my gaze to the satchel. And then back to Carol.
"Okay, let's see the other document."
"The Exit Visa?"
"Yeah, the Exit Visa."
"You'll get that when we get The Space Gypsy's confession. Signed. Sealed. And delivered."
"Maybe you don't really have it. No proof of Exit Visa. No signed confession."
Carol reached into the satchel and slowly lifted a document half-way out of it for me to see.
"Here's your Exit Visa. It's waiting for you. Right here!"
"Can I examine it - closer?"
"You can examine it all you like. After you deliver the goods."
"What if he refuses to sign?"
Carol narrowed her eyes and grinned from ear to ear. "Oh, he'll sign alright." She signalled to Special Agent Stoker. He reached into his jacket and removed a vial.
The vial he held was small and compact. It was half full. It contained a clear liquid. He waved it back and forth in front of his face. "It's odourless. Tasteless. Fast acting. And best of all, it makes the subject highly susceptible to suggestions. It's absolutely fool proof!" I frowned. "In your hands, that's an oxymoron."
Carol started laughing. When she stopped laughing she became very serious. "By hook or by crook, we'll get The Space Gypsy's signature one way or the other." She looked evil. Sounded evil. And I could easily visualize her straddling a broomstick as she left a thick black smoky trail behind her. Skywriting over the Emerald City - SURRENDER SPACE GYPSY! If he had wings, Special Agent Stoker could accompany her as her flying monkey.
Special Agent Stoker tapped the vial against the top of the bench to regain my attention. "It's very important that you get his signature immediately. As soon as this takes effect."
"It's fast acting!"
"Yeah, I know. You said that."
"One more question."
"The vial is only half full. What happened to the other half?" I asked.
"It's very potent. It's all you'll need."
"I noticed that it didn't come from the Satchel. You've had it on you all this time."
He arched an eyebrow, "Moi?"
"Yes, you. Did we just suddenly materialise in Quebec? And you forgot to ask me if I'd like fries with that vial."
I was getting the feeling that I was only getting half the story. And that other half was being withheld. Apparently, I didn't have a need to know.
I stood up. "It's getting late. I better make move." Special Agent Stoker raised his right hand up to his right eye. Touched his forefinger to his thumb and gazed at me through the hole that they formed. "Be seeing you."
Carol was still grinning evilly when I left them - armed with their vile goods.
I made my way slowly forward. Swimming against the current of bodies flowing steadily by me. They were streaming toward the bar at the back of the room. Toward the loos. Or toward the outdoor patio.
The ebb tide began to reveal several vacant spaces along the edge of the stage. I had my eyes set on a space that had just opened up - dead centre. Right where a single mic stand stood. The mic stand was patiently waiting for The Space Gypsy to take his place of prominence. The place on the stage that would become the centre of all attention.
I made it to the edge of the stage and secured the best spot for conducting a long, up close, and very personal surveillance. From here I could easily target The Space Gypsy. Or any of the other members of his band. Perhaps, with the exception of the drummer. His drum kit would provide him with natural cover. And a good place for him to hide, should he prove to be bashful. Or any of the other seven dwarves currently on file at the Ministry of Defence.
A clean-cut chap over on my left stepped up next to me.
"This is the time to grab the good spots," he said. "While everyone is moving around between bands."
"We're the smart ones. We got the best places to watch the show while everyone else is running off."
I was starting to prepare my equipment while he rabbited on.
"I've seen The Space Gypsy before. Is this your first time? "
I reached into my trench coat and removed my Canon from its shoulder holster. Checked the sights. And released the safety. He did a double take. "I guess not."
People were starting to fill in the spaces around us. And those vacant areas along the edge of the stage vanished quickly. My arrival on the scene was perfectly timed. My departure would be an entirely different matter. I was now totally hemmed in - with no place to go. I was here for the long haul.
Random chatter became louder and louder as the audience waited for The Space Gypsy to make his appearance. My ears perked up when someone off to my right started talking about The Baron.
"Yeah, they suddenly cancelled their USA tour," his voice dripped with sarcasm, "I guess The Baron couldn't handle the competition."
A second voice chimed in. "No, I heard he got sick and couldn't fly. So that's why the tour was cancelled."
"Think of all those Americans that got burned," said the first voice.
"No, they didn't get burned, their money will be refunded for the unused tickets," the second voice reminded him.
"What about travel costs? And hotel accommodations? That's where they got burned," the first voice pointed out.
"Well, at least The Space Gypsy shows up when he says he's touring!" a third voice said.
The rest of the chatter was nothing more than a rehash of all the rumours spreading like wildfire on the internet. Some of them sounded suspiciously like reworked old conspiracy theories. The weirdest rumour I overheard was that the CIA was involved in an plot to destabilize the space rock community. Something about them having secretly replaced The Baron with a dodgy doppelganger. Apparently one that doesn't like to tour. It was obviously a reworking of the old Beatle Paul rumour. If so, then I guess The Baron was the cute one in the band.
There was some motion on the stage now. A raven-haired dame migrated from the stage wings. She was carrying several sheets of paper. Was dressed in a long flowing gown that appeared oddly veil-like in appearance. It was covered all over the front and sleeves with symbols. Pagan symbols. Her unique attire included a bold fashion statement down at her feet - black, platform, combat boots. She was a femme fatale with a military fetish. Perhaps expecting order and discipline as the rule of thumb in her sphere of influence. That might also explain her rather po-faced expression. And robotic air of aloofness.
Ms. Raven placed the sheets of paper strategically around the stage. They were placed at vital locations where the band members could easily find them. One was placed near the base of the mic stand at the centre of the stage - right in front of me.
I squinted as I focussed on the bold writing on the page. Upon closer inspection it proved to be a set list. The songs that would be played during The Space Gypsy's set.
Ms. Raven briefly flew the coop. But quickly returned with plastic water bottles in tow. The bottles where positioned around the stage where the band members would be stationed. One by the drum kit. One by the synth on the left-hand side of the stage. One by the synth over on the right-hand side of the stage. And a couple more were placed by the mic stand at the centre of the stage. It looked like The Space Gypsy was going to have his very own private oasis.
I reached in to my trench coat and removed the vial that Special Agent Stoker had given me. I held it low so that it couldn't be seen. I checked to make sure that it was secure. Intact. And was still half full with its potent liquid. And that it was properly sealed, not leaking, and ready for use. I returned it to my trench coat for when the right time presented itself.
I eyed the water bottles near the base of the mic stand. Could I reach one of them unnoticed? I flexed the fingers on my right hand as I mentally performed the deed. I shook my head. No, probably not. Not right now. Not with everyone antsy and waiting for the band to start playing. Best to wait for an opportunity to present itself. A timely diversion would cover my actions. I'd just have to keep my eyes peeled for the right moment to materialize. Then make my move - as swift as lightning.
I reached into my trench coat and removed a digital derringer from one of the pockets lining my utility vest. I activated it with the press of a button. Lifted it up to my eye. And zoomed in on the set list. I rifled off a couple quick shots. Then checked to make sure that at least one of them was sharp and clear. I noted that I had captured at least one good shot of the set list. I pressed the power button and turned the digital derringer off, before I returned it to my vest pocket.
The band started to filter out on stage. The drummer sat down behind his drum kit. Princess Moon stepped behind the synth over on the left-hand side of the stage. A dark, bearded hombre wearing shades picked up the bass. He positioned himself between Princess Moon and the drum kit. Nicky Nautilus, the veteran hyper kinetic dynamo, picked up his white Fender Stratocaster and claimed a space between the drum kit and the synth over on the right-hand side of the stage. Ms. Raven strutted over to the remaining unoccupied synth. There was a violin resting in a stand on the floor next to it. I was hoping that she hadn't studied under Nero. I didn't wish to get burned by yet another femme fatale.
It was half past 11 PM and The Space Gypsy was nowhere to be seen when the band started to play. The sound leaking from the band's speakers started out low in volume. Then it grew louder, dissonant, and meandering. It was like a slumbering behemoth stirring from an eternity of hibernation. Its sound growing louder and louder. Its life force returning to its limbs. Its eyes flickering and suddenly opening as it sensed a presence. No longer alone in the void - it emerged from its cacoon.
The Space Gypsy stepped out onto the stage. He glided over to the centre mic stand. Stopped. Turned his head from side to side as he gazed out into the void. He was searching for the presence of life. He sent out a message throughout the dark, vast, reaches of space. His voice was low and weak as his words slowly droned on and on. "This is Earth calling... Earth calling... This is Earth Calling... Earth calling...."
The audience erupted in enthusiastic cheers. Almost totally drowning out The Space Gypsy's voice. The music continued to take shape and gel. Increasing in intensity. And then diminishing to a faint whisper as the message slowly faded away.
Nicky Nautilus glanced around at his band mates. Perhaps, the band were exchanging telepathic thoughts. Or they were just that tight that they knew exactly what each other would do at any given moment - instinctively. He stood there clutching his stratocaster and nodded to himself. Counting out the seconds. And then he became a blur of motion. It was like watching a smoldering volcano suddenly come to life and explode.
BORN TO GO deafened our ears. It was a tsunami of endless energy surging directly out from the stage toward the Space Gypsy's followers. It set off a chain reaction. There was a tremendous rippling of the tide throughout the audience. Followed by a back surge toward the stage as bodies danced and swayed helplessly in the flood of energy - they had fallen totally under The Space Gypsy's spell.
I closed my eyes and tried to view the scene in my mind's eye. I heard the Space Gypsy's voice singing. I heard the band playing. And the image conjured up was one from the distant past. Many decades ago. Back in the old glory days. Back when The Baron and The Space Gypsy ruled all of space - together. Now The Space Gypsy was sailing solo. Sailing against all flags. Yes, he was definitely giving The Baron a run for his money.
I reopened my eyes. Raised my Canon. Took Aim. And started shooting. The Band flashed before my eyes as I continuously pivoted in place. I was covering the whole stage. From one end to the other - in rapid fire. Trying desperately to catch each member before they had a chance to move. Catching them frozen in time and space. I was alternating from a series of 35MM shots with the Canon to a series of digital shots with the small Derringer. I was determined to capture every one of them right in the act. Capturing them in a blaze of glory.
The music continued on in an endless stream of classic space rock. BORN TO GO flowed into TIME WE LEFT. TIME WE LEFT flowed into BRAINSTORM. BRAINSTORM flowed into the ORGONE ACCUMULATOR. By now my eyeballs felt like craters. I stopped shooting and shoved the Canon back into its shoulder holster.
Now I just watched the band play for a while as I thought about the confession that needed the Space Gypsy's signature. I was deep in thought when something hit me. Hit me hard.
A dark immovable object had found me. And it knew my name. It yelled, "George!"
It was Rudy Laser-Piss. He smiled, "Need your army yet?"
"It's still early. And I don't have the signature, yet."
I pointed toward the mic stand. "See those water bottles?"
"Do you need a drink?"
"No, But somebody else does."
"Then you'll get the signature?"
"Yes, if all goes well. But there's a catch."
"Isn't there always."
"I need to get one of those water bottles."
I removed the vial from my trench coat and glanced down at it. I waited for Rudy to follow the direction of my eyes before I continued. "I need to add a chaser to one of those bottle. Then return the bottle without having been seen taking it."
"Oh, is that all?"
"Isn't that enough? I still haven't figured out how I'm going to pull it off with all these witness around me."
"Piece of cake. You're not going to do it."
Rudy gave me a firm solid glare, "No. You're not. Look, this'll put you in solid with The Space Gypsy!" He suddenly gave me a shove. Spun around. And let out a bloodcurdling berserker scream. Then he leaped toward the stage.
I reeled backwards and somehow managed to regain my balance without setting off a domino chain reaction. I watched in utter shock as events unfolded. Events that were once again dictating my fate. And the roll I would be forced to play through no fault of my own.
Rudy landed half on the edge of the stage like a beached Norse longship. He thrust out one arm and snatched a water bottle. Then he sprung backwards and landed next to me. He held the bottle up in the air while he spun around in circles. Hopping up and down in the throws of a victory dance.
Before I had time to react, Rudy shoved the bottle into my hands. And then transformed into a one man mosh pit. All eyes were trained on him as he swirled off to the left in search of more swag to plunger. Leaving behind him a trail of panic and pandemonium.
I turned away from the stage. Looked down at the water bottle in my hands. I emptied the potent contentions of Special Agent Stoker's vial into it. Then turned back around and faced the stage. I thrust the bottle forward. Placing it on the edge of the stage. And shrugged. The Space Gypsy gave me a bemused stare.
I shrugged again. Raised my hand to my head. Pointed at my brain. And tried to look as innocent and saintly as I could. And for good measure I made the universal circular cuckoo gesture with my index finger. He knew as well as I did that my halo was slightly tarnished.
The Space Gypsy glanced at the water bottle. Glanced at my rotating index finger. Glanced at Hurricane Rudy. He thought things over. And then picked up the water bottle as he shook his head.
I waited, wondering if he might drink from it while he had it in his hand. No, The Space Gypsy just sat it back down on the stage next to the mic stand. Right next to the other water bottles. And moved on to the next song in the set - FALLEN ANGEL. This was a new song that his band had just released as a single. It had a driving beat. Infectious. And catchy. Being a brand new offering, he had the full undivided attention of the audience. Their excitement transformed into perpetual motion. Motion that only ended when the song ended.
Nicky Nautilus put down his white stratocaster and picked up a Fender 12-string acoustic guitar. He signalled to the mixing desk. Gave the operator a stern stare. Then started playing.
The Space Gypsy approached the mic. He told the audience about the place he had come from - THE BLACK CORRIDOR. He talked about this region of space as if it was a sentient being. A harsh mistress with a black heart. A heart cold and non caring. Far removed from the warmth of the celestial suns. And their children - THE CHILDREN OF THE SUN.
The Space Gypsy bent down and picked up a water bottle. Raised it to his lips. And took a few sips before putting it back down at the base of the mic stand.
Was this enough to do the trick? I had hoped that he would have drank more from the bottle. Well, it's still early. Plenty of time for him to drink more and get a much larger dose of the drug. He's bound to get thirstier as the set continued on toward the grand finale.
Nicky Nautilus moved forward from the back of the stage to a place much closer to the front. He was still armed with his Fender 12-string acoustic guitar. And still taking no prisoners. The Space Gypsy picked up his flute.
Princess Moon stepped around her synth and removed the tambourine that was hanging on the front of it. Then she headed toward the centre mic stand to join The Space Gypsy.
Ms. Raven drifted across the stage also holding a tambourine in her hand. She stopped at the mic stand. Crouched down low to the stage floor. And picked up a water bottle. She tipped it up and took several large gulps. Then set it back down next to the other water bottles.
I stared at the water bottles. I blinked. And continued staring. The water bottles were now in entirely different places than they had been before. Which water bottle was the one I had tampered with? One bottle looked about full. The small sips that The Space Gypsy had taken could account for that. Then again, I wasn't expecting Ms. Raven to grab one of the bottles. And I wasn't sure which one she had taken.
I returned my gaze back to the band as the music started playing - CHILDREN OF THE SUN.
The Space Gypsy was playing his flute when four arms suddenly started rhythmically waving up and down to the music, in a serpentine fashion, at each side of his body. Two on his left side. And two on his right side. One arm on each side was shaking a tambourine along to the music. It was as if The Space Gypsy had suddenly sprouted the extra arms of an Hindu deity. Under the blue stage lights he had become a cross between Krishna and Sarasvati. Male and female. Yin and yang. It reminded me of a Ray Harryhausen stop motion effect. So much so that I glanced over at Nicky Nautilus to make sure he didn't suddenly turn into Sinbad. There was a gasp from the audience as they witnessed this breathtaking spectacle play out before their eyes, up on the stage.
Princess Moon and Ms. Raven stepped out from behind The Space Gypsy. They moved up along side of him shaking their tambourines. They closed in on the Mic and starting singing into it while The Space Gypsy kept right on playing his flute. They moved in closer and crowded in around the mic - totally eclipsing him. Then Nicky Nautilus closed in on them from the right. He was playing his acoustic guitar and singing right along with them.
I removed my Canon from its shoulder holster and started shooting.
Princess Moon took flight and returned to her Synth. Ms. Raven and The Space Gypsy circled each other behind the mic. She was giving him her full attention. He was moving sluggishly. And appeared to be dazed. Like he had fallen under her spell. Or had fallen into a sudden stupor.
I nodded. Yes, the spiked water bottle was doing its stuff. He swayed on his feet. Swayed while holding his flute loosely in his hand. Ms. Raven moving in closer. Like a man jaguar closing in on its prey.
The Space Gypsy shook his head a few times. He stopped swaying. He raised his empty hand. His fingers were moving slowly like Bela Lugosi doing a Dracula performance.
Ms. Raven stopped dead in her tracks. Her eyes were fixed on his fingers. After following the rhythmic motions of his fingers her head started to droop. Her eyes glazed over. And she blankly stared off into space. The Space Gypsy's hand continued to move like a living creature in front of her face, and she started to sway. He leaned in very close to her. Whispered in her ear. She nodded as he lowered his hand from her face.
The Space Gypsy stepped away from Ms. Raven. He glanced toward the front of the stage where I was standing. And started to grin.
I shifted my gaze from him to Ms. Raven. I watched as she moved slowly toward the front of the stage like a wi-fi automation. She stopped moving when she got close to the edge. And then she slowly knelt - in profile. Her gown under the stage lighting showed off her curves. When the lights changed intensity the gown almost became totally transparent. The light show was quickly turning into the x-ray vision burlesque peep show.
Ms. Raven turned and shifted her position. Now she was directly in front of me. With the lights flashing glimpses of her in the all together it was turning into the crouching tigress, hidden gown review.
I raised my Canon. Aimed. And shot a couple of quicky closeups.
This is when Ms. Raven did something totally unexpected. She laid down and spread herself flat out on the stage - and started writhing. Then she raised up on her knees and started thrashing violently up and down - headbanging. Her long raven-hair sailed back and forth - lashing me relentlessly.
I found myself being whipped. Over and over. Harder and harder. Her hair stung like miniature scorpions. It was like someone had turned loose an epileptic dominatrix. She became a total blur of darkness in the sights of my Canon. Her body had totally filled the viewing frame. She was way too close for comfort.
I crouched lower to the ground and scooted back away from the stage where her hair couldn't reach me. It seemed like the best solution to my dilemma.
Ms Raven rose up and climbed down off the stage. She stood directly in front of me. And glared. Staring me down.
The audience around us scattered. Giving her plenty of room to move. I shoved my Canon back in to its holster. Raised my hands halfway up - palms out. "Okay, angel. No more closeups."
She continued glaring at me. But now she had started breathing much harder. Building up steam. The pentagrams over her breasts looked more like satanic pasties now than runic symbols.
I lowered my hands cautiously. Winked and said, "What're you doing after the show, sweetheart?"
Ms Raven charged.
She shot by me. Ending up further back in the audience.
There was another panic of safety minded fans scattering in all directions to stay out of harms way. Giving her plenty of room to manoeuver.
She stopped. Turned around. Held her arms out away from her sides. Rolled back her head. And let out a loud roar.
I removed my trench coat and held it out in front of me, slightly off to the side. Stamping my foot and chanting, "Hey, Hey, Hey."
It didn't take long for her to charge me, once again. I flipped my trench coat up and over her as I sidestepped. And let her sail on through to the other side. And said, "Ole!"
Ms. Raven shot by me. And ended up at the edge of the stage. Where she stoped. Looked up in awe at the band she found playing there. She just leaned on the edge of the stage and watched the band play as if she was now part of the audience. Watching Nicky Nautilus play his guitar. Totally oblivious to the past few minutes, as if nothing had ever happened.
The statuesque, long-haired, strawberry-blonde standing to her left was all smiles. Looking on with admiration at her. I had a hunch that she'd wanted me turfed from my prime real-estate at the edge of the stage, a long time ago. And had now found a kindred soul.
When Ms. Raven was feeling more like her normal self, she climbed back up on the stage and rejoined the band. They finished playing CHILDREN OF THE SUN. And forged ahead with the rest of the songs remaining on the set list.
The string of old classics that had established The Space Gypsy as a true pioneer of space rock continued. They played out in unrelenting take-no-prisoner fashion. Strong. Powerful. And demanding. They didn't just catch your attention - they assaulted it. Wore down your resistance. And placed your free will in a vise. Turned the screw. And totally enslaved your perception of reality.
SONIC ATTACK warned of an impending aural assault. Gazing around me all I saw were The Space Gypsy's followers. And none of them seemed the least bit worried. They just danced on and on as if they were spastic puppets on a string. The Space Gypsy directing their every move. Their every response. I was witnessing a massive cult conversion. And the end of civilization as I knew it. Resistance was futile. The Master of the Universe had them eating out of his hands.
I drew my Cannon from its shoulder holster. Took aim. And started shooting. I was determined to resist as long as I could. I planned to go down fighting The Space Gypsy's attempts to crack my resolve with his mystic musical magic spells.
Suddenly I was unable to shoot any more. I gazed down to find an open cover on my Canon. The battery compartment had unlatched. I fiddled with it desperately. Trying to relatch it. I don't know how long I had been fiddling around with it. How long my attention had been diverted from the stage.
I felt a presence. I felt like I was being watched. Almost as if someone was speaking to me in my mind. I looked up to find a microphone hovering in front of my face. There was a hand holding it out to me. The hand lead back to an arm that snaked even further back in the distance. There was a face beyond it studying me with more than idle curiosity.
The face was that of The Space Gypsy. Grinning. Utterly enjoying the moment. Enjoying that he had got the drop on me. And had put me on the spot. All eyes were now focussed on me. A room full of eyes. Hundreds of them. Watching and waiting. Boring holes in my skull.
What was The Space Gypsy waiting for? He was defiantly waiting for something. But what was it? The longer I thought about it, the more his expression changed. It ran the gamut of facial contortions. Amusement. Surprise. Anticipation. He was revelling in the moment. Watching me squirm on the hook.
What was this? A karaoke moment? I frowned as I listened to the music playing. The Space Gypsy frowned back at me. He was mirroring my reactions and filtering them all back at me ala Harpo Marx. Now I knew how The Batman felt when confronted by The Joker.
Then it hit me. SILVER MACHINE. This song is Silver Machine! He wants me to sing the chorus. I waited for that point of the song to come around again. When it did, I let out a loud chorus. "I've got a silver machine!"
The Space Gypsy smiled. Then he moved down along the front of the stage. Randomly selecting victims. All of them singing the chorus when prompted by his's microphone All knowing exactly what was expected of them. When his sing-a-long session was completed, he returned to the mic stand. The band finished the song and everything seemed to come to and end.
The Space Gypsy introduced the band to the audience. One by one. Each name received a loud cheer after it was mentioned. He fell into silence after everyone was named - except one. Nicky Nautilus swiftly moved up to the mic stand. Pointing to that one unnamed person. "And on the saxophone, flute, and vocals... the one and only... THE GREAT SPACE GYPSY!"
The cheering that followed erupted in a deafening roar that shook the rafters. The Space Gypsy smiled and approached the mic stand.
"You have all been so wonderful. Thanks for coming out to see us." He glanced down at me and added, "Don't believe everything you read on the internet. It may not be the truth. Believe what you see and hear for yourself. Believe what you feel in your hearts. And know that it's real." He turned and walked off the stage.
There were murmurs coming from the audience all around me. The voices increased in volume. They grew louder and louder. Becoming more and more restless. More and more urgent. Spreading throughout the room like an epidemic. Until they all started to chant in unison. "SPACE GYPSY... SPACE GYPSY... SPACE GYPSY!"
Slowly the band filtered back out onto the stage. The Space Gypsy being the last one to return. He glided over to the mic stand. "Do you wanna hear more?" he asked. There is a faint murmuring.
The Space Gypsy glanced around the audience bemused. Then spoke louder. "DO YOU WANNA HEAR MORE?" The Audience yelled back all as one, "YEAH!"
The Space Gypsy started to laugh. And as he laughed, dancers started to file out onto the stage. One headed over to Princess Moon's synth. Two more headed toward the drum kit. The band started playing as The Space Gypsy walked over to the edge of the stage. He leaned down to address the statuesque, strawberry-blonde standing next to me. And said,"Would you like to come up on stage?"
Her face beamed. She enthusiastically replied, "YES!" The Space Gypsy held out his hand. She grasped it firmly. And helped her get up onto the stage. She seemed to be living flame - shrouded in darkness- as she rose up on high.
I got a much better look at her as she left the darkness and stepped up into the light. Her hair was long, cut in bangs just over her eyebrows She was dressed in a sleeveless black top and matching black miniskirt. There were bands running up her gams. They appeared to be alternating bands of black and bands of flesh that ran the length of her long shapely gams. She strutted to the back of the stage and stood next to the two dancers standing in front of the drum kit. She stood in profile. Spread her fingers out like claws - and chanelled her inner Raven. Dancing like she was a sacred jungle high-prestress.
The music started to gel. It started to become more and more recognizable. It was yet another classic song from the old glory days - SHOULDN'T DO THAT.
The song felt like it went on and on forever. The dancers were in constant motion. Driven by the primal rhythm of the music. It was contagious and spreading fast. The audience was soon dancing like demons down on the floor. Down in the nether regions of darkness.
One of the creatures of darkness approached me. And asked, "Do you need your army now, George?"
"Yeah, I think so."
"What do you want me to do?"
"Cover me and play it by ear. After the show ends, all hell may break loose."
I eyed the dark figure standing alone off in the distance. Off in the stage wings, with arms folded across its chest. Ready to take on the world. And I knew that this spelled trouble. Big trouble.
Rudy nudged me and pointed.
I leaned into his ear and asked, "What is it?"
He yelled back, "SET LIST!"
He held his left hand up in front of him - flat as a slab. Brought his right hand up to meet his left. And then performed a brief pantomime that involved writing something across his hand."
I nodded. It took Rudy no time at all to go into action. He turned. Lunged at the stage. And landed on his belly. He thrust out an arm. Snatched the set list. And rebounded with his prize. Then handed me the sheet of paper. And pointed at The Space Gypsy.
I nodded. Folded it carefully and filed it away in my trench coat. Right next to the envelope Carol Finchley had given me. The envelope containing the confession to crimes that only required the signature of The Space Gypsy.
We waited patiently for the set to end. And when it did, we lingered at the edge of the stage. We watched equipment being cleared away. And watched the band members slowly start to dwindle in number as they headed toward the dressing room.
It was a quarter past 1 AM. I gave Rudy my final instructions. "Wait for my return. And stand by should I need your assistance when the Feds show up."
"Shouldn't I go with you backstage?" He asked.
"If I go alone, they wouldn't know I have an army." I replied.
"And if you go alone, you wouldn't have an army."
I pointed. "You see that cheerful chap with his arms folded across his chest at the entrance of the dressing room?"
"If I can't get through that... then I'll need my army."
Rudy studied Blackjack for a few moments. And then nodded.
I started off and made my way around the stage. As I approached the dressing room entrance, Blackjack stepped forward - blocking my way. There was a brief exchange of heated compliments. His were red. Mine were blue.
The Space Gypsy turned and spotted me verbally assaulting Blackjack. I was about an arms length away from him. He had just shoved me backwards about that far. Preventing me from entering the room. He kept shoving me back every time I tried to approach.
The Space Gypsy smiled, "Ah, the prodigal detective returns."
"I never left."
"No, you never did." He motioned for me to enter. "Blackjack, let him pass."
Blackjack scowled. Folded his arms across his chest. And grumbled to himself.
I approached The Space Gypsy. "Interesting show. I liked some parts better than others. And other's parts more than most. But I have to admit, you put on quite a performance. The punters ate it right up. I guess some people are easily fooled."
He shot me a steady, icy stare. The double-barrelled kind you get when found trespassing.
"You've been a very busy man tonight. Even tangoed with my Queen."
I smiled. "Ah, Ms. Raven. And what's she the Queen of? Pagan rituals?"
"No, clubs. She's my Queen of Clubs."
"You should put a leash on her. They've got laws about letting wild animals run loose."
He grinned and became the doting host. "I reckon, you must be mighty thirsty after your hard days night."
"Allow me to provide you with a refreshing beverage."
"You don't have to twist my arm. Any occasion will do."
The Space Gypsy glanced over at the entrance. "Blackjack, please make our guest more comfortable." He pointed at the chair across from the loo.
Blackjack flexed his muscles. "Should I break it over his head?"
"No, Blackjack. George may be expendable. But the chair is not."
"We would have to pay for damages."
Blackjack smiled. And it wasn't a very pretty sight. "I'll pay for the chair!"
"No, Just escort George to the chair. I need to discuss some personal matters with him. Perhaps, we can come to a mutual arrangement. Peacefully."
Blackjack lead me to the chair like a lamb to the slaughter. He stopped. Grabbed the wooden chair. Lifted it up. Held it aloft for a moment. And then placed the chair back down on the floor with care.
"Do sit down, George," The Space Gypsy prompted.
I sat down. Blackjack rested his heavy hands on my shoulders. And pressed down on them.
"You can remove the lead mitts. I promise not to float away."
He squeezed firmly several times. Kneading my shoulders.
"I think I'll pass on the massage. You're not my type."
His hands quickly retreated from my shoulders. They travelled downward. Then gripped the side of my chair. And remained there. Just waiting for the opportunity to suddenly dump me on the floor. And vent some of his undying admiration for me.
I had a hunch that it wouldn't be long before he showed me the depths of his full admiration for me..
"Go ahead gumshoe, keep riding me," he muttered under his breath, " And they'll be fishing you outta the river."
The Space Gypsy glanced over at Ms. Raven.
"My Queen, bring me that very special beverage that George treated us to earlier tonight."
"You still got that?
The Space Gypsy nodded. And said, "Restrain him."
Blackjack's hands suddenly grabbed my arms and pinned me to the chair.
"Yes, I saved it for a special occasion."
Ms. Raven returned with the tainted liquid.
"Be sure to give our esteemed guest a most generous amount, my dear."
She sashayed over to me like a maneater in heat. Straddled my chair. And sat down on my lap. She reached for my fedora and gave it a casual backward fling over her shoulder. Then she leaned in close. Very close. She pressed up against me. I could feel her pentagrams press into my chest. She puckered her lips and made several failed passes at my face. Acting like she was going to plant one on me - big time. But coming up short every time. She was toying with me.
"The suspense is killing me," I sighed. "Shall we forgo the foreplay?"
"Foreplay?" she purred, "I thought you wanted to know what I was doing after the show - SWEETHEART!" She grinned as she reached behind my head. Grabbed a fistful of hair. Pulled my head back. And shoved the mouth of the bottle into my mouth - forcing me to drink. It was the first time I'd ever been passionately frenched by a water bottle.
The Space Gypsy laughed. "Not too much, my dear. Just half of what's left. I have plans for the rest."
When Ms. Raven finished forcing the tainted liquid down my throat, she stood up. Strutted over to The Space Gypsy. And handed him the bottle. Without even offering to burp me.
"What are you're plans for the rest of this?" she asked.
He chuckled. "To have it analysed in the UK. I know a chemist in London. Perhaps, she can analyse and duplicate the liquid.
Ms. Raven nodded. "For those who oppose us?"
"They might eventually learn to love us, as we continue our attempts to heal the world."
"And The Baron?"
"Ah, The Baron. We might enlighten him. Teach him the ways of peace and love. Who knows, he might eventually see the light. The error of his ways. And become - my biggest fan."
"That would be a dream come true, my lord!"
Nicky Nautilus interrupted, nudging his thumb in my direction. "And what about him?"
"He's having a bad reality trip. He just needs to be talked down from it."
"No, something's not right. We don't have the time for this."
"That's what he'll give us - TIME."
The Space Gypsy turned and focussed his full attention on me.
"How are you doing Brad?"
"Swell. Just... swell."
"I thought you were calling yourself - George."
"Yeah. I... was."
"Why didn't you correct me?
"You're looking tired, Brad. Very tired."
"Yeah... tired. Very... tired," I yawned.
"Think back, Brad. Way back. Many, many years ago. Count the years backward in your mind. Are you counting, Brad?"
"Remember the waves lapping on the shore? How peaceful and tranquil it sounds."
"Yes, Margate. It's late at night. Everyone has left and gone home. You are alone on the beach. Just you and the darkness of space up above. And the sound of the waves gently lapping on the shore. You are laying on your back staring up at the stars. Listening to the waves. You are drifting off into sleep. Drifting off into sleep. A deep sleep. A deep, deep sleep. Now, sleep...."
"You hear a voice. You hear my voice. Its such a soothing voice. A friendly voice. A voice you trust. A voice you can share your deepest secrets with. Do you understand, Brad?"
"You hear only my voice."
"It's a peaceful voice, isn't it Brad?"
"What could be more peaceful than my voice?"
"What would give you freedom, Brad?"
"You came here to get my autograph? I'm flattered, Brad."
The Space Gypsy smiled and removed a pen from his jacket.
"Blackjack, see if he has something on him I can sign."
Blackjack rummaged through my trench coat and removed a couple items.
"What did you find?" He asked.
"Ah, he has this envelope. And this other paper."
"Hand them to me."
The Space Gypsy unfolded the paper. "Of Course, a set list." He lifted the flap of the unsealed envelope and removed the document inside. He started to read it. Then suddenly stopped. And let out gasp. "It's a confession - my confession!" He slapped the document with the back of his hand. "I didn't do any of these things, it's all lies. I'm being framed!"
Nicky Nautilus quickly chimed in, "Looks to me like the only time he's given you is - jail time. Now who's having a bad reality trip?
"There's nothing they can do. I haven't signed it."
"They can detain you. Prevent you from completing the tour."
The Space Gypsy nodded. "Yes, that would be unfortunate."
"So what do you plan to do?" Nicky asked.
"I'll play along and act like I'm giving them exactly what they want."
"They'll want to see your signature on that confession."
The Space Gypsy fell silent as he studied the papers in his hands. He turned them over and inspected the front and back of each. Then he held one up - backside facing Nicky Nautilus. "Which one am I holding up now?" he asked him.
Nicky Frowned. "The confession."
The Space Gypsy grinned, "Wrong!" He flipped the paper around to reveal the set list.
"That's your plan? You're going to try to play three card monte with two documents? And hope they fall for it? Face it, it's just not going to work."
"Not by itself. But with a couple of witnesses, and a well timed diversion, it just might work."
"And where are we going to find witnesses to verify your signature on the confession?"
"We already have one right here," The Space Gypsy laughed, "just waiting to help us out."
"Yes, him. My good old pal - Saint George. He's made to order. He got us into this. And he can get us out of this." The Space Gypsy beamed. "He even gave me his calling card, see."
He reached into his jacket pocket and held up the holy card. Then slipped it into the unsealed envelope. "Now it's going into play. And the Saint can take the blame."
Nicky shook his head. "It'll never work."
"We'll stall the Feds until we can pull a runner. All we only need to do is make it to the van. Once we're inside, Bob's your uncle."
"Oh, sure. That's all we need to do."
"Got a better idea?"
Nicky continued shaking his head.
"Okay then, here's what we need to do. Make sure all the gear is loaded in the van, as quickly as possible. Including the merchandise." The Space Gypsy made eye contact with the rest of his band. "Once the van is loaded, get in the van and wait for me. Everyone except - my Queen and Princess Moon. I'll need two lovely assistants for my next performance."
Princess Moon narrowed her eyes. "And what do you have in mind for me, this time?"
"We're going to give our esteemed guest a make over." He pointed at me and said, "Ladies, meet - Prince Charming!"
The Queen of Clubs picked up her violin bow and flexed it several times. "I can whip him into shape for you."
"That won't be necessary, my dear. We mustn't leave any marks. I want to give the impression that he's been well treated and loved by all. So once we all leave the dressing room - both of you can't keep your hands off of him. Got it?"
Princess Moon groaned. Raised her finger to her mouth. And indicated her displeasure with her assignment by pretending to induce vomiting.
Meanwhile, The Queen of Clubs started to grin. Her eyes took on a devilish glow - burning like a freshly stoked fire."I have a score to settle with Prince Charming."
"Good. Then you shall play a major role, my dear. Princess Moon, Could you take this precious water bottle to the van and secure it in a safe place? Then come right back. The Queen and I will be rehearsing our next performance together while you're gone."
"Sure, whatever. The change of scenery might do me some good." Princess Moon grabbed the water bottle from The Space Gypsy. And stormed out of the dressing room.
The Space Gypsy approached his Queen.
"Let's do a quick run down of the gag."
The Queen of Clubs nodded, "Okay."
"First, I show I have the Document. All eyes are on me."
"I draw attention to the envelope. Slide the confession out. Hold it up, only exposing the top portion of the confession. I hold it so that the words are facing Special Agent Stoker."
"This is when you want the diversion, Right?"
"Right! I need something that will take his eyes off of the bait. Just for a moment."
"Hmm, a bait and switch gag."
"Sometimes the simplest cons are the best cons. Besides, we don't have much time. Suggestions?"
"A scream, that's it?"
"A scream and a... a... scuffle."
"What causes the scream?"
"Prince Charming is loved by all, right?"
"Princess Moon and I get into a fight over him."
The Space Gypsy shook his head. "Not very likely. Princess Moon would rather have Prince Charming sleep for a hundred years. Can't you come up with something better than a cat fight? Come on, think. We don't have much time."
"I could bite him."
"Tell me more."
"A love bite! I start kissing his neck and get carried away. I bite him. Bite him really hard. He screams-"
"Brilliant. Go on, my dear."
"The Fed takes his eyes off of the confession to see what's going on. And then you make the switch."
The Space Gypsy nodded, "Then Special Agent Stoker looks back at the confession and sees my signature on the paper now facing him. I return the confession to the envelope. Seal it. And there you are. He thinks he has seen a signed confession."
"What if he opens it?"
"We'll be long gone by then. I'll see to that."
"He's bound to open it."
"I'll keep him busy. He won't have time to open it until after we've safely left."
"But when finally opens the envelope-"
"He'll find... an unsigned confession. An autographed set list. And Prince Charming's calling card - Saint George. The Saint takes the blame."
"I wish I could see his expression when that happens. Serves him right for trying to take advantage of me with that drug."
"Of us, my dear. He tried to take advantage of us."
She nodded. "So tell me, how does the switch work?"
"Both papers are folded and intertwined, held together. One side is the top portion of the confession so that it can been seen for what it is. The other side is my signature on the back of the set list. I just turn the folded papers around during the diversion. And when he looks at it again, he sees my signature at the bottom of the paper. And thinks he has seen a signed confession."
"But effective. He sees what he wants to see. And falls prey to his imagined moment of glory. Remember my dear, you must always play to your audience. Give them what they want."
"How do you know so much about cons?"
"Spend some time with The Baron. Then ask me that."
Princess Moon entered the dressing room.
"Okay, what do you want me to do?"
"Just Improvise and be yourself."
"What aren't you telling me?"
"Just the finer details concerning your attraction to Prince Charming."
"Oh, him again."
"Not knowing the full details will only add to the spectacle when the gag plays itself out."
The Space Gypsy gazed admiringly at his mini harem.
"Are we all ready for show time?"
The Queen of clubs nodded. And Princess Moon rolled her eyes and reluctantly nods. The Space Gypsy moved closer. "Okay, let's give Prince Charming his final instructions."
There was a moment of silence. Then his soothing voice started to speak. "Brad, listen closely. I have decided to sign the confession. Do you understand?"
"You remember discussing the confession with me. And talked me into signing it. You will remember seeing me sign it. Do you understand?"
The Space Gypsy placed the papers side by side and signed his name on the back of the set list - at the bottom of the page. "I am signing the confession right now, right in front of you. You will remember seeing me sign it. Whenever you see my confession - you will remember. You will see my signature on the confession. What do you see?"
"Who's signature do you see?"
"Where do you see my signature?"
"On... Confession...." "Everything else you will forget. Forget everything that took place after you entered the room just now... except the confession. You will vividly remember the confession. You will vividly remember me signing the confession. What do you remember, Brad?"
"I am now going to tell you a name. You will remember this name. Are you ready?"
"The name is - Cornelius. You will remember the name- Cornelius. What is the name you will to remember?"
"Whenever you hear the name - Cornelius... you will agree with anything that I say. When I say - Cornelius you will agree with what I say. You will do anything that I tell you to do. Do you understand?"
"What do you do when I say - Cornelius?"
"Agree... with... you."
"And what else do you do?"
"What... you... tell... me..."
"Now sleep, Brad. Sleep... sleep... sleep."
The Space Gypsy carefully folded the set list and lined it up with the Confession. He folded the confession so that both papers mated perfectly with each other. Then he slid them into the envelope.
"Brad, you will awaken when I clap my hands. When I clap my hands you will awaken."
The Space Gypsy clapped his hands. I stifled a yawn and shook my head.
"Bravo, George. You've totally convinced me. Signing the confession was the best choice I could have made."
I nodded. "Yeah, it's best for all concerned."
"Could I ask a favour of you?"
"Depends on the favour." "Could I hold onto my confession? I'd like to personally hand it to Stoker. It would mean a lot to me."
"Fine with me. As long as that document doesn't leave my sight. That little piece of paper has caused me a lot of grief."
"Let's not keep him waiting, George."
I stood up from the chair. Ushered The Space Gypsy out of the dressing room ahead of me. And to my utter surprise Ms. Raven glided up alongside me on my right. And Princess Moon glided up alongside me on my left. As we stepped out of the dressing room, they wrapped their arms around me - and leaned in close.
The Space Gypsy lead us around the side of the stage as we approached our reception committee. Carol Finchley stood smiling like a Cheshire cat. Special Agent Stoker was slack jawed. And clearly distracted. When we stopped in front of him, he shook his head.
"This isn't like you, George."
"What isn't like me?"
"Yeah, the birds."
The Space Gypsy Interrupted. "Hi Greg. How are you doing?"
The Space Gypsy turned toward Carol Finchley. "And this must be your lovely wife."
"Um, my boss."
"Well, she's lovely all the same."
Carol glared at Special Agent Stoker. "So, you're on a fist name basis with the suspect."
"Ah, well, it's a long story-"
"You'll have plenty of time to explain later - at your annual review."
He sighed, and stewed in his silence.
She focussed her attention on me next. "More importantly, I hope you have that document for me."
I pointed at The Space Gypsy. "No. He has it."
"He has it? You let him keep it?"
"He insisted. He wanted to hand it over personally to - Special Agent Stoker."
"A bit cavalier, don't you think?"
"Not at all, it sealed the deal."
"I'll need to see the proof - show me the signed confession."
I glanced at The Space Gypsy. "Okay Gypsy, make her a believer."
He reached into his jacket and removed the envelope. Miss Raven snaked her arms around me. Then started channelling a feisty anaconda. She provided an amorous wildlife soundtrack. Making it perfectly clear to all present just what her intentions were. She intended to love me like a reptile.
Princess Moon suddenly exploded. "I can't take it!" She threw her arm up against her forehead. "I just can't take any more of this!" She backed away. Stared at the two of us. Shook her head. Then suddenly, bolted out of the room. The heels of her gogo boots clattering on the floor like frenzied casinetts at a flamenco orgy.
Carol shot me an icy stare. "Could you kindly keep your bimbos under control?" The Space Gypsy nodded. Miss Raven uncoiled her hold on me. And cooed in my ear, "Sorry. I can't help myself. Love your rad hot chops!"
"Now's not the time, angel. You'll just have to wait."
The Space Gypsy removed the document from the envelope and held it up for all to see. He left it folded in thirds. Only the top third was exposed as he started to speak, "Here is my confession. I decided that signing it was the right thing to do. George explained the whole situation to me." He pointed at Special Agent Stoker. "It's all clear to me now - that the best man has won."
Carol interrupted. "Woman!"
Miss Raven suddenly started nuzzling my neck. Moaning loudly. And body surfing on me.
"Not now! I need to see this." I managed to escape from her clinging arms. And pushed her away.
She just stood there. Glaring at me. Breathing harder and harder. Like a jungle cat intent on its prey. Body taut, fixed, and rooted solidly on terra firma. Eyes locked on her intended. Visualizing the outcome she desired. Yeah, she had it bad. Real bad. Could I help it if I was a dame magnet? I planned to let her down easy, after all of this was over. But for now, I'd make the best of a bad situation. I'm a lone wolf. But sometimes it's nice not being alone. Especially, if the dame happened to be a real hot commodity. And that she was. She was hot. Real hot. She was hotter than hell. The hottest dame I had ever met.
I waved her off. "Later, angel." I turned away from her, and fixed my full attention on The Space Gypsy. He was still holding up his confession, but hadn't yet revealed his signature on it. He was clearly milking the limelight for all it was worth. Like an old stage ham waiting for the big payoff.
There was a loud roar nearby. I turned, but I was a bit too late. They say that hell hath no fury like a space dame scorned. The gates of hell had swung wide open. And Miss Raven had left the starting block. She was airborne - bearing down on me fast - coming in for a crash landing.
I tried to wave her off, but it was a futile effort. She made full body contact. Taking me all the way down to the floor with a flying tackle. And that was just for starters. She became extremely volatile. She slapped my face, yelling at the top of her lungs,
"What kind of woman do you take me for?!"
I took a wild guess. "Catholic."
She slapped my face a second time.
She must have believed that all things tend to happen in threes, 'cos she slapped me once more for good measure. But who's counting?
I rasped, "Psychotic."
Then she bit me.
Special Agent Stoker was cheering her on until Carol Finchley got his full attention.
"Stoker! Break them up - THIS INSTANT!"
He made his move. Rushed over to us. Leaned in with his hands out. He was preparing to pull Miss Raven off of me when she turned on him.
She suddenly transformed into a human cyclone. She spun one of her legs and took both of his out from under him. He hit the floor hard, rolled over, and just laid there. Flat on his back, admiring the ceiling decor.
Miss Raven got up. Dusted herself off. Waved Bye-bye. And blew us each a kiss. Then she turned. Strutted out of the room. And never looked back. The whole affair was over and done with as far as she was concerned. She clearly ran hot and cold. She was fickle. And not to be trifled with unless your life insurance was fully paid up. And you didn't have her listed as the beneficiary.
Special Agent Stoker rolled his head in my direction. "Where do you find 'em?" He asked.
"In the phone directory... under pest control."
By the time we got up off the floor, The Space Gypsy was displaying the bottom third of his confession. His signature prominently displayed on the page. Big. Bold. And breathtaking.
Special Agent Stoker was gobsmacked. "I don't fucking believe it. He actually signed it."
The Space Gypsy continued his show and tell speech with dramatic flare.
"My confession - Signed!" He lowered it. Stuffed it inside the envelope. Licked the glue on the flap. Pressed it down on the envelope. Then added, "Sealed, and delivered!" He held the envelope out to Special Agent Stoker.
Carol nodded her approval. "Well done."
I stepped closer toward her. "Aren't you forgetting something?" There's still your part of the bargain pending."
"Oh, in all the excitement, it simply slipped my mind."
I snatched the envelope from Special Agent Stoker's hand. "Looks like we're back to square one, Dragon Lady. Did you conveniently loose the dingus?"
"No, I have it right here." She patted the black leather satchel hanging from her shoulder.
"Care to hand it over?"
She laughed. "Then I'll be the one left out in the cold.
"Alright, how do you propose we procede?"
"We need an arbitrator. Someone we all trust."
"A middle man."
Rudy Laser-Piss stepped forward. "I'm your man."
Carol shook her head. "No. He's your man." She turned her head toward Special Agent Stoker. "He seems to know you pretty well. How about him?"
"He knows me too well. And besides, he's your stooge. So he's out."
"Well, who does that leave us with?"
Our heads turned in unison to the only person left.
The Space Gypsy glanced all around. His eyes caromed around in his sockets like Bally pinballs in play. His orbs bounced from face to face. "Who? Me?"
We all nodded in unison.
I handed him back the envelope. "Looks like you're drafted, Gypsy." I shifted my gaze back to Carol Finchley. Then snapped my fingers a couple times. And rasped, "Okay, cough it up."
She slowly reached inside her black leather satchel. What she pulled out was not an Exit Visa. It was a one-way ticket to hell. It was a relic from a different age. It was a luger.
"I'll take that envelope, please."
The Space Gypsy shrugged, "Who am I to fight fate." He handed over the envelope.
Carol Finchley slipped it inside the satchel. Then she pulled out a document. Casually dropped it to the floor. Then she fixed her gaze on me and smiled as she pointed with her gat as if the paper was nothing more than unsightly litter. "Pick it up."
I picked it up. I read every line printed on it. Every line until I came to the one line that made all the difference in the world. The line for the authorizing signature that made it an authentic and valid Exit Visa.
I looked up and addressed her and her gat as one. "The authorizing signature's missing."
"You said you wanted an Exit Visa. You got one. Can I help it if it never got signed?"
"It's useless to me like this."
"Then simply take it down to the department... and ask them to sign it for you."
"And they'll bend over backwards for me. Just like that!" I snapped my fingers.
"You'll make their day. You really will. They deserve a good laugh."
"So what's with gat?"
"Oh, this little old thing?" She waved the luger around as if it was nothing more than a gaudy fashion accessory. "I thought it might come in handy to alleviate any misunderstandings as to who's calling the shots."
I turned toward The Space Gypsy. "You got any misunderstandings?"
"Not with her. She's been pretty straight forward. Unlike some people I know."
"Now let me get this straight."
"By all means do."
"You sold me out for an Exit Visa?"
"So I'm told."
"And its utterly useless to you?"
I nodded. "That sums it up nicely."
"Then why follow through with all this?"
I eyed the gat. "It's on my bucket list."
"On your bucket list?!"
"Yeah. Ever play Monopoly?"
"Not in a long time."
"Remember the - GET OUT OF JAIL FREE - card?"
"It would've been my ticket out of here, if it had been signed."
"You could help me now that you know that it isn't."
"It would be a conflict of interest. I already have a client involved in this case."
"You mean, them?"
"So that's the way it is?"
"That's the way it is. I don't stick my neck out for nobody!"
"I can't believe that."
Rudy Laser-Piss stepped forward. "Excuse me, Maybe I can help sort this out."
I frowned, "You?"
He nodded. "I have experience in-"
"I don't care what experience you have. Just spill it. What are you really after?"
"Your Exit Visa."
"Then you don't want it?"
"It don't amount to a hill of beans."
"Then can I have it?"
"Sure, why not?" I handed it to him. "Suit yourself, see what good it does you."
"Okay, what's the scam buzzing round your noggin, this time?"
He turned and held it out to The Space Gypsy. "Will you autograph this for me?"
"So you're the one that wanted my autograph."
Ruddy shifted his gaze back and forth between us until his eyes settle on The Space Gypsy. "Didn't he tell you?"
"Tell me what? George has a bad habit of keeping me in the dark."
"Well, you see... he kinda promised that he'd get your autograph for me."
"Oh, he did, did he?"
"Will you do me a big favour and autograph it for me?"
"Sure, I'd love to. One must keep their promises." He glanced over at me. "George, do you happen to have a pen on you?"
I fished through my trench coat and removed a pen.
He took it from me and grinned. "Oh, and could you lend me the service of your back, for a moment?" He held up one finger and spun it around several times in an anticlockwise circle.
I rolled my eyes. "The feeling's mutual, sweetheart." I turned around. Leaned forward a little bit. And felt him press the document up against the middle of my back.
"Could you autograph it right here? On this line?" Rudy asked.
"For the authorizing signature?"
"Yeah, that would be priceless."
I groaned as The Space Gypsy prepared to sign his name. "Yeah, big joke."
"Bitchin!" Rudy exclaimed. "That'll put my kids through school!"
The Space Gypsy hesitated. "You're not planning to selling this on E-bay, are you?"
"Not right away. Maybe in a couple years."
"How many years?"
"Maybe, two or three."
"Make it ten years and I might consider it.."
"Um, how about five?"
"Oh, c'mon. The statute of limitations is only seven years. Couldn't you go a little bit lower?"
"Seven is a mystical and holy number."
"It's primed with cosmic and supernatural significance."
"Un-huh. It's always been a very special number in religion and mythology."
"Alright, how about if I promise to wait seven years?"
"I don't know, I really shouldn't."
"Please, it would mean so much to me."
"Well, since you're such a big fan, I could overlook it this time, I suppose."
"Then it's a deal? You'll autograph it?"
I felt the pen press down hard on my back as it slowly etched its way across the document. Like a gigantic, intergalactic, mystery snail scouring its way across the Milky way. At least there were no letters to dot or cross in the name - Space Gypsy."
"There you go."
I turned around just in time to watch The Space Gypsy slip my pen into his jacket. Rudy nodded as he admired the autograph. "Looks like I owe you one."
Fraulein Finchley cleared her throat. "Do you think we can get on with the business at hand?"
I scowled at her, "Which is?"
"Making sure that justice is served. Once and for all."
The Space Gypsy chimed in. "There is one more matter I'd like to address while I still can."
"And what might this pressing matter be, your highness?"
"I wish to make amends for a past transgression."
"Oh, guilt and remorse finally settling in?"
The Space Gypsy gazed at Special Agent Stoker. "Greg, would you accept my deep and heartfelt apology for eating your pizza at La Luna?"
"That was over 20 years ago!"
"I know. And I wish to make it all up to you. I would like to offer you something in return."
His eyes went wide. "You Do?"
The Space Gypsy nodded. "Yes. Could we stop by the merchandise table?"
"I guess so."
"You can pick out whatever you like. Consider it a token of my sincere gratitude for your patience and understanding-"
Fraulein Finchley interrupted. "Ha! He's trying to offer you a bribe!"
"No, he's offering to compensate me for my loss. It sounds like a fair and reasonable exchange to me." He glanced back at the Space Gypsy. And added, "With interest?"
"Of course, with interest. And my kind regards."
"Then I accept.
The Space Gypsy bowed and held out his hand. Special Agent Stoker clasped his hand. And gave it a firm shake.
Fraulein Finchley rolled her eyes. Circled around The Space Gypsy making sure to keep her luger trained on him. "I think we've wasted enough time here." She backed away toward the open door leading into the foyer. "You shall kindly clasp your hands behind your head while I search the next room." She motioned with her gat for us to follow her. And kept a steady aim on The Space Gypsy as she walked slowly backwards out of the room.
When we all had entered the foyer, she waved the luger and motioned us toward the merchandise table. And then she pointed out a significant detail that we couldn't possible have missed. "The merchandise seems to be missing." She glanced out the exit toward the curb outside the venue. "And the van is waiting... ready for a fast getaway."
The Space Gypsy's eyes bulged. "It is?"
"So close, isn't it?"
The Space Gypsy fell silent.
"You could try to make a run for it. But I wouldn't advise it. You'd never make it."
He studied her gat. "I wouldn't think of it."
"Good. Your signed confession gives me the authority to use any means to prevent your escape. Up to and including the use of deadly force."
"My confession is not actually signed."
She laughed, "Nice try. We all saw your signature on the confession."
"You could open the envelope and check to make sure that its actually signed."
"I see no reason to waste my time. Admit it, I own you now. lock, stock, and barrel."
The Space Gypsy shrugged. "Okay, you've got me. No need to resist. It's karma."
"Looks like I'm just too smart for you. I always get my man!"
The Space Gypsy looked thoughtful, and asked, "How about a memento of your crowning achievement?"
"Memento? What kind of memento?"
"How about a photo? George has a camera. He can take a photo."
"So he does." "I believe that the sharif that brought John Dillinger to justice had his photo taken with Dillinger to capture his moment of triumphant on film. It might make for a nice souvenir. Framed and displayed in your office - for all to see."
"Yes, it might at that. I think that's a marvellous idea."
He gazed around the room. "It's kinda dark in here. Isn't it Cornelius?"
I nodded. "Yes. It's kind of dark in here."
"Get ready. Use your flash to improve the lighting."
"Yes. I'll get ready." I reached down and pressed the power button on my flash. There was a faint whine. A few seconds later an amber light came on to indicate it was charged up.
The Space Gypsy moved closer to Fraulein Finchley and struck a pose.
"Make it a portrait."
I start to compose the shot.
"A closeup portrait."
I moved in closer toward them.
The Space Gypsy reached out. Grabbed hold of my camera and pulled it in even closer. Closer to Fraulein Finchley's face. Then he closed his eyes and firmly said, "Now, Cornelius. Shoot now!"
I jabbed the trigger button and fired the shot. There was a bright flash - followed by a loud scream.
"I'm blind. I'm blind. I can't see!" Fraulein Finchley raised her luger. And the gun went off, as guns will do. That's when all hell broke loose.
The Space Gypsy's hand shot out and grabbed her wrist. They started struggling over the gun. It barked, spitting a vicious tongue of flame.
Special Agent Stoker wasted no time taking cover behind the bar. I blinked. Shook my head. Cleared the cobwebs. And yelled, "Aim her at the bar."
Moments later the gun barked again. A couple of bottles exploded. Shattered. And sent a spray of spirits sailing across the bar. The intoxicating liquid flooded down the counter. And cascaded down to the floor.
"Okay, that'll keep the Saint Bernard busy for a while."
Special Agent Stoker threw in his two-bits worth. "I won't forget this, George."
"Cheers, don't mention it."
The Space Gypsy was breathing hard, unable to wrestle the gun free. "Where should I aim her now?"
"The lights. The lights. Take out the lights!"
The gun obediently barked. The tongue of flame leaped out of the barrel. It stabbed in my direction. I heard the bullet whiz by my ear. And the resulting ricochet as the slug made its rounds. I dropped down to the floor like a dead man. But unlike a dead man, I safely crawled under the merchandise table. "Change of plans, Gypsy. Bash her hand against the bar until she drops the gat."
Special Agent Stoker squealed a pathetic, "Nooo...."
The Space Gypsy shook his head. "No. I'm not a violent man."
Special Agent Stoker cheered him on, "You tell him Space Gypsy, I'm behind you all the way!"
I yelled back, "Remember Gypsy, it takes two to tango."
"It's against my principles."
"You're principles are going to get me killed." I grumbled.
He laughed, "That's rich coming from you? You tried to frame me-"
"Let's call it a retainer. It sounds more professional."
"I'm sure you're unretained now, George. So, could you please, help me?"
"What's my motivation?"
There was a moment of silence before he said, "Cornelius!"
"Remove her gun!"
I crawled out from under the table. Stood up. And started walking toward them. My eyes were rivetted on the luger as they continued their struggle by the bar. The gat loomed large as I reached out toward it. I grabbed Fraulein Finchley's wrist and slammed her hand against the bar until the luger clatter to the floor.
The Space Gypsy kicked it across the room. Rudy Laser-Piss scrambled for the luger as soon as it came to rest. He picked it up. And aimed it at Fraulein Finchley. "Don't budge an inch, lady. I've got you covered."
The Space Gypsy breathed a sigh of relief. "You know, I'm starting to like him."
I nodded. "He grows on you. As long as the gratuities hold out."
He gave me a puzzled look. I drew my lips back from my teeth and lisped, "Taxi driver."
"Well then, you better give him a very generous tip."
"Me? What about you?"
He patted his bum. "Left my wallet in my other pair of trousers."
"What other pair?"
"The one I'm not in right now."
"I thought you only had one pair."
The Space Gypsy held his head high. "I'll have you know that I happen to own several pairs of trousers!"
"Is that a fact." I gave his trousers the once over. "I bet Oxfam is thrilled."
"You're hardly the snappy dresser, yourself."
"And at least half a century out of step with the times."
I raised my left arm and gazed down at my wrist. "Hmm, my sundial's stopped working."
"That reminds me. I better leave while I can. The next stop's Seattle."
"You're still not out of the woods yet, Gypsy."
"They can still send word on to Seattle. And warn them that you've managed to slip through their fingers."
"I hadn't thought of that."
"You'd have the same trouble up there that you had here, all over again. Seattle's on Cascadian turf. As long as you're in Cascadia - you're as much a prisoner as I am."
He rubbed his chin as he thought this over. After a few moments he started to grin. "I think I can get around that." He gazed over at Rudy. Let out a whistle. And then raised his arm and his voice. "TAXI!"
Rudy swung his head around and made full eye contact with The Space Gypsy. "You talkin' to me?"
"Yeah, I'm talkin to you. How would you like to see my show in Seattle? As my special guest."
"COOL. I'd kill to be your special guest!"
"Not necessary. Just act like a real mean badass, and keep me covered."
"I'm your man!"
I shook my head. "Remember Gypsy, only as long as the gratuities hold out."
"I don't think that's going to be a problem."
"Then be sure to remind Lassie to come home. His shield-maiden's bound to notice he's missing." I raised my right hand up to my right eye. Formed a circle with my thumb and index finger. I snapped off a smart salute. And said, "Be seeing you."
The Space Gypsy nodded. Then turned. And strolled out the foyer exit. He headed straight toward the van waiting for him at the kerb. Rudy covered him as he left. Then slowly backed away toward the exit to join him. He kept the gat trained on Fraulein Finchley the whole time. Once outside, he climbed in the van. Slammed the door shut. And locked it.
The odd thing was this - the van didn't budge an inch. It just sat there. And gradually started to hum. The sound it made slowly increased in volume. Droning on and on. Getting louder and louder. It sounded like the loud buzzing chorus of colossal cicadas on a hot summer night.
I glanced at Special Agent Stoker. "Must be a hybrid." He nodded absently as he pulled out his mobile. I reached out to his arm and lowered it. "A few minutes head start isn't going to make all that much difference. It's a long drive."
There was a ripping sound behind us. Followed by a stretch of silence. Fraulein Finchley gasped. Then let out a yell, "We've been had. And it's all his fault!"
When I turned to look, she was pointing at me with one hand. And holding up a card with the other - a Saint George card.
Special Agent Stoker shook his head. "I warned you about George. But you refused to listen."
She dropped the card and held up a sheet of paper. It's a set list. He signed a set list. Not the confession. He's a free man. What'll I do now?"
"Looks to me like you really didn't know how to handle him, after all. I guess the only thing you can do now is - take full credit for this. I was just following orders. Your orders." he said mater of fact. "And you know, Number One doesn't tolerate failure."
I gazed at the set list in her hand. "You know, it just might look good in a frame - for everyone to see."
She dropped the set list. Buried her head in her hands and started to moan. "It's not fair."
Special Agent Stoker doubled over, arms wrapped around his belly, and started to laugh. He laughed uncontrollably. Unable to contain himself. Eventually, he managed to regain a brief moment of self-control. Just long enough to blurt out, "A feather in her cap." Then he totally lost it. And laughed hysterically. Fraulein Finchley glared at him. "This isn't a laughing matter."
Her words proved to be almost prophetic. The lights in the room suddenly started flickering. Sputtering like an old Morris Minor running out of gas. The lights oscillated. Dimmed. And altogether died - plunging the room into total darkness. The darkness didn't last very long. Moments later it was banished by a brilliant burst of white light. It flooded into the foyer from the open exit door. Pulsing like a neon sign flashing on and off. Advertising the existence of something noteworthy nearby.
The Space Gypsy's van had started to glow intensely.
"Well what do you know," I muttered under my breath, "he was on the level all the time."
"Where in the world did he get his hands on that!" Special Agent Stoker exclaimed.
"Let's hope Cleopatra loaned it to him."
"Then it can be explained."
"And if they didn't?"
"Then it can't easily be explained. Unless it ties in with his strange comments."
"What strange comments?"
Something else crept into my mind. Something I should have asked earlier. Much earlier. "What are the side effects of that drug?"
"Don't know. It's some new mind control stuff. Never been tested, until now."
"You mean like what the CIA did with LSD? Tested out on Joe Public. Thinking they had their hands on a mind control drug."
"Yeah, sort of like that. But different. This one's a very strong hypnotic."
"Potential side effects?"
"Worst case scenario?"
"Yeah. What's the worst case ?"
"Psychosis would be my guess. Or maybe Megalomania. It all depends on the individual."
"The old Jekyll and Hyde personality switcheroo?"
"No, not exactly. It might act like an inhibition modifier. A passive type person might end up acting aggressive. Or vise versa."
"In other words, it's a total crapshoot."
"So what strange comment did The Space Gypsy make?"
"Nothing that made any sense to me at the time."
"That he wasn't of this earth.'
"That's ridiculous. He told you that after you dosed him?"
"No, before you even gave me the vial of that stuff."
"He must be delusional, nuts, or hallucinating. Maybe all three."
"Perhaps. But that doesn't explain what his van is doing now." I pointed toward the street. "It just started to levitate."
Special Agent Stoker dashed to the exit door and shielded his eyes. "OH MY GOD!"
The van slowly rose higher off the ground until it had cleared the top of the surrounding buildings. Then it increased speed and altitude. Rising straight up into the night sky. Becoming smaller and smaller against the background of stars. Then it suddenly stopped. And remained stationary.
"What could he be doing?" Special Agent Stoker asked.
"He could be getting ready to start bungee jumping with angels."
I pulled out my mobile. Flicked open the cover. Stared at the blank screen. Nodded. And snapped it shut before I returned it to my trench coat. "No. He's neutralized all the electricity and communications in the area."
Special Agent Stoker scrambled to get out his mobile. Then he just stared at its screen in total disbelief. "It's dead. There's no way to get word to Seattle. No way to warn them in time."
There was a blinding flash in the sky above us. Followed immediately by a loud clap of thunder. Then there was an eerie silence that quickly spread like a hush through a crowd.
They say that when one door shuts, another door opens. As we slide through the doors of perception. I gazed up at the heavens. And noticed that The Space Gypsy's van was no longer visible in the night sky. It was long gone. I had a hunch that it must have just made an interdimensional hop to Seattle.
I stroked my jaw. "So that's why they call him - The Mighty Thunder Rider."
It was the end of one era. And the beginning of another. It was the dawning of a new age - the age of The Space Gypsy. All the things that remained, were all the things that there were in the beginning. Tranquillity. Peace. And calm. Nothing moved. Nothing stirred. The city was fast asleep. Slumbering in the arms of Morpheus.
It was now dark. Silent and dark. As dark as Margate, late at night, after everyone has gone home. The only thing left was the vast darkness and the stars up in the heavens. Stars faintly twinkling. Twinkling and lapping at the shores of the earth. Twinkling like the waiting eyes of green finned demons. Waiting to drag us down.