In a dimly-lit corridor off a dank dark alleyway in Singapore, our hero Arnold Schnabel and his faithful friend (and the current narrator of our story) Big Ben Blagwell have finally encountered the mysterious Madame Chang…
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“Arnold Schnabel in his massive chef-d'œuvre managed not only to make meaningless the distinctions between fiction and autobiography, he also rendered meaningless the borders between reality and fantasy, between waking and sleep, and, yea, between life and death.” -- Harold Bloom, in Cosmopolitan.
“Gee, doll,” I said. “Mojo said you were an old lady.”
“I am old,” she said.
“Aw, no you’re not.”
“I am one hundred and ninety-eight years old.”
“Really? Because I’m surprised to hear that,” I said. I was biding for time with this chitchat you understand, trying to figure out what I was going to do about the fact that this dame was pointing an automatic at my chest from a distance of maybe four feet. “I would’ve taken you for twenty-nine years old, maybe thirty at the oldest,” I said, never having met a broad yet who didn’t fall for flattery if you know what I mean.
“So,” she said. “You’re saying I look thirty?”
“Yeah,” I said, taking a drag on my Sweet Caporal and wondering what the caliber was on that little hunk of steel she was holding. I made it a .32, maybe even a .25, but even a bullet that size can cause some damage if it makes a hole in the right spot, even with a big strapping fellow like myself. “Not a day over thirty,” I tossed in for good measure.
“I have never been so insulted in my life,” she said, and she raised the pistol so that it was pointing right between my eyes.
See, there you go, and as I have often observed, sometimes with a dame the truth just isn’t good enough. No, check that, make it “most times”.
“Um,” I said.
“I should just plug you right now for insulting me so, you great oaf.”
“Aw, gee, babe,” I said. “Don’t get upset. I meant like at an outside, very outside chance you might look a very, very well-preserved, and may I say, a very beautiful thirty years of age, and I’m saying thirty years old tops, or should I say thirty years young rather. Much more likely I’d say you look twenty-five, maybe even early twenties, yeah, now that I think about it I’m gonna say early twenties, like twenty-three maybe?”
“Don’t try to take it back now,” she said. “What is that perfume you’re wearing? I can smell it from here.”
“Oh, that,” I said, and I lifted one arm and took a sniff. “It’s Shalimar. You see, I was in kind of a hurry, and I didn’t have time to take a shower, you know, and so this lady friend of mine had this bottle of Shalimar on her dresser, and --”
“I don’t want to hear your life story,” she said.
“Actually,” I said, “you might be surprised. I’ve had a pretty interesting life. For instance, one time out in Panama --”
“Help your friend up,” she said.
“Oh. Okay,” I said. I could tell she didn’t want to hear about that Panama caper, at least not right then and there. “Sure, doll.”
I turned around. Arnie was actually already sitting up, holding his hat in his hands, although he still looked pretty dazed. I stepped around behind him, stuck my Caporal between my lips, bent at the knees, and got my hands under his armpits.
“Come on, fella,” I said. “You know you should always stand in the presence of a lady.”
“Cut the wisecracks and get him on his feet,” said Madame Chang.
I always like to do whatever a lady asks me to, especially when she’s got a gat on me, so I hefted Arnie up to a standing position.
“You okay, pal?” I asked, keeping my mitts on him in case he should start to keel over. “You got your sea legs?”
“Yes, I think so,” he said, all quiet like.
“Put your hat on now,” I said. “Hey, Madame Chang, it okay with you Arnie puts his hat on?”
“It is a matter of complete indifference to me,” she said.
“Okay then, put your lid on, pal,” I said, still holding him under the arms.
Very slowly he lifted his fedora up, with both hands, and put the hat on his head.
“Good boy,” I said. “Now. Can I let go? You’re not gonna fall down, are you?”
“I -- think -- I’m okay,” he said, although he didn’t sound too sure.
I let go of him with my right hand but kept my left hand under his left arm.
“You’re sure?” I said.
“Um,” he said.
I was still standing behind him, and what I figured I’d do, while Arnie’s body was blocking me I figured I’d quick try to pull Maxine’s snubnose out from under my Hawaiian shirt and maybe squeeze off a shot at Madame Chang before she had a chance to see what I was doing, even though I hate the idea of shooting a lady, but what the hell, sometimes you got to do things you hate to do in order to survive, and I’ve even eaten cockroaches in order to survive, so, believe me I wasn’t anticipating losing a whole lot of sleep over the possibility of plugging a dame before she could plug me. Of course this impromptu plan of mine could also mean she might get off a possibly fatal shot or two herself into my pal Arnie, but no plan is foolproof, and sometimes you just got to take a chance.
This was so sudden and loud, I almost spit my cigarette out of my yap, and wouldn’t you know it, it was Mojo, who had just woken up from his own ten-count.
He was sitting there in the corner near the doorway, and pointing his stubby little finger at me.
“He has a gun, Madame Chang!” he squealed. “He took my Luger! The great big bully! He hit me and he took my Luger.”
“All right, Mojo,” I said. I’m still standing behind Arnie, keeping my left hand on him, but I had stopped reaching for the snubnose. “First off, it’s not your Luger. It’s Arnie’s here. And second of all, I wouldn’t have popped you one if you hadn’t stolen it from Arnie after doping him up and if you weren’t pointing the Luger at me at the time, you little toad.”
Mojo picked up his hat from where it had fallen on the floor, popped it on his dome and scrabbled up to his feet, rubbing his jaw where I had clipped him with that right hook.
“Let me get the Luger from him, Madame Chang!”
“All right, Mojo,” she said. “You, Two-Ton Tony,” she wiggled her automatic at me. “Step away from your pal.”
I stepped to Arnie’s right, sliding my left hand along his back, and keeping it on him, because he still didn’t look too solid on his feet.
“Mojo,” she said. “Get behind the gorilla and take the Luger.”
Mojo staggered over behind me. I had the snubnose in the left side of my dungarees, the Luger on the right. I lifted up my right Hawaiian-shirttail. Mojo didn’t know I had Maxine’s snubby on me, and I hoped to keep it that way. Fortunately, the way my gut pushed out my shirt, kind of like a colorful Porto Rican carnival tent, I don’t think you could really tell I was packing any roscoes under it at all.
I felt Mojo pull the Luger out.
“I should plug you now,” he said, or I guess I’m supposed to say “hissed”, that’s what those real writer fellows always write in these kind of situations, but it wasn’t really like a hiss to be honest. Let’s just say he said it like he meant it, like he was squeezing the words out of his mouth.
“Cool it, Mojo,” said Madame Chang. “Anybody does any plugging around here it’s going to be me.”
“Yeah, do like the lady says, Mojo,” I said.
Me, I was just glad the little twerp hadn’t thought to frisk me for another rod. He stepped around in front of me and Arnie to the right, and I saw he was smart enough to flick the safety off on the Luger.
“What the hell are you doing, Mojo?” said Madame Chang.
“I am keeping them covered with this Luger, Madame Chang.”
“What about frisking the big ape? Maybe he’s got another rod, or a shiv.”
“Oh, sorry, Madame Chang,” said Mojo. “My mistake. I did frisk the other one earlier, and I assure you he only had this Luger on him.”
“I don’t give a damn what you did before with the other one. Now frisk the big one and do it right.”
“Yes, Madame Chang, at once.”
“Stop talking and do it, you disgusting slug.”
Now in my line of business, which, let’s face it, is basically being a freebooting seafaring man of adventure, you got to learn how to think fast, otherwise, believe me, I wouldn’t be here right now telling you all this. So, while Mojo and Madame Chang were yammering at each other, what I did was -- since my left side was still a little behind Arnie’s right side -- I dipped my left hand down from where I had been holding it on Arnie’s back, got the snubnose out of my pants, and stuck it up under the back of Arnie’s suit jacket and into the back of his waistband -- one of the slicker moves I ever have pulled off, and Arnie was on the ball enough not to give any indication of what I had just done, or then again maybe he was just still too doped up to show any sign.
Anyway, right after I pull off the switch, Mojo comes around behind me again and gives me a good and thorough pat-down. Maybe even a little too thorough. It felt like a weasel crawling all over me, and believe me, that’s something I know what it feels like.
“What is that scent you are wearing?” he said.
I was getting tired of that question already.
“It’s Shalimar,” I said, “and I’m only wearing it on account of I didn’t have time to take a shower after me and Maxine, you know --”
“Shut up, giant idiot,” said Madame Chang.
I shut up. I was starting to bore myself anyway.
“What you should do, Madame Chang,” said Mojo, and now he stepped in front of me and Arnie again, to the right, keeping out of Madame Chang’s line of fire. “What you should do is just shoot the big one, or even better let me shoot him.”
“Mojo,” I said. “I thought we were pals.”
“That was before you nearly broke my jaw, you big bully.”
It’s true his jaw was swollen where I had popped him, and starting to turn purple, too.
“Well, I’m sorry, Mojo,” I said, “but, under the circs, what the hell would you expect me to do?”
“I would expect nothing less from a great brute like you, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.”
See, there’s the Oriental mind for you, or French-Chinese-Cherokee-whatever the hell kind of mind Mojo had. No sense of logic whatsoever. Up is down with these people. Now is then. Heaven is in the moment. God is everything. Hell is in your brain. No logic at all.
“Shall I plug him, Madame Chang?” said Mojo.
“I’ve already told you, slug, any plugging to be done, I’ll be the one plugging. Now, you two,” she said, looking at me and Arnie, “go through the doorway and then down this hall, single file, and walk slow.”
“Slow and easy-like?” I said.
“Whatever,” she said. “Now move. The normal-sized one first, then you, Gargantua.”
She gave a little wave with her pistol, and Arnie and I moved, going past Mojo and Madame Chang, who both kept their gats on us every step of the way.
Down we went along this dim corridor, walls painted a sad sick yellow, no doors, no windows, it gave me the creeps, like walking the last mile to the electric chair. Arnie was weaving just ever so slightly, and I don’t think he could’ve moved any faster right then even if he had wanted to, what with that Mickey Finn still in his system. At the end of the corridor was a facing wall and a turning to the right.
“All right,” said Madame Chang behind us, “stop at the corner.”
“Mojo,” said the lady, “go past them into the opposite corner, and keep them covered. Either one tries anything, then you get to shoot them.”
“Oh, good,” said the shrimp, and he brushed past me and Arnie, walking sideways with the Luger on us.
“All right, you two,” said Madame Chang. “Go ahead and turn the corner, slow.”
“And easy-like, too?” I said, looking over my shoulder and just catching her with the corner of my eye.
“Just move, moron,” she said.
So, we went around the corner, Mojo with his back to the other corner and keeping his Luger on us, and now we were in another dim hallway, but a shorter one with a multi-colored beaded curtain hanging at the other end.
“Go through the curtain,” said Madame Chang, right behind us. “Slow.”
We went through the curtain, slow, and finally we came into a real room, and what a room it was. It was like a cross between the parlor of a high-class Hong Kong whorehouse, a public library, and a museum, not that I’ve been in too many museums and public libraries in my life, but I’ve seen them in movies.
Madame Chang and Mojo came through the bead curtain right behind us, and we turned to face them. They still had those pistols on us of course.
“Nice pad, Madame Chang,” I said.
“Thank you,” she said. “I’m still working on it, but it’s getting there. Maybe another fifty years and I will be somewhat satisfied.”
“Well, you can’t rush perfection,” I said.
“Futuyama!” yelled Madame Chang.
“Pardon me?” I said.
“I’m not talking to you, Dumbo,” she said. “Ah, Futuyama!”
I heard a heavy tread behind me, kind of like how you’d imagine a baby elephant to sound walking on its hind legs, and I turned to look.
What I saw was absolutely the biggest and scariest-looking Oriental guy I’d ever seen, and I’m a fellow what’s knocked around the Orient quite a bit in my time.
He was a great big potbellied bruiser with no shirt on, but wearing some kind of fancy embroidered skirt and no shoes. He also had his hair tied up on his head just like a broad. But one look at him told me he wasn’t the type of Oriental guy you’d want to make fun of just because he wore a skirt and a top-knot.
“Futuyama,” said Madame Chang, “tea for four, please.”
(Continued here, doggedly if not indefatigably.)
(Kindly turn to the right-hand column of this page for a reasonably-up-to-date listing of links to all other cybernetically-published chapters of Arnold Schnabel’s Railroad Train To Heaven©. Soon to be a major motion picture from Monogram, directed by Hugo Haas and starring George Raft as Arnold Schnabel, Wallace Beery as Big Ben Blagwell, and Anna May Wong as Madame Chang.)