Let’s rejoin our bold adventurers Arnold Schnabel and Big Ben Blagwell in the vaulted chambers of Madame Chang, somewhere in the seamy dock district of old Singapore.
Once again we turn the narrator’s microphone over to Ben...
(Please click here to read our preceding thrilling episode; go here to return to the dimly-remembered very first chapter of this Gold View Award™-winning 79-volume masterpiece.)
“Just the other night I was reading Railroad Train to Heaven on my Kindle in the tub, and my wife came in and told me I was going to electrocute myself. Personally I couldn’t think of a better way to go.” — Harold Bloom, on the Les Crane Show.
“Okay, Mojo,” I said. “Now what’s the plan?”
“Ah, yes, the plan,” he said.
“Yeah, the plan,” I said. Sometimes it really burned me up the way Mojo had to drag everything out when he thought he had something brilliant to tell you.
“I’ll tell you the plan,” he said.
See what I mean?
“Yeah, great,” I said. “Whenever you’re ready, pal.”
“The plan, the plan,” he said, with just a hint of a smile, and in this kind of a way that he probably meant to seem thoughtful as all hell, then all of a sudden he looked up and all around while he made a sweeping gesture with that big fat Havana of his that was almost as long and as thick as his forearm. “Tell me, cher Ben, do you see all these books?”
Arnie and I both looked around. Like I said before, Madame Chang’s pad was kind of like a cross between a big old library, a museum, and a church, although believe you me if it was a church it would be one of those pagan-style churches where they sacrifice virgins. Or maybe come to think of it the kind of church where virgins would sacrifice red-blooded American guys. Anyway, the place was weirdly huge considering the building it was in didn’t really look so big and was off some dark cobblestone alley down by the docks in Singapore. For one thing the whole joint just went up and up, all these ornate-like circular iron staircases going up to these dimly-lit galleries lined with bookcases and going all around the joint, galleries above galleries above galleries and up so high you couldn’t even see the ceiling, just darkness up there, like there was a dark cloud at the top or maybe a black hole leading into the interstellar reaches of outer space. Or something.
“Do you see all those books on all those shelves?” said Mojo.
“That’s a hell of a lot of books,” I said. “I wouldnt’ve pegged Madame Chang for being such a big reader.”
“Arrgghh,” moaned Madame Chang herself, still lying there on the floor in what was left of that big fancy chair of hers.
“What?” I said to her, but all she said was, “Arrggh,” again, those pretty black eyelashes fluttering.
“Mwaaaa,” said Futuyama, lying there next to her, and his not-so-pretty eyelids fluttered too.
“Hey, Mojo,” I said, “how about getting to the point, buddy. These two are getting ready to wake up soon, you ask me, and I’d like to clear out of here with the loot before they do.”
“Give them each another cosh on the head then,” he said. “Since Mr. Schnerfel is so finicky about putting a couple of rounds each in their brainpans. Just give them both a good sound rap or two with your pistol.”
“Yeah, good idea,” I said, and I started to pull out the snubbie again, but Arnie put his hand on my arm.
“Ben,” he said. “Don’t. Let’s just, you know, get a move on.”
“I’m not gonna kill ‘em, Arnie,” I said. “Just make ‘em stay asleep for a while is all.”
“I’d prefer you didn’t,” he said.
“Pansy,” said Mojo.
“Hey, shorty,” I said to the little shrimp, “Arnie’s no pansy.”
“He’s sure acting like one.”
“He’s just — sensitive,” I said. “Right, pal?”
“Yeah, sure,” Arnie said.
He seemed nervous.
Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember actually ever seeing Arnie with a dame, although I seemed to remember him telling me he had a girlfriend, way back when we first met. I hoped to hell he wasn’t a pansy, and that Mojo hadn’t hurt his feelings. Me, I got nothing against pansies personally. I’ve been on too many long sea voyages to have those kinds of prejudices. Pansies got to live too, and usually they’re really good about stuff like sewing up your dungarees for you when they get ripped, and they tend to keep the old fo’c’s’le nice and clean and polished, too, with pretty plants and flowers and stuff, and fresh-baked maryjane cookies to help get you through those long nights with the nearest dame maybe a thousand miles away…
“How far up?” said Arnie.
He was talking to Mojo, I guess they had both been talking while I was thinking about pansies and long lonely nights at sea, so I figured I’d better start paying attention.
“I don’t know how far up,” said Mojo. “You’re name is Schnipfel, right? So it’s wherever the S’s are.”
“For the last time,” said Arnie. “My name is Schnabel, not Schnipfel or Schnerfel or anything else. Schnabel. Arnold Schnabel.”
“So it still begins with an S, right?” said Mojo.
“Yes,” said Arnie. “It begins with an S.”
“So what are you making such a big deal out of it for?” said Mojo. “You say your name is, uh —”
“Schnabel,” said Arnie.
“Whatever,” said Mojo. “So climb the stairs until you get to the S’s and then look for your name.”
“Um, excuse me, fellas,” I said. “What’s going on?”
“Oh, weren’t you paying attention, cher Ben?” said Mojo. “Again?”
“I was thinking about something,” I said. “Going off into a reverie like, thinking about those long days and longer nights at sea, men among men, doing men’s jobs. Out on the high seas.”
Both Mojo and Arnie just kind of stared at me now. In the background was the moaning of Madame Chang and Futuyama, high and low, low and high, moaning the way the tackle on an old sampan moans on a hot night off the north coast of Java, with that garbage-dump smell of the jungle drifting across the gently rocking waves…
“Right,” said Mojo. “Okay, then. En tout cas, I was just telling Herr Schnabel here that if he wants to get back to his alleged real world he’s going to have to climb the stairs up to where the S’s are and find his book.”
“Hold on,” I said. “I may not know much, but I know one thing, and that is this is no time to be reading books. You with me, Arnie?”
“Doux Jésus,” said Mojo, which is French for like “Jesus H. Christ”.
“What?” I said.
“If you would only pay attention,” said Mojo. “This is not just any book. This is his book.”
He pointed to Arnie with the lit end of that big cigar of his.
“You’ve got a book here?” I said, to Arnie. “What’s one of your books doing here?”
“Um,” he said.
“And anyway,” I said. “If you want a book, why not just wait till you get back to Cape St. Claire —”
“Cape May,” said Arnie.
“Cape May,” I said. “That’s what I meant to say. They must have a library there, right? Maybe a book store or two?”
“Yes,” he said. “They have a library, and a couple of book stores, actually, but —”
“Y’know who’s a good writer,” I said. “That Horace P. Sternwall guy. Writes like a madman that guy. Or Harold P. Sternhagen, he’s good, too, I read this one book of his one time about these lesbian gals who had this opium ring down in New Orleans, and —”
“Putain de bon Dieu,” said Mojo, which is frog talk for like “Jesus H. Christ on roller skates”.
“What?” I said. “I suppose you think Harold P. Sternhagen’s not a good writer?”
“You fool,” said Mojo, “if only you had been listening to a word I said you would realize that the book Mr. Schnabel must find is not one of those penny-dreadfuls which are the only literature you’re capable of enjoying, but the book he himself has written.”
I let this sink in for a second, then I turned to Arnie.
“You wrote a book, Arnie?”
“Well —” he said.
“What kind of book?” I asked. I was impressed, because, me, I can’t write for beans. Just look at what you’re reading right now if you don’t believe me. Horace P. Sternwall or Harold P. Sternhagen I am not. I was just a poor kid from the slums, so blame my crappy education, not me. Arnie still hadn’t answered me, so I helped him along. “I’ll bet you wrote one of them philosophy books, right, Arnie? Like, How To Win Friends and Influence People, or The Power of Positive Thinking maybe?”
“Eh, nique ta mère,” said Mojo, under his breath.
“Hey, pal,” I said to him. “It’s true my mom was a whore, and a drunken one at that, but you just be careful what you say about her.”
The little bastard shrugged. That’s the trouble with these little guys. Always talking about your mom just because they think you won’t beat the bejesus out of them on account of they’re shrimps —
“Ben,” said Arnie, “apparently it’s a different sort of book.”
“Apparently?” I said. “You’re the one who wrote it, right? So what kind of book is it?”
“Well, I guess it’s a sort of memoir, or an autobiography —”
“Oh, I get it,” I said. “Like that Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, like.”
“You read that?” said Arnie.
“Sure,” I said. “It was one of those Classics Illustrated books.”
“Ha!” said Mojo.
“What?” I said. “You think I don’t read classy literature? I’ve read a lot of them Classics Illustrated books. Lots of them. You ever read The Forty-Five Guardsmen, by Alexandre Dumas?”
“Yes, I have,” said Mojo.
“Hell of a book,” I said.
“Except I didn’t read the comic book version,” he said, all snotty-like. “I read the actual book. In the original actual French.”
“Well,” I said. “Aren’t you something then? Okay, how about King of the Khyber Rifles, by Talbot Mundy?”
“Was that also a comic book?” said Mojo.
“Correction,” I said. “A Classics Illustrated book. Not a comic book.”
“Okay, Ben,” said Arnie. “I think we’re getting distracted here.”
“He’s the one who’s distracting me,” I said, meaning Mojo. “Saying I don’t read good books.”
“Ha,” said Mojo.
“Just ignore him,” I said to Arnie. “So, you wrote a book, pal? I think that’s just swell. I’d like to read it sometime.”
“I don’t think it has pictures in it,” said Mojo, and he stuck that big stogie in his yap and took a draw on it like the conversation was starting to bore him.
“I read books without pictures,” I said. “Sometimes.”
“Well, anyway,” said Arnie, “apparently Madame Chang has my book on her shelves here.”
“Under the S’s,” said Mojo,” and he let out a big cloud of cigar smoke.
“And, supposedly,” Arnie went on, “I might be able to get back to my world through this, uh, book.”
“Oh, okay, that makes sense,” I said. By which I meant I guess that it made no more or less sense than any damn thing else about this hot cockamamie night in Singapore. “So what are we standing here jawboning for? Let’s go find your book, buddy.”
“Great,” he said.
My current Sweet Caporal had gotten smoked down to a nubbin, so I flicked it away, aiming for that priceless Ming vase near the doorway. It fell short by a mile, but I didn’t care.
“Okay, Mojo,” I said. “Lead the way.”
“Well, you know, cher Ben,” said the squirt. “No point in all three of us going all the way up to the S’s to look for the book. Wouldn’t it be more efficient as a time-saving measure if I stayed down here and looked for Madame Chang’s jewels and gelt?”
I didn’t pull out the Chief’s Special this time, but I patted its butt where it made a bulge under my Hawaiian shirt, and then I pointed to the nearest one of those iron staircases.
“I said lead the way, Mojo.”
(Continued here, as a service to all humanity.)
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