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The spacious hull was heavily padded with rolled-and-pleated aquamarine naugahyde. Glitzy and garrish yet cozy and warm, I thought, traipsing aft across tapestried carpet. At Daphney's side, I paused to gingerly inhale the giblet gravy and peach champagne - and excitement.
Three bustling gaming tables stood laterally between our vantage point and several bucket seats way at the stern of the hallowed Dog. The relatively high ceiling of the traveling casino appeared to be one seamless mirror, etched with birds perched in trees and soaring through air; mountain peaks topped with clouds plus clusters of stars traced with comets - not to mention the subtle Moon and almighty Sun. All these things had been sandblasted deep into the looking glass, suspended high above the playful deer, bison, and prairie dogs who shared the earthtone tapestry with the players' stocking, or bare, feet.
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Of the players, they were a varied lot. Tuxedos and evening gowns some wore, others overalls and pedal-pushers; but all sat well-scrubbed and perfectly groomed for their latenight date with lady luck. Along the starboard side of the fuselage, on a sightly elevated plinth, an Elvis look-alike clutched a polished saxophone and made magical music. Fluttering from his golden horn, bubbles burst on the silvered ceiling as the saxophonist rendered a rather relaxed edition of "HEARTHBREAK HOTEL."
Doc, tapping his pipe on my cane, claimed the evening's musician was Elvis's little known, but quite talented, twin brother. "Jessie's his name; entertainment's his game."
Quite discretely, Doc directed my attention toward the cockpit where Granny chatted with three bikers in washed-out jeans and cashmere sweatshirts. The two males of the group had heavy gold coats slung over their rugged shoulders, while a lavender-and-white racing jacket was neatly draped over the lady's square shoulders.
Riddle, exuding great civic pride, told me the visitors were Sal Stone, Al Pino, and Miss Kitty Frank. "Matinee idols come to the Rising Star at last."
Granny waved her hankie, motioning us over. My bird fluttered for balance as we limped to join the tinseltownians.
Our senior hostess adjusted the teller visor under her seasonal bonnet. "David and Daphney, I want you to meet my friends from the coast. Sly, Paco, and Kitty Sunshine Frank."
Sly clamped his muscled hand onto mine, then Doc's. "Yoooohhhh, Dabid and Dabney. An awbul pleasure to be sure."
Paco shoved both his hands to us simultaneously, soul style. "Nice to make your acquaintanceship."
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Kitty offered me her soft palm. "Nice to finally run across you, Mr. Daniels. My friends just call me Sunshine."
As my hand melted into hers, the whole world seemed silent for a while.
Riddle cleared his throat. "On behalf of the Lenexa Forensic Society, I welcome you to the Rising Star of Kansas, Miss Kitty Frank. You're a living doll."
Sunshine, smiling wide, shook the doctor's hungry hand with gusto.
The intros done, Granny invited the three travellers to sleep in the Pipe Club and Doll House.
Without thinking, I offered my apartment. "Here's the keys." Then I remembered I had no electricity.
Sunshine, snatching my cold keys and holding them to her warm breast, whispered in my ear. "No electricity makes things real cozy, but don't keep me waiting too late, Danu."
The matinee mind-reader from California told her co-riders about my unheated dwelling, and Sly said it sounded rugged, back to basics. Paco called it a real drag.
When Granny asked the cycle-jockeys their ultimate destination, enthusiastic Sunshine said they were sweeping the country for a timely tale. "We have until the first day of this coming spring to deliver it to the Big Apple and the people."
After we wished the easy-riding trio good hunting, they hustled up front, pulled on their boots, and clambered out the hatch. Avidly, we cinematic civilians watched through the windshield as they revved their thunderous mounts and saluted Granny. In a tornado of swirling mist and mud, the two-wheelers sped off into the night - toward Poor Richard's.
The hull shook as Granny restarted the Dog; the frame flexed as she crunched the garish carriage into gear. As we barrelled down the alley, gathering speed, the high-pressure exhaust softened to a mellow hum. Inside the open cockpit, with my bird on her bonnet, Granny melted into her captain's chair. Doc and I migrated aft, to partake of fun.
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On mahogany bar stools, an array of homespun and glitzy players engaged in games of chance, probably not hearing a note Jesse was making. Smitty joined Doc and I, and the three of us took in every brass note as we browsed around.
Suddenly, a female farmer at the nearby roulette wheel yelled out. "We win again, Godfrey!!"
Startled, Doc dropped his pipe. When he bent to pick it up, a miniature plastic skull dropped from his cape, and he almost toppled reaching for it. I helped him get his balance as Smitty collected the pipe and tiny skull from the tapestry. Upright and composed once more, Doc puffed on his unlit pipe, removing a tiny plastic brain from the skull.
Placing the model brain on the juice bar, daffy Doc broke it down into smaller segments, cluing us in as he went. "The human brain is actually composed of several primitive brains, including a canine lobe."
When Smitty asked Doc if he was a devout believer in evolution, the dedicated doctor said he wasn't, not in the purest sense. He claimed that certainly our cells did hold the genetic code within each, but that it was only that, an order code. "Not a blueprint as the evolutionists and technidiots would have us believe, my lay friends. The blueprint is up there with the Head Designer." And he pointed his cane toward the mirrored heavens.
Grinning wide, Smitty asked Doc if he was trying to say the genetic code was no more than an order form. "You mean that evolution simply selects which make and model and accessories are most suitable for the given environment?"
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Riddle, with delight, dithered his head. "God and Mother Nature do the rest. It's my Language of Ethereal Order. LEO for short."
While Smitty praised LEO, Doc tightened his belt. Recognizing the medical professional's leather-crafted belt to be the sort they force you to weave at camp (or in a mental hospital), I took my leave and headed for the very stern of the cruiser.
Setting my bones down in a tandem bucketseat, I peered out a teardrop window at the nightsky breezing past. As the roulette wheel spun, the craps rolled, and the jacks slapped against soft gold felt, Morningstar sat down and handed me a bowl of peaches and cream. Savoring every bite of the rich dessert, I couldn't help but look into redheaded Morning's deep black eyes.
Leaning in front of me, she stared out the window and sighed. "I love curling up in my teepee by an open flap with a good scroll and shell of ice cream."
Before I could properly respond, she kissed my cheek and excused herself to take a turn at the Dog's helm so Granny could deal. As she swayed gracefully away, Jessie whistled "I'M ALL SHUCK UP."
My cream finished, I grabbed the loner cane and limped sluggishly up to the Blackjack table where S. Pyre was gambling his daddy M. Pyre's misbegotten capital. Around the Roulette wheel, Granny re-introduced me to Stanley's one-time blonde bombshell of a mother, Xandria Pyre. The hot-to-trot Clark Citian now looked sick and alcoholic. As Granny dropped the green ball into play, X. Pyre picked up a flaming-red flask of Viert-Reich Schnaps and gulped nervously.
Shortly, jolly Smitty mosied over and belched loudly for everybody.
Granny grumbled for him to behave himself. "It's Thanksgiving, for heaven's sake."
So silly Smitty broke wind as X. Pyre took another swig.
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Xandria snarled. "How vulgar and utterly common."
When Smitty and Riddle started to chortle too hard, Granny ordered them to leave the table - or else. On the way to the pastry table, I spotted my bird, safe and sound, up front at the wheel with Morningsteer.
Riddle, carefully selecting the plumpest eclair, told Smitty and I that we needed to further discuss laughter. "Especially its biological implications, gentlemen."
Smitty rubbed his droopy eyes as Doc explained why we laughed at the butt-belch, while the conceited lush, X. Pyre, scoffed at the very same colon-cough. "We, sirs, accept the fact that we are animals. Those egocrats who scoff at basic body functions picture themselves above such things, conceited, afraid to admit their animal ancestory." Riddle blew a perfect smoke ring. "They, as such, are subject to crippling constipation and other minduced maladies."
After telling Doc to keep on thinking, Smitty promised to check on Lenore in the galley before relieving Morningstar of the helm. Riddle gave Smitty a bankroll of confederate currency for Lenore's tip. As the grocer hurried forward, Doc told me that emotions were windows to the soul.
The eccentric practitioner claimed that if X. Pyre were to cut a fart, I would sneer. "On the other hand, David, if your police doll were to break wind after an identical meal, I dare say you would find it great fun."
That said, I made my way over to Granny's table and wagered on the three numbers that corresponded to my birthdate.
As the gold ball dropped, Granny bellowed melodramatically. "David's triumphant, all right!"
On collecting my winnings, I strutted astern while Jessie crooned a Yinglish "WHEW HAVAII!!" At the same teardrop portal, Morning returned with my bird, and we all sat down to peer out together. Heavy rain billowed down, blowing nearly horizontal as we ripped through the night, the winter shrubs glistening in the deluge as just another Rainbow Rider slipped along the quiet highway - dealing out justice.
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After a while, Morningstar pinched my cheek and asked, with more than a hint of jealousy, whether I'd been smitten by Kitty Frank.
I told her that I wasn't at all. "Movie stars are only illusions."
Morning smiled tiredly. "I'm glad you realize that." Resting her head on my shoulder, she drifted off.
An off-duty policewoman slumbering on my left and a window to the world on my right, I couldn't help but think that losing one's freedom was no doubt the worst punishment in the world. At Formington, I would stare through my locked window grating as the employees headed home at shift-change, wondering what it was like to be so free. Even then, I knew most people took their freedom for granted, but hoped I never would - if I ever had it again.
Feeling so very fortunate, I wrapped my arm around Morningfreedom and cracked the window open a bit. A cool mist sprayed in and we floated on dreams as the miles slid by.
Only to be interrupted by a silly yuppie yelling. "I win big!! S. Pyre is butchering you all!!"
My better half, covering my mouth with hers, told me to control myself. "Save your energy for more important things, David."
The Dog's engines coughed, then raced. The cabin rocked gently as the cruiser downshifted twice, and we bounced to an easy stop. The main engines died out simultaneously, a high-pitched turbine generator churning into action to assume the electrical load. Out the window, the byway's sodium lights washed an orange halo over a vast, open field. We'd come to rest on the shoulder, just off an outer road marked 281-K.
Over the central intercom, Granny announced we'd come halfway. "Lebanon, Kansas. Time to eat, stretch, and count your money, lucky people."
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As all the people gambled on, Jessie belted out "PROUD MURRAY."
I followed Morningstar up front where Smitty supplied us with raincoats and caps. Out in the night, after we helped erect a canvas awning on the cruiser's port side, Morning strapped an aquamarine backpack on me.
With some help from yours truly, she wriggled into her own backback and told the grocer that we were going on a constitutional to stimulate our appetites. "Don't forget where you let us out, Smitty."
The big guy tossed me a flare gun and said to use it if we couldn't find our way back, or in the event my leg gave out. "See you kids tomorrow."
I told the confused soul that it already was tomorrow and stashed the bulky pistol in my raincoat. Escorting Morning across the mushy field, the loner cane proved nearly useless. The soil was so soft, I wished I hadn't left bigfoot Abraham by the coat rack outside the Pipe Room.
Moonlit mist cleansing my soul, time became all the more irrelevant the further we moved away from the road. I glanced back at the cruiser, now enveloped by its own orange halo. The white clouds swirling above complimented its mystique. As Jessie's mellow music faded, I heard furry nightcreatures bustling about. My bird slapped the wet nightwind.
Her Moon-splashed face all wet, how unlike a tough enforcer my neo-Navajo companion appeared. As we stood beside a running brook, the lunar rain washed her graceful profile like the purest snowcap softens the steepest summit. Taking my lady's wet hand, I sat with her on a weathered cairn, and we relieved each other of our backpacks.
Following some wonderfully romantic pleasantries, Morningquery drew our thoughts upward, toward the nightsky. "Is Heaven simply an endless dream we have during our migration?"
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I told her that it wasn't. "Heaven is a very much expanded, parallel reality, if not the sort we're presently inured to. While hell is a living horror, perpendicular to everything imaginable. Good souls need to be encouraged; evil disciplined."
Morningbody, bending over to open the backpacks, said she'd inflate the air mattress. "You erect the pup tent, David."
When I asked what she meant, she said the Hound Dog would pick us up the next night. "We need time to get caught up. Without worrying about the Simplesticks linking us together."
Eagerly, I began to unpack the pup tent - until the churning of a high-speed engine swept overhead. Helicopter blades neared, slapping everything around. The blades' wash blew Morningstar's raincap off. With the chopper's bleak silhouette blocking the moonlight, we fell into total blackness - save for tiny red pilot lights that blinked inside the intrusive contraption.
All of a sudden, a blinding white light started to strob - a flash of sorts. Pressing one hand to my eye patch, I reached for the flare gun and launched a blue-white rocket, high into the sky. Bursting into a brilliant pink star, it revealed the chopper's SOS logo. Holding an old-fashioned press camera, one of the Schicklgruber brothers dangled in body harness from the landing gear.
Morningshot, drawing a revolver from her garter holster, let loose with an awesome warning volley of orange tracers, just above the craft's rotor. The corporate chopper took a sudden nosedive, nearly crushing the hapless paparazzi against our tundra, then fled east at low altitude.
As a final tracer from Morning's piece chased it toward the horizon at ground hog level, she sighed. "A very definite moon shadow. Less than six weeks 'til Judgement Day."
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Spontaneity spoiled, Morning issued an invitation to visit her cottage in Clearview City, on the west side of Monticello. "Stop by anytime, now that our opponents know we're lovers. When our foes fail to destroy us, they make us stronger!"
About to invite myself that very night, I realized I had better get home before the stars left me locked out. Upon collecting our equipment, we walked west in silence, letting our adrenalin disperse. Smitty met us more than halfway in a three wheeled go-kart; he'd seen the firefight and come to rescue us. We welcomed his bumpy lift back to the Dog's relative security.
With everyone lined up under the awning for breakfast, Stanley Pyre sauntered to the front of the line and offered Doc a bribe. "Let mummy and myself cut in. Our time is valuable. Here's $6 for your trouble."
Both canes nudging young Pyre's shoulders, Riddle told him to go to the end of the line. Stanley, eyes watering with frustration, told the good doctor to get screwed and pushed him off balance. While I gave Doc a hand, Morningforcer kicked the yuppie in the groin and he went down.
Kneeling beside the doubled-up delinquent, I told him I should have beaten the crap out of him on his second birthday, then threatened to probe his ass with my splintered cane unless he spilled his guts. "Where's your father stay in Kansas City?"
"Daddy resides in the Leader's Suite, right across the ballroom from the Goose Room."
I helped the unweaned milquetoast to his feet and turned his narrow shoulders toward the open field. "I think I hear daddy calling you from way over yonder." As he staggered off, I kicked him in the pants. "Have a Happy Thanksgiving, turkey. And tell daddy to expect an uninvited dinner guest at his Goose Room, about Christmas time." I figured it would take that long to scrape up enough money for Morning and myself to dine properly.
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Having had our fill of food for the time being, Morning, myself, and my bird sat on an outdoor bench beside Granny, who was sipping herbal tea and munching vanilla wafers.
After offering a bite to my transcontinental bird, only to be turned down, Granny told us that Stanley was taking the Dog to the cleaners. "We'll lose everything if he returns from that field trip you sent him on and I don't change my luck. I'll have to go back to spinning a dreidle."
That said, my bird fluttered onto Granny's plate and gobbled her wafers. "Sonny boy, unless I'm mistaken, your bird's a doll and her name is Dreidle."
While lovely Dreidle continued to snack, I asked Granny the scoop on the platinum benchmark in the tunnel. "Does it have anything to do with the Lewis and Clark portrait above the fireplace?"
Granny's old eyes sparkled as she told me how the whole thing started back in the winter of 1804-5, when Lewis and Clark continued their famous expedition for President Jefferson. She said the history books claimed they stayed in the Dakotas with the Mandan Indians their second winter.
But Granny said Lewis's personal diary showed they doubled back to eastern Kansas. "They met shapely Lenexa, really a Shawnee Princess named Lé Negsah, and shared the winter with her while the rest of their crew was up in Colorado. Come early spring, they ran into William Becknell who was making plans for the Sante Fe Trail, though he didn't actually hit the trail for nearly twenty years. Lewis and Clark helped him mark its centerline with the platinum benchmark. At that time, what they called the Tunnel of Love was a secret passage for hanky-panky between their cabin and Princess Lé Negsah's wigwam."
Granny's brow wrinkled as she told us how Lé Negsah's father, Chief Killjoy, uncovered the illicit love-triangle and threatened to scalp them all. However, she said, Lewis and Clark bartered their way out of the predicament with jewels that President Jefferson had entrusted to them. "One of the jewels, a giant star sapphire, flaming-blue, is said to date from Original Testament times. Jefferson had given them specific orders to deliver it to the settlement of what's now Lebanon, Kansas, and the geographical center of these contiguous United States. But the explorers gave the Indians half the treasure and buried the rest, hoping to retrieve it later. According to my venerable step-mother, Madam Honeycutt, that platinum bar and the oil painting tell where the treasure trove is."
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When I asked the old storytelless who painted the portrait, she beamed. "Lewis painted Clark and Clark painted Lewis." She swallowed deep. "Sonny, you stop by up at the library and I'll tell all that's now known about the Lewis and Clark Jewels. Herbie's been going over the evidence ever since he was old enough to braille. For the time being, though, I better go get the Dog cranked up and change my luck." Granny whistled and Dreidel followed her inside.
While I helped Smitty roll up the awning, Morning grabbed the last plates and agreed to have Christmas dinner with me at the Goose Room. As we climbed aboard and buttoned up the hatch, the Dog's tandem engines coughed, backfired - then exploded to double-life.
Not far from the cockpit, for some unknown reason, I suddenly told Riddle I was sorry about his Dalmations.
Doc's eyes bulged. "My Dalmations?? I didn't tell you the Brownshirts destroyed my Dalmations."
When I said that I just assumed as much because I'd heard of the Swizzleturds' canine ritual, Doc said Balderdash, it was my P-Waves again. "Your P-Waves told you what had happened, David, but your conscious mind could only accept it for a totally rational and logical reason." Riddle sobbed as he described how MacArthur gave him the dogs, just days before his death. "Those plaster Dalmations guarded my bookcase for twenty-five odd years."
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The Dog's engines churning frantically, we rocked slowly onto the highway, then accelerated hard as I noticed S. Pyre had found his way back into our company. Morningstar emerged from the galley fresh as a daisy and folowed me back to our window.
Jessie strummed an acoustic guitar and sang "GOD BLESS AMERICA" as the Kansas plains slid by our porthole through the night. Though Morning napped in well-being, I knew freedom could be as fragile as a chocolate-covered fig in an Iraqi oasis.
When Jessie began his second Dean Martin medley, Morningnap stirred and yawned in my face - then morning-futzed.
I couldn't help but laugh at the gas-letting. "Did Doc put you up to that?"
She broke sweet wind again. "No, Granny's giblet gravy did."
That settled (and Riddle's theory somewhat substantiated), I invited Morningfun to check the tables out with me. She followed me forward and we took up position on Granny's right side.
Stanley, heir-apparent to the Pyre empire, laid down a marker and sneered. "One hundred-fifty thousand in play."
In quiet, everyone gathered for the showdown. Smitty checked the marker while Granny fiddled with the ruffles on her long sleeves, then rolled the aquamarine cards.
She dealt Stanley one card down, then a 7 up. He peeked at the hole card and smiled. Granny gave herself an Ace up, and offered Stanley 'insurance.'
S. Pyre scoffed. "Keep your pitiful insurance. I'm going to screw you good, you dirty..."
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I reached over to grab Stanley's tonsils, but Riddle jabbed my elbow with his cane, then winked.
Granny peeked at her hole card, but remained poker-faced.
Stanley turned his hole card up - a 4, giving him 11. "I believe I'll double down."
Granny chirped. "You got another hundred and fifty grand, hot wad?"
Stanley reached over and ripped off his comatose mother's diamond broach. "If you would be so kind as to honor this as collateral until I am able to obtain another radio authorization from the Pyre Mutual Fund."
Granny grinned. "OK, you're on, huckster. But save the sweet talk for daddy at allowance time." She dealt him a 9, giving him 20.
As the cruiser braked to a stop, Granny's stiff coiffure shook. Dreidel jumped from the top of the old dealer's bonnet to her shoulder as Grandma Smith showed her hole card. It was a 5, giving her a 'soft' 16 (to Stanley's 19). Everybody moaned as Granny dealt another Ace, giving herself 17.
Stanley reached for the pot, but Riddle caned his knuckles.
Before the yuppie could recover from the pain, Granny dealt herself the Four of Diamonds. She had 'soft' 21.
As the hatch opened and nippy air blew in, Stanley protested. "You can't do that. You can't hit Seventeen. You have to stand." He tried to tug the marker and necklace from under Riddle's cane.
Reaching across the table, I grabbed Stanley's wrists and clamped down until they turned wan.
Granny instructed the little fool to read the rules on the felt. "Or maybe your shyster daddy only taught you how to read small print."
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Boldly imprinted in gold on the aquamarine felt, the rules clearly stated: "DEALER STANDS ON HARD SEVENTEEN." Unless I was mistaken, the felt had been gold with aquamarine print before breakfast break. The old switcheroo.
When I released Stanley's wrists, he swung at me like a little girl. Even in my compromised condition, I was able to dodge and whack the pretentious yuppie in the can with my loner cane. He toppled onto his drunken mother, X. Pyre, and everybody clapped - then filed out into the late night.
Jessie hauled his equipment out into the alley and played soft dance music for a while. After a clumsy attempt at the waltz, I hugged Morningstar good night, shook Doc's hand, and thanked Smitty and Granny for their hospitality.
Granny smiled cockeyed as I kissed her cheek. "Sonny, Smitty and I hope you flirt with lady luck a little more next time around."
I checked to make sure my winnings hadn't fallen from my pocket. "I'm usually not very lucky, not even when it comes to gambling on sure bets."
The old curmudgeon whispered. "The Hound Dog don't gamble. Maybe you ain't noticed, David, but the good-hearted souls that came in overalls and pedal-pushers, that done plenty for the community all their lives, they're goin' home with big bank rolls. Those that come with diamonds and furs stolen from the public trust, they're leavin' with nothin' but dirty underwear." Granny's old eyes twinkled. "For now, it's how we deal justice outside the Risin' Star."
Smitty stepped over and told me to ride the moped home. "Loosen it up for the day when Herbie gets his vision back."
I told the grocer that I couldn't. "I have a walking stick in the Commons that's too big to carry on it."
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Granny told me to take the loner cane. "Carry it across the handlebars. You got Moses at home to use 'til I get Abraham's staff back to you."
Too tired to ask Betty's twin sister how she knew about Moses and Abraham, I fired up the moped. "Tell Herbie I'll give it a good tune-up and put a new seat on it."
Waving her hankie in the pre-dawn wind, Granny said to take good care of the moped. Reverently, I navigated the couple wet blocks to Poor Richard's. After securing Herbie's humble moped under the fire escape, I adjusted my eye patch and headed upstairs to check on the three telluric stars. With Dreidel leading the climb, I reflected on what a marvelous Thanksgiving it had been.
end chap 21
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