Nick Neercassel:

 

Theological

Private

Eye

 

 

 

 

Copyright © 2012 by S.M. Newman


All rights reserved. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express written permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.

 

Printed in the United States of America

 

First Printing, 2012

 

Published by:

S.M. Newman
Gilbert, South Carolina

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.  All song lyrics are original.

 

Send comments to: cmn365@yahoo.com

 

 

Table of Contents

 

Chapter 1: The Predestined Shegah Runaway

Chapter 2: The Odd God Out

Chapter 3: Author Godfree

Chapter 4: If Heaven Ain’t A Lot Like Nixon

Chapter 5: Lessa Creen

Chapter 6: It Is What It Is

Chapter 7: The Ambivalent Mule

Chapter 8: Normex Annex

Chapter 9: The Lost City Of The Inklings

Chapter 10: Universation Nation

Chapter 11: Desert Country

Chapter 12: The Sage Of Mt. Capair

Chapter 13: The Higher Archie

Chapter 14: The WesCan Plan

Epilogue: The End Is Always Near

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: The Predestined Shegah Runaway


When I got to the office, I noticed someone sitting in the waiting room. As it turned out, it was a man and a very lonely man at that; his wife of some twenty odd years had recently left him and departed for parts unknown. My job was to find her and somehow convince her to come back. But was it a case of it was meant to be or was it a case of it was not meant to be? Such were the conundrums of a TPE (Theological Private Eye).

 

First, an introduction is in order. My name is Nick Neercassel and I work for God. The pay is bad, so are the benefits; the hours are long, but the pension plan is out of this world (literally). If you have a problem that is theological in nature, or even semi-theological, I’m your man. I’m easy to find because I’m always where you need me to be. My cell phone has spiritual connections and the tower is so high it reaches the second heaven. Now I’ve never been to the third heaven, but I hear the cafeteria line there is always full.

 

My soon-to-be (if so ordained) client was named Hiram Hickok (no kin to Wild Bill). He was from a small town in North Carolina and he was a desperate man.

 

“Mr. Neercassel…” Hiram began to speak.

 

“Call me Nick, Hiram,” I interrupted. I always liked to put these working relationships on a first name basis.

 

“Ok. Well, Nick, my wife has gone and left me, and what surprises me more than anything is that she did it even though I was practicing Shegah with her.”

 

Now I’ve been around the theological block, so to speak, but I had never heard of something called Shegah. I asked Hiram, “How do you spell that?”

 

“S H E G A H.”

 

“What does it mean?” Facts were important to a conscientious TPE.

 

Hiram seem a little bit flustered but he plowed ahead. “It’s a cut-rate version of Shagah.”

 

Shagah was also not on the theological radar screen but I figured it was best to let Hiram continue. Any more interruptions might send him into a catatonic state.

 

“I bought it from this guy out of Georgia who pulled into my driveway driving an old beat-up van. His name was Orson Xanadu and his sales pitch was, “Why buy Shagah when you can get the same results from Shegah for only $19.95?”

 

It seemed like a good time to ask. “Now, Hiram, what kind of results was this Xanadu guy promising?”

 

“A perfect sex life with my spouse as well as spiritual simpatico.”

 

“How was Shegah going to do this?”

 

“Well, for the $19.95 you got this wooden pedestal. The idea was that every morning you were to lift your wife out of bed, stand her on the pedestal, and kiss her feet. Then repeat at night before going to bed.”

 

“How long did you wife put up with this before leaving?”

 

“Two days.”

 

Her name was Myrtle, and according to Hiram, had a body built like Moscow (Idaho, that is.) She apparently was very fond of potatoes. She had other desires as well but none of them seemed to be of the sexual or spiritual side of life. Hiram had hoped Shegah would rekindle the passion in their marriage. Instead it had sent Myrtle running out the door.

 

But to where?

 

Hiram seemed to have no clue. I tried to pump him for some information but his mental and emotional condition was such that he was no more use to me than a blank sheet of paper. Maybe less, because at least a blank of paper had potential for some great prose or poetry while Hiram looked to be at a literary dead end.

 

I decided it was best to send Hiram home where he could rest and recuperate. I told him to put the pedestal out of sight or even better, break it into pieces and use them for firewood. Maybe Myrtle would still be with him if he had done that to begin with; I didn’t tell Hiram that but in his hearts of hearts he must have already known it.

 

***

The theological game is not for the faint of heart. Just the vocabulary alone will drive you up the wall. Words should explain and define things but in theology they’re more often used as means to bewilder and confuse. Contrary to popular opinion, the theological private eye is just an ordinary human being. Sure, he has some connections that are extraordinary, but only because he’s willing to make use of them. The search for Myrtle, as in most all TPE searches, would include both natural and supernatural elements.

 

My usual modes of transportation were motorcycles but since of all sixteen of them were in the shop undergoing one kind of a repair or another, I decided to use instead my Flying Belt. No, not a real flying belt, but an SUV built in a small Eastern European nation that shall remain nameless. It only had 750,000 miles on it and was good for at least a million more. The secret was to keep ethanol out of it. Whiskey was OK in a pinch; hence the name Flying Belt.

 

Investigating the whereabouts of any human being is a tricky business. I was good at it though. I guess that’s why God made me a TPE. It was my destiny so to speak.

 

Realizing that Hiram would be out of the loop for a while, I decided to begin my search without him. First would be Orson Xanadu’s home base in Georgia. I plugged in my GPS (God Positioning System) and headed due west. Four hours later, I arrived at what I thought might be Orson’s residence. A beat-up van was sitting in the driveway so I felt pretty good that I had found the right place.

 

I knocked on the front door and a medium sized man wearing wireless glasses and a goatee appeared. I asked him, “Are you Orson Xanadu?”

 

“I certainly am and just who are you?”

 

“Neercassel, Theological Private Eye.”

 

“One of those, huh?” The contempt seemed to drip off his tongue.

 

I was feeling tough and was in no mood for his sarcasm. “Look here, Xanadu, I understand you’ve been peddling some kind of sex gadget. Do you remember selling one to a Hiram Hickok of Sunseretta, North Carolina?”

 

Xanadu fidgeted a little then replied, “Maybe I do and maybe I don’t.”

 

“Not good enough, Orson. I need a straight answer and I need it now.”

 

Xanadu this time fidgeted a lot, but still managed to show some bravado: “Why do you want to know?”

 

“Because it didn’t work. Hiram’s wife, Myrtle, didn’t like the attention and skedaddled.”

 

“That’s not necessarily my fault, Mr. TPE. Maybe she was predestined to leave and the Shegah was incidental to the action taken.”

 

“What do you mean predestined?”

 

“Post-Modern Pseudo-Freudian theory purports that Shegah Runaways fall into two categories: Regular or Predestined. If Myrtle was the latter, then it’s not my fault she left Hiram. If she was the former, then all I can say is sorry.”

 

“I’ve got a feeling you say sorry a lot.”

 

It was becoming obvious that this Xanadu guy was not going to be much help so I bid him adieu and got back into the Flying Belt. For some reason, the GPS was pointing toward Ohio.

 

***

Ohio in the summer is not that bad a place to visit. Not nearly as hot as the South and since the Flying Belt had no air conditioning the cooler air was most welcome. Still, I had to wonder. Why had the GPS sent me here?

 

Ohio did hold a few memories for me though. It was the scene of my first encounter with a Tappdancer. For theological neophytes in the reading audience, a Tappdancer believes that life is both absolute and relative. I don’t want to get too bogged down in details, but suffice to say the absolute/relative viewpoint is one that answers all your questions. If you don’t believe me, just ask a Tappdancer.

 

I suppose I should explain the derivation of the term Tappdancer. Tappdancers were followers of the late Alonzo Von Tapp, founder of the Aztec Publishing Concern located in Southern California. Von Tapp was the first and last man to translate the Greek New Testament into Aztec. When asked why he did such a thing, he replied, “If I don’t do it, who will?”

 

As I was driving down a rural Ohio highway I spotted a picnic area and decided that both the Flying Belt and yours truly needed a break. So I pulled into the rest spot, got out of the SUV, and ambled over to an empty picnic table where I sat in the shade and enjoyed a cool breeze. As it so happened, a tall man with a knapsack came marching out of the adjacent woodlands.

 

I recognized him immediately.

 

“Why, if it’s not ol’ Red McDervish! What in Sam Hill (TPEs like quaint old expressions) are you doing here?”

 

“Well, Nick, I only live about thirty miles from here; just part of my daily 100 mile run slash walk slash crawl . The more intriguing question is: what are you doing here?”

 

“I’m on the hunt, Red, for a Shegah Runaway.”

 

“A regular or predestined one?”

 

“More and more it looks a predestined one. As much I hate to admit it. The GPS is acting weird, sending me in all kinds of directions.”

 

“The predestined ones are rare and, “ Red then added, but really didn’t need to, “hard to find.”

 

***

It had been good visiting with Red, but the GPS was beeping again. Next stop? Chicago.

 

It was an interesting choice. Just a few months before in ‘THE CASE OF THE ROCK THAT GOD COULD NOT MOVE’, I had visited Flat Rock, North Carolina (learning everything I could about rocks was essential to solving the case), and finding myself with a couple of hours down time I decided to visit Carl Sandburg’s mountain retreat where he and his wife (who was an expert on goats) spent the last years of their lives. And now I was headed for the city that Carl made famous with the following poem.

 

CHICAGO

 

HOG Butcher for the World,

 

Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat,

 

Player with Railroads and the Nation's Freight Handler;

 

Stormy, husky, brawling,

 

City of the Big Shoulders:

 

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I

 

have seen your painted women under the gas lamps

 

luring the farm boys.

 

And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it

 

is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to

 

kill again.

 

And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the

 

faces of women and children I have seen the marks

 

of wanton hunger.

 

And having answered so I turn once more to those who

 

sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer

 

and say to them:

 

Come and show me another city with lifted head singing

 

so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

 

Flinging magnetic curses amid the toil of piling job on

 

job, here is a tall bold slugger set vivid against the

 

little soft cities;

 

Fierce as a dog with tongue lapping for action, cunning

 

as a savage pitted against the wilderness,

 

Bareheaded,

 

Shoveling,

 

Wrecking,

 

Planning,

 

Building, breaking, rebuilding,

 

Under the smoke, dust all over his mouth, laughing with

 

white teeth,

 

Under the terrible burden of destiny laughing as a young

 

man laughs,

 

Laughing even as an ignorant fighter laughs who has

 

never lost a battle,

 

Bragging and laughing that under his wrist is the pulse.

 

and under his ribs the heart of the people,

 

Laughing!

 

Laughing the stormy, husky, brawling laughter of

 

Youth, half-naked, sweating, proud to be Hog

 

Butcher, Tool Maker, Stacker of Wheat, Player with

 

Railroads and Freight Handler to the Nation.

 

Now if you read that poem carefully, you should be able to feel the palpable tension of the subtle interplay between the relative and the absolute. Who knew Carl was a Tappdancer?

 

Meanwhile, I see some skyscrapers in the distance…

 

***

I turned on the radio and on the air waves were the mellow consonants and smooth vowels of an announcer talking about the weather.

 

“It’ll be partly sunny today reaching a high of 88 degrees but lake winds late in the afternoon will give us a cool twilight.”

 

It was none other than Stan Marriott, and if I correctly recalled my Wikipedia facts, he once hosted a radio show along with the creator of Shagah. He might just be the reason I was sent to Chicago so I thought I’d stop at the radio station and see if he had a few minutes to chat with me.

 

Luckily he did.

 

“Stan, do you still have contact with him?”

 

“No, he moved out west a few months ago. Haven’t heard from him since.”

 

“Did you and he part on good terms?”

 

“That’s none of your business!”

 

“Now, Stan, be calm about this. You know TPEs have a ‘License to Interrogate.’”

 

“Oh, yea, Nick, sorry. I’ve been up since 3 am. Radio work will kill you.”

 

“No problem, Stan. Well, if you think of anything relevant, call me. You know my number.”

 

“Still got that heavenly connection?”

 

“A TPE doesn’t leave home without it.”

 

***

Chicago had been a bust. Or had it? One follows the trail that one is given. Sure, there are dead ends aplenty, but there are also many dead ends on the scalp of an old Broadway hoofer. Too many bright lights and hardwood floors will do that to you. Sometimes it’s best to travel by night.

 

And so I did. Leaving Chicago, the GPS was pointing west. No particular destination; just a direction. After several hours of such meandering, I pulled into a small Iowa town and decided it was time for a cup of coffee and a donut. While sitting at the counter, the door opened and in walked Ron Paul, a GOP presidential candidate.

 

“Howdy, Ron, “I piped in when he came near me.

 

“Have we met? You seem familiar.”

 

TPEs get this a lot. I think it must be the result of some kind of aura that’s a by-product of our celestial cell phones.

 

“Not in this life.” I cryptically replied. “But I do have a question for you. What’s your take on Shagah or Shegah, for that matter.”

 

“Shegah’s not worth the paper it’s wrapped in. Shagah, on the other hand, is a solid free market product, well worth the $29.95 retail price.”

 

“Have you used it?”

 

“Don’t ask me. Ask my wife. She’s the gray haired lady standing in the corner with a smile on her face.”

 

***

Now the discerning reader is asking the following question: why is Neercassel trying to find the creator of Shagah? After all, Myrtle left Hiram because of Shegah not Shagah. The answer is simple. Myrtle left Hiram because Shegah was not Shagah. If that’s true, and my TPE instinct tells me it is, then the question becomes: where would Myrtle go to find Shagah resolution? This answer is also of the simple variety. She would go to find the source of Shagah.

 

That meant to find Myrtle I also had to find Mr. Shagah. It also meant that every wife whose husband had bought Shegah instead of Shagah also had done the same thing as Myrtle.

 

It was the Shegah Runaway Syndrome. But was Myrtle a Regular Shegah Runaway or a Predestined Shegah Runaway? And if she were the latter, was it my destiny aka fate to convince her that her husband, even though he had been too cheap to spend the extra ten bucks for Shagah, had made a honest mistake, and not only that, also persuade her to give him a second chance, this time of course, with the real thing?

 

Definitely a tough assignment, but God was not in the habit of giving TPEs easy ones.

 

***

Leaving Iowa, I traveled in a southwest direction, staying off the Interstates. Not because I love the bucolic bi-ways of America (even though I do; TPEs have their aesthetic side) but because Flying Belts are banned from Interstates. They tend to break down at unpredictable moments as well as release untold amounts of carbon dioxide. There are even some scientists who blame Global Warming entirely on Flying Belts. I disagree, of course, but my boss has instructed me to stay out of such controversies. “Your plate is full enough,” He’s told me time and again. Of course, that admonition would bring me more satisfaction if it was said as I was walking away from the Upstairs Cafeteria Line.

 

Speaking of time, does it flow forward or backward or is it stuck in neutral? Does God move with time or does He does hang like a cloud over it? Does time really exist? Maybe one of these days I’ll be given an assignment that will end up being called 'THE CASE OF TIME IN A PERRIER BOTTLE' or something like that but for the ‘time’ being the only time I’m concerned with is whether or not I’ll have time to save Myrtle before she’s gone from Hiram for forever.

 

Speaking of forever, there are stretches of highway in the Western United States that seem to go on that way. I was driving on such a stretch and my mind wandered to the Tappdancer absolute/relative version of life. Probing deeper into my subconscious mind I brought up into my conscious mind a couple of classic passages from two Von Tapp acolytes.

 

First on the absolute viewpoint by D.G. Leary:

 

“Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality, viz., of the dark/of the self, the identity of which is not outside the absolute identity of the outside, which is to say that the equivocal predication of identity is possible of the self-identity which is not identity, while identity is univocally predicated of the limit to the darkness, of the limit of the reality of the self). This is the real exteriority of the absolute outside: the reality of the absolutely unconditioned absolute outside univocally predicated of the dark: the light univocally predicated of the darkness: the shining of the light univocally predicated of the limit of the darkness: actuality univocally predicated of the other of self-identity: existence univocally predicated of the absolutely unconditioned other of the self. The precision of the shining of the light breaking the dark is the other-identity of the light. The precision of the absolutely minimum transcendence of the dark is the light itself/the absolutely unconditioned exteriority of existence for the first time/the absolutely facial identity of existence/the proportion of the new creation sans depth/the light itself ex nihilo: the dark itself univocally identified, i.e., not self-identity identity itself equivocally, not the dark itself equivocally, in “self-alienation,” not “self-identity, itself in self-alienation” “released” in and by “otherness,” and “actual other,” “itself,” not the abysmal inversion of the light, the reality of the darkness equivocally, absolute identity equivocally predicated of the self/selfhood equivocally predicated of the dark (the reality of this darkness the other-self-covering of identity which is the identification person-self).”

 

Pretty self-explanatory, heh? Now to the relative viewpoint by Stephen Tyler (not the one from Aerosmith and American Idol):

 

“It thus relativizes discourse not just to form — that familiar perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention — that conceit of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse — that desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even to history and ideology — those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less to language — that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse — that Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects — to be dismantled, compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as criticism.”

 

The ‘fetishized object’ could be referring to the Shegah pedestal but I’ll leave that up to the TOS (Tappdancer Outspoken Scholar) guys.

 

***

The road just kept rolling and I was getting a little drowsy but just then I heard the ringtone “A Mighty Fortress is Our God” and I put the celestial cell phone to my ear. It was the Big Guy and he was laughing. I also heard another voice laughing in the background.

 

“What’s up, Boss? Did I miss my appointed (check-in) time?”

 

“No, Nick, Alfred Einstein is here and we thought you could use a laugh. That’s one tough case you’re on.”

 

“Don’t you mean Albert Einstein?”

 

“No, it’s Alfred, his cousin, the musician. We were just being amused by something Albert wrote back in 1926 or thereabouts.”

 

“Read it to me.”

 

“ ‘The word god is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this.’ ”

 

Ouch. “Where’s Albert now?”

 

“He’s at the back of the cafeteria line.”

 

***

It was fairly late the next morning when I arrived in Colorado. I stopped at a convenience station where the Flying Belt found fulfillment and I found release. After buying a canister of chocolate milk, I settled back into the SUV and gave the Shagah residence slash office a ring. A female voice said “Good Afternoon. Shagah Incorporated. May I help you?”

 

“Is Mr. Shagah in?”

 

“No, he’s out of town on business. Can I help you?”

 

“Perhaps. I’m Nick Neercassel, Theological Private Eye, and I’m looking for a Shegah Runaway.”

 

“Regular or Predestined?”

 

“Looks to be about a 90% Predestined.”

 

“Well, I don’t know if I can help you but I’d be willing to try. Have you had lunch?”

 

“No.”

 

“OK, then let’s meet at the Tokyo Grill on South Priddy St. Can you find it?”

 

“No problem. I’ve got a very good GPS.”

 

As it turned out, the lady on the phone was Mrs. Shagah herself. She had no clue on the whereabouts of Myrtle but she did tell me where Mr. Shagah was currently located. He was in Hollywood meeting with some producers who wanted him to star in a series of movies about a secret agent who worked directly for God. She even showed me part of the correspondence that outlined the proposed projects:

 

'LICENSE TO SIN' Thrill to the exploits of Agent Oh! Oh! Heaven as he battles the forces of Relative Evil with deprecating (both self and otherwise) humor, biting wit, and confirmational bias. But it won’t be easy as his foe, Churches R Us, doesn’t plan to go down without a fight.

 

'NEVER SAY FOREVER AGAIN' Double Oh! Heaven travels back in time to early 17th century England where he manages to infiltrate His Majesty’s Secret Translation Service. An argument ensues, and Double Oh! shouts at the scholars ‘You’re just not outspoken enough!’ Double Oh! had been insisting the word eonian should replace the word forever in the upcoming Bible they were translating but the scholars were sure heads would roll if that happened because King James preferred the word forever. Later, in the story, Double Oh! meets Will Shakespeare and comments how he likes the way Will uses fate in his plays.

 

'DIAMONDS ARE EONIAN' In this terse, tense, and taut tertiary thriller Double Oh! Heaven is on a mission to prove that diamonds are not forever but no one is buying it. Even the scholars at the Aztec Publishing Concern are reluctant to agree with Double Oh!’s assertion. As one Tappdancer says, ‘Relatively speaking, diamonds are forever even if absolutely they are not.”

 

'LIVE AND LET DIE IN THE LAKE OF FIRE' In this other worldly spectacular Double Oh! Heaven visits the Lake of Fire and discovers that it’s not quite the way he thought it was. ‘Where’s the Fire?” he asks the False Prophet upon which the False Prophet replies, ‘Oh, we don’t light the fire until supper time.’

 

'TOMORROW HAS ALREADY HAPPENED' Is the future set in stone? Double Oh!’s latest assignment is to go there and find out. While there he meets and falls in love with a female spy and it turns out his next movie was to be “THE SPY WHO LOVED ME IN THE FUTURE” but it had to be canceled because when it was found out the future was set in stone tomorrow became yesterday and no movie named “THE SPY WHO LOVED ME IN THE FUTURE” had been scheduled to be made in the past.

 

“Wow. Do you think they might need a TPE to play a part? We work for God too.”

 

Mrs. Shagah raised an eyebrow and replied, “I’ll let Mr. Shagah’s agent know.” She then continued, “It’s a shame he had to go to Hollywood at this point in time because we were just on the verge of releasing a new product.”

 

“Oh, that so? What is it?”

 

“It’s called Shagah Plus. It’s Shagah for men with more than one wife.”

 

***

I had just crossed the Rockies when the cell phone went off.

 

“Is this Nick Neercassel?”

 

“Speaking.”

 

“Hey, Nick, don’t you recognize my voice? It’s your old buddy, Sony Allsurethinger.”

 

I don’t know about the old buddy part but I knew who it was. Sony was on the Board of Trustees at the Aztec Publishing Concern in Desert Country, California. We had crossed paths in 'THE CASE OF THE MARTIN LUTHER DOPPELGANGER'.

 

“What’s up, Sony?”

 

“We heard you were on your way to California.”

 

I wasn’t surprised he knew my whereabouts. The Tappdancers had a network of agents all across the continent.

 

“That’s true. Hollywood, to be exact.”

 

“How about stopping off at the Concern first? We have some information that might be germane to your case.”

 

Sony hung up.

 

Ok, a slight change in plans. So what. The investigation business is one of twists and turns. Oftentimes you just had to go with the flow. Something smelled like Denmark though and I was thinking hard, real hard, about this latest turn of events. What did the Tappdancers know and how did they know it? I thought they were friends with the Shagahs but Sony’s tone hinted at betrayal. Was Mr. Shagah up to no good? And was it no good in an absolute sense or a relative sense? One thing was certain. It wasn’t in a common sense.

 

I spent the whole night and the next day driving and arrived at the Concern at 5 pm. As I drove through the gate of the Concern, there was a rundown feeling to the buildings that had not been perceptible in my earlier visits. I actually saw a coyote running through the strand of cottonwood trees in the eastern section of the compound and as the sun set over an ocean that I could not see, only visualize in the broadest of terms, I realized with a touch of melancholy, that I had traversed a continent, yet was no closer to my real destination.

 

Sony welcomed me at the door and led me to the Board Room where in the Absolute Chair sat D.G. Leary and in the Relative Chair sat Stephen Tyler (not the one from Aerosmith and American Idol). Sony asked me to sit at one end of the table while he sat at the other end in careful balance between the Absolute and the Relative.

 

Sony spoke, “Thanks, Nick, we really appreciate you stopping by.”

 

“How did you know I was in the neighborhood?”

 

“Lance Straightpoint told us.”

 

I was a little taken aback. “Straightpoint is working for you?” Lance Straightpoint had been one of the most celebrated TPEs in the business before losing his license as well as his religion in 'THE CASE OF THE ANCIENT ROCK STARS.'

 

 “He was freelancing, so to speak. Get it? Ha Ha” No one laughed harder at his own jokes than Sony.

 

I hadn’t slept in 36 hours so it was rather hard for me to be amused. “Alright, why don’t you get straight to the point? Ha Ha.” My laughter was sardonic in nature as well as sarcastic.

 

“I hear you, Nick. We here at the Concern are concerned. We believe the Shagahs are in cahoots with the Polygamists to take over the Concern.”

 

Now I had to really laugh. “What the heck are you talking about? Why would the Shagahs, who are on the verge of a big Hollywood deal, want this rundown place?”

 

Stephen Tyler (who was not from Aerosmith or American Idol) spoke up: “You’re looking at this place from the relative viewpoint…” and Leary jumped in, “But you should be looking at it from the absolute perspective.”

 

“Which is?”

 

Sony then replied, “We’ve got gas.”

 

***

“We’ve all got gas,” I replied, “but what’s that got to do with this case?”

 

“No, not that kind; it’s the natural kind that’s found underground. The Concern is sitting on a fortune.”

 

A TPE is tempted by many things but money is not one of them. However, since this supposedly had something to do with the Shagahs I felt I had to listen to what the TOS guys had to say.

 

“But Mr. Shagah is right now in Hollywood on the verge of making a Hollywood deal worth millions.” I said.

 

Sony replied, “That’s all a ruse. Actually, he’s holed up in the law offices of the Clampett Brothers in Beverly Hills, deviously devising plans to legally declare us mentally incompetent.”

 

May not be that big a stretch; a thought I thought but did not vocalize.

 

“I guess Straightpoint told you all this.”

 

“Yes, he’s posing as a paralegal in the law firm. They liked the fact that he was born in the Ozarks.”

 

“Does Lance know how they plan to proceed against you?”

 

“They plan to call us Idle Babblers and say ever since Mr. Von Tapp died we’ve allowed the place to deteriorate.”

 

“But that’s true, isn’t it?”

 

“Well, yes, but if we can hang on long enough to reap the natural gas profits, we’ll be able to renovate the place. Old Man Von Tapp would be pleased. If he was still alive, of course.” ( Lance told me later that the Concern’s new found wealth also meant opening a new branch in Oahu.)

 

“But you also mentioned that the Polygamists were involved in all this. How so?”

 

“They’re bankrolling the Shagahs.”

 

“Why in the world would they do that?”

 

“Because the Shagahs really own Shegah and because Shegah produces runaways, and because the Polygamists are naturally interested in increasing female supply, they saw an opportunity and they seized it by cutting a deal with the Shagahs. It’s really very simple. The Shagahs produce Runaway Shegahs and the Polygamists make a home for them.”

 

“Both Regular and Predestined?”

 

“Of course.”

 

“Where are these Polygamists located?”

 

“Somewhere in the Alleghenies.”

 

I stood up. It was time to go but this time I was headed east.

 

“Where are you going?” cried out Sony, “We need your help!”

 

“Sorry, TOS guys, I’m already on assignment. Lance, though world weary, a little seedy and currently a non-licensed TPE , is still a good investigator. You can count on him.”

 

And with that, I was out the door, and back in the Flying Belt.

 

***

From the desert out West to the Alleghenies in the East was no mere distance even as " ‘that which is caused cannot be free, and that which is free cannot be caused’ is no mere tautology.” W. Scott Fitztaylor . Indeed, as usual, W. Scott was right on the money.

 

I was backtracking, of course, but TPEs do that all the time. It’s the nature of the beast and in this case the beast is human nature. Predictable and unpredictable at the same time; if it was too predictable then anyone could do the job; if it was too unpredictable then no one could.

 

It was to be a long journey but a fast one. No breaks except the kind caused by hunger and thirst and the kind caused by the results of quieting the hunger and slaking the thirst; in other words: bathroom breaks. Speaking of that, I was reminded of a verse in the Bible. It’s found in the Book of Deuteronomy, Chapter 23, verses 13 & 14 (contrary to popular belief, TPEs do read the Old Testament):

 

“Among your weapons, you must also carry a stick to dig with. Then, when you relieve yourself, you must dig a hole and cover it up. This is because the LORD your God is there with you in your camp to save you and to help you defeat your enemies. So the camp must be holy. Then he will not see something disgusting and leave you. “

 

Yes, friends, it was the beginning of the TPE Corps. Our first job was to make sure the Lord didn’t step on crap when he visited his Chosen People. Later, we inspected outhouses. Now our main job is to inspect crappy ideas. Some things never change.

 

Thoughts such as the above kept me company as I once again crossed the Rockies, then the Great Plains, then the Mississippi River, then Western Kentucky and Southern Ohio. The land began rising and I knew the Alleghenies were near.

 

It suddenly occurred to me that I hadn’t slept in almost 72 hours. I knew I would need to be fresh and alert to deal adequately with the Polygamists and rescue Myrtle. I decided to stop on the edge of the western slope of the Alleghenies and take a power nap. Before nodding off, I checked the GPS and discovered I was only about 10 miles from the Polygamists’ Secret Camp slash HQ.

 

I woke up several hours later feeling refreshed and ready for whatever lay ahead. The sun was peeking over the mountains to the east and a day was dawning that promised to be hot, sunny, and Hemingwayesque. I put the Flying Belt into first gear and slowly pulled out into the mountain highway. The road ahead was steep, with many curves, but the curves were fair and good and curvy. They were curves that deserved to be nominated for Curve of the Year. One such curve, though, proved to be almost the end of me. I was doing an easy twenty-five mph when all of a sudden, a tractor trailer truck came roaring around the curve from the other direction. The truck driver had obviously miscalculated the sharpness of the curve. His truck was halfway into my lane and to avoid a head-on collision, I jerked my steering wheel to the right. And went sailing off the cliff…

 

***

And so the Flying Belt and I found ourselves floating down toward the ground. It seemed like a good idea to make a call.

 

“Any advice, Boss?”

 

“Pray.”

 

It was good advice and I took it. But even still my soul was in distress. Was this the end? Then, just when it seemed like all was lost, I heard these heavy grappling sounds on the sides of the SUV. And then, in what seemed much longer but was probably only a second or two, the Flying Belt and I were sitting safely on the ground. Had a miracle occurred?

 

As I slowly recovered my senses, I heard some voices in the vicinity. When I looked outside my window, three men were approaching the SUV.

 

“Hi there, Neighbor, “ the man in the lead spoke.” Close call.”

 

“I say! Are you three men responsible for the fact that I’m still breathing and able to move and have being?”

 

“We sure are. My name is Tom Jones and the two men behind me are my sons Tom, Jr and Jerry.”

 

“Nice to meet you. I’m Nick Neercassel, Theological Private Eye. Just how did you save me, by the way?”

 

“Well, that curve is a daily danger so men from the camp take turns manning it for events such as yours. We have grappling hooks attached to bungee cords. We’ve become pretty good at hitting our targets as they cascade down the cliff. If I do say so myself.”

 

“Well, I’m mighty grateful and the Flying Belt, my SUV, is too.”

 

“You’re more than welcome. Now what brings you to these parts?”

 

“I’m looking for the village of Polygamia. Have you heard of it?”

 

Tom replied, “Heard of it? We are it. I founded Polygamia.” Tom then looked at me more carefully and said, “What brings you here?”

 

“I’m looking for Myrtle Hickok, a Shegah Runaway.” Tom said nothing and I said, “Aren’t you going to ask whether she’s Regular or Predestined?”

 

“You don’t believe in that Post-Modern Pseudo-Freudian BS, do you? There’s no such thing as a Regular Shegah Runaway. There are only Predestined Ones. ”

 

I hadn’t considered that possibility. Everywhere I went people asked me the Regular or Predestined question and I just assumed both types existed. But as a Certified TPE I should have known better than to have assumed anything.

 

Tom was nothing if not gracious and invited me to the village to see if Myrtle was one of the women there. Women outnumbered men 4 to 1 so it took me a while to check all the women out. No Myrtle. I began to wonder if I would ever find her.

 

Before leaving, I asked Tom if the 4 to 1 ratio was a little taxing on the men. He said it was but he was under a long-term contract to Shagah Incorporated to handle all Shegah Runaways and could do nothing about it. He sighed.

 

I had reached the end of the metaphorical investigated road. It was time to head home.

 

***

Sleep was out of the question so I drove all night and reached my home slash office in the crossroads village of Goodsite, South Carolina around ten the next morning. Before collapsing into bed I called Hiram with the bad news. He took it pretty well. Actually, too well.

 

“I thought you would take it a litter harder than this, Hiram.”

 

“But Mr. Neercassel, I mean Nick, Myrtle is at home. She got back three days ago. I would have called you but our tower doesn’t reach the second heaven.”

 

I started thinking I had already gone to bed and was having a nightmare. It took all my willpower just to simply ask where she had been after all. Hiram replied,

 

“Well, that’s the funny part, Nick. Let me tell you a little story. Myrtle’s mama named her after Myrtle Beach, South Carolina and all her life Myrtle has wanted to go there and learn the Shag, which is the state dance. You know how cheap I am. I never would take her. Finally she got fed up with my inaction and decided to go to Myrtle Beach all by herself. And you know what, Nick? I’m glad she did. I’ve never seen so her happy. Now what do you think about that, Nick?”

 

My TPE Code of Ethics would not allow me to say what I really thought. I did manage to ask him,

 

“But what’s that got to do with either Shegah or Shagah?”

 

“Absolutely nothing.”

 

Chapter 2: The Odd God Out

 

It was a beautiful autumn morning in the crossroads village of Goodsite, South Carolina. I was standing under an oak tree looking out across about ten acres of pastureland. In the not too far distance some contented cows were lazily enjoying the sunshine and the Carolina air. They belonged to Shumptuous Dairy where the milk was ‘pasturized’ but never homogenized. The milk was a lot like life, a little lumpy, but nothing a little shaking up couldn’t cure.

 

A couple of months had passed since my last assignment, and I was beginning to wonder if I was being passed over for new assignments. I had made a couple of big blunders in that case, and truth be told, I could have solved the case by simply staying at home and reading a book. But I had never been reprimanded in any official kind of way so maybe it was a just a matter of a temporary moratorium in conundrums theological.

 

Then the celestial cell phone begin ringing...

 

"Neercassel speaking."

 

“Howdy, Mr. Neercassel. This is Earl, a recent graduate of the Pond of Fire Flight Academy, and your soon-to-be personal jet pilot. How are you doing today, sir?”

 

“Well, howdy to you Earl. Call me Nick by the way.”

 

“Yes sir, Nick.”

 

“What can I do for you?” I suppose I should say I was surprised someone named Earl was on the celestial wavelength, but over the years my surprise quotient had become practically immune to surprise. I didn’t know it then but my surprise quotient was about to soon lose its immunity.

 

“It’s more what I can do for you. Can you meet me at the Petiger International Airport in one hour?”

 

“Of course.” A TPE never says no to the celestial cell phone no matter who’s on the other side.

 

There was a problem though. As was usually the case, all 16 motorcycles were in the shop and my SUV, the Flying Belt, was also undergoing heavy repairs due to falling off the side of a mountain. The Petiger Airport was about 12 miles from my home slash office so walking there in an hour was out of the question. I decided to call Selym Namwen, a Meslam (a Methodist offshoot of Islam) friend of mine who lived about thirty minutes away. Fortunately, Selym was available to help. While he was on the way I put a portable toothbrush in my pocket and charged up my celestial, all the while wondering why the Boss hadn’t personally called.

 

***

Selym was right on time and I said both hello and thanks as I hopped into his Plymouth minivan. Selym had just retired as a PPE (Philosophical Private Eye) and was currently writing his memoirs tentatively entitled ‘SOCRATES AND SAM SPADE: THE PHILOSOPHICAL RAMBLINGS OF A PHILOSOPHICAL PRIVATE EYE.’ Catchy title, but then Selym had always had an eye for the subtle and a flair for the sublime.

 

He asked me as I buckled up, “Why the sense of urgency, Nick?”

 

“A jet is picking me up at Petiger in twenty minutes. Courtesy of the Boss.”

 

“What’s it about?”

 

“The pilot wouldn’t say. But if the Boss isn’t talking over the celestial then it must be something really big. Too big to take a chance of it being overheard.”

 

“Well, don’t fret too much, Nick. You know what we Retired Meslam PPEs always say.”

 

“You can kiss your kismet goodbye?”

 

***

As it so happened the jet with the angel shaped wings was taxiing on the runway as we were driving up to the gate. And a few minutes later, after taking off my shoes and emptying my pockets at the check-in gate, I was sitting in the back compartment of the somewhat smallish plane. Sitting across from me were the aforementioned, Earl, the pilot, and an older man who identified himself as Nehemiah Paidion, professor of astro-hermeneutics at the Pond of Fire Graduate School.

 

Earl said he had to get back to work in preparing the plane for take-off. We were leaving in about fifteen minutes. The professor started talking,

“Nick, you’re probably wondering what this is all about.”

 

“Sure do, Professor. I was beginning to think I had been put out to pasture and now I’m about to take off in a jet plane on what may be the most intriguing assignment of my career.”

 

“I’ll get right to the point, Nick. The Ghost is gone.”

 

I gasped, “You mean THE Ghost?”

 

“The one and only. For the first time in his career, he’s AWOD.”

 

AWOD? I wasn’t familiar with the term but before I could ask the Professor what it meant, he said, “Absent WithOut Definition.”

 

“I have no clue what you’re talking about, Prof. But please keep your explanation as simple as possible. I’m just a Class II TPE, after all.”

 

“As you wish. To put it simply, The Ghost, as far as both terrestrial and celestial sciences are concerned, has ceased to exist. It is axiomatic that that which by definition cannot be defined does not have existence.”

 

I couldn’t believe my ears.

 

Just then, Earl walked into the cabin and announced we were leaving in five minutes. I asked if he had any Shumptuous chocolate milk in the fridge. Thankfully he did. I asked for a double.

 

A few minutes later the jet took off without any difficulty. It suddenly struck me that I had no idea where we were headed. I had been so shocked by the news about The Ghost that I had momentarily forgotten about the mission at hand.

The Professor shook me out of my revelry.

 

“Don’t you want to know what your, that is our, mission is?”

 

“Shoot, Professor.”

“Our job is to find The Ghost and convince him to exist once again; i.e., to once again be in a state of definition.”

 

Wow. Another find and convince job but I don’t think staying at home and reading a book would get the job done this time. How do you find something that by definition does not exist and then convince that which does not exist to exist?

 

“Where do we begin?” I took a sip of chocolate milk.

 

“Our first stop is the San Fernando Valley where we’ll meet with Donn McClean, retired rock and roller.”

 

“He actually agreed to meet with us? Most old Rockers don’t like to deal with theological conundrums. Drums, yes, conundrums, no.”

 

“He said he would. Straightpoint has made all the arrangements.”

 

“Lance is back in action?” I asked.

 

“Yes, but only because we need everybody to find nobody. Straightpoint has been reinstalled with the caveat he’ll have to attend Pond of Fire Rehab training when this is all over.”

 

“So tell me about this McClean guy. What does he know that we don’t?”

 

“Back in 1971 he wrote a song entitled ‘Bye, Bye, Miss American Asparagus.’ (Asparagus was the name of McClean's golden retriever who had died the year before. Her death had inspired the song.) It was a long song, six minutes or so, but it was a big hit and the radio stations were willing to play it in its entirety. But we’re not interested in the whole song. We’re only interested in one verse. It went like this…”

 

The three men I admire most

The Boss, Boss Jr., and the Ghost

One of them got lost on the coast

The day Asparagus died

 

I stroked my chin thoughtfully. “Almost a premonition, isn’t it? Did McClean have access to the celestial wavelength?”

 

“Class I TPE, but he gave it up when his song made the Top Forty.”

 

“I don’t know. Class I TPEs don’t usually have premonitions.” I stood up and went to the fringe and grabbed another Shumptuous chocolate milk. “Want one, Professor?”

 

“No thanks. I’m allergic to chocolate. I will take a water bottle though. Any Perrier?”

 

I handed the Professor a bottle of water and sat back down. “What about the Boss and BJ (Boss Jr.)? What are they doing about the Ghost’s disappearance?”

 

“The most recent report from the Astro-Eschatological SkyLab slash Celestial Telescope said the Boss was looking in the M75 galaxy and BJ was just leaving the Andromeda Galaxy. They plan to search the whole universe if they have to.”

 

“I guess two searchers are better than one.”

 

“Yes and no. The problem is even if they split the Universe in half for purposes of searching they still, because the Universe is infinite to begin with, have an infinite Universe to search.”

 

“But is that really that big a problem? After all, they can be everywhere at once.”

 

“That’s a misconception. Now when the Boss, BJ, and The Ghost are linked as they have been for eternity and because The Ghost has the ability to be everywhere at once, then the Boss and BJ, by way of association, can also be considered to be everywhere at once. But now that the triangle has been severed at one angle, the Boss and BJ are limited to just one place at any one time. The good news is they’re very fast but the bad news is there’s lots of ground to cover.”

 

“Our task seems to be pretty hopeless.”

 

“Perhaps not. I have a theory.”

 

“I’m listening.”

 

“The Ghost is here on Earth or to put it more correctly, The Ghost is experiencing his non-existence here on Earth.”

 

The metaphysics were dancing around the cabin. I just hoped the oxygen supply wasn’t affected.

 

“Why would he choose to non-exist on Earth if he could non-exist in the Universe? He’d have a lot more places to non-exist in the Universe. If non-existence is what he's after, as I presume it is, or why else non-exist?”

 

“Your reasoning is sound and is ergo probably the same as the Boss and BJ. The Ghost knows that and that’s why I believe he’s non-existing here on Earth. It is in his mind, I contend, his best bet to remain non-existent.”

 

“That makes sense. But why can’t we get the Associates to help us?” (Editor’s Note: the Associates were called Angels or Messengers for billions of years until 1995 when the Boss changed their name. Sam Walton, upon entering the Third Heaven, had become BJ’s business consultant. He had done such a good job for BJ that the Boss had started appreciating Wal*Mart’s organizational genius. Besides allowing Wal*Mart to be the sole distributor for BJ’s CDs – the first one was ‘The Free Wheelin’ Boss Jr.’ – he had also had adopted some of their terminology).

“They’re tied up in the Alpha Centauri system fighting The Man and his Minions. (Editor’s Note: ‘The Man’ was a euphemism TPEs and Pond of Fire employees used for THE DIABOLICAL ONE. We didn’t like him, in fact we hated him, but we had learn to respect his power and influence.)

 

I took one last gulp of the Shumptuous. “So it’s up to us to find The Ghost?”

 

“That about shums, I mean sums, it up.”

 

As I walked to the fridge for another round, I took the opportunity to look out a small, rectangle shaped window on the port side of the plane. All I could see was bright blue sky and white, wispy clouds, but I sensed somehow there was a universe of stars in cosmic disarray that lay behind the prosaic skyscape.

 

It was a smallish plane but it had a longish range. After about three thousand miles we were nearing San Fernando Valley’s Conquistador Jetport. Upon landing, a limousine was waiting for us. Our chauffeur was named Jimmah, who turned out to be a Moslam (Mormon offshoot of Islam) and we had quite a lively discussion on the way to Donn McClean’s home. He knew about the Tom Jones Polygamia experiment and was generally in favor of it.

 

The house turned out to be at the end of a long, eucalyptus tree-lined driveway. It was nothing to be ashamed of and it was obvious ‘Bye, Bye, Miss American Asparagus’ had been very good to Donn.

 

Donn met us at the door and invited us into his study slash recording studio where a fire was crackling and the sounds of BJ’s latest album (‘BJ on the Tracks’) was playing in the background. Donn motioned us to sit down and asked if we would like anything to drink. I asked for a Shumptuous but Donn said the Commerce Department (this was before President Obama had decided to get rid of it) had not approved it for sale west of the Mississippi (not approving Shumptuous for sale on the West Coast may have been one of the primary reasons the President wanted to abolish it). The Professor and I both had a Shagah Lite instead. Apparently it was a new product from Shagah Incorporated. It reminded me of Old Milwaukee, watery but with no bad aftertaste.

 

Donn asked us what he could do for us. The Professor did not try to explain the Cosmic Predicament the Universe was in but simply said he had always been a big fan and wanted to know the genesis of one of the verses of Donn’s most famous songs.

 

“What verse might that be?” Donn amiably asked.

 

“The one that contains the line ‘One of them got lost on the coast.’ Which one of the three were you referring to?”

 

Donn look befuddled. He began to stammer incoherently.

 

The Professor began to lose his patience. The immensity of the situation had begun to wear on him. “Think man! The whole Universe is at stake!”

 

Donn’s incoherence didn’t seem to be waning. I walked over to his fridge and got a Shagah HD (Heavy and Dark; another new product from Shagah Ink; this one promised to be fuller, richer, and less watery than Shagah Lite). A few swallows brought Donn back to coherence.

 

“Ah… that’s an interesting question.” Donn began. It was obvious he was being evasive.

 

“Which I hope has an interesting answer.” The Professor spoke rather sharply.

 

“Look here, I might as well fess up. I didn’t write that particular verse. A woman I was seeing at the time had read the lyrics of a song I was working on which would eventually become ‘Bye, Bye, Miss American Asparagus’. She said she really liked it but thought it was missing a verse. Funny thing, in all our time together it was only time she ever suggested any lyrics.”

 

“What was her name?”

 

“Inca Angelou.”

 

“Don’t you mean Maya Angelou?”

 

“No, it was Inca. Maya was a distant cousin.”

 

“Whatever happened to Inca?”

 

“Last I heard she married an artist named Aztec Devilou and moved to Taco, New Mexico.”

 

“So now she goes by Inca Devilou?”

 

Donn nodded. As we were leaving, I grabbed two Shagah Lites out of the fridge. The Professor looked like he needed one. I knew I did.

 

***

Earl was waiting for us at Conquistador. He seemed to be in a good mood. He told us he had spent the interval talking Karma Theory with a Haslam (a Hare Krishna offshoot of Islam). 

 

It was time for another Shumptuous. The Professor wanted another Shagah Lite. Luckily Earl, anticipating the Professor’s needs, had bought a six-pack before leaving the Jetport. He told us later a free manual with instructions on how to improve one’s sex life in six easy steps came with every six-pack. I never got to see it because Earl had inadvertently placed it in the jet exhaust when pulling out a Lite for himself. The FAA allowed pilots to drink Shagah Lite while flying because it was classified by the FDA as a TCW (Tasty Colored Water).

 

Soon we were back in the air headed for Taco. I asked the Professor, “Are you familiar with these Devilous?”

 

The professor looked preoccupied. A few seconds elapsed and I asked the question again. He replied,

 

“Not Inca but I do know Aztec. He’s the grandson of the late Alonzo Von Tapp, founder of Aztec Publishing Concern.”

 

“But how can he help us find The Ghost?”

 

“I have a hunch. Now stay with me on this. I believe The Ghost inspired Inca back in 1971 to suggest those lyrics to McClean. He knew Inca would one day probably marry Aztec. He didn’t know for sure but the stats and the stars were pointing in that direction.”

 

“And what makes Aztec so potentially important to our mission?”

 

“He knows how to speak Mayan. We need him to interpret the stone inscriptions once we reach the temple ruins.”

 

Once the Professor said the word Mayan my mind started clicking on its own and pretty soon the full gears and internal combustion of an alert and ready TPE was revving at a high level of RPMs. Years of training at the Pond of Fire TPE Institute had not been in vain. Yes, it was the autumn of 2011 and the Mayan prediction that the world would end at the end of 2012 meant the end was still over a year away, but with the recent turn of events, could the end be nearer than we thought, and if so, was this the reason The Ghost had become non-existent?


My eyes had been closed while I had been doing all this heavy thinking and when I opened them the Professor was gazing at me in such a way that he must have known what I had been thinking. He said, “Take a look at this.” and handed me the following document (Editor’s note: the document turned out to be marked classified by the THEA –Third Heaven Extra-intelligence Agency – so it can be not reproduced here without severe repercussions. However, THEA has allowed us to reveal one paragraph for purposes of keeping the plot moving):

 

“There is a yet-undiscovered physical process, apparently involving the interplanetary medium (i.e. hydrogen gas or protons) and the so-called Hubble acceleration (which might be a misinterpreted local physical phenomenon). This process has a period of about 6500 yr.; ancient astronomers thought it was due again in 2012AD, hence the Mayan Long Count(down). Every 6000-6500 yr., Earth gets hit by something like a big flyswatter from space. It's not the end of Creation, but it seems like it. Our species gets thinned out, but picks up the pieces and continues, though with some historical amnesia.” Joe Keller (THEA Extra-Special Agent).

 

After reading the entire document, I knew I was on to something. But I had no idea what. The Professor, on the other hand…

 

***

Taco was a bustling artists’ town in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. It was nighttime and the western sky was ablaze with millions of points of light. The Boss and BJ were out there among those points of light searching for a ghost. But so were we.

Aztec was a big man in his sixties who sported a full grey beard as well as a healthy paunch and a painter’s panache. Inca was much smaller with delicate features. She was serving us beef tacos with frijoles and tamales. We thanked her profusely.

“I thank you. I don’t get to cook like I like to cook much anymore. Aztec is a Vegan. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him, but I love him anyway.”


Between mouthfuls, the Professor explained pertinent aspects of the situation to Aztec. He then asked him, “Can you help us?”


“My Mayan is mighty rusty, but what the heck, old man Tapp would have wanted me to give it a shot.” Aztec replied.

I had finally caught up with the Professor. He suspected that The Ghost had taken it upon himself to attempt to save the world from the Mayan Calendar Cataclysm. But in doing so it might mean that The Ghost’s current state of non-existence might become permanent. The Professor intended not to let that happen. 

I had also learned that all of Alonzo Von Tapp’s children and grandchildren had not only learn to speak Aztecan but Mayan as well. When asked why, Von Tapp replied, “If they don’t do it, who will?” 

Inca had fond memories of her time with McClean but had no recollection of recommending a particular set of lyrics to him. It was obviously a case of The Ghost at work.

I asked the Professor, “But if The Ghost knew that he was going to attempt to save the world in 2011, why would he engineer a message back in 1971 that might end up thwarting his attempt?”

“Funny you should say 2011. Don’t you mean 2012?”

 

I was a little flustered. Did I mean 2012? No, I didn’t! Peril was in the air and the danger was both immanent and profound.

 

I replied to the Professor, “Linear Time is in flux, isn’t it?”

 

“I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head. According to the astro-cosmological-relativity-theological scientific instruments located at the Pond of Fire Physics Lab, time has been speeding up for the last 6500 years. Only a fraction of a second per year, but enough to move time forward so that what would be December 21, 2011 will actually be (for us anyway) October 7, 2011.”

 

October 7? That was tomorrow!

 

Time was short, and not only that, even shorter. We didn’t have twenty-four hours. Because of the time flux, we only had twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes and 59.999999999999999999999999991 seconds.

 

“What do we do next?”

 

“We're flying to Chichen Itza!"

 

***

We were on the plane again flying at top speed on our way to the coast of Southeastern Mexico.

 

“Professor, you never answered my question about why The Ghost might be willing to thwart his own plans.”

 

“My best hypothesis is that he somehow planted a time controlled Metaphysical Warning Beeper (MWB). Since it was metaphysical, it wasn't limited by the ordinary laws of nature. Contrary to the tenets of Caslam (a Calvinist offshoot of Islam) hermeneutics the future is not set in stone. The future is open to various possibilities and sundry developments. The Ghost knew that with a MWB he was setting the stage for a heroic rescue attempt at preventing him from becoming permanently non-existent.”

 

“So The Ghost really wants to exist?”

 

“I don’t say this lightly. It would seem so.”

 

***

(Editor's note: please indulge us while an omniscient narrator briefly makes an appearance.)

 

If you’re standing on a clear night in the Mojave Desert and you’re about a mile from any road or highway and you look up into the sky in the direction of the North Star, and if you imagine you could actually see another 3 million light years or so beyond the North Star, you might see another star; a large yellow one burning brightly. And you might see in the halo of that star the outlines of two figures that appear to be having a casual conversation:

 

“No luck, eh, in the XM11115987 Galaxy?”

 

“Nothing. Just like in the 17,234 galaxies I’ve searched previously.”

 

“Same here. You know I miss the old fellow. He was never actually there with us because he was everywhere but he was the kind of fellow that was always there when you needed him even when he wasn’t. If you know what I mean.”

 

“He could be funny when he wanted to be. I especially liked the times when he called himself THE ODD GOD OUT. He’d asked, “Why am I always mentioned last? Why is it always the Boss, BJ, and The Ghost? Why couldn’t it sometimes be The Boss, The Ghost, and BJ or better yet The Ghost, the Boss and BJ?”

 

“And then he’d sometimes complain that you got to sit at my right hand while he, always having to be everywhere, never had the chance to be just somewhere. But you know, he never let his gripes interfere with or negatively affect the quality of his work.”

 

“How true.”

 

“But let’s be serious for a moment. Our decision making process is in shambles. Contrary to some thinking we did not plan out everything billions of years ago; too much trouble and besides there’s no fun in that. Much more fun to make decisions on an as needed basis and for that we had devised (after billions of years of trying) a pretty darn good system. On any issue I would let you two vote first. If you two agreed we’d go ahead with that plan. If you two disagreed, I would cast the deciding vote. Simple? Yes, but highly effective. Now that we’re down to two, the decision making process is much tougher. I don’t like pulling rank but there may be times I’ll have to and it’ll be a miracle if our relationship isn’t strained in the process.”

 

“We need him back in the triangle to make this thing work like it should.”

“That means we keep looking.”

 

“Let’s meet again after diligently scouring at least 20,000 galaxies each. We need to pick up the pace. No more star gazing.”

 

***

I could feel the quickness of time as it compressed upon me. All history was cascading toward the Mayan Temple of Kukulcan. Sure, it was a ruin, but there were many times when I felt like one myself.

 

The Professor had Google Earth up on his laptop and was up in the cockpit collaborating with Earl. They were pinpointing Kukulcan and also checking wind currents. Oh, didn’t I tell you? We were parachuting down to the ruin. There were no landing strips in the area.

 

Earl was upset. We had told him to fly to Mexico City after we had made our jump. He felt by doing so he would accrue some Karma deficit. His Karma was telling him he needed to remain a part of the action.

 

“Maybe next time, Earl.” The Professor told him.

 

“There may not be a next time.” Earl replied. No one said anything.

 

About ten minutes later, we were jumping out of the plane. In the distance below, we could see a few lights in the darkness.

 

As were drifting down, something caught my eye to my right. I turned and an airborne fiery ball was hurtling in our direction. The seconds passed and I looked in horror as it crashed into the temple.

 

We were too late!

 

Or were we?

 

***

There was something almost redolent in the air. My eyes seemed to be closed and I seemed to be lying on my back. I felt no pain. I first tested my arms to see if they could move, then my legs. They were all in working order. I then opened my eyes to see if they could see. They did. I then moved my body into a sitting position and looked at the structures in front of me. I was sitting on a dirt street in what appeared to be a small town.

 

“Howdy, stranger. What brings you to Dime Box, Texas?”

 

The voice came from behind me. I turned my head and there stood a scrawny teenager with a big headful of black hair holding a beat up guitar.

 

“That’s a good question.” was all I could reply.

 

“Well, Dime Box loves strangers, especially if they like to eat.”

 

I suddenly realized I was ravenous. I felt like I hadn’t eaten in years.

 

“Well, I’m a little hungry.” I replied, and then for some reason another question popped into my head. “By the way, what year is it?”

 

“1959.”

 

 

Chapter 3: Author Godfree

 

I’m thinking it was some sort of non-linear temporal vortex that had sent me from 2011 Central America (or was it Southern Mexico? I was never sure about the location of the Mayan Ruins) to 1959 Dime Box, Texas. But even if I wasn’t in my currently confused and befuddled state of mind, and even if I was instead in my usual sharp and focused TPE institute trained mind, I couldn’t tell you what a ‘non-linear temporal vortex’ was; to be honest, I don’t even know where the term came from; the first sentence just seemed to write itself. But nonetheless, whatever state of mind my state of mind was currently in, it was a state of mind that found itself in the state of Texas.

 

***

My brand new acquaintance identified himself as Bobby D. He helped me to my feet and we started walking to what he called the B6 Family Diner, Drive-In and Dive.

 

“But how can it be all three? Doesn’t it have to be one or the other or the other?” I asked.

 

“You don’t explain things in Dime Box. They just are and the B6 is all three.”

 

We walked to the end of Kinsey St. and turned left on Main St. The B6 was then two blocks down on the right. When we got to it, I have to say I wasn’t too impressed by its façade. The B6 looked like (and actually was it turned out) a double-wide trailer with an added-on porch on the side. (“That’s the dive section.” Bobby told me). When I asked about the drive-in part, Bobby said that most people drove to the restaurant. Walking wasn’t big in Dime Box.

 

We got a table for two in the crowded dining room. From experience, Bobby recommended I order child’s portions. “The management gets upset if you don’t clean your plate and unless you’re a whole lot bigger eater than you appear to be, you’ll be getting the riot act. Trust me, I speak from experience.” As hungry I was, it was all I could do to eat all of the child’s portions that were put before me.

 

During the meal, Bobby and I talked about how he had become a resident, albeit, a temporary one of Dime Box.

 

“I’m from Minnesota. On my 18th birthday I bought a bus ticket for Texas. Dime Box was as far as I got before I ran out of money.”

 

“How far did you want to go?”

 

“I wanted to go all the way to Austin and investigate the Western Swing movement. My dream is to be a professional musician. But I’ve been stuck here in Dime Box for the last few months.”

 

“Still no money?”

 

“I’ve been working as a dishwasher here at the B6. But I just quit this morning. I’ve saved up my money and now I’m going to Austin.”

 

I had never traveled through time before so I wasn’t up on Time Travel Proper Protocol. What could I say and what couldn’t I say? But it was pretty obvious Bobby was headed in the wrong direction. I finally deciding a little nudging wouldn’t hurt. Heck, the Mayan Calendar Catastrophe might have already messed up Time beyond repair anyway.

 

 “Bobby, what instrument do you play?”

 

“Acoustic guitar.”

 

“Have you ever considered the folk scene? Pete Seeger, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Woody Guthrie. Why I bet you can play some mean Woody.”

 

Bobby looked thoughtful. “That’s a good suggestion. But where do I start?”

 

“You start by going back to Minnesota.” Bobby started to protest. “Hear me out. When you get back there teach yourself the harmonica. It’ll give you some street cred, I mean authenticity, to your folk act. Wait a few years before you go electric though. Build a base that will stick with you through thick and thin.”

 

Bobby was getting the idea. “Should I write my own songs?”

 

“Of course. But make the lyrics opaque and esoteric. People will think you’re smart. Stick with protest songs to begin with; the girls really go for them. Here’s a good theme: write about how 1 % of the country owns most of the wealth and how the other 99% get the shaft. Wait a minute, don’t use those terms. Just use the term ‘greedy rich bastards.’”

 

“Bastard is a hard word to rhyme.”

 

“Trust me. You’ll find you’re a better word rhymer than you ever imagined.”

 

“Where do I take my act?”

 

“Greenwich Village in New York City is a good place to start. But you’re going to have to change your name. Bobby D sounds like a motel lounge act. What does the D stand for?”

 

“Deerfield.”

 

“Too long. Keep the D and randomly pick four letters from the alphabet. Put them after the D in any order. Doesn’t matter. And change Bobby to Bob. It’s time to become a man.”

 

“That’s funny. That’s the same thing Matilda the cook told me last week at closing time one night.” Bobby’s face suddenly turned red.

 

Bobby, I mean Bob, seemed grateful for my advice. As we parted he asked, “Will I find the answers I’m looking for?”

 

“Not all of them. But the ones you do find,” I paused pensively, “might be blowin’ in the wind.”

***

Bobby had offered to pay for my meal, but knowing that he needed every penny he had to get back to Minnesota, I politely declined. I was in a quandary, though. TPEs never carried cash. Our Third Heaven issued TPE credit cards were good everywhere, and I mean everywhere: all parts of Earth, all parts of the Solar System, Third Heaven Cafeteria, etc. and even supposedly throughout Eternity (past, present, and future). Its motto was ‘Don’t Leave The Universe Without It’. But it seemed there was one thing the Associates at the TH Credit Bureau did not consider. The B6 accepted only cash (or coins to be more exact; they really loved the shiny ones).

 

There was one other option. Because of the volume of food that was dished out on a daily basis, dishwashers were always needed at the B6. I worked doing so until about 2 am (which also paid for my breakfast), took a nap in an area designed for dishwashers to sleep in (much like rooms used by overworked interns in a hospital), woke up about 6 am, ate breakfast (which was enough food for the whole day), brushed my teeth with my portable toothbrush (which thankfully hadn’t fallen out of my pocket while I was hurtling through the non-linear temporal vortex) and at 6:30 am was on my way to College Station, Texas.

 

***

I was able to hitch a ride to Sweetwater Flats, which had a bus station and a bank. With my TPE credit card, I got some much needed 1959 hard currency at the bank. I then went to the bus station and bought a one way ticket to College Station, home of Texas A&M and probably the greatest research institution in the nation. If anyone could help me find The Ghost, it was the sophisticated scientists at A&M.

 

I was winging it in the dark. No celestial cell phone connection, and even if I had one, who was I going to call? The Boss and Boss Jr. were millions of light years away; the Associates were tied up in a battle in the Alpha Centauri System with The Man and his Minions that might last another 500 years; and then there was The Ghost. Where was he? Now you might ask, hasn’t 1959 already occurred and if that’s true, wasn’t the Boss, Boss Jr. and the Ghost around at that time? The answer of course would be yes but maybe this wasn’t the same 1959 as that 1959 and in this 1959 they were gone or missing as described above. Weighing all the possibilities, I decided that was the best assumption to go on.

 

It looked like I was suddenly living in a god free world, and if that was the case, maybe it was time I gave atheism a real hard look.

 

***

Before stepping on the bus, I bought the latest edition of the Dallas Morning Views. With all the changes that were going on, there was one fundamental fact that hadn’t changed. Even in what might be a godless world, I was still a Class II Theological Private Eye and I still had a job to do. Just because it was virtually an impossible job didn’t deter me. Not in the least.

 

I bought the Views because I was looking for clues. Newspapers in 1959 in many ways were more informative than newspapers in 2011. They had to be. Cable TV, the internet, and twitter were not yet available.

 

I read every section very carefully. I was hoping that some obscure tidbit of information (“Information is the enemy of uncertainty” as some scientific pundit would write years later.) would jump out and grab my attention. Nothing did but in the entertainment section there was a line that was interesting but didn’t strike me as important at the time: ‘Divorce rate in Hollywood goes down for third year in a row.’ I wish now at the time I had paid more heed to that line and had given it more thought. Doing so might have saved me from a life threatening situation. But I didn’t.

 

***

College Station was looking lazy in the noonday sun (the paper was dated June 12 – so the non-linear temporal vortex had not only displaced years but months and days as well). The bus station turned out to be only ten blocks or so from the A&M campus so I walked there. It felt good to walk in the warm, Texas sun. The exercise was good for me too as I was still suffering from being stuffed in Dime Box.

 

I saw a crowd of people standing around a statue that stood at the entrance to the campus. Apparently it was the birthday of a famous Texan and the statue was dedicated to him. I was able to get close enough to read the inscription at the bottom of the statue:

 

Dedicated to the memory of:

 

Colonel Billy Bob Ledbetter

 

Born June 12, 1850 – Died December 31, 1949

 

Knew that God did not exist, but yet still able to build

 

Financial empire as Religious Huckster

 

Didn’t give Religion a bad name, because it already had one

 

“I am not sincere, even when I say I am not. “

 

-Jules Renard, writer

 

A tribute to an Atheistic Religious Huckster? How strange that seemed, but then I remembered I was in College Station where anything goes.

 

Just then a loud horn went off and I expected a fire truck to come rushing by. But no one seemed perturbed by the horn. They did, however, begin quickly strolling in the direction of a big bowl-like structure that appeared to be about a quarter of a mile away. I stood still as the crowd moved away from me. One of the young men in the group stopped and looked back at me. He asked, “Aren’t you coming to the game?”

 

I walked up toward him, “What game?”

 

“Why the football game, of course. It’s Saturday afternoon, ain’t it?

 

“Football? But isn’t it baseball season?”

 

The young man looked at me wild-eyed like I was some sort of heretic in the Dark Ages. I knew college kids loved bonfires. I just hoped one of them wasn’t meant for me.

 

Sensing I was in danger, I reacted as only a well-trained TPE could and would. I pretended that I had made a joke. The man didn’t laugh, but neither did he call on his friends to help him tie me to the stake. He just shrugged and started walking toward the stadium.

 

I waited a few moments then followed him, but not too closely. He might look back and change his mind.

 

My next big surprise happened at the ticket gate. There was none. No one was collecting any money or tickets. There was a reason why but I wouldn’t find it out until halftime.

 

Once inside, I was lucky to find a seat. The stadium was packed. The game hadn’t even started and the place was going wild.

 

The A&M team, nicknamed the Aggies, was playing their hated rival, the Longhorns from the University of Texas.

 

It turned out to be quite a game and I learned things that are still hard to believe.

 

***

The game is now over. It’s midnight and I’ve been sitting for the past six hours in a dark and dank college bar on the edge of the campus. In that time I’ve had about ten Old Milwaukees (Shagah Lite won’t be on the market for 52 years). Since OM is nothing more than slightly alcoholic colored water I am totally sober. I needed to be so I could digest what I had seen and heard in the afternoon. It’s a good thing I couldn’t call the Third Heaven or a fellow TPE. No would have believed me. They would have thought I was drunk. And they may have been right. I wonder. Did the Aggie bartender spike the OM?

 

In an effort to remain coherent, I am going to simply list what I learned. Since, as far as I know, I am the only person from 2011 now living in 1959 (well, in this particular and peculiar 1959) I have no witnesses that I can ask to corroborate these assertions. Either simply believe me or simply don’t. I would wash my hands of it if I could but there’s no soap in the bathroom.

 

 

 

Here in no particular order is the game of ‘College Football’ as it was played on June 12, 1959 in College Station, Texas:

 

1. Entrance to the game is free because a collection plate is passed around at halftime.

 

2. Also, at halftime, a band plays and a chorus sings ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our Football’ while little bits of beef brisket and tiny cups of Shiner beer are passed around to all the players, coaches, school officials, game officials, press members, students and spectators.

 

3. When a player is headed for a touchdown, he is said to be ‘Glory Bound’.

 

4. The coach of the Aggies is named Herbert W. Armstrong. The QB is his son, Garner Ted.

 

5. The games are played on Saturday because, according to Armstrong, if there was a God, he would have wanted them to play on that day because it was God’s Play Day.

 

6. Penalties, such as off sides or holding, are called sins. If a player commits a sin, he has to ask forgiveness from the game official who called the sin. The game official subjectively decides whether or not to forgive the sin. If he does not, the team with the sinner has to pay a tithe (ten yard penalty).

 

7. Football is played year round. All other sports are banned. The young man did turn me in and I was accused of blasphemy and threatened with excommunication. When they found out I just passing through they let me go with a warning.

 

8. A huddle is called a Prayer Circle.

 

9. What I know as a ‘Hail Mary’ pass they call a ‘Hail Darwin.’

 

10. Madeline O’Hare is the Commissioner of the Texas Football Synod.

 

11. ‘Getting to the Promised Land’ means going to the Cotton Bowl on New Year’s Day.

 

12. An ‘Altar Call’ is when fans storm the field once the game is over.

 

I could go on but I think you get the drift.

 

 

 

***

It was about one am when it struck me that I wasn’t going to find any answers in College Station. The fact that I could think that thought meant I was probably still sane.

 

But where do I go from here?

 

Have you ever wondered just where the brain stores things? Things that we see, feel, experience, read, hear, smell, touch, etc. All those things must still be in the brain. The problem is to getting to them, especially the ones that can open up the doors of mystery and can lead us to the answers that we so desperately seek. A highly trained TPE should be equipped at all times (pun intended) and places to find ways to access those seemingly impenetrable mysteries.

 

It was time I put my TPE training to work. Bereft of almost all modern private eye essentials, I realized all I had in a god free world was my brain.

 

Would it be enough?

 

It was something I would have to think about.

 

***

The next morning after a few hours of sleep on the Prescott Bush Bench in the Bear Bryant Town Park, I flipped a coin; the first of two flips actually. The first flip established whether I would go either east/west or north/south. East/west won. Then I flipped again. I was headed west.

 

My plan was simple. I would travel in a westerly direction and the only thing I would do while traveling was think. Since the purpose of the thinking was to come up with a final destination there was no reason to hurry. As long as I was both moving westerly and thinking, I was doing my job.

 

Prayer would do no good because there was no one to pray to; neither would positive thinking because TPEs were not trained to think positively (or negatively for that matter). We were just trained to think.

 

And that was what I planned to do.

 

The thinking would be its own reward. It also might yield a nugget of information that would propel me to the next nugget of information and so on and so on.

 

I decided the best combination of travel and thinking could be found on a train going from Houston to El Paso. I took a Greyhound to Houston, then a taxi to the train station and soon was riding the rails to El Paso.

 

I took my seat and started thinking. Real hard.

 

***

Somewhere between Austin and El Paso while thinking real hard, I came up with a thought. To find The Ghost I would need to think like The Ghost. It immediately struck me that that might not be an easy thing to do. But if the Boss was on the celestial, I know just what he would say: “I never promised you easy.”

 

Now if I had spent all my previous existence everywhere, not just somewhere, how would it have affected me? One way might be I would know things in a surface manner. Because I was so spread out my knowledge of them would be skimpy. Also, I would probably not be real familiar with idiomatic ways of speaking. I would most likely be very literal minded and I would miss many of life’s nuances. In other words, my knowledge would be broad not deep. Now please don’t take this as a criticism of The Ghost. He had a job to do and that job was being the Everywhere. The Boss took care of the Everything while BJ was the Everyman. They had made a great combo. Would we ever see such again?

 

The train pulled into El Paso. I got out and stretched and then went straight to the ticket booth. For some reason I bought a ticket to Los Angeles.

 

Still moving west. Still thinking hard.

 

***

While being lost traveling in time, I had lost track of time while traveling on the tracks. And then it hit me. From the depths of my brain there busted out a clue: ‘Divorce rate in Hollywood down for third year in a row.’ That had to be the most incredulous statement ever written. Such a thing was against everything Hollywood stood for; in a god free world, that was a definition of a miracle. But if it was a miracle, then there had to be a god behind it; or the remnants of a god. A god who had become human but still had enough of the vital force in him to effect changes all around him. Yes, some kind of good spirit was emanating outward over the usually adulterous Hollywood avenues.

 

For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I knew where The Ghost was located.

 

The train arrived in LA on time, or so I assumed, but since I was living in the wrong time there didn’t seem to be any right time.

 

I found a decent motel and checked in using my Third Heaven issued TPE credit card. After taking a much needed shower, I sat down on the bed and started perusing the phone book.

 

It was going to be a long night.

 

***

The hours slipped by. My eyes were both bloodshot and heavy. The coffee was no longer working. I had made it to the G’s and was just about ready to give up the search for a while and grab some shut-eye.

 

Then I saw it. Why hadn’t I thought of it myself? I knew The Ghost would be literal minded so it followed he would chose a name and profession that would literally describe who he was and what he did. And there it was, on page 147 of the Greater Los Angeles Phone Book. As follows:

 

Godfree, Author 1953 Simpson Ave. Mulberry exchange P1453

 

It didn’t list his profession but can you guess it like I did?

 

I thought you could.

 

He was a Ghostwriter.

 

***

The next few days were rather exciting. I explored the back lots of Hollywood and got to meet several people in the movie and television industries. My biggest thrill was visiting the set of ‘Peter Gunn’. After he died, Craig Stevens, the actor who played Gunn, was asked to be on the Third Heaven TPE Institute Board of Advisors as well as work as a Third Shift Cafeteria Supervisor. I couldn’t tell him that, of course, when I met him in 1959.

 

Meeting Author Godfree was another matter. He was definitely in Hollywood but everywhere I went to find him he was no longer there; still acting like The Ghost but with a much more limited range.

 

But I wasn’t going to give up easily. If I couldn’t talk Author Godfree into becoming The Ghost again, I could at least see if he could somehow send me back to 2011.

 

It was worth a try anyway.

 

Chapter 4: If Heaven Ain’t A Lot Like Nixon

 

I had been chasing The Ghost for 26 days. I was weary and needed a vacation. In Hawaii, preferably. What would a couple of weeks off the job hurt? But let’s face it, under normal circumstances, I was probably as close to Hawaii as I would ever get.

 

But circumstances weren’t normal. Not by a long shot.

 

The TPE credit card had unlimited miles. If the means were available I could go to Mars if I wanted to; but I didn’t want to; Oahu on the other hand seemed like a perfect place to go. I had read in the paper that Nixon was going there next week. Nixon, in many ways, reminded me of The Ghost. He seemed to be everywhere and nowhere; hard to understand and even harder to get to know.

 

Had Nixon made it to the Third Heaven by 2011? I don’t know. The Boss would never tell me though I had enquired repeatedly. He would only say if he ever went to China, Nixon would go with him.

 

***

The earliest flight I could book to Honolulu was two days hence. I decided since I was already near the harbor, why not begin my vacation with a mini-vacation? A short trip around the bay and beyond sounded nice. I bought a ticket for a three hour tour on a small ship named the Minnow. It was a delightful trip with sunny skies and balmy weather. I saw some dolphins with whom I tried to communicate. They were oblivious to my TPE hand signals. Even though I had plenty of time I was out of sync with time and there was no one I could really talk to (in the sense of who I was and where I needed to be). Maybe Nixon would talk to me. I would have to get past the secret service agents but surely they would respect my TPE ID slash credit card. Money talks even when God doesn’t.

 

To kill some time I had been attending meetings of the Malibu chapter of the Atheists Club. There were a few agnostics in the group but they were rather desultory in their behavior. They tended to jump from one meaningless topic to another. That can happen when you don’t have Godness in your life. Also, they just didn’t seem to have a lot of passion for not believing in God. The last meeting I attended turned out to be a lively one despite having a few agnostics fall asleep during the meeting. We discussed the burgeoning ‘God is Alive’ movement. The Alivers were actually camping out in front of atheistic churches demanding that God become a part of the national dialogue. When the floor was thrown open to discussion, one of the young atheists in the crowd asked, “What can we do about these Alivers?”

 

That’s when I stood up and said, “Join them.” Then all hell broke loose and you never heard so many idle babblers in your life. Finally, the meeting facilitator was able to bring the meeting to a semblance of order and in a demanding tone asked me to elaborate upon my remark.

 

“You guys and gals are products of the Hollywood mentality. The most important thing in life to you is the shallowness and notoriety that only fleeting celebrity can bring. Being an atheist or agnostic in this culture means you’re part of the 99% majority. You’re lost in the crowd; each one of you is just another Tom, Dick or Harriet. To become famous without actually doing anything important or worthwhile is your primary goal in life, and I propose to you that only by joining the ‘God Alivers’, the 1% minority so to speak, can you find the meaningless meaning that your insincere and insouciant hearts so desire and in so doing make a name for yourselves.”

 

I sat down while everyone else stood up and cheered.

 

It was a great night and afterwards a few of us relocated to a tavern on the beach where I told them about the Third Heaven Cafeteria. No one believed me but the story was good for a few laughs.

 

***

The next day (the day before I left for Hawaii) I decided I might as well spend it once again wandering around the Hollywood back lots looking for the ever elusive Author Godfree, Ghostwriter.

 

I just happened to run into a rather nice-looking middle-aged man who was standing all alone at the side entrance to what I assumed to be a television studio. He had a sheet of paper in his hand and appeared to be practicing the words to a speech. He didn’t seem at all upset when I interrupted him and asked, “Excuse me sir, do you happen to know a man named Author Godfree?”

 

“You mean the banjo picker?”

 

“No, this one is a ghostwriter.”

 

I wasn’t surprised when he said no. Since he appeared to be so amiable, I ventured to ask one more question, “What’s that you’re working on?”

 

“It’s a speech where I condemn the God is Alive Movement as being a tool of the Communists.”

 

“Any particular reason why you’re doing so?”

 

“My acting career has been drying up for the last decade. My current gig is hosting a weekly western anthology series. It’s steady but I’m ambitious. I’m thinking about running for city council and this speech could springboard me to that position as well as on to even greater things. What do you think?”

 

My first thought was: why is this stranger asking my opinion on something so important to his own life? Could the TPE aura still be working even though my celestial cell phone was no longer functional? Had there been some kind of fissure in the non-linear temporal vortex? Was I mysteriously and inexorably being drawn back to my own time and place? Well, I hope so but I have to admit I didn’t mind waiting a couple of more weeks before going back. Darn it, I was supposed to leave for Hawaii tomorrow.

 

As usual, my TPE training took over and I answered the man truthfully, “I don’t think you should do it.”

 

The man looked both stunned and downcast at the same time. “But why? This seems like such a great opportunity to kick start a political career out of the ashes of an acting one.”

 

I tried to cheer him up. “You’re going to be a great politician someday, maybe the best one ever. But you won’t become one by attacking the God is Alive Movement. I predict in ten years at least 90% of Americans will profess a belief in God and 10% of those will be sincere about it. Attack God and you’re attacking yourself.”

 

“What should I talk about?”

 

“Strong military, low taxes, true love; trust me, you can’t go wrong.”

 

He tore up the piece of paper in his hand, thanked me profusely, shook my hand, and then walked away into the sunset.

 

***

My flight for Honolulu left LAX right on schedule. It had been nice to be able to walk through the airport gate without taking off my shoes, emptying my pockets and being x-rayed. Soon the Pan Am 747 was high in the sky, soaring over the eastern Pacific.

 

I pulled a neatly folded 8 ½ by 11 document out of my Wullet (a Wullet is a specially designed bullet-proof wallet that TPEs keep in the front left pocket of their shirts. The Wullet is placed there to protect the heart. You would be surprised how many times TPEs get shot at by religious fanatics.) In some ways it was a sad document, in other ways a naive one. It was a list of ideas for potential television and/or movie scripts. I had found it in a dumpster behind a Chinese restaurant on Sunset Strip. My comments are in italic:

 

ALL IN ALL IN THE FAMILY – a whimsical half-hour comedy based on I Corinthians 15:28. A show with no tears, no heartache, only happiness. In other words, no conflict, no drama. I could imagine the studio heads reaction to this one.

 

FROM ETERNITY TO HERE – A god decides he’s tired of being eternal, so he shucks immortality for mortality and comes to earth to pursue his dream of being a ghostwriter in Hollywood. Speaks for itself.

 

GODSHEAD REVISITED – a former god fondly reflects on his time as part of a three god team. All the ‘action’ is in a tea room and everyone speaks with a British accent. Speaks for itself.

 

THE EPIGNOSIS OF KENOSIS – a bird’s eye view of the relationship between the highest and the lowest and how one god/man can change the world. Hey, I like this one. A lot of potential conflict; also promises a dramatic ending.

 

THE REAL SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS – a documentary of the actual first airborne transatlantic crossing; without the aid of a plane. Since a spirit is invisible, I’m guessing all we would see for two hours is sky and sea.

 

THE AUTHOR GODFREE TALENT SHOW – contestants sing, dance and play musical instruments and are judged by a three god team. It might be hard to find contestants. Who wants to be judged by a god?

 

The Ghost’s creativity was certainly evident but the fact that I had found the script ideas in the dumpster indicated to me that his efforts to find success as a ghostwriter in Hollywood were hitting a wall. I wonder how he was being affected by the continuing lack of success. Was it possible for a former god now turned human to become depressed? Was he dejected because he had been rejected?

 

My TPE instincts (which admittedly had been a little shaky lately) told me that The Ghost was doing fine. He was not in it for the recognition and rewards but for being simply in the chase. Chances were that he had hedged his bets and had the capacity to change back from mortal to immortal at any moment if the going got too rough. And despite everything, I still trusted my investigative instincts. You can’t be at the end of a celestial cell phone for over twenty-five years and not pick up on some of the inner workings and personal inclinations of the CEOs of THI (Third Heaven Interuniversal).

 

Now maybe I was just telling myself the above because I wanted to have a guilt free Hawaiian vacation. I can’t deny the thought crossed my mind, but dadgummit, I had been searching for The Ghost high and low for almost a month and at no time did I ever sense that The Ghost actually wanted to be found.

 

***

I checked in at the same Honolulu hotel (which shall remain unidentified for purposes of national security) in which Nixon was staying. I immediately contacted his Secret Service agents (one was the father of a future TPE but of course I couldn’t tell him that) and showed them my TPE ID slash credit card. The card transcended all eras of time and all currents of space. They quickly approved my request for a one hour visit. Nixon was currently taking a nap. Could I come back at four? I sure could. In the interval, I took the opportunity to eat a coconut and walk on the beach.

 

When I got from my walk I was ushered into his room, which was a really a suite of rooms. I was invited to take a seat. We started talking. He asked how I was doing. I told him I was doing fine. I then asked if he had the chance to play some golf.

 

“By the time you get dressed, drive out there, play 18 holes and come home, you've blown seven hours. There are better things you can do with your time.”

 

Nixon seemed like a man I could trust so I told him I was from 2011 but had unluckily been caught in a non-linear temporal vortex. He replied,

 

“Once you get into this great stream of history, you can't get out. “

 

How true I replied wondering if he really understood the predicament I was in. I then asked him about the situation in Cuba.

 

“Castro couldn't even go to the bathroom unless the Soviet Union put the nickel in the toilet.”

 

We both laughed. It was true. Nixon had a great sense of humor. But how about the God is Alive Movement? Was he worried about religion returning to America? It seems he was.

 

“In the long term we can hope that religion will change the nature of man and reduce conflict. But history is not encouraging in this respect. The bloodiest wars in history have been religious wars.”

 

But then I asked, “If religion is not the answer, what is?”

 

“Let us begin by committing ourselves to the truth to see it like it is, and tell it like it is, to find the truth, to speak the truth, and to live the truth. “

 

Now the big question: “Do you plan to run for president in 1960?”

 

“Scrubbing floors and emptying bedpans have as much dignity as the Presidency.”

 

Was that a yes or a no?

 

Time was up. It had been an enjoyable conversation. But I had noticed Nixon looked very pale. How was that possible here in Hawaii? I told him,

 

“You’re should get a little sun on your face.”

 

He should have listened to me.

 

***

The discerning reader will understand why I wanted to visit Nixon. The undiscerning reader will not. Which one are you? Let’s revisit chapter one: “Nixon, in many ways, reminded me of The Ghost. He seemed to be everywhere and nowhere; hard to understand and even harder to get to know.” Yes, I had a sneaking suspicion that Nixon was actually The Ghost. Sure, I was grasping at straws, but Grasping at Straws is one of the four main investigative techniques of a highly trained and incredibly dedicated TPE. What are the other three, you ask? They are:

 

1) Walking & Talking: this is how a TPE gathers information. He walks down sidewalks, he walks into homes, he walks into businesses, etc. Sometimes he walks into trouble (and then tries to talk himself out of it). But wherever he’s walking, he’s also talking. Talking to men; talking to women; talking to the rich; talking to the poor; talking to anybody who’ll talk back. In other words, he’s talking it to the street.

 

2) Riding & Deciding: once the TPE has gathered a sufficient amount of information, he likes to proceed with the 3M recipe: Meander, Mull and Meditate. To do so, he positions himself on a transportation device and takes off in some direction (hopefully a direction that’s germane to the case at hand). The transportation device could be a bike, could be a mule, could be a train (or bus, plane, ship, etc.) While moving, he mulls and meditates and at some point makes a decision. When he makes a decision, he then acts.

 

3) OLF: the most controversial technique (and no, it’s not an arcane acronym for water boarding). OLF stands for either of two phrases: Out in Left Field or Out of Left Field. Whether the little word after Out should be in or of was the controversy. The concept of OLF originated in ancient Greece at the Olympics. Greek sporting fields only had center fields and right fields so when something came out of left field it really surprised the Hades out of the participants and spectators. But it was even more surprising when something was spotted out in left field (especially since a left field didn’t exist). So was it in or of? I preferred of but I was no scholar and the ones who were, the outspoken scholars at the Pond of Fire Astro-Etymology Wordsmith Lab were still debating the subject in late 2011 and I’m pretty darn sure that when I got back to 2012 (if I ever did; I had given up on getting back to 2011) the debate would still be raging. Theological debates often do.

 

Now what tipped me off that Nixon wasn’t The Ghost? Before I answer that question, let me first describe another possible scenario that pointed toward him being The Ghost and why I went to the trouble of going all the way to Hawaii to interview him. Nixon was part of a two man team. He wasn’t the supreme leader but he was pretty darn close. I think The Ghost for billions of years had been a little jealous of Boss Jr (for reasons stated in one of the previous adventures. I forget which one. You’ll just have to look it up for yourself). Now he would never admit this; it might have been all at a subconscious level. But it was there and when he found himself in 1959 and on a planet with no Boss or Boss Jr he saw the opportunity to try out a role he had always desired but had never had the chance to perform.

 

But my speculation was totally wrong. Nixon was not The Ghost and never had been. How can I be so sure? He didn’t play golf.

 

***

To be a highly effective TPE, one has to be able to both go with the flow and not go with the flow. Once Nixon said he didn’t play golf, I knew the current had hit the dam. Because there was no way The Ghost, if he was Nixon, would not play golf. First of all, Nixon’s boss, Ike, was a big golfer, maybe the most enthusiastic one in presidential history. The Ghost would want to emulate the Boss. And secondly, and most decisively, was the alphabetical breakdown of the word golf using a fine tooth linguistical comb (the boys at the Pond of Fire Astro-Acronymical Ecumenical Lab would be proud of this one). Let’s break it down:

 

G.O.L.F. equals God Out in Left Field or God Out of Left Field. Use ether in or of; doesn’t matter. Either one works.

 

But even if Nixon didn’t play golf, he could have spent a little time on the beach getting some tan. It would have done him more good than he could have imagined. I had tried to debate the subject with him but he was too darn good a debater.

 

***

Since I didn’t have to worry about finding The Ghost in Hawaii, the rest of my tropical vacation was pretty much stress-free. Caught up on my sleep; went to a couple of luaus; wrote a song using the ukulele. I called it ‘If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Trixie’ (Trixie was someone I got to know in ‘THE CASE OF THE JOHN CALVIN DOPPELGANGER’). A young kid around the age of 10 stopped and listened as I working on the song. He looked back over his shoulder and yelled,

 

“Hey, ma, come listen!”

 

A lady with blond hair, sandals, and a cowboy hat came over. The boy spoke, “What do you think Ma?”

 

“Mmm, it’s got potential. Too bad Hank Is no longer with us. If he was, he might try to do something with it.”

 

The boy fought back tears. “I will, Ma. I promise I will.”

 

I just kept playing the ukulele. It sounded real good in the Hawaiian air.

 

Chapter 5: Lessa Creen

 

The incessant beeping woke me up in the middle of the night. I was staying at a third rate motel in the Brentwood section of Los Angeles. But not to worry; a third rate motel in Brentwood is a first rate one in Peoria. I immediately called the front desk to complain about the beeping but the desk clerk swore on his mother’s grave that no beeping was going on in the immediate area. There were plenty of other noises but they mostly came from inebriated patrons in the motel bar.

 

I thanked the clerk and hung up. My nerves weren’t what they used to be. I felt a cosmic heaviness that no amount of anti-gravity potion could alleviate. Even two weeks in Hawaii had done little to calm the central core of my celestial consciousness. Why am I hearing something that no one else is?

 

Of course! There could be only one answer. The beeping was metaphysical in nature. And just like that, as soon as I realized where the beeping came from, it stopped; and I knew somehow that it would begin again about five minutes after I woke up in the morning; and it would be coming at me from a recognizable direction.

I had coffee and Danish before checking out. The beeping had begun at 7:05 am as I predicted it would, but the sound was much softer and less intrusive on my ear drums than it was when it first grabbed my attention in the depths of the night. In fact, the beeping had almost become melodic in tone; it was even soothing to my soul; like the Pacific waves that caressed Malibu Beach.

 

A car rental business was only a few blocks from the motel and as I strolled there I realized my mood had lightened considerably. There had been a break in the case and the beeping might be the first link in what I hoped would be a chain of good fortune.

 

I rented a blue and white 1958 Chevy. Since I was in California I made sure it was a convertible. I could cruise down Sunset Strip with the top down taking in the sights. I might even stop at 77 Sunset Strip and talk shop with some SPIs (Secular Private Eyes). I was on top of the world. But I should have remembered. When you’re on top, there was only one direction to go in.

 

After a morning of shop talk and a leisurely lunch, I headed south following the beeping. I would try to explain the beeping to you, exactly how it sounded, and why I was so easily able to follow it, but I can’t. It was metaphysical. Let’s leave at that.

 

The miles went by and in a few hours I was parked outside the entrance to Mount Palomar Observatory in northern San Diego County. But the beeping wasn’t coming from inside the observatory. It was a ways off to the side in a heavily wooded section. I got out of the car and started walking, following the beeping. The terrain was rocky and the going was slow but after about ten minutes I came upon a clearing. In the clearing stood a pup tent. A small campfire was burning lazily. Sitting beside the campfire was a skinny man with a shaven head and no shirt and no shoes but wearing beige corduroy jeans. His arms were crossed and his eyes were closed and he was humming.

 

“OMmmmm.”

 

Was he asking for an Old Milwaukee? Probably not. And then I noticed it. The beeping had stopped.

 

I approached the man cautiously. I did not want to surprise him unduly. He was obviously deep into a form of meditation with which I was not familiar. TPE meditation is really a form of cogitation. We use it to solve problems. Most meditative techniques are used to temporarily divorce oneself from the flow of the world and enter into what one of my TPE cohorts called a ‘Cosmological No-Spin Zone.’

 

And then I realized the man had his eyes open and was staring straight at me.

 

He asked, “Do you bring Old Milwaukee with you?”

 

For some reason I felt the need to apologize for not having the foresight to bring a six-pack with me.

 

“No, I didn’t. I’m sorry.”

 

“I forgive you. Now, please sit down, and let’s introduce ourselves.”

 

I sat down beside the fire. The smoke rising from it slightly distorted his features. It made it hard to ‘read’ his face in TPE fashion. He appeared inscrutable.

 

“I’m Nick Neercassel, a 21st century Theological Private Eye stranded in 1959. But I thought you might already know that. Call me Nick by the way.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Nick. I’m Nitram, Keeper of the Beeper. I never know, or try to know for that matter, beforehand what the beep brings. Information just clutters the mind. Also, without surprise in life there is no ‘life’ to life.”

 

He sounded like a wise man. I asked him, “How can one be so wise in a godless world?”

 

“I am a practitioner of the ancient art of Zendoo.”

 

I thought: does he mean a Zen offshoot of Voodoo?

 

He apparently read my thought: “No, Nick, Zendoo is just Zendoo. It is a not a combination of two religions. I understand you have a lot of that where you came from. We don’t do that here. We just tell like it is; and I repeat, Zendoo is just Zendoo.”

 

You couldn’t argue with his reasoning. ‘Zendoo is just Zendoo’ is a statement that appears to be non-sequitur free.

 

I then noticed that Nitram had returned to his trance like state. Well, I’ll just wait him out. I was getting thirsty, though. The walk from the car to the tent had been a tough one. Too bad I didn’t bring some Old Milwaukee. I could use some water right now.

 

***

“Wake up, Nick.” I had fallen asleep. The warmth of the fire had had a drowsing effect on me. Nitram’s voice sounded urgent though and it stirred me out of my lethargy.

 

“You must leave soon. Hubble’s P-PPEs are on the way here.”

 

Hubble? Who was Hubble and who were the P-PPEs ? Soon was not now so I felt had some time to gather some crucial information. You can take the TPE out of his century but you can’t take his century out of the TPE.

 

“Who is this Hubble and what is a P-PPE?”

 

“El Don Hubble, son of the inventor of the Hubble telescope, founder of the Scientifico movement and author of ‘Dietenatics: The Scientific Way to Get Slim, Stay Slim and Kill Slim Pickens.’ The P-PPEs are Pseudo-Psychiatric Private Eyes. They work exclusively for Hubble.”

 

That was a lot of information in three sentences but I processed them quickly in typical TPE fashion.

 

“Why kill Slim Pickens? Isn’t he a harmless actor who plays old coots in Westerns?”

 

“According to Hubble, he’s a Kroc.”

 

“What’s a Kroc?”

 

“It’s a nickname for a human agent of Grol.”

 

It seemed every question led to another question but I was too far into it now to stop asking them.

 

“Grol?”

 

“According to Hubble’s other work, ‘The Principa Scientifico’, emissaries from the planet Grol are abducting Americans and brainwashing them into spreading the Gospel of Grol.”

 

“Which is?”

 

“I’m not entirely sure. To be so, I would have to take too much time away from my meditation. But I think it has to do with the propagation of an entity called a fast food restaurant.”

 

“I’m quite familiar with them. In fact I’m rather fond of them but I know they’re not always the healthiest choice. I can’t see killing somebody over them.”

 

“In his book, Hubble predicts that because of fast food, by the 21st century, America will be the fattest nation in the world. He believes that only by killing every Kroc can a terrible national catastrophe be averted.”

 

“But why should this concern me?”

 

“The P-PPEs think you’re a Kroc.”

 

“But why?”

 

“Because you’re followed the beep. They think the beep is a Grollian messaging device.”

 

“If that’s the case, why don’t they kill you?”

 

“I’m too skinny. Killing skinny people goes too much against the grain of what Hubble preaches, even if they are Krocs.”

 

It wasn’t hard to figure out the rest. Because of Hubble’s close ties with the Observatory business, and because he believed Grollians were abducting and brainwashing Americans, he probably then figured out the best way for Grollians to contact their agents would be to do so near an observatory (now this particular reasoning may not have been non-sequitur free). That’s why he planted well-paid professional (as opposed to poorly-paid professionals such as myself) Pseudo-Psychiatric Private Eyes in the vicinity of observatories to intercept the Grollian messages and then to pursue and if at all possible, eliminate those he considered to be perpetuators of the Gospel of Grol.

 

I was about to give Nitram my regards and get the hell out of there when suddenly the loud, explosive bang of a high-powered rifle went off. I immediately felt a terrific force pounding against my chest. I was violently thrown back about ten feet into some bushes.

 

(Editor’s Note: In the year 2010, a significant breakthrough occurred in Wullet technology. The lads and lasses at the Pond of Fire Astro-Wullet Experimental Lab invented a Magnetic Bullet Attractor (MBA) microchip. Adding this specially designed microchip to the Wullet meant that any bullet fired at a Wullet-endowed TPE would be irresistibly drawn to the Wullet. No longer could Anti-TPE agents fire with impunity at the non-heart regions of a TPE’s body. Because of this great breakthrough in Wullet technology, it was no longer necessary for TPES to wear the Wullet in the left front pocket so as to protect the heart. Female TPEs were especially gratified with this improvement because they could now carry their Wullets in their purses. Most male TPEs reverted to tradition and started wearing their Wullets in a back pocket of their pants. Nick, who found it hard to change old habits, continued to wear the Wullet in the same location as before. Now back to the action.)

 

The effect of the bullet slamming into my Wullet and sending me crashing into the bushes (which were a local San Diego variety named George) almost caused me to black out. But TPE instinct took over and I managed to execute a roll over a rock that was perpendicular to the bush I landed in. Slowly getting on my knees I very cautiously peeked over the rock in the direction of the campsite. Nitram was still sitting by the fire, seemingly unharmed, and once again in a trance-like transcendental-seeming state. He was doing the OMmmmm thing again (Darn it, I should have brought some Old Milwaukee). Then, out of nowhere, a bullet came skimming across the top of the rock I was kneeling behind, kicking up minute rock particles that went flying into my eyes, momentarily blinding me. In considerable pain and abject confusion, I stood up and stumbled backward and fell headfirst into a fast moving stream. The cold water instantly cleared my brain and I decided my best bet was to submerge and go with the flow. A plethora of bullets started darting into the water all around me. But they either missed me entirely or ended bouncing off of my Wullet. I’m just glad I had bought a shirt with a zipper on the left front pocket.

 

As luck would have it, the stream passed within a few dozen feet of the parking lot. I jumped out of the water, raced to the car and took off.

 

***

I had driven about ten miles (at the speed limit of course. TPEs are respecters of the law even when their lives are in danger.) and it appeared no one was following me. I wondered why. Perhaps the Scientifico movement was still in its infancy and Hubble could only afford to use P-PPEs at observatory locations. Whatever the reason, I was glad.

 

I needed a new set of clothes. The ones I had on were torn, battered and soaking wet. I decided to look for the nearest Wal*Mart. But wait. It was 1959 and Wal*Marts had not yet expanded beyond Arkansas. That was too bad. My TPE credit card was good for an extra 25% discount at already low-priced Wal*Marts. I would have to find a non-generic men’s clothing store.

 

(Nick’s Note: In 2009 I had sent a formal proposal to Wal*Mart HQ in Bentonville, Arkansas. I proposed that I would be happy to serve as an ambassador - compensated handsomely, of course - for Wal*Mart throughout the world. Wherever I might be on a case, I would take time to visit the nearest Wal*Mart and WALK through it several times. My TPE training and experience had made me a great walker and I felt it was incumbent upon me to share this talent with an institution that I held in such great esteem and with whom I had spent a boatload of money (both personal and TPE-related). The position I proposed would have a formal title: THE WAL*MART WAL*KER. As of the time (October 7, 2011) I vanished from the 21st century, I had not yet heard back from WMHQ. But I hadn’t given up on getting a positive answer from Wal*Mart. In big organizations, big decisions take time.)

 

At some point, I had turned west (I had been going north). I saw a sign saying that Escondido was twenty miles away. It sounded like a good place to regroup: shop, eat, and spend the night. With new clothes, a full stomach, and a good night’s rest, I could start thinking about my next move.

 

At a local men’s clothing store, I bought a pair of blue jeans, along with a green long sleeve shirt, and a pair of black Keds tennis shoes with accompanying socks. Much to my dismay though, the store did not have shirts that had pockets with zippers. The manager said he doubted any stores in town did. He noticed the condition my current set of clothes were in and allowed me to put on the new clothes and shoes in the dressing room. He was also kind enough to discard my old set of clothes.

 

After paying for everything with my TPE credit card, I started walking down Main Street looking for a place to eat. While walking I remembered I also needed a portable toothbrush. I spotted the Escondido Rexall Drug Store and went in. The first thing I noticed was a lunch counter (which also luckily served dinner). I made a quick decision that this was as good a place as any to eat. I order a grilled cheese sandwich with fries and a large strawberry milk shake, all the while hoping that were no Scientificos with itchy trigger fingers shopping in the drug store.

 

After I finished my meal, I got up and started looking for a toothbrush. As I was looking, I noticed there was a book section in the drug store. I walked over to it to see if there were any detective novels. Out of the corner of my eye, bright colors began flashing. I turned my head to look straight at a comic book stand. I had never read them when I was a kid. From the age of six I was reading instead the exciting adventures of Philip Marlowe, Sam Spade, Lew Archer, etc. But for some reason now the comic books were drawing me to them. I decided what the heck, why not buy a few. Who knows, when I get back to the 21st century, they might be worth something. So I bought ten for a dollar (along with a toothbrush) and walked out of the store. The clerk had given me a tip on an obscure motel on the outskirts of town.

 

Thanks to the comic books (I’ll explain in a bit) I got a good night's sleep. The next morning, I was enjoying hot cakes and bacon when the beeping started. A few minutes later I was in the Chevy headed back to Mount Palomar.

 

***

Yes, I was headed back to the place I had been shot at and where I had almost been killed. But the TPE business is not for the faint of heart (have I said that before?) and cracking the case always comes before personal safety. I was in the wrong business if I didn’t feel that way.

 

Since we have about an hour or so before I arrive at Mount Palomar, please allow me to explain why the comic books helped me get a good night’s sleep. As it was, I only read one eight-page story (out of three) in one book. It was the best anodyne that I can recall. The story was so boring and ridiculous that I fell sound asleep as soon as I finished reading it. It was about some man from another planet ‘with powers far beyond those of an ordinary man’ or something like that. Trouble was this ‘superman’ had a couple of weaknesses: 1) a green, glowing rock called kryptonite, and 2) magic. The particular story I read concerned an impish magician from another dimension that like to pop up on earth and give Superman fits. Somehow tricking the imp into saying his name backwards would send him back to where he came from. I said it was ridiculous and after reading it, I decided I was lucky I had spent my childhood reading books about murder, mayhem, corruption, and violence instead of silly comic books. I even threw the comic books into the trash can. Surely such things (in mint condition, I might add) will never ever be worth anything.

 

Now this Superman did remind me of something: the Legendary IS-TPEs (IS stands for Inter-Stellar). No one knows if they really exist but if they do, they are supposedly recruited from the cream of the crop graduates of the Pond of Fire TPE Institute. Instead of serving on earth, they are equipped with invisible space suits that give them ability to fly and perform feats of great strength and flexibility, and sent to other star systems to solve cases.

 

***

I pulled into the same parking lot as the day before and took the same path to the same campsite. This time, though, I was bringing a six-pack of Old Milwaukee. When I got to the campsite, Nitram was sitting in the same position as I had left him. I stood there for a few minutes (the beeping had stopped, by the way, when I had reached the campsite) and when it was obvious he wasn’t coming out of his trance anytime soon, I opened a can of Old Milwaukee. I used a can opener that was attached to my portable toothbrush (pop tops had not been invented yet). The sound of the can opening immediately brought the Keeper of the Beeper back into temporal awareness.

 

“Howdy, Nick, thanks for the beer.”

 

“You’re welcome. Now tell me why the beep has brought me back. I’m a little nervous. Bullets may start flying.”

 

“I have a message from The Ghost.”

 

Was this break I had been so desperately hoping for? Was The Ghost ready to return to immortality and in so doing send me back to the 21st Century?”

 

Nitram had read my thoughts again. “I’m afraid not, Nick. Here’s the message: ‘On or near the coast/will stay The Ghost’.”

 

I was dumbfounded. “That’s it? That’s all?”

 

“He’s staying. No doubt about it. But he did say one other thing, and as usual, it was quite mysterious.”

 

“And just what might that might be?” I hope that didn’t sound as sarcastic as I felt.

 

“He said you had the means to get back to the future.”

 

And then, as if things weren’t bad enough, three gun-toting P-PPEs burst into the campsite. They had me surrounded. My only hope was that my Wullet would protect me from the onslaught of bullets. Neither Walking nor Talking seemed viable options at the moment.

 

They started shooting. I should just have stood still but TPE instinct (that damn instinct!) took over and I dived for the nearest rock but in so doing my Wullet felt out of the zipperless left front pocket of my shirt (damn that zipperless left front pocket!).

 

This appeared to be the end. No more Shumptuous chocolate milk. No more hot, humid mornings in Goodsite. No more long drives in the Flying Belt. But as I was contemplating the end of this early existence and the beginning of the next heavenly one (which though indisputably a good thing would also mean starting at the end of the Third Heaven Cafeteria line) I remembered what Nitram said The Ghost had said: “…you have the means to get back to the future.”

 

And as the bullets were hurtling toward my non-Wullet protected body I quietly said out loud:

 

“l e s s a c r e e n.”

 

Chapter 6: It Is What It Is

 

The sign said ‘Pauline Church of the Teddy Bear’ and I was lying beside it looking up at it. The ground beneath me was warm and soft and fairly comfortable. A car pulled up beside me and stopped. I thought someone might get out and see how I was doing. But after a moment’s hesitation the driver pulled into the highway and drove off. I used both my hands and pushed myself up into a standing position and shook the dirt off my pants and shirt. I looked back down the driveway in the direction from which the car had come. A brick building, the church I presume, stood at the end of the driveway. There were still a couple of cars parked near the church and I decided to walk down to the church and see if anyone there could help me.

 

As I was walking to the church, one of the cars started moving and left the church grounds by going down a different driveway. That left two men standing by the front door. Both men looked at me suspiciously, which didn’t surprise me. If I saw me, in the condition I was in, I would probably feel the same way.

 

A man, who looked to be in his early fifties, greeted me as I approached.

 

“Good morning, stranger. What can I do you for?”

 

I was in a very acute state of disorientation (due to my latest harrying adventure) and I wondered later if the words I actually said truly reflected the thoughts that preceded them. What happened at the scene inclines me to believe they didn’t.

 

“How long has this church been here?” As far as I could ascertain, the church was sitting on the exact spot where my home slash office should have been.

 

“It was first built over sixty years ago. We’ve added on since then though. Why do you ask?”

 

“Oh, just wondering.” I wasn’t about to say why I really asked the question.

 

The man was growing a little impatient. “Now is there something specific I can help you with you?”

 

I looked like a bum with my unshaven face and out of date clothes so I thought I might as well ask, “Can you give me twenty dollars and a ride to I-20?”

 

“In the condition you appear to be in, I suppose that’s the least we could do.” He looked into his wallet, took out a twenty dollar bill and handed it to me. I thanked him.

 

“Charlie, if it’s not too much trouble, please drop this man off at the I-20 intersection on your way home to Samaria. I’d do it but I need to visit a church member at a nursing home in Columbia.”

 

So he was the preacher. I thought I could ask him a couple of more questions before he left.

 

“What’s the date?”

 

“October 7.” He gave me a quizzical look.

 

“And the year?” This time an even more quizzical look.

 

“2020.”

 

“Is God back?”

 

He didn’t answer that one. Instead, he got on his motorcycle and sped away from the church grounds.

 

Well, what do you know. A motorcycle that works.

 

***

When I was dropped off at the truck stop I went in and asked the clerk if it was illegal to try to catch a ride on a truck headed west. He said what he didn’t know didn’t bother him. He did, though, point me in the right direction and soon I was in the front cab of an independent trucker hauling a load of furniture. He said he could take me as far as Columbus, Georgia. From there, I would have to find another ride if I were to make it to Florida.

 

Why Florida?

 

I was hearing the beeping again.

 

It had started almost as soon as I had regained consciousness. I was utterly confused because if The Ghost had retired, so to speak, then why would the beeping still be taking place? Yet, unless I was crazy, and there were solid reasons to entertain that idea, the beeping meant that I was still on the job, albeit a job in which I found myself severely hampered.

 

My biggest regret at the moment had to do with the zipperless shirt I was wearing. Because of it, I had lost my Wullet along with my TPE ID slash credit back in the past and now I was both defenseless and broke (except for the twenty bucks the good minister had given me). Also, I was apparently in a time stream that had deviated from the time stream I had known. All in all, things were not looking great.

 

All I had going for me was the beep, and if this one worked out like the last one, it was all over but the crying.

 

***

The truck driver was a talkative fellow named Fred. He never had kicked the cigarette habit but I was in no position to complain. The weather was nice so I just rolled down the window.

 

Fred could see things hadn’t been going my way. He tried to cheer me up by saying, “"Hard times? I tell you what's hard times; it’s going through the day with a splinter in your ass."

 

I have to admit that made me laugh. Here’s another ‘Fredism’: “"Yankees take half the night to decide what wine to have with a piece of steak. Southerners need only a second to figure out what to drink with a Moon Pie."

 

And this one: "If I could have given Tiger Woods some lessons way back when, he'd be a lot better beer drinker today."

 

I asked Fred about the current political scene. If it was October of 2020, then that meant a presidential race should be running hot and heavy.

 

“President Joe Bidemytime and his opponent, Trixie Daley Bailey, are going at it neck and neck.”

 

“Who’re you pulling for?”

 

“Trixie, of course. She’s got the same name as the gal in my favorite song by Hank Williams, Jr.”

 

A memory stirred within me. I once knew a gal named Trixie and had even written a song about her. I asked,

 

“What song might that be?”

 

“If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Trixie.”

 

***

Normally, at this point in one of these stories, when someone mentioned something poignant, I would drift off into revelry and reflection, but Fred wasn’t about to let that happen. He just kept talking. Didn’t matter if I responded or not. I guess that came from being a lonely truck driver for so many years.

 

"Nothing messes up the putting stroke as bad as 350 yd. tee shots. That's why I keep it dialed back."

 

"If the Beatles had played with fiddle and steel, John Lennon would still be alive."

 

"If everyone could ride in the car Hank died in, no one would drink bad beer anymore."

 

"If Freud had eaten boiled peanuts growing up, he wouldn't have hated his mama."

 

"Why are there so many bar fights during happy hour?"

 

"Everything I know about nuclear physics, I learned at Waffle House."

 

"It's alright to have beer for breakfast as long as you leave room for grits."

 

This went on to Atlanta where we stopped at another truck stop. I went inside to utilize the facilities and to rest my ears. On the wall of the restroom a sign read ‘If it’s Safe and Sure, It has to be Shagah. Buy the best at the Shagah Sex Shop nearest you. Located only at the finest truck stops.’ So Shagah Ink was still in business in 2020. I hadn’t seen that coming.

 

***

Back on the road with Fred, I decided it was time to get some real information out of him; a two-way dialogue, if it was at all possible. It wasn’t going to be easy. Before attempting at what might be the impossible, I let him go on for a few more minutes, waiting for an opening so to speak, sort of like a heavyweight boxer patiently waiting to make the left hook to the glass jaw that would end the fight as quickly and efficiently as possible.

 

"If all roads lead to Rome, we're just down the road right now."

 

"There's free speech in America, and freer speech in the Confederacy."

 

"If I didn't know better, I wouldn't know worse."

 

"If I've had one too many, you've had 17 too few."

 

Fred paused to light yet another cigarette. I jumped in,

 

“Tell me about this Trixie Daley Bailey.”

 

“She’s the granddaughter of Richard Daley of Chicago. She moved to South Carolina to attend the University. Go Gamecocks! After college she married Bertram Bailey, a private in the South Carolina National Guard, and who now happens to be state commander of the Guard, and they settled in Lexington where they built a less than thriving business together. Then a lot of things happened and she became Governor.”

 

“How’s her campaign for president going?”

 

“Well, why don’t we turn on the radio and find out? The paper said this morning she was doing a live press interview on the long hair, wine sipping stations at 8 pm. It’s just a few minutes past eight. Let’s give her a listen.”

 

Fred found the station rather quickly (did Fred listen to classical music when he was alone?).”

 

“Ms. Daley Bailey, what do you think about the thirty-three billion dollar national debt?”

 

“It is what it is.”

 

“What about the crumbling national infrastructure?”

 

“It is what it is.”

 

“Are taxes too high?”

 

“They are what they are.”

 

“Will you reveal all your sources of income?”

 

“No.”

 

“What about the crime rate?”

 

“It is what it is.”

 

“Will your reveal your personal sex life?”

 

“No.”

 

“What’s your position on gay marriage?”

 

“It is what is.”

 

“What about poverty in America?”

 

“It is what it is.”

 

The press interview went on for thirty minutes. Daley Bailey had the same one of two answers for every question. I looked over at Fred who had not said a word during the entire time. He looked to be in a trance (reminiscent of Nitram, Keeper of the Beeper).

 

When the press interview was over, I asked Fred what he thought about it.

 

“I loved it! That woman tells it like it is. She’s got my vote. Yessirreebob.”

 

***

Fred dropped me off in Columbus at the bus station. He lived not too far away in Plains where he was a part-time peanut farmer. “Hell, I was proud to be one once.” was the last thing I heard him say as he drove off, cigarette smoke and diesel fumes combining to form a less than pleasant odor as they escaped into the night air.

 

The beep was still beeping in the direction of Florida, but a detour had become necessary. I needed to see and talk to the afore-mentioned Hank Williams, Jr. A country music show on Fred’s radio announced that Hank was performing a concert tomorrow night in Montgomery, Alabama, which was about 90 miles from Columbus. Fred, a generous guy who would give you the shirt off his back (especially if you were willing to listen to him talk for six hours), had loaned me fifty bucks when I’m told I’m needed to see Hank; he didn’t even ask me why. He just said, “Old Hank (Fred was referring to Hank Jr’s daddy) would’ve done it that way.”

 

I spent the night in the bus station (buying a ticket convinced the bus station employees I was not just trying to find a free place to sleep for the night) and the next morning I left for Montgomery arriving there around 10 am. I spent the day taking in the sights, then at about 5 pm I wandered over to the downtown area where Hank was playing that night. I was hoping the guards would let me in and talk to Hank for a few minutes while he was getting ready to do his show. They didn’t, of course, but I did manage to talk one guard into taking a note to Hank. It said ‘Hawaii-1959-Ukelele-Trixie.’ A few minutes I was being ushered into Hank’s dressing room.

 

Now talk about someone giving you a suspicious look. Hank looked me over twice and was just about ready to personally throw me out of his dressing room, when I exclaimed, “I will, Ma. I promise I will!”

 

Hank stopped in his tracks, went back to his chair, and started weeping. After composing himself, he offered me a Shagah Lite and we sat and talked for a while. Hank was almost seventy and was still going strong but hadn’t hit a big hit since he had lost his pro football singing gig. I suggested why not a variation on his old hit about Trixie. I suggested the title ‘If Heaven Ain’t a Lot Like Pixie.’ Hank seemed genuinely excited about the idea.

 

I was getting ready to leave when a strange look came over Hank’s face (which wasn’t easy to see because of the beard, dark glasses and cowboy hat). Hank then recounted an adventure from about twenty years ago when he had a Sunday afternoon free after a concert the night before in San Diego. For some reason, he had felt compelled to visit the area around Mount Palomar Observatory. He had gone for a hike when he had come upon a strange looking skinny guy sitting by a campfire. The man said he had been expecting him and then handed Hank what looked like an ordinary black wallet. The man then told Hank to hold onto it until the “appointed time”. He then told him to get the hell out of there because bullets would soon start flying.

 

Hank then walked over to an old guitar case, reached into a secret compartment and pulled out my Wullet containing my TPE ID slash credit card. By this time, I was shaking, finding it hard to contain my joy. I had my best friend back.

 

Hank invited me to stay for the concert and afterwards I partied with Hank’s rowdy friends. Since everyone there was a senior citizen it didn’t get too far out of hand. I wish I could say I left for Florida the next morning but it was closer to twilight the next day before I got of Montgomery.

 

***

Before leaving town I went to one of the seventy-five Montgomery Wal*Marts and bought new clothes (this time I made sure I got a shirt equipped with a zipper over the left front pocket), rented a Ford 150 pick-up (I was down South after all), ate ten pancakes at IHOP and then hopped on the highway to Plains via Columbus. I had decided since Fred played a crucial part in my getting my precious Wullet back, it was the least I could to do to stop by his house and pay his fifty dollar loan back. Fred had told me his address and I plugged it into the GPS (Global, not God Positioning System; the celestial GPS was still in the Flying Belt, back in 2011 or 2012, whichever year it was back then.)

 

I found Fred’s home without any trouble. It was a single wide trailer with an old car jacked up and without tires sitting in the front yard (I say yard very loosely.) I knocked on the front door but there was no answer. A high pitched voice spoke behind me,

 

“Fred’s gone. The trucking company had a special assignment for him: carrying Shagah sex products and Shagah Lite beer to the Alleghenies. I know because he asked me to feed the cats.”

 

I turned and what looked like the oldest man I had ever seen in my life was standing by the road holding himself up with a cane. I nodded respectfully,

 

“Howdy, my name’s Nick and I just stopped by to pay Fred back some money he loaned me.”

 

The old man answered, “I’m Jimmy, Fred’s neighbor. I’ll be glad to take that money from you. I know some hungry people across the river and into the trees who could use it.”

 

“But it’s not your money to give away.” I replied.

 

“Government is a contrivance of human wisdom to provide for human wants. People have the right to expect that these wants will be provided for by this wisdom.”

 

“That’s a mere tautology and anyway, what’s government got to do with Fred’s money?’

 

“I have often wanted to drown my troubles, but I can't get my wife to go swimming.”

 

“What?”

 

With little or no hesitation, I made up my mind not to give Jimmy the money. I’d spend it at Disney World. Fred would be ok with that.

 

***

Why I was headed to Disney World? Because my Wullet told me so.

 

At least the GRID (Geo-Radarlike-Instrumental-Detector) in the Wullet did. It was part of the 2010 technological revolution that occurred at the Pond of Fire Pyrotechnics & Astro-Talmud School (an adjunct of the POF Experimental Physics & Mr. Wizard Lab). The GRID told me the beep was coming from Orlando. Yes, Orlando. Not exactly Disney World but close enough and besides I hadn’t been to Disney World in say (if you add the eight years I overshot 2012) almost 33 years.

 

While driving to Disney World, I passed the time by listening to Michelle Heathen, nationally syndicated talk show host. She was interviewing President Joe Bidemytime (who was, as mentioned earlier, running against GOP nominee Trixie Daley Bailey).

 

“Good evening, Mr. President. Thank you for being with us.”

 

‘My pleasure, Michelle. I just finished dinner in the White House Dining Room. It’s a beautiful room, Missy. Have I ever told you that? The china is simply admirable. Yes, they still are a brutal dictatorship but they do have nice features. The food was blah, though. No zing to it. Has that ever happened to you, Melissa?"

 

“It’s Michelle, Mr. President. Now your campaign slogan is ‘Things could be worse.’ Would you agree that slogan is not a very positive one?”

 

“Well, Margaret, it is positive when you consider the undeniable fact that if my opponent is elected, things will be worse. No ambiguities there, eh, Mary Lou?”

 

“It’s Michelle, Mr. President. Have you considered running on your record?”

 

“Yes, Millicent, and that’s why I’m not doing it.”

 

“It’s…oh, hell, one last question. Is the country in better shape today than when you first took office?”

 

“Which country, Meredith?”

 

The interview abruptly ended and Michelle Heathen went to a break.

 

***

A Barry White tune then came on the radio, followed by a voice that transmitted authority and outspokenness. “Hi, loyal and faithful customers. This is Mr. Shagah with exciting news about a brand new product from Shagah Ink. Especially designed for you, the loyal customer who buys Shagah products on a regular basis and keeps the cash flow coming in so we Shagahs can stay safely ensconced in the Evil 1%. Now the new product is (drum roll is heard on the radio) Shagah Suppositories! Which I can personally guarantee, having tried them myself, will signal the end of your end troubles. The End is Here! Brothers and Sisters! Join the Shagah Revelation Revolution!”

 

Then bumper music came on and Michelle Heathen came back on the air with the following announcement. “In the interest of fair play and the Fairness Doctrine, we now have with us Ms. Trixie Daley Bailey, GOP nominee for President.”

 

“Good evening, Ms. Daley Bailey.”

 

“Call me Trixie.”

 

“Yes, Trixie. Your campaign has caught fire. Any thoughts on why that has happened?”

 

“It is what it is.”

 

“Oh, you just said the words that you made famous ‘It is what it is.’ Just what do you mean when you say that?”

 

“I mean it is what it is.”

 

“Do you think you can win the upcoming debate with President Bidemytime?”

 

“Yes, as long as he is what he is.”

 

“Is the country better or worse after four years of the Mr. Joe Administration? Wait a minute. I know your answer. ‘It is what it is.’ Well, thank you Trixie and good luck on the campaign trail.”

 

***

I reached Orlando early Tuesday morning and filled up on caffeine at Starbucks. I then drove to Disney World and bought an all day pass. The beeping had stopped about the time I had arrived in Orlando. What was called for now was old-fashioned, basic, garden variety TPE reconnaissance, i.e., walking around, talking to people and hoping to catch a break.

 

As I meandered, strolled, ambled, and perambulated through the gigantic recreation park, nothing seemed to jump out and say ‘this is what you’re looking for!’ until sometime in the mid-afternoon I happened upon an exhibit entitled ‘The Fountain of Truth’. Hmmm, there may be something to this. I decided to sit down on a bench outside the exhibit and await further developments. A short time later Goofy walked up to me and said “Hello, I understand you’ve been looking for me.”

 

Most people are familiar with the most famous Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck, Snow White, the Seven Dwarfs, etc. Goofy, while not in the top tier, is also well known. In essence, he’s a big dog with floppy ears, walks on two feet and acts and talks goofy; hence the name. But the Goofy I was now looking at was about seven feet tall and spoke perfect English.

 

I answered, “I have?”

 

“Yes, Nick, you have. I’m Goofy aka Author Godfree aka The Ghost.”

 

“But why now? Why have you allowed me to finally find you?”

 

He simply said, “It was time.”

 

“Speaking of time, what the heck has been going on? First, I was in a twilight zone-like 1959. Now I’m in a 2020 where so many things are out of whack.”

 

Goofy assumed a professorial stance: “People think of time as a river moving in one direction; from past to future. And that’s true as far as it goes. But time is also another river moving in the opposite direction; from future to past. These rivers run simultaneously and beside the rivers there is a path known only to select individuals, of which I happen to be one. Those who have access to the path can, by walking either forward or backward on the path, enter the river at any point in time. “

 

“But why are so many things out of whack; such as the Church of the Teddy Bear? There was no such thing back in 2011.”

 

“Both rivers of time have tributaries. Things can go slightly off the reservation on the tributaries. You’re on one now.”

 

“So the real reality is the main river and the pseudo-reality is the tributary?”

 

“It is what it is.”

 

That phrase again.

 

***

“Are you happy, Author?”

 

“Pretty much. I find that the Goofy costume both centers and grounds me. After an eternity of etherealness, interacting with the gravitational pull feels darn good. Also, the ghostwriting business was going nowhere and performing as Goofy gives me the opportunity to stay in show business.”

 

“Will you ever go back to being The Ghost?”

 

“Never say never forever.”

 

I smiled and then responded,

 

“It is what it is.”

 

Chapter 7: The Ambivalent Mule

 

In the spring of 1932 times were tough and like many others, I was looking for work. I had migrated from my hometown of Sumter, South Carolina to an area in the Sandhills about thirty miles southeast of Columbia. After weeks of living like a hobo I had found a job milking cows near the crossroads village of Goodsite. It didn’t pay much but it came with a place to sleep in the barn loft and all the milk and cheese my lactose tolerant body could handle. The name of my new found workplace was Shumptuous Dairy. Old Man Shumptuous, the owner, was nice enough when he wasn’t being grumpy which was about 95% of the time. His daughter, Trixie, wasn’t bad looking, but I was working too hard to give her much notice.

 

Then 1947 came along and Trixie and I had been married almost ten years. We had 15 kids, three of them human. The other 12 patrolled the pasture back of the house. I was still working at Shumptuous (where the motto is ‘Milking cows will not only give you a good grip but also a good grip on life.) and also doing some private detective work in the evenings and weekends. I picked up most of my detective skills while serving as a MP in the South Pacific during the war. I never had much trouble doing my job, except one night when a seaman named Fred got drunk and cried out in a Hawaiian bar, “The South Pacific will rise again!”. A few days in the brig cooled him off and I never saw Fred again. I’d like to though.

 

Besides milking cows and doing private detective work on the side, I also spent the hours around midnight (I don’t sleep much) in my workshop trying my hand at inventing things. Folks around Goodsite call me a Ben Franklin wannabe. My first invention was the Whirt. A Whirt is a shirt designed to hold a wallet in its left front pocket. Trixie said that was ridiculous. “Every time you lean over your wallet will fall out and what’s more, what self-respecting man will wear his wallet in his shirt?” Now Trixie was a fine woman and could make a mean peach cobbler, but she never was quite up to snuff in the foresight department. But her comment did cause me to reconsider the design of the shirt and the result of my reconsideration was adding a zipper to the pocket. Thank you, Trix.

 

Another idea I had involved oil. I like both saffron oil and canola oil but I couldn’t decide which one I liked the most so I experimented combining the two to come up with a new taste sensation. I planned to call it ‘Oil in Oil’. The experiment was a bust though and the lab work involved in the process produced some pretty bad smells. I remember Trixie bursting into workshop shouting, “What the hell are you doing, Nick, trying to make Goodsite smell like New York City?”

 

There were other ideas. But I think you get the drift.

 

***

Let me tell you a little about the three kids (the human ones). The oldest was a boy we named Abimelech. Good strong kid with an ear for music. Everybody called him Abe. When he was eighteen he left Goodsite for Nashville where he pursued his dream of becoming a paid musician (he had the unpaid musician part covered like a blanket). In Nashville he formed a band called Cows on a Rampage. The type of music they played was called Dairy Rock (some musicologists believe Grungy Rock on the West Coast was an offshoot of Dairy Rock). They had a few modest hits such as ‘This Milk is Your Milk’ and ‘Who’s Got My Cheese, Dammit?’ before busting into the big time in 1959 with their platinum hit ‘When the Cows Come Falling From the Sky’. Sad to say, Abe died tragically in 1965 in a plane crash in Wisconsin. Abe was always searching for ways to improve his Dairy Rock lyrics and what better place than the Land of Cheese?

 

Buffy was the middle child and was the real go getter in the family. I don’t know what she loved more, cooking or making money. She couldn’t decide either so she did both. By age 20, she had a cooking show on public television and by age 22 owned a chain of restaurants called Buffy’s List. We don’t see Buffy much but that’s OK. She’s happy and that’s all that counts.

 

The third and last child is Nick Jr. I call him a ‘cow chip off the old block’. Junior is an in-betweener. He’s not lazy but he’s not industrious. He’s not smart but he’s not dumb. He’s not good looking but he ain’t ugly either. He’s just Junior. Maybe he’ll do something someday. I’m still waiting.

 

Trixie died in 1985 from natural causes. She was a good wife and mother; a little bit of a nag at times; but ‘oil in oil’ not too bad looking. I should have tried to write a song about her.

 

I died in 1999, but not from natural causes. I was attempting this time to combine peanut oil with engine oil. In 2001, Nick Jr. was still clearing away the rubble where the workshop used to be.

 

***

I met SM Tubebacher in a dream. Or was it a dream inside a dream? Whatever it was he introduced himself as a Time Unfolding Technocrat. I remembered his exact words: “It’s hard to return to an identical place in the Time Stream mainly because it no longer exists and if truth be told, it may never have existed in the first place.”

 

He continued, “However, since you are in essence writing your own story, so to speak, then what is impossible in one context may be possible in another one.”

 

“Then I can go home again?”

 

“Only if you become a better writer.”

 

I was about to ask SM if he knew any good writing schools that were in homeostasis in relation to the paradox of Time when the inspirational tones of ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’ filled the air.

 

It was my celestial cell phone. I answered, “Nick Neercassel speaking.”

 

“Howdy, Nick, it’s Earl. How are you doing, fella? Loooonnng time, no talk, no see.”

 

“Doing great, Earl. Just waking up matter of fact.”

 

“Wish we could chat but the Boss is back in town and you’re back in the hunt. See you at Petiger International in thirty minutes.” Earl hung up and I jumped out of bed, washed my face, combed my hair (noticed a few new grays), put on my khaki pants and matching Whirt, tucked a portable toothbrush into my pocket, made sure the celestial was fully charged, checked to see if my TPE ID slash credit card was in my Wullet, placed the Wullet in the left front pocket of my Whirt, and then… zipped it up.

 

Nick Neercassel, Class II TPE, was ready for action.

 

***

Forty-five minutes later I was thousands of feet up in the air headed to the west coast. Across from me sat Lance Straightpoint, just out of TPE Rehab. Lance was talking quickly and with purpose,

 

“We got a situation at the Aztec Publishing Concern. Sixteen Tappdancers are trapped in a Quonset Hut and facing earthly extinction.”

 

“By what and by whom?”

 

“By psychic waves of grain emanating from someone calling himself the Ambivalent Mule. He’s been holding a grudge for some time against the Tappdancers and has finally decided not to nurse the grudge any longer.”

 

“What’s a psychic wave of grain?”

 

“We don’t know. We just know it hurts.”

 

“Physically or emotionally?”

 

“Psychically. That’s why the words ‘waves of grain’ are prefaced with the word psychic.”

 

“I see.” But I didn’t.

 

Then I heard a commode flush and a man walked out of the jet plane’s tiny bathroom.

 

“Who’s he?”

 

“W. Scott Fitztaylor. He’s here to make pithy and erudite remarks when the action lags.”

 

“I guess he’ll be talking a lot.”

 

“Probably not since the writer of this story is neither pithy nor erudite himself.”

 

Fitztaylor walked over to me and offered me his hand. We shook. I said, “I’m Nick. Nice to meet you.”

 

“Same here. Call me Fitz.” Fitz handed me a small card. It read:

 

Have Literary Ambiguities?

Will Travel to Unravel

 

“Fitz, are you a TPE?”

 

“Dear God, no! I’m an independent linguistic stylistic contractor in search of a tautology and not just a mere one. I’m also fascinated by unlikely synecdoches as well as grammatical mysteries of the night.”

 

“Do you have any insight into the situation at the Aztec Compound?”

 

“The Ambivalent Mule, or AM as he likes to call himself, and does so, I believe, only because when asked to identify himself, can then reply ‘I AM’ is indisputably a man of contradiction, partly fact and partly fiction; hence the name. Does he call himself what he does because he’s ambivalently stubborn or stubbornly ambivalent? My analysis, an analysis which I analyzed myself, tells me he doesn’t know and neither do we.”

 

This guy is going to be a big help, I thought.

 

I then asked Lance,

 

“How about food and water for the Tappdancers? How long can they hold out?”

 

“Not long. They’re pretty big eaters.”

 

For some reason that remark struck a chord in me.

 

“How about the Ambivalent Mule? Is he a big guy?” Why had I asked that question? It seemed irrelevant.

 

“Skinny as a rail.”

 

My brain was definitely on to something but no solid lines were forming and no dots were connecting. While I was thinking furiously, Fitz spoke,

 

“From my extensive readings into the personal noosphere of A. Mule, I have concluded that he is an extremely patriotic individual. Perhaps this attack that he has perpetuated is fueled by what he perceives to be some sort of Anti-Americanism on the part of the Tappdancers.”

 

“But the Aztec Publishing Concern’s sole mission is to translate the Bible into the Aztec language. How is that Anti-American?”

 

“Wait a minute”, Lance interjected, “ I just remembered a comment A. Mule made in his interview on 60 Minutes. He said ‘If the American Standard Version of the Bible was good enough for Jesus, then, by gum, it’s good enough for every American’.”

 

‘By gum’? Who and what were we dealing here with here?

 

***

Lance glanced at his watch and said, “We’ll have to continue this conversation later. Right now we need to watch a broadcast that was originally aired on THIN (Third Heaven Inter-universal Network) and later transferred to a DVD.”

 

“Did THIN send us a copy?”

 

“No, I found a link to a You Tube version on Drudge.”

 

Just then Earl walked in and I asked him if the plane was on auto-pilot.

 

“No, my brother Randy has taken over the controls. I told him it was as good as time as any to start practicing.”

 

Lance clicked on a compact DVD player with accompanying screen and the face of Gabriel Beyondthesunandback appeared. Gabe was an Old Associate (one of the oldest) of the Boss. After a short musical intro, Gage began talking,

 

“This announcement is sponsored by Third Heaven Cafeteria where the food doesn’t only taste heavenly, it is heavenly, and where waiting in line is a real pleasure.

 

“Friends, Fellow Associates, Pond of Fire employees, TPEs, and Third Heaven hangers on, I have great news. Boss Jr. is back from covering 63 trillion square light years in a valiant search for The Ghost. He didn’t find what he was looking for but at the moment that’s neither here nor there. What’s important is that THI has one of its CEOs sitting in the big chair again. Let’s all together now give a big sigh of relief.”

 

And after a brief but profound sigh, Gabe said,

 

“As soon as Boss Jr. got back he released the following memo that will now slowly scroll down the screen for those who like to read as well as listen.”

 

MEMO from Boss Jr.

 

I’m back but the Boss isn’t. The Boss is still somewhere in infinite space keeping tabs on the Universe. Since The Ghost retired it means one of us has to be the go to guy in terms of being Everywhere; if not all at once, then pretty darn close. The Boss volunteered to do the traveling telling me, “It’s best if you go back to the Third Heaven slash Earth Administrative Zone to run things there. You know what it’s like to be human. Wasn’t a great experience but at least you got out of it alive, even though you did die first. Took some work but you made it. I just don’t think I’d be very patient with the humans, and besides, since the Universe is infinite, I have plenty to keep me busy.”

 

Part of being a good junior partner is being a good team player. I’ll miss the Boss but before we parted he hinted that we might meet again. “I’ve been working on something I call the Consummation. When I’ve got more details I’ll send you a spiritgram.”

 

The Alpha Centauri Police Action is pretty much over. Some mopping up stills needs to be done but I can report that over half of The Man’s (TM) Minions (or Essociates as he now calls them; stands for Evil Associates; TM is nothing if not a copy cat) have been rounded up and locked away in a place ‘where the sun don’t shine.’ The other half are on the run, scattered throughout the galaxy, and I feel confident when I say it’ll be quite a while before they’re bedeviling us again.

 

On my way back here, while I passing through the Sirius Sector, I ran into TM as he was fleeing. He was bitter naturally but surprisingly optimistic. His words were,

 

“I’m not giving up. You made a mistake when you gave humans free will. That means there’s a chance all of humanity will eventually come around to my way of thinking and when they do, they’ll realize that it’s me not you who’s worthy of their worship. Admit it. You goofed.”

 

Of course I would admit no such thing. The guy just doesn’t get it and probably never will. But I’ll hold out hope for him just as I do for all of creation.

 

Now ever since I’ve been gone, rumors have been flying. I don’t plan to respond to all of them but I will set the record straight on a few of the more egregious ones:

 

1. The Rapture will more than likely continue as an unplanned event.

 

2. Pond of Fire funding will continue for the time being. We’re keeping an eye on the US national debt. So far it’s not ‘high’ enough to affect Third Heaven’s Earth-based operations, but if it keeps growing, it’s a whole new ballgame.

 

3. Only select individuals with special skills (such as Sam Walton and Steve Jobs) will continue to go straight to heaven (Sam didn’t need one but Steve got a waiver. He’s attending spirit led classes when he’s not upgrading THI computer operations). Everyone else will go to soul sleep status when they die and stay there until either the Rapture or the Great White Throne.

 

4. Prayers will continue to be answered in a timely basis. Beware of Ledbetters selling prayer cloths.

 

5. And even though it’s shown quite a few cracks in the last couple of months, the TPE Corps will not be disbanded. (A cheer went up in the plane cabin.)

 

Finally, it’s come to my attention that there’s been a lot of religion amalgamation going on, such as Puddhism (Presbyterian offshoot of Buddhism); Nudaism (New Age offshoot of Judaism); Witness Protection (Jehovah Witness offshoot of Law and Order); etc. Now I’m not going to the trouble of outlawing religion amalgamations or just plain religions for that matter but I do want to take this opportunity to refresh your memories on syllogistic guidelines for an officially approved religion:

 

A. God – Higher Power – Supreme Being – Great Spirit in the Sky, etc.

 

B. Principles on how to live morally come down from A

 

C. Reward/Punishment based on how one follows B

 

Keep these guidelines in mind as you evaluate and investigate various religious entities.

 

Well, that it’s for now. One last word of advice. Be careful with this fate business. What seems or feels like fate is oftentimes just the working out of a narrow range of possibilities. It feels like fate because we “knew” it was supposed to happen; but it’s really the narrow range of possibilities at work; very familiar possibilities; hence the feeling that it had to happen.

 

***

No one spoke for a few minutes. Then Earl went back to the cockpit and Fitz went to sleep. Lance and I started strategizing.

 

“Lance, I think the Ambivalent Mule may either be a Scientifico or an ally of the Scientificos.”

 

“So you think the attack is really motivated by hatred against Aztec avoirdupois?”

 

“It certainly looks that way. Do you have any leads on who might be helping the Mule?”

 

“The TPE satellite has identified about ten Shagah Studs and fifteen Polygamia Patriarchs.”

 

“But why would they help the Mule attack the Concern? I thought they were all friends.”

 

“About a month ago Allsurethinger of the Concern denounced the practices of having too much sex and too many wives.”

 

“So the Mule used Allsurethinger’s comments to secure the help of the Studs and the Patriarchs?”

 

“That’s right, but the Mule is nothing if not clever. Well, he’s also ambivalent and stubborn but we already know that. So do you have any ideas on how to defeat the A. Mule Team?”

 

“I don’t but luckily Sun Tzu in ‘The Art of War’ did. He said, “Build your opponent a golden bridge (arch) to retreat across.”

 

“You mean a Big Mac Attack?”

 

“Absolutely.”

 

***

McDonalds had recently outsourced the manufacturing of Big Macs to India, so we had to call in our order of 250 Big Macs to McDonalds Far East Operations in Dimeboxia, India. They said they could have them where we needed them in no more than 16 hours, which really wasn’t that bad a thing because the hungrier everyone was the better.

 

Lance said he had never seen such a well prepared enemy. “Great team effort. The Mule is the star of course but he doesn’t mind sharing the limelight every once in a while. If I didn’t know better I’d say they were coached by Phil Jackson.”

 

“Maybe they were.”

 

I quickly pulled out my celestial and called THI Phone Central where they gave me Phil Jackson’s terrestrial cell phone number. Phil picked up on the first beep.

 

“Hi, Phil, this is Nick Neercassel. Have you done any coaching lately?”

 

Phil replied, “So you found out? Yea, I coached a bunch of skinny guys on how to raid and conquer a bible translation company’s compound. Don’t be mad. I felt like I had to prove to the world I could really coach. I’m sick and tired of people saying my teams only won championships because they had great players like Michael, Scottie, Kobe and Shaq and with players like that some bum off the street could dress up like a coach and no one would notice the difference.”

 

“What’s done is done, Phil, but can you give us any tips on how to defeat the A. Mule Team?”

 

“You need a star player. Is Boss Jr. available?”

 

We didn’t plan on finding out. This was a job we were determined to do ourselves.

 

***

Fitz had woken up and was drinking a glass of champagne. After a couple of sips he said,

 

“How in heaven’s name can a lowly burger, though a tasty one at that, possibly be the means of defeating the Ambivalent Mule and his nefarious allies?”

 

Lance was first to answer, “Because we suspect the Mule is a Hubodist (Hubble Scientifico offshoot of Methodism) and he believes you only need to live on 1500 calories a day. His troops are probably famished.”

 

Fitz thoughtfully stroked his chin, took another sip of the bubbly and replied. “So the Big Macs are, shall we say, a ‘conversion diversion’?”

 

“Yes, exactly. We will lure the hungry Studs and the starving Patriarchs away from the compound with the aroma of the Big Macs leaving the Mule all alone. Then we’ll surround him and figuratively' not literally of course, smoke him out.” That was me speaking.

 

“Rather brilliant plan, if I do say so myself.” Fitz finished the champagne and poured another one.

 

The plan went off without a hitch but with more than a few burps (thanks to the Big Macs). After rounding them all up, we bought bus tickets for the Studs and Patriarchs and sent them back to their respective hometowns, villages, and out of the way holes in the wall. The Ambivalent Mule gracefully accepted defeat and returned to the East Coast to a place he called the Mule’s Milieu (on reflection, isn’t there a little bit of an ambivalent mule in all of us?). The Tappdancers seemed grateful for the rescue but were a little upset when they found out all 250 Big Macs had been eaten by the A. Mule Team (well, not quite all of them; Lance, Earl, Randy, Fitz and I enjoyed quite a few ourselves.).

 

***

 

It was time to get back to Goodsite. Earl and Randy said they would be more than happy to fly me back. Lance stayed in California on a new assignment called ‘THE CASE OF THE NICK NEERCASSEL DOPPLEGANGER’. Apparently, someone looking like me had been spotted in the studio back lots of Hollywood asking questions. Fitz also stayed saying there were some tropes missing in Burbank and he planned to go looking for them. I told them farewell reluctantly. We had made a good team.

 

That night as I flew over the heartland of America, and as I flew beneath the heart of the universe, I reflected on the fact that were many times when I was on a case and I didn’t know what I was doing or why I was doing it, or where I was or where I was going, but through it all I did know one thing and that one thing I knew very well. I knew who I was:

 

Nick Neercassel: Theological Private Eye.

 

Chapter 8: Normex Annex

 

My name is Lance Straightpoint, recently rehabilitated TPE. I’ve known Nick for about five years. Nick is currently recuperating at his home base of Goodsite, South Carolina from the debilitating effects of TOM Syndrome. TOM refers to Time Out of Mind. Symptoms of TOMS include hallucinations, multi-colored views of the universe, and a strong desire to drink chocolate milk; the symptoms are almost identical to that of taking LSD. For some unknown reason, TOMS only affects TPEs. It’s a job hazard that our health plan doesn’t recognize. All we TPEs know to do is to find a dark room somewhere and try to sleep without dreaming. Have you ever tried that? Not an easy thing to do. I just hope Nick is making progress in his recovery.

 

With Nick on the shelf, it’s fallen to me to tackle his next assignment, which the writers are calling ‘THE CASE OF NORMEX ANNEX’. I’m not too sure that’s a good title but I don’t write these stories so I’m not in position to make such decisions. Better left to the eggheads who do; the ones who sit all day punching at keyboards, straining their little brains and struggling to find ways to make murder, mayhem, and violence sound exciting, seductive, and enticing. That’s not the way I operate. I stick to the assignments I’m given. I either succeed or I fail. Simple as that.

 

At the end of the last story, Nick told you I was staying in LA to handle ‘THE CASE OF THE NICK NEERCASSEL DOPPELGANGER’. What Nick didn’t tell you was that he was the doppelganger (in other words, there was no doppelganger). It was the TOMS at work. I found poor Nick in a Hollywood studio back lot asking a custodian what his plans were when he became president. Luckily, I was able to talk Nick into riding to the airport with me where I made sure he got on the TPE Express. The pilot, Earl, said he would take good care of Nick and even had a six-pack of Ersatz Shumptuous in the jet fridge.

 

And now I find myself 600 miles southeast of LA headed toward the Mexican border and a place my superiors call Normex Annex. Seems there’s some sort of cult living about fifty miles on the Mexican side of the border. They call themselves the Cult of the Raspberry Tart and their stated goal is to make Normex Annex an independent nation. Sounds more political than religious, but like I said, I don’t question the assignments. The last thing I want to do is go through TPE Rehab again.

 

The last American town I experienced before crossing the border went by the name of Encrucijados de Buenositio.  It was hot and dusty and as a result I was hot and thirsty as I strolled into the El Peyote Coyote Cantina and took a seat at the bar. The bartender asked,

 

“What’ll you have?”

 

“Shagah No Pesada.” I replied and then added, “Make it as cold as humanly possible.”

 

As I had walked through the swinging doors of the cantina I had noticed a group of three men sitting at a table in the corner, which in normal times, would not have worried me, but these were anything but normal times, and so I was naturally suspicious of any group of two or more who seemed to be concocting a plan of some kind. Had they been tipped off that I was headed to Normex Annex? If so then I needed to keep an eye on them. I didn’t want to be taken by surprise but in looking at them I forget about the bartender, who instead of getting a beer for me, got a baseball bat instead and promptly began swinging at my head. TPE training asserted itself so that I moved quickly enough to cause the blow to be a glancing one. Still it was more than enough to knock me off the bar stool and as I was struggling to get to my feet, the other three men moved toward me in a menacing fashion. Since I have not read all of Nick’s cases I don’t know what you know or don’t know about the TPE Code of Conduct so I will inform you now of one very germane one: TPEs have a ‘License Not to Hurt Too Severely’. Not my favorite conduct in the Code but one I plan to live by (or die by) because I never, ever want to go through rehab again.

 

All three men, like the bartender, were carrying baseball bats (I wonder if they were members of a local minor league baseball team?). I managed to grab the bar stool by one of its legs and swung it low and hard knocking two of the men off of their feet. The two men falling to the floor temporarily slowed the third man and that gave me the opportunity to leap up on the bar where I threw myself at the bartender. We went crashing back into the tequila bottles. Landing heavily on his back knocked the wind out of the bartender; I then did a somersault behind the bar gaining a little distance between me and the other three men who were hot in pursuit wildly swinging their baseball bats. I noticed a fire hydrant on the wall which I quickly seized and turned on the men. The escaping foamy liquid threw them into paroxysms of aimless activity. I now saw my chance to escape and I bolted through the cantina doors where I ran headlong into a fifth man and yet another baseball bat. This one didn’t miss.

 

***

When I came to, a cat was banging around in some trash cans in the back alley where I found myself face down in the cobblestones that lined the alley way. I felt the side of my head. The baseball bat had made quite an impression. I quickly recalled several facts of my existence that proved to me I was still alive and in one piece. I then felt in all my pockets and found nothing missing. But why had I been assaulted? Just because I was a stranger in town? I had done nothing to provoke anyone.

 

Or had I? In one of my pockets had been a piece of paper that I didn’t remember being there. It took me a moment but then I realized I was looking at a recipe for a raspberry tart:

 

Pate Brisee (Short Crust Pastry):

1 1/4 cups (175 grams) all-purpose flour

1/2 teaspoon (2 grams) salt

1 tablespoon (14 grams) granulated white sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) (113 grams) unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into 1 inch (2.5 cm) pieces

1/8 to 1/4 cup (30 - 60 ml) ice water

Filling:

2 cups fresh raspberries

2 tablespoons (30 grams) granulated white sugar

1 tablespoon (15 grams) unsalted butter, melted

 

But there were no cooking instructions! What parts needed cooking? How long and at what temperature? Even with an aching head, I suddenly felt quite hungry.

 

One thing was for sure. I wasn’t going back to the El Peyote Coyote to get a bite to eat. Somewhere less violent was what I had in mind, so walking very gingerly and with my eyes darting in all directions, I went back to the relatively peaceful main street of Buenositio. It was still daylight; I’m guessing just after siesta and the street was stirring back to life. I found a small café where I went in and ordered a steak and two aspirins. I utilized one cold Shegah No Pesada to wash down the aspirins and another one to wash down the steak.

 

While dining, I thought about the attack and the note. Were they tied together, and if so, was someone or some group of someones trying to tell me something? Why a recipe for a raspberry tart? Of course! It had to be a message from the Cult of the Raspberry Tart. But why not just hand it to me? Why were baseball bats necessary? Unless the wielders of the baseball bats were actually not in cahoots with the Tarters. Maybe the Tarters was on their way to contact me when they saw me being attacked. Not wanting to get involved, they waited until my body was dumped in the back alley, then approached me while I was still unconscious and slipped the raspberry tart recipe into my pocket. They figured my being conscious or unconscious had no bearing on their assignment. Their job had simply been to give me the recipe and as far they were concerned they had fulfilled their duty.

So here I was, in an out of the way place called Buenositio, with a big knot on my head and a tart recipe.

 

I was making progress.

 

***

But to continue doing so, it was necessary that I cross the border which I did so by wading across the Rio del Amigo. My first stop after crossing the border was a tiny village that went by the rather grandiose name of Ciudad de Polvo Conejitos. As far as I could see or smell, it had nothing to commend it, so as quickly as I could, I rented a donkey, bought a few needed supplies, and set out for the mysterious Normex Annex.

 

As you may have noticed by now, I was neither sending nor receiving phone calls. It had to do with my recent TPE Rehab stint. Upon leaving Rehab, a TPE was put on a 90 day probation period, during which time he or she was forced to operate sans celestial cell phone, Wullet, and worst of all, unlimited celestial credit. Now I still had my TPE ID slash credit card but it had a daily limit; in my case just enough to rent a donkey when I needed one.

 

The donkey’s name, like the village where I had rented him, was more impressive than the bearer of the name. His name was Equus Asinus Ringmaster. I decided to call him Big Ears. Maybe he heard things no one else did. But if he did, how would he communicate his findings? A good TPE never closes the door on any one particular source of information, but it was hard to see how Big Ears would turn out to be a useful informant.

 

No one in the village had admitted they had ever heard of Normex Annex though I had caught a gleam in a couple of people’s eyes when I mentioned the name. I couldn’t tell if they were being evasive or were just being sincerely dumb.

 

Big Ears and I made good time as we followed the only trail that led south out of town. It was your basic desert environment: hot, dry and dusty. There was a constant wind with the only variation in it being hard to slightly less hard and back to hard again. I begin to think the Cult of Raspberry Tart would have no trouble in declaring independence for Normex Annex; because simply no one would care or notice if they did.

 

***

We had covered a relatively easy twenty miles the first day and that night as I lay under a canopy of twinkling stars I thought about Spinoza and the mechanics of determinism. Were they quantum in nature or were they more Ford automotive assembly line style, circa 1920? I asked Big Ears if he had any thoughts on the matter, but unlike Balaam’s Ass, he was content, except for a few brays now and then, to remain silent through the night.

 

The next day we ran into our first genuine Tarter, or erstwhile Tarter, should I say. Apparently, life in the Cult of the Raspberry Tart, had been more piquant than she had bargained for, and being of a naturally somber nature, she had soon discovered that for her, being a Tarter was a non-starter.

 

And though the song she sang was a sad one, she did turn out to be of assistance in a minor key. She verified that the raspberry tart recipe that had been surreptitiously left in my pocket was the Real McCoy. But she couldn’t look it at too long – too many painful memories. She then asked for ‘the colored water that pretends to be beer’ and I grabbed a Shagah No Pesada out of the cooler and offered it to her. She took it gratefully and re-commenced her slow journey back to the border and to a life that was neither pungent nor audacious but a life that had the potential to be entirely her own.

 

After she had left us, we trekked for about another two hours until we stopped for lunch and a siesta. I ate some beef jerky and then found some shade underneath a large rock where I managed to take a refreshing nap. Any dreams I had were common to us all. In one, I was flying high above the earth, looking down on Machu Picchu, thinking what a lovely day for a picnic. Just leave the guinea pigs at home, for God’s sake.

 

When I awoke I breathed a sigh of relief; my dreams had demonstrated no symptoms of TOMS

 

***

The Tart camp was at the base of a mountain. A whole lot of outside cooking was going on and I spotted some Food Network cameras strategically located. There were several FN celebrities in attendance. It was our lucky day. Big Ears let out a gleeful bray. My mouth began to water.

 

It was a Tart Cook-Off!

 

There were a shortage of judges and I volunteered the services of Big Ears and myself. To be accepted we had to first be interviewed by the Tart Leader, Cassy Castenada. I had never met Cassy but I had known her father, Carlos, back in the seventies. I was doing reconnaissance work in the Fifth Peyote Dimension and had run into Carlos while he was doing research for one of his books. I never read that particular book but I’m sure like all Carlos’ books it combined hard facts with a healthy dose of skepticism.

 

Cassy looked to be her mid-forties with long black hair and a winning smile. She wasted no time in interviewing us:

 

“Why do you think you and Big Ears are qualified to be judges?”

 

“We both want to have lives that have relevance and piquancy.”

 

“Have you ever judged a Raspberry Tart Cook-Off?”

 

“No, but Big Ears got mad one time and rampaged through a Blueberry Tart Cook-Off.”

 

Cassy smiled: “That’s all I needed to know. Report to the judges table.”

 

***

There were no bad tarts. They were all wonderful. You might say they mutually excelled each other. But finally, after several hours of tart tasting, Big Ears and I were finally able to find the gumption to vote on our favorites. We really had no choice but to vote. All the tarts were gone.

 

After the festivities, I made a point of seeing Cassy again. After all, she was the leader of the Tarts and who better to explain the incipient desire to be a free nation. Was it religious freedom they were seeking? Was it political freedom or was it some transcendental yearning to be in a place where piquancy, audaciousness, and tartness could come into their own?

 

“We need a place to grow peyote without government interference. It was my father’s dream and when it didn’t come true during his own lifetime he passed the baton to me.”

 

“But why peyote? Isn’t it just another one of your run of the mill hallucinogenic drugs that promises more that it can deliver?”

 

Cassy looked hard at me before answering. “So you’re here to try and stop us.”

 

“You sent the men with the baseball bats, didn’t you?”

 

“They weren’t supposed to hurt you; just a friendly warning.”

 

“But why the gift of the Raspberry Tart recipe? Wasn’t that an invitation of sorts?”

 

“Well, we’re just so proud of that recipe that we want to share it even when it goes against our best interests. Life cannot be piquant and provocative unless there is the push and pull of yin and yang.”

 

“Just how do you plan to get away with making Normex Annex an independent country?”

 

“Since it’s only one square mile in area we’re hoping no one will notice.”

 

“Are we located in Normex Annex right now?”

 

“No. We had a Cook-Off here to throw searchers off the trail. And it would have worked too, at least for the ordinary searchers. But you TPEs don’t fall into that category.”

 

“They don’t call us gradgrinds for nothing.”

 

***

Cassy, of course, had no intention of divulging the true location of Normex Annex. It was up to a man and his donkey to find it the old-fashioned way.

 

The next morning Cassy and the Tarters broke camp and left the area. I didn’t even bother to see in which direction they were headed. One thing I was sure of; they weren’t headed for Normex Annex. They would probably go a thousand miles out of their way before ever deliberately leading me to it. It made more sense that I keep moving on my own, following my TPE instincts, and looking for leads in the unlikeliest of places. If I found Normex Annex, it would be in spite of, not because of the Tarters.

 

Big Ears seemed to be feeling a little sluggish. I could emphasize. Too many Raspberry Tarts will do that to you. But it didn’t matter if our perkiness was on the wane, there was a still a job to be done, and so we hit the trail at dawn. Without breakfast I might add.

 

How do you find a specific square mile in an unvarying landscape?; a landscape that is so monotonous it makes you wish you were watching reruns of Fidel Castro speeches instead. How do you do it? You do it through fear; fear of being sent back to TPE Rehab; and so we trod on, Big Ears and I, ensconced in our own thoughts, all the while wondering if we were going  to a particular somewhere that wasn’t really particularly there.

 

Mile after mile we trudged with only bathroom breaks, meals, and sleep to break the tedium. Big Ears didn’t even stop for his bathroom breaks but he didn’t mind taking a break when I stopped for mine. Didn’t seem fair but that’s the way it was.

My assignment had been pared down to the bone. A donkey and I were in the desert searching for a speck of land, a speck so obscure even a celestial GPS (God Positioning System) would have trouble finding it.

 

And then when it seemed things couldn’t get worse; the wind picked up speed.

 

***

Within minutes, we were in the throes of a full force dust storm and there was no place to hide. It was every man or donkey for himself. The last I saw of Big Ears he was hurtling away from me  at a tremendous rate of speed about two feet off the ground. The look on his face was one I would never forget. Someday (if I escape this ordeal) I’ll pay fitting tribute to Equus Asinus Ringmater: a good donkey and a true desert companion.

 

As for me, I too was swept away by the furious dust storm but in a slightly different direction than Big Ears. I had no choice but to close my eyes as sand particles were rapidly flowing into them. Luckily I always tied my Hiram Bingham III fedora under my neck so I didn’t lose my hat as I went sailing into the desert environs.

 

The seconds flashed by and I was still being transported by the ferocious wind. Then the seconds turned into minutes and I was…

 

Going, going…gone.

 

***

 

The children must have a place to play. We will build them a playground on the third planet that revolves around that rather small insignificant star. Every five thousand years or so we will visit and see how they’re doing. I have high hopes for them. Yes, they are quite headstrong and stubborn and not always willing to listen to good advice. But their potential is great and so we should never give up on them unless they first give up on themselves.

 

The dust storm was over and I lay crumpled up by a cactus. I decided it was finally alright to open my eyes. I did so and immediately closed them again. The sun was so bright it made my eyes hurt.  So this time when I opened them I did so by squinting, just barely allowing the light in; but it was enough to see the crudely made sign that looked like an arrow attached to a five foot pole. The sign read:

 

San Manse’.

 

Chapter 9: The Lost City Of The Inklings

 

I was into my third reading of Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ when the celestial started playing ‘A Mighty Fortress is Our God’.

 

“Nick here.”

 

“Hey, Nick, it’s Boss Jr. Lance is in trouble. Set your GPS (God Positioning System) for Normex Annex and get moving.”

 

“You won’t be sending the jet for me?”

 

“Earl decided he was due a vacation and took off for New Guinea. We’re still trying to find him. You’ll have to take the Flying Belt. I’m sure all sixteen motorcycles are still in the shop.”

 

BJ was right of course. “Yes sir. I’ll leave immediately. Any details I need to know about the case?”

 

“We’ll text you.”

 

***

I was feeling much better. TOMS (Time Out of Mind Syndrome) had run its usual course of a few days and I was no longer finding it necessary to attempt to sleep without dreaming. Funny thing though. I had lost my taste for chocolate milk.

 

The Flying Belt had been in storage for several months but no amount of idleness seemed to bother it. Whether idle or active, it retained its essential core personality; it reminded me of a donkey.

 

I cranked up the Belt and slowly pulled out of the driveway. I set the GPS for Normex Annex and turned onto the local farm highway. I was headed due west.

 

After a few hours, I stopped at the lovely suburban home of Alan and Gertrude Darley. We discussed the sometimes riveting topic of free will. Alan made quite a few trenchant remarks on the subject. They were as follows:

 

“There is no final conflict between God being sovereign and man being free. There is conflict - in fact a logical contradiction - between determinism and free will. By opting for determinism instead of free will you make God the author of evil (contrary to James 1) which is blasphemous.

 

“Only God has absolute freedom in the sense of not being externally determined; humans only have limited freedom as creatures. But as made in God's image there is significant freedom otherwise you are reducing God's image to a machine which is also blasphemous.

 

“The end does not justify the means. That is how terrorists justify atrocities. God did not create evil. Evil is a corruption of the Good and is caused by humans rebelling against God, resisting his good will. God works this for good (Romans 8:28) but he does not cause or will it. In the book of Job God was showing the devil that his kingdom is not based on brute force and expediency like Satan’s kingdom.

 

“Who then is making morally evil decisions - not human beings because they have no free will - they are externally controlled by God like puppets. Therefore the blame falls at the feet of God within determinism.

 

“Natural evil refers to events in nature which have bad consequences for those who experience them. It is 'evil' to have a tornado rip through your house. But this state of affairs would not have happened prior to the Fall because man had dominion over all these things. He lost it through freely choosing to rebel against God. (Genesis 3).

 

“God does not torture anyone. Man tortures himself. That is what the weeping and gnashing of teeth is.

 

“(Many) seem to have a faulty misunderstanding of the Fall. God subjecting creation to vanity (same word as in Ecclesiastes) refers to the futility that came about as a result of Adam's sin which 'cursed the ground' (Genesis 3:17). Adam was not created as a sinner. He was created 'very good.' He was innocent and had the potential to be perfect but he freely chose to rebel. This is how evil came into the world. Evil is a corruption of the Good. God is not evil. God is light and in him is no darkness at all. At the Fall man lost his dominion over creation and now suffers natural evil which is a judgment for sin. God is morally righteous in allowing this judgment. The created order did not willingly receive this but God subjected the world to this state in hope that he will deliver it. That is what is meant by the New Heaven and the New Earth.”

 

Alan gave me a lot to think about which is good because I had a long way to go with plenty of time to think.

 

Note to Neercassel fans: it’s important for TPEs to stay on top of the latest and hottest theological topics. You never know when such information may be important in solving a case.

 

***

The GPS was acting crazy. It couldn’t seem to make up its mind in which direction I should be going. At one point I seemed to be headed for Saskatchewan, the next for Washington, D.C., and the next for the Florida Keys. What was going on? I decided to call TPE Central.

 

“God afternoon. TPEC (TPE Central). May we help you?”

 

“I hope so. My GPS is not working properly.”

 

“What seems to be the problem?”

 

“It keeps changing its mind.”

 

“Maybe it’s not malfunctioning.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“It means you might be trying to find a moving target.”

 

Jumping Jehosophat! I had never thought of that.

 

“Do you have any suggestions on what I can do about it?”

 

“You need a Moving Target Actuator added on to your GPS. The problem is we’re totally out of stock of MTAs and it’ll be at least a month before our supply is replenished. We do have a suggestion though.”

 

“And what might that be?”

 

“You should purchase a Moving Target Almost Actuator. We don’t carry them but we know someone who does.”

 

I knew too. I answered “Orson Xanadu.”

 

“How did you know that?”

 

***

I knew the answer because I knew Xanadu. He would sell anything, even the kitchen sink. After all, back in ‘CHAPTER 1: THE PREDESTINED SHEGAH RUNAWAY’, he had gone all over the South selling something he called Shegah which was a cheap alternative for Shagah, the highly respected sex kit from Shagah Ink.

 

Xanadu was working in his garden when I pulled to a stop in his driveway. By the way of greeting, I asked what he was up to.

 

“I’m planting petunias. Would you like to buy some?”

 

“Not today, Orson. But do you have any MTAAs?”

 

“Are you chasing a moving target?”

 

“Seems so. Will your MTAA work as good as a MTA?”

 

“Yes, especially if the moving target isn’t moving too fast. By the way, I have a kitchen sink in the back yard. It’s for sale. Are you interested?”

 

“No thanks.” I handed Xanadu my TPE ID slash credit card and he processed the payment for the MTAA. It was rather easy to attach and soon I was headed in what I hoped to be a more sure direction.

 

Xanadu went back to planting his petunias.

 

***

 

About forty-five minutes later I stopped at a fast food restaurant and purchased a large coffee. I sat down in a booth and read the text TPEC had sent:

 

TPE Lance Straightpoint was last seen by observers at a Raspberry Tart Cook-off which was being held in a remote location of the Magnificent North American Desert, approximately 22 miles southeast of Ciudad de Polvo Conejitos. He is reported to have departed from the Cook-Off with his donkey, Equus Asinus Ringmaster (Big Ears) on Tuesday morning at 9 am, Central Standard Time.  His donkey, Big Ears, was found the next day, Wednesday, in a state of advanced disorientation, two miles from the border. When asked if he knew the whereabouts of Lance, Big Ears would only reply with downcast eyes and ears.

 

It appeared I only had an inkling of where Lance might be.

 

But an inkling might be just enough. TPEs have had less to go on. Why, I remember in ‘THE CASE OF THE CLUELESS CASE’, I solved a case without clues of any kind; no hint of a clue; no intimation of one. How did I solve the case? Well, I solved it with superior brainpower, the kind that resides in the Congress of the United States or in members of a UN Weapons Inspection Team. Perhaps one day I’ll tell you more about that case but right now I need to be totally engaged in this one.

 

Which is why I visited Willie Nelson.

 

***

I stopped just north of Austin, Texas and met Willie in a MFZ (Marijuana Free Zone). Willie and I shared the same birthday (month and day anyway) and we met on a semi-regular basis to discuss the disappearance of April 31. My contention was that it had never existed in the first place but Willie, who tended to believe in conspiracy theories of all kinds (e.g., he was positive that George W. Bush was really the result of a illicit liaison between Barbara Bush and BB King – in Willie’s thinking BB stood for ‘Bush Be’ - so BB and Barbara were angling for George W. Bush to be king of America one day. When I pointed out that GW Bush had peacefully stepped down as president back in January of 2009, Willie just said that was all a ploy and GW was planning to stage a coup d’état on December 21, 2012, the day when all hell broke loose because of the Mayan Calendar Catastrophe – another conspiracy Willie believed in -), one of which was that April 31 had been absconded by the Beatles the night of their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The Beatles, according to Willie, were secretly members of the Federal Reserve.

 

After our discussion, Willie and I played nine holes of golf.  We would have played eighteen but Willie suddenly felt the need to get back to a non-MF Zone. Before he parted, Willie did tell me he had visited Normex Annex once to do a concert. At the time it was located in Southern England.

 

Southern England? Inkling? Normex? Annex? Mystery? I had the words but I didn’t know the melody. And if I did discover the melody, could I sing it in tune?

 

***

That night I camped out in the hills just west of Austin. I made sure no man-made lights would obscure my view of the starry heavens. Fortunately, it was both a cloudless and moonless night and as I sat in a heavy duty lawn chair sipping a Shagah No Pesada, I thought back over the events of the day, attempting to rearrange the few clues I did have. I needed to find some symmetry in the asymmetry and some order in the confusion. Why not visit Southern England and see what I could find? I contacted TPEC via my celestial cell phone.

 

“God Evening. TPEC. May we help you?”

 

“How’s that VHRP coming along?”

 

“You mean the Virtual History Re-creator Programmer?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“It’s up and running and at your disposal.”

 

“Great. Send me virtually to 1935 Southern England and the pub where the Inklings met. Make sure C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Owen Barfield, etc. are in attendance. Place me in an adjoining booth where I can easily overhear their conservations.”

 

“What will you be drinking?”

 

“An Old Milton.”

 

It took about five minutes and I was there.  At the time I didn’t know which voice was which (TPEC later filled in that part for me) but the more salient (at least to me) bits of conversation went like this:

 

“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.” C.S. Lewis.

 

“Still round the corner there may wait; a new road or a secret gate.” J.R.R. Tolkien.

 

““All conscious nature has experiences of pleasure and pain. Man alone can deliberately will the repetition of an experience. And repetition, experienced as such, is at the heart, for good and evil, of his faculty of reasoning, and thus makes possible his language, his art, his morality, and indeed his humanity. Yet it is the enemy of life, for repetition is itself the principle, not of life but of mechanism.”  Owen Barfield.

“Reason is the natural order of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” C.S. Lewis

 

“If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” J.R.R. Tolkien

 

A contemplative life has more the appearance of a life of piety than any other; but it is the divine plan to bring faith into activity and exercise.” Lord David Cecil

 

“It's the job that's never started takes longest to finish. “  J.R.R. Tolkien

 

“We are what we believe we are”. CS Lewis

 

“Not all who wander are lost.”  .J.R.R. Tolkien


***

Gradually, but inexorably, the men shuffled out of the pub. I was on my third virtual Old Milton (which actually tasted better than a real Old Milwaukee) and pondering furiously on the following key words and phrases:

 

1.      “literature adds to reality”

2.      “irrigates the deserts”

3.      “repetition…the principle…of mechanism”

4.      “Imagination as organ of meaning”

5.      “value food and cheer…more than gold”

6.      “faith…should translate into…action”

7.      “job must be started”

8.      “we are what we believe we are”

9.      “not all who wander are lost”

 

Just what had these men of the mind wrought? Is it possible that the Inklings had decided to create a city of the mind, but their mind-power was such, that it became an actual city – an example of the literary becoming the literal?

 

Just then, while lost in thought, an emergency text came over the celestial:

 

“The donkey has spoken! Well, with his hoofs anyway. In the Northern Mexico sand he scratched out the following letters in the following order:”

 

S_A_N_M_A_N_S_E

 

I disregarded the first three letters, knowing instinctively that the word San was short for Sand and was often used to preface the names of towns in the Magnificent North American Desert. But the next five letters were much more intriguing. I ordered a fourth OM and diligently began working on unraveling the letters’ mysterious connotations.

 

M? A? N? S? E? The solutions for S & E popped into my head almost immediately: Southern England. N & A were almost as easy: Normex Annex. But what did the M stand for? I listed some possibilities:

 

1.      Man

2.      Mountain

3.      Messiah

4.      Moses

5.      Marmaduke

6.      Marmalade (very popular in England)

7.      Mercy

8.      Margaret (Thatcher? Did the Inklings anticipate her prime ministership?)

9.      Millennium

10.    Magical (Tolkien and Lewis, though Christians, were both into magic)

11.    Master

12.   Military

13.   Metaphysical

 

Bingo! San Manse’ (pronounced Mahn Zay according to Alfred, the pub owner; hence the accent on the last syllable) was a metaphysical city located in the Normex Annex and created via intellectual power in Southern England.

 

I finished my last OM and then told TPEC to send me back to real or non-virtual reality.

 

***

God is simple in the sense that he is one, but
complex in the sense that the one is many

 

The number of the many is the all. All is one,
one is all. One orange is still one orange no
matter how many slices can be derived from it.

 

The seeds would represent opportunities for new
life and continuation of the one. As the one
becomes more multi-varied, it becomes more life
affirming.

 

How would you know one was different from the
other if not by tasting each one? Life must be tasted
and comparisons must be made to draw conclusions.
A conclusion that is logically decided upon is a
triumph for God.

 

I was reading ‘GOD IS AN ORANGE’ by Alex St. Taw. St. Taw had spent his youth in the orange groves of Southern California. He later served as a consultant for the Orange Growers of Central Florida. He was a man of vision, and if not always a vision of God, at least a vision of himself and what he could be. I liked reading his books at night; mostly for their soporific effect.

 

I awoke refreshed and with an idea. I rang TPEC.

 

“God morning. TPEC. May we help you?”

 

“Yes, can you tell me about Melba Toste? Is she still living, and if so, is she still near El Paso?”

 

“Melba just celebrated her 99th birthday but she tells everyone she doesn’t feel a day over 85. Her address is as follows…”

 

I jotted down the address, thanked TPEC, and set out for Melba’s home. It took me about four hours to reach El Dorado, a small suburb of El Paso. I knocked on Melba’s door. When Melba opened it I flashed my TPE ID slash credit card. Melba, a retired (and legendary I might add) TPE let me in immediately. Even though she was pushing 100 her mind was still going strong.

 

“What’ll it be, Sonny?”

 

“Shagah No Pesada.”

 

“Coming right up.”

 

I looked around the living room. The walls were full of awards and celesticates of honor. One photo was of Melba and Boss Jr. at her retirement banquet. Melba later told me The Ghost was in the photo also, but since he was invisible, he couldn’t be seen.

 

Melba handed me a SNP and sat down in the rocking chair beside the front bay window.

 

“What’s on your mind, Sonny?”

 

“I’m trying to find a place called San Manse’. Have you ever heard of it?”

 

Melba took a big gulp from her SNP and thought for a moment. “It has a familiar ring to it. Is it supposed to be near here?”

 

“It’s in someplace called Normex Annex. NA is classified as a moving target but another TPE’s donkey is saying it’s just south of the border.”

 

“Who is this other TPE?”

 

“Lance Straightpoint. He’s been lost for several days. My assignment is to find him.”

 

Melba got up and walked to the kitchen and came back with two more SNPs. She sat back down. Rather gingerly but steadily. She picked up an IPad that was on the small table by her chair. She turned it on and started typing at a furious pace.  While she was doing so, I looked out the bay window at the barren South Texas landscape.

 

After a few minutes of intense activity, she handed me the IPad. On screen were the coordinates of San Manse’!

 

***

I thanked Melba profusely, promising to send her a case of Shumptuous chocolate milk. The old gal really did look and act like a spry 85.

 

I crossed the border thirty minutes later. I had put the coordinates Melba had given me in the GPS-MTAA and I was now heading confidently in the direction of Normex Annex.

 

That’s when I heard the rifle shot. Next thing I knew my left front tire was blown out and I was skidding across the desert sand toward a large concrete embankment. My brakes weren’t working (had they been tampered with while I was visiting with Melba?) and I decided my only course of action was to disembark from the Flying Belt. I pushed the SEB (Seat Ejection Button) and was immediately thrown upward at about fifty miles per hour. As I was hurtling upward, I watched with dismay as the Belt went crashing into the concrete wall. At the apogee of my jump I pulled the chord attached to the seat and a small parachute opened into the desert air. I floated down to within ten feet of my now immobilized and decimated SUV.

 

Just then I heard another rifle shot and a bullet flashed by within inches of my head. My Wullet had been recently equipped with a bullet resistor transistor which tended to push bullets off of their intended trajectory. I immediately started running for the hills.

 

Things were getting complicated but they often do for a Theological Private Eye. It comes with the territory. I was reduced now to traveling by my feet alone. I was in a hostile land searching for a fellow TPE who might be seriously injured or even dead.

 

But this was no time to become desperate. Above all else, I had to keep my wits about me. My life depended on it.

 

***

“What do you think of my shooting, Senor?”

 

“Not bad. I think Neercassel might just really believe someone was trying to kill him.”

 

“What do we do now, Senor?”

 

“We follow Neercassel, and if all goes well, he’ll lead us straight to San Manse’.”

 

Chapter 10: Universation Nation

 

Mto Enskyi was proud of the way he carried out his assignments. Since he usually assigned them he was doubly pleased of being both the assigner and the assignee. As CEO of Evil Light, he knew he lacked certain evil characteristics. For example, he had a very even and pleasant temperament. He was so even minded that he found it hard to criticize criticism of his own organization and though he tried not to, he found himself in agreement with the recent assessment of Evil Light in the trade magazine, Evil Rich People: “Evil Light lacks the essential hideousness required to reach the depths of true and lasting evil.”

 

But though he wasn’t the murderous type, his greed knew no bounds. That’s why he had hired the sharpshooter D.E. (Dead Eye) Nerdez. Not to kill Neercassel, but to come close enough to doing so, that Neercassel would high tail it for San Manse’, the Lost City that was located either in Normex Annex or somewhere darn close to it.

 

“But, Senor, why is it so important to find some stinking little ghost town in the middle of the desert?” asked D.E., who was carefully cleaning his rifle.

 

“Haven’t you been keeping up with the price of gold?”

 

“Si’, Senor’, but what’s that got to do with San Manse’?”

 

“Legend has it that the streets are paved with the stuff.”

 

***

Luckily, I wasn’t in that bad a shape. Unluckily, my celestial cell phone had been lost as I was cascading upward in the ejection seat. Later on the ground, with bullets flying all around me, I had neither time nor chance to search for it. I was now running at a less frenzied pace, having covered about two miles in fifteen minutes. No one seemed to be following me so I decided it was OK to take a break and rest my weary feet and lungs.

 

It was the middle of the afternoon and the sun was high in a cloudless sky. It was hotter than it really needed to be. I was without water or communication. The bleakness of the landscape matched the bleakness of my spirit. I couldn’t go back and look for my celestial cell phone because the sniper was probably waiting for that to happen. Snipers are unusually patient. It goes with the job. My only hope was to press on into the desert. Maybe I would luck out and find some water gushing out of some rocks. Maybe I wouldn’t.

 

The hours went by as I trudged beneath the merciless sun. No water and no food, and I was growing weak and disoriented. The afternoon passed into night and finally I collapsed in the desert sand, unconscious and unmoving.

 

The next thing I knew cool water was touching my lips. It was the next morning. I had been unconscious for at least twelve hours

 

“Drink slowly, senor, or you’ll drown yourself.” The voice I heard seemed to be coming out of a deep well. I opened my eyes and kneeling beside me holding a canteen to my lips was a bearded man of an indeterminate age. I did as I was told and slowly imbibed the cool, delicious liquid. I managed to ask a question:

 

“Who are you?”

 

“I am Don Won Rezales. I am a Protector of the U.N. Territory in which you are now an uninvited visitor.”

 

The U.N.? What was the United Nations doing in this forsaken neck of the woods? Oops, I mean desert. There wasn’t a tree in sight.

 

“Thank you, Senor Rezales. I think you saved my life.”

 

“Call me Don Won. And who might you be?”

 

“Nick Neercassel, Theological Private Eye. Call me Nick.”

 

We shook hands and after doing so I took another long swig of water.

 

“Tell me, Don Won, what is the United Nations doing around here?”

 

“United Nations? I never said I worked for the United Nations.”

 

“But you said we were in U.N. Territory.”

 

“Yes, I did. I don’t deny it. But the letters U.N. do not stand for United Nations. It’s an abbreviation for Universation Nation.”

 

I scratched my head in bewilderment. I had been looking for San Manse’, Normex Annex, and Lance Straightpoint, a fellow TPE. Instead I had found Don Won and the Universation Nation.

 

***

“You were wrong, Senor. I don’t think the Neercassel fellow is coming back.”

 

Mto frowned. “But he had no water and no means of communication.” Mto looked over at Nick’s celestial cell phone that was sitting on the console of his Land Rover.

 

D.E. spit out some brown juicy particles from the wad of tobacco in his mouth out of the window into the desert sand. “Maybe he’s dead.”

 

Mto was visibly upset. He had had no intention of killing anyone. All he wanted was the gold.

 

“Well, let’s head out. Maybe Neercassel left a trail that’s not too hard to follow.”

 

Mto toyed with the idea of using Neercassel’s cell phone. He had always wanted to talk to someone at TPE Central. Now was his big chance. What the heck. He dialed the celestial number.

 

“God morning. TPEC. May we help you?”

 

“I have several theological conundrums.”

 

“Shoot. We have a panel of theological experts standing by.”

 

“Please don’t use the word shoot again. My driver has an itchy finger.”

 

“Understood. Now how about those conundrums?”

 

“Yes, yes. Here goes:

 

“Is the prodigal son a type of everyman?” 
“Let us answer your question with a question. Can you go home again?”
“I suppose so.” 
“What if home is no longer there? “
“Keep searching?”
“You build a new home.”

 

Mto found the answer somewhat unsettling but nevertheless he plowed ahead.

 

“Who were the wise men?” 

“Men of knowledge and understanding.”
“But they followed a star.” 
“No, they didn’t.” 
“But…”
“They followed the light.”

 

“I think they got you on that one, Senor.” D.E. blurted out.

 

Mto ignored D.E.’s remark, continuing on:

 

“Innocent children die.”
“That is true.”
“Do you have an explanation?”
“It all seems to be a matter of chance.”
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“If you don’t like our answer, then think of a better one.”

 

These guys were tough, thought Mto. One last question:

 

“What do you do when someone has lost their way?”
“We let them continue.”
“Won’t they get even more lost?”
“Being lost isn’t a matter of degree. It’s more like an opportunity.”
“An opportunity for what?”
“An opportunity to be found.”

 

For some reason, Mto’s thoughts turned to Neercassel who right now might be lying dead in the stupefying desert sun. Why couldn’t I be more truly evil?

 

TPEC then made an announcement: “We’re sorry sir, but your time is up. Call back in a few days and we’ll do our best to answer some more of your most heartfelt theological conundrums.

 

***

Don Won had shared some grub with me, and that along with the water, was making me feel much better. I asked him, “So tell me about this Universation Nation. What are its parameters?”

 

“We’re the exact same size as Normex Annex: one square mile.”

 

“Where are you in relation to Normex Annex?”

 

“It varies. NA is not stable. We are. Therefore our geographical relationship changes with the wind.”

 

“So the wind is the agent of change?”

 

“Yes. The wind is the one constant in an ever changing world.”

 

“Why do you call your nation the Universation Nation?”

 

“Because we live by what the Universations teach us.”

 

“For instance?”

 

“Well, I cannot show you without help.”

 

Then Don Won made some kind of discrete, as well as discreet, signal and around the big rock we were sitting against walked one of the most beautiful women I had ever seen.

 

“Meet my wife, Caramelita Rezales. Caramelita, this is Nick.”

 

“Nice to meet you Nick.”

 

“Now, Caramelita, for Nick’s benefit, let’s perform Universation Number 68:

 

“The meek shall inherit the earth?”
“Isn’t it obvious?”
“Well, no. Power tends to gravitate to those who are strong.”
“But they grow weary of it.”
“And the meek?”
“They’re accustomed to being weary.”

 

So a Universation was simply a conversation between two people? But it almost sounded rehearsed. Where had these Universations come from? I asked Don Won.

 

“We do not know exactly. We found them in a dumpster in a back alley off the main street of San Manse’. Many of us loved them from the start but there was an element of Tarters who were totally against them for what they called their ‘subversive effects’.”

 

“Who were these ‘Tarters’”?

 

“Members of the Cult of the Raspberry Tart (see Chapter 8: Normex Annex). We were once members but were ex-communicated because of our love for the Universations. As a consequence, we left Normex Annex and formed a nation here.”

 

“Are you the leader of Universation Nation?”

 

“Perhaps Universation 104 can partially answer that question. Caramelita, would you participate once again?”

 

“They say in America that the people choose their own leaders.”
“What a strange custom.”
“Humorous too. Men and women try to depict themselves as visionary but pragmatic, honorable but cunning, peace-loving but strong. They become all things to all people and they’re not even trying to promote a new religion.”
“They go to all that trouble just to gain positions of leadership? What happens to their private lives, their inner kingdoms?”
“Sad but true. They are the true givers. They give themselves to serving others. And what thanks do they get? Very little, because to be chosen they have promised much more they can ever deliver. Strangely though, not many of them seem to be too bothered by their failures.”

 

I started to laugh, not because it was that funny, but simply because of its irony. I suppressed my laughter though, because Don Won and Caramelita were so obviously sincere about their beliefs in the universality  of the Universations. I had no desire to hurt the feelings of my benefactors.

 

Don Won then asked me what was the string of circumstances that had brought me to my current dire situation. I then recounted my misadventures and asked if there were any Universations that were applicable. He thought for a moment and then replied, “What about 109? Carmelita, would you please?”

 

“We seem to be in a holding pattern.”
“Yes, we’re hovering over hostile territory.”
“Why can’t their bullets reach us?” “We’re just beyond their reach.”
“What if we drop down a little?”
“Then the bullets will come crashing through the walls and in so doing will also come crashing through us.”
“Will it be the end?”
“No, we haven’t suffered enough yet.”

 

“And there’s 117.”

 

“Who are our friends?”
“The ones inside a mountain.”
“What of the ones on the outside?”
“They are our enemies until proven otherwise.”
“Can we trust our friends?”
“We only trust when we have no other choice.”

 

Just as I must trust the Universation Nation, I thought to myself.  Don Won spoke, “Another one might be 161:”

Our friends have deserted us.”
“Rats are leaving the sinking ship.”
“But we are yet afloat.”
“Our heads may be above water, but the sea has already claimed us. Our destiny is at the bottom of the ocean.”
“How long do we have?”
“Until the sharks get hungry.”

I didn’t like the direction the Universations were headed in; I still had a job to do and I was becoming apprehensive that Don Won and Caramelita were getting on a Universation roll. I decided to stop them in their tracks while I still could.”

“Don Won, can you help me find San Manse’?”

***

Mto put down his binoculars. “That looks like Neercassel sitting in the shade of the big rock. But who are the other two: the small man with the grey beard and the beautiful lady with the long black hair? Do you know them?”

D.E. thought for a moment, “Maybe, Senor. I think that may be Don Won Rezales and his lovely bride, Caramelita.”

“Why would they be in the middle of the desert?”

“They’re both Protectors of U.N. Territory.”

“They both work for the United Nations?”

“No, Senor. Not United Nations but Universation Nation. Have you not heard of it?”

“Can’t say that I have. Is it an up and coming country?” Mto began to think that Evil Light might just have found a new trading partner.

DE replied, Disappointment is a house in the country. Lonely but for an oak tree and a yapping dog.”

Mto reacted with surprise. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

“It’s Universation 194.”

“Are you saying Universations are simply sayings? Nothing metallic about them? Nothing material in any way? All intangible?

“Yes, Senor.”

Mto sank back into the well cushioned seat of his Land Rover.

“Oh, well, we’ve still got Neercassel. We’ll follow him once he starts moving again. Let’s just hope he really knows the road to San Manse’”

***

Don Won had gone into a trance of some kind. So had Caramelita. Was there something magical about the name San Manse’?

Then, without either one opening their eyes, they began a conversation:

“Universation 203. Caramelita, please begin.”

“When someone speaks in the dark, how do we know if they are lying or telling the truth?”
“Speakers of truth bring their own light.”

“207

Every thief is known by the company he keeps.”
“What about the things he steals?”
“He only steals because he feels deprived.”
“But what about the things?”
“They are not worth stealing.”

“210”

“Why do men fight over a piece of land?”
“Because it represents power.”
“Do all men seek power?”
“All men seek love.”

“221”

“Where do you come from?”
“Haven’t you asked that before?”
“Probably.”
“What was my answer then?”
“You said you came from a place where you no longer existed. But isn’t that true of all of us?”
“Yes, but how many realize that?”

 

“226”

 

“Why does religion separate us?”
“It doesn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
“We were separated before we found religion.”

241

“Most people get tired late at night.”
“What is the source of our fatigue?”
“Weariness comes from the knowledge that we are ignorant.”
“The finite brain is overwhelmed by infinity.”
“Yes, and the empty heart is filled with fear.”
“The night closes in.”
“Our weariness leads to sleep.”

“Where does our sleep lead?”
“That is yet to be discovered.”

“272"

“Who among us knows the way?”
“The engineers at the highway department.”

 

“341”

 

“What lives on?”
“The spirit never dies.”
“How about consciousness?”
“Consciousness is relative.”

 

“342”

 

“Do you experience time as we do?”
“I live in the past, present, and future simultaneously.”
“How is that possible?”
“I stretch my soul.”  

 

“410”

 

“The sun is terrible in its brightness. You'll go blind if you stare at it too long. 
“Then what good is it? 
“Its goodness or badness doesn't matter. All that matters is that it's there. And so whether we want to or not we must learn to live with it. 
“But it's not always there. Where does it go? 
“No one knows but when it goes away we close our eyes and when it comes back we reopen them. 
“Have you ever noticed that when it's gone there is less warmth and less light? Could the absence of the sun in any way be related to those factors? 
“What a ridiculous thought! The sun is in the sky, aloof and unapproachable. How could it be responsible for the light and warmth in our lives? 
“Yes, of course, how silly of me. 


“477“

“Bad habits tend to betray us.“
“What do good habits do?
“Keep us in shape to continue our bad habits. 

 

***

 

Mto was looking through the binoculars once again. He spoke to D.E. “The bearded man and the lovely woman have been facing each other for the past hour. “

 

“Are their lips moving?”

 

Mto peered even harder. “Yes, as a matter of fact, they are.”

 

“They’re obviously in a state of UPS.”

 

“United Parcel Service?”

 

“Universation Prestidigitation Sublimation.”

 

Mto was surprised by the both the term itself and the fact D.E. could both know and pronounce it. He looked at D.E. Was there more to him than just being a deadly, cold-hearted sniper?

 

“What does it mean?”

 

“It’s a combination of trickery and refinement. It’s a technique all the best religions use.”

 

“I wasn’t aware you were up on such things.”

 

“Most of what a sniper does is wait. I just use my waiting time in a more profitable manner than your average sniper. I listen to audio tapes: religious and philosophical are at the top of my list.”

 

“I’m impressed.”

 

“You shouldn’t be. For a supposedly evil character, you’re showing way too much consideration for another human being.”

 

Mto sighed. Nerdez was right.

 

***

It was then that Mto spotted Neercassel walking off in a southerly direction. The man and women were still facing each other. Only their lips were moving. Mto said to D.E.

 

“Let’s drive over there and listen to what they’re saying. They might offer a clue to where Neercassel is going. D.E. cranked up the Land Rover and drove slowly over to where the man and woman stood. Mto got out of the Rover and walked to within a few feet of them. He listened carefully.

“244" 

Unspeakable miseries fill the years. Who is to blame? “ “Why must we blame anyone?“ “Someone must pay for the evil done.
Why spend our resources on the unalterable? Past deeds cannot be changed but living entities may be repaired. “ “What do you propose?”
“An end to hostilities.”

“313"

“Are there limits to understanding?”
“Yes, but there are no limits to self-deception.”

 

“520”

 

“Did you actually think it would rain non-stop for forty days and forty nights?”
“There was always that possibility.”
“If that's the case, why didn't you change your evil ways?”
“I'll need some more time to answer that.”

 

“532”

 

“We keep running into memories of ourselves.”
“The best memories never happened.”
“That's what memories are all about.”

 

“534”

 

“How did you defeat death?”
“I grabbed it and we jumped off a cliff together.”

 

Mto walked back to the Rover and slid into the front passenger seat. He then buckled up and said in a low voice to D.E. “Forget about following Neercassel. We’re going back to El Paso. I haven’t seen my wife and kids in weeks. I’ve been too busy chasing gold.”

 

“You’re giving up evil?”

 

“We’re giving each other up.”

 

***

 

I had appreciated what the Rezales had done for me but time was a’wastin’ and who knew how long the Rezales would be occupied in their Universation trance-like state. My assignment, as far as I knew, had not been aborted, and it was still my responsibility to find and rescue a fellow TPE. So I bid my adieus to the Rezales (they didn’t respond of course) and headed out toward the south. As I was leaving I picked up a piece of paper that was being tossed in the wind. It looked to be a page of Universations:

 

286

Have you seen any works of art lately?
The desert itself is a work of art
Too dry for my tastes.
Obviously you’re not very thirsty.

288

What happens in a city?
The ebb and flow of human fortune.

293

Do you think it’s a good idea to restore old buildings?
No, it’s best to let things die a natural death.

 

584

What are you looking for?
Non-repeating symbols of existence.

 

606

Do you ever re-live in your mind your desert experience?
Which one?
There was more than one?
There were three.
Is each one different in your mind?
Depends on whether I'm awake or asleep.

 

***

They looked to be clues to the location of San Manse’. The handwriting was small and neat. Had Caramelita written them? And if she had, was Don Won aware of it? I’m guessing he was. They seemed like an inseparable team.

Because the Universation Nation was only one square mile in extent, it didn’t take me long to cross the border. But that’s just an assumption. There were no signs saying ‘You’re now leaving the beautiful and wonderful country of Universation Nation’. There were no border guards; no barbed wire fence; no river serving as a dividing between one country and the next. There was nothing but desert sand, rocks and boulders of various shapes and sizes, a few cacti here and there. Best all of there were no pursuers and if a sniper were to fire a bullet at me from a far distance, I would never know what hit me.

 

826

 

Glad you could make it to the funeral.
It seemed the right thing to do.
How so?
No one should be buried alone.

 

My only companion was the wind.

 

Chapter 11: Desert Country

 

I had just come over a sandy ridge when I spotted it. A grey cinder block building; beside it a windmill and what looked like a carport. No cars were under it though. I saw a mangy looking dog lying on the ground next to the front door. Other than that, nothing.

 

I was fairly certain I was no longer in Universation Nation. But was I finally in Normex Annex and perhaps ergo also near San Manse’? And most important of all, was Lance Straightpoint, fellow TPE, still alive?

 

As I got near the building, I heard a guitar playing, and then as I approached the door (the dog didn’t even notice me) I heard the following words being sung:

 

Changes were bound to be made

But some of us were afraid

Afraid we might lose our way

On the road

To San Manse’

 

I  walked into the cool darkness of the building. It was a bar and grill of some kind. The man I had heard playing the guitar and singing put down his guitar and walked behind the bar. I guessed he was the bartender as well as the entertainment.

 

“What can I do you?” he asked in what reminded me of Southern English (my own dialect).

 

I flashed my TPE ID slash credit card. “Anything that’s wet. I’m dry enough to start my own personal drought.”

 

He handed me a bottle of Old Mexican. We struck up a conversation.

 

“What brings you to these parts?”

 

“I’m looking for a fellow TPE.”

 

“What does he look like?”

 

I described Lance to him. He said he hadn’t seen anyone who matched that description. He then handed me a second OM and went back to performing.

 

I know the color of your heart

The senseless way you tear it apart

I know there’s a price to pay

On the road

To San Manse’

 

***

While he was singing, a menacing looking man of smallish stature sauntered into the saloon. Somewhat surprisingly, he walked right up to me and sat on the stool next to mine. The bartender spoke very respectfully to him.

 

“What can I get for you… Sir?

 

“Do you have some Old Montezuma?”

 

“Yes, sir! Right away, sir!”

 

The man looked over at me. “Greetings, Senor Neercassel.”

 

“You have me at a disadvantage, sir. You know my name but I do not know yours.”

 

“I am D.E. Nerdez, retired sniper.”

 

“Permanently, I hope.” I smiled. A little tentatively, but a smile nonetheless.

 

“Absolutely, and to be honest with you, I was never much of a sniper. I could never bring myself to actually killing anyone. It was more like warning shots off the bow, if you know what I mean.”

 

I thought back to a couple of days before when I had been shot at and almost killed . Coincidence? Yet, I instinctively knew somehow not to pursue the matter.

 

“What made you retire?”

 

“A trigger finger that was beginning to tremble at the wrong time and the conversion of my most recent employer from a so-so evil person to a decent human being.”

 

“Sounds inspiring.”

 

“It was. Bartender, bring us another round. This time a couple of Old Monterreys.”

 

“Thanks. That’s mighty kind of you. What do you plan to do now?”

 

“I plan to seek citizenship in the Universation Nation.” With that he finished off his  Old Monterrey and started to leave. At the door he turned around and said, “Adios, Senor. May you find success in your desert endeavor.”

 

***

The bartender and I were alone again. He spoke up first. “I’ll be a son of gun. Not in a million years did I ever think Nerdez would retire from sniping.”

 

“Universations can do that to you.” I replied cryptically. Before the bartender could respond, I asked him, “What’s your name and how did you end up here? You seem to be pretty talented with that guitar and you have a good singing voice. “

 

“I’m Malcolm Isaiah Tubebacher but most people just call me MIT. I‘m a graduate of Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee.”

 

“What’s your degree in, MIT?”

 

“Physics. I originally came down here to study the instability of Normex Annex. I was on a team of twenty physicists. We built this building to be our base. About a week after we got here, Normex Annex dematerialized. Six months later Normex Annex had not rematerialized. Then our funding dried up so everybody left to go back to their respective institutions and employers. Everybody except me. I had fallen in love with the place. I decided to make the building a saloon and pursue my life-long dream of being a country singer. That was three months ago.”

 

“Still no Normex Annex?”

 

“It actually reappeared about two weeks ago.”

 

“Have you investigated it?”

 

“No but I wrote a song about it.”

 

“Really? What’s the name of it?”

 

All my Exes live in Annexes.”

 

***

Sounded like a winner. I started to ask MIT to play it for me when he  said, “I’m glad you here. Do you have time to help me out?”

 

“It’s the least I can do.” I replied.

 

“I’ve got a couple of musicians stopping by this afternoon to rehearse for a gig here this weekend. You can be a judge.”

 

Just then, a tall man with black hair combed straight back appeared at the door. He walked over to the stage and adjusted the microphone. My TPE trained mind told me he must be one of the musicians. Then he started singing:

 

The Racetrack of Love

 It started with her staring at my brand new tattoo

Of Dale Jr racing on a hot Daytona track

Then she began to screaming, showing me she had one too

Our hearts making sure there was no turning back

 

Then we pressed the Dales together and it seemed a little odd

My Junior kissing hers right on the lips

That’s what I was thinking, but I didn’t think for long

As our bodies headed off on their own trip.

 

The racetrack of love will take you for a ride

It moves fast and there ain’t no place to hide

The racetrack of love keeps moving day and night

Keep turning left until you get it right

 

We’re instant NASCAR soul mates, running on the track of life

One thing in common but that’s all that we need

We don’t know where we’re going, but the one thing that we know

Is that we’re heading there always at top speed

 

Life is such we surely know there’re speed bumps a’plenty

And some may be hard enough to break a tooth

We’ll get a cap or even new dentures if we have to

And all because our burning love’s collision proof

The racetrack of love will take you for a ride

It moves fast and there ain’t no place to hide

The racetrack of love keeps moving day and night

Keep turning left until you get it right

It was a Proway Chitty impersonator and not a bad one at that; and he had sung a classic Proway song.

 

MIT asked me, “What do you think, Mr. Neercassel?”

 

“Call me Nick. I liked him. Makes me feel kinda sad though. Reminds me of what the world of country music lost when it lost Proway.”

 

***

About an hour passed before the next applicant performed and in the interim MIT brought me some tamales. Very tasty and nutritious; I hadn’t eaten much in the last few days so the food was very much appreciated.

 

The second and final applicant sang without benefit of accompanying music. His song went a little bit like this:

 

Been out on the road so long

Don’t know where I come from

Don’t know where I belong

So I keep on going on

Oh, I’ve been to Phoenix

And I’ve been to San Antone

But no matter where I go

I’m always alone

You call my number

Nobody there

That’s why they call me

Miles from Nowhere

Second rate has been my fate

So much I never learned

Signals crossed and I got lost

Don’t know where to turn

You call my number

Nobody there

That’s why they call me

Miles from Nowhere

 

Haunting lyrics and the guy made it work without the accompanying music. I asked him, “Why no guitar or piano or such?”

 

“I sing acapulco.”

 

“Don’t you mean a cappella?”

 

“Acapulco is Mexican for a cappella.”

 

You learn something new every day.

 

MIT thanked Acapulco (he went by the name of what he did) for his performance and scheduled him for the 10 pm slot on Friday night.

 

It was starting to get dark and I asked MIT about what time did most of his customers start drifting in; Mitt looked surprise at the question.

 

“What do you mean customers?”

 

“You know. Patrons; people; men and women who come in and buy drinks and food and listen to the music.”

 

MIT scratched his head.

 

“But where would they come from? Nobody lives around here.”

 

***

“You mean you don’t have customers? How does your enterprise survive?”

 

“By word of mouth, mostly.”

 

Now I was scratching my head.

 

“Please explain that remark.”

 

“Well, all the former members of the Normex Annex Discovery Agency (NADA) who are back in the states are telling their friends, family, and work associates about this place. I’m sure any day now people will start flocking in.”

 

“How can you be sure of that?”

 

“I’ve got a degree in Quantum Physics. I’m never sure of anything.”

 

“Good point.”

 

I decided to change the subject. I didn’t want to send MIT into a state of depression.

 

“Have you ever heard of the Cult of the Raspberry Tart?”

 

“Cassy Castenada’s group?”

 

“That’s it. I think they may have something to do with the disappearance of Lance, my fellow TPE.”

 

“Why?”

 

“They suspected Lance was anti-peyote as well as anti-instability.”

 

“Is he?”

 

“Yes on the former; no on the latter. Too much stability is not good for a TPE. We lose our edge.”

 

MIT thought for a moment. “I don’t see Tarters as murderers. Displacers yes. I could see them sending Lance to another dimension.”

 

“Is that possible?”

 

“Oh, yea. I actually visited some while getting my PhD at Vanderbilt. I remember one in particular where Ivory soap was 99 and 45/100ths pure.”

 

“How easy is it to travel between dimensions?”

 

“Easy enough…. if you have the key.”

 

***

I was getting ready to leave when a young lady came into the establishment. MIT asked her the usual “What can I do you?”

 

“An Old Montevideo and a chance to sing my song.”

 

“You’ve got it, pretty lady.” She drank the OM in a few strong gulps and then sat down at the piano. She played a few opening notes, then said:

 

“I WAS BORN A PIG FARMER'S DAUGHTER by Miss Loretta”

And then she started singing:

I was borned a pig farmer's daughter.
In a pen near a sty near a holler.
Thangs would stink and thangs would squeal,
Thangs was bad, but thangs was real,
And no one could ever hear me in the holler.

I took up sangin', and I worked such a happy crowd,
The pigs didn't seem to care if I sang real loud.
I could hit them notes all wrong,
And forget the words to my song,
But the pigs was always nice to the pig farmer's daughter.

In the wintertime, the slop would up and freeze,
And my piggies would line up beggin' on their bended knees.
Sometimes I stole some cookies and cream,
To let 'em starve, I'd never dream,
I stood by the pigs like the a good pig farmer's daughter.

When I was 30, folks told me I didn't have shoes to wear,
It was news to me, and wandered just why I'd care.
When I put 'em on, it hurt,
So I went back straight to the dirt,
And in Nashville it helped to be a barefooted pig farmer's daughter
.

 

MIT and I both clapped big time. “How about another one?” we said in unison.

 

“Alright. Here’s DON'T COME HOME STILL EATIN', WITH SQUEALIN' ON YOU MIND.”

There you are outside the pigpen,
Holdin' flowers to your chest.
You've eaten half the petals,
And you're workin' on the rest.

What started out romantic,
Has vanished in a fog,
And now you're in the slop again,
Just actin' like a hog.

So, don't come home still eatin',
With squealin' on your mind,
Just stay outside with the donuts,
And have a pig-out of a time.

If you want a snackin' kind of love,
Well, you don't want none of mine.
And don't come home still eatin',
With squealin' on your mind.

 

This girl was fantastic. I hadn’t heard great pig inspired lyrics since ‘THE CASE OF THE ODD PIG OUT’ when I visited a barbecue joint in Holly Hill, South Carolina.

 

“You need to hire her on the spot, MIT!”

The girl said, “I can’t stay. I’m on my way to another place and time. Just wanted  a chance to sing my sing and you fellas gave me that.”

 

“We thank you.” MIT handed her an OM for the road. “You’re welcome back anytime.”

 

I asked MIT, “Do you often have people pass through on their way to another place and time?”

 

“It happens all the time. I even wrote a song about it.”

 

“Let's hear it.”

 

Just passin’ thru, my new acquaintances

I was attracted by the females here

And their fragrances

I won’t stay long

The smells are too strong

Do you have an Old Milwaukee beer?

 

MIT asked me. “Well, what do you think?”

 

***

It was then I looked around and standing in the doorway was Walter Brennan or someone who looked just like him. MIT spoke:

 

“Come on in Jedediah. We were just getting ready to talk about the meaning of life.”

 

We were? And for a place with little or no population, this joint was literally swarming with people.

 

We introduced ourselves. Jedediah turned out to be a prospector and had lived alone in the desert for the past twenty years where he obviously had lots of time to think. We talked for about four hours and I’ve boiled down his thoughts and observations into the following format:

 

It remains to be seen if life has meaning; meaning in the sense of lasting truth. Some would argue that only insufferable fools or blatant egotists would seemingly care about either truth or meaning. Life is purely existential they would say. Truth and meaning change as life changes. But does life ever really change? The answer to that is that something definitely does change. But is the change substantial or insubstantial? Is there a spiritual component that overlays our physical, observable world? And if there is, is it the source of immutable truth and meaning in our relative world?

I (Jedediah) would argue, in a practical sense, that as goals, truth is somewhat unattainable, and meaning is maddingly elusive. Humanity is too diverse for any one man or group of men to come up with some homogeneous ideological or theological way of doing things that would satisfy everybody. Man is forever getting bogged down in symbols and other notions of unreality to ever get too close to the truth.

But then, as Pilate said to Jesus two thousand years ago: What is Truth?

No man knows for sure.

Perhaps it is humanity’s particular fate to have minds that contemplate all sorts of abstract questions that cannot be answered. Perhaps there is a God, who within himself, has all the answers, and truth to him is like our hands are to us, not only salient parts of our bodies, but also extensions of our personalities.

So if truth is beyond our reach, is meaning within our grasp?

I (Jedediah) think so.

This is where the abstract workings of our minds come into play. We can not only enjoy, in a physical and emotional sense, the taste of something sweet, we can also, decide intellectually, whether or not it is good for us. This we do by our power of reason, our ability to compare and contrast, our historical perspective, and by our sense of uniqueness as self-conscious individual beings in a larger universe.

So the idea of meaning is tied in with the idea of the good life.

And the good life is not a return to the Garden of Eden. In fact it is a renunciation of such a thing. For the good life is not the glorification of innocence, but neither is it the worshiping of perdition.

The good life is one of maintenance; maintaining a precarious balance between opposing forces in the world; living near the edge but never falling off.

The good life is simply a life of balance.

Thus meaning is for today. Truth is for tomorrow.

 

***

Jedediah had left about an hour earlier pulling his donkey, Maybelline, by the tether. Maybelline was loaded down with picks and shovels as well as grub and writing utensils. Jedediah had done a lot of thinking. Maybe it was now time to put some of that thinking down on paper.

 

I asked MIT if there were any more verses to the song I had heard him singing when I had first walked into his establishment.

 

“One more but it’s more of a prophetic verse in the sense that it hasn’t happen yet but it might.”

 

“Sing it for me.”

 

For all those of fear the rain

Who’ll never see the sun again

It’s a long way to that day

Along the road

To San Manse’

 

I’d been in the desert for a good many days and I hadn’t seen a drop of rain.

 

“Isn’t there more, MIT? Aren’t you leaving the chorus out?”

 

“Yes, but how did you know?”

 

“Trade secret. Just sing it.”

 

Lost in the hurricane

Nobody knows my name

I’ll never find my way

To San Manse’

 

I was right. The Judgment was coming.

 

***

I departed at ten pm, leaving MIT on the edge of his own reality. Before I left, he sung one last song, written surprisingly by Jedediah.

 

I’ve been in the desert

Searchin’ for gold

The desert hasn’t been

A good place to grow old

So I mended my ways

And stopped using the bottle

Slowed down my hurrying

Discovered the throttle

And laid on my back

Neath a million stars

And wondered why Tiger

Quit making birdies and pars

 

MIT didn’t stop there but by the end of the first song I was just about out of hearing range and by the time he started singing the second one I was.

 

***

Readers may wonder why TPEC had not sent out a rescue squad when they discovered my celestial cell phone had become missing. Well, it has a lot to do with Ralph Waldo Emerson and his essay on Self-Reliance and also the simple fact that there’s a heck of a lot of evil in this old world and universe and the numbers aren’t always in favor of the good guys. TPEs are trained to deal with the reality of the situation they find themselves in even when that reality is shifting like the sand beneath their feet.

 

My biggest question remained: was Lance still alive?; and my second biggest question: was he in Normex Annex?; and my third biggest question: was Normex Annex in the vicinity or had it destabilized to another location on Earth? Was it even on Earth?

 

MIT had told me that in the six months NADA (Normex Annex Discovery Agency) had functioned, several maps of the area had been produced but the maps had been lost when an unexpected wind named Mariah had suddenly arisen and blown the maps into the distant horizon. NADA had made a valiant effort to come up with the maps but had found nothing. Finding the maps had gone to the top of my to-do list, and unlike NADA, I would not be satisfied with nothing.

 

After all, nothing as a metaphysical concept, did not exist and even nothing had to be something. Something, on the other hand, was too abstract while nothing in the phenomenal world had a more concrete basis. If I had an apple and ate it, did the apple become nothing or did it become something different from what it was before? I chose to believe that the chaos that surrounded me was not the product of nothing but of something and by finding this something I would be defeating the nothingness that screamed at me in the small corners of the night.

 

It seemed like a good time to pray, which I did, and upon completing the prayer, I opened my eyes and put one foot in the front of the other.

 

Chapter 12: The Sage Of Mt. Capair

.

It had been one of the worst dust storms I had ever experienced. I had been lost for what seemed like a week when the wind finally stopped blowing and the dust settled to the ground. When I looked around I discovered I was still in the desert but the terrain had subtly changed and what appeared to be at a not too far distance were the outlines of some hills. I decided to head toward them hoping I could find some fresh water and a place to rest.

 

Someone upstairs must have been looking out for me because after a few hours of steady but sometimes shaky ambling I made it to the edge of the hills. There were actually some scrawny trees alongside a creek and I made camp in the paltry shade. After drinking my full of the clear, cool water I washed myself and my clothes as best I could leaving me feeling almost dust-free for the first time in days. MIT had put some grub in my knapsack and when night fell my stomach was contented enough to allow me to fall asleep almost instantly.

 

I had a dream that night. Or was it a vision? I was in the Third Heaven cafeteria eating and talking with fellow TPEs and sundry Associates. We were enjoying out of this world cuisine: beef stew imported from the Vega System and corn bread from Antares. The earth was at peace and we were planning a golf trip to a planet with sandy beaches and amusement parks. The wives and kids would be coming along and there would be no meetings to attend and no cases to solve. Then an Associate named Abbakromby walked in and ordered us back on duty. We complained we had earned our vacation and besides, evil was in abeyance. He replied that the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. We refused to obey his orders and he attacked us with Sub-Associate Subs. A food fight ensued and we were banned forever from the Third Heaven cafeteria. I woke up in a cold sweat.

 

***

I met Sage Brush exactly at noon. He invited me into his cave which contained the barest of personal necessities. Sage had been a stock broker in a previous life (where he went by the name of Archie Brush) but had given that all up to move to the desert and contemplate God. On average, he saw about three human beings a year. One such person, his ex-wife, visited every September to bring what few supplies he needed to make it through another year. Sage told me, “Sally is a good old girl but she has had no spiritual amplification in her life. She still enjoys a penthouse view.”

 

I had heard about Sage back at MIT’s place. Some members of NADA (Normex Annex Discovery Agency) had discovered Sage while searching for Normex Annex. But it was just a fluke that I had run into him; a chance meeting; a wholly unplanned event. A simple change in wind direction could have prevented the meeting from ever happening.

But it had happened and since I needed some real rest for my weary legs before re-commencing my search for Lance, I thought why not spend it in a cool cave listening to a former stockbroker now hermit expound on his accumulated wisdom of the past fifteen years.

 

***

“What do Creators do?” Sage asked.

 

“Uh, create?” I replied.

 

“Yes! Very good, Nick. Have you ever thought about becoming a hermit?”

 

“Only during Christmas. Too many parties and socializing going on. Ugh.”

 

“I know what you mean. Now, is God a creator?”

 

“Of course.” Had Sage tossed me a trick question?

 

“Can you be a creator if you create one thing then never create anything again?”

 

“Only in the past sense.”

 

“In other words, you mean inactive.”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“So is God an active or inactive Creator?”

 

A good question, I thought to myself. I know there are places where God is likened to an architect or a master planner. But is he so good at creating and planning and carrying out his plans that he never has to make an adjustment? For example, did God billions of years in the past plan for me to be here today at this moment in a cave talking to a hermit and so order every event leading up to and necessary for this moment also be meticulously planned and caused to happen by him? Something in my mind told me probably not.

 

“I would say he is an active Creator.”

“And I would agree with you Nick. Anyone with a creative mind would want to continue creating and the one with the greatest creative mind of all would be no different. Now what are some other characteristics of a creative mind, especially one in a being who’s actively involved in his creation?”

 

“You mean if everything isn’t meticulously planned out ahead of time?”

 

“Yes, exactly.”

 

“Let me think for a moment.” My legs may be resting but ole Sage wasn’t about to let my brain do so.

 

“Well, an active Creator of the supra-human sort would, in dealing with a non-deterministic universe, need to be able to anticipate problems before they arose.”

 

“And?”

 

“Predict how those problems might play out?”

“And?”

 

“Make adjustments?”

 

“And?”

 

“Intervene when the time is right?”

 

“And finally?”

 

“Resolution, perhaps?”

 

 “Great job, Nick. You have the makings of a first-rate theoretical theologist.”

 

“Thanks.”

 

“Now let’s cut to the chase and review. God

 

Creates…

Anticipates…

Predicts…

Adjusts…

Intervenes…

Resolves.

 

Note to Reader: The answer and question session as described above was a condensed version of what actually took place. What I described in a few sentences actually took place over many hours over several days. It is what theoretical theologians at the Pond of Fire Academy call a super-imposed reality.

 

***

It was obvious I had taken up too much of Sage Brush’s time. He was polite about it, of course, but how can one be an authentic hermit if one is not alone? So I said goodbye to Sage and proceeded to leave his presence via the cave’s entrance. My eyes, now use to the semi-darkness of the cave, received quite a shock when I stepped out into the blinding glare of the desert sun. After a short, painful interval my eyesight adjusted to the brightness. Or had it? For not more than one hundred feet from me there was a red, double-decker bus, the kind you might see on a busy London avenue. In an attempt to shake off what I thought was an hallucination I closed my eyes and ran desert images through my mind.  When I opened them again the bus was still there and standing in front of the bus was a tall, burly man wearing a red cap.

 

“Howdy, Nick. Are you up for a tour of Normex Annex?”

 

I was naturally wary of the question and even more wary of the person asking it.

 

“Do you mind me telling me who you are?”

 

“Duke Santa-Anta, at your service.”

 

“How did you know I was here?”

 

“Don Sage Brush told me.”

 

“What?”

 

Just then, Sage stuck his out his head out of one of the bus’ windows: “Come on, Nick! Let’s get going!”

 

***

At this point in the narrative, I had nothing to lose by getting on the bus. There was a good chance I had nothing to gain either.

 

So I got on the bus. Since Sage was the only passenger there were plenty of seats to choose from. I chose one near the front and by a window. I wanted to get to know this Don Santa-Anta a little bit better. Was he friend or foe? I asked him, “Why is this bus called the Karl Barth Express?” Santa-Anna did not answer but he did push a button on the dashboard. Immediately, a voice came over the speakers proclaiming:

 

 “Karl Barth Quotes:”

 

Conscience is the perfect interpreter of life.

 

Faith in God's revelation has nothing to do with an ideology which glorifies the status quo. 

 

It may be that when the angels go about their task praising God, they play only Bach. I am sure, however, that when they are together as a family they play Mozart.

 

Joy is the simplest form of gratitude.

 

Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God. 

 

Man can certainly flee from God... but he cannot escape him. He can certainly hate God and be hateful to God, but he cannot change into its opposite the eternal love of God which triumphs even in his hate. 

 

The best theology would need no advocates; it would prove itself. 

 

At that point, the music of Bach began playing.

 

I turned to Sage: “I’m somewhat surprised you’re here.”

 

“Why, my boy?”

 

“Well, riding in a bus with other people would not seem to be a quintessentially hermitic activity.”

 

“I ride the big red bus twice a month come shine or shine. Even hermits need some time among the living.”

 

“Are you good friends with Santa-Anta?”

 

“We tolerate each other quite well.”

 

“Where are we going?”

 

“I can’t tell you that. It always changes.”

 

***

The bus left with a lurch. Santa-Anta was the driver as well as our tour guide, as well as, it turned out , an economic philosopher. He quoted Frederic Bastiat:

 

In the department of economy, an act, a habit, an institution, a law, gives birth not only to an effect, but to a series of effects. Of these effects, the first only is immediate; it manifests itself simultaneously with its cause - it is seen. The others unfold in succession - they are not seen: it is well for us, if they are foreseen. Between a good and a bad economist this constitutes the whole difference - the one takes account of the visible effect; the other takes account both of the effects which are seen, and also of those which it is necessary to foresee. Now this difference is enormous, for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favourable, the ultimate consequences are fatal, and the converse. Hence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good, which will be followed by a great evil to come, while the true economist pursues a great good to come, - at the risk of a small present evil.

 

Hmm, I thought to myself. Was this a clue to what had happened to San Manse’? I asked Santa-Anta: “Is one of our stops San Manse’?”

 

Santa-Anta flashed his big, white teeth before replying: “And why do you ask, Senor?”

 

“I’m looking for a friend of mine and I have reason to believe he may be in San Manse’.”

 

“If he is, you will see him.”

 

I sensed it was best to drop the subject; for a while, anyway. “Where are we now?”

 

“I cannot tell you. You must trust your senses.”

 

My senses were in disarray. Nothing new there.

 

***

The bus kept rolling along and the monotony of the landscape along with the monotony of the conversation began making me sleepy. Sleep had been a precious commodity the past week or so. I drifted off, dreamlessly dreaming in the hazy heat. Time passed. How much I don’t know but I awoke to the voices of Sage and Santa-Anta.

 

“There it is.”

 

“You mean there it was.”

 

I interjected. “What are you talking about it?”

 

“San Manse’”

 

I quickly looked out the bus window. All I saw was desert in every direction.

 

“There’s nothing there.”

 

“You’re right, Senor. But there once was and it was San Manse’.”

 

“What happened?”

 

Sage answered, “Funiversalism.”

 

Funiversalism? What the heck was that?

 

“Please explain.”

 

“Funiversalism is the theological concept that God has already saved everybody. It’s like you have a ticket to the Super Bowl. You’re going to the game. The ticket just hasn’t been punched yet. It’s just a matter of time.”

 

“But why would an idea like that destroy San Manse’?”

 

“I wasn’t finished with my definition. Since God has already saved everybody and nothing can be done to change that fact, then why not just have fun? Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow you do not die!”

 

“So the San Manseans partied themselves to death?”

 

“Not all of them. Some of us got out in time.”

 

***

I asked Santa-Anta to stop the bus. I got out and walked to where San Manse' used to be. I tried to imagine the look of the buildings, if the streets had been paved with gold, and where fountains with cool, cascading water might have been. But nothing came to mind and all I saw were desert sands.

 

I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Sage. "Don't feel too bad, my boy. The existence of San Manse' was always tenuous at best. Those of us who actually lived there lived day by day, appreciating each day as if it was the last."

 

"It's time for a cold one!" Santa-Anta walked up with three cans in his hand. "Here, take one. Nothing like a Shagah No Pesada when the heat is on."

 

We gratefully took the SNPs from S-A. As I sipped on mine, I remembered a few lines from a Robert Frost poem:

 

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces/ Between stars--on stars where no human race is /I have it in me so much nearer home/To scare myself with my own desert places

 

The desert was swallowing up all my leads. It had swallowed up Lance and taken away my celestial cell phone and Flying Belt. I was growing weary of what seemed to be an eternal search.

 

“Another SNP, Senor?”

 

I took the can, said thanks, and continued walking over what used to be San Manse’.

 

Where do I go from here?

Dreams are like streams,

They run dry this time of year.

 

‘Ok, Senor, it’s time we move on. Though it hurts me to say it, San Manse’ may be gone forever.”

 

They say the truth can hurt. But so can a lie.

 

***

Another couple of hours on the bus and then we slowly came to a halt. We were at an entrance gate but it was a naked gate. There was no fence attached to it. Above the gate was a sign that read FEURACASA & OASIS.

 

I asked Santa-Anta, “Where are we now?”

 

“This, Senor, is the Pearl of Normex Annex. This is the place where you can rest your weary bones and find true relaxation and peace of mind.”

 

“I could use some of that.” I noticed some men and women milling around the oasis. “Who are they?”

 

“They’re refugee Funies.”

 

“I’m guessing Funies is a nickname for the Funiversalists. So there are more survivors than just you and Sage.”

 

“That is correct, Senor. They had the good sense to not to look back when they were told to flee.”

 

That sounded strangely familiar.

 

“Why was not looking back a good idea?”

 

“When we look back we think we understand the past. But the past is always open to misinterpretation. The Funies that looked back thought they saw a city that was secure and safe from all alarms. But it was a mirage and when they returned they fell into the bottomless pit.”

 

“But I saw no pit, bottomless or otherwise, when we were walking among the invisible ruins of San Manse’”

 

“I assure you, Senor, the pit is there. Its existence doesn’t depend on you seeing it.”

 

There were several park benches in the oasis and I sat down on one. It was by a small pool of water and the air was almost cool. As I saw my reflection in the water I reflected on what Santa-Anta had just said. While I was doing so, Sage came over and sat down beside me.

 

“You’re must not be too troubled, Nick. Reality is elusive in this part of the world.”

 

“What happened to the Funiversalists?”

 

“It was a situation that literally got out of control. A split mentality arose among the Funies. Now all Funies just want to have fun but some think their fun is controlled by God and others think they control their own fun.”

 

“Why would God either control fun or not control fun? The Boss is a pretty serious guy.”

 

“It all has to do with the defeat of sin. Once sin was conquered there was no need to fear it or try to avoid it. It couldn’t hurt you anymore. But if that was the case, did God still need to be in control? One side said yes. One side said no.”

 

“And so a war broke out between the two groups?”

 

“Exactly.”

 

“And neither side won?”

 

“We all lost.”

 

***

Before eating supper, I utilized the fueracasa. It was about fifteen feet behind the Memory of San Manse’ Royal Café. Decent enough for a fueracasa.

 

For supper, we had cheese enchiladas along with several bottles of Old Miguel. We tried to keep the conversation pleasant, which after what we had seen that afternoon, was not that easy to do.

 

I asked Santa-Anta, “Where are we headed next on our tour?”

 

“We drive all night in circles and end up where we started.”

 

“That sounds like a metaphor for life.”

 

‘Si’, Senor. It’s called the Circle of Life Tour. It’s our most popular tour.”

 

And so, after supper, and after a brief walk to enhance enchilada digestion, we boarded the Karl Barth Express and began circling in the desert beneath a canopy of shining stars.

 

I noticed that a star was missing in the southern portion of the sky. Had an Associate been called to duty in a far away galaxy? If only I had my celestial! I hated missing the Third Heaven Evening News. It had been one of my favorite shows, along with Celestial Non-Idol and The O’Badiah Report. Needless to say, there were no heavenly connections in Normex Annex. If there were, I hadn’t found them yet.

 

So the stars that night were bright, the moon was dark, and everything that I saw was ghostly in appearance. Since Normex Annex was only one square mile in size, the circling of it was a relatively fast enterprise, and so that night we must have accomplished several hundred ‘tours’. I decided after two or three laps, why not sleep. Before nodding off, I noticed that Sage had come up with the same idea and already put the idea into action. I wasn’t worried that Santa-Anta might do the same because he was singing acapulco and drinking coffee from a huge thermos jug.

 

I drifted off listening to Santa-Anta sing:

 

The sunset blazes and the rocks come alive

And when the night falls the heat subsides

Eternity has no fear for the man who is strong

Relics of humanity, a monastery’s song

 

Ghostly sermons at a midnight mass

Martyrs return from a pagan past

Ancient nomads with no place to belong

Relics of humanity, a monastery’s song

 

Out in the desert you can feel the wind

Blowing hard, then soft, then hard again

Footprints appear and then they’re gone

Relics of Humanity, a monastery’s song

 

A few traces remain of Coronado’s trail

Their search for gold was likely to fail

Standing on the mesa it feels all wrong

Relics of Humanity, a monastery’s song

 

Chapter 13: The Higher Archie

 

“The time has come to initiate Phase One of the WesCan Plan.”

 

“When do we depart?”

 

“In one hour.”

 

“What about the TPE?”

 

“He’s going with us.”

 

Lance heard the voices and though they were coming from only a few feet away they seemed to be coming through a football field-long tunnel. Something about some plan?

 

“Won’t he slow us down?”

 

“That’s a chance we’ll have to take.”

 

“Can’t we just leave him here?”

 

Yes, we could, thought Cassy Castenada, and it made more sense not to take him than to bring him along but for some reason she could not quite explain, she felt it was necessary to take Lance along with them to the wilds of Western Canada.

 

“He’s going with us. End of discussion.”

 

At that point Lance tried to stand up but immediately fell back to the army-style cot that was situated on the side of the cave. Cassy heard him fall and rushed to him.

 

“Are you ok, Lance?”

 

“I suppose but what’s this about a plan and why am I going with you?”

“We’re moving our operation to Western Canada. The Funies are closing in on us here.”

 

“But why take me?”

 

“Because you’ll die if we leave you here. The Funies hate TPEs.”

 

“I’ll tell them I’m a poor prospector down on his luck.”

 

“Wouldn’t work; one of our Raspberry Tarters has recently defected to the Funies and he knows who you are.”

 

While Lance by no means wanted to go to Western Canada, he also by no means had a desire to die so he reluctantly resigned himself to the upcoming move.

 

“Ok, Cassy, you’re the boss.”

 

“Now you’re making sense, Lance. A wheelchair will be here in a few minutes to take you to the bus.”

 

***

Do you ever feel like you’re close to finding something you’re looking for but for whatever reason you just can’t find it? After weeks of searching was I really closer to finding Lance or was it just another mirage in the desert?

 

“OK, Nick, your dune buggy is ready.” It was Santa-Anta talking. I had finally convinced him that a never-ending tour of Normex Annex was no longer necessary and he had come to see the wisdom of a TPE traveling alone and had agreed to fix up an old dune buggy for my transportation.

 

“Thanks, S-A. How about one last cold one before I hit the road?”

 

I didn’t have to convince S-A on the salubrity of my suggestion and he immediately walked over to his tour bus and pulled out a couple of Old Marias from the small fridge that was a centerpiece of the large red double-decker bus.

 

“We’ll miss you, Senor, but we know your journey and your search must continue.”

“Thank you, S-A. It’s become obvious I’ve exhausted all possibilities in this neck of the woods.”

 

Just then Sage Brush walked over from the bus holding an Old Maria in his hand.

 

“Well, Nick, what are your hopes for the future?”

 

For some reason during the past few days I had been reading the works of Carlos Castenada and my answer came in the form of a Castenada quote:

 

Anything is one of a million paths. Therefore you must always keep in mind that a path is only a path; if you feel you should not follow, you must not stay with it under any circumstances.

 

Sage was himself a Castenada aficionado and replied:

 

All paths are the same: they lead nowhere. ... Does this path have a heart? If it does, the path is good; if it doesn't, it is of no use. Both paths lead nowhere; but one has a heart, the other doesn't. One makes for a joyful journey; as long as you follow it, you are one with it. The other will make you curse your life. One makes you strong; the other weakens you.

 

Was Sage saying I might never find Lance?

 

***

Lance would not allow anyone to help him get into the wheelchair and he was able to walk by himself the few steps that separated his cot from the wheelchair. Upon reaching the wheelchair, he slowly lowered himself into it and then proceeded to pilot the chair to the opening of the cave. All the Tarters except Cassy and her first lieutenant, Sammos Castenada, who was also her half-brother, were already seated in the bus. Lance then wheeled over to the bus door where he grabbed hold of the door’s side bars and pulled himself up on the steps and then slowly, almost agonizingly so, made it to the front seat directly behind the driver that had been left vacant just for him. Sammos folded the wheelchair and put it in the luggage compartment at the bottom of the bus. Sammos and Cassy climbed aboard and the bus left for Western Canada. Not too many dry eyes could be found on the bus.

After several hours of traveling on desert back roads, the bus came to a stop at the Mexico-USA border. Surprisingly, at least to Lance anyway, there were no complicating matters and the bus drove freely into Texas. He asked Cassy, “So the Tarters are on good terms with the U.S. Immigration Agency?”

 

“We’re all good American citizens in good standing.”

 

“I’m sure you are. Sometimes my thinking is warped by my theological background. I think of you as a cult and that thinking tends to prejudice you in other areas as well.”

 

“You mean political?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Well, don’t worry. We have no desire to overthrow any government, even the American one. We just want a place of our own to grow raspberries and contemplate our navels while imbibing peyote.”

 

Sounded like the American dream,  Lance thought to himself.

 

***

Just before I left, Sage came over to me and said cryptically:

 

“There are other Archies.” Editor’s Note: Sage Brush’s real first name was Archie.

 

“You mean Archie Manning?”

 

“He is a great Archie but there are even greater Archies.”

 

“You mean there are other Archies whose sons have won more than three Super Bowls?”

 

Sage arched his brow and then remarked: “Believe it or not, there are greater accomplishments than winning a Super Bowl.”

 

“I’m drawing a blank.”

 

“Nick, you’re a theological private eye. You should know that spiritual accomplishments are held in higher esteem than merely fleshly ones.”

 

Sage was right. I had allowed my love of pro football to cloud my judgment.

 

“Where are these Greater Archies?”

 

“They exist vertically. They ascend to just below the Third Heaven.”

 

“No cafeteria privileges?”

 

“Some, but without the lower there would not be the higher.”

 

“So there’s a hierarchy of Higher Archies?”

 

“You’ve summed it up very well.”

 

“But what relevance does all this have with me?”

 

“If you could contact one of the Higher Archies, he might be able to help you find Lance.”

 

“But I’m spiritually incommunicado. I lost my celestial, remember?”

 

“There are other ways to communicate.”

 

I was about to reply when a host of flaming arrows started landing all around us. The Funies were attacking us with bows and arrows. I looked behind me and saw about thirty of them on a treeless and grassless hill about a quarter of a mile distant.

 

“Hop in!” I cried to Sage and he immediately jumped in the dune buggy. I didn’t know the old coot could move so quickly. The red double-decker bus with Santa-Anta was already speeding off in the direction away from the attackers.

Fortunately, the Funies had no visible means of mechanical transportation and we were safely out of their reach in a few minutes. About thirty minutes later I dropped Sage off at his hermitic abode. We said our goodbyes and I sped off into the desert sunset.

 

***

The Tarters first stop after leaving the border crossing was Dime Box. Sammos had heard about the famous B6 Diner, Drive-In & Dive and had talked Cassy into making a stop there. Lance had one piece of advice.

 

“You better hide your stash of peyote. The Bellys, the proprietors of the B6 Triple D, are notorious anti-druggers.”

 

“What about beer?”

 

“You better hide that too; but for a different reason. They’re liable to drink your whole supply.”

 

Cassy and Sammos were appreciative of Lance’s advice and took appropriate steps. The bus then pulled into the parking lot of the B6 and the Tarters unloaded the bus so they could load up on the food. Lance stayed in the bus. He had long ago lost his appetite. When the Tarters returned, Sammos had a quizzical look on his face.

“I just don’t understand. We ate and ate and ate. We’re all so full we’re about to bust. Yet the owner, a Mr. Belly, complained that he had never seen such puny eaters."

 

Lance couldn’t help but laugh. The Bellys of Dime Box were probably the biggest eaters in the world; both in size and consumption. Jerry Jones of the Dallas Cowboys had tried to recruit Bellys to be on his offensive line but they had just laughed at him, saying it wouldn’t be fair of them to hit people with helmets and pads on. They preferred Scrappin’ and Cow Tossing. Jones had responded to their laughs by offering them lots of money. That didn’t work either.

 

Lance spoke to Sammos. “Look at the bright side. We should be able to make it to Wyoming before we have to stop for the next meal. “

 

Sammos tried to be cheerful but a very full stomach was beginning to make him feel uncomfortable. “There may be a need for other types of stops though.”

 

***

The dune buggy was remarkably fast for its size and engine power. I wondered what kind of engine additive Santa-Anta might have come up with; the buggy didn’t have a speedometer but from the way the desert landscape was passing beside me, I guessed I was doing around 200 miles per hour; which was good because Santa-Anta had passed along a tip he had gotten from a wandering prospector. The old prospector had  seen another red double-decker bus (just like Santa-Anta’s) headed due north a few hours before talking to Santa-Anta. A sign on the side of the bus had a large raspberry tart painted on it. My old nemesis, Carlos Castenada, had been a raspberry tart fan and I had heard that one of his daughters had assumed leadership of the Castenada Cult when Carlos had passed over to the other side. Had the Tarters captured Lance and was he still their prisoner? It wasn’t much to go on but it was all I had.

 

As I was barreling along at a high, unsafe speed I thought about the Funies (short for Funiversalists) and wondered which particular group of Funies I was dealing with. Was it the Fun  Funies (Fun was short for Fundamental), or the Neo-Funies, or the Phony Funies? As Sage had explained them to me, they were all dangerous to one degree or another. The key factor was the location of a strip club. If a strip club were near, Funies from all three groups could be expected to be distracted from the task at hand. But, sad to say, there were no strip clubs in the part of Northern Mexico I now found myself in; therefore, theoretically, I was still subject to an ad hominem attack from a Funie battalion.

 

For some reason though that I can’t quite explain, I felt relatively safe. But how long would I feel that way? As long as I was moving at 200 miles per hour, there was probably nothing the Funies could do to me. But at some point I would need to refuel and also to sleep. At that point my vulnerability would be at its greatest. I pondered the situation and came up with the only answer that seemed viable to my continued existence as an intact and working TPE. I must find a gas station near a strip club. After filling up the buggy,  I would ask the gas station owner if I could park the buggy in one of his parking spaces and take a long nap. It would be a desperate move, but TPEs are used to living on the edge.

 

***

As the Tarter bus traversed the Texas countryside, Lance reflected on his many years as a theological private eye. The years had brought many changes: from a raw recruit straight out of the Pond of Fire TPE Academy to a seasoned veteran who had been busted for violating too many TPE protocols to a now chastened agent who had suffered and had survived the rigorous ‘re-edification’ of Pond of Fire Rehab. As he thought these things, Lance remembered the words of Epictetus:

 

Keep death and exile daily before thine eyes, with all else that men deem terrible, but more especially death. Then wilt thou never think a mean thought, nor covet anything beyond measure.

 

“An Old Mariachi for your thoughts.” Lance looked up to where the voice was coming from and there stood Cassy with two OMs in her hands. Lance took one and said thanks. Cassy sat down beside him.

 

“I was thinking about something Douglas MacArthur said: ‘Old soldiers never die. They just fade away.’ I was wondering what happened to old TPEs.”

 

“Our medicine man is confident that you will make a full recovery.”

 

“He may be right but I’m not feeling it. You need to let me off in Denver.”

 

“Won’t the Funies find you? Isn’t Denver the site of their Rocky Mountain High headquarters?”

 

“It’s time I met the Funies head on.”

 

“We will help you.”

 

“No, it’s something I must do alone.”

 

“As you wish.”

 

***

As it may have occurred to the reader by now, it was not really feasible to maintain speeds of up to 200 miles per hour without arousing the interest of the local police forces of whose localities I was passing through. Therefore it was incumbent upon me (because speed was of the essence) that I stay off of anything resembling a real road. So it was two rut roads, dry ditches, even drier river beds, and rabbit and cow paths that became my highways of choice. So it was no coincidence that by following such unlikely bi-ways, that after 5 hours of non-stop gallivanting (the serious kind of gallivanting) I found myself in Dime Box, Texas. This should come as no surprise to the reader because as the saying goes, ‘All non-roads lead to Dime Box.’ But as it turned out, as far as finding a place to rest, Dime Box was a non-starter. The only strip club in town was Strip Bingo and most of the participants were 75 years or older; definitely not a distractible entity for Funies. There was a gas station though and I filled up the dune buggy with some non-ethanol gasoline. There was a town ordinance against using corn for anything but feeding farm animals and humans.

 

I was getting mighty weary. The Funies would know that too and would be planning to jump me when I could no longer keep my eyes open. The only real answer was parking beside a Shagah Strip Club & Weekly Bible Study, the Funies strip club and weekly Bible study of choice. Shagah SC & WBS were world renown for their tasteful aesthetics and corresponding profundity. No Funie alive could resist the allure of such a place. If I could arrive at one, say around 7 pm, I could be assured of a solid, unperturbed and undisturbed eight hour span of sleep.

 

The closest SSC & WBS that I knew of was in Dallas but I would arrive there around 1:30 in the morning which means only an hour and a half of solid shut-eye. My best bet was to motor on to Denver, which if my calculations were correct and if my buggy didn’t get any bugs, I would arrive at exactly 7 pm on the following day.

 

***

The Tarter bus let Lance off on the outskirts of West Denver, exactly two blocks away from the Rocky Mountain High Shagah Strip Club & Weekly Bible Study. As Lance got off the bus he had one crutch under his left arm. He had decided that the wheelchair would not give him the mobility he might need if he came under duress. On the other hand, the crutch would not only help keep him in an upright position it could also be used as a weapon if the circumstances demanded it. But he had no intention of becoming involved in fisticuffs or physical violence of any kind. Lance was headed toward a verbal confrontation with the Shagah-Master.

 

The Shagah-Master was known throughout the western world as a first class debater. He had prepped many a presidential candidate in the fine and esoteric arts of debating. Lance planned to draw out the Shagah-Master by questioning his debating skills. By defeating the Shagah-Master in a one on one debate, Lance could throw the Funies into disarray. As the Art of War author had once propounded, the best way to defeat the enemy was by first cutting off its head.

Lance hobbled the two blocks to the Shagah SC & WBS, where he banged on the front door. A bouncer, a large bear of a man holding a copy of the Aztec Publishing Concern’s translation of the New Testament, opened the door.

 

“What can I do for you, sir? The Strip Club doesn’t open until 7 pm and it’s not the night we hold our weekly bible study.”

 

“I would like to see the Shagah-Master.”

 

“His Eminence is not here at this present time.”

 

“When do you expect him?”

 

“We’ve been looking to the clouds all day but he has yet to be spotted.”

 

Lance immediately felt let down. He had used up almost all his reserves of energy in preparation for a head to head, brain to brain battle with the Shagah-Master and now he was at a loss in what to do next.

 

While Lance was lost in thought, he hadn’t noticed that a crowd of people had gathered behind the bouncer. When he looked closely at them, he was filled with something akin to fear and trepidation. He was looking straight into the angry faces of a dozen or more Funies!

 

***

I had made great time but when you drive across treeless plains in a 200 mile per hour dune buggy you should make great time. Luckily, Denver was on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains or the going would have been much slower. My timing had been on the money and it was approaching 6:30 pm as I approached the Rocky Mountain Shagah Strip Club & Weekly Bible Study.

 

As I pulled within sight of the afore-mentioned establishment, I saw what looked to be a man waving a large stick while tentatively backing up from what appeared to be a mob of assailants. As I drew closer it hit me that the lone man was Lance! I had finally found him but if I didn’t reach him in time, it would make little difference one way or the other. The crowd was obviously out for blood and under the circumstances, Lance didn’t stand a chance.

 

I yelled out Lance’s name as I pulled up to the curve. He looked my way and instantly recognized me. He then turned his back to the mob and start hobbling toward the buggy. The mob did the same thing, but they weren’t hobbling. All Lance had going for him was a slight head start. Things didn’t look good but after all the trouble I had gone to in looking for him I wasn’t about to give up now. I jumped out of the buggy, rushed over to Lance, and helped him to the parked vehicle. I don’t know how we did it (a little help from above?) but we managed to escape by the skin of our teeth.

 

***

This case ends here but in reality it doesn’t end. Nick has found Lance and fortunately Lance is still alive. But he’s in bad shape; can he survive their journey to find the Higher Archie?

 

As we will discover in the next chapter, there are many Archies, one existing above the other. Nick and Lance must find the particular Archie who can both heal Lance and also equip them to deal with the nefarious ramifications of the WesCan Plan. As usual, Nick will be flying by the seat of his pants.

 

 

Chapter 14: The WesCan Plan

 

What’s Better Than An Earth Moon Pie?

 

Don’t go to the store without a dollar in your pocket

Or you might get stuck in the hungry man’s docket

You can lose your shirt when your stomach is blank

Just a fool who has only himself to thank

 

What’s better than an earth moon pie?

Only a star that’s shining in the sky

You can talk about the glory and the by and by

But there’s nothing better than an earth moon pie

 

So put that dollar in your pocket fore you leave

Or you’ll have some cause to mourn and grieve

You need something special to make it thru the day

And your only hope is to listen to what I say

 

What’s better than an earth moon pie?

Only a star that’s shining in the sky

You can talk about the glory and the by and by

But there’s nothing better than an earth moon pie

 

Don’t go to your grave without a taste of heaven

And you can find it at your nearest Seven-Eleven

It’s on the aisle ‘cross from Old Milwaukee beer

And it’s calling your name every day of the year

 

What’s better than an earth moon pie?

Only a star that’s shining in the sky

You can talk about the glory and the by and by

But there’s nothing better than an earth moon pie

 

“Well, that was interesting.” I said to Lance as I turned off the AM radio on the dune buggy. Lance didn’t reply.

 

“Have you ever heard that before?” The song was definitely before my time, and since Lance was at least fifteen years older than me, I thought he might have run across it in years past.

 

“Can’t say that I have. Mighty catchy though. Hey, why don’t we stop at the next gas station and see if we can rustle up a couple of moon pies. I haven’t eaten since Dime Box. About time for a little snack.”

 

Sounded good to me so at the next stop, as I was filling up the dune buggy, Lance wandered into the convenience store. He was gone for a few minutes and when he came back out he had a look of abject despair on his face.

 

“I can’t believe it. They’ve run out of moon pies.”

 

“Even banana ones?”

 

“All kinds and flavors and they’ve been out for weeks. Word is that all the moon pies on Earth have been confiscated by Associates from Third Heaven Cafeteria.”

 

Now I was stunned. “I’ve always heard that TH Cafeteria moon pies were made on the moon.”

 

“Something’s obviously happened to the Moon Pie Factory on the Moon.”

 

***

Lance had sat down in the buggy. He was still recovering from his ordeal in the desert around Normex Annex and was easily tired. The stunning bit of news about moon pie scarcity had hit him hard. I wondered why.

 

“Well, Lance, it is just a moon pie after all.”

 

“I know but I think there’s more to it than that. I think the Raspberry Tarters are tied up in all this somehow.”

 

“What makes you think that?”

 

“I overheard some conversations back in the cave in Normex Annex. Cassy Castenada, leader of the Tarters was talking to her brother about something called the WesCan Plan.”

 

“I surprised they talked openly in front of you.”

 

“They thought I was still in a coma. Anyway, for some reason they were moving their base of operations from the desert to the mountains. Cassy said something like ‘the higher the better.’ I thought she was talking about peyote but evidently it had to do with topographical altitude not drug-induced attitude.”

 

“The Castenadas can be a nasty bunch to deal with; yet they took care of you. How do you explain that?”

 

Lance didn’t reply immediately. He spent a few moments gazing out at the awe-inspiring Colorado mountain range before replying. “Back in ’79 I helped Carlos Castenada get out of a jam. I was working solo then, having recently resigned from the TPE Corps. While skipping dimensions, Carlos had inadvertently left his trans-dimensional ID card in a pizza parlor in Santa Fe and was stuck at the border of a dimension that believed there was no such thing as dimensions.  Luckily, I was still on good terms with some minor Associates in the Third Heaven Bureau of Incarnation and they made arrangements to get Carlos’ ID back.”

“I can see why the Castenadas were willing to help you.”

 

“Good deeds can come back to bite you but in this case helping Carlos was a positive.”

 

“But now you face the dilemma of deciding whether or not to investigate if the Castenadas are up to no good, and if so, finding a way to stop them.”

 

“It’s not easy being a TPE.”

***

As we rode up and down the mountain bi-ways, I discovered that Lance was himself a moon pie aficionado and had learned by heart a moon pie recipe that he recited to himself when tortured by the Boss’ enemies. It went something like this:

Moon Pies

Yield: About 18 double-decker moon pies

Prep Time: 1 hour 15 minutes | Bake Time: 30 minutes

For the Cookies:
8 ounces (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup light brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt

For the Marshmallow Filling:
2 egg whites
Pinch cream of tartar
Pinch salt
2/3 cup light corn syrup
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

For the Chocolate Coating:
12 ounces semisweet chocolate
¼ cup vegetable oil

1. To Make the Cookies: With a mixer on medium speed, beat the butter until creamy, about 3 minutes. Add the brown sugar and beat at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium, add the egg and the vanilla extract, and beat to combine. Reduce the speed to low, add the flour and the salt, and mix just until a soft dough forms. Divide the dough in two, shape into disks, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Line at least two baking sheets with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat; set aside. Working with one disk at a time, roll out the dough to about 1/8-inch thickness. Using a 2½-inch diameter round cutter, cut out the rounds and place them on the prepared baking sheets, about ½ an inch apart. Refrigerate the cookies (on the baking sheets) for 10 minutes.

3. Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Cool on the pans for a couple of minutes, and then move to a cooling rack to cool completely.

4. To Make the Marshmallow Filling: Using a mixer with the whisk attachment, beat the egg whites with the cream of tartar and the salt until firm peaks form, gradually increasing from medium-low speed to medium-high speed as the egg whites gain volume. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, boil the corn syrup over high heat without stirring until it registers 230 to 235 degrees F on a candy thermometer (thread ball stage). Slowly drizzle the hot corn syrup into the egg whites and beat at high speed until glossy, about 2 minutes. Reduce the speed to medium-low, beat in the vanilla extract and the powdered sugar.

5. Using either a pastry bag or a spoon, mound about 1½ tablespoons of marshmallow filling into the center of a cookie. Top with another cookie and press lightly to spread the marshmallow to the edges. Add another mound on top of the second cookie, and top with another cookie, again pressing slightly to spread the filling to the edges. Repeat with the rest of the cookies.

6. To Make the Chocolate Coating: Using a double boiler or in the microwave on 50% power and in 30 second increments, melt the chocolate and vegetable oil together until completely smooth. Place the assembled cookies on a wire rack set over a sheet of wax paper. Spoon the melted chocolate over each cookie so that it runs down the sides and covers most of the cookie. Allow to set at room temperature for about 2 hours (or refrigerate to speed up the process). Store in an airtight container at room temperature.

(Recipe adapted from Food and Wine magazine.)

 

After Lance recited the moon pie recipe, we spontaneously started singing the following song in acapulco:

 

I Want My Moon Pie

 

I don’t care if it busts my britches

I want my Moon Pie

I don’t care if it costs my riches

I want my Moon Pie

 

 I don’t care if it makes me wide

My happy belly will never hide

It’ll make me feel so good inside

I want my Moon Pie

 

I don’t care if Bloomberg winces

I want my Moon Pie

Those Yankees never had no senses

I want my Moon Pie

 

 I don’t care if it’s against the law

It’s the tastiest thing I ever saw

The one confection without a flaw

I want my Moon Pie

 

Sometimes revelry was necessary even in the face of disaster.

 

***

We’re now at the point of the narrative where we introduce some of the chapters with an Eric Hoffer quote:

 

We can be absolutely certain only about things we do not understand.

 

A good quote but TPEs are used to never being absolutely certain about anything except being absolutely certain about not being absolutely certain.

 

“What are you thinking about?” Lance asked me.

 

“Eric Hoffer.”

 

“You mean the longshoreman philosopher, the famous autodidact?”

 

“Yep, that’s the one.”

 

“I was especially impressed with his book, The True Believer. What he described in that book reminded me a lot of the people we’ve had to deal with.”

 

“I know what you mean. But at least True Believers are for the most part, highly predictable. There’s logic to their insanity.”

 

“A TPE always appreciate consistent clues.”

 

“Would you say the Tarters are True Believers?”

 

“Without a doubt.”

 

“So what does that tell you about what they might be up to?”

 

“Something big.”

 

While we were talking, I couldn’t help but notice that Lance seemed to be in constant pain. The dune buggy wasn’t the most comfortable of rides but it was all we had, and since both of us, for various reasons, had lost our celestial cell phones and TPE IDs, it was for better or worse, to remain our sole source of transportation.

 

I asked Lance, “Would you like to stop and take a break?”

 

“We can’t. There’s no time to lose.”

 

“Where are we going by the way?”

 

“To see Archie of the Seventh Level. He’s an expert on Moon Moon Pies.”

 

***

Disappointment is a sort of bankruptcy - the bankruptcy of a soul that expends too much in hope and expectation. Eric Hoffer.

 

Archie 7 reminded me a little of Sage Brush; a better clothed version to be sure but that wasn’t surprising since Sage Brush had little need of clothes in the heat of the desert while Archie 7 spent much of his time contemplating nature in nature and this particular side of the mountain was currently about 45 degrees Fahrenheit with a stiff breeze. I found myself shivering and was relieved when A7 invited us into his well appointed cave. He offered us both Hot Shagah Lites which we accepted gratefully and then asked us to have a seat. Lance spoke first.

 

“Archie, do you know anything about the Moon Pie Dearth?”

 

“Not a thing. Archie 8 hasn’t sent any information down to me and as you know information only travels in one direction in the Higher Archie.”

 

“When’s the last time you ate a Moon Pie?”

 

“Earth Moon Pie or Moon Moon Pie?”

 

“Either.”

 

“About six months ago. I enjoyed a MMP with a cup of Venusian Nectar. It really hit the spot, I might add.”

 

“Hasn’t it bothered or worried you that Moon Pies are now scarce?”

 

“Of course but there’s nothing I can do about it. Que Sera, sera as the good book says.”

 

Lance did not respond. He got up and immediately left the cave. I followed quickly after him. A few minutes later we were moving vertically.

 

***

When we believe ourselves in possession of the only truth, we are likely to be indifferent to common everyday truths. Eric Hoffer.

 

We had gone up about a thousand feet or so when I asked Lance.

 

“Why the sudden departure? I was hoping another Hot Shagah Lite was on the way.”

 

“Archie 7 has been corrupted from above. Archies have always been free-willers not whatever will be will be-ers.”

 

“How far up?”

 

“At least five levels. A change in policy like that has to come down that far to make any kind of impact.”

 

“So we’re headed to Archie 13?”

 

“Yes, unless you have a better idea.”

 

“It’s going to be mighty cold that far up. Are there any kind of clothing stores on the route we’re following? We sure could use some warmer outfits.”

 

“I can’t disagree with that. My arthritis is starting to act up and I was in bad shape to begin with; we’ll keep our eyes peeled. Maybe we can kill a bear and skin it.”

 

“I hope you’re joking.”

 

“I hope so too.”

 

We’ll pause here so the reader can ponder the meaning of que sera sera, or as it is known in intellectual circles: fatalism.

 

Belief that every event is bound to happen as it does no matter what we do about it. Fatalism is the most extreme form of causal determinism, since it denies that human actions have any causal efficacy. Any determinist holds that indigestion is the direct consequence of natural causes, but the fatalist believes that it is bound occur whether or not (one) eats spicy foods.

 

 

***

The beginning of thought is in disagreement - not only with others but also with ourselves. Eric Hoffer

 

Nothing shakes one’s foundation like discovering that the rocks above are loose and especially when one is driving an open air dune buggy on curving mountain roads. The higher we went the thinner the air and the harder it was to make clear, level-headed decisions.

 

I asked Lance, “What are the chances Archie 13 has also been infected with fatalism?”

 

“I estimate the odds are around 90% that he is.”

 

“Then why even talk to him?”

 

“Because we have to try, within reason, to eliminate all possibilities; if we go to an Archie that hasn’t been contaminated, we run the risk of offending him. In the Higher Archie, you can only go up, not down.”

 

“Then why don’t we start with the next Archie, Archie 6?”

 

“We don’t have time. I’m making an educated guess but I think it’s  a sound one.”

 

It took about an hour (so far it appears that in the vertical plane, Archies are roughly about ten minutes or so apart) before we reached Archie 13. It had gotten even colder and Archie 13 waved at us from the doorway of his cave. He welcomed us in and offered us Hot Shagah Heavies (no one drank Lites at this altitude).

 

“What can I do for you TPEs? You don’t usually operate in the upper atmosphere.”

 

Lance answered, “We’re on vacation and just doing a bit of sightseeing.”

 

Archie 13 seemed totally taken in by Lance’s lie. “Ah, you remind me of my younger days, before I was in the Higher Archie. I spent quite a bit of time tramping around the world.”

 

We didn’t have much time for reminiscing so I asked A13, “So how did you end up in the Higher Archie?”

 

“It was my destiny.”

 

To be polite, we talked some more with A13, but it wasn’t long before we were going up again.

 

***

Because we believe in an open future, we can never be totally sure of our predictions, but even still, I’m predicting, and it may have to do with the fact that I’m an omniscient narrator, this will be our last Eric Hoffer quote:

 

The only way to predict the future is to have power to shape the future.

 

“How high do we go this time Lance?”

 

“Archie 25.”

 

“Almost double.”

 

“And that may not be enough. This thing literally stinks to high heaven.”

 

The cold had turned bitter but the roadway was untouched by it and we continued to make good time. When we got to our destination, Archie 25 didn’t even bother to answer the door. Luckily, it was unlocked and we walked into the cave.

 

We found A25 in the kitchen. “Welcome in boys, I knew you were coming.”

 

Lance replied sarcastically, “Fate?”

 

A25 laughed. “No, I spotted you with my reverse telescope. You know we Archies don’t believe in that fate crap.”

 

Lance and I both sighed in relief. I asked, “Where did the contamination begin?”

 

“We think at Archie 22 but communication only moves downward so we can’t be sure. By the way, have a seat. I made enough Spaghetti Bolognese for three.”

 

That sounded good! As it turned out, Archie had worked as a chef in the Third Heaven Cafeteria and knew his way around the spice rack.

 

After the meal, we sat down in the living room and discussed the situation.

 

A25 asked us if we had any clues. Lance spoke,

 

“I think Cassy Castenada and the Raspberry Tarters are behind this. Their plan is to introduce complacency into the Higher Archie.”

 

“But why?” A25 took a sip from his Hot Shumptuous Chocolate. I looked longingly at it, but Lance and I had to decline A25’s offer of one because of the latent threat to TPEs of TOMS (Time Out of Mind Syndrome).

 

“By neutralizing the Higher Archie, the Tarters will have access to the inside workings of the Third Heaven Cafeteria.”

 

“You don’t say!” gasped A25.

 

Lance nodded affirmatively, “Oh, I do say. Cassy plans to take over the THC!”

 

I didn’t like the way the conversation was going. I asked Lance, “But how does the que sera seraing play in with the Tarters’ gambit?”

 

Lance replied (serenely I might add), “There are two kinds of people in the world and both kinds have free will – one kind uses its free will to believe it has free will and the other kind uses its free will to believe it doesn’t have free will. Once the latter happens the free will denier becomes subject to lethargy and grandiose dreaming. He believes he can do anything and or everything by doing nothing.”

 

“You mean Archie 22 on down?”

 

“Pretty much. The Higher Archie has been breached and how as the Higher Archie is a top down organization, it can only be broken by disrupting its lowest ranking members.”

 

“Pretty perceptive, Mr. TPE.” Archie 25 piped in.

 

“So the Higher Archie is only as strong as its weakest members.” I commented.

 

Lance replied, “Yes, and it’s ironic that as the foundation tumbles there is no choice but for the Higher Archie to itself sink down from its greatest heights.”

 

“Thus leaving the Third Heaven Cafeteria exposed to the infiltration and subsequent takeover of the Strawberry Tarters.”

 

“What an insidious plot!” Archie 25 piped in once more.

 

I asked Lance directly, “What would it mean for Raspberry Tarts to take the place of Moon Moon Pies on the menu of the THC?”

 

“It would mean that we have returned to Primeval Chaos.”

 

“What do you mean by the term ‘Primeval Chaos’?” Archie 25 asked.

 

Lance responded, “Oh, I was just being rhetorically dramatic. There’s no such thing as a primeval chaos.”

 

“Agreed. There’s only current chaos.” I wasn’t sure of what I was saying but I didn’t want to be left out of the conversation. A25 replied instantly,

 

“That’s an interesting thought young man. Do you think Nick is on to something, Lance?”

 

“Yes, I do. Nick is intuitively relating to us that the universe only exist in the now and the now is always chaotic. Chaos is the very nature of existence.”

 

I made a mental note to more often defer to my intuition. Archie 25 then commented,

 

“The Big Fellow might disagree with you on that Lance.”

 

Lance gathered his thoughts. “Think about it. Chaos is subject to order. Order is subject to chaos. The Big Fellow lives to bring order out of chaos but he also lives to bring chaos out of order and by doing so he introduces life and change and chance into the universe. The beauty of creation.”

 

“And what do Moon Pies have to do with all this.”

 

“Moon Pies represent both order and chaos. Order in the sense that the parts make up the whole and chaos in the sense even celestial eating habits are disrupted.”

 

“What do the Castenadas hope to gain by removing Moon Pies from THC and replacing them with Raspberry Tarts?”

 

“They hope to gain access to heavenly places.”

 

Lance glanced over at me. “It’s time to go, Nick.”

 

We walked out the front entrance of Archie 25’s cave. We were going up again.

 

“How far up this time, Lance?”

 

“Archie 500.”

 

I let out a gasp. “Isn’t that above the breathable portion of the atmosphere?”

 

“Perhaps, but that doesn’t really matter.”

 

“What do you mean it doesn’t matter? We’ll die without oxygen.”

 

“I’m already dead.” Lance replied, and as he spoke his body began fading away. I reached out to touch his shoulder but he was gone. He had disappeared right in front of my eyes!

 

On the seat where he had been (or where I thought he had been) there suddenly appeared four items: an oxygen tank with accompanying mask; a celestial cell phone and my long lost Wullet!

 

I started hearing static and then what sounded like a voice. It was TPE Central.

 

“God Evening. Nick, are you there?”

 

I picked up the celestial and replied, “Nick here. I just lost Lance.”

 

“Lance was never there. He died on the road outside of Denver. He was in bad shape. It’s amazing he made it as far as he did.”

 

“So I was projecting an image of Lance as compensation for my ignorance of the Higher Archie?”

 

“Yes, you needed something to build confidence in you. The Higher Archie can be intimidating.”

 

“Where do I go from here?”

 

“Just what Lance recommended. Archie 500.”

 

***

I would miss Lance’s companionship but a TPE never looks back. I still had a job to do and that took preeminence over all other matters.

 

Luckily, the higher you went the closer the Archies were to each other. It took only about three hours to reach Archie 300. But at that point I found myself in the horns of a dilemma. Instead of one road there were now two! And both were called the Philip K. Dick Highway. At the entrance to the one on the left there was a sign that read:

 

Determinist forces are wrong

Though irresistibly strong

But of god there’s a dearth

For he visits the earth

But not for sufficiently long

 

While the one on the right said:

 

Determinist forces are wrong

Though irresistibly strong

But of god there’s no dearth

For he visits the earth

But just for sufficiently long

 

Which road to take?

 

I called TPE Central. Someone answered, “God Evening, can we help you?”

 

“I hope so. I’m at the horns of a dilemma.”

 

“Been there, done that.”

 

“That’s good. I’m at the entrance to the Philip K. Dick Highways. Do I take the left one or the right one?”

 

“You know the answer.”

 

“I do?”

 

“Of course, a good TPE always follows his instincts.”

 

“Even when they might be wrong?”

 

“Once again, of course.”

 

I thought for a minute then I followed the PKD Highway to the left.

 

***

Archie 387 waved at me as I shot by him in the dune buggy. He waved with one hand while holding something to his mouth with his other hand. When I realized what it was a cold shudder went through me.

 

Archie 387 had been eating a Raspberry Tart!

 

It wasn’t safe but I increased my speed. It was probably too late as the Castenadas had more than likely been successful in their Moon Pie coup d’état but I was on a mission to save the Third Heaven Cafeteria and I couldn’t allow my doubts and fears to rule me.

 

I saw no more Archies as I went up the Higher Archie and soon I was approaching my destination: Archie 500. Legend had it that the back door of Archie’s 500 cave opened into the kitchen of the Third Heaven Cafeteria. I was about to find out if the legend was true.

 

The wind was really howling now. I estimated the temperature to be about minus 200 degrees Fahrenheit. Luckily, my Wullet had a Thermo Ray Body Infiltrator chip and it was strong enough to keep me warm enough so as to keep moving. The door to Archie 500’s cave had been ripped off by the wind and was lying across the road. Actually it was lying up against the end of the road. The end was no longer near. It was here.

 

I walked through the door and found Archie 500 sprawled across the floor. He was breathing but unconscious. My guess was that he had been knocked unconscious by the Castenadas. Perhaps he had attempted to prevent them from taking over the Third Heaven Cafeteria and they had dragged his body back to his cave.

 

Nice touch.

 

I threw a blanket over A500 and began walking through the corridor that went down the middle of his cave. It was a surprisingly long corridor but I finally made it to the back entrance. I opened the door and found myself gazing at the one of the most beautiful sites in the universe: the kitchen of the Third Heaven Cafeteria.

 

The Castenadas were waiting for me but they had forgotten how nimble TPEs can be. They had only known Lance when he was in an injured state. But I wasn’t Lance and I wasn’t injured. I was a TPE at the height of his powers and I was equipped with a fully functioning Wullet. They came at me twenty strong but I managed to avoid their first onslaught by jumping on to a Neptune manufactured Galaxy approved refrigerator. From that point I leaped to a Horse-head Nebula self-cleaning stove and from there to the far distant corner of the kitchen.

 

I took out my celestial and called TPE Central.

 

“God Evening, can we help you?”

 

“Use the coordinates that are coming from my celestial and send a Level Three Destructo Beam to this spot.”

 

“But won’t you find that a bit uncomfortable?”

 

“Wait ten seconds and I’ll be in another location.”

 

“Roger, TPE. 10, 9, 8, 7,….”

 

I left my celestial in the corner and started running for one of the side doors. Did I mention that I was wearing a parachute as well as an oxygen mask and tank? If I didn’t, I apologize. Things have been kind of hectic lately.

 

The beam hit its target and as it was doing so I was jumping out of the kitchen of the Third Heaven Cafeteria. It broke my heart that I was the reason for the destruction of something so beautiful but it had to be done.

 

Que sera, sera?

 

***

Every good deed cannot go unpunished. Officially, of course, Boss Jr. thanked me for saving the Third Heaven Cafeteria from the Castenadas and for restoring Moon Moon Pies to their rightful place in the Higher Archie, but unofficially, there was no place in the TPE Corps for someone who had acted so recklessly. I was retired almost as soon as I hit the earth. What hurt more than anything though was when I was de-wulletized. That sting will never go away.

 

I’m now back in Goodsite, working part-time at Shumptuous Dairy as a chocolate milk taste tester. Since I’m no longer a TPE, I’m no longer affected by TOMS (Time Out of Mind Syndrome). Not real exciting work, but after being a TPE, what would be?

 

Epilogue: The End Is Always Near

 

Every case is not a long one. Neither is every case solved. Some things remain beyond the grasp of the Theological Private Eye. And that’s not a bad thing. Humility is the greatest virtue that is forced upon us.

 

Let’s go back to the first Eon where Boss Jr walked in the garden with Allen and Edie. They walked in the cool of the day and they enjoyed each other’s company. Then Edie ate some mango and all hell broke loose. An Eon that promised the world ended up losing it when the downpour came and only Yesah, some relatives, and a bunch of animals survived, thanks to the Big Boat.

 

Thus began the next Eon, one that lasted thousands of years and ended up with Boss Jr becoming human and paying the price for humanity’s greed, lust, murder and obsession with meaningless abstractions. This one ended too and led to yet another Eon: the Post-Boss Jr one where nations fought for peace and died for love and where psychoanalysts charged overtime for giving bad advice.

 

It ended also and before we knew it another Eon began in 1997 and lasted until 2012: the Lunch Eon (or Luncheon as some cynics called it). This Eon celebrated food, that miraculous substance that is there when you don’t need it and never there when you do.

 

The Lunch Eon has just ended.

 

Beginning now is the latest Eon: the Free Eon or Freon for short and it’s a time to be cool even when it’s hot; a time to be free and responsible at the same time; a time to take charge of one’s life (whether individual or corporate) and face up to life’s challenges. A time to pay one’s debts and maybe even a time to forget the debts of others; remember, you’re free to do so if you choose to do so.

 

But that Eon will end too.

 

And then finally (well, probably not finally, but maybe darn close to final) there will next come the latest New Eon or Neon when the night will end and brightness will engulf Creation and there’ll be no place to hide. All things, for better or for worse, will see the light of day.

 

 

THE END