7 – The Sexual Harlequins

A penny whistler was picking out a popular melody for a crowd when they reached the Castle. He squealed interminably and they could not fathom the crowd’s interest. They squeezed through to watch an old woman lift an idol from a wooden box.  The crowd hushed.  Sandals ceased shuffling, backs stiffened, canes dropped, and hungry eyes brightened under filmy sheathes.  The penny whistler let out a forlorn cry leaping into the center of the crowd, opening the box, declaring the divinity of a small mound of gray bones and one yellow tooth wrapped in soiled cloth.

Aloysius and Rupert, slipping past the demonstration, edged in under newly erected concrete columns inside the gates.  Each totemic column was decorated by a severed head wearing a sign around its shortened neck.  Deeper in the courtyard, suspended on a truck wheel, bound hand and foot, spread-eagle, a corpse flopped as guards shoved stakes penetrating the tires with police clubs.  Rupert and Aloysius scooted behind a church pillar as a guard mounted a stool, unlatched the wagon wheel and pulled the victim down, laid him on the ground, untied him and hoisted up another.  Near the Old Palace, heads bleeding through burlap sacks were abruptly tossed into a dumpster, followed by a priestlike executioner in a black robe.

The Old Royal Palace’s windows were pried open and broad silk banners with gold tassels were being unfurled by a black man of medium height dressed in clownlike buckle shoes and blue robe with half moons and comets stitched into fine silk: the black impresario Vlasav just described.  Banners advertised an upcoming celebration, each depicting an episode from Emperor’s fabled rise to power:  Neb as an idyllic shepherd; Neb the business whiz in his late twenties; Neb the arms dealer building damns and championing the poor; then Just Victor surrounded by a halo of tanks and missiles; final King of Ancient Bohemia, Last Atavist, Emperor, Omega of the World.

Scanning the banners, Aloysius glanced up again and saw the impresario staring at them.  Vlasav’s contact ordered the guards to level the banners, then walked, surveying their movements from inside the hall, from window to window, training one gleaming eye on them.  They melted behind a corner but the impresario had a panoramic view of their crouching place.  Vlasav’s contact further instructed the guards — dismissed them — then, made an odd, understated little wave, to Rupert, a spray of fingers.  Rupert waved, oddly, back.

“Vlasav’s man.”  Rupert whispered.

“Nice costume.”  Aloysius breathed.

They ducked as the priest trailing behind the dripping burlap sacks, and the ubiquitous guard marching by.

“We’ll be discovered here.”

“Links!”  They sprinted through the arched palace entrance.  Inside, the church stone muffled the crowd’s final groan outside the gates as the mummified fetus in swaddling rags lost its magic, even the Atavist guard’s marching boots silenced, as Aloysius slowly closed the door.  They could smell incense now.  Even their breaths echoed.  Then, as they turned around, they came eye to eye with Vlasav’s impresario who stood rigidly behind them, solid, skeptical gleaming, with a severe face for a clown, frumpy nose, large, expressively intelligent and hard, obsidian eyes.

“You are Vlasav’s contact?”  Rupert started, nervously, carefully offering the documents.

The impresario accepted the papers, slowly, then prodded Aloysius and Rupert upstairs with a gun, swung open wooden doors into a chamber lined with aged wood paneling, decorated now with Medieval tapestries and relics of Ancient Bohemia, then, prodded them down another hallway, opening a last heavy wooden door with an iron key, spread apart three sets of silk curtains, and forced them to kneel them in his dressing room.

Costumes were pouring out everywhere from drawers and cabinets:  Greek comic masks painted with bright acrylics, turbans with fake rubies, a dozen fezzes with tassels, suspended hand puppets, hoop skirts, wooden shoes, Appalachian clogs, Venetian carnival masks, fake hook noses, elephant masks, oversized Zebraskin underwear, sunglasses with small loudspeakers and skulls added with electrician’s tape.  Specialty drawers spilled out lorgnettes, monocles, kaleidoscopic sunglasses, false teeth, tusks, fangs, muskrat and fleshy otter skin hides.

Finally, draped from a gold-plated hanger a complete costume of green felt pants and a bulky green felt jacket lined with a bullet-proof vest and studded on its shoulders with jade and “illustrated” by hundreds of diamond skulls and crossbones.   Evidently the pride of the collection.

“Don’t even look at that!”, Vlasav’s impresario shouted as Aloysius crept over to touch it, “That’s Neb’s Green Man costume!” He examined the two guests gravely, setting down his gun, stabbing a knife into a huge wooden desk: “Who are you, really?”

“You speak English!”  Rupert hesitated.

“Of course I do. Answer, idiot!”

“We were recommended by a man named Vlasav and we are obliged to see the Emperor.”

“Vlasav in a moment.  Nobody wants to see the Emperor.”

“We performed a mission off the coast of Santorini for the Emperor.  We can prove it.”

“What mission?”

“If we tell you, is that a breach of Neb’s confidence?”

“Quick!  Or I call the guards!”

“We sank a jet in order to assassinate two men whom the Emperor ordered dead.  We had to make it look accidental.  And we did.  A complete accident.”

“You, assassins?”

“Yes.  It’s all there in the papers.”

“Wait!  Let me look at you!  You’re men dressed like women!” The impresario gaped, aghast stepped back, penetrating their disguise, “Are you male whores?”

“No.  We’re both heterosexuals.  It’s a long story.”

“Then shorten it!  I have five minutes.  If it’s not true, you’re lying tongues will loll from a sack!”  He scoffed, examining them.

Rupert recounted crashing in Santorini, their disguised helicopter flight to the Acropolis, their aerial view of Belgrade, the tortuous walk across the Panic Grass in former Croatia, then Slovenia and the blind nights with The Wandering Birds through the Alps. Vlasav’s impresario stopped when Rupert finished.  He had grown impatient, edgy.

“The facts behind the story:  You killed Grabmaler.  Neb ordered you assassinated and to make your death seem accidental.  The two women piloting the jet failed because you didn’t swallow both sleeping pills and you made them, and an old man, parachute with you.  You left these women on the island, on the backs of two horses, dressed up in their clothes to escape the island.  Then the second helicopter crashed.  You walked to Prague — came here to throw Neb off your trail — and perhaps spy on his plans for Paris.  You now need to see your girlfriend in Paris!”  He shook his head in disbelief, furrowed his brow, considered their transparent disguises, sifted their story, and pondered their catastrophic plot, and laughed:

“You planned to fool me that you were these assassins?  Ha!  Ha! That is the wildest … !”  He snorted sardonically, stopping short,  “Grabmaler was killed.  I know the island Santorini: refueling, drugs, court zoo.  But the idea you came here dressed up like this … to throw Neb off your trail! Holy Shit and Jesus Christ!”  The clown reversed moods again, “If you really are this Rupert — prove it.”

“Just have.”

“How?”

“No one else could have said what I just said.”

The black clown slumped back, skeptical, mumbling, “Not enough”, swung on his heel and slammed then bolted the door behind him locking them in.  Rupert and Aloysius waited alone silently, until the impresario returned ten minutes later with a file under his arm.  He flipped through it and examined a photograph of Rupert leaving the Hoboken airstrip, kissing Undine goodbye.  Claude held it to Rupert’s face, confirming his identity.  He had a photo of Aloysius examining a painting, still in the warehouse, “Why did you pick such a corny painting?”  The clown asked, but slipped into a yet deeper meditation  The files also contained shots of Dora and Alexandra, and one of Diogenes taken a year before, just after he came to Tombstone Internationale as a counterfeiter.

The impresario raised one scrutinizing eyebrow to Rupert then the other to Aloysius. “You’re both mad!”

“Do you believe us now?”

“Yes, I believe you’re mad.  I am the court clown, for the sake of delicacy, the Emperor’s impresario. My name is Claude.”

“Rupert.”

“Aloysius.”

“Every other black drawn into Neb’s web has been sacked or will be shortly with the exception of African girls he abuses in his dances. I’m being blackmailed, or nailed!”  Claude looked at his hands, “You see, sacked means shot.  I am still devising a plan.  Vlasav is my wheels.”

“And how is that?”  Rupert asked, curiously.

“And you will help me.”

“What’s the deal?”  Aloysius asked.

“Transportation.  Costumes to fool the Emperor.  For saving your life, you return me a favor.”

“What favor?” Aloysius persisted.

“A week ago, I would have had you sacked. I am an actor by trade and I was given the choice two years ago to entertain the Emperor.  It was a strange gig — but I took it. I’ve been born too late to be paid for real acting, anyway. By boning up on De Sade and cheap erotic potboilers I entertain His monstrous bad taste.  And I, more than anyone on this earth know how filthy His Monster is — ”

“Anyway, just after I began indulging our dictator’s whims … I recruited my closest friend to court, Langston — saved him from starvation.  Now, Langston has been sent to Paris to scout and advise for Neb’s invasion, and he will be shot when he completes his recommendation as he had already finished his scouting and surveillance.  Naturally, I’m going insane serving a murderer as a clown, but now I have endangered my only true friend, and he will die, because of me.  I offer you, as wild cards, a deal, which you’ll drop dead refusing.”

Claude frenetically cleared away masks from a desk, extracting rubbery sheathes of blueprints from a safe behind his cabinets, spreading them out.  Aloysius joked about the paper bouncing if dropped but Claude shushed him gravely as Claude hid the safe, double-locked the cabinet doors, and shoved a chair against them.  They stood in silence scanning green height and red arrow width designations — a map of an underground city.

“What is this?”  Asked Rupert, remarking the blueprints

“A Necropolis!”

“Looks like a map  …”

“Shut up.  If Neb knew I had these plans he would cut my balls off and make you swallow them.  These are the invasion plans, Langston sent to Neb — and to me.”

Aloysius and Rupert looked on haplessly, while Claude studied the blueprints with a cone-shaped magnifying glass:  “These are Paris Catacombs.  See here!  Caves, caverns, tunnels, quarries, it’s fuckin Swiss cheese under the streets of Paris.”

“You mean only the Great Emperor himself has a right to know the sewer system?”

“It’s more than sewers … it’s a vast network, big enough to hold or hide several thousand paramilitary troops.”

“And Neb … what? … is going to fill up these underground caverns, Catacombs with living troops?”  Rupert asked.

“You got it.  Then spring up from the center of the city!”  Claude rejoined.

“Why not take Paris by surrounding it?”

“Ah!  Good boy! It would alert the right-wing racists — the French National Authoritarians — the FNA’s.  Grabmaler’s breakaway cartel,The Blunts — which I’m sure you know still operates in Paris.  No, wait Rupert — explain later.  And the only sane group — the Democratic Revolutionary Anarchists –  who are trying to wake up Paris to its defense.  Now, look, see these red lines?  Look!  Neb’s Atavists have room here to converge and outfit themselves after simply dropping from different sewers around the city.  Their plan is to surround the city, draw any resistance to a blood-bath in the suburbs, then rise from the middle of Paris, blow up what’s left of its communications centers, and present the Parisians with a fait accompli.  There’s no reason to tangle with the FNA’s or Blunts or coalesce sleeping French national pride within city limits.  The Atavists plan to take Paris from the inside out, and present their monopoly, Neb’s dictatorship, before they can be opposed.  You see, Neb didn’t want to move until Grabmaler was killed.  He ordered you killed so that the pipeline to the Blunts could be cut.”

“You have to understand — that’s why they sent my friend, Langston — to explore the Catacombs on site, flush out squatters if necessary (whom the Atavists will kill) then shoot Langston as a gift for what he has learned.  It’s underground and often flooded, and dark, man, real fucking dark down there!  Neb plans an architectural pyre, an open-air funeral for Paris.”

“Sounds spooky.” Aloysius marveled at the Catacomb map.

“It’s more than that!  See that green costume?  Neb dresses up in it every day.  It’s based on a legend about The Green Man, an ogre of the Catacombs who can jump from rock to rock and revenge anyone who betrays him, backward, down their ancestral line.  Anyone who looks at The Green Man askance dies miserably, from his ancestors to his offsprings.  Neb plans a real and a symbolic Inferno for Paris, its the only serious thought he has.”

“It barely makes any sense!”  Rupert objected.

“Oh, it will if you get there!”  Claude sniffed.

“Why show us this?”

“If you make it to Paris to meet uh, Undine, in five days, you’ll be inside a siege, a war really.   And, according to Langston, a new kind of –  Revolution.”

Claude paused, watching this news electrify the two young men, fascination beginning to glimmer in their eyes, “Oh you like the idea of revolution? Chaos?  Suffering?  Just wait to see what it’s really going to be like ground zero!  Now, focus godamnit! Neb plans to move to Paris then sack all of Europe — maybe try to seize Berlin after blockading Scandanavia next.  The deal is, I help you get there.  You reach my friend. Tell him to run for it, save himself.  You see, he’s doing what he is doing because they told him that they would kill me if he didn’t.”

“Complicated!”

“It is not! Why do you think I risk my life to trust you?  Why do you think I show you this?”

“You want us to save your friend!”

“Save my friend — save yourself! I mean what kind of fool would kill one of the most powerful businessmen in the Post-Collapse world, escape assassin assigned to kill him, then dress as that assassin — transparently so — and walk right into the lair of the most powerful dictator in Post-Collapse Europe, who ordered him assassinated — walk right back into his court?  Then trust, immediately, his court clown?  I mean, if anyone needs wising up, it’s you, Rupert darling!”

“I killed Grabmaler.” Rupert started, angrily breathing in his face, “You’re still kissing Nebuchadnezzar’s ass! ”

“And I only entertain myself!”  Aloysius seconded him.

“Then don’t jerk my chain!”  Claude recoiled, fighting the malice in his craw.

“We don’t mean to fight you, Claude.”  Rupert calmed himself down,  “We see the trade.  You help us get to Paris — we warn your friend.  It’s simple.  And we accept.  But because it’s worth doing, not because you threaten us.”

Claude reflected for a moment.  They were solid.  He rolled up the blueprints and carefully locked them away in anticipation of his duties as impresario for the evening.

“Shouldn’t we study the blueprints? “  Aloysius asked.

“Where are we going to meet him?   What does your friend look like?” Rupert asked.

“All in good time.”  Claude fidgeted, “The whole court, the dancers, novelty acts, the whole menagerie — animals, slaves, sex-act midgets — transvestites — ha ha — like yourselves!  — a thousand idiots are assembling tonight — to entertain His Regression Himself, whom you must meet! As women!  So, here!  Shop in my closet!  Here, dresses, cosmetics!  I love this!  Straight guys!  Dressing up!  Serves you right!” Then Claude tried to slam the door, but Rupert had stuck his boot in it: “Listen, if anything happens to us, you must contact New York by phone.  If it’s possible!  You see, if Neb has a phone, spell out my name.  It’s the same as my private number.  If anything happens to us tell Undine. The Atavists who took over Tombstone Internationale after I killed Grabmaler were paid by Neb.  How else could they have arranged our assassination?  Contact that number no matter what.  If we die, tell Undine that I never made it to Paris.  Tell her … goodbye.  Leave out I was dressed up in a funny costume.”   Rupert added, with a crooked smile, “Tell her, I’m sorry!”

“Have you ever taken acting lessons? Rupert! You’re so melodramatic!”  Claude scoffed, then reconsidered, “You call!  You’re right Neb has a phone — a telescreen.  I’ll throw that in.  I will explain later.”  Claude slinked out, and locked the door behind him.

Left alone they spent an hour scrubbing the road off their skin, drinking a flask of wine they found in Claude’s closet, trying on animal costumes.  They had to force themselves in, after jumping out, then back into women’s clothes again, as the whole shtick seemed spent.  Rupert loathed the masquerade.  Aloysius desired a new role.  But they knew, now it counted. Perhaps it would go smoothly and they would fly out that morning  to Paris — even though they were already a week late.  Finally, they heard an organ, trumpets blare, and a crush of guests piling into the main hall when Claude opened the door to his dressing room.  He stuffed their tattered clothes in the trash, poured lighter fluid on the rags, set them aflame and flung them flaming out an open window.  After inspecting Aloysius and Rupert, he giggled, “Now, you’ll never be same.  You’re going to shake hands with the ugliest murderer this side of Hell!”  Claude then walked them out, threading through the chapel to the hall.

“He knows you’re here.”  Claude whispered, “You’ll sit with me until he calls you.  Just tell him how you killed yourselves, and secure a flight for Paris.  Nothing more.  Don’t get in a jag with this guy.  In some ways he’s remarkably stupid.  But he also has a kind of sixth sense of pursuing exactly what unnerves you.  If you need to break up a bad line of interrogation, ask for the bathroom behind … his throne.  He calls it … ‘Da can’.  Let’s go.”

Claude had festively decorated the dance hall. The honeycomb woodworking of the ceiling was spangled with the zodiac peeping through silken or satin cloud.  Sparklers burnt from stone bracings and purple incense smoked from sandstone chalices.  Angels, brazenly removed from St. Vitus’ Cathedral were masked and hoisted onto trapeze straps, swinging over dancer’s heads.  Few of the “honor guard” were fully dressed as dancers were chosen from all over the Empire for their beauty or physical idiosyncrasy.  Claude had ancient windows pried open and guests could lean out and witness, through the summer night, boats carrying river torches and fireworks over the old city.   Parading in, women carried silver dishes of drinks and middle Eastern food.  A young Polish dancer with huge oiled muscles was led in on a leash by a tall and long-legged Ethiopian virgin, her neck circled by silver and jade  chains.

For a moment, time bent back on itself, the illusion of careless wealth and erotic mystery, thanks to Claude eye of décor, permeated the hall like visual incense and the festivity appeared fantastically sexy.  As they assumed their seats, however, they glimpsed the Emperor himself, Nebuchadnezzar, a rather large red-headed slug of a man clambering down from his flag-festooned nest onto the dance floor, bellowing:

“Fart in his face!”

A polite young man dressed in a hiker’s costume, with a feather in his cap was obliged to try.  His victim, another young man dressed like a fox.  The first young man, the hiker, couldn’t publicly, though he had had his three steins of beer.

“What has my court come to?” Neb shouted as the court cheered his élan.  Neb strode past his obsequious guards to the kneeling victim, pulled up his robe and farted in the boy’s face.  “I can do anything!”   Neb stood like an ape, shouting, rolling his eyes.  “Everybody fuck I say! Fuck!  I want to see you regresses fuck!”

A dozen young girls lined up wearing short lace slips facing a dozen firm abdomened young men with hairless adolescent chests wearing kilts.  The emperor bent down to look at one of the boy’s penises, smelling it like a truffle.

“You see! Hygiene is alive!  Even my peasant courtiers are circumcised!  Now fuck!   GET IT ON!”  He clapped his hands and clambered back up.

A lugubrious surge of trombones and a pennant rolled down introducing: “The Dance of the Straight Jackets” which Claude explained he staged to reconcile rivalries between court dancers.  Claude whispered why he choreographed it:

“You see, each boy will be chosen by a girl to have sex with her enemy.  It is a way to overcome jealousy and a place of meeting in a dream.  The fellatio you see now is designed to please the boy after his abduction … a recompense from the other woman for his loss of choice, for his not choosing his own mate.  Now you see he satisfies her. It is a gift shared by the art slaves to resolve conflicts by bringing a rivalry into the open.  The enemy girl is now satisfied — you see — by the amorous boy, and now he goes back to the first woman.  The boy is usually a virgin and the woman experienced.  It is all about keeping slaves from arguing.  And of course it isn’t.”

“What?”  Rupert cried, aghast, “It just looks like porno!”

The reverse outcome of art rivalry was then enacted.  Actors wearing masks to resemble the two girls, engaged in the rivalry, began shouting at each other in the background.  They took up swords and short knives and began to fight until a chorus of elders came out in a group to admonish them accompanied by a low murmur of wood blocks, one elder dragging a stuffed hawk on a ribbon and others carrying puppets which they lifted, chattering through them in the offender’s faces to mock their Jealousy.  Straight jackets were fitted around them, enprisoning the offenders who began to writhe, trapped by what pennants described as “Ambition”.

“You see, the straight-jacketed Slaves of Art are contrasted with the love-making trio in the foreground …”  Claude added.

Then a vaudeville-like burlesque and strip-show began. Claude claimed that he had to present both kinds of acts, since Nebuchadnezzar merely tolerated artistic choreography to make himself seem cultured.  As in cheap strip-bar men and women made lascivious gyrations with their hips, mocked being penetrated from behind, deadening the weight of their butts and breasts to enslave their flesh.  One could understand now why the court slaves had to be stopped from arguing amongst themselves — they were trapped in a gilded but madness-filled cage.

Rupert and Aloysius had the uncomfortable sensation that they too were slaves, and felt the regression of women which gradually  followed the Collapse.  Rupert thought back to Undine, and shivered for her.  Then, strangely, he remembered the two pigs they shot in Sami’s sidecar outside Graz.

Now Neb stood up, holding a machine gun in one hand and a huge stein of beer in the other, rolling his eyes, while a woman with breasts large enough to dust his feet serviced him.  Neb lost interest in her now salivating  over a group of blindfolded servants parading monkeys by with needles stuck through their nipples and anklet shackles with spikes drawing blood through their fur.

“He really is an Atavist!”  Rupert gaped, taking his first hard look at this self-proclaimed Emperor, dimly aware that Claude just left to arrange for their meeting.  It was easy to see beneath the pancake makeup, behind the bristling guns and public displays of torture, behind the New Order of Oppression and this Last Atavist — the crudest of bastards who ever walked or aped walking on two’s.  Rupert met the toasted Tiresius, the wit-blasted Mumblers, the knuckle-running Panic Grass regresses, but he had never seen a face degraded as Neb’s.  His skin was crimson not by birth but from a rapid alcoholic heartbeat.  He had grown very flushed, very red, his pulse rising parasitically with his Empire.  And as Claude, and the court well knew, the redder he grew, the more viciously he behaved, regressing pathologically as his fortunes rose, growing redder with them, like the progress of a fatal disease.

Neb lifted his hands with bestial sensitivity; his manicured, painted nails pointing an inch beyond his fingertips.  Yet this was not a businessman in any Western sense, nor a trader out of the Middle East bazaar.   Neb was the First Bastard of World Economic Collapse.

The growth of his hegemony escalated with mass suffering.  Never knowing paper money, he bartered in drugs and arms exclusively and eventually hired a violent army of his own which invaded or confiscated the inoperable arms caches he sold short of spare parts.  He had began a new career in wholescale confiscation of land, scavenging, rushing into power vacuums, and gradually, he became the creature of postCollapse, its sneering embodiment.

Rupert heard Neb sneer the word “libération”, in French, grabbing his crotch, shuffling his feet in hyperactivity.

“I see you’re studying him!”

“Yes, it’s a phenomenon alright.”

“Don’t look directly at him!”  Claude insisted.

“I’m not sure I could survive watching him for long.” Rupert demurred.

“You won’t.”

“He squirms like one of Sami’s pigs!”  Aloysius observed.

“I said, turn your head away!  I’ll tell you about him.  You see, none of the trappings of government are expected, anymore. Few of us remember what legitimacy meant — or how law could organize.  Neb floats in a sea of amnesia, bloated like a jellyfish.  Neb claims he made his way from humble origins but he languished as a bad engineer until he dealt in dirty arms decades before anyone would listen to him proclaim himself, Emperor.

“His geopolitical break came … don’t look at him … when he first stole and launched an Intercontinental ballistic missile, dropped one, on Belgrade.  Strangely, Neb hates those whom he requires by death to worship him, who parrot his story, as the Grand Hoarder of Scrap Wealth salvaged in miserable battles, in countries raided in orgies of frank extermination.  When he grabbed enough land, destroying borders, after his self-proclaimed Ascension, defeating several private armies and other Drug Lords — he hated himself, anyway.  He intends to drown Europe in blood because it only became poor a few decades ago.  He extracted the last of the oil wealth from the Gulf and now he moves North with mercenary armies to seize Paris.”

“He’s not a Muslim, nor Jew, nor Christian, nor Buddhist nor Hindu, nor anything but The Emperor.  He maintains that Allah, Yahweh,  Christ, Buddha or Krishna could not tolerate a permanent economic Collapse, if they existed.  It is too much like the end of the world.  It steals their thunder.  And this is a shrewd thing to say, now.  He claims his success proves the nonexistence of God. If the world cannot fix itself nor experience Apocalypse but ignominiously hangs on and sputters out — how can the ‘universe’ or the world ever have had meaning?  Finally, Nebuchadnezzar deliberately took on his name because an earlier now dead military henchman read it somewhere and suggested Neb should change his name, become the builder of a new Babylon.  But it’s Neb’s irony, because he intends to raze his Babylon.  This makes him absolutely powerful — a disinterested Antichrist — in his own eyes, and it had truly risen with his pulse.  He is celebrating because Paris is next. He grows drunk as a frightened criminal surrounded by enemies and intrigue, torturing those he has designated to succeed him if he dies before he wrecks his Babylon.”

“What?”  Rupert was fascinated now.  Neb had glanced their way.  But Neb could not really see him as a woman.  He felt invisible.  Perhaps Tiresius had been right, the desperation behind a man’s pleasure is the key to his destruction, “What successors?”

Rupert watched Neb’s second chin jiggle.  He remembered the refugees, that Neb had personally contracted to kill him, that the fat-ass hedonist he saw before him, caused him and everyone else grief, and he reflected on his opportunity to shootor humiliate him. Rupert, inexplicably, stood up and examined Neb harder, considering how many lives Neb’s assassination would save.  Why should he charade, lie, preen?  His pulse quickened: why not stick a gun to one of Neb’s chins and splash his sautéed brains against Claude’s silk spangled sky?

Claude pulled Rupert down abruptly.  Rupert had been envying the machine gun Neb laid down while women serviced him.  It was obvious to Claude what Rupert was thinking, so Claude weighed in on his shoulder, steadied his hand, and bore down hard.

“This is what will get us killed!”  Claude whispered, with a masked smile to appear happy with the obscene vaudeville.

“Was it that obvious?”  Rupert asked, still indignant.

“Why doesn’t shoot when he’s fiddling himself”  Aloysius whispered, watching the monster from a corner of his eye while leaning over to snack on a tray of macadamia nuts, “Someday, I will do it.  I will take him down — if I cannot be an artist.” Aloysius mused, considering how to crack a nut.

“Have you noticed that purple curtain moving?” Claude whispered,  “A line of twenty armed guards hides behind it.  Now, see that ring of naked eunuchs on either side, check their shoulderstraps!  They’re carrying semi-automatic revolvers!  Neb as Emp lives his whole life anticipating assassination.  And he’s made a career of killing first.  Do you think you could possibly succeed?  And now, the clincher, look over there!”

Seven grisly men with special starfish bronze crowns seated behind bullet-proof glass and dressed in purple robes, were casting glances, rubbing  hands, stroking beards, crowns askew on their heads:  “Each of those men are in a descending line to succeed.  Each madder, and more vicious than the last.  The first is far worse than Neb — the next three are schizophrenics, the last two, a serial killer and a cannibal. That’s his line of succession.  If Neb is killed he will be succeeded by men more pathological and violent than himself.”

“His empire must be defeated in war.  It must fail in Paris first.  You could blow his brains out, and it would just hurl us into Hell.  That’s his greatest revenge.  And that’s why I have so desperately trusted you.”

Rupert and Aloysius stared back again at Nebuchadnezzar, then to the caralle of his mad successors, and each had to laugh.  The dictator was a fatal disease.  Neb was here to stay.  A nuclear bomb could be shoved up his ass and not stop him.  His Empire would have to implode, to siphon back his legacy into its furry black hole. Suddenly, automatic gunfire cackled.  Nebuchadnezzar had grabbed his machine gun, and fired at the ceiling just as he experienced orgasm.

“Yea!  I love to come, go baby, yea!” Neb shouted, accentuated by the ratatatat of his machine gun. “What a mouth!” He screamed to the applause of the obsequious dancers and courtiers, except Claude himself, who watched the gun shots dislodge a corner of his silk star-spangled drapery — which threatened to bring his whole ceiling decoration down.  Indeed, one of the stone angels on a trapeze fell after the ceiling draperies weight unhinged it, and the angel crushed one of the stripper’s skulls.

Nebuchadnezzar screamed with laughter.  For Claude, however, if the entire thing fell now, he would be blamed.  Claude sat there hating his theatrical slavery, and himself for serving the racist homophobe murderer who planned to kill his lover.  He was haunted now by Rupert’s impulse to shoot Neb, and damned himself in unconscious competition with Rupert, then damned himself again for this jealousy, forcing out a daydream he entertained that Rupert would die and be discovered that evening.

“Boys and girls, fellow fuckers!”  Neb shouted, easing up his loose-fitting pants after several servants collected the semen from his kneeling, naked servant’s lips, showing off the besmirched cloth like a trophy, “There’s only one thing better than young ass, and virgin hole!  There’s only one thing better, and what’s that?”

He waited with his ear cupped and everyone whined, “You, our Last Atavist!”

“Oh, how nice!  No idiots — power!  Power is better than sex!  Better than wealth!  Power begets sex!   Power grabs wealth!  Power giveth and taketh life away!   I could have any, all of you murdered!  Even you, dear child!   Yes, even you — dear Claude!”

Claude tried to smile.  “Even my black poet and brilliant impresario, artist and faggot!  But, look everyone!  Look what a wonderful show he has staged for us!  Isn’t it wonderful?  Yes, applaud Claude.  He loves it more than power!  Now, everyone shut up!  Shut up!  Silence! I want to hear panties drop!  You see Claude — power is not applause!  It’s not art!  Power giveth and taketh away the actor’s applause!  The actor’s life, his raison d’ sumptin! But Claude are you sitting with the you-know-who’s?”

Neb clearly meant Rupert and Aloysius.  Claude had performed his part of the bargain.  Neb had been informed that they were there to report on the assassination.  Neb waved for them to approach.  They threaded over past the naked celebrant-slaves, mocked since they were fully dressed in modest dresses, in red and green, legs honed down and hardened from mountain walking, eyes at their feet — not entirely convincing as women.  Neb watched them step through the crowd, his large, bulbous eyes squinting, his hands fidgeting, urging on the celebration, nodding to the row of calliopes to start up.  He sat there slapping his potbelly, feet up on the back of a kneeling Thai boy who been trimming his toenails, after the boy’s shoulder was injured by the falling stone angel.  The music, a cacophony of styles, of ballroom dance jazz, Arabic strings, thumping martial, military rhythms — all chosen for splashy effect, for false Grand Style — followed the calliopes eventually drowning them out.  Rupert had the hardest time looking at the Emperor, or Great Atavist.  Aloysius didn’t bother.

“So, you dumped that upstart, eh?”  Neb smiled broadly, licking his lips, kicking away the Thai boy so that Rupert and Aloysius could sit near him on a separate divan.

“Yes.  We dropped Grabmaler’s murderer in the ocean.”  Rupert sat stiffly, as he plastered his dress.

“How blunt!  I like that!”  Nebuchadnezzar squinted and frumped up his nose noticing for the first time Rupert’s then Aloysius’ muscled thighs and egglike, veiny calves.  “You know, you don’t look like the cute Russian girlie-cunts I imagined, eh?  But, no matter!  Maybe you are weight-lifters, wrestlers?  Runners for the long distance, eh? Ha!”

“We just serve the cause.”  Rupert whimpered.

“No one has a cause other than themselves!”  Neb burped.

“You speak English?”  Rupert asked, changing the subject.

“Yes.  I was once hired by an English family to clean toilets as a boy.  I eventually killed the Englishman and took his wife and made her my slave.”

“You spoke English with her …  “  Rupert asked, tentatively.

“Oh yes, made commands, you know.”  He raised a busy eyebrow.  “Do this!  Do that!  Seeing she didn’t understand Georgian — which is the only language I spoke in my boyhood.  I learned to speak English from her.  She was South African.”  He added unflustered at having made a mistake earlier, “Uh, South African.”

“Did you speak Arabic?”

“Sometimes.  I learned to speak Farsi while smuggling heroin out of Iran for years, beginning to build up the power you see here.”

“Didn’t you lose the money you earned through drugs when the currencies fell?”

“I never believed in money.  I bought things — little boys, my enemies’ wives, armament … ”

“And your parents?  Your upbringing?”  Rupert asked, buying time.

“I am of virgin birth.  No semen ever touched my mother’s vagina.”

“Is your mother still alive?”

“Except mine.”

“What?”

“Mine, he he.”

“You violated your own mother?”

“Yes,”  He waited, with an absolutely silly expression on his face … “with my partridge!”  And he let out a loud, bellowing fart.

“Yes, I see.”  Rupert said, forcing a smile.

“Could I as an earth-god even now be called — in the Western sense — a dictator?”

“I don’t know.”

“Did Japan or Korea ever have real democracies — and they were in the Western orbit.  Think about it.  Did China, Vietnam, Burma, Malasia, Cambodia?  The nature of the East is politically, the state as father, the final worldly father.  Two or three centuries into its last stage of development, the West decayed from the inside, its population began to resemble that of the older, crowded Eastern countries and ultimately they went through similar cycle of disintegration.”

“Oh.”

“Oh?  I heard you were stuck on the Russian Empire, disguised under, what did they call it?  Communism?  That fell eighty years ago!  With me you can go back to the caveman!   The ameba!  Worship me! Why pretend you need an ‘ism?  But, more of that later!  Mmmm … well, if you did crash that jet you must have some courage.  I really hated to waste a jet like that but there were a half-dozen groups interested in that kid’s murder and if we didn’t make it look accidental they’d think we wanted to swallow up Grabmaler’s turf.  You know his New York complex and his wealth, and drug network — and, really, it is not worth the trouble fighting over what Grabmaler left behind, when there are broader pickings.”

“What do you mean by that?”  Rupert asked.

“I mean, Grabmaler was smart, but he didn’t enjoy killing.  He had alot up here, you know, in his gourd, but he wasted a good three quarters of his resources on collecting, stealing and storing art.  I mean, who cares about art?  That made him weak and a part of the old Western elite.  All that’s over!  Why choose paintings over land?  Over controlling populations?  When you have the power of life and death over whole cities you take anything you want from that city, in the countryside, all the wealth, all the prizes come to you, come to me, because in the future there will be nothing but a few overlords like me.  If there is a future.  If anyone can do or undo what I have done.  Because there’s no reason why I don’t use up what is left.  Who can stop me?  Grabmaler was smart, but what good is smart when you get murdered ’cause you need a son?”

“You knew Grabmaler?  Did you ever meet him?”  Rupert asked, meekly, feeling an uncomfortable nostalgia for the menace Grabmaler offered over Neb’s brute megalomania.

“Once, before we both made it.  He made it first.  He made me possible.  ‘Cause he saw the economic writing on the wall, I saw, uh, hieroglyph.  The first and only time I ever visit New York, at a party.  Both in our mid-thirties.  I was still an arms dealer.  He, I don’t know, speculated in Stock Exchange: New York, Tokyo, London, Moscow.  Everywhere.  Specialized in liquidations. Before he perfected electronic and conventional counterfeiting.  But he was funny, very funny.  Real decadent!  But he never touched drugs.  And choosy about what he fucked.  He brought me aside, after we were introduced by a milksop older straight business fart named Lazarus; imagine naming your child Lazarus?  Anyway, Grabmaler got to the point.  He said the West was finished.  And he told me the arms trade as we knew it would collapse too, but not end.  He said arms, especially rare, dirty arms: cheap weapons, like secret genetic engineering projects, scaled down biological shells, products soon to lose government money, but made for a cheap man’s access to Big Death, would be the right investment.  Indeed, should be hoarded through secret channels before they went out of production.  He had no reason but generosity to tell me that!  Which is amazing!  I can tell you all this now, if you are interested, because, afterall he’s dead … and you killed his killer!”

“It is very, very interesting!”  Rupert tried to brighten his eyes.

“But does this one care?  What’s your name?”  Neb pointed at Aloysius.

“Alexandra.  I am interested in Claude’s costumes, and in dancing.”  Aloysius mumbled, sullenly.

“Well, then, run along, enjoy yourself!”  Neb said staring at Aloysius’ skinny ass as he disappeared into the crowd.

“Where was I?”  Neb thundered, “I’m getting bored, BORED!”

“You weren’t boring Neburovitch!”  Rupert blundered, trying to sound  Russian.

“No?”  Neb grinned, his emerald dental self-portrait insert gleaming.

“Grabmaler.”

“Yes.  Why an intelligent man let himself be killed!  I remember meeting his wife at a party.  He was fond of his wife and his mistresses.  She was German, blonde, real strong-willed.  Hard as nails.  He liked that in women.  He liked a smart woman to challenge him, then a mélange (while I like a ménagerie) of prostitutes.  He liked black women.  I heard his wife was opposed to how he was helping to wreck the German banking system.  He defrauded on a fantastic level the Bundesbank and her father was a heavy shareholder.  Daddie came from an East German family and they were proud of their rags to riches family history. Anyway, she made a scene at the party which distracted him from giving me the names of several exploitable money launderers, real victims, though I collected them later.  She made a scene by throwing a burning plate of barbecue on the lap of his Indonesian prostitute.  Grabmaler was not a racist, by the way.  He had the girl bandaged up and looked terribly pained.  His real son saw it all and soon after, learning about his father’s sexploits from mommie, killed himself.  They say Grabmaler never forgave his wife.  Nor she him.  So he had to get rid of her.  Which I am sure he hated to do.  It was said that his wife was the art-collector and that he devoted his resources thereafter to absconding the Louvre and Prado Collections — which were heavy operations at first, believe me.  Especially the Paris operation.  He began it slowly, with a few thefts, paying off guards, offering French officials very heavy sums.  As Paris fell apart, and remarkably, two governments fell over the first series of thefts, and the EEC evaporated — the French government itself dissolved.  He hired several thousand paramilitary troops, raised an army really, The Blunts, just to send over the rest by Black Market Barge to Hoboken, to his inverted skyscraper, and his front company Tombstone Internationale!  All for his dead wife’s memory!  I mean, why?  A man that powerful, that rich, wasting that much of his strength over the memory of a German bitch!  Then he had an obsession over an heir, over a son!  He was close to being one of the most powerful crooks on earth, ten years ago!  But he couldn’t find a suitable son! He seemed to arrive on one, and the little bastard killed him!  And I hear it was over, of all things, a German whore!  I mean if that isn’t pointless, what is?  If that isn’t weak and effeminate, what on this Godless used-up shitheap garbage dump of a world is?”

Rupert stared at him, absolutely aghast at what he said, and absolutely trying to hide it.  Neb stared back at him, shrewdly assessing his change in mood.  Neb had found his weak spot, just as Claude warned he would.

“You see, he was destroyed slowly by guilt for having to kill his wife!  But tell me, Dora, that is your name, isn’t it?  What was that little pampered adoptive son of his like?  Mmmmm?”

For an instant, Rupert thought that Nebuchadnezzar, whom he had assumed was a mere animal, and not at all nimble psychologically, had unmasked him.  Rupert could not look at him for fear of having given himself away or revealing by his expression, his eyes, the sudden shock he felt by not only finding out more about the man he had killed, in a few moments by a mass murderer, but about himself while disguised as his own killer.  Then he remembered the moment in Santorini when he felt rid of his guilt when watching the flies fry.  He remembered Athens, the Acropolis, Belgrade, Ulrike and the Wandering Birds, the savaged refugees and foremost, Undine and Diogenes, and said:

“It was like … looking through a one-way mirror at someone who could only see himself … “  Rupert croaked, nearly losing his voice.

“What did he look like?”

“Like a … kid …  whose adoptive father tried to mold him … into a bronze mantelpiece figurine.”

“That’s shit!  I ask you what he looks like and you say … figurine?  Why don’t you tell me if was it interesting to kill him?”  Neb asked, running his hand over the naked rump of a red-headed Irish girl, dressed by Claude no doubt, to look like a milk maiden.

“No, I’m glad he’s dead.”

“Did you enjoy killing?”

“No.  I did my job, the figurine sank and he won’t be popping up again.”

“No man would ever talk like that!  They didn’t find the body, you know. Fucking snakeshit! DID YOU FUCK HIM?” Neb’s huge bushy eyebrows arched and he began to stroke himself under his robe.

“How can you fuck …”  Rupert thought, “yourself?”.  But he couldn’t get himself to give The Great Atavist exactly what he wanted.  So he said: “To fuck Narcissus is like … shaking one’s own hand in a mirror.”

“A man would have answered me straight! I like to kill, makes me stronger.  I like to fuck, get my rocks off.  That’s it!  That’s truth.  I’m blunt, I don’t dance around about what I want.  That’s why I Emperor and you slave.  And a woman!  Life is shit!  I didn’t ruin the planet!  I didn’t conceive of war!  I didn’t invent hunger!  I didn’t pollute hearts with evil nor the air with smoke nor oceans with chemicals!  It was handed me like that!  Just like that!  So fuck it!  And after I’m gone, my payback for the Sins of Man will be Oblivion! They say I’m a Plague of Death, well plague take them all!  I didn’t ask to be born!”

“No one does.  Nor to die either.”  Rupert felt dizzy.  He sensed, as their conversation slowed, Neb gradually pulling his disguise to pieces.

“Oh yea?” Neb got redder, rising to his point, “I have had a thousand infidels beg me to die. And I — obliged them! Oh look!”  Another performance had begun.

“Yes, isn’t it delightful?”  Rupert breathed.

Neb beamed, standing up, hand up the dress of his rare Spanish dancer.

Slaves rolled in a dozen crocodiles and lined them up on moist planks with huge steel prods, six on either side with an aisle between two rows.  The crocodiles were restrained by taut chains like guard dogs just behind their sprawling torsos and raised a little so that their scaled abdomens, front legs and long jaws were suspended.  There was not a yard between the jaws and what composed a gauntlet.  A pail of cooking grease was then splashed over the space between the crocodiles, and the slaves who could barely hold back the ambitious and underfed reptiles were asked to give them just a little slack.  Meanwhile, through a devise which once projected a tennis ball spewed out a dripping chunk of red meat which sailed before their snapping jaws while three snare drums and a timpani rolled.  The fourth croc on the right captured the meat and gobbled it with delight.  The other crocs tortured the links in their chains and sorely tried their slave restrainers.

“Now, watch this!”  Neb jumped from his throne.

A thick slab of raw beef was wrapped around a young male Scandinavian’s penis, jacked with bacon grease by a girl Gypsy who  shoved her brown nipples into his forced open mouth.

The victim was then prodded by swords to run the gauntlet.  Drums roared, and the crowd stood on their toes as if anticipating an accident on a highway, or a gory snuff movie.  The terrified young man sprinted for all he was worth and did not slip but fainted at the end of the gauntlet.   Nebuchadnezzar’s face ran scarlet with hot sweat, anxious to witness a bloody castration, until he farted, and plopped down, befuddled.

Suddenly, Aloysius, dressed in a red devil’s suit pilfered from Claude’s dressing room, with a pillow stuffed in his stomach and around his butt, with a fake but accurately colored red beard, stalked into the center of the court exactly as Nebuchadnezzar might. The crowd slid through a series of emotions from astonishment, to wary disbelief, to cold fear, to fascination.  They were agog in part because it equalled suicide. Yet, with his gangly arms and fluid, swivel hips, his shuffling feet and grandiose gestures — Aloysius was the first truly humorous thing they had seen since finding both sustenance and slavery in the Great Atavist’s Court.  He captured Neb’s vanities perfectly.  Aloysius jumped up from an imaginary throne, gloated over an invisible triumph, nodded his head after a mimed orgasm, slapped his fat belly, feigned rage over an infraction of a whim, finally burned with lascivious and chauvinist desire.  Aloysius mastered Neb’s repertoire of emotions, which everyone learned by rote rather than die — and all the servants and slaves against their better judgment and terror for their lives — laughed.

Their laughter filled the hall spontaneously, electric and cutting.  Nebuchadnezzar, still sweating from wildly laughing at the Scandinavian boy’s gauntlet-run through the crocodiles saw himself parodied, and flushed purple with shame.  Yet, he felt fascinated by the parody.  It had been so long since someone was crazy or suicidal enough to level with him.  Intelligent, if criminally insane, he lost himself in curiosity, or morbid vanity — eager to see himself.  And Aloysius’ natural comic intuition — did it.  He held The Emperor rapt as well, more so than dancing transvestites or live sex acts.

Claude burst out in an extravagant new clown costume and a shepherd’s crooked staff and clouted Aloysius over the head with a wet carp, ending it before Nebuchadnezzar chose to behead or disembowel Aloysius as the next novelty.

“Your girlfriend is a fucking bitch!  It doesn’t matter when she dies, does it?  I’ve had a women crucified for getting old! Grabmaler let his wife undermine him, his adoptive son kill him!  I’m not like that.  My sense of humor  makes my enemies die.  Yet, it was funny.  There’s something very odd about her.  I saw it from the beginning. I can see through disguises.  There’s something … innocently twisted.  One time I shot a comedian in Marseilles for miming my gestures in a crowded nightclub.  I was a mere arms merchant.  Why would your friend dare if she doesn’t need to die?  Does she have The Plague? ”

“I don’t know what got into her!”  Rupert apologized, ” …  she takes risks.   It was she who flew the jet into the sea.  And something happens to her when she gets into costumes.”

“Then it’s Claude’s fault!”

“No, I’m sure he didn’t know.  It’s just she’s been a little, you know kookoo since the crash.  She bashed her head.  She’s been feeling dizzy.   I feel sick.  Could go to the powder room?”

“Da Can?   You can use the sex tent or Da can behind it.”  He winked.

“Thank you, I’ll be right back.”

“Sure.”

Rupert hadn’t requested a flight to Paris, and now Aloysius had spoiled everything.  He fretfully pulled back the velvet and silk curtains revealing a lounge fitted with divans and water-pipes and ceiling mirrors.  Yet he could not find a bathroom.  The maze of curtains seemed like his mind –  full of false passages and innuendo.  After parting the middlemost curtain he saw the tent and mahogany-lined Medieval room and desk fitted with a telescreen phone, exactly like the one Grabmaler once provided for him at Tombstone.  He never had occasion to call outside the complex, yet he knew well how to work one, and that the images bounced off one of the few private satellites which hadn’t yet fallen back to earth.  He found a leather-bound address book with codes and found the number to the inverted skyscraper listed, which explained how Neb could communicate with the so-called Left Social Revolutionaries.  It explained everything, really — how Vera, or god forbid, even Alex and Dora could be phoned, and his assassination coordinated.  Yet, if Neb saw Dora’s and Alex’s faces then Neb knew he and Aloysius were impostors!  For a moment he felt he was falling again in the Alps.  Then again, it made no sense.  Neb had no motive to play along with disguises.  As these dark reflections dizzied his head, a hand reached up his dress to fondle him before he could face his discoverer, and he feared he was finished. After he turned, sweating, a prostitute giggled when she located his manhood, pranced around, waving her other hand, chattering in Spanish.  The surprise prostitute rose before Rupert could glance around to see if Neb was with her.  She pulled up her dress, touched her breasts then, also, her male sex organ.  She laughed, covering her mouth with mock modesty, at their co-naughtiness, their trans-sexuality — and said, with a heavy Spanish accent, and a deep voice:“Neb call me Mardok!”

Mardok circled Rupert, chattering in Spanish.  With a sprinkle of her fingers she indicated, if he wished, he could use the phone or draw back the flap of the tent, and explore her genitalia.  When he shook his head “No” she politely slipped out with a coquettish sasshé and provocatively dangled her ankle as she withdrew behind a silk curtain.

Rupert now stood alone before the telescreen. He impulsively switched it on, drew back the leather-bound address book, and dialed the code for Tombstone, typing in his number, his own name.  The screen blipped on his old room.  He started back.  Everything remained in place.  Just as he left it.   Or appeared so.  He could read the collected works of Hemingway which Grabmaler bought him years ago.  His lights were on.  He heard music blasting, John Coltrane’s Love Supreme.  He spotted, draped over his exercise bike, a plaid shirt, which he didn’t recognize.  He saw a shadow moving on the wall beside the Mogdigliani which Grabmaler gave him for his thirteenth birthday.  Whoever was there surely heard the chord he programmed into the telescreen when receiving the call. It was, as he remembered, an A-minor.  The shadow stalked toward the screen. Rupert second-glanced the man’s pinstripe shirt — and suspected that Undine — her lover — or her murderer might be there.  Trotsky’s astonished face appeared, filling the screen, expressing the same startlement as his, seeing at first only Rupert’s disguise.

“Who could you be?  Knowing this number?  Oh!  Shit!  You look like Rupert!  Have you gone mad?”

“Trotsky! Why are you in my room?”

“I recognize your voice!  But, you’re dressed up like a woman!  Where are you calling from?”

“Lower your voice!”

“Well, turn your sound volume down on the screen!”

“O.K.” Rupert did so, nervously. “I’ll turn mine up.”

“Look, I’m not thirty feet from Nebuchadnezzar himself.  In Prague.  I’m dressed up as one of the women who piloted our jet to Greece who tried to kill Aloysius and I had to leave Diogenes in Greece!  I had to walk from Croatia, Slovenia, Austria, to Prague, dressed as my assassin!  Aloysius is in trouble!  Listen, watch out for Vera, she’s under Neb’s employ.  Where’s Undine?  Where’s Undine?”

“Slow down!  First, Undine knows you crashed in Greece!  In Santorini, right?  Diogenes is alive.  At least he was a week ago.  He sent a message through one of the crew from my barge, Jack, who delivered a shipment of supplies from Paris to that island for Nebuchadnezzar’s drug-traders.  He met this strange old man who brought him to a place overlooking an ocean where Diogenes was meditating, in the ruins of an ancient city, and he told Jack what happened.  Jack told us.  Diogenes said to say, ‘We were buried in the sky … ‘  We heard you were taking an helicopter to Prague.”

“God damn Diogenes!  He was faking!  A wise man faking!  Who is he kidding?”

“That wise man has left to save your ass!”

“How?”

“Wait, we’re worried about Undine!  Last we heard she was in Paris.  I mean, Paris is exploding! It looks like Revolution! I fly for Calais tomorrow!  Are you sure you didn’t see Undine?  I couldn’t get her to stay in Paris and wait for you!  You sure you haven’t seen her or Diogenes, in Prague?”

“How could they possibly be here? Why did you let her try?  How could she get into Neb’s court?  She didn’t kill anyone!  I mean, I killed me! I mean, I mean … ”

“I know what you mean.  I remember now … they told me something about you having to dress up as a woman, but when Jack began to explain it to me Undine brought him aside, and threatened him somehow. When I asked him myself he told me to forget it.  You look truly outrageous.”

“What does that fuck’n matter?  You think Undine is here?  Do you mean on the way, or in Prague?  Impossible!”

“Why?   Rupert, it sounds crazy, but check!  Then call me back if you can.  You see, I didn’t talk to Undine directly in Paris.  She took the barge with a huge secret shipment to Paris.  Just call me back in fifteen minutes.  If you can’t, I’ll understand.  Above all, take care of yourself!”

“I’ll try!  Wait!  O.K.  Bye!  What?”

The transsexual appeared again.  She swayed with colorful scarves, slinking them over her long neck, squatting, grinding, stutter-stepping in a pseudo-calypso dance, snapping her fingers to keep up with imaginary castanets.  Rupert patted her on the wig, then barged past her through the maze of curtains, in a rain of silvery clips and teak rods.  Neb just then lunged from his throne, demanding new captives, new curiosities, an Empire-wide freak show.  Avowing that it was his favorite part, he began hooting, screwing up his face drunkenly, pulling up his robe in back to peacock his ass, thumping his heavy fist down, stomping his feet as if they were hoofs.  His court responded, hooting back, buckling with laughter, shuffling on their knees before him, flicking on lighters as if the vicious drug lord were a rock idol:

“If this isn’t real Atavism, just what is? If this isn’t real regression, just where is it?

“Nothing!  Nowhere!”  The crowd screamed.

“Ah!  My big Russian murderess with man shoulders, muscled leg and heart of stone, and heat of a horny ferret, what say yee now?  Did you take your fucking piss?  Look!  There’s a half-dozen man-dawgs out there waiting to stand under you till the Apocacacollapse!  For excretory champagne, your furry loin-juice!”

Rupert scanned the court from behind Neb’s back recalling the blind purity of the Wandering Birds, their warning warbles, chirps and caws, then listened to the barking of beasts before him, the aural sludge of catcalls, whistles and hoots of Neb’s banquet of evil.  He had been jolted back to his childhood, to his room, to his digs as a pre-adolescent orphan sequestered from sexual fanaticism.  Before he knew his adoptive father as a fantastic crook.  Before he saw himself slide into debauchery.  Before he wrecked it all — when he could pursue his first erotic experiments with the girl he came to love, before the seed of misogyny and whoring had manifestly choked him.  Now he stood beside a genocidal sex-glutton, his own inner battle having driven him from a flock of forced innocents in Austria, into the Last Atavist’s cage.

Neb laughed, hideously.  Rupert surveyed the swaying heads and craning necks, the slavering, forked tongues, smelled the sweat and semen, the oil and incense, reptile dung on wet planks, whiffs of vaginal fluid mixed with cigarette and cigar smoke, saw blood on the floor then the wavering torches of Claude’s sagging silk constellation, beaded involuntarily on the crossed eyes of a demented child-prostitute — and felt everything sag — the barometric pressure of his will hit absolute zero while Claude’s silk stars merged with the fireflies of tunnel vision, until he found himself on his back, sipping seltzer water after a snort of smelling salts.

“She fainted! Can you believe it?  It was only because she was sooooo sensitive, O!”  Neb rolled his lower lip down and stuck out his tongue, coyly rolling his eyes like a plucked basset hound to the infinite amusement of slaves:  “But Alexandra, if that makes you faint (get her more salts dumb shits) just think what our Freak Show will do!   Roll ‘em out Houdini!”

Snare drums blazed and a midget with a megaphone rode in on the back of a tiger, both sporting stovepipe hats.  The midget was lifted onto a  zebraskin platform and held out a stiffened straight elephant truck fitted with an internal trumpet to bruit the first obscenity:

“Now! Behold the man!” The midget shouted, after the bruit.  A box wheeled in covered by a heavy aluminum curtain to roughly resemble an early astronaut’s flight suit draped in an American flag.  The midget took a black sword-cane handed him and pulled aside the shiny curtain, “See!  He has no legs!  They were not needed to fly a jet!  It saved cabin space!”  Indeed, he had no legs — an intelligent, forlorn invalid dressed in an American Air Force uniform peered out from his box, suffering: “See!  His brow.  His eyes are evidence of a very keen sense of sight!”  The man’s eyes and brow looked almost grown to fit an instrument panel, but they could still express acute shame, “Say something!”  The midget barked, and all the man could say is, “Get me out of here!” The crowd edged-in closer to hear.  “You got less than your freedom!  The jet-fighter was never built!  Right?  You see, ladies and gentlemen, it once took as many as twenty years to design and build a new, high technology jet fighter.  Secretly, while legalizing genetically engineered plants and domestic farm animals, military planners began to contemplate designing the human being to fit the plane — making greater innovations, a higher concentration on remarkable performance and lower costs with less human error possible. Right?”  The midget barker again addressed the man, “By the time you grew old enough to fly it for secret missions way, way up there in the ionosphere, down on earth, there was no money left to make that expensive plane and they hid you in a secret military installation in New Mexico, until, with your brothers, they ditched you in Turkey.  Until you were liberated by our God, Nebuchadnezzar!  Right?”

“I am not ashamed!”  The invalid-pilot used his arms to push himself up erect, in a terrible moment of self-assertion, “I’m an American!”  The pilot wept hiding his large eyes under the sleeve of his uniform.

“America is finished!”  The midget barked.

“You’d better believe it!”  Nebuchadnezzar thundered, “Why don’t we make him mud wrestle some other creature?”

“Make him mud-wrestle a transsexual midget!”  A dancer screamed and the crowd roared approval.

“Does he have any sex-organs?  Let us see them.”  A Serbian eunuch shouted, licking his chops.

“Alright!  Enough!  Roll out something else!”  Neb cried, waving the spectacle away.

Next they rolled out a much larger group of prisoners.  Rupert was just recovering from the horror at seeing the last act, contemplating the crime of genetic engineering, when he started, transfixed on a mangy group of regresses whom he seemed to recognize.  He deliriously followed their dissembling mannerisms: scratching, lip-popping, hairy shoulder slumping, coy thumb sucking, erratic melodic whistling, contagious cooing, smileless guffaws, sniffing, nose-rubbing, childish gurgling, fearful half-conscious sideglances, unconscious embarrassments followed by eye rollings, imitative jaw-dropping — mimic mumbling. They imported the mumblers! From Greece, from Santorini! A shame of them had been carralled and stuffed inside a cage for a moment of collective ridicule.  The expedition must have reached Santorini — for if these regresses were not endemic to the whole Cyclades, or to pockets of spontaneous generation elsewhere in the Mediterranean –  an unnatural fermentation of the World at large — they had surely been captured on Santorini.

The midget-barker rattled his cane against the bars and the rabble heard the mumblers begin mimicking the knocking sound, admixed with whispers or yawns or side-remarks, picked up from the audience.  Yet, abducted from their island, and from the paternal care of Tiresius, they would begin their imitative antics, their mimic devolution only to sputter out into a frightened, paralyzed stupor, clinging to the cage, or to each other, hiding, piling into the back in a frightened clump.  The barker explained their vital curiosity to the crowd, as Neb folded his arms, waiting for some kind of finale, and the Mumblers echoed his metallic cackle out of habit, then shank back into a justifiable funk.  The barker tried making some of the sounds he heard when they were fed, and by themselves, augmented by sounds repeated by the expeditionary team, but only succeeded in making a fool out of himself.  The crowd laughed briefly at the barker and the Mumblers echoed the laughter then huddled more deeply into themselves when the barker, in frustration, began banging furiously against the bars of their cage.

Neb lost his patience, screaming “Clear out of the way!”, yanked a machine gun from one of his body guards hid behind the curtain and vestibule, shouting: “Let them imitate this!” Neb pulled back the safety on the gun and fired continuously into their shrinking mass, persisting until not one mumbler was left breathing.  The mumblers slumped together, some twitching: idiot-innocents slaughtered for not having made themselves fools fast enough for public entertainment.

“If you can’t do better than that! You’re next, touch-hole midget shit!”  Neb’s blood was up, he liked killing at that moment far more than passive entertainment, and he began casting about for another victim, for Aloysius: “Where is that ugly assassin bitch who made fun of me?  Why did I let that go?  It’s time to make a clean sweep!  What was her fucking name, Alexandra?  Well, I’m Alexander! and I’m sweeping into the Indus valley!”  He glared at Rupert with mayhem in his eyes, his face flushing crimson, neck boiling.  Claude, however, who had rushed quickly into the dressing room, came rushing back carrying a Roman toga, and bid obsequiously for Neb to slip the first on, actually reciting Latin.

“Stop speaking shit!  What’s this?”  Neb whirled around the machine gun still in his now sweaty hands.  “No!  I want my Green Man costume!  I am going to conquer Paris!  Avenge my enemies!  Give me my Green Man costume!”

“Emperor, it’s Latin, a traditional peon to Caesar!  A tribute to the Emperor!  And since you are a Caesar … a man-Gawd, you should dress the part!”  Claude clapped and had sweat dabbed from Neb’s neck, then a cool, iced-over margarita served him.  A guilded Roman costume was draped ceremoniously over his shoulders, as he snarled, and grabbed the asses of the women who dressed him.  Meanwhile, as Claude summoned in flute-girls wearing Roman toga-negligees Rupert used the opportunity to search for Aloysius, and momentarily escape the murderer he had grown to personally loathe.  Claude caught up with him and forced him into his dressing room where Aloysius was sipping a drink still in his Neb-devil’s costume which still could cost them their lives.

“Are you mad?”  Rupert cried, astonished that Aloysius no longer even bothered to wear his disguise as Alexandra.

Aloysius jumped up, not bothering to redress Rupert’s reproach: “Rupert, look at that cage!  Look at the second girl to the right!  Look!”

Rupert surveyed the line of crates, boxes and cages, lined up for the Emperor’s future whims and fixed on an an auburn-haired, slim girl dressed in a milk-maid’s costume who looked remarkably like Undine.  The captive stood a few steps back from the bars, and now fixedly staring directly back at Rupert.  She was barefoot, with intelligent, daring eyes, and she brought her fingers to chin exactly as Undine did when trying to think her way out of trouble.

“Claude told me he’s gonna open that cage and hand you back Undine.  He instructed me to hide and be re-costumed for escape, because I will be killed.  Vlasav has arrived and he claims his deathwagon is outside, ready to get us out of here.”  Aloysius pulled out the costume-laden door of a portable closet, and hiding, crouching in the corner, lay Vlasav, wearing a beret.

“What?  I can’t respond to all this!”  Rupert protested.

“Respond?” Claude cried, “This is no time for psychotherapy!  Aloysius says that’s Undine from New York!  Either get her away from those other, uglier captured women or she could end up being raped by Neb in front of the whole court!  Respond?  Fuck Respond!  Move!”

“What should I do?”  Rupert cried, eyes drinking in Undine.

“Open the cage and let her out while I distract Neb.”  Claude realized that he too, with this act, would seal his fate … “See Vlasav, in my closet?  He’s got a deathwagon outside gassed up and ready to go.  The only people who might attack us in it are scavengers or relatives of victims.  Now you clean up your business and get her out before you get us all killed!”  Claude now doubletook his resolve, beginning to lose his cool, spewing out orders:  “With so many dead being carted away, if we can slip quickly from the Palace itself, into central Prague, Neb’s troops would have to rummage a fleet of deathwagons, a mountain of corpses, to find us!  It’s impossible.  We’ll have a turret gun, anonymity, a windowless deathwagon to crouch inside!   We gotta blow, with provisions, in five minutes!”

“What?   But is Vlasav legit?”  Rupert asked.

“Sure, any wheels are legit now.”  Aloysius retorted, now wearing felt moose antlers from Claude’s collection.

“Get those goddamn antlers off and dress up like a corpse!” Claude slapped the moose helmet, “Don’t get me killed too!  You don’t know when you’re in danger. Not that!  Don’t mess withNeb’s Green Man costume! Goddamn!  Get out of those devil leotards!  It’s only to be worn by him.   Rupert, here are the plans for the Catacombs operation, here’s a photograph of Langston.  Remember what I said?  Load everything in the van, everything! Aloysius, here — jars of dead man’s make-up!”

“Are you coming with us?”

“I don’t know!”

Rupert turned to Aloysius, ” You stock up the hearse with provisions for the trip.”

Claude rethought Aloysius’ costume,“Here, take, put it on!”

“Gladly!”  It was a Roman gladiator costume which Claude was going to rush out to several other banquet participants.

“You!”  Claude pointed at the hapless Vlasav still sprawled in his closet. “There’s several drums of gasoline outside the gates, take this, it’s a guard’s uniform, put it on.  Roll the tanks as carefully as you can, take three and load them into the van, separate them. Keep the motor running!  Do you know the route?”  Vlasav nodded, standing up, “Good!  If you do right you may be in Paris!  Rupert!  Get your girl.  Bring her back here!  Right?”  They all hugged each other, fatefully.  Aloysius jumped in his gladiator uniform but Claude had to slap from his hands the felt Moose antlers.  Aloysius slinked out the door before Claude could second guess his second disguise.  Claude shoved the key to the cage into Rupert’s palm.

“Aloysius, make several trips, grab food, drink!  And gas!  Vlasav help take guard uniforms!  Now get!”

Rupert slinked behind the next freak-act to find the hollowed out Gypsy wagon on spoked wheels with rubber tires and shocks draped in a black leather curtain.  Rupert fumbled with the key and lock, barely able to face a woman he feared might not be Undine.  And fearing that it was Undine, that she had been mistreated, raped, or angry that he not made it to Paris on time, and furious for him having left Diogenes behind.  Yet, when he looked up, fumbling with the lock, Undine examined him gently, generously, triumphantly.   Pillowy- soft lips, green eyes lustered with torchlight, drawn-firm silken pale-under-pressure skin, slender runner’s legs, sharp sang froid expression.  She followed his fumbling without reproach or derision, just the concentrated edge she acquired from facing danger.  She intended to thread the needle of escape, to lend accuracy and council to their quandary — keep her head — in case Rupert again lost his.  He fumbled, wearing cheap lipstick, a woman’s dress, shamed, confused yet built up, hardened physically, matured and deepened by the road, and she could only guess –  what horrors he had seen.  She hoped the suffering had changed him from the dough-faced ingenue to a maturer Rupert, without emotional training wheels, someone who would automatically know how to love, and respect her.  As she stood there watching him fumble, the rest of the court faded, she forgave his all-thumbs frenzy, forgave him everything, fell to her knees, took the key herself and quickly, confidently, undid the lock.

Set free, Undine followed Rupert, slinking behind several curtained future entertainment cages for Claude’s dressing room, leaving the crowd’s gasps, the midget-barkers garbled hyperbole, Neb’s brute exhortations of boredom or delight, his echoing obscenities, slammed the door shut and held each other close, kissing greedily.  Claude stood self-absorbed, toying with a revolver, a wreck of seething indecision.  He glared at them as if he were violated in private moment of self-reproach but did his best to nod, seeing the two lovers united from the eye of his personal Cyclone.

“My!  Adversity breeds, what?”  Claude forced a smile which warmed as Undine kissed his cheek thrice in a French greeting.

“It just breeds!” Rupert laughed, nervously.  As Rupert’s mind bred regrets Undine read it and she put her fingers to his lips, stroking back his hair, pulling back his wig with a smile.

“Undine.”  She introduced herself to Claude.

“Enchantée!”  Claude bowed, inspired by her sang froid.

“Did they hurt you?”  Rupert asked.

“No, Rupert!  They didn’t.  Wow!  Tu es trés elegante!”  She elbowed him, playfully.

“Disguised as my own nemesis … ” Rupert stammered, self-consciously.

“Why is it a man’s nemesis to stand inside a woman’s shoes, or in her dress?”  She giggled, straightening his seams as she might her own.

“Are you with us now?”  Claude asked her, and they understood he had committed, after seeing them together, ready to escape with them to Paris.

“Can we turn out the lights?  The alarms?  Do we have enough time yet to call New York again?  Can we use Neb himself as a hostage?  Can we keep the death wagon close while not letting anyone see it from in or outside?”  Rupert rattled off.

Undine’s presence had restored his confidence.

“You will have to go through Neb once more to escape him.”

“Do you have the blueprints for Paris?”

“Yes, we have them.”

“Should I bring Undine with me?”

“Yes, bring Undine.”  Undine insisted.

“Claude?”

“Make the call with her.  Be careful.  We need more time to prepare.”

Inside Claude’s mind an image of his friend, Langston re-emerged:  his smiling face, the smell of his body beside his own, the conversations they had together, years ago, as young actors in London, their fatal cooperation with Neb whom he could hear yell stupidly outside.  Claude fingered his revolver, which he had accepted from a guard with whom he had spent a few regretful nights, imagining he was with Langston, then he woke to the press of time: “I need five minutes to reach the lights and alarms, exactly ten  to coordinate with Vlasav and Aloysius.”

“Claude.”  Rupert returned to the question, “Why the revolver?”

“Why not?”  Claude looked askance at him as an actor might, with an air of  cultivated mystery.

“Claude!  I killed a man.  Look, what it accomplished.  You can’t eliminate the phenomenon by shooting its flesh disguise!  And we’ll never get out of here if you do.  You’ll never save Langston.  Neb looks like a man but the man is nothing but a stand-in, a study for our bad conscience.  Assassins dip into the blood of their evil and come up with nightmares, jaundiced eyes, haunted, bloody fantasies.  Unless, you’re lucky — you won’t even recognize yourself afterwards!”

Claude considered Rupert with gravity, knowing Rupert stood solidly with him, and was preparing to respond when they overheard Neb’s voice on the midget-barker’s microphone, screaming “Dora!”. They still had not found a disguise for Undine, still had not hammered out their escape plan, nor did they know if escape from the Palace on the road to Paris, remained possible.  Neb shouted, “Dora” again.  Aloysius, dressed as a Roman, burst in, opening the door, bought in a third thunderous “Dora!” with him.

“Hear that?”  Aloysius asked, smiling at Undine, quickly changing into a guard’s uniform, out of necessity, in front of her.  Aloysius jumped up, completing his transformation while awaiting further orders for outfitting the deathwagon with Vlasav, “Undine, we meet again!  I’m glad you’re here!”  Aloysius replied, “But … ”

” … we must get to work”  Claude finished his sentence.

“Undine! I’m … Dora.”  Rupert informed her.

“Quick, Rupert!  Let’s go!”  Undine understood, and rose from Claude’s desk for the door.

“I promised Trotsky I would call him back in fifteen minutes a half an hour ago from Neb’s telescreen.”

“First, see what Neb wants!”  Claude glared at him, “You used the telescreen in the Chapel of All Saints behind his platform?”

“Is that what they call it?”  Rupert asked, shurgging his shoulders.

“Forget what ‘they’ call it!  Approach Neb, buy more time, let the idiotic freak show distract him with Undine shadowing you, and make the call — and make it back.  Aloysius and I will load up!”

“The electricity!”  Rupert reminded him, as he, then Undine left.

Rupert as Dora burst out of Claude’s dressing room, only to find that, inside the Gypsy wagon, with the black leather curtain drawn, he saw the actual Dora, with Alex standing beside the gigantic penises of the Santorini centaurs.  The centaur’s half-human faces were lost between the savagery of their animal torsos and the devastating shame of their near-human selves sensing they were under surveillance as freaks.  Dora’s ears burned hearing Neb thrice shout her name, but threatened by gunpoint, she was trapped with Alex inside a cage with the genetically engineered monsters.  The whole court stood up in rapt silence, for the mixed-species sex show.

The creatures evidently needed the sex.  They were both male, but did not rear their legs nor roll their semi-human eyes even as their hind shanks and hoofs stomped, and their black and white coats ran with sweat.  The horses, captured with the real Dora and Alex on Santorini — had been broken — from semi-human defiance to ghastly slavery.  The original KGB Girlfriends had become the masters: shameless sexual realists dominating the beasts sadistically.  Yet the women both refused to perform.  They stopped and glared with wild disbelief and reproach at Nebuchadnezzar.  That the women would resist, even when threatened by execution, did not fit the crowd’s expectation, nor the midget-barker’s original scenario.  Instead, what the crowd saw behind the cage demonstrated that the women had mastered the animals and reduced what was human in them to abject shame.  The beast’s mere glimmers of self-consciousness helped them recognize their abomination, and shame paralyzed them.  Neb rose, vaguely aware that something was wrong.  Not because sex with beasts appeared obscene to him.  His corruption was limitless in this regard.  What irritated him, as he witnessed the women and the centaur’s discomfiture, was that when he had called for “Dora” the human in the cage knowingly responded, and screamed until he shut her up with a machine gun blast.  The taller harder looking one cried that they were the assassins who crashed the jet.  Neb was used to exotic pleas, wild, last minute claims, and he habitually blocked them out.  Yet as the deadlocked spectacle ground on, an unconscious doubt wagged like the beast’s tails in his mind.

The crowd began to sympathize with the beasts. Rupert understood it was time to move.   He understood just where the cracks in the Empire lie.   The security breach of his being this close this long to Neb gaped open purely because he was accepted blindly as a woman, purely as a result of Neb’s lechery.  A woman would bring Neb down. Rupert saw this graphically, as he approached The Whore.  Or rather, Neb’s need betrayed itself, negatively materialized in a woman who was not a woman in the obverse of his projected desire. It magnatized and found his successful enemy, in  Rupert and Aloysius.  In Claude.  In Undine.

Rupert also realized that they had no real reason to be here other than seeking to destabalize Neb, to become his enemy.  Drawn by instinct, he had been engaged in spying for the Revolution in Paris from the very moment he left Hoboken.  So had Undine.  So it must have been with Diogenes.  They had organized their own spy ring.  They had gone completely over to bringing Neb down.  Then Undine caught up with him.

Neb, meanwhile, cried out, “What is with these bitches?  They aren’t going to perform?  This is sooooooo boring!”  Neb no longer looked like just a monster to Rupert now, he saw, simply, a misogynist, “But just look at those beasts!  If only I was hung like that!”

“You don’t need to be, you’re an Emperor!”  Rupert answered, in an eerily Doralike voice.

“Yea?  What does that mean?”  Neb slumped back in his throne.

“Nothing.  Here comes a girlfriend I just made!”  Rupert coo’d, “She couldn’t find a place to powder up, do you mind if I bring her in the back?”

“Why, she’s really nice!  The one coming up now?  Yes, you can! You can even fuck in the back if  I can watch!”

“We just might!  Rupert giggled with false modesty.

“So you’re the Emperor!”  Undine curtsied, playing to the milk maid cliché.

“Yes, I am!”  Neb blushed.

“It’s an honor to meet The Whore who has power over so many people!”  Undine covered up with a beautiful smile.

“Well, it’s an honor to meet a beautiful bitch!  You can take a piss or shit in the back, or lick each other’s clits in front of my mirrors!  I really don’t mind!”  Neb drooled.

“We thank you!”  Undine whispered, and kissed his hand.

“Now?  Do you have to go now?”

“Yes now, I must powder my nose!  Take a piss!”  Undine winked.

“Go right ahead … “  Neb laughed, again distracted by the centaurs, and by the real Dora and Alexandra.

“That’s not me!” Dora howled to the Emperor’s stand, just as they slipped behind the curtain.

“We killed Rupert!”  Alex whined, hiding behind a centaur and from guns pointed at her.

“Shut up and fuck!”  Neb bellowed, and the crowd cheerfully seconded him.

Behind Neb’s back, Rupert and Undine rushed through the maze of curtains and found the telescreen. Undine was more eager to contact Trotsky than Rupert.  Again, Rupert opened the leather code-book, anxious to escape now with Undine, rather than risk a phone call.  He wished to apologize for leaving Diogenes behind in Santorini, to explain what transgressed in the Panic Grass, what he learnt from The Wandering Birds, and what he knew about Neb’s plans to occupy Paris.  He could sense that Undine had a specific purpose in calling New York, however, and that she too was suppressing her curiosity, in order to consolidate her own plan.  Rupert trusted her, and dialed.  The screen popped on.  This time Trotsky stood close to the screen, with an apprehensive terror in his unspectacled eyes.  His volume was turned down, his mouth positioned closely to the receiver.

“Trotsky?  Undine is with me!”  Rupert whispered.

“Great!”  He whispered, turning around.

“What’s wrong?”  Undine asked, intuiting a snag, but determined to complete her side of the transmission.

“You were to call five minutes ago.” Trotsky whispered, glancing guiltily behind him, ” … you know?”  Only now did they realize that Trotsky stood stark naked, except for a tank top, and his blue reading glasses, around his neck.

“Listen!”  Undine whispered, “Path clear to port.  If I’m not there meet J at location L.”  Undine stared intently into Trotsky’s eyes, “Deliver on time, regardless.”  He acknowledged by nodding.  Behind him they saw Vera with a scandalized expression on her face, she too nearly naked, sexy from all her athletic training, wearing only see-through stretch pants, her silicon-implant breasts exposed, black leather Last Social Revolutionary uniform hanging with a gun holster on Rupert’s steel desk chair.  Her developed biceps flexed when she saw the telescreen on, as it could only mean trouble.  Undine ducked just in time beneath the telescreen.   Rupert watched Vera unsheathe her gun from its holster while Trotsky wheeled around to placate her.  Rupert watched helplessly while she trained the gun at Trotsky’s heart, and Rupert impulsively shouted, “Trotsky look out!” Vera glanced now at the telescreen, at Rupert’s face, and hesitated, as if glimpsing a ghost.

“Is that you, Rupert?”  She shrank back, covering her right breast with her left hand, while Trotsky cupped his manhood, caught by their first incoming call — in Rupert’s old room, by Rupert.  She swayed, rehearsing everything which could have gone wrong, keeping her gun trained, but curious as to why Rupert was alive and dressed as a woman, and what it meant for her.

“It looks like you found Eden in Hell, Trotsky.  Vera, I outsmarted your assassins!  Not everything works out for compulsive liars and fanatics.”  Rupert glanced at his desk drawer, and remembered his gun.  He knew he had to pique Vera’s draining curiosity, while signaling Trotsky.  Undine knew it was pointless to hide now, and raised her head, which further stymied Vera.

“Not to interrupt your love-fest — this is a private satallite to Trotsky.  You look sexy as it goes Vera, but is that cellulite collecting under her right cheek?” Undine jeered, licking her front teeth with irony. Rupert meanwhile, asked Trotsky if his laptop computer was in his old top drawer, which meant the gun he had used to kill Grabmaler.  “Can you see whether it’s there?”

“Of course I can!”  Trotsky mumbled, moving quickly.

“Move away from the desk!”  Vera shouted, but confused.

“Vera!”  Rupert shouted, “Don’t you know that Neb has the whole of the inverted skyscraper rigged with bombs and plans to blow you up with it?”

“You’re lying!”  Vera screamed, coming to a sudden realization, then  panicked, and fired without aiming at Trotsky.

Trotsky, outside the telescreen, drew Rupert’s gun and also fired, penetrating Vera in the heart. She tumbled, falling face first onto the screen, eyes mercifully half-closed but her face dragged down, as it seemed, inches before them, seeming to take forever for her forehead to slide beneath their view.  Undine and Rupert endured the grating sight until Trotsky pulled Vera back, rested her head up on the floor, and closed her eyes.  Shaken by what had happened, yet behaving, somehow, as if it had been inevitable, Trotsky returned to the screen.

“Everything must go exactly as planned,”  Trotsky gulped, setting the gun gingerly down, letting the towel drop since his self-consciousness no longer mattered, given that he had just shot Vera dead: “She began sincerely.” He sighed, “Years ago, she would have shot Trepov from idealism, but compassion drained … died in her … when she exceeded the limits of her … ideal.  Turned in on itself, you know?  Negated itself.  I’m not making sense! Do you think I could have avoided shooting her?  Negating … her?”

“Trotsky, you had to defend yourself.”  Rupert empathized.

“Be there in Paris!”  Undine remarked, stoically.

“Then Paris.  Now get the hell out of there!”  Trotsky agreed, sadly.

Outside the sex tent, Neb stomped, shouting, “Explain to me!  Why is this interesting?”  Neb sighed, running his hand frustratedly through his wiry red hair, his sweat and enthusiasm for torture finally overwhelmed by fatigue.

“He is a paralyzed Wise Man we found in a cabinet on the isle of Santorini!  Never bats an eyelash! Natives swear he is an oracle!  His paralysis is strange, prophetic!  We forged a zodiac halo and hammered it into bronze so that you could show the people that you inspire Black Magic!  It’s esoterica Atavistism! The Living Sphinx!”  The midget screamed for “Mystery Music” to be played. Dissonant strings, bassoons and penny whistles responded, mimicing the mesmeric sideshow motif of the Wizard, or  Seer.

“How could a paralyzed man entertain me? How do we know he’s wise?”

“That’s not the point!  It’s good politics!” The midget whispered through the side of his mouth.

“Politics?  Why not carve out his heart with a corkscrew and see him squirm?”  Neb swung around, wondering why Undine and Rupert were taking so long, stepped back, parted the curtains, and spotted them kissing.  Rupert’s wig had fallen askew, and slowly Neb focused in on his disguise, sweating, piecing together the separate contradictions.  Rupert and Undine, comforting each other after Vera’s shooting, met his eye and braced for the worst.

Neb stomped maniacally, recalling now Alex’s and Dora’s screams, Rupert’s remarks, re-examining Rupert’s developed legs,“Who are you?  Something is wrong!  Very wrong!”

Rupert shrugged, and quoted Tiresius:  “The key to a man’s destruction is the desperation behind his pleasure.”

“Wait!   You’re looking more and more like the guy … what? In the photographs! You look like the man you killed!  Are you this … Rupert?”

“Ecce Homo!” Thundered a voice behind them all on the dance floor of the Old Royal Palace.  It was Diogenes, until now unmoving within his cabinet:“You fat-assed son-of-a-bitch!”

For a moment Neb hesitated, suspended between the two deceptions, his guards wondering just whom to shoot. Meanwhile, Undine grabbed a machine gun from one of Neb’s guards and stuck it immediately in Neb’s ear. The guards stood back. Her tightly muscled, thin left arm wound around Neb’s boiling neck.  She buried the barrel deeper in his left ear.

“Dictator!” Diogenes called up from his crate, distracting the court.  “Fool!   You-who!  Fatboy!  Right, here!  That’s it!  There must be a name for someone so easily blindsided by a world they’re out to wreck.  There must be a Hall of Fame for shits who bring more pain to more people than anyone will ever count.  History books used to list the dictators, line ‘em up.  Students read casualty figures, the dead, wounded and homeless and nod while liberal professors tutted self-righteously. But you’ll never be in a history book.  Will you, Neb?  The regresses following us won’t even be able to sound out your nickname.  Now look up to the ceiling then into your ear: it’s all right there.  Now look through the barrel of the gun from your ear and out of your asshole.  Can’t see?  But that’s where it’s all happening!  Do you see how easily we infiltrated you? How gullible and easy you are to humiliate? To bring down! No? Perhaps we’ll sponsor a special demonstration.  Shall you run a gauntlet?  Crawl beneath an animal so we can watch you service it?  Shall we flail, poke, chop you up, to prove you human, though your every breath denies it?  We are the end of the line of mimics.  You found the originators of your crisis in the paradigm of your lie.  Not impressed by your power we send you this upside down pyramid which falls through the space between your ears to land on the dark side of your will.  And we land you yet another paradox: by enslaving those freer than yourself, you chain your pride to those who believed your lies, and you will all be flushed into a Hell as one big lump. Ever notice as you escaped through sex, drugs, murder that you shared your victim’s hatred?  What, afterall, can be worse than to end up in the identical hell as one’s slaves?  So, great red fatboy, misogynist canker, you’ve lied your way into a cosmic outhouse, trailing pus, scratching like a catamite.  Shall we kick you down? You are too far gone, aren’t you? Too stupefied by the big show of power to see Revolution like a shattered glass tube up your fat ass. And you have decided we must DIE FOR YOUR SINS.  Well, you’ll go down a begging castrate — you’ll still be fumbling for your stump while we party above your corpse!  There’s not an idiot, nor regress in this court of clowns who is not superior to your contempt nor your crimes. So let me remind everyone, just for the satisfaction of your sycophants why you are a fool!  The young man behind you, though you took him for a woman, is Grabmaler’s protégé and assassin.  And brought Tombstone down.  The same guy you paid to assassinate.  The woman who directed the whole operation is his girlfriend.  Yes, she holds the gun to your ear.  The ‘girl’ who mocked you so beautifully is Rupert’s friend.  And I killed Grabmaler’s head of the Morality Squad, Benedict, and now, if you live through this moment, it will be by our grace, our humanity, and our understanding of what it is to kill!”

“Then you won’t do it!” Neb blustered, utterly baffled by most of what Diogenes said, just as Diogenes intended. Undine kept the gun pointed and Neb’s confusion only further paralyzed his guards.

“I haven’t killed yet and I’m feeling mighty lonely amongst my friends!”  Undine shouted.

Hundreds of automatic rifles materialized, from behind curtains, under robes, mahogany boxes, all of them trained on Undine while Claude moved toward the lights with an electronic box in his hand, as they shuffled Neb towards the door.  It was the first time anyone in court had seen Neb threatened and they followed his reactions closely, envious of anyone with the courage to confront such a dangerous maniac.  Undine reveled in the opportunity twisting Neb’s arm tight behind his back, keeping the barrel of the machine gun inside his ear.

Rupert, still stupefied by Diogenes being fully healthy and alive let alone in Prague, dragged Neb toward the palace door right by Alex and Dora’s cage.  The question remained whether Undine would actually shoot Neb. At that tense moment it was not a question of ethics but practicality.  They clearly did not wish to drag Neb with them as a hostage.  Killing him, from what Rupert understood of his discussions with Claude, might prove ruinous with seven more vicious pretenders to his Empire. Undine, however, did not know of Neb’s death insurance.  And Neb’s appearance alone argued for annhilation. Rupert felt nauseated that his lover might also compromise her life, become famous and marked as an assassin.  The second consideration was that they needed a clean avenue of escape, if anyone saw their deathwagon through the door they would be re-captured before leaving Prague.  If their wagon was identified as they dragged Neb through the door they were finished.  Claude signaled Rupert to check the van so Rupert carefully slipped outside and found Aloysius swining the turret gun at him.  The engine was running, with Vlasav ready at the wheel.  Nothing immediately blocked their escape.

Undine ordered the midget to disrobe Neb.  His fat red torso and his boiling face made him momentarily look like any other disgusting old man humiliated before his household.

“Shoot her!  Shoot them!  They’re not going to kill me!  They’re too weak!”  Neb pleaded.

“Drop to your knees!”  Undine shouted,  “Kneel Fatass!”

“No.”  Neb squealed.

“Crawl over her and kiss your Master’s heel.”

“O.K.” Neb surrendered.

“Roll over and pant like a doggie on your back!”

“No, this cannot happen!”  Neb defied her.

“O.K. Then everyone freeze, Neb needs a demonstration!”  Undine pulled the gun quickly from his ear and shot him through the side of his ass.  His howls filled the otherwise silent Palace while everyone watched Neb transfixed, weeping, pounding the floor with his fists.

“I will shoot right through your ear if you don’t shut up now!”  Undine shouted.

“Please, no!”  Neb surrendered.

Claude came to the door: “Call Vlasav in here for a moment, Rupert.”  Rupert left the Palace, pulled Vlasav out and Claude asked him about the gates and after the guards  Vlasav reassured him.  Yet the moment had come to choose whether to kill Neb or no and Undine wavered. The opportunity might never come again.  She could rid the world of a monster, avenge not only his attempt on Rupert’s life, or her time spent in a cage, but every man, woman and child in Eastern Europe whom Neb’s troops had uprooted or killed, and throw a wrench into the Empire’s preparations to invade Paris. Undine looked up sheepishly to Rupert, and over to Diogenes, and saw  in their eyes that it was a sorry fate to be a killer in cold blood, even when one’s reasons mounted to the stars.  She glanced up at Claude’s ceiling decorations and hit upon the idea of pulling down the trapeze works and hoisting Neb up with them.  She conferred with Diogenes, and he with Claude, who reluctantly agreed.  They taped Neb’s mouth shut.  Neb’s pride and the banquet slaves would waste a half hour pulling him down before making any effort to follow them.

Claude cut off the security system alarms.  Undine examined Neb, cowering, slumped to his knees, squirming, and nodded that Neb be strapped in.  They pulled Neb up to the ceiling, then they cut the straps.  Neb swung up and down absurdly as the court watched, drops of blood from his wound cascading to the floor, his eyes roiling in horror.

Undine slipped out the door and, with Rupert, jumped into the wagon.  Claude came last, after shutting off the lights.  A shot, however, rang out from a hidden pistol and caught Claude’s right hand but he was able to bolt the door from the outside, and they could barely hear cacophony rage throughout the hall, after he slammed the heavy doors. Vlasav swung the deathwagon through the courtyard, around the cement columns, slowly through the gate, then roared downhill, for the Charles Bridge to the center of Prague:  one death wagon among hundreds.