Saturday, January 14, 2012

Chapter 3: Moonlight Becomes You

Interview with Roxy Smothers, 1973:

Since the motorcycle bearing Chicolini and Fat Shmengy was a head of us, I briefly wondered what would happen when they were struck by the train. I mean, two huge masses like that coming together would really illustrate one of those Newton’s law or Einstein’s theories, wouldn’t it? I suspected it would be very untidy for all involved.

Before we got a chance to see such physics in action, Hozzenka or whatever her name was was very concerned about our pursuers and so she pulled out a stick of dynamite out of her handbag. Which may sound a bit unconventional but I can assure you, darling, that having a bit of explosives in one’s clutch can be ever so useful. She lit it with the Turkish cigar she invariable kept in her mouth and popped it out the window. Unfortunately, since the little sport scar was terribly overcrowded with accordions and drunken ballerinas and the like, her aim was less than perfect and the dynamite rolled under the car.

There was a great boom and several things happened very fast all at once. The wheels of the car shot off in various directions, the engine flew right out of the hood, and the vibrations of the explosion caused Skinny Shmengy’s accordion to begin playing “Lady of Spain” by itself. Just as a very large fireball began rising up at my feet, Hummingbird grabbed me and pulled me from the exploding car.

I must have blacked out for a moment but the next thing I knew, Tura was running into the forest, the seat of his trouser alight, and screaming a most girly sort of scream, very like Fay Wray in that big monkey picture.

Suddenly, a strong, comforting hand was helping me up. When I looked up, I was surprised that it wasn’t Hummingbird. Instead I was staring into the face of a young man who was startlingly handsome despite the silly pointed Ruritanian Army cap and gawking look on his face.

“Why, why, it can’t be!” He stammered adorably. “You’re Roxy Summers!”

“Unless I owe you money, I am indeed, Sergeant York. So who are you, tall, dark, and stuttering?”

Despite the darkness of the pre-dawn sky, I could see his handsome face blush enormously, “Oh my… I am… Lieutenant Andrei Milna, commander of the Royal Ruritanian Armored Train, Shmigly…and I’m your biggest fan, Miss Summers!”

At this, the dear puppy-faced young man pulled a copy of an old edition of the Strelzov Tattler, a horrid local gossip rag. It had a whole photo layout about me just after my wedding to Bronislav. Dear lord, I thought as I flipped through it, I’d forgotten about posing with all those mink-milkers.

No, they don’t milk cows in Ruritania, they milk minks. You see there is a species of creature, the Ruritanian Mink, Mustela ruritanensis I believe, that is sort of like a cross between a sheep and an orangutan but much less well mannered, that is indigenous to Ruritania and thereabouts. There big thing, about the size of Shetland pony but with terrible fur. For centuries, it’s been a prime source of food, clothing, and when its milk is fermented, the main source of that dreadful national alcoholic drink, brfnisz. As I recall those milk maids were more foulmouthed and drunken than Seventh Fleet sailors on liberty in Honolulu and smelled worse than the back bay at high tide.

“Oh, and here, Miss Smothers, is my favorite picture of you on a brand new tractor - oh excuse me for just a moment - FIRE!”

When the Lieutenant screamed, the two big guns on the train opened fire and continued to do so at the German hovercraft, buffeting it so heavily that it turned from us and sped back across the border. As it turned, I noticed that one of the people on the deck of the hovercraft was a woman in a black uniform that looked familiar.

“Of course, she came after me,” the sonorous voice of Hummingbird fairly echoed beside me. “It’s our friend from the club, the one who couldn’t shoot me. It’s a sad fact but I seem to have that effect on women - once I’ve touched them, it seems they can never let go of me.”

Oh brother, I thought, can he really believe that stuck on himself?

In the meantime, soldiers from the train were chasing the Graustarker border guard back across the line while a few more were bringing Tura back from the woods. They were apologizing to him, saying that the way he was screaming it sure sounded like a woman and they didn’t mean any offense by calling him “Madam.”

I could see that the rest of my companions rather miraculously had managed to escape from the exploding car with only minor scratches.

I also got to see what had become of the motorcycle. It was sitting in a deep hole that had mysteriously appeared in the middle of the road. Apparently, Chicolini who, for all his many, many, many faults, was an excellent driver. He managed to break the motorcycle just a few feet before it crossed into the train’s path. Unfortunately, the weight of Fat Shmengy kept the sidecar moving - it was one of those physics things again. Fat Shmengy’s sidecar kept going but somehow remained attached to Chicolini’s motorcycle. This resulted in a most intriguing corkscrew effect that drilled the vehicle several feet down into the roadway.

Lieutenant Puppyface’s face suddenly darkened. “Or perhaps I should call you Madam Radziwillovna? Has Prince Bronislav asked to reconcile with you?”

“Hardly, General Custer. When I found he was, how shall I say, dipping his quill into a stranger’s inkpot - well that is something I can never forgive!”

“Oh, Miss Smothers,” his face blushed thirteen shades of scarlet but then took on a delightfully dopey seriousness, “Then he is a fool to have thrown away a treasure such as you for such a thing!”

Oh how adorable, I thought, running my eyes over the muscles bulging beneath the tailor uniform.

I was suddenly swept off my feet. Literally. It was Hummingbird, who apparently didn’t like the way things were going.

He fairly shouted at Puppyface, “Lieutenant, can’t you see that Miss Smothers is in need of attention, yet you keep her standing here in the middle of road! Show me where I can take her to attend to her wounds. I was an ambulance driver in the Great War.”

“Of course, how foolish of me. But sir, allow me to carry her. I am much younger than you and as a serving soldier in much better shape. Allow me.” Here Puppyface grabbed me and started trying to yank me out of Hummingbird’s arms and a real tug-of-war began over me, which can be quite fun in the right circumstances but given all the trouble we had that night, I was hardly in the mood.

“Easy, boys,” I calmed them, “You’ll ruffle the merchandise. Remember, there’s no rationing when it comes to Roxy. I can walk to the train myself.”

They both grudgingly let me go but shot daggers out of their respective eyes at each other.

Wanting to pamper myself a bit more, I let Puppyface take the lead and proceed to show off his armored train to me. No, darling, that’s not a euphemism, it was a locomotive. Although he did seem to talk a lot about the cannons when he was around me.

I remember he said, “Shmigly is armed with two 75mm 02/26 guns with a maximum range of 10,700 meters, a shell weight of 5.3-8 kg, and maximum rate of fire of 10 rounds per minute.”

“Well, you know, dear,” I interrupted just to get him off his rather tedious track, “sometimes time-on-target is more important than rapidity.”

Then I realized that Zoya was staggering onto the train. Not wanting to be upstaged by her yet again, I dropped back a few steps from the Lieutenant and quietly directed the bombed ballerina through a small metal door.

She blearily peered through the door and said, “This doesn’t look like a stateroom, it looks more like the outside.”

Before she could say anymore, I gave her a strong push and slammed the door behind her.

We were soon settled in to a cramped and very comfortable troop car, most perched on soldiers’ blanket rolls. But after all the exertions of the night, to be secure behind nice steel walls protected by friendly armed guards, it wasn’t too bad.

Then I noticed that Zoya was peering in through one of the windows; she must have been clinging to the side of the troop car.

Her muffled voice came through to us, “It’s a bit chilly out here. Do you think I could at least have a wrap?”

Hozzenka the brigandress saw this and said, “I do what Mamushka ask, bring dancy girl safe back across border. I go home now, get back to robbing and murder.” She then turned and took her heavily armed person out off the train.

“And with that she went out of our lives, and we would forever more lack the brilliance of her smile,” recited Hummingbird extemporaneously.

At this, Skinny Shmengy noted, “You really are good at, how you say, shoveling krapluga.”

There were a few minor injuries that a medic bandaged. The most serious complaint came from Tura who studied his face in a mirror before asking, “Is this a powder burn? Do you think it will leave a scar? Does anyone have any pancake make-up. I daren’t show up in the capital looking like this!”

One of the crew, a fireman covered in coal black, spoke up, “Here sir, is make-up case. You might want put rough on cheeks and do something with dark circles under eyes.”

There was an awkward silence at this as the other crewmember looked at their fellow like he was a stranger.

The fireman finally responded, “What? Is my wife’s make-up kit!”

“Da, if your wife is named Dmitri!”

As the train pulled away, towards its base, Wagmore pulled out the little book he had lifted off the drunken German professor in Emeric’s. I noticed that von Schnitzel was looking over his shoulder. They began whispering in low tones, talking about some type of artifact, the relic of some long forgotten migration of an ancient people that the Germans had traced from the Himalayas to the Balkans. I really picked up my ears when they mentioned that this thin, whatever it was, was part of the Ruritanian Crown Jewels and worth a lot of money to whoever could get their hands on it. I knew they were talking about serious money when von Schnitzel’s eyes bugged out of his head like a wall-eye and the vain in his bald head started throbbing like the Dorseys were playing inside his head.

Periodically, we heard bangs and thumps as we passed various roadside obstructions and low-hanging tree branches but unfortunately I could see that Zoya was still hanging on. Finally, someone, I think it was Wagmore, took pity on her and left her back into the car. She dropped into a corner where she promptly fell sound asleep. To my chagrin, she didn’t snore at all, just sighed occasionally.

Before we could return to the discussion about the artifact and my share in the loot, Lieutenant Puppyface returned to announce that they had been radioed an order to take us to directly to Strelzov and that would be a few hours, so we should try to relax and maybe get some sleep.

At this point, Zoya began murmuring loudly in her sleep, “Mrs. Bronislav Radziwill, Mrs. Bronislav Radziwill…” Too bad I couldn’t get 10 rounds a minute dropped on top of her at that moment, I thought.

The Lieutenant then took me aside and said, “Miss Smothers, I can’t offer the luxury that I am sure you are accustomed to, but I can offer my cot to you.”

“Why Lieutenant, offering to share your bed with me? Why I hardly know you.”

I know it was terrible to do that to that poor young thing, making him squirm so. He must have turned about fourteen shades of red, and stammered and stuttered for a full fifteen minutes, I think he stopped breathing for five of that. Finally, I left him off the hook and asked, “You don’t happen to have anything to drink of this trolley, do you Conductor?”

“Well, just a small portion of medicinal brfnisz but I can’t imagine you would want any of that.”

“Just try living in a country with Prohibition some time, Buster. You’ll find you can drink just about anything.”

He led me forward to the command car. It was cramped like the rest of the train but there was a small alcove for Puppyface’s use that had a small writing desk and folding bed. I collapsed onto it while he poured me drink of thick viscous liquid that smelled like rubbing alcohol mixed with stewed prunes. But it did the trick and I drifted easily off into a deep dreamless slumber.

The next thing I knew, he was shaking me gently by the shoulder. When I looked up, his face bore such a worried, scared look that I did dare tease him. I noticed that the train had stopped.

“I am so terribly sorry, Miss Smother. But I have received new order from the Minister of War himself. We have had to stop here in this town to pick up your new escort. He is taking you ….into custody. I am so sorry, I think it most unjust and I will speak to the Minister himself if he will see me!”

“Oh darling,” I said. “Don’t worry your pretty little head about it. Roxy’s been in much worse scrapes than this one.”

He took me back to the troop car to join the others. I noticed they were all awake and tense. The soldiers were all standing around them now, all armed and looking very scared. The door to the car opened and I saw a figure silhouetted in the morning sun.

It was a man, not very big and distinctly round. He came into the car and I could see he was about sixty, with a round, open face, and wispy white hair partially framing a balding head. He wore a rumpled brown uniform with strange markings on it. He wasn’t armed but he carried

“Hello, children. I’m Postal Inspector Bogush. Would anyone like a cookie? Mrs. Bogush makes them with molasses.”

Nervous sweat poured off the face of Skinny Shmengy while Fat Shmengy buried his face in his hands and whimpered quietly, “Chicagoooo, baaang, baaang.”

Bogush dismissed the soldier, say, “oh we are all friends here.” They seemed relieved to go.

“Well children,” his voice was soft and soothing but he seemed to know everything about us, probably even my original hair color.

“It seems there was some excitement in Grauheim last night.”

Von Schnitzel gamely tried to bluff it out, “Really, we were in Grauheim last night. There was some excitement. Unfortunately, the film we had was destroyed when our car blew up.”

“How bad about your film. But I happen to have an advanced copy of the Grauheim Gazetta.” He head up a fresh newspaper and there on the front page was a headline that read “Assassins!” and a picture of us all on the truck just moments before the Shmengys opened fire.

“Terrible about Marshal Rhododendron who has lost his pinky toe. Now however do you think that happened?”

Von Schnitzel pointed at the Shmengys and cried out, “It was them! They did it!” Then he pointed to Hummingbird and said, “He put them up to it!”

The Postman smiled, “Well, aren’t you the ‘Helpful Hanushka.’ If this is so, then perhaps some of you might be allowed to make up for any indiscretions if you are of service to the country.”

Then he turned to the Shmengys and said, “Boys why don’t you play something happy. I love to hear happy music. And who knows when you’ll get the chance to play again.”

Von Schnitzel asked, “By service to the country, perhaps a film presenting Ruritania in a positive light, something extolling the glories of her past?”

“Just what I was thinking. We are well aware of your interest in the Grand Duchess’ unpublished novel, Passion’s Epitaph…”

At this, I cut in, “Wait a minute, von Schnitzel, you mean you bought the rights to an unpublished novel? You told me to read it?”

“Of course, I knew you would never read it, and besides, we don’t really have the right yet.”

“You don’t even have the rights yet!”

“What’s the problem? We don’t have a script yet!”

The Postman cleared his throat, “Children, I think you forget what we were discussing and your argument is interrupting this lovely tune.”

At this point, Skinny Shmengy said to his brother in a panic, “Keep playing Yosh, keep playing or else we are become goats of the scaping!”

“Now I am sure that honesty concerning what happened last night will only have a positive effect on your case. I do have one question, though. Who was responsible for the rocket attack - in addition to destroying the better part of a German army encampment and associated equipment and killing dozens of German and Graustarkian soldiers, it leveled several blocks in downtown Graustark?”

We all turned and pointed at Zoya who was just waking up. She yawned, stretched and said, “Good morning everyone! What a fantastic party last night, especially the fireworks! Are there any klopkies for breakfast?”

The Postman got a sad look on his face and sighed, “Poor, poor Zoyushka and such a promising dancer and swimsuit model. Well, it’s really all up to the Minister of War; he will decide your fate now.”

“When do we see him?” I asked.

“The Prince has directed that we bring you to him first thing tomorrow morning.”

“The Prince?”

“Why yes, the Minister of War is Prince Bronislav Radziwill.”

Diary of Zoya Bupkis

August 27, 1939

Dear Diarushka

I don’t really remember how the night ended, I guess I got a little tipsy. I do remember having the oddest dream about being in a trapeze act and kissing trees. It was very strange.

But then I awoke on the train and felt quite well. There was no hot breakfast, it being an army train but there was a very nice elderly gentleman who had some delicious molasses cookies that really hit the spot. But the gentleman seemed sad and said that we would have to talk with the Minister of War about the terrible things they were saying we did in Grauheim the night before. I mean really, perhaps we did get a bit noisy and I danced a bit too much but isn’t that what parties are for? I wasn’t worried anyway, because Bronislav is the Minister of War - what could go wrong?

We arrived in Strelzov in the afternoon. They wouldn’t let me go to my apartment but said we had to go to a special hotel, run by the Postal Service, where we would stay in safety until Bronislav could see us. He was apparently very busy because the Germans and Graustarkians were angry over all the noise.

It was a very strange sort of hotel. Not that it was bad, just that there was no one there except us and the old gentleman who locked the front doors after we all went in. He showed us to our rooms on the top floor of the hotel and as we went up, I still didn’t see any other guests or staff. For dinner, the old gentleman took us down to the dining room where we had several orders of klopkies that he must have gotten from a take-out restaurant. He had to go back three times because Yosh Shmengy kept eating the klopkies before any of us could get to the bags.

We had to share rooms here. The Shmengys who were also very sad, and Mr. Chicolini, and Mr. Tura were in one room. Mr. Director von Schnitzel, Mr. Hummingbird, and Professor Barqueless were in another.

My room was across the hall. I was worried because I had to share a room with Miss Roxy who was the horrid American gold digger that was so terrible to Bronislav. She seemed cross at first and piled the furniture up into a wall that divided the room and told me not to cross it. But then, just before we went to bed, she began telling me stories about criminals in America and how easy it was for them to kill people with all sorts of common household items, especially young girls sleeping in strange hotels. It frightened me a little because she would point to things in our room and tell me how they could be used to kill someone, especially “floozy dancers” whoever they were.

But I am going to sleep now, and not frightened at all. I am happy that I will see my Bronislav tomorrow. Won’t he be ever so happy that I completed the mission he gave me and that I did it so well!

Excerpt from The Sun’s Also Shiny, The Great American Novel, by Ernest Hummingbird:

His unique senses awoke him to the danger before it came close. He heard a throbbing sound of an engine overheard. He recognized it immediately; it was a Luftwaffe transport airship, a sound he’d recognize anywhere.
Just as he sprang from the bed, the old postman came in the room. He said excitedly, “There is trouble and I have called for help but we may need to hang on for a bit ourselves.” Then he dropped several weapons onto the table in the middle of the room.

The writer saw that these included his pistols and his Nitro Express, the gun he had used when he went looking for big game on the slopes of Mount Kilimanjaro but came face-to-face with Death instead. The gun was perfect.

The others were rousing themselves as the sound of jackboots pounded down the stairs from the roof. The Englishman and director both grabbed pistols and looked at the writer, seeking his direction.

The footsteps echoed through the hall. Then the door was knocked open.

A German stormtrooper looked in at the three men in the room. He suddenly shouted, “He is in here!”

The writer brought his gun to his shoulder and fired. The shot was perfect. It hit the stormtrooper and went through him, going on to hit another that had kicked in the door of the room across the hall. He rushed across, leaping over the bodies of those he had just slain.

He charged into the room with Nitro at the ready. He saw that the Germans had tried to come into the room through the two windows on ropes. Two lay dead in the room.

“That was almost perfect, ladies” he said, nodding to the two women who were crouched in opposite corners of the room, now seemingly pointing their pistols at each other. “Here, ladies I think we need your help in the hallway.”

He noticed that the ladies Englishman was in the room as well, tying the ends of the ropes that came from the airship together. “Why, I was just going to do that myself,” the writer said.

As he turned back into the hallway, the German bullets began striking all around him. None dared hit him. He fired back and two more of the German fell. His companions fired from the doorways of their rooms and, due to the crowded hallway, every shot hit. All except the shots fired by the Actor Tura. Not being used to firing a gun, he

Finally, only one stormtrooper was left standing. The Director screamed at him to surrender but the soldier stood his ground. The Director shot at him, nicking his combat smock but still didn’t budge. Finally, the dancing girl came out with her light pistol and fired it at the stormtrooper. The shot knocked an epaulet from his shoulder and this was enough for him to raise his hands in surrender.

The Director was nonplussed, “How could you stand up to me and then surrender to this slip of a girl?”

The stormtrooper responded, “You don’t understand, any more near misses and the cost of this combat smock would come out of my pay.”

The soldier walked toward him with hands raised, just in time to walk directly in front of the Actor’s gun just as it was fired, the Actor still having his hand wrapped tightly over his eyes. The stormtrooper was hit in the head and dropped dead instantly. The Actor peeked from behind his hand and fell down in a swoon.

Another team of stormtroopers flooded down the stairs, their machine guns at the ready. Suddenly, they saw the Postman standing at the far end of the hall. The old Postman let out a deep-throated growl and launched himself down the hallway, flipping from his feet in a series of handstands and somersaults that managed to avoid the hail of German bullets. He blasted into the crowd of stormtroopers in a flurry of fists and feet, knocked the half dozen of them down in an instant. No more Germans came down the steps.

The writer ran back into the ladies’ room. He leaned out the window and began to fire his big Nitro at the airship that was still tethered to the ropes knotted about the windows in the room. He hit the gasbag of the airship and although it did little damage, he could see the crew noticed and was worried by it. They’d be even more worried if they knew who was firing at them.

Air raid sirens were wailing through the city now and spotlights suddenly lit up the big zeppelin. A stream of ack ack flew into the air above the hotel. As the airship’s engines droned heavily in an attempt to build up speed to escape, the writer clung tightly to the knotted ropes, ensure they stayed secure at his end. The ack ack shells began to stream into the airship and it exploded with a tremendous blast. It began to fall directly down onto the roof of the hotel which began to buckle under pressure.

The writer yelled a warning to his friend to get out. He followed, grabbing the Actress around the waist and carrying her out on his strong arms.

The hotel was caught fire and was destroyed. But the writer and his friends
had escaped.

He had beaten the Nazis again. It was perfect.

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