Excerpt for Out of Texas 12 : The Iron Claw of Destiny, Part One by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





Out of Texas 12

The Iron Claw of Destiny

Part 1



By James Hold



Copyright © 2018 by James Roy Hold

Smashwords Edition

All Rights Reserved



This is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to real people or actual events is coincidental. That said, the author requests the reader keep in mind the words of Criswell in PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE who challenged the viewer with: "Can you prove that it didn't happen?"



This eBook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. It may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite eBooks retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.





OUT OF TEXAS 12

THE IRON CLAW OF DESTINY

PART 1









DEDICATION

To Rocky, my Abyssinian, without whose help this

book would have been completed much sooner.







Contents



Our Story Thus Far

Garden Party

Ride Captain Ride

Don't Pay the Ferryman

Lazy Sunday Afternoon

Beach Blanket Bunko

Daydream Believer

Notes





OUR STORY THUS FAR



Jo's a mosquito

while J is a cat

they like each other

and that is that



GARDEN PARTY

"I learned my lesson well"



There's so much to learn when you're young. Of course there's still a lot to learn once you're old, only by then who cares?

It all started one night when...

He took her in his arms and kissed her. She struggled at first, so unexpected was the move, but then she slowly gave in to his embrace. "Woo, my god," she panted, breaking away at last, "that sandpaper tongue!" Then she pulled him close for another round. Finally they stopped, pausing for breath, and he held her arms length, looking directly into her eyes: soft, moist, and smiling. She wasn't pretty. "Pretty" is something you're born with, and "beauty" was something you had to work at. She was none of those things. But then she'd never claimed to be, and for anyone to hold that against her was small-minded on their part. But she was cute: "cute" being neither a matter of want or effort, but something that was just there, natural as sunshine and effortless as breathing. "Cute" to him was a total package: her eyes, her hair, her grace, her laughter. And as of late he was finding "cute" to be infinitely more desirable.

"Jo?" A soft drawling voice intruded on her reverie. "Are ya okay?"

"Huh? What?" Josie Sancudo batted her jewel-like blinkers as a small gaunt-faced fellow with dark hair and blue eyes came into focus. "Oh, J, it's you."

"Ya had me worried," the gaunt-faced grappler confessed. "It's like ya wuz hypnotized by that bug zapper an' in another world."

It was an unplanned affair, a Bavarian beer garden where two rival writers found themselves at the same gathering. Jon Raas, head honcho of the STW wrestling promotion, was known for a succession of condensed novels, his latest trio being:

Unspeakable. Adam's son was dumbstruck.

Interview With A Cowboy Painter. I found it a complete Wyeth of words.

Love On The Rocks. It's rough on the back.

Critics lauded his refreshing brevity as a welcome break from the glut of thousand-page works flooding the market. His success was such he'd recently bought a new cabin cruiser which he planned to take out that weekend for its maiden voyage.

The other writer was not as well known, although it wasn't for lack of trying. Erik Von Fritz was a self-styled ufologist and publisher of the Iron Claw of Destiny newsletter. Sales of his publication had reached a level where he was able to buy a new mimeograph machine.

There was no reason for the gaunt-faced grappler to be attending this affair, nor his friend Jo, other than things simply happen that way, fate guiding him there in the course of his daily business.

"Anapola Day?" he inquired of a lady seated at a table.

"Yes," the woman answered.

"Voted the world's healthiest female?"

"That's me."

"Courier." He held out an envelope. "Message fer ya."

And that would have been it had not Jo insisted they stay. "Who's going to notice us?" she reasoned, being small and unexceptional. Which is how the maiden-formed mosquito ended up eyeing a bug zapper and her friend, a shapeshifting cat, came to her rescue.

"C'mon," he urged her. "If we hurry we can catch a movie."

The Ultra-Super-Gala-Mega-Mall 97-Screen Cinema was showing Beach Blanket Prophecy in which, according to reviews:

"A bump on the head as a result of a surfing accident gives Frankie’s girlfriend the ability to see into the future, making it the only film in the beach party series to turn Annette prophet. Watch as her loyal acolytes go downtown for a group bikini wax, giving new meaning to the term 'sage brush'.”

"Wouldn't you rather see Maggie Cheung or Angela Mao?" Jo teased, the gaunt-faced grappler's infatuation with Asian women being a poorly kept secret. "Yuriko Hoshi? Naomi Nishida? I know you find her appealing." Which was ironic since Jo at times resembled an underfed version of the Godzilla 2000 star1.

"Can I help if I'm drawn to dark-haired women?" J said defensively.

"I have dark hair," Jo told him.

"Dark-haired women with nice legs," J clarified.

"My legs aren't bad." Jo held them out for inspection; which was true if you liked them on the bony side.

"Dark-haired women with nice legs and bosoms," J expounded.

"I have..." Jo stopped, looked down at the front of her blouse. "My legs aren't bad."

*

This exercise in comparative anatomy was interrupted by shouting voices. At the far end of the tree-lined garden Jon Raas sat at a concrete table with his wife Jenny. Erik Von Fritz stood alongside. Both had too much to drink. Their outpourings carried as Erik shouted, "You call what you do writing; hiding behind a desk while people like me risk life and limb ferreting out the truth?"

"Really, Erik," Raas took a sip of beer. "It's just a hobby."

"Hobby!" Erik exploded. "For me it's my life's work!"

"Well, then," Raas finished off the glass, "It's a shame you're not more successful at it. Waiter, another pitcher please."

"Jon," Jenny Raas laid a hand on his sleeve. "Don't you think you've had enough?"

"Nonsense," he assured her. "Us Okies can drink Germans under the table any day of the week."

An awkward silence ensued. Beer ceased to flow and polka music died away as Raas found himself facing not just Erik but every Deutschländer in the place.

"Perhaps I spoke hastily," Raas tried defusing the situation as a buxom blonde waitress arrived with his third pitcher of beer. She bent low as she set it down, giving everyone a deep look at her cleavage. "Um, where was I?" Raas asked after she left.

"You were about to get your butt kicked," Jenny told him. "If not now then once you get home."

"Ah, right." Raas took a huge gulp directly from the pitcher. "What I meant to say, Erik, is I've always found you to be—"

"Nuts," J burst on the scene.

"I beg your pardon!"

"Can I get some peanuts to go with my soda?" He was too young for beer. "By th' way, Elmer, yer wrong about—"

"My name is Erik."

"Whutever. Yer wrong about Raas not gettin' involved in adventures."

"As usual," Raas snarked.

"There wuz that disembodied hand in Dallas2 an' a haunted house outside Somerville3."

Erik looked down his nose at the five-one upstart. "I see Raas has called on his Martian cat friend to save his bacon." He had some weird theories as to what J was.

"Aw, knock it off, Elmer. I ain't a Martian."

"And my name isn't Elmer."

"Whutever," they said in unison.

Erik went on: "What Raas did was years ago. What has he done since then?"

Raas defended himself: "I got married and had to give up a lot of things"

"I can name something else you'll be giving up tonight," Jenny glowered as Raas nervously polished off half the pitcher.

"All right," he staggered to his feet. "Y'all think I'm soft and lazy. Well I'm as tough as when I played football in Oklahoma and I'm up to any challenge you throw at me!" And he downed the remaining half of the pitcher. "Waiter!" he bellowed. "Bring me—"

"Bring us our bill," Jenny overrode him, "before my husband talks himself into something he'll regret."

The buxom blonde waitress brought their tab. Jenny snatched it from her before she could bend to set it on the table, eliciting an all-around "Aw, darn" from the crowd.

"Come along, Jon," she ordered, rising.

"With all respect, Mrs Raas," Erik feeling safety in numbers pressed the issue. "But we have here a matter of honor. Your husband insulted me and my people—"

"It was the liquor talking."

"Then let the liquor do the answering." Erik returned his attention to the roly-poly Okie. "You say you're up to any challenge. Then it so happens I have one."

"Whut d'ya have in mind, Elmer?" J asked.

"Will you butt out? I'm not talking to you. And it's not Elmer; it's Erik."

Raas meanwhile, unobserved, fortified himself with another beer filched from a neighboring table.

"Suppose we do this," Erik continued. "Raas, you run a wrestling promotion."

"STW," Raas acknowledged. "It stands for—"

"I could care less."

"No, then it'd be ICCL. STW means—"

"And you have a rival promotion called BRAWL operating in the area. And I don't care what BRAWL means either. Between the two you employ several wrestlers who protect their identities by donning masks. Here's my challenge. You say you're tough, that you played football, and I assume you know a thing or two about fighting. Prove it to me—to us—by going out and taking the mask from one of those competitors—anyone you choose, I don't care—and bring it here in the next two hours."

"Two hours?" Raas blinked.

"You book thirty to sixty minute matches. I'm giving you two to four times that. What do you say? Are you a man of your word, or is your professional wrestling fake like people up north say it is?"

There are straws that break camel's backs. And then there are broom handles. You can besmirch a man's character any number of ways, but to question the integrity of Texas wrestling was to cross the line. Erik's last sentence not only crossed the line, it long jumped it to a point where everyone agreed he'd gone too far. And it was the runt J who answered it.

"Now ya done it, Elmer! Call Raas a blowhard if ya want"—he reached to the neighboring table and downed a glass of beer—"but insult th' great names of Paul Boesch, Joe Blanchard, an' Jack Adkisson, not to mention Gordon Paul—"

"Gordon Paul?"

"I told ya not to mention him." J helped himself to another beer. "Them, Elmer, is fightin' words!"

"It's Erik, I keep telling you; Erik!"

"I could care less." J sought a seat as the hastily downed beer went to his head and crossed his arms defiantly. It brought the proprietor over.

"Who in hell let this kid drink? You want me to lose my license? Get out, all of you!"

*

Outside, Raas and J, supporting each other by the shoulder, staggered to the curb.

"Whose mask are we going to try for?" Raas asked.

"You can't be serious," Jenny protested, suddenly grown pale. "You're in no condition to—"

"You're both drunk," Jo put it bluntly. She had kept back from the fray and now rejoined them. "Really, Mr Raas, what do you mean by giving J alcohol? You know he's too young to handle the stuff."

"Your boyfriend helped himself," Jenny corrected her, "when that Von Fritz idiot called wrestling fake."

"Oh." Jo blinked her big bug eyes in perfect understanding. "In that case I suppose it was justified. But what does any of it have to do with taking masks?"

"You tell me," Jenny shrugged. "I was there the entire time and still don't understand it. In any event we're going straight home and let Jon sleep it off."

"Oh, no," Raas told her as he rolled his shirt sleeves for action. "You wanted a wrestling mask... and that's what you're going to get!"

"I never asked for a mask!" Jenny objected. "It was that stupid kraut."

"Yeah," J threw in. "That stupid kraut." Then threw up.

"Oh, J," tiny Jo knelt beside him. "Can't you see this is useless?"

"Rats!" the runt retorted and, tossing his head with dignity, walked an imaginary straight line. Instantly he tripped over his own foot.

At the same time Raas performed a fitness drill of running the tires; not that any tires were there but still he managed to snag his foot on one and crashed into a hedge.

"I guess that proves I'm fit," he told Jenny.

"How?" she asked. "You fell down."

"Yes but look how I dented the shrubbery."

*

Realizing the futility of reason, the women let the men have their way. Awkwardly supporting each other—awkward due to their height difference—the gaunt-faced grappler and the roly-poly Okie headed down the sidewalk with no particular destination in mind. In time the cool night air served to sober them some. Some but not entirely.

"Yer sure yer up to this?"

"Et tu, Brute? See that wall there?" Raas pointed bleary-eyed, preparing to go up it in a rush. The effort was made moot when he stumbled and fell on his face. "Aw well," he rationalized, "agility isn't everything. There's determination and strategy."

"Face it, Raas," J brushed aside a cloud of insects that had appeared from nowhere. "This is hopeless. Ain't no rassler gonna let ya take his mask without a fight."

The gaunt-faced grappler was one to know as he made money on the side wrestling for the rival BRAWL promotion under the masked identity of EL 7. Hmm. There was a thought. What if he, as El 7, engaged Raas in a fight and let him take the mask? No, that wouldn't do. Suppose Raas were to see his face? Exposure would mean the end of his career. Unless...

"How much duz Elmer know about rasslin'?"

"As much as he knows about any other subject; which is to say nothing. He's the kind of guy who'd park in front of a brothel waiting for the light to change."

"Then whut if we wuz to buy a mask to show him? He probably thinks rasslers are like guys in comic books that sew their own outfits. He wouldn't know about professional mask makers."

"You mean," Raas slowly grasped the picture, "get a mask maker to whip one up and tell the girls we snatched it off somebody? Only wouldn't that be dishonest?"

When conscience smites, the best thing to do is smite it back.

"First off," J explained, "it's not Jo an' Jenny we're tellin'. It's Elmer; in which case who cares?"

"You're right," Raas agreed. "Let's find us a mask maker. And the sooner the better. The mosquitoes here are buzzing something awful."

*

As luck would have it there was a tailor shop several blocks down, one who also sewed wrestling masks. Luckier still, he was open.

"I need a rush job," Raas told him. "It doesn't have to be fancy or elaborate so long as it's serviceable."

"Sir," the man took offense. "My hoods are works of art. I put time and effort into designing and stitching, utilizing only the best materials. A rush job as you call it is impossible."

"I'll give you an extra fifty."

"I can have it ready in half an hour. Any particular style you want?"

Here another problem presented itself. They couldn't use an established performer's mask else rumors might get about that he had been unmasked in a fight elsewhere. If it were a contracted performer it would imply he'd appeared without permission. And if he showed up for his next bout still wearing his mask, commission rules would force him to remove it. They could not in good conscience do that. The only thing was to invent a wrestler and a mask fitting that persona.

Time was running out. Erik had given them only two hours.

"I can come up with names anytime," Raas told J. "Call him the Oklahoma Ogre. But I'm no good at art design."

J thought it over. Along the wall of the tailor shop were fotos of masks he'd made in the past. Some were recognizable, others not so much.

"Let's pick th' ugliest one he's got, sumthin' nobody's likely to wear. That one fer instance," he pointed. "That's th' most hideous mask I've ever seen."

"That," the tailor reddened, "is not a mask. It happens to be a foto of my wife."

"Oh?" J adjusted his glasses. "Not a mask? Well, uh, fer a face it izzn't so bad."

"Perhaps another fifty?" Raas suggested.

"Out!" the tailor ordered. "Or the next time I see you..."

*

"Ya know sumthin', Raas? I don't like th' way he italicized that."

"You and your hideous masks." The empty handed Okie brushed away a mosquito. "Now what?"

"Nuthin' we can do but go back 'n face th' medicine," J mangled the metaphor. "Anyhow this'll prove our rasslin' izzn't fake, th' fact no rassler would let ya just come up an' take his mask." The runt spoke with passion, for the moment believing all he said. And Raas pondered his sage philosophy.

"Well," he said at last, "this isn't how Gordon Paul would have done it, but I guess a time limit draw is better than a defeat." So saying they returned to the Bavarian beer garden to find it was closed for the night, the gate locked from within.

J banged on the gate but got no response.

"Well how d'ya like that? We come back to confess yer failure an' th' dirty finks lock us out."

Raas dug his fingers into the gaunt-faced grappler's shoulder. "Stand aside," he motioned him out of the way, hunching forward to crash the portal. A mosquito buzzed close by as J made to do likewise. He grinned, showing sharp incisors as he readied to throw himself against the gate.

"Easy, Fang." Jo emerged rom the shadows to lay a restraining hand on him. "Miss Apfelstrudel"—she meant the buxom blonde waitress—"has gone home for the night so there's no use trying for another glimpse of her." At the same time the buzzing ceased as Jo dismissed the dozen drones she'd dispatched to keep watch over them.

"It ain't her we're after." J explained. "Besides, ya know I like dark-haired women."

"I know," she pouted. "Ones with bosoms."

"Can we settle this business of bosoms later?" Raas interrupted.

"It's okay, Raas. Jo feels insecure is all."

"I am not! And I'll thank you to stop fixating on my chest."

"Me? Yer th' one who keeps bringin' it up. Anyhow I don't know why yer so uptight about it. Wuzn't it Sam Houston who said mighty oaks from lil' acorns grow?"

"No, it wasn't! And if we're done discussing my lady lumps can we get down to business, namely what you intend to do about your mask challenge?"

J and Raas confessed they had no idea what to do.

"I thought as much." Jo lowered her cotton tote bag. "So it's lucky for you I'm EL 7's official costume designer." She dug into the bag and took out a partly completed mask. Before the gaunt-faced grappler could object she slipped it over his face. "Let me make a few finishing touches," she said, wielding needle and scissors, "and you can show them this one."

"Hold on a minute," J protested. "If ya turn over an EL 7 mask it means I—I mean he—can't rassle again."

"Oh, hush," she told him, mouth full of pins as she fussed with the material. "This is nothing like your—his—usual design. I was trying out something new—"

"Ow! Darn it, Jo, don't stab me!"

"I wouldn't if you'd hold still." She continued snipping and sewing. "By the way, were you aware that Dick Beyer, the Destroyer, wore a mask made from a woman's girdle? That's why opponents could grab, stretch, and twist it, and it would never come off. Anyhow, I thought 7 could use a makeover."

"Yer not suggestin' I wear a girdle?"

"No, no. I was considering a Mothra-style wing pattern. I call it 'the Man in the Iron Butterfly Mask.' You—I mean he—could use 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida' for his ring music."

"Don't ya think that'd make fer one long entrance?"

"You don't have to play the whole song, silly. Anyway, give it some thought. El Enmascarado de Hierro Mariposa. And while you're thinking, you can go ahead and kiss me."

She put her arms around the gaunt-faced grappler, hugged him tight, and kissed him soundly. That sound being a long, slurpy smooch.

"Mmmp-mmmp-mmmp!"

Due to the hood covering his face Jo's kisses landed more in the vicinity of J's lips than on them. Still one had to give her credit since it was not something the runt would normally allow.

Watching the exposed parts of J's face go hopelessly red gave Raas a feeling of satisfaction to know he wasn't alone in being hounded by women.

"I resent the use of the word hounded," Jo objected.

"Yer not th' only one," J dittoed as the girl zeroed in for another try.

Raas wondered what reaction he'd get when he went home. He needn't have worried for a minute later Mrs Raas showed up. "Oh, Jon," she rushed from the car, "I drove around for hours not knowing what to do." She rewarded him with a kiss as well. Then catching sight of J's masked countenance she pointed and asked, "What's that?"

"That," Raas reached out and snatched it from J's head—

"Ow!" he cried, Jo not having removed all the pins.

—"is the mask of the Oklahoma Ogre which I won after a fierce battle."

"Jon." Jenny held a palm toward him for silence. "As the wife of a wrestling promoter I know there's no such person as the Oklahoma Ogre. Secondly that mask is an exact fit for J's head, which is smaller than the average fighter. And third I see Jo holding scissors in her hands. So would you like to try again?"

Raas hung his head and confessed that Jo designed it.

"Only now the gate is locked and—"

"Just tack it up with a note saying you won it. Goodness knows an idiot like Erik would never suspect anything."

This they did, and made to leave. As they said goodbye, Raas suddenly remembered, "Hey, wait. Actually there was an Oklahoma Ogre. He lost his mask two years ago in Tijuana. Now we'll have to—"

"Get in the car and drive, Jon," Jenny ordered. "And you kids keep quiet as well. I'll be darned if I go through another night like this over some drunken bar bet."

No one, least of all J and Jo, put up an argument. After all, there's a lot to learn when you're young, things about drinking and acting rashly and making disparaging remarks about other men's wives. Also about appreciating friends when they come to your rescue, even if they don't have the largest lady lumps. But most of all they learned to keep their mouths shut and leave well enough alone.

Of course there's also much to learn when you're old, only as Jenny Raas would have put it, by then who cares?



RIDE CAPTAIN RIDE

"Be amazed at the friends you have here on your trip"



1. Here's what they had to say



As every school child knows, two things you should never get into an argument over are religion and politics. Unfortunately Jon Raas was a wrestling impresario and part-time novelist while his guest, Erik Von Fritz, was a renowned extraterrestrial archaeologist, lecturer, and publisher of the Iron Claw of Destiny newsletter, so it wasn't as though there was much choice. And, seeing as Texas politics was above reproach, it looked as though religion was the only thing left.

"You see, Erik," said Raas as he poured a cup of coffee, "it's not fair to accuse religion of being a crutch because that's precisely what it is. And no true religion would claim to be anything else. After all, what is a crutch but something to help you through a rough time and lend support and comfort in time of need?"

Raas was a morally upright man—some might say uptight—and saw it as his duty to convert the heathen. He could at times come on a trifle strong.

"Actually I prefer to think of myself as agnostic," said Erik offhandedly. He wasn't all that interested in the conversation and for the most part confined himself to staring idly out the porthole and puffing his pipe.

"Oh, pooh. An agnostic is simply an atheist who won't commit."

It was Sam Houston's birthday—a state holiday1—and they were gathered at the Galveston Marina waiting for the other guests to arrive.

"The thing that upsets most people is when religion becomes too showy. Religion is something that should conduct itself with a quiet dignity. Take our friend J-man for instance." At the mention of the gaunt-faced grappler's name, Erik's ears perked up and he took a new interest in the conversation. Raas saw this as a sign to continue. "As I was saying, the kid has never made a secret of the fact he's a Roman Cat—"

At which point Erik cut him off. "Ah-hah! I knew it! I knew it! I knew it!"

"Excuse me?" asked Raas, taken somewhat aback.

"You admit the truth of my Martian Cat theory."

Raas sighed. "Erik, I was saying that J is a Roman Catholic and…"

"Oh sure, cover your tracks," Erik pouted.

"Look Erik, the reason I invited you aboard my new boat was to make up for my behavior at the beer garden. That and I know you're on the rebound from your break up with Ripley Weaver and thought a change would do you good. But if all you intend to do is spy on the kid to prove some half-baked theory—"

"Humph! I suppose you've never had suspicions about the guy?"

"Well…" Raas began. It wasn't as if he didn't have his suspicions; he just didn't like admitting it to a crackpot like Erik. "Say, how about some sugar for your coffee? I've some in the cabinet." And as Raas stuck his head in the locker Erik returned to staring outside.

His gaze was drawn to the sight of a cat walking quietly along the pier, seemingly checking out the boats. It stopped in front of Raas' cruiser and looked as though it were about to leap aboard, only then Erik's attention was diverted by a mosquito buzzing through the open porthole.

"Hey Raas," a soft voice drawled from the entranceway. It so startled Raas he banged his head against the cabinet. Both turned to see a small gaunt-faced fellow with dark hair and blue eyes alongside a pale, fragile-looking girl at the top of the galley. "Permission to come aboard?"

It was Erik's first time to meet Josie Sancudo and something about her must have caught his interest as he couldn't take his eyes off her. Concern registered as J and Raas worried her appearance might ignite another wild theory. They were surprised then when the sour Kraut launched into a Rodney Dangerfield routine, bitterly bemoaning his current situation.

"So I told my landlord the faucet didn't produce enough water to fill the bathtub. He had it moved under a hole in the roof. I tell you, my new place is so small I have to go outside to let my bug bites swell. But then the room only looks small because the mice are so big."

The gaunt-faced grappler didn't know what to make of it. There was something unnatural at the idea of a kraut telling jokes. He nudged Jo, "He's stealin' yer material," then asked, "Hey Erik, whut happened to yer accent?"

"I lost it in the divorce," Erik deadpanned while tugging an imaginary necktie.

"Right," said Jo, unsure where to go with it. "Uh, okay if we go below and change?"

"Sure," said Raas and pointed them to the lower cabin.

2. Callin' everyone to ride along

"Wow," Jo shook her head. "So that's the kook who thinks you're a Martian cat?"

The funny thing was Erik was partly right. J-man was a cat who in a moment of crisis had forced himself to take human shape. The Martian part though was open to debate.

Not waiting for an answer, Jo told him to turn his back and not look. It should have tipped him off she was up to something as his tiny friend wasn't especially modest. "I wouldn't want to compromise those Christian principals you always harp about," she explained.

If Erik wondered about the gaunt-faced grappler he'd've been floored to learn the truth about Josephine Sancudo, for she was the sole surviving member of a race of interstellar insects who came to Earth 6000 years ago and influenced early Egyptian and Norse cultures. The gaunt-faced grappler was equally in the dark about these things. All he knew was he had stumbled on the tomb of the Viking Mummy from Outer Space, after which he'd been bitten by a mosquito and Jo entered his life.

"I don't harp." J turned to face the wall. "I prefer to lead by example. Like Sam Houston said, 'Preach always; if necessary, use words.' "

It dawned on him he was facing a mirror and could see her undressing. Knowing Jo's quirky sense of humor, it was probably deliberate on her part.

"That was St Francis," she corrected him, removing her top.

"Who?" J placed his hands over his eyes.

"St Francis of Assisi."

"Never heard of him."

"Sure you have: 'Make me an instrument of your peace.' "

"That wuz William Travis."

"You're hopeless." Pause. "Okay, you can turn around now."

J turned and his eyes popped out of their sockets.

"What do you think?" she asked proudly. "It's my new bikini2."

3. Be free once more

Jo could, had she wished, stuck her head out the porthole and asked Erik Von Fritz what he thought of it as well for the sneaky Saxon was hunkered there spying, waiting for J to reveal something about himself.

As for the gaunt-faced grappler, he was reminded of the saying about a woman being "all meat and no potatoes." And Jo was trimmed about as close to the bone as you could get, there not being a whole lot of meat can you pack into eighty-three pounds. It wasn't that she looked bad; just silly, like a kid playing dress-up.

"Uh…" The gaunt-faced grappler had seen many things in his brief sojourn. "Well…" And some things aren't easy to put into words. "I mean…" Now a bikini is like barbed wire in that it protects the property without obstructing the view. On anyone else, what Jo was wearing would have been scandalous. On her it looked like a Popsicle stick with a Band-Aid. At the same time he found it somewhat cute.

"I know," Jo said proudly. "Takes your breath away, doesn't it?" She struck a pose before the mirror, examining herself from all angles. "You sure I don't have this on backward?"

J shook his head at the scarcity of material. "I wonder how many sheep it took to make that."

"I don't know," she answered distractedly, "I didn't even know they could knit," and went over to the porthole. "Erik's hanging outside the cabin. You think he's trying to peek at me?"

"Nah. It's me he's interested in."

"Oh. So that's why he's divorced."

To correct her would take more explanation than it was worth. Besides, the gaunt-faced grappler was beginning to feel uncomfortable—a touch of mal de mer settling in. Not a good sign considering they hadn't cast off yet.

"Ya know, I don't like strayin' far from Texas."

"I know; you're territorial that way."

Beyond the porthole Jo heard the voice of Erik Von Fritz, writing: "Ter…ri…tori...al."

Dismissing it as harmless, she reached into her tote bag and: "I brought along a speedo if you'd like to go swimming later."

"No thanks," he declined, even though he had a flat belly. "I don't like goin' in th' water." He jokingly added, "There must be some cat in me."

At which Erik stuck his head through porthole with a triumphant, "Ah-hah! Gotcha!"

J slammed the glass, throwing Erik off balance. Windmilling arms and a loud splash resulted as J played Unsinkable Sam to Erik's Bismarck.

4. As a storm was blowin'

A bit later J came on deck. The Prussian Peeper, trying to act nonchalant in his dripping duds, was telling Raas about his failed marriage. "She said I should become an astronaut since all I do is take up space."

"That's too bad," Raas sympathized. "Now whenever I'm home my wife's so thrilled, if a deliveryman arrives, she'll run out and yell, 'My husband's home! My husband's home!' "

J and Erik agreed Raas was fortunate to have such a woman. Then the conversation turned to Raas' new cabin cruiser, which he'd named the Gloria. The reason he named her Gloria and not after his wife Jenny was because that was the name of the ship's cat aboard the Titanic. It explained her absence from the boat's maiden voyage.

"By the way, did I ever tell you about our wedding? We married on the beach, me in an island shirt and Mrs Raas… I wanted her to wear a bandeau top and a veil, only she refused. Which was okay by me but it distracted the preacher something awful. Also we can't show the fotos to anyone."

Finally Jo came out, standing with one hand on her hip and striking a pose. "So, Mr Raas, what do you think of my swimsuit?"

Raas stared, then scratched his head. "That reminds me; we're out of Q-tips."

For Erik however, it was an altogether unexpected reaction. "She's gorgeous," he salivated, his eyes following like bloodhounds as she went to lay on the foredeck.

Now with 99 out of 100 people, the first thing they notice about Jo is that her eyes are big and round3. That's because they're the only thing about her that's big and round. Otherwise she could easily be taken for a boy. In her white thong bikini, with her pale-as-paper complexion and thin-as-a-soda-straw body, she more resembled a pre-teen schoolgirl than the adult woman she actually was. But for Erik Von Fritz the vision was mesmerizing, one of those unfathomable mysteries of the heart that caused his eyes to glaze over and his heart to skip a beat as his lips whispered, “She’s so beautiful!”

Raas meanwhile could only wonder. "I don't know," he said in bewilderment as Erik trailed robot-like in her direction. "Last time I saw legs that thin they had a message tied to them." A comment that caused J to take umbrage.

"They ain't that skinny," he objected.

"No, no," Raas carried on. "I mean, my wife is petite, but this is ridiculous. How do you look at someone that small and not feel like a pedophile?"

"She's whut ya call 'fine-boned'," growled J, growing more irritated.

"She's all bones if you ask me."

At every criticism, the gaunt-faced grappler simmered and steamed; Okie insults, Jerry lust, and rocking boat left him green inside and out. The truth was he liked Jo. She had a cheery disposition and a wacky sense of humor. And the fact she was less than five feet tall made her one of the few women he didn't have to look up at.

"Or," Raas' voice faded back in, "maybe Erik's paying you back for chasing after his woman."

"I never chased—"

"After all, just because you and I find her unattractive…"

"Whut d'ya mean, unattractive?" J cut him off. "She's got her good points."

"Oh, she's not bad, in an undernourished sort of way. It's more her personality."

"An' whut's wrong with her personality?"

The gaunt-faced grappler was really starting to bristle.

"Well, nothing," Raas backtracked. "I mean… Why are you so defensive all of a sudden?"

The question caused an uncomfortable silence.

Immediately a light bulb went off over Raas' head. "Omigod! You're jealous!"

"I am not!"

"Yes you are," Raas accused, laughing. "You're in love with her and won't admit it."

"Won't admit what?" asked Jo, popping into the cockpit with Erik at her tail.

"Nuthin'," said J, handing her a t-shirt, "Put this on 'fore ya get burnt." And so Erik will stop ogling you, he might have added.

Jo knotted the shirt so it still exposed her midriff and bikini bottom. "Perhaps you're right. Last time my front got sunburned, my back peeled also. I should tattoo 'This Side Up' on my chest and be done with it?" But dour moods seldom lasted long with the diminutive darling and seconds later...

"So, Mr Raas," she chimed sweetly, "Where are we going for our virgin voyage?"

"That's 'maiden' voyage," Raas corrected her.

"Maybe for you," she grumbled. "Only in my case..."

At that moment, a British guy in a rowboat pulled alongside the Gloria and hailed them saying, "I say can you spare an oar?"

In response to which Erik yelled back, "She's not an 'ore. She's Mr Raas' guest."

5. Out on the peaceful sea

At last it was time to shove off. "All hands on deck!" Raas called.

"Jawohl," said a German voice. "Ensign Hans reporting."

Raas pitched him overboard.

"Yaiii!"

Splash!

"That was my nephew, you know," said Erik.

Raas, piloting the cruiser, hummed the Gilligan's Island theme while Erik kept an eye peeled for sea monsters. Meanwhile, the gaunt-faced grappler settled back to enjoy the salty sea air and the rolling waves. It was invigorating, and bracing, and it was no time at all before he found himself hanging over the side of the boat in the throes of seasickness—and doing a pretty good job of throwing.

Jo came bounding over, singing "Popeye" while doing a sailor's jig. He looked up long enough for her to say, "Fetch you some spinach?" then stuck his head back over and groaned.

"I hope we don't run into any pirates. My aunt knew a pirate. Not only was he tough, but even his parrot wouldn't talk without an attorney present. Even then he never said much, only polly-syllables. Unfortunately the pirate grew old and suffered from aarrrgh-rithis. But not before he sent his son to engineering school. Became an aarrrgh-chitect. Used to see his kids all the time at the Toys Aarrrgh Us store."

J let out another pathetic moan.

"My but just look out there. It sure is a lot of water. And that's just the top of it! Erik says there could be unknown creatures lurking down there. Only, if they are unknown, then how does he know about them? Did you know that the whale shark is the biggest fish alive? Of course, it's also the biggest fish dead."

"Jo, d'ya mind?"

"Oh. Mal de mer. Or in your case, sick transit Gloria."

In the back of his mind J wondered how ship's cats survived their voyages.

"I'm sorry," Jo apologized, seeing he was serious. "Can I get you anything?"

"Dry land would be nice."

"Poor thing," she tsked. "You always were a landlubber; just never realized how much you lubbed it. Tell you what…" She disappeared and came back with a bottle of pills. "Take one of these and you'll feel better."

"Whut izzit?"

"They'll either make you loopy or else knock you out. I took five or six myself before we left."

"Gee, I dunno."

"Don't worry. I am a nurse, you know." Technically she wasn't. She was studying to be a phlebotomist. At the moment though it was the closest he was going to get. "There you go, down the hatch. Now close your eyes while I tell you a story."

"Okay." J rested his head on her bony but nonetheless comfortable lap. And somewhere between the drone of voices and the effect of the pills, he found himself drifting into adventure land.

6. Sailed off to history

(or, The Case of San Miguel's Bier)

Singapore: founded in the early days of British expansion by a none-too-talented choirmaster; a city of mystery and intrigue and beautiful women, where life is cheap, adventure plentiful, and anything can happen. I was on a 24-hour layover, my shipmates having set out in search of thrills amongst the city's many dens of iniquity, while I, being of a more cultured nature, decided to check out the art museums. "Excuse me," I halted a passing pedestrian, "but kin ya direct me to th' Ginza Art Theater?" I held up my guidebook, showing her the photograph of lady and a horse. (I'd always been into equestrian sports.)

Apparently the nun didn't know where it was as she hurried off in the opposite direction and so I instead entered a nearby Filipino establishment called the Barroom Tagalog. I opted not to order from the menu, having learned from a previous experience just how frustrating such attempts can be, and simply asked for a glass of tea. A beautiful dark-eyed waitress took my order and, as she retreated to the back, I couldn't help but speculate as to how she'd look in a skimpy bikini.

I bided my time gazing out the window when up popped a rickshaw pulled by an Indian from Marrakech. It stopped before the barroom and an old man climbed down as the Indian continued to run in place. I tried pointing out to the man that he'd left his Injun running, only he brushed past and headed directly back to where the waitress had gone. He was there but a few minutes, then came storming out, got back into his rickshaw and left. Something about this piqued my innate Texas curiosity and I went to see if things were all right.

As I entered the back room I heard a soft, plaintive sobbing sound. "Waaagh! Waaagh! Oh woe is me! Boo-hoo-hoo!" (All right; so it wasn't all that soft and plaintive after all.) I found the Filipino waitress crying on the floor.

"What is it, little one?" I knelt beside her. "Tell me who has wronged you and I will thrash the bounder." It wasn't the way I normally spoke but I figured, Singapore having been a British colony, it would put her at ease to hear a proper English voice.

"Where are you from?" she asked.

"Houston," I answered proudly, lapsing into my Texan drawl. "A city built of concrete an' guts."

"It sounds interesting."

"It is," I admitted, "only ya gotta be careful where ya step."

Something in my steely blue eyes must have reassured her for she graced me with a smile that would have made a lesser man howl at the moon. Fortunately, I managed to restrain myself and merely thumped my foot a few times. I was wondering again how she would look in a skimpy bikini when the door opened and a group of burly thugs charged into the room. I engaged the largest of the bunch in a fierce fight. We brawled across the street and into the balcony of a deserted theater where I hit him with a solid right that sent him flying over the edge. Unfortunately, he managed to grab onto my shirt and we fell together, crashing through the floorboards.

"Are you all right?" asked the girl.

"I'm okay," I said, digging my way out of the rubble. "It's merely a stage I wuz goin' through."

Just then the old man from the rickshaw reappeared and I recognized him from an article I had read in the paper. "Hey," I yelled, "yer Oltin Khan, th' Grand Potentate."

Oltin Khan acknowledged this with a courtly bow. "True," the old man replied, somewhat sadly, "although at my age I'm not all that potent any more." Then, looking at me with disdain (apparently he mistook me for Dutch), he added: "I thought Texans were supposed to be tall."

"That's a Hollywood myth," I replied. "Besides, I read that you were six-six."

"That was a misprint. It should have said I was sick-sick."

"Oh," I nodded, recalling my previous incident with the Filipino menu, "that's understandable," then got down to business. "How cum yer pickin' on this cute lil' waitress?"

"Waitress!" Oltin Kahn bristled with indignation. "You mock us with your ignorance! This Daughter of Darkness is but newly arrived from the Mosquito Coast and has already been accused of crimes of witchcraft and vampirism."

I couldn't believe it. "This sweet thing?"

At which point the girl, who until now had stood quietly by, spoke up. "Actually you're both wrong. I'm neither a waitress nor a demon, but a nurse."

"A nurse?" I said, taking in her white uniform. "Then how cum ya took my order?"

"Force of habit," she shrugged.

But the Grand Potentate was having none of it. "Bah!" he spat out. "See how freely you converse! Is it not true you wish to join in her black arts?"

"Not really," I answered. "I just wanna see whut she looks like in a bikini."

"Yankee dog!" the Grand Potentate sneered. "You insult us!" (Although not as much as he did by calling me a Yankee!) "May a camel call you his brother!"

My innate Texas pride was not about to let his comments go unanswered. "Oh yeah?" I yelled back. "Well may Porky Pig deliver yer funeral eulogy."

"What?" GP blinked, looking somewhat confused. "I didn't understand that."

"Well, ya see, Porky Pig stutters, so…"

"Oh," GP nodded, "now I get it. Very well. Then may the Frankenstein Monster go to a Halloween party dressed as your sister!"

Now that was hitting below the belt! After all, it wasn't my sister's fault she was big-boned. Besides, all this trading insults was getting us nowhere. "Hey, wait a minute GP," I said. "All this tradin' insults ain't gettin' us nowhere."

"You're right Texan," he agreed, and proposed a game of A and Q.

I was staring at the cute waitress and didn't catch that. "Eh?" I asked.

"And Q," he finished.

"Whut's that?"

He sighed; then explained. "I will present a series of answers for which you must provide the questions. If you pass the test I will let you go."

"Yer gonna gimme th' answers?"

"And you have to tell me the question."

"Oh, like Jeopardy."

"Or a Carnac sketch without the envelopes. Are you ready?"

Seeing as I didn't have much choice, I gave the girl a reassuring smile and answered, "Okay."

To which Oltin Kahn asked, "What?"

To which I responded, "Huh?"

To which Oltin Kahn said, "You called me by my initials."

To which I said, "I did?"

To which one of the thugs yelled, "Just get on with it!"

Oltin Kahn began with an easy one to see if I was up to the challenge.

"Righteo!" he fired.

"Whut's on th' other side a' yer left E-O?" I shot back.

"Very good," he nodded. "In the still of the night."

"Where did King Arthur keep his moonshine?"

Again Oltin Kahn nodded. "You are indeed a worthy challenger."

"Uh… whut did th' astronaut…?"

"No, no" Kahn interrupted. "I was paying you a compliment."

"Oh, right. I knew that."

Soon the questions got harder.

"Monkey see, monkey do."

"Whut d'ya call a navy chimpanzee with diarrhea?"

On and on they went; each query tougher than the one before it.

"A hundred thousand bucks."

That one almost got me. I was about to give up when… "Whut d'ya have if someone gives ya a hundred female pigs an' a hundred male deer?" Both the girl and Kahn's henchmen look at me blankly. "A hundred sows an' bucks," I explained, to which they applauded.

My joy, however, was short lived as he had saved the hardest one for last.

"Eat-eat-eat."

Suddenly all was silent.

The Grand Potentate leaned back in his chair and smiled in triumph, knowing I had no idea what the question might be. (Not to mention I had no idea where he'd gotten a chair from.) I was about to give in when, of a sudden, the girl's eyes brightened and she blurted out, "What's a Filipino grandmother's favorite nine-letter word?"

Oltin Kahn leapt from his chair in protest, but nowhere had he said the girl could not answer. And so the villains hung their heads in defeat (which looked kind of silly since they had to take off their shoes) and quietly exited the theater. The last I heard was Oltin Kahn muttering, "Darn it, I must be getting rusty."

So there I was, alone again with this tiny dark-eyed Filipina. And as I looked down into her smiling upturned face, I couldn't help but wonder...

"Whut duz any of this hafta do with San Miguel's Bier?"

"That's a misprint," she answered. "It should have said 'San Miguel's Pier.' The author didn't want you to forget where your ship was docked."

"Ah," I brightened, and seeing as I had several hours' shore leave remaining, asked if she would like to accompany me around town. I just remembered a store I had passed on the way over that displayed swimsuits and bikinis in the window. Somehow I knew they would have one in her size.

7. A world that others might have missed

The gaunt-faced grappler woke with his head pillowed on a cushion.

"Hello," Jo smiled. "Enjoy your nap?"

He was still groggy as he fumbled for his glasses. "Whutta knockout." Whether this was in reference to his aching head or the Filipina cutie of his dream was hard to say. He'd always had a fixation for Asian women, probably from seeing too many Godzilla movies.

"Why, how sweet." Jo took the remark as a compliment. "Thank you." She was still in her bikini and midriff t-shirt.

"I meant th' pills. Where am I?"

"We never left the marina. Raas was rattling on about religion when Erik said 'Shove off!' Raas took offense and said, 'Oh yeah? Well you can…' so Erik interrupted him. 'It's a boating term,' and Raas says, 'I knew that,' and they got to insulting each other's intelligence. Erik brought up his Iron Claw newsletter and Raas countered with his condensed novels. 'My books have been called masterpieces of concision,' he bragged, only for Erik to say, 'You confuse minimalism with having nothing to say in the first place.' Things went downhill from there and it took a dozen harbor patrol officers to separate them." Pause. "Apparently the poop wasn't confined to the deck."

J raised himself to one elbow and squinted up at her. "An' I slept thru all that?"

"Like a lazy alley cat," she smiled back.

It might have resulted in a romantic moment had not Erik popped his head over the gunwale and, removing his snorkel, pointed an accusatory finger, shouting, "Ah-hah!"

Jo responded by whacking him on the head with a water jug.

"Jerk," she mumbled, her beautiful eyes flashing.

Then she saw J staring at her in a way he had never done before.

"J?" she asked, concerned he was suffering aftereffects. "Is something wrong?"

The gaunt-face grappler said nothing. He continued to stare dumbstruck at something he'd never noticed before. It was there in her eyes, not so much their shape but what lay behind them.

"J, don't look at me like that. Say something."

"Sorry," said J with newfound respect. "It's just I never realized ya wuz part-Asian."

"Oh that." She flashed a toothy smile. "I've got all kinds of blood in me."

Including a little Texan, she told herself. After all, the little mosquito may not have been a nurse but she did know how to draw blood.

Not that there wasn't a woman alive who didn't.



DON'T PAY THE FERRYMAN

"Dancing bones that jabbered and a-moaned"



"Arise," said a voice and the dead man heeded, taking the coins from his eyes and heading to the water's edge. And the ferryman, veiled and hooded, cloaked in black, emerged from the fog. The dead man climbed aboard, prepared for eternity, but it was not until coins changed hands that the rower pushed off. "Is it always this cold?" asked the dead man, but the ferryman, leaning forward on his stick, answered not.

Time has no meaning to the dead and thus the man knew not how long they traveled or how far but rested on Oblivion's tranquil waters, knowing he had made peace with God in the moments before his execution. Anon they reached land and the ferryman, with raised hand, signaled the dead man to disembark. Yet the dead man hesitated, such feelings as were left to him saying this was not right. The ferryman pointed again, more forcefully, and the dead man did as bid.

No sooner did he step from the boat than he realized he was still earthbound.

"What is the meaning?" he turned to ask, but the ferryman pushed from shore, pouring laughter laced with venom. "Nay, DeBurgh," the female figure tossed back the concealing hood; "eternal peace is not so easily gained. The law of man may judge and God himself forgive, but I will never absolve thee of thy thoughtless deed. And as my sorrow will be like unto infinity so let thy misery last forever in a world between." The dead man besought mercy, for yes, it had been a rash act, but had he not paid for it? But the power to speak deserted him and his cry was a piteous wail. "Aye, DeBurgh," the woman continued, "thus I condemn thee. And thus I forsake thee!" And with a final gesture she flung his coins into the water knowing without them he could never gain passage even should the real ferryman come. And the anger of her face burned into his memory as it merged with the fog.

Morning and night the dead man cried as the evenings became years. And those who ventured upon the tiny isle said it was but the wind, though none chose to stay longer than necessary. And the centuries lumbered on, until one day…

*

"I'm sorry Mr Fritz," Jo told the German. "Mr Raas can't make it and my boyfriend J has a migraine." The lakeside marina parking lot held nothing save Erik's car and some random mosquitoes, yet somehow the girl was there to bring him the news.

"Going to the island?" asked the rental man, readying their boat.

Erik Von Fritz nodded, sighing as he gave his attention back to Jo. "I guess it's you and me then."

"Gee, Mr Fritz," the girl demurred. "I'm not sure it'd be proper."

"Ach Kummer!" The cranky kraut caught her drift. "My goals are purely scientific. I simply require a witness should I uncover anything."

Still the girl hesitated.

"I can drop by later if you like," the rental man offered.

Deep down Jo did not want to go. Nor was her denim skirt suited to the occasion. But Erik had invited them a week ago and it was only at the last minute the other two had to cancel. And so she consented. The boat proved easy enough to handle, the current calm and Jo's weight being insignificant, so they crossed the lake without difficulty. The island was brown like a potato while an abnormally low tide exposed many things that would otherwise have remained unseen. Jo stepped from the boat, sneakers and sewing bag in one hand and the other holding her Gilligan hat in place. A light breeze blew at her back and as her foot disturbed the surface her toe lucked upon something cold and hard. "Look Mr Fritz," she called, dipping her hand into the water and bringing up two round copper coins. Only Erik proved unimpressed, merely grunting as rising wavelets splashed his ankles. Voicing a purposeful sigh, Erik left to go exploring, saying he would call if anything popped up.

*

A weather-beaten cabin neighbored a weedy vegetable patch. Jo found a shady wall and passed the day stitching an EL 7 mask while chatting with the insects. Time passed, the sky darkened, and Erik returned empty-handed. One look at the water told them it would be foolish to risk returning to the mainland. As the storm came down they retreated inside, Erik staring despondently out the window like a dark eyeball in an otherwise empty skull. "I'm sorry I wasted your time today," he apologized. "There were rumors about this place that I wanted to check out."

"That's okay, Mr Fritz," Jo replied kindly. "Would you like a turnip from the vegetable patch?"

Erik pondered the purple bulb, his life's goal being something loftier than turnips. Then shedding his snooty exterior, he opened up to her about many things, all of which she listened to in respectful silence. Finishing the final turnip, he told of having heard a voice at the edge of the rocks. "But it was probably just the wind."

Jo nodded noncommittally. She too had heard things while with the insects. "But we did find the coins. That should be worth something." Even as she passed them over the wind let go with a mournful howl. And though she wasn't frightened, Jo nonetheless touched the ankh pendant beneath her blouse and wished her boyfriend J was there.

*

Instead of her boyfriend, the guy from the marina walked in.

"How did you get here?" Erik startled. "I didn't hear a motor."

The boatman shrugged, "I rowed," and left it at that. Then he calmly crossed to where Jo sat on the floor. "We've met before," he told her, to which she faintly nodded her head. "And someday we will meet again. But for now sleep in comfort because this night is not for you." And the tiny girl drifted off, head pillowed on her tote bag, dreaming of open fields with dancing insects and cats at play.

Night had come, yet the gloom was blacker than mere night could convey. Winding mists knitted the dunes and rocks stood fearsome in the haze. Erik nervously clutched his coins while the boatman watched the clouds gather. "There once was a clearing at the top of that hill," he indicated the window, "and when moonlight fell…" Then abandoning his reverie he glanced at Jo. "She slumbers well for one who has already slept long."

"What kind of coins are these?" asked Erik, hoping to dispel the mood.


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