Somewhere in a dubious district near the waterfront in old Singapore, we left our heroes Arnold Schnabel and Big Ben Blagwell squeezed together uncomfortably in a pink velvet love seat in the grandiose chambers of the imperious Madame Chang.
Once again we turn the narration over to Ben...
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“Let’s face it, when it comes to the sheer volume of verbiage this guy churned out, Arnold Schnabel made even Balzac look like a piker.” -- Harold Bloom, in Boxing Illustrated.
So, I scrunched back into the love seat, trying to get comfortable while not squeezing too close against Arnie, and then after I got kind of settled in I took a good drag on my Sweet Caporal.
“Are you quite ready for me to begin, big guy?” said Madame Chang, taking a drag on her own cancer stick. “Sitting comfortably? Done fidgeting?”
“Well, it’s just kind of a tight fit, Madame Chang,” I said. “Maybe it would be better if Arnie could sit in one of these other chairs, and then I could like spread out a bit more here.”
“You’ll both stay right where you are,” she said.
“Yes, don’t let them separate,” said Mojo. “He’s probably got something up his sleeve.”
“Hey, nothing up my sleeves but a pair of brawny tattooed biceps, Mojo,” I said. “Did you ever see me crack walnuts in them?”
“Yes, I’ve seen your pathetic parlor tricks too many times to count, mon cher Benjamin,” he said, and I should mention he still had that Luger on us, holding it upright on that fancy enameled low table that he was sitting in front of.
“Both of you, cease your prattle,” said Madame Chang.
“He started it,” I said.
“That’s it, always shift the blame,” said Mojo. “Just like with that caper in Rangoon with the Monkey of Gold!”
“What?” I said. “Rangoon? The Monkey of Gold? Are you kidding me?”
“Silence!” yelled Madame Chang, and now she raised her little automatic and moved it back and forth from Mojo to me. “Or I swear on my ancestors I’ll plug you both!”
I shut right up. I’m no hero, and neither is Mojo, because he clammed up, too.
“Okay, then,” said Madame Chang. “Now, to begin. Oh.”
She said that last “Oh,” because of a heavy approaching thudding, creaking the floorboards, sort of like Frankenstein’s monster was maybe joining the party, but then out of some shadows old Futuyama came lumbering toward us, holding a big ornate silver tray over his big naked gut.
“Yes, thank you, Futuyama,” said Madame Chang, “on the table, please. And pour a cup of tea for me and Mr. Schnabel, if you will.”
Futuyama grunted something, and the next minute or so was taken up with him laying down the tray, pouring tea in fancy china cups for Madame Chang and Arnie, bringing a cup and saucer to the Madame, and then laying a pousse-café in front of Mojo and what I hoped was a Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’ in front of me. Oddly enough, with all the fancy other crap in this joint, the cocktail napkins he put our drinks on were just those cheap paper ones that have the spicy cartoons on them. Go figure. Maybe Madame Chang got a deal on them. Or maybe her taste wasn’t all that fancy after all. To tell the truth I didn’t give a damn. Just making an observation, that’s all, just like those real writers do in the magazines. You can read something into it if you want or just put it the hell out of your mind forever, it’s all the same to me.
I bent forward over my gut and reached down and snagged my drink up. It was in one of those tall fancy glasses with all different colors swirling all over it with gold-paint designs and glass that had little dimples all over it. I hate these kinds of glasses because I always get the urge to squeeze them just to see if they’ll break in my hand, but I knew I’d have to fight off that urge in the present circumstances. It didn’t have an umbrella in it, but that was okay by me. You can’t drink a paper umbrella. It did have what looked like a fresh maraschino cherry floating in it, so that was a nice touch, and it had a freshly-cut wedge of lime on the rim of the glass, also a nice touch. It had one of those black plastic straws, too, so I took a preliminary sip through it.
It was surprisingly good.
“Hey, Futuyama,” I said, “if I’m pronouncing your name right, this is a damn good Planter’s!”
“How’s your pousse-café, Mojo?” I said. His drink did look good, it was in a narrow but really tall stemmed glass and it must must have had at least six layers, red, yellow, black, purple, gold, green, something like that.
“Well, I’ll tell you in a second,” he said, and he took a sip through his straw, making one layer disappear. “Oh, splendid,” he said, licking his lips. “Yes indeed quite splendid, Futuyama, domo arigato!”
“Great,” said Madame Chang.
Arnie was already slurping his tea down like there was no tomorrow -- I’m like that too after someone’s slipped me a Mickey, it makes you really thirsty when you’re coming out of it.
“Mr. Schnabel, your tea is to your liking? Perhaps you would prefer some sugar?”
“Oh, no, this is swell, thank you,” he said. “I wonder if I could have some more.”
“Help yourself, and may I compliment you on your good manners. Unlike some people in this room.”
I don’t know who the hell she thought she was talking about, but Arnie leaned forward, picked up the big fancy tea pot with all flowers and castles and maidens on it and poured himself another cup, and as he leaned forward I saw the butt of Maxine’s Chief’s Special sticking out from the back vent of his suit jacket, I had forgotten all about that little snubby, even if it was me who had stuck it there, but I would try not to forget about it from now on.
“So, now,” said Madame Chang, after taking a ladylike sip from her own cup, “if everyone is happy with their beverages I will at long last continue. Futuyama, stand by, and keep an eye on these two, especially the big one. What the hell is your name again?”
“Me?” I said, I really wasn’t sure if she was talking to me on account of I was concentrating on my drink.
“Yes, you, gorilla,” she said.
“Blagwell, ma’am. Ben Blagwell, but everybody calls me Big Ben Blagwell, on account of --”
“Shut up,” she said.
“Only saying,” I said.
“Futuyama,” said Madame Chang. “If this big lout interrupts me one more time while I’m speaking I want you to pick him up and throw him across the room.”
Futuyama grunted, and looked at me like he hadn’t eaten since yesterday and I was the side of beef he normally put away for dinner.
I know when to keep my trap shut, and so, except to stick that straw in it so I could keep slurping down that Planter’s-with-a-float, that’s what I did.
“So,” said Madame Chang, “to explain then why I had Mojo slip Mr. Schnabel what you Americans call a ‘Mickey’ and drag him here while you, Mr. Bragwell --”
“Blagwell,” I said.
“This is your last warning,” she said. “Next time, no warning, and Futuyama’s going to pick you up and toss you against a wall like you were an overgrown rag doll.”
Futuyama grunted, staring at me, and rubbing his enormous paws together.
“Sorry,” I said.
“So,” said Madame Chang, “the reasons I say that I had Mojo drug Mr. Schnabel and drag him here to my chambers, whilst you, Mr. Bagwell --”
She gave me that black mamba look, and I think she might have said my name wrong just to test me, but, believe me, I let it go, the size of that Futuyama guy looming just to my left there like Godzilla’s kid brother.
After a pretty big pause, just to give me plenty of time to say something stupid again, Madame Chang continued:
“-- whilst you were making what I believe you Americans call ‘whoopee’ with the lovely chanteuse Maxine -- yes, my reasons are quite simple really…”
She went on like that, giving it a bit of a build-up the way dames do. They’re always like that. Just when they say they’re going to lay it all out nice and clear and concise they still have to beat around the bush for a while, just to keep you in suspense, or maybe just because they like to run their mouths off all the time, and meanwhile I’m thinking, okay, no doubt about it, Arnie and I were in a pickle all right.
We had Mojo right across the table from us, holding that damn Luger on us, and kind of slowly tracking it back and forth between Arnie and me. And we had Madame Chang a little to the left and behind him, in her big chair, with that little automatic sitting on the chair arm where she could grab it in a jiffy, and scariest of all, that big bruiser Futuyama standing over to my left at the other end of the low table, and even though I couldn’t see a rod on him anywhere he looked like he didn’t need a roscoe to do his killing.
It was a pickle all right, and I took another good sip of my Planter’s.
Now mind you, I’ve been in many pickles before.
Many, multiples pickles.
My life has been like one of those big old barrels of big fat Kosher pickles in the Jewish delis back home in the Lower East Side, those grimy, stinking, crime-ridden streets that turned me into the freebooting adventuring rough-and-tumble adventuring fellow I am today.
How are these for pickles?
Captured and caged by bloodthirsty jungle cannibal girls up in the Amazon rain forest…
Chained in the love pit of some Yakuza geisha killer wantons in a Yokohama den of lust…
Shackled in the hold of some lusty Lesbian pirates in the Straits of Malacca…
Plenty of pickles I’ve been in.
That’s kind of what I do, really.
I get in pickles. And then I get out of them.
So I wasn’t really too worried about this Madame Chang dame and her pals. For one thing, I could tell that she liked me. I mean really liked me. As in she wanted to play hide-the-salami with me in the very near future, something she wouldn’t be able to do if she plugged me between the eyes with that little automatic of hers, which looked like one of those Kraut pocket Mausers that one of these SS sadist harlots had threatened to shove up my behind in this castle of torture on the Rhine I wound up in one time.
So, you can see why I wasn’t overly concerned about me and Arnie in our present situation, especially seeing as how that snubnose was still stuck in the back of Arnie’s trousers. And as soon as the time was ripe I’d stick my hand back there and pull that baby out, and we’d soon see who was left alive after the shooting was done.
“So, you see, Mr. Bogwell --” said Madame Chang.
I looked up from my drink.
“Yes?” I said.
“You see now,” she said, “why it was I had Mojo bring Mr. Schnabel here, and by whatever means necessary.”
Okay, there, I had done it again, somebody had told me to pay attention to what they were going to say, and I had gotten distracted, gone off on my own mental tangent, and I had no idea what the hell they had been talking about, so naturally, I just blew out a nice plume of Sweet Caporal smoke and said: “Sure, Madame Chang. I understand. You were just doing what you had to do.”
“What?” she said.
“I said,” I said, “I mean, uh, you were just, you know, doing what you, like, had to do?”
“Madame Chang,” she said, saying it like she meant it even more than she usually said whatever she was saying, “doesn’t have to do anything!”
“Uh, yeah, sure, Madame Chang,” I said, because I was starting to realize that this broad had this thing in common with every other broad in the world, and that was that you were a hell of a lot better off just agreeing with them, even if you didn’t know what the hell they were talking about and what the hell you were agreeing to. “Absolutely,” I added. “A hundred percent.”
“Madame Chang,” she said, “does what she wants to do.”
“As well you should,” I said.
“I wasn’t asking your opinion,” she said.
“Right,” I said. “Absolutely.”
“But now, Mr. Bongwell,” she said, “now that you know why I had Mojo bring Mr. Schnabel here, you are perhaps wondering why I have kept you alive? At least so far.”
“Well,” I said, after taking another good slurp of my Planter’s, and I had to hand it to Futuyama, I don’t know what his secret was, but it was a pretty good Planter’s with a float, and I’ve drunk about twenty thousand of them in my time, “I guess I was a little curious about that,” I said, although I was pretty sure I knew why: she wanted my body.
“I will tell you why,” she said.
And while she went into her preamble bit -- because like I said before, she was just another dame when it came to getting to the goddam point, not that some men aren’t like that either, but not me -- me? I’m a straight shooter, I mean if I have something to say I just get right to the point without a lot of fussing around, but, hey, that’s just me -- what was I saying? Oh, right, so while she’s going through her little warm-up, I checked her out, and I mean I checked her out good, all the time sort of nodding my head as if I was agreeing with every damn thing she said, whatever the hell it was she was saying while I was checking her out.
That smooth white skin, as smooth and white as the teacup she held in her dainty fingers with rings on nearly every one of them, and you could bet they weren’t the kind of rings they sell at Woolworth’s, and neither were those gold bracelets on her skinny little wrists and those pearls roped around that snow white neck that was no wider around than my forearm.
And this black silk dress she had on, with all sorts of different-colored embroidery and little shiny beads and buttons, with this slit up one side so you could see her smooth slender white gam all the way up to her thigh, which naturally just made me want me to pull it right off her.
And those eyes, those black mamba snake eyes, that looked like they’d just as soon see you dead instead of lounging back in a pink love seat with your buddy slurping down a Planter’s Punch with a float of ‘151’ and enjoying your Sweet Caporal, those eyes just made me want to stare into them while I was giving her the Blagwell Special, which is when I try to keep it going by thinking about the top twenty best meals I’ve had instead of what I’m doing, in order to prolong the lady’s ecstasies.
And those lips, painted the color of fresh-spilled blood -- I’d be willing to bet anything she was the kind of dame who liked to bite, and bite hard, until she drew blood, real blood.
I didn’t care if she was a hundred and ninety-eight years old like she said. She looked okay to me, and anyway, who was I to be particular?
“And so, Mr. Bragwell,” she said, “you now see why I have kept you alive, if only provisionally and for the time being.”
“Uh, sure,” I said.
Damn, I had done it again.
I had forgotten to pay attention and I didn’t have the faintest idea what I had missed.
I just hoped it wasn’t anything too important.
(To be continued, not just for our own sake, but also for the sake of generations still unborn, just in case anyone is still reading by then.)
Railroad Train to Heaven is the living work of fiction writer Dan Leo, who's been working on its more than 300 weekly installments for the better part of five years. To catch up on previous episodes, visit his blog, or read a synopsis of the action thus far.