Let’s rejoin our adventurers Arnold Schnabel and Big Ben Blagwell in the elegant and vaulted chambers of the imperious Madame Chang, somewhere in the dock district of old Singapore, where Ben’s quick thinking has turned the tables on the aforementioned lady and her two confederates, the enormous Futuyama and the rather less-than-enormous Mojo the Midget...
(Please click here to read our previous thrilling episode; go here to return to the misty and far-off beginnings of this Gold View Award™-winning 52-volume masterpiece of the memoirist’s art.)
“Arnold Schnabel’s chef-d'œuvre may not be the greatest work of literature in the English language, but it may very well wind up being the longest.” -- Harold Bloom, on The Joe Franklin Show.
I tossed away the ashtray stand, then breathed in a good lungful from the Sweet Caporal I still had in my mouth: nothing like a good smoke after a scrap. Then I turned to Arnie, who had gotten up from the pink love seat and was just standing there, holding Maxine’s snubnose in his hand.
“How ya doin’ there, pal?” I said.
“Okay,” he said. You could tell Arnie wasn’t too used to this kind of roughplay though, unlike me for whom, let’s face it, it’s all in a day’s work because that’s just the kind of a knockaround Joe I am.
“Well, good, buddy. Good,” I said. “Hey, you hungry? Because I’m goddam starving.”
“Well, uh,” he said. He was staring at the gun in his hand, probably wondering how the hell it had gotten into the back of his trousers, but before he could say anything else there came a high-pitched whining from under the overturned table.
“Ah, hell,” I said. “Goddam Mojo. I tell you, the day they drop the hydrogen bomb, this is the guy who’s gonna crawl out of a basement somewheres, the last man alive on the goddam planet.”
I bent down at the knees, grabbed that heavy table and flip-flopped it over. There was Mojo, lying on his back and groaning, his eyes only half open. The Luger had fallen out of his hand, so I walked around and picked it up.
“Got your Luger back, anyway, Arnie,” I said. “But maybe I should just put a round in this little bastard’s head first.”
“Please don’t, Ben,” said Arnie.
“Your call, pal,” I said. “Here, let’s trade gats. I should really give that snubby back to Maxine whom I borrowed it from without actually telling her about it.” I flicked the Luger’s safety back on, and we traded the pistols. I never did feel good holding one of those Nazi guns. Buy American, that’s my motto, although I wished I had me a .45 instead of this Chief’s Special, because, let’s face it, if you’re going to shoot a guy (or a gal if you’ve got to) and say an M-1 carbine isn’t handy or maybe a sawed-off 12-gauge loaded up with double-ought buck, then you might as well go for the good old service .45 and hit them with a round or two that will knock them right down and keep them down. Reminds me of one time I got in this jam with these nympho assassins out in Jakarta, and --
But then there came a woman’s muffled groan, underneath the sound of Mojo’s whining.
“Damn,” I said, and I turned and looked at where Futuyama lay sprawled like a harpooned sea lion on top of whatever might be left of Madame Chang and her big red and gold chair. “Don’t tell me that dame’s still alive?”
The female groaning continued from somewhere under that mountain of meat. Kind of like a groaning from the grave. Not that I’ve ever heard a groaning from the grave, but if you imagined what that might sound like, that’s what this sounded like.
“That’s downright creepy,” I said. “So what do you say, Arnie? Let’s roll Mojo, then look around and see where Madame Chang keeps her gelt, help ourselves, then go wolf down a couple of those water-buffalo steaks at Shanghai Sally’s, washed down with three-four Tiger Beers apiece --””
“Ben,” said Arnie. “We can’t just leave her there under him.”
“Arnie,” I said. “May I remind you this broad was just gonna drag us both to the Soul whatchamacallit Chamber?”
“The Soul Transference Chamber,” he said.
“Right,” I said. “Whatever that is, and I don’t know what it is exactly, or even approximately, but it doesn’t sound like someplace I would want to visit just for kicks if you know what I mean.”
“Still,” he said, “we can’t just leave her there under him. She’ll suffocate.”
“God you’re a bleeding heart, Arnie,” I said. “But you know what? That’s one of the things I like about you. Okay. Come on, help me push this goddam hippo off her.”
“Do you think he’s still alive too?”
I looked at that big beached whale lying there. Blood was pooling on Madame Chang’s nice oriental rug under his head.
“Well, looks like he’s still bleeding,” I said. “So, yeah, he’s probably not croaked yet. Come on, pal. This is probably a two-man job.”
We stuck our respective gats in our pants and then we both hunkered down to one side of Futuyama.
“All right,” I said. “One, two, three, heave!”
We both heaved, and I’m a pretty strong guy, and Arnie’s no ninety-pound weakling either, but still after three or four minutes of heaving and ho-ing we still couldn’t get that big pile of blubber to budge. You could still hear Madame Chang groaning under him, but it was getting more faint every second.
“All right,” I said. I don’t mind saying I was sweating like a pig again now, and I was pretty out of breath, too. “Look, Arnie, we tried. No one can say we didn’t try. Now let’s --”
“You’re doing it all wrong.”
We both turned, because this was Mojo who’d just said that.
He was sitting up now, rubbing the back of his head.
“Oh, I guess you know a better way to get a ton of sumo wrestler off a little Chinese broad,” I said.
“What you need is a lever,” he said. “You’re a nautical fellow, Ben. You should know about these things.”
“Hey, don’t tell me what I should or shouldn’t know,” I said. “Besides, where we gonna get a lever?”
“How should I know?” he said, and he picked his straw fedora up off the floor and started poking the dents out of it, like he’d said what he had to say and now it was up to us to make of it what we would.
“Um, y’know, how about that chair arm?” said Arnie, pointing to it sticking out from under Futuyama on the rug there.
What the hell, sometimes you just got to admit that other people have good ideas sometimes, even if you are at the point where you’re saying to hell with it and let’s go get some steaks and beer, so I grabbed the chair arm and twisted it free of what was left of that squashed chair, and then I got it at an angle under Futuyama.
I won’t bore you with all the mechanics, I’m getting a little bored myself to be honest, but a couple of minutes later, after we got Mojo to handle the chair-arm lever while Arnie and I did the heaving, we finally got Futuyama turned over, and there was Madame Chang lying there still groaning in the wreckage of her chair. She had gotten pretty flattened out, but she was still breathing. She also still had that little automatic in her hand, and, even as out of it as she was, her eyelashes fluttered and then she slowly raised her gun hand. Fortunately I was on the ball and I grabbed it out of her delicate little paw before she could put a bullet in me.
“Arggghhh,” she said.
“Yeah, sure, Madame Chang,” I said. “I’ll give you your gat back. On a cold Christmas day in hell I will.”
“Arrrgghh,” she said again.
“Yeah, whatever,” I said, and I stood up. Like I had thought, it was one of those little Pocket Mausers, a .25, okay for one of those Gestapo pansies with their monocles and cigarette holders or maybe one of those black-stockinged SS cat-o’-nine-tails torturer babes, but no kind of a real man’s sidearm. I thumbed the safety off and stuck the gat in my dungaree pocket anyway. You never know when even a peashooter like that might come in handy in a pinch. Arnie and Mojo were both standing up now, too, and Mojo had picked up his straw hat from the floor and was poking the dents out of it. “And you, you little runt,” I said to him. “Double-crossing us like that. You’re just lucky we’re only gonna relieve you of your roll instead of taking it out of your midget hide. Now hand over that wad of dough you were flashing earlier tonight.”
“Gee, Ben,” said Mojo, and he screwed his hat onto his egg-like little noggin. “You don’t have to take it personal.”
“Fork it over.”
“My whole roll?”
“All of it. Just for the aggravation.”
“But what if I can help your friend Arnold?”
This was Mojo for you. The guy just never gave up. I almost admired him for it. Almost.
“And how are you gonna help Arnie?” I said.
“He still wants to get back to his own world, doesn’t he?”
“Sure he does, and you were supposed to get Madame Chang here to help him do that, remember? Before you tried to pull a fast one on us?”
“That was all Madame Chang’s fault.” He started straightening his tie. “I assure you my offer was sincere, and I was certain that if anyone could get Arnold back to his so-called reality it was Madame Chang, mistress as she is of various oriental dark arts.” Now he adjusted his pocket handkerchief. “However, when I telephoned her while you were making what you Americans call whoopee with Maxine and while Arnold was otherwise shall we say engaged in the men’s room, after I told Madame Chang about Arnold she demanded that I bring him here at once by hook or by crook so that she could take him to the Soul Transference Chamber and --”
“Okay, slow down, Speedy Gonzalez, you’re losing me,” I said. I had tossed away my cigarette back when we were huffing and puffing trying to move Futuyama (and, yes, I’ll admit I just tossed it on the floor), and now I took out my Sweet Caporals and the Musso & Frank’s matches again.
“The Soul Transference Chamber,” Mojo said, taking one of those big cigars out of his inside jacket pocket and giving it the once-over to see if it was still smokable. “You really weren’t paying any attention when she explained it all, were you, Ben?”
“So sue me,” I said, and I lit up a smoke, coughing a little. I waved the match out and tossed it. Someday maybe I’d quit these Sweet Caporals. But not tonight, that was for sure. “I had other stuff on my mind. Besides, you were paying attention, weren’t you, Arnie?”
“Yes,” he said. “As best I could.”
“Well, in a nutshell,” said Mojo. He bit off the end of the stogie with his sharp little teeth and spat out the plug. “Give me a light, will you?”
I gave him a light with the Musso & Frank’s matches, which reminded me of restaurants, which reminded me of Shanghai Sally’s joint and her water-buffalo steaks. I hoped Mojo wasn’t going to take too long getting to the point if he had a point, because, man, I was starving. He took a couple of good puffs on his cigar, looked at it, and then finally picked up where he’d left off.
“In a nutshell,” he said, again, taking his own goddam time, “Madame Chang among her various other enterprises traffics in souls so to speak. You may not be aware of this, but there is quite a lucrative black market in human souls.”
“Really?” I said. “Y’know, I honestly have to say I did not know that. And who buys these human souls, anyway?”
“Rich people,” said Mojo. “Rich people who have lost their own souls, through dissipation or inanition, or who have realized that their own souls are simply too boring to bear any longer. And then also, just as some wealthy bastards love to collect race horses or motorcars, there are others who get their kicks collecting people’s souls. Anyway, when I told Madame Chang about Arnold she became very excited. Very excited indeed. She said that such a one as he could bring an enormous price on the black soul market.”
“Okay, I get it,” I said, although I didn’t really. “But then why did she want to take me into this Soul whatchacallit Chamber?”
“It’s true, cher Ben, that at first she showed no interest in you or your soul, assuming as she no doubt did from what little I told her about you that you were only a not very bright thug, a goon, a palooka, a smaller version of our friend Futuyama here --”
“Hey, wait a minute --”
“But, mon plus cher Ben, when she saw you in person in all your red-blooded glory I think she saw a possible market even for your soul. Oh, not that yours would bring in anywhere near the price that Mr. Schnabel’s soul would command, but enough perhaps to make the deal worth her while.”
“Well,” I said, “I guess I should be flattered then, in a way. Just curious, did she mention what she thought my soul would bring on the market?”
“I think fifty was a sum she mentioned she would find acceptable.”
“Fifty grand, huh? Not bad, yes sir --”
“No, dear Ben, just fifty.”
“American at least?”
“Malayan dollars. Enough for a water-buffalo steak meal at Shanghai Sally’s, provided you didn’t have too many Planter’s Punches and bottles of Tiger Beer, and left only a modest tip.”
“Jeeze,” I said. “What did she hope to get for Arnie’s soul?”
“Oh, sky’s the limit she thought.”
“Yeah? Like, what, a few hundred bucks?”
“Oh, no, much more. Much, much more.”
“Try five hundred thousand, Ben. Possibly a million.”
“Damn,” I said.
Sometimes in this life somebody will just tell you something and it really makes you stop and think. But if you do stop and think about it too much there’s a good chance you’ll just put a loaded pistol to your head and pull the trigger. Or, if like me right then you happened to have two roscoes on your person maybe you could put one pistol on either side of your head and pull both triggers simultaneously, just to make sure you didn’t screw it up, just the way you had screwed up your whole damn life.
“Don’t feel bad, cher Ben,” said Mojo. “We can’t all be Odysseus or Gilgamesh or Jason or Beowulf.”
I didn’t know who any of those guys were, but I didn’t let on.
“Bunch of overrated bums, you ask me,” I said.
“Ha ha, quite risible, mon cher Ben,” said Mojo. “But there is no need to be defensive. Some of us must settle for being the heroes of cheap paperback novels of the sort one purchases at a drugstore and then, after one has finished it, one leaves on the floor of a bus with the used chewing gum and cigarettes ends.”
“I don’t get it,” I said, and for once I was telling the truth.
“And some of us,” said Mojo, “like me, mon cher Ben, some of us must be merely the supporting players in such ephemeral trash. No, sorry to say, we can’t all be like Arnold.”
“Wait a minute, Mr. Mojo,” said Arnie, who had been pretty quiet through all this. “What makes me so special? Just because I come from the real world?”
“The real world?” said Mojo. “What’s so special about the real world?”
(To be continued, and for no one knows how long now, as yet another trove of Arnold Schnabel’s marble copybooks has recently been discovered hidden under some S&H Green Stamps catalogs in a cardboard box that came with a 1957 Philco portable television set on a shelf in the back of the garage behind Arnold’s aunts’ house on North Street in Cape May, New Jersey.)
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.