Chantal van Cleve was a knockout in her blue gown, cut low in the back. A sapphire sparkled at her throat. Hans wore a hand-tailored beige suit, and carried a trumpet case.
“Honey? Do you have to bring that everywhere we go?” Chantal asked. “I mean, you take it to the restroom when we go out.”
“I can’t lose her. She’s my angel, and you’re my muse,” he replied. “God forbid I lose either of you, and I can’t take you to the restroom with me.” He smiled white-toothedly.
They heard Rick’s before they saw it. The band was swinging, and there were people mingling outside, waiting to get a table. Hans and Chantal looked at each other, not knowing what to do. Hans shrugged, and they walked up to the door, which was guarded by two giant Moroccans wearing fezzes, with swords by each man’s side.
“Good evening, sir. Madam.”
“Good evening,” Hans replied. “We were hoping to get a table?”
“Ah, yes. Signor Ferrari has reserved a table for you. Please follow me.”
Hans looked down at his wife. “Signor Ferrari? Who is—“
“—long story, hon. Wait till we get seated.”
The towering host, Abdul, seated the couple at a perfect table for people-watching. Hans pulled out $25 Vichy Francs as a tip. Abdul refused, as the band took a break.
“Signor Ferrari has taken care of it, but thank you. Your waiter will be right over.”
Across the club, a man in a white coat and black bowtie was playing chess with a small, odd-looking girl. The girl was reading Dante’s “Divine Comedy,” then making her moves quickly after the man finished pondering the board and making his move.
At the bar, a woman dressed quite a bit more suggestively than the rest of the clientele glared daggers at the man in the white coat. She was obviously pissed, both in the American and British connotations of the word (angry and drunk, respectively). The bartender was talking her up, but she ignored him, except when she ordered another drink—demanded was more like it. “Sascha, fill it up,” they could hear through the smoky air.
The main door to their right opened, and three Nazis in full dress uniforms entered. They were immediately escorted to a somewhat private area where other Germans had congregated.
“Dammit!” The man in the white jacket exclaimed, pounding the table. “I always forget about your trick with the rook. Here.”
He tossed $150 Vichy Francs on the chessboard, and got up to wander the club. A blind man was riffing softly on piano. The man patted his shoulder as he walked by.
The man in the white jacket noticed Chantal and Hans and walked over to their table.
“Welcome to Rick’s Café Americain. I’m Rick,” he introduced himself. “And you’re Hans and Chantal van Cleve, right?” Rick sat down.
“How did you know who we are?” Hans asked.
Rick smiled, lighting a Chesterfield. “Ferrari told me about ‘Rossa’s adventures in your house today—she’s a total nut, and keeps crawling under my tables when she gets wasted, but she’s best friends with Annie the Soapmaker, and she adds a little color to the place, wearing nothing by silk harem pants and tops. Anyway, Ferrari asked me to show you a good time on his bill.” Rick took a drag off his cigarette, then looked up suddenly, “Emile? A bottle of the Verve-Cliquot ’26 for the van Cleves, please.”
“Louis, the Prefect of Police here, swears by this wine. I’m a bourbon man, myself.” He ashed his cigarette. “I haven’t heard you play since 1937 in Berlin. You were with the Genesee Quartet. Damn, you can play. I see your horn case there. Do you mind sitting in later?”
Hans was taken aback. “No. I would be happy to.”
“I’ll tell Ray you’re here,” Rick said. “Ah. Your Champagne. Welcome, and I hope to see you here frequently. I have a drunk floozy to remove, and a room full of Nazis to keep drunk and calm. Jesus, when they get riled up about Hitler, it’ll drive you nuts. Enjoy your stay. I’ll check back with you later.”
“He seems nice enough,” Chantal said. Hans nodded. He swore he saw a casino through one door that another Moroccan giant was guarding. Some club patrons tried to get in, but there pleas were rebuffed, and they were sent away. Others were bowed through the door pro forma.
“I’ve seen some strange clubs, my darling, but this is one of the strangest. A cove full of Nazis, some tiny chess master girl, the owner dragging a drunk floozy out of the club by her arm, a secret casino, and—shit qaddis—that’s Charles Ray on piano!”
“Hans? `Shit qaddis’?” Chantal asked, sipping her wine.
“Oh. It’s Maltese for `holy shit.’ You know, Maltese, like in the movie?”
‘I don’t want to know how you know this.” She rolled her eyes, as Emile the waiter poured her another glass of wine. She tapped down a cigarette and lit it, blowing a small plume of smoke into the face of a small bug-eyed man.
He coughed briefly, took a sip of his brandy, and sat down, cough-free.
“Good evening. I see this is your first time at Rick’s, yes?”
“Yes. And you are…”
“I apologize. My name is Ugarte.”
Hans reached across and shook Ugarte’s sweaty hand.
“My name is Hans van Cleve, and this is my wife, Chantal.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, sir and madam.” Ugarte looked all around him, as if his head could swivel 360 degrees. His voice grew quieter, and everyone had to lean forward to hear what the odd little man was saying. They leaned so far forward, in fact, that Ugarte’s sleeve caught fire in the candle. Hans instantly dumped his glass on the fire, but there were only two drops left in it, so Ugarte’s right arm was still going up in flames. All at once, a large splash of water put out Ugarte’s fire, and—perhaps more importantly—soaked him to the bone in ice water.
The source of the splash was Annie the Soapmaker, alertly dumping the champagne ice bucket on the fire.
“Gorrammit, Ugarte,” she scolded. “Can’t you even try to sell exit visas without setting the joint on fire?”
Signor Ugarte stood up, bowed to Mr. and Mrs. Van Cleve, and took his leave. Annie the Soapmaker and Testarossa Ferrari sat down.
“Hans? This is Annie the Soapmaker, and this is ‘Rossa, who did the lovely flower arrangement you mentioned.”
“Oh, yes! That is really beautiful! How did you learn to do that?”
“Meh. You just bite off the parts that don’t look right, then you have it. Et voila!”
“As you can see, ‘Rossa has very little verbal filtering ability.”
Annie the Soapmaker reached into a backpack beneath the table. She smiled evilly.
“Since I had to spill your champagne, what do you say we beta-test my newest concoction, called Europa.”
Hans raised an eyebrow. “But we just left Europa, so—“
“—oh, no. This is another Europa. One of Jupiter’s moons, which is where this bottle should take us.”
Chantal—having heard about acid & peyote, and seeing exploding soap bricks—was suddenly worried. “Um…”
“EMILE! Four glasses, please.” Annie the Soapmaker uncorked the bottle, and Chantal swore she saw a wisp of green smoke come out.
“Don’t worry, Chantal,” said Annie the Soapmaker. “I promise. You’ll love it.”
She winked, and the whole thing began.
The giant door knocker echoed through a large stone house in Casablanca. The house was just like the two houses that adjoined it, airy with arched walls, and windows looking out over a lush courtyard with a burbling fountain.
“I’ll get it,” shouted a beautiful, tall, brown-eyed woman in a silk kimono. Her name was Chantal van Cleve; her husband, Hans van Cleve, was typing in another room. Hans was deaf as shit from playing jazz trumpet the past twenty years back in their native Amsterdam, so he really didn’t hear the door knock or his wife shouting.
Chantal opened the door to find herself looking down at a slightly shorter, intense looking woman with sharp blue eyes. With her was a rather spacey-looking, tanned, barefooted girl, holding a beautiful bouquet of flowers. The girl seemed to float into the house, leaving both of the other women a bit flummoxed.
“Excuse me,” said the blue-eyed woman, still standing on the doorstep. “’Rossa? What have we discussed about going into other people’s houses without being invited?”
“That they could be fucking?” Rossa replied. “OH! And it’s not polite!” She smiled. “ESPECIALLY if they’re fucking.”
The smaller woman shook her head.
“I have to apologize for ‘Rossa. She ate a whole shitload of peyote last night, thinking it was some kind of cookie. She still hasn’t come down yet.” She paused. “To be honest, she’s a little spacey, even at full power, but she’s the best pickpocket in all of Casablanca, so she’s got some mad skills there.”
The woman held out her hand. “My name is Annie, and I’m a Soapmaker. I saw you moved in, and I wanted to bring you these.” She handed over a lovely gift basket with eight beautifully wrapped bars of soap, and a ninth bar that was unwrapped.
“Frakkin ‘Rossa,” Annie muttered to herself. “She almost had the basket right.”
“It looks really pretty to me, and I’m really grateful—“
Annie the Soapmaker turned and threw the ninth bar over the fountain. When it landed, it exploded.
“Holy SHIT!!” exclaimed Chantal.
“Hon?” Hans called from the other room. “I think there’s somebody at the door.”
“Don’t worry,” Annie reassured Chantal. “It keeps the solicitors away. Anyway, we live next door—my husband, daughter and me. Testarossa Ferrari’s dad is leader of all criminal activity in Casablanca, and she lives in that huge house next to The Blue Parrot. That’s the bar where he does most of his dealings, so if you ever need anyone `disappeared,’ or whatever, he’s the man to see. He’s fat, wears a white suit, and looks like Sidney Greenstreet in `The Maltese Falcon, if you ever saw that.”
“We did, back in Amsterdam,” Chantal replied. “Thank you for your present. These soaps smell fantastic.” She paused. “How rude of me. My name is Chantal van Cleve. My husband, Hans, is typing in the other room.”
“’Rossa? That’s a hookah, not a flower vase, but good try.”
Chantal laughed, and floated off to the kitchen to get a vase. She returned shortly, and ‘Rossa began arranging the flowers. Then rearranging them. Then re-re-arranging them, smiling all the while.
“Holy God, I have to hide my peyote better,” Annie the Soapmaker mused.
“You sell drugs??”
“Not exactly. I experiment with making different substances. Some of them…well, they involve less savory elements. Which reminds me, do you have any hypochlorous acid I could borrow?”
“Hypochlorous acid? I’m working on a new beverage, but I’m out of hypochlorous acid, and now I’m out of peyote. Dammit. Oh, well. The people near my lab tent are throwing a big, obnoxious shindig, and they are pissing me off. Thus? It’ll just be those little bricks that explode. ‘Rossa and my five-year-old love throwing those. Welcome to the courtyard. We’re on the right outside your front door. The house to your left in the courtyard is my assistant, Hermione, and her girlfriend, Lisbeth. They’re both geniuses. Be forewarned: Hermione will talk your ears off. Lisbeth probably won’t talk to you for a year, but she’ll play chess with you anytime. And don’t forget about Rick’s! We’ll see you there tonight.”
‘Rossa glided back in from the kitchen, carrying the vase. “Because, Mrs. van Cleve, everyone comes to Rick’s.” The two women left.
On the round living-room table stood the most-beautiful floral arrangement Chantal had ever seen. Apparently, she thought to herself, ‘Rossa did have some mad skills.
Chantal walked upstairs to choose an outfit for her first night at Rick’s.
There are different words today, different terms in the nomenclature: bi-polar disorder; bi-polar one; bi-polar two; bi-polar with caramel drizzle, you name it.
For me, it’s just been three years of soul-rending manic depression–that’s how it feels to me, so fuck the nomenclature. There’s mania, and there’s depression, and neither are pleasant.
Mania can almost be fun. Life is fast and furious, like Mrs. Howell after she ate the radioactive sugar beets on that Gilligan’s Island episode: she was running around with the film sped up to about eight-times normal. It was comedy.
The manic phase of the disorder is like driving downhill on a winding road. It’s fun for awhile, but soon, you wish for a straightaway, or for the road to level out, so you’re just not so unstoppably jittery. It’s like running and running and running, and you want to stop, but you have to keep running and running.
There’s a poem–I think it’s e.e. cummings–and that’s basically it: “running, running, fast, oh, fast.”
You can’t stop. You can’t sleep. You can’t shut off your mind. Your thoughts come so fast and furious, you can’t possibly consider them all, profundities and inanities contrapuntal. I’ve been up for three straight manic days before, driving when I was too amped to be driving, but there was nothing else to do. So I’d drive from St Pete to Sarasota or vice versa just for lunch. It’s a miracle I wasn’t killed, although the idea of dying wasn’t necessarily averse then, just so I could stop. Fucking. Running.
So you’re running or driving, and everything has a glow, a shimmer about it–but it’s too much of a glow or shimmer, something akin to glare, like looking at the Sun two hours before sunset as opposed to two minutes before sunset. Nothing mellow about it. And your skin vibrates. Not literally–most of the time, although I got tingles and twitches–but you feel electric charges running up and down your body.
Then you run–or drive into–the wall.
The wall is depression. You hit that, and your remains slide inexorably down into a pit, into The Abyss, as I’ve often called it. Your lowest point gets on a downward elevator, and you can’t stop. You don’t know how far down you’ve gone, or how far down you’re going to go. Only that it’s a dark place, and it’s claustrophobic as shit, and you just want to curl up in a ball and die. You want the darkness to go away, some how, some way–any way.
This is the part where you curl up in a ball, where you stay in bed for days at a time, if you can. I could. I’d order in food and take care of the cat, but the rest of the time, I was just trying to think of something positive in my life, some reason not to just give up. Suicide was never an option–I’m far too much of a coward to try that–but I’ve tried to eat and drink myself to death. I’m now losing a lot of weight, and I’ve been sober nine years and change, so those failed. This is the part of the disease where I thank God for the Internet, so I can spend my gray hours gazing unfocusedly at stale JFK Conspiracy or Hitler docs, or watch some movie I like okay but have seen a dozen times (Double Indemnity, e.g.).
The Internet is a double-edged sword, though. In addition to my black-and-white world, I might end up on Facebook, and see my friends or family and their perfect, brightly colored lives. “Had a great time cooking out by the pool with the kids! Can’t believe how BIG they’ve gotten!!!!!”
Their lives are exclamation point lives, full of promise and awesomeness. Where would my life be in the world of punctuation? Ellipses? “Tom was in radio, had his station changed so he was unemployed, then he tried another job, and now he’s depressed and doing nothing…” Maybe a dash would be more optimistic: “Tom had some bad stuff happen–and his head blew up for awhile–” That implies a resolution, a “but NOW Tom is doing ____”.
For nearly three years, I’ve been seeing one of the foremost psychologists in the field of depressive illnesses. We’ve been through more bottles of more pills that Big Pharma should buy us both Porsches.
We’re to a point now where the mania still happens, but it’s not as bad, nor does the Abyss seem as deep.
Don’t get me wrong–they both still suck ass–but there’s improvement. Also, when I’m between the two, I might have a normal day or two. I don’t even know what to do with a normal day.
Finally, I can sense when I’m slipping from one to the other, and I feel like I have the tools to protect myself. If depression is coming on, I’m not going to agree to go to somebody’s house where there are small children, for example. If mania is coming on, that might not be so bad.
Naturally, since my brain was starting to heal, something bad happened in my left upper leg. Nobody has been able to tell me what it is. I’ve had prescriptions, enough x-rays to fuel a quasar, and just finished my fifth of six weeks of physical therapy. I now have an appointment with a new Orthopedist, whom my mother says is awesome. She’s a nurse she knows things. I got a scrip for Tramadol from my GP in St Pete on our “farewell, and let’s check your bloodwork” visit. I told him the problem. He wrote me for Tramadol twice a day with a refill. Okay. I don’t really take pain pills unless I’m in pain, so that was fine. Until one night when GOOD GOD ALMIGHTY, it felt like somebody had cut into my left thigh with a chainsaw, and did it again and again. I grabbed my Tramadol bottle–trying not to scream the whole time–and thought, “the dose is one, Tom, so–SWEET JESUS, CHEW UP FOUR OF THEM!”
I found that in certain positions, there was incredible pain, while in other positions, there was nothing. Not a twinge or anything. This has continued for the past seven weeks, and it has gotten better, I admit. (aside: My St Pete GP is very laid back. His labeling instructions were “Take one tablet every eight hours as needed.” New GP? “Take one to two tablets BY MOUTH two to three times a day for serious pain.” (caps mine)).
How else would I take these pill? I’m not going to snort Tramadol. Jeesh.
While I was doing my PT on Friday, I saw these charts on the wall. There, on the right-hand chart, I saw my problem. Nobody had touched me or really asked me many question, but the patient seems to have discovered a problem with his left I-T band. I don’t know what that means, except that it radiates from where mine radiates, then up and down where mine goes up and down. Poor Blue Cross/Blue Shield is paying a shitload for something I saw on a chart.
Anyway, earlier this week I was so manic, I wrote 5000 or 6000 words in “Back to Casablanca.” I doubt anyone read them, or even if they make any sense. It was fun to do. Today, I couldn’t even come up with a rude t-shirt for Annie. It’ll come back. I just hope it’s soon: I was having a ball writing those Casablanca mash-ups and creating new people. (Seriously, how often do you get to smoosh together MacBeth, Casablanca, Harry Potter, Annie the Soapmaker (who is indeed real: find her awesome, tom used and endorsed wares here)
Plus some other friends, made-up people, and Brother Ray and ‘Trane, all jammin’ in Casablanca?
I was hurting earlier, so I took a few Tramadol as ordered by my control-freak new doc, and I’m turning into Jell-O.
The two harshest things my psychiatrist told me were A) that I will have issues–cognitive dissonance, et al–which will often require psychotherapy, and B) I will have Manic-Depression all my life. It’s just a matter of finding the right meds and the right behavior tools to control it. I think I’m on my way. I’m getting better sloooooooowly, incrementally.
I’m nowhere near done in my “comeback.”
But now I can sleep. Every damn night
Testarossa Ferrari didn’t so much climb into her boyfriend Ahmad’s huge Roman bath as trip opening the door and fall face first into it. The soap got in her eyes, but she heard splashing from the far end, and made her way over toward the sound.
“I got shot with a tranquilizer dart,” she said. “I shot myself in the foot, technically. Then Annie brought me back here and knocked me out with something. And I’m all woozy, but I wanted to see you, but now I have soap in my eyes, so I can’t see anything.”
‘But,” she continued, “I heard you splashing.” She went over to Ahmad, and kissed him hard on the mouth. “Soft. You must have just shaved.” She kissed him again, running her hands up Ahmad’s hairy chest. However, there was no hair there. Only two shapely, soapy breasts.
“Oh, shit, Ahmad! Did Annie do something to you?” ‘Rossa finally wiped the soap from her eyes, and found herself staring at the rather stunned faces of The Princess of Lichtenstein, The Baroness von Heidelberg, and Jane. Jane still had soap on her face from where ‘Rossa had kissed her.
“You’re not Ahmad,” ‘Rossa observed, “So why are you in his bath?”
“Um, this is our bath. You’re in our hotel room, ‘Rossa: Room من ستة وسبعين at the Casablanca Inn and Spa.
“This isn’t Casablanca Arms Condidmen, no, wait. Comedidum. No, wait–”
“Condominium?” Jane offered helpfully.
“Yes! That’s it.” ‘Rossa smiled. She stood up and looked around the room, then down at the two women.
“You know,” she whispered conspiratorially. “You’re both naked.”
“We’re taking a bath, so of course we are,” the Princess replied. “And as wet as you are, you can see everything through your silks.”
“Uh-oh. That’s not good,” she looked down. “Yeah, boobies and hoo-hoo muffin.”
“Since you’re already wet, you could just join us in the bath. Hang your silks up to dry, and even borrow a robe if necessary.”
“Then we’d be naked in the tub.”
“Because we’re taking a bath “
“Oh,” ‘Rossa looked forlorn.
“What’s wrong,” asked Jane.
“You want me to take a bath with you.”
“I was hoping for a three-way with two women. Annie won’t play that way, and the little Swedish girl hates me, but I’ve always kinda wanted to be with two–
“The Baroness of Heidlberg Anastasia, the Princess of Lichtenstein,” shut ‘Rossa up with a deep kiss, while Jane unwound what little silk was left.
And they shared a bath. And all of their backs got scrubbed repeatedly. And this author never employs euphemism.
“’Rossa, your silks are trashed. There’s a robe over there on the hook. You can borrow it and wear it home,” Jane offered.
“Can I wear it to Ahmad’s instead?”
“Sure. You can wear it anyplace you want.”
“Whew,” said ‘Rossa. “Okay. Thank you. Ahmad works at The Blue Parrot, but that’s my dad’s place, so I’ll see you at Rick’s tonight. I hear there will be awkwardness and subtruge. ‘Bye!” ‘Rossa left.
“What the fuck?”
“Subterfuge,” Jane translated from ‘Rossa-speak.
“Oh, okay,” replied the Princess. “Now—“she smiled lasciviously—“We might have enough time that I could get my back washed againn!”
Rick’s was hopping that night. Far from the tired standards Sam had droned out, Ray Charles led his orchestra through “Hit the Road Jack,” “What I Say,” and dozens of upbeat songs that had some people trying to dance, then falling down, because they were so unfamiliar with real music.
Rick sat at a small table with Annie the Soapmaker, downing shots of Reichstagfeuer, and chasing them with bonded bourbon. They were getting drunk pretty quickly. Annie put on the brakes with a large vodka, extra soda, and lime. Rick just laid-off the Reichstagfeuer, and sipped his bourbon.
“Rick,” Annie said quietly, taking a big sip of her drink. “Don’t lie to me. You have those letters of transit, don’t you?”
“And what if I did?”
“You could get Laszlo out of here on the plane tonight.”
“And make a fortune doing so. But?”
“But you’d forever lose the chick who looks like Ingrid Bergman.”
“Right. She dumped me in Paris, and I don’t want her to leave here without me.”
“Well, send Laszlo with someone else?”
“Pity Ugarte bought it.”
“You’re sure he’s dead?”
“Yeah. That’s what Louis told Laszlo when he and Strasser were `interviewing’ him this morning.” Rick took a cigarette from his case and offered one to Annie. He lit them both.
“The sad thing,” he said, blowing smoke toward the ceiling, “is that all Ugarte wanted was to leave. He didn’t give a damn about Laszlo or the Free French movement or any of that crap. He just wanted to sell the letters, get an exit visa from his source, and get the hell out of here.”
“Yeah,” Annie ashed her cigarette. “Why didn’t he just use the things himself? Get on the plane at the last minute with his letters, and be gone from here?”
“He wanted the money, kid.” Rick sipped his bourbon. “He told me last night he was going to sell them for more money than even he had ever imagined. He wanted the whole pie. Not just a slice.”
“Nice metaphor.” Annie smiled.
At the bar, a French Resistance soldier and an SS enlisted man were arguing over Yvonne the bar floozy, who was now a proper woman eager to try out her new vagina. The problem was, the men started to scuffle, which caused Jane to spill her two glasses of Reichstagfeuer. In a flash, she smashed the glass against the bar, kicked the soldier’s knee sideways, and held a pointed piece of glass an inch—or about 2.5 centimeters—from the man’s eye.
“You fuck with me again, and I’m jabbing this into your brain, get it?”
For good measure, she kicked the man square in the nuts. Annie the Soapmaker walked over from her table and kicked the Nazi in the balls as well. Fuck it. This wasn’t The League of Nations; it was Casablanca. Rick walked over.
“Sascha? Could you help this green-faced Nazi back to his table, then sweep this up?”
Sascha dragged the excruciated soldier back to the Luftwaffe table.
Major Strasser walked over from the Nazi part of the bar. Rick stood up, his head only reaching the officer’s shoulder. Annie stood up, only reaching the tall man’s xyphoid process. Concerned, Police Captain Louis Renault came scurrying in from the roulette wheel.
“There is far too much anti-Nazi sympathy in this club,” Strasser said.
“Well, it’s because you are a bunch of twatwaffles.”
“See what I mean? Captain, I want this club closed down immediately.”
“No, you don’t want it closed down. First off, you schwanzsaugenden Nazis would have to drink at The Blue Parrot, and there’s no way your Wagnerian brains could handle such speed and mysticism as John Coltrane has on sax over there. And second, Rick was just about to say how he was going to offer you 10% of the gambling profits as a goodwill gesture, wasn’t that right?”
The tall Luftwaffe major in his dress uniform and the diminutive young genius in a worn pair of Chucks and an “If You Can Read This: Suck My Balls” t-shirt locked glares.
“Very well, Mister Rick,” the Major said, breaking his gaze first. “That arrangement will be satisfactory to me.”
Rick and Annie nodded.
“Herr Rick. Frau Annie the Soapmaker,” and the Major took his leave.
Louis looked concerned. “I overheard what he was saying, Annie. If he has a complete dossier on you, that means he’s had you researched and watched closely. We all know you’ve done some…unusual things here.”
Testarossa Ferrari had remembered to wear panties tonight, Annie noticed.
“Sascha,” she called. “A round for our table, for Yvonne, and the two pairs of Risk-playing lovebirds over there.” She gestured toward The Baroness Anastasia von Heidelberg, Princess of Lichtenstein, and Jane, sharing a table with Lisbeth, and Hermione–fresh back from “Restrepo.”
Annie looked skeptically at her friend. “’Rossa, you never buy drinks for that many people, because you never have anyplace to carry money.”
“In my panties I do.”
Everyone cringed simultaneously.
“However, tonight? It’s on Major Heinrich Strasser of the German Luftwaffe,” she said, taking a big wad of cash from the wallet she’d just stolen from the Nazi. Sascha mixed the drinks grinning ear-to-ear. Even Rick laughed. “They’re all on the house, Sascha.”
“Oh, and that dossier? I can’t believe you lost your virginity when you were—“
“GIVE ME THAT!!”
And later that night, the Nazi report on Annie the Soapmaker’s virginity loss (and other skills, crimes, and sexual predilections) crackled in her ever-fired stove, their smoky secrets wafting away into the desert night.
Standing outside a dark and scary forest, a young blonde girl with rather protuberant blue eyes was feeding meat to a rather odd looking animal. It had the feathered head and wings of an eagle, and the landing gear of a horse. The animal was called a hippogriff, and the young girl was named Luna Lovegood.
From the dark and scary forest emerged an odd trio of creatures. One was wearing blue jeans and a t-shirt saying “Blow Me.” One was wearing odd robes. The third, a somewhat vacuous and smiling young woman, was wearing harem pants of the finest sheer silk, and scarves draped over and around her chest.
Annie the Soapmaker looked at Testarossa Ferrari and rolled her eyes. “’Rossa? What did we discuss about wearing underwear when wearing really sheer silk?”
“Ohhhh. That’s why it’s so breezy on my—“
“—yes. That’s it.”
“You love saying that, don’t you?”
“Yep. Are these the birds? They’re really big compared to dad’s blue parrot that he keeps at his club, The Blue Parrot.”
Annie the Soapmaker sighed. “Of all the BFF’s to have…”
The third girl was named Hermione Granger, and she once lived in Hogwarts, the giant castle where the Hippogriff was happily munching raw dragon steaks.
“Hello, Hermione,” the girl said airily.
“People in school are wondering where you went. I told them the nargles probably sucked you into a distant dimension. Was it nargles?”
“Well, it was more a small Lesbian from another time and place sucking me through a portal in Hogsmeade.”
“Maybe the small Lesbian is a nargle.”
“Could be, I guess.”
Annie the Soapmaker’s head swiveled back and forth, as if watching a tennis match.
“What the frak is a nargle?”
Hermione started, “There this imaginary thing Luna—“
“—THEY ARE NOT IMAGINARY, YOU TWATWAFFLE!”
Everyone stared at the blonde girl, except for ‘Rossa, who was pondering the fact that her pubic hair actually was visible through the sheer silk.
“Do you think anyone ever noticed this before?”
“’Rossa, of course they did. But your father is the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, so nobody would mention it,” Annie said. “Plus, you usually remember to put on your underwear.”
“Why are you here, Hermione?” the girl asked. “Harry’s failing out of school without you to do all his homework. I help out Ronald Weasley. I like Ronald Weasley. He’s funny, so I help him with his homework.”
“That’s great, Luna. Listen, we’re pressed for time, and what we really need is a vial of hippogriff blood.”
“Okay. Do you have a spell or something to get it?”
“No, but I have a nice sterile needle. He won’t feel a thing.”
“Plus,” ‘Rossa added, “I have a tranquilizer dart gun to shoot him if he freaks.”
“Oh, for God’s sake, Hermione. You gave ‘Rossa the tranq gun?”
“Yes. I was hoping she’d hold it in front of her—“
Hermione bowed to the Hippogriff, who bowed back. She walked slowly up to it, and stroked its feathers. “You’re a good boy. You might feel a little pinch.” Hermione gently stuck the needle into the Hippogriff’s vein, and drew out the tube of blood she needed. “Thank you. Again, she patted the Hippogriff, who turned his attention back to the dragon meat Luna was feeding him. All of a sudden, there was a pop and an “ouch.”
“’Rossa tell me—please tell me—that you didn’t shoot yourself with the tranquilizer dart gun.”
“Okay. I didn’t shooooot mmyyyysseellllfff wiff thuh gunnnnn.”
Annie the Soapmaker looked down at Testarossa’s feet. “’Rossa, there’s a dart in your foot. You really DID shoot yourself with the tranq dart gun.”
“But yooooou saaaid not to tellll yoouuu. I feeeel funny,” and Testarossa Ferrari started giggling. “Thiss is like Jaegermaedchen, only stronger and owier, because theerrre’s a needle in myyy foot.”
The blonde girl kept feeding dragon meat to the hippogriff as if nothing unusual had happened.
“They like dragon meat,” she said.
“Is she some kind of dingbat,” asked Annie.
“Well…she’s different. I could do a memory erase spell on her, but nobody understands her anyway, so why waste it?”
The door opened in a nearby cabin, and a boy with round glasses and a lightning bolt scar on his forehead walked out into the group.
“Hermione??” he asked, gobsmacked. “Where have you been?? He noticed the serious girl in the “Blow Me” t-shirt and the translucently dressed girl spinning and giggling with a needle in her foot.
He reached for his wand; Hermione was faster. “RESTREPO!!”
She thought for a minute. “Oh, shit.”
After a year of working together, Annie had never heard Hermione swear.
“What the frak did you do?”
“Um, I put him into a 2010 documentary about the Afghanistan war.”
Rossa fell down in the grass giggling from the tranquilizer. Luna fell down in the grass giggling simply because she’s Luna. Annie stared at Hermione:
“You put him into a documentary about a war? You can’t put people into films, H. It doesn’t work. Either way, he has a magic wand, so maybe he’ll stop the frakkin’ war before I have to go back.”
Hermione shook her head. “He’s really amazingly inept with wandwork. And everything else, except flying. Shit, I have to get him. Can you and your half-naked friend get back okay?”
“I got her. Do what you have to do. Just come back by tonight, okay? We need that potion by tomorrow afternoon, or Sascha’s ass-herpes won’t be gone in time for work Tuesday.”
Hermione nodded and raised her wand: “Auto-restrepo,” and transported herself into a 2010 documentary.
As soon as Annie got Testarossa back to her lab tent, she knocked her out with a sleeping elixir she’d made that morning. The last thing Annie needed was a punch-drunk half-naked girl stumbling around her lab tent.
A little way down the dusty street lay Signor Ferrari’s club/home to his criminal empire, The Blue Parrot. For years, Signor Ferrari—who has no first name—has been trying to hire the singer and pianist, Sam, away from Rick’s Café Americain. Rick would have none of it. However, when Ray Charles staged a coup, and people realized how a good piano player sounded and looked, Rick let Sam go on the spot.
So now, Signor Ferrari was auditioning Sam. He anticipated great things—Sam had always drawn a crowd, and the man could entertain like nobody. The audition wasn’t going well, though. Sam kept moping through songs like “Stormy Monday,” even making “It Had to Be You” sound like a lament. Just when Ferrari was about to kick Sam out, in walked a big black man with a saxophone case. He pulled out a soprano sax, called out a key, and told Sam to try and keep up. The song was “My Favorite Things,” which would be written in 1960, but the sounds the sax man made were lyrical, angelic, and unlike anything ever heard in Casablanca. Best of all, they woke Sam up, showing him that he had multiple fingers that could play actual notes, not just acting like he was playing. He was groovin’.
After the song, the man introduced himself as John Coltrane: “Most people just call me `Trane.’” This cat on the drums is Gene Krupa, and I don’t know who the brother on the bass is, but he can play.
And thus, The Blue Parrot featured the Sandy Sam Quartet, while Rick had Ray Charles with Duke Ellington’s Orchestra. For a small dusty place, there was some hellacious music.
None of this helped Signor Ugarte, who was in a cell in the Police Prefect’s Office, being grilled about the murder of two German couriers on a Casablanca-bound train. Specifically, he was being grilled about the location of two Letters of Transit, signed by General Weygand. They could not be rescinded or even questioned.
What Ugarte failed to realize is that those letters were not bullet-proof. Even though Rick was hiding the letters for him, when Ugarte failed to come up with an alibi, two Luger bullets were shot in his head. It wasn’t Major Strasser—his uniform is far too white and clean—but some black-shirted Gestapo guy.
If Victor Laszlo had gotten to Casablanca one day earlier, Signor Ugarte would have survived. As Rick said, “It looks like fate has taken a hand.”
And fate’s hand could bitch-slap anyone.
Herr Lehman’s ass un-darted, and his wallet being pillaged, Annie the Soapmaker called over to the Baroness Anastasia of Heidelberg and Jane, suggesting that perhaps playing with sharp objects were not a good idea at that particular moment in time. The Baroness signaled to Karl the waiter, who came by immediately.
“Yes, madam,” he said. “How may I be of service?”
“I’d like a margarita, all top shelf, but with Midori instead of triple-sec, and no salt.”
“Very good. And for your friend?”
“My apologies. For your wife?”
“A Reichsctagfeuer Cinnamon Schnapps in an iced tea glass.”
The Baroness felt a tug at her skirt.
“It’s haunted down here. WOOoooooooooooo.” A bout of uncontrollable giggling came from beneath the tablecloth, along with a large plume of smoke that was clearly not pipe tobacco emanating from beneath the Baroness Anastasia von Heidelberg’s skirt.
“Here.” A hand with purple glitter nail polish handed a mouthpiece up the Baroness’s skirt.
“Try again. Aim a little higher.”
“Oops. Sorry.” More giggling. “I almost stuck the mouthpiece into your—“
“And here’s your margarita, Baroness, and your schnapps in a clean iced tea glass, ma’am. Anything else for now?”
“No, Karl. Thank you.”
“—hoo-hoo muffin,” ‘Rossa continued. ”When they’re busy, Karl doesn’t like when I sit under the tables, but it’s like playing farts.” The girl snorted. “HAHAHAHA! I mean farts. NO!! Wait! I mean, I meant forts. Here.”
The hand managed to make it over the Baroness’s skirt this time. She took a deep hit off of the hookah, and floated about 2.5 centimeters—maybe an inch—above her chair. The room took on a kaleidoscopic view, but not a scary one—all the swirling shapes were smiling and enjoying themselves. Even the odd little man yelling “RICK!!” over and over as cop-looking guys carried him away seemed to be laughing.
“Holy fuck,” The Baroness Anastasia of Heidelberg said, handing the hookah to Jane, who’d finished half a glass of her schnapps. “Well, I could try it, I guess.”
She took her hit, and immediately felt sunlight coming from within her, glowing like a star. ‘Rossa crawled out from under the table and sat the empty hookah down. “Aww. Our hooker’s empty.”
“HookAH,” corrected Jane, knowing how The Baroness loathed incorrect English.
“Her-me-own. These ladies need refilling,” Testarossa called to the next table.
“Dammit, it’s ` Her-MY-own-ee,’ and you know it.” ‘Rossa winked at the Baroness and Jane. “’Night, ladies. If you need anything—hotel upgrades, rental cars, rental camels, free drinks at the Blue Parrot, somebody to be `disappeared’—let me know. My dad’s the leader of all illegal activities in Casablanca, but he reluctantly does some legal stuff, too. Any friends of Annie the Soapmaker are friends of mine.”
Jane looked confused. “But we don’t KNOW—“
The Baroness Anastasia of Heidelberg pinched Jane under the table.
“—um, what time it is.”
Testarossa Ferrari laughed. “When they give last call, you go home. You drink more. You fuck. You sleep. You call room service for hangover breakfast, take a bath, maybe fuck again, then get up and do it again, Amen. Until tomorrow. Baroness.” ‘Rossa gave a slight bow. “Jane. Nice to meet you both. ANNIE! I’M LEAVING!!!”
“Okay, ‘Rossa. I’ll catch up with you as soon as I’m done with this, and as soon as you’re done being an uncouth twatwaffle.”
Testarossa looked uncharacteristically pensive. “That could take years.”
“Well, either way, ‘Rossa, I’ll see you tomorrow. Violet said a new bus of tourists came in from Oran today. I told her she could rob them, but only the tourists, not the refugees.”
“My dad sells exit visas. We don’t want to rob refugees. Poor devils. Why do tourists come here?”
“It’s like watching a camel wreck, where those long legs are tangled, the drivers are screaming at each other, sand’s blowing over everybody, but the camels don’t care. They just hang out, happy not to be carrying fat-ass humans on their humps for awhile.”
“So the tourists are complete assholes?”
“I’m sobering up. Good night, Baroness. Jane. See you in the morning at McDonald’s, Annie.”
“Good night, Testarossa. Stumble carefully.”
Annie picked up the hookah and carried to the Baroness and Jane’s table. Hermione and the small chess-playing girl joined them. Hermione loaded the bowl with something brown and mossy with red hairs.
“Oh, God, no more of that–”
Annie the Soapmaker laughed. “Nah. It’s just a special pipe tobacco we grow in the greenhouses behind my labs. Speaking of which, I’m Annie the Soapmaker. You met Testarossa Ferrari—almost more intimately than you probably would have expected. This is Hermione, and that pint-sized girl over there playing chess with Rick is Lisbeth.”
“I am The Baroness Anastasia von Heidelberg, and this is my wife, Jane.”
“Heidelberg doesn’t have a Baroness, though.”
“I know. `of Heidelberg’ is our family surname, so my stupid parents decided to name me “The Baroness Anastasia. I’m really Princess of Lichtenstein.”
“So your name is `The Baroness Anastasia von Heidelberg,’ but your Royal Title is `Princess of Lichtenstein’? Why not use both? `My Lords, Ladies, and Gentlemen, The Princess of Lichtenstein, The Baroness Anastasia von Heidelberg.’ Yeah. That’s a little too snotty and British.”
“Plus, Lichtenstein only has about 20,000 people,” The Baroness continued. “ I know most of their names when I see them at Goering-Marcus.”
Across the lounge, Rick and Lisbeth were setting up the chessboard.
“Nah,” said Rick. “He’s done for. They’ll say they shot him trying to escape, or that he killed himself. Anything other than the truth.”
“The Letters of Transit?”
“Does anyone realize they’re not real?”
“Apparently not, kid, because a lot of blood has been shed over them”
“Eine Menge Blut ueber sivergossen worden.”
Rick looked at the small woman with the ring in her nose. “What?”
“`A lot of blood has been shed over them,’ in German.”
“You scare me, kid.”
“I get that a lot.”
The Baroness of Heidelberg took a deep pull off the hookah. “Let me get this straight. The Prefect of Police keeps arresting the same people whenever there’s a crime and he knows who did it?”
“Yeah. `The Usual Suspects.’ He pays them a salary, and bonuses for Bastille Day and New Year’s.”
“Christmas and St. Patrick’s?”
“Muslim country, mostly.”
“But the Italian Lieutenant?”
“A complete idiot. I wouldn’t trust him to take care of my goldfish.”
“So, Annie,” The Baroness Anastasia von Heidelberg started, “You really make soap?”
“Oh, sure! All kinds of products: soaps, shampoos, crème rinses, mud packs, foot cream, C-4 explosive bricks, morphine, and—with the help of my partner in crime (at this, Hermione blushed)—potions and poisons that can do anything but make you piss purple for a month to hollow you out from the insides. Plus, naturally, inoculations for our friends. Stop by my tent tomorrow, and we’ll get you taken care of.”
Jane whispered into The Baroness’s royal-though-not-a-baroness ear. The Baroness Anastasia of Heidelberg gently kissed Jane on her forehead.
“We need to go. Where do we get our check?”
“Bah, you’ll be back tomorrow night. Just settle up then.”
“Do we need, um, to hire that big guy over there to walk us to the hotel?”
Annie the Soapmaker looked at the door and grinned.
“Abdul?” She snorted. “It’s a plastic scimitar, because he kept cutting customers with his real one. He’s also kind of a wuss. A very LARGE wuss, but a wuss nonetheless.”
Annie took a drag off her cigarette. “Finally, you’re friends of Testarossa Ferrari’s. Nobody in this dusty corner of hellions and thugs would dare lay a hand on you. You could probably walk down the street naked, and everyone would avert their eyes. You’d be sunburned to pretzels before you got here, but you probably could.”
Stubbing out her cigarette, Annie watched a tall thin man walk through the front door. “Alas, dear friends. I must away.” She turned to the man. “Come join us, minion/husband. This is The Baroness Anastasia of Heidelberg and her wife, Jane. This is my full-time husband and part-time minion, Abdul.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you both.”
Jane cocked her head to one side. “Isn’t the really big Moroccan guy at the door named Abdul?”
“Yeah,” Annie replied. “My Abdul is Swedish—Abdul Svenborg. Fucked up, ain’t it? See you tomorrow.”
Lisbeth handed Hermione another 100,000 Vichy Francs, kissed her cheek, and led her out the door. Karl and Abdul were putting chairs up on tables for the cleaning crew, and Rick was counting money.
“I guess that’s our cue.” The two held hands and walked through the door.
“Ladies?” Rick called from across the bar. “We’ll talk tomorrow. I just felt like letting that weird little Swedish girl kick my ass in chess tonight. Goodnight.”
Abdul opened the door, and The Baroness Anastasia of Heidelberg and Jane stepped out into the quiet desert night.