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Authors: Michael J. Nelson

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R
ALPH
'
S
'
81 MALIBU
was smoking impressively as it pulled up to Cabin 4 at the Bugling Moose. He'd been meaning to get new rings and perhaps replace the head gasket on the Malibu's somewhat quirky 305, five-liter engine, but then he didn't. He had grown used to the smoke and the noise, but he didn't like to go on long trips because either one or the other, or a combination of the two, gave him a dull but substantial headache and, strangely, made him very hungry. He killed the engine, but it pinged and groaned under its own power for a good while, shaking the frame of the car, making it roll like a sailboat on its tremendously mushy, worn-out suspension, until finally it died and the rolling settled to a level safe enough for him to disembark.

He approached the cabin and was about to knock when the door opened and Jack appeared, an owly look on his face. Ralph also noticed that his hair was slightly moist-looking and stacked higher on his head than was normal. It contributed further to an overall owl-like appearance.

“Hey,” said Ralph. “How'd you know I was here?”

“Your car announced you.”

“Your hair looks funny,” Ralph said without malice.

“I accidentally used a very powerful humectant.”

“You kind of look like an owl.”

Jack stared at him. “Are we ready to go?” he asked.

“Sure.”

Ralph opened the rear door for Jack, made a gesture for him to enter that Jack guessed was supposed to be eloquent. They drove the few hundred yards to King Leo's cabin, and Ralph killed the engine, but its ensuing groans and explosions were so intense that the men stayed in the car to avoid injury until, after one final backfire, it quieted.

Before they had even made it to the door, it was flung open by an ebullient King Leo.

“You have got to be Ralph!” King Leo pronounced.

“Yup,” Ralph agreed.

King Leo fairly ran past Jack, bounded at Ralph, and grasped his hand. “Pleased to meet you, Mr. Ralph. I'm King Leo, but you can call me the Secretary of the Pleasury, the Master of the Mattress, the Bedouin of the Boudoir, the Smooth Brown Czar of the Rocking Car, or President Erect of the Republic of Love! Woooo!”

“Yup. Heard a lot about you. Your car is ready.”

“Yes! This is excellent! Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack. How are you, my friend?”

“Good. How are you, King Leo?”

“I am dead solid fine. May I say, your hair is disturbing me in some way I can't put my finger on.”

“I borrowed some of Wigs's hair junk. Things went wrong. Mistakes were made.”

King Leo sniffed at Jack's head. “Is that rapeseed and honey volume-building humectant?”

“Yes, so I found out.”

“Jack, Jack, Jack. That's just not the right product for your thick hair. It's much too heavy. I wish you'd come to me.”

“I didn't mean to use it. I grabbed the wrong stuff.”

“Well, ask me next time before you rub anything into your hair. Promise me? I'll give you my personal cell number.”

“I'll do that.”

“You promise?”

“Yes.”

King Leo took a long look at Ralph's car. “Mr. Ralph, my friend, is that an '81 Malibu?”

“Yup.”

“With the 267 engine?”

“The 305.”

“Mm. Kind of rare, isn't it, Mr. Ralph?”

“I guess most of them had the V-6s, but this is just the stock 305. But I'm thinking of putting in a 350, 'cause this thing's almost shot.”

“They had a lot of transmission problems, didn't they?”

“I guess. When I bought it from Dan, he said he'd put in a T-400 tranny, but—”

“King Leo, how do you know this?” Jack interrupted.

“Well, now, King Leo is a vast and complicated temple of knowledge, and if he reveals his secrets, his powers are diminished,” King Leo said quite seriously.

“Did you work at a garage?” asked Jack.

“Is it possible that before time began, King Leo had a two-summer stint at Bosco's Specialty Automotive Repair? I cannot say,” he said cryptically. “I simply cannot say.”

“Can we get going?” said Jack.

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, I suppose we should. I'm very excited.”

“Is the rest of the band coming?” Jack asked.

“They're very tired. They asked me to convey their regrets and to let everyone know that they'll be napping.”

Ralph again opened the rear door and made his clumsily grand gesture inviting them into the interior of his Malibu.

“I'll sit in front,” Jack offered.

“No. Please. You are my guest,” said Ralph, redoing the gawky gesture, and Jack then discovered how low his threshold of tolerance for that move really was. He felt strongly that if Ralph never did it again, it would be too soon for his taste.

“Thank you” was all he said, and he climbed in next to King Leo.

“Ralph, this is a fine car,” said King Leo once Ralph had settled his thick body in behind the wheel.

“Thank you, King Leo.”

“Ralph, it smells like gas back here. Gas and sausage. Mostly I'm worried about the gas smell. Think everything is all right?” Jack asked.

“Ummm, yeah. Yeah, I'm sure it's fine.”

“I don't want to step on these magazines. Can I move 'em?” Jack asked.

“Which ones are they?” said Ralph, seeming puzzled.

Jack pulled several off the floor. “Um,
Field and Stream, Popular Mechanics,
and
Sports Afield
from August of '97.”

“Oh, that's okay. You can step on 'em.”

Jack set them back on the floor and settled into the seat, only to have the process interrupted by a hard object that was jabbing him in the small of the back. He reached behind him and yanked out an eight-inch piece of angled high-impact plastic.

“Do you need this?” he asked, holding the piece up for Ralph's inspection in the rearview mirror.

“Hm. That's the handle for this cooler I had one time, I think,” he said, somehow imagining that this would be of interest
to Jack. “Um, I'll take it,” he said reaching back. He put it next to him in the front seat and then cranked over the Malibu's aging engine. It did not cooperate immediately but rather made a sound similar to that of Watson's original steam engine, before he had made refinements. Ralph tried again, and this time it sounded much like a printing press being fed into a wood chipper.

“Ralph,” said King Leo, “as a favor to me, press the accelerator halfway down and try again.”

“Okay, King Leo,” Ralph agreed, and he did as King Leo said. The engine turned over, made a sound like a front-end loader being demolished by a larger front-end loader, then caught and started. “That's the ticket,” Ralph said happily over the noise of the engine.

They drove toward town, King Leo alternately chatting with Ralph (at high volume) about cars or lecturing Jack about hair products. As they turned onto Main Street, the small crowd that had gathered in downtown Sjogren Park cheered, but none of the trio could hear it over the din of the Impala's 305. Ralph again attempted to kill the engine, but it had other ideas. Sandi approached the car, prepared to officially greet Holey's famous guest, but it was still smoking and moving pretty wildly on its springs, and she didn't dare get too close and risk smoke inhalation and a head injury. Finally it settled down, and Ralph lumbered out and opened the door for King Leo (Jack waited for a moment, then got out on his own). The town cheered. The high school band, which consisted of a sousaphone player, a flautist, and a drummer, played “Tijuana Taxi” (it was the only pop song they knew). King Leo emerged from the Impala.

“My, my, my, my, my,” he said, waving at the people. “Hello, Holey. Are you ready for a revival?” he shouted.

“Yeah,” said some of the crowd.

“Sure,” said a few others.

Sandi led him up to the small riser that was to act as their dais, motioned for him to sit in the place of honor, and approached the microphone.

“Welcome—” she began, and the sound system squealed out a hellacious feedback noise. The boy wearing the sousaphone shrugged it off, trotted over to the PA's amp, and made some adjustments while Sandi smiled pleasantly at him.

“Thank you, Erik. Welcome, all of you, and thank you for helping me to welcome King Leo. We're all big fans of your music and your dancing, and I know we all saw
Nasty Fantastic
and your wonderful performance in that more than once.”

The population of Holey cheered loudly and then broke into spontaneous clapping to show their love of
Nasty Fantastic.
King Leo beamed. “Oh, stop it, now. Stop it. Come on, now,” he demurred. But the clapping would not stop, so King Leo rose, went to the edge of the dais, and took a bow. When the applause subsided, he sat back down and Sandi continued.

“As mayor of Holey, I would like to present you, King Leo, with the key to our city.”

As the applause broke out afresh, she pulled from behind the podium a three-foot-long plywood key, spray-painted gold. King Leo stood to accept it, but before he could actually grasp the key, Sandi pulled it back a bit and spoke to him sotto voce.

“You know what? Ralph just made it this morning, and the paint's still a little tacky. Might get on your hands. Why don't you let me hang on to it till tomorrow?”

“Oh, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, of course.”

“Sorry.”

“Not at all, Your Honor.”

“You're kind.”

“My pleasure.”

She faced the crowd again. “And now perhaps Mr. Leo would like to say a few words?”

“Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, thank you, Mayor Sandi. I'm very, very, very honored. You have a northern paradise here, and I thank you for making me feel welcome. This place you live in is special. I feel the spirit of Edward Lynch and . . . and that other guy as I walk the streets of Holey, and I know that you all have a funk in your soul. Thank you,” he concluded, gesturing to the key that Sandi was holding.

There was more applause, some spontaneous hooting, and one loud “Woooo.”

Sandi then presented him with various small gift certificates and coupons: a free shampoo and haircut from Shear Amazement salon, a thirty-five-dollar gift certificate from Bill's Red Owl grocery store in nearby Darby, and 20 percent off his next prescription from the Jurkovich Family Pharmacy. King Leo thanked the town of Holey profusely, probably saying the actual words “thank you” more than 180 times during the presentations.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you all, thank you,” he concluded, and was about to leave the dais when Sandi called him back.

“We have one more special gift for you. Earl, would you kindly bring that out?”

Ponty appeared from the side of the dais carrying something
large, brown, and substantial and stood near King Leo, who offered him a goofy smile. Ponty in turn offered him a grudging nod.

“We would like to present you with a very special piece of Holey history. Please accept this giant rat pelt on behalf of all the people of our town.”

The good people of Holey responded with as much raucous applause as can be mustered up by a crowd of fewer than forty. King Leo was absolutely thrilled with the preserved ratskin.

“I—I can't believe it. Is this . . . ?” he stammered.

“Yes. That's the one and only rat that attacked and stalked Ed Lynch in that mine so many years ago.”

“This is it? This is the one he killed by the saloon?”

“Yes. There has been, and hopefully will be, only one giant rat in Holey—knock wood!”

“And you're giving it to me?”

“We know you will treat it with the respect it deserves.”

“Oh, I will, I will, I will. This is—I'm speechless.”

The crowd again let loose with unrestrained enthusiasm for the funk star and his new animal hide.

“This is clearly a sign from His Funkiness,” King Leo said rapturously, looking up to the sky.

The crowd agreed and showed it by applauding wildly. The only people in Holey who were unenthusiastic were the four strangers in the stiff Pamida flannel shirts standing toward the back wearing odd and similar looks.

CHAPTER 17

I
t was getting on toward evening on a warm and perpetually cloudy day as Ralph and Ponty crept like commandos through the woods fringing the Bugling Moose. Ralph, in the lead, stopped up short, and Ponty, who was trailing behind while checking their perimeters, smashed into Ralph's prodigious back area with some force, causing Ponty to fall backward.

“What was that?” Ralph hissed.

“Ow! That was me, you goon. Why did you stop?” Ponty asked as he struggled to his feet.

“I felt something,” Ralph whispered.

“That was me crashing into you because you stopped. Wait, what did you feel before I crashed into you?”

“Maybe it was just you crashing into me.”

“Then why did you stop in the first place?”

“Oh, right. I thought I saw something.”

“What was it? Was it the police?” Ponty asked, his pulse rate rising even further.

“I don't think so. It was moving in those trees over there.”

“Let's get going,” Ponty said, and the pair took off in the direction of Jack's cabin.

Ralph stopped up short again, but Ponty avoided collision by steering himself around to the right of his large partner's back.

“What now?” said Ponty.

“There,” Ralph answered, pointing into the thick brush behind the cabin area. Ponty couldn't see anything other than brush.

“Is it a turkey?” he asked.

“Not likely. Not around here.”

“Come on,” said Ponty, leading the way to Jack's cabin.

J
ACK WAS SITTING
in a padded rocking chair reading an article entitled “Monster Crappies: Hit 'Em Hard with Spinners” from
In-Fisherman
magazine when he heard a light, almost effete, tapping on his back window. He looked up but, seeing nothing, went back to reading about slip bobbers. Presently the tapping resumed. This time he looked up to see Ralph's and Ponty's faces peering through the panes, Ponty's looking annoyed, Ralph's looking characteristically Ralph-ish. Jack leaned forward to see better as Ponty was mouthing words to him. He walked to the window and opened it.

“‘Open up'
what
?” Jack asked.

“I said, ‘Open up, you idiot.'”

“Ponty! There's no need for that.”

“I'm sorry. I'm sorry. I'm very nervous. We saw something out here. May we come in?”

“You have face paint on,” Jack observed.

“Yes. We came through the back way. Didn't want to be seen.”

“Sometimes I use it for turkey hunting,” Ralph added.

“You look like Special Forces,” Jack said.

“So can we come in?” Ponty pressed.

“Sure, sure,” Jack said.

“Your bunkmates are gone?” Ponty asked, spying one of Wigs's lamé jackets hanging on the coat hook.

“Oh, yeah, they're at band practice. They'll be gone for another few hours,” Jack said.

“They still call it ‘band practice'? Even at this level?” asked Ponty.

“What else you gonna call it?” Jack said while backing up to give them room. Ponty scrambled through, and Jack helped him up.

Ralph looked at the window frame doubtfully. “I don't know. . . .” he said. “What if I make it halfway and stick?”

“Would you just come through?” Ponty said with irritation.

“No. I'm serious. It's happened before.”

“What are you, Winnie the Pooh?” said Ponty. “Just climb through!”

“Why don't you come in through the front door?” Jack suggested. “No one's around.”

Ralph looked questioningly at Ponty.

“Fine. Fine. Just come around—quickly and quietly.”

Once they'd gathered Ralph inside, they lowered the lights and took chairs around the kitchen table.

“I think it's going rather well,” Jack said.

“What?” said Ponty. “An entire town just presented a bearskin to King Leo and told him it was cut off a rat in 1865. How long do you think it's going to be before he finds out the truth?”

“Ponty, he thinks squirrels are hamsters. I think that buys us some time.”

“So he doesn't suspect he's being had?”

“No, he's happy as a clam. He's glad he came to Holey. Now, listen, here's what's going to happen. He'll do his whacked-out, whatever-it-is revival, then he'll leave, and after a spell, a month or two or more, things will get back to normal.”

“Well, perhaps there's something to that,” said Ponty. “But all these tourists, the press—don't you think someone's going to start poking around and asking questions?”

“Let 'em ask. They're not gonna hear anything from our people. I mean, who's gonna give us up under pressure from the Eyewitness News Team's entertainment reporter?”

“I won't crack,” said Ralph.

“See? Ralph won't crack. These Holeyites are made of sterner stuff than that. As long as the money flows, they're on our side.”

“What about King Leo's bandmates? Are they so willing to believe along with him?”

“Have you spoken to Wigs for any period of time? Ever held a conversation with Billy Moonbeam?”

“No.”

“What about Tarzan Moe? Ever played cribbage with him and Kaptain Kinetik?”

“No, of course not.”

Jack paused for effect. “I wouldn't worry about the band, Ponty.”

“You're so confident, but you forget one thing: I'm involved. Things don't go well for me.”


Things,
bah,” said Jack dismissively. “What things?”

“Life. Living day to day. Being a human. All of it goes very poorly for me. Schemes fare particularly badly.”

“Ah, but you forget one thing.”

“Yes?”

“You're in
this
thing with me. Things go
well
for me. I've got the magic touch.”

“When I met you, you were an out-of-work actor peddling fast food at Medieval Burger.”

“And look how quickly things have turned around.”

“Have they?” Ponty asked, but Jack kept going.

“And Ralph is on our side. Ralph, you've been pretty lucky, haven't you?”

“Life's been good to me. What can I say?” Ralph said.

“See?” said Jack, as though the matter were settled.

“Okay. Have it your way. But what's the plan now?”

“Stay the course. Like Johann in
The Hour of the White Monkey
.”

“I'm not familiar with that.”

“I was in it years ago. It's a play by Gerhardt Schienke.”

“A play about white monkeys?”

“No,” Jack replied, as though it were a strange question. “No monkeys in it.”

“But there was a guy who stayed the course?”

“Johann, yes.”

“Did you get to work with real monkeys?” Ralph asked.

“Nnnoo. No monkeys in it.”

“Well, then, why in tarnation is it called
The Hour of the White Monkey
?” Ponty asked, his patience cracking.

“I don't know. Perhaps it's not the fittest title. Still, I think my point is clear. If we just keep proceeding with the plan with confidence, everything will go just fine. Now, you'd better get going in case band practice breaks up early.”

Once the area had been thoroughly scoped out, Ralph and Ponty exited through the front door, despite Ponty's reservations. They chose an alternate route for the return trip, going deeper into the woods. Halfway back to Ponty's cabin, Ralph's Ralph Senses began tingling.

“Sh,” he said. “Hear that?”

“No.”

“How can you not hear that?”

Ponty bristled at the implied insult. “What am I supposed to do? I can't hear—”

“Sssshhhh.”

Ralph communicated to Ponty using hand signals they'd practiced while tracking their elusive and wily turkey quarry. He'd been instructed to circle around to his right, while Ralph went left to flank whatever was up ahead. Ponty, never confident in his ability to move his own body efficiently through space, had, however, recently made great strides in his ability to slink. And now he slunk around as Ralph had instructed until they were fifty yards from the spot where they'd started, ten feet away from each other looking back. Ralph signaled for Ponty to look closely at a tree ahead of them, and there, seated on a low branch, was a manlike object. When it moved, it was clear to Ponty that it was indeed a man. The pair tried as best they could to close in on him noiselessly and, as they did so, realized that it was hardly necessary to be noiseless. The man, who was wearing a new, fairly stiff camouflage jacket (of a type sold regularly at Pamida discount stores), was also wearing ear buds and listening to a small cassette player. From twelve feet away they could clearly hear the sounds of classical music, something European, probably Germanic, emanating from his ears. He was lightly humming along with it, a few times in the minute they observed him stopping to raise a pair of unnaturally large binoculars and scan in the direction of Jack's cabin.

Ralph lifted his eyebrows and held up a finger, indicating that he had devised a plan to deal with the situation. He walked up behind the man, grasped him by the back of the jacket, and pulled him backward off the tree, the man collapsing on the ground with a thud. Ralph took a seat on his chest and yanked out his ear buds.

“Ahhhhh!” the man shrieked, a wild look in his eyes. His face was painted in a camouflage design.

“What the heck you doin', bub?” Ralph asked him.

“I was, was . . . um, watching the ducks.”

“Ducks? There ain't no ducks around here.”


Ja.
I was having no luck at all.”

“You were spying, is what you were doin'.”

“I knew it,” Ponty said. “I knew it. I told you.”

“Spy—ha!” said the man. “But that is ridiculous. What would I be . . .
spy
?”

“You always look at the ducks wearing camouflage paint?”

“Yes, yes. I do, in fact. I took up the habit not two years ago, and it has completely changed the way I—”

“Shut up. Say. You look familiar. Where do I know you from?”

“Are you active in the duck-watching community? Perhaps—”

“I tell ya, shut up. What's so interesting about that cabin there?”

“Ask him who sent him,” Ponty said, trying to be steely.

“Who sent—” Ralph began, and then he stopped to look at Ponty. “Why don't you just ask him?”

“Right,” Ponty said, nodding. “Who . . . um, who sent you?”

“I don't understand.”

“Who, you know, who do you work for?”

“I work as a buyer for a construction firm.”

Ponty looked at Ralph apologetically. He had nothing more to ask.

“You done?” Ralph asked.

“Yes.”

“All right, listen,” Ralph began, but he was unable to finish his thought, as right at that moment he was hit from behind by something large and stealthy, knocking him off his perch atop the buyer for a construction firm. Ponty had no time to react, as he was simultaneously hit from the side by something of equal size and stealth.

Once on the ground, the stealthy object, identifiable now as a man, knelt on the small of Ponty's back and began to pull his arms behind him. At that moment all Ponty's training as a high school wrestler came flooding back to him. He realized that there were three things he needed to do: prevent his arms from being pinned behind him, get to his knees, and, if possible, grasp his attacker's right arm underneath his own and roll. It was his favorite reversal move, and he'd used it many times in practice. He tried it now, but, the conditions being so dissimilar to those at Coulberry High School wrestling practice, the results were somewhat disappointing. Within seconds after attempting the move, Ponty was pinned, his arms trapped behind him, helpless. He could hear the sounds of Ralph struggling with his attackers and, presumably, the man they'd captured.

Ponty then attempted a move that was not sanctioned by either the Amateur Athletics Union or the NFHS official wrestling rules: He kicked wildly, like a toddler having a tantrum, at his assailant's back, perhaps one in three of the kicks actually landing.

“Stop it!” demanded the man on his back.

“Get off me!” Ponty yelled.

“Stop kicking me, you wildebeest!”

“GET! OFF!”

“Don't be such a baby.”

“Shut your mouth, fool,” a different, and oddly familiar, voice to the side of Ponty demanded sharply.

Ponty kicked again, a few of them landing with a beefy thud. He decided it was time to try his move once more, and when he did, to his complete surprise, it worked. He was now on top of the man who had attacked him, but the man obviously knew his way around a wrestling mat, for he immediately rolled to his stomach and got quickly to hands and knees. Ponty's instincts took over. He gripped a wrist and broke him to the ground, applied an aggressive half nelson and got him over on his back. Locking his opponent's head, Ponty stiffened his body and went up on his toes to maximize his weight on the man's chest. Once he'd subdued him, he applied another unsanctioned and wholly illegal move: He reached underneath the man, helped himself to a handful of his underwear band, and yanked with all his might.

“Here's a little wedgie for you,” snarled Ponty. “You like that, huh?” He twisted the man's jockeys on the word
huh
for emphasis. The man whimpered but did not directly respond as to whether he liked it or not. Ponty applied more pressure and asked again. “How's that? That feel good, huh?”

He had no time to conclude his investigation into the matter, however because at that moment Ralph yelled, “Look out, Ponty!” and Ponty was hit from behind with something hard, something with a solid edge, and he slumped off the top of his captive, nearly passing out. Ponty was barely aware of some more sounds of struggling and then footfalls in retreat—a pair of them he thought, though he could not
be sure—uneven, as though the man making them had just had his own undergarments pulled forcefully into the cleft of his buttocks.

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