“The five golden hemorrhoids,” pontificated philosopher/thief Anton Pesticide to someone who had been imprudent enough to ask, “were fashioned at the behest of the Philistine priests, together with five golden mice, and placed in a wooden chest which accompanied the ark of the covenant on its return trip from Philistia to Israel, supposedly to appease the perpetually angry Hebrew demiurge after he had laid waste to five Philistine cities, and afflicted the survivors with hemorrhoids the size of bowling balls.”
“Poor bastards must’ve had a helluva time sitting down,” remarked one of the other tipplers at the waterfront bar where Pesticide had been holding court for the past several hours, treating everyone within earshot to round after round of drinks, while covering the tab with a platinum credit card he had found in the pocket of a passing tourist.
“According to First Samuel, these rare Philistine treasures made it as far as Beth-shemesh,” Pesticide continued. “The Israelites celebrated the return of the ark by sacrificing the oxen that had pulled the cart, and the ever-merciful Jehovah responded by slaughtering fifty thousand Israelites, for reasons that are not clearly explained.”
“Possibly one of the oxen had a blemish,” someone suggested.
“Perhaps,” said Pesticide gravely. “In any case, First Samuel reports that the troublesome ark was taken to a place called Kiriath-jearim, without further mention of either the hemorrhoids or the mice. And there is no further mention of them anywhere else in the Bible. However, the newly discovered, apocryphal Third Book of Schlemiels reveals much that has previously been hidden. According to Third Schlemiels, the Philistine chest was plundered during the night by a schlemiel named Jeconiah, who immediately set out for Egypt, in the hope of using his booty to buy his way into one of the cushy Egyptian priesthoods. In the meantime, the apparently not-so-omniscient Jehovah woke up from his nap, realized he had been robbed, and proceeded to take out everyone for twenty miles around, just in case the thief still happened to be loitering somewhere in the neighborhood.
“As usual, he missed his target. Jeconiah was already well on his way. However, the naughty fellow was overtaken by some sort of retribution, whether accidental or otherwise. According to Third Schlemiels, he didn’t even make it halfway to Beersheba. He was waylaid and murdered by Amalekite bandits, who threw his body down a dry well known as the Well of Schlemiels, and buried the treasure nearby. But neither the Amalekite bandits, nor Jeconiah, nor anyone else connected with this sorry affair had discerned the real purpose of the Philistine priests. It was not to appease the demented Hebrew deity that they had fashioned the golden hemorrhoids and golden mice, and sent them along with the ark. It was for vengeance. Yes, vengeance, my friends. For the Philistine priests had laid a frightful curse upon their gold.”
Here Pesticide fell silent for a time. At length, he ordered two more large gin and tonics, and proceeded to chug them in tandem. And afterwards, he appeared to have lost his train of thought altogether.
“Well, what about the damn curse, then?” one of the other drunks finally inquired. “You’re not going to bloody well leave us hanging, are you? What was the curse?”
“Impossible to say,” Pesticide replied. “The Third Book of Schlemiels is only a fragment, and unfortunately, that’s where it ends.”
“Oh, bugger!” exclaimed the drunk, while several others angrily suggested that Pesticide ought to be taken outside and hanged from the nearest lamppost.
In the end, however, cooler heads prevailed. A collection was swiftly taken up, and was used to buy Pesticide a one-way plane ticket to Tehran. The now thoroughly inebriated philosopher was then bundled into an airport limousine, together with instructions on where he was to be dropped off, with a hastily scrawled note bearing the words “Take me hostage” pinned to the back of his long, gray overcoat.
Several hours later, Pesticide awoke to find himself stuffed into a middle seat in economy, airborne somewhere over the Mediterranean, and in the midst of a hijacking. He attempted to get the attention of one of the stewardesses, but was warned by a fellow traveler that the situation was very dodgy, and that he had better sit still, and remain as quiet and inconspicuous as possible.
In the meantime, the solitary hijacker (a nerdy, twitchy, bespectacled little man named Morteza) was still trying to decide where he wanted to go. Initially he had followed one of the stewardesses into the cockpit, brandished a pistol, and demanded to be taken to Tehran. Upon being informed that that was where the plane was going in the first place, he had become very agitated and told them that they had better not lie to him, or else he would have to shoot everybody on board. Then he had changed his mind altogether, and declared that he didn’t want to go to Tehran after all—that he really wanted to go where there were lots of naked women—punctuating this radical change of itinerary with a further demand that the two first-class stewardesses disrobe and take turns entertaining him. One of the stewardesses had refused outright, and the other (a voluptuous redhead named Bambi) was currently negotiating a price for her services, all the while attempting to lubricate her man with complimentary cocktails.
This bought the cockpit crew a bit of time to try to decide how they were going to dispose of the idiot. The captain (a crusty, conservative old Scotsman named MacPherson) was all for dropping him off somewhere in France, primarily because he hated the French. The copilot (whose name was Al) suggested that since it was such a wonderfully calm day, maybe they could manage to fly low enough over the water to open a door, shove the bastard out, and let him swim the rest of the way. Captain MacPherson was actually momentarily tempted by this suggestion, but his good sense quickly got the better of him, and the idea was rejected on the grounds that it violated airline policy. Then Morteza the hijacker announced that he had changed his mind again, and that now he wanted to go where there was plenty of white wine and moldy French cheese.
Captain MacPherson immediately radioed Marseilles Airport, identified himself, and requested permission to make an emergency landing. Unfortunately for him, the air traffic controller at the other end of the conversation (whose name was Villemerde) happened to be in a very ugly mood. And when M. Villemerde demanded to know the particulars of the emergency, Captain MacPherson was somewhat less than truthful, telling him only that one of his passengers had become violently ill, and was in need of immediate hospitalization. As there was something in the captain’s tone of voice that excited the Frenchman’s suspicions, permission to land was summarily denied. Instead, it was suggested that perhaps they ought to try to land somewhere in Italy, primarily because Villemerde hated the Italians.
As these negotiations dragged on, Pesticide’s gin-saturated bladder eventually got the better of him, and he rose unsteadily to his feet, edged his way into the aisle, and lurched forward to avail himself of the facilities. However, just as he was approaching his destination, the plane hit a pocket of turbulence, and he was pitched violently forward through the curtains and into the first-class section, landing on his face directly adjacent to the seat occupied by Morteza the hijacker. Morteza could not help but notice the note pinned to the back of Pesticide’s coat, and came to exactly the conclusion he was presumably supposed to come to. His face lit up with what appeared to be a kind of holy joy, he pointed his pistol at the back of Pesticide’s head, and declared that he now wanted to go to Beirut, or else he would have to execute the hostage.
If any of the cockpit crew had known Pesticide half as well as they probably would have preferred not to, they would have refused absolutely to go to Beirut, and dared Morteza to carry out his threat. Unfortunately, none of them did, and they finally agreed to take Morteza to Beirut, provided he consented to leave the plane by parachute, so that they wouldn’t actually have to land there. However, Morteza insisted that they had to land, and that under no circumstances would he leave the plane by parachute.
“He’s afraid of heights,” Bambi confided, with a sly giggle.
This remark gave rise to another heated exchange, and then another round of negotiations. And while this was going on, the plane continued to drift eastward on autopilot, eventually straying into restricted airspace over southern Lebanon, and thereby attracting the attention of the Israeli air force. A pair of fighters were swiftly dispatched to intercept the plane and escort it to Tel Aviv, and Captain MacPherson was given the choice of either complying or being shot out of the sky. Being an eminently sensible man, MacPherson was all for complying; but Morteza the hijacker defiantly declared that he would rather die than go to Israel, and that he was prepared to take everybody else on board with him.
Somewhere in the midst of these histrionics, Pesticide had begun to recover his senses, and was now trying to get to his feet and continue his journey to the lavatory. Morteza screamed at him to stop, but Pesticide’s bladder would not be denied. Morteza called him some unspeakably filthy names, but Pesticide kept on going. Then Morteza appeared to lose all control of himself. His eyes glazed over and foam flew from his lips as he pointed his pistol at Pesticide and squeezed the trigger several times over. And it was only then that anyone else noticed that Morteza’s gun was actually a toy.
In the ensuing melee, two of the cockpit crew quickly overpowered Morteza, and Pesticide made it to the loo just in time. The plane landed without further incident at Ben-Gurion Airport, where Morteza was handed over to Israeli security guards. The security guards summoned the cookie wagon, and Morteza was transported to a local psychiatric facility for evaluation. He was lodged in the maximum security wing, and assigned to a semi-private room, which he was destined to share with another recent arrival—a huge, red-bearded man, who claimed to be a frost giant, and behaved accordingly.
The flight crew and the rest of the passengers were held overnight at a nearby hotel for “debriefing.” Since several of the passengers (Morteza included) were Iranian citizens, once the Tehran government got wind of the affair, they seized the advantage, and quickly began spewing forth their usual sort of strident rhetoric. This, in turn, had the predictable effect of causing heightened anxiety among perpetually nervous oil futures traders, thus sending the price of oil soaring past the psychologically significant $5000/barrel mark for the first (but probably not the last) time in history. Naturally this tended to dampen the vacation plans of the few hundred motorists who could still afford to drive, and also compelled numerous homeowners to take out seventh and eighth mortgages just to buy enough gasoline to get their lawns mowed in time for the foreclosure sale.
Several hours later, Pesticide was sitting at the hotel bar, nursing yet another gin and tonic. The only other customers were Al the copilot and a solitary Canadian tourist.
“So how’d you get out of there so fast?” Al asked Pesticide, in reference to the comparatively short interview he had had with the Israeli authorities.
“I just told them I don’t exist,” Pesticide replied. “I think they believed me.”
“So what makes you so sure you don’t exist?” the tourist made the mistake of inquiring.
“What makes you so sure you do?” Pesticide shot back.
“Cogito ego orgo…something or other,” declared the tourist, with evident self-satisfaction. “I think, therefore I am!”
“Rubbish,” said Pesticide. “Nobody thinks any more. Assets are the true measure of existence. Always have been. If you are unlucky enough to outlive them, observe how quickly you will cease to exist.”
Before anyone was able to offer any response to this depressing observation, the discussion was derailed by the sudden intrusion of a wiry, raw-boned, deeply sunburned man wearing a pith helmet and carrying a battered satchel over his shoulder. As soon as he appeared, the bartender came out from behind the bar and approached him menacingly, yelling: “Geddada here, you schmuck!”
“But I found it!” the newcomer protested excitedly.
“Out!” repeated the bartender, grabbing the man by the scruff of his neck and steering him toward the door. “I’m tired of you coming in here, bothering my customers with your bullshit!”
“The Well of Schlemiels!” shouted the man, as the bartender ejected him. “I found the Well of Schlemiels! I found it! I found it!”
Characteristically, Pesticide had got up from his stool, and was making his way to the men’s room, taking no apparent interest in the disturbance. And no one else at the bar had even the remotest idea what it was really all about, and cared less.
At roughly the same time, an escape attempt was in progress in the maximum security wing of the Thorazine Manor. No sooner had they got him settled in for the night, the self-appointed frost giant proceeded to chew his way out of his straitjacket, then kicked open the door to his room and went storming out into the hallway, like the poorly animated CG he probably should have been. He was immediately set upon by three burly male nurses, who certainly ought to have known better. One of these he disemboweled with his bare hands, then bit the head off a second and spat it in the face of the third. And in such wise he continued his rampage, dispatching several more members of the night staff, until he reached the heavily fortified nurse’s station, and tried to force his way in. By this time, one of the head keepers had arrived on the scene with a tranquilizer gun. Notwithstanding, he very nearly ran out of darts before he finally had his man subdued.
While all this hullabaloo was going on, Morteza the hijacker had followed discreetly in his roommate’s wake, and had lifted the uniform off one of the recently deceased night staffers. In this guise, he was able to walk right through the front doors, on the pretext that he was going to summon the head keeper. He continued on to the nearest parking lot, where he happened to find a vintage VW bus with the keys in the ignition, and went chugging away into the night. Since he still harbored some vague idea of going to Beirut, his intention was to head for the Lebanese border. However, as it turned out, his sense of direction was every bit as warped as he was.
By pure idiot’s luck, he did manage to steer clear of the port of Jaffa, where a curfew was currently in effect, and several units of the Israeli army were on conspicuous display. As was often the case, nobody seemed to know why, and hardly any of the locals had even bothered to ask. It was only a small part of the price one paid for living in a place where there were lots of demented people with automatic weapons. Thus far, all was quiet, and everyone (demented or otherwise) seemed to be behaving themselves as well as could be expected. But far below the narrow, cobblestone streets and quaint shops full of overpriced merchandise, in the subterranean blackness of forgotten yesterdays, ancient, smelly, cobweb-shrouded evil was stirring.
After more than eight hundred years of blissful slumber, the three surviving members of the Exalted Order of Dagon—direct, lineal descendants of the original Philistine priesthood—had awakened in the darkness of their long-buried temple. They had been summoned forth by a rare conjunction of planets, planetoids and cosmic potatoes, helped along by an obscure band of fanatical disciples, and financed by a well-known cable network. As might have been expected, after such an extended period of hibernation, they required a considerable amount of grooming and primping in order to make themselves presentable. Moreover, their leader, the reigning high priest of Dagon, had an arrow lodged in his posteriors (placed there by a representative of the Third Crusade), and was in an exceedingly crappy mood. Thus, when one of the disciples had the great misfortune to accidentally step on a shattered fragment of some holy object, he was immediately sacked without references, and a sacrifice was demanded in order to make the offense clean. This resulted in the remaining disciples being sent out on a hopeless quest to find a virgin who was over twenty-one. (In all fairness, the high priest really didn’t care how old the virgin was. It was the attorney from the cable network who insisted she be over twenty-one, possibly for insurance reasons.)
Fanatics though they may have been, the disciples knew better. None of them was personally acquainted with a virgin of any age, and none of them cared to estimate how many candidates they might have to interview. None of them was willing to work that hard for what they were being paid. Better, they reasoned, to simply grab the first good-looking babe they could find, and hope that the high priest was nearsighted enough to overlook the absence of such a relatively small piece of skin. Accordingly, they headed to an entirely different part of town, where they happened upon Bambi the stewardess, moonlighting on a street corner. It was a simple enough matter for one of them to sidle up to her, come to terms, and entice her up to a cheap hotel room, where the rest of them were waiting to take possession. However, she did prove to be a much more formidable antagonist than they had anticipated, and some of them were very nearly removed from the gene pool before they finally succeeded in chloroforming her. Then they bound up their wounds as best they could, stuffed the sacrificial lamb into a burlap sack, and spirited her away to their charnel lair.
Meanwhile back at the hotel bar, Pesticide was still boozing it up, seemingly oblivious to the cauldron of clichés swirling all around him. The Canadian tourist had already had the good sense to leave, and Al the copilot was just on his way out the door, when in walked a large, corpulent man in formal evening attire, looking like a Sydney Greenstreet hologram, perspiring profusely, and accompanied by a pair of lascar ruffians. The Greenstreet hologram ordered a plain club soda, flashed a thick wad of bills, and proceeded to inquire after the individual in the pith helmet who had come in earlier.
“Yeah, he was here,” said the bartender. “I threw the son of a bitch out.”
“I don’t suppose he happened to mention anything about a certain well, did he?” the Greenstreet hologram pursued, once again flashing the wad of bills.
“A certain well?” echoed the bartender derisively. “Let me guess. The Well of Schlemiels, maybe? So how much did he sucker you out of? That bastard’s been coming in here for the past three years with the same load of crap, trying to bum money from any fool that’ll listen to him. There’s no such place, and if there ever was such a place, it’s probably right underneath this bar. Schlemiels are all I ever get in here.”
Possibly on account of this spiteful generalization, Pesticide decided it was time to retire for the night. However, as he had chosen a particularly dramatic moment to withdraw from the proceedings, he attracted a suspicious glance from the Greenstreet hologram, who was perhaps moved to wonder if the old philosopher had overheard too much and lived too long. Accordingly, when Pesticide stepped out of the elevator a few moments later, he found the hallway blocked by one of the lascar ruffians. The lascar brandished a large dagger, flashed Pesticide an evil grin, and proceeded to put on a truly dazzling display of knifesmanship, whipping the dagger effortlessly from one hand to the other, twirling it about, passing it behind his back, betwixt his legs, over his head, in one ear and out the other (all in little more than the blink of an eye), and punctuating the performance with a sinister chuckle. Pesticide responded by breaking into a spontaneous round of applause, as did several other hotel guests who had poked their heads out their doors to see what was going on. Then Pesticide complimented the lascar on his knifesmanship, and asked him if he had learnt it from his father.
“My father!” growled the lascar, and spat contemptuously. “Never knew the swine. Was raised in Cairo orphanage, live on streets, eat from garbage and work for bullshits. You want to know how much that cheap bastard pay me to kill you? Only fifty stinking shekels!”
“Fifty shekels!” exclaimed Pesticide indignantly. "Why, that’s downright insulting. I’ll give you two hundred shekels to kill him. Three hundred if you do it by slow torture.”
“Give first the money,” demanded the lascar.
Oddly enough, Pesticide actually had the money, having extracted it from the pocket of another intoxicated elderly gentleman, with whom he had shared the elevator. Naturally he knew better than to hand it all over in advance; but after some further delicate negotiations, a compromise was agreed upon, and the lascar sent on his way. Pesticide immediately retired to his room for the remainder of the night, and it was not until the following morning that he learned that the hotel bar was closed for repairs. Whether or not the lascar had carried out his contract remained to be determined.
With the hotel bar closed, Pesticide was obliged to go elsewhere for his breakfast. As he often did in such circumstances, he set out on foot and just rambled around for a while, nominally in search of another watering hole, but always on the lookout for any valuables that might wish to escape from their rightful owners and take refuge in his voluminous pockets. And it was somewhere in the midst of these activities that he again crossed paths with Morteza the hijacker.
As it happened, Morteza was still cruising around in his stolen VW bus, trying to find his way out of Tel Aviv, when he spotted Pesticide, and followed him at a discreet distance until he turned onto a relatively deserted side street. Then he quickly pulled up beside him, and slammed on the brakes.
“Get in car!” screamed Morteza, drawing a bead on Pesticide with what certainly appeared to be an automatic weapon of some sort. “Get in car! I kill you! Get in car, you bastard! I kill you! I kill you!”
“What do you mean?” Pesticide inquired, with his customary maddening affability. “Do you mean you will kill me if I do get in the car, or you will kill me if I don’t? Or do you mean that you will kill me in either case, which wouldn’t give me very much incentive to get in the car, would it?”
Morteza, who had been driving around all night, was in no mood for this sort of discussion, and was so deeply affected by it that he barely remembered to set the hand brake before leaping out of the bus and starting for Pesticide. Pesticide, as usual, calmly awaited developments. And both men were so caught up in the moment that neither of them noticed the black Mercedes quietly approaching from the opposite direction. The Mercedes slowed to a stop, and out sprang four members of the Islamic Jihad for the Rearrangement of Small, Damp, Furry Things. Firing random bursts from their automatic weapons, and shouting slogans no sane person could have understood, they quickly laid hands on both Pesticide and Morteza, shoved them into the back seat of the Mercedes, and fled the scene in a one-sided hail of gunfire.
While Pesticide and Morteza were disporting themselves with these frolicsome new companions, Bambi the stewardess had been taken in hand by representatives of the well-known cable network. From the charnel depths of Dagon’s temple, she had been whisked away by limousine to a five-star hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, and installed in the penthouse suite to freshen up. And afterwards—bathed, oiled, massaged, manicured, groomed, clad in a stunningly overpriced new outfit, and looking every inch the glamorous courtesan she had always aspired to be—she was escorted by one of the network’s smarmiest bullshitters (whose name happened to be Hiram Horskrappe) to a luncheon so expensive that no one without a corporate credit card could have possibly afforded it.
“I deeply regret that some of my associates got a bit overzealous,” Horskrappe was saying, in his most unctuous tone. “Have some champagne, won’t you?”
“Overzealous!” Bambi retorted, only slightly mollified at the thought of the indignities she had endured. “The bastards beat me up and knocked me out, then they took me down to a slimy, rat-infested dungeon, and ripped off all my clothes, and there were these three horrible, dirty old men with their bony hands all over me!”
Horskrappe filled Bambi’s glass with champagne, and she emptied it at a single draught.
“Just a routine examination,” he assured her, while refilling her glass. “Those men are highly trained professionals.”
“Highly trained professionals!” snorted Bambi, tossing down the second glass of champagne. “They looked like the walking dead to me. They were all moldy, and one of ‘em had an arrow stuck in his ass. Hey, gimme some more of that stuff, will ya?”
“I think the opportunity we are offering will provide more than adequate compensation for any inconvenience you’ve been put to,” said Horskrappe, again refilling Bambi’s glass.
“Inconvenience!” snapped Bambi. “They tied me up and gagged me with a dirty sock!”
“That was for your own safety,” said Horskrappe. “You were very upset, and they were concerned that you might injure yourself.”
“Yeah, right,” murmured Bambi, draining the third glass of champagne. “They threw me on a pile of filthy straw, crawling with lice and other blood-sucking vermin. I had bugs crawling all over me. I got eaten alive! More!”
“You have to understand that these are simple people with simple ways,” said Horskrappe, emptying the last of the champagne into Bambi’s glass, and motioning to the waiter to bring another bottle. “Consider the benefits of your situation. You are to have a major role in a prime-time cable program that will be watched by tens of millions of people all over the world. Think of the possibilities that sort of exposure might open up for you.”
Bambi had occasionally dreamt of such possibilities. Moreover, the champagne was far more expensive and a bit more potent than what she was accustomed to, and it was starting to get to her.
“Tens of millions of people…all looking at little ol’ me,” she mused. “Oooo, baby! Any Hollywood agents?”
“Who knows?” said Horskrappe suggestively, as the waiter uncorked the second bottle of champagne.
“You’re just trying to get me drunk, ain’tcha?” Bambi insinuated, leaning forward to give Horskrappe a panoramic view of her alpine mammaries. “I know what you want, you naughty boy, you.”
“Will you have some more champagne?” Horskrappe inquired coolly, eying Bambi’s alpine mammaries with a clinical indifference that left little doubt in her mind what sort of fellow he was.
“I think I’d like something to eat now, if you don’t mind,” Bambi responded, with equal coolness.
Eventually Horskrappe got around to producing the contract he wanted Bambi to sign. To his chagrin, he had not been able to get her nearly as sloshed as he had hoped. To his further chagrin, she insisted on reading every word of it, and actually appeared to understand much of what she read. She raised particularly strenuous objections to the provision that in the event she did not survive the ceremony, all her compensation reverted to the network, and any next of kin could be rounded up and auctioned off as slaves. Despite Horskrappe’s smarmiest assurances to the contrary, she remained so adamant on this point that the entire document had to be sent back to the legal department, to be rewritten in an even more convoluted dialect. This left Bambi more or less on her own for the rest of the evening, and she spent most of it navigating back and forth between the hotel bar and the penthouse. In the process, she managed to turn several high-rolling tricks, and wound up earning nearly as much money as the cable network was offering for something that was likely to be far more hazardous to her health.
While Bambi was plying her trade among the upscale tourists, miles away in the Negev Desert, a solitary individual was keeping a lonely vigil atop a desolate, windswept hill. It was the man in the pith helmet, otherwise known as the nameless archaeologist. No one seemed to know who the hell he was, and relatively few people even cared. According to one rumor, he had once been a professor of archaeology at one of the Ivy League schools, but had had his tenure revoked for dipping his tool into too many coeds. According to another rumor, the real reason he had lost his tenure was that he had inadvertently unleashed an ancient Philistine curse, which had caused several influential alumni to become afflicted with hemorrhoids the size of bowling balls. Also, he was reputed to have been a lousy teacher, which is always a matter of great importance at Ivy League schools.
Whatever the case, he was nowadays obliged to seek funding for his research from those who were too intoxicated to climb down off their barstools and stagger away from him. After canvassing a number of Tel Aviv taverns, he had finally located a suitable donor, and had managed to extract enough shekels to buy fresh supplies and a bus ticket south. So here he was again, seeking fortune and glory, contemplating an obscure hole in the ground, and the crumbling stonework that surrounded it. This was, indeed, the legendary Well of Schlemiels—possessed by schlemiels, promoted by schlemiels, haunted by schlemiels, dug by the hand of Abschlemiel (the primal eldest schlemiel) himself, in a spot where only a schlemiel would have looked for water in the first place.
With the sun fading in the west, and darkness rapidly coming on, the nameless archaeologist fired up one of his battery-powered lanterns, and paused briefly from his labors to take a frugal meal of peanut butter nabs and sauerkraut juice. Then he resumed the painstaking task of brushing away the dust from the badly weathered Hebrew inscriptions that adorned the stonework. Some of these were partly or entirely illegible, and the ones that could be deciphered seemed to be little more than simple graffiti. “For a good time, call Rahab the harlot,” one of them promised. “I’m homesick for Egypt,” declared another. “Jehovah is a big—” a third began, but showed unmistakable evidence of having been struck by a surgically precise bolt of lightning at that point. Nonetheless, the nameless archaeologist continued his labors, presumably in the hope of uncovering some clue to the whereabouts of the priceless biblical artifacts that were supposedly buried nearby.
Up until recently, hardly anyone else had paid much attention to any of this, and the nameless archaeologist had been left to his hard-earned obscurity. However, the reawakening of the Exalted Order of Dagon (and their upcoming prime-time program on the well-known cable network) had brought a ruthless new player into the game. According to the moldy high priest and his two associates, the recovery of the golden hemorrhoids and golden mice was essential to the success of the sacrifice, since the objective was not only to appease the wrath of Dagon against his few remaining worshippers, but also to unleash upon all unbelievers a curse so horrible that it was sure to boost the network’s ratings by at least twenty points. Exactly what the curse was, none of the three could recall; but the network executives had been repeatedly assured that Philistine curses were always lively and entertaining, and apparently thought it worth the risk.
Consequently, once they had gotten wind of it, the network had begun to take some interest in the nameless archaeologist’s research, and had dispatched one of their best agents to keep an eye on him. This individual—a shadowy underworld figure known only as the Fat Man (although for the sake of political correctness, he often insisted on being referred to as the Gravitationally Challenged Man)—had recently been involved in some sort of barroom dispute with one of his subordinates, and was currently recuperating from several superficial knife wounds at one of the local hospitals. However, he had managed to put two of his other subordinates onto the scent, and one of these had finally succeeded in attaching a minute GPS tracking device to the nameless archaeologist’s satchel. Hence the network was now able to monitor his movements, and follow his progress from a discreet distance. In the event he was successful, a team of network representatives was prepared to move in with three possible options: (1) If feasible, he might be offered a small part in the program. (2) If not feasible, he might be bought out for the smallest sum he could be induced to take. (3) If neither of the first two options worked out, they were to kill the son of a bitch, throw his body down the well, and blame it on the Amalekite bandits.
Complicating matters even further was the high priest’s insistence that the sacrifice had to take place on the first night of the new moon, which was only two nights away. Furthermore, aside from the nagging question of whether there was a chance in hell of recovering the golden hemorrhoids and golden mice at such short notice (if at all), the high priest and his two associates were still arguing over the choice of venue. One of the associates stoutly maintained that the sacrifice had to be performed on the ground where the holy artifacts had been buried. The other associate was equally adamant that since Dagon was a sea god, the sacrifice should be carried out by the sea, and not in the middle of the desert. And the high priest, who was still in considerable discomfort from the arrow stuck in his backside, declared that if they couldn’t settle their disagreement any other way, they would have to fight to the death and let Dagon decide.
The following afternoon, Hiram Horskrappe finally managed to get Bambi to sign a contract. The negotiations had been much more difficult than anticipated, and in the end, the proposed compensation had to be significantly increased. Also, the disputed article had to be stricken from the contract and replaced with a provision that Horskrappe himself would appear on the program, in the role of Bambi’s personal eunuch (wearing whatever ridiculous outfit she chose for him), to assist in her ablutions and kiss her feet in front of the assembled multitudes. On his own behalf, Horskrappe did manage to slip in the condition that enforcement of the provision was contingent upon his continued employment with the network; and as soon as the papers were signed, he went straight to work on his letter of resignation.
In the meantime, the team of network representatives assigned to shadow the nameless archaeologist had made very little progress. They had managed to take some video clips of their man, and had e-mailed them to network headquarters. The network’s response had been swift and emphatic: There was no way in hell they were going to put this dork in front of a television camera, and option (1) was no longer an option. In regard to option (2), the network was willing to pay as much as one million dollars to get rid of him. This, in turn, induced the team to take counsel amongst themselves; for however trifling the sum of one million dollars may have seemed to the network, the team members knew that it was nearly enough to buy a fixer-upper row house in one of the unreclaimed slums of Philadelphia. Accordingly, they decided they would get the network to release the funds for option (2), then secretly carry out option (3) and keep the money for their own speculative interests.
Of more immediate concern was the fact that there were now barely twenty-four hours left until the rising of the new moon, and the requisite biblical artifacts remained undiscovered. The nameless archaeologist was clearly in no particular hurry, and the chances of quickly finding anyone else with his peculiar qualifications seemed remote. In any case, none of the team members really believed that the items would turn up in the next twenty-four hours. None of them had ever been that lucky. Clearly, then, the only option they had left was to hire one of the local goldsmiths to whip up a set of authentic-looking replicas, and pay him extra to put a rush on it. With any luck, as long as the replicas were shiny enough and heavy enough, the high priest and his associates would never notice the difference. After all, none of them had noticed that Bambi was in less than mint condition, had they? And all three of them had given her a damn good going over.
Whether or not Dagon would notice the difference was quite another matter. Since none of the team members believed in Dagon (or any other deities, baalim or demiurges), none of them had given it a passing thought. Nevertheless, Dagon had been following their activities very attentively, and was already deeply insulted at the idea of being offered a whore in place of a virgin. And now these blasphemous reprobates were planning to bring counterfeit hemorrhoids and counterfeit mice to his holy ceremony. It was more than he could stand to think of it, and he was not about to let them get away with it. And afterwards, he was certainly going to have to get rid of those three tottering relics, and find himself some decent priests.
Speaking of tottering relics, Anton Pesticide and his bitter enemy Morteza the hijacker were still hostages of the Islamic Jihad for the Rearrangement of Small, Damp, Furry Things. Initially, they had been blindfolded and taken to the hollow tree that served as the terrorists’ hideout, where they had all passed an uneasy night together. By the following morning, the terrorists had decided to take their hostages to Beirut and issue their demands from there, as soon as they decided what their demands were. For his part, Morteza had been attempting to persuade the terrorists that he was their brother, and was ready to join them in their holy cause, whatever it might be. The terrorists, however, had rejected Morteza’s claim, repeatedly accusing him of being a Mossad agent, and threatening to chop off his head and put it on the internet. Then one of the terrorists (whose name was Jaffar) made the mistake of awakening Pesticide, who had been dozing fitfully throughout the night, and might have remained happily unconscious for a good while longer, had he not been disturbed.
“Get up, old man!” snarled Jaffar, poking Pesticide in the ribs with the barrel of his automatic weapon. “You gonna die today, you know.”
“Well, that’ll be something different, won’t it?” Pesticide remarked, in his characteristically annoying way, while attempting to get to his feet.
Like most terrorists, Jaffar was easily annoyed, and demanded to know if Pesticide was one of those arrogant American imperialist lackeys. Pesticide replied that he was too nonexistent to be anything in particular, and continued to elaborate on this theme until Jaffar lost all patience with him, shoved him into a corner, slapped a piece of duct tape across his mouth, and told him that if he said one more word, he would cut out his tongue and beat him to death with it. Then another of the terrorists burst in with the news that their Mercedes had been repossessed during the night, and they would have to make the trip to Beirut in a 1975 Ford Pinto with a leaky coolant system.
As might have been expected, the trip north was exceedingly unpleasant. The Pinto kept overheating, and had to be pulled over and cooled off every ten miles. By the time they reached the Lebanese border, it was almost dark, and the terrorists were all in a very nasty mood. Unfortunately for them, the Lebanese border guards weren’t in a particularly good mood, either. Upon being asked to state their business, the terrorists defiantly identified themselves, and declared that they were on their way to Beirut with two important hostages. The border guards, who were less than impressed, gave them all a quick once-over, and finally allowed that the terrorists could come in, and they could even bring along the damned Iranian, but the light-fingered old American windbag was persona non grata, and would have to be left behind. This led to an increasingly heated exchange, with the terrorists insisting that the hostages could only be released after all their demands were met, until the Lebanese border guards had had enough of it, and told them all to go to hell. The situation might have escalated further, but the Lebanese border guards had bigger guns and more of them. So, in the end, the terrorists were obliged to turn around and head south again. After talking it over for a bit, they all agreed they would continue to head south until they reached the Syrian border, and then try to get to Damascus. And had he not been forbidden to speak, Pesticide might have actually told them that they needed to go northeast to get to Damascus.
Later that evening, under intense pressure from both the network and their own peculiar religious pretensions, the Exalted Order of Dagon met in emergency session, to settle the still unresolved question of where the impending sacrifice was to be held. Since the high priest’s two associates remained at odds on the matter, and as inflexible as ever, the high priest thunderously decreed that the trial by combat must be set in motion. Accordingly, the two combatants were fitted with armor and weapons (possibly left over from the Third Crusade), and escorted with great pomp and flummery to an abandoned sewer adjacent to their subterranean temple, where the combat was to take place. There, by the light of many strategically placed torches (and with the television cameras grinding away), the high priest laid his hands upon both their swords, and prayed to Dagon that he would strengthen the arm of whichever one of these mummified idiots he agreed with. And then the combat began.
It was mercifully brief. One of the combatants had so little strength left in his moldering sinews that he was unable to even lift his sword. The other did manage to lift his sword, and was about to deliver what might have been the coup de grace, when suddenly his arm fell off. The high priest immediately stepped in and stopped the fight, solemnly proclaiming that this was a clear sign from Dagon, and awarding the victory to the weakling who had not even been able to lift his sword. His opponent protested bitterly, but to no avail. And thus it was ordained that the sacrifice would be carried out on the holy ground where the most holy artifacts had been buried. The loser (who still insisted that the sacrifice ought to be performed by the sea) was offered the consolation that the entire Negev desert had once been covered by an ocean, and hence was technically still part of Dagon’s domain. But he was too upset over the loss of his arm to take much interest in that sort of hollow sophistry.
By the following morning, all the other outstanding issues were pretty much settled. The nameless archaeologist had been disposed of without resorting to bloodshed. Specifically, someone (possibly Amalekite bandits) had pilfered all of his supplies during the night, thus necessitating his return to civilization to try to secure another research grant. As soon as he was gone, the team of network representatives moved in to prepare the site, swiftly informing their superiors that option (2) was in place, and the nameless archaeologist had agreed to sell out for the price of one million dollars. They, in turn, were informed that after further consideration of the situation, the network was now willing to pay only a quarter of a million to get rid of this nebbish, and if he was unwilling to settle for that amount, they would have to send in a tougher negotiator to close the deal. So the team members were obliged to give up their cherished dream of becoming Philadelphia slumlords, and the quarter of a million was transferred into their rapidly dwindling petty cash account.
Most of the balance of that account was committed to pay off the anonymous Beersheba goldsmith who had worked through the night to fabricate a wonderfully authentic-looking set of golden hemorrhoids and golden mice. Being an eminently sensible man, he had demanded five times his usual fee, plus something extra for getting them ready on time and keeping his mouth shut about it—and he got it. The phony artifacts were duly delivered, and were turned over to the high priest, who appeared to be perfectly satisfied with them. The slaves were all put to death to ensure their continued silence, and everything seemed to be in readiness for the sacrifice. Well, almost everything.
Bambi, of course, had only been told that she would be participating in a historically accurate reconstruction of a Philistine religious ceremony. The word “sacrifice” had never been used in her presence, and many of the details had deliberately been kept from her—especially the bit about having her throat cut and her blood sprinkled over the altar. But by now, most of the network people were well aware that she wasn’t quite as dumb as she appeared to be, after all. At the very least, once she got a look at the layout, she was going to want to know what the knife was for. When the time came for her to find out, she would have to be heavily sedated; and until that time, it would probably require the constant ministrations of one of the network’s smarmiest bullshitters to keep her under control.
For this reason, Hiram Horskrappe’s resignation had been rejected, and he had been curtly advised that he would be expected to honor every provision of the contract he had so deftly engineered with her. He had promised to appear as her personal eunuch, and he was damn well going to do it. If she wanted him to wear a sequined pink body stocking, he would have to wear one. (His objection that it made him look like a poofter was brushed aside on the grounds that he was a poofter, and it was high time he came out of the closet.) If she wanted him to kiss her feet (or any other part of her anatomy), he would have to pucker up and get on with it. (He could always close his eyes and pretend he was kissing whatever he would have preferred to be kissing, and he didn’t have to eat anything beforehand; fasting was good for the soul.) And if he made any further attempts to weasel out of it, he was assured that he would never work in television again. He would be sacked without references, blackballed, blacklisted, and sent to Coventry in a barrel of his own shit.
All through the sweltering Negev afternoon, the area around the Well of Schlemiels was abuzz with preparations for the evening’s festivities. Under the direction of the high priest and his two associates, the remaining fanatical disciples attended to the setting up of the altar, the holy hemorrhoids and holy mice, the graven image of Dagon, and the various other sacrificial paraphernalia. At the same time, the cable network crews were hard at work, arranging their cameras, sound equipment, lighting, rigging, and the various other television paraphernalia. And aside from some momentary friction caused by an offhand comment that the graven image of Dagon looked like Charlie the Tuna, they all got along reasonably well.
By late afternoon, all the assorted paraphernalia was in place, all differences more or less resolved, and final testing was underway. Bambi arrived by helicopter, accompanied by an increasingly uncomfortable-looking Hiram Horskrappe, and went straight to her air-conditioned trailer, where a phalanx of wardrobe and makeup specialists were awaiting her. She had retained considerable autonomy in these areas, and had pretty much chosen her own ceremonial garb, in order to display her assets to the best advantage in front of all those tens of millions of people (possibly including Hollywood agents) who would be watching the spectacle. She was especially looking forward to putting Horskrappe through his paces, and repeatedly rubbing his nose in things she knew perfectly well he wasn’t interested in. Aside from the obvious motive of teaching him a lesson for underestimating her intelligence and trying to screw her over, she did have another reason for doing this: She happened to be one of those dedicated professionals who sincerely believed that fellows of his persuasion could be “cured,” and she intended to have a go at it. If she was successful, he might turn out to be the very man she needed to help advance her career. If not, she would at least have the fun of getting him all confused.
Unfortunately for all of them, the Negev had other plans. The cable network crews were still running their final tests, the Dagon worshippers were praying for a bountiful sacrifice, and Bambi was just getting settled into her trailer, when suddenly a sandstorm of unparalleled ferocity descended upon the whole encampment. It sent everyone scurrying for whatever cover they could find, scattered television paraphernalia and sacrificial paraphernalia with equal contempt, and generally made a right bloody mess of things. Possibly it was the wrath of Dagon, possibly it was the wrath of Jehovah, possibly it was the wrath of some other neglected demiurge, and possibly it was just poor idiot’s luck. Then again, possibly it was the near proximity of that accursed well….
The things that were closest to the well fared the worst, and this included all of the sacrificial paraphernalia. The altar was overturned, the graven image of Dagon shattered, and the holy objects sent flying in every direction. In particular, one of the counterfeit golden hemorrhoids had the great misfortune to roll into the well, unleashing a curse far more terrible than any Philistine would have dared to have nightmares about. Down it fell, and relentlessly down, down, down, into the darkness and the murky depths, finally landing with a soft thud in the antediluvian sand that covered the bottom of the well. It was only a soft thud, very soft indeed, and yet it was loud enough to awaken the souls of the thousands of dead schlemiels that haunted the place.
Up from the well they surged, in a tumultuous burst of long-repressed frustration, and went swirling around the encampment and beyond, bitching and complaining about all the issues that had plagued them during their sad little lives. In their unbridled fury, they smashed any equipment the sandstorm hadn’t already disposed of, and even managed to overturn a couple of vehicles. Then some of them forced their way into Bambi’s trailer, grabbed her and started tearing off her clothes. Others quickly followed, pouncing upon the members of the exclusively female wardrobe and makeup crew, and serving them in the same fashion. And while the women fought them off as best they could, Hiram Horskrappe hid under a pile of costumes and tried to make himself as inconspicuous as possible.
As long as the sandstorm continued to rage, the ectoplasmic schlemiels roamed at will over the blighted desert landscape, terrorizing everyone that got in their way. A few of them actually made it as far as the nearest highway, and attempted to commandeer a battered Ford Pinto that was pulled over to wait out the storm. And if they had had the time, they might have awakened something really horrible that was dozing on the back seat. But it was not to be. The triumphs of a schlemiel are always brief and inconsequential, and this one was no exception. The sandstorm was rapidly dissipating. A few moments longer and it had blown itself out altogether. The sun burst through and lit up the western horizon, and the dust and other debris began to settle. And now the high, piping, whiny voice of Abschlemiel (father of all schlemiels), coupled with the inexorable pull of his preposterous well, was once again calling his children home.
Not surprisingly, most of them didn’t want to go home, but the pull was too strong for them to resist. All the same, since misery truly does love company, they were determined to take as many prisoners as they could. With what strength they had left, they indiscriminately laid hands on Dagon worshippers and television people, on Bambi and all her attendants, on wandering Bedouin tribesmen and their cantankerous camels, on assorted small, damp, furry things, and on the diverse occupants of the Ford Pinto, dragging the whole sorry lot along with them. Then they were all caught up in a cacophonous vortex of schlemielheit, and down they went, together with all the flotsam and jetsam of their foolish endeavors. And as the last of them disappeared into the well, the opening caved in upon them, and was quickly covered up by the shifting sand, leaving not a trace of itself behind.
That, however, was not quite the end of the affair. For not long afterwards, there was an angry rumbling from deep within the bowels of the earth, a new fissure opened up, and out shot Anton Pesticide, propelled by some mighty geothermal force. Straight up into the air he went, until he was nearly lost from sight, and then slowly began arcing toward the west. After him came Bambi, struggling along under her own power, and kicking at the hands that kept trying to grab her ankles and pull her back down. She emerged once more into the light of day, just as the fissure was closing up behind her, and found herself all alone in the middle of nothing, with the daylight rapidly fading. Nonetheless, she did eventually manage to find her way to the highway, where (owing primarily to the fact that she was almost naked) she had very little difficulty flagging down a ride.
In the meantime, buoyed by his great gray overcoat and his perennial claim of nonexistence, Pesticide came to a relatively soft landing atop a sizeable compost heap, on the outskirts of a kibbutz, nearly twenty miles from the now obliterated well. Being thus rudely awakened, he quickly scrambled down to solid ground, carefully scraped his shoes, and brushed himself off as best he could. Quite naturally, he found himself at the center of a curious throng of settlers, many of whom didn’t smell any better than he did, and some of whom were imprudent enough to ask him about it. This, in turn, unleashed a series of windy pontifications more awful than any musty old curse, Philistine or otherwise; and before the evening was far advanced, several of the settlers were ready to chuck it in and go home to the Ukraine with whatever was left of their sanity.