The goblet was gone.
The shelf where I’d left it looked like Troy after Agamemnon and the boys had finished with it. Hector the enamel coffee pot lay slain on the table, along with the corpse of a battered canister that he’d taken with him. Paris the once jaunty brass candlestick had fallen in two pieces, sliced in half by a single sword stoke or laid low by a stripped screw, half buried beneath a trivet and a rusted egg beater. Ravens were beginning to circle.
Gently I lifted the body of Hector. Instantly Erma was at my side, smiling her toothy grin.”Coffee pot? You like coffee pot? This verr fine coffee pot, I let you have only fi’ dollar.”
“Erma, where is the goblet?”I asked, trying to be calm but speaking much too loud for the ten inches of space between my face and hers as she crowded in, ready to go for the jugular vein of her trade, my checkbook turned wallet.
“What is goblet? You need coffee pot. Look how verr nice this coffee pot is. You verr nice man, I let you have only three seventy-five.”
I dropped Hector’s body irreverently on the table and turned my back on it, hoping she would forget about it.”Wine . . . glass . . .” I spoke slowly and loudly, like a tourist in Mexico, certain that the locals can understand you if you shout, pantomiming pouring and drinking and unscrewing the cork, “where . . . is . . . wine . . . glass . . . that . . . was . . . here . . . this . . . morning?”
“Ah, wine glass. We have verr fine wine glass. This way, please,” she smiled as she took off bobbing through the aisles of junk.
Ah, that was it; my racing mind desperately latched onto a favorable explanation. Somebody knocked all of this stuff down, causing her to noticed that the cup was out of place in some parody of order that only she understood. She’d obviously moved it with the other wine glasses.
“See, we are here now. Look at this verr fine wine glass. See, here are two alike, you could have wine with lady friend. I sell you both only fo’ dollar, verr good bargain.”
Throughout her high pressure sales pitch I was searching the table with both hands, moving jelly glasses to one side and rummaging through Tupperware tumblers that looked older than plastic, although it was plain that the cup wasn’t there. The Boomer was staring at me like my body had been taken over by an Alien and he expected it to come crawling out of my belly like that scene in the movie that wouldn’t hit the theaters for another four years.
“Here two more almost alike. You can have all four for only seven dollar. This young man, he have lady friend also, no? Sharing wine make happy home. You buy these, yes?”
In desperation I hurried back to the ruins of Troy. Quick as a rabbit getting laid, Erma was right behind me—she hadn’t bought her way to the Land of the Big PX by letting a petty obstacle (in this case, The Boomer) get between her and a customer (in this case, me). She was still extolling the praises of these four dirty if unchipped survivors from the fifties, back when stemmed glassware was given out in detergent boxes and had to be sturdy enough to hold up. But you could tell that she was puzzled and her heart wasn’t in it.
I stopped before the burned gates, turned to Erma, took the glasses one by one from her hands and set them down, then took her hands in mine. At least that shut her up. She was probably thinking way back to her younger days, remembering what she’d done to raise the funds that allowed her to open her first Erma’s Fine Souvenirs and Other Cheap Crap for GIs (or maybe figuring what price to quote if I should ask).
Quietly this time, so as not to get her too excited, I began again.”Erma, there was a silver wine glass right here earlier today. Silver? Metal? Can you remember what happened to it?”
Comprehension brought out the teeth again.”Ah, metal cup. You want metal cup. We have verr fine metal cup. This way, please,” she chatted happily as she led the way to her prize collection of Western enameled coffee cups stuck in a window display, grizzled veterans of the days when Judy Blue Eyes’ great-great-granddaddy was selling cheap whiskey and overpriced sex to the rest of our great-great-granddaddies out on the range.
Something snapped. I mean, it was stacking up to be a really bad day. I’d gotten up too early with a hangover, wasted a Saturday morning while Spring was kissing Earth pawing through the flotsam and jetsam of humanity, seen Havana Joe’s life torn to pieces, disappointed Judy Blue Eyes, and been propositioned by Barbie the Slut. The only redeeming feature of the entire day was that I had fallen in love with a battered goblet, which was going to cost me all of my disposable income for the next two months and force me to write an ironclad prenuptial agreement and possibly even propose to Judy Blue Eyes. And now a smiling, buck-toothed Erma was trying to pawn off relics from Mr. Riggs’ ancestry as a substitute because she couldn’t find it. I mean, it was just too much.
Politeness be damned; I slipped The Marquis’ leash. He was a wounded catamount and Erma was a hunter with an empty rifle. With a feline snarl we leapt, teeth bared and claws extended.
Fortunately for Erma as well as my future earning power The Boomer had positioned himself behind me. Just as I sprang he grabbed the back of my belt and lifted me off the floor. There I was, hanging in mid-air, hissing and spitting and flailing my claws and trying to get at Erma who had backed away in utter astonishment, trying her best to figure out what this crazy Yankee was pantomiming this time. Good old Boomer, utterly unruffled, swung me out of the way so he could talk to Erma without having to shout over the hisses and said, “Do you have a metal goblet that cost fifty dollars?”
“Oh, goblet, fifty dollar goblet, why you not say so? I had verr verr fine fifty dollar goblet, some lady buy today.”
The catamount fled the shop, leaving in its place a bedraggled tabby cat that had just been gangbanged by all of the tomcats in the neighborhood.”You sss . . . you ssso . . . you sssol,” I could hardly even say the words, “you sold it?”
Erma was wailing.”Today. I sell today. Some lady buy today, give me thirty-fi’ dollar, it verr verr fine goblet, worth at least fifty dollar. Why I no save it for you, stupid stupid stupid Erma.”She began beating herself on the chest and face and tearing her hair.”Erma no merchant, she old stupid whore.”Tears were pouring down her cheeks and splatting as she slapped herself.
The Boomer took her hands and Erma stopped wailing. (Calculating prices again? Wonder if his price was the same as mine.) “What did this lady look like?”
“Look like? She ‘Merican lady. Pale face, round eyes. I no know, they all look same to poor old stupid whore Erma.”
Suddenly I realized what was wrong with this picture. The Vulture was missing.
“Boomer, The Vulture bought my goblet. Stinking miserable bitch, she was watching me all the time, soon as I turned my back she bought my goblet.”
Reporting more of this conversation is pointless. There were no more facts to be gathered from talking to Erma (who continued to whimper over the tragic loss of fifteen bucks), nothing to be gained from the half hour of epithets and accusations that I hurled at The Vulture. The cup was gone. The Vulture had bought it out from under my very nose, and Erma had no idea who she was or where she lived.
My anger and self-pity outlasted the ride back to The Boomer’s and well into the third Budweiser. Suddenly with a loud burp they were gone and I was frantically scheming again. One mark on the plus side was that the events of the last hour had pretty well banished my hangover, and I was actually capable of thinking clearly again. The Marquis may have still been lurking just below the surface, eagerly waiting his turn at Erma’s tender throat, but I was proud to say that the decisions, at least for the next little while, were going to be made rationally.
“Boomer, our course is obvious, my man. We have to stake out Erma’s. The Vulture is bound to come back; Erma’s is her natural habitat. We’ll just have to wait her out.”
“That’s the most illogical, harebrained, half-baked idea you’ve had in the last hour,” Barbie the Slut Doll exclaimed with The Boomer’s exasperated voice.”What are you going to do when you find her? Kidnap her and make her give it back as ransom? Follow her home and steal it? Beat her up?”
“You got a better idea?” I struck swiftly below the belt. I knew he didn’t have a better idea. The Boomer may be a genius, but he’s a limited genius. Give him a system that has gears or electrical windings or transistors, he looks in his crystal ball, instantly sees the problem, waves his magic wand of glitch repair, the problem goes away. Throw people into it, and his crystal ball turns murky and his wand shorts out.
To The Boomer’s credit, he never suggested that we just forget the whole thing. I had seen the goblet and he hadn’t, and if it crossed his mind that I was overreacting over a cheap trinket with ancient dirt built up so thickly that the ‘Made in Hong Kong’ stamp was no longer visible, he didn’t let on.
“Well, if you insist on being illogical, at least plan it logically.”
So we spent much of the rest of the afternoon finishing the beer in The Boomer’s refrigerator and illogically making a logical plan to accomplish an illogical goal. I mean, deep down inside, neither of us is a logical person. The Boomer isn’t a genius because he’s logical; he’s a genius precisely because he isn’t. He was basically no more capable of listing an orderly sequence of events and actions that would lead to an effective stake-out of Erma’s and trick The Vulture into giving us the cup back than I was. His mind makes huge leaps from effect to cause without bothering to fill him in on the exact route it took to get there. And in the absence of revelation, which wasn’t beaming down from heaven into his crystal ball because a human being was involved in the problem, his main contribution was providing the beer.
But finally I had a revelation.”I’ve got it, Boomer. Let’s con Jimbo Bond into doing it for us.” And Barbie the Slut Doll agreed that, yes, that was a fine idea, Jimbo Bond was the perfect answer.