Chapter 58 of The Empty City

By Andrew Looney

At a dozen minutes after midnight, the Princess's princess telephone rang. She and Dave were in an intimate embrace, but it was after the event not before, and so the interruption was not poorly timed.

She answered on the third ring. "Yes?"

She was sitting up in bed, with her beautiful red hair cascading down her back.

"I suppose so," she said into the receiver, sounding rather annoyed.

Dave, curled up nearby, reached out and stroked her long hair, then rubbed his hand along her smooth soft shoulders.

"You mean now?" This time she sounded rather downtrodden, as if resigned to her fate. She squirmed away from Dave's caresses.

"Yes. OK. No. No, that's OK. All right. Bye."

She sighed deeply. Then she hung up the phone and got out of bed. "Get dressed," she said.

Dave didn't move. "Why?" he asked.

"That was Dad. We're supposed to meet him in 45 minutes, downtown at the Henderson Diner."

Dave groaned. "Why does it have to be now? Can't it wait until tomorrow?"

"That's not how things work with Dad," said the Princess.

Dave saw that he couldn't protest. They got dressed and caught a subway train.

When they arrived, just after 1 AM, they saw that the Emperor was already there. He was drinking a chocolate milk shake.

They went in and sat down.

The Emperor said, "Thanks for coming. You guys want anything?"

The Princess said "Toast."

Dave shrugged. "I don't know. Are there menus?"

The Emperor yelled, "Marty? One toast and one menu!"

Someone in the back yelled an unclear but positive sounding response.

"So, daddy," said the Princess, "What's so urgent?"

The Emperor looked at Dave. "You wanted to challenge me and the Doctor, right?"

Dave was startled. He felt as if he'd just been accused of a crime. "Um, yes," he admitted, rather sheepishly.

"OK, then. The Doctor will be here shortly. Did you bring your set?"

Dave frowned. "No."

The Emperor shrugged. "That's OK, I've got a spare."

Marty came out with the toast and the menu, dropped them on the table, and shuffled away.

As the Princess munched her toast and the Emperor drank his shake, Dave looked through the menu. He said "Um, cheese omelet?"

The Emperor yelled, "Marty? Cheese omelet!"

Marty yelled an unclear but positive sounding response from somewhere in the back.

The Emperor poured the last of his shake out of the cannister and into the goblet. He lifted the goblet halfway to his mouth and then stopped. Holding it in midair, he fixed his gaze on Dave. "Dave," he said, "Do you draw?"

Dave thought for a moment, and said, "No, not really."



"Write poems?"


"Compose music?"


"Take photographs?"

Dave had finally had enough of this interrogation. "Why are you asking all of these questions?"

The Emperor flashed a peevish glance at his daughter. "Hasn't she told you?"

The Princess was tracing the boomerang shapes of the Formica countertop pattern with her index finger and did not look up.

The Emperor sighed heavily. He took a long swig of milk shake, and then set the goblet down on the table with a loud thunk. "You know about my theory of Mars, don't you?"

"Sort of," offered Dave, timidly.

"OK. The idea is that redheads have ancient race memories of Mars buried in their subconscious. These memories can still be tapped into, by thinking creatively. The artist who paints what he thinks is an imaginary alien city might really be seeing, in his mind's eye, a vision of a real city on ancient Mars. Right?"

"Right," said Dave.

"Now these memories can surface in many ways. The ideas for Icehouse, for example, originally came to me in a dream. Right?"

"Right," said Dave.

"So what I'm doing now, what I've been working on for quite a while in fact, is attempting to bring together the creative works of a large number of Martian descendents, to see their creative works collectively, to see if they really add up to anything. I've seen similarities in the work of different Martian artists before, and I'm hoping, that by bringing a lot of such work together, it will add up to a cohesive big picture, a glimpse, if you will, of the ancient civilization of Mars. Right?"

"Right," said Dave.

At about this time, a motorcycle pulled up in front of the Diner.

"OK. To this end, I am organizing an art show, which is set to open in the first week of March at the Teldman Gallery. And whenever I meet a Martian, I always find out what creative work they do, if any, to see how it might fit into the big puzzle of ancient Mars. See?"

"Mmm, yes, I see," said Dave. "It all sounds very logical and scientific."

What Dave thought, however, was "This guy is a total crackpot!"

The door to the Diner opened, and a tall man dressed entirely in black leather strode in. He wore a black motorcycle helmet, black leather jacket, black chaps, black boots, and black gloves. He strode over to the booth, smiled at the Emperor and his party, and started stripping down. He hung his helmet and jacket on the hat rack beside the booth, put his gloves inside the helmet, and sat down. Then he stood up again and extracted from his jacket a thin wooden case. He looked at Dave.

"You must be Dave," he said. "I understand you want to play us." He grinned at the Emperor and then burst out with an evil sounding laugh.

"Yes," admitted Dave.

"Good," he grinned. Then he called out, "Marty? Coffee!"

Marty yelled something incomprehensible from somewhere in the back.

Doctor Cool opened the thin wooden case. It contained fifteen Icehouse pieces, carved from something very black and very shiny.

"Black onyx," said the Doctor, noticing Dave's reaction.

The Emperor had by this time extracted a similar wooden case, and was setting his pieces out on the table. These were made of plaster of paris, and looked rather awful.

"These," said the Emperor, "are the first ever Icehouse pieces. I made them years ago after a particularly vivid dream. Admittedly, they're pretty nasty, but they remain one of my favorite sets."

Dave nodded.

When he'd finished setting up his pieces, the Emperor dug around in his coat, produced a box of plain, ordinary plastic pieces, and handed it over to Dave.

Marty arrived with the omelet and coffee, and they postponed the game until after they had eaten.

When they finally did play, it was a disaster for Dave. He was a good player, but the Doctor and the Emperor really took him to the cleaners. They used strategies and maneuvers that he'd never before dreamed of. And though his defeat embarrassed him, he was inwardly excited by the lessons he'd learned. Boy, he'd show Bert and the twins a few things at their next game!

The Princess had refrained from playing. At the outset of the first game she had produced a paperback novel and had been reading, but as the games wore on she had leaned against the wall and fallen asleep.

Suddenly, the Emperor looked at his watch, stood up, and said "That's it for me, boys, I gotta run."

The Doctor stood up and stretched. "Yeah, I think I'll hit the road, too."

The Emperor walked briskly up to the counter and called for Marty. When Marty emerged, the Emperor gave him some money. Meanwhile, Doctor Cool had been putting his leathers back on.

The inventors of Icehouse got to the door at about the same time. Dave watched through the window as they chattered briefly about something, then went their separate ways. They punctuated their parting with something similar to a handshake, but also different. They had each used both hands, and instead of clasping hands they had gripped wrists. For a brief moment, four hands gripped four wrists. And then they were gone.

Dave woke up the Princess, and took her home.


Copyright © 1991 by Andrew Looney.

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