Home » , , , , , » Don Quixote and Candide Seek Truth, Justice and El Dorado in the Digital Age By Stefan Soto

Don Quixote and Candide Seek Truth, Justice and El Dorado in the Digital Age By Stefan Soto

It is appropriate my first meeting with the renowned Man of La Mancha, a living oddity if ever there was one, took place in the geographical curiosity known as Llívia, a Spanish city surrounded by French soil. A 1659 treaty ceded villages in the region to France—only Llívia was and is a small city, not a village, and so remained a part of Spain.
Don Quixote and Candide Seek Truth, Justice and El Dorado in the Digital Age
Don Quixote and Candide Seek Truth, Justice and El Dorado in the Digital Age By Stefan Soto

I reached the outskirts of this exclave just as the sun disappeared behind the mountains and by chance stumbled on an inn while roaming the city’s narrow streets. A weather-battered sign out front exhorted tourists to, “Meet the One and Only Don Quixote—In Person!” My parched throat and the sounds of laughter lured me inside where I saw a tall, gaunt gentleman with a long, white beard and matching shoulder-length hair regaling an audience of German tourists with tales of high adventure from days past.

“And that is how I defeated the black knight and thus avenged the matchless and peerless princess, whose very name I dare not sully in public drinking establishments such as this.”

Of course, I knew that the woman in question was none other than Dulcinea del Toboso, in truth a common peasant girl. And although I had only heard the tail end of his story, I knew it well from reading El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha, or, as it is translated, Don Quixote: The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.

“Don Quixote, at your service,” he said to me with a deep bow after the crowd of tourists dispersed. “I perceive you have traveled far and are in need of a restorative.”

“I am known the world over as Candide,” I replied, returning the bow, imitating the archaic gesture with good humor. “I could, indeed, use a restorative, for I have been wandering the back roads of southern France for what seems an eternity. A good stiff drink is a fine antidote for heat and dust.”

“Proprietor, two brandies!” he called out.

“Stiffer,” I replied.

“Two bourbóns!”

We sat and drank not just those two whiskies but two more after that and a third round for good measure. During that time, Don Quixote recounted well-worn tales of adventure, tales I knew from having read the book and that, frankly, did not improve with the telling by their author. In wine, there is truth. In whisky, far more information than one may wish to know.

An evening chill had descended on the place, and we sat at a table next to a roaring fire.

“It’s strange,” I said after ordering something to eat, “that we should meet here, the two of us.”

“Why do you find that strange?”

“Well…you know, your being famous for your adventures and my having celebrity for mine.”

“Celebrity? You? What adventures do you claim?”

I bolted upright in my chair. “Surely you’ve read Candide, ou l'Optimisme, which by translation means Candide: or, The Optimist.”

He shook his head. “Never heard of it.”

“It was a bestseller! Never out of print. You can go into any bookstore in Germany or France…”

“France!” he huffed, rolling his eyes dismissively.

“It garnered international acclaim!” I countered.

I pulled out my smartphone to access the Internet and prove my point, but the inn had no Wi-Fi service.

“When was this self-proclaimed best seller published?” he prodded.

“In the year 1759.”

“Ha! Mine was published in 1605.” He leaned in closer and lowered his voice as if sharing a deep secret. “It is common knowledge that nothing worthy of reading has been produced since 1615 when the second part of my chronicle, which the public demanded, came out.”

I leaned toward him and was just about to tell him what I thought about that statement when a server delivering my stew interrupted us. Being famished from the day’s journey, I deferred a response and focused on my dinner.

“Not hungry?” I said at length, noticing my companion sitting quietly across the table staring at the fire.

He didn’t answer for some time. Then he looked up and spoke.

“I do hunger.” He paused, glancing at a tiny laminated menu on the table. “But my hunger can’t be sated by a serving of paella.”

“Try some of this escudella. It is to die for.”

“You misunderstand me. I have been a wanderer throughout this land lo these many years since my last adventure, roaming from inn-to-inn, delighting anyone who would listen with reminiscences of my many quests and exploits. Over the course of four centuries, I have known intimately every public house in every city, town, and hamlet throughout the land, and countless places without name. I have grown weary of recounting the past and my travels with Sancho Panza.”

He stood and called out to a room full of astonished patrons.

“What I hunger for is truth! I hunger for justice and righteousness! I thirst for hope! I thirst for knowledge!”

The room erupted in applause.

“Bravo!” the German tourists called out, thinking his remarks part of a performance by a Don Quixote impersonator.

Then he turned and stared at me.

“But most of all…I hunger and thirst for adventure!”

I stared back at the ancient knight with—I’m sure of it—my mouth wide open. The words he spoke were the very thoughts weaving through my mind as I traveled that day. For years (How many? Too many!) I had wandered the highways, back roads and side trails of Europe, recounting in ever-increasing detail my adventures to whomever would listen, pay for my meal, or give me shelter. Even to me the stories became stale after the first fifty years: How I was raised by a German baron and placed under the tutelage of Professor Pangloss who espoused that no matter what happens in life, we live in the best of all possible worlds. How I fell in love with Cunégonde, the baron’s young daughter and was expelled from the Westphalian castle for displaying my affection. How myself, Cunégonde, Dr. Pangloss, an old woman we called “the old woman,” and my valet, Cacambo, endured many sufferings and adventures. How Cacambo and I explored the land of El Dorado where gold and jewels littered the streets like the stones and pebbles on a mountain road. How my fortunes rose and fell at the hands of Fate, and how all of us gave up adventurous lives to tend gardens on a farm outside of Constantinople, which these days is called Istanbul. How at the close of my journeys I realized that contrary to Professor Pangloss’s assertions, all is not for the best, evil does exist, and it is our lot in life to deal with what destiny hands us the best we can. After many years, I left the farm and returned to the German village where I first drew breath only to move further south for the warmer climes and the less fanatical populace of France, where I learned the language and wandered from village-to-village, recounting my past glories.

I, like Don Quixote, desired more than anything to travel abroad once more, to seek adventure, come what may—fortune, misfortune, riches, poverty, elation, failure, gain, loss—all of which is irrelevant. What counts is to be in the game, in life, on the hunt, on the quest. It had been far too long since I tasted anything of sweet victory or sour defeat, though either is preferable to the bland diet of a pointless existence I had come to know. Suddenly, I lost all interest in the dish I had a minute before devoured with relish. I wanted to taste disaster and savor success. I wanted to feast on life!

“Did you know,” I said at length, “that there is an enormous landmass many times the size of Spain and France called America? A land filled with forests, swamps, deserts, grasslands, and mountain ranges running north, south, east and west?”

A light long dormant flickered in Don Quixote’s eyes. He wet his lips. “This sounds like a place where men might find adventure,” he said. “Are the people there as civilized as we Europeans?”

“If by civilized, you mean they have had many wars, oppressed whole peoples, and embraced social status based on wealth, then the answer is a decided Yes! In addition to all that, they have theme parks.”

He rubbed his beard in deep thought. “When Fortune taps you on the shoulder, stop and turn around; give her your full attention, for she is a shy mistress who rarely makes her presence known.” He spoke these words in almost a whisper, as if encouraging himself.

“Did you further know,” I continued, sweetening the pot, “that the only thing standing between that land and ours is the Atlantic, an ocean fraught with storms, leviathans, and dangers so great a thousand ships a year once perished there?” I may have exaggerated slightly, but it achieved the desired result. The knight’s nostrils flared.

“Of course,” Don Quixote informed me, leaning close so as not to be overheard by the others in the tavern, “we must leave precisely at dawn, if we are going to do this properly.”

“Is that an ironclad rule for beginning a quest?”

“Absolutely. This is common knowledge among knights-errant.”

I pushed the bowl away from me and stood, lifting my glass. “In that case…a toast!”

He raised his. “To adventure!” he said.

“To adventure!” I repeated.

We drained the last of our drinks, smashed the glasses in the fireplace, and shook hands.

“To America?” I asked.

“To America!” he cried.





Chapter Two





The next morning we met outside the inn. A mist still blanketed the town as the sun’s leading tendrils searched the eastern horizon.

“Now, my friend,” Don Quixote said, “how do you propose we begin our journey? On foot, by horse, by cart, or by carriage?”

“By rail. A bus leaves in an hour for Toulouse, where we catch a train to Calais. From there, a ferry to Dover, and from Dover, another train ride into London. We should be there this evening.”

“And how do you propose we pay for this mode of travel?”

“Don’t worry. I’ve got it covered.”

“How is it you have monies to cover these expenses?”

“It’s a long story, one which in former days would require hours in the telling. The long and short of it is that after my return from El Dorado, my compatriots and I took to farming a plot of ground, which over the years yielded not only robust crops but, far more importantly, sat atop a geologic goldmine known as crude oil. That meant nothing until 1910, when the world’s navies lost their insatiable appetite for coal-powered ships and converted to oil. Immediately, our land was worth a fortune. After 150 years of toil, we agreed to sell the farm and part ways. The money I carry on me now is all that is left of that sale, but I gladly share it with you on this final adventure.”

“Final?” Don Quixote cried, grasping my shoulders. “This is only the beginning! You’ll see. Before our quest is over, our names will be upon the lips of every king and peasant in every land. We will have riches beyond our wildest imaginations.”

At that moment the proprietor stepped forward.

“Hey, you! Yes, you! You owe me two Euros for the glassware you broke last night. I don’t mind you play-acting Don Quixote to draw the tourists, but I’m running a business here, and that’s an expense!”

My companion turned on the man. “First, I am not Don Quixote, the play-actor! I am, in fact, Alonso Quixano of La Mancha, known to you and the rest of the world as Don Quixote, the original. Secondly, you and I know that tonight you will recount how Don Quixote flung his glass into the fireplace, and you will sell tickets to a gullible public to view the artifacts. Nay, you will sell enough shards of broken glass to fill the Fountain of Montjuïc. Thirdly, and finally, the customers I have attracted to your establishment have kept this miserable, hole-in-the-wall you are pleased to call an inn afloat lo these many months. They come to see me and to hear my tales, not to drink your watered-diluted wine.”

“Two euros, or I call the policía!” the innkeeper cried.

Don’s eyes narrowed. He threw back his shoulders and stuck out his chest. I sensed my traveling companion-to-be was about to do something regrettable, so I fished two bills from my money belt.

“Here,” I said, shoving the money forward. “All square. We have a bus to catch. Let’s go!”

“And don’t come back!” the proprietor called out.

“We’ll come back when you get Wi-Fi!” I shouted. I meant it to sting.

“I must return here after our quest,” Don confided. “I left behind a portmanteau which contains my worldly possessions.”

We walked toward the station while Don Quixote stroked his beard, deep in thought. “You see what I have had to put up with for 400 years. Mean, little men fretting over every peso that falls into and out of their pockets, as if life is about counting coins.”

I, too, had been up most of the night counting. Counting the minutes before we got on our way. My head swooned with the thought of travel overseas once again.

“Didn’t get a bit of sleep knowing I will soon see El Dorado once again,” I informed him. “When I was abroad, I longed for the comforts of home. Upon my return, I yearned for the excitement of being in another land.”

“This El Dorado, how does one get there?” he wanted to know.

“I stumbled upon it in my youth and have poured over maps and manuscripts ever since. No one seems to know where it is anymore. Scholarly texts now place it with other lost worlds like Eden, Atlantis, and Hy-Brasil. I was sure it was in South America, but I now have my doubts. Sometimes, after all these years, it seems like the whole thing was a dream.”

“Where, then, do you propose we begin looking for it?”

“Aha! I’m glad you asked me that, for I have read of an exceptional man whose mind was created to solve problems. I propose we seek him out.”

“Who is this person?”

“A detective. He lives in London.”

“London!”

“Yes. England.”

A visible shudder ran through Don Quixote’s body. His shoulders went limp, and his head fell forward.

“Merlin!” he gasped, almost inaudibly.

“Who?”

“The magician of King Arthur’s Court. The wizard who casts spells from afar. He has placed many an enchantment on me and my valet, Sancho Panza.”

“Surely he’s dead by now,” I said, hoping to lend some measure of comfort.

“Dead? Merlin? Dear boy, the moon may turn to dust and fall from the sky. Stars may lose their flames and go dark. Oceans may dry up. But Merlin…dead? Never!”

“So you’re afraid to go there then?” I asked with all sincerity. “After all this talk about hunger and thirst for adventure, one magician with a bag of tricks up his sleeve is going to stop you?”

The knight said nothing until we reached the depot. I purchased two InterRail tickets and led him to the Toulouse bay where our bus idled. He hesitated, muttering Merlin’s name, I presumed to muster courage.

“Tell me,” I said as we stood there sucking in diesel fumes. “This Merlin. Didn’t you thwart all of his best efforts?”

He stopped rubbing his beard. His eyes lit up.

“Come to think of it, ultimately I did.”

“Then what do you have to be anxious about? He threw his best at you when you weren’t expecting it—a coward in my book—and you survived and bested him in each instance.”

“Yes. Yes,” he said, screwing up his courage. “The age of wizards has past. The age of reason won out. I am the victor!”

“Well, climb aboard this bus, Victor!”

As we pulled away from the terminal, I fired up my phone.

“Yes! Wi-Fi! I’ll check the ferry schedule for Calais.”





Chapter Three





The ride to Toulouse is a mere 172 kilometers from Llívia, which in theory should have taken a little over two hours to traverse by bus. Not so! Our driver seemed compelled to go out of his way to find every hamlet that might produce a paying customer. I passed the time setting up a blog for our journey and was able to connect to the Internet most of the time, while my companion, Don Quixote, entertained himself with various games of his own invention. We had just passed a billboard stating that It’s All Good! in reference to some product or another, when he cleared his throat.

“Did you know,” he said, pecking at my arm with his bony finger, “that one can derive no less than twenty-two different words from the word Toulouse?”

I replied that I did not know that.

“It is a mind trick I picked up standing in long postal office lines during the Franco era. You give me a word, any word, and I will find other words within it. For instance, please by itself produces no fewer than thirty-seven separate words.”

“Okay. How many other words can you derive from the word Spain?”

“Twenty-six,” he replied without batting an eye. “That was one of the first I tried my hand at. Whereas France, which has one more letter than Spain, scarcely produces a dozen additional words.”

He recited the variations and, stone me, he was right. I gave him several other words to break down, but when I handed him “knight,” his face assumed a very serious expression. His air of levity vanished, and I knew our word game had ended.

“You are, of course,” he said, “familiar with the old saying, Velitibus iunctis equites ad bella parantur.”

I was not.

“It means, “Knights are prepared for wars when the foot soldiers are alongside them. You,” he said, again jabbing his finger into my breastbone, “will be my foot soldier on this quest.”

I poked his chest with my finger.

“As I am funding this expedition, I will be the one calling the shots. Not you!”

He seemed taken aback at first but soon regained his composure and smiled.

“So be it. You shall be my squire and patron. But regardless, I must dedicate this quest to a deserving maiden of noble birth. That is a hard and fast rule that must be observed!”

He looked around the bus but spied no candidates to his liking. For my part, I found the vehicle crammed with a surfeit of attractive ladies, for my adopted country is known for producing nothing but beautiful women.

“Perhaps we will find one worthy further on,” he said.

At that moment we entered a long tunnel, which ran beneath a mountain named Sacré, meaning “Sacred” by translation. We had no sooner entered it when the interior bus lights flickered on and off in a bizarre and eerie fashion. Then everything went completely dark. Oddly enough, no one said a word, or at least I heard nothing. When the bus finally emerged from the dark on the other side of the mountain, all of the lights instantly came back on, accompanied by the usual cacophony of noise by the passengers. It was as though an auditory and visual barrier had been lifted, and I could see and hear once again. The odd thing is that I had the sensation of being exhausted, as though I had just returned from on a long journey. But the tired feeling quickly dissipated, and I soon felt my normal self once more.

“What was that?” I asked Don.

“What was what?”

“Whatever just happened in that tunnel!”

“I observed nothing.”

“The darkness? The lights going out? It was quite the paranormal event.”

“Tunnels are dark,” he said. “Lights sometimes go out.”

“But the sound died.”

“Sometimes people are quiet when lights go out.”

“But. . . .”

I decided to drop the matter and attributed my tired symptoms to temporary sinus pressure.

Don glanced at the laptop I pulled from my backpack and observed as I began to type.

“What is that you are doing?”

“I’ve decided to write a blog about our escapades, starting with this odd incident. With a little luck, we can generate funding for our journey by crowdsourcing.”

Don Quixote cleared his throat and said nothing for several minutes.

“These terms you use—blog, website, crowd—”

“—sourcing.”

“Yes, yes. What do they mean?”

I was dumbfounded. “Don’t you keep up with the times?”

He seemed taken aback. “Of course! I pride myself in staying abreast of all the modern terms.”

I decided to test him to discover the exact era in which his knowledge of current terminology ended. I began with the 1960s. “What does ‘groovy’ mean?”

“Groovy, as every schoolboy knows, is a woodworking term referring to tongue and groove joints. For instance, parquet boards—”

“Not even close. How about ‘LOL’“?

He paused and thought for a moment. “This is, of course, the well-known Latin phrase, laudatory—”

“Nope.”

“This is an Italian word—”

I shook my head. “Not in the ballpark, and please don’t make me explain what “in the ballpark” means. Now, surely you’ve heard the texting phrase, ‘OMG.’“

“Ah! I know this! It is common knowledge that inhabitants of the Polynesia islands worship the deity named Omg.”

“It stands for ‘Oh My God,’ as in, ‘OMG, he couldn’t be more behind the times.’”

After more prompting, I realized his idea of staying abreast of things meant being up-to-date through about the mid-1800s.

“I can see you need an interpreter on our journey, a role I am gladly willing to perform. If you don’t understand something, just ask. And I beg you,” I added as an afterthought, “no charging after windmills!”

He made the sign of the cross across his chest. “I solemnly swear to that. The scales have fallen from my eyes as regards windmills. You see before you an older and wiser variation of the man portrayed by my biographer in the manuscripts. May I add that he chose to omit all of my successes but did not fail to cover in some detail my failures, which he embellished ad nauseam!”

I typed some more, trying to recount details of our first encounter the night before.

“What was the innkeeper’s name?” I asked him.

“I don’t know. Julio. Possibly Pedro. One innkeeper is the same as the next. They come and go, you know.”

“How long did you take up residence at this one?”

“I was there…oh, possibly only seven years.”

“And you don’t remember his name?”

“Is that important?”

“Yes. I’m working on the first blog, which I hope will one day be the first chapter of a book that recounts the exploits we are about to experience.”

The knight sat up straight in his seat, cleared his throat, and in all seriousness said, “May I propose that we name the first chapter, The Quest—In Which We See The Resurrection Of Don Quixote, Otherwise Known As The Man Of La Mancha And Hero Of Great Deeds, His Meeting Candide, A Self-Claimed Frenchman Of Dubious Notoriety, As They Embark On A Most Perilous Journey Fraught With Dangers, Intrigues, Battles With Sorcerers And Giants, Seeking Untold Treasures In The Mythical Realm Known As El Dorado, Beseeching The Guiding Hand Of Providence To Lead Them As They Encounter Enchanted Persons, And Many Other Excellent Adventures Yet To Be Named, Notwithstanding The Perils They Will Face, All The While Searching For Truth, Justice!”

I stared at him, my mouth ajar, before regaining my senses.

“I was thinking of calling it Chapter One.”





Chapter Four





We entered Toulouse later that morning. The bus passed a Jewish school where a few years before an Arab shot dead a rabbi and several school children. I recalled the billboard we drove by earlier and could almost hear Dr. Pangloss saying all is for the best and that God orchestrated the tragedy to remind us how fortunate we are not to be a Jewish rabbi, a child attending school, or a radicalized Arab. There was once a time when I would have nodded my head in agreement, but I now know that evil exists in the world and that staying on my farm ignoring it was unacceptable.

As we entered the bus station we saw a news report on one of the televisions explaining that a plane carrying a group of German tourists visiting Spain had just crashed into a mountainside.

“God rest their souls,” Don Quixote said. “I pray none were in the party we saw last night at the tavern, for they seemed like decent people.”

“Dr. Pangloss would say the mountain was created by God’s hand solely to absorb the impact of that airliner,” I told him.

“Who is this Dr. Pangloss?”

A sigh of exasperation escaped my lips, as I had been telling Don Quixote about my experiences for the last hour of our bus ride.

“He’s the one who accompanied me on my travels, captured for the ages in the book about me. Weren’t you listening?”

“I must admit I drifted off somewhere between Lisbon and El Dorado.”

Since we traveled light, me with a backpack and he with only the clothes on his back and what meager possessions fit into his pockets, we immediately left the bus terminal and rode the underground metro to the Toulouse-Matabiau railway station where I purchased tickets. We soon boarded a train bound for Paris and the northern coast of France.

I did some online searching and calculated that the nine-hour train ride prevented us from making it to Calais in time for the last ferry to England that day. I then searched for a hostel near the waterfront.

I didn’t notice at first, but my companion had attracted a small audience who hung onto every word as he recounted his adventures with his sidekick, Sancho Panza. At one point I attempted to tell one of my stories but was rebuked by the knight, who once more took over the conversation, and I returned to my blog, posting my experiences almost in real-time.

After several hours even my loquacious travel mate needed a breather, and his audience faded away, except for one person, a man in his fifties with a bushy beard and thick glasses. He introduced himself as Dr. Archambault, a professor of literary studies at de l'Université Paris-Sorbonne.

“I couldn’t help but overhear your descriptions of Cervantes’ masterwork, and I must say you were true to the text in every detail. I myself lecture at conferences around the world. I have written three books, which are taught in the major schools, and I have published dozens of papers. In a word, I am recognized as an expert on the subject of Don Quixote. Yet I have never met someone who has such an intimate grasp of the character, such understanding of time and place, such feel for plot nuances. You are without a doubt the most believable impersonator I have ever met. What, sir, may I ask, is your secret?”

I rolled my eyes and muttered, “Here we go.”

To my surprise, the knight didn’t puff himself up with indignation and verbally assail the professor. Instead, he calmly proceeded to enlighten him.

“I have intimate knowledge of Don Quixote because I am Don Quixote, the original,” he said.

The professor laughed and shook his head. “But that cannot be. First of all, the Man of La Mancha is a fictional character. Secondly, he would be over four-hundred-years-old. And thirdly, he was killed off in the sequel book. What you say is quite impossible.”

I, too, had wondered the same thing. How was it my companions—Cunégonde, Cacambo—and I were still alive after two hundred years. Surely it is not the natural order of things.

“Did not the early patriarchs, Adam and Noah, live to be nearly one thousand years old?” my fellow traveler asked the professor. “Did their children not live many hundreds of years? Surely you’ve heard of Methuselah? Why is it so hard to believe man cannot still attain great life spans?”

“I concede it is conceivable, though not likely,” the professor said. “But come now, sir, everyone knows Don Quixote is pure fiction.”

Again, I expected for my friend to erupt, but he maintained his composure.

“Why do you assume I am fiction? The stories I tell correspond to known events in history, do they not?”

“Of course they relate to true events, but the stories themselves are fantastical tales, very inventive I grant you, but beyond belief.”

“Those were fantastical times, my friend. It was one of many ages mankind has known. There was the Golden Age, the Age of Prophets, the Age of Miracles, the Age of Wizards, the Age of Reason, the Age of Exploration, the Age of Discovery, and on it goes. I lived during the age of adventure. It was before your time. The land has now been tamed, the dragons slain, and all the knights have long since returned to their castles, which have turned to dust. I can see how you would be hard pressed to believe they ever existed. But had you been there, you would not say such things. No doubt you will one day fail to make the next generation understand how things were in your time.”

“Sir, that day arrived with my first grandchild’s fifteenth birthday,” the professor replied. “I don’t understand him. He doesn’t understand me. So, on that point we agree. But tell me, if you are indeed Don Quixote, then I guess you also knew Cervantes?”

Even I perceived this to be a trick question.

“I never met my chronicler,” Don Quixote replied. “In fact, he is not my real biographer, for I first related my stories to the Arab historiographer, Cid Hamet Ben Engeli, a Moor. This Cervantes fellow somehow gained access to Ben Engeli’s archive—omitting my many successes and portraying me as the court jester, I might add—and published it as comedy for a fickle reading public to consume. Not only have I never received a dime from the royalties, but I have been marginalized as a figment of Cervantes’ fertile imagination. In sum, Cervantes is not the father of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha, the book, but a step-father at best!”

The professor nodded in agreement.

“Again, you are absolutely correct. How is it I have never met you at any of the literature conferences?”

The knight pointed to the sky.

“Does the sun attend astronomers’ lectures? Do the stars consult astrology charts? Does the moon care if poets praise it in verse? If you wish to be illuminated on the subject of Don Quixote, you must orbit around me!”

“But what about the fact that Don Quixote died in the book? And yet, you are alive?”

Of course I’m alive! It is my chronicler who is dead. All men of importance have their biographer. Mine was, by accident, this Cervantes fellow. It is in man’s nature to realize his own mortality and in doing so see doom for the rest of the world. Witness the many cults that come and go—each believing life on this planet must die with them. As the proverb has it, if you are planting a tree when those around you say the end is at hand, finish planting that tree! Cervantes obviously saw his end and so thought it only natural to envision mine. But a Greater Author than he—I of course refer to the Great and Sovereign Architect of all that exists—saw fit to extend my days beyond the allotted three score and ten.

“And what is your secret to longevity?”

“No doctors!” the knight said without hesitation. “It has been my experience that the surest and quickest means to bringing one’s life to an abrupt halt is to put oneself into the care of physicians.”

“That’s it?” I said, joining their conversation. “No doctors? I have found that putting my self into the care of a trusted man of medicine has extended my life on numerous occasions. Had it not been for them I would not have survived the great earthquake that devoured Lisbon in the year 1755.”

“No doctors, and a glass of brandy,” he added.

“That's the secret? No doctors and alcohol?” the professor asked.

“It helps to have a history of longevity in one’s family as well.”

“Genes and brandy, I will accept,” I said. “I must disagree with you on the issue of doctors. The advances in medicine since you first sallied forth on horseback are beyond comparison.”

“Yes,” my learned friend replied, “but one never knows who wields the healing balm. The wrong medical treatment prescribed by a fool is worse than none at all.”

“You know,” I said, “come to think of it, I haven’t received a penny from the book about me either.”

“And what book has been written about you?” the scholar asked.

“Candide. My chronicler went by the name of Voltaire. I, too, never met—”

The professor threw up his hands in despair and stood to leave. “This is too much,” he said with a heavy sigh. “I can see I am wasting my time attempting to get straight answers from either of you. I bid you both good day!”

“Well,” Don Quixote said after we were alone again, “our quest for truth is off to a poor start. We say what we know to be true, yet it falls on deaf ears and blind eyes.”

“You may make truth ring like the bells of Notre Dame,” a voice said, “but deaf ears will not hear it.”

It was the train’s conductor making his rounds. He seemed to be about Don Quixote’s age, perhaps younger, with soulful eyes and an air of authority. His one distinguishing feature was a long nose, which extended horizontally above his white mustache like a gargoyle jutting from an ivy-covered medieval tower. The nametag on his coat lapel read Cyril.

“You speak as one who has known bitter loss,” Don Quixote said.

The conductor leaned in and pointed to his badge. “My real name is Cyrano. I was once a soldier and a poet who slayed hundreds by the sword and thousands with the pen.”

“The verses were that bad?” I asked.

“No! They were that good! My sonnets won the hearts of women and seared the consciousness of men. I was aptly known for my rapier wit, for I was also the finest swordsman in France; hence, in all the civilized world.”

“To subdue with the sword is noble,” said Don Quixote, “but to conquer with the pen, that is sublime.”

“That is so,” Cyrano replied, “but it is hard to do with the likes of that professor you were talking to. I once wrote a masterpiece revered by all of Paris until learned scholars like him began their analyses of the work. The meter didn’t adhere to their established structures. The phonaesthetics were not what their ears were accustomed to hearing. The metonymy was above their understanding.”

As he spoke my eyes darted from his eyes to his nose, a proboscis so long and enormous that it was all I could do not to point at it and make comments, and I hoped my tongue would not betray my thoughts.

“The public raved for my work,” Cyrano continued, “until the academicians dissected it at length, convincing the people it was a modest attempt at best. I had released the genie from its bottle, and a thousand poets saw what could be done with pen and paper. The scholars put the genie back in the bottle and sealed it shut.”

“You must have had an unusual nose for verse,” I said.

Cyrano stared at me. His eyes narrowed. “What are you implying?”

“I meant to say, it is a gift to sniff out a good rhyme.”

His nostrils flared. “Are you making reference to my nose?”

“No! What nose? Oh, that. I didn’t even notice it until just now.”

“It is rather obtrusive,” Don Quixote observed matter-of-factly. “Gargantuan even. At once hideous and grotesque, yet strangely pleasing. It is a majestic snout.”

“You speak the truth,” Cyrano replied. “It is a mark of distinction. A divine covenant! A nose like mine is both scepter and orb, a monument to my superiority. Marvel at it all you want, but ridicule it, and I will introduce you to the heel of my boot. A great nose is the banner of a great man, a generous heart, a towering spirit, an expansive soul!”

“If that’s the case, then you must have the heart of a dozen men, for you certainly have the nose of twelve,” said the knight-errant.

“Indeed! I have the heart of twelve and the right arm of twenty! My nose and my sword speak for themselves.”

“Were you one of the famous Musketeers?” I asked.

“Musketeers?” Cyril sneered. “Dandies. Cream puffs. Fops! They were not worthy of carrying my scabbard, for I was a storm—a flame! I needed to fight whole armies alone; too strong to war with mortals. ‘BRING ME GIANTS!’ That was my battle cry.”

“Hear, hear!” Don Quixote said, applauding. “You are cut from the same cloth as I, though perhaps by a different tailor, for I, too, have battled many a giant. As for me, my strength comes not from my right arm but from the divine inspiration of the matchless, unrivaled Dulcinea del Toboso, whose beauty, even today, shines so brightly as to blind the beholder.”

“Matchless?” Cyrano said. “You jest. Is it possible that you have never heard of Roxane, an immortal among women, a goddess worshipped by all fortunate enough to cast their eyes on her? Can one weigh clay in the scales against gold?”

“Are you inferring, sir, that this Roxane, this flickering candle, begins to compare to the inimitable, unsurpassed Dulcinea, a blazing sun whose light turns night into day, thus blotting out a million puny stars?”

“You dare refer to God’s inspired creation as a candle?” Cyril responded. His eyes flashed red. “This celestial soul who expresses herself in the tongue of angels? One inadvertent brush of her hair intoxicates like a thousand casks of wine. One pout of her lips, and a thousand daggers penetrate the heart. My happiness is to see her happy, my joy to see her joyous. You shall not sully her name and live to tell about it!”

“By all that is holy, sir!” Don Quixote cried. His face turned crimson. His hand instinctively reached for a sword. “If you demand satisfaction, you shall have it! Let us step outside and conclude the conversation like true gentlemen. That is to say, with the blade!”

“I’ve never met anyone so eager to meet thy Maker. Enjoy your last moments in this world!” Cyrano said, bowing and extending his arm toward the exit.

“I hope you have an appetite, for you are about to taste Toledo steel!” replied the knight.

“My appetite tends more toward Spanish blood!”

They stormed out of the car together, each red-faced and ready for battle.

I sat there counting off the seconds before they returned. It didn’t take long, for they soon shuffled back into the car, downcast. Dejected.

“Finally realized the train is still moving?” I asked.

“We shall settle this at the next station!” Cyrano said.

“Agreed!” Don Quixote replied.

“With what?” I asked. “What weapons will you use? Broomsticks and mop handles? Oh, how far our great warriors have fallen when they must take up pretend arms to settle a score. Will you resort to using your fists? That is hardly becoming of gentlemen.”

They were silent for a full minute.

“He’s right. What will we duel with?” Cyrano said at last. “There are no swords, for no one values swordsmen these days.”

“And I shall not strike a worthy opponent with my hand,” the knight-errant answered. “Flesh-on-flesh combat is the domain of rabble.”

“Isn’t it possible,” I began, “that He who gives life might propagate creation with more than one manifestation of splendor? Could God not simultaneously raise two maidens of equal beauty—one in Spain, one in France—just as He made two valiant warriors, one for each kingdom?”

The two men contemplated for a few moments. Cyrano was the first to speak.

“I once beheld a magnificent rose while traveling abroad,” he began. “I recall thinking it rivaled the finest flowers of the Château de Versailles. I suppose, God in His infinite wisdom might be pleased to grow such a rose in Spain as well.”

“And I am willing to concede that the Maker of all things might place such a flower in France so that its people may enjoy her fragrance,” Don Quixote answered.

“Excellent,” I said. “Another war averted. Now tell me, Cyrano, how does a poet and a soldier become a train conductor?”

He let out a long, wistful sigh just as my phone began to vibrate. “Time moves on,” he said. “Tastes change. Royal courts turn over. Revolutions beget new rulers. You know—the usual. There is no time for poets and no need for swordsmen. People are too busy,… I'm sorry. Do I bore you?”

“No,” I said, putting away the smartphone. “It was a junk text message. Please continue.”

“At my core I am a people person. I took this job over a hundred years ago. See! I have my hundred-year pin.”

Indeed, I could see “100” etched beneath his nametag.

“In a few more years I’ll reach the 125 year milestone. The railroad provides a rocking chair with one’s name inscribed for that achievement.”

“But why do you call yourself Cyrano when your tag says Cyril?”

He leaned closer. “I don't want it to get out that I’m Cyrano de Bergerac. Some people with long memories might ask questions, and I’d rather have them remember me as I once was. I even staged a death scene with Roxane’s assistance to seal my legacy.”

“I know, too well, about staged death scenes,” Don Quixote replied. “My biographer killed me off in the last manuscript. The fool!”

“Sometimes it is best to be remembered for what you once were, not what you have become,” Cyrano said. “Now you must excuse me, for I have other duties to perform.”

He got up and left us alone.

“He raises a good point,” I said after he had left. “Maybe we should travel incognito. You know, change our names and appear to be European tourists traveling the Americas.”

Don Quixote thought for a few moments, stroking his beard meditatively.

“As we are going to England, and as the sorcerer, Merlin, is ever on the vigil to ensnare decent men of moral courage such as you and me, I agree that we should assume pseudonyms. But what will we call ourselves?”

“I’ve already thought about that. We will call you Victor, per our earlier discussion regarding courage.”

“I don’t look like a Victor.”

“How do you know? How do you know what someone named Victor looks like?”

“I have not the slightest idea what someone named Victor should look like, but I do know what I look like, and it is not a Victor!”

“Then what do you suggest?”

“How about Don Coyote?” he said, brightening. “You see? It’s a play on Don Quixote!”

“Oh, brilliant,” I mocked. “Merlin will never see through that guise.”

“That’s exactly what I was thinking! Now, to make things even simpler, why don’t you just call me Don?”

“But you’re already called Don.”

“That’s precisely because I look like a Don!”

“Fine. We’ll call you Don.”

“And you can go as Candide, for no one other than scholars seems to have ever heard of you.”

“That’s because you won’t let me get a word in edgewise!”

“You should learn to speak up!”

“You should learn to breathe between sentences!”

“Hold on there!” he said. “Do you see what is happening? At the mention of Merlin we begin to quarrel. I propose we keep that sorcerer’s name under our hats, so to speak, as the mere thought of it awakens his senses from afar.”

Neither of us spoke for some time. In the silence, I recalled his conversation with the professor of literature. His questioning of our existence weighed more heavily on my mind with each click of the railcar wheels on the tracks.

“It seems odd,” I said, “that we seem to be passing through places that are either a hundred years behind the times as regards technology or a hundred years ahead.”

“Why does that seem odd?” Don said.

“Would that occur in the real world, and if not, then do we truly exist? Sometimes I feel like I’m an unproven theorem, a hypothesis in search of supporting evidence, in short, a mere character in a novel.”

“What are you going on about? Of course we exist. We’re talking to one another, aren’t we? When someone says they can ‘read you like a book,’ or ‘the plot thickens,’ or that ‘they have begun a new chapter in life,’ it does not mean you or they are characters in a novel. These are simply common expressions. It’s quite simple.”

“You’ve obviously never read Kant or Descartes or Freud.”

“Do these men exist?”

“Of course! At least, they did.”

“If you’ve read their works, then I would suggest that means you exist, too.”

“Not necessarily. I could have dreamed the whole thing.”

“You can’t dream unless you are asleep. You can’t sleep unless you were once awake. And you can’t have been awake unless you were once alive. The ancients debated their existence and the existence of God as has every generation since then. This is nothing new. You do believe in an All Powerful Deity don’t you?”

“I have doubts that I exist, much less a supreme being!”

Don rolled his eyes in exasperation.

“I blame the Age of Enlightenment for this endless self-examination by today’s youth. When one is battling giants and wizards, one does not pause to question one’s existence. Personally, I’m in the ‘yes, here we all are on this planet’ camp. If you wish to be in the ‘I’m not sure I exist’ school of thought, then that is certainly your choice. A choice, by the way, that only an existing person can make.”

“That may or may not be. But how then do you explain the technology thing?”

He laughed.

“Nothing could be simpler. Don’t you know that some provinces are archaic in comparison to others? Such places make you feel as though you are stepping back in time. Others are thoroughly abreast of the latest advancements. The same holds for entire nations. It has always been thus.”

I sat and pondered these things for the remainder of this leg of our journey with doubts as to whether or not to continue. Although I have come to distrust the opinions of others after serving under the mentorship of Dr. Pangloss, I concluded there was hard-won wisdom in Don Quixote’s words, the kind that comes at the end of a lance and carefully aimed arrows.

I decided then and there to press on.





Chapter Five





As fortune would have it, our train was delayed in Paris due to mechanical problems with one of the engines. Cyril told us we could catch another train still en route and due to arrive in two hours. I spotted a café near the station, which is where we spent the next hour and a half at an outdoor table beneath a canopy.

While I checked e-mail and blogged about our journey, Don, as I had begun calling him, occasionally arose from his seat and escorted women across the busy intersection. He did this with great pomp and flair. Once they successfully reached the far curb, he bowed as if addressing a princess and kissed the woman’s hand. After several such escorts, he purchased flowers from a street vendor, put one in his lapel and began handing the rest to passing ladies.

“You know,” I told him once he sat down again during a lull in pedestrian traffic, “you have missed your calling in life.”

“How so?” he asked.

“You would have made an excellent boulevardier.”

“What is a boule…this thing you suggest?”

“A boulevardier is someone who frequents a boulevard and is known in all the better establishments thereon.”

He gazed off into the distance and contemplated what I said.

“Yes,” he said, “I believe I would be quite good at this profession, helping ladies in need about town. It does pay, doesn’t it?”

“It does not. If it did, you would be called a gigolo.”

“Is that a profession?”

“One of the oldest, so I am told.”

I continued entering information into my blog.

“What are you doing on that infernal device?” he asked, sipping a glass of brandy.

“Blogging about our trip. We have…” I paused to check the analytics, “three subscribers so far.”

“Which means?”

“Three people are reading about our adventures.”

“Do they have names, these three admirers?”

“Let’s see…there is someone named I-Heart-New York, and another calling herself FreedomGirl112, and a person simply named Limner.”

He leaned over and read a few lines.

“What does LOL mean?”

“We’ve been over that. It means ‘laugh-out-loud.’”

He went silent for a few moments as I proceeded to type.

“Perhaps if you wrote in a genuinely humorous manner you wouldn’t need to command the reader to laugh aloud.”

I tried to contain my rising frustration.

“I’m not commanding anyone to do anything. It’s an expression.”

“Wouldn’t they know when to laugh and when not to laugh?”

“Of course they do. It’s just something you type when you’ve been ironic or witty.”

“And yet you feel compelled to remind them to laugh. This might explain why your book never sold well.”

“My book sold fine! It’s still selling. Never out of print. It’s in all the bookstores.”

“That’s good to hear, because there is a book purveyor just over there on the corner. Let us go and inquire about your biography. I would like to read it.”

I looked up, and sure enough, La Vieille Librairie, which translates “The Old Bookshop,” stood on the corner. We crossed the street and entered. The wood floors, which looked like something from the deck of a three-masted ship, creaked beneath our feet. Thousands of books lined shelves from floor to ceiling, requiring rolling ladders to reach the upper decks. The works themselves ranged from the very latest to antiquity. One bin contained free books no one wanted to read, which Don immediately gravitated to.

“A tome gathering dust in a library or on a bookseller’s shelf makes me sad,” he said. “I like this one with the puce cover. A good book is a friend well-met. I’ll take you home, my friend,” he said, lifting it from the rest.

Just then a young store clerk walked by.

“We’d like to speak to the proprietor,” Don told him.

“He’s not in just now. Can I be of service?”

“Yes. What titles on your shelves does the public clamor for these days?”

The young man typed on a keyboard and read from a computer screen.

“Horror, young adult, young adult horror, gothic, gothic-horror, sci-fi, sci-fi horror, young adult sci-fi, and erotica. Also memoir in which someone has been abused or anything to do with werewolves, wizards, zombies or has the word ‘bones’ in its title.”

“Do you perchance sell in this establishment a book whose title is The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha?”

The young man typed a few more strokes on the keyboard.

“Yes, we have several in stock.”

“Do you sell many of these books in the course of a year?”

Again, the lad entered the data into the computer. “Quite a few.”

“Now then, and this is important,” Don Quixote said as a preamble to the big question. “I would like to purchase a certain book whose title is Candide. Do you have this title on your shelves?”

The clerk keyed in the inquiry and replied, “No, sir. Not at this time.”

My companion’s face flushed. He turned to me with sad eyes that conveyed disappointment and embarrassment on my behalf.

“I see,” was all he said, turning away.

I stood there stunned and speechless for several moments before regaining my wits. “Did you type Candide correctly?”

“C-A-N-D-I-D-E. See,” the clerk said, swiveling the screen toward me. “Nothing.”

“How long have you worked here?”

“This is my second day.”

At that moment the proprietor, a stocky, bearded fellow, rushed in through the back entrance, breathing hard.

“Sir,” I said, “why is it your store does not carry Candide, the national book of all forward-thinking republics?”

“Not carry Candide?” he stammered. “We’re sold out! Can’t keep it in stock! They don’t print the damn thing fast enough now that the schools are back in session. An overseas shipment was on the way here, but the cargo container in which the books were sealed was swept overboard in a gale. All the bookshops are pressed to keep it on the shelves. I’ve just been to several booksellers to purchase their overstock, but there is no such thing for this unrivaled masterpiece.”

“Hah! Did you hear that!” I cried out. But my companion had already left the store.

I ran outside and caught up with him as he headed for the train station.

“Did you hear what the store owner said?”

“No, and if we don’t hurry, we’ll miss our train!”

“He said my book has sold out!”

“Yes, yes. Whatever you say.”

“No, really. It’s on back-order. They can’t keep it on the shelves.”

“All right. I believe you, Candide,” he replied in an impatient and dismissive manner. His pace quickened as we neared the train station entrance.

“None of the Paris stores can keep it in stock!”

“I’m happy for you. Now, please, let’s speak no more on this subject.”

I could see he was not convinced, and neither would I have been were our roles reversed.

“Look, I’ll pull it up on the Internet. You’ll see how many have been sold.”

I walked briskly beside him and accessed the data online.

“See?” I said, holding my table for him to view. “One hundred thousand downloads this year alone.”

He glanced at it perfunctorily.

“I see. And yet only three people read your log.”

“It’s called a blog.”

“Please, let us move on from this topic. I believe our train has arrived.”

The train had, indeed, pulled into the station and was busily disgorging and ingesting passengers. We found our seats and were soon on our way again. After a few more futile attempts to convince Don of my biography’s success, I let the matter go.

We reached Calais later that evening and stayed at the Centre Européen De Séjour youth hostel. The next morning we caught the first ferry to Dover and from Dover boarded a train for London. A cab took us to Baker Street where I hoped to find the gentleman who could help me pinpoint the location of that elusive place I once knew as El Dorado.





Chapter Six





We got out of the cab on Baker Street and looked around.

“There it is,” I said, pointing across the busy road to 221B.

I was just about to cross when Don grabbed my arm. His eyes grew wide as if alarmed by an unseen force.

“What is that?” he asked.

“I don’t hear anything,” I replied.

“No, no! What is that delicious, irresistible aroma?”

I sniffed the air.

“I don’t smell anything.”

He turned me around and motioned to a nearby food truck with the words “Milner’s Meat Pies” emblazoned on its side. I thought it a bit odd as the truck seemed out of place there. But then, when one is in a foreign land, one sees strange things.

“I have an overpowering desire for one of those…pies,” he said, licking his lips as if we hadn’t eaten in three days, which we had, because I shelled out good money for food in Calais that morning and later in Dover on our arrival in England.

“We just ate,” I reminded him.

But he drifted away as if on a cloud toward the truck.

“Don’t wander off!” I called after him.

I thought nothing of this strange behavior and pro-ceeded across the street. The information I needed could be obtained with or without his presence.

I knocked on the door, which an elderly woman soon opened.

“Yes. Can I help you, young man?” she said with a slight Scottish accent.

“I’m here to see Mr. Holmes, the great detective.”

“Do you have an appointment?”

“No, but I have come a great distance to seek his advice.”

“You could phone, you know. Or Skype. Or e-mail.”

“You can Skype Sherlock Holmes these days?”

“Of course, if you can afford his rates. Ever since his exploits with Dr. Watson were syndicated on television, the consulting fees have become exorbitant.”

“How much does he charge for a face-to-face meeting?”

“Oh, no one can get face-time with him now,” she said, rolling her eyes. “He’s much too haughty for that. Makes my Scottish blood boil. Mr. High-and-Mighty. Well, we shall see about that. You come with me!”

She ushered me to the door of an upstairs apartment and gently rapped.

“Go away!” a voice from inside boomed.

“A gentleman to see you, Mr. Holmes” she said.

“I’m not in!”

“He’s right here on the landing with me.”

“I’m engaged at the moment!”

She turned to me and smiled.

“Oh, never mind what he says. Go on in. I’ve got chores to tend to and don’t have time for his shenanigans.”

I opened the door and entered. Three men were seated inside a large room cluttered with furniture, newspapers, and magazines. A small chemist’s lab was spread out on one table.

“Do come in,” one of them said as he stood to greet me. “I’m Dr. Watson. This,” he said gesturing toward the other two, “is Inspector Lestrade and Mr. Sherlock Holmes.”

I bid each of them hello and thanked them for taking time to see me.

The inspector glanced at me and grunted something unintelligible, clearly annoyed with the interruption.

Sherlock, the very man I had traveled across the English Channel to see, barely acknowledged my existence.

“Please be seated,” the doctor told me. “We’ll be with you shortly.”

“Now, tell me, Mr. Holmes,” the inspector said, “how did you know it was the viscount who committed the murder when all the evidence pointed to the butler?”

“Rule number one,” said the detective, “the butler never commits murder. The parlor maid, yes. The gardener, perhaps. Maybe even a valet. But never a butler. Not an English butler that is.”

“And rule number two?”

The detective winced.

“You don’t want to know rule number two.”

“Oh, come on. Tell us. I’ve got a robbery up the West End to investigate and can’t sit around here all day. It has all the hallmarks of your old nemesis, Professor Moriarty.”

“Moriarty,” Holmes said, “is the sole reason I arise from bed each morning. Without his brilliant mind to challenge mine, life on this spinning lump of clay called Earth would be unbearable.”

“Yes, we know all about that,” Dr. Watson said. “Now, tell us about rule number two!”

“You might not like what you hear. Are you sure you want to know?”

“Of course!” the doctor and inspector said in unison.

Holmes shifted in his chair and took a long draw on a meerschaum pipe.

“Rule number two is the fact that we—you, and you, and I—are being controlled by another. Our thoughts are not our own, neither are our words. I am merely spouting what our creator dictates.”

A long pause followed before Dr. Watson spoke. “I believe I see what you’re getting at. We are the products of an omniscient being who created the universe.”

“That’s not what I’m saying at all.”

“I see now,” said the inspector. “You’re saying the world is a stage and we are merely actors playing our parts.”

“Not even close, gentlemen. What I’m saying is that we are fictional characters in a plot written by someone we can neither see nor hear.”

“I knew it!” I said under my breath. “Wait ‘til Don hears this!”

“You see,” the detective went on, “during one of my drug-induced states—”

“Here we go,” Dr. Watson said. “How did I know drugs were somehow involved?”

“As I was saying, in a drug-induced state, I achieved what the mystics refer to as ultimate enlightenment. I became fully self-aware. That is to say, I saw outside the realms that bind us to what we perceive as reality and peered over the other side.”

“The other side,” the inspector repeated. “East London?”

“The great divide, Lestrade. The other side of the great beyond!”

“And what did you see, pray tell?”

“I saw a bearded man with a pad and a writing instrument creating this very conversation.”

“You mean to tell me some man with a beard is putting these words into our mouths.”

“That is exactly what I’m saying.”

“And does this bearded man have a name?”

“I could only make out the monogram on his sleeve. The letters were A-C-D as I recall. Of course, you’ve read my monograph on monograms.”

“Your who on what?”

“Now let me get this straight,” said the doctor, “you’re saying we are the figments of ACD’s imagination?”

“It would appear so. How else is it I, and I alone, always have the answers to unsolvable mysteries?”

“Why, through your exceptional power of observation and deductive reasoning, of course. You’ve taught me how to deduce things for myself.”

“That’s what I once thought, too. It appears I’m a mere errand boy for this ACD person.”

“Don’t let your public know,” said Lestrade. “They’ll stop reading your stories in the papers.”

“Stories is right!” Holmes scoffed. “Dr. Watson’s romanticized versions of what should otherwise be instructive cases based on reason and sound logic. That’s what they are.”

I sighed, having heard this refrain from Don Quixote about his biographer. No one believes their chronicler does them justice.

“Not that it matters what drivel Watson thrusts on an unsuspecting public,” the detective added. “It’s all really the imaginings of this ACD fellow, including the so called cases my colleague thinks he writes.”

“But surely, Holmes,” the doctor countered, “no author would allow us to have this conversation. How does it advance the plot? How does it develop the characters?”

“How the devil should I know?! I told you that you wouldn’t like what I had to say.”

“Well,” said the inspector rising from his seat, “my wife is going to be amused to hear about this little theory of yours. I will bid you gentlemen good day. Lord, what next?”

“You’re having cold cuts and steamed broccoli tonight,” Sherlock informed him. “That’s what is next. I read ahead in the script.”

“Nice try,” said Lestrade, making his way for the door, “but we always have cold cuts and steamed broccoli on Thursdays. You would know that because you have eaten with us on several occasions.”

“You will purchase the evening paper on your way home. That’s on page 45 of the script.”

“I usually do purchase a paper on the way home. No mystery there.”

“The headline will scream, ‘Murder! Read All About It!’”

“The headline usually does. Good evening, gentlemen.”

“You wife is with child again! Page 46!”

“I should hope so. We’ve been trying for ages.”

The doctor turned to me after the door closed behind Lestrade.

“Now, sir, I apologize for making you wait. What can we do for you?”

“No need bothering to ask what he came here for, Dr. Watson, I can answer that.”

Sherlock ran his eyes over me several times.

“Watson, we are in the presence of a very distinguished personage. May I introduce you to none other than that man of renown known to the world as Candide.”

My jaw fell open.

“How did you know that?” I asked.

“I suppose Holmes knew that by your clothes and manner of speech,” Dr. Watson answered.

“It’s true I detect in his voice a hint of Westphalian accent, and his clothes bely origins on the Continent, but that’s not how I knew he is Candide. Recall rule number two. See above.”

“Well, by whatever mental acuity it is you use to discern my identity, I congratulate you,” I said. “I am indeed the man of whom you speak. As it happens, I am traveling with another distinguished gentlemen who goes by the name of Don Quixote.”

“What can we do for you?” Dr. Watson asked.

“I believe I can answer that,” said Sherlock. “Like most flotsam and jetsam that wash up at our door, you are looking for something or someone. In the case of that ingenious man of La Mancha, he is either seeking the whereabouts of his former colleague, Sancho Panza, or recapturing the life of adventure he once knew. As for you, Candide, that fabled youth of yore, what else could you be searching for but the mythic land you knew as El Dorado?”

“You are right on both accounts!” I said. “Your reputation does you justice. Do you know this place? Do you know the location of El Dorado?”

“Where did you last leave it?”

“By my recollection it was in South America, near Peru.”

“Yes,” Holmes said, “well, the peculiar thing about mythical places, like Camelot, Shangri-La, and the River Sambatyon, is that they have a tendency to geographically shift over time. I give you Atlantis.”

“You know where Atlantis is?”

“No. That’s what makes it a prime example. Cartographers have a good idea of its approximate location. But, as the East Enders have it, it ‘ain’t there no more.’ There are many such examples. Wind current, ocean current, plate tectonics—they all have a hand in moving things around. However, the Fates have favored you today. Ever since I posed as a high-stakes player to infiltrate Professor Moriarty’s gambling network, I have received invitations to stay free-of-charge at the finest casinos, legit or otherwise, around the world. Several days ago I received in the mail that brochure lying by your left foot. It might be of use to you. Please read it aloud.”

I looked down and saw on the floor a four-color, glossy pamphlet and picked it up. I opened it and began reading.

“‘Visit the world-famous El Dorado Casino in glittering Las Vegas. What happens here, stays here!’ Yes! This sounds very much like the El Dorado I knew. Impregnable from the outside world. It’s inhabitants never left. This could be the right place.”

“Well, then,” Sherlock said, “I suggest you get a move on before El Dorado shifts to another location.”

I humbly thanked the great detective and offered him payment for his services, but he refused and declared I was doing him a favor by getting rid of some of his unwanted mail. He then picked up a book and began reading while Dr. Watson checked the shipping schedule.

“There’s a White Star boat leaving for the states today. If you hurry, you can be on it.”

“I thought he’d never leave,” Sherlock said, referring to me.

“He hasn’t left,” Watson informed him. “In fact, he’s still standing here.”

“Oh.”

“Really, Holmes. Your interpersonal skills—”

“Are abysmal? I knew you’d say those exact words.”

“How? How could you possibly know I’d utter those precise words?”

“Didn’t I just inform you about rule number two?”

“Oh, let’s not get started on that again.”





***

I left 221B Baker Street a wiser and more informed man than when I had entered, though I was somewhat distressed at having the issue of my existence come up again so soon after our encounter with the learned professor on the train to Paris. However, when one is in a hurry to catch a boat about to cross an ocean, one doesn’t stop to ponder such things.

Don sat on the curb across the street next to the pie wagon. His face was the picture of contentment as his teeth bit into what appeared to be pie number three, judging from the discarded tin pans at his feet and the crust fallout on his beard.

“Ready for another?” asked the elderly man inside the food truck. A bushy mustache failed to hide the sly grin on his face. A long ponytail hung down his back.

“Of course!” Don said. “In all my travels, this is the most delectable food I have ever had the good fortune of consuming.”

“I put my most special magic ingredients into these pies just for you,” the man said with a wink of the eye.

“We’ll take it to go,” I told the proprietor.

“Would you like a taste?” he asked me, presenting a free morsel.

I declined and helped Don to his feet.

“Let’s go. We have a boat to catch!”

“To where?”

“To America!”

We got as far as the corner when I realized I hadn’t paid for the pie. When I turned to go back, the truck wasn’t there. I didn’t have long to think about where it went for Don quite suddenly seized his head with both hands and declared, “We can’t board the ship!”

“Oh, now what?” I asked, knowing full well I wouldn’t like the answer.

“I can’t go on an adventure without first dedicating my quest to a worthy noblewoman.”

“Why not?”

“It isn’t done.”

“It’s done all the time! Look at me, I’m doing it now.”

“I don’t speak for others, but for me….”

I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take us to the nearest location where there was heavy foot traffic. Before long we were at Piccadilly Circus, the hub of London street life, searching for the perfect woman to whom Don could dedicate his adventures.

“The boat leaves in two hours,” I informed him. “Grab a gal, and dedicate your fealty.”

He looked at me in disgust, refusing to dignify my comment with a response. The minutes ticked by.

“What about her?” I asked repeatedly as women of all walks of life passed us.

“No,” came the stern reply to each inquiry.

After an hour I began to fear we would be left at the dock. I was about to lose all patience when I heard a gasp escape Don’s lips. I turned and saw a young woman in her mid-twenties approach. Her hair was colored a bright blue, as were her lips and fingernails. Her outfit could be best described a something a ballerina who joined a circus might wear—all scarves and fluffy material.

“Dulcinea del Toboso incarnate,” he uttered awestruck, his voice barely above a whisper.

I, on the other hand, found her to be the least attractive, least noble or worthy person for whom our journey should be dedicated. Truly, I thought, the ancients were correct in saying De gustibus non est disputandum, which loosely translates into “there is no disputing about taste.”

Don’s eyes grew moist as he moved toward the woman and took her hand in his.

“Dear lady!” he said, bowing so low his beard touched the ground. “It is to you, and you alone, that I, Don Quixote, dedicate my quest for truth and justice.”

“Oy! Bugger off!” she snapped.

“In your name, I vow to sally forth to slay malice, right wrongs, and restore honor.”

“I’m warning you, gran’pa!”

“Most noble woman. Your radiance will light my path on the darkest nights and warm my weary bones against the chill of winter. Your humble servant begs—”

She pulled a can of mace from her purse and held him at bay, threatening to unleash its contents.

“A name! But tell me your name, and I go happily to my death.”

“Right! I’m calling the police!”

She pulled out a cell phone with her free hand.

“That’s our cue to leave,” I said, taking Don by the arm and dragging him away.

“But the dedication!”

“You dedicated. We all heard it.”

“It wasn’t according to protocol. Her name—”

“Her name is Sheila. I saw it pop up on her cell. Now, let’s sally-the-hell forth before London’s finest arrive. Otherwise, your first adventure will be making bail.”

I flagged another taxi and stuffed my friend inside. As we drove away, he rolled down the car window and cried out.

“Dulcinea! Divine, creation!”

She looked up from her phone and gave him the “V for Victory” sign, only I think she got it backwards.

He fell back into my lap in a swoon.

“My Dulcinea! Every romantic verse ever written until this moment is but a pathetic attempt to describe her beauty. Isn’t she the most incomparable vision of loveliness?”

“Incomparable? I would compare her to a plucked ostrich for starters,” I said.

He looked away to some foreign, distant place, clutched his chest, and sighed.

“She had me at ‘bugger off.’”





Chapter Seven





The White Star wharf was crowded with stevedores loading traveling cases and passengers walking up the gangway to board the ship. Fortunately for us, only two tickets were available. The ticketing agent serving us looked like he could have been the twin of the fellow on Milner’s pie truck.

“Do you know, you could be his double,” Don told him, filling in details about the pie wagon.

“Never heard of Milner’s,” the man claimed.

But when we turned to go, I got the distinct whiff of meat pie emanating from behind the counter.

“Now listen to me,” Don said as we slowly made our way up the gangplank. “There are more rules for questing, as participating in quests is known. One of them is that you, too, must dedicate your journey to a worthy lady of noble birth.”

“As opposed to just any street urchin who happens to wander by?”

“Exactly. But you must be able to discern her true beauty, not what the world sees.”

“What happens if I don’t dedicate the mission to someone?”

“Then the quest is in vain! How do you not know this simple rule?”

“Because I’m not a knight-errant!”

“Yes, yes. Point taken. You are not a knight and therefore would not be aware of our rules. Nonetheless, should you honor a particular lady by dedicating your travels to her, you will find it most rewarding.”

We displayed out tickets to the ship’s officer at the top of the gangplank, and he directed us to our cabin on a lower deck. We hadn’t been inside the room for five minutes when I noticed Don’s hands begin to tremble.

I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it seemed to me that my traveling companion’s whole demeanor had changed since we arrived at Baker Street, and I began to have reservations about our trip. But like most people, I dismissed the warnings intuition equips us with and reasoned that Don was just a little off his game, having not gone on adventures like this for many years.

At the same time I was distracted by my ongoing insecurity about being a dime store novel character versus a real person, which had resurfaced after visiting the great detective. I kept telling myself, “I think therefore I am!” as a coping mechanism.

My misgivings became even more pronounced on the fourth day out to sea. Don had been particularly jittery that evening. His left eye involuntarily twitched on occasion, and his hands shook at dinner when he raised a wine glass to his lips. Later, I could not fall to sleep and took a walk around the deck. There I met Don who seemed to be on full alert, scanning the horizon for hidden dangers.

“Hush!” he said before I uttered a word.

We stood there in the cold North Atlantic, both watching the water. His fingers visibly trembled, though not necessarily out of fear. The look on his face was that of a man spoiling for a fight.

“They will attack tonight,” he said in a low voice so as not to be heard by other passengers. Even at that late hour, the deck was full of partygoers. A band played nearby.

Then, out of the night loomed an immense object.

“Iceberg!” I called out.

Don’s eyes grew large.

“That’s no iceberg,” he said. “It is a giant come to slay us. A lance! My kingdom for a lance!”

A general panic spread across the deck as passengers and crew scrambled ahead of an imminent collision with the massive wall of ice quickly closing in on us. Don disappeared into a ballroom and soon emerged with a coat stand, which he improvised for use as a knight’s lance.

“Clear a path!” he shouted. “Do not fear. I am here to protect you!”

To his credit, the knight of old plunged ahead against a current of people fleeing for their lives toward me. Though I was swept up in the tide of humanity lurching sternward, I distinctly saw Don attack the iceberg with his makeshift lance, plunging it with all his might into the behemoth, creating large frosty plumes that sprayed skyward. As he did this I could hear the sickening sound of hard ice gutting the ship below the waterline.

I must have been knocked down and trampled by the fleeing passengers. When I regained my senses I was covered in bruises and being quickly lowered into a lifeboat. I lost consciousness several times but came to in time to see a crewman throw a life ring to someone in the water. They pulled in the survivor, still clutching a shattered coat rack and shivering from the effects of the freezing water.

“I have failed,” Don bemoaned through frozen lips. “My first battle in centuries.”

“The poor man is out of his head,” a woman in dinner attire said.

“Never mind that,” another replied. “We just lost the Titanic.”

I looked up and witnessed the calm Atlantic swallow our magnificent ocean liner, the largest man-made structure many of us had ever seen, like a whale inhaling an insect.





***

The next morning before dawn a Cunard ship arrived and took aboard survivors. There was no Wi-Fi on that ship either, and had I known we would be without Internet service before leaving England I would have booked airfare, though that would have considerably depleted my funds.

During our three-day voyage to New York I whiled away the hours performing mind games, one of which was Don’s favorite, anagramming, or rearranging letters in words to form new words. It was during one such moment of reverie that I embarked on words related to our journey. ‘Sherlock’ became ‘her locks,’ and ‘Watson’ was made into ‘was not.’ But when I touched on ‘Milner’ as in ‘Milner’s Meat Pies,’ I bolted upright.

“Merlin!” I shouted.

“Quiet down! People are trying to sleep!” a ship’s steward scolded.

I tried to find Don, but he was absent, probably wandering the deck.

Then I recalled the names of the people following my blog. The one named Limner was also Merlin.

Of course, Merlin has been following my blog, I reasoned. That’s how he knew we were coming to England and where we would be. I recalled the vendor on the pie wagon informing Don that his pies had special magical ingredients just for him. Then I remembered the man who sold us the last two tickets for the ill-fated ship looked and smelled just like the man in the pie wagon.

My friend and traveling companion, Don Quixote, was under a spell cast by his old nemesis. Under the influence of that hex, young maidens of dubious backgrounds appeared to be women of high birth, and icebergs became white giants. It all began to make sense. I didn’t know how long Merlin’s enchantment would last, but I knew I needed to find a way to undo the spell before reaching El Dorado.

We arrived in New York three days later to much ado over the sinking, but Don and I managed to slip away from the hordes of reporters looking for stories.

“Knights do not seek monetary gain from the misfortune of others,” he solemnly informed me.

I agreed in principle but managed to squeeze in a few interviews behind his back to boost my blog readership. Several stories with my quotes appeared in the local papers. I knew Don would be none the wiser since he seemed to be more engaged with the past than the present. That is, until he returned to our room from breakfast carrying a complimentary newspaper. He placed it in front of me.

“What’s this?” he said, pointing to a lead article with my picture.

“All right. I talked. I admit it. But it’s to help our cause.”

“How does this pandering to the masses at the expense of those engulfed in tragedy help our cause?”

“First of all, the paper paid good money, which is why we can afford this nice hotel overlooking the park.”

“And second?”

“Second of all, it has dramatically boosted the number of people reading my blog.”

“Is that so? How many?”

I checked the latest count.

“We’re up to seven!”

“You were at three.”

“It’s a 233% increase. That’s huge!”

“You would sell your soul for a free room and four new subscribers?”

“If you’re asking, am I a capitalist? Yes. Do I believe in free enterprise? Yes.”

“I’m asking neither of those things. I’m attempting to discern which direction your moral compass points: true north or due south?”

“I can assure you it’s true north. But at this moment we should be traveling due south.”

I didn’t want to get into a deep discussion on this subject and tried to deflect the topic. It’s just as well I didn’t tell him I’d sold the remains of his lance to a memorabilia collector for enough money to purchase a used automobile.

My plan was to drive to the bayous surrounding New Orleans where it is said voodoo practitioners lived. There, I hoped to find one capable of lifting Merlin’s spell.

The car I had purchased was well worth the $700 I spent on it for about the first hundred miles. At mile 110, I began to have my doubts about its road-worthiness. By mile 125, we were hitchhiking.

“This is most humiliating,” Don said as one vehicle after another zoomed passed us. “A knight should have his own steed!”

“Perhaps if you remained still instead of waving your arms like a maniac, someone might stop.”

“I want them to see us!”

“Oh, they can see us. That’s why they keep speeding up. Let’s try my method for a moment and see what results we get.”

I stood by the road with my arm extended, thumb up, a technique I picked up from hostellers traveling through France. Within a minute a minibus with dark tinted windows came to a stop. The front bumper sported a sticker that declared, ‘It’s All Good!’ The passenger window came down, and a man with a Russian accent stuck his head out. “Do either of you know the way to Cape Canaveral?” he asked.

Having kept abreast of events, unlike my traveling mate, I was well aware of NASA’s space program.

“Yes,” I said. “I can map it on my phone.”

“Good!” the man said. “Permission to come aboard…that is, I meant to say, get in.”

Don and I climbed in through a sliding side door and took two seats at the rear. There were six other people inside the vehicle, which was well appointed with comfortable bucket seats and large viewing windows. The Muscovite in the passenger seat we spoke to was named Chekov. Sitting in the driver’s seat was a man with distinctive Japanese facial features whom they called Sulu. The captain of the crew, named Kirk, sat in a large swivel chair directly behind Sulu and Chekov.

Two people were positioned behind the captain. One was an attractive woman, Uhura, with dark skin. A fold-down table in front of her held a radar detector and a citizens-band radio. A thin cord ran from the radio to earphones so that she could listen to transmissions. Across from her sat a thin man whose ears, which I immediately noticed, rose to sharp points half way up on either side of his head. This person they referred to as Spock. Don surmised Spock to be of Mongol and Slav extraction. I couldn’t put my thumb on his origins, but he was obviously a foreigner.

Behind them sat a paunch-bellied Scot. I could tell the country of origin by his accent and the fact they called him Scotty. The last man sat in the back with us. He went by the name of Doctor McCoy or Bones depending on who did the talking.

After some time had passed the captain turned in his chair and looked me over, noticing the bruises still visible from the calamity aboard the ship. “Bones, this one appears to be in need of medical assistance,” he said.

“Damn it, Jim! I’m a doctor, not a—”

“Yes, Bones?”

“I’m a…Oh, all right, I’ll examine him.”

McCoy held a small whirring device over me and declared that I was sound in mind and body. When he did the same for Don, a puzzled expression came over him. “What the?” he said.

He shook the device and scanned Don Quixote once more.

“Son of a gun. Same reading. Sound in body. Slightly elevated temperature. But the mind…”

I didn’t want to alert Don to the fact that he was under Merlin’s spell and risk causing alarm, so I kept my mouth shut. But the doctor’s findings confirmed my suspicions.

“Captain,” the pointy-eared man said. “If we are to rendezvous on time with the NASA craft…”

“I hear you Spock,” Kirk said. “Full speed ahead, Mr. Sulu,” he instructed the man at the wheel.

Sulu floored it, and we shot down the interstate highway like a rocket, passing other cars as though they stood still.

“Scotty, we need to reach the cape before the shuttle launches,” the captain remarked to the engineer.

“I’ve done everything I can with the technology they have down here, Cap’n. Sulu and I modified the engine, the transmission, and the suspension as best we could. We even slapped on high performance tires. Now, you get a hold of some jet fuel, and I’ll make this baby really fly.”

“You are exceeding the speed limit,” a voice above the dashboard repeated every few seconds.

“Chekov, disengage whatever noise that is,” Kirk commanded.

“Aye, aye, sir.”

“Captain!” Uhura called out. “I’m detecting an energy pulse emanating approximately two kilometers ahead.”

“Spock?” Kirk said.

“If memory serves me, speeding laws were once enforced on highways with the aid of devices utilizing radar technology. Our speed is very likely being monitored.”

“There are no such things as speed limits!” the doctor said.

“In space no. On Earth, yes.”

“What do you think those road signs with numbers are for?” Scotty asked.

“I don't know,” the doctor replied. “I thought they were elevation markers.”

“Those are speed limits,” Chekov informed him.

“How quaint.”

“Sir,” Uhura said, “I’m overhearing reports of what is referred to as a ‘Smokey’ in the vicinity.”

“That doesn’t sound good,” Kirk replied.

By then an automobile with blue lights gave chase and started to catch up with us.

“Captain?”

“I see him, Spock. Shields up!” Kirk instructed.

“We have no shields, Captain,” Sulu said.

“Engage tractor beam.”

“We don’t have that either.”

“Damn it, what do we have?”

“I found a bottle of scotch in this rear cabinet,” said the engineer.

“Any wodka?” asked the Muscovite.

“Negative.”

“Scotty, got any other tricks up your sleeve?”

“Well, I have been saving one special surprise for wee emergencies like this. I mounted a modified turbocharger on the engine. If Mr. Chekov would be so kind as to press the button marked EMD on the panel in front of him, you will see what I mean. I just hope the tires and the suspension can handle it. Sulu, you might want to grip the wheel a little more tightly.”

By then the patrol car was almost on our bumper.

“Mr. Chekov,” said Kirk, “engage EMD.”

“Aye, aye, Captain.”

An instant later we exploded down the road like a cannon projectile.

“Uhura. Status report.” Kirk said.

“The pulses are getting fainter… We’ve lost them.”

“Chekov, disengage EMD.”

“Aye, aye.”

The captain turned in his swivel seat toward the engineer.

“Scotty, what exactly does EMD stand for?”

The engineer smiled.

“It means, Eat My Dust. It's the name of a movie from about this time period.”

“Oh, I have that one!” Sulu said. “Directed by Ron Howard.”

“Little Opie?” Uhura chimed in.

“Yes. His brother was in the movie, too.”

“His brother is always in Ron’s films. I have the box set.”

“People, people,” Kirk interrupted. “We’re on a mission to save the planet and possibly this solar system, and our ride leaves in a few hours.”

“Captain, with all due respect…” the science officer began.

“What is it, Spock?”

“It seems to me we spend an inordinate amount of effort breaching the space-time continuum and returning to Earth just to save mankind from yet another threat of self-annihilation.”

“He’s right, Jim,” the doctor weighed in. “There was that London smog rescue mission followed by the germ warfare folly. Then there was that time nuclear destruction was imminent. Then climate change. And the whales.”

“Oh! I forgot all about those whales,” Scotty said. “And that cigar looking thing in low orbit signaling them. What the hell was that?”

“And your point, Spock?” Kirk said.

“It would be logical to let the life forms on this planet destroy one another. It would be best for the galaxy.”

“I hate to agree with this green-blooded Vulcan,” Bones said, “but he’s right, Jim.”

“How many times do I have to remind all of you?” Kirk said, raising his voice. “These are our ancestors. Without them, we don’t exist. Without us, the Federation falls apart. We are just a link in a chain that stretches back to this very moment in time. If we don’t save them, we destroy ourselves.”

“So,” the doctor said, “if we don’t save this planet, then we were never born?”

“Correct,” said the captain.

“But we were born. Ergo, the planet was already saved.”

“Not until we saved it!”

“You mean, all that growing up we did, going to school, having families, going on these expeditions through time and space never occurred unless, later in life, we came back here multiple times and saved Earth from destruction?”

“You got it, Bones.”

The doctor rubbed his temples.

“Jim, I’m having a hard time wrapping my brain around that.”

“Me, too, Cap’n,” Scotty chimed in.

“Then let me make it easy for all of you,” Kirk said. “I'm the captain, and I’m ordering you to complete this mission! End of discussion.”

My traveling companion and I could make little sense of their conversation, but one got the idea that the fate of mankind was in their hands.

“So,” I said to the doctor, making conversation, “your crew routinely travels through different time periods?”

“Yes. All the time. It was fun at first but gets to be old after a while. You know how it is—once you’ve seen Paris. Plus your attire is always out of fashion, so you stand out like a sore thumb.”

“Is it possible to accidently travel through time? Perhaps sail on a doomed ship that was sunk by an iceberg a century earlier and return to the present soon after?”

“Oh, sure. There are all kinds of time warps, rifts, wormholes, and alternate universes. Some of them we go looking for in our travels, others just sort of swallow us up. Then we pop out on the other side like nothing happened. We even entered a convergence once.”

“What’s a convergence?”

“It’s a topological interchange in the space-time continuum where occurrences from the past and the future merge. You can be in one time period and a minute later in a completely different era a hundred years apart. Theoretically, you could meet an ancestor and a future descendant at the same point in time. It can be very disconcerting at first.”

“How does one enter a convergence?”





* * *

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