The Crimson Eagle, Part IV

Later That Evening

King Samuel paced in front of the enormous throne in Pignika Palace. The throne was one of the many symbols of his authority, gilded and covered with pearls and amethyst. The king of Mypos was tall and barely on the right side of middle age, with a slender figure, narrowed eyes, a hawk-like nose, and silvery blonde hair. He wore his purple and gold robes over his finely tailored charcoal gray suit. He preferred the suit alone, but his couriers insisted it was proper for a Myposian monarch to wear the royal robes at all times.

"Sam," Robert Markwright, the aristocratic owner of the newspaper The Daily Mypiot, asked tentatively, "is there something troubling you? If you wear a larger furrow in that carpet, the farmers will start pulling their plows and oxen through it."

"It's this Crimson Eagle business!" the king exclaimed. "My idiot citizens think he's a cross between Batman, The Shadow, and Bruce Willis."

Robert shook his head. "You're imagining things."

"Am I? How did the Crimson Eagle's article get in The Daily Mypiot?"

"We're still trying to figure that out. We questioned all of the employees, reporters, and lint artists, but everyone was too busy as the paper was being laid to bed to pay attention to one article."

"What about those two idiots Walter Wayne got you to hire?"

Robert frowned. "I asked Laurence and Balki. They were finishing a story and the accompanying lint paintings and not paying attention to anything else."

The king narrowed his hard blue eyes. "I don't like you having those two on the paper. Robinadous is Myposian. He's as naive as a newborn and would rebel if told to." He looked away from Markwright. "There's something about Wayne that rubs me the wrong way. He's more intelligent than he lets on."

"Sam, you're paranoid. Laurence and Balki need their jobs. Laurence is desperate to restart his career. Balki wouldn't go against his cousin's wishes. Wayne is the only family he has."

Sheriff Harold Burnsetti stormed into the throne room. The rotund, sagging official clutched a parchment in his fat fingers. King Samuel frowned. "This better be good news, Burnsetti. Tell me you've finally gotten rid of that bandit and ended our troubles and this fanfic."

"Not exactly, sir," the fat sheriff explained hastily. "The Crimson Eagle whipped through Tattari when my men and I were hanging wanted posters. He grabbed the poster I hung and left this."

King Samuel snatched the paper from him. He turned the same shade of red as C.E's blouse as he scanned the message. "The bastard is directly challenging me. He says he can produce the real king!"

The newspaper owner frowned. "Sam, you told me King Ferdinand died during the invasion of Pignika Palace and his wife and son were killed fleeing the island." He crossed his arms. "No one tried to stop the Crimson Eagle when he left this parchment?"

"We did try!" Burnsetti flailed his arms like a seagull before take off. "He rode like the east wind on the Mediterranean on a huge red mustang. There was someone else with him, a tall man in black riding a dark stallion. My men couldn't stop them, either. They couldn't catch them! They might as well have been real eagles, swooping down on the town and on my troops!"

If King Samuel got any redder, his face would be mistaken for tomato sauce and spread on pizza. "They just rode by you and you did nothing? You didn't even send your troops after them?"

"I did do something. I shot the Crimson Eagle the shoulder." Burnsetti scowled. "I'd have gotten him in the back if Markwright's niece hadn't grabbed my hand and deflected the bullet."

"Jennifer?" Markwright raised his eyebrows. "What does she have to do with any of this?"

The sheriff glared. "She's in love with the Crimson Eagle. This is the second time she's helped that devious dime store desperado out of a jam. She conspired with him during the ball his gang disrupted." His eyes brightened. "Now that I think of it, I first encountered your niece and her friend and escort on the way to your place. I saw a group of hooded men surrounding them and thought they were being robbed. They maintain the men were bodyguards, but they looked more like criminals to me."

King Samuel swung to Robert. His robes swished around his slender figure. "Markwright, why don't you go home and talk to your niece? Find out if she knows anything about the Crimson Eagle."

"Sam, you've gone too far. The only time my niece and her friend ever saw the Crimson Eagle was at the ball, and no one saw much of anyone in the dark. Leave my family out of this."

The king and the law officer watched the newspaperman stride angrily out of the throne room. King Samuel looked thoughtful. "Harry, you said Jennifer Lyons is in love with the Crimson Eagle."

Burnsetti smiled as wickedly as his fleshy jowls could manage. "œShe's nuts about him. My men heard them doing Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in the woods during the ball."

"Does the Crimson Eagle return her attraction?"

"He sang louder than she did!"

He elegantly flung himself on the throne. "We're going to set a trap for that meddling marauder and his asinine assistant. The Crimson Eagle will appear at the opening of the crown jewels display, but even he can't hide that shoulder. It'll take the oomph out of his chandelier-swinging and dueling activities. We'll capture the so-called hereditary monarch of Mypos while he's making off with the jewels." His evil grin spread from ear to ear. "And we'll make sure his beloved Jennifer witnesses his downfall!"

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

A Week Later, The Small Building on the Castle Markwright Property

Reporter Laurence Wayne stood in front of a mirror in the parlor, leaning on his sturdy, brass-topped wooden cane. He pulled at the collar and good diamond cufflinks on his tuxedo, wincing when he moved his heavily bandaged right shoulder.

“How’s that shoulder coming, Cousin?” his best friend and distant relative Balki Robinadous inquired.

Laurence made a face. “Couldn’t you find a Myposian healing potion that doesn’t smell like pig parts, ground herbs, and onion juice? The girls and Harriett Winslow will arrive any minute, and I can barely stand the scent of me, much less anyone else standing it! Donald won’t get near me!”

Balki emerged from his quarters in a bolero-style jacket and tie trimmed with bright Myposian wool weavings and a pair of short trousers. “Do’n worry so much, cousin! Some goat hoof parings will clear off the smell in two milkshakes of a cow’s gullet.”

“I guess I’m nervous, Balki,” Laurence admitted as he pulled at his tie again.

“Are you nervous about the article we’re doing on the opening of the Crown Jewels display?”

Laurence shook his head. “You know what I’m nervous about! Tonight is the night!” His eyes expanded like a toad’s. “Did you get all of the supplies? Did you round up the horses? Did you…”

Balki took his cousin gently by the shoulders. Laurence flinched at his touch. “Yes, Cousin, I talked to the men and gathered supplies. The horses are hitched to the cart. Please don’t have a nervous break away!”

Donald shuffled in, grumbling as usual. “Your dames are here, boys,” he announced. The short, round valet only needed a whiff of his smaller employer to disappear as quickly as possible into the wine cellar.

Laurence almost fainted at the sight of the gorgeous Jennifer. She was dressed from head to toe in white and gold. Her blonde hair was pinned in a loose roll. Wisps of yellow-brown brushed against her bare shoulders. The dress was the softest satin, trimmed with gold lace, netting, and roses.

Harriet, dressed again in her silvery-gray gown trimmed with black lace, elbowed Laurence. He coughed and gracefully brushed his thin lips against Jennifer’s white-gloved hands. “You…” he stammered, “you…really look nice.” Jennifer blushed, smiling shyly and trying to resist wrinkling her nose at the smell of his shoulder.

Balki swept an equally lovely Marianne off her slipper-clad feet. “You’re so pretty! I’ve never seen a girl wear a dress that big!” Her gown was the color of the sky, decorated with large pale blue ribbons on the skirt and puffed sleeves. The sleeves and hoop skirt were almost weighed down with frills and lace. Balki linked his arms with Harriett and Marianne. “Shall we?”

Marianne looked confused. “Shall we what?”

“Shall we go to the reception?”

“Oh, right!”

Laurence escorted the three women and his cousin out of the door and across the property to the stables, where they alighted the carriages. Jennifer and Laurence rode with Robert and Lydia Markwright in their finely carved carriage. Lydia prattled about clothes and love to Jennifer, who was more interested in the gold pendant around her neck than her aunt’s chatter.

Robert watched Laurence Wayne. He hadn’t forgotten King Samuel’s suspicion of the quiet young man and his friendly Myposian cousin. Laurence was timid and shy. He never went against orders and often bent over backwards to please his boss and King Samuel. He wasn’t very sociable, spending most of his time at the little house on the northwest corner of Castle Markwright.

“Wayne,” Robert asked, “there’s something I want to know.”

“Oh, yes sir, Mr. Markwright!” Laurence insisted. “I’d do anything for you, sir! Is it a new article? The one I’m covering tonight shouldn’t take me long to write. I can start another one in a few days. Is it a major scandal, or an armed robbery, or maybe a murder? I was a reporter in Chicago years ago, and…”

He sighed. “Wayne, stop babbling. I want to know what you and Robinadous have spent the last two years doing. Most of your articles don’t take long to research, and you’re often gone for weeks at a time.”

Laurence turned whiter than the soft moonlight. “We…I…we don’t do much. We just, I mean...”

“Oh, Robert,” Lydia scolded, “don’t interrogate the poor boy! He’s not one of your interview subjects.” She smiled at Jennifer. “Why don’t you and Laurence get to know one another? I want to talk to my husband about the party we’re holding next month for my friend Mrs. Peacock in the conservatory.”

“With the knife or the candlestick?” Robert asked, arching an eyebrow. Lydia glared at him and discreetly pulled him away from the younger couple.

Laurence returned his pensive gaze to the window. Jennifer bit her lip. “Mr. Wayne,” she began, “I’m sorry about what I said last week. I shouldn’t have insulted your disability.”

“I shouldn’t have insulted your person,” Laurence said, finally meeting her eyes. His glittering hazel eyes were warm, amused, and oddly familiar. “I didn’t know what kind of a woman you were then.”

“What kind of woman am I?”

He took her hands. “The intelligent, wonderful kind.”

He was about to kiss her when they went over another bump. The duo blushed, but they didn’t let go. The carriage bounced down a long, winding road lined with bougainvillea and olive trees that bowed to none but the sky. The trees ended at a thick wall of heavy mortar covered with climbing rose vines. Jennifer could smell their sensuous perfume as they passed through an iron arch between wall segments. The thick lawn and tall orange and pomegranate trees surrounded by multitudes of bright flowers were so lush and green they would have made Ireland jealous.

The carriage joined a line of similar vehicles gathering around the largest castle she ever saw. It looked like something out of Jennifer’s old fairy tale books, all turrets and towers and drawbridges. Purple-uniformed guards and servants lined the property like purple fabric in a winter coat. Two guards blew curved horns to announce the arrival of the many rich and titled guests. Lydia was equally impressed, squealing to her husband about the flowers and the carriages and King Samuel’s excellent taste in everything.

Laurence looked tense. Jennifer squeezed his hand. “Nervous about tonight’s article?”

The small, delicate man loosened his black tie. “Oh, yeah. I’m not often invited to these fancy affairs. King Samuel would be happier if Balki and I didn’t exist.” He sighed. “I wonder why we were assigned to cover the Crown Jewels opening? It’s not our beat. We’re more human interest than society scandals.”

“Your hands are shaking.”

“Are they?” Laurence stared at his jumpy hands as if he’d never seen them before. “Why, yes, I believe they are. Imagine that?”

Three footmen helped the four out of the carriage. Jennifer took Laurence’s arm and walked up the purple-carpeted stairs into the palace. She had to blink a few times before her eyes adjusted to brightly lit main hall. There were crystal chandeliers everywhere. The people were as dazzling as the light. The women wore filmy, lacy gowns with hoop skirts like minor mountains. Their escorts looked like salt-and-pepper shakers with ties, with the occasional paprika of a Myposian bolero costume or a female Mypiot’s woven dirndl.

She and Laurence had a hard time making their way through the crowd. The main ballroom was packed with people chatting, dancing, enjoying the buffet, and preparing for the unveiling of the Crown Jewels of Mypos. “Oh, look!” Laurence pointed to the buffet. Marianne waved to them, one hand holding a plate laden with cheese, meat, vegetables, and tiny cakes. “There’s your friend having dinner! Why don’t you join her? I see Lord Charles Estevez, who’s in charge of palace security! He’s the son of one of the king’s most trusted cabinet members! I could get an exclusive interview with him!”

He limped over to a tall young man with thick black hair and a sullen expression. He wore a sleeveless black leather jacket over his all-black tux. His intentionally frayed trousers spilled over chunky motorcycle boots. The youth looked like Hollywood’s idea of a thug. If that’s the head of security at the palace, no wonder the Crimson Eagle’s robbed the place!

Laurence made sure Jennifer flounced over to her blue-garbed best buddy before speaking in hushed whispers to Lord Estevez. “Charlie,” he hissed, “what are you doing loafing around? Tonight is the big one. There’s no room for error. If we’re caught, King Samuel will kill us, or worse.”

“Whoa, slow down, Larry!” Charlie dug his hands into his tattered pockets. “Someone might hear us. Not everyone here speaks Myposian, you know.”

“I want to wait until everyone’s had a good slug at the bar before we get going,” Laurence admitted. “You guys stick to orange juice. We have to be on our guard. People are suspicious enough as it is.”

“Don’t worry, Larry. We could do this in our sleep.” Charles punched him lightly on the shoulder. Laurence screamed and grabbed his wound, his eyes wide and his lips compressed.

“Don’t do that!” Laurence hissed. “It doesn’t hurt, but we don’t need to encourage it.”

Balki waved at them from an opening on the balcony. It overlooked an enormous plaster fountain of mermaids, sailors, and mystical sea beasts. “Cousin! Lord Charles! Come here!”

The two men hurried to the balcony as fast as Laurence’s limp would allow. “Cousin,” Balki began, “are you sure you can handle this job? It’s the biggest we’ve ever done, and your shoulder isn’t in good shape.”

Laurence sighed. “Balki, I’ve told you this a million times. My shoulder is fine.”

Charles grimaced. “If your shoulder is fine, why are my ears ringing?”

Balki pulled at the silver circles clipped to Charles’ ears. “I like your ear rings, but what do they have to do with Cousin Laurence?”

“I got a little loud when Charles slapped me on the shoulder.”

Charles tugged at his left ear. “Why don’t you scream again? I can still hear out of this one.”

Laurence took Balki and Charles by their ears. “Knock it off, you two. We have to be careful. King Samuel has tripled security. This place is crawling with the king’s men.”

Charles yanked his ear from Laurence’s grip. “I know that!” He grinned. “I know where each and every one of those men are, and how to avoid them or make sure they don’t catch us in the act.”

“Won’t they be hard to avoid if they’re crawling?” Balki pointed out.

Laurence rolled his eyes and Charles chuckled. “Why me?” the short reporter complained. The trio climbed over the railing and shimmied down the vines on the walls, disappearing into the shadows.

They didn’t notice another person hiding in the shadows, watching their every move, waiting for the right time to pounce upon their prey. Jennifer and Marianne didn’t notice this person, either, when they made their way to the balcony several hours later.

“Marianne, the ceremony is in a minute! What’s so important you couldn’t tell me in the ballroom?”

“Jen,” Marianne said hurriedly, before her friend got any more impatient, “I know whom the Crimson Eagle is, and why he robs the king all the time!” She took a deep breath, which was interesting to witness on her tiny, slender body. “Balki is the Crimson Eagle.”

Her best friend’s face fell. “How do you know?”

“Well, for one thing, he told me in the carriage coming here. Harriet knows, too.” Marianne grabbed her friend’s hands excitedly. “Jen, I have exciting news, but you can’t tell anyone else. Balki is the real Prince of Mypos! He told me himself, after he swept me off my feet at the fair!”

“Shhhhh!” Jennifer put her fingers to her lips. “Someone’s coming.”

Jennifer held her breath, hoping to see a flash of red blouse and brilliant hazel eyes. Marianne wanted to see Balki in that black shirt that revealed half his chest and really tight pants again. The duo was disappointed when King Samuel, resplendent his purple robes, amethyst and gold crown, and elegant tuxedo with amethyst cuff links, staggered onto the landing. His breath reeked of burgundy, and he held a glass of the purple wine in his hands. “Hello, ladies! Care for some?” He shoved the glass under Marianne’s nose.

“Um, no thank you, your Majesty,” Marianne said quickly. “We don’t drink.”

“Mind if I do?” His highness threw back the entire contents of the glass in one gulp. “Oh, good, you don’t mind.” He grabbed Jennifer’s hand, almost jolting her off her feet. “You know, Miss Lyons,” he slurred, “I’ve wanted to kiss you since I first saw you at the Markwrights’ ball three weeks ago. You’ve got gorgeous knockers!” He pressed her against his slumping body and rubbed his hands against her rear. His voice may not have been lucid, but his eyes were, and she didn’t like the way he ogled her bosom.

Jennifer thought fast. “Marianne, why don’t you get His Majesty some black coffee to clear his mind? He obviously has me confused with someone else.”

Marianne gave her the nastiest look her innocent face could manage before dragging the drunken monarch off to the coffee machines at the far side of the ballroom. Jennifer let out a relieved sigh. She really did owe Marianne one. The golden-haired heiress shivered, despite the warm night. The full, bright moon illuminated the palace gardens, giving them an eerie glow. Despite the party inside, the gardens were silent. She took in the heady scent of roses and gardenia as the fountains gurgled softly.

She heard a commotion in the ballroom and peered in. The ceremony for the opening of the Crown Jewels had begun. Lydia held Robert Markwright’s arm so hard, his face was contorted in repressed agony. Harriett crossed her arms and looked unimpressed. Marianne stood at the buffet, carrying plates filled to the brim with goat’s cheese, pig snout puffs, pomegranates, and persimmon ale.

Two peasants in ratty vests and sandals rolled a purple carpet woven of the finest wool through the ballroom. Young women tossing white and lavender rose petals trailed them. Two solemn Mypiots in all black surrounded by Sheriff Burnsetti and his men carried the glittering Jewels on a puffy purple pillow. Jennifer caught her breath at the sight of the glowing gold crown covered with amethysts and pearls, the amethyst shepherd’s crook, the gold pig and goat sculptures, and the miniature seed pearl fisherman’s net. King Samuel stared morosely at his black coffee, clearly unimpressed by the pageant.

They were joined by a cavalcade of dog acts, juggling acts, a short masked magician in an all-black tuxedo who did bad card tricks, very ugly ballerinas with hairy legs under their tutus, clowns with baggy pants, and one sullen baseball player with thick glasses. Someone asked if anyone ordered pizzas for four hundred. A female Mypiot who sounded like a cross between Cyndy Lauper and Betty Boop delivered a singing telegram. Another Myposian asked the crowd if anyone saw her Aunt Minnie. Jennifer was surprised to see Donald hawking popcorn and peanuts to the guests. She didn’t remember him coming along!

The ballroom was getting crowded. King Samuel squished between the tapping lobsters and the Myposian women offering massages and goat bladder jelly. The rock group Mypos Mypos blared their newest hit “Hungry Like the Mypiot.” A sword swallower accidentally poked Sheriff Burnsetti on the buttocks. Jennifer had to duck out of the way of a pair of lovey-dovey teenagers who were necking and not paying much attention to anything but their hormones.

She heard a very loud whistle from off to the right of the jewels. The magician pushed between a bongo player and a rabbit asking the way to Albuquerque and stood on the platform alongside the Crown Jewels display. Another, taller man in a black-and-red tux and red mask followed. Both sported high top hats that hid their hair and white silk gloves. “Ladies, gentlemen, Mypiots of all ages,” he announced loudly in a fake Spanish accent, “Lorenzio the Magnificent and his assistant Balkzi the Brilliant will perform the most unbelievable magic since David Copperfield’s last TV special!”

Balkzi tugged Lorenzio’s flowing black cape. “Charles Dickens is involved with this?”

Lorenzio ignored his assistant. “We need someone from the audience to help us with this powerful enchantment.” Jennifer jumped when Lorenzio’s eyes settled on her. She knew his thin lips, long, dainty nose, and bright hazel eyes, but she wasn’t about to mention that to this crowd. “How about Miss Lyons, the lovely and talented niece of Mr. Robert Markwright, one of the richest men in Mypos?” He held out his white-gloved hand as she crossed the purple carpet, the eyes of five hundred people boring into her naked shoulders. “Trust me, Miss Lyons, I’d never hurt you.”

Jennifer smiled and leaned close to his ear. “No, you won’t hurt me,” she whispered, “C.E.”

“I guess I still can’t fool you,” he whispered back. “Just play along.” He swung to King Samuel. “Your Illustrious Majesty, we present for your amusement the most amazing feat of brilliance in all of Europe!”

King Samuel hiccupped. “I’d be more amused if your feet were going out that door.” He stumbled onto the carpet-covered plywood. “I don’t like you being so close to the jewels. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say you had ulterior motives for all this prancing about.”

“Why would we have interior mooing, your awesomness?” Balkzi asked. “Do we look like cows?” He threw his hands in the air. “Where do I come UP with them?”

Lorenzio elbowed his assistant. “Your Majesty, our only motive is to entertain you.”

Balkzi jumped off the platform. “What if we had someone very, very honest here? Someone you’d never think of not believing?” He pulled Marianne from the buffet table, where she chatted with a man on stilts carrying balloons. Balkzi returned with the dainty woman and two of the stilt man’s stock. “We’re going to need lots of air, too.”

“You’ve already full of hot air,” the other “magician” muttered. “I told you, we’re using Jennifer!”

“I want to use Marianne!”

Jennifer separated the men. “Since we’re here, why don’t you use both of us?”

“Could we get on with the trick before the chapter ends?” King Samuel whined.

Lorenzio gestured at the fleece-lined glass boxes that protected the sparkling stones. “Now, Miss Lyons and Miss Spencer will be so kind to cover the glass boxes with my cape.” The women took the corners of the thick black velvet and draped it over the display. “Balkzi will take our very honest woman and pray to the Myposian gods for the magic we need to perform this trick.”

Balkzi and Marianne let loose with a chant that turned into a rock number, complete with flashing lights, wild riffs from Mypos Mypos, colored smoke, and the Solid Gold dancers. When the entire audience was shuffling along, whirling in their butterfly-like crinolines, Lorenzio flung his cape off the display. The display was empty.

There was a collective gasp from the crowd. King Samuel’s eyes bulged. “What happened to the jewels?” The incensed monarch grabbed Lorenzio by the collar as he took a bow. “Ok, you two-bit Houdini, I’d like to see you do a better trick and bring the jewels back.” He clutched the magician tighter. “Now!”

Balkzi’s tapped his cousin on the shoulder. “Um, cousin, would this be a good time to begin the fight sequence? If your eyes get any bigger, someone will mistake them for the Crown Jewels.”

“Um, yeah,” Lorenzio gurgled. He pulled a gauzy red scarf out of his pocket and tickled King Samuel on the nose. Balkzi threw his cape over the king’s head. Jennifer took off her sash and tied it around his torso, while Marianne bound his ankles with another gauzy scarf.

Sheriff Burnsetti lunged for Lorenzio. “It’s you!” he shouted. “You’re him! He’s the man! You were the rider who left the challenge in Tattari!”

“Balkzi” pulled “Lorenzio” out of the way. The sheriff rushed past them and crashed into the buffet table. “Sheriff, you should learn to be more careful when you accuse people of such things,” the taller youth scolded. He tore off his jacket to reveal his red blouse and eagle pendant. “You accuse the wrong man. I am the Crimson Eagle you seek. This my second-in-command is.” The sword swallower tossed weapons to the quartet on the platform as the ugly ballerinas, pizza delivery boys, band members, and various vaudevillians stripped off their costumes, showing their own black blouses, hoods, and pendants.

“Lorenzio” shook his head. “Balki,” Jennifer heard him mutter, “don’t do this.”

“But you told me you weren’t the real Crimson Eagle!” Marianne exclaimed.

“Then who is?” Robert Markwright called from the crowd. “This is confusing enough already!”

Sheriff Burnsetti was starting to come to. The baseball player grabbed his ball and threw it so fast, it parted Balkzi’s hair. It hit the Sheriff in the gut. He was barely able to bleat a command to arrest the Crimson Eagle and his crew to his own men before he passed out. Two of his men approached “Lorenzio” and “Balkzi” menacingly. The duo turned to each other and played a bit of patty cake before delivering two solid lefts to the guards, who toppled like greased dominoes.

The ensuing scene resembled the disastrous street fair. Furniture toppled and ladies squealed and hid in the balconies and under the remaining buffet tables. Swords clanged and duelists exchanged recipes for goat spleen floats and roasted turtle soup. Two of the King’s men helped him out of the cape and sash. He grabbed the sword from one and joined the fray, all appearance of drunkenness vanished.

Jennifer and “Lorenzio” fought side-by-side, making their way across the ballroom. “I’m impressed, Miss Lyons,” he said as Jennifer fought off the advances of three of the king’s men alone. “Where did you learn fencing? If I knew you were so good, I would have asked you to join my crew.”

“Penny dreadfuls,” she explained. “I prefer stories about pirates and adventure to drippy romance novels, even if Dad doesn’t think they’re proper for a lady.”

Her shorter companion ducked onto the balcony and pulled her in with him. He clutched his shoulder, panting like a Myposian sheep dog. Jennifer could make out the dark red stain on his white gloves in the luminescent moonlight. “We’ve got to get you out of here,” she insisted. “You can’t fight with that shoulder. It looks like it’s bleeding pretty heavily.”

“Nonsense!” His gentle, boyish grin made her insides feel like a warm fudge brownie. “The wound re-opened. It’s nothing.” He looked over the balcony. “Donald should be coming around with Black Beauty any minute. We’ll escape and re-group on the way to the caves near Castle Markwright.”

“Not so fast!” Sheriff Burnsetti appeared in the doorway, still a bit green around the gills. “You won’t be going anywhere. I don’t care who the Crimson Eagle is! I want to arrest someone today, before the King throws me off the damn island!”

He leveled his pistol at the diminutive outlaw and the shapely heiress. “I could kill both of you right here! You,” he aimed the gun at the small man, “are wanted throughout the entire country. Miss Lyons has been a thorn in my side since she arrived.”

“Try to stop us from leaving!” The Crimson Eagle grabbed a vine in one hand and Jennifer’s waist in the other as a black cart pulled by a red mustang careened across the garden, flattening the rose bushes and gardeners in its path. More of the king’s guards swarmed to the balcony like Myposian tiki-biki bugs to sugar water. They shot their guns in the air, but conveniently missed the duo on the vines.

Jennifer kissed C.E as they clung to the vine, flinching from the sound of gunfire on the balcony. “Good luck!” C.E smiled shyly as they swung across the garden and landed safely in the rear of Black Beauty.

Donald, still dressed in his peanut vendor uniform, groaned. “Nice of you to drop in, C.E. What took you so long? And what’s with the babe?” Chewbacca whinnied his agreement.

“We ran into some old friends,” Jennifer explained tersely as C.E took the reins and she climbed into the passenger’s seat.

A bullet whizzed by them. “Geez, that was too close!” Donald huddled in the back of the cart. “Could we get out of here before C.E isn’t the only one gushing more blood than the cast of Friday the 13th?”

“Hey, wait up!” C.E rode the cart directly under the balcony. Harriett held the vines for dear life and kicked a few of the guards away with her silver spike heels. “Don’t leave without me, baby!” She dropped into the cart as it rode under the balcony. Burnsetti's men fired off a few gunshots as the souped-up vehicle blasted through the gardens, past the gate, down the streets of Pignika, and across the open (and only) Myposian road.

Jennifer looked over her shoulder. “I don’t think we’re being followed, and that worries me.”

C.E shrugged, wincing as pain shot through his right shoulder. “They probably still have all their men tied up at the palace.” He smiled faintly. “Not a bad bit of theft, huh? You know sometimes, I amaze myself.”

“That doesn’t seem hard,” Jennifer observed wryly. “They let us go.”

“Nahhh,” C.E claimed. “No one can follow Black Beauty. She’s the fasted hunk of junk in Mypos.”

Donald frowned. “What happened to the Turnip?”

C.E slowed Chewbacca to a trot. “He and Charles will be along shortly on Nightwing.”

Jennifer tore part of her frothy sleeve and dabbed at C.E’s increasingly large wound. “We’ve got to get you to a doctor,” she insisted. “That could get infected.”

C.E’s plump-cheeked face was as pale as the wan light that illuminated the rugged, green hills and pastures of Mypos. “Don’t bother with a doctor,” he croaked. “I’m fine, just fine.” He gave Jennifer a slight smile before fainting on her lap, leaving a streak of red on her white gown.

Harriett scrambled into the driver’s seat. “That settles it. We’ve got to get C.E to the Cave, before he ruins Jennifer’s best ball gown. Blood stains worse than grape juice and chocolate put together.”

C.E’s second-in-command was having quite a bit of fun at the palace. He, Charles, and Marianne slashed and flashed and crashed with the remainder of the King’s men. “Balki,” Marianne screamed as she kicked one of the king’s men in the shins, “look out!”

Balki barely avoided King Samuel’s sword. “You weren’t really drunk at all,” he deduced. “You were just ham sandwiching it up for the dinner crowd.”

“Quit trying to make me hungry!” He threw the slender Mypiot against a heavy woven purple tapestry on the wall embroidered with the crest of Mypos, a pig and a goat on a yellow background. “I’m going to make you pay for every time you’ve humiliated me in front of half of the island!”

“Will that be in small dig-das or large ones?” Balki pushed the King against several of his men. He took advantage of the distraction to shimmy up the royal violet wall hangings. “You’ll have to catch me first!”

He was so close to escaping! Nightwing, his beloved horse, was tied to a tree just outside the gardens. He was supposed to meet the real Crimson Eagle at the Cave, their secret hide out near Castle Markwright. He hoped C.E wasn’t too mad at him for saying he was the head outlaw. Balki didn’t want anyone to know who the Crimson Eagle actually was. Someone had to get the jewels to the peasants!

Balki was so intent on the rest of the plan he didn’t notice King Samuel order his men to subdue Marianne and the Crimson Eagle’s men. He heard gunshots and instinctively ducked, but the shots weren’t aimed at him. They sliced through the tapestry like a meat cleaver through a goose’s gullet. Balki and the tapestry fell into the waiting arms of the King’s troops

Balki and Marianne were dragged before the King. “I think I’ll take that in big bills.” He and his men pulled the two through the stunned guests and servants. “Or, better yet, you can pay with something bigger.” He shoved the struggling Mypiot onto the platform. “Your life.” He forced Balki onto his knees before the gawking crowd and yanked the Mypiot’s arms behind his back. Marianne shrieked when she heard Balki’s anguished gasp.

“Gather around, one and all,” King Samuel shouted, “and see the greatest show in Mypos! I’ve single-handedly captured the Crimson Eagle, who’s stolen not only the Crown Jewels, but has made the roads in Mypos about as safe as the ones in Detroit.” Robert Markwright breathed sharply. The native Mypiot servants looked on in horror. Lydia burst into tears and threw herself into her husband’s comforting arms.

“Actually, King Samuel,” the increasingly winded Mypiot youth reminded him, “you captured me with two hands and the hands of all of your guards.”

“Don’t interrupt me with your stupid phrase mangling, you dimwit!” King Samuel turned his annoyance back to the crowd, who hung onto his every word. “I give you none other than Balki Robinadous, mild mannered lint painter for The Daily Mypiot!” He tore the mask from the young man’s face and knocked off the top hat, revealing the familiar high cheekbones, rich burgundy eyes, thick ebony locks, and long nose. “He’s under arrest for grand theft, resisting arrest, assaulting an officer, and making fun of me!”

Marianne struggled in the arms of the King’s men, choking back a sob as the crowd gasped in shock. Balki wasn’t the real Crimson Eagle. Even King Samuel could figure that out! Why were they picking on Balki? He didn’t know what the real Crimson Eagle knew! He didn’t even know where the jewels were. And where was Charles? He hadn’t been seen since Balki climbed the tapestry.

King Samuel joined Sheriff Burnsetti at the balcony as his men led Balki, Marianne, and the remaining members of the Crimson Eagle’s crew to the dungeons. “That was quite a performance, Sam,” the corpulent law officer complimented.

He grinned slimly. “If I hadn’t gone into politics, Harry, I would have been an actor. Listen to that crowd! I had them eating out of the palm of my hand.” He became serious. “Are you sure you sent men to follow the rest of the Crimson Eagle’s crew? Your boys aren’t known for their sterling track record where the Crimson Eagle is concerned.”

“Sam, these guys are from the Sceptosian islands. They’re quiet, totally loyal, and the best my force has to offer. Robinadous’ partner and his team don’t have a chance.”

“Good.” The king rubbed his hands together and chuckled. “I don’t want the others interfering with my plans for Robinadous.” He grinned evilly. “This is going to be fun!”