**Editor's Note** The other day Cap'n Ergo at A Twist Of Lemon offered up a writing challenge to come up with a story about the three wise men venturing to find the Christ-child in 2008. I have never been one to back away from a ridiculous challenge, especially one that can be undertaken while drinking beer, so I accepted. Regardless if you are a believer or just enjoy a familiar tale retold funny, Happy Holidays. As times are hard and money is in short supply, consider this small token as my gift to you. Enjoy!
Amir looked at his watch and then at the "Now Arriving" sign and grimaced. It would be hours before his plane would arrive and there was nothing to do but wait. He had already killed as much time as he could stand in the duty-free shop and he just couldn't bring himself to read one more magazine. What more was there to do in Cleveland airport at one in the morning? Nothing was open but the bar, so he wandered in.
The bartender lifted his eyebrows in a "What'll you have?" gesture and Amir mumbled "Espresso and a menu." He listened to the whir of the machine as he glanced over the bill of fare.
"Here ya go," said the bartender, "Can I get you something else?"
"Yes, the hot wings with the veggie platter please." he said with a yawn. "Comin' right up," the bartender said as he shuffled off. Amir rubbed his tired eyes and looked around the bar. It was done in dark wood paneling with lots of brass and ferns. He noticed a couple of the patrons smoking so he lit an unfiltered Gitanes and sipped his espresso. The strong flavors combined were exactly what he needed and he pulled his notes from his briefcase to examine them for the thousandth time. "I must make it there on time!" he kept telling himself. He was so lost in his calculations that he didn't even notice the brawny man who walked up beside him.
"Mr. Amir?" he said softly. "Yes," Amir looked up somewhat startled, "do I know you?"
"No sir. We've never met but I knowed you was ah comin'. I'm your ride. My name is Delaney. Clayton Delaney. I'm to take you to Him."
"What?" was all Amir could say before the bartender interrupted. "Here's your veggie platter. It will be just a few more minutes on those wings. Can I get you something else?" Amir shook his head. "How about you sir?"
"Ya'll serve Pabst?" Clayton asked. "Sorry," the barkeep said. "I'll have a tall Bud draft and a shot of Jack Daniels." The barman busied himself fetching the drinks. Amir began with, "How did you know..." but Clayton motioned for him to be quiet. The bartender set down Clayton's order and headed for the kitchen in back. Amir watched as Clayton dropped the shot glass of whiskey into his beer and when the foam started to reach the top he brought it to his lips and took three long gulps, emptying most of the glass. Clayton wiped his mouth, belched, and said, "I do love my boilermakers."
He turned to Amir and in a whisper said, "I'm sure you are wonderin' how I knew you and where you was agoin'. Well, I'll tell ya. It is goin' ta sound strange, but I swear what I'm about to say is the God's honest truth. I met an angel and he told me to meet you at the Cleveland airport bar and take you to the King of Kings. Scared the shit out of me, let me tell you. I had just gone out to put out some feed for the sheep, I'm a sheep farmer by the way, and this light appeared outta nowhere and I heared the most beautiful music I ever heared in my life and amongst the light there appeared this angel and he told me to seek out the wise men from afar. At first I thought he said from a fire, but he corrected me and sent me to you, so here I am." he said with a shrug of his shoulders. Clayton finished his drink in one long pull and waited for Amir to speak.
"Here's your wings. Can I get you some brandy or a whiskey perhaps?" said the bartender.
"No, I don't drink. It is against my religion." said Amir.
"How about a beer then?" suggested the bartender.
"No, thank you!" Amir said firmly.
"I'll have another," Clayton said with a smile. "Go ahead and finish yer meal. It'll be a little while afore the other two get here." Clayton sat down on the bar stool and tugged at the knees of his dirty overalls as he did. He fished around in the pocket of his Carhart coat and pulled out a tin of Copenhagen snuff and lined his lip with it. "So what do you do Mr. Amir from afar?" he said with a tobacco stained smile.
"I'm the president of the University of Paris. I'm an astrocartographer."
"I reckon that makes you kind of a king on campus. Let me ask you somethin'. Is it true what they say about French girls?"
Amir was about to respond that he had no idea what "they" said about French girls when a deep baritone voice behind them interrupted.
"Are you Gentlemen headed to meet our Lord and Savior?"
"Not so loud!" admonished Clayton as he turned to the tall, stately black man in the three-piece pinstripe suit. "You don't want the whole of Homeland Security down on us do you?"
"My apologies gentlemen," he said in a deep whisper, "but I am eager to find the Savior of us all and I forget myself sometimes. My name is Eze Djimon Keon Falstaff Umbala, but please, call me Umbala. I have ventured a long way and I am weary from my travels. I haven't slept in thirty-six hours nor eaten in twelve. I am at my wit's end at being so close and yet so far away."
"Well pull up a stool and sit down. I'm sure Mr. Pang will be a few more minutes. Order whatever you want fella, it's on my tab. I'm Clayton and this here is Mr Amir" offered Clayton.
"Thank you very much sirs. It took much more money to get here than I expected and I haven't any money. All I have is a gift for the King and I wouldn't surrender it for the world."
"Here," said Amir as he slid the plates over, "eat and tell us of your travels."
"Whut kinda name is Eze, Mr. Umbala?" asked Clayton.
"It is an Afican name. It means King. My father had high hopes for me. He was somewhat disappointed when I chose to be a Bible scholar." At that Umbala fell on the chicken and vegetables like a man who hadn't eaten in a week and didn't look up from his plate until it contained nothing but bones and drips of sauce. "My mouth burns," he said as he dabbed at his beard.
"Barkeep!" called Clayton, "Can we get a drink for muh friend here?"
"Have you any rice wine?" Umbala asked.
"We have the house red or white," offered the bartender. "White, please."
As the bartender set down the glass, he looked the men over, but turned away quickly as if he had just thought of something he had to do. At that moment, the door of the bar opened and admitted a short Chinese man with a Fu Manchu mustache. He came to them in long strides and stopped short of them just long enough to give a curt bow and said, "I have done as you have asked Mr. Clayton Delaney. I have turned in my ticket and am ready to leave now please."
"Fellas, let me introduce Mr. Pang Wang Yao. He is going to be comin' with us. He is an astrologer." Clayton said with a note of pride in his voice.
"Pardon me please, astronomer," Pang corrected. "Whatever you say Pang. Alright fellas, gather yer gear and let's hightail it outta here. I'll pay the tab and meet you at the front door," Clayton said as he pulled his wallet from his back pocket. The men left in some haste and the bartender brought the check. Clayton didn't even look at it, he just set his Target Visa card on it and finished the last of his drink even though his mouth was still crammed with snuff.
In a minute the bartender returned with the slip and a pen. Clayton signed and left the man a healthy tip. As he handed it back to the bartender, the bartender clasped his hand, hard, and wouldn't let go. "Are you really going to find the Messiah?" he asked. Clayton looked him in the eye for the first time and he saw the look of hope, and as his gaze lowered to his hand he noticed the shiny gold star of David that gleamed from the necklace in the bartender's open collar. "Yup," was all he could mutter.
"I'll pray for you," the bartender muttered in a choked up voice, let go of his hand, and turned away quickly to stifle a tear of joy.
**So ends Part One. Part Two to be published tomarrow**