“Make sure you account for every dinar, Salmoneus. My brother intends on distributing them to the poor.”
“To the poor?” Salmoneus blurted out incredulously, immediately thinking of at least twenty better uses for the heaping pile of gold on the table before him. Then he realized that questioning the king’s wishes could have consequences, and he was quick to change his tone. “I mean, to the poor. May they always benefit from the king’s generosity.”
“Yes, he always had a big heart,” Gekkus recollected. “Why, I remember when we were little, he gave my toys to the servants’ children. What an... inspiration to us all.”
“Uh-huh,” Salmoneus muttered, not particularly interested. “Um, I ought to get back to work. I promised King Tolus I’d be done by the time he finished his nap.”
“Don’t worry,” the king’s brother chuckled. “I’m sure you’ll have plenty of time.”
If the salesman had been paying closer attention, he might have realized there was a sinister undercurrent to Gekkus’ laughter. But Salmoneus was distracted by the wealth before him, and as Gekkus moved off down the corridor, whistling, he scooped up a handful of dinars and nuzzled the coins lovingly.
“Alone at last,” he sighed happily. “Just the million of us! And though we can’t be together for long, we’ll always remember the time we shared.” It would have been such an easy thing to pocket a few of the coins, for they’d never be missed. But Salmoneus was, basically, an honest man. He’d been known to engage in shady business ventures here and there, but he would never outright steal. Besides, even though it wasn’t his, it was still a little slice of Elysium being around all that money. He’d pretty much blundered into the gig as the king’s account through dumb luck, but Salmoneus figured that if he did a good job, it could lead to more permanent work and maybe even a promotion. He didn’t want to jeopardize that by stealing, or by getting caught rolling around naked in the mountain of dinars. But he didn’t see the harm in, just for a second, pretending the wealth was his. So he indulged his fantasy, until a sudden sound pulled him from his daydream. “Who’s there?” he called out, growing paranoid as he realized he was all alone with a large fortune. “I warn ya, I know Hercules!” It was worth a try. “If anything happens to me, he’s going to be very upset!”
A tap landed on his shoulder and Salmoneus spun around with a shriek, swinging the heavy candlestick that he’d snatched up as a defense. His foe ducked and plucked the object from his grasp.
“Hey, what’s the big idea?”
“Please,” the salesman begged as he got down on his knees to grovel at the man’s feet. “I’m only the king’s accountant. Take the money. Just leave my commission, ok? I’ll do anything!”
“You can start by letting go of my leg.”
“Your leg? Of course.” Salmoneus released the stranger immediately and spit on his boot. “Shoe shine, your mercifulness?”
“The name’s Autolycus. Perhaps you’ve heard of me?”
“Who?” Salmoneus looked up and finally recognized the man before him stroking his moustache as the same one he’d seen in passing a few years back in Midasius. He’d been mostly a local legend then, but his reputation had grown substantially in the following months. “Oh! The king of thieves!” The salesman got to his feet and shook Autolycus’ hand. “It’s an honor to be robbed by you, sir!”
“Think nothing of it, my good man,” Autolycus told him graciously. “You say you know Hercules?”
“Me, Salmoneus, know Hercules? We’re the best of friends! Like strawberries and cream, apples and honey, peaches and herb..”
“Funny,” the king of thieves drawled, concluding that the odd fellow before him had been throwing out the demigod’s name in a measure of self-preservation, but not because Hercules was actually in the vicinity. Which would make this particular robbery a whole lot easier, if less exciting. “He never mentioned you.”
“Really?” Salmoneus laughed humorlessly and decided to do away with the name dropping. It hadn’t worked with Iolaus, and apparently this guy was a friend of the hero as well. “Listen, since we’ve got the big guy in common, you’re not going to hurt me, are you?”
“Oh, that depends on you now, doesn’t it?” Autolycus said grandly, putting a friendly arm around the salesman’s shoulders. “You can either stand here and watch me take this money, or I can club you over the head and I’ll take it anyway.”
“What was the first part again?”
Their brokering was interrupted by a heart wrenching scream of pain, anger and betrayal. Salmoneus immediately took off running down the corridor toward the sound. Autolycus glanced after him, then back to the fortune unattended before him. Every fiber of his being was telling him to grab the loot and run and thank his lucky stars for the distraction. But something held him back. Trouble was brewing, and Mr. King’s Accountant had just trotted out into the middle of it. It wasn’t his concern, and Autolycus had a firm policy against getting involved in matters that didn’t concern him. However, if the odd little man really was a friend of Hercules, then maybe that did concern him. He’d already been on the receiving end of the demigod’s wrath after he’d left Blondie to take the fall for him, and he had no desire to go through that again. So against his better judgement, Autolycus ran after Salmoneus, catching up with him just as he reached the king’s bedchamber.
Tolus was staggering in the middle of the room, a dagger erupting grotesquely from his chest. Salmoneus rushed to the king, catching him as he fell and easing him to the floor. The old man looked up at him dazedly as he tried to assess the terrible wound, wondering if he should pull the dagger out or if that would just make things worse.
The whispered word was the last utterance of the king as the life left him and his body settled down into death. But there was no time to ponder the significance or meaning of it as Gekkus and a flank of soldiers crowded into the doorway.
“By the gods! They’ve killed the king!”
Salmoneus became aware that he was bending over Tolus’ body with his hand on the hilt of the dagger and he scrambled to his feet as he realized how it must look.
“Well, best of luck!” Autolycus called out as he did a back flip to the open window, pulling his grappling hook from his belt. He hadn’t bargained on getting saddled with an assassination charge, and he knew that being an outlaw made him automatically guilty in the eyes of the courts. There would be no talking his way out of this one, so he was going to get while the getting was good. He’d worry about Hercules’ friend once he was in the clear.
“Autolycus, wait!” Salmoneus cried. “After all we’ve been through together! You’ve got to take me with you!”
“Hey, whoa!” the king of thieves shouted as the salesman launched himself at him before he had a chance to anchor his hook. They both tumbled out of the window and plummeted to the marketplace below.
“Seal off the city!” Gekkus ordered angrily to his soldiers. “I want them found!”
The guards flooded out of the castle into the streets, but their search was in vain. It was as if the two suspects had vanished into thin air. When the soldiers began moving off to expand their search, Autolycus and Salmoneus peeked over the fruit cart they were cowering behind, blending in with the rest of the watermelons by way of hastily improvised rind hats.
“That was close,” the salesman pointed out, his mouth full of fruit. “This is delicious! You going to eat yours?”
“Listen, melonhead, I work alone,” Autolycus told him, “especially when I’m escaping certain death.” “Hey!” The vendor grabbed their attention as he turned around and spied his ruined wares. “You’re going to have to pay for that! Guards!”
“Uh, just put it on our tab,” the king of thieves called out as he took off, his new partner in crime in tow. They dashed down an alley, only to be met with a pair of advancing soldiers. Backtracking, they tried another route but Autolycus, contrary to his former declarations of working alone, grabbed Salmoneus as he started down the corridor. “Wrong way.” The king of thieves deftly picked the lock of the door they encountered, not caring where it led as long as they could slip in unseen. And the twosome entered the large building, locking the door behind them as the soldiers began a wild goose chase down the corridor.
“Where are we?” Salmoneus asked in confusion as he looked around and saw racks of elaborate costumes and props. They heard music and voices and they followed the sounds through the wings until they found the theater’s stage. And the sight that greeted their eyes didn’t help make things any clearer, for the hapless fugitives had landed backstage at Widow Twanky’s traveling revue. After her success in Rhumba, she had decided to literally take her show on the road to entertain and delight all of Greece with her supreme talent, her considerable charm, and a bevy of beautiful young dancers who currently were not living up to her expectations.
“Honestly, I’ve seen more creativity in a wet kipper!” the Widow scolded her proteges. “Now then, girls, dance is like a language. You must use your bodies to speak. And what does the body say? It says, ‘Oooh! Oooh! I’m euphoric!’” Twanky leapt into the air as the model of unbridled joy before curling in on herself in an expression of sadness. “‘Ooooh. Oooh. I’m melancholic.’ But above all, girls, we must use our bodies to tell the world in no uncertain terms, I am woman!”
She adjusted her cleavage proudly and the girls all mimicked her gesture.
“That gives me an idea,” Autolycus exclaimed.
“This is no time to be thinking about women,” Salmoneus told him distractedly, his gaze firmly fixed on the scantily clad dancers.
“On the contrary, my soon to be beardless friend. Now is the perfect time.” The king of thieves lightly fingered a gown that was hanging on a dummy beside him. “Say, what’s your size?”
Salmoneus looked at him, puzzled, his jaw dropping when he realized to what his companion was alluding.
“Oh, this is to die for,” Autolycus announced as he perused a rack of outfits and pulled out a gauzy pink dress, holding up against the salesman. “Say, are you a spring or a winter?”
“Winter,” Salmoneus replied, shoving the garment away. “But that’s not the point. We’re innocent.”
“Oh, sure, they’ll believe that,” Autolycus scoffed. “You had your hand on the dagger and I’m the king of thieves. If we’re lucky, they’ll only kill us once.”
“That’s a good point,” Salmoneus mused. He spared another glance at the dress and then shook his head. “No. There has to be another way. I’ve been in these situations before, and this is about the time Hercules always shows up and gets me out of trouble.”
“Yeah, the big guy does have a knack for impeccable timing,” the king of thieves agreed. They both turned and looked back at the door, almost expecting the demigod to be coming through it. But it was still closed, and after a moment Autolycus shrugged. “Guess he’s running late today. Which means it’s up to us to get ourselves out of this mess.” He pulled a large knife from his belt and brandished it menacingly, advancing on the salesman who was backing up nervously. “Now, about that makeover.”
Gekkus strode imposingly before the line of soldiers as he addressed them.
“It is with a heavy heart that I take my brother’s place on the throne. But royal duty compels me to take control of his armies, and his vast riches.” Gekkus smiled to himself and muttered under his breath, “and his important collection of fine gems and cheeses.” He turned and paced up the other side of the unflappable guards and continued his speech. “Now then! I need not stress the importance of bringing these two assassins to justice.” Of course he couldn’t stress that, because then his army would know that he was responsible for the death of Tolus. Which made it all the more urgent to find that scapegoat Salmoneus and the king of thieves, so they could be executed for the crime and then the matter would be laid to rest. But the longer they evaded capture, the greater the risk of the truth coming to light, and Gekkus couldn’t have that. “We’ll seal off the city and go door to door if need be, but I want them found!”
The variety of props and costumes backstage afforded the two fugitives with ample means of disguise. Salmoneus needed a little more persuasion, but Autolycus had survived and flourished at his profession largely due to his ability to mask his true identity and assume other characters, although he had never gone to quite these lengths before. But he was stoic about it, convincing his companion that it would just be temporary and would afford them cover until the heat died down a little and they could make it by Gekkus and his men. So they each shaved their facial hair and donned wigs and long, pink gowns that covered as much as possible. Makeup took a few tries, but they finally got it to the point where it didn’t look completely clownish. Then deciding they were as female as they were going to get, Salmoneus and Autolycus saw an opportunity to make their pitch to the Widow Twanky when she gave the dancers a break and was otherwise unoccupied.
Twanky turned around, taking in the two “women” standing before her.
“Well,” she began, looking them up and down. “I was going to say, ‘May I help you?’ but it appears events have passed us by.”
“I’m Autolyca,” Autolycus went on in a pseudo-feminine voice, undaunted by her less than favorable reaction. “And this is my partner, Sal....monella.”
“Charmed,” Salmoneus piped up with a curtsey and a giggle, doing a spot on impersonation of his sister.
“What happened to your face?” The Widow asked him, frowning at the bits of paper stuck to his cheeks.
“I cut myself,” Salmoneus replied, having had a little trouble with the large knife and rusty at the process in general. “Waxing.”
“Anyhoo,” Autolycus interrupted, eager to get to the point. “We’re a couple of nomadic show girls, looking for a stage to grace.”
“Oh,” Twanky said regally, moving around her podium to face them. “Well then, ladies, I think you better show me your particulars.” Misunderstanding, the guys hesitantly began lifting their skirts, but the Widow quickly stopped them. “No, what dance steps do you know?”
“Oh, we know them all,” Autolycus lied as he tried to think of some. “The mambo.”
“The tango,” Salmoneus added helpfully.
“And the Joanie.”
“Ooh, well, I can see you both have very sizable resumes,” the Widow told them graciously. “But unfortunately, all our positions are filled at the moment.”
“I knew it,” Salmoneus cried. “We’re worthless!” He flung himself into his partner’s arms, smashing his face painfully on the king of thieves’ solid melon cleavage.
“Now, Salmonella, speak for yourself,” Autolycus muttered, patting him absently as he tried to come up with a plan B.
“Oh, well, I suppose an extra pair of legs can’t hurt you,” Twanky announced, relenting. “Make you run faster, anyway. You two can be our understudies.”
“Oh, happy day!” Salmoneus sang out, his tears immediately turning to joy, again in perfect imitation of his sister.
“Now, I’m the Widow Twanky,” she continued, “known throughout the western world as Laughing Lizzie, the sailors’ surprise. And if you want to join my traveling terpsichore of toe-tapping tulips you shall have to observe a few simple rules.”
“Oh, we’d love to hear them,” Autolycus assured her.
“Well, rule number one. We do two shows a day, and after the second show I like my tulips flossed and in their pajamas and in bed.”
“And I’ll even help tuck them in!” Salmoneus couldn’t help volunteering.
“Rule number two. No alcohol and no junk food. Your body is a temple and I will not brook the sullying of its porticoes on my watch.”
“Hallelujah,” Autolycus agreed, although he was already thinking of ten different ways around both rules. Not really because he couldn’t abide by them, but as a matter of principle. He was the king of thieves, and the only laws he lived by were his own.
“And rule number three.” Twanky came forward, getting right in the faces of both her new recruits and giving them a firm no nonsense stare. “No men.”
Salmoneus and Autolycus exchanged a mutual glance, both more than happy to follow that particular mandate.
“No problem,” they assured her in unison.
“Right.” The Widow turned back to the stage and clapped her hands. “Girls, could I have your attention, please? Let’s give a big, warm tulip welcome to the newest members of our troupe, Autolyca and Salmonella.”
The dancers assumed formation and greeted the new “girls” with a bow and a shimmy.
“How-de-do, sisters!” they chorused as Autolycus and Salmoneus tried their best to reciprocate the hello.
“Right. Let’s go from the top, shall we?” Twanky turned back to her new acquisitions. “Um, why don’t you two just sit this one out? Rest your best feature, pay attention to the steps, and you’ll pick it up in no time. Now, Cupcake, are you ready?”
“I was born ready!”
Salmoneus followed Autolycus to a small table right in front of the stage and sat down, smacking the king of thieves when he crossed his legs in a rather manly fashion. But their attentions were soon captivated as a beautiful woman stepped into the spotlight and began a seductive dance, singing with all the sweet temptation of a siren.
“Some girls die for diamonds.
Some cats go for gold.
But if you want the key to my heart,
just listen to what you’re told.
I don’t need tons of jewels
Rings and things are meant for fools.
To make our two hearts meet,
Feed me something sweet.
I crave lots of candy.
Cookies and cakes are dandy.
Let me lick your lollipop,
And you can try my lemon-drop.
So if you dip into my cookie jar,
Then, Sugar-Daddy, we’ll go far.
Kisses and hugs just ain’t enough.
I want a bite of your cream-puff.
Ooh! Don’t make me repeat!
Feed me something sweet.
Feed me something sweet.”
“Bravo! Bravo!” Salmoneus called out as he applauded enthusiastically before leaning over to whisper to his partner, “What a snake-charmer!”
“Tell me about it,” Autolycus replied, moved by the young woman’s performance. “If I don’t get a looser skirt, I’m going to blow my cover.”
“The Athens Grande Royale Hotel have graciously extended to us the full utilization of their facilities whilst we are performing in the area,” Twanky told her company as they entered the lobby of the lavish facility. “And I don’t want to catch any of you girls in the gambling halls or the taverns!” She turned to glare at her charges when a chorus of soft “awww”s sounded from behind her back. “Am I making myself clear?”
“Yes, Widow Twanky,” came the dutiful reply.
“Good.” All of the girls were young, and most had never even been out of their villages before. Twanky knew from experience how dizzying and exciting showbiz could be, and she was determined not to let any of her girls get their heads turned around by the fleeting fame and decadent lifestyle the job provided. When the traveling show came to an end, she fully intended to return her girls to their families, a little wiser in the ways of the world but uncorrupted by vice or by men with more charm than honor. And if it meant being a watchdog and keeping them all on short leashes, then she was willing to play the villain to protect their virtue.
As she went to the desk to confirm their accommodations, Autolycus grew distinctly nervous as he saw two of Gekkus’ soldiers patrolling through the lobby. He tried to get Salmoneus’ attention, but he was too busy getting beauty tips from the girls to notice. The king of thieves ducked his head and hid his face behind his hand, breathing a little easier when the men walked past without giving him a second look. But he realized that Gekkus was not going to stop looking for them and that it was going to be very difficult to escape the city undetected. He and Salmoneus were most likely going to have to play out this ruse and stick with the company in order to slip out of town under Gekkus’ radar when the dancers moved on to their next engagement.
“Ok, this way, girls!” Twanky called out, leading the way to the spiral staircase. “Room assignments! Come along now! Watch your step. Quickly, off you go.” But as the women began filtering by, a forbidden pastry became unconcealed and rolled down the stairs to land at the Widow’s feet. She seized the contraband and held it aloft, literally quaking with fury. “To whom does this belong?” No one answered, and Twanky accused Cupcake, who was the most likely to try and smuggle in the treat from which she’d gotten her nickname.
“Oh, Widow Twanky,” Cupcake began nervously, knowing that breaking one of the rules could very well cost her the job. “I...”
“Mistress Twanky,” Autolycus interrupted, raising his hand. “I cannot tell a lie.” He paused, wanting to save the beautiful girl from the Widow’s wrath, but not wanting it for himself, either. “It’s hers.”
“What?!” Salmoneus squawked, forgetting to use his girl voice in his outrage at being made into the scapegoat.
“Sorry, sister, it’s for your own good,” Autolycus said sanctimoniously.
“Smuggling sweets,” Twanky fumed. “And on show day as well!”
“But, but, but, but, but, but...” Salmoneus stammered, for once his quick mind and glib tongue failing him.
“Don’t you ‘but’ me, young lady,” the Widow scolded him, grabbing him by the ear. “Now then, you go up to your room and you stay there all day! And while the rest of us are relaxing in the spa, you should have ample opportunity to discover the ramifications of your ingestatory overindulgence! Now, off you go! And you, go on!”
“Oh,” Autolycus muttered as he realized he was being addressed, caught up in the grateful smile Cupcake was lavishing on him. “Yes, Ma’am.”
“Well, come on,” Twanky urged, shooing the rest of the girls up the stairs. “Your legs aren’t painted on!”
Once they’d all been assigned rooms and had unpacked, the tulips (save for the disgraced Salmonella) all convened to the spa to have a little fun and rest up before their double performance that night. Autolycus just sat back and watched the young ladies frolicking in their towels, thinking that perhaps being stuck with the entourage for a few days wouldn’t be so bad after all. Especially when Cupcake skipped over to sit beside him.
“Oh, gee, Autolyca,” she said in the lilting voice that he was beginning to find irresistible. “Thanks for saving my butt!”
“Oh, think nothing of it, Cupcake,” he assured her with utter sincerity. “It’s a butt worth saving. Besides, us girls, we need to stick together. Close together.” To prove his point, he slid over on the bench until their thighs were touching.
“Oh, I feel so bad about Salmonella,” she lamented. “Taking the blame for me and all.”
“Oh, don’t give it a second thought. I haven’t.”
“I guess I’m just a slave to my sweet tooth,” Cupcake sighed dreamily. “There’s just something about frosting that makes me feel all...boo-boo-py-doo-py inside!”
“But you still manage to keep your figure,” Autolycus murmured. Boy, did she ever. Realizing he was leering, he tried to act like a girl and poked at her playfully. “Oh, I just hate you!”
“I swear,” she giggled, “if I ever met a man who loved sweets as much as I do, I’d tie him to my bed and never let him go!”
“I like the way you think.” The king of thieves grinned to himself as an idea hit him. After all, if he was stuck in this charade, he might as well make good use of it and maybe have a little fun in the meantime. “So tell me, what else do you like in a man?”
“Well,” Cupcake began thoughtfully. “He’d have to be kind to animals, too. And maybe a little, I don’t know, wild and dangerous! But that’s just wishful thinking. I haven’t exactly been lucky when it comes to love.”
“Call it female intuition,” Autolycus predicted sagely, “but I think your luck is about to change.”
Salmoneus paced restlessly around the extravagant room, wondering how on earth he’d let things get this far. “This is just great,” he muttered to himself. “I can’t believe I let him talk me into this!” Autolycus’ scheme was like a plot device out of some ridiculous farce. And if it were a play, the only recourse would be deus ex machina, a higher being dropping in to sort everything out. Which, in real life, was where Hercules always came in. Salmoneus paused and looked to the door, but it appeared the demigod’s timing was still off. With a sigh, the salesman resumed pacing, realizing that maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing. He really didn’t want anyone, especially Hercules, to see him like this. In a dress and a bad blond wig, and folliclely impaired. “I feel so exposed without my beard,” he whined, stroking his hand over his bare face. “So vulnerable! So naked! So... so... so smooth!”
A sudden knock sounded on the door, and Salmoneus had the faint hope that it was Hercules, come to save him before he could endure any more humiliations. But it was Gekkus in place of the demigod on the other side, and Salmoneus instantly thought that it was all over and he was as good as dead. However, his womanly disguise fooled the new king, a little too well as it turned out.
“Excuse us,” Gekkus began, gazing at Salmoneus with starry-eyes. “I didn’t mean to disturb you, Miss...”
“Monella. Sal Monella.”
“What an enchanting name,” the king exclaimed, formally kissing the salesman’s hand. “So full of mystery.”
“Can I help you with something?” Salmoneus asked, eager to put an end to his latest humiliation.
“Oh.” Gekkus shook himself slightly, remembering that he was there on business. “Have you seen these two men, Miss Monella?”
“No, no, no. Never, never, never,” he babbled. “Not allowed to have men, no, no.”
“Please.” The king gently reached out and grasped Salmoneus’ chin, directing his gaze to where two soldiers were holding up wanted posters. “Would you mind looking?”
Autolycus’ picture was a reasonable representation, but Salmoneus was offended that his own sketch was a buffoonish caricature.
“Don’t be alarmed,” Gekkus was quick to soothe. “But these two men have assassinated the king. Don’t worry. We’ve sealed off the city. They’ll be found soon enough.”
“I should hope so. And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to get ready for my show.”
“Ah, you’re a dancer.” The king’s eyes lit up anew. “I should’ve guessed from the curvaceous musculature of your...legs.”
“So kind of you to notice,” Salmoneus told him, wanting nothing more than to get rid of him before his cover was blown.
“Oh, very little escapes my watchful eye, especially when it is feasting on such a gorgeous creature. Perhaps we’ll meet again, Miss Monella.”
“Only the Fates can tell!” Salmoneus chirped, forcibly shoving the smitten Gekkus out the door. “Bye!”
Once they were gone, the salesman allowed himself a moment of panic. Then there was nothing to do but wait for Autolycus to come back and hope that the king of thieves would be able to find a way to get them both past Gekkus and out of the city. But when he finally returned, leaving was the last thing on Autolycus’ mind. His lust for Cupcake was the first.
“Oh, Salmonella, my friend, I haven’t felt this way since, oh, last week.”
“Where have you been?” Salmoneus demanded impatiently. “We’ve got to get out of here!”
“Ohh, that Cupcake,” Autolycus continued, practically drooling at the thought of her. “What a dish. Ooo-eee! I ought to have her eating out of the palm of my hand by suppertime.”
“Will you forget the girl!” Salmoneus hissed at him. “Gekkus and his men were just here!”
“Oh yeah?” The king of thieves glanced at him with interest. “Well, you’re still alive. The disguise must have worked.”
“A little too well,” the salesman admitted. “He kissed my hand.”
“A wanted man, eh?” Autolycus teased him as he rifled through the bag he’d just stolen. “You little vixen. Say, now this is you.” He draped a long gown over his companion’s head as he went to change.
“Are we going somewhere?”
“Not we, me. I borrowed these threads from a very generous looking couple. They didn’t seem to mind. In fact, they didn’t seem to notice.” Autolycus emerged from the adjoining room in a sleek blue suit and caught sight of himself in the mirror as he walked by. “Gadzooks! If I were a woman, I’d kiss myself.”
“Wait!” Salmoneus protested as his partner opened the door. “You can’t leave me again like this!”
“Sorry, old girl.” The king of thieves grinned at him wolfishly. “You’re grounded.” Pausing briefly to add a few final touches to his new alias, Autolycus made his way back to the spa. Fortune smiled on him as Cupcake soon came bouncing out of the door, not paying attention to where she was going as she called back gaily to her friends.
“Last one to their room’s a rotten egg!” She backed into Autolycus, who had planted himself strategically in her way. Cupcake quickly turned to apologize, but she became flustered at the sight of the dashing, handsome man before her. “I’m so sorry.”
“Think nothing of it, my dear,” Autolycus replied, slipping into character. “Why the world is just a chaotic stage, just teaming with activity. A little bump and grind here and there is to be expected.”
“Well, gee, I never thought of it that way, Mister.”
“Why, where are my manners,” the king of thieves continued. “I forgot to introduce myself. Farsiperus von Baklava, Esquire, at your service.”
“Golly!” Cupcake exclaimed. “I’ve never had an Esquire at my service before. I’m Cupcake.” A small whine distracted her and she reached out to pet the Maltese cradled in his arms. “Is that your dog?”
“Why yes it is. Cupcake, meet Creampuff. I named her after my greatest culinary creation.”
“You?” Cupcake gasped, her eyes going wide. “You invented the cream puff?”
“I certainly did,” Autolycus answered. “I own a string of bakeries all across Greece. Oh, gods forgive me, but I am a slave to my sweet tooth!”
“You don’t say,” she murmured, wondering if she were dreaming.
“Oh, I doobie do.” The king of thieves sighed dramatically. “But the money, the castles... that can’t mean a thing to me until I know all the animals of the world are safe and happy. I guess that’s why I turned my gardens into a sanctuary for abused wildlife.”
“You mean you care about animals that much?”
“How could I not?” Autolycus knew he was laying it on disgustingly thick, but he was sure that her wide eyed innocence was not an act and they way to seduce her was through her naivete. He hefted up the dog in his arms and cooed at it, showing his sensitive, nurturing side. “Just look at that face.” Cupcake obliged, and the king of thieves went in for the kill. “I rescued Creampuff here from a band of murderous pirates.”
“Oh my,” she breathed. “That sounds so dangerous.”
“It was, Cupcake,” Autolycus murmured, his gaze boring into hers. “Very, very dangerous.”
“Oh, wow.” The girl was almost swooning. “It’s not every day I meet an animal loving, daredevil, pastry mogul with a sweet tooth like mine.”
She had bought it all, hook, line, and sinker, and from the way she was looking at him, the king of thieves figured she was fighting the impulse to just throw herself at him right there in the hallway. That impulse became a little easier to control as the spa door opened and Twanky emerged, leading the rest of the dancers.
“Come on, girls! Hurry along! Too many bubbles can make you go blind!” The Widow stopped short, assessing the situation and immediately inserting herself between her star and the man standing a little too closely to her. “Cupcake, is this... gentleman bothering you?”
“Oh, no,” the girl assured her. “I was just stroking his poodle.”
“You hardly know him!” Twanky admonished her. “Now run along. You’re dripping all over the floor.”
“I guess I’ve got to go,” Cupcake regretfully told her dream man. “It was nice meeting you.”
Autolycus blew her a farewell kiss, enjoying watching her retreat.
“Yes, well, as for you.” The Widow moved to block his view, well aware of what was on his mind. “If you wish to have anything more to do with my Cupcake, you will have to go through me.” But then she relented slightly. He was a tall, handsome drink of water, and some of her sternness faded as she smiled flirtatiously, tapping him on the chest with her fan. “You strapping young buck!” Twanky fanned herself, blinking coquettishly, before she turned to follow her girls, putting a little shimmy into her walk to give him something to think about as he watched her retreat.
Nothing like a bubble bath to help a guy relax, as Salmoneus found out. He began humming as he scraped the knife carefully over his leg. It was practice for the next time he had to do his face, and besides, the costume for that night’s show didn’t leave much option. It was bad enough he was heavier than all the other girls. He didn’t want to add to his embarrassment by going out there looking like a satyr.
“You can lick my lollipop,” he sang softly. “And I will suck your lemon drop. Da da da da da da...” Out of the corner of his eye, Salmoneus saw a flash at the window and he shrieked in terror. “Peeping Tom!”
“Don’t flatter yourself, Cookie-puss,” Autolycus scoffed as he entered the room through the window by way of his grappling hook, since he couldn’t take the chance of Cupcake seeing him on the floor. “It’s me.”
“Can’t a girl have some privacy?” Salmoneus asked self-consciously.
“Relax, it’s nothing I haven’t seen before.” The king of thieves took a good look at his partner, surrounded by bubbles, still in his makeup but sans wig. “On second thought...”
“Autolyca!” Cupcake called out as she knocked on their door. “It’s Cupcake! Can I come in?”
“Quick, get up and answer the door!” Autolycus commanded. “She can’t see me like this!”
“I’m in the tub,” Salmoneus pointed out defensively.
“Where are my melons?” the king of thieves panicked, looking around for his disguise.
“Don’t look at me,” the salesman told him.
“Autolyca?” Cupcake sang out as she opened the door and stepped inside the room.
“Just a minute!” There were some muffled thuds and a large splash. “In here, Sweetie. In the bathroom.”
“I’m sorry,” Cupcake said as she entered to see Salmoneus in the large bathtub, nestled in bubbles with a towel covering his head. Autolycus was in there with him, likewise with a towel over his head and a coating of soap marring his features. “Am I interrupting?”
“Not at all, Cuppy,” the king of thieves replied cheerfully, hoping that perhaps she could be convinced to shed her robe and join them. “Three’s company.”
“Oh, Autolyca, you were right!” Cupcake exclaimed as she fell to her knees next to the tub. “I finally met my dream man!”
“Oh, I just knew you would, Snookie Lumps!”
“You know what I always say,” Salmoneus butted in, wanting to get a little revenge on his companion. “If something looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
Autolycus discreetly kicked out under the cover of bubbles and hit the salesman where it hurt, leaving him to try and mask his manly groans with girlish giggles.
“She’s just jealous,” Autolycus told Cupcake. “He sounds wonderful.”
“And who do we think we are today? Xena and Gabrielle?” Everyone jumped, not having heard Twanky come into the room. “Now come on girls! Chop, chop! The stage awaits!”
The Widow fortunately escorted Cupcake back to her room, leaving the men free to climb out of the bathtub and get dressed in their costumes, which consisted of tight fitting silk corsets and not much else, apart from some furry bunny accessories. Wigs and makeup in place, they met the others in the lobby and the group returned to the theater. Backstage, most of the girls were busy warming up and chattering excitedly, but Autolycus and Salmoneus were preoccupied with the audience, even though they weren’t performing.
“Well, looks like your not-so-secret admirer is here,” the king of thieves muttered to his partner as he spied Gekkus at the front table.
“Just my luck,” Salmoneus grumbled. “And my shoes don’t even match my tail!”
A small commotion erupted as the Widow rushed up to the group, practically hyperventilating.
“Rena and Dena,” she managed to get out. “Food poisoning! I told them to keep away from that pickled chinchilla!”
“Oh, what are we going to do?” Cupcake wailed. “They were our opening act!”
Twanky thought about it, the wheels spinning in her head, until her gaze landed on her two understudies.
“You two!” she cried. “You’re on!”
“Us?” Autolycus asked, realizing they were suddenly in big trouble.
“Yes!” the Widow enthused. “With your dance experience, the Hoochie Koochie Jiggle Wiggle should be no problem at all!”
“Hoochie Koochie Jiggle Wiggle?” Salmoneus stammered.
“Why sure, the Hoochie Koochie Jiggle Wiggle,” the king of thieves concurred, giving his partner a glare and silently telling him to play along before their ruse was discovered. “That’s our favorite.”
“A couple of pros! I love it,” Twanky said happily. “The show must go on!”
She made her way out to the stage, and Cupcake gazed at the new opening act in awe.
“Gee, you gals are a lot braver than I am,” she told them admiringly. “I’d be too embarrassed to go out there in front of everyone and get naked!”
Autolycus and Salmoneus looked at each other, each hoping they’d heard wrong.
“Naked?” they echoed. Forget big trouble. They knew they’d just landed squarely in Herculean sized trouble.
“It’s over,” Salmoneus hissed to his partner, pulling him aside. “Finished! Kaput! Nothing personal, but I hate your guts!”
“You think you got it rough, Fuzzball?” the king of thieves countered, blocking the salesman’s attempts to strangle him. “The last thing I need to see before I go is you naked!”
“I don’t wanna die! I don’t wanna die! I don’t wanna die!”
“Then let’s make like Zeus and bolt!” Autolycus suggested, interrupting his companion’s panic attack.
“How can we?” Salmoneus sputtered. “Gekkus’ guards are everywhere!”
“And now, without any further ado,” came Twanky’s voice from the stage, “I’d like you to put your hands together for the Hoochie Koochie Jiggle Wiggle.”
“What are we going to do?” Salmoneus demanded as the music started.
“Have you ever been to that tavern in Thessaly where the serving girls dance on the bar?” Autolycus asked suddenly.
“Yes,” the salesman replied. “But what’s that got to do with...?”
“We’ll copy their routine. Can you remember it?”
“I remember that it involved getting naked!” Salmoneus seethed. “And I remember that none of those girls had anything to hide.”
“Come on.” Autolycus grabbed him by the arm and yanked him through the curtain onto the stage. “Just follow my lead.”
They pranced across the floor and began the striptease, starting with their furry wristbands and then their tails followed. It was awkward at first, but there in the spotlight with the cheers of the audience ringing in his ears, Salmoneus lost some of his self consciousness and began to get into it. He tried to imitate the sexy gyrations he’d seen the other dancers do, enjoying being the center of attention and the object of desire for once. Removing his feather boa, he rubbed it across his butt like the Thessalian girls and tossed it into the crowd. It landed in Gekkus’ arms and right then and there he decided that he was going to make the enchanting Miss Monella his queen.
Autolycus was getting worried that his partner was so caught up in the role he was forgetting he couldn’t actually let anyone see the full monty. Grabbing a large fan from the wall behind him, he held it out in front of Salmoneus just as his slip of a skirt came off. The king of thieves got a similar fan for himself and removed his own skirt. Then as they were suitably covered, they managed to rip each other’s corsets off as the audience screamed in delight. Two more fans were procured to cover the rear, and they continued their dance, teasing the crowd mercilessly but never allowing a glimpse behind the fans. As the music ended, the two men rushed offstage to thunderous applause.
“Oh, thank you, girls, that was a sublime performance!” Twanky raved when the show was over. “Run along and have a light supper. But remember to be back in time for tonight’s show!”
“Who’d you score with the buds?” Autolycus asked, seeing Salmoneus cradling an armful of red roses.
“Gekkus sent them to me,” came the dreamy reply. “He wants to meet me for dinner in his castle. What do you think? Should I play hard to get?”
“Is your wig on too tight?”
“Aside from the fact that he’s trying to kill us, he seems like a really nice guy,” Salmoneus said defensively.
“Listen, Sallie, you’re not that kind of girl, remember?” the king of thieves told him. “Besides, just think about it for a minute. Somebody killed King Tolus. Somebody with motive and opportunity and the means to frame us for it. And let me guess, Gekkus is the one who hired you in the first place, didn’t he?”
“Oh, what do you know?” the salesman grumbled. “You’re just jealous because nobody sent you flowers.”
Autolycus glanced over to where Cupcake was standing by herself, her shoulders slumped dejectedly. It was time to put his plan into fast forward.
“Sure they did.”
“Hey, give them back!” Salmoneus demanded, smacking his partner as he ripped the bouquet out of his arms. “Nobody ever gave me flowers before!”
“Here’s one for your date.” Autolycus plucked a single rose and handed it to him. “By the way, clean up your side of the room, will ya? It’s a sty.”
Salmoneus put his hands on his hips indignantly, watching the king of thieves walk away.
“Well, I never!”
Autolycus slipped a note he’d written into the flowers and hid them behind his back as he moved beside the beautiful dancer.
“Cupcake, what’s wrong?”
“Oh, nothing,” she replied, smiling slightly at her own silliness. “I was just kind of hoping Farsiperus would show. Maybe he didn’t like me after all.”
“Now, I know that’s not true,” Autolycus sang out. “These came for you.”
“They’re from Farsiperus!” Cupcake exclaimed excitedly as she read the note. “He wants to meet me at the gazebo!”
“Oh, that sounds so romantic,” the king of thieves sighed. “I think he’s the one for you, Cupcake. My advice? Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do. And that’s not a long list.”
“Oh, Autolyca,” Cupcake giggled, kissing him on the cheek. “You are so bad!”
“And it feels so good,” he muttered in satisfaction as she skipped off.
Autolycus returned to the hotel and changed back into the blue suit, leaving through the window and arriving at the gazebo in the courtyard. But he hung back in the shadows, waiting until Cupcake arrived, happy to see she was wearing a black dress that revealed every bit as much as her stage costumes. He waited a little longer, deliberately keeping her hanging to build the anticipation, and then he stepped forward.
“I didn’t think you were coming.”
“I’m sorry to keep you waiting, Sweetcheeks,” he greeted her. “But, well, I had a delivery to take care of.”
“Yes. A pregnant yak went into labor. Oh, but I’ll spare you the gory details.”
“Oh, no, please,” Cupcake begged. “Tell me what happened.”
“There were twins,” Autolycus continued, somehow keeping a straight face as he realized this girl would buy anything. “Two of them. We tried to reach the bull, but he was out grazing.
“Oh, Farsiperus, you are so brave,” she sighed.
“Not at all,” the king of thieves replied with a modest laugh. “It’s what any extraordinary man in my position would’ve done. But enough about me. I’ve got a little surprise for you. Now, sit down right here.”
“For me?” Cupcake asked as she sat down on the stone bench beside him.
“May I?” Autolycus lifted the lid of the fancy box and revealed a single donut. He slid it over her finger like a ring, and Cupcake laughed as she took a bite.
“Mmmm. Sprinkles. My favorite.”
Their eyes met, and the air seemed to crackle with electricity as they gazed at each other in the moonlight. The king of thieves slid an arm around her, pulling her close to him.
“Give me some sugar, Baby,” he whispered. And Cupcake eagerly obliged.
Salmoneus had an epiphany, and he realized three things were true. One, Hercules was not going to miraculously show up and save him from certain death this time. Two, his new partner was probably not above leaving him hanging in the wind in order to save his own behind, or even to run off with a showgirl. And three, he was going to have to take initiative and clear his own name. Either that, or find a looser girdle. So with that in mind, the salesman accepted Gekkus’ dinner invitation, hoping that while he was back at the scene of the crime he might be able to find a clue that would lead him to the real killer. And if he happened to get a gourmet meal out of it, well, all the better.
“Oh, fricasseed squab. My favorite.”
“Leave us,” Gekkus commanded the servants. When they were alone, he feasted his eyes on his date, even more beautiful in the soft candlelight. “You are the most incredible woman I’ve ever met. You’re not just a dancer. You’re an artiste!”
“Oh, Geckie,” Salmoneus purred demurely. “You’re such a talker.”
“I have something for you.” Gekkus rose and moved around the table, pulling out a string of priceless gems and placing it gently around the salesman’s neck. “They’re a family heirloom. I want you to have them.”
“Oh, Gekkus. I don’t know what to say.” Salmoneus actually began to tear up, although he wasn’t sure if it was from the flattery or from the gift of the valuable necklace that was worth a king’s ransom. “You’re the first man who’s ever given me his family jewels.”
“There’s plenty more where they came from,” Gekkus promised, leaving the salesman to wonder if innuendo was coloring his words or not.
Cupcake broke the kiss and jumped up, turning her back on him.
“Cupcake, have I done something wrong?” Autolycus asked in confusion.
“No,” she whispered. “You’ve done everything right.”
“Then, what’s the matter?” the king of thieves pressed.
“I’m so happy,” she sobbed.
“I’d hate to see you depressed.”
“I never thought a small town girl like me would be lucky enough to find a swell guy like you,” Cupcake explained. “Most men lie, and steal, and lead double lives. But it’s different with you.”
“It is?” Autolycus said hesitantly.
“I feel like I can trust you.”
“Oh, I may not be the smartest girl in the world, Farsiperus,” Cupcake told him, turning around to face him, “but if you gave me half a chance, I know I could make you happy. I’m yours.”
Autolycus looked at the girl and a bad feeling descended over him. She was sweet and pure and good hearted, and he knew he’d never be able to live with himself if he took advantage of her innocence. So when she leaned in to kiss him, he pulled back.
“What’s the matter?”
“Cupcake...” The king of thieves hesitated, trying to pin down the feeling that was relatively foreign to him. “I think I respect you.”
“Good, because I really have to go.”
And Autolycus turned away from the beautiful dancer and retreated before he could do something they would both regret.
“Did you enjoy your dinner, my darling?”
“Yes, thank you,” Salmoneus replied. “But I really should be getting back to the theater now.”
“Oh, but you’ll miss the best part.” Gekkus stood, sweeping an arm across the table and sending everything crashing to the floor as he cleared space. “Dessert.”
“I don’t eat dessert on the first date!” Salmoneus protested, not missing the innuendo there.
“I must have you,” the king growled.
“But, you don’t know anything about me!” the salesman pointed out as he ran around the table, trying to keep it between them.
“I know enough! I know I love you!”
“No! I’m not that kind of a girl!” Salmoneus screamed, thinking that he didn’t know how true that sentence was. And as he tried to avoid being the recipient of any more family jewels, he wondered how the gentle, charming, romantic man could just suddenly transform into this snarling brute.
“I don’t care what kind of girl you are!” Gekkus declared. “All I care about is us. And now that my no-good brother is out of the way, we can have the world!”
“But I thought you loved your brother,” Salmoneus said, realizing that Autolycus had been right and Tolus had been the victim of fratricide.
“Loved him? I loathed him. Having him killed was my greatest triumph. Now, kiss me before I explode!”
Gekkus seized Salmoneus and dipped him low, causing his wig to fall off. Not breaking character, the salesman batted his eyes at the shocked king and tried to smile.
“Does this mean we still can’t be friends?”
The dancers had left for the theater, so Autolycus felt safe enough to reenter his room by the conventional door.
“Salmoneus?” he called out. “Where are ya?” But it was dark and quiet and he realized either his partner had gone on to the theater or was still captivating Gekkus with his charms. Which led the king of thieves to wonder if Gekkus was perhaps a bit blind, or maybe one of those weird fetish people. There was certainly no accounting for taste. “Well, at least one of us got lucky.” A knock sounded on the door and Autolycus adopted his female voice. “Who is it?”
“It’s Cupcake. I need to talk to you.”
“Just a minute.” He quickly pulled his gown over his head and slapped on his wig, figuring that the room was dark enough that he didn’t need to worry about the rest of the trimmings. Opening the door, he admitted the devastated girl. “Why, Cupcake, what’s the matter?”
“Oh, Autolyca, I don’t know what I did wrong,” she cried, falling into his embrace. “He just left me.”
“Oh, there, there, dear,” Autolycus soothed, patting her awkwardly.
“I guess I was stupid to think that someone like that could love me.”
“Now you listen to me, Cupcake,” the king of thieves said firmly, pulling her back so he could look into her tearful eyes. “There is nothing wrong with you. Your heart’s as big as they come. And if he can’t see what I see, then he doesn’t deserve you!”
“You’re so good to me, Autolyca,” she sniffed. “Why, you’re the best friend I ever had.”
Her confession only made the king of thieves feel worse, and he realized he needed to stop yanking this girl’s emotions around and come clean. Then maybe if she was still speaking to him, he could try to undo some of the damage he’d done.
“Cupcake, there’s something I should tell you.”
“Well, well, well,” Gekkus began as his men kicked the door in. “I should compliment you on your fashion sense. You almost had me fooled. Almost.”
“Who are you?” Cupcake asked.
“You just don’t know when to quit, do you?” Gekkus sneered. “I had you pegged as a guy from the get go!”
He grabbed the dancer and pulled on her hair to unmask her.
“All right, cut it out,” Autolycus demanded, removing his wig. “It’s me you want.” He glanced over at the bewildered girl. “I’m sorry, Cupcake. I... I tried to tell you.”
“Take them to my castle,” Gekkus ordered. “And summon the executioners.”
In the dungeon, they were reunited with Salmoneus, and the three of them were made to sit on the floor as they were tied securely to a stout pole. Then they were left to await their fates.
“I never meant to hurt you, Cupcake,” Autolycus said finally, truly sorry for the trouble he’d caused her. “Honest.”
“Honest,” she scoffed bitterly. “That’s a laugh.”
“Aren’t you a heartbreaker?” Salmoneus muttered.
“Me?” Autolycus demanded. “What about you? If you’d been a better date, we wouldn’t be in this mess!”
“If I’d been a better date I’d be picking out a wedding dress now,” the salesman informed him.
“Would that be so bad? Some people struggle their whole lives to find love!”
“I’m just not ready for that kind of commitment,” Salmoneus insisted. “Ok?”
“Will you two shut up?” Cupcake snapped wearily, not wanting her last moments to be spent listening to the two buffoons bickering. And it appeared their last moments were upon them as Gekkus and his men began filing into the dungeon.
“If I could just reach under my skirt,” the king of thieves muttered.
“You are desperate.”
But Autolycus ignored the salesman, wiggling his fingers as he struggled to reach the sharp file that was hidden away inside his belt. For no matter what the character, he knew never to leave home without the tools of his trade handy and accessible. Or almost accessible.
“I just stopped by to tell you that you’ll be dead shortly,” Gekkus announced gleefully. Tolus’ killers would be brought to justice and the reign would finally be his, with no one ever the wiser.
“Leave the girl out of this, will you?” Autolycus spoke up, both in an effort to try and protect Cupcake and to stall. “It’s us you want.”
“Yeah,” Salmoneus agreed, trying to help. “She doesn’t know you killed your brother and set us up for the fall. Oops...”
“Listen, from now on, whatever instinct you have, do the opposite,” Autolycus advised him.
“I set you up because you are an idiot,” Gekkus said, glaring at Salmoneus. Then he fixed his gaze on the king of thieves. “You just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, which makes you an idiot, too.”
“You’re telling me,” Cupcake muttered.
“Well, enough chat. Time to die.”
“Now would be a good time for some moves,” Salmoneus whispered to his companion.
“Ah, keep your skirt on,” Autolycus told him as he worked the file free from the folds of his dress.
“Kill them!” Gekkus ordered, and his firing squad formed a line, raising their crossbows.
The king of thieves managed to saw through the ropes binding them and he leapt up and out of the way just as the first bolt flew, striking the post where his head had been moments before. Using the severed rope as a whip, he lashed out, knocking the weapon out of one of the guard’s hands. More prepared to fire, and he picked up a wooden bench, using it as a shield and intercepting the bolts that came his way. Then he swung the bench, connecting with the soldier closest to him. He fell backwards, creating a domino effect until everyone was down in a pile, with Gekkus on the bottom.
“Come on!” Autolycus called out to the others, knowing their only recourse was to run for it. They made for the stairs, and he reached out to give Cupcake a hand. “May I?”
She slapped his hand away and began climbing, but Salmoneus decided to take him up on his gracious offer.
“You may,” he said in his Salmonella voice, but Autolycus gave him a shove instead.
As Gekkus untangled himself, he looked up to see his three scapegoats getting away, and his beautiful plan dissolving in ruins.
“After them!” he bellowed fiercely.
“Now then, girls, we’re a few short, so I’m going to improvise.” Twanky kept her composure, for after all, the show must always go on. With a flick of her wrist she removed her long skirt, revealing a short tulip one underneath. “Now then, I want to see those legs high in the air. But not too far apart. Come on!”
The dancers took the stage with the Widow falling effortlessly into Cupcake’s starring role as the three fugitives snuck in the back door of the theater.
“I think we lost them,” Salmoneus panted.
“Yeah?” Autolycus said dryly as guards began pouring into the theater behind them. “You think they know that?”
“Well, boys,” Cupcake sighed. “Any more bright ideas?”
It wasn’t too bright, but they didn’t have any other choice. Salmoneus and Autolycus burst through the large parchment background and crashed onto the stage, with the salesman landing rather painfully on his melons.
“There they are!” came a voice from the crowd, and they were dismayed to see the audience was also swarming with soldiers.
“It’s about time you gentlemen showed up!” Twanky told them casually.
“You knew we were men?” Autolycus asked, sure that his disguise had been foolproof.
“Stuck out like a sore thumb,” the Widow said with a deliberate adjustment to her cleavage. “You think a real woman like me couldn’t tell the difference?”
“Was it the melons?” the king of thieves wondered, wanting to iron out the bugs so that next time it really would be a foolproof disguise. “Not enough bounce, right? I was thinking maybe sheep’s bladders filled with sand...”
“Can you hash this out later?” Salmoneus interrupted nervously. “We’ve got a big problem here and I hope you have some of those moves left.”
“Maybe not this many,” Autolycus murmured, taking in the soldiers that were starting to swarm the stage, surrounding them. There were a whole lot of them, too many to beat back this time. Normally he would just whip out his grappling hook and sail over their heads to freedom. But he couldn’t leave Salmoneus and Cupcake behind. Well, he couldn’t leave Cupcake behind, anyway.
“This would be a really good time for Hercules to show up,” the salesman declared as he tried not to panic.
“Oh, will you just give it a rest,” the king of thieves snapped irritably. “Hercules is not going to show up!”
“Because he’s already here.”
Two guards hit the deck as the grinning demigod appeared behind them.
“It’s about time!” Salmoneus shouted. “Where in Tartarus have you been?”
“Can we talk about it later?” Hercules asked with a grunt as he grabbed two soldiers by the arms and swung them at each other, knocking them both unconscious.
“Yeah, sure. Do your thing, big guy,” the salesman agreed as he moved back out of the way.
Hercules definitely did his thing, blocking blows, ducking swords and sending Gekkus’ men flying left and right. But he had help. With a whoop Iolaus leapt onto the stage, pulling his sword and disarming countless thugs with his gleaming blade as he simultaneously pummeled several more into oblivion. Autolycus swung up onto a tall guard’s shoulders and used the vantage point to kick and punch anyone within range. And even Twanky got into the act, using her powerful dancer’s legs to send goons sailing off her stage. When a soldier crept out of the wings, trying to sneak up behind the demigod, Salmoneus saw his chance to help and he undid the ropes holding up some heavy sandbags. They came crashing down right on target, but unfortunately the rope got tangled around his foot and he ended up getting yanked in the air to dangle helplessly upside down over the action, which was quickly winding down.
“Well, I think that just about does it,” the Widow said with satisfaction.
“Except for this,” Hercules grinned, waving at the hanging salesman. “A sight I’d hoped never to see again. We’ve got to stop meeting like this, Salmoneus.”
“Just get me down,” Salmoneus grumbled, definitely not in the mood for jokes. But the demigod was halted as Gekkus stepped onto the stage with Cupcake in his arms and a knife to her throat.
“Nobody move,” he ordered sinisterly. “Or I cut the cake!”
“Wait, don’t hurt her,” Autolycus urged. “Take us instead!”
“Are you nuts?” Salmoneus demanded.
“Not another step!” Gekkus warned, keeping a close eye on Hercules.
“He’s a maniac!” Autolycus suddenly shouted out to the crowd. Either they’d see that for themselves, as a good man wouldn’t be threatening a pretty dancing girl so brutally, or they’d think it was part of the show. But either way the reaction would be the same, and hopefully be enough to rattle Gekkus. “He killed the king!”
Appropriately, the crowd began to boo and hiss and jeer.
“No!” Gekkus protested. “No, it’s not true! I loved my brother! He... he was like family to me!”
“Men!” Cupcake snarled, fed up with their lies. She elbowed Gekkus hard in the gut and he released her as he doubled over in pain. Cupcake ran to Twanky and Iolaus tossed his sword to Hercules, who caught it effortlessly and severed the ropes holding Salmoneus with a quick swipe. He fell to the stage, landing hard on Gekkus and knocking him out cold.
The audience got to their feet, applauding wildly and cheering their hearts out, all in agreement it was the best show they’d ever seen. And the participants played along, joining hands to take their bow, with Salmoneus waving a bit dazedly from his position on top of King Tolus’ assassin. Autolycus gladly accepted his kudos, but he became uncomfortable when he looked beside him to Iolaus, who was smirking broadly.
“All right, Blondie,” the king of thieves sneered, self consciously fingering his dress. “Go ahead. Get it out of your system.”
“No, Autolycus,” Iolaus replied, his eyes twinkling mischievously and his voice bubbling with repressed laughter. “This isn’t something you get out of your system. This is something you savor and enjoy. For many years to come.”
“Hercules!” Twanky called out as the curtain closed, rushing over to greet her former pupil and sighing her approval as she grasped his brawny biceps. “I just knew I’d get you on a stage again. I just didn’t think it would be with my traveling terpsichore. What are you doing here, my darling?”
“Iolaus and I were just passing through on our way home to Thebes,” the demigod told her. “We saw the posters for the show and I couldn’t pass up the chance to say ‘hello’ to one of my favorite ladies.”
“Oh, you naughty boy,” the Widow flirted, patting her curls. “It is wonderful to see you again. Even if it is in those woven pants. I thought I got you out of those clothes?”
“Ummm, this is Iolaus,” Hercules said hesitantly as his partner came to stand beside him, having decided that Autolycus’ embarrassment took a backseat to the normally unflappable demigod’s.
“Ooh, yes, your partner. It’s nice to meet you, luv,” Twanky greeted him. “I was you, once, you know. Just for an exercise. But the two of you do move so well together! Do you dance?”
“Not lately,” the hunter replied, not sure what to make of the odd figure before him.
“He’s just being modest,” the demigod assured the Widow. “Iolaus has always been light on his feet.”
“And light in the sandals!”
“That’s real funny coming from a guy in a dress!” Iolaus yelled back at Autolycus.
“And on that note, we should be going,” Hercules suggested wryly. “We can drop Gekkus off in Eleusis. King Celeus will make sure he doesn’t cause any more trouble until the people here can elect a new ruler.”
“Leaving so soon?” the Widow pouted, running a finger slowly down his arm. “Are you sure I can’t tempt you into one last Twanky Twiddle, for old time’s sake?”
“Next time,” the demigod promised as he clapped a friendly hand on his partner’s shoulder. At least outwardly it looked friendly. But the steel grip was a strong warning to Iolaus that if he opened his mouth, he was a dead man.
“Off you go then. But come back and see me sometime!” Twanky blew him a kiss and sashayed off to attend to her girls, putting an extra wiggle in her walk to give him something to think about.
Hercules and Iolaus lingered to make sure that the soldiers were all slinking away to lick their wounds, knowing that with Gekkus overthrown they weren’t likely to cause more trouble. Then they said their farewells and headed out of the city with the deposed king in tow, all the fight gone out of him.
“So,” the hunter began casually as he bounced along beside his partner after they’d delivered Gekkus safely to the dungeons of Eleusis. “Do you want to tell me now? What was that back there?!”
“My dance teacher,” the demigod grinned, for the Widow defied all explanation.
Iolaus chuckled to himself, for it seemed that he was always the one getting stuck in bizarre situations with oddball characters. But now he realized these things happened to Hercules, too. He was just better at not getting caught. However, since the gig was up this time the hunter fully intended to make the most of it.
“She got you out of your clothes, did she?”
“Hey! You didn’t hear that!” Hercules told him sternly.
“Ok, fine.” Iolaus was quiet for minute, then he looked up at his friend with a cheeky smile. “So are you going to teach me the Twanky Twiddle?”
“No,” the demigod replied innocently as he stopped walking and faced his partner. “But I will teach you something I did learn from the Widow Twanky.” Quick as lightening he reached out and grabbed Iolaus in a firm grasp, squishing his lips together. “You are never going to mention any of this again. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” the hunter managed to get out.
“Good.” Hercules released him and resumed walking with a satisfied smirk.
“You ARE a naughty boy.” Iolaus scrubbed a hand over his face as the demigod startled at his perfect imitation of Twanky’s voice. “And if you ever do that to me again, I’m telling Alcmene!”
“We have to get there first,” Hercules called over his shoulder. “So hurry up! You know we promised Jason that we’d stop by and check on Mother while he’s away in Corinth helping Iphicles with those trade negotiations. And I want to try and do some work on her wall while we’re there.”
“I thought that thing was finished,” Iolaus grumbled under his breath as he trotted to catch up.
“Cupcake,” Autolycus said softly as he approached the lovely dancer, wanting to try and make amends, at least as much as he could. “I know there’s nothing I could ever say to make up for what I’ve done, and, well, you have no reason to believe a louse like me. But, when I told you I didn’t deserve you, I, um, well, I meant it.”
He wouldn’t have blamed her if she hated him, but when she turned to face him, there was no malice in her eyes. Just a sad glint of older but wiser.
“Well, it was interesting knowing you.”
“Cupcake,” the king of thieves called out as she brushed by him. She turned, waiting. And for once, Autolycus let down his guard and spoke truthfully from his heart, with no blustering or lying or bragging or pandering. “The guy you’re looking for is out there. I know you’ll find him.”
She smiled, her eyes lighting up with some of her former zest. Cupcake could see that Autolycus wasn’t such a bad guy, and that he sincerely was sorry. There was a little bit of Farsiperus in him after all.
“Who knows? Maybe you’ll be that guy. Some day.”
Then she was gone, and while the king of thieves knew he did the right thing, part of him couldn’t help thinking he was a fool for letting anyone so beautiful and kind and sweet get away.
Autolycus wasn’t the only one who felt like a fool. Salmoneus was also coming to grips with the way he’d been misled by Gekkus’ charms and was pouring his heart out to the Widow Twanky.
“I thought he liked me for me. Men! They’re only interested in one thing. I never thought I’d say this, but I feel so... so used!”
“Oh, well, never mind, love,” she consoled him. “I mean, it’s his loss.”
“Actually it is.” Salmoneus pulled out the family heirloom necklace Gekkus had given him and kissed it gently as Autolycus joined them. “Question,” the salesman said suddenly, tucking his prize away. “If you knew that we were men, why’d you play along?”
“Well, I think all men should walk a mile in women’s shoes,” the Widow told them. “They might learn a thing or two. Don’t you agree, Sonny?”
“You said it, Twanky,” Autolycus avowed, responding to her wink with a little pinch to her backside.
“Actually, my feet are killing me,” Salmoneus complained.
“Well, gotta run,” the king of thieves announced.
“Well, goodbye, boys,” Twanky said fondly. “And remember, I’ll always keep a warm spot open for you. You come back anytime!”
Salmoneus was quite happy to limit his dancing days to a one night only performance, but Autolycus was not so quick to toss aside a good disguise or an even better ally. He picked up one of the feather boas and wrapped it around his neck theatrically.
“You never know.”
The Widow waved to them, sighing to herself as another handsome young man with a beautiful twirl danced out of her life.
Autolycus didn’t object as Salmoneus tagged along after him, rattling off ten new marketable ideas he’d come up with as a result of their little adventure. In truth, the king of thieves could have cared less. But he slung an arm around the salesman and asked to hear more because he had to keep him around and distracted. At least until Autolycus managed to relieve him of that heavy, glittering, priceless burden he carried...
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