originally appeared in the october 1948 issue of curious thrilling tales
editorial consultant: Prof. Dan Leo
joe smith liked cafeterias. he spent most of his time in them.
he especially liked automats.
he liked big cafeterias and big automats, the bigger the better, because he could melt into the crowd and not be noticed.
of course with more people in the big places, there were more people to possibly recognize him, but he still liked the odds.
besides, there was only one person in the world - this world that he was trapped in - who might be looking for him and might recognize him.
and it was a big world.
filled with big cities.
like this one. which one was this, anyway? new york, london, frisco, paris, hong kong, berlin, st louis, chicago…? joe couldn't remember.
he looked out the big window at the night. it was cold out - he was wearing a heavy overcoat and had a scarf draped over the back of his chair. and the wind was blowing newspapers and a few snowflakes down the street.
chicago. it must be chicago, he thought, the windy city…
yeah, that was it. chicago. that toddling town.
the town that billy sunday could not shut down.
where klak-don would never find him.
klak-don, the official manhunter and executioner of the sivonian empire, who had been trying to find joe for twenty years to bring him back to captivity in the imperial capital.
where he would be held in a golden cage suspended high above the imperial palace, for the slaves and peasants and minions and soldiers of the empire to laugh at and throw stones at all day.
because joe smith was not really joe smith, a bum down on his luck on a snowy, windswept clark street.
he was really prince dar-flan, the rightful heir to the empire of sivonia in the amandean galaxy, exiled and hunted through a thousand dark universes …
the old sad story, of the forces of darkness playing the old empire game…
joe took a sip of his coffee.
a drop of coffee fell from the bottom of his cup on to his patched corduroy pants.
long ago joe had learned the trick of putting a handkerchief in his saucer, but then he figured out that this marked him as a regular in the cafeterias and automats of the planet…
and might arouse of the suspicions of klak-don and other bloodhounds of the sivonian empire who might be on his trail.
not that there was any real chance of them finding him.
but you couldn't be too careful. he owed it to the loyal subjects of sivonia who were still waiting and hoping for his return.
joe started to cough. jeez, maybe he should have hopped on that banana boat that was sailing down the river down to new orleans…
he carefully put his cup back down and looked out the window. the snow was falling a little faster.
a guy sitting by himself right in front of the window looked kind of familiar. it was hard to tell, he was so bundled up… it was chicago, for crissake, not the north pole…
suddenly the bundled up guy looked over at joe.
their eyes met.
it was klak-don! somehow after all these years, he had found him.
too stunned to move, joe sat rooted to his chair as klak-don picked up his coffee and a plate with a half-eaten piece of cheesecake and moved over to joe's table.
and sat down just as easy as you please as if they were old pals, and not sworn enemies who had tracked and dodged each other across a hundred galaxies.
"we meet at last, dar-flan." klak-don, with a brief glance out the window behind him, put his coffee and cheesecake down on joe's table.
"i don't know what you're talking about, pal."
"oh, please, can't we be civilized about this?" klak-don's diction indicated that he had seen a few movies with herbert marshall in his travels. "i've caught you fair and square, so why make a fuss?"
"i think you got a screw loose, mac. say, that cheesecake looks pretty tasty." joe laughed. "if we are such old buddies as all that, maybe you could stand me the price of a piece for myself."
klak-don sighed. "as a sort of last meal, you mean? don't worry, dar-flan, you'll be fed well enough on the trip back - the long trip back - to the empire. we wouldn't want you looking too pitiful, would we, for your trial? after all, a whole galactic cluster will be watching with bated breath."
"keep spouting your cockeyed malarkey, pal, and you'll get a punch in that stuckup kisser of yours."
two tables over, connie ferguson listened to this dialogue with mild amusement mingled with slight annoyance. she hoped the two clowns would not come to blows.
not that she had any real reason to disapprove of them. after all, it was poor deluded characters like these that caused people on this earth to be skeptical of all royal claimants.
and made it easier for connie herself to remain hidden in the crowd.
for "connie ferguson" was really the princess eleuphinia, the only survivor of the royal family of the hidden kingdom of varna, deep beneath the surface of neptune, the other members of which - her father the emperor, her mother the empress , and her sister and two brothers - had been cruelly massacred by the communistic ant-men from uranus, leaving her, eleuphinia, the true rightful ruler not only of varna but of neptune, the outer solar system and the whole andromeda galaxy…
if only she could find a way off this stinking planet with its hordes of slavish ignorant proles with their puking sympathy for the perverted ideals of communism - and the lousy lying journalists and playwrights and "folk singers" leading them by the nose to hell…
of all the planets she could have escaped to, this was the worst!
well! she really shouldn't let herself get worked up this way.
connie dug a flattened pack of pall malls out of her purse. please, please, let there be one left in it…
there was. she lit it with her next to last match - how she would have hated to ask one of the bums in this joint for a light!
she blew out a long plume of smoke. just as she did, the door opened, bringing in a blast of cold air and -
connie's former "pal", the lying two-faced crackbrained floozy calling herself alexandra…
as in, the princess alexandra, last survivor of the romanovs. oh, yes, keep peddling those stale peanuts, sweetie, some elephant will forget to ask where you got them…
connie looked away and ignored alexandra as she walked past. but out of the corner of her eye she noticed her heading for the dinner specials.
she must have scored a few bucks to be eating so high off the hog. maybe it wouldn't hurt connie to be nice to the poor thing.
suddenly connie heard a crash beside her. sure enough, the two bozos at the other table had started to fight.
and were using language no lady, let alone the empress of neptune, should have to listen to…
fortunately, pete the busboy was rushing over to restore order.
they hadn't knocked the table over, only one of the chairs. it looked like they had spilled their coffees mostly on themselves, with not much getting on the floor.
pete grabbed them and pulled them apart as easy as if they were two rag dolls.
"what's going on here? huh?" pete stuck his face in the one of the guy who had been there first. "you don't like it in here where it's nice and warm? hey? lest you have forgotten, joe dolan owns this place. joe dolan don't run no kindergartens. joe dolan don't stand for no nonsense in any of his many establishments, from the highest to the very lowest - like this dump. understand!"
pete picked the overturned chair up and shoved the first guy back into it. then he turned to the other one. "and you! you're the philosopher, right? like to sit by the window and watch the world go by? go back to your window! get back to your post, soldier, or i'll kick you out in the street and you can watch chicago get turned into a winter wonderland!"
"o k, pete, o k," klak-don mumbled, "no need to get sore." pete gave him a shove and klak-don turned back to his table.
"what a life," pete muttered. he noticed a couple of overflowing ashtrays on an empty table and grabbed them and headed for the door.
"what a life," he repeated as the wind hit him in the face.
he had just about had it with this world.
"pete" was not really pete. he was from another dimension altogether.
and in the other dimension he had been za-bad, a master thief who had won the heart of fantonia, the daughter of king sadim of xilon - the land of gold and rubies.
and for one brief moment he had had fantonia - and the kingdom and all its riches - in the palm of his dextrous hand -
only to have the three wizards of king sadim - it had taken three wizards to do the job! - three! - banish him to this dreary world of snow and ashtrays and spilled coffee.
he hoped to gain enough wealth in this new world to hire a magician of his own - if he could find one - to return to xilon and his beloved fantonia.
so far it had been slow going.
pete tossed the ashes out into the snow and the wind blew some of them back in his face.
then he slipped in something nasty and almost his balance.
down the street, in the swirling snow, he heard somebody shout for a cab.