Sleeping Dogs Lie


Old Billy Sweet had probably gone as far downhill as a man can go without sucking riverbed sludge. People were simply becoming too sophisticated, too wise to all his old cons, and Billy found it hard to adapt to a generation that didn't flinch from the concept of CD ROMs and laptop computers; a generation that considered UNIVAC in terms of a household suction device. He was a dinosaur, an over-the-hill con artist without options, as likely now, as a ten-cent phone call. In short, he was finished.

And it was in that sorry condition he found himself violently ejected from a disreputable bar near the Front Street docks, for attempting a variation of the Floating Quarter trick, on an equally drunken bartender. With his last, and therefore highly prized, out of print two-dollar bill tucked deeply into the pocket of his tattered, three piece, plaid suit, Billy Sweet stumbled his way to the dark waterfront, to commit suicide.

Staggering along, he recalled how nice things had once been. He used to be the best in the game; doing Vegas, Atlantic City, Cincinnati, Philly and even a couple of years in New York. In those days, he'd been as smooth as satin sheets on a heart-shaped bed. Billy Sweet knew all the angles, all the cons, and his banter was pure machine gun. But that was in the late Fifties, when people were either too frightened of the bomb or too catatonic from over exposure to the nation's new cathode-ray oracle, to notice Billy's hands in their pockets. All that was dead and prayed over, now. If Billy had nothing else left, he still had his smarts. And that was why he was heading for the river to take a last long, lonely, swim. How could an old con compete in a world that permitted twenty-four-hour commercials on television, advertising things, on a mammoth scale, you just knew were invented for the same people you used to scam yourself - only with heart, with finesse?

He moved up to the edge of the boardwalk and gazed into the slick, black waters, counting the myriad moons reflected in the sluggish ripples, which also threw back his own, clownish, reflection. He reached into his vest pocket, withdrew the two-dollar bill with a tired flourish and sadly let it flutter down into the river.

"You asshole," growled a voice off to Billy's right. "I coulda used that deuce for a decent meal."

Billy nearly lost his balance and plunged, prematurely, over the edge, so quickly did he spin to see who had spoken. He squinted his rheumy eyes and peered through the darkness for the owner of the voice. There was no one to be seen.

"This is just fine," mumbled the old con man. "Now I'm having hallucinations. I guess there really is nothing left to do but jump."

"What a selfish bastard," grumbled the same voice. "Don't you think about anybody but yourself? Other people have problems, too, mack."

Needless to say, Billy was enormously shaken by the sound of the disembodied voice in the night. He did a crouching 360 degree turn, without moving his feet, which were riveted by fear, and fell on the lip of the boardwalk, teetering at the water's edge.

"If you're planning to fall in," asked the voice, "would you mind getting me that two bucks, pal?"

"Who's there," Billy demanded in frustration! "Who's talking to me? What's going on here?" He was almost believing he had finally met his maker. (And the maker of that fringe element of humanity is still a hotly debated question, so Billy was right to worry.)

"Psst, bumperhead. Stand up, turn to your right and look about four feet down," suggested the nocturnal voice.

Billy slowly got to his feet, making an effort to regain his equilibrium, and complied. As his eyes focused on his surroundings and the world ceased its tumultuous spinning, he made out the shape of a small, mongrel dog, lying in sharp relief a few steps away from him on the rotting planks of the oily boardwalk.

"Why, you're a dog," he whispered in amazement.

"And you're a genius," replied the dog with consummate sarcasm.

"But, dogs can't talk!"

"Then I suggest one of us is a liar," drawled the dog.

"But, this is impossible," Billy stammered. "Maybe I'm going crazy. No, I get it. I'm already dead! Yeah, that's it. I already drowned myself and you're my guide to the afterlife. That's it, isn't it? That's how come you're here."

"Right," chuckled the dog, "and I can spit dimes, too. Listen, old timer, let's stop dancing around and get down to cases."

"I beg your pardon?" Billy was quietly sidling away from the strange creature, looking for the opportunity to make a break for it.

"Oh, take it easy, pal. I know it's a shock and all like that," soothed the dog. "Do you think it's been easy for me? Kicked out of the litter because I was different from the other puppies; ostracized by my own mother because I can talk. You know I haven't even been laid yet? Life ain't easy for a talking dog. I don't know why I got this talent instead of some well-fed Hollywood collie. But, there it is and I'm stuck with it."

The dog peered directly into Billy Sweet's rapidly clearing eyes and said, "What do you say we let the odds work for us for a change? You look like you could use a square meal, too. Am I right?"

"Yeah," began Billy, "but..."

"Okay, fine. The way I see it, it's fate brought us together. We should be helping each other instead of trying to kill ourselves. Yeah, I was going to jump in, too. But I can swim, so what's the point. Anyway, lets face it, even with my brains and talents, I can hardly stroll into a supermarket and push a shopping cart along. Well, maybe I could, but what would I use for money? All's I want is someone who can look after my creature comforts, make sure I get three squares a day and a place to sleep. How 'bout you," asked the dog?

"I don't believe it, I'm listening to a mongrel dog," muttered Billy.

"Don't get abusive, just tell me what you think."

"About what," asked Billy moving still further from the dog?

"About a partnership. What the hell do you think I've been yammerin' about," snapped the dog? "Tell me, what do you want out of life?"

"Dog, I was the best in the business. I could separate a fool from his gold faster than you can scratch a flea. I was an artist. There was no one I knew could work a scam better than old Billy Sweet. There wasn't an angle I didn't know or a rube I couldn't snow," remembered Billy. And those memories made him forget his surroundings for a moment. Sweet Billy Sweet, the slickest con alive. Lord, it really had been good. His reverie was shattered by the dog's next question.

"So, all's you want is money?"

"What do you mean 'all's I want is money?' Look at me now. What else is there to want?"

"How 'bout fame, power and respect," asked the dog?

"How's a down and outter like me ever going to get any of that?"

"Oh, I don't believe it," the dog laughed, covering its eyes with one paw. "With me, you idiot. I'm a bloody talking dog!"

"Wow," whispered Billy in a protracted exhalation of dawning wonder. "That's true. What a perfect saloon scam. Just like that old joke. I can see it all now, we lose a few bets in a bar because everybody knows dogs can't talk, then when they all see what a sucker I am; pow! We hit them with the biggest bet of all time and walk out set for life. Beautiful, I love it," Billy sighed.

"Jeeze, that just figures," snorted the dog in disgust. "Try not to do any more thinking, alright? Leave the details to me. Oh, there's one more thing," the dog said getting up and stretching its back. "I'm also psychic, so I was thinkin' more along the lines of a lounge act, but that can wait until we eat. Be a good fella and swim out for that deuce, will you, before it sinks. We can plan everything over a couple of bowls of chili."

Six weeks later, Billy and his Wonder Dog, Freud, were playing to packed rooms in the Catskills. They were pulling down five-thousand dollars a week. Freud turned out to be as good as his word; he could accurately recount the past and foretell the future of any member of the audience. But, since Freud had to slip into a deep trance to perform his readings, he was nicknamed the sleeping psychic (the sleeping prophet was already taken by Edgar Cayce) and his voice seemed to float, ghostly, across the stage, as if coming from the "other side."

Of course, because Billy told no one the dog could actually talk (the dog's own wise decision) talent agents and audiences, alike, considered Billy the finest psychic ventriloquist currently doing the circuit. He was known as William, simply William, and he was becoming the hottest ticket around. William was beginning to rake in the big paychecks and Freud, whose real name Billy learned was Ben, was happy enough to have Billy to do for him, to have a warm place to sleep and enough food to stuff a mastiff.

Things continued to boom for the pair, show business was a new scam for Billy, but Ben coached him on honing his banter and artistry to an appropriately sophisticated level. Pretty soon they were opening for the big names in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. It was quite another thing to work the stage in these familiar towns, instead of working the gamblers and the rubes on the floor. Then they landed a tour as headliners and the audiences just ate them up.

It was Ben's powers of ESP and his unique gift of speech that made the act. Billy Sweet, dressed in black tux and white tie, was so much window dressing, he thought. Well, maybe he was being too unkind in his assessment. The audiences needed a focus, a familiar hook to hang its adoration on. If Ben tried to do the act on his own, nobody would buy it. And, likely as not, if they did he would be in some university dissecting room with visions of vivisection dancing in his head. So, in truth, Ben needed Billy as much as William needed Freud the Wonder Dog. And that mutual understanding added a certain polished élan to their shtick.

One particularly good night, playing to a capacity crowd, an elderly, balding and slightly rotund troubadour caught their act. This notorious figure was reputed to have questionable ties with organized crime, (whatever that is, nudge, nudge), which was not helping his own drawing power, so when he saw William and Freud, the Wonder Dog, he also saw dollar signs and decided to pay the two a backstage visit.

Without knocking on their dressing room door, the aging star sauntered in, saying, "Cute gig you got there, pal. I like the way you put words in the mutt's mouth. Real class. What I don't understand is, if you're as good as I think, why're you hangin' onto the mutt? Strictly small time, pal."

"Watch who you're calling a mutt, greaseball," snapped Ben, much to Billy's horror. This was not a man to trifle with.

"Nice trick," said the aging entertainer, darkly. "But that shit don't float with me. You call me greaseball again and you'll be doin' yer act from a mouth underneath yer chin. Get my drift?"

"I beg your pardon, Mr. C. I didn't see who you were," stammered Billy, surreptitiously delivering a sharp kick to Ben's flanks. "It won't happen again."

"See that it don't, kid," this to Billy Sweet who would never see the underside of fifty again. "How would you and yer mutt like to open for me at the Sands for Fifty G's a week," asked the singer?

"Oh man, that's incredible, sir, I don't know how to thank you. But, I'll have to discuss it with Freud, first before I can make any commitments," answered Billy in total amazement. Ben was sitting at Billy's feet, growling deep in his throat at the repeated references to 'mutt.'

"Talk it over with the dog," laughed the entertainer. "That's rich! I like yer style, kid. Discuss it with the mutt, haw, haw!"

Ben bunched his muscles to spring, but Billy caught his rhinestone collar and jerked hard. Ben choked out something about stuffing garlic somewhere and Billy wrapped his fist around Ben's muzzle.

"What was dat," asked the old crooner?

"Nothing, nothing. I've been trying out a new routine and my delivery's still a little rough," said Billy.

"Okay. You call my secretary tomorrow and we'll cut a deal. Yeah, it's nice to see an animal treated so good. I like dat. Bring the mutt around to my kennels when the show opens and I'll see he gets laid. You too, if you feel like it. I got lots of secretaries," suggested the chubby don. "Call it a bonus."

When he'd left the dressing room, Ben shook his nose free of Billy's hand and growled, "Why didn't you tell him to shove his job up his ass? I'm not working for a Gabon like that. The bastard's more of a dinosaur than you are!"

"Take it easy, Ben. That man owns Las Vegas. And fifty thousand a week is the pot of gold I've been chasing all my life. And, by the way, when's the last time you got intimate with a lady dog." asked Billy Sweet with a sly leer?

"Yeah, okay. There's that," considered Ben. "But, the reason I've never been laid is because no bitch would have anything to do with me because I can talk. It scares the hell outta them. What's that greaseball gonna do? Hold a gun to their heads?"

"Have you ever tried keeping your mouth shut around lady dogs," asked Billy?

"Jeeze, you know I never even thought of that."

Billy laughed, "I guess you can teach an old dog."

"Okay," agreed Ben, "we'll open for fatso. But only as long as I get laid."

"Done," said Billy.

And so, the very next week, William (simply William) and Freud the Wonder Dog, (the sleeping psychic) opened for the underworld entertainer and were greeted with standing ovations every show. They were so successful that the fat old sage-of-song brought them back on stage during his own act at the end of the evening and sang one of his famous standbys in their honor. The crowd went wild.

Billy Sweet was finally on easy street.

One morning, shortly after the second week, and true to his promise, the swaggering old man gave Ben free run of the kennels ~ the bitches all in heat. Ben followed Billy's advice and kept his mouth shut, and had the time of his life. In fact, Billy had to pry him away for afternoon rehearsals, and only after promising to drive him right back the next day.

On the ride to the club, Billy informed Ben that he and the old man had signed a deal to tape a live television special. The camera crew was scheduled to tape William and Freud the Wonder Dog at their performance that night at the club. The old crooner's bits would be edited in later, since he required numerous takes and retakes to compensate for his memory loss and excessive profanity during his performances.

That afternoon the rehearsal did not go well, at all. Instead of slipping into his trance, Ben fell into a deep sleep. Billy woke him a number of times and tried to get on with the act, but each time Ben just dosed off, again. Finally, in fear and frustration, Billy asked one of the stage hands for a bucket of ice water and dowsed the sleeping psychic from nose to tail. Ben exploded out of sleep, howling curses.

"What the hell d'ya do that for, ya sonofabitch?"

The camera crew and stage hands, setting up for that night's taping roared with laughter, thinking this was a new bit for the act. It still amazed them that William could actually make you think Freud, an ordinary dog, was doing his own lines. They never saw William's lips move, even now, when he made the dog yell like that!

"Keep your voice down." hissed Billy.

"I will if you tell me why the hell you threw ice water on me," Ben barked.

"Because you're ruining the act, that's why. What's going on with you, anyway? Are you trying to lose us this job?"

"So, I fell asleep," admitted Ben. "What's the big deal?"

"I'll tell you what the big deal is. We've got a contract with the most notorious gangster in show business to do our psychic ventriloquist act. I'm not psychic and I am not a ventriloquist. What am I going to do on stage while you sleep? Card tricks?" Billy Sweet was boiling.

One of the cameramen whispered to an assistant director, "Damned if the guy hasn't got me believing that dog's really arguing with him. It's almost scary." The assistant director nodded his head and continued marking his blocking schedule.

Billy glanced up at them and turned pale. He'd come very close to letting the cat out of the bag, as it were. "Let's get back to the dressing room," he told Ben. Then, Billy made some glib excuses to the a/d and followed Freud, the Wonder Dog, off stage. When their door was closed and locked, he turned on the dog and began ranting.

"Ben, Ben, Ben. What is happening to you? This was all your idea. I would have been happy working saloons for pocket money, but you wanted to go big time. Now you're throwing it all away. Do you know how stupid I looked up there? I've never been so scared in my life. Why didn't you answer me? I gave every code we use and you just lied there, snoring! Is there anything wrong with you? Do you feel okay, are you sick. Should I call a doctor? A vet, maybe," Billy asked, his anger becoming concern for his partner?

"No! No vets. I'm fine Billy boy. Just tired I guess. I did have a pretty hectic morning in the kennels, you know. It takes a lot out of a guy, sport. Not to worry, though," said Ben.

"I just hope you don't fall asleep during the taping tonight, said Billy, scratching behind Ben's ear. But the dog hadn't heard him. He was asleep again.

"Ben! Wake up you lousy flea-bitten bag of rat piss! Billy Sweet never used language like that. Good hustlers are never coarse, it runs counter to the image they have to project in order to gain the confidence of their marks. But, here he was, acting like a nickel-and-dimer working the street corner. However, he'd never been this scared or angry before, either. He took a long, deep breath to calm himself.

"Woa. Hey, hey, old timer. You can't talk to me like that. I made you what you are. If I hadn't met you on that dirty boardwalk, you'd be feedin' the fish, right now," bellowed Ben. "Show some respect!" This was their first real fight, and it had all the earmarks of a deal breaker.

But, the dog's voice was growing hoarse and gravelly. And when he tried to add to his attack on Billy's outburst, he lost his ability to speak, altogether. The dog's eyes grew large with fear and surprise. He whimpered and offered what passed as a shrug of confusion, indicating his snout with a trembling paw.

"What is it, Ben," asked Billy, quickly kneeling beside his partner, all thoughts of conflict vanished. He sensed the dog's panic and became frightened, himself.

"What's wrong with your voice? Why aren't you answering me?" Ben only whimpered again and drew his tail between his legs.

Oh, no, thought Billy Sweet. Oh Lord, what happened to Ben? He fought down a mental image of William and Freud, the Wonder Dog, dropping the biggest bomb in Las Vegas history. Then, all concern for his partner supplanted by concern for himself, an even more terrifying image replaced the first; that of the underworld entertainer mixing a pair of concrete shoes in Billy's size. He shuddered those images out of his mind and paced the dressing room floor, trying to think. He stopped and stabbed the dog with a penetrating stare.

"You can still understand me, right?" Ben nodded, confused.

"Good. Have you still got the ESP? Again Ben nodded, but added a shrug as if to convey the futility of having the gift if he couldn't communicate it. Billy caught the meaning of Ben's shrug and cursed his luck for being so stupid. He had to have time to think. Dogs don't just suddenly stop talking for no reason, do they? Oh, crap on a cracker! Listen to yourself, Billy Sweet! Dogs don't talk in the first place.

It was a sure bet they couldn't tape the show until Billy figured out how to get Ben's voice back. He had to stall. He sat down at his make-up table and lifted the telephone receiver with a trembling hand. He dialed a number. A young, female voice answered and William ~ just simply plain William ~ asked if he could please speak with Mr. C. After convincing her that, indeed, he did work for the man, she connected him with a private line in the steam room of the eldrich gangster's penthouse apartment in the casino.

"What the fuck's the matter with you, Sweet," bellowed the crooner? "You can't replace the stupid mutt with a fuckin' wooden dummy? I got three senators in my pocket would do a good enough job."

"Well sir, I'm only thinking of you. All those paying customers are kind of expecting to see Freud, the Wonder Dog, not a senator. I'll have a vet look at him right after I hang up the phone," assured Billy. (No sense trying to be William with this guy.) "If we could just postpone our taping I think I can promise Ben'll be as good as new. It's probably just worms, or something like that," Billy lied.

"Who the fuck's Ben? Listen, scooze, you got the rest of the day. But have that fuckin' mutt ready for tomorrow night. We're gonna tape around you tonight. But, we're tapin' live tomorrow. Which is somethin' you and that dog could end up not bein', if you get my drift!" The connection was broken with a loud click.

Billy's mind raced. Thoughts, ideas, reasons, causes and solutions chased each other from corridor to corridor. What could it be? How had it happened? Why did Ben suddenly lose his powers of speech? It was there, somewhere just out of reach. Taunting and thumbing its nose at him. 'I'm looking right at it,' thought Billy, 'but I can't see it.' Then, a firecracker went off in his head and his scalp tightened. Of course, that had to be the answer, nothing else made sense! It was all going so well until this morning. Billy Sweet didn't pretend he knew how or why, but he knew he had the answer to what. As he lifted the phone receiver once more, he looked down at his sleeping partner and felt a jab of pain below the waist.

"I'm sorry, Ben, but it's the only way," he muttered. Then he dialed information for the address of the closest veterinarian.

Billy Sweet carried the slumbering body of Ben, a.k.a. Freud, the Wonder Dog, a.k.a. the sleeping psychic, out to the parking lot and laid him across the back seat of their new Jaguar. He got behind the wheel of the sedan and rechecked the address the vet's receptionist had given him over the phone. As he started the engine, he glanced back only once at his sleeping benefactor and thought, 'This is going to hurt me more that you, my friend.' Then he shrugged his shoulders and amended, 'Okay, maybe not.' Ninety minutes later, Ben came out of the anesthetic screaming bloody murder!

"Holeee sheeeit! My balls are killing me!"

Billy Sweet let out a whoop of joy. Ben could speak again. Then, quietly, calmly, he eased into his explanation.

Ben stared up into Billy's eyes with a mixture of disbelief and growing horror as the tale unfolded. And when the coup de gras was delivered, the dog cautiously peered down between his legs at the small, white, surgical tape and uttered a stream of invectives rarely heard this side of Hell...

"...and so you cut my balls off? You scum suckin' sonofabitch," finished Ben in total uncomprehending revulsion?

"It worked, didn't it? You got your voice back. Hey, come on. Don't overreact. It's a small enough price to pay for success," said Billy. "We're back in action again, aren't we? Okay, so, you don't get to play slap and tickle in the kennel anymore. So what? Come on, we got a big show to do tomorrow night." They went back to their hotel to rest, Billy driving very carefully in deference to Ben's unique condition. And Ben, with his snout resting on his paws, glaring fixedly at his partner from the back seat.

The next afternoon's rehearsal went without a hitch. William and Freud, the Wonder Dog, wowed everybody, as usual, and they were in top form for that night's taping. The fat singer shook Billy's hand and patted Ben's head when they were through with their spot. Then he told Billy that if he did as well during the taping, there would be many more specials to look forward to.

"But, I guess you already knew dat, what with bein' psychic and all, eh? Haw, haw! Eh? Dat's rich, kid, take some notes on how it's done in the Leagues. You an' da mutt are gonna thank me one day. Haw, haw!"

But Ben rankled under the touch of the gangster's manicured hand and swung his head up to look into Billy's face. Billy should have caught the ignominious glare behind the forming tears. But, he was too busy basking in glory.

It was a sold out house that night. The rich, the famous, the stars, the wannabes, the young and the beautiful and those who drew vicarious pleasure from pretending to be, were all present. Everyone was there to see the astounding William (no other name required, thank you, he's far too famous for that now) and Freud, the Wonder Dog, the sleeping psychic (and wouldn't you just love a pet like that?) help the old man make yet another comeback on television.

The air was electric. The atmosphere thick with excitement as heads turned from table to table whispering confirmation to one another that what they were about to see, was, indeed magic. Billy waited nervously backstage with Ben, for their introduction. As the floor show was winding down, Billy broke out in a sweat and his hands shook slightly. Ben looked up at him from licking his recent wound, and reassured Billy with a doggy grin.

"Relax, Billy boy, this is gonna be a cakewalk. Trust me, I'll take good care of you." Billy sighed and scratched behind his partner's ear.

There it was! They had been introduced and the house had fallen silent in anticipation. Then, the thunder of applause as William and Freud walked out into the spotlight. And a standing ovation as Freud bowed low in synchronization with William's formal bow. And the show was under way.

William, began, "Ladies and gentlemen, I present for your amazement and amusement, for your enlightenment and your edification, the one, the only, the uncanny canine, my friend and partner, Freud the Wonder Dog! Freud, say hello to these nice people."

Freud wagged his tail, sat up, waving with one paw, and said, "I haven't seen so many dogs since you rescued me from the city pound." And, of course, Freud's opening line drew a roar of warm appreciation from the audience and a burst of "I told you so's" from people happily nodding to doubting friends or relatives who simply couldn't believe their claims that William would positively make them believe his dog could talk.

The laughter and applause ebbed as the audience settled down to hang on every word spoken from the stage. Soundmen and cameramen gave the thumbs up signal to the assistant director, indicating they were getting it all without a glitch. The a/d turned to whisper something to the director and then he spoke in the old mobster's ear. The old man crossed his arms on his barrel chest and nodded contentedly, with his glistening eyes fixed on the performance before him.

William asked Freud, "My dear sir, would you be so kind as to make contact with the psychic realm, so that we may answer the questions of the ages for these good people?"

Freud answered, "What, and miss hounding all these beautiful girls? Don't be a sap! Why, every time one of these babes laughs, I can count the silicon jiggles." Again uproarious laughter.

William struck a dramatic pose, reminiscent of many stage hypnotists from the golden age of Vaudeville. "You are getting sleepy. Your eyes are growing heavy, heavy. Relax and listen only to my voice. Sleep, sleep...Sleep!"

Freud slowly crouched into a prone position, supine, with his muzzle on his paws and his eyes closed. The audience applauded in wonder at William's absolute control over the trained dog.

"And now," William began, "as you can see, Freud is completely under my spell. While he is in this mystic trance he will answer all of your burning questions of love, money or power, from both past and future. He will guess your innermost secrets, reveal your hidden desires and tell you if you're going to get lucky tonight. Either at the tables or in your rooms. (Laughter.) Ladies and gentlemen, I give you, the Great Freudini!"

Hundreds of hands shot up in the crowd, but the assistant director pointed one of the cameramen in the direction of a beautiful young girl, just begining to make a name for herself in the film industry. She was being touted as the new Shirley Temple of Hollywood; wholesome, honest and caring. In fact, rumor had it that she was working a deal to play the Virgin Mother in an upcoming biblical epic. She received the nod from William and stood to ask her question.

"Mr. William," she began, haltingly, blushing slightly at being the first in the spotlight.

"Please, my dear," admonished William, "address your question to Freud. He's the one with esp. I can't even spell it." (Laughter.)

"Alright. Freud, when will I finally make the movie that will force producers to take me seriously as an actress," she asked?

A thin, sharp, penetrating voice floated from the stage and across the audience. "I see the producers and directors of Tinsel town clamoring to sign you to six-figure contracts as soon as you stop auditioning on your back and start taking acting lessons," answered Freud, the Wonder Dog.

There was stunned silence for the space of three heartbeats. The crowd didn't know whether to take this as a joke or not. And if it was a joke, wasn't it in bad taste in this case? But, gradually, a few people tittered and these titters became chuckles and soon, relieved laughter rolled across the room. Even the young actress lost her shocked expression and smiled, innocently.

But, Billy Sweet was terrified. This was something new in the act.

As audience laughter subsided, the same thin voice announced, "This deal you got going for the mother? Ain't she supposed to be a virgin? If I was the director, I'd make an effort to find an actress that actually fit the part. As it is now, I can clearly see your virginity playing hopscotch with my testicles over there in the spirit world."

The intake of air from the collective gasp was enough to pop more than a few ears in the auditorium. The most astounded of which belonged to the old star of the show. He turned a bright red as he began shoving his way through protesting patrons to the front of the stage.

Billy Sweet (no longer William, poor dead, William) stage whispered, loudly enough for all to hear, "Jesus Christ, Ben! What the hell are you trying to do? This is not funny!" His knees became weak and rivulets of perspiration streamed down his sides, pasting his shirt to his suddenly weary body.

Ben (once Freud, the Wonder Dog) replied, in the same loud and familiar stage voice, "I am bound to impart what comes to me from beyond."

"Oh, shit," whimpered Billy Sweet. "Please stop, Ben?"

"I see deep into the distant past," intoned Ben's thin, reedy, spirit voice. "There is a man who fell from grace with his public. I see him in a fieldstone mansion on the east coast. Maybe New Jersey. He is surrounded by dark men in badly cut pinstripe suits and fedora hats. He is thanking his, wait! It's his godfather. He is thanking his godfather for pulling his career out of the toilet. Oooo, this guy has done some nasty, things, in his life..."

The old singer's red face turned purple with the recognition of what was happening. "The fuckin' mutt's talkin' about me," he grumbled loudly. "Mutt nothin'," he suddenly bellowed! "It's that wiseass punk, Sweet. That dead punk, Sweet."

The old mobster continued pushing his way though the crowd and slapped a deadly stare on Billy, who sagged, trembling in the spotlight while Ben lay, apparently asleep, at his feet. Billy tried desperately to mime that he had nothing to do with what the dog had said, but even if the fuming, aging, gangster understood the convulsive body language, was he going to believe that the dog actually said those things itself?

It was then that Billy Sweet acutely felt how tightly Ben had trapped him in the vice. William, stupid William, was the ventriloquist, Freud, the Wonder Dog, was merely that, a dog. Billy cast his eyes imploringly into Ben's and saw the dog wink back up at him and produce a canine grin.

"Why are you doing this to me, Ben," he asked, throat constricting, ears pounding from the dull silence drifting through the big room?

"You let them cut me up, Billy boy."

"But, that was for your. . ."

"It was for your own good, sonny jim," hissed the dog. "And now you'd better keep a tight grip on your own gonads, because from the look of your boss, over there, I'd bet he puts the odds of your singin' soprano at least a hundred percent."

Billy watched in horror as Mr. C made repeated slashing gestures across his throat, pointing directly to the stage; then stormed out of the auditorium waving his hands madly around his head.

Then Billy Sweet sank to his knees beside his former partner and pleaded, "Ben, you said this was gonna be a cakewalk. You said you'd take care of me. I'm a dead man, Ben. You lied. Is this the way you take care of me?"

The dog, feigning perfect innocence, calmly rose to all fours, yawned wide, lapped its tongue three times and stretched luxuriously. Then it shook off any unnecessary guilt, as a normal animal shakes off drops of water from a summer pool, and met Billy Sweet's frightened gaze with an air of total detachment.

Then it faced the audience, barked twice, wagged its tail then jumped down and melted into the crowd.

The End