Crapshoot Universe

Crapshoot Universe ME McMullenMy name’s Otis Bederaufski. They call me Otie.

I’ll tell you up front that a few names have been changed here to cover the posteriors of the semi-innocent, who are fewer in number than you’d expect. Locations are left in tact for the sake of truth. I’m sitting down here in Mexico City waiting for a cool down. It seems that I’m a person of interest with regard to some big explosion out in the high desert somewhere. When I get some paperwork together, I plan to return to the states. How I came to be hanging out in this no tell motel with half the cops in Mexico looking for me is a tale beginning with an off-hand remark on a TV football broadcast a long, long time ago.

From this point on, by the way, I intend to refer to myself in the third person, like this all happened to somebody else. This will lend not only an air of frankness and detachment, but a measure of deniability as well.

***

When the football color guy, Alex, said that one particularly ferocious looking player, with a shaved head, an ear ring and a movie villain’s black goatee, `once played for the University of Mars’, a vision popped into Otis Bederaufski’s head; of blood red University of Mars t-shirts, yellow Venus College shirts with a classic bare-breasted Venus de Milo overlay, and shirts of black on blue, for Uppa Uranus U.

Everybody loved the concept.

Otis’s own internal sense of self indicated that his was the soul of a poet, but he’d given this entrepreneurial trip a shot anyway. Later, putting it behind in ‘purge therapy’ with a symbolic declaration of moral bankruptcy in a wry little ceremony in the third floor lounge, Otis was made aware of something very odd. Under one set of derivative reality models, the leftovers of Otis’s marketing empire, forty six dozen ‘planetary t-shirts’, were donated to poor churches in greater Durango, Mexico, an event documented on local TV and attended by more back-slapping self-congratulation than had been seen in the region for years. In another version of the `t-shirt sequence’, as Dr. Muck’s people were calling it, all forty six dozen shirts, along with all the original art work, were lost in a suspicious fire, leaving no record they ever existed.

***

In therapy with Muck’s associate, Dr. Tiffany Morse, Otis wondered aloud how the same t-shirts could have suffered two such disparate fates. “T-shirts are matter, as I understand it,” Otis said, “and can’t be in more than one place at one time, can they? If they were given away to the poor, how could they have burned up in a fire?”

“Muck’s magnetron equipment,” Dr. Morse said, “as I understand it, enables the splitting of derivative reality models in cyberspace, although how this is accomplished in `real time’ I’m not quite, —“

Dr. Morse was the best clinician in the Desert Institute of the Mental Sciences (DIMS). She may have been overweight and cavalierly overbearing, but in Otis’s book, Morse was okay. These others, Muck and his crowd, were reclusive and secretive. Morse was a clinician. “They may think they’re smart with their little experiments,” she told Otis, “but it was a real bad idea, trust me, to stick you in a marketplace scenario, Otie, where morality has virtually no weight.”

“Morality?”

“Muck is guided by `natural morality’,” Morse said, “a system which he views as constituting the common thread by which these various universes of mind are linked, including yours.”

Natural morality?” Otis smiled. “Never heard of it.”

“Neither has anybody else,” she said. “It’s not ‘morality’ in the traditional sense, believe me. It’s a method of breaking down reality into two antecedent parts, as with the t-shirt experiment.”

“That University of Mars t-shirt stuff came from something I heard on TV,” Otis said.

“We know, Otie.” Dr. Morse maneuvered her huge frame around the desk and faced Otis eye to eye. “It’s hard to make the connections around here, Otie, with so much of your memory gone, but manufacturing the t-shirts was not your idea. Psychotropic drug therapy unlocked a torrent of images. We turned you loose on the computer in my back office. You said you had no knack for merchandizing, and, left to your own devices, produced weird poetry and jingles.”

Morse showed Otis a memo issued by Muck: “To all C Ward Personnel (DIMS)”, it began, “our studies have led us to conclude that the all too common elements of degradation, corruption and depression can be traced more quickly to poetry than any other form of expression. Byron, Shelly, Poe, Frost, Whitman, Ginsburg, Dickinson, Will Shakespeare; —these were a pack of parasites and addicts, social pariahs, misfits, egoists and degenerates. It’s a wonder their verse, for its wantonness, false pride and profligacy, has managed to endure. Immoral and amoral elements thrive, it seems, while the natural morality of choice may very well require cultivation to endure. We are ordered, notwithstanding, to engage our patient’s poetic tendencies. Some suspect it will lead us to a better understanding of his dark power to experience the future through precognitive dreams and visions.”

Otis liked Morse’s bluntness.

She curled her fat lips around a jelly doughnut, took a swig of coffee and gave him an enormous grin. “Dr, Muck’s pathological hatred of poets and poetry has worked against him,” she said. “Start polishing up your couplets and metaphors, Otis. TAG has embraced this poetry business in spite of Muck’s protests. TAG thinks he’s lost his objectivity. He’s to cooperate in the syndication of your work, Otie, as part of an attempt to spread the curative powers of your great gift.”

“What great gift?”

“Don’t be modest,” she said.

“My poetry?”

“Hardly,” Morse said. “You are a pioneer, Otie, a great inter-universal explorer. You are the very first to move between the seams of existence, to experience the future and wax poetic about it.”

***

Otis wasn’t sure if he followed that, but he was pleased to learn that TAG had a curative plan. His poems would be published as `translations’. Pen names would be used to protect the institute’s anonymity. Otis’s verse, it seemed, had what official memos were calling `mysterious curative powers’.

It seemed far fetched to him, but Otis’s cheerless chronicle of a suicide watch in the gray mid-winter regions of northern Sweden, a place famous for cases of chronic light deprivation, was especially favored. A short poem called, Eat Death and Die was the first one used from this loose collection. Authorship was attributed to Sven Bjornson, translated from the Swedish by O. Bederaufski. It was spread over world wide radio and the internet, and soon became a mantra to the abatement of suffering, striking a resonant chord with a vast network of troubled patients around the globe. This power to touch others with a few simple syllables was not easily explained, but mail for O. Bederaufski poured in to the radio station in Durango all the same. Who was this hombre? What secrets of the human soul were revealed in his dark poetic translations? How had he managed to capture, with so few words, the imaginations of so many?

The world was at Otis’s door. They wanted to sell Otis land in Florida. They wanted him to read to their poetry clubs, transfer credit balances, refinance his home and donate to a numbing variety of worthy causes. They wanted more of his soothing translations. It was not yet widely known that the reclusive Florentine poet, Sandino Pilagio, or Sven Bjornson, the brooding Swede, weren’t to be located in their respective countries. If the world wanted to meet them face to face or hear them read in the original Swedish or Italian, all Otis could say on the subject was Good Luck. Copies of the non-disclosure and anonymity agreements prohibiting such revelations were on display in the lobby.

At night, Otis dreamed of a large electrified fence near Riley Road, where he rode his bike as a kid. Snippy little smart ass Vickie was there beside the fence with him, whispering in his dreams that it must surely be crowded inside Otis’s brain, what with so many oddball personalities jammed in there. Otis confronted her.

“Have you been feeding me auto suggestions that I have a multiple personality disorder?” Otis asked, less offended than bemused.

Vickie sneered. “What do you call Sandino Pilagio and Sven Bjornson?”

“Pen names,” Otis said. “What do you call them?”

She smiled enigmatically. “Alter ego sinners,” she said.

“If Sandino and Sven are sinners,” Otis said, “what’s that make me?”

“Dr. Muck thinks you’re Devil as Poet,” she said, “but I know better. You are innocence itself, Otis. Yours is a memory wiped clean of guilty knowledge.”

They could call it ‘multiple personalities’ if they wanted. One personality in multiple settings was more like it. If Vickie’s smug little grin was any indication, she was pleased that Otis saw through Muck’s subtle ruse about the ‘multiple personalities’. Muck was spending a ton of company money on this inter-universal research project. Somebody somewhere was watching very carefully.

Uncle Toke, Otis’s new handler, had a two karat emerald in his front tooth and a tattoo of a green Mamba snake on his neck. A criminal impresario from the slums of TJ, Toke was lying low due to an unfortunate misunderstanding with some TJ drug lords, the Benito Brothers, over a car bomb. Toke looked ludicrously out of place in a starched, white lab smock, but no one besides Otis seemed to notice. “One of Pedro Benito’s cars blew up,” he told Otis, “and they think I was behind it.”

Uncle Toke was part of a ruthless organized crime organization in Tijuana, Mexico, but had irons in fires everywhere. When word of Otis’s poetical radio ruminations reached Toke’s superiors, they flew him straight down to the DIMS strip in the desert to have a little look-see at this new phenomenon. Several rogue governments were interested. If there was somebody out there able to comfort and heal mentally ill people over the radio, they wanted to know what else the guy could do.

With a nullified past and a nose in the future,” Muck had written in a confidential memo, “our subject, Otis Bederaufski, is the essential natural existentialist, living entirely in the moment, disconnected from events more than a few hours away in either temporal direction. We think the natural morality thus established has played a large part in enhancing Otis’s innate precognitive powers.

`Natural’ morality, Otis could see, by the queasy look on Toke’s face, was not a subject his handler was comfortable discussing. “Muck’s ‘natural morality’ is the internal mechanism that defines the unfolding of any given set of experiences,” Toke said in his nasal TJ accent. “If you hadn’t met your amiga, Sandy, for example, none of the experiences derived from that encounter could have happened, including your enrollment here, if Muck is correct.”

“Sandy?”

“Do you remember Sandy?”

Otis didn’t need to think about it, but he did anyway, watching Toke’s leathered old face for a clue as to where this was headed. “Sandy was skinny, with blond hair,” Otis said. “She was walking her beagle. A nice person on her way to California. She’d gone a hundred miles out of her way to visit the ADC.”

“What’s the ADC?”

Otis looked into Uncle Toke’s brown eyes. “Did you?” he said, changing the subject back to what interested him.

“Did I what?”

“Did you order the hit on Pedro Benito?”

“He’d be dead, if I did,” Toke said, “not threatening me all over TJ.”

Curly threw up his hands. “This is all past,” he said gruffly. “Not a word of the Sandy cascade is in the moment.”

“Back off, Curly,” Uncle Toke said. “Give the boy a little room here.”

Otis remained cheerful in the face of this good cop, bad cop routine. The ‘Sandy cascade’, he knew from hearing talk, consisted of all events along Otis’s timeline occurring after he met Sandy and visited the ADC with her.

“This ADC,” Toke said, “you actually saw it?”

“Oh, yes,” Otis said, smiling at this sudden intensity of interest on Toke’s part.

“And, —?”

“And nothing,” Otis said, shrugging. “It was nothing.”

“Nothing?” A look passed across their faces, despair mixed with anger, fear and disappointment.

“Unless you call a bare spot in the middle of a grass field something,” Otis said, sorry he brought it up. “The ADC was a big nothing, believe me.”

“I believe you,” Uncle Toke said, searching Otis’s eyes to see if he was lying.

***

Snug inside a canopy of summer stars, Otis and Sandy had huddled together, gabbing like washerwomen. They’d sipped vodka and Squirt, smoked some of Sandy’s homegrown bud. They sang camp songs and recited scraps of poetry. They watched smoke and sparks from the fire go swirling up into the pines above their heads. They each read unspoken understandings in the other’s eyes. Together, they lamented a lifetime sting of failing French and being cut from the baseball team. Later, inside a blanket, a mood came on with the chill, and the night gave in to salty, spasmodic passion.

At dawn, Otis lay alone beneath the long needle pines, his body stiff and wet, his shirt soaked by a gentle rain. Sandy was gone. Lying still, beaten down by the thought that Sandy and the ADC were just two more disappointments, he read the note. ‘If there’s no hidden twin in Nature’s scheme,’ it said, ‘no indigenous duality of future to protect us from the singular past; if there are no devils or angels, and there is only the here and now, then, this tedious life is nothing after all, and all of us put together are nothing after all.’

“Cheered me right up,” Otis recalled, “to think there was a kindred soul out there, who could sense the nothingness and see our culture as microbes on a doorknob.”

A new, cutting edge psychotropic drug, Vitupera, had been introduced into Otis’s daily regimen around the time of the full moon. Impressions were soon gushing out of Otis like black crude in a wildcatter’s dream. With all the countless nights of his youth to choose from, Otis had retreated to a single summer night camping in the woods, with Sandy’s tiny black and white, battery-operated TV his only touch with the world. His spine tingled with fear when his awareness was suddenly thrust into the midst of the `B-29 raid on Tokyo’ movie. “We were weary flyboys running on fumes,” Otis recalled to Dr. Morse, “skimming over the dark ocean somewhere east of Burma. Getting back to Chang Chow to rejoin our outfit was going to be tough. The Nips shot prisoners.”

Wrapped inside the confines of his memory chair, Otis moves effortlessly along a dark jungle trail, ducking below palm fronds, pausing dead still to listen. The night air is rank and close. His nostrils are filled with the sweet after-aroma of burnt offerings to the Great God Ganj. “One minute, I’m in the jungle, ducking patrols,” he recalled. “Next minute, I’m in my memory chair burning reefer with a bunch of reprobates.”

“Have you ever thought of escape?”

“Escape?”

The thought leaves Otis beneath a blue evening sky streaked with salmon pink. He is reading aloud from one of his early stabs at poetic order, from what would later become Sven Bjornson’s stark, Arctic low light style. Sandy squints and sets her jaw, nodding and smiling. “I went on the road after Grandpa died,” she says, “sleeping on the cold ground of contradiction. Dark verse is right up my alley.”

Otis saw the first of his personally observed universal truths that very day. Escape, he realized, transcended context and was among the most elusive of universal concepts. Sandy couldn’t escape the death of her grandfather, no matter how far or fast she ran.

“You could’ve knocked me over with a moonbeam,” Otis recalled. “To think that my stumbling verse had found such resonance in the souls of others. To think that there were such people in the world as could wax tearful over the evocation of a single, soulful syllable of my doing.”

A sudden reversal put him into a new realm of despair.

Held captive without hope in a filthy, rat-infested jungle hellhole by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Occupational Forces working in conjunction with a full bore Vituperan nightmare in his frontal lobe, Otis lay awake, haunted by a vision more terrible than anyone could imagine, of the young village girl who tried to help him escape. He didn’t know her name. The bastards shot her down. Afterward, he scrawled words for her on the dirt floor of his cell because he had no paper or pen.

 

Eat death and die, maiden / Eat from the earth /

Drink from the sky / Drink from the spring / Sing of blue death,

Eat death and die, maiden / Eat death and die.

 

“A psychotropic reaction put you in a WWII prison camp,” Morse explained later, “a scenario adopted from a movie you saw. You keep reliving the events in your psychotic nightmare-dreams, which had earlier placed you at the absolute dead center (ADC) of the universe, which you found to be a big disappointment, with not even a marker.”

***

Uncle Toke’s emerald tooth flashed bright green in Otis’s eyes as the old man grinned. “Lately, an ominous silence out of Tijuana Granulated Sugar Co. suggests something’s in the works, Otis. Perhaps they’re considering pulling the plug on this project.”

“What does granulated sugar have to do with, —?”

“Works out to TAG in Spanish, Tijuana Azucar Granulado.”

“Ah, —” Otis smiled at the diabolical simplicity of the sugar company cover.

“Someone at TAG suspects that this Swedish death poem business, the Italian passion poetry, is part of a Muck double cross involving encoded revisions of commodity market predictions being sold to a high bidder among rogue states.”

Predictions?”

Otis could picture diminutive Dr. Muck saying that very word, standing in the doorway of Otis’s room, rocking back and forth like a boxer, telling Otis that he shouldn’t be concerned with what uses were made of his ‘predictions’ after he’d revealed them. Muck’s inflection made the word sound dirty.

“Data updates on market fluctuations, unexpected climate changes, political upheavals, pest containment success, crop yields,” Toke said, “there’s a long list of encoded values. TAG doesn’t trust Muck, or Morse, or any of us down here. They especially don’t trust you, Otis. TAG thinks we’re conspiring to cut them out of their due. Company money is being spent hand over fist down here. It just may be that the company’s decided to by-pass TAG altogether, recoup some of their losses directly by snatching the data, or even, God Forbid, the source, Otis.”

“I see groups of grim-faced people in khaki suits seizing computers and arresting everyone,” Otis said, wishing he had a prop crystal ball to complete his scene. “This is the visible half of a hidden duality. The other half is obscured.”

“They could arrange a raid,” Toke said, “but, I doubt they will. Raids and mass liquidations leave too many loose ends. They prefer explosions and fires for cleaning up these terminated projects. No paperwork lying around. The official falderal is controllable. Witnesses are all dead. Very tidy.”

“I see a mob of students protesting outside the electrified fence,” Otis said soberly. “Some sport the bright yellow of Venus U., some, the blood red of the U. of Mars. The loudest and craziest sport the black and blue of Upper Uranus U. Their frenzy comes from horrific stories of the ghastly, inhuman experiments going on down here at DIMS in the Mexican desert.”

“The Winnipeg Grain Market,” Toke said, “recently suspended TAG’s trading licenses and ordered them out of the country. Muck’s flipped, started blogging various influential journals, lashing out against subversive poets and their abominable schemes, calling them `enablers of Satan’.”

***

After dinner, Otis went back to the memory chair for some follow up meditation. It wasn’t long before snippy little Vickie came by in her little white smock, her face showing concern. “Things are going to Hell in a hurry,” she said.

“Other than being stuck in a rogue institution in a remote region of a foreign land,” Otis said, “I’d say we were doing okay. You especially, Vickie. You’re a well-paid tech here, working with a poetic lab rat behind twelve foot high electrified fences.”

“Actually, it’s worse,” Vickie said. “You’re a poet in a time when poets are vilified as parasites. As Sandino Pilagio, you wrote a love poem to your mistress: `In the soft caresses of blue half hue / She undresses / Part to the fire, part to the blue / That her sire might know only half, until all falls due.’ Do you remember that?”

“My mistress?”

“Women adore you, Otis. They throw themselves at you. Beautiful women. Italian countesses flirt with you at baccarat tables. You’ve mingled with the elite, indulged in conspicuous excess at every turn.” She smiled and shook her head. “You don’t remember any of that, do you?”

Otis shook his head glumly.

“You do remember Sandy, the girl who took you to, —“

“The ADC, yes, —the absolute dead center of the universe.”

“Which turned out to be nothing spectacular, right, —except that because of Sandy’s little black and white, battery-operated TV, you later experienced boils and dysentery from the prison camp experience in your mind. Muck’s magnetic machines and Lady Vitupera were factors, of course. Muck made some stupid decisions, Otis. Eons were lost.”

“Eons?” Otis wasn’t sure how long an eon was.

“I might as well tell you. TAG remains dubious about your friend, Sandy.”

“Dubious?” In the half second it took the word to roll off his tongue, Otis stopped to wonder how much snippy little Vickie knew about TAG, not bothering to ask lest he tempt her to lie.

“Questions about Sandy’s actual existence,” she said.

“What questions?” Otis felt resentment welling up inside, that these people would even know about Sandy.

“Why was Sandy’s note in your handwriting?”

“I’ve always assumed it was dictated in the dark,” Otis said, having considered this before, “with only one flashlight between us. Seems a rather harsh tactic on your part, denigrating one of the few personal memories I retain from the past.”

“Dictating a farewell note to the person it’s intended for?” Vickie said. “That rather defeats the purpose, wouldn’t you say? It’s more likely that you wrote it, Otis, and fabricated Sandy and the ensuing impression cascade that followed, a case of the poet falling in love with his own words, as it were, the worst thing a poet can do.”

“How would you know?”

“I‘m a poet myself,” she said. “It’s not something I’m proud of, but, —“

“You sound like Muck. Is Muck listening in on this, Vickie? Is that what’s going on?”

“How did it feel to stand at the center of the universe with the girl of your nihilistic dreams, Otis? Did you feel like the ultimate sinner?”

“Sandy saw the emptiness inside,” Otis said, “and the disappointment. She saw that I’d expected more. Turns out, of course, that the ADC, like sin, is everywhere.”

“Only this dubious memory of Sandy? Not one recollection of your many conquests? What a tragedy, Otis. To have sinned so magnificently, wallowed so unapologetically in such splendid decadence, yet, kept not a single memory of any of it.”

“If there is no memory, can there be sin?”

“It’s unforgivable, Otis, that you would forget your beloved mistress, whose naked skin in the pale moonlight inspired you to such heights of poetic allusion.”

“What beloved mistress?”

“Me, you bastard,” Vickie said. She was smiling, but Otis could see the pain in her eyes. “Your only friend in the world, Otis, and you don’t remember any of it?”

“What about Toke and Curly? Aren’t they my friends?”

“Under orders to take you out the minute it looks like you could fall into the wrong hands. They are not your friends, Otis.”

“What wrong hands? What am I, a canister of poison gas?”

Snippy little Vickie took Otis gently by the arm. “Come with me,” she said. Her eyes were a bubbling brew of conflicting emotional states. Some love, perhaps, but plenty of greed, envy and deceitfulness. “There’s a way to get outside without setting anything off,” she said.

“Outside?”

Going outside had never occurred to Otis. Apart from dreams of Sandy and Riley Road, he felt like he’d always been on Ward C. The thought of going outside intrigued him. He followed Vickie through a security door and into a part of the facility he’d never seen before, his mind reeling before the new impressions now flying at him. They moved slowly through a dim storage area, full of new smells and shapes, feeling their way along slowly. Vickie entered a code on a keypad and there was a metallic snap. A shaft of sunlight pierced through an open door. They were outside. A warm, dry breeze blew in Otis’s face. He was feeling more alive, more exhilarated than he could ever have imagined anyone could feel.

Straight ahead, a shining metal vision loomed; symbol and reality merged into one terrifying obstacle, the electrified fence of his precognitive visions and prophetic dreams. He’d heard them speak of the fence. He knew that beyond it was an open stretch of rough country glowing for as far as the eye could see in the soft violet haze of the desert twilight. Snippy little Vickie led him down a road that ran along the fence. She stopped beside a small wash, where she began pulling aside layers of dirt and dry grass. Soon, her digging revealed an opening where one could slip through without risking electrocution.

Vickie slid under. Otis followed. The dark, windowless buildings of DIMS loomed large on the other side like canyon walls. She started down a service road that ran along the fence toward the back of the DIMS grounds, motioning for Otis to follow. They’d walked for several minutes when there was a sudden and horrific blast behind them. Half a second later, a shock wave knocked them down. By the time Otis got to his feet, flames were leaping a hundred feet into the sky, sending sparks and huge clouds of dark smoke rising off the far side of the DIMS facility.

Otis guessed the fence was no longer electrified, which meant Vickie may not have known the explosion was coming, making the timing of their little break a totally fortuitous thing, which tended to support Dr. Muck’s crapshoot probability theory concerning the nature of unfolding universal reality.

“We are alive because of ‘dumb luck’,” Otis called out. As he followed her, it dawned on Otis that this whole ADC business was really the universe’s little joke. To each observer in the universe, it appeared as if he was at the very center, and that the `center’ followed him where ever he went. “The center is everywhere,” he called out in triumph to Vickie, walking ahead.

“What’s that?”

“Muck’s right about one thing,” Otis said. “This existence is a crapshoot, start to finish. Your poets, your doctors of religion and philosophy, anybody making anything else of it, are way off base. If it makes them feel better, fine, but they’re way off base.”

She’d slowed to wait for Otis, but the noise level was high, and the horrific smoke and burning sky behind them were a horrific distraction. At least six sirens were screaming out from as many directions. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get a word of that, Otis,” Vickie said.

“No matter,” Otis said, smiling.

They had come to a place where the fence ran away at a right angle. They stood together at the edge of a steep-sided ravine that Otis thought had ‘set-up’ written all over it. Without thinking twice, he gave Vickie a little nudge, and she went stumbling forward over the edge, tumbling end over end down the steep-sided ravine. Otis was sorry, but he was pretty certain, by the way she was maneuvering around, that she was about to do it to him. He was also pretty certain there were some wrong hands waiting at the bottom, ready to truss him up and tote him and his predictions off to some rogue state. He’d seen their evil faces in some of his precognitive dreams.

Otis took off walking briskly in the opposite direction.

After several minutes, he turned down a familiar-looking path up the hill. Behind him, the inferno raged, still throwing flames and great belches of black smoke into the sky. On the other side of the hill was a service road where a black limo sat waiting in the shadows, just as Otis had pictured in a precognitive vision. He tapped on the passenger side, startling the driver, who rolled the window down enough to see his face, and gave a most suspicious look. “You’re not Vickie James.”

“James Vickie,” Otis said, opening the door. “You have something for me.”

The driver handed Otis something he’d envisioned before, a pouch, stuffed with cash, Vickie’s payoff for putting Otis in the wrong hands. “Little change in plans,” Otis said, piling in the back. “Take off south, I’ll fill you in.”

The driver drove off, not knowing where they were going, or whether Otis really did have a 9 mm sitting on his left rib, as his passenger’s constant touching there might have indicated. Otis could see the flames in the rear view mirror. The screaming of sirens continued unabated. “What’s your name?” he said, after they’d driven in silence for several minutes.

“Roberto Morales.”

“Can we by-pass Durango altogether, Roberto? Run straight south to Mexico City? I’ll make it worth your while.”

“Sure.”

“And let’s stay off the radio, huh?”

“No problem. Did you, —?”

“Set that explosion and fire? No. I got out about ten minutes before it went off.”

“Lucky you.”

“Yeah,” Otis said. “Lucky me.”

————————

M.E. McMullen’s stories have been cited as distinguished fiction by both the Pushcart and the Hugo awards committees. Amazing Stories, 1983: for `Gandy Plays the Palace’; The New Renaissance 2004: for ‘Gladys Simeon’. He has long since squandered the huge cash awards that went with these honors.