11: The other way around
In Part 1, Mel
lost his motel in a poker game; he met a man who claimed to be an
alien in Part 2; in
Part 3 he found himself
in alien surroundings; Mel befriended some strange beings looking
for barroom trouble in Part
4; Part 5 seemingly
found Mel back on earth, face to face with a green-sweatshirted
man who otherwise looked exactly like himself; in Part
6 Mel discovered the parallel world of Stumptown; in Part
7 he happened upon Frank Burley, the man he needed to find;
in Part 8 Frank ran
headlong into some gunfire in the streets of Stumptown; in Part
9 Mel and Frank ended up in the dark, and not without a few
sticky problems; and in Part
10, Mel found himself back on his own and ready for answers
Part 11: The other way around
The town square beckoned, though its occupant did not.
Mel approached Doubting Tom anyway. The old man stood in the exact
center of the square, beneath a tall lamppost. The square was a
common feature in all the weird versions of his own hometown that
Mel had visited. It was a large space, surrounded at three compass
points by rising steps of red brick. This square, belonging to the
altered city of Portland, was the cleanest yet.
Mel couldn't shake the feeling, though, that he was being watched
from beyond the light of the square's lamps. Of course, if he were
going to wait in an exposed area like that, he would have snipers
out of sight, too.
Mel waved a hand to hail Doubting Tom, who returned the greeting.
Then Mel hopped over a short slope of brick steps, and walked the
Doubting Tom, also known as Didymus, stood ramrod-straight with
a look of intense displeasure on his face. He was a skinny man who
looked to be a well-preserved 70, wearing an expensive business
suit and holding a battered cane. Mel rubbed the top of his head,
which still bore a lump from the cane and its owner's "hands-on"
approach to enlightenment.
Displeasure or not, Mel was relieved to see the old coot. He was
something of a guardian angel, Mel thought, though he parceled out
answers like so many scarce breadcrumbs.
"Yo there, Didymus!" Mel called. His words echoed in
"Mel, what are you doing here? Do you understand how dangerous
it is for you to exist in this place? I sent you to Frank to ensure
you were sent home."
"Let me fill you in," replied Mel. "Frank Burley
is dead. He got offed by Dracula, after my evil twin ambushed us
in this hellhole." Mel gestured vaguely around him to indicate
Portland. "Speaking of which, I get the feeling somebody is
one step ahead of me all the time. Why is a vampire after me, anyway?"
"There are many, shall we say, 'powers-that-be,' who take
interest in your progress. They wish you to get where you are going
safely, but they may not care how bumpy the ride is. Do you understand
what I mean?"
"Sure," Mel smirked. "It means I'll get dragged
through hell and my friends get slaughtered, but it's all for the
greater good. You guys need to get some things straight. The chain
of command isn't all that clear. Are you my guardian angel, or is
Count Chocula? Besides, I thought you reported straight to the man
Up There. Can't you pull rank?"
"Neither of us are angels. The beings who are the great powers
in this universe were once mortal. I was a man in ancient Israel,
until a divine debt placed high in the Almighty's notice. Vlad Dracula
was also a man, in 15th Century Romania. He was a cruel, brilliant
ruler, whose iron will and mastery of dark sorcery allowed him to
cheat death. He has been accumulating power and knowledge for 500
years, and is unmatched in those departments. Although ..."
and here Didymus sniffed haughtily, "I fear he is a trifle
unbalanced. His motives are hard to guess."
"Which one of you two would win a straight-up fistfight? Huh?"
Mel's words had the desired effect. Didymus turned red and changed
"Your next step will be to attempt a return, again. Where
is your counterpart?"
and his fruity green sweatshirt got away."
when you spoke with Vlad Dracula, did he give
you anything?" Didymus conspicuously eyed the carved wooden
box under Mel's arm.
"Just this," Mel said, opening it.
The box contained a welcome sight: the Buck Rogers zapper. Mel
could see that Smith had modified it. Parts of the handle were cracked
to accommodate extra wires and circuit thingys.
Still, Mel thought, it might be my ticket home.
He showed the zapper to Didymus, who nodded. He continued with
his inventory of the box. There was a book marked EPHEMERIS. It
contained lists of numbers that were totally incomprehensible. Between
pages 252 and 253 was an odd bookmark. It was a Polaroid photo.
The subject was Smith, who was impaled on what appeared to be a
flagpole. Mel winced; the wracked corpse, whose last moments were
surely filled with agony, had the face he saw in the mirror every
The rest of the picture was sort of blurry, and Mel was about to
put it away when Doubting Tom reached out and steadied the photo
in Mel's shaking hand. The blurry area resolved into a smiling Vlad
Tepes giving a thumbs-up to the camera. On his hand was the gold
"The device is essential now. Vlad Tepes has given you the
means to use it as well," Didymus said, pointing to the EPHEMERIS.
"What are those numbers? I hate math, you know."
"They are astronomical data. Normally they would only be of
use to your local paper's astrologer, though in medieval times a
wizard would use them. In this case, I think you will require the
services of a talented astrophysicist also knowledgeable in folklore
and the occult."
"Fucking-A, excuse me?" Mel unintentionally spit. "Let
me guess, Frank Burley is a rocket scientist in this world. I don't
want to get him killed again, you know."
Didymus did not reply, only blinked and looked over Mel's shoulder.
At the far end of the square was the coffee shop Mel had visited
after he first lost his Gotel in the poker game. A nice girl had
given him coffee and hope, and sure enough she was standing at the
door of the darkened shop, fumbling with a key ring. A little taller,
hair a little redder, but definitely the same girl. Mel watched
as she opened the door and disappeared inside.
"Which one of you is yanking my strings now?"
"No one," Didymus said. "The Almighty is not arranging
things to send you where you need to go; you are. Fate is not twisting
you to its ends, but the other way around. My task, and I suspect
Vlad Dracula's is the same, is to point these opportunities out
to you. Now go." Didymus placed the EPHEMERIS in Mel's free
hand and then closed the box.
Mel couldn't say anything; he just walked toward the coffee shop.
Some lights were on now, and as he entered the shop he could see
that the girl was busy preparing for a new day of joe-slinging.
He approached her.
"We're not open yet ... say, you look familiar." She
smiled. "How can I help you?"
"You look familiar yourself. My name's Mel. Can I buy you
a cup of cof ..."
Mel cut himself off as he watched her pour a 20-pound bag of roasted
beans into an enormous grinder. "Jesus, how stupid. Look, are
you a talented astrophysicist with a background in folklore and
Her jaw dropped.
"How did you know that?"
"Does this mean anything to you?" Mel proffered the EPHEMERIS.
She took it and her jaw dropped even further. "Where did you
get this? I, uh ..." she smiled again. "You can buy me
a cup of coffee if you want
Mel smiled too, and did just that.