This story originally published in Quantum Muse

Sure Thing

by C.W.Smoke

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You know, I keep asking myself the same question -- over and over. What is important? Yeah, whathehell really is important now? And the answer that keeps comin' up in spades is nothin'. That's right. Nothin' is important -- not anymore.

Last week it would've been Gloria. She was my answer. She was always my answer. Yeah, that's right, just a dame, but I loved her. God how I loved her. But that was before I made the bet with Benny the Rooster.

I never would've done it if it wasn't a one hundred percent sure thing. I never gamble. Never. I always play the odds. Besides, I had the clicker. How could I lose?

Look, you've got to understand one thing. Benny grated -- like chalk on a blackboard -- like sandpaper on your mother's good dining room table. He rubbed me wrong, struttin' in like that -- like a fat little peacock -- like he owned the joint. And he had that stare -- like he was lookin' right thru me -- like I was nothin' -- like I wasn't even there. I got so mad. Even without the clicker I would've made the bet -- just so he would have to eat that stare, plus a whole lot of crow, topped off with a bite from my knuckle sandwich when he lost. You know the type. You can't stand that he's breathin' the same air as you; the planet isn't big enough for both of you. You get my drift. That's Benny.

I should've known it was an act -- just the right touch to get the suckers in line, but it didn't matter. I had the clicker. I had a sure thing.

Oh, didn't I explain about that? I call it a clicker, but according to the manual, it's a temporal integrator -- a Mach Four Turbojet Model. God only knows where it came from originally.

Look, about nine months ago I had a temporary setback. Hey, everybody has a rough spot sometime, and this was mine. I was scroungin' garbage, lookin' for metal to sell when I came across this gizmo in the trash bin behind Eddie Wong's World of Electronics. It looked like a hand-held calculator with a tiny typewriter keyboard, LCD screen, and a cord with a computer plug hangin' off it. The whole thing was wrapped inside the instruction manual, held together with a fat rubberband around it.

I pulled off the rubberband and tried to take the gizmo apart to get at the guts. That's when I discovered the thing was one piece. No screws. No seams. Solid, one piece construction.

I tried smashing it -- not a scratch -- not even a ding. That's when I noticed the instruction book. The cover jumped out and grabbed my attention. 'Tired of Losing?' it asked. 'Need an Edge?' it pitched.

Did I say grabbed my attention? I should've said, 'Reached-Out-and-Yanked-Me-By-The-Shorts' with capital letters. The reason I was down on my luck was that last betting streak. I sure could've used an extra edge there. Even with the odds stacked in my favor, it wasn't enough. And voila! Here I am, lookin' over my shoulder and pickin' thru Eddie Wong's garbage.

Let's just say that my obligations were considerable, and I was at Eddie's trash bin as much to stay off the beaten path as for the chump change. I was just layin' low till my luck changed. You know how it is.

Well, since I couldn't break the gizmo, I figured it was Fate. If a square peg don't fit in a round hole, never force it -- just go with the flow. I learned that lesson a long time ago at the crap tables in Vegas. Besides, my luck was changin'. I could feel it.

Speakin' of luck -- lucky my brother-in-law Ed was a computer geek because I couldn't set foot anywhere near my place. He didn't exactly give me the glad hand when he saw me, either -- probably because of Jeannie, my sister. Good thing she wasn't home, or the fat would've really hit the fire. She's never forgiven me for losing mom's house in a poker game.

Anyway, once we got thru the social amenities, Ed studied the manual. All of a sudden he got excited and promptly bailed to Geekland. You could see his eyes goin' blank, lookin' inward, at nothin' -- gave me the creeps the way he split, so I kept a low profile while he rummaged thru little plastic drawers filled with oddball spare parts.

Took him less than five minutes. The gizmo was plugged in -- up-and-runnin'.

"Frank," (that's me....Frank) he said. "What this manual promises isn't yet possible, given current technology, but I've never seen anything like this. We've got to test it."

Right away I noticed that I had just acquired a partner, but I let it slide. "How's it work?" I asked.

"How're you at science fiction?" he asked right back. "Ever hear the one about parallel universes?"

Oh great, I thought. Just what I need -- a stand-up-comedy-geek. He probably thought he had me, but I have a thing for odds and probabilities. So I said, "Sure. You flip a coin. In one universe it comes up heads. In another it's tails."

"That's right," he confirmed. "And in another it lands and stands on its edge. But you've got the idea."

Jeez. I hate wise-asses, especially geeks, but I let it slide. "So what does this gizmo have to do with parallel universes?" I asked, playin' dumb and keepin' the excitement under my hat.

"This is either someone's idea of a huge joke, or we've got something very valuable here."

Again the partnership. This time unmistakable. "What do you mean?" I asked bluntly.

"According to the manual, this gizmo, as you call it, is a portable entryway into any universe you can imagine. You merely type the event and enter the result -- heads, in your example, and you are immediately transported to the universe where the coin comes up heads. Do you realize the implications?"

He was lookin' at me funny -- like the cat about to swallow the canary. "Let's test it," I countered. "Five coin flips -- then it gets unplugged while we work out the details if this thing does what you say it will."

Until that day I had never seen a coin stand on its edge three flips out of five.

We stared at each other. Ed sat at his computer with the rigged adapter plug in his hand. I held the lifeless Mach Four.

"Fifty-fifty," he said.

I looked him right in the eye and neither of us flinched. Fifty percent of nothin' is nothin', but fifty percent of everything is one helluva lot. "OK," I said. "It's a deal. Give me the plug and the computer."

"Give me the Mach Four," he shot back.

Right out of the gate we hit our first stumblin' block. It was trust, and neither of us had it.

Finally we agreed that half of everything should be enough to go around, so we set up the rules. I would type the event using Ed's computer while he watched the small LCD screen with his finger on the clicker. If everything was jake, Ed would click the mouse thinger, and we would be transported to the appropriate universe. The big drawback was that we'd be seein' a lot of each other. Neither of us could let the other out of his sight.

I suppose we didn't pull a double-cross because there really was enough to go around. You probably remember Ed winnin' the biggest lottery jackpot in history, or maybe you remember me ridin' the crest of that last stock market wave. We played our roles to the hilt as the two luckiest gamblers on the planet before our welcomes wore thin at the casinos. Soon none of the high rollers would even play, but you'd be surprised at how many ways chance can make a buck -- not to mention other things.

Which brings me to Gloria -- the love of my life.

I guess winners must give off some kind of glow because suddenly I was important. People, including women, who had always managed to ignore me, flocked to me like I had the Midas Touch. Well, in a way, I did -- with a click here -- and a click there.

But Gloria was different. When our eyes met across the roulette tables at Le Monde, I knew my life would never be the same again.

Yeah, I know what you're thinkin' -- love at first sight -- baloney! You think rich guys only see what women want them to see. Well, you're wrong this time, sport -- dead wrong!

Hey, if you think I can't tell the real thing from fantasyland, then three will get you five that you've never been in love. Easy money, sport. Want some?

You know, the really amazin' thing about Gloria was that I had the clicker, and I never even had to use it. She loved me -- not my money. Hell, I wanted to marry her, but she said let's wait and see what we'll be like together -- now you show me one golddigger who would do that!

Let me tell you how it went down. Then you can see for yourself.

We were in love -- top of the heap, cock of the walk -- fast-lane, jet-set love. The sky was the limit, and we lit it up with fireworks for six long, glorious months. Maybe you remember the bash in Rio, or the time we took over the film festival at Cannes? Anyway, you get the picture. We were an item, and we made headlines with mounds of cash and glamour as we spread it around and brightened up the world. God knows it needed it.

And just as my hot streak was burning bright across the heavens of our love, Benny the Rooster showed up.

I had just plopped down a large chunk of change to buy Le Monde to celebrate the day I met Gloria across their roulette tables. She was into 'Save the Planet', so we threw a big charity ball -- top shelf, black tie, invitation only. The place was just startin' to fill up when in walks this chubby little guy dressed for a Hawaiian luau. How he got past security with no invite, I don't know, but there he was, orderin' my staff around like he owned the place.

I should've had him thrown out on the spot, but he was yellin', wavin' a piece of paper around, and makin' a scene, so I sent Everett, my security honcho, to ease Mr. Luau out the door.

My mistake! Within two minutes, the technicolor Hawaiian shirt was weavin' its way thru the crowd straight at me! He stopped in front of me, and we stood toe-to-toe if not exactly eye-to-eye.

"Sir," I said, lookin' down at him while I laid it on thick for the crowd. "You have made a mistake. This is a private party. If you have anything you must say before you leave, we'll speak in my office. This gentleman will show you the way." I turned to Everett.

"I have plenty to say," he said, thrusting the paper under my nose.

Instinctively I brushed his fat arm away.

He glared thru me and said loudly, "Right here will do just fine, Frankie. This paper, which you have so cavalierly shoved away, is the deed to this entire island with air and mineral rights. You may own Le Monde, but you have no access in or out. What do you say to that?"

Our distinguished guests had been drifting toward Mr. Loud Shirt for a better look, and an excited murmur went up -- a Mexican standoff. I had no choice. I had to deal with him right here -- right now. "What do you want?" I asked.

He smiled that wan little smile that I would learn to hate. His eyes focused at a point somewhere beyond me, and he said, "I'm Benny....Benny the Rooster in some circles. I understand that you're a gambler."

What the hell? Did he buy the entire island in a grandstand play just to challenge me? I didn't like his looks, but he was talkin' my language. OK, I thought. Let's turn the tables on this crumb. I replied, "Yeah, I've been known to wager a time or two. What you got in mind?"

The crowd pressed closer and got real quiet to hear Benny's reply.

"First the stakes," he said. "If I lose, this deed to the island is yours. If I win, I own Le Monde."

I was startin' to enjoy this. "Let's make it easy," I said. "If I win, I'll donate the deed to my lady's favorite charity. If I lose, you own Le Monde, and an equal amount goes to charity."

Applause! Now I had him!

"What's your bet?" I asked when the applause died down. I was smilin', feelin' pretty good about myself. That's when he dropped the hammer.

"I'm feeling charitable too, Frankie, so I propose a wager with the odds in your favor." He paused for effect before continuing. "I wager that Gloria, the woman who loves you now, will love me instead before the week is up. In the meantime, everyone here is free to come and go as they please." A collective gasp from the assembled onlookers -- that wan half-smile from Benny -- the strong smell of rat polluting my air.

Damn! Was Gloria's love for me a sham? Was she just a shill for Benny? What the hell did I really know about her?

Her eyes found mine. She gave me a shrug and a wink that said don't worry. Go for it!

My heart pounded furiously before I realized that I had the clicker. Hell, even if they were in cahoots, conspiring to take my money, to publicly make me a patsy, I could still tie her to me forever with the clicker. Before the week was up we would be in the universe where she loved me and only me.

"OK," I said calmly. "Mark the time. We'll meet here in my office just before the week is up. You got a bet." Before I said a word, I should've cut my tongue off and spit it on the floor!

More applause! The crowd pressed in on me. Gloria was by my side. She whispered reassurances. When I finally looked around, Benny the Rooster was gone, nowhere to be seen, but he had made his point. He was the talk of the town.

I wasted no time. I hooked up with brother-in-law Ed by satellite. We set up a meet. Then Gloria and I hopped my jet and disappeared to parts unknown -- at least to everyone but us and security. Not only would I use the clicker, but Benny wouldn't know where we were until we returned to claim the stakes -- talk about coverin' my action. Well, all's fair in love, war, and sport.

I kept it plain and simple with the clicker when Ed and I got together. First, I identified Gloria and me (by our fingerprints and retinal scans). Then I typed that she was to love me, and only me, forever. I thought about stickin' the whammy on Benny, but I just kept him out of the picture completely. No sense gettin' complicated. I had what I wanted -- Gloria's love.

We celebrated solid for the rest of the week. Gloria swore that she loved me, that she didn't know Benny, had never even heard of him before the charity ball, and she laughed at him and his ignorance of our love. We were pink and bubbly, in gay spirits, like fine champagne when we hopped onto my jet and headed for Le Monde near week's end.

We got there with about an hour to spare, but I made sure that we took our time at the tables. No sense havin' to put up with Benny any longer than necessary.

With five minutes left, we entered my private office. I sat behind my big walnut desk while Gloria stood by my side. We held hands.

I don't know where he was hidin', but Benny showed up right after we did.

"Hey, Gloria," Benny said when he stood across the desk from us. "Go powder your nose. I want to talk to Frankie alone for a minute."

"Sure, Benny," she said without even givin' me a glance as she left the room. That left the two of us starin' bullets at each other across my desk.

Gloria's answer clued me that everything wasn't jake, but it was too late now, so I said, "Make it quick, sport. I haven't got all day."

"You know, Frankie," he said. "It takes all the fun out of gambling if you can't lose. Unless, of course, the other guy has a sure thing and can't lose either."

Oh man -- sucker punched right in the gut! I was gaspin' for air, but I managed to dummy-up. "What you talkin' about, sport? You tryin' to weasel out? Time to pay up!"

"There's no hurry," he said with that damned half-smile as he watched me closely. "I've won the bet. Maybe I should make it crystal clear to you." He tapped his pants pocket.

"Make it clear?" I shot back. "This is bullshit. You're stallin'." I didn't like it at all. He was too damned cocksure.

Then Benny drew a bead, pulled back the hammer and fired point blank.

"I believe yours is the Mach Four Turbo Jet Model," he said nonchalantly. Now he was lookin' right thru me again.

I had no air. I had no words. I could only grunt like a trussed pig who sees Death's sickle swingin' for him and can't get the hell out of the way.

"Well, mine is the Mach Five Turbo Jet Deluxe Model," Benny continued with that goddamned half-smile plastered on his kisser and his hand pattin' his pants pocket. "Kinda makes yours obsolete if you get my meaning. No need to get up, Frankie. I know my way."

* * *

I watched Benny and Gloria walkin' out the front door of Le Monde arm-in-arm, all cooey and gooey. I'll remember his words as long as I live.

"You know, babe," Benny said as he smiled that half-smile at Gloria and reached down to pat her fanny. "There's nothing like a sure thing."

Now, knowin' what I know, the damned clicker just won't work for me anymore. So I'm fixin' to chuck it where the sun don't shine, but it won't matter because Benny'll make sure the next sucker finds it.

Jeez. How could I have ever been so dumb?

So, what's really important you ask? I take it back. Something is important. Progress is important. Without progress I never would've seen the light.

I've just got to get me a Mach Five!


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