As Michaelina, the name with which Sophia had decided to christen the camel with for some reason, galloped madly through the unlit alleys of Ghadames, Sophia tried desperately to bring the beast under her control as she had been instructed in her brief lesson by Tex, pulling the reins back, left, right, none of which had any effect on Michaelina's heedless rush to God knew where, Sophia cursing in both English and Italian, these entreaties having no effect on Michaelina either, Sophia not surprised by her difficulties since she had suspected it wasn't that easy for a novice to ride a camel, especially this camel which had been behaving so strangely just before Tex\Drinkwine's appearance, though in fairness she had to wonder if she just wasn't doing it right because of some awkwardness or lack of force in her handling of Michaelina as she had been directed to by Tex, perhaps she just needed to be more confident unless Tex was a fraud and had no more experience riding camels than she did, though Sophia doubted that there was anything she could do short of shooting this animal that would bring it under her control and slow its frenzied sprint, a nightmarish ride that already seemed to have lasted an eternity though it had only been a handful of seconds since she had mounted this beast, images of Carlo, Cary, her mother and sister flashing through Sophia's mind as if these were fated to be her last few minutes on earth, she had survived bombs, bullets, and near starvation during the war only to be done in by a demented camel, when suddenly Michaelina became airborne, jumping over a wall like a racehorse doing the hurdles, landing in a courtyard and coming to an abrupt halt, causing Sophia to lose her seat and vault into space doing a half somersault like an acrobat, screaming bloody murder until she hit a shadowy figure she had glimpsed only briefly during her flight, flattening the poor unfortunate and mercifully coming to a soft landing. Sophia didn't move for a moment, fearful that she was injured, but when she realized that she wasn't she sat up and found that she was sitting on someone in a position the casual observer might consider obscene. She pulled back her robe and saw Muammar, wearing a blank expression that indicated he was not aware just yet of who or what had hit him.
"Muammar! Are you all right?"
It was John Wayne, sitting on the ground nearby tied up to a post, looking the worse for wear. Sophia got off Muammar and went over to him. "I'm so glad to see you, Mr. Wayne. I've been looking for you all night."
"So I've heard. Could you cut me loose? I think there's a knife around here somewhere."
Sophia looked and saw a dagger on the ground. She picked it up, went behind Mr. Wayne and began sawing at the rope that tied his hands. "Who did this to you?"
"An old friend, or at least I thought she was. Hedda Hopper."
"The gossip columnist?"
"None other. She seems to think I'm a communist, or worse. She said something about a committee and a plan, but none of it made any sense."
Sophia remembered what Drinkwine, or Rake, had told her. "You've been drugged. I don't know what drug or why, except it might be some kind of test."
"Drugged? Jesus, that would explain a few things. By who?"
"By someone named Drinkwine, at least that's what he calls himself sometimes. He seems to have a lot of different personalities."
"Drinkwine, huh? That figures. The next time I run into him, he's going to have a lot of explaining to do."
Sophia finally cut through the rope and the Duke was free. He got up and began rubbing his wrists. "Thanks, Sophia. You're a lifesaver."
"Don't mention it, Mr. Wayne."
"Duke, please. That's what my friends call me."
There was a moan. Sophia and the Duke went over to Muammar and helped him sit up. "Allah be merciful," mumbled Muammar.
"Are you all right?" Sophia asked.
Muammar looked at Sophia and the Duke without any sign that he recognized who they were. "Are you angels? Am I in heaven?"
"Yeah, right. Let's get him up," suggested the Duke, and together he and Sophia succeeded in getting Muammar to his feet, albeit unsteadily.
"Yahhh!" the Duke cried, bumping into both Sophia and Muammar and almost knocking them over, taken by surprise by Sophia's camel, which had just goosed him from behind.
"Do you two know each other?" Sophia asked.
"Let's just say we've met and leave it at that," said the Duke, moving so Muammar and Sophia were between him and his admirer. "You don't want to know any more. Let's get out of here. I suppose we can take this kid to the hotel, somebody will know what to do with him there."
Before they started to leave, someone came out of the house. "Going somewhere?" inquired Hummer Drinkwine.
"Yeah," said the Duke evenly. "You plan on trying to stop us?"
"That's tonight's secret word, isn't it?" said Drinkwine. "Plan, what do I plan to do? Is there any move I can make not designed by forces beyond my control? Notice that I don't mention the joker in this deck, the Almighty or the Big Guy as I believe you refer to him, Mr. Wayne, who supposedly has given us free will, but since we have no choice over where we are born or who our parents are, for example, how can that be? Could you have become someone else besides John Wayne, or could some other person have taken your place, your role, or is it possible that the character you're playing doesn't have to exist at all? It seems unlikely. It's hard to imagine. You had to be John Wayne."
Drinkwine pulled out a handgun and looked at it as if it were a strange object. "I could shoot the three of you, but what would that prove? Still, it's a tempting idea, especially because of him." Drinkwine indicated Muammar, still semi-conscious.
"What's so important about him?" asked the Duke.
"He's going to be the ruler of this oil-laden sandbox someday," said Drinkwine. "Would that prove that there is no Plan if I shoot him? Maybe, or maybe not, since it is more than likely that some other local firebrand would just step in and take his place. You see my problem."
"Sophia said something about you drugging me," drawled the Duke in his best easygoing manner, as if trying to put Drinkwine at ease. "That true?"
"It is. I had several reasons, which I won't bore you with. Suffice to say that I'm running on more than one track. The drug doesn't seem to have had that much effect on you, which to some will be a disappointment, but to me is just a confirmation of the drug's unreliability for any purposes of interrogation or behavior modification and control."
"What's this drug called?"
"Lysergic acid diethylamide, or LSD-25, for short. The 25 refers to the number of attempts it took the chemist, one Albert Hofmann, to accidentally come up with this compound, though there are no accidents, perhaps."
"What does it do?"
"It can make you hallucinate, see things. Everything kind of melts and seems connected, maybe even alive in some way."
"Sounds like some kind of Commie trick to me. Is that who you're working for? Or is it the Committee?"
"The Committee aren't nearly as important as they think they are. They like to pretend that they run everything, but actually no one does. No one is in control, which is kind of scary, isn't it?"
"Look, buster," the Duke said, "I don't know what you're talking about and I don't care. Why don't you quit playing all these games and come to the point?"
"Because there might not be one, which is the point," said Drinkwine. "The universe is so huge, complex, and yet orderly that surely there has to be some reason for its, and our existence, but perhaps that is merely wishful thinking. Perhaps there is no Plan, which among other things would explain why we have so many wars, though even wars have their cruel purposes."
"What does Tex think?" asked Sophia, hoping to engage one of Drinkwine's more benign personalities and defuse the situation.
"Tex?" Drinkwine smiled. "He's not here at the moment. I'm so glad I involved you in this, Miss Loren. You are a most lovely and unpredictable variable. For instance, if not for your presence, I would have shot this Hollywood phony out of hand by now."
"Put down that gun and we'll see who the phony is," growled the Duke.
"Mano a mano, eh, Mr. Wayne? Not practical. However, I do have a proposition for you."
"Do you know who Christine Jorgenson is? Have you ever heard of her?"
The Duke frowned. "No. Who is she, an actress?"
"Not exactly. She used to be George Jorgenson, of New York City, until a certain operation performed by one Dr. Christian Hamburger at Genofte Hospital in Copenhagen, Denmark, on Sept. 24, 1951, after a course of hormone treatments. There were two more operations, snip, snip, then he was a she. Amazing the miracles of modern science, aren't they?"
The Duke's frown deepened. "What's that got to do with me?"
"Can't you guess?"
"If you agree to have the same operation, join the opposite sex and become a woman, Jane Wayne, I won't shoot you."
The Duke looked at Drinkwine like he was nuts. "Son, I don't know how to tell you this, but you are out of your mind."
"Not really. Among the commissions I have been given, one is to somehow prove whether or not there is a Plan. I don't believe that I'm giving anything away when I explain that is why I've been trying to break you all night, Mr. Wayne, even to the point of getting you killed or making you kill yourself. Of course, there is really no way you can prove whether or not there is some plan or purpose to the universe unless you can do something that would affect the outcome to the whole thing, but, on a smaller scale, you might come up with a sign that definitely points one way or the other. If you have a sex change operation, Mr. Wayne, that would definitely be a strong sign that there is no Plan, because I cannot imagine that that is something that is supposed to happen under any circumstances unlike, shall we say, a nuclear war. So think of it, Mr. Wayne: with this one selfless act, you can pretty much prove that there is no Plan and the world would be freed from the illusion that the universe exists for any reason. It would be a greater accomplishment than anything you could possibly achieve as an actor."
The Duke folded his arms. "You sure talk a lot, bub. Why is it you Commies always love to froth off at the mouth? I don't get it."
"How about this then, Mr. Wayne. Instead of a sex change, how about you put a scene in one of your movies, maybe the one you're making now, where you break down and cry like a baby, just bawl your eyes out. Is that more palatable?"
"Don't you think you could do it? Aren't you a good enough actor? It would win you the respect of a lot of critics, maybe even win you an Academy Award."
"I don't think so."
"You're making this very difficult for me, Mr. Wayne. You're not leaving me any choice. This is a real gun with real bullets, not blanks, if that's what you're hoping."
"Look, pal, just put away the gun and I'll try to forget that any of this ever happened."
"I'm afraid that's not an option. Either agree to have a sex change operation or cry your eyes out in a movie, or I'm going to have to shoot you. Which will it be?"
The Duke pursed his lips thoughtfully. "I just have to agree to do one of those things? You'll take my word for it?"
"I'll give you one year to follow through. Then, if you haven't fulfilled your promise, I'll come looking for you."
The Duke looked tempted, then shook his head. "Forget it, buddy, I'm not promising you anything. If you want to shoot me, get it over with."
"What about me?" asked Sophia. "If I agree to have this operation, will that prove whatever it is you're trying to prove?"
"Intriguing," said Drinkwine. "I'm not sure it would, though I don't know why. Because it's more understandable for a woman to want to change herself into a man? Because you're not the icon Mr. Wayne is? At any rate, I am loath to remove my focus from the Duke, and he has forced my hand."
Drinkwine pointed his firearm at the Duke, then lowered it again. "I'm doing you a favor, you know."
"Oh? How's that?"
"Do you remember a movie you made called The Conqueror?"
"Holy Christ, is that what this is all about? Look, I know it was a bad movie, probably the worst one I've ever made, but you can't shoot me just for making a bad movie!"
"That's not why I'm going to shoot you. Were you aware that you made that movie near a testing ground for atomic bombs?"
The Duke shuffled his feet. "No, I wasn't."
"It's the truth. In 1953, the Atomic Energy Commission detonated 11 bombs in the dry lake bed of Yucca Flats, Nevada. Two of those bombs, named Dirty Simon and Dirty Harry, no joke, were especially dirty with Strontium 90 and Cesium 137 isotopes. A freak wind carried the fallout 150 miles east to the Escalante Valley where, three years later, you filmed The Conqueror. Do you remember all those battle and chase scenes you filmed in Snow Canyon that always left you and all the other cast and crew coated in dust? It was radioactive. You've got a time bomb ticking in you, Mr. Wayne, you and many other on that same movie, such as the director Dick Powell, your co-stars Susan Hayward, Pedro Armendariz, Agnes Morehead, a cancer time bomb caused by the fallout. It's an incredibly agonizing way to go. That's what I meant by doing you a favor by shooting you."
The Duke grimaced. "Don't do me any favors."
Drinkwine smiled. "Well, this isn't as good as you having a sex change operation or crying in a movie or even killing yourself, but it will have to do because I'm fairly sure that this isn't supposed to happen either. I've never been a stickler for details."
Drinkwine raised his gun as if he was about to shoot the Duke and Sophia was going to scream but before she could Drinkwine was knocked into the Duke from behind by Michaelina and the two men began rolling around on the ground, struggling for the gun. For several seconds the matter was in doubt, then Drinkwine broke free, still in possession of the pistol. The two men stood and once more faced each other.
"Adios, Duke," said Drinkwine. "I bet you would have enjoyed being a senorita, though you would have made one hell of an ugly one. Vaya Condios."
There was a loud explosion. When the smoke and noise had dissipated, only one man remained standing, the survivor of previous countless mock movie showdowns, the only difference being in this instance that the hero had unpredictably, or perhaps not so unpredictably, wet himself.