“It is said that power corrupts, but actually it's more true that power attracts the corruptible. The sane are usually attracted by other things than power.”
Gabriel looked over at the man at the bar. The man looked to be in his mid-forties, average height, about 30 pounds overweight. He was bald on top and the lines in his forehead suggested a brow that spent an inordinate amount of time deeply furrowed. The man was hunched over his drink, and even though he was now surrounded by a dozen merry-makers who had just staggered in, his defeatist posture remained unchanged. He barely seemed to notice the boisterous crowd, until one of the revelers staggered over to him.
“I voted! I did my shivic duty! Everyone should get out and vote!” The slurred words of a passion for democracy generously supplemented by copious amounts of alcohol. The merry democrat staggered over and put his arm around the slumped-over man. “Didchoo vote?” Too loud, especially in such close quarters.
“No. I didn’t.”
“What?! Why not?!” Still too loud.
The smaller man sighed visibly and turned towards the larger. “Because the guy I supported was trailing in the polls by almost 30 points. Didn’t see any point in it.”
“Oh, you’re one of them loushy Democrats?” He lowered his arm from the smaller man’s shoulder and took a step back. “Humph. Better you don’t vote then.”
“Nice principles, there, asshole.”
At that, the larger man exploded in anger. “OH YEAH?! WELL AT LEAST WE’RE NOT GOING TO RAISE EVERYONE’S TAXES JUST SHO WE CAN ADOPT SOME KIND OF SOCIALIST…”
“Go fuck yourself.”
The larger man stopped in mid-rant, his features a brief look of disbelief, then, as the smaller man turned back to his drink, melting into one of outright fury. Neither noticed Gabriel and Luci making their way over to them until Gabriel put his hand on the angry man’s shoulder.
“Why don’t you let us handle this? Go sit down. Take a load off.”
The man turned to face Gabriel and found his anger was gone as suddenly as if it had been turned off with a switch. He blinked, looked a bit confused for a moment. “Sure,” he said in a quiet, reasonable tone. “Yeah, that’s a good idea.” And with that, he went to join his friends at a table.
When the man at the bar turned to face his new company, he immediately hoped this newcomer wasn’t interested in anything more than pleasant conversation. The guy was enormous, a building with legs, and he didn’t really care for his chances if this building wanted to get tough with him.
“Edward Carpenter?” Gabriel asked.
“Yeah, that’s me.” He’d been concerned he’d sound as nervous as he felt, but he was surprised by the serene sense of calm he felt overtaking him as he looked the fellow over. The man was at least a head taller than himself, with a musculature reminiscent of a Michelangelo painting or sculpture. He had long, strait golden hair that hung just below his broad shoulders and his face possessed a strange combination of both raw masculine strength and the innocence of youth. Edward had never seen anything like him. “Can I help you?” He finally managed.
“I have my doubts.” Gabriel replied, “But my friend, here would like to offer you a job.”
Gabriel stepped to the side, revealing an incredibly beautiful woman standing behind him. Edward could hardly believe his eyes. She appeared to have been carved from the same marble block as her escort, yet, in contrast, it was a purely feminine strength she radiated. Her hair was as black as the midnight sky, and seemed to almost flow down over her shoulders, which were left bare, save for the narrow straps of her blood-red dress. Her skin was the color of alabaster, and while her face was the perfect vision of beauty and youth, her eyes seemed inexplicably deep, as if they had had been witness to so much more than any human had ever seen. They were eyes that were wise. Hardened, even. While no other feature of her entire being betrayed the wear of any great age, entire centuries seemed to show in those eyes. She stepped forward with a gait as smooth as that of a serpent and extended her hand.
“Hello, Edward. My name is Luci. Luci Star. It’s a pleasure to finally meet you.”
“Likewise,” Edward replied, almost hypnotized by the woman before him as he took her hand.
“I must say, those were some pretty impressive debating skills you had on display, there, just now.”
“Huh?” He’d heard her, but it took a few seconds to register what she’d said. “Oh, him? Meh. There’s no point in arguing with people like that. They won’t even acknowledge basic facts, if it’s inconvenient. They have no idea why they should even support ‘their guy,’ except that he’s not the other guy, and they can’t tell you what’s so bad about the other guy, either, beyond some bullshit they heard on Fox News.” He paused for a moment, realizing he was starting to get into a drunken political rant with a complete stranger. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to be like the guy your friend just chased off. I didn’t catch his name, by the way…”
“The drunk? I could call him back over, if you’d like,” Luci offered playfully. It took a second to let her little joke sink in beneath the whiskey he’d been sipping, but Edward finally laughed in return.
“No, that’s okay.”
The big man spoke up. “My name is Gabriel.”
“Well, Gabriel, it’s nice to meet you.” Gabriel had not extended his hand, so neither did Edward. “You always play the strong silent type?”
Gabriel just smiled. “No, but tonight I’m only here because of her. This is her show, now, so I’m going to let her do the talking.”
“Oh yeah,” Edward picked up, looking over to Luci. “You said something about a job?” He wasn’t actually looking for a job, despite having next to no enthusiasm for his current dead-end gig, but he was always interested in hearing about new opportunities, and he was certainly going to listen to whatever one this woman had to offer.
Luci looked at him for a moment before answering. Edward felt naked in front of her, like she was looking deep inside of him. “To be honest, I don’t really know where to start…” She picked up what was left of Edward’s drink and downed it in one swallow.
“I’m sorry. I suppose I should have offered to buy you one.”
“I wouldn’t have accepted.”
“I don’t accept drinks from men I've just met.” She had a big smile to go with that, and Edward laughed. “Let’s see…” A moment to think something over. “Yes,” and she eased into a bit less playful tone, “tell me something, Edward. What would you change about people… politics… government… society… whatever… if you wanted to fix… everything?”
Edward looked at her, seeking, in her demeanor, some sign of how serious she was, finally asked. “Seriously?”
“Oh yes. Deadly serious.”
A short laugh, and “How much time do you have?”
“As much time as you need, darling.”
“Wow.” Edward took a deep breath and exhaled, a brief pause, then, speaking slowly, “The short version? Separate church and state; separate corporate interests and the state; fix the system so the politicians are rewarded for working for the interests of the majority, instead of just the super-rich who pay their campaigns bills. Break up the media conglomerates…” He paused.
“Definitely. Figure out some way to flush the media culture that worships phony balance and always kowtows to the right, and try to create one with some respect for accuracy and real fairness. And for what’s really important.”
Edward laughed. “Isn’t that enough?”
“Well… no, actually. Those are some big items, just for starters.”
“And you have some idea of how you would accomplish these things?”
Edward laughed again. “Find a magic wand, maybe? A genie?” In the midst of this wildly theoretical exercise, he became curious about something else. “How do you know me?”
“Maybe I’ve read your writing.”
“My…? You mean my blog?! Wow. I never had more than a dozen or so readers at any one time. What are the odds I’d ever meet one?” He laughed at the idea before something else seeped through his mild inebriation. “What a second… How do you know who I am, or what I wrote - online and anonymously?” Maybe she’d just made a lucky guess. Maybe she was just bluffing. The thing was, nothing about her made him doubt her sincerity. She still seemed to be looking right through him, right into him. Whatever was going on, here, she seemed to know exactly what it was. “Okay, look, I don’t know what's really going on here, but why don’t we cut right to the chase? What’s this job you’re talking about, or are you just putting me on?”
“Oh, no, I’m entirely serious. I can explain the details later, but what I want? Is for you to fix everything.”
“Really?” Cynicism in the tone.
“Yes. And, for starters, you’ll do it with this.”
The tight, red evening dress she wore certainly had no pockets, nor did she carry a purse, and yet, seemingly for nowhere, she produced what looked like an iPad, and handed it to Edward before finally taking a seat on the stool next to his.
“Is it?” she asked slyly.
Edward looked down and tapped the screen, which sprang to life. “Well… It sure looks like one. Except it seems to running… Windows? Really?”
“Well… It does come from Hell. What would you expect?”
“Huh. Yeah. Right.” He wondered what kind of trick this “kooky broad” was going to pull to impress him, and what role the Aryan wet dream standing behind her had to play in it all.
“Don’t be a cynic, darling. Let me give you a glimpse of what it can do.”
Edward smiled. “This ought to be good. Is it for sale?” he asked, chuckling.
“Oh no, darling, I’m afraid you don’t understand: I’m giving it to you. In fact, it’s already yours.”
“Well, then, by all means, show what the free tablet I just won is capable of.” He wasn’t buying any of this, but he figured he’d enjoy the time he was spending with this impossibly beautiful woman while it lasted.
“Do you see the icon called, 'Fate?'”
“Tap it.” Edward did and it opened what appeared to be a personal database, although the page was currently blank. “Now hit the search Icon. I want you to type in the name, ‘Richard Peter Johnson.’”
Edward tapped the binoculars, and saw fields marked ‘given,’ ‘middle,’ and ‘family name,’ with some additional fields for additional information. He typed in the name and a page popped up that included the picture of an old man's face and some basic personal information about this supposed person. For the most part, the information didn’t seem like much beyond what you could find as a matter of public record, if you knew where to look. “Okay. So?”
“Does he look familiar?”
“He should. He’s sitting right over there.” She nodded towards the old man at the other end of the bar; the other patron Gabriel noticed there when he came in. Edward would have guessed him at somewhere around eighty years of age, but according to the information on the screen, he was only 63.
“So… is he in on your little demo, too, then?”
“Not exactly. Do you see the numbers on the top right-hand corner of his page?”
“Yeah… 31… 30… 29… what’s that all about?”
“It’s how long he has to live,” she said flatly, without a hint of humor or irony, sending shivers down Edward’s spine.
“Just watch.” Luci said, staring in the old man’s direction. Edward looked at Gabriel who was already looking at the old man before turning his gaze that way himself. As he did, the waitress placed two more glasses of whiskey in front on them.
At the other end of the bar, the old man wiped his napkin across his forehead. “Hey Joe… Joe… You think I could just get a glass of water?”
“Sure Dick,” the bartender replied, “here you go,” then, looking his patron over, “Hey… you don’t look too good. You feelin’ all right?”
“No… I think…” But that was all he could get out. A grimace of intense pain flooded over his face as he doubled over, clenching his chest.
“Dick? DICK!” the bartender shouted.
The old man fell from his stool to the floor, curled in a fetal position. The other patrons' gasps was all that could be heard as the bar otherwise fell silent.
“SOMEBODY CALL AN AMBULANCE!” The bartender desperately roared as he ran around the bar, went to the floor and did his best to revive his friend.
“Dick! Dick! Oh, don’t do this buddy! Come on!” He gave the fallen man a few slaps on the face. “Come on, buddy, stay with me! SOMEONE CALL 9-1-1!”
Edward had his cell phone out, but Luci put her hand on his forearm, pointing out that several other patrons were already calling. He put it away and downed most of his glass of whiskey. He didn’t notice, but Luci slid hers over in front of him as well. He glanced back to the Tablet and watched the counter tick down.
“3… 2… 1…” and, at what would have been '0,' the entire page disappeared. He looked back just in time to see the man go completely limp in the arms of the bartender who continued to cradle him, quietly muttering , “call an ambulance,” in between sobs.
The paramedics arrived only a few minutes later, but it was pretty clear to everyone present that there was nothing they could do. They tried, all the same but, after nearly half an hour of attempting to revive him, one of them looked at the bartender and shook his head. By the time they were done, the police had arrived to take statements and prepare to transport the body. For some reason they never questioned Gabriel, Luci or Edward.
Almost through another glass of whiskey at this point--his fifth of the night--Edward finally asked, “What just happened?”
“That man was an alcoholic.” Luci's tone remained flat, business-like. “He's been slowly killing himself for many years now. Two weeks ago his liver function reached a point where it could no longer sustain him. His pancreas failed two days ago and his kidneys stopped functioning this morning. His fate was all but set in stone years ago when, by his own decision, he passed the point that he could ever be cured of his addiction.”
“He didn’t want to be.” Edward’s confusion at this statement was apparent. “He’s a friend of the bartender. They fought in a war together. It affected both of them, but it affected a certain Private, First Class Richard P. Johnson more than most. He has sat on that bar stool almost every night for the past twenty years or so now, while his best friend in the world helped him slowly kill himself, all in the name of easing his pain.”
“Jesus,” Edward muttered. “That’s unbelievable.”
“Yet you just witnessed it.”
“No… I mean… Wow.” Edward’s head was swimming in a combination of the liquor he’d consumed and the death he had just witnessed, and, particularly, its apparent digital premonition. “How’s the bartender doing?” he asked. The bartender had retreated to the office after the police left. The remainder of the patrons had also filed out at this point, leaving just the three of them.
“Why don’t you check?” she suggested, nodding to the Tablet. “His name is Joseph Patrick Sullivan.”
Edward entered this new name as he had done before. Once he recognized the profile picture, he immediate checked the timer. “Five… Twenty Seven?”
“Oh my. Gabriel, would you care to…?”
“All right, fine.” He replied, as he went into the back office.
“What’s going on?” Edward asked.
“Five minutes to live? Unless he’s about to be hit by a car, that seems too soon to be a mere coincidence, no?”
“Yeah… Wait, you don’t mean…?”
Luci held up her finger, signaling Edward to wait for a moment. She looked down at the timer. It was now counting down over seven columns, which Edward could only assume meant years. Gabriel emerged from the office a moment later, carrying a revolver. He laid it down on the bar.
“He hadn’t loaded it yet, but... well, you know.”
“Yes. Thank you, darling.”
“He was going to kill himself?” Edward asked.
“The old man was a life-long friend and a comrade in arms,” said Luci. “Mr. Sullivan was bound to take his death hard, especially considering the role he’d played in it.” She looked at Gabriel. “What will he do now?”
“Well, he’s decided to close the bar.”
“Hey! I liked this place!”
“I can’t see why.” Gabriel retorted. “But you'd be losing it either way.”
Luci sighed. “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”
“In any case,” Gabriel continued, “why don’t you take this, as we discussed,” he handed her a small vial that, just as Luci had done with the Tablet, he seemed to produce from nowhere, “and I’ll let you finish up here.”
“You’re going?” she asked.
“I’ll take care of the old man; save someone else the trip.”
“Wow, darling. How unlike you. When was the last time you did that?”
Gabriel laughed, “It’s been awhile, but I’m here so I might as well. See you around, kid!” He nodded at Edward, before walking out the door and up the staircase leading back to the street.
“What’s that?” Edward asked, nodding at the vial in Luci’s hand.
“Eternal life.” She answered flatly.
“Huh. You don’t say.”
“I do. But it’s not for you just yet. Do me a favor and pull up your own page.”
Edward tapped the binoculars on the screen and typed “EDWARD JAMESON CARPENTER.” It came as a bit of a shock that he also had just under an hour to live. He looked up at Luci, “Why?”
“Because you’ve had almost five glasses of your namesake and you’re still planning on driving home once you reach your train station. Maybe I should call you a cab?” She was holding his cell phone in her hand. He hadn’t noticed her taking it from him, but there it was.
In response, Edward decided to try an experiment. He said nothing aloud, but in his mind he made a firm decision to let Luci call him a cab, and decided also that he would take the cab no matter what. Looking down, he could see that his timer now read over thirty years.
“Call the cab,” he said.
“Good choice.” She answered. “There is one more thing I’d like to ask you…” She paused, as if trying to decide something “If you did have the power to be the judge of mankind, and you had what essentially amounted to eternal life… What else would you want? What final gift would you wish to aide you in your heavy task?”
His head was really spinning now. Had he agreed to a task, he wondered? He thought about the question, not really giving much thought to what exactly she meant by ‘judge of men” or “eternal life” beyond their basic meaning. Finally he answered, “A companion.”
“Really?” Luci responded, intrigued.
He spoke slowly, fighting the alcohol. “Someone to share the burden. Someone I could love, and who would love me in return.” He stopped.
“Someone who shared my principles, but who wouldn’t be shy about correcting me when I strayed. Someone who could counsel me, and who would do so.” Another pause. “Someone who… a thousand years from now, she’d be as interesting and amazing and wonderful, and maybe she’d think I was the same. I don’t even know what you’d call that. A soulmate? I don’t know…”
“I think I do, though.” Luci’s face took on a far-off look, as if she was reading something far away in the distance. “Well… I’ve interfered with enough things for one night, and I can’t quite see her clearly anyway, but I do know one thing: This person will be the first woman you encounter tomorrow morning. So be on the lookout for her, okay?” She actually winked at him.
Edward was too drunk not too laugh. “All right, I will… you kooky broad!” Where did that come from?
As she called for a cab, he left enough cash on the bar to cover his tab and they made their way up the stairway to the street to wait. “Do me a favor, would you darling?”
“Don’t use this tonight. Not until we’ve had a chance to talk again, if you don’t mind.” She motioned to the Tablet.
“Yeah, no problem.” He didn’t plan on doing anything tonight except passing out.
“And uh… here, open your mouth.” She pulled a small dropper from the vial she’d gotten from her big friend. Edward looked at her suspiciously. “Oh, come on! If I was going to drug you, I could have just put it in one of your drinks.”
If he’d been sober, it’s unlikely Edward would have agreed to this, but at the moment, his better judgment was marinating in liquor. “Ah, what the hell.” He opened his mouth, and she touched the dropper to his tongue. Stopping the vial again, she placed it in his free hand. “Please keep this safe, Edward.”
“Will do,” he nodded.
When the cab arrived, Edward gave the driver his address while Luci paid his fare in advance. Thirty minutes later, Edward was asleep in his bed, the Tablet and Vial lying safely on his nightstand. Outside the row of townhouses, two figures stood below a streetlight.
“Does this mean you approve, darling?”
“Like you said, what more harm could possibly be done? So… Whatever. We’ll do it your way this one time. Have your fun.”
“I’m not doing this for my own amusement, you know.”
“I know. Just… be careful then.” He turned to go. “See you around, kid.” He waved over his shoulder and walked away.
Luci’s reply was a whisper. “Good bye, darling,” as he disappeared into the early morning mist.