Charlie floated above the middle of the Pacific, about 400 miles above the water. He wasn't in orbit - gravity was of no interest to Charlie just then - but simply hovering above the one spot on earth, a Charlie-synchronous orbit.
He liked this spot. From here, with the sun positioned exactly on the other side of the planet, the earth looked deserted. Most of the land masses were slight indentations on the rim of the circle, and to human eyes, no artificial light was visible. Charlie had turned down his sense of vision to achieve that effect.
He regarded the earth with a certain proprietary interest. In one major religion, it was a high holy day, steeped in deep spiritual significance. It seemed like every day was one of those. Yet of all the gods and forces men had devised, nobody believed in Charlie. He didn't match the image of a deity, be it Great Hairy Thunderer or Cosmic Muffin. Deities in America at the end of the second millennium weren't supposed to enjoy low practical jokes, for instance. But Charlie regarded people who took the millennium seriously as fresh meat.
Charlie didn't care if people believed in him, or even knew about him. He believed in himself, and for Charlie, that was enough.
Charlie created a Cheshire grin, 600 miles long hanging in space directly behind him, a heavenly smirk at the mountain tops of Hawaii. It would fade away in about fifteen minutes, and Charlie knew a particular observatory would be looking visually at this chunk of sky tonight. Astronomers were prepared for the extraordinary, the sublime, the wonderful, the inexplicable. It made them somewhat less prepared than the general population to deal with the ridiculous. This made them frequent targets for Charlie, and more than one astronomer spent the rest of his life being carefully quiet about the giant turtle, or the dancing bear with the parasol, that he had seen one dark lonely night.
Charlie eyed his creation and returned the grin. Then he flickered back to the surface of the earth, swooping over angry gray Atlantic waves off the east coast of America, where it was morning rush hour. Charlie had other things to do besides tease astronomers.
The world was his oyster.
Dave leaned back in his chair, and twiddled his pencil. "So you actually fell five stories?"
"Um, that's right, yes, five stories." Dave's guest sat upright in his leather seat, hands clasped hard between his knees, shoulders pulled forward so hard Dave wondered if he could breathe. But for all of that, the voice was steady, and despite the hot television lights, the brow was dry. Not stage fright, then. That's just how he... what was his name, again? Simon? Yeah, Simon... liked to sit.
"So who pushed you?" Dave was rewarded with a burst of laughter from the audience.
"Nobody pushed me, Dave."
"No. I jumped." Dave tossed his pencil over his shoulder to the sound of breaking glass and a drum riff from Paul.
"Let me get this straight. You JUMPED?"
"That's right. My friends didn't believe me when I told them I could do it without getting hurt."
"Ooooohhhh, NOW I see! Your friends kept saying you couldn't do it, and you finally decided to show them! Get Met - it pays!" Over the appreciative whoops of his audience, Dave eyed his guest. That the fall might have been deliberate hadn't gotten mentioned during the pre-show briefing. Not for the first time in his career, Dave wondered if he had a raving lunatic on his hands. He saw that Simon, looking earnest, had unclenched his hand enough to let his thumbs hook out over his knees in what Dave supposed was an expository manner, and he was saying something, drowned out by the audience, and an ecstatic outburst from the band.
"... just picked myself up, and walked away." Simon looked frustrated, and Dave realized that he had tried to continue speaking over the roar of laughter. Dave felt a similar frustration; Simon's description of his fall to the press had been vivid and comical enough that the producer had booked him for the show. Now getting the fresh and spontaneous story would be nearly impossible.
"Simon, what was the fall like?"
"Well, Dave, like I just said, it was quick. The ground just came right up at me, I felt a bump, and then I was lying there with my nose pressed against the sidewalk."
"In New York, that could be more fatal than the fall!"
Simon gave Dave a 'what-in-the-world-are-you-talking- about' look, and said, "I've tried it from smaller heights before, and never gotten hurt. But five stories! Gee, Dave, I was nervous!"
"Wait a minute. Are you saying you've done this before?"
"Oh, yes, dozens of times. I started out small, falling from a footstool, and worked my way up."
The audience was silent now, puzzled. Dave himself was nonplused, and felt like he was in the middle of a Monty Python skit. "So Simon, are you saying that anyone can work their way up to a five-story fall?"
"No, of course not!"
"Now, I want to caution our viewing audience from doing this at home. This should only be done with the proper equipment, and under the supervision of a trained professional."
Simon's "Huh?" was drowned out by the audience. He reached in his pocket and pulled out what looked like a Zippo. Dave watched, wondering if he was going to light up a cigarette.
Simon's deep breath coincided with the crowd quieting down. "I had this in my pocket. As long as I'm wearing this, no fall can hurt me."
Dave glanced at his notes. Simon had claimed that he was protected by a secret weapon. "That... lighter stopped you from getting hurt?"
"That's right, Dave. Nothing can hurt me as long as I have this." Dave shifted in his chair to face Simon directly. This interview was getting stranger by the second. "Is it kind of your rabbit's foot, or a lucky charm?"
"No, nothing like that. It, well, I don't know. I just know it works."
"Ummmm." Dave arched an eyebrow to the approving audience. "And you can't get hurt, no matter how far you fall." He threw a broad wink for the slower audience members.
"Not just falls. Dave. You could point a gun at me and pull the trigger. The gun would jam, or you would miss, or you might have forgotten to load the gun. But I won't get hurt."
"That could be useful here in New York." The audience dutifully chuckled. "Anything else?"
"Well, protects me from getting hurt in accidents."
"And how do you propose to show us this?"
"I thought I would jump off the building." The drummer gave a staccato burst, and Dave flipped his cue cards off to the side of the stage.
Dave let the band lead the audience in a whoop-and-howl session. With the audience back in hand despite his dud of a guest, Dave decided now was the time to get Simon out of there. His staff would hear about this one later.
"So what you are saying is that the sidewalk came up and hit you, but you were saved when it bounced off your silver cigarette lighter?" Dave paused for the zinger: "Friend, you should be writing for NBC news!"
That got him various war whoops and staccato bursts of white noise from the band. Relieved that it wasn't a complete disaster, Dave turned to the camera, slapped on his best disarming grin, and said, "Folks, we're having more fun than humans should be allowed to have. We'll be right back with Dr. Ruth after these important messages... Right. Simon, thank you for coming, head backstage and the guys back there will tell you where to go next."
Dave watched Simon shuffle off stage and narrowed his eyes in thought. He wondered if he shouldn't have drawn him out a bit more. He sounded completely sincere, and the fact was, he HAD fallen five stories and not been hurt.
The 'commercial break' was fake, of course - the show was being taped and wouldn't go on the air for eight hours. But Dr. Ruth needed five minutes or so before she would be ready. Idly, Dave thought about going backstage and talking to Simon, maybe ease a few ruffled feathers, but then the producer was there with a sheet full of questions for the Doctor. Dave shrugged it off.
Fifteen minutes later, Dave was feeling relaxed and happy. Dr. Ruth, as always, was entertaining, charming, and amusing. The next segment, the weekly "Fatuous Cat Award," would be presented to someone rich and famous who had made a truly idiotic statement to the media in the past week, and was one of his favorite schticks. This week, the award was going to a Major League ball player who had complained about the lazy, overpaid garbage men in his area. Dave had a Sanitation Engineer who had played semipro in the audience and an amusing offer to make to the millionaire ballplayer. The show would wrap up with "Ten people most likely to be picked as stand-ins if NBC 'simulates' a Presidential press conference." Dave never passed up an opportunity to get a few digs in.
Startled, Dave looked around. Unsure where the voice came from, but knowing it wasn't from the audience, Dave glanced off the set to the left, where the producer was. He was staring and pointing up, mouth agape. Dave glanced up to see... Oh, Jesus.
Thirty-five feet above the set floor, Simon hung gaily from the outside of the lighting catwalk, one hand gripping the railing, feet planted against the edge of the walkway. He was using his other arm to wave at Dave.
"Look out below!" Simon whooped, "Here I come!" With that, Simon twisted around, let go of the railing and fell in a perfect swan dive.
Dave frantically made a slashing motion across his throat at the main cameraman. As Dave crossed his windpipe a second time, Simon landed with a heavy, mortal-sounding thud.
To Dave's horror, there was a crackling, splintering sound, Dave and Dr. Ruth collided as they sprang up, and only quick reflexes on Dave's part saved Dr. Ruth from making her own heavy thud on the stage. But because of that, one of the musicians got there first.
"Jesus Fuckin' Christ on a Crutch!" was the musician's professional opinion. Hearing that, Dave paused and gathered his nerve, expecting to see intestines and other yucky stuff like that spread all over the stage. Dave glanced at his hand, saw the broken pencil, and tossed it aside.
He leaned forward. "Is he breathing?"
"Sure I'm breathing. Shouldn't I be?" Simon looked up at Dave, shot him a grin. Simon sat up, and the musician said, "No, man. Stay put. You might be bleeding inside!" Simon stood up over the loud protestations of the musician, and to Dave's relief, two parameds strode from off stage, carrying resuscitation gear.
"OK," one of them said, glancing around, "Who fell?"
The paramed looked at Simon, lifted an eyebrow. "What kind of fall did you have?"
"From up there," Simon pointed.
"Up... there? OK. Let's get you back down on the floor."
"Because I said so." The parameds both grabbed Simon and lowered him carefully. Sensing that he wouldn't be of much use where he was, Dave went over to help his producer calm down the audience. Occasionally, he glanced over. The parameds knelt beside Simon, who once again was sitting up. At one point Dave saw one of them taking his blood pressure and while the other laid out what looked like some kind of inflatable pants on the floor next to him. Finally the paramed who had spoken earlier came over.
"We're done here, sir."
"Is he going to be OK?"
"Sir, he is OK. No sign of injury."
"What hospital are you taking him to?"
"We're not taking him anywhere. He doesn't want to go, and we don't have any overriding medical justification."
"What? You've got to take him! He just fell three stories!"
The paramed stifled a sigh. "Sir, we can't force a healthy man to go to a hospital against his will."
"Healthy? He just tried to commit suicide!"
The paramed cocked an eyebrow. "Izzat so?" Holding a hand palm out to tell Dave to stay where he was, the paramed walked over and started talking to Simon. The other paramed stood back, talking into his radio. Suddenly feeling vaguely apprehensive, Dave watched closely from the audience pit as Simon smiled and shook his head. Minutes later, a cop joined the trio. The cop spoke to the first paramed, and then turned to Simon, asking questions and jabbing in his direction with the antenna of his portable radio for emphasis. Simon kept smiling and shaking his head as he answered the questions. A moment later, the cop walked over to Dave and waving at him to speak up with his radio, asked "What's the story here?"
Dave explained the events leading up to the jump. The cop listened carefully, fiddling with the squelch button. At the end, the cop looked at Dave and said "Did you encourage him to jump?"
"Humph. Well, he does says he didn't ask you because you would have told him no." The cop gave Dave a steady look. "Look, I know what kind of show you run here. I hear any more reports of people risking their lives for the cameras here, and I run your ass in. Izzat clear?"
"Look, I didn't..."
Dave clenched his teeth and glared at the studio rafters. He could have been happy as an insurance salesman in Indiana, but noooooo. "That's clear, officer," he spat out. Dave watched, furious and outraged, as the parameds and police officer left. Spotting Simon to the side, he signaled to a stage hand, who trotted over. "Get him out of here," Dave seethed. The stage hand escorted Simon off stage.
The director walked over to Dave and saw him gazing after Simon. The director was very good at his job, which included being able to guess accurately at Dave's thoughts. Unfortunately, this time he guessed wrong, and because he didn't hear the conversation between Dave and the cop, he had no way of knowing how much insult he was adding to injury.
"No, Dave," he said. "Not the camera-under-the-plexiglass thing. Not with a human. RCA would never give permission." Slowly, Dave turned to face his director...
Simon sat cross-legged on the plush hotel bed and felt disgruntled. His jump did not make the show. His interview was cut entirely! Even Dave's opening monologue was different. Simon knew that Dave wasn't very happy with him, but he thought his interview was pretty good, even if he did say it himself, and should have stayed in.
Funny, he thought, how different the stage was from what he was seeing on TV. Those little hand gestures Dave made to indicate which camera should be turned on, for instance; Simon hadn't noticed Dave doing that during the interview. The stage faded away to the cityline logo, and Simon sighed and used the remote to change to the in-house channel, which showed Casino action to the soundtrack of a local soft-rock radio station.
He took out his magic lighter, which was how he thought of it, and gazed at it. It looked, for all the world, like a regular Zippo. It worked like a regular lighter, and required fuel and flint like a regular lighter. Simon, unsure if the lighter would still do that other thing if it was out of fuel or needed a flint, kept it up carefully. He snapped the top of the lighter pensively a few times, looked at the engraving on the side. "To Simon, for a healthy and happy life. Charlie."
When Charlie gave him the lighter, Simon hadn't wanted it. Things had gone badly wrong in Simon's life, and Simon was the reason for it. His wife left him because he didn't know how to treat her right, he lost his job when the boss suddenly got tired of Simon screwing up all the time, and the car he was using for a house as well as transportation blew up just two weeks after he spent his last $2,000 on it. He was broke, homeless, and jobless, and it was all his own fault.
When Charlie told him he had a gift, Simon turned it down, because he was always losing things like lighters, and didn't want Charlie mad at him for not taking care of such a nice gift.
"You won't lose this one," Charlie said, and stuffed it in his hand. Charlie knew a few things that Simon didn't. Charlie, for instance, knew that Simon's wife had married him six months earlier simply to grab a modest inheritance and run. Simon would have been surprised to learn his wife's generous offer not to take him to court if he just gave her the money and the house was known to Charlie, and most of the town. Charlie also knew that Simon had been fired unjustly, not because of poor work, but because someone had to be laid off, and the employer knew Charlie would be easy to cheat on the unemployment insurance. The mechanic who sold Simon that car knew it was dying rapidly, and by then, knew what most everyone else in the town knew; Simon blamed himself for anything bad that happened to him. Charlie knew about everything that had happened to Simon, and knew that Simon wasn't to blame for any of it.
There was one other thing Charlie knew. Charlie knew he could rectify the situation. Charlie made a magic lighter.
After that, things started to change in Simon's life. He got his house and money back when his wife, who had never filed for divorce, was killed by her new husband, who, ironically, had a sudden impulse to try to take her ill-gotten property from her. But since the previous marriage was still undissolved, his was null and void, and all he got was arrested for murder. The paper Simon had signed giving everything to her never turned up, and since nobody asked him, Simon said nothing to anyone. About the same time, a lawyer had looked Simon up, and had informed him that a class action suit was being filed against one Joseph Grebbitz, mechanic, for false and deceptive practices, and did Simon buy a car from the gentleman in question? Simon said he had, and two days later, a beaming lawyer had reappeared, informing Simon that Grebbitz had settled out of court, and that Simon's share of the payment, after lawyer's fees, was to be $3,000. Simon didn't need the money any more, but found that the extra thousand was just right to cover expenses of his wife's funeral, which was almost exactly $1,000 more than her modest life insurance had covered. Just as icing on the cake, the lawyer had gotten Simon a job as janitor in the office building where the lawyer worked. It was a modest job, one that paid an adequate salary, and it was the best job Simon had ever had in his ill-educated life.
Simon didn't equate any of this with Charlie's lighter. Sure, Charlie had told him that if he had the lighter, no harm could befall him, but wasn't that the sort of thing friends said when giving each other gifts?
Simon wasn't sure, but thought it was nice of Charlie to say such a thing. But Simon noticed one thing about the lighter. Charlie was right. Simon couldn't lose it.
Not that he had to try; Simon's life was a long string of lost objects, including shoes, hats, bicycles, pets, spare change, shirts, gloves, umbrellas, and on one memorable occasion, his dad's lawnmower. Simon's rear end always tingled with the memories of his father's reaction to that one. Simon's folks always figured he would outgrow the absent-mindedness, but he never had. For Simon to hold on to the lighter for three days was astonishing. A week was miraculous. It seemed for a while that every time Simon stepped out of a room, someone behind him would shout, "Hey, Simon! Is this your lighter?" One time a cop had pulled him over and handed him the lighter, after seeing it fly out the window off of Simon's dashboard on a sharp turn. The cop, utterly perplexed, had then continued on to answer a 911 call he had received just before seeing the lighter fall.
Items gravitated in and around piles in Simon's home in a kind of a Brownian motion, and the search for the most commonplace and frequently-used of objects could often take a couple of days. Not the lighter, though; it always seemed to be atop the pile nearest Simon. After a while, Simon stopped mislaying the lighter altogether. It seemed that his absent-mindedness was improving at long last.
This was all a bit odd, but not odd enough to tweak Simon's somewhat limited imagination. A few weeks after he settled back in his home, he was changing a light bulb in his basement, standing on a foot ladder. He lost his balance, fell backwards, and the middle of his spine collided with the air intake housing on the power mower that was behind him. Neither Simon nor the mower suffered any damage.
The following week, Simon rested his hand on a red-hot element on his electric range. He was not burned. Simon was able to pass these incidents off to luck.
The event that finally made Simon realize the promise behind the lighter was true came in the fall, when Simon was clearing leaves out of his eaves gutters. His was a two-story house, and his feet were planted on the very top rung, precisely twenty-four feet above a rock garden. The ladder shifted, and Simon fell gracelessly, like a bag of cement, landing at an awkward and mortal angle among the bowling ball-sized boulders and cactus. He gazed at the gray autumn Maine sky for a few minutes, more confused by his sudden shift in the environment than anything else, and then picked himself up. The rock where his head had landed had a new crack, and gingerly Simon reached to the back of his head, expecting to find corresponding damage. Not a hair was out of place. At that point, Simon pulled the lighter out of his pocket and stared at it, and had what was probably the longest series of connected thought he'd ever had in his life. Simon took the broken rock and put it on a shelf in his living room. Simon always had a self-depreciating streak in his humor, and what a story that rock now represented!
Simon started to experiment. Little jumps at first, followed by bigger and bigger ones. He wasn't dogging it; he would have been happy just keeping his jumping ability his own little secret, but finally someone saw him land, and when word got out, the reporters came, and didn't believe, reporting instead that he simply survived a five-story fall. Which lead to the TV show. Nobody believed him.
"Nobody will believe you," Charlie said, trying to dissuade Simon from going on the show and talking about the lighter. "Even if you jump from the Space Shuttle, they'll start looking at you with X-rays and stethoscopes and CAT scans to see why you can't get hurt. They won't believe an ordinary lighter has anything to do with it."
"But they won't find anything different about me. Will they?"
"No, they won't. And they'll be mystified. You have to understand, Simon, that sometimes people would sooner be mystified than right."
"I don't understand."
Charlie heaved a sigh. "People prefer to be mystified and not find answers in familiar places than be mystified by answers in unfamiliar places. Not understanding why your body is invulnerable to harm is more comfortable than failing to understand how an ordinary lighter can keep you safe would be."
"I still don't understand. I believe it's the lighter. Why wouldn't they?"
"You're special, Simon."
Simon blinked and slapped his own wrist, a habit his mother had taught him to pull himself out of those moments when Simon simply stared into space. Already the memory of the conversation with Charlie was fading back into the mists of Simon's mind.
"I'm special." Simon repeated the words to himself, no longer sure where the thought came from. He felt a dull ache in his chest, and a sudden need to be somewhere, anywhere, besides this empty hotel suite. Simon grabbed his coat. While he didn't need to worry about frostbite, head colds or pneumonia, he'd already discovered that lighter or no lighter, New York nights in the early spring were still uncomfortable.
At three in the morning, the unsleeping city still roared at the sightless skies, but gaps appeared in the vast streamers of traffic, and the sidewalks were nearly deserted. In the war dance of its dreams, the city's sirens whooped and delivery trucks sent smoke signals on the misty air.
For Simon, used to the cold black calm of the Maine night, the city was an amazing and astounding cacophony, a chant to the driving compulsions of America.
Simon, however, didn't feel particularly driven. Glancing in both directions, he headed west, toward Central Park, at random. Fitful winds blew scraps of paper that once had been very important to someone in swirls and eddies on the filthy curbs, and lights flashed their messages of avarice and control to the heedless trucks and taxicabs. In the rawness and loneliness of the night, the city confronted Simon with its blank granite faces, and Simon, disconcerted, unconsciously picked up the pace of his stroll.
As he neared an entrance to the park, a crackling, high-pitched shout came from an alcove, which caused him to jump. "You de MAN! You de MAN!"
There was an indistinct hurried motion in the darkened doorway next to Simon, and he leaned forward to get a better look, and then jumped back as bits of torn paper flew at him. An emaciated black man jumped out and landed on the sidewalk next to the astonished Simon with a dramatic gesture. "You de MAN!" With that, the man started to shuffle gleefully around Simon, reaching into a torn and filthy paper grocery bag to pull out scraps of paper, which he tossed gaily in Simon's direction. "You de MAN!"
"What are you doing?" Simon asked in an exasperated voice. "What do you want?" Suddenly, the man stopped cavorting, and faced Simon with a solemn expression on his face. In normal, conversational tones, the man said, "You are the man."
Simon's shoulders dropped with relief. Now, it seemed, he was getting somewhere. He looked at the other carefully. Not emaciated - STARVED, and the clothes looked as if he had spent the entire winter in them. Looking at the cardboard tied around the shoes, and the wild, unkempt hair and beard, Simon reflected that perhaps the man had lived and slept in those same clothes for a long, long time. Suddenly, the man's eyes widened, and he shouted "YoudeMAN! YoudeMAN! YoudeMAN!" and resumed his shuffling grotesque dance around Simon and throwing confetti at him.
Simon had been warned about this sort of thing. Panhandlers, he knew, were common in the city, and used some pretty elaborate tactics to get the money they needed. Simon had also been told what to do with them. "Why don't you get cleaned up and go get a job?" he demanded.
The man stopped, and looked at Simon thoughtfully. "You know, that's a good idea. I don't know why I never thought of it. I'll do that. Thanks." And with that, the man strode off, tossing his paper bag aside, walking for all the world like a lawyer on his way to court. Simon watched with raised eyebrows until the man was out of sight.
He wasn't sure what had just happened there; nothing in his experience had prepared him for anything like that. He pulled out his lighter, and looked at it. "Did you have something to do with that?" He watched the lighter, half-expecting an answer, and when none came, he stuck it back in his pocket and strolled into Central Park.
He had only gotten about 50 yards in when a voice came: "Stop! Right where you are!" Simon looked around wildly, spotted a man with a handkerchief over his face and a gun in his hand about 50 feet away. He turned to run, heard the gun fire, and stopped and raised his hands. He winced as the gun fired twice more. The gunman muttered, and the shooting stopped.
"Jeezus Christ, you're a lucky motherfucker," the gunman said, approaching Simon. "I don't miss at that range. Let's see what you got here." With that, the gunman, keeping his piece firmly pressed against Simon's left temple, started patting him down.
"Right," he said, stepping back, "your wallet's in your left back pocket. Fucking rube. Pull it out real slow. I see you reach anywhere else, you're a dead motherfucker. Now!" Gingerly, Simon reached for his wallet, pulled it out slowly. He kept his other hand in the air. Handing the wallet over, he slowly raised his right hand. The gunman stepped back three paces, aimed the gun right at Simon's heart. With a practiced motion, he flipped the wallet open and felt in the paper money area with his thumb.
"Let's see what you got... Fuck ME!" The gunman waggled his thumb back and forth over a thick wad of bills, his eyes widening in amazement. "How much money you got here, anyway?"
"Um, about $1,500. But look, I need it to get home and so on... "
"Shaddup." The gunman's eyes narrowed in thought as he continued to ruffle the bills absent-mindedly. "Fifteen hundred BUCKS? What the fuck are you doing walking around the park at night with that kinda dough?"
"Well, I was told not to trust the hotel staff, and besides, I've got this lighter... "
"Aw, Jeezus. Looks like I hit the fuckin' jackpot tonight. You're one lucky asshole - last three hits were broke, and so I scragged their asses. You got any idea how lucky you are, you stupid fuck?" The gunman, still lost in his own thoughts, didn't see Simon nod. "You said something about a special lighter? Lemme see."
The gunman kept the gun steady as Simon reached in his coat pocket, withdrew the lighter. The gunman darted forward, snatched the lighter from Simon's hand. Stepping back again and aiming the gun, he peered at the lighter. "Looks like a Zippo to me. Nice lighter, but it don't look so special."
He flipped it at Simon, who made an awkward snatch, and for a miracle, caught it. The gunman stood for a minute, waggling his gun indecisively. "You can't go walking around here with that kind of money. Here, catch." He tossed the unmolested wallet back to Simon. This time, Simon grabbed at it, hit it, and it flew off to the gunman's side. Simon glanced at the gunman's face, and at his nod, walked over and picked it up.
"Y'know," the gunman said reflectively, pulling the bandanna from his face, "usually, I come across something too sweet like this, well, me, I smell pork. But you ain't pork, are ya?" At Simon's puzzled look, he added, "You ain't a cop?" Simon shook his head, and the gunman continued with a laugh.
"Heee. I smelled setup city, and was all ready to open up and just start shooting the bushes, then I saw you muff that catch and I just thought, 'Hey, this guy, he ain't no pig.' Yowtatawner?" Getting another puzzled look, he enunciated, "Are you from out of town?"
"Yeah. I was supposed to be on this TV show."
"Uh-huh. Where you from?"
"Maine? You're off your fucking turf, guy. Where 'bouts in Maine?"
"Small town called Chittick. You ever heard of it?"
"Nope. Never been outta the city." The gunman - who, Simon saw, was only about 18 years old - looked Simon over. "So what the fuck am I going to do with you? You can't walk around like that!"
"You fucking crazy! This is a dangerous place! Hell, I should know. Look, lemme walk you back to your hotel, OK? Really, this is a bad place to be."
"Aw, you don't have to do that. Really - it's not far, and I can manage."
The gunman eyed Simon dubiously. "OK. Look, at least take this!" With that, he thrust his gun toward Simon, butt first.
It was Simon's turn to look dubious. "I haven't fired a gun in years."
"Hey, there's nothing to it." With an expert motion, the gunman flipped the gun, caught it, and fired three quick rounds into a garbage can about 75 yards away. "You see? I'm a helluva shot. That's why I said you were a lucky fucky when I missed you earlier. Look -- It's a very good gun," he pointed out.
"I can see that. OK. But what about you? This is your gun, right?"
"I got others. Get going. And stay away from Biting Bennie."
"Crazy old jig, lives by the east entrance. Dances, throws paper at people, and then tries to bite out their throats. Really bad news. Go on the left side of the entrance, and be prepared to run for it." Simon decided not to mention he had already made that particular gentleman's acquaintance.
Pocketing the gun, he waved, grinned, and said, "Thanks!"
"No problem," the gunman answered, and strode off into the heart of the park. Simon watched him go and felt a rising tide of exaltation. He hadn't realized that the lighter not only kept him safe from harm, but influenced anyone who might want to harm him.
There's a lot of bad people in this world, Simon thought. He could do something about that, with his lighter. Hefting the alien weight of the gun in his pocket, he considered this strange new power. You want to make the world better? He thought. He knew where to start on a project to make the world better. You start at the top. Spinning on his heel, decisions made, Simon strode out of the park.
Naturally, the cops wanted to know just where Simon found this particular gun. He had decided to stop by the borough station, both to drop off the gun, which he wasn't comfortable with, and to pick up a few odds and ends that he thought might come in handy.
The desk sergeant glared at Simon. "This is a Mauser. There aren't very many of them in the city, and three people were killed in the Central Park area by shots from a Mauser in the past two weeks. Now, tell me again - how did you come by this gun?"
"I found it near the east entrance of Central Park."
"Nobody tried to sell it to you? You didn't find it near a body, or anything unusual? It was just lying there?"
"Holy Smokes," the sergeant breathed. Sniffing, he added, "This has been fired recently, like in the last hour or so. Did you fire it?"
"Did you open the chamber? Play around with the trigger? Hold it by the barrel?"
The sergeant gusted a sigh, picked up the gun with a pen up the barrel and placed it carefully in a plastic bag. Waving a patrolman over, he said, "Get this down to forensics, get it dusted, get sample rounds. And make sure there's a message on Danklefs' desk in the morning. He's the one on this case, right?"
Turning to Simon, he said, "You may have just given us a lead on one of the nastiest scumbags around. We think he killed five people. Glad you came in."
"OK. How about giving me your badge?"
"What did you say?"
Simon rolled his eyes. "Your badge. I would like to have your badge."
The desk sergeant chuckled. A farmer, learning that his pigs could, in fact, fly, might have worn a similar expression. The sergeant's left eyebrow gave a shrug, and he carefully unpinned his badge and handed it to Simon.
"Thanks. I'll bring it back when I'm done." Grinning, Simon pinned the badge on his coat, and started for the door.
A couple of policemen, coming in from patrol, eyed Simon curiously. "Say, that looks like one of our badges," one of them said.
"That's right. I got it from that gentleman there."
"Prescott gave you his badge, huh?" The cop giggled. "We'll have to razz him about that."
Nudging and grinning at his partner, the policeman moved toward the sergeant's desk. Simon strolled back to his hotel room. It was late, but he wanted to be in Washington, D.C. in the morning.
Getting into the White House proved to be no problem. Guards looked at his official NYPD badge and decided that here was someone important enough that he didn't need passes or Presidential permissions. It was at the anteroom to the Oval Office where resistance stiffened.
"The President is in conference with the Ambassador for Japan. He can't be disturbed."
"Japan? Oh, that's fine. I'd like to talk to him, too. Um, I don't have to know Japanese or Chinese or anything like that, do I?"
She shook her head. "You really shouldn't. They are in the middle of very important negotiations. The President's whole economic package depends on this meeting with the Japanese."
"Oh, you don't need to worry. In fact, I bet that old Japanese Ambassador will be eating out of my hand after five minutes. Honest!"
Ms. Hiscox, never married and never penetrated, was usually known outside the White House as 'The Maginot Line.' There was no way through her to the inner sanctum of the President, and, the gossip continued, the only way past her was to take a detour through Belgium. She had successfully fended off lobbyists, congressional leaders, public nags masquerading as social activists, and even members of the President's family. The 200 marines stationed at the White House weren't as effective a barrier against unwelcome intrusions as she was.
"OK, go ahead on in."
"Thank you," Simon said courteously. He strode past the desk and turned the knob.
The President glanced up, startled. That door had never in his six years in office opened without him knowing exactly who was on the other side, and what their business was. He was even more startled when a Chaplinesque character in a winter coat with a police badge walked in.
"Good morning, Mr. President, Mr. Ambassador," Simon said courteously.
"Good morning," the President replied automatically. "Can I help you with something?"
"Well, yes. Yes you can. First, I want you to cut your military budget in half. You don't really need all those A-bombs and whatnot. What's the point in making stuff that's only meant to hurt people?"
"That's a good point," the President replied. He glanced at the Ambassador, who nodded and gave a blinding smile.
"And I want you to take the money you save and use it to fix all the potholes. Several of my buddies got busted axles this Melt, and that just ain't right.
"No... no, it isn't right. And you're right, something needs to be done about that. Mr. Ambassador, do you have potholes in Japan?"
"Indeed we do. I shall convey your sentiments to the Emperor, um...?" The ambassador took out a notepad. "Perhaps it would please Mr. Simon if he were to name the roads that have these impediments." He turned to the President. "Japan feels that she should always stand ready to help her allies."
"Thank you." Simon shook hands with the ambassador, and added, "Could you set up for your Emperor or Prime Minister or whoever is in charge over there to come by and visit me? I would like to speak with him." The ambassador nodded and made deft lines on his pad. "And Mr. President, I want you to start work writing some new laws for me, OK?"
The President smiled at Simon and carefully pushed a button, carefully placed under the lip of his desk. Within ten seconds, two large Marine guards strode into the office, grabbed Simon by his arms, and started towing him out.
"Hey! What are you doing? Let go of me!" The Marines didn't reply, and within moments, the door slammed shut, and the commotion Simon was raising was immediately cut off. The President and the Ambassador regarded one another. Both men looked drawn and vaguely disoriented. The President looked at the door Simon and the guards had just gone through and shook his head, as if wakening from an unexpected nap.
Both men shook their heads and frowned. The ambassador glanced at his notepad, pulled his head back in shock, and hurriedly tore the top piece of paper off and stuffed it in a breast pocket.
The President looked like he was wondering where he left his car keys. "Perhaps, Mr. Ambassador, we could continue our discussion tomorrow?"
Without a word, the Marines dumped Simon on the sidewalk in front of the White House. Indignant, Simon picked himself up and strode back to the guards, who were already turning back to reenter the White House grounds.
Grabbing the larger one by the arm, he said "Escort me back in there, right now."
The guard grinned down at Simon. "Look, buddy, you just broke in on the President of the United States, and tried to take over his office. That's almost treason, buddy. It's certainly trespass. By rights, we should be running you in."
Shocked, Simon stared at the guard. The lighter, he thought numbly. It's wearing off. Without a word, he turned and strode away, in the direction of the Mall. Behind him, the two guards watched, grinning. One said something, and the other gave a humorous shrug, and they walked back onto the White House grounds. As Simon walked, a horrid thought struck him. Suppose the lighter had lost all its power?
Would the guards come after him? HAD he just committed treason? He wasn't big on legal theory, but he supposed that breaking in on the President and trying to take over his job might be seen that way. And what was the penalty for treason?
Simon stopped, theatrically put a hand on his throat, and gulped. He began running.
Charlie found Simon right where he thought Simon would be, in a copse of trees alongside the mall. Slipping up silently behind him, Charlie said "Hi!" Simon screeched and jumped a foot in the air, landing facing Charlie with white, perspiring face and wild eyes.
Charlie laughed. "Gotcha!"
"Charlie!" Simon sputtered, and jumped up and grabbed Charlie's vest. "Charlie, I'm in big trouble. Your lighter quit working, and I got people looking for me."
Charlie looked at Simon with a look of sympathy. "Boy, you're a mess." He raised a finger. "First, nobody's looking for you. Everyone involved is laughing it off as a joke."
"You don't understand. The President..."
Charlie moved his finger to his lips. "Shhh. I know all about the President." He moved the finger away, lifted his middle finger beside it, "Second, the lighter works just fine. You still can't be harmed."
Charlie gave Simon an amused look. "Do you think I don't have anything better to do with my time?" Simon looked abashed, and Charlie continued, "If you had taken over President Renouf's office and started working your will on the whole world, terrible things would have happened."
"Ohhh, I don't know. Maybe there would have been a nuclear war, and you would have been the only survivor. Or maybe everyone would hate you and want you dead, and even though they couldn't hurt you, just the fact that so many people would hate you would hurt you. It isn't normal human nature to be made benevolent the way the lighter does. It's actually corrosive to the human spirit. And you were having a corrosive effect on yourself. You would be so dependent on that lighter to meet your slightest whim that after a while you wouldn't be a real person anymore. You would become spoiled, petulant, and peevish. You might have started hurting others for your own amusement."
"I wouldn't do that!"
"No? What about that desk Sergeant that you made give you his badge? He could lose his job for that. What did you need it for, anyway? Weren't you just seeing if you could take it?" Simon looked deeply shamed, and Charlie added, "I fixed that, too. Notice you aren't wearing the badge any more?" Simon patted his coat where the badge had been.
Charlie continued, "It's taken care of. But you KNEW, at least in the back of your head, that he could have gotten in a lot of trouble, and you certainly knew you were making him do something he wouldn't have done of his own free will. Interfering with other people's freedom is corrosive, Simon. You wind up losing a bit of your self every time you make someone jump like a monkey for you. I don't know if I can explain it any better than that."
"I never meant to hurt anyone."
Charlie sat back, chewing a dead twig, and waited for the tempest to pass.
After a few minutes, Simon looked at Charlie, tear-streaked and bright eyed, and said, "Charlie? If I promise never to use the lighter to make people do things, will the lighter stop hurting other people?"
"Sorry. It's just too powerful to hand out to mortals." Charlie held out a hand. "Let's have it."
Simon hesitated, and then dropped the lighter into Charlie's hand. Charlie stuffed in his pocket. A moment later, there was a clink as the lighter struck the sidewalk, having slid down the inside of Charlie's trouser, Charlie stuffed his hand in the pocket, and for an instant, wore the "I have a hole in my pocket" expression that is universal among humanity. Simon picked up the lighter, which had bounced over next to his foot, and handed it to Charlie. Charlie concentrated, groped his pocket.
"There!" he said with a satisfied expression. He took the lighter, stuffed it in his mended pocket. It missed, hit the sidewalk, bounced straight into the breast pocket of an amazed Simon. Charlie stared, speechless. He stared for so long that Simon began to shift his feet nervously. Then Charlie held out his hand. Simon handed over the lighter. It slipped through Charlie's fingers, hit the curb, bounced into the cuff of Simon's pant leg.
"I will be a flea-bitten, tie-dyed, worm-holed son of a bitch," Charlie breathed. He glared at Simon, and then suddenly, his features split in a wide, picket fence grin. "Simon, did you ever hear of the paradox of a god creating a rock so heavy he cannot lift it?"
Simon shook his head dumbly.
"No? Well, never mind. Metaphysically speaking, I just found a way to bite my own ass." With that, Charlie shook his head irritably and vanished into thin air, leaving Simon standing on eclipse in the warm Washington morning. Simon reached down, and retrieved the lighter from his cuff, sticking it in his breast pocket. Sometimes Charlie just didn't make any sense at all. But Simon figured that probably didn't matter.
Whistling, Simon turned on his heel. It was time to go home.
Copyright © 1998 Swagazine Six