Raymond J. Harding
CHARLIE S. AND THE LAST GODDESS
Charlie S. came storming through the doors leading from the lower floors and burst into the main office. Nothing. The place was deserted. There were no agents, no clients, no receptionist. Charlie shook his head in anger and disbelief. The usual office sounds: the chatter of typewriters, the click of busy heels, phones ringing, all were absent. The place was as hushed and muted as a chapel. He glanced at his newest acquisition brought in by a disgruntled employee when Ma Bell broke up, and of the myriad of lights on the contraption only one, a red, glowing, cyclopean eye was lit. It was the light indicating that the machine was on. He shook his head once more in disgust and then started to search for the receptionist.
He spotted her through the open door of the women’s lounge. She was sitting with her right leg crossed over the left at the knee, bent over, applying a coat of vermillion polish to her toe nails. “Hey, sweetie!” he called. “You, what’s-your-name. Get out here. Where in hell is everybody?”
He heard her sigh as she slipped her high-heeled shoe back on and walked out of the lounge to join him in the office. He remembered as he watched her move, why he had brought her up to the receptionist’s spot. Not an ounce of talent as a secretary, but she had a body that defied adjectives. She moved across the office like a panther. Charlie watched her sleek, lithe legs, as she stalked across the room. She walked tall, as if she were well aware of the effect that she produced with her smooth hips, thin waist, and the most gorgeous breasts that Charlie had ever seen. He spent a few moments in quiet appreciation. Charlie was a man who was used to having beautiful women surround him and ignoring their presence, but he found that he could not ignore this one. Even her face was perfect: dark, almond eyes beneath perfectly arched brows; cheek bones that gave a sense of intelligence, strength, and character to her face; a mouth both sensitive and sensuous; black hair that fell in thick waves to her shoulders, framing her delicate features with all the perfection that would be given by the Louvre to a Tintoretto or a Titian.
–Back to business, he thought, “Where are they all? There’s no one here!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” her voice was deep and had a certain sultry quality to it that would have been pure seduction on the phone–if they had ever got any phone calls. “It’s been this quiet all day, but Doctor Beal did let me know just a few minutes ago that he’s on his way in, and he’s got someone with him.”
“A client? I don’t believe it! Beal couldn’t even hustle used cars, let alone bring in a client. I only sent him out because there was no one else around.”
“Well, I’m not sure that it is a client,” the receptionist said. She seemed a little hesitant. “Doctor Beal did sound quite upset by something.” She sat at her desk, pulled a nail file from her drawer and began working on the nails of her left hand. Before Charlie could question her further, there was a commotion in the outer hall, and as they looked up, Doctor Beal, harried and tired looking, slumped into the office. Behind him was a young man about thirty years old wearing a white summer suit, a light blue shirt, and a matching tie. He was rather agitated. Following at his heels was a medium-sized, very shaggy, grey-black dog of nondescript heritage. The young man was concluding a rather lengthy tirade, when Beal suddenly turned back on him and snapped, “It’s your own stupid fault. You’re not supposed to wear white in New England after Labor Day!”
“That’s the dumbest excuse you’ve given me so far!” The young man threw both arms in the air in a gesture of defeat, “I give up!”
Charlie S. came around the receptionist’s desk and stood in front of Beal. The receptionist and the young man were staring at one another. Her left hand was frozen in mid-air over her desk like a cobra about to strike. The other hand was calmly returning the nail file to the desk drawer. The young man’s lower jaw was slightly agape.
Charlie lit into Doctor Beal, “I send you out on a simple assignment to a Cambridge tavern, and now you come back with the wrong man! What could go wrong? What happened?”
“You don’t have to yell at me. I did my best, but, as usual, it was too late. We’re just not getting enough time, boss. I was so mad! Then, when I see this dude coming at me, I thought it was one of the others, and I– I just lost control.”
“Alright, what did you do?”
Before he could answer, the young man tore himself away from his fascination with the receptionist to blurt out, “I’ll tell you what he did! He blasted me with a lightning bolt. Never saw anything like it in my life. Blew me the length of the bloody bar!”
“Yeah, me too,” said the dog.
The young man whipped his head around and stared at the dog in amazement, “Gee, Ralph, I didn’t know you could talk!” he said.
“I could always talk, Billy; you just didn’t know how to listen.”
“Is this right?” said Charlie S. ignoring the dog, “You zapped this guy?”
Doctor Beal hung his head sheepishly, “I guess I did. But, like I told you, boss, it’s getting so frustrating coming up late and empty all the time, and when I saw that damned white suit! I guess I just went a little nuts.”
“I’ll deal with you later.” Turning to the young man he said, “Billy? That your name?”
“Yes, sir, William T. O’Brien, Cambridge, Massachusetts. I’m a computer programmer at HIGHSITE INC.”
“O.K., Billy, lets hear your side of this mess.”
“Well, there I was, sitting by myself–”
“Billy!” the dog interrupted.
“O.K., Ralph! Me and Ralph here were sitting by ourselves in the corner seat of the bar at Hanratty’s Tavern in Cambridge watching the Dolphins taking the Patriots apart piece by piece. The game was so bad that most of the regulars had gone home for supper. There was this one old guy though, that just wouldn’t give up. He was sitting about six seats down from us, and he was glued to the TV. All of a sudden, Grogan drops out of the pocket and starts scrambling, only he’s dropping back all the time, losing yardage. There are three linemen and one monster of a line-backer about to do bad things to his body when this old guy stands up and starts yelling, ‘You crazy bastard–‘ and boom, all of a sudden, he keels over like a redwood. Murphy, the bartender, starts for the phone; I start over to see if I can help the guy, when this fruit cake–” he pointed to Doctor Beal, “appears out of nowhere, takes one look at me, and lets me have half of Mass Electric right between the eyes!”
“Mistaken identity,” Beal murmured.
“Shut up,” said Charlie S. “How much time?’
“It was the last quarter,” Billy said, “maybe two, three minutes.”
“Not you. I mean him,” Charlie sounded exasperated as he pointed a long, menacing finger at Doctor Beal. “How much time?”
“Three seconds,” Beal thought for a moment and then added, “They must have been there and gone in less than two.”
Charlie S. began pacing between the desks, “We’ve got to do something about this. They’ve got to be computerized. It’s the only way they could be beating us this way.”
Billy interrupted Charlie’s pacing, “Look, who are you guys, anyway? Where in hell am I?”
Beal looked from Billy to Charlie S. The receptionist looked at her nails. Charlie looked from Beal to Billy, and then he said quietly, “You called it, son. A little premature, and probably not quite what you thought it would be like, but here you are.”
“You can’t keep me here!” Billy looked frightened, but determined. “I know the rules. This turkey overstepped his authority when he blasted me. That was definitely not my time to go. You’ve got to send me back!”
“Oh, quit cry-babying!” Charlie said. His patience was running thin. “You’re here. You could elect to stay, you know. Things aren’t that bad around here. We’ve just been given a lot of bad P.R. by the other side. Smug, self-righteous bunch of bastards. We could give you a pretty good deal, you know.”
“Oh? Like what?” Billy wasn’t too sure about this whole sequence of events. Everything seemed too real, but it could still be a dream. If it were, he wanted to get some mileage out of it. Then there was the matter of that luscious receptionist.
“You did say something about being a computer programmer?” Charlie S. threw a brotherly arm about Billy’s shoulder and steered him to a leather couch at the side of the office. “Let me tell you a little about the realities of all this, and then I’ll make you a little proposition, and you can make up your mind on your own.”
“Fair enough so far,” Billy said as he sank down into the soft, luxurious grasp of the leather. Ralph trotted over and lay at his feet.
“First of all, let’s get this straight, when you die, you get your choice. Want to got to heaven? Then that’s where you go, and you get to do what you want to do. Upstairs–that’s how we refer to it–you can pray, do a lot of hymn singing, hang around with angels, a nice lot, most of them, and do all sorts of things like that. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of nice people up there, but we also have some nice types down here. The thing is, you can do what you want. Like to play cards? Pop a few brews? Toss down some good bourbon or Scotch? Then we’ve got quite a few young ladies who came down here on their own because they think that’s rather fun themselves. It’s all choice, you see?” Billy nodded.
Charlie went on in the same confiding tone, “Why, if you want to sing “Amazing Grace” or some other hymns, down here, then that’s all right too. Most people take life a little bit of both ways. Card game now and then, couple of six-packs on a Saturday night, but up and out to church with the wife and the kids on Sunday. No problem.”
He leaned close to Billy as if confiding a great secret, “the problem comes when the guys upstairs beat us to the punch. Let’s say you just keeled over dead. In .05 seconds there’s an angel standing next to you, and he asks you, ‘Wanna go to Heaven?’ What are you going to say? Two seconds later, we show up. You’re gone, and we don’t even get a chance to present our side.” He looked forlornly at the others before adding sadly, “It’s goddamned unfair!”
Billy reached down and tussled Ralph’s hair. He glanced at the receptionist and wished that he could tussle her hair, run his hands–
“So, what do you think?” Charlie asked. He had already picked up the vibrations between Billy and the receptionist. He was sure that he could use this to his advantage somehow.
“What’s the deal?” Billy asked. Ralph looked up at him sadly with one accusing eye, but said nothing.
“All we want is a fair shot. Something that would get us there before the other side finalizes the deal. We need a computer. We got this ark from AT&T,” he gave a contemptuous flip of the hand to the phone system. “Reach out and just try to touch someone with that thing. By the time we get notification, the deal is closed. We need equal access to the same actuarial statistics that they’re using upstairs. Can you handle it?”
“What do I get out of it?” Billy asked. For a moment he thought he heard Ralph growling softly at him, but he passed it off as imagination. Ralph never growled.
“What do you want?” Charlie countered with his own question. Charlie S. always like to play his cards close to the vest.
“I set you up, and then I go back. You stay out of my life from now on, and you keep him,” he pointed at Doctor Beal, “to hell out of my life. When I die, I get to make my own choice.”
“That’s all?” Charlie S. was a little suspicious. He wanted to gloat, since what Billy was asking for, he, Charlie, would have had to deliver anyway without any favors. He thought that Billy had known that.
“No, there is one more thing,” he pointed to the receptionist, “She comes with me.”
Doctor Beal looked aghast, “But she’s–”
“Deal!” Charlie S. shouted, cutting Beal off in mid-objection.
“Where do we start?”
“We start with hardware. I know this place on the South Shore. We can get a good deal on the latest, state-of-the-art stuff.”
“Alright,” said Charlie, “let’s go. Beal, get the car, and you–ah–” He turned to Beal, “What the hell is her name?”
“Ishtari-bar-Astartishan,” Beal said, pronouncing it very slowly.
“No wonder I can never remember it,” Charlie said. He turned to the receptionist and snapped, “You, Boobs, bring your notebook, and let’s go.”
They left the New England branch office of Charlie’s domain by the main entrance, located, as most people in the area, if given half a chance, could have guessed, a few hundred yards down from the Old Stone Face on Cannon Mountain in New Hampshire, just above the enormous pile of granite that you can see from Route 3 as you’re heading into the Notch. If you’ve ever skied the boiler-plate on Cannon, you’ll have to admit that only the Devil himself could have designed it.
The five of them worked their way around the side of the mountain and gradually up along their special trail to the summit house. Charlie S. leading the way was followed by the receptionist, who was followed by Billy and Ralph, followed, in turn, by Doctor Beal who was acting as rear guard. Billy had a little trouble concentrating on where he was putting his feet. Charlie S. had changed himself and Beal into three-piece, dark grey suits. The receptionist had wound up in a black, pin-striped suit, ill-chosen high heels, and a short skirt with a very revealing slit. Between the amazing mountain climbing contortions of her derrière, and flashes of the most magnificent legs he had ever seen, Billy almost fell off the mountain three times. It was Ralph who managed to catch him by the seat of his pants on his last lunge.
Even though it was one of those crisp, blue-gold New England days, there were few tourists on the mountain. The four–(sorry, Ralph!)–five of them were alone in the gondola for the trip down the mountain. Billy felt his stomach lurch on the rapid descent, but the others seemed preoccupied. With an effort to make conversation he said, “This place won’t be open on Sunday, you know.”
Charlie looked at him as a teacher might look at a child who had made a most inappropriate comment, and asked, “What’s the best day to get waited on there without a lot of people around?”
Billy thought for a moment then said, “Wednesday.”
“Fine,” said Charlie S., “then today is Wednesday.”
“Oh,” said Billy.
The car met them in the parking lot outside the base station. It was a long, black Cadillac limousine, driven by an equally large Black who looked as though he should have been playing defense for the Patriots when all this started. With a guy like him on the line, Grogan wouldn’t have gotten into trouble, the old guy wouldn’t have had his heart attack, and he and Ralph just wouldn’t be here.
Billy sat in the back seat, flanked by Doctor Beal and Charlie S. The receptionist sat on a jump-seat and displayed her beautiful legs. Ralph curled up on the floor in front of Billy.
Traffic on I-93 was heavy, but the big car seemed to slide effortlessly past everything. They even slipped past a New Hampshire state trooper, passing him on the right. The trooper ignored them. Concord, Manchester, and Nashua were blurs; Boston was a whisper.
Once they hit the Southeast Expressway, Billy gave directions to the place he wanted somewhere between Braintree and Quincy.
“You know,” he said as they pulled off the freeway, “this is a little fast for me. How do you, ah, ‘guys,’ intend to pay for this stuff? You got Visa and MasterCard?’
“Show him, Beal.” Doctor Beal reached into a compartment built into the side of the car and slid out a drawer about two feet long. Billy could see another similar drawer just under it. The drawer resembled the type used as library card-catalogs, except that instead of file cards, it held checks: cashiers checks, thousands of them.
“They start at fifty dollars and run in increments of ten dollars all the way up to one-hundred-thousand dollars. We just pull out the one we need,” sail Beal.
“Wow!” said Billy, “there must be millions there.”
“There is,” said Charlie S. Billy was impressed.
Beal added, “We’ve got Chase Manhattan; we got World Bank; we go–”
“Will you shut up, Beal?” Charlie said.
Billy noticed that the receptionist was staring at him, and had been for some time. Before he could think of anything to say to her, the driver turned to them and said, “We’re there, sir.”
The salesman was a bit effeminate but duly impressed by the business-like demeanor of the group. He did not seem impressed by the receptionist which made Billy a little suspicious. He was also not pleased with Ralph, but declined to say anything that might squelch the sale.
“And, you see, we have just about every system, and nothing, I mean absolutely nothing, but the very latest, the ultimate. Not only can we meet your data needs, but we can color-coordinate to fit your home or office decor.”
“What about fire-engine red?” Billy asked. The salesman ignored him, having recognized Charlie S. as the leader of the group.
The salesman continued, “We have Wang, Commodore, IBM, Digital; we (his voice showed a slight trace of disdain for the commonplace) even have Apple.”
“Apple!” said Beal and Charlie together. They looked at one another. The receptionist shook her head.
“No, forget the Apple,” Charlie said regretfully after a pause. “I’d really like to take it just for old time’s sake, but we’ve already got into enough trouble with an Apple.”
In the end they let Billy pick the equipment he needed, and they paid for it with one of Doctor Beal’s cashier’s checks.
“Now, about software,” the salesman said.
“Just give me the systems disk and ten blanks. I’ll be writing the program for this one myself,” Billy said.
They packed the cases in the trunk of the Cadillac and headed back north.
Back at the office, Charlie S., Beal, and the receptionist were hanging over Billy, watching with curiosity each move he made. Even Ralph kept poking his nose into things. Finally Billy erupted. “Look, you’ve got to give me some breathing room! I can’t concentrate on what I’m doing with all of you clustered around like this. Haven’t you got somewhere to go, something to do? Don’t you know the Devil finds work for idle hands to do?”
“He’s right,” said Charlie, “let’s leave the man to do his work.” He and Beal left by one door, the receptionist by another.
“You too, Ralph. Go sit in the corner.”
As Ralph trotted reluctantly away, head down, Bill thought he heard him mutter, “Shit.”
“What was that, Ralph?”
“Nothing, Billy, nothing at all.”
Billy wondered if having a talking dog was going to be a problem. He went back to work and in less than an hour he had the system up and running. Patching it into the AT&T network took only a few minutes. He pulled a chair up to the keyboard. Now that he was ready to begin programming, he suddenly felt very tired. “No wonder I’m tired,” he said aloud. “Here it is Wednesday already, these guys take me on a seven-hour ride that takes them forty-five minutes, I set up a complete network in a third of the time that it should take, and get bad-mouthed by my own dog. Not bad for a guy who hasn’t slept since Saturday night.”
Just then he heard a soft, “Psst!” and looked around to see the receptionist beckoning him from a doorway across the office. Beyond her, through the open door, he could see what appeared to be a suite of rooms.
He walked over, and as he entered, she closed the door softly behind them. “I just had to talk to you,” she said as she shrugged off her suit jacket and tossed it through the door leading to what was obviously her bed room. “Sit down,” she said, and Billy dropped into a comfortable armchair.
“Why did you tell him that you wanted me to go back with you? Usually, most people ask for money or gold. Why me?”
“Because you just happen to be the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. I mean, we’ve got some good-looking women hanging around Boston, but you, you’re world-class! By the way, what’s your name?”
“Oh, I’ve had lots of names,” she said as she began unbuttoning her blouse. “Most of them are pretty hard to pronounce, but I like ‘Trish’. Why don’t you call me that?”
After the first three buttons were undone, Billy could see that Trish was a woman who didn’t bother with undergarments. “Ah, what are you doing?” he asked nervously as he got slowly to his feet.
“Don’t you want me?” she asked, moving close to him, close enough to put her hands on his shoulders.
“Sure, I do, I do, I do! But not now, not just yet.” The blouse was gone; the skirt too had disappeared. She stood there in front of him dressed only in her beauty. Billy found it hard to breathe. “Please, you’re driving me nuts–Put something on, will you?”
“Done,” she said, and spinning away from him, she was wrapped in a thin, blue gown almost as transparent as air.
“Something a little less see-through?” Billy asked, and almost as he said the words, the gown darkened to a deep blue, and then purple, opaque, but still clinging seductively to every curve.
“Better?” she asked, smiling.
“A little. At least now I can breathe.”
“But you look rather silly in that suit,” and as she said this, she waved a hand at him.
Billy looked down to find that the suit had disappeared, and he was now wrapped in a leopard-skin loin cloth. ‘Oh, jeez, Trish, give me back my suit, please!”
She laughed again and waved and Billy was back to normal–almost.
“How do you do that? Who are you, anyway?”
“Oh, Billy, things are never really what they seem to be, here especially, and I guess that goes for me too. Actually, I started life off like any other lusty young wench. Had a lot of the local boys panting after me, but I managed to keep things pretty much in perspective, that is until Charlie and his crew took over.”
“What happened then?” Billy asked.
“Turned me into an earth-goddess, fertility symbol, that sort of stuff. Kept me so busy, I never had a chance at a real life. Now I’m not so sure I could make it as one of your average housewives, especially out there in the old Puritan stomping grounds. Can you picture me lugging bags of groceries from the station wagon to the kitchen, scrubbing floors, scouring the toilet?”
“Beside,” she said as she walked close to him again, “it makes no difference, does it?” She kissed him, and Billy felt as if he were being drawn into a warm whirlpool, and like a spent swimmer, he wanted nothing but to be swept down and away into whatever ecstasy this was that was pulling him under. It seemed like an eternity before she broke away from him, and he saw that there were tears in her eyes. “He won’t let me go with you, you know.”
“But we have a deal.”
“He’s called the ‘Lord of Lies’, you know.”
“I thought that was ‘Lord of Flies’.”
“That too. He also lied about this place. You don’t really believe all that stuff he told you, do you?”
“He made it sound logical.”
“Of course. He’s good at that. Come with me. I’ll let you get a glimpse for yourself.” She led him through her bedroom into another room, a sort of Victorian parlor with only one curtained window on the far wall. “Go, take a look, Billy, but don’t look for long.”
Billy strode to the window and drew back the curtain. The room was suddenly flooded with a harsh, red light that danced and flickered across the walls and ceiling. Frozen at the window, Billy’s expression flashed from wonder, to horror, and finally, to disgust, in a matter of seconds. He let the drape fall back.
“He took me in, didn’t he’, he said as he turned to face her.
“He usually does.” She replied sadly.
“Well, just maybe, I can still get the last word,” Billy said as he walked quickly from the room. “Thanks for the warning, Trish. I still have a program to write.”
Trish kissed him softly on the cheek as he left.
He had been working on the program for about two hours when he was interrupted by an annoying scratching at the door leading to the exit. “For crying out loud, Ralph, you can talk. Why not just ask me to let you out?”
“Sorry, Billy, I forgot.”
“Where are you going, anyway?”
“I just want to nose around, check the place out.”
“Have fun,” Billy said as he closed the door behind Ralph and returned to his programming.
It was creative work that he was doing and required intense concentration. Time seemed to fly by. He hit a few snags, but, almost miraculously, he managed to work around them. He was almost finished when Ralph returned.
“Hey, Billy, open the door.”
“Now, that’s more like it. Where you been, Ralph?”
“Yeah, upstairs. With the good guys.”
“You’re kidding me.”
“No, I’m not. Dogs never lie, Billy. I got to talking with this one guy up there, and he thinks this program you’re writing is a great idea.”
“They know everything. They said that you should never have tried to make a deal with Charlie S. in the first place, but, after all, you’re only human. You know that he has to send us back.”
“Right. But first I’ve got to finish this program. What are you going to do now?”
“Right now I’m going to going to take a nap,” Ralph stretched out on the floor on his stomach with his head resting on his forelegs.
“Good idea,” Billy said as he returned to work.
After a minute or two, Ralph spoke up, “Billy?” He sounded very tired.
“What is it, Ralph?”
“When this is all over, and we’re back in Cambridge, can I have a pet?”
“A pet?” Billy’s voice showed his incredulousness.
“Yeah, a little, fluffy, black-and-white kitten. I love cats.” His eyes closed.
“I’ll be damned,” Billy muttered.
Ralph opened one eye. Don’t say that down here,” he said, and then went back to sleep.
After another hour’s work, Billy was finished. He switched the computer on, and, as if on cue, Charlie S. and Doctor Beal appeared in the doorway. Charlie was rubbing his hands together, and Beal’s expression was one of devilish glee as they both stared at the computer in fascination. Behind them, Billy saw the door open as Trish came out to join them.
“Finished have you?” Charlie S. asked.
“You’re all hooked up.” Billy said sharply, “Here’s your user’s manual, my written instructions, your access codes, and a back-up disk. Everything you’ll need is right here.” Billy punched the RETURN button and stood up. A light began blinking on the console.
“What’s that?” Beal asked.
“That’s a one-hour time delay,” Billy said. “If we’re not out of here and back in Cambridge in one hour, then I’ll take this sucker apart.”
“Ah, there is no need for that, my young friend. You and your mutt will be out of here in a matter of minutes.” Ralph was wide awake at the word, ‘Mutt’.
“And she goes with me,” Billy said, pointing to Trish.
“I’m afraid not.” Charlie S. sneered, “I need her too much around here.”
“You bastard,” Billy snarled, “you promised.”
Charlie S. grinned. “Say ‘bye-bye’ now,” And he waved at Billy just as Ralph was about to sink his teeth into Charlie’s ankle.
There was a momentous crash, the sound of mountains collapsing. Billy had a fleeting glimpse, as in a dream, of Trish’s lovely face: tear-stained, sad, and eternal. Then there was darkness.
Then there was Steve Grogan on television, explaining the loss to the fans. The bar was empty except for Billy, Ralph, and Murphy, the bartender. Outside, the lights of the ambulance were blinking as the EMT’s slammed the doors and pulled out into the traffic. A dream? Billy glanced down. Ralph was sleeping quietly by the foot of his bar stool. He reached down and shook the dog awake. “Hey, buddy, what do you have to say about all this?”
“Ruff!” Ralph said.
“So much for talking dogs,” Billy muttered.
Murphy came over to him, “Getcha ‘nother beer, Bill? On me. What a way to go, poor bastard. Never saw the old guy before. You?” Billy shook his head. “Just goes to show you, people with bad hearts should never–I mean never–watch the Patriots. They are dangerous to your health.”
Billy sat quietly sipping his beer, wondering what life was all about. He had thought of asking Murphy if he had noticed any lightning bolts, but decided against it. Something had gone haywire in his head, that’s all. Maybe he should make an appointment with the company shrink tomorrow. He finished the beer and was on the verge of asking Murphy to start setting him up with Jameson’s and ice cubes. He had a strong urge to get very, very drunk. Just then the girl walked through the door and headed for him. She was carrying a large tote bag.
The light in Hanratty’s Tavern is not the best for recognizing people. At first Billy thought he was imagining it all, but it was her; it was Trish, with the same fabulous face and figure. She smiled at him, and Billy could have sworn the whole room lit up.
“How did you manage it?” he asked when he got his breath back.
Trish bent down to give Ralph a quick pat, and then slid into the seat next to Billy.
“I didn’t manage it; you did.” She glanced at the row of bottles behind the bar, “I guess nectar is out. What else is good to drink?”
“Try a martini,” Billy said. He called to Murphy, “Hey, Murph, one dry martini, straight up, for the lady, please. Turning back to Trish, he asked, “How did it work?”
“You wouldn’t believe it. As soon as you left, Charlie ran the clock out and punched in the code you gave him. I’ll have to admit that I was a little disappointed in you at first, when I saw how well the program seemed to be working. I thought you had played it straight. Charlie and Beal went steaming out after their first client and got there right on time. It just happened to be an eight-nine year old priest who wouldn’t even listen to the sales pitch. The next call was for a triple fatality, but it turned out to be so far out of their territory that they missed the call completely, and by the time they got back, they had missed eighteen more clients. Boy was Charlie mad!” She took a sip of the martini that Murphy had placed in front of her. “Hey, this is good! I wonder who invented it?” she asked as she held the glass up to the light and gazed at the unblinking red eye of the olive.
“Charlie S., probably, but go on with the story.”
“Well, Beal was so mad, he kicked the console. Then all hell broke loose. You’ll be seeing the results over the next few months. First, the computer sent out a mailing to the entire eastern seaboard informing every ‘Occupant’ “You have just won TEN THOUSAND DOLLARS. All you have to do is to bring this coupon to the Lakeside Condo Grand Opening and collect your money!’ Lakeside is one of Charlie’s holdings. He’s going to be out millions.”
Billy laughed, “And just think of the traffic jam! I had some other things set into that program. Anything else pop out?”
Evidently your computer has taken over the billing departments of half the major corporations in the country. Sears, J.C.Penny, and Mobil are granting complete rebates on next month’s bills. You’ve sent out draft notices to every able-bodied young man born last year, and–You naughty boy–every unmarried woman over twenty years old in the entire state of Texas is getting a lab report telling her that the rabbit died. Is there more?”
“Just wait till you see the next election results. Plus, Las Vegas is computerized now, and are they going to be surprised when their computers donate February’s winnings to the Red Cross and the March of Dimes.”
“Boy, you’re really hitting Charlie where it hurts. He can’t seem to stop the computer either.”
“I know. It’s on a loop, and from what Ralph told me, I imagine the guys upstairs locked it in tight. He can’t even pull the plug on it. But enough of this, how did you get here? Are you real?”
“Boy, am I ever real! I had to walk all the way from Cannon Mountain to Concord. I’m so sore, even my eyelashes hurt. Charlie sent me to see if I could seduce you into coming back, but he’s so busy trying to get out from under that computer, that he forgot that if I set foot in the real world without him, then I’m back on my own. He’s lost control of me. I am now a twenty-four year old woman with a life expectancy of another fifty or sixty years, and I’m finding I’m very fond of martinis!”
Billy waved to Murphy and reached for his wallet, but Trish stopped him with a touch of her hand. “This one’s on me,” she said and reaching into the bag, she pulled out one of Charlie’s check drawers. “Charlie didn’t want me to go out empty-handed. Do you think Mr. Murphy will take a traveler’s check?”
“I think we’re set for life. What else do you have in the tote bag?
“Oh, just a few of my old dresses, only they don’t change colors anymore,” She reached down and fished around for a moment before withdrawing something that she held cupped in both hands, “and this. Something I picked up on my walk into Concord. Do you think Ralph will like it?” She held out a little, fluffy black-and-white kitten.
Sunset was bouncing red-and-gold rays from the glass tower of the Prudential Building on the Boston side, across the river from where two young people walk hand-in-hand on a golden evening, watching the Charles River slide by on its slow, patient journey to the sea. A medium-sized, very shaggy, black-grey dog frolics beside them, jumping high now and then, trying to see what the girl is holding so gently in her arms.
Billy will introduce his lovely new wife to his friends as Trish, and only they and, perhaps, Charlie S., will really know.