All right, here's another one... I didn't mention this before, but "The Idea" is actually one of a series of somewhat-related short stories I'm
working on, taking a look at the lives of a handful of regular people as they pass through the last days of civilization.
This one, "The Night Louis Got Rich", is the first in the series, but it's not the first I wrote. To be honest, I don't like it quite as much as I
do "The Idea", but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.
Your comments are welcome and much appreciated.
It was a dark place, squatting underneath an alley between a wine bar and a consignment shop on a side street of a town known only for the
liberal-arts school that had dominated the landscape for two centuries. Inside, in the half-light cast by a dozen lines of glittering, festive
Christmas lights strung up on the ceiling, the fifty or so patrons discussed the War, their lives, and the state of their nation over bottles and cans
of cheap, murky beer; the mingling odors of smoke, alcohol, and massed humanity filled every corner of the diminutive tavern, and everybody was
content. Everybody, it seemed, except Louis.
Louis was a junior in the college, an economics major from Tulsa that had been drawn to the college by its liberal atmosphere and its reputed strength
in his chosen field of study. Tonight, though, something else had called him to this obscure bar in its obscure part of town; his need for social
interaction had finally overtaken his tendency toward self-isolation, and he had sought this place out at the advice of a classmate that had seemed
reliable enough to direct one to a decent bar.
As it had turned out, he hadn’t been.
Louis knew now why he so seldom sojourned into the world of the socialite. Silently, in a particularly shadowed niche of the establishment, he nursed
a Marlboro and peered out of his doldrums at the happily circulating people that surrounded him. Each of them, he though, had their story, and would
write a new chapter tonight, even as he, Louis, continued his with little more than a negligible footnote. He had been born to work with numbers, not
with humans, and never was this more painfully evident as when he was surrounded by the latter.
Even as this thought finished its grating passage through his mind, though, he sensed a change. Realizing its nature, he caught his breath, halfway
through a long pull of his rapidly shortening cigarette: he was being watched, watched by a complete stranger with an almost frighteningly sharp gaze.
There, from across the room, encased in a miasma of the swirling vapors of burnt tobacco—a man, dressed with understated taste and a subtle air of
wealth about him, leaned against an oak-paneled wall and bored into Louis’s eyes with his own beady orbs.
Once he knew he had caught the attention of the brooding twenty-year-old, the stranger flashed a grinning mouthful of alabaster dental perfection. He
knelt slightly and lifted an attaché case from the dingy floor; it was a smallish, brown affair, heavily worn with age and use. Louis had not noticed
it before the stranger had bent to pick it up, but now it seemed to radiate a strange importance to him. The briefcase, thought Louis, was an
important one, judging by the care with which the stranger bore it.
Still smiling, the man with the piercing gaze made his way through the dense crowd. He stopped and took a seat opposite Louis, discreetly placing the
battered suitcase underneath the scarred mica table.
He wasted no time with introductions; in fact (and this pumped a wave of ice water through Louis’s veins), he seemed to need none.
“Hello, Louis.” The man’s voice was like gravel wrapped in velvet. “I won’t waste time with pleasantries and chit-chat. I’m sorry to sound so…
melodramatic… but it’s time, and we’ve chosen you.” His grin resumed its fixed place, seeming to dominate all other things in Louis’s field of
Cynically, thinking this a joke or some unamusing parlor trick, Louis leveled his gaze at the stranger.
“Chosen, eh? Well… you’ve got my attention. What for?”
The stranger’s grin never flinched; Louis was vaguely unsettled as he began to take in that ivory rictus more fully. It was only part happiness, he
thought; part sadistic glee, with a razor-edged predatory glint about it. It was a sick grin, sick in its joy and in its thinly masked hate. Inside,
not wanting to show his sudden revulsion, Louis shuddered.
The stranger spoke, seeming either to miss this change in Louis’s attitude, or to have seen it and taken a sort of cruel pride in having caused such
“To become a rich man, Louis. That’s what we want. To make you rich.”
Slightly raising an eyebrow, Louis continued to meet the stranger’s harsh stare. He took a final lungful of tobacco and stamped the butt of his spent
cigarette in a venerable, scarred black ashtray. Softly, and full of reservations, he spoke.
“You said no pleasantries. What’s in this for you?”
One of the stranger’s small, gray eyes ticked almost unnoticeably. He continued to grin. “Excellent. A businessman. I can see that we won’t have a
problem here.” He nudged the suitcase into contact with Louis’s left foot. “In this case are three things. Upon opening it, you will find a parcel
containing ten thousand and seven dollars in small, untraceable bills. Secondly, you will find a letter. Third, there is a post card. If you take
seven of these dollars and mail the letter to the return address found on the post card via overnight united post, then the rest of the money is yours
to keep. If you refuse to help us, I will take my briefcase and go home, and you will leave here ten thousand dollars poorer than you might have.
That’s all we want. Mail a letter for us, and we will make you rich.
“I am sure you are wondering why we do not simply undertake this simple task ourselves. There are three reasons, Louis. The first is the most
pragmatic: we cannot. While our actions are nothing but benevolent, we are being watched too closely to risk the sensitive information found therein.
Your government wants us dead, Louis, and they will kill us if they can find so much as a finger print.
“The second and third reasons are more personal. You see, we are out to help, to enrich, to make life easier for those that deserve it. While we
could undoubtedly deliver this letter ourselves through some machination, Louis, we thought it better to give you the chance of a lifetime in doing it
for us. This leads quite nicely, as you will see, into our third reason.
“We also want to see if we can trust you, Louis. You show great promise. Consider this a test if you like. It’s a simple test, but one with great
reward for success. The choice is yours, Louis. Thank you for your time; I’ll be going back to my place in the corner now. If you decide to help us,
simply wink at me, and I’ll be on my way. If you decide not to, simply leave when you see fit and you won’t hear another word of this.”
With that, the stranger rose, the cracked magenta faux-leather sighing as his weight was lifted. He grinned, turned on his heel, and went back to his
original place further back in the bar; he did not face Louis, but kept a sharp eye on him nonetheless, waiting for a signal.
Louis’s head rushed with a thousand disparate thoughts and ideas. What was this? What was going on? It was like a bad detective story… but it was ten
thousand dollars; that much would cover the rest of his undergraduate education, pay off his car, and perhaps leave him with enough to rent an
apartment next year rather than living in a dormitory. He had to take it, but it was obvious that he shouldn’t… the situation was too good to be true,
and he knew for a fact that he didn’t trust the man that had given him the briefcase.
Still… what possible harm could come from mailing a letter?
That did it. Louis decided to take the briefcase, read the letter, and, if it seemed innocuous enough, send it off; it would be out of his hands. If
the letter were something that ought not to make it to the hands of its intended recipient, then he would alert the police; even if worse came to
worse, he’d have the money to skip town for a few weeks.
Sighing heavily, he winked at the stranger.
The man’s grin grew even wider; he winked in return, and strode forthrightly out of the dimly-lit tavern.
A weight seemed to lift itself from Louis’s chest, but he could not tell if it was because the stranger had left, or because he, Louis, had just made
ten thousand dollars.
He had to see it. Trying not to draw attention to himself, he lifted the briefcase into his lap, and fiddled with the tarnished brass clasp. After a
moment, it came undone.
Half-expecting it to blow up, Louis opened the case just a few inches; nothing leapt out, and nothing exploded.
Admonishing himself for his childlike nervousness, he opened the case the rest of the way.
The man had been no liar. Inside were bundle after bundle of ten, five, and twenty-dollar bills, plus a small envelope containing a five and two ones.
Also in this envelope, unsealed and unsigned, was a sheet of eight-by-eleven office paper, and a three-by-five postcard. Both bore their messages in
heavy, black, printed ink.
The postcard, as expected, was printed with an address in Virginia, in a town of which Louis had never heard. He pocketed it, unsure yet as to what he
planned to do.
The sound of footsteps reached Louis’s ears; his heart leapt into his throat as he heard a person approaching from behind. With more force and speed
than he had meant to use, he slammed the case shut and tried to look innocent.
The person passed, with little more than a puzzled sidelong glance, and Louis released the breath he didn’t realize he had been holding. He realized
that he had to go outside before he read the note; it was obviously something that the public didn’t need to know.
Besides, he thought covetously, I’m rich. What if one of these idiots tries to rob me?
Grabbing his coat and hat, he pushed his way to the door, the briefcase cradled under one arm like a football under the arm of a muscular goon trying
to strong-arm his way through a massed defense. Finally, pushing open the door into the strangely inviting night air, he made it. He was free. And he
He strode further into the alley in which the bar entrance lay, opting to avoid the streets for now. He wanted to have a look at that letter.
Rounding a corner and squatting behind a pile of clutter and thrown-out machinery rejected by the consignment shop, he opened the briefcase for a
second time, and withdrew the crisp sheet of letter paper. Squinting in the poor light and angling the paper to reflect the scant illumination of the
moon, he began to read.
It was only two lines, and two very cryptic ones at that. Nothing but garbled, alphanumeric code, hyphenated every six symbols. Nothing that made
sense to Louis, but, he felt, would be very important to someone.
Shrugging, he resolved himself to send the letter as he had agreed; what harm could come of two lines of communication?
He pocketed the codes, which would arm the weapon that would incite the last war the Earth would ever see, and went on his lonely way.
As he walked home to destroy the world, Louis couldn’t help thinking that that stranger had had the strangest smile he had ever seen.
[Edited on 2-28-2004 by Xenographer]