He was still gritting and growling when some guy dressed to the nines stepped out of nowhere and prepared to play matador with Charlie’s car as the bull. Charlie stomped on the brakes. The guy grinned at him and strode over to the passenger-side window like getting nearly run over was all in a day’s work for him.
Charlie let out some choice words he’d had in the chamber, but the stranger just laughed. “Is this what I get for saving your life?”
“What on Earth are you talking about, ‘save my life’?” Charlie continued unloading. “You’re the one skirting death out here!”
“No, I’m the one staving it off.”
“For God’s sakes, why do I always get the loonies?” He went to roll up the window, but the stranger stuck a finger through and stopped it. “Hey, get off!” Charlie shouted. “That’s --”
“Enough,” the stranger finished the thought. He nodded in agreement, his dreadlocks bouncing. “There’s no hurry, Mr. Aires, unless you want to reach the hospital in a hearse.”
“Are you threatening me?”
“No, I’m cautioning you. You’re never going to see your child at this rate.”
Charlie glowered at the man in the window. “Who are you?”
“I’m Mr. Mercury. I come to outbound souls and offer them a death that’s on their terms.”
“I was right, you are a loony. And a creep – how do you know so much about me?”
“It gets better. Sixteen minutes from now, you’ll get on Ramp 3A and go against traffic to see your wife, unaware that the mayor’s limo will have broken down and blocked all lanes. You’ll get out of your car looking for somebody to chew out, and lose your head – quite literally. There’s going to be an ambush. The mayor and thirteen others will die. You’ll be one of them. You’ll never get to hold your little bundle of joy, and there’ll be nothing waiting for you in the Great Beyond, because your death will have been a) meaningless and b) preventable. Us talking just put you off-schedule by two minutes,” Mr. Mercury noted, consulting his wristwatch. “If you hurry, you can still make it.”
Charlie was past glowering and now onto smoldering. His upper lip toyed with a scowl, then gave it up. He switched the lock mechanism open and grunted, “Get in.”
Charlie went at a moderate pace. He didn’t speak, not even while his passenger was making a racket with the seat adjustment controls. He just sat and fumed until he couldn’t stand the silence anymore, and then he put on the radio.
“So what are you, some kind of angel?” he demanded sardonically.
“I’ve been called that before,” Mr. Mercury admitted.
“How do I know any of this is for real? I could be at my wife’s bedside right now, and instead I’m driving around town with some whacko.”
“You have a right to be skeptical, Mr. Aires, but go on uptown another few minutes and flip to the news, and then see how you feel. The camera crew should come by then.”
“I swear to God, if I miss her delivery for this....”
“I already told you,” the stranger sighed, “you’re not going to get to see your child alive.”
“Who alive? Me alive, or him alive?”
“Whichever. Perhaps I should’ve been clearer, only you didn’t give me the luxury of explaining. Fourteen people are going to die today in this town. That’s an unalterable fact. The mayor, three gunmen, a couple of cops, and take your pick of the rest. Doesn’t even have to be in relation to the attack – fourteen people will die today. Your card was pulled last, cause of death: caught in the crossfire. We’re far enough away now that you’ll never make it in time to die that way, but equilibrium must be maintained. It’s the law of equivalence, it’s ‘quid pro quo’; there’s a balance to these things, and you’ve tipped it by living on. So, now there has to be an exchange.”
“What kind of exchange?”
“...You still don’t get it, do you?”
Charlie’s eyes shot open wide. The smoldering was over, replaced by chills. “My baby.”
“It’s the easiest way. I’m sorry, Mr. Aires.”
“You’re going to kill my baby.”
“Not I. He’ll die a natural death – maybe before delivery, maybe after; I don’t know. It isn’t my decision. But it is yours, roughly speaking. Will you trade your life for his?”
Charlie let fly a few more words and pounded the steering wheel. He rounded on his passenger. “You led me on!”
“I did not. I told you in no uncertain terms the way you’re going, you’d never get to see your child.”
“You didn’t tell me the cost!”
“You didn’t give me time. The thing people like you never seem to grasp is there’s time enough for everything, if you’ll only let it be. Now what, you’re going to throw your life away? Doesn’t that defeat the purpose of everything you set out to do – to avoid the ambush, to get to the hospital, to die with meaning? Wasn’t that the part that moved you?”
Mr. Mercury took off his jacket, removed a pistol from his vest pocket, and placed it on the dashboard.
“Your wife will never know the difference if the child doesn’t make it,” he said. “Call it an unhappy accident or an act of God; it’ll look the same either way. If you think it less tragic for the child to be raised fatherless, for you to go just as he comes, pull the trigger and I’ll jump before you hit the guardrail.”
“God,” Charlie muttered, tearing up, “what have I done?”
“You chose to live on, Mr. Aires.”
“I chose my baby’s death over mine.”
“And you can do with your life now – and your death – what you please. You’re free, Mr. Aires, free to go on choosing.”
“Oh, God,” Charlie sobbed.
“It’s simply reciprocity. From another angle, your child being born necessitates someone else dying to offset the balance. You saved hundreds of lives by relinquishing him.”
Charlie froze. “That’s it,” he muttered. “My God, that’s it!...It can be anyone?”
Mr. Mercury grinned like before and nodded. “Anyone you like.”
“And I won’t go to jail?”
“I can’t promise you that.”
“But my boy, my baby boy...?”
“As far as I know, fourteen is fourteen, no matter how you come by it.”
“Thank God! Oh, thank you, thank you!”
Charlie pulled the car around. Thoughts whizzed around his head. He’d pick off a gunman – nobody cared whether the bad guys lived – and floor it to the hospital to hold his baby and kiss his wife....
Then came the second-guessing, the fear of consequence, and the question of whether he had it in him, whether he was brave enough to kill, and whether “brave” was the right word for it or “mad.” He turned to Mr. Mercury:
“What if I can’t do it? Can’t you just pick someone else to die? Why do I have to be the one to do it?”
“Because you’re the one who wants death to be on your terms. That’s why you let me in, remember?”
“I-I don’t think,” Charlie began, but he didn’t get to finish.
With his head turned, he didn’t notice he was drifting over the double yellow lines, and he didn’t see the oncoming car. The other driver was trapped, his legs crushed by the mangled chassis. Charlie’s door was gone and he was on the ground, having freed himself from the seatbelt, and the gun had slid off the dash and landed at his feet. Mr. Mercury came around to look at him.
“Death on your terms, Mr. Aires,” he repeated, and then walked away.
In the stillness, Charlie heard the car radio, still reporting on the stupid mayor. He looked at the blood leaving his body and at bones that might heal if there were time enough for everything. He thought about his baby, his pride, hanging in the balance. He saw the other driver starting to call for help, help that promised to save both men’s lives. And he reached for the gun.