When I first met Alfred Benedict III, I was standing on a ledge on the outside of my, as of a few hours before, former place of employment. Emergency vehicles trickled in one by one beneath me, lights flashing silently, as a police officer with a megaphone tried to talk to me. I did my best to ignore him, because I knew that it wouldn’t take much for me to back down. I looked down at the ground, and felt the wind urging me gently over the edge. The thought of plummeting a hundred feet to my death didn’t sound like a lot of fun, but neither did checking into a run-down motel, unemployed and abandoned by my family. I was still teetering, literally and emotionally, when I noticed someone else inching his way along the ledge toward me. He wore a tweed suit, with a black bowtie, homburg hat, and horn-rimmed glasses, and looked strangely calm.
“Excuse me,” he said, clutching his hat to his bald head, “If I could have just a moment of your time-”
“You’re not going to talk me down from here!” I cried. “I’ve made up my mind!”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” he replied. “I just wanted to make sure you’re really ready.”
“Believe me, I’m ready. I lost my job, my family, and my home, and I have nothing left to live for; I might as well just end it all.” It sounded a lot less confident than it had in the bathroom mirror fifteen minutes before.
“Ah, that’s the point I wanted to talk to you about. You intend to kill yourself, yes, but would that really end it all? Do you really know what will happen on the other side?”
I glanced at him in bewilderment. “Are you trying to preach to me?”
“Oh dear me, no. I’m not here to preach; I’m here to make an offer. What if I could promise you that when you jump off that building, it really would be the end? No heaven, hell, reincarnation, anything of that sort. Just nothingness.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve invented a device,” he said, “which can target and eliminate a soul. It’s called annihilation, and I can offer it to you for the low price of five thousand dollars. I prefer cash, but if you must write a check, I ask that you wait until it clears before jumping.”
“That’s ridiculous,” I replied. “You’re lying.”
“I could show you, if you like. I’m afraid that it was too bulky to bring with me, but it’s sitting in my car as we speak.”
I stared at the ground below me, and for a few seconds I simply watched the people scurry around as they watched me back. I had to admit, I was intrigued by the idea. Curiosity might seem like a weak reason to keep living, but I couldn’t stand the thought of dying without knowing whether he was for real. “Do you have any literature?” I asked.
“Of course,” he replied, reaching slowly into his jacket and pulling out a business card. “You can stop by my office any time during normal business hours, and probably quite a bit later.” He handed me the card, and I read it:
Alfred Benedict III, Ph.D., Th.D., Eng.D., CEO
Souls Eliminated, Damnation Averted
An address and phone number were printed at the bottom. With a tip of his hat, Benedict began inching his way back toward the open window. After reading the card a few times again, I followed him, to a chorus of cheers from below.
Three days later, I was given my street clothes and a lackluster pep talk by an orderly, and stepped out of the Meadowridge Psychiatric Hospital. The weather was gray and dismal, but I didn’t mind; I had somewhere to go. I pulled the business card out of my pocket, read it again, and then called a taxi, giving the address to the driver.
During the ride over, I had to wonder if I was crazy. If it weren’t for the business card in my hand, I would have thought I had imagined the other man on the ledge. Deep down, I half-expected to arrive and find that no such address existed, and that it had been an angel that convinced me to live another day. It certainly seemed more plausible. When I was snapped out of my reverie by the cab driver asking for his fare, I knew that at least the building was real.
I stepped carefully through the stream of downtown foot traffic to the structure ahead of me, a historic office building that had been recently renovated. As the door closed behind me, the noise of the outside world faded away, leaving only the faint hum of blowing fans, punctuated by echoing footsteps on the marble floor of the lobby. I tried to look inconspicuous as I searched for the appropriate office number, and soon found it. The company name was displayed in black writing on the frosted glass window in the door. I hesitated for a moment, and then knocked; before the glass stopped rattling in its frame, a voice called out from inside, instructing me to come in. When I did, I was greeted with a small office and the musty smell of cheap cigars. A table to the side was stewn with electronic components and wrinkled diagrams, and on the other side was a coat rack with a hat and tweed jacket that I recognized. Farther back was a large antique desk, and seated behind it was Benedict, sifting through papers and muttering, his brow crinkled in concentration. When I closed the door behind me, he looked up.
“Ah, you made it!” he cried. He stood up, grinning broadly, and motioned me to one of two chairs at the cluttered table, taking the other for himself. “It’s been…” He looked at his watch, “…seventy-two hours, so I presume your psychiatric hold went well enough?”
“As well as can be expected, I suppose. I’ve never had one before.”
“Right, of course not.” He paused, and then raised his eyebrows, proceeding cautiously. “Are you… still in the market then?”
“I don’t know for sure, but I’m curious. You said you had some literature?”
“Yes, of course. I have…” He patted his pockets and then went to the coat rack, pulling something out of the inside pocket of his jacket, “…a brochure. But perhaps you’d like to see the device itself?”
I assented, and he dug into the pile of schematics, producing a box that looked roughly like an ancient camera, with a parabolic dish on top and push botton on the side. “It’s called the annihilator,” he said, “at least for now. I don’t much like the term; too dramatic. But I haven’t had a chance to really sit down and come up with a better one.” He handed it to me, and I examined it, but there wasn’t much else to see.
“How does it work?” I asked.
“It would take weeks and a few advanced degrees to explain it fully. But suffice it to say that it manipulates spiritual energy like other devices manipulate electromagnetic energy, taking the ‘meta’ out of ‘metaphysics’ as it were. One strong burst of energy will cancel out the soul.”
“I suppose I should be careful with it, then,” I said, setting it gently on the table with a grin. I wasn’t sure if I was joking or not.
“Don’t worry,” Benedict said with a chuckle, “it would take more power than you can safely get from a wall socket to destroy a soul still attached to a healthy body. For the unconscious, the link is tenuous enough; for everyone else there’s an approximately twelve minute window between death and when the soul leaves the vicinity of the body, and that’s when we use it.”
I nodded my head. It was crazy, but the way he talked about it, it seemed as mundane as a microwave oven. “But why?” I asked. “Why would you make something like this?”
“I find the entire idea of death and the afterlife terrifying,” he replied. “This is a stop-gap measure, really. As I refine the technology, I hope to achieve transmutation of the soul, not just annihilation. To change the sins, bad karma, what-have-you, into positives, to offer salvation without the tedious business of being pious, so to speak.”
“How close are you to something like that?”
“I’ve hit a bit of a snag, to be honest. I need a way to harvest the eucharist after transsubstantiation… I don’t suppose you’d be willing to have a tube inserted in your throat?” He peered intently at my neck, the wheels turning almost visibly in his head.
“Umm… no, I don’t think so.”
“A pity…” he muttered, snapping out of his reverie. With a start, he jumped up and grabbed his coat and hat from the rack. “I’m sorry to have to cut this short, but I have an appointment to get to. Unless… would you like to come with me?”
“To go where?”
“A sales call.”
Benedict drifted silently and gently into the crowded hospital room, as a man who knew his way around death, and I stayed back by the doorway, as unobtrusively as possible. An elderly woman lay in the bed, unconscious, and slowly beeping monitors declared weakly that she was still alive, at least for now. She was surrounded by other people who watched solemnly, occassionaly speaking to each other in hushed tones. One was another woman about the same age, and beside her was a muscular man of about forty in a leather jacket. On the other side of the bed was an affluent-looking middle-aged couple.
“Excuse me,” Benedict said, doffing his hat. “You are the family of Mrs. Peterson, correct?”
“Yes, that’s right,” said the rich son.
“My name is Benedict. I understand that Mrs. Peterson was an agnostic, yes?”
“Are you the hospital chaplain?”
“No,” Benedict replied, “I’m afraid not. But I am here about her well-being in the next life. Can any of you vouch for the condition of her soul?”
The rich son narrowed his gaze and shifted his weight nervously, while the others looked on in mild disdain. “She wasn’t devout,” he said. “Wha- what does this have to do with anything?”
“I don’t mean to offend,” Benedict said. “Everyone makes mistakes in life, but I’m sure the last thing you want is for your loved ones to have to spend eternity paying for those mistakes. I’m offering a chance to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’ve invented a device that will ensure Mrs. Peterson does not suffer in the afterlife.”
“How dare you?” cried the elderly woman. “My sister was a good woman, and you should be ashamed for coming in here and telling us she’s going to suffer damnation!”
The muscular son walked up close to Benedict, and growled sternly, “I think you should go.”
Benedict bowed respectfully and glided out of the room after me. “That didn’t go so well,” I remarked as we walked down the hallway.
“People are always slow to accept a new idea,” he replied. “Edison tried for years to smear alternating current, but it proved itself in the long run.”
When we were several more yards down the hall, I heard hurried steps behind us. The rich son stopped us, and we turned around toward him.
“Were you being serious, what you said before?”
“Yes, of course,” Benedict answered.
“The rest of my family doesn’t like to admit it, but my mother was a spiteful woman, and if there is a heaven, I wouldn’t rate her prospects very good. I think I’d rather play it safe than have to wonder my whole life if she really is in a better place. How much will it take?”
Benedict told him the price, and he hurriedly scribbled out a check.
“I think we had better clear the room before we proceed,” Benedict said.
“My aunt was pretty shaken up, and my brother took her to get some coffee. The room is empty for now.”
Benedict nodded, and they returned to the room, which was empty as he said, except for the unconscious woman. He hoisted his bag on a nearby chair, and pulled the device from it. “If you could step back please,” he said, motioning myself and the rich son to move away. He aimed the parabolic dish at the woman, and pressed the button on the side. There was a pop and a bright flash which seemed to linger on the walls, followed by the smell of marigolds. The heart monitor fluttered, and then returned to normal.
“How do we know it worked?” the son asked.
“Do you smell that?” Benedict asked. “I haven’t been able to identify it for sure, but I believe it’s the smell of chaotic spiritual energy. That’s the tell-tale sign of an annihilated soul. And without the soul, the body won’t last much longer, especially in its current state. Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or other needs.” He handed a business card to the son, tipped his hat, and we left the room.
The pale colors and soft light of the hospital corridor gave way to dark and grimy earth tones, broken up by a wide swath of sky, as we walked briskly out of the hospital and into the visitors’ parking garage. We slowed down to a leisurely stroll as we approached Benedict’s car. “What did you think?” he asked.
“I don’t know yet,” I answered. For an event as significant as the destruction of a woman’s soul, it left little impression on me. Perhaps I expected more shouting, or dramatic bolts of lightning.
“Hey!” a voice cried out behind us. I glanced back, and saw the muscular son of Mrs. Peterson rushing at us. We both began running toward the car, but Benedict was old, and ran barely faster than he walked. The man caught up to him in only seconds, grabbed him by the arm, spun him around, and delivered a solid right hook to his jaw. Benedict stumbled back against another parked car, which erupted into cacophonous shrieks. The son advanced, clenching his fist and screaming “You son of a bitch!” as he thrust his arm into Benedict’s gut. I lunged at him, trying to pull him away, but he threw me aside with ease, the rough surface of the cement biting into my arm as I landed. He spat on Benedict, who was slumped down on the ground, playing dead and bleeding from the lip. Several dozen yards away I saw a worried-looking man on a cell phone, pointing in our direction as a hospital security guard jogged toward us.
Benedict held an ice pack to his cheek as he walked out of the holding area and into the police station waiting room. Manny Tomlinson, who had been waiting with me, stood up and greeted him with his hand extended. Manny wore an ill-fitting suit, and looked just a little too young to have graduated from law school.
“Al, you son of a gun, you sure know how to get into trouble!” he said with a grin, shaking Benedict’s hand much more forcefully than Benedict did in return. “They told me you don’t want to file assault charges on the guy. How come?”
“It was just a misunderstanding. I don’t want to make him pay for a mistake made in a moment of anger.”
“You may want to rethink that,” Manny said, “because he’s filing charges against you.”
“What for?” Benedict asked. “I never hit him.”
“It’s not for hitting him. He’s accusing you of fraud, and the D.A. smells blood.”
“But it’s not fraud. I offer a legitimate service.”
“Good luck proving that to a jury, though,” Manny replied. “I don’t think they’d recognize the existence of souls in a court of law. Although you may be even worse off if they did.”
“Because if you’re not committing fraud, then you’re in possession of the single most powerful and destructive piece of technology ever created. They’d have to invent a whole new class of crimes for you. I’m afraid you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place.”
Benedict sank into a chair and buried his head in his hands. “That’s what I get for trying to help people,” he muttered. “The greatest invention of all time, my life’s work, and I’m going to be arrested for it, whether it works or not.”
The two of us were silent for a moment while Benedict nursed his disappointment. Finally, Manny spoke up. “I think you’re going to have to let this one go, Al. You’ve had a lot of crazy ideas before, and I always supported you, but this one is going to burn you one way or another.”
“How can I give it up? I spent over half of my life working towards this invention; it’s part of who I am. It’s everything I’ve achieved in my life.”
“It’s going to get you into trouble. There’s no way out of this without giving up the machine.”
Benedict slowly rose from his seat. “I’m going home,” he said. “I have some things to think about. I trust you can find your way home from here.”
I didn’t sleep well that night. There were still too many questions buzzing back and forth in my mind, the kind of questions that made you feel like you were shrinking back into yourself as the world around you grew large and empty. When the sun started leaking its rays through my curtains, and the chorus of city traffic got underway, I got dressed and caught a taxi back to Benedict’s office.
When I reached his door, I knew something was wrong. A sinister light inside flickered, and the smell of smoke drifted into the hallway. I tried the door handle, but it was locked. Wrapping my jacket around my fist, I struck the window until it shattered, revealing the blaze inside against the back wall. I could see the figure of Benedict on the far side of the desk, sprawled out on the floor. I reached in and unlocked the door, rushing to the other side of the desk, where he had been knocked out of his chair. Blood oozed from his head where it had struck the filing cabinet behind him. The flames licked at the edge of the desk, and I pulled him away and into the hall just as the sprinkler system kicked in, dousing us and the room with shockingly cold water.
I yelled for someone to call an ambulance without looking to see if anyone was around, and bent down to examine Benedict. He was unconscious, and had a weak pulse. I started pumping his heart with my fists, and tried to force air into his lungs. I continued the routine until medical help arrived, but he was still unconscious as they loaded him, locked rigid on the gurney, into the back of an ambulance.
I heard later that Bill Peterson was arrested for assault and arson. The police figured that he had tracked Benedict down, and decided to finish what he started in the parking lot. The doctors were were hopeful that Benedict would come out of his coma soon and be able to say what happened. I didn’t believe either of them, because despite the smoke and water that filled the air, I caught the faint smell of marigolds.
Joseph L. Kellogg is a high school chemistry tutor and graduate school dropout currently living in Oregon. His fiction has appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, and online at Residential Aliens.