Story by Mike Murphy
Illustration by Lee Dawn
Brian Russo was walking down Everett Street when he accidentally kicked the Book. He picked it up and ducked into a building front to have a peek.
It was a nice, slightly beaten-up, leather-bound book. On the spine and front cover, in gold leaf, was the name Jonathan Willoway. That name was also on the first page. Below it was four handwritten addresses. The first three had been crossed out. The last one, which he took to be Willoway’s current address, was only a few blocks away. Unwisely, he decided to do a good deed and return the Book to the man he assumed was its owner.
— ♦♦♦ —
The man who opened the door of the shabby house was short, thin, and almost bald. “Yes?” he asked suspiciously, bothered at having his day disturbed.
“Are you Jonathan Willoway?” Russo inquired.
“Yeah, but if you’re looking for a contribution, I’m –”
“No, you’ve got me wrong,” Russo informed him. “My name is Brian Russo, and I’m not looking for anything. Actually, I’ve got something you might want back.” He handed Willoway the Book. Confused, the little man took the volume. He was surprised to see his name on the cover. As he thumbed through some of the pages, Russo continued. “I stumbled on it on Everett Street. Well, I didn’t stumble. I. . . I didn’t even trip really. Your address was on the inside, so I thought I’d –”
Willoway slammed the Book shut with one hand. “What kind of a trick is this?” he demanded to know.
“Trick? I don’t get –”
“How do you know all this information about me? Are you one of those identity thieves?”
“Then how could you possibly –”
“Mr. Willoway, I didn’t look at the Book – except for your address. I don’t even know what’s in it. It looked like a nice old book, so I thought I’d return it to you. That’s all.”
“A likely story,” Willoway scoffed. “Mr. Russo, if that’s what your name really is. If you’re not off my porch in five minutes, I’m calling the cops.” Willoway slammed his door shut and locked it on the inside.
Brian threw his hands up in the air and walked away, a little more disappointed in the world. “Some people. . .” he muttered.
— ♦♦♦ —
Russo enjoyed having breakfast at Maddy’s Diner every once in a while. The food was plentiful, good, and cheap, and the waitresses were easy on the eyes. He was so intent on his blue plate special and coffee that he didn’t see the short, white-haired, elderly man with the backpack come into the diner and walk over to him. “May I sit here?” the stranger asked Brian, pointing to the empty stool beside him.
“Sure. It’s a free country,” Russo responded, looking up from the sports page of the paper for a brief moment.
“Thank you.” The old guy grunted as he climbed onto the stool and put his backpack down by his feet. “That’s one of the things I’ve always admired about this country,” he said, “the freedom.”
“You’re not from around here?” Russo asked, pouring some ketchup onto his scrambled eggs.
“No. I’m from rather far away.”
“Well, welcome to America,” he said. “The waitress should be back in a minute. She ran across the street to the bank for some singles.”
“Would you happen to be Mr. Brian Russo?”
“Yeah,” Russo answered as he cut the sausage patties with his fork.
“I finally found you!” the old guy exclaimed, relieved. “My name is Louis.” He held out a liver-spotted hand, which Brian shook.
Russo was confused. “You’ve been looking for me, Louie?” he asked.
“If it’s about that parking ticket last –”
“I’m not a member of law enforcement,” Louis replied, amused. “I’m here because I need your help.”
“Sorry,” Brian responded, starting in on the sausages, “but I don’t do favors anymore. The last one I did didn’t work out well.”
“When you returned a book, you found to Mr. Jonathan Willoway?”
“How do you know that?” Russo asked, putting down his fork.
“That’s why I’m here. I need to get that book back. The Boss is very angry with me for having lost it.”
“It’s not Willoway’s book?” Brian asked Louis. “His name was on it. That’s why I –”
“It is, and it isn’t. It’s tough to explain.” He slowly rubbed his forehead with one hand. “I don’t want the Boss upset with me again,” he told Brian. “I can’t take it anymore.”
“Job on the line?”
“I hate to think what He’ll do to me if I don’t recover the volume.”
“Pretty powerful guy?”
Louis sighed deeply and answered, “Indeed.”
“What is he? A CEO?”
“No, a G-o-d.”
“God is my boss.”
“Louie,” Brian said, looking the old man straight in the eye, “I’ve been a Protestant all my life. I’m in no mood to have someone try to convert me while I’m enjoying my breakfast.”
“You needn’t worry about that!” Louis assured him. “I’m not here to proselytize. Wouldn’t dream of it.”
“Good, because that’s another thing America was founded on, Freedom of religion.” Against his better judgment, he decided to continue the conversation. “So,” he said, “if the Man Upstairs is your boss, you must be a priest.”
“No, neither of those.”
“Then what are you?” Russo inquired, growing exasperated.
“I’m an angel,” Louis said proudly.
“Uh huh,” Brian responded, looking down at his plate.
“No, I really am.”
“And I’m Elton John,” Russo joked, shoving some crispy bacon into his mouth.
“You don’t believe me?”
“Nope. You sound like a kook to me.”
“I was afraid of this,” Louis said sadly. “What would it take to get you to believe me?”
“How about a miracle?”
“You’ve got the wrong man. Angels don’t do miracles. That’s reserved for the Boss Himself.”
“Then how about a little harp music? You angels always have harps in the movies.”
“I didn’t bring it with me. Besides, I’m more of a Sinatra fan myself.”
Russo thought for a moment. “How about flying then? Angels do fly?”
“Sure, we do.”
“Then do that. A little flight around the diner would convince me you’re an angel.”
“Can you imagine the scene that would create?”
“What can you do then?”
“What about a little flying?” Louis suggested.
“I could hover over this stool. No one should notice that.”
“You do that, and I’ll be convinced.”
Louis glanced all around. The coast looked clear. An odd look came over his face, like a cross between extreme concentration and the urgent need to visit the men’s room. “There!” he said after a moment.
Russo wasn’t even looking. “There what?” he asked.
“Will you please put down your coffee and look?”
Brian thought it best to humor the old guy.
Louis was flying – hovering about three inches above his stool “Will you look at that?” Brian said, impressed.
“I’d like to stop now – before I’m noticed.”
“Yeah. Sure. Go ahead.” Louis settled down gently on the stool, a hiss of air coming from the torn old padding.
“Are you convinced now?” he asked.
“I suppose,” Russo said. “I guess you really are an angel.”
“And I’m an angel who needs your help in retrieving Mr. Willoway’s book.”
“You found it in the first place.”
“It’s only logical to ask for your help in retrieving it. Besides, you’re a big, strong guy, and Mr. Willoway. . . scares me.”
“Him?” a surprised Brian asked. “He’s a runt.”
“As am I. I was never the bravest man. In life, I was a botany professor. Fisticuffs weren’t my thing. I won my last fight by a hundred yards.”
Brian was surprised. “You ran away?”
“Yes. . . and lived to fight another day.”
“And did you fight another day?”
“No.” Louis decided it was time to get back to the reason he was here. “Will you help me?”
“I suppose so,” Brian answered. “How’d this book get here anyway?”
“I dropped it,” Louis admitted, ashamed.
“Yes. You see, everyone on Earth has a life book – that’s what we call them. They help us keep track of all the billions of people who are down here milling about.”
“It sounds like a big job.”
“It is, and it’s my job. Willoway’s life book accidentally fell from above and landed in front of you. I’m glad it didn’t hit anyone! It would have packed quite a wallop, much worse than dropping pennies off the Empire State Building.”
“Why don’t you keep everyone’s records on a computer? It would be a lot smaller. That room of books must be awfully big.”
“It certainly is – larger than several football fields! My feet really hurt after tramping back and forth among the volumes for eight hours every day.”
“A computer would free up a lot of space.”
“We thought of that but digitizing all that information would be a huge undertaking. Everything is in books. Some of the records of the long deceased are on scrolls and even rocks. With all the babies being born, we add new life books every day.”
“So, you dropped one book out of billions,” Brian reasoned. “What’s the worst that can happen to you?”
“You don’t know the Boss. Sure, He’s usually all sweetness and nice, but you don’t want to get on His bad side. If I don’t recover that book from Mr. Willoway, I could be given even less-desirable duty.”
“You don’t want to know,” Louis said with a slight shiver at the thought.
— ♦♦♦ —
A light snow started to fall as Louis and Brian walked through the park on their way to Willoway’s home. “So, everyone has one of these. . . what did you call them?” Russo asked.
“Then I have one.”
“You do.” Louis stopped for a moment, unzipped his backpack, reached inside, and passed Brian a book much like Willoway’s. “I meant to show it to you in the diner, but I forget. My memory isn’t what it once was.” Russo admired his name on the spine and cover. “Why don’t you sit down and have a look?”
“Could I? I thought you were in a hurry.”
“We can spare a few minutes.”
They sat together on a snow-dusted wooden bench. Russo opened the book to the first page. “Yup, those are all my addresses.”
“The last entry is in my penmanship.”
“My wife and I have lived there for six years. You’ve been taking care of the life books for that long?”
“Longer. Time is immaterial up there.”
“May I have a look inside?” Brian asked shyly.
“Sure,” Louis answered him. “That’s why I brought it.”
Russo was impressed with how thorough his book was. Flipping through the pages was like taking a journey in time. “You really have everything covered,” he remarked. “Dates for my birth, my schooling, and there’s the day I broke my arm.”
“Don’t look beyond page 651.”
Brian stopped flipping pages and asked, “Why not?”
“That’s where we detail your future.”
“You know my future in advance?”
“Well, let’s say your likely future. The free will all people have can change that.”
“Why do you plan everyone’s future?”
“You can’t imagine the chaos there would be if we didn’t at least attempt it! You think my job is tough now with everything in black and white. . .”
“You’d. . . You’d better take this back,” Russo said, handing Louis the life book. “It’s too tempting, and I don’t want to mess things up for you.”
Taking the book, Louis continued, “I’ll tell you what: Since you’re being so nice, let’s look at one future date together.”
“Are you sure that’s OK?”
“Don’t worry. I cleared it with the Boss.” Louis opened the life book and turned to a certain page. “Here you are: June 16, 2019 – the birth of your son.”
“7:53 a.m. Zachary Brian Russo. Eight pounds, three ounces.”
“But. . . But that’s not possible,” Russo told Louis. “The doctors have been telling my wife for years that she can’t –”
“They’re wrong. Doctors have been wrong sometimes all the way back to Abraham and Sarah.”
“Wow!” he exclaimed, looking up at the snow-dropping clouds.
“Just let it happen. Don’t try to rush it, or it may not occur.”
“Don’t worry, Louie. I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that.” He chuckled. “My son,” he said. “I’m gonna be a dad.”
“You can see now why I have to get the Willoway book back. If he knows facts about his likely future, he could exploit that knowledge and change the balance that we’ve tried so hard to achieve.”
“You mean that if he gains from what he’s learned from his life book, something else might have to. . . give to make up the difference?” Russo asked, growing concerned.
“Yes. Balance is everything. Yin and yang.”
“Could it be. . . Could it be. . . my boy?”
“Anything is possible. What might change to make up the difference is beyond my control.”
Russo stood up quickly. “Come on, Louie,” he ordered, anxious to go. “We’ve got to stop this guy.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The new owners were named Leibowitz.
The house looked much better kept. It had a fresh coat of blue paint, and the lawn – with the snow falling on it – was meticulously cut. Willoway had moved out.
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Leibowitz said, “but I don’t know where the previous owner went.”
“No one mentioned a forwarding address?” Brian asked hopefully.
“Afraid not,” she replied. “The house was empty when we moved in four months ago. I’ve never heard of Mr. Willoway.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Louis had heard the entire conversation from the sidewalk. “Doomed! That’s what I am – doomed,” he moaned.
“Calm down,” Russo advised him.
“The Big Guy won’t like this. How are we ever going to find Willoway now?”
“Relax. There are ways.”
“There are?” the angel asked eagerly.
“Of course, there are,” Brian assured him.
Louis was at a loss. “I can’t think of any.”
“When did you die?”
“Things have changed since then. Nowadays, everyone has an electronic paper trail. We’ll find him.”
— ♦♦♦ —
The man and the angel got out of the car and looked up at the immense house on the hill. “Holy crap!” Brian exclaimed. “He really moved on up.” He turned to his friend. “Where do you think he got the money?”
Louis had an idea. “I bet I know,” he said sadly. “It’s in his book.”
“You read it?”
“No, but the Boss filled me in before I came down here. He remembers everything.”
“Well?” Brian prompted him after an odd silence.
“Willoway’s Uncle Milton is very wealthy,” Louis answered. “He made a lot of money in oil.”
“Miltie must have died and left his nephew a bundle.”
“I don’t think so. From what the Boss told me, that death isn’t scheduled until January of 2019.”
Russo was puzzled. Finally, he asked, “You don’t think Willoway offed his uncle, do you?”
“Killed him to get the money?”
“I certainly hope not.”
“Miltie’s death was listed in the future section of Willoway’s book?”
“Yes, because of the dramatic effect it would have on him. Inheriting all that money really changed. . . uhm. . . really will change his life.” Louis looked up again at the sprawling house. “Do you think he. . . offed his uncle?” he asked.
“You said that our free will can change the possible future listed for us in our life books.”
“So, if Willoway knocked off his uncle – voila! – instant cash.”
“Maybe Uncle Milton simply died earlier than scheduled,” Louis suggested hopefully.
“Could that happen?”
“Sure. He could have slipped on a banana peel or fallen into one of those tree-shredding machines.”
“It sounds like you’ve seen that stuff happen.”
“You’d be surprised. Someone showed up in Heaven last year after being killed by a garage door. We later learned that his Shih Tzu had been gnawing on the control. So much for man’s best friend.”
“I would say so!”
“If Willoway has used the Book to change his future, that’s all the more reason we have to get it back as soon as possible.”
“Are there other relatives he could knock off?” Russo asked.
“There are a number of future events he could hasten that might benefit him.” Louis reached out and touched Brian on the shoulder. “Boy, am I glad you’re here.”
“Willoway won’t simply give the Book up. Your brawn will come in handy.”
— ♦♦♦ —
A tree answered the doorbell, or so it seemed to Louis. “Do you have an appointment with Mr. Willoway?” the towering man asked in a voice as deep as the ocean floor.
“N-N-No, we don’t,” Louis stammered.
“Then I’m afraid I can’t allow –”
“You’re his bodyguard, aren’t you?” Russo asked.
“That’s right. The name’s Cortez.”
“Jonathan knows me. We met at his old house a while ago. I returned a prized possession. I’m sure he’ll remember me.”
“Your name, sir?”
“Very well.” Cortez stepped aside and motioned them both in. A fire was blazing in the hearth. “Please sit,” he said, motioning to a leather couch. As the man and the angel sat, Cortez turned to the blonde receptionist in the corner of the large room. “Miss Wentworth, will you please tell Mr. Willoway he has visitors?”
“Certainly,” she said, rising, and heading towards an ornate door.
“I’ll stay out here and keep the gentlemen. . . company.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Anyone familiar with Jonathan Willoway from his old neighborhood would be hard pressed to identify him now. His balding head was covered by an expensive toupee, and the suit he was wearing cost more than Russo’s weekly paycheck. “Visitors?” he asked from behind his antique desk.
“Two gentlemen,” Wentworth continued. “One of them is Brian Russo.”
“I don’t know anyone by that name.”
“He said you do.” Willoway activated the security camera and squinted at the image that appeared on his computer screen. “Do you know him, sir?”
“Now that I see him – yes. I don’t know the old man.” He rose from his desk. “I can spare them a few minutes.”
“I’ll let them know.”
“Tell Mr. Cortez to stand ready.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Can I offer either of you refreshments?” Willoway inquired.
“I’m fine,” Brian answered.
“No thank you,” Louis said.
Willoway sat down in a leather chair opposite the couch. “I’m so pleased to make your acquaintance again, Mr. Russo,” he began.
“Really? You weren’t too pleased to meet me the first time.”
“You wondered if I was an identity thief and threatened to call the cops on me.”
“I must have been having a bad day,” he said with a slight chuckle. “My apologies.”
“Things seem to have gotten better,” Louis commented, looking at the opulence around him.
“I’m sorry, sir,” Willoway said. “We haven’t met.”
“This is my friend, Louis,” Brian said.
“Pleased to meet you,” Jonathan continued.
“And you,” Louis replied. “You certainly have improved your station in life.”
“All it took was some business savvy and a little luck.”
“And some money,” Russo added.
“Well, of course, money. That goes without saying.”
“Where’d it come from?” Louis asked.
“You’ll excuse me, but that’s none of your business.” Cortez took a couple of menacing steps forward, but his boss assured him that everything was fine.
“Louie,” Russo went on, chastising his friend. “That wasn’t very nice.”
“I’m sorry,” the angel replied, humbled.
“Mr. Willoway could have found that money in any number of ways.”
“Exactly,” Jonathan agreed.
“He could have applied for a bank loan.”
“That’s right,” Willoway said.
“Or read about some ways to make money in a… book.”
“A book?” the impeccably dressed little man asked.
“You do remember the book I brought back to you?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Louie, give me mine.” Louis unzipped his backpack, removed the book, and handed it to Brian. “It looked pretty much like this one, except your name was on the cover.”
“I don’t recall you bringing me a book.”
“That’s funny because I do,” Russo told him. “We need it back.”
“I wish I could help you. If I ever had such a book – and I’m taking your word on this, Mr. Russo – I must have left it at the old house.”
“I doubt that very much.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s a very special book. It deals with the past, the present. . . and the future.”
“I’m not in the habit of reading science fiction.”
“How about a murder mystery?” Russo asked.
“Have you read the one about the ungrateful nephew who kills his uncle after learning –”
“Gentlemen,” Willoway interrupted, rising quickly from his chair. “I’m afraid our meeting is over.”
“How is Uncle Milton?” Louis asked.
“Cortez,” Willoway called, “will you kindly show our visitors out?”
“Yes, sir,” the giant of a man said, stepping forward. Brian and Louis slowly rose from the couch. Cortez gently grabbed each of them by the arm.
“Do be careful on the walkway, gentlemen,” Willoway added. “The weather has made it somewhat slippery. I’d hate for either of you to … get hurt.”
— ♦♦♦ —
“Did you get a load of that bodyguard?” Louis said.
“Did I?” Brian exclaimed. “I thought Lincoln had stepped off of Mount Rushmore.”
“I really need to get that life book back. Do you have any idea what it would be like to have someone mad at you for eternity?”
“Yes – I’m married,” Russo answered. “We’ll get it back.”
“We’ll break in late tonight and take the Book.”
“But that’s a crime.”
“Nothing gets by you, Louie,” Brian joked.
“So is murder.”
“If Willoway did that,” Louis clarified.
“You saw the way he reacted when I hinted at it. He did it.”
“I can’t break into anyone’s house.”
“Then you’re lucky you have me around.”
“You know how to do that?” Louis asked, surprised.
“I grew up on the poor side of town. I lived and learned.”
“What if we’re caught?”
“Don’t worry. It’ll be a piece of cake. I didn’t even see a security system.”
“But we don’t know where the Book is. We can’t be rummaging around looking for it.”
“I know where it is.”
“Where?” Louis inquired eagerly.
“In one of the bookcases beside the fireplace.”
“Right where we were sitting?”
“What better place to hide a valuable book than with other books?”
— ♦♦♦ —
The fire had almost gone out, but there was just enough illumination to find the Book. However, there was no time to celebrate. The light switch was flipped on. “Back so soon, gentlemen?”
“Willoway,” Brian said.
“How’d you get in here?”
“You’d be surprised what you can do with a credit card.”
“We found the Book,” Louis informed Jonathan.
“The book you didn’t have,” Russo said, holding it up for Willoway to see.
“Oh, that book,” he said. “Yes, I remember it now.”
“Of course, you do. You read it, particularly the later pages.”
“Now that we have what we came for,” Brian said, “we’ll be going.”
“Not with my Book you won’t.”
Louis gestured at the bookcases beside the hearth. “You have lots of books here. You’ll hardly miss one.”
Willoway reached to the top of one of the cases and pulled down a revolver. “Give me the Book,” he demanded. Beaten, Brian reluctantly gave it to him. “Now, if both of you leave quietly and never darken my doorstep again, I see no reason to call the authorities,” Willoway said, his gun in one hand and the Book in the other.
“Come on, Louie,” Brian said, resigned.
“No!” Louis exclaimed.
“What?” Brian asked.
“I am not leaving without the Book. I’ve come too far and gone through too much not to get it back. Give it to me, Mr. Willoway.” Louis began slowly walking toward Jonathan, not caring about the gun.
“I’ll shoot. I swear it!” Willoway said, taking a few paces back.
“You’ll only be wasting your bullets.”
Willoway pulled the trigger. The expelled bullet traveled through Louis and shattered the window behind him. Jonathan looked at the broken glass in amazement.
Russo saw his opportunity and charged Willoway, grabbing the arm in which he held the gun and stretching it out. “Drop it!” he screamed.
“Let go of me!”
“Louie, get the gun.” Louis struggled briefly among a tangle of arms but was able to snatch the revolver.
“Got it!” he called.
“Now give me the Book!” Russo exclaimed, holding Willoway even tighter.
“No!” Willoway called back. “There’s so much more I can do with it.”
“I’ll break your arm if you don’t let go!”
Willoway lost hold of the Book, which fell into the fireplace. He broke from Russo. His skin began to turn bright red. He clawed at his eyes. Brian looked on, not understanding what was happening.
“Get back,” Louis told him. “This isn’t going to be pretty.”
A small flame emanated from Willoway’s mouth. Soon his body was a pillar of fire, his screams of agony louder than anything Brian had ever heard. His life book was burning in the fireplace and taking him with it. Within seconds, the fire and screaming died down, and the remains of Jonathan Willoway crumbled into a pile of cinders.
“Not the ending I was hoping for,” Louis said, sadly looking down. “Poor Willoway.”
“Who?” Russo asked.
“Jonathan Will— Oh, that’s right. You wouldn’t remember him.”
“Who are you? What am I doing here?” Brian asked, looking around nervously.
“I’ll explain what I can later,” Louis said. “We’d better go.”
— ♦♦♦ —
Louis saw St. Peter at the other end of the huge room filled with life books. His feet aching, he walked to meet him. He greeted his visitor and asked, “Do you think the Boss will be mad about the Book?”
“I doubt it,” the tall man with a halo said. “It’s not your fault. Some things will have to be adjusted, of course, but it shouldn’t take much to make up for Willoway’s absence and bring about order again.”
“Perhaps the birth of Brian Russo’s son could be moved up a bit?” Louis suggested.
“That would be a suitable reward for his help. I’ll suggest that to Him at our next meeting.”
“Thanks,” Louis said. “Could you mention one other thing?”
“Maybe we could finally get a computer and digitize all of this?” Louis suggested, gesturing all around him at the many, many stacks of life books going on as far as he could see.
“We’ve always put that on hold,” St. Peter reminded him, “because of the great deal of time such a project would involve.”
“It’s only going to get worse.”
“Who will do all that work?”
“You, Louis?” the man with the halo asked, surprised.
“Why not?” Louis said. “What does time matter up here?”
— ♦♦♦ —
We pick up the adventures of Dorthy Quinn, librarian extraordinaire. Dorthy and her squire had parted ways left to fight their separate battles as the search for the elusive McGuffin Stone continued. Will our heroes be reunited? Will Dorthy complete her quest?