By nine that morning, the meeting was already under way.
The general waved away the cigar smoke and took his chair, demanding to see the robot, "After all the money we pumped into this, Morton, this had better be good."
The little man in the white lab coat cleared his throat but didn't dare wipe his sodden palms against his thighs in case they thought his nerves a fear of failure. After so much research it had to be good. Maybe too good.
Morton hit the switch in the back of the silver man lain across the table and whispered in his ear, "Be good."
The machine opened his eyes, and watched the men staring back at him.
"This thing can see everything?" The general said, rooting in his pocket for another Cuban, his manner indicated he thought the bucket of bolts could as easily fly.
Morton smiled till his face ached.
Two million dollars, if this went well - two million-
"Ray, please tell these fine men something they don't know."
The machine whirred, blinked it's bulbous yellow eyes stupidly. Inside it's chest, gears ran, it formed words. "Your mother doesn't love you."
"What the hell is this?" The general bellowed, veins pulsing in his neck. He had only been here two minutes and lost more money then Morton could imagine because of it.
His time was more important then this. "Tell it to tell us something important."
Morton did not seem to notice, "What do you mean my mother didn't like me? Dad said she left because she had a break down."
Ray processed additional data in the air, "General Hanlon, you have a small penis. And a heart
condition. Your blood pressure exceeds dangerous levels. You will die in two years."
The general stood, "Morton, you bloody robbed us. This is nonsense, somebody grab him."
"Make that a year-"
"Shut up, Ray. Sorry general, it's true. He can see what happens and what will be."
The general chomped his cigar and grabbed Morton round the collar, tearing it, "I need to know our enemies weapon capabilities and you give me a machine that tells me you’re a borderline loner. I don't need a crystal ball for that you freak."
Ray blinked, processed. "You can't win."
The general pulled his revolver, a Korean antique he had bought second hand from a back street shop rather then won in battle. Ray knew this and Hanlon could see it in his metal eyes. "Excuse me?" Hanlon demanded.
Ray blinked, gears trundled. "The enemies missile supplies vastly out number yours-"
Click - clack.
"No, don't hurt him." Ray whined as Hanlon pulled the hammer back with his thumb, "It's not his fault, he can see but he can't judge his emotions."
"If you don't want to know the answers to difficult questions I suggest you don't ask." Ray said, blinked.
Hanlon had strength on his side, he levelled the gun at the robots head.
Ray blinked. Processed.
He didn't need to see to know what would happen next.
There was nothing in particular for me to do that evening in my office. The other agents had left long back. I stayed on since one of my clients was supposed to visit me. The road was noisy and the street lights seemed to glow in silent mirth. The smoke from petrol driven vehicles rose up like dark black giants hovering over civilization. The smog appeared heavy in the winter evening. I thought of leaving, but then lit a cigar.
There was a knock on the door followed by a creaking noise. He entered the room and occupied the chair in front of me.
“Good evening, sir.” he said.
“Good evening. What makes you come here at such a late hour?” I asked the visitor. At this he looked up at me with a kind of concern which his dark sad eyes could not hide.
“Gentleman, I have a problem. You need to solve it.”
He was not pleasing to the sight. He was a slightly bent, gawky old man with long loose legs, and a screwed up nose resembling a dry okra. His shirt hung loose in folds and his hat covered his left eye.
I stuck a sly smile on my lips and rose up to go near the window. The night was cold; the stars twinkled with wicked brilliance as people hurried along the streets. I turned back and occupied the chair again. He was looking at me with curious eyes.
“Please go ahead and tell me your tale.” I urged him.
“By all means, do so.” I pleaded.
“I am unduly worried over my shoes. I am very finicky about them. I spend a fortune buying them. One week back I bought a pair of Scholl shoes. I took them home. Next day while going for work in the dockyard I wore them and got into the bus.”
“Do you go to work by bus every day?” I interrupted.
At this question he looked even more worried and kept silent after nodding his head.
“I take the same bus everyday but one week back it was not the same bus. I realized only after a while when the dockyard did not come. I saw there was no one else in the bus and it was empty.”
He lit a cigarette and looked sorrowfully at me. I noticed there was some melancholy in his face.
“What did you do after that?” I asked.
“I shuddered first and then rose to my feet to find one shoe missing. I wore only one and the other foot was bare! I started looking for the shoe underneath the seat and everywhere else but found no trace of it. I forgot to ask the driver to stop and kept on searching for the shoe.”
“But where was the conductor? Why didn’t you ask him to stop?” I glowered at him.
“To my surprise I didn’t find him too!” said he with a flicker of a smile on his lips.
“What do you want me to do?” I asked with a little show of irritation in my voice.
He seemed not to notice it. I thought of having coffee and asked him if he too wanted some.
He nodded. While pouring coffee in two mugs I tried to have a better glance at him. His trousers were as loose as his shirt. He appeared to be an interesting case to me. A small ponytail peeped out from the back of his hat. I smiled at finding his eyebrow pierced. His eyes were bright and stabbing and a wiry beard that covered a thin part of his chin looked like a goatee.
“I was searching for the shoe and forgot to ask the driver to stop. He took me to a dense forest. I was not in a mood to stop the bus since I was searching all over the bus, under the seats, and near the window on the steps. I was panicky and searched frantically as the bus moved on. The dark outside became dense but I could not discard my search for I love expensive shoes. I was getting tired but the search was on.”
“But where did the bus take you?” I smiled and asked him.
“I didn’t ask the driver since I found he too was not there anymore. But now the conductor appeared from nowhere and asked me what was I searching for. I gave him the news of my missing shoe and he smiled and asked me to look down, pointing towards his own feet. I was shocked to find the missing shoe on his foot.”
“O! What a good story this is! Well knit! But why didn't you take the shoe back from him?”
“How could I take it from him since he also needed the other shoe, as I?”
I lit another cigar and went near the window. The city was slowly slipping into sleep. The cabs moved lazily on the street. A few street children huddled together in front of a bonfire. The fire looked dim and tired.
“Then what do you want now?” I asked my visitor.
“Please listen to the whole story and then decide. That night I spent on the bus along with the conductor searching for our missing shoes now. We searched and searched but we could not find the shoes. Then we both sat down exasperated. It was chilly and dark and the bus had taken us to a thick forest. I decided to strike a deal with the conductor.” He looked worried again but that amused me now.
“Yes. So what did you decide?” I looked at him intently but could not laugh seeing his grave concern for his shoe.
“I told the conductor that I needed my shoe back since that was mine. He stared at me like a faun. I was chilled to the marrow when he told me I was the one who had robbed him off his shoe and he would like to get it back from me. Both of us sat on there since both of us had lost our shoes. The night came thick on us. We sat beside each other and guarded the shoe that we both wore on one foot each. I knew if I dozed off he might take the shoe away to make his pair and he too was awake to keep an eye on me.” The man was engrossed in telling his tale thus.
“I need to get back home. It is already late.” I tried to show irritation in my voice.
“I will pay your fees sir. Just solve my case.” He really looked vexed and his sorrowful eyes disturbed me.
“Go ahead. Tell me what happened after that.”
“Finally it became morning. The birds chirped in the trees. Monkeys jumped about. The sun shone bright. We two sat next to each other like zombies guarding our shoes. Then I gathered courage and told him that I was ready to give him my shoe so that he makes his pair right,” saying this, the old man got up and went to drink some water from the jug.
“I told him I was ready to part with my shoe for him,” continued my visitor, “but hearing this he got angry and offered his shoe to me so that I made my pair. Then again a problem started since both us did not want the shoe that we had with us.”
Now I was amused beyond measure. I lit a cigar because I knew that my visitor was going to test my patience. I offered him a cigar and he took it. I noticed that his hand looked shriveled like that of a man's even older than him.
“I kept sitting with the conductor in the bus with no driver to drive us back to the city. We kept pleading with each other but both of was not ready to take the other’s shoe. Days became nights, nights turned into weeks. We started growing older. We loved our shoes so much that we didn't even bother for food and water. We just kept pleading with each other for years together and kept sitting on the bus.”
“Then finally you decided that you would sit on the bus and grow old.” I said finding the old man interesting now.
To this he nodded and said, “Yes.”
“Then finally you decided to sit there on the bus and come here as well to me to solve your case. Am I right?”
He could not conceal the glee from his face. He didn't try either.
“Then your case is solved. It is an open and shut case. You sit there on the bus and plead with the conductor to take your shoe and come here too to me to solve the case for you. I have solved the case. Just before you came here the conductor had come and told me that you had agreed to take his shoe to make your pair. I see you have taken his shoe and are wearing your shoes happily.”
Now the old man’s face distorted slightly, since he was outwitted. His eyes gleamed with energy and happiness.
I looked at my watch. It was midnight. I rose up from my chair and asked the man my fees. The old man stood up and took out a few dollars from his pocket and I found the notes to be tattered and those in circulation some hundred years back. A chill ran down my spine as I stood facing the old man who had been waiting on the bus for his shoe for more than a hundred years now!