Emilio padded out of the shower, steam fogging his oversized mirror. This irritated him because he liked to look at himself au natural, fancying himself a Greek statue. That the mirror was low, cutting off his head, only added to the effect. Over the hum of the fan, he heard the two-tone clang of the doorbell. At the late hour of 9 PM, it could only be the obnoxious woman in 40A who objected to his tendency of leaving the shades up. He wrapped a towel around his midsection, so determined to teach her a lesson that he neglected to glance through his peep hole. Opening the door, he met Todd Stanky for the first time.
“I’m sorry,” Emilio said, adjusting his towel. “I thought you were someone else.”
“Who? The laundry lady?” Stanky’s eyes widened.
“Laundry lady? There’s no…who are you?”
“Your competitor,” Stanky said, shrinking in view of the bodybuilder’s exposed pecs.
Emilio studied Stanky’s thin, geeky body and unruly, fashion-unconscious hair style. “Competitor for what?”
“Amy Waitz. We need to talk.”
“I just got out of the shower.”
“I can see that.” He added, “I am Todd Stanky, Ms. Waitz’s colleague. Get dressed and we’ll talk man to man.”
“Stanky? Her boss?” Emilio hesitated, then figured this was as good a time as any to set a misguided suitor straight. He let Stanky in.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Emilio asked, after putting on a bathrobe. Stanky had already declined an offer to take his coat.
“No, I’m not staying long. Listen, I understand the situation with Amy.”
“Really? Because she’s worried that you don’t.”
“It’s obvious that, for superficial reasons, she prefers your company to mine. And I’m not under any delusions that anything I say or do tonight will change that. On the contrary, I’m certain tomorrow she’ll have an even lower opinion of me.”
What was this guy talking about? “Are you sure you don’t want anything to drink?”
“I’m sure.” He pulled his gun from the folds of his coat and pointed it at Emilio, who raised his hands.
“You’re going to kill me?” he asked in disbelief.
“No, I’m going to kill your chances with Amy.” He pulled the trigger. As before, the only sound was a click.
“What’s going on?” Emilio asked. It was one of his favorite questions.
“You’ll see,” Stanky answered, replacing the gun into the inner lining of his coat and walking out of the apartment.
Emilio stared at the bullet hanging in the air, its point aimed at his heart. He walked around it to the open door. “Take your thing with you!” he yelled. He then turned around and watched the projectile change direction, slower than a drawn-out sigh.
A week later, a haggard Emilio burst into Amy Waitz’s apartment. Normally, his appearance suggested a gated community with perfectly manicured lawns, winding cement walkways, and oversize windows. Today he looked like a condemned outhouse.
“What happened to you?” she gasped. “Why haven’t you been answering your cell?”
He ran his hand through his unwashed shock of hair, to no effect, and sank into a chair. He smelled like a toasted tuna melt.
“Your crazy boss shot me!”
“What?” Amy asked, not daring to admit she perfectly understood the situation. That Stanky had called in sick the past two days, something he almost never did, only confirmed it.
“The slow bullet—isn’t there any way to stop it?”
“There’s a recall setting,” she said. “But the only way we can access it is by getting the gun that shot the bullet.” If Stanky was desperate enough to use the gun, it was unlikely he could be talked into handing it over. “Why did you wait until now to contact me?”
“I don’t know! You try acting rationally when a bullet follows you all over the place.”
“You should call the police.”
That was the one thing Emilio didn’t want to do. Amy was just one of the love interests he maintained like a circus juggler. If the police got involved, his other affairs would come out and some of these women were rich enough to finance a mercenary army of slow bullets. “That would be bad publicity for you,” he said finally.
“Who cares about that? Todd Stanky thinks he can do whatever he wants. He needs to be stopped.”
Emilio nodded, aware he too was a charter member of the “I can do whatever I want” club. “Couldn’t we try to reason with him?”
Doubtfully, Amy grabbed her cell and punched in Stanky’s number. A computer voice asked her to leave a message. “He’s not picking up.”
Both froze as they heard a tapping at the door, sounding like metal blinds swinging in the breeze.
“The bullet…it’s so damned polite!” Emilio whined, his face pale. “Do you have a fire escape?”
“I do, but it doesn’t matter. The bullet is slow enough so you can avoid it, for now. Let’s go.”
She grabbed her coat and pocketbook, then opened the door. Approximately four feet off the floor, the bullet hung in the doorway, then inched into the apartment. Emilio swallowed, then walked around the bullet, giving it a wide berth. The two of them ducked into the garage and drove to Todd Stanky’s house.
Stanky felt ill, suffering from acute irony. Generally, he liked irony, which was sometimes all one had, but now he felt overburdened. He’d devised the slow bullet to wear down its targets with doubt, but the moment Stanky squeezed the trigger, doubt became his shadow. How could he have thought shooting Emilio would help him win Amy? Somehow, he must undo all this. He located Emilio’s cell number and called it. When he got no answer, he took a deep breath and was about to punch in Amy’s number when his door buzzer rang. Seeing it was Amy and Emilio, he sighed and buzzed them up.
As the four sat in Stanky’s living room, conversation was difficult, there being the equivalent of a herd of elephants in the room.
“I forgive you for shooting me,” Emilio said, breaking the silence.
That made Stanky feel worse. “You might want to hold onto your forgiveness until we’ve successfully recalled the bullet.”
“Which we did repeatedly during the testing phase,” Amy added for Emilio’s benefit.
That was then and this is now, Stanky thought. Unlike the sensors for the target, the range of the recall button was only about twenty feet, and he was no longer sure it would work. They could only wait for the SB to appear. The wide open front door provided easy access, except for the two times the wind slammed it shut, creating a noise that dwarfed anything the SB could make. It was halfway through the living room before anyone noticed it.
“Jesus, you don’t need a silencer with that thing,” Emilio said, changing to a recliner to get out of the line of fire.
Stanky picked the gun off the table, pointed it toward the bullet, and pressed the recall. The bullet ignored the gun and veered toward Emilio.
“Why isn’t it going back?” Amy asked.
Stanky set the now useless gun back on the table. “I added an innovation.”
“What kind of innovation?” Amy asked, her body stiff.
Stanky’s shoulders drooped like a boy caught in a lie. “I made it want to hit its target.”
Amy looked at him, incredulous. “How?”
Stanky shrugged. “What is want, but a sensor that produces a certain effect?” He noticed an unflattering parallel between the slow bullet and his feelings for Amy. “I altered the nanosensors so they’d simulate feelings of accomplishment and euphoria associated with the completion of the bullet’s mission.”
“You developed something that operates on emotions? And there’s no way to appeal to those emotions?”
“I will take responsibility for my actions,” Stanky said, then turned to Emilio. “I know this is little solace to you, but that bullet has ruined my life as much as it’s ruined yours.”
Emilio pondered this, and the bullet inches from his chest. “What does solace mean?”
Stanky scowled. “Follow me to the roof.”
Emilio, Amy, and the bullet obediently followed.
The roof was not for the faint of heart. Though it featured a swimming pool and a pleasing arrangement of vegetation, as well as a thick five-foot concrete wall lining the edges, anyone with a perverse imagination could conjure visions of splat-resulting leaps to the street a hundred and fifty feet below. A gusty wind added to the precariousness.
“Lean over the edge of the railing,” Stanky said.
“What?” Emilio blanched.
“Just do it.”
Emilio tested his balance by taking a few steps toward the edge. When his legs buckled in protest, he glanced at Stanky, whose glare told him to keep going. Without looking down, Emilio stuck his hand over the rail.
“It’s not aiming for your hand,” Stanky said. “Your upper body needs to break the plane.”
“I hate flying,” Emilio said.
Stanky grabbed Emilio and bent his howling body over the rail. Given the disparity between geeky Stanky and the exhausted body builder, this looked ridiculous, but Emilio didn’t resist. As the bullet nuzzled into its target’s chest, Stanky grabbed the projectile and leaped over the side. Amy screamed as bullet and man plummeted about ten feet, hung in the air, then climbed back up toward Emilio.
“I didn’t think that would work,” Stanky said. He’d hoped to do a Frankenstein gesture where the inventor goes down with the invention, or have the bullet dematerialize, plunging him to a dramatic death that at least solved his problems. Instead, as the bullet rose, he felt like a cat held by the scruff of its neck. He pulled himself back onto the building.
“Maybe I could leap off the building—a lower building—into a safety net,” Emilio suggested. “It could be pulled out of the way at the last moment, with me on it, and the bullet could get stuck into the concrete, or even be destroyed.”
Stanky shook his head. “The bullet never goes fast enough to miss its target.”
“Please, do something,” Amy begged.
To his horror, Stanky saw his former colleague, desperate and helpless, just as he’d wished. And he felt nothing, except hatred for himself. He realized he’d desired Amy because she’d been unattainable.
“Emilio, let it hit you.”
“Are you crazy?” Amy exclaimed. “Don’t do it, Emilio.”
Emilio considered both suggestions, laughed, then stood up straight. “I’m tired of this.” He faced the bullet. “I’m not going to run anymore. Achieve the single goal of your miserable existence.” He ripped open his shirt, which still sent cold shivers down Amy’s back, despite the recent days of dissolution. “Oh, and Amy, I confess that I was not entirely faithful to you.”
Amy’s mouth hung open. “What?”
But Emilio closed his eyes. The bullet continued its inexorable path to his heart, touching his breast like a successful thrust in a pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey game. He braced himself while Amy watched transfixed and Stanky tensed for a possible intervention. Time stood still. Then suddenly, the bullet dropped to the floor like a turd.
The three stared at the suddenly still bullet.
Stanky picked up his creation.
Emilio crumpled to the floor.
“What happened?” Amy asked.
“It was my last gamble,” Stanky said, turning the bullet over. “I doubt it understood Emilio’s comment about its pathetic existence, but it realized the significance of his refusal to run. The game became too easy, giving it time to think about what it would do after achieving its one objective. The answer was ‘nothing.’”
“It did all this as a result of you making it want to hit Emilio?” Amy asked.
Stanky shrugged. “It’s frightening what emotions make you capable of.”
Amy nodded, still stung by Emilio’s admission of infidelity. “You got that right. So it committed suicide?”
“It can’t end its existence, only its target’s. I think it figured out it has more reason for being if it allows Emilio to escape.” He turned to Amy. “Just like my dreaming about you was more exciting than the reality of it.”
Amy shivered. “The next person that tells me to slow down is going to get a kick in the groin.”
Emilio pulled himself to his feet. “I need to get back to the gym.” His legs wobbled. “Tomorrow.”
“I have to reevaluate the types of men I associate with, and why,” Amy said.
“I have to convince a bullet it’s better off without limited sentience,” Stanky said. After dropping the slug in his pocket, he felt it throb, as if saying, “Yes, yes, yes.”