Croxen sat down in the booth across from Pereson and, without a word, opened a vial containing a white powder and emptied it into Pereson’s coffee.
The vial went back into his left jacket pocket and he waited.
“Just like that?” Pereson asked, and Croxen nodded.
“Just like that. If you spill it, I have more.”
Pereson stared at his cup and looked fretfully around the little coffee shop.
“Why should I?” he asked, playing for time. “I could just walk out of here. You won’t stop me. You never do.”
“I won’t this time, either, Doctor,” Croxen said. He pitched his voice so that it would not carry even to the next booth. “You can get up and leave if you want. But it would be better if you simply drank the coffee.”
“Better for you, you mean.” And Pereson matched Croxen’s volume. “Better for you so that you can finish your job, so you can tell your superiors that you rid the world of a menace.”
“That’s one aspect,” Croxen agreed.
“That’s the word everyone uses: ‘menace.’ Or ‘monster.’ My work is important!” Pereson insisted quietly. “I have achieved great things, things that small minds like yours cannot understand.”
“Your work, Doctor, has killed thousands. It will undoubtedly kill millions before we learn how to put this malevolent genie back in its bottle.”
“Faugh! What do those deaths mean? Nothing! Those were wasted lives anyway. Through my work, they have been given meaning. Besides … if, as you say, you want the genie back in the bottle, then I am the one who can make that happen. You need me.”
“We don’t trust you, Doctor. And there are minds just as good as yours – indeed, better, because those researchers care about humanity – hard at work on the solution.”
“No mind is as good as mine. My work is offering a new start for humanity. If you are so concerned about our race, you’ll let me continue.”
“Humanity doesn’t need the kind of help you’re so thoughtfully offering. You’ve been judged, Doctor. I’m here to carry out the sentence.”
Pereson put a hand on his coat, lying next to him in the booth. “I have never been a fan of the Socratic method and will forego it in death as well as in life. Excuse me, please.” And he made to leave.
Croxen reached into his coat and pulled something out, holding it where Pereson could see it clearly but not reach it. The doctor froze in place.
“Where did you get that?”
“From Schnitzle, of course.”
Pereson stared hard at the collar and he began to sweat.
“She’s still alive, Doctor. Thoroughly unharmed and well cared for. At present.”
Pereson’s eyes broke from the collar to meet Croxen’s eyes. “She is innocent! What does she have to do with anything?”
“She’s your Achilles’ heel, Doctor. We were surprised to discover you might have one. That there might just be one life, other than your own, that you cared about.”
Pereson looked at the small collar again, thinking of that life.
“She’s only three, Doctor. She could live another fifteen, twenty years in a good home. Or … some of the people I work with aren’t dog lovers. They’d enjoy the chance to get revenge on you through Schnitzle.”
Pereson looked at the collar again and his face crumpled.
“Cold coffee is most unpalatable, Doctor,” Croxen said.
Pereson took a sobbing breath. “And nothing will happen to Schnitzle?”
“I am a dog lover, Doctor. Schnitzle will have the happiest life any dog ever had.”
Pereson leaned back in the booth. Then he suddenly snatched up his coffee and drank it in a single gulp.
“You’ve promised,” he said through gritted teeth.
Croxen nodded. “I’ve promised.”
A few seconds later, Doctor Pereson passed beyond caring even about his precious little dog. His body remained upright in the booth.
Croxen put the collar back in his jacket and calmly left the coffee shop. He wasn’t at all concerned about being placed at the scene of Pereson’s death; his superiors would take care of that if necessary.
He went to his rented car and made a call. “Croxen. Done. I’m coming in.”
Then he made another call. “Hi, Honey. I’m going to be late again tonight. Probably about 9. But you know how Mandy’s been wanting a dog? I’ve found one. A dachshund. She’s a real cutie.”