The apartment door opened and closed. Emily set her purse down and hung her coat on the hook. When she walked into the living room she stopped cold at the sight of an unfamiliar woman sitting in the rocking chair.
The woman looked down at the cat in her lap. “See? I told you she’d be home soon.” She looked up at Emily. “I haven’t been here long, Ms. Ware; just long enough for Ribbons to get comfortable.”
“Who are you?” Emily asked.
“Please don’t be frightened, Ms. Ware. I’m here to help you.” And she smiled a friendly little smile. “My name is Paula.”
Emily looked at her. Paula wore a nice but ordinary dark blue dress. Her light brown hair was just off her shoulders and neatly styled. Emily guessed that Paula would be about her height – about 5 foot 8 – if she were to stand. She looked to be in her mid-30s, several years older than Emily.
And something about her smile and the way she petted Ribbons reassured Emily; Ribbons was a good judge of character. Emily sat in a chair opposite Paula. Ribbons hopped down from Paula’s lap, which she seemed to expect, and padded over to his owner. Paula crossed one leg over the other and leaned back a little in the rocking chair.
“The organization I represent did a small job two months ago at your instigation, Ms. Ware,” Paula said. “It’s recently come to our attention that you feel guilty about what occurred. I’m here to talk with you about that.”
“What organization? What job?”
“Tell me about Robert Hallam.”
Emily frowned. “He was a vice president at the corporation where I work. He … wasn’t nice to me.”
“He was difficult to be around, wasn’t he, Emily?” Paula said.
“Yes. He made lewd comments to me, talking about how big my breasts are and how he liked my legs.”
“That was how he began,” Paula said. “And then, over time…?”
“He began to press against me in the elevator and to fondle me when no one was around.”
“And you were afraid that if you complained, you would lose your job.”
Emily nodded. She couldn’t understand why she was telling these things to a stranger, but Paula put her at ease; it felt safe to talk to her.
“And the day before he went on the trip to Seattle?” Paula prompted.
Emily looked down and a single tear fell into Ribbons’s fur. “He trapped me in the elevator. He stopped it between floors and touched me all over, telling me how someday I’d beg him to do that. And he slapped me and started the elevator again. He just walked out when the door opened, like nothing had happened.”
“And what did you wish at that moment?”
Emily looked up at Paula, hatred shining through the tears in her eyes. “I wished that he was dead. And … when he was in Seattle, he was knifed to death in a robbery outside his hotel.”
“And now you wonder if your wish made his death happen.”
“Sort of. I mean, I suppose it sounds silly. I don’t have that kind of power.”
“It’s not silly at all, Emily. The organization I am with recognized your wish, and made it happen.”
“What do you mean ‘recognized my wish’?”
Paula uncrossed her legs and let the rocker move slightly. “Ms. Ware, you may not realize this but you are quite a moral person. You’ve never stolen so much as a paper clip from an employer. You’ve never told a lie, other than to spare someone else’s feelings, but never to save yourself embarrassment or trouble. You have a keenly developed sense of right and wrong and you live on the side of right.”
“That’s how my parents raised me.”
“You are a tribute to their upbringing. So when someone so good wants another human being to die, our organization takes that seriously.”
“But I never told anyone…”
“You didn’t have to. Our organization has … adepts, let us say, people who are extremely sensitive to emotions and who can sense these things, even at great distances. Some of our adepts sensed that moment of blazing, righteous anger you felt for Robert Hallam. You’ve disliked people before, but you’ve never wanted anyone dead. We tracked you for a little while, and we had other adepts scan Hallam’s mind. When your feeling of wanting him dead didn’t go away, and when we realized that he was, in fact, a walking, breathing moral sinkhole, we killed him.”
Emily stared, horrified, at Paula.
“It wasn’t a robbery?”
“No,” Paula said. “It was one of our agents. We framed the young man who was charged with Hallam’s murder. Our adepts have been monitoring him, too, for other reasons. He has committed other heinous crimes for which he was never caught. Justice will be served in a roundabout way, but he will get what he is due for his sins.”
“So … I’m to blame?”
“No, Emily,” Paula said soothingly. “You simply led us to Robert Hallam; you showed him to us and we learned what a bad man he was. He was tormenting other young women at the company just as he was you. He was regularly cheating on his wife with two other women, and occasionally with prostitutes. He was horrible to his family; they’re actually much happier now. He stabbed friends in the back to gain an advantage, whether on the golf course or at work.
“He was also stealing from the company, but we’ve carefully suppressed that information. The company has been very good to his widow and children, and we don’t want to interfere with that.
“He was genuinely a bad person, Emily. Your unprecedented wish for his death was like a beacon to us, and we dealt with him to ensure he would hurt no one else.”
“But it was my wish,” Emily said quietly. “I’m to blame.”
“Emily, if you hope for a nice day, and the sun shines and the temperature is perfect, do you take credit for making it happen?”
“Of course not.”
Paula nodded once. “Of course not. It’s just something you want. And when someone as decent as you wants someone dead, you’re like a lighthouse warning us of a dangerous rock. We removed that rock.”
“So … if I ever wish someone was dead in the future, you’ll have him killed on my say-so?” The thought pained her.
“You will probably never wish that again. You’ll be too concerned about being wrong. You’ll second-guess yourself, and your beacon will fade. Also, remember that some of our adepts read Hallam’s mind and knew all the terrible things he had done and was planning to do. You showed us where the danger was, and we confirmed it before we acted.
“Emily,” Paula said in her most soothing voice, “you don’t need to feel guilty about Hallam’s death. His family is much better off. So are a lot of other people, including yourself.”
“But with all you can obviously do, aren’t there things you could have done short of killing him?” Emily asked.
Paula did not smile now. “We see people like him as a cancer in the body of humanity. Cancer can’t be reasoned with or sequestered; it has to be killed. If left unchecked, cancer corrupts nearby cells, either weakening or destroying them. In time, Robert Hallam would have done that to your spirit, and to the spirits of other good people. We can’t permit that.”
Paula stood up. “I have to go now, Emily. You can tell other people about me, and our conversation, if you wish, but it’s not likely anyone will believe you. So you might not want to do that.”
She walked over and put her hand on Emily’s shoulder. “And don’t let Robert Hallam – either his life or his death – keep you from being the wonderful, decent person you naturally are, and from doing what you want to do.”
Paula reached down and scratched Ribbons’s ears briefly. “Nice to meet you, too, Ribbons.” Then she walked out of Emily’s apartment, quietly closing the door behind her.
Emily sat and stroked her cat’s fur, trying to take in everything she’d just learned. On the one hand, it was quite pleasant to hear confirmation that she was a good person.
She let those opposing thoughts slowly meld in her consciousness.
On the other hand, however, the notion that a powerful organization was reading people’s minds and treating some people like cancers shook her to her core.
“Two things, Ribbons: One, I’m going to keep being a good person, just like I always have been. Two: I’m going to use that to fight her organization. The next time I so much as think that someone ought to get a hangnail, that’ll be my clue to find a way to help that person so he doesn’t get treated like a cancer.”
Ribbons purred, oblivious to his human’s newfound purpose in life.
But on the other side of the world, a person adept at sensing the strong emotions of others smiled happily.