The storytelling was obviously having an effect on the old man. He was lapsing into silences. There was a hint of moisture around his eyes. Leon wondered if he was watching his collapse.
Finally, with a glance at the clock, Tennery sat back straighter into his chair.
"Of course," he resumed, "I didn't tell myself I was just being greedy. It was in the third year. I was having money problems. My son was having school problems. The Vietnam war was beginning to have its effect on the public, and every report of our soldiers being killed had a direct tug at my conscience.
"I knew I was weakening. My high-minded moral stand against bending history to save Kennedy was going to go out the window and I could see myself burning the remaining Wishes by rescuing a lost kitten or arranging for a sunny day for a picnic.
"Wrestling with the problem every day, and every night before I drifted off into sleep brought me to a plan. I would use the second Wish to choose a long and prosperous life here in New York. I would tie my fortunes directly into the fortunes of society. By wishing for this life, I would–as a side effect–be insuring no more nuclear wars or other great disasters during my lifetime. All this could be done with just one Wish. I could then save the last one for some great thing that I couldn't foresee.
"I pulled the dusty peanut-butter jar from the safety deposit box, half afraid that the Wishes would have evaporated or gone dark. Like two glowing eyes, they were still there, still waiting for me.
"This time, the fire of God's power in my hand was like euphoria, not at all like the terror of the unknown that I had felt the first time. Again there was this omniscience as I reviewed the potential worlds of my future. I took my time, savoring the possibilities.
"When I focused on my goal, however, I discovered that there were limits. I could get to nearly any end result, but not without consequences. If I wished to live to be a thousand, then all of human history had to change, back to the Babylonians, in order to advance the medical sciences enough to make it happen. If I wished for universal peace and prosperity, then something strange happened to humanity, some genetic twist back in pre-history, that allowed a more pallid version of the human race to come to be, a race that was content to live in a tightly controlled matriarchy in a prosperous hive city. If I looked for wide social justice, then America became a monarchy, and one that looked ready to collapse when the current King died.
"Again, I settled for finding a world with my original goal, but one with a minimum of side-effects. I had to settle for a shorter life than I had hoped. I had to settle for relative obscurity in spite of my wealth. I had to settle for protecting just my corner of humanity from disaster. In the end, this is the life I chose–knowing in the back of my head that there was always the third Wish."
Tennery rolled the globe across the table and Leon jerked from his chair to catch it. It was heavy, the glass was thick.
"Don't worry. I sealed that up long ago. It is tough. I have a big hammer in the desk if I really need to open it, but it is not likely to break open on its own."
Held close, the marble did glow. Leon tried to focus on its surface, but with no luck. Was he really looking into a million alternate realities?
Tennery's voice steadied. "So! This is the job I'm offering. Take the third Wish. Use it when it is needed."
Leon broke his eyes away from the globe. "What? Why would you do that?"
Tennery stood up. "Because I am going to die soon. I know the very instant when it will happen. Since I don't want to waste the Wish on extending my own pitiful existence, I needed to find someone to take over my place."
"Then why me?"
Tennery smiled, "Feeling the pinch already? Learn to live with it. But to answer your question: You are educated in history, so you won't panic when little things like depressions and brushfire wars happen. I also like the way you handled my tests–suffering in silence, but being smart and methodical.
"I read the checklist from your computer. You had the evidence. You filed the papers like clockwork. You could have convinced any judge, unless I bribed him. You didn't scream at the fates. You didn't threaten. You even listened to your girl-friend with more patience than she deserved."
Leon let the praise trickle off his back. He knew what kind of person he was. Methodical or dull, either term applied. What mattered this instant was understanding Tennery. Sane or not, right now the man was the most important influence over his own future.
"How do you know I won't waste your Wish?"
He shook his head. "I don't know. It is all a gamble."
The old man counted on his fingers.
"One, you can handle disappointments, even catastrophes.
"Two, you have no close family, no one you should feel compelled to rescue.
"Three, you can handle poverty. I have a trust set up to make sure you are eased into wealth with as little stress as possible. That shouldn't side-track you."
He spread his hands, "But I will be out of the picture soon and it won't make any difference what I think. But seriously, I don't have any choice."
Leon asked, "What about the old trick of using one wish to make more wishes?"
"Ha! How many times have I thought of that? There isn't any djinn to tell me the rules. What if it doesn't work that way? The omniscience vanishes as soon as the change is made. The only way to tell is to burn the Wish on the attempt.
"In any case, I am done with the responsibility. I didn't waste the Wish to bring my own son back to life. I didn't waste it to make my wife love me again, or to bring her back after her death. I won't waste the Wish!" He looked over at the clock on his desk.
"Anyway, my time is done."
Crash! The huge window shattered into a million white diamonds. Crack. Crack. Crack.
Leon dropped to the ground. He looked at his right arm–a thick numbness made it hard to recognize that the gushing red was his blood. He tried to clench his fingers together, but they didn't move. Too much blood. He gripped his good hand over the wound.
The door to the elevator came open and two guards in uniform came in crouched low.
"Get down," Leon called. "Someone is shooting at us."
The black guard waved him down. "It has to be Jennings." Fred, the other one, was scooting along the floor towards Tennery. Crack! There was another shot. There was a tight "Uhh" of pain from Fred.
Jennings? Was he the 'unstable' one?
Leon lifted his head slightly. He had to see what was going on.
Edmund Tennery was down, his head was covered with blood, and strangely misshapen. He is dead, just like he expected. The guard was bleeding–a large red patch growing on his side. Why is he still shooting? Surely he could see his target go down. Unless I am the real target? Fred's partner was already moving into the range of fire.
I have to stop this. Leon looked around for anything he could use.
Among the large glass fragments near his side, a glowing marble sat quietly in the thick carpet, freed from its prison.
Could I do it? Could I wish it away? I could bring back the old man. Keep the guard from being shot. Keep me from getting shot! Just make the shooter's gun jam or something.
It was tempting to reach down and pick it up–to start the magic. But what if it is real–he wouldn't thank me to bring him back.
There was another shot, and the other guard edged back to shelter. Fred was still pumping blood. He is going to bleed to death. I have to do something.
He looked around his limited shelter behind the desk. Glass fragments of the globe, shattered by the second bullet, and the Wish itself seemed to be his only tools.
Leon felt an ache creep up his whole right side. They were all locked down by the shooter. I have to stop it.
He let go of his wound and reached down with his good hand. With a scream of pain and effort from deep inside him, he shoved the massive wooden desk four feet over and toppled it.
The other guard was alert, and moved into the protected space and started pulling his partner to safety.
Leon leaned against the wood, until it jumped with the impact of a spatter of bullets as the frustrated gunman reacted to the barrier.
There was scattered debris everywhere. He picked up a decorative container and dumped the paperclips it held. Carefully he scooped up the Wish and closed the lid on it. His hand tingled in its proximity.
The body of the old man lay still. He looked at peace in spite of the violence of his death. I'll think about it. I owe you at least that much. But I have to work it out, step by step.
Step 1. Protect the Wish. He put the little box deep into his pocket.
Step 2. Stay Alive. His hand still tightly over his own bleeding arm, he started his crawl out of the room.