I spotted him straight away, Zak could always stand out in a crowd. He shone, it was his greatest gift and his ultimate failing. His hair swept back from his forehead in a jet-black wave. He was good looking in the way that middle aged men can be. He wore a tailored three-piece-suit, in tweed, and looked cool despite the springtime heat. As if sensing my presence he let the corner of his newspaper drop and glanced in my direction. To say we were friends would be stretching things a long way, past colleagues would be more accurate. I walked across and sat down as he put his newspaper away.
"Of all the coffee shops, in all the world, you had to walk into mine," he said with a smirk. The Bogart quote suited him, he had the same laid back swagger, the same level of disinterested elitism.
"Zak," I said in greeting and draped my jacket over the back of my chair. I should be suprised to see him, but I wasn't. He had a habit of popping into my life when the mood took him.
"Judy," he said and grinned. There was a smarmy tone in his voice because he knew he was pushing my buttons. My name is, Jude, not Judy. I knew if I snapped at him, or showed my annoyance, it would only make his day. I decided to play him at his own game and said nothing. I waited, and little by little the humor vanished from Zak's face. It was he that broke the silence.
"You're looking well," he said and smoothed an already razor sharp crease in his trousers.
"That's nice of you to say," I said and refrained from repaying the complement, another tiny victory. Instead I asked him, "What brings you to New York?"
"I had a bit of business to take care of, a few contract defaulters."
"And you came all the way here to do that yourself? I thought you'd have minions for that kind of thing."
"I shouldn't have to tell you what idleness makes. Anyway its good to step down on the shop floor from time to time. You can miss a lot of the subtleties when you rely on second hand information."
"I guess that depends on the quality of those you have reporting to you." I couldn't resist having a pop at him. He abandoned our organisation a long time ago and set himself up in opposition. Nobody could deny the level of success he enjoyed but he never managed to get the upper hand on my boss. To give Zak his due, he never stopped trying.
"That is a bit judgmental, don't you think? Aren't you the one who is always saying there is good in everyone."
"Some more than others. Look, Zak, you know I shouldn't be talking to you."
"But you are talking to me," he said with a wicked grin.
"It's a free country but..." Zak jumped on that like a dog pouncing on a dropped sausage.
"Free country? Ha! Freedom - the greatest lie of all."
"Are you going to start preaching? If you are I've better things to do," I said, not relishing one of the long winded rants he was famous for.
"Freedom is a myth used to control the masses so the powerful can get more powerful, so the rich can get richer."
"And you are complaining about that? I thought something like that would have been your idea, if it had an ounce of truth in it."
"That particular trick came from your camp. I thought you'd have known that," Zak said talking to me as if I was an idiot.
"You do come up with some rubbish," I said and sat back in my chair.
"It's not rubbish. Your boss is always harping on about how open his company is, how everyone is master of their own destiny and in the next breath he is listing all the stuff you can't do. He makes me look like an amateur when it comes to pulling the wool over peoples eyes."
A waitress appeared to take my order and as she left, her gaze lingered on my companioin and a flush coloured her cheeks. Zak noticed and gave her a smile.
"Still got an eye for the women I see," I said when she was out of earshot.
"And why wouldn't I?" he chorkled then sipped his espresso.
"In our of business, women are weaknesses."
"Hummh! Timber with no knots has no strength! Why don't you come hit the town with me, take home a blond at the end of the night, or two and ...."
"That will be the day! Why have you tracked me down... again," I asked starting to growing weary of him.
"What's wrong with catching up with old friends?"
"We were never friends," I said crossing my arms.
"At least we are old." he said and grinned.
"True," I said, I did have to give him that one. Then it struck me - the real reason Zak was here. "You're lonely, aren't you?"
"Don't be ridiculous," he said dismissively but he crossed his legs at the knee, a sure sign I'd hit a nerve.
"You are! You're lonely," I said and slapped my own knee while I let out a belly laugh. Zak tried to control his emotions but he was never any good at that. His skin flashed an alarming shade of red and something dangerous crossed behind his eyes.
"I've got the world at my fingertips!"
"A world of what? Drooling idiots? Self centered egotists? The dross of humanity?"
"At least I chose my own path. What about you? Incredible power at your disposal but power you can never use unless your handler bids it. A brain in your head that you can't exercise. A heart in your chest you're forbidden to follow."
Handler he'd said! He was trying to make me sound like a trained mutt, and it stung.
"Are you are trying to goad me into doing something stupid!"
"How is it stupid to follow your heart?"
"I already follow my heart! I also follow my head!"
"You do what your told!" he said, getting a little bit loud and attracting a few stares.
I sat back and took a breath before I answered him in more controlled tones. "We can't go around acting like toddlers, doing things just because we get the urge. We have responsibilities to uphold."
"Responsibilities my fucking ass."
"You accuse me of acting like a toddler when the truth of the matter is you, and the rest of your kind want the general public to believe they are free while even you are shackled."
I waved Zak's accusation away. On the surface I refused to be drawn into his madness but deep down I felt a pinch of doubt. In my darkest hours I'd wondered such things myself. I knew the importance of what we did but I could see the double standard at work. I followed the company line because I believed it was for the good of all.
"You're blind, Jude. You're a prisoner of your own making."
"Just because I don't see the world the way you do does not make me blind."
"Have you tried to see things from my point of view?"
"You know I can't do that."
"See? A prisoner. "
"Ok, I don't want to see your point of view. How's that for using my free will."
"Ha! That's not free will, it's doing as your told."
"It's because I believe...this is a ridiculous conversation."
"Freedom of choice is ultimately good."
"Yes I agree but not freedom without control."
"Surely you can see that controlled freedom is no freedom at all."
"No I can't."
"All I'm saying is that freedom and truth are subjective. A man kills his neighbor for trying to steal his wife and it's murder. A country goes to war over land or some high moral code and it's justified. Because it's a whole country it becomes acceptable but the truth is, it's all murder. You dip your hand in a man's pocket and it's stealing, a country sticks it's hand in your pocket and it's tax. I can prove I'm right."
"Are you playing games again, Zak?"
"Not at all. What harm could a small experiment do?"
"When you're involved, lots."
Zak smiled. He liked his rebel persona. He slipped his hand inside his jacket and took out an expensive wallet. He selected a hundred dollar bill and let the note flutter to the ground behind his chair.
"You'll never change, still trying to hoodwink people," I said, draining my cup.
"Not at all. Its money I don't need and won't miss. There's no way I can prove it's even my note. No one can be sure where it came from. It's a windfall, a bit of luck."
The waitress who had served me walked behind Zak with a loaded tray. She spotted the note and stooped to pick it up while we continued talking. She paused for a second before continuing to her next order. Zak smiled in victory and leaned forward, placing his elbows on the table.
"I don't know what you're smiling about," I said, "she just exercised her freedom which goes against all you were saying."
"Not really. She's proven that YOUR idea of freedom, YOUR idea of right and wrong is unnatural. It flies in the face of what people do when they have the opportunity and that is why YOU and that sanctamonous asshole you work for will never win."
Zak didn't see the waitress stop behind him and he jumped when she tapped him on the shoulder. "Excuse me, I think this fell out of your pocket," she said. Zak looked at the money she was holding toward him, and although his lips were smiling, his eyes were furious.
"Thank you so much," he said, taking the note and placing it on her tray. "A tip," he said and the woman's jaw fell open.
"There is no need, its far..."
"I insist," said Zak and gave her a killer smile. The woman beamed and hurried away with her eyes glued to her huge gratuity.
"What was that you were saying?" I asked leaning back to bask in Zak's fury.
"She must have thought we saw her pick it up," he said like a sulking kid.
"Or she did the right thing because she's a good person and good people choose freely to respect the world they live in and the people they live in it with."
"If you're so sure of that, why don't we up the ante?"
"In what way?"
"The next person through that door," Zak said pointing at the entrance. "The very next person! I'm going to make their dreams come true. Everything they ever wanted will become possible, but only if they choose it."
"I don't see how that will prove you right or me wrong."
"Like all freedoms, there is a price. I'm betting when the offering is big enough, even the most righteous person will abandon all notion of society and gorge himself on pleasure."
"Only if they are already that way inclined," I parried.
"Then you pick the subject," he said, and I saw the trap. He wanted this experiment to be mine. I was no wet-behind-the-ears-beginner in this game.
"This is your game, Zak, nothing to do with me," I said, and saw the twinkle in his eye when he realised I was not falling for his lure. Whatever would happen was Zak's doing but I was still interested to see the turn of the card. As if on cue the door opened and a mailman walked in. He approached the counter and delivered some envelopes, exchanged a friendly word and then turned to leave. Zak stood and intercepted him. They both moved left in unison, then again to the right. The mailman smiled and said, "My first tango in ages." He stood still and allowed Zak to move around him.
"Mine too - Simon," said Zak, reading the man's name tag, "but hopefully not our last."
The mailman watched my colleague go to the cashier with a frown. It was certainly a strange comment for a complete stranger to make but unfortunately for Simon, Zak wasn't just any old stranger. I watched the man shrug to himself then leave the cafe. I knew from that moment on, nothing in the mailman's life would ever be the same again.
The End...or is it just the beginning.