Verity worked hard at suppressing a laugh. Fortunately she was skilled at courtesy. She had to be—she’d been married for thirty years to a member of the Diplomatic Corps. What particularly surprised her friends was her ability to accomplish it without lies. She fell back frequently on oblique phrasing and a friendly tone, but she truly hated lies. Perhaps she’d been subliminally influenced by her name. On this occasion, at any rate, she didn’t even smile, just sipped her cocktail and raised an eyebrow. “You can make me immortal? Really?”
The little man (who looked just like Tweedle-Dee in an expensive suit) folded his arms over his tummy, and beamed up at her. “Effectively, yes!” (His name was even Tweedly, a fact that had strained Verity’s ability to suppress laughter to the limit.) He paused briefly, perhaps expecting some further reaction from her, and then continued, “Would you be interested?”
“I. . . would have to know more about it,” she managed.
The Prince came up behind her. “Did he offer you his treatment? He must really like you. He doesn’t offer it to everybody, you know. Wouldn’t offer it to me.”
Verity turned to him, and dropped a tiny curtsey. He was only a second prince, but still a prince. Plus he was her host—unofficially of course, since he was not officially seeing the lady whose birthday was being honored. “Do you know about this, Your Royal Highness?”
Oblivious to the Prince’s arrival, Tweedly bubbled, “I’d be simply delighted to show you my laboratory. I can explain everything as we go along.”
Verity continued to the Prince. “He refused you? Surely—if I may be so indelicate—you could better afford it than I.” But it might be difficult to avoid repercussions after scamming royalty, she did not say.
“Oh, I don’t charge money!” squeaked Mr. Tweedly. Just handling charges, then? reflected Verity. “This is a social experiment. That is why His Royal Highness is, regrettably, not a suitable candidate. ”He is too public a figure. An immortal living in a mortal society has to drop out of sight periodically, and he cannot do that. He would be noticed.”
“So you can’t take anyone famous,” said Verity, nodding with every sign of sympathetic understanding.
“There’s famous and there’s famous,” expounded Tweedly. “While I admit I prefer philanthropists, I’ve recruited a number of painters and writers and even a few singers. I’m very interested in seeing how the change influences their future work. But they were all able to retire and move to another locale, with little more effort than a forged ID and a carefully designed Power of Attorney. His Royal Highness is an international figure. His disappearance or presumed death would be vigorously investigated, no matter what the apparent circumstances.”
“Do let him show you the laboratory,” urged the Prince. He glanced around the party, assessing if he could leave it untended. “It’s very amusing, really.” He took Verity’s arm (an act that would have made headlines if Verity had been twenty years younger, and even so, was doubtless recorded on numerous cell-phones).
“Yes, you must!” gushed Mr. Tweedly, apparently unaware that the Prince had rendered all further persuasion redundant. “You are by far the best candidate here. So much so that I doubt I would have even bothered to come today, if you hadn’t been expected.”
“What a disappointment that would have been to everyone,” murmured the Prince so innocently that Verity had to gulp her drink to keep from laughing. She then detoured their trio away from its straight line toward a rear exit to snag a fresh glass from a strolling waiter.
Sipping at that, she peeked over the rim at Mr. Tweedly, then glanced pointedly around the room. “So many accomplished and important people! Was there really no one else on the guest list that interested you?” She stressed the words ‘guest list’ slightly, and looked up at the Prince with a smile, as if to ask how Mr. Tweedly had come to see that document. The Prince smiled beatifically.
It all went over Tweedly’s head. “I’m afraid not. Celebrity is not the only limiting factor. For starters, there are a number of physical requirements. And married persons have to be disqualified—they are practically never both eligible. And no journalists, of course. Or Scientologists.”
“Surely the physical requirements would rule me out!” Verity permitted herself to laugh. “I’m afraid my health is decidedly unreliable.”
Tweedly waved dismissively. “No, I mean tissue compatibility requirements. Your health has nothing to do with it. And you’ve already passed.” She started noticeably and he pulled an object out of his pocket, a small metal box that looked rather like a kitchen timer. “See?” he said, proffering her this thing, as if he expected her to make some sense out of the colored lines and curves sliding across the little display panel. Behind her, she heard the Prince chuckle. Royalty were not required to suppress their humor.
Mr. Tweedly gently swung his hand back and forth, and at intervals the screen locked briefly, then changed to a different cluster of colored lines and curves. Verity stared until the screen changed to something vaguely similar to the pattern she’d seen first. Then she dared a guess. “Doesn’t that say that . . .,” she glanced where the thing was pointing, “that Lady Portia is also eligible? She’s a philanthropist and an artist.”
Mr. Tweedly shrugged. “and an idiot. If I told her I had a magic serum of immortality. . . ”
“Begging your pardon, but you did not say magic! If you had, I would have run like a rabbit!”
“My point exactly!” Mr. Tweedly smiled hugely. “But Lady Portia would not have balked at magic—she will believe anything.” He paused and cocked his head. “And you would not have run like a rabbit. You would have heard me out politely. Just like you’re doing now. That’s why I like you.”
She caught her breath at his unexpected flash of genuine insight. Behind her the Prince whispered, “You see? He likes you.”
She politely ignored the Prince. “You mean you are only interested in people who don’t believe you?” She cocked her head with a smile. “This is beginning to sound like a club that Groucho Marx would join.”
“In a way you are right,” he replied. “The stupid and the credulous need not apply. Which covers everyone who is likely to believe me.”
“But then. . .
“I am looking to persuade clever doubters with flexible minds.” He smiled up at her. “There are surprisingly few of those.” They had almost reached the door, and a servant glided forward to open it for the Prince—who still had Verity’s arm. “Humans cluster in groups, and so they think in groups. There are a range of official positions to choose from, but nobody ventures outside the acknowledged categories. Skeptics decline to be convinced of anything, just on principle. The so-called scientifically inclined are as rigidly doctrinal as the adherents of magic or religion. They cannot be persuaded because they already know they are right. I am looking for those rare souls who are capable of changing their minds. Not driven by faith, but capable of taking a leap of faith.”
“‘Won’t you come into my parlor?’ said the spider to the fly,” murmured the Prince. The servant patiently held the door.
She turned to look up at the Prince. “If I may ask, Sir, what is your interest in all this?”
He laughed out loud, and numerous heads turned. “You might say, I’m his keeper. Mr. Tweedly’s social experiment operates under the direct patronage of the Crown. Since it is far too sensitive to be entrusted to the supervision of an underling, the Crown takes personal responsibility for the well-being of his subjects. Whether or not he can genuinely make you immortal, we cannot say. But we guarantee you that we will not permit you to come to harm, if you agree to participate.”
“And you lend him credibility,’ pointed out Verity. She did not glance at the open door.
“I do,” he admitted. “Unless, of course, you are concerned about secret government conspiracies. I’m afraid one of Mr. Tweedly’s prospects ‘ran like a rabbit’ when he heard I was ‘in on it’.’ He smiled. ”Would you like to know what I think is the most common denominator among his subjects?”
“Yes, Sir. I would like very much to know.”
“A sense of humor. It is, if nothing else, a sure indicator of a slightly skewed perception, which implies an off-beat mindset. A willingness to take a chance, just for a laugh. Admit it, even though you don’t believe a word of it, you are wondering just how far our Mr. Tweedly will go, what he’ll do if you call his bluff.” He gestured toward the door. “Well?”
She drank her drink. She took a deep breath. She smiled and stepped forward. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to see the lab.”
Food for Thought
They say, “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” But is it? What qualifies as ‘too good to be true’? If you were offered something extraordinary, would you go for it? Where would you draw the line?
About the Author
Michaele Jordan was born in Los Angeles, bred in the Midwest, educated in Liberal Arts at Bard College and in computers at Southern Ohio College. She’s worked at a kennel, a Hebrew School and AT&T. She’s a little odd. These days she writes, supervised by a long-suffering husband and a couple of domineering cats.
Aside from her novel, Mirror Maze, her credits include numerous short stories in F & SF, Buzzy Mag, Infinite Science Fiction, Deep Waters and others. Horror fans might enjoy her ‘Blossom’ series in The Crimson Pact anthologies.
Please visit her website, www.michaelejordan.com and watch for her upcoming steampunk adventure, Jocasta and the Indians.