by Dan Swanson
Dr. Andreas Daytona looked gratified with the bartender’s apology and groveling. He very carefully set the box on the table, the large red button on the top side visible to every eye in the room — and every eye in the room was locked on the movement of Daytona’s hands. Biff Redondo was watching a group of construction workers in a booth across the room, and they weren’t even breathing — and didn’t start breathing again until Daytona casually returned to his seat.
“Your instant silence has earned you all a reprieve — this time! Please return to your normal activities until I’ve finished my business here. However, no one is to leave until after I do!” The few patrons who were starting to edge out of their seats quickly sat down again. The noise in the bar returned to something like its normal level, but the character of the noise had changed. Biff heard men telling jokes, and other men laughing, but there was no humor in either the jokes or the laughter. The waitress shrieked as someone pinched her fanny, and she turned and slapped the guy, and those around laughed, but there was no playfulness in the pinch, and no anger in the slap. It was all playacting. Biff was suddenly terrified. What kind of hold did this crazy old coot hold over the people here, anyway? He was afraid to even ask.
But Dr. Daytona was looking at him, clearly expecting him to say something. Biff forced his mind back over the things that Daytona had been saying before the bartender interrupted. Something about blindness? “Dr. Daytona, what an absolutely incredible idea. An absolutely perfect escape from the army. Blindness in one eye! Nobody will ever figure it out!” Biff was absolutely frozen with fear inside. He would rather fight all the Axis armies, naked and unarmed, than let this crazy man anywhere near his eyes. But the thought of what it must have taken to teach these folks the absolute respect and fear they were showing for Daytona right now scared him most of all. He had no idea what Daytona was talking about, but maybe he could act dumb and draw him out a little more. “Doc, it’s a great plan, but I’m a little fuzzy on the details. Can you draw me a picture?”
Daytona reached for his inside jacket pocket once more, and the crowd immediately quieted again. Biff started saying prayers, and somewhere nearby, as close as the next booth, he could hear water dripping to the floor. Daytona stopped moving, looked a little confused, and then started laughing. Once again, the noise level returned to something like normal. Even to Biff’s untrained ear, it sounded even more strained than before. Biff was startled to realize he was no longer drunk in the least. The adrenaline fizzing in his blood had, temporarily at least, overcome the effects of the booze.
“Ah, an idiom. You don’t want a real drawing, you want me to paint a picture with words. How absolutely charming, my dear boy!” Daytona reached over and patted Biff’s hand. Biff was starting to feel even more nervous, now; the man’s mood changed like lightning. A couple more of these unpleasant shocks, and Biff’s bladder would probably let go, too. Biff was a bully, and he had never been known for his courage, and the only thing that kept him going now was the fear of what would happen if he made this guy mad.
“I have here…” And the sound level dipped as his hand once again moved under the jacket. But he moved slowly this time, and with a big smile on his face, and the hand came out holding a small glass ink bottle. “…one of my greatest inventions. I call it Onpa!” He paused, clearly expecting a response of some kind. His face started to darken as no one seemed to notice. Biff swallowed a lump the size of Lake Erie and started clapping his hands and cheering. The other patrons noticed, and they saw that Biff’s applause seemed to be brightening Daytona’s mood, and they joined in. Softly at first, but as they were able to release some of their hysterical fear, the applause and cheering increased in volume, and within a few seconds, the place was rocking with applause, whistles, cheers, and forced goodwill.
Daytona looked around him like a conductor who has just finished directing a particularly well-played Strauss waltz, stood up, and took bows to the four corners of the room. The applause, almost deafeningly loud to start with, doubled and redoubled in volume. Then the old man held up his had for silence, and silence he was given.
“My friends, thank you ever so much for your acclaim. It is a humbling experience indeed to be acknowledged by such a learned and august body as this. While the accomplishment is, in the main, mine own, I must also insist that you acknowledge my partner, as he modestly sits before you.” He pointed to Biff, motioned for him to rise, and the patrons started cheering again. Not as loudly as before, and it was clear to Biff, at least, that many of the patrons had already had just about enough, regardless of the power of that little box. Something bad was just waiting to happen. Biff did perhaps the only courageous thing he had ever done in his life.
“Master Daytona, perhaps we two can walk a while, and discuss your triumph in privacy? The applause is deafening, and it may be that we can accomplish more in private?” Well, there may have been some self-interest in Biff’s action; he was afraid that whatever Daytona did to the patrons in the bar would splash over and affect him as well. He wasn’t a stupid guy, even if he wasn’t a brave one.
Daytona appeared delighted with Biff’s formal manner of speech. He stood and bowed again, this time in Biff’s direction. “A marvelous idea, sir. Shall we take our leave?” Biff stood and then walked toward the door, passing close to the bartender. Daytona stopped and, without warning, slapped the man with unexpected force, driving him backward against a table. As the bartender fell to his knees, Daytona kicked him viciously in the stomach.
“You!” he yelled, pointed at the trembling waitress. “We want the contents of the cash register! Now!” She scampered behind the bar, opened the register, and quickly emptied the contents into an empty pitcher. She handed the pitcher to Daytona, who gave it to Biff. “Hold this, lackey!” Of course Biff complied, although being a lackey was one of the things he was trying to escape by getting out of the army.
Daytona plunged his hand into the pitcher, came out with a handful of bills, and handed them to the waitress. “A round of drinks on me, please! Then he turned to the bar, and in a very menacing tone of voice, said, “Nobody leaves for half an hour — and my partner will be watching!” He vaguely indicated Biff, and Biff knew he would never be welcome in this town again. “And, I don’t think you ought to let anyone sit at our table–” And he pointed at the table where the box with the ominous button still sat, the button like a giant red eyeball, staring everywhere at once. “–until after midnight.” And on that note, he led a very confused Biff, who was scared beyond anything he had ever imagined, out onto the street.
“Now, where were we?” Dr. Daytona asked.
Biff responded timidly, “You had just showed me a bottle of something you called, hmm, let’s see, something like pen pal or something. Said it was your greatest invention.”
“Not pen pal, you idiot! Onpa!” Biff kept thinking of a tuba going oompah, oompah, but he wisely kept his mouth shut. “But it’s not really one of my greater inventions — it’s just a potion I threw together in a few minutes last week. I made it specially for that guy who wants to get out of the army so bad.” Biff didn’t say anything just then, so Daytona continued. “It stands for Optical Nerve Paralytic Agent. Neat nickname, huh? First letter of every word, get it?”
“That’s very clever, Dr. Daytona. You were just going to tell me how it works.”
“Ah, yes. Use a small eyedropper. Two drops into one eye, and you will be blind in that eye for six weeks. That should be adequate to see you through all of the medical proceedings the army will foist upon you. But remember, once your vision returns, you must continue to pretend to blindness, at least until the war is over!
“Once again I respond to your questions before you can ask! Since blindness doesn’t just happen, you must stage an accident — an accident that could plausibly have blinded you in one eye only.”
Biff hadn’t been thinking that, in fact. But now that Daytona had brought it up, he was. “Say, Doc, that’s a great idea! Any suggestions?”
Daytona roared “Must I do all your thinking for you? I don’t know why I ally myself with idiots!” His voice dropped somewhat, and he looked thoughtful. “Because, Dr. Daytona, they are all idiots!” He looked at Biff again and smiled. “And you are better than most. At least you are smart enough to see the benefits of becoming my partner!”
Biff saw nothing of the kind. And he didn’t know where that partner stuff had come from, either. He tried to steer the conversation back to the Onpa. “An accident it is, Doc! No problems! Umm, just one more question,” he added timidly. “Are you sure this stuff will work?”
Now, Daytona’s voice was like thunder. “Of course it will work! I invented it, didn’t I?” Then, in a more normal voice, he added, “I have tested it, of course. On animals and finally on myself. My vision has returned to normal — no pains, and no complications. You have my personal guarantee, of course!” Biff shuddered inside. How much would such a guarantee be worth? Nothing? Less than nothing?
Daytona wasn’t finished. “Yes, indeed, I know it is safe. I tested it on myself, a couple of months back. For six weeks I was blind as a bat in my left eye, but my sight came back, and my vision is again perfect. Here, let me show you!” He reached into an outside pocket and came out with a handful of the boxes with red buttons, which he then started to juggle. Horrified, Biff counted five of the deadly devices flying between Daytona’s hands. He wanted to run, but he didn’t dare move — if he distracted Daytona, he might drop one. What would happen then, Biff realized, he had no idea. But it was sure to be deadly dangerous.
Dr. Daytona saw the helpless fear in Biff’s eyes, and he laughed. “Fool! Do you think I would carry around dangerous devices? These are merely empty boxes, carried for show. People are such sheep. I’ve found that the threat of force is perhaps more powerful than the application of force — perhaps because of the uncertainty involved. Bah! Why am I wasting my observations on a brainless idiot like you? It is time to wrap up this tedious business, so I can retire to my home and have an intellectual conversation — with my mirror! Follow me.” He turned to walk away, and the boxes fell to the ground and bounced about, totally forgotten by the now-raging Dr. Daytona. Biff sighed in relief when he wasn’t instantly killed. But then he noticed something; one of the little cubes was starting to glow red and emit smoke.
He tried to speak, but could only croak, “Uh…” At the weird noise, Daytona turned around, and Biff pointed at the glowing cube.
Dr. Daytona saw where he was pointing, and casually kicked that particular cube into a sewer drain in the curb, then turned and walked away again. He didn’t seem to care that the brief contact between his work shoe and the cube had charred a large patch of leather near the toe of the shoe. Then again, Biff thought, after a quick glance at Daytona’s work shoes, both shoes are so covered with scars, burns, spills and crud, there is really no way to point to the latest scar — it just blended in!