Bill Finch had a doting wife, not to mention two kids and three grandchildren, all of whom adored him. He had more money than he could ever hope to spend. He had the gratitude of his government. And he had less than fifteen hours before the Machine was going to take him from his house, hold a parade in his honor and then shoot him in the head in front of a cheering crowd.
The town had made its preparations. The local bar had even created a new drink and called it the ‘Bill Finch.’ Three parts rum, one part amaretto, a squirt of chocolate syrup and a couple drops of Tabasco to give it a kick. It was disgusting.
He was twenty-two when the Machine approached him. Fifty years old was an eternity away.
When the country handed the reigns over to the Machine, they meant well. They were in a crisis. It just kept happening, sometimes every day for weeks and weeks. Someone had to bail the people out.
And more than hate or lust or greed, fear can make people do some very bad things.
The Machine promised peace and order and they were better than their word. They hunted down those responsible and for the first time in years, there was something that passed for justice. Everyone gathered for the hangings and they were wonderful.
They did the first batch on a Saturday afternoon, lined up neatly on a steel gallows. It was built for ten, and it glistened in the sun. Ten arms with metal wire instead of rope nooses stretched out over ten steel swinging trap doors.
Bill had good reason to be there that day, even more than most. He was the only surviving member of his family. He’d lost his mother, his father, his sister and his fiancé, each in separate incidents. TV was not going to cut it for Bill. He needed to be there, live and up close, so he could taste it.
But revenge was not the real reason Bill had come. He was curious. Just like everyone who had bought plane tickets to the city and filled the hotels so they could be there, just like everyone all over the country, glued to their television sets; he was curious. Bill had seen people die before, but this was different. This was justified. This was righteous. He had permission to enjoy it.
What struck Bill about those first ten was how young and handsome all of them were. Obviously, the Machine had chosen the most photogenic to start the executions off with.
The Machine had not put black pillow cases over their heads. You could see their eyes bugging out with effort and surprise as they swung. They saw the blood spill down the front of the condemned’s shirts as the metal wire sliced through their throats. The smallest of them, a skinny kid, no more than sixteen, maybe seventeen, actually lost his head. When it popped off, everybody cheered.
Bill stood there, glued to the spot, for hours, watching them scrub the gallows clean, long after the crowd had dispersed.
“You enjoy the show?” asked a husky voice behind Bill, making him jump.
Bill turned to see a thick man, in his sixties, wearing a Machine uniform.
“I’m not sure,” Bill answered.
“Gruesome business. Hard to watch.”
“The boy on the end, the one whose head came off, he helped plan the one that killed my boy.”
“I’m Major Croft.”
“You had lunch yet, Bill?”
“Are you a gambling man?” asked Major Croft, swallowing his mouthful of cheeseburger and smiling.
“Do you think you could be?”
“I guess that would depend on what the bet was,” Bill said slowly.
“That’s a smart boy!” said the Major with a guffaw. “General First is a gambler. A smart gambler like you.”
“I’ve never really…”
“But you already know the secret, choose your bets well. That’s all you need to know.”
“Ten years ago, before it all started, do you know what the average life expectancy in this country was?” asked Major Croft.
“Seventy something, I think,” Bill said.
“Seventy-six. And now that the Machine is in control, General First wants to lay down a bet that we’ll start seeing people dying of old age again.”
“The General wants to make a bet?”
“We’ve turned a corner in this country. It won’t be long until everyone is a patriot. But what then?”
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you think you’ll live to be seventy-six, Bill?” asked Major Croft.
Major Croft leaned in and smiled. “You wanna bet?”
“Seventy-six is the number General First wants to use,” said Major Croft. “So, here’s the bet, if you want to take it. We give you five hundred thousand dollars…”
Bill dropped his fork into his plate.
“…and on your seventy-fifth birthday, one of our soldiers will take you from your house and execute you.” The Major lit a cigarette before adding with a wink, “If you live that long.”
“And if the Machine is still in power,” said Bill, realizing that he had probably just said something that could get himself hurt.
But the Major smiled. “That’s right,” he said. “There are lots of reasons why you might not have to pay up. A smart gambler would jump on this.”
“How many years can I sell?”
The Major’s smile spread to a maniacal grin. “As many as you can spare.”
Bill had four million dollars that he hadn’t spent yet. Eight more years.
He had been working on the noose for weeks, sharpening the steel rope until it was like a razor. His head would come off entirely. He stood there, on the chair, feeling proud and rebellious. But then he kicked the chair out from under himself and the only two things he truly was were stupid and dead.