by Levi Asher

Wallace Janin of the Wallace Janin Detective Agency rises to greet a well-dressed young man who enters his office. "May I help you?"

"Yes," says the visitor. "My name is Dennis Williams. I think I may be in need of your services."

"Please have a seat," says Wallace Janin, motioning towards a black leather chair in the center of the room.

The young man nervously begins. "I would like to arrange to be watched," he says. "I asked around, you see, and I was told that you might be able to provide this service in a very discreet manner. That is exactly what I need."

"Why would you like to be watched?"

"I am 27 years old," says the visitor. "I am a junior partner at Grayson Dean Finlay, down on Wall Street. I recently married and my wife is about to give birth to our first child. I've also recently received a very large inheritance. At this juncture in my life, I have decided that it is imperative for me to follow the straightest path. In short, I have some habits I need to get rid of."

"I see," says the older man behind the desk.

"I like to drink," says Dennis Williams. "I like it too much. I'd like to be watched so I am prevented from being able to drink again. In fact, I would like to be prevented from even having to think about drinking again. So if I take a drink, I would like to be shot to death immediately afterwards, on the spot."

"Ahh," says Mr. Janin. "And how long would you like this to continue?"

"For the rest of my life," says the young man.

Wallace Janin leans back in his plush leather chair and considers this. He places his hands together and closes his eyes a moment before he speaks. "So ... you've fallen into quite a little puddle of money, have you?" he says.

"I am free to spend my inheritance any way I wish," says Mr. Williams. "This is the best thing I can do with the money."

"Full time surveillance is a tall order. Have you thought about how much it would cost?"

"Mr. Janin, I've given this a great deal of thought. I am prepared to pay two hundred thousand dollars a year for your service. I would create a blind trust which would write you a check each month. Once you and I sign the agreement, I would have no ability to stop this fund from paying you. I would have no connection to the fund whatsoever, in fact, and you and I would never need to meet again."

"And if it became necessary for us to kill you? How long do the payments continue after your death?"

"Upon my death, no matter what the cause of death, the entire remainder of the account is immediately be transferred to you," Mr. Williams says. "I do not want you to be motivated not to shoot me, if it comes to that."

Mr. Janin nods. "You've thought this out well," he says.

Dennis Williams continues. "Since I'm already going to the trouble of being watched, I'd like to also arrange to be shot if I ever gamble. Not that I think this will happen -- men gamble when they drink, and if I drink I would not expect to live long enough to gamble. Finally, I'd like to be shot if I am ever unfaithful to my wife."

Mr. Janin nods. "Might as well do the whole shebang at once," he says.

"Will you take the job?" Dennis Williams asks.

Wallace Janin looks down for a moment, considering. He looks up and flips open a brass cigarette case. "Smoke?" he says.

"Thank you," says the visitor. Mr. Janin hands him a cigarette and offers him a light. The men puff tensely. Finally Mr. Janin speaks. "I've never been offered a case like this. Unfortunately, Mr. Williams, I don't think I will be able to take it."

Dennis Williams flushes with surprise and anger. "Why not?"

"Without a doubt your actions come from the highest motives," Wallace Janin says. "However they are certainly impulsive. I am quite sure you would come to regret this arrangement if you made it. I do not like to involve myself in any business which will not have a satisfactory conclusion."

"Mr. Janin," Dennis Williams says. "I assure you that I am not acting on impulse. I have been thinking about this for a long time. I believe this is the only thing that will save my life. Please don't deny me the benefit of your services. I've heard that you're more trustworthy than anybody else in this business. If you won't take the case, I don't know where else to turn."

Mr. Janin shrugs. "It's true. There's nobody in New York who would do this better than I would. I just don't know what I think of the entire business."

"Are you concerned about being implicated in my murder, should it become necessary?" Dennis asks.

Mr. Janin raises and eyebrow and smiles. "Ahh, no. A bullet through a window at night, a quick shot from a speeding car in a parking lot ... my men would not find that difficult. That would be the easy part."

"I see," Dennis says, feeling a slight chill at the cool efficiency of Mr. Janin's answer.

Mr. Janin closed his eyes for a moment to think. "Let me tell you what I'll do," he says. "I want to make sure you know what you're doing before we discuss this any further. You're a very young man and this decision will affect you for a long time. You see, it's your youth that makes this request so dramatic. If you were sixty-five years old with a pot belly and a liver problem, I'd accept this offer without a qualm."

"I understand," Dennis says.

"Here's what we'll do. You think about this for a month. During that month, I will ask my men to begin surveying your activities. You may see them around -- please understand, when you do, that this is only an exercise, and not a permanent arrangement. At the end of one month, you come back here. In the meanwhile, pay me for the first month, and start putting the paper work for the blind trust together. If you still want to do this in a month, I will not turn you down."

"Your men will follow me," Dennis says. "But will they shoot me, if I drink?"

"Would you like them to?" Wallace Janin says.


"I will instruct them to do so."

"And I will have one month's payment sent to you immediately, on this basis." Dennis Williams says.

"This sounds fine to me," Wallace Janin says. "I guess you'll need to know where I can be found," Dennis says. "I live on 17 Mockingbird Lane in Rocky Beach, Long Island. My wife recently installed a large glass window by the beach entrance, and that might be a good place for you to position observers at night. I often visit the Yale Club with friends during the week, and on weekends --"

He stops when he sees that Mr. Janin is not writing anything down. "Mr. Williams," Wallace Janin says. "You will be followed immediately upon leaving this office. My men will soon know more about you than you know about yourself. There is certainly no need for you to give them a headstart."

"Ah," Dennis said. "Of course. I understand."

"I willl see you in one month," Wallace Janin says.

"And after that," Dennis says, "never again."

One month later Dennis Williams returns to Wallace Janin's office with a folder describing the financial arrangement he has prepared. They review the papers together, shake hands and all is done. Dennis Williams takes the train home that day feeling exhilarated. He had made his decision, and he could never take it back. Thrilled by this sudden demonstration of his power of will, he decides to keep an even greater bargain than he had made, and begins a strict regimen of daily exercise and healthy diet. He eschews desserts and even coffee, and begins performing a rigorous calisthenic routine each morning. He is stunned how good it feels.

Tremendously enthused by his discovery of the joys of clean life, he is forced to restrain himself from proselytizing to his friends. His devotion to discipline occupies his thoughts with an intensity usually associated with religion. He experiences a revelation one day, while enjoying a cool glass of lemonade, that the secret of life is inside a glass of pure summer lemonade, sweetened with sugar, but not polluted with rum. To drink orange juice without vodka! It bathes his soul, immerses him in sweet joyous purity.

At business parties and evenings out, Dennis is commended by friends for sipping tonic water while others inebriate themselves. He sometimes feels a twinge of jealousy over the way everybody else's view of the world starts to get soft and swirly around the edges, while his remains hard and clear. But he has no choice about the matter, so he avoids torturing himself wishing for what he cannot have. Occasionally he spots one of several familiar well-dressed strangers who seem to turn up at every party he goes to, men who never introduce themselves to him or seem to know anybody there, although they somehow mix well in the crowd and never call attention to themselves. Occasionally Dennis will turn to one side and suddenly find himself staring at one of these men in the eyes, and a chill of inplexicable guilt and terror will creep quickly up his spine. At moments like these, any illicit desires that have been haunting Dennis will instantly vanish.

At the bank, Williams is increasingly spoken of with respect and admiration. Opportunities seem to lay themselves in his path, and Williams feels himself wafted upward into increasingly higher ranks of management, until he finds himself on the Executive floor. His lofty position brings great wealth, and he moves into a larger house in Rocky Beach, then an even larger one. On weekends he swims in his outdoor pool, plays with his children and reads newspapers on his backyard patio. He watches the gardeners mow the green lawn in razor-straight vertical sweeps, feels the sun caress his skin, and almost shivers with the wholesome joy of his life.

One day he is lying happily on a lawn chair, an iced tea in his hand, when he suddenly spots a figure in the top branches of a tree above his house. Or does he spot a figure? Is it a squirrel? The wind shaking the branches?

And is that a twig pointing in his direction, or is the barrel of a gun pointing straight at his heart, even as he basks innocently in the warm summer air?

Because Dennis and his wife entertain friends often, a small bar is kept in their dining room, well-stocked with expensive bottles. One day when his wife is at Atlantic City with her ladies club and the children are away at camp, he decides to test Wallace Janin's men. He does not plan to drink, but only to determine whether they are truly monitoring his every activity. Since he does not believe any of the men enter his house at night, Dennis reasons that somebody must be entering the house in the daytime when it's empty, and ought to be checking the contents of the liquor cabinet under the bar. So he places an invisible strip of scotch tape across the front, near the bottom where it would not be seen. The next day he goes to work, and when he returns that night he finds the tape dangling loosely from one side of the cabinet door.

His first opportunity to cheat comes without warning. One of his clients is a five-star General, and this General asks Mr. Williams and another colleague to travel to Washington D.C. for an important meeting in the Pentagon to discuss a large investment opportunity. The meeting goes extremely well, and afterwards the General invites the visiting bankers to his private office in a celebration. Entering this General's large, secure and windowless office, Dennis Williams realizes with a sudden panic that he is about to be offered a drink, and that it would be very difficult and ungracious to turn down the drink, and also that there is no conceivable way Wallace Janin's men could be observing him at that moment.

The General is unfortunately in a talking mood, and he tells ludicrous stories as his assistant displays and prepares a very lavish setting of champagne glasses upon a silver table. Dennis Williams grimacingly nods, his soul in torment. Mr. Janin's men simply could not have infiltrated the security of this office. Not the Pentagon. The room has no windows, no hiding places, no exposed air ducts. Dennis's soul twists in agonizing indecision as the General's assistant hands him a sparkling fluted crystal glass. The general begins a toast. The moment is shockingly immediate and simple. He caresses the glass, the lead crystal glistening wetly in his hand. He feels so frightened he realizes he would not be able to speak, and hopes it does not become necessary. He lifts the glass to his lips, and the champagne tastes astonishingly bitter and repulsive inside his mouth. He turns red as an otherworldly chill, a deathly calmness, seems to spread hotly through his head and neck and trunk and limbs. It feels as if his body had only been waiting for this moment for years. His body welcomes it, and he feels a laughing calmness deep inside that is completely at odds with the terror possessing his mind.

And how did the warmth of the alcohol spread so quickly? He'd once learned that cyanide acted in this way, that if you put a drop of it on your tongue you would not even have to swallow it to die. Enough is absorbed through the tongue to kill you in an instant.

Dennis finishes most of the drink, leaving only a quarter inch of the syrupy poison churning at the bottom of the sparkling glass.

The fear of being shot down begins to grip him as he steps out from the lush, carpeted front lobby of the Pentagon into the bright, sunlit, wide-open visitor's parking lot. He is braced, with every step, by the thought that a gun might fire before the foot he lifts touches the ground. "A quick bullet from a speeding car in a parking lot," Wallace Janin had said. "This would not be a problem."

With a horrible shock, Dennis realizes that he had not checked the General's office for a video camera. Of course there would have been one! Janin's men might not be able to infiltrate the building, but they would be able to bribe a guard. He pictures himself as he would appear on the video feed, his face swelling in the center of the fish-eye lens, furtively sipping his drink.

And, he realizes, his fingerprints are on the glass! How could he have been so stupid? They only have to flirt with a kitchen maid to find out all they need to know.

As he walks with his companion to their rented car, his companion blabs inanely into his ear. Dennis hears not a word of it, because a new thought possesses him, a thought more horrifying than the rest. The detectives do not even need a videotape or a fingerprint to establish his guilt. They could simply guess that he had been offered a drink in the windowless office. And they could guess that he had accepted. They don't need to find proof -- it is simply obvious that he had taken a drink. But if they are going to kill him for that, Dennis realizes, than he could not have saved himself by not accepting the drink, because then the detectives would not have been able to know that he had refused it.

But, he realizes with desperation, this is not true. The detectives know him well by now, and they know what kind of person he is. They know he is the kind of person who would take that drink. If he wasn't that kind of person, Dennis thinks, then they would know that instead. But he is the kind of person who would take that drink.

He and his associate find their car in the parking lot. A fat man is sitting in a green Thunderbird two cars away, staring at them. His door is half open and one foot juts out under the car door to dangle over the asphalt. The man looks at Dennis and Dennis looks at him. Dennis's body almost convulses with fear as he crouches spastically into the car. He jumps with fear when he hears his associate start the engine. He stares at his lap until they have driven a safe distance away.

For the next several days, Dennis lives in fear. He cannot read, and when he sleeps he awakens with a jerk at every sound. Gradually, he begins to relax. Fortunately, he is not able to follow his first drink with a second. It was an isolated incident. He goes back to normal.

His second digression takes place eight years later. By this time his marriage has ended in divorce. Even while his marriage was breaking up, however, Dennis never broke his vow not to be unfaithful to his wife. Now that he is divorced, he is freed from that constraint. But he has not taken advantage of this freedom yet. He spends most of his time at the bank, and his weekends at the golf course.

He plans his second digression for over a year. Some strange activities are necessary, but by planning them well in advance he manages to make it nearly impossible for any observer to be able to detect a pattern. One day he visits a magic store near Times Square and buys a fake moustache and a toupee and glasses. Nobody follows him into the store, and only the clerk sees what he buys. He puts them away and does nothing else unusual for three months.

Then he purchases six airplane tickets, all leaving Kennedy Airport at roughly the same time on the same day several months later, one each for Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Miami and Seattle. He will use only one of the six. He puts them away in a locked drawer in his desk at work.

A month before departure date, he quietly transfers a quarter of a million dollars in cash from his bank account to a new account in a highly private Swiss institution.

The departure date arrives, but Dennis goes to work that day without packing any luggage. At lunchtime he informs his secretary that he will be taking a long lunch, and takes a taxi across the Brooklyn Bridge, gets out, changes to another taxi in Brooklyn Heights, and goes to Kennedy Airport.

He selects a ticket at random and flies to St. Louis. In St. Louis he pays cash for a ticket to Mexico City, and in Mexico City he buys a ticket to Rome. From Rome he takes a train to Venice, memorizing every calm disinterested face in the car. From Venice he flies to Stockholm, and in Stockholm he charters a private flight to Monte Carlo. In Monte Carlo he gambles, drinks and has sex with prostitutes for eighteen glorious days, sitting at baccarat tables wearing his toupee and moustache and glasses, bills in his hand, girls on his lap, glasses on coasters before him. He sleeps on dirty beds with women whose name he does not care to know. He keeps this up until the eighteenth day when he realizes his money is almost gone.

He disposes of his disguise in a garbage can on a dirty sidewalk in a slum somewhere on the southern coast of France. He hires a car to take him to Paris and flies straight home from there. Earlier, he'd planned to take another random series of flights back to New York, but somehow by now it does not seem as important. He does not have the money anyway. And, he reasons, anybody who sees him arrive at Kennedy Airport would know exactly what he'd been up to, no matter how well he covers his path on the journey back. He does not look very good. But then he hasn't looked especially fit for a long time. Many years have passed since the days when he performed a calisthenic routine every morning, the days when a glass of lemonade was an ecstatic experience.

He exits the airplane in New York, wondering if he is about to get shot. His knees almost buckle with panic as he steps past the arrival gate and hears a burst of loud noise and sees bodies rush towards him. But it is just a family greeting a man walking behind him.

A year or so later, Dennis Williams begins to wonder if he is being watched anymore at all. He picks up a Manhattan phone book one day at the bank and idly looks up the name of Wallace Janin's agency. It is not listed.

He places a call to the custodian of the blind trust which is supposed to be paying Mr. Janin each month. He no longer has any connection to this account, but with much urging and some bribery he is able to persuade a clerk at the office where the account is maintained to look into recent activity on the payments. The clerk informs him that the most recent check was cashed by a Mr. Wallace Janin only several days before.

Dennis wanders, for the first time in decades, back to the lower midtown neighborhood where he first visited Mr. Janin. But most of the buildings have been replaced by newer ones, and Dennis finds nothing familiar, and no trace of Mr. Janin.

One day he steps into a liquor store and purchases a bottle of Christian Brothers brandy. He leaves it untouched in his house for three days, then begins drinking it, straight from the bottle, in his bedroom with the shades drawn.

In a restaurant one night with a woman he'd been dating, Dennis calmly orders a bottle of white wine, even though he'd never cared for wine. At a night club later that evening he orders a whiskey on the rocks, and then three more, making no effort to conceal his actions.

On the same woman's birthday later that years, he takes her for a weekend in Atlantic City. They play craps and baccarat and blackjack, slugging down whiskey sours and sloe gin fizzes as they spend their money. By the end of the weekend they are ten thousand dollars poorer, which upsets Dennis's lady friend so much that she decides to cease dating him.

At the age of fifty-five, Dennis is told by the Directors of the bank that there had been inquiries about his plans for retirement. He is told that the bank would like to make it easy for him to make this transition at the earliest possible date. By this time he is known around the office as a useless embarrassment, a good-time Charlie unable to perform any business functions at all. His peers are tired of him begging them to join him for lunches, especially as his lunches invariably involve little food and many martinis.

At the age of fifty-seven, Dennis Williams spends his last day at the bank. He begins making plans to transfer his Rocky Beach estate to his children and begin travelling the world. But not long after his fifty-seventh birthday he is hospitalized with a severe stroke.

Lying in his bed, his body broken but his mind alert, Dennis Williams thinks and thinks. He remembers his father's death thirty years before, and the meeting with Wallace Janin that followed quickly after. He remembers the champagne he drank in the Pentagon, and the terror he felt in the parking lot later that day. He searches all his memories, and finally comes to the conclusion that he has never lived his own life. Other people could say this about themselves, he thinks, but somehow he seems to have a unique right to make this claim. His life has never been his own, and the only thing he earned, for all his losses and mistakes, is the bitter aftertaste of regret. This is what Dennis is thinking when he has a second stroke and dies.

Copyright © 1998
Path of Least Resistance