It was still early Sunday evening when we finished up for the day. I didn’t put up a fuss this time. Of course, we would have been done sooner if she hadn’t gotten off on her little tangent about the foibles of Judaism. But then, who am I to criticize when someone strays a little off the subject? Perhaps she’d even caught it from me. Now there was a frightening thought. Followed closely by an even scarier one: if she had caught something that easily from her limited exposure to me, what might she have contracted during her long, intimate hours with Layla?
I smoked the roach that I’d been admiring for a couple of days, then started poking around for dinner makings. But even this soon after payday, when the pantry was as well stocked as it ever got, nothing sounded good. The truth was that I was dying to get out and try The Cup out again.
Oh, I wasn’t quite ready to begin my career as senator or Pope or The Sultan of Nepal. Actually, if The Cup had to be discovered sooner or later, the world could hardly have been safer than with her in my possession. My thirst for power was no greater than the average person’s craving for spinach and liver sandwiches. But I wasn’t content to just passively record her story, either. My Achilles’ heel wasn’t ambition, but rather curiosity. My modest debasement of the snooty socialite in Cobweb’s had given birth to a wee demon in my imagination—nothing major, just a puny minor imp—which had grown into a full-fledged succubus while I was preoccupied with The Cup’s saga. When I finally caught my breath and looked around, she and the Marquis were shamelessly humping on the floor, rolling around and overturning tables and smashing lamps in the violence of their passion.
We were going to further investigate her powers that night, one way or another. Might as well include dinner in the plans for the evening.
First I made a couple of preparations. Sticking with the paying-half-price-isn’t-really-stealing rationale, I typed myself a discount coupon on a three-by-five card (a better fate than ending up recording some tidbit about that twerp Louis XIV.V): THIS CERTIFICATE ENTITLES THE BEARER TO 50% OFF EVERYTHING ON THE MENU and signed it ‘Shalom, Alfred.’ Next I emptied out an aspirin bottle, rinsed it carefully, and filled it with the Liebfraumilch. On an impulse, I put on a collared shirt before heading off to Alfred’s for dinner and entertainment.
It was late enough that there were no lines to get into the dining room. My order arrived promptly, and after a healthy bite of a beef tongue and Muenster sandwich on pumpernickel, I started looking around for opportunities to talk people into interesting things. I was trying to decide between my waitress and an innocuous middle-aged couple at the next table when, over in a dim corner of the restaurant, I spotted a young woman who could have been a descendent of Layla. Blue eyes, blonde shoulder-plus length hair, complexion fresh enough that she didn’t need makeup, perfectly proportioned figure, long legs sans hose peeking out from beneath a sun dress.
Layla CIX-or-so was sitting with some affected bozo wearing one of those ridiculous jackets with patches that don’t cover up any holes on the elbows and smoking a pipe. (Remember when anybody who wanted to could smoke in a restaurant without a shred of consideration for the rest of the customers?) I hated him instantly. What two-bit Lothario would try to impress a younger woman with a pipe? If you have no honesty, how about a shred of dignity at least?
Well, a faint heart never won the lady fair, my grandpappy used to say. So I gave The Cup a snort of hopefully aspirin-free wine and strode up to their table.
“Excuse me, sir,” I butted in.”There’s been some sort of emergency. You need to get home as quickly as you can and wait by your phone for further details.”
He stood up immediately, with a perplexed look on his face. His date touched his arm in what looked to my prejudiced eye as a sisterly way. “John, this is all so bizarre. What in the world could it be?”
“Don’t worry, ma’am. Everything will work out, I’m sure. John, you need to get moving. Just give me the money for your meal and I’ll take care of everything here for you.”
So I ended up with a twenty and a beautiful if confused young woman, while John got to go take care of the ersatz emergency. I surmised that I had gotten the best of the bargain.
Her name was Anne. A twenty-year-old sophomore math major, she should have been jaded enough not to be impressed just because a senior had asked her out. Hell, by April of my sophomore year, I was jaded enough to realize that the whole damned citadel of the university—moat, portcullis, redoubts, and towers—was nothing more than a Hollywood facade, and if you just walked around the back you could see that it was made of plywood and propped up by beams. And I had been as naïve as a Victorian spinster when I’d gotten there.
If she was impressed by a senior, she was fish in a barrel for The Cup and me. I fetched my sandwich to her table and ordered an Amaretto for her so her hands would have something to fiddle with as we talked (you could drink at eighteen in those days). In five minutes she had forgotten all about Patchwork John; in fifteen she was sending out signals of infatuation. Old Gabe would have turned over in his grave.
Well, the fascination certainly wasn’t all one-sided. She may not have been very worldly, but that look of fresh innocence hid a keen intellect. Once she keyed onto the game of verbal repartee she held her own, even without any psionic assistance like I had. As the evening went on I found myself touching The Cup less and less often, and feeling guilty every time I did. Thankfully, she didn’t intrude into the conversation when I did touch her. If anything, I sensed amusement with the proceedings rather than disapproval.
Anne finally noted that we were the last patrons in the restaurant, and our waiter was pointedly checking his watch every minute or so. She hung onto my arm as I paid the bill—with my half-price coupon, John’s twenty paid for tab and tip—and laid her head against my shoulder as we walked down the sidewalk. It would have been downright ungentlemanly for my arm not to go around her. My little finger came to rest on a slight imperfection in the smooth curved excellence of her hip that could have only been the elastic on a pair of panties, which I found exciting all out of proportion. Anne’s response to my forwardness was to slip her elegant fingers between the buttons on my shirt, making me glad that I had changed shirts (although the tee shirt I was wearing earlier had holes large enough for three of her slender fingers to fit through).
Anne lived on campus, which was fortunate since I didn’t think that even The Cup was persuasive enough to convince her that my bicycle was a late-model sports car and that the passenger was supposed to perch her cute little butt on the handlebars. It was a short mile walk but it took us a long time to get there, tarrying every few dozen steps or so to share kisses that were becoming more passionate with every stop. Well, why was I surprised? If fat Razuni, with his ill manners and bad breath, could seduce the king’s wife—sort of—why shouldn’t I get to play kissy-face with her great-times-six-score-granddaughter (even if The Cup was by this time safely tucked away in my backpack where she couldn’t contribute directly).
The trouble was, as disgusted as it made me, I already knew that I couldn’t go through with this grand seduction. My self-image as a neo-Visigoth running amok through Notre Dame de Paris smashing outmoded concepts with a battle axe took a serious hit when in front of me was this statue of Athena representing old-fashioned morality, and I couldn’t so much as chip the delicate alabaster. But there it was. I hadn’t done a damned thing to win this woman, and that made bedding her a theft as surely as not paying for dinner or the wine would have been, sexual revolution be damned. Not to mention that I genuinely liked her.
“Horseshit,” the Marquis broke in, taking advantage of a lull between kisses and my seeming irresolution. “Leave this up to me. Don’t worry; we can live with it in the morning.”
But I knew I couldn’t, and we weren’t even going to take the chance.
I could see the silhouette of her residential college through the oak trees and knew decision time was upon us, but the decision had already been made. I offered up the softest rejection I could come up with—“This budding relationship is too rare and precious to rush into bed.” Her wistful smile as she assured me, “That’s OK, Brad,” made me realize that she was relieved as well.
Once the Marquis figured out he was holding a losing hand, it became a matter of honor to salvage what he could out of the situation. I knew he’d be hell to live with if I didn’t offer some compromise. So we settled for her panties and her phone number.
Well, I’d gone out looking for an opportunity to test The Cup’s powers again; this definitely qualified both as a test and an opportunity (hopefully it would turn out to be harmless as well). I found an excuse to reach in my backpack to touch The Cup and, elegantly and without so much as a hint of a leer, I asked if I might have her panties as a souvenir of an extraordinary evening. She flashed a glimpse of that wistful smile again as she considered my bizarre request before shrugging gently to signal that her submission was not totally without reservation. Then with a maneuver that was oddly tantalizing although it didn’t reveal anything her sundress didn’t already show—a display of the elegance of her own psionics, not to mention enough grace to take my breath away—she reached under her hem to hook the requested garment and pull it down to her knees, then leaned against an oak to complete the process. Watching was a spiritual experience, one made even more surreal by my fantasy of her as descendant of the original Layla.
She hesitated much longer before scribbling down her phone number. I started to psionically nudge her a little, then decided what the hell, I’d leave it up to her. “I’m not sure why I’m trusting you with this,” she finally conceded. “But the evening has certainly been memorable, if not totally rational. So perhaps a little risk is called for.”
Then she kissed me quickly—a light brush on the lips that was powerfully erotic after the deep open-mouth kisses that had come before it—and was gone.
I held her phone number in my hand and pondered the morality of power as I hiked back to retrieve my bike. Even the Marquis was a little ashamed of himself. But we never seriously considered the dramatic gesture of tossing the paper away.
Finally I dug The Cup out for consultation. “Would you have gone along if I’d decided to seduce the fair lady?”
Well, young man, the truth is this: I have no choice in the matter of how you use my power.
“But would you have wanted to stop me?”
She chuckled. Well, having lived a lifetime with Layla, I’m hardly a prude. And Anne is fated to lose that child-like innocence at some point. Plus I doubt it would have turned out to be a truly traumatic experience for her. But in the years since Layla, I have learned a lot about human goodness and its opposite: selfishness at the expense of others. So let’s just say that I would have been a little disappointed in you.
I started to say something, but she went on. But even more important, you would have been disappointed in yourself. So I wasn’t worried. Much. Not to mention that I would have given you considerable grief about it later, she added. So, good choice.
As I pedaled home, it occurred to me: life was never going to be the same.