(an excerpt from Strangelets, a novel-in-progress)
A server approaches the table with a delicious-looking cut of top sirloin on a sword. Patiently he carves pieces off, and as the meat is being distributed, Renzo says expansively, “Okay then, what’s the least amount of money I would have to offer you for you to agree to kill somebody?”
“Can I use the money for my legal defense?” Tom asks.
“Naturally,” Renzo says.
The server walks away.
“Can it be a victim of my choosing,” Tom says, “or does it have to be a victim selected by the person who’s paying the money?”
“Yeah, it depends on the circumstances,” Brian chimes in. “If it can be a total stranger or a pedophile—that’s one thing. If it’s my best friend, that’s different. And the method of killing matters.”
“Right,” Tom says. “If I have to get in there and do him with my hands, or a knife—some scenario that requires me to get up close and probably experience some revulsion, not to mention danger to myself, then eighty million or so is the least amount.”
“If we’re doing a thought experiment here,” Brian says, “say I can press a button that renders him dead, and I never see the victim or even know his name, and the button can’t be connected to the death. In that case, a lot less.”
“Less than a million?” Tom says. “Is that bad to say?”
“Like ten dollars for me,” Renzo says. “I would do that for ten dollars.”
“Which is less than one-fifth your share of this dinner,” Tom says.
“If I was hungry and wanted a sandwich,” Renzo says, “I would do it for a sandwich.”
“Any sandwich?” Tom asks.
“No,” Renzo says. “A good sandwich.”
“Ha, maybe a lobster roll,” Brian says, “from Pearl Oyster Bar. Wait—a lobster roll plus an oyster roll.”
“They use too much mayonnaise there,” Renzo says, waving his hand in a dismissive manner. Brian stares at him incredulously. The outrageous comment makes Brian want to murder Renzo—crack his skull open with a brick, smash it into his face, over and over.
“Oh, don’t look at me like that,” Renzo says to Brian in a playfully chiding voice.
“Okay, what if it’s more than one person?” Tom asks. “You can still do the button so you never see them and won’t be punished or linked to their deaths, but now it’s a lot of people—but far away. Like, ten thousand people in Siberia.”
“I’d do it,” Renzo says. “Overpopulation.”
“On the planet.”
“I can’t decide,” Brian says. “I don’t think I could do it. Eh, sure, I’d do it.”
Nobody says anything. The restaurant seems to be getting louder and louder—there are a lot of people, more people, even more than before, the voices loud and unassailably jovial.