Thursday, September 27, 2007

The Luckiest Man in the World

By Andrew Hanson

For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places. Ephesians 6:12

We are well aware that God works with those who love him, those who have been called in accordance with his purpose, and turns everything to their good. Romans 8:28

Visualizing what happened before the meteor hit the atmosphere is difficult in the extreme. Supernatural beings are invisible to the human eye in their pure supernatural state. There are however thousands if not millions of reports of supernatural beings, both good and bad, who have assumed corporal identities. If human witnesses are to be believed, they can appear and disappear at will, assume virtually any shape, and reveal themselves as beings the size of tall buildings or microscopic imps. Questions about where these supernatural creatures live, what they eat, or how they entertain themselves when not engaged in their struggle to influence humanity have hitherto not been extensively researched.

Pleasing the boss was far more than vitally important. The Meteor hadn't been given any front-line work for eons. His involvement in the platypus scandal had been a disaster. Consequently, he had been reassigned to the mailroom; the pro forma punishment for failure in an unforgiving bureaucratic institution, previous brilliance successes notwithstanding. He could scarcely remember his former beauty. 10,000 years as a backroom kiss-ass bureaucrat had reduced him to a graying shadow of his former self.

So it was no wonder that the Meteor was more than happy. He was fiendishly happy. He was ecstatically happy. He was insanely happy. In a matter of moments, his windowless cubicle would be history, and the luckiest man in the world was going to be more then killed, more than torn limb from limb, more than pulverized, more then obliterated, more than vaporized. He was going to be erased so completely and obviously that there could be no doubt that he would go down in history as the unluckiest man who had ever lived. He would be the only human being in recorded history to sustain a direct hit by a meteor no larger than a basketball. The meteor's boss would be pleased.

Since it was a vital importance that no other human being would be killed, possible impact points had been carefully chosen. Because timing was also critical, the Meteor was prepared to act quickly when the ideal situation presented itself. Consequently, the he was ready when the Luckiest Man in the World left the Safeway parking lot on Highway 32 at exactly 10:51.572 seconds that Sunday morning. His road home, following the Nord Highway turnoff took him through a long stretch of uninhabited orchards and grazing land. Presently, there was no one within three miles of him on that road. Not only was the terrain ideal, the day was perfect. It was Easter Sunday.

When the one considered the big picture, the story of the Luckiest Man was a minor anomaly. While it was true that he had been featured in the Community News section of the Enterprise Record, his notoriety had remained local. The reporter assigned to cover human-interest stories interviewed Bob after his return from Ecuador while he was recovering from malaria in the local hospital. It was the reporter who supplied the headline, “The Luckiest Man in the World”, when Bob’s response to the reporter's question, “What do you make of the fact that you were the only one in your group of volunteers that contracted malaria while you were building the medical clinic? Are you just unlucky or what?

Bob response was categorical. “I am the lucky one. The villagers and medical team that saved my life are now part of my family. Their love and concern helped me realize that my life was important in the great scheme of things.” When the reporter interviewed Bob's wife, she informed him that Bob regarded good fortune as God sent, something to be expected. “Luck” for him was the product of the many misfortunes and tragedies of his life. The reporter, sensing an unusual human-interest story, asked Bob for a second interview. He agreed.

A black-and-white picture of Bob accompanied the following story. He looks like Ron Howard’s brother. His smile is slightly uncomfortable.

“Bob is fifty-two and never claimed that the tragedies, misfortunes, and irritations of life didn't test his resolve to take away something positive from those experiences. He is no Pollyanna. He considers himself a realist, an average guy trying to become a better person.

“When Bob was three, the thumb and second finger of his right hand were severely burned when he reached into his mother's mangle while she was ironing clothes. To compound the injury to his hand, is distraught mother slammed the car door on the same hand in her hurry to get him to the hospital's emergency room. During his recovery, his mother read to him. The story of Oliver twist not only inspired him to be brave but also fostered a lifelong love of literature.

“He became a social outcast at six when he skipped the second grade and found himself in a classroom of eight-year-olds. That experience taught him to be self-sufficient and truly grateful for friendship. In the fourth grade he was actively persecuted for his naïveté. In addition to being made fun of, he was regularly assaulted physically. On one occasion when he was swinging on the monkey bars, one of the girls pushed him so hard that he fell and broke his wrist. As a result the torture ended and his classmates signed their names and wrote, “Get well soon.” on his cast.

“When Bob was ten he realized that his family was poor. He noticed this for the first time when he realized that he and his brother's Christmas packages contained only new clothes. This knowledge made him grateful for what he had and inspired him to befriend those less fortunate than he was. At twelve he realized that his parent's didn't like each other, and their constant verbal and occasionally physical conflict might well end in divorce. This potential end of comfort and security allowed him to discover books as an antidote for despair rather than delinquency, alcohol or drugs.

“The school bullies beat him up regularly when he was fourteen. Consequently his mother paid for boxing lessons, and he learned to defend himself physically. At fifteen, when all his classmates were dating and could drive, Bob got a job, learned study skills, and took his trumpet lessons seriously. Consequently he gained the satisfaction of earning his own money and making good grades. In addition he played first chair trumpet in the school band and won numerous talent shows.

“Bob fell in love when he was eighteen. When the girl rejected his advances because her girlfriends convinced her that she could do better, he was discovered by a beautiful girl who fell in love with him body and soul. She was the girl of his dreams, and that they had been happily married for forty-one years.

“He considered himself “lucky” to have been able to look after his mother when she was dying of cancer and to have taken care of his father who was suffering with Alzheimer's disease. When an unscrupulous building contractor cheated Bob out of thousands of dollars and a trusted employee embezzled enough of his money to nearly bankrupt him, he claimed that the lessons he learned were worth the price he paid.

“Bob freely admits that manufacturing “luck” from these tragedies, misfortunes, and irritations is a continuing challenge. Learning from his mistakes is also difficult. He continues to back into things when he is driving his car. He misspeaks. He absentmindedly forgets to close his garage door at night. He is judgmental. He is impatient with his wife. He cusses when an opponent bangs him into the boards when he plays roller hockey. He feels unappreciated when his children didn’t understand and grandchildren complain. In short, staying “lucky” is a tough grind. But he is still ‘hanging in there’.”

The Meteor was out to ruin Bob's reputation. In his own rather insignificant way, Bob represented something reprehensible to the evil force that was battling to control the world. When Bob's heretical notion led him to be labeled, The Luckiest Man in the World, the headline came to the attention of what was now the Meteor and suggested a plan he hoped would get him out from behind his desk. Even though the paperwork was a pain and the resources to accomplish the mission were in short supply and expensive, centuries of supplication and pleading finely won the day, and he was just minutes from making officer grade.

Frank was on the way to murder his wife. His unlicensed loaded 22-caliber revolver was on the seat beside him along with a Hallmark card in which he declared in poetry, so saccharine as to be scarcely believable, his undying love for his wife. Edie’s airline tickets were in his coat pocket, and he was wearing a cheap plastic raincoat. The hole he had dug behind some brush just off a dirt road five miles west of Paskenta during his recent hunting trip was deep enough.

It was 11:13.023 am. Frank was driving the back road to his house as fast as he dared. He had asked Brother Mason, head elder of the Believer Baptist Church, to shepherd the aging flock of nine blue hairs through a carefully prepared Sunday school lesson. Frank had assured his congregation that he would be back in time to preach his Easter sermon after he had taken his wife to the Chico Airport.

He called his wife on his cell phone. Edie answered after the first ring. Her bags were packed. Frank was a punctual man, and she knew it was important to him to begin that Easter Sunday worship service promptly at 12.30. His estimated time of arrival at the house was 11:18.

Once inside the house wearing the raincoat, he would shoot Edie while embracing her, thereby muffling the sound of the shots. He would fire when her back was to the open front door. In the unlikely event the small caliber bullets penetrated her body, they would be lost in the orchard that bordered the driveway. He would then carry her through the house to the garage where he would dump her on the plastic leaf bag he had opened that morning. Then he would stuff her, the raincoat, leaf bag, contents of the suitcase and carry-on-bag, and purse (minus wallet and cell phone) into the large heavy-duty plastic bag he had salvaged from the dumpster behind Ginno's Appliance. He would return the empty suitcases to their places in the storage shed. After backing the car into the garage, he would stuff her into the trunk. After the Easter service, he would slide her into the hole above Paskenta and cover her with dirt and rocks. The Hallmark card would be left on the credenza. The driver’s license and cell phone in Edie’s purse would then be his to do with as he wished.

The church con had been easy enough. The pastor of the little church that Edie attended had died of a heart attack, and Frank’s lie about being a former theology student, some phony transcripts, and his wife’s backing, had secured the job. Frank had been raised on the theology of Oral Roberts and Pat Robertson. He preached their brand of hellfire and brimstone Evangelical Christianity, and he delivered his sermons with energy, confidence, and calculated passion. His reputation grew as a marriage counselor and a child psychologist. Church attendance grew from nine to fifty regular members.

Frank had a charismatic personality and the movie star good looks of a middle-aged Johnny Depp. He had met Edie after a forty-dollar investment in an online dating service. This was after his third wife had disappeared. It was rumored that she left the country in the company of the local bank's vice president. Heartbroken, Frank Steele, alias Thomas Hurd, alias Bertrand Lane, alias Christopher Reason, left town for the healing solitude of his grandmother's farm in Northern Idaho.

Edie had been a widow for ten years before she married Frank. She was four years older than he was and a Doris Day look alike. She was innocently wide-eyed, wore makeup only to church and the occasional shopping spree in San Francisco, and laughed easily and often.

He and Edie had been married for two years. That was about as long as he could comfortably keep up the pretense of being a loving husband, and he knew that Edie was beginning to regret not only their marriage but also the fact that she had made it possible for him to become pastor of her church. The signs were clear. There were questions about their finances, about how he spent his time during the week when he said he was doing research in the library at Chico State, and about his counseling sessions with a female member of the church. Edie had also developed an interest in the church books. (Frank had persuaded his parishioners to build a new church. Almost $100,000 of the money that had been raised was now in a joint, high interest bank account the Cayman Islands, along with $50,000 of his wife’s savings. As church treasurer and loving husband, it had been child’s play to get the necessary signatures.)

It had taken Frank over a month to convince Edie the trip to Niles, a suburb of Chicago, to visit her ailing sister was a duty as well as a well-earned vacation. That month had practically killed him. He was so attentive considerate and passionate that his mistress/accomplice had actually become jealous.

Jane was not the brightest bulb on the tree, and when Frank met her in the checkout line in Raley’s and seduced her without offering anything more than a story about a loveless marriage and the promise of his undying love, she became central to his planning. She was forty-seven, unattached, and new in town. Even though she was a peroxide blonde, she had his wife's creamy complexion and generous lips. He was convinced that Jane could pass for Edie if she was wearing sunglasses and a light brown wig. When he discovered that her lifetime dream was to be a member of Oprah's studio audience, he was confident that he was planning the perfect crime. (It was a shame that he might have to disappear before he took the congregation for a measly hundred grand, but his fingerprints were all over everything, and it was unrealistic to think he couldn’t somehow be linked to the case of the disappearing banker and his former wife during a missing persons’ investigation.)

Jane was convinced that Frank had arranged a clandestine romantic week in Chicago that included a shopping spree and a ticket to Oprah's television show. He would join her in there the next day. She only needed to pose as his wife. (He told her that Edie was spending two weeks in a Tahoe drug rehabilitation center, and their deception was necessary to protect his wife's reputation as well as his own.) Frank had supplied Jane with a recent picture of his wife along with a faux zebra skin coat given to her by the ladies aid society at the church. When Frank picked her up at her apartment, she was to be wearing the coat, a wig that matched the photograph in color and style, and dark glasses. He would then hand her Edie’s tickets, cell phone, and driver’s license. Jane was to carry on her own clothes and sundries. Jane was excited and enthusiastic. Frank was confident.

Upon arrival in Chicago, Jane was to take a taxi to the Hilton where he had reserved a room in his wife's name. She was then to text message him that she had arrived safely using his wife's cell phone.

What Frank did not tell Jane was that the following day, after a detour to Gray Eagle to buy gas, he was flying to Chicago out of Sacramento as Christopher Reason to kill her and dump her body and personal effects into Lake Michigan. (Small pleasure boats with cabins could be rented for the day.) Then he would use his wife's electronic signature to transfer the money in their joint account to a Panamanian bank that would, for 10% of the transfer amount, discreetly deposit the remaining funds in a real estate corporation account in a branch of Bank of the West in Huston, Texas. In the meantime Frank would fly back to Sacramento, sheepishly buy trout in a supermarket market in Quincy and "return" from the four days of solitary fishing in the lakes and streams west of Grey Eagle.

Frank had included his fishing trip and Edie's trip to visit her sister in the Church and Community News section of the previous week's church bulletin.

The meteor entered the Earth's atmosphere traveling at 17,000 mph at exactly 10:15.131873 am. When that happened, the place and time of its impact was predetermined. The meteor wasn't happy about this physical requirement because it was impossible to perfectly gauge the speed of Bob's car. However, given his mass, the generous kill zone it provided, and the elapsed time to impact, there was no way he could fail.

The farm road that provided the quickest route to Edie's farmhouse intersected Nord Highway 400 yards south of the meteor's projected impact point. As “luck” would have it, Bob's ‘98 Lincoln and Frank's speeding Ford Explorer arrived at this intersection almost simultaneously. The intersection brought the two roads together at an acute angle, and when Frank decided to ignore his yield sign, a collision was almost inevitable. Bob instinctively turned away and hit the brakes. His car did a 180 as it left the road, flipped on its right side, and skidded backwards into the shallow irrigation canal that ran parallel to the highway. The initial impact created a curtain of water and mud thirty feet high.

This wasn't the first time Frank had played chicken, and he was going ninety when the Meteor hit twenty yards behind him. The blast wave crushed the back half of his car and initially increased his speed to 110 miles an hour. The pavement disintegrated in an asphalt wave, and he and what was left of his Explorer came to rest after breaking off a telephone pole 200 yards from the meteor's impact point.

Bob couldn't see the sky or the ditch. The only light was mud filtered. That was particularly annoying because he was disoriented and suspended over the passenger side door by a jammed seatbelt and a left foot stuck behind the brake pedal. And his neck hurt. He decided that the best thing to do was to go back to sleep.

Edie had just opened her front door when she saw fire descending from the sky. She later described it as what the children of Israel must have witnessed when God destroyed Elijah's sacrifice and alter on Mount Carmel. Seconds later the shock wave hit, and the floor bounced as she was struck in the chest by an invisible fist. She didn't hear anything at the time, but she was deaf for almost half an hour after she picked herself off the floor. The front windows on the front of the house shattered and the porcelain figurines on the mantle broke when they hit the hearth, but glass in the picture frames on the piano survived the fall. Edie called 911 at 11:20.

Because the dispatcher notified the volunteer fire department in the Nord as well as local first responders, help arrived for both men at about the same time. Bob's injuries were considered minor. He had sustained a mild concussion, sprained neck muscles, and deep bruises on his left shoulder and right hip. He left the hospital under his own power after two days wearing a neck brace. On the other hand Frank needed immediate life-support and almost died on the way to the hospital in Red Bluff. It might have been better if he had.

Jane never learned what happened to Frank. She knew him as George, and when he failed to show up she wrote him off as just another bum who would tell a girl anything just to get into her pants. She kept the wig and donated the faux zebra skin coat to the Salvation Army Thrift Store where it was purchased for fifty cents by a homeless woman passing through town on her way to Seattle. A week after being "stood up", Jane met a recently divorced psychology professor in a local bar and married him six weeks later in Reno.

The Meteor took grim satisfaction in the fact that the impact hole was 20 feet deep and 50 feet in diameter, and debris weighing up to a pound landed 500 yards away. (He had almost exactly calculated the ring of destruction.) Unfortunately for him, not only was The Luckiest Man in the World still alive, but the Meteor had gotten himself into deep trouble with a very senior colleague.

The fact that Frank was now a quadriplegic made it impossible for him to participate in a long-term project designed to impeach the president of the United States and provoke a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel. The "accident" reduced the probability of the successful implementation of the plan to less than 12%, and it had to be abandoned. As a consequence, the career of one of Frank's very senior colleagues suffered a major setback, and the Meteor found himself, along with his boss and his boss’s boss back in the mailroom with “absolutely no future prospects for advancement”. (It was obvious that communication between the Departments of World Chaos and Human Disillusionment needed improvement, but a 200,000-year history of bureaucratic wrangling prevented any substantive changes in policy regarding future information sharing.)

Chico's Enterprise Record headline read, “He Really Is the Luckiest Man in the World!” This time his story received national coverage. Random House offered him a million dollar book deal, he was interviewed by every major news organization and talk show, his 60 Minutes segment was the third most watched in the show's history, and he was hugged by Regis and kissed by Kelly and Oprah. In every interview and in his book, Bob insisted that luck had nothing to do with what happened that day on Nord Road. No one believed him except God and the Devil.

In contrast to Bob's almost immediate notoriety, Frank was allotted only fifteen minutes of fame. While his parishioners attributed his injuries to the devil, it was obvious in his reckless driving could easily have killed Bob, the meteor strike notwithstanding. It was also true that an overwhelming majority of Evangelical Christians believed in a God that punished sinners using "natural events", which clearly included meteors. In reality, of course, it was impossible to interview Frank for three months after the meteor strike, and after that, it was tedious in the extreme to interview someone who could only communicate by blinking his eyes.

The only picture that Edie supplied to the press two weeks after the accident was a grainy black-and-white passport photo. Everyone who knew Frank testified that he was unusually camera shy. Very little background history on Frank was possible. Every lead ended Grand Forks, North Dakota, were no resident to be found that knew him personally or recognized his picture.

Edie’s friends and parishioners conscientiously spent time at Frank’s bedside during the three months he was hospitalized and in the final two years of his life in a SNF. Edie did nothing to assuage the notion that demonic forces had attempted to end the life and work of a powerful servant of God. She had three reasons for doing this. First, that idea almost immediately doubled church attendance. Second, outright donations and new pledges of future financial support enabled the church building committee to hire a contractor and begin building within four months of the meteor strike.

Edie's third reason was a personal one. The surviving contents of Frank's car included an unfamiliar banged-up laptop computer; Easter Monday airline tickets, Sacramento to Chicago, for a Christopher Reason; and a 22-caliber Colt revolver loaded with hollow point ammunition. In addition to house and car keys, there were keys to Frank's desk and a small fireproof filing cabinet.

A week after the accident, Edie's curiosity triumphed over her shock and grief, and she unlocked the desk and filing cabinet. In addition to discovering a small expensive looking safe, Frank's files contained unsettling information about his past life and business dealings. When she had the safe drilled open and information from the laptop's hard drive retrieved, she realized that she was lucky to be alive and that she was, potentially, a very rich lady. The Internet made it remarkably easy, given the account number and security codes, to begin to transfer money from Frank's bank account in Houston to her own.

Edie waited until Frank was out of intensive care before she told him that because of the accident, church attendance had doubled, the church building campaign was a success, and the new preacher and his family were the darlings of the community. She also informed him that there was still time to repent and give his heart to the Lord, and that his money was supporting Oprah's Angel Network and Doctors without Borders. Edie had read somewhere that eyes were a mirror of the soul. In Frank's case she hoped it wasn't so.

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