I felt my eyes narrowing with suspicion.
"If I am you, but younger," I added carefully, "Then surely you will know exactly what I am thinking, how I will react, every word and thought?"
The strange man who was might be myself smiled at my question in a strange way, somehow simultaneously acknowledging its importance and dismissing it as but a single step on a long journey.
"Well, yes, that would be very logical and of course I do remember this encounter from your side of the table," he said after a moment, "But you are forgetting two things. Firstly, for me, that conversation happened five or six normal lifetimes ago. Admittedly, it is very memorable discussion we are about to have and I thought about it at great length afterwards. But, ultimately, I still have a very human memory, and I forget things, just like everybody else."
"And the second reason?"
"Will have to wait for a few minutes yet."
It seemed he was not to be persuaded to reveal his story except on precisely his own terms.
"So tell me if I have this correctly," I said, taking a substantial gulp from my brandy glass, "I - you - have been sent back to an earlier era, utilising some means of travelling in time. How, I cannot say. But why I can guess: it is a test of the existence of free will or unchangeable destiny."
He nodded slowly.
"Quite correct," he acknowledged, "So, to answer your question how. Sometime very soon, in the next few days if memory serves, you will meet a man, a man who will make you an offer."
He mused for a second, then added as if talking to himself: "I suppose he was a man; he could be a Demon from Hell or an Angel from above for all I know."
Yet again the strange man cocked his head, apparently listening intently for something or somebody, or perhaps using senses I could not imagine.
"What are you doing?" I asked sharply, "Are you expecting something or someone?"
He leaned forward conspiratorially; instinctively, I also leaned over the table, our heads close enough to be nearly touching.
"I have spent lifetimes trying to prevent this moment, this very meeting," he said in a hoarse whisper, "I have been unsuccessful, entirely and at every turn. I have tried to prevent your birth, the birth of your father and grandfather: by persuasion, by misdirection, even by murder, by any and every means I could devise to prevent your very existence."
"So you are source of the family curse!" I exploded.
"Shh," he hissed, then went on, "Yes, yes, I admit it. I have been getting desperate in recent centuries. And yet nothing has worked! Despite my most strenuous attempts to alter the course of events, you are here, talking to the older you. And now I must urge you, do not accept the invitation when it comes."
"I do not understand," I said, frowning.
"Do not become me," he urged, "Do not undertake this experiment. It is all unknowable. Please, reject it. Despite appearances, and despite my own experience of the last three hundred years, I am sure free will does exist, but the experiment is flawed. I am convinced of it."
"How is it flawed?" I asked, still inordinately confused.
Before he could answer, I caught a movement, half glimpsed over the stranger's shoulder. A figure - I could not make out any details - appeared for a second and raised a hand in greeting, perhaps, or made some gesture I did not catch.
The elder version of myself raised his head sharply, as if catching a sound or scent on the wind.
"Remember," he exhaled, his sightless eyes wide, "Say no!"
It was, literally, his last breath. I saw myself collapse dead over the table between us. I stood up hurriedly, my chair toppling over and my brandy glass smashing to the stone flags. I tried to help but there were no signs of life: no breath, no pulse, no movement of any kind.
I fully confess that I panicked. Heated imaginings ran though my head, what would happen if I was required to explain who was dead, and how I knew him, and what the purpose of our meeting was. They were questions I could not face. So I fled like some vile desperado from the scene of a crime, getting lost in a crowd of the public house and the anonymity of the foggy streets.
I must have been a mile away when I stopped running, breathless and still shaking with shock. There was no sign of any pursuit and it seemed my abrupt departure had gone unremarked. I told myself there was nothing I could have done; maybe I was even convinced.
As I walked home, wrapped in my greatcoat, I mused on the strangeness of the encounter. Another version of myself had tried to communicate a message, a warning to myself not to go, not to undertake an adventure which clearly once before I had ignored.
It seemed that the other version of me had enjoyed a vastly extended life, seen and experienced things I could not even imagine, even acquired senses, it seemed, that were unknown to me, senses which meant the sightlessness of his eyes were at worst a moderate inconvenience. It was all so strange, so exhilarating. How could I not want to experience all this myself?
In any case, it was a noble experiment. Surely it might work out differently next time around? If free will did exist, as he - I - asserted, then surely the encounter with me on the other side of the table might turn out differently, or even not happen at all?
I felt I already knew, when the call came, what my answer was going to be.
If you have enjoyed this story, then why not take a look at the others in this collection? An eclectic mixture of science fiction and mystery/ghost stories under the title ...Then a Miracle Occurs.
You may also enjoy my earlier collection of fifteen interlinked short stories under the title Four Square Less One. Can you work out the hidden connections between all of the stories?
I am now working on a new series of Private Eye fantasy novels. The first is called Findo Gask - Goblin Detective, featuring the eponymous Private Eye, Findo Gask himself.