Las Vegas; 1983.

The professor made them wait, enjoying the scent of malt whisky in his tumbler. “Tell me, Jim,” he eventually asked, looking the agent directly in the eye. “Do you believe in reincarnation?”

Carlton cleared this throat. “Now, if you are suggesting that I will come back as a flower or a monkey or something like that, then no sir I do not.”

“There are many faiths who believe that our lives are directly influenced by the choices that we make,” explained Van Peterson, “even those choices made in a previous incarnation. They teach that in the event of death, we are re- born to live again with the consequence of those decisions.

They call it Karma, Jimmy; where good deeds are spiritually rewarded, and bad deeds are forever haunting.”

“I know what Karma is, Malcolm,” he coughed, seeming impatient.

Van Peterson innocently raised his eyebrows.

Tadashi watched quietly, trying not to draw attention to himself.

“What if the soul could be cleansed of this karmic state, with the opportunity to absolve itself of its sins? What if it were possible to learn from our mistakes and to harness the opportunity to try again from the beginning, with the knowledge of experience passed down through generations?

What if, ultimately, we had the chance to seek forgiveness for wrongdoing, and give life another go? What would you say to that, eh?” 

The old man sat back.

“Our Lord will decide who is forgiven,” Carlton stated, firmly.

“Does he give you the opportunity for a second life?”

“There is no second life.”

“Jim, there is,” said Van Peterson, excitedly.

“You’re talking about Heaven and Hell?”

“There is no Heaven, no Hell, but there is the space in-between.”

Their eyes locked.

Tadashi didn’t dare move for fear of interrupting the staring contest.

“Where are you going with this, Malcolm?”

He smiled sympathetically and to everyone’s surprise he encouraged the assistant to speak. “Mr Finjoto, would you be so kind as to enlighten us?”

Tadashi was humbled. He hadn’t expected to say anything. He ducked his head in thanks. “I will try my best.”

The agent scratched his nose and lit up an Old Gold. He wasn’t going to let it slip that he was quite happy to be back in the ring with his old sparring partner. “The floor is yours, young man.”

Tadashi spoke softly and with assured confidence. 

“The passing of life is the visible becoming invisible, the transference of the spirit from one cosmic plane to another,” he explained. “Upon rebirth, the invisible return to our dimension and become visible once more. It is the darkness returning to the light. This is what I believe the professor is referring to as our second chance.”

“Claptrap,” shouted Carlton, just a little too loud for the room they were in.

People turned their heads despite the chaos of chatter.

There were hand signals.

A waiter approached.

“Is there anything I can get you, sirs?”

Carlton was defiant. “I am not talking to you. Please allow us some privacy while I talk with my colleagues.”

Tadashi took it as a personal victory that Carlton had just referred to them both as colleagues.

The waiter retreated as quickly as he’d arrived.

“And who, or what, do you claim to worship, Mr Finjoto?” He was being deliberately provocative and settling in for the fight, trying to undermine the young assistant. “Do you have a God?”

Tadashi was humble, but defiant. “My faith does not celebrate the concept of life and death. There is simply harmony between humanity and nature.

I practice kami-no-michi − Shinto. It is the native religion of Japan. I worship my ancestors who have passed on.

They are my gods, my spirits, and they are what I too shall become.”

“Be careful what you say, boy,” Carlton grunted. He extinguished his cigarette and casually signalled to the exact same waiter that he’d just told to leave.

The waiter hesitated, unsure if he should interrupt.

“I exist to become one with the many,” continued Tadashi. “My purpose is to join the collective ancestral being; a powerful force that exists everywhere and in everything. We all have the opportunity to achieve this enlightenment. It gives us meaning, during our time on this mortal plane.”

Van Peterson was cradling his tumbler. “Just like old times, eh, Jimmy?”

The agent breathed heavily, trying to stop himself from saying something he’d already decided he shouldn’t.

The head waiter arrived and Carlton ordered a spritzer with a twist of lime.

Tadashi took another whisky.

Van Peterson looked at the floor.

“This is big talk for such a small man.” He was almost laughing to himself as he said it. “Think you’re better than everyone else, huh?”

Tadashi looked to Van Peterson for reassurance but he just smiled. The assistant was on his own.

“I am simply in touch with my spiritual ancestors,” he replied. “And this connection gives me the confidence to never fear life, or death.”

Carlton eyed Tadashi, suspiciously.

The spritzer arrived and he took a large and unruly gulp. The drink seemed to calm him. “So, you think this attitude of yours will bring you salvation, do you?”

“I do not require salvation, Mr Carlton…” Tadashi smiled, “for I am already saved.”

The agent wiped his lips with a white napkin and prepared for round two.

“You deny that in death we shall be judged and offered a chance for eternal life in Heaven?”

“Judged by who?” Tadashi interrupted.

“By our Lord, Jesus,” he stated, matter-of-factly.

“And what happens when we have been judged?”

“We go to Heaven, or Hell, based on how well we follow the teachings of our Lord,” said Carlton, as if reading from a bible school pamphlet.

“You are almost correct.”

Carlton was shocked. “What right does this ignorant boy have to question my faith, Malcolm?”

“Hear him out, Jim. Mr Finjoto has much experience in these matters.”

Van Peterson wanted them to fight their corners.

The book was open and all bets were off.

The head waiter ushered new arrivals as far away from their table as possible.

A woman sipped a bright pink cocktail topped with whipped cream and a maraschino cherry. The cream stuck to her nose and she laughed out loud.

Tadashi was just getting into his stride. “If you insist on there being a Heaven and Hell, Mr Carlton, then where are they?”

Carlton lit another cigarette and clicked the Zippo shut. “They are in the afterlife.”

“So, the afterlife exists?”

He nodded and smoked.

“And how might I find it? Do I take a tram?”

“It’s not a physical place,” he puffed. “It’s spiritual, ephemeral, it’s where we pass through.”

Van Peterson interjected. “Come on, Jimmy, you can do better than that?”

“Look, I have faith, but I am not the most eloquent at giving lessons in redemption.” He shifted in his seat, uncomfortable at the provocation. “I’m no preacher, I admit that, but I know what I know and I don’t care much for your colleague’s line of questioning.”

Tadashi leaned forward in his chair. “Mr Carlton, if you would be so kind as to forgive me. I have been asked by the professor to contribute to this conversation, and I have no intention of upsetting you, but I will speak my mind.”

The agent tapped his cigarette. “Go on, boy, state your piece.”

Tadashi smiled. There was one more vital move to play which would determine the result of the match. “I believe that it is possible to travel to the high heavenly plain and reside with our ancient ancestors, and should the challenges presented to us in the afterlife be overcome, then we can be reborn on mortal Earth.

This privilege has always been reserved for the most enlightened of souls, until now, until this man, until Malcolm Van Peterson.” 

He took a large gulp of his whisky to declare the fact that he had finished, and choked slightly on the fumes.

The Dunes Hotel bar was oblivious to the battle that had just played out under their cocaine-fuelled noses.

A champagne cork popped.

There was an excited squeal from a dark corner that none of the bar staff wanted to investigate.

Carlton allowed the cigarette to burn in his fingertips. The conversation had taken a turn that he hadn’t anticipated.

He was now making up his mind whether to stay for the conference, or to file a report that would get lost down the back of a filing cabinet and never seen again.

Van Peterson cleared his throat to declare that it was his turn to reclaim the conversation. “Through ancient regression techniques and some chemical enhancements of my own creation,” he announced, “I am able to induce a transferential state in the subject where I believe them to be travelling to the space in-between life and death, and returning to our mortal plane.”

Carlton ran his tongue over his teeth and licked his lips in a gesture that was altogether unpleasant. “You’re making people die and come back to life?”

“Well I think that depends on your definition of dead now, doesn’t it?” He smiled, allowing time for the concept to sink in. 

The diamond-studded bar continued to dance an elegant, alcoholic waltz.

The agent had seen many strange things during his career at The Office and heard his fair share of absurd claims. Most of them he had easily shouted down, some he had recorded in a file and tried to forget.

He was an experienced professional sceptic and programmed to seek the truth in the ridiculous.

He shook his head and shifted in the leather chair. “So, what you’re trying to tell me, Malcolm, is that you have worked out a way to travel into the afterlife, and back again?”

“The subject doesn’t relocate physically. The mind becomes a platform; a vehicle for the conscious unconsciousness.”

Carlton laughed. “This time you’ve completely thrown me, my old friend.” He stood up to leave and fastened a button on his jacket.

“Perhaps our point is best made with a demonstration? Van Peterson waved and a young girl drifted over to their table. “My dear, please meet Special Agent Carlton. He will be observing your journey to enlightenment at the spiritual science conference tomorrow.”

She smiled, dreamlike and dazed; flowing hippy dress and tangled auburn hair. “Hi, I’m Lotus Flower,” she said, considering giving him a hug.

“You really think I’m gonna stick around for your ridiculous light show?”

The professor swirled his tumbler. “Don’t tell me that you’ve come all the way to Las Vegas, Jimmy, and you’re not tempted to take a little gamble?”