“That’s us,” I said.

“That was Earth. Number One turned millions of bits of himself into single-celled organisms — he can do it any number of times without diminishing himself — and waited to see what would happen. The idea was that he wouldn’t interfere, but there were times when he couldn’t help himself.”

“Such as?”

“Well, he didn’t like the dinosaurs very much. Big, dumb brutes were not what he had in mind. So he… made an adjustment.”

“There’s one mystery solved,” I said. “This conversation is making me thirsty. How about some of that brandy?”

“Good idea,” answered Lucifer, handing over the bottle. “After that, the mammals started to take over, and when you apes showed signs of intelligence, he became very interested. But you weren’t developing as fast as he would have liked.”

“How could he be impatient?”

“I asked that very question myself once. He said he found that by observing limited beings, he had begun to develop a sense of time. And to him everything moved very, very slowly. So in order to move you along, he decided to create an opposition.”

“Evil.”

“No, we had no concept of good and evil… it was you all who came up with that. This was meant to be… call it a counterforce. The difficulties it created for your ancestors would cause them to adapt and advance.

“Number One created a portal between our world and yours, and chose a number of siblings to make up the group. He chose me to be their leader.

“So I came to Earth and for a long time I hated it. Your world was difficult to live in, full of discomforts, and your ancestors, well… sorry, but they were quite stupid and brutal, not to mention foul-smelling. That made my job easier, though. And in time things began to change. When apes began to develop the first crude forms of music, art, poetry, we were stunned. We had never conceived of such a thing. And the way they treated each other… the brutality was still there, yes, but also its mirror, love and affection and devotion. It was like one fed off the other.

“I discovered a certain fondness for the early humans, and I also discovered something else, something very interesting. The more time we spent on Earth, the more we began to see things differently from our creator. We started to have disagreements with him. And as a result of this, we found that we had autonomy. Number One couldn’t control us. He could destroy us if he wanted to, but not control us. It became a question of judgement… how to exercise your freedom without crossing the line. Many of the siblings displayed faulty judgement and were destroyed. And it was these errors in judgement, for the most part, that you came to think of as ‘evil.’

“Finally, those few of us who remained came to an agreement with our creator. None of us would interfere with the experiment anymore; we would let it play out on its own terms. We’ve only violated the agreement a few times.”

“Such as?” I asked.

“World War II was a big one. How do you think Adolf Hitler went from being a failed artist to almost ruling the world? He made a deal with one of us. So Number One gave the other side a few breaks to even things out.”

“Why didn’t he just zap Hitler with a lightning bolt or something?”

“Good question. As I’m sure you’ve heard, he works in mysterious ways. Who did get zapped was the sibling he’d made the deal with. And that’s why I keep out of things these days.”

“So how do you keep yourself occupied?”

“I have a lot of interests. Music is one. I played in a pretty famous band at one time, but after awhile I couldn’t stomach the music business anymore.

“I travel around. I go to concerts. I look for girls. I have a good time. This is a fun planet, you know. The place where we were before, it was no fun at all. Brandy, please.”

I handed him the bottle; he tilted his head back and poured a good portion of the contents down his throat.

“Could we talk about the question of free will for a minute?” I asked.

Lucifer shook his right wrist, revealing a very expensive-looking watch. “You know, I’d love to, but actually I have to meet someone.” He winked at me and reached out to shake my hand. “Good talking to you. Here, take the bottle, and just so you don’t feel cheated–”

He waved his hand and suddenly we were enveloped in a cloud of dark, sulfurous smoke. When the smoke cleared, he was gone. I started walking toward my hotel as the dawn broke, sipping brandy and wondering whether to bother telling this story to my friends.