Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 10

What Goes Around

We emerged into the time machine lab to find Lane Young and the technician working furiously at one of the control panels. The technician’s shirt was covered in blood and his left arm hung in a makeshift sling tied together from strips of his lab coat. Four bodies lay on the floor, one of them Marlston. The turbine hummed like a jet engine and the walls of the transport chamber glowed a hot red. I wasn’t sure if it was about to explode or if the technician and Lane had removed whatever wrench the Whisper had thrown in the works. The lab guy looked like he would have already passed out but for Lane scowling over his shoulder like she would kill him if he didn’t work faster.

I put my gun to the poor bastard’s head and cleared my throat.

Lane snarled, shoved the technician out of the way, and lunged nails-first. She might have torn the skin off my face, but instead flew through my immaterial body and sprawled, undignified, on the floor. She spun around in a crouch, but the Whisper kicked her on her side.

That’s enough, Mother.”

You could have heard a penny drop. Explanations slid into place, how the Whisper could be part and not part of JANUS at the same time. Instead of simplifying things, this new wrinkle made the situation a million times more complicated. I dialed myself solid before the lab tech realized that my bullets wouldn’t hurt him. Lane made a noise between a sob and a laugh.

“Of course. I should have known it was you helping Jones. Who else would crap all over my work? You spoiled, ungrateful whelp.”

Can it. I’m not having this talk again.” He pointed his gun at the lab tech. “You. What did you change? Did you send anyone through the machine?

“N… n… not yet. We were—”

“Shut up, Ford.” Lane brushed herself off and stood up. “Are you going to kill me now, like you killed your father?”

Canton wasn’t my father.” The edge in the Whisper’s voice had me worried. “My father was worth ten of that douchebag.”

“If you’re referring to Brandon Roche, he was an irresponsible idealist and he wasn’t Family. He may have been your sperm donor, but he wasn’t your father.”

“Look,” I said, “can we sort out the family issues on Thanksgiving? Shut down the time machine, please.” I tapped Ford’s head with my gun to make my point.

“You heard him,” said Lane. “Shut them down.”

I knew that was bad. “Don’t you dare,” I started to say, but I never got a syllable. The lab tech punched a button and lightning blasted the room.

I remember my feet leaving the ground. The ceiling slammed me like a runaway car. A bolt of white flashed from the turbine to the time machine. Then the ground rushed up, head-on to my mask. The filter jammed back in my face and I screamed.

I scrambled to my knees, pulled the mask off, and spat out coppery blood. That arc from the generator had blown me a dozen feet across the room. My phasing belt smoked like an overcooked pie, so I flung it off; it was hot to the touch. My gun was nowhere in sight.

No, there it was. Lane had it in her hand.

The Whisper disappeared. Ford the technician pulled himself up on the edge of the control panel. I got to my feet and Lane took aim. I raised my hands.

Can’t you see that JANUS needs to stop?” The voice came from everywhere at once. “Can’t you see what monsters we’ve become? We have the power to save the world.”

“No, we don’t.” Tears inched down Lane’s face. “You stupid child, you’ve ruined everything. Canton was going to make JANUS matter. By taking over the organization’s finances, he would be in a position to make a difference. He would have ruled the Families. He would have pushed us out of the shadows. We could have taken over the world and forced the human race to survive. Isn’t that what you and your precious Brandon wanted?”

She pointed the gun at her head.

“And now, what have you left? Canton’s dead. I might be arrested, and then JANUS will kill me. You can be damn sure they’ll kill you. There’s no way out for either of us.”

Her hand tensed as she readied to fire, but time seemed to stop as something clicked in my mind.

Roche. The father’s name was Brandon Roche. Or another way: Roche, Brandon. The Whisper was a child of JANUS, but not an actual child. I’d mistaken the Whisper’s small physique for that of a young man, but there was another explanation, a “mistake” I’d made once already when I’d accused Lane herself. The Whisper was dedicated to stopping JANUS, but had also gone out of the way to help me, as if we knew each other. And as I’d learned from experience, time travel could let someone be in two places at once.

I knew what was going to happen. I’d already seen the result.

The Whisper grew solid to stop her mother’s suicide.

I shouted, “Roxy, no!”

Lane whipped the gun around and shot the Whisper point blank in the gut. The blast threw her backward ten feet to the wall. I ran to her side, not caring if Lane shot me. The Whisper struggled for breath. I pulled off her mask to reveal the face of Roxy Brandt.

She’d already gone white. I pressed my hands on her wound to slow the bleeding and shouted, “Get a fucking doctor!” I looked over my shoulder, and Lane ran to the time box. I couldn’t move without leaving Roxy, so I could only watch as she jumped inside and vanished. I didn’t know where she went… and then I did.

I remembered when Marlston ordered his men to shoot me, but this time, instead of the Whisper putting three bullets in his chest, a second Lane Young appeared from thin air and ruined Roxy’s aim. Roxy pulled me from the room in all the confusion, and we still made our way to the reception to rescue Aranjuez. I remembered seeing Roxy in the ambulance – that part hadn’t changed, and though I didn’t understand it I was getting there. Like before I felt the time shift beginning, and the Whisper and I both raced back to this chamber to see…

Canton Marlston, alive and well, waved his wife goodbye as she stepped into the past to ensure his survival. Then he turned to smile down at his step-daughter and me. Five black-garbed, masked men with assault rifles held their weapons trained on both of us.

“She’ll be back in a minute,” Canton said. “I believe she has a misunderstanding to clear up with the police. As for you two, well, it won’t even be that hard to hide the bodies.”

He pulled a cigar out of his pocket, clipped off the end, and grinned like a cat in a cage of canaries.

***

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***
All I could do was play for time.

“I thought you couldn’t kill me. You said the universe hates a paradox.”

“It really doesn’t like them,” said Marlston, “but you can force the issue. The Families are proof of that. I suspect that if these five gentlemen shoot you full of holes, the time stream will find a way to deal with it. Cause and effect don’t always matter for people like us.”

People like us. Somehow I was just like JANUS, the product of an ‘ultimate paradox.’ But how could that be? Roxy was right, I couldn’t be descended from the Families, but whatever had happened at the airport had certainly messed with my normal perception of time.

One look at the time machine, and suddenly I knew what had happened. But with Canton and his goons standing in my way, I couldn’t figure out how.

Canton lit his cigar. “Okay, boys. Do ‘em both.”

“Wait,” I said. The men adjusted their aim anyway.

Roxy laughed. It sounded like a death rattle, but her smile was unmistakable.

“Bill and Ted,” she said. “I figured it out.”

“Oh for the love of God,” said Canton, “just kill them.”

“Last words! Give us one fucking minute.” I turned to Roxy. “Go on, baby.”

“In the movie, Bill and Ted have to break someone out of jail. They need the keys, but they don’t have time to steal them. So they promise each other that after the breakout, their future selves will use their time machine to go back and steal the keys in the past and leave them for their present selves to find.”

That was her big revelation? “That doesn’t even make sense.”

“Yes it does.” A cough wracked her body. I pressed harder on her bleeding stomach. She groaned and grabbed my shirt. “Listen. You’ve got a time machine. You can make something happen now from an action you haven’t taken yet. You just need the intent and the will to follow it through. I know you can do it, Allan. You’ve already done it. It’s already happened.”

“Are we done?” said Canton. “Can we kill them?”

“They won’t,” I said. “That’s not what happens.”

Canton’s men didn’t shoot.

“What the hell is this?” Canton said. “I told you to fire.”

“No.” The idea was growing, but I didn’t have time to work it out so I thought out loud. “Once I get out of this mess, I’m going back in time. I’ll go to the FBI and collect the tapes that identify you as the one behind the shooting at the airport. I’m going to masquerade as the Whisper and give them to myself in Roxy’s apartment. That puts me on the trail to expose you and JANUS. Roxy already knew you were the bastard behind this, but she couldn’t say so without revealing that she was a vigilante from the future. And I’m sure part of her wanted to protect her mother, despite it all.” I glanced down for confirmation, and Roxy nodded.

“What good does that do?” said Canton. “So you come here to ‘expose’ me, and you both wind up dead. Even if you did altar something in the past, which you can’t by the way, I could still go back and erase it myself.”

I shook my head. “No, because before I get my younger self involved in all this, I’m going to convince Agent Powell at the FBI to infiltrate your staff and not reveal himself until I give the signal. Which is now.”

All five of Canton’s men pointed their guns at their employer.

“What the fuck?”

One of the men pulled off his mask. Of course, it was Agent Powell.

“Mr. Marlston, you’re under arrest. I advise you to surrender peacefully.”

“What?” said Marlston. “You can’t do this. You’re not JANUS. You can’t change the past.”

I could, but there was a price I’d have to pay. Before that, I had to save Roxy. “Agent Powell, I need Mr. Ford over here.”

Powell crooked his finger for the lab tech to attend. He knelt next to Roxy and me, and I noticed that in this version of the evening he’d never been shot.

“Can you set up the time machine to send me back to the airport? Can you put it on some kind of automatic trigger?”

He nodded.

“Do it. Before I go, you need to take Roxy to the ambulance outside. Take her back in time to the moment they arrived, before the police figure out what’s going on.”

“And what happens to me?” he asked.

I looked askance at Powell, then whispered, “You get to run.”

He thought about it for a moment, then nodded. Powell knelt beside me as Ford ran to make his preparations. The other four agents were busy restraining Marlston, who snarled and twisted on the ground like a beast. They’d managed to cuff his hands, but it looked like they were going to have to shackle his feet and carry him out on a stretcher.

“I’ve got to tell you, Jones, when I saw you alive after the airport, I thought I was straight for the funny farm. There’s no way I would have believed all this if I hadn’t seen your body for myself.”

“Thanks,” I said. “That tells me how to make my case. I think Canton has a mole in the FBI somewhere. Do you have any idea who it is?”

He looked surprised. “A guy named Ulrich. You told me that yourself.”

“Ulrich, right. I’ll have to remember that.” I shifted to cradle Roxy in my lap. “How are you feeling?”

“Like I’m draining away.” Her voice was faint. “Do you think it’s going to work?”

“I know it does, baby. I’ve seen it.”

“That’s good.” She was fading fast.

“Hey, listen, kid. I’m going to find you when this is done. I’m going to see you’re taken care of. We’ve got to live happily ever after, right?”

“Sure thing.” She was barely a whisper any more. “Allan? Kiss me.”

I did, softly. Her lips gave no resistance and she smelled of her rubber mask, but for one sweet moment we were the only two people in the world.

“Mr. Jones, sir?” said Ford. “I’m ready.”

“Take her.” As he lifted her, I pulled off her invisibility belt and gun. “Sorry, I’m going to need this.”

“Be careful,” she said. “There’s only three shots left.”

I chuckled. “That’s all I need.”

Ford and Roxy vanished into the box. I slipped the Whisper’s belt over my shoulder. There was one extra dial I hadn’t seen, but what it did was pretty obvious. Roxy’s hat had fallen to the ground. I picked it up with her breather mask and settled them both on my head.

“Where do you think you’re going?” said Powell.

I glanced at the screen and saw the scene at the airport, frozen mid-slaughter. “To make all this come true. Don’t worry, I’ll be right back.

I dialed myself mostly invisible and stepped into the chamber. There was no sensation of movement, of translating to another place and time. I simply stepped from Marlston’s basement to the tarmac at Friendship International.

Somehow I’d expected time to be frozen, but it wasn’t. People screamed and metal flew. I flinched at the gunfire, and I swear something flew right by my head. I could very well get shot pulling this stunt, but I knew where I had to stand. I would just have to cross my fingers.

And there I was: my younger self. Mere days younger, but what a difference that made. He knelt over poor Tim Leslie, already beyond saving. Allan “Smithee” Jones, the poor dumb bastard, with all his dreams of success, recognition, and the Big Scoop that would make the world take him seriously. Would it at last have made him respect himself? I guess I’d never know.

I lifted my gun to his head. Something made me look up in time to see Younger Self #2 running toward me at full speed. I’d almost forgotten about that. I’m glad neither of them saw the bitter smirk on my face.

I tensed as I took aim at the youngest of the three of us. I put a hole in his chest, then another one. Only when he realized what was happening did I put the final bullet through his head. And that was that.

***

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***

Here’s the best I can figure it. The original JANUS created their “ultimate paradox” by knocking off their own grandparents. I did them one better. I went back and whacked myself, which the universe didn’t like one bit. So what must have happened was that at the moment of paradox it spat out a duplicate who could do the deed while the real Allan Jones died. The “me” that woke up on the tarmac (knocked backward in time like a rubber band misfire) was a fake. Ever since that moment I’ve been living a false life. I was never Allan Jones. I’m just an anomaly who thinks he is.

Still, life is life no matter how you come by it. I followed through on my plan, meeting up with Powell and convincing him to play along. We even got Tyler from the NSA in on it, once they let him out of the hospital. Thanks to him, all those banking co-conspirators who ran for their lives from the party would have a nasty surprise when they found all their assets frozen.

Facing myself in Roxy’s apartment was the hardest part. I did my best to get my lines right, making sure to drop the “Bill and Ted” hint for Roxy to figure out. One day I’ll to have to watch that movie and find out if time travel make any more sense.

On the night of the reception I couldn’t decide whether to keep my distance or stick close to the action. On one hand, I was dying to watch things play out; on the other, I might be tempted to interfere and screw the whole thing up.

I wasn’t given much choice in the matter. All the rewrites of history that went on that night must have set up some kind of barrier. Every time I came within a block of Marlston’s mansion, a wave of full-Hitchcock vertigo brought my head to the pavement. The tide surging me away didn’t ease up until Roxy’s ambulance sped off.

The mansion was crawling with Feds, so I left my invisibility on until I got to the west wing’s basement. When I made my way down to the time machine chamber, the room was thick with smoke and Agent Powell was livid.

“You should never have let that Ford guy get away.”

“What did he do?” Stupid of me to ask. It was easy enough to guess from the smell of burning wires.

“Some kind of delayed failsafe. All this equipment is wrecked.”

That was for the best, really, but I didn’t say that out loud. It was getting hard to breathe, so we both walked up to the mansion proper.

“You’ve still got Marlston and Young, and anyone else you can want to arrest.”

“You know that includes your girl Roxy, right?” Powell leaned against the wall and rubbed at his temple. “According to you, the Whisper was responsible for several deaths. If we link them back to her, she’ll be in prison ‘til she’s gray.”

“I expect you’ll want to cut her a deal. Now her secret’s out, you might find she’s got buckets of information.”

“And technology.” He pointed at my invisibility gear. “I’m going to need that, I’m afraid.”

I slipped my hand under the belt to lift it off, but it was heavy. Now that the moment had come, I didn’t want to let it go. I was given a reprieve when a young agent ran up to us.

“Sir, it’s about that Lane woman.” He glanced sideways at me before saying more.

“It’s okay, son,” said Powell. “Go ahead.”

“We can’t find her on the grounds. Two officers had her in custody, but she disappeared out from under them.”

I’ll bet she did. Damn it, we should have expected her to have an escape plan.

“And another thing,” said the agent. “We got a call from the hospital. That ambulance we sent back arrived, but when the staff checked, it was empty. The driver, the medic, that girl, all gone.”

Oh no. The best case was that Lane had absconded with her daughter. The worst was that JANUS was already erasing this whole affair. Ford had destroyed Canton’s time machine. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the slate was wiped clean. So far I hadn’t noticed any twisting of reality, but an organization that could walk through walls would have no problem stealing back whatever the FBI confiscated, no matter how dark a vault they buried it in.

I reached for the invisibility dial. Powell saw what I was doing.

“Jones, don’t think it.”

“I don’t have a choice,” I said. “She’s out there, and so is JANUS. I can’t go after them if you bench me.”

“Damn it, you won’t do any good as a vigilante. We need to study their equipment so we can use it against them.”

“They won’t give you the chance. I’m sorry.”

Powell grabbed for my arm, so I turned phantom first. Then I put the mask back on before I started to choke, and vanished the rest of the way. Powell ranted and screamed at the spot where I’d been standing, but I was already on my way out of the building, into the dark.

***

Allan Jones had a small funeral in a tiny chapel. Aside from the minister, only Farnsworth, his wife, and a half dozen writers from the Street attended. And myself, of course, quiet and unseen in the far back corner. An anonymous donor had sent several huge bouquets. I suspected they were courtesy of my old Uncle Pepe.

There was one reporter I didn’t recognize. A young kid, his suit looked brand new but his shoes were well worn. I followed the whole gang back onto the trolley and all the way downtown to the magazine office. The new kid sat at my old desk and fed a clean sheet into the typewriter. I looked over his shoulder and saw handwritten notes for my own obituary.

Powell was right. I wouldn’t be any good as a vigilante. I wouldn’t know how to start if I wanted to, but an invisible man had other uses than fighting crime with guns a-blazing. If I was ever going to find Roxy (or whatever her real name was) I would have to track down JANUS, and to find JANUS the only place to look would be in the highest halls of power. I would never get in as a V.I.P., but a ghost didn’t need an invitation.

Whether Roxy had been serious about bringing JANUS down or just trying to annoy her stepfather, I wasn’t certain, but I believed the former over the latter. She’d had the idea of inserting herself into a newsroom to steer information our way, like she did with Hugo Harvey. It was an idea I could run with, and those tapes weren’t the only thing I’d absconded on my trip back through time.

I dropped a heavy manila envelope on top of the new kid’s notes. He about jumped out of his chair, then looked around both directions and up to the ceiling to see where it came from.

Calm down,” I said, the breather masking my voice. “Eyes forward. Don’t say anything. People will think you’re nuts if you talk to thin air.”

“Where are you?”

Wrong question. Try, ‘What’s in the folder?’

He slipped it open and pulled out a photo of Representative Crawthorn.

“What is this?”

A story, if you’re interested. Or if you’d rather, you could go back to writing obituaries of nobodies.”

He pulled out another sheet from my Crawthorn file and started reading.

“So who are you?” he said, settling back in his chair. “H. G. Wells?” The shiver in his voice gave the lie to his act of nonchalance. 

I almost told him ‘Allan Smithee,’ but that wouldn’t have been right. That life was over, and my new one started right here. Might as well kick it off in style.

You can call me the Whisper.”

The End

***

This chapter of The Whisper has been brought to you by
B. B. Morden & Sons Funeral Services,
Flowers By Mail, and science fiction author
Jared Millet

If you’ve enjoyed this serial, you can read more of his work in the Dreams of Steam anthology series from Kerlak Publishing, Summer Gothic: A Collection of Southern Hauntings, and various free stories available at Jared Millet Blogs.

***


The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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And yes,

The Whisper will return.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 9

Out of Time

I woke on a couch with pain in my head and my chest. I was really, really sick of this. For once, why couldn’t someone kill me outright and spare the hangover. I tried to sit up and all the blood drained out of my head.

“Easy, friend.” A firm hand kept me from tumbling over and lowered me back to the couch. “You’ve had a shock.”

“You can say that again.” I opened my eyes slowly. The décor was red and gold and far too ornate, and from the feel of the barely-padded bench I was laying on I’d say that the furniture was selected for appearance rather than comfort. An elderly man with caramel skin and stark white hair sat in a chair facing me.

“When you feel well enough to sit,” he said, “you should drink a glass of water.”

“You,” I said. “You’re Diego Aranjuez.”

Si.” He bowed slightly. “And like you I seem to be a prisoner in this house.”

Adrenaline helped me right myself. “It’s Marlston. He was behind the attack.”

“I know.” Aranjuez passed me the water he’d promised. “There are no Marxist rebels in my country. A handful of Marxists, nice people to be sure, but they have no real influence. San Magin needs los turistas and their dinero to survive, no? Everyone knows this.”

“Not the bankers, apparently.”

Aranjuez raised a glass of something darker than water. “You can say that again.” He downed half the tumbler in a single gulp. “All this fuss over some little regulations. It makes no sense.”

The door to the room opened with the distinct sound of a latch being unlocked. Lane Young walked in, an armed escort behind her. Her guard hadn’t bothered with the pretense of dressing up. He wore a black bodysuit, a glass facemask, and held a monstrous looking rifle. In all respects, he was identical to the man who’d attacked me in my home.

Lane evidently had time to change while I was unconscious. Her pink, backless gown was the perfect complement to her yellow hair, and her caked-on makeup almost covered the bruises I gave her. I downed the rest of my water and, since I assumed I was dead anyway, decided to lead with ‘cocky.’

“Ms. Young. The President and I were just discussing the merits of using the slaughter of innocents to negotiate bank rates. Maybe I’ll remember that the next time I open a checking account.”

A slight sneer wrinkled her face, but it was the only acknowledgment she gave me. “Mr. Aranjuez, the guests are beginning to arrive. You’ll find your escort in the hall outside. Please be mindful of what we discussed earlier. Mr. Marlston has been slightly detained, but you will be in our care for the entire evening.”

She kept her hands politely folded and her back as straight as a dancer’s. Aranjuez downed the rest of his drink and climbed out of his chair.

“Gepetto pulls the strings, eh? Perhaps someday I’ll be a real boy.”

“Diego.” Lane gestured toward the door. Aranjuez nodded to me and slowly made his way out of the room. Once the door closed behind him, Lane took his place in the chair.

“Not bank rates,” she said. “Privacy, anonymity, and absolute control. These are essential to us. Essential enough that yes, we will kill for them. But not usually on this scale. That’s on you.”

I didn’t feel sorry for punching her. “Why don’t you just jump in your time machine and fix it?”

“We already did. You see how well that worked out. Sit down.”

I’d started to rise from the sofa, but halted in mid crouch. The guard shifted his rifle ever so slightly as Lane refilled Aranjuez’s glass from a half-empty cognac bottle on a side table.

“Once upon a time,” she began, “there was a lawyer named Hugo Harvey. He overheard something he shouldn’t and managed to record it. This lawyer met with a friend in D.C. – that’s you – and passed him the tape. You never managed to identify the second person, but you did get enough on Bordani to take to the FBI, and you wrote a piece for the Street exposing some of our partners in the financial sector. As for JANUS, instead of consolidating our hold on a surprisingly crucial financial nexus for the next hundred years, we were left with our panties in the wind to look for somewhere else to funnel all our money. Are you still with me?”

I nodded.

“So we could have done that. In previous iterations of the 20th Century, our ancestors would have written San Magin off and made do. But Canton’s ambitious. He’s more ambitious than anyone in JANUS has been for centuries. To feed his ambition, he’d built his own time machine. Not as powerful as the big one, but it works well enough for short, personal hops to the past.”

I raised my hand to speak, but she shook her head and sipped her cognac.

“Not yet. Questions later. Anyway, Canton went back a few days and arranged for Bordani to kill Harvey. He was supposed to kill you too, but that didn’t happen. Because you lived, the Aranjuez hit got foiled by the NSA, so a second trip is made by two of our agents. They pointed the NSA to you as a murder suspect and possible spy, which prevented you from turning over your evidence straight away. Then our agents were supposed to kill you and destroy the tape.

“That didn’t work either. So I went back, met up with Canton, and had him buy out your stupid magazine so we could take your story away. But even that didn’t cool your jets.”

“Wait a minute.” Wheels were turning. Lane had always spoken behind Canton’s back with a little irritation. Now she was clearly frustrated at the way he’d handled the whole affair. And she was spilling everything, undermining him. Was that her play, to take over JANUS herself?

She was tall for a woman, but slim in the hips. Small breasts would be easy to hide. In a suit, in the dark, you could conceivably mistake her for a man. And her voice would be utterly shrouded behind a breather mask. Now that I thought about it, she’d been at the airport, but I couldn’t remember where she was when the attack took place, even though I’d witnessed the massacre twice, from two different angles.

“Oh my god,” I said. “You’re the Whisper!”

She stared, unblinking, and her jaw dropped. Then her mouth cracked into the ugliest smile, and she cackled like the Wicked Witch of the West. She whooped and she hooted and she rocked back and forth, nearly spilling her drink. She laughed from the gut and almost started to cry. At last she started to cough and got control of herself. She took a sip of her cognac and chuckled.

“The Whisper.” She tittered. “Oh Lord. I can’t imagine…”

“Then why are you telling me all this?”

Her face contorted with rage. “Because I want you to understand the total futility of your situation. No matter what you accomplish, we can go back and undo, again and again and again. I want you to know what’s happening, and how, and why, when we erase you.”

I didn’t say anything. How could I? What was the follow up to that? I waited quietly while she finished her drink.

There came a knock on the door, and Marlston opened it. A white bandage was taped to the side of his face.

“We’re ready” was all he said.

“Bring him,” she told the guard.

He gestured for me to stand, then nudged me down the hall with the barrel of his gun. We crammed into an elevator and rode it to a level below the first basement. The room the elevator opened on was nothing less than a dungeon, and a mad scientist’s dungeon to boot.

The walls were reinforced, packed earth. The floor looked like hospital tile. Lights and electrical wiring hung from exposed beams in the ceiling. Plastic boxes connected by wires lined every table in the room. Above these were flat glass plates that glowed like giant televisions. At one end of the room was a turbine the size of a car. At the other, at the nexus of a web of cables, was a box like an empty telephone booth – or an upright coffin.

There were two more armed guards and a balding technician in a lab coat. The technician touched one of the screens and an image appeared of the Baltimore airport in the middle of the massacre. I thought I could even see myself, kneeling over Leslie’s body.

“Mr. Marlston,” said the lab guy. “I think we’ve found it.”

“Excellent.” Canton pointed to the coffin box and my captor shoved me inside.

“This is an awful complicated way to kill me,” I said. “You could have shot me already.”

“I tried that, remember?” Somehow Canton knew about my alternate death scene. “It seems the universe won’t let me. But don’t fret. Your death has an appointed time and place. We’ll make sure you don’t miss it.”

“So this is the big JANUS scheme, then? You use a time machine for money and power? How long has that been going on?”

“For about two thousand years,” said Lane, “but only since 1941.”

***

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“Excuse me,” I said, “but what?”

“The first atomic blast in 1945,” said Canton, “opened a weak point in time with a five-year radius. It let our distant ancestors slip through from the mid-21st Century. Since then the Five Families have been living the same hundred years over and over. At the end of the cycle, we come back and start again. We’ve gotten pretty good at it, except for the occasional glitch like this San Magin thing.”

“That’s insane,” I said. “You build up all this wealth and power, then chuck it and start over? What’s the point of that? Why not carry it on into the future?”

“The world has no future,” said Lane. “We’ve seen it time and again. No matter what path human civilization takes, it doesn’t survive the 21st Century. Too many things go wrong. Economic collapse, environmental catastrophe, plague, world famine, nuclear Holy Wars. Escaping to the past is the only way to survive.”

“We’re so good at the game,” said Canton, “that we’ve even arranged for the world’s destruction once or twice, to see if we could do it.”

Lane snorted. “Two cycles ago, our grandparents blew up the world in on the 2012 Mayan Apocalypse, just for shits and giggles.”

I sagged against the wall of my execution box. “So you don’t care about humanity at all?”

“What’s to care?” said Lane. “If we have someone killed, they’re alive again the next time we rewind the century. Take you. The next time through the 20th, our descendants might let you live. Maybe we’ll leave them a note to have your guidance counselor steer you to a career in medicine.”

“Or maybe we’ll have you shot as a teenager and avoid the whole mess.” Canton pointed to the airport image behind him. “Remember that?”

I didn’t even answer with a nod.

“That,” he said, “is when you die. The world hates a paradox, but we’ve rewritten so many things in the last week that the time stream spat you out. Once we slip you back into place, everything will be right again.”

“So you’ll hit some big red button and I’ll be back at the airport in time to get shot.”

“That’s about it,” said Canton. “But really, it’s only a little red button.” He held up a small box to show me. “Any goodbyes, Lane?”

“Fuck him,” she said.

Arrivederci then. Better luck next life.” He pressed the button.

Nothing happened.

Canton pressed the button again. He shook the little box, then turned to the time machine tech in frustration.

“Is there a reason this thing isn’t working?”

“I, uh…” The lab guy, face red, started tapping the screens as if the thought that would do something. For the moment, all eyes were on him and not me. I wasn’t going to get another chance.

I dove out of the machine and tackled Marlston from behind. He went down hard and the control box flew from his hand. I could hear all three guards rush forward for a shot, so I grabbed Marlston by his arms and rolled so he was on top as a shield. He struggled like a bear, so I tried to pin his legs with mine and pull him into a better hold.

No good. Physically, the man was a whip. He jerked himself upright, then slammed me in the head with his elbow. Dazed, I went limp as he scrambled away from me. I grabbed at his ankle, but Lane kicked me in the chest.

I screamed. Damn, but pointy lady shoes are hard. Canton got to his feet.

“Damn it, someone shoot this fucker in the knee.”

Three shots. BAM BAM BAM. Three holes in Canton’s chest. He looked surprised. Lane screamed before he hit the floor.

The Whisper took a moment to punch her in the face. All I could see was his white suit and hat, but it was enough for the guards to take aim. The air filled with metal. The room shook with noise. I covered my head. The time machine tech didn’t drop fast enough and a slug tore through his shoulder. One of the screens exploded.

Somewhere buried in thunder were three precise shots. The last one brought silence. The three guards were dead. In a corner, Lane moaned.

The Whisper held out a hand. “Come with me if you want to live.” I grasped it and got to my feet. The Whisper snickered. “I’ve always wanted to say that.”

“What?”

Never mind. Quick, through here.”

We ran around the generator, through the wall itself, and into a dark storeroom. The Whisper flipped on the light. Row upon row of plastic boxes lined aisles of black plastic shelves. There was no door to the time machine chamber. In fact, I couldn’t see a way out at all. Fluorescent bulbs buzzed overhead, and something in the room made the Whisper easier to see.

He wasn’t Lane Young, that was for damn sure. He was shorter than me, and not as well-dressed as I’d remembered. The outfit looked hastily thrown on, the shirt not even tucked in, and the coat, I decided, was there for bulk – to hide a distinctly small frame.

My god. Was the Whisper a child?

“Uh, thanks for breaking the time machine for me,” I said.

I didn’t. I changed my mind.” The Whisper pulled the lid off a box, then another, then another, glancing for an instant into each. “I did put a hiccup in the software to keep them from using it, but I might need it myself for an escape hatch.”

I peeked into one of the boxes. There were strange objects like alien toys, each encased in a clear, flat shell. In between them were hundreds of soft, white nuggets. I picked up one of the objects and read its label.
“How is this thing supposed to be a ‘mouse’?”

Put it back. In fact, don’t look at anything in here.”

“What are you looking for?”

This.” He handed me a phasing belt and a breather. With his other hand, he passed me a gun.

I told your girl Roxy to call the police. They’ll be here any minute, but we have to make sure JANUS doesn’t kill Aranjuez now they know the gig is up.”

“But you just killed JANUS.”

I killed that asshole Marlston. JANUS is still out there. This isn’t even their main time machine; it’s just a copy Marlston had made for his own private schemes.”

“Wait, so even if we escape, JANUS can still start over and erase us.”

That’s my problem, not yours. If it’s any consolation, the big JANUS rewrite is only once a century. You’re not from the Families, so you can’t even feel changes when they happen.”

“But I can,” I said. “When you saved me from Marlston the first time. He shot me, then you changed it so it never happened. You used the time machine for that, didn’t you?”

You shouldn’t be able to know that. Allan, the Families can tell when history is changed because we live outside of time. You can’t alter the past if you’re part of it, which you are. You’re not anyone’s secret JANUS love child; you were born before ’41.”

“What happened in ’41?”

The Families arrived from the future. And the first thing they did…”

I waited. “Go on.”

They murdered their ancestors. They created the ultimate paradox. They evicted themselves from history, and after that they were free to change it at will.

It was too hard to take in. “What an evil bunch of prigs.”

Not at first.” The Whisper put a phantom hand on my shoulder. “You have to understand, the whole purpose of JANUS was to save the human race. They wanted to rewrite the 20th Century and avoid the mistakes that wreck the 21st. Only they failed. They failed over and over, generation after generation, until they finally grew bitter and gave up. Now they’re stuck in their own endless loop, repeating the same schemes time after time.

“So no matter what, we’re all going to die.”

The Whisper shrugged. “That’s true anyway. At least you won’t live to see the world burn. We children of JANUS live longer, so chances are that I will.”

“Why the masquerade?” I had to ask. “The coat and the hat and the poor man’s Shadow routine. Why does an invisible man need a disguise?”

How many times have you been captured and interrogated in the last few days?” he countered. “You could have I.D.’d me to a JANUS agent by accident if I hadn’t been careful.”

That was fair. “What’s our play now?”

There’s no tunnel or stairs out of this store room. You can only get out by phasing. I’ll lead you up, then we head for the reception. You get Aranjuez out. I’ll make a distraction.”

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It only took moments to reach the mansion’s central wing. After walking blindly through the earth, we emerged into the wine cellar two floors below the library. A low rumble of chatter came from above.

Get Aranjuez out,” the Whisper repeated. “You’d better leave too. You probably won’t see me again.”

“Is that a joke?” A more important question occurred to me. “Where am I supposed to go?”

I don’t know. Have a normal life. Tell Farnsworth you aren’t dead. He’ll probably give you your job back.”

I stuffed the gun in the back of my pants. “How do I look?”

Beaten and bloody.”

I glanced down. Tiny red dots peppered my white jacket. Marlston’s blood? Most likely.

See you ‘round, Jones.” With that, the Whisper disappeared.

I climbed to the ground floor, put on my breather, and cranked the ‘phase’ dial all the way up. No more taking chances with bullets, and I had no more patience for whatever greasy henchmen might be roaming the party. And unlike the Whisper and JANUS, I didn’t give a damn about keeping their fancy-schmancy technology secret.

I walked through a wall into the grand ballroom, which was blaring with light, noise, food, liquor, and people. The mass of bodies made a sea of black and iridescent color under a sky of gold, electric candlelight. A middle-aged society lady saw my entrance, and a cocktail shrimp fell out of her mouth. I nodded politely and walked on as if nothing was out of the ordinary.

I knew I looked a mess even without my bizarre mask, so someone would undoubtedly try and remove me from the festivities. Not that they could, but a fuss would erupt when their fingers slipped through me. I skirted the edge of the crowd, always craning over heads for a glimpse of Aranjuez, and hoped that the Whisper would get on with his distraction.

Ask and ye shall receive. There must have been some kind of public address system in the room, because the next sound I heard was the incredibly loud thump of someone tapping a microphone with the volume turned up, followed by a blast of feedback and a booming, raspy voice.

Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Please don’t be alarmed. Tonight’s entertainment has only begun.”

The rumble of conversation shifted frequency, as people looked in all directions for the source of the intrusion until one man yelled and pointed at the buffet. There, on a table, between the salmon canapés and the foie gras, stood my pal in white. His outfit and hat were visible but his head and mask were not. He held a mic on a tall metal stand like a jazz singer about to do his next number.

You can call me the Whisper,” he said. “Very dramatic, I know. I’d like to welcome you all to a very special event I call the Fall of the House of JANUS. What is JANUS you ask? Well, I’ll tell you.”

The diplomats, businessmen, and socialites were certainly paying attention, though I’m not sure if they understood a word. I saw eight or nine who didn’t stand still, but weaved through the party in the Whisper’s direction. Assuming those were JANUS men, this was my cue. I dove into the crowd, not caring who I walked through, and made a beeline to the center. Somebody screamed and at least one person fainted.

They’re the shadiest of the shady. They’re the blackest of the black hats, the most powerful of the powerful. They’re your master’s lords and masters. You’ve never heard of them, you’ve never voted for them, you’ve never bought any of their stock. But they’re all around us tonight. Let’s give them a hand!

No one but the Whisper actually applauded, but I did hear the sound of guns being cocked. The Whisper could take care of himself, though, and I’d finally found Aranjuez in a circle of men in tuxedos, a champagne glass in one hand and his walking cane in the other. The man right behind him stood a foot taller than either of us, and he held his hand inside his coat while keeping his eyes on the ghost at the buffet.

Mr. President,” I said when Aranjuez noticed me. “Gepetto has dropped his strings.”

Understanding dawned, then his face broke into a wicked grin.

“Señor, I could use some fresh air.”

I dialed down my knob just as gunfire broke out. Everyone flinched, and the crowd surged away from the buffet line. I didn’t see what happened to the Whisper, but Aranjuez’s handler saw me. I grabbed the President by the wrist, then yanked out my gun and shoved it in the bodyguard’s face. He moved his hand away from his shoulder holster.

Mr. Aranjuez, hold your breath and run.” I dialed us both intangible and dragged the President towards the wall. When I looked back to check on him, his cheeks were bulging to keep pressure in his lungs. The man could certainly follow directions. We dove through the wall without stopping, and once outside I dialed us back to reality and let go Aranjuez’s arm.

He gasped. “That was incredible.”

There were lights of police cars down at the main driveway. More gunfire sounded inside. I pulled off my mask.

“Run!” I waved toward the lights and took off, pausing only to slip the gun in my pants. There were five squad cars in the drive, as well as a pair of ambulances. Good going, Roxy. They were going to be needed.

“Officer,” I shouted at the first cop I saw. “This man needs to be in protective custody. His life is in immediate danger.

“Slow down, mister,” the policeman said. “Tell me what’s going on.”

“My name is Diego Aranjuez,” said my companion. “I am President of the island of San Magin and I have been held against my will in this house for three days. I officially request the protection of your government.”
The cop’s eyes widened as he put all of that together. Once he had it digested, he pointed to the nearest vehicle.

“Get in the car, sir. We’ll get you out of here right away.” Then he turned to me. “Who are you in all this?”

“I’m here with a girl named Roxy Brandt. She’s the one who called you in. Do you know where she is?”

At first he shook his head.

“About this high.” I showed him with my hand. “Short, bobbed hair. Wearing black and white.”

“Ambulance.” He pointed to the nearest one. I froze while that sank in, then ran.

I banged on the ambulance’s back door. A medic opened it. The scene inside flashed me back to Korea. A body on a stretcher under a blanket. An oxygen mask over her face. Her midsection soaked in blood.

“Roxy!”

“Excuse me, sir,” said the medic. “You can’t be in here.”

Roxy noticed and reached a weak arm for me. “Allan.”

“Out of the way,” I said. “I’m a friend.” I jumped around the medic and grabbed Roxy’s hand. A tear ran down her cheek.

“Allan, we did it. We really did it.”

“Oh my God. Kid, what happened?”

She looked confused. Shock was setting in. “Don’t you remember?”

“Okay, buddy,” said the medic. “You can ride to the hospital, but stay out of my way.”

But that’s not what happened at all.

In front of my eyes, the medic vanished to be replaced by a nurse with a surgical mask. It had been her in the ambulance all the time, but I remembered it both ways. She pulled her mask down to reveal a slightly Latin face.

“Sir, are you a family member? Can you fill out some papers?”

I looked back to Roxy. She was still on the stretcher, her eyes wide with fright, but the sheet covering her had changed from white to light blue. She shook her head.

“Oh, no,” I said, and stumbled out of the ambulance.

Outside, two police cars were gone. They might have driven off, but I don’t think that’s what happened. As I watched, one more flickered out of existence, then two reappeared to replace it.

“God, no.” Someone was changing the past. We’d left the damn time machine working, and someone was changing our history. I ran back to the mansion, pulling my mask on and dialing out of phase.

Diplomats, the wealthy, their wives and their mistresses stampeded down the hall. I ran right through them to the ballroom. Inside, four bodies lay on the floor and several tables had turned over. Three of Marlston’s men, now wearing breathers like mine, fired in three different directions, laying down some kind of pattern. Of the Whisper, there was no sign.

Since they were out of phase, the men’s bullets didn’t leave any holes in the wall. I took a shot, not expecting to hit, but I winged one in the arm. He screamed and went down, clutching it. Another one turned to fire at me, but a bullet blew his brain out before he could. The man beside him went down a second later, so the only one left was writhing on the floor.

Hey,” I shouted. “The time machine!

The Whisper became slightly visible, and the world around us proved my point. Tables uprighted on their own, then flickered back to how they were. The reception from minutes before faded back into view, then vanished again.

Shit,” said the Whisper.

No kidding.”

We ran for the basement and the passage across to the time chamber. I didn’t know how long we had. I didn’t know if seconds counted for anything. Our victory was being erased before our eyes, and there might be nothing we could do about it.

To Be CONCLUDED

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The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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Tuesday, November 26, 2013

The Whisper: Chapter 8

Question and Answer

That night I became the first guy from The Washington Street to take Roxy Brandt on a date. Given everything I had to go through to get there, I doubt anyone else would have begrudged me the honors.

We had to dress up so as not to draw attention, so we took a cab downtown where the department stores were still open. There was no time to get a suit tailored, but anything off the rack was better than what I had. A tux would have been nice, but all I really needed was a black suit and tie, a black hat, and shoes. Roxy sprung for it; I was going to owe her big time.

“What’s this place called again?” she asked from the store’s changing room.

Di Godere,” I said while adjusting my tie in a mirror next to the women’s blouses. “It was one of Leslie’s hang outs. The proprietor set me on the trail to Bordani.”

“What do you think?”

Framed in the dressing room door, the backlight gave her a warm, golden halo. She posed like a model, with one arm stretched above her. Her red chiffon cocktail dress had a halter top sprinkled with rhinestones, and her shoes looked like something Dorothy would wear to dance out of Oz. Long, red gloves came up past her elbows, a tiara held back her hair, and her necklace and earrings, though simple, displayed deep red rubies. Her cheeks were a natural blush, but her eyes were dark enough to pull you in forever. Her lips were as red as the devil himself.

She smiled. “I’ll take your silence as approval.”

I sighed and remembered that our plans for the evening didn’t include enjoying ourselves. “You know that comment you made that I should drop everything and start a normal life somewhere? I’ll do it right now if you swear to come with me.”

“Ease up, tiger,” she said with a smile. “We’ve got to conquer the world first.”

“I’m serious,” I said. “Well, mostly. You’ve helped me out so much. I don’t want you in harm’s way.”

“Don’t kid yourself,” she said. “I’ve been in harm’s way since you broke in here. Hell, I’ve been in harm’s way since since I took that first message from your friend in L.A.” She walked towards me. In heels she was almost as tall as I was. “I’ve lost people too, you know. Tim was a good friend. He deserved better.”

“Well, that’s the card we’re playing tonight.” I wanted to kiss her, but it would mess up her makeup. “Call a cab?”

“I’ve got to do everything, don’t I?” The teasing grin never left her face. “Do guys even know how to work a phone?”

I should have felt on top of the world, waiting at the curb with a lady as glittering as Roxy was. Instead I felt like a kid with his date for the prom. The cab picked us up and I gave him directions as best as I could remember. When I mentioned Di Godere, he smiled and told me not to worry.

It was only when we pulled into the driveway that I remembered the doorman’s name.

“Sam,” I said, “good to see you again.”

He froze for a moment before responding. “It’s a surprise to see you, Mr. Jones. Are you expected?”

“Actually, I hope not.”

Sam helped Roxy out of the cab. “Good evening, miss, and welcome to Di Godere.”

“Good evening to you,” she said. “I’ve heard such wonderful things.”

“I’m sure you’ll enjoy yourself, miss. Mr. Jones, should I notify Mr. DiFranco of your visit?”

“Please.” Sam wasn’t stupid; he would have reported me anyway. I was glad he was being polite about it.

The mood inside was more subdued than the first time I’d come. The band played something slower, sadder, not anything you could dance to. The place was no less crowded for being Thursday night, but conversations were muted and contained to small tables and a crowd at the bar. Roxy and I took a table next to the empty dance floor. A waiter presented us with two martinis and the words “compliments of the house.”

“So, Mr. Jones,” said Roxy after a tentative sip. “What do you do for a living?” The quiver in her voice matched how I felt.

“Oh, not much. This and that.” I slid my drink’s olive off its spear with my teeth. “I’d kind of like to be a writer someday.”

“Really? What kind of writer?”

A hand tapped gently on my shoulder.

“My apologies, sir,” said its owner. “Mr. DiFranco would like a word. The lady is welcome to entertain herself as she wishes.”

I nodded. The stage was set. Time for my entrance.

Uncle Pepe welcomed me to the kitchen with a hug.

“Jones, my friend,” he said, “so good to see that not everything in the paper is true.”

“What was it Mark Twain said? By the way, in addition to not being dead, I’m also not a commie spy.”

“I never doubted,” said Pepe. “I don’t suppose my Timmy will also make a miraculous recovery.”

“Unfortunately, no. That’s why I’m here.”

“Ah. Are we going to be doing each other favors again? As friends?”

“As friends. I’ve got an angle to get back at the bastards behind all this, but I need help. For Tim’s sake.”

“Say no more. You were his friend as well, so I believe we are in agreement. Tell me what you propose.”

Before I could, a thin man in pinstripes let himself into the kitchen and DiFranco held up a hand for me to wait. The pinstripe man whispered in DiFranco’s ear, and the owner of Di Godere scowled.

“Excuse my rudeness, Mr. Jones, but our talk will have to wait a moment. Perhaps you will follow while I tend to some business? This is not unrelated to our conversation, I think.”

Intrigued, but a little scared, I walked behind Pepe and his associate through the back of the kitchen, across a slightly damp lawn, towards a free-standing guest house shrouded by tall bushes. The blinds were shuttered, but a light was on inside. Before we entered, DiFranco put a hand on my chest.

“Everything you see here is in the strictest confidence. Do you understand?”

I nodded, gulped, and went in.

The sitting room was modestly furnished, too modest for any guests DiFranco might genuinely want to entertain. A plain, round table, nondescript chairs, and the well-used sofa did seem to suit the rough gentlemen who all stood to attention when Mr. DiFranco entered. There was a single door to what I guessed was a bedroom on the far side. DiFranco gave the slightest of waves to acknowledge his men and crossed to the other side. I and the thin man kept with him.

In the next room sat a man in a chair. The rest of the furniture, a collection of antique chairs, a dresser, and an old bedframe, had been shifted carelessly against one wall. The man himself had been stripped down to nothing but boxers and a sleeveless undershirt. His head slumped, and there were bruises on his face and arms. One foot had swollen to the size of a football.

“Mr. Jones,” said DiFranco, “permit me to introduce Mr. Bordani. Unlike most whom I welcome into my home, Mr. Bordani is not my friend.”

So here he was. During this whole affair, the man had been nothing but a voice and a name. For all practical purposes he may as well have been a fiction, a boogey man hiding in my closet, an unseen monster under my bed. In the flesh he was somewhat pathetic. But then, who wouldn’t be after this kind of work-over?

“It will not surprise you,” said DiFranco, “that my associate has been asking Mr. Bordani questions. Thanks to you, I know he was involved in the so-called ‘airport massacre,’ and that he is in the employ of some other person. However, he has been surprisingly reluctant to cooperate, even when the consequences of not doing so have been… ah… demonstrated.”

“Ask him about Canton Marlston,” I said. Bordani jerked when I mentioned the name.

“Marlston?” said DiFranco. “I know this man. He’s a member of my club. Are you saying he’s behind all this?”

I nodded. “He’s Bordani’s contact in a group called JANUS. He may be their leader, I don’t know. But he’s definitely in the middle of this whole airport shooting.”

“Is this what you came here to discuss with me?”

I nodded. DiFranco looked at the pinstripe man and made a sign of closing his fist. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but the skinny man nodded. DiFranco took me back to the living room and closed the door. To the other men he said, “Give us two beers and a moment alone.”

I sat at the table while DiFranco opened the bottles. No noise came from the other room, and I tried not to imagine what might be happening in there. I was unsuccessful.

“You know I like to be square with my friends,” said DiFranco. “How might I repay this gift of information?”

“I want to break into Marlston’s mansion. There’s a reception there tomorrow night, before Aranjuez goes back to San Magin. I want to warn him he’s being played, and I want evidence against Marlston. I want to ruin the bastard.”

“Why not just kill him?”

It made me dizzy that he would ask that so up front.

“Killing him won’t expose the conspiracy. In fact, it would bury it deeper.”

DiFranco nodded sagely. “And you believe I can make all this happen?”

I shrugged. “Can I ask a question?”

“By all means.”

“Why do you care about any of this?”

“For Tim. His death must not go unanswered.”

“What was he to you?”

“The son of a man to whom I owe a debt.” The look he gave me closed my line of questioning.

“I just need to get in the mansion,” I said.

A warm smile brightened DiFranco’s face. “This much I believe I can arrange.”

***

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It was the oldest trick in the book. In addition to Bordani’s sideline as a leader of thugs, he was first and foremost a caterer. Canton Marlston’s caterer, as a matter of fact, though he hadn’t been actively involved in that aspect of his business while pursuing his criminal ambitions. Therefore, when DiFranco quietly removed Bordani from the game board, he quietly assumed control – not of Bordani’s security firm, but of his hospitality business.

Long story short, it was no problem for DiFranco to insert me into the catering staff hosting Marlston’s reception. Short story complicated, Roxy insisted on coming with me.

It was five in the afternoon of the following day. The party wouldn’t start for another two hours, but clean linens, bottles of alcohol, and fresh ingredients for the hors d’oeuvres arrived by the minute. Roxy and I rode to the house and unloaded a long crate of individually packaged champagne flutes from the back of a white van. We’d arrived with the liquor but wouldn’t be leaving.

“I’m starting to wonder if this was a good idea,” I said.

“Shut up,” said Roxy. “Stay in character.”

Like all the wait staff, I wore a white jacket, black slacks, and black tie. Roxy wore a sleeveless black blouse with a white skirt and white pillbox hat. The pearls on her wrists and necklace were fake, but added to the overall effect of elegant subservience. There was nothing to disguise either of our faces. I’d wanted to wear glasses, but Roxy thought they looked silly.

We carried the champagne flutes to the kitchen, and that’s where the plan started getting fuzzy. At some point, we were going to cross a line beyond which was nothing but the word “improvise.” But first, our job was reconnaissance.  There were parts of Marlston’s mansion that our uniforms gave us access to, and areas we would draw attention to ourselves. We would explore the safer areas, then when the moment presented itself we would branch out further. My main goal was to locate Aranjuez, but I wouldn’t mind finding out where Marlston hid his secrets.

The estate was enormous. The grounds encompassed at least four acres, with several outbuildings, a rose garden, a kennel, and a hedge maze. The main house had three wings, the eastern dedicated to servants, kitchens, cleaning, and maintenance. The central wing was given over to entertaining visitors up to, and including, royalty. Its Grand Ballroom was bracketed on one end by a honeycomb of studies, libraries, and sitting rooms, and on the other by an indoor pool. The west wing had to be where Marlston actually lived and where he kept his guests close and under his thumb.

This much, at least, we deduced from the building plans in the probate records that Roxy was able to pull that morning. The house had been built in the 1920s by a man who made his fortune in speculation and lost it in the crash. It then sat in receivership for years until Marlston bought it in 1945. Of where Marlston came from, or where he got his money, there wasn’t a mention. Having met the man, I’d assumed all his wealth was inherited. Now I suspected that the truth was less savory.

Roxy and I kept in the flow of traffic all the way to the ballroom. The chandeliers had been lit, but gold evening sunlight still poured through the upper windows  and chased odd shadows in every direction. A row of buffet tables were laid along the north end of the room with dining tables encircling the rest of the chamber. Roxy and I grabbed loose tablecloths and took them to a far corner, spread them on two randomly chosen tables, and slipped out of the room when no one was looking.

We found ourselves in the hall from the ballroom to the main foyer. The corridor was lined with tasteful paintings and narrow lamp tables wide. The doors (on the floorplan, at least) led to sitting rooms and smoking rooms, while immediately to our right was a staircase up to the studies and down to a winecellar. I suddenly felt too exposed in this main corridor, so I signaled to Roxy that I was going upstairs.

The carpet runner kept our footfalls silent. On the second floor the landing opened on a much more subdued hallway. Portraits of famous authors broke up the wallpaper, and dim light fixtures made it feel much later in the evening than it was. I had a fantasy of opening one of the doors to find Diego Aranjuez reclining in a lounge chair and reading the latest Washington Street. I’d introduce myself, explain what I’d been through, and warn him that he was being used. He’d be outraged but grateful, and we’d both take a cab to the State Department where he would declare to anyone who’d listen what a total fucking scumbag Canton Marlston was.

Calm down, Allan. Nothing’s that easy.

I opened the first door on the right. As I’d guessed from the blueprints, the room was a library. Built-in shelves lined all four of the walls. Two wide windows let in the last of the evening’s light, and an open arch gave a glimpse of the next room beyond. Many of the books had leather bindings, and all of them looked old and solid with the weight of important words. No pulp thrillers on these shelves, I suspected. There were two long study tables on either side of a display case with several volumes protected under glass. I went for a closer look.

“What do you think?” I asked Roxy. “First editions?”

There was The Histories of Herodotus translated by A. D. Godley. Next was The Outline of History by H. G. Wells. There was The Prince by Machiavellli and The Art of War by Sun Tsu. There were others as well that all displayed certain interests of the collector: that of history and manipulation. There was a small metal plate at the center of the display with a tiny, cursive inscription. I had to lean close to read it.

Presented With Gratitude to the Families of
Jungen, Arnholt, Nilsson, Ulrich, and Smythe

Oh my holy God. I had suspected, though I wasn’t sure of what I would find. But here was proof. I had no idea who these people were or what they were after, aside from wealth and power, but without a doubt I was in the house of JANUS.

“Shit,” Roxy whispered. I turned in time to see her slip out through the door we’d come in. I looked the other way, and Lane Young entered from the next room.

Lane Young. I hadn’t thought about her. I’d avoided it, in fact. Once I knew that Marlston was part of JANUS, I should have wondered how deep Lane was in. She had to know something, a great investigative reporter like her. That she was close to Marlston was unmistakable, but was she a conspirator too, or just caught up in events? I didn’t for a moment consider that someone who’d reported with so much passion on the sufferings of American soldiers in war would be party to acts of inhumanity and slaughter, but still I was on very shaky ground.

I pulled a napkin out of my pocket and pretended to dust the glass case.

“Excuse me,” she said. “What are you doing in here? The catering service is restricted to the kitchen and ballroom.”

“Um.” Dammit, why didn’t I have a lie ready in case I was caught? I couldn’t not look up at her, and when I did she went pale.

“God,” she said. “Jones.”

She ran. I ran after her, tangling for a moment on a table leg, then grabbing her arm when she reached the study next door. I tried to shush her, but before I could she screamed, “Help! He’s here!”

Damn it. I reached back and punched her in the jaw just below her ear. Her head smacked the wall and she crumpled to the floor with a bang.

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First, I checked to make sure she wasn’t dead. Having to knock out my one of my personal heroes was bad enough. Either way, so much for sharing that byline. I was about to creep through the study and into the hall, but the thunder of footsteps back towards the library spurred me on. The study was an obstacle course of antique sofas and cabinets, but I weaved around them and dove through the exit to the main hall just as whomever answered Lane’s call for help threw open the library door.

Of course, there were even more guys in the hall. Five to be exact, running out of a room on the other side. Two on the far end had Roxy in their clutches, arms pinned and one meaty hand over her mouth. She twisted but couldn’t get away. The other three pulled guns out faster than I could blink.

“Wait!” Canton Marlston stepped into the hall behind his men. His tux was so black I could practically see my reflection. His voice stopped his men from shooting, but they kept their guns trained on my face. This was the part, I expected, where they’d drag me off to someplace like DiFranco’s guest house and give me the same treatment he gave Bordani. I expected wrong.

“Bastard’s mine,” was all Marlston said. He pulled out a gun of his own with a long, black silencer.

“Wait!” I said, and he shot me.

But that’s not what happened at all.

Rewind sixty seconds. I checked to make sure that Lane wasn’t dead, then heard footsteps running toward the library. I lunged for the other door out of the room, but before I got there someone grabbed my ankle and yanked me through the floor.

My breath blew out into vacuum, and I clamped my mouth shut to keep more from escaping. I fell through the room below, where I caught a glimpse of artful flower arrangements and a fishbowl. Then I was through the floor again into darkness. My rescuer let go of my ankles, and this time I went limp before hitting the ground. Some kind of short, metal pipe fell into my hand a moment later.

Pick it up. It’s a flashlight.”

I fumbled in the dark for the button and turned it on. I was in the wine cellar, and the flashlight beam shone through a ghost in a white suit.

“Bastard,” I said.

You’re welcome. This was a stupid plan, you know. What exactly did you hope to find?

“Answers.” I tried to slow my breathing, but it was difficult. Getting shot wasn’t getting any easier, even if, like before, it was only a memory.

People like JANUS don’t leave written notes lying around for reporters to find.”

“JANUS,” I said. “You mean the five families? Which one are you from?”

The Whisper waited before finally answering. “Jungen. I was born into Jungen. Marlston’s name is actually Arnholt. That’s pretty good, but it won’t take you any further.”

“I’d love to stay and chat,” I said, “but they’ve got Roxy. And what the hell happened up there, anyway?”

I saved your ass.”

“Before that. When Marlston shot me and everything rewrote itself.”

You remember that?” I’d never heard the Whisper so surprised before. “How can you remember that?

“Kind of hard to forget.” I walked straight through him toward the stairs. I wished the flashlight was heavier. It would have made a good club.

Wait.” The Whisper became solid enough to tug on my sleeve, then held out a belt with two knobs and a button. “Take this.” After I did, he passed me a breather. Unlike the filter I’d used days ago, this one had a strap to keep it attached to my face.

“Why?”

They won’t do anything to Roxy here. They’ll take her to the west wing before they work her over.”

“You got a gun for me too?”

Not this time. The first knob dials you immaterial. The second controls your frame of reference. Set in the middle, it keeps you from falling through the floor. All the way left and gravity takes over. All the way right and you’ll match the velocity of the nearest large object. Got it?

“Yeah. No. What?”

You won’t be invisible, but you can get her out with this.”

“And where are you going to be?”

Breaking a time machine.”

“What?” Forgive me, Roxy, but I couldn’t let that go. “They’ve got a time machine?” All of a sudden, things began to make sense. “All these gadgets, they come from the future, don’t they? And that’s how I got zapped back six hours at the airport. You shot me with some kind of time machine gun.”

Oh, for the love of God,” said the Whisper. “I did not shoot you with a time machine gun. There’s no such thing as a time machine gun. I don’t know what happened at the airport, sugar, but one thing I can promise is that I wasn’t there.”

“Bullshit.”

Truth. I don’t know who you saw, but it wasn’t me. You haven’t seen me since I tried to spring you from the FBI.”

“Then who was at Roxy’s? Who brought me those tapes?”

I don’t know. Honest, Allan, I’ve got no idea. Now move it. You’re wasting time.”

“You’re lying,” I said. “Is this all part of that ‘Bill and Ted’ thing you mentioned?”

Again, the Whisper paused. “What did you say?

“In the apartment, you said you were trying to ‘pull a Bill and Ted.’ What the hell was that about?”

I could see from the outline of his hat that the Whisper was shaking his head. “That doesn’t make any sense. Why would I… Why would anyone say that?

“Beats me. Who are Bill and Ted anyway? More JANUS scumbags?”

The Whisper laughed. “If only. It’s from a stupid movie about two kids who use a time machine for a history project. But it doesn’t make any sense. Why would someone say that?

“I don’t know, you tell me.”

There’s no time. You need to save Roxy right now.”

Damn it. He was right. “Give me a gun.”

No. Get out.” The Whisper turned a dial and disappeared.

I put on my breather and hurriedly examined the belt he’d given me. It was too wide for my waist, so I slipped it over my head to wear it as the Whisper did, like a bandolier. The knobs weren’t labeled, and neither was the big, black button that the Whisper hadn’t explained. I started with the one to make myself immaterial and turned it halfway. My hand was able to pass through a wine rack, but it met with resistance like passing through water. I turned the dial all the way and tried to climb the stairs out, but my foot passed right through them. I turned the knob back one notch, and it gave me enough solidity to climb without sinking too quickly.

Time was out. I ran as fast as I could.

I surprised one of Marlston’s goons when I popped to the first floor. He fumbled his gun out and shot me, but the bullets passed right through and put a hole through a window. I laughed and ran through the window myself, barely feeling a twinge as I melted through the wall.

In between this wing and the next was a narrow courtyard filled with exotic pants and iron benches. It was dark but for light from windows on either side, so I don’t even know what I ran through crossing over.

Two maids were mopping the floor in a small dining room. I burst in on them so silently that one didn’t notice until the other screamed. I put a finger to my lips (well, my breather), but I they didn’t even see as they ran for the door.

Fantastic. As they would have said in Korea, I’d given away my position to the enemy. But where was Roxy? Where would they take her?

Where do thugs always go to beat someone up in private?

If the other wing had a basement, this one probably did too. I prayed that it was directly below me and turned the “frame of reference” dial. Gravity took over, as the Whisper said it would, and I fell feet-first to the unknown. For a heart-stopping moment, I imagined there was nothing under me but the earth itself, dragging me down to the center. When an open space appeared, I turned the dial back and stumbled when my feet hit the ground.

I landed in the middle of a table. Only the soles of my shoes were solid. Roxy sat in one of the chairs, and so far she looked unharmed, but her eyes bulged when she saw me. We were surrounded on all sides by well-dressed thugs and the king of them all, Canton Marlston.

“My, oh my,” he said. “Our mystery man makes his entrance. What was it you told the FBI, Jones? The Whisper? Clever to pretend you were two different men.”

I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I could barely understand my own voice through the breather.

“Oh, please. You’re a caveman playing with toys you can’t understand, but we both know where they come from, and we know them better than you. Right now the men around you are syncing with your phase so their bullets will tear you to pieces. Step out of the table slowly and dial back to normal, and maybe, maybe, I’ll think about letting you live.”

First, there was no way in hell that was going to happen, not after how casually he’d snuffed me in that ‘rewritten’ moment. Second, if this yahoo really thought I was the Whisper, then the Whisper himself was currently free to get up to all the mischief he wanted. Was this what I was? A distraction? The men around me donned breathers like mine and turned dials on their belts to join me as phantoms.

I felt a hot spasm where my waist intersected the table. I put my hand down and felt the wood. Was I turning solid? No, I realized, the table was ghosting out with me. Was this what happened if you stood inside an object too long? To hell with the real Whisper for not giving me an instruction manual. How was I supposed to handle an emergency?

“Allan,” said Roxy, water in her eyes, “I’m sorry. This is my fault.”

No it isn’t, babe,” I whispered. It was mine. The table slowly knifed into my gut. In a moment it would snap me in half, thugs or no thugs. What was I supposed to do, how does someone escape when a piece of equipment has you trapped? Was there some kind of emergency release?

Like a big, black button.

I slapped it as hard as I could and felt solidity rush into my body. The table blew apart. Its pieces passed through Roxy and Marlston, but blasted the rest of his men, intangible themselves, with the brunt of the explosion. Half of them vanished through the walls. Two more flew through the ceiling. One toppled over so that only his boots stuck out from the dirt.

And I still held the flashlight in my left hand. I swung it hard at Marlston’s jaw. The bulb shattered and Canton went down with a nasty gash. I pulled Roxy out of her chair. I’d never seen her so impressed.

“Jesus, Allan!”

“No time to talk, kid.” God, I felt like John Wayne. “Let’s get out of here.”

I ran up the stairs first. Hopefully all of Canton’s nearest heavies had been in the basement, but even if not we didn’t have to get far. Once back on the first floor, we could walk through the walls, find Aranjuez, call the FBI…

Wait. How did Marlston know what I’d told the FBI?

“Mr. Jones.”

At the top of the stairs was Lane Young. She had a shiner on her jaw and a bruise on her forehead. In her hand was an odd, square gun. I quickly dialed back to intangible, but nothing happened.

“I’m very disappointed.”

She pulled the trigger and two darts shot out, trailed by a wire. That’s all I remember before lightning shot through me and I slammed to the wall.

To Be Continued

***

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The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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