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 losturistas and their dinero to survive, no? Everyone knows
“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
“Gepetto pulls the strings, eh? Perhaps someday I’ll be a
“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
“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
“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
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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
“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
“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.
Better luck next life.” He pressed the button.
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
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.”
“Never mind. Quick,
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
“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
“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
“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
“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
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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
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
“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
“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.
“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
“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
“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
“Shit,” said the
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.
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