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.”


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.


“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.



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The Whisper © 2013 Jared Millet

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