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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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
“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
“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
“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
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
“Mr. Jones,” said DiFranco, “permit me to introduce Mr.
Bordani. Unlike most whom I welcome into my home, Mr. Bordani is not my
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
“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
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.”
The key to Southern
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Distilled from the
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Warm up every party
with a bottle of Old Fitzhugh’s.
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
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
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
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.
With Gratitude to the Families of
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
I pulled a napkin out of my pocket and pretended to dust the
“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
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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
“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
“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
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
“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
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.
“They won’t do
anything to Roxy here. They’ll take her to the west wing before they work her
“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
“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
“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.”
“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
“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
“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.
“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?
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
To Be Continued
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