Moonless, by Patrick Stacy

 

One Moonless Night
by Joe Vadalma

 

Although their suburban home was empty except for themselves, Mark and Paula Mansfield spoke in confidential tones. While Mark was telling Paula how rich they would become, she rose to gaze out through partially open drapes on the French doors.

"No moon tonight," she remarked. "Suppose someone is out there in the dark. You shouldn't have that thing in plain sight." The electronic device she referred to lay on the coffee table. She yanked the drapes shut and glared at Mark. "Put it away until the buyers come for it. What if its real owners found us?"

Mark chuckled. "Take it easy, Paula. They have no idea of where we went. Besides, they wouldn't be peeking into windows."

"When are you going to contact them again? It must be soon. The people we stole it from must have ways of locating it. You know how ruthless and dangerous they are."

"Why so nervous? You were the adventurous one before we tried anything involving real danger. You're all talk. Look, before the buyers hand over the money, they'll need a test to see whether the claims I made are true."

To Paula's disgust, Mark became absorbed by the device's tiny monitor. Suddenly there was a horrendous splintering crash. A moment later, a man whose face was a mass of burnt flesh stood among the broken glass of their French doors. His body slumped, and his arms dangled in an odd manner. He knocked Paula to one side and pointed a weapon at Mark.

"Who are you?" Mark cried.

The only reply was a beam of bright blue light from the weapon that reduced Mark to ash in seconds.

Paula screeched, "You killed Mark!"

"Shut up, Paula. I did it because of his and your betrayal. Look what a monster your friends have made of me. The sight of me must nauseate you."

She approached the marred man slowly. "Is it really you? I didn't know. How you must've suffered." Tears formed in her eyes. "But why did you kill Mark? Are you working for Josen?"

The apparition turned away. "I hate having you see me this way."

"What are you going to do now?"

"Run," he said wearily. A moment later he fled out the broken glass door and melted into the night.

Paula gazed into darkness and saw nothing. She hid the device Mark had been examining and dialed the police.

* * *

A few days later a private investigator by the name of Tony Vink sat behind his scarred desk staring at the story of Mark's death in the Daily News. He thought, This could be my ticket to Easy Street. Tony was a cop until he spent two years in the slammer for beating a man to death. He worked on cases other PIs wouldn't touch. Specialty cases, he liked to call them. For example, for a price he would obtain video tapes to be used for blackmail or trace people in the witness-protection program for somebody who wanted them wasted. Business had been bad recently. Even the seamier lawyers stopped hiring him. He'd been kicked out of his apartment and was sleeping in his office. Even the rent on that was overdue. If he hadn't threatened the landlord with mayhem, he'd be out in the street.

The news story about a missing, and presumed dead, scientist gave him an idea. He reread the article under a photo of a striking blonde. The headline read: Wife of missing scientist offers $15,000 reward for information. Vink figured it would be a piece of cake to discover what happened to the guy, whether he had been kidnapped, wasted, or had simply run out on his old lady. And even if he did not find the jerk, maybe the babe could be conned out of big bucks.

Tony dialed the Mansfield's private number, obtained by hacking into personnel files of the lab where Mansfield had worked. When Mrs. Mansfield answered, he turned on the charm. "Look, I'm an ex-cop and make my living as a PI. I'd like to help you locate your husband. I specialize in missing-person cases." He did not mention the reward.

"How did you get this number?"

"Mark and I have a mutual friend. He's the one who told me about his disappearance."

"What did you say your name was?"

"Vink. Tony Vink. I don't suppose Mark ever mentioned me. It's been a long time."

"Tony Vink? Yes, I ... Never mind. Come to the house around ten." There was a note of hysteria in her voice, as though she'd known him. But that was ridiculous. She hung up without saying goodbye.

* * *

Precisely at ten Tony knocked at the Mansfield door. A stunning woman answered the door. Her photo in the paper did not half do her justice. She had the face and figure of a supermodel, long blonde hair and a simple but elegant short dress. After she ushered him in, she said, "Would you like a drink, Mister Vink?" She held a cocktail in her hand.

"Bourbon on the rocks, please, if you've got some."

As Paula poured, she said, "Please call me Paula. I'm grateful that you called. The police haven't been much help. There's more to Mark's disappearance than what was in the newspapers. I believe he was murdered and that his killers are after me too. Besides investigating his disappearance, I want you to act as a bodyguard."

"What about the cops?"

"Their offer of protection is a joke. 'A prowl car will be around,' they said. To them it's simply another murder. They don't even have a corpse." Paula dabbed at her eyes. "You have no idea what I've been through," she sobbed.

Tony put his arm around her shoulder. "There, there, Paula. You won't have to be afraid anymore. I'll accept your offer. I have lots of experience protecting people. I'll make sure that you won't come to any harm."

She leaned against his chest. "I feel better already. You strike me as competent and caring." She told him more of the story. "Mark has made an important discovery in microminiaturization. The people who kidnapped or murdered him are out to steal it."

"There's a chance that he's alive then. Whoever took your husband wants information about Mark's discovery. They're probably trying to sweat it out of him."

"Perhaps. Well it's late. We can talk more tomorrow. You can stay in the guest room. I want you near me at all times."

He grinned crookedly. "Aren't you afraid of gossip, having a man alone with you in the house at all hours?"

"I could give a damn about gossip. Better talked about than dead."

* * *

The next day Tony brought his few worldly possessions from his office. The idea of living in Paula's luxurious home appealed to him. What a vacation this will be, he thought. Nice house, nice company, nothing to do until she decides it'd be cheaper to buy a watchdog. He figured Paula's fears were paranoia stimulated by Mark's disappearance. Nevertheless, he'd play it to the hilt. As long as she paid, he'd watch over her as though an assassin was behind every bush.

On the way to the Mansfield's he bought a 32-automatic from an ex-con he knew. After he put his things away, Paula popped TV dinners into the microwave and poured drinks. He lectured her about what to do to keep out prowlers. "You should install spotlights outside and call a security outfit to fit you out with a modern security system. We'll rig up a monitoring system so you can signal me at night in case someone tries to break in from outside."

"That won't be necessary. My room adjoins yours. I'll leave the door ajar."

He tried to read her expression. Was she hinting at something? Or was she simply naive. He grinned at the picture that came to mind.

"What about Mark's invention? Where's it kept?"

"In a safe place."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes. But let's not talk about that now or about bolting windows or anything. You know, Tony, when I first laid eyes on you, I said to myself, 'He's not like a stranger at all.' I feel as though we've met before. Tell me, do we know each other?"

Tony met her eyes. Flirtation? Is she testing me? If I make a pass, will she throw me out? He took the risk and put her hand in his. "Maybe in a dream. Paula, just being with you is a privilege." He meant what he said. Paula had a hell of a lot more class than any other broad he knew. There was something else about her, something he couldn't put his finger on. It was as though what she had said was true, that they'd met before.

A moment later she was in his arms. Her lips pressing against his sent electric shocks to the base of his spine.

"Oh Tony, Tony. I was so frightened when you killed Mark. And when you acted as if you didn't know me ..."

He stiffened and jerked away. "What are you trying to pull? Are trying to make me the fall guy for your husband's murder? Oh, I should've known the coy way you accepted my bull that you were up to something. Everything was too easy."

As he turned toward the door, she clutched his sleeve. "Please Tony, I'm in terrible trouble. What I haven't told you was that I witnessed Mark's murder. I'm begging you to help me. I've no one else to turn to."

When he gazed into her white, frightened face, he thought, She's really scared to death, poor kid. "What makes you think I'd help you after what you just tried to pull?"

"Please Tony, I'm desperate. I didn't know what I was doing." She wept and clung to him.

"Who killed Mark?" he asked gently, holding her close and rubbing her back.

"A foreigner. A spy, I think. Oh, if I could only tell you the real truth. But I can't. You wouldn't believe it."

"Hush baby. You're not making sense. Let me pour you another drink. Then you tell me exactly what happened. The truth. All the details, no matter how bizarre or incriminating. Otherwise, it's no deal."

Paula calmed down and began her story. "Mark came home late that night. After dinner, he was fooling with his invention in the living room. Suddenly this horrible man broke in through the French doors. He had some weird laser weapon. It was awful. Mark was burned to ashes instantly." As she showed Tony the burn spot on the living room carpet, he wondered why she was making up this fabulous tale. Maybe she was delusional. That would explain a lot of the crazy stuff she was saying. "He called Mark by name."

"Did you know the man?"

"No, but Mark typed something on the computer when the man entered. I wrote it down." She dug into her purse and handed Tony a slip of paper with an address and nothing else.

Tony slipped it into his wallet. "Where's Mark's body?"

"I told you. This laser thing turned his remains into ashes."

"Did you tell the police this story?"

"They wouldn't have believed me."

"What makes you think I do?"

"I can prove it. I have the weapon. The murderer dropped it."

Paula retrieved the weapon from a desk drawer. It was not like anything Tony had ever seen. He pointed it at a lamp and pressed a button on its top with his thumb. The lamp disappeared in a flash of blue flame. "Wow."

Paula drew back. "Be careful, Tony."

"Why didn't you show this to the cops?"

"I was afraid they'd suspect me. Who, but a scientist's wife, would have something so advanced?" She caressed Tony's arm.

"All right honey." He stuck the weapon in his jacket pocket. "If I'm going to help you, I need to see Mark's invention."

They went down to the cellar, which was fitted out as a laboratory. She led Tony to an empty work bench and reached down as if picking something up. Her hand disappeared.

"What the hell?"

There was click and her hand reappeared. On the bench was a device shaped like a VCR remote. It had several buttons and a small viewing screen like a GameBoy.

"Is that what Mark invented? An invisibility ray?"

"No. That's just how it's kept out of sight. Actually it's a super-miniaturized computer, so powerful that the equivalent electronics in available technology would fill a room."

Tony examined the computer. The symbols on its keys were unfamiliar.

"You know what you're holding, Tony? A device worth millions. And those millions could be yours and mine. Put it down and let's go upstairs." She replaced the gadget on the bench and switched on whatever made it invisible.

Tony's head whirled. He felt as though Paula was leading him into a trap. But the thought of all that money and the more immediate temptation she offered had him licking his chops. He knew he was not thinking things through, that he shouldn't trust Paula. Everything she said was probably a lie. Yet, if the device was as valuable as she said, money, power, an extremely beautiful lover would be his. Also, there was something else about Paula, something beyond what he'd felt for other women. Although logic told him that her words were lies, he wanted to believe she spoke the truth.

He said, "I'm going to get rid of the ray gun. If it should get in the hands of the cops, it wouldn't be good. They'd probably start asking embarrassing questions. Give me the keys to your car."

"I'll go with you. I'm afraid of being alone."

***

Tony drove Paula's Audi to a cliff two miles away, parked the car where it was hidden by a copse and opened the hood. "If anyone wonders what we're doing here, we're having engine trouble." He stuck his head in the car window and kissed her. "Stay here. I'll only be a couple of minutes."

As he walked toward the cliff edge, he wondered what Paula really meant to him. He would have never gone out on such a shaky a limb for any other woman. The path curved so that he could no longer see the car. It worried him. The thought occurred to him that she could simply drive off and go to the cops. They'd send divers to retrieve the murder weapon, and he would be the patsy for Mark's murder. He listened for the sound of the motor. Instead he heard twigs cracking. "Paula, is that you?" He strained his eyes against the night, wishing he'd brought a flashlight.

A man leaped out of the brush. A fist smashed into Tony's groin, dropping him to his knees. Instinctively he reached for the weapon in his jacket. Before he got it half out, a foot caught him in the head, causing him to almost black out. Nevertheless, he rolled away from the next blow. At the same time he pointed the device where he thought his assailant must be. The beam flashed, the fiery outline of a man's head appeared and disappeared and all was dark and quiet again.

Tony staggered to his feet and peered at the ground. One glance told him what had happened. The beam had caught his attacker in the head. The corpse lay face down with cooked brains spilling out of its skull. Vomit rose up in Tony's throat. He'd seen plenty of corpses before, but nothing quite as gruesome as this.

"This complicates things," Tony muttered. "I wonder who this son-of-a-bitch was."

A moment's reflection made him realize that he was in terrible jam. The man was unarmed. Tony had in his possession the only weapon capable of killing him in the manner he had died. It was most likely the murder weapon used on Mark. If Paula killed Mark, she would be glad to see him arrested for her crime. Paula! Where was she now? She probably took off like a scared rabbit. Why hadn't he kept the car keys? Cold sweat broke out on his forehead and his shirt clung to his back.

He listened for the car but heard nothing but night sounds. He dragged the corpse into the underbrush and cut through the woods.

The car was were he parked it. But Paula was gone. He called out but received no answer. He figured that he would look for her later. At the moment he had things he must do. He opened the car door, retrieved the keys from the ignition and headed back to where he left the corpse. In the dark he had difficulty locating the body until he stumbled over something soft that had to be it.

As he reached for its legs to drag it to the cliff edge, he heard voices. He froze and listened. The voices were low-pitched, so he couldn't make out what they were saying. His first thought was that they were cops. He kept listening, but they'd stopped talking. Either they left or were waiting. He dared not move a muscle although he was in an awkward position holding the cadaver's ankles.

A voice behind his right ear said, "Don't move. I have a deadly weapon pointed at you. Place your hands on your head."

Tony did as he was told.

"I have him," the man called, followed by running steps.

When the other men reached Tony, they searched and disarmed him. In the moonlight, he saw that they were dressed outlandishly in knee-length tights and a blouse that flowed loosely to the hips. They were shaved bald.

"Who are you?" Tony asked.

"A person of your time would call us visitors from the future," replied the man behind Tony. His precise English had a strange accent. "You probably do not believe in time travel, but if you turn around slowly, I will give you a demonstration that will change your mind."

Tony did an about-face. The man was dressed as the others, but was older and bearded. He held a weapon the size and shape of a penlight. He aimed it at the corpse. An intense light so bright it hurt Tony's eyes appeared for a second. Where the body had been was now scorched dirt.

Everything started to make sense. Tony had seen enough science fiction movies to take the man at his word. He wondered whether Paula and her missing husband were from the future.

"Paula, as you call her, is no longer with us, Mister Vink."

"You know my name? You even know what I'm thinking. What did you do to Paula?"

"She no longer exists in this time frame. We must take you now, Mister Vink. Hurry. Only minutes more are allowed us."

"You killed her." A fiery rage raged in Tony's mind. He realized how deep his feelings for Paula had become. Forgetting caution, he went for the man's throat. Before Tony could reach him though, the man pressed a stud on his weapon. Pain as though a dagger had been thrust into his skull hit Tony, and blackness engulfed him.

* * *

When Tony opened his eyes, an excruciating pain shot through his head. After a few moments, however, the pain diminished. He lifted a hand to his head and groaned. He seemed to be in a hospital. Still in a bit of a fog, he wondered whether all that business about men from the future and disintegrator-ray guns was simply a nightmare. Another pain shot across his head. "Nurse, doctor, somebody help me."

He heard footsteps. A masculine voice said, "So, you're awake. How do you feel?"

"My head hurts and I can barely open my eyes. What happened to me?"

"The pain will end soon."

After a few minutes, the sharp pains turned dull. Tony pulled himself to a sitting position. The person by his bed was no doctor or nurse. It was the future man, the one who had disintegrated the corpse.

"You. Then it really happened." Tony lunged at the man but was restrained by straps around his waist and legs.

"Easy there." The man backed away. "You're still weak from my stunner. Don't strain yourself."

"You son-of-a-bitch, I'll break every bone in your body." He yanked at the straps, but they simply dug into his flesh.

"In your emotional state, it's useless to explain things to you. I'll return when you're calmer." He turned and walked through what appeared to be a solid wall.

Once the man was out of the room, the restraints snapped open. Tony leaped from the bed, but collapsed from weakness. Since he was too weak to rise, he surveyed his surroundings from the floor. The nine-by-fifteen-foot room had no visible doors, windows or light fixtures. A soft light radiated from the walls and ceiling. Besides the bed, the only furnishings were a plastic chair and chest of drawers.

Tony hoisted himself onto the chair and pondered his situation. He wondered whether he really was in the future. But time travel was impossible, wasn't it? But other things that happened since that fateful night he had knocked at Paula's door seemed like science fiction. The real puzzle was why men from the future would kidnap him and not simply kill him with their ray guns. The man had said that they had come expressly for him. Also, the guy didn't really say that they killed Paula, only that she no longer existed. Perhaps they had kidnapped her too. Nothing made sense. Thoughts of Paula sent a pang of sadness over him. He wondered whether he'd ever see her again. He shook his head to clear it of her image, and thought, Don't think of her now. Think about escape. But escape from where to where?

When the weakness faded so that he could take a few steps without falling, he staggered to the part of the wall where the future man had exited. It felt solid. Tapping told him only that that section sounded like every other section. He couldn't find the tiniest crack to show where a doorway might be.

He shuffled to the bureau. Freshly laundered and pressed clothes similar to the one his kidnappers wore and his personal belongings were in the drawers, except for the disintegrator gun. Although he felt like a clown, he donned the futuristic clothing, retrieved his cigarettes and lighter from his jacket. To his surprise, his pistol was in the left-hand pocket. Carefully he put the coat down. What a lucky break, he thought. Obviously, his kidnappers didn't recognize it as a weapon. He left it alone, figuring that they watched him with hidden cameras.

As he ground his cigarette butt out, a cart of food came through the wall where the future man had exited. Once it passed through, the wall gave no indication of how the entrance was created. He was happy to see food; he was ravenous. Although the food was exotic, it was tasty and filling. After he washed it down with a fruity drink, he became drowsy. Drugged, he thought, moments before he passed out.

* * *

When he awoke, he felt better. The weakness and dizziness had passed. His mind was clear as a mountain stream. Another cart stood by the wall with more food on it. He wolfed that meal down too. Halfway through it, his jailer walked through the wall. "Feeling more amiable, Mister Vink?"

Tony glared at him. He figured that the guy was too confident, not to be somehow protected from attack. Even if he was successful, he had no way of leaving this room.

"Good. You're calmer. I have a proposition for you. Allow me to introduce myself. My name ..."

"Frigging murderer and kidnapper are good enough for me to call you by."

"Don't be bitter. The woman you mourn was no friend of yours. She was a pathological liar and would've led you to an early grave."

Tony didn't reply. He'd had the same thoughts himself.

"My name is Cala Josen." He poured a cup of juice for himself. "I work for the TIA, the Temporal Intelligence Agency."

"What's that? Some kind of spy outfit?"

"You're a sharp ... uh, would "cookie" be the right expression? I specialize in covert operations in critical time zones. I make changes in the time stream to disrupt or eliminate my faction's enemies and further our cause."

"Really?"

"I see you're still skeptical. What is the date?"

"Somewhere around the fifth of July, 2021."

The future man held his wrist so that Tony could see his watch. It showed the date as October 15, 2179. Over one-hundred-and-fifty years in the future.

Tony laughed. "Are you kidding? This is an elaborate practical joke, right? You set your watch to a phony date."

Josen's twisted lips indicated that he was not pleased by Tony's response. "You don't believe in time travel now, but you will soon." He chuckled. "Right now we are in Subn'ork City. During this time zone, it exists in same location as your New York, only underground. You're five-hundred feet under earth. Most cities of this period are underground. Fear of atomic war and pollution have caused this phenomenon."

"Why am I here?"

"Before I tell you, I want to remove your skepticism." He called out, "Computer, holovision on." One wall became a huge TV screen. A three-dimensional symphony orchestra appeared. It was so real that it was like being in the audience at the auditorium. It played for a couple of minutes until Josen called, "Computer, holovision off." The wall became a wall again. "Well?"

Tony grunted. He knew of no such technology in his time. But it was not inconceivable that it existed somewhere.

Josen continued. "I change of what to me is the past. In my time, several-thousand years from your era, intergalactic war is raging. But warfare changes. You wouldn't recognize it as war since it is fought mostly in time and in the space between the stars. It's like chess, with each faction making moves based on what he thinks his opponent will do next, based on what he hopes his opponent thinks he will do after that, and so forth. Each side tries to guess the other's next move out of an infinite number of probables.

"As a knight in this vast game, I change minor happenings in the past before they occur. The corrections must be minor, since great changes could be unpredictably catastrophic. Before we make these adjustments in time, we calculate the probability that the outcome of an adjustment to a particular event will have the desired result. This probability must be greater than 99.9 percent carried to ten decimal places. To accomplish this, we send out agents to different time periods to gather uncountable amounts of raw data. The data are relayed to artificial intelligences so powerful they make your present supercomputers seem like abaci in comparison.

"This is where you come into the picture, my friend. Those plans are turned over to a recruiter, of which I one, who after months of research, decides on the right people to carry out the plan. In our next operation, that person is you."

"Why me? Why not some flunky from your own time? If you're really from the far future, I must seem like a caveman."

"You answered your own question. How long could you fit into a hunter-gatherer society? I need a twenty-first century man to operate in the twenty-first century. I picked you because I need a man from your locality with your particular talents for violence and undercover work. Another factor is the nature of time travel. It takes a certain type of mind to travel in time, a type of mind that is rare in your century. Only two or three men in twenty-first century New York fit the correct profile."

"Very flattering, but what makes you think I'll go along with this gig? Are you going to hold some threat over my head?"

"No, we need your full and unequivocal cooperation. I can offer you enormous benefits. I can see that you become rich beyond wildest dreams. Imagine being a billionaire. With time travel, you could know the details of trading in the stock market for any day or the winning horse in every race before those events occur. Such foreknowledge would make you as wealthy as you want to be."

Tony licked his lips to simulate greed. Josen had made too much about ensuring that time changes had to be minor. He would never allow him to fool with the stock market or become extremely wealthy. Nonetheless, he figured he'd better go along until he saw a way out of his predicament. He'd seen how ruthless these people were; killing in cold blood was nothing to them.

"Ah, you see the possibilities," Josen said. "Is it a deal? Or do you need time to think it over? Do you have questions?"

"Just two. What is time travel like? And how does it work?"

"Have no fears about it. We put you to sleep before you embark. You'll awaken in your own time in a comfortable bed. Just as when you arrived in this time zone, the first day you'll be weak, headachy, and disoriented. These symptoms will last a few hours. By the next day you'll feel fine. The answer to your other question is more difficult, as I am not a time engineer. Time is a dimension, like length, breadth and width. If you close one eye, you see two dimensions. Nonetheless, you can move in a third. Time, the fourth dimension, is similar. Normally we can only view the present moment due to the way the chemistry of our bodies work on our brains. It is as though someone put a helmet over your head from which had a peephole from which you could only view what was directly in front of you."

"Wait a minute. I've heard that time was a fourth dimension, but what has the way chemicals work on our brain got to do with travel to the past or the future?"

Josen took a cube from his pocket and held it so that Tony could see one surface. "If your eyes were made so you could really see in three dimensions, rather than an illusion of three dimensions, you could tell me what's written on the top of cube. You cannot, of course. But if you could really see three dimensions, you could view six surfaces at once. You know this is a cube because when I turn it, the angles change. In the same manner your mind is aware of all time, although it seems to perceive only the present moment. From our usual perspective, past and future seem like memories or prescience, not real like the present. With help of special equipment and drugs, we can move backwards and forward in time easily. The same is true of the speed at which we traverse time. With the proper stimulus, subjective time flies by. Thus, we travel to the future or the past in a wink."

"If time travel is controlled by the mind, how did I get here? I was unconscious."

"Simple. The so-called unconsciousness state of the brain keeps a person immobile and suppresses memories over the unconscious period. But, actually the senses are feeding data into your brain at all times. Time travel is easier when the mind is in this passive state. Of course I'm oversimplifying. As for the mechanics of the time-travel apparatus, I'm as ignorant as you of its workings."

Tony wondered whether he was hearing techno-babble or a real explanation of time travel. He had read in a magazine that some physicists believed that time travel was theoretically possible, but would require something exotic like an artificial black hole.

One thing bothered him. "You say you can change the past to influence the future. But if you can travel to the past, the present and future already exist and are unchangeable. How do you explain this contradiction?"

Josen thought for a few seconds. "Allow me to compare time travel to movement in a three-dimensional sense. Take this room, for example ..." He walked toward a wall. "I walk in a straight line to reach a particular section of wall. Now I walk back to the bed." After he reached the bed, he again strolled toward the wall in a slightly different direction. "Changing the past is like changing direction in three-dimensional travel. I admit it is a crude analogy, but it gives you the idea."

Before Tony could ask more questions, Josen spoke a code word and walked through the wall. As he departed, he said, "I must leave now. I'll give you twenty-four of your century's standard hours to decide whether you will accept my proposition."

After Josen left, Tony pondered his options. He was between a rock and a hard place. If he did whatever crazy thing Josen wanted him to do, Josen would probably do away with him eventually. If not, he could expect immediate execution. Besides, he was not convinced that Josen was not a crazy inventor who for reasons of his own was giving him the business.

After some time passed, Tony slipped the pistol from his jacket pocket into his trousers in a way that he hoped would conceal his action from surveillance cameras. Along with his lunch was a note that told him how to work the holovision. He spent the rest of the day watching boring arty programs. The people on these programs spoke a slangy, clipped English, with many unfamiliar words, that was hard to follow.

At 10 P.M. the screen went blank and the room lighting dimmed. Tony slipped the pistol inside his pillowcase.

* * *

The next morning Josen arrived while Tony was eating breakfast. "Mind if I join you?"

"Help yourself. I haven't made up my mind though. Before I agree to anything, I want to hear what you want me to do."

"I see. Well, it is dangerous. But according your dossier you thrive on danger."

Tony stood with one foot on the chair. "I don't mind a little risk if the payoff is worth it. I balance the two. You've told me the payoff; what is the risk?"

"Very well. You must kill someone. A minor personage in your time. But if he died prematurely, it gives my side a great advantage."

Tony began to pace. "So, it's simply murder. Fine. Jesus Christ, I thought maybe you wanted me to do something dangerous like jumping off the Empire State Building." He looked Josen in the eye. "In my time murder is a capital crime. Or was execution by the state omitted from your history books?"

"Risk of that is nil. You forget the possibilities of time travel. You can establish an alibi by being hundreds of kilometers from the crime scene at the time of murder. You simply kill the person we tell you to, and then you go back in time a day or two. In that way you can be in two places at the same time."

Tony continued to pace. Each time he traversed the room he moved closer to the bed. "I see. Okay, but I need more details to decide." Once he was next to the bed, he reached under the pillow and withdrew the hidden weapon.

Josen was smiling. "It's simple. When you reach your destination ..."

Tony aimed the gun at Josen's head. "This is an old-fashioned propulsion type of weapon. Nevertheless, it will kill you just as dead as those disintegrator things. Take me out of this room. If you don't, it is you who will be killed by me, not some joker in the twenty-first century."

Josen turned alabaster and his jaw went slack. "Why are you doing this? If you don't want go on our mission, just refuse. We would bring you back to your own time."

"Are you kidding? Sure you would, after you pinned a murder rap on me. Or wasted me. Now, do whatever you have to do get me out of this room and don't say another word."

Josen whispered an unfamiliar word. Tony stayed inches behind with the gun thrust in his ribs. The wall became fuzzy in a strange way, and they walked through to a long corridor with no visible doors along it. Tony slugged Josen with the pistol butt and made for an archway at the end. It was nightmarish running along the monstrously long empty hall. His footsteps echoed and reechoed while the opening at the end grew closer very slowly. When he finally bounded through the archway, he was pulled off balance by a swiftly moving walkway. He regained it in a moment, but almost lost it again as he gazed at his surroundings. He was in an enormous cavern, lit as bright as day with a ceiling miles above his head. Crisscrossing, interweaving and stretching as far as he could see were networks of moving sidewalks, roadways and monorails. Between this spidery transportation were skyscrapers in every style of architecture conceivable, including some that looked as though they were designed by Salvador Dali. Everywhere there was motion -- strange vehicles, immense crowds of pedestrians and in the air, helicopter-like flying machines.

The particular sidewalk that Tony was on was relatively deserted. He saw three people, none of whom were nearby. He sighed with relief that he hadn't attracted attention. The ramp headed toward a stream of pedestrian traffic. He figured that he could lose any pursuers in no time. He stepped onto the more crowded sidewalk and mingled with its mass of occupants. After having his heels tread on a few times and getting jabbed in the ribs, he found that it paid to walk fast if you did not want to get mauled. This is worse than Grand Central in the rush hour. He felt like a gawking country boy.

He allowed the crowd to push him along until he came to an escalator that led to the entrance of a building. He stepped off the ramp with a dozen other people and entered the building's huge foyer which had several elevators, escalators, walkways and booths. He casually leaned against a wall trying to figure out his next move. His situation was bleak. He wondered whether escaping from Josen was such a good idea. What little money he had was probably no good. He knew no one and had no place to go in this strange city. He dared not do anything to attract attention, like panhandling.

At least I speak the language. My accent shouldn't give me away. A city this size must have visitors from foreign countries.

He devised a short-term plan. First he would obtain money or its equivalent. Once he had cash, he could hole up in a hotel room and get the lay of the land. He wondered whether Josen would have the police or his gang out looking for him. He decided to worry about that later. He felt that Josen was working outside of the law and would have to find him by some private means. In a city this size, that could be difficult.

He pretended to browse at a newsstand while he observed people around him, especially those making purchases. Almost all transactions were by card. Some people used plastic coins for small purchases such as newspapers or candy bars.

A woman who was buying a magazine had a handbag with long straps loosely slung over shoulder. Tony brought out his pen knife, quickly cut the straps, stuffed the woman's handbag under his belt where his loose shirt hid it and walked rapidly into the densest part of the crowd. Before the woman missed her purse, he went out the exit with several others, all of whom were in a hurry.

In the street he felt safe. The woman probably didn't even see what he looked like. He strolled along a fast-paced moving walkway until he was far from the building where he stole the handbag. He found a restaurant and went to the men's room. In a cubicle he removed coins, a plastic card and a guide to the city from the handbag, dumped the rest of the stuff into the toilet and jammed the purse behind the flusher. He felt pleased and lucky.

The restaurant was an ultramodern automat. He watched other customers for a moment before he went up to a serving machine. When he knew what to do, he put the plastic card in the machine, a menu came up on a computer screen, and with a pointer he selected a hamburger, fries and coffee. The items appeared moments later in a thin, plastic box. The machine showed the amount deducted from the card and how much was remaining. The woman's account had quite a bit left in it. After lunch, he wandered around the city until he found what seemed to be a cheap apartment building. He buzzed the manager. A disembodied voice said, "Who's there?"

"Do you have any vacancies?"

"Just a minute, be right down."

In a couple of minutes, a paunchy, bald-headed guy appeared. "What kind of apt you lookin' for?"

"An efficiency. I live alone."

"All right. Apt 10002 is empty. The rent is four-hundred credits a month, four-hundred deposit. Six-month lease." He thrust a small box forward. Tony put the debit card in the slot. The transaction brought the woman's account down to two hundred credits.

The manager looked suspicious when he handed back the card. "How come you got a fem name?"

"This is my girlfriend's card. She let me borrow it until I could get to the bank."

"Whatcha mean? Banks are on the net."

Tony didn't have a reply, but the man didn't seem to care that much. He punched something on the device's small keyboard. "Apt in your girlfriend's name. Say her name in the lift and at the door. Nice day." He returned to the office.

There were no buttons on the elevator. Tony said to the empty air, recalling the manager's instructions, "Delora Moolch," the name on the debit card. His stomach did double-flips as the elevator zoomed to the hundredth floor in nothing flat. Apartment 10002 was at the end of a long hall. The only indication of a door was the number on the wall. He repeated the woman's name. The wall went fuzzy and he walked through it.

The apartment was tiny, one room divided by a bar. One side was a living room; the other side a kitchenette. Markings on the wall showed where the bathroom and closet were. The sofa converted to a bed. Windows gave a panoramic view of the city, which was enormous, ten Manhattans at least. On the wall opposite was a built-in holovision like the one where he was kept prisoner.

Exhausted, Tony dropped into a surprisingly comfortable armchair. In moments, he dropped off to sleep.

He opened his eyes to darkness. As he stirred, the lights turned on. He glanced at his watch -- 2 A.M. He had slept twelve hours. He thought about the events leading up to this moment and wondered what to do about being stranded in the future. Whenever he recalled Paula, however, he was sickened by the thought that she was probably dead. He recalled her appearance when he'd first knocked at her door. What was it she'd said? "It's as though we had met before and had forgotten." Strange thing to say, unless one believed in reincarnation or -- was a time traveler.

Tony searched his pockets. He retrieved a wrinkled scrap of paper with an address on it. He thumbed through the city guide from the stolen purse. The street was listed. What had he to lose? He'd go there.

He showered and combed his hair. In the lobby he got his bearings and headed for a monorail station. There was no attendant. An automatic turnstile worked on the debit card. The only other person at the station was an old man. Tony asked him whether he knew how to get to the address on the paper. At first the man was reticent. Nevertheless, he warmed as Tony turned on the charm with small talk. Finally, he gave complete directions for Tony to follow. "From Jers?" he asked.

Tony smiled. Subn'orkers were not much different from New Yorkers. He and his new friend boarded train Seventy-two. After two stops, the old man got off. Before leaving the train, he said, "Don't forget. Get off at 495th street."

The neighborhood was higher class than the one where he'd taken the apartment. It took him a while to figure out how to use the computer in the lobby to look up the names of the residents. He could hardly believe his eyes, but the name Mansfield appeared on the monitor. He touched the word Ring next to the name. A minute went by before a man's face appeared. He recognized him in the newspaper article about Paula's husband's disappearance. It was Mark Mansfield's face. Tony said, "You ... you're Mark Mansfield."

"Who'd you expect? You high?"

"I thought you were dead. Paula said ..."

"Ah, that's it, you're a friend of Paula's. She probably told you some fantastic story?"

A feminine voice in the background asked, "Who's there?"

"Friend of yours," Mark replied with a smirk.

Mark's face was replaced by Paula's. Another shock.

Tony cried, "Paula! Josen and his friends didn't get you after all."

Over the monitor he heard Mark's snide comment: "She must have told you a whopper, guy."

Paula simply looked puzzled. "I don't know you. Are you nuts?"

Again, Mark's voice. "Come off of it, Paula. Stop lying." His face replaced Paula's. "Come up. I'll send the lift down. I'll bet you and Paula have a lot to talk about."

After Tony knocked on a portion of the corridor on the seventeenth floor marked with the apartment number given to him by the computer, the wall fuzzed and he entered. Mark stood waiting. Paula, next to him, looked dismayed. "Introduce your friend, Paula."

"I never saw him in my life. I swear."

Tony was dumbfounded. It seemed crazy. Paula acted as though she had never met him. Finally, it occurred to him that with time travel, it was possible. "My name is Tony Vink. I do know your wife, but she doesn't know me. I'm in trouble, and she's the only person in this city I can turn to."

"What do you mean, you know me, but I don't know you?" Paula asked in a puzzled tone.

"It's a long story. But, before I tell it, answer one question for me. Is time travel possible?"

"The Newsweb say that scientists are working on it, but are a long way off from actually building a time machine."

Mark joined the conversation. "They've sent one or two atoms into the past a few microseconds. In a couple years, who knows?"

Tony felt more confident that his story might be believed. Their era was on the threshold of time travel. Josen was likely from a more advanced age, where time travel was as common as air travel in his time.

He told Paula and Mark the whole story from the time he first knocked on their door, although he left out the parts about Paula and he having more than a business relationship or anything else that would put her or him in a bad light.

When he finished, Mark said, "That was quite a tale. So somebody was supposed to have kidnapped or murdered me in the twenty-first century. But how did Paula and I get back there?"

"Yeah, that part bothered me. What I think is that sometime in your future you will travel to the past -- if that makes any sense. I have proof that I'm from the early twenty-first century, money from my era in mint condition. You people don't seem to use paper money any more."

Mark shook his head. "That's worthless as proof. You might be a counterfeiter or a collector. I wouldn't be able to tell whether what you have is real twenty-first century money."

"Then I have no proof that'll convince you. Only that time traveler, Josen, could and there's no chance of that. I may as well get out of your lives." He turned to go.

"Hold on," said Mark. "You came to us for a reason, and you do look like man in trouble. I don't believe that fantastic story you just told, but I admire a man who stands and tells such bullcrap with a straight face." He turned to Paula. "What do you say, Paula? We can't turn an old friend of yours out in the street.

"I tell you I don't know him from Adam," she snapped. "But don't believe me. Believe this stranger's fantastic bull. Let him stay or kick him out. I don't give a damn." She strutted through a wall to another room.

Mark laughed.

"I don't get the joke," Tony said. "You seem ready to believe the worst of your wife."

"Wouldn't you under the circumstances? You obviously know her well. It's not often that I meet one of her secret lovers. I'm going to bed. If you want to stay, sleep on the sofa. Paula will be glad to have company tomorrow. Goodnight." He turned and disappeared through the same wall as Paula had.

Tony's fingernails bit into his palms and his eyes became slits. He muttered obscenities under his breath and started to leave. But he hesitated at the invisible door, thinking, Where the hell am I going? By now, Josen or the local cops could have traced the person using that woman's stolen debit card to the apartment he rented. To survive here, he needed help. If only he could convince Paula that his story was true. Tony thought, That Mark is a strange bird. If he really thinks I'm someone Paula is cheating with, why did he let me stay? Maybe he gets a weird kick out of helping a man who's cuckolding him.

Tony laid on the sofa and tried to sleep. He wanted to be sharp for whatever the next day would bring. But it was impossible knowing Paula was with Mark in the next room. Just before dawn, he blanked out from sheer exhaustion.

* * *

"You're certainly persistent."

"What?" Tony cried as he awoke.

"You're persistent," Paula repeated.

Tony rubbed his eyes. "Where's Mark?"

"Went to work. He doesn't care that you're here. Do you want breakfast?"

"Yeah, sure." Paula's presence disconcerted him. She wore a filmy nightgown that revealed more than it concealed.

At breakfast, she remarked, "I half-believe your story now that I've had time to think about it. Sometimes people disappear without a trace. I have a friend in government work who disappeared like that. Maybe he traveled in time. Maybe time-travel is possible, but the government keeps it secret."

"I don't think Josen was from your present, Paula." Tony's hope soared. If she believed his story, a little convincing could get their relationship back to what it had been before that night by the cliff. "I need your help desperately. To keep out of Josen's clutches, I've got to learn how to live in and lose myself in your time."

Paula gazed into Tony's eyes. "You sound dead serious. I believe you and will try to help you. Don't worry about Mark. He'll help too. I'll see to that." Her smile was warm.

Tony's confidence returned. "You know, Paula, when you smile like that, I believe you're the most beautiful woman I've ever met."

"Really, now. Such flattery early in the morning. Your eyes are hardly open." She reached over playfully, pretending to open his eyes with her fingers.

Tony pulled her close and kissed her. She offered no resistance. Her arms encircled him, and she kissed him back. Long minutes later, their lips drew apart. Paula, breathing heavily, said, "I haven't been kissed like that for a long time. I liked it."

Tony did not reply but began kissing her neck and shoulders.

"Wait Tony. Let's go into the bedroom."

Tony picked her up and carried her through the wall.

* * *

Later they returned to the living room. The rest of the day they talked. He told her what living in the early twenty-first century was like. She told him about the present and summarized the history in between. There'd been a limited atomic war in which many major cities had been turned to rubble. Afterwards, new cities were built underground, and a world government was formed. Since then, there's been peace and prosperity the likes of which had never before existed. Hunger, pollution, war, poverty, and most disease were calamities of the past. Space and several planets, moons and asteroids were colonized, supplying raw materials, cheap energy and pollution-free goods to earth.

"Now, most people work only a few hours a week. To keep population down, the laws limit one child per couple, and even then it's difficult to get a permit. I'm a throwback. I'd prefer an exciting era like yours where a person needs to fight simply to stay alive."

Apparently, the greatest social disease of the times was boredom, which led to all sorts of excesses. Even Tony, no babe in the woods, was appalled at the offhand manner which Paula described their decadence.

When Mark arrived home, he treated Tony as an old friend. He acted glad that Paula had found someone interesting. Once when he was alone with Tony, he remarked, "Paula is a restless sort."

* * *

Nights were torture for Tony after Paula and Mark went through the wall to their bedroom. He was feverish with envy, laying on the sofa and tormenting himself with visions of them together. Near dawn he'd finally fall asleep.

One morning when Mark woke him, it was all Tony could do to keep from beating him up. The three of them ate breakfast together. Paula and Mark wanted to show Tony around the city, and the conversation centered on that topic. Although Tony tried to be congenial, when he spoke to Mark, the words came out snappish and sarcastic. To keep himself from making a fool of himself, he didn't say much, only replying to their questions briefly.

They spent the rest of the day driving up and down wide boulevards, site-seeing. The marvels of a city a hundred years in his future should have been a marvelous experience for Tony, but his mind kept working toward jealous rage. He stole glances at Paula that she didn't notice. Whenever they got out of Mark's electric car, he walked as close to her as possible.

That night was like the night before. The next day, they toured some of the gambling houses and lewd shows, which were everywhere in the city. It was like the Strip in Las Vegas.

This went on for a week. Paula and Mark seemed to get a kick out of Tony's reactions to the city's wonders. Although Tony became more and more miserable, he kept it bottled up inside, never letting his true feelings show. What was worse, Paula gave no sign by word or expression that anything had passed between them.

He wondered how long they were going to let him stay. Once he asked, "Is there any way I can get a job? I'll do anything, regardless of how menial."

Mark replied, "Here, there's little work. Menial task are handled by robots and computers. Only highly skilled or artistic people like me are employed. Everybody else gets money from the government." He put an arm around Tony's shoulders. "Don't worry. I make enough to afford six live-in guests like you."

* * *

One morning when Mark was supposed to go to work, Tony was almost cheerful. He figured that while Mark was gone he would get a chance to talk to Paula alone and settle things. To his dismay Mark said that he was not going into work that day. "Me and Paula are going out. Do you want to come along?"

"No, go ahead. I'll amuse myself."

"Speaking of amusing oneself, look at this." He showed Tony a device like the one Paula had shown him back in the twentieth century; the one she had said was a valuable invention. "It's a tiny computer. It can also make itself and things near it invisible." He touched something on the device and it and his hand vanished.

Tony stared at Paula. She just gave Mark a disgusted look and said, "Why are you spending credits on crap?"

"It's not crap. In Tony's time, something like this would be very valuable."

Tony gaped. "You mean that here, that's a toy?"

While Mark showered and dressed, Tony had a few minutes alone with Paula. "Paula, we can't go on this way. I must know your real feelings toward me."

"I know Tony. I've been thinking things over and haven't made up my mind. I like you a lot, but there are other things to consider. You and me couldn't live on what credits the government would dole out to me. You're not registered and are in trouble with this Josen person."

"We could hide from him easy enough. As for money, I'd find a way to get a false identity."

"I'll think it over," she whispered as Mark entered the room.

When they left, Tony pondered his obsession with Paula, but couldn't explain it. It just was. Finally, he gave it up as simply torturing himself and concentrated on the holovision.

Paula and Mark didn't return at noon. By five he was fit to be tied and thought about accidents or arrests. He found their liquor and started drinking. By ten in the evening, he was falling-down drunk. He decided that they'd met friends and were partying. "You'd think they'd call me," he muttered. "Probably forgot all about old Tony. I might as well go to bed."

* * *

For the first time in a while, Tony fell asleep when his head hit the pillow. The next morning Paula and Mark were still not home. He felt ill with concern. He began to have paranoid thoughts. Suppose they had contacted Josen and taken that tiny computer into the past? Mark knew how valuable it would be back in his time. Wouldn't that be the kind of adventure Paula was looking for? They claimed that the scientists of this time were only on the verge of time travel, but they could've been lying to him. Maybe Cala Josen recruited them for the job he was supposed to do. The latter was a distinct possibility. He thought, Josen might've traced me here and found them just as good candidates. That's how they got into the past when I first met Paula.

He waited until noon. When the couple didn't return, he loaded his pistol and left the apartment. After getting lost a few times, he found the building where he'd been Josen's prisoner. Nobody stopped him as he walked down that long corridor. One of the doorways was fuzzed. When he stuck his head in, a voice in back of him said, "Go in there."

He turned. The man who ordered him into the room had a disintegrator-ray gun. "Get in there, I say."

"Where's Cala Josen?"

The man ignored Tony's question and tried to shove him into the room. While the man was slightly off balance, Tony sidestepped, grabbed the man's arm and spun him to the floor. The man fired his weapon and a searing pain swept across Tony's face but failed to stop his momentum. Before the man could fire again, Tony was upon him and smashed the hateful face to a bloody pulp. An awful burning throbbed across Tony's cheek, driving him to such a frenzy his fists kept smashing the man until he was dead.

After the pain subsided a little, Tony peered around the room. It was full of sleek electronic equipment that he figured was the time machine.

Something on the floor caught his eye, a woman's handkerchief with the initials PM on it. He recognized the perfume on it and pressed it to his lips, but the pain reminded him that his face was a scorched mess. Even if he followed her to his own time, she'd be revolted by the sight of him. Recalling that Mark was with her, hate and jealousy flooded his brain. He had a single, all-consuming purpose -- to make Mark's handsome face look like the one on the smashed corpse at his feet.

His wolfish eyes roamed the humming, throbbing time machine. He figured that the hair-dryer thing must fit the head. He strapped the device on his head and looked for a switch to throw. As he ran his hand hastily over the panel, he brushed a calibrated dial. Finally he found a button marked START, which he pressed. Immediately he had an extremely disorienting sensation, as though he was facing at right angles to the usual three dimensions. Panic seized him as objects and people appeared and disappeared at a furious pace and always moving backwards. The rate increased until everything was a blur. When a blinding pain shot through his head, he tried to remove the headpiece, but his arms were lead weights and refused to move. He felt paralyzed. The pain increased until it was as if razor-sharp, red-hot needles were pressing on his nerve ends.

After what seemed like an eternity, the pain lessened and Mark knew he was laying on something hard. He was soaked with sweat, limp and weak and exhausted in a way he had never felt before. His face and head throbbed, a dagger twisted in his skull. A terrible hate filled his mind. Must kill Mark, kill Mark, kill, kill, kept repeating in his brain.

His eyes darted over his surroundings. He knew exactly where he was -- in the underbrush where he'd been attacked. He staggered onto the road, a horrible apparition should any passing motorist catch him in his headlights. He slumped over from weariness and pain, his arms dangling, his fists clenching and unclenching, his face a mass of burnt flesh.

It took him two hours to stumble toward that familiar house. He crept around the side to the French doors. A soft light showed Mark examining the device he had called a novelty. His hand found the disintegrator gun that he took from the man whose face he had smashed in the time machine room. Shielding his eyes, he crashed through the glass doors.

Mark gasped, "Who are you?"

Tony didn't reply. Using the terrible weapon, he burned Mark to ash where he stood.

"You killed him!" Paula screamed.

"Shut up, Paula. I did it because of his and your betrayal. Look what a monster your friends have made of me. The sight of me must nauseate you."

She approached the marred man slowly. "Is it really you? I didn't know. How you must've suffered." Tears formed in her eyes. "But why did you kill Mark? Are you working for Josen?"

The apparition turned away. "I hate having you see me this way."

"What are you going to do now?"

"Run," he said wearily. A moment later he fled out the broken glass door and melted into the night.

He took off into the darkness, back the way he came. He ran and ran, sometimes on the road, sometimes thrashing through the underbrush. He ran as though a demon was after him. But he could not escape because the demon was in his mind, a demon of pain and anguish. Finally he fell exhausted among brambles and slept a nightmarish sleep.

When day broke, he did not move. He couldn't. He was feverish and full of pain. He hardly knew what was reality -- his nightmares or the woods that surrounded him. For hours he lay there, slipping in and out of unconsciousness. Day passed into night and day came again. On the evening of the third day, the fever broke, but he was weak from hunger and thirst, his throat and tongue swollen. He had to have water. He broke leaves off a bush and sucked on them. They were bitter but helped his thirst.

A car went past on the road and stopped. The door slammed. Footsteps came toward him. He staggered toward the road. A man stood peering into the woods. The man called out Paula's name. Tony snarled and leaped on the man, somehow getting the idea that Mark had come to taunt him. He struck the man, who fell. As Tony renewed his attack, he glimpsed the man's face. He couldn't believe what he saw. It was his own face!

In the next split second it all came back to him. It seemed so long ago. He'd been at this exact spot standing where his doppelganger stood when someone unknown had come out of the woods and attacked him. Damn Josen! He's an expert on time travel. He must've set this whole thing up. He probably knew every move I was going to make. I was his target all along.

The glint of cold steel was in his duplicate's hand.

Oh my God, I'm going to die. I ... I'm my own killer.

The top of his head blew off and he had no more thoughts.

 

 

Story © 2003 by Joe Vadalma jvadalma@hvc.rr.com


Illustration © 2003 by Patrick Stacy pld895@aol.com




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