I was at the door when it popped open. “Mr. O’Donald, welcome to what’ll be the greatest experience of your life. I’m your counselor, Sam Carson. I can guarantee you, there’s nothing like Past Amusements on the planet.” He grabbed hold of my hand, and pumped my arm. “Relax, everyone’s a bit nervous the first time, and quite natural, although totally unnecessary.”
Smiling weakly, I tried to push the real reason I was here to the back of my mind. Sam reminded me of an old-fashioned car salesman with his slicked back hair, fancy suit, and flashy smile. Capped teeth he probably spent a fortune on, and the reason he was always smiling.
“Mr. Carson, my last name is Donalds. My first name is John, my middle initial is O, just ‘O’. But, everyone calls me Jack.”
“Apologize, Jack. Must’ve read the name wrong on the monitor. If you’d just call me, Sam. Come on in, and we can get down to business.”
I went in to find a single desk, two chairs, and pair of small tables. Old-fashioned wood paneling covered the walls; the room carpeted, but gray, not very imaginative, desk real wood, as were the chairs, a sign of wealth. I looked around the room, as I headed for one of the chairs. One wall was full of monitors, opposite had shelves floor to ceiling, crammed with books, other two walls covered with artwork from different eras. What stood out as missing were personal items to show Sam actually had a life somewhere.
“Now try to relax, first time into the past is a bit rough, but you’ll get better the more trips you take. Would you care for some coffee or tea, Jack?”
“Coffee, black is fine. I have a few questions?”
“That’s why I’m here, Jack. First, let me make a few small suggestions. You should start out simple, a few hours, no more than four. You also should pick a time you know well. It’d be best if it was from your own past.” He punched something on his keyboard. “Most people can only travel a generation or two off their time line, meaning your extended family. Some can only travel their personal time line. There are others who have no restrictions, but we can’t find out what category you fall under until you actually try traveling these time lines.”
“What can I possibly see in four hours?” I asked, as a young girl came in with my cup of coffee, nametag had ‘Mindy C.’ on it.
“You’d be surprised.” Sam laughed. “You’ll be put in a suspended state and your sub-conscious will be sent back in time. Everything’s controlled by your own mind, meaning where you go and what you see are entirely up to you. At first, you’ll be able to pick one or two time periods to visit, later you’ll be able to visit more. You’ll then relive these periods of time, but you’re not restricted to time as we know it now. The past will replay as fast as your mind will let it, or to phrase it better, your mind controls the rate that time replays. Think of it as a living dream. Keep this in mind on your first trip.”
Sam looked at the monitor on his desk. “I see you’re interested in crime, what type?”
“Unsolved crimes mostly.” There was supposed to be a lie detector involved in the process, and I had to wonder if the device was already in use.
“I see.” Sam leaned back in his chair, fingertips touching he waggled his hands. “Well, there’s a couple of drawbacks with unsolved crimes. Unless you know some exact details you may not be able to relive these events. If you knew the criminal it’d be easy, but it also wouldn’t be an unsolved crime. There are times you can follow the victim until their demise, although that doesn’t always work.” He held up his hands. “I don’t wish to discourage you from using our facilities, but if you’re trying to solve a crime, I have to tell you, anything found in the past is not admissible in a court of law in the present. Not now anyway, perhaps in the near future the laws might be changed.”
It was my turn to wave him off. “No, nothing like that. It’s… well, it’s a mystery that can’t be solved, or I should say hasn’t been solved yet. I’ve nothing to do with any law enforcement agency or court department.”
“Doesn’t matter to us, I just had to make that clear. Didn’t want to sell you something you don’t want, or will be unhappy with. It’s also my job to make sure you get everything you can out of your experiences here.”
“I appreciate that. Is there any interaction between the past and present?”
“Absolutely not.” He bolted upright. “It can’t be done and if it could, it’d be against the law.” He leaned in closer. “Time Security would take a dim view of anyone altering, or trying to alter the past. Your body is out of sync with the past, just as they are out of sync with our present, which would be their future.”
I finished my coffee. He pointed at the cup, and I waved no. I must look like a nervous fool gulping it so fast, or at least I hoped I did. “There’s absolutely no way those in the past can see me?”
“There’s a slight chance, it’s remote at best.” He smoothed his hair and chuckled, one that did not have a hint of sincerity in it. “If you were to stay in one place for a long period you might show up in the past. But, you have to stay there for what would seem like hours and you’d appear as a ghost to someone of the past. There’s no way of talking to someone in the past, so you’d just be a faded image.”
“What about time synchronizers or phase alternators?”
Sam squirmed in his chair a bit. “Those are just myths and rumors. There’s no way to safely stabilize the past. It’d be better if you didn’t talk about things like that, if you don’t want an untimely visit by Time Security, no pun intended.”
“But, if they do not exist what could be the harm?”
Sam glanced at the ceiling corner behind him, where a camera sat. He leaned in closer, then whispered, “Trust me, just be better.”
“If there’s no interaction, what good is all this hocus-pocus?”
“Before the holographic studios, people watched what they called television. Time travel is like watching an old-fashioned play or television, but better. People will go about their lives as if nothing is going on or unaware anybody might be watching.”
“So, we’ve become a voyeuristic and perverted society, spying on our ancestors.” I hoped this would be enough to throw the lie detector off, if it was being used.
“I wouldn’t say that. I’ll admit there are probably a certain amount of people using the past for such purposes, but I’d bet it’s a small percentage. Most are fascinated with history or what we perceive to be history. You’ll be surprised at what actually went on, that historians forgot to include or omitted altogether. The only thing I can say is try it just once. I’d suggest you skip the crime scene on your first trip, they can be gruesome and won’t do much to heighten your experience.”
I was taken to the room next door, and told to put on a hospital gown.
Attendant came in with a compu-board. “Mister Donalds, I’m Jake and will be needing some vitals. Actually to double check what you’ve written down. If you could get on the scales please?” Jake looked like he spent all his off hours in a gym. “The formula has to be mixed to your size and weight among other things. So, you’ll need to keep this info up to date, but since you’re required to have a physical within the last six months of the procedure it isn’t a problem.”
“Which can be done here, right Jake?”
He looked directly at me, and I jumped a bit. Jake was wearing logo-lens, his right eye sported the Cubs and his left the White Sox. “Absolutely. Alright, five-ten, one sixty-five, not bad. At thirty-two, decent muscle tone, could use some work to beef up. But, couldn’t we all. Brown hair, green eyes–”
“What does eye color have to do with this? Much less muscle tone?”
“Sorry Mister Donalds. I’ve a tendency to double-check myself by talking out loud. We keep eye color and such because people have an inclination to try identity theft with us. Trust me, it never works, those biochips you’re about to ingest automatically define you, as you. Every time you come in we’ll know.”
“Then why all this other stuff?”
“Just to double check our double checking. As for muscle tone, the more fit you are, the longer your journeys are, and easier recoup time. Same goes for diet, stay away from red meats and fatty food. If you’re interested, next door is the gym. It’s quite convenient, a one stop for entertainment so to speak, and they have a great discount package. They can put you on a very good regimen to get the most out of your time here.”
“Hm-m, I might do that. If I decide this is for me.”
He laughed, as he punched buttons on a machine that took up a third of the room. “Trust me, you’ll enjoy it immensely. And the more you use it, the better you get at it, allowing you to enjoy it more.”
The machine started making noise, as he instructed, “It’s heavier than it looks, a bit foul tasting and will leave an iron taste in your mouth. But won’t harm you in any way, and you get used to it after two or three times.”
I was given a glass, half full of a thick greenish liquid with metallic flakes swimming about. I stared at it for a bit, then Jake told me to drink it and lay on the table. He had been right, it felt like I was holding a full liter, not half a cup. I figured I’d down it in two big swallows, but the consistency was too thick. It was near as thick as Jell-O, and tasted worse than a health spa’s wheat grass shake. It not only left an iodine taste in your mouth but a warm sensation in your belly that was rapidly growing. Several electrodes were put on my forehead, chest, and arms.
“There’s nothing to worry about, these are just to monitor your vital signs, and the bio-chips you drank. You should be feeling a bit warm, and getting warmer. A natural reaction and you’ll get used to it quickly. Now, I’m going to strap you down for your own safety. Sometimes, a client will try to get up or jump around. It’ll be easier on you if you just relax.”
He must have seen the look on my face, as he tightened the straps. “You’ll also get used to that taste in your mouth. Once you’ve waken up a sip or two of seltzer water takes care of it. I can’t give you anything now, because it’ll dilute the formula and spoil your trip.”
“All right, but this feels a little strange.” My voice sounded thick and as if off in the distance. Besides the taste and warmness, the room was becoming out of focus and swirling about.
“Close your eyes and the dizziness will pass.” He laughed. “Don’t worry it’s completely safe, we haven’t lost a client yet. If there should be a problem we’ll wake you from this end. Your time is set at three hours, you’ll be awaken from your past memories if you haven’t returned by then. Is that understood? Any questions?”
“I understand. Will I be given a shot to wake up, and do I have a choice on what years I’m going to visit?”
“No, the amount of formula drank determines how long you sleep. Yes, the years are your choice. Everything is automatic on this end to get you into the flux state.” His voice was getting thick, and starting to echo in my head. “Where you go from there is up to you. It should be taking full effect any moment now, just relax and don’t fight it. Start thinking of where you want to go, and it’ll come into view shortly. Happy time-traveling.”
His voice trailed off, as a door slammed shut and out of reflex I opened my eyes. The room was completely out of focus, my stomach on fire, and tips of my fingers and toes tingling, then everything went dark.
I became aware of my surroundings and found myself swimming in a light gray void. My hands and feet were now free and the burning gone, but nasty taste was still there. Took Sam’s advice and I thought about the vacation I took with my parents a year before they died. I was eight and we traveled by car throughout the northwest.
The trip was not near as grand as I remembered it being, fishing was more boring and camping dirtier. But, it was a very pleasant experience, I was happy to see and hear my parents again. The act of watching a younger me, and the memories flashing back to what I was going to do, or thinking about was a little strange.
I don’t know how it was done, but I could smell the campfire and cocoa cooking near the flames. Not to mention the marshmallows I kept burning nightly, getting the stick too close to the flames. Redwoods were not as large as I remembered, still the big trees were impressive and I had never been back since that trip. I wasn’t sure how this really worked, knowing I wasn’t really there I thought they should take on proportions my mind would adjust from my childhood.
None of the facts mattered, I just enjoyed the time I had with my parents that I saved and worked so hard for. I relived the entire three-week vacation before I was brought back to my real time.
The lights were back on quickly, then the room came back into focus. “Just relax, it takes a few minutes before your orientation is back,” a voice different from the first said.
I lay there for a while remembering what I had just seen.
“How was your first trip to the past, Mister Donalds?”
I looked around the room, and saw this attendant was definitely different. I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. He chuckled, and put a straw to my lips. “Takes most a few times before their body gets used to the formula. Drink this down, and you’ll get your voice back in no time. You’ll have a bad case of cottonmouth for a time. Best thing for that is water, alcohol just drags it out longer.”
I did as instructed. “It was a unique experience. How long was I there?”
“You were never there.” The attendant laughed. “You’ve been out just a little over three hours. The more you use the process the better you’ll get at it.”
“It was like I’ve been gone at least three weeks, and everything was so real,” I said sitting after freed from my ties.
The attendant grinned. “That’s pretty good Mr. Donalds, most are lucky to get a week out of their first trip. Must’ve been something very familiar, or maybe you’re just a natural time surfer.”
“A time surfer?”
“Yeah, it’s what we call people who are good at this. If you’d change into your clothes, and see Mr. Carson for a few minutes before leaving. Thank you, I hope you enjoyed Past Amusements, by the way my name’s George, and I hope you’ll be back soon.”
“I did and will. Thank you George.” After changing and drinking a large glass of water I went back to Sam’s office. His door was open, and he waved me in as he talked on the phone.
He was off the phone by the time I sat down. “Well, what did you think of your first little time traveling adventure?”
“Interesting, do you have any idea how long I think I was gone?”
“No, sorry. We don’t regulate your actual experiences, most would feel like that was an invasion of their dreams.”
“Yeah, I can see that. So, when can I go on another?”
“I knew it.” Sam laughed. “No nausea, or side effects at all?”
“None that I could tell, there was a moment or two of feeling disoriented but it wasn’t much. I still have a touch of cottonmouth, but the metallic taste is gone. Are there a lot of people who have bad side effects?”
“No, nothing like that. But nearly half will experience a bit of motion sickness their first time. If you’d fill out this questionnaire you’ll get ten percent off your next hundred hours.” He handed me a compu-board then looking at the monitor. “To answer your other question let me see. If you want you could log in two more hours tomorrow, or any time in the next three days.”
Christ, this was the fourth time I had to fill something out. But, I needed every discount I could get. “Only two hours, but I thought I could stay in four hours today?”
“Yes, you could’ve, but it seems you did not need that much time. I must say that’s very impressive. You see Jack, this is how it works. You can spend five hours in the past during the first week and increase that time by ten percent each successive week, till the max of twenty hours. And no more than ten hours at a time.”
“So, there is a limit?”
“Yes, we found out early prolonged exposure to the past makes people not want to come back. But, these people were usually historians or people with deep-seated mental problems that surfaced. I don’t think you fall in either of those categories. We’ve kept the limits so everyone gets a chance to enjoy the past,” Sam answered with a sly smile, like this was a big secret. With as many Past Amusement ads I saw on a daily basis they had to have a bigger advertising budget than a political campaign.
“Fine, I work the four to twelve shift Tuesday thru Friday. I want to set up a time for tomorrow morning, and a regular weekly program. Also Jake told me about the gym, and a discount package. Might as well make use of all the facilities.”
“Good, I think we can handle that. Let’s see,” he looked at the monitor, “how about ten-thirty in the morning? I can get you in at the gym at nine for orientation if you want?”
“That would be great.”
“Okay, let’s get down to the business of saving you money. First off, an hour trip costs six hundred dollars, a two-hour trip a thousand dollars, and a three-hour trip is twelve hundred. This is your best deal to–”
“What about longer periods?”
“Due to the cost of formula and need for more personal monitoring the costs begin to rise. At four hours it will be two thousand dollars–”
“Sam, I’m not concerned with finances.”
“That’s good, but I still have to give you my spiel.”
I drank a second bottle of seltzer water as he droned on. I had gone through two receptionists, wandered about in this big-ass sterile building, and answered two hundred questions, when would it end.
“So, what do you think, Jack?”
“Ah, what was the best hourly rate?”
“The introductory training period, thirteen weeks long and total of one hundred-twenty hours, which we sell at a flat hundred hours. Two hundred-eighty dollars an hour, and your gym membership is included.”
“That’s the one for me. I’m not worried about money, but I’m not stupid either.”
“Good choice. Now,” chuckling Sam held up his hands, “I have to tell you Jack, you pay that fee for the first thirteen weeks whether you use them or not. I mean there’s no credit for unused hours after the thirteenth week.”
“Understood, I suppose there’s a contract or something to sign?”
“Of course, I’ll fill it out while you complete the questionnaire. This offer also gives you unlimited access to our library data banks, and an hour a week counselor time. We value your business and wish to keep you as a customer for a long time, Jack.”
We filled out all the necessary screens, and I signed them electronically before leaving his office. A very fit young black woman was waiting for me in the hall. “I’m Cinji, would you care for a tour of the gym, Mr. Donalds?”
I was so glad she wasn’t here to kick my ass, because I’m sure she could’ve done it with ease. “Of course, but I go by Jack.”
The gym was something I could use, but I’m not sure about their diet plan and those drinks. I thought wheat grass, or the formula, was the worse you could conjure up. The names and ingredients on their menu said I was wrong. For the introductory offer I tried the triple berry surprise. I think the only surprise would have been that I actually found a berry.
Still the people were nice, and they had the latest equipment. Once we were through Cinji, introduced me to a young girl named Didi, who set me up for exercises an hour before my lab appointments, mostly cardio workouts, after a good warm-up. Following the sessions Max set me up for cool down periods, all coordinated through the Past Amusement mainframe. What could be more convenient?
Once home I pulled up all the documents and re-read them, memorizing every word for my morning trip.
* * *
Made sure I flirted with every young lady I dealt with, and workout wasn’t bad, but formula was just as nasty. The blackness engulfed me, and when the colors returned I was looking at myself, pacing in front of the large, plain, light gray, plasti-crete building with an address on it in huge red block numbers, but no sign. It matched the advertisement in my hand, and I finally entered.
“Good afternoon, welcome to Past Amusements Incorporated, my name is Janice. Is this your first time, Sir?” A woman of no more than twenty-one requested with a polite smile, for what I needed to do I was standing behind her.
The old me tried to smile, and I had no idea I was such a good actor. “John O. Donalds, yes, it is. Does it show that bad?”
“A little, but there’s nothing to worry about.” She giggled, handing me a compu-board. “I guarantee you’ll want to get a monthly package after your first trip. I need you to fill out this questionnaire, Mr. Donalds.”
While I watched her screen the old me took a seat, and filled out all the information. He left off whom to contact in case of accident and next of kin, because there was nobody. He double checked it, then returned the compu-board to Janice.
She plugged it into the mainframe, and within seconds my entire life was on the monitor. Janice highlighted my lack of family, and punched in thorough check. She scrolled through several screens, dealing with my job and residence, nothing on the law or Time Security. Screen blinked off, then returned to my original questionnaire. “Everything checks out Mr. Donalds. This card will be your key to a new world. If you would go through door ‘B’ and down the corridor to the double doors marked ‘7’. Go through those doors to desk ‘B7-3C’, they’ll help you through your next stage. Thank you for letting us be of service, Mr. Donalds.”
He took the small printout card, the slight hand tremble was a nice touch. “You’re welcome, Janice.”
She smiled. “Mr. Donalds, trust me there’s nothing to worry about. I spend at least six hours a week here in personal time.”
Returning her smile and nodding he walked towards door ‘B’. She wouldn’t be so pleasant if she knew what I was doing, I thought to myself while the old me used the card key and passed through door ‘B’. I stayed to see if anything popped up on Janice’s screen, in case he was going through sensors.
Behind the door was a long corridor with doors on both sides every thirty feet, and I knew where he was headed, the second door on the right marked ‘7,’ which led to another corridor. This one wider with no doors. I recall thinking as expensive as this was they could hire an interior decorator and spruce up the place. Dull off-yellow paint adorned the plasti-crete walls, white linoleum flooring and gray metal desks. Even hospitals had more color to them, and it gave me the impression this building was more sterile than a hospital.
Final destination for the old me were alcoves with desks in them, metal, but fake wood with cushy chairs. Blinking I was behind the third desk on the left when he finally showed, looking lost. The old me handed the attendant my/our card key. ‘Mindy G.’ had been written on her nametag. She looked to be in her mid-forties, all dressed in white, she had reminded me of a nurse. By the looks of her screen, that’s what she was, and there must’ve been sensors somewhere, because my vital signs were on screen.
She glanced at his card key. “Good afternoon, Mr. Donalds, see this is your first time. We have another questionnaire for you to fill out. It is to help our councilors guide you along the journey you will soon be taking. It helps a lot if you are specific about what you wish to get out of Past Amusements.” Her English more precise, and I took it that fact was from a more extensive education. Remember it feeling reassuring this job wasn’t at the bottom rung of career opportunities.
“To be truthful,” he cleared his throat, “I’m not entirely sure what I expect out of this.” Heartbeat picked up a bit, and Mindy made a note of it. Knew there was a lie detector or two, but looked like they had the whole place wired.
She handed him the compu-board. “No need to worry Mr. Donalds, that is also part of the councilor’s job. Just give him some guidelines on where to start. The questions are quite self-explaining, and there is no right or wrong answer.”
He went over to the opposite wall and sat in the nearest chair to fill out the questionnaire. Without even looking at the compu-board Mindy plugged it into the mainframe. Thought it odd yesterday, but compu-board was already connected, and she had monitored my answers on the pysch-test and time delays, if any. “Your councilor is going to be Samuel Carson. He is in room ‘C5’, third door on the right. Thank you for coming to Past Amusements, Mr. Donalds. You may go down there any time you are ready.”
“Thank you, Mindy,” he responded before walking down the hall. I stood there and watched her punch in ‘cleared.’
I was behind the desk, when they went through their introduction. Sam was running through my screens as he talked, and again I had vital signs running across the top of the screen. “I see you’re interested in crime, what type?”
“Unsolved crimes mostly.” I watched the screen intently as they carried on their conversation, and saw no major spikes.
“What about time synchronizers or phase alternators?” Again there was no hint of anything more than curiosity, and after our talk Sam marked everything as ‘cleared.’
Old me headed off to change while I stuck around with Sam. “Mindy, run a thorough financial on Jack, and a law enforcement check.”
“You think he might be undercover?”
“No,” he waved her off, “just want to make sure is all. Check to see if he hit on the girls, or–”
“Tell you right now, no.” Mindy shook her head. “He’s too nervous.”
“Ah, like the police were after him nervous?”
“No, no way. You want me to get Mindy G. on the line?”
“Yeah.” His monitor flickered and Mindy the nurse was on. “Hey Mindy, Jack was just there, what’s your take, criminal-minded?”
“Unh-unh,” she snorted, “he does not have it in his profile, but he’s heard of our early failures, and knows it’s more than we reported. He also knows some are not suited for the formula, so I would attribute those little hic-cups to that.”
“Alright, that’s your department, thanks Mindy.” Sam tapped his lower lip. “Oh Mindy C., have Jake run his DNA, lets play it safe and make sure his record is clear. Hell, we don’t need any blowback like Dietz again.”
Christ, Dietz was a child molester, and nothing was reported on him being involved with Past Amusements, I wasn’t going to be able to do this with them on my ass. He went through my screens again, and I could not see any red flags, then he highlighted my social life, or lack thereof. Wasn’t like I did not like the ladies, but I had to save every penny just to get this far.
I blinked and was with Jake as he finished strapping the old me down. Stuck around til he finished running all his tests, and found out what I knew, my record was spotless. Was back in Sam’s office before the old me returned. We went through this conversation without Sam putting any more markers on my screens.
The old me left and Mindy came in. “You want me to red tag his file for Time Security?”
“No,” Sam scrolled down my financial screen, “lets go with Mindy’s assessment.”
Once I came to I stopped into see Sam. “About this library do I need to sign anything.”
“No, just use your Past Amusement card.” Sam gave me a big smile. “Um-m, I take it any fears of our facility has been quelled?”
“Oh, yes,” I chuckled, “definitely. I’m recommending to Julie, my fiancée to get right down here and sign up for a package.”
“Um-m,” Sam frowned, “your personal file said no significant other.”
“Oh,” I waggled my hand, “which is true, I haven’t formally asked, but we’ve talked about it, and are working on a date for a formal announcement, until then I’m just single.”
“Yes, well congratulations.” Sam took out an old-fashioned business card, handing it to me. “When she’s ready have Julie see me, I’ll set her up with a fine plan.”
“Thanks, for both, I’ll certainly do that.”
* * *
On my third trip I was able to visit three separate places. It was easy, at first I found myself watching the Watergate break-in. I found it extremely boring and shut my eyes thinking the lost minutes on the tapes would be more interesting. I was wrong, and shut my eyes after listening to half of the missing minutes thinking, maybe I could catch Clinton in some of his compromising positions. There was nothing to see, and except for a number of assassinations it was the only time I looked into politics. I was excited about my progress when I woke up in the lab, but a bit disappointed in the whole experience.
During my training period I saw the Alamo fall, treaties signed, Pearl Harbor bombed, and Mount Saint Helens erupt. I also saw the unbearable conditions of Valley Forge during the revolutionary war, the mass confusion of the first battle of Bull Run, and the horrors of bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
I was on the grassy knoll, and even sat in on the closed sessions of the Warren commission, but still couldn’t make any sense of the cover up. I witnessed the signing of the Declaration of Independence, the Statue of Liberty and Liberty Bell inaugurated. I saw the inventions of Franklin, Bell, Tesla, Edison, and Einstein being born.
After the thirteen weeks were over I once again found myself in Sam’s office. I had made every appointment and spent all my lab time in my introductory offer, along with a fair amount of time in the gym and library. Trimmed off ten pounds and took two percentage points off my body fat, making Didi and Max proud of their new fitness disciple. Still, I wasn’t sold on those nasty drinks. As for the library I kept the subjects varied enough to not alert Time Security.
“Well Jack,” Sam pumped my hand, “I have to admit you’re the only person I know of who used all their time and then some.”
“Yeah, was thinking I should buy stock in this place, or get a job here.” I laughed. “Just stopped by to get squared away with another block of time.”
“No problem, any complaints?” He asked punching something in the computer. “Ah, Julie is she still on the fence?”
“Ah, no complaints from me. Julie’s job has her hopping, and is not quite convinced two hours down here is like a two-week vacation. Swear, my little trips have given me a tremendous boost job-wise, and let me keep my sanity.” I winked. “But, I’m working on her, and you’ll be the first to know.”
“Good, that’s great, and you’re so right about saving your job sanity. Now, how about any suggestions to make your trips better?”
“Well,” turning from the camera I half-whispered, “wish there were a way to be a bit more interactive with the past, is there?”
“Perhaps,” Sam smiled, “in time. Well, I see you’ve been busy learning the ins and outs. Good, you haven’t bogged down in one era or a specific type. Here we go, another hundred hours all set up, it’ll just take your signature.”
I signed the screen, then got up to leave. Sam walked me to the door. “Stop by the Pink Elephant on twenty-eighth at seven-thirty sharp. Order a Vinny’s Special Mystery,” he whispered. He added louder, “As always Jack, it’s been a pleasure. I’m glad to see you enjoying our services. I’ll get you personal information about our stock e-mailed to you. You might check out one, or all of our ten web sites if you haven’t already.”
“Thanks Sam, I look forward to everything you have to offer.”
I was at the hole-in-the-wall bar at seven. It reeked of cigarette smoke, a practice that had been outlawed for years, and stale beer. It was overly-dark and floor sticky enough I almost turned and left, afraid of sitting in the place. But reason won out, you couldn’t do shady business in the Ritz.
After my eyes became accustom to the dark I headed for the bar, located on the back wall. Bartender was a fat fellow wearing a stained t-shirt and dangling a lit cigarette from his lips. I ordered the Vinny’s Special Mystery, which was something called a ‘Bruised Elephant.’ As I expected it came with a healthy price tag, fifty dollars to be exact, and I skipped the gratuity. Hefted up the big-ass glass, and I went to a corner booth to sit and wait.
It was supposed to have five different liquors in it, and a secret ingredient, which I think was turpentine. They could have been served in shot glasses instead of buckets, and I don’t think anyone could finish more than one. This wild concoction made the formula taste good, and left an even worse aftertaste. The barmaid came by, and I ordered a beer.
Sam came through the door at a quarter till eight, and went straight to the bar. He left, heading for the bathroom, without ordering a drink. After a few minutes without him coming out I went in.
“Jesus, took you long enough,” he whined when I walked in.
“Sorry, I didn’t know you wanted me to follow.”
“Hold on, not another word,” he ordered pulling out a small device. He punched in something, then fiddled with a few dials. “Alright, it should be cool to talk now.”
I pointed at the palm-sized gadget. “What is that?”
“I’m not sure. It supposedly scrambles the electromagnetic field, or something like that, to distort the time frame.”
“It keeps somebody from spying on us from the future doesn’t it?”
“Yeah, something like that. Here are some directions, follow them to the letter. If you slip up don’t bother coming to see me, because I don’t know anything else. No more questions, you got it?”
“Thanks Sam.” I went back, finished my beer leaving the near full pink and purple ‘Bruised Elephant’ with a dollar on the table. I followed the directions, which led to another set of directions, which in turn to more directions. Finally, after two hours of winding around the city I met a man outside a seedy looking strip club.
“You the man on the treasure hunt?”
“Yes,” I nodded, “I am.”
“Across the street 212, upstairs second door on the left. Knock three times, and tell him Maury sent you. That’ll be a ten-spot.” He smiled with hand out.
I gave him ten dollars, then headed across the street to a building that was definitely not the Ritz. With only a handful of flickering lights in the four-story building I had to wonder if it had been condemned, and they were prepping it for demolition. Had enough boarded up windows the place might be halfway through the demo end of the process.
Being as there was no desk clerk, or he was laying dead behind the counter, and sign denoting ‘elevator out,’ I used the trash strewn stairs, hoping 212 was on the second floor. Found the numbers on the sixth door to my left, down the darkened hallway. It was a steel door, while the others had been wood, an ominous beginning for my hopeful transaction.
I knocked three times, and someone with a deep voice boomed, ‘Who is it?’
“Jack Donalds, Maury sent me.”
The door swung open, and I walked into the dimly lit room. It was a big room, and not any hotel room either, maybe three or four of them a long time ago. Fifteen feet in front of me sat a number of people at a table, all shrouded in blackness. One was smoking a cigarette, another a cigar, and there was at least one between them.
“Have a seat Jack,” a voice out of the shadows said, as the door shut with a loud bang. He was to the right of the cigarette smoker, making it at least four at that table. Sounded like an Italian accent, and my mind automatically conjured up organized crime.
I turned around to see two very large men now blocking the door from my view. One would have been more than enough to take me. I sat down in the only chair I could find in the room. It was directly under the sole light.
“We’ll need a retina scan and fingerprints, if you don’t mind?” Someone else said from the shadows. This one had a Russian accent, or so I thought, which definitely led me to thinking organized crime. I resisted the urge to wipe away the sweat starting to bead on my upper lip.
“Of course not. I mean, I don’t mind,” I replied, as a man came out of the shadows and scanned my eye then my hand. He came from the right corner of the room, nowhere near the table. This was starting to feel like a bad idea, possibly one that might end with a permanent solution, to their problem, not mine.
“What can we do for you?” The voice asked.
“I wish to buy a time stabilizer.”
I sat there thinking a bit. “I wish to participate more in a few of the unsolved crimes of the past.”
“We know you weren’t followed and aren’t wired. You’re the manager of a large warehouse with no apparent affiliations with any police or court system. Single, with no immediate family. You’ve shown no other apparent interest in the subjects you took in school, or the majority of subjects you read in the library at Past Amusements. You spend all your time in the gym and on the table.”
I causally looked around the room, but still couldn’t make out anything but rough shapes in the shadows. “It seems to me you’re well informed. But, I believe what I do with the time stabilizer is my business.”
“You’re wrong there. Everything you do with the time device will affect us one way or another. This last question you’ll answer truthfully, or we’re through. Do you plan on using this time stabilizer for sport or profit?”
I shook my head. “I don’t understand.”
“There are only two things to do when you’re back in the past. If you change the time line, Time Security will be on you immediately. The other is committing a perfect crime, of passion or just murder, and getting away with it. Unless you plan on a few robberies, but I don’t think you’ve thought that out.”
“Oh really,” I snorted, “do you mean the inability to bring an object back to the present? Or the fact, if you hid something in the past it would be there in the present? Assuming, no one found it before you that is.”
“Very commendable, Jack. So, you’re not just another wacko pervert who wants to get their kicks out of a little rape or murder without getting caught.” The man who took my retina scan came back into view. He whispered something I couldn’t hear to the man I think had been doing all the talking.
“Well Jack, seems you check out, that’s good for you. So, what is it you want exactly?”
“What do you mean? I’m not sure I understand.”
“Do you want a time stabilizer, or time alternator?”
“What’s the difference?”
“Well, the stabilizer will keep you in that time line for as long as you’re in the lab. The alternator will let you slip in and out of said time line. I’d suggest the alternator, you won’t be stuck anywhere for a long period of time, and if need be you can get out of trouble fast.”
“That sounds fine. I’ll take the time alternator. How much is it?”
“That’s the beauty of it,” the voice chuckled, “it’ll cost nothing at all. Give him the papers.”
A man brought me over a large envelope containing at least a handful of papers.
“Those papers describe it all. There’s a job I want you to perform for me the next trip you take. It’s all detailed out in the envelope in your hands. Once you open it you got an hour to study them before they disappear, and they can’t be copied, in fact you should put them in the sink so there’s no accident.” This got some chuckles from the shadows. “We don’t need evidence floating around, any type of evidence. I must stress this point, if my merchandise isn’t where it’s supposed to be, when you leave the building after your next trip I guarantee you won’t make it home. Understand?”
“Perfectly, but why doesn’t one of your men do the job?”
“My men can’t get into the building without being watched the entire time. So, there’s no way we can get even a toothpick smuggled in, much less a stabilizer. All you have to do is follow those directions and don’t bother with the paper money. It’s useless in this time frame.”
“I’ll do what you have asked, but I won’t kill anyone.”
“That’s good Jack.” The man laughed. “We don’t want to disturb the time line, now do we? We got no more desire to see those prick time cops than you. I suppose we could go dig the goods up now if you’ve done what you say you’re going to do, but that’s some sort of paradox. Don’t you find it humorous the gems won’t be there until Friday morning, but after Friday they’ll have always been there. So, you have until Saturday, Jack.”
“Is this the only thing I have to do for you?”
“Not hardly,” the man laughed again, “you’ve three wishes to grant me. Just think of me as some kind of reverse genie. After you’ve granted me my wishes, your dreams will come true.”
“And when are these other two specific favors due?”
“Let’s get through the first with no problems, even minor ones, before you find out about the others. Give him the device.”
A man came out of the shadows and handed me a small box.
“It’s quite simple, click and the time force, or whatever, stabilizes, click it a second time and it reverts to the original setting. It takes five seconds the first time you use it on each trip, then doubles each successive time you use it. So, don’t get yourself in a bind that you can’t get out of. You make a minor mistake you might get away with it, you make a major mistake and Time Security will be all over you. Remember, if they get even the slightest of trails, they can track you with no problem. If you lead them back here you’ll have never got past Maury today, alive anyway. Get my drift?”
“Yeah, don’t worry about my end. I’ll take care of it.”
“Good, then we should get along fine. Oh, by the way, in case you do decide to use this for unnatural acts on women or people, make sure you’ve done your research. If I were you I’d stick with wars and major catastrophes. If you should bring Time Security in on your little activities the same deal with Maury applies. Got that?” The voice’s body raised one of his hands, and I heard the door open behind me.
At the door I turned back. “Fine, how will I know when you want me to do another job?”
“You’ll receive a card from your uncle Vinny, follow the directions. Well Jack, it has been a pleasure doing business with you, but I’d suggest you don’t tell your friends.” He and at least five others were laughing as I walked out.
It took a moment or two for my eyes to adjust to the light in the hall. Why all the bulbs were lit now I have no idea, and didn’t stop to investigate. I put the box in my pocket, and went straight home.
I took a quick peek in the box as soon as I got in my house. The device was flesh colored, about two inches in diameter, a quarter inch thick, and had a single push button on top of it.
The papers gave the floor plan of a large jewelry store in San Francisco, circa 1906, the year of the great earthquake. The information gave me addresses, as well as exact times the first of the major quakes would hit.
I studied the plans, jotting down the key points to review several times during the week. An hour later the writing vanished, and the papers were in the sink when they burst into flame. Besides my regular trips to the past I studied the key points, until I felt confident I had it down pat, forward and backward. Well, as confident as can be expected, knowing who I was dealing with. I’d never even started this if I knew it was going to put me between Time Security and the mob. Screw this up and one way or another it would be the last thing I’d ever have to worry about.
* * *
On my trip down to Past Amusements I turned off my auto-guide, and took an extra turn or two here and there, watching for a tail. Call it paranoid, but I was going to play it safe and smart. Pulled into the parking lot, bypassing a handful of empty spaces and parked quite a bit farther away then need be.
Switching the little gizmo from hand to hand there I stood outside the large, plain, light gray, plasti-crete building, which had an address on it in huge red block numbers, but no sign. There was a ring on the device where I could slip it over a finger, and with the sticky back it’d stick to my palm, if I could get it to quit sweating.
Kept on wiping off my right hand, then thought what if I had to shake someone’s hand. Christ, I needed to piss, and I had no idea I’d need industrial strength deodorant for the job. Had canceled my gym session, so I just had to go straight in, and Jake would be waiting.
Tried to slip the ring on the index finger of my left hand, but it wasn’t fitting right. So, I gave my ring finger a try, which fit better, except I couldn’t easily trigger it with my left thumb. I worked my right thumb a bit, and there was no way I could trigger it easily in my right either. Flipped it around, and the device was far easier to trigger, but also much easier to spot.
My hands were going to be strapped down, so two-handed was out of the question, and I was trying to remember if I made a fist when Jake strapped my arms down. A handful of people had passed, none giving me a second glance, but I had to make a decision.
Finally I turned the gizmo around, reasoning I wouldn’t need to activate it in a hurry. Took off the plastic backing stuck it on my hand, giving it a decent shake before checking on it. I was ready, or at least I hoped I was.
-to be continued-