Marduk frowned. He should have killed the stranger. One quick arrow shot would have done it. Instead he had been foolish enough to see the stranger, not as an enemy, but as a puzzle. In this wilderness puzzles were best studied dead. Why, Marduk asked himself, would a stranger walk alone in these hills. When they had first spotted him, an archer had notched an arrow and raised his bow. The man had raised a hand to show that he was unarmed. Marduk had signaled to the archer to lower his bow. Better to have let him shoot.
He had spared the stranger for two reasons. A man walking alone in these hills could be mad. Bad luck to kill a mad man. The other reason caused Marduk to stroke his beard. Not only madmen walked alone. Strange prophets of stranger gods lived among these hills. This far from home, why take unnecessary chances? Besides as he was coming from the south he might have news of Sharrumkin. So Marduk had spared him.
He looked back at the column straggling behind him. Soldiers and slaves alike were tired. His men’s minds were on neither slaves nor on the hills but on the water and food that waited for them at the main camp. A bad sign. A day’s march from Sharrumkin, what could be a better place for an ambush than this pass through the mountains. At first look the slaves hardly seemed worth the trouble. The women and children stumbled through the dust. Covered with dust, bare skin darkened by the sun they seemed next to worthless. One had to imagine them rested and fattened, oiled and cleaned. Only then could one imagine their true value.
As the stranger approached Marduk narrowed his eyes. He knew something was wrong. The man seemed too . . . clean. How could a man walk the desert without being stained by it?
The man once more raised his hand in greeting. His other hand clutched a staff of cedar wood. He spoke. His voice sounded strange but the words were clearly Sumerian.
“You are Marduk, friend of Sharrumkin?”
Marduk placed a hand on his sword hilt. “I am.”
“He sends you his greetings and bids you to make haste.”
“You know Sharrumkin?”
“Who does not?”
Strange. The man carried himself with the bearing of an elder. Yet his beard was that of a young man. “What is your name, stranger?”
“To my friends I am known as Tiamet. I have come from the land of the great river when I have learned the skill of healing. Perhaps there are those who are in need of my skill?”
He pointed his staff at the clump of captives.
“Perhaps.” His being an asu, a healer, could explain why he dared travel alone. Only the stupidest of fools would harm a healer. That did not explain the man’s cleanliness. He considered asking but hesitated. The people of the great river far to the southeast beyond the desert were known both as healers and as magicians. Such men were both useful and dangerous. Marduk the soldier smelt an enemy. Marduk the merchant considered the condition of his merchandise. “We have need of a healer. Soon we shall rest. You may then have a chance to use your skill.”
Marna and Napthali were close to the end of the column. Their arms were no longer bound. Marduk had reasoned that they had no place to run to. For most of the journey since Marna had carried her daughter resting the girl’s head against her shoulder. When the order came to halt Marna sank to her knees and settled the child onto the ground. She curled up beside her, ignoring the guard tapping her leg with the blade of his spear.
“Never make it, that one,” he said to his companion.
The other gulped down water from out of a goatskin flask. “She’ll get as far as the main camp. After that it’s not our problem.”
The soldier handed the flask to his comrade, settled his back against a rock and closed his eyes. The first soldier took a deep swallow and watched the stranger move along the column examining the slaves. Smart man, Marduk, the soldier thought. The better the condition of the slaves the more pleased Sharrumkin would be. He was placing the wooden plug back on the flask when he looked at the slave woman and her daughter. Shrugging he dropped the flask in front of the pair. He nudged the woman awake. She looked up at him with large brown eyes. He pointed at the flask and sat down beside his friend. Marna pulled out the stopper. She wet a hand and wiped Napthtali’s face. The girl stirred at the dampness. Napthali placed the mouth of the flask next to her lips. As her daughter drank she sang to her a tired shadow of a song.
Tomorrow or the day after, some day soon, the savages would take her daughter. Marna would then die. Having lost a husband and two sons, death would seem kind. She did not notice the stranger approach or kneel down beside her. What was one more barbarian?
The man spoke in her tongue. “How are you, mother?”
She did not look away from her daughter until she felt the cool touch of soft leather around her neck. Something even colder and heavier weighed down upon her neck. She looked at a pendant. The small ochre stained firestone seemed to resemble the one her Baram had given to their son Tezah. She looked closer. No it did not seem. She knew the work. This had been the one. Marna stared up the man to see Baram’s eyes shining through his bearded face. She opened her mouth to speak. He leaned forward and kissed her. The air shimmered.
The soldier opened an eye to find the slaves gone. Thinking that they had gone off to relieve themselves he rose. He glanced towards a low copse of bushes that fringed the base of a hill. Why would they go over there? They had never been so delicate before. When they emerged he would give the woman a kick just to remind her to stay in sight. Stupid savages. He waited. No one emerged. Cursing he strode towards the bushes. They were not there. The man was too experienced a slave catcher to panic. He looked own at the ground searching for footprints. He saw none. He retraced his steps looking for prints, cursing at his comrade. The other soldier stumbled to his feet. The noise attracted more soldiers. Even the slaves looked up from their despair. Finally Marduk himself appeared.
His first reaction was to strike the man for his carelessness. He then ordered a search through the surrounding hills. Two things hampered the search; the fear that robbers might be lurking in the hills and the inexplicable fact that the two escaped slaves had left no footprints. The stranger who had disappeared with the two slaves added to the uncertainty of the search. He might have been a spy for the robbers. Bad as that was a far worse fear ate at the courage of Marduk’s men. One soldier remembered a strange smell about the man. A demon they thought, that feasted on human flesh. Better to lose the slaves than to find that.
The fear of a demon did not dominate Marduk’s thoughts. His fear stemmed from a more human source, Sharrumkin. The loss of two slaves in itself was not a serious matter. One had to expect a few losses on the road back to Akkad. What Sharrumkim would not find acceptable was how they were lost. Questions would be raised concerning Marduk’s capabilities. Tales of a demon stealing away his property would make little impression upon his hawk-nosed face. But why should he know? The only knowledge he would have of the number of slaves would that told to him by Marduk. One risk still remained. Suppose the soldiers talked? Surely Sharrumkin would believe his friend over idle tavern gossip? When one considered how odd the story of a demon stealing away slaves would sound, surely Sharrumkin would not believe such drunken nonsense. Perhaps not but he would begin to wonder.
Marduk called his men into a group out of hearing of the slaves. “Anyone who speaks of this, I will have flayed.”
The city slept. Above the plain that surrounded it the afternoon air shimmered in the heat. The wanderer paused to look at the city wall. He felt disappointed. For years he imagined this moment. Now that he was here it all seemed so ordinary. To his left he could hear singing. In the heat of the afternoon a farmer and his wife, both dressed only in loincloths, bent over their crop of barley. They sang as they cut the grain with their flint sickles. They sang in praise of the goddess of the barley beer, Ninkasa.
Borne of the flowing water
Tenderly cared for by the Ninhursag
Tiamet sat under the shade of a tamarind tree and watched as the pair worked. He remembered another crop that had once grown in a long dead village.. Their bodies, darkened by the sun, glistened with perspiration as the two worked. He envied them their near-nudity. He himself was dressed in the long woolen robes of the desert wanderer. From beneath his woolen cloak Tiamet pulled out a small leather bag. He pulled out a small round barley loaf, bippar, Sumerian bread, flavoured with date baked twice to give it a cracker-like hardness.. As he chewed Tiamat watched the workers and thought of the road that had brought him to Kish.. Hidden beneath his robes was a small plastic dart gun, a copy of the one that Gehlen still owned. The elders had banned possession of weapons but they could not banish knowledge of the weapons. He had had each piece individually crafted and he had assembled them himself. The gun carried only one dart but tipped with belladonna, one would be enough.
He had been eleven when Gehlen came for him. He had been at class studying Algebra when he first saw the man standing at the classroom door. Miss Edison had not been happy at having her class interrupted. She had stepped outside and spoken with the men. She had returned looking somewhat nervous. She had called out Richard’s name. She had taken him out to the hall and had left him with the man. His dark weathered face had looked down at him. The man told him to follow.
The inspector led Richard to the staff room. The man sat. After a moment he spoke. “What do you remember of your mother?”
Puzzled and confused Richard looked down at the floor. There were some things he had learned not to speak of. The man spoke him in a voice quiet and cold.. He dropped a badge onto the table beside him. “Inspector Gehlen of Internal Security.” the man relaxed. “Don’t worry, Richard. I don’t arrest children. I’m just looking for some information. “His face hardened again. “Now, who was Shahat?”
The child’s puzzlement deepened.
They had tried so hard to get him to forget. Even after all the years of drugs and psychological techniques the human memory remained a locked door. The doctors on Bouvet were certain that they had freed the child from his memories of the past but Joanna Dzingira had been correct. The boy had been too old, his memories too strong to be entirely erased. It remained locked within him, unknown even to him.
Richard left with Gehlen that evening. They flew out of Bouvet the copter skimming the waves, racing north towards the fleet of blockading ships. As he watched the waves beneath him, the Inspector opened his laptop and switched it on. A film began to play, one that Richard had never seen before.
“What you’re going to see is rather historical, one of the earliest events ever recorded.”
He saw a great yellow plain stretching out beneath him. As he looked the scene magnified. He could see figures moving and he could hear a voice. “Jesus Christ.”
A naked child ran across the plain. Bounding after him were three lionesses. The figures swelled as the screen magnified. The camera was drawing closer to them. He could hear voices, a man and a woman, but his eyes were fixed on the boy. Of course the rescuers would reach him. Richard took that for granted. But as the distance between the fleeing child and the lionesses decreased, the thought came to him that the rescuers might be too late. Of course he was supposed to think that. That was how holodramas worked and that was what this was. Wasn’t it? A lioness raked the child’s side. He fell, his screams lost amidst the snarling of the animals. From deep within his mind the memory of fear swept through Richard. He lurched out if his seat.. Gehlen switched off the scene. Richard staggered towards the lavatory where he vomited. When he returned Gehlen. placed a hand on his shoulder.
“I’m sorry I had to show that, but you can’t understand anything unless you’ve seen that first. Next one, not as graphic as the first.”
The second scene was of the control room portal, one he knew from pictures and films.. Only this one was different from Bouvet Island.
“Pitcairn, Four years ago.”
In the portal appeared a woman dressed as if she had come from a costume party and a naked child. The screen froze on the face of the child.
“Recognize him?” Gehlen asked.
He screen split, another face appearing, that of the fleeing child.
“The same,” Richard whispered.
“But he’s . . “
“Dead? I know. Amazing thing, time travel.”
“But you can’t. It’s . . .”
“Forbidden? Yes Richard, it’s forbidden. Now watch.”
A gurney pushed by white coated technicians raced towards the woman and the child The woman was kneeling still shielding him with her body. She stood as the technicians reached out to him. The child tried to fight them off, screaming to the woman, a scream for help. As they strapped him to the gurney the boy kept repeating one word, “Shahat.”
Once more the image froze upon the boy’s screaming face. As Richard watched the face began to change. The dark birthmark upon one side faded and disappeared. The face aged to that of an eleven-year- old. Richard now looked at himself. Stunned he slid out of his seat. He walked down the aisle between rows of empty seats. Gehlen, knowing this was not the time for words, concentrated upon closing his laptop. Richard sat on the front row and staring down at the floor, began to cry.
“I wish there had been a better way to have told you,” said Gehlen. “What I’m about to say is very complicated, so complicated even I don’t understand it. Five thousand years ago in a region where the countries of Iraq Jordan and Syria now meet, there existed a small village. We don’t know the name of the village or even of the people, an early Semitic tribe perhaps. What we do know is that it was destroyed by a group of raiders from the city of Kish. Those who were not killed were taken south to be sold in the slave markets. The village disappeared from history. You are its only known survivor.”
“But the boy the lions . . ?”
“Died. But he was not you. You have to understand that. You are alive and you are here.”
“But who was he?”
“What have they taught you about the theory of time travel?”
“It’s like a road, isn’t it.”
“Yes, a road that branches off in many directions, but it’s much more than that. In some ways it’s like this craft. Sealed, cut off from other times, we travel in it thinking this is the only one. But sometimes a hole can be punched into a craft. The same is true with time. That child died, but not in your time, in his time. You are as real as any other child.”
“But how did I , , ,”
“Your mother. At least that’s what she claims to be. I’m taking you to her.”
“But I don’t remember her. I don’t remember any of this.”
“Of course you don’t. The first thing that they do is to take away that memory. Otherwise it might create a conflict of interest. That has been known to happen. What is the first thing you remember?”
“White. A white room.”
“People in white?”
“My first memory as well.”
“At least you know something of where you came from Richsrd..”
The copter dipped, falling towards lights shining in the water.
“The blockade fleet,” said Gehlen. “You had better strap yourself in.”
Richard slid into a seat, the farthest away from the man. Between them lay rows of empty seats.
“There’s another copter, a larger one. It’ll take us to Capetown. From there an SST to Tahiti. Then another copter to Pitcairn.”
“Where I live.”
“But you said we were going to see Miss Dzingira?”
“Pitcairn’s where they built the first portal, isn’t it?”
“One of them.”
Gehlen closed his eyes. Richard looked out the window, studying the growing lights in the water. He could not remember having been off Bouvet Island. Now he had thrust out into the world dependent upon a man about whom he knew almost nothing; and being taken to a woman about whom he knew even less. Better to concentrate on the growing deck of the warship below him.
Tiamet slept. The afternoon heat deepened over the plain. The farmers abandoned their crop to seek the cool shade of their homes. At this time the sun ruled the plain of Sumer. The city of Kish waited for evening.
Tiamet brushed away a fly. Although the sun had not yet dipped to the horizon the temperature had begun to cool. The farmers had returned, men and women once more working at the harvest. A cart bearing soldiers lumbered down the road, its asses wheezing as they trotted towards the city gate. Behind the caravan came spearmen leading a caravan. Asses bearing leather wrapped bales slunk towards the city. More soldiers followed leading a cart in which wealthy merchants rode, their heads protected from the sun by great parasols. Behind the cart, arms bound, walked slaves, a few men but mostly women and children.
More captives from the north thought Tiamet. No reason to upset oneself. This would be a familiar sight for another five thousand years. He fell in behind the caravan. A guard glanced at him but said nothing. He followed the caravan through the gates of Kish. The sentries assuming that he was a merchant did not stop him.
“I don’t understand.”
The two, the Inspector and the foundling sat in the carrier’s galley. The vast room, designed to accommodate two hundred crewmen, was empty apart from them. Gehlen preferred it that way
“It’s very simple,” said the inspector punctuating his point with a wave of his bread knife. “The boy killed by the lions is quite dead. Not even bones any more. Just dust. You are evidently very much alive. When Miss Dizingira brought you out of the past she did not change the past.”
“Then what did she do?”
“Opened the door to another past.”
“But there’s only one.”
“That’s what they teach you, is it?”
“Hmmph. Well you’d better finish your food. We have a long flight.”
“I’m not really hungry. I have to use the washroom.”
“The head. That’s what they call it on a ship.”
Gehlen shrugged. “I suppose so. He pointed to the left with his knife. “Over there. Don’t be long.”
As the boy walked away, Gehlen tapped out a phone number on his laptop. Mary Smith’s face popped into view.
“We’ll be leaving by copter in twenty minutes Estimated ETA at Nelson Mandela at 2140.”
“First class reserved sir, all the way to Papeete. How is the guest?”
“Confused. Still, he seems to be taking it fairly well. Any news from John?”
“Nothing since the last report.”
“Let me know if you hear anything. See you in Capetown. Keep the waiting room clear. You know the routine. Have a drink with me in Papeete?”
Mary smiled. “My room or yours?”
Her face vanished.
As Richard trotted behind the inspector towards the waiting copter he glanced at the ship’s bridge. He could see people their bodies illuminated by the lights. Only then did he reflect that he had not seen anyone since leaving the island except for the inspector.
As he belted himself into the seat he glanced across the aisle at the inspector reading his monitor. All the other seats remained empty.
“Where are the other people,” he asked.
Gehlen did not look up. “You’re a very important person, Richard. This flight is just for you and me. Don’t worry. You’ll be meeting others when we get into Capetown.”
“Friends of mine.”
“Will I see any children?”
Gehlen punched at his keyboard. “You had better sleep. It’s going to be a long flight.”
Richard closed his eyes. A few moments later he opened them and asked. “What’s my mother like.”
“She’s not your mother. She just claims to be your mother.”
“But you said. . . “
“Well I was somewhat exaggerating. Your mother’s been dead for five thousand years. Joanna Dzingira brought you into our time, but from the agency’s point of view, that is not a basis for claiming motherhood. However she thinks it is. That is what matters. Now sleep.”
“Why does it matter?”
Gehlen looked up. “Because it does,” he said, anger shading his voice.
Richard turned away. “I don’t like you.”
Gehlen grunted. “Very few people do.”
“Because I arrest them. People tend to dislike being arrested.”
“Am I being arrested?”
“I told you before. You are not under arrest.”
“Then why am I here? Why can’t I see anybody?”
“If I answer your questions, will you go to sleep?”
Gehlen closed his laptop. He looked ahead at the back of the empty seat in front of him. “Four years ago, fifty people disappeared from Pitcairn Island. It is thought that they escaped through a portal into another time. I have been looking for them ever since. Joanna Dzingira was their leader. You may be the key to my reaching her. That is why you’re here. As for not being allowed to see anyone, well it is our belief that they may have escaped into the future. Officially you are still on Bouvet Island. There are no records to show that you left, and we want as few witnesses as possible.”
“But if they’re in the future, won’t they know about this?”
“Depends where they are in the future? How much do we really know of the past? In four years she hasn’t tried to contact you or to reach you. If the people are as all powerful as you think, why haven’t they tried to get to you.”
“Maybe I’m not that important.”
“No Richard. You are very important to her. I know.”
“What will you do to her?”
“What do you think I’ll do?”
The inspector smiled. “I have to be arresting someone, don’t I?”
Richard turned away.
Gehlen considered turning back to his computer. Instead he folded his arms and closed his eyes.
How does one ask directions in a city where streets have no names, and where only five per cent of the population can read or write? The simple gesture of asking was in itself greeted with suspicion by many. Why would a stranger wish to know the house of Marduk? The melon seller pretended not to hear the question concentrating instead upon extolling the virtues of his product. The shaven-haired scribe sitting cross-legged on his reed mat beside the city gate looked up at the stranger with the pity the urban sophisticate would show the rural bumpkin for the next five millenia. Without answering he continued with marking his clay tablet
A small gold ring dropped into the scribes lap. As he stared down at it the stranger once more, slowly voicing his words
“There will be another if you take me to the house of Marduk. “
The scribe gaped. Such a treasure was only by the great ones. His hand closed on it. Jumping to his feet he bowed. “Of course great one; my apologies. I thought you were just a . . .”
The scribe shoved his writing instruments, tablets and stylus into his bag and rolled up his mat. Once more bowing he trotted down the street only stopping to make certain that the stranger followed.
As they moved along he bawled out to those in his way, “Make way, carrion. Enkil the scribe and his master had business with the great lord Marduk.” He stopped and turned. “What is your name great lord?”
“My name is for my friends.”
Enkil bowed and resumed his bawling.. They stopped at the square across from the ziggurut. Here was a well where townspeople watered themselves and their donkeys. Here they gossiped and lingered to watch the life of the city.
Tiamet dipped a gourd into the well and drank. He listened as Enkil bragged to the people how great a lord his new master was. Tiamet shook his head. The first bureaucrat he thought.
As the copter began its descent to Capetown Gehlen shook the boy awake. On the runway stood two figures watching as the copter settled, John and Mary. As soon as he had touched the ground Mary handed Gehlen a folio. John hung back eyes on the darkness surrounding the plane.
“Customs has already cleared you,” asaid Mary. “Just go straight through the tube to the waiting room. SST lifts off in fourty-five minutes.”
Two military jeeps, one manned only by a driver, filled with a squad of green-uniformed soldiers waited between the copter and the terminal building.
“Are they really necessary,” Gehlen asked.
“South Africans won’t have it any other way. You know that, sir.”
“Just seems so out of proportion. Get in the jeep, Richard.”
Once Richard, Gehlen and the Smiths were aboard the driver gunned the engine and sped towards the terminal. Richard enjoyed the ride, Gehlen wished that he could. “In a hurry to get rid of us, aren’t they,” he muttered to Mary.
“Just protocol sir.”
Inwardly, Gehlen conceded he could have expected little else. Fifty million South Africans saw the agency as a threat to their precarious stability. Too powerful to be ignored or antagonized the agency would be tolerated but separated from the population. Something like a policy pursued a century before by an earlier South African government he mused.
The first class terminal was empty. A green-uniformed soldier stood at the door. Gehlen, Richard and the Smiths entered. The sentry closed and locked the door.
A meal awaited them on a table, sandwiches, cheese, fresh fruit, a chilled bottle of Cape wine and soft drinks. The most recent issue of the Cape Star had also been left A wall sized holoviewer promised more amusement. Richard grabbed the remote on the table. He punched a button to find El Cid doing battle for the city of Talavera. Munching on a piece of cheese he sprawled on a chair his feet kicking in the air. His interest fading as Don Rodrigo courted his beloved Chimene, Richard sat up.
“Are we the only ones?” he asked.
“In first class, yes.” said Gehlen looking up from his paper.
Knights parading at a tournament caused Richard to return his attention to the screen.
The great triangle of titanium and steel arched towards the outer fringes of the atmosphere. Capetown to Tahiti was a three-hour flight for the Euroair SST.
“Is it true that we actually go into space,” Richard asked.
The boy looked down at the curve of the earth.
“It all seems so . . .”
“No, .. . wonderful.”
“When you’ve seen something too often, you lose the wonder of it. You’re lucky Richard. It hasn’t happened to you yet.”
“You mean it will?”
“Some day; it’s called growing up.”
The boy looked at him. The man was not looking at him but at the window at the earth below. Why, he asked himself, did the man never want to look at him?
“Where are you taking me?”
“I told you.”
“No you didn’t.”
“Nonsense. I will take you to Pitcairn. Then I will take you to see your mother.”
“And then you’ll go home.”
“You’re doing all this just to take me to her?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well we’ll see if you’re right or not, won’t we?”
Richard slid away from him settling in the rear of seats next to the sliding door that separated first class from economy. He began fiddling with the small computer built into the armrest of the seat. Gehlen considered saying something but decided that the matter could wait. Best not to fuss. Some emotional upset was to be expected. Brooding on it would only worsen matters.
The stewardess brought their meals. A great debate had taken place between Euroair and the agency over the question of aircraft personnel serving time anomaly staff. The agency won their point arguing that customers were customers and that the chances of the future being infected by an anomaly eating an airline meal were at best minimal.
Richard ignored his dinner. Behind him he could hear voices murmuring. The inspector was viewing his monitor. His male assistant was dozing, the woman leafing through a magazine. Impelled by a curiosity that had been building since leaving Bouvet Island he rose and slipped through the door into the economy section. .Standing, he slid the door open.
The faces were what he saw first. He had never seen so many faces at one time. Row after row of faces extended back to the end of the plane. Some were dark, Malay, African or Polynesian. Most were white, vacationers off to the beaches of the South Pacific. He walked the aisle studying the people. He had never seen so many mainlanders. On Bouvet Island where the Islanders made up the majority one tended to forget that off Island the Mainlanders ruled.
The seats were smaller here, people more crowded together and yet to Richard this section on the plane seemed more comforting. At the back were three empty seats. He settled into one. On the seat in front of him was a small holoscreen.. He punched the on button on his arm rest.
Gehlen closed his laptop and glanced towards Richard’s seat. The empty seat did not alarm him. He had probably gone to the washroom. Then he noticed the door to the first class cabin had been left ajar. Finding him, Gehlen admitted, was not a great achievement in deductive reasoning. He simply followed the aisle trying not to think of the turning fasces and whispering voices. He found Richard at the back asleep. This left Gehlen with a slight problem. Richard belonged in the seat reserved for him by the agency, not here among these mainlanders. The airline would complain. Questions would be asked, trivial ones to be sure, but still the boy was his responsibility. Such questions would not help his career, but did that matter anymore? Leaving the boy where he was, the inspector walked back to his seat.
Sleeping. The sensible thing to do thought Gehlen. He should try to do the same. He was telling himself that even as he switched on his laptop. Instead of sleeping he called up the file of Richard, the seventh time that day. Richard’s file was by no means unique. Every islander had one, detailing every known fact, from moment of finding until day of death. The file was divided into several parts. Gehlen was studying the I.P.S., Intelligence Profile Section.
An IQ of 175; the boy was intelligent but then all foundlings were. Analysis of brainwaves usually indicated level of intelligence. Some finders claimed to be within ten quotient points after an initial examination. But Richard had not been analyzed until after being brought to Pitcairn. He had been a matter of luck, not of choice. Then Gehlen corrected himself. Not of the agency’s choice. Joanna Dzingira’s choice, and Sam Habib’s. From what he had gathered of Habib’s tenure while director of operations, the man had taken certain liberties with the agency’s authority.
The Dzingira woman, from what he could recollect of her, had believed that in retrieving young Richard she had with the backing of the agency. Habib must have convinced her that the agency had given him permission to proceed. No such permission had ever been given. He had presented the agency with a fait accompli. To save its own face the agency had accepted the retrieval. Habib must have known that it would have no other choice but the incident had not been forgotten. The decision had been made to have Habib retired and sent back to Lebanon. But why, Gehlen then wondered had Habib been so determined to retrieve this particular child, even at the cost of his own career and ultimately, his life.
For four years Gehlen had considered the matter. Attached to the boys’ reports was an archaeological study of the excavation of a grave in the Zagros Mountains. The grave dated back five thousand years. The grave had been dug for a child killed by lions. Three years ago a secret team of agency scholars was sent to Iran to excavate the grave. It had not proved difficult to find, the team having the benefit of Sam Habib’s copious notes. What proved more difficult was finding anything in the grave. The bones had had long before crumbled into dust. Bones however, where not what the diggers were looking for.
Mention had been made of an amulet of the child’s neck. It had been photographed and its description had been recorded. In a quirk of sentimental incompetence characteristic of Habib, it had been buried with the child. That insignificant piece of meteorite had become very important to the agency. An identical amulet had been found on the child Joanna Dzingira had rescued. Months later a clever soul in research had pointed out that if the same amulet had been buried, then physical evidence might exist of the possibility of alternative universes. It sounded rather dubious to Gehlen, until the moment when he held both the amulet and the stone from the grave in his hands. They were identical in every way. The finest instruments could not detect a difference. They were the same.
For years scientists had argued about the possible effects of multiple dimensions. Some believed that two identical objects from different time periods upon touching one another would act like matter and anti-matter, destroying one another. In a well-shielded laboratory robotic arms had one stone touch the other. Nothing happened. That the agency decided was the most dangerous thing that could have happened.
Brendan O’Leary, the replacement for the unfortunate Madame Dupot who had been transferred to a revenue office in Brussels, had after careful examination of the reports concerning the amulets had pocketed one stone and requested Gehlen to take a walk with him.
They had followed the trail down to Bounty Bay. Overlooking the tiny harbour, O’Leary had explained to him that the stones proved that the agency had been correct in its original suppositions. “Futurists,” O’Leary had whispered.
“They must have known about the Sargon expedition, about where the child was buried. Simple enough matter to duplicate the stone and plant it in the grave.”
“But the child was buried with the stone.”
O’Leary looked down at the small stone in his hand. Swinging back his arm he threw the stone far out into the bay. It fell, splashed and was gone.
“What stone, sergeant? This agency,” O’Leary explained. “All of this wealth, power rests upon a very simple principle. There is only one past and it cannot be changed. Do you understand, inspector?”
So Gehlen became an inspector.
“People live here?” Richard asked Gehlen as he looked down at the tiny island from the copter.
“For over three hundred years they’ve lived here.”
“Well you won’t be here long. We leave in three days. You’ll be staying at my place until we leave.”
“Where are we going?”
“I told you. To see Miss Dzingira.”
“You said you didn’t know where she was.”
“I don’t, but I know how to reach her.”
The statue still looked out over the lake. Joanna looked up at it. Old Sir John A still stood guard over his city, his eyes staring out towards the American enemy to the south. Joanna looked at the old man and wondered how disappointed he would be. To spend a lifetime building a nation only to have that nation abandon its own sense of identity for the sake of a few more dollars; Joanna shook her head. What a reason to kill a nation. She found a park bench and sat. It was a warm May morning. She could smell the freshness of the grass and the trees. In her handbag was the letter, the man had left at the house of the Glass Harp. He had walked in one morning as Mrs. Bascombe was opening the store. Without saying a word he had placed an envelope on the counter and had left. The envelope had been addressed to Joanna Dzingira. It had been written and according to the description given by Mrs. Bascombe left by a man Joanna had known as Sergeant Gehlen. He had requested a meeting to discuss the return of her son.
How had he found her? Sean’s reports had referred to the Glass Harp. Gehlen must have surmised that Mrs. Bascombe was more than just an old woman who took in lodgers and managed a second-hand bookstore.
She sat on the park bench as she was instructed. Eight minutes later she and Gehlen’s s tall spare figure were marching down the black paved walk. Without glancing at her he sat down on the bench.
“How did you find me?” she asked, looking out over the lake.
“Read Sean Mulcahey’s reports. Simple enough. Getting agency approval was the hard part.”
“Yes, I suppose it would be. So, what do you want?”
“What I told you in the letter.”
“You expect me to believe that the agency will simply hand me my son?”
“No. Just that I would.”
He looked away from her at a small sailing dingy scudding over the waves. “I watched Jane Christian die.”
Joanna lowered her head. “I didn’t want to leave her. She would not go.”
“After the islanders fled, the agency ordered her arrest. They would have sent her off the island. As you know, she could not accept that. She took sleeping pills. There was no pain. I sat with her until it was over. It was either that or turn her over for questioning.”
Joanna closed her eyes. “Decent of you.”
“She told me once that the only I way I could reach you would be to give you your son, so here I am.”
“Where is he?”
“In a hotel. He’s quite safe.”
“What do you want, Sergeant?”
“Congratulations. Answer the question.”
“I want to know who I am.”
“You’re a detective. Find out.”
“All records are destroyed. I don’t even know where to begin. It’s not like Pitcairn. We are never told who found us. But where I came from is not what I’m referring to.”
“How do I get my son?”
“I have two agents with me. They are young, honest, of unshakable loyalty to the agency. Their orders are to guard the boy with their lives, and they will. Separating them from Richard will not be easy.”
“Why did you bring them?”
“The only way I could get agency approval. They are convinced that their orders are to seize you when you come to take Richard.”
“So how do you intend to do this?”
“Short of killing them?”
“What is it like where you come from?”
“Like?” Joanna shrugged. “Green, like this place. Warmer.”
“No. What does it feel like to be there?”
“We call it Home. That’s what it feels like.”
“Interesting. Tonight at midnight. The House of the Glass Harp. I will bring the boy. Now the condition.”
“Ah, the condition.”
“I go with him.”
“Why not? I’m an Islander as well.”
Richard fell asleep after watching the three stooges defeating Hercules. Gehlen carried him to his bed. The Inspector settled into a chair to share a bottle of wine with the Smiths. As they drank he discussed the next day’s plan.
“The boy will place her off guard. When she sees him her eyes will be on him. John you move in from the rear as I take her. Mary, you watch for anyone that might interfere.”
He brought put a palm sized needle gun. One quick shot, she’ll be out for six hours.”
“You should have taken her when you had the chance,” said Mary.
“I told you. She wouldn’t trust me if I didn’t see her alone. “
John nodded. If the Inspector thought that was the best approach, then it probably was. Mary shook her head. “We would have had her.”
“We will,” said Gehlen. He glanced at his watch. The hands showed a quarter after eleven. From the television set the news announcer’s voice droned, discussing the mounting crisis in Eastern Europe. Nothing more boring than old news thought Gehlen. “Time to rest. I’ll take the couch.”
Mary and John retired to the bedroom.
The tea remained cooling in the cup. Joanna listened to the soft ticking of Mrs. Bascombe’s mantel clock. Mrs. Bascombe, also known as Louise Miller,
“What will I say to him?” Joanna asked.
“Probably not very much. We won’t have time for long chats. Later, there will be time.”
“What if he doesn’t like me?”
“What if he doesn’t. We can’t send him back.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
“Be quiet.” Louise stepped out. She went into the garage and unlocked the door of her Ford Pinto.
The doorbell chimed. Joanna knew that she should open the door. She found herself unable to move. The doorbell chimed again.
“Do you want me to answer it?” Mrs. Bascombe asked.
“Well someone had better.”
Joanna saw them standing beside the door before she opened it. The boy standing beside him, holding a bag must be Richard. He was taller. Even so she could recognize the curly black hairs and the eyes. What would she say to him? She opened the door.
Gehlen pushed the boy through the door and then stepped in.
Richard looked at her, curious with no trace of affection or great expectation.
She held out her hand to him. “You’ve grown so much.”
“I’m sorry. I don’t know you.” He looked over at the inspector wondering what he should say next. The woman did not seem to him to be very interesting.
She smiled a nervous smile. “Well, it’s been a long time.”
“We’ll have to chat later,” said Gehlen. “We only have a few hours.”
“What did you do to them?”
“My friends? I added something to their wine. They’ll sleep for six hours. After that they’ll be coming here.”
“Won’t do them any good” said Mrs. Bascombe entering the room. “So you’re Gehlen?”
The way she said it indicated that she considered the man to be of some importance. She looked down at the boy. “And you are Richard?” She placed a hand on the boy’s left cheek. “I am very glad to meet you.”
“Thank you,” he said wishing the old woman had not touched him.
Mrs. Bascombe looked back up at Joanna and Gehlen. We have to go. Follow me.”
She opened the door that led down to the garage. She opened the car doors.
“Where are we going ” Gehlen asked.
“Nowhere, Mister Gehlen,” Mrs. Bascombe smiled. “We’re already here.” She turned on the ignition.
Gehlen was about to say something when the air began to shimmer.
The twins awoke in their hotel room to find a gray-haired, bearded man sitting in a chair, a glass of whiskey in his hand. Through heavy eyes Mary stared at him wondering if she had entered the wrong hotel room.
The man lowered the glass. “Getting a bit sloppy, aren’t you Mary? Aren’t you trained to expect the unexpected?”
.John, covering him with his pistol, glanced at her sister. She had not even made a move for her gun. Instead she seemed intent upon staring at the man’s face.
Gehlen nodded. “Yes. Have a drink. You’re going to need it.”