An Unguarded Moment
Randall A. Schanze
Written on 3/3/2015
There’s not really a uniform for being a private detective anymore, but I always jump at the chance to dress up like someone from a film noir. Today was raining like crazy, which was all the justification I needed: beat up old trench coat, fedora. Of course I don’t wear a rumpled suit and tie underneath it, just jeans and whatever shirt happens to be clean at the moment. Just the same: I feel cool. If I need to justify it to anyone, I just point out that the hat keeps my glasses from getting wet. Ever tried to drive with water beading up on your lenses? Or to dry glasses off on your shirt while sopping wet in a car?
Both suck, trust me.
Then the Florida sun came out, and it was oppressively humid; so much for that.
I was in my office, bored and practicing my hat trick. You know the one where you twirl the thing end over end and pull it down on your head? I learned how to do it from a David Lee Roth video about thirty years ago. I’m really good at it. I can also knock the had forward off my head, have it roll end over end down my arm (two flips) and snag it with my hand, then do the Roth move and – bang – it’s back on top of my head, all in one fluid motion. I can’t juggle, but I can do the hat thing. I can even do it with a tophat, should the need arise.
The intercom buzzed, and my receptionist told me there was someone there to see me. I tossed my fedora at the coat tree – missed – ran a hand through my hair to smooth down the hat-head, and headed out into the outer office.
I’d hired my receptionist entirely because of her legs, and the fact that she wasn’t shy at all about showing them off. Today was no exception: Leather micro-miniskirt, zippers up the side, about half unzipped. From the waist up, she was always prim and proper and favored fuzzy sweaters and kitty broaches. From the waist down – yikes!
let me give you an idea how great her legs were: she had the kind of rack that would have made Marilyn Monroe jealous, but no one – and I mean no one – ever seemed to notice. They were all staring farther south, so to speak.
She was standing, and introduced me, and I sized up the situation. Body language: Ivy – my receptionist – was trying to keep as much space between herself and the prospective client as possible. She had a pained expression, and a ‘please get him out of here’ look in her eyes. She was unconsciously making a slow-motion ‘shoo’ gesture, probably willing me to get the guy out of there.
As for him, well, he was just off. There was something not right about him.
He looked odd, of course. His hair was parted in the middle, and plastered down on the sides, much like Alfalfa in the old Little Rascals shorts. He was wearing a suit and tie, but the knot was a total disaster. His shoes didn’t match each other. He was sweating buckets in the hot summer weather, and smelled just a bit. So, yeah, odd.
That was all visual, though. Beyond that, there was something that felt wrong, out of place, alien. There was something intangible in his eyes that might have been fear or…well, I didn’t know what. I was intrigued. I was also a little light on cash this month – because I’m a P.I. and an empty wallet is the one part of the uniform that remains from the old days – so I figured I’d probably take his case, regardless of what it was.
“This is mister Dolop-anus,” Ivy said.
“Dolo-fan-oh-s,” the man said. “The ‘p’ is pronounced like an ‘f.'”
Ah well. I wasn’t paying her for her brain.
“Dolophanos. Dolophanos. Dolophanos,” I said under my breath. This was a trick I’d picked up when I was starting out: if the client thought you were ruminating over deep thoughts, they were more likely to trust you, or at least hire you. “Greek, is it?” It was a reasonable guess. There was a large Greek community ten or fifteen miles up the road.
“No,” he said. His head fell sideways when he said it, looking at me cockeyed, presumably sizing me up. This was the point where a person normally corrected you. “It’s Serbian,” they’d say, or “It’s Basque,” or whatever. This guy? Nothing.
“Won’t you please come in,” I said, ushering him into my office. Ivy looked relieved, and sat down immediately. She made sitting down amazingly distracting. I willed myself to look away, and followed the not-Greek-man into my office.
He was staring at the trench coat hanging from my coat tree, and my hat on the ground. I sidled over to it, and picked it up, and placed it on a hook. I went to my desk and sat.
“Your chapeau,” he said, “What is it called?”
“Gladys,” I said, just being a smart ass.
“No, that’s not right. ‘Chapeau’ isn’t right either. What do you call this kind of thing? The thing that you wear on your head?”
“Hat. The English word is ‘hat’.”
“Ah, yes. ‘Hat,'” he said, as if tasting the word for the first time. “And this particular kind of …’hat”…” – he smiled as he said it, pleased with himself – “By what type is the name called?”
Gah. What tortured syntax! It wasn’t quite Yoda-bad, but definitely he didn’t grow up speaking English. He had an accent, I think, but it was so slight that I couldn’t be sure if it was there, or if it was simply his odd phrasing that made me think it was there.
“It’s a fedora,” I said.
“Fee-doh-rah!” he said, excited. “My I touch it?”
“Sure,” I said. He took it off the tree and held it like he was presenting cake.
“I have never actually seen one of these, but I can tell from your fe-doh-rah and that other apparel item there” – he pointed at my coat – “That I have come to the right person to help me. The other agency to which I had gone did not dress in the proper manner. I knew that they could not be very good at their occupation.” Then he just stood their awkwardly for, I dunno, thirty seconds or so?
“Please have a seat,” I said.
“Thank you,” he said, and laid the hat gingerly on my desk. “Fe-doh-rah,” he said again, smiling. “Such a lovely word. Three trips to the tip of the tongue to say it!”
“The next loveliest word is ‘Impetigo.'”
I have a Concealed Cary license. I was suddenly glad of that. I’ve dealt with more than one paranoid schizophrenic in my life. It wasn’t so much his crazy talk that was putting me off. It was the look in his eyes. I rested my hand real casual-like on the handle of the drawer where I kept my gun.
“‘Acne’ is not nearly so euphonious,” he said.
“I agree. You’re obviously a busy man, mister Dolophanos, I don’t want to keep you, and I have very big client load at the moment,” I lied, “I’m not sure I’d really be able to take on any new cases. It just wouldn’t be fair not to be able to give your case the attention it deserves.”
I stood, and indicated the door with my outstretched arm, indicating it was time for him to leave. He didn’t take the hint.
“My receptionist can give you the names of several other detective agencies…” I said.
“I want you to find me a time traveler,” he said.
“Ok, that’s it,” I said as I plopped back down in my seat. In a flash, the gun was out of the drawer and in my hand. I’m good at that. I practice it when I’m too bored to work on the hat trick. I still can’t juggle though. I’ve put in the time, but it never comes. Make sense of that.
“It’s time for you to go,” I said. I touched the intercom button, “Ivy, call the cops, if you’d be so kind.”
He reached in to his coat pocket with both hands.
“Easy,” I said, “Hands where I can see ’em.”
“Ah. You believe me to be carrying some manner of armament. How…is ‘quaint’ the right word?”
“Hands. Out. Now.” I demanded. He brought both hands out slowly, each holding large rolls of bills. He placed them on the desk, smoothed them out, and stacked them, then pulled out more and did the same.
“I will pay you ten thousand dollars a day, plus expenses,” he said.
I touched the intercom button again. “Grace, cancel that call.”
“Is that too little?” he asked.
The story, as he told it, was that he was a time traveler for the year eleven zillion or something ridiculous like that. Evidently in the imaginary world he came from they use a different calendar than we do, so I was never entirely clear on when his own time was. “The sixteenth semi-decade of the century of scamperings” was about as coherent as he got.
He had come into the past – my present – as part of a historical research project from the Interplanetary University of Gobbledygook, or some such nonsense. Time machines have an ‘automatic return’ timer, he said, so that if anything happened to the Temporanaut (His word, not mine), the ship would automatically return to his own time without risking getting discovered by the locals, and causing all kinds of space-time fuckupery. (Again, his word, not mine). The timer needed to be reset once every thirty-six hours. Why thirty six? It’s the future: why not?
Dolophanos had gotten to shillyshallying, and missed his reset time.
“I was having such a good time at your Walt Disney World,” he said, “Though I do not like Tomorrowland as much since they redecorated it.” Evidently he’d been to this era – more or less – a time or two before, no pun intended. I allowed as how I agreed with him on the renovations. I always liked the Googie. That ironic retro-future crap they replaced it with? No style, man, it’s just ugly.
“Won’t Doubletalk University send a rescue mission for you?” I asked.
“They will assume that I have died, and that is why my time machine came home without me aboard.”
“Makes sense. Wouldn’t they want to recover the body?”
“If I died in the past, then my body will have become – and will always have been – a part of our timeline, and can not be moved without causing space-time fuckupery.”
I didn’t fully understand that, but time travel will give you a headache if you think about it too hard. I let it slide. It didn’t matter. I didn’t believe a word of this delusional horsecrap anyway.
“So you want me to find another time traveler that you can thumb a ride home with,” I said. It wasn’t a question.
“As I understand the colorful idiom, yes.” Without warning he got up and left the office, then came back in with a trash bag he’d evidently just left laying in the parking lot. It was jam-packed full of hundreds, probably around a million dollars worth.
“Do you have any reason to believe there are any other time travelers about?” I asked.
“There must be some. This is a very popular time period. There is always some research to be done.”
“But you have no idea where one might be? No names, addresses, dates?”
“Sadly, no. Will you take the case?”
I looked at the bag of money, and the stack laying next to it.
“Sure,” I said.
I had him sign a contract so it was all nice and legal-like. Eventually his bee-keeper would show up with a butterfly net and haul him off to Anclote Manor, or whatever nuthatch he’d escaped from. In the meantime, however, I intended to bleed him. Not dry, mind you, I’m not an evil man. Of course I’m not a very good one either. I’d bleed him a little bit.
When his guardians showed up, I’d say ‘sorry, doctor-or-officer, I had no idea he was crazy. Here’s as much of his money as I’ve got left, I’m afraid I spent the rest.’ What could they do? Not much. I figured I’d probably have to return most of his per diem when that day inevitably came, but I could pad the expences, squirrel away the difference for a few weeks, and still make a killing.
And where was his money coming from, you ask? The future. Evidently, not too long from now, the American dollar became worthless, and was replaced by some other currency based on truffles or something. I didn’t understand it. Anyway: Dolophanos had simply gone around to thrift shops and picked up wads of old bills, practically for free. He brought them back with him. This meant that there were to versions of the same bill in the same time, but as long as no one looked too close that shouldn’t present a problem.
So the cash was real, and I was all set to start squandering it. Just the same, I needed to give him some kind of investigation for his money. What to do, what to do, what to do?
If I were a time traveler, what would I do? It struck me that if I were a time traveler, my first order of business would be to observe without being observed. Walking around nowheresville all day, talking oddly, and not really knowing how to act or wear the local clothes would be a big flashing neon sign saying “Weirdo!” or perhaps “Mug me!” Therefore I’d probably want to go some place crowded, maybe festive, so that my abberent behavior would just be written off as drunken revelry and ignored.
Failing that, I guess a theoretical time traveler would want to go some place where my lack of fashion sense and social graces would be taken as normal.
I decided to head off to Comicon!
“You went where?” my client exclaimed a week later. I told him.
“I am paying to have you find another time traveler for me,” He said. “Why would you do this?” Despite the wonky word order, his speech – or at least his attitude – seemed almost normal there for a moment. I explained my reasoning.
He looked thoughtful for a moment. “I had feared you had gone all ‘Rex Bader: World’s Shittiest Detective,’ on me, but your reasoning is sound. It is true what you have suspected about our convocational research tendencies. I am impressed by your deductions.” He pulled a stack of hundreds from the trash bag, counted out one hundred of them, and put them on my desk. According to Ivy, he’d done this every day I’d been gone. This time he also counted out a ton of money for my expenses.
Let’s see: I’d billed him for two first class nonstop plane tickets, then flown third-class alone. (I told him the extra seat was to bring the time traveler back in when I found him) I claimed two full-event tickets, but only purchased one. I claimed to be staying at a five-star hotel, but stayed in a rent-by-the-hour no-tell motel type of place. I’d needed a costume to fit in, so I had a tailor whip up a Colonial Warrior’s uniform from the 1978 version of Battlestar Galactica, which cost close to ten grand all by itself. (Those boots are hard to find! They haven’t made them since 1980, and they were only available in Italy. And then there’s the custom-made flight helmet…) Of course I’d already had the costume for nearly a decade. I wore it to Dragon Con every year, but he didn’t need to know that.
The difference I dropped in a ziplock bag with a few rocks, then sank it in my hot water heater. No one ever thinks to look in the hot water heater.
Strange that he knew about Rex Bader, though. I’d have to ask him about that.
I was at Mardi Gras when I found the other time traveler. He had been entering a theater with a marquee proclaiming “Live French Acts Of Love On Stage,” just as I was leaving. We literally ran in to each other, face to face. The crowd on Bourbon Street was a river, and I had knocked him backwards into it. He grabbed me in a panic, and I was pulled along. We rode the rapids, unable to get away from each other for a few blocks.
“Did they actually love each other?” The time traveler asked. “If so, that makes it OK, I guess.”
What do you say to something like that?
The human cataract thinned out enough around Esplanade Avenue that we could get over to the side. I introduced myself, and he said his name was Yancy Astrophysics.”
“Astrophysics, Astrophysics, Astrophysics,” I said, stroking my chin.
“Er…yes,” he said. “It’s French.”
“Really? Because it sounds more, I dunno, made up?” He made a break for it, but I tackled him. Then I offered to buy him a beer. We headed to the nearest dive, and he sipped away. He was already plenty drunk before we met, of course, but that wasn’t slowing him down any.
I accused him of being a time traveler, and he asked me How I’d figured it out, then broke into incomprehensible futuristic profanity.
“I’m supposed to deny it,” he said, “I’m just really, really bombed. I’m supposed to use the name ‘Jones.'” I explained his tells. They were all more or less the same as Dolophanos, excepting the wild eyes. I explained what I was doing, more than a little bit surprised that any of this horsecrap was actually real.
“Yeah, I’d be happy to give him a ride,” Astrophysics said. “When is he from?”
“‘Year of Scamperings,’ or something like that,” I said.
“Huh. That’s not my world. We use the same calendar as you guys, except we’ve stripped the pagan month names away. There’s Oneuary, Twotember, Threeust, Fo…” I stopped him. “Anyway, we don’t send research teams back. Why would we? We’ve got all the books and movies and newspapers and internet records to tell us anything we want about this period.”
“So what are you doing here?”
“Vacation. My own time is a little puritanical, and this is a pretty good place to get laid. But given how odd your friends’ few comments are, I’d guess he came from further in the future than me. My time machine is only good for 200 years either way. Maybe you should try one of the other time travelers.”
“Other time travelers?” I asked.
“Oh, sure, Mardi Gras is super-popular,” he said, “It attracts people from all up and down the time stream. In fact, there’s at least three earlier versions of myself here, and I’m probably gonna’ come back again. There’s this one girl who…well, I’ve said too much already. Here, take this.” He handed me what looked and felt and smelled like Silly Putty.
“What is it?”
“Chronosynclastic Bubble Plastic. It detects temporally anomalous particles in people, which us time travelers are loaded with. Stretch it out, and look through.”
I did, and looked back up Bourbon street. “Holy crap,” I said. The putty was opaque, but there were at least thirty six glowing dots on it. When I put it down, I could see the dots corresponded with people all up and down the street.
“Y’see?” Astrophysics said, “Told you this was a popular spot.”
The twelfth or thirteenth temporanaut I buttonholed was named Oobleck Stifsim. As with all of them, they denied it. As with all of them, they really couldn’t hold their liquor, and it wasn’t hard to get them talking, particularly once I showed them the time-sensitive-silly putty.
Oobleck came from a utopian, edenic kind of future. No war, famine, racism, crime, violence, poverty, ignorance, disease, corrupt politicians, nor indeed politicians of any sort (Assuming some other sort had ever existed in the first place). It was truly the country of the kind, the land where no darkness fell, the peaceful kingdom, the place where the lion lay down with the lamb, heaven on earth. In the time he came from, there hadn’t been a murder, nor even a violent crime, in nearly a thousand years.
He tried to explain to me what it was they did all day, when they weren’t working, paying the bills, getting colds, eating bad clams, and all the stuff our lives consist of, but I really couldn’t understand it.
“Don’t feel bad,” he told me, “A caveman couldn’t understand your life any more than you can understand mine.” Fair enough. Unintentionally condescending as hell, but fair enough.
He was a nice enough guy, and like all of his ilk I’d thus far met, he was a tourist here on vacation. I explained my situation to him, and the reasoning that had led me to find him, and the others. He was impressed. He said I would have had as good luck at any major cultural event. Half the people in any coliseum show in ancient Rome had been people vacationing from various future eras.
“I don’t get why you went to Comicon, though. Why would any self-respecting time traveler want to hang out with a bunch of Science Fiction geeks?”
Again: fair enough.
I explained my situation, and he was more than happy to help out. He wasn’t sure what time period Dolophanos came from, as that whole ‘scampering’ thing didn’t make sense, nor the ‘research’ thing, but, eh, with eight billion years to play it, it was entirely possible someone had done it somewhen.
“What I’ll do is just take him back to my time, and from then we can figure out when he’s from. We’ll take him forward or backwards. No big deal. Easy!”
I flew Oobleck back to Florida with me. He was overjoyed as he’d never been on a plane before, nor in a ‘normal’ place that wasn’t a theme park, or didn’t have a big party going on at the time. I enjoyed playing tour guide. Took him to the Sponge Docks, the Dali Museum. He oohed and ahhed appropriately.
I had no way to contact Dolophanos, he just showed up every so often. The next time he came by the office, I introduced him to my new friend. Side by side, they looked nothing alike. Mister Stifsim looked like a superhero, while my client was pinched, bent, and twitchy. Still: they had the same awkwardness, the same inability to wear clothes, the same odd vocabulary. The only difference that mattered were the crazy eyes. The man from Eden didn’t have them. My guy did.
I was paid the rest of the money owed me, plus expenses, plus a quarter million finder’s fee atop that all.
“Let me just run by the place I’m staying and pick up my things,” Dolophanos said. Then the time travelers left my office, and presumably my era. I never saw either of them again.
“There are some cops to see you,” Ivy said over the intercom.
I came into the outer office. “Can I help you, gentlemen?”
“My name is Scott Mead, I’m with the treasury department,” the man in the suit said. The other two men were wearing police blues. He asked my name, and I confirmed that I was, in fact, me.
“You’re under arrest for bank robbery,” Mead said as one of the cops pulled out some handcuffs.
“What?” I went pale. I couldn’t do time. Not again.
“You’ve been dropping hundreds left and right for more than a month now. Based on the serial numbers, the bills all came from the big Wells-Fargo armored car robbery in 2006.”
“Wait, wait, wait, I didn’t steal….I…all this cash was paid to me by a client.”
“I find that very hard to believe,” Mead said.
“It’s true. I swear it. Ivy, pull the Dolophanos file, hurry!” She got out of her chair, and sashayed over to the file cabinet, bent over, and started thumbing through the manilla folders. All eyes were on her. I thought about making a break for it while they were distracted, and probably would have, but she was unusually efficient today.
“Here you go,” she said, and handed it to me.
“Not me, you idiot. I can’t really look through it in cuffs, now can I?” She apologized and handed it to Mead. He saw the picture of my client, and tried to say, ‘Oh my God,’ but the words stuck in his throat. He tried again, and the words were a croaking, wheezing thing that only vaguely resembled words. On the third try he got it out.
“Do you know who this is?” he said. He seemed scared.
“James Dolophanos,” I said. “He claimed to be a time traveler.”
“James Gift,” Mead said, “This is James Gift. You recognize that name, right?” I did. My knees turned to water and I felt like I was going to black out. James Gift was the most infamous mass murderer/cannibal of the twenty-first century. In Amsterdam he’d killed thirteen cops when they closed in on him. In Moscow he’d eaten a family of three. In Tokyo he shot up a subway at rush hour just because he could. He preferred swords, though. Most of his murders were done with nineteenth century Union Army officer’s swords. He was spectacularly brutal, and took glee in causing his victims as much pain as possible before they died.
I was arrested for aiding and abetting. I wasn’t sure if I’d get off. I legitimately hadn’t recognized him, and they could check my books – both sets – to prove I’d been fleecing the bastard. On the other hand, he’d been on the run a long time and the authorities desperately wanted to pin something on someone connected with him.
‘Why was he pretending to be a time traveler,’ I wondered while chained up in the back of the police car. ‘Why was he looking for something he couldn’t have known existed, like a Time Traveler?’ A simple ‘He’s Crazy’ didn’t seem to cover it. Somewhere around Hillsborough Avenue the answer struck: To escape justice. He’d jump forward in time to get away from the authorities, simple as that.
Oobleck Stifsim brought his time machine to rest in the middle of a sylvan glen in the year 5015 AD. He opened the very wide double sliding doors, revealing a gorgeous landscape full of beautiful naked people of all ages, playing, talking, laughing, looking olympian in every way save their obvious innocence.
“Well, here we are,” he said.
Dolophan/Gift had only brought one thing with him: An old, beat up, nylon MacGregor gym bag. He started to unzip it as he said, “And you say there’s no cops here?”
“No need. No crime. Hasn’t been any for centuries. We’ve perfected humanity.”
“Perfect,” Gift said, but it sounded obscene the way it dripped out of his mouth.
And then the swords came out….
Copyright 2015, Randall A. Schanze