Jane A. Leavell
Wrinkling his aristocratic nose, Willoway moved away from Scott. "One can certainly hope."
"Hey, you don't smell so good, either," the gangling teenager said good-naturedly. "Can I help it if we don't have any Right Guard?"
"An occasional bath would help."
"In thatlast stream? I'd'a got pneumonia, at least!"
The scientist shrugged fluidly, unfastening his black leather jacket. "At the moment, I'm even more interested in refreshments than in cleanliness. It seems to be a good deal warmer here."
Fred studied the town below with enthusiasm. Every new time zones was another opportunity to escape this maze of trapped travelers from the Bermuda Triangle. Maybe this time he'd find the key he needed. He quickly picked up his bag. "Well, what are we waiting for? Let's follow the yellow brick road."
Unfortunately, this "yellow brick road" was a rutted dirt path, and the late afternoon breeze hurled thick red-brown dust at the weary travelers, coating their already sticky bodies. Even Scott began to regret passing up that icy mountain stream in the last time zone. Willoway began to cough discreetly in the background, lolling even farther behind, but--as usual--getting scant sympathy from his equally parched friends.
Even the aroma of steamy unwashed bodies was lost in the sweet, thick miasma of urine, beer, and horse manure that arose from the tiny town before them. Fred gazed slowly at the greying wood buildings, the three or four patient horses drowsing at racks amid clouds of flies, the wagon outside a building labeled 'Mercantile' loaded with sacks of flour and sugar. A grin split his dark face. "Well, I'll be. Do you know where we are?"
"Yes!" Liana said. Her catlike face brightened as she pointed. "Right across the street from a hot bath!"
"It's a hotel," Scott added, surprised.
"No, no, listen. This is the wild west. You know--Gunsmoke,Bonanza."
Liana's green eyes widened. "Bananas?" She was always tripped up against the Earth references she could never understand, having been born in this Bermuda Triangle trap to an Atlantean mother and an alien father. She didn't understand about half the things her companions said. It was really very frustrating.
"Forget it. I just mean we hit the cowboy era." Fred's grin broadened. "I just hope we don't go any farther back. Like to the Civil War."
"That's all right, Fred," Jonathan Willoway said gently. I'm sure none of us would want to own you."
He followed the others into the hotel, slinging his leather jacket over one arm. The young black doctor smiled--then, as the slur sank in, his face crumpled. "Hey--wait for me."
The hotel lobby seemed very dark after their sunlit journey, but the shade was comfortingly cool. Scott stumbled on the worn braided carpet, and the sun-dried man behind the chipped wooden counter looked up. His face was rutted with cracks and wrinkles, his eyes faded to a dull steely grey, his lips dried leather strips that twisted as he surveyed the motley group. Nothing about them seemed to surprise him, from cat to futuristic clothing, although his eyes did linger on the shapely booted legs exposed by Liana's miniskirt.
Varian cleared his throat. "Excuse me. We're travelers from--"
"Yeah,yeah, I know. Why d'ya think I set up this place? No currency. Coins are good. We'll take trade goods for rent if ya ain't got coins."
"Yeah. Like that there tuning-fork a' your'n." He gestured briefly at the crystal-and-silver sonic energizer in Varian's belt. "Or that there cat. We got a shortage a' cats, and a shitload o' rats."
Liana tightened her hold on the black-and-white tomcat. Sil'L snarled.
"We have coins," Varian said hastily, as the others dug into pockets and backpacks for change.
"You want with baths, or without?"
"With!" Liana said firmly.
"Baths is extra. We got two tubs, gents and ladies, out back. How many rooms ya want?"
"Three, if they've got double beds or twins," Fred suggested, piling pennies and quarters on the counter.
The man grunted and slapped three keys on the counter. "M'name's Pettigrew. Sheriff's name is Sowders. If you got guns, keep 'em out of sight. We don't want no trouble in Red Light Draw."
Varian scooped up the change still on the counter and handed one key to Liana. "We'll let you know when the tubs are empty," he told the others politely.
"You'll let us--Varian, wait, that's not fair!"
"They don't want no trouble in Red Light Draw," the fair-haired healer reminded them solemnly, and hastened down the hall after the small Atlantean.
Willoway sighed. "Can you at least suggest where we might get something cool to drink while we wait?"
Pettigrew rocked back in his chair, closing his eyes. "Saloon's just down the street."
Neat-o," said Scott. "Let's go see the saloon."
The other two looked wearily at each other and shrugged. "Might as well," Fred agreed. So far, this zone was a crushing disappointment. It didn't seem likely that it would give them another clue to escaping this weird conglomeration of time zones. A drink was probably the best thing they'd turn up here after all.
Late afternoon shadows were beginning to paint irregular patterns on the street, so the change didn't hurt their eyes. Their shoes resounded hollowly on the grimy wooden sidewalk as they followed the sound of slightly off-key chords.
Scott rushed ahead of his friends, eager to push aside the crooked, sandblasted swinging doors. He paused for a moment in the doorway, wishing he had a holster, and the doors hit him in the back. "Ow!"
Business seemed slow, and the few customers present didn't bother to look up. A fat bartender was polishing shotglasses with spit and a dirty towel behind the splintered wooden bar. Two rather frowsy saloon girls, adorned with feathers and too much paint, were leaning against the bar, half-asleep. To the right, a bored man in a Hawaiian print shirt and a yachting cap was playing a sadly out-of-tune piano. Two men in dusty jeans and stained vests were conversing at a table against the far wall, while four more were concentrating on a desultory poker game near the center of the bar.
"Kin I help you gents?" the bartender called.
Jonathan raised one eyebrow. "I don't suppose you have sherry."
"Sure do. Hey, Sherie, gent wants ta see ya."
One of the skimpily-clad saloon girls straightened up, yawning. Willoway again raised one delicate eyebrow, a pained expression on his mobile face. "You're Sherry?"
"Yeah. It's a French word. Cute, huh?"
"It's 'Cherie,'" he told her severely, and turned back to the bartender. "What do you have to drink?"
Sherie shrugged and flounced back to her friend. The bartender grinned, flashing a gold tooth. "We got beer, we got wine, and if the price is right, we still got some bottles of the real thing."
"Wine? What vintage?"
"March. That was a great month, too."
Willoway shuddered. "Did you say 'civilization'?" he murmured to Walters.
The young black doctor shuddered. "We'll have two beers."
"I'll have one, too," Scott added.
"He'll have milk."
"Aw, come on, Fred. I'm not a little kid anymore."
Fred gazed down at the tow-headed youth. It was true; he'd shot up a few inches since their boat crashed in the Triangle and dumped them here. "How old are you now?"
Fred cleared his throat.
"Okay,fourteen. And a half."
Willoway reluctantly accepted the foam-capped glass. After all, his throat parched, so much so that his tonsils seemed to be cracked. "Malt is supposed to be good for digestion," he said, trying to convince himself.
"See?" Scott pounced on the scientist's words.
Fred hesitated. Hell, it was probably better for the kid than the undoubtedly dirty water, and the alcohol in the beer would kill some of the germs on these glasses. "Okay. One."
Scott grabbed up the warm beer and headed for the poker game, leaving Fred to dig out more coins. Equally adept at avoiding responsibility, Willoway joined the youth.
One of the men at the table was just tossing his cards into the pile. "That about taps me out. I shoulda knowed better'n to play with you, Doc."
The big man in the black coat swept in the coins with one big but deft hand and meticulously added them to neatly-aligned stacks, glancing up at the two remaining players. "Are you still game?"
One, wearing a tarnished five-pointed tin star on his sweat-stained leather vest, nodded. The other, a big man with tight blond curls and a rather plain face, surveyed his small stack ruefully. "I better be; I can't live long on this."
An excellent point; their own monetary supplies were dwindling. He knew the principles of the game; it was based on simple mathematics, after all. Jonathan tapped the empty chair. "May I join you?"
He edged the chair over, making room for Fred, who sternly waved Scott away. The boy turned a chair around and sat on it backwards, sipping at his beer and watching quietly.
"Introductions seem to be in order." He rifled the deck absentmindedly, his low, British-accented voice sardonic. "Dr. John Leslie, at your service."
"Call me Mick," the blond said, with a sharp New York twang.
"Jonathan Willoway and Fred Walters."
"A fellow Englishman," Dr. Leslie observed, beginning to deal out a hand. "Another round, Vetter, if you please."
Sherie's friend, a tall willowy brunette, glided over the warped wooden floor, one beer in each hand. "Here you go, Doc. This one's on the house, on account of the way you fixed Jimmy's sore throat." The second glass she set before Donovan, bending over his broad shoulder so that his brown eyes were inescapably drawn to her exposed pear-shaped breasts. "Good luck, Mickey."
He swallowed and shifted his astigmatic eyes to the cards in his hand.
Fred glanced at his cards, folded them up, and looked up to find Leslie's dark, deepset eyes studying him, a faint frown on concentration on the long, rugged face. Fred shifted position uneasily, feeling his cheeks grow hot under the stare. "Something wrong?"
John Leslie smiled. "No. Actually, I haven't seen many gentlemen of color before, certainly not so closely."
"We're pretty much the same as anyone else," Fred said flatly.
"Indeed." Dr. Leslie nodded twice, slowly. He pushed two more coins into the pot, his eyes dropping to the floor. "I couldn't help but notice your bag, so much like mine."
"I'm a doctor. Like you."
Some unreadable expression flickered across those brooding eyes. The big New Yorker, on the other hand, brightened.
"Hey, that's cool. I was a medic in 'Nam; I'm studying at med school now. Well, I was."
"And I," Jonathan said, matching Leslie's bid, "am also a doctor. Of science, not medicine."
Donovan grinned. "That's a real coincidence. Four doctors at one table. I feel like I left home for a medical convention or something." He fanned his cards for another peek. "Uh, Casey, you're in my light."
He took that pot when Jonathan folded, and his triplet jacks beat the other three hands. Casey squealed, twisting one of his blond curls around a crimson-painted fingernail. "Oooh, Mickey, I brought you good luck."
Donovan twisted his head away, wincing. "Ow! Casey, come on, you're distracting me."
"Quit it!" he snapped, and she jumped, releasing the bouncy gold curls. He glowered at the cards while she pursed her lips and tossed her head, blue eyes flashing.
Sheriff Sowders grimly dealt out the next hand. "Case, I told ya before about bothering the customers."
"You liked it just fine when
you was the one I was botherin'," she said pertly. "You jealous or somethin'?"
"When are you from?" Mick asked Fred, ignoring Casey.
"The Seventies. You?"
"Nineteen seventy-nine. I just got in yesterday, and I still don't believe it's real. At first I figured Ronnie--he's my partner, back home--put acid in my orange juice again. I mean, one minute we're on this boat in the Florida Keys, scuba-diving, and next thing I know, I'm surrounded by cowboys."
"I know the feeling. What happened to your buddy?"
Donovan shrugged, frowning. "I dunno. He probably ran off with the money, but I hope he's still back then trying to get me out."
"We gonna talk, or play cards?" Sowder demanded, flicking a coin into the center of the table.
"Oh, we're gonna play."
"How many cards?"
Fred Walters smiled. "I'll stand pat, Sheriff."
Sensing a winner, Casey edged toward Fred's seat, deliberately flouncing her brunette curls at the glowering Yancy. After a few more raises, Fred triumphantly raked in a glittering pile of coins. Sowders became even more grim. Willoway raised one impeccable eyebrow and began to shuffle the cards for the next deal.
"At least we'll have the currency to assure daily baths," he told Scott.
Scott ignored him. "Hey, Fred, can I get in?"
"Aw, Fred, come on--"
"No. Look, Scotty, why don't you do some exploring, see if there's any kids around?" Fred brightened. "Why, there might even be a schoolhouse. You could get some schooling in."
Scott drained the last of his beer and hastily rose. "I, uh, think I'll go see if Varian and Liana are done yet. They probl'ly don't know where we are."
"Good idea. You do that." As the swinging doors banged shut behind the stocky blond youth, Fred licked his lips. "Poker sure is thirsty work."
Casey took the hint. "You just stay right here, honey. I'll get you another beer."
Pointedly ignoring her former beau, she swished toward the bar, her pert rear end distracting even the preoccupied Sowders. Leslie's expression was unreadable, but he kept those hooded eyes on her back until he noticed Willoway's amused glance.
"An admirable example of human anatomy," John Leslie murmured dryly.
Apparently he was not alone in these sentiments; as Casey leaned over the bar, one of the men there casually pinched her bottom.
"Ow!" She spun and slapped his grizzled jowls, hard. "Dammit, Williams, I tole ya to keep yer hands to yourself!"
"What's the matter, ain't I good enough for ya? Ya like blondie over there better? Or that nigger?"
Bristling, Fred shoved his chair back. Donovan put a hand on his wrist; he was quite strong. "Forget it. He's just the stereotypical town drunk, y'know? He never saw too many coloreds before. It's not even worth noticing."
Williams subsided over his beer, muttering some kind of incoherent threat, as Leslie smiled. "Now there, gentlemen, is a truly superb example of feminine pulchritude."
The Englishman rose politely as Varian and Liana entered the dimly-lit bar. Sensing a rival in the small dusky blonde with the wide greenish eyes and cat-like face, Casey hastened back.
"Here's your beer, Fred, honey."
Willoway rose desultorily. "Liana--Varian--meet Dr. John Leslie and Mick Donovan. And now, if you'll excuse me, I believe a hot bath is called for."
"Hey!" Fred tried to protest, but the physicist was already on his way out the door.
"Never mind, sugar, you're clean enough for me any time."
Donovan, eyes on Liana's clinging miniskirt, muttered, "Some pussy!" Then, louder, "Uh, won't you join us?"
Liana hesitated. "I do not know how to play this game."
"We could teach you. It's not hard."
Liana looked dubious but eased into Jonathan's still-warm seat. Sil-L, her cat, slipped off her lap and stropped himself against the nearest leg, staking a claim. Donovan shuddered and slid the cat away with his boot, then flushed as Liana glared at him.
"Sorry, I stepped on a cat's tail just before me and Ronnie rented our boat. Scratched the hell out of me, and now I guess I'm cat-shy."
"He was shipwrecked, like me," Fred explained. "How about you, Dr. Leslie?"
The long face eased into a rare smile. "Call me J. L. I, too, was interrupted in mid-voyage. It was quite a shock to find myself materializing in America's Wild West."
"But we're real grateful, Doc," Casey said loyally. "You been a real comfort to have around all this time."
"When was your time?" Donovan asked.
One narrow analytical brown eye flicked from the worn cards to him. "Quite close to yours, actually. Certainly I miss the comforts of civilization--despite the attractions of such amiable young ladies."
Casey preened, missing the irony in that soft voice, just beneath the air of cultured melancholy.
"Let me explain the value system of these cards," J. L. told Liana. "You see, there are four suits. Mr. Donovan there is sporting a six of diamonds and a two of spades--hardly an auspicious beginning. Dr. Walters has an ace of hearts with a four of hearts, rather a better possibility. If the cards in his hand are also hearts, he could have a winning hand. I, as you can see--"
As he leaned over to share his cards with Liana, he must have accidentally startled Sil-L, for the black-and-white tomcat leaped onto the table, fur bristling, and hissed.
"Sil-L! I'm surprised at you. Stop that!"
The cat arched its back, tail a stiff exclamation point, and coins and cards slid beneath its claws.
"I'm so sorry!" Liana cried. "I don't know what's come over him." Trying to be unobtrusive about it, she telekinetically caught two of the coins and eased them back onto the table. Her background made Earth references baffling, but her extraordinary powers more than made up for that.
Donovan sighed. "Don't matter. The rest of my cards are just as bad. I'm out." He threw the cards down. "There goes most of my savings."
"Looks like I sort of stole your luck," Fred said uneasily, glancing back at Casey.
The big blond man shrugged. "'S okay. Poker's not my game, anyway, and I'm kind of bushed. Leapfrogging from time zone to time zone can really screw up your concentration, y'know?"
"I thought you went right from scuba-diving to cowboys," Leslie drawled.
Donovan paused, eyes narrowing. "Oh. No, this is my second zone. I think I'll hit the sack."
"Alone," Casey said pointedly, letting her arm slide around Fred's shoulder.
Donovan's upper lip briefly curled as he passed her, and Fred wasn't surprised. That "coloreds" was a dead giveaway.
Varian, too, rose. "I'm afraid games of chance aren't my hobby. In any event, I have only my energizer to wager, and I prefer to keep it."
Sil-L jumped onto Liana's shoulders and settled on the cape, yellow-green eyes narrowed. She smiled apologetically. "I'm afraid I'm a little tired, too. Maybe you could teach me about cards tomorrow?"
J.L. smiled back, drawing a gold pocketwatch from his vest. When he opened it to check the time, it tinkled a short waltz tune, and she caught a glimpse of an old-fashioned woman's daguerreotype. "It is getting late--we bed early in Red Light Draw."
Varian let his clear blue eyes rest on Fred and the girl draped over his shoulders, his face elaborately grave. "I'm sure Scott is through with his bath by now, even though Jonathan will linger. At least one tub should be available."
"Ooooh," Casey bubbled. "I can come scrub your back for you, Freddie."
Varian and Liana strolled to the door. Fred frantically tried to scoop the coins into his jeans. "Uh, guys. Guys, wait up!"
Jonathan rolled down the collar of the inevitable black turtleneck sweater and ran one long-fingered hand through his dark hair, studying his reflection in the flyspecked mirror. One would think that he'd gain weight, having to limit his few precious cigarettes to one a day, but if anything his face was even thinner. Of course, meals on the trail were seldom appetizing, and he had always been a finicky eater. Well, perhaps they would spend a little more time in this zone--and find a better restaurant to eat in.
Shrugging into his black leather jacket, he wondered if anyone in Red Light Draw could brew a decent pot of tea. Even though he'd spent most of the Fifties and Sixties at Cal-Tech University--until his plane crashed in the Bermuda Triangle--he'd never gotten used to foregoing a good mug of strong hot Darjeeling. No scientific puzzle was so complex that it couldn't be solved with the aid of tea.
As he turned to go, Varian sat up in bed, his face troubled.
"I didn't wake you, did I? I tried to be quiet, but I'm so rarely the first one awake--"
"No, Jonathan, don't trouble yourself. I slept badly. I had…dreams." The healer scratched at his curly dark blond hair. "I only hope they were mere nightmares, and not a premonition."
Willoway said lightly, "I've long been troubled with insomnia and nightmares, and none of them were premonitions. They were more likely to deal with the past, if anything."
"But the people of my time are more open to psi, Jonathan. I'm afraid that this dream is a warning, and I just haven't the ability to identify the source."
As if to punctuate his fears, shrill, unmistakably anguished screams erupted from across the street. Willoway darted from the room, bumping into a sleepy Fred, who was still buckling his trousers.
"Wha's goin' on?"
"We don't know. Bring your medical bag, Fred," Varian ordered, hastening after Willoway.
A small crowd of early risers was already gathering at the saloon, but the bar girls were still shrieking. Varian eased through the crowd to gently catch one girl's arm. His voice was softly reassuring.
"Be easy. Take deep breaths. Slowly, now." Tears cracked lines in the dried makeup caking her unwashed face, but she seemed to respond to the healer's voice. He could see nothing wrong with her; the problem was elsewhere. "What is it? What's wrong?"
She gulped noisily. "I just went in to borrow her soap and--and--there she was! She's dead!"
"Hey, somebody get the doc!"
She burst into sobs, pointing wordlessly up the stairs. Willoway swallowed, but couldn't beat down his curiosity; he put one hand on the banister and lightly ascended. The door was still open.
He wrenched away after one horrified glance, but the nightmare image was branded onto his retinas, so that even when he leaned against the wall and closed his dark eyes, he still saw it all. All four unpainted wooden walls garishly daubed with splatters of drying red; what looked like a human breast casually tossed on top of a rickety dresser; a hacked-up body carelessly drumped into the unmade bed.
Fred and Varian stepped past him. Willoway gasped for breath, his chest feeling almost unbearably constricted. It's just all this dust, he tried to tell himself, and that zone full of pollen. But when he tried to wipe the macabre image from his mind and concentrate on exhaling, he couldn't do it. Despite himself, he was shaken by a labored wheezing cough, and he flinched as he felt cool hands touch his face.
"Jonathan, relax. It's me." Varian sounded untouched by the butchery in the next room, all his empathetic powers centered on the older man. "It's an asthma attack again, isn't it? Do you have your medicine?"
Willoway managed to shake his head, another racking cough shaking his whole slight frame. He was dimly aware of the sheriff and Leslie rushing past him to the bedroom, and Fred emerging to say in a strained, distant voice, "Christ, Varian, that was--she was Casey!"
"Jonathan, I can ease this attack, with your permission…?"
Of course, that only made the attack hideously worse. The thought of Varian's sonic stimulator stripping away the façade behind which he'd lived most of his adult life, laying bare his innermost feelings as he linked consciousness with the healer from the future, filled his sherry dark eyes with an almost child-like terror. He wheezed harder, unable even to shake his head.
"She was--she looked so--shit, Willoway, you're turning blue." Forgetting the disfigured corpse, Fred elbowed Varian aside, opening his bag. "We're running low on supplies, Willoway, but I've got plenty of adrenaline, so just hold on." He filled the syringe and dropped the black leather bag. "Roll up his sleeve, Varian."
The prick of a needle, a sudden thudding runaway heartbeat; then slow, blessed relief. Shaking, he swallowed phlegm, feeling his chest finally sink in, expelling the trapped air as the bronchial muscles relaxed, reopening the lung airways. The hysteria around the bedroom door became more real to him.
"Shit, like some kinda damned animal--" Sowders was saying. "But the only way in was this here door, and I know for a fact Sherie always kept it locked."
"Not an animal, Sheriff." Dr. Leslie was still in the room, and his voice bounced oddly off the bloodstained walls. "On closer examination, this was clearly the work of a human being."
"You're crazy, Doc!"
"Quite the contrary."
"But her guts was clean out--"
Willoway shuddered and pulled away from Varian's comforting hold. He'd humiliated himself sufficiently for the time being. "I believe…I believe I'll get some fresh air."
Varian automatically moved to help him, then forced himself to freeze. The older man was so reserved, so painfully ashamed each time he exposed the slightest vulnerability--and it was so incredibly frustrating to be denied the chance to help him! He would never understand the people from his own past; thank God that by his time people learned to trust, and to care. He doubted that he could've survived in a world that turned out such shuttered, anxious people.
"--not carelessly hacked, but carved. Indeed, Sheriff, there is a precision, an almost surgical skill in this disembowelment. Your killer may even be a doctor, like myself."
Sowders snorted. "Not you, Doc!"
J.L. rolled his sleeves down over newly-bloodied wrists, bending to retrieve his medical bag. "Nevertheless, I insist that you check my bag."
Grumbling, the heavyset sheriff opened the bag and poked through it, bumping glass vials together. "No blood in this thing," he grunted and shut the bag, one stethoscope earpiece dangling out like a strangled snake. "What about you, Walters?"
"Here's his bag," Donovan said, shoving it forward with his right foot.
Sowders opened it perfunctorily--then nearly dropped it, spitting out his cigar butt. He held the bag out to the men nearest him. An angry rumble began to build, almost wordless, frightened and frightening.
"What's wrong?" Fred asked.
Sowders wordlessly lifted out a gore-splattered surgical scalpel.
"But that's impossible!" Liana repeated.
Huddled around a wooden table in a corner of the bar, the time travelers shared troubled glances.
"It was obviously planted there. In that crowd, with all the excitement, anyone could've done it."
Scott was indignant. "He shared my room. I woulda noticed if he snuck out to murder someone."
"Lower your voice, Scott." Jonathan glanced uneasily around the bar, absently twisting the small gold signet ring on his little finger. This was quite an angry town, and he didn't like the way the locals avoided them, or the low angry murmurs as they passed. "We know Fred isn't a killer. But Sheriff Sowders has him firmly ensconced in the 'hoosegow' until the town meeting, and the only way we'll get Fred out is by offering them someone else."
"You mean track down the real killer?"
"Have we any other alternative?"
"But we don't even know anybody here," Liana protested.
The stocky fourteen-year-old brightened. "Sure we do. There's that drunk, Williams. You remember, Mr. Willoway. It sounded like he's been bugging that girl a lot. And he hated blacks, too--that's why he framed Fred."
"A drunk's hands shake. J.L. said the cuts were precise and skillful."
"So maybe he useta be a butcher. Whose side are you on, anyway?"
"This isn't a contest, Scott." Willoway moodily sipped at his lukewarm beer. "Actually, I had in mind nominating Mr. Donovan. He was a medic in Viet Nam, remember? That gives him the skill needed. As for motive--well, Fred did take most of his money. And he was the last one to handle Fred's bag."
"He didn't like having her around. They were fighting," Scott objected.
Varian shook his head. "One thing my people are well aware of is the strength of human passion, and jealousy is one of the most destructive emotions. The girl made such a scene over Fred even while I was there that I would not be surprised to learn that he killed her for rejecting him. If not from love, than from pride."
"But how do we pro--"
Sil-L mewed insistently, leaping onto Liana's lap. The Atlantean twitched as John Leslie leaned over her shoulder.
"I don't wish to give you the impression that I approve of what your friend has done--"
"He didn't do it!" Scott yelled. Varian put a calming hand on his shoulder.
The surgeon continued, unruffled. "--but I don't approve of mobs. Particularly lynch mobs. I thought you should be warned."
"What have you heard?" Varian asked levelly.
The man stared at him. "Quite a bit, actually. My fellow townsmen trust me, and I've picked up some quite disconcerting rumors. A doctor soon learns never to be surprised by the depths to which his fellow man can sink. I'm afraid your colored friend is in very grave danger."
Straightening, he nodded politely to the others, and continued to the bar.
Liana stared at Varian's troubled face. "What's a lynch mob?"
"People do things in a group that they would never do alone," he said obliquely.
"Like get drunk and hang innocent men without even a trial!" Scott's face was red. "So what are we going to do about it?"
Willoway finished his beer, making a face. "You know my opinion of most of my fellow human beings; I'm sure this town is quite capable of murder. But I also know that no mob has the nerve to commit an atrocity in daylight. It's still early morning. We have the rest of the day to track down a substitute victim for the slavering townsfolk."
Varian nodded. Willoway, as usual, was bitterly mocking, but correct. In his own time, such a violent mob was unthinkable, but he knew only too well the savagery that dominated most of history. "Liana, the women here will respond best to you; talk to them. Ask them about Casey, and especially about last night. Who saw her last? Where? Jonathan, you might concentrate on Mick Donovan."
"And what do I do?" Scott demanded.
"Talk to Fred. Offer him what comfort you can, and tell him we'll get him released soon."
"We'll meet back here at dusk. Until we've done some investigating, we can't make any real decisions."
Willoway pushed back his rickety wooden chair. "I'm off to ply Donovan with liquor and charm. If the bar girls here were marginally more appealing, I'd trade assignments with Liana, but as it is…."
They split up for their separate assignments, leaving Scott at the table fighting back a pout. Shit! They treated him like a kid, and they acted like Fred wasn't even in danger, when they should be--well, breaking him out of jail and running for the nearest zone interface, at the very least.
He looked at the bar, where Dr. Leslie was finishing a leisurely beer. At least the doctor had warned them--maybe because doctors stick together. When Liana casually joined the two remaining saloon girls, Scott strolled to the bar, trying to act like he belonged there and had stood around bars lots of times.
"Uh, Dr. Leslie?" The Englishman nodded. "Do you really think Fred--Dr. Walters--is in danger?"
"What was done to Casey has them understandably upset. A mob is a volatile thing." John Leslie carefully topped his dark blond hair with a black tophat and retrieved his medical bag, which was resting near the stained spittoon. "But I shouldn't worry, young man. I'm sure your friends will do the right thing."
"Well, I'm not so sure," Scott said miserably.
The doctor set the bag on the bag and steepled those long-fingered hands before his face, studying them thoughtfully. "A lynching mob is a nasty business. I'd hate for my fellow townsmen to have such an ugly act on their conscience. It would be better for all concerned if your colored friend could simply leave this zone. Especially since I'm not entirely certain he is the killer. That blond American chap clearly has quite a temper, and no one here knows much about him. Already today I've heard him stirring up trouble, complaining about the loss of one of the few women in this meager town."
"But Varian won't do anything!"
J.L. cocked his head, meeting Scott's anxious gaze. "I wish I could help you, lad. But unless some sort of disturbance--a fire, say--lures him away, I'm quite certain Sheriff Sowders will remain at his post. He can certainly hold one man prisoner--but he cannot, unfortunately, fight off an entire mob. Perhaps your friend Varian will think of something?"
Varian caught up with Willoway on the rutted dirt street. "We can walk to the hotel together. How are your lungs?"
"Perfectly fine, I assure you. It was all that pollen in that last jungle--"
"Perhaps. But your asthma attacks are very rare, and triggered by strong emotional stress." Varian swung the scientist around. "You have feelings, Jonathan. Tell me."
Those expressive brown eyes flicked away. "The sight of that poor girl up there would be enough stress for anyone."
"We've faced death in other zones." Willoway turned away, as though the morning sunlight were too harsh. Varian said softly, "What was it that so bothered you?"
Willoway swatted a fly from his face. "Nothing at all," he said bitterly. "Didn't you see me blithely rushing up for a good look?"
"As did Fred and I."
"No. You're physicians. You wanted to help."
"We'd been told she was dead; how could we help?" Willoway pulled away and continued across the street, but Varian kept pace with him. "Even in my time, we are drawn to death while being repulsed by it. Curiosity about death--the urge to stare at it, with the urge to look away--is a human instinct. It is not evil." He struck a chord; Willoway's whipcord-thin frame stiffened. Varian said gently, "Jonathan, you are not an evil man."
"Have you perhaps forgotten how we first met? I'd evicted the green men from their home, and I threatened to kill you to make Liana marry me."
"That was loneliness speaking." Varian smiled. "And we called your bluff, remember? The respected author of all those essays on pacifism and the nature of peace would never wage war on another human being."
He snorted. "I haven't cared for human beings in a very long time."
Varian said chidingly, "Jonathan, your words seldom match your actions. Empathy is my family's special gift, and I have known you well for some time. You make mistakes, yes, but I've seen you learn and grow from them."
Willoway shot him one glance of mingled hope and dismay, then said with forced lightness, "I shall have to stay on my toes with Mick Donovan. I can't afford to make a mistake with Fred's life in the balance--he'd never let me hear the end of it."
Recognizing the plea to end this conversation, Varian sighed, opening the hotel door. "Good luck with him, Jonathan. We haven't much time."
"Scott?" Fred Walters clung to the cell bars in disbelief as the youth slipped into the jail. "What the hell are you doing?"
He snatched the dented silver key ring from the side of the sheriff's desk. "Breaking you out of jail, dummy, whaddaya think?"
"Just a old wagon." Scott opened the cell door. "Hurry up. No, wait, leave your belt, like this--maybe he'll think you used it to get the keys off the desk."
"Scott, this is crazy, you can't just--"
"Fred, they're gonna lynch you. This is serious, man." The kid was almost in tears, his voice more nasal than ever. "They'll search our rooms first, so you gotta find somewhere safe to hide. Come on!"
Maybe Scott was right; escape now, and ask questions later.
A lot of questions.
"Well, that was certainly colorful," Willoway muttered, watching the locals slosh one last bucket of well water on the smoldering wood of what had once been a battered wagon. "I suppose this is Red Light Draw's equivalent of football."
"Did anyone have any luck? Liana?"
She shook her head firmly. "None of the girls remember Casey being with anyone but Fred, and no one in this town disliked her. Except maybe that one of the girls was a little jealous of her, and she'd had some big arguments with Donovan."
Willoway fastidiously wrinkled his nose at a pile of still-steaming manure. "Let's walk back to the bar, shall we? It's getting so dark already that we'll soon be in danger of treading on 'road apples.' I must say, Donovan seems a rough but likeable sort, but he has a few strikes against him. He says he was alone in his hotel room last night, and he has a nasty little scratch running down his right forearm. He claims he tripped and cut himself on a nail--and this place is so rundown, that's quite believable--but it could equally well be from a woman's fingernail. And his story about cat scratches could've been intended to cover any cuts he might get while killing Casey."
"Our killer wasn't Williams." Varian was positive. "He's a weak man, but not truly evil. And he has an alibi, in any case, since he spent the night in the jail for drunkenness."
Willoway grimaced. "In British murder mysteries, the culprit is always the one least suspected. I understand Sheriff Sowders has quite a talent for whittling, and Casey indicated they'd been close. Perhaps he's our killer."
"Nobody died until we got here. And Donovan," Liana pointed out.
Willoway sighed. If someone didn't act quickly, the only other normal adult in the group would be gone. Friendship aside, Fred's twentieth-century medicine was more comforting to him than Varian's esoteric futuristic skills. He shot an acerbic glare at Liana. "Can't you do that mind-reading act of yours and pick out the killer?"
She stopped before the livery stable, green eyes flashing. "Telepathy is not an act, and it doesn't work that easily. I'm a touch telepath. I can 'read' my friends because we're emotionally close, but with a stranger, we should be touching. And if the subject doesn't want to be read, I get a poor impression at best. Just because you're always afraid someone will read your secrets--"
"He won't even know you're trying to 'read,' so he won't be blocking you," Willoway pointed out logically.
"Even so, he wouldn't be standing around thinking, 'I'm the one who murdered Casey.' People think in unconnected images and stream-of-cons--" She broke off as Jonathan elaborately raised one patient eyebrow. "All right. I'll try. But I cannot guarantee anything."
"Sheriff!" Down the street, the bartender ran out from behind the saloon, frantically waving his dirty apron. "He done killed another one! He kilt Sherie!"
"No. Oh, no." Liana turned as grey as the ramshackle buildings around them as the dusty street began to fill with frightened people. She watched the choleric Sheriff Sowders stalk up the street, and pulled her black cape closer around her.
"Look on the bright side," Jonathan suggested brightly. "Now they know someone else is the killer, since Fred is safely locked up."
"Like hell he is!" Sowders bellowed. "He busted out. What did you do with him?"
"Oh,no," Liana repeated numbly.
Varian remained unruffled. "I believe we three may have alibis. I was with Mr. Williams until the fire broke out, and all three of us were then here, at the fire."
"He's right, Chuck. I seen 'em there," the livery owner agreed, grudgingly.
Sowders glowered at Liana, who said hesitantly, "I was with Mitzi. Sherie…Sherie said she had a date. A very important date." Her voice trembled.
When Sowder's stare nailed him, Jonathan offered, "Mick Donovan and I were mostly bathing under Mr. Pettigrew's baleful eye."
"And you all got witnesses. Shit!"
Pettigrew stumbled up, out of breath. "We done searched all the rooms, Sheriff. He ain't there."
"Okay, then we're gonna form a posse. Get everyone together at the Town Hall." Sowders glared at the three outsiders. "I don't care how good your alibis are, I'll wanna see you when this is over."
The moment he was out of earshot, Liana, pulling herself together, said quietly, "I'll look for Donovan. He was at the hotel?"
"When I last saw him, yes." Willoway sighed, watching the entire town boil past the hotel to gather before the rather shoddy Town Hall. Sil-L darted across the street, hair raised and tail stiff; Liana followed him. "There goes a promising suspect, I'm afraid."
"Why do you say that?"
"Why would Donovan bathe before committing a bloody murder?"
Varian said evenly, "Perhaps he also bathed afterward. Who can predict the actions of a homicidal madman?"
"Or madwoman. Perhaps it was Liana's jealous saloon girl, a sort of Jill the Rip--"
When Willoway didn't finish, Varian glanced back at him. "A what?"
The scientist was suddenly abstracted, those sherry brown eyes momentarily blank with some deep thought. "Hmm? Oh. Nothing…just a rather unlikely supposition."
Struck by his own supposition, Varian didn't follow up on it. "Did you see Scott anywhere at the fire?"
"Why ever--oh, no."
"Exactly. Even in my time, no child would miss a fire. You know how Fred's arrest upset him, and he didn't seem to believe that we would protect him." Despite their grim situation, a twinkle danced far back in Varian's clear blue eyes. "They looked beneath the hotel roof, but I doubt that they looked on it."
"Run ahead and look--you run so well, it would be a shame to make you match my sedate crawl. If you find Fred and Scott, herd them toward the next zone interface. I'll join you there." He twisted his Cal-Tech ring, frowning. "I think the safest course is for us to vanish from this time, as so many infamous people have done. Amelia Earhart…Judge Crater…Spring-heeled Jack...."
As Varian trotted down the street, evading the last stragglers to join the shouting crowd, Willoway's frown deepened. Was it even remotely possible…?
Clutching at the loose shingles with tightly curled fingers, Fred Walters permitted himself one nervous glance at the street below. It was already erupting with hysterical people; he couldn't make a break through all that activity. He pulled his head back down, sweating. Beneath him, heavy footsteps raced from room to room, and doors banged open.
What the hell was going on, anyway? Where were Varian and the others?
The noise of the search faded. Scott's voice stage-whispered, "All clear."
He inched back to the open window, splinters tearing at his belly, and eased himself into the room. "They're all going nuts out there. So how do we get out?"
Scott licked his lips. "I thought maybe we could sneak out of town when it gets a little darker?"
"With no weapons but my medical bag? And everyone in town out for my blood? We wouldn't get--"
Behind them, the rusty doorknob turned. With instincts honed by sheer terror, Fred hit the floor and rolled under the bed. Scott snatched up his medical bag and held it behind his back as someone shoved the warped door open.
"Where is he, Scott?"
He dropped the bag. "Varian! Uh, where's who?"
"There's been another murder, Scott, using Fred as a cover. We must get him out of here at once."
Walters crawled out from beneath the sagging bed. "You're kidding, right?"
Varian tossed a backpack to Scott. "This is Liana's, and I've got Jonathan's things. We must slip out the back way; they'll meet us at the next interface. And no, I'm not kidding."
Fred bushed dust devils from his pants and strapped on his bedroll. "Sure wish we had a gun. We'll never get out of town in one piece."
"Trust me," Varian urged, and stepped into the hallway.
Scott and Fred exchanged nervous glances, then hesitantly followed him. Every creaking floorboard stabbed Fred to the heart, but the hotel seemed to be empty, and a check as they slipped out the back door showed everyone focused on the Town Hall. No one noticed as three figures disappeared into the gathering shadows. Maybe they really would get lucky.
On the other hand, maybe not.
The deputized men soon again broke into angry roars and split up to comb the town. Sweat gathered in a pool on Fred's lower back, and he struggled not to picture what would happen if they got their hands on him. Lynching innocent black men was something of a tradition, but it wasn't one he was eager to participate in.
They were creeping through someone's glass-littered backyard when a torch-bearing man rounded the corner on them.
"Hold it right there, you!" He swung up a shotgun, cocking it.
Fred thrust Scott behind him. Varian eased the crystal-and-silver sonic energizer from its pouch at his belt.
"Don't try any--"
The energizer glowed a rich shade of rose, and the shotgun trembled in hands that suddenly tingled. A rainbow of colors seemed to gyrate before the cowboy's startled eyes, a series of soothing pastels, then his knees buckled as eerie musical sounds harmonized all around him. His eyes closed. Varian caught the shotgun before it could fall with him.
"A weapon isn't always the best defense," he said softly.
Fred carefully skirted the peacefully slumbering form. "So I see. I'm beginning to think we'll actually make it out of this alive."
Varian cocked his dark blond head, blue eyes distant. "I…don't know. Somehow, I'm worried about Jonathan. I'm afraid we should never have separated."
Left to himself, Jonathan Willoway remained still, quickly running over the possibilities. It seemed incredible, but then, everything about this silly Bermuda Triangle experience was incredible, wasn't it?
"Mick couldn't know Fred would be loose; he was with me," he murmured, and the sound of his own voice jolted him from his reverie. He fastened his black leather jack and cast an anxious glance at the purpling sky. What little light the rising quarter moon might offer was cut off by growing clouds. The bobbing torches appearing far down the street as the local cowboys declared themselves a posse were suddenly very reassuring. He would snare Liana and tell her of his suspicions--no, certainties--and--
In the dusk separating the scientist from the rest of the town, someone coughed.
Jonathan froze. Was that a dim figure by the barber shop cum doctor's shop?
Damn and blast. It had gotten so dark, so quickly. What had he been thinking of, to send Varian ahead without him? The energizer made a potent weapon when necessary. And given his own history of stumbling into trouble....
He took a few experimental steps forward. The shadow flickered out of existence, but he cocked his head, listening intently. There was a shuffling noise somewhere ahead of him. Stealthy footsteps, perhaps?
Why couldn't cowboy towns have streetlights?
If he turned his back on the unknown someone ahead, his nerves would undoubtedly break, and every step he ran would put that much more distance between him and safety. The thing to do was keep walking toward the Town Hall, and hope the 'posse' came his way.
Swallowing, he walked a few more feet. Funny; somehow he'd always pictured himself dying of old age in the Cal-Tech library, not sliced into hors d'oeuvres by a madman.
A sudden cracking noise to his right, like stone meeting metal, startled him, and he swerved right. There was a passageway between two buildings, and he darted into it, hoping to cut around the back of the mercantile building.
It was a dead end.
Behind him came a low laugh, then a few bars of tinkling music that cut off with a tinny snap. Willoway, cursing the idiot who had bricked off the alleyway, slid his boot along the garbage-strewn ground, searching for some sort of weapon. He was a superb rock-thrower as a child; any rock would do.
Of course, his stalker appeared to be rather a wizard with rock-throwing, as well. He had herded his prey in here quite nicely with a thrown rock; no doubt he knew the alley had no exit.
His chest felt bound in steel. He was surprised to find that his voice, though distant, was calm. "John Leslie, I presume?"
"My name is John Leslie Stephenson, actually, but it was obvious that you'd realized…most people call me Jack."
"You said you were from near Donovan's time," Jonathan said absently, "yet your phrasing was Victorian. And your technique was unmistakable."
He supposed it was something of a distinction to be the first male victim of Jack the Ripper, but found the honor one he didn't care to receive.
Not so much as a pebble beneath his boots. He stepped backward, searched again. It was getting hard to breathe.
"But you'd been here so long. The murders didn't start until we arrived."
Though his eyes frantically searched the darkness, he couldn't quite make out the darker shadow that was Stephenson. Dammit, he was a physicist, not a hero! How was he supposed to stop Jack the bloody Ripper?
"I am not a man to foolishly repeat his mistakes. This time, I decided not to rush thing--to wait for suitable suspects to frame for my little...peccadilloes. The waiting made it even more enjoyable." He was positively gloating. "What a marvelous release this has been. You cannot begin to imagine."
Jonathan gulped air, but it didn't seem to do any good. You'd think that in a town as ugly and ramshackle as this, there'd be a spare crumbling brick or two lying about. He must find something soon; he could hardly ask Jack the Ripper to wait while he used his inhaler.
Stephenson stepped further into the alley, suddenly visible, and Willoway bit back a cough as his back hit the too-solid brick wall.
"It…it seemed so impossible," he said quickly, wincing as he heard the quaver enter his voice. "But the Ripper vanished from his own time, just as I did from mine, and--" Moonlight glinted off something slender and silver, and he pressed tightly against the wall. Stephenson was much closer. "What good would my death serve? No one here would believe me if I accused you, they'd think I'm covering for Fred. And I'm a man, J.L. Not exactly your type." He was wrenched by another racking cough. He really should have coughed out all the phlegm last time, and avoided another attack. Fred would've seen to it, if he hadn't been framed for murder.
The advancing figure halted. "I've never conversed with a victim before." The cultured voice sounded mildly intrigued. "But then, there was always the danger they'd scream. Those fools are so noisy out there, no one would hear you scream." He even paused considerately when that sent Willoway into a desperate wheezing series of coughs. "Your death will certainly serve a purpose, if that worries you. Some blood will manage to turn up on Donovan's bedroll. I'll even make it a point to tell your friends Donovan was heard cursing you. The townsfolk will continue to blame your nigger, your friends will blame Mr. Donovan, and no one will be the wiser. Then it will be time to move on. Perhaps first I shall pay a visit to your Liana."
He was walking forward again, just a few feet away. Jonathan tried to gather his strength, knowing there was nothing left to do but tackle Stephenson. The idea of a slight pacifist wrestling with that armed hulking madman while in the throes of an asthma attack would've been laughable if he could spare the breath.
"It won't have the same passion that my other games produced, but it will be interesting. As a fellow scientist, I'm sure you understand." Stephenson chuckled. "Your death will be quite satisfying, really." The voice grew taut. "It's time, Dr. Willoway."
Although that wasn't his scream, Jonathan thoroughly endorsed the sentiment. Even as the shriek from the mouth of the alley made Stephenson twitch, Jonathan lunged to his right. He fumbled desperately for the scalpel, but he was dizzy from lack of oxygen, and Stephenson effortlessly shrugged him off. As he hit the brick wall, Willoway saw the bigger man lunge at him, then everything went black.
He wasn't dead, surprisingly enough. He couldn't be dead; he was too uncomfortable and he still couldn't breathe. But if this hadn't given him a coronary, nothing would. He'd probably live forever.
"Jeez, I'm sorry, are you okay?"
Some of the crushing weight lifted from his chest, and he could see again. Jonathan fumbled in his jacket for his inhaler, his cough degenerating into a horrible gasping sound. He was very dizzy.
"It really was Doc, huh?" Mick Donovan said, hauling him up to a seated position. "I mean, it was obvious that you guys thought it was me, but I knew it wasn't, so that only left--"
Sucking in the ephedrine with utter relief, Willoway let the babble wash over him, not really listening. Lil-L leaped over Stephenson's body to bat playfully at his hand.
"--opened his mind to me, I knew he was innocent," Liana was saying earnestly. Skirting Stephenson's form, she clasped Jonathan's shoulder. "I 'called' to Varian and told him, but you weren't there, and when I called you, I couldn't breathe. I knew you were in trouble."
With a disdainful kick, Donovan rolled Stephenson off Willoway's legs. "I was trying to pull him off you, not knock you down," he said apologetically. He flicked on a pocket cigarette lighter. "You hurt?"
"Only my dignity," he muttered, sucking in another breath.
Passing the Bic to Liana, Donovan took Willoway's left hand in surprisingly gentle hands. "Looks like he sliced you pretty good."
The scalpel had been so sharp that he hadn't even felt it cut into the back of his hand, but then, he'd had other things on his mind. He was still so shaken that he couldn't make his usual fuss, merely saying, "It will give Fred and Varian something to play with." Donovan levered him to his feet, and he brushed himself off with his good hand. "We'd better hurry; we were to meet them at the next interface." Another deep breath from the inhaler, and he blinked. "You'd best come with us, Mick; when they see that you've killed the town doctor--"
"He ain't dead, just hit his head on that wall a few times." The burly New Yorker crouched to rummage in J.L.'s medical bag, and made a face. "Besides, somebody's gotta tell Sheriff Sowders the truth, or he's liable to send his posse after you right into the next zone."
"They'll never believe you. Stephenson will say--"
"They'll believe me," Donovan said grimly, snapping the bag closed. "He hasn't had time to wash off the blood. Besides, judging from these bottles, this time he gathered a few souvenirs."
Making a sickened noise, Liana snatched up her cat. "Please, can we go now?"
Still unsteady on his feet, Willoway hesitated. "You're sure? You're welcome to join us, you know. We still hope to find a way home."
Donovan kicked the Ripper's limp form. "Nah. You go on ahead. Right now, they're liable to shoot you first and ask questions later. Let me get the real killer locked up, and maybe I'll catch up with you later. I don't have anywhere else to go just now, anyway."
Even though the body hadn't twitched, he stared at it, not quite able to move past it until Liana took his elbow and led him out of the alley. His hand was beginning to ache savagely. "I do hope the next zone is a barbaric one," he murmured distractedly.
"Why?" Liana asked, startled. Sil-L hissed at the torchlights moving toward them.
He drew away, straightening his jacket. "Because every time we reach 'civilization,' we wind up jailed, enslaved, possessed, or attacked by Jack the bloody Ripper. I, for one, am thoroughly fed up.
"'Civilization,'indeed! Give me savage barbarity any day..."
--October 10, 1984.
Copyright © 1999 - 2013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.
AUTHOR'S NOTE: When Jack the Ripper rocketed into nothingness at the end of Nicholas Meyer's wonderful movie TIME AFTER TIME, his atoms strewn wildly about the universe, it made it awfully easy to picture Mr. Stephenson showing up in some other fandoms, hence this tale. FANTASTIC JOURNEY only lasted for 7 episodes, but I loved Roddy McDowall; it also starred Jared Martin,Carl Franklin, and Ike Eisenmann.
Take a fantastic journey to Jane's Story Page.
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Copyright © 1999 - 20013, Jane A. Leavell. All rights reserved.