Crispin Dench pulled up to the curb and cut the engine. Driving up the driveway and parking at the door may have given the wrong message: that they really wanted to be there.
The house was a boxy number, an elegant ruin, set way back from the street and surrounded by tall gates and a high stone wall.
Trudy Parr sat in the passenger seat. “I still don’t know why we’re here,” she said.
“Good will,” said Dench, checking his Omega.
The residents in the neighbourhood paid well, but the work was tedious. Wives and husbands competing with one another at a game called betrayal, calling in private investigators to compile evidence to make accusations stick. The firm of Dench and Parr Investigations had stopped taking fidelity jobs long ago – leaving that work for amateurs, breaking into the business. Since then, they’d been handling cold cases, murders and missing persons the cops couldn’t be bothered with, but that families or friends would pay to solve. Whatever this call was about, they were ready to say no.
Their appointment was with a Dr Thornton Dallas at 10 a.m. It was now 9:50. They sat in the Jag listening to the radio. Trudy Parr wished she’d brought a Raymond Chandler novel. As she sat regretting the oversight, an Asian woman in a maid’s outfit walked up to the passenger side of the car and tapped on the window. Trudy rolled it down.
“Dench and Parr?” said the maid.
“Guilty,” Trudy said.
“Dr Dallas will see you now,” the maid said, and walked back up the driveway to the house.
Dench sat back and lit a Gitane, then tuned the radio to another station – Nat King Cole was singing, Nature Boy.
“This might be fun, after all,” said Trudy Parr. “It’s already a little flaky, and we haven’t even knocked on the door.”
After taking his time finishing his cigarette, Dench started the car and drove up to the front door. They parked and knocked. A grim looking elderly man answered. A butler, thought Trudy Parr. She smiled. His right hand shook a bit. He said, “Yes?” Two small dogs stood at the door, wagging their tails. The butler looked down with disdain.
“Dench and Parr,” said Trudy. “Here to see Dr Dallas.”
“That meeting does not commence until ten o’clock,” the butler said. “You’re early.”
“But the Chinese woman…,” Dench said.
Ignoring him, the butler showed them chairs in the hall next to the front door where they were to wait until summoned.
Trudy Parr looked the situation over. “This is why everyone thinks the butler done it, Jasper,” she said to the butler. Then she walked past him, into a formal sitting room beyond. It was all mahogany and leather. She took an overstuffed chair. “Tea if you got it,” she said.
Crispin Dench followed her in and began to inspect the bric-a-brac.
“The name is not Jasper,” the butler said, stoically. “It’s Julio. Please wait, and don’t break anything.”
Trudy Parr picked up a New Yorker from a stand. They waited.
“Well, Nathan is an asshole.”
The words came from a sofa facing away from them in front of a window.
“I wouldn’t su…. I did not. The prick is lying, so ignore what he says. Hang on.”
A face popped up, looking over the back of the couch. It was young and pretty.
“I have to go, Daphne,” she said. “There’re a couple of desperate looking characters in the room. Bye.” She hung up the phone and said, “Have you two been looked after?”
“What floor’s sportswear on in this joint?” Dench asked.
“Ha, ha! That’s real funny,” said the girl. “Servants and trades belong in the back, shoo.” She said ‘shoo’ while making a dismissive gesture with her hand and looking off in another direction.
“I’m not the help, Sugar,” said Trudy Parr. “Someone named Dallas called us. We were supposed to meet at ten. It’s now seven minutes after.”
“And who do you think this Dallas person is, Miss?”
“That’s what we’re here to find out, Junior,” Trudy said.
The girl’s eyes widened. “Are you Communists? Daddy just hates Communists.”
“That depends,” Dench said. “What do you think of Communists?”
“I think Communist boys always look so crazy and dreamy.”
“…and they rarely bathe,” Dench said. “As for the two of us, we’re private investigators.”
“Really?” She sat up in excitement. “Even her?”
Dench looked over at Trudy Parr, and said, “Especially her.”
“You carrying guns?”
“Well, why not?”
“Because they go off and people get killed.”
“Don’t some people have to get killed? Isn’t it you or them?”
“I leave the gun at home in my freezer,” said Trudy, “next to the ice cream and the fish bait.”
“Some private eyes you are.”
“There’s always the movies, Sugar. They’ve got a million private dicks and each one’s got a gun, maybe two, and a million young broads laying face down in the family swimming pool.”
“I don’t think I like you, lady,” the girl said.
Then someone interrupted, “Samantha? Samantha, is that you?” It was Dr Dallas walking into the parlour. “Oh, there you are, Samantha. I’m so glad you haven’t left yet.”
“Daddy, I don’t leave for boarding school for another week.”
Dallas saw Dench and Parr. “And who are you?”
“They’re private eyes, Daddy. Not a very nice ones, either.”
“Their job probably doesn’t inspire much in the way of niceness,” Dallas said. “It’s Dench, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” Dench said, “but please don’t call me by my last name.”
“Very well, what is your first name?”
“Mister,” Dench replied.
“Ah, Mr. Dench,” Thornton Dallas said, “just so. And who is this lovely creature?” Dallas looked at Trudy Parr as an afterthought. “Did you bring your secretary?”
“Maybe we should have brought guns, after all,” Trudy said.
“She’s my partner,” Dench said. “You said you wanted to see us both, over the telephone. So, here we are.”
“I’d no idea…,” Dallas said.
“Now you do,” said Trudy Parr, as she turned a page of the New Yorker.
Dallas was an obese man, balding, in an expensive suit and shoes. But Trudy Parr thought his tie was bad. He was greying and jowly, and had small porcine eyes.
“I think we should go to my study,” Dallas said. “Please follow me.”
The house was a maze of hallways and doors. Dallas stopped at what seemed a wall and slid a large panel to one side and directed Dench and Parr in.
The study was large, two stories high with a mezzanine, more of the same leather and mahogany as elsewhere. Every inch of wall was covered with books. The grim elderly butler appeared.
“Would you like a drink, Mr Dench?” Dallas asked.
“Too early for me,” Dench said. “But do you mind if I smoke?”
“Not at all,” Dallas said and patted himself down for something, a lighter as it turned out, “perhaps I’ll have a pipe at that.”
“Glenlivet,” said Trudy Parr, taking a chair and lighting a Black Cat. “Or whatever passes for a single malt round here.”
“Ah,” Dallas said, looking as though he’d forgotten about Trudy Parr. “Julio, Glenlivet for the lady. Ice, Miss Parr?”
“You should know better,” Trudy said.
Dallas started to go through a ritual of knocking old tobacco out of a pipe that had been resting in an ashtray. He filled it again from a leather pouch. Then, not having found his lighter in any of his pockets, he searched vigorously for a wooden match. He found one in a bronze elephant figurine next to a desk lamp. Striking it on the trunk of the elephant, he began puffing. When he was content that the pipe was properly lit, it went out. He began again.
The butler arrived with Trudy Parr’s drink. “Your single malt, madam.”
“This tobacco’s a special blend, you know,” Dallas said between puffs. “Bring it in from Ireland,” puff, puff, puff. “Ah, well,” he said at last, disappointed. ”Wasn’t meant to be.” He placed the unlit pipe back into the ashtray, and said, “So, Mr Dench, it’s certainly nice of you to come.”
“I have to agree since consultations are gratis,” said Trudy Parr. “But I’m not sure why we’re here.”
“Of course, of course.” He started to shuffle through papers on his desk. “Ah, here it is.” He handed something over to Crispin Dench. “Take a look and tell me what you think.”
It was an unopened envelope inside a transparent plastic sleeve. Dench examined it, looking for the punch line, but there wasn’t one.
“Just an unopened envelope,” he said, holding it in his right hand. “Addressed to some egghead at a university address.”
“Yes, I’m a professor there, myself. Do you know anything about physics, Mr Dench? Quantum mechanics, fractal theory, that sort of thing?”
“We were involved with some intelligence which involved weapon development during the war,” Trudy Parr said.
“Atomic weapons?” Dallas asked.
“I see,” Dallas said. “Still hush, hush, eh? Well based on that, you may understand a little about mans’ quest to travel through time and the progress that’s been made.” He sat there with a straight face while digging a fleshy finger into his ear.
“Not really,” Dench said.
“Hmm,” Dallas said. “Well anyway take another look at the envelope, especially the stamp and the post mark.”
He did and was a little surprised. The stamp cost more than a dollar. It should have only cost a few cents. And it looked strange, more colourful and stylistically different than what he was used to seeing. Then he looked harder and saw something very strange. The postmark was Philadelphia. December, 2013 — sixty-four years in the future.
“I haven’t got time for bullshit, Dr Dallas.”
“I assure you that it is not bullshit, sir.” He was sounding bombastic, and Trudy Parr’s interest was waning. “A colleague of mine, a Dr Wilshire, died last month. That’s his name and office address on the envelope. I found it in amongst some of his miscellaneous papers. I had a feeling some time ago that he had made some break through concerning the question of time mobility. His were mostly experiments with inanimate objects and small lab animals. His primary goal was not just to send them forward in time, but to safely retrieve them. I was able to find full documentation of those experiments, but nothing to explain this. He must have somehow gotten himself to the year 2013, and spent time in Philadelphia, working in the time labs. Then mailed that to himself from there, for later delivery here, in 1949.” He pointed at the envelope. “But I can’t figure out why. Did he mean to return to open it?”
“And did he safely retrieve them,” asked Trudy Parr, “the small animals I mean?”
“According to his documentation, all the animals had to be put down,” Dallas said gravely. “They returned malformed.”
“But who mailed the envelope and how did it get here?” Dench asked.
“Well,” Dallas said, taking a deep breath. “We can’t know for sure unless it’s opened, but I suspect it was Wilshire, himself.”
“Go ahead and open it, then,” said Trudy Parr.
“It may be opened one day,” Dallas said, now toying with his pipe again. “But the contents of this envelope aren’t what concern me. Wilshire is dead, here in 1949. But a version of him may still be out there occupying a place in the future. It’s been proven to be a strong likelihood using the Hemming Multi-versal Theory. He could be causing irreparable damage to the space/time continuum every time he does something as simple as walking down a street or buying a cup of coffee.”
There were a few a seconds of silence. Trudy Parr lit another cigarette and said, “Where do we come into this, Dr Dallas?”
“Put simply, I want you to intercept Wilshire. We cannot know what took place when he arrived in the future or what damage he may have already done. So, I want to pay you to go and bring him back.”
Dench laughed out loud. “How?” he said.
“I’ve transferred the apparatus from Wilshire’s lab to my garage in the backyard,” Dallas said, his eyes starting to gleam. “I can send you off today to approximately where Wilshire might be.”
“You tried this out yet?” said Trudy Parr. “On the small lab animals?”
“Yes, yes, of course,” he said looking distracted by more important things.
“And what were the results?”
“I’ve made improvements, based on the results. There were just some slight mutations in morphology. You know, insignificant things, minor cranial warping, some spinal vertebrae reversal, inconsequential cross species contamination, heart and colon fusion, negligible cerebellum atrophy. However, I must say that the effects on the brain are actually nearly nonexistent. Although some trivial levels of psychosis have been observed.” He tried to light his pipe again without making eye contact.
“A walk in the park,” Dench said.
“Mmm, mmm,” Dallas sounded, pipe stem in his mouth, head nodding up and down.
“And how much were you planning to offer us,” said Trudy Parr, “for this modest expedition into the unknown?”
“Mmm,” Dallas sounded again, as pipe smoke began to fill the room around him. “What’s the going rate?”
“Look Dallas,” Dench said. “I think our office will be billing you, after all. This isn’t a consultation. It’s a freak show.”
Trudy Parr stood and began walking to the door.
“Wait,” Dallas said, suddenly in a panic. “Tell me how much you want. Let’s negotiate, hammer out a deal.”
“You haven’t even opened that damn envelope. It could answer all of your questions.”
Dallas looked sheepishly down at the envelope on his desk, and said, “My lawyer believes it’s more valuable unopened.”
Trudy Parr heard this as she was exiting the study. She walked back to Dallas’ desk. He seemed to cringe like she was going to slug him. Instead she picked up the precious envelope, and retrieved a gravity knife from her purse. She let the blade fall out of the handle and into place, and then sliced open the protective plastic sleeve.
Dallas began pulling at his hair.
“Don’t,” he shouted. She looked at the colourful stamp and thought for a moment about a colourful future, where it cost more than the price of a diner meal to mail a letter. Then she sliced the envelope open. Inside was a piece of white eight and a half by eleven paper, nearly blank. Thirty percent rag, she guessed, by its weight. Nothing special.
December 2, 2013
Note to self: invest heavily in AlphaLink Genetics of Ames, Iowa. This company will win worldwide licence for Ebola vaccine manufacture. Epidemic to strike 2014, be planet-wide by early 2015. Hundreds of millions to die. Also invest in armament manufacturers, unbridled riots engulf planet.
ps, to anyone who might read this before me:
The future is as disappointing as the past.
Dallas wept and mumble something about suing. Trudy Parr didn’t know what it meant. She and Dench read it three times, and all that made sense were the last words. The future is as disappointing as the past.
Trudy Parr thought, Halleluiah, brother.