art by Agata Maciagowska
He Could Be Ambrose Bierce
by Shaenon Kelty Garrity
"On August 6, 1930," said Mona, "Justice Joseph Crater stepped into a taxi in New York City and was never seen again."
"Are you still stalking the guy across the street?" said Daryl.
"I'm not stalking. I'm monitoring." With nervous white fingers, Mona parted the blinds.
"What you're doing right now? Stalking."
Mona ignored her husband. Across the street, the little man was planting flowers. Something orange. He really was little; that was the first thing that had tipped her off. People were smaller back in the restricted centuries. He was… not ethnic, exactly, but dark enough to suggest a general foreignness: Greek or Italian or Hispanic or Arab or Indian, even. He could be from anywhere--anywhere but Dimdell, Wisconsin, which was where he was. He bent over his trowel so Mona could see his bald spot.
"Just go talk to him," Daryl was saying. "Strike up a neighborly conversation. He moved in a week ago and we still don't know his name."
"He lives under the name of Glass," said Mona. She watched the orange blossoms go up in rows and thought of the lights of Times Square.
"Right… that probably means that's his name. So you've talked to him?"
Mona didn't answer. If she told Daryl she'd found the name of C. Glass by going through the man's mailbox while he was out on his evening walk around the allotment, he'd take it all wrong.
"You, of all people, know how unlikely it is to meet a displaced person," said Daryl. "The Bureau places them all over the open centuries."
Not all over, Mona didn't say. The quiet, out-of-the way places. Which meant they could place one in Dimdell.
"That job is frying your brain."
"Oscar Zeta Acosta, the inspiration for 'Doctor Gonzo' in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, disappeared in Mexico in 1974." The flowers shone like desert suns through the cool, gray springtime dusk.
"See, that's exactly what I'm talking about."
"Hunter S. Thompson called him too weird to live, and too rare to die."
The next morning, on the way to the bus stop, Mona checked C. Glass's flowerbed. Nasturtiums. Interesting.
She took the bus into Madison. It was a long ride, but she and Daryl only had one car, and at least it gave her time to read. She was in the middle of a good book, a thriller about a historian who gets entangled in intrigue in the court of Queen Elizabeth. Mona opened to her careful bookmark: the hero had already fallen in love with the anachronistically spirited daughter of a court musician, only to learn that she was fated to die of poisoning. Would he risk altering the timeline to save her? Of course--unless he was assassinated himself in the process.
Pure fantasy, Mona knew. She'd circulated enough memos around the Madison branch of the Federal Time Displacement Bureau to know that travelers never, under any circumstances, deliberately disrupted history. It was bad enough that alterations sometimes happened by accident. Skirmishes with Purity were no laughing matter, and any traveler who showed the slightest inclination toward interfering with the past would find his or her license permanently revoked.
But it made for a good story.
A stack of completed reports awaited Mona at the office. She filed them, using the ID codes stamped on each lilac cover sheet. All names and identifying details were redacted for the general files. That was how every report read, REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED REDACTED. Licensee J614WLS87daisy returned from REDACTED with 512 photographic images, 1 video recording of REDACTED. Licensee filed a full satisfactory report and approved the closing of Gate 816. Digital copies of all collected data are available in the Central Stacks save REDACTED and REDACTED, which have been rerouted to REDACTED for additional REDACTED.
She filed reports. She microwaved lunch. She filed reports.
When she got home, C. Glass was out tending his flowerbed again. Bulbs this time. Mona felt his gaze on her as she hurried up the street. He didn't suspect that she'd been watching him, did he? The last thing she wanted to do was make a possible refugee uncomfortable.
Maybe Daryl was right and the friendly-neighbor approach was the way to go. Less suspicious. "Nice night," she ventured.
C. Glass jumped. "Yes," he said. "Nice enough."
He had an accent! It was faint, but Mona could hear it. "Enough for what?" she asked.