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art by Agata Maciagowska

He Could Be Ambrose Bierce

"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.
"Nice enough for what?"
"Oh." C. Glass glanced around, as if expecting teams of assassins to spring from the hedges. "Nice enough to be out planting, I guess."
"Oh. Of course." This wasn't going well. She was terrible at being a friendly neighbor. She should have sent Daryl out instead; people liked Daryl. "Well, I'll be going home."
"All right."
"Across the street."
"Oh yes. That's, er, your house, then?"
Mona scurried away. Only when the door had shut behind her did she realize she'd forgotten to ask his name.
"I think he sounds Australian. He might be Australian."
"He doesn't look Australian."
"Australians can look like all kinds. And they do disappear from history a lot."
"Probably eaten by sharks."
Mona put the hot dogs on the Foreman grill. "In 1978, pilot Frederick Valentich disappeared over the Bass Strait in Australia along with his Cessna 182L. In 1966, the three Beaumont children disappeared from a beach near Adelaide. In 1967, the prime minister disappeared."
"The prime minister?"
"Harold Holt. Went for a swim and never came back."
"There you go. Sharks."
"It wasn't sharks with that pilot. People blamed UFOs."
The oven timer beeped. Daryl grabbed a spatula for turning the French fries. "So… what? You think our new neighbor is a Cessna pilot from the seventies?"
"I'm just thinking out loud. He might be from earlier. You know I talked to him tonight?"
"He said it was a nice night for planting."
"Well, that settles it. He's from another century."
"Maybe he was a farmer in his own time. Or a gardener. Maybe planting is the only thing here he finds familiar." Mona sighed.
"Well, lucky for him he got placed in a time with baked beans and hot dogs. You ready for dinner?"
"Yes, of course." Mona ducked into the living room to peer through the blinds one last time. C. Glass wasn't home. He was always home at this hour. Where could he have gone?
The eleven o'clock news reported an accidental continuity breach in 16th-century Morocco. Few details were available, but it was confirmed that at least six people had become detached from history as a result. TDB agents had been dispatched to retrieve those people and place them in the open centuries before Purity got to the new timeline.
"Bet that'll keep you busy tomorrow," said Daryl.
"Portuguese," said Mona.
"Forget Australian. C. Glass sounds Portuguese."
"Oh, come on."
"In 1578, King Sebastian of Portugal vanished in Morocco while on crusade. I bet he's a refugee. I bet the field agents are retrieving him now."
"If they're only rescuing him now, how could he have moved into our neighborhood a month ago?"
Mona looked at him in exasperation. "Daryl, it's time travel."
The Moroccan debacle had the office jumping. Mona was on her feet all day, routing memos and running messages from cubicle to cubicle. Nobody in Madison had any more information than the general public, but rumors flew thick and fast. Mona ignored them.
After work, Mona stopped at the downtown library. She'd finished the thriller--disappointing ending, the musician's daughter died--and she deserved something fluffy and fun, with the day she'd had. Something with a happy ending. There was a new romance novel, Deserts of Eternity, on the paperback rack. Her throat caught as she read the back-cover copy: a TDB agent and a Purity assassin, trapped in ancient Mesopotamia together. It couldn't be more perfect.
On the spur of the moment, Mona also checked out a book about Morocco.
C. Glass was nowhere to be seen. He seemed to have abandoned his gardening projects. In fact, Mona couldn't recall having seen him since their brief conversation. She chewed her lip, worried. How could she reassure him that she wouldn't reveal his secret? That it was just innocent curiosity?
At least Deserts of Eternity didn't disappoint, Mona thought as she finished the book at her desk. A beautiful but steel-willed young TDB agent was sent to the Babylonian Empire to locate a displaced person, a terra-cotta sculptor who'd become detached from history in a continuity breach, and place him safely in the future before Purity got to him. Naturally, the sculptor turned out to be tall, dark, and muscular, and, after some thoroughly satisfying sexual tension, the agent abandoned her oath to engage in a steamy bathhouse sex scene. Then a twist! The sculptor was a Purity agent in disguise!
"Are you seriously reading that?"
Mona looked up, startled. It was Rich from two cubicles down, grinning like a jackal.
Rich grabbed the book out of her hands. "I can't believe the crap that gets published about the Bureau. Oh, man… 'Sky McGuire has room for only one love in her life: her career in the TDB. But her latest assignment in ancient Babylonia introduces her to passion she never knew existed, in the form of an assassin from Purity who's as dangerous as he is seductive.' Like anyone's ever actually talked to a Purity terrorist."
It was just fiction, Mona didn't say. It was obviously well-researched, she didn't say; some of the false Arshaka's dialogue was lifted directly from Purity's online manifestos. It made for a good story. She stared at her keyboard.
"This needs to go in the break room," said Rich. He walked off, flipping through her book. Soon Mona could hear people laughing as he read the juiciest scenes out loud.
Mona slunk home. The book about Morocco was in her bag, but she didn't feel like reading. Instead she looked out the bus window, watching the freeway exits go by. Taco Bell, White Castle, Mickey D's, over and over in the gathering dusk.
The lights were out in the C. Glass residence. He couldn't have gone to bed yet, could he? He didn't usually turn off the lights until 11:30 or so.
She should go to bed herself, come think. It had been a long day. A long, bad day. She shouldn't do what she was thinking of doing.
Quietly--she was good at being quiet--Mona crept up to C. Glass's house. She peered in the window. She could make out stacks of books, mostly paperbacks. Was he learning English? Studying up on his new era?
Maybe. Or maybe he was just a man with a lot of books.
Mona tiptoed around the side of the house, hoping for a view of the kitchen. You could tell a lot about people by their kitchens. The novels she read always included lush descriptions of the food in the restricted centuries: spiced wine and honeyed dormice in ancient Rome (the Ninth Legion, vanished during the Roman invasion of Britain in the second century), fried apples and meat pies in Richard III's England (the princes in the tower), pineapple upside-down cake and black-market rum in the 1920s (the crew of the Carroll A. Deering).
The snap of a twig made her turn. Across the street, under the eaves of her own house, a shadow moved.
C. Glass didn't hear Mona walk up behind him. She didn't mean to startle him, but she was naturally quiet and he was busy looking in her kitchen window. When she tapped him on the shoulder, he yelped. "Oh crap," he said. "Oh crap."
I should demand to know what he's doing, Mona thought. Or threaten to call the police. That's what people do in these situations, right?
"I'm sorry," said C. Glass. "I was just curious, is all."
I should do something. Why do I never know what to do?
"I'm from Michigan, you see. I've never met an actual agent."
Mona found her voice. "A what?"
"A TDB agent. I knew there was a branch in Wisconsin, but I never expected to move in across the street from one."
"Wait. Why do you think I'm an agent?"
C. Glass rubbed his bald spot. "Well… you don't talk to any of the neighbors, that was the first thing that tipped me off. And I don't see you driving to work like everyone else."
"I take the bus."
"It was just suspicious. So I wasn't surprised to find out you worked for the Bureau."
"How do you know I work at the Bureau?"
Even in the dark, Mona could see C. Glass turn red.
"You went through my mail."
"Are you saying… you're not an agent?"
Mona opened her mouth. I'm a file clerk, she was going to say. I've never traveled to all those places and times. I've never even left Wisconsin.
"You want to come over for dinner?" she asked. "It's just casserole, but there ought to be enough to go around."
"I know what I'm doing. Trust me--I'm from the Bureau."
C. Glass brightened. "Dinner would be great."
"One thing?"
"Don't tell Daryl where you're from. Just… play it cool."
"You know, Jimmy Hoffa disappeared in Michigan."
"1975. Very suspicious circumstances," C. Glass said.
The porch light clicked on. That meant Daryl was waiting with dinner. Cool and professional, Mona and C. Glass strode to the front door.
The End
This story was first published on Tuesday, December 11th, 2012
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