by Barry Wiley
Enjoy this never before published mystery of sorts, with a bit of a twist.
The rustling well-dressed crowd of Parisian lace and titles applauded with some spirit as, still blindfolded, I placed my hand gently on the shoulder of the mistress of the house, the Countess Cladissa D’Dadario, identifying her as the bloody assassin. As I removed the blindfold, tossing it aside, she, in turn, a gracious lady of perhaps mid-fifties, with many rumored affairs, began to laugh.
“Quite marvelous, Monsieur Stuart Cumberland, and … most threatening to a woman who might want to keep her thoughts, ah, concealed.” She stood, joining in the just fading applause. The crowd began to think of other things, as two of her attendants carried a large silver and gilt champagne punchbowl into the vast ornate chamber, its arresting bibelots on every shelf and mantle, closely followed by five dainty servants bearing silver platters piled high with fragrant temptations. The Countess added, cocking her head mischievously, “Can you just gather up the thoughts of others as you might walk through your day… passing them on the streets?”
I always try to close my soirees with the assassination scenario, as it had become, in my now six-year career as the preeminent thought reader in Victoria’s Empire, almost my hallmark, even my symbol. But no, I cannot actually reach into anyone’s mind. While always blindfolded, I detect the thoughts of my subjects in the course of certain situations, through detecting, while holding their wrist, certain nervous tremors that may result from their tight mental focus on the problem at hand, as in the case of the Countess, who had selected the victim, the weapon (a brass bookend), and finally the assassin himself, though she chose to take that role herself. Oddly, it seemed, in the past few months, my assassins have been more frequently female for some reason.
I bowed over the delicate hand of the Countess and said in French, the language for the evening, “No, I do not try to detect thoughts arbitrarily…only through the cooperation of my subject. I have no interest in being an unwelcome explorer.”
“So very nicely put, sir. Please do join my guests as an honored guest yourself.” Bidding me good fortune, Countess D’Dadario excused herself and vanished into the jostling, lively collection of many of the elite of the City of Light.
I had arrived from Vienna the previous day for a four day visit in Paris before returning to London to conclude a three-week tour of the royalty and aristocracy of Europe, all of whom wanted to experience the mysterious thrill of thought reading—often with very handsome contributions to my exchequer. As I had developed my career in the past years, I increasingly performed only for the upper class in whatever country, while no longer appearing in public venues. Exclusivity brought gold—music halls brought copper.
She was remarkable. Young, dark haired, an intriguing one-sided smile, attractive, but not beautiful, well dressed, but oddly in last year’s style, and most patient, as she had waited near a modest marble statue of Athena for my usual crowd of questioners who approach me after each of my engagements with the usual questions of the occult and such, regardless of the language of the evening. Glancing away and then back toward me, a sudden flash of regret, perhaps even disappointment, swept over her placid features.
After about twenty minutes, with only one elderly man remaining to tell me about a spirit medium he had just experienced, she moved toward me.
“A most interesting experience, Mr. Cumberland,” she said in English, her voice almost analytic in tone, like a doctor commenting on a broken leg. “I regret I arrived a few moments too late to become one of your subjects.”
I smiled. An odd feeling was growing up my backside. Not my usual response to an attractive woman. She glanced down at her empty left hand, as though expecting to see something there, then looked quickly back at me.
“Are you staying in Paris, Mademoiselle, you don’t seem French, as I am not French.”
Her laugh was gentle. “I am Loretta Lagarde, and no, I am not French. I am in Paris for a time. I am not sure yet for just how long.”
The crowd was spreading about the Countess’s grand music room, settling at chairs and tables, with glasses and filled silver plates. I had answered all the questions and had said my formal farewells to the Countess and the other necessary people.
“May I suggest we go to an interesting small café only a short walk up the boulevard, for a more quiet conversation, and,” I grinned, “much better food.”
Loretta nodded agreement, her smile still one-sided.
All the small marble tables of the café, Bouteille D’or, were empty, our service was quick and Loretta asked, over the rim of a tulip glass of fine cognac, “In your travels, reading the thoughts of many peoples, Mr. Cumberland, have you ever encountered thoughts not of this time?”
“This time?” I frowned.
“This century, this time, October 1886,” she said. “I overheard your response to the Countess regarding reading the minds of passing people. A very astute response.”
I was stymied. In the six years of my career performing thought reading throughout the British Empire, on the Continent, in North America, the Middle East, and even the Sandwich Islands, I thought I had heard every question possible regarding my art. But not this one.
Her smile was growing less polite and more challenging as she raised an eyebrow.
I frowned. “I am not sure why someone’s thoughts in another time would not be much the same as someone living in 1886. Yours is a puzzling question.”
Her smile was too controlled. I had encountered such smiles, most frequently in Russia, particularly in the Czarist Court. Almost as though auditioning for a stage role, trying to discern where the other actors were standing, without being obvious.
“Ah, Mr. Cumberland,” said Loretta, “I am a writer of fantasy stories for children, but I am trying now to write such a novel for adults. One where a character from another time appears in the present. I am trying to envision what differences might be revealed, perhaps accidentally, by the stranger from the future to those around him. Thus my poorly worded question,”
“Another time. From the past or the future?”
I smiled, signaled for refills of our cognac and cheeses, and said, “How far into the future? A year or two, there probably would be no difference with 1886, but perhaps 10-15 years would be different in some way, perhaps thinking about traveling to London by balloon; by reading challenging books not dealing with ’86 problems, of which there are many; perhaps,” as other thoughts began to flow, “medical advances and cures we do not now enjoy. Where could it stop? I don’t know.”
“From 2036,” she said, firmly.
“Like the strange predictive novels of Jules Verne? Submarines and journeys to the moon?”
“Nothing so simple. And Verne never wrote of mindreading.” She glanced hurriedly out the window, then glanced again at her empty left hand. Her face paled, as her jaw set firmly.
I didn’t have to be a thought reader to see Loretta was becoming seriously disturbed—-by 2036?
“May I suggest we leave quickly. Cabs are plentiful on the boulevard.”
She rose in answer.
As the cab pulled away from the curb, the skies beginning to weep, I smiled, hopefully, “Our conversations would probably be considered absurd…to any listener…were it not for one thing.”
Loretta looked over at me, yellow-orange flickerings from the passing gas street lights running across her face as the cab began to move more rapidly. “What one thing?” The three words were whispered slowly.
“Your empty left hand.” I heard her suck in her breath.
She clenched her hands, her head bowed. Loretta was silent. I had struck deeper than I had intended.
“Who is following you…and, if I may ask, why? I am accustomed to keeping secrets, Loretta, I have several myself.” I spoke with a lighter voice, to try to defuse the instant almost palpable tension within the cab. Also, as all thought readers are gamblers, I wanted to know what game I was now playing. I was not armed. I never carry a gun. But I can run fast.
She was silent.
I waited as the cab moved through the light evening traffic of a now rainy, but not romantic Paris.
“Just Stuart,” I said.
She nodded. “I have been arrogant in my thoughts, of which I have the feeling that you have been aware.”
“You have been speaking in a manner,” I said, “that closely resembles that of people I have observed in various courts where the king, sultan, or khedive had the power to erase a life with but the smallest gesture of his hand…as though you were uncertain of who could be listening, and what action you might trigger.”
“You have read me very well, Stuart. You read beyond your performances… as I thought probable… and, yes, feared.” Her voice flowed naturally, her low tones no longer defensive.
The cab drew to a stop. Parisienne friends, a delightfully outrageous painter and his latest wife, now traveling on the Riveria had loaned me their rooms for my stay—-to offset my similar action for them at my Club in London three months ago
Still not knowing the game I was playing, I tried to note anything that appeared out of place — anything, of any shape. Like that malformed shadow across the street just moving slowly as the cab pulled away. But it was a tree bending in a sudden gust of wind. I shook my head.
A gambler with no cards to play.
Loretta’s eyes lit up on seeing Pablo’s wild renderings hanging and leaning against the walls, little odd mannequins, one of which he insisted was me reading thoughts, but I could never identify it.
I regretted momentarily lighting a lamp, as that might identify to anyone closely watching where we might be, but Pablo’s studio could be dangerous in the dark.
We sat in the client’s corner, as they called the only inhabitable portion of the living room. I poured an excellent red from Marrissa’s collection, and asked, again, “What game are we playing?”
After a moment, Loretta nodded. “You are accustomed to odd discoveries, Stuart, so my story will be just another one. I am from 2036. How I got to 1886 is of no moment. I am from the New Dominion, what used to be Canada and America which is now one country. I was arrogant in assuming that coming from 150 years in the future my intellect would be easily superior to those in the past. I am tragically wrong, as you have so graciously taught me.”
“You did some historical work before embarking on your trip in time, Loretta, but not precise enough. Your style is out of date, and your manner made, to me anyway, your separateness evident. What is the game? We don’t know how much time we have. What about your left hand?”
She sipped, and sipped again. “A delicious vintage. How nicely you put it. In my time and place we have achieved a socialism based on creating an addiction in the population with the government in complete control of the drug necessary to abate the pain of addiction. You have opium and morphine easily available in your time, but those addictions are too destructive to use on a general population, so milder drugs, with a sharp addictive kick are used. We don’t fade into a sleep state as with your drugs. In my time the people work longer because you need to, the drug energizes you.
“But that isn’t the game, as you call it. After five years research, the government has developed the capability of mind reading in certain people. The government, through a nationwide series of examinations, promising, of course, to reward those who performed the best, moved to remove everyone who had exhibited the undeveloped capability of telepathy in order to ensure only those chosen by the government could gain the actual ability. Now, without a mind reading capability, the people cannot challenge the government. And they, the government, maybe even, I’m not sure, may come to be able to control the minds of the people and convert us all into pathetic mental slaves. The people, some at least, must recover the ability to read minds in order to defend ourselves, to begin to free ourselves of the addiction, thus my trek to 1886, and to your audience. I need to find courageous people with clean minds, free of the addiction, for them to have a chance to gain telepathy. I have shaken the addiction, but it has been, and is painful, with the lure of the addiction always…always beckoning.”
“Government men discovered evidence of my using the only time-adjustment apparatus the country has. It is very new, and its full effects on the traveler are unknown. But I had to find help.”
I went to the curtain at the window, drew it back. “Are we being hunted by mind readers?” As odd a question as I have ever asked, and an oddly troubling one. My cards were not strong.
I turned back. “How many? Darkness would be of little aid, unless…unless we think only of 1886.”
“Possibly two or three. The apparatus could not transport more. They want to kill me in-place, then return to 2036.”
I guess she was taken with my quirky grin. “Perhaps they will be as arrogant as you were, in their assumption of superiority. There are two men who are trying awkwardly to be part of a group across the street. They may have been able to listen to our conversation in the cab and followed us. But mind reading, likely, could not be that directional. They apparently know we are in this building, but not where.”
“Come, Loretta, let’s find them. But think 1886. Think of me, for example,” I laughed.
We moved down the stairs a floor. I pointed to a corner, and whispered a direction. Loretta nodded, her smile strangely off-balance, and moved quickly. I moved down another floor. First blowing out the gas sconce on the landing, I stepped quietly across into a darkened doorway. I withdrew and opened a folding knife.
Surprise is surprise, regardless of the century.
Quiet steps. Then a pause. Then more steps. Another pause. Were they were listening for 2036 at each door? Now up a floor. Steps and pauses. Up another floor. My floor was next. I looked up at Loretta, gave her the signal to start thinking 2036, whatever that might entail. She shifted her feet, the floor creaked, then creaked again.
The steps stopped, then resumed more rapidly. Two dim forms came into view, short and dark. With an odd cock to their heads, they seemed to be listening, but perhaps tapping into Loretta’s 2036 thoughts, connecting only with her. I, however, could think comfortably. When they arrived on my landing, they whispered something, then one started gently up the stairs with the second moving to be a step behind.
I moved quickly. My left arm under his chin, I jerked his head back, my right with the knife slashed across his throat. There was no sound. I lowered him down—then took his place two steps behind the first mugger. Once he stepped on Loretta’s landing, I moved two steps at time. I came up behind him.
“Well, Loretta, you will never threaten…”
I jerked his head back, slashed across his throat, then laid him quietly on the landing.
“My god, Stuart, I never heard you.”
“Neither did they. They were focused on your thoughts. They assumed no one else was around since they are smarter than anyone in 1886.” I shook my head. Did I really say that?
Smiling, Loretta said I was too big for the time adjustor, thus I gave her a contact in London, a young writer I had met some weeks ago at one of my soirees, Herbert Wells, who knew others who thought about fantastic things, a few of whom would definitely want to take a time trek.
And that empty left hand? She took an object out of her pocket. It was some kind of a glassy object about the size and shape of a billfold. It was used in her world for communications, she explained, unsafe communication as the government recorded every message exchanged—and their minions would come looking for you if your messages did not continue to appear as expected. She had had two hours in which to make her escape to 1886. Loretta had come to 1886 because of an encyclopedic entry about me she had discovered on her communicator. Me? In 150 years? That’s more remarkable than time travel. (I did not ask if she knew the date of my death.)
Pressing some 1886 English currency in her hand, I placed her on the train for Calais to meet the boat crossing to England. Loretta threw her arms around my neck. “I will remember you, Stuart. 1886 has been an education in genuine freedom…and in humility.”
There was a note waiting for me when I returned to my Club in London four days later.
Two men are returning with me. They call the time adjustor a time machine. How odd.
Perhaps — another evening?
Perhaps — another time?
Seeing Loretta’s note sticking out under a book at the edge of my desk caused me to reflect on what I’ve written above. I went off to track down Herbert Wells. He mangled my thoughts with one word.
In answer to my question regarding Loretta, Wells answered, “Who?” He had never met the woman I described, and neither had any of his friends, though he thought my story a bit too fantastic, but still intriguing. Time travel. Wells shook his head. History is fixed, he commented. Time travel would be a meaningless plot device.
So, who had I killed—-and for what purpose? I was defending a defenseless woman—I thought—-a time traveler, no less. But two men were dead. I sent a cable to a friend in Paris, Brice Dominque, a writer for a political magazine, asking if he had seen or heard any news about two murdered men. I gave him the general location.
Three days later, just before I left my Club for Paddington station to travel to the West Country to perform two soirees, I received a letter.
Stuart, he wrote, how did you know? The government is trying to keep it quiet. When I asked a friend in the nearest precinct to the location you described, he regarded me with decided suspicion. Two members of the Deuxieme Bureau were tracking a notorious female Czarist assassin noted for her quick skill with a knife, always with her left hand, but were apparently killed by her backups. Some evidence was found establishing her presence at the site of the killing, but she had vanished.
Your thought reading, Stuart, will be the death of you yet. Watch your back, Brice.
Loretta’s story was bizarre, but as I dealt regularly with the bizarre being, after all, a thought reader, her story of time travel carried some attractive element of—-of, well, legitimacy. But, as the train pulled out of Paddington, leaning back in my seat, I realized she had read me better than I had read her, and quicker as well, which had led to my gallantly taking two innocent lives.
Time travel. Wells was right. No writer would waste his time on such a pathetic plot line.
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