(Determined by a random story idea generator)
The story features a journalist, who is always in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a jeweler, who likes to read obituaries.
It’s a suspense story about a mission of revenge. It kicks off at a hotel with the exposé of a shameful secret. (Note that: everything will change when a glamorous aunt enters the picture). And there’s a twist. (Which I will keep a secret, for now.)
A nondescript, small American city, in 2020.
The Satin Spar Hotel wasn’t just a hotel. It existed outside time and thus nowhere at all, a place where everything both happened all at once and had not yet come to pass.
People like Imogen Roycroft, and the man who’d summoned her, called it the Waypoint. She’d been there many times before, to relax or convalesce from injuries sustained on duty. But today—or tomorrow, or never, depending on how you looked at it—she was there to get a new assignment.
She sat down at a table in front of a man she knew only by one name: Junius. He worked for the Syndicate, of which there were few members. All she knew about the Syndicate was that they managed people like her, of whom there were many.
Imogen was an Assassin, but not just any kind. Assassins like her removed people from their own timelines, so to speak. Ancient Greece one week, 33rd century Singapore the next. The reasons why someone was marked for death didn’t concern her. She was the weapon, and the weapon didn’t ask questions.
Junius acknowledged her presence with a quick look up from his Epoch Gazette, a flash of blue behind the black and white. Imogen read the headline: “25th Century UN Council Opens Inquiry On Time Manipulation.” He kept reading; though Junius demanded punctuality, he was rarely ready when an appointment he arranged began. Since he had eternity to prepare, he clearly could be but chose not to.
Their surroundings were opulent and cluttered—oil paintings, marbeled wood work, jewel tones, gaudy Rococo furniture, busy wallpaper—and the room glowed with light from oil lamps. It was an ode to Imogen’s own time and she wondered if Junius had requested the decor to make her more comfortable. Even though she was from mid-19th century London, she’d only ever seen the inside of an orphanage, so she still felt out of place. The decor at the Satin Spar was always changing, in order to represent all points in time with equal reverence. Her favorite was the Aztec-inspired room, with its colorfully painted walls and intimidating sculptures.
A waitress arrived and Imogen ordered a cup of lemon herbal tea. As the woman’s heels clicked away, Junius slapped the paper down on the table. He rolled his eyes, but the gesture wasn’t intended for Imogen.
He sipped his own tea; his expression changed from flustered to annoyed.
“The first thing you need to know about our client is he’s a thoroughly reprehensible creature. Greedy, vengeful, irrational. I’ve never met a man so enamored with his own misfortune.” Junius was a dandy, with black, slick-backed hair, a narrow mustache, and an expensive pin-striped suit. He enjoined his hands in pretend prayer; candlelight flickered off his garnet pinky ring. “I beg of you, dear Imogen, follow this one through, because I cannot stand the thought of speaking to him again.”
The waitress arrived with Imogen’s tea and Junius watched her every move; when she walked away, he studied the movement of her hips with a predatory smile.
“I tried to tell him that there were far more effective ways to achieve his ends than the one he’d chosen, but my pleas fell on deaf ears. It’s revenge he really wants, not results. But…” Junius clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth. “If he gets results, he will be a very, very rich man. And thus we will be bestowed with a handsome sum, which we so sorely need.” His eyes flicked to the newspaper.
Imogen scowled. She wasn’t supposed to scowl, or react in any way. Though Junius wasn’t supposed to give her so much detail either. It was against policy and, more importantly, she didn’t really care. She rearranged her face and sipped her tea.
“You’re right, of course. It’s an unusual case, I dare say. Not for you, but the circumstances. We’ve taken collateral in lieu of payment, upon completion of the job, at which point his inheritance will be restored.” Junius smoothed his already-smooth mustache. “I have no doubt you will do well. You always do.”
Junius lay his soft hand across Imogen’s on the table. She didn’t think of taking it away, for Imogen was trained not to think. He leaned in. More details were forthcoming, which she didn’t need to hear. She often wondered if Junius thought they were friends.
“Our client has pinpointed the origin of his unhappiness to the year 2020 and one young man. Geordie Dittoe. Apparently, Dittoe revealed a secret about our client’s ancestor in a news article. A shameful, wretched business. It led to his downfall and thus, our client’s destitution decades later.”
A film of sweat had formed on the back of her hand, where his palm touched her skin.
“Since he has not paid us yet, your orders are the following: if Mr. Dittoe alters his own timeline and chooses not to write the story, you are to leave him alone.”
The Syndicate preferred not to interfere with time unless there was a significant incentive to do so, the incentive almost always being the will and might of the wealthy who sought to alter it for their own benefit. Time was a circle, Imogen’s master had taught her, and all things happened all at once, not one by one. Past, present, and future were all undetermined, and thus vulnerable to manipulation.
“If, however, Mr. Dittoe moves forward with his scandalous story…” Junius mimed a knife slashing a throat, though Imogen would use a far more subtle method of execution. “We’ll have to send Editors to make the necessary shifts to the timeline to account for his death, but the revisions will be minor.”
Junius finally peeled his hand from hers and leaned back luxuriously in his chair.
“As usual, your cut is one percent. But this is one percent of a very large pie. Enough to retire on, dear Imogen.”
Retire. The possibility had entered her mind, but never seriously. Assassins retired via one route—death. But Junius had made the distant fantasy real and she found it instantly alluring.
“What would you do? Return to London, 1858? Or another time altogether?”
Junius smiled and it was the most genuine smile she’d ever seen him wear. Imogen shrugged.
“You’re right. Best not think of it too soon. We’ll pause our celebrations until the job is done. Until Geordie Dittoe is dead.”
A bell tinkled Geordie’s arrival in the Page Turner Bookstore, but his girlfriend, Caroline, didn’t peer up from her paper.
“I’ve had at the worst day in the history of the world.” He walked behind the counter and fell dramatically into a folding chair.
“I highly doubt that’s true,” Caroline mused.
“Well, top ten at least. Don’t you want to hear what happened?”
“Mmmm.” Caroline ran her finger down a column of tightly-spaced type. Most likely an obituary, because that was the only reason she read the newspaper. “Graduate of the Chicago Art Institute… Wow… Wait a minute… Where did she work…”
Caroline believed obituaries were blueprints for life and she mined them for guidance in her own choices. Geordie grew up believing that his choices were made for him by poverty; he only saw limits. But Caroline—the wise, honest, beautiful Caroline—only saw possibilities.
“I said, don’t you want to hear what happened?”
“I almost got hit by a bus!”
This got her attention. She peered over her shoulder at him, red lips in a silent “o.”
“Yeah! I can’t be sure, because it all happened so fast, but I was walking along Hollyoak and I tripped over something, though I don’t know what. My stupid feet, probably. I was going along so fast that I practically leapt into the road. Some fella grabbed me at exactly the right moment. I literally felt the breeze across my face as the bus flew by.”
“Are you alright?” she said flatly.
To the outside ear, Caroline sounded psychotically unconcerned, but Geordie knew her well enough to recognize this as the height of emotion. She simply had a ho-hum, lazy way about her.
“Yeah, I’m fine.” He’d purposely lowered his voice into a morose sing-song, but Caroline didn’t pick up on it. She turned back around, reading the details of the dead woman’s life softly to herself, and he waited for her to ask what else was wrong.
Geordie was only a few months out of college and his first full-time, real, professional job wasn’t going so well. It was going so badly that he pined for the days he sliced cold cuts at Kroger’s for minimum wage and still lived with his mother and sister.
He crossed his leg at the ankle, watching Caroline lean over the counter. Dressed like a man four times his age— slacks and loafers, collared shirt and sweater—Geordie Dittoe was a sketch of a person and not yet the finished product. Uncertain and nervous, constantly fidgeting, always stuttering and delaying, he was a cute boy with messy black hair who would grow into a handsome man with chiseled, romantic features. Eventually. But today, he still had the gangly boniness and smooth cheeks of youth, which no one took seriously, not even himself.
Caroline, however, was the epitome of seriousness. Almost three years older than Geordie, street smart and wise, she’d know what he should do. For earlier that afternoon, he’d learned just how terrible people could be, and it rocked the optimistic Geordie to his core.
He reminded her of his presence. “Just some trouble at work…”
Still, the dead stranger in the obituary held Caroline attention. “She had this fancy degree, but she died a housewife…”
Geordie raised his voice. “It’s the story Joe assigned me…it’s just terrible Caroline. I think he gave it to me as a test. Sink or swim. That’s how this business works. I have to prove that I’m not a terrible reporter, but I don’t know if I can do it. If I can’t, I have a sneaking suspicion I’ll be fired.”
“Do you think it’s terribly crass to have a nanny? I mean, how else is a woman supposed to have a career and a family?”
“I said, I don’t know if I can do it.”
“Do what, Geordie?”
“Write this story.
“What’s it about again?”
He sighed heavily, but tried not to sound too annoyed. He had interrupted her favorite past time, after all.
“That lady, who worked at Foye Industries. She got sick after she inhaled some chemical. She has cancer, Caroline. It was awful. She says a whole bunch more people are sick, too, and gave me all their names. Says Foye’s cut corners at the plant to save money. He’s paid off her and the others to be quiet about it.” He leaned, elbows to knees, and put his face in his hands, and he saw the frail Mrs. Pickering, with her floral turban and her pale skin, and he felt ill. “How could someone do something like that?”
“Money, Geordie. To a wealthy man, people are numbers in a ledger and nothing more.” She made this grand statement in her typically flat tone.
Caroline spoke from experience—her father was a financial adviser, her mother a gynecologist, and Caroline their only child. Her life was neat and comfortable. Geordie, on the other hand, had grown up poor and on public assistance, the product of one of those family secrets everyone whispers about. The kind where your mother is really your sister, and your mother is your grandmother. Another reason they saw the world a little differently.
Geordie’s sheltered world was one of old-fashioned values: hard work, discipline, the infallibility of a vengeful God, and the dangers of everything from television to card games. In other words, he’d grown up in another time. Caroline had grown up in this one.
“I can’t do it!” Geordie said. “I can’t call all those sad, suffering people. It feels so wrong, asking them such personal questions. It’s none of my business, you know.”
Caroline finally left her paper behind and turned to face him, her back against the counter. “It’s your job. Reporters are nosy. That’s why people hate them.”
“I don’t want anyone to hate me.”
“Well, I’ll still like you.”
Caroline reached out her arms, inviting him into her perfumed embrace. Geordie fell into her, drawing her head under his chin, and closed his eyes. Growing up, girls had been strictly off-limits, too. Even in college. My roof, my rules! His grandmother yelled. The first thing he did when he could finally afford to move out, after getting his own place, was ask Caroline out on a date.
In the background, the bell tinkled and someone walked in. When Geordie turned to look, he saw only the heel of a boot, going down the Mystery and Suspense aisle. He sighed out deeply
“Osbourne Foye is a person, too. What if these people are lying, and something else made them sick? What if I’m about to run his name through the mud and he didn’t actually do anything wrong? He deserves to explain himself.”
His conscience told him that was the right thing. Geordie only got the job because he had a Bachelor’s Degree, but it wasn’t in journalism. So, he’d tried to teach himself, on the job. As far as he understood, he was supposed to be impartial, an observer and not a participant, and to tell a story as a bare list of facts, without embellishment or bias. But his co-workers didn’t work like that. He’d read their stories, filled with adjectives and interpretations. Sexier and more flashy than his. What was the right way to write this, or any, story?
The fact that he didn’t know told Geordie he shouldn’t be doing this at all.
Caroline pulled away and laid her soft hand on his cheek. “Always side with the powerless, Geordie. The powerful don’t need any more allies.” Where does she come up with this stuff? he thought. “Anyway, you’re coming tomorrow night, right? I need someone to protect me against Aunt Vivien. Her plane landed an hour ago. She makes me so nervous.”
Aunt Vivien had lent Caroline money to start up her own business, but it wasn’t easy money. She had to keep every receipt and invoice for her aunt’s inspection.
“Yes, of course. I wouldn’t miss it.”
“Good.” Caroline huffed and scrunched her nose. “I’m going to close early.”
“Don’t you need for permission for that?”
Caroline brushed this off. “Nah. What’s Mr. Rossman going to do? Tattle on me to Daddy?” The Page Turner’s owner and Caroline’s father were old friends, and Caroline’s part-time job was a favor.
“I think you still have a customer left.” Geordie searched crowded aisles for signs of him—a shadow, the soft tap of footsteps—but the bookstore was quiet. A strange, prickly feeling tickled his spine.
“We’ll kick him out.” Caroline stood on tip toes and pulled him down for a kiss, but he turned his face away.
Geordie shrugged. He felt utterly gutted, not just by the sight of Mrs. Pickering and her allegations, but his own impotence in facing a challenge, his fear of the world, and the uncertainty of his place in it.
“Maybe this is the story I can’t write.” He sighed deeply, squeezing Caroline’s hands. “I just want to prove that I can do something. I just don’t know what.”
Caroline dropped back onto her heels, chewing her red lip. Then she smiled, that wise, knowing smile that Geordie had come to rely on. That smile that said she had an answer.
“Here’s what you’re gonna do.”
Geordie stared down the list of questions his editor had written out for him. It looked like a script, with Geordie cast as the hard-nosed, pushy journalist.
At first, the questions were mildly curious, meant to lure Osbourne Foye into a false sense of security. Then, just as he was starting to get comfortable, Geordie was to attack him with more probing inquiries and incite an emotional reaction, if not actual facts.
This was his editor, Joe Duval’s, strategy. He already believed Osbourne Foye to be guilty, but Geordie was still open-minded and he couldn’t tell if that made him naive or honorable.
All he knew for certain was his grandmother would very disappointed that he was being so rude.
Geordie tapped his pencil on his notebook, his sweaty hand ramming the receiver against his ear. He’d asked the mildly curious questions already, but he’d come to the turning point in his editor’s calculated interview.
“What safety standards and environmental regulations govern the operation of your facility?” And, then, “When was your last inspection?”
Mr. Duval had rolled his chair to sit in front of Geordie’s desk; his leg bobbed and his cheeks were flushed, excited at the prospect of angering a powerful billionaire. But Geordie didn’t want to offend Foye. He’d been warned about the man’s temper.
As he opened his mouth to ask the next question, Geordie feared the bologna sandwich he’d had for lunch would spill out onto his desk calendar. The next questions required he put on a performance, and he hated lying.
“I came across this name: Ronald Hirschel. Do you know him? We’re trying to figure out his connection to your plant.”
It was a trick question, because they already knew the answer: Ronald Hirschel needed money to pay off a gambling debt and had gotten it from Foye, according to rumor. That wouldn’t have been suspicious if not for the fact that Hirschel was a safety and health inspector who’d been assigned to Foye’s plant.
Foye sighed heavily on the other end of the line and cleared his throat. Then, as Mr. Duval had hoped, his gruff voice answered, “Can’t help you there. Never heard of ‘im.”
Mr. Duval lifted his head from his clasped hands, mouthing the words “what did he say?”
Geordie shook his head. Mr. Duval bolted up from his chair, stabbing the air with his pointer finger. He rushed to Geordie’s desk and tapped his notebook at the next line, urging him to read.
He could taste the the bologna sandwich at the base of his throat. “Oh, that’s strange, Mr. Foye. We’d heard that Mr. Hirschel was the safety and health inspector, who’d been assigned to your plant in the past. Is that not true? My next phone call is to OSHA, to verify. But it would be so much eas—”
“Oh! Yes, yes, Ronald Hirschel. I thought you said Donald Marshall.”
A bit more amateur theatrics. “Okay, good. Then I did have the right name. Mr. Hirschel should be able to provide copies of your inspection reports, then… Thank you, Mr. Foye, for clearing that up.”
“Inspection reports?” Foye snapped.
Geordie winced, bracing for impact. “Yes, sir. We’ll need them to corroborate some information given to us by one of your former employees.”
“I’m not at liberty to say.”
Foye was breathing heavily on the end of the line. Geordie made note of this reaction, which Mr. Duval had instructed him to do.
“You tell me right now, boy!”
Geordie imagined Foye on his feet, his face purple, his hand in a fist. Geordie’s own ears were hot. As he noted Foye’s sudden anger, he felt like his editor’s puppet and Foye’s prey. Being called boy just reminded him how out his depth he was, like a child trying to play a man’s game.
He glanced down at the last three questions in the list—the rudest and most provoking. Geordie took a deep breath, remembering something his grandmother always told him.
Be kind to unkind people.
So Geordie made some revisions to his editor’s questions. There was no need to be quite so rude.
“A number of your former, long-time employees have come forward alleging that unsafe conditions in your plant contributed to them developing cancer in later life. Can you comment on that?”
Foye growled. “Who is spewing that nonsense? I want names, dammit!”
“Six of your former employees have been diagnosed with various forms of aggressive cancer, sir. Ovarian, two cases of colon cancer, one of lung cancer, and two of liver cancer. One of them has died since leaving your employment.” The fragile voices of those he’d interviewed whispered constantly in his ear. “Can you comment on a possible connection between their illnesses and—”
“There is no connection! I’m sure several of them have diabetes and high blood pressure, too! Just because they worked in my plant when they developed these conditions does not mean I am responsible!”
Fair point, Geordie thought. There was one more question, but Geordie couldn’t ask it. He didn’t think it was a journalist’s job to accuse.
“I want to thank you for taking the time to sp—”
Mr. Duval slammed his palms on Geordie’s desk and hulked over him with a flushed face and wild eyes. He stabbed Geordie’s notebook with his finger. “Ask it!” he mouthed.
Geordie stared back, fantasizing about telling him “no” on principle. But he was too young to trust his principles, which also dictated that he obey authority and do the job he was paid to do.
“Sorry, sir, One last question.” Geordie angled his face away from the phone, as if Foye’s hand would leap out of the mouth piece and punch him in the teeth. He spoke quickly. “Are your generous donations to cancer research organizations your attempt to cover up your plant’s role in causing your employees’ illnesses?”
Dangerous silence, which lasted a full minute.
“Sir?” Geordie quaked.
“How dare you! You deviant, ignorant mongrel!” He roared. “If you must know, my mother died of breast cancer when I was thirteen! That is why I donate to cancer research! What is wrong with you?”
“I’m sorry, sir—”
“Don’t apologize to that man!” his editor whispered, scowling.
“What is your name!” Foye demanded.
“Geordie Dittoe, sir.”
“And how old are you, exactly?”
“Twenty-two,” he said, though Geordie felt like a small child.
“Well, Geordie Dittoe, you’re quite the little cockalorum, aren’t you? I bet you think you know how the world works, that you’ll make it a better place,” he seethed. “Let me make myself perfectly clear—if you print this trash, I will ruin you. You know why? Because I know people and I have the means to do it. You have nothing. And I’ll make sure it stays that way.”
The phone line went dead and Geordie sat there for an awestruck second with the receiver in his hand before finally hanging up. He was ashamed to discover he was shaking and hid his hands below his desk.
“That was bad ass!” Mr. Duval cried, slapping Geordie on the shoulder and sending him headlong onto his desk. “I really thought you were going to pussy out on me there, but you nailed it. And I’m going to nail Osbourne Foye right to the wall.”
Geordie couldn’t help feeling like he was the nail. “Yes, sir. But…” He didn’t want to look like a wimp, but his hands were still shaking beneath his desk. “Foye threatened me, sir.”
Mr. Duval snorted and Geordie immediately felt stupid.
“That kind of shit happens all the time. If I had a nickel for all the times someone threatened to kill me…” He gave Geordie the numbers and names of some additional sources. “Ask them what legal options are available to the accusers… That’ll round out the story nicely…”
Geordie nodded but he was half-listening. This was his byline. He was cherry-picking facts and observations about Foye’s behavior, and based on that, readers would draw conclusions about his guilt or innocence. Geordie was putting those ideas out in the world. And Geordie would be blamed, not Joe Duval.
The editorial assistant walked past Geordie’s desk, following Mr. Duval as he strutted into his office, exultant. “There’s a woman here to see, you, sir.”
“I have to make a few calls. Tell her to wait.”
It was four o-clock; Geordie’s work day ended in an hour. Already, Caroline was texting him furiously about Aunt Vivien’s arrival and he did his best to respond. Meanwhile, he called the legal sources as instructed and waited for call backs, and he started and stopped his article about Foye a dozen times.
There wasn’t much of a story yet. Just an accusation, a man’s unhinged response, and—eventually—speculation about the fate of legal action that hadn’t yet been taken. Geordie glanced frequently at his editor’s closed door, desperate to voice his concerns, but he didn’t have enough experience to back them up. What did he know? He’d been a journalist for three months.
Five o’clock arrived and with a sigh of great relief, Geordie shut off his computer, tidied his desk, and left the newsroom. He passed the waiting room on his way out and noticed that whomever had been waiting for Mr. Duval had given up. Another text from Caroline as he popped out the front doors and into the street, falling into place behind an elderly woman carrying a bag of groceries: I forgot dessert!
The sidewalk was quiet and a few cars drifted by; The Trimeny Evening Chronicle offices were on a side street in a rather shabby part of town. Geordie strolled to the side lot where his car was parked, dreading the dinner and seeing an opportunity to be a little late. Don’t worry. I’ll pick up something. As he sent the message, the elderly woman in front of him dropped her groceries.
“Heavens to Betsy!” she cried.
Two swift steps and Geordie was at her rescue. He dropped down to catch a rolling can of baked beans and scoop up a little bag of apples. As he did so, something swooshed through his thick hair.
“Thank you, young man!”
“Don’t mention it!” He smiled brightly as he repacked the woman’s groceries. As he stood, he noted a dark shape darting somewhere in his peripheral vision.
“Just when you think the world is going to hell in a hand basket!” The woman searched in the bag and pulled out an Entenmann’s fudge cake, handing it to Geordie. “As a thank you.”
“That’s alright, you don’t have t—”
“I insist,” and she pressed the cake into his hands, smiling. “God bless you, young man.”
With that, she tottered away.
Well, desert is taken care of.
Geordie stood in the street holding the cake, a strange shiver in his spine. Someone was watching him. He searched around him, but the street was empty save himself and the elderly woman, who had reached the corner.
And then his eye caught on the strangest sight.
Nailed to the side of the building on his left was a great wooden sign—a painting of a bundle of lilies and swoopy lettering that advertised Hoff’s Greenhouse.
And embedded in that sign was a short metal dart.
He thought of the something sailing through his hair, the moment he dropped down to pick up the can of baked beans.
If he hadn’t bent down in that moment, the dart would’ve landed in the side of his neck. Suddenly, the dark figure darting somewhere on the street seemed rather a coincidence.
If I had a dime for all the times someone threatened to kill me…
He searched the street again. And again, it was empty.
The large window in Caroline’s apartment was open, letting in the warm air of a summer evening. A honeysuckle-scented breeze fluttered the papers laid across the table—invoices, profit-and-loss reports, product designs—which Caroline and Aunt Vivien had been pouring over for two hours.
Slices of fudge cake sat forgotten on the women’s plates. Caroline bemoaned the calories and her aunt reminded them that she lived in Paris as she curled her nose at it. Geordie wasn’t nearly so fussy; he ate most of the cake by himself. It sat heavily in his stomach now and he felt ill.
However, that could be the anxiety.
I will ruin you. You know why? Because I know people and I have the means to do it.
“These are beautiful designs, Carol, but look at your supply cost! Your profit margin is positively microscopic.” Aunt Vivien—a statuesque woman of late middle age, with dyed blond hair, a long dress and drapey, fringed shawl—studied the drawings with her painted eyebrows knotted in a scowl; she shifted papers. “Now these. Perhaps they aren’t your finest, most creative work but your profit margin is much, much higher, and I’ve seen the market. Styles like this are popular right now. With just a couple slight modifications to the design…”
Caroline’s large, lazy eyes pleaded with Geordie across the table. He wanted to help as he’d been instructed, but a debate over this or that swirly, sparkly earring didn’t seem important.
“I understand, Aunt Vivien, but I don’t want to just do what everyone else is doing.”
“Is that what I said, Carol?”
Her red lips twitched. “It’s Caroline. Geordie… Tell her artistic integrity is just as important as being profitable.”
Geordie peeled his eyes away from the open window and said, flatly, to Aunt Vivien: “Artistic integrity is just as important as being profitable.”
Caroline huffed. “Seriously, Geordie?”
Aunt Vivien leafed through Carline’s one-hundred page business plan—which, unfortunately, Geordie had to proofread—and began to pick apart its contents. Caroline squirmed in her chair.
You have nothing. And I’ll make sure it stays that way.
Geordie pictured the blow dart, buried in the florist’s wooden sign. Was it a coincidence that Osbourne Foye had threatened him only an hour before? And what an odd way to kill him, though he supposed the dart’s tip had been poisoned. Perhaps Foye only wanted to drug him, so he could drag him somewhere, and then bully him into abandoning the story.
Geordie shook his head. He’d seen to many movies.
As Aunt Vivien stabbed a page in Caroline’s business plan with her finger—and Caroline looked like she was about to cry—Geordie recalled the incident with the bus the day before.
Caroline’s distant voice called out, “Geordie…”
He was heading back to the newsroom after his lunch break, strolling down Hollyoak with Mrs. Pickering and her ovarian cancer on his mind. A lot happened in a few seconds and he tried to break it down in his memory.
His feet stumbled on the sidewalk. He thought, what did I trip over? A horn blasted. Someone gasped. Then a thick arm, pressed against his chest. Being pulled back. The diesel-scented breeze of the bus, drifting past the side of his face. His feet on the ground again. Finally, he was being roughly turned around and faced a burly man with a thick mustache.
“Be careful, kid!”
Kid. He remembered not liking that.
“You almost got your clock cleaned!”
The fear didn’t come until later, when he got back to the newsroom and fully appreciated what had happened so quickly. He’d almost died. He called his mother, just to say he loved her, and she barked at him for bothering her at work.
That happened before Osbourne Foye knew Geordie was writing his article, or so he thought. It could’ve been a coincidence, too. But two coincidences in one day, both of which could’ve ended in his death?
He snapped back to the present. Caroline was glaring at him, her eyes puddled with tears. Aunt Vivien was peppering her with criticism.
“Think carefully about how you spend my remaining five thousand dollars, Carol. I need to see a vast improvement in your net profit before I’m prepared to lend you more.” She snapped the business plan shut. “My money has not been spent wisely. You haven’t spent it like a businesswoman, but rather like a child with an allowance.”
Geordie had had about enough of adults and their condescension for one day.
“Say now, that isn’t fair, Madame Caillouet.” She liked to be called madame, even though she’d only married a Frenchman. “This is the first business Caroline has ever run, and she’s doing the best she can. And isn’t there a learning curve here?” Geordie hadn’t meant to, but he’d raised his voice. “Why don’t you give her advice instead of threats! It seems to me like you’re setting her up for failure!”
Geordie got the impression no one spoke to Madame Caillouet that way. They stared at each other across the table.
“Why are you here?” she said.
“To support my girlfriend.”
“Your girlfriend needs to learn to stand on her own two feet. She needs a firm hand. She’s been coddled far too long.”
Caroline looked suddenly panicked. “Aunt Vivien, I’m grateful for your help—”
“Are you?” She turned to face her niece and Geordie was suddenly reminded of a peacock. “Because it seems to me you just wanted me to give you the money, without any question or accountability, the way my brother gives you his credit card and your part-time job and this apartment.
“It’s not like that.”
Aunt Vivien stood. “To be honest, I have been reconsidering my investment of late. This—” she eyed Geordie, then the papers on the table, “presentation has only heightened my concerns.”
Oh, no. His little outburst had made it worse. Caroline would be so mad at him.
“Don’t say that.” Caroline stood, too. “I’ll take your advice, I promise.”
Geordie was now on his feet, too, but whatever he was about to say died in his throat.
He locked eyes with a strange woman, who stood right inside the door to Caroline’s apartment.
Where did she come from?
Geordie had a few seconds to make note of some details. She was very tall, with wide shoulders and braided hair that shone like copper. Her face reminded him of a hawk.
Caroline and Aunt Viven hadn’t seen her, they were still arguing with their backs to the intruder. He watched over their shoulders as the red-haired woman raised a funny-looking gun.
She pointed it at him.
He ducked. A soft clicking sound.
Something thunked into the wall behind him.
He turned. It was a blow dart.
The women shrieked.
“Get down!” Geordie yelled, and they dove under the table.
The red-haired woman was coming after him now. She holstered her dart gun and in three large steps, grabbed Geordie by his shirt.
They were the same height, but her biceps were twice the girth of his, her thighs thick and powerful where his were scrawny. Her face scared him the most though—its severe, angular lines were expressionless, the eyes hollow but focused.
“Geordie!” Caroline yelled.
The woman lifted Geordie with one arm and punched him with the other. He’d never been punched before. All light extinguished for a minute as his jaw exploded in pain. Then he was tossed to the ground and the woman was straddling him.
One arm pinned him to the floor and with the other she reached for something in her pocket.
He hesitated for a split second—it wasn’t right to hit a woman, after all.
“Don’t kill him!” Caroline screamed.
Kill. That one word erased Geordie’s chivalry.
He punched every bit of his attacker that he could—chest, sides, shoulders—and wriggled madly, so she couldn’t get whatever she needed in her pocket.
Still, she held fast.
He kneed her in the stomach and she grunted, but her strength didn’t waver.
Then, a small dart was in her hand.
He wondered was kind of poison laced its tip.
And what would happen to Caroline after he was dead? Would she kill her, too?
That thought gave him new strength. Geordie walloped the woman on the side of her head. Finally, he’d dazed her. Her grip loosened and he squeezed his knee below her stomach, shoving her away. She went flying, landing on her backside. She did a strange twirl with her legs, propelling herself back to standing.
Aunt Vivien shot out from under the table and was on her feet, too. The two statuesque woman stared at each other. Aunt Vivien glanced at the phone, propped on a small table next to the open balcony window.
Aunt Vivien dashed for it.
The red-haired woman raced after her.
Geordie got to his feet and reached for the intruder, grasping at the air as she sailed past.
The women reached the phone at the same time. They grappled with it. Geordie jumped on the attacker’s back, looping his hands around to dig his fingers in her eyeballs.
She thrashed those muscular arms.
Aunt Vivien’s shawl was half-off her shoulder. She yelped. The phone crashed to the floor.
An arm shot out. Aunt Vivien lurched back, stumbling over her shawl, and, with a flailing of arms and legs, slammed against the sill. It happened both in slow motion and in the space of a heartbeat.
Aunt Vivien shot backward, straight through the open window.
Caroline shot out from under the table, hands over her mouth.
“Aunt Vivien!” she screeched.
Geordie and the red-haired woman darted to the window, peering out side by side.
Madame Caillouet lay on the sidewalk below, broken limbs jutting out in unnatural directions. Her fringed shawl was spread out beneath her, absorbing the blood that poured from her head.
It wasn’t possible. He had to be dreaming.
That’s all Geordie could think as he stared at Aunt Vivien’s broken body three stories below on the sidewalk. She was a figment from a nightmare and he’d soon wake up.
But bystanders were gathering around her, gasping. They jolted his hazy mind back to life. If other people saw it, it actually happened. How could this be?
Warm breath skimmed his cheek. He turned to the source: the red-haired woman who tried to kill him moments before. The skin on her neck was red and she was panting. Why was she so upset? She was a murderer, after all.
A murderer who’d arrived to kill him. But didn’t, because Aunt Vivien got in the way.
The blood drained from Geordie’s entire body, leaving him cold with guilt. Using the windowsill as a pivot, he swung down into a squatting position and buried his face in the pit of his elbow.
Her death was his fault. The killer was only in Caroline’s apartment because of him. If he hadn’t been there or angered Osbourne Foye in the first place, Aunt Vivien would still be alive.
It’s my fault, he told himself. Then, to Aunt Viven, I’m so sorry.
“Shit,” the killer spat beside him.
That’s when Caroline screamed.
Geordie sprung to his feet. Caroline was gripping a dining chair and stared at the open window her aunt had plummeted through. She didn’t move, but her saucer eyes rolled over to him, then to the stranger, then back to the window.
Geordie took a step toward his girlfriend, intending to sweep her into his arms and drag her out of the apartment, away from the red-haired woman who’d surely kill her for being a witness. Another step. Caroline’s hand rose to her mouth and she was about to scream again—
The door burst open.
Geordie halted. The red-haired woman was suddenly beside him. They both stared at the door.
A man in a tailored suit walked in—he was pale, with wavy brown hair and a bushy beard—and stood in the middle of the apartment with his arms crossed.
Geordie’s first thought the man was solid, with the straightest posture he’d ever seen.
“Imogen,” he said.
“Hilbert.” The woman called Imogen sounded resolute, but her voice trembled.
Hilbert spread his thick-fingered hands, black eyes squinting beneath eyebrows as bushy as his beard. With Imogen’s attention on him, Geordie began to inch away from her.
“You know you have to come with me and you know why,” Hilbert said in a very thick, rather exotic-sounding accent.
Geordie locked eyes with Caroline. He inclined his head to the door and inched away from Imogen.
A muscled arm swooped around his middle, arresting him mid-step. A firm body was crammed against his back and something hard and sharp rose to his neck.
Imogen smelled like strawberries.
“Let him go!” Caroline shrieked. “Geordie!”
Hilbert may have snorted—his lips curled within the bristly beard—but the sound was drowned out by his girlfriend’s screaming. He raised his hand to her, palm first.
“It’s okay, Caroline,” he said, then over his shoulder to Imogen, “Do what you want with me, but please leave her alone.”
“What do you think you’re doing, Imogen?” He gestured to Geordie. “This makes no sense.”
Imogen’s arm wrapped tighter. The blade moved to just below Geordie’s jaw.
“Don’t kill him!” Caroline shrieked.
“Don hurt her!’ Geordie pleaded.
Even though they were both hollering at the tops of their voices, neither Imogen nor Hilbert seemed to hear them.
Hilbert inclined his head, pitying. “You know his life isn’t that important.”
Imogen breathed steadily, but Geordie could feel the reverberations of her heart, thumping wildly against his back.
“Enough of this silliness, Imogen,” Hilbert said jovially. His eyes, however, were hard as flint. “Come with me so we can settle this mess.”
Geordie looked to Caroline and mouthed run. She shook her head and her red lips parted to respond no, silently. He widened his eyes. Do it!
“Hello!” a sing-song voice greeted. This was followed by a knock at the open door. “Is anyone home?”
The tip of a shoe peeked from the right side of the door frame
“I’d like to ask for a moment of your time to talk about…”
The tip grew to an entire sneaker, followed by a profile. Hilbert glanced over his shoulder at the door. Imogen freed the blade from Geordie’s neck.
“… the Democratic nominee for the State Legislature, Bert—”
A blur of silver soared past Geordie’s face. The next instant, the same blade was buried to the hilt in Hilbert’s thigh, dangerously close to his groin.
The sneaker vanished, taking with it the profile and the campaigner’s pitch. Hilbert reeled in agony, sufficiently distracted. Imogen released her hold on Geordie. She shifted her grip to his arm and sprinted to the door, dragging him behind her. On her way, she knocked Hilbert unconscious. He crashed to the ground like a mighty sequoia.
“Where are you taking him!” Caroline squealed. She catapulted forward, grabbing a hold of Imogen’s arm, pounding her shoulder with her fist. “Let him go!”
Geordie took a half-second to admire his girlfriend’s pluck.
Imogen extended her arm and dug her palm into the base of Caroline’s throat, slamming her against the door. Geordie was still pinned beneath the grip of her other arm.
“Don’t follow us if you know what’s good for you!”
She released Caroline—who crumpled to the floor—and continued to drag Geordie out the door.
“Get out of here!” he ordered as he left.
Imogen dragged him down the length of the empty hallway with ease. Geordie dug in his heels, but couldn’t stop her. He tried to prise her arm from around his waist, but she was too strong.
He cursed himself for not being strong enough to stop Imogen taking him wherever she was taking him. He cursed himself for causing Aunt Vivien’s death and not protecting Caroline. And he prayed she would have the good sense to get out of there before Hilbert woke up.
In the stairwell now. The heavy door slammed shut. He didn’t bother asking where she was taking him. There was no point. Her end goal was pretty clear.
My fault, my fault…
Shit, shit, shit, shit.
One minute the old woman was under the table, and the next… How did she move so fast?
That the Syndicate had sent someone was bad news. Imogen had accidentally messed up the timeline and she’d be punished for it. The dream of her retirement, though brief, faded away.
Fool. Assassins only retired via one route.
She dragged Geordie Dittoe through a dark alley and to the street. She forced him to walk by her side— it looked more natural—and he complied. She still had time to make this right. How did it go so badly? It should’ve been an easy job. Her last one. Why is this kid so difficult to kill? Just look at him, she thought—skinny, weak. Like a baby bird.
The answer came to her in a snap.
No. Hilbert said the boy’s life wasn’t important. Why would they care to keep him alive?
She dug her fingers into his skinny arm and he yelped, just a little. Part of her felt bad—it was an unfair fight—but she ignored the guilt, as she’d been trained to do.
Her new plan was to get him to the safe house. They shouldn’t be able to find her there. At least not in time.
But she had to be careful; it was even more important now to follow her specific orders. She couldn’t mess up the timeline any more than she already had. Time was bendable, but it was still delicate.
Junius had given her a condition for a reason. They wanted to keep Geordie Dittoe alive, damn them.
Perhaps the boy was important than they’d originally thought.
To say that the apartment was shabby was an understatement.
Imogen flicked on one bare bulb, illuminating one folding chair and one couch, which was green with sagging cushions. She threw Geordie on this, stirring up the smell of dust and mold and something sour. He sank into the broken-down cushions.
Their purpose there wasn’t stated explicitly. It didn’t need to be. Geordie remembered the threat to his life all too well.
If you print this trash, I will ruin you. You know why? Because I know people and I have the means to do it.
It seemed Osbourne Foye had kept his promise. Geordie thought of his mother and his grandmother; he was an only child. How could he do this to them? Was this stupid little article really that important? In the face of his imminent execution and the grief it would cause his loved ones, the answer was no, it wasn’t. It wouldn’t make any difference anyway, he wouldn’t make any difference. Hilbert stated it clearly, and Geordie agreed.
You know his life isn’t that important.
Imogen went to the kitchen, opened a cupboard, and took out one dusty glass. She filled this with tap water and drank the whole thing. Then, she dragged the folding chair across the threadbare carpet and sat before him. She leaned down, reaching for something in her boot—
“I know this is about Osbourne Foye,” Geordie blurted, anything to stop her from grabbing whatever weapon was secreted in her boot. A knife or a garrote—he knew if she got her hands on it, he was done for.
Her slender fingers looped around something. She drew it out—
“Tell him I won’t write the story, okay? I’ll even quit the newspaper. Nothing is worth this much trouble. Please. Please, tell him.”
Imogen paused with her finger hooked on her unknown weapon. She sighed out heavily and dropped back against the chair. Geordie had a funny feeling she was disappointed his murder had to be delayed, even if it was only for a minute.
“And please don’t hurt Caroline. I’ll convince her to be quiet.” This was a lie; he knew Caroline would do whatever she wanted—she’d probably called the police already—but Imogen didn’t need to know that right now.
Excruciating seconds passed. Imogen laid her hands on her knees. She studied him and Geordie got a good look at her. She was beautiful in a frightening sort of way—sharp hooked nose, right-angle jaw, straight lips. Her size bothered Geordie the most—she had the build of an Olympic javelin thrower, whereas Geordie was built like a wispy ballerina.
Imogen’s eyes, which were the unsettling color of black coffee, darted to and fro. “You’re right that this is about Osbourne Foye, but it’s not like you think.”
The sounds of honking traffic and the constant thump and shuffling of the building’s other tenants narrated Imogen’s tale.
“Foye does want you killed, to stop your article.” Her voice didn’t fit her; it was soft and girlish. “Obviously, there’s a lot at stake for him. My guess is he hired Hilbert to do the job.”
Geordie wanted to point out that Imogen was the one shooting poisonous darts at him, the one who burst into Caroline’s apartment to beat him silly, the one who put a knife to his throat, but she didn’t look like someone who enjoyed being interrupted or contradicted.
“There’s a lot of people who need you to expose Foye. I’m one of them.”
A car horn blasted shrilly in the distance. Tires screeched.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…” Imogen sighed softly, brought her hands to her mouth. “My mother worked in one of Foye’s plants. She has cancer, Geordie. And she doesn’t have much time left.”
He nodded and tried to lean forward, but the broken-down cushion shoved him against the back of the couch.
“You were trying to scare me into writing the article…”
Imogen smiled. “Probably not the best way to go about it.”
“A simple phone call would’ve been better.” Geordie couldn’t fight the anger roiling in his chest. “Aunt Vivien might still be alive, if not for—” He stopped himself, remembering both his manners and the unknown weapon hiding in Imogen’s boot.
“Yeah… I’m sorry about that.” She coughed. “You have to write your story, Geordie. You have to expose Foye. No one else will say a word against him; he’s too powerful and influential. But if people could see who he really is… It just takes one little act to change the world.”
“You sound like my girlfriend.”
And Geordie remembered what she said in the Page Turner Bookstore. Always side with the powerless, Geordie. The powerful don’t need any more allies.
He knew what Caroline would want him to do. And it’s not like he couldn’t tell the police or the District Attorney his life was at risk; he could get protection. It didn’t have to be like Foye said.
At the thought of doing something, adrenaline bubbled through Geordie’s veins.
This was his chance to have a purpose, which he’d never had before. He stumbled into his job at the newspaper, his family life was based on a lie, Caroline was his puppeteer. Life had always made decisions for him, pushing and pulling and shoving him where it wanted him to go. Had he ever really took a stand? Made up his own mind? Believed in himself?
All Geordie knew was that the sight of Mrs. Pickering in her floral turban had stirred in him a need to do something, but he didn’t know what. Writing a silly little article certainly didn’t seem like enough, but maybe it was. It was a small thing, but it was more than most people did when faced with injustice. Most people just let the horrible thing happen, because they were afraid.
But so was he. He looked around that shabby apartment; he had been dragged here to his death because of this story. He was only twenty-two years old. Dying at that age wasn’t natural, it was a tragedy. He didn’t want to be a tragedy. But tragedy befell everyone; why should he be exempt? What was so special or valuable about his life that meant it could be spared? The truth was, it was only special to him because it was his life. It meant nothing to anyone else.
By doing nothing, Geordie was saying that his life was more important than the lives of the people who’d already died and suffered. And he’d never say such a thing.
It was settled. Time was of the essence. Imogen needed an answer and so did her mother. Hilbert was probably on his way. It occurred to him that Imogen could protect him, once he agreed to her plea. He stared back into Imogen’s black-coffee eyes. She shifted forward to hear him better.
Was he mistaken, or did her eyebrow flicker and her irises gleam?
Geordie opened his mouth to tell her yes, he would help her mother by writing the story. There could be no ambiguity. Foye’s victims were counting on him.
Imogen leaned further forward. Was she going for her boot again?
An ear-splitting crash and a gush of wind pushed the breath from Geordie’s lungs. The couch slammed back against the wall and tipped backward, sending his large feet into the air. He didn’t see where Imogen went, but he heard her yell.
The apartment was filled with gray dust and things splintered and cracked and crashed down around him. Geordie’s eyes adjusted to see two sharp white lights cutting through the thick haze. An engine hummed. A car door slammed.
A car door? In an apartment?
He flailed his legs and got some momentum to fling himself off the couch. Standing now, he searched for Imogen—the folding chair she’d sat upon was tumbled over and came to rest four feet to his left. To his right, a sedan had crashed through the side of the building; half of its length now sat in the living room.
“Geordie Dittoe!” a rough voice called.
The dust settled. Shoulders appeared, growing larger, moving toward him, grabbing detail from the dust.
It was a man, and Geordie had seen him before. He was burly, with a thick mustache.
It was the man who saved him from the speeding bus on Hollyoak, just that afternoon.
The mustached man pulled Geordie roughly by the arm and out of the wreckage, onto the sidewalk.
A yellow cloud of acrid dust billowed around them. It settled on Geordie’s clothes and hair and filled his lungs. He dropped his hands to his knees, sputtering and coughing as the mustached man slapped him on the back with a meaty, short-fingered hand.
“Breathe, son, breathe!”
Geordie did so, deeply and shakily. He had so many questions. He didn’t know which one to ask first, so instead settled for incoherent mumbling, pointing at the wreckage and the street and back again.
“Wh—why—who? Are you…? Is she…?” Apparently, he hadn’t the mental fortitude to finish a single question.
“Shhh,” Mustache said. “No talking. I need you to listen. I have instructions for you.”
The dust settled into a thin haze. People drifted through it, exploring the street and the damage. Sirens wailed in the distance.
“Instructions?” A knot slided up Geordie’s throat. “Who are you?”
Mustache smiled. He reminded Geordie of a muskrat: stocky, round, and hairy. Barely an inch of his face was hairless: a thick beard connected to a mustache and sideburns and then to bushy eyebrows.
“Even if I had time to answer that question, I wouldn’t.”
“You saved my life in the street today.”
“That’s right, son, I did.”
In the apartment building, something crashed to the floor. Geordie imagined Imogen throwing aside whatever had pinned her, rising from the ashes, and coming for him. He turned around to look, but Mustache steered him back around with firm hands on his shoulders, bringing him in so close their noses nearly touched. The man dropped his voice and gazed deeply into Geordie’s eyes; at such close range, he noticed a scar slashed through his eyebrow, a wine-colored birthmark by his ear.
“Whatever she said to you in there doesn’t matter. All you need to do is go to work Monday and write that article about Foye. We will protect y—”
“Shhh. Yes, we.” He slapped Geordie’s arms and stepped away. With two fingers, he pointed to his own eyes, then at Geordie. “And don’t worry. Everything will work out.”
“Alexander. Fancy meetin’ you here,” said a bodiless voice, drifting toward them through the haze. A shape followed seconds later—wide-shouldered, tall as a sequoia.
Geordie’s blood curdled. Mustache turned, confirming his name was Alexander, and greeted the newcomer.
“Hilbert, I didn’t know you’d taken an interest in this case.”
“Neither did I, till this morning.”
They met in front of the wreckage. Hilbert glanced at Geordie, then squinted into the gaping whole in the apartment building.
“She’s in there?” Hilbert asked.
“I believe so,” Alexander said.
“Yikes. I thought you people avoided unnecessary bloodshed.”
“We do, usually.”
The men spoke like work colleagues—not intimately, but with familiarity, even respect. Geordie’s mind reeled; the pit of his stomach and his fingertips prickled. Of the three strangers who’d invaded his life in the past twelve hours, he didn’t know which one to trust.
Imogen, who’d tried to drug him and then claimed grief as her motivation.
Hilbert, accused of trying to kill Geordie, but whose presence he barely seemed to notice.
And Alexander, who had saved Geordie’s life twice.
Each of them seemed invested in whether or not Geordie wrote a few inches about Osbourne Foye. He had no idea the article was that important. The interest and opposition made him feel like a brave crusader standing between a heartless corporation and the helpless victims of its boundless greed. He liked that feeling.
The sirens drew closer; neighbors’ voices chattered within the haze. In the destroyed building, another sound—debris shifting, a groan.
Both men studied the gaping hole, waiting.
“What did she do?” Alexander asked.
“Killed someone she wasn’t supposed to.” Hilbert stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Why are you here?”
“A similar reason. Preventative Action.”
Hilbert flicked an auburn brow at Geordie. “So his life is that important?”
Alexander studied Geordie. No one had ever looked at him like that before, not Caroline or even his own mother. In his dark eyes shone awe and respect. But for what? He hadn’t done anything yet.
“I wasn’t briefed on that…” Hilbert shook his head. “But I trust your word over my own people. I’d like to say they dropped the ball, but I’m sure it’s far more devious than that.”
“What else is new?” Alexander said. “So she’s rogue then?”
Hilbert nodded as the groans inside the building were followed by shuffling footsteps, coming toward them. “And I have my orders.”
Alexander stood beside Hilbert, and together, they faced the wreckage and the sounds of Imogen stirring within it.
“It seems our interests have aligned.”
Hilbert crooked an eyebrow. “I could use your help. She’s a pill.”
“Certainly.” Alexander wagged at finger at him. “Stunned and trussed, only. No killing.”
“I will do my best.”
Hilbert slipped a weapon from the inside of his jacket pocket; Alexander raised his fists, then called to Geordie over his shoulder.
“You need to get out of here, son. Seems she’s got a bone to pick with you.”
Imogen’s muscular frame stumbled from the wreckage. Her eyes scanned the street until they found Geordie. A cut was bleeding over her eye, the leg of her pants was torn, but otherwise she was still able-bodied enough to kill him.
“Go! Now!” Alexander screamed.
Geordie turned tail and ran down the street until the dust cloud dissipated and he breathed clean air.
“What the hell is this?” Geordie’s editor barked.
“It’s twenty inches about Mrs. Pickering’s sickness and her pending civil complaint against Foye Indust—”
“Don’t be a smart ass, you know very well what I mean.”
Geordie had filed his story at 11 a.m. Monday morning and ten minutes later, Joe called him into his office. He sat before him, posture as straight as he could muster and ready to face his editor’s wrath.
Joe swiveled himself away from his computer. “You barely mention Foye Industries and where’s the interview you had with him on Friday?”
“It’s there, sir. At the end I mention the complaint and Mr. Foye’s comment…”
Joe massaged his face, then spoke through his teeth. “I mean the cancer donations angle, Dittoe. Are you really going to sit there and tell me you know better than me on this? Little Geordie Dittoe with a whole four months experience? I’m telling you, that’s the angle. Rewrite it, now.”
A lot had happened in just two days. Not just the strange and tragic events Geordie had endured, but their effect on him. In the few minutes he believed Imogen’s story—that it may not have been true didn’t matter—Geordie was instinctively compelled to help her, despite the risk.
And he’d surprised himself. He’d always believed himself a coward, but life had offered up a test of his character and he finally saw who he truly was. And he wasn’t a boy or a little cockalorum, or someone to control like a puppet. He was the kind of person who wanted to make the world better, in any way he could.
And he might as well start now.
“No, sir,” he told Joe.
His eyes narrowed dangerously. “What did you just say?”
Geordie felt his shoulders slump, he felt himself giving in. Then he remembered how Alexander looked at him with awe and respect. He had to live up to the strange man’s expectation. He drew his shoulders back and sat up straight. His grandmother’s voice echoed in his mind: you can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
“The angle is about Mrs. Pickering and her sickness and the financial difficulty faced by her family because of it.” Geordie cleared his throat to keep his voice from shaking. “People will relate to her story. If your goal is to discredit Foye, seeing what he’s alleged to have done to her and his other employees will do the trick. And maybe her bravery will inspire someone else to come forward. But the complaint is preliminary and ongoing and no one can say anything about it. I don’t feel comfortable using a comment we got from Foye because he was angry to imply that he’s done something wrong. His guilt or innocence hasn’t been determined yet. Sir.”
Geordie forced himself to stare into Joe’s angry eyes as the man leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms.
“Give me your notebook. I’m going to write this goddamn story myself, the way it should be written. Clearly, you’re not cut out for this.”
Geordie’s heart plummeted; his mouth filled with saliva. This was the part where Joe fired him. Geordie was ready for it. He looked his editor right in the eye.
“I destroyed my notes, sir, so you couldn’t do that.”
Though Geordie’s heart was pounding in his throat and he was dizzy and he actually thought he could vomit, he felt pretty good.
Once again, he’d proved to himself what he was made of.
He stepped out onto the street, the contents of his desk in one small box. For thirty seconds, he stood on the sidewalk awaiting Imogen’s blow dart, but all that greeted him was honking traffic. Must be Alexander and Hilbert succeeded in subduing her, but Geordie hoped they didn’t kill her. A woman who smelled like strawberries couldn’t be all that bad.
He’d spent most of the weekend analyzing the strange conversations he’d overheard, trying to understand what it all meant. The best conclusion he could reach was that there was a group of people out there who protected what was right and good. And that group included Alexander, the old lady in the street who dropped her groceries, and the unknown political campaigner who’d appeared at Caroline’s apartment door.
They had all intervened at the perfect moment to save his life and he had a feeling the phenomenon was driven by more than just luck. He didn’t need to know who they really were, just that they were there—protecting not only him, obviously, but everyone—made him feel like the world wasn’t such a dark, depressing place.
Geordie’s step was rather bouncy as he made his way to the Page Turner Bookstore to tell Caroline in person that he’d been fired and he may already know where his life would go next. As he turned from South Buckhall to La Mar Avenue and the shop’s sign came into view, Alexander’s voice echoed in his mind.
Don’t worry. Everything will work out.
Yes, it would.
He found her at the counter, ignoring a customer who was standing in the Travel section trying in vain to get her attention. As usual, she was pouring over a newspaper. He slipped behind the counter, hooked his finger under her chin and tipped her face up to kiss her red lips. She smiled, then directed his attention to what she was reading.
Aunt Vivien’s obituary.
“She was married five times! I didn’t know that!” Caroline spread her fingers across the column outlining her aunt’s life. “It’s just a list of accomplishments. And that she doted on her King Charles Spaniels. Nothing about the people she loved or who loved her… She was alone, Geordie. Alone with all her money.”
The customer gave up and left the store with a tinkle of the bell. Geordie sat down next to his girlfriend as a tear trailed down her cheek. He wiped it away with his thumb.
“That doesn’t mean she wasn’t happy. I think she was.”
Caroline shrugged sadly. “I don’t know what to do with myself, Geordie. After everything Aunt Vivien said, I don’t know if I’m cut out for business. And there’s no room in life for more than one great passion. You have to pick one, and I don’t know which one to pi—”
He cupped her face in his hands and her words sputtered into silence.
“You worry too much. You’ll figure it out. I have a feeling it’ll just come to you, one day.”
She smiled. “You really think so?”
“Of course. That’s what happened to me.” And he winked to hint that he had news.
“What happened to you?”
Geordie sat back in the chair, suddenly a bit nervous to tell Caroline his news.
“I quit my job.”
Her lips made a red “o.” Her eyebrows lifted, asking him to elaborate.
“Mr. Duval didn’t like how I wrote the Foye story. And I stuck to my guns.”
Caroline’s lips spread to a straight line, which then curved in a smile. “Good. He was unethical and ruthless. What will you do now?”
This was the part Geordie was a little nervous about. He was pretty excited about the plan he’d come up with, but telling Caroline would make it real and maybe she’d find fault in it.
He spoke to his lap, rather than look his discerning girlfriend in the eye. “Well, I think I want to be a writer. That’s the part about the newspaper job that I liked. But I don’t want to be reporter. Stories are so powerful, you know. They can really change people, and change the world, I think. So that’s what I want to do.” He looked up at the rows of shelves and the books stacked upon them. “I want to write stories and change the world.”
He was breathless at the end of his little speech, and Caroline was quiet. His heart thumped in his throat again, the vomit threatened to spill over…
“Like a novelist?” Caroline asked.
Geordie nodded without looking at her.
“I like that idea.”
His gaze sprung to her face and he beamed. Caroline looked happy for him, but her pretty eyes were staring off into space and she sighed. “The world is so messy and complicated and terrifying. Promise to always give your books a happy ending, Geordie. Make sure everything works out in the end.”
Geordie slipped his fingers gently behind Caroline’s neck, drew her to him, and kissed her, long and slow. When he was done, he smiled.
Alexander plopped down in front of his boss’s desk, drinking in the view: the Torre del Mangia soaring above a warren of terracotta roofs and the green Tuscan hills beyond.
It was a significant improvement over his basement office, which was literally a cell in a castle dungeon. The 14th century was a tough place to work when you were used to central heating and air fresheners.
“I assume you’re here about your asset request, Mr. Balestrieri?”
“I am, ma’am.”
Claudia Hungan, Director of Serendipity’s Security Division, was pouring over a report propped in her lap. Alexander knew better than to interrupt her before she finished, and it was a good five minutes before she did.
“Well, you’ve come at a good fortuitous time. I’ve just finished your report.”
“I hope you find everything to your satisfaction, ma’am.”
Mrs. Hungan turned her dark, almond-shaped eyes to him and nodded. “Good work, Mr. Balestrieri. This one could’ve gone either way. Imogen Roycroft has been captured and neutralized, I see.”
“Yes, ma’am. I did the capturing, Hilbert Lofstrom did the neutralizing.”
Mrs. Hungan folded her hands over her stomach and used her expansive view of Siena to meditate on something for a moment. She ground her teeth.
“The Syndicate is getting out of control. A representative of the UN Council contacted me yesterday. I explained my concerns to them. If something comes of their inquiry, I’m certain the Syndicate will just go deeper underground. As long as there are people who want to manipulate time for their benefit, the Syndicate will sell their services.” She pounded her fist on her desk. “They had the same information we did, and yet they still sent an assassin after Mr. Dittoe. The damage they could’ve done. They very nearly killed the wrong man.”
When Alexander joined Serendipity, the first thing he learned was that time was a circle. Past, present, and future didn’t exist at all, but rather ticked along at the same time, one continuously influencing the other. Thus, time was always balancing precariously on the point of a needle; their job was to protect that balance, to make sure each chain of events led to the best conclusion.
Imogen should’ve been assigned to kill Dittoe’s hot-tempered editor, for it was his incessant weekly articles and editorials that ultimately took down Osbourne Foye. But he only remembered Dittoe’s name, because it was Dittoe who brought up his dearly-departed mother in that first interview.
“I’m glad you’re fired up, ma’am, because that’s why I’m requesting Geordie Dittoe be declared a Level Two Asset.” He gestured to his report, laying on Mrs. Hungan’s desk.
A bird fluttered past the window; church bells chimed. Mrs. Hungan turned to him but said nothing. Her mind could already be made up; she was just waiting for some misstep or revelation to push her in the opposite direction.
“You’re asking for quite a bit of resources. Continuous security details for Dittoe, surveillance on Calix Foye…”
“Have you read Dittoe’s biography?”
“I have. He led an impressive life.”
Alexander took a breath. He wished his boss wasn’t so inscrutable. He never really knew what she needed to hear to be convinced.
“I know Dittoe doesn’t cure cancer or solve climate change or anything huge like that. His influence seems small, ineffectual. But the ripple effects… That little article he wrote alone saved a thousand lives.” He leaned forward and his chair squeaked, too. Damn, this 14th century furniture. “We ran the simulations a hundred times and they all reached the same conclusion. Without Dittoe’s story to kick the first domino, Foye’s CFO would’ve never come forward and Duval wouldn’t have gotten that damning scoop.”
Mrs. Hungan wasn’t moving; she was staring at the Torre del Mangia and Alexander couldn’t tell if he was digging his own grave or crawling out of one. So he continued, not caring either way.
Dittoe was worth protecting. And Alexander had taken a shine to the kid.
“And his books, ma’am! They’re even more important! We’re still tracking the ripples and running simulations. The good he has done in the world is inestimable.”
A swallow perched in the window with a feather in its mouth. It hopped along the narrow ledge, presumably to continue building its nest.
“I will approve your request under one condition, Mr. Balestrieri. And it’s a big one.”
“You’ve been a field agent for how many years?”
She nodded, watching the bird. “There’s a huge difference between being a field agent, and being responsible for a Level Two Asset. You’re on the job twenty-four seven. And I mean that.”
Alexander’s eyes widened. This was a massive undertaking, but he was equal to it.
“I understand, ma’am.”
Mrs. Hangan snapped the report folder shut. “It’s settled then. You’re his Guardian. His well-being is your responsibility.”
She placed his report in a pile and turned her attention to another stack of papers. The meeting was over. It went better than Alexander could’ve expected.
He returned to his desk in the dungeon, covered in files dedicated to Geordie Dittoe and his body of work. Beside the desk was a bookcase and in this bookcase, an entire shelf was lined with Geordie’s books, acquired by Alexander’s team over the past few weeks.
Minutes before his appointment with Mrs. Hungan, he’d been handed the latest addition to this library. Alexander only had time to crack the cover, leaf through the first couple pages, and find something delightfully unexpected when he was called up to her office.
The book was a rare first edition of Geordie’s first publication. In the mythology surrounding the prolific yet under-appreciated 21st century author, devotees whispered reverently about the title. Everyone had heard of it, no one had read it, and everyone wanted it. He was honored just to run his finger along its spine.
Alexander marveled at the chain of events that began when the first person picked up one of Geordie’s books. In his own time, they were noticed and occasionally lauded, but more influential posthumously.
Geordie couldn’t have imagined the world he was writing them for, so different from his own. One plagued by war, disease, and destruction. With his stories, Geordie unknowingly gave hope to a generation of orphans, refugees, and soldiers. Without his words to guide, organize, and focus them, they may have given up. And then they would never have survived their struggles and thrived on the other side, nor had the strength or optimism to build a better world.
As Alexander held the thin tome with an unassuming cover, he felt he was holding something very precious. And, deep down, he was proud of his role in it.
He flipped to the dedication page. Just a few words, but the fate of the world—and all of time itself—balanced on its hidden meaning.
To the mysterious Alexander, who believed in me and, thus, helped me to believe in myself for the first time in my life.