(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.”