Local Color

I fell through the dark well of time, from the lip of the blood-red skies of the world I’d come from, to the smoke-kissed, pooling blues of a world that once was.

And is again, I said to myself as I shifted through the spectrum onto the busy Venice Beach Boardwalk.  The light of a late afternoon paled, its edges bleeding with a vermilion that made me think of home, but no sooner had the sunset alighted, then night fell like a curtain of pinpricked velvet.

I sat down on a bench that had a considerable amount of solidity.  The stars above danced like tiny droplets of water on a flaming griddle; a sea of people walked, skated, and pedaled by in a red-shift wash before my streaming vision, like images in a time-lapsed hologram.  Their movements were jerky and awkward as my time-sense struggled to correct itself.  A minute took an hour to slide by, and then just as suddenly an hour ticked away in the span of a second.  It was my first serious jaunt.

The initial vector of timefall is the most vulnerable, and therefore the most dangerous.  My blood sugar felt low.  Despite my nausea, I forced myself to stand and walk.

It was a comfortably cool evening.  I walked but it felt as if I were standing still.  I stopped, and everything trailed a slipstream.  The faces in the crowd were luminous: women wore bright, crowning haloes, men exhibited scintillating auras.  A dog sniffed at my toes, then looked up at me with a sad, watery gaze that came into focus for a moment before it disappeared suddenly, like a badly edited movie.  I wondered how difficult it would be to find my contact.

She (or he) would be posing as a singer, but that was all I knew.  I’d passed a few already, but I’d felt too nauseous to pause.
I halted near a small gathering of people clustered about a trio of performers: a young, long-haired man holding an acoustic guitar strapped around his neck; a barefoot woman with long, limp blonde hair, caressing a mandolin; and a fellow in his late twenties with a prematurely salt-haired mane, his hands clasped behind his back.

I sat down again, on a small, grassy knoll behind the small troupe, and cradled my head on my bent knees.  An ocean breeze stirred through my hair, and I breathed deeply.  Ordinarily such clean air would have disoriented me, but in my torpidity, it actually made me feel better.

I lifted my head and managed to focus.  Before I could approach them and give the secret hand jive to ID myself, the young woman and the older man began harmonizing on a sad, lilting ballad that sounded vaguely familiar.

                                                    A face masqued in cherry blossoms
                                                    strewn by the corded winds:
                                                    she changed her name,
                                                    and changed her fate.
                                                    Kronokazay,
                                                    a goddess unlocking
                                                    the phonetics of movement,
                                                    charging a mystic text
                                                    into the body of a cloud.
                                            Children watch the ivory giants,
                                            stirred to prescience
                                            and sleeping through the memory
                                            of a child
                                            in February’s weave,
                                            in the second month
                                            of a year that never was,
                                            but still might be.

I found myself mouthing the last lines.  I recognized the song.  It was one that had been (or rather, would be) written in the distant future, specifically for import into the past.  One of the signals by which we jumpers might identify ourselves to each other in Outtime.

One of the three was my contact.

When the song ended I lightly applauded with the others, then raised my fist, giving the hand signal.  The taller, handsome chanteur with the white hair looked at me with knowing eyes.  Approaching, he put both hands on either side of my neck, kissing his left hand, then the left side of my neck.  This was the Guild salutation.  This was the man who would set me up on the first phase of my assignment.

My assignment to assassinate the Number Two Director from the time traveling Guild which would one day be known, to the few that would ever know it, as Kronokaze.

Twenty-four hours later there was a knock at the apartment door.  I unlocked and opened it.  Gordon Leary, my snow-haired singer, stood there, a large brown paper sack cradled in the crook of his left arm.

“Hello, Miles Hartshorne,” he said, testing my new name, smiling.  “It’s a take.”

He opened the screen door and let himself in.

“What’s this?”

“Some goodies you might like.”  He set the bulky bag on the kitchen table, pulling a fat manila envelope from it.  “Today,” he said, “is the first day of the rest of your life.”

Frowning, I emptied its contents on the carpeted living room floor, and sat down cross-legged to examine the evidence of who I’d become.

Miles Hartshorne was a name I’d chosen at random, something I imagined untraceable.  I could have opted for a name from the Guild’s boilerplate records, just as I might have opted to stay here at the safe house that Gordon had in perennial waiting.  But my mission was too important to be compromised.  The escapee I was tracking from the future had been a person from the uppermost echelons of the Guild, and although the false IDs planted by the Kronokaze in the past were supposed to be absolutely safe, I could ill-afford to be recognized.

I picked up the California Driver’s License with my false name and true face on it, nodding appreciatively.  I opened the wallet that had tumbled from the sack along with the other items, and began filing things away: Social Security card, voter registration papers, three plastic credit cards and a Los Angeles library card.  I folded a fingerworn, paper birth certificate, and put it in the inner pocket of my new, polyester jacket, along with a set of numbered checks, a savings account passbook and an American passport.  The five hundred dollars in cash I put in my pants pocket.

“The master forger you used for these things, Gordon: they weren’t a Guild contact, were they?”

“Of course not,” he said, miffed.  “I used a resident of this time, just like you instructed.”  He bit his upper lip.  “The man had no idea what this was about.”  Gordon smiled.  “Wouldn’t have believed it anyway, would he?”

“No, I suppose not.”

I picked up a metal ring with artfully shaved pieces of metal looped on it.
“What are these?”

Gordon stared at me pensively, then said, “They’re keys.”

“I know that,” I said impatiently.  “But keys to what?”

“Oh.  To a Post Office box, here in Venice, and to the apartment I rented in your new name, on the Westside.  And car keys.”  He sucked at his teeth and eyed me carefully.  “You do know how to drive, don’t you?”

I smiled and pocketed the keys, not answering.  I’d been specifically trained to function in and blend with the present time, and what I didn’t know, the CI chip in my skull would teach me.

I didn’t feel compelled to share any of this information with Gordon.  I knew his information was vague and general in outline.  He was one of many contacts that had once been planted along the vast, arterial timelines’ Net.  Because of politics, however, most had been recalled to the future.

“I don’t suppose,” he asked, “you’re at liberty to tell me what this is all about?”

I paused as if considering the question.  “Gordon.  How long have you been here?”

He shifted from one foot to another, warily.  “I arrived in the Fall of 1966.”  He began to pull out brightly colored shapes from the grocery bag, setting them carefully on the tiled kitchen counter. “I’ve been here five years.  Why?”

“Just as I thought.”  It was inevitable that a contact should grow soft, living outside a time such as ours and in a time such as this.  It was the primary reason why they were given only enough information to play out their important but limited roles.  The middle to late twentieth century had been a epoch whose incredible moral lassitude was matched by an abundance of consumer goods, nothing like the stressful, world-crumbling final years of the Earth from which we’d both come.  A corrupting time to live in, 1971.  “Tell me.  Exactly what do you know?”

“About what?”

“About Kronokaze methods.”

“Well, I know why I’m here, if that’s what you mean.  Me and my kind.  Facilitation and accommodation of Kronokaze agents,” he said as if reading from the manual.  “Helping agents with research missions fit in, that kind of thing.  Creating covers for them to blend in with the local color.”  He scratched his head.  “Beyond that, we’re not told too much.”  He sighed with an air of resignation.  “I suppose that’s the way it has to be.”

Kronokaze pawns are positioned in time with their kronocircuitry slotted for one-way, one-time jumps.  Oh, they can be eventually retrieved, but they can’t make moves on their own.  It doesn’t pay to have a growing nation of unsupervised functional jumpers.
I went to the counter and picked three colorfully wrapped items with interesting names: a Chico Stick, an Almond Joy, and a Payday bar.   I let the Chico Stick wrapper fall to the carpeted floor, feeling the porous sweetness of the candy crunch in my mouth.  It was exquisite.  Candy is hard to come by in the laconian future Earth we both hailed from.  Nineteen Seventy-one was a confusing year to be alive, and with all the luxuries it was no wonder that an agent like Gordon would lose his edge and grow provincial and soft-bellied.

“Damn, this is good”, I said unguardedly, unwrapping the Almond Joy while tonguing bits of Chico Stick stuck to my teeth.
The sweetness of the candy was heaven, putting me in a charitable mood for the poor fellow’s doomed, time-bound soul.  “You know, Gordon,” I said, “I’m not supposed to discuss such matters.”  I stopped to bite into the Almond Joy and my mouth watered.  “But I suppose we’re all on the same team, aren’t we?”

He smiled expectantly, the light in his eyes trembling with cautious anticipation.

“Sol has finally gone nova,” I said.  “Earth has been completely abandoned.”

He nodded gravely and sat down.  I paced.

“As you know, most of Terra’s remaining citizens were in the slow process of emigrating to other stars, other worlds.  A few of the Guild directorate were rewarded, choosing to emigrate to Earth’s past.  But that was a very limited option.”  I finished munching chocolate-coconut.  Sated, I leisurely unwrapped the Payday.  “But you knew that would happen.  There is something new, however, which I think you should know.”

“What?”

“The Guild has disbanded.  At the end of time, the Kronokaze has ceased to exist.”

“No more Kronokaze?” he said slowly, his face scrunched up with narrowed incredulity.  “What do you mean?”
“No more time travel.”

“What happened?  I thought the Guild planned to relocate on another world.”

“No.  Everyone’s gone.  All records razed, the art of time travel destroyed.”

“On purpose?  But why?”

Why indeed?  It didn’t make much sense to me either.  I could have told Gordon how the Guild in its quasi-mystical frame of mind had concluded that time travel was a tenuous art best consigned to the status of shrouded myth.  With the final, inevitable demise of Earth, they had decided to close up the architecture of time, trusting no one, not even themselves, with the secrets they had wielded and forged for nearly a century.  After the near-disaster of the Krupp Antares affair, they’d grown scared and sober.  Best simply to disappear, they’d reasoned, along with their secrets, into the black hole of time itself, rather than risk another potential conflagration.

None of which concerned me.  I was merely a clever mercenary whom the Number One Director, Gregory Ballardine, had hired from outside the Guild.  On my own, I’d ferreted out secrets that were not mine, but beyond my fee, I cared little for Guild politics.
“Too many people at cross-purposes, Gordon.  Time travel is too precious and dangerous a secret to leave behind.”

He shook his head uncomprehendingly.

“So we’re stuck back here in time?”

I smiled.  “Well, no.  I was recruited from about eighty years before the end of the world.  I could go back to my own time, live out my life.”  Having satisfied my growing sweet tooth, I could afford to be more leisure with the Payday.  “Or I could go to another world.”  I shrugged.  “Or maybe I’ll stay here,” I said, grinding caramel-covered peanuts between my teeth.  “I think I could like it here.”  I sighed.  “I wouldn’t worry about it too much.  You’ll still be recalled when your term is up.”

His eyes narrowed.  “Why did they send you back?” he asked, no longer mindful of protocol.  “What final mission?”  He heard the drama in his own words, thought about it.  Frowning, he asked, “What is it?”

I looked at him for a moment, then said, “Someone from the Guild went rogue.”

“What do you mean?”

I unscrewed a bottle of Coca Cola, rinsing my mouth with dark effervescence.  I liked the taste.  My blood sugar was high, and I was feeling pleasantly dizzy.

“Someone decided to operate outside the Guild.  Take the secret of time jumping and set up shop permanently here in the past.”

“You mean, reestablish the Guild in Outtime?”

“Not the Guild, Gordon.  A new Guild.  One at cross-purposes with the Kronokaze.”

“But wait a second.  I thought you said the Guild didn’t exist anymore.”

“Only at the end of time.  They still exist for a nearly a century before that.”

“Damn,” he said in a quiet voice, rubbing his chin, overwhelmed by the paradoxes.  The light in his eyes leaped upward, like a stoked candle flame.  “Is there going to be a war?”

“Not if we can help it.”

“Who was it?”

“‘Who was it’ what?”

“Who went rogue?”

“Oh?”  I sucked at my teeth.  “The Guild’s Number Two Director.”

“Jabra Eisenstein?”  he said with an amazed whisper.

I nodded, burping noisily.  I hadn’t meant to.

“I don’t suppose you’d want me to work with you on your assignment?” he asked guardedly.  “I mean, we’ve got to stick together, right?  This is serious shit.”

“Thanks, Gordon.  You’ve done me a world of service already, but I have to work alone.”  I stood up.  “I’ve got to go now.”
“Sure,” he said, also standing up.  It was obvious that the news had nonplussed him.  He was staring at but not seeing me.  He was focused inward on his thoughts, on the implications of all I’d said.  I decided to take advantage of his timely distraction.  I raised my arms to give him the Guild’s ritual embrace, quickly and effectively snapping his neck instead.

I gently lowered his very warm and flushed corpse to the floor, stuffed my pockets with more candy and left.
Weeks turned into months while I conducted my search, but I found no sign of Jabra Eisenstein.

I spent a lot of time trying to anticipate her moves.  Where would a person of her position and fame within the Guild hide?  It would have to be in a place and a life where she could be anonymous, yet still exercise the power and authority it would require to create a new family of time travelers.  A place where you would look at her, but not see her.

There were other jumpers I’d located, some that I’d already known about, some not.  Kronokaze had retired a number of agents in the past, in different epochs of time.  Some were from Justice’s witness protection programs, others were merely agents rewarded for their life of service by living out the remainder of their years in anonymity and comfort in the era of their choice.  There were a few vacationers, but they were rarities.  And of course there were the water boys, men and women like Gordon Leary, enzymatic agents in place to facilitate the movement of all legitimate Kronokaze traffic.

But I began turning up rogues, jumpers gone AWOL, but who rather than hiding out in the manufactured lives of nobodies, curiously hid by usurping the identities of famous people. It was hard to find them, but through a number of fortuitous accidents, they came to my attention.  They were easy to spot if you happened to run across them and you had access to CI, because they’d assumed the personae of famous people, in contravention to Kronokaze policy.  One evening, for example, perusing the magazines and paperbacks at the open-air stalls on Ventura and Van Nuys Boulevards, I found a science fiction novel, “Neuromancer” staring me in the face.  It was an interesting title, so I picked it up.  I was turning the pages when CI kicked in and told me this was a critically acclaimed book first published in the early 1980’s.  And here it was, over a decade ahead of its time!  The author was William Gibson.

When I took my purchases to the vendor, he registered mild surprise.

“I’ve had this in stock for three weeks, and this is the first copy I’ve sold.”

“Not a very good book?”

He chewed on his burnt out cigar stub and seemed to think about it.

“I tried to read it,” he said, ringing up the prices on the cash register.  He shook his head in dismay.  “Weird book.  I don’t like the writing style.  Too literary, if you know what I mean.”

I nodded as he put my purchases in a brown paper sack.

“One more day and you wouldn’t have found it here.  I’m sending the rest back.  I need books that sell.”  He gave me my change.  “This ain’t no goddamn library, if you know what I mean.”

“I know what you mean,” I said, smiling.

Some days later I found a photograph of William Gibson in one of the publication trades, a review accompanied by a brief article on how the book was too ahead of its time by way of explaining its poor reception. The image of Gibson in my head via CI did not match with the photo of the Gibson who’d authored this “Neuromancer.”  A time jumper, no doubt thinking himself clever.

I smiled.  Somewhere there was the real Gibson. Would he ever read this book? And if he did, what would he feel like?  As if he were reading a phosphorescent text under water, to paraphrase Henry Miller?  And what would he make of his life?  A critic stuck in Academia?  A househusband listening to the Velvet Underground while cooking dinner?  I shook my head with black amusement.

Still, I didn’t follow up on it.  The parameters of my assignment were narrow. Find Jabra Eisenstein and terminate her.  But the incident gave me another line of reasoning to follow.

So I bided my time, reveling in the rarified atmosphere of this nascent decade. I continued to read newspapers, watched lots of television, and bought the current novels and the latest musical vinyl pressings. I indulged in rich foods and perused the fashion magazines, trading my polyester for silk and linen.  I courted women and made friends. It was helpful in gauging the context and contours of my surroundings, something that the Cortical Information chip inside my head, no matter how sophisticated, could not provide.

“Here,” said my friend Yvette Cabellero, indicating a hard, Formica table. “Let’s sit here.  What do you want?”

I handed her a twenty-dollar bill.  “A Quarter Pounder with cheese, extra pickles, a large order of…”

“A quarter what?”

I bit the inside of my lip and willed the CI chip to recite silently inside my mind.  Ah, no Quarter Pounders for a number of years to come.

“Okay.  A Big Mac,” I amended, “extra sauce and pickles.  Large fries and a coffee, plenty of cream.”

I made a note to be careful; there were moments when I’d grow a little sloppy.  This world was such a miraculous patchwork of sensoria flooding my consciousness; at times it threatened to inundate me.  I had deliberately flirted with the informational overflow, wallowing in it in much the same way we do with the neural spices in the future.  You’re not here on a game, I had to remind myself.
Yvette sat down, unwrapping one of her cheeseburgers.

Watching the cars making their way along the four lanes of Ventura Boulevard, we ate and spoke for a while about mundane things.  From somewhere I could hear music, Lee Michaels, asking us if we knew what he meant.

I’d met Yvette in the library at San Fernando Valley College, a young Chicana student with an interest in rebelling against the strictures of being raised Seventh Day Adventist in a culturally hermetic Valley, as this basin was called.  Lapsed churchgoers, I was learning, made fervently experimental lovers.  The heretical firebrand locked within so long, dying to break out.
“Such funny spoons,” she remarked about the thin reed of plastic I’d stirred my coffee with.

I held it up and examined it.  The concave part was a tiny Lilliputian spoon.  CI crackled an obscure footnote in my head.
“You might want to save some these,” I said, putting it down.  “I’m willing to wager they’ll be collector’s items some day.”
She frowned.  “Why?”

“Look.”  I emptied a packet of sugar on the table, and scooped a minute amount of it up with the spoon.  “Ideal for snorting cocaine.”  She laughed naughtily.

“You’re right,” she said, examining the thing.  She’d learned about the drug through me.  “I hadn’t thought about it.”  Her foot played with mine under the table.  “That’s what I like about you,” she said.  “You have a twisty mind.”
“I mean, McDonalds is one of the final bastions of American decency, right?”

“So.  What do you want to do?” she said, removing the pickles from her second cheeseburger and giving them to me.
“Um,” I mouthed around the delightful taste of special sauce, “I thought we’d go see a movie.”

Her hand rubbed my right kneecap under the table.  “I was thinking,” she said softly, her eyes dreamy.  “We could go back to my apartment,” she whispered, her eyes hooded with insatiable appetites.  “Make our own movie.”

“Hmmm.  An offer difficult to refuse.”

“An offer you can’t refuse, as Don Corleone would say.”

CI warped through my thoughts.  She’d used the phrase a couple of times already, and I’d heard others use it too, but I’d thought little of it.  Don Corleone?

“You’ve read ‘The Godfather’?” I asked.  “Is it any good?”

“It’s great.”

“Have you got a copy?”

She nodded.

We left, taking a handful of the coffee stirrers from the side counter with us.

The blue light of the Union Bank building filtered softly through Yvette’s Dickens Street apartment, bathing us as we lay in the sweaty languor of our lovemaking.  I turned on the television while she went to the kitchen to bring us tumblers of orange juice.
TV fascinated me, not merely because it was a quaintly antiquated form of technology, elegantly retro and cool, but for the easily digestible glimpses it gave me of the world in which I found myself.  There was much to be culled about these people through the glass breast.  TV was just like candy.

I watched the news, listening to increments of information: the continued disengagement of troops in Vietnam; something about President Richard Nixon’s proposed historic visit to the People’s Republic of China.  A reporter spoke about the lunar rubble brought back by Apollo 14, the fourth landing by men on the moon.  I learned that Jim Morrison had just joined Duane Allman in the Dead Rocker’s Hall of Fame, two additions in the same year.  Sandwiched between news about the Berrigan trial and a report on the mysterious provenance of the so-called Pentagon Papers, there was an extended blurb on the Charles Manson trial.
“Crazy world, isn’t it?” said Yvette, sitting on the single mattress she called a bed.  She handed me a glass of chilled orange juice.
“All worlds are crazy, Yvette.  Yours is probably the least insane, believe me.”  She looked at me quizzically but let it pass, gently biting my lower lip.

She was cuddling up to me and stirring my prurient juices when an entertainment item flashed on, something about a proposed movie based on the wildly popular “The Godfather.”  (Again I reminded myself to read it.)  They’d chosen a director for the filming, a new director with only one film to date, something called “The Rain People.”

“Francis Ford Coppola,” I said before they mentioned the name, prompted by CI.

“You’ve heard of her?” asked Yvette lazily, kissing my belly button.

“Him,” I corrected.

“No.  Coppola’s a woman.”

I sat up just as they ran brief footage of the new director at a press conference.  Her name appeared briefly at the bottom of the television screen.  Frances Ford Coppola.

I smiled coldly, watching the director-elect gesticulating while she talked, hearing nothing she said, bright flashes from the photographic corps of reporters highlighting her face.

It was Jabra Eisenstein.

I finished my OJ, wiped my mouth with the back of my hand, and smiled.  It was time to go to work.

We were into our final month of shooting when it was decided to have a wrap party for the completion of principal footage, a breather before starting post-production.  It was slated as a lavish affair, a party where a selective list of the press corps would be able to catch the stars in motion across a dance floor sky studded with food-laden tables and famous, beautiful faces with their artfully composed countenances of studied histrionics.  Oh, how we loved ourselves!  Method acting meets haute cuisine.

Jules and I sat at a corner table in the Paramount Studios’ warehouse, sipping Dom Perignon and nibbling at pink prawns on croissant wafers.  I’d met him at a Grateful Dead concert in San Francisco some months back.

“Look,” he said in a hushed tone.  “There’s Marlon Brando.”  Before Jules and I had become lovers, I’d found the glimmer of naiveté in his star-crossed black eyes charming.  Of late it was beginning to grate on me.

We were separated from the object of Jules’ schoolgirl admiration by a number of tables, the back of Brando’s still-humanoid body facing us.  He and James Caan were animatedly being noisy, but with the sound level in the hall, it was impossible to tell what they were saying.  Drunker than Martians on moonshine, probably making fun of Al Pacino, as they had throughout the entire duration of the filming.  Pacino was so full of himself, so consumed by his Art and his precious Method; he’d kept his distance from the others pretty much, which was a workable arrangement.  I found him to be a trying, self-centered bore.

“I can’t believe I’m here,” said Jules.  He was a light drinker.

“Imagine that.”  I let him kiss me gently on the mouth.  “Well, pigeon,” I said, “you are.  Here.  Let me pour you some more.  No one will notice.”  I handed him his fizzing glass slipper.

It had been intriguing to watch Jabra Eisenstein over the months, not because she was making a movie that had already been made, once before, in a different timeline and lifetime.  After all, CI can’t provide everything.  Outline details, yes, but not text, not the meat of something.  I’d read “The Godfather” since being here, but I’d never ever seen the original movie, and CI didn’t carry that kind of stuff, only references to it.

It had been interesting because of the process of film making itself.  I’d managed to insinuate myself into this world as an assistant to the cinematographer.  So far, Jabra was sticking very close to the text of the novel, and it was turning out very well.  She had excellent organizational skills.  But of course Jabra in Uptime had been Kronokaze’s second-in-command, working closely with top dog Gregory Ballardine.  (The Guild called him Father Time, in derision as often as in affection.  He had been my recruiter.)
It all made a kind of quirky, literary sense: Jabra’s assumption of Coppola’s life, her filming of “The Godfather.”  After all, wasn’t that what Ballardine had said she’d set out to do?  To structure her own time traveler’s Cosa Nostra in the past?

I think she suspected that the Kronokaze had sent an assassin to ferret her out.  But for the fact that she surrounded herself with a number of imposing and ever-vigilant bodyguards, I would have killed her already.  If I tried anything from afar, I would no doubt be cut down in my tracks.  I toyed with the idea of rigging myself up with explosives, but that would mean dispatching myself, and this was neither in my encoded training nor in my personal game plan.  I would have to figure a way to get near her, preferably alone.  The opportunity had not yet presented itself.

The problem niggled away at my waking thoughts.  She must have figured that Kronokaze would send someone like me back after her.  Why, then, was she playing her part with so much publicity?  Granted, she’d changed her name, but that was cosmetic.  All things considered, it had been maddeningly easy to find her.  She must have wanted to be found.

Perhaps, somehow, she knew who I was, and this worried me.  If true, she could have me killed.  I spent the days living on my toes.
I observed Jabra two tables away, holding court with her immediate circle.  Diane Keaton, the actress playing Michael Corleone’s second wife, was there, as well as Isabel Mandello, the Godfather’s only daughter.  Mario Puzo’s corpulent presence, shrouded in cigar smoke, graced the entourage, as well as the director of cinematography, Leo Barkopoulous, my immediate boss on the set.

Checked against my CI references, Puzo was indeed who he was supposed to be, but CI had no data on the others.  I wondered if any of Jabra’s entourage were time jumpers.  In addition to her orbit of bodyguards, she always surrounded herself with cronies and sycophants, and tonight was no exception.  Through CI, I could verify the identities of the integrally famous, and either discount or confirm them as Kronokaze substitutes.  But unless they were famous in that way, CI could tell me nothing.   Cortical Information had been designed with a political and historical bias, which downplayed the arts and entertainment scene, a paucity, which I was beginning to find more than irritating.  Information on a McDonalds’ coffee spoon, but no data on “The Godfather’s” actors?  Go figure.

“She’s a ronin, working on her own,” Ballardine had said at the opposite end of time, before sending me back.  “She’s bound to surround herself with a protective belt of people, but they won’t be Kronokaze.  Trust me.”

Trust me?  Despite the fact that, by design, Gregory Ballardine was the only person I could not harm, the chemically implanted conditioning still left my mind free to think for itself.  Assassins cannot function effectively otherwise.  I had allowed for the possibility that Ballardine might have been misinformed about others who might have defected along with Jabra.  When Lucifer had left Heaven, hadn’t he taken a third of the angels with him?  Deciding to err on the right side of caution, and to trust no one but myself, I had to assume she couldn’t be operating alone.

“Miles.  Who is that man over there?”

Jules had nodded toward a man at Jabra’s table.  He was fortyish and large, a corpulent man who seemed carved from a huge, single block of swarthy, Italian marble.  His dark, thin hair was slicked back Mafioso style, his face raw and rugged, his eyes motile but quietly feral.  Wearing a suit of comfortably tailored black silk, his size alone conjured the fear one might feel before a grazing rhinoceros.  He exuded the understated menace corollary to many of the high-powered industry types I’d met a few times already, confident and a little lowbrow.
“That’s Armand Deatherage.”  He was playing the part of Luca Brasi.
“He looks scary.”
“He’s one of the producers,” I lied.  “A financial backer.  He checks in on us every now and then, to make sure everything’s proceeding on schedule.  It’s not like Frances has a whole string of hits behind her.”

I bit a prawn in half.  “There’s a story about him,” I said, corrupting a scene from “The Godfather”, leaning back and crossing a leg, munching.  “Early on in the shooting, we were having problems with the company that leases us the cameras.  We were running behind schedule, slamming into cost overruns, which is a dangerous thing to do so early on.  Frances was having the cast working overtime in order to catch up, and the man from the camera company — his name was Gibbons — decided to make a killing.  All the film camera houses of the caliber we needed were all engaged on other projects, so we were stuck with him.  He announced that he was nearly tripling the cost, claiming increased wear and tear and so on and so forth.  Extra, okay, but triple?  It was making us look bad, out of control, and Paramount threatened to have Frances replaced.”

“What did she do?”

“Along with Deatherage, she paid a visit to this Mr. Gibbons.”

“What did she do?”

“Frances made the man an offer he couldn’t refuse.”

Jules giggled drunkenly and punched me lightly on the arm.  “Miles, quit joking.”

“No, really.  Frances presented Gibbons with a revised contract, one that called for less money than the original, while Deatherage held a gun to his head.  Frances assured Gibbons that either his signature or his brains would be on that contract.”
“Stop it, will you!?!” sibilated Jules, laughing.  “That’s not funny.”

“It’s a true story.”

Jules lowered his head, throwing Jabra’s table a narrowed, catty stare.  I think he believed me.

“Oh, Miles,” Jules suddenly whispered.  “Look!  No no, Jesus, don’t look!  She’s coming our way!”

I looked.  Jabra had left her table, alone.  She smiled at me, holding a fluted glass of wine.  The hairs on the nape of my neck stood on end.

“Good evening, Miles,” she said, briefly acknowledging Jules with a nod.
I smiled, nonplussed at her approach.

Jabra, I knew, was in her early thirties, although she looked closer to forty, and I wondered, not for the first time, how one so young had gone so high in the Kronokaze Guild.  Her hair was a thick, unruly riot pinned up at the back, stray tufts of chestnut rising like smoke from the nape of her neck.  Her features were Slavic, her eyes almond, glistening wetly but unrevealing, her nose French and sturdy.  There was something very masculine about her, except for the mouth, which was small and thin-lipped but sensually bowed, a subtle overbite suffusing her with a fair quotient of sexiness.  Her mouth was more expressive and fluid than her eyes.  She looked like an attractive Janis Joplin.

Aside from instructions on the set, Jabra had never spoken to me directly.  How many times had I connived, without success, to get physically close to her?  I smoothed down the fears that rippled over the thought that she might know who I was.  Now that the film was winding down, I told myself, she was no doubt canvassing the room, thanking her crew, of which I was one.  Reasonable, I told my paranoid mind, quite reasonable.  I smiled and nodded.

“Frances.”

She raised her glass and sipped.  “I want to thank you for your work, Miles.  Barkopoulous’ words about you glow in the dark.”
“Well, thank you.”

“I was wondering.  Might we speak in private?”  She glanced briefly at Jules.  “I hope you don’t mind.  I won’t detain him too long.”
The night was balmy, the moon full as we walked from the noisy warehouse to her nearby office.  We spoke of inconsequentials all the way.  I could hardly believe my luck.

“Things have turned out rather nicely,” she said when we arrived, “even if I say so myself.”  The room was gloomily illuminated.  When she sat at her desk, moonlight from a high window jig-sawed her face.  “It got hairy a couple of times, didn’t it?”
I nodded.  This is going to be easy, I thought.

“But now the real work begins.”

“What did you want to talk to me about?”  I remained standing, sensing possibilities.

Jabra smiled.

“Barkopoulous will no longer be working with us.”  She began doodling with a pencil on her desk pad, but otherwise kept her eyes on me.

“Oh, really?  I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yes, well, so am I.  You see, he wants to do what I do.  He wants to direct his own movies.”  Her smile spoke volumes, but it seemed to be a language I wasn’t conversant in.  She shrugged good-naturedly.  “I understand him, and I don’t blame him.  I wish him luck.”
“He’s an artist.”

“Yes.  Like you.”

I paused, eyeing her.  “Thanks again.”

“Listen, Miles.  I’m already planning my next movie.  I need a cinematographer.”  She ran a hand through her unruly hair.  “I need you.”

“I’m honored.”

She ran her tongue over her front, upper teeth.  “There’s a home for you here.  I’m starting a film company of my own.  Kronotrope.
I nodded, maintaining a neutral demeanor.  “Nice name.”

“Yes.  I think so.”

“What is your next project?”

“An SF thriller, based on a Philip K. Dick novel.  You’ve heard of Dick?”

“Sure.”

“‘Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep’?  An excellent story.”
“Kind of an unwieldy title for a movie, don’t you think?”

“That’s the novel’s title.  The movie’ll be called ‘Bladerunner.’
“Much better, I agree.  Something from a William Burrough’s book, right?”
She smiled with her eyes, observing me closely.  “That’s right,” she finally said.  “I believe it captures the feel of what I want to do.”

“And what is it you want to do?”

“To create a new paradigm for science fiction film.  Create a future rooted in the past, a future with texture, detail, with a studied mixture of light and dark.  Film noir futuristic.”

“Interesting,” I said.  “It sounds rather cyberpunk.”

She didn’t move for the whole of ten seconds, and we just stared at each other.  Finally, she enlaced the fingers of her hands, laying them atop the desk.  We were both silent for a while.

“You don’t have to do this,” she finally said.  “In fact, I strongly advise against it.”

“And what is that?”

“Kill me.”

I smiled nonchalantly and took a few steps toward her.  “Now why would I want to do that?”
“Do yourself a favor.  Sit down, please.”

“Why?” I asked, reaching inside my jacket for the garroting wire I’d taken to carrying with me.
“Because I’m telling you to,” she said in her directorial voice, “that’s why.  Besides, I think I’ve got an offer you won’t be able to refuse.”

“Really, Jabra.”

I saw the fear playing the contours of her mouth, but the tone of her voice had reminded me of who she was.  K
ronokaze’s number two person.  I had to assume she could be dangerous.

“Do you know why I chose to come to this time as the director of this movie?”

“I’ve read the novel.  It’s a blue print for what you’re doing.”  I remained standing; she sat forward in her chair.  “You’re creating your own Family here.”

“You didn’t really think the Kronokaze would dissolve itself, did you?  Give up the secrets of time travel?  Come on, Miles.”
“Sure.  You merely meant to protect it for yourselves.

“This is much bigger than you realize, Miles.  Killing me won’t change anything.”

“I don’t know about that,” I said.  “People change dramatically when they stop breathing.”

Despite everything, she managed a cool smile, and I had to admire her aplomb.  “Have you ever thought of acting?” she asked.  “You have a natural talent for it.”

“I don’t know why you’re telling me all this.  It doesn’t interest me.  That’s not my job.  You direct movies, Jabra.  I just shoot them.”

“You’re intelligent, Miles, that’s why I’m telling you these things.  If there’s anything that I’ve learned with Kronokaze, it’s that nothing is etched in stone.  It’s all subject to change.  You have to learn how to bend.  And if you don’t, then you’ll break.”  She lightly licked her lips.  “This does concern you.  Very much.”

“I see,” I said.  “The time traveling guild as Mafia.  If you’ve chosen “The Godfather” as your blue print,” I asked, piqued, “then what is my role?”

“You, my dear Miles, are the character of Luca Brasi.”

I smiled.  Luca Brasi, that Italian leviathan with the heart of ice, with Freon in his veins, afraid of no one and nothing, except for the Godfather himself, for whom he was a most frightening button man.

“Refresh my memory, Jabra.  Doesn’t Luca Brasi get killed in the story?”

“This isn’t a movie we’re talking about, Miles.  And if it were, well, I’m the director, aren’t I?  I can have the script rewritten.”  She brushed away a wisp of hair that had fallen across the bridge of her nose.  “Like you, Luca Brasi was afraid of nothing, not hell, not god, certainly not man.  Nothing.”

“Except of the Godfather,” I said, smiling, humored, and then it hit me.

“Ah, I see, don’t tell me, don’t tell me,” I said, uncoiling the garroting wire I would wind about Jabra’s neck, and choke the life out of her.  “Let me guess.  You’re supposed to be the Godfather?”

“No,” she said, “not me.”

She stood up and backed her way casually toward the back wall.  Pale moonlight again embroidering her bare shoulders and neck with fernlike delicacy.

“I knew who you were before you even got here,” she said, glancing at her watch.

“Funny.”

“No, really.  In fact I was the one who recommended you to Gregory.”

The paranoiac inside me stood up at that, and I felt a moment of disorientation.  I felt a nausea bloom in my gut, and then suddenly I felt an increase in the air pressure, a sense of closeness that gripped lightly at my lungs.  A silent burst of light flared behind me.

I turned and froze.

It was Gregory Ballardine.

He was slightly phosphorescent as he put a hand out to steady himself against the doorjamb.

“It’s about time,” said Jabra, now behind me.  “Did you forget to set your alarm, Gregory?”

“Oooo,” said my Padrino, the one man I’d been programmed to fear, to not harm, the one and only man who could kill me without even trying.  My Godfather.  “It’s been a while since I’ve done this,” he said.   He unbuttoned his collar and wavered to the nearest chair, plopping down unceremoniously.

“Hello, my boy,” said he said, having left the shadows, facing me.  He cocked his head almost apologetically.  He turned to Jabra.  “Listen, can I get something to drink?  Goddammit I’m thirsty.”

“We can get something outside,” said Jabra, walking toward the door.  “The party’s just getting started.  Believe me.”
“Good, good.”

Son of a bitch! I thought, watching the two of them.  The bastard!  I began to get an idea of what was going on.

Ballardine rose and put an arm around my shoulder, steering me toward the door and using me as a crutch at the same time.

“Do me a favor, son.  Put that thing away, please.  It makes me nervous.  Come, come.  We’ve got some catching up to do.  There’s a lot to talk about.  Come.”

I still dream of the visceral red skies and jagged black horizons of my once-and-future life, but I’m much too busy these days to dwell on them.

In the weeks that followed Ballardine’s arrival, we reshot all the scenes in which Luca Brasi appears.  They had me play the role.  Armand Deatherage didn’t complain.  I learned that he was Kronokaze, following orders, just like me.
I must say, my newfound celebrity, minor though it be, is quite amusing.

I’m no longer angry at how Ballardine used me.  I realize that I was the stone he’d forged and tossed, in order to kill a number of birds.  He’d used me to convince the remaining Kronokaze directorate, before they’d dispersed, that matters would be taken care of.  They left for other worlds, assured that the Guild would remain dissolved, assured that Jabra Eisenstein would be ferreted out, and that no new time traveling Guild would supplant the old one.  Bearing in mind that the Kronokaze Guild is still quite active during the hundred years preceding its disbanding, it was a vitally important charade.  We still keep our eyes open.  You never know what might happen.  Someone might still catch on, investigate, come snooping around.

But I doubt it.

Besides, Ballardine and Eisenstein have me.  Ballardine created a fiercely loyal assassin/bodyguard, me, to protect him in his new life.  His enemies would become my enemies.  That’s the way I’d been kinked.

I’d still like to kill Jabra Eisenstein, and I find it interesting that it’s a compulsion, which Ballardine has not bothered to erase from my CI unit.  But of course, I can’t.  Ballardine’s made that clear, he won’t let me.  Often he sends me traveling with her, as her guardian angel. To my chagrin, it’s one of the few ironies I have to live with.

But in this world I’m as close to a king as I’d ever hoped to be.  And while I’m careful not to ask for too much, there is very little that my Godfather won’t give me.

I’ve asked him to let me make my own movie.  Why not?  I’m thinking of taking an old Harlan Ellison story, “Demon With A Glass Hand”, and adapting it to my own story, the story of my life.  There’s no danger of alerting anyone to our presence, because after all, we have no competition.  We have the monopoly on time travel.

Of course, Harlan Ellison might be something of a problem.  I could go back in time and simply make his stories mine, steal them outright, having someone write them before he does. But from what I know about the fellow, he’d find some way to raise hell, make a stink about how someone had raided his mind, his dreams, never mind how, it’s true.

I go back in time tonight.  Perhaps I’ll try to reason with him, but from what I know, he marches to his own drummer.  I guess I’ll just have to make him an offer he can’t refuse.