The train was late today, and it was always early.
I pulled back my suit sleeve to check my watch, belatedly realizing that I'd left it at home. I didn't need the Rolex--August gave it to me as a wedding gift--not with the titanic Arnold Bernstein Company clock sticking up over the horizon like an olbelisk in Ancient Egypt. But it was certainly a testimony to how insanely nervous I was, that I'd left it at home on the dresser.
August was gone. God alone knew where: God and that woman, the one who'd left a voice mail on my answering machine earlier that morning. She had a strange voice, low but with an eerie melody, like Brahms's Hungarian Dance. Lavinia Presarius, she'd said, almost under her breath, I have news about your husband. And then she'd given me a name, a name and an address, and now I was standing in a black-walled subway station, waiting for the train to take me where I needed to go.
I rummaged through my shirt pocket and pulled out the little scrap of paper, where I'd written her message. Maris Arkell, a scientist...that must have been the woman on the phone. I didn't like her name, in the same way I took strange dislikings to foods I'd never tried. It probably came from the hormones. It was my first child, after all, and barely two months into my pregnancy, my husband had disappeared.
I thought I felt a movement, like the fluttering of a butterfly. Relax, little guy, I thought fondly, forgetting for a moment that my little darling was less than two inches long, and whatever tiny movements he made would be far too minute for me to feel. I'll find your daddy, and by the time you're learning to walk, daddy will find a new job, and all three of us will live in a big house with an oak tree in the yard...
My maternal ramblings, as new and alien to me as long-division to a second grader, were interuppted by the screech of the train on the subway tracks. I joined the press to get into the long compartment, and was fortunate enough to find one of the plastic seats open. I sat down and held the address up to the light, studying the long scrawl of my handwriting as if I'd never seen it before. The Laudanum Building, I'd scribbled beneath the address. The words were meaningless to me, but Maris said them over in the phone in a way that told me they should be important, somehow.
The train learched forwards. My fellow passengers settled back, either in their seats or against the padded bars in the aisle, pulling out books, crossword puzzles, music players, anything to keep them occupied. I studied the people around me: almost all in black, the single exception being the girl directly across the aisle from me, who wore the most flamboyant purple dress I'd ever seen on sane humanity. She sat with a note pad in her tiny hands, no pen in sight, staring at the paper as if it held all the world's secrets. I snorted and watched the brick walls of the subway run past my window.
My stop came far to quickly. I heaved myself out of my seat--it was only nine in the morning, and I hadn't eaten enough for breakfast--and shuffled out, up the station stairs, into the broad daylight of the streets above. The sidewalk beneath my feet was red brick, way too rough for my delicate heels. Step by painful step, I made my way over to the beautiful white structure whose address, traced out in elegant gold lettering, matched the one on my scrap paper. So this was the Laudanum Building. Whoever Laudanum was, he certainly had style.
The lobby matched exactly the magnificant facade. A long marble fountain ran down the entire length, with a statue of some lovely greek goddess in the center, the crest of her helmet formed of water. A golden tree hung on the south wall, with what must have been names inscribed on its leaves. I took a deep breath and started towards the front desk.
The gentleman behind it was shorter than I was, dressed in a tight black suit and tie. He peered up at me behind thick glasses and pushed his spectacles up the bridge of his nose. "Name?" he asked, raising an eyebrow at my less than elegant appearal.
"Lavinia Presarius," I said. "That's P-r-e--"
"I know," he snapped. He punched a few keys on his computer, tapped the screen with his index finger, and the machine on his desk spit out a small white piece of paper. He handed it to me. "You're here for Maris Arkell," he said, and it was not a question. "She'll meet you down the street at the Hamatoku. Show this paper to your taxi driver, it says your ride is already paid for. Anything else?"
I stared at him blankly. The Hama-whata? It sounded like a theatre. I shook my head and started towards the door, staring at the paper in my hand. An art nouveau poppy sat at the top, with the word LAUDANUM across it. Paid in Full by Urban Laudanum III, said the printed writing in the middle. A small mass of scribbles at the bottom proved, on closer inspection, to be Maris's signature. With a shrug, I exited the building and flagged down a taxi.
The man in at the front desk apparently knew what he was talking about, because the driver took one look at my paper and sped me down the street, not even asking where I needed to go. He let me off about six blocks away, with a knowing smile, and disappeared as soon as I slammed my door.
The Hamatoku was not a theatre, but a restaurant, built like a Kyoto palace. A woman paced up and down the sidewalk in front of it, hands folded behind her back, watching the road. As soon as I stepped out of the taxi, she ran over to me, long brown hair flying out behind her.
"Mrs. Presarius?" she asked, holding out her hand. "I'm Maris Arkell."
I gave her a brief handshake, thankful she had not yet adopted the modern pratice of starting off a business relationship with a kiss. "I need to know about August," I said, as soon as she started leading me up to the Hamatoku's front door.
She shook her head. "Not here," she said, with a look in her brown eyes that said I should definently obey. I shrugged and followed her in.
The front door opened onto a long, dark hallway, paneled with black wood. A server in agolden dress greeted us with a bow. "It is good to see you again, Maris," she said, and beckoned us down the hall and through the last door on our right.
We came in to a small room, with the same dark paneling as in the hallway. The floor was covered with tatami goza matting. There was a low table in the center of the room, directly beneath a red chandelier, and four silk cusions were piled on each side of it. Maris knelt down on the far side of the table and removed her flat-heeled shoes, gesturing for me to do the same.
When I was settled comfortably, she folded her hands on the table top and ran her tongue over her lips. "What I am about to say, you are going to find very hard to believe," she began, holding my gaze steadily. She must have just graduated college, I realized with a start. No one could be in a scientific field and still look so young, after more than a year or two.
"Ms. Arkell, I'm finding it rather hard to believe that my husband has vanished off the face of this earth, and you expect me not to call the police," I said. "Nothing you can say will surprise me more than that, I assure you."
She shrugged. "Very well. Your husband has been sent into the far future, though a loop-hole in Einstein's theory of relativity."
I didn't bat an eyelash. "That's a load of crap, Ms. Arkell, and do you want to know why? Because theories don't have loop-holes. Plans have loop-holes. Ms. Arkell, where the hell is my husband?"
"Somewhere in the far future," she repeated. "The only problem is, I have no idea how to get him back." Seeing the skeptical look on my face, she grabbed my wrist across the table. "No, listen!" she shouted. "Your husband was chosen to test the Decimal, my prototype!"
"Prototype of what?" I scoffed, pulling my hand away from hers. A knock came at the door, followed by our server. She placed a tray of tea on our table and left in complete silence.
Maris watched her go. "The Decimal is a time machine," she said after a moment. "Relying on faster than light travel. If you study the theory of relativity, it states that if you can move faster than light, you can--"
"Move into the future?" I said. To buy myself some time, I took a sip of the bitter tea. It scalded my tongue. "Supposing I accept that answer, why don't you just bring him back the same way you got him there?"
Maris winced, as if pained to have to say it. "The Decimal only moves forward in time," she said, biting her lip. "Not backward. It is up to your husband to find a way back on his own--"
"August? He knows about as much about relativity as a fish knows about trees!" I exclaimed, spitting tea across the room. "Someone has to go after him!"
"That is exactly what I am trying to say," Maris stressed. Her hands were once again folded, in her lap. "You need to go after him, Lavinia. I would, but Urban Laudanum will not allow it."
"Is this Urban fellow your boss?" I asked, selectivly ignoring that first part of her statement. "What does he have to do with how you conduct your experiment?"
"Urban was the one who sent August in the Decimal, not me," she said. "Look, he cannot stand to see a theory not tested. Urban says he needs me here, and you are the only person I think August will trust to bring him back."
I traced the rim of my tea cup with my finger. "How did you know?" I asked, after a brief moment of silence. "How did you know I ever studied relativity? They hardly teach it anymore, it's too much of a theory, nothing you can experiment on..."
"I know," she said. "I know you studied it, because August told me. There is something between him and Urban, Lavinia. And now you and I are caught in it, just because we understand the science. I cannot force you to help me, but know that if you won't, nobody else will."
She looked so scared, and I saw through the scientist to the kid she really was. I still didn't like her--blame it on the hormones--but somehow, I had to trust her. She'd have to be certifiably insane to make that up, wouldn't she?
"Okay," I said. "Okay, I'll do it. But I hope you know, Ms. Arkell, that I'm two months pregnant, and if anything happens to my baby because of this..." I let my voice trail off. Lines were forming across Maris's face, and she scrunched up her mouth, looking disgusted. "What?" I said, shaking my head. "I understand that you're young, Maris, but surely you've thought about getting pregnant some day?"
She shook her head, with a fake smile that looked rather mournful. "No," she said. "No, I haven't. I...I wouldn't want to ruin my figure."
Little bitch, I thought to myself, glancing down at my own body. No, my figure was still intact, and far more appealing than her scrawny frame, if I say so myself. I stood up just as the server returned to our room, with a small silver plate of fish and vegetables.
"Please, have something to eat," Maris said, as the waitress set the plate down on the table in front of her.
"No, thank you," I said. "I wouldn't want to ruin my figure." And then I walked out the door, only barely aware that I'd just signed my soul over to the devil. And the devil was making snide comments on my body.
I walked the full six or seven blocks back to the subway station, along that ghastly brick sidewalk that sent slivers of pain up my legs with each step. I ran down the stairs, glancing at my arm for a watch, forgetting again that I'd left it at home.
Not that it mattered. The train was always early.
I sat down on a bench along the station wall, tapping my fingers together. The wedding ring on my left hand clanked against the Northfolk Alumna ring on my right, and to my fuzzy mind the sound seemed just like a clock ticking.