Justin's life changes forever when a fugitive in time checks in to his hotel.
approximately 3000 words
A Twist in Time
The Saga of Justin Hisakawa
October 31, 2021
Holiday Inn, Middleton, Iowa
Justin Hisakawa squinted at his dog-eared copy Sakurai’s Modern Quantum Mechanics in the dim, 2AM lighting of the Holiday Inn’s lobby. He lounged back, behind the front desk, feet up and shoes off, and used his right hand to hold his textbook while his left hand flexed an exercise grip. The ubiquitous Muzak lilting through the lobby shifted to a 1001 Strings version of "The the Night the Devil Went Down to Georgia," and he rolled his eyes. That was the kind of abomination his family would love.
He turned his attention back to his textbook, to the chapter titled Time-Evolution and the Schrodinger Equation. Usually he could lose himself in the beauty and elegance of the math, finding strength in the way it tamed uncertainty with reason and predictability. Physics was his refuge from the world of hellfire and damnation where he'd grown up. But tonight he couldn't concentrate.
As if the cloying music weren’t enough distraction, his forearm burned from the workout. Lack of sleep and eyestrain conspired to create a knob of pain centered deep in his skull. At this rate, he’d never be ready for his general exams next week, especially if the questions were as dumb as on the sample exam they’d distributed. Use Bell’s Inequality to prove or disprove the proposition that time travel is impossible. What idiot thought that question was appropriate for a friggin’ qualifying exam? He wasn’t qualifying for a Nobel Prize, just for the chance to earn a Ph.D.
At least nothing important ever happened on the graveyard shift to distract him.
A wizened woman pushing a shopping cart appeared in the passenger drop-off area outside the lobby. Justin recognized her tattered overcoat, gloves with no fingers, and ruby-red Keds. He didn't know her last name, so he just thought of her as Shopping Cart Annie. Her scraggly gray hair streamed about her head as she peered through the glass doors. When she caught Justin's eye, she and her cart disappeared toward the smoker's corner at the end of the hotel.
Justin sighed. He'd expected Annie to show up. He'd even salvaged a chicken Kiev dinner from the restaurant for her. He gave his textbook a forlorn look, closed it, and pulled the sack with the meal from where he'd hidden it under the desk. With generals looming, he couldn't really afford a study break, but poor Annie needed him.
He shivered in the chilly, October air and wished he'd stopped to put his shoes on. Damn, where did she go?
A feeble female voice called from the shadows. "That you, Mister Justin?"
"Annie? Honey, come on out here where I can see you." His face relaxed into a grin. "I've got a meal for you."
She crept from behind the shrubbery and into the light, pushing a shopping cart that overflowed with junk: blankets, soda cans, bottles, and assorted trash she mistook for treasure. She accepted the sack containing the meal, and her narrow, withered features broke into a brief smile. Moonlight glimmered in her sunken eyes while she murmured, "God Bless you, Mister Justin." Her hands trembled as she opened the bag to inspect the dinner. "You're an angel, you are." Her iron-gray hair flowed from under a beret adorned with plastic flowers.
"They were just going to throw it away." He frowned. "It's supposed to freeze tonight. Where are you going to sleep?" She couldn't stay here. The security patrol would chase her away. He'd lose his job if he let her in the lobby again.
"Now don't you worry your pretty head none, dearie." She gave him a gap-toothed grin. "I like your new do. Them lines shaved into the side of your head and the spiky topknot make you look like a hot little go-go boy." She rubbed her hands together. "Ol' Annie, she's got herself a nice warm place in the woods."
Justin frowned. "I could take you to the shelter, Annie."
She shuddered and retreated back into the shadows, clutching the bag with her meal. "No! Not there. Last time Annie stayed at that Devil's lair, she got robbed by a dog of a soldier. French, he was. He fought for Napoleon at Waterloo, he said."
"I doubt he was that old, Annie."
"Shows what you know, what with all that book-learnin' of yours. He weren't old at all. He traveled in time, he did. Ol' Annie saw with her own eyes. He had a cursed medal, hangin' on a chain from his neck. Said he got it from one of Napoleon's generals. He cast a spell over it, and the light came and took him away."
Justin sighed. The poor woman was delusional. Harmless, but hopeless. "The shoes working out okay?"
A smile lit her features and she stuck out a foot. "Them's Annie's ruby-red slippers, they is. She clicks them together and maybe they'll take her over the rainbow one of these days. Bless you for them, Mister Justin." She tucked a strand of hair behind an ear. "How about you? How's that cute boyfriend of yours, Kyle?"
Justin flinched at the mention of Kyle the heartless. "We broke up, I'm afraid." No reason to tell her they'd fought over the money Justin spent helping Annie. "It didn't work out between us."
"I'm so sorry hon." She didn't sound sorry, but Justin didn't say anything.
She shivered and clutched herself. "Cold out here. How about your schoolin'?"
"It's going fine, Annie." The reminder made him wince despite his reassuring words. If he passed generals next week, maybe Collier U would finally give him a research assistantship and he could punt this job. If he didn't pass, well...he had to pass. That was all there was to it. All his life he'd dreamed of being a scientist, and now it all came down to one set of tests.
Headlights flashed across them as a car pulled into the passenger loading area.
"Shit. I gotta go, Annie. You need anything else tonight?"
"Annie's blessed, she is. She'll see you tomorrow, Take care of business, saint Justin."
"Right. Tomorrow and tomorrow.." And so forth. He scampered back inside the hotel and his position behind the front desk.
A car door slammed and wind gusted through the lobby. A short, muscular man with a hook nose, bald head, and a glowering expression strode across the terrazzo floor and stood before the desk.
Justin looked him in the eye and put on his friendly meet-the-customer face. "Good morning, sir. How can I help you?" The man twisted his mouth downward and glared at him. Justin let his dimples fade.
When the man spoke, his voice sounded like he'd been gargling Drano. "Need room." He wore a black leather biker's jacket, black denim jeans, and heavy engineer's boots. A ragged scar started at his left ear, meandered down his cheek, onto his neck, and disappeared under his t-shirt.
Justin thought about the panic button that would call the night security force. He was glad it was there, even though this man was probably just a gynecologist or some such who affected a tough guy image. "Of course, sir." Justin handed him a registration form. "Please fill this out. How will you be paying this evening?"
"Cash." He pulled a hefty leather wallet from the back of his jeans and placed two hundred-dollar bills on the counter.
Justin kept his face impassive. "One of those will be sufficient, sir. I'll need to see your identification, please."
The man scowled. "Why? I pay cash." He nudged both bills in Justin's direction.
What did the guy think he was doing? Offering a bribe? "Sir, I could lose my job if I don't see your ID. You can put whatever name you want on the registration form."
That earned him a snort, but the man reached into his jacket and handed him a passport.
The words The Satrapy of Gaugamela were embossed in gold on the drab green cover. Justin gave a mental shrug: there were too many new countries popping up all over the place to keep track of them all. He glanced at the picture inside and handed it back. "Thank you, Mr. Mazaeus." Justin ran two keycards through the decoder. "You'll be in room 312. The elevator is to your left. Let me get your change."
"You keep." Mazaeus snatched up the keys and stalked away. He had no bags.
Justin glanced at the passenger drop-off outside. Empty. Mazaeus must have arrived by taxi or limo instead of his own vehicle. Justin fingered the bills, rang up the sale, made change, and pocketed the difference. He could use the extra cash after blowing last week's food budget on Annie's Keds.
When he filed the registration form, he saw that Mazaeus had filled it out using an angular script he didn't recognize. Not Russian--he'd studied Russian for his doctoral language requirement. He shrugged. No matter. He settled back with his textbook, but couldn't concentrate. He'd seen stranger things than Mazaeus working the night shift, but not by much. Besides, he didn't have the energy to speculate.
He stretched, padded over to the courtesy coffee bar, and poured himself a cup, dosing it with a generous heap of sugar and creamer. It was going to be a long night.
An uncertain time later, a fist pounding on the front desk bell startled him awake. He jerked his head up from the desk and twisted a crick out of his neck. His head throbbed, and it felt like someone had swabbed his mouth with cotton. Stale, coffee-soaked cotton. He blinked grainy eyes at the woman scowling at him from the other side of the counter. "I'm so sorry, ma'am. How can I help you?" He clambered to his feet on uncertain legs. God, he needed to get more sleep.
She flashed a badge at him. "Special Agent Charlotte Corbett, FBI." She contorted her pallid features into a brief smile. "I'd like to check your registry for tonight." She tugged at the strap of the leather handbag that hung from one shoulder.
She'd tied her raven-black hair in a tight bun behind her head that seemed to pull her narrow features backwards. He wondered if she got that lean-and-hungry look by soaking her face in vinegar. "Uh, sure. It's been kind of slow." He fumbled with the file and pulled out a couple dozen registration slips.
"The man I'm looking for is about five-six, bald, and speaks with an accent. Sound familiar?"
"You must mean Mr., uh, Mazaeus." Justin placed the card on the front desk and slid it toward her.
She looked like he'd tried to hand her Ebola-infested toilet paper. "What's this? It's not even filled out in English."
"I checked his passport, and he filled out the form. That's all we're required to do." What a tight-ass. This could only be trouble. Just what he needed: another pointless time-sink the week before generals.
Her eyes narrowed as she scanned the document. "Akkadian. It's him, all right. What room is he in?"
Justin frowned. "Can I see your badge again?"
She pulled it from her handbag and held it before his face. It sure looked official, but how would he know? "Maybe I should call my manager."
"Up to you. But if you hold me up, I'll have a dozen anti-terrorism agents up your butt by start of business tomorrow. You won't know what hit you. If you've got a couple of months free to spend answering their questions, go for it."
Justin's face heated and he clenched his jaws. It would be so satisfying to put her in her place. But he had to study, and the exams wouldn't be offered again until April of next year. "Would you like me to ring his room?"
She leaned across the counter and glared at him. "I. Want. His. Room. Number. Now."
Justin chewed the side of his mouth. "It's 312."
She relaxed. "There, that wasn't so hard, was it? Now give me the key." She held out her hand.
That was too much, just like his mother right before she went ballistic and started hitting. "If you explicitly order to me to do so under your authority as an FBI agent, I'll open the room for you. I won't give you the key." This fascist pipsqueak could do whatever she wanted. He had his limits. Besides, she might have gotten that badge on the internet. Or Badges R Us. Who knew?
She rolled her eyes. "Who are you? Perry Mason? I order you on my authority as Special Agent of the FBI to let me in the room. There, does that make you happy? Now snap to it."
Justin grabbed the master keycard and stepped toward the elevator. When he pushed the "up" button, he realized he'd forgotten his shoes again. Screw it. He'd be back behind the counter where no one could see, and he may as well be comfortable. The doors slid open and they rode in silence to the third floor.
He paused outside 312 and tapped on the door. "Mr. Mazaeus?"
Corbett grabbed his arm. "What are you doing? I didn't say warn him." She twisted the keycard from his hand and swiped it on the door. The green light flashed. She pulled a snub-nosed weapon from her purse and pushed inside.
Justin hesitated.. She may be an FBI agent, but she just pulled a friggin' gun. But he was still pissed off at her officious manner and wanted keep an eye on her. He followed her inside.
Amber lighting from the street lights in the parking lot leaked through the partially-closed curtains. Mazaeus sat up in bed, his torso naked and his eyes like saucers. "What is this?" His fingers fondled a heavy Ankh cross that hung from a leather strap about his neck.
Corbett circled the bed, her gun pointed at his head. "Stand up."
"Am naked, woman. You want to see me naked?" He tugged at the sheets.
Her jaws jumped like she was chewing on crickets. "All right. Put on your pants." She reached for his jeans, which hung folded over the desk chair.
Mazaeus's thumbs raced over the cross--almost like he was texting with it. It glowed and light flowed like a liquid, enclosing him.
Corbett snarled, "Merde." Her handgun snapped and the muzzle flashed.
The iridescent glow surrounding Mazaeus throbbed and emitted a piercing howl. Justin blinked. A bullet hung suspended in the light, maybe ten inches from Mazaeus's chest. A tornado of color swirled about him, so bright Justin shielded his eyes with his hand against the glow. The shriek rose in pitch and in volume and then...it was gone. Mazaeus was gone, too. There was just a depression in the bed where he'd sat and a tiny swirl of color, buzzing and fading as he watched. The bullet she'd fired lay on the crumpled sheets.
"God damn it." Corbett stuffed her gun back in her purse and pulled out her cell phone. Her fingers raced across the screen as she pointed it at that eddy of light still floating above the bed.
Justin steadied himself against the doorway and gaped at the ball of buzzing, whirling light on the bed. While he watched, it vanished with a pop. "Where did he go? And what in chaos was that?" He gestured at the bed.
Corbett ignored him and concentrated on her phone's display. "Got him." She turned to Justin. "This is all your fault."
"My fault? Screw you." He took a hesitant step forward. "He just disappeared. How is that possible?" He knew subatomic particles could pop in and out of existence in the quantum foam, but not people.
"Looks like he's fled to an apartment building in Chicago. We'll get him." She grabbed his arm and pulled him toward her.
Justin held back. "What are you doing? Let go of me!"
She sighed and released his arm. "Look, he was in witness protection. Kind of. But he ran away, and we have to put him back where he belongs. And now that you've seen what he did, you have to be in witness protection, too. For now, I'm going to take you to a place where you/ll be safe." She punched something onto the screen of her phone.
He held up his hands, palms forward, and retreated a step. "I'm not going anywhere. I've got to take my generals next week." Jesus, she had a gun. And she was crazy. Or worse.
She pressed against him, her breath hot on his neck.
He recoiled, but her arms folded around him, still holding her cell phone in one hand. He twisted, but couldn't get free. "Hey, what do you think you're doing? Making a pass?" Like that was going to work with him.
"My, aren't you full of yourself?" She snuggled closer. "I'm not making a pass." Her index finger punched her phone.
Light, an impossible ocean of brilliant light, swirled from the phone and skewered around them. A thousand needles pricked his skin, and an electric tingle jittered down his back. His stomach roiled, and the ache in his head exploded. The light twirled and howled and the world spun in a dizzying whorl.
He squeezed his eyes closed and tried to scream, but no sound came out. Then, with no more warning than when it started, it was over.
He squinted at the sudden darkness. Overhead, a full moon hid behind scudding clouds and illuminated a barren, snow-covered forest. A brisk wind whipped trails of snow from the tips of drifts and sent cold prickling across his skin. His stockinged feet sank ankle-deep in mushy ice. His mouth flooded with saliva. He fell to his knees, grabbed his belly, and spewed vomit onto the pristine, glistening ground.
Corbett touched his shoulder while peering at her phone. "Jump jeebies. It happens to all newbies You hope you're going to die. You won't."
He lifted his face to gaze at her stark features. Panic cascaded through his trembling limbs. "Where are we?" They sure as hell weren't in room 312.
"We're in Chicago. Grant Park. The more important question is when we are." She paused to look at him, and moonlight glinted in her eyes. "November 12, 1942."