I looked around. Fortunately, Adam and Ward had both moved out of sight. There was no one else around, but I had to be careful. There was a camera on this lot.
I opened the back door and leaned in, careful not to put any weight on him. I checked his pulse. Nothing.
Great. Another dead body on my hands.
I just stood there for a while, staring into his lifeless eyes. He was dressed exactly like the first one, all in black. He also wore a gun belt, but in addition to a holstered gun on one hip, there was a long, narrow leather sheath hanging from the opposite side.
It was a scabbard. As in sword-holder. It was empty, but what the hell was he doing with a sword? I’d never held one of the things in my life, despite The Princess Bride being one of my favorite movies. I was certain if I ever picked one up, I’d be lucky if I didn’t cut my own thumb off.
Well, I couldn’t think about it right now. I had to get moving. But what was I going to do with my rapidly-cooling friend? I didn’t dare leave him in the back seat. If Adam or Ward happened to look inside, it would all be over.
I got into the car, and pulled around to a small alley that exited the parking lot. It was narrow, and quite close to the building, so it was rarely used. It was also out of range of the security camera that watched the rest of the parking lot.
I squeezed out of the car and, doing my best to keep his blood from getting on my clothes, managed to maneuver Dead Trav Number Two out of the car and into the trunk.
I got back into the car and took a deep breath. I had to go. Adam and Ward would be waiting at the witness’s residence. But I had one more thing to do before I could join them.
I pulled out my phone, and poked the picture of a smallish, red-haired man with a half-day’s growth of beard that had taken him two weeks to achieve.
“Hey,” Sam Markus said.
“Good morning. Just calling to tell you good luck, Mr. Consultant. Got everything you need for your first day on the job?”
“I’m a knowledge worker,” my best friend replied loftily. “I carry all the tools I need in my head.”
“Are you going to be ready for D-Day?”
“I better be. I told them when they hired me I would have their site up, legal, and uncrackable on the first day of online gaming.”
Sam had spent pretty much his entire career in academia. He’d been doing research in particle physics for nearly a decade. Recently, his work had veered off into a new direction, as some of the work he had done had applications in a branch of mathematics related to something called quantum computing.
Meanwhile, after years of lobbying by the casino industry, the state legislature had passed a law making online gaming legal.
While a big business, online gambling had historically been pretty shady. Anything based in the U.S. had to technically be “for entertainment only,” although many sites had ways to get players to cough up money in order to unlock certain benefits or access to better games. There were a few true online gaming sites, but they were generally run offshore by countries who could ignore threats from American law enforcement. As such, you could almost guarantee they were crooked. You had to be really dumb, or really addicted to gambling, to go anywhere near them.
A few states, beginning with the gambling capitals of Nevada and New Jersey, had taken some tentative steps to offer the gambling industry a way for online casinos to go legit, offering clean games in the same way real-world casinos did, inspected and regulated by the state. Smelling tax revenue, our state–which in recent years had gradually let more and more communities build casinos–decided to join the parade.
But in a world where stories about a company’s credit card database getting hacked was a daily occurrence, convincing people the games were honest was the one thing standing between a gaming site and big, big money.
It turned out that Sam’s work had an application for online casinos. Using this quantum computing, he could write gambling algorithms that in theory made the games truly random and honest, not to mention totally uncrackable.
With the growing Hispanic market in mind, a local group was developing an online casino they called El Juego Grande, The Big Game. The group had approached Sam to lead a small team to write secure gaming algorithms for them. They had also thrown a huge donation at the university, making his department head only too happy to loan him out.
But there was pressure to produce that he had never experienced before. Four or five other casino operators were working on their own online sites. Conventional wisdom said if you weren’t there on opening day, you could lose out.
The new law took effect in just two weeks, and one member of Sam’s team had been very distracted.
“Have you talked to Sanjana?” I asked.
“Yesterday. She said she was coming in. I told her it wasn’t necessary, but she said it beat staying home staring at the phone.”
Sanjana Patel was another mathematician Sam had recruited to help him with the El Juego Grande project.
She was also the mother of Sophie, the elder of the missing girls.
“I guess I can understand that. Anything to take your mind off it for even a little while. I’m doing everything I can.”
“I know you are. Anything I can do?”
“Well, now that you ask, there is something going on I could use your advice on.”
“About the case?”
“Not exactly. Look, I know you are balls to the wall, but I have something I need you to look at.”
“What kind of something?”
“Something related to our fun last year.”
“Can you tell me anymore?”
“Not over the phone.”
“Right,” he said. “Umm… well, I was planning to work through lunch, but I could probably sneak away.”
“Adam and I are headed out to re-interview a witness. How about I text you when we’re done?”
“Sounds like a plan.”
No sooner had I hung up than my phone started playing the opening piano riff to Springsteen’s “Thunder Road.”
“Hey,” I said.
“Wow. I guess the magic really is gone,” Mary teased.
I must have sounded more worn out than I realized.
“Sorry,” I said. “Been a long day.”
“It’s not even half over.”
“I know. It’s been… some morning.”
“Buy me lunch and tell me about it?”
“Sorry, meeting Adam in a few minutes. Leon is keeping us on the missing girls.”
“That’s good, right? Weren’t you two worried they were going to close the investigation?”
“Yeah. But instead Leon put Adam and me with an FBI guy to go through everything again, hoping to find something we all missed. We’re going to start over with some of the witnesses.”
“Leon is smart. He knows you won’t give up. Tell me that you will get some lunch, though.”
“Because breakfast after swimming was the drive-through, right?”
“Trav. You can’t save the world if you’re not going to take care of yourself. Don’t make me call your mother.”
“Fine, fine. No need for the nuclear option. I’ll stop for something on the way back.”
“All right then. Will I see you tonight?”
“I hope so. Maybe after your rehearsal?”
“It might be late.”
“That’s not a problem. Text me when you’re done.”
“Okay. Love you.”
“Love you, too.”
Wishing I was headed to a lunch date with my girlfriend instead of to a witness interview that was probably a dead end, I tossed the phone onto the passenger seat and flicked on the radio.
Unfortunately, instead of the particular brand of album rock I tune in for, I was treated to talk.
Crap. Just when this day couldn’t get any worse.
When I was a teenager, my dad had turned me on to his favorite music, marginal and obscure album rock bands of the ‘70s and ‘80s. I’d inherited his extensive album and CD collection when he’d died a couple of years ago, but honestly didn’t pull them out all that much because our town had an increasingly rare media jewel.
A great radio station.
Axe 106.9 had managed to avoid the homogenization of music radio that has happened over the last fifteen years or so, playing a unique blend of classic and modern rock, blues and jazz that had become the soundtrack to my life through high school, college and into adulthood.
When the longtime owner had decided to retire, he did something unexpected. Rather than cashing out and selling to a giant media company, he had done some sort of deal where the station was transferred to a non-profit board and became part of the public radio system.
Which also eliminated commercials, in favor of corporate underwriting announcements (“Support for this program comes from World of Wheels, the Tri State’s local bicycle shop and organic deli…”), and the occasional pledge drive.
I considered it a fair trade-off, and was happy to send them a few bucks a month.
But apparently, I was one of the few who did. Because more and more news and talk programs started showing up on the air.
Blame Pandora. Blame the iPhone. Blame Google. But I guess that even in the non-commercial world, you have to worry about ratings. And with people turning to the internet for music, broadcast radio turned more and more to talk and news shows.
First it was the Wing and a Prayer Morning Battalion, a truly great morning music show, replaced by NPR’s Morning Edition.
Now, apparently, the midday DJ had been replaced by some talk program.
I was just about to switch the radio off, when I realized I recognized the voice of the host. I turned the radio back up.
“Michelle, I definitely sense a male energy surrounding you. When you asked me that question, it was like your words were actually a color. And can you guess what that color was?”
“The color was blue. I think you’re having a boy.”
“A boy!” Even through the speakers, you could hear that the caller was near tears. “That’s wonderful. Thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” the host replied warmly. She smoothly shifted into announcer mode. “You’re listening to Second Sight on KAXE. I’m Morgan Foster. What does your future hold? More of your calls after the news.”
Now I did switch the radio off. I wasn’t sure which bothered me more. That my favorite radio station had put a talk show featuring a psychic on the air…
Or that the psychic was someone I knew.
I might have been even more offended if I hadn’t known Morgan Foster was the real deal. She actually did have a gift that allowed her to see beyond the physical world most of us see.
Like Sam, she had played an important role in my adventures last year.
When I had realized I was bouncing from stream to stream, it had been Morgan who had given a name to what was happening to me, and helped me understand it. She even had a name for people like me. Travelers.
(Yeah, I know… Trav is a Traveler. That weirds me out to this day.)
Morgan had advanced a theory that seers, prophets, and mystics throughout history did not foretell the future so much as they had perceived events in another parallel reality, one where time was flowing at a slightly faster rate. And many of the unexplainable occurrences and mysteries which most of us dismissed as urban legends could in fact be explained by the notion that people sometimes physically moved between streams.
Then, after shifting streams, I had met that reality’s version of Morgan, who had helped me even more. Without her help, I probably would have just kept drifting, or sometimes getting pushed from stream to stream. Morgan had helped me figure out a way to direct my Traveling to the stream of my desire.
I had also met a third Morgan Foster. And in some ways that had been the strangest experience of all.
Anyway, with a lot of help from Morgan (each version) and Sam, the bad guys got what they deserved, and the hero got the girl. Everyone (well, almost everyone) lived.
But I had learned a valuable lesson about meddling with events in the Multiverse. In each reality I spent time in, any move I–or another version of Trav–made to save a life, or avert some form of disaster, caused unforeseen ripples down the line.
In one reality, my partner Adam had died in a shootout. In another, I’d managed to save him, only for him later to be involved in a car accident where a little girl died.
After the dust settled, Sam and I agreed to do nothing further to disturb the natural progression of events.
I had kept that promise. But turning away from everything associated with Traveling had also meant not talking to Morgan Foster.
In fact, I had never even told her thank you. She had asked me to tell her how everything had turned out. But I had felt the wiser course would be to stay away from her.
So now I was feeling pissed that another of my favorite music shows was gone and, at the same time, feeling guilty about showing up in Morgan’s life, blowing her mind about how the universe worked, and then never speaking to her again.
I sighed. Just another item to add to the list. Right after figuring out why dead versions of myself kept appearing.
And, finding those missing girls.
Alan Taggert lived in a nondescript but well-kept, single-story ranch with attached two-car garage. The house was that light green which was all the rage for about eighteen months in the early Sixties, preserved forever by those owners who had made the unfortunate choice of permanent siding.
But the yard was immaculate. The grass was the kind of lush, blue-green that only comes from daily watering and exacting amounts of carefully-applied fertilizer. It looked softer than my living room carpet. A colorful flowerbed lay along the house’s front.
A hedge you could have used as a drafting table ran along one side of the yard and disappeared behind the house.
Adam’s SUV and Ward’s Feebmobile were already parked in front of me. I got out at the same time as Adam and Ward. We made our way up the sidewalk, the grass along its edges razor-straight.
“Mr. Taggert?” I said to the man who answered the door. He looked to be in his early seventies, paunchy, with silver hair and little glasses. He wore a white, short-sleeved shirt, tucked in, belly hanging over a pair of black pants that had seen better days. His waist had long since ceased to be effective in holding up said trousers, so he’d resorted to suspenders.
“Yes?” he said, a little uncertainly, looking from one to the other of us.
“I’m Detective Becker, this is Detective Yount and Special Agent Ward from the FBI. I’m sorry to bother you, but we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“This is about the girls?” His voice was low and gargly, like there was a perpetual frog in his throat.
“Yes.” I answered what I knew would be his next question before he could ask it. “I know you’ve already given a statement…”
“Right. But, we’ve been asked to kind of go back to the beginning and go over everything again. I hope you don’t mind.”
“Of course not. I want you to find them as much as anyone.” He opened the door fully. “Do you want to come in?”
“Actually,” Ward said, “Could you come outside and show us exactly where you saw the girls?”
We moved aside as he stepped onto the porch and shuffled across it, stepping down into the front yard.
“Can you tell me where you were when you saw the girls?” Ward asked.
Taggert nodded, and led us toward the right side of the house, which was opposite the garage. He stopped at the corner. There was about ten feet of side yard, ending at the hedge, which seemed to extend all the way to the other end of his property.
“I was right about here, watering the mums.” He waved a hand toward the flowers along the front of the house. “Two little girls rode past on bikes.”
He turned back toward us.
“And that’s it.”
“What time was this?” Ward asked.
“Two or two-thirty.”
“How do you know it was the missing girls you saw?” Ward asked.
“When they ran the pictures on the news, I recognized them.”
The FBI agent turned to Adam and me. “How far away are we from the Patel residence?”
“A half mile,” Adam supplied.
Ward nodded. “Fits the time line. What else?”
“That’s it,” said Taggert.
“Do you remember seeing any unfamiliar vehicles in the neighborhood?”
“No,” Taggert replied.
“People you didn’t recognize?”
Taggert sighed. “No. I keep telling you people. I just saw two little girls. I would like to be able to help more, but there just isn’t anything else.”
“But the woman with the kids in the inflatable pool—” Ward consulted his tablet, “—Mrs. Rodriguez, did not see them. And she was only two blocks over.”
“That’s what I understand,” said Taggert.
It was obvious that, while Mr. Taggert wanted to help, he was tired of telling the same story over and over again.
Ward thanked Taggert, and we made our way back to our vehicles.
“What next?” asked Adam.
Ward consulted his tablet again, paging through the notes he had made back at the station.
“Families, I think.” He glanced in the direction of the house, making sure Taggert was back inside before he continued. “They’ll be frustrated that we keep asking the same questions, too, but maybe we’ll shake something loose.”
“That’d be nice,” Adam said. “Trav, you ready?”
But I wasn’t listening. I was watching a multitude of Trav Beckers lining the sidewalk ahead of me.