The Penhurst contract had been a weird one – one of those shake-your-head-and-laugh-about-it-over-beers-later sort of capers – but, all in all, it had been a good job and well accomplished . . . right up until the close. When your client pulls a gun on you, it has a tendency to spoil your satisfactory conclusion.
Peter Penhurst stood behind his big, fancy mahogany desk, sporting a confident smile, a casual cardigan, and the angry black maw of a semi-auto Smith and Wesson M&P .40 pistol. He gestured with his free hand at the new gimmick upon his desk blotter. “I can’t believe you had it in your possession, and you just . . . handed it to me. Like it was nothing to you.”
His aim never wavered from me.
Andi and I looked at each other from our seats in front of his desk. She frowned at me with more annoyance than fear. I shrugged in return. This sort of thing has happened before, especially when a longshot job pays off and the client realizes they actually have to pay our deservedly exorbitant fee. They panic. They get desperate. The client fails to think, and believes a gun will suffice where lack of foresight did not. But there are ways to extricate yourselves, calm the client, and still have ‘em cut the check. And it works. My girl and I have remained un-shot thus far.
But usually the desperate clients are more nervous than our good man Pete.
I turned back to him. “It means nothing to me beyond being what we were hired to deliver. It’s your doodad. Do with it what you will and our lips remain sealed. We’re pros. You don’t need to go the extra step of making sure we stay silent. And if it’s our fee you’re worried about, you shouldn’t. We research our clientele well. We’re very sure you can swing it.”
Andi joined in. “Don’t spoil a good thing, Penhurst – and don’t imagine we don’t have insurance against this very sort of double-cross.” That’s my girl: smooth silk concealing a wicked blade. “Put down the gun. Wire the money. Walk away with a clear conscience.”
His smile dropped, but not to a look of uncertainty. No. Something else instead. Contentment? Anticipation?
Penhurst grinned a bit as he spoke. “That’s what you don’t get, Mr. and Mrs. Trent. I will have a clear conscience. This macguffin you’ve produced for me represents the ultimate do-over, a get-out-of-jail-free card for any occasion. But before I take my one-time-only second chance, I want to experience the ultimate victory, to take all that can be taken from someone, right in their moment of greatest triumph. I want to see all their hopes and regrets flash before their eyes and fade away.
“But I could never just murder someone before. The consequences were always too great. I need to get in a couple of kills before the opportunity is gone. I’m really sorry about that.”
Oh, God, help me. I so judged this one wrong.
Penhurst shifted his aim to Andi and pulled the trigger.
Our first meeting – four days earlier – had been more about avarice than assassination.
Andi’s eyes were lit with it. So were those of upright-citizen-of-the-community Mr. Peter Penhurst. And I’ll guarantee I looked pretty goddamn greedy and overconfident too. I smiled at our potential client across an expensive expanse of mahogany desktop. “When you take on C4 Solutions, you get results. Whether it be location, acquisition, or delivery of . . . specialized goods, Trent and Trent win out every time. You tell us what you’re after, and it’ll be yours.”
Penhurst’s face took on a questioning look. “C4? Like the explosive? I need this artifact intact and with as little drama as possible. If you’re going to be blowing up–”
Andi interrupted, ticking off her fingers, “Confident, Capable, Confidential Concierge Couriers, Incorporated.”
He frowned. “That’s more than four ‘C’s.”
She turned to me in faux shock. “Chris! Clearly a compelling counting conundrum.”
I reached over and patted her arm, but smiled at Penhurst. “You’ll have to forgive my wife, sir. She’s capable of decorum, but prefers to spend her efforts kicking ass at our actual job. Speaking of which, what do you want us to locate?”
Penhurst considered us both for a moment, with a double glance at my looker of a wife – one for appreciation and one for appraisal – but I guess he finally decided to trust us. “There’s an artifact known as the Antikythera Mechanism. It was found in an ancient Greek shipwreck in 1900, but it dates from at least 205 BCE. It’s a mass of intermeshed bronze gears covered in 2000 years of coral overgrowth. It’s been x-rayed, disassembled, recreated by 3D printers, etc., but no one really knows what it is. They surmise it was an early analog astronomical computer, about 1600 years ahead of its time, its technology apparently lost. But what’s truly odd is that it had neither antecedents or follow-on tech. It just appeared in pre-Christian Greece, was lost at sea, and never recreated or survived into later ages. It’s a technological singularity, a complete mystery.”
Andi and I glanced at each other. She answered for us both, but almost exactly as I would have put it. “Well, finding it won’t be a problem. I’ve heard of the mechanism. Freeth and Jones produced the definitive analysis of its workings, modeled its gearing relationships – it apparently worked well, but could only follow the flawed astronomical models of its day.”
I blinked. Bravo, Andi! I didn’t know who the hell Freeth and Jones were, but I trusted her. I picked up the thread with the little bit that I did know about the mechanism. “The real problem is acquiring it. All the pieces are in the National Archeological Museum in Athens. They aren’t going to give that up easy. We can’t really buy it with even your resources. As for stealing it . . . . “
Penhurst held up a hand. “No. Don’t worry. I’m not after either that ruined piece of junk or that travesty of an analysis Freeth perpetrated upon the academic world. No, I want the only known working Antikythera-type mechanism. I know where it is and who has it. I just need you to deliver it to me. And I will pay anything to have it.”
“Chris, you don’t get a bad vibe from Penhurst?” Andi leaned against the glass outer wall of the elevator as we descended from The Great Man’s suite of offices and apartments.
“Babe, I get a very careful vibe from him. He’s got half the real estate of this town tied up under him. He’s got more net worth than any five old-money Wall Street families in New York. And you’re right, he’s loopy and driven and it’s probably dangerous to get on his bad side. But he’s also rich as sin and we’re the only ones that can get him the one thing he wants in the whole world. What vibes do I get from him? Dollar sign vibes. Permanent vacation vibes. Satisfy our wildest dreams vibes.”
Andi pushed off the elevator glass in a languid motion that still drove me wild after so many years. She came up and folded into my arms. Dreams of avarice aside, this was the greatest prize anyone could hope for. She spoke up in a low voice, buzzing right in my ear, “You’re an idiot, Christopher Trent the Third, but I love you anyways.”
I felt a twinge of pain as I thought of Christopher Trent the Fourth – C4 – and the namesake of our company, but I hid it well. Instead, I pulled Andi’s face over by her chin and favored her with a long kiss. Finally, “What do we have on this prospect?”
She jumped up. “Natalia Torson, the woman who has everything . . . . “
“Including, apparently, a working Antikythera Mechanism. Because what do captains of industry covet more than anything? Ancient inaccurate mechanical computers.”
Andi looked her up on her phone. “Natalia Torson, 35 years old, Swedish immigrant, penniless—”
“None of that sweet Ikea mob money, I guess.” The elevator opened and we stepped out.
“Ah, yah. But she didn’t stay that way for long. Seven years ago, right after earning her citizenship and working as a clerk at an auction house, she wins the biggest single-winner payoff in Powerball history at $1.25 billion. With a ‘B’ billion. Over the next month or so, she boosts her worth nearly 20 times through a number of longshot stock and futures payouts. Caused a big stink, with others alleging it was some kind of insider trading scam / lottery fix. Nothing was ever proven. Her hot streak petered out and she lost a few hundred million in pocket change over failed investments. Nothing much since then. Retired to the horrible life of the infinitely wealthy bachelorette – that is until she becomes my future wife, after I dump you and switch teams. The two Mrs. Trents.”
I grinned. “If you divorce me and marry her, neither of you get to take my name.”
Andi frowned. “Well, phooey. I don’t wanna go back to being an Emilianowicz. Guess I gotta stick with you.”
We reached our car next to the busy city street. “Anything on there about a working Mechanism?”
“Nope. How Petey figured out Torson had it, I dunno. But I gather from the fact that we were brought in, it’s going to be more difficult to acquire than simply offering her cash. You thinking burglary, a con-job, or something else?”
I unlocked our doors and we both slid in, me behind the wheel. “Everybody wants something, even the woman who has everything. Why not just ask first?”
Another meeting, another day – this time in the library of Natalia Torson’s fashionable high-rise apartment. It had taken some doing to arrange, but trading favors, influence, and bribes to confront the unconfrontable was the sort of thing we did in our sleep. The important thing is that here’s where it started to get weird.
Andi and I looked at each other, then back at Torson. I tried to clarify. “No, you’re denying you have the Mechanism, or No, you won’t tell us your price for it?”
Torson rose from her couch, agitated. “No, I’ll have no part in letting Pompous Peter Penhurst get his hands upon it. While the Mechanism has no intrinsic value to me anymore, it is worth almost anything to keep the likes of him from having it.”
Andi raised an eyebrow. “Almost anything?”
Torson said nothing, so I charged forward. “I never said who our client was, nor will I confirm it now. Just know that they are motivated and willing to meet pretty much any reasonable price.”
The Woman Who Had Everything gestured around her. “Do I look like I’m desperate for cash, Mr. Trent? Anyways, you didn’t need to say who it was. Only one man has had the gall to both accuse me of having it, and threaten me about not taking his ‘reasonable’ price for it. I don’t trust men like Penhurst. The Mechanism facilitated my accumulation of wealth. Penhurst is already rich. He wants it for the power, and that worries me. Do you even know what the Mechanism truly is?”
“It is the object I’ve been hired to deliver. That’s it.”
“Almost anything, Ms. Torson,” Andi repeated, “implies a specific, obtainable something. What will it take for you to part with this ‘intrinsically worthless’ Mechanism?”
Instead of answering her, Torson walked to a painting upon the wall and pulled it open to reveal a large wall safe. She spun the dials, unlocked it, and opened the vault. Within was only one thing: an ancient device of brass, bronze, electrum, and mother of pearl. It looked nothing like the artistic recreations of the ruined Antikythera Mechanism – the same pieces, but a different configuration entirely.
Torson gestured inside. “I open this every day and wonder if that is the day it will be gone. Not stolen. Just gone, because that’s how it works. And the day that happens, I’ll know that everything could potentially change.” Her voice sounded awed. I didn’t know if that meant she looked forward or dreaded such a day.
Andi leaned forward in her chair. “What is the Mechanism, Ms. Torson? Really?”
She slammed the wall safe shut and spun the combination dial. “It’s mine, that’s what it is. But I know I can’t keep it. One day it will be gone from that vault no matter what I do. So why not demand something fun for it? It’s an impossible thing, thus I’d only give it up for an impossible prize. What is my ‘almost anything’, Mrs. Trent? Well, let me tell you.”
“What the hell is the Dauvray Cup?” I asked, once more down in our car, driving away from Torson’s building.
Andi read from her phone. “The Baseball Championship cup which preceded the World Series, retired in 1893 after the Boston Beaneaters won it three years in a row, and promptly vanished a month after it was awarded.” She looked up at me. “It is believed to have been melted down after it was stolen. An impossible prize indeed. And who’d have figured a Swedish chick being a baseball fan?”
I slammed my hand down on the wheel. “What’s with these rich idiots? One wants a computer no money can buy, and to get it, the other wants a cup that doesn’t exist. If we find the cup, that guy’ll probably want the tears of a virgin harpy, and the harpy’ll want Zeus’s shin bone, et cetera, et cetera. Everybody wants something that nobody can get and nobody’ll just take a goddamn check!”
Andi laid her hand on my shoulder. Her touch calmed me enough that I could actually laugh at the sheer ludicrous quality of the situation. I turned to her. “I feel like Henry the Chickenhawk in that old Looney Tunes with Foghorn Leghorn and the Barnyard Dawg. Y’know, the one where Henry needs the dog’s help to get Foghorn, but the dog wants a bone, and to get the bone, he has to get a fish for the cat, and to get the fish, he has to get cheese for a mouse.”
Andi laughed too. Then she went into her ever-reliable, hyper-correct Andi-mode. “Technically, it was a Merrie Melody. ‘Leghorn Swoggled’, and it’s Henery Hawk, not Henry the Chickenhawk, but I get what you’re saying.”
For pretty much no reason, I felt more upbeat about our prospects. In my best southern drawl I asked, “Ah say, ah say, ah say there, little miss, what if you was one of these folks that wanted somethin’ to give somethin’ else? What impossible thing would you ask fo’?”
She sobered, and I knew I had somehow miss-stepped. “The impossible thing I want I already had. And there’s nothing that can get him back for me.”
C4, or Christopher Trent the Fourth, or our too-innocent-for-this-life baby son had been brought into the world broken and battered by the truck that hit us on the way to the delivery room. He had lived for seven and a half glorious minutes in the ambulance on the way to the trauma center. And to put icing on the shit-cake karma served us, Andi had been forced to have an emergency hysterectomy to save her life. The bit-o-cash the hauler paid in damages got us our start in the concierge courier business, along with a do-anything, screw-the-consequences, take-the-money-and-run attitude that both of us – but especially Andi – now approached everything with.
She never talked about our boy. Hell, she wouldn’t talk to me for a whole day if I made even a passing reference to him. For her to mention him now, I knew this job was getting to her. But whether it was the bad feeling she had about Penhurst, the weirdness of this sought-after Mechanism, or the next impossible quest we found ourselves on, I had no idea.
It was quiet for a few miles. I drove, no destination in mind, while Andi sent out queries regarding the vanished Dauvray Cup. Finally, she broke the tension. “That cartoon you were talking about? I don’t know if you remember it or not, but the irony was that Henery gets unwitting help from Foghorn Leghorn in each of his tasks, when the end goal was always Henery capturing and eating the rooster helping him.”
I smiled and sought out her hand with my own. “Huh. Funny ‘cause it’s true. Being the patsy in your own epic quest? That’s gotta suck.”
Andi’s gaze bore into my own until I looked away from the road and locked eyes with her. “Chris, you need to think seriously about this. Which are we here? Chicken or chickenhawk?”
It took a couple of days, but Andi found the long-lost Dauvray Cup. The baseball Holy Grail had ended up as a golf ball barrel at the pro shop for some discount Cleveland suburb golf course. No one knew what it was. However, true to the theme of this job, the golf pro wanted something for the Cup and cash would not suffice. Fortunate for us, he just wanted a setup with the waitress at the 19th Hole, and a nice night out with a couple of Delmonico steaks. Who says true love is dead?
Cup in hand, we saw Torson again. She appeared shocked, but resigned. Reluctantly, she unlocked the wall-safe and swapped the Antikythera Mechanism for the Dauvray Cup. The Mechanism felt heavier than it looked and it was warm to the touch. Dials adorned with both Greek and Egyptian writings decorated the face, along with the largest ring festooned with the twelve signs of the Zodiac. There was no apparent cranking or winding device to make it run.
Before Torson locked away the Cup, she reached in and fished out a pink golf ball that had been left behind. She offered it to me and I stuffed it in my jacket pocket. Turning back from the vault, she looked down at the Mechanism in my hands, then at Andi and I. She said, imploring, “You have no reason to listen to me, but if your client is Penhurst, renege on your deal. Tell him you couldn’t find it. Lock it away. Forget it even exists.”
Andi touched the Mechanism with a tentative hand. “Natalia, tell us what it is.”
Torson shook her head. “I won’t. You having it is little better than Penhurst, but at least if you’re ignorant, you’re less likely to mess things up for everyone.”
What the hell was in this thing? Genies?
Downstairs, whatever awe and wonder Andi had felt while in Torson’s presence was fully suppressed. Before I could even ask the question about whether we should complete the job or not, she held up a hand and cut me off. “I’m tired of all this mystical bullshit, Chris. We’re pros. We deliver the goods. We get paid. And we do our level best to blow it all in the Caribbean. End of discussion.”
Okay. End of discussion it is. Next stop, Penhurst’s place.
Penhurst shifted his aim to Andi and pulled the trigger.
The .40 caliber pistol sounded loud, but flat in the office, its bark absorbed by the rich appointments adorning the walls. I couldn’t look at my wife. I couldn’t turn my head. I could only see the rapturous expression on Penhurst’s face as he got his wish and watched all of my wife’s hopes and regrets bleed away.
Before he could wake up and shift his aim, I reached into my pocket. I pulled out the golf ball Torson had given me and threw it at Penhurst’s head. The pink ball struck Pete in the eye. He cried out and a shot cracked from the pistol. The bullet buried itself in the wooden desktop.
I jumped from my seat and over the desk, scattering a lamp and pens. Grabbing the pistol by the slide, I torqued it out of his grasp and swung it at his face. It connected and his nose gave a satisfying crunch.
Only then did I dare look at my Andi.
She slumped in her seat, head down at an angle, eyes wide and glassy, seeing nothing. A neat hole appeared in line with the buttons on her blouse, marked only by a thin line of blood leaking from it – not pumped by a living heart, but just draining away in death.
I gave an inarticulate growl and grabbed the whimpering Penhurst by his collar. He cried out as I pressed the hot end of the pistol barrel into his cheek. My finger squeezed the trigger.
“Wait!” Penhurst screamed. “I can fix this! I can bring her back! I can make it so none of this ever happened!”
My finger remained tight upon the trigger, but I didn’t pull it. “What the hell are you talking about?”
“The Mechanism! It’s a time loop. That’s how Natalia Torson won the lottery and made all those stock and futures trades. That’s what I’m going to do with it, loop back and fix things for myself, knowing the future. When I go back, your wife won’t be dead anymore. We won’t even ever have met! The Mechanism will just transfer from Torson to me and everything that happened since will be undone!”
Bullshit. I pressed the barrel harder into his cheek. “If you could use it to travel in time, why would you ever give it up? Why would Torson have ever made any bad deals?”
“It only works once! One loop only for each person, and never further back than the last time it went. Random chance and altered events make things change and diverge over time. The old future goes stale.”
“You’re lying through your damned teeth! You’ll say anything to get out of this.”
Penhurst cried. “It’s the truth! Every note and secret about it is in the desk. Please! Please, this wasn’t how it was supposed to go down. Just let me fix it.”
I took a breath and looked over at the Mechanism upon the desk. Hoping. Thinking. Wishing. I glanced up at the graying form of my bride and then turned back to Penhurst. “I’m Henery Hawk, you son-of-a-bitch.”
I pulled the trigger.
The tires squealed as I brought the car to a sudden halt.
Andi looked over at me from the passenger seat, her eyes huge. “Jesus, Chris! The light’s green! You trying to kill little Christopher before he even pops out?”
A car behind us honked its horn and then turned to pass us in the next lane. Just before it went through the green intersection, a semi-truck plowed through from the left. The car braked and honked, but the truck paid it no heed. Accident averted, both vehicles proceeded on their way. Carefully, I let off the brake and rolled through the intersection.
Andi looked between the fleeing truck and me. I didn’t say a thing, just drove, hands clenched on the wheel, nervous and excited and confused all at once as a new history began to run parallel to my old memories.
She pointed behind. “That truck would’ve hit us! How did you even see it?”
I smiled. “New dad nerves. I’m going to be taking things very carefully from now on.”
She looked down in my lap at the Mechanism. “What is that and where did it come from? I could’ve sworn it wasn’t there when we left for the hospital.”
I patted the warm, ancient bronze. “It’s a present for you. And then for Chris the Fourth when he’s older. Don’t worry. I’ll explain it all later.” I reached over and laid a hand on her even warmer, gigantic belly. “For now, though, we have precious cargo to deliver.”
During the day, Thomas A. Mays is a career US Navy officer and all-around Serious Person. At night, when the moon is full, he taps out science fiction with a feverish madness that would likely get him cashiered if his Uncle Sam knew about it. He is the author of numerous short stories in online magazines, and he has published a well-received collection of his military sci-fi shorts, REMO. His debut military SF novel / space opera A Sword Into Darkness, is available on Amazon or your favorite online book retailer. Helpful links can be found on Tom’s blog, The Improbable Author, at: http://improbableauthor.com/. You can reach him on Twitter @improbablauthor.