Chapter 2, 29: A Low Dishonest Decade
It was just like last time. The dragon appeared in an older sky over the Benches, and spiraled down onto the First Bench, made strangely different by smaller trees around the edges and the old barn, although it was no longer old. Or wasn’t old yet. Time travel is confusing, Chris thought.
This time, however, there was no weird change when the dragon touched down and Chris jumped off. The grass remained the grass of 1934, and his sister immediately broke from cover uphill and ran down to stand right in front of He Who Passes Time’s snout, her fists on her hips in angry exasperation, a naked Pearl Harmony Sword pointing downwards along her right leg. “Thanks for bringing my brother back, at least, you stupid dragon,” Charlotte announced.
“What’s wrong, little two legs?” If there was a way that a voice in your head could sound sardonic, that was the way that the dragon’s telepathy sounded.
“You know what I mean. You brought us back to the wrong date. Aunt Elizabeth is still alive!”
“I told you that I am a better guide than your kinsman. Time is tangled in this place by your father’s fumbling attempts to re-weave it. Certain things must unfold before the knot can be untied.”
“That’s what we’ve been doing for the last three days? Untangling time? Because it seems to me that what we’ve been doing is living in tents in the bush. Which is cold.” Almost without changing her tone, Charlotte finally acknowledged her brother. “Hey, Chris.”
“Hey, Charlotte. We were untangling time knots, too. Apparently.
As Chris was talking, Billy and Bruce came up behind Charlotte. Billy made a dramatic shrug in the direction of the time dragon. “What’s up, dragon dude?”
“To preserve the timeline…”
“Oh, jeez,” Bruce said. “Like, we have to go places so that we can do stuff for no reason, because otherwise time will explode?” He paused dramatically. “Look, we get it. Just give us a to-do list us a to-do list and a time machine and we’ll get it done. It’s not like we haven’t got enough to do already.”
“It doesn’t work like that. You must trust me.”
“Um, yeah. Not going to happen,” Eve volunteered. “I’m from dinosaur days, and even I’ve figured out that you don’t take the bus if it doesn’t go where you’re going.”
“So you want your own time machine?”
“Yes!” Chris and Charlotte said together, followed by a scatter of “yeahs” from their friends.
“Very well. Your time machine will be waiting for you outside Oroville City Hall at 10:04 tonight.”
“10:04?” Bruce did a face palm. “How will we know? There’s no clock tower at Oroville city hall.”
“Hey, big brain, update me,” Charlotte snarked.
“You’ve never seen Back to the Future?”
“You should totally download it when we get back,” Billy said.
“I loved that movie,” the time dragon observed.
“So, in the mean time, what do we—“ Chris began. But the dragon had disappeared.
His sister relaxed her hands, sheathing the Pearl Harmony, and then flung herself at her brother. “Oh, Chris. I was so worried. Where were you?”
“Uhm, 1862? I think. Anyway, the year the Great-Great Gramps Kharagtiday died.”
“And what were you up to?”
“Getting lost. Meditating. Meeting my spirit guide. Killing stuff with my killing sword.”
“Not really. Tell you about it later.”
“Oh, Chris. So, Aunt Elizabeth was showing Mr. McNeely around the Benches when we arrived. We hid, did a run into Colville for supplies later, then hid some more. I don’t like camping in October.”
“That sounds like a lot to get up to in three days,” Chris offered.
“We had help.” Charlotte gestured at the treeline, and a strange but also strangely familiar boy in 1930s cowboys clothes sauntered out, with the seemingly perpetually tanned white face that you associated with Westerners people from those days. For some reason, he reminded Chris of Ronald Reagan, but that was probably because the guy was all over the American news these days. Or, he thought, these days in 1975. For a moment, Chris wondered what had become of the guy since. He stopped at the top of the pasture, and looked down at Chris and Eve, his hand over his eyes. “You must be my great nephew or something. And you must be a girl, I’d say, from the way you’re dressed. Can you beat it?”
Eve said, coolly. “Excuse me?”
“Showing off your gats like that. You’re a regular Jean Harlow, aintcha?”
Billy looked over his shoulders. “Um, Springett? That’d be one of those cultural changes we talked about.”
Charlotte rolled her eyes and Chris tried not to show his own reaction. Springett was probably imagining a future where all the girls wore bikinis all the time. And then he peaked over at Eve. He had no idea who Jean Harlow was, but if he knew fourteen year-old boys, Springett was probably being more offensive than he realised. Also, holy crap. Springett. This was his great-uncle, the future super soldier and war casualty. And ‘holy crap,’ again, Chris thought. What would Springett make of his future relatives when Aunt Elizabeth died sometime in the next few weeks?
“Springett was following his cousin when she came up to the Benches on Monday. He spotted us.”
“I’m an ace stalker. It’s in the blood,” Springett offered, with such a straight face that, for a moment, Chris couldn’t tell whether he was joking or not. He probably wasn’t. Did they even have the notion of “stalkers” in the Thirties?
“So you were following your cousin around, and you just admit it?” Eve asked. “That is so not cool.”
Springett looked down at his boots, an angry blush spreading across his cheeks as the crown of his hat tipped towards them. “It ain’t like that. I mean, Elizabeth’s a real doll and everything, and she’s seeing an awful lot of this McNeely dude, but I ain’t following her because I’m dizzy for her. She’s six years older than me! I’m following her because somebody is following her. Before he left for China, Mr. Wong told us to watch out for the White Lotus Gang. They’re using the old bootlegger crossings to move opium from Vancouver to Chicago, and they could show up in the Okaogan any time. My parents are back East, and someone’s gotta step up.” Springett let out a gush of air to finish the rush of words.
“Why can’t you just leave it to Elizabeth?” Chris asked.
“’Cuz she’s a dame,” Springett said, stubbornly. Charlotte slid a half-step around to face towards Springett from beside her brother, laying her hand on Chris’s arm. It figured that they’d had this conversation already. “Besides, I’m doing okay so far. I got tents and food for your sister and her pals. I got a car. You need to be in Oroville tonight on the down low, I’ll fix that up, too. I know what I’m doing.”
“Well, um, that does sound like what we want to do,” Billy said. He nudged Bruce. “If there’s nothing on our to-do list?”
Chris answered quickly, before Bruce got defensive. “Nothing. It’s too early for our mission, and if there’s anything the dragon wants us to do, it must be one of those things that we’re just going to do. You know? My Gramps is out of town, but if anyone else wants to shoot their grandpa or step on a butterfly, I guess the timeline will send things our way? Something like that?”
“What?” Bruce and Springett said, at the same time.
“It’s Fall, bro,” Charlotte pointed out. “No butterflies.”
“Okay, then. Can we build a camp fire and chill for a while, then?”
“Why not? No-one except some loggers down valley and Californian auto-tourers on the highway up over in Canada to see. I’d better split,” Springett said.
“What? You just got here, cuz!”
“And it’s been keen, Char-Char. But I’m not supposed to know the future, right? Well, if I’m not here, everyone doesn’t have to be on their guard all the time.” Chris’s great uncle looked Billy in the eye as he said it.
And that’s how Chris Wong spent his first, and possibly last, afternoon in 1934. Sitting around a campfire in a little clearing just above First Bench, roasting 1930s style wieners. Finally, as night was falling, a Model T Crummy came rattling up the access road, followed by a Ford pickup. A silent, expressionless Indian got out of the Crummy, tucked a manila envelope into the walked around to the pickup, and got into the passenger seat. The pickup reversed down the road to turn around in the little hollow where Chris had meditated just a few hours, or possibly 80 years ago.
“Well, that’s it, then,” Billy said as he got up and walked to the crummy, opened the letter and read it for a long moment. Then he looked up at the logger transport, with its boxy compartment perched on the back of a Ford truck chassis. It was almost like the back half of a school bus, except for the lack of windows, and the whole thing looked like the jury rig that it exactly was. “Springett says to use the road over the top and come down Anarchist Summit and back over the border at the east side crossing. Will this jalopy even make it up the hill?”
“We used to drive hay trucks up and down that road all the time, before the Border Patrol got all shirty,” Chris answered. A bit of him felt a little awkward about bringing his friends through the graveyard on Second Bench. But he’d let Eve see it already, so what was the harm?
“Second question: who’s driving?”
There was a long silence. At last, Charlotte interrupted. “I guess Bruce is, because…”
…”McNeelys are good at everything,” Bruce finished. “You have no idea how much I hate that.”
“Oh, the suckage of being good looking and competent,” Eve said, sarcastically. Once again, Chris noticed his sister giving Eve the fisheye. Eve pretended not to notice.
“It makes me feel like a mutant!” Bruce protested.
Billy sounded a little exasperated as he rolled his arm and a small kukri popped out of his right sleeve, glistening wet in the air for a moment before setting into crystalline keenness. “Being good at stuff makes you stand out? Have you noticed who you hang with?”
“Yeah, but. . .” The ‘but’ hung in the darkening autumn air for a long moment as Bruce absorbed the fact that he wasn’t going to win this argument. “Okay, I’ll drive. Just a sec.” Bruce dipped his face into his hands for a long moment, and then lifted it. Somehow, with just that moment to work at it, he looked 10 years older; in fact, he looked just like the old pictures of his grandfather. “Ready. Chris, can you ride shotgun?”
Chris got into the passenger’s side of the crummy. The shocks were so light that he could feel the vehicle’s weight shift as Billy, Eve and Charlotte climbed in the back door one by one. “Sure you’re okay with this, Bruce?” Chris asked.
“Sure,” Bruce said, effortlessly double-clutching into first gear and starting smoothly into the tight corner leading out of the First Bench and upwards. They passed through the graveyard quietly and in low gear. It looked very different from the way Chris remembered it in either 1862 or 1975, with four fewer graves and without the memorial pond that Grampa Wong built for Aunt Elizabeth. Soon they had climbed out of the Benches entirely. Chris got out to open the gate leading into the Crown forest below the highway, and less than half a mile further on, they were coming up on the curve of the switchback where the road met the highway.
As Springett predicted, the highway was quiet. The Dewdney Trail wasn’t open to cars yet, so there was no through road, direct from Vancouver to the south valley, or from the rest of Canada, either. So the traffic was local, plus the few Californian tourists, on their way for a hunting trip. The crummy was soon grinding down the hill, then through the orchards of east Osoyoos, then past the big canneries that shipped the fruit all the way to England, then around the north shore of Lake Osoyoos into the town proper, before turning south onto Highway 97. Chris stared out the window, drinking in the sights of a world forty years gone in his memories.
Soon they were rattling down the night-time road. As they neared Chinese Bar, Chris’s keen eyes caught the familiar sight of Grampa Wong’s old Studebaker, only now not so old. It was parked up on top of the bar overlooking the lake, far enough away from the slough that, in Chris’s experience, the creepy ambience of that little swamp wouldn’t be felt. Were Aunt Elizabeth and Tom McNeely inside? Even though he’d seen the pictures and hung around with the McNeelys, Chris could not help imagining the young Hobgoblin as Christian Bale, trying to romance …Ooh, he thought. That made his aunt Katie Holmes.
He was still trying to reconcile that image in his head when they pulled up at the border crossing. A door cracked open, spilling lantern light out onto the dark tarmac and framing a stocky man in an RCMP-style hat, light brown shirt, and black tie under a leather bomber jacket as he walked out. The man, hardly bothering to cross the distance, jerked his thumb in the direction of Osoyoos. “Crossings are between 9 and 5, so you joes can just go get yourselves a room for the night.” Then he looked a little closer. “Oh. Mr. McNeely. I’m sorry. I didn’t know you were coming back through tonight, although I guess I shouldn’t be surprised, you being a gentleman and all. And is that one of Mr. Dawson’s crummies?”
“Yes it is, my good man. I borrowed it for my own purposes. And, of course, for everyone’s benefit.” Bruce handed the border patrolman something in the darkness.
“Of course. None the wiser, none the wiser, sir. I can take a note of the license plate, if you’re going to be using the cummy again?”
“No, that won’t be necessary. I’ll be returning it tonight. Now, a good night to you, and my best wishes to your family.”
As they pulled out of the crossing, Chris hissed to Bruce. “You bribed a Border Patrolman?”
“I tipped him. For a service. It’s what a Main Line gentleman would do. It’ll be handy if Tom McNeely crosses the border again tonight.”
“I …never mind.”
“The interesting part is the way that he pumped me for info. I wonder if we’re going to see Tong hitmen tonight.”
Chris felt his eyes widen. He patted the Blue Tranquility Sword, wrapped up in a cloth bag like a collapsed fly-fishing rod at his side. That would be interesting. But there was no trouble as they drove the mile and a half down the highway and then off onto the scenic road to the beach house. The surroundings of small orchard and isolated house were much closer to Chris’s memories of 1975 than the growing subdivisions of 2012, and the beach house was still on its full-size, overgrown property. It was dark and quiet. As best as Chris could remember family history, Mary Dawson was in a nursing home by now, and her son, Henry lived at Cherry Grove, while Matthew and John had both moved East. No-one would live full time at the beach house again for another 20 years.
When they finally pulled into the circular driveway around the front of the beach house, they saw a blue Studebaker roadster parked at the door. “I guess we’re swapping rides, here,” Chris said.
“Two hours to 10:04,” Bruce answered, peering at his phone. “Nothing.”
“Kids today,” Chris snorted as he got out. “I’ll see if I can get you a handset with an extra stretchy cord.” He walked up to the door and knocked. Almost immediately, Springett opened the door.
“Were you followed?” He hissed.
“Yeah. Oldsmobile tourer, pulled onto the highway just after Chinese Bar. Well back, but a gust of wind blew the tree cover away when we took the corner through Sinclair Orchard.” A gust, or something, Chris thought. The Botanical Research Centre was built on Sinclair Orchard land. “I twigged a moment ago when they showed up this side of the border.” Bruce nodded. Evidently, he’d noticed, too. It was kind of deflating for Chris, but, on the other hand, McNeelys were good at everything.
Except Eight Spirit Dragon Kung Fu, so there was that. And Morning Glory never crushed on Bruce, so there was that, too.
“And you drove right by my cousin and McNeely parking beside the lake! Someone’s watching them. I know it!”
“Yeah, someone’s watching them. You are, kid. Face it, you’re totally jealous. You’re the one in danger, here.”
“I am not, and stop saying ‘totally!”
“Who’s jealous of what?” Charlotte asked, coming up behind them.
“It’s nothing,” Springett answered.
“Oh, come on, spill. This sounds juicy!”
“Maybe not the time,” Billy gritted.
“Yeah blah, seriouscakes,” Eve agreed. “Listen to Mysterious Drifter, Boy Chauvinist Pig, Bat Boy and Chow On Fat here, and let’s get back somewhere with cell coverage so I can talk with someone interesting.”
Charlotte wasn’t the only one to glare at Eve at that.
“I don’t like this,” Chris said.
“What?” Springett answered.
“Tong men would miss the turnoff onto the drive. I’ve been through a rerun battle once already this trip. I think we’re in for two.”
“You mean the Paradigm Pirates, here in 1934?” Charlotte said, quietly, so quietly, unsheathing the Pearl Harmony a tiny crack so that its deeper-than-white light shone on the paving stones beneath.
“They’ve been looking for Springett, they travel in time and their official motto on time paradoxes is, ‘reality, who needs it.’” Yeah, I think making the 10:04 bus is going to get complicated any minute now.” Chris unsheathed the Tranquility and twisted it to cast its blue jade light on the lawn. Somehow, while they were talking, the brown, fall grass had growned slick, green tendrils that were writhing towards their boots. Chris stepped back. Feeding that much energy into the morphogenetic field would have to cramp Morning Glory’s style. He wondered what else she had in store.
Bruce pulled out his phone again. “Nothing on the radio, but the Pirates probably don’t coordinate by radio.”
Springett reached behind the door and pulled out a BAR. He hefted the 25 pound automatic rifle surprisingly easily for a fourteen year-old. “Oh, goodie. A fight.”