Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Downtime by Tamara Allen

On assignment in London, FBI Agent Morgan Nash finds himself moments away from a bullet through the heart when the case he's working goes awry. But fate has other plans, he discovers when he wakes in a world far removed from his own.

At work cataloguing ancient manuscripts in the British Museum, Ezra Glacenbie inadvertently creates the magic that pulls Morgan out of the twenty-first century and into the nineteenth. It's an impromptu vacation which may become permanent when the spellbook goes missing. Further upsetting Morgan's search for a way home is the irresistible temptation to investigate the most notorious crime of the nineteenth century. But it's the unexpected romance blossoming between Morgan and Ezra that becomes the most dangerous complication of all.

 This wasn't exactly what I was expecting but it was even better.  Morgan is everything most of us expect out of a modern day FBI agent when reading such stories and he is thrown for a real doozy when he thinks he's knocked out or even shot but wakes up in the same place but a very different time.  In 1888 to be precise.  The men who brought him to 1888 may not have meant and don't really know what to make of Morgan at first but I feel it's exactly what all involved needed.  This is a story that was even better than I expected and one I hated see come to an end.  The characters are well written, the plot well developed, and one I enjoyed immensely from beginning to end.


 MOM always said all I needed to succeed, I carried with me. Though the Glock strapped to my side had gotten me out of trouble more than once, I think she referred more specifically to my head and heart. But soul-searching had never been my strong point—not even while doing nothing in particular besides freezing my ass off in an empty warehouse in drizzling cold London.

I’d spent the better part of three days holed up with only said Glock and MI-6 Agent Leonard Gladstell, whose perpetual chatter and good cheer were getting on my nerves. We were consuming too much coffee, considering that the only john in sight was a portable toilet in the vacant lot next door, and we still hadn’t heard a peep on the location of the defector we intended to bring home.

To make things worse, Leonard was under the impression he had charge of the op, since the case officer had come down with the flu and hadn’t done a hell of a lot since, except to bitch about it with the occasional call. I’d kept to myself through most of the long hours, reading whatever was at hand, including the city map Gladstell had given me. That’s how desperate I was to avoid being drawn back into conversation with the guy.

It was just my luck he showed up for his shift with warm cinnamon rolls and more hot coffee. I can put up with anyone who comes bearing cinnamon rolls. Leonard, smiling like he knew it, dropped the box on the crate next to the computer I’d set up and made himself comfortable on the sleeping bag I’d draped over another crate. “You look a little cheerier today, Agent Nash. Another week and we shall have you calling London home.”

I was seriously missing the crisp New York September I’d left behind. Though Gladstell relentlessly promoted England as God’s gift to mankind, it wasn’t my foreign land of choice. “I wouldn’t live in this swamp if you paid me.”

His smile widened. “How many times have you had the privilege of working here, Agent?”

I waved two fingers in the air as I burned my tongue on a sip of coffee. Leonard nodded sagely. “And have you seen anything of London apart from a hotel room and the inside of a musty warehouse?”

I had to admit I hadn’t. “I was going to do some sightseeing last time, but that was pretty much a wash. Literally.”

He laughed. “You Americans. A little rain and you run indoors in a panic. I do recall it raining in New York the last time I was on assignment there. No one seemed to need medical aid after exposure to it.”

“New York rain’s not as lethal.”

He sighed without ever losing the smile. “I’d guess you were not really a morning person, Agent, if I’d ever seen you anything but foul-tempered.”

“Sorry.” I was not at my best after a night and day spent with only a sleeping bag between me and cement that could have passed for a sheet of ice. I should have gone to the hotel last night, but I was starting to think we were going to lose our man and I hadn’t wanted to abandon my post. “It’s not just the rain, but the damned wind. I’ve already lost two umbrellas and the third’s not doing too well.” I nodded at the heap of bent wire and sagging cloth lying like a wounded blackbird near the warehouse door. “And that was just from the hike over to that icebox passing for a bathroom.”

“Come now. You look like a stalwart fellow. This can’t be that much of a hardship for you.”

“Well, I usually survive this sort of assignment pretty well. It’s just that I left my electric blanket at home.” Scooping out a warm cinnamon roll, I got up and stretched aching legs and back. Sitting and waiting were two of my least favorite occupations. “You going to be okay? Guess you’ve got Creighton to keep you company.”

His lips twisted. “I may keep the phone switched off for a bit.”

I almost felt sorry for him. When a case officer whined in your ear, you listened whether you wanted to or not. “Good idea. I’m going to take another look around before I go back to the hotel.”

“We’re not under surveillance, I assure you.”

“Then what the hell’s taking so damned long?” I’d figured it was due to Nosik, whom the case officer had referred to as a lone wolf, trying to get to us without the help of any confederates. But even so, he should’ve showed up by now—unless he was hurt or worse.
For the first time, a grim look took up a position front and center on good old Leonard’s face. “The word is that we may have lost him. But we’re to hold the fort, nonetheless. Until we know for certain.”

“Until we know for certain,” I said. “Great. Just great. I’m going back to the hotel and soak myself in a bath hot enough to boil lobster.”

“Stout heart, Agent. It can’t be more than another day or two, either way.”

I had the feeling Creighton already knew for certain and he was just hovering over his chess pieces until he figured out a way to break it gently to the higher-ups that we’d lost Nosik. There wasn’t much point to scouring the place now. No one gave a shit that we were here, freezing to death for a fish who’d slipped the hook. And meanwhile back at home, Reese would be finishing what he’d started when I’d left for the airport: packing up to move out and find someone who wouldn’t leave him stranded without a date every Friday night.

It just wasn’t my week.

It apparently wasn’t Leonard’s either. “I’m disappointed too.” He broke into my brief deluge of self-pity, sounding surprisingly sympathetic. “I was rather intrigued to meet him, you know. After all we’ve been through together.”

I’d known about Leonard’s rep for code-breaking long before I ever met him. What amazed me was that as long-winded as he could be on all other subjects, he had hardly said a word about his work and the accolades it’d won him on both sides of the pond. “That’s why you asked to be in on this?”

“I didn’t ask. Nosik requested it.”

“Why doesn’t Creighton get them to up the ante?”

“The firm doesn’t consider him worth the cost.”

“They would’ve if he’d wanted to settle down in Merry Old England.”
That comment won me an annoyed glitter, not to mention some scathing sarcasm. “Compete with hot dogs, apple pie, and Penthouse? We don’t stand a chance.”

I decided I was lingering long enough to justify another cinnamon roll. “Don’t forget sunshine, ice-cold beer, and real football. Did I mention sunshine?”

“Didn’t you say something about a hot bath, Nash?”

And still no punch in the nose. The guy had remarkable restraint. I grinned at him. “Stout heart, Agent Gladstell. Sooner or later we’ll round up your pal and you can come visit him in the M.C.C. Compare notes, bask in his admiration, all that.”

Leonard’s smile returned, wholeheartedly amused. “You are a right bastard, you know that?”

A right bastard. There were a lot of people who’d agree with that assessment. I knew I was being a little harder on Gladstell than was fair. It wasn’t his fault my personal life was about as bright and promising as the weather.

Leaving the last two rolls to Leonard, I gave him the half-empty but still warm thermos and headed out. I didn’t want to go to the hotel. I wanted to hop the next plane home and dive under my ratty brown and green comforter and sleep two days straight with a pair of warm arms wrapped around me. I had a feeling by the time I did get home, the best I could hope for was the comforter.

The phone at the bottom of my pocket chimed and I fished it out. Speak of the devil. “Reese? What’s up?”

There was a rueful snort at the other end of the line. “Languishing in my absence, I see. Just wanted to let you know I mailed my key to the apartment. I thought about leaving it under the mat but, you know, burglars and all. Not that you can’t take care of yourself.”

“Give it a rest. You know I hate that crap.” I kept walking. It was either that or freeze.

“I’m not baiting you.” I could hear the sigh he was holding back.

“Look, it just isn’t working. I’ve got my life and you’ve got—whatever the hell it is you’ve got.”

“Right now, I’ve got an agent who’s playing hide and seek and I’m working on a serious case of frostbite.”

“Gotcha. Not a good time, then?”

And people called me a pain in the ass. “Can we talk about this when I get home?”

His laugh was abrupt and humorless. “I already have plans for Christmas. How does New Year’s work for you?”

I decided to ignore that one too. “I’ll be home in another day. We can meet for dinner.”

He was quiet for so long that I wondered if we’d been disconnected. Finally he spoke up, in that flat, resigned tone I’d gotten used to hearing in the past two weeks. “As fantastic as makeup sex is with you, I think I’m going to have to pass this time. You’re not a keeper. I just wish I’d figured that out five months ago.”

Not a keeper. “What the hell does that mean?”

“You know what it means. You don’t want to belong to anyone. Stupid attitude, but hey, it’s your life to fuck up as you see fit.”

“Damn. Talk about attitude.”

His soft snort was a weary echo of his resignation. “Shift it ’round to me all you want. You bailed before I did and you know it.”

“People don’t belong to each other. With each other, maybe—”

“Lessons in true love, courtesy of the man who hasn’t got a clue. God, I should’ve figured you out in the first five minutes, forget months. Trouble is, I’m too much of a sucker for chocolate-brown eyes and a great ass.”

Reese and his flair for the dramatic. You’d never guess he was a headshrinker, he was so full of it. Or maybe you would. “C’mon, Reese. Dinner, Tuesday.” I went out on a limb, hoping I’d be able to wrap this one up and catch a flight by Monday. “How about Cooke’s? I promise to eat my vegetables.”

“I don’t think so. Maybe I’ll catch you at the Firehouse sometime.”

He was as likely to show up there as I was to eat at Cooke’s without him. “So that’s it? Going without even a good-bye?”

“Good-bye, Morgan.” Quiet, as he was only when he was dead serious.

“Jesus. You’re not being fair. You know how I feel about you.”

“Good-bye,” he said even more firmly and the line went dead. I snapped the phone shut and shoved it into my pocket. For five months, Reese had been pulling at me to take more time off and spend it with him; invest in something besides work, he’d said. And my superiors had come down on my ass for the little time I did take off, hinting around that plum cases come to those who are so seldom at home, they couldn’t describe the wallpaper in their bathroom under threat of torture.

Maybe Reese was right and this was for the best. He’d always felt like he was competing with my job. I had the feeling he was starting to hate it, and that was one step away from hating me. As the phone went off again, I sighed. This day was picking up speed as it raced downhill.

Not Reese this time, I realized, at the blast of choice invective that greeted my hello. Unit Chief Faulkner wasn’t one who believed in nurturing the inner agent. “Hey, boss. You got my voice mail?”

“I got it. Is your sorry ass still in one piece, Nash?”

“Let me check.” I glanced over my shoulder. “Looks like it. Sorry to let you down, boss.”

“You’re a real comedian. And for Christ’s sake, stop calling me ‘boss’.” He sighed. “The British Museum. Get over there. Word is your boy’s interested in a more public venue. And make sure you take Gladstell with you, okay? Let’s not piss off any delicate sensibilities. Any more than you already have.”

“If I have, you can blame it on neurological impairment due to hypothermia.”

“You’re lucky I didn’t send you on Dornan’s team to Siberia, pal. Wrap this up neat or your next assignment’s going to take you to scenic Des Moines.”

“Someone cross the state line with an overdue library book?”

“Move it, Nash.”

I swallowed a laugh but let the grin crack my near-frozen face. “Love you too, boss.”

He snorted. “You need a break. Two weeks, Agent. I told you—soon as Nosik’s bagged, you’re gone. If I see you back here before mid-October, Des Moines will be looking damned good to you. Got it?”

If you asked for a day off, chances were you’d be working seventy-two hours straight on some godawful rookie chore that’d make sure you never asked for another day off in your life. But once you got to know Lou Faulkner, you figured out that you didn’t have to ask. He knew whether you needed a day or two off. And in my case, he was right. I was a little wrung out, though I hadn’t noticed it really, until now. I was probably coming down with something nasty, thanks to three days trapped in a damp refrigerator.

Aware that I was standing in the middle of the road, fast losing sensation in my extremities, I gathered up Leonard and we headed for the museum. I’d never been much on museums when I was a kid, and I still wasn’t, but once we’d gotten inside, it was something to see. I found myself regretting that we didn’t have time to look around, but I had to figure that seeing everything in every gallery would take at least a year. As it was, Nosik only had an hour to show up before the place was closed for the day. I kept an eye out for our man and tried to ignore Leonard’s rambling, if authoritative lecture on the Egyptian exhibit.

“Here we have Nenkheftka or rather, a good likeness of the old fellow.” Leonard stood in front of a statue decked out in the usual wraparound skirt, jewelry, and heavy, black wig. I had a few friends in New York who dressed similarly, but Nenkheftka carried the look off better. The clothes—or lack of them—showed off a well-proportioned physique. Broad shoulders, good tan, nice smile. What more could you want in a man?

And Reese thought I was unreasonable.

I eyed old Nenkheftka curiously. I could tell by the hint of a smirk on his face that he’d been the sort of Egyptian who knew how to tell a good joke— and keep some pretty juicy secrets too. At my side, Leonard was giving the statue the same once-over, but with a different sort of interest, probably. He threw me a sidelong glance brimming with pride, as if he’d unearthed Nenkheftka himself. “Remarkable, isn’t it? Limestone. Fifth Dynasty. Note the way he’s posed, in mid-stride. Typical of—”

“Where’d you guys get all this stuff, anyway?”

Leonard seemed pleased to have finally impressed me. “Explorers over the centuries have collected artifacts from every corner of the world. So much that we will never be able to display all of it. Did you know....”

This is what happened to a guy who worked every day at the same desk under the same clock with the same view. No wonder he’d been so excited about getting out and having a face-to-face with old Nosik. Getting a taste of adventure—if you could call camping out in a cold, deserted warehouse for days on end any kind of adventure....

*I didn’t ask. Nosik requested it.*

“Goddamn it to hell.” Was the bastard defecting—or watching us, to find the right moment to put a bullet into the brain of the man who’d bested him too many times to count? Even as I spun on a heel to grab Gladstell and get him the hell out, I could hear Creighton’s dour admonition that my tendency to trust my gut feelings—act on impulse, was how he’d worded it—would not be acceptable while working with his agents. I knew my own higher-ups in Washington had warned him about me, but I didn’t give a shit. An agent who didn’t trust his instincts was a dead man. And right now, I was sure Leonard was one if I didn’t haul his butt out of the museum in record time.

As I grabbed him, he looked at me in alarm. I didn’t get a chance to explain. At the other end of the exhibit, I saw a stout man in blue plaid slacks and a cheap windbreaker. Gray hair a wind-blown fringe around his head, cheeks and nose red in a sallow, sagging face, he’d come in from the cold in one sense, anyway; just not the one we’d had in mind.

Nosik’s attention settled on me and his jowls lifted with a smile of polite interest. Not the sort of look you normally see from a guy in the process of hitching up his windbreaker to extract a bulky, ancient Stechkin. The gun might be forty years old, but Nosik clearly had every confidence it would do the trick as he centered on Leonard.

I dove behind the exhibit, dragging Leonard with me. When I looked up, Nosik was gone. “Son of a bitch.”


“He’s after you. Stay down.” Ignoring my own advice, I took off in the direction Nosik had gone. I spotted his bald head in the crowd and was pushing my way through when the cell chimed again. For God’s sake. “Yeah?”

“How do you feel about me?”

“Reese? What the hell—” Nosik vanished behind a door just at the bend of the corridor and I put on a burst of speed, determined not to lose him.

“You said, ‘you know how I feel about you’,” came the reminder patiently from faraway New York. “And the fact is, I really don’t. But after I hung up, morbid curiosity got the better of me—”

“Reese, this is really not a good time. Can I call you back?” Reaching the door, I leaned lightly against it to listen for any sound inside.

Reese’s voice came from the phone I’d lowered to my knee. “Are you serious? Jesus, Morgan, you are a piece of work. You try your best to get to me and when you finally do, you pull this disinterested shit every damn time. Do you have the vaguest idea how hard it is to love a guy like that?”

I kept my voice low as I ducked into a dim storage area stuffed with more treasures, but harboring no sign of life. “Hard. Yeah.” I crouched down behind a stack of crates. “Twenty minutes. I’ll call you back. Swear to God.”

“Yeah, you go ahead and call back. Leave a voice message. See what it gets you.”

Under the brittle anger, his voice had roughened with emotion that took the edge off my concentration. “Reese, I’m not doing this to hurt you, for God’s sake. I swear I’m not. Just let me call you back.”

Reese was quiet too long. I was going to have to hang up on him, as much as I hated to do it. But then he spoke just as I was lowering the phone. “You know something, even if you live to be ninety, you still won’t get it. You won’t know why you’re all alone and lonely. Maybe you had a tough break when you were a kid and maybe now you think you’ve got to save the world to make up for not being able to save him. But your whole life is just about chasing the bad guys. There’s got to be more than that.”

“Yeah, you’re right.”

“I’m right?”

I put the phone to my ear. “You’re right. My life is about chasing the bad guys. And right now you’ve got to let me do it.” I jabbed the button with my thumb, disconnecting, and hit the power to make sure nothing else would break my concentration. I heard soft cursing in Russian, then the scuffle of a shoe on the straw-littered floor. I rose with my gun, ready for him. The door opened behind me and Nosik’s eyes widened in alarm. He babbled something that I translated as a warning to his confederate behind me and I knew I was shit-deep in trouble. I started to turn, hoping to bring the confederate down before Nosik shot me. Even as I did, I heard Nosik cock the ancient piece and fire.

So much for ending the day on a high note.

AFTER hours on the floor with nausea churning in my gut and something that felt a lot colder than blood running too fast through my veins, I dragged open bleary eyes and blinked at the dim hands on my watch. Okay, it hadn’t been hours—more like five minutes, but that was plenty of time to bleed to death. I jabbed the number for Leonard’s cell and got exactly nothing for my effort. “Goddamn it.” Looking for service. Fucking fantastic. If you wanted to get anything done, you had to do it yourself.

I fumbled a hand over my stomach, grimly determined to stop the bleeding however I had to—and found none. I checked again, teeth clenched against very real nausea, but there was nothing to feel except smooth, if clammy skin.

What the hell? I would have sworn Nosik had blasted a hole through me....

But apparently he had missed, from just ten feet away. Maybe he needed glasses. Whatever the case, I wouldn’t get answers lying on the floor all day. As I pushed myself onto hands and knees, I felt a distinct difference in the room. I hadn’t passed out. I was fairly sure I hadn’t. But tilting my head to peer to one side only confirmed the feeling. The light was different. Not brighter but—warmer, like candlelight. Things were moved. Rearranged. And Nosik was nowhere in sight.

Uneasiness prickled the length of my spine as my focus sharpened. Maybe I was too sick to stand up, but I wasn’t too sick to blow a few holes through Nosik’s little helpers, if they were the ones waiting around to bag me. I gritted my teeth and forced myself back on my haunches—and there they were, three of them. My uneasiness expanded to new dimensions. If these were Nosik’s buddies, they’d fallen into an even deeper time warp than Nosik with his plaid trousers. They stood gathered in a tight group, looking less like foreign agents than museum employees, of the type who were stuck in storage rooms to catalogue junk as dusty as they were.

Then I realized none of them had tried for my gun, which lay on the floor just within reach. I grabbed it and lurched to my feet, telling myself on the way up that it wouldn’t look professional to vomit in front of the enemy. As I hefted the Glock in a firmer grip, two of the three men fell back a step. The third, a leather-bound book open in his hands, stared at me with wide blue eyes. Instinct told me he was the leader of this little gang of—art thieves? Art theft was more popular than ever. Even drug cartels and arms dealers were getting into the act. But these guys didn’t look like arms dealers any more than they looked like agents. They didn’t even appear to be armed.

Maybe they were just museum employees, but something out of the ordinary was going on. I took a shot at prompting a confession.

“Guess I interrupted something. You gentlemen are aware of the minimum stretch for art theft these days?”

His face alight with interest, the blue-eyed one made a move in my direction. His cohorts grabbed him, sending the book thudding to the floor, and he resisted with an impatient shake of his head. “Look at him, Derry.” He nudged the well-padded ribs of the black-haired guy doing most of the pulling. “An ordinary man, nothing more. No need to worry.”

His confidence did not persuade Derry, who said something I had trouble comprehending because of a brogue thick enough to cut with one very big knife. But I did catch a name. Ezra. The one who wasn’t afraid of me— although judging by his comment, he was aware of my reputation.

Keeping my firearm trained on him, I fished out my identification. “Special Agent Nash, gentlemen.”

“He’s American,” the thin blond fellow noted.

“Very much so,” Ezra said and leaned in for a closer look at the Glock. “A sort of pistol, is it?” He tapped the muzzle, apparently not in the least perturbed by the possibility of taking a bullet in the head. Jesus, these guys weren’t smart enough to be art thieves or museum employees. They needed to be locked up for their own safety, as well as mine.

“Okay, maybe I didn’t make myself clear. Morgan Nash, FBI. Now listen up—”

“Agent, you said?” Ezra looked dubious. “As in house?”

“Federal.” I flashed the badge again. “As in government.”

His eyebrows rose. “You work for the government? By faith, we have conjured a demon.”

Derry’s broad face contorted and the thin blond fellow broke into a twitchy smirk. It was a weird reaction for three guys who knew they were about to be arrested, and it was an annoying reaction. I appreciated the fact that some situations resisted evaluation, but I was about to do a little placement of suspects into the good old search position.

“I hate to ruin your fun, gentlemen, but I’m going to have to take you in for questioning. I want you to line up, hands clasped behind your head. If you’re planning to reach for ID, let me know so I don’t have to break anyone’s fingers.”

The threat normally inspired grumbling and the occasional sullen scowl. These guys resisted the norm right down the line. Three wide-eyed faces looked at me in bemusement and I did the scowling. “Like this.” I seized a handful of Ezra’s coat and swung him to face the wall. No sooner did I have his hands resting on his curly brown head than he started to lower them and turn to me. I jabbed the muzzle in his back. “Yes, it is a pistol and yes, I will use it if you force me to. I suggest you don’t.”

“You’re arresting us?”

The guy was not taking his predicament seriously in the least. Wondering if I still had my cuffs with me, I kept the gun at his back. “I knew you’d catch on, Ez, old chap. Keep your hands up, please.”

“Can he arrest us?” Derry whispered to Ezra.

“How can he?” the thin blond asked with contempt. “He doesn’t even belong here.”

“He doesn’t know that.” Ezra snuck a look at me and I caught the sympathy in his eyes.

I didn’t know what his game was, but I wasn’t playing. “If you want a British agent to haul you in, I can arrange it.” I snagged my phone and tried Leonard’s number again, but the connection had gone dead. I couldn’t get even a whisper of static.

Fed up, I pushed Ezra toward the door and persuaded the other two with a wave of my gun to line up behind him. I patted them down one by one. Not a gun on any of them, nor, unfortunately, a cell phone.

“I would advise you gentlemen to stick together and keep quiet. If you want to know just how good a shot I am, making a run for it is one way to find out.”

There was no sign of Leonard or Nosik, but I noted the museum was still open—and apparently Nosik’s discharging his weapon hadn’t perturbed anyone in particular. Then it hit me that the people roaming the exhibits looked as though they ought to be a part of one. The earlier crowd in their jeans, sneakers, and jackets had gone and a suit-and-tie crowd had taken their place. But these suits must have been pulled from an old trunk in museum storage. The coats were too long, the collars just one step away from neck brace. More striking were the women. Skirts brushed the floor, hats piled with feathers reaching in the opposite direction. The men wore hats too, and I wasn’t talking baseball cap. I didn’t see an untucked shirt or pierced nose in sight.

If someone was filming a movie, I saw no camera or director. I hooked a hand around Ezra’s arm and pulled him to face me. “What the hell’s going on?”

He looked me over with what I might have taken for concern if he’d known me from Adam. “You’re a little shaken, I can imagine, sir.”

I jabbed the firearm in his ribs. “You’re the one who provided the manpower and the means. Who are you working for?”

“Not manpower, precisely,” he said, looking uncomfortable for the first time. “We—rather, Henry—”

“Oh, no you don’t,” the blond said, hot with indignation. “I wasn’t reading it properly, if you will recall. Leave it to the Latin expert—”

“He never said he was expert,” Derry cut in. “You were making such a mess of it. I could tell, clear as day, and you know what my Latin’s like.”

“Well, if you’d hie yourself to Mass, you heathen,” Ezra said in what was obviously a private joke, judging by the smile he exchanged with Derry. Then he noticed I wasn’t laughing and his smile faded. “You’ll have to forgive us. We weren’t expecting anything to come of it, really.”

“Come of what?”

Silence descended as they shared a worried look. I kept quiet. Sometimes it was better to let suspects run off at the mouth, and I felt confident this group could produce enough rope to hang themselves.

“Oh saints,” Derry groaned. “Kathleen!”

“We meant no harm,” Ezra said, but he didn’t look any too happy, himself.

The pinched line of Henry’s mouth tightened further. “We aren’t taking him home with us, I hope? How can we be so sure he’s not a demon?”

“The devil may assume a pleasing shape,” Ezra commented, stealing a glance at me that was appreciative and then some. I managed to return the glance with indifference, concealing my surprise. Though I could see he wasn’t easily fazed, it took balls to flirt with a guy holding a gun on you. I’d run into the occasional raven who would do his job whether the target was male or female, but I doubted Nosik had hired one for that purpose. My personal life wasn’t common knowledge. That would make a risky business even riskier. And maybe this guy wasn’t too bad on the eyes, but his chances of seducing me to get any kind of information out of me were nonexistent— assuming he was even working for Nosik or anyone else, something I was beginning to doubt.

If Nosik had somehow slipped me something to make me hallucinate, this was one hell of a solid and consistent hallucination. I glanced at my watch, to find it showing the same time it had fifteen minutes ago. Damn, it had only been issued to me three weeks past. Probably the camera in it was broken too. First the cell, now my watch; not exactly something I could blame on Nosik, but a hell of a fluke, if he’d had nothing to do with it.

But if he hadn’t, who had? And what the hell was the plan? Because if they wanted to take me permanently out of the game, I wouldn’t be standing with a loaded gun and more or less the upper hand. Maybe I was already dead and this was Hell, where so many had invited me to go over the years. Whatever it was, I was the one out of place. Or out of time. And my instincts were failing me fast.

Ezra laid a hand on my arm. “Are you all right?”

I shook him off. I wasn’t putting up with any of that winning-theprisoner’s-trust bullshit. I was no one’s prisoner. “Let me see if I’ve got this. You want me to believe you were trying to cast some kind of magic spell to summon a demon and you ended up dragging me back through time?”

Ezra cleared his throat. “I believe the Latin translates into something along the lines of ‘one who brings knowledge of the future’. Not a demon, necessarily. A man would certainly do. But why you in particular....” He shook his head, then changed the subject. “Must you do that?” He pushed gingerly at the gun in his ribs. “I’m not a danger to you.”

I pushed back. “Let’s focus on the real world for a minute, all right? I want to know who you are, who you’re working for, and what they want from me, in that order. I also want the name of the drug you guys slipped me to send me into the Twilight Zone.” I tucked the gun muzzle under his chin. “By the way, what did you do with Leonard? And what the hell did you do to my phone and my watch?”

“Your phone? And your watch?” He peeled back a corner of my leather jacket. “You haven’t—”

“My watch.” I twisted my wrist to show him the display. “Not working. And neither is my cell. I pass out in the twenty-first century and wake up in what looks like the nineteenth. Why? What do you want?”

His eyes went wide. “It is the nineteenth. You said—twenty-first?”

I didn’t have time to deal with lunatics. I had a spy to hunt down. I sheathed my gun and left Larry, Moe, and Curly to deal with their mental problems on their own. Heading for the entrance, I figured I could find a pay phone and contact Leonard from there. That was assuming Nosik hadn’t hauled him off for ransom, or worse.

Well aware that the sorcerer and his pals were following, I stepped outside, braced for the ice-cold wind—to find the evening had turned comfortably cool and clear in the space of twenty minutes. At the top of the steps, I noted with a peculiarly detached feeling that what lay in front of my eyes was not at all what was supposed to be there. Stone and brick dominated, reminding me of the London I’d left behind, but the neon was gone, and shadows loomed larger in the yellow glow of old-fashioned street lamps. The absence of real traffic—rumbling engines and blaring horns—was damned unnatural. I hoped devoutly that we were downwind from a barn and that the smell assailing me would not be prevalent everywhere I went; judging by the number of horses at work in the road below, however, the smell would not be easily escaped. The tangle of carts and carriages and God knew what else were at a virtual standstill; rush hour in the nineteenth century, replete with the shouts of irritated drivers expressing themselves in familiar language.

“Mr. Nash?” Ezra pulled me from my dazed perusal with a firm grip on my arm. “You look a little pale. Please don’t worry. We will get you home.”

Contending with a headache and lingering nausea, I found myself searching for a single thread of evidence that would unravel all the lies he’d been feeding me. One shred of proof. A plastic cup. A candy bar wrapper. A dropped coin with a twenty-first century—hell, even twentieth century—date stamped on it. “You’ll get me home? When?”

“Tomorrow?” Ezra suggested, after an inquiring glance at the others.

“And until then?”

“Yes....” Ezra looked at Derry. “Do you think she’ll mind?”

“Need you ask?” But Derry was grinning, so I assumed we weren’t in too much trouble even if she did. “He’ll stay with Henry.”

“Kathleen will not so much as allow him into the parlor in those clothes,” Ezra said. “I’ll loan him something suitable.”

“Loan him your room as well,” Henry said. “You’re the one who conjured him.”

These guys knew how to bruise an ego. “I can stay in a hotel. And you’re not stuffing me into one of those monkey suits. There’s nothing wrong with what I’m wearing.”

“I think it would be better if you stayed with us,” Ezra said, amusement fading. “And Henry’s right. You’re here because of me.”

“He’s here thanks to all three of us,” Derry countered. “And I still think this weather’s had a hand in it. Look at that sky. Crimson as blood. There’s no good in it.”

“It’s only an atmospheric phenomenon,” Ezra said as if he’d reiterated it several times already. “I suppose—well, I suppose he should stay with me, after all.”

I smiled thinly. “Your enthusiasm is touching. Just drop me off at a hotel. I’ll take it from there.”

Ezra looked marginally abashed. “Mr. Nash, I do realize we’ve disrupted your life to a degree—”

“Try a hundred and eighty. How the hell you did this, I don’t know, and I feel pretty confident I don’t want to. I’m sure there’s some explanation that doesn’t go against all the laws of physics, but I’m too damned tired to burn off any more brain cells thinking about it. I’d just like some dinner and a place to crash. Sofa, bed, floor, I don’t care.” I would have preferred the hotel, but being a little short of whatever coin was legal tender in this nightmare, it appeared I didn’t have a choice.

My little speech stymied their powers of comprehension. Derry leaned toward Ezra. “Crash?” he murmured.

Ezra shook his head. “An interesting sort of English, but I think I gather the gist of it.”

“Kathleen won’t like the pistol,” Henry predicted.

“And we’ll none of us mention it,” Derry said. “Now, Ezra, you loan him something to wear and he’ll stay with me tonight. No one shall mind him on the bus, I think, and Kathleen will give him a bite to eat. There’s ours,” he added, and suddenly we were all lurching down the steps into the raucous miasma of humanity that reminded me of a few Third World countries I’d been to. Ezra grabbed my arm and hauled me aboard what looked like a trolley car pulled by horses. Henry dropped onto the only vacant seat with a sigh of relief, only to be promptly pulled to his feet by Derry while Ezra gave me a push to sit. Henry’s peevish protest that he’d been on his feet all day was cut off by Derry’s heartfelt admonition. Apparently I looked as tired as I felt.

Wheels on cobblestones made it difficult for me to nod off. I floated somewhere between dozing and sleeping, hoping when I did wake, I’d be somewhere familiar. There were plenty of recognizable things in this world, but all the small differences added up to a big off-kilter picture. The lonely feeling of waiting it out in the warehouse seemed intensified. Fortunately, it wasn’t very long before Ezra tugged at my sleeve. “Sorry,” I mumbled. “Dead on my feet.”

“Mr. Nash, do you need a doctor?”

“No doctors. Need a bed.” Yawning, I stumbled off the trolley after him and tried to get out of the way of people rushing aboard. Apparently manners weren’t a thing of the past. They’d never existed at all. “Which way’s home?”

The neighborhood seemed clean and quiet, mostly row houses that reminded me of the Brooklyn neighborhood where Reese lived. I wrapped a hand around the cell phone in my pocket and wondered if Reese had tried to call me again. I wouldn’t be retrieving any messages for a while.

We walked a couple of blocks farther and Derry finally swung past a gate to sprint up the steps of one house in particular. I noticed the handwritten sign tucked in one corner of a window, which read, “Rooms to let. Single gentlemen.”

So none of these guys were married. Not much of a surprise. But there was a distinctly feminine touch about the place, from the scrubbed clean steps to the flowering boxes at the windows. I’d hardly started up when Derry turned and whispered loudly enough for us to hear,

“I’ll distract her, but for the love of St. Michael, be quick or she’ll know we’re up to something.”

“I’ll have him presentable in ten minutes,” Ezra said—and before I could assert that I was already damned presentable, he was pushing me up the steps and into a dim hallway. He reached for a low-hung chandelier with two tiers of red glass globes and twisted a small knob. The jets sprang to life, brightening the hall, and I could see flowers—on the marble-topped table, in a corner vase, and even on the wallpaper. I rubbed an already itching nose and hoped that was the extent of the indoor garden.

Ezra steered me to a steep flight of carpeted stairs and I couldn’t suppress a groan. “Tell me you’re kidding.”

“Just one floor up,” he said cheerfully, giving me another little push. There were three rooms on the second floor, and we went into the first. Still cocooned in the detached certainty I was only dreaming, I stood in the dark and listened to Ezra’s boots on the wood floor, followed by the sound of a match being struck. A lamp on the bedside table threw the room into soft illumination. Despite being nearly too tired to keep my eyes open, I looked around. Gleaming brass, plump pillows, and a quilt in shades of blue drew me like a magnet. Before I could drop onto it, Ezra turned me toward a window seat crowded with throw pillows and books, some of which he hastily moved aside so I could sit.

“Take off your clothes, Mr. Nash.”

Author Bio:
Tamara Allen resides in the piney woods north of Houston with her cozy family of husband, son, and cat. Her primary occupation is keeping them out of trouble, but on the side she likes to make up stories, for the pleasure of living briefly in an era long gone by.



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