The Myth of Linear Time

Reads: 203  | Likes: 0  | Shelves: 0  | Comments: 0

More Details
Status: Finished  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic
The secret to surviving any paradox is to understand the rules.

Submitted: November 16, 2011

A A A | A A A

Submitted: November 16, 2011

A A A

A A A


 

The Myth of Linear Time

 

It felt as if his lungs would tear themselves from his chest. As he ducked down another alley; he could hear his pursuers gaining on him with every tortured stride. Desperately he tried to concentrate on a place, any place that he could summon from a previous shifting. Stumbling a few more steps; he began to feel the much anticipated tingling in his fingers and stomach. Slowly the buildings ahead began to blur like an oil painting in the mid-day sun. The shouting behind him became a distant, tinny buzzing in his ears. Clenching his fists he summoned all of his concentration. The blur took on subtle shades of beige and blue. Now! His mind screamed— now or never.

The tingling became a burning that enveloped his entire body, as he was ripped violently into the shift matrix. The abrupt entry was like being trapped in a massive wave— and then being vomited up, like driftwood on the shore.

Blackness struck his mind like a hammer striking an anvil.

 

Jubal Harp sat amongst the rustling wheat grass on a hill overlooking the small town below.  From his partial concealment, he watched the slow movements of the few town folk going about their morning tasks. Absentmindedly, he attempted to scratch at the ant bite over his right kidney, marveling that the pest had managed to find the one place he couldn’t reach without considerable effort. His annoyance was enhanced by the failure of the creature to recognize the importance of the individual he had so casually dined upon.

Yes, Jubal Harp was a singular individual. Not because he was attractive. His features were common. His eyes were dark; his brown hair was matted and in need of a trim. Of average height and figure— very little stood out in his overall appearance.

He was not conspicuously bright, although he had learned to read, write, and manage simple equations well enough. Nor was he particularly talented; except for the one gift he possessed, or perhaps it was a curse. From the time a few meager hairs had sprouted on his upper lip, Jubal had found that he could travel both backward and forward through time. Well— sort of.

Jubal did not travel time, as much as he was catapulted like a stone through that odd dimension. He guessed that at the moment he was somewhere in the Midwest of the late nineteenth century, his theory bolstered by the rough clapboard construction of the haphazard village below. What day it was, or what year, was often irrelevant to Jubal.

He had been born in the year (2710 CE.) And from late adolescence, he had wandered fitfully among the cogs and gears of time.

Whether he traveled to, or fro; he considered himself little more than an impartial observer of the evolution, or devolution of the planet. From place to place— and from one period to another; Jubal had learned, (painfully at times) that it took enormous effort on his part to control the process. This could be entirely inconvenient.  He had been committed to both orphan and foster homes as he grew to manhood, always wandering to some new destination in time. Usually, with little more than the clothes on his back and the few possessions he kept carefully tucked in his knapsack. He had once been picked up for vagrancy in depression era California and had great difficulty explaining the pocket-sized pulse blaster in his belongings.

 

 

Jubal was aware of no cosmic mandate that explained his existence.

He knew only that his ability, though rare, was not altogether exclusive. He had on occasion encountered others who shared his experience. They traveled aimlessly throughout time, with more or less the same confusion and ambivalence as he.

Sometimes Jubal longed for an explanation, some meaning to his nomadic existence; but after jumbled millennia of often aimless wandering— he had come to accept his destiny. He was destined to live in the moment, as few others actually could.

Another ant marched up Jubal’s pant leg. Slapping at it; he rose from his nest in the tall grass and stretched. Driven by the grumbling in his stomach; he opened a small bag in his kit, staring woefully at the tiny amount of gold dust left in the pouch. Jubal favored the dust because it was a relatively easy form of currency in the many locations and periods he found himself in. With hunger driving him on; Jubal trudged down the hillside and hoped he could find some food and perhaps a bed. Sleeping on the open prairie the last few nights, had been cold—and a little unnerving.  

The oddly dressed young man, shuffled along what passed for the only street in the dried out little village. His drab attire begged to pass un-noticed in whatever location he found himself in. Quite often, Jubal had resorted to the theft of clothing in order to appear normal among the locals. He paused in front of what looked like a public inn. A large sign spanned the entry: “THE PARISIENNE”. Jubal managed a smirk, as he pondered the dubious French delicacies to found inside the establishment.

The décor inside mimicked the extravagant exterior; a half dozen tables were scattered around the cavernous interior, with rough hewn wooden chairs to match.

Garish draperies of red silk with gold trim, hung from the walls in an attempt to provide European ambiance to the barn like structure. The one exception to the laughable attempt at a cosmopolitan appearance— was the formidable bar that spanned the entire length of the east wall. Ornately carved Tigers glared at visitors with red glass eyes.

Elephants trumpeted from the facade, their ivory tusks jutting skyward in defiance. Scantily draped marble nymphs embraced oil lamps, along the largest mirror Jubal had ever seen.

Indeed, the saloon seemed entirely out of keeping with the rest of the dusty little village.

“Bonjor, misshur…croaked a chubby, balding man stationed behind the bar.

The man looked mildly surprised to see him.

 “Welcome to the Parisienne!”

 Jubal nodded, and asked: “Do you serve food in this establishment sir?”

“Most certainly young feller…what would be your pleasure?”

Jubal took a moment to consider, not based on appetite— but rather what would arouse the least suspicion in this quaint period.

“Would some fried eggs and coffee be too much trouble?” he asked with guarded hope.

“No trouble at all friend, replied the innkeeper; would you care for some biskits with that?”

“That would be simply wonderful” Jubal replied. The barkeep looked at him somewhat oddly and retreated to order his meal.

 Jubal knew that he would have to listen and adapt to the local lingo; in order to avoid raising eyebrows from here on out. He turned to survey the rest of the room.

A scare-crow thin Hispanic boy was sweeping dust towards the front door. The only other customer, apart from Jubal, was a hefty gentleman seated near the end of the bar. This man was quietly sipping coffee and intently perusing what appeared to be some sort of daily periodical. Jubal believed they were referred to as: “Newssheets.”

The man apparently felt the weight of someone’s stare. Looking up from his paper he fixed his gaze directly on Jubal and nodded slightly.

 “Greetings traveler” he said, with a slight smile touching the corner of his mouth. Jubal nodded back. A rather odd greeting he thought. The man’s attention returned to his paper and Jubal thought no more of it. The barkeep returned just a short time later with his breakfast and Jubal attacked the meal with ferocity. He had not eaten much the last three days; just a few energy bars that he kept for emergency in his kit. He had been careful to bury the wrappers, lest they be discovered and marveled over by the inhabitants of this time milieu.

This time it was Jubal who felt eyes upon him. He looked up to see the man at the end of the bar smiling broadly through the grizzled tangle of his grey specked beard.

“You seem to have quite an appetite young man,” he said directly. Taking a slow sip of his coffee, he continued: “Been on the road a long time, have you?”

Jubal sensed that the man was making a statement as much as asking a question; he felt a vague unease. “Yes—, yes I have” said Jubal, trying not to reveal the nervousness he felt from the strangers piercing eyes.

“I guessed as much,” said the man. The next nearest town is almost seventy miles from here. You’re lucky to have arrived with your hair still attached young fella.”

Jubal’s thoughts raced. It was not the first or last time that he would need to come up with a good cover story to explain his sudden arrival. The older man chuckled as he sensed Jubal’s discomfort.

“Relax friend, you’re among good folk here, no need to fret. — “That is, as long as you’re not wanted for anything… you’re not on the run are you lad?” The man pulled aside the lapel of his brown woolen jacket, to reveal a dull metal star.

“No, heck no…”said Jubal; trying to mimic what he thought would be an appropriate response to the question. The constable smiled.

“Good, very good… well put.” The man laughed, and Jubal was left thinking what an entirely odd conversation had just transpired.

Attempting to cover his retreat; he politely asked the constable if there were lodgings to be found anywhere in town.

 “The widow Kelly up on the end of town takes on boarders if the price is agreeable” replied the lawman.

“Tell her Mathias sent you…” Once again Jubal felt some underlying message in the constable’s tone. Not wishing to misspeak and reveal himself to the man; he tried to appear casual as he exited the establishment; all the while feeling as if the man’s eyes were crawling across his shoulders.

 

 

 

The house in question was easy enough to find. He had inquired as to its location from a gentleman on the street and was pointed to a home that stood on a small rise just outside the formal area of the township. The house was the only three-story structure in the village. White washed religiously; it stood out like a beacon from the weathered structures that seemed to dominate the rest of the burg. As he approached the home he understood better, as located immediately beside it was a single-story chapel. Coated in the same whitewash; it was topped by a simple wooden cross at the apex.

Jubal climbed the steps to the front door and used the large brass knock to announce his presence. Moments later; a small dark woman answered the door dressed in the uniform of a maid, or serving woman. The woman surveyed Jubal curiously.

“I was told that you might have lodging’s available Mam.” Jubal was formal in his approach, having learned not to assume status in any given era.

 “Ya’ll wait here in da’ parlor” replied the woman, in a thick accent that Jubal was unfamiliar with.

Jubal stepped inside, carefully wiping his feet before entering the fastidiously kept entry. The woman disappeared for a few moments and then returned— asking Jubal to follow her to the “drawin’ room.

Jubal entered the elegant room to find a handsome older woman, standing at its center. Wearing a long print dress; her steel grey hair was bound tightly atop her head and adorned with fierce looking jeweled spikes.

“How do you do young man,” she spoke softly with an accent that hinted of New England, or its proximity:

 “I am Margaret Kelly …, and you are?”

“Jubal Mam— Jubal Harp…” Jubal accepted the woman’s extended hand and bowed ever so slightly. She remarked—“what wonderful manners you have, a pleasant surprise… and rare.”

She hesitated slightly— “very rare in these parts’ as the locals would say.”

The disdain in her voice was barely concealed.

“Thank you, Mam.” Jubal explained that the constable had directed him to her home.

 “Ahh…Mathias.” The look in her eyes was unfathomable.

“Sheriff Pepper takes his duties as welcome committee quite seriously I suppose.” Again, Jubal was unable to decipher anything in her tone as she spoke of the lawman.

“However you must not let his rusticated demeanor alarm you. He’s really rather harmless.”

“As you say Mam;” Jubal was not convinced of the constable’s amiable disposition. The sheriff didn’t appear to be a man to be taken lightly. Jubal had previous experience with local authorities, who were universally suspicious of his untraceable past.

“Now then; Marie will show you the room that is available. The cost is four bits a day and includes your meals. I hope that you will find it to your liking. Dinner is served promptly at six; please be on time if you wish to dine.”

Jubal noted the offer seriously; he had absolutely no notion if (four-bits) was a large sum, but a regular meal was not something he was accustomed too of late. With another quick bow to Mrs. Kelly, he took his leave.

“Dis’way sir…” Jubal would discover later that Marie’s odd dialect and accent were products of a Cajun upbringing. He followed the tiny woman to the room he would occupy. He had slept fitfully the last several nights and the thought of stretching out on a real bed was altogether enticing. As soon as Marie closed the door behind her; Jubal collapsed on top of the rose-patterned bedspread and began to drift off.

Before sleep finally overtook him, the Sheriff’s strange greeting echoed in his mind. “Greetings traveler…”

 

The sunlight poured through the east window, as Jubal sat bolt upright in bed. Often finding himself in strange surroundings, he was nevertheless surprised that he had managed to sleep so deeply. The rich aroma of coffee brewing confirmed that he had slept through the night. After washing up in the basin bowl provided; he followed the smell of the coffee to the dining room, where he found Mrs. Kelly seated alone at the head of a large, darkly polished table.

“Good morning Mr. Harp” said the lady of the house, as she looked up from the sewing in her hands.

“We missed you at dinner last evening. I trust you slept well?” A blushing Jubal apologized for his poor manners.

“I must have been much more fatigued than I imagined.”

The widow smiled.

“Quite understandable young man, you must have walked a considerable distance to reach this lonely outpost, although I must confess to being mystified as to your reason for doing so.”  Jubal quickly made up a story about being thrown from his horse, hoping he would not be trapped into getting aboard one of the miserable animals at a later date.

During a brief stint on the Russian steppes, he had been forced to flee for his life on a Mongol horse, which later threw him to the ground shattering his arm. The injury had healed poorly and still troubled him in cold climates. Mrs. Kelly took the story at face value and invited him to sit. Jubal was certain from the look she had given him, that she did not believe a word of his tale but was far too polite to say so.

Marie came in a moment later with steaming plate of ham and eggs. Jubal did his best to observe the niceties, while devouring the ample meal. Mrs. Kelly looked up from her embroidery:

“Carlos,the little fellow who cleans up around the inn; stopped by while you slept.”— Jubal nodded.

“He had a message that Constable Pepper would like to speak with you this morning.” Jubal’s appetite abruptly vanished. He wondered what the sheriff wanted with him and whether his runaway horse story would be examined very closely.

Mrs. Kelly looked at him with that same Sphinx-like gaze that he had been unable to fathom on his first meeting with the lady.

“I can see that you are still intimidated by Mathias – no need. He is simply very thorough in his duties. I’m sure you have nothing to be concerned about.”

“I’m sure you’re right Mam” said Jubal, trying to portray a confidence he did not possess.

“I’ll wash up some— and go see him directly.” Jubal hoped he was convincing in his attempt at Westernish jargon. It had been more than a dozen time-shifts since he had tried to pass himself off as American common-folk.

Feeling cornered and uncomfortable; he excused himself from the presence of the tight-lipped matron and proceeded to the outdoor pump he had observed from his window earlier that morning. He splashed the cool water over his face, hoping that it would chase away any cobwebs. Being interrogated by the town constable was not the way he preferred to start the day.

Jubal had little difficulty finding the sheriff’s office that morning. The town was quite small. Upon entering the room he was somewhat surprised. He had envisioned heavily barred cells; and wanted posters of desperate looking types on the walls.

This room looked like a private study, not at all what he had imagined as the abode of a peace officer. Sheriff Pepper looked up from a large well-worn book, which lay open on his desk.

“Good morning Mister Harp” he smiled, with the same not-so disarming grin that Jubal had seen the previous day.

“Mrs. Kelly said that you wanted to speak with me Sheriff?” Jubal swallowed.

The sheriff indicated a stout wooden chair near the side of his desk.

“Have a seat son—let’s get to know each other a little better.”

 If Jubal was uncomfortable before; he felt positively trapped now. Something in the constable’s manner kept him on edge; something he couldn’t zero in on.

“For starters— why don’t you just call me Mathias; we’re pretty informal ‘round here...” The sheriff leaned back in his chair. A slow carefully orchestrated motion; it was designed Jubal supposed, to put him at ease… It did not.

“Why don’t we begin with you telling me how you came to arrive in our— the sheriff paused… lovely little outpost?” Jubal noted the use of the word— outpost.  It was the second time that morning he had heard the town referred to as such. Jubal once again relayed the tale of his misbehaving horse; trying as he might to embellish the story with details he had worked out during the morning. The constable finally interrupted Jubal in mid-sentence.

“Trust me; this really isn’t the way to begin our relationship son.”

The sheriff’s eyes were like lasers. He abandoned his relaxed position.

“I don’t know who you are…” the large man leaned across the corner of the desk fixing Jubal dead in his sights.

“But I know precisely what you are.”

Were it actually possible for Jubal to freeze solid in his chair, he might have done so at that moment. His mind raced. Could this hairy Neanderthal actually have a clue as to his nature?

“I don’t know whatcha’ mean mister” Jubal stammered, trying desperately to maintain his newly acquired persona. The sheriff laughed loudly— making the young man even more flustered.

“That’s gonna’ require a lot more work on your part son. It took me months to sort out some of the obscure lingo— and even more bizarre expressions of this period.”

Jubal went from frozen, to shocked and speechless in a heartbeat.

“This period, you mean…?”

The sheriff once again assumed a relaxed posture as he leaned back in his chair.

“Yes Jubal. That is exactly what I mean.”

 

Now the trappings of the lawman’s office made sense to the young traveler. The wall directly behind the sheriff, was adorned with antique weaponry of exceptional quality and craftsmanship, hardly the kind of items that could be afforded on the salary of a small town constable. The sheriff idly tapped an elegant Egyptian dagger he used as a letter opener, on the brown leather pad covering his desk.

“You have encountered others like yourself at some time, I would imagine?”

Jubal thought carefully about his response. It seemed a waste of time to continue his ruse. If he had misjudged the sheriff; he would find out more by continuing his dialog with the man. Mathias continued…

“In my experience those of us with “The Gift”, usually start shifting somewhere near the end of our childhood, or puberty if you prefer.”

The constable remarked that he himself had been an early starter, shifting for the first time at the tender age of twelve. Jubal was mildly surprised. He had been nearly sixteen the first time he shifted, abruptly finding himself standing in the middle of a market place— in fourth century Persia!

Jubal listened intently, as Mathias related the early years of his struggle to adjust to a new reality; he spoke of an early fascination with various aspects of the law and enforcement of the law; experienced in different cultures throughout his travels. Eventually, he had developed with patience and effort; the ability to control his shifting. Something few others could manage. Since that time he had devoted his life; (Shifters were not immortal) — to pursuing his ambition of keeping a covenant with the laws of mankind. For as he had traveled extensively throughout the capitals of world; he had discovered that no matter the difference in culture, or race, there existed one constant:

Evil men…with evil intent…

One individual in particular, had garnered his attention like no other.

A mass killer who often used the name: “Henri Wolfe.” He had first encountered this monster in Paris during the revolution; when blood ran like water in the streets.

Ladies of the evening were being butchered like cattle during this period; however the populace and the local magistrate were much too distracted by the daily toll of noble beheadings, to notice the deaths of a few harlots. Mathias carried no official title at this time but his rudimentary examinations of the facts at hand had convinced him, that the killer was a perfumed dandy who called himself Henri Wolfe. This malignant, two-legged beast was a regular of the city brothels.

After a great deal of pleading and cajoling; Mathias finally managed to persuade the authorities to detain Henri Wolfe, so at the very least he might be questioned about any involvement with the crimes. When cornered, Wolfe had fled to the roof tops of Paris with several soldiers in pursuit; along with Mathias himself. At the moment his capture was certain, the villain had turned to face the pack at his heels and with a contemptuous smile—leapt to his doom. Mathias could still see the utter disdain on the man’s face,

as he launched himself from the roof. Leaning cautiously over the edge; Mathias and the gendarmes surveyed the cobbled street far below. A few individuals went routinely about their daily business, but nowhere; absolutely nowhere— was the slightest trace of Henri Wolfe.

 

 

 

Mathias understood only too well the dismay and astonishment of the soldiers.

He himself had believed, that he was chasing nothing more than a vile butcher of unfortunate women. There was no way to explain to these men, what he now believed to be true. They would have locked him in the madhouse.

He had encountered the bestial work of Wolfe again and again, scattered randomly throughout history; but every time he had come close to apprehending the wretch— He would slip away again. Like sand through an hourglass.

Mathias was left to conclude that Wolfe had also perfected his shifting abilities.

The monster also benefited from his ability to meld with the masses of humanity.

He possessed a trait similar to that of Jubal Harp, an everyman look that made it very simple for him to blend with relative ease. As he relayed this story to the young man; Jubal could not help but understand why the constable had taken such keen interest in his arrival.

“I’ve always been a proverbial one-step behind this bastard,” said the lawman; but this time I’ve chosen a new tactic. “One I hope will bring an end to his perpetual carnage.”

“This time through a careful study of history and the habits of my adversary; I’ve arrived well in advance of Mr. Wolfe’s time shift.”

The simplicity of it was clear, even to Jubal. If Mathias was correct and could determine where Wolfe would arrive at any given point in time, then finding a way to ambush the killer might yield better results. Jubal looked directly at the constable and stated:

“I am not, nor have I ever been —Henri Wolfe.”

The lawman looked keenly at Jubal.

“You’re arrival here was too great a coincidence for me to ignore Mr. Harp.”

Jubal was struck by the manner of the sheriff. The folksy demeanor was gone for the moment. He sensed a hard-boiled, no-nonsense attitude that spoke of Chicago, or maybe even New York City.

 “This prick’s face is burned into my brain from my experience in Paris— I know you’re not the man I’m looking for.” Jubal felt a sense of relief as the sheriff continued.

“I’ve learned that coincidence is possible, but rare Jubal. I’m not sure where you fit into this equation, or if you’re even a piece of the puzzle. I simply can’t afford to ignore loose ends— “So for the time being I’m obliged to keep tabs on you; I hope you understand.”  Jubal rose from his chair and extended his hand.

“I understand completely sheriff Pepper. I can’t imagine you doing otherwise; given the circumstances.” The lawman considered Jubal’s outstretched palm for a moment, before simply nodding and enveloping the young mans hand in his massive paw.

“We’ll speak again soon Mr. Harp, his hand still firmly gripping Jubal’s.

“I often join your landlady for supper during the week; perhaps we will get a chance to know each other —on a more social level.”

The folksy charm had re-surfaced. Jubal fled the confines of his office thinking: what marvelous banter might ensue; with him sandwiched between the lawman and the taciturn Widow Kelly.

 

 

Over the next several weeks Mathias was a regular guest at the home of Mrs. Kelly. From the grumbling under her breath; Jubal guessed that the sheriff’s visits had become more frequent than Marie the housekeeper, cared for. The sheriff being a large man; ate accordingly. Jubal often sat and marveled at the vast quantities the constable could consume during the course of an evening meal. The exchanges were civil, and Jubal began to suspect that some form of relationship existed between the lawman and his silver haired hostess. The occasional furtive look or gesture; seemed to confirm his thoughts on the matter. When he found himself alone with Mathias; the older man often imparted bits of knowledge he had acquired from decades of shifting.

He had gradually relaxed where Jubal was concerned, and taken on the role of a casual mentor to the young man.

After dinner, on a quiet summer evening in early August; the sheriff sat with Jubal on the broad front porch of the Kelly home. Drawing deep and thoughtfully on a briar pipe, he began to speak.

“The time is drawing near lad.” Unsure the direction the conversation would take; Jubal remained silent.

“Mr. Wolfe will arrive sometime near the end of week.” Jubal, realizing that it was already Tuesday, was surprised at the calm delivery of this information. He was not sure how to reply. The sheriff continued:

“The weekly stage on Saturday is the most likely candidate but I can’t assume anything. I’ll watch the train depot as well—your arrival here wasn’t exactly orthodox either.” Jubal had finally felt comfortable enough with the sheriff, to admit to his chaotic entry into this time scenario.  Jubal had marked the location of the depot shack when he first surveyed the town from his perch on the hillside. A small wooden sign had been clumsily tacked to its side: Welcome to Beatrice.

The depot was intended to cater to cattle. It wasn’t very accommodating otherwise. Still, he considered it wise to mark all available means of flight wherever he found himself. Jubal had wondered why Mathias had chosen this non-descript village to intercept his quarry. The sheriff had been forthcoming as to his reasoning.

Wolfe often took breaks between his furious bouts of mayhem. Mathias professed to not being an expert in the psychology that had produced his nemesis. He was however, aware that the monster would often settle in one location for many months, sometimes up to a year, before his compulsion drove him to begin a new wave of atrocities. Trying to catch him in the act had proved fruitless; Mathias had made that error before.

Wolfe, wary like the animal that he was, seemed always alert to the possibility of a trap. Mathias admitted that previous failed attempts on his part had made the fiend even more cautious. He had come to realize that his only real chance of success was to catch him during one of these hibernation periods; simply stated: to kill him when his guard was down. The lawman’s words jarred Jubal to attention.

“Kill him…?” Jubal knew that he had blurted out the words, which was not his intent.

“I can see you’re shocked.” The sheriff replied. Jubal thought carefully for a moment. He could easily understand why Mathias would chose to kill Wolfe, rather than capture him; but the question still begged to be asked. Jubal looked at the lawman with a puzzled expression.

“How does that fit into your covenant with the laws of man? Surely after all this time it must give you pause to act as an executioner, rather than an officer of the law?”

Mathias seemed to be staring off toward the distant line of hills on the edge of the plains. Taking the pipe from his lips he knocked it on the side of his boot leaving a small pile of discarded ash on Margaret Kelly’s clean white floorboards.

“It doesn’t.” The sheriff tucked the pipe in his breast pocket and stood up.

He walked to the top of steps and stopped. His gaze still locked on the horizon he spoke once more.

“I’m trapped I suppose with the eternal question of how my actions separate me from the man I intend to destroy.” After all these years I can’t honestly say that I know the answer.” The sheriff paused and then continued:

“This I do know, that the pages of history are stained with the blood this man has spilled.” I know that if I can find a way to put him down—like the rabid dog that he is.

A lot of young women will have the chance to live full lives; and never experience the horror of those last terrible moments with Henri Wolfe.”

Jubal felt a chill settle over him despite the warmth still present in the summer shadows.

In silence Mathias descended the steps and walked slowly out the front gate towards town. He never turned to look back. Jubal heard the front door open and Mrs. Kelly stepped out onto the porch, a knit shawl draped carefully about her shoulders.

Marking the sheriff’s retreat she crossed her arms and kicked lightly at the ash pile on the floor. Jubal expected her to comment on the lawman’s departure but she said nothing. She simply stared in the direction of his retreat until he faded from view.

“Marie will be preparing hotcakes for breakfast Mr. Harp; I suggest you rise early as they are a particular favorite of Sheriff Peppers. With that, she turned and disappeared into the house. Jubal sat on the porch awhile longer and watched as the evening sun set. The clouds gradually changed form, creating exquisite patterns and colors. Watching them, he was aware that in order for Mathias to complete the task he had set for himself; he must also morph into something else, something not in his nature.

After experiencing the best and the worst that humans had to offer; Jubal was dubious of the possibility that people could make any real changes in their core behavior. He had been a witness to the evolution of man, both physical and social. Jubal had come to conclude that people had changed very little, over the forty or so millennia he had tapped into. Somewhere in the distance, a coyote took up his evening song. Soon after, it was joined in chorus by the other members of the tribe.

It was a song Jubal knew only too well, he had lain shivering and frightened on the nearby plain, not so long ago. He had listened to the sounds of the night and been keenly aware that as mournful as these animals sounded, they still had each other. Animals he supposed had a clear socio-political agenda. You were either a member of the pack, or a victim of the pack. Compromise did not apply. In most cases a terrible toll was exacted from those designated as: “Rogue”.

 

 

 

The week passed all too quickly. Mathias had maintained a careful vigil of the comings and goings around the small community. He knew that the arrival of any newcomer would pass like electricity through the small village. He was correct.

On Friday morning he received word that a stranger had indeed stabled his horse in the livery late the previous evening; electing to pay the two bits to put down a blanket in the barn, rather than try to find lodging at the late hour. Not wishing to reveal himself; Mathias let the town scuttlebutt keep him informed as to the newcomer’s movements.

He was finishing his lunch when a breathless Jubal arrived, bursting through the door of his office in a high state of agitation.

“That fellow, the stranger…he struggled to catch his breath.

“Relax son…relax. Sit. Take a deep breath.” The constable slowly cleared the remains of his lunch tray from the desk placing them casually atop a cabinet close by.

“Want some coffee?” The sheriff poured a cup for himself from a can that sat steaming on the pot stove. Jubal was struck by his calm demeanor.

“He took a room with the widow Kelly just a short time ago,” Jubal had regained his composure somewhat.

“Well it is one of the few places available…” Mathias said, his voice trailing off.

Despite his steady exterior, Jubal nevertheless sensed concern coming from the lawman over the newcomer’s choice of lodging.

“I’m gonna need you to do a little something for me Jubal, do you think you’re up to it”?

Jubal swallowed nervously, “sure Mathias. If I can…I mean— sure. I guess.”

The lawman laughed. “Have some coffee first before you fall over. I’ll tell you what I need you to do...”

Jubal sat quietly that evening at the dinner table as Mrs. Kelly tried to engage her new guest with polite small talk. The man could not be accused of evasiveness but all his answers were curt and to the point, leaving little room for further exchange.

He had signed for his room with the name Henry H. Holmes. During the limited conversation over dinner he had indicated that he was a medical doctor residing in Illinois, who had traveled west to take advantage of the drier climate for a time.

So far, Jubal had neither heard, nor seen anything that proved informative by watching the young doctor.

He was however aware of an aloofness that glittered behind the man’s eyes.

The expressions on the face of Henry Holmes never seemed to march in time with those icy blue orbs. A thick mustache covered his upper lip. Drooping slightly at the corners of his mouth, it added an air of disapproval to his features. Jubal concluded that if this was the ravenous beast Mathias had described to him; it was a nature well hidden in the doctor’s outward appearance.

Later that evening as the sun began to set; Jubal watched from the window of his room as the doctor strolled toward town. He continued his vigil until Holmes disappeared through the front door of the Parisienne. —Now was the time to follow the constable’s instructions and use the doctor’s absence to confirm what he could about the man and his intentions. Jubal cracked his door slightly and watched Marie walk down the stairs after turning down the bed in Holmes room. In stocking feet he moved quietly down the hall with his room key in hand.

The Kelly home was not originally designed as a boarding house and Jubal suspected that most of the upper door locks might operate with the same simple key. Inserting the instrument as quietly as he could, Jubal turned it carefully, watching the stairs for any signs of movement. He heard the click of the mechanism as the door yielded to his efforts. Slipping inside, he slowly shut the door behind him and turned to survey the doctor’s room.

Nothing seemed out of place; indeed the room looked rigidly arranged. The doctor seemed to have a compulsion for order. Jubal observed that the man’s grooming utensils were neatly arranged on the dresser. The rest of his belongings were hung in perfect fashion in the closet provided, his trunk rested at the foot of the bed, closed and locked. On his nightstand a small black satchel rested, with nothing more than a buckle securing it.

Jubal moved quietly across the room, taking care to angle his approach away from the window. He retrieved the satchel and placed it carefully on the bed. Undoing the strap on the front, he opened the bag. Inside were three bundled leather pouches. Laying the first pouch on the bedspread, he undid the strap and rolled the pouch open. An array of surgical instruments greeted his eyes. The tools of the doctor’s trade were rigorously polished and gleamed bright in the fading light still coming through the window.

Taking care not to touch the instruments; Jubal closed the pouch and returned it to its place. He examined the next two wraps to find various other tools, designed to expose the inner workings of the human anatomy. He turned his attention to the closet. A close examination of the contents turned up nothing unusual. Careful once again to remain clear of the window; he knelt in front of the doctor’s trunk.

The trunk itself seemed well worn, with a stout metal lock barring entry to its contents. Jubal was not particularly deterred by the appearance of the vintage security mechanism. He had developed over the years a certain talent for getting around such obstacles, and had even brought his tools for just such an occasion. He removed the necessary devices from his pocket and began to work his magic on the rusty hasp.

Completely immersed in his efforts on the lock; Jubal was suddenly startled by the sound of the heavy front door closing downstairs. He heard Marie’s voice greeting Dr. Holmes!

In a panic— Jubal rose and dashed towards the door. He was about to close it behind him when he spied the two pouches still lying on the bed. As quickly and quietly as he could manage; he crossed the room and hastily returned the contents to their case —replacing the bag in its former position on the nightstand. He exited the room pulling the door closed softly and fumbling to lock it behind him.

The tread of leather boots on the stairs, could be both heard and felt. Jubal fled towards his room with his heart pounding in his ears. As he closed his door he saw the doctor step into the dull glow of the lamp in the hallway. The yellow light created strange shadows on the man’s face as he seemed to peer first in Jubal’s direction and then directly at the lock on his door. Jubal swallowed hard and gently pushed his door closed.

 With his ear pressed firmly against the door, he listened as the doctor turned the key and entered his room. He stayed in that pose for the next half an hour, listening intently as the man settled in for the night. He prayed that he had left nothing else out of place in his hurry to flee.

 

Jubal knew that it would be very difficult to get any sleep with Dr. Holmes sharing the same roof. He had lost the desire to provide Mathias with intelligence regarding the man. Tomorrow he would impart what little information he had acquired to the sheriff, and let him know that his career as a spy was at an end. Jubal turned and slid softly to the floor, with his back lodged against the door. He was determined to remain there the rest of the night.

The following morning Jubal staggered downstairs to breakfast. Marie served him at an empty table. Her mistress it seemed had gone into town early that morning to arrange for the delivery of groceries and other supplies for her guests. Jubal asked Marie about the other tenant, inquiring if he had already breakfasted. He sensed tension in the posture of the woman. She had been instructed to bring Dr. Holmes breakfast to his room, as he had chosen to eat there this morning.

“Don’t know as how I cares fo’ bringin’ vittles to nobody’s room; don’t know why he cain’ jest come down his own self and eat like evabody else…”

Marie seemed genuinely spooked by the doctor.

Jubal said to the frightened woman. “Why not just place it in front of his door, knock and walk away.” Jubal could see that the idea appealed to Marie. The tiny woman sighed.

“Da’ missus would have herself a apoplexy if I was to do dat’. Guess I better get on wid’ it. With that Marie loaded a sterling tray with the doctor’s morning meal and proceeded upstairs with leaden steps. Jubal felt pity for the maid. He was also leery of the doctor and the possibility that he was the man Mathias sought to confront. Even his briefest encounters with Henry Holmes had left him apprehensive.

 

After engaging in his own morning rituals, Jubal left the house to meet with Mathias and discuss his nocturnal mission. He hoped that the sheriff would understand his reticence to engage in further close encounters with the doctor. The near disaster of the previous night had left him rattled. Jubal stepped up on boarded sidewalk in front of the sheriff’s office, just as the front door swung open.

Mrs. Kelly stepped out, a flushed look on her normally pale features indicated some degree of stress. Seeing Jubal standing there she quickly excused herself and brushed past him; her free hand raising the hem of her skirt from the muddy street.

Mathias, still standing at the door, nodded to Jubal and waved him in. Jubal stared after the retreating widow as she stepped into her carriage. Grabbing the reins she swung the horse quickly in the opposite direction and trotted towards the alabaster purity of her home.

Jubal stepped inside where Mathias waited. He could see that the sheriff was clearly vexed. His face wore the familiar look of man who had recently failed in an attempt to reason with a woman. The sheriff took a labored breath and immediately went straight to cases.

“Did you find out anything son?” Before he could answer Mathias asked him to describe in detail the appearance of Henry Holmes. Summoning the doctor’s visage from memory; Jubal gave the best account of the man that he could, including a not-so scientific observation about the man’s effect on the maid and himself.

“It sure sounds like it might be Wolfe, mused the sheriff; but I won’t know for certain until I can get a look at him.”

 

Mathias seemed lost in thought for a moment.

“I suppose I will have to invite myself to dinner.” Jubal thought it was a strange remark, since the sheriff with or without invite, had been a regular guest for the last several weeks. Mathias smiled.

“Mrs. Kelly is a little put out with me at the moment. I doubt that she expects me for supper this evening; Mathias looked directly at Jubal.

“Let’s keep it that way Jubal. I would prefer that her new lodger didn’t expect me either. I don’t know if there is a chance he would recognize after all this time but either way, I would seem to have the advantage.”

Jubal left thinking about the evening at hand. It seemed to him that whatever Mathias had in mind was fraught with potential danger. Both men made Jubal nervous and the idea of the two of them sitting across from each at the dinner table was surrealistic at best.

The evening came quickly. Jubal took the brush on the bureau and pulled it through his hair once more. Satisfied that he was acceptably groomed, he donned a vest and proceeded downstairs. While he had dressed for dinner, it occurred to him that Mrs. Kelly probably didn’t appreciate surprises and he hoped that the evening’s events would not prove unpleasant for her. Jubal was naturally uneasy regarding a possible confrontation between Mathias and the doctor.

As he entered the dining room he found Holmes already seated. The doctor was reading the daily newssheet and nodded imperceptibly, as Jubal took his usual chair at the foot of the table. Mrs. Kelly appeared promptly at the stroke of six. The large clock in the foyer was still chiming the hour as Jubal stood and chivalrously helped the widow to be seated at the head of the table.

Marie came bustling in with a large covered platter and placed it with a quiet grunt, in the center of the table. She then lifted the lid to reveal the golden-brown carcass of a still steaming prairie chicken. It wafted an enticing aroma. Jubal had eaten meagerly at best during the hours leading up to the evening meal. He looked forward to consuming his share of the delicious looking bird. As Marie began to carve the fowl, a firm knock at the front door interrupted her efforts.

Jubal saw the features of his landlady visibly tighten as Marie answered the door.

Mathias swept in; piling his coat and hat into the arms of a harried looking Marie.

“Evening all, I apologize for my late arrival— unforgivable after your kind invitation Margaret.” The sheriff locked eyes with the widow and Jubal noted her attempt to maintain complete composure. She responded in a clipped fashion:

“No need to apologize Mathias you are always welcome.” Marie was just beginning to serve.” Jubal realized that the widow had deliberately addressed the lawman by name, avoiding the use of his title. Mathias responded:

“Why thank you Mam’ you’re too kind…”

Jubal noticed that the doctor had been keenly assessing the interloper during this awkward exchange. Before he sat Mathias stuck out a mitt-like hand and introduced himself:

“Good evening sir, Mathias Pepper—I hear you’re a doctor of some sort.”

The doctor eyed the outstretched hand with thinly guarded distaste. He gingerly shook hands with the constable, all the while eyeing the badge pinned prominently on the sheriff’s vest.

“Holmes, Henry Holmes” the doctor lisped back; his voice was a clear contrast to the booming bear of a man, who now sat directly across from him.

“Pleased to know ya’ doc. We don’t get many travelers this way.” Jubal felt the hair rise on the back of his neck, as he listened to the same techniques the lawman had used on his initial arrival. Jubal had caught the involuntary twitch when the word traveler was employed. What surprised him was that it had come not from the doctor, but his landlady Mrs. Kelly. Jubal watched her recover quickly and focus her attention on trying to make small talk.

“Doctor Holmes has a practice in Chicago Mathias; you might know some of the same people perhaps?” The doctor continued with his meal. He appeared to be deliberately avoiding eye contact with the sheriff.

“Dunno Margaret, Chicago is a big place, lotsa’ of folks there.” It’s doubtful that the good doctor and I mingled in the same society.” Mathias never took his attention from the man across from him.

“I spent most of my time working the neighborhoods near the Union stock yard. I don’t think the doctor would have spent much of his time around a place as disagreeable as the Bridgeport parishes.” The doctor slowly raised his head. His eye’s met those of the sheriff.

“On the contrary constable, I have spent a great deal of my time addressing the suffering the killing floors bring to the poor residents of that dreadful place.”

The doctor’s blank expression spoke little of compassion. Polite society rarely mentioned the horrors of Chicago’s slaughterhouses.

The human toll from chemical use and the pollution from animal by-products were tremendous. Mathias had often tied a scarf about his face as his duties took him near “Bubbly Creek” the dumping ground for the meat industry of Chicago.

The creek was so named because of the gases that kept it constantly roiling.

Gases created by the decomposing waste of thousands upon thousands of animals deposited there. It was a vile breeding ground of disease and pestilence.

“ I know what you mean doc’ I pulled quite a few of those poor souls outta’ the river near there, mostly young women.” The doctor remained unfazed.

“How terribly unfortunate; I’m sure the police in that area were extremely overworked.” The doctor paused slightly.

“This conversation however is entirely inappropriate at the dinner table—

By the looks we are receiving from Mrs. Kelly I’m sure she would agree.”

Jubal watched as the widow nodded slightly, acknowledging the perceived courtesy of the physician. Mathias rose from the table.

“My sincere apologies Margaret, I do tend to forget that the details of my work are not good fodder for the dinner table.” The color returned slightly to the landladies face.  The conversation turned to more mundane matters while the meal was consumed. The atmosphere in the room was still somber, testimony to the thinly disguised verbal sparring between the sheriff and Dr. Holmes.

Eventually; Mathias excused himself from the table and retrieved his coat and hat.

The widow asked politely.” Won’t you stay and have some dessert sheriff?

Marie has prepared your favorite—peach pie.” Mathias hesitated.

“It sounds wonderful Margaret but I still have to finish some paper work, and I must do so before retiring this evening.”

I sure wouldn’t mind takin’ a bit with me though; it goes well with my last cup of coffee.” Standing now, the widow turned to Marie and asked her to wrap a nice big slice for the constable. The maid returned with the pastry and Mathias thanked her. He nodded to Jubal and the doctor. Bowing slightly to the widow, he took his leave. Jubal gave thought to having some of Marie’s peach pie for a moment and then excused himself from the table. He slipped out through the back door of the kitchen and half-walked, half-ran towards town catching up with Mathias as he passed the apothecary shop. The sheriff heard his footsteps close behind and turned quickly, his hand moving to the gun carried in a shoulder holster.

“Dammit’ boy, you oughtta’ have better sense than to rush up on someone like that.” Jubal immediately realized the error and apologized to Mathias.

“Was that him?” he asked in breathless fashion. Was that Henri Wolfe…?”

The line of the sheriff’s jaw tightened.

“Yeah, that was Wolfe,” the sheriff growled. “I’d know that asshole anywhere.

The sheriff often dropped the homespun dialect now, when he spoke with Jubal.

“I’m guessing he didn’t recognize me though, maybe the beard. I’ve put on a few pounds as well since the last time I saw him.” The constable laughed out loud and reaching out, mussed Jubal’s still over long hair. He was in an unusually good mood.

“Timing is everything Jubal, sooner or later this prick will make a mistake and give me the excuse I need to finish this.”

Jubal asked: “You still intend to kill him?”

“Yes Jubal,” the constable replied, his face now a blank.

“I hope it doesn’t offend your tender sensibilities but yes, I intend to send Dr. Henry Holmes, Henri Wolfe —or whoever he is, to Hell on a hot poker.”

Jubal considered the limited options available to Mathias. After meeting Henry Holmes he was convinced that nothing less than death was going to end the mayhem the man had allegedly perpetrated. Jubal looked at Mathias and spoke.

“I’m not sure how I can help but if you need me to do anything; I will.”

It was the sheriff’s turn to be taken aback. He stopped in the middle of the street and looked thoughtfully at the young man. After a moment they began walking again.

“Didn’t think you had it in you boy…” I don’t know if you can be of help but I’ll give it some thought.” The constable stopped again in front of the Parisienne, looking up at the gaudy billboard he turned to Jubal.

“Come on in and have a drink with me Jubal, let’s discuss your new found fortitude.” With that, the sheriff slapped the young man on the back and they strode into the saloon. Walking with his shoulders squared; Jubal felt some pride that the older man might take him on as partner in his effort to reckon with Henry Holmes.

 

September came and went and little changed in the village of Beatrice. The leaves on the trees slowly began to don their fall colors. Jubal had patiently waited along with Mathias, for Henry Holmes to betray himself and reveal his true nature. The sheriff often dined with them but the conversation never revolved around the uncomfortable topics that marked that first awkward meal. Mathias had told Jubal that where his adversary was concerned, he would be as patient as an oyster. Sooner or later he knew that the demon that lived in the physician would rear its ugly head and present him with the opportunity to do his duty.

On a Friday in mid October the constable arrived at the widow’s home to partake of the evening meal. Jubal greeted the sheriff and they took their respective seats along with their hostess and waited for Marie to serve the first course.

“Has the good doctor elected not to join us this evening?” Mathias asked.

The doctor on several occasions had chosen to eat in his room, something Mrs. Kelly did not approve of. She nevertheless had Marie take his meals up to him as she felt it impolite to do otherwise.

“Doctor Holmes left this afternoon.” The landlady noted as she casually stirred the teacup in front of her. Jubal and Mathias looked quickly at each other and then turned their rapt attention back to the widow.

“Left… exclaimed Mathias?”

“Yes…left. Departed. He packed his belongings, paid the balance for his room and left on horseback this afternoon— why?” Jubal sensed that the widow was unduly pleased at the doctor’s departure.

“Why!!!— You know damn well why! Mathias roared at the woman. Jubal was shocked. He had never heard the sheriff speak to the widow in this fashion.

“Have you taken leave of your senses Margaret; you knew it was important that I finish this here.” Bingo thought Jubal, so there was some understanding between the two as to the nature of the sheriff’s business and the manner of its execution. Jubal was fascinated. He wondered if she also shared the secret of the constable’s time shifting ability. Mathias bolted for th


© Copyright 2019 Jack Raven. All rights reserved.

Add Your Comments:

More Mystery and Crime Short Stories