Nightwatch: Tinsel Rime

By N.J. Kailhofer

Nightwatch Created by Jeff Williams

Series Developed by Jeff Williams and Robert Moriyama

Simon thrust tape over her mouth and forced her wet, naked body to flip over on the bed. His strong knee plowed down between her shoulder blades, pushing her face deep into the soft quilting while he pinned her flailing arms behind her back with a nylon zip strip.

The clock radio by her bedside clicked on, belting out The Carol of the Bells, and it caught him off guard. She wormed out from underneath his grip and drove her heel into his ear hard enough to make him see stars.

She tried to scream, but the tape muted her cries for help.

Shaking his head to clear it, he pounced on her slender legs, winding another strip around her ankles. Yanking her form to its side with force, he attached a longer tie between the first two, immobilizing her.

He jumped off her then, to the side of the bed.

He rubbed the side of his head. Maria had one hell of a kick, and one hell of a temper, too. Her inner Latina fire burned so strongly that it spread to him from the first moment he gazed into those smoldering brown eyes behind that wild, curled black hair in front of her face. He could not help but desire her, then.

She struggled on the bed, but he could not look away from her body, a body men would kill for. The feel of her naked skin burned in his memory. It had been such a long time, and he longed to be in her once more, to feel like a husband again.

He shook his head to clear it.

“That is not your wife,” he reminded himself. “Your wife is dead. She’s married to a different Simon Litchfield.”

Dammit! Why did she have to come out of the shower so early? That’s not the way it happened twenty-one years ago.

He picked up the oversized bath towel and threw it over her trembling form so she would be less of a distraction. The other Simon would be home in less than half an hour and find her. He would call the cops, and Maria would miss her date with death while they investigated and filled out endless forms. He had witnesses that placed him on the El right now. He would be safe from the law, even if she would have some trouble with the shrinks.

“He will live happily ever after,” Simon pronounced.

His watch beeped--three minutes until his yuletide cheer disappeared, forever.

Right there, on the spot in front of where he stood, just beside the worn cedar chest that had belonged to his great-grandmother, his own Maria was slammed to the floor and the life strangled out of her with the cord from his old alarm clock. The steam engine-shaped clock stopped, and the hands on the face, mounted where the drive wheel was supposed to be, preserved the moment of her murder for him to find.

He heard the door of the apartment open. Both Marias left it unlocked when they were home, and that allowed their killer easy entry.

Simon slid behind the bedroom door.

“Hello!” a man’s voice rang out.

Simon fumbled in his own confusion. The voice was familiar, but he could not place it.

“Maria!” the voice called out. “Where are you?”

Simon’s breath stole from his body. She knew this person. Her killer was never caught, never identified, but this person could have been at her funeral. This person could have been her friend, and not the stranger he had always thought.

The man stalked past the doorway, but Simon was so flustered that he caught only a momentary glimpse of the man through the crack between the door and the frame.

The intruder was tall, with a slender build. He had black hair that was tightly curled to his head. He was pale skinned, but could have been from any country. Rolled-up sleeves on a white dress shirt revealed a pale arm carrying a Corona bottle, emptied to the last dregs. Tan dress pants stood above cheap leather deck shoes.

The man paused, listening outside the bathroom door. Hearing the water running in the shower, he called out, “Oh, you want to do it in the shower!”

The bathroom door creaked as it opened, allowing the sultry air to billow out from the frame.

After a moment, he roared, “Dammit! You know I don’t like these games! C’mon, I came for my piece of ass, not to play hide and seek!”

The silence apparently did not suit the man. “Come on out or we’re through! You can go back to your husband’s prick!”

Simon’s heart skipped several beats. Time had taught him how to live with Maria’s murder, but not with the idea of her cheating on him.

He could not believe it. He would not believe it. Maria’s death had been an open wound in his heart for so many years, and this was supposed to heal it. Now his heart wrenched open again, just as strongly as it had when he first laid eyes on her lifeless body.

Footfalls in the doorway to the bedroom surprised Simon. He was so caught up in his emotions that had he lost track of the man.

The bastard stalked into the doorway a single step, enough to see her struggling form on the bed under the oversized towel.

“That’s it. I warned her,” the man muttered. In an ominous tone, he continued, “I was going to end it today, anyway.”

Another step into the room and Simon darted out from behind the door with the quietness of a cat. He pointed the long silencer on his gun toward the back of the man’s head and cocked the hammer back. The sound of the hammer shocked the intruder as if he was jolted with electricity, and he froze in place.

“No,” Simon corrected, “I think I’ll end it today.”

The stillness of the room was deafening. No one seemed to breathe, and even the slightest sounds or hints of motion were amplified a hundredfold.

“Very slowly,” Simon instructed, “turn around.”

The man moved so imperceptibly at first, it seemed that he was not moving at all. Gradually, his profile came into view.

Simon gasped.

It was his boss, Callow.


“Dr. Litchfield, please meet me in the usual place immediately.”

Simon looked up from the unhappy mound of paperwork burdened across his desk toward the computer screen, where the text-only message flashed out at him. Mixed emotions welled from inside him, as a trip to the library could only mean a field assignment. Of course, it would also generate paperwork, but not nearly so much as an “official” mission would.

Simon’s khaki and tan outfit may have seemed a little unusual beside the power ties and dresses on the other occupants of the elevator as he rode, but the philanthropic and consulting operations of the Nightwatch Institute for Strategic and Economic Studies were highly irregular by themselves. He supposed that his destination would have raised as many eyebrows--People Magazine hardly seemed his taste--but that section of the library served a unique and secret purpose.

Simon’s own eyebrows rose when as the threaded his way to the usually empty corner of the room. Standing with her nose in an issue of a supermarket tabloid was an alluring set of feminine eyes. Set a pleasing distance around the eyes was a face capable of launching a thousand ships to assail the walls of Troy all over again. Held in by a tight gray business suit and skirt combo, her curves were not easily overlooked either.

“Paula,” Simon charmed, taking in the odor of her tantalizing perfume. “What a surprise to see you here in ‘Popular Culture.’”

Dr. Paula Mankiller feigned amusement on her Cherokee features, but only for a moment before she replied, “You know the American Affairs Committee is entirely about which movie star is screwing around this month.”

Simon winced at the popular company joke, swallowing the hint he was about to drop. He knew that his charms would be wasted on Paula. She may have had a body built for sin, but he knew that she was a cold, business executive down to the bone. The Institute’s connections and operations throughout the Americas were extensive, but he had no doubt that Paula knew them all so well that she could list the names of every employee, subcontractor, or consultant working on an institute project, as well as a detailed status of each one’s operation, from mere memory.

Besides, he knew she couldn’t stand him.

The sound of a throat clearing caught his attention. The sound came from Ian Callow, and Simon gave him an icy stare. Simon had taken Callow’s cloak and dagger assignments for years, but today, Simon had no tolerance for him.

“Please,” Callow offered with as little charm as he had, “sit down.”

Simon positioned himself directly across from Callow at the square table. Callow himself placed a thick, unlabeled folder on the table heavily and then perched warily on his chair. Paula placed herself to Simon’s right, but turned her chair a little away from him to cross her gorgeous legs.

Simon raised his eyebrows at Callow, waiting, but his superior was watching Paula with a slightly nervous and annoyed look.

“Doctor,” Callow began while still studying Paula’s face for reaction, “what do you know about the Frost Consociation?”

The expression on Simon’s own face clearly indicated that the question surprised him. After a moment, he replied, “The Frost Consociation is a Chicago-based business conglomerate headed by billionaire Jason Frost. The Consociation itself comprises of a number of important corporations, each noted for their ecologically friendly products and business practices. They freely contribute men and machinery to virtually every major hazardous substance cleanup around the world, and give millions each year to museum conservation efforts. When I lived in Chicago, they funded the restoration of a historic railroad roundhouse not far from my apartment. Also, I understand they are quite popular over at the Smithsonian.”

Simon smiled slightly at them. “Politically, they tend to back conservative congressmen who are strong with the religious right, but will switch sides for a candidate more interested in preservation.”

Paula rolled her eyes. To Callow, she said, “For the ‘Coordinator of Institutional Effectiveness,’ you talk too much. I don’t have time to beat around the bush here.”

Turning to Simon, she continued, “Jason Frost stopped me in the Capitol Rotunda this morning and asked specifically for you to come see him, today.”

Simon was puzzled. As far as he could remember, he had never met Frost and could not think of why the man would be interested in him.

“He wanted you to have this.” Paula flicked a gold ring across the table at him before continuing with a voice so cold that it froze him in place. “The Frost Consociation is one of our biggest business partners, and also our biggest ally around the world. We can’t afford to make enemies of them. So, I don’t care what floozy that ring came from. All I care about is that whatever your womanizing did, you make it right, or I will make your lives a living hell… until… the end… of time. Both you and your supervisor here. Am I clear?”

Simon picked it up, his throat suddenly dry and tight. The ring was made of two bands, each holding loosely spaced leaves made of Black Hills gold. When the bands were put together, they formed an interlocking circle where each leaf reflected the light differently. In the center was a modest diamond, the biggest Simon had been able to afford.

He nodded, his eyes focused on the ring with a spinning, reeling sensation coming from deep inside his belly.

Callow spoke up for him. “Dr. Litchfield would only be too happy to accept Mr. Frost’s invitation.”

“One more thing,” she growled as she stood. “The wedding isn’t in the desert, so dress up, for a change.”

Paula’s exit was quick, and full of derision.

Callow looked at his subordinate cautiously, trying to measure the look on Simon’s face. “Who does the ring belong to?”

Simon could barely get out the name. “Maria.”


Dollops of wet snow tumbled from a soulless, gray sky toward the slush-covered runway at Chicago Midway as the aging Boeing 737-300 touched down. The day was equally as lifeless, the snowfall and melancholy sky washing it out as if this December afternoon was just too much for the world to bear. Simon wanted Nightbird One or even Nightwatch Two, but Callow would not okay the expense of any plane, giving the circumstances.

“Clean up your own messes, Doctor,” Callow had insisted. “Why should the institute pay for the miscues of your past?”

It was all that Simon could do to keep from decking him, right then and there. Instead, Simon scrambled to find the best accommodations he could muster and still make it to Chicago that day. That meant getting the only departure he could find--a coach seat on a flight from Reagan.

He was surprised how loud the engines were when one sat next to them, and he wondered why people trusted themselves in these deathtraps. In Nightbird One, he could hardly hear the engines. At least the noise mostly drowned out the chucklehead in the seat next to him who prattled on for the entire flight about selling shower curtain rings.

Simon hated airports, especially when he could not skip the usual procedures to which casual travelers had to subject themselves. His free will rebelled against being herded through the gate like cattle to suffer the indignities that passed for security procedures, and by the time he reached the baggage carousels downstairs, his mood was as dark as the black streaks that marked the sides of his now mangled and torn suitcase.

He did not have time to file a complaint and instead ducked into a restroom to change. Thankfully, the suitcase’s contents were intact.

As soon as he was far enough away from things that he would not upset Homeland Security, he called Stephanie on his “company phone.” The phone was almost as unusual as she was, and he needed her on it. With a practiced move made to resemble scratching his head, he slipped the wireless mike and speaker into his left ear. It scrambled his communications so well that not even the best government agencies could listen in on him, even though it was smaller than any commercially available hearing aid.

Stephanie Keel had been his friend for seven years--since he had pulled her out of Gryphius’ hellhole--and he was glad that shortly after her rescue, the Nightwatch Institute recruited her for her own, unique, talents. Stephanie was very pretty when she wanted to be, but preferred a plain, comfortable look of sweaters and cargo pants at the office, and even more practical gear in the field. She was usually surrounded by bits of technical equipment and software manuals, and he knew she was more comfortable under the hood of a car than a meeting room. Simon doubted whether the I.T. department would survive a day without her.

One glance into her hazel eyes would tell him if she approved of his actions or not, so he was relieved by the look on her face when her video image appeared on his phone.

“So,” Stephanie inquired straight off, “did you dress up like Paula wanted?”

Simon snorted and thumbed the camera built into his phone around so that she could see him, too. He held the phone at arms length to provide a full-body view.

“Ooo,” she crooned. “Black tie, tux, and everything.”

His usual khaki outfit was safely tucked away in what was left of his luggage. “Frost is hosting a wedding for his niece in the ballrooms of the Drake Hotel, so I didn’t think I could crash in anything less than Armani.”

She smiled. “We both remember how cold Chicago is at Christmastime, so I hope you packed a warm coat.”

“It’s over my arm, Mom,” he replied with mild sarcasm. “What do you have for me?”

Stephanie put on a concerned expression. “There were enough skin cells on the ring for DNA. Maria definitely wore it. I checked with the cemetery, and her grave has not been disturbed, at least not that anyone could tell.”

Litchfield’s face was grim. “She was wearing it in the casket. I know that for a fact.”

“I will call Steve,” she offered, “and ask him to check out the mortuary. Maybe an employee had light fingers.”

Simon’s eyebrows rose. “That detective you used to date? I thought we weren’t even supposed to mention his name.”

His cohort sighed into the phone. “I can’t stay mad forever. Besides, I hear he’s a lieutenant now.”

Simon begged to differ, but figured she was sacrificing her pride for him in his hour of need. He knew she and Steve had split just before William Gryphius kidnapped Stephanie, and Simon always suspected that the ‘rebound’ effect might have helped the monster trick her into his chamber of horrors.

“What did your snooping find out about Jason Frost?”

“Nothing very helpful,” she replied, scratching her head. “His business dealings all seem to be fair and above board, although he’ll fight tooth and nail if one of his businesses is backed into a corner. Most of the rest you know: billionaire, well liked, friend to the environment, gives a lot to charities and museums, and never actively seeks publicity or recognition for himself.”

Stephanie’s voice lowered into a conspiratorial whisper. “And I get the idea that Paula’s quite taken with him, but he doesn’t seem interested.”

Simon did not doubt it. While he never saw Stephanie speaking with any of the company gossips, he knew that she was very connected to the behind-the-scene goings on.

“All right,” he decided. “You stay on station and I’ll beep you if I need you to listen in or slip me information.”

There was a long pause before his friend on the phone replied. “You do know it’s Christmas Eve, right?”

Receiving the ring of his dead wife earlier the same day and then dashing madly to make it to Chicago, that fact had indeed slipped his mind. Christmas had not meant anything to him since Maria died. It certainly explained his crowded surroundings and why it had been so hard to find a flight.

“How about I buy you something pretty from Marshall Fields?”

Her eyes rolled upwards. “They haven’t called it that in years. I tell you what. My mom is surprising me with a three-ton chain hoist tomorrow morning, and you get to help me hook it up at your place. Tom could help, too, if he can do it without causing another one of those ‘see the former astronaut’ media frenzies.”

“One reporter hardly constituted a ‘frenzy.’” Simon paused, blinking. “My place?”

“I don’t have a garage. You do.”

“No, I don’t,” he protested. “It’s just a car port in back with the others.”

“Not that garage,” she replied. “Your storage one.”

Simon answered quietly, “That’s not really a garage. More of a place to keep old memories.”

She gritted her teeth with determination. “It’s big enough to fit a car in it, and you own it.”

He wondered, “Doesn’t your mom know you don’t have a garage?”

“I’m sure some part of her knows.” She sighed. “Sometimes it’s just hard to tell.”

He knew it would also involve reinforcing the ceiling so it would hold up three tons. Simon decided not to drop that shoe until after Tom arrived. He might not help, otherwise. “If it’s a surprise, how do you know it’s coming?”

She shrugged. “I watch her credit card transactions. Why, don’t you know what you’re getting?”

Simon closed the phone.


Daylight drained from the sky as the late afternoon waned.

On the plane, he had tried calling all the car rental agencies at Midway to no avail. Finally, he called the Institute’s Chicago office and begged, but found that a car already had been arranged for him and was left in what he was horrified to learn was now a $100 per day lot near the airport, payment due when he picked it up.

The note on the windshield was from Paula, but it looked faxed rather than something she put there herself. It read, “Happy motoring.”

With a sigh, he agreed with Stephanie’s assessment that Frost had spurned Paula’s affections, and surmised that she was blaming him. He was also sure that by the time he returned to work, almost everyone at Nightwatch would know all about the car, and whatever vacant lot it used to be abandoned in before Paula’s people “acquired” it for him.

The car was an old, battered, “scuba metallic blue” Geo, or so it was supposed to be according to contrived mileage logs and insurance information inside it. Simon thought it was impossible to tell the color through the rust, but at least the pillowed snow was covering up the sight of it as the vehicle crawled with the traffic toward Michigan Avenue. After leaving the airport, he found that only the passenger-side windshield wiper worked. Thankfully, the car was so narrow he only had to lean halfway over to see the road in front of him.

The radio only picked up AM stations. They all seemed to be talk shows still beating the world comet scare to death, so the traffic on Wacker Drive and the blight of snow kept his mind occupied until he could turn the sticky steering wheel toward the Magnificent Mile, but did not quell the frustrations and worry welling up from the pit of his stomach. Simon could not figure how Frost had gotten the ring and why the billionaire would care enough about his late wife to send an angry Paula after him.

Maria was an ache inside him, a stabbing sensation of loss and of anger that would not subside with the years. He thought that he was finally over her when he fell for Morna, but Maria’s ghost would not release her hold on the last recesses of his heart, and the marriage did not last.

“Morna was too like me anyway,” he mused to himself. “At least we’re friends.”

Maria’s face looked so peaceful, Simon remembered.

He could not figure out why Maria had not answered him when he came in the door. She seemed to have left the shower on, maybe to get warm. He thought maybe she was doing some sit-ups or something, and perhaps that was why she was on the floor, naked. She would exercise and then hop right in the shower… She was being practical, that was it. Then he saw his clock on the floor next to her, and then his eyes followed the cord to her neck.

The lifelessness in her eyes stunned him. It could not be. It was a trick, a joke. He called to her, dove to her side. He reached to check her pulse, but her body was cold.

His hand yanked back as if scorched and a sudden feeling of helplessness seized him. Words choked in his throat, and his noiseless scream echoed only in his soul as the sobs wracked his frame.

“Hey buddy!” a voice shouted, and there was knocking on his window.

Simon jolted back to the here and now. He was stopped in a line of cars in front of traffic barricades. One of Chicago’s finest was outside his window, trying to get him to roll it down.

He rolled it an inch, but it fell the rest of the way by itself. “Yes, officer?”

The cop had an amused look on his face. “Buddy, you’re in the valet line for the Drake Hotel.”

Simon looked at the cars ahead of him. They were all limousines. A glance in the wobbly rear view mirror showed the same behind him.

“Yes,” he replied, as casually as he could. “That’s where I’m going.”

The policeman did a double take and looked again at the shape of Simon’s ancient Geo. “Look, there’s a real big wedding going on there with a bunch of bigwigs, so if your name ain’t on the list, you’re not gonna get within three blocks of there.”

Simon tried to muster all the confidence he had inside him. “I’m on the list,” he lied.

The cop lost his bemused look. “Oh, yeah? Let’s see some ID.”

He handed the officer his license and tried to look at the bright side. After the cop yelled at him for a while, he would get to drive to the closest spot he could find and then walk to the hotel. There were public restaurants on the ground floor. He could try getting in that way.

The policeman spoke into the microphone clipped to his shoulder. “This is Michigan Ave., number four. I need a list check on a Dr. Simon Litchfield.”

Simon braced himself for the reply.

The radio called out, “Michigan Ave., number four, that’s an okay on Simon Litchfield.”

Simon tried unsuccessfully not to look just as stunned as the cop did.

The officer shrugged and handed him back his ID. “I’m very sorry to have bothered you, Doctor. You’ll have to verify your identity again at the main entrance. Enjoy your evening.”

“Thank you, officer.”

Traffic was slow, and since the broken window next to him would not close, by the time he got within sight of the black and gold entrance on Walton Place, his long coat was soaking wet with snow and slush.

The valet looked at his vehicle like it was a pile of dead fish, but dutifully drove it away, probably fearing for his job if a supervisor saw it in front of the hotel. Just outside the doors, under the overhang, was a table with laptop computers on it, surrounded by suits and cops.

As the first officer checked his driver’s license Simon noticed that his picture came up on one of the screens. Photo verification of guests, he figured. He was scanned with what looked like a handheld bomb sniffer and walked through a T-ray scanner that imaged his insides in three dimensions. Satisfied that his internal plumbing contained no weapons or swallowed explosives, the officers allowed him to move on.

When Simon did finally get through the door, he took in the posh lobby with mild surprise. The room’s deep colors trimmed with gold bespoke of the kind of class and a standard of living that was considerably beyond his means. Also surprising was the pair of United States Senators talking to the movie star directly in front of him.

“Dr. Litchfield?” called a voice from his left.

He turned to see a sparkling, red evening gown with a fantastic blonde poured into it. She had attractive features, but her ice blue eyes were not those of a guest. He noticed her dress, while at first appealing, was just loose enough to allow for a concealed weapon, and her long legs looked just muscular enough to kick off his shoulder blades.

He kissed her hand and charmed with his best smile. “Simon Litchfield, at your service.”

“Doctor.” The slightest bit of surprise surfaced on her features, so she was clearly not used to such highbrow treatment being extended to herself. “I am Jane Messenger, Mr. Frost’s assistant. May I walk with you for a minute?”

He folded his soggy coat over one arm and offered his other, and they strolled away from the crowd toward the resplendent red and gold Christmas tree. The dark blue carpeting with gold flourishes was soft under his shoes, and an odd fragrance, which he suspected might be frankincense, filled the room.

She began in a quiet, but friendly, tone. “Mr. Frost wanted me to thank you for coming on such short notice. He is occupied with the last minute preparations of his niece’s wedding and greeting guests. He asks that you meet him in his room at nine o’clock this evening, and he will discuss with you then why he wanted to see you.”

“Not until nine?” He dropped a hint. “Whatever am I to do with myself until then?”

Part of Messenger looked interested, but duty must have won out. “Should you wish to attend the wedding in the Gold Coast Room, or the reception in the Grand Ballroom, I can still arrange it. His All Holiness, the Archbishop of Constantinople is presiding over an Orthodox Christian ceremony, and it should be quite an unusual spectacle for the city.”

Simon goggled. “The Patriarch, the head of the church, will conduct the ceremony himself?”

She raised her eyebrows in apparent surprise. “Mr. Frost has extensive connections throughout the world. As I said, I can still arrange for you to attend if you would like. Otherwise, the Coq d’Or lounge is available should you wish a drink, although it is somewhat crowded with senators and city aldermen right now. Otherwise, you can always wait in your room.”

His charm stumbled. “I’m afraid I don’t have a room.”

Jane smiled at him disarmingly. “Mr. Frost has the entire hotel for the evening.”

She stopped and turned so they were face to face. She leaned close to him, pressing her body into his before whispering in his ear, “If he didn’t already have a room reserved for you, I could have fit you in.”

The hint was clear, and he politely feigned indignity. “Are you taking pity on me?”

The look in her eyes was otherwise, and as she turned him in the direction of the front desk, her arm wound around his waist. “Quite the opposite. Your reputation precedes you, and I hope I get to see you in action.”

He smiled back at her, although he hoped he knew which reputation she meant.

Jane spoke to the clerk. “This is Dr. Litchfield. He is in one of the Gold Coast suites.”

She looked back to Simon. “I’m afraid I must leave you, for now.”

His eyebrows rose slightly, but he played it cool, kissing the hand that was not grabbing his rear. “I shall count the minutes. Which room is Mr. Frost in?”

The workers behind the desk smiled and pretended that they could not overhear the conversational overtones.

“Room 550.” With that, Jane turned, and afforded him an attractive view until she finally disappeared into the crowd of power elite.

The worker handed him his key, and explained, “Your bags have already been taken to your room. Mr. Frost has both the Presidential Suites: one for the happy couple and one for himself. Enjoy your evening.”

“Thank you.”

His room was nice. Even this reduced level of opulence was normally out of his reach, and Simon marveled at just how much the entire hotel must cost for a night as he called Stephanie.

He let her off the hook. He had no idea how late his meeting would go but promised to record the whole conversation for her. Stephanie assured him that she would check in after the ordeal of her mom’s pumpkin pie, but would keep an earpiece in case of emergency.

Christmas Eve burned in his memory as he hung up the phone.

It was going to be a quick stop at the office that morning, but problems mounted, and he was late. He knew Maria would be mad at him but figured she would get over it the next morning when she saw the necklace his bonus had bought her.

The clock radio sang out Maria’s favorite Christmas song, The Carol of the Bells, jolting him out of his memories. Its call would have stopped his wife in her tracks. It always did--it was the song that was playing when they first met. She would have come to him, and put her arm around him to enjoy the moment. As he looked around the dark, empty hotel room, December 24th never felt as lonely as it did at that moment.

About seven, Jane was at his door.

“The wedding coordinator” she explained in a husky voice, “is in charge now. I’m off duty for the next hour and a half.”

“Do come in.”

She stepped in, closing the door behind her. She paused there with an odd expression.

Simon wondered, “Is there something wrong?”

“Aren’t you going to check me for concealed weapons?”

His eyebrows rose. “Do I need to?”

She smiled at him. “Let me help you.”

Reaching up behind her, she unzipped the back of the dress. The soft, red silk drooped past her shoulders and she let it slowly glide down until her bare breasts were revealed, then she let the dress tumble wantonly to the floor.

Simon noted, “Those aren’t the kind of weapons I usually worry about.”

She stalked toward him. “It’s all in how you use them.”

As their lips met, passion finally pushed Maria out of his mind, and he carried Jane to the bed.


Two tree-trunk thick bodyguards showed him into the soft beige and gold living room of the Presidential Suite, which was bigger than the main floor of Simon’s own undersized townhouse. Most of the lights were off, and Jason Frost sat in the introspective, flickering light in front of the fireplace.

Frost stood at Simon’s entrance, giving a first look at this important man. He was a lean businessman, at or approaching his sixties. His face was long, and held penetrating eyes circled by the wrinkles brought on by a fierce, life-long fight to the top. Gray had overtaken his hair, and whether from the evening’s activities or from the firelight, he looked drained and worn out. His tuxedo jacket was off, his sleeves rolled up, and his suspenders hung loose at his sides. In his left hand was a drink, a Jack Daniels by the smell that wafted across the room.

“Dr. Litchfield,” he greeted with a firm handshake. “Thank you for coming. Do come in and sit down. Get you a drink?”

The bodyguards disappeared with a gesture, and Simon took the offered couch directly across from Frost on the far side of the fireplace, with a wide glass coffee table between them. He nodded at the drink.

Frost handed him a whiskey, neat.

“I usually prefer wine,” Simon noted, “but this doesn’t seem like a wine kind of meeting.”

“That’s right.” Frost sat down. “Yes, I’ve heard that since you moved to Georgetown you’ve had more than a few rare vintages at the Cannon Moon.”

Alarm lights flashed in the corners of Simon’s eyes, but he maintained his composure. “Really? You seem quite well informed about a mild-mannered civil engineer nobody.”

Frost smiled at him and then called toward a doorway near the end of the room. “Jane? Would you come in here, please?”

After a moment, Jane stepped through the doorway. She had a healthy glow about her, and she posed there. “Yes, sir?”

Frost had an amused tone. “Could you please tell us what we know about our guest, short version?”

She smiled an accommodating smile back at him. “Doctor Simon Litchfield, age fifty-four, a civil engineer for the City of Chicago until the murder of his first wife, now serves as an intelligence operative for the Nightwatch Institute. His three most notable missions, which he receives from Ian Callow in the library of the Institute, were, first, overseeing the destruction of a highly-prized, egg-shaped device unearthed during the construction of the Hayat Khan Kala pipeline; second, the demolition of a will-suppression apparatus and the capture of its builders in Kazakhstan; and third, the interception of a viral agent in Jakarta before it could be introduced into the water supply. He has been wounded several times, most seriously in Sri Lanka by an anti-personnel mine. He lives alone, but consorts with Stephanie Keel and a civilian, Thomas Weldon, who frequently accompany him on missions.”

Jane gave him a Cheshire cat smile.

“Thank you, Jane,” said Frost with a dismissing tone. “You may go. I don’t wish to be disturbed.”

Simon’s mind slipped into overdrive. The NSA and CIA combined did not know this much about the Institute. He had to conclude that their entire security had been compromised, and something very bad was about to be dropped in his lap. He tried to think of something that would distract his host so that he could push the panic button.

Frost seemed to read his thoughts. “Relax, Doctor. I am the largest individual shareholder in the Institute, and I fully back your ‘unofficial activities’. Especially that Alconost thing. I toured that site myself. It was terrible what happened to all those people. They still can’t get them to care enough to go to work or tend their fields.”

Simon tried to regroup, forcing a deep breath into his lungs.

“I want you to work for me,” Frost continued, leaning back in his chair, “for one day.”

Seeing Simon tense further, Frost added, “Relax. What I want you for won’t break a single law in this world.”

Simon’s head was spinning. “Why do you want me? You seem like you can do pretty well for yourself.”

“You have experience that I require,” Frost replied with some mysticism in his voice. “And with that experience, I want you to do a completely legal, but a little bit immoral, thing for me.”

Simon tried to gather himself, standing and positioning himself on the far side of the couch, away from Frost. They needed to know more about this billionaire, and his intentions. “I’m not in the business of doing evil.”

“Not generally, no. But then it’s not like some of the innocent didn’t suffer from your actions--or failure to act, hmm?” Frost did not appear surprised by Simon’s behavior, or his steps toward the exit. “I’m a businessman, which means I give something to get something. For you, this is all about Maria.”

Simon froze by the entryway. “What about Maria?”

Frost stood and walked in front of the fireplace. He leaned against the mantle and seemed to lose himself in the firelight. “I’ve never had a wife. I dedicated myself to scratching out an empire. I can hardly imagine what it must feel like to have your wife strangled to death in your own home--your own bedroom. What hopes you must have had, what dreams for the future. How helpless you must have felt, and how wronged.”

Simon demanded, “What does that have to do with anything?”

Frost looked at him over his shoulder. “I have a way you can save her.”

There was a beat pause.


Frost swirled his drink in tight circles before draining the last of it. “You can save Maria’s life.”

The entire world seemed wrong to Simon. His distance from Frost appeared longer than it had before. The walls were taller, the firelight strangely brighter. Simon recognized shock setting into his system, and rebelled against it. His wife was dead--nothing could change that.

A momentary doubt bolted through him. Could he save her?

“Can I refill your drink?” Frost smiled thinly under raised eyebrows. “Why don’t you come back, sit down, and I’ll explain what in the hell I’m talking about.”

The idea of another whiskey’s bracing appealed to him; he needed help to get his head on straight. He also hoped its later calming effects would be worthwhile, too.

“All right,” Simon agreed.

Frost was hard to measure. One minute, he seemed old and fragile in spirit. The next, he was a tough competitor, willing to pull out all the stops to win. Simon suspected that more than a few of Frost’s rivals had found this out the hard way.

Once again seated, Frost caught Simon’s gaze squarely and held it.

“Doctor,” he said soberly, “I know you’ve traveled in time.”

A single muscle to the side of Simon’s left eye twitched ever so slightly. He gave no other outward indication that he had even heard the statement.

Frost continued, “At this moment, you have more experience with time and time travel than anyone on the planet. That makes you a very valuable asset, despite what your boss, Callow, may indicate to you. Your efforts were of great service to this country, and the world.”

Simon did not look like he was buying it. “There are no time machines.”

Frost snorted. “There are--or were--four, and you damn well know about them. Or do I have to remind you about Kingsford’s follies? How about the name Maxwell Cory?”

Simon’s head jerked as if slapped, but he managed to regain his composure.

Frost’s face took on a satisfied look. “At least you’re not insulting my intelligence by claiming you don’t know about them. Now, three of those four were based on the principles of reversing the flow of temporal energy or opening time-space passageways: The Kingsford machines and Nightwatch’s own little secret. Mine doesn’t work like that.”

Simon’s breath caught short. “Yours?”

“That’s right.” Frost’s smile was both gracious and cold at the same time. “Have you ever heard of a scientist named Zarkoff?”

Simon decided to play his cards close to his vest. “Sounds like a comic book name.”

Frost laughed. “Yes, it should. Legend has it cartoonist Don Moore based that name on what was then a crackpot Polish scientist named Zarkoski, who introduced a theory in 1933 called Fractured Entropy, with which one could deflect the debilitating effects of entropy by ‘fracturing’ space and time. Of course, Zarkoski was laughed out of the scientific community of his day, and later died in a gas chamber at the hands of the Nazis, but his theory survived on a dusty shelf in a museum in Constantinople that I now fund.”

Frost paused and shook his head. “That manuscript survived because someone didn’t clear a shelf off before a three-hundred pound marble statue was placed on top of it.”

Simon rolled his eyes and let his sarcasm be biting. “A Dr. Zarkoff time machine. Sounds wonderful. Does Flash Gordon use it to stop Ming the Merciless?”

Frost sighed. “Doctor, what do you know about entropy in unified field theory?”

Simon blinked. “You’ll find very little of unified field theory in civil engineering, but as I understand it from public television, entropy is both a converting force and a rule that you can’t use the same energy twice.”

“Precisely,” Frost beamed at him in the firelight. “The executive summary of the whole thing is that gravitational entropy creates the space and time energies as we know them, so the eggheads I employ used Zarkoski’s theory as a guide to divert the temporal energy of our timeline by fracturing entropy. That has the net effect of creating a new, limited copy of our space-time continuum--an alternate timeline to our own.”

Simon skipped a beat. “Beg your pardon?”

“My machine,” Frost explained, “diverts the temporal energy of our universe into a new, smaller, timeline. In that timeline, everything is the same as our universe, based on the moment you enter it, but it only lasts for about one thousand years. After that long, the energy flow reverts to our timeline and the alternate universe flips off like a switch.”

Simon tried to measure the look on Frost’s face. The man believed his machine worked, or was a world-class liar. Simon tried not to dwell on the consequences of this machine, just the probability of it.

“Why doesn’t it last?” he questioned, trying not to sound incredulous.

Frost smiled at him. “Most people don’t take this so well. The answer to your question is that it only starts with temporal energy. From that energy it has to create matter, gravity, and all the other forces of the universe, and that’s not enough juice to keep it all going.”

Simon took a long, deep breath. “What happens to our timeline while all our energy is away, powering your private universe?”

“Nothing at all.” Frost shrugged. “We stay in the exact moment where we were until the temporal energy switches back. Time stands still, but as far as we’re concerned, it never happened. There is no interruption in our lives. Not a nanosecond--life goes right on, not knowing it was on hold for a thousand years.”

“Why would you want to do that?” Simon questioned.

Frost laughed at him. “I took you for more brains, Doctor. Every single natural treasure that exists in our world also exists in that world. Every dollar, every priceless painting, every sacred text, and every lost trinket is there too.”

Frost stood, animated now and moving around like he was giving the boardroom proposal of his life. “But it’s more than that. With other time machines, you have to be damn careful that you don’t do something that will disrupt history, or you may not even be born in the reality you return to. With my machine, there’s no risk of that. No matter what happens in the past or present in the alternate timeline, it won’t affect our world. Burn the Declaration of Independence while it’s still on Jefferson’s desk. Blow up the pyramids. Stop the Neanderthals from dying out--none of it will harm our timeline one bit. We can go back and see what really started the Great Chicago fire, or see if Oswald really acted alone, and not worry about ruining history. Our world will be fine.”

Frost settled on the cushion next to Simon.

“I don’t expect, Dr. Litchfield,” he stated in a slow, sober tone, “that you will have believed a single word I said. For that reason, I will prove it to you in the only way that will convince you that I’m telling the truth: I’ll let you bring Maria back.”

Simon’s heart lurched in his chest. “Bring her back? What do you mean, bring her back?”

Frost smiled gently at him. “Go back in time to before she was murdered, and bring her back with you to our timeline.”

Simon’s pulse thundered in his ears. Maria--alive. He could hardly believe it. She would have never known life without him. She would still be his wife, and in the dark of night, he would never have to be alone again.

A jolt of worry shocked through him. “She’d be all right? Even though she’s made of the other universe’s energy?”

“Once she’s back on our side of the ‘door,’” Frost replied, “so to speak, she’s fine. She’s made of matter, just as you and I are.”

Simon wanted her again. He could not deny it, and he was sure that Frost knew it. Maria’s death had weighed on him for so long, it would be a relief of monumental proportions. It took every fiber of his restraint to keep from agreeing right at that moment.

He caught his host’s eye. “You’re not in this for the good of your heart. What is this ‘evil thing’ I’d have to do?”

Frost regarded him soberly. “Kidnap me.”

Simon backpedaled. “I thought I wouldn’t have to break any laws.”

“You won’t,” Frost replied mildly. “The Jason Frost from the alternate timeline and I are the same person. I can give you legal consent to take me.”

Simon’s mind boggled. “Why would you want to abduct yourself?”

“Because of the risks.”

Simon smiled politely and raised his eyebrows, waiting.

“Three strikes and you’re out,” Frost replied cryptically. “Look, anything can be done in the other universe--with one important exception. That new timeline has another me in it. That me also has a time machine, which could be used to branch off another universe, and maybe another inside that. The problem is that by the time he’s spawned things a third time, Zarkoski’s fractured entropy effect will cause the temporal energy to fail.”

“Fail? How?”

Frost nodded. “As in revert to a less energetic state, like gravity or even matter, instantly. The point is there won’t be any temporal energy left to come back to our timeline--time will stand still, forever. The universe as we know it will end. For that reason, I made it a rule that any time action within two hundred years prior to now has to include the neutralization of Jason Frost and his machine, or one of his ancestors, so he can’t be born and end the world.”

Simon stated, “That can’t be the only reason.”

Frost frowned. “Let’s just say I can get a lot more done if there are two of me, and leave it at that.”

Simon stood and walked to the far end of the room, thinking. “Why me?”

“For starters,” Frost replied, “you’re very good at what you do, and doing it quietly. In order to keep time travel a secret, none of the other Frost’s security people know what you’re going to do--only he will know, because we both have the same plan. For another reason, sending you back will cost me over a hundred million dollars and take so much electricity out of the national grid that I can only do it on a few holidays a year when energy consumption is minimal. If I have to spend that much, I want the best man available on that job.”

The billionaire paused. “The other Frost spent most of the day your wife was murdered on Air Force One--he can’t be taken in the same trip as your Maria, so you’ll have to go into the past twice. Miss Messenger will go with you on your first trip and neutralize him independently. She will return on her own.”

One of Simon’s eyebrows stabbed upwards. “Couldn’t Jane just wait a few days in the past and then take the other Frost as part of the same trip?”

Frost shook his head. “She’s not good enough to get past his guards. You are.”

Simon looked uneasy. “How will she ‘neutralize’ him?”

“Don’t worry about it.” Frost wore a poker face. “I know every one of Jason Frost’s secrets, Doctor. There are more than a few ways to derail his train, so to speak, and save the future.”

There was a pause.

“What will it be?” Frost questioned. “The past may be infinite, but I have only a finite amount of time in the present until I lose the perfect opportunity. The two best days of the year for available energy are Easter and Halloween, and I can send expeditions all day long. Tonight there will be just enough power that we can fit in two trips.”

Simon sputtered. “But it’s Christmas. Practically the whole country has a display lit. How can there be enough electricity available?”

Frost smiled. “After eleven o’clock on Christmas Eve, everybody who’s still home turns everything off to keep from setting their tree on fire and goes to bed because they know their little angels are going to wake everybody up at five-thirty in the morning to see what Santa brought them. Power usage drops way off until morning, when they have to put on extra shifts at the power plants just to keep up.”

Frost looked him in the eye. Soberly, he asked, “So, is the life of your wife worth trusting me, or do you want to live every day with the memory of Maria’s dead face staring up at you from the bedroom floor, knowing you could have saved her?”


Simon shuddered as he slid on his back in the shallow pool of chemicals. His headfirst motion across the bottom of the ceramic oval forced chilled, clear liquid that felt like egg whites to slither past his collar and envelop the back of his neck and shoulders. The tingling sensation on his skin was disturbing, and he tried not to think that it felt like one of Hollywood’s aliens climbing down his back.

“That’s cold,” he squawked.

Jane stepped up to the side of the machine wearing nothing but a purple and yellow string bikini. “It will be hot enough soon, trust me.”

His eyebrows rose. “Interesting outfit for December.”

“I don’t tell you how to do your job.” She smiled, but only slightly. “Besides, when we come out of this thing all wet and slippery, I’m going to look better in this than you will in your clothes.”

Simon couldn’t decide if Jane was a diversion to keep his mind off things or not. While her curves were certainly diverting, the smile on her face before she rattled off information about his past may have meant that she was playing him. He had not mistaken her muscle tone, or her ability to take on any man. She had proven that, intimately.

He had not been able to reach Stephanie, and it tugged at him. He knew it was two in the morning on Christmas day, and she deserved to enjoy her holiday, but he needed her counsel.

Alarm bells sounded in his soul.

He had agreed to Frost’s proposal, but Simon knew he should not have--he was possibly risking his life to do the billionaire’s dirty work, and no one even knew he was there. Then again, how could he not save Maria if it was at all possible?

Deep inside himself, he did not know what to do. Nothing less than seeing and touching his wife again would convince him, but if it did work, he’d become a cog in whatever Frost really had planned.

To hold Maria once more, to prevent her murder… He couldn’t say no.

Jane climbed into the oval with him and rolled her athletic body in the pool of chemistry. The slippery liquid coated her form and she knelt at his side, slicking her hair back.

“Did I miss anywhere?”

He saw the wet chemicals turned the yellow parts of her suit almost transparent. The rest of her looked like some model from a calendar. He also could not help but notice she missed the patch between her breasts.

Lending the helping hand she was obviously inviting, he asked, “Why again do we need to be covered in this stuff?”

Frost surprised him from the side of the machine. “Because they say it hurts like a son of a bitch. Most of what you’re lying in is topical anesthetic and a little flame retardant.”

That soon, so much power was going to course around him that he had to be fireproofed brought a lump to Simon’s throat.

Frost explained while they waited that the national power grid was divided into sections, called Interconnects. The biggest of these was the Eastern Interconnect, which provided electricity to more than fifty million people. Frost had diverted the interconnect’s main distribution line south of the city into a warehouse. In that warehouse, a maze of capacitors and electrical lines led to the machine, where Simon lay with a worried expression.

The actual time machine was in one small corner--two ceramic, oval dishes about eight feet in length lay flat on a round, raised platform connected to an electrician’s nightmare that filled the rest of the warehouse with a disturbingly large bundle of cables and insulators. Mounted on the wall was a supercomputer array, crunching numbers at breakneck speed.

Half a dozen technicians scurried around him, some in white lab coats by computer terminals, others in bulky insulated suits tending the lines.

One of the technicians brought him a fireproof bag and he quickly checked the contents. Inside were three white retrieval suits that looked like latex wetsuits, folded into small parcels. Frost’s people said they were woven out of superconducting threads connected to a cord for plugging into ordinary wall outlets. Supposedly, they conducted enough of a field that it dropped a traveler out of phase with the normal time flow, and he or she wound up back in Frost’s oversized Petri dish when the energy returned to our universe. A roll of duct tape and a set of nylon zip strip restraints sat alongside the suits.

The other item in the bag was a military-issue .45 with silencer, in case the murderer found them before he could save Maria. He did not like the weapon, but knew it would fit in with any year since 1911.

“Ready to go, Doctor?” Frost asked.

Simon looked at him sideways. It was his last chance to back out, although he was sure Frost would be able to make life difficult for him if he did. Still, he could walk away from Maria now, and not be Frost’s pawn.

Maria’s brown eyes gazed up at him from the floor. They were so calm, so peaceful--almost happy. Simon’s eyes trailed downward, following the line of her cheek. Wrapped around her neck was a black electrical cord, wound so tight that it almost cut into the skin.

“Throw the switch,” Simon snapped.

Frost nodded, and then called to his people. “Right! That’s a go! Make it happen.”

Almost immediately, most of the lights shut off, except those over the machine and the computers. Simon could hear the technicians chattering, coordinating their efforts, but their exact words were unintelligible to him. The warehouse hummed ominously with what had to be incredible amounts of electricity, and for the first time, Simon worried about his own life in this contraption.

Jane held onto him, her leg wrapped over his.

He felt a sudden cold sensation on the left side of his head. Startled, he realized she was blowing in his ear.

“Hey,” she whispered. “Did you love her?”

“Yes,” he responded, distracted by her question.

She smiled. “Then save her.”

Just then, the bottom dropped out of the universe.


Simon’s body shook and convulsed as he fought toward consciousness. A coughing fit wracked his frame and he tried to force his eyes to open. His whole body felt like it had been seared on some inhuman grill, and none of his muscles would move at first. A smell, which he somehow knew was lavender body wash, tickled his nose.

Drapes. His mind struggled when his eyes finally yielded. Those drapes look familiar. The framed Chicago and Northwestern Railroad print to their right tugged at his memory, and he thought, I used to have a picture just like that one.

He was in their bedroom! He was actually in his and Maria’s bedroom.

Forcing himself up on one elbow, he saw his shaking body was sprawled out across the thick, soft comforter on their double bed. By his right leg was the bag of goodies. On his left, Jane’s eyelids were open, but her eyes were rolled up into her head. Her body shook as if it was gripped in a grand mall seizure.

“Jane?” he asked. “Jane!”

He shook her shoulders and she came to--a second before she screamed in horror.

His hand clamped over her mouth, and he tried to hold her down. “Jane, it’s me!” he hissed. “It’s Simon. You’re okay!”

Her eyes looked at him with her first glimmer of recognition. He took her hand off her mouth.

“Oh, god,” she breathed, holding him tight. “Oh, god!”

“Simon?” a voice called. “Is that you?”

He turned his head. There, in the doorway, was Maria.

“What did you do to your hair?” Maria asked. “You look so… old.”

He did not hear a word. She’s alive!

Her curled black hair was wet, dripping wet. Beads of water slowly cascaded down over her wide brown eyes, along the side of her nose, past her thick lips and off her chin before landing on the wide towel wrapped around her body. Her lips quivered.

“W-Who is that?” Maria sputtered, pointing at Jane.

Simon realized he was in bed with another woman… in front of his wife, in their own bedroom. It must have looked like…

He struggled to disengage himself from her arms and stand up as quickly as he could beside the bed. “Maria, this, uh,” he struggled, “is my--associate--Jane. We… came to save you.”

Jane got to her knees. “You are one lucky woman.”

It apparently was the wrong thing to say.

Maria screeched, “You bitch!” and launched herself at Jane. She was on top of Jane in moments, attempting to gouge her eyes out. It was an instant catfight, all flailing, scratching, and kicking.

Even as one part of his mind saw that Maria’s towel came off and his wet, naked wife was now wrestling his slippery latest lover in her bikini, the sensible part of his mind shouted, Plan B!

He grabbed the bag, ripped it open, and yanked out the restraints and the tape. He lunged at Maria, getting her by the shoulders and pulling her away from Jane.

“Get off me!” she shouted. “I’m gonna’ kill her!”

Maria had a fist full of blonde hair in her right hand, punching with her left toward her opponent as Jane scrambled off the bed. Jane had one of her hands on the side of her head where the hair was missing, but the other darted into the bag.

She pulled it out with the gun.

For a moment, the entire world was still.

“Don’t goddamn move!” Jane ordered. Her flushed face was a mask of hatred, and she cocked the hammer back.

“Jane,” Simon said slowly and carefully. “I need you to take a deep breath.”

Her eyes darted to his with loathing. “Just tie that bitch up!”

Maria’s face looked up into his. He could only guess what horrors filled her mind and she screamed, “Help! Somebody help me!”

Simon thrust tape over her mouth and forced her wet, naked body to flip over on the bed. His strong knee plowed down between her shoulder blades, pushing her face deep into the soft quilting while he pinned her flailing arms behind her back with a nylon zip strip.

The clock radio by her bedside clicked on, belting out The Carol of the Bells, and it caught him off guard. She frantically wormed out from underneath his grip and drove her heel into his ear hard enough to make him see stars.

She tried to scream, but the tape muted her cries for help.

Shaking his head to clear it, he pounced on her slender legs, winding another strip around her ankles. Yanking her form to its side with force, he attached a longer tie between the first two, immobilizing her.

He jumped off her then, to the side of the bed, and grabbed the gun away from Jane.

“I’ve got it,” he snarled at her. “Get your white suit and get out of here.”

The look on Jane’s face told him any respect she had for him was gone, and her voice was cutting. “Fine. You deal with her.”

She grabbed her bundle out of the bag and bolted out of the doorway. She slammed the door on her way out of the apartment, too.

He rubbed the side of his head. Maria had one hell of a kick, and one hell of a temper, too. Her inner Latina fire burned so strongly that it spread to him from the first moment he gazed into those smoldering brown eyes behind that wild, curled black hair in front of her face. He could not help but desire her, then.

She struggled on the bed, but he could not look away from her body, a body men would kill for. The feel of her naked skin burned in his memory. It had been such a long time, and he longed to be in her once more, to feel like a husband again.

He shook his head to clear it and found himself staring at a picture of the two of them at the National Railroad Museum up in Wisconsin, in front of the Union Pacific Big Boy, the world’s largest steam locomotive. His eyes poured toward Maria. She was so happy, so alive.

Just then, the full force of reality truly hit him. He was in an alternate universe, after all. Frost was right. This was his past.

The future was wide open again. He was free to live the rest of his days with her--maybe even have children, children who would escape this thousand-year prison in defiance of fate.

His eyes settled on himself in the picture. He knew that right now that Simon had no idea what agonies awaited him. He may have just been on his way home, but he was in for one hell of a surprise when he got home.

And never had his Maria again.

Simon paused.

He knew what that felt like. He knew what torments that Simon was going to feel… How that guy was always going to blame himself for going to work that morning… How he would always carry guilt with him, every day, sure that he could have made a difference if he had just been a better man.

Simon looked back at Maria. Right then, he knew he could not do it. He could not steal this Maria for himself and leave another Simon to suffer as he did.

“That is not your wife,” he reminded himself. “Your wife is dead. This Maria is married to a different Simon Litchfield.”

Dammit! Why did she have to come out of the shower so early? That’s not the way it happened twenty-one years ago.

After one hapless moment, it struck him.

I can catch the murderer.

A sudden peace filled him--he had purpose; one that was good, and true.

He picked up the oversized bath towel and threw it over her trembling form so she would be less of a distraction. The other Simon would be home in less than half an hour and find her. He would call the cops, and Maria would miss her date with death while they investigated and filled out endless forms. He had witnesses that placed him on the El right now. He would be safe from the law even if she would have some trouble with the shrinks.

“He will live happily ever after,” Simon pronounced.

His watch beeped: three minutes until his yuletide cheer disappeared, forever.

Right there, on the spot in front of where he stood, just beside the worn cedar chest that had belonged to his great-grandmother, his own Maria was slammed to the floor and the life strangled out of her with the cord from his old alarm clock. The steam engine-shaped clock stopped, and the hands on the face, mounted where the drive wheel was supposed to be, preserved the moment of her murder for him to find.

He heard the door of the apartment open. Both Marias left it unlocked when they were home, and that allowed their killer easy entry.

Simon slid behind the smooth bedroom door.

“Hello!” a man’s voice rang out.

Simon fumbled in his own confusion. The voice was familiar, but he could not place it.

“Maria!” the voice called out. “Where are you?”

Simon’s breath stole from his body. She knew this person. Her killer was never caught, never identified, but this person could have been at her funeral. This person could have been her friend, and not the stranger he had always thought.

The man stalked past the doorway, but Simon was so flustered that he caught only a momentary glimpse of the man through the crack between the door and the frame.

The intruder was tall, with a slender build. He had black hair that was tightly curled to his head. He was pale skinned, but could have been from any country. Rolled-up sleeves on a white dress shirt revealed a pale arm carrying a Corona bottle, emptied to the last dregs. Tan dress pants stood above cheap leather deck shoes.

The man paused, listening outside the bathroom door. Hearing the water running in the shower, he called out, “Oh, you want to do it in the shower!”

The bathroom door creaked as it opened, allowing the sultry air to billow out from the frame.

After a moment, he roared, “Dammit! You know I don’t like these games! C’mon, I came for my piece of ass, not to play hide and seek!”

The silence apparently did not suit the man. “Come on out or we’re through! You can go back to your husband’s prick!”

Simon’s heart skipped several beats. Time had taught him how to live with Maria’s murder, but not with the idea of her cheating on him.

He could not believe it. He would not believe it. Maria’s death had been an open wound in his heart for so many years, and this was supposed to heal it. Now his heart wrenched open again, just as strongly as it had when he first laid eyes on her lifeless body.

Footfalls in the doorway to the bedroom surprised Simon. He was so caught up in his emotions that he lost track of the man.

The bastard stalked into the doorway a single step, enough to see her struggling form on the bed under the oversized towel.

“That’s it. I warned her,” the man muttered. In an ominous tone, he continued, “I was going to end it today, anyway.”

Another step into the room and Simon darted out from behind the door with the quietness of a cat. He pointed the long silencer on his gun toward the back of the man’s head and cocked the hammer back. The sound of the hammer shocked the intruder as if he was jolted with electricity, and he froze in place.

“No,” Simon corrected, “I think I’ll end it today.”

The stillness of the room was deafening. No one seemed to breathe, and even the slightest sound or hint of motion was amplified a hundredfold.

“Very slowly,” Simon instructed, “turn around.”

The man moved so imperceptibly at first, it seemed that he was not moving at all. Gradually, his profile came into view.

Simon gasped.

It was his boss, Callow.

“Oh, it’s you,” the younger Callow remarked casually.

The world seemed to spin off-center to Simon, and he reeled from the sight. Never in his wildest imagination had he ever expected--not from Callow! He had worked for Callow for years, never dreaming, never guessing--never figuring out--that the man in front of him was responsible for ruining his life. Yet there he was, one eyebrow raised, with a mocking expression on his face.

Callow took Maria from him, and then sent him to do his dirty work on “secret” missions in hellholes around the planet--filthy, disgusting dives full of murderers and madmen. Callow sent him to face what could have been his doom over and over, when all the while, the son of a bitch was really controlling him like a puppet on strings.

“Why?” Simon barked out, his grip on the pistol going insanely tight.

Callow looked at him with amusement. “Why what?”

Rage welled up inside Simon--an almost unbridled desire to rip Callow’s heart from his chest with his bare hands. Veins bulged on his head and neck, and the adrenalin surging through his system made his whole body shake with murderous fury.

“Why aren’t you on your knees begging to live?!”

Callow laughed at him. “Because I know what is really going on here, and you don’t. You think this is about her, but it’s not. It’s about your mistakes, your neglect, and the lives it took.”

Simon’s breath caught in his throat. “What?”

Callow smiled coldly at him. “Your friends have enemies, too. Enemies who want to see your debt paid in a different way.

Simon was silent.

Callow pressed. “Did you really think you’d get away with it? That no one would ever know?”

Abruptly, Simon laughed in his face.

“What?” Callow paused, a hint of fear on his features for the first time.

Simon smiled dangerously at him. “I’m not who you think I am.”

The bullet from the .45 ripped into the young Callow’s thigh, and he spilled to the floor, convulsing in pain.

“I’ve already paid that debt,” Simon declared in dead, sober tones.

Callow’s burning, upward glare tumbled into a look of surprise and horror as the wronged husband pointed the gun barrel between his eyes.


A thousand points of light and agony exploded in Simon’s mind and he tried to cope with the waves of cognizance washing over his writhing form. His body shook and convulsed as it acclimated to its new reality in the tank of electrolytic goo. Finally, as the spasms subsided, he became aware of Frost’s face looking down at him with a flat, mildly amused expression.

“Well, Dr. Litchfield,” he inquired, “you didn’t bring Maria back. How are you going to live happily ever after?”

Simon gulped for air. Finally, he said, “Happily? Maybe I won’t. But he did.”

Frost commented. “I presume from your face that you didn’t waste precious time.”

Simon touched his finger to this cheek. There was blood on it. “Simon and Maria lived, and so did their descendents for a thousand years. Can anybody ask for more than that?”

“Good,” Frost concluded. “The next step is all yours, Doctor. Are you up to the task?”

Simon felt hollow. “A deal’s a deal.”


The sweet darkness of the hotel room embraced him and wrapped its loving folds around him as he woke. Simon accepted the dark. It was an old friend, and one that served him well. Darkness concealed his missions, hid his sins.

I’ve done it now, he thought to himself as he sat up on the edge of the bed. I’ve made a deal with the devil.

A minute passed while he stared into the gloom, looking for forgiveness that the dark could never grant.

With a start, Simon realized that his deal wasn’t what was bothering him. For better or worse, Frost wanted a copy of himself, but it was still the same man who asked him to go as he would bring back--there was no real harm there.

The bad feeling he had about this was because he didn’t have a clue how to get past Frost’s world-class security. He made his deal, but now he had to make good on it--and he did not know how.

Simon did not break his word--and had not since breaking it to Maria that morning. He knew she suspected he was going to work, but said nothing when he announced he would be back by eleven. He promised that he wouldn’t go to work.

That broken promise changed his life.

“Okay,” he chided himself aloud. “Time to get cracking.”

The first rule of covert operations was to know the lay of the land around your target, so Simon snapped on the lights to get a good look at the hotel diagram on the back of the door.

The hotel was essentially a squat H-shape, with Simon’s suite at the top end of the left-hand ascender, and the Presidential Suite atop the right. A single hallway connected the two sides. He knew two guards were posted at the elevator, one at Frost’s end of the connecting hall, and two gigantic bodyguards outside the billionaire’s doorway at the end of the corridor. Stairwell access was tightly monitored and Simon knew there were guards there, too.

Jane’s entry from the other room told him that there were personnel inside Frost’s suite, so he could not be deposited there by Frost’s machine, either. Plus, if he had gone to his own room, the guards would have noticed that he had come from his room twice, while only going once. Instead, he asked for an empty, out of the way room, to be his destination. He also could not arrive too early, or he would show up on security cameras before he was supposed to be in the hotel.

The second rule was to know your assets.

Melvin Squibb was an excellent procurer of technology that was not supposed to exist for the Nightwatch Institute: cameras the size of peas, surveillance suppression devices, and even tasers no bigger than circuit probes. Unfortunately, Simon had not known he was going to need any of them before he left. He had his phone and earpiece, but not much else.

The guards will know I’m on the A-list, and had an appointment to see Frost, he thought. That’s an asset.

At that appointment, the billionaire would give his pitch for only fifteen minutes and soon after he and the other Simon would leave together for the warehouse. Simon knew he had to get to Frost before that meeting took place. Frost would have been downstairs by six to greet guests. That left him just over two hours to devise an undetectable entrance strategy… with nothing to work with besides his charm. If only he had Stephanie with him--

He jumped. There was a Stephanie in this universe, too.

He reached for his company phone, but paused. His and the other Simon’s phone were exactly the same. Same frequencies, same activation codes and security protocols. If he used it, his duplicate might be able to hear every word.

Sighing, he grabbed the hotel phone, and made a regular, non-scrambled, long-distance call.

Stephanie’s voice on the other end was tired. “Hello?”

“Hi,” he charmed. “It’s Simon. Did I wake you?”

Her thick voice paused. “Yeah. Fell asleep in the chair… Why are you calling me on this phone?”

“Look,” Simon pleaded, “I’m in a bad way here. I need to know how to change my phone and earpiece to a new frequency or scramble the codes so my phone as it is now, so it won’t be able to listen in, and I need to know now. This is an emergency.”


He sighed, trying to think of something that would get her to cooperate without telling her what was going on. “Somebody copied my phone. I need to talk to you on a protected line, now.”

There was a beat pause before Stephanie answered. “Okay, but first tell me. What outfit was I wearing the day we met?”

Simon recognized her attempt to verify his identity with something only she would know. Softly, he replied, “You weren’t wearing anything, until I put my coat around you.”

She replied, “Here’s how…”


“Here’s the deal,” Simon explained. “I need to sneak or bluff my way into the Presidential Suite without being noticed. I have a window of the next hour and forty-five minutes to do it in, and I don’t have time to explain why. There are a lot of guys with guns in my way. I have this phone, my good looks and charm, and you as assets.”

“Lotsa luck.” Stephanie whistled. “Fire alarm?”

“No.” Simon shook his head. “Frost has to be in there.”

She looked shocked. “You’re sneaking in when he’s there?”

“I don’t have time to explain.” He held in his frustration. “Look, I need to get into that room without being seen, or the whole world as we know it could end. I’m not kidding.”

She closed her eyes, apparently lost in thought for about a minute. Opening them, she asked, “Is there a cleaning closet on your floor?”

He shrugged. “I think so.”

She cracked her knuckles over her keyboard. “I’ll be into the security system in less than ten minutes. Get into that closet and bring back every chemical you can find--and a housekeeping or room service cart.”

He paused. “Is this something from the Anarchist’s Cookbook?”

“Only if you wanted to blow your own hand off.” She glowered at him, typing furiously, “You said you were in a hurry. Move!”


The doors opened in front of the pair of guards.

Santa Claus stood inside the elevator, behind a room service cart covered with a long tablecloth.

Clearly, Santa had fallen on hard times.

Santa’s hat was several sizes too large, and even though the man tilted it back on his head, it hung down too far into his eyes. A jagged tear in the left shoulder testified to the weakness of his suit’s felt fabric. The cuffs and trim appeared warm and fuzzy, but the man underneath them had found out the hard way that they were held on just with pins. He was not sure, but he feared a single deep breath could cause the wide, naugahyde belt to rip in half, spilling the bath towels he used to fill things out.

“Ho, ho, ho!” Simon boomed. “Merry Christmas!”

His cheerful call met with a long, unsafe silence.

The guard to his left resembled a stereotypical leg-breaker for the mob--thick, black hair and stocky build, from Italian descent, and in an expensive gray suit. The brown-haired guard on the right in a matching suit was tall and lean, with a linebacker’s build and a Midwesterner’s measuring eye. Their expressions were wary, and dangerous.

Finally, the guard to his left cracked an amused smile that let Simon restart his heart.

The guard on the right stopped it again as one hand dove inside his jacket, presumably for the butt of a pistol, while the other motioned for Simon to stay where he was.

“Hold it,” the guard warned. “This floor is off-limits, pops.”

Simon hoped two things: first, that no one had noticed the missing stuffed Santa from the Marquette room downstairs, and second, that he could hold off the sneeze that the itchy, nylon beard was causing to build inside him. At least his “silver” hair could help him, for a change, and he smiled a harmless grin toward the human pit bull in front of him.

“You boys must be on Santa’s ‘good’ list,” Simon joked. “I’ve brought you some hot coffee, with compliments, from downstairs.”

The guard studied him for a moment, and then spoke into his wrist.

“This is Five,” he barked. “Did somebody send up some clown in a Santa suit with coffee?”

Stephanie spoke, but her answer came out in a man’s voice, thanks to the transmitter taped to the bottom of the cart. “That’s affirmative, Five. Merry Christmas, and stay awake up there.”

Stephanie sighed with obvious relief into Simon’s earpiece as she watched the other guard on her monitor shrug and pull the cart into the hallway. Talking him through wiring parts of the room phone, clock radio, and his company phone together had been one of the most difficult things she had done since she had joined Nightwatch. His arthritis and Chicago’s December weather made him all thumbs.

“Ok, Saint Nick,” the human pit bull grumbled at him. “Grab some wall. Joe, check that cart.”

The other guard rolled his eyes, but lifted the cloth and glanced briefly underneath the flat top of the cart. “It looks fine.”

Simon put his hands on the side of the elevator, and felt the guard kick his legs apart. Strong mitts grabbed at the towels filling his suit, frisking him.

“Bogey in east stairwell,” Stephanie called out into their headsets. “On eight, moving down. He has something stuck inside his coat.”

The guard paused.

Speaking into his wrist again, he growled, “Five. On my way.”

“Get rid of him,” he snapped at Joe, the other guard.

“Yeah, ok.”

As soon as “Five” was out of sight, Joe poured some coffee from the chromed pot into a Styrofoam cup. “That guy should get nuthin’ but coal tonight, let me tell ya. Man, he rides everybody hard.”

Simon took his hands down and smiled as the guard took a long swallow.

“Joey,” a voice hissed from down the hall. “Send that guy down here with that coffee before Five gets back.”

Simon heard quiet echoes of approval.

“Ok, Santa, you’re on,” Joe decided. “And tell Mikey thanks for the wake-up juice, ok? It’s extra strong, just like I like it.”

“Oh, yeah?” Simon asked cheerfully. “Glad you like it. I made it myself.”

The Italian suit at the junction of the hallways took two cups, one of them he set on a thin table below a gilded mirror, and the other he gulped greedily.

Simon pressed on, sizing up the gray-suited bodyguards placed on either side of the door to the presidential suite as he pushed the harmless-looking cart toward them. They were big; six-three at least, and built like weightlifters or super heavyweight wrestlers--a matched set of meat-based bookends strong enough to snap him in half. Their hair was black, and their faces were European, maybe Greek.

The fellow on the right gestured for Simon to hurry.

“Come on,” he urged with a thick, Turkish accent. “I love coffee.”

The burly man poured quickly, but the other man just rolled his eyes.

“Coffee?” Simon asked.

The other guard shook his head.


“No,” the other replied. “Don’t like coffee, tea. Got Mountain Dew?”

The first guard mocked him, slurping his coffee down. “Mr. Mountain Dew. Can’t get enough of it.”

“No.” Simon’s smile fell. He hadn’t counted on that. “No soft drinks, sorry.”

A noise down the hall distracted the first guard, and he turned to look.

On the carpeting near the intersection of the hallways, the guard who had taken two cups was flat on his face.

“Billy,” the first guard called. “What are you doing? You trip?”

The guard took three steps down the hall before pitching forward, striking the floor, out cold.

The second guard grabbed Simon’s collar and slammed him into the hallway wall, holding him there.

Into his wrist microphone he hurried, “AlarmFivebreachoutsidesuite! Alarm!”

There was no reply. He sneaked a worried glance at Simon before trying again. “Alarm! Five, suite door! Breach!”

The guard looked stunned by the silence Stephanie’s transmitter was putting on all communications from the floor.

Simon smiled at him disarmingly.

“You son of bitch!” the guard bellowed, punching at Simon’s nose.

Simon ducked out from under the grip on his collar, sending the punch deep into the hybrid drywall panel behind him. He grabbed the arm as it tried to recoil from the impact, and kicked up into the surprised man’s solar plexus. Staggered wind spilled from the guard as the strike landed, and his eyes turned to platters, boggled with Simon’s agility.

The big man punched again, this time with his left hand. Simon blocked the strike with his left, and spun to slam his right elbow into the side of the man’s head. Simon’s momentum carried him forward until he was facing the reeling man again.

Clearly flustered, the big man jabbed his leg out toward Simon’s left knee, but Simon stepped to the side again and swept upward with his own left arm, catching the underside of the oncoming leg. Driving his own shoulder into the guard, Simon lifted the leg high, tipping his opponent backward.

The man landed flat on his back, hard, and Simon’s knee drop to his chest was only a split second behind. The force of the impacts pushed all the breath from the man’s body, and his arms flailed. The end of the ju jitsu motion left Simon kneeling on the man’s prone form, leaning over the torso. The guard’s red face strained up at him, and Simon drove the heel of his hand into the outstretched chin. The force of that blow snapped the back of the bodyguard’s head into the floor.

Simon repeated it. On the third time, the bodyguard went limp with unconsciousness.

Simon scolded, “Shame on you, talking to Santa like that. It’s the ‘Naughty’ list for you now.”


Even on Simon’s second visit, the luxury of the six-room presidential suite was breathtaking. In the entry foyer, a crystal chandelier, nearly two feet across, hugged a recessed octagon in the ceiling that overlooked what appeared to be seamless beige marble floors. A matched pair of silver, faceted mirrors on his right framed off a gold, mirror-lined archway leading to the suite’s bedroom. Directly opposite it was a gold-framed looking glass nearly six feet across above a narrow settee. Further down on the right, a double set of closed, white, folding doors marked off the entrance to the dining room before the hallway turned to the left, out of his sight. Sconces and lamps on diamond-patterned tables from some expensive European period lined the walls.

He glanced into the looking glass on the left wall in front of him to see down the connecting hall on the right that led to the bedroom. Within the short passage, a single door lead to the left before the hallway opened onto a set of double doors. Beyond the doors he could see a large open space, a dark-toned wood dresser, and a gold-framed glass table that stood at the back of a beige and gold couch.

He listened. Frost had said it was important that the security staff not know what happened, and Simon was afraid of what he might have to do if he was discovered. He preferred a zero casualty rate, especially when it came to his own body.

He could not hear anyone, so he stepped carefully into the bedroom hallway. The yielding, plush carpet softened his footfalls, hopefully erasing them from notice. The room off the side of the hall did not have lights on, and he found it was a closet--but a bigger one than he had ever seen, more than half the size of Simon’s own living room. Continuing on, he sneaked a glance into the bedroom. No one was there, but on seeing the size of the room and the host of furnishings there, he could not help wondering why the uppercrust would want a whole living room set in their bedroom.

He decided his regular tan and khaki ensemble would have a better chance of blending in with the soft beige and gold tones everywhere than in a bright red Santa suit, especially one that was falling apart from his fight with the guard outside. Simon stole to a doorway in the back corner of the room, which he correctly presumed to be the bathroom. There, the thick scent of imported soaps overpowered the musty, mothballed smell of his torn Santa Claus costume, and he hid it in an enormous bathtub that he found concealed behind mirrored doors.

He paused when he returned to the foyer and glanced around the left corner across from the dining room doors. There was no one in the archway to the living room, and the other door was closed, thankfully. He stepped silently to the folding doors in front of him. Wishing to some higher power that he had better cover for his entrance strategy, he pushed the smooth, painted door open.

The dining room was lit by an elaborate French chandelier of amethyst and amber crystal fruit, hanging above a dark, wooden table set for six to dine in elegance. The faint odor of a hundred past gourmet meals tantalized the air while the recorded sounds of a string quartet soothed digestion from hidden speakers. Beyond the table were large windows that revealed a dance of traffic beside a deep, indigo Lake Michigan in the storm-brightened evening. Snow whirled outside the windows, frozen sprites flashing their natural, crystalline beauty before the opulence of man and then dashing out of sight to join the white horde that was rapidly covering everything.

In spite of his best efforts to stay calm, Simon’s pulse raced, and his surging blood thundered in his ears. Adrenalin flooded through his system as he came to grips with the fact there were only two more rooms: one with Frost hopefully by himself, and one with enough armed security to turn him into human Swiss cheese the moment they laid eyes on him. Simon decided to try the living room where he had met Frost before and hoped his luck continued to hold. The guards in the hallway would be asleep for hours, but Simon did not know how long Stephanie could keep the zealous “Five” occupied.

The room divided into two sections. The first was the large space where he had visited Frost, and a second part, on Simon’s right, was a small, ten by twenty area separated from the main part of the room by a pillared archway.

Simon hoped his aged head of hair would only be visible for an instant as he bobbed it into and out of the doorway, scanning the length of the room to his left only. He saw matched sofas across from the glass table in front of the fireplace where he had visited with Frost before. He took in the grand, wooden desk across from the archway as well as the host of gilded mirror frames and wall sconces arranged around the room’s perimeter.

There was no one there in that side of the living room.

The nook to his right was furnished in brown leather chairs and oak tables in front of a row of beige-curtained windows that looked out onto Lake Michigan. On the end close to Simon stood a large console television and a flanking pair of the leather chairs, set back behind the arch, out of easy view unless he walked in.

The first step into the room gave Simon a sight that stopped him in his tracks.

Frost hunched over in the chair on the far side of the television, bent forward, his elbows on his knees. His hands were on his head, and he rocked forward and back in the seat of the chair. His face was a mask of shock and horror.

The front of Frost’s white tuxedo shirt was drenched in blood.

Inches from his left shoe, the handle of a bloody kitchen knife stained the light carpeting, its point toward the seat on the opposite side of the television.

Jane was in the other chair.

Her lifeless eyes glowered out at the room, marking a sense of hatred and horror. Her throat was slashed above her tight, red dress, and its fiery glitter was tainted with a dull, crimson hue that he wished he did not recognize so easily. Her arms hung down off each side of the chair. Her left leg bent back underneath the chair, a sign of convulsion, and her right splayed into the room, showing that she may have been held in place there as she died.

Not six hours before, he held her vivacious body against his own, and she brought his own form to life. Three hours ago, she pointed a gun at Maria’s head and scowled at him with apparent hatred and loathing.

Now her dead eyes judged him again with the same damning hate, as if this was his own doing, as if he had somehow killed her by his actions, by this trip back in time.

“What have you done?” Simon finally uttered.

Frost looked at him then, his expression still shocked and confused. “What are you doing here?”

What am I doing here? Simon thought to himself.

Frost’s remorseless face burned into his memory. He saw now this supposedly philanthropic businessman was a cold-blooded killer--a murderer who had manipulated Simon to bring him back to Simon’s own timeline. Simon wanted to take Frost apart with his bare hands, to mete out justice on him… justice for a crime that would not exist in Simon’s world, for after their return, the sickening deed would never have happened, and he had given his word to bring the billionaire back.

Simon decided that this must have been one of Frost’s reasons for using his machine in the first place--to play God without consequences, to bring a murderous copy of himself into the world.

Right then, and there, Simon realized that he was the only human being who would know the crime. He was the only one who could deliver the consequences, but had given his word, if he kept it.

In an instant, fighting moves that would kill Frost floated to the top of his mind. Frost would pay.

His body tensed…

And he threw the retrieval suit at Frost.

“Put that on,” Simon scowled. “I’ve come to get you, just like you wanted.”

Just as he could not leave the alternate universe Simon to live without his Maria, he could not break his word. He would not, and damn the aftermath.

“W-what?” Frost looked lost. “No… What?”

Simon grabbed him by the shirt, and looked straight into his eyes. “Put it on, and I’ll get you out of here. We don’t have a lot of time.”

Frost floundered, gaping at him.

Simon grabbed the billionaire’s bloody hand and held it in front of his face. “You murdered Jane. Get the suit on, or you’ll be caught.”

“No,” Frost protested. “I--’

“--I don’t care,” Simon growled. “Get that suit on or I’ll break your neck. I pay my debts.”

Simon noted that the white suits made them look like a pair of house painters as he zipped his own up the front.

A flying tackle from behind knocked Simon from his feet and into Frost, who smacked headfirst into the wooden sill of one of the windows. The rich man fell to the floor, unconscious.

Strong fists pounded into Simon’s back, digging deep into his kidneys.

He dropped, turning and spinning as he kicked out a leg, tumbling his attacker.

It was Five.

Simon drove his shoulder into Five’s chest, wrapping his right arm under Five’s shoulder and grabbing hold while pinning Five’s other arm with his legs.

“Help!” Five shouted. “Get in here!”

Simon dealt the guard two debilitating punches to the side of the head with his left.

He heard the door to the other room slam open and the sound of scrambling shoes.

He dug his right hand under Five’s shoulder. There!

He pulled out a weapon barely bigger than a pistol, a Czech Skorpion submachine gun, and swung it up toward the doorway.

The weapon spat two times.

Sections of wall plaster tumbled from bullet holes in the side of the archway to the marble floor in front of a stumbling, surprised guard, who was fumbling to fish out his own Skorpion from under his suit jacket.

Simon jumped off the unconscious Five and grabbed Frost’s limp body.

He put the barrel of the firearm to the side of Frost’s temple, and yelled out, “I have a gun pointed at the head of your boss! You come in here, he dies!”

A pair of excited Turkish voices chattered in the hallway.

“What you want?” came the reply in English.

“Get out!” Simon ordered, “Outside the suite! Now!”

Simon pulled Frost’s body up in front of his own, shielding himself. He stepped into the open.

“Move!” he ordered.

The guard’s faces were full of hate, but they backed down the hallway and around the corner.

“Keep going,” Simon warned. “I can see the whole hallway in those mirrors. Out!”

As soon as the door closed, he dropped Frost back into the chair.

After a single deep breath, he pulled the hood over the billionaire’s head and then unsnapped the power cord from Frost’s suit that ran the length of the leg. The plug had a socket on the top for his own to plug directly into--so that they would disappear together. The techs had warned him that the breakers in the room would trip, so they had to go at the same time. When Simon reached down, to unsnap his own, he saw that his suit was torn from under his right arm to his waist.

“Damn,” he breathed. He did not know if that would stop it from working or not.

He heard a noise.

It was the tiniest noise, the sound of a latch opening.

He yanked his own hood up, stuck his plug into Frosts, and jabbed them both into the wall outlet.

A spear of searing pain burned into him from his side and he saw his body convulsing as it tumbled over backward, into blackness.


“Where is he?!”

The right hook punctuated his blurred vision, snapping Simon’s head to his own right. Pain drilled into him from his nose to his left ear, and somehow he knew whoever hit him was wearing brass knuckles. His arms would not move, and he could tell he was sitting. He felt woozy, drugged.

When his eyes did open, they confirmed his suspicion. He was tied to a chair. The right side of his khaki shirt was scorched, burned where the edges of the rip in his retrieval suit touched him.

“Oh,” he moaned to himself. I’m still in the other universe. The suit didn’t work.

Another blow struck the left side of his face, short-circuiting his mind for a few seconds. He felt something hot and wet running down the side of his face--presumably blood.

“Enough,” ordered a thickly accented voice.

“Your Excellency,” his interrogator protested, “he hasn’t told us anything.”

“I said enough! If your secret drugs did not work, why do you think beating him will help you?”

When another blow did not fall, Simon hazarded to open his good eye, the right one. In front of him, still in ceremonial garb, was his All Holiness, the Archbishop of Constantinople. He sat on a chair, with a very angry Five standing behind him, brass knuckles on his hand. Behind Five was the pair of thick bodyguards from outside Frost’s suite.

“Doctor,” the Archbishop began, “I would very much like to talk to Mr. Frost. He has certain items--certain irreplaceable items--that belong to the Lord. I want them back. Where is he?”

Simon replied. “I don’t know where he is right now.”

The Archbishop frowned. “But you were here with him. This man saw you with him.” He pointed at Five.

“Where is Frost now?”

Simon felt the drugs pushing him, forcing the words out. “He’s not on this Earth, not anymore.”

“So you keep saying. So you believe.” The Archbishop shook his head.


One of the Turkish bodyguards grabbed Five from behind.

“What are you doing?” Five shouted in anger.

“You,” the holy man accused, “You took Frost out of the room. Miss Messenger saw you.”

Five protested. “She’s dead!”

“No, she is not. Take him away.”

The guard pulled the man from the room and out of sight.

Simon tried to keep up but failed. “She’s alive?”

“She works for me.” The Archbishop smiled. “She was helping us to teach Mr. Frost the error of his ways. Sadly, some sinners need extra persuasion.”

To the other bodyguard, he added, “Cut him loose, and see that he gets back to his room safely. He is telling the truth as he knows it.”


The answering machine in his room flashed, and the message told him that he had an urgent package at the front desk.

Simon splashed water on his swollen eye, trying to clean himself up.

Into the mirror, he muttered to himself, “Thank heavens there were aspirin in the medicine cabinet… I hope life gets better in this universe, because it started off terrible.”

He threw his burned khaki top into the garbage and pulled his only spare one from his suitcase in an effort to look presentable before he left for the elevators. He wanted to get out of the room before he ran into the Simon from this universe. That explanation would be way too hard for him to give today.

“Dr. Litchfield?” called a voice from the direction of the front desk.

Unable to see from his left eye, he turned his whole body to see the worker who had given him his room key. She was waving at him.


“Oh.” She looked taken aback by the condition of his face. “Are you all right, sir? Do you need to see a doctor?”

“I saw one.” In the mirror, he mused, but the joke fell flat to even himself.

“This package arrived for you special delivery,” she explained, putting on the desk a small package with the Nightwatch Institute, Chicago Office, seal. “It’s marked ‘Urgent’ three times.”


“Stephanie,” Simon called into his new earpiece microphone without enthusiasm. “How are you this Christmas day?”

“Are you coming unglued?” she asked. “Yesterday was Christmas.”

“What? No, it’s today.”

There was a beat pause. “No, when you called and asked me for help, that was Christmas. Don’t they have any newspapers or television in that hotel?”

Simon sidled to an end table and chairs, where fresh bundles of Chicago Tribunes and Sun-Times lay. The date on them was December 26th.

He puzzled. By his watch, it was 4:30 a.m. Christmas morning.

“How long were you trying to get hold of me?”

“A whole day. I have the entire Chicago office out looking for you.” Stephanie’s voice in his new earpiece was halting. “I was pretty worried about you, and from the look of your face, I was right to be.”

He sighed. “You have no idea.”

“Simon,” she intoned, “I need you to look at a picture on your phone that I got off the surveillance cameras last night. Is that who I think it is?”

He flipped it open and looked. It was a course, black and white screenshot of someone in a hooded sweatshirt standing beside a dark gray sedan in an underground structure, like a parking ramp. The hood was turned to the left side compared to the torso, toward the camera, as if on lookout. Next to the person, two men in dark suits seemed to be loading an injured person into the open doors of the vehicle--one of the legs that protruded was wrapped with bandages. The light on the face was dim, so he brought the phone closer to his eye to try to see inside the hood.

The world lurched unnaturally, and his breath sucked into his lungs in a ragged hasp.

“Maria.” She was alive!

His mind raced. There was not a Maria in this universe like there was during his first trip. She shouldn’t be here. Had Frost brought her back before he left? But Frost didn’t have the power available to make any more trips--unless he lied about that. If he did bring her back, why would Frost keep her from him?

Stephanie spoke again. “I have another piece, this one of video.”

The phone shook slightly in his hands as he looked at the diminutive screen. Frost stood in a hallway, turned away from the camera and looking down the hotel corridor. A dark-haired woman approached in a sequin-covered, gold evening gown and carrying a matching purse.

It was Maria.

Frost greeted her with a hug, and she gave him kiss on the cheek. They appeared to speak for a few moments before Five opened a door next to Frost. Maria’s countenance changed, and she appeared to speak sharp words at the zealous guard. Five shook his head. She became visibly upset, and took a brightly colored metal object out of her purse and handed it to Five.

She took Frost’s arm, and led him down the hall, out of the camera’s view. Five glared at her, but then turned and disappeared back into the room.

Stephanie sounded confused. “What was all that? How could that be Maria, and what was she doing with Frost?”

His voice faltered as the world seemed to somersault around him. “I need you to check out an address. Tell me what the name of the business is.”

He heard her typing as he gave her the address of Frost’s warehouse, where the time machine was.

“It says Hobbytown Toys Distributing. It’s up for sale. Why is that important?”

“It was a fake.” The phone slipped from Simon’s limp fingers into the lobby chair, and he walked away from it.

“Simon?” Stephanie asked with worried tones. “Are you all right?”

“I have to think,” he mumbled, removing his earpiece and dropping it to the floor as he pushed himself toward the exit, the image of the brass knuckles Maria gave Five still burned into his retinas.

The warehouse was a fake. The time machine, the long scientific explanation from Frost, his ‘trip’ into the past--all of it was fake, a trick. He never left the real universe.

Simon remembered the distorted, shocked feeling he had while talking to Frost… after drinking the glass of whiskey. Then he drank another one. Whatever was in it must have helped him to swallow the story.

“But why?” he struggled aloud.

If Frost was making it all up, what about…


Was Maria an imposter? He wondered to himself, but the answer came just as fast as the idea. No. I know Maria when I see her. That was her.

That meant she never died.

But she looked as young as she did then, his mind protested.

Or did she?

Maria was eight years younger than he was, and had always been very physically active and fit. Images flashed before him of her face, of her body, and he tried to compare her to the woman he knew. Her face looked more… tired… than it used to. Her cheekbones were more defined than he remembered, her eyes more set in. There was just a tiny crease at the edge of her mouth, and a hint of a wrinkle on her forehead, but they hadn’t been there before. Her shoulders sloped just a little more than they used to. Her breasts did not seem to hold up quite as firmly as they had.

Perhaps it was good makeup, the drugs he was given, or the best plastic surgery money could buy… he had not seen the differences. He had wanted her to be alive, to be twenty-five again, and that clouded his perception.

His heart skipped beats. He realized all his pain, his suffering over the years, was all for nothing. She faked her own death. She had lain in the coffin, awake through her own funeral, to make Simon believe she was gone. He knew there were drugs to slow her breathing and heart beat to simulate death. She could have used them on the day of the funeral and also just before he found her in their apartment.

With a start, Simon remembered that everything he had seen in their Chicago apartment was stored in his garage back in Georgetown. Maria would have known those items existed, and where he kept them. Plus she knew firsthand how their apartment was arranged and decorated. She knew exactly how to fool him.

He stopped in his tracks, fists clenched. “Why? Why fool me into thinking Callow killed her--”

It couldn’t have been the real Callow.

Another tumbler clicked in his mind, and he remembered Stephanie’s pictures of Maria loading an injured man--the pretend Callow he shot in the leg--into the car.

Try as he could, Simon could not remember pulling the trigger the second time, finishing that Callow off. The gun was to Callow’s head, there was noise and pain, but then Simon woke up in Frost’s giant Petri dish with blood spattered on his face. Frost said the dish was filled with “topical anesthetic and flame retardant” but it really could have been any drug they wanted to mess with his head.

He grabbed the arm of the bellhop by the door. “Whoever did this wanted me to be mad enough to kill Callow on sight!”

The bellhop skittered away, and Simon stepped through the doors to draw less attention.

They wanted me to save Maria. He knew that, for some reason, they wanted Maria back into his life. She would always know what he was doing, so she could have been trying to bug his activities. He was going to leave Nightwatch to be with Maria, Callow’s blackmail files be damned--

He boggled at his own gullibility. She’s a spy, an operative, just like me.

“They wanted me to leave Nightwatch,” he breathed. “They wanted to hurt the Institute. I would have killed Callow, and left Nightwatch. There would have been no more Lower Echelon, no more covert operations. That’s why they went to all that effort with the whole story and sending me back with Jane--”

He knew Jane’s visit before his meeting with Frost would have kept his mind occupied, kept him too busy to call Stephanie. Then again, in her slippery bikini and blowing in his ear, she kept him off balance while they drugged him and knocked him out. Her fight with Maria had to have been staged to put him on the defensive, to make him instinctively protective and trusting of Maria. Then the false Callow must have been there, to bring out his hate and blind him to what was going on.

He frowned, trying to put more pieces of the puzzle together: Jane was supposed to work for Frost, but she went on the trip with him, so she had to be in with the bad guys, too. Plus the Archbishop said she also worked for him, and that her death was falsified as well, to get leverage over Frost.

“Christ,” Simon complained. “Was anything real?”

Simon gulped the cold, exhaust-scented air outside the main entrance, trying to get his head on straight. As he stood there, a black stretch limo pulled to the curb in front of him. One of the doormen shouted out, “Limo for his All Holiness, the Archbishop.”

Moments later, the wizened head of the Archbishop stepped from the hotel doors. Gone was the ceremonial garb, replaced by a simple, black suit and tie. The cleric straightened his tie before stepping up to the waiting car door.

A tiny pin in the shape of a cross tumbled from the tie and bounced into a narrow scrape of snow on the hard-frozen sidewalk at Simon’s feet that escaped the bustling doormen, unnoticed by the holy man and his flanking bodyguards. It looked like it was made of gold and covered in rubies.

Simon scooped it up. “Your Excellency, you dropped your pin.”

The Archbishop stopped in mid-stride for a moment before turning and stepping over to Simon. He eyed the jewelry in Simon’s outstretched hand.

“It looks quite valuable,” Simon noted.

“No, like so much here, it is only tinsel,” the Patriarch laughed in his thick accent, taking it into his hand. “It looks good, but it is worthless. And now it is covered in cold rime.”

He wiped off the thin, white layer of frost from the small trinket before sliding into the open limousine door. He closed it, but then rolled the window down and gestured for Simon to come closer.

When Simon’s head was close enough that only he could hear, a voice struck him that he did not expect.

“Doctor,” the voice whispered, “we’ll talk more about this on Monday morning. Nightwatch Two is at O’Hare. It will take you home.”

Simon boggled. On a closer look, he saw the careful application of makeup and a well-made mask on the face in front of him.

“You? What are you doing here?”

Callow smiled a Cheshire cat grin. “My job, of course. Overseeing the operation.”


“Quite so,” Callow beamed. “You didn’t think the real Archbishop would be away from his church at Christmas, did you? This was a well-planned and executed operation of over two-dozen operatives and security personnel. Just like my days back at the CIA.”

Simon’s look was dangerous. “I didn’t need to be a part of it.”

“On the contrary, Doctor,” Callow gloated. “Without you, we may never have flushed out the imposter and so much of Prometheus. Mr. Frost was rather pleased with the results.”

The “Archbishop” turned and gestured across the street as his limo pulled away. The alive Jane was across the street, climbing into the open driver’s side door of a black Lexus sedan. On the far side of the vehicle was a man, almost a dead ringer for the man Simon met in the suite, presumably the real Frost. He watched Simon and waved.

Jane turned to look.

“Hey, Litchfield,” she called out. “You were pretty good, for an amateur.”

Jane’s smug look burned into him as her car door slammed almost as much as the real Frost’s wide grin did as he closed his own door. The Lexus purred to life as Jane turned and said something to the billionaire Simon could not make out.

She used him. Frost used him. Callow did too. Even Maria had.

Not a single event in the past 24 hours had been real. He was a dupe, a diversion in a chess game, and a lot of it was the doing of Jane and Frost across the street from him. His blood boiled within, and Simon wanted to get his hands on both of them, to wring out some justice for himself.

A lipstick-red Corvette convertible with the top down slowly prowled in front of his tunnel vision of Jane’s sedan. It stopped in front of him, and the black, wavy hair of a woman in sunglasses turned in front of him. The smiling face rooted him in place.

It was Maria!

Jane must have realized her identity the same instant as Simon, because the Lexus’ engine roared.

The tires on both the vehicles spun against the slippery roadway as the cars strained to move.

Simon jumped forward, just missing his grip on the bolting convertible.

Side by side, the two cars sped away from him.

He lurched forward, running after them down the middle of the black, wet street.

At the corner, Jane’s black sedan turned to the right, out of his sight behind a building, and Maria’s red convertible was tight behind it.

Simon’s pounding heart leapt to his throat when seconds later he heard the cacophonous scream of a car crashing.

It took him less than thirty seconds to reach the corner, but the wailing sound of tires screeching away forewarned him of what he would find.

Jane’s car was up on the sidewalk on the wrong side of the road, its front end deep into the corner of a brown, brick storefront.

Maria’s car was nowhere in sight.

The pounding of his shoes against the pavement provided a staccato rhythm against the steady drone of the car’s horn. The front of the hood and bumper were bent, warped inward by the force of the vehicle’s high-speed impact with the corner of the masonry structure.

He made out the circular void in the side window, a bullet hole, as he skidded to a stop beside the door.

He flung the door open.

Jane’s blonde hair was a crimson mass, slumped into the steering wheel. As he pulled her shoulder’s back to look at her, he knew that even the best special effects in Hollywood could not do that to a face.

Jane was dead for real this time, and Frost was gone. The bad guys, this Prometheus, most likely wanted to get their hands on the real Frost. Maria--she must have shot Jane in the head and took the billionaire.

I didn’t know Maria could kill someone. Why? Why murder Jane if she already worked for them?

Simon wondered if Callow might not have been the only one running an operation where the goal was not what it seemed.


The soulless gray sky over Georgetown was little comfort to him as Simon drove, urging his car down a back alley. There were few houses this far down this street, and those that were there were well past their prime. What had once been nice shops were now run-down frames with mostly boarded up windows. The snow here was turning to rain, spattering the dark drifts at the edges of the road with enough liquid to wash trickles of dirt, road salt, and accumulated pollution down their sides like coal-black tears, as if the world wept at the day.

The garage was covered in redwood-stained cedar shingles, and its wide door hugged the alleyway on a tiny, half lot that had once belonged to a relative of his. He bought the building when they moved as a place to hide his past where no one would find it--a place to put Maria’s belongings so far away from him that it could lessen the hopelessness that filled him whenever he used to see them.

He had not been there in years.

Junk and debris filled the space around the structure, evidence that the area residents thought it was a suitable dumping ground, too.

Simon parked his car and stepped to the wide overhead door with trepidation. The space within was supposed to be full of boxes, pictures, and old furnishings… full of memories he tried to forget.

In spite of himself, he hoped against hope as he unlocked it that they would still be there, that he was wrong, and that the Maria he had seen was an imposter.

The open-framed garage was empty, swept clean.

Empty, that is, except for a single, four-legged, wooden stool set dead in the center of the space. On its flat top were a five by seven photograph, a small card, and a rose.

The photograph was of him and Maria, standing in front of the Pacific Blue Boy engine. She looked so happy, so alive.

The card read, “Sometimes life doesn’t turn out like it should.”

He knew the handwriting only too well.

Wordlessly, he slid the photo into the inside pocket of his coat. He lifted the rose to his nose and sniffed, but could not smell anything. His senses seemed as numb as his mind, and he tucked the rose inside his coat as well.

He did not know what to do.

Even his years of grief over Maria’s death had not prepared him for gut-wrenching hollowness that overwhelmed him now. He looked down at the floor, and started walking, staring at the pavement in front of him until he was out the door. As he turned to look back at the empty space, the slow rain battered at him, concealing the slow tears that rolled down his cheek.

Simon walked on, away from the garage, and past his waiting vehicle. He kept walking down the alley, past the first corner, and then another, until the garage was out of sight.

Empty thoughts and memories flooded through him step by step through the rain until he found himself staring at a sign above a door that read, “Cannon Moon Cafe.”

His internal momentum carried him inside and up to the bar. He slid onto a stool and stared at nothing in particular until a hand touched his own left, holding it.

The hand connected to the rest of a tall woman with kind, sparkling eyes. Those radiant pools belonged to Gillian Eckleberry, owner of the Cannon Moon, and the inner peace and hope behind them beckoned to him like a distant lighthouse from the midst of his emotional abyss.

“Oh, my goodness.”

She was gazing with concern at Simon’s badly bruised, swollen eye, and the drained look on his bedraggled features. She reached gently to touch his chin, turning it so she could see in the dim light over the dark oak bar top.

“Are you ok?” she asked.

Simon opened his mouth, but could not get a word to come out. He looked into Gillian’s eyes, her honest look of worry, and could not force himself to share his emptiness. She seemed too good, too kind to bring down with a burden as big as his was. Eventually, he smiled slightly and kissed her hand. With his other hand, he reached into his coat, and took out the rose.

Extending the flower to her, he managed, “I will be.”


The End


© 2004-2005 by N. J. Kailhofer.  The characters and events in this story are fictitious, but the fabulous Drake Hotel in Chicago is very real. Take a virtual tour of the real-life settings portrayed in this story, such as the lobby, hallways, ballrooms, and presidential suite at: <>