Killing Time by Linda Howard

  She blew out a shaky breath. “I agree. You can’t touch me again until tonight, not even for just a kiss.”

  “I don’t think you have to go that far.”

  “I do.” She looked around; if the kiss had gone on much longer, she might have been taking off her clothing right here, surrounded by mice, briars, and assorted other unpleasantness. “Let’s look around and get out of here. I don’t like all of this out-of-control greenery. The forest is one thing; this is a bit spooky.”

  “Because Howard hung himself from that tree over there?”

  “No, it’s because people used to live here but now it’s abandoned and rotting, and soon there won’t be anything left to show they were here. Also, I think I’m bleeding in a dozen different places from these damn briars—” She stopped as she felt something crawling on her arm. She looked down, made a quick sound of disgust, and slapped a bug away. “I’m also not fond of bugs, and I hate mice.”

  “Got it. I’ll hurry.”

  He bent and picked up the hatchet, then set to work clearing away the vines and bushes that almost obscured the opening. He poked his head inside. “There’s a lot of stuff in here,” he finally said.

  “What kind of stuff?”

  “Rotten cardboard boxes, for one thing. Some sort of clamp set up on a board; he must have used it to hold the models while he worked on them. A stack of Playboy magazines that I wouldn’t touch for love nor money; looks like rats have been living in them for years.”

  She knew what the magazine was, because it had existed for almost a hundred years before becoming defunct. Some carefully preserved issues were occasionally sold at auction, where collectors bought them for ridiculously high prices. They would cry to see these issues abandoned and rotting. She thought it would be a mercy not to tell Knox how much they would be worth in her time.

  “Wouldn’t all of this have been thoroughly searched at the time of his suicide?”

  “I can’t say. It should have been, but from everything I’ve heard or read, there were no signs of foul play; so I don’t think there was ever a criminal investigation. In a case of suicide, you try to help the family as much as possible.”

  He stepped inside the storage area, and Nikita carefully followed, watching where she put her feet. The thick, musty smell of rot filled her nostrils. Junk was piled helter-skelter in the small space: folding metal lawn chairs, discarded clothing, stacks of magazines and newspapers, the cardboard boxes Knox had mentioned. There were two of them, stacked, taped across the top, which was useless now because their bottoms would probably fall out as soon as they were moved.

  “Why would anyone go to the trouble to box something up and tape it, then just leave it behind?” she wondered aloud.

  “I wonder why people do a lot of things,” he said with a grunt as he booted a chair out of the way.

  She didn’t want to touch those nasty boxes, but she didn’t see any way out of it. “Do you have a blanket or tarp in the trunk? Those things will disintegrate when we try to move them. If we can pull them onto a tarp, then we can drag them out of here.”

  He took his keys from his pocket. “There’s a tarp. It’s in the bottom of the box I keep in there.”

  She made her way back to the car and unlocked the trunk, then dug through a box of equipment and found the green tarp. She also plucked two pairs of plastic gloves from a package that was also in the box.

  “Here,” she said when she reached the garage again, handing him his keys, then a pair of gloves.

  “Thanks.” He snapped the gloves on like a surgeon, and took the tarp from her. She pulled on her own gloves, and working carefully, they spread the tarp out in front of the boxes. Knox used the hatchet to swipe down some monstrous spiderwebs that hung close to the boxes; then they each carefully moved into the cramped space, one on each side.

  As gingerly as possible they shifted the top box, sliding it instead of jerking and lifting, while trying to support the bottom with their hands. It was useless; as soon as the weight of the contents weren’t supported by the box underneath, the box tore apart and dumped the contents onto the tarp.

  The same thing happened with the bottom box. As soon as they lifted it, the bottom tore out. By dropping and shoving, they managed to get half the box on the tarp. The spilled contents seemed to be mostly textbooks, stained and musty, but in fairly good shape. They began moving the textbooks to the tarp; they might have belonged to Howard Easley, in which case he might have written something in the margins, or left a paper stuck between the pages.

  Knox made a soft sound, staring at a metal box that had been packed in with the textbooks.

  “What is it?” Nikita asked as he picked it up.

  He glanced up at her, his expression both surprised and gleeful. “I’m not certain, but I think it’s the time capsule.”


  Nikita looked down at the box. Silly of her, but she’d been expecting something that was shaped like a cylinder, like a capsule of medication. The phrase “time capsule” brought to mind something sleek and capable of traveling through time, not a rather large metal box that was about eighteen by twelve inches, and perhaps five inches high. “Are you certain?”

  “Not until we open it, no. The time capsule was wrapped in waterproof plastic before it was buried, too. But it was this shape; I think it was custom-made at a local metalworking plant.”

  The box was in surprisingly good condition, insulated as it had been all those years by the heavy textbooks. She squatted next to it, carefully looking it over but not touching it. “It’s been here all these years; it wasn’t buried beneath the flagpole at all.”

  “I watched them bury it. The coach must have come back that night and dug it up again. It was New Year’s night, cold, snowing, the bowl games were on; I doubt there was any traffic at all in town, if he timed it right, waited until the third-shift deputies left on patrol.” He squatted next to her. “There goes your theory that someone was sent in ahead of Hugh and got the box for safekeeping.”

  “Then the flash must have been Hugh transiting in; with a laser, he could have dug that hole in no time, found out the box wasn’t there, and left before the security cameras caught up in time.”

  “Then he must have transitioned right back out, because there were no footprints, anything to show how he did it. I thought these links were like a two-lane highway, with no exit points other than the beginning and end. Wouldn’t he have gone back to your time?”

  “Theoretically, it depends on the link settings,” she said slowly. “I heard that the Transit Laboratory was working to develop links that could be programmed in the field, but I haven’t heard that they’re certified for use yet. The regular links have two settings: one for the destination, and one for home. The traveler activates the setting needed. If Hugh is transiting short distances back and forth, then he must have stolen the prototypes.”

  “That’s damn interesting,” Knox drawled. “Explains how the killer got into Taylor Allen’s house and out again without touching anything that we could tell. I thought he’d wiped his prints off the doorknobs and gone out through the automatic garage doors, but if Hugh is just popping in and out, he could show up anywhere.”

  Nikita’s hair lifted and she automatically looked around, then blew out a relieved breath. “He’d have to know exactly where we are and have the GPS coordinates before he could transition to us. He wouldn’t want to do that anyway unless he could be certain he was in a position where we couldn’t see him. Remember what happened to Luttrell? The traveler is at a disadvantage until the transition is complete.”

  “If we go back to my house, he has the exact coordinates,” Knox pointed out. “I don’t know how he tracked you there—”

  “I do,” Nikita interrupted. “Mrs. Lacey.”

  Knox opened his mouth, probably to automatically disagree, then abruptly shut it. A look of cold anger edged into his eyes. Cops didn’t believe in coincidence. First Mrs. Lacey had seen them together at Wal-Mart
, and been visibly upset by Nikita’s presence; that very night she had made a horrible nuisance of herself by calling repeatedly, something that Knox thought was very much out of character for her. Then she had done something even more out of character by going to Knox’s house and beating on the door. There had been a man with her last night; then, this morning, a car rented by Hugh Byron was parked just a few doors down from Knox’s house. No, that was stretching happenstance way too far.

  “He didn’t know for certain who you were,” Knox said, thinking aloud. “Otherwise he would have tried to kill you last night when you were alone.”

  “He’d have had a better chance of succeeding once you got home and we were otherwise occupied,” she said drily. “I wouldn’t have noticed then if he’d transitioned right beside the bed.”

  “Good point,” he said, and winked at her.

  “Before that, I was very much on edge, and watchful. If I was just someone named Tina, then there was no point in killing me. I think all he was trying to do last night and this morning was get a look at me.”

  “Think your disguise held?”

  She shook her head. “I wouldn’t bet my life on it. Remember, he’s from my time; he knows how easy it is to change hair color. And we’ve worked in the same division for a couple of years, so he knows me. The disguise was mainly to fool your guys, remember? To put out the story that I’d left town. Hugh would know better, but he didn’t know where to look for me until that chance meeting with Mrs. Lacey; then she must have told him about it and he put two and two together.”

  “She can’t have any idea what’s really going on,” Knox said. “She isn’t . . .” His voice trailed off and he stared into the distance for a moment. “Shit,” he finally said, very softly. “There’s only one thing that would pull her into this. The son of a bitch has told her she can go back and save Rebecca. She has no one else; there was just Rebecca. She’d do anything to get her back.”

  Nikita briefly closed her eyes as she instantly switched from being extremely annoyed with Mrs. Lacey to feeling such deep pity for her she could scarcely bear it. She knew how her own mother had suffered from the loss of a child, even with a loving husband and three other children to give her comfort. Mrs. Lacey was alone. Damn Hugh Byron for being such a cold-blooded son of a bitch, to use a mother’s grief and desperation.

  “She must be the one who shot at me,” Nikita said. “Do you know if she’s proficient with weapons?”

  “I don’t know. A lot of women know how to shoot, especially if they grew up out in the country.” He looked down at the metal box, his expression grim. “I say we find out just what the hell is in here that this bastard has murdered three people for.”

  He picked up the box and carried it out of the rickety building. Nikita hesitated, then grabbed one end of the tarp and hauled it out with its load of books. Knox was already hunkered down in a sunny patch amid the weeds and briars, working at the lid of the box. It didn’t have a padlock, but after years of not being opened, the custom fit of the lid had become even tighter. Finally he wedged the sharp edge of the hatchet under the edge of the lid and jerked upward; the lid flew open, exposing the contents.

  Carefully he began taking out each item, handing them in turn to Nikita, who placed them on the tarp. They were:

  A yearbook

  A newspaper

  A cassette tape

  A cassette player

  Pekeville’s articles of incorporation

  A written history of the county and town

  Assorted photographs

  A handwritten letter from the mayor, Harlan Forbes

  The 1985 Peke County telephone book

  A list of all the Peke County residents who had died in war

  A carefully folded American flag that had flown at the Peke County Courthouse

  A Sears catalog

  Knox gaped at the catalog, then collapsed on his butt in the weeds, holding his sides and howling with laughter. “I don’t believe it,” he gasped. “A Sears catalog! Who in hell put that in a time capsule? Either they were drunk when they thought that one up, or somebody had a sense of humor.”

  Nikita had lifted the heavy catalog and was gently leafing through the pages. “Oh, I don’t know. I think this would give a fairly good picture of what life was like in 1985. Look, it has prices, descriptions, pictures. This could be very valuable both as a collector’s item and in the information it gives.”

  “Well, unless it gives the formula for time travel, we struck out. I know thirteen things were put in the box, so where’s the thirteenth item? Did Coach Easley take something out?”

  “Then why not just take out that one item and leave the box there?” Nikita asked reasonably. “There wasn’t any need to take the whole box if one thing was all he wanted.”

  “The man committed suicide a little later; he wasn’t exactly in a logical frame of mind.”

  She lifted the heavy catalog and fanned the pages. To her utter surprise, because she hadn’t really thought she’d find anything, a piece of white paper fluttered out onto the tarp.

  Knox reached out and picked it up, read it.

  “What does it say?”

  “It’s his suicide note, I guess. ’To hell with it. I’m tired of this fucking mess.’ Quote, unquote. And why in hell he tucked it inside a Sears catalog, in a time capsule, then sealed the capsule in a box of books, I don’t have a clue. I’d say he went nuts.”

  “Some sort of psychological breakdown. It happens; the brain chemicals alter, and we still don’t know why.”

  “See if there’s anything else stuck in there. We might luck out.”

  She shook the catalog again, but nothing fell out. Disappointed, she sat on the tarp and looked at everything he’d taken out of the box. Perhaps the newspaper— Carefully she examined it, because the pages already had a brittle feel to them, but nothing was inserted inside the folds of newsprint. The articles of incorporation were just that, without any extra sheets of paper added.

  Knox went through the yearbook, without results. They looked at the backs of all the photographs, but all that had been written on them were names, dates, and places. The mayor’s letter was one page. The written history was just a written history. Frustrated but careful not to disturb the folds, Knox even searched the flag.

  “Hell, all that’s left to do is listen to the cassette, see if there’s anything other than music on it,” he said, picking up the tape and examining it. “Not that we can, because the batteries will be dead—assuming they even put in batteries, considering it would have been a waste of money.” Dropping the tape, he picked up the small tape player and was about to turn it over when he stopped and said quietly, “There’s a tape already in the player.”

  They drove to the nearest convenience store and bought some AA batteries, which Knox installed in the back of the cassette player. Sitting in the car, he punched Play . . . and the number one song of 1984, “Thriller,” filled the air. Grimacing, he stopped the tape and took it out. “I always hated that song,” he grumbled. “My favorite Michael Jackson song was ‘Ben.’ It was about a rat.”

  “That’s scary,” she remarked.

  “You should see the video for ‘Thriller’; now that’s scary.”

  He popped the other cassette into place, and hit Play.

  There was some static, then a very quiet voice began talking. “This is to David Li, Marjorie van Camp, and JoJo Netzer. You guys will know what to do.” The voice then began to talk about gravity modification, and went into mathematical theories and formulas that made absolutely no sense to them, but was very probably what they had been looking for. The tape ended, “Sorry I won’t be here to help. I’m checking out.”

  Knox rewound the tape, then took it out. “Well, that’s the thirteenth item, and what Hugh is looking for. I don’t think he belongs to any Luddite group, though; he’s too willing to use the technology. He wants this tape, but not because he wants to stop time travel technology from being invented.??

  “No,” Nikita agreed. “I thought—we were meant to think—that was the reason, but I agree that scenario doesn’t fit Hugh. He isn’t anti-time-travel; he was one of the most enthusiastic about it. I don’t really care why he wants it. We have it, we need to keep it safe, and we have to apprehend Hugh. Everything else is secondary.”

  “You say he isn’t likely to materialize in front of us. What’s his most likely action, then?”

  “He has a laser. All he needs is a clear shot.”

  “Then we’re going to ground,” Knox said. “I may get my ass fired, but I’m taking some time off work, starting right now. We have the advantage in that we know he’s looking for you, so we pretty much know where he’ll be looking. We just have to make sure we see him first.”

  “I have a gift for you,” Hugh Byron said to Ruth as they lay together on a blanket next to a meandering stream. He was in a good mood; he knew where to find Stover, and within the next few hours he would eliminate that particular problem. She knew too much about everything. He couldn’t take the chance that she would ever return to tell tales. McElroy was supposed to handle things on that end, but errors were occasionally made; witness Stover’s presence here.

  She smiled but didn’t open her eyes. She was half dozing, tired after making love. “What?”

  “Look,” he said, and she opened her eyes. Her gaze fastened on the items he presented to her.

  “What do I do?” she whispered, still not looking away from them.

  “You put one on each wrist and ankle. When the time comes, I’ll show you how to activate them. Promise me you won’t try to use them without me; it can be very dangerous.”

  “I promise,” she said, reaching out to touch the links with trembling fingers. “They look so . . . ordinary. Are they yours? How will you get back if I have them?”

  “They’re not mine, they’re Stover’s. I found where she buried them.” Someone had screwed up the timing of her transition; McElroy was supposed to make sure the next agent sent came through at a certain time and place, so Hugh could take care of that agent the same way he had Houseman, but when Hugh was en route, he saw the bright flash and knew he was too late. By the time he got there, Stover had already transitioned and disappeared.

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