PROLOGUE

 

 

Goodland, Kansas - September 2020

 

DR. CHARLESTON Meeks waited in silence next to Odette Leaundra. She stared straight ahead, back ramrod straight, jaw set, eyes flinty and focused, just like any good soldier. As a team leader she had worked closely with his son during the boy’s time as a temporal agent, but all that was coming to an end now.

She shifted in her seat, obviously not relishing his proximity. He glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. An attractive woman (a grandmother, if he’d heard right) with unblemished dark skin and high cheekbones; she was fit, strong, and intelligent. But she didn’t seem to care for him, and he’d never understood that. Why the animosity? Women usually liked him, or at least he thought they did. Maybe he’d been wrong all these years. He glanced at her again. Nahhh.

Having more important things to worry about than the prickly woman on his right, the doctor sighed and turned his attention to the members of the oversight panel at the front of the room. A number of men and women sat behind a long desk that ran the length of the wall at their backs. It was raised a bit, allowing them to look out over—and down on—the assembled.

The doctor’s Restore Point Program was about to be defunded and for no better reason than what he considered some religious mumbo-hoo-ha. Judging from some of the members’ comments, he had nearly reconciled himself to things not going his way. He hated when that happened. Their concerns were hardly new to him as he thought back over the proceedings thus far:

Should we do this just because we can?

We have no idea what might come of these manipulations.

Who are you, sir, to rework God’s plan?

Coming from a prominent United States senator, that last one had left the doctor speechless, mouth agape. As far as he was concerned, there was no God, but… if there were, surely he or she had given him the intelligence to theorize and bring to fruition the RPP. Right?

The program was far from common knowledge among the populace, or even many in government, therefore the review was taking place deep underground, in a conference room of the main RPP facility. The members of government who were privy to the existence of the program had reviewed all mission reports on their data tablets via temporal-safe storage before traveling from DC to listen to Meeks make his case.

He sat in front of them, suffering through their questions, many of them the same questions he’d dealt with years ago, right before RPP’s launch:

Why not go back and kill Hitler?

Why not go back and save Kennedy?

Why not stop the towers from being taken down?

The doctor had patiently explained, once again, that even if they could somehow overcome the technology’s thirty-year window—ceiling, limit, whatever—intervening in any one of those events would cause ripples in the timeline that could undo the very fabric of their current reality. His team simply didn’t have the capability to extrapolate from altering something so significant. He’d gone on to detail the successful lives of the people they had saved and the contributions they or their offspring had made to the world, but then came the inevitable:

What gives you the right to decide who to restore?

This was a touchy question. One or two of the committee members had lost children or spouses in accidents that could have, theoretically, been prevented. It was an alluring prospect. Who among them wouldn’t want a second chance to be in the right place at the right time, or to go back and make a better decision than they had?

There were times Dr. Meeks, himself, regretted how he and his wife had been too busy and myopic in their scientific pursuits to see the struggles of their only son. Junior had only come out to them recently, just before his thirtieth birthday, and the doctor wondered every day how their relationship might have been closer over the years if the boy had felt comfortable enough or safe enough with them to come out sooner. It had hardly cost them his life, but he knew it could have if things had gone terribly wrong.

Dr. Meeks explained to the panel that a person chosen for restoration had to meet specific criteria. It had to be someone the temporal extrapolators deemed “a potential,” or most likely to make a positive contribution to our existence, before RPP’s Major Operations sent a team back in time to save that person. The financial cost for each step, not to mention the power required to operate the Portal, meant that the selection had to be precise and they’d only get one shot at it. That had wounded some of them. To suggest that a senator’s child, who had drowned in a neighbor’s pool at four years old, didn’t make the cut, was a stinging slap to the face.

“What about Barnaby Rosenthal?” a member of the panel asked suddenly.

The doctor adjusted his glasses, cleared his throat, and said, “What of him?”

“According to this report,” the member said, tapping his tablet, “an agent went back to save his life repeatedly.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Why is that?”

“An agent—”

“Your son,” another member stated.

“After saving the life of the targeted ‘potential,’ my son accidently saved the life of one-year-old Rosenthal. It was a split-second decision. He—”

“Gave you an opportunity to experiment.”

“Well….” He shifted in his seat as the panel members stared at him, waiting for him to continue. “I wanted to determine the outcome of multiple restorations on one subject. Since Rosenthal was supposed to die at such a young age, he was the perfect test subject.” They continued watching him, and he tugged at his shirt collar. “If you’ll recall, I did receive approval from this panel before proceeding.”

Yet another panel member peered at the report on their data tablet and said, “After the accident, Agent Meeks time-stepped a total of four more times for Rosenthal, correct?”

“Yes, ages six, fourteen, eighteen, and twenty.” Dr. Meeks left out the unauthorized step his son had made in early January 2013 to prevent Rosenthal from marrying a woman who was lying about carrying his child. It was all very “daytime drama” but hardly life threatening. Happy-life threatening, maybe, but…. He’d spotted the details in temporal-safe storage before an oddly targeted electromagnetic-pulse event had wiped it out along with all record of who had been scanned into the facility that day. He was certain that Sato girl had something to do with it, but he couldn’t prove it. She was too smart for her own good, that one.

A rather somber member of the panel, who sat to the far right side of the giant desk and who had been silent up to that point, asked, “That’s one unlucky young man, wouldn’t you say, doctor?” The woman had a commanding aura about her. Meeks noticed all other heads turned toward her, deferring to her. She was a lovely, cultured-looking woman, who wore her fifty-odd years well.

She had a graying blonde hairdo that looked hard enough to protect her from falling debris at a construction site. Her eyes, set into a heart-shaped face, were a vibrant green—he suspected contacts—and filled with intelligence and calculation. The doctor felt himself being measured as Sen. Penny Collard stared him down, or tried to.

He set his jaw. “I’m sorry? I don’t understand.”

She leaned forward, clasping her beautifully manicured hands on the desk, and peered at him. “If you had multiple opportunities to come to his rescue,” she said, her voice deep, musical, and richly southern, “it would seem he wasn’t meant to be here, would it not?”

Hours later, when they adjourned without a decision (they would “be in touch”), Dr. Meeks and Leaundra rose and headed for the door.

“I didn’t like the sound of any of that,” he whispered her.

“Then you’ll like the sound of this even less,” she said, passing him her data tablet. He quickly scanned the report on the screen, then looked into her eyes in shock.

“Don’t tell Junior… yet,” he pleaded.

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

Chillicothe, Ohio - June 1993

 

IT WAS simple foiling the robbery. My two step-mates were hardly even necessary to spook the guy into changing his mind. But then, it was nice to have all the bases, and doors, covered. Most people can tell when someone is watching them, staring at them. And if the focus of your attention is up to no good, he feels it even more intently. Our stares alone sent him running for the door, which my colleague politely opened for him. If we hadn’t stopped him, young Miranda Colton would be dead, the victim of a nervous and highly agitated novice bank robber, who was just looking for cash for his next fix. After he fled, we left the bank quickly, two out the back door, me out the front. I heard a woman scream just as a stroller blew past me, heading for an intersection. The woman was sprawled on the ground. She scrambled to her feet, leaving her shopping where it lay, and gave chase, but she’d never catch it in time. I acted without thinking it through—the implications, the consequences. I darted after the stroller and caught the handle right before the back wheels left the curb. I looked in to check the baby, and a pair of large, chocolate-brown eyes looked up at me with wonder. I smiled, and my alarm sounded.

 

 

Goodland, Kansas - October 2020

 

“IS THAT it?”

“That’s it, Mee—Charleston,” Leaundra corrected, tapping her tablet and closing his file. “You’re officially retired.”

“Thanks for meeting me here, ma’am.”

“It’s as good a place as any, and it’s not like you can set foot back in headquarters.”

True. As a temporal agent, Charleston Meeks Jr. had absorbed his share of temporal energy, and couldn’t take any more… well, not and survive, anyway. They sat at a wrought iron table on the patio of Brick Corner Café. A giant red-and-white-striped umbrella kept them out of direct sunlight, but as a cool October breeze disturbed his hair, Charleston would have welcomed a little warmth. Midday pedestrian traffic passed by their little spot as folks enjoyed a lunchtime stroll in that sunshine he longed for. “Join me in a drink?” he asked.

“Bourbon and Coke.”

Charleston signaled for their waiter, and an actual flesh-and-blood man rushed over to take their order. It was a nice change from those floating, automated service bots gaining popularity with the larger restaurant chains. As Charleston looked the man up and down, he appreciated the benefits of making a human connection wherever possible. The waiter was young, slender, and attractive, with dark wavy hair and soft brown eyes. He reminded Charleston of someone. He offered them both a warm welcome and dazzling smile before entering their order in a data tablet and rushing off. Letting his gaze linger, for a few moments, over the waiter’s retreating backside, Charleston then turned and searched his former superior’s dark eyes.

“I feel a question looming,” he said.

She smiled, transforming her normally stoic countenance. Her dark skin remained flawless, even after their years working together, after years of him making her want to yank her hair out. “I feel I should ask what’s next for you, but I’m fairly certain I know the answer to that.”

Charleston grinned. “Are you against it?”

“Would it matter if I were?”

“No, but I value your opinion.” Charleston looked toward the street at the SUV idling by the curb. “I’d like to hear your thoughts.”

“Your… encounters with Rosenthal were hardly the makings for a stable relationship.” He had to give her that. “You’ve spoken to him, what, four times? And always in times of crisis?”

“I hear you, but I have to try, don’t I?”

“Do you?”

Your drinks, sir,” an automated server announced, having snuck up on their table. It hovered there and had been virtually silent in its approach. So much for the ambience, he thought. He predicted the infatuation with automated servers would die off soon. He removed their drinks from the tray and passed Leaundra hers as the bot floated away, pausing by another table to assure the patron someone would be right with them.

“Ma’am, after my father forbade me to time step again, you pitched in and made it happen. You broke the rules for me. You must have understood on some level what Barnaby means to me.”

Leaundra sipped her drink and shook her head. “Uh-uh,” she said, “I helped you because I don’t like your father.” She wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Reminds me too much of an old boss. Always thought he knew everything, what was best for everyone.” Yep, sounds like Pop. Charleston watched her closely for a moment. She turned and looked him in the eyes. “You’re not sure where Rosenthal is, if he’s attached, if he even wants to see you.”

He reached into his back pocket and retrieved a brochure his father had given him at his birthday party three weeks ago. “I know he’ll be at this art opening next week in Bend, Oregon.”

He’d received that information and numerous other thoughtful gifts at the party, but the one he cherished most was a portrait of him Barnaby Rosenthal had done. Dr. Plumb, the woman who measured the effects of time travel on him and other agents, had presented it to him. The painting proved he was clearly still on the young artist’s mind, just as Barnaby was on his. Charleston tried to keep his voice nonchalant.

“As for the rest, I’ve got someone working on that.” He smirked, but it was his turn to avoid her gaze.

Leaundra raised an eyebrow. “Really?” He nodded but remained mum. “Charleston,” she began softly, “what you’re planning has never been attempted before. You’re seeking a relationship with an RPP subject. It just doesn’t seem like a good idea.” With a well-practiced motion, she paused to drain her glass as Charleston just began sipping his drink. “Look at it from Rosenthal’s perspective. You saw him three weeks ago, but it’s been seven-or-so years for him.”

He winced. Right again. He had no idea what he’d say to Barnaby. He knew what he wasn’t supposed to tell him (covert government operations and all), but he considered that more of a guideline than a ticket to twenty years in federal prison. Would he walk up to Barnaby’s front door and knock? Pretend none of it had ever happened? Could they start something together right here in 2020? What would Barnaby tell his family? He grinned and sighed. I’m getting ahead of myself.

His last step to “save” Barnaby had left him literally falling apart, and recuperation had taken some time, during which a friend and colleague had been busy on his behalf, digging up whatever she could about the artist. Speaking of said colleague, at that moment Jeri Sato strode up to their table, the ever-present cherry lollipop in her mouth. She looked around and startled the couple at a nearby table by commandeering their extra chair, dragging it over, and dropping into it, effectively joining the conversation.

“Hey.”

“Hey,” Charleston and Leaundra said.

Jeri grabbed Charleston’s drink and downed it, then delighted them with a long, drawn out grimace. “Bleh!” She withdrew her lollipop and frowned at it as if it had betrayed her. “Okay,” she said after catching her breath and putting the candy back in her mouth, “I have the info on Rosenthal.”

“How’s it look?”

“Sato. Charleston,” Leaundra said, getting to her feet, “I’m going to leave you to this. Plausible deniability and all. Plus there’s some shit going down at RPP I have to deal with.”

Charleston snorted. He didn’t think he’d ever heard her curse before. “Really? What’s happening?”

She paused as if considering what to say but clearly thought better of it and extended a hand to him instead. “By the middle of next week, you’ll be fully back on the grid, son. Best of luck.”

Jeri was oblivious, busy typing on her tablet as he bid his former team leader farewell. She walked to the waiting SUV, and the soldier behind the wheel whisked her away.

Back on the grid, huh? Charleston Meeks Jr. would soon be out there for any and all to find. As a temporal agent, he’d enjoyed virtual anonymity, existing enough to pay bills and own property, but not enough for his name to show up in any web searches beyond Goodland, Kansas—nongovernment searches, that is. With his retirement, nearly his entire history would be searchable on the Internet and appear to any and all who wanted to find him. The details of his federal service would remain suspiciously vague, however.

He leaned back in his chair, stretching his legs out in front of him, the picture of relaxation, while at his side sat Jeri, sucking on her lollipop like it was the last one on Earth and unconsciously bouncing her legs with pent-up energy.

For the short time he’d known her, this was her default setting. Always several steps ahead of everyone else, nothing in this world seemed to move fast enough for her, and she was forever in danger of being bored. In sharing her reasons for helping him complete an unauthorized time step, she’d said, “I don’t have enough to do, and that usually leads me into trouble.”

He smiled as he watched her work on what appeared to be a standard-issue, though bright purple, data tablet, but he knew she had probably added memory, encryptions, code-breaking software, and God knew what else to it. She had named it Alohomora.

“Okay, here’s the rundown,” she said, ready to give her full report on the man Charleston was desperate to see again. “After your last Rosenthal step, at the church—”

“I remember, Jeri.”

She glared at him. “Don’t interrupt me. Talking it out helps me keep track of things.”

“Sorry.”

“Since then, Rosenthal did go to art school and earn his degree as he’d planned, but….” Charleston raised an eyebrow as he watched her quickly scan the data on the tablet. “Well, he had a rough time of it.”

“How so?”

She sighed. “The first year or so, he did well, but after that he began to struggle.”

“But he’s so talented—”

“—and depressed and a possible alcoholic and temperamental and a loner and… did I say depressed?”

“Aw, hell….”

“You’re still interrupting. Now listen. He is a successful artist—albeit one clinging to the older mediums—but more importantly, at least to you, there haven’t been any stable, long-term relationships over the past seven years.” She tapped her tablet and scrolled the page. “His longest relationship to date is the one he’s in now with—Oh, oops,” she said, looking at Charleston. “Sorry.”

“It’s okay. Go on.”

She looked back at her tablet. “With Rossom Bailey.”

“What the fuck is a Rossom?”

“He’s a model.”

“Of course he is.” Charleston sighed.

She studied the tablet. “Mmm, he’s lovely…,” she mused, then gave her candy an obscene suck as she yanked it from her lips with an audible pop. She glanced at him and grimaced. “If you like the type.”

She turned the tablet toward him, and he rolled his eyes. “What type?” he asked. “The beautifully perfected type?”

“The type with dicks.”

Charleston chuckled bitterly and turned his attention to the people rushing by (now in the opposite direction of earlier), their lunch hours apparently over. The sunshine wasn’t as pleasant, seeming harsher now, glaring and uncomfortable. “Well… if he’s happy, then I guess—”

“Looks like the portrait Plump—”

“Plumb. Her name is Dr. Plumb.”

“—got you was one of the last,” she continued. “He stopped including paintings of you in his shows about two years ago. Around the same time he….”

“What?”

She glanced up from her tablet. “Was hospitalized for ‘exhaustion.’”

“Exhaustion?” Charleston frowned. “Are you saying he had a nervous breakdown?”

Jeri shrugged. “There aren’t any details available for the general public, but I could probably dig up his medical records… maybe even doctor’s notes?”

“You can do that?”

“Chuck, I can do just about anything with a hot spot.” She reached out and pretended to snatch a handful of air. “It’s all out there for the taking. You just need to know where to look.”

“Isn’t that illegal?”

“What’s your point?”

“Don’t call me Chuck.”