1 January 2175
“All that sneaking around in the woods,” Olivia said to her husband. Her hands clutched at the rough weave of the bedspread. “Practice at silencing your footsteps.”
“Sorry. Didn’t mean to startle you.”
“You didn’t. Startle me or mean to”—she turned to face him, forcing a teasing smile—“but you were sneaking. Admit it.”
“All right. I was watching you. You were staring at the closet again.”
“Wondering about skeletons?” She heard the edge on her voice, much less conscious than the smile. George heard it too.
“Just about,” he said, sitting down on the bed behind her. “You’ll have to open that box sometime, you know.”
Olivia turned again to the closet. Its closed door stared back at her: faux cherry wood, smooth-grained and solid-looking, a seemingly sufficient barrier. “Not necessarily. We could cart it around with us for years, unopened. Mark it ‘bedroom closet’ every time we move.”
“We’re going to move, then?”
Sore spot, better not touched. “Let’s put it in the attic.”
“And forget it when we do move? Olivia… just open it.”
“He’d never know I didn’t.”
“Which he? Rutger or Sam? Sam sure as hell won’t. Rutger probably doesn’t care; he was just cleaning house. But it’s driving me crazy.”
George made a good Pandora, though most likely yielding to curiosity wouldn’t unleash horrors on the world. On the other hand…
She turned firmly away from the closet, folding her legs onto the bed and putting her arms around George’s neck. “Happy new year,” she said.
“You said that last night.”
“Did I? I thought it was more like ‘mmm, oh, yesss.’ ” She nuzzled closer, inhaling his scent. “Brilliant idea of yours to skip the party and stay in all evening. Married almost six months and we still want to rip each other’s clothes off at every opportunity.” She straddled his knees. “Want to go for a twenty-four-hour record?”
“Mm?” Her mouth was pressed against the hollow of his throat; her hands wandered; both their hearts were beating faster.
“You’re trying to seduce me. And it’s working. And… dammit. I can’t, not with that damn box in the room!”
“We could move into the hall?”
He snorted. “Persistence. One of the things I love about you.” A second’s hesitation, then: “Okay. No one ever said I had any willpower.”
She let him roll backwards as if heading off the bed; he ended up instead flat on his back, head on the pillow, grabbing her wrist on the way and pulling her toward him. “Never mind; it’s been in there, what, three months already, and I can’t say the sex has suffered any. Get over here.” Mouths and bodies were melding nicely when he broke off the kiss and added, “We may be talking mystery box-enhanced sex. Showing off for someone’s ghost?”
She stiffened and pulled herself away. “George, don’t.” Sitting up, she yanked down her shirt, tidied her hair with shaking fingers. He didn’t move.
“Sorry,” he said, and then contradictorily added, “One ghost in the closet and another everywhere else in the house. At least you got rid of the bed.”
“Yours was bigger.”
“My what is bigger?” he asked, smirking. “Oh, my bed. His house. Sorry, your house. We win the real estate game.”
Her fists clenched. “All right, I didn’t sell the house like I said I would. It’s mine; Bernard left it to me. It’s a nice house in a good neighborhood, not an anonymous box in the sky like your apartment. It’s got a tree outside and everything. And I lived here with him, okay?”
“Yes. I know that.”
“We slept here, in this room. We made meals in the kitchen. We watched the net and read books and did work, and we had sex, we were married after all, and it was good, though not as good as with you. It’s all new with you. Everything. Don’t spoil it.”
“That’s it? ‘All right’?”
“What do you want me to say?”
He was saying it without even speaking, lying there being so utterly what she needed: the sandy hair tousled, the accustomed boyish grin wiped off his face, the green eyes serious. The caressing hands; the probing curiosity that always found her out in time. He was so good at being what she needed; so different from what she’d learned to need before him.
“I want you to say you love me and you really don’t think Bernard’s ghost is in this house.”
“I love you. And I don’t think his ghost is here. I don’t believe in ghosts anyway. I do think you had a reason for hanging on to the house that goes beyond nice neighborhood and tree.”
“Ha. And I’m the world’s worst hypocrite. My apartment didn’t exactly lack sexual history. This bed, in fact—”
“Don’t want to hear about it.” She gave him a smile to show she wasn’t angry, and went to the bay window, sitting on the window seat: perhaps the place in the house she loved most. In fact she could remember exclaiming about it to Bernard when he’d first given her a tour. He’d been so nervous, showing her the bedroom, both of them knowing but not yet acknowledging that they would end up in the bed later that evening.
The tree outside was a maple; it blazed red in early November, lighting up the window as the sun went down behind it. There’d been afternoons abed with that glow in the room, with both Bernard and George. Now it was midwinter bare, a ghostly shape of its clothed self. She’d barely ventured out today: the forecast was clear and cold, perfect for a walk if they bundled up a bit.
What a marvelous idea! said a clear girlish voice in her head, translating itself from the French. Where should we go? We haven’t been up to Notre-Dame de la Garde since August. Sun and the scent of pines; not too cold if you stayed out of the wind…
“You all right?”
George was right behind her. Sneaking up again, though she didn’t say so.
“Just thinking about last New Year’s—the last one I lived through, anyway; it’s been well over a year—”
“Nineteen forty-one. You were in Marseille; it was nearly a year later for you that I found you in Casablanca. A calendar year ago here you were in Minnesota with your parents, but that’s not what you meant.”
“No.” She’d lived a lot of time out of sequence; she was almost used to George knowing it by heart. “Marseille. I saw the new year in with my friend Marit, sitting in her employer’s weird bird museum. By midnight we’d named all the stuffed birds, except for the little ones we couldn’t tell apart; those were all Minette.”
“Even the males?”
“They were no longer concerned with sexual identity. And we’d consumed a ladylike amount of champagne.”
“You were sloshed.”
“Gloriously. It was the last good time I had there. I remember it with fondness. And her.”
George sat beside her on the window seat and put his hand over hers. “And the next day you and Sam and the others, Génie and Philippe and Max, walked up to the church—”
“Let’s not talk about it.”
“You brought it up. But fine. We’ve been over it all before, anyway.” He didn’t sound angry or annoyed; he sounded… patient. She was so tired of feeling grateful for the patience that she nearly preferred the moments he lost hold of it. Maybe that was why she hung onto things she shouldn’t: sheer provocation.
“Back to work tomorrow,” she said.
“Mm. What’s on your schedule?” he said.
“The usual. Finding things for Laurel to learn about Philadelphia. And poetry.” Olivia paused. “She isn’t very sensitive to it. The latter.”
“Sensitivity is often kind of a bad idea, when it comes to time jumping. She’ll do fine.”
“You’re probably right.” Olivia leaned back so her cheek fit into the side of George’s neck. “I guess I know now how Katie and Anna felt about us, all those times.”
“Supremely confident yet worried to death? At least the jump only takes three minutes—from our point of view. Those of us left behind. It’s odd.” He seemed to wait for her to say something else, and then added, “I haven’t been to Philadelphia in ages.”
“We could go next weekend. It might help with the research.”
“No, I meant… I did a couple of jumps there, early in my career. About thirty-five years before where Neil and Laurel are going. It was… a learning experience. Well”—with a little sigh—“I like mentoring too.”
She turned to face him. “George, do you want to start jumping again?”
“Not if you don’t want me to.”
“Never mind me. Do you, personally, feel ready?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. I’m still having the dreams.”
“Oh. I’m sorry… I didn’t…”
“No reason you should.”
“Some people thrash around and mutter when they’re having bad dreams. I do that, right?”
“In a very restrained, sorry-to-bother-you way, yes.” She’d woken several times to his soothing touch, his arms enfolding her, and suspected he had brought her out of nightmares without waking her on other occasions. He was a lighter sleeper than she was. Physiology should not provoke guilt, but she wished she had returned the favor. “Mine aren’t… exactly bad dreams,” George added.
She could feel the shiver go through him. “Flying. Above places I know, too high up to see detail. Walking through people who don’t know I’m there. Standing on mountaintops. All different things, but all the same sense of… isolation, I guess. Being apart, being better, having that power. Having it back.”
It had been only a few weeks last spring between the day in Casablanca that a stolen sample of Friedman’s blood had been pumped into George’s veins and the day that doctors in Tallinn, Estonia had performed a complete blood replacement to save his health and possibly his life. Whatever was in Friedman’s blood—some sort of nanobot that engineered his apparently miraculous ability to move through time without outside assistance—had been rejected by George’s body, although George had successfully used it to perform his own unaided jumps. But the experience had obviously left lingering effects.
“You don’t want it back, do you?” she asked.
“Couldn’t have it if I did. The blood’s all gone.”
The sample that went into George had been procured by Simone Jardine, owner of the company that manufactured the Saut de Soi device, which had set off a panic in the industry by miniaturizing a technology similar to that used in box-like time machines such as their “Tim.” With the Saut de Soi, jumpers were freed from the government lab; they could jump from anywhere to the same location at another point in time. Simone, when she discovered Friedman’s ability, had been ready to take the next step. She’d used George as a guinea pig (not that he would admit that, and there had been an immediate purpose to the jump they’d taken together, namely rescuing Olivia) but she’d also saved part of the sample for further research. It had disappeared in the fire at her Casablanca factory that had also killed Sam Brant. And the blood removed from George in Tallinn had been destroyed.
“It’s not all gone,” said Olivia. “Friedman’s still around.”
George ran a finger along her jaw line and gave her chin a little upward push. “No,” he said. “I am not having fantasies about chasing him down and playing vampire. I’d prefer it if the dreams went away and I never had to think about it ever…” He paused. Longing and disgust chased each other briefly across his face, and Olivia could tell without looking that the hair was standing up on his arms. “God damn,” he said softly. “See why Charles was worried about me?”
“That’s not why. It’s the other part of Friedman’s influence on you that bothers him. The part with the rivers.”
“He must have got over it then, because I’m in there influencing people every day. For all he knows I’m foaming at the mouth about too many channels, and how jumping is far too dangerous to be allowed and morally wrong at that—”
“You and Beatrice are the only ones talking about morals, and she always sounds tongue-in-cheek, though who knows how she really feels. But I expect she’s reassured Charles that your ethics don’t permit subverting contracts. If you couldn’t allow yourself to advise time jumpers to actually jump, you’d quit, and he knows that.” George thought about that a moment, and then nodded abruptly. “It’s probably made you a more careful advisor,” Olivia went on. “More mature and—”
“Oh, none of that now. Me, mature? Next you’ll tell me I’m ready for fatherhood.”
They were so close now he had to notice her muscles tensing, but she kept her voice light. “We’ve only been married six months. We’re still… test-driving.”
“I think we’re past that stage. Still referring to the owner’s manual, though. Finding new switches and buttons that do unexpected things.” It should have been a sexual joke, George being charmingly lascivious, but it wasn’t.
“So you are considering going back to jumping?” she asked quickly. “I’d worry, you know, but I think I could manage sending you off and biting my knuckles for three minutes until I knew you were safe. You’re great at it; Charles should have the benefit of your services.”
George quirked his head to one side. “Okay. Now, how much of that do you mean?”
“Well, if you replace knuckle-biting with frenetic pacing and heart palpitations…”
“Hush,” he said, kissing her temple. “And thank you. But you don’t mind in general the idea of… well, I guess you would have quit too, if you couldn’t bring yourself to send anyone off into the past.”
She considered. “I’m comfortable sending Laurel into the past, as long as I know the odds. We all accept the dangers, but I’m competent enough to send her off prepared, she’s competent enough to deal with problems, and I trust Tim to bring her back.” Olivia found herself ticking off points on her fingers, as though this were a meeting or seminar. “I’m concerned about the possibility of time breaches, not only because Laurel and Neil might be stranded in the past but because of what the splitting of time does to its integrity. But I only get that intellectually. I don’t get it in my gut like you do, and Friedman does.”
“Even though you lived in a time breach you and Sam made?”
Olivia had been a time jumper long enough when Sam had kidnapped her that the inescapable nature of time breaches—separate, open-ended strands of time created by the actions of visiting jumpers—felt like solid fact. It still didn’t seem right that anyone carrying a Frog, or anyone with Friedman’s blood enhancement, could come and go in time breaches as they pleased. Better to think of George’s rescue as a more successful equivalent to Orpheus’s journey into hell. Though it irked that she had needed rescuing at all, and that she’d helped to strand herself in the first place. If she’d made better choices many lives might have been easier. Happier. Longer.
“It doesn’t feel like a strand of time separated from the whole, when you’re part of it,” she said, casting aside the temptations of memory. “Not to me, anyway.”
“I’m not sure whether it would to me now. Go on.”
She collected her thoughts again. “So those are all effects the past has on the jumpers, or the jumpers have on time in abstraction. And maybe we shouldn’t be used to it, but we are. The part that eats at my gut is how jumpers affect the people they encounter. But mostly they don’t, not much. I suppose I’ve just been unlucky. Not everyone leaves a trail of bodies—”
“And that was nearly all Sam’s wild-card effect. I do know that, I just can’t… but I’m all right with helping other people. And if you want to—”
“I’ll give it another week or so, how about? Talk to Charles more then.”
“You’ve already been talking to him?”
“Some.” George’s voice went flat with the brief answer; Olivia knew better than to push. She’d said what she needed to say, and if she didn’t stop now she’d start begging him not to jump ever again.
“You want to go for a walk?” she asked.
George looked her in the eyes, gave her the hint of a smile, and waggled his eyebrows up and down. The effect was ludicrous, and she laughed, but she also felt the inescapable flush of desire through her whole body.
“Aha,” she said softly, and kissed him.
The window seat was an insufficient venue for lovemaking, she decided after a minute of increasingly passionate re-exploration, and she pulled back enough to tell George so. Instead, she found herself saying, “This isn’t going to end with you asking about that box again, is it? At the most inopportune moment?”
“I was not,” he said between kisses, apparently unfazed, “in the least concerned… about the box. I refuse… to make it a fetish. Mm, tell you about much better ones…”
Between the words and what he was doing with his hands she barely managed to say, “Can you wait?”
He let go of her and sat back. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to… but now I’ve brought it up, and I can’t stop thinking about it.”
“And are you just going to think, or are you going to do something about it?”
“I’m going to open it,” she said. And didn’t move.
He gave her a little push off the seat, and another toward the closet, following like a dog herding sheep.
Aside from the Customs stamps, it was an ordinary bioplastic mailing box, about half a meter in each dimension. Sam apparently had not left much behind in the way of worldly goods. That made sense; he’d brought nothing with him from his years in the eighteenth century, and most of the month and a half he’d spent back in his own time he’d been in a federal holding facility where his basic needs were provided. Then he’d gone on to Vienna, staying with Rutger Kaufmann through that Christmas and New Year’s and seizing Olivia for a jump back in time a few days later. A few clothes, she speculated, a toothbrush, maybe a cheap personal netlink…
George’s hand appeared in front of her, holding a pocket knife with the blade extended. “Shall I do the honors?” he asked.
“No. I will.” She hardened her heart and cut through the outer strapping.
All her resolve nearly faded when she saw what lay on top of the box. Books, instantly recognizable: the mixed set she’d given Sam when he was in prison. The very first she picked up was Othello. She’d last heard Sam quote it in Marseille, the night he put a pillow over his lover Génie’s face and smothered her, ending the life perhaps already ruined by severe burn injuries. He was no Moor and she was not Desdemona; he’d done it for mercy and for the safety of a group of proto-Resistance fighters, but though he had lived with what he’d done another nine months, it had killed him that same night.
She put the books aside. Underneath lay clothing, very ordinary twenty-second-century clothing, and a bag with a few toiletries. She was surprised Rutger had bothered to send those, instead of throwing them away or using them himself; the clothes could have gone to charity. To him they must have meant nothing but inconvenience; to her they were almost equally meaningless, tokens of a Sam she hadn’t known. Books blossomed with significance, whole hedges and canopies of it. Clothes she could search in for days and not find what she sought. She picked up a shirt and let its soft folds slide through her hands, feeling inhibited from smelling it by George’s presence. There was a story she’d read once in which an exiled princess sewed shirts for her brothers to release them from a magic spell… turned to swans, she seemed to recall, as one prince was left with a feathered wing instead of an arm when the spell was broken, because his sister had not quite finished the shirt. She’d done a lot of mending in Marseille and Casablanca, but it had been easier to buy or trade for clothing left behind by refugees or detainees than to purchase cloth and attempt sewing from scratch. But she had known Sam’s shirt size, in case anything turned up.
The princess in the story had been sworn to silence until her brothers were unspelled. It was easier to be told not to talk than to choose what to say and what not at every turn of decision. She’d said much she regretted, mostly to Sam.
Never mind what George thought. She raised the shirt to her face and buried her nose in it, but nothing of Sam remained. Putting it down, she explored the rest of the box’s contents.
No netlink; no technology of any kind. Sam hadn’t had an identity chip in his arm during that period, nor any money in the defunct bank accounts it would have accessed; he must have been dependent on Rutger for everything. He couldn’t even have taken a taxi or the transit tube across town. Of course, he had immediately made Olivia just as vulnerable on their arrival back in the eighteenth century. But he’d known what size she wore too; the first thing he’d done was to find her the right clothes for their disguise, though the change of garments had neither cast a spell nor taken one away.
The bottom of the box held papers. Her mind bridging the centuries, Olivia half-expected them to be addressed in copperplate handwriting with inkblots rather than computer-printed or in modern pen: evidence of the strange dichotomy of Sam’s life and how she had intersected it. A copy of the will she’d already seen, leaving all he had—nothing—to his parents. A letter from them, apparently sent via Rutger’s net address and printed out; she didn’t read it, but she suspected Rutger had, and wondered again why the box had been sent to her. Faded brochures from Vienna tourist attractions. A couple of printed music scores, no creases or marginal notations.
Her heart skipped a beat as she saw her own name in the next layer, but it was not Sam’s handwriting: Rutger, presumably, letting her know redundantly what he was sending her. She should have answered his net message months ago, she thought with a flush of guilt. It was a fat envelope for such a simple announcement. She picked it up.
Dear Olivia (she read when she’d opened it), if I may so address you,
As I said before, I did not know where else to send Sam’s possessions, and I hope it will not trouble you to receive them. I did not know him well, but I regret his death, and also the lack of vigilance that led to his kidnapping of you. I should have been more careful. It was a difficult time that you spent with him, if what I have heard is accurate, but also I think you came to some closeness with him. I hope you will know what to do with his things.
Also I hope you will allow me to burden you with another matter of sensitivity. How to explain this… you should know first that it was Simone, in her recent visit to me, who urged me to send on what Sam left here. I had waited overlong, uncertain. She said that by the end Sam had treated you as a sister.
Simone had not seen Olivia and Sam together at all. If she knew that they had played brother and sister in Casablanca, and that Sam, in his fragile mental state, had seemed to think of Olivia as a true sister, there was only one possible source for that knowledge. Olivia glanced over her shoulder—George, not having been rebuffed, was reading along unashamedly—and decided to wait until later to ask.
Our discussion became more generally of family relationships—Simone is an only child but I have a sister who resembles me not at all, in appearance or temperament—and of genetics, which is of course something of a specialty of mine, though I know more of plants than human beings. Somehow this led to the lab, where I invited her to witness the start of a DNA typing. I am not certain how such things happen when Simone is here.
George, apparently reading the same line, snorted.
Now I must confess an insalubrious habit of mine. I have, at times, procured by means direct or indirect from friends and guests samples from which to extract DNA. Blood, that is, or saliva or stray hairs; nothing more intimate. It has been a compulsion with no apparent purpose; I seldom if ever experiment upon the samples, and they have never been shared with other scientists. I merely… preserve them.
Creepy and sad, Olivia thought. She had met Rutger Kaufmann a grand total of two times; why was he confessing this to her?
I assure you that yours is not one of the samples, and not only because I knew you too briefly to obtain one. However, I am sorry to say I preserved a sample of your former husband’s blood from the handkerchief that was in my possession for a time before I returned it to you.
The handkerchief, which had bandaged Bernard’s rose-torn palm in Amsterdam and traveled home again as a wrap for tulip bulbs, had long ago moldered in the grave of a young Belgian boy killed by an explosion at a French roadside in 1940. Olivia hadn’t thought she would ever hear of it again.
Simone wished this sample to be analyzed, but I chose to begin with an acquisition of the same time period: the DNA extracted from Janet Lapinski’s blood. (She had an accident with a knife in my own kitchen.) I think you may have noticed a resemblance between Bernard (whom I had the honor of meeting once, at a political rally in Utrecht) and Janet (whom I have observed over a more lengthy period, though if I may say so not lengthy enough). Resemblance means little, but Simone had become obsessed with the idea that the two were siblings or at the least cousins.
Janet told me she had been adopted as an infant, so her antecedents are unknown; perhaps the two have ancestors from some of the same parts of the world. For the time being any relationship must remain uncertain, as my (admittedly unethical) analysis of Janet’s blood put a stop to my desire for future investigation, and introduced a mystery and a dilemma, which I now pass on for your judgment.
Were I to study certain of your body’s cells, I would detect in them markers of your journeys in time. Time travel—by whatever method—leaves the human body subtly, epigenetically changed. And Janet’s blood contains these markers. It is indisputable, as the enclosed analysis will show you.
Olivia lifted the top sheet of what she’d thought a very lengthy letter, to reveal pages of closely-printed data. Oh dear, she thought, and went back to Rutger’s correspondence.
She has traveled in time. And yet she told me she had never done so, and I have no reason to think she lied.
I cannot think what this means, or how to approach her on this matter myself. Our last parting was abrupt and inconclusive, and she has been uncommunicative for the most part since. Yet our connection was… well, this matters little to you. She is well known to you from your work together; surely you can explain somehow… or if you feel it is better, destroy the enclosed and I will respect your silence. I have printed it rather than entrust it to the pathways of the net, the better to burn if you so choose.
“He still has it bad for her, doesn’t he?” said George.
“No, really? I was wondering if he kept the DNA sample.”
“Yes, it’s all very well to dramatically recommend burning the analysis when the experiment can just be repeated. I wonder who else he’s keeping on his little shelf.”
“You’re thinking about Friedman.”
George shook his head. “Don’t know when that would have happened. I gather from Andy that Rutger’s back in touch with Lena and Gerrit, so I suppose he could purloin something from the baby, but that’s not the sample anyone wants. I wouldn’t be surprised if that’s why Simone paid him a visit, though. Just checking up.”
“So what do we tell Janet?”
“Or ask her. ‘Hello, when did you do a jump when we weren’t looking?’ ”
“You don’t believe that she didn’t? It was one of the first things she told me about herself.”
“And that’s not suspicious?” George asked.
“In the context of planning a time jump, no. She was giving me confidence, telling me I already had more experience than she did. And I think it was the truth.”
“So it’s Rutger who’s lying? Maybe a trick to get back together with Janet?”
“I don’t know. I think he’s sincere. But then how…?”
“Janet has someone else’s blood? I sympathize if so.”
Olivia shrugged. “I’d like to ask Charles what he knows about these markers that we all apparently have now. It’s disturbing.”
“Would it be a horrible violation of privacy to ask Charles what he knows before approaching Janet?” George said. “Maybe he sent her on a jump during the time she was in Europe, and never told us. He’s not exactly known for openness, after all. And I haven’t heard Janet deny jumping experience lately.”
“It would have to have been using a Frog. The usual way was much too dangerous in Europe by then.”
“Rutger says by any method. Simone going behind his back?”
“Likely enough,” said Olivia. “Well, Charles would still know. And he’d know about the science,” she added. “Even if he doesn’t understand it.” She imagined for a moment a microscopic something stamping all her cells as participatory in what Friedman thought of as a plague and the rest of them as a job. Hers, and those of many friends. That much surely was their business, even if Janet’s private life was not.
“So which question do we ask first?” she said. “Janet or blood markers?”
“Flip a coin?”
“You have one?”
“I know; I’m supposed to return props after jumps. Oops.”
Olivia looked down at the pile on the floor. “First repack the box,” she said, sighing and bending to the task. “Then flip a coin.” Her efforts stilled as she picked up Othello, and she took the book into both hands, turning the pages with a compulsion laced with dread. “ ‘The green-eyed monster,’ ” she quoted, “ ‘which doth mock the meat it feeds on.’ Jealousy and love; I’m not sure which was worse for Sam.”
“Jealousy,” George said firmly. “It’s poison.”
“You’ve tasted it so you’d know?”
He took the book out of her hands and put it in the box. “Oh yes,” he said. “I know one antidote, though.”
She leaned forward to kiss him. He let her, but then murmured “No” against her mouth. “No. Tell me something.”
“Ha. Once upon a time, a long time ago. And to get your mind off Sam. I’ve never asked because I didn’t think it was any of my business, and it’s not, but… I’d be willing to trade and we’ve been trying to be honest—”
“Your first time with Bernard. Not a blow-by-blow, so to speak; I don’t think I’m that immune to the poison. Just—”
“Exorcising the ghost?”
“Something like that. If it seems… presumptuous, or arrogant, or—”
“I don’t think you’re about to get into a pissing contest with a dead man, no. So to speak.”
“I’m not looking for reassurance about my sexual performance. I am assured sufficiently.” One finger traced the outline of her upper lip. Not the least of what he’d done for her was to awaken her tongue in bed. In several ways, but he actually seemed to prefer the verbal ones. “It sounds less than self-serving to say I think it would help you to tell me,” he went on. “It isn’t, really. But if you don’t want to—”
“Am I supposed to parse that as resembling ‘the mutual society, help, and comfort’? Or is it more the ‘forsaking all others’ bit?”
“The first one. I don’t think it helps to try to forget him.”
“I don’t think I could. We did pretty much forsake each other, though.” She waited, silent, enduring George’s patience. “You said you’d trade,” she said finally. “Did you ask Simone what Bernard was like in bed?”
“That happened a long time before he ever met you.”
“I’m aware of the chronology, and you didn’t answer the question.”
“She wouldn’t talk about it. Beyond saying they were young and enthusiastic.”
“Hm. I have a hard time imagining him that young. You actually asked?”
“Last spring, while I was trying to maneuver her into letting me go after you. Bringing up Bernard was a sort of blackmail. Not my proudest hour. Worth it in the end.” He leaned toward her for a kiss.
“When did you tell her about me and Sam?” Olivia said, turning her face and spoiling his aim.
“Hospital. Casablanca. While you were visiting home. He did die in her factory; I thought she had some right to know.”
“I see.” George thought she was jealous of Simone, either of her history with Bernard (and the continuing fixation that her request to Rutger demonstrated) or of whatever intimacy she and George had shared. Non-sexual, at least technically. It wasn’t the green-eyed monster exactly, but Olivia had too little difficulty seeing an alternate world—a present-day time breach—in which George and Simone had forsaken her and descended into mutual obsession, helplessness and discomforting lust. It would hurt George horribly if she admitted the vision; honesty had its limits.
She’d been as honest with George as she could; she’d even told him about the grief-sodden, frenzied night in Philippe’s bed, after Génie had died and Olivia had finally given in. Why it should be harder to speak of Bernard she couldn’t tell. Perhaps the regret twining around her memories of him choked her voice. Perhaps she hadn’t yet defined “forsaking.”
“I’m sorry if—” George began.
“No, it’s all right. There’s never really an even trade in these things, is there?” He clearly didn’t know what to say, so she stopped his attempt with a finger to his lips and began her story. “Once upon a time there was a graduate student in literature and the professor who taught her art history seminar. They used to meet for coffee, very ethically, after the final grades were in. And then they went to a play by an English department student—it was a very bad play—and for a walk by the river, and their feelings began to find physical expression. And he said ‘Dinner at my house next Friday?’ and she said yes, even though her grandmother, who was a good fairy—”
“I’ve met your grandmother. She is not a fairy of any description. I bet she threatened you with dire consequences if you set foot in a man’s house unchaperoned?”
“Dire consequences were exactly what I was hoping for. She also taught me that guests offer to help tidy up after dinner. He washed and I dried—”
“This house is possessed of a dish cleaner.”
“And Bernard of unexpected subtleties. It made sense at the time. He took the last pasta bowl out of my hand and kissed me, and things heated up, and when he tried to hold back to protect my virtue I told him he was an idiot—”
“Which was exactly what he was hoping for. I was still holding the dish towel when we arrived upstairs.”
“Young and enthusiastic.”
“Whole new vistas opening up. My first experience with anyone who knew what he was doing.”
“Well, he’d had practice.”
There was no sense commenting on the bitterness in George’s voice. “That’s about it, really,” Olivia said. “A very mundane beginning. At least we managed to end it with some imagination.” Bitterness was infectious; memory treacherous. “And I’m sorry there’s only one way to arrange the furniture in this room,” she went on. “Friedman said something about archaeological time, his intrinsic sense of what happened in one place over many years.”
“I could never get it to work as well as he did. And it’s gone now. In any case it wasn’t like a spy camera or a memory cache. I might have had… I don’t know. A sense that people in love had enjoyed each other here? Not such a bad thing.”
“We also lay in our bed cold to each other, Bernard wondering how he was going to leave and me not knowing why he wouldn’t touch me. Those are the ghosts I feel, not the ones making love.” She hadn’t realized the truth of it till she said it. Was it the archaeology of the future that disturbed her? The knowledge that everything ended? It was not exactly death that had parted her and Bernard, the tricks of time aside.
“I can’t promise not to die,” George said, reading her mind, “but I have no intention of leaving. Okay? It doesn’t matter what you do; you can’t get rid of me.”
“Okay. Deal.” A fleeting consolation, like the glow after sex, but one she wanted as often as she could get it. “So… pack the box, get out of this room.”
“Why? Dishes to wash?”
“I have to read an eighteenth-century treatise on botany.”
“Exciting. I have to find that coin; we still haven’t flipped it.”
“We ask Charles about Janet,” Olivia said decisively.
“If he denies knowing anything about the markers it just means he’s not up on science, and that’s not embarrassing for him, plus he’s just as affected by it as we are.” Though… what had Rutger meant by “certain cells”? George’s body was not the same as it had been the last time he had jumped, after all. Irrelevant, at the moment. “If he denies knowing about Janet…”
“It means he’s slipped up on the constant surveillance of his employees’ habits. Got it.” George gave her a quick kiss, which she didn’t avoid this time. “But you know what he’s going to say.”