Time for Tea: Chapter One

His feet, running, crunched and squealed on the gravel road.

No. Not gravel. Reflexive curiosity bent his neck and jarred his viewpoint lower. Shells: the sea’s leavings. They must have shoveled them up and dumped them in barrowfuls. Resourceful colonists; local materials. A hard white road: the moonlight shadowed curves and hollows and sharp broken edges. At least he still had boots to run on them in.

The boots were in bad shape, though. Someone, he hoped, was going to kill him for ruining them. He laughed, and his chilled breath hitched into a rasp, regular but on the cusp of arrhythmia.

Two rasps, two crunches, four rhythms: his feet and those just behind him; his breath and Andy’s. Barely able to form thoughts, his brain still registered the syncopation and harmony of those gasps and footfalls. An imagined symphony of other running feet, in other places and conditions, swelled and diminished: thuds, squelches, the song of sand trod barefoot. The detritus of memory, shoveled and dumped. No one else was running on the shell-road; the pursuit had ended long ago. Unless time was playing tricks with his head.

Like that’s never happened.

“Why are we still running?” he panted out, obscurely proud that he could produce words. The wind whipped his face as he turned to look back. Ice, and salt.

“I thought you knew.”

Shit. His feet stopped; the wind didn’t lessen. “Usually the one who does the rescuing takes charge.”

“Yeah. You’re welcome. You thought I was leading from behind?” Andy’s feet stopped too. “We’re heading for someplace warm, to hide.”

He looked around. The faint illumination revealed only hints of scrub and wasteland to each side of the road; anything could be hiding in there, but not likely anything warm. A sense of water close by: salty marsh, and the disorienting imagined vastness of ocean and wilderness. Dim light ahead. There might be houses soon, if they kept going.

“Heading south,” he said. The map in his head disgorged a name. “Roxbury.”

“If you say so.”

Another significant spot on the map came clear. “Wrong direction.”

“You want to go back?” He didn’t bother answering; Andy added, “Only direction that made sense. People in the way.”

“Tell me about it.” He forced his feet to walk. Crunch, squeal, crunch. “No point in running if we’re not being chased.”

“You’re the expert.”

“Mm.” His lungs were burning with the cold intake of breath; the damp chill of wind on wet clothes scorched his skin and dug in toward his bones. Running had at least kept him at thawpoint. He couldn’t feel his toes; only the noise told him his feet were still moving. The tempo was slowing, though. Crunch. Crunch. Aching thighs, dragging the weight of his lower legs. Like pushing through water. He shivered, hard.

“Hey.” Hands on his shoulders. “You all right?” Only a gasp came out in response; the hands pressed him downward. “Bend over. Breathe.” Time passed; air went in and out, sharp as the shells. His knees began to buckle. He could lie down and sleep; rise up bloody. Or not get up at all.

“Come on. Time to walk. We need to get you inside.” The hands pulled him upright again, shoved him forward. Obediently, he walked. There should, he vaguely recalled, be something of relief in this utter focus on physical endurance, this blankness of mind. When he was warm, then he could think. No point to it now.

Without thought, time lost meaning; they both knew he couldn’t survive out here very long, but he’d let Andy decide how long that was. His job was to move his feet. The crunches stopped, eventually, and became soft thumps on packed dirt.

Andy swore and grabbed his arm, pulling him into a stumbling run. He had nothing left to run with; he did it anyway. Dragged off the road, into the brush, forced down; instinct almost made him fight back, but it was easier to let the hands do what they wanted. More road-sounds: a horse, at gallop, approaching and passing. The hoofs slowed, but didn’t stop.

“Probably nothing to do with us,” Andy said, “but no sense taking chances. We’ll stay off the road, head for that barn.”

Dark bulk blotting out dark sky. Smells, suggesting livestock. Shifting of heavy bodies. Hands, pushing him up a ladder into a hayloft. He’d done this before; he was an expert at running, hiding, finding warm places. He’d told Andy the stories. One barn was much like another, similarly odorous and dark.

The hands were unbuttoning, unbuckling, peeling off layers. That was familiar too. “You got a nice soft mattress?” he murmured.

Andy’s fingers stilled. “Enough with the bedroom voice,” he said, pleasantly dry. “All cats not that gray. Unless your hypothermia is sufficiently advanced that I need to share body heat to keep you alive.”

There were probably cats in the barn. To keep the rats down. “No. Hay’s warm. Slow decomposition.”

“Brain still working. Good sign.”

Stripped naked, he was tucked into a nest: protected from cold, though itchy. Still shivering. “Fire’d be better.”

“We are not setting the hay on fire. The chance of burning down the entire—”

“Fire in the house.” That had been one of the smells, too. And a faint glow out of the windows. “Not that much warmer, though. They sleep cold here. And dark. Never saw dark like this before this job. Or… not-saw.” The dark wrapped itself around him, but not like a cloak; it had no warming thickness. Impenetrable, though. Like a solid box, more solid than the barn. “Like a coffin,” he said out loud.

“Not going morbid on me, are you? Go to sleep.”

He tried, dutifully, but after the third time he shivered his way out of a drowse filled with flashes of the night’s debacle, he gave up trying, and just shivered. He considered distracting himself by talking more, but they’d end up at what went wrong, and what to do next, which was obvious enough but had to wait till nearer dawn when they had some light. The map was clearer in his head now, but blurred, as though he had water in his eyes.

The image seized him with malicious hands, and thrust him back into that green hell. He’d kept his eyes open underwater: an instinctual need to watch what was killing him, though all he’d seen were boots, or in one case shoes with saggy wool stockings, and churned-up bottom muck. His eyes burned now: a worry for tomorrow.

Strong hands, of men who worked with them. Carpenters, maybe: building inescapable coffins. The unseen barn walls pressed tight on each side… holding him down… lung-searing, oxygen-deprived panic. And blessed seconds of surrender: giving it all up, making it end…

He gulped hay-scented air. Stop it, idiot. You’re not dead. There had never really been much chance of dying. He would survive this night, and they’d get home, to face… “face the music” was the expression, wasn’t it? Vaguely, he wondered why. Something to do with conductors, and… responsibility? Never in tune with the rest of them… marching to the beat of… shivering to the… accelerando, vibrato, relax into it…

He jerked awake again. Sleeping on the road, on the bare ground, mountain winds stripping the warmth from him like a layer of skin… no. He wasn’t going to not wake up. The hay would keep him from becoming a corpse, if not prevent him from over-dramatizing. It was all in the mind, anyway; let his mind go somewhere warm.

“Andy.” A brief hm? sound in reply. “What’s the last place you were warm?”

“Shower.”

“Yeah. Not water, though, thanks anyway.”

“You mean you’re not going to tell that story about the lake and the hot springs again? Bed, then.”

“Ah. Who with?”

“Unlike you, I don’t count my bed as unwarmed if I’m alone in it.”

They sleep cold here… “Use your imagination.”

Andy laughed, declining to play along. “Some of us have sure things waiting for them.”

“That’s not why I… well, it’s a positive thought, anyway. Getting home.”

“I’m not worried about getting home.”

Holy shit, partner. You trust me that much? Talk about leading from behind. He only let the silence last a second before hurrying on to conjure more warmth. “Bonfire. Cooking rabbits on sharpened sticks.” Every piece of sensory detail was clear in memory: whittling with a sharp-edged knife, the resistance of newly-dead flesh, the glorious scent and the salivation in response. The low-pitched, gruff voices celebrating a good day’s work; the fiddle, howling melody as though all alone in the Wyoming wilderness. Fingers burning as he tossed his bit of meat from hand to hand until it was cool enough to bite into. The unaccustomed feeling of companionship; the ache inside, as lonely as the fiddle, knowing he didn’t belong.

“Moscow,” he went on, the memories linking themselves. A scent for this one, too: smoky, like a peat fire. “Drinking tea with… damn. No. Not tea. Drinking vodka with Pasha. Wish I had some now.”

“To drown your sorrows?” said Andy.

The question called for a quick, flippant response; he lay curled into the hay, searching for one, until Andy’s hand, shaking his shoulder, woke him and told him it was near dawn: time to go home.

* * * * *

 23 March 2173

“So,” said Charles. “Why are you here, I wonder?”

Olivia gave the rhetorical question a few seconds to settle, like a feather drifting down toward Charles’s desk, before providing a response. “Thank you for giving me a job,” she said. She almost added You don’t know what it means to me, but that would lend weight to his question; it would thump and echo. “I’ll work hard,” she said instead.

“I would not expect otherwise,” said Charles. A familiar expression of ironic amusement enlivened his narrow, hawk-nosed face; she should not be finding suspicion there. She liked his face. “You might have less of a learning curve than most of us did,” he added. “Or more solid impediments. I suppose we’ll see, won’t we?”

Again, a question she didn’t need to answer directly. “I’m willing to put in as many hours as it takes,” she said. It’s not like I have anybody waiting for me at home.

Charles shook his head slightly. “I don’t pay overtime. Not for work done in the twenty-second century, that is.”

“Yes, I know. I read the contract.”

Junior Associate was her job title as of this morning; she’d expected that, as Bernard had once held it too before graduating to Senior, but it still seemed insufficient. Two weeks ago when she’d pulled together her courage and called Charles, she’d thought he might give her a job in research. He’d brushed her off, twice, and then when she’d thought it was useless he’d turned around and handed her the breath-stealing responsibility of… not replacing Bernard; she would not admit to that. Not even temporarily substituting for him: there’d be that learning curve. Those impediments. Temporally substituting would be more like it, anyway. Apprentice Time Traveler, the contract should have said; but if Charles used the flexibility inherent in that Associate vagueness to demote her to research, if that was a demotion, she would earn no less for hours spent in the office. The pay scale shot up alarmingly for any time she would spend in the past. Danger pay; also incentive.

“I really do need the money,” she said; it was a good distraction from other reasons she might be here. “My account’s running low, and the assets in Bernard’s name are… for the moment inaccessible.” I can’t prove him dead. Assuming I wanted to. And he didn’t think to grant me power of attorney before he disappeared. “Remaining a student, even with the full-time assistantship, just isn’t possible right now.”

“No longer world enough and time, hm?” He grinned, rather callously she thought. “I’m sometimes sorry I didn’t take your advice and call the company that. The egotism apparent in naming it for myself… well. You are welcome to Constantine and Associates, Ms. Lake. And we can certainly use you.”

“That’s what your receptionist said.” The woman who’d greeted her with polite small talk and led her to Charles’s office had also given her the once-over and pronounced her “the right look for European assignments, excellent, just what’s needed.” She herself had been short and rather plump, bronze-skinned, sixtyish: she might have been someone’s grandmother, though not Olivia’s. Some of the same ancestors, perhaps; not that one was supposed to notice.

“Ah,” said Charles, after a brief pause. “Beatrice.”

“Is she not the… I’m sorry. I thought you’d have auto-reception, but then you like things old-fashioned…” She trailed off. It was odd, she was realizing belatedly, that she’d never been here before, but if there’d been office parties, Bernard hadn’t invited her, and her acquaintance with Charles had been purely social. He and Bernard had known each other for years. She knew him well enough to have anticipated the subtle design touches here and in the lobby that echoed older periods of history. Appropriately enough. But paying someone just to smile at visitors…

“Bea Rivas is… an associate,” Charles said with a quirk of his mouth. “Reception is one of her jobs. At least when someone important comes to our door.”

“I’m flattered,” Olivia said. “You haven’t been hiring much lately, then?”

He studied her for a moment and then said, “No. And yes, it’s likely because of Bernard. We’ve kept his absence as quiet as possible, but it’s a small world, and he was well known in it. Gossip gets around. Not that other companies haven’t… mislaid employees. On rare occasions,” he added quickly. His face went very serious. “We’ll get him back, Livvy. We have the best people looking into it.”

“I would not expect otherwise,” she said, a deliberate echo. Keeping her tone not only confident but ingenuous was a struggle. If, three months on, anyone was still investigating Bernard’s disappearance, she had not been made aware of it. And she was sure Charles knew more than he was telling; the brief slip into past tense was revealing.

Human beings, she’d read somewhere, unlike machines such as auto-receptionists, could tell the difference between real and false smiles, if they were discerning enough. Charles wasn’t chief executive officer of one of the time travel industry’s top companies through lack of discernment. She called up all the affection she’d felt for him over the years, pretending he was over for dinner and handing her a bunch of flowers or a bottle of wine, and let the comfort she’d felt with him bend her mouth upward.

“I’m glad to be here,” she said. “A little scared, but glad. So… I should get on with my job…?”

“Beatrice will show you to your workspace. And Livvy…” He stood and held out a hand; she rose as well, and took it. “I’m glad you’re here too.”

“Thank you.” They shook on whatever deal they’d made, and then he grinned and came around the desk to give her a kiss on the cheek and a hug. It meant more than welcome; it meant he’d look after her, and while she was not at all sure she wanted that—those discerning blue eyes should certainly not be following her movements—she couldn’t help leaning into him for a second.

“Off you go,” he said, releasing her. She walked toward the door, which opened for her automatically; then she turned back as he added, “I think this is the beginning—”

His sentence broke off as Olivia collided with someone entering the room. Someone nice-smelling, tall… oh my. She looked up into the face of one of the most handsome men she’d ever seen: liquid brown eyes, flawless dark skin like a book new-bound in another century, features borrowed from the statues of kings in many continents. “I’m sorry,” she gasped.

He steadied her. “No, it was my—”

“Not again, Andy,” drawled a light voice from behind the god. “No matter where you go, women throw themselves at you.” The speaker stepped forward: a man of about thirty with a pale boyish face, green eyes and sandy eyebrows. The color of his hair she couldn’t judge, as he sported a powdered wig. Like his companion, he was dressed in eighteenth-century clothing, expensive-looking but considerably the worse for wear. His face was bruised and his eyes red-rimmed. He held out a filthy hand to Olivia, then looked at it, snatched it away and wiped it along the seam of his breeches. Nodding instead, he said, “Well, now I’m glad I made the effort to show up today. George Merrill. Pleased to meet you. Sorry for the mess. I’m usually more presentable.”

He didn’t smell as pleasant as his companion. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Merrill… um, Andy…”

“Bishop,” the other man said, nodding as well.

“We usually change at the TTI,” Merrill went on, “but this was an early jump and no one at Eagle could cover, so we took the clothes home with us, and then as things went we thought we’d better get over here afterwards. I keep a spare set of clothes in my office, just in case, you know, unexpected overnight stays, that sort of thing—”

“George,” Bishop broke in, sounding amused, “are you really babbling at her about your love life? Because I think—”

Charles cleared his throat. “May I introduce Olivia Lake?” he said.

“Ah,” responded Merrill. “Well.” Her name was evidently familiar and… disconcerting? His fluster vanished and he went on coolly, “I don’t mean to be rude, but if you’ll excuse us, we have a little problem to discuss here. We were not,” he said cryptically to Charles, “welcome at the tea party.”

Charles nodded, looking grim. “I’m sorry, Livvy, but I do need to speak to George and Andy. Beatrice will take care of you.”

“Not a problem.” She smiled at him, nodded to the others, and then found her way back to the reception desk. “Excuse me?” she said as she approached. “Ms. Rivas?”

“Beatrice, please.” The intent dark eyes gave Olivia the impression of a medical scan: assessment down to internal organs. She tried to look healthy and professional. “You want to start work, I imagine,” Beatrice said.

Olivia nodded. The neatly-marked doors off the hall down which Beatrice led her belonged to meeting rooms and the offices of researchers and administrative staff. The time-traveling jumpers, on the other hand, shared a large room divided into cubicles. This much she knew from Bernard, who had grumbled in his early days as a Constantine and Associates employee at having to abandon the relative luxury of a university professor’s office.

The cubicles, she saw as they entered the jumpers’ room at the top of a small stair, were not cubes but hexagonal, laid out in an intersecting pattern. And Romulus his bee-like cell, Olivia quoted to herself, wondering if she would fill out the space. There were approximately thirty little cells, half apparently empty, and most of the others glowing with the privacy screens their occupants had generated from within. Some used one or two walls to shut out a neighbor; some surrounded themselves on all sides; some hid in little shimmering domes, each a different pearlescent shade: individualistic worker bees, perhaps. The persistent hum of the screen generators added to the hive illusion; she’d used one herself in her grad student carrel, and knew they were blessedly silent within.

Beatrice led her down the steps and to one of several narrow passageways for access to the inner chambers. She turned to Olivia. “We’ve given you Bernard’s office, dear. I… hope you don’t mind. Charles wanted… well, he thought you might prefer it.”

She hesitated, but got no response, and so she was off again, leading the way into the warren. They passed a couple of jumpers in residence, who apparently felt no need to screen themselves away, and who looked up curiously as the two women walked by, but when they reached Olivia’s new workplace she was glad to find she had no immediate neighbors at the moment. Like the other cubicles, it was a bland and impersonal environment at first glance: table, chairs, utilitarian and blatantly net-accessible desk, a contrast in form to Charles’s opulent real wood. Chin-high bookcases framed an entrance portal—a supplement to, or an avoidance of, the artificially-generated screen—and to one was attached a hand-made name plate. “Bernard Quan” was lettered on it in black paintbrush strokes, along with his trademark device of two mountains and a pass winding in between.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” said Beatrice. “I thought we’d taken that down. I’m sure,” she went on, brushing past Olivia on her way into the room, “we recoded the net access and all the locks for your fingerprint. But let’s check, dear; my memory’s not what it used to be, and I want to make sure you’re settled. Try it.”

Olivia touched a tentative index finger to the surface of the desk, and upwards in full color bloomed the image Bernard had chosen to start each working day, a three-dimensional, rotating patchwork of portraits, each small but brilliantly clear: painted couples, ranging from the celebratory to the ironic, from Van Eyck’s Arnolfinis to Grant Wood’s farmers; and, pulling the theme together, the repeated photographic image of Dr. Quan himself and his young bride. Olivia disliked that picture; she thought it emphasized the difference in their ages far too much. Even at forty-two Bernard had looked comparatively stiff and old and tired, though his face had been nearly unlined and his hair black without a hint of gray, five and a half years ago when it had been taken.

“Very clever,” said Beatrice over her shoulder. “But he always did like to… dress up the ordinary like that. Most people just have the conventional family pose. You don’t have children, though, do you?”

“No. Bernard didn’t want…”

“A lot of the jumpers feel that way, actually. You’d be surprised.”

“Would I?” Olivia murmured, staring at the parade of matrimony before her. She turned abruptly, making Beatrice hop back. “I’m sorry. But if I could have a moment…”

“Alone? Of course, dear. I understand.” She paused at the doorway and added: “You might want to look over some of the company history files, while you’re waiting for… whatever Charles wants you to do. The menu’s pretty obvious. Do give me a buzz if you need anything.” Then she was gone.

Olivia looked around the cubicle. The neutral façade of the space was, with time, resolving itself into a personal habitat: very Bernard in its details. She examined the shelves, burdened with an eclectic collection of books: it seemed unlikely that twenty-first century Chinese isolationist poetry, in translation, would have come in handy on any jump assignment, or Virgil’s Eclogues, not in translation, or Through the Looking-Glass. Just bringing physical books to the office was a typically obstinate gesture, when any text he wished to consult would be available on the net. The shelves also held a pair of shot glasses decorated with the emblems of the University of Chicago and the University of Michigan, a subtle and practical nod to his excellent education.

No diplomas on the walls for Bernard, but hanging near the desk was the decorated fan she had bought him on their San Francisco honeymoon, cheap and touristy and not something to which she’d thought he attached any meaning. Since then they’d taken few trips together; after Bernard had started at Constantine and Associates, three years ago, he had found travel in the present day exhaustingly superfluous. A more successful present, the fountain pen that had cost half her meager savings, she found in the desk drawer when she unlocked it with a touch of her fingertip. She was uncertain why Bernard’s personal possessions had been left in place, as though his reappearance were anticipated any day now, and yet she had been given the cubicle for her own use, with all the locks recoded. The two made one flesh. If we share a bed, we might as well share an office? Possibly they expected her to return to the rewards of her scholarly life when Bernard was found, giving up her new career and any achievement that might have come with it, and they might well be right.

Or more likely—and she suddenly knew with certainty that this was the answer—they didn’t expect him ever to be found. They thought he was dead, and it was easier to give her access to the detritus of his life, to dispose of as she desired in bits and pieces, than it would have been to pack it up in a box and have Beatrice deliver it to her like some mortuary technician. No, Charles would have done it himself, I think. But he didn’t dare.

She closed the drawer firmly, unable to face any more of its contents for the time being. With her deductions she’d determined to leave things as they were in this office, down to the sign at the doorway; they could believe him gone if they wished, but he was still here as long as she changed nothing. She almost wished for a rotting apple core or half a sandwich, just to prove her point, but the cleaning crew wouldn’t be that inefficient, even had Bernard not been too fastidious to leave trash around. He would have made the extra trip to the waste disposal, wherever it was: Beatrice had left too soon to tell her. She hadn’t even told her where the ladies’ room was, come to think of it.

Rejecting the idea of leaving the cubicle to investigate, Olivia set off on another internal exploration, using hand motions and eyeflicks to discover the menu of company records. These included two types of jumpers’ reports: a formal précis sent to the client at the conclusion of an assignment, documenting relative success and failure in carefully couched and sometimes stilted language that sounded as though it were adapted from the original proposal; and a more casual and upfront version addressed to Charles and copied to other administrative staff. Some of the latter were password-protected, and she flipped past them with a twinge of curiosity.

She read a report of one of Bernard’s early assignments, from the days when he’d still come home with a gleam in his eyes and told her everything he could about his adventures, as soon as he’d woken from the inevitable post-jump nap. The well-balanced, webnoted discussion of his investigation into the treatment of the natives Columbus had brought back to Spain from the Americas was familiar in content if not tone; she remembered his fury and disgust subsiding into a dismissal of his natural emotions as twenty-second-century prejudice, his murmurings of “autre temps, autre moeurs” and something about the statute of limitations, and therefore she was not surprised to read in his concluding statement that no apology on the part of the European Alliance seemed necessary, though “sorrow never comes too late.”  How much the opinion of a contractor for the United States government mattered in this sort of decision, she had no idea, especially considering the still shaky relations between the powers, but no apology had in fact been made as far as she recalled; she was not privileged to know whether any sorrow had been felt.

Unashamedly deciding to focus on Bernard’s reports, she delved further; some of the jumps she recalled from his conversation and some—mostly in the last year—she’d had no idea about. He had made several more trips to Spain and Portugal in the same period, but didn’t seem to have specialized beyond that. Nineteenth-century Germany, Regency England, seventeenth-century Holland: there’d been one jump to America’s Old West, in the company of a colleague named Sam Brant, and—another sub-specialty—several trips to the East Indies in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, though nothing more in Asia.  He was proud of his immigrant father and his partially Chinese ancestry, but both his appearance and his inclination had given him the European assignments, and he radiated as much authority in a frock coat or a slashed doublet as he would have in Mandarin robes, or, as she had once seen him before an early morning jump, in a twentieth-century American professor’s suit and tie.

The memory of him tugging at the ridiculous neckwear, on his way to observe race riots, provoked an indulgent smile; the next second, she heard a rustling sound to her left, and whipped around to see George Merrill in the next cubicle, still in eighteenth-century attire, casually tossing his wig onto his desk. He began to loosen the stock around his neck, pried off his boots and reached down to unbuckle the knee band of his breeches and pull off his stockings, and then, as if he had just become aware of her presence, turned and raised his eyebrows at her.

“If you’ll excuse me, Ms. Lake,” he said, and flicked his fingers in the air. An opaque screen appeared between them, and Olivia reddened. Echoing his gesture—it felt like casting a curse or warding off demons—she activated half her cubicle’s screens, doubling the barrier.

The screen came up radiant with color, rather than in the expected pastel shade, and focused into a seventeenth-century Dutch painting of tulips. In a moment, this image faded, to be replaced by a picture of a man clad in tights having a flower extracted from his scalp by another man wearing a funnel on his head. Before Olivia could even attempt to grasp the significance of this apparition, it too had faded. A couple of Altdorfers followed, The Battle of Issus and the woodsy St. George and the Dragon, and then a series of Crucifixions: Gauguin, Dali, Chagall, El Greco. More tulips next, a Poussin with shepherds, an ironic Magritte in which a landscape painting overlapped a real landscape, and then a dark image she knew quite well: Elihu Vedder’s The Sorrowing Soul Between Doubt and Faith, the central figure of which, Bernard had teased, resembled her when upset at her work going poorly.

I imagine I’ve looked like that quite a lot in the last three months. She thought back to the photograph Bernard had used for his celebration of couplehood, if that was what it had been, and wondered which was the more real to him: the serene smile on the face of the bride or the turned-down mouth of this grieving and uncertain woman. If she could judge her impression on him by this selection of artworks, the truth was somewhere in between: several images of dark-haired women neither smiling nor frowning followed, mostly in the pre-Raphaelite vein. She was surprised to see paintings from that movement here, as they usually made Bernard irritable, and it relieved her when his favorite seventeenth-century works began to reappear.

“How’s he manage to concentrate with all that going on, huh?”

Olivia turned to see Merrill, now clad in comfortable-looking modern clothes, entering her cubicle. “You can reset it to plain colors, if you’d prefer,” he continued. “Brilliant man, but he has rather odd tastes. In art, I mean, not wives.” He bowed anachronistically.

She was so thankful for his use of the present tense that she forgot to be resentful of his intrusion, and waved him to a chair. He sat, running a hand through his hair—it was the same sandy color as his eyebrows—and went on, “I get little lectures on art history when he’s in the right mood. Meaning, tired of writing reports. That’s a Bosch,” he said, nodding at the painting of the surgeon with weird headgear when it came up again. “It definitely says something to me. Not in any language I understand, of course.”

“I suspect,” said Olivia, “that Bernard needs the opportunity to lecture again on occasion; he’d say he doesn’t really miss it, but I know better.” Merrill was regarding her with an unexpected seriousness. “It’s a compliment, choosing you for a student.”

“Hm. I’ve been wondering if that”—he waved a hand at the screen display, freezing it at the Altdorfer painting of St. George—“was a compliment. Or something else.”

“Um. Are you the knight, then?”

“I don’t think the dragon’s named George. Or the horse.” He peered at the lower part of the wooded landscape. “I look like I’m eavesdropping on a conversation between the two of them. Well, we do a lot of eavesdropping here.” He waved his fingers again and the paintings began to succeed one another.

“How do you—?” She tried for the same command gesture, muffed it, and was about to try again but hesitated at freezing the dark-haired pre-Raphaelite beauty with her pomegranate. Merrill gave her a glance, assessing something, and watched the images until the Vedder appeared. A swift movement of his hand left the three faces—bearded philosopher, gentle angel, and sober-faced dark-haired woman in between—frozen on the screen like an enormous trio of guardians. Olivia made an involuntary noise of protest and, equally involuntarily, succeeded at unfreezing the image. She waited for a vase of tulips, stilled it in place with the correct gesture, and glanced at Merrill, not hiding her small triumph.

“You’re right,” he said. “I definitely prefer you as Persephone. Anyway, I had a purpose for coming in here; what was it? Oh, yes. Project staff meeting. I get to explain to everyone how I screwed up, and you get to watch: lucky you. On your first day, too. Shall we?” He gestured toward the doorway. “After you, Ms. Lake.”

Businesslike was one thing, but she wasn’t going to have Merrill last-naming her in a sarcastic tone of voice day after day. “Have you washed your hands, Mr. Merrill?”

“Yes. Why?”

She held out her hand to him, and he shook it bemusedly. “If we’re going to be neighbors, I think you’d better call me Olivia.”

“‘Hallow your name to the reverberate hills, and let the babbling gossip of the air cry out…’ I suppose you’ve heard that before. Sorry.”

“Not as often as you’d think, but often enough, yes.”

“Most people probably don’t bother to look it up. Let alone while changing from breeches into pants. So, Olivia. Not… Livvy?”

“Not here, no.”

“Only the boss gets to call you that?”

“Only my parents do, really. Charles picked it up from them.” The green eyes narrowed at her. “At our wedding. It’s a joke, I suppose. After a few drinks he calls my husband Bernie; no one else ever gets to do that.”

“Old friends.”

“Yes. You knew that.” Just like you knew I was Bernard’s wife.

“Mm. How old are you, by the way?”

She let a few seconds pass before answering. “Twenty-eight. Nineteen years younger.”

Damn it, she couldn’t embarrass the man; he just said, “Mm,” and added, “Speaking of names, do call me George.” He bowed, the same out-of-time gesture. “An old family… burden; lots of interesting characters in the tree, though I assure you no saints. Or presidents, or kings. Not that my illustrious ancestors take up too much of my attention; I try not to dwell in the past except when absolutely necessary for the job at hand, unlike some people—” He stopped with his mouth open. “Oh shit, I don’t think I was supposed to say that. Present, um, absent company excepted, of course. God, you do look like that painting when you’re mad.”

Later. Pick his brain later. No time now. “I think we had better get to that meeting… George.”

“I might as well be idiotic in public, yes. Turn off the tulips when you leave.”

The screen vanished instantly when she gestured, no fading out this time, rather as—the odd thought occurred to her—Bernard had just been gone one day, with no sense of dwindling away, nothing lingering behind, apart from a few tangible reminders like those she’d examined here. There had been hints, perhaps; she could hardly bear to think what they might have been: a half-formed word, a raised eyebrow, a hand on her shoulder as she worked. Although why she should imagine he had known he wouldn’t return… did you know? And where the hell are you?

“Olivia?” George’s voice snapped her back into the moment; she gave him a quick reassuring smile and walked out the doorway resolutely, feeling as though she were taking a first blind step downwards in the dark.

Chapter Two

4 thoughts on “Time for Tea: Chapter One

  1. Sandy Occhipinti says:

    Hooked after the second paragraph…
    No fair Erica, I’m supposed to be raking the now wet leaves this morning!
    Love it!

  2. nelle says:

    I’m looking forward to downloading it onto my kindle!

  3. Maria Wortman says:

    You’ve got me hooked! Very erudite. I can’t wait to read Chapter 2.

  4. Merikay says:

    Erica,
    Given your many other talents I shouldn’t be surprised to find you can take us time-traveling. Normally I would not find myself interested in the unlikely premise of past-travel from the future. Your descriptions are so interesting that I’m drawn in despite my prejudice and I look forward to reading the rest of this book. Kudos.

    Merikay

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