A Matter of Time, Lane Cohen, TWB Press, novel, time travel, thriller

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Lane Cohen

BELOW PAR

PROTECTION

96,000 word

340 pages 

by 

Lane Cohen

It’s 1892. Dr. Joseph Bell, family man, surgeon, and Scotland Yard consultant, is at Dundee Asylum, evaluating the sanity of serial killer Irene Lithgow, when the building is struck by tornadic winds. He comes to in 2009. Irene finds herself in 1944, finally free but vengeful of the man who’d continually denied her release from Dundee. With the help of Einstein’s stolen time machine, she tracks Bell through the decades to 2019 Cincinnati, where she leaves a trail of murder victims as bait for her trap. Bell’s uncanny talent of deductive reasoning is put to the test in a high-stakes race to stop the killings, obtain the time machine, and return to his family in 1892. However, it’s only a matter of time before he must make a heartbreaking decision that will change the course of his life and the history of the world.

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What would happen if history could be rewritten as casually as erasing a blackboard? Our past would be like the shifting sands at the seashore, constantly blown this way or that by the slightest breeze. History would be constantly changing every time someone spun the dial of a time machine and blundered his or her way into the past. History, as we know it, would be impossible. It would cease to exist. Michio Kaku - Hyperspace

Chapter 1: Lebanon, Ohio

Summer - 2019

Jessie Warren rounded a bend on the trail at an easy jog. The sun was sinking behind a cluster of purple clouds; a summer storm was about to break.

That was fine. She liked running in the warm rain, unless electricity crackled across the sky. Lightning bolts rarely struck people, but not rarely enough for her to risk her life. Her love of the outdoors aside, if the heavens started crashing, she would take cover inside the farmhouse and jog on her treadmill, as boring as that might have been.

Since middle-school, fitness had been a constant in her life. Back then, for an extra push when she trained with the cross-country team, she would picture old-fashioned movie slashers chasing her. It didn’t really make her run any faster, but it took her mind from the relentless pain in her belly, especially when the team climbed steep hills, and her imagination made the monotonous running way more fun.

When she turned thirty a few years ago, she’d started a new running program, right after her parents passed away and she had healed sufficiently from hip surgery. Though she had been promoted on the Cincinnati police force, and physical exertion was usually less needed as a detective than as a patrol officer, she noticed the young female recruits who joined the department always seemed to be in terrific shape. She used the newbies as motivation to accelerate her own workout program; no rookie was ever going to outrun her on the track, or out-lift her in the gym, not if she could help it. Besides, hard running was good for her hip rehab. And the pain in her joints served as an adequate distraction from the rest of her life, at least some of the time.

The rain sprinkled and she paced through it. The droplets felt cool against her face, bare arms and legs. Running in the rain was at least one way to feel closer to nature. She smiled through the gathering shower and powered forward. Her hip barely hurt, her legs were strong and still had a lot left this evening. Let’s see how fast I can go.

Lights glinted from inside a few farmhouses as she strode over the dirt trail across the rear boundary of her neighborhood. Much of this section had been overbuilt in the last twenty years, but many of the original farmhouses still stood untouched, and the Mayberry-like feel remained in a few spots. It was nice, in this world of relentless renovation, some things from her childhood still had not changed.

She rounded the final corner of the trail before the path leading to the back of her property branched off to her right.

An incredible boom shattered the air.

She jerked to a halt and shot her arms up to cover her head.

Christ, that was loud.

The lightning had exploded right above her. She needed to find shelter, started ahead through an abrupt downpour but halted again. Something darted onto the trail in front of her. She wiped the rain from her eyes. It was a dog, a small black-and-white mutt. Probably lived in one of the houses close by and got stuck outside in the weather, just like she had.

She took one step closer. “Here, boy.”

The dog stopped, turned to her.

Jessie’s breath caught in her throat. Poor thing was missing one back leg. She moved closer.

The dog stood on the path and glanced from side to side, again and again.

Without thinking about the dog being vicious, she approached, got a foot from the dog then bent her knees to the ground. “What happened to you, boy?” She gingerly reached over and touched his shoulder.

The dog stretched out and shook the water from his short fur. After steadying himself, he gazed at her with puppy-dog-brown eyes. He inched forward and pushed the top of his head against her hip.

A sudden burst of tears streamed down her cheeks and mixed with the rain as she gathered the black-and-white dog into her arms and pulled the little guy as close to her pounding chest as she possibly could. “Doc? Doc! It can’t be...”

The dog licked her face and wagged his tail as if he’d just found a long-lost friend.

Time travel used to be thought of as just science fiction, but Einstein’s general theory of relativity allows for the possibility that we could warp space-time so much that you could go off in a rocket and return before you set out.  Stephen Hawking

Chapter 2: Mt. Adams, Ohio

Three Weeks Later

Present Day

Jessie squinted through the morning sunlight, tightened her grip on the dog leash, and stepped off the curb into the narrow Mt. Adams cobblestone street. She angled toward the sidewalk patio of Evangeline’s Tea House where the man she’d been searching for was purported to hang out on Sunday mornings. It was already 70 degrees, but a persistent shiver tingled in her hip and down her leg. She took a deep breath and forged ahead.

She’d just parked her battered Jeep that she normally hated navigating up the steep hill from the valley to Mt. Adams. There was almost never anywhere to park, and she resented the aura of chic trendiness this once quiet and unassuming residential community had become. Its lofty perch that overlooked the Ohio River had something to do with the inevitable upscale changes. At least parking hadn’t been an issue today, as many of the fashionable clothing and jewelry shops that dotted the rehabbed urban landscape had yet to open.

Walking in this hilly, sequestered community, with the little black-and-white dog at her side, felt quite pleasant, except for the familiar twinge she felt now and then around her right hip. She used her free hand to re-adjust the holster and pistol under the left arm of her jacket to make sure it was secure, and continued forward. She passed only a few joggers on her way toward the tea café.

As she caught sight of a man across the street, she slowed her pace. He sat at a table behind a wrought iron fence that separated Evangeline’s patio from the sidewalk. She felt a sudden pressure in her chest.

The man was quietly handsome. He wore a gray Fedora and sat at a small bistro table. He perused a newspaper, probably the Sunday edition of The Cincinnati Enquirer, folded in his hands. A ceramic teacup rested in a saucer on the table. His appearance was exactly as he had been described, even though her source had last seen him more than five years ago.

She halted at the fence. “Doc, sit.” The dog sat at her heel. She had no idea how to start a conversation with the man whose eyes just rolled up at her.

Mistake. This is a mistake. There’s no real reason to believe this stranger might have the answer to my questions.

After all the hours she had considered approaching him, she had planned what to say, but no words formed in her mind, and she simply stood there, her mouth halfway open. The melody of a song from the 60s, a ballad by The Beatles, distracted her as it echoed softly in the background.

“Curious,” the man said. His eyes were sharp, sky blue, and they studied her from behind a pair of wire eyeglasses.

“Hello,” she managed.

“Miss.” He stood and removed his Fedora.

She saw he broke the six-foot mark.

The man rested his newspaper atop two others stacked on the table. “You are not an acolyte, not a follower of my books.”

“I’m not?”

“No.”

She took a breath. “I’ve read both.”

“But you carry neither with you...for my signature on the title page.”

“I have a Kindle, and I’ve never been much into author autographs.”

He blinked. “You are not an investigative journalist.”

“Oh? How do you know?”

“Journalists carry recording equipment, or perhaps a writing tablet at the very least. You hold nothing this fine morning, except for the canine leash.”

She glanced down at the dog by her side. “Curious. You said curious.”

“Have I unwittingly run afoul of law enforcement?”

“No. Oh, no. Why?”

“Could this be an official visit?”

She studied him. “Have you seen me before?”

“Never.”

“You must know I’m a cop. That’s what you meant.”

He gestured with one open palm at an empty chair. “Please. Join me.”

She blinked several times, and then stepped through a gate in the fence. The small three-legged dog followed at her side. as John Lennon’s soft melodic voice accompanied them. Seated in the proffered chair, she gazed at the man standing on the other side of the table. He had short-cut dark brown hair highlighted by a few touches of gray at the temples. Clean-shaven and properly neat, he wore pressed tan dress slacks, brown tie shoes, a long-sleeved white shirt buttoned all the way up, no tie, and a tweedy vest.

“Pardon me for barging in on you like this.”

“I welcome pleasant conversation.”

She glanced around and adjusted her position on the chair. “It’s nice here, as if this place were lifted from a quaint English village.”

He sat and placed his Fedora atop the newspapers. “I visit this lovely establishment each Sunday.”

She nodded. “Thank you for, well, for talking with me. I wasn’t sure how you might react.”

“It is, as they say, no problem.”

“Your accent...that’s Scottish.”

“Yes.”

She folded her hands in her lap and squeezed them together; they pulsed with an insistent tremble. The small dog stretched up and rested his front paws on her thigh. His nose sniffed at the tabletop.

“No, Doc.” She patted his side. “Down.”

The dog glanced at her with those puppy-dog browns.

“Sorry. Not for dogs.”

His paws slid from her thigh and he curled up on the concrete beside her chair.

“Cute fellow,” the man said. “Intelligent.”

She nodded. “We’ve become friends.”

A different song began from hidden speakers. This time it was Because I Love You, by The Dave Clark 5.

“May I order tea for you, or perhaps a scone, Miss...Miss..?

“Oh. Sorry. Warren. Jessie Warren.”

He extended his hand across the table. “I am pleased to meet you, Miss Warren.”

She took his hand. His fingers gripped hers with a gentle strength.

“And I, and as you must know, am Wallace Brewster.”

“Yes.”

“Miss Warren, I have two questions.”

“Uh, all right.”

“How did you manage to locate me?”

She cleared her throat. “I started with the usual online searches...but nothing popped up.”

A server in her early 20s appeared tableside with a ceramic teapot. She had a blond ponytail and sported a black apron with Evangeline’s embroidered across the front. “Mr. Brewster? More hot water?”

“Please.”

The waitress carefully poured steaming water into the small teacup. She completed her refill and faced Jessie. “May I bring you something?”

“Lady Grey, please.” Jessie noticed the man gaze at her as if he were studying a scientific formula on an old-fashioned chalkboard.

The waitress smiled. “Certainly.”

“And a dish of water for my dog, please.”

The waitress nodded and glided away.

“Of course,” Jessie said to Brewster, “my search was stymied when I was looking for Alice Victoria Carroll.”

“My sobriquet.”

She squinted at him. “A man who writes under a female pen name is not unheard of, but still odd.”

“Precautions to protect my privacy.”

“Obviously.”

“But obviously my precautions had some flaws.”

She chuckled. “The authors of blogs about you never believed Alice Victoria Carroll was your real name. The speculation was you pieced that name together, the Alice from Alice in Wonderland, and Carroll from, well, the author.”

“Alice found herself tumbling down a rabbit hole.”

“That story gave me the creeps when my mother read it to me. I don’t know why it’s thought of as a classic for kids.”

“Falling down a rabbit hole has taken on metaphorical implications for many authors who followed Mr. Carroll. The metaphor serves as the inspirational focus for many stories, transport to another world, and unintentional involvement in circumstances beyond control of the protagonist.”

“And Victoria?”

“My mother’s name.”

“I see.”

“And so, your search..?”

“The only real clue I had was your publisher. I figured somebody at Putnam must know how to contact you.”

“I receive an occasional email from them. They ask if I’m writing another novel.” He smiled. “And direct deposit is a marvelous invention.”

“Are you writing another book?”

“An idea is germinating.”

The song, This Diamond Ring, by Gary Lewis and the Playboys began to play.

“So, I drove to New York.”

He gazed at her.

“Found your editor’s office, flashed my badge, and gave him my best steely-eyed stare. Sometimes that works better than my badge. I stretched the truth a bit and told him I was investigating a murder.” She pushed a few strands of her auburn hair from across her forehead. “And eventually—”

“He told you my name. And location.”

“He said he met you once, about five years ago, but remembered enough to give me a pretty good description. He told me of your real name, Brewster, your strong accent, and said he thought you lived around here and frequented this tea café on Sunday mornings, though he couldn’t be sure you still lived in Mt. Adams. It had been so long ago.”

He nodded. “I suppose all secrets find their way to the surface, given enough time and a beautiful pair of eyes, if you will pardon me for saying so.”

Jessie was struck silent by the unexpected compliment. She composed herself and leaned slightly forward on her elbows. “You knew I was a cop.”

“Yes.”

“From the moment you saw me.”

“Yes.”

“Am I that transparent?”

“Efficient observation.”

She blinked. “You are not as I expected.”

“What did you expect?”

“A pale recluse, rumpled, overweight.”

“Why?”

She shrugged. “From the movies, maybe, a genius writer, hidden away, shunning public acknowledgement.” She stopped and studied his expression. “But you look nothing like that at all. Nothing.”

“Are you disappointed?”

“I learned something else about you...when I was online.”

“The internet is truly amazing.”

“When I searched for Wallace Brewster, one sleepless night about a week ago, I uncovered many men of Scottish descent named Wallace, or Brewster, but none were you.”

“Your conclusion?”

She grinned. “Who is probably the most famous Scotsman in all history?”

“Please tell me.”

“William Wallace. Braveheart.”

A smile started at the corners of his mouth.

“And I discovered that David Brewster, in the 1800s, was probably the most famous scientist from Scotland. Invented the stereoscope, one of the first successful attempts at viewing objects in 3D.”

“I am familiar with Sir David’s accomplishments.”

“And so, just as you cobbled together your pen name, you did the same with the name you are using now, which, I imagine, cannot be your real name either.”

He raised his teacup to his lips, took one sip then carefully placed the cup back on the saucer. “Sound reasoning, indeed.”

“You don’t seem upset that I found you.”

“I feel something important has brought you here today.”

“Yes.”

“And that, Miss Warren, is my second question.”

She gazed at him while reaching to the back pocket of her pants and pulled out her phone. After she pressed at the screen several times, she turned the screen so he could see it. “I took this picture yesterday.”

Brewster studied the glowing image. “A lovely home.”

My home.”

“A rural area, I see. A farmhouse?”

“Lebanon. Thirty-five miles north of here.”

“A historic inn is there.”

She froze. “The...Golden Lamb?”

He seemed taken by the surprise on her face. “Are you all right, Miss Warren?”

She gathered herself. “Yes.”

“As I was about to say, I have dined at The Golden Lamb. The food is excellent, and the inn’s surroundings seem untouched by time.”

She set the phone face-up on the table. “This farmhouse is the only place I’ve ever lived, Mr. Brewster. My grandparents built it when they were in their 20s. The farm has always been known as The Warren Place by everybody in the community.”

Wallace Brewster didn’t say anything.

Jessie reached inside her blazer. She pulled out a small square of crinkled photographic paper and placed it face-down on the table. The back of the paper was yellowed with age. “Look at this. Tell me I’m not crazy, Mr. Brewster.”

She leaned back in her chair and waited as Brewster gazed at her questioningly.

“Please look at it.”

He edged his hand forward, pinched the corner of the paper, and flipped it over. One glance at the photo shot him instantly to his feet. His chair scraped backward across the concrete patio floor. “Good God.”

“I know.” She took a long breath. “That is my place, Mr. Brewster. My farmhouse. And those two people on the front porch rockers are my grandparents when they were young.”

A man and woman sat beside each other in rocking chairs on what appeared to be the same farmhouse porch as the one on the screen of Jessie’s phone. The two of them smiled at whomever was behind the camera.

Brewster lowered himself back onto his chair as he gazed down at the sepia photo.

“Paul and Nancy Warren,” Jessie said. “As I told you, they built that house and lived in it the rest of their lives. My parents bought it from the estate.”

Brewster brought his eyes up from the photo. “The image on this paper is remarkable.” He shifted his eyes from the old photograph to the image on the phone. “I have no doubt this is the same house, but this old picture must’ve been taken at least fifty years ago.”

“It sat unframed on the farmhouse mantle when I grew up. My parents kept it there as a tribute to my grandparents. Look at it very closely.”

“Yes. The extraordinary factor is what else is in this photograph.”

She bit her bottom lip and waited for him to make the connection.

“And that extraordinary factor is what has inspired you to find me.”

“I don’t know if it’s possible, Mr. Brewster, but I need to know what you think.”

He shifted his focus back to the photo on the table, at a young farming couple, smiling, apparently happy, reclining in their rockers. And between them sat a dog.

A black-and-white dog.

The same three-legged dog that was at this moment lying on the concrete floor at Jessie Warren’s feet.