NO TIME LIKE THE PRESENT

by D.A. Madigan

I have a unique way of making a living. Itís kind of difficult to explain. Better, maybe, if I just describe a fairly typical job.

These clients were Katherine and William Rausch. A couple in their forties or fifties, hard to tell. Grief stricken, like most of my clients. They sat there in the chairs in front of my desk, she tall and angular and hard eyed, he slump shouldered and soft looking in a faded white shirt, creased slacks and a worn, unfashionably thin tie. She did most of the talking.

"Geraldine OíConner recommended you to us," she said in a dry, fussy voice. She looked like a librarian. As it turned out, she was a retired postal clerk, which was close enough. Some times people are what they look like. He just looked tired and beaten, although in fact, he was actually the owner of a small chain of hardware stores. "She said... she told me..." Mrs. Rausch paused as if uncertain how to go on.

"I remember the OíConnor case," I said, steepling my fingers on the blotter in front of me, just to the side of my computerís keyboard. "You realize I may not be able to help you. It depends on circumstances. Iíll need the particulars."

Thatís always hard for them. The circumstances of their loss are always fresh when they come to me, and although theyíve described them probably a dozen times to various officials prior to meeting with me, still, they find it difficult. Between the two, though, I got all the relevant details.

I nodded. "I should be able to do it," I said. "Iíll try, anyway." I quoted them my fee. Mrs Rauschís lips thinned; I donít work cheap. Mr. Rausch just nodded. They both got up to leave. Then, as generally happens, they both turned back.

"How does this...?" Mrs. Rausch started to ask.

"When will you...?" Mr. Raush inquired, looking puzzled.

"If it works, youíll know," I told them. "And Iíll call you to settle up."

After a few more minutes, I got them out and locked the door behind them. Then I went over and used my computer to check the information theyíd given me on the Internet. Thereís no reason for the bereaved to lie to me, but sometimes they get details wrong, and obviously, I canít verify anything once Iím on the scene. Knowledge is power. Plus, whenever I do a job, I like to take care of some of my own business, as well.

I made a few notes and then pushed back in my chair from the desk. Well. No time like the present. I always thought that before I went on a trip, and it always made me want to laugh.

I closed my eyes and let myself sink down into my own consciousness. I canít describe what I did then, other than to say that I found the place I needed to get to, made the connection, and went there. That description sucks, because itís really much harder than Iím making it sound, and itís dangerous, too, like picking your way through a murky, infinitely tangled maze full of barely seen traps and hazards. Which is one reason I only take on fresh cases. The further back you go, the worse it gets.

When I opened my eyes again, it was early morning. I looked around the room, read the time off the clock... 6:17 AM. My alarm would be going off in another 13 minutes. I flicked the switch off and got up. Everything the Rausches had told me was clear in my mind, along with the notes Iíd taken. I walked over to my home computer, started it up, logged on to my investment page, and did some buying and selling. It was 7:30 when I logged off. The incident I was there to adjust wouldnít take place until after 8 PM in the evening, so I had plenty of time.

I was showered, dressed, and on the road by 9 AM. Mindy Rausch lived outside Boston, Massachusetts. I had detailed directions from her parents. It was around a five hour drive from my home. If Iíd needed more time, Iíd have started earlier. Sometimes I have to fly across country. Iíve never had a job requiring international travel, and I donít think Iíd take one. That gets too complicated.

I got to Boston at 1 PM, got off the Interstate near Camden, and promptly got hopelessly lost. I finally got straightened out by a helpful kid at a gas station and wound up arriving in Mindyís neighborhood about 4 PM. Plenty of time. I cruised by her house to make sure I knew where it was, then I parked in a strip mall a mile or so away and strolled back there. The gun was in the gym bag I was carrying casually in one hand. I was dressed in jeans and a tshirt and had a cased tennis racket in my other hand. Mindy lived in a collegiate suburb; no one gave me a second look.

She rented space in a big house that had been partitioned into four separate apartments. She had the one on the first floor in the back. I checked her name on the front porch mailbox to be sure, then walked casually around the house to the back as if I belonged there.

Her door was locked, but the lock was junk, as most peopleís are, and she didnít have the dead bolt on. I slipped inside, putting the credit card back in my wallet, and sat down at her kitchen table. Obviously, she wasnít expecting company; there were dirty dishes in the sink, an old tshirt draped over the back of one of the kitchen chairs, a plate with crumbs on it still out on the table. Somewhere in the distance I could hear the rumble of a shower running. An orange and white kitten came skittering out into the kitchen, stared incredulously at me for a few seconds, and then started to attack my sneaker laces. I picked it up and scratched it behind the ears and it settled onto my chest, purring like a little sewing machine.

A few minutes later I heard the shower turn off and I sighed, set the kitten on the floor, unzipped my gym bag, and took the gun out while the kitten tore out of the room like a furry orange comet. I kept the gun in my hand, in clear sight resting on the table. I heard someone, presumably Mindy, say something in good natured baby talk in another room, presumably to the kitten or another pet. After another minute or so, she came out into the kitchen. She was a tall, thin girl, like her mother, with long curly strands of dark wet hair hanging down on her shoulders. She was wearing a long green pullover silk gown/shirt garment that left her legs mostly bare, and old scuffed leather moccasins. Her eyes were slightly distorted behind oversized rectangular glasses. The kitten was on her shoulder and she was crooning to it so she didnít see me at first. When she did her head snapped around and the blood drained out of her face.

"Iím not here to hurt you,"I said in the very quiet, reasonable tone Iíve learned to use. "Donít make me." I pointed the gun at her, but smiled in a non threatening way at the same time.

She was speechless for a minute. When she did speak, she sounded like Iíd punched her in the stomach. "Wuh... wuha... what do you..."

I gestured to the chair across the table from me. "Just sit down," I told her.

It took her two tries to pull the chair out from the table, then she more or less collapsed into it. "Please," she said. It came out as kind of a squeak.

"Your parents sent me," I said.

She looked baffled. "They... what?"

I glanced at the clock on her kitchen wall. "Itís too complicated to explain," I said. "And you wouldnít believe me. But Iím not going to hurt you unless you make me."

"What..." She obviously had no idea what to make of it, but they never do. "What are you... guh... guha... going to do with me?"

I sighed. "Weíre just going to sit here, hon," I said, "until nine oíclock. Then Iíll leave."

"But... but..." She was completely bewildered. "Hey, look, I donít know what the joke is but... but...I have a date tonight!"

"You can make it up to him," I told her. "Now be quiet. If you want to watch TV or listen to music or something, we can go do that."

She wanted to get dressed, she wanted to call the guy she was supposed to see that night on the phone, she wanted to know what was going on, yaddity yaddity yaddity. At least she wasnít the bitchy type who immediately started telling me how I didnít know who I was dealing with and I was going to be in a lot of trouble, or the other type, who act disappointed Iím not going to rape them. I led her into her bedroom, found a pair of jeans, checked them to make sure there wasnít anything in them, and let her put them on. Then we went back out to the living room and she watched game shows and some Must See TV reruns which I more or less endured.

At 8:46 or so she had fallen into a light doze on her couch; abruptly, she sat straight up and screamed. I was waiting for it and was sitting next to her; I put my arms around her and pulled her close to me and stroked her hair.

"Oh GOD," she gasped "I was driving I was on the street this car came out of nowhere I crashed..."

I let her calm down and then she pushed away from me. "Just a dream...?" she said, but she didnít sound at all certain.

I explained it to her then. There is no point in trying before that point, they never believe me. Once you get to the time of the original incident, though, then they know. They know. And theyíll believe you then.

I picked up her phone and dialed her parentís home number. Katherine answered it. I told her who I was.

"Oh my God," she said. "Bill and I... we both fell asleep... we dreamed Mindy had an accident..."

"Sheís right here," I said, and handed the phone to Mindy.

They talked to each other for about ten minutes. The conversation got a little hysterical, the way they tend to. Then Mindy handed the phone back to me.

"You remember the meeting in my office?" I asked her. That meeting hadnít actually happened, now, but the three of us had all experienced that timeline before I aborted it, so the three of us would all remember it. Bill came on the line and confirmed that he remembered it and heíd send me a check. Then they both started doing the gratitude thing, which I listened to for a few seconds, before telling them I was happy to help, just doing my job, and be sure to tell their friends if they knew anyone who might need my services. I canít advertise, exactly, so I rely on word of mouth.

Mindy was just staring at me. "I died," she said wonderingly.

It is freaky. "Yeah," I said. "Your parents hired me to send myself back and keep you alive."

To my surprise, she started laughing. "So you broke into my house and kept me here at gunpoint? What if Iíd tried to hit you with a lamp? Would you have shot me to keep me from dying in a car crash?"

I smiled, pointed the gun at an empty easy chair off to the side, and pulled the trigger. It went PHTHOP! and there was a little fat red dart quivering in the cushion. "Tranquilizers," I told her. "Would have given you a hell of a headache."

I gestured to the phone. "You might as well call your date now," I said, as I got up to leave. I wanted to get out before she started with all the questions on how I do what I do, and why I don't work for some government agency, or sell my services to the highest international bidder, etc etc.

The first question I couldn't answer. I've always done it, since I was a kid; if I failed a test or had an accident or got jumped by someone in school, I'd just slide on back a few days and study harder, avoid the site of the accident, ambush the guy when he wasn't expecting me. Occasionally you meet someone like me, we seem to lead a charmed life. Nothing ever happens to us. I wonder sometimes if the other people like that aren't doing the same thing I am.

As for selling my talents to the highest bidder, or working for a government agency, well, when I first decided to try to make a difference with my ability other than just making my own life go more smoothly, I did contact the government and I did do some work for them... and one of the hardest jumps I've ever made was going back six years and undoing that decision. Since then, I concentrate on little problems. Helping people, not killing them. It's a much less stressful existence.

I walked back down to the mini mall and got in my car. Another reason I don't like to go too far into the past, of course, is that once I make a change, the future I'm from ceases to exist, and the past becomes my new present. Generally, I can stand to lose a month or two of my recent life that way, but I wouldn't want to chop off much more than that. I lost six years once that way. Overall, they were years I could stand to lose... but it's hard sometimes, walking by people on the street that I know well, who have never met me at all. So I try to minimize my deletion time these days.

On the other hand, it had been the start of autumn when the Rausches had come to see me, and now I had the tail end of summer back again. Much better than jumping from spring back into winter, at least, in New England.

On the drive home, I remembered who was going to win the upcoming season opener between the Bills and the Colts. I jotted a note to myself on a pad of yellow paper I keep in the car, to remind myself to call my bookie when I got back to the apartment.

Then I shrugged and made the call from the cell phone in the car.

No time like the present.