“Disgusting, that’s what it is.” Legge waved the gun, its muzzle tracing a circle of menace.
“I’ve done my utmost to shield my little baby, my pretty little child, my sweet innocent little…”
“She can’t be all that little,” Peace said reasonably, trying to take the emotional heat out of the situation. “I mean…”
“My God, is there no end to your lasciviousness and lechery? Even with a gun pointing at you, all you can think about is the size of…” Legge stopped in mid-sentence and a new light of determination appeared in his eyes as he steadied his aim with the pistol. “I’ve had all I can stand of you. This is where we say goodbye goodbye.”
Peace cowered back from him. “You can’t shoot an unarmed man.”
“Don’t you believe it.” An ominous coldness had appeared in Legge’s voice. “Come on—start walking.”
“Back into the time machine, of course. My daughter will never be safe while you’re around.”
“You can’t put me back into that thing. You can’t be that inhuman.”
“Start walking walking.”
Peace glanced around in desperation. “At least let me put my clothes on.”
“Do you think I’m a fool?” Legge said. “The old ‘Do you mind if I have a cigarette?’ ploy won’t work with me—I’ve been to the movies too many times, junior. You press a button on your cigarette case and it squirts tear gas into my eyes. It’s a cunning trick, but it isn’t going to work this time, because I’m too smart for you you.”
“I don’t want a cigarette,” Peace replied. “I just want to get my clothes on.”
“And squirt tear gas at me from a shirt button? Get moving!”
Peace started walking towards the door, with Legge behind him. On reaching the workbench near the door, he tried to salvage something of his dignity by picking up the newspaper he had previously examined, shaking the last crumbs of pork pie from it, and wrapping it around his middle. He allowed himself to be shepherded along the landing, but paused at the toilet door, his dread of the unknown overcoming his concern about what Legge might do to him if he refused to go inside. “Listen,” he said, turning to face the little man, “we’re quite a distance above the ground on this floor—and I think you should give some thought to what will happen if I go back to a time before this building was constructed.”
“All right, I’ll give it some thought.” Legge mused for a moment, and a smile appeared on his face. “I like it! I like it!”
“You’re willing to see me fall to my death?”
“Unfortunately I’ll be denied that spectacle. In any case, the time machine is probably going through a phase of damping oscillations—they’re inclined to do that, you know. You’ll probably come out in the future near the time you went in.”
“You’re just guessing.” Peace accused. “Anyway, I’ve got a feeling you wouldn’t have the nerve to pull that trigger, so…”
“So I refuse to go into the time machine.” Legge shrugged. “It’s your funeral.” He cocked the pistol, giving a very good impression of a man who was preparing to commit murder. Peace, beginning to suspect that he had made a very serious misjudgement, took an involuntary step backwards. There was a nerve-racking pause, at the end of which the gun muzzle began to waver uncertainly. Peace exhaled quietly with relief.
At that instant footsteps sounded close by on the stairs leading to the upper floor, and a large, pink female version of Professor Legge came into view, bristling with hair curlers and billowing with quilted nylon.
“Oh, Daddy,” she said in an incongruous baritone, “you’ve taken my best bra again for your silly old…” She stopped speaking as she espied Peace, a look of incredulous joy spreading over her features, and she lumbered towards him with arms thrown wide. “Norman, you’ve come back to me!”
Peace’s reaction was completely instinctive.
He leapt backwards into the toilet, lost his footing and sat down hard on the decrepit wooden seat. There was a loud humming noise, the light began to flicker, and the bulbous figures of Professor Legge and his daughter faded from view in the doorway. Peace gave a moan of apprehension as he realized that—clad in only a newspaper—he was once again voyaging through time.
Under Peace’s fascinated scrutiny the walls of the little room began to exhibit colour changes.
One of his major worries was removed when he saw that the general condition of his surroundings was deteriorating. This meant he was travelling into the future and that the building was not going to leave him in mid-air by snapping out of existence. He relaxed for a moment, glad of the breathing space in which to sort out his jumbled thoughts, then came the realization that all buildings are eventually torn down. If he went too far into the future he could either be dashed to the ground or, worse still, find his body bisected by one of the walls of a replacement building.
Alarmed and aggrieved by the way in which life had been reduced to a succession of leaps from frying pans into fires, Peace hurriedly got to his feet, and to Peace’s eyes the room looked exactly as it had done when he first saw it. He glanced towards the door, half expecting to see two dreadful bronze-gold giants glaring at him with ruby eyes, but the landing outside was deserted. The stillness would have been tomb-like but for the faint murmur of city traffic outside.
Holding his improvised kilt in place around his loins, he advanced cautiously on to the landing. A thick layer of dust lay over everything, and it gave Peace a crawling sensation on the nape of his neck when he realized that Legge and his daughter, alive only one subjective minute ago, had probably seen out their allotted spans and now were resident in grave or funeral urn. He turned left, opened a door and went into the large room he had known as Legge’s laboratory. Some of the workbenches were still in place, but the jumble of equipment—with the exception of some small items and wiring—had long since been removed. Gazing around the time-ravaged walls, Peace tried to assimilate the items of half-knowledge he had gained.
Professor Legge’s daughter had recognized him, and she too had addressed him as Norman.
Did this mean that his name really was Norman? Or was it an alias he had used in a previous trip into that era? What reason could he have had for doing that? If Professor Legge had known him, why had he tried to disguise the fact? Come to think of it, how could he be sure he was not actually a citizen of the late twenty-third century who had somehow been displaced into the late twenty-fourth century? Had he been running from the law in the twenty-third century, too, and been forced to flee into the future? What crime had he committed? Was he—unbearable thought—really a confirmed molester of small children, as the cinema manageress had stated?
The practical side of Peace’s nature suddenly made him aware that he was wasting his time in futile speculation, and that his primary requirements were clothing, money and an accurate fix on his position in time. He opened several closet doors and was scarcely able to believe his luck when he found, hanging on a rusted nail, a once-white coat of the type favored by laboratory workers. It was much too short, but a full search of the room’s storage spaces yielded no further treasures. He moved upstairs and while touring the empty living rooms discovered a pair of fluffy bedroom slippers which, judging by their size, could once have belonged to Legge’s daughter. They were on the verge of disintegrating with extreme age, but fitted him quite well and gave his feet some measure of protection. The complete ensemble was, Peace felt, somewhat lacking elegance, but it was possible that if the building had not acquired the reputation of being haunted the local urchins would have stripped it bare, and he would have been left in a similar condition.
Reminded of the method by which small boys traditionally supplemented their incomes, Peace thought of the miscellaneous scraps of hardware languishing in the dust of the laboratory. One of the items had been a bunsen burner which, for all he knew, might have acquired the status of a semi-antique since it was last in use. He rushed back to the big laboratory, spread out his newspaper and collected on it a heap of copper coils and small pieces of electronic junk. The bunsen burner had a solid, well-crafted feel to it and, although it was not in the same class as a nineteenth-century brass microscope, Peace could imagine a trendy collector getting quite excited over it.
He wrapped his plunder up in a bundle and went out of the laboratory and down the stairs to street level. After a brief struggle with a rusty shootbolt, he opened the door and stepped out into a cool purple twilight. The alley was deserted, but the sound of traffic told him the business life of the city was still in full spate, which meant the season was either spring or autumn, and that the time was late in the afternoon. He turned to the right, away from the street where he had seen the Oscars, and headed for the opposite side of the block.
On reaching the corner he peered out cautiously and was relieved to note that the passing vehicles looked very much as he remembered them—an indication that he had not jumped to a distant era of the future. The lighted store windows looked reassuringly normal, as did the pedestrians who hurried by Peace without sparing him a glance. Emboldened, he joined the flow of people and began searching for a likely antique shop. His progress was impeded by the shuffling gait he had to adopt to make the fluffy mules stay on his feet, and to his horror a playful breeze kept lifting the hem of his lightweight coat, forcing him to stop every now and again to tuck the garment between his legs.
Doubled over, clutching his parcel, unable to raise his feet or separate his knees, Peace was uncomfortably aware that he looked like a skulking transvestite Quasimodo—a sight which, even among the most blase city-dwellers, was bound to excite comment.
As he had feared, men and women began to stop to watch him pass by. He tried grinning at them to create the impression he was a harmless idiot, but within a short time he was being followed by a knot of interested spectators. The nightmarish feeling intensified as he realized the police were bound to become involved sooner or later. He was preparing to stand up straight and make a run for it, regardless of the amount of exposure involved, when he noticed a sign a few doors further along which said: R. J. PENNYCOOK-Antique Dealer. Filled with relief, he scuttled towards the discreet-looking establishment, darted inside and slammed the door behind him. He leaned against it, breathing heavily, feeling like a fox which had just been delivered from a pack of hounds.
“If you don’t get out of here immediately,” said a cold-eyed young man, from behind a glass counter, “I’ll send for the police.”
“You can’t do that to me,” Peace gasped, shaking his head.
“I’d like to know why not.” The young man picked up a subetheric whistle and raised it to his lips.
Peace glanced around him and his heart sank as he saw he had taken refuge in a shop which catered for the extreme top end of the market, the sort of place where Ming vases are thrown in free with the really expensive purchases. Suddenly his corroded bunsen burner seemed to have lost its cachet, but he could think of no other course than to brazen the matter out and play for time.
“For the simple reason, Mr. Pennycook,” he said impressively, advancing to the counter, “that I’ve got something to sell, something whose value you may not appreciate at first glance, but the like of which may come your way only once in a lifetime.” He set his parcel on the counter and spread it open, revealing what—even to his eyes—looked like a shovelful of scrap metal. Even the bunsen burner, pride of the collection, had separated into its constituent parts.
Pennycook looked down at the miscellany. The faint trace of colour that had been in his cheeks promptly disappeared, and within the space of a second his expression changed from one of disdain—through incredulity, joy and greed—to a look of respectful wariness. “Is this yours to sell?”
“Where did you get it?”
“Just picked it up.” Peace, who had been watching the play of emotion on the dealer’s face, began to wonder if he had stumbled on to a craze for old bunsen burners which would guarantee him enough money for a second-hand suit. “There could be more where that came from,” he added encouragingly, tapping the side of his nose.
“I’ll give you a thousand for it,” Pennycook said briskly. “No questions asked.”
“A thousand!” Peace began scanning the small mound of salvage, trying to see each grubby piece with the sort of unbiased eye which could identify hidden riches.
“All right, two thousand—but that’s my top offer. Is it a deal?”
Peace swallowed with some difficulty. “It’s a deal.”
The young man took two large and colourful banknotes from a drawer and handed them to Peace. He then carefully gathered up the bunsen burner and other items and dropped them into a waste disposer. There was a flash of greenish atomic fire as the objects ceased to exist.
“What are you doing?” Peace said, shocked at the casual destruction of what he had begun to see as an art treasure.
“We don’t need them any more,” Pennycook said. “It was a good idea to wrap the paper round some old junk—the old stealing of wheelbarrows trick, the old purloined letter ploy—but you could have got it dirty.” He smoothed the newspaper out with reverent hands, examined it closely and looked up at Peace with a shocked expression. “If I didn’t know better, I’d almost think somebody had been eating a porkpie off this.”
“Never!” Peace said numbly.
“I suppose you’re right. Nobody in his right mind would desecrate a mint, laser-imprimed, Waldo-folded 2292 newspaper.” Pennycook gave Peace a conspiratorial glance. “It’s a long time since I’ve seen a specimen as good as this—it’s almost as if you’d got hold of an extroverter and gone back for it.”
“But that sort of thing is illegal,” Peace said, winking in an effort to pass himself off as a useful source of contraband. The mentality of the dedicated collector was foreign to him, but—now that he finally understood the situation—he was determined to take every advantage it offered. “Listen, Mr. Pennycook, do you…”
“Call me Reggie, please.”
“Okay, Reggie—I’m Warren—do you think we could go into your office and talk? I feel a bit awkward standing around with practically no clothes on.” Acutely conscious of the thinness of his legs, Peace endured a head-to-foot perusal of his body.
“I’ve been meaning to ask you about that—I have to be very discreet, you know,” Pennycook said. “How did you lose your clothes?”