Story Excerpt

The Goose

by Rick Wilber

 

CHAPTER ONE
APRIL 23, 2041
WATCHERS

Eddie Bennett wasn’t Eddie Bennett in this timeline but, instead, a professor named Elizabeth Stern, who was getting in a brisk dawn walk for some much-needed exercise before teaching her graduate seminar, “Applications for Personal Finance,” at Niagara University. The campus was north of Buffalo and Niagara Falls. A private university with a few thousand undergrads and half again as many grad students, NU was perfect cover for someone smart enough to hold a doctorate and publish some papers and get her tenure even as she lived the double life the real job required of her.

So it was Associate Professor Elizabeth Stern, Dr. Liz as her grad students at the university called her, who was taking her dawn constitutional as the sun rose to the east, slowly illuminating the west wall of the Niagara Gorge. A beautiful place, really, a steep ravine hundreds of feet down to the whirlpools below on the river and there, across on the other side, Free Canada.

She was admiring that stunning view when she heard a soft whine from myBoop. It sounded like a mosquito in her ear. She was slow to answer, thinking at first that it was a mosquito; they’d been ferocious this spring with no cool weather to slow them down. But no, the whine was digital, not arthropodic.

“What’s up, Boop?” she asked her helpmate, who resided in her right ear and connected her to the truth of things, as well as to the necessary lies. Every time she had to travel to a different line, or into the past, she felt the loss of myBoop, who couldn’t travel with her.

“Restricted call,” said myBoop, and Liz came to a stop. This could be bad news—maybe the local Watch had filed a complaint against her or, god forbid, some student reported her for something unpatriotic and the Watch was on its way now to haul her in. Life in modern America.

If that was the case, she’d have to hustle back to the condo apartment, shove her period clothes into the portal, and then blink it out while cleaning her hard drive, too. Damn. It was stupid to leave those things out. Her own fault. She knew better. She hated this timeline, but this one was her basic.

She hesitated for a few seconds, thought it through. One didn’t not answer these kinds of calls, to be doubly negative about it. Which was appropriate in New America, where life was full of such fluidities of meaning—down is up and black is white and everything is great, wonderful in fact, with the glorious leader in charge, the first woman president, the daughter in charge, in her second term and certain for a third.

She had to take the call. Still, “Is it bad news?” she asked myBoop, and then, hallelujah sister, it was good news, not bad. She was relieved to hear it when myBoop said, “No. It’s a message from your brother in Chicago. I’ve set it on private if you’d like to hear it now.”

“Of course,” she said, and then she listened to a female voice, say “Lizzie, I’m sorry, but it’s Becky. She’s not doing well, and I think you ought to get over here and see her. She’s only fifteen, Lizzie. Fifteen! I’m not sure how much time she has. Let me know when you get this, and we’ll set it up for you to see her and talk to Dr. Donovan at Sinai. She’s in Room 441, East Wing.”

All of that by way of saying one thing and meaning another. Private wasn’t private here in New America, though they all pretended it was. Her brother in Chicago wasn’t her brother in Chicago. Becky wasn’t her niece. There was, in fact, no Becky at all. There was a Donovan, but he was no doctor, and there was an East Wing at a Northside Sinai in Chicago, but in this case East Wing meant the Drake Hotel, where there was a Room 441, where she’d meet Donovan. That was how the last assignment had started, too, and there was some comfort in that, but some worry, too.

But the big news. The girl! That’s what this meant. That was the point of the message. They’d found the inflection point. Somewhere back in that 1941 timeline was the girl around whom time and reality swirled. This was big news, indeed. There were a lot of people who’d been working on that project for the past several years, and now it had happened and Liz would get to do her part. This had the chance to be the game-changer at last.

She was careful not to voice those thoughts, and she was glad that New America couldn’t read minds. Yet. But what this meant was that Liz would know where and when, if not who, so she said to myBoop, “Tell my brother I’m on my way, Boop, got that? I’ll fly in this afternoon.”

“Sure, Liz; will do,” said the friendly but untrustworthy myBoop as Liz thought about how glad she was that in a few hours she’d be back in 1941 on a plane headed toward Chicago and from there to who knew where.

It would be good to get out of this time and place for a while. There’d be no papers to grade back in 1941, no student questions to answer, no research to fret over, no faculty watchers hovering around, listening in, intimidating most of the professors, pissing off the others, like Liz. Bunch of fascists. It never ended, the bullying, the threats. She’d be back in a past where some of that had started, Adolf and Benito and Francisco and Tojo and the homegrown fascists like Henry Ford and Lucky Lindy and the ambitious aviatrix, Laura Ingalls, who was a cousin of the even more famous writer, Laura Ingalls Wilder, of Little House fame.

Maybe, if Liz found the girl and her skills were up to it, they could stop those fascists in their tracks and things would butterfly up to here. One could hope.

Another plus was that back in 1941 there would likely be some action, so all the training she kept up with would be put to use; the conditioning, the martial arts, the local gun range where she was third on the ladder behind a cop and a national guarder. She’d been itching for an assignment ever since that last one ended so badly, and now there was one, and a promising one, at that. She’d been forgiven, she supposed, for that last one. Or maybe this one would be some atonement? She’d know soon enough.

But first she had to put her watcher off the scent for a while, long enough to change, do a little packing, and then make the time shift. She started walking again, putting her hand to her ear as if she were trying to hear better from the ear amp. She smiled and laughed and gestured broadly, as if the call was from some close friend and they were sharing a joke. All these histrionics for the sake of that watcher who was walking along behind her, a white guy of course, clean-shaven, tan slacks and a black button-down shirt so he could be, you know, inconspicuous. Like she said. Fascists.

In ten minutes she reached the pedestrian crosswalk that led across the street to her five-story condominium. She waited for the red man to turn green so she could cross. She wasn’t about to give the watcher an excuse to call her in for an infraction, because, one of these days, he might do more than just watch.

That was how it happened sometimes. Every college professor had a watcher since last year’s coup attempt, and every professor could count on at least one student in each class being an informer, telling the watchers what was said in class. Say something unpatriotic and there’d be a knock on your office door, or worse, your door at home. The first was your job, the second was your life.

The border was tense these days, and the border was right over there, across the Niagara River. Just north of here the gorge ended, and the river widened to become more placid before emptying into Lake Ontario. You could row a boat across that placid stretch to Canada and freedom. Often enough, people did that very thing, or tried to, on moonless nights. Sometimes they made it, sometimes not. It was something her colleagues talked about quietly, with nervous laughs in the hallways or at the occasional faculty get-together. Who’d tried it. Who’d made it.

From behind she could hear her watcher hurrying toward her. Maybe someone had been listening in on that conversation she’d just had with her not-her-brother in Chicago, or maybe some pencil pusher in some office just had an urge to harass a professor, or maybe Liz’s watcher just wanted to run up to her and say hi. Right.

The walking man turned green, and the crosswalk said “Cross now” in its stern female voice as Liz turned to face her watcher. He stopped, said, “Dr. Stern, I need you to come downtown with me. We’d like to ask you a few questions.”

“Questions?”

He smiled, Mr. Gracious, and said, “It shouldn’t take but a few minutes. You’ll be back in time for your Applications for Personal Finance class. We wouldn’t want to disappoint your students.”

So that was him letting her know he already knew everything, or thought he did. But if that was the case he wouldn’t be here talking to her. He’d never done that before, not in all the months he’d been her watcher.

Liz did not want to go downtown with this guy. She knew way too much about way too much. That coded call, she thought, they wanted to know about that call. Well. No.

And then he did a stupid thing, as the crosswalk voice started counting down the seconds left to cross, ten to nine, eight, seven . . . he reached out to grab her left arm, and Liz, without thinking about it really, because that’s what all the drills were for, struck him with her right hand, hard, at the throat, her palm down, thumb open. She felt it push into his esophagus and saw his eyes widen in surprise before he fell back. Then she kicked him, all those hours of savate, in the crotch, and he let go of her left arm and bent over forward. So she used her left hand, palm up, to jolt him again in the neck.

He fell to his knees, and she turned to cross the street and get away from him, but the crosswalk countdown was done and here came a whole line of cars, four or five of them in the far lane.

He was up off his knees and stumbling toward her as she darted across the lane and heard the shriek of brakes behind her as the first of those cars tried to avoid her and angled left where the watcher was, right in front of the boxy self-drive commuter.

The self-drive’s reaction time hitting the brakes saved his life, she thought as she looked back once to see he’d been hit and tossed forward and lay there, crumpled, but moving. And then she turned again and ran toward the entrance to her building, and her unit up on the fifth floor, and, if she hurried, safety.

*   *   *

The Tesla Building was built in 1906, at the height of Nikola Tesla’s career. He lived in the penthouse, his in perpetuity from when he was working to harness Niagara Falls to power his alternating-current system and send electrical power to Buffalo, all of thirty miles away. He was brilliant, was Nikola, no question. But he was not wise, or careful. He died in 1943, nearly penniless, having returned in poverty to that same penthouse apartment he’d lived in during better days. His ghost, it was said, haunted his building in Niagara Falls. Liz thought that what they’d seen wasn’t a ghost at all. She was always looking for him anytime she went back before 1943, but in eight trips now, she hadn’t met him yet. One of these days.

But not, alas, this one. She spent ten minutes, no more, changing clothes and packing her valise and her purse with the proper clothes and cash, then she walked over to the picture window, looked down to the street below where the watcher was surrounded by people now, four EMTs, an ambulance and a fire truck and two police cars, all with lights flashing, keeping him company as he lay there.

It was important to her to see the scene exactly as it was and remember it, and she did that. Then, wondering again, as she always did, why there was just this one small place in this one apartment in this one building in Niagara Falls, New York, where it was all possible, she walked into her closet and time-traveled.

*   *   *

It wasn’t a device, really, or a glowing portal, or some abracadabra gee whiz. It was something she could sense as the right place, a feeling, a certainty. There came a twinge of nausea, a bit of a dizzy lurch, and a stumble in the back darkness of that closet, and that was it. Seconds later, to her, she came out of the closet, as it were, in 1941, wearing her tan slacks for traveling, a fetching long-sleeved blouse, blue, with white patterned flowers down the button line, and a hat, a woman’s fedora, tilted over one eye. She didn’t bother looking out the window, irrelevant now, but simply walked out the apartment door, shut it behind her, and took the elevator down to the lobby. There, she walked over toward Reginald, the uniformed doorman, who came out from behind his desk and said “Hello, Miss Bennett, let me get that for you,” as he reached down to take the valise from her hand, because here she was Edna, “Eddie,” Bennett. “Can I get you a taxi?”

“Yes, Reginald, if you please, “ she said, smiling, and walked over to the mirror beside the revolving door and took a look at herself. She loved this blouse. Very stylish. And the hat! The feather set it off. She liked feathers. She smiled at herself, put her purse on her arm, and followed Reginald out the front door. He’d blown the whistle already and the taxi was pulling up. She handed Reginald a quarter, one of the new Eleanor Roosevelt coins that celebrated the first woman president and was a generous tip, as he put the valise in the trunk of the taxi. Reginald touched the brim of his cap and said, “Have a good evening, Miss Bennett,” as he shut the taxi door behind her.

In thirty minutes they were at Buffalo’s Metropolitan Airport, newly expanded to handle the recent increase in civilian and military passenger traffic in and out of Buffalo, a factory town now retooling to make tanks and halftracks and airplanes instead of cars and trucks. One of those arsenals of democracy they’d be talking about soon. Eddie paid the taxi the one dollar fare and added another Eleanor as a tip, and walked into the terminal building and over to the Midwest Airlines desk to buy her ticket, one way to Chicago. The walk to the boarding gate took five minutes, and there, after a fifteen-minute wait, they boarded, out the door of the gate and across the tarmac to the plane, a brand new RA2, silver in its aluminum and burnished steel elegance and handsome green MA logo on the nose of the plane. It seated thirty-two in some considerable comfort and was, everyone said, a big improvement over the DC2s that dominated the industry.

Eddie boarded, got comfortable in a window seat near the front, and sat back to watch as they took off and headed west over Lake Erie to Detroit and then across the state to Lake Michigan and, crossing that, down into Chicago Air Park. She had an afternoon meeting to make there, where she’d get her further instructions and then whatever would come next would come next.

*   *   *

 

CHAPTER TWO
THE PROFESSOR
APRIL 23, 1941

In downtown Buffalo, New York, Archie Miller, “The Professor” to his fans and friends and the press because of his brains and his education, was standing on third base by virtue of a fly ball deep to right that bounced off the wall and then squirted away in the wet grass from Fred Schlabo, the right fielder for the visiting Mud Hens. By the time Schlabo could chase it down and peg it to the cutoff man, Archie—no speedster he, but it didn’t matter in this case—had rumbled all the way to third.

Archie liked playing baseball. He liked it so much that he was happy doing it for the Buffalo Bisons in April as the snow started to fall, a few big fat flakes at first, and then, as he stood there at third rubbing his hands together, more of them.

Playing baseball in the snow wasn’t the only thing Archie could do. He had a bachelor’s degree in physics from Yale, a master’s in modern languages from NYU, and a law degree from Columbia. He spoke nine languages fluently, count ’em: English, French, Italian, German, Spanish, Hebrew, Yiddish, Norwegian, and Dutch. And he got along pretty good in a dozen more, from Japanese to Arabic to Irish to Welsh and Portuguese and more. He read three or more newspapers a day; he was a subscriber to the Journal of Applied Physics and sent in his comments. He was one brainy guy.

So it was, yes, a little odd that Archie was using all that brainpower to play minor-league baseball. You’d think he’d be a little embarrassed about that. Despite the threats to America from the Axis powers, despite the disturbing things he read last year in Applied Physics about Hahn and Strassmann and Lise Meitner splitting atoms, despite the way the Nazis crushed the Poles and the French and then humbled the Brits, despite the worry in the States and in Canada about Hitler’s appetite for more. Despite all that, he was playing baseball in a neutral United States, one deeply divided, with half the country thinking that letting Hitler have his way in Europe was just fine, that Hitler had done a fine job there, that if you ignored what he said and focused on what he’d done you had to admire the guy. That is, as long as you weren’t a Jew, or mentally deficient, or a homosexual, or Black, or Romany, or, well, the list was pretty long.

Archie could cite his flat feet and a heart murmur as the things that kept him from serving his country, and if you asked him about it—like a lot of the sportswriters had—he’d just shrug and say that when they let him join he’d be first in line.

Which sounded good but wasn’t the truth. Archie Miller was, in fact, serving his country right at that moment, standing on third base in the falling snow. Six months ago he’d been recruited despite his flat feet and that murmuring heart. He was recruited because he’s a smart guy and has all those languages, and he’s an athlete, to boot. He said yes, and over the winter he’d gone to a very special kind of training camp, where he’d hit everything they threw at him, from climbing ropes to opening locks to code principles and ciphers, to jumping out of airplanes, to firing weapons from Berettas to Lugers to Sten guns. He’d joined the OSS. He’d become a spy.

He was ready, was Archie, but still waiting for his first assignment, waiting for some action. In the meantime, Wild Bill Donovan, the man who’d recruited him, pulled some strings to get Archie this Bisons’ job, where Donovan knew Archie would do fine, catching and throwing and hitting baseballs around.

But this, this, wasn’t what all that training had been for, and Archie badly wanted to do important things for his country. For now, he supposed, it was a great cover, playing baseball in Buffalo, even if it was a long-sleeved wool sweatshirt under the white home wools kind of day. And at the moment, at least, he was happy to be standing on third after hitting that triple. They’d only been playing for a week, but he was off to a good start, getting the bat on the ball for some singles and a double and now, rather miraculously, hitting a rare three-bagger. He wasn’t known for his hitting, or his legs, so a triple! Life was okay.

Archie took a lead off third as he looked at the pitcher, who looked at him and then finally went into the windup to deliver the pitch to Lou Boudreau, who was leading the team in hits. Boudreau took a strike and then another and then ball one and then, the snow falling harder now, Lou connected on a change-up to drive a flyball to the wall in deep right. The ball was caught despite the snow, but Archie tagged up and trotted in with the winning run. He was the hero for the day, and the Bisons had finished their first homestand on a good note. The few hundred fans still rattling around in the cavernous ballpark applauded with their mittens on and then headed for the exits and a warm trip home on the streetcars that ran all over town. There might be a foot of snow by nightfall, this being Buffalo.

Later, Archie was celebrating the win and talking with his teammates when, toweling off after his shower, he was surprised to see someone he knew well but couldn’t talk about, standing in the clubhouse having a chat with Steve O’Neill, the manager of the Bisons, and Paul Krasko, the general manager. The three guys were nodding and laughing, standing right next to the folding chair in front of Archie’s tall, narrow wooden locker.

Archie knew the guy in the dark suit, William Donovan, nicknamed “Wild Bill,” for how he’d fought in the Great War. Donovan was born and raised in Buffalo, fought like a demon in World War I, and was awarded the Croix de Guerre from the French and the Medal of Honor from the Americans, and then came home to become a U.S. district attorney and a crime fighter for Western New York.

And now there was going to be another war, most everyone with a brain was sure of that, and Donovan had taken on a different job, one where he recruited certain people to do certain things that were off the books, as it were. Dangerous things.

Donovan had recruited Archie last fall after the Chicago White Sox ended their season with a string of losses, including two games where a timely hit by pinch-hitter and backup catcher Archie Miller would have won the games. He didn’t produce, and the Sox lost. Archie was pretty sure the team was going to let him go. That wouldn’t be a first, and surely there’d be some other team that could use him. Everyone needs a backup catcher, even an old one.

Instead, Donovan had asked a question of Archie, a question about doing something to stop the Nazis, and Archie had said yes, that’s what he wanted to do, and Donovan sent him off for training in Virginia, just like that. It all happened over one weekend. They told him they had important plans for him, and then, when he was through the training and ready to go, they got him this job playing minor-league baseball. Not exactly the top-level dangerous work that Archie had been promised.

Maybe that was going to change now? Good, thought Archie. He was ready for some action, something real to do, something important.

He played it cool, wrapping the towel around his waist and walking over to the clubhouse ice cooler, where he pushed his hand down into the slushy ice water and pulled out a brown bottle of Iroquois Lager, used the opener to flip off the cap, used the pencil hanging from a string to mark off on the chart that he took a beer—he’d pay a nickel for it later is how that worked—and then walking over to where the three guys were standing.

“That was a nice ending to a miserable start of the season, Archie,” said Wild Bill, as Archie took a sip of the beer. Wild Bill reached out for a handshake, said, “I’m William Donovan.”

Archie set the beer on the bench and reached out to shake that hand. “Glad to meet you,” he said, to Donovan, pretending that he didn’t know him. And then he looked at his manager and his GM. “To what do I owe this pleasure, gentlemen?”

“Nice hit, Professor, that triple,” said O’Neill, his skipper.

“I hear a ‘but’ in there, Skip.”

“Yeah, Professor, you do,” said Krasko, the GM. “You’ll do fine for us here, and we’re glad to have you; but we all know you’re getting a little old for this game.”

Shit, Archie thought for a second, and then, seeing Donovan smile, he knew it would be all right. “I know,” he said. “You letting me go?”

Krasko and O’Neill both had their sad faces on. They liked Archie. He was known for being a nice guy to have in the clubhouse, with lots of experience to share with the young guys. He was okay behind the plate, and someone who’d get you some hits here and there, too. But he was thirty-five years old, and Donovan had made them a hell of an offer. So . . .

“It’s like this, Professor. We’ve made a deal with Mr. Donovan here. He’s one of the owners of a team out West, and they need a guy like you.”

“The PCL?” He hoped that was the case. If he was going to bide his time some more before getting an assignment, playing for the Pacific Coast League would be a nice place to do it.

They both nodded, and O’Neill said, “The Hollywood Stars, Professor. They just fired their manager and need a new one, and they need a catcher, too. You’re the first guy they thought of.”

Well, Archie thought, it’s more likely that the Bisons could use the money that Donovan must be throwing their way. This was all something Donovan set up for show, so it would look legit. Still, “Player/Manager?” he asked, and when they started to nod he thought, well, hell, that didn’t sound too bad, and at least the sun would be shining and it would be nice and warm in Hollywood, instead of this April snow in Buffalo.

 

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Copyright © 2022. The Goose by Rick Wilber

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