Halfway across the bay, Taylor reached inside his coat pocket to feel the reassuring heaviness of the gun. Crisp wind whipped across the water and scorched his ears. Bright autumn colors beamed from treetops on the island ahead. Everywhere, the earthy scent of leaves dead and dying.
The ferry wouldn't dock for another half hour. He had plenty of time to plan what he would do once he got to the old man's house.
"Come in, Mr. Rayburn. You're expected." The stately manservant moved slightly to the side to let the guest enter. As he did, Taylor felt the other man's eyes sliding over him, sizing him up. The door closed behind them with a firm snick.
Taylor's eyes adjusted to the dim interior almost immediately. Large foyer with Italian marble floor. Redwood staircase winding up to the second level. Sitting room with overstuffed chairs to the left. A darkened corridor, to the right, presumably led to the kitchen. Somewhere, a clock ticked loudly and he smelled fresh-brewed Earl Grey tea.
"Please have a seat. You're early."
The appointment had been for 2pm sharp. Taylor checked his watch. 1:48pm.
"May I get you something?"
He shook his head and sat. "No thanks."
"Very well. I'll see if he's ready." The butler disappeared into the gloom.
Rayburn had been as good a name as any. It got him this far, far enough for an appointment with perhaps the most reclusive man on the planet. Taylor pulled out the fake credentials from his wallet and put them in his jacket pocket, next to the small automatic pistol. That way, when the time came, he could pretend to be going for his identification. Not a perfect scheme, but it should hold up against a ninety-year old man and the hired help.
He took a deep breath. Almost over.
Outside the double-paned windows, overgrown shrubs brushed against the glass, shivering in the wind.
"He will see you now." The stooped servant waited in the foyer, hand indicating the stairs. "First landing, two doors down on the right."
"Thanks," Taylor muttered and began to climb. The dark wood railing gleamed with years of polishing. Underfoot, the steps barely creaked under his weight. He looked back to see the butler watching him intently.
"First landing, second door," the man called up, then glided toward the sitting room.
Taylor ascended until he stood at the second door on the right, first landing.
Should I knock? he thought. Yeah, right. And maybe I should call out, "Hello, Mr. Flanagan, I'm the guy who's going to kill you today."
Instead, he opened the door silently.
The old man lay on his bed, penetrating blue eyes peering intently at the doorway. When he saw Taylor, a flicker of indeterminate emotion crossed his features. He raised a frail, stick-like arm in welcome.
"Come in, son," his weak voice called out.
Taylor closed the door. The room was enormous. Against the wall opposite the bed, a floor-to-ceiling bookcase groaned under the burden of a thousand hardcovers. A state-of-the-art television hung suspended from brackets mounted to the ceiling, looking out of place in this turn-of-the-century house. On the west wall, thick glass windows opened onto a vista of the lake. The sun dipped toward the horizon, making its initial descent.
A straight-backed chair was placed next to the bed, just out of arm's reach.
"Please…sit," said Mr. Flanagan.
Taylor unbuttoned his jacket and sat down.
A few awkward moments passed while the old man scrutinized him. This was his first visitor in many years, if you believed the stories of his reclusive life. Taylor sat patiently, waiting until the examination was done.
Flanagan nodded and eased back into his pillow, staring up at the ceiling.
"I know why you're here," he said.
A shock of surprise went through Taylor. He willed it away then remembered his cover story.
"Right," he said. "My magazine wants the inside scoop on your many accomplishments. A kind of biographical article to celebrate the 50th anniversary of your most famous invention, the Tortium Transistor. It revolutionized the television industry as well as—"
Flanagan held up a skeletal hand.
"Spare me the bullshit. You're here to kill me for stealing your grandfather's secrets."
Taylor's mouth went dry. His eyes felt ready to pop out of his skull. How could Flanagan have known? His immediate response was to leap up from the chair and make a run for the door, where the manservant would most certainly be standing guard with an old-fashioned double-barrel shotgun. Out the window, then. Maybe there's a trellis I can climb down.
"Relax, Taylor," said the old man, a sarcastic grin stretching his saggy, freckled skin. "You're going nowhere."
Something inside him steeled against the knowing mockery. He stood up then reached into his pocket and pulled out the pistol, pointing it at the old man's concave chest. This would shut him up.
Instead, Flanagan seemed to smile more fully, really enjoying the show.
"Go ahead," he teased. "Pull the trigger, Taylor."
A flash of white hot fury erupted in his head. This old fuck dared to taunt him? Did he have a death wish or something? If so, Taylor meant to fulfill it right now. His finger tightened on the trigger.
Taylor blinked. The trigger was stuck. Was the safety catch still on? No. He steadied his hand and flexed his finger three times in rapid succession. No response. His finger didn't move. The message to shoot wasn't getting from his brain to his hand at all.
"What the fuck?"
A dry chortle rasped from the bed.
"No, I believe you mean to say 'When the fuck?'" The old man motioned to the chair again. "Sit down, Taylor."
He did as he was told, numb with shock, still staring at his hand. He put the pistol back in his pocket and found his fingers could move again.
Flanagan coughed weakly, sputtering like a dying engine. Color rose to his grey, sunken cheeks but it sank below the surface again within moments. When he appeared composed once more, he took a rattling breath and looked at the bedside clock.
"It is now 2:13," he said. "You will shoot me dead at exactly 2:31. That doesn't give us much time to get acquainted."
Taylor frowned. "You want to die?"
"Of course," Flanagan smiled without a hint of irony. "I've developed Leukemia and at my age, I don't need to tell you that's as good as a death sentence. So I can lay here and dwindle for the next month or two, or you can put a bullet in my brain in precisely 17 minutes."
Taylor glanced at the clock. 2:14.
"You stole my grandfather's notebook. The Tortium Transistor was his idea." Those words he'd practiced in the mirror, giving them subtle inflection and dramatic volume. Now they fell from his lips like ash.
"Yes," Flanagan said without hesitation. "I did steal his notebook, but you are wrong about the Tortium. It was my idea. Mine. He crept into my lab one night in '48 and copied my plans, then destroyed my originals. He meant to blackmail me or claim the invention as his own."
"Liar." Taylor's fist clenched at his side.
"No, son. That's the truth. Your grandfather was the thief, not I."
"You had him killed."
Flanagan nodded. "Of course. That's what we did in those days. Eye for an eye, and that sort of thing. Your grandpap was stupid, greedy. And the Tortium project was funded by some particularly unsavory individuals. He messed with the wrong financiers."
Taylor tried to absorb the information. His pride, his desire to rectify the black mark against his family name, flared angrily. Flanagan was convincing, however. Did his father lie about what had really happened to his grandfather? No, it couldn't be. All that time growing up, feeling the hatred for some unknown man named Flanagan growing, until he found himself face-to-face with the enemy…and unable to follow through.
"All for nothing," he whispered under his breath. Inside, something deflated. He felt weak, vaguely nauseous. He had to get out of here before the old man or his servant called the cops.
He tried to get up. His legs remained still as deadwood. No matter how he strained, he could not stand up.
"Ah, the burden of Fate," observed Flanagan, that sly smile creeping back onto his face. "It guides us all and yet we struggle."
Taylor leaned back into the chair. "What did you do to me?"
"Me? Nothing." He pulled himself more upright onto his pillows, shaking with the effort. "Tell me, Taylor…do you believe in predestination?"
"You mean like, things are meant to happen?"
"Yes, exactly," Flanagan said. "That circumstances are beyond our control and everything we do is according to some divine plan."
Taylor laughed uneasily. "I don't believe in God."
"Nor do I," responded the old man. "Yet here we are." He raised his hand. It held a remote. With the press of a button, the television flickered to life.
The image was an overhead view of this very bedroom. With Taylor sitting in the chair, Flanagan sitting up in bed, and the afternoon sunlight streaming through the thick glass at the end of the room.
Flanagan hit another button.
The scene unfolded in reverse. The old man lying down. Taylor standing up, pulling the gun from his pocket, putting it back, walking backward to the door and out of camera range. And the sun ever so subtly moving back up toward high noon.
Flanagan paused the video.
"Big deal," Taylor said. "You use hidden cameras to record everything." He tried to remain calm but realized this could be used to prosecute him.
"Exactly," said the old man. "I've installed seventy-three cameras all around the house and grounds, and they're programmed to record 24 hours a day."
"I recorded this particular scene 23 years ago."
Taylor stared at the old man.
"I've been waiting that long for you to kill me, in exactly nine minutes."
In answer, Flanagan punched another button. FFWD appeared in the lower right corner of the television screen. Like an old-time silent movie, the events of the last few minutes sped across the screen…only this time they kept going.
The Taylor onscreen pulled out his gun again. This time it went off and the old man's head blew apart like a piñata stuffed with red confetti. The assassin turned and fled out of camera range. The bedside clock read 2:31.
"You see?" said Flanagan, pausing the picture on his own corpse.
"Bullshit," whispered Taylor. His legs were trembling, though. "It's doctored or something. Staged. That's not even me."
Flanagan smiled. "Oh, it's you alright."
"I don't believe it."
"Neither did I, at first." The old man settled back into his pillows to get more comfortable. "It was an accident, really. We were testing the Tortium, putting it through its paces. One of our team came up with the idea to have it record live video feed and store it for viewing later."
"That's a DVR," said Taylor.
Flanagan nodded. "Yes, it eventually became that technology. With a slightly modified version of the transistor, of course. We couldn't let what happened occur in every household in America."
"What happened?" The words came unbidden to Taylor's lips and he couldn't remember forming the question in his mind before saying it.
"Just as you see here," Flanagan said, pointing at the television. "Only the tip of the iceberg. After numerous tests, we discovered an anomaly: a time signature of two seconds in the future. At first we dismissed it as a technical glitch, but it quickly became apparent it was something else. Somehow the Tortium could record the future."
Beyond the window, a gull wheeled by, its shadow misshapen and its cry plaintive.
"After that I suspended all projects and closed the lab for six months while I tried to isolate the mechanism that caused the effect. I succeeded. In secret, I began to enhance the transistor until I could control the time frame it recorded. I delivered a modified version of the Tortium –without the ability to record future events—to the rest of the team for development, while I kept the original version."
"And that's when you rigged your mansion here with cameras?" Taylor asked.
"Yes," Flanagan confirmed. "At the time it was a grand experiment of which only myself and a few choice others were privy. There was talk of setting up a global surveillance system to help reduce crime and wars. It would be the ultimate spy satellite, able to detect transactions and conversations far into the future. But none of that bore fruit. Politics is too fickle a mistress for any long-range plans. My invention turned into this…an idle plaything with a deadly secret: the exact day and time I would be murdered."
Get up and walk away, Taylor told himself. Just go. He tried, but his legs refused to budge.
"I can't stand up," he said.
Flanagan glanced at the clock. "No, you have about sixty seconds before you can do that."
"I don't want to kill you." Taylor gritted his teeth with the effort of trying to get out of the chair.
"I know," said the old man, almost kindly. "It's out of our hands. Always has been. I've been trying for over two decades to avoid being here. Nothing I've ever done has changed what I recorded in the future."
The clock flickered. 2:30.
Taylor stood up. Of its own accord, his hand brought out the gun. Pointed it at Flanagan's head.
"I'm so sorry," said Taylor. A rivulet of tears sprang from both his eyes, blearing his vision. He didn't think it would matter, somehow. The killshot on video had looked expertly aimed.
"One last thing," Flanagan said. "A couple years ago I hired a private detective to find where you lived. When he found you, he snuck in while you were at work and installed a surveillance system similar to this one."
A cold shock went through Taylor's system, though his gun hand remained steady.
"Does it record my death?"
Flanagan shrugged. "It'll show you anything that happens in front of the camera lens, anytime in the future. You can watch it on your own television on video input 4. The remote is hidden under the—"
Taylor didn't hear the gun go off but red confetti rained down over the bedspread. He dropped the weapon and ran to see what the future held for him.
# # #
There are at least two real-life horrors encapsulated in this tale: predestination and loss of identity. Who among us doesn't shiver at the prospect of Fate, guiding us with less-than-gentle nudges, toward an already calculated future? And, have you ever been so damn convinced that something was absolutely correct, only to find out your memory isn't quite as reliable as you thought? Self-reflection is a learned skill and not a very comfortable hobby, so most people avoid it...to their shameful destruction.