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PART SEVEN: THE CASTLE IN THE SKY

CHAPTER 28

Elze found Dom in what would have been the living room of his apartment. She remembered it being full of books, though that wasn’t the case now. The walls had holes in them, and there was a history of stains along one wall that spoke of many years of treachery and deception. The one incongruity in the room was the heavy oak door whose frame jutted out from the ruined wall around it. 

The door was scarred in many places, as if people had tried to stab it and cut it on numerous occasions. The outer edge was darkened with soot, but the wood itself was not burned. The handle was nothing more than a steel pin sticking out of the frame. She knew there had been a more ornate handle, but she could not recall its shape. 

Dom stood in the center of the room, facing the door. His light was propped on the floor beside him, its cover pulled back to diffuse its beam into a wide pool. She was reminded of a spotlight in a theater production, drawing the audience’s attention to the door through which the star of the show was soon to emerge. 

“Is this it?” she asked, feigning awareness of the door’s significance. 

“It is,” Dom said. 

“Is it—I don’t know—locked?”

Dom shook his head. “It doesn’t work like that.” 

Elze blew out her cheeks. She played her light around the rest of the room again. “Okay, how does it work then?” 

“I think of where I want to go, and when I am properly attuned to that time period, the door opens.” 

“That’s it?” 

“That’s it.” 

Elze scratched the side of her nose. “So . . . You don’t have any innate ability to shift through time, do you? It’s all baked into this door. Who made it?” 

“I don’t know,” Dom said. “It’s always been here.” He gave her a wry smile. “Apparently, it always will be.” 

“And when you come back to . . . When was it?” 

“1958.”

“When you come back to 1958, you find this door and walk through it again?” 

Dom shook his head. “Other doors will work, but I always end up coming through this door. Except . . . except that one time.” 

“Which time?”

“When you showed up. I had just come back to my apartment from somewhere else in Paris. You know. The Hôtel Napoleon.” 

“Where?” 

“The hotel. Near the Arc d’Triomphe. Where you came through.” 

“I did?” 

Dom stared at her. “I was in the bar at the Hôtel Napoleon, having a lovely conversation with a beautiful woman,” he said. “Suddenly, a door opened and you came sprinting through. You were being chased by some of those beetle-men.” His brow furrowed. “You don’t remember any of this,” he said. 

Elze shook his head. “That wasn’t me,” she said. 

“Of course it was,” Dom said. “You were wearing your cloak. An hour later, you were at my door, waiting for me.” 

“No,” she said. “I mean, yes, I was at your door, but I had just arrived in Paris. In that time. My instructions were to be at your apartment at that time. I wasn’t at whatever this hotel was.” 

“Who gave you those instructions?”

Elze let out a short bark of laughter. “A future version of me,” she said. 

“What?” 

“As near as I can figure it out, yeah, at some point in my future (objectively speaking), I am going to tell myself to show up at your apartment at that time, on that date. Once you let me in, I’m supposed to to tell you about a Rembrandt painting that doesn’t exist. Or maybe it does exist. I don’t know.” 

“Wait a second. You didn’t come through that door at Le Bivouac?” 

“Is that the bar at the hotel? No, that wasn’t me. At least, it wasn’t this version of me—the Azure Eleven version.” 

Dom snapped his fingers. “That woman I saw on the street the next morning, when you were chasing that courier.”

“What woman?” 

Dom ignored her question. “She signaled to me. Gave me a sequence of numbers. Two-four-two.” 

“Two-four-two.” Elze felt a chill run up her spine. 

“Do those number mean anything to you?”

Ele shook her head. “No,” she lied. 2-4-2 were the final sequence in the destruct sequence for her wave frame. The sequence that should have detonated whatever package she was carrying. The sequence that hadn’t worked. 

“Could that have been you?” Dom asked. 

“What?” Elze had been distracted by a sound she wan’t sure she had imagined. 

“The woman on the street,” Dom said. “Maybe she was the same woman who had come through the door at the bar. The future you.” 

“Maybe,” Elze said distantly. “I suppose I’ll find out, eventually.” She had definitely heard a noise. 

Dom started to say something else, but she cut him off with an upraised hand. She unslung the remaining PDR and snapped the flashlight into the mount point under the barrel. “They’re here,” she whispered. 

There was no doubting the sound she had heard. Heavy boots against hard stone. The beetle-men had found them. They were coming up the stairs. 

Elze waved the gun at the door. “You’d better get that opened quick,” she said. “We don’t have much time.” 

“I don’t—” Dom started. Seeing the expression on her face, he swallowed the rest of that sentence. “All right,” he said. 

“Don’t dawdle,” she said as she headed for the entry of the apartment. She tried not to think about the lack of defensible positions, or the fact there were no doors or gates she could close. The only thing that was going to slow the beetle-men down was if they didn’t know where she and Dom were. The Invocator would know, she thought. Let’s hope that’s not them down there. 

She clicked off her flashlight as she moved silently to the front door of the apartment. It wasn’t completely dark in the building. There was an orange glow spreading up from the lower floors, like the eager lick of a hungry flame. 

She had half a magazine in the PDR and another magazine shoved in the shallow pocket of her pants. It wasn’t enough ammunition to stop the group coming up the stairs. All she could hope to accomplish was slowing them down long enough for Dom to get the door open. 

Hurry up, she thought fiercely. 

She wasn’t afraid to die. She knew that was going to happen (relatively speaking). She didn’t want to die here. 

 

On the one hand, it was reassuring to discover that whatever had been happening in his mind, it hadn’t been a complete psychotic break. When this was all over, Dom promised himself that he’d go back to Zurich and spend some time with the pleasant psychologist who had been fascinated with the underlying symbology of the human psyche. Maybe he’ll be able to figure it all out, Dom reasoned. Until then, there was the disquieting possibility that he'd imagined everything. Hopefully, some of what he remembered had happened—relatively? objectively? God, he didn't know. Either way, it was going to be time-consuming (in the truest sense) to figure it all out. 

Later, he promised himself. After you get this door opened. 

Part of him had known he would find the library door. Everything that had happened since he had met Klaatu had been pushing him here, to this declination’s version of his apartment and its special door. What he had told Elze was mostly correct. Yes, he did use the door to leave his apartment and its time; and yes, when he returned to his apartment, he did so through the door in his library. But he wasn’t entirely bound to this portal, as clearly evidenced by his jaunt from the suite bathroom at Hôtel Napoleon. He had slipped through time through other doors. 

It was all a matter of focus, and right now, that’s what he had to do. He had to build a mental image of where and when he wanted to go. He had to make it so real in his head that the time and place he was in faded. That part shouldn’t be hard, he thought as he went into his head. His memory palace was waiting for him. He didn’t need the index. What he needed was on the wall opposite the stand where he kept the book. He had painted a picture of his library, painstakingly detailing the cracked bindings and tiny lettering on each book on the shelf. He knew them all. 

He started to walk along the shelves, mentally touching each book. Saying its name. Each book—each step—would bring the library into—

He flinched as he heard gunfire. The shelf of books he had just finished imagining shivered and vanished. Damn it, he thought, trying to keep the second shelf in focus. The spines wavered and held. Trying to control his breathing, he started again. Right corner, he thought. Roger Bacon’s de retardatione senectutis en senii. Next to it was the tablae astronomicae, Arzachel’s translation of al-Zargali’s Arabiac text. After that was . . . 

He frowned. The next book on the shelf in the memory palace painting was Isidore’s de natura rerum. But he didn’t own a copy of that book. Not that edition, at any rate. The shelves were wrong. This is the library in the Church, he thought. This isn’t my library. 

He opened his eyes. He was still in the ruined room of the future declination. The heavy door remained shut. 

He heard more gunfire, and then Elze came rushing into the room. She was out of breath, and there was a tiny line of blood running down her forehead. “Why isn’t that open?” she demanded. 

“It’s not right,” he mumbled. “My memory palace isn’t right.” 

“Your what?” 

His response was interrupted by the chatter of gunfire and the spanging noise of rounds ricocheting off the hallway wall. Elze swore and darted back to the entrance of the library. She leaned out, pulled her head back immediately as more gunfire sounded, and then responded with a burst from her weapon. “I’m almost out,” she snapped. “Quit fucking around and open the damn door. Take us someplace sunny. Or someplace where it’s raining. I don’t care. Just do it now!” 

Dom opened his mouth to snap back at her, and then shut it. Someplace sunny, he thought. She's right. I don't have to go home. I can go somewhere else. 

And then, in a sudden flash of illumination, he knew where they had to go. He took a deep breath, tried to not let the snarl of Elze’s weapon rattle him, and then said one word. The word that would focus him. 

For a moment, he thought it wasn’t going to work, that he hadn’t wanted it hard enough. That whatever powers or confluences or mystical energies that opened the courses between the waves hadn’t heard him. But then, he heard the door click. 

He darted forward, his fingers clawing at the edge of the door. It resisted his efforts, but he knew the seal had been broken. He broke at least one fingernail pulling at the door, but he got it moving. A deep sigh flowed out of the door as he swung it open, a powerful exhalation of other places and other times. He heard chimes and laughter and the sound of an airplane falling out of the sky. He smelled the dreadful odor that had crept into the trenches during the War when the Germans had started experimenting with gas. He smelled lilies and the warm breath of puppies. 

“Come on,” he called to Elze. She glanced over her shoulder, saw what he had accomplished, and turned back to fire one last burst from her gun. She cried out suddenly, and her gun slipped out of her grasp. She stumbled, falling to one knee. 

The door opened all the way, and then, the great breath which had rushed out of the door came back. And with that inhalation, the door began to close. Dom wasn’t sure he could stop it. 

Orange light flooded the hall of his ancient apartment, and by its light, he could see Elze had been shot. She was trying to stand, but there was a lot of blood on her hip and thigh. 

The door was halfway closed. 

Dom darted across the room. “Stop squirming,” he gasped at her as he got his hands under her arms. Her legs scrabbled at the floor as he dragged her. 

Out of the corner of his eye, he caught sight of a figure dressed in yellow. Flames flickered and boiled on their shoulders, obscuring whatever head they might have. A deep susurration filled the hall, and the light got brighter. 

Elze was shouting something at the Egregore. Dom didn’t care. He had to get her through the door. He banged his shoulder against the heavy oak panel, and the panel slowed for an instant, but it didn’t stop. He twisted and slipped through the gap, dragging Elze with him. She cried out as he bounced her hip off the frame of the door. 

Behind them, the Egregore huffed and swelled, and its fiery plume expanded like an exploding star. 

The ground beneath Dom’s feet changed. It wasn't hard anymore. It was soft and mushy, and he stumbled. There was a sky overhead, pale and blue and streaked with fluffy clouds that were dappled with orange highlights. He knew he was going to fall, and he tried to fall backwards, hauling Elze with him. He hung there for a moment, his fall arrested by his grip on her. 

Her foot was caught in the door. It's going to crush her foot, he thought, and he willed himself to fall faster, to fall harder. 

Her foot came free, and he tumbled to the ground. 

With a groan, the door closed. The light changed, and silence descended on them like a heavy blanket. 

Dom lay flat on the ground, breathing heavily. He was lying on loose dirt, and when he inhaled, he drew in the dusty scent of dry earth. He rolled over, and looked up at the sky again. The clouds were the most adorable fluffy sheep he had ever seen. 

He heard Elze moan, and he looked around for her. She was lying nearby, and as near as he could tell, she had both of her feet. She rolled over, her face a mask of pain as she moved. Gasping, tears streaming down her face, she stared up at the blue sky. 

“Where are we?” she whispered. 

Dom raised himself to his elbows and looked around. They were in a field. Nearby was a forest of dark trees that went all the way to a series of hills in the distance. Fog—or more of those fluffy sheep—danced on the hills. 

He squinted, not sure of what he was seeing. Yes, he thought, that is what I think it is. 

“Germany,” he said. He shifted his weight and raised an arm to point at the tiny castle, floating on the backs of the fluffy sheep. 

Elze struggled to sit up. “That’s—” she started when she spotted what he was pointing at. 

“Höltzbrïn’s estate,” Dom said. “A castle in the sky.” 

She fell back against the dirt. “What—what year is it?” she asked. 

Dom swallowed and checked that spot in his chest which always knew. “1972,” he said. 

“Of course it is,” Elze said. 

*

CHAPTER 29

First, they had to walk three kilometers until they were spotted along the road. Then, there was the matter of convincing the kindly gentleman and his earnest wife who stopped for them that they merely needed a doctor and not whatever passed for law enforcement in this region. It’s not hers, Dom assured the old man and his wife, referring to the dried blood which caked Elze’s clothing. We were attacked by a cougar, or a wolf. It’s hard to remember.

We must go to the police, the woman had insisted.

When have the police ever helped anyone? Dom has asked. The couple were old enough to remember the war, and he hoped the lessons of their youth had been baked hard into them.

The old woman had acquiesced, but she did not like the memories Dom had dredged up, and he spent the next hour nattering on about next to nothing. This accomplished two things: it reminded his tongue of how the German language worked (it had been a while since he had last had the opportunity to do so), and all his chatter gradually pushed the old woman’s apprehension and suspicion away. By the time, the battered sedan reached the village, the old woman (whose name was Anneken) was laughing and blushing steadily from Dom’s attention.

Henrik—Anneken’s husband, who had, in Elze’s estimation, come to regret having stopped for the two strangers staggering alongside the old country lane—dropped them off at a tiny clinic near the center of the village. As Dom helped Elze out of the car, Anneken rolled down her window. “Perhaps—” she started, but she was interrupted by a terse word from her husband. She colored slightly, and her gaze dropped to the ground. “I would have liked to make you a jägerschnitzel,” she said.

Before Dom had a chance to reply, Henrik mashed his foot down on the car’s accelerator. It was an old sedan, and it was noisier than it was fast, but Henrik’s brush-off was clear enough in the cloud of white smoke that lingered after the car shuddered away.

Jägerschnitzel,” is all Elze said.

Dom shrugged. “It would have been a hot meal,” he said. “I wouldn’t have said ‘no’.”

Elze grimaced as she tried to put weight on her wounded leg. Dom moved to help her, and she slapped his hand away. “What?” he protested.

“I’m fine,” she snapped.

Dom knew she wasn’t, but he also knew when to keep his mouth shut and his offer of assistance to himself. He let her shuffle toward the door of the clinic, and his gaze wandered in the direction of the departing car.

Elze had spent a good portion of the ride in a delirious haze. He suspected she could speak German, but he doubted she had been paying close attention to the conversation between he and Anneken. All she had seen was their body language, and yes, Dom had been giving the old woman his undivided attention, but the implication of that had not been his goal.

Henrik was angry at his wife, not Dom. Dom was a preening peacock in Henrik’s mind, an easily dismissed buffoon. But that his wife had fallen for Dom’s shallow charm grated on the old man. He had been reminded of old scars—something to do with the French, no doubt—Dom had little doubt there was a French lilt to his German.

Regardless, the time spent with Anneken and Henrik hadn’t been as completely vacuous as most of the occupants of the car suspected. Dom had learned a few things. Gathering intel was an important part of grounding oneself in a time and place.

“How long are you going to moon after your new girlfriend?” Elze had reached the door of the clinic.

“She would have made jägerschnitzel,” Dom said. He lifted his shoulders and sighed theatrically. On his right, he heard the door of the clinic slam, and he let a tiny smile play on his lips. He gave Elze a minute to talk her way past the doctor’s receptionist, and then he went into the clinic.

 

“I could have worked my charm with the receptionist,” he said later.

“Shut up,” Elze snarled. She was sitting up on the doctor’s examination table. The doctor, a middle-aged man with a head of curly brown hair and a mustache that reminded Dom of a walrus, nervously glanced back and forth between them. They were speaking French, and while he didn’t understand their words, he could read the mood in the room.

“What about him?” Dom asked, nodding toward the doctor. “I suppose we’re going to have to tie both of them up.”

Elze’s reply was cut short as the doctor, working a pair of forceps in a bloody hole in Elze’s thigh, did something that caused her pain. She glared at him, and he stuttered an apology. “Just one more,” he said. “I almost have it.”

There were already two blood-stained bullets in the metal tin on the table next to Elze’s bare leg. Instead of asking her to remove her trousers, the doctor had cut away the leg. While that was all very polite and all, it created a problem for when they had to leave. Elze couldn’t go walking around the village with only one trouser leg. We would have had to find a chance of clothes anyway, Dom thought, eyeing the dark stains on the discarded piece of fabric.

He took a step back and looked out into the front room of the clinic. The receptionist was still in her chair, looking like she had fallen asleep. The door was locked, so there was no chance of a surprise visitor. Dom was only checking on whether the woman had regained consciousness.

Elze had been a little dramatic. He couldn’t fault her, really. It had been a trying day, but cold-cocking an office receptionist who was—frankly—merely doing her job wasn’t the most effective way to get what they needed. Elze would have flattened the doctor too, if Dom hadn’t shown up in time to talk her out of doing the medical procedures herself.

Dom wasn’t sure she knew any different, really. She always worked alone. She never stayed in the time she was moving through. She never relied on local assets; she always had all the intel she needed when she showed up. She did the job as efficiently as possible and then extracted herself.

Must be nice, he thought, recalling a variety of adventures—Potsdam, Cairo, Leningrad—where all the intel he brought with him turned out to be shit. Quick thinking and some slippery talking had turned disasters into, well, not-disasters, which was about as good as he could have hoped for.

Elze tensed again, and her mouth firmed into a fierce line. At her side, her hand clenched to a tight fist, and Dom looked back at the still body of the receptionist. He didn’t want her to see him watching her. After a moment, there was a metal clank as something was dropped, and the doctor quietly announced he had extracted the last bullet.

“These will require some stitches,” he said, but Elze shook her head.

“Bind them,” she said. “Bind them tight.”

“Fräulein—” he started, but Dom turned and clapped a hand on his shoulder.

“She’s a strong one,” he said. “You should have seen the other guy.” He laughed at his joke—too loudly, but it had the effect of distracting the doctor from his patient. The doctor chuckled nervously as he gathered gauze and pads.

Behind him, Elze motioned with her eyes. Dom replied with a waggle of eyebrows and a jerk of his head. Elze frowned and widened her eyes. I’m not—Dom thought, and then he beamed graciously at the doctor as the walrus-mustached man turned back toward the pair of them.

He read something in both of their expressions and his shoulders slumped. “Please,” he said. “I don’t—”

“We’re not going to kill you,” Dom said quickly. He meant to reassure the doctor, but his words had to opposite effect. The man’s eyes teared up and he started to blubber. “No,” Dom said. “Please. Just. Please don’t—”

“My wife is expecting our first child,” the doctor cried. “I can’t—she shouldn’t have to raise the child . . .”

“No one is raising anyone,” Dom said, and then he realized he hadn’t completed the sentence. “You’re going to be there for the child,” he said, before the doctor could get any more hysterical. “Trust me,” Dom said. “We’re not going to hurt you.” He looked at Elze. “Right?”

Elze didn’t say anything.

Dom took the gauze from the doctor’s limp hands. “Look, is there a closet of some kind that you could—”

“A what?”

“A water closet? A toilette?”

“Wh—why?”

“We can lock you in there,” Dom explained. “Someone will let you out later. After we’ve gone. Okay?”

“Wh—Who?”

“What do you mean?”

“Who is going to let me out?”

“I don’t know,” Dom said. “Someone. It doesn’t matter.”

“But . . . But what about Fräulein Blüchen?”

“She—she can go in the closet with you.”

The doctor wailed. Dom didn’t understand why the man was crying until he realized the doctor thought his receptionist—Fräulein Blüchen—was dead.”

“No, no,” he said. “She’s be fine.”

“Oh, for crying out loud,” Elze snapped. She hopped off the table and grunted in pain as she landed on her injured leg. The doctor’s eyes widened, and he was slow to react. Dom could have evaded Elze, but he knew what she was capable of, and he wasn’t busy sniveling. The doctor thrashed as she got her hands on him, and he dragged her around the tiny operating theater for a minute or so, but she finally managed to get a hold on him that cut off the flow of blood to his brain.

“Here,” Elze said, thrusting the unconscious doctor toward Dom. Dom got his arms around the boneless man and struggled to not drop him. “Put them both in the water closet—toilette, whatever.”

Dom put the doctor down as gently as possible, cradling the man’s head at the last minute so it didn’t smack against the floor. “We’re going to have to work on your people skills,” he said.

“Why,” Elze snapped. “We’re not going to stick around long.”

“Actually—” Dom started.

Elze stared at him.

“Remember when I said it was 1972?”

“Yes.” There was fire in her eyes.

“Well, it is 1972, but it’s not quite the same.”

“What do mean?”

“That’s Höltzbrïn’s castle on the hill, right?” Dom waited for her to nod. “And we know that you robbed the place right before Interpol showed up and took him down, right?”

“Get to the point, Dom,” Elze said.

“Do you remember anything about a party?”

“A what?”

“A costume party. At the castle.”

“Why—why would there be a costume party? Hötlzbrïn is a recluse. The place is filled with art he shouldn’t have. He’s not going to invite a bunch of people over for a party.”

Dom shrugged. “Well, according to my new best friend—you remember her, yes?—according to Anneken, there’s going to be a party next week. At the castle.”

“A costume party?”

“Yes, a costume party.”

Elze sank against the edge of the table, her face pale. “We’re not in the right wave,” she said. “We’re still in a declination.”

“No,” Dom said. “I think we’re in the right one, but it’s not the way it was.”

*

CHAPTER 30

While they differed in how to approach a heist, they did agree that pre-planning and staging should be done as anonymously as possible. Elze suffered Dom’s recriminating side-eye as they secured a vehicle and acquired a modest amount of working capital.

Which is to say, Dom took the doctor’s car keys and filched a handful of Deutsche Marks out of the man’s wallet. This is only going to compound our problems in the short term, he said as they drove away from the clinic. We have to find better transportation and more cash. Elze made some noises that passed for general agreement. There was a pressure in her head that was making it hard to concentrate on what he was saying. The pain medication she had overdosed on (but only slightly) was helping, but she suspected she was suffering from TOS—Temporal Occlusion Syndrome. Typically, an OTP waveframe was built to weather temporal relocations, but massive shifts across the wave dragged some ancillary pressures with them. More so when you were shifting across declinations. Even more so when you were shifting back toward W-1. It was akin to the difference between swimming upstream versus downstream: one was much easier than the other.

She was also trying to remember her mission briefing from this time period. She had been Sky Ten at the time, the Decanting prior to this waveframe. There was always some memory degradation between Decants, and it had gotten much better in the last few years (relatively speaking). She had been tasked with retrieving art from Höltzbrïn’s estate: a Tiepelo, a Manet, and a Van Dyck, all of which had been stolen by the Nazis during the war.

It had been a fairly standard retrieval mission; she had done dozens like it over her various iterations. Most of the time, she didn’t know why she was tasked with the specific retrieval—nor did she care. She assumed she was helping OTP Architects correct fluctuations in the wave, but while they had been in the desert, Weston had confessed that he had used her to create an aberration in the Wave.

First, at some point before the end of the wear, Dom had stolen the paintings from the Nazis, and Weston had sold them to Höltzbrïn. Höltzbrïn, famously reclusive and compulsively eccentric (and wealthy, which went hand-in-hand with those two characteristics), had kept them in his honest-to-God hilltop castle in Germany. The paintings had hung there for nearly thirty years, and shortly before Interpol had raided the castle, Elze had gone in and lifted three of the nearly three dozen paintings Höltzbrïn was rumored to have.

There were more than thirty, Elze thought, recalling the deep galleries she had seen in the castle. For a moment, she wondered where the other paintings had gone.

Regardless, her retrieval of the paintings to their rightful pre-WWII owners had corrected a dip in the wave. These owners had, in turn, donated the paintings to various international museums, allowing the art to return to the public eye. All nice and tidy.

Except, the paintings she gave back and which were put in museums were also the same paintings that hung in Höltzbrïn’s gloomy gallery. For twenty years, these objects existed simultaneously in two distinct places in the same wave. How many ripples were created? Elze wondered. Even if Höltzbrïn thought the museum paintings were fakes—as Weston had said he believed—surely someone else had seen the paintings in the castle?

She shifted in the car seat, trying to find a more comfortable angle to lean her head against the window. The pressure in her head wasn’t easing quickly enough.

She kept coming back to how Weston had deteriorated. When he had rescued her from the Invocator, he had started aging at an incredible rate. She had heard of this phenomena—she had seen it before, in fact, when she and Dom had first arrived in the desert. It was called Rapid Onset Ontological Terminus—ROOT—and it happened when a waveframe became critically disassociated with a wave. You got rejected by the wave for being too incongruous with its pattern. Your ability to argue your existence was overwhelmed by the wave’s refutation of your presence. You were wiped out. She had thought it happened when you went to a wave that was too dissimilar to where you had come from. Your waveframe couldn’t make the temporal adjustment, and the local wave pushed it away. But for a frame to reach ROOT after spending time (relatively speaking) in a locality meant that the wave itself had changed. Time had changed.

She couldn’t escape the idea that by saving her, Weston had killed himself. He had changed everything in that moment. He knew, she thought, staring bleakly at the passing trees. He knew what he was doing. In fact, it had been part of his plan.

Who was he working for? The OTP? The Twins? Himself? She didn’t know, and this feeling of being adrift—of not knowing what she was supposed to do, or what sort of future (both relatively and objectively speaking) lay ahead of her—was frightening.

 

Dom knew Elze was hurting, and he tried to not let his concern for her well-being inject any more stress than necessary into his own psyche. The doctor’s car was a powder blue BMW sedan that required some restraint and delicacy with its steering and acceleration. This wasn’t like the boxy Citröen which he and Elze had ridden in before visiting the doctor. Dom was familiar with the Citröen. In Paris, they were like ladybugs during the first weeks of spring. You were constantly dodging them when you crossed roadways, and they were always cluttering up the narrow alleys. No, the BMW was a much finer beast, filled with a more powerful engine and a much more responsive steering system. Dom wasn’t about to engage in a road race, but in the doctor’s car, he could imagine the sheer delight that would accompany a heart-stopping tear through the hilly countryside.

And speaking of hills, there were many in the region. He wasn’t quite sure where they were, but while the signs were decidedly German, there was still a very French air to things. They were close to the border, probably closer to Luxembourg and Belgium than Switzerland, and if he recalled correctly, this area had been handed back and forth between a variety of governments and houses over the last few hundred years. There would be ties that had more to do with blood and family to consider among these people.

He had caught sight of Höltzbrïn’s estate on a few occasions. It was clearly a modern construction—in that it had been built in the last two hundred years—on top of the remnants of an old wall. An oppidum, he thought, referring to the Latin word for ancient fortified settlements beyond the administrative areas of the main Empire. A modern rampart—made from fitted stone rose out of the ancient earthen wall, and he could see the peaks of several large structures within the keep.

It had been a while (relatively speaking) since he had stormed a castle, and without the excuse of a costume party, such a project was not something he was looking to do on a whim. They needed to do a lot of reconnaissance and preparation, and somehow—oh, that nagging feeling was definitely swirling around in his gut—he didn’t think they had that kind of time.

The road turned, and they passed through a gap in the trees. In the distance, the castle winked at them, but this time, Dom ignored it. He was busy scouring the view of the valley the bend in the road had afforded them. He caught sight of the shiny reflection of sunlight off a stream. Verdant fields on the left were dotted by black shapes—cows or horses—and on the right, a pair of narrow tracks ran between a handful of tiny farms.

Dom spotted the access road, and he let the BMW bump and twist onto the dirt road. He spotted a pair of wooly dogs at the first farm they passed, and there were women working around the house at the second farm. The third, however, did not have any signs of life around it. The main building was a narrow structure with ragged shutters that reminded him of the pinched face of a casino dealer who he had taken for many thousands of francs. The barn slouched behind the house, and its open mouth gaped like the sad mouth of a dead fish.

“This one,” he said, and he wheeled the BMW onto the rutted track that led to the house. The sedan bumped over the uneven and overgrown lawn as he drove the car around the back of the house. He stopped the car when he couldn’t see the road, and he switched off the engine.

Elze stirred beside him, and he patted her shoulder gently before getting out of the car. He stood beside the vehicle for a minute, listening intently. In the distance, he heard a cow lowing, and it was followed by a single bark—as if a dog was admonishing the cow to shut the hell up. A tiny wind teased at the long grasses in the unkempt pasture beside the barn.

The back of the house was as uninviting as the front. Dom was fairly confident no one was home. He crossed the worn stones of the patio and gently tried the handle of the wooden door that led into the house. It was locked. He looked around for a suitable stone, and finding one, he smacked out the leaded glass of one of the panes. Being careful to not cut himself, he reached through the broken pane and fumbled for the latch and lock. He undid both, and when he tried the door again, it opened for him.

The air inside the house was still and stale. There was a mustiness that suggested something had died in the walls a while back, and Dom listened for any creak or moan from the structure that would reveal that he wasn’t alone in the house.

No such sound came, and Dom finally let out the breath he had been holding. He quickly investigated the ground floor of the main house, and finding it suitable for their needs, he went back to the car to tell Elze the good news.

They had a hideout.

 

Much later, after an afternoon of airing out the moribund atmosphere and sweeping the worst of the dust and grit off the surfaces of the furnishing, he built a fire in the kitchen’s stone-lined fireplace. There was a tiny wine cellar, accessible via a stone stairway behind a pitched door at the back of the kitchen, and Dom had brought up two bottles. Both were wrapped with faded paper labels that said the wine was a Liebfrauenmilch and that it had been bottled in 1968.

Using an opener, he had found in the kitchen, he opened one of the bottles and poured a healthy measure into two short-stemmed glasses. He offered one to Elze, who was sprawled in a low-backed chair he had hauled in from the sitting room. She accepted it with a distracted air, and she gave an involuntary twitch when he tapped his glass against hers.

She took a sip, frowned after a second, and then struggled upright in her chair. “What is this?” she demanded, her voice rough.

“Liebfrauenmilch,” Dom said. “Virgin’s milk,” he explained.

“What?”

“That’s what that word means,” he said. “It’s a variety of white wine.”

Elze took another sip, which turned into a large gulp. She swallowed, and then drained what was left in the glass. She held the empty glass out. “More, please,” she said. Her voice had regained some of its vibrancy.

Dom complied, and as she drained that glass as well, he considered the possibility he hadn’t gotten enough bottles out of the cellar. “I didn’t have a chance to put tighter a charcuterie plate,” he said as he refilled her glass a second time.

She paused and looked at him. He was glad to see her pupils were tight and focused. “What kind of hotel is this?” she asked.

“The breaking in and stealing the silverware kind,” he said.

She leaned back in her chair. “Your speciality,” she said.

“I’m so glad to have you back,” Dom replied, toasting her with his unfinished first glass of wine.

She sipped from her glass—a decidedly smaller sip this time—and wiped at her mouth. “That was—I’ve had better transitions,” she said.

Dom nodded. “I had something like that happen to me once,” he said. “I went—where did I go?—sometime ahead of this. New York City. I couldn’t stay long. I was aging at an accelerated rate. It was almost as my body was trying to process all those years (objectively speaking) that I had skipped.”

“It’s called ‘root,’” Elze said. “R-O-O-T. Rapid Onset Ontological Terminus.”

“Oh, I didn’t realize it had a name.”

“In the future, everything has a name.” Elze pulled a face, and Dom thought her reaction had nothing to do with the wine, which was dry and sweet. It would have been better chilled, but he was delighted to have found anything at the house. “Do you remember that Ootsee we chased into the future? The one we found in the dunes?”

Dom nodded. “He looked like he had been there for a long time.”

“But I don’t think he had. I think he come through that door only a few minutes (relatively speaking) before us. But the transition from our wave to that one had triggered something in his body—some kind of misfire on a cellular level. He got ROOTed.”

Dom suddenly recalled what had happened to the beetle-man he had attacked at Le Bivouac. “I stabbed one,” he said. “Back at the restaurant, back when—” He waved off the effort required to establish a intelligible continuity. “As soon as I stabbed him, he burned up. Weird black flames. They consumed him entirely in a few seconds.”

Elze nodded. “ROOT burn. I’ve seen it too. It’s how the wave cleans up after itself.”

“And Weston,” Dom said. “He got real old, real quick.”

“He did.” Elze leaned forward and refilled her glass. The bottle was nearly half empty. “I think he changed things when he saved me—us.”

“What do you mean?”

Elze took a long pull from her wine. Her head lolled slightly as she swallowed and considered how to say what was on her mind. “Time is a wave, but there is no single wave, right? Waves come and go, and their ability to propagate depends on how much interference they receive from other waves.” “What happens when they collapse?”

“Everything collapses with them, I suppose,” Elze said. “But . . .”

Dom sighed and reached for the bottle. “I knew there was a but.”

“Part of my job is to fix errors,”—she flinched slightly—“or create them. I’m not in a wave when it collapses, I guess—I mean, I would know, right? Anyway, I have a memory of a wave that no longer exists. Is that a false memory now?”

“All memory is false,” Dom said. His lips pulled into a stark line.

“Yeah,” Elze said. “Well, let’s not get too metaphysical now. My headache is finally fading.”

“So you think Weston collapsed that wave?” Dom asked, steering away from talking about what could be possible. Keeping their discussion in the here and now (relatively speaking).

“I do,” Elze said. “I think that was his plan all along. Maybe. I think we’re still in his plan, though.”

“What do you mean?”

“This isn’t the 1972 I remember, which means we may not be in W-1. We could be in a declination, albeit one that is nearly synchronous with W-1.”

“Or that one—the one you think is what? The true wave? The prime wave?” She shrugged. “It’s the one the OTP protects, I guess. It’s always been there.”

“Okay, whatever it is. That could be a declination from—say—W-0?”

“It could, but . . .”

“Yeah, there’s no way we could know.”

Elze shook her head. Her motion was sloppy, and she closed her eyes briefly as she had made herself dizzy.

“Or—and this is what I’ve been thinking about—his efforts have changed W-1,” she said. “There was an echo in the wave. I made it when I stole the paintings in 1972, and I don’t know, but—but it is possible that aberration may have spawned the very declination we were in.”

Dom emptied the last of the first bottle into his glass. “Now you are giving me a headache.”

“I know. I’m sorry.”

Dom tapped a finger on the rim of his glass. “If I could manage to open another door, do you think we could go to a time that like what you remember—what I remember?”

Elze raised her shoulders. “I don’t know. I don’t even know if a time such as that even exists.” She fixed him with a weird expression. “Does it even matter?”

Dom took a sip from his glass, letting the wine roll around his mouth for a moment before he swallowed. “No,” he said. “I don’t think it does matter. Not anymore.”

“We’re not bound to a single wave anymore,” Elze said. “That’s what he’s done, I think. You and I—we’re free. I don’t know what it means exactly, but I think we’re no longer bound to history. Well, none except our own.” She frowned at him. “Amy I making any sense?”

“A little,” Dom admitted. “So . . . we don’t have to raid this castle? We could just—what?—live here for the rest of our lives?”

“We could, I suppose,” Elze said. “But wouldn’t you get bored?”

Dom grinned at her. “Maybe,” he said. “But it would take a little while (relatively speaking).”

“But what if this wave in under duress,” Elze said. “What if it receiving so much interference from other waves that it is going to collapse. Maybe as soon as tomorrow.”

“Or what if it is creating so much interference that it is damaging other waves.”

“My God!” Elze exclaimed. “That’s it. That’s what they want.”

“Wait. What? Who?”

“The Twins.”

“The who?”

Elze waved his question aside. “They’re trying to create strong declinations. The interference from those waves is going to destabilize W-1.”

“What? So? I don’t—”

“What’s the easiest way to power?” Elze asked. “You could take over a nation state by co-opting its citizens. Propaganda. Internal dissent. Right? You could bring down its infrastructure. Destroy its ability to feed and cloth and care for its citizens. But why go to all that trouble? You’re just going to inherit something broken and ruined. Why bother with all of that if you could—instead—create a version of that wave where you already were in charge? You would have a stable government. A productive population that was eager to serve. Wouldn’t that be easier?”

“I don’t know if it would be easier, but yes, I see your point. However, the only trouble with that plan is that—as you said—waves interfere with one another.”

“The stronger wave always wins,” Elze said. “And W-1—well, it’s been the strongest for—for a very long time.”

Dom followed her line of thinking. “But if you could make a new wave, one that was stronger, then . . .”

“Then it would dominate. It would destroy the original and take its place.”

Dom sank back in his chair, struggling to wrap his head around what she was talking about. He lifted his glass, and realized it was empty. How had that happened? he wondered.

Elze nodded sleepily at the other bottle on the table. “You’re going to have to open another,” she slurred.

Dom looked around for the opener. He spotted it on the counter and he stood up, weaving unsteadily as the alcohol changed places with the blood in his brain. This wine’s a little stronger than I realized, he thought as he wandered over to the counter. He picked up the opener and turned around.

Elze was slumped over in her chair, snoring gently.

Dom looked at the unopened bottle, and quietly put the opener back down on the counter. He went over and retrieved her glass from her cradled hands. “It’s been a long day,” he whispered. “Time for some rest.”

His eyelids were heavy. He needed sleep too. Maybe this will all make sense in the morning, he thought, staggering back to his chair. He stared at the fire for a moment, trying to bring it into focus. No, he thought as his eyes slid closed. Tomorrow, it’ll be what needs to be done. He wasn’t quite sure what that meant, but before he could contemplate it further, he, too, fell into a deep sleep.

*

CHAPTER 31

His father came to visit Dom while he was dreaming. The room was narrow and dark, the only light peeked through the thick grate that covered the high window. There was straw strewn in one corner, and the only place to sit was a three-legged stool whose legs had been cut to half their normal length. The old man deigned to sit, and Dom didn’t blame him. He only used the stool to peer out the window, but all he could ever see was a sea of clouds roiling across an unkempt sky.

“I have read the charges levied against you,” the old man said.

“It’s nice to see you too,” Dom replied.

The old man wouldn’t look at him. “You’re not—” he started. A series of expressions fought across his weathered face. He was old—even for this time—and he was bowed by the weight of the heavy robes and chains man in his position was expected to wear. But it wasn’t just the burden of age and office that rested heavy on the old man; he was also burdened by the re-appearance of his son.

The year was 1603. Dom was, by records kept in the old man’s diary, just shy of his seventeenth birthday, but that boy was on the continent, having been whisked away a year or two earlier. The figure languishing in this musty cell in the Tower of London was a man in his early thirties, and Dom knew the old man was having difficult reconciling the differences between what his eyes saw and what his brain knew.

“It’s okay,” Dom told his familiar father. “They don’t know who I am. They won’t know either.”

The old man hesitated, and Dom knew he wasn’t entirely convinced of the veracity of the message Dom had managed to smuggle to him. “What have I done to deserve this?” the old man asked. There was a unbecoming tremor in his voice, and for a moment, Dom felt a stab of pity in his heart. The old man had been too curious—too gullible—and that earnest innocence had been harshly taken advantage of, time and again. Now, at the twilight of his life, all the things he had held dear were slipping through his fingers. His Queen was gone. His wife was gone. Some of his children—Dom’s alleged siblings—were gone. His library—the great work of his adult life—had been vandalized. Books were slipping through his fingers. Soon the shelves would be bare, and there would be nothing left.

In the dream, Dom said: “None of us have done anything other than what we were always meant to do.” And he moved restlessly on the narrow bed in another time and place when he heard himself say this. That wasn’t what I said, part of his mind thought, fighting against the current of the dream. But dreams, like waves, move in their own way, and a single thought—a single person—can do very little against the tide.

“Why have you come here to torment me?” the old man asked, and for a moment, Dom misheard the voice which had spoken. I said that, he thought, and it wasn’t him who visited me.

He turned on the bed, fighting against the current, even as he knew such effort was wasted.

“You broke the rules,” Dom in the dream said.

“I did what was asked of me. I agreed to the union. I stood by and let—let them come through the glass.”

“You abandoned the product of that union,” dream Dom said. “You abandoned your child.”

“It wan’t mine,” the old man countered.

“You were offered so much,” Dom said. “You were given a glimpse of—”

“I didn’t want it,” the old man shouted. “Yes, I saw them in the glass. I spoke with them. I wanted them to teach me, but not at that cost. Not like that.”

“You wanted it,” Dom said. “You know you wanted it.”

The old man sobbed and turned away. “You’re an abomination,” he said. He spat on the dusty floor and called Dom a name that hadn’t been used in a very long time.

When Dom woke up, in another time and place, his cheeks were wet. There was a mark on the wooden floor beside the bed. A stain. A burn. A lingering echo of what had never happened.

 

Elze took in Dom’s disheveled appearance as he staggered into the narrow farmhouse kitchen and dropped himself into one of the chairs at the table. “You look terrible,” she said.

“This establishment is not living up to its three star rating,” he groused. He stirred when she put a cup of steaming coffee in front of him. A perplexed expression crossed his face as he picked up the cup. “What is—” he started, but the rest of his question was lost as his lips slurped noisily at the hot liquid. Elze could see the magical effect of the coffee wash through him. When he raised his head and looked around the kitchen, she could see the clarity in his gaze. “Where did you find all of this?” he asked.

This was coffee, as well as bacon sizzling in a cast-iron skillet. A plate of eggs and toast were hiding inside the warm oven, and on the table, there was a dish of rich butter and a jar of homemade preserves. Elze retrieved the hot plate from the over, added several strips of crispy bacon to it, and placed the hearty breakfast in front of Dom. “I made friends with the neighbors,” she said.

Dom tucked into the food with the eagerness of a man who had been imprisoned in a Tower of London cell (even though that had happened a long time ago, relatively speaking). He had several questions, but they were muddled by the food in his mouth, and Elze rested against the stove, waiting for him to finish eating.

“I told them we were visiting relatives from Burgundy,” she said, answering Dom’s most pressing question. She smiled at him. “I was very persuasive,” she said. “Plus I paid them.”

“What?” Dom paused, a piece of toast half shoved into his mouth.

“The doctor’s car,” Elze said. She shrugged. “I took the plates off it before I gave it to them. Besides, they’re not fools. I suggested they might want to drive into the city—I didn’t specify which city, of course—and maybe trade it for some goats or something.”

“Goats.”

“Everyone likes goats,” Elze said.

Dom put his fork down and shook his head. He started to say something, decided against it, and punctuated his silence by lifting his coffee cup and taking a sip.

“It buys us a little time,” she said. “And if they get suspicious, I’ll just kill them.”

Dom choked on his coffee.

She smiled to let him know she was kidding, but she could tell he wasn’t convinced. She pulled out the other chair and sat down. “We only need a few days,” she said. “It’ll be fine.”

Dom shook his head, but he resumed eating, which Elze took as a sign that he wasn’t going to be fussy about what she had done. It had been a risk, making themselves known to the neighboring farm, but she had weighed that against trying to stay out of sight in the farmhouse. They were already having to work against a tight deadline; doing so while skulking around a rural property would have complicated things excessively. She knew trading the doctor’s car for a dozen eggs, a rasher of bacon, coffee, and a loaf of bread had been a ridiculous deal. After a few days, the sweet charm of the exchange would wear off, and doubt would come tumbling in.

The neighbors were complicit in whatever Dom and Elze were up to, and as soon as rumors started to trickle through the local grapevine, the family next door would start having second thoughts. If the son—he had been the one who had eyed the car with naked greed, which had given Elze the idea to part with it—actually got the nerve to take the car somewhere and sell it, they might have a few more days, but eventually, all of their fortune would come to an end.

Soon, she thought, it’ll all come to end. The thought was an itch she didn’t dare scratch, but it took a lot of strength to not do so. Instead, she smiled pleasantly as Dom wolfed his breakfast down.

Eventually, the plate was clean and the cup was empty. Dom, his immediate needs attended to, turns his attention to other matters. “What are we going to do about transportation?” he asked. “Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate the meal and the coffee, but could you have gotten more than just a meal . . . ?”

“Oh, I did,” Elze said.

“Well, that’s good news. What did you get?”

“I got us a bicycle.”

“A bicycle?”

She nodded. “No one will expect a bicycle.”

He stared flatly at her. “Yes,” he said. “I don’t think anyone—ever—has expected hardened criminals to be committing crimes and roaming around the countryside on bicycles.”

“Just one,” she corrected.

“Oh, one bicycle.” Dom sighed. “Yes, well, that’s good news, I suppose.”

Elze reached over to the counter and grabbed the newspaper lying there, waiting for the right moment to share it with Dom. “It’s the only good news,” she said, putting the paper on the table.

Dom looked at the front page. “Oh,” he said, his voice flat.

Elze nodded. “Yeah, Germany won the War.”

Dom sighed. “Nazis throw the worst costume parties,” he said.

*

CHAPTER 32

Nominally, when planning a heist, it is usually prudent to gather as many architectural and mechanical plans of the site as possible. It’s also a good idea to learn as much as possible about the people who might be on site during the proposed heist—including not only their schedules, their location and frequencies of movement throughout the site, and their degrees of awareness about the proposed objects being stolen, but all sorts of background information about who they are. Dom’s list of included detailed research on their upbringing, their education, their financial situations, their current and past relationships, their attitude towards pets, their religious convictions, their wardrobe, their medical history, and their history of political activism. Additionally, it was vital to plan how you how, when, and where you were going to enter, exit, and maneuver through the site. Collecting this information could take anywhere from three weeks to a year, with the understanding that the more time spent, the better.

Of course, this was the ideal way in which to plan and execute a heist. While Dom pedaled his way toward the nearby town of Wolkennsheid, he reflected on the jobs he had done which had actually come close to this Platonic ideal of perfect planning. He set aside his historical musings as he pedaled laboriously up a narrow road, his lungs and legs requiring his full attention. Eventually, he reached the top of the hill, and with a deep sigh of relief, he let his legs dangle as gravity took over. His thighs were burning, and he could feel his shirt sticking to his back. Halfway down the hill, he picked up with his enumerations again, and yes, as he suspected, no job had ever come close to being perfect.

Sometimes it was something as simple as a shift change that created confusion when he was on site. One time, he had arrived to discover that the painting he had intended to liberate had been sold, and it had been taken off the wall but three hours prior. Another time, he had entered the gallery to discover his intelligence had been so bad that it hadn’t been an empty art gallery that he had broken into, but a sausage making factory.

Wolkennsheid was like many small communities scattered throughout Europe: insular, fiercely nationalistic, and fatalistically religious, but also filled with genial folk who were consistently polite, deeply fervent toward their community, and quite assured in their belief that the rest of the world was filled with degenerates and libertines.

He was moving quite fast by the time he and his bicycle reached the bottom of the hill, and he trailed his feet on the ground as he swooped toward the village. He flashed past a line of stone buildings, quaint and Germanic in their gables and porches. He swerved around a pair of women, who were coercing a gaggle of schoolchildren. The road rose slightly as he leaned into a long arc that led toward the center square, and he slowed enough to not be a menace to any locals who night be stepping out into the street.

He noticed the colors of the banners hung across the front of many buildings. The flag, limp in the early afternoon sun, appeared to be bleached of its gold, but Dom recalled how the Nazis had abandoned the traditional red, black, and gold when they had first come to power in his time. Later, Hitler insisted on a sterner iconography that every nation in the world come to recognize as a symbol of oppression and hate. Had this wave walked back some of the more outrageous beliefs of the Nazi regime, or was the red, black, and white flag a concession to the survivors of the war? Dom didn’t know, and he hoped to find out as he picked up a few things he was sure they were going for their plan.

But first, he needed to acquire some capital. Hopefully, it wouldn’t take long for him to find someone willing to risk a wager. Or two. Or six.

Someday, he thought to himself as he coasted toward the broad plaza in the center of the village, you’re going to have to figure out that trick for changing lead into gold. It’ll make things so much easier.

Kelley, his not-quite-stepfather, used to hint that he knew, but—and this was much more in keeping with being the father of the man Dom had become—all those hints were probably just the squirming machinations of a con man ahead of time (relatively speaking).

He coasted to a stop in front of a building that looked as if it had been built several hundred years ago, during which time it had never been anything other than what the weathered sign proclaimed it was. Dom leaned his bicycle against the building, and using the age-dusted glass of the window, examined his profile. He briefly adjusted his clothing—worn, but serviceable, attire he had found in a dresser at the farmhouse—and ran a hand through his windblown hair. That’ll do, he thought, admiring the suitably inconspicuous and yet still rakish handsome reflection.

Earlier, Elze had rolled her eyes when he had taken a moment to do the same in the narrow bathroom mirror at the farm house.

With a smile on his lips and a jaunty swagger in his hips, Dom went into The Black Goat.

 

Elze, in the meantime, was hiking through the woods beneath the hilltop estate of Gustav Froübel Höltzbrïn, the last in a long line of Prussian nobility. It had been Gustav’s great-grandfather who had presided over the last generation of construction on the hilltop. Elze recalled her Sky Ten briefing, which had included a detailed architectural history of the site.

The original construction had been a Celtic fort, raised in the 3rd or 4th century BCE, and all that remained of that era were ramparts of stone and wood that hugged the stone walls that had been erected in the 11th century. The first castle, built during the High Middle Ages, featured massive walls that were more than twelve meters in height. The main approach to the castle was along a wide avenue that ran straight down the hillside. In ancient times, it would have been a nearly impossible approach for men and wagons.

The main gate, an immense structure wide enough for ten men on horseback riding abreast, granted access to a courtyard which could accommodate two regulation sized tennis courts (with comfortable court-side seating for nearly eighty, which had been the case for an international exhibition in 1957). Beyond the courtyard, a winding path looped back on itself several times before reaching the inner gate of the castle. This path, known as a zwinger, was a kill zone for archers who would have preyed on attacking soldiers from the quartet of fortified bastions that looked down on the cobblestone path.

The inner gate, known as the Eagle Gate, had a metal portcullis that was raised and lowered each day as part of the historical pageantry that Höltzbrïn maintained about the castle.

Beyond the inner gate lay the main buildings: two chapels, a main residential hall, several ancillary towers, an open-air auditorium, and the Count’s Hall, which was anchored by two towers, which were known as the Emperor’s Spire and the Watch Tower. It was in the Count’s Hall where Höltzbrïn kept all of his illicit art.

Of course, she had no way of knowing whether this was still the case in this declination of the wave, but she suspected—she hoped—that layout of Höltzbrïn’s castle and its contents were the same.

She caught sight of pale stones through the trees, and she paused near a thick oak to catch her breath. She had reached the base of the castle wall, and if she had managed to not lose her orientation in the woods, the main road was off to her right. She edged forward until she could see more of the wall, and she was relieved to find that she hadn’t drifted too far from where she had hoped to be. Ahead of her, the wall kinked out and then turned. She was close to the southwestern edge of the estate.

The forest was thick along this corner of the castle, and she followed the western edge of the castle. She stopped when she heard the sound of moving water, and it didn’t take her long to close in on the source: an old metal grate at the base of the wall. Even though the main buildings of the castle had been retrofitted with modern plumbing, the historical tunnels for waste and groundwater were still extant.

Elze moved cautiously until she spotted the white box of the closed-circuit camera. It was fixed in place, its lens directed at the old grate. It would be simple to disable without being caught on camera. She found a break in the trees and looked up, her eyes tracking along the curtain wall to the 11th century battlements, beyond that to the outer wall of the old Gothic chapel, and even as far as the slender shape of the Emperor’s Spire that rose up from the southern end of the chapel. Fluttering, at the very top, was the red and black flag emblazoned with the Höltzbrïn family crest—the rampant griffon with the iron crown.

Oh, for an aerial vehicle, Elze thought. It would be so much easier to come at this from the sky.

But, she had neither helicopter nor skyboat nor angel wings. Her gaze dropped to the metal grate again. They were going to have to be like sewer rats if Dom couldn’t find a way to get them through the front gate.

She had her doubts, which she had kept to herself when he had been preening in the mirror this morning. She still chafed at the idea of working with someone else, but she wasn’t so obstinate to ignore that this mission was not like anything she had done before.

As she continued her reconnaissance of the castle, she kept picking at the thought which continued to nag her: what was going to happen when they stole the paintings from Höltzbrïn? She felt like she was a piece in someone else’s game, on a board which she could not see, playing by rules which had not been fully explained to her.

She had said as much to Dom last night, and he had smiled at her. Welcome to Verdun, he had said. She hadn’t understood the reference at first, and all he had offered was that he had been referring to a period of conflict between French and German troops during World War I.

There was more to him than she knew, of course, and as she had laid in bed last night, trying to fall asleep, she wondered how many lifetimes he had lived. And, as she drifted off, she had been thinking about how many lives she had left . . .

 

It was sometime after midnight before Dom returned to the farmhouse. She hadn’t been sleeping, and even if she had, the noise he made when he crashed into the side of the house with the bicycle would have woken her up. It took him awhile to extricate himself from the bicycle and even longer to gather everything which had fallen out of the basket he had been carrying, but eventually, he staggered toward the door at the back of the house. Grunting and puffing, he managed squeeze himself and his basket through the narrow door, and he let out a startled yelp when he spotted her sitting at the wooden table.

“You—what are you doing?” he demanded. His face was ruddy in the firelight from the old stove.

“I was wondering if there was an entire division descending upon this house or if all the noise was merely bears, going on a ransack,” she said.

“What is that?” he asked, staggering toward the table. “‘Going on a ransack,’”

“It’s what bears do, I guess,” she said.

“I don’t think you understand bears as well as you think you do.”

Dom dropped the basket on the table. A round loaf of dark bread popped out and rolled across the tabletop. Elze caught it before it rolled off.

“Well, I’m glad it wasn’t a full division,” she said.

“Someone moved the house,” Dom explained, waving a hand about.

“Ah, yes. You caught me,” she said. “I spent all afternoon. I’m so glad you noticed.”

He frowned at her. “You’re toying with me,” he said. She tried not to notice how his letters were running together in his mouth.

“There’s not much else to do around here,” she said. “I’ve already moved the house. Tomorrow I’m going to plow the fields and make grapes magically spring up.”

“You’re definitely toying with me,” Dom said. “It’s not—itznotokay.” He rummaged around in the basket, producing a surprising number of paper-wrapped packages and packaged goods. Elze’s determination to be cross with him faltered when rich aromas from the packages wafted across the table. “Ah,” Dom said, having found what he was looking for. He held a dark bottle, and his hand obscured the label. “Here we go.” He looked about for a glass, decided that was too much work, and vigorously worked out the cork. He slid the bottle across the table. “That’s for you,” he said.

Elze picked up the bottle and carefully sniffed at it, discovering a pungent aroma of vanilla and spices and spirits. “What is this?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” Dom slurred, “but I may have drunk a little too much of it on the way home.”

She took a small sip, choked as the alcohol bit at the back of her throat, and coughed her airway clear.

Dom paused in his unpacking. “Are you okay?”

She nodded, and when she could breathe once more, took another slip. This one went down better, sliding like a line of fire down her throat. It warmed her better than the old stove had been trying.

With a triumphant cry, Dom fished a larger package out of the basket. He shoved aside some of the other parcels and laid the long and flat package on the table. “This is also for you,” he said.

Elze eyed the package critically. She took another sip from the bottle instead of saying anything, and Dom slapped a hand against his forehead in mock outrage. “You are so hard to please,” he exclaimed. “Fine. Fine.” He brought a rectangular box out of the basket. “I got you some shoes too.”

He opened the rectangular box and showed her the contents. She eyed the two-color pumps, clinically noting the narrow toe and the classic elegance of the squared-front heel. She nodded at the longer package under the shoes. “A dress?”

Dom nodded. “I think you’ll like it,” he said.

Elze took another swig from the bottle of Schwartzenwald Sauwurz and decided she would wait until morning to tell Dom that fancy shoes and an elegant gown wouldn’t be very practical while clambering through a 11th century wastewater tunnel.

*

CHAPTER 33

“Are you doing all right?” Dom asked. This was, by Elze’s count, the twenty-third time he had posed this question, and her reply was the same this time as it had been the previous twenty-one times. He gave her the same blissful and empty smile—which was, by this point, a purely involuntary muscle response—and patted her arm. She wanted to take off one of her fancy two-tone, squared-heel shoes and bludgeon him with it.

It was a well-made shoe and would probably do some damage. She might have been fantasizing about that for the last half hour or so.

The truck hit another pothole in the road, bouncing both of them on the cracked leather seat, and she fought back the tide of murderous rage that was rising up from her constrained belly.

Next time, he can wear the goddamned dress, she thought, for probably the eighteenth—maybe the nineteenth—time.

“What?” he asked, seeing her expression.

“Nothing, dear,” she said sweetly, and when he turned his attention back to the road, all lashed with rain scudding sideways, she made vague stabbing motions with her hand.

“I saw that,” he said.

She smoothed her hair and put her hand in her lap.

They were not, as she had anticipated, visiting Höltzbrïn’s castle. They were driving to Saarlautern, and they had borrowed the neighbor’s truck to make the drive. Saarlautern was on the banks of the Saar river, and it was the closest they could get to France and still be in Germany. There was an old fortress from the days of Louis the XIV in the center of the city, and the surrounding area was marked with mills and mines.

Old Prussian money, Dom had offered as an explanation when she had asked why they were going to the city. And we’ll get a chance to wander around a castle.

Not all castles are the same, she had pointed out.

These two are, Dom said. The last major renovations of Höltzbrïn’s estate happened shortly after the citadel in Saarlauten had been completed. Of course, they won’t be identical, but it’ll help us get a feel for the place.

I have a feel for the place, Elze said. I robbed it once already.

Dom had smiled at her. Then you’ll have more time to charm everyone.

That was the entirety of his explanation for why she needed to accompany him, wearing this ridiculous dress that squeezed her in all the wrong places. I need you to look fabulous and be incredibly charming. Hopefully, the dress will take care of the former and you’ll be inspired to reach for the latter.

On the one hand, the dress—a sleek cocktail dress with a flat neckline, a fitted bodice, and cut-out sleeves—was exceptionally flattering; on the other, the sleeves reduced her range of motion, and she felt like she was going to tear its seams every time she tried to take a deep breath. Not to mention there was no way she could run in the damn thing.

Dom was wearing a dark suit that didn’t quite fit him across the shoulders and should probably be taken in a bit around the middle. His shoes were brown, which she thought was a terrible faux pas, but Dom assured her it signified a certain Continental flair to his wardrobe that the right people would notice. She also thought the lapels on his jacket were too wide, and his tie too skinny, but she merely practiced her smile and kept her opinion to herself.

Why are we going to Saarlauten? She had asked when he had introduced the idea to her.

We need to make an impression, Dom had said.

With whom?

Someone who will invite us to Höltzbrïn’s party.

And why would they do that?

Because they’ll realize they need us.

And why would they need us?

Because while everyone else is busy being in costume, some of the attendees are going to be talking about art. There will be deals made, and it always helps if you have an expert along.

That would be you.

Indeed. That will be me.

And my role in all this?

You are going to sell everyone on the idea that I have exquisite taste.

And how am I going to do that?

Dom had smiled and told her. Admittedly, she had been flattered by his words, which is how she ended up in this damn dress, trying to breathe shallow breaths, while sitting on the wretchedly uncomfortable bench seat of an ancient farming truck, as it bounced along a narrow and rutted country road.

Dom shifted the truck to a lower gear and eased the aged vehicle around another sharp corner. The rain was tapering off, but the wind was still gusting, and the truck had a tendency to wander all over the road. Elze tried not to dwell on dying in this dress should the car leave the road.

 

They left the truck in the city proper, and walked half a kilometer or so to the fortress. The rain had stopped shortly before they reached the city, and the clouds had lifted, leaving the sky drab and dull. The street lamps were lit, and the sidewalks were slick. Elze clung to Dom’s arm—partly because that was expected and partly because the soles of her shoes weren’t particularly suited for wet stone.

They were not the only couple out that evening. Some sort of festival had either recently finished or was starting soon—Elze couldn’t quite tell—but the general mood on the street was definitely upbeat. Dom nodded and smiled as if he knew everyone, and she grudgingly come to admire the way his accent shifted as they approached the fortress. She heard German and French, as well as a strange regional dialect that was neither. Dom had an ear for this sort of thing, and when they reached the main gate, the inflection of his voice made him appear—what did he call it?—Continental.

The city government was housed in the main buildings of the fortress, and the outlying buildings and courtyards were used for various public purposes. There were several ravelins, triangular shaped fortifications erected outside the main curtain wall. They had a very specific purpose during war—their location and shape would force an attacking army to split its assault—but now, the ravelins of Saarlauten had been converted into a memorial, an open-air chapel, and a private club.

In this case, a club identified only by a pair of red triangles on a black background.

Dom produced a playing card with this motif at the main gatehouse, and a man in a dark suit immediately showed them to a discrete path that led away from the main thoroughfare. He whispered a password to Dom as he accepted a discrete handful of Deutsch Marks, and he gave a knowing smile to Elze as he watched her inhale in her tight dress.

“It would take me forever to bend over and get my shoe off to beat him with it,” Elze complained as they walked along the high wall of the fortress.

“You can borrow mine,” Dom said. “But can it wait until the end of the evening?”

“You should give him your shoe now,” she said. “He isn’t going to be the only one.”

“Which is exactly why I’m not giving you my shoe.”

“You are taking all the fun out of this.”

Dom nodded toward the brick wall. “Perhaps a brick in your handbag instead?”

Elze spread her arms, letting Dom take a good look at her attire. “Do you see a handbag?”

Dom’s eyes lingered a moment longer than necessary, and when he realized she had noticed, he flushed and turned his gaze away from her. She found herself smiling and she linked her arm in his. The night was cool, but not unduly so, and in her head, she justified his warmth as the reason why she held herself tight to him as they walked up to top of the fortress.

A tri-cornered building dominated the southern-most ravelin. It was several stories tall, and the upper floors were more glass than stone. There was an ornate patio on the ground floor, containing a broad oak door with iron bands, as well as a narrow niche were a pair of dark-suited doormen waited. They nodded politely when Dom made pleasant talk with them, and one of the pair grabbed the heavy door and swung it open after Dom waved the playing card.

They were ushered inside (and Elze noted that neither man gave her more than a passing glance), and the heavy door shut ponderously behind them. They were in a tiny vestibule that was cloaked with dark drapes. There were a pair of gas lamps that were turned low, making the room appear both larger and smaller than it was. A drape twitched, spitting out a dapper man in a tuxedo. His hair was slicked back and his mustache was neatly squared in the perpetual post-War style. “Good evening,” he said. He spoke German in a way that instantly identified both the social class and political leanings held by guests of this establishment. “Welcome to The Hour.”

He swept the curtain back, indicating they should enter. From beyond the curtain, they heard the sound of a singer crooning over the lazy rhythm of a live band, as well as the bubbling cacophony of dozens of conversations. Elze smelled strong tobacco, a confusion of perfumes, and the rich earthiness of cinnamon and cardamon. There was another scent too—something cold and old. Not stone, but metal. It made the muscles in her neck tighten.

Dom turned to Elze, and when he smiled, she knew him well enough to know he was having a similar reaction. She blinked once, indicating she shared his concern, and then fixed a charming a smile on her face. She nodded at the dapper man holding the curtain as she passed. He tipped his head in return. His smile was radiant with hospitality, but his eyes said he was elsewhere.

 

Of course it is called The Hour, Dom thought as he followed Elze into the club. The iconography of the two triangles—touching tip to tip—on the playing card he had acquired the other night suddenly became clear. It was an hourglass. He didn’t like the mental association such a symbol raised in his mind, and he had seen a similar apprehension in Elze’s gaze. It’s nothing sinister, he told himself. This isn’t a trap.

How could it be? There was no way anyone could have followed them when they had crossed waves, and he hadn’t told her in advance where they were going. Hell, he hadn’t realized where they were going until they had made the transition. It had been an unconscious choice, one he had spent hours trying to figure out since they had arrived.

There’s not knowing where you are going, he thought, and not knowing that you’ve been told to go somewhere. He was fairly confident he hadn’t made the choice because of some subliminal suggestion put in his head by either Weston or . . . his imaginary friend, Klaatu—who was named after a character in a motion picture that might not even exist in this wave.

Regardless, since he and Elze had arrived in this version of 1972, he had felt something tugging at the base of his gut. As if a fine string tied to the base of his spine and unspooled from his belly button was pulling pulled by an unseen force. Was it related to how he always knew what era he was in? Was it yet another aspect of that sensation that rose in his fingers when he knew a door was going to open to another time?

There was a relentless to the wave of time. You could fight it to a certain extent, but at some point, you had to give yourself up to the way the wave was warping. Was acknowledging this a refutation of the idea of Free Will? He didn’t know. Frankly, he didn’t care. That was the sort of philosophical wondering one did when deep in a bottle, and all insights gleaned through the gleam of glass were suspect in the bare light of morning.

Was it an accident that he had met that art dealer in The Black Goat? Perhaps. Was it a mere coincidence they had shared a preference for French Impressionists over German Nationalists? Not altogether likely, but also not out of the realm of possibility. And the black card with its two red triangles that the dealer had slipped to him by the light of a sallow moon as they had staggered back from an alleyway piss? Serendipity, surely.

The dress, however, had been his idea, and his alone. After leaving the Black Goat and the company of the Belgian admirer of Monet, Dom had broken into the estate house off the narrow park at the western edge of town. The owners hadn’t been home, which had made it easier to rifle the closet of the lady of the house. There had been a number of dresses in the closet, and he’d felt a stab of remorse when he selected the sexiest and most elegant of the dresses. It had never been worn, he assured himself as he had matched a pair of shoes with it. All he was doing was ensuring that such a beautiful garment got its due. How long had it hung in that closet?

He opted not to rifle the lady’s jewelry collection. The dress was enough.

This was his defiance of the pull of the wave. I will go where I am supposed to go, he told the moon as he wobbled home on his bicycle, but I will go on my terms.

And yet, as he and Elze entered the Club of the Hour, he heard laughter more than words from the gathered host. Echoes of the past and future, reminding him that his life was not entirely his.

You cannot undo what has already been done, a voice whispered across the centuries.

“Watch me,” he whispered back, his voice sliding beneath the cascade of sounds from within the club. Once is a boast, he thought. Twice is a threat.

And a third time . . . ?

The string kept pulling Dom along.

*

CHAPTER 34

As private clubs go, The Hour was not unlike many such establishments that Dom had frequented over the years—well, centuries. They were all hallowed ground where the rich and elite could dine on delicacies unavailable to the lower classes. Where a variety of drink was served, regardless of local ordinances, opinions, or efforts of the clergy. Where one’s darker appetites could be whetted, or where one could watch other’s appetites be filled. Where deals were made that would bankrupt other municipalities, cantons, villages, and even nations. But mostly, they were places where bets could made, wagers could be lost, and the eternal boredom of the monied could be staved off for a few hours by the presence of a quick wit and a set of agile fingers.

His brief exposure to the political landscape of the Volksreich—the People’s Empire, as Dom had heard it named the night before at The Black Goat—had reminded him of Bavarian nationalism in the late 19th century, as well as the narrow-minded indifference of the French aristocracy prior to that keen-edged Sword of Freedom that so happily separated heads of states from their body politic. The members of The Hour would eagerly adopt a gimlet-eyed stranger should he (or she) provide ample entertainment It was, in many ways, the same irrational greed for something that provided sensationalism and schaudenfraude as the fool did for medieval kings. And Dom knew how to play the fool.

The musical act this evening was a trio—drums, upright bass, and piano—who provided an unremarkable and yet soothingly familiar sonic landscape over which a succession of well-coifed and sleepy-eyed crooners sang bitter torch songs. They might have been singing about passionate desire or the eternal ache of unrequited love, but as they were singing in German, the songs were perpetually marred with the sturm und drang popularized by Richard Wagner.

Dom was of the opinion that the singers’ dreary intonation would have much better served by Brecht, rather than Wagner, but he figured such an opinion might be met with snorts of derision or outright confusion depending on what happened to Bertolt Brecht during the War.

Oh, there had been a War. He had gleaned that much during his drunken reconnaissance at The Black Goat. The Allies had triumphed. Even in his state of inebriation, he had not been able to fully wrap his head around such a victory, though he had tried mightily, which may have been the rationale for that third—and entirely unnecessary—bottle of brandy last night. So, yes, the might Germany Army had won the day, and the European landscape had reverted back to the shape of the Holy Roman Empire, albeit with a different name and slightly more starched uniforms. And more medals. Oh, there were so many medals.

Dom’s sole disappointment from the house he had burgled was that he had not found any medals in the gentleman’s wardrobe. He decided the best way to hide his lack of national service (ever so falsely assumed) was to arrive in the company of a stunning woman who eschewed gaudy medallions and heavy ribbons for a delicate strand of pearls and peek-a-boo shoulders. Shoulders are the new ankles, he had said to Elze when she had been complaining about the sleeves of her cocktail dress.

As they made the circuit around the outer edge of the main room of The Hour, Dom noticed how the reptilian eyes of the grey-suited men slid off him and latched onto Elze. She was wearing a splendid dress, perhaps a little tight under the arms and around her thighs, but Elze was not quite like all the other ladies of this age.

“They’re staring at me,” Elze whispered to me as they reached the midpoint of the room.

“Of course, they are,” Dom replied. He barely moved his lips as he spoke, trying to maintain a perfectly gracious smile. A regal smile. The smile of a man who has never washed his own undergarments. The smile of a man who wonders about very little as he drops off to sleep nestled in the bosom of one of his mistresses. He nodded at a table of six who were seated down front, as if he had recognized a business associate. One of the men at the table nodded back, a glint in his eye revealing a momentary flash of apprehension and confusion. Excellent, Dom thought. A seed is planted.

“Come,” he murmured, touching Elze’s arm. “Let’s try to make it to the bar before we get mobbed.”

The were two bars, in fact, and Dom opted for the one farther from the stage and closer to the gambling tables. The second room was darker and quieter, though you could hear the lugubrious hum of the bass and the sepulchral bells of the piano through the opening between the rooms. Conversations in the second room were more private (as were the tables), and the light was gothic in its atmosphere. Precisely orchestrated candelabras hung over each of the eight tables where a collection of misanthropes, drunkards, misers, and men who thought highly of themselves stared intently at one another, trying to spot weaknesses.

“They are such a dour bunch,” Elze noted as they reached the bar. She had noticed Dom’s interest in the players.

Dom smiled at her. “Perfect,” he said.

“Are you going to cause trouble?”

“Of course,” he replied. He nodded at the bartender. “Can you make a Salomé?” he asked. The bartender, a man whose face had all of the expressive range of a piece of old leather, stared at him. “Two martinis,” Dom amended, realizing the man’s blank stare was all the answer he was going to get.

“What’s a Salomé?” Elze asked.

“I have no idea, actually,” Dom admitted. “But once upon a time, relatively speaking, I was having drinks with a marvelously attractive woman—she held no candle to you, of course, my dear—and the Salomé was what she ordered for both of us.”

“Do you often let strange women order you drinks?” she asked.

“As often as possible,” Dom said.

Elze wrinkled her nose and turned to put her back to the bar. Her face was in profile now. “You’re insufferable, you know.”

“You’ll get used to it,” Dom said. He nodded at the bartender as the man placed two crisp and cold glasses on the bar. He offered one to Elze and raised his in a toast to her. “Here’s to cunning and charm,” he said.

She clinked her glass against his. “Here’s to getting out of here alive.”

“Isn’t that what I said?”

She rolled her eyes.

 

On the one hand, Elze found all of the peacockery tedious. All of this effort devoted to appearances and feigned conversations that were about nothing. And the clothes! So terribly unfunctional. She could manage without a bag of some kind, but this dress had no pockets! It made her reliant on her companion, which was—evidently—the point of such attire. It was a not-so-subtle reminder of how she was valued in this society.

Though, to be fair, she didn’t need a bag to carry a weapon. Judging by the pallid complexions of the men in this room and the malnourished shadows that haunted their faces, her hands and her training would be more than adequate.

But that was beside the point, she fumed silently as she tried to be dainty in her sips from her glass. This was a reconnaissance mission, according to Dom. There would be no need for guns or knives or whatever else she normally carried about her person. Privately, she disagreed, because when you think you don’t require armament is exactly when it Is needed. It was one of those laws of the Universe, though she suspected Dom did not share her cynicism.

And so, as she sipped her cold martini and Dom prattled on about absolutely nothing, she mentally calculated the optimal escape routes from the room and she catalogued the relative availability of stemware and wine bottles, should the need for something more extreme than her closed fist.

In short, she was bored by the play acting. But she also realized that the root of this displeasure in her head was somewhat of a failing on her part. In the past, she was always given an extremely detailed mission dossier that laid out all the intelligence she could possibly require—one of the perks of approaching a time and place from the future. There were never any surprises on a mission because the outcome was—relatively speaking—already known.

She was coming to realize that her job as an agent of the OTP was to play out a series of pre-configured actions, which would lead to a calculated and foreseen end. She could, in fact, wear a dress much like this one during the course of a mission and still achieve her goal.

This, too, was a cynical view of her existence, and she was realizing she did not care for it. And so, as much as she disliked how the dress clung to her body and how it limited the range of motion of her arms, she had to admit that it was possible that she might be enjoying herself. But only a little.

She put her empty glass down on the polished walnut of the bar and made eye contact with the stone-faced bartender. He looked away and came up with some pretense as to why he was needed at the other end of the bar. She watched him walk away, her head high and her chin out. She knew Dom was looking at her, and she suspected there were other eyes on her as well. After watching the bartender polish the spotless walnut for a few moments, she turned to Dom and said, “I believe I might climb over this bar and get my own drink.”

“I would like to see that, Fräulein.” The speaker was a tall man with grey eyes and greying hair. His uniform was like her dress—tight across the chest and shoulders—but on him, such tightness of clothing merely highlighted how age and a rich diet were changing his once-wiry form. The man took his time admiring her dress and what he imagined was underneath the silk. “But I fear your dress might not survive the adventure.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Dom turn away so that his poorly hidden smile would not be noticed.

“That would be a pity,” Elze said. She took a deep breath. “But not a tragedy.”

“No,” the man said. “And that is an important distinction.” He inclined his head slightly. “And a woman who understands such nuances . . .”

“Oh, I am very good at understanding nuance,” Elze said.

Beside her, Dom made a choking noise, and the man’s grey eyes flicked past her. His eyebrows tightened momentarily as if he was just seeing the man standing on the other side of her.

“My uncle,” Elze said sweetly, suddenly relishing the role Dom had laid out for her. Or maybe it was the alcohol, finding its way to her core and loosening some of the rigidity in her being. Either way, she liked the warmth spreading in her belly. “He is not used to the refined liquor offered here. Usually I find him mixing beet juice with the raw mash that dribbles out of the grain extractor.”

The man hid his confusion with a slick smile that did not wrinkle his face. “And where might you be visiting from?” He asked, clearly hearing her accent but unable to place it. Or maybe it was her words which had confused him. Elze had a sudden fright that she might not have used the correct terminology when referencing a homemade alcohol-producing apparatus. Don’t let it rattle you, she imagined Dom whispering to her. The trick is own whatever lies you tell. No one likes to feel like they are stupid or ill informed, and so they will go out of their way to convince themselves otherwise. If you believe what you say, they will too. After all, was that not how he went through every moment of every day?

“Brechtoldgadem,” Dom said, suddenly interjecting himself into their conversation. “There is a family estate there.” He glanced at Elze. “Among the beet fields and the limestone quarries.”

“I see,” the man said. “I am not familiar with Brechtoldgadem.”

“It’s near Salzburg,” Dom said with a dismissive wave of his hand. “Very easy to miss. If it were not for the mineral spas, the land would have been abandoned to the mountain goats many years ago.”

The man tried on a polite smile, but it didn’t seem to fit his face. “I was not aware the influence of the Society extended to Salzburg.”

Elze marveled at Dom’s ability to flush on command. “It is—ah—provisional, is my understanding.”

“Fascinating,” the man said, his eyes straying to Elze. “What brings you to Saarluteun, Herr . . . ?”

“Sevästerr,” Dom said smoothly. He put just a hint of a burr on the final ‘r,’ as if to suggest the name stemmed from a different era. “Dominion Sevästerr.” He held out his hand.

The man ignored it. “And your charming—I’m sorry, what was the relation again?”

“He’s my uncle,” Elze said.

“Yes, your uncle.” The man’s eyes flicked at Dom. “He hardly seems old enough . . .”

“The mineral springs,” Dom said quickly. “They are very rejuvenating.” He gave the man a broad smile, as if daring him to dispute Dom’s assertion.

The man smiled back, and there was a challenge in his expression. “Of course,” he said. “Perhaps I should avail myself of their restorative waters?”

“You should,” Dom said. “At my expense and your opportunity, of course.”

“Of course,” the man said. He inclined his head fractionally. “Herr Musbach,” he said, offering his hand to Elze. “It has been a pleasure making your acquaintance, Fräulein.”

“Please, Herr Musbach, call me Elkebet,” Elze said, taking his hand.

“Very well,” Musbach said. He raised her hand to his lips. “Elkebet.” His gaze swept to Dom once more before he released her fingers. “Perhaps we shall chat more this evening.”

“I would like that,” she said.

When he smiled this time, there was something feral in his gaze.

Dom waited until Herr Musbach was out of earshot before he murmured a warning to Elze. “Try not to leave any bruises if he puts his hands on you.”

“Whatsoever are you talking about?” she asked, fluttering her eyelashes at him. “You smother me with your concern, uncle.”

Dom snorted and finished his drink. “You are displaying a disturbing alacrity for lying, dear Elkebet,” he said, emphasizing the hard ‘k’ in her assumed name.

“It’s an under utilized family trait,” she said sweetly.

“Apparently,” he replied.

*

CHAPTER 35

Dom found a spot near a marble column where he could watch the gambling tables. Elze soon joined him, having procured a new round of cocktails. “What are they playing?” she asked.

“Baccarat,” Dom replied. “It’s a variant known as ‘railway,’ which plays faster and allows observers to make bets.” He nodded at the man who had just been dealt a pair of cards. “There are two players in baccarat, really,” he said. “The bank and the player. In this version, the house designates who is going to be ‘banker,’ and that person is charged with making the opening bet.”

They watched the man carefully peer at his cards.

“In Baccarat, each card is worth its face value, except the ten and the face cards are worth nothing.”

“And the ace?”

“It is worth one.”

The man with the cards—the banker—put his cards down and moved a stack of metal coins toward the center of the table.

“The banker offers what is called ‘the bank,’ Dom continued. “Now the other players have to decide if they are going to bet against the bank.”

The dealer slid a card out of the deck and set it aside. Elze asked why he had done that, and Dom explained it was meant to create uncertainty in the deck. “If you were to count cards,” Dom said as the dealer dealt two cards to each of the remaining players at the table, “you would have an advantage because you would be more able to guess the likelihood of a card you need showing up.”

Elze sipped thoughtfully from her glass. “And that card the dealer sets aside no one sees.”

“That’s right. So, as a card counter, you have to weigh whether that card you need is still in the deck or if it has been removed already. It raises the risk of what you might do.”

“It makes you less likely to take risks,” Elze said.

Dom nodded. “Which is what the house wants, of course.”

Elze watched the subtle gestures and movements of the men around the table. “Each of these men have an opportunity to meet the bank’s wager,” Dom explained. “In turn, and only one of them. If no one wagers, then each of them may offer a wager. If the total wager among all the players is not equal to the bank, then other people may get in on the action.”

“You mean, the audience?”

“Indeed,” Dom said. “Then, if all of these wagers are larger than the wager offered by the bank, the banker decides if they want to increase their wager.”

“And then what happens?”

Dom motioned for Elze to watch. At the table, none of the players wanted to match the banker’s wager, and so there was a flurry of activity among the crowd as they prepared for the possibility of getting in on the wager. Two of the players decided to take a chance and they added coins to the center of the table. The man of the house announced there was still room for more wagers, and several onlookers leaned over the players and dropped paper money on the table.

The man of the house gathered all the wagers—paper and coin—into tidy groups and turned to the banker. He inquired if the banker wished for a card, and the banker shook his head once. He asked the same question to the first of the remaining players, and the man scratched a finger across the felted table. The dealer slide a card to the player. The same question was put to the second player, who shook his head. A murmur ran through the crowd.

“You add the value of your cards together,” Dom said. “The highest value you can get is nine. If you go over ten, then you only score the rightmost value. If your cards add up to seventeen, for instance, you would score seven.”

“That’s it?”

“That’s it.”

The banker turned over his cards, and Elze raised herself up on her toes to see what they were. Dom didn’t bother. He already knew the man had seven. He watched the reactions on the faces of the other players. The second man, he thought, he has eight.

The first player turned over his cards. He had a two, a four, and an eight. “Four,” Elze said. “He went over and scored four.”

The second player turned over his cards, revealing a seven and an ace. Several people behind him cheered, and someone pounded him on the shoulders.

“I see,” said Elze. “When he wins, they win.”

“Yes, and since the other player lost, those who bet with him lost as well.”

“Interesting,” Elze said. She glanced at Dom. “So, it is more than just playing the players at the table. You’re also playing the crowd.”

Dom smiled. “Indeed.”

She patted him lightly on the cheek. “You’re going to fleece them all, aren’t you?”

“Not immediately, but, most likely.”

“Well, don’t take all night. I may pass out from a lack of oxygen before morning.”

 

For an hour or so, Elze stood behind Dom, cooing appreciably when he won and pouting mightily when he lost. Then, when the novelty of playacting wore off (and the press of men grew tighter around the table), Elze wandered around, curiously investigating the other rooms of The Hour.

She idled awhile in the room with the band, listening to a woman parade through a selection of sultry-sounding torch songs. The band, delighted to be playing songs that were ostensibly more upbeat, snapped and purred with precision. There was some dancing, but none of the men seemed very comfortable with the idea, and their ladies, while well-intentioned, were hampered by their tight skirts and ridiculous shoes.

Elze understood why the band, for the most part, stuck to a more languorous pace.

She flirted briefly with a pair of young men with coifed and perfumed hair who were more interested in each other, but who appreciated the opportunity to be seen talking to a beautiful woman. She took their flattery for what it was, and made sure she laughed loudly at their jokes and touched them often on the shoulder and knee. They, in turn, shielded from several of the more amorous eyed uniforms who had been in the crowd around the baccarat table.

Eventually, though, the pair made their excuses and wandered off, leaving Elze to her own devices. She made her way back to the gambling room, and idled for a minute or so near the same column where she and Dom had stood earlier. Before he had sat down, Dom had exchanged his thin sheaf of Deutsch Marks for a meager handful of stamped coins—the currency used at The Hour. Now, on the table in front of him, there were several stacks.

He glanced up, sensing she was there, and he wrinkled his nose slightly and found an excuse to tug at his ear.

They hadn’t discussed signals beforehand, leaving Elze to freely interrupt Dom’s motions. She read them as a sign of boredom and frustration, though she was hard pressed to imagine what could be going wrong. He was, by all appearances, doing very well. The crowd around the table was thick with voices. He’s performing quite well, she thought, but as she wandered away from the game, she wondered what might be frustrating him.

At the back of the room, a pair of velvet drapes separated yet another section from the room where the gambling occurred. She slipped between the drapes, and discovered a third room. The lamps were even dimmer in here. High-backed booths with privacy curtains ran about the periphery of the room, and there was a narrow stage at the far end of the room. It protruded into the center of the room, and arranged around it were small table with one or two chairs at each. Music came from a hidden piano, and on stage, a woman undulated sensuously with a pair of enormous fans made from peacock feathers.

Judging by the flashes of pale skin revealed as the dancer shifted the fans, she was wearing very little or nothing at all. The men seated at the tiny tables around the stage were eagerly hoping she might drop one of the fans.

There were more servers in this room than in the others, and as Elze noted their costumes, she understood why.

She was about to turn and leave the room when she felt the drape move behind her. “Ah, Fräulein,” a male voice said. “What a surprise.”

Elze turned and gave Herr Musbach a guileless smile. “Herr Musbach,” she said. “Might I admit I am not as surprised as you?”

He laughed, a sound that reminded Elze of the wind fluttering the roof tiles of the farmhouse she and Dom has been staying at the past few days.

“May I buy you a drink?” he said, indicating one of the private booths nearby.

“You may,” she said. “But I prefer to stand at the bar. I fear, if I sit, that I may burst out of this dress.”

He shrugged as if he wasn’t as concerned about such a possibility as she.

Elze leaned a little closer and dropped her voice to a range she hoped wasn’t too friendly. “Do you see the woman on stage?” she asked. Musbach nodded, his eyes glittering. “What happens at the end of her act?” She raised an eyebrow and answered her own question. “She gives all those attentive boys a quick glimpse, doesn’t she? And then what? She disappears.” She gave Musbach an innocent expression. “Now, you wouldn’t want that to happen with me, would you?”

“Of course not,” Musbach said quickly.

She let him take her arm, and they walked over to the small bar, where he ordered a glass of Scotch for himself. He paused, realizing that ordering for her might be another trap—and he was keen on avoiding such traps—and she gave him a pass with a knowing smile. “I’ll have the same,” she said. “But make them doubles. We don’t have all night.”

The bartender scurried off, and Elze leaned against the wooden counter to give Musbach her full attention. He stared at her, using the wait for Scotch as an excuse to let his eyes linger on her body. Elze passed the time by imagining the look on his face as she shook a possum until it was well agitated and then letting it bite—

“Two Scotches,” the bartender said as he placed glasses on the bar.

Elze smiled at the young man and picked up her glass. She kept eye contact with Musbach as she raised her glass and knocked back half of its contents. It was a terrible waste of good Scotch—and it burned terribly as it roared down her throat and exploded in her belly—but she thoroughly enjoyed the look of appalled astonishment on Herr Musbach’s face.

“Now,” she said, putting her glass down and handing the other one to Musbach. “What shall we talk about?”

He took a discrete sip and let it swim around in his mouth a bit before he swallowed. “Your uncle,” he started.

“My uncle,” she echoed.

“He isn’t your uncle.”

“No?”

Musbach shook his head. “And the Society has no membership house in Salzburg.”

Elze raised an eyebrow. “It’s provision—”

Musbach waved a hand. “Yes, provisional. I’ll have you know I work for the”—and here he rattled off the name of some agency, which Elze could not parse quickly enough—“and I called a fellow in our eastern offices, who informed me that there are no mineral spas in Brechtoldgadem.” He fixed her with a raised eyebrow.

Elze picked up her glass and took a careful sip. She raised her head as she swallowed, and she watched Musbach’s eyes flicker toward her throat. “At this time of night?” She shook her head. “No one would get out of a warm bed to answer such a question about geography or geology or even provisional administrative matters in regards to secret societies.”

“No?” Musbach kept his eyebrow raised.

“No,” Elze said. “Nor do I think such an agency as the one you just tried to confound me with exists.”

“I assure you, Fräulein, the”—and he rattled off the name again—“very much exists.”

Elze shook her head. “You mistake my eagerness to inhale this Scotch as an indicator of my gullibility. Surely, Herr Musbach, you have encountered other ladies who could handle their liquor and their wits?”

It was his turn to gulp at his glass. When he was done huffing and wheezing, she favored him with a conciliatory smile. “Why don’t we dispense with the bullshit,” she said. “What do you want?”

Musbach grinned at her. It was the first honest expression she’d seen on his face, but it also revealed more about him than she wanted to know. She suppressed a shudder which would have tilting the conversation in the wrong direction.

“Your uncle—” Musbach put a stress on the word. “He is quite clever, but not as clever as he thinks he is.”

Elze rolled her eyes slightly as she picked up her glass again. “He never listens to me,” she said.

“Of course he doesn’t,” Musbach replied, delighted to find a crack that he could work with. “He plays baccarat well. Maybe even better than myself.”

Elze made an agreeable noise and then drowned it with a gulp of Scotch.

“But his eagerness to find a friend is too transparent,” Musbach continued. “Not so transparent that other see it, of course. Only I noticed.”

“Thankfully,” Elze said. She toasted Musbach’s ability to see through Dom’s subterfuge.

“He is attempting to curry favor,” Musbach said. “Because he has heard of Hötlzbrïn’s collection?”

“Whose?” Elze said.

Musbach frowned at her.

“Sorry,” she said. “I must keep practicing.”

He laughed. “But you are more than just a pretty face and a delicious body,” he said. “Your uncle, he hopes to talk himself into the party at the castle. He thinks there is someone here who he can seduce with his clever tongue. But that is only part of his plan.”

“Oh?” Elze said.

Musbach leaned in, dropping his voice to a whisper. “You are his secret weapon,” he said.

It was Elze’s turn to raise her eyebrow. “And how did you come to this conclusion?” she asked.

“I have watching you all evening,” Musbach said.

Of course you have, Elze thought.

“And even now, it becomes more clear to me. He is the face and the flimflam. He is the trickster. The magician, who will dazzle us with his sleight-of-hand. But you—” He levered a finger at Elze. “You are the true trick.”

“And what trick am I?” she asked.

“You’re the thief,” Musbach said. “You’re the one who is actually going to steal whatever it is that he has been hired to steal.”

Elze gave him an admiring stare. “Am I now?”

Musbach spread his hands. “I am right. I know I am right.”

“You are too clever for us, Herr Musbach. Much, much too clever.”

He took a step closer, crowding into her personal space. “Yes,” he said. “I am very clever. Which is why I am going you and your uncle to join me at the party which Herr Höltzbrïn is hosting two nights hence.”

“You are?”

“Yes, I am.” Musbach’s tongue wiggled in the corner of his mouth and he started to extend a finger to touch Elze’s bare shoulder. He caught sight of something in her eye and paused. He cleared his throat, unsure of what might have happened had he completed the thought he had been having. Slowly, he withdrew his finger, but he didn’t back away from her. “I am going to bring you two into the castle,” he said. “In return, you are going to steal one more painting than you planned.”

“We are?”

“Yes,” Musbach said, his lips moist and excited. “You are.”

 

“A Gaugin?” Dom couldn’t believe what Elze was telling him. “He wants you to steal a Gaugin?”

They were walking unsteadily down the narrow street that connected the fortress with the town center of Saarlauchen. The pockets of Dom’s jackets bulged with currency, and she had taken off her shoes, uncaring how the pavement was going to tear up her stockings. Her head was still swimming with all the alcohol she had drunk, and her stomach complained about a lack of solid food. She was trying her best not to think about the long drive ahead of them. Or how sore her backside was going to be after sitting on that hard seat.

Dom had been in a foul mood when he had finally extricated himself from the table. He had filled a dish with the metal currency of The Hour, and when he exchanged the coins for paper money, Elze had noticed the sum was not an insignificant amount. No, he was angry because he had not managed to make the connection he had hoped to make. I don’t have a way to get us in, he had said once they had passed the gatehouse at the base of the fortress. We’re running out of time, and I couldn’t make it work tonight.

She had linked her arm with his and hadn’t said anything for awhile. Knowing he needed to feel sorry for himself for a few minutes. Then he would go over the evening and try to analyze where he had gone wrong. What could he had done differently? How could he have managed the crowd better?

She let him do this for awhile, and then she quietly told him about her encounter with Musbach. He hadn’t said anything until the point where she told him Musbach’s price for getting them into the castle.

“It’ll be huge,” he groused. “Gaugin did not paint anything small. How are we going to get that out of the castle?”

Elze shrugged. “I was under the impression that getting in was the important part. We weren’t going to leave the same way, were we?”

Dom frowned and shrugged.

She squeezed his arm and leaned against him. “Let’s worry about that later,” she said.

They walked on in silence for a bit. “I’m impressed,” he said eventually.

“Thank you,” she said. She waited a beat. “You knew he was going to approach me, didn’t you?”

He shrugged, and she turned and bit his earlobe.

“Ow! What was that for?”

“You could have warned me.”

“You would have known,” he said. “And then it wouldn’t have been a secret between the two of you. That’s what sold it. That he had a secret with you. Not with me.”

Elze thought about that for a moment. “You’re right,” she said. “He wanted a hold on me.”

“And now he has one, which means we’ve got a way in.” He slowed. “Though, that does present a new problem.”

“What’s that?”

“Well, my first thought was for you to impersonate one of the staff and—”

“What?”

“Well, you said there was a way in through a waterway, yes?”

“Yes, but I have no idea if it is still open. They might have sealed it.”

“Now we don’t have to worry about that,” Dom said.

She unhooked her arm and stopped. He drifted on for another step and then turned and looked at her. “What?”

“What’s the new problem?”

“Oh, you’ll need a new dress,” he said. He patted one of the pockets of his jacket. “I think I have enough for that.”

“I’m picking this one out,” she said.

“Of course,” he said.

She was about to insist on something else when she became aware of their surroundings. “Where—” She looked around. “Isn’t this where we left the truck?”

Dom shook his head. “It was a block back.”

“But—” Elze didn’t recall passing the truck.

“It wasn’t there,” Dom said.

“What—”

“I left the keys in it,” Dom said. “I certainly hope someone stole it.”

“Why—”

He pointed at the building at the intersection ahead of them. She realized it was a hotel. “I thought we’d treat ourselves to something luxurious,” he said. “Besides, we couldn’t go back to the farmhouse. The neighbors had had too many days to get suspicious. We needed to move on.” He held out his arm. “Come on, my dear. We’ve worked hard this evening.”

She danced lightly toward him. “We’re not going to walk in and ask for a room . . .”

“Of course not,” he scoffed. “We have reservations.”

“Reservations? How did you manage those?”

“Oh, I had the concierge call from The Hour.”

“When?”

“When I saw Herr Musbach hustling after you.”

She shrieked a little in outrage, but it as false as her attempt to swap him with her shoes. He took it in good faith, and even managed to look embarrassed, but she had seen him in action that night. She knew he was pretty pleased with himself.

And she let him have it, because she was pretty pleased with him too.

RETURN