James spluttered. “W-where’s Fowler?”
“I locked him in a bathroom stall.”
“Can’t he get out of there pretty easily?”
“Look, have you figured it out or not?”
“No. I found these weird files…”
“Forget the files,” she snapped.
From a closet at the back of the room there came a moan, as though someone were dying in slow-motion.
“What was that?” James asked.
Lilandra sighed and turned toward the open door. “Come on in, dear.”
Fowler walked through the door. He had his coat slung over his arm, from under which James caught a glimmer of metal. He looked from Lilandra to Fowler and back again.
“So here’s how it’ll go,” Fowler said. “You will complete this time machine and explain how it works. Otherwise…” He patted his coat with his free hand. “I have no need of you.”
“If you’re as incompetent with your murder plans as your physics, Fowler. You won’t get away with it,” James said.
“Hear that moan?” The mournful wail James had heard earlier sounded again. “That’s you. Or, your bumbling time-echo, rather. Even if someone reported you missing, they’d just find you alive and well, despite a little dementia.”
“But he’d have to be a decade older than I am. Plus we’ve already passed-”
“Maybe time echoes don’t age. I don’t know and I don’t care. He looks the same, and your fingerprints’ll match. Aria will vouch for your identity. The police are too overworked to investigate further.”
“What about Cassy? And her brother? They’ll know the truth.”
“Oh, James,” Fowler said, “You always were so naïve. You betrayed her. Not only did you have a second marriage, but she’ll find some recent photos of you meeting a certain former, ah, mistress at your favorite former meeting spot: ‘the park-and-ride’”
“You were such a classy adulterer,” Lilandra said.
“What are you doing, Pink?” James asked. “Why are you helping him?”
Lilandra’s eyes narrowed. “You have the audacity to ask that? You with your constant refrain of ‘she means nothing to me’ and ‘I’ll leave her, just give me a few more months.’”
“That wasn’t me!” James said.
“Might as well have been,” Lilandra said. She smiled a devilish smile. “It’s not like you have anything to salvage. You made sure of that.”
James turned back to Fowler. “How do you have my notes?”
“Your moaning friend over there–he came to me a decade ago and practically begged me to knock you down a peg. He’d come back to stop you from getting a divorce, but you were too self-centered to give up your research for your love life. The fool gave me everything.” He chortled. “You did this to yourself.”
“If he gave you everything, why do you need me?”
“Well, the lunatic over there gave me the machinery but made certain I didn’t know how to calibrate it. When you, or this you, showed up, I realized I didn’t have to figure out what the demented fool left out; I could just get you to do it, get my first Nobel, make a bazillion dollars on the stock market, and sit back while my time echoes turn me into the next tech trillionaire. Time and money will be forever on my side.”
“While you were droning on and on about your plans, I was writing up a little script to delete all the research you had.” His hand hovered above the keyboard, index finger-pointing down. “And Enter.”
“What?” Fowler almost shouted.
Lilandra shoved James away from the computer and looked at the screen. “Ha! You don’t know what you’re talking about.” She turned to Fowler. “He deleted about six files, all of which are still available on the server. Use a recursive delete next time, you idiot.”
“Drat!” James whispered to himself.
“What were you ever good at? Cassy did your math. I did your computers. Why’d we ever keep you around?”
“Ideas,” James said, unable to let the question stay rhetorical.
Lilandra laughed. Then she looked at James’ face. “Oh, you were serious.”
No one spoke for a long moment.
“Fix the time machine or… or else,” Fowler said.
“Or else what?” James asked.
Lilandra picked up a pair of pliers and snapped them open and shut, open and shut. “Or else we see how many fingers and toes it takes to get you to comply.” She snapped the pliers together and smiled.
Caught between an ex-mistress and a gun-toting former colleague, James nodded.
To Be Continued…