Chapter 24: An Interesting Encounter

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Chapter 24: An Interesting Encounter

A service station around 1948.

Izzy didn't want to open his eyes, which he had shut against the lightning flash. He was afraid to see where he was now. He opened them with a start when he heard an urgent sound – even more unwelcome, if possible, than that of a barbarian war trumpet. A loud honk, followed by a rush of air.

'Hey, fella, get off the road!'

Izzy looked around. It was still dark, but he was standing on asphalt. And cars were whizzing past him. 'What are you, crazy?' yelled a driver as he swerved to avoid the obstacle.

Izzy decided to get off the road.

On the sidewalk, he took stock: looked almost like his own time, but not quite. The cars rushing past were what he'd call, not vintage, but old. Like out-of-date clunkers, but these were often new and shiny. The few pedestrians were dressed like the people he remembered from his childhood: men in nondescript suits with baggy trousers, women in skirts that covered their knees. Everybody wore hats and the women wore gloves.

Must be the early '50s, he thought as he took off his military coat. The old-fashioned dinner jacket was definitely out of style, but he might pass in a crowd if he avoided the streetlights. Izzy didn't want to stand out in the 1950s: he remembered it as a time of widespread paranoia. A fashion faux pas might be mistaken for Communist sympathies.

At least he was back in countable years. And far from the Roman legions. All he needed to do was to find a place to eat and sleep, and hole up until the ferrets came back. With any luck, he could calibrate his way home…

His thoughts were interrupted by a clap on the shoulder.

'Hey, buddy, you almost got run over there. Are you all right?'

The speaker was a friendly-looking man about 40. He had a round face and receding hairline. He viewed Izzy benignly through horn-rimmed glasses. It was a warm evening, and he was wearing a checked sport coat and light-coloured duck trousers. The fashion here is a bit laid-back, thought Izzy as he smiled at the friendly man, who thrust out his hand.

'My name is Jack,' he said. 'Jack Finney.'

Izzy took the hand. 'Pleased to meet you, Mr Finney. I'm, er…' he seized on the first name that came into his head. 'Rudolph Fentz.' Rudolph Fentz was a coin dealer he'd traded with in New York back in the '40s. Wherever he was now, he wasn't in New York. For some reason, Izzy was wary of giving Mr Jack Finney his real name. The man seemed entirely too inquisitive.

Finney's glance took in Izzy's unusual garb. 'You're not from around here, are you, Mr Fentz?'

'Er, no, I just, er, hitchhiked into town,' Izzy replied. 'I'm not even sure what town this is.'

Finney shot him a sharp look. 'Mill Valley,' he replied. 'Nicest little town in California. Say, you look a little shook up. Can I buy you a cup of coffee?' He threw his arm around Izzy's shoulders and used his other hand to steer him down the sidewalk.

Izzy couldn't see any way to get rid of him, and he was tired from sitting in an oak tree all day watching the Romans and barbarians fight. 'Yes, thank you,' he replied, and they went off to a coffee shop at the nearby Gulf station.

Just inside the entrance, Izzy spotted a newspaper dispenser. The date said June 15, 1951. Okay, I'm in California in 1951. That explains the cars and the clothes. Now to deal with the curious Good Samaritan. They found a booth and ordered coffee, burgers, and fries. Izzy was grateful to be ordering hot food.

While they waited, Izzy excused himself to go to the men's room. He needed to use the facilities and wash up, but he also wanted a few minutes alone. Studying his own face in the mirror, he thought he looked passable. A bit drawn, but not too awful. He tried his best on his curly hair, but he still looked wild and scruffy. He smiled tentatively, aiming for 'eccentric but harmless'. He thought he'd pass with a push.

Back in the booth, the food had arrived . He decided to take the initiative.

'What do you do for a living, Mr Finney?'

Finney laughed. 'I used to be in advertising back in New York City. Hated it. Now I'm a fiction writer.'

'Really? Anything I might have read?'

'Do you read science fiction?' Izzy nodded, his mouth full of hot potato. 'I just published one in Collier's called 'Such Interesting Neighbors'. It's about time travellers.'

Izzy almost choked on his fries. He swallowed coffee to give himself time. When he'd recovered, he said, 'I believe I've read that one. Good story!'

And, he thought, you wrote 'Invasion of the Body Snatchers'. Or rather, will have written it. And a bunch of time-travel stories. I'd better be careful. Just my luck to run into the writer most interested in time travel. Why couldn't you have been Ray Bradbury? He'd have ranted about the decline of pedestrianism and paid no attention to me at all. In Izzy's opinion, science fiction writers needed to be more self-absorbed (which, let's face it, most of them were) and less nosy.

Finney seemed pleased to have found a reader. But also suspicious. 'I'm flattered that you liked it, Mr Fentz – you did say that was your name, right? But also surprised.'

'Why?' Izzy asked honestly. 'Don't I look like I can read?'

Finney grinned. 'You don't look like you come from this time. You look like you stepped onto that road from the last century.' He gestured at Izzy's 1890s going-out-to-dinner-with-Nikola-Tesla suit.

Grinning even wider, Finney held up the foil-wrapped menu, which he'd (cleverly, as he obviously thought) fished out of Izzy's coat pocket in his absence.

'Dinner with Nikola Tesla? In 1897? What on Earth have you been up to, Mr Fentz? Or should I say, Mr Isidore Himmelfarb?'

Izzy stared at him in horror. 'Look, Mr Finney, I'm not 'up to' anything. It's just…well…' He sighed. 'It's a really long story.'

Finney's grin grew so wide that it could have been seen in San Francisco.

'I've got time.'

Ferret, running

It was a good thing the Gulf station diner was a 24-hour truck stop. It was a couple of hours later when Izzy finished his (slightly edited) version of the tale. In the meantime, he had consumed most of a pot of coffee and two pieces of pie. Finney had sat, rapt, drinking in the tale. When Izzy got to, '…and then I found myself on the street out there…' the writer sighed with sheer pleasure, like a man who had eaten a meal much more delectable than that provided by the diner.

'Oh, how I envy you,' was his comment.

'Oh, yeah, it's all a wonderful adventure,' scoffed Izzy, irritated. Being driven from pillar to post by quantum-entangled ferrets was not Izzy's idea of an enviable condition, and he said so with great emphasis. Then there was the problem of how he was going to get off this roller coaster and either clear his name or prevent a murder. 'Look, Mr Finney, I'm grateful for the meal, but I didn't get in this mess to entertain science fiction fans. And I'd appreciate it if you kept the facts to yourself, although I know you'll manage to use some of this in your stories.'

Finney nodded agreeably. 'I promise to keep the name Izzy Himmelfarb out of the gutter press and pulp magazines, 'deed I do. Besides, your story is way too far-fetched. No editor would buy it.'

Finney mused. 'I've been thinking about time travel for a long time, you know. I've always felt that you shouldn't need a time machine per se. You should be able to travel back in time using a piece of material culture, maybe, some relic of the past that brings back pleasant memories…so that you could go back to a simpler time…'

Izzy snorted. 'Haven't you been listening to me? There is no simpler time. Things weren't better in the past. They were just different. I've seen men kill each other on land and in the sky. I've seen a man electrocuted at his job – heck, I've been electrocuted. More than once. If your time travellers aren't careful, they're going to end up as part of that Chinese curse: may you live in interesting times.'

Finney laughed. 'I still think the horse-and-buggy days were kind of romantic.'

Izzy rolled his eyes. 'Ask the horse.'

In the end, the two of them agreed to disagree on time travel. Finney looked at his watch and groaned: he'd left home two and a half hours before with a promise to return with bread and milk. So they stopped off at a grocery on the way back to Finney's house. There, the writer sheepishly introduced Izzy to his wife, telling her that he'd run into 'the son of an old friend from Milwaukee.' Mrs Finney, looking daggers at her husband, was gracious to Izzy and stored him in their guest room, asking him to be quiet, since the kids were in bed.

Izzy had no problem being quiet. He fell asleep the minute his head hit the pillow. Ferrets and science fiction writers could wait for another day.

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