Friday, January 16, 2009

The Nick Of Time (and other abrasions): Shadows Of Polaris chapter one

The Nick Of Time

(and other abrasions)

Shadows Of Polaris


Al Bruno III

Chapter One

"What's the hold up?" Matthew stared out the taxi's windshield. Traffic was backed up for blocks. Opportunities like this were few and far between, he couldn't afford to blow it.

"It's a parade... or the President... or something." the cabby said.

"Isn't there an alternate route you could take?

"I don't think so. Guess you should have left earlier." the cabby said before turning up his radio and drowning him out.

"Damnit." Matthew slumped in the taxi's moldy seat and thought about car payments, overdrawn accounts and late fees. If he got this job it would fix everything. It was nearly twice what he was making now and as an added plus the corporation would pay all his moving expenses from Schenectady to New York City. Hell, maybe he wouldn't even tell his creditors where he was going; maybe he'd just move and let them do all the work of finding him again.

Maybe he'd let Laura do the same thing.

Not that any of that is going to happen now. He thought glumly. His fingers reached instinctively for the pack of cigarettes in the breast pocket of his suit, but then he reminded himself this was a non-smoking cab. He checked his watch, less than twenty minutes to go. There was no way he was going to make it. He
looked ahead at the line of cars, minivans and buses; four lanes of traffic jammed into two because of double parked delivery trucks and brazen shoppers. Tall buildings pressed in on every side, pedestrians moved along on the sidewalks, their shapes hidden under heavy winter clothes.

A few moments of watching them pass by while his taxi stayed put was all Matthew could take. He tossed a handful of bills into the front seat and got out.
The February air was biting; he pulled his overcoat tightly around him and started walking. He'd visited New York City a grand total of six times in his lifetime, he felt like he knew his way around. Besides he'd always had a good sense of direction; he'd get there just as quickly on foot.

Like my resume says 'An ambitious go-getter and a good problem solver.' Matthew thought as he cut down a side street. It was a narrow, one way lane of pocked asphalt that was practically an alley. There was no sidewalk and ankle deep slush. He walked carefully, praying he wouldn't ruin his one good suit.

Once he was out of the alley, Matthew banked right onto a main thoroughfare. The wind blasted him, setting his coat flapping. He walked against it, leaning into it, dodging in and around pedestrians until he came to a crosswalk. The streets here were equally clogged with traffic, cars stretched in every direction
for as far as he could see. When the light changed he took the left way up the Y-shaped intersection and walked along for the next four blocks, reading street signs as he went. All the while he tried to imagine the questions that might be asked of him. He wanted to have all his answers ready in advance.

Matthew stood at the next street corner for a few moments considering. He had a pretty good idea where he was going but it was better for him not to take chances. He turned right and made his way down the street. Ice crusted the shop windows, salt crunched under his feet. He tried not to think about the time.

The road led to another four way intersection. His cab was a stoplight ahead of him, that meant he was on the right track, he just must have overshot his target. Turning right he made his way down the street for two blocks, then he turned
right again. That brought him back into familiar surroundings.

Great. He realized as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk, looking this way and that. I think I just went in a big loop. He checked his watch and blanched. Almost time!

Almost time and he had no idea where he was.

Standing on the streetcorner he felt his panic rising. The wind ripped at him, the foul scent of automobile exhaust chased after him like the stink of failure. Part of him just wanted to give up and go home, but he wasn't ready to throw in the towel. Not just yet. Matthew ran down the street to the next intersection. Oh yes, he'd definitely been here before, he recognized the parked cars and the awnings over the doorways. He turned right and staggered. A wave of dizziness left him gasping. Cursing the cheap Amtrak food he doubled over. Staring at his brand new patent leather shoes and praying that he wouldn't puke all over them.

He planned to return them if the interview was a bust.

Moments passed, pedestrians stepped carefully around him. No one paused to ask if he was all right.

Everything shifted in and out of focus a final time and then the sensation faded. He straightened up and began walking again. Two steps later he was motionless and dumbfounded.

The skyline had changed completely. Gone were the stocky silhouettes of skyscrapers blotting out the horizon. Instead there was a sea of gambrel rooftops and slender minarets. Chimneys filled the sky with sweet-smelling smoke. The buildings themselves were tall gothic structures that had been painted in bright airy colors. To Matthew it looked as though the entire block of houses had been sculpted out of frosting. The cobblestone roads were choked with activity; horse drawn carriages and bicycles maneuvered their way around slow moving automobiles. The crowds that passed him on the sidewalk were still bundled up against the cold but their clothes were ostentatious amalgamations of velvet, fur and leather. Many wore hoods and scarves against the cold but the faces Matthew could see were not the arrogant yet furtive faces of the New Yorkers he had been overlooking all day. These faces were regal yet predatory. Some had skin that was jet black, some had skin that was albino pale. Above it all a single gargantuan tower loomed, its upper levels were wide and decorated with windows of stained glass that glinted and gleamed in the sunlight. The lower body of the tower was slender and cast in shadow. It reminded Matthew of a chess piece, a bishop.

Matthew could have stood there all day but a he began to feel a creeping sensation working its way up his spine. Lowering his gaze he realized that everyone was staring at him. Blushing Matthew tried to speak but didn't know what to say.

Where am I? He wondered, What's happening to me? Am I going crazy? Is this some kind parade like the cabby said?

The street traffic froze. Horse whinnied in protest, tires screeched. A commotion worked its way through the finely dressed pedestrians. They pushed back against the buildings, squeezing together, as one they turned their gazes to the ground.

A shape in a raggedy old peacoat and a fur hat ran down the street and bolted into a nearby alley. A cluster of men in dark blue uniforms were close behind. They stopped dead in their tracks at the sight of him.

"I think..." Matthew said to the dozen stern faces, "...I think I'm lost."
Moving as one, they drew their sabers and advanced on him.

Matthew started babbling, but he knew he wasn't making sense. He was too terrified, too confused. These were obviously policemen of some kind; he recognized the smug superiority they projected, but what kind of policemen? They certainly weren't NYPD.

This is all just to scare me right? He thought, They wouldn't just cut me down in the street in front of all these witnesses would they?

He glanced around, the elegant pedestrians hadn't moved an inch, their gazes were still centered on the sidewalk before them.

The uniformed men bore down on Matthew, the silver of their blades gleaming. He couldn't believe he was going to die like this, he always thought he was going to die in a car accident or of some terrible and painful disease. There had been a
kind of comfort in that, but to die like this, in such confusion.

"Ah-hem, Constables..." The voice was sharp yet delicate. The figure in the peacoat stepped back out of the alley and struck an impatient pose, "...aren't you supposed to be chasing me?"

The armed men stopped and turned.

He couldn't have asked for a better opening.

Matthew ran. Pounding footsteps followed in his wake, coupled with cries for him to halt or suffer the consequences. Matthew remembered the swords and kept running.

But there was no way he could keep up this kind of pace for long; he had to find a place to hide. A chance to catch his breath and try and think.

He risked a glance backwards, there were two of them. Two of the so-called Constables and they didn't even look winded.

There was an intersection up ahead, Matthew ran across the street, squeezing between a pair of motionless automobiles. He glimpsed the drivers of the cars, their hands on their steering wheels, their eyes starting down at the floorboards.

An arc of pain lanced across his shoulderblades. He pitched forward, his hands sinking into the filthy roadside slush.

The Constables were drawing closer. Matthew forced himself to stand and scramble to the right. This street's decor was slightly less opulent yet at the same time it was much more flamboyant, as though the residents of this neighborhood were consciously trying to outdo their neighbors. There were people sitting on their front steps, watching their children play and sing but when they saw him coming they retreated inside. There were gaps between the houses here, dirty alleys and unkempt paths. Matthew hoped they were dark enough.

I can hide up ahead. He promised himself, Just keep moving, just keep moving.

There was a warm ticklish sensation creeping down his back.

Oh I'm bleeding -oh JESUS! One of them cut me with their swords.

Visions of torn skin and exposed muscle goaded him to run faster.

The voices of his pursers changed from shouts to chants. The language was alien to him, like Japanese or Latin; all he knew as that it was the kind of thing he needed subtitles to understand.

The chanting became more frenzied and then dwindled out suddenly. He turned to see what they were up to, there was no one behind him.

But when he turned his attention back tohere he was going he found them standing before him. Matthew tried to double back and only managed to stumble and crash onto the pavement. He heard his blazer tear and thought crazily that he'd just ruined his only good suit.

With a kick to the gut they rolled him over and pressed their blades against the nape of his neck.

"Outlander." One of them spoke his voice panting and ragged, "Your presence here is a violation of the Jamestown Compact."

"Agreed." The other Constable, the one with the waxed moustache, said, "The penalty for such trespass is conscription."

The first Constable smiled a little and licked his lips "Agreed. Sentence to be carried out immediately."

Matthew tried to sit but the blades at his throat kept him down, "Please I don't know what you're talking about. I don't know anything about a Jamestown Contract. I swear."

"Ignorance of the law is no excuse."

"Agreed." Waxed Moustache drew back his weapon arm; there was already blood on the blade. Matthew tensed, his fingers scrabbling impotently at the cobblestones.

The trash can came out of nowhere, bowling both of the Constables over.

Matthew rolled to his feet. The figure in the fur hat beckoned him from a decrepit old brownstone. He followed into the shadowed interior.

The odor of burnt wood and rot nearly drove him right out the door again but he pressed on. The peacoat was barely visible in the murk, he followed it past shattered widows and melted telephones. Debris crunched under their feet.

By the time he'd been led through a slouching doorway and down a flight of rotting stairs Matthew began to get that nervous feeling again.

Where am I going here?

He stayed at the foot of the stairs, peering into the blackness.

A flashlight flickered to life, a voice that was lively and soft asked him "Not scared of the dark are you Outlander?"

"Who are you?"

The peacoat slid to the floor, the hat joined it; a lithe form moved in the shadows "Introductions later. Come on. We've got to get moving."

"You're a girl!"

"Last time I checked. Let's go."

The smell here was worse; the stink from the fire had coupled with the dank musty odors of the cellar to produce a cloying fetid stench. Matthew really wanted a cigarette now. Holding his nose closed he followed the girl deeper into the cellar, the glare from the flashlight cast her in silhouette. Matthew wasn't sure if she was in some kind of a uniform or if she was making a fashion
statement. His limited successes with women had taught him that if
you weren't sure it was safer not to ask.

There was an old box spring mattress leaning against the far wall of the cellar. Slipping the flashlight into her mouth she shifted the rotted rectangle of wood and fabric aside. There was a hole in the wall just large enough to crawl through. A thin carpet of trash and mud covered the bottom.

"Big mice?" Matthew asked.

She pulled the flashlight from her mouth, "Come on."

"I need to know where we're going."

"Someplace safe." she dropped to her knees and shone the light into the squalid passageway.

"That's not good enough. For all I know-"

"We don't have time for this Outlander."

A commotion upstairs startled them, shouts and stomping set dust raining from the basement ceiling. Matthew's stomach flopped and clenched at the sound. "The Constables?"

"Worse." She shone the flashlight on him, "Sentries."


"Soldiers recruited from Constables that have been demoted for screwing up too much and from apprehended Outlanders. Outlanders like you." She crawled into the hole and beckoned for him to follow her, "Pull the box spring in behind
us. It'll cover our escape."

Rooted to the spot, Matthew stared up the steps, wondering if he should take his chances with the Sentries. If they had once been 'Outlanders' like him they might be sympathetic to his plight. After all they had been chasing her hadn't they? They weren't really after him, he was just a victim of circumstance.

"Oh by the way," She called, "the first step to becoming a Sentry is ritual castration."

"Oh Hell." shouldering out of his torn, bloodied blazer Matthew followed her into the passage, pulling the box spring behind him.

The tunnel slumped downwards, he half crawled half-tumbled after her. The slimy, sour-smelling walls pressed down on every side. Grime caked the underneath of his fingernails and dribbled off the tunnel roof to coat his hair and shoulders. No matter how careful he was, every fourth step or so his wounded back brushed against he roof of the tunnel sending a shiver of pain through him. He didn't like to think about the infections he might be getting. Garbage and slime oozed though his fingers and wormed its way into his loafers.

There is no way I'm going to be able to return these shoes for a refund

"How long until-" The flashlight clicked off. "Hey!"

"Saving batteries." she whispered from up ahead. "Keep moving."

"What's your name?"

"I'm the girl that saved your life, isn't that enough?"

"No what's your name?" Deprived of his vision Matthew's other senses struggled to compensate. He had no idea where he was going to or what he was getting herself into but when faced with the choice between an uncertain future and ritual castration he chose the uncertain future every time.

"My name is Audra. Satisfied?"


"Now where am I?" She stopped suddenly, "You don't know?"

"Would I be asking if I knew already?" he glowered only to realize a moment later that he was glowering at her backside.

"Don't tell me, let me guess... a weird old relative of yours passed away and you were going though some of his personal papers. You found a book that claimed to be about magic and you happened to read one of the goofy sounding spells out loud."

He started to glower again but managed to stop himself in time, "No."

"Ok then, how about this. You were wandering in the woods and you came upon a circle of standing stones smack dab in the middle of nowhere."

Yeah. The Stonehenge of Utica. He thought sourly. "No. Nothing like that happened. Do I look like I was camping?"

"You were in a big city, you got lost and of course being born a male rendered you unable to ask for directions. So you kept wandering this way and that, going in circles and retracing your steps, suddenly you found yourself here."

"Uh… yes."

"I knew it." She laughed and started crawling again.

"So where am I?"

"Escape tunnels, they go through most of the boroughs. They got dug about eighty years ago during the Inutos sieges. I think most people have forgotten about them now. Good for burglary and sneaking out after curfew."

"What are you talking about?" Matthew exclaimed.

"You wanted to know where you were."

"Yes where... in the larger sense. What is this place, this weird city..."

Audra gave a little laugh "This is the embodiment of weird cities. This is of Olathoe."

"Olathoe? Is that in Canada?"

"No. Olathoe is where everything you've ever been told doesn't exist can be found."

"What do you mean?"

"I'm talking about the stuff that dreams are made of. Literally. Magic is here. Real magic, not that David Copperfield crap. The magic here is so strong it hides the city from the so-called normal people like you. The only way to get here is to cast the proper spells, or use a Aperture or go to a large enough city and walk certain streets in a certain pattern."

"You expect me to believe that?"

"You have another explanation for what's happening to you?"

"No." Matthew said and then fell quiet. In the darkness he lost all track of time. When he checked the luminous digital readout on his watch all he saw were wildly flickering numbers.

"Are you saying I'm on another world?"


"But you look human. Where are the aliens?"

"Don't you get it? You're the alien."

The cold tunnel pressed in around him on all sides. How much further did she expect him to crawl? Did she even know where they were going? What if this whole thing ended in a dead end? Would that have to crawl backwards the way that had come? Would the Sentries be waiting for them? Panic gripped him, he had to concentrate on the simple motions of his arms and leg to keep from collapsing into a shuddering heap.

She said these tunnels are eighty years old. They could fall down around us any second! Oh God. Oh God. Why did I ever get out of that cab? Who cares if I was late? And for that matter why did I ever go on that stupid interview? I should have just stayed home. My old job was perfectly fine! Now I'm going to die or be castrated or both! A tiny whimper escaped from Matthew's throat.

"OK." Audra flicked on the flashlight, "We're there, you can stand up now."


"Lightswitch... lightswitch... who's got the lightswitch?" She paced around the room, flicking the yellow flashlight beam this way and that. Matthew gawked dazedly at the shine from the buckles on her patent leather shoes. "I really need to... Ah-hah!"

There was a click and Matthew was blinded. He winced and used his grimy hands to shield his eyes, Audra stood before him. Her clothes were definitely a uniform not a fashion statement. The knee-length dress was a rich shade of lavender and tailored to a design that seemed one half nun's habit one half school uniform. Her long black hair was tied back from her dark-eyed, gamine-like face. Even without the dirt masking her features it was obvious that she wore too much makeup.

With a groan he stood up and looked around. Another basement. No surprise there. The hole he'd crawled from was nestled between a pair of empty wine racks. Audra pulled a ratty looking knapsack from behind one of the wine racks and strode up the stairs. She flicked on another set of lights. Resigned Matthew followed her down a service hallway that led to a brightly-lit room that was furnished with expensive, sterile looking furniture. Paintings hung on the walls that were either surrealist masterpieces or elaborate pleas for help. "This is your place?"

"Nope. It's the Dean's."

"We're in a college?"

"It's a private institution dedicated to studies of a metaphysical nature."

Great. Matthew dropped onto a nearby ottoman and buried his face in his hands. "So, is the Dean home? And more importantly, is he armed?"

"Nahhh." She rummaged around the poorly stocked wet bar. "He goes out drinking most nights, he won't be home 'till like four in the morning if at all."

"Uh-huh." He said as he watched her open a decanter of brandy and empty half the bottle in a few short gulps.

"Hopefully by then we should have you sorted out."

When she passed the brandy to him he took a long hard pull from the bottle. Her lipstick flavored the taste. "Sorted out?"

"You know, either I'll get you home or I'll get you killed."

"Oh God...." He took a second even longer pull from the bottle.

She unbuttoned the sleeves of her dress, "Look Matt I'm gonna grab a quick shower. Can you stay put for a few minutes?"

"You know I'm not a child."

She gave his cheek a pinch "Of course you're not."

"And how did you know my name? I never told you my name!"

"Because I'm a sorceress. Well, sorceress in training really." She said as she left the room.

Alone in the room Matthew nursed the bottle along and brooded. He picked at the edges of the torn sleeve of his blazer and wondered what to think.

Maybe I've gone crazy. maybe I'm in a psycho ward doped up and tied down.

He wanted to believe that, he really did but there was no denying the evidence.

Besides I would never hallucinate anything this elaborate, I just don't have the imagination.

Standing, he trudged over to the window and peered outside. The sun had set and the stars were out. How long was I in that tunnel? He wondered, What the hell time is it?

There weren't any clocks in the room so Matt turned his attention back to the window. The Dean seemed to be doing pretty well for himself, the house they were in was mansion-like in proportions. The grounds however were wooded and sickly looking, a rusty gate separated the grounds from the busy streets of the city. Matthew let his eyes be drawn to the Olathoe skyline, to the lofty minarets and baroque estates with the single great spire towering over it all. How could a place like this be hidden? Could it really be magic? Could there really be an entire world he didn't know about? Could he really have come here just because he took a few wrong turns on the streets of Manhattan?

What else can I believe? Look at it out there! It's like I've traveled in time.

Time travel. He thought pressing his forehead against the cool glass of the window. Even that's almost more believable. I haven't seen any magic here. All I've seen is a bunch of Renaissance fair rejects!

A few more swigs of brandy and he decided to explore a bit. He peeled his head from the window pane and started snooping. His attention was drawn to the bookshelves first. They were crammed with thick, ancient-looking volumes the shelves. Most of them seemed to be written in Latin and were illustrated with bizarre pictograms and charts. Paging through them left him with a strange feeling. It was as though he was looking at a new kind of programming code and it was just familiar enough to almost make sense and just different enough to make him wonder if there was some manual out there that he'd neglected to read.

A scrap of paper fluttered out of one of the books. Matthew bent to retrieve it. The handwriting was barely legible, and filled with strange chemical and mathematical formulas. At the bottom the wobbly script read “The stars are right. Ursa Minor is in ascendance. The Pendaroth is among us now 'an unlick'd bear-whelp that carries no impression like the dam'.”

Cripes. Bet he was drunk when he wrote that. With a shrug Matthew replaced the paper and slipped the book back into its place on the shelf. He turned his attention to the stereo system, it looked to be state of the art.

So much for time travel. He thought as he scanned the Dean's CD collection; there weren't any titles he recognized. They were mostly Jazz and Electronic music. None of it was Matthew's cup of tea; country music had always been his passion. As far as he was concerned Western Culture had peaked with the recording career of Johnny Cash.

There was a telephone near the stereo, it looked like a museum piece. Matthew stared at it as he finished the brandy and set the decanter down on an end table. Could he make an outgoing call from Never-Never Land? He reached for his wallet; he'd use his calling card. No reason that this Dean guy should get a long distance bill.

Frowning he patted his pockets, then methodically turned them out one by one.

Great. My wallet is probably back in the tunnel somewhere. No way am I going back there. The Dean will just have to deal with it.

He picked up the receiver not sure who he should call. Laura? His parents? The police? The American Embassy? His fingers dithered over the rotary dial.

A voice breathed from the earpiece. "Number please?" Whoever was speaking they sounded either drunk or half-asleep, "Number please?"

"Hi!" Matthew stammered, "I'm going to- I mean I need to make a long distance call... at least I think it's a long distance call."

There was a long pause and another snuffling groan, "Local calls only... Outlander."

Matthew hung the phone up and backed away. "What?" He whispered, "What the Hell?"

"You're next." Audra walked into the room, her skin was pink and clean; her dark hair hung in loose wet ringlets that she was expertly pining back. She was wearing jeans and a crisp, white tuxedo shirt. Both were several sizes too large.

"Are those the Dean's clothes?"

"Yeah." She towel dried her hair as she approached him.

Matthew retreated, "Won't he miss them?"

"No." Audra grabbed the decanter from the end table and shook it. Her smile became conspiratorial, "Trust me Matthew. I've been doing this for almost a whole semester now."


"He's a drunk. He has blackouts. We're cool." She grabbed his hand and led him down the hallway to the still-steaming bathroom. Matthew was appalled at the opulence; the marble floors, the brass and crystal fixtures, the full-length mirrors and a shower wide enough to do gymnastics in.

"Look I don't think I need-"

Audra shook her head and began unbuttoning his dress shirt. "Listen you. The Sentries will be looking for a grubby terrified Outlander not a clean, well-dressed man about town."

"Why are you helping me?"

"There are three things I love in this world, chocolate, shoplifting and anarchy."

Frowning he started to re-button his shirt "I just don't feel comfortable with this."

"Come on." She rolled her eyes, "The shirt's ruined anyways."

"It's not unwearable."

With a curse she grabbed the lapels and tore sending buttons clattering across the tiles. "Now it is. Now get in there before I do something equally horrible to your pants."

Stunned he slipped out of what was left of his best white shirt. This was so humiliating, he turned away from her.


"What?" He turned back, a queasy expression had replaced her smug little smile.

"Your back."

"What about my back?" He angled to see his reflection in the full-length mirror. Where he had expected to find a ragged cut his eyes instead found a suppurating wound. It looked like a chemical burn of all things. "Oh no."

"When did this happen?" She touched it tentatively.

He flinched but there was no pain, in fact he couldn't feel much there at all. Was this shock? He wasn't sure, he'd always fallen asleep in Health Class. "When I was running from the Constables. One of them stabbed me..."

Audra ran her fingertips across the wound and back again, "You weren't stabbed Matthew. They zapped you."

"This is from a taser?"

"No." She shook her head and then started picking at it. "They cast a spell on you. It looks like they tried to get you with a good old fashioned Incantation of the Boiling Rind."

"A spell? This is crazy."

A strip of skin came away with sickening ease; it was like peeling away a sunburn. "Crazy or not your darned lucky that your flesh didn't blister and peel from the bone."

"Ow! Now that hurts. Ow!" He watched their reflections with a mixture of horror and fascination, "Do we need to get to a hospital?"

She waved a hand, "No. You'll be fine. You just got scalded. Count your blessings. Now get in the shower and make it quick. I'll get you some clothes."

The patch of skin she had revealed was pale and smooth looking. He wondered how he would explain something like that to Laura. He wondered if she'd even notice. "You're sure I don't need to go to a hospital?"

"Yes I'm sure." she left the room.

When he was sure the door was securely shut behind him he stripped out of the rest of his clothes and got under the water... and screeched.


Protectively cupping his shriveled genitals he hoped back out of the shower and readjusted the water to something bearable. Then he got back in and lathered up. Immediately he started to relax, his muscles began to unknot, his stomach began to unclench. Leaning forward he put his head directly under the spigot and let it rain down on him. That was much better, he was starting to feel human

A secret city, a secret magic city no less. Matthew chuckled at the very thought but it was real wasn't it? Well now that he knew what was going on he could deal with it. With Audra's help of course, she was the only person here he could trust. But could he really trust her? For all he knew she might be just as dangerous as the Constables. On the run for my life in a strange place- completely out of my depth. This is like that Emilio Estevez movie with Mick Jagger. I wish I'd stayed to watch the ending now.

He turned and let the water hit his back that felt even better. This was a lot better than the crummy shower he had at home; the one with the peeling tiles and the tap that had only two settings- TOO HOT and TOO COLD. He was so relaxed that he was practically falling asleep on his feet. The events of the day played through his mind but they were disjointed, out of order.

"Did you make a phone call?" Atfirst he thought he'd imagined it, Audra's frantic voice just inches away but then she spoke again, "Did you make a phone call?"

"What are you doing in here?" He shrunk back, the only thing between himself and total embarrassment a filmy shower curtain.

"You did didn't you? I don't believe this! Someone just drove a car through the main gate!"

"It was a stupid phone call. I didn't even make the connection the operator told me there was no long distance service."

"Of course they said that. Everyone knows that except Outlanders." She poked the shower curtain for emphasis.

"So?" He poked back.

"Didn't I warn you that there is a bounty on Outlanders?" She replied her voice dripping with sarcasm.

"No." Matthew paused, "No you didn't."

There was the unmistakable sound of someone slapping their own forehead. "Damnit." She threw a handful of towels over the shower curtain.

He dried off hastily and then wrapped the largest of the towels around his waist.

Audra was there, dressed and ready to go, her knapsack slung over one shoulder a handful of clothes in her hands. He took them from her and blanched. "You don't seriously expect me to wear this."

"They're the height of fashion. Everyone dresses this way."

"You're kidding." He waved a frilled shirt under her nose. "I'll look like a transvestite vampire."

She picked up a container of baby powder and hefted it for a moment before slipping it into her knapsack. "You should be so lucky."

The doorbell rang, Matthew clutched the frilled shirt to his damp chest. "Is that- What- Who?"

"One of the other things I should have mentioned is that our telephone company is pretty much run by Chinese Mobsters."

Making sure he kept the towel securely around his waist Matthew slipped into the underwear and trousers she'd given him. He wasn't a boxers man by nature but this was no time to complain. As he buttoned the trousers he heard a crash from downstairs. "Oh crap." He whimpered.

Audra pulled the on the shirt, helping him slip his arms into the luxuriously cuffed sleeves. "A little less modesty a little more hustle."

"What's the plan?" He asked. She offered him a pair of boots but he declined and put his loafers back on instead.

"We run like Hell that's the plan." She grabbed him by the arm and led him out of the bathroom.

There were four men waiting for them on the landing. Three of them were Asian, they carried semi-automatic weapons and didn't look old enough to be out of high school. The fourth man looked like he'd wandered in after them; he was broad-shouldered and unshaven, wearing bluejeans and a T-shirt emblazoned with a picture of a chimpanzee in a crown. Matthew found his attention shifting from the earring dangling from his right ear to the pistol he held- both were gaudy. The onyx-jeweled earring was like a pirate fashion statement. The pistol was huge, it looked like something out of a movie. Audra froze in place, staring at them.

"Don't go rushing off just yet..." The fourth man smiled amicably, "Outlander."

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