Excerpt: January’s Thaw
Many people obsess over their past, but no one more than I. Perchance it’s because, as a man out of time, I left behind so much of it unlived. If that makes little sense, consider that I’m a time traveler.
Although the backdrop for my story is time travel and alternate realities, the underlying theme is a more human one—of love lost, another love found only to be lost, and of a decision, the result of a single regret brought about by the realization that my self-professed courage to never risk my heart to love was instead cowardice, to rectify a wrong in a life filled with myriad regrets. You may judge me, as it is man’s nature to judge others, or discount my story as the ravings of a lunatic mind or simply the fiction of an overactive imagination—but before you do, I ask that you read the words that follow and then ask yourself if you would have acted any differently.
Chapter 22 (Chapter 1 of January’s Thaw)
… At that point the door to Lance’s and my room burst in and I turned to see the German I’d roughed up in the men’s room during dinner last night, his left eye an angry pink and swollen nearly shut, and I froze—I was staring down the barrel of the strangest looking pistol I’d ever seen, and I felt my stomach sink. My holster and gun still hung on the back of the bathroom door; not that having it on me would’ve done much good—any move to draw it would only have rewarded me with a bullet.
I watched the German survey the room at a glance. Seemingly dissatisfied with what he saw, he transferred to his left hand the gun he held trained on me, stepped quickly to where I stood, and launched his right fist to catch me on my jaw. I’d been expecting it—his revenge for my spilling him so incommodiously in a pool of his own urine—but I had the satisfaction of maintaining my balance and holding onto my feet. I could see the German’s disappointment.
Lance launched himself from his sitting position on the edge of the bed, but the German was quick to point his gun at Lance, and Lance slowly sat back down on the bed.
“It’s okay, Lance,” I said. “I’ve taken better shots than that.”
The German looked at Professor MacIntyre and said, “You haff someting dat does not belong to you.”
The professor looked at me and I gave a quick, barely perceptible shake of my head. When he said nothing, the German backhanded him across his left cheek.
“Stop it!” Melissa cried. “He doesn’t have what you’re looking for.”
“Nein?” the German asked. “I do not belief you. Vould you like to see vat I do wiss someone I do not belief?”
“Knock it off,” I said. “She’s telling the truth. They don’t have it. But I know where it is.”
The German eyed me suspiciously, trying to see past my poker face; he failed and I watched indecision creep into his expression. I continued my bluff.
“Rest assured if anything happens to any of us you’ll never see it.” I watched the German consider several options and realized that his logical mind had little experience dealing with illogical Americans who were as apt to lie as tell the truth—a valuable weapon that I committed to use to my advantage. Once I was certain my statement had set in, I continued.
“You can search our rooms, our persons and our baggage, but you won’t find it because it’s not here.”
The German said nothing.
“It’s in New York, locked away.”
I cut off Melissa with a sharp look, which the German couldn’t miss. Melissa couldn’t know that her interjection was the proof the German needed to conclude I spoke the truth. I’d bought us the time necessary to get us out of this jam. Now to seal the deal by giving him something that would assure him of our short-term cooperation.
“The professor has something else you’ll need,” I said. He needed MacIntyre’s time travel gadget even more than the cube; but he couldn’t know that the future to which he planned to return, triumphantly bearing the artifact that held the secret of Hitler’s location, would not be his own. Trapped in this alternate timeline, one in which Germany had lost World War II and therefore cut off from his own future, he’d surely end up traveling to a different future from the one to which Regis had returned.
“Professor,” I said. “Give him the time travel mechanism.” I saw MacIntyre’s reticence. I nodded reassurance, the need for compliance with hope we might yet work this to our advantage. He took from his jacket pocket a small contrivance composed of a keypad and a tiny screen and handed it to the German.
“Now,” I said, “the gentleman on the other bed is Lance, my pilot. He flew us out here from New York. Our plane is a short distance from here. I suggest he fly us all back to New York where we can get what you’re looking for into your greedy little hands.”
“I do not trust you,” the German said.
“No? Well, I don’t believe I would either, were I in your shoes. But really, what choice do you have?” When he didn’t reply, I continued. “Look, you’ve got your time travel device there, which you’ll need to get back to from where you came.”
“Now, see, that’s where you’re wrong,” I said. “Professor MacIntyre sent the package you’re looking for to his daughter with instructions—instructions that, due to circumstances Professor MacIntyre couldn’t have foreseen, she couldn’t follow. In short, it’s not where he thinks it is. As for me, well, like I said, if anything happens to any one of us, you’ll never see it. Sure, you might be able to extricate the information, but really, there’s no need for that gamble, not when you can so easily get what you’re after without anyone getting hurt. I think you can rest assured that Professor MacIntyre isn’t going to risk his daughter by trying anything foolish, and I’m not going to jeopardize my friend, Lance, either. We all go or none of us goes,” I finished in a facsimile of a reasonable tone.
After a moment of deliberation, the German conceded.
“Great. Now put that thing away,” I said, referring to the pistol he still held. “Lance, grab your bag and we’ll all adjourn to Melissa’s room next door so she can finish getting dressed and packed and we can be on our way.”
Twenty minutes later we were in the lobby checking out of our rooms. The German no doubt would’ve preferred we leave with little fanfare, drawing as little attention to ourselves as possible; but I suspected he’d be loath to make a scene in a public setting, so I simply guided our group to the desk so that Melissa could return our keys and pay our bill.
The German kept a safe distance, watching me carefully for any sign of betrayal, with an occasional menacing glance at Lance and Professor MacIntyre. The Professor, I knew, would do nothing to endanger his daughter, and I hoped Lance would do nothing but instead wait for me to make a move and then react. I scanned the lobby: a few hotel patrons milled about, but I saw no one more uniformed than a couple bellhops. I could expect no help from Indy’s finest.
A few minutes later we were passing through the revolving doors of the hotel—Melissa went first, followed by her father, Lance, me, and the German last, with his hand on his pistol, which I knew was nestled out of sight in his inside breast pocket. I purposely followed Lance, ahead of the German, with my hands in plain sight, hoping to put him at ease. Once we were clear of the revolving door, I took the lead and stepped into the driveway, toward the train station.
“Vhere are you go-ink?” the German snapped.
“The train will take us to where our plane is parked,” I said.
“Nein. Vee vill go by taxi.” Apparently he felt he would be safer and more in control in the less public confines of a car.
“Fine,” I said. I stepped back up onto the curb and raised my hand to hail one of the waiting cabs. The German suddenly looked uncertain, distrustful of my acceptance of his choice to take a cab; he maintained his distance—close enough to remain a menace, yet far enough away to prevent me from taking action against him.
While the cabbie loaded our bags into the trunk, I instructed Melissa and Professor MacIntyre to get into the backseat and Lance into the front seat. I expected the German would want his hostages in the back with him, and Lance and me in the front, where we could take no action and he could best keep an eye on us. He seemed agreeable with the seating arrangements.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked as he slammed the trunk.
“The speedway,” I said, making my way to the driver’s door. I bent to give the illusion I was getting in; the German, also on the driver’s side, perhaps not wishing to give me a chance to give instructions to Lance, followed close, and when he stepped one foot into the backseat, I launched my shoulder, with all my weight, against the open passenger door. The German was knocked off balance and, as he lost his footing, I heard his head crack the doorframe.
“Hey,” the cabbie said. “What are you doing?”
The door rebounded from the German and I launched myself against it a second time. “This gent isn’t with our party,” I said as I made my way around the passenger door. The stunned German was on the ground. I reached inside his breast pocket and removed the pistol, and then reached first into one hip pocket and then the other to find and retrieve the time travel device. I threw both into the backseat where a startled Melissa gasped, “Mr. January!” I was dimly aware that another cab had pulled up behind ours, its driver perhaps wanting to help.
I grabbed the German by the lapels, pulled him up and clear of the cab and gave him a shove into our cabbie, who in turn stumbled backward and went down with the German on top of him; the keys to the cab spilled from his hand.
“Hey—” he said.
I retrieved the keys along with my hat, which had fallen off, and jumped into the cab, fired the ignition and sped off. In the rearview mirror I could see the German, already on his feet, wrestling with the second cabbie. I watched him hit him once and then jump into the second cab. A moment later he threw his pursuit into drive.
“Keep an eye on that other cab,” I told Lance. “I’ve got to find 16th Street—it shouldn’t be far, a few blocks north of here. From there I’ll be able to find the track.”
Yesterday, when Melissa and I had boarded the train, I’d noted the location of the track’s main gate was at the corner of 16th and Georgetown. I was certain that 16th Street would find its way to downtown. All I had to do from there was head west.
I turned left on Meridian—north. A few blocks later we hit Monument Circle. The State Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Monument, designed by Bruno Schmitz, one of Germany’s foremost architects of monuments, resides at the circle’s center, marking the center of the city. I found it ironic, in lieu of our circumstances that day, that Schmitz’s monument, built to honor Hoosier heroes who died in wars before World War I, was his only commission outside of Germany and Switzerland.
A number of downtown streets radiated outward from Monument Circle, and I hoped to pick up Meridian again on the other side of the monument. I turned the wheel hard to the right and felt-heard our tires chatter-squeak over the brick street as I hit the gas again, now following the circle around to our left and picking up Meridian once more. Two blocks later, weaving through traffic and driving through the red traffic light at West New York, I said, “How are we doing, Lance? He still with us?”
I looked at the street signs at each intersection. Thus far I’d been fortunate, maneuvering through traffic with relative ease and passing through most of the intersections without having to slow more than a little. I hoped my luck would hold.
I saw 11th Street.
“He’s still with us,” Lance said. “He’s not gaining but we’re not pulling away either.”
We sailed through the traffic light at 12th as it turned amber; I kept the accelerator to the floorboard.
“He had to slow for that one, and swerve to miss a car crossing the intersection.”
I breathed a little easier. We were coming up on traffic; I hoped he would lose sight of us when we turned left. He knew where we were headed, but my bet was that he had no idea how to get there. He’d have to stay on our tail to find the track. We’d come upon 16th Street.
“Damn,” I breathed.
“What is it?” Lance asked.
“I was hoping to lose him here, but for that sign.” Speedway the sign read, with an arrow pointing left.
“Maybe he won’t see it.”
“Don’t bet on it,” I said coming out of our left turn with a squeal of tires. “I didn’t miss it and I wasn’t looking for it.” A moment later I added, “Let me know—”
“There he is!” Lance called out. “He’s still with us.”
“It’s going to be a drag race from here,” I said.
“What are you going to do if you can’t lose him?” Professor MacIntyre asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Improvise.”
For the next several miles, leaving downtown behind, we played cat and mouse; I managed to gain some distance at what seemed alternating intersections only to lose it at the others, always maintaining a lead of between a half-block and a block. I was relieved that traffic in this small suburb of Indianapolis was but a fraction of what it would’ve been had I been playing this high-speed game back in Manhattan.
The track suddenly sprang up on our right—I caught sight of the walkway Melissa and I had used yesterday to cross over the backstretch too late to negotiate the necessary right turn to access it.
Improvise, I thought, and kept going.
The next right turn would take us into the infield, where the Stinson T was parked, by crossing the racetrack. I was getting us closer to our getaway vehicle, but unfortunately I was no closer to losing our tenacious pursuer.
I stood on the brake pedal and turned the wheel hard to the right; the cab’s tires screamed their protest as we slid around, fishtailing wildly several times while I fought to keep the car under control; I stepped on the gas and the cab straightened out. The German would have more time to slow for the right turn I’d taken, and I knew I’d lost precious distance. But that seemed secondary in the face of the wooden barricade that suddenly appeared in front of us, designed to regulate the flow of cars entering the infield. Beyond the moveable barricade, the wooden swinging gate that spanned the gap in the concrete retaining wall of the track during the race was, thankfully, open.
“Oh, no!” I heard Melissa whisper.
“Joe!” Lance said, bracing his hands against the dashboard.
“Hold on,” I said, slowing to give the barricade’s attendant the illusion we were coming to a stop. As soon as he neared the cab’s window I stood on the gas again—through the open window I heard the attendant call, “Hey!” His voice faded out with distance even before it finished its single syllable exclamation—and I drove through the barricade in a shower of splintering wood.
The German was right behind us. While I’d slowed to nearly a stop, he’d been able to keep his momentum and I felt his bump from behind just as I drove onto the track. He caught me on the left corner hard enough to cause our cab to spin in that direction. I heard Melissa stifle a scream.
I steered into the spin to keep us from doing a complete one-eighty, and at ninety degrees I hit the gas again and headed off down the brick racetrack toward a broad sweeping turn to the left. Glancing in the mirror I could see the German bringing his cab around to continue pursuit. I’d bought us some time but now I heard and felt something amiss—our cab had sustained enough damage in the collision to cause a fender rub.
As we picked up speed the sound of the tire rub grew louder. The sweeping turn emptied us out onto the backstretch. I saw the walkway that spanned the track and beyond that, better than half a mile distant, the brick surface of the track seemed to dwindle to a tiny dot on the horizon. On our right, lying up against the outside retaining wall, I caught a glimpse of a rabbit. I surmised it had been struck by a practicing racecar and an image of the racecar as a dog in pursuit of the rabbit in front of a bloodthirsty cheering crowd came to my mind’s eye. No blood, the rabbit hadn’t been run over and crushed but instead struck and sent flying into the wall, at the base of which it now lay in a fetal position; yet it didn’t really matter, dead was still dead, despite its appearance of mere peaceful repose.
Hell of a place to take a nap, I thought, checking the rearview mirror. The German was gaining on us at a rapid pace. I could see his murderous glare above the steering wheel of the cab, and I wondered if the swollen black eye I’d given him last night might affect his depth perception.
As we picked up speed the sound of the tire rub seemed to lessen: its pitch had either reached a higher decibel, or the fender was fast removing rubber, alleviating the pressure of the tire against its surface. The cab wanted to veer left; I fought the wheel to keep it in a straight line.
The walkway flashed over us as we continued to pick up speed; I saw the end of the long straightaway begin to curl to the left as a new sound came to my ears. I glanced up into the mirror to see the German still gaining on us, but bearing down on him was a blue and white racecar. I inched the cab over closer to the inside of the track, away from the wall, to allow the racecar to pass us on the right. A moment later it thundered past, a rocket on wheels, its shiny body dotted with colorful decals, its big narrow fenderless tires gliding over the bricks while its driver, in the open cockpit, clutched at the big steering wheel and looked over at us from behind goggles, leaving us behind in a wake of high octane exhaust as if we were standing still, despite our speedometer’s claim that we were traveling at nearly ninety miles per hour.
“Joe …” I heard Melissa squeal, nearly hysterical.
I hazarded a glance at Lance, his hands braced against the dashboard, eyes big as portabella mushrooms, and I wondered if the poor rabbit we’d passed had seen the speeding car at the last moment (I saw the oncoming car reflected in its eyes), and whether they, too, had grown to such overwhelming proportions.
We were fast approaching the next turn and I guided the cab out toward the middle of the track. I wanted to take the turn at the highest speed possible, and I reasoned that to do that I’d have to take the longest possible arc through the turn; not the shortest route, but the fastest. I glanced up into the mirror to see the German had slowed noticeably, perhaps in deference to the approaching turn or unsure of my intention, and I noted also, with satisfaction, that he was still close to the apron of the track.
We had reached the end of the long straightaway. Without lifting my foot from the gas, I gently aimed the car back down toward the inside of the track. I heard both Lance and Melissa call out “Joe” at the same time I heard the professor’s more formal “Mr. January …” All three tones rose slightly at the end, as if we were on a roller coaster anticipating our stomachs dropping as our car topped the next crest. I reminded myself that this was no thrill ride.
The tires squealed as they fought against the cab’s desire to slide back up toward the wall. Halfway through the turn I remembered to exhale and felt the cab drift back up toward the outside wall. I risked a glance into the mirror to see we’d put considerable distance between ourselves and the German, but I also noted that he’d moved over to take a similar line through the next turn, hoping to make up the distance he’d lost.
We were halfway down the short straight to the next sweeping turn that would lead us onto the long front straightaway and toward the south end of the track—away from where Lance had parked the Stinson T. My foot still pressing the gas pedal to the floor, I pointed the cab toward the bottom of the turn; a moment later the tires again voiced their displeasure at being treated with so little regard.
Halfway through the turn we began to drift toward the concrete retaining wall I was certain had claimed the life of many a racecar driver. The sound of the tire rub had further diminished and, grateful that it was a left side tire and not one on the right side—the side that had borne most of the stress as we raced through the long left turns—I wondered how much tread might yet remain.
We came out of the turn in the middle of the track with another five-eighths’ mile of straightaway in front of us. In the rearview mirror I saw the other cab fishtail wildly. The German steered into the slide, which took him to within inches of the wall; still he was gaining on us rapidly. In front of me, to our left, was the entrance to the pit area, where during the race the cars received their service—fuel, tires and whatever maintenance might be required during a five-hundred-mile marathon.
I eased my foot off the accelerator and pointed the cab toward the pits. The other cab was beside us now, on our right, and I felt its nudge as the German bumped us, hoping to scare me into bringing us to a stop. I heard Melissa squeal and I braked, not to placate her but to allow the other cab to pass us; when he was clear of us he veered left and, now directly in front of us, began to slow. I hit the gas and steered right. Before the German could react, I managed to come abreast of his right rear quarter panel with my left front; at that point I veered left, hitting and causing the German to start to spin. The German turned left, realizing too late that he was heading for a large holding tank, used during the race to put gas into a racecar. I heard the squeal of tires—thankfully not our own—and wondered how much gas might be in the tank. I glanced up into the rearview mirror to see the German throw up his hands as his cab hit the holding tank at nearly forty miles per hour. I averted my eyes from the brightness of the explosion.
I kept up our speed, driving down the pit lane looking for an opening in the wall through which we could find our way into the infield. On the wall to our left, as we passed individual pit boxes, colorfully painted car sponsors flashed by—Preston Tucker, Federal Engineering, Bowes Seal Fast. We sped past the blue and white car that had passed us on the backstretch—Blue Crown Spark Plug the letters painted on its engine cowl identified. Its driver, still strapped in the cockpit, its mechanics huddled around the car, watched us go by. Seconds later we passed half a dozen men on foot racing toward the burning cab we’d left a quarter mile behind.
Eventually I saw an opening in the pit wall; I slowed and wheeled our cab to the left and drove under a sign that proclaimed Gasoline Alley. A cab driving through the garage area drew many curious glances, but no one approached us. Perhaps they were too startled; they couldn’t know that the rising smoke beyond the grandstand hadn’t been caused by a racecar that had crashed.
A few minutes later, while Lance fired up the Stinson T, I loaded our bags; a few minutes later still we were airborne. As my adrenaline ebbed, my fear of flying caught up with me as we cleared the trees at the south end of the track.
In 1992, a man approached J. Conrad Guest to tell his story. His name was Joe January. A private investigator from the South Bronx, circa 1940, January can best be described as an indignant Humphrey Bogart. That encounter resulted in January’s Paradigm. Current Entertainment Monthly in Ann Arbor, Michigan, wrote of January’s Paradigm, “Personal identity—the slipperiness and the malleability of it—makes up the major theme of the story … (readers) will not be able to put it down.” One Hot January and January’s Thaw are companion novels to January’s Paradigm, although they need not be read sequentially. Combined, they paint a profile of a man out of place out of time.
J. Conrad Guest is the author of Backstop: A Baseball Love Story in Nine Innings, also available from Second Wind Publishing. For a peek into J. Conrad’s literary world, please visit www.jconradguest.com.