Their outfits were of a similar fashion, not to say they were identical as in a uniform but cut from the same material, a peculiar fish-scaled texture that leisurely cycled through a series of patterns from leopard spots and tiger stripes to snakeskin and peacock plumes. The various leg cuffs either tapered into or covered to the ankle, boots of very thick fur, almost like a sea otter’s which actually consisted of two layers, an undercoat and longer guard hairs.
The woman replied with words I didn’t understand in a husky voice that caught me off guard. I have heard some men say they found the trait alluring in women and I hadn’t agreed until this moment. I wondered if I had spoken my thoughts aloud for the woman’s eyes fell upon me in a questioning manner.
Since eye contact had been established, I attempted to explain that we did not understand what they were saying. I spoke slowly and carefully ensuring that my movements and gestures could not be misconstrued as aggressive. She looked at me as if I was a fool and she had every right to because I felt like one.
Madi came to my rescue by explaining how we came to be here, starting with the strange occurrences on the subways, being visited by Duffy and Thompson, visiting Beach’s pneumatic tunnel and accidentally landing here.
The woman’s manner and stance were hard, but her eyes were soft, she listened to Madi’s retelling of our adventures quietly and politely, but those eyes never left my face. When Madi had finished, she simply stood there not saying a word. Had she understood any of it? Did she know we were not a threat to her? I could not tell.
The woman opened her mouth to ask, “When are you from?” articulating each word in a precise manner. It was English. She had understood us after all.
“We’re from New York,” I gestured to Madi and myself. “McKissick?”
“Same,” McKissick said. “By way of Arizona.”
“When. Are. You. From?” she asked again more forcefully this time.
It was a bizarre thing. I heard her say when the first time and thought she misspoke. I replied, “2018, of course. What does that have to do–”
The woman made a curt hand signal and the short, roundish man on the end nearest the door opened it and they filed out of the room quickly and efficiently. We chased after them and yelled for them to wait, not to lock us in again, but it was too late. The door slammed shut and the sound of metal bolts sliding into place echoed throughout the car. We pounded on the door and shouted until the futility of the action set in. We could not hear any sounds outside our prison; all was as silent as the grave, which made us suspect they were deaf to our noises.
If there was a positive to be found, in their haste our captors had left the domed lights, I wasn’t sure if it was their intention or not, but at least we were no longer in the dark and finally able to take in the room.
“It looks like an old-fashioned train car,” Madi said.
“I was thinking the same thing,” said McKissick.
Madi’s eyes went wide, “You don’t think-”
“The Zanetti?” McKissick shrugged. “No stranger than anything else we’ve encountered so far.”
“True,” I added, “but if the subway shroud is a doorway that leads on board the Zanetti and recorded sightings are far and few between, where does a railway bound Flying Dutchmen go when it doesn’t appear anywhere on the planet? We don’t seem to be moving.”
“And who are our captors?” asked McKissick. “Whatever language they were speaking it wasn’t Italian. And what about their clothes shifting patterns, forget the fashion, that isn’t even any current technology that I’m aware of.”
The car was equipped with eight windows, four to each side but they had been boarded up which was to say that bands of metal had been welded entirely across the frame, same as the windows on the doors at both ends of the car.
“And what don’t they want us to see?” Madi walked to a window and rapped one of the bands with the knuckle of her index finger.
Along the floor near the windows were broken bits of wood presumably from wooden seats that had been removed, so besides the runner rug and ourselves, there was nothing else in the car. We took turns individually trying to open the doors. There were no indications of locking mechanisms nor a keyhole so we were unable to make out just how they were fastened so securely, but they refused to budge even under the combined might of all three of us.
Going over the car with as fine-toothed a comb as we could manage, we each came to the conclusion we were trapped here and would have to wait our captors out. We sat on the runner rug in the center of the car.
“So… plan, anyone?” Madi asked.
“The only offensive strategy would be to rush the door when they open it again but there are too many unknowns to factor in,” McKissick said. “We don’t know what types of weapons they possess if any and how many more of them there are beside the six we’ve seen.”
“Even if we were successful, we don’t know the rules, how things operate and what our limitations are, so the best play is a defensive play,” I said. “If we can build their trust and gain some freedom we’ll each go on reconnaissance and gather as much information we can then regroup to form an offensive plan.”
Just then we heard a noise. The locks were turned, the door opened, and the woman appeared.
“Your plan won’t be necessary, we will cooperate with you and share as much information as is considered safe,” she said. “We have been anticipating your arrival, Mr. Quaice. Unfortunately, we seem to have met at the wrong time of your life.”
We rose from the floor when the woman entered the car, this time without her companions.
“How do you know what we were discussing before you opened that door?” asked Madi.
The woman gestured at the dome lights. “Each one has a listening device installed within it. Consider it a precautionary measure,” she said with an air of confidence that was unmistakable and palpable.
“Digerati, I presume?” the words flew out before I realized what I was saying. It wasn’t due to anything we had discussed or something that I actively contemplated while examining our current situation and with all the confusion surrounding the commotion of our arrival in this place, I hadn’t spared a moment of thought on the mysterious Morse code message we received on the antiquated telegraph machine in Beach’s renovated transit tunnel. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw my statement was as much a surprise to Madi and McKissick as it was to me.
“Pardon me?” the woman furrowed her brow and somehow I was convinced that she had no idea what I was referring to. Not knowing her, it was indeed possible that she was either an accomplished actress or liar. I was then confronted with the choice of pushing my subconscious and spontaneous wild stab in the dark and pressing her for answers or try a subtler approach to see what information she might volunteer. My choice was clear,
“You act as if you know me, but I’m certain we’ve never met because I doubt that I would have forgotten you.”
“No, we haven’t met before and we weren’t supposed to meet now, not your now, at least,” she shook her head and I thought I detected a hint of disappointment in her expression but it vanished so quickly I could not be sure I wasn’t mistaken.
“Not my now,” I repeated the phrase back to her, not as a question or a statement, I merely wanted her to hear what it sounded like from my point of view.
“Yes, I suppose explanations are in order. I do not know you personally, sir, but I know of you. You are Darius Quaice, founder of Qui Dubitat, Latin for Those Who Doubt, a professional skeptic, or more accurately a scientific skeptic, formally an investigator of modern miracles for the Catholic Church, before leaving the church behind to start a non-secular private organization that investigates and catalogs unexplainable phenomena. Your organization is famous in certain circles for challenging paranormal, occult, supernatural and pseudoscientific claims,” the woman said, leaning against the door frame with her arms folded. “I do not know your companions, though.”
“My name is Madison Wasonofski-”
“I know your names,” the woman waved Madi off, “I’ve gone through your effects. I simply wasn’t expecting yourself and Mr. McKissick.”
“But you were expecting me?” I asked.
The woman scanned me with profound attention, “Yes, Mr. Quaice, we are merely out of sequence.”
“I don’t understand.”
“You and I were destined, are destined, the tense becomes confusing sometimes, to meet. It seems that chance has outweighed fate for some bizarre reason because this encounter was supposed to occur two years in your future.”
“And our meeting now causes a problem?”
“I should say so for you currently do not possess the information we require to rectify matters.”
“What information is that?”
“How to get us home, sir, and fix the shambles we’ve made of time.”
Had we not been visited by Duffy and Thompson, had they not used a strange device to implant knowledge directly into my head, had that knowledge not lead us to discovering a hidden transit station thought destroyed and had clues from the station not led us to an encounter with the subway shroud, I would have thought the woman either insane or a fantastic liar. Instead, I nodded and accepted what she said at face value. I had questions, but they could wait until I properly digested the situation. Also, I was preoccupied with trying to locate the woman’s country of origin. She spoke perfect English, fluently as if it was her native tongue but her accent, though slight, was bizarre.
“You must accept my apologies for the rather shabby treatment and for the delay in making ourselves known to you,” she continued. “We have had previous visits by unexpected passengers, so to speak, which have resulted in major disruptions in our plans. Once your identity and time period had been established, I made the decision to delay this discussion to weigh the inconvenience of this annoying circumstance of seeking a man with solutions only to find that he does not have answers and his very presence may now trouble our existence.”
“Trouble your existence?” I replied and heard the restrained irritation in my voice. “Isolated in whatever this is you are probably unaware of what has been taking place in my now as you so casually put it. Unaware of the civilian injuries and train accidents caused by whatever it is you’re doing here and if our theories are correct, what you have been doing throughout time. Surely you can understand that my being here, of being hired to solve the mystery of the occurrences that you have been and are causing is bigger trouble to our existence than it is to yours.”
“Are we to be enemies, Mr. Quaice?” a slight smile curled the edges of her lips, but it contained no mirth. “Instead of aiding my endeavors to cease my disruptions in time and possibly repair the damage I have done, will you choose to stand in my way?”
I said nothing for I could not commit either way without a proper assessment of the situation. She spoke of the possibility of repairing damage, did that mean altering the timeline? If so, how much of it had she affected, how far back did it go and what would be the alterations to what I was accustomed to? Surely I would stop her from further damage if I was able but would I prevent her from undoing what was already history to me?
The woman took steps toward me and I was unsure of her intent. I braced myself for a possible confrontation but relaxed when she strode past and made her way to the door at the opposite end of the car, unlocking the magnetic mechanism. “For reasons neither of us understands, Mr. Quaice, you will become an important man in my life, so I need you. There is no record of my encountering your friends which means I do not need them. Their presence here might even prove to be a hindrance to your aiding me in my cause. It would have been quite simple, while you were unconscious, to cast them out into this…”
The woman let the door swing wide and I was drawn, we all were drawn, to what lay beyond the antiquated train car like moths to a lit candle, oblivious to the dangers of being burned alive or trapped within the wax of a vista that defied comprehension let alone description.