REPLAY
by Ken Grimwood

 

FOURTEEN  (continued)

A light snow began to fall from the iron-drab sky as they drove into Crossfield, about thirty-five miles south of Madison. In the passenger seat of the big Plymouth Fury Pamela tensely ripped a Kleenex into thin strips of tissue, wadding them one by one and depositing them in the dashboard ashtray. Jeff hadn’t seen her display that nervous habit since the night at the restaurant in Malibu when they’d first met, nineteen years ago and five years in the future.

‘Do you still think there’ll be just the one man?’ she asked, looking out at the barren winter skeletons of the birch trees that lined the streets of the little town.

‘Probably,’ Jeff said, peering through the snow at the black-and-grey street signs. ‘I don’t think that reference to “everybody” remembering the Tylenol killings and the Korean plane meant anything. I’m sure he was referring to people in general, after the incidents have happened, not some group of replayers he’s gathered together.’

Pamela finished shredding the Kleenex, reached for another. ‘I don’t know whether I hope that’s true or the other way around,’ she said in a perplexed tone. ‘In a way, it would be such an incredible relief to find a whole network of people who understand what we’ve been through. Yet I’m not sure if I’m ready to deal with … that much accumulated pain of such a familiar sort. Or to hear all the things they may have learned about replaying.’

‘I thought that was the whole point.’

‘It’s just a little frightening, that’s all, now that we’re so close to it. I wish this Stuart McCowan had been listed with information; I’d feel a lot more comfortable if we’d been able to call him, get a better idea of who he is than from just that note. I hate showing up cold like this.’

‘I’m sure he’s expecting us. Obviously, we weren’t about to turn down his invitation, not after the effort we went through to find him.’

‘There’s Strathmore,’ Pamela said, pointing to a street that wound up a hill to the left. Jeff had already passed the intersection; he made a U, turned onto the broad, deserted street.

Number 382 was an isolated three-storey Victorian home on the other side of the hill. An estate, actually, with spacious, well-kept grounds behind the roughhewn flagstone walls. Pamela began to tear at another Kleenex as they drove through the imposing gate, but Jeff stopped her fitful hand with his and gave her a warm smile of encouragement.

They parked under the wide portico, grateful for the shelter from the steadily increasing snowfall. An ornate brass knocker was mounted on the front door of the house, but Jeff found the doorbell and pressed that instead.

A matronly woman in a severe brown dress with a white bib collar answered the door. ‘Can I help you?’ she asked.

‘Is Mr McCowan in, please?’

The woman frowned above her pince-nez bifocals. ‘Mr …’

‘McCowan. Stuart McCowan. Doesn’t he live here?’

‘Oh, dear me, Stuart. Of course. Do you have an appointment?’

‘No, but I believe he’s expecting us; if you’ll just tell him it’s his friends from New York, I’m sure –’

‘Friends?’ Her frown deepened. ‘You’re friends of Stuart’s?’

‘Yes, from New York.’

The woman seemed flustered. ‘I’m afraid … why don’t you come in out of the cold, have a seat for a moment? I’ll be right back.’

Jeff and Pamela sat together on an overstuffed, high-backed settee in the musty entrance hall as the woman disappeared down a hallway.

‘There is more than one of them,’ Pamela whispered. ‘He doesn’t even own this house, apparently. The maid only knew him by his first name. It’s some kind of commune, some –’

A tall, grey-haired man in a tweed suit emerged from the hallway, with the plump woman in the pince-nez glasses behind him. ‘You say you’re friends of Stuart McCowan’s?’ he asked.

‘We’re, ah … We’ve been in correspondence with him,’ Jeff said, standing.

‘And who initiated this correspondence?’

‘Look, we’re here at Mr McCowan’s express invitation. We’ve come all the way from New York to see him, so if you could just let him know –’

‘What was the nature of your correspondence with Stuart?’

‘I don’t see that that’s any of your business. Why don’t you ask him?’

‘Everything that concerns Stuart is my business. He is in my care.’

Jeff and Pamela exchanged a quick look. ‘What do you mean, in your care? Are you a doctor? Is he ill?’

‘Quite seriously. Why are you interested in his case? Are you journalists? I will not tolerate any invasion of my patients’ privacy, and if you’re from some newspaper or magazine, I suggest you leave immediately.’

‘No, neither of us is a reporter.’ Jeff handed the man one of the business cards that identified him as a venture-capital consultant, and introduced Pamela as his associate.

The wary tension in the man’s face eased, and he gave an apologetic smile. ‘I’m so sorry, Mr Winston; if I’d known it was a business matter … I’m Dr Joel Pfeiffer. Please understand that I was only trying to protect Stuart’s interests. This is a very exclusive, very discreet facility, and any –’

‘This isn’t Stuart McCowan’s home, then? This is some sort of hospital?’

‘A treatment centre, yes.’

‘Is it his heart? Are you a cardiologist?’

The doctor frowned. ‘You’re not familiar with his background?’

‘No, we’re not. Our connection with him is strictly … business-oriented. Investment matters.’

Pfeiffer nodded understandingly. ‘Whatever his other problems, Stuart retains a tremendous sense of the market. I encourage his ongoing involvement in financial affairs. Of course, all his profits go into a trust now, but perhaps someday, if he continues to make progress …’

‘Dr Pfeiffer, are you saying – Is this a mental hospital?’

‘Not a hospital. A private psychiatric unit, yes.’

Christ, Jeff thought. So that’s it; McCowan said too much to the wrong people at some point, and they’ve committed him. Jeff glanced at Pamela, saw that she, too, had understood immediately. They’d both recognized the risk that too open an admission of their experiences might lead to an outsider’s assumption that they were insane; now here was living proof of that danger.

The doctor misunderstood their interchange. ‘I hope you won’t hold Stuart’s problems against him,’ he said with concern. ‘I assure you, his financial judgement has been impeccable throughout all this.’

‘That won’t be an issue,’ Jeff told him. ‘We understand it must have been … difficult for him, but we’re well aware of the sound management he’s continued to apply to his portfolio.’ The lie seemed to ease Pfeiffer’s worry. Jeff guessed that the McCowan trust was responsible for a large share of the operating costs of this place, perhaps even its initial endowment.

‘Could we see him now?’ Pamela asked. ‘If we’d known the circumstances in advance, naturally we would have arranged an appointment through you, but considering we’ve already come all this distance …’

‘Of course,’ Dr Pfeiffer assured her. ‘We have no set visiting hours here; you can see him right away. Marie,’ he said, turning to the grey-haired woman behind him, ‘could you have Stuart brought down to the sitting room, please?’

A pretty young woman in a lacy yellow dress sat in a window alcove of the room Dr Pfeiffer showed them to. She was watching the snowfall, but turned expectantly as they walked in.

‘Hello,’ the girl said. ‘Are you here to see me?’

‘They’re here to see Stuart, Melinda,’ the doctor told her gently.

‘That’s all right,’ she said with a cheerful smile. ‘Somebody’s coming to see me on Wednesday, aren’t they?’

‘Yes, your sister will be here Wednesday.’

‘I could bring Stuart’s guests some tea and cake, though, couldn’t I?’

‘If they’d like some, certainly.’

Melinda descended from her white-backdropped perch. ‘Would you care for some tea and cake?’ she asked politely.

‘Yes, thank you,’ Pamela said. ‘That would be very thoughtful.’

‘I’ll go get it, then. The tea is in the kitchen and the cake is in my room. My mother made it. Will you wait?’

‘Of course, Melinda. We’ll be right here.’

She went out through a side door of the room, and they could hear her rushing footsteps on the stairs. Jeff and Pamela examined their surroundings: comfortable leather chairs arranged in a semicircle around the brick fireplace, where two logs burned brightly; muted blue wallpaper dotted with a subtle fleur-de-lis pattern; a Tiffany lamp hanging in the opposite corner of the room, above a mahogany table where someone had half-completed a jigsaw puzzle of a monarch butterfly. Plush, dark blue drapes were opened to reveal a snowy hilltop vista.

‘This is quite nice,’ Jeff said. ‘It doesn’t look at all like –’

‘Like what it is?’ The doctor smiled. ‘No, we try to maintain as normal, and as pleasant, an environment as possible. No bars on the windows, as you can see; none of the staff members wear uniforms. I believe the atmosphere speeds the recovery process and makes the transition back to everyday life much easier when a patient is ready to go home.’

‘What about Stuart? Do you think he’ll be ready to leave here soon?’

Pfeiffer pursed his lips, looked out of the window at the steady snow. ‘He’s made excellent progress since his transfer here. I have high hopes for Stuart. There are complications, naturally, a number of legal hurdles to be –’

A slight, sallow-faced man in his early thirties came into the room, followed by a muscular young man in jeans and a grey wool sweater. The paler man wore blue slacks, well-polished Italian loafers, and an open-necked white dress shirt. His hair had begun to recede and was thinning somewhat on top.

‘Stuart,’ the doctor said expansively. ‘You have unexpected visitors. Business associates, I believe, from New York. Jeff Winston, Pamela Phillips; Stuart McCowan.’

The prematurely balding man smiled pleasantly, extended his hand. ‘At last,’ he said, gripping first Jeff’s hand, then Pamela’s. ‘I’ve waited a long time for this moment.’

‘I know how you feel,’ Jeff responded quietly.

‘Well,’ Dr Pfeiffer said, ‘I’ll leave you to your meeting. I’m afraid Mike, here, will have to stay. It’s a stipulation imposed on us by the court; I have no choice in the matter. But he won’t be in your way. You can speak as privately as you wish.’

The burly attendant nodded, took a seat at the table beneath the Tiffany lamp, and began working on the jigsaw puzzle as the doctor left the room.

‘Have a seat,’ Stuart said, indicating the chairs by the fireplace.

‘God,’ Jeff said with immediate sympathy, ‘how awful this must be for you.’

Stuart frowned. ‘It’s not so bad. Much, much better than some of the other places.’

‘I don’t mean the place itself, I mean the fact that this has happened to you at all. We’ll do everything we can to get you out of here as soon as possible. I have an excellent attorney in New York; I’ll see to it that he’s on a plane out here tomorrow morning. He can straighten this out, I know.’

‘I appreciate your concern. It’ll take a while, though.’

‘How did you –’

‘Tea and cake,’ Melinda announced brightly, coming through the door with a silver tray.

‘Thank you, Melinda,’ Stuart said. ‘That’s very sweet of you. I’d like you to meet some friends of mine, Jeff and Pamela. They’re from my own time, from the 1980s.’

‘Oh,’ the girl said happily, ‘Stuart’s told me all about the future. About Patty Hearst and the SLA, and what happened in Cambodia, and –’

‘Let’s not talk about all that now,’ Jeff interrupted her, glancing over his shoulder at the attendant, who sat obliviously engrossed in the jigsaw puzzle. ‘Thanks for the refreshments. Here, I’ll take the tray.’

‘If you want any more, I’ll be in the front room. It was nice to meet you; can we talk about the future later?’

‘Maybe,’ Jeff said tersely. The girl smiled and left the room. ‘Jesus, Stuart,’ Jeff said when she had gone, ‘you shouldn’t have done that. You shouldn’t have confided in her at all, let alone told her about us. How’s that going to look if she says anything to anybody?’

‘No one really pays any attention to what we say in here. Hey, Mike,’ he called, and the attendant looked over. ‘Know who’s going to win the World Series three years running, starting in 1972? Oakland.’

The attendant nodded blankly, went back to his puzzle.

‘See what I mean?’ Stuart grinned. ‘They don’t even listen. When the A’s start winning, he won’t remember I ever told him they would.’

‘I still don’t think it’s a good idea. It could make our efforts to get you out of here much more difficult.’

The pale man shrugged. ‘That’s neither here nor there.’ He turned to Pamela. ‘You made Starsea, didn’t you?’

‘Yes,’ she said with a smile. ‘It’s nice to know someone remembers it.’

‘Very, very well. I almost wrote you a letter after I saw that; I knew right away you must be a repeater, and the movie validated a lot of things I’d learned myself. It renewed my sense of purpose.’

‘Thank you. You mention the things you’ve learned. I wondered – have you … experienced the skew? The accelerating start dates of the replays, or repeats, as you think of them?’

‘Yes,’ Stuart said. ‘This last one was almost a year late.’

‘Mine was a year and a half; Jeff’s was only three months. We’ve been thinking that, if we could plot an exact curve between the various starting times, we might be able to predict … how much time we’ll lose on the next cycle. But it would have to be very precise. Have you kept track of –’

‘No, I haven’t been able to.’

‘If we all three compared notes, maybe it would jog your memory; we could at least start to narrow it down.’

He shook his head. ‘It wouldn’t work. The first three times I began repeating, I was unconscious. In a coma.’

‘What?’

‘I had a car accident in 1963 – You did start coming back in 1963, didn’t you?’ he asked, looking from Pamela to Jeff and back again.

‘Yes,’ Jeff assured him. ‘Early May.’

‘Right. Well, that April I’d been in an accident, totalled my car. I was in a coma for eight weeks, and every time I’d wake up, I’d be repeating. I thought the coma had something to do with it, until this time. So I don’t know whether my – what did you call it? The difference in the start dates?’

‘The skew.’

‘I don’t know whether my skew the first three times was a matter of hours or days or weeks. Or if there was any at all.’ The disappointment in Pamela’s face was evident, even to McCowan. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said. ‘I wish I could be of more help.’

‘It’s not your fault,’ she said. ‘I’m sure that must have been terrible for you, coming to in a hospital that way, and now –’

‘It’s all part of the performance; I accept it.’

‘“Performance”? I don’t understand.’

Stuart frowned quizzically at her. ‘You have been in touch with the ship, haven’t you?’

‘I don’t know what you mean. What ship?’

‘The Antarean ship. Come on, you did Starsea. I’m a repeater, too; you don’t have to play ignorant with me.’

‘We honestly don’t know what you’re talking about,’ Jeff told him. ‘Are you saying you’ve been in touch with the … people, or beings, who are responsible for all this? That they’re extraterrestrials?’

‘Of course. My God, I just assumed … Then you haven’t been performing the appeasement?’ His already wan face went whiter still.

Jeff and Pamela looked at each other, and at him, in confusion. They’d both considered the possibility that an alien intelligence might somehow be involved in the replays, but had never received the slightest indication that this was in fact the case.

‘I’m afraid you’re going to have to explain all this from the beginning,’ Jeff said.

McCowan glanced at the still-impassive young man, who remained hunched over the jigsaw puzzle in the far corner of the room. He moved his chair closer to Jeff and Pamela, spoke in subdued tones.

‘The repeating, or replaying – they don’t care anything about that,’ he said, jerking his head to indicate the attendant. ‘It’s the appeasement that gets them upset.’ He sighed, looked searchingly into Jeff’s eyes. ‘You really need to hear the whole story? From the start?’

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