Temp Work

When you get your first time machine, everyone warns you about the Grandfather Paradox. No one warns you about the smell. Victorian London, for example, smelled like a 24/7 tire fire. And Medieval name-your-population-center reeked of open sewer.

Still, a job’s a job, right?

Artifact retrieval is big business these days. In theory, it’s pretty straightforward. Jump back to a point just before a major disaster, grab a bunch of valuable stuff about to be destroyed, replace it with decent reproductions, get the fuck out before all hell breaks loose. Easy …in theory.

In practice, things don’t always go as planned. Things aren’t where they’re supposed to be – or didn’t actually ever exist. Or, worst possible scenario, someone actually sees you.

Well, OK, the worst possible scenario is screwing up the timing of your exit and ending up, say, part of a lava flow. But being seen’s pretty bad too.

Oh, I’ve been seen before, of course. Just not by anyone who survived. No one who could report an oddly-dressed person materializing out of thin air, swapping out a copy of “Birds of America”, then disappearing. The key here is, no witnesses.

Then again, running into the soon-to-be recently-deceased is no picnic either. This one time… Jeez… This one time, I had to rescue a Watteau painting from a house fire. They had it hanging in their dining room. I don’t think they even knew it was worth anything. Just hanging there, over the sideboard. Easy job, right?

So, I pull down the Watteau, hang up a rough copy – it was going to end up as ashes in a couple minutes anyway – turn around and… there’s this kid standing there. Must’ve been 4 years old or something. Cute kid. Looked like she’d just dropped out of a Rockwell painting. Curly hair, footie pajamas, clutching a blanket. The whole bit.

But you can’t rescue people. Totally against the rules. If I’d shown up with a Watteau and a kid when I got back, I would’ve lost my license. Probably gotten a hefty fine and jail time. Still, I stood there thinking about it for a while, though. I mean, she was just a kid. Wasn’t her fault she got stuck in a burning building. Yeah, I really thought about it.

A couple seconds later, the decision was made for me, though. The kid looked off to her right, looked back at me for a sec, then ran into the kitchen. Never said a word, just took off. I half-considered going after her but just then, something in the kitchen went up. Kid was a goner. And, hey, I had to get out of there pretty damn quick or I’d be toast too.

Yeah, it’s days like that… Jeez. Makes it hard to sleep at night. You want to get into this business? You gotta be prepared for shit like that. I didn’t get this haunted look on my face from watching scary movies, I can tell you that.

Another thing to watch out for is claim-jumping. You get a call to grab a van Gogh from a gallery fire, do the old in-and-out, no sweat. You bring it back and… the appraiser tells you it’s a fake! Some other asshole swapped it out ten minutes before you got there. And, boom, it shows up on the black market a couple days later. I’ve lost some pretty sweet commissions to crap like that.

My advice: Stick to the low-end stuff. The big ticket items? Too many “interested parties”, y’know? Case in point: In private collections around the world right now, there are five, FIVE, Amelia Earhart flight jackets. And nobody knows which one’s the real one. Stay away from the big prizes. That’s all I’m saying.

But that’s not really why you’re here, is it? Yeah, you want to hear more about that kid. I saw the way you looked at me when I started talking about that.

You already know what happened, don’t you? Yeah, I went back. I delivered the Watteau, collected my fee, then took a quick “unofficial” trip. Totally off-the-books thing. Against the rules in a big way. Had to shell out a good chunk of my commission to have the right folks look the other way for a couple minutes. Y’know, “forget” to log a transit?

So, yeah, I plop down right inside that kitchen and wave the kid over. Man, was she confused. Heh. Seeing two of me at the same time? The look on her face. Got us both out of there just before the stove blew up.

But now I’ve got an undocumented kid on my hands. What to do? Well, let’s just say I know a guy. Got a forged birth certificate and had it linked to the records of a recently deceased couple with no next of kin. Took the kid to an adoption agency. Had to find one that was going to do right by the kid but not ask too many questions. And, yeah, that pretty much blew the rest of my commission. Worth it, though.

And that’s that. Jeez, that was, what, sixteen years ago? Feels like yesterday. Must’ve covered my tracks pretty good, too. Never got caught for that one. Oh, sure, I got my wrist slapped for a few minor infractions. But I got away with that one.

Until now, right? I mean, I just confessed to you and all …but you already knew, huh? Yeah, thought so.

OK, so now it’s your turn to talk. I got a million questions. Are you really interested in getting into the business or was that just to get your foot in the door? How’d you find me anyway? The folks who adopted you, did they treat you OK?

(Excerpt from “Dandelion Seeds”)