Toney was driving me crazy with his godforsaken song. On and on he went, singing the same line as he wrote his school work.
‘Gravity! When you throw a stone and it comes back down, it’s gravity.’
Of course, there was no real song with those lyrics, but Toney belted it out with great gusto. Toney was not his real name. It was Bill. Everyone called him Tony because he was one hundred percent tone deaf. He could be singing ‘Honky Tonk Women’, but one could figure that out only if they paid attention to the lyrics.
Usually, people around Toney tuned out when he started singing. But I wasn’t among them. Finding the song was a game to me. But, not today. 1978 was almost over. I had wasted more than two years, trying to hunt my nemesis – the time travelling assassin, who went by the callsign ‘Ghost’. Yes, that’s all I knew about the elusive Ghost.
Oh yeah, I forgot to mention that little factoid about myself. Hi, I’m Victorian Reed, and I’m from the future. Future? Oh yeah, I was born on January 22, 2068, in a nondescript suburb of… well let me not con-fuddle you any further. The place where I was born doesn’t exist in any cartographical representation of the world that is in 1978. I’m 40 years old, that means I have traveled back 132 years into the past in my current iteration of the singular mission I have been entrusted with – find and eliminate Ghost.
Because, the history of the world in 2108 is completely different from what it should’ve been. For example, the kids read about Adolf Hitler’s masterstroke of nuking New York, London, Paris, and Washington DC in September, 1943. They read how acting US President Henry A. Wallace bawled his eyes out like a little baby before signing the surrender documents aboard the Bismarck, surrounded by the raucous members of the Kreigsmarine.
The kids didn’t know anything about Mohandas Gandhi. The young barrister was killed in a freak accident on a train between Gauteng and Natal, and no one remembered his name after a few days. Italy took over the responsibility of ruling the Indian subcontinent from the British after WWII, the Olympics were scrapped, JFK wasn’t killed by Lee Harvey Oswald and became a puppet of Nazi Germany, China was broken into twenty different fragments for easier Governance by the Japanese, General Motors and Ford were reduced to mere distributors of Volkswagen and Fiat respectively… you get the drift.
It wasn’t the history I studied as a kid though, everything changed between 2095 and 2105. That was when Ghost decided to rewrite the world’s history as per his or her whims and fancies, and I was tasked with the responsibility of putting things back in place, starting with killing Ghost.
Well, you may ask, why couldn’t I just go back in time and sort the mess created by Ghost? I tried that, with the nasty piece of business that was the attempted assassination of JFK. It was April, 2095. Life was pretty much normal for a time traveling nomad, that was what I was. My job was to travel back in time to collect missing details from the world’s history. There is a famous saying that history is written by winners, and only a time traveler could appreciate how true that statement was.
With each travel, I managed to fill in some gaping, crater-wide holes and retrieve the lost pages from the annals of history. We, a team of ten TA’s (Time Agents) worked for the International Agency for Historical Accuracy, IAHA if you will. We came from all over the world and worked pretty much on our own. We reported to the central command, which disbursed us mission details and necessary travel requisites pertaining to the era we were traveling. We were permitted to travel to any moment back in time, with one simple caveat – we were allowed only to witness and not alter any event.
Ghost was one of my fellow TA, who one day decided to go rogue and alter the very fabric of what we know and what really happened. Let me regale you with the JFK assassination story. It was April 2095, when Command Centre received reliable information about Ghost traveling back in time to muck up the JFK affair. CC, obviously, decided to ignore the information and overnight things changed in the most dramatic of fashions.
I went to sleep with my wife and woke up in a completely different bed, in a different city, in a different country. She was convinced that nothing had changed, but I knew that something had gone wrong somewhere. One develops these sorta things when traveling back and forth in time becomes a norm. I walked out to see drones in the air and a sky that was just wrong. My comms device buzzed and what I suspected came to be the truth. Ghost had taken out Lee Harvey Oswald, minutes before he killed JFK and the world changed. I was tasked to set things right and I traveled back to November 22, 1963 only to realize that Ghost had struck before me.
I saw the crumpled body of Lee Harvey and the tell-tale smell of diluted Plutonium from the swivel reactor that charged the time machine. The Presidential Motorcade was almost past Dealey Plaza when I decided that I had to act. I grabbed Lee Harvey’s Carcano M91/38 bolt-action rifle, aimed, and let loose the bullet that nestled itself in the President’s head, instantly killing him. My first ever kill was a man who was born one hundred and fifty-one years before me – President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
I returned back to 2095 and went home to my wife, who was none the wiser to what had transpired. Things were back to normal, or so we thought. Ghost lay in wait until 2108, and hit back with a vengeance – killing Franklin D Roosevelt and Winston Churchill in one fell swoop. The deviations in the fabric of time caused by Ghost’s actions were well beyond acceptable levels, and my life was ripped apart in the most excruciating of ways possible – my wife and our two daughters didn’t exist in this new world that was nothing but a shrivelled husk of the place I lived with my family.
From that moment, my life has been consumed with a singular mission of stopping Ghost. The history can be reset for good only after Ghost was taken out of the equation. I had a previous run-in with Ghost, but to my regret, I was two steps behind my nemesis.
It was way back in June, 1943. The location was Bangor, Maine. I had confidential information that Ghost was lying low before the Axis powers nuked the Allies. I had spent three years from 1940, to 1943 working my leads, buying and trading information, trying to get closer to Ghost. The World War was the main event – with every passing day, came the news of yet another battle, yet another skirmish, yet another instance of indiscriminate killing. My informant had brought with him the news of a stranger in town, who frequented the bars along the pier in the evenings. This stranger apparently knew more than what anyone knew about the war and was happy enough to blurt out details as long as a free drink was placed in front of him.
It was eight in the evening when I stepped into Clarky’s, a shady little booze joint. As informed, the stranger was there, sitting by himself in a dark corner nursing his whiskey and soda. I made my way past the sparsely crowded bar and sat opposite him.
The man smiled at me and went back to his drinking. I signalled the waitress to get a whiskey and soda for my new friend and a beer for myself.
‘Whiskey, the only elixir known to man!’ I raised my glass to him and took a deep drink.
‘Whiskey, and truth!’
‘Truth?’ I raised my eyebrows.
‘Don’t you think so? Truth, the absolute truth is an elixir as well.’ A young black man was singing a folksy blues number on the ramshackle stage, and the stranger was swaying his body to the music. I realised that I had heard this particular song somewhere during my travels.
‘You like the song?’
‘I do,’ I replied. ‘Though, for the life of me, I can’t recall the name of the song.’
The stranger chuckled, ‘The song’s name is in the pines. Bill Monroe was the artist, but this version was done by a negro singer called Leadbelly.’
‘Ah!’ I remembered now. I also remembered that it was the 1940s and negro was a very acceptable word.
‘Many say that Leadbelly’s version is better, but I have heard one more version. A young white guy called Kurt, his rendition is laced with pain and suffering and the sheer weight of the soul.’
And things fell into place, just like that. The rendition referred by the stranger wouldn’t be sung for at least half a decade. It would be the 18th of November, 1993 when a 26-year-old Kurt Cobain, the lead singer of the grunge band Nirvana, would deliver this soul stirring performance at the Sony Music Studios in New York.
I smiled, finished my drink, and looked at the stranger. Realisation dawned in his eyes; I had made him.
He smiled a mysterious smile and nodded, ‘Yes, I was expecting you.’
‘Oh, you did?’ I didn’t mask the sarcasm in my voice. He smiled once again and said, ‘Absolutely! I was told that you’d come.’
He started laughing, ‘I don’t know what the hell you and your friend are up to, but let me tell you this: you lot are absolutely barmy.’
‘My friend?’ I was stumped.
‘Oh, yeah!’ He signaled for another whiskey, ‘The beautiful girl, looks like a movie star. She told me that someone would come searching for Ghost. I was supposed to tell you about Leadbelly, and the other buck Kurt and stuff…God knows what y’all are doing!’
‘Oh, she asked me to give you her address.’
He gave me a slip of paper. I looked at the address and froze. It was the address of my informant. I rushed to his place only to find him and his family brutally murdered. Everyone, including two small children – a boy and a girl not more than three, were shot point blank. It was an execution, a message sent – to me.
I howled in anger, and frustration. Message received. Ghost was a woman. And I was going to kill her, whatever it took. I went back to 2108 and lay wait for information. It came within days – CC had information that a time wrinkle was spotted in 1976, and the intended target was the former Governor of California, and the man who was spearheading the American freedom movement against a weakening Germany – Ronald Reagan.
Boiling with righteous anger and vengeance, I zapped back to 1976 Fresno, California. Ronald Reagan had set his base there and was drumming up support for his cause. It is time for America to come back to the Americans he bellowed to the belligerent crowds that swarmed him like flies. Adolf Hitler was on his deathbed, and Germany wasn’t able to handle the affairs of the United States of America from afar while Russia was stockpiling nuclear armaments right in its backyard. The time was ripe for an American hero and Reagan was the poster boy for the American way – tall, handsome, and full of piss and vinegar.
Yet his days were numbered, unless I could find and stop Ghost. I started the process once again – building contacts, trading favors, setting up multiple information grapevines akin to a spider’s web… he usual. Yet, here I am, in December 1978 and I haven’t gotten any closer to Ghost. All the communication channels were quiet, there were no sightings of strangers, no odd occurrences or utterances, and most importantly, Ronald Reagan was still living, breathing, and whipping the regular Joes and Janes into a patriotic frenzy.
I was ready to give up, and admit defeat. To tell you the truth, I had lost my edge. I was getting comfortable with my life in Fresno, where I worked as an electrician. I was seeing a wonderful woman, a teacher in the local primary school. Lizzy Andrews was tall, beautiful, brilliant, and I was way out of her league. Still she had no qualms in going out with me. It started as a subterfuge, I had to give the impression of a common man instead of the mysterious loner vibes that followed me like a stench, but it has blossomed into something beautiful.
I’m ashamed to tell you this, but I was ready to forget my wife and children and settle down with Lizzy in 1978 Fresno. Maybe it was for the best. Hitler’s, and Germany’s days were numbered. The United States would re-emerge as a superpower with Reagan at its helm. I could live in such a scenario. As long as I couldn’t find Ghost, my wife and children in the future wouldn’t even exist.
I stand up with a sigh! It’s official, I gave up. I shed tears for the three women who I had loved more than anything, but who will never exist in this iteration of the world. I decided to propose to Lizzy that night.
‘Gravity! When you throw a stone and it comes back down, it’s gravity!’
Toney’s voice pulled me out of my ruminations. I smiled at the boy and called him over.
‘Hey, Mr. Reed! Did you like my song?’
‘What is this song, Toney?’
Toney shrugged and said, ‘Ms. Andrews taught me this song, Mr. Reed. It helps me understand and remember the concept of gravity.’
‘That’s really good, Toney! Well done.’
The boy looked at me, hurt etched in his eyes. ‘My name is Bill, Mr. Reed. I don’t like when people call me Toney. Ms. Andrews is the only person other than my parents who calls me Bill.’
I looked down, ashamed. ‘I’m sorry, Bill. I won’t call you Toney anymore. Will you forgive me?’
He laughs and nods. ‘Of course, Mr. Reed! Now, let’s play our game. Find the song.’
‘Sure, sing it again.’
‘When you throw a stone…’
When you lose control…
‘and it comes back down…’
And you got no soul…
Ha! I knew the song. It’s… I stood up so fast that I felt a sudden rush of dizziness. Everything came down crashing on me with the force of a collapsing skyscraper. I patted Bill on his head and headed towards the local pawn shop where they sold an assortment of things, ranging from rings to rackets, from guns to gemstones. I made my preparations and waited for Lizzy to come back.
She came in looking like a tired angel and was immediately startled by the flowers and the bottle of champagne on the table. To complete the portrait of clichés, I was wearing my best tuxedo and went down on one knee. Tears sprang from her gorgeous eyes and her right hand went to her mouth to stifle a sob.
‘Victorian…’ She gasped.
‘Hello Lizzy,’ My right hand went into the pocket of my tuxedo and came up with a sinister looking Colt Magnum revolver. I stood up, trained it on her forehead and said, ‘or, should I call you Ghost?’
‘Here I lie in a lost and lonely part of town…’
I started singing the Bee Gees hit single, Tragedy.
‘In a world of tears, I slowly drown…’
She looked at me with tears still trickling down her cheeks.
‘Going home…I just can’t make it all alone… I really should be holding you…holding you…loving you…’
She stood there, unmoving, like a sad statue.
‘Tragedy, when the feeling’s gone and you can’t go on, it’s tragedy!’
She nodded ever so slightly.
‘For someone so elusive, you are reckless with your musical choices Ghost!’ I spat out, ‘In this world, the Bee Gees don’t exist. They died as kids when Germany bombed the United Kingdom. Yet, here’s Toney…sorry Bill…singing a song by the Bee Gees.’
‘I loved you!’ I growled, ‘You vile creature! You knew who I was, didn’t you?’
She nodded and said, ‘Yes, I did. I knew who you were right from Day 1.’
I shook my head, ‘You played me, Lizzy! Is Lizzy even your real name? You played me for a fool. You numbed me with your affection and stopped me from my mission.’
‘No, Victorian. I came into this relationship with the same amount of sincerity you did. At least, I knew who you were. You entered a relationship with a woman only for a cover. But in these last couple of years, I have fallen for you. I love you with all my heart, Victorian.’
I laughed and said, ‘And the Oscar for the best actress goes to…’
‘Shut up, you moron!’ She snarled. ‘Why the hell do you think Reagan is still alive? I could’ve disposed him in 1976, if I wanted. Every single day I spent with you, I kept postponing my plans to assassinate the pretty boy and suddenly, one day I woke up realized that I didn’t give a shit if Reagan was alive or dead. I didn’t give a hoot about anything else. Do you know why?’
‘I realized that I was content. The madness inside my head cleared away like the fog once the sun comes out. The love I had for you was the ray of sunshine I had needed all my life, Victorian. We have something beautiful here. Let’s give our love a chance. Please?’
It was true, I did love her.
April 1, 2108
I opened the door, and walked into the embrace of my three women.
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