The door was unmarked, set into the alley side of a brick commercial building, boasting no more fanfare than a keyhole. It hadn't been easy finding it, but then none of them had been easy.
Out of nowhere, Dr. Gaspar's words surfaced and then faded from Vaughn's mind like a dying echo that grows faint but does not expire, retreating into a subterranean recess to linger and rebound off the chasm's walls so that its whisper can never be disregarded, not truly. It's not a question of if you would go back. That point is moot now, is it not, Leonard? The real question is, if you could, how far back would you go? The old man had been known to lubricate his gears with a generous swallow from his hip flask as often as a sober man might quench thirst with cool water, but the eloquence of philosophy only passed his lips when he was truly lit. Vaughn let the memory pass, cleared his throat, and spat into a puddle. It was time to work.
A homeless man and his mutt were rooting through a nearby dumpster, oblivious to the pouring rain. Vaughn ignored them, but Prescott watched with an amused half-smirk.
"You know," said Prescott, "in seventeenth-century England, a heavy storm would cause the bodies of all the dead animals to wash through the city streets on their way down to the sea. Hence the phrase, 'raining cats and dogs.'"
Vaughn blinked. "That is truly fascinating."
He handed Prescott the key and let him open the door as a safety precaution. If anyone was going to get shot today, it was going to be Prescott, not Vaughn. Prescott didn't seem to mind; he even volunteered to do it. Vaughn suspected he got some sort of adrenaline kick from taking point. Prescott also went skydiving on the weekends, drove his Ferrari ninety miles per hour on surface streets, and ate blood sausage. Vaughn admired the man's hubris. It was useful.
Unlike last time, shrapnel didn't burst through the threshold the moment the door swung open. Vaughn was grateful for that. Connolly-Rabin paid him well, but not enough to get shot at.
Through the doorway he could see a staircase leading up to a hallway on the second floor. He stood back and gestured at Prescott with an upturned palm.
Prescott grinned and sauntered inside, cracking his knuckles. Vaughn followed, shaking the rain off his trench coat. The stairs creaked beneath their $900 boots as they ascended to the level above; Vaughn cursed the noise every step of the way. He held the railing for balance, and when he reached the top his hand came away covered in dust.
There were two doors in the short, poorly lit hall, the left labeled 200 and the right 201. Vaughn tapped Prescott on the arm and signed a two, a zero, and then another two with his fingers. Prescott walked past 201 and stopped in front of a bare section of the wall just out of range of the nearest beam of light. His fingers caressed the wall until they found the nearly imperceptible grooves outlining a rectangle the exact dimensions of the door to his left.
Vaughn gave him a thumbs-up sign.
Prescott knocked with one hand while the other disappeared into his jacket.
Almost immediately the unmarked door opened the few inches allowed by its chain. A man in his twenties with two-day stubble peered out through the gap. "Yes?" He sounded congested.
For a brief moment Vaughn thought happily, Did we actually beat 'em to this guy? He moved in front of Prescott and gave the man his most convincing smile. "Garrett? Garrett Nash?"
"Yeah, that's me. Who are you?" The words came out timid, as if the last time he'd dared open his front door he'd gotten a crowbar to the face.
"My name is Leo Vaughn, and this is my associate, Abraham Prescott. We represent the Connolly-Rabin Corporation. May we come in?"
"Um. Okay. Sure."
Vaughn waited patiently for Nash to close the door, remove the chain, and then open it again. When he noted that Nash's hands were empty, he entered first, making Prescott follow. Nash led them to a room crammed with television screens, computer monitors, servers, miles of cable, and empty bags of Doritos. Viscous blue liquid bubbled in a trio of glass cylinders that ran from floor to ceiling in the far corner, halfheartedly concealed by a crude pile of empty cardboard boxes.
"I know you're as busy as we are, Mr. Nash, so I'll get right to the point," Vaughn began, reciting the sales pitch he'd memorized word for word. "Connolly-Rabin is prepared to—"
"How did you find me?" Nash interrupted.
Vaughn smiled again. "We're very good at what we do, Mr. Nash. And we get paid very well to do it." He segued flawlessly back into sales mode. "We're willing to pay you just as well for a mere twenty-four hours of your time."
"That's right." Vaughn reached into the breast pocket of his tailored Brioni jacket and withdrew a sealed envelope. He held it out to Nash. "This is a message from Alistair Connolly himself. I suggest you read it. Now."
Nash tore open the envelope and started on the letter. As he did, Vaughn heard a noise coming from the adjacent room. Prescott looked up sharply; he'd heard it too.
"Is there…someone else here?" said Vaughn.
"Yeah, that's Steve."
As if on cue, a young man about Nash's age entered the room, wiping his hand on his grease-stained T-shirt. A cell phone was pressed to one ear. When he saw Vaughn and Prescott his jaw dropped. "I'll call you back," he said into the phone before shutting it off. "What's going on here?"
Nash didn't look up from the letter. "They're from Connolly-Rabin. I told you they'd be interested. Just take it easy."
"You must be Steve," said Vaughn in the chipper tone of a department store perfume saleswoman.
Steve ignored him. "Are you nuts?" he said to Nash. "Don't you remember what they said?"
"Yes, I remember, now shut up!"
Vaughn's spirits fell. Anodyne's boys had gotten here first after all.
"Are you even listening?" Steve went on, livid. "They specifically told us to—"
Prescott was a machine. In one swift motion he palmed Steve's head like a basketball and bashed it against the wall, leaving behind an impression of the top of his skull. Steve tumbled to the floor in a heap.
Nash gaped at the unconscious man sprawled next to him.
"We know what the recruiters from Anodyne said," said Vaughn, letting a little fatigue creep into his voice. "We know what they said to do to us if we showed up at your door. And we know they left a weapon for you. May I ask where it is?"
Nash pointed to the top of a stack of stereo equipment piled seven feet high in one corner of the room. Prescott reached up and found the pistol there, the Anodyne insignia emblazoned on the grip. It looked more like an electric shaver than a deadly weapon, but Vaughn would pay good money to keep one from ever being pointed at him.
"We appreciate your honesty, Mr. Nash," said Vaughn, regaining his cool. "We understand Anodyne probably made you a very enticing offer. All we ask is that you consider ours before making a final decision. Go ahead, finish the letter. I insist."
Nash was a trembling bundle of frayed nerves, but he read the letter all the same. When he was done, he lowered the paper and swallowed hard. "How can I get in touch with you?"
Vaughn headed for the door and winked at Nash over his shoulder. "We'll take care of that." He let the words hang in the air as he and Prescott left the apartment, and breathed a sigh of relief when the door closed behind him.
At once Gaspar's words returned to him like the siren's call of nicotine to a man who has fooled himself into believing he has sworn it off forever. How far back would you go? Well, when those sorry geeks finally got around to completing the device, he told himself, he'd go back five years from now, maybe ten, tell himself to find another line of work. Perhaps architecture. He always liked architecture.
Outside, in the alley, Vaughn brought out the list and a pen. He drew a line through the entry marked "5.) nash."
"Three more to go," he said, tucking the list away. He looked down the miserable alley, past Prescott, half expecting their decades-older selves to amble around the corner brandishing Anodyne pistols. He wondered what had gone through Nash's mind when he and Prescott had shown up at his door, obviously much younger versions of the pair who had come knocking earlier. He wondered what expression would cross Nash's face when they returned again, this time to fire a bolt into his brain and plunder nine years' worth of memories to render him useless to the competition.
And he wondered what he'd do if he met that older iteration of himself, saw the lines that would someday crease his face, the gray hair that hadn't yet sprouted on his head. Now that they worked for rival firms, what was one supposed to do if he encountered the other? If he were killed, how would that change the course of events that, theoretically, must transpire over the next twenty years? Would it create a division, as Gaspar had predicted, a skewed tangent? How far, Leonard? He had been cautioned over and over about the nightmarish consequences of butchering the symmetry of a timeline, but Vaughn had never really taken Gaspar's warnings of doom and gloom seriously. With morbid fascination he imagined terminating every life on earth, along with earth itself and the universe encapsulating it, through sheer carelessness.
Vaughn shuddered and tapped Prescott on the shoulder. "What time you got?"
Prescott checked his watch, shielding it from the rain with one hand. "Quarter to eight. By the way, during times of severe flooding, Mayan chieftains would sacrifice feral dogs to the gods until the rainclouds burned off. Some say that's the true origin of 'raining cats and dogs,' but I don't believe it. They didn't sacrifice cats."
"No cats, huh?"
"Nah. Just dogs. And deer. And birds."
Vaughn nodded. "Let's grab some Mexican, I'm starving."
Prescott's Ferrari was parked on the street. With any luck they'd find "6.) arbogast " in an hour. After a taco.