Authors: John Dechancie
Remember the curse!
“Oh, drop dead.”
The voice was faint now, like a whispering.
dead! Remember the curse
. . .
He sat and shielded his eyes. When the burning in them ceased, he rose and faced the day.
hochstader paid the driver and watched momentarily as the cab pulled away. It was a cold, wet night. Max pulled the collar of his denim jacket up to cover his neck. They stood in front of a large two-story house with a Tudor facade. It was a stately, imposing residence, nestled in tall trees, surrounded by a painfully manicured lawn.
“Impressive, ain't it?” Hochstader said, gesturing around. “You've done pretty well for yourself.” He crooked a finger at Max. “We have to go around back. Come on.”
Hochstader led the way. The front of the house was illuminated by a streetlight, but shadows toward the rear made navigation difficult. Max barked a shin on a piece of aluminum lawn furniture and sent it clattering.
Hochstader shushed him from the darkness. “This way?” he hissed.
Max turned toward the voice, saw a lighted window, and made his way gingerly over to it.
Hochstader was up on tiptoes, peering inside. “I think we hit it right on the nose. We're expected.”
“Expected? Who's expecting us?”
“Him. Come here and look.”
Max peeked in. The room was a book-lined study, lit softly by lamplight. Behind a stately desk near the far wall sat a man in a dressing gown, smoking a pipe. The man looked a lot like Max.
In fact, he looked very much like Max.
Max rubbed his eyes and looked again. The guy could have been Max's twin brother.
He wasn't. He was, of course, Max 2.
Light suddenly edged above Max 1's horizon of understanding. Finally, the import of Hochstader's ravings sank in. This was another version of himself, another Max, the Maximilian Dumbrowski of this world, this slightly different variation of the theme of Earth.
Hochstader was tapping on the windowpane. He did it twice before the man inside turned toward the window, saw he had visitors, then got up and left the room.
“This way,” Hochstader said. “Back door.”
“You're late,” Max 2 complained to Hochstader as he let the two men into a dark kitchen. His red plaid woolen robe looked expensive. His appearance was identical to that of the first Max, except for a more recent and fashionable haircut. He was an upscale, cleaned-up Max.
“There's always a time-slippage factor to consider,” Hochstader said. “Delicate business. You don't want to meet yourself coming the other way.”
Max 2 grunted. “Well, anyway, I'm ready.”
“Do you have the money?”
“In the study. This way, and keep your voices down. Andrea's a light sleeper.”
Max, the first Max, was beyond being stunned, and the name hit his mind with a dull thud. Numbly, he followed the other two through the dark house.
In the study, Hochstader nodded with satisfaction at the contents of the attachÃ© case Max 2 held open. Gold coins gleamed in the lamplight. “Good. All here, I presume.”
“One hundred troy ounces,” Max 2 assured him, “as you specified.”
“Fine.” Hochstader looked over at Max 1 and chuckled. “Hasn't it sunk in yet?”
“So this is how you collect your fees?” Max 1 said through clenched teeth.
“Is this a newcomer?” Max 2 wanted to know.
“You got it,” Jeremy said. “In gold. Paper's not good for butt-wiping. Funny serial numbers in different worlds.”
“We're going to swap worlds,” Max 2 told his double. “It's that simple.”
“Swap . . . worlds,” Max 1 repeated mechanically.
“You still have the one-bedroom apartment near the university, right?”
“Max,” Hochstader said, a bit exasperated, “don't you realize who this is? It's you! A you that could have been if you'd had a bit more luck. Look around. Great house, isn't it? In this universe, you're a resounding, unqualified
” He turned to the other Max. “Right?”
Max 2 nodded. “Right. And I have Andrea. In this world, we were married. I have my own agency. Dumbrowsky Taylor Burke. Most of our accounts are blue chip, strictly top drawer.”
Max 1 rubbed his temples and sat down heavily in a green leather armchair. “None of this,” he said in a lost little voice, “makes any sense.”
“He's just a little freaked,” Hochstader said, strolling over to the bookshelves. “He'll come around.”
“But why?” Max 1 blurted, looking up at his double. “Why would you want to trade places with me?”
“The grass is always greener,” Hochstader murmured, running a finger along a shelf of leather-bound volumes. “Like I said, Max. People always want something different.” He angled one book out from the shelf. “You have any porno here?”
“It's a long story,” Max 2 said, “but let's say I need a change. The pressure, the obligations . . . going into business for yourself isn't the easiest thing in the world. I'm not sorry I did it, but it's wearing kind of thin. Frankly, I'm bored with my life. But it would be all new to you.”
“But how could you leave Andrea? Or is she going with you?”
“No, she stays.” Max 2 seated himself on the matching sofa. “Look, you have to realize that I've been with Andrea ten years. A lot can happen to a relationship in that time, let alone a marriage. I need a change. I need freedom. I'd give anything in the world to be in your shoes. You're free, no strings, no obligations. You can do what you want. Live in a garret, write poetryâanything.”
“But Andrea . . .”
“I've had Andrea,” Max 2 said forcefully. His tone was more than a little bitter. “You've been pining away for her for ten years, or so Hochstader tells me. I want to be free of her.”
Hochstader walked over and stood between the twins. “You two had better swap clothes.” From somewhere upstairs came the sound of running water. “Quickly, too, I'd say.”
Max 2 rose. “Right,” he said, and undid his robe.
Max 1 looked at Hochstader, then at his doppelganger. “No,” he said firmly. “I'm not going through with it.”
Max 2 wheeled on Hochstader. “You said it was all arranged.”
“Oh, he's just a little zoned out,” Hochstader said. “He'll come around.”
“No,” Max said, thumping the armrest with a fist. “This is insanity. I won't do it.”
Max 2 stood with arms akimbo, glaring at Hochstader. “We had a deal!”
Hochstader sighed. “Yes, we did.” He withdrew a strange weapon from his overcoat pocket. “And I'm afraid I can't let you queer it, Max.”
Max 1 looked at the gun pointed at him. It was fairly conventional at the grip and trigger end, but the business end terminated in a bell-shaped flange made of fine woven gold wire.
“What the hell's that?” he asked, paling.
“A pocket de-tuner. We're an anomaly in this universe. All it takes is a little tweaking to send either of us spinning out of it. That's what this thing does, but it has the accuracy of a blunderbuss. Watch.”
Hochstader aimed the thing at a lamp on a table in a far corner. Max heard a faint high-pitched whine. Both lamp and table promptly ceased to exist, along with a geometrically precise ellipsoidal section of oak paneling on the wall. “Oops. Sorry about that,” he said to Max 2. “The field shape needs adjusting.”
“Forget it,” Max 2 said.
Max 1 shot to his feet. “Where'd they go?”
“No way to tell with this baby,” Hochstader said. “Some backwater universe, probably. I usually use this thing for getting rid of trash. It also comes in handy for settling arguments.” Hochstader swung the gun around to Max 1 again. “Feel a sudden urge for a fresh change of clothes?”
“Uh, yeah,” Max 1 said, taking off his denim jacket. “Now that you mention it . . .”
Hochstader said to Max 2, “Or I could just zap him.”
“No!” Max 2 said. “No need. You'll make the switch, right?”
“Do I have a choice?” Max 1 asked.
“No,” Jeremy Hochstader said. “Make it quick, guys. I have to get moving.”
“i thought you said you knew where the party was.”
Cleve Dalton peered down a long, deserted corridor. “Thought I did.”
“Apparently you don't.”
“Apparently I misunderstood. I was sure Gene said Arcadia.”
“Well, we looked into Arcadia.”
“I wonder if he meant Arctogaea, or said it and I misheard.”
Thaxton said, “Damned if I can keep all these aspect names straight.”
“There aren't very many that have names.”
“Oh? Isn't there a book somewhere that names them all and notes their various characteristics?”
“Yes, the Book of the Castle, in several volumes. But I was talking about names everyone's familiar with.”
“I see.” Thaxton looked about. “Well, where is this Arcto-something?”
“Arctogaea. It's in another part of the Castle. East wing of the keep, I think. That seems a long way to go, though.”
“Why don't we try it? The walk won't kill us.”
Dalton gave the matter some thought before saying, “Maybe they chose it because Linda could work especially good magic in it.”
Dalton nodded. “Yeah. On the other hand . . .”
“Up to you, old man. Confound this bloody maze.”
“I sometimes get lost myself, after all this time. Okay, let's check out Arctogaea.”
They walked back the way they had come. The halls were deserted, silent. The high stone walls led on and on, corridor after corridor, room after room. Castle Perilous was a daunting maze to all but the most seasoned castle-dweller.
Thaxton loosened a button on his red smoking jacket, a garment he wore perpetually. Dalton usually wore slacks, loafers, and an old shirt. At one time he had been in the habit of gadding about the Castle in medieval costume, but gradually fell out of the habit over the years.
They walked, noting aspects along the way. Nothing unusual presented itself: here a windswept plain, there a fenny heath. All were perfectly good worlds for exploring, but not for picnicking.
Thaxton interrupted a conversation about the imminent wedding when he spied something to the right. “Hello, what's this?”
“Thought I saw a dancing girl.”
“Oh? Through there?”
They peered into the aspect. Stately willows, cloud-hung skies, bright sunlight. A large dwellingâa manor house, perhapsâstood beyond a line of poplars. To the right, across a weedy lawn, stood a small section of woods.
“Charming,” Dalton said. “A scene out of
The Wind in the Willows.
“Oh. Sir Richard Burton, wasn't it?”
“Good Lord, not Burton. I forget the author, as a matter of fact. Anyway, where are the dancing girls?”
“I'm sure I saw some veiled harem beauty doing the hoochee-coochee,” Thaxton said. “Unless it was my imagination.”
“Your imagination is perfectly capable of it, as is mine.”
“Well, shall we go in and take a look-see? Can't do any harm.”
“I don't know. If we're wrong, inhabited aspects can be dicey.”
“We'd just be stepping in for a look round, old man. First sign of trouble, we'll nip right out.”
“Okay, I'm game.”
They stepped over the invisible dividing line between the Castle and this strange new worldâbut it did not appear so strange to Thaxton, nor very new. In fact, the place seemed familiar.
“By God, looks like parts of Surrey, where I was brought up.”
Thaxton continued his survey as he walked. “On second thought, it resembles Leicester. A bit, anyway.”
“Maybe we've discovered another portal to Earth,” Dalton ventured.
“Could there be more than one?”
“Never heard of that, but anything's possible in the Castle.”
“Well, in that case,” Thaxton said, stopping suddenly, “we should go back.”
“Someone might recognize me. It would be awkward.”
A loud report came from over the trees, somewhere off to the right.
“Trouble?” Dalton wondered.
Turning toward the source of the fire, Thaxton shook his head. “Perhaps someone's out for game?”
Another shotgun blast confirmed his conjecture.
“Well,” Thaxton said, with some satisfaction. “Well, well.”
“Deep subject,” Dalton said. “You're right, we'd better vamoose.”
“Let's not be too hasty,” Thaxton said.
“I thought you saidâ”
“Oops, we've been spotted.” Dalton turned toward the woods.
A man in tweeds had just crossed the treeline, coming across the lawn. He held a shotgun and was advancing toward the two interlopers. His manner, however, did not appear menacing. In fact, he seemed friendly.
“Hello, hello! Can I help you in any way?”
“Just passing by,” Thaxton said. “Heard the shooting.”
“Much shooting, not much to shoot at, I'm afraid,” the man said. “The grouse are bloody wise today, excuse my French. Hello, there. Petheridge is the name. Colonel Petheridge.”
“Thaxton, here. And this is Dalton.”
Petheridge shook hands with both, warmly. “Out for a stroll, are you?”
“Yes, rather. Do you own this place?”
The man, portly, with a thatch of white hair sticking out from under his tweed cap, laughed good-naturedly. “Not likely. This is Festleton's place. Lord Festleton.”