by Sarah Raplee
“This time Mother has gone too bloody far!” Sojie Headley slammed the cellar door behind her so hard that windowpanes rattled throughout the first floor of Headley House. A hairpin slipped from her upswept curls and plinked onto the floorboards, a victim of her uncharacteristic violence.
Warmth and the heavenly aroma of breakfast cooking in the Headley kitchen enfolded her. Her stomach growled. Cookie finished spooning golden pancake batter next to hissing bacon on the wood-fired range’s hot griddle before casting a reproving glance her way.
“I’ll thank you to watch your language in my kitchen, Miss Sojie,” the tall, dark-skinned woman said. Lowering her brows with mock ferocity, she lifted her batter-covered wooden spoon and pointed it at Sojie. “Get ahold of yourself, now. What’s the missus done to rile you up?”
Heat rose in Sojie’s face at the gentle rebuke. Dredging up a modicum of common sense, she refrained from elaborating on the reason for her temper. Cookie had no idea that Mother was experimenting with a time machine in their basement.
She blew out a frustrated sigh. Why did she let Mother’s ill-conceived actions provoke her as if she were an ignorant eight-year-old instead of a young woman of eighteen?
“Please accept my apology for using inappropriate language,” she said with a rueful smile.
The older woman nodded. “Jus’ remember that buttin’ heads with your mother is no excuse to disrespect her.”
The wind’s howl had them both looking out at the storm that had raged in Portland since yesterday afternoon. The streets had no doubt turned to rivers of mud by now, making even local travel nigh unto impossible. Sojie was glad they were well-stocked with supplies.
“March sho’ came in like a lion this year,” Cookie said, shaking her head. She reached for her spatula.
Still seething, Sojie strode across the oil-clothed floor through the scullery and then lifted her long skirts to climb the servants’ stairs. Despite her promise to care for Mother until Father returned, she wanted nothing more than to be done with the woman. If she didn’t speak to Mrs. Bell immediately, surely she’d boil her top and end up on the front lawn, screeching like a deranged teakettle. Her mother’s assistant’s calm demeanor and wise counsel had soothed Sojie’s inner turmoil more than once over the years.
Mrs. Bell opened the door to her small apartment on the first knock. The clockwork privacy lock must not have been set. Whilst amazingly secure, the newfangled devices took time to undo.
The petite blond woman was dressed for the day in a serviceable brown muslin frock, but she hadn’t yet donned her laboratory coat. She looked up into Sojie’s face and her welcoming smile faded. Taking Sojie’s arm, she pulled her into the tiny, lavender-scented sitting room. A silver tea tray sat on a polished cherry table between two chairs facing the cheery fire. “Please sit down, dear. I’ll pour the tea.”
Sojie suspected she would need something stronger than tea to calm her, but she chose her usual worn blue velvet chair with Egyptian hieroglyphics carved into the wooden arms. Tracing the indentations in the wood with her fingers, she waited for Mrs. Bell to pour the steaming brew into flowered china cups. Then she picked up the nearest cup and saucer and sipped carefully before launching into a description of her scientist mother’s latest escapade.
“A poor, half-grown kitten, Mrs. Bell. How could Mother justify experimenting on such a helpless creature?
Mrs. Bell pressed her pretty lips into a disapproving line, but her green eyes crinkled slightly at the corners. “It’s not as if she dissected the little animal,” Mrs. Bell said. “The kitten is fine. I examined him myself. And I wouldn’t characterize him as helpless. He’s quite energetic, in fact.” She turned her head to one side to reveal an angry red scratch marring the milky white skin of her throat.
Sojie’s stomach tightened. She set down her beverage with a clink. “Your injury only proves Mouser is not fine at all. I’ve tamed him and his brother. They’re as gentle as—as kittens, for heaven’s sake. Cookie invites them into the kitchen for a few hours a day to catch vermin. Now Mouser’s wild again. I swear he doesn’t even remember me, but Hunter is fine.”
Sojie swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. “When I confronted Mother about Mouser’s change in behavior, she admitted she'd sent him forward a day in that infernal time machine, the one she was ordered to scrap. She’s secretly pursuing an illegal project, putting us all at risk. I fear this goes beyond eccentricity into the realm of madness. Her behavior has grown significantly more erratic of late, wouldn’t you agree?”
She’d a good mind to contact General Morgan herself. The general had oversight of Mother’s government-funded research. Sojie knew for a fact that the time machine project was forbidden after the accident that tore her family apart. The general had assured the family that given time, Dr. Headley and her brother, Lincoln, would reappear. Unfortunately, not even Mother could predict the date with any real accuracy. Five to eight years in the future, give or take was as close as she could come. Only more than ten years had passed since the accident with no trace of them.
Mrs. Bell gave her a considering look. Then she set down her teacup and stared into Sojie’s eyes as if searching for the answer to an unvoiced question. Goosebumps pricked Sojie’s skin.
At last, seemingly satisfied, Mrs. Bell spoke. “I’m going to tell you something that no one knows outside this house, not even the United States Government. Repeating the information outside these walls could get you or someone you love killed. Do you understand?”
Sojie blinked at the unexpected turn the conversation had taken. Then she sighed. She shouldn’t be surprised, considering this had always been a house of intrigue. “I’m sworn to secrecy. I understand.”
“You may find what I have to say disturbing, but it’s vital that you understand your mother’s motivations in attempting what we must over the next months. These experiments have far-reaching moral as well as practical implications. Things will become even more strange than usual at Headley House, and more dangerous.”
Sojie shivered at the prospect, then nodded. She needed to know what was going on.
A tap on the door made them jump. “Mum?” said a deep male voice Sojie hadn’t heard in nearly a year. Her breath quickened and her hands fisted at her sides. Jett Bell was the last person she wanted see, especially when she was already upset, but his presence offered some small comfort. He had the most analytical mind of anyone she’d ever met besides her mother. If there was to be more than the usual trouble at Headley House, they could use his help.
Mrs. Bell smiled and rose to answer the door. “Jett arrived home from University late last night. I’d hoped he would join us.”
Sojie smiled. Mrs. Bell had an uncanny ability to attract the visitors she needed whenever she wanted them. That explained Jett’s unscheduled arrival.
“Good morning, son.”
An olive-skinned young man so tall he had to duck under the lintel bent to kiss Mrs. Bell’s cheek. His physique had transformed from a boy’s into a man’s, with broad shoulders and a deep chest. Before Sojie had time to adjust to the change in his appearance, he turned his mother’s chin to examine the long, deep scratch on her neck. His black brows drew together slightly over wide-set blue eyes that flicked first to Sojie, then back to his mother.
Sojie’s ears burned. She feigned interest in the flames dancing in the fireplace. After growing up in this household, one would think Jett would look to her mother for an explanation whenever someone got hurt. Ever since the accident, he always seemed to blame her.
“It’s nothing,” Mrs. Bell said. “Come sit with us.” She returned to her seat across the small table from Sojie.
Jett folded his lanky frame into the large oak rocker by the hearth. A lock of straight raven hair fell onto his forehead. His gaze settled on Sojie’s heated face. The corners of his wide mouth lifted and he dipped his rather pointed chin. “It’s good to see you again, Miss Sojie. You are looking—” His startlingly-blue eyes moved to her hair, her lips, back to her eyes. “—well, if a little perturbed. I hope my arrival isn’t interrupting anything?”
Startled by his sudden interest in her appearance, she searched his familiar, exotic features for clues to his wordiness. His normal greeting had always been a nod followed by her name, nothing more. Had his time at University changed his character as much as it had his appearance? It was an unsettling thought.
“I prefer to speak with both of you,” Mrs. Bell said. “What I have to tell you is information best not repeated.”
Her focus shifted to Mrs. Bell’s grave demeanor. “Rumor has it that the Prussians have developed a long-distance listening device. The less said about these matters, the better. These are dangerous times. You must both be cognizant of the risks Mrs. Headley and I are taking in attempting to find Dr. Headley and Lincoln.”
Sojie choked on her tea. Jett materialized at her side and relieved her of her cup and saucer while she continued to cough and splutter. Being Jett, he handed her his handkerchief and returned to the rocking chair as soon as he’d ascertained she would recover.
Her breathing eased and she dabbed her eyes. Had they developed a theory about what might have gone wrong in the accident? From what Mrs. Bell had said, they must have a plan of action. Dare she hope there was a possibility of finding Father and Link?
She blew her nose and balled the soiled linen in her hands.
Mrs. Bell caught her gaze and continued. “We’re all at risk. Many would kill for the plans for a working temporal vehicle, even an imperfect and dangerous prototype.”
“How can sending poor helpless creatures into the future help us find Father and Link?” Sojie said.
“You spoke of strangeness, Mum,” Jett said, locking his gaze to his mother’s. He placed his elbows on the arms of his chair and steepled his fingers. “Please elaborate.”
Sojie glared at him for interrupting. He gave no indication of having noticed.
“The strangeness and the temporal travel are interrelated,” Mrs. Bell said. Her gaze dropped and for a brief moment rested on the hands she’d folded in her lap. Then she drew a deep breath and stared into the flames. “Ten years ago we found evidence that temporal travel into the future heals, and in effect re-animates newly-deceased organisms. We theorize a similar rejuvenating effect on the living, which might lead to disorientation and quite possibly memory loss upon arrival in the future. We are continuing the line of experimentation we were pursuing when the project was canceled after the unfortunate accident.”
“That explains the kitten,” Sojie said. No wonder Mouser hadn’t recognized her. Traveling forward in time had scrambled his memory. He’d been confused and frightened and—
Sojie gasped. If Father and Link had arrived in the future as upset and bewildered as Mouser, there was no telling what they might have done or where they would have gone. But they might still be alive somewhere. Now, in the present day.
Alive! She must be grinning like a fool.
“Well,” Jett said, gripping the wooden arms of his chair and rocking forward.
She beamed at him, sure that his first-ever utterance of a meaningless word indicated he was as overjoyed as she at the prospect of finding Link and Father.
Jett glanced at her and frowned, then settled back in his chair and shook his head. “That explains the zombie.”