CIA #320

Coconolte Investigation Agency

Case #320
The Affair of the Temporal Extortionist

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and you will find the previous episodes below the current one.)


"You're not thinking four-dimensionally"

“Well?” she said after finishing her wild tale. “What now? Do you believe me... or not? I don’t have time for you to make up your mind. Bobby is out there, alive, somewhere, I can feel it. And I’m going to find him. With or without you.”

How did you get into the bathroom after I had searched it?”

“I was worried about my husband and son, so I stepped into the bathroom and returned to my own present. When I was sure they were okay, I jumped back to this present. I wasn’t expecting anyone to be in my room when I returned. I was gone from now for only a few seconds.”

“Just long enough to miss those two thugs that were looking for you. If I hadn’t been nosing around, they’d have been there when you came back.” I frowned at her for a second. “Eva, you do realize that this is a pretty outrageous story, don’t you?”

“I know it sounds insane, but it’s the truth. What are you going to do now?” She took a deep breath when I reached for the telephone. “Are you going to call the police? What will you tell them? There’s a crazy lady in your office they should come and get?” Her cheeks were red and her eyes hot while I dialed a number. She was staring at me with defiance and determination while I waited for an answer.

“Hello, Will? This is Nick. Is Orb around? Thanks... Orb, there’s a woman here in our office with a little problem that just might be up your alley. I was hoping you and Will could stop by and talk to her- she claims she’s from the future, Orb, and she says her name is Eva Nerak- I thought that might get your attention. The sooner the better. Thanks, Orb. We’ll be expecting you.”

All through my conversation, Eva had been giving me a look that should have vaporized me in my chair. I was afraid she might jump and bolt for the door, but before I could do or say anything, the air in the office seem to shimmer slightly, and two men began to appear out of nothing.

Eva’s hot look of intense hatred changed to one of cold fear. I felt the same fear she did, afraid that the two men with the nasty kazoo had found us.

Before the two figures could coalesce into solid forms, both of my brothers were on their feet, Sam heading straight for the two, and Phil jerking Eva from her seat.

Just before Sam got too close, recognition hit me like a poleax. We were perfectly safe. “No, Sam! It’s okay.”

Sam stopped short of colliding with the two, now solid, forms. Phil had Eva wrapped up in his arms with his back turned to any possible danger. When he heard me, he looked over his shoulder and grinned. “Boy, you guys sure know how to make an entrance, don’t you?”

Eva peeked over Phil’s other shoulder with a concerned look. When she saw Sam and I shaking hands and exchanging backslaps with the new arrivals, the concern faded and the enmity started to come back.

“Eva, you have nothing to fear from these two... gentleman. They are cousins of ours from another branch of the Coconolte family tree. The tall one is Professor Orbille, and the less taller is Professor Willver Coconolte. They answer to Orb and Will in mixed company. They are the founders and owners of a small scientific research company called Time-Zone Labs. Boys, I’d like to present to you, Mrs. Eva Randolph, nee Eva Nerak.”

Orb took her hand very gently, and with a slight bow said, “Madame President, it is an honor.”

She blushed and stammered, “I won’t be president for several years yet.”

“I’m sure we could arrange something a little sooner if you like, Mrs. Randolph,” Will said.

“Oh, no!” She turned to Will, her eyes wide for a second and then she caught on. “You’re kidding, of course, aren’t you, Prof. Coconolte?”

“Please, call me Will. And yes, I was kidding, but rest assured, my brother Orb and I could arrange it. However, before we discuss your election celebration, we should talk about your grandson.”

While Eva and Will were exchanging pleasantries, Orb turned to me and said, “Why didn’t you call us as soon as she came to you?”

“Because when you were telling us all those stories about your historical research, you neglected to tell us the maiden name of the first woman President of United Terra.” Eva must have caught some of what I was saying, because she had turned to stare at Orb and me, with a blank look. “If we had known who she is, or should I say, will become, I’d have called you immediately. I must be slipping because I never thought about putting Eva and Randolph together as one name.”

“Oh. Right. Well, there’s so much to tell about our historical research, and we can’t tell just anyone.”

Eva interrupted for a moment. “What do you mean by historical research? I don’t understand.”

“Mrs. Randolph,” Orb began.

“Please, call me Eva.”

“Eva, Will and I stumbled across time travel, uh, temporal displacement as we prefer to call it, about five years ago. Quite unintentionally. We formed our company to develop and improve our apparatus so that we could wander all about time, recording history as it actually happened, and could actually happen-”

“Poking our noses into it, is more like it,” Will interjected.

“Yes, well. As I was saying. We manufacture and sell certain devices that we’ve developed along the way, to industry and government, to help finance our primary interest: time travel. That is not for sale. And, I am proud to say, none of our products can be used by anyone for nefarious purposes.”

Eva had a surprised look on her face. “Then, you actually could fix an election? No, don’t answer that. I got the impression from President Randolph that time travel had finally been developed mid-way through the twenty-first century, experimentally, by the world government.”

“Will and I, and our gumshoe cousins, are very good at keeping secrets. When this little problem has been cleared up, all Will and I ask of you is help in keeping our little secret.”

“Of course. My trip back here was only possible because my older self was able to use her official position to gain access to classified equipment. I think she could get into serious trouble for her actions, but I know that wouldn’t stop her.” Eva looked rather proud of the woman she was to become. She was also beginning to look rather tired and run down.

Cousin Orb must have noticed it, too. “Nick, I would suggest you put this young woman someplace safe, so she can rest. I can offer the facilities at Time-Zone Labs, if you like.”

“Good thinking, Orb. Sam, take Miss Eva over to Mollie’s house. She’ll get a thrill out of helping us. Make sure you’re not followed.”

“You got it, chief.” Sam offered his arm to Eva, with a smile. “Madame President, may I escort you to your suite of hideout?”

She dimpled and curtsied slightly. “Thank you, kind Sir Knight.” And, arm in arm, they went out into the night.

When the office door closed behind them, I turned to Orb with several questions. “What gives? You’re only partly concerned about her health. Why did you want her out of here? Is she in more danger than we know about? Or is she still not telling us the truth?”

“Slow down, Nick. You need to take it easy. Maintain the old blood pressure.”
“I am not going to drop everything for a silly little check-up.”

“What? Never mind. The story she told you is true. About the President of United Terra, and the kidnapping, all of that. But, it’s not the whole story. Even she doesn’t know all of it. At least, not yet. I have things to tell you that she shouldn’t hear.”

“Ok, sit down and spill it. I’ll fill Sam in, when he gets back.”

“Alright, I’ll give it to you from the beginning. After I finished speaking with you last week-”

“Whoa! Hold the phone, Orb. For a specialist in the temporal arts, you sure own a lousy watch. You and Will faded in almost before I had hung up.”

“Excellent!” Orb exclaimed. He turned to his brother Will with a very satisfied smile. “Well done, Will. You’ve got the arrival circuits of the new model right on the mark.”

Will had been unpacking equipment from a small carrier marked: `TIME-ZONE LABS - CONFIDENTIAL’ with my brother Phil when he looked up with his own grin. “You said you wanted to land as close to the end of the call as possible. You know my motto: I aim to maim, or please, whatever the situation calls for.”

As Will and Phil continued to unpack several seemingly harmless small objects, Orb turned back to me to continue. “We jumped uptime to the period when Mrs. Randolph is President and her grandson has been kidnapped. We approached her, with great discretion, to learn just as much as we could about the whole affair. Then we returned to our present to get some hardware together for the job. Will and I redesigned a few items, and even invented a couple of new ones. We’ve been busy as beavers for the last week. He and I are at work in the prototype shop right now. To avoid any delays, we jumped back to this moment as soon as we were ready for business.

“Why didn’t you guys just show up before all this began?” I asked. “I could have avoided a few headaches.”

“Two reasons: number one, if you’d have known all about it when she came looking for help, she might have thought we were involved with the kidnapping and she may have run away from us. Reason number two, if Will and I had shown up before Miss Nerak, you’d never have had a reason to call for help. Therefore, Will and I would never know that she needed help until way too late. Sort of a self-defeating causality loop.” Orb had one of those temporal lecture smiles of his. He loves theorizing about paradoxes.

I was still a bit puzzled. “I understand most of what’s going on, but I still can’t figure out how you can be here and back in your lab at the same time.”

Orb sighed. “Nick, to quote another unknown temporal researcher: `You’re not thinking four-dimensionally.’ Trust me, we have all the time/space we need in which to be or not to be. Now, let me finish my report.”

“Okay, but take it slow.”

“Everything young Eva told you is true, to her knowledge, but not complete. There are aspects of this case of which she is completely unaware. Things better not known by her, until the time is right. Hmm. Until the time is right. I like that, I’ll have to write that down. Okay, okay.

“`Round about 2022, the first manned explorations of Mars begin. Why the funny look, Nick? Believe me, the planet Mars is involved in this. As a matter of fact, Mars is the whole reason this nasty business got started. Hold on and you’ll know as much as Will and I know.

“Shortly after the scientific installations become self-supporting on Mars, they will expand to include mining and manufacturing operations, funded by large business cartels here on earth. Materials and goods from these operations will help make conventional travel between the worlds of our solar system easier at first, and then faster and more efficient in the long run. Unfortunately, I believe that our moon and Mars will be the only places where permanent colonies can be established. There will be adventure tours and safaris of a sort to the outer planets, I’m sure, along with scientific expeditions.

“Anyway, by 2040, the scientific installations will grow to the size of large industrial settlements. Unfortunately, control will still be in the hands of big business back here on mother earth. Ma Terra, sometimes known as Ma Terror. Most of the larger corporations are owned by one family, the d’Negel family, headed by Dr. d’Negel himself.

“In 2060, the Terran Government is trying to break the iron grip in which d’Negel and the others hold on these company towns, to give the people a governing body of their choice. No one had given any thought to the politics of other worlds before the first manned missions left for Mars, and consequently, there were no laws protecting the rights of anyone away from the home world. d’Negel and the others are fighting tooth and nail, using every loophole and precedent they can find, but they are slowly losing. So, d’Negel, or someone close to him, hatched this ugly little extortion plot.

“Shortly before President Eva Randolph was to finalize the Martian Independence Act of 2060, her grandson, Robert Emerson Randolph, Jr., was quietly kidnapped from the Heart Institute of Luna. To all appearances, he just disappeared.

“Mrs. Randolph was secretly advised that if the act liberating the colonies was passed, her only living blood relative would perish in a very ugly public manner, bringing disgrace to the administration of the first woman president of United Terra. She would never see Robert alive again, and she would be forced to resign as one of Terra’s greatest leaders.

“She let us know, in no uncertain terms, that she would rather resign than let anything happen to her Bobby. However, she also can’t bring herself to allow the lives of several million people to continue as they have for nearly forty years.

“President Randolph doesn’t know that after the Martian Colonies become a free state, commercial traffic and free trade will begin, in 2063, between Earth and Mars. This is important because it will allow complete exploration of our solar system, leading to low and high temperature, zero-g research and manufacturing in an almost perfect low pressure environment, and the mining of the asteroid belt for known and unknown metals and other materials, without destroying the home worlds. All this will lead eventually to the remainder of this galaxy, and probably beyond.

“President Randolph will sign this act, no matter the consequences to Bobby.

“Now, I have things to tell you about Miss Eva. Something she does not need to know, if at all possible.
“So far, she’s only seen holos, fancy 3D pictures to you, of her grandson, Robert, Jr. She hasn’t seen any pictures of her son, Robert, Sr. with his future wife and son. When Robert, Jr. turns sixteen, his parents will die in an unfortunate, but possibly avoidable, traffic accident. This will occur when they are returning to Bern, after attending a theatrical performance in London. Eva and her husband will become Bobby’s guardians and raise him as their own son.

“If Eva were to learn that her one year old son would die before he’s forty-six, it’s hard to predict how she’ll react. We don’t want her to jump forward of her time-frame to warn or save him. As upset as she might be, there’s no telling what she could do to any number of time-lines. Will and I are returning uptime to try and learn more about Junior’s disappearance and whereabouts from that end. We’ve already assigned our best Department X team to track the traffic incident and look for a way around that tragedy without causing any ripples in the temporal pool.

“There’s one more unhappy event in Eva’s life that we cannot divert. Her husband will pass away a few years before she becomes President of United Terra. It will be due to a hereditary heart problem, with complications concerning transplant and artificial systems. There is no way to prevent it. He and Eva will come to grips with it before the end. This is the main reason that Robert, Jr. will decide to go to medical school.

“Life for Eva, as she grows older, will be very educational. I believe that’s why she will be Terra’s finest leader. And that’s also why she deserves our best effort.”

We were all silent for a moment after that. Then, I decided to break that silence.

“I have one last question, temporal, of course.”

“Give it to me,” Orb said.

“How come this nasty little scenario didn’t show up while you and Will were on tour through time, the first time?”

“The only answer I can give you is, what we have witnessed in the future isn’t carved in stone, until it happens. If we had stayed uptime, then that future would be permanent in our memories. Coming back leaves Old Man Time a lot of options.”
“You feel pretty strongly about this particular `option’, don’t you Orb?”

“Yes, I do. I think Will feels the same.”

“I’m all for helping the old lady- I mean, of course, Madam President,” Will declared. “Orb and I have seen some of the things she’s accomplished for others. She really cares about her work, not the glamour of her position.”

“Okay,” I said, “Let’s do it. Where, or should I ask, when, do we start?”

Orb gave me a laugh and a slap on the back that I felt down to my soles. “Good man! We start right here, right now, with these little goodies,” he said, with a sweep of his hand towards my old desk. “Will and I are going to give the three of you the short course in the operation of temporal/spatial access equipment. Oh, by the way. Most of this is still experimental, but Will and I both have full confidence in all of it. Captain Burdick of product testing would have a fit if he knew we were going on a mission without the full series of tests, but, there’s no time to put him into the loop.”

Orb had that thoughtful look of his while he was telling me all this. Then, he flashed that `It’s alive’ smile and said, “As soon as we get this job done, I’ll bounce back to today, and ask him to run the standard series. While we’re on the job, he can do his job, and we’ll all be happy. Sometimes, the paperwork almost takes all the fun out temporal displacement. Now, to work.” As he rubbed his hands together, he had an expression that sent a chill down my spine and made me think of Colin Clive in Frankenstein.

“Okay, what are these?” I asked. There were six pocket sized objects on the desk. Three looked like the new Zippo cigarette lighter I was thinking about buying, and the other three looked like the cheap paperback novels I had seen Will reading at times. They were all Duke Kelton mysteries.

“I was expecting the sort of thing Doc Savage might have; shiny, mystic.” A sheepish grin must have shown on my face when I realized what I had said. “Hey, somebody left a couple of magazines lying around the office a while back, and, it was a slow week, so... what’s this one, Orb?”

“This one is a micro version of our standard temporal displacement navigator.” He looked at me with a straight face and said, “Doc Savage would describe this to his aids as a portable, handheld time-machine.” Then, he smiled. “I’ve had occasion to read the pulps, myself. Very diverting. Sometimes, downright inspirational. If Will and I were to patent some of our designs, we’d have to put Doc Savage’s name on the application with ours.”

I had flipped the top of the lighter open only to find a thumbwheel and a wick. “Where are the buttons and doo-dads? Will I need some kind of science degree to work this thing?”

“No. When it’s been taught to recognize your voice pattern, you merely tell it when and where you wish to go.”

Phil’s eyes lit up when he heard Orb say that. “Does that mean, that if I were to say `I wish I was a million miles away from here,’ POOF! I’m there?” He looked a little worried.

“Yes, I suppose that could conceivably happen, if, there were no safeties built in. Only commands with specific destinations will be accepted. Once it’s been programmed for your vocal patterns, you’ll also assign a password or phrase to initiate travel mode. `The horse in striped pajamas’ or, `there’s no place like home,’ for example. You can also assign keywords or phrases for specific places and times. Speed jumping with one word. These three units will be programmed to respond to the three of you as well as to Will and myself. No one else will be able to activate them.”

“Are there any other little features we should be aware of? I’d hate to accidentally fry someone with a death ray, or something.”

“Oh my, yes.” Orb seemed very proud of these little gadgets. Almost like they were his children. “When you initiate travel mode, it automatically takes the person or object it’s programmed for, as long as that person or object is within its six foot proximity. If you are touching another person, or holding an object, that goes too. Needless to say, you’ll never arrive somewhere naked... unless you want to. Oh, and if another person touches the device when it’s activated, that person goes along for the ride. And, probably the most important feature, communication between units is possible. Even if the units are in different time-frames, they are all synchronized to the same present. You can’t talk to yourself in tomorrow, but you can talk to your brothers, no matter the time-frame they’re in. When Sam returns, we’ll give all three of you complete instructions in the use and care of these little gems.”

I finally gave in to my curiosity, and flicked the little thumbwheel of the temporal device I had been looking at, and almost dropped it when a very bright flame appeared.

“Yes, Nick, you can even start fires with it. That helps hide its true purpose. And it will never need refilling. Just don’t start any big fires.”

Phil had been examining one of the units closely and added his two cents worth. “I don’t suppose you could put a camera into one of these, could you? It would be great for surveillance.”

“I’ll work on that for you,” Will said.

I turned back to Orb. “I’m sold. Sam should be here soon.”

“Let’s look over the temporal field detector/tracer units while we wait,” Orb said as he held up one of the garish covered paperbacks.

“I have a question about this password thing.” Phil still seemed a little concerned about leaping around through time and space. “It shouldn’t be something that might come up in normal conversation, right?”

Will chimed in before Orb could speak, “I like the phrase: `Energize, Mr. Scott.’”

Phil and I both had questioning looks, so Orb explained. “Nick, you and I enjoy the pulp thrillers. Will, on the other hand, loves the entertainment media of the future: television. When you see it in action in a few years, you’ll either love it or hate it.”


“Once a knight is enough”


Tomorrow will be fine

“NICK!!!!!!!  Behind you!!!” Someone was shouting at me, but I was turning just as he yelled. I probably sensed his warning before he could put it into words. I wasn’t prepared for what happened though- FIRE! SMOKE! HEAT! so intense I felt as if I had been thrown into a blast furnace, flames engulfing and smothering me.

Then, nothing but cool darkness all around me; no sensations, no sound, almost floating.  Where the hell am I and why am I here?  If I’m dead, part of me hasn’t realized it yet.  If I could remember what started me on the road to the hot house, maybe, I’ll find I’m still alive.  Or maybe the rest of me will finally catch up.  I can’t be dead, yet.  My head hurts too much.

Nick.  My name, apparently, is Nick.  Is there more?  Conol? Coco? Am I Coco Chanel?  No, can’t be.  She has something to do with perfume.  My career wasn’t nearly so sweet.  Coconole... tee, Nick Coconolte.  Ok, but who yelled before the Chicago Fire fell on me?  Sam?   I had; no, I have a brother Sam; my youngest brother.  There’s a third one, Phil, the brother between Sam and I.  We worked together.  Firefighters?  No, much too dangerous.  Cops?  Am I a cop?  Yes, I was a cop... but Phil and Sam weren’t.  Phil studied to be a lawyer, and Sam was in the Marine Corps.  But we worked together!   No, we still work together at the Agency!  I left the P.D. because of too many bad cops and started the Agency.  The Coconolte Investigation Agency.  Phil left the big law firm because only the elite seemed to be getting any justice, and Sam needed a job when he came home from China.

Where did all the fire come from?  Rain.  Rain?  The day this started, it was raining.  The rain was drumming on the window.  I can almost see the rain-blurred letters painted on the window washing away under the incessant drumming.  I can see the letters clearly now: COCONOLTE INVESTIGATION  AGENCY.  Smaller letters promise: `Discreet Inquiries, Affordable Rates.’  Suddenly, my memory kicked in….

The office on the other side of the window is small.  Not expensive, not cheap.  Entirely adequate for a three-man organization.  One room, one desk with one rotary chair, two wooden straight backed chairs for clients.

There's a wooden four-drawer file cabinet with an old pencil sharpener firmly mounted to the top.  The single window is behind the desk.  Two visible doors.  One, opposite the desk, leads to the main hallway of the Alcock Building's second floor.  The other door, on a side wall, opens to reveal the combination cloakroom/storage/toilet.  Plenty of room to hang a raincoat, hide a body, and wash up, if there's time.

I was sitting behind the desk, talking to a new client.  No, I didn’t want his business.  I thought he might have been a gag sent over by Flick of the Pinks.  He was portly, fiftyish, balding slightly, and... unusual.  Wolf?  No, Fox.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Fox, but I’m afraid we can’t help you,” I said.  He’s not responsible for all the fire, is he?  We’d needed work, but this investigation would have been too much like the Fernwood Case.  Who’s Fernwood?

“Your sign indicates `Discreet inquiries,” Fox said with a hopeful look.

Someone was leaning against the wall next to me.  Phil, it was my brother, Phil.  He spoke before I could reply to Mr. Fox:  “We can be very discreet when we have to, but we’re not fully qualified for this sort of investigation.”

"But Mr. Coconolte, how difficult could it be to learn President Roosevelt’s means of communicating with his superiors on Mars.  I must speak with them, it’s very urgent.  I have information that will make them realize how foolish complete domination-”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Fox, but we are unable to give this job the attention it needs.”  I remember thinking I have to hustle him out now, before he really gets rolling.  I stood, hoping Fox would take the hint, and he did.  When I turned slightly, I noticed the look in Phil’s eyes; he had to be thinking the same as me: Why us?  Turning back to Fox, I tried to mollify him.  “Might I suggest the Pinkerton Agency?”

“I’ve been to Pinkertons’; they suggested I come here.  Agent Flick said this would be right down your alley, in a manner of speaking.”

“Agent Flick?” Phil said.  A barely concealed grin was trying to get out.  “He would say that, wouldn’t he, Nick?  Especially after the Fernwood affair.”

“Probably.”  Somehow I knew Flick would be involved somewhere.  I stepped around the desk to show Mr. Fox to the door.  “Mr. Fox, I’m sorry we can’t help you at this time,” or any time in the near future, I thought to myself, “but our caseload is quite heavy right now.”  Phil’s having trouble holding it in now.  Stretching the truth the way I was certainly didn’t help.  “We couldn’t possibly provide enough manpower for a job of this sort.  I’ll be frank with you, our agency just isn’t qualified for an investigation of this nature and importance.”  Be diplomatic, Nick, but get him out.

Fox extended his hand to me. Shaking my hand, he said, “Thank you for your honesty, Mr. Coconolte.  I’ll try elsewhere.”

I wished him luck in his endeavors and stepped to the door with him and found Sam on the other side, reaching for the knob just as I opened it.

My youngest brother was standing there holding a carton containing sandwiches and coffee from Mollie’s Diner across the street.  He was also soaking wet with rain from the sprint across and back.  Standing in a doorway, he left no room for anyone to get past, and I wanted Fox out the door as quickly and smoothly as possible.

Gesturing up at him, I introduced Sam to Fox.  “The newest member of the firm.  Sam, this is Mr. Fox.”  Fox had to look way up to see Sam’s face and when they shook hands, Fox’s seemed to disappear.

“How do you do, Mr. Fox?  Are we going to be able to help you?”

Before Fox could say anything, I jumped in.  “I’ve informed Mr. Fox that we are too busy and understaffed to help him right now.”

“Too busy?  That’s ridiculous.  Why, we haven’t…” is all Sam could say before he notices Phil, still standing by the window, violently shaking his head, eyes wide, ears red, one hand over his mouth and the other semaphoring “NO!!”   I could almost hear Sam shifting his mental gears, and start in another direction, “…even had a chance to stop and eat for two days.”  He waggled the carton he was holding in both hands for emphasis and said “I grabbed something to eat while we finish the paperwork on our current investigation.  I’m sorry we can’t help you, Mr. Fox.  I’m sure it’s an important job.”

I jumped in again before Fox could begin his story.  “It’s fascinating, Sam.  However, Mr. Fox is far too busy to tell it all over again, aren’t you?”  Fox gave a little tired nod.  “I’ll discuss it with you later, Sam.  Right now we do have that paperwork to tend to, and Mr. Fox probably has other appointments to worry about.  Goodbye, Mr. Fox.  I do hope things work out for the best.”

Fox gave me a friendly smile before speaking.  “Thank you, Mr. Coconolte, for your time and patience.  And for not ridiculing me.  Some people have actually acted as though I were crazy.  I’m leaving for New York tomorrow.  I think I’ll stop by and talk to Orson.   He may have an idea or two about communicating with Mars.  He’s well known in the broadcasting business and may know someone connected with the Army’s radio experiments of 1924.”

I finally got Fox through the door and headed for the elevator.  In a whoosh, Phil released the breath he’d been holding.

“Lord, I thought I was gonna bust,” he said with that grin of his. “That guy couldn’t possibly be for real, could he?  Hey!! Pass me a couple of those sandwiches before you guys inhale all of `em!”


“--so this poor old guy says that the President is communicating with other worlds and has been since the Army’s radio experiments back in `24.”  Phil was laughing and choking at the same time trying to eat while I was telling Sam about Fox.  “He’s probably just a lonely old guy--’  I was interrupted by the door almost flying off of its hinges, crashing against the wall, and the sudden appearance of a young woman.  Dinner was not to go uninterrupted.

She looked at us very intensely and asked, “Are you the Coconolte boys?”

Of course, we all sat frozen, staring at her.  She was, after all, a beautiful, mystery woman.  Just like in the pulp thrillers.  For the moment, that is. 

I was sitting behind the desk, while Phil and Sam were on either side sitting in the old straight back chairs.  I had raised my sandwich to my mouth for a bite between words when she had literally exploded through the door.  Phil stopped chewing and Sam had just stuffed a healthy portion of roast beef on rye into his gob when she appeared.  There we were.  A still life: “Three Siblings at Dinner.”  Nothing like this had ever happened in this office before.

She was tall, slim, and blond, maybe genuine.  About twenty-nine or thirty.  No umbrella and no raincoat, yet dry as bone while the rain continued to pour outside in the dusk.  However, none of this occurred to me until much later.

After a few heartbeats of silence, Sam was the first to show signs of life: he began to chew Mollie’s delicious sandwich.  I looked at him with a frown, put my sandwich down and turned back to the young woman.  After the shock of her arrival had faded, I remembered her question.

“For the right people, we are indeed the Coconolte boys.  For the wrong people, we try to be something entirely different.  Now which are you, right or wrong?” I asked with a smile.  I was still a little surprised, but I had to act like beautiful mysterious women showed up at my door every day.

 “My name is Eva Nerak, and I need your help desperately.”  She was practically in tears and shaking slightly.

Before I could reply, Phil swallowed noisily and said, “You’re not looking for someone with cosmic contacts on Mars, are you?”

Phil’s question seemed to shake her.  “Mars?  I…  I... don’t understand?”  she stammered with quite a surprised look.  “What about Mars?”   Later, I would understand why she was so surprised by Phil’s flip question.

“Please, ignore my half-wit brother.  It’s not been quite a normal day around here.”  I stuck my elbow into Sam’s ribs and pointed at his chair.  “Please, sit.  Relax.”

Sam moved his chair around to the front of the desk.  He sat on one corner, still working on his roast beef.

“Make yourself comfortable.  Would you care for some coffee?  There’s plenty.  Mollie makes the best in town.”  I was hoping she’d relax and become a little more coherent.

“Mollie?  Oh. Yes. The diner across the street.  I remember now.  No, thank you.”  She was sitting now.  Still very nervous about something, twisting her small handbag tightly.  “Please, you must help me.  My… brother is missing, and I must find him.  I haven’t seen or heard from him for... days.”

“Miss Nerak, may I call you Eva?”  She nodded slightly, eyes screwed up trying to hold back tears.  “My name is Nick, this is my brother Phil, and the eating machine responds to Sam.  Don’t let his size scare you.  He’s harmless unless you get between him and food.”  She smiled and relaxed visibly.  “That’s better.  Have some coffee.  Phil, are there any sandwiches left?  One?  Quick, pass it to Miss Nerak!”

As she accepted it, Sam growled around another large bite of roast beef.  Seeing the look in his eye, she smiled again and relaxed still more.

“Thank you.  This smells marvelous.  Suddenly, I feel as if I hadn’t eaten for... years.”

 I gave her time to swallow a couple of bites and a sip of coffee.  “Now, what can you tell us about your brother?  Between bites.”

 “I… I don’t really know when... how to begin.  I haven’t heard from him in weeks... I mean days.  Usually, I see him, or he calls me at least once a week.”  She was getting jumpy again.  Phil also noticed this and glanced at me.  I’m sure Sam noticed, too, but he seemed to be fully occupied with the remains of his sandwich.

“What’s your brother’s name?”  I spoke softly, hoping she might calm down again.

“Bobby.  Robert Emerson Randolph, Jr.”  Her head was down, she sounded like she was all alone in the world.  “He was named for his father, my... my...”

Suddenly, she seemed to snap back to life.  “My mother’s first husband.  He went.. he died when Bobby was very young.  It was before the first world... the War.  Yes, before the War.  I’m sorry if I seem to be babbling.  I’m just so worried about him.  She leaned forward slightly and placed the unfinished sandwich on the desk.  Putting her face down into her hands, she began a gentle sobbing.

Phil leaned near to whisper in my ear.  “Are you buying any of this?”  I shook my head slowly, never taking my eyes from the girl.

“Miss Nerak... Eva.”  She looked up at me with slightly red and damp eyes.  “Do you live nearby?  Is there someplace for you to stay?”

“No.  No, I arrived earlier today.”

My face didn’t change, but I saw Phil react to her answer.  Sam seemed to be more interested in the unfinished sandwich Eva had been nibbling.

“I think you need some rest.  Sam, will you take Miss Nerak next door.  Tell Hans she needs a quiet room.  And ask him not to check her in officially, yet.  Eva, the hotel next door is quiet, clean, safe, and most importantly, cheap.  Hans has been very helpful in some of our investigations.  You can trust him.  We’ll talk again after you’ve had some sleep.”  I had come around the desk to help her rise from the chair.  “Do you have any luggage with you?”

“Uh… no.  Yes.  I left a small bag at the... train station?  Yes, the train station.”

“I’m sure one of my gallant sibs would be more than honored to retrieve it for you.”

“There’s no hurry for it.  Tomorrow will be fine.”

“Very good.  Sam, please escort Miss Nerak to her suite.  I’m sure you’ll feel much better in the morning,” I said as she and Sam moved to the door.

“Thank you… Nick.  All of you, thank you.”


When the office door had closed behind Miss Nerak and Sam, Phil and I stepped back to the desk for a short business conference.

“She’s lying, isn’t she, Nick?”

“I think so.  But not all of it is lies.”  I stared at the closed door long enough for Phil to fidget a bit, and said, “She really is worried.  Almost terrified, I’d say.  Someone is missing and/or in big trouble, but it’s not her brother.”

“I don’t like the part about her mother’s first husband,” Phil said while he looked at the closed door.  “I wonder who’s she lying to protect?”

“Let’s not push her for the moment.  She needs help now, so, we’ll let her think we believe her story.  If we can gain her trust, she might open up more.”  We both stared at the door for a heartbeat or two, and it opened.  Sam, returning from escort duty.

He walked over to the desk without a word, and sat in the chair that Miss Eva Nerak had recently occupied.  He picked up her unfinished sandwich and took a healthy bite.  There was never wasted food in the house when the three of us were growing up.

“Well, Sam,” I said, “How do you feel about Eva Nerak?”

“Too skinny.  She doesn’t eat right,”   he answered, between bites.

“Besides that.”

"I believe her name really is Eva Nerak and she’s afraid someone very close to her is in extreme danger.  I don’t believe that it’s her brother, or that her mother’s first husband died before the Great War.  I also believe that I’m going across the street and have some of Mollie’s fine apple pie before she closes for the night,” Sam said, as he swallowed the last bite and added “a la mode.”

 “Nick, how did we ever get along in this business before Sam came home from the Marines?”

 “Okay, guys, let’s all go have some pie.  Maybe Miss Nerak will be a bit more co-operative after some sleep.”

 “I think breakfast might also be very therapeutic for her,” Sam said, smiling broadly.

 I had to sigh as I looked heavenward.  “All right, I’ll buy if you guys will shut up and stuff your faces with pie and ice cream.


“See ya in the funny pages”

The next day started bright and fresh after the cleansing rain of the night before. The clouds were drifting out over the harbor, away from the city, and fresh new sunshine was soaking into the pools and puddles all around town.

My brothers and I were treating Eva to Mollie’s finest breakfast special. We were all having the special. `Specially Sam. Mollie always gave him a special special: “Here’s your usual, Sam.” His usual was a large plate with three specials on it. “I want you to clean your plate like a good boy so you’ll grow up big and strong like your brothers,” she told him, mostly for Eva’s benefit. Sam must be as big and strong as Phil and I put together.

“Yes, mom. I mean, yes, ma’am.” He’s a good boy. When he wants to be.

We were all sitting in the big back booth that Mollie reserves for special occasions and Coconolte/client conferences. You can’t see it from the street, and it’s very private.

“Did you sleep any, Eva?” I asked.

“Like a log. Talking to all of you last night helped me stop and think about what needs to be done instead of flying around in a panic. I’m sure I can be more coherent now than I was last night.” She smiled around her fork as she finished the last bite of her eggs. She seemed more confidant and sure of herself that morning.

“Are you ready to talk about it?”

“How do I begin?”

“When did you last see your brother?”

“Close to two weeks now? Yes, almost two weeks, I think.”

“And you’ve had no contact with him since?”

She put down her fork and reached for the coffee cup. “Nothing!” She stared into the cup for a moment. She needed both hands to hold it down on the table, her knuckles whiter than the rest of her pale skin.

We all looked at one another while she was lost in her coffee. Two minutes ago, she acted as though life was almost perfect; now, she’s almost in tears again. Whatever is going on has affected her more than she wants to admit. I was beginning to think life and death struggle. Not my favorite kind of assignment.

“More coffee, boys? Miss Eva?” Mollie was back to clear away dishes and break the awful silence. “’nother special, Sam?”

There were various yeses for coffee. Sam sighed and said, “Just java, Mollie. Looks like I’m on the clock.”

After refills all around, Phil spoke first. “Miss Nerak, I have a very important and extremely delicate question that must be asked. You may be shocked or offended, but we must know. Does your brother have any unlawful, or amoral habits... or hobbies?”

Her eyes opened wide for a brief moment and she drew a quick breath. “No. I understand why you must ask, but if you knew him, you’d realize that’s a foolish question.”

“Then he has no enemies, owes no one huge sums of money or favors?” She shook her head as Phil continued. “What is his profession?”

“He’s a doctor. A heart specialist. We must find him soon. His most important patient needs him!”

“Who is this patient?”

“His grandmother,” she replied, again studying her coffee.

“His grandmother?” I asked, slightly surprised. “Don’t you mean your grandmother?”

“What?” Her head jerked suddenly and she looked around at us. “Oh, no... I mean... his father’s mother. I think I’m losing it again.”

“Slow down. Take a deep breath, that’s it. Drink you coffee before it gets cold. It’s the best in town.”

After she had a couple of sips, I continued where Phil left off. “Did he say anything about going anywhere or visiting someone?”

“No. The last thing I heard was that he was going to see how his grandmother is doing, and... and... he never arrived.”

“Would you give us a description of him? Sam, get this down.”

As she spoke, Sam entered it into that little notebook of his. Someday I have got to get a look at that book. “He’s thirty-five, almost two meters tall-”

“He’s almost what?” Sam said, looking up from his notes.

“He’s, uh, just a little over six feet tall. Deep blue eyes and black wavy hair. He’s in excellent shape. Probably because of the aerobic exercises he does every morning before breakfast.”

“What are aerobics?” Sam asked. I was curious too.

“Very fast, intensive physical exercising.”

“Silly habits like that kept me from re-enlisting. Anything else? Marks, scars, tattoos?”

“No, none that I know of.”

“Does he drink or smoke?”

“No,” she said with a queer look. “Nobody smokes anymore back home.”

It was an unusual answer. I didn’t want to pursue it any further, for fear she might have another case of the nerves. “Sam, I think you’ve got enough to start the legwork.”

“For which I am best qualified being the junior member of the firm,” he said as he rose from the booth. “Usual places, Nick? Police station, hospital, the, uh…” He looked down at Eva.

“Say it, Sam,” she whispered, again studying her coffee.

“The county morgue, too?”

She shuddered slightly. I gave Sam a small nod and he turned to go.  Mollie caught him and handed him a brown bag. “For later, Sam. You’ll like them.”

He took the bag with a smile. “Mollie, you are truly the only civilized person I know. If I hadn’t dedicated my life to keeping my brothers out of trouble, I’d marry you.”

“Don’t kid a kidder, kid. You’ll always be like a son to me. Now get on about your business, and help this young lassie. Out!” She was pushing him towards the door. Over her shoulder she called back, “If you need anything just holler.”


“Mollie is a wonderful old soul, isn’t she?” Eva said when Mollie was out of earshot.

“She’s a widow,” Phil said, “Her husband passed away only a couple of years ago.”

“How sad. Did they love each other?”

“Like the sun loves the moon. A real storybook romance. The thing that really hurt her the worst was her sons.”

“What happened?” There was a little of the fear in her eyes again.

“Mollie and Flynn had three fine, strapping sons. All with a wee touch o’ the Irish. They were all close in age. About like Nick, Sam, and I. Anyway, when it looked like the U.S. was going to get into the war, the three of them were the first in the neighborhood to sign up. Back around the end of 1915.”

“Did they go over there?” Her eyes got visibly larger.

“Yes. All three. All in the same combat outfit.”

“Please, Phil, don’t tell me they all died.”

“Okay, I won’t say it, but they were all awarded posthumously for helping others come home alive.”

“Mollie seems to treat you three as her sons.”

“I think we helped her out of the dumps after her husband died. Phil joined me in the agency just before Flynn passed away. Some out of town business men offered to buy the diner a short time later, and their business manner was none too subtle,” I said.

“What happened?”

Phil explained. “Well, Nick and I were afraid the food wouldn’t be nearly as good under new management, and Mollie had no intention of selling, so we convinced these gentlemen that the place wasn’t for sale. If Flynn hadn’t died of a medical condition, I think we could have done more than run them out of town, but there wasn’t any way they could have been responsible. Just timely. Anyway, she adopted us, after a fashion, and treats us like family now. I think it’s because we’re always trying to help people with no other options.”

“Like her sons,” Eva said, smiling again. “I think Sam is her favorite.”

“So do Nick and I,” Phil said as he stood, “but she’ll never admit it.  Confidentially, Sam’s our favorite, too. I’m going back to the office to warm up the blower.” The puzzled look on Eva’s face made Phil smile and add, “The telephone. Sam’s running around town, annoying people in person, I get to annoy them from the comfort of the office. See you later.”

“Ask if there’s anyone suffering from problems of the heart, and I don’t mean the romantic kind.”

“Okay, Nick. I’ll keep that in mind. Especially when I talk to Dr. Lowell, right? Oh, sorry, Mollie. I didn’t see you.” Phil’s always had trouble walking and talking at the same time.

“Here, these are for later. Now go.”

Phil looked in the bag she handed him and said, “If I don’t stay away from here, I’ll soon be wider than I am tall. Thanks, Mollie.” A quick peck on the cheek and he was on his way to the door.

“I have more questions about your brother, if you’re up to it,” I said as gently as I could. It would be difficult not to fall for this girl, even though she’s not been completely open with me. And the fact that I was still undecided about someone else. What was I thinking, she couldn’t possibly have been as old as Sam was. At the time. She stared into her cup while this jumble of thoughts and feelings seemed to swell and roll around in my head.

“It has to be done. Time is, literally, of the essence,” she said very quietly. Her odd remark about time snapped me back to the present and other suspicions.

“Has anyone else talked to you about... Bobby’s disappearance? Anyone at all?”

She looked up from her cup, and off into space. I thought. “No, no one... well, yes, his grandmother told me she was... concerned about him, then I got worried and rushed here to look for him.” She came back from wherever, or whenever she was, and was looking directly into my eyes. Easy, Nick. Don’t get lost. Someone else could get hurt.

I blinked to break the inner tension. “Where does he live? Have you checked there for a message of some sort?”

“He… he doesn’t live here. I’ve checked his home and there’s nothing there. There was no indication that he was planning on going anywhere for any length of time.” She was looking down again, hiding her eyes. From me? Was she afraid of me, or my feelings? Get a grip, Nick. She’s only here because you claim to be a professional. It must have been something else she wanted to hide. What, and why?

“Eva, what aren’t you telling me?” Good cop wasn’t getting me anywhere, time for the bad cop. “I- we can’t help you if you don’t help us. Where does he live? And where are you from?” I had gently taken her hand; good cop just wouldn’t go away. She was trembling slightly, but I don’t think it was because of me. “Talk to me. I want to help you. My brothers want to help you. After all, the Coconolte boys have a reputation to uphold. If we can’t get you through this, Mollie will probably disown all of us, including Sam.”

She smiled and blinked away some tears. “We both live in the Capital District.”

“D.C.? Washington?”

“Um... yes. Bobby has a practice there, and the law firm I work for is there. I think he came out here, or was brought here, to see someone.”

“Who?” I asked. “Someone of importance? Official?” I was beginning to get some very unpleasant ideas. “Someone... dangerous?”

“I don’t know. If I knew I’d have gone to them. Mrs. Randolph, Bobby’s grandmother, said he may have been headed this way. She mentioned the Carleton Hotel.”

“Not exactly the Ritz, but I know someone at the Carleton.”

“I know. I went there first to see if he’s registered as a guest, but no one at the desk had heard of him, and there were no reservations in his name. I was so worried and distraught that a very kind gentleman came up to help me, and, well, he gave me your name and address. He said if you couldn’t help, no one could.”

“That had to be Murph. He’s my contact at the Carleton.”

“I wish I could tell you more, but I can’t. I feel so... helpless.”

Before I could say or do anything more to comfort her, Mollie hustled up with more coffee and fresh coffee cake. “Not for you, mister. For Miss Eva and me. You have work waiting. It’s time for Miss Eva and me to get acquainted. You go make sure Phil and Sam aren’t goofing off. Shoo!”

“Yes, ma’am. Eva, when you return to the hotel, make sure Hans knows you’re there. Please? I don’t want two missing persons to look for. Take care of her, Mollie. Try to cheer her up, will you?” And I left the back booth for the office.


When I got back to the office, I found Phil behind the desk, telephone receiver pressed to his ear with one hand, his other fumbling with a small notepad. ”You’re sure? Yeah, I got it. What?” He looked up at me and winked as I walked through the door. “Yeah, I’ll tell him. Sure, I know. Thanks.” He dropped the receiver back on its hook, leaned back in the chair, hands behind his head, and gave me a big, wide smile.

“What?” I asked, “was that your bookie, Phil? Did you finally win the big one?”

“Nah, my bookie has been out of town for two weeks now.  For his health.” Still that big smile.

“So why the big grin? I don’t suppose that was Randolph, was it?”

“No such luck. That was Dr. Lowell over at County General. Boy, what a knockout!” Wistfully he said, “Sometimes, I wish I wasn’t so damned healthy.”

“Yeah, yeah, I’ve heard it all before. What did she have to say?” Sometimes I wish I had never met the good doctor. More importantly, I wish my brothers had never met her.

“I asked her if she knew of any heart doctors named Randolph.” His smiled faded somewhat as he referred to the notes. “She can doctor my heart anytime.”


“And, the only Dr. Robert Randolph she can get a line on is a foot doctor in Miami. And he retired there fifteen years ago.”

“Is that what all the grinning and eyeball rolling was about?”

“This?” Phil said, holding up the notepad. “Oh, no. This is very serious stuff.”

“Then what was so humorous when I walked in? Did I forget to wear my nose, again?” I had a hunch I knew what was comimg.

“Oh, that. Dr. Lowell asked me to tell you she thinks it’s about time you had a complete physical.” Big grin to emphasize `complete.’

“What’s so funny about that? I’m flattered that she’s concerned about my health. And, if you were to ask, I’m sure she’s concerned about your health, and... Sam’s, and practically everybody else’s in the community.” I wish they wouldn’t keep reminding me about her. I’m still confused about my feelings, and this new missing person case isn’t helping. “Chris- Dr. Lowell will just have to wait a while to get me into the (another smirk from Phil) hospital. Eva’s problem has priority right now. I did manage to get a little more out of her before Mollie chased me out. Let’s compare it to what you’ve learned.” I scooted one of the old chairs over to the desk and sat down.

“Okay, but when this is all over and done with, if I were you, I’d sure think about checking into the hospital and letting Dr. Lowell take care of you for awhile. An old fogey like you can’t be too careful, you know.”

“Well, you’re not me, so don’t worry about it. As soon as we finish this job, I’ll see the good doctor professionally. Now, be quiet, and tell me what you’ve learned.”


Sam called in from a payphone at the county hospital. He’s a little more dexterous than Phil is, so I know he had his notebook and at least half a sandwich in one hand, while the other was occupied with holding the receiver up to his ear.

He had just seen Sgt. Morris at the desk of our local precinct to ask about vagrant arrests resembling our client’s brother, before checking in with us. “Hi, Phil, it’s me. Your other brother. I’m at County General. Morris checked back two weeks for me. No John Does resembling Randolph have been reported or arrested up to last night.... no, no unidentified bodies either... the Doc never heard of him, either, huh? I don’t suppose you asked her about any emergencies that could be him, did you? I didn’t think so. Well, I’ll ask at the desk. Damn. No, not you, Phil. Mollie’s bag has nothing left but used wax paper in it. Maybe she’s trying to put me on a diet.... I’m sorry, what did you say, Phil? Tell Dr. Lowell what? I can’t understand you with Nick yelling like that. Ya know, an old fart like Nick really should start thinking about his- oh, hello Nick.... don’t worry, I won’t talk to her if I can avoid it... you really should have her check your blood pressure, though. I would if I were you. As often as possible... okay, okay, I’m on it. I’ll be back in the office as soon as I can. G’bye.”

I know he was grinning when he hung up the phone. But, I’ll bet that grin faded when his empty lunch bag caught his eye. He’s conscientious, so I’m sure he stuffed it into a trash can somewhere before talking to the girl at the desk. She’s a pretty young thing, sitting behind a sign that says ‘Information/Admitting.’ She’s also about Sam’s age, and would have been watching him as soon as he walked in to use the phone. Quite casually, of course. From what he put into his report later, I’m sure the conversation went something like this:

“Hi, Sam. Keeping busy?”

“Today, yes. How’s life in the big city, Abby?’

“You see more of it than I do. You didn’t just happen to stop by to see if I’m busy Saturday night, did you?” She would have done something with those eyes of hers then.

“I wish. I may be stuck on this case all week. And that new Robin Hood flick with Flynn starts Saturday.”

“I know. Errol’s my second favorite hero.” This would have brought the dreamy look to her face.

“And who, may I ask, is your favorite hero?”

Abby would have tried to affect an air of disinterest as she answered that. “Oh, I’m sure you’ve never heard of him. He works for a big, famous detective agency with his brothers. They’re always saving the world or some beautiful, mystery woman from some awful gangsters, or evil scientist, or something, every day.” There’d have been some laughter in her eyes while she teased him.

“Well, it sounds like he’s working steady, at least. We’re trying to help a mystery woman right now. I hope there are no mad scientists or foreign spies involved. I like my excitement on the silver screen, Saturday night. With any luck, we’ll be finished by then.”

This would have made Abby hopeful. “Anything I can do to help?”

“Maybe.” Showing her the description of Randolph in his notes, he asked her if anyone fitting that description named Randolph or Emerson would have been admitted recently. But, no.

“Sam, we’ve got two un-identifieds that came into the emergency room. One of them is a woman, so that leaves just one to check. Hold on a moment, I’ll buzz the emergency ward... Hello, June, this is Abby, would you describe the unidentified man that arrived the other day? No, too old.... oh, Sam’s here looking for a man... I know, I’m practically throwing myself at him, but he’s insisting on a six foot guy with black hair... okay, thanks, June. `Bye. `Fraid not, Sam. Sorry I couldn’t help.”

“Don’t be sorry, Abby. We want to find him alive and well. If we can wrap this thing up by Friday, I’ll give you another chance to practically throw yourself at me again. Gotta run. Bye now.”

“Sam!” But he was too late. Dr. Lowell came striding down the corridor towards him. He never told me what his conversation with Chris was about, but I got most of it out of her later.

“Hello, Doc, and how are you today?” I know Sam likes her. Most men like her. Some even respect her for the intelligent woman that she is.

“What’s wrong with Nick? He hasn’t called me for days. Is he upset with me?” She’s just a bit younger than I am, but looks almost too young to be an experienced doctor.

“I personally think my older brother has a hole in his head that lets all of his common sense leak out when it applies to you, Doc.” This would have emphasized her dimples. “You know how he is about independence. When Phil left that law firm to join the agency, Nick was uncomfortable for about a year and a half. Now that he knows Phil’s okay in a tight spot, he doesn’t worry quite so much. Because of my hitch with the Marines, he got used to having me around a little quicker than that. It’s a lot different with you. I think he’s afraid of how it might hurt you if he let himself get too close and something unfortunate happened to him.”

“I worry about all three of you when you’re working. I talked to Phil earlier, and I’ve got mixed feelings about this job.”

“I didn’t like parts of it from the beginning. The girl is so distraught that I’m willing to go along with her story just to get her calmed down. Maybe then we can find out what’s really going on. I can’t tell if she’s worried about her brother, if there is a brother, or if she’s afraid of someone or something else.”

“If this young woman... Eva? If Eva knew the Coconolte boys the way I do, she wouldn’t be afraid of anyone or anything. I know you’ll do your best. You can count on me for help, too.”

“Thanks, Doc. Say, Phil asked about Randolph, but did he ask if anyone around here needed a high-falutin’ doctor from back east?”

“Why, no, he didn’t. I’ll check around. I have to run, Sam. Give my best to Phil and Nick.”

“Especially Nick, right?”

“Well, maybe. And tell him to call me. Please?”

“Uh, Doc, after we get this one taken care of, I think Nick might be a little more susceptible to your charms. He hasn’t noticed it, but I’ve seen him look at Eva in a different way a couple of times. He may be questioning his own feelings right now. Just don’t act like he’s the only fish in the sea. You know, make him think you’re looking around.”

“Do you suppose that would work?”

“Sure. Have a drink somewhere with someone. Just be sure you’re seen by someone who knows Nick.”

“Hmmm. Dr. Brown in maternity has asked me to dinner once or twice. Maybe he’ll ask again.”

“That’s it, but don’t overdo it. Wake up his curiosity. Well, gotta go. G’bye, Abby, Doctor. See ya in the funny pages.”


“The Kazoo from Hell”

When Sam got back to the office, Phil was on the phone again. “Okay, thanks, Lenny. Hello, Sam. Any news?”

“Isn’t the absence of bad news usually considered to be good news?”

“Well, maybe. I think it might depend on what sort of bad news is absent. Tell me what you didn’t learn, and maybe we can try to understand it together.”

At this point, I can just picture Sam sitting in front of the desk with his size fourteen brogans propped up on the corner. He’d also be consulting that little book of his: “Well, there are no unclaimed stiffs in the county morgue’s cold box that match Randolph’s description, which is a point in his favor, and no unidentified patients in the hospital that look like him, point number two for our side. However, since he hasn’t turned up dead or unconscious by now, he’s either hiding out, alive and well, or very much dead and hidden even better.”

"Maybe he’s alive and hidden against his will.”

“I don’t think so, Phil. If that was the case, I think someone would be trying to exchange him for something.”

“Hey, Sam, what if... Randolph was grabbed, but not for money. Maybe he knows some...VIP or something, and the grabbers are trying to force this... VIP into doing something for their benefit.” (When Sam and Phil mentioned this little bull session to me, I suddenly realized that Phil reads too many cheap thrillers. Maybe, unconsciously, he wants to write that kind of stuff.)

“I don’t think so, Phil. That would only work if Randolph is more important to the VIP than the something is.”

“Well, he’s supposed to be a heart doctor. If our theoretical VIP needed special care from Randolph, wouldn’t he do anything to get his doctor back?”

“Anyone that important, or powerful, would just buy whoever, and whatever he needed. No, I think Randolph is just a pawn that happens to be a doctor, caught in a game bigger than any he’s ever been in before. And, if someone powerful is involved, Randolph is a close relative. Without more information from, or about, our client, we may never know why, or where he’s gone. I’d sure like to know more about this grandmother. Speaking of gone, Phil, where the hell has Nick gotten off to?”

“Miss Eva mentioned the Carleton Hotel, remember? He went over to talk to Murph.”


It was late afternoon in the city. The departing rain clouds were turning a reddish-gold out over the ocean. I was watching them drift into the sunset without really seeing them. I was standing at the only window in the office of the Carleton Hotel’s house detective. His name is Murphy Wollenski. Another ex-cop. And close friend of mine. Most of Murph’s friends and acquaintances call him Ski or Murphski, but I can’t. He taught me everything I needed to know, and more, when I was a young rookie. Saved my butt a few times, too. There would be no CIA detectives if not for him.

I was waiting while he was on the phone with the front desk. “No Emersons either? Okay, thanks, Bill.” I turned as he hung up. “No one registered under any combination of Randolph’s name. Sorry, Nick.”

“Thanks, Murph. I knew it was a long shot.”

“You gotta follow `em all up, long or short. Sometimes the long ones pay off. Give me that description again.”

“It’s not much. Six-two, good shape physically, thirty-five. Blue eyes, black wavy hair. Sounds vaguely like most of the leading men in Hollywood right now.”

Murphy grinned at that. “You’re right. I was- (a loud snap from his fingers) say! Wait a minute.” His eyes didn’t quite bug out, but it was close. “That reminds me. I overheard two of the maids talking about a guest on the fourth floor. One of `em thought Errol Flynn was sleeping off a drunk here and the other said no, it was Clark Gable hiding from an irate husband.”

I was suddenly hopeful. “You didn’t overhear a room number, by any chance?”

“No, but I do know how to find out.” Murphy was up and headed for the door in a flash. “Come on.”

“Where are we headed?”

“To the fourth floor. And on the way up, we talk to Johnny.”

I was somewhat bewildered by Murph’s sudden activity. “Johnny?”

“Yes, Johnny. One of the elevator operators. Reads all those screen magazines. He wants to be either a movie star, or a writer for a scandal sheet, I not sure which. If there’s anything remotely resembling a movie star or a possible scandal, Johnny knows.”

As we approached the elevator, the doors slid open and an elderly couple stepped out. “The lobby, folks. Watch your step. I think you’ll really enjoy the hotel restaurant.  Hi, Mr. Ski. What’s cookin’?”  This was Johnny. Maybe eighteen. About five-ten and skinny. Tries to comb his hair like Buddy Rogers. A little more beef on his frame and he just might be Hollywood fodder. If he stays skinny, he’ll probably become a writer. Either way, Murphy’s prediction will be right. “Where to, gents?”

“Four. Johnny, this is Nick Coconolte. He’s a good friend of mine, and he needs our help with a missing person case.”

“Sure thing, Mr. Ski. Didn’t I read something about you and somebody named Fernwood, Mr. Coconolte?”

Scandal sheets, definitely. “Yeah, but it was a place, not a person. Not one of our more representative cases. Call me Nick. We’re looking for a missing grandson. At least we think he’s a grandson. Have you seen, or heard about anyone resembling Errol Flynn or Clark Gable in the hotel?”

“Nah.” Murph and I looked at one another with instant disappointment. “One of the bellhops said Cary Grant is staying in 412, though.”

Our disappointment flashed into surprise and hope. “Is he?” Murph asked, trying to conceal that hope.

“Nope. He looks like the Hollywood type, but I’ve never seen him before. Fourth floor. Watch your step, gentlemen.”

I tried to give Johnny a buck, but he shook his head. “On the house for friends of Mr. Ski. Good luck, Nick.”

“Thanks, Johnny. Let me know when you start writing.”

It was Johnny’s turn for surprise. “How did you know…?” The doors closed, before he could finish.

“You’re getting better, Nick. Here’s 412.”

Murphy tried the knob only to find it locked. He knocked and got no answer. We could hear sounds of movement coming from within the room. “Let’s go in,” Murphy said to me, quietly. He pulled a ring of passkeys from his pocket and selected one to open the door.

As we entered the room, we saw a man forcing another man into the closet. “Stop!” Murphy shouted as he reached for his hotel badge. “What are you doing?”

The man doing all the pushing turned to us and pointed a small pen like object in our direction. I saw the tip of the object glow dimly, and I knocked Murphy to the floor. A small burn mark, and a smoke ring appeared silently at about chest level on the doorframe we had just passed through.

While we tried to regain our footing, and our dignity, the closet door clicked shut.

After Murphy and I had helped each other up, he asked me, “What the hell was that, Nick?”

“I don’t know for sure, but be very careful.” I had an idea what it might be, but explaining it to Murphy would be difficult and time consuming.

We had reached the closet door by this time, and were ready to confront our assailant. Murphy pulled his revolver from under his coat and motioned me to open the door from the side.

I jerked the door open, blocking my view of the inside as Murphy pointed his revolver into the closet.

“Alright, I want you to come out with your-” was all I heard him say.

I eased my head around the door to look into an empty closet as Murphy finished with,  “What the hell?”

We both stepped into the closet and began to search for any way out other than the door. Murphy stamped on the floorboards while I tapped the walls looking for secret panels and trapdoors, but nothing was apparent.

“Where did they go, Murph?”

“I wish I knew. Uhh, Nick, you’re not going to tell anyone about this, are you? If you do, I’ll deny all of it. I saw it, and I don’t believe it. That guy disappeared like a magician.”

“Don’t worry. Phil and Sam are the only ones I have to convince. I would appreciate your keeping all of this to yourself.”

“Ha! I like having a steady job. As far as I’m concerned, there was no one in this room when we walked in. We didn’t even come in here.”

“How are you going to explain that burn on the doorframe, Murph?” I asked, with a smile.

“I don’t have to. Prob’ly a cigar burn left by some drunk during the last convention.” It was Murphy’s turn to smile.

“Thanks, Murph. Believe it or not, this experience has been very helpful to me. Now, I have got to get back to the office. I’ve suddenly got a new batch of questions for our client.”


The sun was almost down by the time I reached the office. I found Phil and Sam trying their damndest to shoot holes in each other’s theories.

“Just because she claims she and her brother are from Washington, doesn’t mean some high government big wig is involved. If that were so, we’d be up to our... armpits in FBI and Secret Service types. And you know how they stick out in a crowd. Have you heard of any strangers in town? Hello, Nick,” Sam said, looking up at me. “’Bout time you got back. The only thing Phil and I have been able to agree on is dinnertime. Well, any word on the street about G-Men in town, Phil?”

“Not a thing from anyone I talked to. Hi, Nick, what’s for dinner? I still think that if she’s from D.C., the Feds are somehow involved.”

“They may be,” I said, “But, she didn’t say she was from D.C.”

Sam and Phil both looked at me together.

Phil frowned. “Where, exactly, did she say she’s from?”

“I told you earlier. She said `the Capital District.’ I asked if she meant D.C., and she hesitated before she said yes.”

“How many Capital Districts can there be?” Sam asked, of no one in particular. “We can worry about that later. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, what did you find at the Carleton?”

“I saw two guys that weren’t there hiding in a closet that’s too small to swing a cat in.”

Sam looked worried. Mock worried. “When did you eat last? Hallucination is a sure sign of malnutrition.” He tried to sound worried, but it just didn’t come across.

I gave them the story about the mystery of room 412, ignoring their looks of disbelief.

“So, Murph and I checked at the desk about 412. Two and a half weeks ago, a Mr. Jonathan Harrison-Smythe checked in alone. (“An alias if I ever heard one,” Sam muttered.) He was expecting a business associate to meet him within a week’s time. Three days later, two men showed up, one asking for Harrison-Smythe, the other too ill to speak, and barely able to walk. The ill gentleman resembled Eva’s vague description of her missing brother.”

Sam leaped to his feet. “At last, a real lead! I move we celebrate over dinner.”

“Not yet,” I said. “There’s something we have to do first.”

“Where do we go from here?” Phil asked.

“Straight to our client. As soon as you two have given me all the dope you learned today.”


“- so, I think Randolph’s chances of still being alive are pretty good,” Sam said. “Oh, and Dr. Lowell sends her regards. I heard, at the hospital, some good-looking doctor had been talking to her.”

I said, probably with a frown, “I hope they’re very happy together. Did you get anything after I left, Phil?”

“I talked to as many of our regular contacts as I could track down. The ones that aren’t dead or hiding out. Nobody’s heard about any serious illness amongst the local bad boys. And no one’s come in from out of town looking for medical help, either. Sam, you don’t mean Doc Brown up in maternity, do you? I’ve heard that most of the nurses there treat him like a king.”

“That’s him. He’s-”

“Hey, guys! Earth to Phil and Sam. Gossip later with Mollie. We have to talk to our client.” I picked up the phone to ring Hans in the hotel next door, hoping to distract my brothers from anymore nonsense about Dr. Lowell’s love life, but I should have known better. “Hans, Nick. Is Miss Nerak in? Good. We’re on our way over to see her- no, don’t tell we’re coming. Thanks.”


 As we approached the small front desk of the hotel, Hans lowered his Racing Form, said “Evenin’, boys.”

“Hello, Hans. Has Miss Nerak been down since I called?”

Nope, haven’t seen her since she went upstairs.”

“When was that?”

“Oh, `bout one this afternoon. She stopped to talk for a minute.”

“She say anything that might be important to us?”

“Nah, just trying to get her mind off her troubles. You know, the weather, baseball-”

“Baseball? She didn’t seem like the baseball type to me,” Phil said.

“Hey, my grandmother was the original sweet little old lady, but if she didn’t agree with the umpire, she sounded like a sailor with twenty years service. Anyway we started discussin’ baseball and I was surprised at how much she knows. Mostly historical stuff. `Specially about the Dodgers. She’s another one of you, Phil. Funny, she started to say something about the Dodgers goin’ to Los Angeles, when suddenly, she clams up, nods her head and said she had to go, and headed up the stairs. She’s a nice kid, too bad she’s so shook up.”

“Yeah, well, if she’ll be honest with us, we might be able to help her get through this. Thanks, Hans. If any strangers come in, ring her room, will you?”

“Sure thing, Nick. Good luck with this one. I hope it doesn’t turn into another Fernwood.  I still get the chills when I walk past room 22.”


As we approached Eva’s room, Phil held me back and said, “Maybe you should go in first. Sam and I can wait out here for a minute.”

“Good thought. The three of us at once might spook her a little.”

I rapped on the door, but there was no answer. I tried the knob, and it turned. I glanced at Phil and he nodded toward the room so I opened the door and stepped in.

“Eva, are you here?” I closed the door quietly and looked around. Typical cheap hotel room: single bed, small bureau for clothes, door to a private bath, and a door to a closet, both closed, no windows.

There was a small suitcase next the bureau. Was it hers? Did Sam pick it up at the station? He didn’t mention it.

I stepped over to the closet. After a deep breath, I opened the door quickly. I released the deep breath when I found nothing inside.

I crossed over to the bathroom and stepped in. Just barely room for the old fashioned tub, a toilet, and a sink on the wall with a mirror above it. Not even a window.  

So, where was Eva?  There was no way she could have left the hotel without Hans knowing. At least, no way she could know about, I thought at the time.

I stepped out of the bathroom, closing the door behind me, and when I looked up, I saw two strange men standing in the room. Make that one strange man. The last time I had seen the other, he was trying to stuff a semi-conscious man into the closet of room 412 of the Carleton Hotel.

The strange man was pointing something that looked like a kazoo at me.

“What are you doing in my room?” I tried to sound as indignant as possible.

“Cut the crap. We want the girl.” The closet magician sounded angry.

“What girl? I don’t have a girl in here. Who are you, the house detective?” Fat chance of that. Hans is practically the whole staff.

“A wise guy, huh?” He looked at his associate and said, “Buzz him.”

The strange man did something with the kazoo-like device, and immediately I felt as if I had plunged into a vat of acid. Every single nerve ending in my body seemed to be plugged into a light socket. I couldn’t move or cry out for help. It seemed to go on for an eternity.

“That’s enough.” Although the pain ceased the instant he spoke, I was still unable to move. “Would you care for another dose? Tell me: what have you done with the girl?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about!” I didn’t have to fake fear of his toy, he could see it in my eyes.

“Again.”  Once more I felt the flash of intense pain and heat wash over me. Again the eternal burning and then coolness.

“That was just one second. Want to try for double or nothing? Where’s the girl?” The kazoo from hell was raised in my direction again, but before he could use it a third time, I managed to cry out, “Sam, Phil!!” before collapsing to the floor.

The door seemed to explode from its frame as Sam burst into the room. “Nick! What’s wrong?” Phil was shouting as he followed closely on Sam’s heels.

When they stopped next to me, they were looking around the room for any signs of trouble, but saw only me curled up on the floor.

“Stop them! They’re after Eva!” I shouted. I must have looked like a madman in convulsions, struggling to get up.

“Who? Who’s after Eva?” Phil and Sam were also struggling, trying to help me get up.

“Two guys! Didn’t you see them? They must have gotten past you, somehow.”

“Nobody’s been through that door, other than you, Phil and me in the past five minutes,”  Sam said. “Where’s Eva?”

“She’s not here. I was looking in the bathroom when those two goons appeared, literally out of nowhere.” Phil and Sam had finally gotten me up from the floor and sitting on the edge of the bed. From the look in Phil’s eyes, I must have been pretty pale after my ordeal. “I don’t know where she-”

At that moment, the door to the bathroom opened and out stepped Miss Eva Nerak. All smiles and perfectly calm. The three of us reacted in the same manner as the first time we met her; we played statues again.

Phil was the first to speak. “Now you have no excuse for avoiding Dr. Lowell’s check-up. You’re cold as ice on a corpse.”

I brushed Phil’s hand from my forehead so I could see Eva clearly.

“Come on, Nick. We’re all going to the hospital. Now,” Sam said.

“I appreciate your sibling loyalty, but I have a couple of burning questions for Miss Nerak. Where were you?”

“I was in the bathroom, freshening up.” She wouldn’t look at me as she spoke.

“I looked in the bathroom. Were you hiding under the tub?”

“But I swear-” Before she could finish, I stood up, swaying somewhat and grabbed her arm, partly to show her I was serious, but mostly to keep from falling on my face again. “Ouch, Nick, you’re hurting me.”

“Nick, what’s wrong with you?” “Hey, take it easy, Nick!” Sam and Phil were speaking at the same time.

“Come on. We have to get out of here before they come back.”

“Before who comes back?” Eva asked.

“Let’s go. I want some answers, and I want them now! If we stay here, that closet stuffing magician may show up with reinforcements. And they won’t be bearing gifts.” I headed for the broken door, practically dragging Eva behind me. I’m sure that Phil and Sam behind me were shaking their heads and thinking that their older brother had finally lost it.


I was sitting behind the old desk in the office. Phil and Sam were both perched on the front corners. Eva was on one of the straight back chairs, before us. She was sitting up straight, eyes closed, hands in her lap.

“But I told you everything.” She was trembling slightly.

“Miss Nerak, we want to help you. We can’t if we don’t know what to expect. I can’t speak for my brothers, but I believe only about half of what you’ve told us so far.” I tried to sound firm, but I’m not sure how it came across.

“Eva, we can’t work in the dark. If this is a `need to know only’ situation, then we need to know everything. If you can’t tell us, we’re as helpless as you and your brother. Maybe more so,” Sam said gently.

her shoulders slumped forward as she hung her head. She whispered, almost inaudibly. “He’s not my brother.”

“We didn’t think so, from the first time you spoke to us. What is his relationship to you? Your husband, fiancĂ©? What? Don’t stop now. You can trust us. We’ve trusted you up to this point.” I wanted to take her by the shoulders and shake some sense into her, and maybe some information out.

She looked up at us and showed a weak smile through her tears. She was very pale. Too young and pretty to be subjected to such a nasty ordeal.

“Mollie told me I could put my life into your hands. But it’s not my life that’s in so much danger. It’s Bobby’s. If I tell you the whole story, you’ll never believe me. You’ll think I’m crazy and send me away someplace.” I saw a spark in her eyes that sent a chill down my spine.

“Try us, Eva, we may surprise you. We’ve heard some fairly strange stories before. Stories the likes of which you could never believe. Now, who is Robert Emerson Randolph?” I was still a bit shaky from my experience in the hotel room so her next words sent an even bigger chill down my spine.

She closed her eyes, swallowed, and said, “He’s my grandson.”

"I never studied Missing Persons 101"

“My name really was Eva Nerak. Nerak is my maiden name. Bobby’s name is Robert Emerson Randolph, Jr., just as I told you. He is a doctor, and he really is my grandson. Or he will be someday. This is where my story takes a turn for the unbelievable.

“Bobby won’t be born until the year 2025. I won’t be born until 1974. I came here from the year 2004 of the 21st century.

“In 2004, my son, Bobby’s father, is only one year old. I’ve been married for two years now. My husband and I both work for the same law firm in the Capital District. No, not the capital of the United States as you know it now, Washington, D.C., but Bern, Switzerland, capital of United Terra.

“About a week ago, for me, decades from now, I was working at my desk on a stack of legal briefs. When I looked up, there was an elderly woman standing in front of me. She had such a funny look on her face, I thought she may have been ill. `Are you alright?’ I asked.

“It was a moment before she spoke. She kept staring at me. It was so eerie. I felt like I knew her from somewhere, like in a previous life or something. Finally, she said, ‘It worked! It really worked! Oh, thank God!’

“`Is something wrong? Perhaps you should sit down.’ I got up and came around the desk to help her into a chair. She looked like she was at least eighty years old. `Who are you and how did you get in here?’

“From the way she kept staring at me, I was afraid she was in a state of shock, or something. I got her a glass of water from the cooler. I’ve seen that done in old movies, and it worked. After a couple of sips, she was able to speak to me.

“At first I thought she was just some old lady that had wandered in off the street. But she couldn’t have gotten that far past security without being stopped. And, she was very well dressed. But her story was so fantastic!

“She said that she was me from the future. She didn’t make much sense at first, but as she calmed down and spoke to me, I began to understand what she was trying to tell me. She had traveled backwards through time from the future to the year 2004!

“I was flabbergasted. Now, I was staring at her. `Are you part of some research project?’

“`No,’ she said quite calmly now, `I came back to talk to you. I must make you understand fully, the gravity of the situation in the future.’ Oh, no, I thought, she wants me to save the world from pollution or alien invasion or something just as typical of demented people. `I don’t have much time, and I need your help, desperately. Now.’

“She then proceeded to tell me a story even more incredible that than the one about how she arrived in front of my desk.

“Through hard work and determination, and with a little luck, I will be elected the first woman President of United Terra in the year 2058. In her- my second year in office, 2060, a very important piece of legislation will be in the final phase of enactment. Millions of people will be affected by this act. No more exploitation by big business of people living in technical slavery. Freedom and denied rights will be restored. She couldn’t give me the details of all this, because of time constraints and the fact that too much knowledge of the future could be dangerous. I could see how concerned she was, and I didn’t press her for more details.

“Just days before she was to make final approval of the act with her signature and Seal of Office, she received word that my- her grandson, Bobby- Dr. Randolph, had been kidnapped. If she allows the enactment of the new bill, she’ll never see her grandson again. Alive or dead!

“It would be completely within the privilege of her Office to veto the whole thing with no explanation or reason. However, to her, this act is, or will be, more important than the life of any one person. Or grandson. She must allow it to pass unhindered, and she will. She was very hopeful that I could help rescue Bobby.

“I couldn’t begin to believe any of this outlandish tale. It was so… fantastic! She was ready for that, too. She had family photos to show me. Pictures of me with my husband and baby son. Pictures of us, only older. I know that pictures can be doctored and created with computers, but she had pictures that I had just taken and hadn’t even had holo’d yet! She knew the pet names my husband and I had for each other that no one else in the whole world could possibly know. She told me how I got the scar on my right elbow, and then showed me that scar on her right elbow! That finally convinced me.

“She was so relieved when I agreed to help. She gave me what little information the Presidential Security Agency had been able to gather about the kidnapping, and where Bobby might be hidden, along with a small device for temporal displacement. Time travel, as they called it in the old sci-fi stories.

“After she was certain I understood everything, she was ready to return to her own time. Before she left, I asked her why she wanted my help.

“`Because the only person I can possibly trust in this matter is myself, you. Unfortunately, the me of 2060 is far too old to be gallivanting about in time, chasing criminals. And if I’m not present in 2060, they’ll know I’m fighting them.’

“And with that, she disappeared. Back to her own era.

“Then, I came here to look for Bobby. Only, I never studied `Missing Persons 101’ in law school, and I don’t have any of the experience she has, yet, so I came looking for help.”


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