The machine that lowered the casket into the ground made a grinding noise. They really ought to oil the mechanism. Fog rolled in as the light faded. Diana pulled her black wool cape tighter around her shoulders. Spring in San Francisco still seemed far away in March. A guy waited in a small tractor-thing to scoop dirt back into the fresh grave over by the huge camellia bush, maybe fifty feet away from her parents’ grave. Indoor-outdoor carpet was draped over the excavated pile, as if that would camouflage the finality of dirt.
She looked down at her parents’ brass plaque, now three years old. They were together finally, but she was entirely alone. Would she ever find for herself the love they’d shared? The fact that you adopted me is the reason I can write romances. I knew two people who found love.
Diana heaved in a breath and pulled her eyes away from the simple plaque. She turned and sloshed down the slope. Her car looked lonely in the visitors’ parking lot. Fitting. She’d always felt … separate. Maybe it was because she didn’t know where she really belonged, since she didn’t remember anything before she was thirteen. Or maybe it was because she had … well, to be kind she’d call them quirks. Like being able to find things that were lost and Susan Squires hearing what people would say just before they said it—not what they were thinking, just what they would say. What use was that? It was like living inside a constant round-robin song. And she couldn’t reveal it or people would think she was crazy. She’d never told anyone, not even her parents. The secret as much as the noise built a wall between her and the rest of the world.
Sliding into the driver’s seat, she closed her eyes, hugging her shoulder bag. Her life was getting beyond her control. She couldn’t even write anymore. She had only twenty-five pages done on the novel that was due next month. The whole thing made her want to rip her hair out. Much as she loved the setting of Camelot and her hero, Gawain, the romance just wouldn’t come to life. She’d give back the advance and call it a day, but the money was already gone. She was still paying off the last year of nursing-home care for her father. Happy endings seemed to be in short supply right now, fictional or not.
She put her shoulder bag on the passenger’s seat beside her. The priceless book inside had been taking up more and more of her thoughts. It was by Leonardo da Vinci.
Yeah. That da Vinci. She’d be set her for life if she sold it, but her horror at even the thought of selling the book made the word “obsession” seem inadequate. She carried it around constantly, unable to bear even leaving it at the apartment. Okay. As long as she was admitting things, she slept with it. But sometimes it seemed that book was the only thing that was real to her anymore.
Whoa. Obsession over a book, writer’s block. She had to admit she’d been depressed. All on top of her little natural proclivities … she needed a therapist. As if she could afford one. Unless she sold the book. But she probably couldn’t sell the book without some serious therapy. Well, that was circular.
She took two deep breaths and started the car. Okay. Time to go home to her little apartment just east of the Mission District. Unable to help herself, she reached over to touch the book. The way it had come into her life was a little surreal. …
Diana had been coming out of the office at the Exploratorium, the children’s science museum where she supervised docents, when she practically ran into the family. The woman had very green eyes and very red hair and that translucent, perfect skin that goes with them. Her baby bump was just beginning to show. The little girl was a paler version of her mother. The father was a looker. Anything in range with a female hormone was casting surreptitious looks at him. He ought to be standing at the prow of a Viking ship, preferably stripped to the waist.
“Closing time,” Diana announced.
The Viking’s next words echoed in her mind: “We’ll just stop at the restrooms before I take my two girls home.” He gathered the little girl into one big arm and took his wife’s elbow protectively.
The woman took one look at Diana, gasped, and slumped against her husband.
“Lucy, are you all right?” The Viking hauled her in against his free hip.
Diana guided them to a bench beside the door marked with a large sign that read: Danger. Keep out.
The little girl was worried. “What’s wrong with Mommy?” she asked in a small voice.
“Nothing, honey,” the woman called Lucy managed as she eased down on the bench. “Mommy didn’t eat enough at lunchtime.” She clutched a large shoulder bag to her chest.
The Viking’s gaze swept the area. “Can you look after Pony?” he asked Diana, setting the little girl on her feet. “I’ll buy a mug at the gift shop and bring some water.”
Diana grabbed Pony’s hand, and the Viking strode away. Pony. Odd name, but cute.
The woman examined Diana’s face. “Have … have you been a docent long?”
A connection sparked between them. Did Diana know her? “I’m actually a supervisor. It pays the bills while I wait for my ship to come in.”
“And what exactly would your ship look like?”
Diana mustered a smile “Well … I write books.” She looked up to see the woman’s expression of sympathy. Everybody and their brother was a failed writer these days. “Oh, I’m published,” she assured the woman. “But it doesn’t come with health insurance or a four-oh-one (k). City of San Francisco provides those.”
“What do you write?”
Now she’d see the flash of derision or the uneasy shifting of the eyes. “Romances.” Did she sound defensive? “I write historicals.”
Not even a hint of eye rolling. Emboldened, Diana continued. “Right now I’m researching Camelot. I think it was the origin of courtly love.” She sighed. “That was the time to live.” She couldn’t help the longing that drenched her voice.
Lucy gave a sharp intake of breath. She looked as though she’d just had a revelation. The Viking strode toward them with his cup of water, a worried frown creasing his brow. The woman smiled, first at him, and then at Diana. A look Diana could only describe as sureness suffused her expression. “I have a gift for you.” She hauled a very large leather-bound book from her bag and handed it to Diana.
“This … this is old. I … I couldn’t take this.” The tooled leather binding was beautiful.
“Of course you can. I’m giving it to you just as it was given to me.” The woman glanced to her husband and stilled what Diana was sure was an incipient protest with a look.
Diana opened the book gingerly, scanning the pages. “It’s written backward.”
“Yes. It’s in archaic Italian and Latin.”
Diana frowned. “I have some Latin, but I’m afraid I don’t read Italian.”
“You can get a translation from Dr. Dent over at Berkeley. He’ll authenticate it.” The woman rose, looking strangely serene. “I’m feeling fine. We can go.” Diana caught her husband’s pointed look at the Danger door. “I’ve done what I came to do,” his wife assured him. The woman pressed Diana’s hands. “Use the book. It will change your life. And when you’re ready …” She leaned forward to whisper in Diana’s ear. “Look behind the door.”
Diana drew back in shock, then glanced to the door marked: Danger.
“Yes. That one.” The woman smiled. And then she and her family strolled out into the San Francisco fog. The whole scene looked like the fade-out happy ending to a movie.
Diana jerked her head around as a car honked and sped by on her left. Once she’d read Dr. Dent’s translation, Diana knew what Lucy thought was behind that door. The very fact that Diana could half-believe it must be a sign that she was going around the bend. The book was a hoax, even if it was a hoax by Leonardo da Vinci.
The manuscript recorded Leonardo’s effort to build a time machine. It said he succeeded.
There was a picture on the last pages, after all the diagrams and calculations and all the scientific stuff she didn’t have any hope of understanding. In the illustration the machine seemed to be just a bunch of gears. Susan Squires Appropriate for 1508 when the book was written, but not exactly the kind of thing that could manipulate the time/space continuum.
It would be easy to check it out. As a supervisor of the docents she had a set of master keys. But in the five months she’d had the book she’d never used them on the door. Opening it, thinking there might be a time machine behind it, seemed like crossing some line toward insanity.
Like it wasn’t crazy to carry the book around all the time. Or to sleep with it.
Okay. A little crazy. But it was like the book was shouting at her now, where before it had only whispered. That made it harder to think clearly. Still she wouldn’t believe a time machine was hidden in a children’s museum.
Oh, hell. If she didn’t believe there might be a time machine might behind that door, why had she brushed up on Latin? Because that was what they spoke in Camelot as a second language to Brythonic Proto-Celtic? Because she wanted there to be a time machine behind that door and she wanted it to take her back to Camelot, to a time when things were simpler, when anything could happen and people believed in love and magic and honor. As she researched her newest novel she’d grown to feel like she belonged there, and she, who had no childhood, wanted so much to know where she belonged.
Her chest heaved and she couldn’t seem to get air. She glanced over at the book. It exuded hope. It seemed to push at her, like maybe it could make her happy, like the redhaired Lucy said it could, like maybe deadlines and obsession and loneliness were what was unreal and there was some new and wonderful reality just waiting for her.
That was dangerous. Sanity was knowing reality for what it was, no matter how stark, and learning to cope with it. If there were no machine that could change your life behind that door, then she’d be able to go home to her empty apartment, make an appointment with a therapist at some free clinic, and face her future.
So she knew what she had to do.
She was going to the Exploratorium tonight and look behind that door marked: Danger.
Diana parked in the front lot, close to the museum entrance. The fog was a blanket down here near the bay. The ornate colonnades that lined the path to the Rotunda of the Palace of Fine Arts loomed to her left, the angels on the capitals looking more like gargoyles in the mist. The Palace had been restored a couple of years ago for the umpteenth time, on this occasion to make it earthquake proof. Originally built for the Panama-Pacific International Exhibition of 1915 as a temporary building, it had never been meant to stand the test of time. Excavations to install the reinforcing struts had revealed a basement of sorts, a secret room now buried again to protect the earthquake infrastructure. Diana pulled out her keys and unlocked one of the front doors. The beam of Clancy’s flashlight caromed over the cavernous ceiling. He was about to call out to her.
“Hey!” he called. “You’re here late.”
She managed a nervous grin. “Forgot to post this week’s docent schedule.”
Clancy had a gut on him, but his perpetual frown, lurking among his jowls, hid a kind heart. “Can’t have that.” He grinned. “But, Ms. Dearborn, you got to get a life.”
Wasn’t that the truth? Her face fell. If only she knew how.
She heard his words, of course, before he said them. How kind he was about to be.
“Well, you don’t have to get one right this minute. You Susan Squires take your time.” He must have seen her expression. “I’m due to take a turn around the outside. I’ll escort you to your car when I get back.”
He turned out toward the rank of double glass doors. “Don’t you open these doors until I get back,” he warned.
She gave a little nod. Clancy would be gone for half an hour at least. She checked her watch. Three minutes past seven. Standing in the entryway to the exhibits, she watched him push through the doors and cast his flashlight through the wall of fog. She spun on her heel. The exhibits were silent now. The machine that mimicked waves was still. The simulated geysers were cold. Work lights in the back cast a harsh glow that barely illuminated the shapes of the exhibits that marched off into the darkness. The mezzanine that housed the aural and biology exhibits loomed over her.
Best get this over with. She made her step purposeful as she strode past the gift shop, its dark recesses crammed with souvenirs. She clutched her bag with the book in it to her chest. She didn’t have to read the personal instructions to someone named Donnatella in the front pages. She knew the translation by heart. The note said … that time was a vortex. That you could think of another time and the machine would … would take you there. O h, right, and how was that? And that the machine couldn’t stay in the new time forever. It would slip back to its point of origin. There was the little slip of paper, almost like a bookmark, that gave the sequence of the switches to flip on the power source. There was a dire note from someone named “Frankie” that said you shouldn’t ever meet a former version of yourself because you couldn’t both exist at once. Both of these were recent and in English.
The door loomed before her. Danger. Keep out.
Danger, all right. She took a breath. Best get it over with. She glanced back to the entrance. Clancy was nowhere in sight. This door was on the side of the museum next to the Palace of Fine Arts. Maybe something to do with the construction?
She pulled out her key ring and sorted through the keys. Damn. Her hands were shaking. She held up her ring by the master key, the rest of the keys clinking for attention. Then she descended on the lock. The book almost hummed with excitement inside her bag. The very air around her seemed to vibrate with expectation.
The door was heavy but silent on its hinges. Diana peered into the dark passage that sloped slightly downward. She flicked on the little LED light attached to her key chain. The corridor was lined with unfinished dry-wall. The floor turned from cement to rough boards. She stepped inside, her steps echoing. The boards gave way almost immediately to packed earth.
The door behind her slammed shut. She swallowed, trying to push her heart out of her throat and back down where it belonged. That door better have a handle on the inside. But she wasn’t going back to check now. If she stopped now, she might lose her nerve.
Her eyes got used to the illumination cast from her tiny light. A black gap yawned at the end of the corridor. She stood on the edge of that gap and held her light out. Several metal girders set at angles loomed out of the darkness.
Earthquake reinforcements for the Rotunda. She must be directly below it in that basement they’d discovered. She cast her light around. Other struts jutted at crazy angles out of concrete roots. She ducked under one and around another. It was like a maze, smelling of metal and damp from the lake beyond the Rotunda. She was so absorbed in making her way through the forest of metal girders she was surprised when she emerged into an open space.
Something gleamed dully in the darkness. She held her little light above her head.
Her lungs grabbed for air.
The gears were bronze or brass or something, a thousand of them, big and smaller and really tiny. And they were set with jewels. Some were really, really big jewels. Red and blue and green and … and diamonds. They coruscated under her tiny light. The machine must be fourteen, sixteen feet tall. It disappeared in the darkness above her. Stabbing out from the center was the control lever she’d seen in the illustrations, ending in a diamond bigger than her fist.
Leonardo’s machine was real.
And she just knew. She knew that the Viking-looking guy was really a Viking from long ago and the woman, Lucy, had gone back to get him and changed her life with this machine. You could make these gears and jewels take you through the vortex of time just by thinking about a destination. The book inside her shoulder bag seemed almost jubilant.
Diana put out a hand to the nearest girder to steady herself and took some deep breaths. Then she examined the machine more carefully. A modern steel box about the size of a lunch box sat at the bottom with several switches and lights on it and a big steel button like the kind you pushed with your palm at traffic lights. That hadn’t been in the illustration. But the instructions on the bookmark mentioned switches. She hauled the book out of her bag and took the slip of paper out, shining her light on the spidery handwriting: “Blue, then the two whites from left to right, twice, and then the red. Push the big button. Then pull the lever down.”
This was the moment. She could see Arthur and Guinevere. She could see Gawain, the hero who wouldn’t come to life in her current work in progress. She could be infused with that “one brief shining moment” and come back with a tale to tell. She might be renewed.
Excerpted from The Mists Of Time by Susan Squires.
Copyright © 2010 by Susan Squires.
Published in September 2010 by St. Martin’s Paperbacks.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.