The long hall channeled the smell of frying mushrooms directly toward me when I stepped off the elevators. I was reminded of my hate of mushrooms. Even the smell turned my stomach, much less the eating. Trying to ignore the smell emanating from the end of the hall, I checked the numbers on the doors, looking for the number fifty-five. It was the door at the end of the hall where the vile mushroom aroma wafted.
I held my breath and tried not to think about the smell as I knocked on the door. After a couple of light knocks on the door, it opened. The lady was short, and the bathrobe she had wrapped around her tightly looked older than her.
“Yes?” She barely opened the door enough to peek out to see me standing in my blue pinstriped suit and my ID in my hand. My fedora was pushed further back on my head than usual, as I wanted to appear harmless, which I was not.
“Ma’am, my name is Jacob Jarvis. I’m looking for Claudine Freedman. I was told she lives here.” I showed her my PI ID as I spoke. She glanced at it, looked me up and down, and sighed.
“Yeah, right, you better come in.” Straightening up, she pushed the door open more and stepped back to let me into the small apartment. The mushroom stench was overwhelming, and I tamped down a gag.
“What's happened now?” She leaned against the wall next to the stove in the tiny apartment, barely moving. I quickly looked around the room as I slipped my ID back into my jacket pocket, noting the strange-looking mushrooms in the pan and raw ones lying on the counter. Ugly white mushrooms with inky black gills that produced a nasty smell.
“Ma’am, I was hired to find out where she is and, if possible, bring her back home.”
“Well, you're looking at her—I’m Claudine Freedman. They finally came to their senses, eh?” She seemed to know who I was talking about and expected me or someone like me to show up eventually.
“Not to be blunt, but you’re not Claudine.” I pulled out the picture I’d been given to go by. I handed her the small black-and-white picture of a young girl who was tall and thin. The lady in front of me was anything but tall and skinny, and her hair was all wrong.
She looked at it in the light from the front window and then handed it back to me. “Yeah, that's my sister, Carol. She was the pretty one. I was always the short, fat one no one wanted around.”
“But why give me the wrong picture?”
“Because they don’t like acknowledging that I exist, and they probably didn't have pictures of me. I was never one for taking pictures. It’s been years since I was home, and frankly, they don’t miss me. And I don’t miss them.” She seemed to get more comfortable with me as she talked.
“Coffee?” She offered as she poured herself a cup from a pot on the stove. I said yes, and she handed me one as she came by me to sit on an old chair in the sun. I took the hint and sat in the nearest chair with a small table next to it. Once we were seated and facing each other, and I waited for the coffee to cool down, I pulled my notebook out and found my fountain pen.
“Claudine, you need to start at the beginning and tell me what’s going on.”
She scrunched herself in the chair, pulling her legs around her and letting the bathrobe drape where it landed—several minutes passed as she stared into her coffee mug. I waited. Most of the time, people talked, given enough time, and I wasn’t in any hurry.
Claudine was not the “pretty one,” as she put it, but she wasn’t the “ugly one” either. I had to admit that her sitting old chair wrapped in a bathrobe didn’t do her looks any good, but I’d seen much worse. I kept my assessment to myself while she thought some more. Somewhere in the living room, a clock was ticking softly, magnified much louder in the room's silence.
Rearranging herself in the chair and pulling her knees up so she could rest her chin on them, she took her coffee from the table next to her and sipped it. “Carol married a senator from Virginia back before the war while I went to work in the plane factories.”
“The family knows where she is?”
She nodded yes and took a sip of coffee. “But she’s too good for us now. Never calls or writes or comes back.”
“They must know where you are?”
“They don’t care. All they do is brag about Carol and her senator husband and how important he is. Me? They don’t talk about.”
As I questioned her about her sister and parents and what really happened, I noticed a slight change in her appearance. Her face started shifting, and her body started sitting more upright. She is losing control.
It's hard work staying in human form.
Once convinced that it was who I was looking for and noticing her cooking the unusual mushrooms humans never eat, I shifted tactics. I set the coffee down and stood, straightening myself to my full height and letting some of my natural appearance through the suit.
“Claudine, You're under arrest for crimes against the Time Continuum.” I pulled out my Time Police ID and showed it to her.
In seconds, the homely woman became a tall, agile creature with long legs and a reptile-like face, and the calm, apologetic demeanor became belligerent and almost hostile. We stood facing each other in an old tenement building in LA.
I broke the silence. “Theft of the Time Codes and the keys to the time lock are serious offenses and carry serious punishment. Hiding out in LA in the nineteen fifties was pretty good, but you could have picked a better neighborhood.”
Claudine, now in her natural form, sneered at me and paced around the small apartment. “Yeah, it wasn’t my idea, but it was all I could do after the idiot who gave me this ID. She was the poor outcast sister, and this is where she wound up.”
“That's what happens when you deal with unreliable crooks. The Time Codes and Time Lock Keys?”
“I was going to sell them.”
“But no one wanted them.” I finished her thought.
She shook her head yes. “Most of them didn’t know what they were. If they did, they didn’t want any part of them.
“I don’t blame them.”
Claudine handed me a small box with an inscription and a symbol I recognized on it. I placed digital cuffs on her wrists and spoke into my communicator. “I have her and the Time Cods and the Time Lock Keys.”
As she and the stolen items faded into the transport beam, she yelled. “Turn off the stove, will you.”
I complied and quickly left the stench-filled apartment and out into the fresher air on the street—time to go home.
I had retired to Earth decades ago after my health had deteriorated to the point I couldn’t shapeshift regularly and hold a human form very long. Occasionally, Space Command would ask me to do small jobs for them. My schooner was already off the coast of California, so when the case of Claudine and her Time Code theft came up, and I was feeling a little better that week, I volunteered to arrest her.
While tiring and physically exhausting to stay in Human form for a few days, it had been a pleasant change, and I would have a great to tell Dierdre when I got back to the schooner. She could cook me some real food, and the stench of the mushrooms would be gone.