"It says here you're studying International Affairs at Columbia," the commissioner said.
"Yes sir. It's a new field, you see, just started back in 1946." Connor cleared his throat. He felt he was offering up too much information.
"What are you going to do with that degree, son?"
Connor scratched back of his neck, and then shrugged. "Work for some intelligence agency, fight the Reds?"
The commissioner smiled. Connor did not like the man's smile one bit. "How'd you like to start fighting the Reds now, Mister Browning?"
"I'm not sure I'm qualified," Connor replied.
"Think of it as an apprenticeship. You get hands on experience, and we get some fresh thinking out in the field."
Connor shifted in his seat. "What do I have to do?" he asked finally, and the commissioner nodded.
"That's the spirit," he said, standing up. "Come with me, I've got some people I want you to meet."
Hardy climbed down the stairs, gripping the worn handle of the case in his hand. He could feel the sweat cooling on his palm. He slid into a booth, mentally counting off the numbers of doors and windows--three doors including the one behind the bar and one window.
The air was thick and hazy with cigarette smoke and there was a dull roar of many conversations and a man on the piano playing something jazzy.
"What'll ya have, man?"
Hardy looked up, startled from his scanning of the room. "Uh, what's good?" he asked, trying to mask his accent and failing.
"We make a mean Tom Collins."
"Yeah, that sounds fine." Hardy looked back to the stage. "Have you got anything to eat?"
"I can check. We don't serve supper for another hour though."
"I can wait." Hardy pulled off his hat, tossing it onto the table. This place was as good a place as any.
Hardy watched as the server walked away. He was young and well-dressed, but the clothes had been mended a few times and the cuffs of the otherwise pristine white shirt had begun to fray. Hardy listened idly to the conversations around him, but the boat voyage had been long and Hardy's nerves were all in a tangle. He propped his chin up on one hand, weary.
"Forget the Tom Collins," the young man said upon returning. "What you need is coffee, black and strong."
Hardy took the drink with a nod of thanks in the man's direction. "Oh, no coffee for me. Makes me a bit jumpy." He took a sip. And trigger happy, he added silently. "What's your name, if you don't mind me asking?"
"Not at all. Name's Connor. Connor M. Browning."
"Pleased, I'm sure, Mister Browning. I'm Hardy. Daniel Hardy."
"Mind if I call you Danny?"
"I haven't been called Danny since my school days. And I'm not in short trousers anymore."
"All right. I'll just call you Hardy, then."
"Your name's Browning, like the gun?"
Connor laughed. "Yeah, that's right. You a war vet?"
"It was awhile ago, now," Hardy said quietly, reaching down to check that the suitcase was still firmly between his legs.
"Hasn't even been a decade yet."
Hardy nodded, staring into his drink. "You're right, of course." He looked back up at Connor. "I was. Royal Air Force." Saying the words made Hardy's jaw twinge something horrible, and he finished his drink in a gulp. "Best not to talk about it."
He glanced at Connor. "You're barely out of short trousers yourself. How old are you? Eighteen?"
"Twenty-one, thanks!" Connor said. "Nearly done with a degree and all." He looked at Hardy. "Want another drink?"
"No, I'm okay." He looked at his wristwatch. "Ah, still set for London time. What's the time now?" He took off his watch and fiddled with it, changing it to the time Connor told him. He didn't look back up at Connor, hoping he would take the hint.
Connor did, pushing up and going to serve other, more friendly clients.
"You got anywhere to stay?" Connor said to Hardy's retreating back.
Hardy turned around, squinting. "You ask all war vets that, or am I a special case?"
"Don't kid yourself, mac," Connor replied. "You look like you're in trouble something fierce. Just offering a helping hand."
"I'm staying at the Cornish Arms." Hardy straightened the collar of his coat. "Would you kindly point me in the way of the subway?"
"My place is closer."
The sentence hung in the air between the two of them like fog.
"I already paid for the room."
"I can give you the five dollars."
Hardy shuffled a bit, and then frowned. "Why are you so insistent on the point?"
"Because you look like you need a place to hide."
"What, are you an undercover psychotherapist? Sure your name isn't Freud?" Hardy tugged his coat closer around himself. "Thank you, but I think I'll be okay without your help." Hardy walked along the road slowly, switching the suitcase from hand to hand.
Connor caught up with him. "Listen--"
Hardy turned around. "No, you listen. I just stumbled on your place, and I stayed because I was hungry and needed a drink. I wasn't out to make friends. Now, please leave me alone."
Connor opened his mouth, and then closed it, his brow furrowing. "Well, if you're going to have a cow about it." He eyed Hardy's suitcase. "Keep an eyeball out, okay man? New York isn't as anonymous as you think."
The lump that had sat in Hardy's stomach all night finally came up to his throat.
"Are you threatening me?" Hardy managed to ask around the lump.
"N-no," Connor stammered, but Hardy had already turned on his heel and run. Connor stayed rooted on the pavement, watching Hardy's coat fly out behind him.
Connor found a phone booth, slipping in and closing the door behind him. He closed his eyes and pulled out a nickel, sliding it into the coin slot and slowly turning the rotator, telling the operator where to connect him.
Someone answered on the first ring. "What do you have for us, then?"
"He's staying at the Cornish Arms."
"Good. You think he's onto you?"
"He doesn't like me, that's for sure, but I don't think he's caught on."
"Listen. Why does this man Stewart want him out in Cali?"
"That's none of your concern if you want to keep your job, Browning. Understood?"
Connor was quiet for a moment, and then, "Yes, sir."
"You did a fine job. Just keep steady, and it'll all pay out. Think of what good you're doing for your country."
"I am, sir. Thank you." Connor rang off and slumped against the side of the telephone booth, sighing. He straightened up and smoothed down his suit jacket before walking out. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes from his pocket, pausing to strike a match before moving on.
Hardy was usually an insomniac, but that night he slept hard. The stress, the long boat ride, and the lump of fear that would not leave his stomach left him restless, but still able to sleep.
The pounding on his door roused him, and he scrambled for the hotel dressing gown, reaching for the door and gripping the handle.
"Hardy! Hey Hardy!"
It was just Connor, but Hardy was still loath to open the door.
"What do you want?"
"Let me in, I'm serious, Hardy."
Hardy opened the door and Connor pushed past him. Hardy shut the door quickly behind him and turned on a lamp.
"I don't know who you are or what you did, but the word is the heat is looking for you." Connor took a deep breath. "You need to split."
"You mean, the old bill is looking for me? Here?"
"If you mean the police, then yes." Connor sat down on Hardy's single chair. "What's in the suitcase?"
Hardy sighed and rubbed his face with his hand, shaking his head. "One thing at a time, mate," he said quietly. "Let me splash some water on my face, maybe put on some trousers."
"Do ya sleep naked or something?"
"Or something," Hardy grumbled, grabbing the suitcase and his travelling bag. He locked the bathroom door.
"I'm not the cops!" Connor called.
"Yes, and I'm naff enough to trust your word!" Hardy called back. He washed and dressed slowly, even shaving. He could hear Connor moving around in the other room, opening and closing drawers. "Browning! I can hear you going through my things."
"Well, you don't have anything to go through!" Connor replied.
Hardy came out with his bag and the suitcase. Connor was now sat on the unmade bed, looking at him. "Is that what you cats wear in England? You're a square!"
"And you're hip. Glad we've figured that one out. Now, you say the bobbies are looking for me?"
"Well, I'm sort of seeing this girl working as a secretary for the commish, you see?"
"And she calls me up late last night and tells me the commish got these orders from the FBI--that's the Federal Bureau of Investigation--to be on the lookout for a British vet who might have gone off with some pretty sensitive war stuff, see?"
"Got it. Well, damn it to hell," Hardy muttered.
"What is in the case?"
"I don't know if I could trust you."
"Listen, I can get you outta this pickle. I know people."
Hardy sighed and picked up the case. "Your girl--"
"She's not...we're not really..." Connor looked uncomfortable. "I'm not...I'm..." He looked at Hardy. "Look, you can't trust me and I barely know you. Let's just keep our secrets to ourselves, okay?"
"You still want to know what's in the case, don't you?"
Connor narrowed his eyes. "Yeah."
"You say you know people that might get me out of this spot of trouble?"
Connor's shoulders relaxed. "Yeah. We'd have to get you to California, though."
"What's in California that will help me that isn't here in New York? It's still a big place; I could lose myself pretty easily. Even an English war vet looks the same as everyone else in a grey flannel suit."
"You tell me what's in case, and I'll get you all the help you need."
Hardy made a noise low in his throat. "Did you eat breakfast this morning?"
"I eat breakfast every morning."
Hardy eyed Connor's skinny arms and his narrow hips, but declined to say anything. "I have a very top secret and possibly very dangerous piece of machinery in my possession that I may or may not have acquired illegally."
"Well doesn't that just beat all," Connor said quietly. "What does it do?"
"Basically, it helps you disappear."
"What?" Connor frowned. "But anybody can disappear. Or can. You don't need whatever's in that suitcase to help you do that."
"I said that's what it did at its most basic level," Hardy said. "What it really does is help you create a whole new universe and slip into it."
Connor sat back, staring at Hardy's face. He was serious. "So, you can...change universes?" Connor sucked in a breath. "Well doesn't that just take the cake?" He frowned. "What good is it in a war?"
"Think of the possibilities," Hardy said quietly. "For slipping in and out of a universe, bringing something back that could help you, stopping someone..."
Connor fiddled with the cuffs of his shirt--these were fraying too. "Sometimes I feel like I'm in a different universe..."
"Oh yes? And how's that working for you?"
"About as well as you're thinking," Connor replied. "So, show me this machine."
Hardy set the suitcase on the bed, spinning the combination: 4-9-1. The case snapped open, and Connor exhaled.
"Holy cow," he murmured, reaching out. Hardy grabbed his wrist and pulled it back.
"It's a rather sensitive machine." Hardy said, and proceeded to explain how it worked.
"Who invented it?"
"The French, of course," Hardy said with a laugh. "A Resistance fighter by the name of Mallorie Broussard smuggled out the plans to England and we managed to build it. Some of the parts are German, like the injection pistons and the battery pack; we had spies steal the plans for those parts." He paused. "What did you say you studied at university?"
"I didn't," Connor said, looking at the machine. "Have you ever used it?"
"Yes. I was one of the soldiers they used for their test runs."
"And does it work?"
Hardy shrugged. "Yes. It does what it's supposed to."
"Can I try it?"
Hardy looked at Connor for a long time before getting up and digging through his own travel bag for his cigarettes and two vials. He went back to the bed. "This is Universum," he said. "It's a drug that...opens your mind so you can use the machine. What happens is we'll be here, and then we'll be...wherever I set up the machine for us to go."
"That's crazy talk," Connor said, looking at the vials in Hardy's hand. "What kind of dope is that?"
"It's just a sedative," Hardy said. "It's not addictive. Well, the drug itself isn't addictive, but...jumping universes can be."
Connor shrugged. "So...we're gonna do this or what?"
Hardy chuckled. "Or what." He gestured. "Get comfortable. You aren't afraid of needles or anything?"
"Nope," Connor said, leaning against the headboard, watching Hardy set up the equipment, an unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth. "Aren't you going to wash your hands?"
Hardy looked up at him. "In a second. Don't be so impatient." He set up the machine before going to the bathroom, washing his hands. Connor watched him, and then looked back at the machine.
Hardy came back, the cigarette re-located to behind his ear. "Are my hygiene habits up to snuff?"
Connor was standing on a balcony overlooking a crystal-clear blue sea. The wind was calm, and the sun low on the horizon, setting. He looked down, and he was wearing a white linen suit and a pink shirt, with brown loafers. The linen felt cool and soft against his skin.
Hardy was nowhere to be seen, so Connor wandered around the seemingly endless house. There were people scattered in small groups about the house, and sometimes one or two would glance at him. Connor didn't like their look, so he began to search for Hardy in earnest.
The house was big, but the rooms seemed to be interconnected like a giant maze. Connor kept finding himself coming back to the main room, where all the people were. There was a quartet of musicians, and it seemed like they were playing the same song repeatedly, never even changing tempo. Nobody else in the room noticed, or seemed to care.
Someone grabbed his wrist, and he made a fantastically silly squeaking noise.
"It's just me," Hardy said. "How do you like this universe?"
"It's beautiful," Connor replied. "Everything is wonderful. It all feels so real..."
"But...?" Hardy grinned, grabbing two glasses of champagne off a passing waiter's tray, handing one to Connor. Hardy was wearing a grey suit with a garish orange shirt and a handkerchief square in his pocket that matched the shirt.
"But something's off."
"Very good. You're a remarkably quick study." He took a sip of the champagne, and pushed Connor down to the floor. "Watch." They danced while Hardy led Connor to a mirror. They both looked into it. And when Connor looked back, Hardy was a woman. A short, thin woman with curly black hair.
Connor nearly let go of him.
"Act natural," Hardy murmured, his voice a sweet American one.
"How did you do that?"
"This universe doesn't necessarily follow ours. You can bend the parameters of it. All of it, even yourself."
Connor was tempted to touch Hardy's face, but contented himself with dancing with him.
"You see why it's so dangerous?" Hardy continued. "Why the governments on both sides of the pond want to keep this a secret?"
"So why'd you steal it?"
Connor woke up staring at the ceiling in Hardy's bed. Hardy sat, legs akimbo, watching him, his cigarette finally lit.
"Don't sit up too fast, you'll get light-headed," Hardy said, handing him a glass of water. Connor pushed himself up slowly and drank some of the water.
"That was...that was something else," Connor said, looking at the closed suitcase.
Hardy shrugged and got up, going to the window and looking down. "Hey, what does your bird at the commissioner's office look like?"
Connor jumped up and went straight to the window. "Oh heck, that's her!"
Hardy stubbed out his cigarette. "You bloody idiot! Did you tell her you were here?"
"I told you, people were looking for you!"
Hardy grabbed his bag and the suitcase. "Then let's go!"
They rushed down the stairs and out the door, Connor running up to the girl.
"Grace, what are you doing here?"
"The fuzz is out," Grace replied. "They got a hot tip." She nodded to Hardy, who nodded back. She swallowed and dangled a set of keys in front of Connor.
"Go down to Pier 11 and talk to Frankie. He's got a car waiting for you and some paperwork. You two need to get outta Dodge!" She looked around and wrapped her arms quickly around Connor, who looked stunned for a moment until she pulled away. She looked at Hardy. "Keep him safe," she said sternly.
"I'll try, miss," Hardy replied, and shook her hand.
Hardy handed Connor his bag, and they both put on their hats.
"Let's get lost," Connor said, a grim smile on his face.
"California bound?" Hardy asked rhetorically as they walked towards 23rd Street to find a subway station.
"Tell me something."
"Depends on what it is."
"Do you trust me?"
Hardy frowned. "Only as far as I could throw you." He glanced at Connor. "Luckily, you're quite skinny."
Connor tapped his fingers against his mouth, and then looked back towards the hotel. There was a large black car crawling down the street towards them, and Connor turned back.
"You have a choice," Connor said quietly, the knot in his stomach tightening.
"Oh, I'm sure I do," Hardy replied, tilting his hat back off his brow. "But do you?"
Connor didn't answer, glancing over his shoulder. "You've had to make tough choices, haven't you?"
"One or two," Hardy said. "But then, I was in a war once." They descended the steps into the subway and bought their tokens.
"Well, I'm having to make a pretty tough choice right now."
"I suppose you must do."
Connor looked at the side of Hardy's face. "You shouldn't trust me," he said finally.
Hardy looked at him. "I know," he replied, quiet. "But you're not the only one who has to make tough choices."