George called out, "Mrs. Whitman, you have a visitor."
Mrs. Whitman strode from her workroom, her white hair skipping out of its hairpins. She straightened her work skirt, massaged her bad knee, then hurried down the hall.
"George, what's happened to the lamp with the blue shade?"
"To which lamp are you referring?" George smoothed down a cravat embroidered with tiny trombones. Improper attire for a butler, but George had never been entirely proper.
Mrs. Whitman examined the sitting room in further depth. The blue lamp was gone, as were the doilies, thank goodness. An elegant table sat between the armchair and green sofa, which was infused with the stuffy smell of potpourri. Behind the sofa hung The Roses of Wiltshire, a painting that Mrs. Whitman had never cared for, despite its lush purples and pinks and reds. And the ficus was there, too, of course.
Mrs. Whitman pulled out a battered notebook. George's trombone cravat indicated she was in a timeline where he was courting Sonia. A good sign, indeed. Perhaps, after six hundred and two tries, she'd finally landed in a timeline where Mr. Whitman would return home safely.
Consulting her charts, she circled some continuities and crossed out others, referring often to an appendix at the back. The notebook was worn, its blue cover faded. And it was the twelfth one she'd had since starting the project.
George cleared his throat. Mrs. Whitman didn't even glance up. "You have a visitor," he said.
"George, I need to ask you a few questions."
George sighed, but made no comment.
"Has Mr. Whitman returned from his trip?" She always asked this question first, in the hope that George would direct her to the study, where she'd find Mr. Whitman reading a book or knitting socks.
"He's due back sometime today."
That was what George always said. Mrs. Whitman had been through it over and over again; she knew it was useless to organize a search until the evening, when everyone else would begin to worry.
Undeterred, Mrs. Whitman asked her control question. "Did you wear your navy suit anywhere this year?"
George raised an eyebrow, but said, "I wore my suit once to the Lacklustres' evening ball, and again at the horse show for troubled teens."
If the Lacklustres were holding a ball, then they hadn't gone bankrupt yet, which meant she was in a timeline where Winston Tuppers hadn't revealed Mr. Lacklustre's banking fraud. And the horse show for troubled teens never appeared without a corresponding tea party later in June. Mrs. Whitman flipped busily through her charts.
"Which tea cakes are they selling at the market on Quill Lane? Chocolate? Lavender? Orange and cream?" she asked.
"There is no market on Quill Lane. It was torn down last year," George said, a rare look of concern on his face. "Are you sure you're feeling quite all right?"
"Just one more question," said Mrs. Whitman, making a mark in her notebook. "Is it Sir Henry waiting in the foyer?"
"No," he said. "Mrs. Lane requests your attention."
Mrs. Whitman snapped the notebook closed. If Mrs. Lane was visiting, it could only mean one thing. She was either there to kill Mrs. Whitman or sell her a duck.
But if the market on Quill Lane was gone, perhaps she was truly in a new timeline. And if it was a new timeline, she needed to observe it, so she could cross it off her list.
"Shall I send Mrs. Lane in?" asked George.
Mrs. Whitman nodded, plopping down on the ugly green sofa. She flipped through her notebook, then sketched out a few calculations.
The convergence point, for once, was clear. To discover Mrs. Lane's intentions, she only needed to determine if the park on Stanton Street still existed. If the park was there, murder. If not, the duck.
Mrs. Whitman was double checking her maths when Mrs. Lane glided into the room. Impeccably dressed, as always, Mrs. Lane ran her hand along a blue and eggshell scarf, which hung upon a white dress of the latest fashion. She clutched a large handbag.
"Harriet, dear. So good to see you," Mrs. Lane said, smiling all the while.
Mrs. Whitman stuffed the notebook into a large pocket in her skirt. George guided Mrs. Lane to the armchair across from Mrs. Whitman. The two ladies exchanged pleasantries while George fetched the tea things.
Mrs. Whitman chose a lemon tart, then saw the jam pastries on the tray. She set down the tart, her appetite gone. Jam pastries had been Mr. Whitman's favorite. She pushed the thought out of her mind.
"Large bags must be in fashion," Mrs. Whitman said. "Shall I ask George to put yours in the coat room?"
"No need to bother. I'm quite comfortable with it here."
Mrs. Whitman gave an inward sigh. Several timelines back, Mrs. Lane had hidden cyanide in the purse, then dropped the poison daintily into Mrs. Whitman's tea. Mrs. Whitman clutched her teacup closer. She'd just have to make sure Mrs. Lane didn't have the opportunity.
"As much as I do love your company, Mildred, I suspect you've come here for some purpose," Mrs. Whitman said.
"Always business with you. Can't two friends just have a chat?" Mrs. Lane smiled a sharp smile.
"You must forgive me. At my age, I do tend to hurry along," said Mrs. Whitman, taking a sip of her tea. "Wonderful weather we've been having for picnicking. Have you been to the park on Stanton Street? I hear the tulips are all in bloom."
Mrs. Whitman leaned forward, hoping that the park wasn't there, and she was in for the duck after all.
"I'm not familiar with that park, but I'm never in that neighborhood, you know." Mrs. Lane nibbled her tart. "I did have the most delightful picnic at the park on Thindon Row."
Mrs. Lane launched into a description of the park, including which flowers were in bloom, and which walks offered the most shade, and how Miss Abba had organized a game of tennis without a net right on the grass. Mrs. Whitman was surprised that she didn't describe every petal on every flower.
Mrs. Whitman was plotting another way to find out about Stanton Street Park when George rushed into the room.
"Urgent phone call for you, madam," he said, cutting off Mrs. Lane mid-description. A most improper butler, indeed. Mrs. Whitman gave him a quick smile.
"I'll take it in the workroom," Mrs. Whitman said.
As Mrs. Whitman strode down the hall, she noted that the little end table by the bookcase was missing, and that a painting she had never seen before, some abstract nonsense with red squares, hung in the downstairs bathroom.
She went the long way around, so she wouldn't have to see the photographs of Mr. Whitman in the north hallway: that boating trip to Scotland, her thirty-fifth anniversary celebration, and worst of all, the dear portrait that Mrs. Whitman had taken herself, with Boris smiling up at her in his gentle way.
The workroom was as she'd left it. Gears from her latest Discrepancy Converter rested on a large, flat table, and the Quantum Stabilizer was whirring in the corner. A faint smell of oil hung in the air. She patted the Quantum Stabilizer fondly, then picked up the phone.
The phone call wasn't so urgent after all, just Mrs. Kempton from next door complaining about the state of the lawn.
"It's really quite overgrown," said Mrs. Kempton. "If you'll just let me give you the name of my gardener--"
"Mr. Whitman and I rather enjoy tending to the garden ourselves," said Mrs. Whitman. "But we've been quite busy these past few weeks. In fact, I have a visitor at this moment."
After ringing off, Mrs. Whitman strode into the hallway, where she found George waiting for her.
Mrs. Whitman looked at George in alarm. "George, if you're here, who's watching Mrs. Lane?"
"Watching Mrs. Lane?" George's brows knotted.
"Didn't I tell you never to let Mrs. Lane alone in the house, especially near the tea?"
"No, Mrs. Whitman. I don't believe you did."
Mucking about in multiple timelines did make it difficult to keep track of what she'd done in each one, although she wouldn't put it past George to simply forget such a thing.
"Nevermind that, now." Mrs. Whitman paused and peered down the hall. "I'm afraid I have a rather strange task for you."
"A strange task from you, madam?"
"None of your cheek, George." Mrs. Whitman straightened a hairpin. "Could you go down to Stanton Street and have a look about? Tell me if there might be a park along that walk?" Stanton Street was close enough. He shouldn't be gone more than half an hour. And then she'd know for sure. Murder or duck.
When George departed, Mrs. Whitman returned to the sitting room. Mrs. Lane sat with her hands folded in her lap, looking entirely proper even when alone. Her bag had moved several inches, and now rested directly in front of her feet.
"So sorry to keep you waiting," Mrs. Whitman said.
"I've been admiring your lovely decor," said Mrs. Lane. "You must tell me about the painting behind your sofa, with the marvelous little roses."
Mrs. Whitman described the history of The Roses of Wiltshire, which she had never liked much but which Mr. Whitman had bought at what he assured her was a bargain. And it did impress the neighbors. The thing was worth a fortune.
"I do so like the way the roses open up on the side, almost as if they were screaming," Mrs. Lane said, then took a sip of tea. "So lovely. Is it black tea? Perhaps Lapsang?"
Mrs. Whitman glanced at her teacup. Hadn't it been a few centimeters to the right of the sweets tray when she'd left the room?
"I believe it is," said Mrs. Whitman.
"You must not like it very much," said Mrs. Lane. "You've barely touched yours."
As the conversation progressed, Mrs. Whitman avoided her tea. Many times, she found herself fighting against the muscle memory of sixty-five years. It was almost as if her hand reached out on its own accord. As Mrs. Lane droned on about tulips and cross stitching and her niece's trick elbow, Mrs. Whitman found her hand wandering again and again toward her cup.
"Have I told you about the ride I took along South Mathilda Lane?" Mrs. Lane asked.
"I don't believe so," said Mrs. Whitman. She reached for her cup of tea, grasped the handle, then snatched back her hand so swiftly that she upset the sweets tray. A rain of scones and jam pastries fell to the ground.
"How clumsy of me," said Mrs. Whitman. "I'll just call to George." Then she remembered that she'd sent George out. But it had already been half an hour. Why hadn't he returned?
Mrs. Whitman bent to pick up a few of the sweets, then abandoned the rest, not wanting to put out her knee crawling about on the floor.
"What an awful mess, but it's past tea time, anyway," said Mrs. Lane, shoving the scattered sweets to the side with her foot. "And speaking of time, I suppose I should tell you why I've paid a visit. The Mallard Society is holding their annual charity auction, and they are seeking donations of several premium ducks to add to their auction list."
So it was the duck, after all. Mrs. Whitman smiled. "And what wonderful work the Mallard Society does. I'd be happy to help in any way I can."
"I'm so glad to hear it. It's for such a good cause," said Mrs. Lane, starting in upon a detailed description of the Mallard Society, how it was founded by Eunice T. Brotherford of Scotford on the Dale, the work they'd done in Pointips Row to clean up the river, and other highlights from the organization's illustrious fifty-two year history.
"Such a fascinating organization," said Mrs. Whitman, interrupting the story of how Sandra Pellings had chased a prized duck straight through Bell Park. "Put me down for five ducks."
"I'm surprised to find you so interested in the Mallard Society," said Mrs. Lane, her smile slipping a bit. "I thought your charity work was limited to the Targaine Art Society."
Mrs. Whitman froze. She couldn't have given that Society speech in this timeline. Mrs. Lane had tried to sell her a duck. The events were all wrong.
"My interests are wide ranging," Mrs. Whitman said, hoping she was wrong, hoping that Mrs. Lane would switch topics.
Mrs. Lane put down her teacup and took a breath. The look on her face was a little unbalanced. "I'm afraid I still haven't quite forgiven you for your little speech at the Art Society bicentennial celebration. It's caused me quite a lot of problems."
Mrs. Whitman cursed inwardly. She should never have made that joke about the Dapper Violinist.
"I assure you," said Mrs. Whitman, "I had no idea that the painting was not an original."
"Of course not," said Mrs. Lane, growing more agitated. "You simply implied it was a fraud in a room full of art critics and dealers." She picked up her bag and set it on her lap. "Do you know, I had a buyer all set up? But then he wanted to look into the provenance more closely."
Mrs. Lane reached into her bag. "I paid seven million pounds for the thing. The Dapper Violinist. He's not dapper at all, is he? Ghastly painting. All those swirls. All that pink. But I was promised that in a couple years, it would go for more. The buyer was offering eleven million."
"If I had known any of that," said Mrs. Whitman, "I would never have made that joke. But surely you must have heard it before, that The Dapper Violinist was too beautiful for Milliany Spark to have painted it. You've seen the other stuff she's done. So abstract. Brilliant, in its own way, I suppose. But not much to look at."
"Well, your one little remark cost me," Mrs. Lane said, fixing her gaze firmly on Mrs. Whitman. "It's not even the money that bothers me, although certainly one can never have too much. But yesterday I heard Mrs. Vallis telling Mr. Rall that I shouldn't be allowed back at the Society meetings. And then she made a joke about my taste in art. Mrs. Vallis." She said the name with particular venom. "And Mr. Rall laughed. I suppose you didn't anticipate any of that, either."
Mrs. Lane looked behind Mrs. Whitman, to the painting on the wall. "That painting, The Roses of Wiltshire, have you had it appraised, recently?"
"Why do you ask?" asked Mrs. Whitman.
"It must be worth quite a bit. The artist is well known, isn't he." Mrs. Lane smiled an entirely unpleasant smile. "I believe I'm going to take that painting. I already have a contact who will fence it for me."
"It's all yours," Mrs. Whitman said. "I've never liked the thing."
Mrs. Lane paused. She took a sip of tea with the hand that wasn't in the bag. "I don't believe that's enough, after all."
Mrs. Lane pulled a strange object from her bag, a transparent box filled with gears and springs, humming quietly. A mini Electron Calculation Converter, known among engineering circles as "The Hieronymus Bosch," perhaps for its triple geared structure, or perhaps for its complex and sometimes unintelligible inner workings. Although Mrs. Whitman recognized the machine, the design was unfamiliar.
This had certainly never happened before. What a strange timeline.
"You're always fiddling with things like this, aren't you?" asked Mrs. Lane. "So here's a gift for you. Perhaps you'd like to take a look?"
"Even from here, I can see that spring is set back at a dangerous angle."
"Oh, yes. That's the idea. But you needn't open it. I only need to undo this clasp, and point the machine in your direction to release a little piece of metal I've placed inside. It will be enough to put the thing in your hands, afterward." Mrs. Lane shook her head. "Done in by one of your machines. How tragic."
"Mildred," Mrs. Whitman said, "isn't this extreme? I assure you, I never meant you any harm."
"You know, I've never liked you, Harriet." Mrs. Lane clasped the machine in both hands. "Always with your eccentricities. Your bad manners. The inappropriate jokes. And we've all had to put up with it because of your important connections."
"You're one to talk," said Mrs. Whitman, the indignity of it all pushing past her fear. "Your grandmother was chairman of the Goldstone Bank."
"It's a shame that Mr. Whitman will suffer," said Mrs. Lane. "He's never been unkind to me."
"Boris?" Mrs. Whitman leaned forward and dug her hands into the sofa. "Then you've seen him? Recently?"
"He was walking through Lovedale Park just this morning." Mrs. Lane stared. "Why, you look as though I've said something strange."
Mrs. Whitman felt renewed vigor. She'd finally done it. After six hundred and two tries, she'd found a timeline with Mr. Whitman in it.
But now that she'd found him, Mrs. Whitman was soon to be expunged from this timeline, and perhaps, all timelines.
Mrs. Lane moved her hand to the machine's clasp. "Any last thing you'd like to say?"
Looking at the means of your immediate demise and keeping your mind enough to speak is no easy task. But Mrs. Whitman had faced many challenges in her life. She'd been the first person to row all the way to Charlestown in a kayak, she'd worked as a mechanical engineer at Vanton Prime and Gasket well past retirement age, and she'd once eaten twelve lemon tarts in one sitting, to win a bet. Worst of all, she'd weathered the disappearance of Mr. Whitman, never giving up hope that she would one day find him. Mrs. Whitman had never a little thing like fear get in the way of her goals.
Mustering all the grace that she could, Mrs. Whitman said, "You've never struck me as someone to do things improperly, Mrs. Lane."
Mrs. Lane kept her hand on the clasp, but held still. "Whatever do you mean?"
"Haven't you read The Rules of Murder for Well Mannered Ladies?" said Mrs. Whitman. Before Mrs. Lane could answer, Mrs. Whitman plunged on. "The first rule is that one must never attack while sitting. It's bad for the digestion."
"I don't care about your rules," Mrs. Lane said, but she took her finger off the clasp. "In any case, everyone will think your death the result of an unfortunate accident."
"You underestimate the deductive skills of the police. When they discover this was an act of ill intent, they'll report that you committed a crass murder, a common murder. The type of murder that you'd read about in those old three shilling newspapers."
"I'll be long gone by then," said Mrs. Lane. "It's no matter to me."
"Your reputation will be all that's left," said Mrs. Whitman. She stood up from the sofa, as if nothing at all was wrong, but slowly so as not to startle Mrs. Lane. "Now, I'm standing, and you'll stand, and then it will be proper. Like a duel."
Mrs. Lane rose and faced Mrs. Whitman. She repositioned the machine. "But now I might hit the painting."
"We'd best move, then," said Mrs. Whitman, working furiously not to glance down, even a little bit. "I'll just step this way." Mrs. Whitman held her hands out and moved slowly around the table.
As Mrs. Whitman shimmied to the left, Mrs. Lane shifted a corresponding amount. "Just a little more," Mrs. Whitman said.
Mrs. Lane set her foot down on a jam pastry, one of the ones that Mrs. Whitman had spilled earlier in the afternoon when she'd upset the sweets tray.
Several things happened at once. Mrs. Whitman ducked. Mrs. Lane slipped on the jammy pastry and crashed to the floor. Her hand threw open the clasp, and a jagged piece of metal discharged into the ugly green sofa.
The loudness of the sound stunned them both. Mrs. Whitman was the first to recover. Her bad knee ached as she scrambled up from the floor.
Mrs. Lane rose, her blue and eggshell scarf disarrayed, her carefully coiffed hair coming just the slightest bit undone. Her face looked a bit wild.
The two women faced each other. Finally, Mrs. Lane asked, "I don't suppose you'd be good enough to extend your original offer?" She pointed to The Roses of Wiltshire.
"You've just tried to murder me," said Mrs. Whitman.
Without another word, Mrs. Lane snatched the teapot. Mrs. Whitman tensed, ready to meet another attack, but Mrs. Lane flung the teapot at The Roses of Wiltshire, staining half the painting brown and tearing a hole in a corner of the canvas.
"Now no one will want to buy your painting either," said Mrs. Lane. But she didn't stop there. Mrs. Lane grabbed the butter knife and slashed at the canvas, tearing bits of roses out. Pink, purple, and red rained down in front of Mrs. Whitman.
She made no attempt to stop Mrs. Lane, but she moved to shield the ficus.
When the police burst in a moment later, that was how they found the situation. Mrs. Whitman poised in front of the ficus. A piece of metal embedded in the sofa. Mrs. Lane abusing a work of art. The tea things everywhere.
It took some time to get everything straightened out.
Mrs. Kempton, who had been nosing about in Mrs. Whitman's garden, had heard a mysterious noise and called the police. (Mrs. Whitman had to concede that nosy neighbors did have their uses, in some particular situations.)
Mrs. Lane denied any wrongdoing but was hard put to explain why she was destroying The Roses of Wiltshire or the presence of an odd and deadly machine covered in her fingerprints. With a few words from Mrs. Whitman, the situation became much clearer.
After the police had carted Mrs. Lane off, Mrs. Whitman sat down on the ruined sofa, gathering her thoughts.
The door closed with a bang. Wondering if the police had come back with more questions, Mrs. Whitman entered the foyer.
"Look who I found strolling in Avent Park with Sonia," said Mr. Whitman, pointing to a guilty-looking George.
"Boris!" Mrs. Whitman cried, throwing her arms around him.
"I must apologize for my tardiness," said George. "Only I hadn't seen Sonia for a week or more, and it seemed rude just to pass her by."
"And I'm sorry too, for not coming right in," said Mr. Whitman. "My train was early, and the weather was so pleasant that I had a bit of a walk."
"Never mind that now," said Mrs. Whitman, holding tight to her husband.
"My dear," said Mr. Whitman. "What's this? I've only been gone a couple of hours."
"But to me, it feels like years and years," she said.
Mr. Whitman kissed his wife on the cheek, then looked behind her into the sitting room and gasped. "What's happened to The Roses of Wiltshire? It's all stained and tattered. My word, is that a bit of metal impaled in the sofa?"
Mrs. Whitman released Mr. Whitman, but kept hold of his hand. "There's so much I need to tell you, my dear. But first, let's go to your study, and you can pick out a book, or knit a pair of socks, or do anything you like at all. And I'm going to be right there beside you."
And she led a puzzled Mr. Whitman down the hall, past the photographs of their thirty-fifth anniversary, never letting go of his hand.
This story originally appeared in Escape Pod.