September 05, 2009

Fine Tuning

By Milton T. Burton © 2009

Most people think parallel worlds lie in the future. They see every significant event as generating several outcomes, each of which makes its own timeline. Modern physics seems to support this idea as well. But it's all wrong. The parallel worlds are in the past, and the Adjusters work hard to keep them there. I should know. I'm one of the Adjusters.

I live in a renovated Victorian house in Galveston's historic old East End. It's more room than I need, but time workers tend to be pack rats. We almost always develop the habit of collecting mementos from the various ages and places we have visited, so a little extra space is advisable. Besides, Galveston has been my family's home for generations, and when you range as far and wide as I do, you need some connection to your roots.

I was coming off a month's vacation and looking at two hard weeks ahead. Major projects that had been put off too long. The first stop was Rome, December, 799 A.D. It wasn't too hard to get an audience with Pope Leo III. Gold is a universal lubricant. It will get you in just about anywhere, then or now. And it didn't take much to convince him. Charles The Great, King of the Franks---known to history as Charlemagne---was in town, having rescued Leo from the Roman mobs that had sought to kill him. The man had fled to Paderborn where he petitioned Charles for relief. On the advice of his own confessor, Alcuin of York, Charles moved his army south across the Alps into Rome and reinstated Leo in the papal palace. Which left the Pope in his debt. Not the best place to be in that politically-charged world. The Roman throne in the West had been vacant for three hundred and fifty years. In the east, in Byzantium, a woman reigned as Emperor, recognized by neither the papacy nor by the Franks.

"When Charles kneels to take the Eucharist," I said to Leo in Church Latin. "Crown him Emperor of the Romans. Put the crown quickly on his head. Do not hesitate. Not only will you elevate him to this great office, but you will be asserting the power of the papacy to propose and dispose. He will be grateful and in your debt rather than you in his."

"Do you think?" he asked, a bit of greed mixed with fear in his eyes.

"I know."

"But what if he is offended?"

"King Charles is a deeply religious man, Holy Father, a man with great respect for the papacy and the Church. Be spiritual in your dealings with him and he cannot be offended."

My flawless logic plus twenty kilos of gold carried the day, and the outcome is recorded in every good library in the world. This action revived the imperial tradition in the west and set a precedent that the emperors’ authority rested on the approval of the pope. Although the imperial title did not confer any actual power on Charlemagne, it did give legitimacy to his rule over central Italy, a fact that the Byzantine emperor would acknowledge a decade hence. The Holy Roman Empire created that day was to last, in one form or another, for a thousand years, and I was off to...

Florence, Spring, 1470. The man across the table from me was Lorenzo de' Medici, known to history as "Il Magnifico"---Lorenzo the Magnificent. Now but twenty-one years old and ascended to the head of the clan upon his father's recent death, he was destined to be the Renaissance's greatest patron of the arts. I had just added a significant amount of money to our account with his family bank. We keep deposits with sound banks in all the ages where we work. And no banks were more sound than the Medici Bank. Lorenzo might have been the wealthiest man in the world at that time, but he had been brought up in the banking business and had a banker's instincts. Which meant that he liked to meet the big depositors personally. But he was a convivial man and our conversation drifted away from finance and on to other matters.

"His name again?" he asked me. "This painter you mentioned, I mean."

"Alessandro di Mariano di Vanni Filipepi, but he goes by Sandro Botticelli. A diminutive man, but a great wit."

He laughed. "Botticelli... The little barrel. A small fellow, eh?"

"That's right."

"But one who likes to eat, judging from his nickname?"

"That he does," I replied. "He just opened a workshop down by the Arno, near the Ponte Vecchio."

"Why haven't I heard of him if he is so good?"

"Some say he has been in Hungary for several years, working for the archbishop there. They also say that if his work proves unpopular here he will return. That is the problem. He has no name here. Yet he was born in Florence, and it would be tragic for the city to loose so talented a son. Especially to the Hungarians."

He looked at me sharply. "You are not Florentine yourself. I believe you told me you are from Regensburg, so why should you care?"

I gave him a shrug and a disarming smile. "Like Jesus, I think a prophet should not be without honor in his own land."

He laughed. "There is a wine shop near the Vecchio. Let us have a glass and then I will view the work of this paragon. Perhaps I will like some of his canvasses."

"He needs more than the sale of a few canvasses, Excellency," I said bluntly. "He needs a patron. He was an apprentice to Fra' Lippi, you know."

I heard a sharp intake of breath. "I had no idea. Then he must be good. Lippi will not tolerate anything but the best. Why, once he even snarled dismissively at some of my sonnets. Can you imagine such cheek?"

I smiled an easy smile. "Great talents can afford to be cheeky, whereas men such as ourselves..." I let my voice taper off.

He rose from his chair with a laugh. "All too true, my friend. Let us go have that glass of wine. I find art more invigorating than business, especially in the springtime."

And as they say, the rest is history.
After Florence came a couple of minor assignments. In the first, I had to get a particular red-headed young Missourian extracted from the Confederate Army and out west where he would be safe to write the books he was meant to write. Next was the kidnapping in Philadelphia in 1934 I had to prevent. Nuts and bolts matters.

It's not always this easy. Three years ago a fellow operative who was also a close friend of mine killed herself after she saved Hitler's life in 1921. Why save Hitler, of all people, you might ask? Because the alternative would have been worse. Much, much worse. Take my word for it. And therein lay the problem. She had the facts from both timelines, ours and the one that wasn't allowed to happen. But she couldn't get her head around the fact that she preserved the Holocaust. I don't know that I could have either, but my next job was one I had no qualms about even though it was to be the first time I had to kill in the line of duty.
The Harvard Club, New York, NY, January, 2012. Roland DeJong was a tall, slim, handsome smartass who exuded a sense of entitlement the way a field hand exudes sweat. I found him sitting in the reading room, the New York Times in his lap, a snifter of fine old brandy at hand. A low reading table, now piled with magazines, separated two heavy wingchairs of dark brown leather. I sat down across the table from him and made no effort to choose anything to read. He gave me a manly smile and introduced himself quietly.

"I know who you are," I said.

"Really? I'm flattered. What class were you in?"

"I'm not a Harvard man. You might say I'm a guest here."

He nodded, but his demeanor became just the tiniest bit patronizing. "Where are you from?"

"The future."

He barely blinked at this. I suppose he thought of himself as a sophisticated man, one used to sophisticated word games.

"You don't say."

"But I do say."

"Whose future, then?" he asked with a sardonic smile. "Mine?"

"You don't have a future."

"Ahhh... I see. Then you must have been sent here to prevent some terrible catastrophe from befalling me. Is that it?"

I shook my head. "No. As it happens, I am your catastrophe. I know more about you than you know about yourself. We have a good research department. Best in the world, in fact."

"But why research me? To what purpose?"

I ignored his question. "Your family has been wealthy for five generations. You went to an exclusive prep school, then on to Harvard for your bachelors in pre-law. After that you were given a commission in the Army which was followed by Special Forces training, then an assignment in conjunction with the C.I.A. where you became expert at 'extracting' information in Afghanistan. The 'Special Methods Section,' they called it. Did you have fun?"

He gave me a crinkle-browed frown that was as false as the smile the serpent gave Eve. "So you're one of those people," he said. "Is that Sheehan woman still involved? I've been down this road before."

"So go down it one more time. Was it fun?"

"It's not always pleasant," he said. "Protecting civilization, I mean. Certain things have to be done no matter how repugnant we find them."

I nodded sagely. "Indeed. I can see you and a handful of cohorts forty years from today, sitting around some clubby room much like this one. Like the hunter home from the hill, old warriors, home from the foreign fields of empire. A crackling fire in a stone fireplace. Rowing trophies on the mantle, photos of long dead members from decades past hang here and there on finely paneled walls. Leather and brass and polished wood everywhere. You sip your brandy and say, "Nasty business, that. Afghanistan, I mean. But somebody had to do it.' Your friends all cough and snort and nod in passable imitations of Victorian gentlemen, and all those present agree that, indeed it was a nasty business, but one that had to be done on behalf of all the naïve little people out in the world who believe in quaint notions like common decency the rule of law."

He frowned again, but this one was for real. "Your point being?"

"My point being that most such people are really just harmless oafs. Or at least they do no more harm than their kind always has

"I do believe I detect a bit of class resentment here."

Again I ignored him and continued on. "But you have ambitions. Everything has been but a stepping stone for you. When you got out of the Army you whizzed through law school and then had a job waiting with one of the Wall Street bond firms. You made still more money, even though you didn't really need it. A few people got screwed, but so what? I mean, shit happens, doesn't it? Your skirts are clean. Besides, you were just marking time anyway. And now you're getting interested in running for congress."

"How on earth did you know that?" He was beginning to take me seriously.

"I told you I'm from the future, fool. I know what will happen if. . . How did you put it? If certain things aren't done, was it? First would come three terms in he House, and then an easy election to the Senate. You're a natural demagogue, you know. I'll give you that. You know how to push all the right buttons. Red states and blue states both, you know where the prejudices and insecurities lie. You will have a national reputation even before you enter the Senate. Then near the end of your first term a major crisis, one engineered by you and your backers, will force the resignation of a seated president for the second time in history. You'll be picked to replace the vice president when he moves up. Your party wins the next election, but soon the president dies under what can only be described as peculiar circumstances during another major crisis. You emerge as the American savior. Only in reality, you're the American Caligula."

"I've heard about enough of this," he said. "You are a thoroughly unpleasant man."

"And I've said about enough. Except to note that you would never have made anything really decent of yourself, no matter what. Still, you wouldn’t have been the monster you are had if your older sister hadn't seduced you when you were fifteen. A relationship, I might add, that's continued right down to today."

He turned white and froze, motionless. I gave him my coldest smile. "That's why I compared you to Caligula. Remember his sister? But you're actually worse. Caligula was just a spoiled brat with absolute power who wanted to have orgies. Do you recall what Alfred told Batman in The Dark Knight? He said 'Some men don't want money or power. They just want to watch the world burn.' That's what's in the future unless something happens to stop you. And I'm that something."

I rose to my feet. "How about you? What kind of movies to you watch?"

"I don't feel like having a civil conversation with a man who has accused me of having sex with my sister."

"Accused? Hell, man, we've got 3-D halos of the two of you going at it hammer-and-tongs. But back to the movies. I'm a big film fan, myself. Love the Coen Brothers stuff." I fell into a phony Italian accent and snarled, "Like I tell my boys, always put one in da brain. That’s from their Miller's Crossing. Great flick. Johnny Caspar to Tom Reagan. Always put one in da brain."

He looked perplexed. I slipped my hand beneath my coat, came out with the little silenced .22 Magnum auto, and shot him right in the center of the forehead. The hollow-point bullet exited the back of his skull, making a colorful little jet of blood and brains as it went. For a moment his feet beat a grim tattoo on the floor, but his eyes had had morphed into dead fish eyes that told me it was nothing but reflex. My job was done, and there was no to linger. I dropped the gun in his lap and flicked the return switch in my belt unit. There came a moment of vertigo when the Harvard Club blurred out and the time vault in my Galveston home materialized.

I hung up my gear and locked the room. Out on the front porch I sat down with a bottle of good scotch whiskey and a crystal glass. It was just after sunset and the sea breeze was starting to pick up. I sipped my drink and stared off toward the Gulf, trying to decide what to do with my two weeks upcoming holiday. Lorenzo had bought a half dozen of Botticelli's paintings the morning we visited his shop, and then he invited us both to his palace for dinner. I think I may take him up on it. We also found one small canvas that is not mentioned in any catalogue of his works. That is because it now hangs in my parlor here in Galveston. Imagine that: a freshly painted Botticelli.

It's a tolerable world we live in. It's far from perfect, but it has plenty of good people, fine art, great music, loyal friends, innocent children, and fresh spring flowers. It's a world worth preserving in spite its flaws. I laughed for a moment about what DeJong had said about how saving it is sometimes unpleasant. It never is to me. I love my work.

Milton T. Burton was born and raised in East Texas. He has been variously, a college history teacher, a political consultant, and a cattleman. He has published two crime novels "The Rogues' Game" and "The Sweet and The Dead" with St. Martin's Press, NY. His third, "Nights of The Red Moon" is due out next spring.

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