Chapter 1 - Sitting on a Cat's Tongue
Morning sunlight filtered through the crisp summer air and the breakfast room blushed in its soft glow. Dee looked up from the stack of mail in front of her and squinted at the reflections shimmering off the ocean. Light fashioned a corona around Linda's head as she sat across from Dee with her back to the magnificent view. She looked like a saint. Linda peered over the top of the Datebook section her San Francisco Chronicle. Jets of smoke issued from her nostrils, evaporating the pious illusion.
"What?" Linda rasped.
"I thought we agreed this was a smoke-free zone. When are you going to quite smoking?" Dee chided.
"When I find something I want more than I want a cigarette I'll think about it." She gave Dee a thin-lipped grin and returned to her paper. Dee took a breath, a pithy retort perched on the tip of her tongue, but exhaled without releasing it.
The first time Dee saw Linda, almost six years earlier, a Chesterfield was dangling from her fingers. Back then it didn't matter. What difference could it possible make to her if some stranger polluted her lungs or not. Dee never dreamed she would fall in love with the notorious Linda Cahalo - high priestess of excess with money so old it had tooth marks from the serpent of Eden. When she finally succumbed to Linda's charms a nicotine addiction seemed like a small matter - easy to ignore - and by the time it became an issue, it was too late. For better or worse, she loved the woman. Dee made an occasional effort to persuade Linda to quit, but smoking for her was more than a habit - it was a lifestyle.
The warble of a red-winged blackbird floated in on a breeze. Dee's eyes shifted back to the view. "What do you want for breakfast?" she asked.
Linda answered with an inarticulate grumble.
"How about a banana?" Dee suggested.
Linda leered over the top of the paper. "You know I have no use for bananas," she responded with a mischievous glint in her crystal blue eyes.
"Then how about a peach?" Dee smirked. "Slit open and spread down the middle."
"Only if you leave the pit. I like to nibble around it." She leaned across the abandoned newspaper and waggled her eyebrows at Dee. Linda was feeling frisky and with the right inducement, she would gladly take Dee right there in the breakfast nook.
Dee was about to invite Linda to sample a pear, but the maniacal twittering of the telephone she distracted them. Linda snorted in disgust. Dee groaned and grabbed the cordless.
It was Maria Manfred, the Cahalo family's business agent. Dee passed the phone to Linda and grudgingly went back to sifting through the correspondence. Most of it was for Linda. It would have made more sense for Linda to sort the mail, but one day she had handed Dee the bundle Maria sent over each morning, and asked her to take a look. From that day on it had become her task. Sometimes Dee wondered what happened to the bundles before she came along, suspecting that there was a room in the basement filled with moldering missives.
"No, Maria, you're not interrupting anything." said Linda.
A bubble of resentment lodged in Dee's throat. She swallowed hard and went back to her duty. Most of the letters were invitations. Linda was on the mailing list of every charity in the surrounding counties. What better way to separate Ms. Cahalo from a portion of her fortune than to invite her to attend a benefit dinner? Dee knew which ones Linda would accept and decline and sorted them accordingly.
One announcement caught her attention. At first it looked like an invitation, but on closer inspection she realized that it was an advertisement. She wondered how Maria let this one slip through the cracks. One of Manfred's responsibilities as a manager was to weed out anything that smacked of base commerce.
The rigid card was personalized, inviting Linda to contact Timeless, Inc. for an appointment to review the service they offered. The envelope also contained a pamphlet. In 24-point techno lettering it announced, "The Closest You'll Ever Get to Time Travel." Dee read a few paragraphs. She didn't know whether to moan or laugh. The noise she did make attracted Linda's attention.
"Maria must have sent this over as a joke," Dee explained as she handed the card and pamphlet to Linda.
Linda read aloud. "'Sleep the years away and see the future all without aging a day.' Maria what is this shit?" There was a brief silence before she lowered the phone. "She thought we'd get a chuckle out of it." She moved the handset back into position. "Yes, Maria, it's hilarious. Yeah, right. I'll talk to you tomorrow."
Dee reached across the table to take the card and put it with the other cast-offs, but Linda leaned back in her chair and continued to peruse the pamphlet.
"You don't suppose they could really do this?" Linda posited with the innocence of a willing convert.
"Sure. Maybe they could put you under until someone invents a cancer-free cigarette." Dee expected a sardonic rejoinder or at least a grimace, but Linda was serious. "Linda, even if it weren't some kind of scam, would you really want to be frozen for years?"
Linda didn't answer, but continued to read. The phone rang again. Linda picked it out of her lap. Her face darkened and without a word she shoved the phone across the table and exited with the material from Timeless, Inc. firmly in her grasp.
Dee didn't need to ask who it was.
"Hi, Emma. How are you?" Dee asked.
"Fine, and you?"
"I guess I don't have to ask how Linda is doing this morning. In her usual pleasant mood, I see."
"I'm sorry, Emma."
"It's not your fault she doesn't like me."
Emma Forsythe was Dee's best friend. When Linda complained that lovers should be each other's best friends, Dee equivocated by pointing out to Linda that Emma was her "oldest," best friend. Linda was not appeased by the answer, but she couldn't do much about it either. Emma was to Linda what smoking was to Dee, an irritant that no amount of discussion would change.
They grew up together. Emma had shortened Dee's name from Desdemona, a name that seemed at odds with Dee's short, stocky, nondescript appearance . They entered puberty at the same time and simultaneously discovered that they were attracted to females. It seemed like too much of a coincidence. They decided that destiny was at work and they must be soul mates. They were convinced that they would live happily ever after together. However, they found that being of the same sexual orientation was not the same as being sexually compatible. Their life of bliss was short lived, but the bond of friendship remained unbroken. Linda knew that Emma had been Dee's first and while that generated some suspicion, Dee believed Linda was even more jealous of the lifetime of understanding between them that Linda could neither duplicate nor share.
"Linda's attitude may not be my fault, but I still wish there were something I could do about it," said Dee. "She's really gotten herself into a mood this morning. We got this brochure from a company that puts people into suspended animation."
"You mean like freezing you two second after you die?"
"No. They claim they can freeze you alive and keep you that way for years. Later, they wake you up like nothing happened."
"Sounds like some Star Trek fantasy. Only thing missing is the Borg babe. It's got to be a scam, so why is Linda letting it get under her skin?"
"Well, you know how she is about time." Dee glanced at the clock. It was an easy thing to do. There wasn't a room in the house that didn't have at least two clocks with the exception of the closets, and the clock room more than made up for what they lacked. Dee referred to it as "the land that time couldn't forget." It was filled with timepieces of every description. Not all of them were expensive, but a few were worth a fortune. Almost all of them were mechanical. They shared one characteristic in common - noise. From the endless drip, drip, dripping of the custom made clepsydra to the clunking escarpment of the stately grandfather keeping synchronous rhythm with the swing of its pendulum, each measured out the seconds with an audible reminder of passing time. All of chimes had been disabled in order to maintain an uninterrupted flow of ticks, clicks, drips and clanks. Ingram and Cromwell, Gustav Becker and Kienzle, staartklok and dumpling eater all plodded forward on their crippled mission.
Linda would spend hours alone in the room, absorbed in the cacophony. When Dee asked her about it, Linda told her that after awhile she could distinguish the individual voices within the clock chorus, to discern one from the rest and yet appreciate its harmony within the whole. At that point she was transported. She said it was like glimpsing the meaning of life - whether it was life in general or Linda's life was never clear. It was a moment of understanding she yearned to attain but it was always just beyond her grasp. She once joked that if all were revealed it would probably make her heart stop.
"Obsessing about time is one thing, defying the laws of nature is another," Emma remarked.
"I know. It's just that when she latches on to something like this sometimes she gets into these dark moods. She locks herself away in the clock room for hours. She's got all that stuff in her past. It was tough losing her father so early and having her mother just disappear."
"I know." Emma didn't have the patience for another recitation of the Cahalo litany of woes. It wasn't that she lacked sympathy for Linda's issues of abandonment and feelings of loss, but like any litany, after constant repetition the words had lost their meaning. It didn't help that Linda was rich. It was always easier to pity the poor.
"I won't start," said Dee, holding up an appeasing hand even though Emma couldn't see it.
"Look, she'll probably forget about it when the next fancy passes by," Emma encouraged. "She seldom focuses on any one thing for long, except you, of course."
Dee smiled. While she never knew which way Linda's compass would spin on other matters, Dee took comfort in knowing that she was loved. "I hope you're right. You want to come over."
"I think I'll pass until Linda's popsicle craze phases out. Besides, I have to keep a hot date with a washer/dryer combo after work or become a nudist. I'll talk to you later."
"Later, Emma. Love ya."
"You, too. Bye."
Dee finished the mail and wrapped a rubber band back around the rejected invitations. She took the two that were worth consideration to the computer to check for schedule conflicts and found Linda perched in front of the monitor clicking on hyperlinks as fast as their dial-up connection would display them.
"I called Maria. Seems I'm a stockholder in Timeless, Inc.'s parent company. That might explain the invite," Linda stated. She waved her upturned palms at the screen in a frustrated gesture. "There's nothing on their website about freezing people. Hell, they build magnetrons, whatever those are."
"They're used with microwaves," Dee explained.
"Gods you're smart," Linda said, taking Dee's hand and wrapping her lips around the thumb in a kiss. "Now, if you could just tell me what nuking leftover spaghetti has to do with this..." She gestured toward to the pamphlet beside the keyboard.
"I haven't a clue."
Dee stood very still.
Linda guided the pointer around the web page in a decreasing spiral, stopping when reached the center. Her finger lightly tapped the mouse's left button several time without actually activating it.
Dee stood very, very still.
At last Linda let out a sigh. She dropped Dee's hand, which she'd continued to hold, and noticed the invitations Dee held in the other. "I guess you want to get on here," Linda said, jumping up to relinquish her seat at the computer. She gave Dee an affectionate kiss on the lips as she brushed by her.
Dee felt a moment of relief until she noticed that the pamphlet was gone. She wasn't surprised later that day when Linda announced that she had a meeting scheduled with a representative from Timeless, Inc. Dee's concern grew when she found out Linda had also made arrangements for Maria to join them.
À À À À À
The homely accommodations of Laura Junso's office contrasted sharply with the woman herself. From her perfect coiffure to her tailored suit she was elegance personified.
"Welcome to Timeless, Inc., Ms. Cahalo" said Laura, the name lilting melodically off her tongue as she extended her hand to Linda and cast an inquisitive glance at Dee.
"This is my life partner, Dee Banford," Linda explained.
"Welcome, Ms. Banford," Laura declared with slightly less enthusiasm. "Then we're still waiting for Ms. Manfred."
Maria burst though the door with all the bluster of a native New Yorker. Laura's appearance was in marked contrast to that of Maria Manfred, whose suits were also tailored but tended to bunch up along her lumpy figure. Appearance, in particular femininity, was not a major concern to Maria. She always looked like she would be infinitely more at home in jeans and a flannel shirt. Linda often speculated that Maria's husband and three children were a subterfuge and suspected that she had a delicate little mistress hidden away somewhere.
"Ms. Manfred, I presume. I'm Laura Junso."
"Ms. Junso." Maria gave the young woman's hand one brisk shake. Ms. Junso tried not to wince as she flexed her mangled fingers and gestured for Maria to be seated.
"I want to start by assuring you that this is a legitimate venture," Laura began.
"Just so we're all on the same page, what is the exact nature of the service you claim to offer?" Maria was sincerely regretting her lapse of judgment in forwarding the Timeless, Inc. material to Linda. Instead of tending to the real business of managing the Cahalo estate, she was forced to drive halfway down the peninsula and waste her time with this charlatan.
"I like a person who gets straight to the point," Laura responded.
"Then please do so and skip the flattery," Maria snarled as she ran a hand through the salt-and-pepper mass of frizz that covered her head.
There was a slight pause as Laura adjusted her approach. "It's clear that you have some reservations," Laura stated. "Perhaps I should open the discussion to questions from the onset and spare you the tedious sales pitch." Laura gave Maria a saccharine smile.
"Fine. Do you freeze live human beings and then thaw then at some point in the future?"
Linda leaned forward, her eyebrows lifted and pressed together in supplication. "But the pamphlet said you did," she whined.
"Freezing and thawing imply that the liquids within the body are reduced in temperature until they obtain a solid state. That is not what we do. Cryogenic suspension is only suitable for the deceased and frankly I have my doubts that even that will ever be successful. Our method is much more refined and we refer to it as stasis."
"How very sci-fi," Maria commented. "So you put living human being into 'stasis' and bring them back out again at some point in the future?"
"I can't give away our trade secrets, but I can tell you that it involves manipulation of the small electrical charges present in the cells of all living tissue. We control that charge using electromagnetic fields."
"Magnetrons," Dee whispered.
Linda relaxed back into her chair with a look of triumph.
Laura continued. "The stasis project has been an indirect result of our research with microwave technology, but the theory it's based on isn't all that new. The ancient Greeks knew that all motion tends toward stasis. You roll a ball; it eventually stops. Motion requires energy whether it's a rolling ball or a human cell. The body fights the condition of stasis by expending energy. We exploit that energy to create a balance."
"So, is the body alive or dead?" Dee asked.
"Both and neither. The cessation of organic functions would fit most definitions of death, but there is no cellular necrosis. There is no decomposition and no aging. You wake up virtually the same person your were the day you went into stasis."
"You must be making a fortune selling stasis time to the terminally ill," Maria commented, a cynical edge still present in her tone.
"Many people are not good candidates for stasis. To achieve the balance that puts a cell in stasis, it must be healthy and chemical free. Even nicotine in the blood stream would make you an ineligible candidate."
Dee and Maria turned to Linda, who stared straight at Laura and stubbornly refused to meet their inquiring glances.
"You would have to quite smoking for at least three months before entering stasis," Laura remarked. Maria stifled a laugh. Dee grinned victoriously assuming that this revelation would close the matter.
"How many people do you presently have in stasis?" Linda asked, refusing to let the conversation end on a note of defeat.
"We have no one in stasis at this time."
"So, you propose to use my clients as guinea pigs and then expect them pay for the privilege? I don't know what kind of business you're running here, but I will not allow you to exploit these women. Furthermore, I imagine there are more than a few government agencies that would be interested to hear just what kind of racket you've got going." Maria had already begun to rock back and forth in an effort to hoist her bulk from the chair.
"We've only recently begun to solicit customers. This isn't like a cruise to the Bahamas. Our standards are very high and not everyone is qualified to take this trip. People would have a better chance of booking passage on a flight to the moon. Besides the health issues, there is the matter of money. Most people can't afford it. Finally, this is not the sort of experience that everyone wants to undertake."
Maria made it to her feet. She struck a defiant pose almost nose to nose with Laura. Intent on decisively putting an end to the discussion she snarled, "And tell me, Ms. Junso, would you allow yourself to be put into stasis?"
"Yes, Ms. Manfred." Laura replied, flashing her opponent a checkmate smile. "I not only would do it, I have done it."
Linda cackled. "Looks like you're the bird, Maria."
Angry and embarrassed, Maria spun to face her. "What are you talking about?"
"If you're a bird, never sit on a cat's tongue. Meow, Ms. Junso."