- Author: Mack Reynolds
Read book online «Gun for Hire by Mack Reynolds (red queen free ebook .txt) 📕». Author - Mack Reynolds
oe Prantera called softly, "Al." The pleasurable, comfortable, warm feeling began spreading over him, the way it always did.
The older man stopped and squinted, but not suspiciously, even now.
The evening was dark, it was unlikely that the other even saw the circle of steel that was the mouth of the shotgun barrel, now resting on the car's window ledge.
"Who's it?" he growled.
Joe Prantera said softly, "Big Louis sent me, Al."
And he pressed the trigger.
And at that moment, the universe caved inward upon Joseph Marie Prantera.
There was nausea and nausea upon nausea.
There was a falling through all space and through all time. There was doubling and twisting and twitching of every muscle and nerve.
There was pain, horror and tumultuous fear.
And he came out of it as quickly and completely as he'd gone in.
He was in, he thought, a hospital and his first reaction was to think, This here California. Everything different. Then his second thought was Something went wrong. Big Louis, he ain't going to like this.
He brought his thinking to the present. So far as he could remember, he hadn't completely pulled the trigger. That at least meant that whatever the rap was it wouldn't be too tough. With luck, the syndicate would get him off with a couple of years at Quentin.
A door slid open in the wall in a way that Joe had never seen a door operate before. This here California.
The clothes on the newcomer were wrong, too. For the first time, Joe Prantera began to sense an alienness—a something that was awfully wrong.
The other spoke precisely and slowly, the way a highly educated man speaks a language which he reads and writes fluently but has little occasion to practice vocally. "You have recovered?"
Joe Prantera looked at the other expressionlessly. Maybe the old duck was one of these foreign doctors, like.
The newcomer said, "You have undoubtedly been through a most harrowing experience. If you have any untoward symptoms, possibly I could be of assistance."
Joe couldn't figure out how he stood. For one thing, there should have been some kind of police guard.
The other said, "Perhaps a bit of stimulant?"
Joe said flatly, "I wanta lawyer."
The newcomer frowned at him. "A lawyer?"
"I'm not sayin' nothin'. Not until I get a mouthpiece."
The newcomer started off on another tack. "My name is Lawrence Reston-Farrell. If I am not mistaken, you are Joseph Salviati-Prantera."
Salviati happened to be Joe's mother's maiden name. But it was unlikely this character could have known that. Joe had been born in Naples and his mother had died in childbirth. His father hadn't brought him to the States until the age of five and by that time he had a stepmother.
"I wanta mouthpiece," Joe said flatly, "or let me outta here."
Lawrence Reston-Farrell said, "You are not being constrained. There are clothes for you in the closet there."
Joe gingerly tried swinging his feet to the floor and sitting up, while the other stood watching him, strangely. He came to his feet. With the exception of a faint nausea, which brought back memories of that extreme condition he'd suffered during ... during what? He hadn't the vaguest idea of what had happened.
He was dressed in a hospital-type nightgown. He looked down at it and snorted and made his way over to the closet. It opened on his approach, the door sliding back into the wall in much the same manner as the room's door had opened for Reston-Farrell.
Joe Prantera scowled and said, "These ain't my clothes."
"No, I am afraid not."
"You think I'd be seen dead wearing this stuff? What is this, some religious crackpot hospital?"
Reston-Farrell said, "I am afraid, Mr. Salviati-Prantera, that these are the only garments available. I suggest you look out the window there."
Joe gave him a long, chill look and then stepped to the window. He couldn't figure the other. Unless he was a fruitcake. Maybe he was in some kind of pressure cooker and this was one of the fruitcakes.
He looked out, however, not on the lawns and walks of a sanitarium but upon a wide boulevard of what was obviously a populous city.
And for a moment again, Joe Prantera felt the depths of nausea.
This was not his world.
He stared for a long, long moment. The cars didn't even have wheels, he noted dully. He turned slowly and faced the older man.
Reston-Farrell said compassionately, "Try this, it's excellent cognac."
Joe Prantera stared at him, said finally, flatly, "What's it all about?"
The other put down the unaccepted glass. "We were afraid first realization would be a shock to you," he said. "My colleague is in the adjoining room. We will be glad to explain to you if you will join us there."
"I wanta get out of here," Joe said.
"Where would you go?"
The fear of police, of Al Rossi's vengeance, of the measures that might be taken by Big Louis on his failure, were now far away.
Reston-Farrell had approached the door by which he had entered and it reopened for him. He went through it without looking back.
There was nothing else to do. Joe dressed, then followed him.
In the adjoining room was a circular table that would have accommodated a dozen persons. Two were seated there now, papers, books and soiled coffee cups before them. There had evidently been a long wait.
Reston-Farrell, the one Joe had already met, was tall and drawn of face and with a chainsmoker's nervousness. The other was heavier and more at ease. They were both, Joe estimated, somewhere in their middle fifties. They both looked like docs. He wondered, all over again, if this was some kind of pressure cooker.
But that didn't explain the view from the window.
Reston-Farrell said, "May I present my colleague, Citizen Warren Brett-James? Warren, this is our guest from ... from yesteryear, Mr. Joseph Salviati-Prantera."
Brett-James nodded to him, friendly, so far as Joe could see. He said gently, "I think it would be Mr. Joseph Prantera, wouldn't it? The maternal linage was almost universally ignored." His voice too gave the impression he was speaking a language not usually on his tongue.
Joe took an empty chair, hardly bothering to note its alien qualities. His body seemed to fit into the piece of furniture, as though it had been molded to his order.
Joe said, "I think maybe I'll take that there drink, Doc."
Reston-Farrell said, "Of course," and then something else Joe didn't get. Whatever the something else was, a slot opened in the middle of the table and a glass, so clear of texture as to be all but invisible, was elevated. It contained possibly three ounces of golden fluid.
Joe didn't allow himself to think of its means of delivery. He took up the drink and bolted it. He put the glass down and said carefully, "What's it all about, huh?"
Warren Brett-James said soothingly, "Prepare yourself for somewhat of a shock, Mr. Prantera. You are no longer in Los Angeles—"
"Ya think I'm stupid? I can see that."
"I was about to say, Los Angeles of 1960. Mr. Prantera, we welcome you to Nuevo Los Angeles."
"To Nuevo Los Angeles and to the year—" Brett-James looked at his companion. "What is the date, Old Calendar?"
"2133," Reston-Farrell said. "2133 A.D. they would say."
Joe Prantera looked from one of them to the other, scowling. "What are you guys talking about?"
Warren Brett-James said softly, "Mr. Prantera, you are no longer in the year 1960, you are now in the year 2133."
He said, uncomprehendingly, "You mean I been, like, unconscious for—" He let the sentence fall away as he realized the impossibility.
Brett-James said gently, "Hardly for one hundred and seventy years, Mr. Prantera."
Reston-Farrell said, "I am afraid we are confusing you. Briefly, we have transported you, I suppose one might say, from your own era to ours."
Joe Prantera had never been exposed to the concept of time travel. He had simply never associated with anyone who had ever even remotely considered such an idea. Now he said, "You mean, like, I been asleep all that time?"
"Not exactly," Brett-James said, frowning.
Reston-Farrell said, "Suffice to say, you are now one hundred and seventy-three years after the last memory you have."
Joe Prantera's mind suddenly reverted to those last memories and his eyes narrowed dangerously. He felt suddenly at bay. He said, "Maybe you guys better let me in on what's this all about."
Reston-Farrell said, "Mr. Prantera, we have brought you from your era to perform a task for us."
Joe stared at him, and then at the other. He couldn't believe he was getting through to them. Or, at least, that they were to him.
Finally he said, "If I get this, you want me to do a job for you."
"That is correct."
Joe said, "You guys know the kind of jobs I do?"
"That is correct."
"Like hell you do. You think I'm stupid? I never even seen you before." Joe Prantera came abruptly to his feet. "I'm gettin' outta here."
For the second time, Reston-Farrell said, "Where would you go, Mr. Prantera?"
Joe glared at him. Then sat down again, as abruptly as he'd arisen.
"Let's start all over again. I got this straight, you brought me, some screwy way, all the way ... here. O.K., I'll buy that. I seen what it looks like out that window—" The real comprehension was seeping through to him even as he talked. "Everybody I know, Jessie, Tony, the Kid, Big Louis, everybody, they're dead. Even Big Louis."
"Yes," Brett-James said, his voice soft. "They are all dead, Mr. Prantera. Their children are all dead, and their grandchildren."
The two men of the future said nothing more for long minutes while Joe Prantera's mind whirled its confusion.
Finally he said, "What's this bit about you wanting me to give it to some guy."
"That is why we brought you here, Mr. Prantera. You were ... you are, a professional assassin."
"Hey, wait a minute, now."
Reston-Farrell went on, ignoring the interruption. "There is small point in denying your calling. Pray remember that at the point when we ... transported you, you were about to dispose of a contemporary named Alphonso Annunziata-Rossi. A citizen, I might say, whose demise would probably have caused small dismay to society."
They had him pegged all right. Joe said, "But why me? Why don't you get some heavy from now? Somebody knows the ropes these days."
Brett-James said, "Mr. Prantera, there are no professional assassins in this age, nor have there been for over a century and a half."
"Well, then do it yourself." Joe Prantera's irritation over this whole complicated mess was growing. And already he was beginning to long for the things he knew—for Jessie and Tony and the others, for his favorite bar, for the lasagne down at Papa Giovanni's. Right now he could have welcomed a calling down at the hands of Big Louis.
Reston-Farrell had come to his feet and walked to one of the large room's windows. He looked out, as though unseeing. Then, his back turned, he said, "We have tried, but it is simply not in us, Mr. Prantera."
"You mean you're yella?"
"No, if by that you mean afraid. It is simply not within us to take the life of a fellow creature—not to speak of a fellow man."
Joe snapped: "Everything you guys say sounds crazy. Let's start all over again."
Brett-James said, "Let me do it, Lawrence." He turned his eyes to Joe. "Mr. Prantera, in your own era, did you ever consider the future?"
Joe looked at him blankly.
"In your day you were confronted with national and international, problems. Just as we are today and just as nations were a century or a millennium ago."
"Sure, O.K., so we had problems. I know whatcha mean—like wars, and depressions and dictators and like that."
"Yes, like that," Brett-James nodded.
The heavy-set man paused a moment. "Yes, like that," he repeated. "That we confront you now indicates that the problems of your day were solved. Hadn't they been, the world most surely would have destroyed itself. Wars? Our pedagogues are hard put to convince their students that such ever existed. More than a century and a half ago our society eliminated the reasons for international conflict. For that matter," he added musingly, "we eliminated most international boundaries. Depressions? Shortly after your own period, man awoke to the fact that he had achieved to the point where it was possible to produce an abundance for all with a minimum of toil. Overnight, for all practical purposes, the whole world was industrialized, automated. The second industrial revolution was accompanied by revolutionary changes in almost every field, certainly in every science. Dictators? Your ancestors found, Mr. Prantera, that it is difficult for a man to be free so long as others are still enslaved. Today the democratic ethic has reached a pinnacle never dreamed of in your own era."
"O.K., O.K.," Joe Prantera growled. "So everybody's got it made. What I wanta know is what's all this about me giving it ta somebody? If everything's so great, how come you want me to knock this guy off?"
Reston-Farrell bent forward and thumped his right index finger twice on the table. "The bacterium of hate—a new strain—has found the human race unprotected from its disease. We had thought our vaccines immunized us."
"What's that suppose to mean?"
Brett-James took up the ball again. "Mr. Prantera, have you ever heard of Ghengis Khan, of Tamerlane, Alexander, Caesar?"
Joe Prantera scowled at him emptily.
"Or, more likely, of Napoleon, Hitler, Stalin?"
"Sure I heard of Hitler and Stalin," Joe growled. "I ain't stupid."
The other nodded. "Such men are unique. They have a drive ... a drive to power which exceeds by far the ambitions of the average