A sullen sky grumbled angrily above me. It was late, and the London traffic was finally clearing as I made my way back to the office. January 7th, 1949 should have been something of a celebration, as much as birthdays can be for a man who lives alone. My job as a private investigator meant my hours were always unusual, but I'd never come this late to the office building before. Perhaps I should have ignored the anonymous message, but something about it had grabbed my interest. After opening the front gate and entering the lobby, I pushed the lift button and waited, but the light above the door stayed stubbornly on five. I pounded it again but the lift refused to move. It was another minute before I started climbing.
I reached the fifth floor with my eyes blurring from the effort. My time in front of a desk was catching up with me. Pulling on the stairwell door, I stepped into the corridor and let it close behind me. It groaned slowly, a noise that sounded louder when I saw the light coming from my office. Across the corridor I could see the lift doors. They were opening and closing mindlessly against a waste paper bin placed on the threshold. Somebody had set me up for that mountain climb.
Taking off my shoes, I padded silently along the corridor, taking care to duck under the windows of the other offices. As I approached the pool of light, I leaned against the wall by the open door and stole a glance through the gap. A woman was sitting in front of my desk smoking a cigarette. I decided to play safe, opening the door wider with my foot and stepping back.
'The door was open, Mr Ashley. I let myself in.'
The woman's voice was mellow and confident, with the kind of confidence that American women always have. I took a deep breath, stepped into the room and was blinded. The desk light had been angled towards the door, turning the woman into a dark silhouette. I felt like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
'You're not wearing shoes, Mr Ashley. Has the private investigation business fallen on hard times?'
I put a hand over my eyes. 'Just trying to get the element of surprise.'
'You really should get into shape,' she scorned. 'You were never in any danger of surprising me.'
The woman tapped her cigarette on the edge of the waste bin and took a drag from it, the tip glowing briefly in the gloom. She exhaled the smoke slowly and laughed.
'Shall we keep talking in the shadows like this?' She gestured at the wall. 'Perhaps you should turn on the light.'
I leaned against the light switch and was greeted by a playful grin, a smirk worn by a sharp edged face and couched by a bob of black hair. She looked like those models who sell sex and perfume, tall, lithe, pitch-black mascara and blood red lipstick. Powder obscured every imperfection on her face except a faint bruise on her jaw. She wore a dark grey trouser suit, and a black woollen coat lined with white fur. In her lap was a grey hat, a conservative affair with a broad brim and a neat little bow, while on her feet were tidy black shoes with flat heels. They were elegant, but they were made for running too.
I picked up a coffee mug from the desk and held it in her face. 'Smoking makes the office smell cheap, do you mind?'
She looked at me defiantly and took another lungful from the cigarette, then opened her lips slightly and blew smoke towards me. I held her eyes steadily, staring into their dark green waters but refusing to let go of the shore. A moment later, her face became sullen, and the cigarette fell into the cold coffee and drowned. I put the mug on a shelf, then walked around the desk and sat in my well-worn chair. It was the comfortable position of client and investigator, but I figured she wasn't here for help.
'You have me at a disadvantage,' I said. 'You know my name, but I don't know yours.'
She fished out a white handbag from under her hat and explored its contents. For a moment, I thought I saw a gun. Her delicate hand produced a card, which she held out with exaggerated grace. It was sparse and simple, with tiny geometric lettering in one corner.
'Lana Golding, MIRANDA, Washington DC.' She nodded as I read the card. 'You're a long way from Washington, Miss Golding. What brings you to London?'
Lana watched me carefully but said nothing, her left hand fidgeting on the side of the chair. I leaned forward and held out my hands. 'Let me guess, your husband is cheating on you, or perhaps a business associate took your money?'
Lana continued to pick at her chair. 'May I have a drink?'
'Sure.' I opened the desk drawer, pulled out two glasses and a bottle. 'Jack Daniels?'
She nodded approvingly and I poured two good measures. While I took a sip, she downed her whiskey in three discreet gulps. We shared the moment in silence.
The wayward hand became still. 'You seem nervous, Mr Ashley. Are you frightened of me?' She was smiling again.
I picked up her card and turned it over. 'Dunno, it doesn't say hired killer on your business card, but I couldn't help but notice the revolver you keep in that nice handbag of yours.'
'A woman has to be ready for anything, and it's becoming a much more dangerous world, Mr Ashley.' Her face became serious. 'For example, did you know that this building should have been destroyed nine years ago?'
For a moment, neither of us spoke. The silence was filled for a moment by the sound of a passing train, and then there was nothing.
I took another sip from my drink and tried to smile. 'I get it, you're some kind of crazy and your husband is trying to put you away for your money.'
Lana opened her handbag again, but this time pulled out an envelope, emptying its contents on to my desk. There were two photographs, one of St. Pauls Cathedral, the other of a torn and slightly charred newspaper cutting. The first photo showed the magnificent cathedral wreathed in smoke, with broken and destroyed buildings in the foreground. In the second photo, the headline screamed 'Nazis raid London and 13 Towns'. It was dated August 29th, 1940.
'The last time the Germans bombed London was in the Great War,' I muttered. 'This is a fake.'
I glanced down at the open desk drawer, and my revolver hiding amongst the paperwork. I always left it empty, but even if it had been loaded, knew she had the drop on me.
'Would you be surprised to know that the second Spanish flu epidemic and the earthquakes of 1933 shouldn't have happened at all?'
I held my hands and shrugged. 'Nature can be cruel, Miss Golding.'
Lana fixed me with a steady stare. 'We believe there was nothing natural at all about 1933, Mr Ashley. We believe that the disaster was man made. Not only was the face of the Earth and the oceans changed, but perhaps the course of history itself.'
'Why are you telling me this?'
'Last year, you took an assignment from us. It was all done under an alias of course. You tracked down a certain Doctor Erich Diebnitz, who was on the run from Berlin.'
'How could I forget that case,' I growled. 'I was shot at by foreign agents'
'You performed the assignment very well, Mr Ashley,' said Lana smoothly. 'So much so, that we'd like to offer you a job. Perhaps we can save mankind from another disaster together.'
I paused for thought, trying to keep my face neutral. 'I'm busy enough here, I can manage thank you.'
Lana smiled slightly. 'Your accounts appear to say otherwise-'
She stopped and turned her head towards the exit, as the groaning sigh of the staircase door echoed down the corridor.
'Ah,' she said calmly, taking a bulbous revolver from her handbag and carefully cocking the hammer. 'The men who have come to kill you are here. Unfortunately, your good work didn't go unnoticed in Berlin either.'
For a moment, I could only see the revolver in her small hands. It was like nothing I had seen before, black, sleek, and sporting a huge calibre.
Lana glanced down towards my desk drawer. 'I took the liberty of loading your gun with bullets before you came. I suggest you take it and get ready to leave. A corridor full of dead Nazis will be a little hard to explain to Scotland Yard.'
Cinema 4D, Poser, and Photoshop.