Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Guest Writer: Harris Tobias

The Travel Agent

“Well, there’s no time like the present you know?” Lorna Trabish leaned on her desk for emphasis and opened the brochure. A full figured woman in her early sixties, Lorna looked the part of the eager to please travel agent. “We have tours to fit every budget and every activity level. She eyed the heavyset couple sitting across from her and gave them a dazzling capped tooth smile.
“You could visit the pyramids. We’re having a big promotion right now—two for the price of one. A tremendous savings. It’s filling up fast. You get to be a part of a slave gang and actually help build the pyramids. Just think of the stories you can tell your friends. It’s very exciting. We have a wonderful guide who will be your overseer. You get to live with a slave family and...”
“I don’t think that’s for us,” interjected Myrna Crump who had been leafing through the brochure during Lorna’s breathless pitch. “Lester doesn’t like the sun.”
“Perhaps something a bit more luxurious,” suggested Lester Crump who was trying to picture Myrna pulling a twenty ton block of sandstone across the desert in her high heels.
“I have just the thing,” chirped the irrepressible agent. “Have you been to Rome? I’m talking about ancient Rome. It’s part of our two week Classics Tour package. A week in Ancient Greece and a week in Rome. You get to hear some of the ancient world’s great orators—Seneca, Plato, Marcus Arelius. A day at the coliseum and a big Roman feast on the last night.”
“Mmm, I don’t know,” said Myrna. “Togas make me look fat.”
“And I heard about that Roman feast from our neighbor,” said Lester in his most confidential tone. “He said it turned into an orgy.” He gave Lorna a lascivious wink.
“Well,” said an embarrassed Lorna, “I hope that wasn’t one of our tours.”
“I think it was Tick Tock Travel.”
“Well, that’s a relief. They’re a low budget outfit and, like so much in life, you get what you pay for.” Lorna was relieved and recovered her poise. "I can assure you our feast is with a better class of people.”
The Crumps exchanged looks and silently congratulated themselves for choosing Temporal Tours even though it cost a good deal more.
“Are you interested in something of a religious nature?” asked Lorna hopefully. “We have a few openings left for the crucifixion.”
“We’re Jewish,” said Myrna.
“Oh. Well then how about joining the Israelites on their wandering in the desert?”
“What’s with you and deserts?” asked Lester. “We told you I can’t take the sun. I burn very easily then I peel.”
“It almost ruined our last vacation,” added Myrna. “We were watching the Aztec coronation in Palenque. We were standing in the crowd and Lester forgot his hat and all that sun. It was just too much. We had to leave and missed the whole human sacrifice and the party afterwards.”
“Maybe something a little more northerly, then,” said Lorna mentally scrambling for a cooler scenario. “I have just the thing,” she pointed to a page in the brochure. “The Camelot package. It’s perfect. Fourth century England, nice and cool. Lovely costumes. Atrocious table manners but that’s all over the ancient world. Let’s see, there are jousting tournaments, and combat for the men and wandering minstrels and a dance around the maypole for the women. Now doesn’t that sound exciting?”
The Crumps looked at each other and 32 years of knowing flashed between them in a glance. “Sounds good,” said Myrna, “tell us more.”
“Well, you arrive at the end of April for the wedding and participate in the festivities. You’ll be in period costumes, of course. We have an excellent guide who will explain the quaint customs. There’ll be lots of celebrating, music and dancing in the streets. It’s very exciting. You’ll be staying in a five star Inn that we’ve completely renovated to the highest local standards which will give you a first hand taste of life at that time— generally filthy, superstitious and brutal. I know you’ll love it.”
“Will we get to see King Arthur?” asked Lester who considered himself pretty knowledgeable on that time in history having once read an excerpt from the Song of Roland in seventh grade.
“We can’t guarantee you’ll get closer than 500 feet, but you’ll definitely get to see the royal couple at the wedding.”
“What about crowds?” asked Myrna, “I get claustrophobic in crowds.”
“Well, it is a popular destination. I dare say that half the people there will be time tourists like yourselves. There’s nothing we can do about it, it’s the peak season and the past is public property.”
“I wouldn’t mind something a little less public. I’ve heard about private tours,” said Myrna. “Surely Temporal Travel offers private packages.”
“Oh we do. Of course we do,” Lorna was happy to pitch private tours. They cost a fortune and the commissions were, how would you put it, huge. “They’re our specialty.”
Lorna reached into her desk and pulled out another brochure. It was bound in leather and was made to impress. “I have to warn you that our private tours set the standard in the time travel industry. No one does it better. Here, let me show you.”

After another grueling hour of suggesting and rejecting, the Crumps were ready to sign. With Lorna’s help, they had settled on a private tour to 18th century France. They would have a room at Versailles an audience with Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Their personal guide would be a well regarded professor of the period who would make the whole experience even more real than it already was. The only problem was the timing. By their nature, private tours were not shared with the time traveling public; only certain dates in the past were available and most of them were already booked.
“We have an opening in July 1793. My book says it’s cutting things a little close with the political ferment and all, but it’s the only date still open. Besides, a little local politics might not be a bad thing. The French revolution was such an exciting time after all and I’m sure Professor Nichols will keep you safe. We’ve never lost a customer yet, you know.” Here Lorna gave a little giggle, “and we don’t intend to start now. If worse comes to worse your guide will have the latest in emergency extraction technology.”
Lorna flashed her white capped smile and segued away from the unpleasant subject of personal danger launching into a detailed recital of the beautiful clothing worn at court, the delights of French cuisine and the splendors of Versailles. By the time she was through, the Crumps were hooked and ready to leave right then and there.
“Of course you can leave at your convenience. Professor Nichols is available, let me see, pretty much for the rest of the month. So should I call him and book?”
Myrna and Lester exchanged looks. Lorna held her breath. “Okay, sure, let’s book it,” said Myrna.
“You only live once,” added Lester.
“Great,” Lorna exhaled and beamed.

The Crumps and Professor Nichols materialized in a Paris Park. Myrna was dressed in the latest fashion. Her mousy brown hair piled under an enormous silver wig, her dowdy figure concealed beneath a magnificent silk dress embroidered with pearls— she looked like a countess from a remote province visiting the city for the first time. The men also wore wigs and with their powdered faces looked like caricatures of themselves.
“Well, here we are,” said their guide. “I suggest we stroll around a bit while I point out some of the sights.”
“I’d like to see the Eiffel Tower,” said Myrna.
“I’m afraid that’s two hundred years in the future,” said the amused Nichols.
“The Louvre?”
“I can try to get us in but it doesn’t open to the public for a couple of years.”
“Well, what else is there?” Lester wanted to know.
Nichols was looking around. They were the only fashionable people in sight and the local peasants were eyeing them with scorn. One fat peasant was hurrying toward them yelling “Allez!”
“I have a better idea,” said their guide, “ perhaps we can take a cab around the city and I’ll point out some interesting sights.”
Professor Nichols hurried his charges to the nearest exit, flagged down a cab and instructed the driver to drive around the city. The driver balked until Nichols gave him some additional coins. They all piled into the cab and, with a snap of the reigns, their tour of the city began. Behind them an overweight peasant halted panting in the road having failed to stop them.
“What were you arguing about?” asked Lester.
“With the driver? He said there were demonstrations all over the city. He demanded extra money to take us. It’s an old trick to take advantage of gullible out of towners. Don’t give it a second thought.” The Crumps relaxed and Professor Nichols pointed out the historic buildings and the famous streets of the city. The Crumps were interested at first but their appetite for architecture soon faded and they began to grow restless. Sensing he was losing his audience, Professor Nichols suggested they stop at a sidewalk cafe and have a bite to eat. He dismissed the cab and found them a table on a busy boulevard.
Lunch was disturbed by a mob of several hundred peasants carrying banners proclaiming Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité. The boisterous mob surrounded the hapless Crumps. When Nichols attempted to explain that they were just visiting and had no political preferences, the peasants shouted them down and held them until members of the Paris Militia came and dragged the three away. They were accused of being anti-revolutionary. When it was revealed that the Crumps were foreigners, their fate was sealed. The militia escorted them to the hotel d’ville where a paranoid member of the Jacobin Committee of Public Safety charged them with crimes against the revolution, being monarchist sympathizers and spies for the English. It all happened so fast the Crumps thought it was just another exciting part of the tour. The crestfallen and worried look on Professor Nichols’ face quickly dispelled that notion.
“What’s wrong Professor,” asked Myrna, “you don’t look well.”
Nichols, lamenting the confiscation of his emergency retrieval device by the militia was quite beside himself. The prison guards ignored his demands for the device’s return considering it further proof of his monarchist sympathies. All he could say to the bewildered Crumps was, ”Be brave my friends.” Then he put his head in his hands and wept.
An hour later, the militia dragged all three to the guillotine where they were quickly and painlessly dispatched. It was a lot more local color than they bargained for.

When the Crumps and Professor Nichols failed to return, Lorna Trabish and the folks at Temporal Travel were forced to investigate. Theodore Wienstock, the agency’s portly owner, went back in time to look for them. He suspected that his clients may have been caught up in France’s revolutionary fervor. And so, dressed as a French peasant, he materialized in the same Paris park at roughly the same time as the Crumps. After a quick look around, he spotted them across the lawn. They were the only beautifully dressed people in sight. They were too far away to call so he hurried in their direction. He saw them turn toward the exit so he picked up his pace.
He ended up running and shouting in French for them to stop. “Allez, Allez,” he called but he watched them board a fancy cab and disappear down the street. He tried to run after them but was soon out of breath and forced to stop. When he tried to flag down a passing cab, the driver refused to stop. The next time Mr. Wienstock saw them, their heads were on display in the public square with a sign declaring them enemies of the revolution. There was nothing he could do but return to his own time and begin filling out the paperwork.

© Harris Tobias 2011

Harris Tobias was raised by robots disguised as New Yorkers. Despite an awkward childhood he learned to read and write. To date Mr. Tobias has published two detective novels, The Greer Agency and A Felony of Birds, to critical acclaim. In addition he has published short stories in Down in the Dirt Magazine, Literal Translations, Electric Flash and Ray Gun Revival. He currently lives and writes in Charlottesville, Virginia.

4 comments:

  1. Absolutely 100% wonderful - if this isn't what might be described as a 'historical romp' I don't know what is! Thoroughly enjoyed, thank you Harris.

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  2. Very entertaining. "Song of Roland" made me chuckle, as did much of the rest.

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  3. I really enjoyed reading this! I love how it came around full-circle at the end. Very cool story.

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  4. And you know Lorna always gets her payment up front!
    Delicious, Harris.

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