Tired and fed-up, Forrest Thomson was finally on his way home after a late night at the office. That’s when he encountered Rudolph Fentz.
At 11.15pm, Forrest was passing through Times Square, New York City, heading for his apartment on West 51st Street during Times Square’s busiest time, theatre letting out time. Carving through the crowds—why oh why didn’t I go another way?—Forrest noticed a man in his thirties standing in the middle of the road, looking disoriented. He was staring at the cars like he’d never seen one before, and looked most odd: proper mutton chop whiskers, a cutaway coat, a turned-up collar and black, oversized bow tie, and a tall silk hat, as if he was on his way to a Victorian fancy dress party.
When the traffic lights went green, the man made a run for the sidewalk, stepping straight in front of a taxi that mowed him down. Forrest ran over to where the man lay, but a crowd of people and some police officers had already surrounded him. Wondering how bad he was hurt, Forrest’s gaze shifted between different members of the crowd, trying to discern what they were saying. His question was answered by a woman who was much closer, “He’s stone-dead! Why on Earth did he run out like that?”
It was at that moment that Forrest noticed another woman standing amid the crowd, saying nothing, just looking. He noticed her because she was the only person who didn’t appear shocked by the fact that a dead man lay in the middle of the road in front of her. He saw her look at her watch. Then she turned and walked away.
Instead of staying with the crowd, Forrest felt compelled to follow her. She flagged down a taxi, forcing him to make a quick decision.
It was nearly half eleven. I should go home.
Damn it. There was something strange about all this. That man, his clothes, the fact that he looked like he’d never seen a car before.
This woman knew something.
So he flagged down his own taxi and instructed the driver to follow her. Less than fifteen minutes later, the woman’s taxi dropped her on West 86th Street, just inside Central Park, near the Central Park Reservoir.
“Stop here,” said Forrest to the taxi driver. He paid the fare and got out. He saw the woman head for the reservoir and pursued her. Being nighttime, it was easier to stay out of sight. Regularly she looked around to check she wasn’t being followed. Hidden behind trees, away from the pools of lamplight that flanked the reservoir, he watched her sneak inside the southern pump house, a grey structure made from schist and granite that Forrest had always thought looked like a miniature castle thanks to the arched windows and turrets.
Why would she go in there?
He stepped out of the trees and—wary and uneasy now—climbed the steps to the pump house. The clock on top of the building ticked past midnight. Forrest couldn’t see anything but darkness through the windows. He stepped up to the main door and listened for movement inside. Nothing. He presumed the woman had locked the door behind her, but he wasn’t going to try it. He didn’t want to draw attention.
He looked around for a little longer. He walked from the pump house a little way along the joggers’ path, which edged the reservoir, looking out across the moon-stroked water.
He could see a strange rippling on the surface of the reservoir, about a quarter of a mile out from the pump house. Couldn’t have been the wind. It was coming from just one spot. Something beneath the water was causing it.
The rippling continued for a few minutes. Then the water was still again. Forrest waited a further ten minutes, but the woman didn’t re-emerge from the pump house. So he left Central Park and took a taxi home.
On a Friday afternoon, Forrest Thomson picked up a copy of the latest issue of Collier’s magazine in his lunch break. With a coffee and a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, he settled to read it in a café on West 45th Street.
He liked the short stories, particularly the ones by science fiction author Jack Finney. This issue had a story by Finney called I’m Scared, about an unnamed retired man, the story’s narrator, who had been interviewing people in the New York City vicinity. The people he spoke to had all had bizarre experiences in the late 40s, early 50s, experiences that seemed to involve time travel. A woman who had an encounter with an adult dog two years before she was given the same dog as a puppy. A man who snapped a photograph of him and his future wife a few years before they’d even met. And a man who was shot using a gun that had been found and locked in a police safe the day before—and was still there. The narrator posited that the fabric of time was breaking down.
What really caught Forrest’s attention was the narrator’s meeting with Captain Hubert V. Rihm of the New York City Police Department. Rihm talked about a case of his, concerning a thirty-something-year-old man who showed up in Times Square late one evening in June 1950. No one saw how he got there, but he was dressed in late-19th-century clothes, looked disoriented and was standing in the middle of the road, only to be hit by a taxi and killed before anyone could help.
“Huh?” said Forrest aloud, looking up and realising he’d invited stares from some of the other people in the café. He smiled awkwardly and returned his eyes to the magazine.
Even the date was the same. June 1950. He had presumed the story was fictional—but it couldn’t be.
Forrest read on. Captain Rihm told the narrator that when the man’s body was searched, the items in his pockets seemed to fit with the 19th-century nature of his attire. Seventy dollars in obsolete banknotes. A bill from a livery stable for washing a carriage and feeding a horse. A letter to ‘Rudolph Fentz’ at an address on Fifth Avenue, New York City, postmarked June 1876—an address that was now a business premises, not a residence. And several business cards repeating the name and address.
Rihm investigated and traced Rudolph Fentz’s daughter-in-law, who said that Fentz had disappeared in 1876 when he was twenty-nine years old. When Rihm checked missing persons records, he found an entry for Fentz from 1876, and the description given was an exact match for the unidentified man who’d been run over in Times Square.
Rihm’s only explanation was that Rudolph Fentz had somehow travelled forwards in time from 1876 to 1950.
This is mad.
Coffee cold and only a third drunk—Forrest had been so engrossed in the story—he hurried out of the café and decided to take the rest of the afternoon off.
* * *
“Good afternoon, please could I speak with Captain Hubert V. Rihm?” said Forrest, making the call from his apartment at three-thirty that afternoon.
“I’m sorry, sir,” said the receptionist. “Please could you repeat that name?”
“Captain Hubert V. Rihm.”
Forrest could hear the flutter of paper. “Please could you hold the line, sir,” she then said.
The line went quiet. Two minutes later, she returned. “I’m afraid there are no police officers with that name at this precinct.”
“Oh. Okay. Thank you.”
“Have a pleasant day, sir.”
Forrest hung up. It wasn’t hugely surprising. Even though one of the stories in I’m Scared was almost identical to what Forrest had witnessed in Times Square a year ago, the characters and names might still have been fictional.
Perhaps Jack Finney heard about what happened to the man in Times Square from someone else—or witnessed it himself—and incorporated it into the story.
There was only one way to find out.
“Hello, please could I speak to Jack Finney?” said Forrest, having found the author’s telephone number in the phone book.
“Yes, speaking,” a man replied.
“Oh, hello, sir. Can I just say, I really enjoy your stories in Collier’s magazine.”
“Oh, yes. Thank you.”
“I wanted to ask you about one of them if I may.”
“Your latest story, I’m Scared, has details of an event that is very similar to something I actually witnessed myself a year ago. Rudolph Fentz. The man who, in your story, is dressed in 19th-century clothes, turns up in Times Square, confused and like he’s never seen a car before, and gets run over by a taxi. I saw something just like this—and in June last year— same time as in your story. I wanted to know where the inspiration came from…”
Mr Finney went quiet.
Forrest was urged to fill the silence. “I—er—just thought it was a bit of an extraordinary coincidence. Thought you might’ve been there yourself, or maybe someone told you about it?”
“Who are you?”
“My name’s Forrest Thomson.”
“Be careful, Mr Thomson.”
“Be careful? Why?”
“Because they made me put my name to that story. Even paid me for it. But I never actually wrote it. That story was nothing to do with me.”
Curiouser and curiouser.
“Who are ‘they’?”
“People you don’t want to be on the wrong side of.”
Forrest felt the hairs on the back of his neck bristle against his shirt collar. “Sir, if I may enquire, do you know who did write I’m Scared?”
Mr Finney had already hung up.
* * *
His leads had gone dry, but Forrest decided that he finally had a good story. Even though he was convinced of something highly suspect going on after the Times Square incident last year, he didn’t think what he had was enough. He wasn’t a journalist either. Numbers were his strength, which is why he was an executive in the accounts department of The New York Times, rather than one its reporters. Still, he had a yearning to do a bit of journalism for the newspaper, and was just waiting for the right story.
This was it.
On a dusty typewriter, he began writing. He included everything—the man in 19th-century clothes getting run over, the mysterious woman he followed to Central Park, the strange rippling on the surface of the reservoir, and the details of his little investigation into I’m Scared.
He also included his own theory about it all: I’m Scared and all of the stories contained within it were true, but were deliberately being disguised as fiction. Rudolph Fentz was real—he was the man Forrest had seen get run over. Captain Hubert V. Rihm was probably real, too, but his existence had been erased as part of the same cover-up. And the woman who disappeared into the Central Park pump house was at the heart of it. Perhaps her people were conducting time travel experiments, and Rudolph Fentz and all the other interviewees in I’m Scared were inadvertent victims of those experiments.
Just as he was finishing the manuscript, Forrest received a knock at the door of his apartment.
He went and looked through the peephole. It was Arthur, the landlord for the building. Forrest opened the door, immediately noticing the forlorn expression on Arthur’s face.
“Arthur, are you o—?”
Another man was there with him in the corridor, Forrest realised. Stood on Arthur’s right, the man—dressed in a long black coat and trilby—had a pistol in his gloved hand, and was pointing it at Arthur’s waist.
“I’m so sorry, Forrest,” Arthur murmured. “He made me bring him up here.”
Forrest felt his chest bulge as he fought for breath. His heartbeat quickened. He addressed his question to the man holding the gun, dread tightening his throat, “W-what’s going on?”
“We need to have a little chat, Forrest,” said the man menacingly. He looked at Arthur. “You may go, but remember what I said. If you call the police, I will shoot Mr Thomson here and then I will come downstairs and shoot you.”
Arthur made a run for the stairwell at the end of the corridor, stumbling as he did so.
“Shall we?” said the man, shifting his aim to Forrest.
Forrest let him in to his apartment. The man instructed him to pour them both a drink and to sit on the couch in the living room. The man sat in Forrest’s armchair opposite him.
“I want this to be as painless for you as possible,” said the man softly. “What’ll help make that happen is if you tell me exactly who you’ve told about Rudolph Fentz.”
How could these people have traced him so quickly?
The calls. The calls he made. Still, they were fast. Damn fast.
Forrest wasn’t going to hide anything. What was the point? Clearly these were powerful people. “No one,” he said. “I’ve written a story for The New York Times all about it. My first piece of journalism for them. Didn’t want to share it with anyone till the chief editor had seen my article.”
“And where is this article?”
“On my typewriter in my study. Ink’s not even dry.”
“Where is your study?”
“Just down there.” Forrest indicated past the kitchen to the room at the end of the hall.
“Fetch it for me, please.”
The man followed Forrest to his study. Forrest handed the manuscript to him, including the last page that was still in the platen of the typewriter, and they returned to the living room.
The man read it, commenting afterwards, “Quite a theory you have here. You’ve had a busy afternoon. It’s a shame that your theory is just too close for comfort to the truth.”
“So you admit that Rudolph Fentz is a real person? Not just a fictional character invented by Jack Finney?”
The man leaned forwards. He placed his gun on the coffee table in front of him. He would’ve been able to reach it first—there was no point Forrest trying to grab it. Forrest took it as a gesture of politeness more than anything else.
“You seem like a good, reasonable man. And since we both know how this is going to end, I see no reason to bullshit you. As you have determined, I’m Scared is not a work of fiction. The real writer of I’m Scared wrote it not as a short story, but as a statement for the press. He spoke to people and discovered things that were going on in the late 40s, early 50s which the organisation I represent would rather not be generally known. We thought we had tracked down all those who’d experienced strange events in the New York City vicinity around that time. I’m Scared proved that we hadn’t, and both the writer and all the people in the statement became a serious problem for us. Unfortunately, he had already released his statement to the press before we were able to track him down, and versions of his story had already been published in several newspapers.”
The man leaned forwards again, picking up the glass of whiskey Forrest had poured for him, and sipped it.
“We dealt with him—the writer—and all the people in the statement. But we couldn’t delete what was already in the public domain. What we could do was try and rebut it somehow. So we got hold of the original statement and published the whole thing as a short story by Jack Finney. He’d already written short stories about time travel for Collier’s, so he seemed like an apt choice. That way people would believe the stories about Rudolph Fentz and the others came from him.”
“Apart from the people who were actually there,” Forrest pointed out, “like me.”
“Indeed, but you were the only one we didn’t know about. Everyone else gave statements at the time, so we were able to track them down. You didn’t.”
That’s because Forrest was saving it for the New York Times story he’d just written—which now wouldn’t see the light of day.
At least he bought himself a year.
“So are you going to tell me the truth of what’s been going on in this city?” Forrest asked. It was worth a try.
The man paused. He looked again at Forrest’s manuscript for The New York Times. “You’ve pretty much hit the nail on the head in this, but I see no harm, at this point, in giving you the full picture. It’s the least I can do.”
Forrest shivered. “I’m listening.”
“My organisation has a facility at the bottom of the Central Park Reservoir. It’s one of several throughout the world. As we speak, our scientists are conducting experiments there. They are trying to make time travel possible. The experiments are in their infancy and we’re a long way from success. Long story short, there have been some… problems. Accidents. We believe that some of the experiments created instabilities in time throughout the city and beyond it, causing certain people and things to become displaced. But what’s important is that everything is under control again. Our hope is that there will be no further incidents.”
Forrest downed the rest of his whiskey and poured another. Having his theory verified felt good, even if nothing else did.
“Would you permit me to make myself a peanut butter and jelly sandwich?” he asked, swallowing hard, knowing that he didn’t have long left.
The man smiled. “Of course.”
As Forrest ate and drank, polishing off a whole bottle of whiskey, he chatted with the man about unrelated things: his job at The New York Times, his travels to London, his ex-girlfriend Jeannie. And the man shared a few tales, too: his own travels, his son starting college, his wife being pregnant with a new baby.
And after Forrest had finished his sandwich and the dregs of his whiskey, the man said quietly, “It’s time,” and Forrest nodded.
Then the man picked up his gun, stood up, and shot Forrest in the head.
C.R. Berry is a British author with designs on building his own time machine. Till then, he’s making do with time travelling through his books. His other preoccupation is with mysteries, urban legends and conspiracy theories, which is why his forthcoming novel, Million Eyes, is a time travel/mystery/conspiracy mash-up. Think Doctor Who meets The Da Vinci Code meets 24. He’s also working on a series of loosely linked short stories set in the Million Eyes universe. Who is Rudolph Fentz? is one of those stories.
The Million Eyes short stories have been published in Phantaxis, Suspense Magazine, Scribble, Tigershark and Metamorphose. Berry has been shortlisted in the Aeon Award Contest, highly commended by Writers’ Forum, and won 3rd prize in Scribble‘s quarterly competition. He also won 2nd prize with an unrelated story (about a turkey with mental health issues — yes, you read that right) in the To Hull and Back Humorous Short Story Competition.
You can follow C.R. Berry on his website (crberryauthor.wordpress.com) and get his take on government cover-ups, unsolved murders, UFOs, monsters, ghosts and curses. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook(@CRBerry1).
If you enjoyed Who is Rudolph Fentz?, leave a comment and let C. R. Berry know.
Read C. R. Berry‘s previously published story below:
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