The Butterfly’s Wing (Part 3)

July 13, 2012 § 2 Comments

Karlsplatz Station (Otto Wagner, 1894-1902)

(For Part 2, go here)

Jessica stared at him, waiting for the punch line. But none came. In the face of his unaltered expression she dissolved into the incredulous laughter of someone who has been asked to believe one too many impossible things before breakfast.

‘I suppose next you’re going to tell me you have a bridge you want to sell?’ she gasped, struggling to rein herself in and torn between disbelief, anger that the professor should have taken her for a fool and more than a little fear that she had found herself in the company of a madman. The rudeness of her reaction hit her belatedly and the first blush was overlaid with another fiercer one.

Yet when she dared meet Schmetterling’s eyes he hadn’t flinched, was gazing at her with the same disconcerting equanimity. ‘Oh no,’ he replied. ‘No, Miss Rosen. I assure you I mean every word I say. I can indeed show you the Vienna you wish to see. No unwanted bridges included.’

Jessica grimly bit down on another paroxysm of laughter threatening to shake her. ‘I knew it! The music professor business is a front. You’re a mad scientist. Have you got your time machine parked out back?’

This time one corner of Schmetterling’s thin mouth quirked into something resembling a lopsided smile. ‘I’m not a scientist, no. But it wouldn’t be the first time someone has called me mad.’

Something in his half-smile inspired an answering one and made her lower her guard in spite of her better judgment. ‘Okay,’ she found herself nodding, ‘suppose I believe you – and I don’t, I really don’t – how does this work?’

‘It’s very simple.’ The professor propped his hands on the pile of music. ‘If you choose to take my offer, you’ll meet me in front of the old Karlsplatz station tonight just before midnight. I will take you back to the day and year of your choosing. No machine involved, although I’ve been told the method of travel is bothersome to those who suffer from vertigo. You will have a week to spend in Vienna as you please, at the end of which I will meet you at the same spot and bring you back to the present. Only a single night in our time will have passed.’

Jessica found curiosity getting the better of her doubt and distrust. ‘That’s it? No strings attached?’

‘Oh yes,’ Schmetterling murmured, almost as if to himself, ‘of course, there is one condition which, if broken, will prevent you from returning to the present.’

‘What?’

He lifted one eyebrow again. ‘That, my dear, would be telling.’

‘That’s hardly fair!’ she protested. She wasn’t entirely surprised to meet with maddening silence and a half-smirk. ‘Look, I can behave myself in the past. I’m hardly likely to do something stupid like bring my computer back with me, am I?’ A shrug from the professor. He clearly wasn’t going to give anything away so easily. Was it worth the risk of not knowing what condition she might break?

‘Well then. Now that you know the rules, what date will you choose?’ he asked.

Jessica did some quick mental calculations. ‘I want to go back exactly ninety-six years from today.’

‘Let’s see,’ Schmetterling mused, ‘The first of March, 1914… that gets you here just ahead of the start of the war. Of course, that means you miss Mahler by three years. And Freud and Jung are no longer on speaking terms by this point.’

‘That’s all right,’ Jessica countered, ‘Schiele is the main thing. 1914 was one of the most interesting years of his career. That, and just… seeing Vienna on the brink.’

‘The last blaze of glory before the deluge, eh?’ She nodded.

‘Oh – one practical question.’ She fought down the niggling voice in her head that was cautioning her against getting carried away. ‘Where am I going to stay in 1914 Vienna? I don’t really relish the thought of sleeping on a park bench, and I know all too well what used to happen to women who did.’

‘The flat you’re staying in used to be a hotel. There will be a room booked in your name,’ Schmetterling replied.

‘How convenient.’ No sooner had the words left Jessica’s lips than a chill ran up her spine. How did he know where I’m staying? ‘Glad that’s settled,’ she continued, fighting to strangle the panic she felt and play it cool. ‘I’ll see you on the Karlsplatz later. Or maybe not. I have some thinking to do.’

The professor turned his thin half-smile on her again, his nearly colourless eyes glinting. ‘In that case, until later. Or maybe not.’ He reached into his pocket. ‘Here’s my card.’

She took the card and turned it over, unsurprised to see that it contained no address, no phone number, no contact information of any kind – simply ‘Professor Karl-Franz Schmetterling’ printed in immaculate copperplate on a black-edged square of thick laid paper. How very like him.

‘Right,’ she mumbled, pocketing the card and rising to her feet, her brain in a turmoil that put that of her morning at the Albertina in the shade. When she bent to hoist her bag, she found the professor once again bent over his music as if lost to the world. She swung it over her shoulder and strode off, a slight stumble in her step betraying her confusion.

When she went to the till to pay, she was told that her bill had already been settled.

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