The next thing he knew there was a pounding coming from somewhere far off that seemed to be getting closer. Opening his eyes and trying frantically to orient himself, he realized that the pounding was coming from the bedroom door. Just as he began to recall his present circumstances and whereabouts, a harsh voice came through the door.
“Wake up Bertie, you lazy sonofabitch. It’s nearly two-thirty.”
Cautiously Bertie opened one eye. It was full daylight, all right, as he noticed the sun streaming in through the window. “Coming mother,” he called facetiously through the closed door, then sat up, stretched, yawned, cleared his throat and realized that, miraculously, he actually felt rested and reasonably well. He put on his shoes and removed his sweater, leaving it for the moment with his jacket, then plodded obediently to the door and opened it.
Gil was standing there somewhat red in the face from his exertions. “I thought I was going to have to pound on this damn door all day to get your ass out of bed. I knew you were still asleep because I could hear you snoring all the way from my room.”
“Oh, sorry,” said Bertie contritely.
Gil shook his head but continued in a softer tone. “Well, never mind. I suppose the fact that you’ve been through so much lately made you extra tired, right? Anyway, you must be hungry. I’m having a late lunch out on the terrace. Want to join me? I mean, after you’ve had a chance to get yourself together and freshen up a bit.”
“Sure,” said Bertie, “why not? And come to think of it, I am pretty hungry.”
“When you’re finished, just go back out to the living room and look for the sliding patio doors. The terrace is just outside.”
Fifteen minutes later Bertie emerged from the patio doors onto a very luxurious redwood deck, complete with wooden railings, that was about twenty by thirty feet. Gil was sitting at a patio table big enough for four, though at the moment there were only two chairs set around it. On the table was a pile of deli sandwiches—corned beef, pastrami, roast beef, turkey—all on New York corn rye bread and spread thickly with spicy brown mustard. Beside the table on a little cart was a selection of salads and a six-pack of a local pale ale. Bertie sat down in the chair indicated opposite Gil who said, “Help yourself to whatever you see that you want. I hope it’s okay. My cook and housekeeper Mrs. Kamala doesn’t come in on the weekend.”
“Looks great to me,” Gil said hungrily, reaching for a sandwich, a salad, and a beer almost simultaneously. Popping the top with his pocket opener Bertie swallowed a large portion of beer, then with a large portion of sandwich already in his mouth he mumbled, “Tastes great. Uh, who’s Mrs. Kamala?”
“I was hoping deli would be okay,” said Gil. “It’s been a tradition with me ever since the early days with Natalie. Kind of nostalgic, know what I mean?” Then as if pausing to think, “Oh, Mrs. Kamala? She’s a lovely woman, must be a little over sixty now. She’s an immigrant, came over here more than a decade ago—a refugee from the terrible African wars of the twenties. She lost her husband during that regrettable conflict, poor soul, and I found her through an agency shortly after she arrived. She’s a wonder, she is, cooks all kinds of spicy African dishes about three rimes a week.”
“Sounds wonderful,” replied Bertie automatically, busily consuming his second sandwich and a large container of potato salad at practically the same time.
When the lunch was over and the men had each opened another bottle of beer, Gil looked at his watch, frowned, and said, “It’s already after three. We don’t have that much time. So, I’m going to tell you a little bit about why you were brought here and why it’s so important. As you know, you were brought here by the Norns, who obviously are masters of the universe. Space and time are nothing to them. They can appear instantaneously at any time or place they desire.”
Bertie, against his better judgment (for this was too fantastic to contemplate rationally) nevertheless said, “I’m with you so far.” He figured he might as well get all the information possible, even if this were only some incredible extended period of dream hallucination or madness.
“But what you don’t know,” continued Gil, “is why you were brought here. In order to explain to you the seriousness of the situation and the importance of your role in all this, let me say that the Norns, by their own admission, have been controlling things since approximately sometime in the seventeenth century.” He gave a grin and added, “They’re a little vague on this, but I get this from the context of what they say. Oh yes,” he waved a hand at Bertie as if to dispel any doubts he might have, “they’ve visited me maybe a handful of times in the last forty years, usually just to tell me in essence to keep up the good work and sometimes to remind me of the various things I have to do during those times. You—or I—was chosen because of your particular love for films, and you were a perfect candidate because of the dissatisfaction you felt, and still feel, in doing the kind of films that Natalie forces you do.”
Not wanting to show disloyalty, Bertie broke in. “Well, they’re not all really that bad, you know. I thought Running Against the Wind was okay.”
Gil waved his hand again, this time impatiently, as if brushing away a troublesome fly. “Do you remember,” he asked, “when you met the Norns in that hotel, that they said you were a sensitive?”
Gil scratched his head and tried to cast his memory back to right before things had gotten so weird. “Yeah,” he said slowly, “I guess so.”
“What do you think they meant by that?” Gil persisted.
“Well, I thought they just meant I was like one of the only people who could see them.”
At this Gil unaccountably laughed and shook his head. “No,” he said, “they can manifest themselves to anybody they want. They just usually don’t. What you have—what I had—“ he muttered almost to himself, “—is a love for the movies, for the history of films, and…” He grinned at Bertie again. “Now, I don’t want you to get a swelled head, but they were interested in something that you have, that very few potential filmmakers of the 90s have—a unique artistic vision that unfortunately by 1994 you had never had the chance to develop.”
Bertie began to tut-tut modestly, but Gil cut him off. “No, this is all true. Let me give you a little bit of film history between your time and now. The Norns, being all places practically at once anytime they want, had for some peculiar reason known only to them—I never could get them to explain it adequately—a great love of films, of Hollywood, that they had followed in the eighty-some years since movies began to be made seriously. And looking into the future—how else can I put it? words are difficult here—saw that the film industry in the late 90s was about to enter a very regrettable period of decadence, of dumbed-down movies, for uneducated, unintelligent kids. They became predictable, few original films were being made, most were sequels, derivative, things that in the eyes of the Hollywood money men would be sure-fire winners at the box office. The Norns felt that Hollywood and, by extension, themselves, needed a champion, someone who would continue to make daring original, intellectually challenging films, in a venue separate from that of the Hollywood machine. You and Natalie have your own production company and you’ve done well so far. By keeping budgets down you have been able to maximize your profits without the necessity of your films being blockbusters at the box office. This you two will continue to do. They difference being that you will write the scripts, you will make them high-quality, challenging films that will be seen as direct and viable alternatives to the crap Hollywood has been and is putting out. All that clear so far?”
Bertie was with him now. “Sure,” he said, “I’d like nothing better. But how am I going to convince Natalie to let me in effect take over he business?”
“Remember the first movie you saw last night, the first one that you wrote?”
“Yeah, I think it was called Water Over the, uh…”
“Bridge,” Gil supplied. “Water Over the Bridge. You will go back and you will write that script and you will pitch to Natalie in a way that she can’t refuse to finance it. Capeesh?”
Bertie pulled at the collar of his shirt in consternation, almost as if he were wearing a starched collar and tie. “Um, that’s a pretty tall order,” he replied. He was about to say You don’t know Natalie, but then realized how absurd that would sound given the present situation. So he merely left it at that.
Gil however seemed satisfied. “Well,” he said, “I’m glad we had this little talk. Any more questions about what you have to do?”
“I guess not really,” he said. “I just don’t know how I’m going to get back.”
“You’re going to need help,” Gil replied seriously, “and that’s a fact. That’s where that girl you met comes in. As I said last night, you will do whatever it takes to make her both believe you and help you get back. She is after all a lovely woman, is she not?”
“You’ve got that right,” admitted Gil.
“You won’t see me after this afternoon,” Gil said. “My work here is done. Your girlfriend did say for you to call, didn’t she?”
“Yes,” said Gil, “she said she’d give me a ride if I called her before four-thirty.”
In answer Gil pulled a mobile phone out of his pants pocket and handed it across the table to Bertie. “It’s after four now,” he said. “Why don’t you give her a call?”
Bertie shook his head “I don’t even know how to use that thing,” he complained. “And come to think of it, there are some more questions I’ve got. Noreen said she’s got something called, I think, VR, and she’s got something she calls a smartcard and she does stuff on something she calls the web. I have no idea what any of these things are.”
Gil waved a hand at him again dismissively. “Don’t worry about any of that crap,” he said. “This won’t be on the test. You’ll grow into all of this stuff once you go back. You’ll see how things develop. For now,” he pointed to the phone still in Bertie’s hand, “see that green button?”
“Yeah,” said Bertie.
“Push the green button, and if you hear a dial tone push the numbered buttons just like you would on a touch tone phone.”
Bertie did as he said, saying, “With you so far.”
“Now, you should get a sound like a phone ringing. When you do, say your name, just as you did last night into Noreen’s phone.”
“Okay,” said Bertie. He searched in the pockets of his trousers, finally coming up with the slip of paper on which Noreen had written her phone number. He punched the required buttons and when he got a ringing sound said clearly, “Bertie Hallenbeck.” At this a neutral voice said, “Accepted. Please hold for connection.” There was another ring and then Noreen’s voice came through the little speaker loud and clear.
“Bertie,” she said, “I’m so glad you called. Need a ride?”
“Yeah,” he said, “that would be great.”
“No sooner said than done,” she replied. “Pick you up a little before five outside the place I dropped you off last night, right?”
“Sounds great,” he said again. Then remembering something, he said, “Hold on a minute okay?” Instinctively holding the phone away he said to Gil, “Uh, what about tickets for me to get in?”
“No problem,” said Gil, “that’s already arranged for the next two days. Pick them up at the box office just like you did last night.”
Bertie nodded his head, then brought the phone closer to his mouth and said, “Um, it’s okay about the tickets, um, Uncle Gil is paying for them.”
“How nice of him,” responded Noreen. “Is he there with you now?”
“Why, yes he is.”
Noreen’s voice became shy and girlish. “Um, could I, like, say something to him maybe, like how much I like his films and like that?”
“Sure, I guess so.” Bertie looked at Gil and said, “She wants to say hello.”
“My pleasure,” said Gil perfunctorily, holding out his hand for the phone as Bertie gave it to him.
He put the phone to his ear, then said, “Ms. Noreen Warner, I believe. How nice to hear from you.”
“Gosh, Mr. Hall,” she gushed, “wow, I mean, I’m, like, one of your greatest fans. I, like, saw all your films many many times.”
“That’s good to hear,” responded Gil, as if he had had years of practice in saying this. “Do me a favor, will you, hon?”
“Sure thing, Mr. Hall. Anything you want.”
“Be good to Bertie, will you, if you know what I mean?” He practically winked over the phone. “He’s new in town and kind of a fish out of water. He could use some looking after.”
A lascivious note crept into her voice as she replied, “Don’t worry, Mr. Hall. I’ll take real good care of him.”
“That’s all I want to know,” said Gil. “And now I’m going to give you back to Bertie.” Without waiting for a reply he handed the phone back and Bertie said, “Well, I guess I’ll see you in about half an hour or so.”
“Be right there,” she said, “don’t go away.” And then there was a click. Without knowing what else to do, Bertie handed the phone back to Gil, who pressed a button and replaced it in his pocket.
“Okay,” Bertie said, rising from the table and holding out his hand. “I guess I’ll go get ready then.”
By way of reply Gil took his hand and shook it gravely. “Remember your mission,” he said sternly. “Do what you have to do, both to get back and when you get back. The Norns will sense if you become disillusioned or unsure about what you’re doing and they will help you on your way. Now, go get your stuff. One of the rules is, you must take back with you everything you came with and you can take nothing back with you from here. Got that?”
Bertie nodded his head, indicating that he did.
Twenty minutes later he was hurrying out of the building’s entrance and starting down the path. He was half expecting to encounter Bruno the security bot, but the machine was nowhere in sight. Apparently it took no interest in people who were leaving the building, only coming. Unhampered, he strolled out through the gate and stood on the sidewalk. It was a beautiful afternoon, sunny, warm, with just the hint of a fresh sea breeze wafting over him from the west. As he stood here, the thought suddenly flashed into his mind of how, before he learned to drive, Natalie used to come and pick him up and take him to her little apartment in Las Feliz. A sudden wave of emotion overcame him and his eyes teared with the memory of those happier and simpler times. So engrossed was he in his thoughts that he hardly noticed Noreen’s Tesla slowly and noiselessly gliding to a stop only a few yards from where he was standing.