There were a hundred questions on Sam's lips – as usual. The one person in the crowd who may just have some answers for him was the only person he couldn't ask in a crowd – as usual. Sam bit back all the things he wanted to say to Al, knowing that there was no way he could mask his queries in the guise of 'normal' conversation. Nevertheless, he let his eyes and an enigmatic smile tell Al that he was pleased to see him.
Sam bent down, a little awkwardly, his recent excursion having stretched muscles he'd forgotten he possessed. He carefully picked up the ring, the lucky charm and the broken chain, shaking off the snow. Both items of jewelry were engraved, unsurprisingly, with the inscription "To Becky-Lou, Love Always, B-J."
It didn't take even one percent of Dr Beckett's off the scale IQ to work out that these two were childhood sweethearts.
Sam was somewhat alarmed to find that he more than understood the attraction; despite the abuse he'd suffered at her hands. There was something very appealing, almost irresistible about Becky-Lou, with her bright excited eyes, and perfectly proportioned figure, blatantly obvious even under the obligatory thick knitted sweater. Sam desperately hoped it was just a residual of Bobby-Joe's emotions he was feeling. Samuel John Beckett was easily old enough to be Becky Lou's father and he certainly wasn't into cradle snatching. That was more Al's department.
As if reading his friend's mind, or maybe his body language, Al gestured towards the retreating figure with his unlit cigar and commented:
"Spunky little wench, that one. I like her style." He grinned wickedly.
Sam glared daggers. Al had obviously witnessed her performance, and his own squirming humiliation. It was a safe bet that he had every intention of reminding Sam of it at every available opportunity, with his 'how the mighty are fallen' mocking tone. Al could be pretty insufferable at times.
Yet Sam wouldn't have him any other way. Rough diamond he may be, but a true 24-carat gem, nonetheless, as he had proved on countless occasions.
Coach Montgomery saw Sam looking at the broken necklace, glittering with the reflection of sun on snow.
"Give her time, B-J," he advised. "She's only just seen the ambulance take Jill away. She's still in shock."
'She's not the only one.' Thought Sam, nodding, still suffering from what he called PLC – Post Leap-in Confusion. He'd found out who he was this time – a boy named Bobby-Joe Parnell, and where. Closer examination of the numbered bibs, which all the youngsters wore, revealed in gold lettering that this skiing competition was taking place in ALTA, UTAH. (Somewhere east of Salt Lake City.) Okay so far. But that still left when and why. There were not many clues in the immediate environment to help him date this Leap. Except that the absence of designer ski-suits and the predominance of natural fibers over nylon and polyester suggested Early rather than Late. As to why, he wondered if this other casualty held a clue. Who was Jill? Sam threw an enquiring glance at Al, whose fingers were already dancing over the buttons of his com-link, the portable interface that allowed him to access Ziggy's vast databanks. The hologram frowned, and gave the device a hefty thump, as if that would make it yield more - or different - information.
"Meanwhile, get that wrist checked out," ordered the Coach. "The basement should be pretty well clear by now. Then get changed out of those damp clothes before you catch your death."
"Yessir!" replied Sam obediently, following Hank down the last stretch of the mountain, then up a shallow slope to the basement of the Alta Lodge (largest of three) which had been commandeered as a first aid room.
It was more or less empty now, as Hank had predicted, but evidence suggested it had seen more than its fair share of activity in recent hours. Half a dozen toboggans with crumpled blankets were laid out across the floor, which was littered with oddments of bandage and discarded mitts.
The first aid team looked exhausted.
"Quite a day, huh?" Sam commented, as they bound his right wrist in a supporting bandage and slipped it into a protective sling triangulated expertly across his chest and tied firmly at the back of his neck. Luckily, they were tired enough to take his exaggerated self-diagnosis at face value, despite the absence of any discernable swelling.
"You betcha." was all the reply forthcoming. Not many hints there. They dismissed him and set about cleaning up.
Al, as was his wont, started telling Sam what he already knew, as they made their way outside again.
"You're Robert Joseph Parnell, Sam. Known as Bobby-Joe, or B-J. Nearly 18 years old. This guy," he indicated Sam's companion "is your Coach, Hank Montgomery. All the kids in the team just call him Hank. He's a tough taskmaster, but a good friend. B-J says he's very popular, even though they are all a bit in awe of him. He took the bronze in the last Winter Olympics.
Today is Sunday, 30th January 1955 and you've just crashed and burned in the annual Alta Snow Cup, a giant slalom contest designed to pick out the top skiers to qualify for the Olympic try-outs."
Sam's face took on the whipped puppy look. In the space of just a couple of minutes he'd managed to screw up Bobby-Joe's career big time. If there was one thing calculated to torment Dr Beckett's tender soul, it was the thought that he had caused misfortune to another, even unwittingly. And he'd already caused a rift with B-J's long-term girlfriend.
"Boy, I really blew it this time, didn't I?" Sam said plaintively, his shoulders sagging with the weight of his guilt.
"Don't be too hard on yourself, B-J," soothed Hank, as he escorted Sam back to the team dormitories. "It's done now. These things happen. The pressure gets the better of all of us, one time or another."
"He's right, Sam. Don't sweat it. B-J wouldn't have made the squad anyway. He's an also-ran. Rebecca-Louise Carter is the real rising star. Becky-Lou is the reason you're here, Sam."
By now, they had reached the sleeping quarters, and Montgomery opened the door ushering Sam inside. Three sets of bunk beds lined the walls. Battered suitcases and knapsacks were shoved under the beds and atop the huge wardrobe in the corner. Every available inch of space was in use. Thoughtfully, his roommates were currently absent, postponing the need for the usual mental gymnastics of chatting to close friends he'd never met.
"Do you need any help getting changed?" Hank asked, inclining his head to indicate Sam's sling.
"No thanks, Coach. I'm sure I can manage."
"Okay, take it easy. I'll catch you downstairs later, at dinner. And don't worry about Becky. She'll come around when she's had a chance to calm down." He gave Sam a paternal pat on the shoulder.
"I sure hope so." Said Sam sincerely, rubbing his chest in remembered pain, as Hank closed the door behind him.
"Alone at last," sighed Sam, sitting down on the nearest bunk.
Al grinned, "Oh? And what am I then? Chopped salami?"
Sam looked askance at him, and grinned back. "You know perfectly well what I meant, Al. Now, what's it all about? What's your old vade-mecum got to tell me this time?"
"My old WHAT?" Al hated it when Sam inadvertently made him feel ignorant. He'd long ago accepted that his friend, Dr Samuel John Beckett - scholar of six doctorates and an IQ higher than Everest – was smarter than even his closest contemporaries, and a good deal of his conversation often went over Everyone's heads. At least when he recalled all he'd learnt in his vastly accelerated studies. In the days before Leaping had magnafoozled his brain, a fellow scientist had once teased Sam that he must have been the inspiration for Douglas Adams' character of Marvin, the paranoid android.
"You know, Sam, 'Here I am – brain the size of a planet. It gives me a headache just talking down to your level.' It's you to a T!"
Sam had not been amused. It wasn't as if he enjoyed showing off. And he tried his best to be patient when others took forever to grasp what to him were obvious concepts. But he had to admit that being so different from his peers had been a mixed blessing at best. It could be lonely at the top.
Sam and Al had been close friends long enough that they had found a comfortable level of common ground. And it was not as if the Admiral was a slug mentally either – he was way smarter than the average bear. It was only once in a while, like now, when he was caught off guard that Al felt embarrassed by the need to ask for explanations.
Sam had slipped off his sling, and was deftly unlacing his boots with both hands. He looked up and pointed at Al's com-link, which was beeping and flashing true to form.
"Vade-mecum," Sam repeated, in his best schoolmaster's voice, "Through French from the Latin, 'go with me.' It means a handbook or OTHER source of information to which constant reference is made. So refer already."
This last with an affected Yiddish accent and a shaking of upturned palms.
Al chuckled. It was certainly an apt definition.
"Okay, professor, keep your shirt on," he teased in return, deliberately turning his back to give Sam privacy while he changed, and to emphasize the double meaning of his quip. He obediently fiddled with Ziggy's handset, assimilating the data that it fed him.
Sam had rifled through the room just enough to locate B-J's bunk and knapsack. He'd found a pair of green corduroy trousers, a casual green open-neck shirt and a clean woolen sweater – green and white fairisle with stylized pine trees and snowflakes alternating round the yoke. A pair of tennis shoes completed the sporty outfit. B-J was obviously heavily into the so-called chlorophyll craze, which had permeated all aspects of consumerism in the early to mid 50's. From clothes to chewing gum to deodorants, green was the color, long before it became synonymous with ecological sympathizers.
"Very natty, Sam. A trifle OTT, but definitely you." Al commented, sarcastically, surveying the results. (Al, of course, was a true 'Green,' he cared passionately about the pollution of the planet.)
Sam rounded on him, looking him up and down incredulously,
"You can't be serious! Over the top? That's rich, coming from you. Have you taken a good look in the mirror lately?"
Al was renowned for his eccentric taste in apparel. Today, he was sporting – that was the only word for it – a set of jockey silks. The shirt, high collared, had a scarlet background, and was ablaze with purple and blue five pointed stars, outlined in gold, in assorted sizes. The sleeves were blue and purple quartered, split with gold piping, and red cuffs. The jodhpurs were midnight blue, but shimmered purple as the light caught them. It was so loud as to be incalculable in terms of decibels.
"That get-up is a tad outrageous even by your standards, Al," pronounced Sam.
"What? This modest little ensemble?" Al protested innocently, giving a twirl, "This is nothing. I just threw this on earlier when Tina and I were horsing around." He smirked, obviously enjoying the memory even more than the corny joke.
Sam balled the numbered bib and tossed it at him. Naturally, it passed straight through, unhindered by any hint of contact with the insubstantial hologram.
"I cannot believe you just said that, Al. You're incorrigible." They both laughed briefly, and then by unspoken agreement returned to the matter in hand. Al consulted his 'vade-mecum' again.
"You said I was here for Becky-Lou, Al. It's not to improve her right hook, so what's the problem?"
Al sniggered, remembering the spectacle of Sam laid low by the diminutive young woman in question.
"No, Sam. She certainly doesn't need any help in that department. Ziggy says that all the signs pointed to her becoming Olympic Champion by the '60 Winter Games, but she just drops out. After today's race – in which she came a respectable 4th by the way – she never skis again. You've got to find out why, and get her back on track, or she'll spend the rest of her life miserable and unfulfilled."
"I thought you said this was'55. I am not going to be stuck here for the next 5 years!" he swallowed convulsively at the very thought, "Please tell me I'm not, Al." The average Leap lasted a matter of days, weeks at the most.
"Don't panic, kiddo. Ziggy says that won't be necessary. This is a turning point in her life, that's all. Get her straight now and the rest will follow."
Sam was busying himself checking through Bobby-Joe's possessions, trying to build up a picture of his personality. He'd found the lad's diary and was scanning it idly, easily able to give his attention to both that and Al simultaneously. (Once upon a time, Sam would have been appalled at the very suggestion that he could be involved in such an invasion of privacy. Yet Leaping had forced many things upon Sam, and he'd long since learned not to waste his energies feeling guilty about the necessary evils.)
Now Sam slammed the diary shut and stared at Al.
"I hope you're not going to tell me she's hung up her skis because of my little exhibition back there? She seemed pretty rattled." Sam looked horrified at the mere possibility.
"Get real, Sam. She'd decided to quit before you Leaped in, remember?"
Sam relaxed a little. He sometimes had a tendency to get carried away. Over-react. It was hard to keep a sense of perspective when you are being bounced around in time, switching from life to life across all sorts of cultural and social and sexual barriers in the blink of a cosmic clock. He was a living embodiment of the condition described as job related stress.
Now he became business-like again, examining what else they had to go on. He had learned to view every snippet of information as a potential clue. It was all filed away in his photographic memory, stored until it was needed or could be discarded. Or until he Leaped and his memory got Swiss-cheesed again.
"What about this Jill then? Is she part of our team?"
Al planted his cigar firmly in the corner of his mouth and punched a series of buttons on his com-link.
"No, Sam, she's not. Your group – two girls and five boys - including Becky-Lou and you, uh Bobby-Joe, are from a little place called Beersheba Springs, Tennessee. Southern tip of the Appalachian Mountains."
"Oh, terrific," interjected Sam, "I'm a redneck hick from the sticks!"
"What d'you expect, with a name like Bobby-Joe?" teased Al, casting a sideways glance at his friend. "If it makes you feel any better take a look in the mirror."
He indicated the wardrobe, which Sam opened to reveal a large mirror on the inside of the door. He studied the reflection pensively. Anyone who didn't know Dr Samuel Beckett would accuse him of extreme narcissism. Indeed, at times, his compulsion to find a mirror and look at 'himself' bordered on obsession. Conversely, anyone who did know Sam would tell you that nothing could be further from the truth. To Sam, mirror gazing was a surreal experience.
"You're terminally handsome," Al was telling him, "and if you weren't so faithful to the lovely Becky-Lou, you could have your pick, you lucky dog. It seems the girls all think you're some sort of James Dean or something. Next to this ski ace Buek from Soda Springs, who thrills the chicks with his crazy stunts both on the piste and in his Piper Cub, you – Mr. Adonis Parnell - are the numero uno attraction." Al jabbed at his buddy with his cigar and smirked. Some classical allusions were familiar even to him.
The face looking back at Sam bore an embarrassed expression to which it was obviously unaccustomed. Dr Beckett's thoughtful gaze furrowed the brow. Bobby-Joe was almost certainly far more carefree and cock-sure of himself than the older but more bashful man who currently wore his aura. The fresh-faced adolescent certainly had classic good looks. Thick, jet-black hair was slicked back with Jeri's antiseptic hair tonic (as endorsed by one Ronald Reagan 'for greaseless good grooming and healthier, handsomer hair.') in a DA style reminiscent of early Presley. (Now why should that ring bells?) The flawless skin was tanned. Deep set, blue eyes sat astride the fine straight nose. The cheekbones were high, the jaw angular. The teeth were even and very white, the chin strong. A noble face, somehow; open and honest and trustworthy. It was not a prerequisite for Sam to like the people he Leapt into, indeed there had been times when he'd been positively appalled to find himself a lecherous old drunk, or even a mass murderer holding innocent hostages. Yet undeniably it helped if he felt 'simpatico' as Al put it. This face led him to hope that his current host was one of the good guys.
Bobby-Joe was tall and lean, but not scrawny - fit and agile if not overly muscular. The long musicians fingers fitted logically with the presence of the guitar stashed beneath his bunk.
Sam looked hard at Bobby-Joe, and remembered Becky-Lou's passionate affirmation of love. He decided that he was not going to enjoy being a sex symbol and vowed to make his peace with the young lady at the earliest opportunity. A monogamous relationship was infinitely preferable to being a free agent and consequently fair game for every eligible maiden in the vicinity. Well, it was if your name was Sam Beckett, though he knew Al Calavicci would have felt entirely different about the possibilities.
"We digress." Sam announced to Al, deliberately turning his back on the figure in the mirror. "If this Jill's not on our team, what is her connection with Becky-Lou? Who is she, a relative? And why is she in hospital?"
Al cleared his throat. He shifted nervously from one foot to the other.
"According to Ziggy, she's a top skier from Bishop, California. 18 years old. Made the front cover of Sports Illustrated this month. Seems she's Becky-Lou's idol. A sort of role model. B-J tells us she was more thrilled at the prospect of meeting Jill Kinmont than she was at being picked to take part in the race herself."
B-J's frown deepened as something stirred deep in Sam's brain. All trace of his recent jocularity evaporated. Suddenly, his photographic memory snapped into focus, triggered by the name Al had used. He almost yelled at his friend, hardly able to credit the implications.
"Did you say Jill Kinmont? The Jill Kinmont?"
"You telling me you've heard of her, buddy?" Al was taken aback; he hadn't anticipated that particular possibility.
Sam struggled to make some order of the jumble of memories that crowded in on him.
"Must have read about her, I guess." He thought aloud. "As far as I recall, she was L.A. Woman of the Year some time in the sixties. Not as an Olympic skiing champion though." He paused, forehead creased in consternation, chewing his lip pensively. "My God, Al. She was paralyzed. A quadriplegic. And the accident happened…." His voice trailed off with a sharp intake of breath.
Al saw the mental process registering on Sam's face. He had also been fed the information from Ziggy. He finished what Sam couldn't bring himself to vocalize.
"That's right, Sam. Today. January 30th 1955. She wiped out earlier this afternoon. Miss-timed a pre-jump at Corkscrew gully and crashed headlong down the hill at 40mph. She broke her neck, Sam." He spoke very softly, his voice full of regret. He'd hoped to break it to Sam more gently than this, but his friend's unpredictable photographic memory had forced the pace.
Sam had sunk back down onto B-J's bunk. He leant forward, elbows on knees and buried his head in his hands, looking utterly dejected. His companion knew exactly what he was going to say even before he spoke, and looked on sympathetically, knowing he could offer no solace for what ailed Sam.
"Why, Al?" whispered Sam, shaking his head slowly and almost choking on the words, "Why am I too late – again?"
Dr Beckett, temporal wanderer, had come to accept that God or Fate or Whoever or Whatever was pulling his strings, Leaping him around in Time, putting him in situations where he could right a wrong, make the World a better place. Though it was fraught with many difficulties, even dangers; frequently frustrating and though he often yearned to be free to go Home and be himself it was, for the most part, an existence which offered considerable job satisfaction. He'd helped a great many people; done a lot of good; saved a number of lives; made a difference.
Yet it was only a drop in the ocean. If there was indeed a caring deity or such-like presiding over his good deeds, how could 'It' keep plaguing him with near misses like this? Why hadn't 'It' brought him here in time to prevent Jill Kinmont's accident? Surely this was exactly the sort of tragic and unnecessary occurrence that cried out to be remedied? Wasn't this precisely what Leaping was all about?
Al could read all these thoughts in Sam, even without looking at the forlorn expression, the dispirited air. He'd seen it coming. As soon as Ziggy had fed him the data on the Kinmont girl out on the slope Al had known Sam would take it hard. Damned hard. He always did. He couldn't turn his caring on and off like a tap. And Dr Beckett's capacity for caring ran deep. Too deep for his own good. Which was why Albert Calavicci hadn't been in any hurry to acquaint him with the facts. Even a cynical pragmatist such as himself baulked at putting his best friend through Hell.
"It's not fair, Al." Muttered Sam implacably, punching the bed frame with his 'damaged' hand, welcoming the momentary distraction of the pain. Then he sprang to his feet and began pacing the floor, burning off nervous energy, trying to release pent up anger and a strong sense of injustice that had nowhere to go.
Al instinctively stepped back to give him room, but before he could open his mouth to speak Sam put up a restraining hand and snapped at him, his tone laden with bitterness:
"And don't you dare bother giving me that old line about 'some things just aren't meant to be changed'. It's wearing a bit thin, Al."
He was grinding his fist into the palm of his other hand; fingers wrapped round knuckles, jaw set tight.
Al didn't think this was the time to remind Sam of all the good Jill Kinmont-Boothe had done in her life, like teaching Indian kids on the Bishop reservation, when nobody else gave damn about them, a career she would almost certainly never have considered had her profession as a skier not been cut short. That could come later, when he'd calmed down, and could accept the truth of it.
"I'd let you deck me if I thought it would help." Al told him, deliberately stepping back into his path and squaring up, pointing to his chin by way of invitation. For a moment, it looked as if Sam would take him up on his offer. He drew back his arm.
"That's right, strike down the messenger for being the bearer of bad tidings, oh mighty emperor!" deadpan face; toe-to-toe with his friend; unwavering, Al challenged Sam. Their eyes met and locked for a long moment. Al didn't need to say anymore. He shrugged, eyebrows raised. Sam lowered his hand to his side and laughed mirthlessly.
"Thanks, Al. I deserved that."
The mood was broken. Time traveler bomb diffused.