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Due North

By Katya Kolmakov All Rights Reserved ©

Humor / Romance

What's in the Box?

The neat labels on the box - one meticulously glued to the lid, and another in a pretty, vignette decorated frame on the front - say John Crispin Thorne I, and Etta pauses before opening it, feeling as if she were intruding.

“What’s in the box?” a soft whisper comes from around her shoulder; and she jumps up like a cat presented with a cucumber. She’s never tried this cruelty with Mr. Thornton, but according to YouTube videos, cucumbers are cats’ natural enemy.

Etta whips her head, and sees Officer Thorne - 90% non-transparent - lean over her shoulder and study the label.

“What are you doing here?” she hisses. “And I properly don’t understand what the pattern of your appearances is.”

“I am just as confused, Ms. Ryan. Nonetheless, I believe you need to open the box.” He smiles, giving her a cheeky look from the corner of his eye. Rassilon help her, he’s so fit! And charming! Unlike some unmentionable descendants of his.

Etta exhales and takes the lid off.

Inside there are envelopes, no less OCD labelled, with papers, and photographs, and personal letters; sorted out by kind, and by date. Etta is ready to open the first one, but then freezes.

“Wait… It feels wrong,” she whispers, and turns, as much as bumping her nose into the 90% corporeal nose of Officer Thorne. “These are yours. From your future… What if you see something you aren’t supposed to? I mean, the time and space continuum might implode.” Let’s face it, she’s only using long words to impress Officer Thorne. She might have lost most of her lust for him; but he’s still a six foot four tall, dashing navy officer, and she knows how well he kisses.

“Then I assume you should refrain from opening any of these in front of me. Except this one...” His large masculine hand goes over her shoulder; and a long finger points at a large, dark orange envelope.

The words For Etta written on it create an equivalent of a Guy Fawkes Night in the librarian’s head, and she gulps loudly.

“Timey wimey indeed...” she mutters and opens the envelope.

Inside she finds three objects. A folded piece of paper, a vintage silver ring with some greenish-yellowish stone, and a smaller white envelope that says Open after E. on it. Etta flips it and sees that it’s sealed.

She inspects the ring next. It is small, size five, not bigger, and would fit her perfectly, to be honest.

“It is fire opal,” Officer Thorne notes. “Fascinating gem. It is of the same colour as your eyes, Ms Ryan,” the rascal adds in a flirty tone, and Etta swoons.

She reminds herself she needs to concentrate, and opens the folded paper. On it, she sees the following words inked in the same neat handwriting as she sees on the box:

Etta’s To-Do List:

A. 2049531769

I hate to hear you talk about all women as if they were fine ladies instead of rational creatures. None of us want to be in calm waters all our lives.

B. 36-37 18

He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began.

C. 0347

Moonlight drowns out all but the brightest stars.

D. 49.737 -95.2069

Look back at me.

E. 010000100110010100100000011100110111010101110010011001 010010000001110100011011110010000001100100011100100110 100101101110011010110010000001111001011011110111010101 110010001000000100111101110110011000010110110001110100 01101001011011100110010100101110


The to-do list is followed up with the note:

Dearest Etta,

Please, follow the steps above, one after another. We are certain that you do not need to be warned to keep your assignment secret, especially from Young John. Worry not, you will guess the right moment for each clue. We have the utmost faith in you. And please, be assured, it is all for your own good.

Yours sincerely,

Mr J.C. and Mrs L. Thorne

“Oh, my beloved Linnet!” Officer Thorne hollers into Etta’s ear. “It must be my love’s hand, since this is not my handwriting.”

Etta is getting a headache. If he tries to kiss the paper - his eyes are suspiciously shiny - Etta is going to exorcise the plonker.

“Listen,” she whispers. “I’ve wasted quite a lot of money on this trip; I had to endure your brute of a descendant, and a suicidal squirrel! I’m not going on a bloody treasure hunt led by quotes from classical literature!”

“Oh, do I understand it right, these clues do make sense to you?” the ghost asks gleefully. Is he thick, or selectively deaf?

“Yes, they do,” Etta grumbles. “It’s Austen; and Tolstoy; and Gaskell, but weirdly enough, the BBC mini-series, and not the original, since there's no ‘look back at me’ in the book, except in the Griffin’s quote...” Etta grabs handfuls of her ginger curls. “And Tolkien; and I think the numbers in the last part are a binary code...”

Officer Thorne’s eyes are glassy; he clearly lost her couple minutes ago; and now he’s just adoringly staring at the lines drawn by his beloved’s hand. Etta is starting to think that all these years she had been wrong about the harlequin novel protagonists: this level of soppiness isn’t romantic. It’s irritating beyond measure! Etta snaps her fingers in front of the 90% corporeal nose.

“Once again, sir, I’m not going to let your future self and this Linnet of yours...” She doesn’t finish her thought as some door bangs nearby, and Farmer Thorne storms into the kitchen.

“Your time’s up, Miss…” The git has clearly forgotten her name, and Etta bristles. The glacial eyes glare at her from the fur. “Thank you, and goodbye.”

Etta has the choice between sending him where the Sun don’t shine - as the Bard so eloquently put it - and storming out of here, leaving the ridiculous Packard adventure behind; or she could stuff the envelope - after all, it’s addressed to her - in her pocket, and let a time traveller and his not yet discovered paramour send her on a wild goose chase.

Or she can just tell the beetroot loving git everything, and see him squirm. She has the proof! Off with the secrecy! Why does she have to deal with this alone?! She’ll show him the envelope, and the note, and...

“Listen, missy. I’m going to have... guests in ten minutes, and I don’t need some limey here for that. So off you go!” he snarls, and Etta’s eyes boggle. She knew he was a prick, but that is too much even for him!

Etta opens her mouth to tell him what she thinks about him, but then the front door bangs; and a male voice calls to the yeti.

Etta can’t be sure, since she doesn’t see much of his face - with the giant black beard, and the disheveled mane - but it seems Farmer Thorne grows pale like a Victorian heroine.

“Dang it,” he rasps.

“Mr. Thorne, are you here?”

Contrary to Etta’s initial suspicion that the ‘guest’ would be female - and most likely a slag - the person coming into the kitchen is anything but. It is most assuredly a lawyer, or an accountant. The dull suit, the oversized briefcase, the unhealthy complexion of a desk slave - all signs are present.

“Mr. Thorne, I have all the papers prepared, and I thought we could...” the mournful voice of the newcomer dies out, and he stares at Etta. Farmer Yeti groans.

“Mr. Toews, this is...” he starts, and then freezes. Right, he doesn’t remember her name.

“Etta Ryan, London State Library,” Etta introduces herself, with a wild smile, and shakes the oyster like hand of Mr. Toews, clearly a lawyer or an accountant.

“But… Um...” The man’s skin grows even more prominently ashen. “We didn’t expect another contestant... An heir, I mean... Regarding the finances... I mean, we didn’t take that into account. I mean, your ancestor had clearly passed her rights to all other children of Mrs. Thorne, biological or adopted, but… I mean...”

He tangles in his words, and Etta and the farmer are staring at him.

“Mr. Toews, are you drunk?” Farmer Thorne growls. “She isn’t anyone’s heir. She’s just here for old letters.”

The little Mr. Toews mumbles, shifts, and then squeaks, “Ms. Ryan here is clearly a descendant of Mrs. Linnet Thorne, née Murphy. They are practically the same face. I mean, look at the photos!”

And then he jerks an envelope out of the box open on the table, and pulls out a wedding photo.

Etta's staring at the woman who 90% looks like her, in an Edwardian wedding dress, photographed happily smiling, her shoulder pressed into the arm of the British navy officer, whose 90% corporeal spirit is currently gawking at her from the corner of the kitchen.

Etta isn’t feeling well.

“What? No! What? No!” Etta realises that she sounds like that old VHS of Tarka the Otter that she had as a child, but she can’t help it. “Give this to me!”

She grabs the photo, and stares.

There’s no doubt. The man in it is indeed one John Crispin Thorne I. She holds it up and compares to the projection currently awkwardly shifting between its feet by Farmer Thorne’s immaculately cleaned sink. Seriously, how’s everything so scrubbed and tidy in this house?

Etta then studies the woman. And the realisation dawns.

“Etty… She’s my Gran Etty.” She raises astonished eyes at Farmer Thorne. He’s glaring at her, but by now she’s accepted that’s his permanent expression. “My great grandmother’s name was Lizzy Murphy. She had a twin sister, who moved to Canada after marrying a naval officer. I was named after her...”

“If you’re here for some inheritance or something, you’re wasting your time. You might as well go back to where you came from,” Farmer Thorne barks. Etta is still staring at the photo.

“Miss Ryan,” the timid Mr. Towes chimes in, “Mr. Thorne here is right… There’s nothing left of the inheritance. I mean, unless you’re interested in paying off the part of the debt...” And then Mr. Towes emits a strange noise that mostly reminds Etta of those baby goats she saw in a petting zoo where she took her nieces. Apparently, that was the accountant’s - or lawyer’s - understanding of a joke.

“I’m not here for any money,” Etta says firmly, and returns the photo to Mr. Towes. “It’s just an astonishing coincidence.”

Farmer Thorne’s menacing snarl and Mr. Toews’ twitching eye clearly signify that the men don’t believe her.

“I think you should leave, Miss Ryan,” the farmer grits through his teeth, and Etta realises she’s had quite enough.

She’s ready to make her regal exit, when her eyes drop onto the envelope. She, of course, could tell all this mystery and the intruding ancestors to go to hell - but then she sees Officer Thorne’s worried eyes, and she sighs.

The oldest trick in woman’s arsenal works like charm. She starts pushing her mobile into her handbag, discreetly unzipping the cosmetic bag inside, and then drops the whole thing making sure tampons and make up roll all over the table, while the waiver forms she downloaded from the net scatter among the content of the box. The men predictably refrain from helping her. She picks up her belongings and the envelope; and stuffing it all in her handbag, she start backing off towards the door, mumbling her goodbyes. Mr. Toews is eyeing her suspiciously, with his twitching optical organ, while Farmer Yeti has rudely turned his back to her and is pouring himself more of the lava he calls coffee.

Only when she gallops out of the farm’s gate, she finally takes a deep breath in.

In her hotel Etta orders some room service - she decides she needs to indulge to reimburse herself for all the unnerving kerfuffle - and she places the objects from the envelope on her bed.

Predictably, Officer Thorne, whom she had left in the kitchen of his descendant, materializes, and sits on the bed near her.

“I feel I have to apologize for my great grandson’s behaviour.” Until he starts looking at her with the sincere sympathy, and patting her hand with his 80% corporeal one, Etta doesn’t realize how upset she is. Now, she sniffles, and sighs.

“That was indeed very unpleasant. But I realize, he’s clearly in some sort of financial difficulties.”

“Indeed,” Officer Thorne nods mournfully. “I stayed behind and listened to his conversation with the barrister. Mr. Thorne will lose his farm in the next two months. Apparently, his previous business solutions - namely, going for something called ‘organic certification’ - have rendered his enterprise without profit.”

“Great. The bloke is a hipster. Organic beetroot, and manure, no doubts,” Etta mutters venomously.” She sees confusion written on the officer’s face. “Nevermind. So, your Linnet is my great grandmother’s sister.”

He smiles to her widely. She has to say she expected to be upset, since this discovery moved him into the relative category, and now definitely any thought of a hanky-panky seems grotty - but she is surprisingly OK with it.

“So, I suppose that explains what you’re doing here. I’m supposed to help my wonderful relative and your great grandson somehow. And you will go back to your time, meet Gran Etty, marry her, and leave these instructions to me...” Etta’s head spins a bit from all this timey-wimey stuff, but she’s managing. After all, she is a Whovian, and watched all seasons of The Quantum Leap.

She then notices that the officer isn’t listening to her. His eyes went glassy and dreamy at ‘meet Etty and marry her.’ He’s lucky he’s so pretty. There’s an obvious shortage of grey cells in that noggin of his.

Etta is on her own here. She sighs and goes back to studying her instructions.

Just as she was told, she starts with the first point in the list. 2049531769, after a quick Google search, turns out to be a phone number in Winnipeg, belonging to a bridal shop. The quote is from Persuasion, Etta’s favourite Austen’s novel. Etta chews at her bottom lip, and decides that a trip to town is due.

Etta immediately takes quite a heartfelt towards the town. The first thing she notices is that it’s extremely clean. And green. Except for the main street, called Portage Avenue, every other street has trees, and tiny parks; and five minute walk away from the bridal shop that Etta nonchalantly passed - screwing her eyes at it and pretending to text - right in the middle of the city, there's a giant park with a strangely looking museum, two rivers, and an adorable market in an old train terminal building. Three hours later, her hands full of a maple syrup bottle, a stuffed moose and a beaver, and an assortment of maple syrup lollies - all for her nieces, of course! - and with her stomach full of pancakes - apparently, they are eaten 24 hours a day here - Etta remembers that she isn’t here on vacation.

Etta buys a city guide book, making a mental note to study it in the evening and return to this clean and peaceful tourist paradise the next day, she heads towards the shop.

She pushes the door; the bell rings - and she smashes into the wide chest of Farmer Thorne.

At least she thinks she does, since when she lifts her eyes and looks at him, her brain experiences a complete shut down.

His hair is cut and professionally styled, reaching his jaw, and curling behind his ears, like on a Dolce and Gabbana model. The beard is trimmed, and looks like a hipster dream come true. He’s dressed in a clean white button-up; the jeans are impeccable, hugging his legs in a spectacle that makes every muscle in Etta’s body shudder in sweet appreciation; and she can finally say that yes, Farmer Thorne has inherited all the best from his naval ancestor, and then picked up about 200% more hotness through generations.

“You!” he growls, and Etta blushes in - as they call it in romance novels - suffocating arousal. Let’s face it, men aren’t the only gender that can forgive a nasty personality for a beautiful pair of legs. In Etta’s case, it would be Farmer Thorne’s glorious muscular chest that makes her see him in quite a different light. “What the hell are you doing here?!”

Etta opens her mouth - with nothing to say, to be honest - and then his mobile rings in his pocket.

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