I first met Robert Johnson while I was sat eating a hot dog outside a bar in Berlin and trying to get the waiter’s attention. Neal and I were discussing his recent escape from a secret Russian laboratory. I was questioning his being there while I worked on the floor above with no knowledge of his capture.
Coincidence, he said.
I don’t believe that, I said.
The world is built on coincidence, said Neal, smoking a Montecristo Relentless. The human brain tries to find patterns in everything, it’s part of our survival reflex.
Don’t waft that cigar at me, I said. Give me an answer that means something.
I’m not sure I have one. You, on the other hand, must have.
I was experimenting, helping out, looking for future plot devices. I was also thinking of busting out those hamsters.
Are you going to finish that hotdog?
I am, in my own time. I motioned the waiter for two coffees.
I don’t understand that motion, said the waiter.
Two coffees, I said.
That’s not how you motion for two coffees, said the waiter. He went inside.
Why did they have you locked up? I asked Neal.
Experiments, he said.
I waited. A busker was setting up nearby.
That busker looks familiar, said Neal.
You’re being evasive, I said.
All right, he said. They were taking my blood because I have a rare blood type that causes the walls between realities to thin. They were trying to punch through to the Dream Archipelago. It’s all sweet, though. You and Alice rescued me before they could figure out how to do it.
That’s a lot to take in, I said. I hope this busker is good.
Knowing your luck, said Neal, he will be.
He was. The way he played that guitar made me phase in and out of my current timeline. I was simultaneously sat at the same bar in the seventeenth century, nineteenth century, the following Tuesday and a week last August. It was a pleasant feeling, but one I knew I had to control before I bumped into someone with whom I was familiar. Dimensional shifting can get you in all sorts of trouble, and there were a few people in Berlin I owed favours that I wasn’t ready to pay.
You feel that? I asked Neal as the busker finished his song.
Oh yeah, said Neal, a smile on his face, I love a good phase-shift.
Excuse me, I said, beckoning the busker over. What was that song?
Excuse me right back, sirs, said the guitarist. That was Crossroads Blues, I recorded it in 1936 for Ernie Oertle.
Play it again, Bob, said Neal, handing the man a couple of shiny Neapolitan piastras.
You know this guy? I asked Neal.
No, said Neal. I listened. Isn’t that right, Bob?
He’s a sharp one, the man said to me. I’m Robert Johnson, and I’m pleased to meet you. He shook both our hands. His fingers were long and thin, stretched like a tall tale from a confident comedian, and I swear he had an extra knuckle on each digit. After sliding the two silver coins into a pocket he began the song anew, and the pleasant feeling of phasing guided us through centuries, one note we were surrounded by the deepest of forests, another note and the people around us swam against gravity. As the song finished, the pleasant feeling left, and for one long, sorrowful note the world around us was torn aflame, the sky shadowed by a creature with skin that writhed and bulged with preternatural forms, as if pregnant with the madness inherent in noisome minds. That moment tasted of inevitable death.
The song finished. The waiter arrived with our coffees.
What took you? asked Neal.
My apologies, said the waiter. I thought for a moment you had left.
I wiped at my brow with a napkin. My hands were shaking. The vision of the beast flickered in my mind. We did, I said under my breath. I turned to Robert. Sir, I think we may have use for your talents in the future. I gave him my card. Keep that on you, I’ll find you when the time comes.
No, sir, said Robert, bowing to both myself and Neal. When the time comes, I’ll find you.
Looks like we’ve just recruited ourselves a nice little deus ex machina, said Neal. Join us, Bob. And, let’s make these coffees Irish, I have a feeling we have a lot to talk about and my tongue needs a touch of lubrication.
Robert sat down, the waiter brought a third coffee, and Neal poured generous amounts of Glenfiddich in each. We lifted our cups.
To the coming night, said Robert. There was a hint of octarine in the air as our cups touched, and we’ve been friends ever since.