It was fifty feet tall, and appeared to be made entirely out of smoke. When it spoke, it was with a voice of thunder. "You will bring me the Minotaurs of Doom," it said.
The two humans standing before it had heard this before. The smoke-creature had made the same demand earlier. "I already told you," shouted one of the humans. "One of the Minotaurs disappeared twenty-five years ago. The other one alone won't do you any good!"
"You two are time-travellers. Yes, I know these things. You will fetch both Minotaurs and bring them to me."
"What happens if we don't?"
"I have extended my... I do not know the word in English."
"Arms?" asked one of the humans.
"Tentacles?" suggested the other.
"No!" shouted the smoke-creature, lightning flashing angrily within it.
"Lightning! I have extended my lightning around all of East Galesburg, Illinois! Get me the Minotaurs, or the humans of East Galesburg will die!"
Roughly two miles away, in a pawn shop named Belle Pawn, a man named David Henry sat behind the counter. There were no customers, so he was playing around on the internet. He was looking at photos of the Great Wall of China, and he was very depressed.
A man and a woman came into the shop. They both appeared to be in their early 20s. David had never seen them before.
They were talking to each other as they entered. "I was just kidding when I suggested lightning," said the woman.
"I know," said the man. "So why are we here? What's the plan?"
"We do what the big guy says."
"Uh, I don't like this plan. You know what he'll do with the Minotaurs."
"Yes, but he has hostages. We can't risk anything until he lets them go."
The man sighed, then walked up to the counter. "Excuse me, we're looking for an item we believe is in this shop. It's a little statue about five inches tall."
The woman added, "It's called the Minotaur of Doom."
It didn't help David's depressed mood that the woman had unwittingly reminded him of the biggest mistake he'd ever made. He closed his eyes for a moment and forced himself to try to act pleasant for the customers. "I have that item," he said. "I can show it to you, if you like."
The woman nodded. "Yes. Thank-you."
David led the two people to a glass case built into one wall of the shop. He wondered who these people were. Why would they be looking for that particular item? Perhaps they worked for a college? Do colleges do research into things like that? He wasn't sure, but that sounded right. "Are you from a university?" he asked.
The two customers exchanged glances. "Yes?" said the man tentatively.
By now David had unlocked the case and opened it. He removed a small statue of a man with a bull's head. It appeared to be carved out of a single stone that was tan in color, with bands of darker brown running through it. "There's only two of these in the universe," said David. He meant to say "world", and didn't know why he said "universe" instead.
"May I?" asked the man, reaching for it.
David had to suppress the urge to say, "Be careful with it." He handed it to the man without a word.
"Ooh," said the man. "That's it all right. That's the real thing." He held it out to the woman. "Feel the power in this."
"No thank you," said the woman. To David she said, "May I ask, do you have any idea where the other one of these is?"
David sighed. "No, I do not. It was twenty-five years ago. I had just taken over the business. I was new to the pawn game, and naive. There was an archeological dig near here."
The man handed the statue back to David.
"They were hopelessly underfunded," continued David. "When they found anything good, they would sell it almost immediately to try to make enough money to keep the operation going. Sometimes they sold things a little too quickly. They would sell an item to a museum or a university for very little, and later find out it was worth a lot more. I made the same mistake myself. When the first of these statues was dug up, nobody wanted to buy it. So they brought it to me. I gave them thirty dollars for it."
"Good grief!" said the man.
David chuckled. "Yeah. I put it on that shelf over there and put a price tag of thirty-five dollars on it. It was sold within a week."
"Who bought it?" asked the woman.
"I don't know. I'm the one who sold it, but I don't remember anything about the guy who bought it."
"Do you have the sales records?"
"Not from twenty-five years ago. My wife says I'm too much of a pack-rat. She forces me to throw out any financial records older than five years. I don't think that would help you, anyway. I'm pretty sure he never gave me his name. Anyway, another week later the guy from the dig brought me the second statue. This one." He put the statue down. "I paid him another thirty for it."
David had to take a few deep breaths before continuing. "And then, one day, a collector comes into my shop. He starts telling me I'm pricing everything all wrong. Nothing is worth what I think it's worth. I made a newbie mistake. I priced things based on what I thought they would sell for instead of getting them appraised."
The woman glanced at the price tag attached to the statue. "So you brought in an appraiser?" she asked.
David nodded. "Yes. He told me this statue is worth five thousand dollars."
"The price tag says three thousand."
David looked away. "Yeah. Every ten years it doesn't sell, I knock a thousand dollars off the price."
The man whispered to the woman, "I don't have three thousand dollars."
"Neither do I," she replied.
David heard them clearly--he was standing right next to them. He started to put the statue back into its case. "I understand," he said. "It hasn't sold for this long, it's not--"
"We'll be back tomorrow," said the woman.
David nearly dropped the statue.
"And we'll have the money," added the man. "We just need to run an errand. Don't worry about a thing."
David nearly had a heart attack. He carefully set the statue down.
Twenty-five years earlier, the time vehicle arrived outside the pawn shop.
"So," said the woman, "Your plan is that you will turn out to be the mysterious person who bought the first Minotaur?"
"Pretty much," said the man.
"But what if you weren't? Wouldn't that cause some kind of paradox?"
"You'd be amazed at what the timestream can absorb. You could go back and assassinate Rotenhund..."
"And all that would change is that some guy named Hitler takes his place."
Inside the Belle Pawn, a young man named David Henry sat behind the counter. There were no customers, and he was bored. He flipped idly through the pages of a National Geographic magazine, looking at photos of the Great Wall of China.
A man and a woman came into the shop. They both appeared to be in their early 20s. David had never seen them before.
As they entered, the woman said to the man, "Aren't we going about things backwards? Shouldn't we have gotten the other one first, since we know where it is?"
"We don't have the three thousand yet. I figured that, as long as we're here, we should pick up something that may be valuable in the future. A baseball card, or a record album, or something."
They walked up to the counter, and the woman said, "We're looking for an item that we heard is in your shop. It's a little statue of a minotaur?"
That night after work, David had a date with his girlfriend, Sherry. They had been dating for a quite a while, and even though it was too early to talk about marriage, neither one of them could imagine continuing the rest of their life without the other.
David sat in the diner and stared out the window. He suddenly realized Sherry was talking to him. "What's wrong?" she asked. "You've hardly eaten."
David looked down at his sandwich. There were only two bites taken out of it. He suddenly realized that Sherry had been talking most of the time, but he couldn't remember anything she'd said. "I'm sorry," he said. "I'm just kind of... freaked out."
Sherry reached across the table and took his hand. "Why? What happened?" she asked, concern in her voice.
David turned to her. If he'd been with anyone else at that moment, he would have simply said, "It would sound too crazy. Just forget about it." But Sherry was someone he felt he could share anything with. He reached out and held both of her hands in his. "These two people came into the store today," he said. "A man and a woman. They were... I don't know, they were talking about crazy stuff. They bought the little minotaur statue and then they said they wanted something that would go up in value, like comic books. I told them to try the comic shop down the street."
David struggled with the next part. "Just as they're leaving, I ask them if they want anything else. The man says, 'There is something, but I'll buy it from you in 25 years.' And I said, 'How do you know I'll be here in 25 years?'"
David had to stop for a moment to get his emotions under control. He didn't realize how badly this had shaken him. Sherry sensed his feelings and came around the table to sit next to him.
David continued, "And the man said, 'You will be.' I know that doesn't sound like much, but he said it with such certainty. It's like, he wasn't just guessing, he wasn't.. making a joke or anything... he knew."
He felt tears slip from his eyes. He quickly grabbed a napkin, to hide them more than to wipe them off. He didn't care if Sherry saw him cry, but he didn't want the rest of the diner seeing.
"I'm sorry," he muttered. "I don't know why this is hitting me so hard."
"It's OK," Sherry said softly. She hugged him and rubbed his back. "It's all right."
"It's just that... You know I've always wanted to travel."
"So have I," said Sherry.
"Exactly. You and I are going to see the world together." His eyes were dried off enough that he risked pulling the napkin away. He held his arm out and indicated the rest of the diner, and, by extension, the entire town they lived in. "This place is nice, but I have no desire to spend the rest of my life here."
"I know. I feel the same way."
"But that guy in the shop. He... He really thought I would spend the rest of my life here. No, more than that... He knew it. This all sounds crazy."
"No, it doesn't," said Sherry. "It doesn't sound crazy at all. I can understand why you're upset."
David smiled and hugged her. This was one of the things he loved about Sherry. She really did understand him, even when no-one else in the world did. "Thank-you," he whispered.
"Listen," said Sherry. "I've still got another two years of college to go. How much longer will you be paying for the shop?"
David shrugged. "I don't know. When Mr. Beauregard retired he told me I'd make enough to pay him off in ten years, but at the rate I'm going it'll be more like twenty."
"Well, you just need to sock some away every week," said Sherry. "That's what I'm going to do. And then when we get enough saved up..."
David hugged her again.
"Well, that's not good," Sherry sighed.
"What's wrong?" asked David. He sat on the floor of his apartment, surrounded by notebooks and papers.
"If we cut the guest list in half, our wedding will still cost $12,000."
"What was it before?"
"What? How can we eliminate half the people and still end up paying nearly as much?"
Sherry showed him her notes. "The problem is, most of the costs are the same -- the church, the reception hall, the DJ... The food and a few other things are the only things that actually go down."
David closed his eyes. "We can't afford this."
"I don't know what we're going to do," said Sherry. "We can't elope."
"No, no," said David. "I wouldn't suggest that. And we can't go into debt. I read that couples argue over money more than anything else. We don't want to start out in debt."
They sat in silence a moment.
David sighed. "We could eliminate the honeymoon."
Sherry grimaced. "No. You had your heart set on it. The Alaska cruise. We'll see icebergs up close."
"We'll see icebergs someday," said David. "It can wait. We'll see them together."
Sherry turned away. She desperately tried to think of another solution, but nothing came.
David came up behind her and hugged her. "I'd rather have you than icebergs any day," he whispered.
"All right," said Sherry. "We'll... delay the honeymoon."
"Do you have names picked out?" asked Dr. Thomas.
"Hugo if it's a boy," said Sherry. Another contraction began and she had to stop talking.
"Mary if it's a girl," finished David.
"Grraaahhhhh," said Sherry.
"Hey, how young can a baby be and go on a long trip?" asked David.
"Oh, pretty young," said the doctor. "I wouldn't travel with an infant younger than three months, though. Why, are you planning a trip soon?"
"Well, I don't know," said David. "We've always wanted to travel. We were hoping to maybe see Paris sometime this year."
The doctor thought about that a moment. "If you're bringing a baby in a stroller, you should probably go to Rome."
"Why?" asked Sherry.
"He'll be laying on his back, looking up. You could take him to the Sistine Chapel to look at the ceiling."
"That's brilliant!" said David.
"Oh, my..." said Sherry, as she felt another contraction begin.
"Push, push," said Dr. Thomas.
David closed his eyes. Soon, he heard Dr. Thomas say, "It's Mary!"
Sherry woke up and realized she was alone in the bed. "David?" she called.
She got out of bed and went into the living room. David was sitting up, as if watching TV, but the TV was off. "What's wrong?" she asked. "Let me guess. Now that Mary's gone off to college, the house is too empty and quiet for you to sleep?"
David chuckled. "No, it's not that."
Sherry sat on the couch next to him.
"I was thinking about that guy in the pawn shop," said David. "The one who said I would still be there in twenty-five years. I haven't thought about him in a long time, but lately I've found myself thinking about him more and more. He had such certainty in his voice. I'd shrug it off, but... Well, every since we've gotten married, we've had a few small vacations, but we've never had a real... what's the word... a big trip, an expedition... a cruise or a voyage. We've never left the country. Whenever we try, something always stops us. I'm starting to think that fate... or something... has got it out for us."
Sherry started rubbing his back. "We'll see the world someday. You know we will."
"I know, but now I feel like I'm in a race. There's less than five years to go before the deadline... My big fear is that the same guy will come into the shop again, just to say, 'I told you so.'"
"Come to bed," said Sherry. "You need to sleep. In the morning, we'll figure it out together. I know we'll find a way."
"No, no, it's all right. Really. You and Dad deserve this. This is what you've always wanted. I'll be fine. Don't worry."
Mary listened for a moment longer, then said, "I love you. Talk to you later, Mom."
After she hung up, her roommate, Olivia, said, "What's going on?"
Mary turned to her friend and smiled. "My parents are finally going to take that trip they've always wanted."
Olivia sat up. "I thought you told me they couldn't afford it."
"They're going to sell the pawn shop."
"Yeah, you told me they thought of that already, and it wouldn't be enough."
Mary chuckled. "They're also selling the house."
"What? They can't do that! Where will you live?"
"Here, at college. During summer break I'll get an apartment." She couldn't help smiling. "Wow, talk about thinking outside the box. That was brilliant. My parents are a couple of geniuses."
Olivia was confused. "How long is this trip going to last? Where will they live when it's over?"
"I don't know. But I'm sure they've got it figured out already." She sighed, but it was a whistful, happy sigh. "I'm so happy for them. This is all they've talked about since I was a baby. They're finally doing it."
A man and a woman burst in through the doors of the Belle Pawn. "I've got the money!" the man announced, loudly. "Now let's talk about that Minotaur!"
"I'm sorry? The what?"
The man stopped, crestfallen. There was a different clerk behind the counter. "I'm sorry," said the man. "I was referring to something I was discussing with the clerk who was here yesterday."
"I was the only person working here yesterday," said the clerk. His name was John Marx.
"Oh..." said the man. He and the woman exchanged anxious glances. "Well, we can conduct our business with you."
"We're looking for a little minotaur statue," said the woman. "About this tall, carved from brown stone."
"Oh, that," said John. "I sold that soon after I bought this store. Can you believe the former owner had a price tag of three thousand dollars on it? I marked it down to two hundred bucks and sold it within a month."
The time travellers stared at him, their eyes wide. Finally, the woman managed to gasp, "Thank-you for your time."
As she and the man turned to head out, the clerk called out, "My pleasure to serve you!"
"Now what do we do?" asked the man.
"I guess we do some digging," said the woman. "Figure out when he bought the store. It's going to be a big pain in the--"
As they stepped out of the store, they found themselves standing in the shadow of the smoke creature. "Where are the Minotaurs?" it bellowed, flashing lightning around them.
There wasn't enough time for them to get to their time vehicle. They were going to have to improvise something.
Several thousand miles away, David and Sherry stood atop the Great Wall of China, watching the sun rise.
"We're almost out of money," said Sherry.
"I know," said David. "We have to go home soon."
"We'll be poor, though. We'll have to live as paupers."
David nodded. "I know. But we'll be paupers who've seen the world."
He smiled and hugged her. They were together, in China, on their final expedition. That's all that mattered. They were happy.