George Waterson coughs into his fist, shifts the pencils around on his desk, then looks at the young man who’s just sat down in the chair in front of him.
“So,” he says in his friendly, interested voice, “Why do you want to kill Hitler?”
The young man, who his schedule says is Barney Melville, radiates anger. His fists are clenched tight, and when he’s not speaking his jaw is firmly set, as if he’s on the verge of screaming obscenities. He stares with a frightening intensity, in the way that a tiger stares at its prey right before it pounces. If it weren’t for his demeanor, Barney would look pretty much like any other young adult looking to make a good impression; his hair is clean and crew cut, and he’s dressed in a white button down shirt that’s tucked firmly into his jeans. His face is unremarkable; the eyes are a little too far apart, his lips a little too big, and he has acne scars on his cheeks.
“Hitler is the most evil man to have ever lived.” Barney says this as a challenge, which means that he’s already had this conversation with other people, or maybe just on the message boards. George is in his 40s, and long ago stopped engaging in the digital sphere, but from time to time he has peeked at what people are saying, if only to gauge what sort of business will be coming his way. These online people make lists, counterlists, and charts, trying to pinpoint where the greatest leverage can be performed with the smallest amount of effort.
“I see,” says George lightly. He grabs a peppermint from the dish on his desk, and looks at Barney questioningly to see if he would like one. Barney glares at him, so George gives a shrug and leans back in his ergonomic chair. He pulls the ends of the cellophane wrapper, making the peppermint spin until it’s loose. George takes the red and white candy out, puts the wrapper into a small garbage can he keeps under his desk, and plops the peppermint into his mouth.
“Well then, have you given much thought as to how you’re going to do it? Most people favor exterminating him in his bohemian period in Vienna, simply because there’s absolutely nothing in the way of security. And of course if you time it right you can also avert the first World War.” George says this casually, the peppermint sequestered in his cheek, but a small part of him still cringes at the thought of helping someone commit murder, even after all these years.
“But he hadn’t done anything yet,” says Barney in his clipped voice. “The police aren’t allowed to convict us for crimes that we haven’t done yet, so why should I be?”
George briefly pauses to wonder if this is an honest question, or merely a conversational gambit so that the boy can get some kind of justification. “Well, by the time he’s done something worth killing over, it’s likely too late. And while the police might not be able to arrest you for future crimes, they can at least warn the victim so that the murder never happens.” George pauses, and looks Barney over. “Of course, in one of those splinter universes, it did happen, else we wouldn’t have heard about it, and I suppose for some murderers that’s enough. At any rate, you were asking why it’s okay for us to send people back to kill Hitler for his as yet uncommitted crimes. In truth, it’s really not, but you would be acting as an independent agent, unauthorized by Castle Corp. It’s important from a legal standpoint that I make that clear.”
“So you’ll send people back,” says Barney. “And claim that whatever they do is no fault of yours.” His face seems slightly flushed.
“We never send them back to within our own history. From our perspective, it’s as if they disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again. Of course we can’t have people from our future constantly coming back to kill the president or what have you.” George’s peppermint is down to a small sticky sliver in his mouth. “Now, are you sure that you’d like to go through with this? I understand most of this information is available online, but I’m a big believer in the power of face to face contact.”
Barney shifts around in his seat, looking less sure of himself than when he first came in. “Do you think I should do it? Kill Hitler, I mean?”
George pushes the dish of mints forward and asks Barney if he would like one before taking another for himself. “Well now, that depends. First you have to ask yourself why you would actually be doing it. Sure, it’s fine to say that he’s evil and such, but Hitler already died. Going back to kill him – and I’ve sent hundreds to go do it – is really more about revenge to my mind than anything else. If that’s what you want … ” George gives a small shrug.
Barney’s face is set now. “Yes. I think that’s what I would like.” Then he pulls something from his pocket, and it takes George a moment to realize that it’s a gun. His first reaction is not terror but confusion.
“Don’t talk,” says Barney. “The time for talking is over. Do you have any idea why I’m pointing a gun at you?” His fingers are white from being clenched so tight around the grip, his eyes wild. He’s breathing heavily, his nostrils flaring out, loud enough for George to hear it.
“N-no,” he replies quickly. Now the terror is setting in, and George grips the sides of his chair so that he won’t do something foolish like going for the phone. Earlier in the century he’d fought in the Iraq War, but that had been as a UAV pilot, and he’d never seen any actual combat. Since then he’d gained sixty pounds and a chin, and lost most of his hair.
“Let me tell you a story then,” replies Barney, having returned to the fullness of rage that he’d had when he first came into the office. His hand, the one holding the gun, is shaking slightly, and sweat is beading on his forehead. “Somewhere out there, in one of those splinter universes, I’m not here. And you go home early because of that, but you stop at a bar beforehand. For whatever reason, you don’t let auto control take over. Maybe you like the feeling of driving, the wind on your face as you turn the steering wheel. I don’t know. What I do know is that you run a red light and hit another car, killing the mother and father and injuring the girl, who dies three weeks later. The boy is spared, but he has scars.” Barney unbuttons his shirt to reveal ugly lines across his chest. “He was only six.”
George is crying now, and utterly terrified. “P-please,” he says, “I-I have a wife and daughter. Please, let me just go home, I won’t stop along the way, your family will be – will be fine.”
Barney stares at him for a moment, the gun wavering. “Two things. First, I killed your wife and daughter five hours ago.”
“No!” screams George. He feels like his soul is on fire, as if someone took the part of his brain responsible for emotion into their fist and gave a hard squeeze. “Why?! They didn’t do anything!” Some small part of his brain, the part that’s still capable for rational thought, hopes that someone will hear and come running through the door to save him.
“Second, you were right, it’s not about changing the future, it’s about revenge.”
The first bullet hits George on the collarbone, the second in his chest, and Barney continues to pull the trigger until the clip is empty. George’s shirt soaks through with blood almost at once, and he dies without having the breath to utter another word. Barney is still sitting in the chair, his gun in hand, staring at the dead body, when the police arrive later.