TWENTY-THREE

22 November 1963

The first sensation I felt was heat, a sultriness in the air I was breathing, clogging my lungs. My face felt hot and my clothes were stuck to my skin with perspiration. I tried to open my eyes and was dazzled by the brilliance of the sun. I brought a hand up to my face to shield it from the glare.

The air was humid, as if it had rained earlier, and the moisture brought the scent of the recently mown grass alive in my nostrils. Around me I could hear the chatter of people's voices - excited and loud, raised to be heard above the harsh noise of nearby traffic. Strangely, I thought the voices had American accents. Could the mad theory put to me by the Doctor have actually been correct? Had I somehow been transported across time and space by the thin metal bracelet I was clutching in my hand?

I pulling myself up into a seated position and looked at the surroundings, hardly able to take in what my eyes were seeing. I recognised the location immediately, having looked at dozens of photographs of it while researching my JFK book. I was sitting on the infamous grassy knoll at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. I was at the site of President John F. Kennedy's assassination!

‘This is impossible,’ I muttered to myself as I got up, turning in a slow circle to get a better look around me, trying to get a grasp on the situation. ‘This can't be happening, it just isn't possible.’

I was standing on a gentle grass slope. Before me was Elm Street, which dropped away to my right and disappeared below a four-lane overpass. Already residents of Dallas were gathering on both sides of the street, chattering loudly about seeing the president and his wife. Many of the spectators had brought cameras along and were checking their settings and films were okay. Directly in front of me was a family, two young parents and their children, the infants playful and excited. Their clothes and hairstyles certainly seemed to indicate America of the early 1960s.

To my right a five-foot high wooden picket fence extended up from the concrete overpass, trees casting a canopy of shade over the fence-line. Directly behind me on the grassy slope stood a white stone memorial, built in the shape of a semi-circle. At the two ends of the memorial, where it reached closest to Elm Street, two blocks of the white stone jutted out.

An overweight businessman in his early fifties was clambering up onto one of the blocks, one hand desperately trying to steady himself, the other clutching a Super-8 amateur home-movie camera. A younger woman was doing her best to help him but seemed amused and a little exasperated. ‘Oh, Mr Zapruder!’ she giggled as he nearly lost his glasses.

To the right of the memorial was another group of trees, towered over by a tall red-brick building, seven storeys high. Clearly visible along the top of one side of the building were the words texas school book depository. On the roof stood a giant yellow and red Hertz Rentals sign with a digital clock display built into it. From the clock's black display face the time shone out in red numerals: 12.18.

‘Jesus Christ, it's all real. Twelve minutes. I've got twelve minutes until the first bullet is fired. Until JFK dies,’ I stammered out, my voice choked with emotion. In a few minutes I would be a witness to the most famous murder this century.

I looked up at the gloriously blue sky, a sick feeling in my gut. All my life I had been reading articles and books about this day, listening to interviews with eyewitnesses. Now I was going to see it all for myself. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, a young man celebrating his eighteenth birthday in New Zealand was about to get his first taste of journalism, was about to begin a life-long interest in the killing of JFK. I had come full circle.

I tried to focus on what to do next. Traffic was still rolling down Elm Street as the bystanders gathered. This was the edge of downtown Dallas. The presidential motorcade would come down Main Street towards Dealey Plaza, turning right into Houston Street past the Dallas County Criminal Courts Building. The inmates held in the cells at the courts building would have a grandstand view of the assassination.

Once into Houston, the motorcade would have to brake to make a difficult left-hand turn into Elm Street in front of the Book Depository. That loss of speed would dramatically extend the length of time necessary for the journey down the gently curving Elm Street towards the underpass. The president's open-top limousine and its passengers would be much easier targets for the assassin's bullets I knew must come.

Up on the roof of the Book Depository, the clock display changed to read 12. 21. Less than ten minutes to go. I began walking quickly towards the building, mindful of the Doctor's warning not to attract attention to myself. My clothes and hairstyle were incongruous enough in this time and place, running would only make me more noticeable.

I was nearly at the front steps of the building when a quietly sinister voice stopped me.

‘Mr Stevens? What a pleasure it is to see you again.’

I turned to look at the speaker, already knowing his identity. He was clad in a black suit, black tie and white shirt, carrying a rolled black umbrella, but his eyes flashed with familiar evil, his face was still the same mask of lies and deception masked in a smile.

‘Magister!’

‘Shhh, not so loud, we don't wish to attract attention on today of all days. This is someone else's big moment.’ His thin lips smiled mockingly. ‘I was wondering whether you would accept my invitation. Come now, you hardly thought I would actually let Cleary leave the Time Ring behind unless I had already planned for this moment, did you?’

‘What are you talking about?’

‘Poor Private Cleary. His heart's in the right place but I'm not sure he's up to the task ahead. That's why I made sure you would be here if I needed any assistance.’

‘I'm not helping you, you evil bastard!’

The Master stepped close to me, his eyes boring into mine, his left hand clutching at my arm, his words low and persuasive. ‘You didn't believe anything that fool the Doctor said, did you? He's just using you, like he's always been using you. Don't you understand, your world has been following the wrong destiny ever since this day in 1963, ever since the assassination. Kennedy wasn't destined to die here in Dallas, but something went wrong. It's up to us to save the president; it's up to us to save history! Think of all the good Kennedy could do if he survived today, think of what it could mean to the world. Think, Stevens, think!’

His words slid into my mind like silk, nestling inside my thoughts, filling my brain with images of what could be if Kennedy lived. The glorious era of Camelot extending ever onward... But another image nagged at me - Dodo lying dead on the floor, dead because of this man.

‘No!’ I pulled my arm away from the Master. ‘No, I won't listen to you. You're trying to trick me, like you've tricked so many others. I won't do your dirty work any longer!’ I started running towards the Book Depository, the Master's words hissing after me.

‘Hurry, Mr Stevens, hurry! You might still have time!’

I brushed past a crowd of employees gathering on the front steps of the Book Depository, slipping inside without being challenged. Everyone's attention was focussed on the end of Main Street where the motorcade would come into view.

Two women were standing in the doorway discussing what Jackie would be wearing, hoping they could get a good look. I stifled an urge to describe the First Lady's pink outfit with matching hat to the women. They would see it soon enough, covered in the blood of the president. Those blood-stained clothes, which Jackie would refuse to take off for hours after the assassination, would become one of the enduring, unforgettable icons of this day.

I quickly found a staircase inside the Book Depository building and began climbing. As I moved up through the floors I racked my brain for every piece of knowledge I'd ever read or heard about the next few minutes. At the same time I felt a massive, giddy rush of déjà vu. It was as if my actions were not my own, as if I was merely playing out a role like an actor on a stage. I remembered the dream which had haunted when I first awoke in the Glasshouse.

Now that dream seemed to be coming true. Every step upward matched a growth of the terrible dread inside me, yet I also felt unconnected with what was happening. It was as if I was outside my body, watching myself go through the motions of something I had rehearsed many times before. The inevitability of it all was overwhelming.

Finally I reached the sixth floor, gasping for breath and cursing my lack of fitness. I waited a few seconds to let my breathing settle before exploring further. I had seen no one coming up the stairs. The noisy chatter of the people gathering outside wafted up through the open windows. I could hear the sound of scuffling and stepped into the large, dusty room which I knew occupied the whole of the sixth floor.

In the centre of the room two men were fighting. The larger man was wearing down his opponent. Dressed in a white shirt and denim trousers, his face was a mask of concentration. The smaller man was wearing a red-checked shirt over his trousers, his face crumpled with the strain of the battle. I recognized him instantly from dozens of different photos I had seen while researching my Kennedy book - it was Lee Harvey Oswald. It was the man history recorded as the lone assassin who murdered President Kennedy. He was fighting Private Cleary.

The pair of them had locked hands on a rifle and were wrestling for control of it. As they scuffled, Oswald flailed at Cleary and managed to tear at his shirt. The buttons popped off to reveal a soldier's uniform underneath. But instead of UNIT insignia, it had Soviet symbols visible on it. Oswald staggered backwards in shock, cursing in Russian.

Seeing his chance, Cleary swung the butt of the rifle through the air and smashed it into Oswald's head. The Book Depository employee clattered to the wooden floor, unconscious. Cleary stepped over his prostrate opponent and marched towards the eastern corner of the building. Boxes were stacked around that corner, shielding whoever sat behind them from a casual glance into the room.

I ran after Cleary, trying to get the UNIT soldier's attention, but he seemed to be a man possessed, like a puppet with invisible strings manipulating his movement. ‘Cleary! Cleary!’ I shouted at him but he ignored me, crouching down behind the boxes to take up the assassin's firing position. I shook his shoulder but he just batted my hand away.

There was nothing else for it, I would have to stop him by more violent means. Looking around, I spotted a broken pipe hanging from the wall nearby. I twisted the corroded metal until a length snapped off in my hands before going back to the corner of the room where Cleary crouched, waiting. There could only be moments left before the motorcade would drive round the corner and come into his firing line.

‘Forgive me, Cleary, but I've got to stop you,’ I whispered and smashed the pipe down on the UNIT soldier's head. He cried out and crumpled, the rifle smashing against the wall and floor before coming to rest. I began dragging the unconscious soldier away from the window when I heard a faint voice.

‘Cleary? Cleary, are you there?’

The voice was coming from the soldier's ear. From inside it I pulled out a tiny device like a hearing aid. A transparent wire led from this to a minute microphone at his throat. Removing the device from Cleary, I fitted it to my own head and listened. I could hear a familiar voice through the earpiece, dark and sinister.

‘Magister!’ I said and cursed him.

‘Come, come, Mr Stevens, don't sound so surprised. You didn't think I could trust Private Cleary to do it all by himself, did you?’ Clutching the rifle to my chest, I crouched down amid the boxes and used the telescopic sight to scan the crowd for the evil manipulator who had brought me to this place.

‘Your little plan has failed, Magister. Cleary is out cold and history will take its natural course.’

‘What a shame,’ the Master replied mockingly, then paused as a ripple of excitement went through the crowd. ‘Ahh, I see the soon-to-be-late president is arriving.’

I looked over at the bottom of Main Street in time to see the motorcade start sweeping around the corner. Two motorcycle policemen came first, making sure the road was clear ahead, followed a few seconds later by the black presidential limousine and several similar vehicles following it. Two flags with the presidential seal attached fluttered at the front of the lead vehicle as it turned right into Houston Street.

‘Now, Mr Stevens, since you are up there in the sniper's nest instead of the unfortunate Private Cleary, you are the one who must choose which is more important - saving history or saving the president.’ I could almost hear the smirk in the Master's whispered words.

Scanning the killing zone in Elm Street through the rifle's telescopic sight, I saw the Master standing on the grassy knoll close to the road's edge. He was close to the Stemmons Freeway sign and holding up an open black umbrella - a bizarre action on such a sunny day. Peering through the sights I could see him far more clearly. In his spare hand the Master was clutching a weapon of some kind, readying it for use.

‘Your choice is quite simple, Mr Stevens. Either you kill me and save the president, thus endangering the entire space-time continuum. Or else you kill the president yourself, thus saving history but knowing you have murdered the world's most powerful man.’

‘You bastard!’ Below me the lead limousine had safely negotiated turning the difficult corner and was starting to accelerate down Elm Street towards the underpass, towards the Master.

‘I'm sorry, I'll have to hurry you.’ I could hear the Master's callous laughter in my ear. ‘So sad about your poor friend, Miss Chaplet, but I had Cleary eliminate her. Don't blame him, he was only acting under my orders. She might have been able to corroborate your wild allegations against me, once her mental conditioning started to break down.’

‘What are you saying?’

‘She was working for me the whole time you were together. Or hadn't you worked that out yet? Still, it hardly matters now, does it? She's - how do you humans put it? - as dead as a dodo.’

The Master's mocking laughter rung in my ear, before fading away to be replaced with my heart's pounding. Had Dodo really been just another of the Master's puppets all the time we were lovers? No, I would not, could not believe that. This was just another of the Master's mind games to try and turn me away from what I must do.

Time seemed to slow down around me. It was now or never. There were only seconds left before the first shot was due to be fired, had to be fired if history were to be saved.

All my life I had been a bystander, reacting to what others had done, reporting the deeds of others but never doing anything myself. All my training had hammered into me a basic tenet of journalism: be objective, don't get emotionally involved in your stories, always show both sides of what happens. And make sure you never mention yourself in a story.

But here I was: forced to take an action, forced to make a real decision for the first time in my life. Even if that decision was to take no action at all, even if I simply let matters run their course, I still had to choose. I had to decide what was right and wrong, not simply present both sides of a case. No one else could make the decision for me.

Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, I knew what I must do. I put my fingers to the trigger of the rifle, took careful aim through the telescopic sights and fired.

The bullet spat out of the Italian-made rifle and flew towards its intended target. But the sights on the rifle must have become slightly misaligned when Cleary dropped it and the bullet smashed into the sidewalk and bounced up into the air harmlessly.

I had missed my target. I had missed the Master.

At the sound of my gunshot, a flock of pigeons flew up into the air from the roof of the Book Depository. Within a few seconds of my shot, another rang out, then a third almost on top of the second. By now the limousine was past the Master's position on the edge of the grassy knoll, accelerating away from me.

I watched in horror as history unfolded before me. John Fitzgerald Kennedy's head exploded, a spray of blood, bone and brain matter flying up into the air like a fine pink aerosol as his body jerked backwards towards me. A gaping scrap of scalp and hair flapped from the right side of his head as he slumped over into his wife's lap, blood still pumping out of the fatal wound, pouring over his suit and shirt, matting his hair.

President John Kennedy was dead. His heart just didn't know it yet.

Jamming my eye against the telescopic sight, I swivelled round to see where I thought the shots had come from - the tall wooden fence behind the grassy knoll. I glimpsed a puff of gunsmoke still hanging in the air and for a second a face appeared above the line of the fence, looking up at my position in the Book Depository. Then the face withdrew again. I had recognized it, but could not believe what I had seen.

I slumped to the floor in shock, the rifle falling from my hands. I had failed. I had made a decision for the first time in my life, I had carried it through and I had failed. My attempt to save JFK had proved to be just as futile and meaningless as the rest of my life. It all came flooding back to me now: how the sights on Oswald's rifle were later proved to be misaligned and how he would have had to adjust his aim to take account for this factor. Worst of all, I now knew the true identity of the assassin and there was nothing I could do about it.

From the window I could hear chaos in Dealey Plaza. I looked outside to see people screaming, crying, shouting. Some had thrown themselves to the ground after the first shot; others remained standing, as if unable to believe what they were witnessing.

In the open-top presidential limousine the First Lady had climbed out on to the wide black boot and clutched at a piece of her husband's brain which had been flung backwards by the fatal bullet's impact. A Secret Service agent threw himself on the back of the vehicle and pushed her down into her seat, at the same time slamming his fist into the boot lid in apparent rage and frustration. The limousine began to speed away from the site of the shooting, down towards the underpass.

It was over. History had repeated itself. The 35th president of the United States of America was dead.

I was blankly aware I should get myself and Cleary out of the building now. But the scene below held such a morbid fascination, it was almost impossible to tear myself away. Some of the spectators had started running up towards the grassy knoll and the wooden fence beyond it, believing they had heard shots coming from there, while others pointed up at my window in the Book Depository. The Master had disappeared in the mayhem following the shooting. Now, the police were starting to gather on the street below me - soon they would begin searching the Book Depository. We had to leave. Finally, it was a moan from Cleary himself that snapped me back to my senses. The young soldier was coming round again. We had to get out of there.

First of all, I had to make sure history would continue to repeat itself. Hiding the rifle behind some boxes, I slapped Oswald back to some sort of consciousness. In a minute or two he would stumble down the stairs and into history, all the while proclaiming his innocence. A man wronged by destiny, I thought to myself.

Clutching the Time Ring in my left hand I walked over to Cleary and clasped one of his hands to the Time Ring as well. ‘I don't know if this thing can take both of us back, Francis. Hell, I don't even know if it can take one of us back. But here goes nothing.’

I pressed my fingers into the hollows of the bracelet and closed my eyes as the room began to swirl around me. We were going, but to where? More importantly, when were we headed? As the darkness engulfed my senses, a single nagging thought came to me: what would have happened to John Fitzgerald Kennedy if the Master, Cleary and myself had not intervened?

[ Intro Preface | 1 2 3 4 5 | 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 | 22 23 24 | Epilogue April 1996 Postscript 25 August 1971 Afterword ]

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