“Ticket 438 room one.” The P.A. floundered under the noise of the packed reception area. Sergeant Pat Blanchfield took the flimsy, pushed through the swing doors into the corridor. Five weeks until he called an end to a thirty year career and Captain Yasui had tied him to the front desk with six inches of bullet proof perspex between him and the crazies. He stepped into the interview room and regarded the man opposite.
Not that there was much to him. Late forties or early fifties, a faint red lesion around his neck, no hidden weapons. He held himself with a resigned, expectant air as if he knew trouble would find him. Pat put the flimsy to one side, flipped the speaker on.
“So, Mister –”
“Wayne, call me Wayne.”
“Ok Wayne, why are you here?”
“I want to report a murder, three murders.”
“You killed three people?”
“No, I’m the victim.”
“You don’t look particularly dead.”
“Of course not, somebody found me in time, each time that bastard sent them.”
“The one that keeps killing me!”
“Settle down. You say you’ve been killed three times?”
“No, I mean yes, sort of. I mean three times he’s tried to kill me, just last week the latest.”
“The red mark?”
“Yeah, hung myself I did, he did.”
“So you hung yourself?”
“Yes, he made me, just like the other times.”
“So he’s made you try to kill yourself three times. It’s not quite murder is it?”
“I don’t see why not. He’s made a ruin out of my entire life and everyone’s around me, pushed and pushed but won’t let me die, just takes me to the edge and back.”
“You have proof, witnesses?”
“No, he’s very good, very careful.”
“The one you say is doing this, you know him?”
“I put all that into the form —”
“Just humour me. Do you know him?”
“Yes, Roger Paulikas. I had an accident years back …”
“I killed his wife.”
Pat sighed, rolled the flimsy into a tube and tapped it on the edge of the desk.
“You don’t believe me do you officer?”
“Don’t bullshit me.” Pat unrolled the flimsy. Thirty thousand words. Sheesh. He randomly tapped it.
“You say he crippled your father. Dad’s alive?”
“What would he say if I talked to him?”
“Nothing, he wouldn’t know.”
“He broke up your first marriage by seducing your wife and daughter?”
“Well yes, he set it up, sent the men, I know it.”
“You saw him?”
“No, but —”
Pat held his hand up, tapped again.
“He caused a defect in the Remington .45 ammunition you tried to commit suicide with, rendering you merely functionally impaired not dead?”
“I know it sounds a bit —”
“No, not a bit but totally. You’re either a lunatic or you’ve got an overactive imagination. You kill a man’s wife —”
“It was an accident!”
“You kill his wife and your brain goes into overdrive. Of course he wants you dead, who wouldn’t? How long’d you do?”
“Eight inside, four paroled outside.”
Pat sighed. He’s another nut job, an oxygen thief.
“I don’t believe you, not for one second. But you’ve made a formal complaint and I’ve got to follow it up. No matter how asinine it is.”
“Don’t. You’ve had your one shot, waste my time with the same complaint again and you’re back inside.” Pat stood. “I’ll call you if I need you.”
* * *
The driveway crunched underfoot, uniform pink and black polished quartz pebbles glinting and winking, shadows from poplars lining the pathway dancing in front. The gaps in the trees allowed the merest hint of the estate beyond, a reminder to the penitent of their place, their real status. The estate had a restrained, aloof presence that acknowledged him while making it patently clear his existence or otherwise was a mere detail.
He’d reached the next to last step on the entry when the double oak doors opened to reveal an immaculately dressed older couple. The man bowed stiffly, the woman curtsied.
“Sergeant Blanchfield. You are expected.”
Pat was ushered into a large, sparsely furnished room, huge bay windows framing the grounds beyond. A cut crystal glass appeared beside him, filled from a matching decanter.
“Drink Sergeant? Sir will be available momentarily.”
Pat easily spotted the tell-tale lumps at all four corners of the ceiling. He smiled, there was no need to make it obvious except to make it obvious, the sensors worked through most materials. But there was value in letting your guests know they were being scanned, watched. He finished his glass.
“Sir will see you now Sergeant.”
He was shown into another room, heavily but tastefully decorated, windowless, carpeted. Floor to ceiling shelves along one wall containing thin rectangular blocks of varying colours caught his eye.
“I see my collection has your attention Patrick. A hobby of mine, ancient manuscripts. Perhaps you’d like to hold one?”
“No, thank you, I don’t think the Department’s insurance runs that high.”
“Shame. Well, to business shall we?” Five suited figures stood silently, motionless behind him. “My legal team, perhaps not the most sociable of individuals but highly efficient.”
“I appreciate your time Mr. Paulikas, I’ll make this as brief as possible.”
“I understand. From what Captain Yasui sent across you have no choice. A sad little man by all accounts. You’d forgive my lack of sympathy, he may have paid his debt to society but to me, well, how can it be enough?”
“Now, what do you require to put this matter to rest?”
“One answer and, if you’d be kind enough, some house security tapes.”
“To the first of course, the second perhaps. Your question?”
“April fifteenth. Where were you that evening?”
“The fifteenth? From eight in the morning to midnight I was in this room taking care of my … philanthropic interests.”
“Your staff, the man and woman at the door, they were here with you?”
“Yes, both were here. You may take statements or talk to them if you wish.”
“Thank you. The other thing, the house security tapes —”
Roger ushered Pat to the door.
“Ah yes, of course you would like those. I’ll see that copies are made for you. Is that sufficient?”
“Yes, I believe it is.”
* * *
Pat finished his first skim of the housetapes. What good’s owning the world if you’re chained to a desk all day? At least soon I won’t be. His eyes rested on an old photo pinned to the cubicle divider. Pat touched his fingers to his lips, his fingers to the photo. I wonder what it would be like if –
Captain Yasui poked her head round the corner.
“Blanchfield, how you going with the Paulikas complaint?”
“Slowly. He’s complained?”
“Wouldn’t be the first time for you but no, he’s good. Just let me know when you’ve closed it.”
“Yeah, will do.”
Pat spun the housetapes again. All ordinary and boring, he was about to wipe them when something caught his eye. As Paulikas sat in his chair his left arm shimmered, the thumb on his left hand winking in and out. The time coding showed no tampering, no splicing. Pat pulled on the headset, jacked into the VR.
He popped up inside the rendering of the room and moved to one side. As Paulikas’ thumb flickered a dark patch on the back of his shirt appeared. He could see the computer on the desk clearly, showing a shop interior and a man climbing a ladder in front of a wall of small boxes. There was something nagging him, something about the man. He wasn’t remotely familiar, wasn’t doing anything unusual. The man pulled a small red box out of the wall of yellow-blue ones. The hairs on the back of Pat’s neck stood up. The box in his hand bore the logo ‘Remington. RimFire ScatterShot XT .45’.
* * *
The housetapes gave him more, Paulikas’ computer showing Wayne entering the shop, the man handing the box to him. Paulikas had turned the screen on as Wayne entered, turned it off as Wayne left.
Pat dismissed the thumb and the shirt from his mind, concentrating on the ammunition. He refilled his coffee, settled back and interrogated the AI.
— Did Paulikas or any known associates visit the shop?
— Did Paulikas or any known associates control or own the shop, employees or associates?
After an hour Pat was none the wiser. There was nothing linking Paulikas to the shop or Remington. Yet the housetapes remained a clear reminder there must be. Pat shook his head. What if it’s not Remington, what about their suppliers?
— How many weapons use this type of ammunition?
— How many weapons are in circulation?
— Three hundred fifty seven thousand.
— How many of the type used by the complainant?
— Twenty eight.
— Which components of the ammunition, if faulty, could cause the complainant’s weapon to fail but not cause failure in any others?
— Describe component and fault.
— Percussion cap cover is one one-thousandth too thick to properly discharge resulting in greatly retarded projectile muzzle velocity.
— What would be the result of using the complainant’s weapon and the identified ammunition to attempt suicide?
— Ninety-five percent chance moderate to severe, five percent chance minor, non-life threatening injuries.
— Is the percussion cap cover manufactured by Remington?
— No. Manufactured by IamonCorp.
— Has or does Paulikas or known associates have any ownership or association with IamonCorp?
— Paulikas Trust 476 gained controlling interest of IamonCorp in 1973. IamonCorp outsourced R&D and CAD/CAM functions to Aartech in 2013. Aartech is a fully owned subsidiary of Paulikas Trust 476.
— When did manufacture of the percussion caps for this type of weapon commence?
Well over one hundred years ago. It was impossible for it to mean what Wayne had claimed yet there it was, everything except Paulikas himself writing the dimensions, feeding it to the CAD/CAM. It has to be coincidence, just random events glued together the wrong way in Wayne’s mind. Pat flipped through the flimsy looking for one more claim to check. Yes, the crippled father. That ought to do it.
* * *
Pat waited until the following Monday. A week sitting, mulling it all over had left him more uncertain, more confused. He touched his fingers to his lips, fingers to the photo, opened a comms link.
“Captain, got a minute?”
“The Paulikas complaint. I’ve just NFA’d it. I was going to go out, let Mr. Paulikas know.”
* * *
The butler was waiting, ushering Pat directly into Mr. Paulikas’ presence. This time they were alone.
“So Patrick, what can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to let you know I’ve rejected the complaint.”
“I appreciate it but you could have just called. You have something else on your mind?”
“Well, not so much but … do you mind if I try out your desk for a minute or two?”
“I’ve never owned one, never got this close to a real wooden desk. I’m retiring soon and I won’t get the chance again.”
“Why not? Go on, indulge yourself.”
Pat went across, sat down slowly and spread his arms out wide, fingertips falling well short of the edges. He looked up, grinning like a young schoolboy.
“That feels amazing.”
“You wouldn’t believe the number of people who’ve wanted to sit where you are, most of them hoping it was over my dead body.”
Pat sat back, head firmly against the headrest, arms along the sides of the chair.
“I suppose none of us go through life without making a few enemies.”
“If you live properly, absolutely.”
Pat surreptitiously felt for buttons, levers, indents with his hands. There were none. He stood.
“I’d better give it back before I get used to it.”
“Believe me Patrick, you never would. I haven’t.”
“Wealth, influence, respect? It’s not too hard imagining being very comfortable indeed.”
“Perhaps, but to get here you need to play the tough man, be hard hearted and hard minded. It doesn’t stop, it gets worse and more serious once you have something to protect.”
“But the compensations —”
“Oh yes, undoubtedly. When I started I had to save to buy lunch, now if I’m hungry I just buy the restaurant. But in the end we are only men, our appetites the same, just the scale that varies. Tell me Patrick, why didn’t you remarry after Stefania died?”
“I don’t know, I’ve never really thought about it.”
“Twelve years is a long time celibate.”
“Celibate? Oh no, hardly. It’s just … I don’t know, commitment I guess. No one could ever take her place so I never tried.”
“And you Mr. —”
“Please, Roger will do.”
“Roger, what about you?”
“The same. You see, underneath we are closer than you think. So Patrick, back to business. The matter is closed?”
“Meaning to you it’s not?”
“A few things bother me.”
Pat described what he had found, the thumb, the shimmer, the ammunition, the father’s accident. Through it all Roger sat silent, impassive.
“You caught me off guard the other day with the housetapes.”
“As I said, officially it’s over. Unofficially I don’t want mysteries to dog me through retirement.”
“Do you like stories Patrick, games?”
“I like them fine.”
“Tell me. If you could would you stop Stefania getting on that flight?”
“And if you couldn’t, if she was on it no matter what?”
“I’d stop the plane, close the airport.”
“If you couldn’t do that?”
“I don’t know … kidnap the mechanic or sabotage the jet, anything to stop it.”
“That’s how I felt with Agnes. What do you know about history?”
“Not much, I never studied it.”
“Nearly everyone believes the past is set in stone, fixed and unchanging except for the myths and lies we drape around it. I met a brilliant woman once who claimed it wasn’t.”
“What did she think?”
“She said time was a river, and we simply swimmers in it. The river may have to go east to west but it doesn’t care if it goes a little north or south as long as it reaches the ocean.”
“I don’t get it.”
“Neither did I at first. She meant that the big stuff, the key events and people were fixed, had to happen, but the rest could change and no one would know or care.”
“It’s a nice theory but what’s the use?”
“Let’s say you go back to old America. You walk into a bar and you deliberately knock a man’s drink over. You buy him another one, walk out, come back. Tell me, what’s history say about it?”
“Well, I guess it just sees me spill his drink.”
“But you’d have to see it not being spilt to spill it.”
“I guess, but isn’t that a problem?”
“That’s what I thought. But this is the thing. She said everything that could happen, all the changes ever made to the past, had already happened. All you had to do was work out where you fit in, what you did, and do it. So if you were going to go back in time, spill the guy’s drink, it’s always been that way, time is just waiting for you to see it and do what you were always going to do.”
“All well and good but it’s still just a game.”
“Perhaps, but indulge me a little further. What’s the statute of limitations for murder?”
“The longest I know of is Ontario, thirty years I think, although there’s a rumour New Mexico’s going to push for fifty.”
“Fine, fifty years. Pretend you go back a hundred years, you kill someone at random. Just put a bullet through her head in broad daylight, let them take your photoID then come back. Can we prosecute you now for her murder?”
“I don’t think so. I’m not sure, I mean, a hundred years but it’s me now … sort of.”
“Exactly. You couldn’t, I couldn’t, no one could. If anyone tried any half decent lawyer would tie any jury or judge into knots.”
“You might be right.”
“I know I am, or at least my legal team says so.”
Roger got up, sat behind his desk.
“No more games Patrick. This woman, when she told me this, when I met her, Agnes had been gone two years. She, or rather what she said, became my sole consuming passion for five years. I threw everything I had, all my resources, everything at her disposal.”
Pat finished his drink slowly, set the glass down.
“Why didn’t you simply stop him?”
“I tried, believe me I tried everything. But it couldn’t be done, it wasn’t possible. Every single thing I did failed and failed spectacularly. Bullets missed, poisons didn’t work, roadblocks opened up. I couldn’t change where Agnes was, couldn’t stop her, slow her down. History needed her dead, demanded her death then and there. And each time I tried and failed it killed me a little more.”
“How many times did you try?”
“More than a thousand.”
“And Agnes was that important to the world?”
“No! That’s the damned thing, it’s not her but … but something else, and I had to see it again and again and again until I found out, watching her, powerless. I was not a vindictive man Patrick, a hard business man but never vindictive, but it changed me. If I couldn’t get Agnes back I was going to make him suffer, suffer for his entire life, from birth to death and beyond if I could.”
“So everything Wayne said —”
“Oh yes, and more, so much more. It’s so easy, so simple. Buy a company, change a specification, shift a timetable, seduce, bribe or corrupt the right people. Go back as far as you need, make the tiniest change that ten, fifty, two hundred years later impacts one individual and one alone. Go as far forward as you want and drag the tech back, make the impossible possible. All I had to do was sit here, work it out, watch what I had already done and then just go back and do it.”
“But there’s no time machine, nothing. Your chair’s —”
“Irrelevant. What do you think, it’s as big as the old mainframes? It’s tiny, so tiny.” He tapped his forehead. “It’s in here, a microscopic switch, that’s all. When she told me I thought it was a lie, my god how wrong I was.”
“But the chair, the twitch of your thumb?”
“I can’t go back and simply pop out of thin air just anywhere. I bought this estate four hundred years ago, this chair immobile in this one spot, this room locked and secured by the best of the future’s technology the entire time. My thumb? You try coming back and sitting in exactly the same pose after four months.”
“How long has this been going on?”
“Ten years, but I’ve lived thirty or more in them.”
“Has it been worth it?”
“Are you kidding? Yes, everything, every second wrecking every part of his life, hopes and dreams from the start through to when he dies of natural causes a shattered, abject failure. His father, his sister, his jobs, his career, children, friends, money, loves it’s all been worth it, every second and every cent to destroy it all from his name onwards.”
“Of course, what sort of idiot would call their son Wayne? Wayne Anka? Mr. W. Anka? He’s tried a hundred times to change it and will try a hundred more but he will never succeed.”
“Revenge destroys you, it’s never worth it.”
“Oh? Put yourself in my shoes. Would you have done anything else?”
Pat stared at the empty glass. It was useless, impossible to be another person, feel the world and emotions as they did. A sliver, the slightest crack of insight opened to him and there he was, Roger being there over and over and over as the only love in his life was torn away and he impotent to stop it, an unwilling voyeur tortured until all-consuming anguish and hatred erupted. Suddenly it was Stefania and not Agnes being wrenched away and Pat was changing the safety guard on the drill press that would take a man’s arm off, baiting the merchant bankers into strip mining a family’s life savings, encouraging Lothario to deflower a boy’s first love before he had the guts to try. Pat found himself relishing it, chafing at the bit to hit harder, gouge deeper, crush the very spirit out of Wayne and everything associated with him completely, deliberately, methodically. Pat slumped, looked up with eyes devoid of pity but filled with understanding at the empty man opposite. He stood.
“Goodbye Roger. I’m truly sorry.”
* * *
Roger watched silently as Pat let himself out. It wasn’t right, none of it was right and if he had the power he’d change it but, perhaps mercifully, he didn’t. If she had died a minute earlier, a minute later then it would have been possible. But the child was there, the child that would become the man that long after Roger and Pat were dust would save the world. And my Agnes, my beautiful Agnes’ death the sole catalyst for his passion. To the boy who would become the man a nameless face, to the world that would survive because of him unknown.
He cried as only an old man can cry, tortured as only he could ever be. If I cannot for myself then maybe for another, and they’ll never know. He leant back, eyes closed for a few seconds, flickered out and back.
* * *
Pat turned the ignition and headed home. He’d lost any desire to go back to the office, face the troubles and issues knowing there was a way to change what couldn’t be changed as long as it was already changed. Maybe Captain Yasui would let him burn some sick leave, hopefully four weeks’ worth until he retired.
Retired. He smiled, glanced at the photo on the dash, touched his fingers to his lips, fingers to the photo. She was waiting at home as always, and maybe now he could give her the attention she deserved. Stefania, my Stefania, the world would mean nothing without you.