A time travel murder mystery.
The door opened, and in walked the two cops who’d arrested me.
“So, ‘Joe’,” the first one said. That’s not my name, we both knew it. “You’re a lot more interesting than we realised.”
Oh crap; if they knew something about me - anything - I had clearly slipped up somewhere. Or was going to.
“Am I going to need a lawyer?” I asked, trying to sound nonchalant. I leaned back in the hard steel chair to give the impression of casual confidence, but merely slipped slowly towards the front of the seat. I pulled myself upright again and risked a small smile.
“Oh one’s on the way,” the second cop grinned. She was short but stocky, short hair cropped untidily. She resembled a pixie, if pixies ate too many donuts and didn’t brush their teeth. “We figured you’d not mind court-appointed representation, since you weren’t exactly forthcoming with the personal details.”
My smile widened, but my heart sank. “That’s fine”, I grinned.
“You can always talk to us without him,” the first cop grinned back. He was leaner, skinny almost, and his hair was perfectly cut and styled.
“Nah, I’ll wait.” A knock on the door, and a short man in a rumpled suit clutching a tattered briefcase burst in. When he saw me sitting there in handcuffs his eyes almost bugged out of his head before he looked away and coughed to cover his reaction.
If he recognised me, that could be the first bit of good news I’d had all day.
“Sorry I’m late, I’m Michael Kennedy, here to represent…” he consulted a legal pad he’d pulled from his case, “Joe Webb?”
“That’s me,” I replied. Kennedy sat down beside me, and indicated that the police should sit opposite. “Now, my client is charged with…” he looked back at the pad.
“Possession of an unlicensed firearm,” said the male cop. His badge said Rodriguez.
“And running a stop sign,” added his partner, Sanchez. “That’s why we pulled him over, and when we saw the gun.”
“I told you, it’s not mine,” I started, but Kennedy stopped me with a gesture. “I believe this was in a rental vehicle?” he asked. When neither of the cops answered, I agreed that it was.
“And where, exactly, was this weapon found?” Again I wasn’t sure who was being asked.
“Glove compartment,” grunted Rodriguez.
“And did you check the glove compartment contents when you picked up the car, Mr. Webb?”
“No, I didn’t,” I replied.
“So on what evidence, officer, do you tie this gun to my client?” This was met with more silence, but I was damned if I was going to answer this time. “None, then. He denies it is his, and it’s perfectly plausible that it was left there by a previous renter of the vehicle, is it not?” I got the distinct impression this was the most excitement he’d seen so far in his career. He referred to his notes again. “I assume you’ve run a full forensic examination on it by now? Or at least checked for fingerprints? DNA?” Sanchez nodded, and Kennedy continued. “So since my client denies it’s his weapon, and his fingerprints were not on it, I imagine you’ll be releasing him with a small fine for the stop sign?”
This guy was surprisingly well-prepared. I wondered if I should be taking notes.
“Well we would have, except for the cold case.” Rodriguez sat back, smugly.
“Ballistics determined that the gun was used in a murder, three years ago,” he continued.
“Well we’ve established that my client doesn’t own the gun, so I don’t see…” Kennedy started.
“And his DNA was all over that crime scene,” Sanchez interrupted.
Double crap. I glanced over at Kennedy and he looked surprisingly calm. He glanced down at his pad again and I followed his gaze. He had a lot of notes already, and his pen was pointed about a third of the way down the page, presumably to keep his place. I saw ‘DNA at scene’ and a few other words scribbled before he covered the page with his hand.
“And who was the victim?” Kennedy asked.
“Unknown; we had him down as a John Doe.”
“And you say my client’s DNA was there, what form did this DNA take? I’m sure you have a file, can I see it?” The cops hesitated, and Kennedy pressed on. “I cannot defend my client against an accusation for which I don’t have the evidence, now can I? Hand it over.”
Rodriguez & Sanchez looked at each other, and Sanchez briefly shrugged. She handed the file to Kennedy.
“This is nonsense. The only DNA found on the scene was that of the victim, not a single hair or other trace was ever recovered.”
“Well that’s the odd thing, isn’t it?” Sanchez blurted out. “How can he be here facing charges when he died three years ago?”
I was certainly not going to answer that, but thankfully Kennedy did.
“Well then it’s clearly an error, isn’t it?” he said. “Not to mention a blatantly obvious one.” He flipped open the file again and spun it across the desk. Rodriguez caught it just before it landed in his lap, and looked at the crime scene photograph on the open page. “The victim there is considerably older than my client. I appreciate it might be hard to see fine details of the face given the, uh, damage,” I squinted at the upside-down image and saw an old man with the top of his head missing. I’d seen worse; hell, I’d done worse. “But if you turn the page, you’ll see that the medical examiner estimated the age at death to be 85-90 years.” Rodriguez did so, and frowned. “So you’re holding my client out of curiosity, basically, when all you have against him is a minor traffic violation that typically results in a stern talking-to and a slap on the wrist?”
I began to relax enough that my internal state finally matched my external demeanour. I held up my cuffed wrists towards the embarrassed cops opposite. Rodriguez started fumbling for his keys to unlock me, when Sanchez stopped him.
“But how can he be two people? With identical DNA?” she urged. “We thought of cloning, but…” Ah, I wondered when that would come up.
Kennedy had finished packing his briefcase but hadn’t made any move to leave. “Well firstly that’s impossible, and secondly not a crime. Or at least it wouldn’t be, were it possible. And even if they had,” Kennedy pushed on. “They’d have had to have done it, what, 35 years ago? In order for my client to be a clone of your poor unidentified victim. I rather doubt the state of the art today is a useful guide to the cutting edge science of the 1980s.” He stood up, and waved in my general direction. “So release my client, without charge - not that you seem to have anything to charge him with, I should remind you - and we’ll say no more about the illegal detention if the traffic charge is dismissed.” I shook my handcuffed arms in Rodriguez’ direction again, and gave him my most genuine grin so far.
“What the hell was that all about?” Kennedy hissed at me as we left the interview room.
“Not now,” I hissed back.
“But…” he started, but I silenced him with a look. Rodriguez and Sanchez had begrudgingly released me as requested, free to go with no charges (merely a face-saving instruction through gritted teeth to ‘drive safely’) and I intended to waste no time in getting out of there.
I walked out through the police precinct, checking for the location of the cameras outside and estimating their viewing areas. At least the dark would help hide us. “Where’s your car?” I asked Kennedy. He pointed, and I saw it about a hundred yards up the road. It looked as crumpled and tired as he did. “Right. Head into that coffee shop, and I’ll explain everything. I just need to meet someone first. Oh, and can I borrow your notes?”
“Well I didn’t take any myself, they wouldn’t let me have a pen. And I don’t want to miss something important; you did a great job in there.” Flattery seemed to be new to him, and it had the desired effect. He opened his case and handed me his legal pad, from which I tore the top two pages. “I’ll be right with you,” I assured him, and walked in the other direction before he could interrupt.
As I turned the corner at the end of the block, I glanced back and saw he was still waiting there in growing confusion. Once I was safely out of sight, I started to Slip.
Disorientation. Confusion. Nausea. Fear. Stillness.
Shaking the clouds from my head I walked back around the corner of the block, and waited for the rumpled looking car to arrive. It clattered its way down the street a few moments later, a failing fan-belt squeaking as it pulled into the only free space. I walked over to greet the driver as he stepped out.
“Mr. Kennedy,” I exclaimed. “I am about to hand you the best day of your career.”
“I’m in a rush, sorry. Wait, how do you know my name?”
“My, er, brother called me when he was arrested. I like to keep a close eye on his well-being. It’s a twin thing, you understand.” He didn’t. “So I decided to come down here and help him out; and the best way to do that is to help you out.”
“I’m going to be late,” he said again. “I’ve not been doing this long, I don’t want to screw up my first…” he stopped, embarrassed.
“Well that’s good to hear, certainly” I replied. “I can help you be better prepared and my brother would certainly appreciate that.”
“How much do you know about what’s happened?” He looked worried.
“More than we have time to discuss in detail. But here, I thought you were in a rush,” I pulled the notes from my pocket, and unfolded them. “You might want to write this down…”
Kennedy strode through the front door of the Police Station clutching his case like a shield. I watched him enter, and then stepped into the coffee shop to wait for him.
When he arrived, he stopped dead in the doorway, staring first at me and then back up the street to the corner he’d just seen me walk around.
“How the hell…” he began, but I cut him off.
“Thank you,” I said. “My brother said he’d make sure you were ready, and I was glad that he did.” Kennedy sat heavily in the chair opposite, and ordered a coffee with cream and sugar from the waitress who appeared beside him. “What the hell is going on?” he asked in a low whisper.
“Firstly, thank you. That would have been a very tricky situation to get out of without your help.” He waved a hand in dismissal. “And I know you have a lot of questions - like how did my brother know so much about what would be said during that interview, for example.”
“And why did he have it all written down on a yellow legal pad exactly like mine? Can I have my notes back, by the way?” I removed them from my pocket and smoothed them on the table between us. “So how do you do it?” he asked.
“Hmm?” I sipped my coffee to buy time.
“Time travel is meant to be impossible.”
“It is,” I said. “You’ve been watching too much science-fiction,” I added.
He shook his head. “Your twin brother, I might have believed. But in the same clothes?” I dressed very plainly, all the better to attract as little attention as possible. Jeans and a shirt, Dr. Martens, nothing to stick in the memory. “And the same ketchup stain on his pocket?” I glanced down; luckily the police hadn’t got to test that stain. “And the notes, that was a nice touch. It does raise a question though: who really wrote them in he first place? So how do you do it?” he asked again.
“I can’t tell you.”
“Then why invite me for coffee?” A fair question. Sometimes I just had a hunch that I needed to be somewhere, or talk to someone. It always ended up working out for me, somehow. I used to joke that it was the timeline asserting itself.
I sighed. “I can’t tell you how it’s done, because I don’t know. Do you know how your phone works? In detail, I mean - could you explain the mechanism to someone who’d never used one before? How about a car, or plane…”
“So it’s just a gadget?” He sounded disappointed. “You press a button and slip through time?”
“Pretty much,” I admitted. “There are limits though.”
Accuracy, range, the small but measurable chance that you’d end up occupying the same space as something already at your destination. “It hurts,” I settled on. “And you can’t do it very often.”
“Did you invent it?”
“No. Listen, is this conversation under attorney/client privilege?” I asked.
It was his turn to laugh. “It’s a bit late to be asking, but sure - if you pay me a retainer.” I reached into my wallet and slid him a stack of notes, uncounted.
“You’re right, time travel is impossible; at least right now. It’ll be invented in about 75 years thanks to some remarkable break-through in technologies that themselves don’t exist yet. And it’ll be another 20 years or so before it’s portable enough to take with you.”
“So you’re from the future. A future where time travel exists.”
I swallowed hard. “Not exactly,” I said, and started to lay out the short version of how I’d come into possession of a time travel device.
He took it pretty well, considering. I suspect that the thousand-odd dollars I’d handed him helped somewhat. If he was able to get hold of that file, he’d be worth every penny.
So: my alias was now known to the police; I’d lost my favourite gun; my fingerprints & DNA were on file and tied to a murder. Fortunately I wasn’t wanted for the murder but discovering that I was the victim wasn’t a lot of comfort.
This was getting complicated. Doubtless the man I’d taken the time travel gadget from would have had an easier time of it. Then again he’d ended up dead too, literally long before his time. Time travel wasn’t a great defence, it seemed.
I was such an idiot. That was the answer: I could just go back and stop whoever killed me before they did it. I’d have the file soon enough, with the exact date, time and location, so I could nip back and prevent my future self undergoing an unwanted facial rearrangement.
Kennedy arrived the next morning, bearing the file on my murder.
“Coffee?” I asked him. He agreed and I headed to the tiny kitchen to make some.
“So is it you?” he asked when I came back. “In the file,” he clarified.
“I think so,” I replied. If this old man had my DNA there wasn’t much room for doubt. I flicked the file open and winced at the image on the front page. What was left of the face sure as hell looked like me. An older, heavier me, but me nonetheless. The autopsy photos confirmed it with a blown-up image of the birthmark on his (my) shoulder. “Yeah, that’s me alright.”
I turned to the police reports. Forensics showed only his (my) DNA and prints around the scene, so I didn’t have much to work with. Fortunately the location was clearly listed - along with an estimated time of death.
“So you’re going to go and save yourself?” I’d forgotten Kennedy was still there, sipping his coffee.
“That’s the plan. Show up early, ambush the killer and I live to hopefully an even riper old age.”
He looked sceptical. “But it’s happened, hasn’t it? I mean, you’re holding the file; so clearly if you do go back… you didn’t manage to save him. Yourself, I mean. And if you do save him then you won’t need to go back, so you won’t, so you’ll still have died. It’s a paradox.”
“You really have watched a lot of sci-fi. I don’t pretend to know how it works, but you just don’t get paradoxes. Time rights itself somehow. If I go back and save him, then that’ll be what has always happened.”
“So what, you just nip back and do it? What happens to me? Will I still have come here to give you the file?”
“And I still got paid, right?”
Within a day or so I was in possession of a well-maintained Glock 19, my weapon of choice. I field-stripped it on the floor of my apartment.
“So what do you do?” Kennedy asked. He was there at my request, though if you’d asked me why I’d requested him to join me I doubt I could have explained. Chalk it up to timelines asserting themselves.
When I did answer he went on. “You seem comfortable with guns and with lying to the police. Not to mention you killed the man who arrived in your own time. That suggests someone with a certain moral flexibility.”
“So you think I’m what, a contract killer?” He raised an eyebrow quizzically. “Oh, you do.”
“Am I wrong?”
“It’s a little more complicated than that.”
“Clearly, since time travel is involved. You told me the other night that you weren’t from the time when it was invented - but from somewhere between now and then.” I nodded. “Fleeing to a time before the crime you committed, no-one would know to arrest you yet. OK, here’s what I think. You were already a criminal in your own time. When you gained the ability to travel back in time, you decided to make it profitable. You could have just gone back a few days and bet on horses, but you went back years and bought a gun.”
“You take out the competition for your employers before they even start competing, and they pay you handsomely.”
“Very handsomely. Inflation works in my favour going this way.”
“But how do they contact you to give you assignments?” he asked.
I nodded at my computer. “Email. Electrons are easy to move through time, compared to a body.”
“But doesn’t it bother you? These people haven’t done anything wrong!”
“They will. Wouldn’t you kill Hitler before he came to power, if you could?”
“That’s different - and besides, you actually could do that.”
“I prefer to stay out of politics.”
He shook his head, sadly. “So now what, you kill me for working it out?”
“Of course not; you’re my lawyer and I trust you to keep a secret. Besides, if you were going to betray me I’d come back and warn myself. You’d never have seen it coming,” I reassured him.
“Oh.” He paused for a moment. “It’s a shame I can’t try it,” he said.
“You want to go somewhere?” I asked. “Forward or back? If you mention Hitler again I’ll start to seriously regret telling you about it in the first place.”
“No, just a few years back,” he said sadly. “Tell myself to work harder at school, so I didn’t end up defending guilty crooks on a Saturday night. No offence,” he added hastily.
“None taken,” I laughed. “But do you think you’d have listened?”
“Haven’t you read ‘A Christmas Carol’? If a future you came back and told you that you were on the wrong path, wouldn’t you listen?”
“I am listening. Future me ends up dead in a bare apartment, and I’m going to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“But you could change your life for the better and avoid it happening at all.”
“Look, it’s an easy job, I know the time and place so I just need to be there a little early and I’ve saved myself. Nothing so vague as telling myself to get good grades.”
“And what if you did?” he asked.
“Go tell yourself to stay out of crime. It’s not as if you’re enjoying the proceeds,” he gestured to the tiny apartment. “And you die three years ago in a place even sparser than this - aged 85. What happened to your ill-gotten gains?”
“What’s gotten into you? I’ve got decades ahead of me - and if I save myself then, maybe even longer. Plenty of time to enjoy the perks. Get off my back, I don’t need your judgment.”
“You need someone’s, clearly your own is faulty,” he snapped, and stormed out slamming the door behind him.
Giddiness. Delusion. Queasiness. Anxiety. Peace.
I breathed deeply to clear the fog from my head and looked around. I should be just a half-block away from the site of my murder. I headed towards the address I’d memorised and kept an eye out for anyone suspicious. The front door was locked, as expected; but I’d managed to pick-pocket the keys from someone in my time, so I had no trouble getting inside. Handy knowing they won’t need to change the locks for three years. I took the stairs two-at-a-time, despite not having any reason to hurry. Or so I thought - when I arrived at the second floor, the door was already ajar.
I pulled my gun and listened carefully. No sound came from inside, but presumably the killer was already lying in wait for ‘me’. Well, this is what I’d come here to do, so I stood carefully to one side of the door and pushed it open the rest of the way.
After a few moments, I glanced around the doorframe and tried to take in the apartment in a split second. It was completely empty: No furniture, no art on the walls, no body, no gunman.
It didn’t take me long to check each room in turn - I’d arrived before the killer, and before my past-or-future self, too. I positioned myself out of sight of the doorway to have a view of whoever came in.
Estimated time of death was any minute now. The forensic report had had given a two-hour window so it wouldn’t be very long before…
A clatter in the kitchen, behind me.
I spun around, gun ready and saw a body sprawled on the floor, its head propped up against the stove. My body. The body I was here to avoid becoming. His chest was still rising and falling, I was still alive. Presumably I’d been attacked and Slipped away to escape my assailant.
But then why would I have been found dead?
“Confusing, isn’t it?” came a familiar voice behind me. I stiffened. “Hand me the gun, won’t you?” said Kennedy, pressing a knife into the small of my back.
I was handcuffed to the radiator in the living space, my older self cuffed to the other end and still unconscious. Kennedy slowly paced across in front of us both, aiming the gun at each of us in turn.
“What the hell is going on?” I asked.
“You’re a smart man, you figure it out. You clearly recognise me, but you know I’m not a time traveller. Unlike both of you,” and he gestured with the gun. “Oh, don’t look so surprised,” he continued. “How old are you, just for the record?” I didn’t answer. “Thirty-five, I believe,” he said, and I nodded in agreement. “I’m almost done, then. Strange.”
“Done with what?”
“It all started when I was studying. You know I’m a lawyer? I wasn’t really applying myself - in fact I was on the verge of dropping out - and one night I was propping up the bar in my favourite dive when someone walked in and sat next to me. I knew I was drunk but he looked like my identical twin, plus a few years. He proceeded to tell me that he was me, from the future; from a future where I was a lawyer but a lousy one. He told me to buckle down and study or I’d end up like him working the graveyard shift to keep criminals from going where they belonged. I chalked it up to a prank, and too much cheap whiskey, but he left me some betting slips and told me to take a chance on them the next day. When the first horse came in, I made a few bucks. After the third, I doubled down on the fourth, and then just let the winnings keep rolling. That ‘prank’ made me over a hundred grand in an afternoon.”
“Congratulations,” I said.
“No need for sarcasm, the point was that I believed him now. I reapplied myself to my studies, invested the money in my future and am now a very successful lawyer.”
“Who’s holding two men at gunpoint.”
He smiled at that. “Technically, only one man. And in fact, I don’t think we need both of you any more.” Without warning, he pulled the trigger and the older version of me was gone, his blood splashing on my face.
“What the hell?” I shouted, spitting blood and God-knew-what out of my mouth. If the gadget had recovered enough to let me Slip I would have gone there and then. As it was I’d have about another hour before I could vanish. My ears rang with the echo of the gunshot, but it was as if no-one else had heard it - no shouts or cries came from other apartments.
“Place is deserted, that’s why I picked it,” Kennedy explained. “I needed to lure you somewhere that would be suitable for this.”
“What is this? What the hell do you want with me?” I yelled.
“I keep forgetting it’s the first time for you.” He settled back on the window ledge and smiled. “I’m getting revenge.”
“What for? I never did anything to you!”
“Ah but you’re going to. Isn’t that how it works with you? Get your revenge in first? At some point in my future, you screw me over. Badly, very badly from what I understand. My future self spent some time in jail as a result - he was reluctant to give me too many details but I think you framed him for murder?”
“You are a murderer!” I shouted, looking over at the still-warm corpse of my future self. “You killed him!”
“True, but I have no intention of serving time for that. And less still for something I didn’t do. Besides, he’s not my first.” I swallowed, hard. “And won’t be my last,” he added ominously waving the gun at me.
“Who else?” I asked, as much to keep him talking as anything.
“Oh, no-one else.”
What? Oh no. “Just me.” I sighed.
“Over and over again,” he nodded. “Twelve times so far, and counting.” I felt sick. “And I believe I have around forty left to go, give or take. I’m killing you in every single year of your life.”
“But how can that be possible?” I asked.
“Oh it’s very easy,” he said. “I have a list. You flit around through time seemingly at random, but of course it’s not random at all. Your style is unmistakable when you know what to look for. As a high-profile lawyer I can get access to all sorts of information the police don’t like to release to the public - and when I see one of your kills I note it down. Of course, this only gives me details of your journeys after you’ve made them, but when you know your future self will have the ability to, what is it you call it, Slip? Well, that’s hardly an impediment now is it? So I go to where you’re going to be. Find a nice dark alley, I don’t even need to hide behind a dumpster since you can’t see me before you get there, and when you appear… bang!” He twitched the gun at me as if firing it.
“So why is it different this time? Why lure me here with my own body?”
“I had to be sure you knew who was doing this to you. And why. Plus of course, every other time you had no idea you were going to die and I wanted you to spend at least a little while in fear of your life. And my list said this is what I did this time. I imagine you just met me in the future?” I nodded. “Saves on introductions, I guess.”
“So what now, you just shoot me? I hate to burst your bubble but the crime scene report only mentioned one body.”
“Oh I don’t like to leave you lying around. I have a handy little gadget of my own to nudge yours into action - it’s how I got him here to distract you. Shoved him forward a week. Usually I go further once you’re dead - I always pick July 14th, 2185. Something tickles me about fifty-odd versions of you at various ages all appearing at once over the city, every of them stone-dead.”
My birthday. He chuckled at the recognition in my eyes.
I felt the faint tickle at the back of my neck that let me know the gadget was ready for use again. I held my best poker-face and hoped he didn’t know enough about its operation to allow me an escape.
“I imagine it’s about ready to go now, right?” He looked pleased with himself. “Takes a while to recover after each Slip, proportional to the distance travelled. And from watching a dozen of your corpses vanishing, I know there’s a split-second shimmer around you while it powers up - so I’ll have plenty of time to shoot you before you can disappear.” He was right about that. “But I suspect you’ll still try.”
He was right about that too.