Thursday, June 07, 2012

The Cantrell Murder

One: The Body
Murder is never pretty, whether it’s splashed across the front page of the LA Times or lying stark, exposed in the lights of an LAPD squad car.
     The hem of the dame’s skirt was up, her splayed pins clad in cheap nylons. Blood splattered her name tag, but not so much that I couldn’t read her name. Gladys. Her face was mostly bloody pulp. I sighed. Another ghost to visit me at the witching hour, when not even the strongest eel juice could silence the demons.
     A freight train rumbled along the back of the deserted lot, lighting up the crime scene before trundling into Los Nietos station.
“What say you, officer?” I said, rising from my haunches to where the air didn’t reek so much of blood and piss.
Officer Petrovski emerged from the gloom; knife-edge creases and shiny buttons.
     “Looks like she took a pounding, sir.”
     “Uh huh.”
     A puff of wind kicked dust across her mauve uniform. A sheet of old newspaper crackled across the abandoned lot.
     “She worked at Pete’s Diner?”
     “Yeah, just across the way.”
     He gestured into town.
     “Looks like she put up a fight though,” I said.
     I pointed to the scrap of chrome. A piece of someone’s boiler; a shiv in Gladys’s final desperate fight for life. It was stained with gore, black in the yellow light.
     There was a trail of blood, leading out of the abandoned lot, away from the railroad station and into town. So I did what any good detective would. I followed it.

Two: Jimmy the Croaker
After a couple of blocks the trail dried up, in this end of town trails of blood usually ended up in one place. James Crow, MD, the sign on the door read.
     “Jimmy. Long time, no see,” I said, leaning in the doorway.
     He looked up from a tray of stained instruments.
     “Not long enough, Virgil.” He spat my name like a shot of formaldehyde.
     Crow was a former Army medic. Not a proper croaker but near enough if you couldn’t afford a vet and didn’t want the heat that came with taking your slug wound or shiv hole to a real doc.
     On the wall next to the faded certificate from the New Jersey Correspondence College was a newspaper clipping of our boys raising the flag at Iwo Jima. If you let him, Jimmy would tell you he was there.
     “How’s the leg keeping?”
     He peered over his glasses. “What the fuck do you care?”
     He was right. I didn’t. It was just my way of reminding him I knew his limp was the result of a big fat “Aloha!” from a pissed, Hawaiian pro skirt, and not a wad of white-hot Jap shrapnel. LA was forgiving in many ways, but not of shitheels who lied about being wounded in the line of duty for the good ol’ red, white and blue.
     “Busy night?”
     “No busier than any other Saturday in this shithole.”
     “Any stabbings?”
     Jimmy shrugged. “Maybe.”
     “Any stabbings between midnight, one?”
     Jimmy carried the stainless steel tray over to the sink and dumped it in. A tang of disinfectant touched my nose before the creaking overhead fan carried it away. He shrugged.
     “C’mon Jimmy. Don’t be a bunny.” I pulled out my billfold and offered a sawbuck. “For the war fund.”
     Jimmy took the money. “Yeah, as a matter a’ fact there was. Greaser. Scrawny. Chambray shirt. Cowboy boots. Bleeding like a stuck pig.”
     “This stuck pig have a name?”
     Jimmy sneered. “Yeah. John Q Citizen. Same as all the rest.”

Three: The Mexican
I ambled into the interview room, pausing for a moment to drink in the scene. Ruperto Simental – the stuck pig – sat slumped in the steel chair, bracelets holding his flippers behind his back, under the watchful gaze of Officer Miller. The Mexican was sweating, greasy hair cascading over his eyes. He looked up, eyes widening, but I shushed him with the fat manila folder I held in one mitt.
     “It must be Christmas, Simental, it must be fucking Christmas,” I said.
     Simental shook his head back and forth, like a dog trying to shake off fleas.
     “No, no, nooooo,” he said.
     I opened the folder and peered down at the report inside. “Close your head. It just doesn’t get any better than this. Let me get this straight. We’ve got witnesses who place you jawing with Mrs Gladys Cantrell outside Pete’s Diner at 11pm. We’ve got a body, not far from there – the coroner puts death at about midnight, maybe one...”
     “No... but...”
     “Bu-bu-bu-bu-bu,” I said, quieting him down. “You’ll have plenty of time for chinning when Officer Miller here is taking down your confession. We’ve got a piece of bloodstained chrome at the crime scene, and, uh, how is the injury there?”
      I climbed up from my chair and pressed the sole of my shoe against his side. He groaned. Officer Miller looked away.
     “No, you’ve got it all wrong,” Simental said.
     “Wait, I haven’t even got to the best bit yet. The Arizona PD pick you up in Nogales on a vag charge, then spy the APB. Why’d you feel the need to take a bunk?”
     “You’ve got it all wrong, senor! The Klan, they see me Saturday night with Gladys, she was my sweetheart...”
     “Break it up!”
     “I love her, Senor Smith. The Klan, they pick me up on side of road, stab me, say if I don’ wan’ worse, to get out of town...”
     “Please - the Klan? This isn’t Mississippi, Simental. What happened? She knock you back? You take her for a drive and try and take things too far?”
     The Mexican shook his head. Sweat dripped onto the metal tabletop.
     “Yeah, that’s what happened. She knocked you back and you bopped her.”
     I scattered crime scene photos across the desk.
     “Yes, you piece of shit. You cracked her head like a walnut and left her for dead.”
     “No. When I left her, she fine. I love her. I’m telling you the truth, Senor.”
     “Well let me tell you some truth, Simental. We’ve got opportunity, we’ve got motive...”
     “No, I love her...”
     “And she didn’t love you back. Motive and opportunity. So unless you can get some of your Klansman to give you an alibi, you’re gonna be dancing in the big house before the year is out.”
     “No, senor. I would never hurt her.”
     “Think about it. Let Officer Miller here know when you’re ready to talk sense.”

Four: The Brothers
Morning sunlight pooled in the kitchen of the Cantrell home, making me feel a little heady. I waved my fedora, sending dust motes cascading through the air. Dale Cantrell sat across the table, staring at his steepled fingers, chewing on his lip. Behind him, leaning awkwardly against the counter, was his older brother Cecil. Both of them looked like college boys in their button down shirts and crew cuts, but Dale said he was going to join the Army once he came of age. Cecil worked at the local grocery store.
     “It looks fairly straightforward. We’ve got opportunity, we’ve got enough motive for a jury. I know it’s not much comfort, boys, but there it is.”
     Dale pursed his lips. “I told her. I told her time and again that piece of shit was dangerous. Fucking greaser. They should build a fucking wall along the border, keep those fuckin’ bean-eaters at bay.”
     I waited; sometimes it’s best just to listen, but the boy choked back the rest of the diatribe.
     “Just so’s I can dot the I’s and cross the T’s, what were you boys doing Saturday night?”
     Cecil opened his mouth but Dale spoke over the top of him. “Usual. Playin’ cards. Bumpin’ gums.”
     “Oh yeah? I’m a bit of a shark myself. What were you playing?”
     “Poker,” Dale said, at the same time as Cecil said, “Rummy.”
     Dale shot his brother a look that could have stopped a goat’s heart. “Poker,” he said again, “then Rummy.” He jerked his head back over his shoulder. “Don’t worry about the boob.”
     Cecil reached across his body to pick up his cup of java. He stared into the cup before taking a slurp.
     “Uh huh. Well anyway, we might get you down the clubhouse tomorrow, if you’re up to it. Got some paperwork you’ll need to sign, and we’ll get you to formally identify Simental.”
     “Both of us?”
     “Yeah. Both of you. The Cap will bust my nuts if I don’t nail this guy. You know, procedure.”

Five: Break and Enter
I love the new flatties, fresh from the academy. Boys like Officer Petrovski, with their shiny buttons and spotless uniforms, nightsticks that have only seen the soft touch of a polishing cloth and haven’t yet got up close and personal with some goon’s ugly mug. I love ‘em like the sons I never had, but they don’t understand that sometimes you have to break the law to make the law work.
     A couple of things were bugging me and I had to have a snoop around the Cantrell place, even if just to set my mind at ease. The Mexican’s goofy Klan story, Dale’s rant about wetbacks, and the card game gaffe – the whole thing felt hinky. When you’ve been a shamus as long as I have, you learn to trust your gut.
     Around the back I found a window open. I checked left and right before sliding it open and climbing in.
     Dale’s room was a mess. For someone thinking of joining the Army, he didn’t have much self-discipline. Mommy Dearest had only been dead just over a week, and already the room was strewn with dirty clothes, half-eaten meals (if you can call ‘baked beans a la can’ a meal) and books. Amongst the mess, a single book caught my eye. White cover, black text. The Clansman, the title read, by Thomas Dixon. Jesus, Mary and Joseph.
     I checked the wardrobe in the corner, pushing the clothes back and forth. I didn’t really expect to find a pointy hat but it always pays to cover your bases. And there it was, hanging up between a leather jacket and a pair of navy blue gabardines. Like I said, it pays to follow your hunches.
     My mind went into overdrive. If Dale was out stabbing the Mexican Saturday night with the rest of the good ol’ boys, then the Mexican was telling the truth. And if Dale was lying, it made me wonder what his brother was hiding.
     I went to the Cantrell’s phone to line up a backdated search warrant.

Six: The Interrogation
I had Cecil all to myself, while Dean was in the next interview room digesting the delicious irony of being charged with attempted murder and also providing his favourite greaser with an alibi. The kid sat across from me, one leg jiggling up and down. I reached down and touched the brown paper evidence bag by my right dog. This collar was going to be duck soup.
     “So, you care to tell me what you were really up to Saturday night?”
     He stared down at the desk. “Playin’ cards.”
     “Oh yeah, that’s right. Poker wasn’t it? Or was it Rummy.”
     He chewed his lip.
     “At the moment, Cecil, we got you as accessory to attempted murder. Maybe you were even there. You got your own hood, or is someone lending you one?”
     Cecil kept mum, staring at the table.
     “You’re a real daisy, Cecil. The boys in the Big House are gonna love you.”
     His eyes darted up.
     “Know what the first thing they’re gonna to do you is? Knock your teeth out.”
His brow creased.
     “Yeah, Dale said you were a little jingle-brained. I’ll let you figure it out. Put it this way – inside of a month you’ll be beggin’ to do the dance.”
     I let that sink in a while then cleared my throat and continued.
     “Jakeloo, here’s what I figure. You and Dale got your heads together on this one. You both hated this Simental guy, but not for the same reasons. Racism isn’t your style, is it Cecil.”
     Cecil shook his head.
     “No matter. You drove down to Pete’s diner, about the time your ma was due to knock off. Dale and his Klan friends took the car, followed Simental after he said buonas noches to Mrs Cantrell.
     “Your job was just to keep ma busy, make sure she didn’t follow Simental, right? You were just meant to walk her home, under some pretense that you were out and about on the town.
     “But something went wrong, didn’t it? You told her about Simental, what your brother had planned for her. But why? You were angry.”
     Cecil was now shaking his head back and forth, furiously.
     “There’s something your brother doesn’t know about you, isn’t there? A dark secret.”
     “Yes. You were jealous, weren’t you?”
     “Yes, you sick piece of shit. You found out mother had been eating a man-size serve of chorizo and you threw an ing-bing.”
     I reached down and picked up the evidence bag, tipped the contents onto the table.
     “Some stuff I found in your little hidey-hole, Cecil.”
     Laddered nylons, stained panties, and photos – well-thumbed photos – of dear old mom. Cecil had a severe case of Oedipus.
     “Nothing like a son’s love for his mother, hey Cecil?”
     “No, you can’t prove it. Yeah, Dale might’ve been out hassling the bean-eater, but you can’t put me at the scene of the crime.”
     I launched myself across the table and grabbed his upper arms. He cried out in pain.
     “Wrong, dipshit!”
     I dug my fingers into his left arm, remembering the awkward way he reached for his mug of joe. I felt blood squelching under the bandage. Cecil cried out in pain.
     “Still sore huh? Well, that bit of chrome looked as if it had been lying in that abandoned lot for a while.”
     Cecil looked up, eyes blazing out of a pale face. “She deserved it! The roundheel...”
     “Cecil Cantrell, I’m charging you with the murder...”
     “...the cheap dime WHORE...”
     “...of Gladys Cantrell.”
     I let him go and wiped my flippers on my pants.
     “Officer. Take him away.”
     The uniform moved in and grabbed Cecil around the neck, dragging him out of the interview room.
     “The dirty chipper deserved it, copper. I just wanted her to love me.”
     “Don’t we all, Cecil. Don’t we all.”

Seven: Epilogue
When I got home that night, Gladys Cantrell was waiting for me, like all the other ghosts. Dressed in her bloodstained uniform and cheap nylons, head a blackened mess. She smiled as I pulled a glass out of the cupboard and poured myself a stiff hooker of whiskey.
     Like I said, murder is never pretty. Some are just more ugly than others.


(I wrote this story as part of an 'audition' to be a writer on the LA Noire video game. I didn't get the gig, obviously!)

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

2012 snapshot interview

The snapshot project is insane. Started by Ben Peek back in 2005, every 2-3 years a hardy band of speculative fiction bloggers get together and interview about a gazillion specfic writers and editors, effectively taking the pulse of the scene.
I'm honoured to be included. Kathryn Linge interviewed me in 2007, 2010 and she's done it again.
Make sure you read (or at least scroll) to the end so you can see the rest of the interviews.

Fortunate lives

Frankie cracked the fortune cookie and pulled out the slip of paper. As he read the message, the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end.

Kiss her

It wasn't the message, it was the context. He'd been kicking himself all the way home, thinking that's just what he should've done. Kissed her.
He had met Zadie four years ago, when he started working at the bank. Short black hair, geeky glasses that always sat slightly crooked, the barest sprinkling of freckles across the bridge of her nose. But they were both seeing other people then, and by the time they were single again they were friends. They bitched about customers and colleagues, crashed at each other's places when they were drunk, offered consolation and red wine when relationships turned sour. And now she was moving away, down to the central coast. Ditching the rat race, she said. Why risk what they had? But still...

Kiss her.

He'd missed the perfect opportunity. After the movie she invited him in for dinner. They cooked pasta together, for Christ's sake. A glass of red, just enough to take the edge off. Time evaporated as they talked and he never wanted to stop gazing at her crooked smile and deep brown eyes.

When she walked him to his car the moon was sitting, silver and bloated, on the suburban horizon.

Their breath turned to mist.

"Well, I'd better get going," he said.


But he didn't go anywhere. They were standing almost close enough to touch. Zadie smiled. That was the moment.

Frankie cursed, and turned the fortune over in his hands. It must have been a joke cookie, if there was such a thing, because the back hadn't been printed with the requisite warning about not eating the fortune.

And where had it come from? The table was bare – no half-empty plastic containers to suggest that his housemate, Mia, had had Chinese food.

"If only you'd been here five hours ago," he said.


Over the following weeks, Frankie watched Zadie slip away.

She found an affordable place just down the road from the beach. He'd lost count of the number of times she had made him promise to visit.

That moment, standing in the moonlight, didn't repeat itself. Zadie was so busy preparing for the move Frankie only saw her at work. He often thought about telling her how he felt but it never seemed like the right time and then, suddenly, Z-day had arrived. He wiped the sleep out of his eyes and pulled a t-shirt on, doing his best to ignore the butterflies flitting around in his stomach.
Zadie had asked him to help her pack, but in reality there wouldn't be much to do. Just yesterday she'd told him that what little was left in the house would easily fit in her car. Max, her cat, was staying with her aunt and uncle until she'd settled in.

Frankie walked down the hallway into the dining room, then stopped.

On the edge of the table, sitting amongst old newspapers, Mia's dinner dishes (or were they breakfast dishes – she kept such odd hours it was hard to tell), and unpaid bills was a fortune cookie. Frankie's heart lurched. He'd been thinking a lot about fortune cookies since the Kiss her night. He kept the message in his wallet, as a constant reminder to seize the day.

With tingling fingertips he picked the cookie up and snapped it open.

He pulled the fortune out.

Don't let her go

He blinked and read it again, reality bursting through the fantasy. He was so stupid. He stormed into Mia's room, where she was curled up under the doona.

"Hey. Hey!"

She blinked up at him.

"Hey Frank," she said. Her voice sounded rough and for a moment he felt sorry for her. Pub work. It couldn't be much fun. Then she sat up and he caught a glimpse of the guy in bed next to her. Shit, another one.

Frankie wasn't a prude but she was going off the rails. Guys Mia met at the pub, she didn't know them from a bar of soap. He was worried she was going to get hurt – physically and emotionally. And, let's face it, a part of him was worried for himself, worried one of them might decide to take the DVD player with them when they snuck out in the morning.

"What the hell is this?"

Mia took the scrap of paper out of his hand. The guy groaned and rolled over. She shrugged.

"Looks like one of those message thingies out of a Chinese cracker."

"Where did you get it?"

"The fortune cookie. Where did you get it?"

Now she was fully awake. "I didn't. I haven't had a fortune cookie for years."

He watched her for a moment but she wasn't lying. Mia was lazy, inconsiderate, but never cruel.

"Sorry. I'm just a bit worked up."

"Zadie's leaving today, isn't she?"

Frankie nodded, then turned, worried Mia might see the tears stinging his eyes.

Zadie's empty house looked alien to him. Bare walls and floors – movie posters and Persian rugs in transit. The lounge room looked so big now without Zadie's ridiculously overstuffed, unbelievably comfortable sofa taking up half the room.

"This is it then," she said.

"Yeah. Got everything?"

She was holding a carry-on bag in one hand and her keys in the other.

Don't let her go.

He was going to let her leave. There was no question of trying to stop her. That sort of thing only happened in movies.

He walked her down the front steps to her car and he couldn't believe he'd come so close to kissing her on this same spot, barely a month ago.

In the harsh midday sun it seemed impossible she could ever want him.

"I'll call you when I get down there," she said.

He nodded. He couldn't speak. It felt as though there was a golf ball stuck in his throat. She put the bag down and hugged him. She felt so warm. Her hair tickled his face. He could smell her perfume.

When she pulled away, her cheeks were wet. She climbed into her car and he walked around and shut the door for her. She started the engine.

"Don't go," he said.

"What?" A half-smile touched her lips.

"Don't go. Please."

"Frank. I have to go. All my stuff's down there. I've quit my job. I can't not go."

"Zadie, I love you."

"I'm sorry. I really am," Zadie said. She put the car into gear. Through a prism of tears, he watched her drive off.

There was no fortune cookie waiting for Frankie when he got home.

Zadie called him that night and apologised. She didn't offer to come back, and he didn't ask her to.

"I'm sorry," he said. "I got a bit emotional. It's just, we've been friends for so long. I didn't want to lose you. I'm an idiot."

The line went quiet. The conversation stalled.

Patricia took over Zadie's teller. She was nice enough. She put up photos of her three grown kids and grey-haired husband. She smelt of talcum powder and peaches.

Days turned into weeks. From time to time Frankie took the messages out of his wallet and stared at them, just to convince himself he hadn't imagined it all.

Emails replaced phone calls from Zadie. He was waiting for the one that started: "Something really exciting has happened. I've met someone!"

He almost wished for it. It would allow him to end this ridiculous charade and move on.


Frankie scratched his chest through his pyjama shirt with one hand and slopped milk onto his cereal with the other. He carried the bowl out to the dining room table, which was clear for once except for a plate dusted with crumbs and a fortune cookie.

He stared at it, not even daring to breathe. His mind conjured up a thousand fortunes, all of them involving Zadie, most of them involving the smell of sunscreen and salty air, the shock of cool sea water, an embrace.

Frankie set the bowl down and picked up the cookie, praying to a God he only believed in when he wanted something. He snapped it open and retrieved the message.

Ride to work

A snort of laughter burst through his lips, followed by hysterical giggling and then a fit of crying as he realised what a pathetic state he'd been reduced to.

"Ride to work? Ride to work! Why the fuck not?"

He strode outside and pulled his bike out of the shed. It was covered in cobwebs and the tyres were flat. He'd forsaken the bike for the train almost a year ago. He dragged it into the lounge room and set to work, muttering to himself.

Behind him a door creaked and Mia emerged, peering at him from the perpetual darkness of her bedroom. She took in his dusty pyjamas, greasy hands, crazy smile.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm going to ride to work today!" When she didn't respond, he winked and tapped the side of his nose. "A cookie told me to!"

Frankie was dripping with sweat and panting for breath by the time he reached the top of the hill. He was so exhausted he barely registered the crowd gathered there, backs turned to him.
Ahead, the road curved and the city spread out before him. He looked up and squeezed the brakes, sending a shudder through the back wheel.

A pall of smoke hung over the high-rise buildings. At first he thought it was a fire, a building on fire. He dropped his feet to the bitumen. A car slowed to a crawl behind him. Half a dozen people stood on the footpath, staring at the skyline. One woman had a hand raised to her eyes to block the morning sun.

A man repeated the same thing over and over again: "Terrorists. The bastards got us. Terrorists. Those bastards."

From a nearby house a woman emerged wrapped in a dressing gown, eyes gleaming, talking as though she'd known them all their lives.

"The train station. Sixty dead."

The guy in the car behind Frankie piped up.

"Radio's sayin' seventy."

Frankie didn't get to work that day. No-one did, not if they worked in the city. Instead he rode home and sat glued to the television, watching the death toll climb. Train carriages ripped apart like they were made of aluminium foil. Just like Mumbai and Madrid, the TV said. Even Mia got up to watch it, wrapped in her doona.

In the back of his mind, he wondered why Zadie hadn't phoned him.

She must've heard about it. These days everyone was connected, all the time.

This is it, he thought, angry and ashamed of himself, It's really over between us. Wallowing in self-pity while the ambos hefted charred corpses into body bags. One of those bodies should have been his.

Someone knocked at the front door. Frankie got up on shaky legs, eyes still glued to the box. They were showing CCTV footage of the blast.
People were just getting off the train when – bam! – the screen went white.

He smelt familiar perfume and turned to see Zadie standing in the doorway, sunglasses on, sweaty hair pinned back with bobby pins.

"I came as soon as I heard," Zadie said.

She crossed the threshold and wrapped her arms around his waist.

She was hot, her face wet against his shirt.

"But it's a three-hour drive," Frankie said, instantly regretting it.

Zadie didn't mind.

"Promise you'll never leave me," she said. "And I'll do the same for you."


The plane banked and Frankie risked a quick glimpse out the oval window. New York City scarred the horizon. The 747 hit a pocket of empty air and dropped twenty metres, prompting gasps followed by nervous laughter. Frankie's hand clamped down on Zadie's. She winced.

"Sorry," he said.

Zadie looked away from the window. "It's okay, honey. We're almost there."

"Yeah. I know. I'm going to kiss the stinking tarmac when we touch down."

"Well if it's good enough for the Pope..."

The plane plummeted again and his hand jerked, crushing Zadie's fingers.


Frankie had never realised he was scared of flying. It was his first time on a plane. He'd been so hyped when he heard Zadie's parents were sending them to New York for their honeymoon he hadn't even wondered how he would handle the journey.

The take-off had been the worst part. He couldn't imagine the thing getting off the ground. All that steel, luggage, people. It just wasn't natural. The great hulk lumbered down the runway, engines screaming, cabin shaking, before finally lifting off. It was okay once they hit cruising altitude. And then they ran into the turbulence.

He glanced out the window, along the wing. One of the flaps was down. It was streaked with rust. His eyes fixed on it, waiting for it to move, to show some sign of operation.

His ears popped. They were descending. He couldn't even see the skyscrapers now. Frankie tried to think of nice things. The day Zadie moved in, when Mia actually washed up and baked them a cake. Their wedding day, at Zadie's parents' farm, when Zadie's dog Bozo led the bridal party down the hill towards him, pink ribbon tied around her neck. But everything was tinted with fear.

"Do you think that's supposed to be like that?" he said.


"That flap." He reached over her and pointed.


Terra firma loomed, blurred by velocity.

The flap shuddered. The plane plunged, engines shrieking. Oil streaked into the air. Zadie gasped.

"It's coming away."

Frankie saw the flap disappear, fatigue cracks slicing through the wing. The cabin filled with screams. Then an ear-shattering explosion, and everything went black.


Darkness. Hospital sheets. Pain. When he opened his eyes he wondered what Zadie's parents were doing in New York. They looked terrible.
"They said it was quite miraculous," her dad said. "Not many survived."

Frankie's leg throbbed; blood pulsed in his ears.

"You'll come to the funeral, won't you?"

From the day Frankie woke, the darkness never really lifted. Everything was tinged with bitterness and regret. When he was ready to go home Zadie's parents offered to drive him but he said he wanted to do it by himself.

Frankie expected the house to be a pigsty, but the place wasn't too bad. It even looked as though someone had mowed the lawn. Frankie had been a little disappointed Mia hadn't visited him in hospital, but this was a welcome trade-off. He limped through the front door and laid his day pack by the dining room table, his eyes scanning the surface but finding only newspapers and a dirty cereal bowl.


She ran out of her bedroom and embraced him. He staggered backwards, a flare of pain shooting through his bad leg.

"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry," she said.

At first Frankie thought Mia had registered his gasp, but then realised she wasn't talking about that. He felt awkward. Why did people always feel the need to apologise? It wasn't her fault. He told her so, but she shook her head against his chest. He felt her tears soak into his t-shirt.

"Yeah, it is," she said.

Mia pulled away from him and walked towards her bedroom.

He followed her on numb legs. His mouth dried out and his hands quivered.

She opened a small wooden box and rummaged amongst lipsticks and faux pearls, then pulled out a slip of paper.

"No," Frankie said.

She offered it to him. "This guy I brought home must have found it on the table when I was in the shower. It was the day before you left. I didn't know..."


" could I have known?"

He took the fortune with numb fingers. His breath came in short, sharp gasps and black spots danced across his field of vision. His injured leg throbbed.

Frankie stood there, reading the fortune over and over again.

Don't get on that plane

He backed out of the room, frightened of what he might do to her if he stayed there. Thankfully, she didn't follow him.

"Jesus Christ."

Frankie screamed and punched the wall, screaming again as a shockwave of pain blasted up his arm. The air seemed too close, too thick.
His peripheral vision dimmed. He felt as though he was peering down a long, dark tunnel. He leant over the kitchen table. Blinked away the darkness. Then he saw it. A fortune cookie. Choking back tears he crushed the cookie in his good hand, letting the crumbs drop to the floor. He stared at the fortune.

It was a phone number, with a regional code. Frankie stared at it for a few moments, considering his options.

"Fuck it," he said. He carried it to the phone and dialled the number.

After four rings, someone answered.


The man's directions took Frankie west, where new housing subdivisions gave way to yellowing farmland. At the end of a pockmarked single-lane road he turned onto a dirt track that led to a three-storey pale green barn, the sort farm machinery is kept in, with a battered 1974 Corolla parked out front.

Frankie got out, stretched his bad leg and tasted the dusty air. Nothing seemed real any more. He felt as though he was watching himself on a movie screen.

Frankie limped through the open barn door. His eyes adjusted to the gloom. Oil stains on the concrete floor from farm equipment long since gone. Empty fortune cookie boxes, and the odd fortune cookie, crushed into the cement.

When he saw the machine he wondered how he could have missed it. Its bulk pushed to the ceiling of the barn, three storeys up, a mass of stainless steel pipes, scaffolding, and pieces of machinery like nothing Frankie had ever seen before. Plumes of frosty air drifted down from several places, and electricity occasionally arced, lighting the contraption from deep within. Every second he stared at it he noticed more details: electrical cables, red valve wheels and symbols warning of hazardous waste, radioactive material, and others Frankie had never seen before.

"Hello," a voice said. Frankie spun on his heels.

A man approached, hand outstretched. A crazy head of pitch black hair, eyes gleaming from behind wire-framed glasses. He was wearing a pair of dusty black pants and a short-sleeved plaid shirt with pens in the pocket. His grip was firm and dry.

"Lucian Barnes. I'm sorry about your wife," he said.

Frankie, stunned, glanced over Barnes's shoulder and saw the barn wall opposite the machine was covered from floor to ceiling in cork boards, and the cork boards were mostly filled with scraps of paper. Fortunes. A ladder was propped to one side.

"I don't know why it's fortune cookies. Maybe they're easy to send," Barnes said.

Below the board, a card table topped with an ancient Olivetti electric typewriter, and several unopened boxes of fortune cookies.

"Or maybe it's a psychological thing. You know, your mind is already prepared to think about the future, snapping open a fortune cookie..."

"What's going on?"

"I get messages. They helped me build that thing," he said, gesturing at the machine.

"I had some idea, of course, that such a method of transportation was possible. But I got stuck with the mathematics. Then I received my first message."

Frankie followed Barnes to the left-hand-side of the corkboard. In the bottom corner were a collection of fortunes with strings of numbers and equations on them.

"So now I send messages. I pass them on. Sometimes I send myself messages."


"Not me exactly. Other versions of me."

Barnes picked a ream of paper off the desk. He opened the ream as if it was a book, then pulled out a single piece of paper.

"It's like this. This bit of paper. This is everything, our whole universe. Everything, everytime. Past, present future."

"Uh huh."

"Only... there's this," he said, and placed the sheet back in the ream.

"All these other universes, and they don't line up properly. Our present in their future. Or past."

"Multiverse theory."

Barnes nodded at the machine. "That thing creates a hole."

"And you send cookies?"

Barnes nodded.

Frankie opened his wallet. He had kept all the messages. He had thought about throwing them out, but couldn't bear to do it. Now he laid them out on the table.

Kiss her

Don't let her go

Ride to work

Don't get on that plane

Frankie sat down at the typewriter.

"Can I change my past?" he said.

"I don't think so. The thing is, if you changed your past, you wouldn't be here, so obviously you couldn't have succeeded."

"I haven't sent the message yet."

Barnes shrugged.

"Or, if you could, you wouldn't know about it. If you change your past, you change your future. I think it's more likely that you can change the future in another reality. Make things better for another version of you."

Frankie thought of Zadie's body, what was left of it, lying in a morgue waiting to be buried.

"I can live with that."

Frankie typed the message and cut it out. Barnes used tweezers to pull a genuine message out of a cookie and put in the substitute.

"When do you want me to send it?"

"In place of the first one - Kiss her."

Together they walked over to the machine. On their far side of the shed was a small desk with a laptop set up on it. Frankie stood behind Barnes as he tapped at the keyboard, but didn't recognise any of the programs he was using.

"You have to understand," Barnes said, "it's taken me twenty years to get this far. Assembling the knowledge necessary to figure out what the messages I receive mean, and where and when I'm meant to forward them to. You're the first person who's visited me. I don't even know if any of the other messages have changed anything, in this dimension or any other. It's not exactly a precise science."

Barnes offered a lopsided grin.

"I understand. Like I said, I can live with it."

"Do you want to put it in?"

Frankie tipped his head back and stared at the machine. The hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. All of a sudden he wasn't sure he wanted to do it. Then he thought about going home, driving back to the city at dusk. He couldn't face that.

"What do I do?"

Barnes gestured at a ladder in the middle of the machine, fixed to scaffolding with duct tape.

"There's a receptacle at the top of the ladder," he said.

Frankie grabbed hold of the ladder and immediately felt vibrations buzzing through his body. Hairs all over his body stood on end and his fillings ached. He felt slightly nauseous. He counted twelve steps and stared into the machine's belly, blinking a couple of times to clear his vision. There was a small hole, just big enough for the fortune cookie. He reached out, icy air chilling his skin, dropped it in. The cookie dropped out of sight and the machine thrummed harder.

Frankie climbed down six rungs and then jumped, unable to bear the vibrating sensation any longer. He landed, favouring his good leg, then shook his hands and stomped his feet a few times.

Barnes tapped away on the keyboard. He turned.

"Are you sure you want to do this?"

Frankie nodded. Barnes hit the enter key. The vibrations bumped up a couple of notches, and a low drone filled the air. Frankie swallowed hard to try and clear his ears but it did no good. The world swam around him. The machine, the shed, even Barnes seemed to fade in and out at random. He saw himself, a thousand versions of himself, different clothes, different haircuts, wandering around the shed, then the bare paddock, climbing out of his car, a different car, a motorbike. His heart thumped hard when he saw Zadie climb out of the passenger seat, summer dress barely covering her tanned legs. Then she was gone, the shed was gone, the paddock was gone, everything was gone.


Frankie cracked the fortune cookie and pulled out the slip of paper. He read the message and the hairs on the back of his neck stood up.

Kick Mia out

It wasn't the message, it was the context. He'd been thinking this very thought for weeks. The house was constantly trashed, Mia always woke him up when she got home from work, and just lately she'd really lost the plot, bringing guys home from the pub all the time, cranking the stereo until the sun crept over the horizon.

It's not that she was a bad person, it's just if he was going to make a go of it with Zadie...

The thought caught him by surprise.

Make a go of it with Zadie. He liked the sound of that.

Frankie grinned, then forced his expression into something more sober. He strode towards Mia's room.

"Mia, we need to talk."

(First published in Borderlands magazine - issue 9, 2007)

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