It could have gone either way for me. A gradual slip into crime and drugs and a darker side of society may have seemed inevitable. But one thing in my life that I’ve learned is that nothing is inevitable. There’s always a surprise waiting for you. I ended up a cop.
Everything was good.
The Arcade Police Department consists of the Chief, Gordy and me. We’re the junior officers, Gordy’s more junior than I am, but I think that’s because he’s only sixteen. He tells me he’s twenty-six. From the way he acts and talks I can’t really believe that. Once he starts shaving then I’d be more inclined to think of him as more than a teenager.
It’s a good department, quiet. Nothing ever happens in Arcade. The last bank robbery was in the sixties, when the retiring Sheriff killed a load of people in the old Savings and Loan, and then blew his own head off. The pension plan is much better now.
It can be busy sometimes. I had four traffic citations to write up in one day a few weeks back. Pressure. It made the front page of the Arcade Observer, or it should have done. The owner/ editor/ head reporter of the Observer hates me. The citations were all his.
One morning, over a week ago, the Chief was asleep in the back office and Gordy was playing solitaire on the computer. Another busy day. I warmed up my computer - I couldn’t let Gordy have all the fun. Then I heard a noise behind me and twisted around on my chair. It was Charlie. Now here was a character. Charlie’s our janitor and the hardest working man in the Arcade Police Department.
“Officer Norman, arrest any crooks today?”
“Not yet Charlie, but the day is young. Today I’m going to bust someone good,” I said back. It was our thing. Everyday the same question, everyday the same answer. He laughed and carried on sweeping. I liked Charlie. He was probably in his sixties and did a great job around the office. And he was always ready for a chuckle. Everyday he gave us a new joke. Everyday without fail.
A sleepy eyed Chief came out of his office and wandered to the coffee machine.
“Anything new, Charlie?” He said as we gathered around to hear the latest.
“Actually, I heard this only the other day,” Charlie said, starting slowly. Classic Charlie. We waited. Gordy winked at me - today was going to be a good one.
“One snowman turned to the other and said ‘do you smell carrot?’”
Genius. A seasonal joke in the middle of summer. We cracked laughing. The Chief guffawed his way back to his office with his coffee.
“I heard that one forty years ago Charlie.” He always said that.
The jokes were shit but they broke up the boredom. Classic Charlie.
He killed himself later that day. He’d paid his bills, arranged an undertaker and he’d taken a big bottle of pills. He was always considerate.
He didn’t have any family. We were his nearest people – colleagues, you might say. Now we had nobody to clean up after us. Wait, there was more to it than that, he was one of the boys. A friend. A nice guy and we were sad that he was gone.
The funeral was grey and tidy. Nobody else was there. Sixty years on this Earth and the only ones to see him off was us – his friends, I suppose. How sad. The Chief said a few words. There wasn’t anybody there to cry for him. Then it was all over.
A few days later we received a visitor at the precinct. A lawyer from the big city - all full of business, in an expensive suit and tie. He was there to act as executor for Charlie’s last will and testament. We all had to be there for it, the Chief and the two deputies. It would only take fifteen minutes we were told, so we closed the front door of the precinct and sat in the Chief’s office as the lawyer produced a file from his expensive briefcase. We weren’t that worried about interruption. It’s a quiet town is Arcade; besides it was too early for drunken brawls at Jose’s Tavern and Grill and too late for school-run speeding citations.
“‘I, Charles Becker, being of sound mind and body…’ ”
It read like the menu at Jose’s, predictable and without flavor. That is until he got to the real meat of it. Our janitor, the lawyer explained through Charlie’s words, was independently wealthy. He’d had some luck with the World Series, every year, for the last twenty-three years. 1988 through to 2011. His luck had accumulated millions of dollars. I mean millions. And he was leaving it all to us. All of it.
None of us reacted. It was beyond deserving a reaction. This didn’t happen to the likes of us. The lawyer peered over the Charlie’s will.
“You all can start breathing now,” he said.
We did. Big gulps of the sweat tinged air in that small office. I looked around at the others. The Chief was nearing retirement and his eyes widened at the news. Gordy was only a kid. I honestly thought he was going to faint right there and then. My family had grown up and left. The wife and I could have done with that kind of money ten years ago, but, hell, we could do with the money right now.
So, how do you dance on the table at a will reading? Is that disrespecting the dead?
The lawyer caught us before we did anything stupid. “Before you boys run off to buy new tractors, or whatever your hearts desire out here in farmland, Charlie had a stipulation. You can claim this money in twenty-four hours, but only if you solve a missing persons case first.”
“A missing person?” I asked. My brain had already taken a holiday.
“Who’s missing?” The Chief asked, a bit more wisely.
The lawyer pulled out a business card from a silver case. The card was ivory, embossed. He wrote a name and a date of birth on the back. He turned the card over and offered it to the Chief. “Ring me later.”
“When we’ve solved the case?”
“When you run into problems,” the lawyer said with a wink and a wry smile.
I think Gordy was all for running out into the street and calling out the guy’s name. The Chief sent him out to cruise the I109 for speeders, to settle his head. With a sulk he was gone. The Chief told me to find this man, while he sorted out some paperwork. That meant he had to go for a lie down - he hadn’t been well recently. I could still the shock on his face.
I started to work. I put his name and date of birth through the DMV and NCIC. Edward Hamill, thirty-seven, no priors. Not known to the FBI. The DMV gave me his home address and told me he had a clean license. Not even an outstanding parking ticket. He lived in a suburb of the city – an upmarket and classy area.
It also showed me a picture of him - no doubt he was a relation of Charlie’s, had to be a son or a younger brother. So I tried the NamUs, which put me onto the missing person’s database. Nothing. Then I ‘Googled’ his name. I found a business address and phone number. Seems he was a scientist working at a private research and development place. So I rang. After sweet talking a receptionist I was put through to his office. He answered on the first ring. I found our missing person in twenty minutes. He assured me that he was far from missing. And no, he had never heard of anyone called Charlie Becker.
Now it was becoming clear. Charlie was probably this man’s father and he wanted us to find him. I could see all the money evaporating. Edward’s mother had presumably never told him. Obviously our recently deceased janitor wanted us to find his estranged son so he could inherit the money.
Goodbye Charlie. Goodbye money. Case closed.
Except… except it was all so twisted. Why couldn’t Charlie find his son on his own? It wasn’t like he was a million miles away. Twenty at the most. It took me minutes to find him. Even without the DMV, it wouldn’t have taken more than an hour for Charlie to locate him on the internet. Hell, if he’d asked I’d have done it for him. Why the pretense? Why the promise of big money, when it was only ever going to go to this asshole of a son?
Fine. I’ll see this through, and Charlie, wherever he is, will be happy.
I asked the son if I could meet him. Sure, he said, come on over. Asshole. He definitely had Charlie’s friendly nature - as long as he didn’t have his father’s weird sense of humour.
On the way there I decided to ring the lawyer.
“What the hell is going on? I’ve spoke to Hamill. He’s not missing. Is this a joke?” I was so pissed.
“No, officer, this isn’t a joke. My client paid me a huge retainer and asked me to read his will on the event of his death. But that doesn’t mean he told me everything.”
“Did you know that Hamill wasn’t missing?”
“I know this is disconcerting for you. I’m following my client’s wishes,” he said, almost sorry.
“Did you know?” I pushed. I could hear the lawyer take in a sharp breath.
“As a matter of fact, I did. I investigated this claim of a missing person myself. Mr Becker wrote his will six months ago. Edward Hamill wasn’t missing then.”
“So why am I doing this?” I couldn’t keep the exasperation from my voice.
“I approached Mr Becker about this. He claimed that Hamill will disappear on this date. Mr Becker told me this six months ago. He said he would vanish tonight at seven exactly. He wanted you to stop him. I’m not a man who believes in clairvoyance, or any such thing, but my client could be persuasive.”
A lot of money could persuade almost anyone to almost anything.
The lawyer continued. “Mr Becker was emphatic about it. That’s as much as I know,” he said.
“How? Does he get kidnapped? Does he fall down a well?” I stopped myself. This was bull. How could Charlie Becker know that this man was going to disappear? He couldn’t. He couldn’t see in to the future, could he? No. It was a trick, or a trap. Charlie had set something up here.
The lawyer was silent. Waiting for me to think this through.
“Okay,” I said. “He’s supposed to disappear at seven. I’ll make sure he doesn’t. Will that fulfill Charlie’s stipulation?”
“Yes it will.”
It was five-thirty.
“I’ll ring you at five past seven.” I rang off.
Inside the main reception of Hamill’s place of work a receptionist directed me to his office. Coming from the lime-green painted dump of the precinct, this place was beautiful. The carpet in the corridor must have cost more than my annual salary. Paintings on the walls looked original by, could be, a French guy, not that I would know, but they probably were. Hamill’s office was as flashy. There was enough space in there to park both of our squad cars, and it was filled with bookshelves with real books, I’d say all of them had been read. The amount of certificates on the walls were enough to paper over the lock-up back at the precinct, and they would have made it a damn-sight prettier. He had three computers on his massive glass desk. There were more big flat screen TV’s dotted around the place than in Harry Martin’s electrical store in the new mall. All of the screens were on, showing freaky multicolored flashes, like tunnels and tubes, expanding and collapsing upon themselves. Like screensavers gone mad. It was dizzying. Disturbing.
Hamill showed me to a chair - a tubular thing that you needed an engineering degree to sit down. I perched.
Christ, he looked like Charlie. I mean spitting image. He even had on a baseball shirt under his lab coat. It was going to be hard breaking the news.
“Thanks for seeing me at short notice.”
Hamill nodded. I could tell he was busy, but much too polite to boost me.
I showed him a picture of Charlie I’d blown up from his driver’s license.
“Do you know this man? Charlie Becker?”
Hamill looked thoughtful. He slowly shook his head.
“No,” he said. “Although I’ll admit he looks familiar.”
“He looks like you.”
Hamill took the photo from me and studied it closer. He smiled.
“You’re right. Older sure, but yes, I suppose he does.”
“Could he be a relation?” I asked.
“Er, I’d have to ask my parents, but if he is he’s someone I’ve never heard them talk about. Charlie Becker you said?” He looked genuinely perplexed. So was I.
“Your parents, do you have a picture?”
“Yes, in my wallet.”
He produced an old photo after some rummaging around. The photo was dated, a middle-aged couple with their arms around each other. I peered at the photo then back at Hamill again. The likeness was remarkable. I could see both his mother and father in his face. That was my theory gone. So, who was Charlie?
“Look, what’s this all about? I’ll ask my parents about this guy. Is he the one that said I was a missing person?”
I could see that Hamill was trying hard to remain polite. I looked at my watch. It was only six-fifteen.
“Is it possible to ring your parents now?” I tried so hard not to come off desperate.
“They’re in Thailand. A second honeymoon, or a third. I’ve lost count.”
Think. Could I arrest him or cuff him to the desk? If I pulled out my gun would I be able to keep him here until seven? No. I untangled myself from the complicated chair.
“Thank you Mr Hamill, sorry Dr Hamill,” I quickly corrected myself after seeing his nameplate on his desk.
“Eddie, please.” He stuck out his hand. I was beginning to like this guy. Then again, I liked Charlie and look where that got me.
“Say, what kind of doctor are you?”
“Sorry,” I said. “Force of habit. Policemen ask questions.”
“No, not at all. I have a PhD in astrophysics.
“Oh,” I said.
“And pure maths.”“Ah.”
“And advanced quantum mechanics. I once held the Einstein Chair of Theoretical Physics at Princeton.”
“I have a leather La-Z-Boy back at… never mind.”
He smiled again. I paused, waiting for something else. He seemed embarrassed.
“So that’s what you do here? Physics and maths and stuff.” I filled in the pause.
“Well, it’s an R and D post.” He waved his arms around the room at all the incomprehensible images on the TV’s. “I’m looking at the fabric of the universe.”
I was out of my depth here. “Okay then, I better go. There’s a lot of universe out there, so I better leave you to it.” I’d decided to wait in the parking lot until he went home. Then I could follow him until it was past seven. “What time do you finish?”
“I’m afraid I put in a few all-nighters in here. Tonight is one of them.”
“Yes,” he said explaining further. “We have a big experiment tonight. Kind of crucial.” He looked at his watch. “Sorry to rush you, but I have to prepare. Something big is going to happen at seven tonight.”
I woke up in a small infirmary. Dr Hamill was standing over me with a glass of water. Concern on his face.
“Are you okay? You collapsed. Fainted.”
I fumbled to sit. “What time is it?”
“Er, twenty-five to seven. Are you alright now?”
“This experiment - what is it?”
The concern on Hamill’s face deepened into worry. “Sorry. It’s classified.”
I stood up and took hold of his lab coat. “Tell me!” I think I shouted.
“Don’t you need a warrant or something?” He backed away.
“Do I need one?”
“Come back tomorrow, I’ll tell you then.”
I let him go. I couldn’t be bad to him. I needed him to trust me.
“Please. Charlie thought you’re going to disappear at seven tonight.”
Hamill laughed. “Well, I suppose I am. But only for minute.”
“Please, I’m trying to protect you. I have a lot riding on this.”
Hamill suddenly became thoughtful. He looked at me closely.
“There must be a leak here. Nobody knows about the breakthrough. Not yet. Who is Charlie Becker?”
“He was our janitor. He died after winning millions on the World Series. He wanted me to stop you from becoming a missing person.”
Hamill looked at me as though I had said I’d seen Santa Claus. He spun around and bolted out of the door. I heard a click as he locked me in.
I stepped forward and stood in the puddle where he’d dropped the glass of water. This had become more than money now. Some strange shit was going on here. I pulled out my gun and blew a hole in the door.
In the corridor a man in a white, carrying a bundle of printouts, was staring shocked as I busted out.
“Where did Dr Hamill go?”
He dropped his papers as he stared at my big gun. He pointed down the corridor. “He’s due in lab 3,” he squeaked.
I ran shouting ‘lab 3’ at anybody I saw. Scientists break quickly at the sight of a gun. Everyone I met pointed and ducked. I smashed through the door of lab 3 when I found it.
The large room was like an operating theatre at the city hospital. Machines stood pinging in every corner. White coated geeks stood around with clipboards and iPads and handheld thingies. Hamill was stood on a dais in front of a huge round donut. He looked at me with determination.
“You’re not going to stop me going through here.”
“What the hell are you talking about? What are you doing?” I screamed. The gun in my hand probably made me look like a madman.
“When this portal turns on at seven, I’m going to step back in time.”
“Portal?” I said.
He looked at his watch. I looked at mine. We had fifteen minutes. I put my gun back in the holster.
He was a scientist. That meant he had to explain everything whether he wanted to or not. It was his nature. I’m a policeman, I crave information. That was my nature.
“This portal manufactures a crack in the fabric of the universe. It makes a wormhole. A tunnel through time. And I’m going to step though it.”
“At seven,” I said. “At seven you’re going to step through there and not come back.”
“No, I’m going for a peek.”
At last it was clear. I laughed as I approached Hamill on the dais. “You’re Charlie. You’ll step through there and not come back. You’re going to be trapped in the past and then in twenty-three years you’ll die, by your own hand. Then you’ll send me to come and stop you.”
I could see Hamill’s face - Charlie’s face - crack. He knew I was right. But I knew his mind. He was Charlie. I knew Charlie.
“The plan, if the experiment goes wrong, is to accumulate money - I decided to memorize every World Series winner - then when the time comes, this time - now - I have to commit suicide. My will has to send someone to stop me from making a mistake.” He almost looked defeated as he knew that his plan B had come into effect. I was here to stop him.
“So stop then. Don‘t go in there.” It was over.
“No, I have to go in.” It wasn’t over.
“Paradoxical consequences.” He was resigned.
“If I don’t go in there then I would have never have sent you to come and stop me. That’s why suicide is factored into the strategy. I cannot meet myself - it would cause further paradox. And I’m sorry about the money.”
He jolted me back to the reason why I came looking for him in the first place. “It’s not about the money,” I lied. Well, kind of. I wanted to solve this - the money was a great bonus.
Then Charlie brought home this paradox thing. “If you stop me going back then I won’t be there to will you the money.”
He was right.
Which ever way this worked out then there’s no money. If I stopped him, or if I let him go, I’d fail. Did he have the will to step though the portal despite knowing that he couldn’t come back? Did I have the will to stop him?
I breathed deeply. It wasn’t about the money. The Chief would understand. Gordy would probably shoot me.
But I had to stop him. For Charlie.
I rushed him on the dais. And pushed him out of the way as the portal started to fire up. It was seven.
He fell one way, I fell the other. A lightening streaked tunnel was between us. We both tumbled towards the portal.
I woke up in an alleyway. It was night. I was on my back, the ground cold and wet beneath me. Gingerly I stood up and then I realised that my uniform was in tatters, scorched in parts. I rushed out into the street.
A late night vendor was selling newspapers. I grabbed one. The date was the 19th of January, 1987.
Who the hell won the World Series in ‘87?