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A Man Out of Time

A Man Out of Time


Copyright © 2018 John William Runyan III


Smashwords Edition

All Rights Reserved


Cover artwork created by Monica Haynes



Prologue


It was an unseasonably cold day in March. Worse than cold, it was insulting, the kind of day where the sky spits sleet in your face. Dr. Fred Willis, professor of physics at Framus University, didn’t care. He always took a walk in the morning and this day wasn’t going to be any different. The exercise helped him think, and he had a lot on his mind. He had invented something. Something that could make him rich or, might bring about the downfall of Western civilization plus some other civilizations he didn’t particularly care about. So, he needed to move and he needed to reflect on the implications of what he’d created.


As he walked farther, it grew colder, and the wind picked up. Ice crystals stung his skin like he’d been slapped by a jilted lover. Then the wind gusted and it felt like the bitch was wearing brass knuckles. He pulled his scarf around his face and forged ahead into the gale. Maybe if he weren't so preoccupied with the future of civilization and the sleet bitch slapping his face, he would have noticed the black Toyota Prius following him. If he had, he might have observed the man in the passenger seat tightening a silencer on a Beretta.


In spite of the wind, he heard his phone beep. He ignored it. It beeped again.


Now what? Leave me alone. I’m thinking.


It beeped once more. Since his musings had been so rudely interrupted, he decided to interrupt his walk as well and reluctantly checked his phone. Now the sleet was coming down so hard that he could barely see, but he managed to identify the word:

“Run!”


He stared at the message and immediately his mind filled with questions.


Run? Run what? An experiment, but which experiment? Maybe it’s not an experiment. Maybe I’m supposed to run somewhere, but where am I supposed to run? And why?


His questions were answered in the next second as a bullet whizzed past his ear and hit a jogger. The man’s body dropped to the pavement.


“Shit!” Willis stared at the body in disbelief.


Three more shots passed him and ricocheted off a building before he recovered enough from the shock to respond. He started zigzagging down the sidewalk, weaving between pedestrians and slipping on the ice. Two more people caught a bullet and went down before Willis could turn a corner. Completely panicked, Willis ran into a donut shop. A barrage of bullets emerged from the Prius, shattering the front picture window and taking out a customer along with several innocent donuts and the cashier. Willis heard the squeal of tires as it sped away. Though he was in shock, his mind searched for answers.


Who wanted to kill me? Why? What kind of reprobates would care enough about the environment to drive a Prius, but have so little respect for pastry?


Then he felt a sharp pain in his side and realized he was bleeding. Profusely. His mind faded to black.


Chapter 1

Officer David Shea was feeling sorry for himself. He had recently been demoted from the illustrious job of being Officer Friendly and was now assigned to the traffic division. He was forced to sit in his patrol car all day and wait for someone to violate some trivial traffic edict. It was boring. Besides, he liked being Officer Friendly. He liked talking to kids and telling them about all the great things the department was doing and how nice police were when they weren’t busting you for marijuana possession. But then those nasty rumors had started. It had come to light that he had shot nine people while on patrol. Well, yeah, he had, but not all on the same day. And he’d had reasons, good reasons. He couldn’t remember what they were, but they had been good enough to keep him on the force. At least so far.

People were saying that he was unstable and had anger management issues. He had to take some stupid class twice. It was even said that he got into fights and might not be the best person to be around children. They even said he had once been in a fight with a horse. That was true, but the horse had deliberately stepped on his foot. He’d had to hit him with a two by four. Barnyard animals would bully you if you let them, but these city folks wouldn’t know about that, now, would they? They hadn’t grown up on a farm.

David was still sulking when he got the call: Two people in a black Toyota Prius had shot up a donut shop and sped away. They were coming toward him. David was aghast.

What was this world coming to? What kind of sickos would shoot donuts?

Then he saw it. Barely visible through the sleet, a black Toyota Prius was coming in fast, swerving on the slick street. Well, that was no way to conserve gas driving like that. David could have used radar, but he preferred to go with his gut, and his gut told him they were speeding. The only people who would do that would be the kind of people who shot donuts before fleeing the scene of the crime. Here was his chance to get back in the good graces of the department. David put his car in gear, turned on his lights and siren and gave chase.

The Prius pulled over to the side of the road. Nothing out of the ordinary so far, but still, David was suspicious. Something didn’t feel right, but then again, he was always suspicious of anyone driving a foreign car. It wasn’t patriotic. David turned on his loudspeaker.

“Get out of the car, one at a time, with your hands up!”

Unfortunately, it just came out as static. Broken again. Budget cuts.

“Screw it!”

David threw down the radio microphone, got out of his car and drew his service revolver. He slowly approached the Prius. The passengers were white, middle-aged and well-dressed. At least they seemed to be white. David looked again.

Wait a minute. They’re not white; they’re Asian. They look Japanese. Well, that would explain the car. Maybe they’re foreign Japanese tourists. Maybe they’re foreign Japanese tourist terrorists, the kind of terrorists who would stop and take photos right before shooting up an innocent crowd of carbohydrate consumers. I’d better be careful.

Now they’re fidgeting. Why are they so agitated? They keep staring at my gun. Haven’t they ever seen a gun before? Oh yeah, that’s what they want me to think, that they are sooo innocent that they don’t even know what a gun is.

The driver rolled down the window. David was determined to be Officer Friendly, but he held his gun on them just in case.

“Good afternoon. Do you know how fast you were going?”

The driver and the passenger started yelling unintelligible gibberish. Well, that was enough for David. Given that they were driving a Toyota Prius at breakneck speed, couldn’t speak English and seemed inexplicably nervous at the sight of his gun, he drew the only logical conclusion he could: Maybe they were tourists, but they were definitely terrorists. Probably from some country whose name he couldn’t pronounce. His little town of Framus wasn’t so desperate for tourist dollars that it had to cater to terrorists. He was going to take them in. He was going to be a hero. In his mind, he already was.

A little later another black Toyota Prius drove by. The driver slowed momentarily to survey the scene, then moved on. David was too busy taking a selfie with his prisoners to notice.

* * *

Private Detective Ace Anvil was tired. Barely forty, he felt old beyond his years and more beat up than his trench coat. He had been up most of the night working a case, following a lead that had led nowhere. He had tried his usual tactic of going to a bar and drinking heavily to get his creative juices flowing. That hadn’t worked. He just ended up yacking with some guy in the restroom who claimed he was a detective as well. Complete waste of time.

The booze had been bad too. It had messed up his mind. The world hadn’t seemed the same since he left The Stellar Door. He needed to go to classier bars and he definitely needed to drink a better brand of whiskey.

The sun was coming up, but he was too strung out to sleep. He wandered around aimlessly for a while, then like a homing pigeon, somehow ended up back at his office, conveniently situated in one of Framus’ more upscale slums. He grabbed a coffee pot filled with four day old coffee, sat at his desk, fished out the mold growing on top his leftover brew and poured himself a cup. Too strong. He added some whiskey to dilute it. That was better. He looked around idly as he sipped his morning brew. He tried to tell himself that furnishing your office with furniture people left out on the street gave one’s place a rustic look. Like his suit.

Who am I kidding? I need to cater to a richer clientele.

He added more whiskey and stared at the floor. He was on his second cup when he heard a knock on the door.

“Go away; I’m busy.”

The door opened, and Ace heard a voice like liquid butter.

“Mr. Anvil, I presume?”

His gaze rose slowly from the floor, following a pair of long legs past the curves of a figure-hugging black dress. His eyes lingered lovingly on two magnificent protruding orbs seeking emancipation from the restrictive fabric of a bodice before focusing on the face of an angel. He picked his jaw up off the floor and gave her his most winning smile. At least he thought it was a winning smile. It always worked on his mother.

“Ohhhh yes, that’s me. You can call me Ace.”

“I heard you say you were busy, but I thought I would take the chance of intruding. I hope that you can spare me a minute of your valuable time. However, if that’s not convenient, I could come back later…”

“I can always make time for a client. Being a dick is a twenty-four hour a day job.”

Oh, I’m so glad to hear that. My name is Betty Willis, and I need your help.”

“I’m listening.”

“May I sit down?”

“Please do.”

Betty sat down in a chair to the side of his desk and crossed her legs. He swiveled around to enjoy the view better. He was immediately impressed by her upright posture and steady breathing.

“Did you hear about the shooting at Harold’s Donuts last week?”

“No, I’ve been working. Too busy to keep up with the news.”

“The cops think that it was a hit from a competing donut shop. Do you believe it?”

“Might be true. This is a rough town, particularly during spring break.”

“My father, Fred Willis, was in that donut shop. I have reason to believe that he was the real target and that the donuts were just collateral damage.”

“Why is that?” Ace asked.

“Because my father didn’t eat donuts. He must have ducked in there trying to escape his assailants.”

“You sure?”

“He observed a low carbohydrate diet.”

“Why would anyone want to kill him?”

“My father was a famous physicist at Framus University.”

“And?”

“He discovered the famous Framus effect.”

“Oh, yes, of course, that famous physicist.” Ace tried not to sound clueless.

“Anyway, he was able to use that effect to invent something. Something that could change the world. When you do something like that, you’re bound to attract enemies.”

“That’s one something per sentence. That’s a lot of somethings this early in the morning. What sort of something are we talking about?”

“I don’t know what sort of something, only that my husband said it was big.”

“A big something. That doesn’t give me much to go on.”

Then Ace did a double take.

“Wait a minute. I thought you said he was your father.”

“Yes, I suppose I did. I’ve been so distraught since his death that I got confused. My husband was older, and we were very close. He was like a father to me.”

“O-kay.”

Something didn’t seem right about that, but Ace was still too enamored with her breathing to put his finger on exactly what it was. She leaned forward and touched his knee.

“Mr. Anvil, I want you to find out who killed my father, I mean husband, and why.”

Ace was totally smitten, but he managed to pull it together enough to discuss fees. Business was not going well, and he had bills to pay. He stretched his money in creative ways like giving his landlady French lessons instead of rent. But it was only a matter of time before she figured out that the only French he spoke involved his tongue in a way that had nothing to do with talking. Then he’d have to pony up some real money.

“Mrs. Willis, I’d be happy to help, but I don’t come cheap.”

“Neither do I and call me Betty.”

She pulled a small parcel wrapped in paper from her purse and laid it on his desk.

“Will this get you started?”

Ace unwrapped the package. It was a stack of twenties. There must have been a thousand dollars there.

Ace’s eyes bugged out of his skull. “Yeah, this will work. So, you’ll be paying in cash?”

“Yes, I’m quite the old-fashioned girl. I don’t believe in banks.”

“Okay, I’ll draw up a standard contract, and you can come in and sign it at your convenience.”

She touched his knee again.

“I don’t think that will be necessary, Mr. Anvil—”

“Ace.”

“Yes, of course, Ace. I trust you. I felt I could trust you as soon as I came in the door. A girl just knows these things.”

Ace looked into her eyes. They were tearing up. He could tell she was still in shock from the untimely death of her father or husband or whoever he was.

“I’ll find the killers, Betty. You can count on me.”

“Oh, I know I can.”

Betty got up and kissed him on the cheek. As she headed for the door, she turned back for a moment.

“One more thing, Mr. Anvil, I mean Ace. While you’re at it, please recover my husband’s invention. It’s a rectangular metal doohickey about the size of a suitcase. I wouldn’t want it to fall into the wrong hands if it hasn’t already.

“Anything else that would help me identify it?” Ace queried.

“It’s shiny. I like shiny things. Besides, it has sentimental value. Please find it for me.”

Betty blew him another kiss and sashayed out. Ace was wide awake now and determined to bring her husband’s killers to justice. And her father’s too

Chapter 2

Ace put his pistol in his holster and set out for Framus University. The day was chilly but clear; so, he decided to walk. Walking would help shake the cobwebs out of his head. He hadn’t gone far when he spotted a black car tailing him. He pretended not to notice, but put his hand on his gun as a precaution. After a few seconds, it sped away. He relaxed his grip and noticed its emblem and the word Prius as it sped away.

Hmmm... Don’t remember seeing one of those around here. Must be a new make.

A little later, he made it to the university and found a campus map. He looked up the physics building, reached it after a short walk and sauntered in. Not knowing where to go, he just popped into the first office he saw. He was in luck. There was a secretary. Ace knew he’d get answers. He had a way with dames.

“Good morning, may I help you?” the secretary cooed. Ace was captivated.

“I’m Ace Anvil. I have a private dick. I mean, I am a private dick. I mean, I’m a detective. I’m here to ask a few questions about the late Dr. Willis and his work. Is there anyone here who knew him? I’d like to have a conversation.”

Before she answered, she pushed her chair back and crossed her legs. The view was good. She leaned forward. The view was better. Ace had to remind himself he was here on business.

“Yes, Dr. Ferguson worked closely with Dr. Willis. I’m sure he would be able to help you. He’s just down the hall. His lab is the second door on the left.”

Ace strolled down the hall and knocked on the door. The door opened and Ace was greeted by a short man in a bow tie and a lab coat.

“Dr. Ferguson?”

“Yes.”

“Ace Anvil, private investigator. I’m here about Dr. Willis.”

“I’m afraid you’re too late. He’s passed on and you’ve also missed the funeral.”

“Yes, I know, I’m just here to ask a few questions.”

“Very well. I’ll see if I can help.”


Ferguson let him into his lab. Tables were covered with equipment featuring blinking lights. It looked like the set of a science fiction movie. Ace was certain he was in the right place.

“What would you like to know, Mr. Anvil?”

Well, what was he working on before he bit it?” Ace picked up a small rectangular object. “This, for instance. The design looks rather advanced. Perhaps a rival lab found out about it, figured Willis was going to beat them to the patent and had him bumped off.”

“Well, that’s our coffee maker. So probably not.”

“Ah, yeah, I knew that.” Ace put it back on the lab bench.

“Well then, exactly what was he working on?”

“Have you heard of the Framus Effect?” Dr. Ferguson asked.

“Who could forget the famous Framus Effect? But tell me, what was he doing with it? Go ahead, Doc, spill it.”

“Well, since you have heard of the Framus Effect, doubtless you’ve heard of a plasma wakefield accelerator.”

“Doubtless, but refresh my memory.” Ace made himself comfortable sitting on a table.

“As you probably already know, Dr. Willis was a particle physicist. We particle physicists like to slam sub-atomic particles together so we can measure the debris. This allows us to study their composition.”

“Sounds like fun,” Ace said.

“Most physicists employ a big accelerator like the Large Hadron Collider. However, that is not necessary. A plasma wakefield accelerator uses laser pulses instead of radio waves for particle acceleration. It is one thousand times more powerful than a conventional accelerator.”

“Where would I see one of those?”

“You’re practically sitting on one.”

Ace slid off the table and tried to look nonchalant. Dr. Ferguson noticed his blank look.

“The series of devices you see taking up the table comprise the accelerator.”

“Yes, of course. So how does the Framus Effect come into play?”

“Dr. Willis invented a miniaturized plasma wakefield accelerator. One that could fit into a briefcase, making it easily portable. Not only smaller, but more powerful than any existing accelerator. Besides being miniaturized, it did what no other accelerator has ever done.”

“Yeah, what’s that?” Ace was unimpressed.

“It generated tachyons.”

Tacky who?”

“Tachyons. From the Greek, meaning ‘rapid.' Tachyons are particles that travel faster than light. Dr. Willis’s accelerator generated so much energy that tachyons would spontaneously appear. Since he developed it here, he called it the Framus effect, in honor of this institution.”

“That’s fascinating, Doc, but I’m trying to figure the angle and I don’t see how that invention would get him plugged.”

“Tachyons have an unusual property. They travel backward in time.”

“Well, good for them.” Ace looked blank.

“Don’t you see, Mr. Anvil? If these particles travel backward in time and you could detect them, a tachyon transmitter would let you send messages to the past.”

It took a minute for Ace to realize the potential consequences of this.

“So, if I knew how a horse race turned out, I could send a message to myself before the race, bet on the right horse and make a heap of dough.”

“Exactly, Mr. Anvil; now you’re getting it.”

“So, where is his doo-dad now?”

“We don’t know. It disappeared about the time he died.”

“Well, can you make a new one? The races are coming up Saturday and I’d sure like to know how to bet. I’d cut you in for half.”

“Mr. Anvil, if I knew how to make one, do you really think I’d do it to participate in horse racing?”

“Not necessarily; you might prefer dog races. I’d cut you in on those too. We could make a mint and I could quit teaching French to my landlady.”

“Mr. Anvil, I don’t know how to make one, but if I ever do, I’m sure you’ll be the first to know. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do.”

Anvil knew that Ferguson was giving him the brush off and was certain there was more to it than he was telling, but he thought he’d let it go for now.

Okay, Doc, whatever you say.”

Ace left the lab in a happy mood. It had been a good morning. He’d talked to two swell broads and gotten paid by one of them. He had found a motive for murder. And he had even found a suspect. A lesser detective might not have caught it, but Doc Ferguson had ratted himself out. Ace was certain that anyone who said he wouldn’t play the ponies when he had a sure thing was lying. And liars were often murderers. So, he’d be watching old Fergie. You could take that one to the bank.

* * *

David was humiliated. The terrorists he’d brought in had turned out to be tourists. Now they had taken him off the streets altogether and given him a desk job. Specifically, he was supposed to cold call people and solicit donations for the local lodge of The Fraternal Order of Police. He sighed. There was nothing to do but get started. He looked at his call sheet, closed his eyes and randomly put his finger on a number. He punched it in the phone without thinking. An old lady answered. Normally, David would have recognized the voice, but he was to depressed to pay attention.

“Hello.”

“Good morning, I’m calling for the Fraternal Order of Police.”

“Who?”

“The Fraternal Order of Police. We are the voice of those who dedicate their lives to serving our community.”

“I can’t hear your voice. Speak up.”

“We protect and serve,” David said more loudly.

“Who are you serving?”

“The community.”

“You’re serving a commune? I don’t like hippies.”

“I didn’t say commune; I said community.”

“What is it you want?”

“We want money.”

“Then why don’t you hippies get a job?”

“We’re not hippies! We work for the government.”

“And the government pays you so little; you have to beg senior citizens for money?”

“I’m not begging.”

“Sounds like it.”

“I’m soliciting; there’s a difference,” David insisted.

“What’s the difference?”

“Uh, it’s spelled differently and solicitation is done over the phone.”

“So, it’s permissible to pester poor pensioners for money as long as you do it over the phone?”

“Uh, yes. No. I don’t know. What are you, a lawyer?”

“I used to be; I retired and I don’t have any spare money to give to hippies.”

“I told you; we’re not hippies!” David was livid. He hated hippies.

“Then prove it. Do some work if you want my money. If you mow my lawn and wash my car, I’ll give you a dollar.”

“I’m not going to mow your lawn and wash your car for a dollar!” David screamed.

“You don’t have to yell.”

“Well, since you can’t hear me, I think I do have to yell, you miserable old bat!”

There was a moment’s silence.

“David, is that you?”

A sinking feeling came over him.

Hi, Mom.”

“I’m glad you finally called me, after all this time, but you shouldn’t yell at your mother. Have you been taking your medication?”

“Sort of.”

“What do you mean ‘sort of’?”

“I take it sometimes.”

“Now you know you are supposed to take it every day. You’re not nice when you don’t take it every day. Promise me you’ll take it every day.”

Silence.

“David, promise me.”

“Yes, Mom.”

“That’s a good boy. Now, why is it that you called? I forgot.”

“Oh nothing, never mind.”

“Okay David, now you have a good day and behave yourself and call me again soon.”

Yes, Mom.”

Goodbye, David.”

Goodbye, Mom.”

A bunch of his fellow officers peered at him over the top of the cubicle. David scowled at them.

“What?!”

They all scurried back to their desks.

Don’t they have anything better to do than spy on me?

David was losing it. He hated soliciting money. It wouldn’t do him any good anyway. They never invited him to lodge meetings. They said he was disruptive. So, to hell with them. Still, he wanted to be thought of as a good cop. He had to do something, anything to redeem himself. There was only one thing to do. He had to find the miserable miscreants that had shot up Harold’s Donuts. And if that meant hunting down every last Prius in Framus, then so be it.

But how? They had given him a desk job. He was confined to a cubicle, literally stuck in a box. He had to think outside the box if he ever wanted to get out. Then a brilliant idea struck him; he had a lot of sick leave left. He would call in sick. He dialed Chief Harvey’s number.

“Chief, this is David Shea.”

Hello, David.”

“Look, I gotta go home. I’m not feeling well.”

“What’s wrong, David?”

David hadn’t thought that through, so he said the first thing that came to mind.

“I think I’ve got Ebola.”

The chief coughed. “Well, David, I certainly wouldn’t want you at work with Ebola. We’d all feel much safer if you weren’t here. Go home, take all the time you need to get well and then take a vacation. You’ve been under a lot of stress lately. You need it.”

Thanks, Chief Harvey, I knew you’d understand.”

Now David was free. Free to roam the streets and deliver his own brand of justice. It would be tough, but he knew just the man who could help him: Ace Anvil, private eye.




Chapter 3

Ace went back to his office to consider his next move. He poured himself some whiskey and threw back a shot. Whiskey helped him figure the angles, and this case had more angles than a six-pointed star. He had a motive and a suspect, but wasn’t sure what to do next. Seeking inspiration, he drank another shot. Then another and another after that. After a while, the mental strain was too much for him and he passed out on the couch.

* * *

As dawn streamed through the threadbare curtains, Ace was jarred awake by a loud banging. He grabbed his .45 and fired a few rounds towards the source of the racket. It ceased. Then he heard a thud outside his office. He staggered off the couch and opened his bullet-ridden door. There was his old pal, David Shea, taking a siesta on his door mat. Luckily, there was no blood. That was a relief. He never could get out those stains. He could, however, fix the holes in the door. That’s why he always kept duct tape handy.

“Hi, David. Long time, no see. Glad I didn’t plug you.” Ace holstered his piece.

“Just a little bruised” David groaned.

“David, you look like you’re hurting. Are you sure you weren’t hit?”

“Yeah, I decided to wear my Kevlar before I came over.”

“I thought you only wore that in church.”

“There, and other potentially dangerous situations. This being one of them.”

“You should have called.”

“I thought of that, but the last time I did you shot your phone.”

“Sorry, I’ve been a little jumpy lately.”

“Yeah, what’s lately?” David asked as he picked himself up off the floor.

“Since that incident in summer camp.”

“That was twenty five years ago, Ace.”

“I’m scarred for life.” Ace helped David into his office.

“Have a seat, David. Try not to bleed on anything.”

“I’m only bruised, really,” David groaned as he sat down.

“You were never one to gripe about getting shot. I’ve always admired that about you. Most guys, if they catch a bullet, you never hear the end of it.”

Ace poured David some whiskey and sat down.

“So, what tears you away from patrolling the streets and brings you to my side of town?”

“Guess you heard about the shooting at Harold’s Donuts?” David asked.

“Funny you should mention that. I just got hired to track down the killers.”

“Ace, let me in on this. I want to help. I nearly got them. I saw a Prius, I thought it was them, but I got the wrong Prius. They turned out to be tourists, not terrorists. Now the department thinks I’m a joke. They had me on a desk job, harassing people for money. I’ve got to find the terrorists. I’ve got to restore my good name.”

“I never knew you had a good name.”

“Come on Ace, give me a break.”

Ace hated to see his old chum in a funk. He might even be useful. Why not?

“Sure, David, anything for a pal. Besides who could blame you for stopping that car? Anybody who would drive one of those newfangled cars should be detained on general principles or at least have their tires shot out.”

Ace poured himself the last of the whiskey. David hadn’t drunk his yet, so Ace drank it for him. Good booze will go bad if exposed to air too long or at least that’s what his mother told him. He always believed his mom.

“What do we do now?” David asked.

Ace wasn’t sure. Then in a flash of insight, that only a streetwise detective with years of experience could have, he realized that he knew how to find the hitmen; he was dangerously low on booze, and he could fix both problems at the same time.

“Come with me and find out.”

* * *

It was still morning when Ace and David rolled into the parking lot of The Dive, a known hangout for pushers, bookies, insurance salesmen, and various other riff raff. Worse than a public nuisance, it was the navel on the underbelly of Framus. A navel that hadn’t been washed in years and had decades of accumulated grime and lint and was beginning to smell. If the mayor hadn’t owned it, it would have been closed, condemned and demolished years ago.

They emerged cautiously from Ace’s Ford and looked around. All quiet so far, but Ace could feel danger in the air, so he kept his hand on his rod as they headed inside. He never knew when he might have to whip it out and use it. People around them parted as they swaggered up to the bar. Apparently, their reputations had preceded them.

“What will it be gentlemen?” asked the bartender as they sat down.

Whiskey,” David said.

“Leave the bottle” Ace added.

The bartender put two glasses on the counter, filled them and left the bottle. Ace finished his in one gulp, poured himself another gargled, swallowed and then turned around and faced the entrance.

“So now what?” asked David.

“Now we wait.”

“What are we waiting for?”

“The hitmen.”

“Why would they come here?” David looked confused.

“Dr. Willis’s daughter—I mean widow—hired me to find his killers and his pony playing machine. I figure the hitmen will try to take me out before I can find them. Taking me out of the picture is the only way they could ever hope to sleep at night.”

“How do you know they know?” David asked.

“Because a black Prius has been following me ever since I got hired. They must have followed Betty Willis to my office. Now they’re following me, waiting for the right time to strike and I think they’re here now.”

Ace looked out the dirty plate glass window, and as if on cue a black Prius entered the parking lot. Two shady characters dressed in black emerged from the car and sauntered through the door, looking like bad news on the hoof. One had the face of a loser in a knife fight or maybe he had run into a plate glass window and liked it so much he’d done it again. He was the pretty one. The other one reminded Ace of a cockroach, a cockroach with dysentery. Apparently, victims of the public school system and probably unemployable, hitman was the only job they could get. He almost felt sorry for them. Almost. They sat at a table and looked at the beer list, but Ace knew they weren’t here for the beer. They were here for him.

“Come on David. Let’s see what we can get out of the Bobbsey twins.”

Ace and David walked casually over to the hitmen’s table and stared at them.

“Mind if we sit down?” Ace asked Scarface.

“Well, actually yes, I do,” said Scarface.

Thanks,” said Ace pleasantly.

Like predators looking at their prey, Ace and David never took their eyes off the hitmen as they slowly lowered themselves into their seats. Scarface looked unhappy, but didn’t protest.

“So, what brings you all here?” Ace asked, glancing from one to the other.

“We just graduated from art school, and we were passing by and thought the place had character, so we thought we’d drop in and celebrate, maybe have a few beers. You know, we thought it might be fun,” said Scarface.

“Yeah that’s what we thought,” added the Cockroach.

“That’s a lot of thinking for two art school majors,” said David suspiciously.

“Having artistic talent doesn’t render one incapable of cognition,” said Scarface indignantly.

“Tell us about your talent. What kind of stuff do you do?” asked David.

“We are surrealists,” said the Cockroach.

“Huh?”

“It means that we create art by combining irrational juxtapositions of images.”

Ace looked at them like they were crazy. “What the hell are you talking about?”

“We eschew conventionality in art and tap directly into our subconscious for our subject matter and technique. We don’t do representational art.”

Ace and David both looked blank.

“It means that we don’t draw anything that you might find in the real world. You might have seen some of our work at the Framus Gallery of Fine Arts,” Scarface boasted.

“Either of you ever draw any pictures of naked ladies?” Ace asked.

“We both took courses in figure drawing our sophomore year.”

“Got any on you?”

“Do we have any what on us?” asked Scarface.

“You know, dirty pictures. Like the kind you drew in them classes,” Ace said.

“No, like I said, we moved on to abstract art.”

Scarface was growing more irritated by the second.

“Draw me one. I’ll pay you for it,” said David.

Ace threw a twenty on the table. “Come on. Draw us something nasty, and the green is yours.”

“Look we don’t have any ‘dirty pictures’ as you call them and we’re not drawing any.”

Ace and David glanced at each other and nodded slightly. They both knew that if these guys were really artists, they wouldn’t pass up a chance to sell a picture of a naked dame. They had to be hitmen.

“We’re just here for the beer,” said Scarface.

Ace had heard enough.

“Like hell you are. The beer here is swill. Nobody comes here for the beer!”

Ace reached out, grabbed Scarface by the hair, and slammed his head onto the table.

“Who hired you to kill Willis, and what did you do with the thingamajig he invented?

The Cockroach stood up, but before he could do anything, David jumped up and slapped his head, knocking him silly. Scarface was scared shitless.

“Nobody paid us, I don’t know a Willis, and I never touched his ding-a-ling!”

Ace still had him by the hair and hit his head on the table again.

“I didn’t say ding-a-ling, I said thingamajig. Don’t play dumb with me!”

“We’re just here for the ambiance.” Scarface was desperate.

You’re going to need an ambulance if you don’t start talking.”

For the third time, Ace banged Scarface’s head on the table.

“I have nothing to tell you.” Scarface was crying now.

Ace slammed Scarface’s head on the table so hard he started bleeding.

“Don’t clam up on me, or I’ll open you up like an oyster!”

Ace’s conversation with his would-be assassin was rudely interrupted when a big burly bouncer came up behind him and pinned his arms back.

“That’s enough out of you. You’re leaving.”

David, in turn, grabbed the bouncer by his collar.

“Don’t interfere. This is police business”.

“If you’re the cops, show me some ID.”

David felt his pockets and realized he didn’t have it.

“Ah, I left it at home.”

“Fat chance,” said the bouncer, apparently, a born skeptic.

Then another bouncer grabbed David from behind. David threw him on the table. Seeing their chance to get away, the abstract artists split. David came up behind the bouncer holding Ace and aimed a well-placed kick to his crotch. His balls having been compromised, the bouncer let go. David and Ace raced for the door, hoping to catch the hitmen before they got away. Too late; they hopped in their car and sped off.

David got out his service revolver and fired several shots at the departing Prius. All of them hit. Unfortunately, none of them hit the right car, and one of the shots hit a gas tank. The shock wave from the ensuing explosion knocked Ace and David off their feet. Ace struggled to get up but finally got to his feet. He pulled out his Colt, took careful aim at the departing Prius and pulled the trigger. All he heard was a click. He had wasted his last rounds on David and forgotten to reload. Ace was flabbergasted.

“David, how could you miss? I thought you shot nine people.”

“I did, just not the ones I was aiming at.”

“What!?”

“Yeah, they kept moving. You know how hard it is to hit a moving target. And what about you? Where were your bullets?”

“Whaddya think? I gave them up for Lent!” Ace yelled in frustration.

“Huh?”

“Never mind. Come on; they’re getting away. Let’s go get ‘em.”

But they couldn’t get them. Ace and David looked around for Ace’s car. It was gone. In the distance, Ace could see his car being towed away. His nemesis, the repo man, had struck again. All they could do was watch helplessly as both the Prius and Ace’s Ford receded into the distance.

From the far corner of the parking lot, Ace and David were being watched. Watched by eyes that were cold and cruel and unsympathetic. Eyes that belonged to men who valued neither human life nor pastry. The eyes of two psychopaths sitting in a black Toyota Prius. The engine started, and it quietly rolled away.

Chapter 4

Ace had almost worn off his shoe leather by the time he and David walked into the truck stop, not that he had much to wear off anyway. They took a seat by the window, ordered lunch and ate without talking before David looked out at the parking lot and finally broke the silence.

“Hey Ace, I was wondering something.”

“Yeah, what?”

“Isn’t your car a Ford Fairlane?”

“Yeah, it’s a beaut’ isn’t it?”

“Yeah.”

Another few minutes passed. David looked out quizzically into the parking lot while he ate.

Hey, Ace?”

“Yeah?”

“Wasn’t it towed away by Camel Towing?”

“Yeah, you couldn’t miss the sign. They’re ‘Humping to please’ Why?”

“Well, I think that’s your car at the end of the parking lot.”

Ace turned around and looked out the window. There it was, still hitched up to the back of the tow truck. He threw down a five and change for his overpriced hamburger and ran outside. As he and David approached the vehicle, they noticed the driver was still in the cab. He was a big palooka and Ace decided that he didn’t want to tangle with him if it were possible to avoid it. Instead, he would try out his skills as a negotiator.

Ace turned towards David; “Let me do the talking; I think I can reason with this guy.”

Ace stepped up to the cab.

“Hey bud, beautiful day, isn’t it?”

No reply.

“Well, I can see you’re a man of few words. I certainly appreciate that. I don’t like to waste words myself, so let me get straight to the point. You give me my car back, and I’ll spot you a twenty.”

Still no reply.

Hey, Ace…”

“Don’t interrupt David; I’m trying to negotiate with this gentleman.”

Ace continued.

“Well, sir, I see that you drive a hard bargain, so I’ll throw in a fiver.”

“Ace…”

“Not now, David.”

Again, no reply. Ace was getting frustrated.

“Okay sir, I see you’re a man of the world and not one to be trifled with. Tell you what I’m going to do. I’ll give you thirty smackers for my car. Just unhook it and drive away, or you could unhook it and use the money to enjoy yourself with one of the fine floozies that work in this establishment, whatever you like.”

Ace got out three tens from his wallet.

“Whaddya say pal, do we have a deal?”

“Ace…”

“What, David!?”

“He’s dead.”

“What?”

“He’s dead.”

Ace looked in the cab carefully for the first time. The man wasn’t breathing, his eyes vacant. Ace also observed that his head featured a bullet hole, apparently fresh, as the blood was still oozing, a little detail a lesser detective might have missed.

“Well, I guess he won’t be needing this.” Ace was relieved. He put his money back in his wallet. “Looks like we’re going to have to call the police.”

“Ace, let’s don’t.”

“Why?”

“Every time there’s a shooting, and I’m around, they think I had something to do with it.”

“Might that have something to do with you shooting the tires of that Volkswagen?”

“It was speeding in a school zone. That was dangerous. Think of the children.”

“Did you actually hit the tires?”

“Well not exactly.”

“What do you mean ‘not exactly’?

“I hit tires, just not of that particular vehicle.”

“Which particular vehicle did you hit?”

“A bicycle’s, but it was going way too fast. It was a public menace.”

“I see. And might the suspicions of the police department also have something to do with you winging those jaywalkers?”

“I was trying to give them a safety lesson. I needed to get their attention.”

“Well, I’m sure you did. Out of curiosity, were they among the nine people you shot?”

“No, I didn’t count them. They only had flesh wounds.”

“Bet the department doesn’t see it like that.”

David hung his head, embarrassed. Ace felt he’d been too hard on him.

Hey, pal, don’t sweat it. I’ll tell ‘em you weren’t anywhere around when it happened.”

“There will still be an investigation. It will take time. We’ll have to go down to the station and they’ll ask a lot of questions. It could take up the whole afternoon.”

“David, we still have to do it. It’s our duty as law abiding citizens and I’m as public spirited as you can get.”

“They won’t give you your car back.”

“You know, I’ve been thinking. If we get involved every time some joker catches a slug, we’ll never get this case solved. Help me unhook my car.”

* * *

Ace and David drove back to Ace’s office so he could pick up some fresh bullets and consider his next move. The soothing effect of the whiskey Ace had drunk at The Dive had long since worn off, and the debilitating impact of sobriety was beginning to take effect. This threw him off his game so much that he didn’t notice his office door was unlocked. He opened it and found himself face to face with a statuesque blonde sitting on his desk idly swinging her purse. She laid it on the desk when he saw them. He and David stopped dead in their tracks.

“Excuse me, I knocked, but there was no one here, so I let myself in. I hope you don’t mind.”

“How did you get in here?” asked Ace in amazement.

The blonde held up a bobby pin. Typically Ace would be upset by someone breaking into his office, but he had to admire her technical skill. He also admired the valiant way her sweater puppies fought the restrictive confines of her cardigan. It was truly heroic. Ace appreciated heroism.

“Impressive. So, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?”

“Let me introduce myself. I am Georgette.” She extended her hand. “I believe you’ve already met my sister, Betty.”

Ace shook her hand and surveyed her body carefully from top to bottom and back again.

“Yes, I noticed the family resemblance.” Turning to David, he said, “Oh, this is my friend and confidant David Shea.”

“A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Shea.” She extended her hand again.

Likewise,” David said as he shook her hand enthusiastically.

She looked at Ace. “If you don’t mind I’d like to speak to you privately, Mr. Anvil.”

Shea just stood there. Ace turned to him and said, “David, go out and powder your nose.”

“Huh?”

“Go home and water your squirrel.”

“I don’t have a squirrel.” David was confused.

“Get lost for a while.”

“Really?”

“Scram!”

“Oh, okay.”

David finally left the office and Ace sat down in his desk chair. Georgette turned on the desk and faced him. She slowly and deliberately crossed her legs.

“As I was saying, to what do I owe the pleasure, Georgette…?”

“Willis, Georgette Willis, but please call me Georgette.”

“Wait, you have the same last name as Betty. I thought that Betty was Fred Willis’ widow?”

“Oh, is that what she told you? Silly girl. I can see how she made that mistake. Daddy was such a romantic and she has always been easily confused.”

“Yeah, she did seem a little confused about the situation. I think I am too, actually.”

Well, there you have it. Family relations can get so complicated nowadays, it’s hard to keep up, but I’m not here about domestic matters, I’m here about the tachyonic antitelephone.”

“The what?”

“It also called a tachyon transmitter. You may know of it as a wakefield accelerator; specifically, the miniaturized one that daddy invented. I’m sure Dr. Ferguson must have told you about it.”

“How did you know that?”

“You don’t remember me? I’m hurt,” she pouted.

Ace still looked blank.

“I’m the secretary for the physics department. You met me when you came in the other day.”

Ace brightened up.

“I remember you! How could I forget those big, beautiful—”

“Yes, of course. Anyway, I don’t like to pry, but I couldn’t help overhearing things, like how the device that daddy invented before his tragic passing could be used to send messages to the past.”

Georgette slipped off the desk, walked over and straddled Ace’s legs, facing him.

“You see, Mr. Anvil, I have a tragic past that I’d like to fix. I come from a broken home.”

“How terrible.” Ace felt sorry for the dame. He could feel a rush of sympathy swelling up in his pants.

“Yes, it was and the worst part is that I’m the one that broke it. Can you imagine the guilt that I have to live with? No, don’t answer. You couldn’t possibly. Anyway, I need to send some messages to my past so I can change it. Then I won’t have to live with this terrible, horrible, debilitating guilt. It’s insufferable. I don’t think I can stand it another day.”

“So, what would you have me do for you?”

“Give me the device.”

“I’m sorry, Miss Willis—”

“Call me Georgette.”

“I’m sorry, Georgette, but I already promised the device to your sister and since your sister is my client, I really can’t even discuss it or any other aspects of this case. It wouldn’t be ethical.”

“But you do have it?”

“I can’t talk about it.” Damn this dame was pushy.

“I see,” said Georgette.

Ace could hear the frustration in her voice. He hated to disappoint her, but he was a professional. Besides she hadn’t offered him money or anything else for that matter.

Georgette got off his lap and went over to her purse. “I need that device Mr. Anvil. Lives depend on it.”

That got Ace’s attention. “Lives?”

“Yes, starting with yours.” Georgette pulled a pistol out of her purse and pointed it at Ace.

“I need that device, Mr. Anvil. Where is it?”

“I don’t have it. I haven’t found it yet.” Ace was beginning to get concerned that his days as a detective might be cut short.

“If you had told me that to begin with instead of being evasive, I would have believed you. I wish I could believe you now, but I can’t take the chance. I’m running out of time.”

“If you need to be somewhere, feel free to come back later,” offered Ace.

Georgette stepped forward, and pistol whipped him across the mouth, then quickly pointed the gun at him again. Ace spat out blood. “I’d love to oblige you, but I don’t have it,” sputtered Ace.

“Maybe, and maybe you just need motivation. Let’s take a walk.”

“Where are we going?” asked Ace.

“Up to the roof. Move.”

Georgette motioned with her gun. Ace stood up, and she marched him into the elevator. The doors closed and Georgette pressed the button labeled Roof. The song “The Girl from Ipanema” played softly. After a while, she realized that the elevator wasn’t moving.

“This elevator’s been broken since I got here, but the music still plays. I like to come here and listen to it on occasion. It’s relaxing. We should stay for a while. It’s therapeutic, and you could use some therapy.”

“Shut up and move.”

She marched him out of the elevator and up the stairwell, finally emerging on the rooftop. She motioned him up onto the ledge of the roof. He looked down. It was a long way to splat city. Ace, ordinarily so calm under pressure, wet his pants.

“Now would be a good time to tell me where it is or there is going to be a suicide here in a few seconds. That would be a shame. We were having so much fun.” She glanced at his pants and smiled. “Too bad, you turned into a wet blanket.”

Still training her gun on him, she stepped up close to the ledge and stood behind Ace. Then she made a fatal mistake. She nudged him in the back with her gun. With an expert motion, Ace whipped around and grabbed the gun, reversed it and held it on her. Recovering his composure from his pants wetting, he nonchalantly stepped off the ledge.

“Nice move, Mr. Anvil. Perhaps, we could work out some sort of a deal.”

“Maybe, but I think you need to answer a few questions. First of all, what did you mean when you said you were running out of time?”

“Well, I have made some mistakes in my life. Mistakes have consequences, and these consequences are closing in on me. I need to undo my mistakes before they happened.”

“You’re making no sense. Try again.”

“Well, it’s like this. We are living in one possible future that is dependent on our past. You change your past; you change your future. If you can send messages to your past, you can change things so that your future turns out differently. That’s why I need that machine.”

“Like betting on the right horse,” Ace remembered his conversation with Dr. Ferguson.

“Exactly.”

“So, what did you do?” Ace was curious and much more comfortable now that he was holding the gun. In the course of his career, Ace had discovered that it was much more relaxing to point a gun at someone rather than the other way around.

“Mr. Anvil, I’m afraid that in my life, I have bet on many wrong horses, so to speak and I just want a chance to undo what I’ve done.”

Ace, though interested, was rapidly losing patience.

“Quit talking in riddles. You weren’t even sure that I had the machine, which I don’t, but you were so anxious to get it that you were willing to march me off a roof if I didn’t give it to you. I think it’s time you told me exactly what’s going on. I don’t even believe you’re a secretary. You talk too fancy, like someone who spends all her spare time reading dictionaries and food labels. You won’t get anywhere unless you start talking straight to me. Spill it, sister.”

“Very well, Mr. Anvil. First of all, you’re right; I’m not usually employed as a secretary. I had heard of Dr. Willis’s work in superluminal particle generation, immediately realized the implications of his work and posed as a secretary to gain access to the Framus physics department and hopefully, Dr. Willis’s device.”

“Super who?”

“Superluminal. It means faster than light. Any particle going faster than light goes backward in time. This has been a known implication of Einstein’s special theory of relativity for more than a century. Willis was the first one to do it.”

“Go on.”

Unfortunately, she couldn’t go on. His interrogation was interrupted by the sound of whirling blades. Ace glanced over to see what looked like a weird looking toy helicopter, about the size of a large eagle hovering beside them. Ace heard a swoosh, then Georgette grabbed the side of her neck and pulled out a dart. Too late to do her any good; she fell off the ledge on the wrong side. The side without a roof. Ace looked over the edge of the building to see her body hit the bed of a passing truck. It drove off in one direction; the drone flew off in another. This was proving to be a very strange day

Chapter 5

Ace peered over the side of the roof in stunned silence. He couldn’t believe this case. It had more angles than a hedgehog in heat. He didn’t know why a hedgehog in heat would have more angles than one that wasn’t, but he didn’t care. His pants were wet. He felt the need to make his pants a priority, so he quit ruminating on hedgehogs and returned to his office where he found some dry clothes piled up in a corner. He had just finished changing when David came back. David glanced around and noticed Ace was alone.

“What happened to Georgette?”

“We had a falling out,” replied Ace.

“Pity, she seemed like such a sweet girl.”

“She did have a way about her.”

“Do you think she’ll be back?”

“Probably not.”

“Oh well, what’s next, Ace?”

“David, there’s more to this case than meets the eye.” Ace paced back and forth as he talked. “These aren’t just some random thugs who bumped off Willis. It was a professional hit, and the guys who made the hit are tailing us. I figure there are other parties who want Willis’s device, whatever you want to call it. The people involved are smart, sophisticated and will not hesitate to kill anyone who gets in their way. I’m not waiting for them to come to me anymore. I’m going after them.”

“Well, who are ‘them’?”

“Smart, sophisticated, merciless, would probably shoot a man just to watch him die?”

“Half the force would fit that description. Well, maybe not the smart, sophisticated part.”

“Come on, David, think. Name a group that has no morals at all.”

“Umm, politicians?”

“Closer, and we may be up against some.”

“Psychopaths?”

“Worse.”

“You don’t mean…” David stuttered.

“Yes, I do mean—Atheists.” It was hard to get out the word, but Ace had said it.

David gulped. He trembled so hard he had to sit on the couch. Ace went over and put a sympathetic hand on David’s shoulder.”

“David, I started this case alone and I can continue alone. I won’t think less of you if you want to back out now.”

“No, Ace, I’m determined to redeem myself in the eyes of the department, no matter what. I’m with you.”

Okay, let’s get moving. If I have to think about this much longer, I’m liable to chicken out myself.”

* * *

It was dusk when Ace and David pulled up to the old wooden building. Ace fingered his .45 and was glad that he had loaded it with fresh bullets. He glanced around and noticed there weren’t many cars in the parking lot, so hopefully not many people were there. Fewer to shoot if it came to that. David was armed, too. Ace hoped his aim would be better this time, but it didn’t matter. In this place, everyone needed killing.

Ace and David emerged slowly from the car and proceeded up the steps. They came to a large oak door. Ace read the sign posted at the entrance:

Freethought Hall, Home of Framus Freethought Alliance, Skeptics Welcome

These bastards didn’t even try to hide their depravity. Ace took a deep breath, opened the door to this den of iniquity and walked in. David trailed close behind.

Ace scanned the joint. It appeared to be some country club for old men. Everything seemed to be made of wood. Everywhere there were bookshelves lined with books, books made out of paper. These sons of bitches obviously had no respect for trees. The place seemed to be empty. Then Ace noticed the bar in the back. Well, at least these digs had a bar; that was something positive. He spotted the bartender, an old man sitting on a stool reading a book entitled Principia Mathematica. Seemed subversive, but what else would you expect in a place like this? He was probably a pirate and that book was some sort of primer on the principles of plundering.


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