Easy Money

Rain ran down the window like water in a car wash. I was sitting at my desk in the gloom, working my way through a deck of Luckies when my brother walked in.

He gave me the phony grin.

“I’ve got a job for you,” he said.

“In a pig’s eye.”

My brother is family. He’s blood of my blood. He’s a good-looking guy with a cesspool for a brain. I promised our mother I’d look after him. I promised her I’d straighten him out. I lied.

“Beat it,” I said.

I sucked on my cigarette, drawing the burning tip down to my fingers with a hiss. The smoke torched my throat on its way into my lungs.

“You need a payday,” my brother said. “I’ve got one for you.”

“Whatever you’ve got, I’d rather not catch. Scram.”

“There’s a rich guy over in Greencrest thinks his wife is cheating. He’ll pay good for proof. Trail her around, take some pictures. Collect your money.”

He dropped a scrap of paper on my desk.

“The guy’s mansion,” he said. “Stake it out. You can’t miss the wife. She’s the real thing.”

“I’ll let you know,” I said. “Now get lost.”

He knew I’d do it, because of my promise to Ma. And because I was dead broke.

I sat and waited for the hate to die down. Then I got tired of waiting. I pulled on my trench coat, slapped on my hat, and left the office.

I staked out the mansion and followed the dame into the city. She met a guy in the lobby of the Stratford and they rode together up to the twenty-fifth floor. She had a body that was built to keep a guy busy long after she was ready to take a shower. She had the face of an angel, probably fallen.

Five hundred to the house dick got me their door unlocked. I stepped in and took snaps of the action. They weren’t missionaries, that’s for sure.

I called my brother and told him I was ready to present my bill. He told me to wait an hour, which I spent drinking.

An evil-looking yellow moon hung behind ragged clouds in the east. The temperature had dropped and my cigarette was the only warm thing in the car. At the cuckold’s gate, I spoke into the squawk box.

“I’m here about the missus,” I said.

The gate swung open.

I drove up to the mansion through thick pines. The front door stood ajar.

I stepped inside. A light was on in a room to the right. I went in, doffing my hat. An old bird with white hair stood behind a large mahogany desk at the far end of the room.

“You’re here about my wife?” he said. His voice quavered.

“That’s right,” I said.

“You expect money?”

“You said it.”

He produced a gun and pointed it in my general direction. Looked like a .25.

“What’s that for?” I said.

“To kill you with,” the geezer said, coming around the desk. “You think I’ll just pay you to go away?”

“Hold on, partner,” I said. He was going to kill me if he could hold the gun still.

Reluctantly, I pulled my .38 and shot him through his wrinkled old heart. No fee for me. I put my gun away.

The blond slid into the room. She glanced at me and then crossed to the corpse and picked up the .25. She stepped over the body and centered the gun on my face.

She read my expression.

“I needed my husband dead,” she said. “Thanks.”

I wouldn’t be shooting this babe in that big chest of hers.

My brother joined us, grinning.

“Nice, huh?” he said. “She inherits and you get the blame for the shootout with Pops here. He thought you were the lover coming over for a payoff. You shoot each other.”

“The guy in the hotel room?”

“Some yegg we hired.” His grin became a smirk.

“You think she’ll let you live?” I said.

The smirk held.

“She loves me,” he said.

I smiled, imaging the look on his face when he arrived in Hell right behind me.

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The Mathematics of Future Paradox

“Can we watch Michelangelo work today?” my wife said, at the breakfast table.

“I have to go into the future today,” I said.

“The future? You said that you would never go into the future. You said going into the future is like a man opening his girlfriend’s mail. Ignorance is bliss, you said.”

“I’m only going ten minutes forward, max. To test and prove my theories.”

“Your equipment works,” my wife said. “Isn’t that proof enough?”

“We now know that we can observe the past. We can’t interact with it. We can’t change it. We can only watch it, like a movie. My calculations tell me that the same is true for the future, but I haven’t tested that yet.”

“The universe does not permit paradox, you always say.”

“My calculations prove this. Yet I must test the theory.”

“Will it be dangerous?”

“I don’t think so, but…”

“I want to be there.”

“This won’t be like our travels into the past. Nothing exciting will happen.”

“Nevertheless, I want to be there.”

I nodded.

“OK,” I said.

After breakfast, we cleaned up and dressed. Angela followed my out to my lab behind the house. The day was clear and warm.

In the lab, we sat down side-by-side, facing the counter that held my setup. I ran through my startup procedures and calibrated the central nexus. We put on our helmets.

I switched on the apparatus.

“I don’t see any change,” Angela said.

I moved the mouse and as we sat, we seemed to float backwards, so that we were watching ourselves from behind.

“I’m fast-forwarding,” I said. “Ten minutes into the future should take us only two.”

We sat quietly for two minutes. In front of us, we sat quietly for ten minutes.

I watched the timer and clicked the apparatus off after one hundred and twenty seconds.

“Now what?” Angela said.

“You saw us. For the next eight minutes, we sit here.”

“So?”

“Neither of us stands up during that time. We can test this. Do you understand?”

“Not exactly,” Angela said.

“If we can see into the future and then act to change it, we can create a paradox, just as we could if we could change the past. We know we can’t change the past. We can only observe it, observe the universe’s stored hologram of spacetime. Now, however, we’ve observed future events in that same hologram. Suppose I stand up?”

“I don’t think you should,” Angela said. “I don’t think you will. We neither of us did. We just sat there.”

I stood up. I stepped away from the chair and looked back. I was still sitting there.

“What the…,” I said, or thought I said. No sound came out.

“Perhaps you’re right,” said the me sitting in the chair, to Angela.

“No!” I said, soundlessly.

I stepped back to the chair and reached out. I couldn’t see my arm. I looked down. I couldn’t see myself. My hand passed through the me in the chair.

“My math is clear,” said the me in the chair. “The universe does not permit paradox.”

A Story on Mad Swirl

Coming This September

Seeing the World

Our family has lived in Old Harbor, Nova Scotia, for generations. My father is a cobbler, but many of my ancestors worked as fishermen on the Grand Banks or as whalers. My older brother always talked about going to sea himself. When he graduated from high school, he went down to Halifax and got his SIU ticket. After he left home and sailed away on a cargo ship, a post card would arrive every now and then from ports all over the world. I determined to find a spot on a freighter of my own when I was old enough, and follow in his footsteps.

I would go walking on the shore, along the green line of wrack at the edge of the surf, with salt spume blowing off the water and over my shoes. Looking out past the dark emerald rollers breaking with a roar, I’d imagine my ship disappearing over the horizon on the way to West Africa. I always pictured myself on the deck of a massive iron ship with wind in my hair and the flag of some Central American country cracking like gunshots on the mast reaching into the blue sky above me.

“I’m not asking you to take over my business,” my father would say to me. “You don’t need to be a shoemaker. But go to college. You’re a bright kid. Learn something about the world from books and professors, not from the crew of a rusty scow on its way down to Guyana.”

Instead of listening to him, I’d pull out my brother’s postcards and study the exotic pictures on them, and their strange stamps from foreign lands.

I attended high school in Black Hill. Old Harbor was too small to support one. My final year, I met a girl named Abbey. This was my first romance and I felt more than a little crazy most of the time.

“Your dad is right, Frank,” Abbey would say. “With your grades and test scores, and the hockey, you can go to any school you want to. If we choose the same one, we can stay together next year.”

Up until then, I had never had a second thought about my future, never a doubt. I knew what I was going to do. Now, I agonized. Abbey and I had gone farther with each other than with anybody else before. The time we spent together, a closeness more intense than we were equipped to handle, created a bond between us that kept Abbey on my mind every waking minute.

“How could she even like me?” I would ask my father.

“Good question.”

“No, I mean it, Dad. I don’t know who she thinks I am, but if she ever wises up, she’ll drop me like a hot rock.”

In spite of my fears, however, she didn’t wise up.

“What about college?” she would say instead. “I’m sending in my applications. What about you?”

It reached the point where I couldn’t put off a decision any longer.

I might have chosen college if I wasn’t living so close to the sea, if I didn’t walk so often down a sand path through the beach grasses and saltbush to the shore, if the sound of the surf wasn’t in my ears every night when I lay in bed. I might have felt differently then, but the magic of that water, the sheer size of the ocean, spreading wide to the horizon, north, east, and south, deep and restless, infected me. Its color changed, from blue to green to gray to black sparkling with moonlight and phosphorescence. I couldn’t let it go.

We kept a small boat in the bay and I’d take it out when I wanted to think. Sitting out in the chop, lying on the oars, with the water clopping the wood of the hull, the ocean’s surface alive with sunlight in points and lines on the sharp edges of wind-kicked riffles, I would fix my eyes on the horizon. The boat bobbed under me and then, when the wind passed, it would settle to rest on the swells that passed underneath it.

I finally decided that if I went to college with Abbey, I might begin to resent her for preventing me from following my lifelong dream. On the other hand, after traveling the world, I could always come back to her. If she didn’t wait for me, it would prove she didn’t love me enough anyway. A thought away from that, though I didn’t admit it to myself, was that there would be exotic women in every port. The reasoning of a kid. One of the moments in life when a choice matters and will echo down the years.

Our romance took on a different feel after that, with Abbey applying to her schools and me obtaining a passport and applying to the seaman’s union. I had chosen my dream over Abbey and she looked at me in a different way after that. I was tearing us apart. Not some external force. Me.

We said everything that there was to say several times over and then we didn’t talk about anything that mattered anymore. We spent the time together. She wept. So did I, a time or two. We didn’t talk about why. I had doubts. They grew. I didn’t talk to my dad about them.

Abbey lived in Little Lawton and I’d drive my dad’s car over there and we’d walk along the cliffs above the water, or make our way down a split in the cliff cut by a creek, and follow the shore, holding hands, talking about life. Mostly, I think, we were just waiting for that final moment.

Just at the end of the school year, my brother Charley came home. He had had his hair cut in Halifax and bought a fresh pair of jeans and a new shirt and he was tanned and bigger than I remembered and looked healthy and happy.

He told us tales full of adventure and met Abbey and later she told me that she could see why I had chosen the life of a sailor over her. I wanted to say that it wasn’t so, but of course, it was.

Charley was surprised when he heard about my plans.

“Don’t do it,  Frank,” he said. “I like telling tales but the truth is, I’m not going back to sea. I’m going to go to school like I should have in the first place, and like I thought you were now.”

I just stared at him.

“It’s a tedious life,” he said. “You don’t learn much. You don’t make many friends. The crews are small. With a girl like Abbey and your life ahead of you, you’d be a fool to go to sea.”

I told him that I didn’t believe him. He shook his head and shrugged and helped my dad in the shop, and made school arrangements in Quebec. My world turned upsdie down. I realized that, all of a sudden, I wanted to run back to Abbey and tell her the whole thing had been a mistake, but the idea seemed shaming.

I heard nothing about my union application. When I called the SIU, the man I spoke to told me that no application had been filed. When I hung up, I saw Charley watching me.

“I know a couple of the fellows in the Halifax office,” he said. “They were the ones who helped me find a boat in the first place. When I told them about you, they were happy to help me out by losing your papers. I’ve done you a great favor, Frank, believe me.”

“What am I going to tell Abbey?” I said. “I chose the sea over her. Now I go back and tell her you screwed it up for me? It’s too late for me to go off to college with her anyway.”

“Tell her the truth,” Charley said.

I drove over to Little Lawton in complete turmoil. I pictured Abbey slapping me in the face. I felt a relief beyond speaking, overlaid with confusion and anxiety that kept me from forming a single cogent thought. I was desperate.

“Abbey,” I said. “I was crazy. I was so wrong. I guess you  can’t forgive me, but I love you and I don’t want to leave you.”

She took a minute and I saw several expressions cross her face.

“What changed your mind?” she said.

I wanted to tell her that my love overcame all, that I had known all along that I was doing the wrong thing. I wanted to lie through my teeth.

“Charley changed my mind,” I said.

She took another minute. She nodded.

“Good,” she said.