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The Centenarian Corpse:
I've written a few time-travel stories over the years, but I think this sci-fi tale about a barrister who makes a name for himself defending London's criminal underworld in the roaring twenties is my favourite. Grab yourself a coffee before you read it. You may need to concentrate...

Big Ben

The Centenarian Corpse

by Stacey Dighton

 

I’m dead. I know I am. I was there when it happened, and yet somehow, I’m still breathing. I see myself: dark hair, thin lips, clean shaven. I’m back in my 21st century apartment, my reflection glaring back at me from the bathroom mirror. I appear healthy. More importantly, I’m alive. There are no scars, no blood on my neck or chest, no knife wounds. I’m dressed in the attire of a millennial, and yet the last time I drew breath I was in another decade entirely, another century.

    I open the bathroom cabinet. My box of pills has toppled onto its side, the special capsules scattered across the shelf. I finger one. It’s cool and smooth. I consider taking another, but I’m fearful of waking up in a coffin, or worse still, the fiery incinerator of a crematorium. I turn cold as I consider the possibility of not even waking at all.

    My mobile phone rings. It’s Torey. I can’t speak to her. Not yet. I have to figure out what’s going on. When the ringing stops, I open my browser. I type in my past-name, Ray Harper. It gets too many hits. I type in ‘Murder of Ray Harper, 1923’. Five hits come back. The top one reads; ‘unsolved case of murdered lawyer. Police suspect number-one client, local gangster, Cyril King.’ I scoff and scroll further. I’m shocked to learn my body was never found. I start to wonder what Rosa did with me, or even if I’m dead at all. Could I still be there, unconscious and bleeding out on her Axminster rug? I can’t believe that to be true. A story like that would have made an even bigger headline: ‘Missing counsel of London’s most feared gangster found alive.’

    I call Ludo. “It’s me,” I say when he answers.

    “I know,” he replies, the remains of a daydream in his voice. “It’s only ever you.”

    “I went back. The pills worked.”

    “What?” He’s suddenly wide awake. “You did what? But we haven’t even tested them yet. We don’t know if they work, or how dangerous they are.”

    “They work. They work real good.”

    “How far?”

    “Guess.”

    “Don’t play games with me, Connor. Just tell me.”

    I pause to draw out the suspense. “A hundred years.”

    He doesn’t answer. I hear him take a sip of something. I suspect brandy. Ludo always keeps a half-bottle in his lab. “You have got to be kidding me.”

    “Nope.”

    “Tell me it was just a quick trip,” he says. “Just to see if it worked. Please tell me that, at least.”

    “Six months. Give or take,” I reply, almost gloating.

    “Connor, you’re crazy.”

    “I know, right? It’s mad, isn’t it?

    “It’s reckless, is what it is. Staying that long could,” he swallows, “create ripples.”

    “It did,” I say, glaring at my browser. “A pretty big one.”

    “Jesus Christ. How big are we talking?”

    I feel the hollow in my chest, the point where Rosa pushed the knife. I recall her lips on mine, the darkness closing around her face like a heavy veil as I lost consciousness.

    “Pretty fricking enormous,” I say. “Ludo, I think I was murdered.”

    #

 

Torey’s calling again. I wonder what could be so urgent. I let it ring out. I’m in a booth in our local boozer, The Lady Diana. Ludo’s joined me. I’m drinking lager, he’s caressing a scotch on the rocks. He eyes me over his spectacles.

    “Let’s think about this rationally,” he says, swirling his drink. “If you had died, I mean truly got rubbed out by this Rosa character, then you couldn’t possibly be sitting here with me. There’s just no way. A timeline is continuous. You go back, you come forwards. Your continuum is stretched, like a rubber band, but not broken. If you die, you’re dead. You don’t get a second chance, Connor. That would break all the basic laws of physics.”

    “Then maybe I’m still alive,” I say. “Back then, I mean.”

    Ludo shakes his head. “No, you’re not getting it. Look, this is hypothetical, I’m just theorizing here, but I don’t think there would be a you back then. Not anymore. You were there,” he pours a line of salt on the table, and then another one just below it, starting at the point at which the line above it ends. “And now you’re here.”

    “So, when she killed me, I would have just—”

    “Disappeared, just like the headline says.” He points at the open browser on my phone.

    I pick up a pill. “So, these things can give you…immortality?”

    “Not as such, but kinda. It appears you can only be killed in your original timeline.”

    “So, if you don’t come back, you can’t get killed,” I wonder aloud. “It’s like playing a computer game, except with endless lives.”

    “Don’t get too excited,” he says. “You’re forgetting one important fact.”

    “And that is?”

    “You’re here, which means you’re no longer immortal. I could kill you, just as easily as you could kill me.” He glances at one of the knives in the cutlery container. “Except I wouldn’t, of course.”

    “Of course.” I reach into my pocket and take out a blister pack of little green pills. “We have to go back. I need to know. We both do.”

 

    #

 

We’re in the men’s room. I’m in a cubicle with Ludo. His mood has changed. He appears pensive. There are stickers all over the walls. Most are from local bands: Abysmal Din, Putin’s Knicker Elastic and Spanks Electric, to name but a few. Someone has carved an unfamiliar band name, ‘Unsustainable Congruence’, into the door.

    “So, you came back about two hours ago?” he asks.

    “Give or take.”

    “No, Connor,” he says, insistent. “This is really important. I need to know the exact time and place that this Rosa stuck a knife into you.”

    I close my eyes. I think of what happened just a short while ago, except it really wasn’t. I recall the knife penetrating my skin, the blossoming heat of the searing pain. I think of Rosa.

 

    #

 

She was my lover. I’ll never tell Torey that, but it’s true. She is…was Cyril King’s fiancée. That fact alone would have been enough to get me killed, except Cyril didn’t know. At least, I don’t think he did. Cyril was an idiot. He got himself caught smuggling tobacco and whiskey through Dover. He even had one of his men beat the living daylights out of a customs official, which I was lucky enough to overhear him whining about in a boozer just thirty-three minutes after I arrived in the roaring twenties. I had no idea what I was doing there or how to get back, but I knew I needed money, and I needed to survive. I’m a trained lawyer, not a great one, but I had enough swagger to blag a job with one of London’s most notorious gangsters. All it took was a little bluster and a lot of balls. I’ve never had much of a problem with bullshit, hence the law degree.

    “I can help you,” I said, chancing a good kicking from one of Cyril’s gorillas.

    “Who the hell are you?” he growled, smoke billowing from a cigar clamped between tomb-stone teeth.

    A goon stepped across me and grabbed me by the collar. “Eavesdropping on a geezer like Mister King, mate? That can get you seriously hurt, if you know what I mean.”

    “I do,” I said. “But hear me out. From what I can tell, this evidence is circumstantial at best.” Cyril gestured for goon-number-one to let me go, while goon-number-two cracked his knuckles like a pro. “This employee of yours, the one who broke the other bloke’s arm? He has to go down, there’s no getting away from that, but unless your signature’s on the documents or you were seen handling the contraband yourself, then they really have nothing on you.”

    “You don’t say,” Cyril said, leering at me across the bar. “And how could a young whippersnapper like you be so sure?”

    I thrust out a hand and thought fast. “Ray Harper,” I said confidently. “Of Harper and Harper Associates. We’re a legal practice, of which I am the leading barrister. Ask around. I’m sure you’ll hear only good things about me. What’s more, our rates are more than competitive.”

    It worked. It sounds unbelievable, I know, but as I said, Cyril really wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed. I got him off the charges, all of them. I forged a law degree - didn’t take much – bought a cheap, second-hand wig, and represented him at the hearing. The thing didn’t even make it to trial. I was right. The police were counting on Cyril spilling intel on bigger fish in the capital’s growing gangland network. He would have done it, too, if I hadn’t been in the right place at the right time. When he walked out of court, free as a bird and with a smile on his face as wide as the Thames, I knew I was in safe hands. The problem wasn’t Cyril. The problem was his fiancée. She was something else entirely. I couldn’t take my eyes off her, and I had an inkling she liked her husband’s fancy-pants new lawyer, too. She told me as much at a dinner-party held in Cyril’s large Deptford townhouse. It was clear she’d had a little too much party-juice.

    “My husband-to-be is a bit of a fool,” she said. “A rich fool, but a fool nevertheless. He thinks I’m a trophy, a pretty tart on his arm. He doesn’t really know me, though. He doesn’t know who I am.”

    I was taken aback by her candor. “And who are you?” I asked. “Really, I mean?”

    She sipped her wine and gave her fiancé a sideways glance. He wasn’t paying her any attention, too busy backslapping one of his city chums and gorging on beef steak and buttery potatoes. “This is just step number one of a three-step plan,” she said.

    “I’m intrigued,” I retorted, jostling with her. “You simply have to tell me more.”

    “Oh, you’d like that, mister big-shot lawyer, wouldn’t you?” She laughed. It was an infectious sound. “I’m afraid this girl doesn’t give things up that easily.”

    “I bet you don’t.” I was flirting, although I knew it was dangerous.

    “Maybe after a few more drinks.”

    I poured her a Rioja. “Then drink away.”

    One thing led to another, and before I knew it, Rosa and I were sneaking into hotel rooms and having the kind of illicit affair I’d only ever read about. One night, after we lay breathless in each other’s arms, I asked her again.

    “So, this plan of yours. If step one is to marry a gang leader, what’s step two? Have his children?”

    She propped herself up on her elbows. “You won’t leave it alone, will you?” I could tell she was angry. “I mean, why the hell do you want to know, anyway? Are you spying on me? Are you? Because if I find out you are, Ray, I swear I’ll—”

    “Woah!” I cried. “Calm down, hothead. Do you think I’d do that? Do you think your fiancé would allow me to seduce his wife-to-be, just so he can satisfy his own paranoia?”

    “I wouldn’t put it past him,” she scowled, grabbing her gown.

    “But would you put it past me?”

    She stood with her back to me, but I could see she was bristling. She poured herself a whiskey and glared out the window.

    “Look, Rosa, I care for you. I really do. I have no interest in pitting you and your fiancé against each other. If truth be told, I don’t like the guy. I think he’s a brainless buffoon who’s always one wrong move away from either being nicked or getting taken out by the competition. Either way, I can’t see him being around much longer.”

    “Oh, he won’t,” Rosa hissed. “I can vouch for that. But not in the way you’re thinking.”

    I went to her. “What do you mean? You’re not planning on doing something stupid, are you?”

    She turned to face me. Her eyes were smoldering, her lips thin.

    “It’s step two of my plan, Ray,” she said. “I’m taking everything from him.” She downed her drink. “Every damn thing.”

 

    #

 

I knew that was the beginning of the end. If step two of Rosa’s three-step plan was to somehow take control of the business, it meant she had to get Cyril out of the picture. I didn’t think that would be too hard, but I did wonder what it meant for me. That night in the hotel, Rosa had shown a side of herself that I didn’t care for. A ruthless side. If Cyril was no longer in charge, I knew that the protection and the rather large salary he afforded me would soon evaporate. I couldn’t let that happen. I liked my life in 1923. I was wealthier than I could have ever dreamed, I had standing, which I certainly didn’t have in my job as a solicitor for a one-man experimental medicine firm, and I was apparently attractive to beautiful, influential women.  I had Torey back home, but was that really going anywhere? I couldn’t be sure, and why risk it when I had everything I ever wanted, all within easy reach? Plus, I didn’t even know if the pills would get me back in one piece. The more I considered it, the more certain I became. I had no intention of returning to the 21st century, and I would do anything to make sure I didn’t have to.

    “Look, Cyril,” I said as the two of us sat alone together in his private bar. “I don’t know how to say this, but I think someone in your inner circle is plotting against you.”

    “What?” he hollered, standing. He was already half-cut. “Who the bloody hell would do that? Tell me, Ray! Tell me now! Is it Winky Bob? I bet it is. Or that sneaky little so-and-so, Micky Fingers. I’ll cut his scrawny little throat, you wait and see if I don’t!”

    I could see he was spitting mad and ready for a dust-up, so I decided not to tell him everything. Not right away. “I don’t know, Cyril. I just have a suspicion. Look, let me keep my eyes peeled just for a little while longer, and once I have something solid, I’ll let you know, okay?”

    He took a breath and leaned towards me, his face no more than a couple of centimeters from mine. I caught the repugnant stench of cigars, scotch and halitosis on his breath. “I’ll give you a week, Ray, you get me? Then I want answers. Don’t let me down, son.”

    I shook my head. I didn’t intend to.

 

    #

 

It didn’t take a week. I kept a very close eye on Rosa. You could say too close, although I enjoyed every second of the first half of that weekend. Rosa had an engagement in Hampshire, and she invited me to tag along. I told Cyril I had a family crisis to take care of, and he bought it. He really was an imbecile. He couldn’t see what was staring him in the face - namely, that his lawyer was screwing his fiancée and not being too careful about hiding it either.

    Rosa and I spent Friday and Saturday doing what we always did, which involved spending most of our time in the bedroom. Sunday, however, was different. I’d just taken a shower and was standing on the balcony in my robe, when I saw a procession of cars coming along the driveway. We were staying in the country estate of one of Rosa’s closest friends, Bill Wainscott, an eminent physician in the city. The front of the building opened out onto a sweeping veranda, which in turn led to what must have been twenty acres of perfectly kept gardens, neatly cut hedgerows and a well-tended fishing lake. The driveway followed the edge of the water and then cut straight down the center of the grounds. Closer to the building, it ran parallel to a semi-circular veranda that was apparently used for large social gatherings. When the rear door of the lead car opened – a Bentley, no less – I groaned.

    “Frankie!” a female voice exclaimed. I peered down from the balcony and saw Rosa standing there in a red dress and high heels, her dark hair clipped to the side and tumbling in thick waves over her right shoulder. She looked stunning. “Jerry! Boys! Welcome to Harpington Court.”

    The man with a voice resembling a rake being dragged through dirt spoke first. “Nice place. Is it yours?”

    “Not yet, Frankie,” Rosa said. “But it will be, soon enough. Come, you’ve had a long journey. You must be exhausted. Let me get you and your brother a drink. Your men, too.”

    The thick-set guy standing next to Frankie (I guessed he was Jerry) gestured for their men to follow. I backed away from the balcony and slumped onto the edge of the bed, my face in my hands. The big blokes were Frankie and Jerry Mason, two of the deadliest racecourse gangsters in England. They were dangerous and unpredictable, and seemed hell-bent on claiming London as their own. They were well on their way to doing it, too, despite the King gang’s current stranglehold on the east-end. I now had a pretty good idea what Rosa’s third step was, and it involved getting into bed with her husband’s rivals. She was creating her very own crime-family coalition.

    I had to get a message to Cyril.

 

    #

 

I met Frankie and Jerry Mason that night at dinner. I knew instantly that they disliked me.

    “You sure don’t look like a lawyer, Harper,” Jerry said. “You don’t dress like one, you don’t style your hair like one, and you don’t even speak like one. You’re the strangest barrister I’ve ever met. Where did you say you studied again?”

    “I didn’t,” I said, feeling like I was under the hot glare of an interrogation lamp. “But, if you must know, I never studied law at school. I worked at my father’s firm for many years as a corporate lawyer, before falling into criminal law when my father needed counsel.”

    “Interesting,” Frankie said. “So, good old Cyril saw fit to take on a novice. How quaint.”

    “Maybe,” Rosa interjected, glaring at me. “But Ray managed to get him off a particularly nasty charge, one that could have put him away for a very long time. The case never even made it to trial.”

    Jerry stubbed out his cigar and blew smoke through his nostrils. “Could be beginner’s luck. A bit of bravado can get a man a long way.”

    “Or the kid really has talent,” Frankie offered.

    “I’m no kid,” I said. “And I’m no beginner, either. Look, am I being interviewed here? Because I really don’t have to answer these questions. I’m Rosa’s guest, not her lawyer.”

    “That’s very true,” Jerry replied, pulling his chair alongside mine, a little too closely for my liking. “But Miss Flynn here is making us a very interesting offer, one that could change the way Cyril’s enterprise is run. My brother and I have the job of deciding who we keep on our payroll, and who we cut loose, if you get my drift.”

I did indeed get his drift. If I couldn’t convince them I was worth employing, I’d be getting a visit from one of their goons, and I suspected they wouldn’t be offering tea.

    “Look,” I said, standing. “I’ve had my fill of dinner and my fill of this conversation. Here’s what I can tell you, not that I need to justify my presence in any way. I am a lawyer of some standing in the city, and I made my name – my very good name – by standing up for the criminal factions in our society. Why? Because I see very little difference between the men on the street, hustling and haggling to make ends meet, and the men of Westminster, who make egregious, self-serving deals without a hint of shame or regret. There is merely a fag-paper of distinction between the rule of law and the rule of the criminal underworld, and I have chosen, at some personal risk, to ensure fair counsel is given to those who might never otherwise receive it. You can either take me at my word, or as you put it, cut me loose. I have neither the time nor the inclination to convince you either way.”

    With that, I strode purposefully out of the room. I never chanced a peek over my shoulder, but I sensed my little speech had had the desired effect. As I said, I’ve never had a problem with spouting bullshit. Not that it mattered. I’d sent a telegram to Cyril that very afternoon, informing him of his fiancée’s betrayal.

 

    #

 

We made our way home the next morning, both sitting in the back of her brand-new Rolls Royce, barely speaking. I feared I’d offended her with my outburst at dinner.

    “You’re plotting against your husband,” I said to her, after we’d travelled some distance. “I understand that completely. But tell me, why would you choose to get into bed with those two hooligans? Aren’t they even more dangerous than the man you’re planning to marry? Are you not afraid that you’re buying yourself more trouble than you can afford?”

    “Stop talking, Ray,” she replied. “I think you’ve said more than enough already.”

    I folded my arms and glared with some resentment out of the car window. The rolling Hampshire hills were just that: green and lush and yet to be scarred by haphazardly constructed housing estates, gleaming shopping arcades and motorways filled with slow moving vehicles. I knew I couldn’t go home. I’d come to love the England of the 1920s, and grown to realize I abhorred the time in which I was born. I had to make it right with Cyril, and hoped with some degree of optimism that I wouldn’t be dragged down with Rosa.

    “He knows, you know?” I said. “About us, I mean.”

    Rosa didn’t respond.

    “Your husband. He knows everything.”

    Still no answer.

    “Rosa,” I persisted. “Are you even listening to me?”

    After a moment, she leaned forward and spoke to her driver. “Phillip, dear? Would you mind stopping when we get to Crampwell Manor?”

    “Of course, ma’am,” he said. “Will we be staying long?”

    “No,” she replied. “We won’t be staying very long at all.”

 

    #

 

Crampwell Manor, as it turned out, was a country house owned by Rosa’s father. He had died suddenly many years prior and had left the estate to his only daughter. Rosa Flynn was, by all accounts, a very wealthy woman, which made her relationship with Cyril King and her dalliance with the Mason brothers all the more difficult to comprehend.

    I followed her graciously into the sitting room where she offered me whiskey.

    “No thanks,” I said. “Rosa, why are we here?”

    She filled a large tumbler and took the chair opposite me.

    “This house has been in my family’s possession for over a hundred years, Ray,” she said. “And it will probably remain that way for at least a hundred more. Buildings last, you see? As long as you take care of them, of course.”

    “I get it,” I said. “It’s a nice place. Where are you going with this?”

    “If you look back in the records, they will show that my father, Harry Blanchard, inherited Crampwell Manor from his father, George Blanchard, and he in turn inherited it from my great grandfather, Edward Blanchard II. Records last too, just like buildings, and they don’t lie.” She sipped her whiskey. “My father was a great philanthropist. Did you know that?”

    I shook my head. I really didn’t know anything about Rosa at all, but I was starting to wish that I’d taken the time to find out.

    “He invested a lot into this community. He even set up his own charitable institution, the Harry Blanchard Rainbow Trust. Do you know what this charity was set up for?”

    Again, I shook my head.

    “Children, Ray. Orphaned children, to be precise. You see, my mother and father struggled to conceive after they were married. In fact, they were told by several physicians that it was very unlikely they would ever conceive at all. My father, of course, was bitterly disappointed. He had come from a big family—three brothers and two sisters—and he dearly wanted a family of his own, a child who he could leave the estate to in the event of his passing. My father, ever the puzzle solver, came up with a plan. Do you know what it was?”

    I shrugged. “I don’t know. He adopted a child?”

    “Close, but he did much more than that,” she said. “He created his own foster home, paid for by the Rainbow Trust and located on the grounds of this very estate. Don’t you think that was a wonderful thing to do?”

    “I guess so.”

    “He treated every one of the children that passed through these gates as if they were one of his own, and they all loved him dearly. All, that is, except one hateful little boy.” She finished her whiskey and poured herself another. “I came along a little later, but I’m afraid I was rather a poisoned chalice. My parents were overjoyed with the news of my mother’s pregnancy, but alas, she suffered terribly during the entire nine months. When the moment came, she was too weak to survive the ordeal of childbirth. She passed just as I was born. My father was distraught. He had gained a daughter and lost a loving wife all in the space of one terrible afternoon. He was never the same after that, so I’m told, and as I grew older, I came to realize that the hateful little boy simply reveled in my father’s burgeoning sorrow.”

    “How so?” I asked, intrigued but still wondering where this story was leading.

    “He bullied and tormented my father: staying up after hours, stealing from the other children, breaking expensive antiques, screaming hateful things at my father and the other workers, and yet my father still cared for him in the same unselfish way he cared for so many others. With me, however, it always seemed that he could never shake that awful image of his beloved wife drawing her last breath at the very moment I emerged from her savaged womb. I was the eternal reminder of the moment his joy was shattered.”

    “That must have been hard for you.”

    She pondered the sentence. “I don’t think it truly registered at first.”

    “How did your father die?”

    She dabbed at her lipstick. “I was nine years old. My father had been arguing with the boy over some bother he’d got himself into regarding the theft of a classmate’s pocket-money. I walked into the study just as the boy, now a teenager, hurled a heavy lamp at my father’s head. Thankfully he missed, but my father reacted terribly. He had never experienced an act of violence by any of the 50 or so children that had come through our gates before. The look on his face was of shame and utter failure. The one thing he had clung onto since my mother’s passing was the joy he felt when releasing a fostered child into the world, every one of them happier and healthier because of their time spent at Crampwell Manor. This boy, this devil, could not be tamed, and appeared to blame my father for the terrible cards he’d been dealt. As the lamp smashed against the wall, my father cried out in awful pain. I rushed to him and realized his face had turned a deathly grey. He was clutching his chest and gasping for breath.”

    “Oh no,” I said. “A heart attack?”

    “If you can call it that,” she replied. “But I think it was far worse. I believe the deep rift that had formed in his heart the moment my mother died had made him a weak man, and the heinous acts committed by that terrible child had simply forced the rift open wider and wider until it tore his heart in two. My father died right there in my arms. I was just an innocent nine-year-old girl, but I’ll never forget it. The life just slipped from him, like bathwater that turns cold. The Rainbow Trust was liquidated immediately; there wasn’t anyone willing to take it on, not in the same way my father had. I was cared for by our nanny, and all the other children were found homes of some fashion to go to. I never forgot that boy, though.” Her expression darkened as if a light bulb had dimmed. “I never, ever forgot.”

    There was a silence as the ghost of what had happened right there in Crampwell Manor enveloped us.

    “Wait a minute,” I said after a moment. “It was Cyril, wasn’t it? Cyril was the boy who tormented your father.”

    Her eyes narrowed. “I waited until I was much older, until I was barely identifiable as the girl I once was, and then I sought him out. I’d read about him in the news and was hardly surprised when I learned of the life he’d carved out for himself. I knew I had an opportunity to take everything he had, and ruin his life in the same way he had destroyed my father’s.”

    “Your three-step plan,” I whispered.

    “My three-step plan, indeed. I changed my name. I was Mary Blanchard back then, but Rosa Flynn felt much more appropriate for the character I was adopting. A flirtatious, strong, but fiercely loyal woman. It wasn’t difficult, catching his eye in a way that made him want me. Sleeping with him was more troublesome, but I kept telling myself it was a small sacrifice for what I was planning. He was completely unaware of who I was or where I came from, but then you showed up.” She stood. “You, with your odd clothes and strange way of talking. You, with your innocent charm and intoxicating smile. You, with your fake law firm and fake name.” She reached into her purse and retrieved my driving license. “Tell me, Ray. Who is Connor Macready?”

    My mouth must have fallen open because she began to laugh.

    “Did you really think I wouldn’t send someone to your flat to take a look around?” she asked. “Did you really think I wouldn’t look into your records and find out they simply didn’t exist? Cyril may have been stupid enough to take you on at face value, but I’m not Cyril. I discovered all sorts of things in your flat, Ray. Or should I call you Connor? There was some very strange looking money, some little rectangular cards belonging to banks that I’ve never heard of, and little green capsules that I can only assume are a medicine of some sort.” She grabbed me by the shoulders. “Who are you, Connor Macready, and why did you see fit to tip that bastard off about my meeting with the Mason brothers?”

    “I—”

    “Think before you speak,” she said, withdrawing a long blade from an ankle-holster I hadn’t spotted. “Your life might depend on it.”

    I began to panic. “Look,” I said, frantically trying to consider my options. “I’m not from around here, you’re right. But I am a lawyer, that part is true.”

    “You’re lying to me,” she said, and pushed the nib of the blade into my shirt.

    “I’m not!” I yelled. “Really, I’m not. But you wouldn’t believe me if I told you the whole truth, the real truth.”

    “Well, let’s see. You have about 10 seconds to spill your guts.” She cut a jagged tear in the material and opened a long gash in my chest. “Or I’ll spill them for you.”

    “I’m from the next century!” I cried, the pain searing through my body. “The twenty-first century. Those pills, those green capsules you found, they help me travel through time. I don’t know how they work, only Ludo knows that, and even then, I’m not sure he knows how they really work, but they do. I’m living proof of that.”

    “Oh, come on! Do you take me for some sort of pathetic, naïve female?” she said. I could see the fire burning within her, and I knew then that I wasn’t walking out of Crampwell Manor. “After all the time we spent together, after all the intimate moments we shared, you still don’t understand what kind of a person I am, do you? Well, let me spell it out for you. I’m a woman sworn to vengeance, and that’s the most dangerous kind. I knew you were a conman, right from the start, but I decided to play along with your little game until I was sure. Last night was the clincher for me. The ludicrous story about your father? All that nonsense about helping out the criminals? It was laughable, really. It was hysterical. I struggled to hold it together at dinner, I found it so amusing, but it proved to me what I always knew; that you are a fraud, Connor Macready. You are a sham and a lie, and what’s more, you are a turncoat.” She leaned in, so close to me now that her lips were touching mine. There was a clock above the hearth. The time was 1:30 p.m. It registered because I knew it was the time of my impending death. She pushed the knife home.

 

    #

 

“Two hours, 15 minutes ago,” I say to Ludo, eyeing my watch. “In Crampwell Manor, Hampshire. It’s her dead father’s estate.”

    “Okay,” Ludo says. “Then we have no time to waste. If you’re dead, then your body should still be warm. If you’re alive, we’ll know where to find you. You ready?”

    I am. I’m ready to go back to 1923 and the life I left behind, even if there is a woman there who tried, or perhaps even succeeded, in killing me, and at least three London gangsters who by now will be out for my blood.

    I follow Ludo and place a pill on my tongue. I hold my breath. These things will take us back exactly 100 years ago to the minute. From memory, it’s a jarring experience. Ludo winks at me as he glugs his scotch. “I’ll be seeing you, Connor,” he says. “You’ve been a good friend.”

    “Don’t be such a sop. I’ll be right there with you.” I swallow a mouthful of my lukewarm lager. I feel the pill as it slips down my throat. I close my eyes and count to 20, just as I did the first time.

    When I open them, I see the words ‘Unsustainable Congruence’ scrawled into the cubicle door. I close my eyes and open them again, but it’s still there. I realize I’m still in 2023, but Ludo has gone. I check my watch. It’s 3:46 p.m. Time has not shifted in the slightest. I don’t get it. If Ludo has travelled back in time, then why am I still here?

    My phone vibrates in my pocket. It’s Torey.

    “Torey, hi. Sorry, I’m in the middle of something right now—”

    “You need to get over here, Connor,” she says. I can hear the undisguised fear in her voice. “Right bloody now!”

 

    #

 

Torey’s apartment is a mile west from mine. I hop off a bus and head for her door. She opens it before I get a chance to knock. Her face is white. I’ve never seen her so pale. The sharp sting of shame ripples through my body. I’ve been cheating on her with a woman old enough to be her great, great-grandmother. It’s so ridiculous, it’s almost comical.

    “Come inside,” she says, and pulls my arm, closing the door behind us.

    “What’s going on,” I say. It feels like we haven’t seen each other in months, but in this timeline, we saw each other just last night. “Are you okay?”

    “No. I’m really not.”

    She opens the door and I step inside. What I see before me makes my knees go weak. There’s a man standing in the middle of the room, sipping coffee from a mug, my mug, but there’s something else too. This man looks exactly like…me.

    “Hello Connor,” he says.

    “Hi,” I say, sounding pathetic. I fight to slow my racing heart. “I guess if you’re here, that means I didn’t—”

    “Die? Oh no, you died. We both did. We just came back to life.”

    “How can that be—”

    “Possible? Well, according to Ludo…you remember him, right?”

    Of course I do. I’d literally just been standing in a toilet cubicle with him. I nod.

    “Good. Well, according to Ludo, our death caused a glitch in our timeline, meaning you were thrown back to this year, 2023, while I remained in 1923 with a knife sticking out of my chest. Except, about 30 minutes after she did what she did, I came round, and I was somehow perfectly healthy.”

    “But that would make you over 120 years old.”

    “124 years, 257 days, to be precise,” he says.

    “Connor,” Torey’s tugging at my sleeve. “What’s going on here? I’m scared? This man looks just like you, but he can’t be you. I mean, you’re you, aren’t you?”

    “Yes, I am,” I say. “I’ll explain everything soon enough. Or at least I’ll try.” I turn to my doppelganger. “So, if you can’t be killed, I’m guessing that means we’re immortal, right?”

    “Not quite,” he replies, finishing his coffee and setting our mug down on a coaster. “You’re still living your original timeline, so nothing’s changed for you. You can die or be killed like any other normal living thing. I, however, am living the glitched part of the timeline, which means up until now I’ve not aged at all. I’ve contracted no diseases, I’ve grown no deadly legions or tumors, and I’m able to survive any number of accidents, disasters or even, as we both found out, murder attempts.”

    “That’s amazing,” I say. “And Ludo?”

    “The pills don’t work both ways, or at least that was his assertion. And he didn’t want to chance the other method, the one that involved him being killed. I think he always thought that what happened to us was a one off. I offered many times to murder him, but you know?” he laughs.

    “So, he’s dead?”

    “Yes. The cancer got him, but don’t be sad. He lived a long life. I believe he was in his mid-eighties when he finally passed.”

    I feel a sudden grief wash over me. Ludo, my best friend since primary school. The science genius. I’ll never get to laugh with him again, never get to debate the moral dilemmas his little experiments could thrust upon the world. He’s gone.

    “What happened to Rosa? And to Cyril? The Mason brothers?”

    “Rosa?” Torey exclaims. “Connor, who the hell is Rosa?”

    “Cyril went after her after our little tip off,” my doppelganger says. “The Mason brothers too. We created quite a war there.”

    “So, she was killed?” Despite what happened, I truly hope she made it out alive.

    “I don’t actually know,” he replies. “She just disappeared into thin air. I often wonder if she—”

    “Took one of the pills?” I ask.

    “Yes. Took one of the pills. I sort of hope she did.”

    “Me too. Wait, you said you’ve not aged up until now. What did you mean by that?”

    “Well, here’s the thing,” he says, drawing a gun from his waistband. I step back and push Torey behind me. She starts to cry. “Ludo had a theory on this. He told me, as I’m sure he told you, that we cannot exist in the same timeline.”

    “Oh my god!” Torey yells. “Connor, is he going to kill us?”

    I hold a hand up to her. I recall the two lines of salt that Ludo had poured onto the table, the way they never overlapped. The continuum stretches, he had said, but it doesn’t break.

    “Ludo said the lines couldn’t meet,” I say, my eyes never leaving the gun.

    “The unsustainable congruence,” my doppelganger replies.

    “So, it was you who scrawled those words onto the cubicle wall.”

    “I wrote them there for Ludo, as a clue,” he says. “He told me to.”

    “That means he must have known what he was getting into, even before he took the pill.”

    “He said he had an inkling, but he couldn’t be sure. He knew that you wouldn’t be able to go back a second time, however. He was certain of that, even though he handed you the pill. He said you can’t go back to a timeline you already exist within.”

    I shake my head. So, Ludo had tricked me.

    “We have a choice,” he continues. “There’s only a matter of hours before one or both of us falls fatally ill. I don’t know the manner of it, Ludo wasn’t sure, but he was convinced that nature would not allow this flouting of its rules to continue uncorrected for longer than a day. From the moment you took that pill, the clock has been ticking. The only way we can avoid both of us suffering a painful death is by—”

    “—one of us dying first,” I interject, wondering if I’m going to be killed for a second time in a matter of hours. “And you mean that to be me. I mean, my version of us.”

    “No!” Torey cries. “Don’t hurt him! Don’t hurt Connor. Please!”

    “Don’t worry. I won’t,” he replies. “I don’t plan to hurt either of you, Torey. I loved you once, or at least I think I did. That’s why I came here, rather than to my…I mean, Connor’s flat. I wanted to see your face one more time.”

    Torey starts to sob.

    “Here,” he says, handing the gun to me, grip first. “Why don’t you take this.”

    “I don’t understand.”

    “I’ve already lived half a dozen lives, Connor. I’ve buried three wives, fathered nine children and travelled the globe countless times. I was blessed with the better half of our little conundrum, I know that, and I am happy with the experiences I have had. You’re young. You haven’t had the chance to really live life yet. You have someone here who loves you,” he points at Torey. “You have an opportunity to really be happy, and I will not deprive you, deprive us, of that.”

    A grim realization dawns on me. “So, you want me to kill you?”

    He nods once.

    “But why? Why me? Why not do it yourself.”

    He tilts his head and smiles. “Could you really shoot yourself, Connor?”

    He’s right. I don’t think I could.

    “You can’t kill a man in my flat!” Torey yells.

    “I don’t think you want me to do it here, do you?” I ask.

    “No,” he replies. “You know where it has to happen.”

 

    #

Crampwell Manor is now just a derelict building with its windows smashed and the doors boarded up. Rosa said buildings last when they’re well cared for. I guess with nobody left alive in the family to keep up with its maintenance, this particular building has become just another Blanchard tragedy. It feels bizarre to me, particularly as I was sitting here, holding a tense conversation with Rosa Flynn, nee Mary Blanchard, only hours earlier. I feel sad for her. She only wanted to avenge her father’s death, and yet I’d somehow managed to turn everything on its head. I hope she’d found a happier life in 1823. I hope she’d found peace.

    My doppelganger pulls up a stool and sits before me.

    “This is where it has to happen,” he says. “This is the way that fate wanted it.”

    “But I’ll still be living. Fate didn’t want that either.”

    “Fate didn’t want you to travel back in time,” he says. “And you won’t. Not ever again. You promise me that, right?”

    I nod. I do. This can never happen again.

    “I don’t want to do this,” I say.

    “I know, but you will. You must.”

    I raise the gun. My hands are shaking.

    “Aim well,” he says. “Shoot well.”

    “Were you happy?” I ask. “With your wives, I mean? With your children?”

    “Heaven is in the little moments,” he says, tears on his cheeks. “In the spaces between words. I found many such spaces, many such moments. They will come to you too if you stop looking for them. Fate wants you to be happy.”

    I take a deep breath. I hope he’s right.

    “Ready?” I ask.

    “Ready,” he replies.

    The lines of salt have collided. I pull the trigger.

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