An essay by Detective Gentry Harris, as provided by Domenic diCiacca
Art by Amanda Jones
“Let me assure you, Mr. McClarm, calling us was the right thing to do. I’m Detective Harris. Now take your time and start at the beginning, or you can simply show me where the body is.”
Electronics, mechanical gadgets, and books crowded the room. Horace McClarm sat nervously at the kitchen table, trying to balance a spoon on the edge of a teacup. He glanced sideways at me with worried rheumy eyes. “The body? Oh, dear. I’m afraid that’s going to be awkward.”
I opened my notepad and doodled circles in the left-hand margin. My partner Clayton must have set this up; it had all the earmarks of one of his elaborate pranks. When I stepped outside again, I’d likely find a dozen cops laughing their collective asses off. This morning Clayton gave me an early retirement gift, a two-dollar flip pad with my name embossed in gold on the cover: Detective Gentry Harris, alongside the astrological symbol for Mars. Cute. I can take a ribbing, really I can. But I never should have said a damn thing. “All right, Mr. McClarm, let’s just take it a step at a time. Look, I’ll help. Dwane Brice works for you, isn’t that right?”
“Yes. He helps with my inventions. It’s my hands, you see, they’re not much good anymore.” He held up bent arthritic hands as if in apology. “I can hardly button a button. But Dwane’s good with a soldering iron. Was good.”
I sucked my lip. “So Dwane Brice is dead. You called us to report it. Can you tell me what happened?”
“Well–” Horace looked at me square on for the first time. “I killed him.”
I looked squarely back. “Okay. You killed him. I believe you. Where’s the body?”
“I need a pencil.” He got up to rummage about in the silverware drawer and opened a cabinet to stare at a stack of plates. I shook my head. Pens and pencils in easy reach littered the place. “Here, use mine.” He sat to scribble on the tablecloth. “Our planet orbits the sun at about sixty-five thousand miles an hour. Did you know that?”
I found a pen and doodled another circle. “Horace? Tell me how you killed Dwane Bryce.”
“Better than a thousand eighty-three miles a minute.” He scratched his temple with the tip of the pencil and grinned sheepishly. On the tablecloth, he’d drawn a cartoon of a man floating in space. I raised my voice and put steel in it. “Mr. McClarm. How did you kill Dwane Brice?”
“Yes, yes, I’m trying to tell you. I used the time machine in the basement. Um. We probably ought to go down there anyway, and check on the bomb.”
A time machine. Of course. And a bomb. If you’re going to do something, overdo it; that’s Clayton’s motto. I sighed and pushed up from the table. “Why don’t you show me?”
The basement chaos resembled a Rube Goldberg convention. A mismatched collection of tools and contraptions covered work benches along the walls. A few had collided with the floor. A massive bomb loomed on a low metal platform, dominating the room like a gorilla on a bar stool. I could see what looked like Cordite, C3, dynamite, fertilizer, explosive caps, and black powder, all half hidden by a tangle of wires and electronics. Very convincing. An attached digital readout ticked down from just under five minutes. Another readout wired to the platform would reach zero fifteen seconds sooner. I suppressed a flash of fear and doubt. This would be the precise moment Clayton expected me to scream for the bomb squad.
We picked our way through the clutter. I had difficulty pulling my attention from the readouts, but my experienced eye found a spattering of red-brown stains on the floor. “Is that Dwane’s blood?”
“No, it’s mine.” Horace hiked up his pants to show a bandaged leg. “Dwane got very angry. He threatened to kill me and started breaking my inventions. He gashed my shin with one when he threw it at me. So I had to agree. But I tried to tell him it wouldn’t work.” He rubbed tired eyes. “Stupid, really, after spending so much time convincing him it does.”
I tried to keep annoyance out of my voice; the readouts had me rattled. Damn Clayton all to hell. “So you fought. You were injured. Then what?”
Horace turned sulky. “It’s not entirely my fault, you know. Dwane’s own greed and stupidity were paramount. He wanted to go back in time and make bets on sports events. Silly man.”
“So he used the machine?” I pointed at the platform.
“Yes. He stood on the platform and I turned it on.”
“That’s when you killed him?”
“Yes. I sent him twenty-four hours into the past.”
“So you’re saying your time machine works?”
“No. Yes. But not into the future. Only the past.”
“So? One day isn’t much. Where’s Dwane? He should be around here someplace, shouldn’t he?”
Horace seemed to deflate. He sighed, slumped onto a stool, and peered up at me. “Time present is in flux. Time future is unformed. But time past–” He wiped his brow, “–it’s why I can’t get the blasted thing to work properly. I can’t separate space and time. No one can. Time/space past is fixed.”
“So? Where does that leave Dwane Brice? And will you please turn off those timers and deactivate that bomb?” I knew it wasn’t real; Horace exhibited no fear. But it made me nervous.
Horace took a deep breath. “Don’t you understand? Dwane returned exactly to his earlier location in time and space. In twenty-four hours the earth traveled better than two and a half million miles along its orbit. The solar system moved seventy thousand miles an hour along a different vector. The entire galaxy spun. Even the point-of-origin shifted. But time/space past stayed absolute. I cannot begin to guess where Dwane is, he’s out there somewhere, farther than any man has ever gone. He is surely dead, but I cannot show you his corpse.”
I stared at the timers. Two minutes and counting. “Horace, who did you talk to when you called the station?”
“I spoke with a Detective Clayton. He was quite nice and very interested in my time machine. He said he’d send his best science detective over. He spoke quite highly of you.”
“I see. Did he suggest the bomb? And will you please defuse the damn thing, right now!”
Horace stepped back, startled. “It’s all right Detective. Just one more minute.”
I moved closer looking for a cut-off, thinking inanely, red wire or green, red wire or green?
“No!” Horace yelped. “Don’t reach over the platform! You could lose a hand!” He stooped to look directly at the lower readout. “Just wait another nineteen seconds.”
I’m going to jail for murder, I thought, right after I bury Clayton. For nineteen seconds, I stood paralyzed, mesmerized by the clock. I figured, If it hits ten I’m grabbing a handful of wires, but when the bomb’s timer hit fifteen seconds, the platform’s timer reached zero, and the bomb disappeared. Horace nodded in satisfaction.
My breath hiccupped to a stop. My brain spun in my skull. That’s impossible. “What happened?” I stammered, searching for a trap door or a rotating wall.
“I sent the bomb one minute into the past. It exploded forty-five seconds ago.”
“Where?” I asked, still reeling. I searched for smoke and mirrors. Or a hypnotist.
“I told you. Into orbit one thousand eighty-three point three miles behind us.”
McClarm blinked a couple of times. “Do you want the math?”
That kind of steadied me. I blinked back, non-plussed. I placed my hands on the small of my back and stretched. I rotated my head to ease the tension in my neck and look around at the cluttered basement. It seemed quite roomy now. Quiet. Peaceful. “So you really built a time machine?”
“And a bomb?”
“Why?” I rubbed my face with both hands. “Why did you build a bomb?” I sounded calm. That was good. My hands still trembled.
“It did no harm. No one was hurt.”
“There’s no pressure wave, with no air to transmit it. And no one there to be injured by shrapnel. Just a flash of light and infrared and, with my added features, a wide band radiation signature strong enough to be recorded by satellite and ground-based sensors. Perfectly harmless. NASA and the rest of the scientific community will have to take me seriously now. They never have, you know. But I predicted an event that they did not, could not–” McClarm drifted to a stop. “Oh no. Oh dear. Oh my–” His lips thinned and I watched him struggle until an expletive burst from him. “Turtle turds!”
“Turtle turds?” I grinned. I was beginning to feel much better.
“I forgot! In the press and worry over Dwane I forgot to post my predictions! I didn’t invent a good time machine, but I did invent a great launching system. I thought NASA would find it useful, but, well, hockey pucks! Duck doo-doo!”
He looked at me with his droopy mournful eyes and such a hound-dog expression that I laughed out loud. I threw an arm around his shoulders and started him back upstairs to the kitchen. “Don’t worry, Horace. It’s just a minor setback. Let’s go check the news feeds and see if we can confirm the success of your experiment, find out if you’ve caused an international crisis or fears of an alien invasion or something. I’ve an idea you might like.”
“But what about Dwane? I really did kill him, you know. Aren’t you taking me to jail?”
“That is a point. But with no body in evidence, the best I can do is file a missing persons. I’ll write up the report, but who’ll believe it?” Hah! Not Clayton. “By the time the truth is established, you’ll be too famous and necessary to jail. It’ll be accidental death, a laboratory experiment gone wrong. Or self-defense, which I gather it actually is. Does he have any dependents? A wife, kids?”
“No. Nobody much liked him, to tell you the truth, but–”
In the kitchen, I took a surreptitious look out the window. Clayton’s sedan was parked halfway down the block. “Horace, have you ever heard of Jamie Duncan and the Seed Colony Foundation?”
“It’s a collection of scientists, philanthropists, and lay people like me who believe the human race is hell-bent on self-destruction and doomed to extinction. The foundation is dedicated to planting seed colonies off planet. Space colonies, Mars colonies, generation ships to other stars if necessary, anything and everything to get the human race out of the nest and into space before we destroy ourselves.”
“Really? That’s extraordinary!”
“It’s admittedly a long-range plan, but it’s our only hope of survival. I’m leaving the force next month–mandatory retirement. So I’m joining the Colony. I believe they are right, and I’ve been interested in space all my life. Horace, your invention is a huge step forward. If you join them–us–you can save the human race from extinction.” And I can forgive myself for telling Clayton I was retiring to fulfill my boyhood dreams. I checked the street again. Two squad cars now, and Clayton was just pulling into the drive. I never could fault his timing. Well, I’d never begrudge them a good laugh. “Hey Horace, how far back in time can you send somebody? How deep into space?”
“My bomb’s purpose was not just to attract attention. It establishes a reference point and a baseline so I can begin to calculate where–whatever I send–will end up. Refining my calculations will require a lot more data. There’s a lot of research yet to be done.” He picked up a teaspoon, stirred cold tea, and tried to balance the spoon on the cup’s edge. “Scientists, did you say?”
I smiled. I grinned, actually, like a lunatic climbing over the asylum walls. “A few days ago I told my partner Detective Clayton that I was retiring because I wanted to be the first cop on Mars. Do you think your invention could help with that?”
“Well,” Horace tapped a finger on his lower lip, “I’ll need a longer baseline. And something detectable from billions of miles away.” His eyes took on a faraway look. “Detective Harris, I must tell you this; I’m a gentle man, I have no desire to ever hurt anyone. But I do like to build bombs; it’s something I do well. I think, for this project, I’m going to need a much bigger bomb.” He grinned, and may God help me, I grinned right back.
Detective Gentry Harris lives in the town of Bradbury, collects rocks, reads too much, and is the only cop on Mars. He is an active and well-respected member of the Jamie Duncan Seed Colony Foundation, and will soon be leaving near space for parts unknown.
Domenic diCiacca lives on a farm in Missouri where he excels as a time-share mattress for cats. Domenic’s hobby is making his wife laugh.
Amanda Jones is an illustrator based in Seattle. She likes reading horror stories, binge watching seasons of her favourite sci-fi/fantasy shows, and everything Legend of Zelda. She focuses on digital portrait painting and co-creates the webcomic The Kinsey House. You can find more of her work on Tumblr under ‘thehauntedboy‘.
“Horace McClarm’s Invention” is © 2017 Domenic diCiacca
Art accompanying story is © 2017 Amanda Jones