Like The Prose 2021 – Day 25

Today’s brief was ‘pulp fiction’ – the genre, not the Tarantino film. I decided to give my story a twist by making my protagonist a female detective instead of a male; and I also threw in time travel so that my modern day police officer could travel back to 1920s New York. Since it’s set in America, I’ve used American spellings for this one.

TEMPUS FUGITIVE

A squat grey building of only three or four stories sat amidst towering skyscrapers and opulent hotels, looking as out of place as a dowdy aunt at the Oscar awards. Samantha Reilly checked her sat nav once more: this was definitely the right place.

Exiting her car, she made her way towards the unassuming looking structure, her mind running over the letter she’d recently received. “If you want information about the downtown killings, come to this address.” It was years since anyone had put pen to paper to contact her – but then it was hard to remain anonymous with an email: even if your name wasn’t part of the address, there would still be numerous ways of being tracked via the internet.

She was approaching the main entrance now. The building wasn’t just unassuming: it looked totally abandoned. Windows had been boarded up for some time, judging by the spray-painted graffiti that covered most of the wood; and had it not been for the small, handwritten sign tacked to the door, proclaiming ‘Tempus Investigations’, she might have turned on her heel and walked away. As it was, she tried the handle – locked – then hammered on the door. No answer. Perhaps someone was just messing with her mind after all?

It was only then that she noticed the dilapidated intercom at the side of the door. Despite being covered in dust, it seemed to crackle with electricity. Pressing the large button at the bottom of the device, she waited.

“Tempus Investigations.”

She replied to the tinny voice by giving her credentials. “The name’s Reilly. I’m a detective with NYPD.”

“Come in, Reilly.”

The door swung open and Sam inched her way inside, hoping that her gut instinct – that this really could be the breakthrough she’d been looking for – was correct. If not… She supressed a shiver as she tried not to think of grisly tales of female police officers being assaulted and murdered by crazed psychopaths they’d trusted.

But it seemed her gut had been correct after all. The bespectacled young man who greeted her in the corridor looked completely unthreatening and was even attractive, albeit in a nerdy sort of way.

“Ms Reilly? Follow me.”

She was already beginning to regret her decision as he led her through a corridor that was far too empty for a thriving investigation business. Surely she should have seen someone else by now? Grimly, she concentrated on the back of this unknown man’s head, cursing herself for not asking for proper identification. It was a rookie mistake, but she knew why she’d made it …

Briefly, her mind skittered back to the body of her partner. She’d been the one to find him, three weeks ago, blood leaking out of the unnecessary wound in his side. The bullet to the brain must have killed him outright, so why bother to…

“In here, please.”

She came back to her senses with a start, realising they had reached their destination. Pushing away the memory, she walked through the door that would change her life forever.

*

The first thing that caught her eye was the strange contraption in the centre of the room. It was almost like something out of a 1950s B movie, she thought dispassionately. A large seat – not unlike a massage chair – was wired up to an incredibly complicated-looking machine, full of dials and switches. If she squinted, she could almost detect a pale green glow around the chair and there was definitely a faint humming sound emanating from it.

“Ms Reilly, take a seat.”

That was when she noticed the man standing in front of her, carrying a clipboard.

She looked around, puzzled. Take a seat where? Then comprehension dawned.

“I’m not sitting in that thing,” she said pointedly, “until you tell me who you are and what the hell’s going on.”

*

Now, as she sat alone in her downtown hotel room, she wondered if she’d made the right choice. It had all seemed so plausible when Mr Spectacles and Mr Clipboard described it – they were time travelling private investigators; but it was much harder to feel positive about her situation when she was a hundred years away from the life she knew in 21st century New York.

Still, the fact that she was here, in the 1920s, proved they hadn’t been lying. They really could sit people in that funny-looking chair of theirs and send them hurtling through time to a predetermined decade. At first, she’d been skeptical – especially when they’d told her to remove her clothing and don the ‘age-appropriate’ garments they offered (the hat alone was enough to make her think they were just laughing at her); but she certainly fitted into this era in her knee length dress and T-strap heels.

She hadn’t reckoned on how restrictive it was to be a woman at this time, though. When Mr Spectacles had explained the principles of Tempus Investigations – to counteract a group of criminals who were travelling forward in time to murder the descendants of the cops who’d put them away – the idea had seemed totally preposterous; but she’d liked the idea of flitting in and out of the past, experiencing ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and the birth of Jazz. She hadn’t realised that an unmarried woman like herself would be seen as ‘easy game’ by any of the men she encountered in the speakeasies; but if she didn’t hang around these illegal bars, then how could she possibly get any information about where her suspect might be hiding?

So far, she’d been investigating just the name at the top of the list supplied by Tempus. “Why me?” she’d asked when they’d explained the set-up to her and asked her to track down Larry the Hat. It was only when they’d shown her the sheaf of papers full of details of people who’d been murdered in the same way as her ex-partner that she’d understood.

“You mean criminals are literally hopping through time to avoid being caught?” she’d echoed incredulously.

Mr Spectacles (his real name was Richard Jenkins) had given her a disarming smile at that point. “That’s a rather simplistic way of looking at it.”

“But they’re able to commit a string of crimes a hundred years ago and then hide in the twenty-first century – or vice-versa?”

Spectacles and Clipboard exchanged glances.

“Think of it in terms of artistry,” Clipboard explained. “A murderer’s proud of what he does: his modus operandi – for example, the way he leaves a red rose on every corpse or carves his initials into the dead woman’s flesh – becomes his calling card. And what better way to achieve notoriety than by establishing a reputation that lasts throughout the centuries?”

“But surely people would just assume the modern set of killings is a spate of copycat murders,” she’d argued. “If these – low-lifes – are so keen to make a reputation for themselves, wouldn’t it irk them not to get the recognition they deserve?”

“I think they’re more concerned with not getting caught,” Richard had said mildly. “And that, Ms Reilly, is where you come in…”

Sam flicked through the folder again, although she had already committed most – if not all – of the details to memory. Larry the Hat was known for his penchant for cutting his victims’ bodies after they’d died – at the time, he’d been dubbed ‘The Sculptor’, due to the number of corpses found with a bowl-shaped incision. Like the one in her partner’s body, she thought now, her mind seeing for the umpteenth time the neat gunshot wound in the head, the precisely carved hollow in the belly.

She was here, she told herself furiously, for Jack Hareton, her ex-partner. If Larry the Hat was truly responsible for Jack’s death, then she would grab the 1920s gangster and carry him back to the 21st century to receive the justice he deserved.

Briefly, she ran through the instructions she’d been given. Larry’s last recorded murder of the 1920s had taken place today – or, rather, it would take place in another two hours and forty-seven minutes. “You’ll need to take a room in The Marlton,” Clipboard had told her, “and entice our friend Mr Hat back to your room somehow. The machine’s programmed to zap the two of you back from there at 23.00 hours precisely – that’s ten minutes before the time he killed his last victim.”

“What if I can’t get him into my room?” she’d asked.

At that, Richard had blushed a becoming shade of pink. “That’s one of the reasons why we chose you, Ms Reilly. The Hat had a thing for redheads –”

“Curvy redheads,” Clipboard chimed in.

“And you – well, you’re the type he goes for.”

“So I’m just bait?” She wondered whether to feel offended: after all, she was one of the best cops in her precinct.

“No!” Jenkins hastened to atone for his mistake. “We chose you because… because we knew you could get the job done,” he finished.

“So, I get him into my room at 11pm, you flick a few switches, and pow! we’re back in the modern day?”

“That’s pretty much it.”

Spectacles looked like he was going to say something more, but Clipboard threw him a warning look. Sam wasn’t a betting woman, but she had more than a sneaking suspicion that she shouldn’t trust Richard’s colleague.

*

Ten minutes later, she placed her pistol under the pillow and left the room, heading for the bar. This had become a nightly occurrence: the lone female act certainly attracted a lot of male attention, and she’d chatted to a number of men who claimed to know gangsters – although she suspected most of them were lying to impress her. She’d even spotted Larry the Hat once or twice, resisting the urge to approach him but instead making a point of ignoring the approving glances he cast in her direction. She had to make him wait for it: if she was going to get him to her room at the right moment, timing was of the essence.

This night was no exception. It was around eight thirty when he strutted in – confidence and charisma neatly packaged in a well-cut suit; danger tossed casually over his shoulder like a silk scarf. For a 1920s gangster, he had an almost modern air of insouciance – almost, she thought dreamily, as if he were playing a version of himself in some modern-day movie.

No, she couldn’t let herself fall for his disturbing charm. She had a job to do – and she would bring Jack’s killer to justice. He wouldn’t be expecting her to be a cop – female law enforcement officers were still few and far between in this day and age; and that could only work to her advantage. If possible, she wanted to bring him in alive; but the pistol under her pillow could be used in self-defence if necessary.

This time, when Larry looked at her, she caught his gaze instead of turning away like she usually did. A moment later, when he slid his body onto the stool next to hers, she knew she had caught her man.

He glanced at the almost full Negroni in her hand and ordered her another by way of introduction. In turn, she tried to channel everything she could remember from when she’d seen ‘The Great Gatsby’, trying to imitate the correct way to speak and laugh as a 1920s woman. A flutter of eyelashes here, a stretch of stocking-clad leg there and she could feel the chemistry between them taking on a life of its own. Damn you for being so attractive! she thought viciously as his hand reached out and brushed a strand of hair away from her face. She tried to centre herself by thinking about Richard Jenkins and his clean-cut image, but the glasses slid out of her mind to be replaced with the much more present and exciting gangster who seemed to be under her spell.

As one cocktail chased another down her throat, she realised that Larry’s fingers were creeping further and further up her leg. Placing a restraining hand upon the offending digits, she threw him a questioning look.

“You know you want to,” he whispered.

In the middle of the crowded bar, they were suddenly the only two people in existence.

*

They walked back to her room slowly, Sam swaying a little from the effect of the alcohol. She’d drunk more than she’d intended. She unlocked the door, wondering what she could do to keep Larry occupied for the ten minutes before the machine zapped them both back into the present. His hands encircled her waist and a thrill of electricity pulsed through her. Don’t get involved, she warned herself. He killed Jack. But when he pushed her onto the bed and began to kiss her, she found her lips parting treacherously and her arms holding him close.

It was only as he became more forceful that she started to panic. She needed to keep him there – but at what cost? She tried to push him away, but he pinned her to the bed, using his weight to render her immobile.

Surely it must be time now? Her eyelids flickered to the carriage clock on the bedside table. It was past eleven. Something had gone wrong.

Larry began to fumble in his clothing for something, keeping her arms pinned down with his other hand. In horror, she saw him withdraw a revolver; and suddenly the pieces fell into place and she knew: she had been his next victim all along.

She wriggled desperately, wondering if she could reach her hidden pistol, her mind still frantically trying to ascertain why Tempus hadn’t transported them back to the 21st.

“I like a woman who puts up a bit of a fight,” he purred lazily.

He liked fights, did he? Well, she’d show him!

Summoning up all her strength, Sam managed to shift enough to bring her knee up and catch Larry in the groin. As he doubled over in pain, she wrenched her hand free and scrabbled for the pistol, her fingers closing over the handle just in time. Whirling round, she aimed it at his head.

“Come on, Tempus!” she muttered.

Larry began to laugh.

“What’s so funny?” she demanded through clenched teeth.

“Tempus set you up, Sweetheart.” He was enjoying the joke. “That machine of theirs is one-way: they don’t send cops back in time to catch killers: they send them to us so we can get rid of them.”

“So, I can’t go back?”

Without waiting for an answer, she shot him straight between the eyes.

*

A week later, Sam shivered in the early morning air, scanning the streets before her. One day, she vowed, she would find the prototype Tempus office here in the 1920s, and then she would destroy the plans they’d made for the machine that would be built nearly a hundred years later. Would that effectively trap her here forever? Her knowledge of time travel was too sketchy for her to say with any certainty, but she was past caring by now. Trying to remember where she’d seen the building in the future, she checked her notebook again. There was a lot of New York to cover, but she had all the time in the world.

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