It looked like there were two bodies, but it’s always hard to tell in these cases. They were like cherry popsicles on the pavement on the Fourth of July: a sticky red mess you tried your best not to step in. I’d seen it before. More times than I cared to count.
Perfect case record, though.
I lit a cigarette. Helped me concentrate. Damn things were getting harder and harder to find. I let the match flame burn down to my fingertips, and then let it linger just a few seconds more. It was the only brightness in a gray city on a gray morning.
“Hey, you can’t smoke here. Keep walking.”
Local police chief. Paunch gave him away. Hadn’t seen a crime scene since he’d last seen his own feet if I had to guess. Uniform said Colburn. I showed him my badge.
Colburn scowled. “The Agency? ’Bout time you showed up, Detective.” A throaty chuckle gurgled out of him.
Heard that one before. Wasn’t funny the first time, and it aged like milk. I took a long drag. Tasted better than the city air. Blew the smoke in his bloated face.
“You little shitbag. Who’s your commander?”
I shrugged. “Don’t know.”
“Classified. The Agency’s got a real hard-on for secrecy.” I took one last puff and flicked away the butt. “Guess I’m not much of a detective, huh? You can take it up with the director, but I don’t know who that is either. Now, I’m gonna have to ask you to wait over there.” I motioned with a nod.
“This is my jurisdiction!”
“Jurisdiction requires the where and the when, Chief. So if you don’t mind, you’re contaminating my crime scene.” Viscera clung to the outsole of his leather oxford. He had some choice parting words, but I was already on to other things.
I meant what I said, earlier: I’m not much of a detective. I just follow my gut. Messy, but effective.
The Agency deals in counteraction. Pipe bomb at Super Bowl CII; Secretary of Defense Margiotta’s assassination; Blackout of ‘71. I’ve expunged the most grievous acts of public violence you’ve never heard of by gathering the facts and getting them to where they’re the most valuable: before the crimes occur.
It’s called redaction.
See, time’s linear, like train tracks. You’re stuck going forward. Once you’ve found the lines, though, you can choose to derail, go freighthopping back to yesteryear. Catastrophically dangerous, obviously, but even the best of us can’t stop daydreaming about it. You’re thinking about it right now. Probably why the Agency’s so tight-assed with the tech.
Thing is, redaction doesn’t work on people. They always wind up like these two: pulp. Somebody tried explaining it to me once. Something about dropping rocks into a pond—waves and troughs and interference patterns. My advice? Just go look at a deconstituted body. Gets the concept across.
I tell myself it’s quick, but it still keeps me up at night. One look at a human pile of pumpkin guts and you just know it’s a bad way to go. What does quick even mean when you’re backtracking through time?
It bothers me because one of these bodies is mine.
The bodies were unidentifiable, but I knew. I’ve redacted myself before. Sometimes I took someone with me; never sure why, but I assumed the poor saps had it coming.
I pressed the back of my badge to activate the cordon. The air around me shimmered like heat haze. No spectators. Official Agency business.
I waded into the mess and rooted around until I found a stomach. Opened it with a folding knife. Wrong stomach. Found the other one and sliced. A blue balloon. Jackpot.
People can’t survive redaction, but things? Things can make the trip.
Don’t know where I first got the idea—won’t ever know—but I have a method. After a crime’s committed, I write down the details and swallow them in a balloon (or a condom, if there’s one handy—there aren’t any mint flavored balloons; that’s all I’m going to say about it). Anyway, it’s crude, but it works. Passing myself notes across time. For a price.
Presumably I strip down first to avoid identification, because there’s never any clothes. Redaction irradiates the bodies pretty severely, so even the parts that hold together don’t have enough intact DNA to check for a match. Teeth and fingerprints and retinas all get annihilated.
When a redacted payload arrives it emits what’s called an axion burst. Attracts attention like a signal flare if you’re in the know. Can’t just send back a notebook; anyone could nab it, the tech’s too imprecise. No, you have to be creative, and a little daring. Or maybe desperate.
The burst gives you a timetable, too. About 36 hours in this case—short. Whatever’s coming, it’s happening soon.
I opened the balloon. Slim pickings. A single scrap of fortune cookie paper. I recognized my own handwriting.
Other bodies are Police Chief Henry Colburn and Agency Director Adelyn Finch. Walk away. Already too late.
The hell? Could Colburn really be a threat? Seemed duller than a Tuesday morning. Never heard of Finch, but if she’s the director then she’s the most dangerous person alive; knowing it didn’t make me any safer. I flipped the paper over.
Lucky numbers: 8, 42, 19, 11, 4, 12.
Never abandoned a case before. Guess my perfect record was shot.
Colburn waited like some carrion eater for the cordon to come down. I lit another cigarette. Realized there must be a third stomach somewhere around here. Morbidly amusing, but not especially helpful.
I resisted thinking about all those redacted versions of myself. Thought about them anyway; it was unavoidable. I owed them a debt.
Might be time to pony up.
Already too late? Redaction means it’s never too late.
By tomorrow night, Colburn and the director would both be in custody or dead. Or I would. Time would tell.
Notes: This one technically isn’t a warmup page. I wasn’t able to write this week, so in place of a normal post is this previously unpublished piece I worked on earlier this year.