[a preview of what’s to come in my next book… here’s a short story!]
“So, what you got this time?” Pete asked, looking at the large purple box on the paint-splattered table.
“It’s Maria,” said Derek, his face lighting up. “Been working on this lady for months.”
“Nice. What’s it look like?”
“Oh, you know -”
“You need to start diversifying, man,” Pete sighed. “What about blondes? Brunettes?”
“Diversifying?” Derek snorted. “Take a look through my books. I’ve had ’em from every corner of the world. Every colour, shape, size…”
“Sure. But every one of them’s had red hair. Why?”
“I like redheads.”
“Why’d you marry a blonde, then?”
“You know Eleanor’s not a natural blonde,” Derek replied. “Quit trying to wind me up. D’you want to see her or not?”
“Alright, go on then.”
Derek’s gloved hands carefully lifted the lid to reveal a doll around two and a half feet tall, but so perfectly designed it could easily be a real human shrunk down. Her hair was shoulder-length and in ringlets with green velvet ribbons tied through it. She wore a black dress and shiny patent shoes on her tiny feet. Her face was – as always – exquisite. More beautiful than any real person could ever be. Pete wondered how he made the eyes so bright and almost wet looking, how he made such a natural blush appear on her lifelike skin. You got the impression that you’d find her cheek warm and soft, rather than icy cold and hard like porcelain dolls.
“Wow. I don’t know how you do it, I really don’t,” Pete grinned. “I take it she’s already sold?”
“Eight hundred grand for this beauty,” Derek replied, placing the lid carefully back onto the box. “Going to an old lady in Montmartre.”
“Seriously, how do you make them? Why won’t you let me watch?”
“A magician never reveals his secrets.”
“I’m sick of that answer. I bet you… oh, I don’t know, a hundred quid that you’ll never actually tell me.”
“Interesting technique,” Derek said, nodding. “You think I’ll leap at the chance to earn a hundred quid and tell you the secrets of my artistic process? Didn’t you hear how much I’m getting for Maria?”
Pete smiled confidently. “I know you, though. You always need to beat me. It’s not about the money, you can’t stand knowing you’ll lose to me.”
“If you say so,” Derek shrugged. “We’ll see.”
It was another month before Pete visited again, having been travelling with work. The door to the cellar was locked and the ‘do not disturb’ sign hung on the doorknob. Pete pressed the doorbell next to it and made his way to the kitchen. He was halfway through his second sandwich when Derek finally made an appearance.
“What’s that?” he asked.
“Peanut butter sandwich. Want some?”
“You’re offering me my own food that you stole from me?”
“Lighten up, it’s only peanut butter. Speaking of which, you’ve just run out. There almost wasn’t enough for me.”
“My heart bleeds. What are you doing here, anyway?”
“Come to see if you fancied a break,” Pete said, finishing the sandwich. “I’ll buy you a new jar of peanut butter, come on.”
Derek scoffed. “No-frills fifty pence a jar crap? No chance. Where are we off to?”
There was a new Sci-Fi movie showing, their favourite genre. That’s how they had met to begin with – two friendless teenagers at a deserted stall for some obscure 60’s TV programme at a convention. This one was about time travel, Derek’s favourite topic. He loved to poke holes in the logic, pointing out how it couldn’t work that way in reality.
“See, what they don’t realise,” he said over a pint afterwards. “Is that going forwards in time, that’s easy. Anyone could do it. It’s getting back after that that’s hard.”
“Uh-huh,” Pete muttered. He had long since stopped trying to debate the issue.
“There’s no smoke or flashing lights or any of that,” he went on. “There’s just you vanishing, blip, you’re gone. Then you’re back and no one knows you were actually away.”
“They put those things in for dramatic effect,” Pete said tiredly. “No one would get excited over a… ‘blip’. They wouldn’t watch.”
Was now the right time? Pete didn’t think he could do it, but Eleanor had said… it had to come from him. What would he think? Would he get violent?
Pete smiled to himself. Derek had never been violent in his life, the idea was comical.
Anyway, he showed so little attention to his wife, he couldn’t possibly be surprised, could he? Would he be angry? Or just miserable? Would he even care?
“Eleanor and I are sleeping together,” Pete said after his third drink, the words all running together drunkenly.
Derek, who had been mid-flow about the limitations of time travel, stopped. He laughed a little, then stopped. “What?”
“We’ve… fallen in love,” Pete said, almost cringing. “I’m sorry.”
Derek didn’t speak for a long time. The two men stared into their drinks.
Finally, Derek got to his feet. “I’ve got work to do,” he said quietly, and walked away.
Pete sent messages, tried calling again and again, but received no reply. After three weeks he conquered his cowardice and went to Derek’s house. He pressed the doorbell by the cellar door and stood there awkwardly waiting, as though he had entered a stranger’s house. When Derek opened the door, his face positively lit up with joy. He spread out his arms dramatically, apparently delighted, and wrapped them around Pete; who stood stiff and petrified.
“I thought you wouldn’t come back,” Derek said when he pulled away from the hug at last. “I’m sorry I walked away like that.”
Pete laughed suddenly – he couldn’t help it. “You’re sorry? Are you insane? I’m sorry. Look, I’ve ended it with Eleanor because… well, your friendship means more to me than being in love. I didn’t want to lose you.”
Derek simply smiled.
“Where is Eleanor?” Pete asked nervously.
“Oh, she’s gone,” Derek said nonchalantly. “I told her you’d told me, and I asked her to leave. Before she could even pack her bags you called and dumped her. She’d been planning to stay with you, until that. So I’ve no idea where she went in the end.”
“Oh,” Pete said, an uneasy feeling gently rising from his stomach.
“So, it’s just me and you again, bud,” he said, slapping Pete on the arm. “Come see who I’ve been working on.”
Pete followed the man downstairs, wondering if he was going to suddenly turn and swing for him.
“Two boxes!” Pete exclaimed. “How could you have time for that?”
“I know, a double casket,” Derek said. “I’ve barely slept or eaten.”
Pete noticed the five o’clock shadow, the black tired eyes. “Big buyer, huh?” he asked, feeling the smoothness of the black boxes.
“It’s for a special client, yeah,” Derek replied. “Wanna see?”
It almost felt normal again. The uneasy feeling began to dissipate, like bubbles popping in his stomach. Derek lifted the lid of the first ‘casket’, and Pete laughed with shock. “Not a redhead!”
“Gentlemen prefer blondes.”
“Seriously, though, why now?” Pete asked, leaning closer. “She kind of looks like… Eleanor, actually.”
“It’s an ‘it’, not a ‘she’,” said Derek quietly. “How about the other?”
The second lid was lifted, and revealed a male figure within.
“Wow, you really broke out of your comfort zone on this one,” Pete said. “A male doll. They must have a big bank account, this client.”
Derek shrugged. “They’re not paying me a penny.”
“What?” Pete asked distractedly, moving closer. “Hey, he kinda looks like me.”
“Correct. You were my model.”
“Only a little older… greying hair… why’d you make me old?” he laughed, staring with amazement at his tiny clone.
“I’ve decided to tell you my secret,” Derek said coldly, his whole manner frosting over. “Like you said, I can’t let you beat me. So here it is. I don’t make ’em.”
“Jeez, it’s even got my scar – the one on my forehead,” Pete said, raising a hand to his own head as though to check it was still there – the scar he’d gotten from falling off his bike when he was ten. He’d been nauseated by the sight of blood ever since.
“I started by finding people who no one would miss, and getting them clean and smartly dressed,” Derek went on. “That’s how I made my earliest creations – young girls living rough on the streets. I shrunk ’em down. Then I thought of something even better. What if I took someone out of their time and brought them here? No one would ever know, and I’d never be caught – I’d be safely back in the past. Genius!”
Pete looked away from the doll at last. “Very funny,” he said. “Look, I understand if you’re angry. You can tell me – you don’t need to play stupid games like this.”
Christ, thought Pete, he’s really lost it. He really believes this shit.
He held out a battered old wallet with the initials P.J. Embroidered on the front – a gift Pete had received from Eleanor a month ago.
“How did you get my -” he began, but stopped as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the wallet. He stared at it, almost identical to the one in Derek’s hands – only newer looking.
“You stop using this wallet when you turn thirty,” said Derek, turning it over in his hands. “So, a few months from now. You keep it, though. For twenty years, you keep it.”
He pulled out the photograph of Eleanor from its hiding place inside the wallet.
Hands trembling, Pete pulled the same photograph from his own wallet and turned I over. Derek did the same. Written on the back, in the exact same place, a message in pink ink… “love you always. Eleanor x”
“I don’t know how you did this, but it isn’t funny,” Pete growled. “I’m sorry for what happened. I called it off. There’s not much more I can do now. I’m going home.”
“I thought you’d still have trouble believing it, so I took the liberty of asking you to record yourself a little message.”
Derek nodded his head towards his open laptop, where a video was ready to play. Pete wanted to turn around and leave, but at the same time he was curious to see what he’d done now. What could be worse than the wallet?
He clicked the ‘play’ icon.
There he was: himself, but older. Greying. Like the doll.
“I didn’t believe him – even when I saw the wallet. I thought it was a trick. You’re thinking it now, I remember. You’re thinking Eleanor’s in on it, she recreated the wallet and the photo. I know because I was you. I left thinking I was safe, that he was mad. But he’s come for me, like he said he would. He made me watch as he did it to Eleanor… he shrunk her down, she screamed… died in agony… I hadn’t seen her in twenty years,” the man’s voice broke and he began to sob. “I never met anyone else. I loved her, only her, and I had to watch her murdered! Please listen to me, change your mind. He’s going to do it to me next. God, I’m scared. You need to hide – do better – go where he can’t find you! Change your name, your face, anything! Please!”
“Wait a sec,” Derek said, holding up a finger. “This is when the drugs kicked in and you couldn’t speak. I left the camera running so you could see it. You always wanted to see.”
Pete watched in horror as Derek – the same age as he was now, in the same clothes even – appeared on screen and dragged the stricken older version of Pete to his feet.
“Watch this,” said he on-screen Derek, holding out a gun. “It’s really cool.”
He shot, and the video went into slow motion: Pete saw the clear glass-like pellet burst from the gun into the man’s chest.
“The liquid inside shrivels your insides,” said Derek behind him. “It’s fast acting – which is good, because apparently it hurts like fuck. Your body constricts to match. So, you see, I don’t make the dolls. I just smooth out the skin, fix up any unpleasant little details… they stay like this for centuries. Like mummification, I guess.”
Pete watched in awe as the on-screen version of himself began to shrink, and he remembered seeing shrunken heads in some documentary. That’s what it looked like. Soon, it lay on the floor – the three-foot tall version of himself – wrinkled and grotesque.
“I cleaned it up nicely, huh?” Derek grinned. “Making the clothes and jewellery is the time-consuming part, really. And time’s pretty much irrelevant to me now. I kept telling you I understood time travel, I really did. You never listened.”
“I thought that was all just… I don’t know, geeky banter! What am I saying? Of course it was! Jesus, you’ve lost it,” Pete said, flustered. “I don’t know how you did the video but you’re a clever guy. You must’ve animated it. Or found an old guy that looks like me, and manipulated the film -”
“This is hilarious!” Derek laughed. “You literally told yourself not to dismiss the warning, and you’re still doing it! And when you’re older, you’ll tell your younger self not to ignore you – and he will. Isn’t it beautiful?”
Pete’s whole body felt cold and worn out. “I’m going home. I’m sorry about everything – I can’t say it enough. I am. But this… this is mental.”
“Sure, go home,” Derek said, still smiling. “But aren’t you taking your dolls?”
“Yes. Free of charge, like I said. You’re the client.”
“If you truly believe those dolls are mine and Eleanor’s dead corpses, then what makes you think I’d want them?”
“I didn’t say you’d want them, Pete. But you might just need them.”
“And why’s that?”
“As a reminder. I don’t want you to forget that every day you live is another day closer to the day I kill you. And I want you to remember that you’ll never see Eleanor alive again.”
“In amongst the lunacy you’ve said a few things I could go to the police about, you know. A death threat.”
“They won’t find me. I won’t exist in this time anymore. I’ll go forward, or maybe even back.”
Pete shook his head sadly. “You do that, mate.”
He took the boxes and made his way upstairs for the last time. Feeling a little foolish, he stopped at the police station to tell them he had been threatened – omitting the dolls and time travel from his tale. He reported Eleanor missing, too. The police said not to worry too much – that Derek was most likely just lashing out having lost his wife, and she had probably just gone to a friend’s house. They assured him they would investigate all the same.
When the detective called he had bad news. “He must’ve known you’d come to us,” he said. “His house was totally abandoned. What time did you leave his place?”
“About two, two-thirty maybe.”
“Hmm. We go there at four and it was empty, apart from furniture. No sign of life at all. We think he had help clearing the place.”
Maybe, thought Pete, or maybe time wasn’t an issue for him.
“But don’t worry, we’re still looking,” the officer continued. “His description’s being circulated, and his wife’s. If you hear from him or notice anything suspicious, just give us a call,”
“I will. Thanks.”
I won’t have to, Pete thought. He’s not coming for me yet. I’ve got years to go. He looked down at the lifeless dolls and wondered when he’d find his first grey hair.