By Ted Macaluso
[part 1 of 2]
Despite the spate of recent killings, John wasn’t afraid as he left the art gallery. Still, he was alone. The digits on the bank sign across the street changed to 10:51 p.m. and John nodded. Like always, the owner had gone off with the artist and left him instructions to finish up. He locked the front door, walked around the side of the building into the alley, found the owner’s SUV, clicked the remote, lifted the last three paintings from the trunk, and walked to the gallery’s back door. The mist off the river was thickening, and John shivered as he struggled to get the paintings inside the three-story townhouse. He glanced back at the SUV, wondering if he’d forgotten something, then closed the gallery door.
In the rear showroom, he hung the first painting quickly. With half the bubble wrap off the second, John could tell it was derivative: repeated images of a chocolate cake, just like Warhol’s soup cans. Nonetheless, he hung it meticulously, ensuring it was ready for tomorrow’s opening. He stepped back to look, absent mindedly rubbing a small bump with a bit of dried blood on his left shoulder.
“Bloody effing hell!” It was a woman’s voice, coming from the front gallery. He’d locked the door—there shouldn’t be anyone else here. She yelled again, and John ran through the arch into the front and skidded to a dead stop. There was blood spatter on the oak floor and a pistol lying next to a disheveled pile of woman’s clothes — but no woman.
“Damn!” The female voice came from the air in front of him, next to drops of blood that were materializing and dripping onto the gallery floor. The figure of a woman started appearing. “Don’t look,” she snapped. Frozen, John saw the woman–naked, but still half transparent–bend down, pick up bright blue panties and step into them. She was almost fully visible now. Her arm was bleeding and there was a blood-red bruise on her chest. “Creep,” she muttered, picking up the rest of her clothes. The bruise was fading and was half gone by the time she’d buttoned her blouse.
“What? What the…?” John was stammering. She looked 23 or 24, he thought, like one of the grad students where he went to school. The campus was just one block away. He remembered to breathe. “What are you?”
“Forget it. I’m leaving. You didn’t see me. Well, you did see me, but forget it.” She stared at him. “Do I know you?” She shook her head, puzzled. “Doesn’t matter. I have to go.” She started for the door, slipped on the pool of blood, and landed on her butt. Her arm was still bleeding.
John stumbled to the corner, opened the door to a small bathroom, grabbed about 20 paper towels and shoved them at her. “Use these. I’ll get tape.” He ran to the desk, grabbed packaging tape and a half-empty fifth of Tito’s from a drawer, and knelt next to her. “This’ll sting. Try not to jerk.”
“Geez H. God damn it!” she screamed as he poured the vodka into the wound. He pressed down a wad of towels and started wrapping the tape around them to hold them in place. John doubled the tape on itself.
“Ow! It’s too tight.”
He wrapped it again and made it tighter. “I want you to live a bit longer. Right?” He paused. “You should go to a hospital.” He stared at her. “Can you go to a hospital? What are you? People don’t go invisible.”
“No. Can’t go to a hospital,” she said.
“But the bullet could be lodged…”
“It’s not. Flesh wound. Like the last time it happened.”
“What do you mean like…?” It was too much for John. “What the hell just happened?” he yelled. He caught himself, breathed out then in, lowered his voice. “Wait. Is this like Harry Potter or Men in Black? You gonna wipe my memory?”
“Nah. Don’t know how. Besides, people will think you’re nuts if you say anything. You can figure that out, can’t you?”
“Right,” John said, drawing out the word, feeling he was forgetting something important. “So, at least tell me what you are,” he continued. “What’s going… Oh God. Your blood’s seeping into the wood. The owner’s gonna kill me.”
“Look,” she implored, standing up. “Just lock up and let’s go. Tell the owner it happened after you left. They won’t know you saw it.” She started for the door.
“Wait,” he said. “I have to hang the last painting for it to be plausible.” The woman… or whatever she was…looked around. She picked up the gun, stuck it in the back of her jeans under her blouse, and took a swig of vodka. John hung the last painting, gathered up the bubble wrap and dirty towels, and jammed them into a black plastic trash bag. He made a final check of the gallery. Newspaper was still spread on the floor where the owner had made him touch up the paint. As he crumpled up the pages, he scanned the headlines— “President meets with…” and “Serial killer escapes….” He jammed the crumpled sheets into the bag, then grabbed the vodka from the woman, went to put it into the desk, paused. Shaking his head, he took a long, long drink, emptying the bottle. He added it to the trash bag.
“Alarm’s off, yes?” the woman asked. John nodded. As he picked up the trash bag, she went outside and closed the door. Through the glass, John saw her smash her covered elbow into the pane nearest the handle. Glass flew everywhere. A wisp of night fog slipped in as she reopened the door and stepped inside. “See? It looks like a break-in,” she said.
In the empty room, under the glass shards, the woman’s blood had faded and was disappearing as John watched. “Hey, your blood is…”
The woman tugged his sleeve, interrupting his words. “C’mon. Let’s go. There’s a diner cross the street. I need sugar. Lots of it.”
The woman poured an inch of sugar into her ten ounces of black coffee.
The waitress’s expression didn’t change. “Anything else?” she asked.
“Yeah. Two slices of chocolate layer cake.” The waitress started to turn, and the woman added, “Those are for me. He’ll order whatever he wants.” Her expression was thoughtful.
When the waitress looked at John he shook his head. “Just the coffee.” He turned to face the woman. “How do you become invisible?” he asked.
“It was a physics project.”
“You’re an experiment?”
“Volunteer, technically, but yeah. Some asshole general decided it would be good, like weapons-grade good, if people could switch visible/invisible. Some geek in the University physics lab figured out how to do it.” The cakes arrived. “I’m a criminology major, really. I was tracking down a lead about the killings when I found out how much the lab pays volunteers.” The woman stopped talking to devour half the first cake.
“The geek was young, like you,” she continued, brushing some crumbs off her blouse. “Hey, you don’t go to school there too, do you?
“I go part-time. Got two jobs. One at school, one at the gallery.”
“Thought you looked familiar,” she said, starting to eat the second cake. “Never sure about faces anymore. My memory fades in and out with this invisibility thing. Like in the gallery–I knew I’d been shot before, but I can’t remember when. Weird, huh?”
John nodded. His brain had been in a fog–in shock, really–ever since he’d gone to the SUV for the paintings. He was forgetting something. I saw her naked, he thought, wondering if that was what was messing with his concentration and whether he should ask her out later.
“Time’s two dimensional–did you know that?” the woman continued.
John looked up at her. “Yeah, I’m a science minor. One of my professors went on about it. He was fascinated by a New Scientist article from 2007 about a physicist, Itzhak Bars, who claims time has a second, hidden dimension.” John watched the woman eat, then added, “It’s only a theory.”
“It’s real. The geek said he used it, that second dimension, so I’m on that second dimension of time. Everyone is on the main dimension—you know, past-current-future. But the geek had a machine. It was like an airport security scanner; you step into one side and then out the other. It zapped me with something that lets me move along the second dimension of time. When I intersect with the main dimension of time, I’m visible; when I’m off the main dimension, I’m invisible.” She took a big bite of cake, looked at her lap, picked up a fallen morsel and ate it. “But I don’t get it, really.”
John sipped his coffee, thoughtfully. “With two dimensions of time, you can distinguish position from momentum. That might be how it’s done. Think about it. You’re in one position – say the corner of a room — but someone else thinks you’re in a different position – maybe the opposite corner. That might make you invisible.” He looked her in the eyes. “You could rob a bank.”
“Or kill someone. But, let me tell you, doing it — going invisible — is crazy. Your clothes and anything you’re holding stay behind. I don’t wear glasses, but can you imagine? And it messed everything up. When I go back to visible, things flicker for a sec. I feel like I jumped a little in time. Like if you know what time it is, but look at your watch anyway, and its earlier than it should be? That ever happen to you?”
John looked puzzled. “You lose a few seconds? Is that what you’re saying?”
“Yeah. Maybe more. And something about being zapped in that machine really screwed my memory.” She finished the second cake, licked her fork, looked at her coffee and poured in more sugar. “Tell you one thing. Going invisible is like running a marathon; I can’t get enough glucose. Thanks to that geek.”
John didn’t know what to say next. He didn’t know why, but her calling someone a geek made him mad and he looked away. Through the diner window, he saw a couple enter the gallery townhouse. The woman poked her elbow into the guy’s ribs as he unlocked the door. He waited to see if an upstairs light came on, but the windows stayed dark.
“Are you following the serial killings?” she asked. John nodded. “They’re weird,” she added.
“Three of the murders were done by a gun, but four victims were poisoned.”
John knew that meant something, but by then, the vodka he’d swigged in the gallery and the diner coffee were hitting him. John slipped out of the booth, walked toward the back, found the hall to the bathroom, and went in.
Finishing up, John realized he’d forgotten his cell phone at the table and started to rush back. A man in the hall had his arm up, blocking John’s way. The guy was wearing a chef’s hat and surgical mask, was John’s height, and his eyes were wide, intense. “Run out the back. Now,” he told John. “Stay away from her.…” John wondered if the guy was the woman’s boyfriend. Before he could think about the man’s warning, he saw the woman stand and pick up his cell phone. Worried she was stiffing him, he slipped under the guy’s blocking arm and went back to the booth.
“Here’s your phone,” the woman said. John started to relax when she added, “Hey, look, I don’t have my purse. It’s $20.17 plus tip. Do you mind?”
She’s using me, he thought, remembering other women. Sometimes I just want to… He cut the thought off and, with a sense of déjà vu, John threw cash on the table and followed her out.
The fog had dissipated. He looked at the woman. “If you’re not wiping my mind, I want to hear more. I live two blocks away if…y’know?”
“What’s your name?”
He paused. “Should we be worried about the killer? He or she is out here somewhere.”
Karen wrapped her arms tight around herself. “The victims have all been alone. There are two of us.”
[end of part 1 of 2, part 2 of 2 is below]
John thought there was something familiar about Karen and was trying to figure out what it was as he watched her pace through his apartment.
“Ha, you still got DVDs,” she said, distracting him. “A lot of them. You really like murder movies, don’t you?” She smiled. “Me too.” She was flipping through the ones on John’s shelf. “Funny how you can play them over and over. It’s why you own them, right? So you can live it again and again.”
“I guess. But I don’t…”
Karen interrupted John. “I need you to shoot me.”
“Right here.” She pointed to her heart.
John shook his head. “What are you…”
“In the heart. While I’m invisible. That’s important: I have to be invisible. It’s the only way out.”
“I’m looping, John. I can’t keep doing it.” She looked at John intently. “You’re in it too, now, you know. The loop.”
“Karen, you want me to kill you? Really?” He felt his lip twitch.
“Who said kill? You shoot me while I’m invisible. I told you that’s important. While. I’m. Invisible. In the heart. I won’t die. The shot reverses and breaks the loop if I’m invisible, so I come back, even if I die. Or something like that. The geek was talking math, but I got the idea. The loop ends. Goes away. Whatever. But it has to be the heart. Then we’re both free.”
John looked at her, incredulous. “People die when they’re shot in the heart.”
“No. When the experiment started, the geek told me it wouldn’t kill me really, just break the loop. Like hitting eject on a DVD.”
“You believed him?” John felt a wisp of memory tugging at his mind. A building on campus next to an oak tree.
“Look, I’ll show you,” she said, dragging him out of his apartment.
Karen took John to the back of the diner, opened the door, went in, pointed to the front. John saw himself, in a booth, talking with Karen. He blinked, looked away, looked back. He–or, at least, a perfect copy of himself–was in the booth. So was Karen. She was standing next to him and she was sitting in the booth, eating chocolate cake.
“You’re in it, John. The loop. There’s only one way out.”
John saw himself slide out of the booth and he pulled back into the kitchen area. He watched John number two–himself, right down to the same clothes–walk by and enter the bathroom.
“Go on. Try to stop yourself, when you come back out. See if you can break the loop.” John wasn’t sure it was wise to break the loop this way, but she took a chef’s hat and a surgical mask off a counter, handed them to him. “Wear this. Don’t make him freak. Hurry, you’re ‘bout to come out of the john.”
In a daze, John put on the hat and mask, leaned his arm on the wall. The bathroom door opened, and he saw himself, the second him, emerge, look startled. He heard himself speak. “Run out the back. Now. Stay away from her.…” John watched John number two slip under his arm and go up front.
“You have to shoot me,” Karen said. “It’s the only way out.”
“But you were shot.”
She pointed to the makeshift bandage on her arm. “He missed, whoever he was. Aim carefully. Ya?” She ripped off the bandage, threw the towels into a trash can, and sighed. “You made that way too tight.”
At the side of the diner, across from the gallery, Karen handed him the gun. As John pocketed it, he looked to the right. Exact copies of him and Karen were walking away, toward his apartment. John looked across the street, saw another copy of Karen exit the gallery and break the glass pane. In the diner’s shadow, he watched himself–John number four—join her and walk across the street to the diner’s front door. When they went in, he and Karen crossed the street. Halfway across, John felt a flickering sensation. A jump. With each step, his memory started to return.
Climbing up the gallery steps, Karen poked him in the ribs. “While I’m invisible.” John nodded. Unlocking the door, he saw the glass pane wasn’t broken, the glass shards had disappeared. Something had reset, he realized. He remembered being hunted. But I fooled them.
Yes, he thought, excitement building. He closed the gallery door and watched Karen walk across the room. John took the gun out and caressed it.
Karen turned to face him, pointed to her heart, started to disappear. As her clothes fell to the floor, John didn’t wait. She was still way more visible than not. He fired, ecstatic. Once in her arm. Horror spread across her face. “You…you’re the geek,” she said, finally recognizing him.
John shot her in the chest. “I lied,” he said. “Shooting you doesn’t break the loop. You just die.” He leaned forward, studied her expression and gazed into her eyes as she staggered, relishing her expressions until she completely disappeared. “But you’ll be back,” he smirked.
Over and over, he thought, smiling. He remembered how, on campus, in the laboratory, Karen had come running in, pointing at him, accused him of being a serial killer. He’d had to work fast. She’d had the gun. Disarming her, ignoring her screams, he’d injected her with a full dose of the memory suppression drug. He’d dragged them both into the machine, checked his watch—10:42 p.m.—and set the loop to start at 10:49. That gave him just enough time to leave the physics lab with her and force-walk her the two blocks to the gallery. Just enough time to shoot her as the loop started, to shoot her while she knew what was happening, just before the memory suppression drug he’d given her took effect. She’d been mumbling words on the way to the gallery, trying to tell him something. He didn’t care–no one saw him take her to the gallery. That was the important thing.
Time to go. John dropped the gun by her clothes and walked out the front door.
Despite all the killings, John wasn’t afraid of getting caught as he left the art gallery. The police couldn’t find him, not in the loop. The digits on the bank sign across the street changed to 10:51 p.m. and John nodded, satisfied that the loop had reset. John knew he’d found heaven—he could kill his victim, and, when the loop reset, kill her again, and again. He locked the front door, went around the side of the building to the SUV and opened the trunk. John wondered if killing the same person over and over again would get boring eventually. No, that was the brilliance of his plan. He fished the syringe with the memory drug out of his pocket and injected a half dose into his left shoulder. The small dose meant his memory would be suppressed for the first part of the next loop but come back when it was time to kill Karen again.
He grabbed the paintings, knowing the killing would always feel new. The loop had started again. His memory was almost gone. Killing and killing, over and over. Forever. John shivered with pleasure as he struggled to get the paintings inside the three-story townhouse. He glanced back at the SUV, wondering if he’d forgotten something, then closed the gallery door.
John was hanging the second painting when he heard a voice from the front gallery. He ran through the arch, saw a pistol and a pile of woman’s clothes. Transfixed, he watched a naked woman materialize from thin air and get dressed.
“You bloody effing creep!” she yelled, picking up the pistol and shooting him in the chest.
Open-mouthed, John stumbled backwards, clutching at his heart. “No….”
“Relax, jerk,” she said. “They’re blanks. Knew better than to trust you.”
John slipped on the pool of her blood and landed on his butt. “What’s going…Why did you?” John’s questions trailed off. He felt his chest, winced at the bruise. In a daze, he watched the woman hunt around, find paper towels and tape and vodka, and wrap her arm. “You shot me,” he accused.
“Yeah, Johnnie boy. Turnabout, blah blah.”
“But why did you shoot me?” He sat up straighter. “Wait. How do you know my name?”
Karen looked at him, eyes squinted. “Oh Geez. You just NOW injected yourself with more memory drug?” She chuckled. “Don’t worry—it doesn’t last through too many loops.” She handed him the vodka. “Here, lover, drink up.”
John looked at her blankly. “Loops? Lover?” He saw her roll her eyes. “Who are you?” he asked.
“You’ll figure it out. C’mon, we gotta get back to the lab, stop the loop. I was coming to warn you. We’d be in the next state by now if you hadn’t forced us into the machine. The cops know about both of us. Get that? Both of us. They’ll come to the lab and figure out what you did. They’ll shut the machine down before we escape.”
“Yeah, but over to the diner first. I need chocolate cake.”
As the two left the gallery and walked across to the diner, Karen wondered if her original thought had been wrong. Maybe two serial killers couldn’t have a romance.
Inside the diner, when the waitress came, Karen said, “two slices of chocolate layer cake.” The waitress started to turn, and Karen added, “Those are for me. He’ll order whatever he wants.” Her expression was thoughtful. John’s not so bright, she thought, checking her pocket for her vial of poison. Better do him while his memory’s shot.