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Fiction: Troublesolving by Tim Pratt

Here’s how I got involved with Cameron Cassavetes:

I was walking along Lakeshore Avenue, close to Christmas, just windowshopping really since I was a) broke and b) didn’t have anyone in my life who expected a gift, or anyone I expected something from, except maybe my ex-wife, depending on her particular disposition come the day. I paused outside the little co-op bakery, my nose parsing the emerging aromas of the day’s handmade vegetarian pizza: goat cheese, rosemary oil, fresh basil. The odor alone was enough to make me forget my troubles, until I remembered I didn’t even have eighteen bucks to buy a pie. I shoved my hands into the pockets of my jacket and walked on, head tucked down, wishing I had a hat—winter takes its time coming to Northern California, and it’s nothing to an old East Coaster like myself, but there was a bit of a bite in the air nonetheless, and the tips of my ears were practically shivering. I went past the last table on the sidewalk, vaguely aware there was a woman sitting there with a coveted slice of pizza, mostly because I had to step out of my way to avoid tripping on the enormous overstuffed black-and-blue canvas bag beside her feet. 

“Here.” She stood and stuck a business card under my nose. I looked up, and she was a perfectly put-together woman in her maybe mid-thirties, on the pretty side of plain, with chestnut eyes that so exactly matched the shade of her hair, scarf, and sweater that she might have had them dyed to match. Her smile was bright and brief, a flash of sun on a cloudy day (or slash of lightning in a clear sky), and she flicked the outstretched card with her fingernail. “Take this. You’ll need it.”

I took the card. It was white, with a very restrained and elegant font, and read “Cameron Cassavetes,” and underneath that, “Freelance Troublesolver,” and under that, a phone number with an Oakland area code. 

I tried to flirt—my ex-wife, who pities me, says I should practice more—saying, “Troublesolver, huh? I’ve always been more of a troublemaker myself.” I fished up my most sincere smile, and Cameron sighed like a doctor bearing bad news.

“Just hold onto the card. Call if you need me, any time, day or night. If you don’t reach me right away, just leave a message.”

I finally frowned. “What’s this about? What is it you do?”

“I fix broken things.”

“Do I look like a broken thing?”

“Oh, Stephen.” She patted my cheek, scooped up her enormous bag, and walked off purposefully down the sidewalk and around the corner. She was out of sight before I thought to wonder—you probably noticed this already—how she knew my name.

I threw her card in the first trash can I passed. I didn’t know what Cameron’s deal was, but I didn’t like the whole cheesy Twilight Zone feel of the situation. I had enough problems—did I ever—without mysterious women slipping me their numbers in spooky fashion.

I did my shopping, because even though I was too broke for shampoo and soap, I wouldn’t get any more gigs if I smelled like braised hobo in sweat sauce. I noticed a guy in the drugstore wearing exactly the same clothes I was, and wondered when I’d become so generic—I used to have style. I mean, professionally. The cashiers were huddled together talking in low voices, and as soon as I approached, they separated and cast sidelong glances at me. Was I already smelly or something? Did I look like a shoplifter? I hadn’t become quite that economically desperate yet.

I carried my sad sack of toiletries back the way I’d come, toward the lake and my condo beyond. I wasn’t looking forward to going home, because there’s nothing sadder than the remains of an apartment where a pair of interior designers once lived, after they break up. 

In the lobby, I found another business card wedged in the door of my mailbox. Cameron Cassavetes, Troublesolver. This one included a street address—just a few blocks away—in addition to the phone number. I was a little creeped out. Was this woman stalking me? Or just desperate for work? The latter, I could relate to, but I was annoyed. This is supposed to be a secure building, but it’s not like there’s a doorman, and anyone who wants to get buzzed in just has to punch intercom buttons until somebody answers, and then claim to be a UPS or FedEx delivery. 

I shoved the card in my pocket to throw away when I got upstairs, then rode up the elevator—with its inspection notice expired eight months before, always reassuring. The moment I stepped into the long dim hallway I knew something was wrong. My door, the last one on the right side of the hall, was standing ajar. I should’ve probably called the police right then, but I did the stupid rationalization thing: “Did I leave the door open? Did the cleaning lady leave it open?” Even though I a) would never forget to lock up, being a cautious guy and b) hadn’t had a cleaning lady since my ex-wife moved out and took eleven-twelfths of our clients with her.

I went to the door, stepped inside, and discovered devastation.

Mere desolation would have been okay. That was normal. My ex took most of the best of our possessions when she left, and I agreed in order to keep the condo for myself. (She moved in with her—with the guy who—with Harold. Fucking Harold.) I was a decorator, so reversion to college-era chic Ikea shelves and a futon for a bed depressed me thoroughly. But poverty-in-Sparta décor looked splendid compared to what I beheld.

I dashed to the kitchen first, to turn off the water in the overflowing sink, but the faucet handles had been ripped off, so I settled for pulling out the wads of dishtowels the vandals had used to clog the drain. I repeated the process in both bathrooms, where the fixtures had been similarly torn away. My carpets were soaked, but I dared hope water hadn’t leaked into the apartment below mine. Every room was a diorama of disaster, furniture smashed, cushions slit open and stuffing strewn about, books torn apart with their halves tossed in distant corners, refrigerator toppled and leaking odd fluids, toilets reduced to shards of porcelain, mirrors smashed, garbage in the remains of my bed, and windows and walls all spray painted with lurid graffiti in colors from Bauhaus Gold to Peek-A-Boo Blue to Rich Plum to Catalina Mist. Some of the spray-painted scrawls had the vaguely familiar look of graffiti tags from the neighborhood, but others were strange and sinuous, like sigils from some lost and secret civilization. 

I squelched across my ruined carpet to the landline and saw the phone was in pieces, too. I pulled out my cell, and hesitated—was this a 911-type situation? The vandals were gone. I could have looked up the non-emergency number, but my computer had been taken apart and dumped, mostly in my toilet, and the monitor spray-painted red over every pixel.

Then I remembered the business card I’d shoved in my pocket. Cameron Cassavetes. Troublesolver. I had her number.

I didn’t call her, either.

#

When she stepped in and turned on the light, I spun around in her chair and gave her a nasty smile. “When you weren’t here, I took the liberty of breaking into your office.” I’d smashed in a panel of glass with my elbow, reached in, and flipped the deadbolt, feeling every inch the righteous avenger.

“I go through more windows that way,” Cameron Cassavetes said, seemingly unbothered by my presence in her office. She unbuttoned her sand-colored coat, unwound her long scarf, and hung both on a coat rack, then sat in the chair on the other side of her desk. I couldn’t help but notice she had the better of the two seats—hers looked like a Freedom chair from Humanscale, while I was sitting in some $89 steno chair from an office supply store. Why would she have the crappier chair behind her own desk?

“I hope you weren’t waiting long,” she said.

I decided to ignore her non-sequitur—and my curiosity about her furnishing choices—and stick to my script, which I’d been practicing during the hour I sat in the dark with no appreciable lumbar support. “So is it like a protection racket? If I don’t pay you to ‘solve my troubles’ you make sure I get a lot of trouble, starting with having my apartment destroyed?”

“I didn’t have anything to do with the vandalism at your home.”

Denial, I’d expected. I snorted. “You think I’m stupid? It’s just coincidence you approached me out of the blue right before my place got wrecked? And that I found your card in my mailbox?”

“Of course it wasn’t coincidence.” She looked totally relaxed, like she was conducting a job interview. “But, again, I didn’t have anything to do with the destruction.”

“You expect me to believe that?”

“Yes.”

I waited for elaboration. None was forthcoming. She just looked at me with that clear unwavering stare, like she was trying to calculate my body fat percentage or judge the weight of my soul by gaze alone. “Why’s that?” I said finally, conceding that I’d somehow lost control of the situation.

“Two reasons. First, I don’t charge for my services, so it wouldn’t make much sense for me to shake you down, would it? And second, if you’ll allow me…”

She came around the desk, and I pushed back in my chair, because I’m naturally obliging even when I don’t mean to be. Plus, as a freelancer myself, I was still trying to get over the idea of a freelance anything who literally did her work for free. I mean, I like decorating, but I wouldn’t do it for nothing, except maybe for a close friend, and I’m all out of those.

She unlocked one of the drawers and withdrew a slim silver laptop, opened it up on the desk before me, and clicked and tapped with her fingers. A window popped up onscreen, showing webcam footage…of my hallway. The camera must have been at the far end of the hall, up high in a corner near the ceiling.

“You’ve got my place bugged now?”

“Observe.” More tapping, and the timestamp on the video ran back to the morning hours. I watched a couple of young guys in sweatshirts, carrying backpacks, open my door, apparently with a key, and go inside. About half an hour later they emerged, walking down the elevator, the webcam getting nice clear views of their faces. 

“So you document your acts of vandalism….”

Cameron pulled a little thumb drive from the side of the laptop and handed it to me. “Here. The footage. Take it to the cops, tell them you set up the webcam because you heard there’d been some break-ins in the neighborhood—that’s always true around here—and ask if they can identify the perpetrators. The boys are both well known to the cops, believe me, with a string of minor priors.”

“Aren’t you worried they’ll turn you in?”

She rolled her eyes. She was cute when she did it. I took that as a sign of trouble. “No, Stephen. They don’t know who I am. I’m not the mastermind. I’m trying to help you.” Cameron returned to her comfy chair. “Give that to the cops, and they’ll put the boys away. But it won’t help your essential problem.”

“What is my essential problem? And how do you know my name, or anything else about me?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you. Not yet.” I started to speak, intending to tell her to quit jerking me around, but she talked first. “Your essential problem. Have you ever heard of gangstalking?”

“No.”

“Well…imagine a group of people, not anyone you know, just strangers, who decide to destroy your life. They arrange problems for you, from minor annoyances—broken tail lights on your car so the cops pull you over, your mail being misdirected, your windows smashed with rocks thrown from the street—to more serious things, like the kind of vandalism your apartment suffered today. They might call in multiple noise complaints on you to the police, or accuse you of flashing a bunch of kids at a playground. Basically the goal is to destroy your life, but to do so in a gradual, cumulative way, and with an ever-shifting cast of assailants, so you can’t point to a single perpetrator. The people who stalk you will seemingly have no relationship with one another, no motive, and since there are dozens or even hundreds of people involved, even if you manage to get one or two of them arrested on minor charges, it won’t really help. The gangstalkers might even have friends in the police or local government who cover for them, or who conspire to frame you for crimes.”

“Christ. Why would people do something like that?”

She shrugged. “Motives vary. Some people are truly chosen as random victims, for part of a gang initiation. Others are being punished by governments or other agencies for things they’ve said, or done, or seen.”

“Stuff like that really happens?”

Cameron frowned. “No, not really. Gangstalking isn’t real. Some mentally ill people believe they’re being gangstalked, but it’s just another flavor of paranoia, a way to weave every slight and accident and difficulty into a vast tapestry of persecution. The victims—they call themselves ‘targeted individuals’—incorporate everything around them into their delusions. If they see someone on the street talking on a cell phone? They think the person is talking about them. If they see a helicopter, they assume it’s spying on them. If people in a crowd stand close to them, it’s intentional intimidation. If a stranger laughs, they’re being mocked. If they encounter people dressed similarly to themselves, or reading the same magazines, it’s meant to unnerve them. Wrong numbers or hang-ups are perceived as torments. Even ‘negative people’ who ‘drain their energy’ are considered attackers. It’s sad. Unfortunately, the internet has allowed a lot of these people to find one another, share stories, and feed into one another’s delusions.”

All that stuff sounded familiar from my day-to-day life lately, even the helicopters and the crowding and the people reading the same magazines, but I’d never thought it had anything to do with me. Life is full of coincidences. “But, if gangstalking’s not a real thing…why are you talking about it?”

“Because you are being gangstalked. You are a targeted individual. The fact that you haven’t even noticed just goes to show how strikingly un-paranoid you are. Your ongoing mental health must be very frustrating to your tormentors. In your case, there really is a vast group of seemingly random people attempting to make your life a ruin. Haven’t you noticed a hugeincrease in your bad luck these past few months?”

“I’ve had a shitty run, sure, but I don’t think it’s a conspiracy.” It was more than a shitty run, really. It was an era of epic failures. From my stolen car (and my mysteriously lapsed car insurance, though I sent in checks every month) to the morning I woke up and found every piece of electronics I owned turned into useless lumps (the repair guy at the computer shop said it was like an electromagnetic pulse bomb hit my hard drive, and he sold me a pricey new system when it turned out my warranty had lapsed two days before) to, not least of all, my wife announcing six months ago that she’d fallen in love with another guy, and incidentally, she was taking almost all the clients from Poor Stephen Decorating, Inc. with her when she left. Pretty much the only customer I had now was a guy with a taste for taxidermied animal heads on the walls. Portia had gotten most of our friends in the divorce, too, it turned out.

“Do you want my help to find out who’s doing this to you?” Cameron was intense, her eyes fixed on me like I was the only person in the world.

“How do you know anybody’s doing anything? If you’re not involved, where do you get your information?”

Cameron tapped her fingernails—unpainted, but long and nicely manicured—on her desk blotter. “I can’t tell you that.” She glanced at the ceiling, face taking on a faraway look, as if she were doing a calculation. “Not now. Soon. But I promise, Stephen, I can help make your troubles go away.”

I pondered. “And you don’t charge anything? I warn you, if this is some kind of long con, I’m not a good prospect. My wife got everything but our condo, and as you know, it’s not much of a prize at the moment.”

She grinned, and it was a very different expression from any I’d seen on her before—it was the grin of a professional athlete looking forward to creaming the competition. “I’m totally free. I only ask that you trust me.”

I sighed. I still didn’t buy it, but Cameron was definitely interesting, and my life had only been interesting in bad ways lately, so I decided to take a chance on a change. “Okay. You’re hired. Only not in the sense of receiving any compensation for your services.”

“Great. I’ve got some work to do here tonight, but come back at nine tomorrow morning and we’ll talk about the next step.”

“Okay.” I could always just not show up, if I came to my senses in the night. I left her office and began the walk home, and happened to pass a couple of cops hanging out at the coffee shop on my way. They politely listened to my story, made a call on the radio, and told me someone would come to my place to take a report soon. I kept walking, and gave my ex-wife a call on my cell phone, getting her cheerful voicemail and trying not to sound too Eeyoreish as I told her about my latest win in the bad-luck sweepstakes. I left out the bits about gangstalking and Cameron. My ex and I had a remarkably cordial relationship, but it was still brittle, and couldn’t bear that kind of strain. Back home in my wrecked apartment I dug around in my files until I found the phone number for my homeowner’s insurance, so I could see about getting some of my stuff replaced.

The insurance people were very helpful. They helpfully told me they had no record of my policy at all, despite the hundreds of dollars in premiums I’d sent in over the years. 

I sat on one of the least ripped cushions from the remains of my couch and thought about my troubles as the sunlight disappeared from my windows and another night fell over Oakland and my life. 

#

The police officer came over around seven p.m. I’d made some small progress toward cleaning up the place, or at least piling the debris, working in the light from the lone unsmashed light bulb on the ceiling in the kitchen. The officer, a young Hispanic guy, whistled low, expressed his sympathies, and asked me if anything had been stolen. I told him no, just smashed. He said, “Have you had any, you know, altercations with anybody lately? This kind of thing, sometimes it’s random, but sometimes it’s teenagers getting revenge for something.”

I opened my mouth to say, “Well, interestingly enough, I’ve got this webcam,” but then my phone rang. My phone never rings anymore. “You mind?” I said.

The officer shrugged and wandered over to look at the view from my balcony, which was a pretty nice view, more so when the balcony wasn’t strewn with shattered flowerpots. 

“This is Cameron,” the phone said. “Do not tell him about the webcam.”

“Uh,” I said, thinking, She is in on it, she was bluffing. “Why’s that?”

“Because those two kids who wrecked your apartment have just been found murdered less than three blocks from your house. You heard those sirens a little while ago?” I had. I hadn’t thought much of it. Sirens were just weather around here. “Unless you want to get embroiled in a murder investigation, tell the cops you have no idea who wrecked your place.” She hung up.

As I put the phone away, I wondered how she’d gotten my cell number, but it didn’t seem like such an amazing feat, all things considered. “Sorry,” I said. “My ex. No, officer, I don’t know who could have done it. I wish I did.”

The cop nodded like he’d expected nothing less. “Let us know if you discover anything missing.”

I forced a smile. “Think you’ll catch the guys who did this?”

He held out his hand and seesawed it. “Sometimes we do, especially if they hit more than one place, but…We’ll call if we find anything out.”

“Before you go, I was wondering, I heard a bunch of sirens earlier, sounded close by…any idea what’s going on?”

His face went stiff and guarded for a moment, then he sighed. “Officially, I can’t comment, but anybody with a police scanner could find out, and it’s your neighborhood, so…they found a couple of dead kids—teenagers—over by the motel a few blocks south. Probably a drug thing.”

“Jesus. I hope you catch whoever did it.”

“Me too, sir. Me too.” He left me to my wreckage and my increasingly dark thoughts.

I had Cameron’s number in my phone now, so I went to my balcony and leaned against the railing, looking down on the lake below. When she answered, I said, “What would you have done if it was too late? If I’d already told the cops about the webcam?”

“I would have come to the police station and told them I was your attorney.”

That surprised me. “You’re a lawyer?”

“I pretty much have to be. I’ve got my private investigator’s license, too. And I trained to be an EMT, but my certification has lapsed.”

“You’re an accomplished woman.”

“I just believe in being prepared. Stephen, the vandals getting killed…this is serious.”

“You think it’s related to this whole thing? Not just a coincidence?”

“Go out into your hallway. See if the webcam is still there.”

I went. No camera at the end of the hall. “No, it’s gone.”

“I didn’t take it down. Which means someone else came by your apartment and noticed it, realized their operatives had been caught on camera…and decided to dispose of them.”

I could maybe believe people were fucking with me for undisclosed reasons, but that they were willing to kill? It seemed insane. I told Cameron so.

“You can either start taking this seriously, or you can wait until it gets bad enough to become undeniable,” she said. “I don’t know what’s next, but their attacks on you seem to be escalating. What if they kidnap you? Get you hooked on heroin? Frame you for murder?”

I just laughed, bewildered, nervous—it seemed like something out of a straight-to-DVD thriller. “I guess that would be bad.”

“Lock your doors. And if they broke the locks, block them with a bureau or something. Don’t trust anyone, Stephen. It’s in your own best interests to become a nutball conspiracy theorist. See you tomorrow. Nine a.m. You won’t be late.” She hung up, apparently not big on the rituals of hellos and goodbyes.

I went into the kitchen to check the cabinets for something edible, without much luck. Even my bag of pretzels had been torn open and stomped into salty powder.

A knock at the door. After a moment’s hesitation I pressed my eye to the peephole, half expecting someone to shove a metal shishkabob skewer through the lens and into my brain.

My ex was standing in the hall, still every inch the perfectly poised and professional blonde, dressed in a long white coat with silver buttons, and a matching bag over her shoulder. 

I opened the door. “Portia,” I said.

“Stephen. Let me see what they did.”

I stepped aside and she floated in, circling the wreckage, taking in everything with her professional eye, and finally shaking her head. “It can’t be salvaged. You’ll have to start again. Best tear up the carpet, I never liked it anyway. You’ll need all new…. everything. It’s a shame, but it’s also an opportunity, really.”

I chose not to mention the fact that I could hardly afford a complete renovation. When we’d first split up, I’d suggested she buy out my half of our business, but she’d told me I was welcome to remain the head of Poor Stephen Decorating, and she’d start her own business, Portia’s Designs. Which she did. Our clients didn’t care what the business was called—they just went with her. Everyone assumed she was the one with the real aesthetic sense; it can be difficult to be taken seriously as a designer when you’re a straight man, though I suppose straight men get enough advantages in life that the occasional disadvantage is only fair. 

“Come on,” she said briskly. “Put on your jacket, it’s chilly out. Let’s get something to eat.”

“We’re spending time together socially now? Won’t Harold mind?” Harold. He was a personal trainer with a jaw like an anvil and a brain to match. I wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire, unless I could somehow start pissing gasoline. 

“Harold’s very secure in our relationship. He thinks it’s nice that I stay in touch with you and try to help you out. Now come on. I’m hungry. We’ll go to the Italian place on Telegraph.”

I went obediently to put on my jacket, and locked up behind me when I left, not that I had much to protect. While we were waiting for the elevator, Portia suddenly hugged me tight, a seemingly impulsive act that was even more surprising because Portia was almost never impulsive—she was a planner through-and-through. “I’m so glad we became friends again, Stephen,” she said, letting go. “I’m sorry things worked out the way they did between us. You know that, don’t you?”

She’d never said sorry before, not exactly—there’d been a lot of “The heart knows what it wants” and “Surely you could tell things had cooled between us, I know you felt it too” and “You deserve a woman who loves you with all her heart” and such, but never an actual sorry

“I know now.” The elevator doors opened, and we went down and out, and I tried not to let myself pretend we were still married, going out for a meal like we used to do a couple of times a week, during the long gone far away good times. But I failed. Reality came crashing back when she dropped me off two hours later in front of my building without so much as a kiss on the cheek, and told me to take care of myself.

I had no idea how to do that at all.

#

The next morning I woke up early—even with my alarm clock smashed, I’ve always had a good body clock, and usually wake with the sun—and did my best to make coffee and toast in my demolished kitchen.

Finally nine o’clock arrived, and I was waiting outside Cameron Cassavetes’s office with a paper cup of coffee in each hand. Cameron came around the corner right on time, carrying a pair of her own cups, and we looked at each other and laughed. “We’re a couple of considerate ones, aren’t we?” She unlocked the door and ushered me in. I noticed, with just a little rush of shame, that she’d repaired the damage I did to the glass. 

We went into her office, and she sat behind the desk, though the good chair was there, this time, leaving me the lousy one. We each took a couple of sips of coffee, then she said, “We don’t have much time. I want you to read this.”

She pushed a sheet of lined yellow paper across the desk. Neat handwriting in blue ink, with a heavy black slash covering a few lines near the bottom. It began:

Next client. Stephen. Tuesday. Walks by co-op bakery 11:45 a.m. Ugly green sweater, cute butt.

“You think my…sweater is ugly?” I looked up, grinning a little. No one had called my butt cute in a long time. Portia was of the opinion that I had no ass to speak of.

She rolled her eyes. “Keep reading.”

I did.

Victim of gangstalking. Reasons not definitely known, but probably the ones you think. Put camera at end of third floor hallway, 245 Arnold Way to document an attack and aid in establishing credentials. Beware escalations.

He’ll think you’re involved, will break into your office (call glazier to make an appointment), and will lie in wait behind your desk. Spare your back by switching the chairs around.

You should tell Stephen the truth. But you’ll need a convincer. 9:16 a.m. Wednesday, your front door, freak hailstorm, falling bird. Make sure he sees it. 

And after that, the blacked-out part, which I couldn’t read, even when I held the paper up to the light.

“Uh,” I said. “What is this supposed to mean to me?”

“Come on.” She rose, and I followed, still clutching the cryptic document. We went to her door, which she opened, and looked out on an ordinary winter day. She looked at her watch. “9:15 now, and a bit. Keep your eyes open…”

There was a crack of thunder, always a rarity in Northern California, though the sky wasn’t particularly ominous. And then—

Hail. I’ve seen hail here before, but it’s usually the size of BBs, maybe pea gravel at best. These hailstones were more like marbles, some approaching golf-ball size, and they crashed down in a torrent that sent bystanders rushing for doorways or any other shelter they could find. Chunks of ice bounced mere feet from where we stood. “Holy shit,” I said, and then a seagull crashed right in front of us. 

I jumped back when the bird hit in a flurry of feathers, but Cameron didn’t even flinch, just reached out and prodded it with her boot-clad toe. “Dead, poor thing. Knocked right out of the sky.”

I looked at the piece of paper. “How. What.” How could she make it hail? How could she arrange for a falling bird? “When did you write this?” I said finally.

“I wrote it later tonight,” she said. “But I received the note a week ago. Come on. I want to show you something.”

“What?”

“My time machine.”

#

I don’t know what I expected, but what Cameron showed me was a metal lockbox. The safe was a little black job with a row of numbers to punch in a combination, like you might find in a hotel closet. Except there was a lot going on at the back, a spiraled mass of gears and wires and a bulb of cobalt blue glass in the center of it all, emitting a faint light. Cameron put the safe down on the top of her desk and thumped the top. “This is my time machine. Shame it’s too small for a person to get inside, huh?”

“You are either a) crazy or b) fucking with me,” I said.

“Mmm. There may be a third alternative. I got this device years ago, from a client I helped out with a tricky piece of trouble. My first client, actually. I don’t pretend to know how it works, technically—I was told it has something to do with an infinitely long rotating cylinder warping space-time. But here’s how it works, practically speaking. Once a week, the safe can be opened, and I find a note inside. A note from myself, but from one week in the future. The note tells me things I need to know—sometimes dangerous things, sometimes things about clients or cases, but sometimes mundane things, like what the weather’s going to be like or if my favorite wine is going on sale. Every week I take out the note, and put in a note for myself one week in the past.” She shrugged. “That’s it. I send messages to myself. Not the most dramatic use of a time machine, but I’m assured it’s relatively safe, as long as I follow the rules.”

I knelt down and looked at the safe more closely. “Once again, if you’re conning me, you’re lousy at picking marks.”

“You think I used my weather-control powers to start a hailstorm and knock a bird out of the sky, Stephen? Trust me on this.”

“But if you did have a tiny time machine, why would you use it for such ordinary things? Why not send yourself, I don’t know, lottery numbers? Stock tips?”

“I have done that. How do you think I can afford to be a freelance troublesolver? But I don’t do too much, just enough to cover my needs and put a little money away for the future. The client who gave me this machine advised me to keep my mucking with the timestream to a minimum. Because the past can be changed, Stephen, both for the better, and for the worse. And that’s where you come in.”

She sat down again, and I did too. I’d hear her out. The hailstorm…that was hard to explain away. 

“In the future, there’s a war,” Cameron said. “And I think you must be important to that war. Which is why people from the future—or people receiving guidance from the future—are trying to destroy your life now, before you can do…whatever you’re supposed to do.”

It was my turn to roll my eyes. “Haven’t I seen this movie? A future menaced by killer robots, one man destined to lead humanity to victory?”

“First off, it’s not robots—just people, doing the things people do, for the good and terrible reasons people do them. And I don’t think you’re destined to save humanity. If you were that important, there would be a lot more resources put into helping you than a simple troublesolver like me. I mean, I don’t even do violent solutions. But you must be important somehow, in some capacity, because you are being well and truly fucked with.”

“Cameron, I’m an interior decorator. How can I possibly be important to a war in the future? Does some dictator really like my aesthetic sense?”

“I admit it’s a puzzler,” Cameron said. “But I wonder…did you always want to be a decorator?”

“Well, no. I don’t know a lot of kids who grow up dreaming of that as a career path.”

“How’d you get into the business?”

“My wife. Ex-wife. We met in college. She was taking a design class, so I signed up, too, figuring I’d flirt my way into her good graces. Worked pretty well. The weird thing was, I discovered a real talent for decorating, and Portia encouraged me, suggested we go into business after we graduated, and that’s exactly what we did.”

Cameron leaned forward. “What were you studying before?”

“I have double degrees in sociology and political science, actually. Not tremendously useful to a decorator, I admit, though the sociology helps in understanding trends and fads.” I frowned. “You know, I did have another job offer when I graduated, kind of an interesting one, but Portia was dead set against it…”

“Let me guess,” she said. “You were approached by a government agency best known by a three-letter acronym.”

“True,” I admitted. “Offered a gig as an intelligence analyst, with hints of possible field work…I was always good with sifting data, and I was athletic as hell back then, captain of the lacrosse team, at least until I wrecked my knee. I tripped on a roller skate at Portia’s apartment, of all things. That was the end of my jock days, though I get around fine after the knee surgery.”

“You could have had a very different life, Stephen.”

“I like my life fine. Or I did, until Portia left me. Everything went downhill after that. If you’re right, and I am being persecuted, do you think…they somehow turned Portia against me?”

She frowned. “I suppose it’s possible.” Pretty diplomatic, I thought.

I put the sheet of paper back on the desk. “So what’s this blacked-out bit? Did the time-cops censor you?”

She shook her head. “I blotted out a couple of lines. They were…personal. Nothing you need to see.”

I couldn’t decide if I believed her or not. Cameron was a hard person to read. I leaned back in my squeaking uncomfortable chair. “This war you’re talking about—what are they fighting over?”

She shook her head. “I don’t know. It’s better if I don’t know too much. The same reason I don’t put too many details in these notes to myself—the bare minimum is really best.”

“If you don’t know what the war’s about, how do you know you’re even on the right side?”

“I’m on the side that doesn’t gangstalk you and try to destroy your life. Is that good enough for you?” 
I’m nothing if not pragmatic, so I nodded. “What happens next? No offense, but even though you’ve gone some way toward identifying my problems, you haven’t exactly solved them yet.”

“I’ve got some leads I’m tracking down. Once we find the person running this operation against you, there are…methods we can use to dissuade them.”

“Why didn’t you just, you know, jot down the solution to this little problem on that note from the future?”

“Maybe I won’t know the solution by the time the safe opens. Maybe the answer will be written on the next note. Maybe—”

“Maybe there won’t be a next note,” came a voice from behind me.

Cameron was cool, just staring past me. I swiveled in my chair, and there—

There was Harold, the overmuscled asshole who stole my wife away, standing in the doorway in a black track suit with silver trim. He was holding a pink handgun—a Charles Daly .45 in fuchsia. Portia’s gun. She’d bought it a few years back after a friend got mugged, because she wanted to feel safer, and it was pink because…well, because Portia thought it was hilarious that someone had a line of colorful “ladies’ guns,” something that struck her as unspeakably adorably kitsch. 

“We only want the safe,” Harold said. “It gives you an unfair advantage.” He paused. “Which in this case means, any advantage.” He ignored me, gesturing at Cameron with the gun. “Move away from the desk, Cassavates.”

She didn’t shift. “Why? Are you afraid of me? I don’t do violence. You know that.”

Harold laughed, a low slimy chuckle that seemed to drip sweat. “You don’t smack people around or shoot them, but you’ve done plenty of violence. We know all about you.”

“Harold, you conniving shit,” I said. “You were behind this? You stole Portia away just to fuck with me?”

“Shut up, Stephen. I’m not supposed to shoot either of you. Just make you irrelevant. But if I feel there’s no other way…” He shrugged. “You get a certain degree of autonomy when your bosses live a few decades away. Move away from the safe, lady.” He shooed her with the pink gun, and Cameron stood up and slid away from the desk. The whole situation should have been ridiculous, but mostly, it wasn’t. 

Cameron put her back to the wall, hands clasped before her. She didn’t look worried, exactly—but then, I guess she knew she’d survive this, at least long enough to write a note that inexplicably didn’t include the information that some guy would pull a gun on us. But that meant he wouldn’t succeed in stealing the safe, right? Unless he could change the past, which in this case was the future, except…my head started to hurt.

“I’m going to take this,” Harold said, inching toward the safe. “And then…you two can back to your miserable little lives, I guess.”

“I’m going to tell Portia what you are,” I said.

He snorted. “You do that. ‘Portia, mean old Harold stole my new girlfriend’s time machine—’ Ha. The whole point is to make everybody think you’re crazy, ruin your life, destroy your credibility. Feel free to help us out.”

I’d spent a lot of the past six months feeling like a victim. I decided I was done doing that. I put my feet against the desk, pushed with my legs, and rolled me and my chair backwards about three feet towards the door. 

“Fuck are you doing?” Harold swung the gun toward me.

“Me? Nothing. Just making you look at me instead of her.” I had a feeling Cameron was the kind of person who could make use of an unguarded second, and at the very least, this put some space between Cameron and me, so Harold couldn’t hold the gun on both of us at once.

He swung the gun back to Cameron, who was holding her cell phone. “Drop that!” he yelled.

“911 is only three digits, idiot,” she said. “How long do you think it takes me to dial?” A voice from the phone said, tinnily, “911, what’s your emergency?”

“No emergency!” Harold yelled. “Wrong number!” He scooped up the safe under one arm, took three steps toward the door, then stopped, frozen in place. I don’t really know how to describe what happened next, except that he—strobed, looking less like a man than a special effect, body transforming into a coruscation of blue and white light, until the light…just went out. Harold was gone. The safe thumped to the floor. I scooted the chair a little farther away from it.

“Sorry to waste your time,” Cameron said, and flipped her phone closed. 

“Prank calling 911 is a misdemeanor, I think. Like filing a false police report.” I stared at the spot on the carpet where Harold should have been. 

“This cell phone’s been deactivated,” she said. “I always carry one like that, just in case. Even a cell phone with no calling plan can be used to call 911, did you know that? But it doesn’t show a callback number. Good for anonymous emergency calls. I have to make a few of those in my line of work.”

“What happened to him?” I asked. “Whatever it is, he deserved it, but…”

“The safe has security measures built in. If anybody touches it who doesn’t belong in this time, it sends them to whatever time period where they dobelong. And don’t ask me how the safe knows, my old client said something about neutrinos and measuring the trace elements of contaminants in our bodies, but I’m not too clear.”

“So Harold was from the future.”

“Makes you despair about the state of the future, doesn’t it?”

“But if he’s a time traveler, can’t he just…come back? Five minutes from now? Five minutes ago?”

“In theory, but I get the impression that actually sending a whole person backward through time is incredibly energy-intensive, not something that either side of the conflict does lightly. If Harold’s proven himself a failure, compromised his cover…maybe they’ll just keep him. I hope so.”

“If you knew he’d vanish when he touched the safe, why did you even call 911?”

“I couldn’t be sure he was from the future.” Cameron picked up the safe and put it back on her desk, gently, like it was fragile. “The other side has local agents, too. Besides, you were so clever with your little rolling-chair distraction move, very lateral and lo-fi, I liked it. I didn’t want to disappoint you.”

I just laughed. “So it’s over now? Harold is gone, and the gangstalking is over? We cut off the head?”

“Absolutely.” Cameron wrote something on a piece of paper, then held it up. It read:

Absolutely NOT. Watch what you say. They’re listening.

“That’s a relief.” I tried to keep my voice weird-inflection-free. 

“Anything bad that happens to you now is just life. What do you say we go out and get some brunch? Unless you have Christmas Eve plans?” While she spoke, she kept scribbling, furiously, and I was impressed at her ability to talk and write at the same time. 

“Is it Christmas Eve already? I guess it is. Holiday planning hasn’t been at the top of my to-do list lately. Sure, something to eat would be great.”

“Just let me straighten up a few things here. Hostage situations make such a mess.”

Cameron passed me the new note. It said:

How did Harold know about the safe? I sweep my office for bugs every day. There must be a listening device on you.

She looked at me pointedly, and I shrugged, not sure where I would look for such a thing, or how it could have been planted. She rolled her eyes, came close to me—closer than she’d ever been, closer than any woman had been in a long time, except my ex-wife, who didn’t count in any way that really counted. Cameron patted me down thoroughly, slipped her hands into the pockets of my pants, then reached into the pockets of my jacket. 

And withdrew a glittering needle, wrapped with brass wire, a blue light pulsing gently at its head. “This is it,” she mouthed silently. “Play along.” Then, aloud, “All right, let’s go. Oh, your jacket’s pretty thin, and with that hailstorm—here, I’ve got an extra coat, it’s not very fashionable, but…” 

I took the long dark trench coat from the tree by the door and put it on, feeling like an extra in a detective movie from the 1940s. “Nonsense, trenchcoats are classic.” Cameron put on her own sand-colored coat, and we slipped out the front door, leaving my jacket and the listening device behind. Cameron hooked her arm into mine when we hit the street, and subtly tugged me in the direction of an alleyway. “Let’s cut through to the next block, there’s a good brunch place there,” she said.

When we were well down the alley, which had a couple of zig-zags and narrowed so much we had to go single file, she stopped. “Okay, we should be out of sight of any watchers here. How did that device get in your jacket?”

“I don’t know, maybe the guys who broke into my place planted it? But, no, I was wearing it when I met you…” I shook my head.

“I think there’s a good chance Harold wasn’t working alone,” Cameron said. “At least, we can’t be sure. But we’ve just let anybody listening know that we’re going out, and leaving my time machine undefended, so…let’s see if anyone takes the bait.” She beckoned and led me to a concealed side door, hidden behind a dumpster, which took three different keys from her ring to open. The door slid into the wall silently, and she shooed me in, then closed up after herself. The space was small and dark, barely closet-sized, with a few TV screens on the wall and one chair. Cameron sat, and I stood by a door that presumably led inside. The monitors showed the street outside her front door, and the alley we’d just passed through, and her office. 

We watched silently for a few moments, until a woman appeared on the street view. Unlike the other passers-by, she hesitated by the entrance, and when no one else was around, she did something to the doorknob, and the door swung open. 

“Gotcha,” Cameron said. “Do you recognize her?”

I nodded. I didn’t want to, but I did. “Portia,” I said. “My ex-wife. I saw her last night, I was wearing that jacket, she gave me a hug…She could have planted the bug on me.”

“I’m so sorry, Stephen.” She sounded like she meant it.

“Not as sorry as she’ll be.” When in doubt, try bravado. But being stunned and furious and hurt were at least different from being numb and sad and resigned.

On the monitor showing the office, Portia circled the desk, looking at the safe warily. She pulled on a pair of strange heavy gloves, like something you’d see a guy using in an iron foundry to handle unspeakably hot materials. She flexed her fingers, and the gloves sparked blue.

“What do you want to do?” Cameron asked. “I can’t let her run off with my safe, so we need to do make a move.”

“You’re the troublesolver. You tell me.”

“I can call the cops for real this time, have her arrested for breaking and entering. But if she’s working for the other side, she’ll have a get-out-of-jail-free card or two. They have serious connections. Warmongers always do.”

I thought about that. Arrest, especially temporary arrest, wouldn’t scratch the itch of vengeance. “How about I do this instead,” I said, and pushed open the inner door. 

I stepped into the office, silently, behind Portia. I could have grabbed her by the neck, hit her in the back of the head, kicked out her knee and stepped on her throat, and all those things appealed. Instead, I just said, “Why did you do it, Portia?”

She turned to face me, all innocent surprise, trying to hide her ridiculously gauntleted hands behind her back. “Stephen, what are you doing here? Harold was acting so strangely today, he ran off and took my handgun, and I heard the woman who worked here was a sort of therapist, or private detective, or something, and thought she could help—” 
“Those are some pretty crazy gloves, Portia. The new style? That how they’re wearing them in Paris this year?”

She sighed and sat down in Cameron’s comfortable chair. I couldn’t help but notice Cameron hadn’t emerged from her little batcave, and in fact, the door had slid shut behind me. I hoped she was doing something useful in there. 

“It was a good run,” Portia said. “And I think we accomplished enough, even if we didn’t manage to get you committed to a mental institution. Thepoint was to drive you crazy, take you out of society all together. That’s what you deserve, for the things you’ve done, will do, would have done. But I think we succeeded in making you harmless. It’s good enough.”

I took the crappy chair, my insides trembling like an earthquake, like the long-awaited Big One in my gut. “Portia. When did they get to you?”

She laughed, that bubbling contagious laugh I’d once found so endearing. “Nobody got to me. I came here for you in the first place. We found you in college—though details about your life are pretty well concealed in my time, we knew where you went to school. I insinuated myself. Made sure to steer you away from dangerous territory, as gently as I could. Letting you make the decisions, gradually, to keep there from being any…noticeable waves. I’m famous, you know, among my people. The woman who turned Stephen Blaine into a decorator.”

“But we were married. We were happy. If the point was just to distract me, to keep me from doing…whatever I was supposed to do…why spend all those years? Why the charade?” I wanted her to say I’d started as an assignment, but that she’d grown to love me, that I was—

“To hurt you more,” she said, and there was a nastiness I’d never sensed in Portia, not even during our darkest direst fights. “To build you up higher so the crashing down would be more complete. I’m disappointed it didn’t end better. But I’ll take away this time machine, put an end to that woman’s ‘troublesolving,’ and leave you to yourself. Who knows. Maybe the bitterness and loneliness and worry and doubt and grief will break you anyway. A girl can hope.” She put her gloved hands on the safe, gingerly, and I half expected—half hoped—she’d vanish, but nothing happened, except more blue sparks, and she visibly relaxed. “I’ll be going now.”

“No you won’t,” I said, standing up. “Not with that.”

“How do you propose to stop me?”

“He won’t have to.” Cameron stepped out of her office, sliding closed something that looked like a cell phone, but bulkier, and emanating the same blue light the time machine and Portia’s gloves had. “I called some colleagues. They’ll do the stopping.” She nodded toward the back wall, where a blue and white pulsation appeared in the air, and Portia looked behind her, comically alarmed, as a man and a woman stepped out of the rift and put their hands on her shoulders. Portia snarled and leapt up, but the man simply grabbed her in a bear hug and pulled her inside the rift, vanishing. The woman—who looked a little like Cameron, actually, but taller, and with somewhat heavier features, but the same brown-hair-brown-eyes—paused. “We’ve been trying to get her for a very long…. well, ‘a long time’ is the wrong thing to say, sort of, but…you see what I mean.” She looked at me, then looked away, and said, “It’s an honor to meet you, finally, sir. I’m sorry I never had a chance to in…ah…” She shook her head, and her expression was all mixed-up and rapidly shifting, maybe grief, maybe restraint, maybe other things. I couldn’t parse it all. She said, “Goodbye.” Then turned and ducked into the rift, which disappeared after her. 

I looked at Cameron, and she looked at me, and shrugged. “I don’t know exactly what that was all about, either,” she said. “But maybe you’re more important to the future than I thought.”

“What am I supposed to do with all this?” I put my head in my hands. “My wife betrayed me. People from the future are honored to meet me, for some reason. And I don’t know why. Can’t you use your magic cell phone to ask them what the fuck I’m supposed to do? Who are those people, anyway?”

“I try to call them on it often,” she said. “No one ever answers. This time, they did. I guess they knew this time it was important. The guy who pulled Portia in, he was my old client, the one who gave me the safe, who recruited me to the cause. But I don’t know the girl. Maybe someday I will. The future’s a big place.”

So it was. “I ask again, for the millionth time: Is it over? And what do we do now?”

“Brunch was a good idea,” she said. “It’s a start. But first, I’ve got to do something.” She sat down at the desk, drew a piece of paper toward her, and began to write. I looked over her shoulder, terrified it would beanother secret note for me, but she wrote: 

Next client. Stephen. Tuesday. 

“Now? You’re writing this note now?”

“Mmm hmm. Time waits for no one.” She didn’t look up. “I write what was written. I produce the note I was given.”

“Do you ever, I don’t know, write something different?”

She looked at me then, and sternly, and she was almost even lovelier when she was stern. “Stephen. Some people just have to kill the golden goose. But some people, like me, are content to keep collecting golden eggs. I follow the rules. These rules, anyway.” She went back to writing, and I remembered the blacked-out portion at the bottom of the note, and looked to see what she wrote, thinking she’d stop me if it really was too personal. But what it said was:

His ex-wife is behind it all. But he won’t believe at first. Let him figure it out for himself. Don’t let him read this part.

At first, I was pissed off. Cameron had known, all this time, she’d known…but if she’d told me my ex-wife was a time traveler out to get me, without me seeing the things I’d seen first, I’d never have believed her. “Can you maybe not keep any more secrets from me,” I said. “Just in the future?”

“Why? Are we going to be spending a lot of time together in the future?” She kind of smiled when she said it. 

“Whatever we’re in, we’re in it together now. They wanted to make me useless, but I’m going to do my best to prove them wrong. Besides, you didn’t have anything better to do on Christmas Eve than tend to my troubles, so I figure you can probably use the company. And anyway, your office could use redecorating. Consider me hired.”

She laughed, but didn’t say no, and pushed some numbers on the safe’s keypad. 

The door popped open, and she stared into it for a long time. 

“What’s wrong?” I said.

“The safe.” She folded the letter she’d written into thirds, slipped it inside, then gently shut the door. “There’s no new letter inside the safe. No letter from myself from a week in the future. There’s always a letter.”

“Which means…what?”

“It means either a) I’m dead or b) there’s some other good reason I’m not around to leave a note in a week’s time. Though I honestly can’t think what else it could be.”

“Hey,” I said, lightly. “You’ve got lottery and stock market money, right? And we could both certainly use a vacation. What do you say we go to the airport right now and take two weeks in a little shack on a tropical island somewhere far away?”

“That would be a good reason to miss writing a note,” she said slowly. She looked up at me. Those chestnut eyes. I could get used to seeing myself reflected in them. “What would we be doing on this island for two weeks, Stephen?”


“What else?” I said. “We’d be thinking about the future.”

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