Drunk on Time
by J. H. Malone
Saul is a 20-something computer expert. He’s somewhat undisciplined and drinks too much, but he is charming and has a soft spot for older people and for his love interest, who is a brilliant but enigmatic researcher. They unlock the secrets of parallel universes with unexpected results for themselves.
Table of Contents, parts:|
1, 2, 3, 4. 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10
Outside, Magnolia was quiet, but LA’s white noise, the sound of a gigantic but distant engine, stood in as windsong. Jekell and Bush were camped out on the sidewalk, along with a friend named Jesse. I gave Jekell and Jesse five bucks each and Bush his egg.
The alcohol put a little air under my feet. I left the Jeep on the curb and walked home on pillowy sidewalks. A breeze as soft as the pavement ruffled my hair. Streetlights buzzed, covering the city’s lullaby and mingling with a buzz growing inside my head. I pushed away thoughts of Garza. The secret of the scanner was not in danger. I could locate Tommy and then quit performing insignificant acts of good will: finding cats, parakeets, and granddaughters. The buzz in my head was probably my conscience.
Liesl wasted no time introducing me to the scanner. While I waited for her in 6B the second night, outside the conference room, emotions roamed from my brain to my heart to points south, fogging over any lurking doubts. One night with Liesl, and I was full of irrational, one-sided love.
We walked back to the apartment talking about professors Zhang and Bogolubov, two contentious characters bent on bringing Liesl to heel. Instead they had ended up bowing to her arguments and conceding the evening to her. I was in semi-possession of my wits again after our night together, but the skeptical, pessimistic side of my spirit remained quiet with Liesl occasionally bumping me from the side as we walked. The Cambridge neighborhood had become an enchanted kingdom.
Our catered dinner arrived and, after we ate, Liesl led me to the room with the electronics equipment in it and flipped the light switch. A 42U server rack stood against the back wall with a single blade server installed in it. Next to the rack sat a unit the size of a minifridge.
My thoughts, unlike my body, were located in the next room down the hall.
Cables ran from the server and boxy unit to a console sitting on a deal table in the middle of the room. A keyboard, two wireless virtual-reality headsets and a multifunction game controller rested next to the console. There were no add-on controllers that could be latched to the hands; the device was designed for watching, not moving. The VR equipment looked hybridized but larger and more impressive than anything I had ever used.
“What’s this?” I said.
“I will show you.”
“Can the wiring in this old house handle the load?”
“Not so much power is needed.”
The curtains were drawn. Liesl pushed a button that powered up the system.
We walked over to the table and sat down in office chairs in front of the console. The controller on the table was far more complicated than any I had ever seen.
“I built it,” Liesl said, indicating the equipment.
“What is it?”
“A scanner,” she said. “The word is the same in German.”
“What does it scan?”
“I have thought about how to explain this.”
“It is better to show you.”
I was thinking about the previous night and the night to come, not about headsets and joysticks. I tried to pay attention.
“I will show you,” she repeated.
She noticed the impatient look on my face and poked my stomach. “It is important to me,” she said.
“I’m sorry,” I said. Her poke did the trick. My thoughts returned from the bedroom to us.
She picked up a headset and strapped it on. She settled the controller in her lap. “I will operate the device,” she said. “Put on your headset, please.”
I pulled it on and spent a few seconds tightening its straps to fit me. With both of us ready, I heard a rattle of keys and a click and a 3D virtual-reality scene phased in around me. I was looking at the room from above and behind us, as if suspended from the ceiling.
I turned my head. The room’s windows on the east side were behind me. The overhead light was on my right, at eye level. The clarity of the optics was amazing. Unbelievable, actually, compared to the VR systems I had tried, some of which were state-of-the-art examples available at the University.
“This is real virtual,” I said.
“Tell me what you want to see.”
“What do you mean?”
“From anywhere in the world. From the past or the future.”
“Dinosaurs?” I said, to humor her.
“Dinosaurs. Of course.”
“Too easy?” I said.
A click and I was sitting on a sunny plain with green fronds up to my chin. In front of me grazed a herd of dinosaurs I didn’t recognize.
“One hundred million years ago,” Liesl said. Her voice came to me from my left but she wasn’t in the image.
“Wow!” I said.
“Choose something else,” she said.
A pause and a click and I was in the midst of a small crowd on a muddy street listening to Abraham Lincoln give a stump speech.
Another pause and click and I was standing on the moon looking up at the Earth.
A final click and the headset went dark. I pulled it off.
“This technology is the ultimate,” I said. “It’s incredible. Beyond words. Beyond immersive. You are about to revolutionize the media world forever. What about action? Avatars? What about building characters online? You can buy VR property online, you know—”
“I will teach you to use it,” Liesl said.
“How many scenarios like that have you got?”
“More than you will watch,” she said. She was gazing at me.
“What?” I said, and after a moment’s thought, “Why me?”
“I have not shown the scanner to anyone else. I think you will enjoy it. I will answer all your questions after you use it. Now it is time for bed.”
I was distracted a little at first, in the other room, but it didn’t last.
* * *
And now I sat alone in the night in North Hollywood with a bottle of scotch and the scanner, but no Liesl.
With time in reverse, I followed myself back to Garza at the bar and tracked him into the past, back to The Dot Lounge on Sunday night. I switched to time-forward when he braced Tommy at a table by the front window. Tommy was sitting with friends. He was a good-looking kid, but he had a worried expression on his face. He was too young to be in the bar, not that The Dot was famous for carding its customers.
All conversation ceased when Garza stepped up to the table. He leaned over and said a few words to Tommy. I could read lips a little, but not Garza’s at that angle. I moved around in front of him and backed up a few seconds and let Garza say it again.
“You’ve got a day.”
Tommy nodded. Garza left. I stuck with Tommy. He said a word or two to the others, waiting for Garza to get clear, and then left, himself. Outside, he climbed into his Cutlass and drove over to an apartment on Archwood, just off Lankershim.
I followed him in. He threw some clothes into a duffle. Stuffed a toiletry kit, a fresh deck of cards and a pillow into a backpack, and back out he went. He got behind the wheel and hauled ass out of North Hollywood, jumping onto the Ventura Freeway heading east to its terminus in Pasadena, where he continued onto the 210. He got off in East Pasadena and made his way over to a bungalow on Backus Avenue. I bookmarked the location on the scanner.
Tommy was out of North Hollywood but not out of town.
An old woman let him in when he knocked. I turned up the scan rate. In minutes the sun came up Monday morning and Tommy emerged, clothes unchanged. I followed him around the Valley for three days, doing a fast scan most of the way. He drove from place to place, borrowing money or trying to. He scored a couple of times from men he knew, but no one fronted him serious cash. He collected enough to lay a bet or two, but nothing that would save him from Garza. He sat in on a couple of poker games but played tight and tilted, like a guy weighed down. Tuesday morning he stopped in Reseda and bought a fake beard.
After two hours of scanning and a concomitant amount of scotch, Tommy and I reached Wednesday night, at which time he picked up Julieta at Westfield Fashion Square in Sherman Oaks. Together they drove to central Los Angeles and attended another Gamblers Anonymous meeting, this time as a couple, at the church in Koreatown.
This kid was not leaving LA. At first I wondered if he knew what was in store for him if he stayed, but after seeing the troubled expression remain unchanged on his face for three days, I knew that he knew.
I skipped the rest of Wednesday night and jumped ahead to eight o’clock this morning, back at the bungalow on Backus. I goosed the scan rate, and Tommy emerged at eleven-thirty, wearing the fake beard, sunglasses, and a straw hat. He drove over to the Santa Anita race track three miles east of the bungalow and parked in the Gate 8 lot.
I followed him in. He bought a general admission ticket and a copy of the day’s Racing Form. He walked directly to the paddock. I was surprised at the size of the crowd, given racing’s downward spiral. Perhaps the warm May day brought everyone out, or perhaps this was the season’s first day. I hadn’t been to the track since high school.
Tommy took up a position near the Seabiscuit statue and studied his paper, waiting for the horses to be led past to the saddling barn. He wasn’t trying to hide. He had more confidence in his disguise than I did. It attracted curious children.
After observing the horses parade for the first race, he followed them out to the track and took a seat in the grandstand to watch them warm up. Eventually they headed at a walk toward the starting gate, and Tommy went in to the betting windows and stood in line to place his first bets of the day, instead of keeping his head down and using his phone or a machine teller. Reckless.
It was twelve-thirty.
I zoomed in to check out his play at the window. His bets were of the exotic variety. He boxed three horses for the Trifecta, betting on the six possible combinations of Win, Place, and Show for the three horses of his choice. He bought a ten-dollar ticket for the Pick Six, which required him to name the winners of six races in a row. He was trying to pick winners in cheap claiming races. A magic eight ball would have helped him as much as his Racing Form.
Back in the grandstand, he watched the first race. When it was over, he tore up his tickets.
Exotic bets can pay off in the thousands on a good day, but only because the odds of winning with them are long, longer, and forget about it. I was no expert, but I had put in some hooky time at Santa Anita and at Suffolk Downs in East Boston. I knew a parlay from a paddock.
Tommy spent the rest of the day attempting to win the money he needed to keep his face and limbs in their present condition. From what I saw, he didn’t win enough to save an eyelash, never mind his nose, his teeth, or his life.
I was numb by then. The night felt a thousand years old and so did I. I hurried through the next eight races. How long could the boy hang out there without being spotted by some railbird who’d drop a dime on him with a call to Garza?
He spoke to no one. Neither Garza nor the goons Garza undoubtedly employed descended upon him, but Tommy would not get out from under the man this way.
The last race went off at 4:41 in the afternoon. I left Johnny sitting in the grandstand with a blank look on the visible portions of his face. Part of the money he had scrounged during the week now belonged to the track. After a day’s work, all he had was another tale of woe for his friends at Gamblers Anonymous.
He finally bestirred himself and trudged back to his car. He drove to the bungalow, parked in the street, and went inside. I bid him good night.
I powered down the scanner, stood up, took three steps to the easy chair by the door. I had rescued this castoff from the curbside in Van Nuys. I fell into it and took a breath. Tired but okay. Good. I was still able to think. Not good. But sleep solved that.
* * *
Copyright © 2020 by J. H. Malone