Of all the crime scenes in all the timelines in all the multiverse, Detective O'Harren walks into the basement on West 21st. In every possible universe, Johnny Rivers is dead. But the questions that need answering--who killed him and why--are still a matter of uncertainty.
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About the Author
Ray Wood was born in Wiltshire in 1990. He spent four years studying English and Creative Writing at Royal Holloway, University of London, during which time he studiously managed to avoid writing anything that didn't have at least one sword or spaceship in it. He graduated with an MA in 2013 and currently lives in Surrey with his girlfriend. He is working on completing his first novel.
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By Ray Wood, Richie Pope
Tom Doherty AssociatesCopyright © 2015 Ray Wood
All rights reserved.
I could reach no possibilities in which Johnny Rivers—wise guy, bootlegger, crook with his eye on the big time—still clung to life. In every crime scene every one of me was looking at, he lay face-down on the floor with two bullets in his back. It was a pity. Not because Chicago was particularly the worse off for one more dead mobster, but because murders are murders, and solving Johnny's would have been a whole lot easier if he'd lived long enough to tell me who had pulled the trigger. Maybe, in another universe, another me had shown up sooner and had gotten something out of him.
That me was a lucky woman.
It was one of those drab Chicago winters, the kind where every sunrise brings fresh bodies on the sidewalks. At least this one was indoors. The shooting had taken place in the basement of a disused housing project just off of West 21st Street, which was, we had just discovered, the center of one of the Rivers gang's bigger bootlegging operations.
The details of the crime scene didn't vary much between universes. Metal slatted stairs led up to the street outside, and a jumble of distilling equipment—drums, pipes, a big tin bathtub—shone grimily in the light of a single, swaying light bulb. In one universe the tub was on its side, leaking moonshine into the floorboards. The Johnny in that possibility had flung an arm out as he fell, I guessed. It didn't change much: all of him had fallen in pretty much the same direction, cut down by a shooter on the stairs. I felt my heisen implant work behind my forehead.
I tucked my hair into my collar and knelt to examine the body. Two entry wounds: one to the right of the spine and another just below the shoulder. I traced my finger around the edge of one of them and let the heisen throw up possibilities.
—an acrid cough of gunpowder—
—a shell casing tinkles as it bounces into a dark corner—
—rubber soles slip on the stairs—
—a small grey pistol leaps from clumsy, sweaty fingers—
Other universes closed around me. I clung to the possibility thread that I had plucked out from the throng, visualizing it as a literal rope clutched in my fist. I felt like I was falling—the walls lurched briefly into the ceiling—then all at once I stopped, and I was standing in the basement—just one of them—listening to the faint wash of traffic on the street outside.
In this universe, the murderer had dropped the gun.
I found it in the shadows underneath the stairs, an evil glint of metal. It was a snub-nosed pocket pistol—kids' stuff, really, compared to what a lot of hoods were carrying, but I didn't doubt that it had spat the lead that was now in Johnny's back. It must have dropped between two slats as the shooter fled up the stairs. I squatted down to pick it up, the tail of my trench coat brushing my heels. The gun's potential buzzed beneath my fingers.
—a torch beam cuts the darkness, swinging, frantic—
—fingers search and scrabble, desperate to close around the handle of the pistol, to retrieve the evidence, dispose of it—
I took my hand away. I stood up, pinned the gun beneath the toe of my boot, and skidded it further underneath the stairs. That possibility was worth leaving open.
"Moore!" It was the first time I had used my voice in a half hour. He took a second to reply.
Light spilled in from the street outside and Detective Moore descended, feeling his way down the handrail. He had his eyes screwed shut.
"You worked your magic?" he said. "Can I look now?"
"Open your eyes, wise guy." As if it made any difference now whether he looked or not. It did keep the possibility lines clearer on my end if he stayed out of the way while I searched the scene, though, and he might have closed a lot of universes to me had he come down first. He looked around and whistled.
"Nice little set-up he had here. You know half the joints in this neighborhood carry his booze and no one else's? Not that he gave them much choice in the matter."
It was West Chicago's worst-kept secret that Johnny Rivers's gang of toughs had bribed, bullied, and beaten the owners of half the local speakeasies into supplying their patrons exclusively with liquor from his distilleries. I'd have been dumb to think that this basement was the biggest one; Rivers's operation spanned a lot of streets and ruffled a lot of feathers. The list of people in Chicago who might want him dead would be as long as my arm.
"Two bullet wounds, probably from a small firearm," I said. "Our shooter comes in, gets Johnny clean in the back while he's checking the equipment or whatever, and makes his escape. Any wild hunches on who did it?"
Moore took his hat from his head and went over to the body. The stink of spirits crawled into my throat.
"I know the Montagnios are sore with Rivers," he said. "He makes his stuff a lot cheaper than they can. Sells it cheap, too. There was an attempted shooting over on West 14th a couple days ago—one of the boys working the case reckons it was the Montagnios butting heads with Rivers's lot."
I chewed my fingernails. Using the heisen for any length of time left me dying for a smoke, but there was no way I was going to light up in here, not with everything soaked in moonshine. "What about Big Dakota? He still doing the dirty work for the Montagnios?"
—a slight frisson of something in my head, like my brain had passed over a set of points on a railroad and clunked onto a different track—
"... but it wasn't him," Moore continued. "One of our boys over on the east side took him in last night—raided a brothel on 18th and caught him with his pants down. Literally."
I pinched the bridge of my nose. "And Rivers was last seen when? And by whom?"
"By his wife, around seven thirty."
I folded my arms across my chest and looked up at the light bulb. Why did I never get the universes where things were cut and dry? I fished in my pocket for my cigarette case.
"I guess I'd better speak to his wife, then."
* * *
I interviewed the newly-widowed Mrs. Rivers in the station that afternoon. It was grey and frigid still, and on her way inside the building a cab kicked up a puddle by the sidewalk and splashed her heels with slush. I helped her dry off when we got up to the office. I offered her a glass of water, which she declined, and told her to take as long as she needed, which she did. I let her sit in my chair and watched her eyes follow the plainclothes detectives around the room. The office rattled to the sound of typewriters.
"I'm real sorry," she said, dabbing at her eyes. "I think I'm still—Johnny, you know. I still can't believe it."
She was a delicate little thing; the kind of broad these gangsters tended to go for, I guess. Her first name was 'Kitty', although she looked more like a china doll: big timid eyes, bow lips, a nose with the slightest pig-snout lift. Her cotton candy hair looked like mine had when I was a little girl.
"Mrs. Rivers," I said, pushing that unwanted association aside. "Could you tell me—?"
"Kitty, please," she said earnestly, and pulled yet another handkerchief out of a sleeve apparently stuffed with them.
My implant twitched. "I don't know if that's really—"
—petite shoulders slump a little further; a white hand comes up to pull the fur scarf over the tip of the chin—
"Kitty, then," I said, jumping with both feet into the universe that kept us on good terms. Her head lifted slightly. Her face was buried under a snowdrift of makeup. "Could you tell me about the last time you saw your husband? I know it will be tough to talk about. Remember, though—we want to help you. We want to find whoever did this."
She nodded, once, and drew a Marlboro from the pack I offered her. It took her a couple tries to get it to her lips.
"Yesterday," she said, once she had taken a drag, "Johnny came home about six."
I nodded encouragingly. Watching her suck on the cigarette was making me crave a smoke myself, but I forced my attention onto the possibilities the heisen was throwing at me. The more Kitty's story varied between universes, the more likely it was that she was making it up as she went along; the more similar, the more likely she was telling me the truth—or that the story had been carefully rehearsed. Shadows of those possibilities stretched out on either side of us, rows of doppelgangers interviewing and being interviewed, as though Kitty and I were caught between two mirrors.
"... and he went out again at around seven thirty," Kitty said. "He—"
"—said he needed to go back to his office—
"—wouldn't tell me where he was going. Said it was nothing to do with me—
"—didn't say a word when I asked him where he was off to—
"—and he left. By eight o'clock I was getting worried. By nine I was imagining all these terrible things that could've happened to him. By eleven ... I got a cab over to his office on West 21st. Heard a gun go off as I was getting out."
"Did you see anything?"
She stubbed her cigarette out in the ashtray on the desk and twisted her handkerchief around her finger.
"A man," three Kittys said in unison. "Running down the street. I didn't see his face. He might—I think he was wearing a hat." She glanced up at me. "After that I—I went into Johnny's office and I saw—I found him—lying—"
She pressed the handkerchief to her mouth. Her shoulders shook.
"Take as long as you need."
"I ran all the way to a callbox on 20th," she said, "and called the cops. I didn't—I couldn't believe it. Him just lying there, I mean. He never meant no harm, Detective, I swear ..."
I poured her a glass of water. She was just a kid, when it came down to it—eighteen, nineteen; easily young enough to be my daughter. Too young to be married to some dead gangster.
"Here." I held the glass out to her.
—the water falls into her lap: for a second, the young woman drops her guard—
I jerked my hand back as Kitty's fingers closed around the top of the glass. The rim slipped underneath her thumb and the whole thing dropped into her lap.
"Ah, darn it, Kitty, I'm sorry ... here." I drew my own handkerchief from my pocket and knelt to dab at her dress. I felt her slim legs tremble through the fabric.
"It was my fault," she said, and looked at me with wet, red eyes, like a child. The glass rolled along the floor and stopped at my knee.
"Kitty," I said seriously. The handkerchief still rested on her thigh. "Do you have any idea who might have wanted Johnny dead?"
She sucked her cushioned bottom lip. "I—" She dropped her eyes to her lap. "Two men came to see him a while back. Months ago. I don't know what they wanted—Johnny made me leave the room as soon as he saw them. But there was one fella the size of a truck—fair-haired, scar on his neck—"
Big Dakota. Moore reckoned our boys on the east side had already ruled him out.
"—and another guy, dark, a little heavy; I think the other fella called him 'Quine.'"
That would be Vincent Quine, I guessed—another Montagnio tough, and a first-rate slimeball. Kitty twisted her handkerchief around like she was wringing out a dishcloth. "Is that"—she stopped and got her voice under control—"is that any help? Do you have anything ... any clues to go on?"
I stood up and put my handkerchief back in my pocket. The sun was already low and squinting through the window blinds. "All we have to go on," I began, and hesitated. The pistol I had left beneath the stairs hovered in my mind. "All we have to go on is what you just told me and a couple bullets we found at the scene." I turned to my desk and started leafing through some papers. "It might be that we check the distillery again once we know what we're looking for, but ... Excuse me."
Moore was staring at me from the doorway, tapping an envelope against his lips and looking thoughtful.
"Not like you," he said, when I approached. "Falling for the bereaved widow act."
I turned my head. Kitty was staring into space and picking at her handkerchief. "She's just a kid," I said. "Did you want something?"
"For you." He held out the envelope and I saw the familiar handwriting.
Detective O'Harren, c/o Chicago Police Department, etc. etc.
"Still not giving out the home address, huh?"
I took the letter without looking at him.
"Mrs. Rivers needs escorting home," I said. "I think you just volunteered. Oh, and while you're out—see what the word is on the street about our old pal Vincent Quine."
* * *
Snow scrunched beneath my boots as I made my way home that night. It was cold, and quiet: only the occasional hum of a car or smatter of distant voices on the wind disturbed the silence. I turned at the corner of Trumbull Avenue and slid my key into the door of Number 17.
Mrs. Long was already asleep. I knocked the worst of the snow from the bottoms of my boots and made my way upstairs, taking care not to let the door to my room slam shut. I locked it behind me. I probably didn't need to—even when awake, Mrs. Long knew not to disturb me—but the possibilities that it excluded made things easier.
I hung my wet coat on the door and put the letter from Rick with the others, unopened. The tired old rubber band I was using to hold them all together snapped. I swore, stuffed them under the bed, and lay down, my head full of the usual letter-questions. How was Sarah? Did she miss me? Did Rick? He must; enough to keep writing every few months with no reply, at any rate. Unless he did it out of pity. Was he seeing anyone? I turned onto my side and stared at the wall.
I wondered, sometimes, if Rick had already been seeing someone else before the end—if maybe that was why he'd left—but I knew that I was just looking for an excuse to blame him instead of myself. There hadn't been anyone else. Not in the universe I was living in, at least, although there must have been others in which other Ricks had been unfaithful to other mes. Not that I blamed them. I was the one who had pushed Rick away. And Sarah. I had lost them both, one day at a time, starting from the day I woke up on the operating table with the implant in my head and didn't know which 'me' was me.
It helps if your life's already in pieces when you get the heisen implant. Less to adapt to, that way.
I thumped the pillow. Feeling sorry for myself wasn't solving Johnny's murder. Wasn't that why I had gotten the heisen in the first place? To be a better cop? It was in my head forever now, so I might as well make use of it. I closed my eyes.
We didn't have the manpower to have someone watch the basement on West 23rd every hour of the day and night—if I wanted to see if anyone came back for the gun, I'd have to do it myself. But I couldn't afford to spend all night on stake-out, not when there was so much work to do during the day. I'd be exhausted.
Unless it wasn't me that went.
I imagined closing myself inside a box. It was something that they'd taught us during training, a visualization exercise: imagine that you're Schrödinger's cat. No one knows if you're alive or dead. Except, in the quantum language of the heisen, it's more than that: you're both alive and dead, a million quantum cats existing in both states at the same time.
Alive and dead.
West 23rd Street and Trumbull Avenue.
Another me climbed out of bed and slipped into her coat.
* * *
The following afternoon, I went to speak to Vincent Quine. I'd gotten a full eight hours' sleep the night before: nothing had happened over on West 23rd Street that was worth seeing, so I left that possibility thread to another me and decided, with a flick of the heisen, that I had been in my bed all along. I tracked down potential Quines, ignoring the more isolated and unstable possibilities that would send my investigation hurtling down an unpredictable path, such as finding him dead in the road on Ellen Street having been struck by a cab that skidded on a patch of ice.
In most universes I found him in a speakeasy joint above a bookstore on Evergreen Avenue. I'd been there before: it served awful bathtub cocktails, mostly to gangsters, and was little more than an attic space with a bar along one side. It had never really been worth raiding. I chose a universe in which I remembered the correct pattern of knocks to gain admittance and slipped through the door before the bartender could shut it. All conversation in the place went dead as I stepped inside.
"Afternoon, fellas." They'd squeezed a pool table into the far corner since I'd last visited. Quine and a couple cronies stood around it, cues resting on their shoulders. There must have been ten, fifteen other hoods in there—half of them drinking, most of them smoking, all of them wearing suits. I looked each of them in the eye, one by one.
—a hand plunges into a coat pocket, but other hands are faster—
—a cacophony of bangs as hot lead screams across the room—
I spread my palms to show I was unarmed and looked towards the bar. "What's a girl got to do to get a drink around here?"
Smoke drifted lazily towards the ceiling. For an awful moment I thought I was going to end up splattered across the wall, then someone laughed and the tension broke. Heads turned away; conversations resumed. The bartender hurried over with a waxen smile.
"Good to see you, Detective. Here—on the house."
Awful-tasting cocktail in hand, I made a beeline for the pool table. Quine was leaning halfway across it, squinting down his cue. He was a big guy. Most of it was muscle, although when he undid his jacket I could see a hairy fold of beer gut through the gaps between his shirt buttons. His slick black hair was lovingly oiled. Chicago legend had it that he had a messy scar on his leg from a badly-healed bullet wound: he'd plugged it with a finger during a gunfight and had refused to go to a hospital.
"Came down to the nine, I see."
He squinted up at me. In all but one of the universes spread out in front of me he made the shot and won the game—I thought victory might make him more amenable, so I chose one of those. The balls clacked together and the nine-ball shot into the pocket, the cue ball bouncing softly off the cushion and carrying on around the table. With the heisen's help I pinned it first try beneath my index finger as it came towards me.
"Fancy a game?"
Excerpted from Schrödinger's Gun by Ray Wood, Richie Pope. Copyright © 2015 Ray Wood. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Kind of short but thought provoking