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Joey nodded ruefully.
“That’s acshually what this broad aschually said?” The dude on the barstool next to him, whose name he’d already forgotten, was onto his ninth White Russian.
“Dame,” Joey corrected.
“Aghh, broads, dames, dolls,” the dude gesticulated wildly, “s’all the same.”
“No, I mean she was actually a Dame: one of these posh Limeys.”
The dude looked confused. “Well hell, I didn’t think you was talking about some guy.”
Joey was way too tired to explain. He took another slug of bourbon after which he raised his glass, rolling the rocks about to observe the bar lights glittering in the spin. Only then did he notice the large bar clock was out of focus. Had he drunk that much? “Hey, Mac. What’s the time?” The bartender looked at the clock, back at him, chuckled, then simply carried on.
“What’s with him?” Joey asked the dude.
The dude swivelled to face him. “You do remember where you are, right?”
His mouth opened but the words supposed to fill it appeared to have been mislaid by his brain. Into that void crashed a sudden flashback.
The sun slipped from view over the strip so that the city’s facades seemed aglow like old embers. With the top down, a soft breeze curled over the windshield of their Packard, whipping through Crystal’s luscious platinum locks. She must have sensed his eyes upon her because she returned his smile as sure as a bounced cheque.
Joey, he thought to himself, you’re the luckiest guy in the universe. How did you ever deserve such a show-stopping beauty? Even the evening sunlight seemed eager to kiss that eiderdown neck as it sparkled across the rocks of her choker. All was well. His PI business was going great guns, he’d officially met and been given the nod by Lord and Lady Bacon, and Crystal had…
A crack and thud from behind killed his chain of thoughts. The motor would sometimes backfire but Joey instantly recognised the sound of gunshots. Craning about, he clocked two dark Mercurys weaving through the traffic at high speed, Tommy Guns jutting from the side windows. He was just about to grab the wheel when Crystal bellowed, Do buckle up, there’s a dear! before flooring it.
Over the whining engine and blaring horn, Crystal declared, It’s the White Russians. They’ve come for you. A voice in his head, barely audible in the chaos, croaked, “No buddy, it’s the Marshalls here for her.”
The car swung wildly with pursuit. Crystal, liberally cursing and blinding, was barely recognisable behind the wheel. After a couple more whizz-thuds into the rear chassis, she screamed, Under the seat, darling. There’s a Colt 45. Do the honours, there’s good chap.
The head-voice demurred, “Don’t do it, man. She needs to be stopped.” He stared at the piece in his hands and then across at Crystal. As he dallied, a cloud seemed to pass over her features. She snatched the revolver and, leaning out the window, fired with remarkable precision and calm. The last thing he heard before they clipped the fender of the car in front was, “It’s about bloody time you grew some!”
“Whah?” Joey slowly zoned back in.
“You feeling okay?” It was the bartender, his hand extended with an old phone receiver in it. “It’s for you.”
Still disoriented, he brought it gingerly to his ear.
“Joey?” He sort of recognised the voice.
“Do you want the truth?”
“I want the truth.”
“You can’t handle the truth.”
“Doesn’t matter. I need you to do something.”
“No. Are you drinking again? After everything.”
“Wow! What are you drinking?”
“I’ll take a whiskey if y…”
“I wasn’t offering, Joey. Listen, are you lying down?”
“Why on earth would I be lying…”
She cut across him: “you’re not the Joey they think you are.”
The head-voice brought him round as he slowly picked himself up off the floor. He grabbed the receiver again, this time with frustration.
“Now you listen to me, whoever you are. I need some goddam answers otherwise I’m hanging up right now!”
After a brief silence, “Okay Mr Grisly, ask the bartender to show you.”
“Show me what?” Joey looked up to see the bartender already walking towards the entrance. He followed him outside. Apart from the warmth, it was an arctic landscape - featureless in every direction. The bartender was looking back at the roof and Joey followed his gaze towards a large hot pink neon sign flashing: LIMBO.
Joey fell to his knees, crying out in despair, “I’m the alcoholic ghost of a dead maaaaaaann!”
The bartender eventually led him back to his seat and handed him the receiver again. Silence greeted him.
“Okay, you’ve got my attention,” Joey said.
“The voice in your head…”
“It’s you. Or, technically, another you. It’s there because they’re becoming synchronous. With every jump, the Joeys further align. Eventually, this will cause an inversion anomaly in space-time, the equivalent of a bomb going off in your head.”
“Wait, that’s what Crystal said,” the head-voice interjected.
“Crystal said that?”
“Hmm. The Crystals must also be aligning. Anyway, that’s not the point, Joey. No one truly knows what will happen if a Total Conflation Paradox occurs, and for obvious reasons no one in their right mind wants to find out.”
Joey’s head hurt. “Why’s she doing this?”
“Above my pay grade. All I know is: she’s got to be stopped before it’s too late. There’s already some dendritic drift in the multiverse strings.”
Joey suddenly longed for some simple conversation. His gaze shifted to the dude and he quickly quashed the thought. “Can I go back to normal life after this?”
“Which Joey’s asking? Crystal deceived you. Ask the other one if he’d prefer to go back to being a two-bit gumshoe in a two-bit town trying to scrape out a living spying on cheating spouses?”
“Well, now you put it like that.”
“There’s only forward, Joey. Crystal’s mistake was taking you for a chump. She’s slowly learning her mistake and will soon try to correct it.”
“My head’s hurting again.”
“Bottom line… are you listening good?”
“All ears, sister.”
“You forgot about the manuscript.”
His head-voice piped up, “No, it’s right here in my satchel.”
“Slap the other Joey for me, will you.”
“Ahh, ok, I think I’m beginn…”
“You get that manuscript and you get to write your own ending to this whole damn story… any way you like, in whatever universe.”
Joey felt himself rapidly sobering up. “You mean… I GET TO BE THE HERO?”
“Sounds like the man’s finally growing some.”
Blood coursed through him afresh: “What’ve I gotta do?”
“Firstly, whatever happens, under no circumstances are you to tell the dude what we’re about to discuss.”
Joey lowered his voice, sinking the receiver into his shoulder, “Is he in on it?”
“No, he just drinks way too much and will end up wasting your time.”
“Right, so the manuscript’s been taken to the Mike’s Flies Building, in 2050, Universe 13. Check it’s Mike’s Flies because the building name’s slightly different in each universe… You’ll have to find a way to break in. Crystal will likely try to stop you. There’s a vault in the basement. It’s voice and code activated. I’ll ensure yours is the logged voice but you’ll have to repeat the following Master-code. Do you have a pen and pad?”
“No. I’ve got a new smart phone, though.”
“I thought I told you to slap him!”
“Right,” he cast about the bar. “Dude, you got a pen and pad?”
“Oh, I’m not the Dude, brother. He’s only here on Fridays.” His hands moved about his body and pockets as though checking, only to retrieve a handkerchief to receive the contents of his nostrils.
“See what I mean?” the telephone stated emphatically. “Okay, you’ll just have to memorise. Do it quickly, Joey, cause I’m running out of quarters.”
“Wait, you’re on a payphone?”
“Focus Joey, they can’t trace us that way. Quickly now. Remember this:
Our junior baker’s a law unto himself and free as a starling. Rejoicing day n night with bubbles, he will, in the nick of time, con wayfarers out of cash, him alone, a lexical master and secret mega-ninja of the Golden Ratio.
At the same time as Joey exclaimed, You’re kidding, right? the line went dead.
Running a hand over his head, he frantically repeated the words in his mind best he could. He felt he was losing the plot and was sure as hell he wasn’t the only one.
His befuddled reflection stared back at him from the mirrored bar. What now? Head-Joey asked. Good question. What did it matter if he were alive or dead or somewhere in between if he couldn’t make a jump? The bartender refilled his glass which he downed in one.
The dude looked up. “Who was on the line?”
Head-Joey replied for him: “Wrong number.”
They stared at each other blankly for a moment. “Oh, I almost forgot,” said the dude, leaning over, “this is for you.”
On the bar sat a beautiful black, shiny disc.
[To be continued next Thursday on The Storyletter]
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Text (c) 2022 by Adrian Conway.
Header image by Erica Drayton.
From opening doors that cause timelines to overlap to all of the multiverse Joeys and Crystals coming into sync as one! That might be cause of "dendritic drift in the multiverse strings"
And I want to know, where I can get a phone that will make calls from one realm to another!!
Another great addition to the story!
And the plot entangles as the chapters progress...