A Matter of Time is a short story about time travel. Detective Alice Marks must travel back in time to stop a notorious murderer.
A Matter of Time
“I’m here to speak with Lisa Sanchez,” I told the lady at the front desk.
The common room of the engineering department was small. It had four, white walls and dark grey carpet. I stood in front of the only reception desk. It was a tall, wooden desk with room for one person behind it. Behind me was a row of red, fabric waiting chairs.
“Dr. Sanchez will be out to see you in just a moment,” the receptionist replied. “Feel free to take a seat.” She motioned to the chairs behind me.
I slowly walked to the first chair on the right. It was closest to the hallway that I assumed led to the offices of the building. Lisa would probably come out from one of them.
I had no idea why Lisa had summoned me to her workplace today. She must have had some new information on the case she asked me to take up.
“Marks!” a woman’s voice called from my left.
I turned and Lisa walked toward me. Lisa was a short, slender woman. She had blond hair with dark roots. She always wore tailored, slacks and dark-colored blouses. Today was no exception.
“Lisa,” I stood and extended my hand to her.
“Thank you for meeting me at such short notice,” Lisa said. She shook my hand. “I have some, um, exciting information for you. There is someone you need to meet.”
Lisa’s eyes were wider than normal and her voice stuttered when she spoke.
What have you found? I thought.
“Follow me,” she instructed.
I turned behind me and picked up my large, leather purse off the seat where I had sat. Then I followed her down a different hallway than expected.
My black heels made a heavy clunk against the tile in the hall. I readjusted my tight, black blazer over my green top, and ran my fingers through my dark brown hair. I had no idea who I was about to meet, but I wanted to look presentable.
Lisa stopped ahead of me in front of a tall, metal door on the right side of the hall. She sighed heavily, making her shoulders heave upward and relax. She turned to face me.
“You’re not going to believe this,” she said.
She reached for the door and pushed on the handle. The door creaked and opened inward to the office room. Lisa stepped inside and I followed.
The office was a small, rectangular room. It had the same white tile as the hallway, but the walls were painted light blue. There was a rectangular desk in the middle of the room. On the back wall behind the desk was a square window.
An elderly man sat behind the desk. He had white, fluffy hair and round, wire-rimmed glasses on the tip of his pointy nose. He wore a white lab coat.
The man smiled when he saw me.
“Detective Alice Marks,” Lisa said. “This is Dr. Rousseau. He’s—”
“I’m from the future,” Rousseau said with a smile.
The awful, nervous, crack of a deep laugh escaped my mouth. I stood in front of this man, completely stunned by what he had just said.
“Excuse me?” I responded. That must have been a joke.
“Detective Marks,” Rousseau suggested, “you might want to sit down for this.”
I did not take my eyes off of Rousseau. I studied his expression carefully as I reached beside me for a chair. I grasped its cold metal arm and slid it underneath me, slowly.
Lisa turned around and shut the office door. She remained standing on my right side. She did not seem shocked by the information Rousseau had just presented.
“As I was saying,” Rousseau began. “I am from the future. I came here on a time traveling patent from the U.S. government. I have a very specific mission. And it just so happens to include you two.” He pointed at me and Lisa.
“Lisa,” I said. “Who is this man?”
“Dr. Rousseau is a colleague,” she explained. “We met a few months ago when he entered the department.”
She leaned in closer to me and whispered.
“I knew there was something kind of funky about him,” she said. “But I would’ve never suspected this.”
“I took a little while to gain her trust,” Rousseau continued. “I didn’t want to admit it too soon and scare her off. She is an extremely vital piece of this mission. Without her, we can’t complete it.”
“What mission?” I asked.
“I was getting to that,” Rousseau said. “As you are well aware, Marks, Lisa’s husband, Damon, died two years ago.”
“Yes,” I replied. “He was killed in a warehouse behind his workplace after hours. The weapon was found at his side with only his prints on it. It was written off as a suicide. There was not sufficient evidence that it could’ve been murder. His murder case was closed over it. That’s why Lisa called me. I seem to have kind of racked up a reputation for taking on particularly challenging cases.”
I didn’t say this to brag. I said it because many asked why I was on such a seemingly impossible case. But I had solved difficult cases like this before.
I started out in the police force, but I didn’t get to see enough time in the field. I finally switched to private detective work about three years ago.
I decided I would take up cases that had been previously closed or inconclusive. There were so many people out there whose lives had been rocked by tragedies that were never solved. I vowed to be someone who would help them as best as I could.
I gained a reputation for solving these types of cases. That’s why Lisa contacted me. Lisa was a friend, and I cared about her family. I didn’t know if I could really solve her case or not, but I agreed to do my best.
“My husband did not commit suicide,” Lisa barked.
“Lisa hired me to reopen the investigation of Damon’s death,” I said. “I’m searching for new evidence as to who killed him.”
“I can help with that,” Rousseau smiled. “In the future, we found evidence pointing to the notorious serial killer, Monty Hawthorne. It is believed that Damon was his first victim.”
“What?” I replied, stunned.
Monty Hawthorne worked as an investigator at the police department I was stationed at. I only ever met him once, though. He was fired for “undisclosed reasons” about a week after I had joined the squad.
“It’s true,” Lisa said. She gazed out the window straight ahead of her. “Listen to him, Marks, it makes sense.”
“Go on,” I said.
Rousseau smiled at me eerily. It was the kind of smile a young child gives their babysitter when they’ve snuck extra cookies.
“After Damon, Monty went on to kill dozens more people. We believe that if we can go back in time and stop him before Damon’s murder, then we can prevent all of the others that followed. It would only have a minor effect on history and in a positive way. We’ve poked holes in this plan in every way possible. Only positive outcomes have come out of it from every angle. That is why the government agreed to send me here.”
“Then why didn’t you just go straight back in time to when Monty killed Damon and stop the murder yourself?” I asked.
“We didn’t know the exact time of Damon’s death. We had to come back to this time to find that information. Now that I’m in this time frame, Damon’s death is the only one I can prevent.”
“Is that the only reason why you’re here?” I asked.
“This is where things get tricky,” Rousseau said. “See, we cannot alter such history without the consent of family members involved with the victims. Even though they will not remember that anything has been altered once it’s done, we can’t do such a thing without their present mind’s permission. We have consent from all except one.”
“Me,” Lisa reported. A single tear dripped down her face, leaving a smudge in her makeup in a straight line.
“Yes,” Rousseau said. “Lisa is her husband’s only remaining viable consent-giver in the future. However, she is not mentally sound in the future. She loses sanity over Damon’s death and becomes unstable to give consent. The only way to move forward with the mission was to come to this moment in time and get her permission while she is still of sound mind.”
Lisa wiped the tear horizontally across her face. It smudged her foundation even more, but she didn’t seem to mind.
“So,” I said, gently. “Lisa, does he have your permission?”
“Of course,” Lisa replied without looking at me.
“Then what are we waiting for?” I asked. “Go back two years and you can save him, Rousseau.”
“That’s the catch,” he said. He, too, turned and gazed out the window.
No one made eye contact with me. Lisa continued to sniffle and tried to cover the tears that poured down her face at every mention of her husband.
“Time travel is still an experimental technology,” Rousseau explained. “We have not yet figured out some things. For instance, how to travel to the past more than once. One person can only go backward in time, once. I’ve already used my past visit to come speak with you and gain Lisa’s consent. Someone else will have to go to the past from here to stop Monty.”
“It can’t be me,” Lisa said and shook her head. “I’ve already asked. Rousseau believes it is best that I stay here. I have two, young kids who can’t lose both parents. I’m also not a good emotional fit for the task.”
Now I understood what they were alluding to. It all made sense. I knew what Rousseau was going to say before the words left his lips.
“We want you to go, Marks,” he said.
I remained in my chair and sat silently while I contemplated this possibility. On the one hand, it would be incredible to time travel. It was my dream as a detective to solve a case like this. I would save not only Damon’s life, but dozens of others.
But on the other hand, time travel was experimental. There was probably no guarantee it would work, or that I could make it back safely.
Is it worth the risk? I wondered.
Lisa and Rousseau both turned to face me now. Lisa had stopped crying, and finished wiping the tears from her smudged face. Rousseau wore the same, odd smile as before.
“Okay,” I finally replied. “Okay, I’ll do it.”
Lisa’s distraught face cracked a slight smile. Rousseau clapped loudly and turned around.
“Wonderful!” he exclaimed.
He walked behind the desk again and grabbed a large, brown briefcase out from behind it. He grasped it tightly with his right hand. He rounded the desk to the front of the office.
“I will be back tomorrow to help execute the plan,” he said. “Sleep well tonight, Marks. You have quite the journey ahead of you!”
He exited the office and the door clunk shut behind him.
“There’s no need to fear, Marks,” Rousseau explained. “I mean I survived traveling to the past, so surely you will too!”
He chuckled in a low tone. Though Rousseau seemed plenty kind, he was very awkward and somewhat creepy. Maybe humans just get weirder in the future, I thought.
His words were anything but encouraging.
Rousseau, Lisa, and I were in Rousseau’s lab at the university now. The lab was a large room with white tile and gray walls. It had several rows of long tables in the middle.
The three of us stood at the front of the classroom where there would normally be an empty space for teaching. Now, that space was filled with a large contraption: the time machine.
The time machine resembled a salon-style hair drying station. It had a grey, cushy seat and a large overhanging bowl that was meant to cover the head of the time traveler. The bowl had several wires that dropped out of it. Each had a small, circular suction on the end to stick onto the time traveler’s head.
“Are you sure this is safe?” I asked.
Looking over this invention made my stomach do backflips.
“Well,” Rousseau lifted his hands in a questioning gesture. “Not really. But, again, I survived!”
My heart squirmed with every beat. I had never been so nervous in my life. This was the most incredible opportunity I would probably ever get. However, it was also the most terrifying. I had to face the fact that I might never make it back to this timeline. I could get stuck in the past and live the last two years of my life over again.
It’s so worth it, I thought. Think of the people you will save. This is what you’ve always worked for, to save people.
I slowly made my way into the chair. I sat down softly and carefully. My body pressed into the cushioned seat.
Rousseau lowered the bowl over my head and connected the wires onto my skin. They were cold and sticky.
“Oh, Lisa,” Rousseau said. “Could you bring me that remote?”
“Yes.” Lisa scrambled over to the left side of the room where a black, rectangular remote lay on one of the tables.
Lisa was maybe even more frazzled than I was. She shook with every step she took.
“Here’s the deal,” Rousseau explained. He turned to face me. “The machine works when you hit this button right here.” He pointed out a circular, green button in the middle of the small, black remote.
“When I hit this,” he continued, “the machine will work and you will blast back to the past. In order to return home, you must get back to the exact location where you arrive, and you will need to hit this same button. That is the only way the machine will know to bring you back. It responds to the remote no matter what time period you’re in.”
Rousseau handed the remote to me.
“Put this in your pocket to ensure that it travels with you,” he instructed.
I took the remote and tucked it tightly into my jean pocket.
“You should arrive in front of the Adell Inc. building,” Rousseau said. “That’s where Lisa’s husband worked. The warehouse behind it is where his body was found. Try to get to the warehouse as soon as you can.”
Lisa turned around to face the back of the room. She sniffled and raised her hand to her face. When she turned back around she was crying again.
“Just,” she said. “Just please save him. Save them all.”
She formed a small smile. Rousseau did the same and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs-up.
“You’re ready,” Rousseau said. “It’s time.”
“I’ll do my best,” I said.
I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.
I opened my eyes.
I reached into my jean pocket and clicked the small, round button on the remote.
The world around me spun into darkness.
I sat on a wooden bench in the middle of a park. I was not in the time machine chair anymore. I faced north toward the Adell Inc. company’s building. There was green grass all around the bench, and a thin, cement sidewalk that ran from right in front of my feet, to the front of the tall building before me. The building was at least ten stories high. It was cylindrical and had glass windows lining all around it.
Something protruded in my jean pocket. It pressed against my leg.
I reached into the tight pocket and wrapped two fingers around a small, rectangular object. I pulled it out.
It was the remote!
Did I make it? I wondered. Am I in the past?
I observed the environment around me once again. The grass was green and the sun was out, so it was still spring time. However, the last thing I remembered was being in the lab at the university, and now I was in front of the Adell building. Adell Inc. was located about thirty minutes west of the university, and only a few seconds had passed.
Lisa’s husband worked at Adell Inc., I remembered. Either it actually worked, or I just teleported!
I stood from the bench. There were people all around. Each seemed to walk in a hurry. Some had phones pressed tightly to their ears.
“Hi, honey,” a man who walked past me briskly spoke into his phone. “I’m going to be running just a little late for dinner tonight. Didn’t get off work as soon as I thought I would.”
Must be evening, I thought.
I checked my watch. It read five-thirty. When I had sat down in the time machine today it was only nine in the morning.
I really did time travel!
I walked quickly toward the Adell building. I knew from my prior investigations on this case that Damon was found dead in the warehouse behind Adell Inc. where he worked. I wasn’t sure if he’d be there now, or still at work. His time of death was somewhat uncertain. He wasn’t found until a few days later.
I decided to skip searching the Adell building. It was too big. Surely, by the time I got to wherever Damon might be, he would’ve already left.
I trudged up the sidewalk toward the right side of the building. I needed to head to the warehouse behind it.
The warehouse looked the same in the past as it did in the present. It was a large, metal, rectangular building. On the north end, it had five garage doors, and several semi-trucks parked outside of it on a large slab of concrete. The south end had wooden doors for workers to walk in and out from.
The warehouse was currently silent, and still. It must have closed earlier in the day. Not a soul was in sight.
Based on my previous investigation, I knew I needed to enter somewhere around the middle wooden door. That was the closest entrance to where Damon’s body was found.
I wanted to make myself scarce. If someone saw me snooping around the warehouse after hours, I would surely be stopped and might not make it to Damon in time. Also, I couldn’t alter anything but Monty and Damon. If anyone else saw me, it would change their history as well.
I paced toward a shiny blue semi-truck with a large, white back. It faced one of the large, commercial garage doors on the north end of the warehouse. I ran between it and the purple semi next to it. I pressed my back to the blue one and looked around. I still didn’t see anyone.
I listened carefully for the sound of any life. The only thing audible was the wind hissing and slapping at the metal building, and the beep beep of cars on the busy, city street nearby.
I leaned up from the semi and walked south toward the wooden doors. I didn’t see or hear anything. I headed for the middle wooden door. I approached it carefully.
Someone or something fidgeted with a metal object behind this door.
I hadn’t been a detective for all that long, but I knew the click clunk of loading a gun. I’d spent a lot of time on the shooting range.
I stood in front of the door with the muffled, metal noises. I took a deep breath. I pressed my right ear firmly against the wood.
It was definitely a gun.
You can do this, Alice, I told myself.
I reached for the belt on my waist and unclipped the small, metal gun of my own from it. I lifted myself from the door and took a step back. I raised the weapon in front of me. I gripped it tightly.
I reached up to the small, silver knob of the door. I grasped it firmly and jolted it to the right. I pushed through the door with all of my strength and burst into the building.
The room around me was dark except for the pool of light from the open door. The room was empty besides a handful of small, wooden desks. There was another door on the far wall in front of where I stood.
I reached for my belt again and unclipped my flashlight. I pressed the small, round button on the side of my flashlight. Its beam illuminated the room around me.
The clunking had stopped and I was engulfed by an eerie silence. I moved my light about the room, carefully. No one but myself appeared to be present. I crouched down and checked under every desk. I ran my flashlight over every wall, and in all of the corners. Not a soul was in sight.
I waved my light around the ground. The warehouse room had filthy cement floors. They probably hadn't been cleaned since they were laid. But there was something on the floors that caught my attention.
A track of large, muddy footprints led from the door I had entered through, to the door in front of me that appeared to lead further into the warehouse building. Whoever left them was in a hurry, too. The closer they got to the far door, the more smudged the print became. The distance between steps grew as well.
He was running, I thought.
I bent down into a crouch and ran my finger over one of the prints. The cold, wet mud stuck to the tips of my finger.
The mud is fresh.
I kept my light pointed to the ground and I followed the tracks toward the door on the far side of the room.
Something shiny caught the light and sparkled before me. I scanned my flashlight back over the area where the shimmer came from. It was in front of me toward the left. I walked over to it and knelt down for a closer look.
A small, silver cylinder lay on the cold, dirty ground. I picked up the little piece and examined it closely.
I knew those sounds earlier came from a gun. He must have dropped this while he scrambled to get out of the room when he heard me. There is no reason why anyone else would’ve had a gun on them at work in a warehouse.
I slipped the bullet into my pocket. It slid carefully next to the remote.
The remote! I can’t be altering anything!
I reached for my belt again and pulled out a pair of black gloves. If my fingerprints were traceable on this crime scene, I would be altering my own future! I slipped the gloves onto my hands.
Time to keep moving, I thought.
I pushed through the far door and entered farther into the warehouse building. I now stood in a huge, rectangular room. The walls were all metal. There were dozens of rows of packaged supplies that filled the middle of the room.
Someone could be hiding in here, easily.
I put my flashlight away. There was enough sunlight coming in that I could see without it. I held my gun back up in front of me and walked toward the first aisle of supplies.
My feet made tiny, padding noises on the cement ground with each step. I walked as slowly, and silently as possible through the first row of supplies. No one was there.
I rounded the corner at the end of the row and headed down the next row.
Something a few rows ahead of me fell from its shelf.
Thud, thud, thud!
Whoever knocked it down was sprinting away from the accident.
I took off running in the direction of the sounds. I ran down the aisle I was on and then rounded the corner, sharply. I headed straight against the back wall toward a few aisles up where I had heard the crashing when—
A man’s voice yelled from up ahead of me to the right.
I halted in my tracks.
“Who are you,” the man asked. “You’re not supposed to be here. We’re closed.”
“Oh yeah?” a deeper, eerie man’s voice rung out from ahead of me. The two must have faced each other. “If you’re closed, what are you doing here?”
“I work at Adell,” the man on the right explained. “I had to swing by and make sure our paperwork for the next shipment got signed by all the right people. We’re working on a new partnership and it’s important we get their shipment out tomorrow morning.”
“Whoa.” The man on the right’s voice filled with fear. “Take it easy, man.”
The gun! I realized.
I knew I needed to act fast. This was probably the moment! I had to intervene.
I ran to the end of the aisle as fast and as silently as possible, when—
I smacked head first into a tall man. It knocked the wind out of me and I flew backward. The room spun around me and I staggered a little trying to recover.
I had hit him with my gun when we rammed into each other, but it only poked him hard in the stomach. He stood a bit in front of me with his hand over his mild injury.
I looked him over. He was tall and thin. He looked young, too. He wore a navy business suit and his hair was slicked back.
This was not Monty, it was Damon.
His eyes widened when he saw he had rammed a girl with a gun.
“I am so sorry,” he whispered and scooted closer to me. “Are you okay?”
“Shhh…” I held my right index finger up to my mouth.
I motioned for him to get behind me. He did so, and I walked forward with my gun extended in front of me.
The thud, thud, thud, of Monty running echoed throughout the metal room. I couldn’t tell where exactly he was.
Damon and I made our way quietly down the next aisle. No sign of Monty. Then—
Monty’s face poked out from around the corner of the next aisle over. In front of his face was the gun!
Bullets flew all around Damon and me. They made little clinks as they hit the shelves and wall.
I ran toward the next aisle where Monty was, and Damon followed closely behind me.
We made it to the next aisle and Monty’s back was turned toward us.
For a split second I got a good look at him. He was at least six feet tall, had dark, scraggly brown hair, and wore a gray, tattered flannel shirt.
He heard us run toward him and he turned around swiftly.
I immediately ducked as Monty shot right above my head. Damon did the same. Monty quickly took off running in the other direction.
I forced myself to speed off after him. I gripped my gun out in front of me as I trotted after Monty. I could feel Damon close behind me.
Monty rounded another corner into a new aisle, trying to lose us. There was no quick exit from this room. The doors were all at the front and back of the room, and we were in a maze of aisles in the middle.
I can get him! I know it!
I rounded the corner as well and pushed my legs to move faster and faster. I gained speed on him in the aisle.
Monty rounded another corner only a few steps ahead of us when—
His ankle hit a metal box that poked out from the corner shelf and Monty fell to the ground. His gun went off as he lost his balance and he tumbled to the floor.
His gun fell to the ground as well, and slid in front of him.
He must have twisted his ankle because he didn’t get back up as we ran up on him. He simply slid on his stomach to reach for his gun. We got there first.
Damon ran ahead of me and picked up the weapon to get it out of Monty’s reach. I stood in front of Monty.
“You’re under arr—” I was cut off.
Monty gripped hard at my leg and pulled me down to the floor. I landed hard on my left arm. I tried to brace my fall, but my arm throbbed with the impact.
Monty slid his other arm up to my gun. I kicked his face in an attempt to get him away from it. It only deterred him, slightly.
Damon stood just ahead of us, pointing Monty’s gun at him. The rattle of the gun in his shaking hands stole my attention.
Monty grabbed at my hand once again. I pulled and pulled to get the gun away from him, but—
My gun fired.
A small, spurt of blood popped out from Monty’s shoulder. He fell away from me and grabbed his wound.
“Agh!” he yelled in agony.
He writhed on the ground in pain. A small pool of blood flowed from his shoulder. He would easily recover from such an injury, but he wouldn’t be getting up any time soon either.
I sat up and loomed over him. I cocked my gun and rested the front of it against his head.
“Don’t move or I’ll shoot,” I said.
Monty stopped squirming.
I grabbed at his arm and secured it in place. I unclipped the right handcuff and slid his wrist into it. I clasped it shut and did the same with his left.
“Monty,” I said. “You will be under arrest for breaking and entering as well as battery against an civilian.”
I looked up at Damon, who stood wide-eyed in shock over what had happened. He dropped Monty’s gun.
“What do I do?” he asked.
“Call 9-1-1,” I instructed. “Tell them he broke in. Tell them he had a gun and you were able to get it away from him. Explain that he shot at you and threatened your life. You shot in self-defense. They will see his gloves and understand why your prints are the only ones on the gun. They will believe you, Damon. This man is an ex-investigator. He was fired. He’s a dirty cop.”
Damon nodded his head, but still appeared fearful.
“Damon,” I continued. “Everything is going to be okay as long as you do exactly as I say. Most importantly, no one can know I was here.”
“Wait,” Damon said. “How do you know my name?”
I turned and prepared to leave.
“Call the police,” I said. “Tell them what I told you. They can’t know I was here. Trust me. I just saved your life, it’s probably the least you could do. Everything’s going to be okay now.”
I sat down on the exact same spot on the bench that I had arrived at earlier. I looked up at the darkening sky and smiled to myself.
I did it! No, Damon and I did it!
I wasn’t lying when I told him everything would be okay now.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the remote. I held it up and pressed my index finger firmly on the circular, green button.
The world around me spun once again.
“Welcome back, Marks.” Rousseau smiled over me.
My head still spun a little. I looked around. I was back in the lab from earlier. I sat in the cushy time machine chair and the wires were still attached to my head and face.
Rousseau removed the suctioned wires and lifted the bowl off of my head.
“You did it,” Rousseau said.
“I did,” I said. “Where is Lisa?”
“She’s at home with her husband and kids,” Rousseau replied. “She has no idea any of this ever happened. All of the used-to-be victims should be safe now thanks to you. The whole world has no idea who Monty was, other than a burglar and attempted murderer who was arrested before he could do more damage.”
“Is that why Monty was fired from the police department?” I asked. “Was it because of the burglary?”
“So, Lisa,” I said. “Did she just disappear when I fixed everything in the past? Because she was right here with you when I left.”
“It was interesting,” Rousseau replied. He turned and looked at a notebook on a lab table. “The world sort of shuddered for a moment. Then Lisa was gone. You and I are the only people who will ever know that the world was ever different. We are the only two who time traveled. I went to the kind lady at the front desk and asked where Lisa had gone. She told me she left to go make dinner for Damon and their kids about an hour before.”
I was so relieved that Damon was safe. They were all together and no one knew anything had ever happened.
“So,” I said. “What happens now?”
“Well,” he replied. “I’ll go back to the future. No one there will remember any of this happened either. I’ll take the time machine with me,”
“How?” I asked.
“If I harness myself into it and it will travel through time with me, like that remote. If there is ever another case like this, I will present the machine again and hopefully save some more lives. I hope it never comes to this again, but hey, at least we know it works!”
“Very true,” I nodded. “Rousseau?”
“Yes?” he asked.
“If it ever comes down to it again, will you find me in the future?” I asked. “I want to help again and I will still remember all of this.”
“Of course I will,” Rousseau said.