When I turn up at the modest seaside home of the man who used to be Detective Lockley, and who retired four years ago as Detective Inspector Lockley after an impressive career, I’m thinking, here I am visiting a retired policeman to learn all about breaking and entering a mysterious house. I’m here to learn how to be a criminal and get away with it.
Lockley’s wife is all smiles, a slight stoop about the shoulders, an insistence that I call her Liz, and a demand that I tell her exactly how I like my coffee, and an assurance that she’s not only done a professional barista course but a revelation that she has a two-thousand-dollar industrial coffee machine in her sparkling kitchen. The sort of kitchen where you also have a scullery–and it makes sense that you have one.
She shows me into the living room where the retired inspector sits, slumped over a little, listing to port, in his wheelchair, using a large pair of binoculars with his steady right hand, an impressive feat of strength, staring out a huge picture window with a magnificent view across the restless grey sea. It’s a grim day outside. Inside, too.
He puts the glasses down in his blanketed lap, and executes a quarter turn in the electric chair. “Here,” he says, reaching under his blanket with his right hand. He produces a small object and tosses it to me. I catch it before I see what it is. The three pops from the bubble-wrap as I grab it out of the air seem to shoot across a gulf of time. As I look at what I’ve caught, and see it again for the first time since I was fifteen, I feel dizzy, like I might fall down. I fall into a lounge chair, staring at this fabulous artefact.
“It’s yours,” Lockley says to me, his speech surprisingly clear and precise for a man who’s had a stroke. “You gave it to me to put it in evidence, but I never did. It was only ever in my desk drawer. It was never evidence of anything, not that you could present in court. It was something that had fallen out of time. I often stared at it, and kept expecting you to turn up, asking for it back, but you never did. But then I heard that you’d been abducted, and that was definitely odd. Everything about you is odd, eh? And now here you are, lost, found, all at once, right here on the Axminster.”
“Please don’t ask me where I was.” Even saying that, I can feel the channel dial in my head rotating with a chunking sound around towards channel 5a. I can hear the static starting up. I can feel the tension. Sweat on the back of my neck.
Liz brings me a coffee. It’s pretty good, but I barely taste it. I’m distracted.
“I saw you wrote a book, about your life.”
“I did. Attempted exorcism. But I think it only made the problem worse.” The book, STATIC, was a memoir I had published several years back. It was excruciatingly hard work, and was the labour of many years. Reports I read of the agony of climbing Everest sound familiar. Approaching the face of the noise, the screaming vortex, deliberating triggering the armed fight/flight response, followed by the shame, the embarrassment, wanting to disappear, to abase myself. That was me every morning trying to approach the event horizon of the original memory of my captivity. What happened, who did it, why did it happen, why can’t I remember it? Why is the whole thing eating my life? Where do I go to lodge a complaint?
“Would you mind signing my copy?”
“You’re the guy who bought one?”
He grins and whirs back into his study, but then he needs Liz to reach down a book on a high shelf. Liz is cooking something exotic she’s just learned in an expensive course, but she allows herself a few minutes away from the hob and her four ovens. Soon Lockley whirs back and hands me a copy of my book,with its startling cover design featuring endless spirals taking you ever-further into the design. Somehow, no matter long you stare, you never seem to get to the centre. It’s disturbing, and you can’t look at it for too long.
Lockley hands me a fountain pen, and allows me to take the cap off. I ask him if there’s anything he’d like me to say.
“Catch the bastard who killed the poor bastard in your bedroom that time. Still an open case, unsolved. If anybody can nut it out, it’ll be you. And find the poor bastard kid, too. If you find him, bring him round for afternoon tea. We’d love to see him.”
Normally people either have no idea what to say, or just want you to say, “Best wishes.”
I hand his book back. It’s nice to see it again, to be reminded of a life where I’m functional despite and can do important work. The thing about seeing yourself as damaged, broken and sick is that you buy into the related idea that you’re incapable of work. Perhaps some work, sure. But you might be surprised at what you can do.
He reads the inscription, delighted. “Thank you. That’s a proper feather in me cap.”
I’m glad, and doubly glad for the lengthy diversion in the conversation. I’m sure his sharp mind will back on the case in mere moments. So I start. “I have, in controlled, supported settings, equipped with psychology team, attempted to regress through the static and into the day of the abduction. They even tried a radical, lateral idea. There was a good witness on the day, a schoolgirl named Eleanor Irving, and they regressed her to the moment and through they obtained much more useable data that checked out.”
Saying all this has made my backside clench and my torso is locked tight as I stare at the floor. I’m in a highly pre-deployment “Orange Alert” status. Watching and observing local condition for trouble potential.
“You were a decent guy–” I finish my coffee and put the cup and saucer down before my shaking, sweaty hands break something. “From when I was a kid. You were a decent guy. You didn’t talk down to me because I was a kid.”
He manages a warm, fatherly sort of half-smile, despite the distortion in his face. “Thanks. It’s Policeman Rule Number One, the first thing they teach you on Day One. Rapport with witnesses and especially with victims. Make it understood you are with them one hundred percent. No matter what. And whoever they are. Even if they’re a scared, depressed, mixed-up teenage screw-up sloping around in unlaced black unlaced desert boots. The law is on even your side. No-one else is, but we are.”
Every cell in my body wants to believe him. But every cell in my body thinks a betrayar at best and a cynical manipulator at worst. That he’s trying to get something from you. That sure he’ll show how to break into that house, and then make sure the local cops know you’re there to make the bust.
And each side is, in my head, equally believable. I can’t decide.
I came to see Lockley for some break and enter advice, but now there’s so much more going on with me. I am sitting on my hands and rocking back and forth, and I’m sweating buckets. I feel as if I could kill this man and no jury would convict me. My blood is fizzing with fight/flight adrenaline. I have to leave here soon. I can’t stay if he’s going to persist with these questions. I can’t bear it.
He knows I’m in distress, and looks in some distress himself. “Look, I am sorry. It’s just, since reading your book, I’ve done some research. There are other people out there like you. People who in the 60s and 70s had experiences similar to yours, and after-effects like yours. Their minds slowly being consumed by this sense of mindless, thoughtless panic, or static, as you call it. There are two people with homicide convictions because of it.
“The fundamentally important message here is this, okay? It’s not just you. You are not the only victim. There are others.”
This cuts through the noise. It gets my attention. I stop rocking, and I look at him. “Explain.” I can hardly speak I am in such shock. There is no moisture in my mouth.
He drives his chair away into his study. He calls out, asking if I have a secure email address, or a secure document drop facility. I think to myself, “I like ice cream and puppies”. I tell him my iiNet email address. He reappears after a moment, some papers in his lap. When he gets to me he hands them to me. It’s all small, intense-print stuff from what looks like conspiracy-theory websites that would love to be Wikileaks when they grow up.
I notice, highlighted throughout those pages, “mind-control”, “MK-ULTRA”, and “MK-ULTRA was a well-studied failure, but it also seems like the sort of high-profile failure that conceals the deep-secret successful program behind it”.
I must have let my skepticism show perhaps a little too obviously. The former Detective Inspector Lockley sat watching me, his head tilted over just slightly, a wry smile playing about his mouth, and the stroke paralysis somehow only made that wry effect work harder. He was in his element. You could see the cop in him, interviewing dubious suspects, unaware of the trap they were in, of just how many steps Lockley was ahead of them. He watched me, and I read bits of this stuff, and I felt my brain flinching away from it in horror, bunching up at the back of my skull. Because this was nuts, and I could tell. I knew about nuts. I had been to nuts and I had the pen with the drug name on it.
“You could call it that. Mind-weapons. Psychological warfare. Rogue operators using a supply of extremely illegal drugs that should have been used only only only by doctors in military psy-ops programs. Kids doing donuts in a stolen jeep on a footy oval in the middle of the night, is what happened to you and the others like you.”
“The thing that’s eating your mind. That. It’s a psy-op weapon. It’s a thing that a drug company built to military specifications. Amongst other things, in certain configurations and dosages, it can make sure that secret things stay secret and non-disclosure agreements do what they say on the tin.”
I look at these papers. I can’t read anything. My eyes, my brain, refuse to understand. The entire thing is absurd. Suddenly, in the course of admittedly a kind of weird life, a Tom Clancy novel has leaned down into the frame from somewhere far above to say, “Roger that, I am eyeballing your bogey!” and then leaned back up and away again.
Liz makes me another fortifying coffee, and again I fail to notice anything about it. The noise in my head is so loud, so intense I’m surprised it’s not making my eyeballs burst out of my face. I can’t hear anything. I want to leave because I think I’m going to be sick.
I’m still holding the bubble-wrapped iPhone 7. It’s thirty-eight years old, give or take. I think about taking it to the Perth Apple Store to tell them a funny story.
I have to find the boy.
I have to stop my own earlier self.
I think about Fiona, the many versions of Fiona. She is many things, but she is in the end a regular, mortal woman whose main thing is that she’s angry and has access to time travel. That’s it. Oh, wait, no. She can also jump timelines. All that aside, she’s not someone who might suddenly find herself a crate of illegal psychological warfare weapons or whatever the damned things are. She might well buy things on eBay, but she would probably draw the line at mind-control.
I think about my original purpose in coming to see Lockley. I ask him for help with breaking into the property in Trigg Beach. I explain the job to him, how it’s tied up with his finding years ago of Fiona’s car at that address.
“The first bit of advice is the most important,” he says right away, amused. “Don’t get caught.”
I indicate that I am duly amused. He goes on.
“Wear black. Gloves, beanie. Penlight torch. At the property find the fuse box and turn off all circuits, including security systems. Go at night. Watch out for dogs. Dogs can be nasty.”
I think of Zonk and what happened to her, and what nearly happened.
He goes on. “How are you on entry technique?”
I stare at him. “I’m a writer.”
“Are you sure you need to do this?”
“Doubts? Doubts will get you killed, let alone caught.”
I have not considered this. “I have doubts.”
“You’re not much of a crim, are you, son?”
“I’m not trying to be a crim. I just want to help my younger self feel better.”
My doubts vanish just like that. I thank the former Inspector Lockley and Liz, and disappear into the evening, to draw up my plans.
When I get back in the car, I pull out the folded ransom not from Fiona, and read it again. I think to myself, Are you really doing this? And I think, I have to do this. Doing this is the only way to fix everything else. It’s the only way to help the boy.
I grab my phone, and put in Fiona’s number.
It rings, but then goes through to voicemail.
“Bloody hell, Fiona. Look, this is me, Rob. Trying to call you, about the boy. I got your lovely note. Tonight is the 13th, remember? I’d have thought you’d be waiting by the phone, but maybe you’re not serious.”
I kill the line and head home. I pull up in the driveway, and my headlights show a woman who can only be a middle-aged, overweight, defeated-looking Fiona sitting on my front step with a small wheelie bag. As I get out of my car and come close, she gets up and I can see she’s been crying, her eyes puffy and red. She looks a dreadful mess. I want to ask her what the hell happened to her, but I dare not. My Fiona had always been lean and fit, ran half-marathons, lived at the gym, not that it did her any good in the end.
I invite this Fiona inside. I make her something to eat. I make up the couch for me to sleep on, and put fresh sheets and pillow-slips on the bed for her. I ask her no questions. Several times that evening she goes to explain, to tell me things, but each time I stop her. “Tell me tomorrow. Tonight, just have something to eat, a shower, and a decent sleep. You look like hell. Tomorrow’s a new day. We can talk then.”
And I’ve been sitting here writing in my notebook since.
What do I do now?
Something in Fiona’s world has gone badly wrong. All evening I’ve been right on the point of asking her straight-out, “Is he dead?” Because I really don’t care about much else now. And if he is dead, I can rewind time and try and save him, once I know where he is. I also feel like she would have told me straight out, first thing, that he was dead, if he were.
It’s so weird seeing another Fiona. It’s like seeing my Fiona’s mother! Enough of a resemblance, but the age difference is quite high. My Fiona was only 43 when she died, and thin, wasted, burned away. This Fiona is at least as old as I am and possibly older.
The poor woman. I can’t imagine how it must have been for her losing her Rob that way. She knew he was deathly ill with depression, that he was thinking those thoughts, that they were calling him, that he wanted to go. But she didn’t think he would do it. She went to that conference, and believed he would be here still when she came home. Only four days. But when you’re depressed at that scale, four days is like four million years. Four infinities laid end to end. It’s pointless even to discuss. Four days is too long to be on your own, unsupervised, with access to tools and Bunnings, and you’re having those thoughts. In the books they call it ideation, the idea of suicide. An idea can kill you.
This Fiona, even with her own understanding of depression, the illness and ideation and the whole thing, still thought he’d be okay for four days. He had his family, and other friends. She thought he would be strong enough in her absence. I don’t know what to think. She’s a woman prepared to torture a boy, and murder me. But also prepared to turn up on my doorstep for help in a crisis.
She’s snoring, and I am glad. This is not remotely the meeting between us I imagined. The way things were going I imagined something more epic, a bit more Bond-meets-the-hot-Female-Assassin, sort of thing. And be wearing a computer-generated cape with a kinky mind of its own, and it would all be awesome. Fiona was not meant to show up looking like she needed a place to crash for a few days because the women’s crisis shelter was full. This Fiona looked as dangerous as cold leftover pizza that’s been in the fridge a day or two too long.
Then again, it occurs to me, none of us look our best when rolling around in the sweaty, hairy nutsack of existence, now do we, sport? There have been many days when we’ve been grotesquely fat, requiring airline painting staff on cherry-pickers to paint us into clothes each day. And there are days, following a run of terrible eating choices when we have looked as if we were infested with rare forms of fungus. When we’ve worn the same set of pyjamas, not taken them off, for an entire work week.
Did I mention I’m a writer?
I make a simple breakfast and take it straight in to her without knocking. I forgot to knock, I just used my foot to push the door open.
She’s using a razor on her upper thigh, crying, covering her eyes. “Go. Just go!”