Short fiction and serialised novellas of GJ Fairlamb

Archive for February 2014

Pinwheel 1: Tessa Makes a Mistake

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Posts will be spotty around here for a while (pushing myself to finish a draft of a book before the 18th, then I’m going on a birthday holiday) but I’ll try to get another Stranger Tales out on Wednesday.

Anyway, this week’s Savage topic was “It’s about time,” or just “Time.” We have so many new members that we have to be strict on wordcount in order to fit everyone in, so it was stressed that our pieces should be 800 words, no longer than 1000.

….and I came up with an epic time-travel story that will probably be novella-length if I get it all down.


I didn’t bring anything in the end, but I thought I’d share the beginning of this tale, maybe even serialise it up here like with Riverboats, after I have other pieces out of the way. We’ll see how things go.

This piece is a sequel of sorts to Deite, so you might want to read that first.



January 28th, 1931

Pinwheel Club, New York.

The rain lashes off the canopies. John pulls his collar tight around his neck as they step out the car. Sam’s cane ripples the puddles as he walks to the basement steps of the Pinwheel Club. John follows him down, wary that Sam might fall on the wet stairs. Sam never falls.

The club is nearly empty. Bert, the owner, looks up from his seat and spots them at the door. He rises to his feet with a smile.

‘Good to see you, Sam,’ he says, shaking Sam’s free hand, his left hand. His eyes cross to John.

‘This the one?’ he says with a nod.

‘The same,’ Sam says, taking off his hat. He reveals a high hairline, a youthful face clutching on to a few boyish freckles, and a patch crossing over his right eye. The few other patrons glance up, then glance down. One-eyed Sam is a regular here.

Bert nods to a back table, half-hidden by the stage curtains, and they follow him. John pulls his coat tight again as he walks, eyeing the people around. He sits last at the table, all flapping coat tail and fidgeting collar.

Bertram Blessed, owner of the Pinwheel Club, and connoisseur in forgotten and unwanted things, rests his chin on his knuckles as he watches John sit. Bertram has a long face, a Roman nose, and the kind eyes of an elderly bloodhound. He gives John a half-supportive smile, and John quickly returns his gaze to the table.

‘What’s your tale, son?’ Bert asks. He is not an old man, by any means – likely only a decade or so older than John – but he calls every man younger than him “son” as a habit.

John says nothing.

‘Family trouble,’ Sam says. ‘Brother got turned in for the last time. I used to play ball with Al back in the day – helluva pitcher, but dumb as rocks, ‘specially when it comes to money. Rest of them are either dead or bust. John came to me as a last chance for to get a job – and believe me, that took him long enough.’

‘What made you think the one-eyed man could help?’ Bert asks John. John glances to Sam’s chair – to the leg that’s wasted to half the size of the other one, masked by the folds of his suit pants.

He mutters, ‘Reckon ebony canes don’t grow on trees.’

Bert looks like a schoolmaster who has heard a correct answer.

‘So,’ he says, turning back to Sam. ‘You think he has potential.’

‘I know it,’ Sam says. Unconsciously, he adjusts the patch over his eye.

‘You seen anything yet?’ Bert asks.

‘I might be too close to see,’ Sam says, ‘but a voice’s whispering something I can’t make out, and sometimes it seems like air spirals into him and never comes away.’

Bert tugs his tie loose. John fidgets and considers bolting.

‘Let’s see what it is, then,’ Bert says, pulling his tie over his head. He holds it out to John.

‘Sorry, son,’ he says. ‘Best if you don’t see this part.’

It is a red silk tie. John takes it in hand and wonders how much it’s worth. But then, it’s the difference between a few dollars from a stolen tie, and hundreds of dollars for work – no matter what that work is. That’s the kind of thing Al never thought of.

John puts the tie over his eyes and pulls it tight.

‘Hands on the table, son.’

He does as told. A chair scrapes closer. Freezing cold fingers grab his left arm, and push his sleeve up past the elbow. One hand holds his wrist like it is taking his pulse, and the other runs up the inside of his forearm, stopping to press on the elbow. Within seconds, his entire arm feels numb.

John hears the door to the club open and shut, and the last few murmurs of people die away, leaving only silence.

He hears Sam take a gasp.

Bert exhales a long, warm breath. The grip on John’s arm relaxes, and the icy fingers leave his skin. Sam coughs and shuffles as Bert tells John he look again.

John rips away the tie and glances at the men on either side of him. Sam is readjusting his eyepatch with nervous hands. Bert fiddles with his shirt cuff. He does not speak until he has donned and straightened his tie.

‘Sam?’ he asks.

Sam looks at the polished table top, frowning. His freckles make him look too young, as if his eyepatch is a play at Treasure Island and the cane a make-believe sword, as if he is far out of his depth in this bar, in this city, in this time.

‘I don’t know,’ he replies. ‘I saw…I saw a lot of things, what I don’t understand. Glass towers taller than the Chrysler Building. Negro girls cooking stew. A metal ring big as a city, lying under the ground. Glowing lights and guns…I dunno, Bert. I didn’t get it.’

Bert examines John. Just your usual poor kid, with pants too short for his legs and a patched-up jacket. Strange things sometimes come from nothing, he guesses. He leans back in his chair and turns to Sam.

‘I’m not surprised. He’s the biggest magnet I’ve ever seen.’

Sam gives John a sly smile.

‘Hear that? All the girls–’

‘You know what I mean,’ Bert says, with a sudden scowl. When he smiles, he looks weak, but when he scowls, he is terrifying. ‘This kid draws everything to him – trouble, success, you name it – like a magnet. It’s like time itself is gonna stop and swirl around him like a drain.’

John doesn’t understand what he means, but he considers bolting again.

‘So what does this mean, then? Can you do anything with that?’ Sam says.

Bert nods. He looks pleased.

‘It’ll be like handling a bomb, Sam – but there’s plenty I can do with one like him. I’ll just need to think on it a while. In the meantime, bring him back tomorrow, and I’ll get him started on grunt work.’

Sam nods, and takes his cane in hand. John doesn’t realise they are leaving at first, and he nearly forgets to say goodbye and thanks to Bert as he scrambles up and after Sam.

The club is empty, except for one girl hanging about near the bar. Bert must have it good, John thinks.

‘So what does he want me to do?’ he asks Sam, as they make for the door.

‘No idea. Bert has his own plans, projects, ways of doing things. I’d wager he’ll get something big riding on you, though.’

‘I dunno,’ John says, tugging his coat collar as they step out into the rain. ‘I don’t get this whole occult mumbo-jumbo, but if it pays, it pays.’

‘Oh, he’ll pay,’ Sam says, cane tapping through the puddles. ‘Bert always pays.’

‘Jeez,’ John says, glancing back at the club. ‘And he gets all this money from liquor?’

Sam smiles to himself as he waits for his driver to open the door.

‘Some of it.’

John follows him into the car.

‘And the rest?’ he asks, after he shuts the door.

‘If you get in tight with Bert, then maybe I’ll tell you,’ Sam says, readjusting his bad leg. ‘I doubt you’d believe me if I told you now.’

John looks at Sam’s leg, and cane, and patch again.

‘You got patience I don’t have,’ he says.

‘You’ll learn,’ Sam replies, as they drive off.

Back in the club, Bert walks away from their hidden table, and spots the girl at the bar. For a second, his face lights up at the sight of her fur-trimmed jacket and blond hair, but it is quickly replaced by disappointment as he realises he does not recognise her.

She turns. She is young, and pretty, with bobbed hair under her cloche hat. With a wide smile, she walks up to him and puts her hand out.

‘Hi! Are you Mr Bert? I’m Tessa.’

Her manners are gauche, and her loud accent sounds fake. He eyes her hand, walks past her and takes his seat by the bar. Her eyebrows twitch in annoyance, but she follows him, and pushes herself up onto the counter opposite his seat, legs swinging like a child.

‘I was hoping to talk to you. See, I need to find someone, and you’re the only one I know who can help me.’

‘I have a charge for consulting,’ he says, picking up his paper.

‘This isn’t consulting, this is a favour for a friend. Besides, you don’t need the money. I should know – I make it like you do.’

He looks up at her to gauge her meaning. She grins like a Cheshire cat. From her pocket, she draws a gold-chained necklace, with a medallion shaped like a spokewheel.

Bert puts the paper aside. The necklace is his. It has been seven months since he saw it last.

He considers what to say, and whether he can afford to accuse her of its theft.

‘That’s a dangerous toy you have there,’ he finally says.

‘It was given to me by a friend,’ Tessa says, pocketing the necklace. ‘Who told me to make sure it doesn’t end up in the hands of a certain associate of yours.’

‘I have many associates,’ Bert says.

‘I was told the term “magnetism” is used with this one. Does that help?’

Bert says nothing. It seems ominous to him that this should happen the same night he meets John, and he is extremely aware that if he does or says anything, he might cause unknowable trouble.

Tessa waits for his reply. When nothing comes, she looks around the empty club, as if expecting to see more. Her eyes slide across the newspaper, and she tilts her head to read it.

‘Wait. It’s January?’

Bert nods. Tessa jumps off the counter and grabs the newspaper, double-checking the date in the corner.

‘Ohhhh crap,’ she says. She pulls up her jacket to reveal a digital sportswatch. Her accent slips back to Scottish. ‘January, not February! How did I miss that? But – you do know him? You have met him? John, I mean?’

Bert, after a moment of consideration, nods again.

‘He left a minute ago.’

‘Shit!’ Tessa says. She runs to the door, pauses, and turns back.

‘Forget I was here, okay? Forget everything!’

She is gone before Bert can react.


March 10th, 2004

Paradise Island, Nassau

George stands in the doorway, the turquoise sea shining beyond him, the warm breeze drifting in past his naked body. Tessa watches him from the bed and admires how skinny his arms and legs are compared to the solid block of his torso. Gangly alien man, she thinks. It makes her smile, because she has never loved anyone more.

He turns back and sees her.

‘What’s so funny?’ he smiles.

‘Nothing,’ she says. ‘Just watching you show yourself off to the world. I didn’t know you were such an exhibitionist.’

He walks back inside, and as he approaches the bed he sings:

Tessa, say oh Tessa, I’ve got something to confess-a…

He jumps on her. She giggles as he pins her down and kisses her. They married a few days ago, in 1952 – small weddings were not unusual then, the license was cheap, and Tessa has always had a thing for full-skirted dresses. He refused to go to Disneyworld, so they settled on a honeymoon in the Bahamas instead – but not before a stop at Broadway.

She wriggles away to the pile of clothes on the floor and he flops onto the bed. A sudden unease has come over her, which can only be countered by assuring herself that it is still there: the spokewheel necklace, tangled around her sandal straps. She runs her thumb over the spokes, and George runs his hand over her back.

‘Think you’ll ever get tired of jumping about in time?’

‘Nope!’ she says, dropping the necklace and turning to him. ‘Never.’

The sun is flush on his face, and there is an eternity between now, and having to return to 1931. She was trusted with a mission, but as long as she stays away from her original timeline’s location, and never crosses path with herself, she can literally spend a lifetime having fun. That is exactly what she intends to do.

‘Think you’ll ever get tired of eating my happiness?’ she asks George, stroking his face.

‘Never,’ he says. ‘It’s like eating cake every day but never feeling sick. Think you’ll ever get tired of eating my dreams?’

‘If they don’t become less filthy,’ she says, beeping his nose. It’s a lie – his dreams are perfectly normal right now – but he can’t remember any once she’s eaten them, so she can say whatever she wants. She’ll tell him the truth eventually, but for now it’s fun to tease.

He kisses her again, and they honeymoon for months.


September 8th, 1930

Pinwheel Club, New York

The club is heaving tonight. Bert has his hands full just trying to greet his friends, let alone talk to anyone, so he defers all invitations to converse as he works the room. Until Hans grabs his arm and says in his ear, ‘I have some news for you.’

Hans is built like a barn and his grip is like steel, so Bert can’t resist. Hans pulls him to the wall and gets directly to the point.

‘Do you remember that boy in Queens – the one who had his eye torn out?’

‘I remember,’ Bert says. It wasn’t the eye loss that had intrigued him, though – it was the injury to the boy’s leg. Hans had said the muscle wasted away overnight. Something foul was afoot with that, everyone knew it, but when the attacker was gone and the boy knew nothing, what could they do?

‘They say that now, he begins to see out of the eye that is gone. Visions of the future and the past.’

They share a glance. Bert knows the ramifications for himself could be dire, if the boy sees more than he should.

‘Interesting,’ he says. ‘Give him my card, and tell him I’d like to see him. Make a point of how well I pay my friends. Understand?’

Hans understands everything said and unsaid. With a nod, he leaves, and Bert returns to working the room.

It is later, when the early-nighters trail home and the dedicated drinkers move to other bars, that the dying crowd reveals her. She is alone at a table in the centre of the room, sipping her wine and gazing ahead with the perfect poise of a duchess. The red of her gown complements the pale gold of her hair. The flat waves of her bob make her regal nose seem even larger in comparison.

At the sight of her, Bert’s heart swells in his chest.

Her heavy-lidded eyes rise, and see him.

He cannot go to her, not in front of everyone. He turns, and talks, and continues on for the next hour, always acutely aware of her presence. It is a relief when he can disappear into the backroom for business, yet the second she is out of sight, he wishes he could see her, to reassure himself that she is still there.

At the end of the night, after the last patron has slammed the door, there remains only the two of them, sitting across from each other at that centre table.

It feels like a lifetime since he last saw her. He should have swept her in his arms the moment she appeared, as he would have done in summer. But he sees it in her eyes – she has rebuilt the protective wall around herself, and retreated with her secrets behind it, and perhaps only more and more time will wear it down again until he can reach her.

She does not look at him now. Her eyes are on her drink, hands clasped like a nun.

‘Where have you been?’

‘Around,’ she says.

He looks away and covers his mouth. Three months of fear – and the exhaustion of hiding that fear – threaten to overwhelm him.

She watches her wine a moment longer, then stands.

‘Let’s go home.’

He nods, and trails after her.


Written by G.J.

08/02/2014 at 5:12 pm