In spite of herself, Laura was getting to like Carlos from the key-cutting desk. Like like. It was weird. In her other life as the superhero Voyager, Laura spent much of her days hanging around with some of the most desired men on the planet. Tall, handsome, toned… Usually they had cool jobs, like international ace reporter, test pilot or CEO and they somehow managed to keep hold of these positions in spite of only checking into the office when they felt like it.
And yet Laura found that she had not taken to any of them. Perhaps it was the way they were always gritting their teeth and narrowing their eyes at the slightest provocation. But then again, perhaps it was the way their wives and girlfriends were always being kidnapped. It was kind of a red flag.
Carlos, though… little, funny, flabby Carlos from the key-cutting counter… He would talk non-stop for minutes until the penny dropped that he was being rude, then suddenly blush and fall silent. He always ate the home-cooked Filipino meals his mother made for him, even though she wasn’t a good cook. He got this look when he was cutting keys, like he was a scientist watching some brilliant new creature under a microscope, rather than looking at something he’d seen a million times… She really was getting to like him.
The two of them were sitting in the break room, wolfing down lunch. Laura had adjusted her break schedule to synchronise with his without even realising it. God, did she have it that bad already?
Carlos was talking non-stop again, this time about why the second season of Daredevil wasn’t as good as the first one. Involuntarily, Laura’s eyes flicked to the cheap plastic clock above the sink. Carlos reddened and stammered to a halt.
“But what did you think of it?” he said.
“I didn’t see it.”
“Oh, sorry, I gave so many spoilers!”
“Don’t worry. I probably won’t see it. I’m not into superhero stuff. Too unrealistic!”
Carlos laughed. “It’s supposed to be unrealistic!”
Laura shook her head. The plastic clock said that it was time to go back to work, but she didn’t want to go. She didn’t think she’d have much choice though, because right then Marlon entered.
“Hey gang,” he said. He took a cigarette packet from his jacket, then remembered that Ms Shan had reinstated ‘no smoking’. He sighed as deeply as a man whose favourite football team had disowned him. “Oh, Carlos, you remember I was telling you about the missing pulleys?”
Laura froze. Damn it, why hadn’t she gone back to work while she’d had the chance? She sat as still as she could and stared at her empty keep-cup, trying not to let her culpability show.
“Yeah, you and everyone else,” Carlos said. “Six days a week? All the pulleys you could eat. Then they all just vanish. Poor Mr Williams, he comes in on his only day off looking for them, but they’re never there.”
“Yeah, well you’ll never guess who buys them,” Marlon said.
He looked at Carlos expectantly. Carlos responded with a polite smile.
“Well?” Marlon said.
“You just said I’d never…”
“That’s a challenge, not a statement of fact,” Marlon pouted. “The answer is, they’re being purchased by Clint Bryan.”
Was Laura going red? Oh God, she could feel herself turning red. She willed herself to stay as still as she could. She was sure that both of her co-workers could see guilt written all over her, yet somehow they didn’t say anything. Why? Why were they torturing her like this?
“Clint Bryan?” Carlos said. “The billionaire playboy whose parents were murdered all those years ago? Who lives with his male teenage ward and never marries those society ladies he’s always and yet, in some indefinable way, is very definitely heterosexual? That Clint Bryan?”
“Not him personally,” Marlon said. “Someone using his corporate credit card. Ms Shan finally let me have a look at the credit card records, though I can’t tell whether it’s Bryan himself or someone with a secondary card for his account. Once a week he comes in and buys every pulley in the place.”
Laura ground her teeth with a force that could cleave titanium as Carlos asked the obvious question: “So has one of the checkout operators seen…”
“No,” Marlon said. “The transaction always goes through the self-serve checkout. Except one time when Belinda rang it all up. But you know Belinda.”
“Yeah I know Belinda. That’s weird. That’s all seriously weird,” Carlos laughed. “At least someone’s buying them, not stealing them. I had my money on it being some new gang initiation. ‘Steal all the Handy Pavilion’s pulleys and join the Bloody Dagger Gang, or whatever.”
Laura stood. She knew how unnaturally she was moving, as she willed every limb to act normally. God, this was so stupid, so embarrassing. But if what her future self had said was true… No, it wasn’t worth thinking about.
The boys grunted some goodbyes as she crept out of the break room. Whatever. She didn’t have time for manners either. By the entrance to Lawn Care, Axel Platzoff was arguing with a big man in glasses. It wasn’t like Axel to get emotional in front of a customer — though the customer didn’t seem put out. And yet, when the bespectacled man looked at Laura, he gave her a mean look. Laura could hardly bring herself to care.
Keep the pulleys away from the lumpy looking Mr Williams, that’s what the Laura from the future had said. It was so much harder than it sounded. She’d tried losing boxes at first, but there was only so long that could go on before anyone noticed. She knew Clint Bryant–aka Doctor Justice–through the Vigilancers and he’d lent her his credit card. Laura could buy a million pulleys before it affected Clint’s bottom line.
No, the problem wasn’t the money, it was the store. Hardware stores need pulleys. End of story. Sooner or later they’d find a way to keep them on the shelves all week long. And then what would she do?
“Giving up so easily?” Laura turned to find herself face-to-face with Future Laura.
In the distance, a man wearing a circlet of brass gears and a dashiki whirled around to face them, a wooden box in one hand. Laura pointedly refused to notice him.
“I can’t,” Laura said. “It’s impossible.”
“Then perhaps you should see what will happen if you give up,” Future Laura said.
There was no flash of light, as the two women vanished. There were no special effects at all. Fanaka stood at the place where he’d seen them last and examined the brass dials on his chrono-detector. He took a pencil from behind his ear, but found that he’d neglected to bring a notepad.
Lacking paper, he did some quick equations in his head, then scribbled his findings on the lid of an a carton of whipper-snipper cords. He cocked his head from side to side as he double checked his working. When he’d done that, he smiled broadly and wandered off, leaving the next customer to puzzle out the meaning of his sums.