ORIGINAL FICTION: "Number One With A Bullet" by Republibot 3.0

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“Number One with a Bullet”
Written 3/24/12

She stared at the mysterious, sleeping, total stranger she’d just had sex with. He looked like a biker, but talked and acted like a fag, and made love like a virgin at an eighth grade dance. She didn’t know what to make of him. He had huge mutton chops that merged into a meticulous and waxed mustache, and coal-black hair that was a bit longer than normal, and feathered in the current style, but that was obviously a recent addition to his look. His clothes were normal enough - leisure suits, bell-bottom jeans - but he had seemed uncomfortable in them when she picked him up last night. He was obviously educated, and had a monied-but-bemused look about him. A rich dude slumming? Probably. She knew he wanted her, and that was all she’d really needed at that moment.

She rolled silently out of bed to pee, and then snooped around for a bit. She didn’t bother with clothes or draping a sheet about her, she liked to be naked when she was being surreptitious. It heightened the naughty feeling, and she was still young enough that this sort of thing was exciting. She liked feeling naughty. The apartment was large, but apart from the tatty gilded age furniture, there was nothing remarkable about it. Generic landscapes hanging on the walls, no personal photographs, nothing of a personal nature at all, excepting a collection of snuff boxes. Disappointingly, most were empting. More disappointingly, none of the ones that weren’t empty held any coke. The building itself was pretty old, but well maintained. She figured it for a corporate love next: the kind of place a fortune 500 company kept for execs who needed to dip the wick without leaving a paper trail behind.

She was wrong.

She wasn’t particularly bright, but she was far from stupid, and she was possessed of a kind of ruthless pragmatism that gave her a calculating look many mistook for intelligence. She wasn’t particularly gorgeous, either, but she was better-than-average looking. The nose was a little severe, she was a bit too thin, a bit on the short side, but she had a sumptuous set of breasts that tended to draw the eyes away from her not-particularly-awful flaws. She wasn’t a particularly good singer or dancer, but she was young and cute enough that people liked to watch her fronting bar bands. She wasn’t particularly a prostitute, but, as she edged closer to her nineteenth birthday, she realized it was only a matter of time until she crossed the line on that one.

She’d left Philly for New York City not quite a year before, with dreams of…what, exactly? She didn’t know. “Broadway Star” seemed like an old people dream. A disco diva? That seemed unattainable. A brilliant dancer? Well, she liked it, but she was just good enough to recognize she didn’t have the chops to be great, and how many superstar dancer jobs were there, anyway? Artist? Who even knew what art was anymore? Fashion design? Maybe, but, it didn’t pop her cork. She liked wearing fashionable clothes more than figuring them out. Had she hoped to find love and have kids? Ha! Love is for stupid hippies, and a kid? God, no! Did she want to get a real job like normal people? Super extra special God, no!

She’d been semi-homeless all that time, bouncing around between live-in boyfriends for as long as she could milk them and hold their interest, calling on friends when she didn’t have a guy, or some prospect on the hook. There was a gay guy named “Marco” who owned a bar called “The Juicy Fruit” in Greenwich Village who had decided he was her unofficial big sister; sometimes he let her crash in the bar, sleeping on a couch in the foyer when things were really rough and she had nowhere else to go. That didn’t happen much, but it did happen. It happened tonight: big blowout with her latest beau (A self-important artist named ‘Devon.’ She liked his type because even though they never had any money, they were very easy to manipulate), her suitcases on the landing when she got home, a lot of screaming and acrimony, and her pounding the pavement.

When she got to the bar, Marco was being hauled off on drug charges. Cursing, she stashed her bags in a bus locker, and wandered around, trying to figure out what to do. She had about a hundred bucks in her purse - earned as a stripper - but she’d gotten in a fight with the manager, which had led to her fight with Devon, so getting more cash would be a problem, at least in the short term. She was determined not to spend any if she could avoid it. She made some phone calls, but everyone she knew was either out, or otherwise unable to help. Annoyed, she walked over to Malcolm’s place. She’d done some nude modeling for him before, but it was getting increasingly erotic by the session, and she was increasingly uncomfortable with it, as there were still a few lines she wasn’t willing to cross.

She hadn’t needed to cross them tonight, just a few cheesecake pictures of her and some other naked chick hanging naked off some dumb frat boy in front of a fake backdrop of a beach that said “Spring Break ‘78,” and she’d come out of it with twenty bucks. Malcolm had told her he was going to be filming a porno in the back room, and if she wanted to be an extra in that, she could make an extra hundred easy. She balked. She knew he was ripping her off.

So she was up twenty, her self-image was holding steady (“I’m pretty! People want me!”), but her belly was rumbling, she had nowhere to go, and she was still bound and determined not to spend any money if she could avoid it. Fortunately, one night stands were trendy at the time. Fashionable, even.

She discovered him in CBGBs, wearing ridiculous headphones, with that ridiculous facial hair, staring at her chest. He wanted her, and it was comically easy to pick him up. Plus: she was always a little bit horny after a photoshoot and a fight. She’d had two fights today in which blows had been landed, so, hey, this could be fun!

It wasn’t. He was a dud in the sack.

Fully covered neck-to-toe in a heavy velour robe, he found her poking through his bookcase, quietly listening to “The Mushroom Trees“ by Suzie Trollope on the radio. He seemed embarrassed. She gave a fake, perky smile, and spun around with one leg bending back at the knee as she turned. “Morning, Tiger,” she said, and skipped over to him, giving him a hug and a peck on the cheek. Got to keep him on the hook, she thought, he might be good for a few more days, until something else comes up. The big dope blushed.

A butler came in and made them breakfast. It was fantastic. Feeling particularly libertine, she never made any effort to get dressed, suspecting her new boy toy would be too enraptured and embarrassed to ask, and she was already getting his number: he kind of wanted to show her off, even if it meant the domestics got a freeshow. She was right, though the butler and the beau were both beet red the whole time. Guys like to watch chesty naked women eat, particularly when they do the old boarding-house reach.

“Interesting book collection you’ve got,” she said. “Love on Mars” by Babs Jessica was playing quietly in the background.
“In what way?” he asked. He had an odd accent which sounded fake, or maybe English to her, but which he insisted was New York born and bred. Initially he’d said “Knickerbocker,” but she hadn’t know what that meant, and he’d translated.
“You’ve got the entire New York Times Best Seller List up there,” she said, “Arranged from most popular to least, but they’ve all still got the price tags on ’em, and none of ’em have been read.”
“Untrue! The first two in the upper left hand corner have been, and I’m working my way through the third now.”
“That’s a little odd, Cle-” she’d intended to say his name, but realized she’d forgotten it. Clem? Clevon? Cavan? Something with a hard ‘K’ sound. No matter: she covered it with a fake little hiccup, and jostled her chest a bit. “That’s a little odd,” she said again, “Why are you working your way through the list?”
“I wish to be conversant in the ways of modern literature. I am a novelist, or at least I hope to be. Or at least I hope to have been.”
She gave him a quizzical look. He smiled like the cat who swallowed the canary.
“Are you worthy of my trust?” he asked.
“Probably not,” she said. It was the first fully honest thing she’d said in two days, and then she herself also smiled like a cat who’d swallowed a canary. Because she had: she had him. He was hers. She knew it.

***

Kevin - as his name turned out to be - was a time traveler. His vocation was as the youngest-ever chair of the department of physical sciences at New York University, circa 1870. His avocation was novelist. Novelists, he explained, were basically the rock stars of the period, with the massive rise in literacy, the mass production and decline in cost of books, and the new ease of transport that trains and steamships afforded, a good book could become a world-wide phenomenon in only a few years. Imagine! People half a world away reading your words! Paying money to read the words of a total stranger! People half a century down the line, still reading your words! What grand immortality! He actually said ‘grand.’

She turned the radio down in the middle of “Alive to be Born” by Jane Electricity and the Statics.
“So why do you need a time machine to write? Do you have bad handwriting and just need a typewriter, or what?”
“I? Oh, my heavens, no! My script is superlative, and besides which the typewriter had already been invented shortly before I left.”
“So why come to the future to become a star in the past?”
“Like everyone in my time, I want to be a - I believe the present argot is ‘Superstar’ - like Dickens. You must know Dickens, yes? He’s famous even now.”
“Not my favorite,” she said, “Too cloying. I prefer Twain.” She was, in fact, surprisingly well read. He seemed surprised.
“Twain? Whom?”
“Mark Twain. Wrote Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Fin, The Prince and the Pauper, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.”
“I don’t know his work.”
“Really? I’d figure you’d at least know ‘Yankee,’ since it’s a time travel thing.”
“People have written about time travel?” He was incredulous.
“Sure! HG Wells even wrote ‘The Time Machine.’ It’s kind of a cliché plot device.”
“I’ve never heard of such a thing,” he sad, looking sullen.
“When are you from again?” she asked.
“I left in 1870.”
“Oh, ok, there’s your problem: Wells was writing in the 1890s, and I don’t really remember when Twain had his first book, but I’m pretty sure it was in the 1870s. After your time.”
“But not long after.”
“Nope, not long at all. Anyway: Why are you here?”
“Well, have you any knowledge of Jonathan Swift?” he asked.
“Gah,” she said, “Unreadable stuff. Dreadful. I had to read ‘Gulliver’s Travels’ in High School. I could barely plow through it. All that stuff about Laputa and those damn horses…”
“Indeed. For me, it was ‘Tale of a Tub,’ which was said to be the most brilliant of his works when it was new, but which was impenetrable for I and my classmates, the idiom had changed so much in two centuries, the things he chose to poke fun at were no longer relevant…”
“Comedy doesn’t age well,” she said.
“Exactly!”
“And don’t even get me started on Shakespeare!”
“I know, right?” He said.

The problem with literature, he related, was that language was idiomatic, and culture was always in flux. Within a few generations, prose began to feel dated and stolid and stifling, and for one who sought immortality in the printed word, he bristled at the thought that the word itself might be mortal. Or, if not that, then at least prone to senescence. He had decided to come to the future, to study the novels of the day, learn the style, and then travel back to his own time, where he would write in an idiom that, as yet, existed only in potential. He would retroactively invent a style that would not only grant him fame as an author, but also enthrone him as a member of the avant-garde of arts and letters. Best of all: his books would have a style that would remain undated for at least a century or so, and a fame that would let them far outlast that.

“You could just take the books themselves back into time with you, and pass them off as your own. It’d be easier, and who’d know?” she said.
“That would be theft!” he said indignantly, “I should have to answer to Divine Providence for that, I fear, and besides which it would defeat the purpose of writing my own works. I have no lack of talent, no lack of tales to tell, I merely lack a solid voice. I came here for writing lessons, nothing more.”
“Eh-hem” she said, sliding her right foot up his inner thigh.
“Well, yes, and that, too,” he admitted. She moved in that afternoon. It wasn’t hard, she just needed to empty out the bus locker.

The time machine was huge and immobile. It took up another entire apartment, and had been built there when this building was brand new. It was huge, brass and stained glass, and iron and rivets. It looked like nothing so much as one of those elongated Arts-and-Crafts style lighting fixtures one sees above pool tables in old paintings, only expanded to the size of a greenhouse and festooned with pistons and massive gears. It had several power supplies. It was powered by coal in the past, electricity in the present, and something called ‘hyper atomics’ in the future.

“You’ve been further into the future?” she asked.
“And why not? I’m a curious man.”
“Did you take writing lessons from there?”
“Bah. Filthy and disgusting. Were it possible to wash my brain out with lye, I’d do it. I wish I’d never read such trash. These next couple of decades are about as far into the future as one can get, and still find readable literature.”
“That’s got to be a little disappointing.”
“Not really,” he said, “I’ve hopes that my own writing may change that future. Stave off the literary evils I’ve foreseen.”
“Can you change the future?” she asked.
“It’s fraught with paradox,” he admitted, “But I know it can be done. I’ve done it. Why, I’ve even changed the present. You and I!”
Again, she gave him an inquisitive look.
“That night we met a few weeks ago? I relived that night several different times in several different permutations. You looked so determined, so forlorn, so aggressive, so…so desirable, so different from any woman I’d met before. There was a tenacity about you. We had to meet! I kept going back in time to try to catch your eye. In most iterations you ended up leaving with a fellow named “Jellybean,” and try as I may, I could never insinuate myself into your circumstance in such a way as to gain your attentions.”
She was shocked. “Why don’t I remember this?”
“Because it only happened to me, not to you. After several failed attempts, I simply hired some ruffians to waylay the cad before he gained entry to the club. With him out of the way, I was free to pursue your affections.”
She weighed this behind a smile as false as the face of a china doll. He was stalking her through time? Creepy and dangerous. What happens if I crossed him? “So, you kept him from meeting me, which is why I don’t remember it, and that changed the present, and I’m with you now, instead of him.”
“Yes,” he admitted, looking guilty, “Does this discomfit you in any way?”
It sure as hell does, she thought, but what she said was, “I’m blown away that you’d go to such lengths to win my hand!”

***

It was easy for her to land him. He’d never been with another woman in this or any other time frame, nor any other timeline. He was obsessed by her body, and the ease with which she showed it off. In particularl, he was fascinated by her hairless legs and armpits. She had the kind of mileage that gave her the kinds of skills that quickly addicted a man of his inexperience, and kept him in her power. They married in June, on her nineteenth birthday, and honeymooned in the South of France in 1878, a hundred years to the day earlier. She’d wanted to go to a century before she was born in 1958, but the machine couldn’t go back further than the date it was completed on. Ah well. It was pretty, and she had her “Greatest One Hit Wonders of 1977” tape, and the new one - “Whirlpool” by Sharon McAteer - the album was a dud, but, man, that song was great!

“I don’t really understand this music,” he said, “Why don’t you ever listen to more than one song by an artist?”
“Most don’t have more than one song in ‘em,” she said. “Seems a waste.”

She read some of his manuscripts. He had a lack of talent rare among authors: he was a hack under the standards of two separate centuries.

Just the same, the honeymoon was pretty, it was opulent, it was romantic, the weather was wonderful, it was France at the peak of its charm and glory. They spent a month there before she simply couldn’t stand the smell anymore - the bathrooms were a nightmare, and pretty much the whole of the Francophonic world stank out loud through the end of World War One - and then they came back home to the day before they’d set out. Just as well: all the batteries she’d taken back to run her leg razor and tape deck had gone dead by then.

“Why don’t we bump into ourselves in situations like these?” she asked.
“I know not,” he said, “But I suspect that when one travels through time, one becomes somewhat less afflicted by cause and effect,” he said.

He had her put on his lease, and in his will, but she insisted she not be listed on his bank accounts or anything like that. She didn’t want to give the impression she was after his money. He taught her how to use the time machine for short hops, and put her in charge of commuting his - their - butler from 1900 to the present, and back again at the end of the day. Before long, she was firmly convinced she could run the machine as well as he could, and maintain it as well.

Then she killed him. She dumped the body in Long Island Sound in the late 23rd century, where no one would be likely to notice it, since the city had been abandoned for about a century at that point.

***

The first thing she did was go to Manny’s Music on West 48th street, where she bought charts and lyrics and arrangements for a dozen songs, and some blank music charts.

It was easy for her to put together a band. She had plenty of experience singing in bars, she knew some musicians, and even if she hadn’t, it was New York, after all: just put an add in the Village Voice, and there were a hundred guys at your door the next morning. Getting them to work for free was simply a matter of “Accidentally” flashing them, and implying they might have a shot at getting her in the sack. For whatever reason, musicians who answered newspaper adds were always guys, and they were always stupid.

She handed out the charts she’d transcribed in her own hand, and since Marco was out of the joint by then, they debuted at his place. They were playing CBGBs by the end of the month, and had a recording contract within six weeks after that. It was the biggest debut album of all time: twelve songs, each one a number one, effortlessly dodging back and forth across the line from disco (Declining, but still popular) and the up-and-coming New Wave stuff, with some punk influences. And it was all catchy as hell. Nobody had anything bad to say about it, and everyone was amazed at how many styles it represented. No one could believe so many great songs were written by the same mind! What a genius! What a performer! What a looker, and she really wasn’t shy about showing it off.

“You know what the difference between a one hit wonder and a superstar is?” she said to Dina Shore while being interviewed one day.
“No,” said Dina, who was herself a long-washed-up one hit wonder.
“Me,” she said.
Dina never invited her back on the show.

***

She knew from watching Johnny Carson that “The Mushroom Trees” had occurred to Suzie Trollope during a drug trip in early 1976, so she planted some pills in the ingénue’s back yard, and then called in a tip to the cops in late 1975. She spent the year in jail, never caught the buzz that inspired that particular song, and that number one never happened.

“Alive to be Born” was harder, as it wasn’t entirely clear who had written it - several members of the band collaborated - and the exact moment when it ’came to life’ so to speak was unclear. Ultimately, she just went to all the gig’s bar shows, working her way slowly backwards in time until the first appearance of the song in their live set. They were unsigned and hungry, so she simply bought the song off them, and had them sign the rights away to her. They weren’t even allowed to perform it. Thus another number-one never happened.

She traveled several times to early 1977:
“Sharon McAteer?”
“Oh, not you again.”
“I’d like to buy your song.”
“Look, I’ve told you before: it’s not for sale. I don’t even understand how you’ve heard of it, I haven’t recorded any demos yet.”
“It’s a great song, though.”
“Yes it is a great song, and I think it could be a big hit for me…” Sharon said.
“Oh, I know for a fact it’ll be number one,” she said.
“Right, so it’d be stupid to give it away if it’s got that much potential.”
“Not give it away: sell it. You can always write another song.”
“No, I really can’t. This came to me in the shower one day, this is my one shot, I know what I’ve got in me, and this is it,” Sharon said.
“True. I’ve heard your other stuff.”
“What?”
“Nevermind. Not important. That’s your final word on the subject?” She fiddled in her purse, fumbling with something, not really waiting for Sharon’s reply.
“Yes.”
“Ever hear the expression ‘Number One with a Bullet?’”
“Yeah. It means a song that debuts really high, and hits the top of the charts in no time.”
“Generally, but not in this case” she said as she pulled out a pistol and shot Sharon. She dumped the body next to Kevins in Long Island of the future.

***

She was the biggest thing in the world when she went back to Manny’s in 1980. She had to have bodyguards holding off the throngs as she passed through the stacks, picking out charts for a dozen of the biggest songs of the previous year.

“Wow, you sure like the one-hit-wonders by the girlie bands,” the flustered cashier said as she checked.
“Yeah, I really wish I’d written these,” she said with a smile.

The End.
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