Read Fixer Online

Authors: Gene Doucette

Fixer (7 page)

“It’s a new caterer,” he said loudly. “The old one, he knew not to prepare anything with nuts.”

The man turned. “Ah,” he said simply. “That’d do it.”

“I’m Archibald Calvin,” Archie said, having reached his improbable savior, and extended his hand.

“Corrigan Bain,” he replied, shaking his hand. “You have a shot or something?”

“Pardon?”

“For the allergy.”

“In emergencies, yes. It’s . . . upstairs. New suit,” he explained lamely.

“You should remember to keep it in your pocket next time.”

“Yes, thanks . . .”

Bain started to walk away again, heading, Archie realized, to the motorcycle parked at the edge of his driveway. A stray wind carried the scent of exhaust, suggesting a recent arrival.

“Mr. Bain!” he shouted.

“Yeah?”

“How did you know?”

He rubbed his temple and gave a practiced
aw-shucks
look back. “It’s complicated,” he said.

“As it happens, I’m very good at complicated things. Have you eaten yet?”

Bain looked at his watch, did a few mental calculations, shrugged, and said, “I’ve got a couple of hours. I could eat.”

“Then please, join us. My wife gets very upset if I let any of our guests leave hungry.”

*  *  *

The garden scene regained a semblance of order once someone thought to fetch Veronica a large and strong drink. As most everybody there knew most everybody else very well, the gala didn’t actually require a hands-on hostess, so while she sat down to rest and devise creative ways in which to destroy the lives of the caterers, the party continued to run all by itself. 

While not expected to perform any formal hosting duties in Ronnie’s absence—it was understood by most that this was simply beyond his ken—Archie did perform one minor host-like duty by throwing Corrigan Bain into the mix, introducing him as “a fellow who does some house work for us from time to time.” He assumed that his new friend would appreciate the necessity of providing him with a baseline social standing to put the guests at ease. And Bain seemed willing enough to go along with it, calling himself a “fixer” when asked.

So Bain headed for the buffet table while Archie, ostensibly checking on his wife, watched.

He was never a fan of the behavioral sciences, having argued on more than one occasion that anything wherein predicted results varied from event to event did not deserve association with the word “science.” But as he watched Corrigan Bain shoehorn his way into the party, he found himself wishing he’d taken a little time to expand his knowledge base. Because there was something very different about Bain. He just couldn’t tell what, exactly.

“Are you sure you’re okay?” Ronnie was asking. The whiskey sour in her hand had calmed her considerably. She was a lightweight when it came to drinking and tended to teetotal at these events, so this was a significant departure for her.

“I’m fine,” Archie said. Or rather, his vocal chords intoned without first checking with the brain, it being otherwise occupied.

Bain was speaking with Igor Maskeyevich, the head of the Chemistry Department, while chewing on a shrimp kabob. Archie was interested in whatever common ground the two might have uncovered but could not hear the discussion over the background chatter and the Mozart Ronnie had playing on a continuous loop on the outdoor speakers she’d rented for the day. What he could tell was that Corrigan Bain seemed tense—no, that wasn’t quite right. Agitated? No, that wasn’t it either.

He searched his personal data banks for analogous behavior, but drew a blank. Maybe it was because Ronnie was talking again.

“What’s that, dear?” he asked.

“I said I’m not going to pay them.”

“Don’t be silly,” he said. “It was a harmless mistake.”

“Harmless?” she roared, well exceeding the Mozart threshold.

“Innocent,” Archie corrected himself quickly. He reached for the brake on her shoulder. “I meant innocent.”

“Still! I did tell them.”

“I know you did, dear. Are you all right? I have to—”

“And who is that man talking to Igor?” Ronnie asked.

“A friend of mine,” Archie said. “His name is Corrigan.”

“From where?”

“The university. He’s . . . he’s a fixer.”

“Well, I’ve never seen him before. Why on Earth—”

“I’m sorry, can you excuse me, my love? I really should mingle.” It was a callow appeal to her host reflex, but it seemed to work.

“Of course,” she said. “I’m sorry. We can talk about this . . . disaster later.”

He stood, kissed her on the forehead, and tried to mingle his way back to Corrigan.

He got close enough to pick up the subject matter, at least. Bain and Igor Maskeyevich—labeled somewhat unfairly by his postgraduates as “Igor the Terrible,” a moniker that Archie found amusing in spite of himself—were discussing decorative plaster molding. It sounded as if Igor were looking for a way to wheedle a price estimate from Bain, which was problematic given that so far as Archie knew, the profession he’d randomly chosen for Corrigan was entirely fictitious. He might have inserted himself in order to rescue Corrigan from Igor, but he could get no closer without being rude to the dean of admissions and her husband. She was a notoriously long-winded woman and almost impossible to interrupt. But fortunately, she didn’t really seem to notice how carefully anybody was listening to her, so Archie was free to keep one eye on Corrigan. And that was when he identified the anomaly.

Archie remembered exactly when he became a scientist. He was five. His father, on returning from a business trip, had brought him a set of small magnets. Archie became endlessly fascinated with the magnets and intensely curious about the nature of magnetism in general, and ran simple experiments to better understand them. One such experiment involved using other magnets to identify which magnet’s polarity was different—which one was facing the “wrong” way. He’d moved the positive side of one magnet toward another and watched as the second magnet skittered across the tabletop, running away from the first magnet due to some invisible impelling force. He’d tried it with two and three magnets to see if the quantity altered the results in any way, perhaps forcing the “wrong” magnet away faster or farther. And so on.

And that was very much like what was happening with Corrigan Bain. The garden area had become crowded around the buffet table, where everyone was rubbing shoulders and elbows with everyone else. But not Bain. That could have been explained away by the tendency of strangers to circumnavigate one another, except that it was almost entirely his doing. He was stepping aside, continuously in motion, dodging contact. Future contact. Contact that would have occurred from behind, where he couldn’t have possibly seen it coming. 

Corrigan Bain was reacting to stimuli
a priori

The dean before him finally ran out of air, and as she paused to reload, he took the brief pause and excused himself as carefully as he could. 

“Can I have a moment with Mr. Bain?” he asked Igor, dropping into the middle of their discussion.

“Certainly,” Igor the Terrible declared magnanimously. He said to Corrigan, “We’ll talk more later.”

“Sure,” Bain responded.

Archie grabbed Corrigan by the elbow and led him to an open area at the edge of the garden. “Mr. Bain,” he began, “Do you know what I am about to ask you?’

He looked bemused. “Yes.”

“I thought you might. How far into the future can you see, precisely?”

*  *  *

“It’s not nearly as clean as all that,” Corrigan was saying. He and Archie had retired to his study, a room in the back of their home that afforded a view of the garden and of the guests, who were now officially on autopilot. Veronica seemed to have reached some sort of cognitive dissonance regarding her importance to the continued entertainment of the partygoers.

Archie had been attempting to liken Corrigan Bain’s foresight to catching a television show as it aired live on the East coast, then calling a friend on the West coast before it aired there. He was really just looking for some parameters.

“All right,” he began, “let’s get after the basics. Right now, at this very moment, can you hear me speaking this sentence to you?”

“Sure.”

“And this moment is the present.”

“If you say so.”

“You’re hedging. Explain.”

Corrigan leaned back and gave it his best shot. He did not seem to be a man who put a great deal of thought into how things worked. 

More of a doer,
Archie reflected. 

“The point where you just stated we were in the present, that happened a good five or six seconds ago. When you said it, I also heard my response, your counter response, and part of the explanation I’m now in the middle of. All at the same time.”

“My Lord,” Archie said. “How do you function?”

“Cause-and-effect, mostly.”

“But that doesn’t explain how you ended up at my party.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

“What is the mechanism behind that?”

“I don’t know. I just know to turn up at certain places at certain times.”

“But you don’t know why, or how that information arrives.”

“Nope.” Corrigan stuffed a shrimp puff into his mouth, finishing off the last of the plate he’d brought into the house with him. Archie was hungry himself but planned to ignore the pangs until each dish had been scoured thoroughly for traces of nuts.

“Do you at least wonder?” Archie asked.

“Sure.” He shrugged. “As much good as wondering can do.”

Archie changed tactics. “All right, so you were here, and you saw that I was about to eat something that had peanuts in it.”

“Yeah. Too bad about that, by the way. Must be tough.”

“I just learn to read ingredients very carefully,” Archie said. “Let me ask you this, did you see me eat the food in the future?”

Corrigan nodded. “And then you started choking and grabbing your throat. It was either that the food was lodged there or you had a bad allergy. I guessed the second.”

“But you stopped me.”

“Yeah . . .” Corrigan didn’t appear to follow where this was going.

“Then what happened to the future you saw?” Archie asked.

“It disappeared.”

Archie leaned forward. “Think carefully. Did you see only one future, or did you see different futures contingent upon your actions?”

Corrigan smiled. Actually, he was smiling before Archie asked the question. When the professor would replay this conversation later, he would reflect that Mr. Bain could be rather eerie at times.

“I only see one future,” Corrigan said. “And it’s the one where something bad happens. My actions are completely off the script.”

Archie smiled. “Of course. You would have to.” This for once piqued Corrigan’s curiosity.

“Why is that?” 

“It couldn’t be one of those Path A or Path B problems. Given five or ten seconds you might end up looking at dozens of potential outcomes that would be noticeable on a macroscopic scale. And with each second, those dozens of outcomes might spawn a dozen more apiece. You would easily become so confused as to be rendered insane.”

“Well. That’s not good.”

“No,” Archie mused. “So let’s say you see only one future. But as I said, dozens of possible futures present themselves every second of every day throughout the entire universe, and they are all contingent upon what is happening in the now. The question, then, is not why do you see only one future, but why do you see one
particular
future?”

Corrigan just smiled. “You think too hard,” he said.

“It’s my calling.”

“Fair enough. But my calling has me showing up about ten blocks from here in another twenty minutes.” He stood. “So, I’d better get going.”

Archie stood as well. “Is there a way I can contact you in the future?”

“I’m in the book. Why? You planning on eating a nut sometime soon?”

“I may have some more questions for you.”

“Maybe you should give me a chance to get drunk first next time,” Corrigan said. “You got my head spinning too much as it is.”

They shook hands, and then Archie let Corrigan show himself out. His head was spinning, too, but for different reasons. He had an idea.

I’m going to need a mathematician and an experimentalist,
he thought. For although he was quite proficient in the high-level mathematics required for probing the concepts now bouncing around in his head, he was not a
gifted
mathematician. And when it came to designing experiments, he couldn’t imagine anyone worse than himself.

Fortunately, Michael Offey was both of those things. And he was still standing in Archie’s garden.

It looks like I finally have something worth talking about at one of these damn things
.

Chapter Five

 

Now

Corrigan snapped his eyes open at five in the morning, fully awake and wishing he weren’t. It was one of the quirks of his existence, this phenomenon wherein he transitioned from totally asleep to completely awake immediately, whether or not he even wanted to be awake. 

He usually didn’t. Many times—every day, really—he made an honest effort to go back to sleep, but it simply never worked out; he was awake, and that was that. As he reluctantly climbed out of bed, he reflected that at least on this night he didn’t have any dreams. 

The condo’s lone bedroom was almost exactly opposite, floor plan-wise, to the living/dining area. It was a bit smaller than the living room but had a nicer array of windows, said windows facing northwest and thus not catching the first sunlight of the day. That feature alone meant the place cost an extra fifty thousand, because nobody outside of pharmaceutical commercials actually liked waking up to sunlight on their face.

Walking naked to the window, Corrigan pulled aside the curtains—which came with the apartment, as it would not have occurred to him to purchase any—and took a look at the world. At this time of day there wasn’t a lot to see. Cambridge Street, which would morph into Memorial Drive further down, was largely empty, as was Storrow Drive across the river. Beyond Storrow lay Boston in all its crowded and confused glory, a patchwork collection of buildings varied in age from two hundred years old to just last week, depending on the block and sometimes on the street number. Later, hundreds of cars would be speeding along both sides of the river in a reckless fashion, but at this moment the city looked like a peaceful place to be. Which was probably why he often found himself staring at this view at this time for quite a while.

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