She’d only turned her head for a moment – to ask the waitress to make that two sugars – but when she turned back again, a woman was sitting across the table from her. She was possibly twenty-five; with long, glossy black hair, framing a creamy, pale face; and startling dark blue eyes, which bordered in this light on a black-auraed purple. Her makeup accentuated her dramatic persona, and the glistening, fitted leather jacket – black over blood red – which she wore zipped almost to her chin.
“Oh,” – because she felt she had to say something – “Where did you come from?”
“2074. The year. 2074.”
She didn’t look drunk. Candice found herself looking the woman over again, trying to make sense of her stillness, her sudden appearance, a sense of gravity and glamour that emanated from her still face. She was perfectly made up, without so much as a hair out of place, or a breadcrumb on her sleeve. Her hands were flawless; rested on the table, clasped gently, without fidgetting, with perfect, unpainted nails. Her deep eyes rested intently on Candice, didn’t move, didn’t blink. For her part, Candice was still deciding between trying to play along – “me, I’m from 1844, but I’m not allowed to dress this way at home” – and asking her to leave the table.
The woman said “Please. I need your help.”
If she was larping she was taking it pretty seriously. Then again… It occurred to her, could the girl be in trouble? She found herself speaking in spite of herself: “What is it? What’s wrong?”
The woman looked relieved. She glanced backwards at a man sitting two tables away. “Do you see him?”
Candice followed her gaze. The cafe was busy today – for a tuesday. And the bright sunlight outside filtered in through the main doors and skylight, speckling along the savory-coloured walls. The man sat with his head down, reading a newspaper. His face was in shadow, so that she could see little more than his forehead, and his blond, sculpted hair. She turned back to the woman. “The blond guy? Sitting under the potplant?”
“I see him.” And when he glanced up briefly at the arrival of his coffee, she saw too that he was really quite attractive. Under the 80s hair he had a fine, high-cheeked face, which he kept smoothly shaven; and summer blue eyes, which all but leaped out of his face. More of a pretty-boy than the types she usually went for but…. She had to remind herself to stop staring.
The woman seemed to hesitate now, or did she wait?
Candice started to say “So, what about him…?”
Then the door opened. The second man strode in with a wave of sunlight. He was tall and thin, with a face that looked as if it had been set a little off-kilter: his nose was slightly crooked, one side of his thin, pale face sat a little bit higher than the other. He wore a long, grey coat and a blue shirt under it, wore his dark hair long to his shoulder. And the woman had been expecting him. She had tensed a few seconds before his arrival.
Candice leaned over, “Are you all right?”
The woman nodded. Her clasped hands visibly tightened.
“Do you know him? That man?”
“Only by reputation.”
“He’s here to kill the other one. I’m here so you can stop him.”
Candice almost sprang to her feet. She was looking at the exits. She glanced over at the bathroom doors. She wasn’t quite sure which set of words to respond to first.
The woman was saying “I need you to help me….”
“Kill… him?” She tried to keep her voice down. She didn’t dare take her eyes off the man who’d just walked in. He was standing there for all the world as if he were hunting the faces in here for one that he recognised. A particular face. A target.
But the woman couldn’t know what she was talking about!
She was saying, “We’ve checked every scenario. It has to be you. Listen to me…”
“How can he…? Why?” She was reaching for her cellphone, fumbling in her bag.
“I didn’t tell you that.”
“I know. I know a lot of things about you.”
“I have to go… And how could you……?”
She stared. She didn’t mean to.
The woman tried again. “I’m not really here. I only look like I am.”
“Exactly. I’m still there. I’m not here, so I can’t do anything. But in a couple of minutes that man is going to walk towards the first man, he’s going to pull a gun out of his left pocket, and he’ll shoot him twice in the head. I know because it’s April 23, 2011, and that’s what happens on that date.”
The cafe smelt of cinammon, it also smelt of bread, and pepper, and grilled cheese. The low-hanging lights cast a russet glow over the tables. The saffron-terracotta walls were brightened by sunlight, warming the small space, and complementing the smells that drifted in out of the kitchen. A woman in the corner wore a red dress and last year’s shoes. A sugar bowl had a long straight crack in it. One table had two pepper shakers and no salt. It all seemed to have regressed into slow-motion and fine details.
The first man was still reading his paper, reaching out to pick up his cup and drink from it, without looking up from what he was reading.
The second man had gone to the counter, his grey jacket swishing about his knees. He leaned familiarly against the wall, waiting for the bald man to look up from the till.
The woman told her “I’ve seen this footage at least a hundred times. He’ll order one of the striped cakes. He’ll give him the middle one, there. He’ll hesitate, then he’ll put one of the little chocolates on it, from the bowl. He’ll pick one of the red ones.”
“I’m going to go. You should call someone…”
“No. You’re the one. When he’s eaten two bites, he’ll stand up. He’ll start walking over to the other man. In four paces he’ll be drawing his gun, he’ll have it out in six. That’s the moment when you have to stop him. Before he can shoot, but after he’s drawn the gun. He’ll come back later if he has a second chance.”
And that was how it was. The bald man – the one she’d always assumed owned the place – was talking to the newcomer, he was lifting the cover off the cakes, and selecting one of the striped ones, he was choosing the middle one, he was putting it on a plate. The things Candice had been about to say died in her throat. What she said now was “But I can’t-”
“I’ll tell you the moment. Just be ready. And then run.”
“This doesn’t make sense…. You’re crazy. And I’m going.” But she wasn’t moving at all.
“It’s your future as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Candice Ackemby. Born 12 December, 1981. Your mother was a teacher, she spent her whole life teaching. And your father, you don’t talk about him much. It embarrassed… well, it was a problem: he spent most of his life in prison. But you, Candice. You have no idea how good things are going to be for you.”
Now she found that she could move. She scrambled to her feet, snatching her bag up against her chest. The second man was sitting down to his cake, still watching the room, still manifestly alert. The little red chocolate was sitting on the corner of his plate.
Oh shit. Is this happening?
The woman came to her feet at the same time, leaning across the table, her eyes wild with urgency. Candice noticed that she didn’t reach for her, her perfect hands balling into little, loose fists on the surface of the table. She hissed “He’ll do it in a minute. This is important. I mean for everything, for everyone. It changes everything!”
The good-looking blond man too absorbed in his paper to notice the bullet with his name on it, or the man getting ready to fire it.
“Candice! It changes the world. There’s a disaster, I was right in the middle of it. Everything was burning. But it doesn’t have to be that way. He makes the difference. If somebody stops this from happening. And you’re the only one sitting in the right place to do it!”
The second man was taking a bite of his cake. Bite one? Bite two? He was putting it down again on his plate.
“If I’m fucking with you you’ll only look silly.”
She had no intention of doing what this madwoman told her. She couldn’t help that as the man walked past her she was counting his strides, watching his hand as it moved to his pocket. But it is happening? Look at this! Look at it! When he reaches for the gun I’m going under the table. I’m not getting shot.
Four paces. His hand in his pocket. Five. His hand coming out. Six. The gun in his hand.
Candice did nothing on purpose. She was surprised, she was watching from a distance, gaping at another copy of herself who’d propelled herself away from the table and gone charging headlong towards this guy.
She felt the impact of her cheek colliding with his shoulder, felt the warm, hard smack of their two bodies barrelling into each other. She thought: And now I’m dead. But she imagined falling to the floor, watching as a huge misunderstanding rolled out before her, being witness to their pointing and laughing.
She heard a man’s voice, yelling, “He’s got a gun!”
She was stumbling backwards. She was imagining him turning now, taking a moment to steady himself and aim, pointing the gun directly toward her.
A man’s voice: “He’s got a gun!”
Candice stumbled against a table and chair, caught a hanging potplant for something like balance. The grey-coated man was startled, stunned, he was picking himself up, and at the same time cursing at her: Idiot. Watch where you’re going.
Two men surged forward from a nearby table. They were strangers. They were ordinary men. And there was so much more time to see, so long and so much more time to think, than she would have thought these few moments allowed. This one man who was middleaged, and wearing a white shirt; this other who was a little older, dressed casually, his hair just beginning to grey. She wondered as if from far away if one or both of them would be killed.
Maybe the man would have turned his gun on them, if there’d been another second. But the two bystanders were already tackling him, throwing him onto the floor. The force of it had knocked the gun out of his hand; a waitress picked it up as it slid along the floor. The cafe owner was already on the phone. The blond man, at last, was looking up from his paper, more curious, more puzzled than anything else. She thought: He’s a little bit slow then, that one.
But the woman who’d started it all was beside her now. She radiated pleasure. Satisfaction maybe. She stood at Candice’s ear. “Go on. Introduce yourself. He’s going to be president one day.”