Your Next Free Short Story.
At a little under 3,000 words, this story is much longer than the last one I shared. Still, it shouldn’t be much more than a five-minute read.
As I promised, it’s a totally different type of story. My apologies if any of you find Frank’s language a bit, er, colourful, but that’s Frank. The next one will be more family-friendly, I promise.
I hope you enjoy Frank’s New Start.
Frank’s New Start
Despite the fact that it’s a Monday, and he consumed one or three too many whiskeys last night—Frank Bell is feeling rather pleased with himself. The past few weeks haven’t been all that enjoyable—and that’s putting it mildly—but if all goes to plan, he’ll soon be richer than he has ever dreamed!
He drags a comb through his once dark brown hair, now flecked with silvery-grey at the temples, and squints at his mirrored reflection. A lined face stares back at him through bleary eyes. Where did the years go? The once handsome face is now wrinkled and pallid. There are several small scars, souvenirs of bar-room fights and back-street scuffles—most of which he barely remembers—and the bags under his eyes might belong to a millennial jet-setter. A thick three-day stubble, itself showing a tinge of grey, partly obscures the scars but does little to soften his visage. Simple, amateurish tattoos on his knuckles and forearms bear witness to time spent in various prisons across the country, mostly for small-time offences. He suppresses a chuckle at the thought of how many other, more serious, crimes there were for which he had not faced charges.
He considers for a moment, trying to decide whether he should shave today or not. Professor Rosen had made it clear from the start that he expected Frank to maintain a certain level of personal appearance, but what the hell. From today, the old Jew’s opinions would count for nothing. Frank would just tell him he ran out of blades, or something, and let Rosen deal with it as he chose.
Casting his mind back over his life to date, as he brews himself a strong coffee, he can’t believe how many opportunities he has missed out on. How many jobs he has planned and arranged just for some stupid sidekick or another to stuff things up, either with the job itself or by flashing their loot around afterwards and attracting the attention of the boys in blue. Yeah, Mickey Whitehall for one. If it hadn’t been for Mickey Bloody Whitehall, Frank wouldn’t have spent nine of the last twelve months in the slammer. Well, he wasn’t going to let anyone else wreck his plans this time.
Now, Frank Bell is not what you would describe as the sharpest knife in the block, but he knows an opportunity when he sees one, and he sees one now. In fact, he sees the opportunity of a lifetime! He still can’t believe his luck at the Parole Office sending him to that crazy old boffin for his ‘Community Service’.
“Stupid old bastard. Thought he was going to straighten me out,” he mumbles into his coffee. “That’d be the day. What a friggin’ loser!”
And all that do-gooder crap about making a new start. The only new start Frank has in mind is the one he has arranged for himself, courtesy of the professor’s pet project.
Sipping his morning heart-starter, he thinks back over all those hours spent listening to the old fart waffling on about quantum shifts, space warping, and all that crap, nodding in all the right places so the stupid fuck would think he was interested. Frank reckons he’s earned his reward, and he’s going to have it. Today is the day for Frank’s new start.
Who would have guessed Rosen was actually onto something? Time travel! The old fool had actually done it! Of course, Rosen has no idea how rich it could make him. All he can think about is ‘Benefit of Mankind’ and all that rubbish, but Frank knows how to make a buck out of any situation.
Frank had watched, and learned, until he figured he knew how to work the contraption on his own. Professor Rosen, meanwhile, had been delighted at the interest his new assistant had shown and was only too pleased to explain the workings of the machine, not that Frank cared all that much for the details.
Arriving at the professor’s lab later that morning, Frank Bell puts the first part of his plan into operation.
Professor Amos Rosen glances up at the antique clock above his desk. 9:10. Frank is late today, again. He wonders whether he should make a note in Frank’s probation report, but decides against it. It is Monday, after all, and the man does seem to be making an effort to straighten himself out. A little leniency can’t hurt, and he has the feeling that Frank Bell is not the lost cause some might think him to be. The Parole Board didn’t give him a lot of information about Frank’s past—privacy is paramount after all—but he knows it includes jail time. What pleases him is the enthusiasm Frank has shown for the professor’s work. He really seems to understand the long-term ramifications and appreciate the need for secrecy at this early stage.
The door opens, and Frank enters. “Sorry I’m a bit late, Professor,” he says. “Missed the bus again. I was scrounging around in the bathroom cabinet lookin’ for razor blades.” He rubs his chin, then offers his best attempt at a cheeky smile. “Seems I’m all out.”
“It’s OK, Frank,” Rosen sighs. “I guess we can live with it for today.” He riffles through some papers and adds, “I’ll need you to finish filing those magnetic resonance readings if you will.” Gesturing towards the filing cabinet, he waves the sheaf of papers. “I need to get this sorted before morning tea.”
“No problems, Prof,” says Frank. He knows full well just how much the professor hates being referred to as ‘Prof’, and suppresses a smile at the older man’s discomfiture. “Consider it done.”
He watches as the scientist rises from his seat, pausing for a moment to consider whether to correct Frank and ultimately deciding it would probably be a waste of effort. “OK Frank, I’ll be back around quarter to ten. You should have it sorted by then.”
Professor Rosen is a true creature of habit. Each and every day, at precisely ten o’clock, he puts down his work and makes his way downstairs for a sweet muffin and a cup of tea. He even has a saying; ‘No man can work on an empty stomach.’ Frank has to admit that’s one sentiment he can relate to, even if he thinks muffins and tea sounds less than appetizing. Frank is more the coffee and doughnuts type. Tea and muffins were for faggots, he had decided. And crazy professors, apparently.
Feigning a stiff back, and arching backwards with his hands on his hips, Frank waits for the precise moment when the professor steps onto the first step, then gives him a gentle nudge from behind. “Wasn’t me, Yer Honour,” he chuckles to himself, holding his hands up as Professor Rosen tumbles ignominiously down the staircase. “The old fool was always a bit doddery.” Stifling another laugh, and without bothering to check on the success of his efforts, he strides along the hallway towards the lab, where the Time Machine, or Transporter, as Professor Rosen liked to call it, sits waiting expectantly. Leaving the hapless scientist in a broken, bloody heap at the bottom of the stairs, he begins to execute his next move.
Amos Rosen always was a great fan of the arts—and in particular, the works of Vincent Van Gogh. One day, while the professor was enjoying his morning tea downstairs, Frank had been gazing at a print of “The Starry Night” on the lab wall, and wondering what the hell kind of crazy person would paint something so totally fucked up. To Frank’s eyes, it looked like the sort of thing a child might draw. Or a monkey, tripping out on acid—he had said to himself. And the trendy yuppies and arty-farties pay enough to support a small country for shit like this. That was the moment he had struck upon his latest, and—he thought—his greatest plan.
Frank was by no means an art lover or anything resembling such, but he knew enough to realise just what an undiscovered masterpiece could be worth to the right buyer. He began plotting from that moment, and soon had the bones of a plan. The details came later, gradually at first, then the finer points seemed to spring into his mind as if of their own accord.
Having chosen Van Gogh as his target, Frank had started spending his weekends in the public library, learning what he could about him. He liked the idea that Van Gogh was said to be a little insane, and also that his works were instantly recognisable. Van Gogh also spoke English. The irony of seeing himself in a library, of all places, and with no evil or larcenous intent, was not lost even on Frank Bell, and he frequently had to stifle a chuckle at his own expense.
A bit more research on the internet and Frank had worked out the best time and place: Arles, 1890. Van Gogh’s time at the Yellow House. Who would have thought it, Frank Bell actually learning something! Stranger things had happened—he mused—though not often. Still, he was sure it would be worth it in the end.
The time/space travel would be the easy part, thanks to Professor Amos Rosen’s fabulous invention. Now to put the plan into action.
As Frank fiddles with the controls, setting the dials for his target time and location, his mind races with excitement and trepidation. Can he pull this off? One thing is for certain, if things don’t work out this time, he’ll definitely only have himself to blame. He knows that meeting Van Gogh and then convincing him to part with a painting won’t be easy. Let’s face it, nothing is ever as easy as it sounds. There was also the worst bit; the thought of actually having to get a job to earn some money to pay the crazy prick!
Something that should work in Frank’s favour, though, is that he’s managed to research the wine bar that Van Gogh was known to regularly frequent. So all he needs to do is wait for the artist to make an appearance, and strike up a conversation with him, right? Well, it may not be quite that simple, but Frank is used to thinking on his feet, and soon puts aside all his doubts and fears and finds himself sitting in the transporter, and pressing the big red START button.
Nothing. For what seems like ages, nothing happens. Frank waits, expecting to see the world outside the machine spinning, or changing, or something. Isn’t that how this stuff works? Frank casts his mind back to that movie based on HG Wells’ book. The one with Rod Taylor as the intrepid time explorer, of course, not the later one, with all its trendy computerised imagery. Still nothing.
Gradually, like an autumn day drawing slowly to a close, the room begins to dim. The area outside the machine becomes blurred, foggy, and then totally dark. Inside the cockpit area, the day is as bright as when Frank stepped inside.
Frank’s head is spinning, and his ears are humming—softly at first, then increasing in intensity until it feels as if his head will explode. He checks his watch and is mildly surprised to not see the hands spinning backwards. The watch hands are immobile. He lifts the timepiece to his ear and hears nothing. Time has stopped!
As he sits, waiting, a disconcerting thought comes to mind. Frank wonders if he is ageing—or maybe ageing in reverse? He can feel his pulse and knows he is breathing, so it’s possible. How long, in his own body’s terms, will he be locked in here? The controls were set from outside, so there’s no way to abort. What if he arrives at his destination an old man—or, worse still, as an infant or even an embryo? What if he runs out of oxygen? Suddenly, Frank begins to feel hungry. Why had he not thought to bring some food? Even one of Rosen’s muffins would be welcome right now.
It’s at this point that, with no small measure of relief, Frank sees the world outside becoming gradually lighter, until finally, he realises that his journey is complete.
Climbing from the cockpit, Frank notices that he had been several metres out in his calculations. The time machine is in fact sitting smack bang in the middle of a road! Still, not too bad, when you consider the fact that he is halfway around the world from his take-off point. The machine is relatively light, so Frank manages to haul it off and behind a tree before anyone sees him. He makes a mental note to himself to remember to reposition it at his arrival point before he leaves, lest he re-emerge at the top of the staircase or some other perilous location.
It’s early in the evening before Frank locates the wine bar/tavern he had read about in an obscure art book. Using a French/English phrasebook he had stolen from the library, he manages to convey to the proprietor his need for both accommodation and work. In what must stand out as the luckiest coincidence of the whole adventure, Frank is offered a job as yard-man and cleaner in return for board and lodging. He has to wait two days, however, before he gets to meet Van Gogh himself.
Frank introduces himself as a dealer in works of art, and after sharing a few Green Fairies Van Gogh agrees to allow Frank to take one of his paintings on consignment. Back at the artist’s residence, and after several brandies, he persuades Van Gogh to do a portrait of him, which Frank, in return, promises to highlight at a new exhibition he is planning, in London. Frank reckons this is a nice touch. He’ll tell the art dealer back home that it was his great-grandfather or some other relative. That he found it in the attic and ‘just wondered if it was worth anything.’
The only catch is that this means Frank has to spend several days there before the painting will be ready. This in turn means that he will, in fact, have to keep his job at the tavern for the duration. Another first, he thinks to himself. If this keeps up I’ll end up going straight! Screw that!
One week later, (plus one hundred and twenty-odd years), Frank Bell is marching along the pavement of his home town with a genuine Vincent Van Gogh portrait under his arm, carefully wrapped in brown kraft paper. He elbows his way through the crowd and bursts through the entrance to the local museum, where the art curator has arranged to meet him. Frank hadn’t mentioned Van Gogh, just that he had a painting that he wanted to have authenticated and valued.
There had been one small hiccup with the return trip. As Frank was stepping out of the machine he accidentally tripped a lever and the machine disappeared into some other fucking time zone. Doesn’t matter though, he’s set for life now, and who cares about the old guy’s machine anyway?
Waiting in the foyer while the dealer examines the painting, Frank is almost beside himself. How much will it be worth? He can see himself living it up in France or Spain. Maybe he’ll buy a yacht and sail the Pacific.
“Mr Bell?” It’s the museum guy. Now for the good news!
Frank can feel his heartbeat and hear the blood rushing in his ears. Tell me, tell me! he screams silently.
“This is the most amazing thing,” the art director coos. “The style, the colours, the actual paints — even the background. Someone has gone to extraordinary lengths here.” He pauses. “Van Gogh works, as you probably know, are very valuable, and, indeed, copies are often in great demand.”
“What’s it worth?” Frank can’t contain himself any longer. South Pacific, here we come!
“Well it’s obviously a fake, but I’d say if you wanted to sell, maybe two or three hundred, even more perhaps,” the man replies with a smile. “I’d be happy to pay that just to hang it in my lounge and kid my friends that it’s real.”
“F-Fake?” Frank stutters. “But I…”
“Well the paint is still fresh for a start, and even in a hundred years, anyone could tell it from an original. The yellow, for example, should be turning brownish from a reaction to the sulphates in the white highlights, and…”
Frank doesn’t hear the rest. Walking out the door in a daze, he feels a tap on his shoulder.
“Frank Bell? I’m Detective Sergeant O’Malley. I’ve just come from visiting with Professor Amos Rosen in the hospital. I’d like a word with you, down at the station.”