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The Slick and the Dead

E J Delaney lives in Brisbane, Australia, and spends many an hour staring out the window. E J's short story "The Sixes, the Wisdom, and the Wasp" was published in Escape Pod (#612) and shortlisted for the 2018 Aurealis Awards. E J's writing appears also in Countdown, Blast Off , Short Circuit, and Third Flatiron.

There's a sucker born every minute. P. T. Barnum may or may not have said it, but you can take my word: they're lined up all over the multiverse, a mirrored infinity of chumps, gulls and pushovers all begging to be parted from their money. That's why I put one of those tinkly little bells above the door. Whenever someone comes in, it reminds me.
Here's one now.
"Slick Johnson?"
She's a twenty-something brunette, designer grunge incarnate, carrying an alligator-skin duffle bag. I'm distracted by her prosthetic arm, so I miss her name when she gives it. Delia? Daphne? I wonder if she'll have trouble signing the contract.
"Slick Johnson." I bail out of a handshake and gesture instead to the framed license on my desk. "Real estate agent for the property connoisseur."
She cocks her head, takes a seat.
I ask how I can help. She's looking for a house to buy and I turn her attention to one I snaffled up last week. It doesn't really match her criteria but that's okay. I have the power of quantum at my disposal. I nod at her concert t-shirt:
"I see you're a Wishdosher fan."
Actually, I don't see that at all. But my scanning software has lifted frontman Fergus De Longe's face from the design. A precis comes up on my screen and I'm able to proffer "Optical Delusion" as my song of choice.
"Oh my god, yes!" she enthuses.
I go on to explain that Fergus De Longe used to be--and in some measure still is--owner/occupier of the house in question. Or rather, of an entirely fungible house elsewhere in the multiverse. Same suburb, same street, same everything. The only difference is the history surrounding him.
"What," she asks, "like his wife caught him cheating and cut off his hand? And so he left the band and started dossing in the suburbs?"
It seems a very exact scenario, but I guess with her impairment I can see where she's coming from. Besides, the multiverse is infinite. Not only is everything possible; it's inevitable.
"Precisely," I agree.
"Oh, if only that were true. I'd buy it in a heartbeat! Imagine, me sleeping in Fergus De Longe's bedroom..."
"Ah, but it is true! To anyone but a quantum physicist it all sounds double Deutsch, but here's how it works...."
I give her the rundown on sets of realities, each of them infinite though some occurring more than others. I leave out the bit where I extorted my old college roommate for a backdoor entry to the university's supercomputer.
"Best of all," I conclude, "I can show you proof. You know how each pixel in a photograph is made up of binary numbers? Well, if I run my camera app through a supercomputer, each bit--each 1 or 0--becomes a qubit, which is a 1 and a 0 at the same time. The photo is quantum entangled, which means--"
She's looking at me blankly. I wave off my own explanation:
"Long story short, I can drop round later and photograph Fergus De Longe standing large as life in what I very much hope will be your new home!"
Her face lights up. "Seriously? Like, 100% the way it is now?"
"Down to the molecule."
"And Fergus an amputee? Just after his girl-next-door wife's kicked him out and chopped off one of those beautiful, wandering hands of his?" She holds up her prosthetic. "Not a fake like the actors use?"
Again, oddly specific... But if that's her fantasy, who am I to disabuse her?
"Freshly severed, unfurnished rooms. A new start! What do you say to an inspection first thing tomorrow?"
"Mnn, forget all that." She hefts the duffle bag onto my desk. "One million now, the rest at settlement. So long as that picture's on the wall, Mr. Johnson, I'm sold!"
Before I can recover myself, she's out the door and gone, the sucker bell tinkling happily. No building and pest. No quibbling over the outrageous asking price. Best of all, this isn't a commission job. When the previous owners came to me, I bought the "De Longe" property outright with a view to selling it on.
Slick, I congratulate myself, you really do put the i in "reality"!
I unlock the "De Longe" house at 9am, blank contract in hand and a picture frame tucked under my arm. The client hasn't arrived yet, so I wander through the empty rooms. Truth be told it's a bit of a dump.
Did Fergus De Longe really live here? I shrug. How else would he have shown up in the Many Worlds snap I took of the empty kitchen? Quantum says yes, and that's good enough for me.
Five minutes later the police burst in. They wrench one arm behind my back and introduce my face to the wall.
"You're a sick bastard," the woman in charge opines. She's torn the wrapping paper from my bespoke picture of Fergus De Longe sans strumming hand. The man looks haggard, his forearm ending in a bloody, bandaged stump.
"Slick," I correct her. "Slick Johnson."
"Where is he?" the officer demands. "Where's Fergus De Longe?"
Before I can answer, she takes a call on her mobile. A second team has raided my office and found the ransom money in my safe.
"Ransom money? No, that's a cash deposit. I--"
Somewhere in the back of my mind the sucker bell starts ringing.
A fake prosthetic, the lady said--while wearing one! A world, she enthused, where De Longe cheated on his wife and she took to him with a cleaver....
I groan, thinking of infinities where Slick Johnson saw through his client's eyeliner, wig, and prosthetic; where she didn't make him her patsy.
"Slick Johnson, I'm arresting you for the abduction, maiming and in all likelihood the murder of Fergus De Longe."
I wonder how much she stands to inherit.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, July 27th, 2022

Author Comments

Slick Johnson was born of a very short discussion as to the virtues of real estate agents. On the one hand, I feel bad for giving him form. (It calls to mind that moment in Ghostbusters when Gozer the Gozerian manifests from the abstract.) On the other hand, writing him affords me some control. There will always be real estate agents. However far humanity travels, the rats and realtors will sneak on board. At least this way I get to dole out some comeuppance!

- E J Delaney
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