The Skin Trade

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Science Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic
For the company, the science of time travel was strictly a business concern. But for one enterprising tourist, it was an art.

Submitted: March 03, 2008

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Submitted: March 03, 2008

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The Skin Trade

It goes without saying that not all of the company’s customers were genuinely interested in holidaymaking. Although most of the tourists wanted exactly what Time Flies had promised in their early advertisements – The Vacation of a Lifetime: Any Time! – from the beginning, enterprising travellers figured they could get a lot more out of their holiday than a dinosaur ride or a crucifixion keyring.

The price of a fortnight’s stay in another era was never cheap. Time travel itself was relatively inexpensive and most of the hotels, lodges and chalets used by the company had been bought for next to nothing from their original, unsuspecting owners. Time Flies, however, had total control of the time travel monopoly and used this advantage to provide an exclusive service affordable only by the rich. The rich and the very determined.

Chuck Torrence, a small businessman from Delta City’s north side, had sold his Deep Ellum apartment, his body painting and piercing business and his left kidney for a one-week stay-over in Nineteenth Century Paris. Neighbours were surprised that Chuck, who never really considered himself an artist but was making a fair living and always seemed happy enough in the work he did, should choose to sell up and blow all his assets in this way. But Chuck had already decided on a working holiday of sorts this Summer.

And so it was that Chuck Torrence found himself standing outside a yellow cottage in Arles, southern France, less than twenty-four hours of leaving the company’s Texas base. It was a warm September evening in 1888. He paused for a second, hoping that he’d done his research properly, then knocked boldly on the sturdy but battered wooden door. After some time he heard coughing and grunts coming from within and the door opened with a horror-movie creak.

A thin man, dressed in something between hand-me-downs and rags, stood in the doorway. His orange beard and the sides of his mouth were smeared with paint, as was his tattered smock. Chuck allowed himself a smile. He had come to the right place.

“Oui?” grunted the grubby man impatiently. Chuck’s smile widened to a deliberate salesman’s grin as he adjusted the translator (property of Time Flies, one week loan).

“Monsieur Van Gogh?” he began, “How would you like to make some money?”

He was four and a half thousand miles and over three hundred years from home, but he was speaking a universal language. Monsieur Van Gogh opened the door wider and silently invited him in. As Chuck’s eyes adjusted to the light inside, surprisingly dim on such a bright day, he noticed a familiar looking chair through a doorway and found himself idly wondering whether Vincent’s friend Paul was due to pay a visit this week.

*

At the Delta City base of the Time Flies company, several angry suits were buzzing around the temporal tracer consoles. A steadily flashing dot, which had been the centre of attention in the vast return gallery for the last couple of increasingly hectic hours, suddenly stopped flashing and disappeared with the kind of ping the microwave makes when your chicken has been overcooked. There was a sharp intake of breath before one man, who wore a white lab coat over his suit, began groaning hysterically.

“We’ve lost him!”
“It’s okay, Kolber. Keep calm,” one suit responded simply.

“Keep CALM?” the professor shrieked, “Listen, Mr Businessman, do you realise what this fellow can do, waltzing around time like this? What if he gets hold of a gun? He could kill your grand-parents before your parents are born or something. What if he tracks down your GREAT grandmother before your grandmother is born, eh? What then? I know about this. I’ve got a Phd in this! I’ve written papers on this! Any moment now we could all cease to have ever existed and you stand there, telling me to keep CALM?”

The suits did stand there, looking from one to the other and, for a moment, Kolber flattered himself that he was being taken seriously. At least it shut him up for a while. 

In fact, though theories regarding the fragility of the Space Time Continuum formed the basis of much of the research that had lead to the construction of the facility and the pioneering work into time travel technology nearly half a century ago, much of it was widely disregarded. Kolber was old school, very old school.

It seemed that the continuum was very quick to repair itself. There had been a few mishaps – barbecued woolly mammoth corpses appearing on public transport, a trend of sporadic fluctuation in the missing persons stats. But all that was decades ago and the patches developed by the company, their insistence on rigorous orientation for all travellers and the instinct of Mother Nature to smooth out a regular chronology seemed to allow for the company’s continued existence along with the rest of the world as we know it. The old theories, notably illustrated by largely forgotten works of fantasy fiction, had had to be adapted, though they occasionally served as a bargaining chip on the very rare occasions that the company had to justify its position as the sole landowner in a truly unique corner of the travel industry.

On the wall of his office, though none of the people in the room knew this, the company’s Chief Executive had a framed poster from the first of Time Flies’ advertising campaigns. Along with the ‘holiday of a lifetime’ slogan that had become a household phrase it displayed a picture of a heroic hunter slaying a vicious, wide-eyed tyrannosaurus rex and the additional tagline: “Tread On As Many Butterflies As You Like!”

None of the suits were seriously worried that Torrence may have resembled a threat to the time balance. They were mostly only curious as to why he’d chosen, against all the rules, to take the tools of his lowly trade – tattoo pigments and needles – with him on a week’s holiday to Nineteenth Century France.

They soon regained the trace, which had apparently cut off for a moment when chuck removed his translator in Rome at the turn of the Sixteenth Century, and pin-pointed his co-ordinates to a basement in Los Angeles (part of the Gamma City sector) in 1968. Within minutes, an armed security patrol were gathered outside the return booths and the company’s finest were preparing to pull Chuck home. You could cut the atmosphere with a blunt scalpel and it would have fallen limply like a slice of particularly lean roast lamb. The presence of so many of the company’s security forces did not bode well. Just what were they imagining they were dragging back?

Two flashes blazed around the lab. The patrol men and women remained firmly in position as the light reflected in their eye shields. The executives turned from the controls to face the intense glow that accompanies a return trip through time. Professor Kolber winced, as he often did.

A chorus of clicks echoed around the room as the patrol squad cocked their weapons. One member held a megaphone to her mouth (hardly necessary as the booth was no more than a couple of metres away but she thought it would look good) and shouted at the clearing mist, itself provided by the company’s design department for effect only. (Time tourists liked to think they were participants in some kind of scientific magic ritual and, for the prices they were paying, the company was happy to go along with this at the expense of a few blocks of dry ice).

“MISTER CHARLES TORRENCE,” the megaphone boomed, “DO NOT MAKE ANY SUDDEN MOVEMENTS. YOU ARE UNDER ARREST.”

Chuck stood before them, naked but for a small purple bath towel, wrapped around his waist. His head of greying black hair was now shaved as smooth as a snake egg and he was covered from here to his toes in fine art. 

The top half of his head had been used as a sketchbook for Michelangelo during the painting of the Sistine chapel (interestingly, these sketches had been thought missing and the artist is reputed to have preferred these originals to much of the finished work in the Vatican but that’s artists for you).

Chuck’s right hand was covered with Hogarth miniatures, his neck adorned by early Twentieth Century French motifs. His upper lip and cheeks formed the canvasses for Salvador Dali and Edvard Munch. Most of his back was given over to romantic landscape painting, including a view of Austria by the young Adolf Hitler (unfinished). A picture of a sabre-toothed creature of some sort, being hunted by Egyptian hieroglyphs, ran along one arm.

As far as could be seen, not one square inch of Chuck Torrence’s skin existed that wasn’t illustrated by one or another of history’s Great Masters. Picasso had painted his toenails and, on his right inner thigh, Da Vinci seemed to be answering for himself the immortal question: just what did the Mona Lisa find so funny?

All of them were signed.

Across the left side of his chest was a poster print of Marilyn Monroe with blue hair. “Don’t shoot!” Chuck called feebly, “It’s still wet.”

“Lower your weapons,” ordered a voice from the doorway. The suits turned automatically in its direction, the soldiers just obeyed.

The Delta Chief Executive, a myth-like figure to any Time Flies employee (some of the younger inhabitants of the room had never glimpsed him nor expected to see him in their lives) stood facing Chuck Torrence with a small but powerful handgun trained on his forehead, at about the point where God and Adam’s fingers were about to touch.

“Security. You’re dismissed. Thanks for your help.” This last sentence seemed to reinforce the instruction emphatically rather than communicate genuine gratitude.

“YES SIR! THA…” barked the Patrol Commander before returning her megaphone to her side. “Thank you, Sir.” They left.

As the door swished shut, Chuck felt cold in the suddenly depopulated room. The Chief Exec fixed him with a serious look and spoke levelly. “Make no mistake about it. If I have to shoot you, I will,” he said. “Do you know how much your skin is worth, though? Undamaged?”

Chuck had enough wisdom not to attempt to take a guess at this. Instead he fell to his knees (almost smudging a portrait of Queen Victoria with Albert) and began to babble: “Look, I’m sorry, okay? It got out of hand. It’s just, the Dutch guy did such an impressive job, I figured, why stop there?” The sunflower tattoo was out of sight, under the towel, round the back, but it wouldn’t have helped Chuck’s case to demonstrate Van Gogh’s skills with a needle at this point in his plea. “I mean, I’m sorry I took the transporter but…”

Chuck and the Chief Exec were now alone in the museum-like calm of the return gallery. Lights flickered off and on silently and seemingly randomly on the computer consoles. “Hey!” said Chuck suddenly and his colourful face lit up. The smile that had greeted Vincent centuries ago returned. “Who’s your favourite artist, huh? Your most admired painter of all time? Probably whichever one’d make you the most money, right?”

The Chief Exec moved to one of the consoles and tapped in a combination, closing Chuck’s return booth. Chuck wasn’t sure if he could still be heard outside the thick glass cylinder but he went on anyway.

“Look, here’s what I’ll do. I’ll get these grafted off my body, as planned, okay? Then, whichever one you like best, it’s yours! Just to show you I’m grateful for the use of company equipment. What d’you say?”

“Theft of company property is a serious offence, Mr Torrence,” The man’s voice seemed to sigh its way into the booth.

“Okay. Good point! That’s a good point!” It was getting colder in his towel and yet the sore patterned skin all over Chuck’s body seemed to burn. “Tell you what: once the pictures are grafted off, we’ll get them auctioned, okay? Then we split the money. Fifty-fifty, you and me. I’m talking about billions here.”

The man in the suit pressed another few buttons on the console. Chuck clasped his hands in front of his groin and shivered. “Sixty-forty..?”

*

In the front lobby of the Delta City base of the Time Flies travel agency, frozen in time in a cylindrical stasis hold, exists the most valuable collection of paintings in the history of the world. Some passers by look upon the resting naked body of Chuck Torrence as the ultimate collection of history’s genii. Critics, such as they are, have described it in terms of a work of art in itself. The company’s executives, though, see the frozen figure as having greater significance. For them, Chuck’s body is a warning to customers and employees alike; an executed criminal nailed to the city gates to remind them that the company is always right.

The identity of Charles Torrence is forgotten; his graffitied body is unrecognisable. No plaque credits him with the collection of these masterpieces; his name appears in no company or government records. Theft of Time Flies property is, after all, a serious offence. And so, Chuck lies in cryogenic slumber, like Judas in the ninth circle of Hell. 

Hanging was too good for him.


© Copyright 2017 Richard Elliott. All rights reserved.

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