Past master of many a riddle

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Today: a complete new thriller entitled 'The Time Detective'!

Inspector Gidley liked to have a drink after work in the pub nearest to the station. Usually he spent the first 10 minutes in the pub staring into space and quietly sighing. It was a bit, thought Gidley, like the noise of that fan that sometimes comes on in a car after you've switched it of ...

"Mind if I ...?" said a voice. Gidley looked up. It was an officer he had never seen before.

"Not at all," said Gidley, hoping the man would just stand there and wouldn't talk. His hopes were dashed. The man ordered a drink then turned chattily towards Gidley.

"Ever thought about time travel?" said the man.

"No," said Gidley.

"Very useful," said the unknown officer." I mean, it would be. To the police."

"Would it?" said Gidley, still not thinking about time travel.

"Just think," said the stranger. "You could go back in time to find out what really happened. You could find missing evidence, missing clues. You could actually see the crime taking place."

"You would make a lot of trouble for yourself," said Gidley. "We have enough unsolved crime today without going back and tackling yesterday's cases. Anyway, being present here today doesn't seem to help us much to solve crime."

"You'd just need to solve one or two historic crimes," said the man. "For PR purposes."

"Sorry?" said Gidley.

"If you could go back in time," said the man patiently, "you could clear up one or two of the famous murder cases, then bask in glory. It would give the police a tremendous image boost if we now cleared up something like the Jack the Ripper murders. Or the Tchaikovsky mystery."

"Is there a Tchaikovsky mystery ?" asked Gidley. "Oh, yes. People once thought he was murdered. Then they thought he died of cholera. Now they think he might have died of suicide because of his homosexuality. If a good police officer travelled back there, he could clear it up straightaway. It would be a huge coup for the modern police force. Imagine the headlines. Police Solve Gay Composer Riddle A Century On!"

"Mmmmm," said Gidley. "There'd be a language problem, of course."

"How so?"

"You'd have to be fluent in Russian in order to question anyone in Victorian St Petersburg, wouldn't you?"

"No, French was fine," said the stranger. Something wrong with the tenses there, thought Gidley. Shouldn't he have said "French would be fine"? Odd....

"Well," said Gidley, "if you could travel back in time to witness a crime and nab the historical culprit red-handed, surely you could also travel back to prevent the crime? If you're going all that way back, and you already know about the crime, you could use your knowledge to stop it, couldn't you?"

The stranger shook his head sadly. "If it has happened, you can't unhappen it. With time travel, you can only witness history, not change history."

Gidley thought about this for a moment. "All right. I'll accept that. But if you go back in time to witness things, you will be witnessed yourself. People back there in time will notice you, wonder about you, and even mention your presence."

For a second the man said nothing. Then he sighed. "If you read accounts of Tchaikovsky's death, you will also read that a suspicious well-dressed stranger had been seen around just after his death. Nobody knows who he was. The same is also true of the scene of the Jack the Ripper murders. Well-dressed man, identity unknown. Some people think it may have been the murderer. But it wasn't."

"Who was it?"

"Me," said the man.

"You?" said Gidley.

"Time traveller," said the man. "Time detective. Snooping around. They noticed me."

What the man said was completely barmy, thought Gidley. And yet ... there certainly were a lot of unidentified strangers in history.

"I don't suppose you ever went to Mozart and asked him to write a requiem mass, did you?" asked Gidley, trying to sound humorous. He turned to the man. There was nobody there. He had gone. Gidley never saw him again. Except once, when he thought he recognised him in a photograph. A photo taken on that fateful day in 1914 when the Archduke Rudolf was shot in Sarajevo. Gidley thought that a man in the crowd looked very like the time detective. But it couldn't be. Could it?

(This story has also appeared in the 'Independent' on 12 July 1998. We are grateful for permission to reprint it now, prior to its first appearance.)

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