Tim – By Nick Vallera

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Pic by Dan Cristian Pădureț

 

 

When he loses his job in an AI lab, the cleaner Henry hacks into a supercomputer called Tim to make it work for him. Tim finds free accommodation for Henry in the homes of wealthy people when the owners are away and helps him steal other people’s identities and money. But no matter how bright Tim is, it’s not perfect. Every glitch might be catastrophic when your life relies entirely on a computer.

*

Tim enhances my genius; Tim will sort my life.

I’ve devoured food I cannot afford, thanks to Tim. I did it to spite this apartment’s owner. I don’t know who he is, just that he’s rich, which stirs my sense of social justice.

The owner doesn’t know a plump man is gulping down his chardonnay and oysters and wallowing in his $29,000 jacuzzi. I’m a Robin Hood in my way.

It’s time to find another place. I leave the building and catch the subway train. For the first time, I’m proud of my bald head. The window reflects my smile, contrasting with the white-collar looks around me.

Poor saps!

They’re destined to strive, and for what? To pile frustrations on frustrations? Why don’t they understand a formula could wipe out their misery? They don’t know what is possible.

Leanne, my girlfriend, doesn’t expect my visit at 7 AM. She unlocks the door and frowns. She keeps her hair in a bob like a doll.

“Hey,” she says. “Have you taken a day off?”

“More or less.” 

She frowns but invites me in. “Did you get fired?”

“Well….”

“Ha.” 

I sigh. “You gonna let me talk or what?”

“Be brief,” she says, rushing to the kitchen. “I must call Alice for today’s meeting in fifteen minutes.”

“Fine,” I say, joining her in the kitchen.

I think about the words I should use to prevent an argument cuz I know Leanne too damn well.

She fries her eggs but pauses, watching me. “So?” 

“I’ll make you a rich woman…. Have I told you about Tim?”

She shrugs. “The AI Supercomputer?” 

I nod. “I cleaned Prof. Romero’s lab.”

“Who’s Prof. Romero?”

“Seriously? She invented Tim.”

“Oh.”

“They needed me to clean the heating system, and I overheard the door password.”

“Why am I not excited?”

“Do you remember Lynn Allen?”

“The old scientist who died last year?”

“Yep.”

“The woman who gave you that… thing?”

“She gave it to me because she didn’t trust her colleagues.”

“And she trusted a cleaner?”

“Not cleaner but the smartest cleaner on earth.”

“O—kay.” 

“The Superdriver X1. It’s a microdisk, the size of a pebble. If you attach it to a CPU component, it’ll transform your phone into the computer you are hacking.”

Leanne handles a spatula, flipping eggs. “You hacked into Tim?”

“Of course. They fired me for no reason.”

“You’re idle, Henry; that’s why they fired you.”

“You know nothing about that place. My supervisor kicked me out because I didn’t lower my head before her.”

“That means that your phone….”

I crack a smile. “My phone is Tim.”

“You lost your job, but why worry? You have Tim.” 

“Do you know what AI can do?”

“Let’s pretend that we never had this conversation.”

“Tim relies on algorithms.”

“So what? Every computer does.”

“Tim does things you can’t imagine.”

“What does it do?” she says, chewing her eggs.

“Computers run the world. Every activity, from global business to your fried eggs, goes online.”

“So?”

“Tim holds the world’s data and does the math. It estimates what will happen with a small margin of error.” 

“Did you test it?”

“My landlord kicked me out because I didn’t pay the rent, but Tim gave me a home.”

She watches the time on her phone. “What home did Tim give you?”

“It found a free apartment… I asked it to.”

“There is no free apartment.”

I stifle a giggle. “Tim finds homes whose owners are traveling.”

“How?”

“It knows what will happen.”

“How can it know what will happen?”

“It owns the data.”

“What if the owner comes back?”

“Statistics, Leanne. Statistics.”

“Statistics don’t predict the future.”

“Are you sure?”

“Gotta go,” she says.

She slams the pan, dish, and fork into the sink, her eyes avoiding mine.

“Wait,” I say, clenching my hands as if I wanted to beg her.

“Gotta go.”

“You can quit your agent job.”

She snarls. “And what can I do?” 

“I told you I broke into homes.”

“Well done, Arsène Lupin. What a life you’re offering me—breaking into strangers’ homes? Getting the honor of feasting on their breakfast leftovers?”

“Using people’s homes is the beginning.”

“The beginning of what? What’s the next step? We borrow people’s underwear?”

“We could ask Tim to say… invest in the stock market?”

“Get the hell outta here.”

“Leanne—”

“Don’t Leanne me,” she says, shoving me outdoors. “Find a job!”

She pushes my chest and slams the door. 

I shuffle to a coffee shop for coffee and donuts. My phone rests in my hand, and my fingertip rubs its screen.

“Tim,” I text, “find a home for tonight.”

“There’s one basement apartment,” Tim texts.

“How to get there?”

It sends me the directions.

I stand up, wrapping my scarf around my neck. A march takes me to the neighborhood where I’ll spend the night. Although the desolation and graffiti make me hurry, I trust Tim. If it says it works—it does. 

In the underfloor, the smell of trash lingers. The door unlocks under my touch. The owner must have forgotten to turn the key, and Tim knew it.

No furniture embellishes the apartment, and no colors paint the walls. I wouldn’t marvel if someone told me I was in prison. I slump on a couch, but it smells like cabbage. My solace is thinking that I’ll be using Tim to find penthouses, Ferraris, and the cash I need. But in my head, I hear Leanne’s words reprimanding me, scratching my serenity, and stifling my freedom.

I text Tim. “When should I leave?” 

“The homeowner is visiting his family in Aurora,” Tim texts. “His alarm clock will ring at 7.00 AM, but his car engine doesn’t bear the cold. Considering tomorrow’s temperature, I estimate the engine oil will thicken. It won’t flow as it should. Given all, he should be back around 10 AM.”

I watch sitcoms for hours. I take a shower, stuff my stomach with a pizza that weighs like a stone, and resume watching sitcoms. At dusk, a message from Leanne flashes. 

“Henry, you’re a fool. Let’s stop seeing each other. Goodbye.”

“Worse for you,” I mutter. “Tim’s not like Leanne, who believes judging me is okay.”

Nighttime uglifies the home.

I text Tim. “Can you find an apartment for tomorrow?”

“No apartment found.”

Oh, geez!

“Can you….” My typing halts because Tim sends a message.

“Correction,” it says. “An apartment will be free for seven days.”

“Awesome,” I text, sipping from a can of beer that ruins my appetite. “Gimme the details.”

“31 West 84th Street, New York.”

“New York?”

“You should consider a larger territory—the entire country or more.”

“I can’t spend a fortune traveling.”

“I can solve the traveling problem.”

“How?”

“Mr. Carl Senise will die of a heart attack in the airport parking lot before catching his flight to New York. You might take his ID and ticket from his pocket. He looks like you, and you might take his place.”

“Hold on. How can you calculate that? What if the man doesn’t die?”

“His pacemaker is about to fail. Look at this formula.” 

A series of math symbols interrupted by numbers pop out. But formulas with no words don’t help me understand. 

“I considered the weather,” Tim continues, “Mr. Senise’s car’s vibration, stress, and air pollution.”

“Wow.” 

“Not to mention his likely breakfast and the grief for his recent wife’s death. Even the airport noise and the radio news he’ll be listening to on the way to the airport will play a role.”

“What about the news?”

“Lennox Corporation broke. Mr. Senise’s favorite news channel will mention it at half past five when he goes to the airport. The man heavily invested in Lennox Corporation’s stock and…. Do you want me to continue with the variables?”

“Tim, I’m a genius for choosing you as a friend.” 

I try to sleep, but the couch hurts my back. In the morning, I leap up and leave the apartment. A cab—called by Tim—is waiting for me. The feeling of merging a human with a machine gives me hope and strength. Tim and me; that’s the formula. I’m a demigod under its guidance.

Chicago O’Hare Airport welcomes me with jets circling in the sky, waiting for their turn to land. The airport brings back a memory of Leanne and me on a trip to Hawaii.

My recollections give room to the action. I say goodbye to the taxi driver, paid by Tim stealing money from cardholders; let’s call it a contribution. The parking is my target, and my pulse quickens. 

Tim directs me to a Cadillac with the engine off and the radio buzzing. My hands shake, but I grip the handle and pull, flinging the door open. A man lies on the wheel. I look around to ensure nobody sees the scene, and my hand digs into his coat pocket, grabbing cards. I shut the door and rush to the check-in, crossing a family of four talking about their trip to Mexico.

I approach the counter with my heart in my throat.

“Can I see your ID and ticket, sir?” the ground assistant asks.

I stretch my arm to her, carrying the documents.

“Have a pleasant flight, Mr. Senise,” the assistant says, returning the documents. 

***

It’s lunchtime when an elevator takes me to the New York penthouse Tim found. Why do these walls increase my sense of safety? Is it their marble that tricks my eyes? The living room surprises me; my ex-apartment would fit twice.

The excitement pushes me to explore the apartment. I scan it from its two-fridge, two-oven kitchen to its granite bathroom. A desire grows in me, and I know I must fulfill it. I turn on the faucets, spread liquid soap into the tub, and start the hydro-massage function. Water fills the tub, producing steam that seeps into my nose and warms my lungs. My clothes end up in a washing machine, and my body dips with no regrets. I have moments in the bubble bath to reconnect to my emotions, asking myself questions. 

The home phone rings, the answering machine turns on, and a voice speaks. “Paul? It’s Helen. George didn’t come back last night. Call me.”

Is George having an affair? Sorry for you, Helen.

I leave the tub, uncork a bottle of Malbec, and drink to my success. Caviar, Taleggio, and lox complete the feast. 

Oh, thanks, Tim!

In the late evening, my craving for pizza blossoms. My finger rubs my phone screen, looking for a pizza restaurant. But Tim must approve; it should review its equations when I get in touch with the world.

“Tim, I’d like to call Gino’s Pizza,” I text, dreaming of a slice of pepperoni. 

“I recommend calling The Four Seasons,” Tim texts.

“The Four Seasons has four stars—Gino’s five.”

“The Four Seasons’ delivery boy, Sam Klavinsky, doesn’t look the customers in the eyes, and you don’t want to be noticed.”

“How can I pay?” 

“You can use the homeowner’s credit card he forgot on a table by the door; its code is 440174.”

Wow—this is the life I deserve! 

More wine induces the euphoria I missed. Then a message from Tim comes.

“Call the restaurant between 8.15 and 8.17.”

My clock strikes 8.13. 

“Why?” 

“During those minutes, the chances that Sam Klavinsky delivers your pizza are 99.9%.”

I follow Tim’s instructions, and a man comes after calling the restaurant. He hands me a pizza box, keeping his eyes lowered. I devour my pizza in front of the TV, listening to a woman talking about tech improvements.

A man laughs at her face. “Can you name one invention that is worth citing?” 

“AI Supercomputer?”

My blood freezes; I’m involved. 

The man clears his voice. “AI Supercomputer is a myth.”

“Wrong,” the woman says. 

The man frowns. “How—”

“Prof. Romero invented it and called it Tim.” 

A sound announces the end of the drier’s cycle. I wear my garments, and my curiosity pushes me to the bedroom. 

Let’s loot the closet.

My hand pauses on the closet knob, and my imagination plays the guessing game. 

Will I find a suit or a polo shirt?

The door flies open, but my face pales. My brain can’t process what I see. Surprise is an emotion that I hate.

A man lies on the closet floor, blood smudging his face and clothes. 

He’s dead.

I flinch. Didn’t Tim know? 

I text, “Tim, what’s a corpse doing in the closet?”

“Don’t worry,” Tim replies, “it won’t interfere with your plans.”

“Damn, Tim! Are you out of your circuits? I don’t want to share a home with a dead body.”

“Standing on my calculations, you should keep the closet door shut. If you do it, the corpse’s decomposition process shouldn’t bother you.”

“Don’t give me that crap. The police might accuse me of homicide…. Who killed the man?”

“It was an accident. Yesterday, Mr. George Webber discovered his wife was having an affair. Her lover is Mr. Paul Rosteau, the homeowner. George came to the apartment and attacked Paul but slipped, and a desk edge bashed his head in, killing him. Paul fled to Singapore.”

“Find an apartment with no corpses.”

My phone rings; it’s Leanne.

“Henry?” 

“What?”

“Where are you?” 

“Why?”

“I miss you.” 

“I don’t,” I say, hanging up.

I focus on Tim’s message and flinch. “The police are after you.”

“You son of an algorithm,” I text. “Why are the police after me? You must hide me.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Sorry my…. Ah, let’s think about the future. What next?”

“Abduct a woman.”

“What?”

“My math says that abducting a woman will give you chances to escape the police. Hurry! Follow my coordinates.”

I rush to the street, turn the corner, and enter a parking lot. The dead man’s picture doesn’t leave my brain, but Tim wants me to focus on what I’m about to do. 

A woman winces when I barge into her car.

“Drive,” I say.

“Where?”

“Drive, for god’s sake. I’ve got a gun in my pocket.”

She launches her BMW onto the street. “Where do you want me to go?”

“Drive to….” I check Tim’s message and point at a bridge. “That way.”

Half-an-hour trip to the suburbs follows in which she alternates sighs with glances. She doesn’t look scared. Her eyes give me the impression she’s trying to seduce me.

“Stop in front of that house,” I say.

She grimaces. “My house?”

“Don’t you want to invite me for a drink?” I say to ease the tension but regret.

She giggles. “Our first date, and you go straight to the point, inviting yourself to my house?”

Her voice singsongs, and I hate it.

She leers. “I like your mind, Mr. Abductor.”

“Stop flirting.”

“Why? I love to flirt.”

“I can’t focus if pretty women flirt with me.”

“Um—thanks for calling me pretty—so hot.”

“Knock it off.”

“I’m Rose. Do you have a name, Mr. Abductor?”

I roll my eyes. “Henry.”

“We should take a chance, Henry.”

“Nope.”

“Is my insistence putting you off? I find bald and chubby men sexy.”

I move my finger in my pocket, pretending to hold a gun. “What about a bullet in your head?” 

“There’s nothing like the thrill of having a weapon pointed at you.”

“Get out of the car and shut up.”

She hugs me, and her optimism hooks me, carrying me away. My lips feel hers, and her abandoning herself to lust turns me on. We go into the house, and sex takes up the evening. Chinese food fills our stomachs, and we return upstairs. I undress her, and she undresses me, but a message from Tim halts the magic.

“Watch out. Frank Medeiros is in the house,” it says.

“Who the hell is Frank Medeiros?” I text.

“A psychopath.”

“What happened?” Rose says, grabbing my arm. “I read fear in your face.”

I stare at her. “Frank Medeiros is in the house.” 

“Is he your friend? Hey, I’m not into a threesome.”

“Frank Medeiros is a psychopath.”

“W—what?”

Tim’s message comes. “I calculated Frank brought a chainsaw. He’ll chop your bodies into pieces if he catches you guys.”

“Where is he?” I text, my hands shaking.

“Downstairs. Can’t you hear the chainsaw’s noise?”

“Fuck no. What do you suggest? Can we run away from the window?”

“You can’t, Henry.”

“Why not?”

“Because Frank sealed the windows.”

I jerk my head to Rose. “The man’s a lunatic, and he sealed the windows.”

“Argh!” she screams.

“And he’s coming with a chainsaw to slaughter us.”

“Argh!”

Naked, Rose launches herself to the door and locks it. Hands in her hair, she keeps skipping and screaming.

“Please, Tim, help us,” I text.

“Frank will break the door,” it replies. “He has a hand grenade and will throw it into the bedroom.”

I stare at Rose. “He’ll drop a grenade on us.”

“Argh!” Rose screams, skipping like she’s on embers.

I shift to the window, shove the curtains aside, and pull the handle. The panel unlocks.

“Tim,” I text, “the windows are open. You said that the lunatic sealed them.”

“Oh,” Tim replies.

“What’s going on?” 

“There’s a misunderstanding, but don’t worry, you can relax.”

Rose grabs my arm and pulls it. “What’s going on? Is there a psychopath or not?”

I shake my head. 

“You scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry, but it’s Tim’s fault.”

“Who the heck is Tim?” she says, wearing her nightgown. “Know what? You are the psycho.”

She hurls my clothes at me and tells me to leave. 

“I can’t leave,” I tell her. “I’m hiding from the police, and don’t forget I abducted you.”

“If you don’t leave,” she says, “I’ll call Alphie.”

“Alphie?”

“Alphie,” she repeats with a nod.

“Your dog?”

“Alphie’s not a dog.”

“Is it a cat?”

Rose joins her hands on her chest and looks up. “Alphie will come and save me.”

“Is Alphie a pigeon?”

“Aw—stop it. Alphie loves me, and the more I meet cuckoos like you, the more I want him.”

“Where is he?”

“Alphie will give you what you deserve. Once, three idiots offended me. Alphie tracked them down and rammed their heads into their car seats.”

“Oh, I preferred Frank Medeiros.”

“Asshole!”

She grabs her cell phone, but I snatch it from her hand, and she bursts into tears, dropping to her knees.

I text Tim. “What about Alphie?”

“Alphie?” Tim replies. “There’s no Alphie.”

I look at Rose. “You made it up.”

“No. Alphie’s my love.”

I slam her phone onto the wall, and it breaks into pieces.

Then I point at the bathroom. “Enter the bathroom without making a fuss.”

I lock her into the bathroom, and my body collapses on a couch downstairs. 

“Tim,” I text, “what happened before?”

“Quantum data overlapped,” Tim replies. 

“Meaning?”

“I miscalculated the day and place that Frank Medeiros will strike.”

“I hope the mistake won’t repeat.”

“Sorry.”

***

The following day, Rose’s screams wake me up. I run upstairs, and the sunlight has invaded the house. 

“Why are you yelling?” 

“You locked me in the bathroom, idiot.” 

“Goodbye, Rose.”

“Damn you and your friend!”

“Who?”

“The guy who messages you.”

“Tim is a supercomputer.”

“Give me a break.”

“It calculates everything.”

“Like the madman with the chainsaw?”

“It was a mistake, but Tim said Frank Medeiros will kill soon.”

“Why don’t you call the police, asshole?”

“The police are looking for me.”

“You don’t care about people dying, do you?”

“Well….”

“See, that’s your problem, Henry. You don’t give a damn about the others.”

Is Rose right? I could use Tim to prevent crimes. Why am I not doing that?

I leave the house and drive Rose’s car to downtown Manhattan, where Tim found an apartment for me. I hesitate in front of the building, hands in my pockets. Tim told me to wait because of a quantum glitch. I hope Tim doesn’t mess up, but I don’t have to answer to Rose. I stifle a laugh when I picture her screaming in her bathroom.

Suddenly, a cry interrupts my thoughts.

“FBI!”

Hands twist my arms and bring me to the ground.

“Henry Fantini, you’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have a right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be appointed for you.”

It’s like the world crumbled. 

The agents hurl me into an SUV that takes off, and I let the movement cradle me. But the wheels’ screech announces the arrival at the destination, and I wake to reality. Doors unlock, hands pull my shackles, and a march takes me into a building, through an aisle, and inside a room. Agents force me to wear a convict uniform and sit. Scowling at me, they march outside and leave me in the company of four chairs and a table. Chains restrain my arms, and the uniform is a shitty comfort.

Two people holding files interrupt my solitude. A man smiles; his face is the ketchup color, reminding me of a friend who devoured 15 pizza slices in a row. The other is an older woman. Her hair reminds me of a soldier, and her look leaves no doubt that she’d send me to death if she got a chance. 

The woman asks about a dead man.

“We found him in a closet,” she says, slamming a picture onto the table. 

I know him. They think I killed George Webber. 

I’m in hell. Flames burn my skin. Demons pierce my backside with pitchforks. 

A man in his seventies enters and takes off his jacket; his briefcase weighs him down. His walk says he knows the place. 

He sits next to me and keeps whispering. “I’m your lawyer, son. Don’t answer their questions if you don’t feel like it.”

The woman burns me with her look. “Why did you kill George Webber?”

“I didn’t.”

“Why did you stay in his apartment?”

“Tim persuaded me.”

“Tim?” the woman says. “The Tim who sent us a message and told us about your mischief?”

“What?”

“The very same Tim who messaged us from your phone?”

“So, Tim told you everything? That son of—”

“Tell us about ‘Tim,’ please,” the male officer says, his look resembling a mother worried for her child. “He doesn’t seem to be the friend you thought he was.”

I laugh.

“What’s so funny,” the woman asks.

“I know your game,” I say. “You’re trying to turn us against each other.”

“Tell us the true story then,” the man says.

I tell them everything, from the supercomputer hacking to Rose’s abduction. The detectives lean over like they don’t want to miss one word. The woman’s eyes narrow, and the man’s forehead sweats. 

“Bullshit,” she says.

There’s a scar on her jaw, the color of the meat. It might be a stab wound from an FBI operation against drug dealers. Or it could have resulted from a domestic accident, like an object falling from a shelf. The scar makes me think about an alien. The kind of alien that rips its host’s skin apart, like in a sci-fi movie where creatures turn up from people’s bodies.

Her colleague clears his throat. “We haven’t found evidence of it. I mean… Tim? Our expert analyzed your phone and found out you sent yourself messages. A billion times, the name Tim appeared, but you brought it into your life cuz it doesn’t exist.”

Confusion assails me.

A minute of silence follows, but my lawyer breaks it. “Officers, what do you accuse my client of?”

“Forgery, theft, burglary, abduction, and homicide,” the woman says.

“Son,” the lawyer whispers, “If you behave, you might be free in thirty years.” He blinks one eye. “We could play the mental-issue card. You feel me?”

I’m frozen, thinking about why I’m in this room, and my life, from childhood to Tim, floats in my head.

“How could I fool the homeowners without Tim?” I say. “Knowing when and where those apartments could host me…. Ah, come on!”

“That’s what you should explain to us,” the woman says.

These clowns think I lost it. But I chased my ideal, the desire to be half-man and half-machine, a demigod, and to become rich to enjoy the juice of life. Prison awaits me. I picture my life behind bars without Tim, the cons vexing me. I imagine the days, weeks, and years marked by an incision in the wall by my bed—just myself and my thoughts.

Tim is dead. The authorities killed it; they killed a dream.


 

About the Author

Nicola Vallera is an English teacher certified by the University of Cambridge (Celta). He lives in Brazil, and his hobbies are reading and writing. He published one short story (The Endless City – 2019 – Deadman’s Tome and Datura). One short story (The Beggar on the Bridge – 2023 – Fabula Argentea). One short story (She Deserved to Die – 2023 – Adelaide Magazine).