November 9th 1966
Sixty-five. Seventy. Seventy-five. Alyson Ramirez’s foot hit the floor and her 1964 Ford Cortina screamed, straining for speeds it wasn’t used to. She felt the deep shudder that rose from the core of the car grind against her foot, palms and fingers through the accelerator and steering wheel.
But she had to push this feeble bucket of bolts to its limits, otherwise she’d never keep up.
A shrill ringing cut into the Cortina’s reverberant roar.
She had to answer. Being dead was the only acceptable excuse for not answering her boss’s call. Twitching with the usual flutter of fear, she pressed the call answer button on her hands-free kit.
“Have you found her?” Her boss’s half distorted voice hissed and crackled from the car’s 1960s speakers.
Ramirez swallowed. She saw Nina O’Brien’s blue Alfa Romeo Spider surge round a blind corner up ahead. “Yes. I’m in pursuit of her now.”
“Don’t lose her. A lot of important things happened in 1966. We can’t let her interfere with any of them.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ll call you when—”
It all happened before Ramirez’s mind could register it. At three times the speed limit, she turned round the same blind corner, half on the other side of the road. Being nearly 5am, her brain had adjusted to the solitude of suburban West London’s roads, so she didn’t expect to meet the dazzle of oncoming headlights.
Tyres howling, the other car swerved. So did Ramirez. A reflex by both. Head-on collision avoided, the rear of the other car still clipped the front of her Cortina, the crash and squeal of metal assaulting her ears.
Foot on the brake, Ramirez came to an abrupt stop. She glimpsed the other car in her rear-view mirror. Then it was gone. Spinning in her seat, she realised from the continuous thumping, rattling and crunching that it had careened off the road and was lurching down the tree-strewn embankment.
All the noise stopped. Ramirez guessed that a tree had broken its descent. She flew out of the car and dived across the road to the embankment.
Oh my God, oh my God, oh my God.
What have I done?
The white Austin Healey’s one operational headlight spilled some light upon the scene in the embankment. Most of the front of the car was crushed against a thick oak tree with low sprawling branches, some of which had shorn through the car.
A woman in a blue dress with bloodied legs was floundering towards the car from a little further up the embankment. It looked like she’d been tossed from the car, or had jumped out as it careered towards the oak tree.
“Ma’am!” hollered Ramirez, hurtling down the bank towards her. “Stop! Get away from the car!”
The woman stopped and faced Ramirez. Her blue dress was ripped and streaked with blood. Her brown locks were in disarray, rain-wet and tangled. Her face, too, was smeared with what looked like a mix of blood, tears, mud and purple mascara.
“W-we have to help him!” the woman screamed.
“Ma’am, what’s your name?”
“Rita. R-Rita Northam.”
Rita Northam. Rita Northam. Nope, don’t know that name. Can’t be important.
Oh, who am I kidding?! She might be the most important woman in the world!
“Okay, Rita,” said Ramirez gently. “You’re hurt and this car could explode at any moment. I’ll go. You head up the embankment and get to a safe distance.”
Rita’s eyes darted up and down Ramirez’s black suit. “Are you the police?”
Sobbing, Rita nodded, murmured, “O-okay,” and began climbing towards the road.
Ramirez clambered over rocks, bushes and uneven, muddy ground to reach the car. Tiny shards of shattered windscreen flecked the mud all around it and shone like silver coins.
Her stomach turned when she saw the carnage inside the car. Leather seats, formerly white, now pink with smeared blood. Tree branches inside the car, sprayed red and dripping blood. Blood splashes all over the dashboard and glove compartment. Blood, blood, blood. It was like someone had exploded.
As it happened, someone almost had. She retched when she saw the driver’s body, head missing, a thick branch mashed against the bloody, sinewy remnants of his neck.
Ramirez glanced around, hand over mouth. In the faint glow from the headlight, she saw the head. There was a large wound to the right side, probably from the impact with the branch, but the facial features were still intact, if twisted in an awkward grimace.
“Shit,” she whispered, recognising the face immediately. “Shit, shit, shit.”
Ramirez hurtled back up the embankment, dashing past Rita, who was sitting crying in the foetal position. She heard Rita call, “Is he okay?! Is he alive?!” She ignored her and leapt inside her car.
Her phone call still active, her boss’s voice whirred from the speakers as she got in: “Ramirez! Alyson! What happened? Ramirez, are you there?”
Ramirez released an inaudible sigh. That flutter of fear she felt when talking to her boss was gone. Yes, she’d feel the sting of her boss’s wrath over this. Yes, she’d lose her job. None of it mattered.
“Ma’am, we have a problem,” she murmured.
“What problem? What have you done?”
“I think I’ve just killed Paul McCartney.”
January 3rd 2031
Bailey pulled into the gravel driveway of her grandfather’s Buckinghamshire mansion and parked. From her car she gazed at the three storeys of redbrick gable walls, bay windows and dressed granite quoins—a lavish picture of her grandfather’s wealth. Lessening the picture was the veil of dirt, bird muck and Sahara sand that covered her windscreen. No rain for two weeks, and she kept forgetting to fill up her screen wash.
She smiled. Her grandfather used to make fun of her for only washing her car once every three years. He used to leave little messages in the dirt.
That is, he used to. He used to cook her bacon sandwiches every time she visited too. Always fried, never grilled. Always smoked. The unhealthier the better.
He used to do that. Before he got so old. Before cancer began its recurring and relentless assault on his body.
Bailey fought a tear, sighed deeply, willed the knot in her stomach to loosen, and got out of the car.
Looking back at her brown, formerly green Mazda Dimension, she smiled again, remembering a note her grandfather once left on her bonnet: I’ll play nothing but the Frog Song till you clean me.
Nancy, Bailey’s step-grandmother, greeted her at the door. “Do come in, my love. He’s been looking forward to your visit.”
Bailey made her way to her grandfather’s bedroom. There he was, sitting up in bed, watching the news on his holobox. Sinking eyes, thinning hair, pale, leathery skin clinging to every point and curve of the bones in his face. Now just a wisp of the former Beatle and rock legend Paul McCartney. Yet his eyes were wide and alert, and when he saw Bailey, some pink glowed on his cheeks. Very, very old—yes. But you wouldn’t have guessed that his doctor had given him just days to live.
“Bailey, my darling,” he said. His voice was breathy, strained. “Come closer. We must talk.”
Bailey kissed her grandfather’s head and pulled up a chair next to his bed. “How are you, Grandpa?”
“No time for that. Did you bring a recorder like I asked?”
“Yes, Grandpa.” She removed the Eccles Mark 4 voice recorder from her pocket.
“Good. I need you to record everything I say.”
“Okay…” Bailey set the recorder down on her grandfather’s bedside table. “What’s this about, Grandpa?”
“Bailey, I need you to use the information I’m about to give you. Use it to expose them.”
“Grandpa, you’re not making any sense.”
“Bailey, decades before you were born, in 1966, there was a horrific car accident. A white Austin Healey with a man and woman inside collided with another and crashed into a tree. The man was decapitated.”
Bailey threw her hand over her mouth. “Oh my God,” she mumbled through slightly parted fingers. “Who was he?”
Bailey and her grandfather stared at each other for a moment. Though his face was drawn and tired, his eyes were alive and vehement, like they belonged to someone else—a person who wasn’t dying. Nothing in his eyes suggested he was mad.
Bailey played devil’s advocate and said gently, caressing his withered hand, “No, Grandpa. You’re Paul McCartney.”
“I haven’t lost my mind, Bailey,” he insisted, still with the same poised expression. “This is the God’s honest truth. I’ve been covering up something terrible for more than sixty years.”
“Have you heard of the ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy theory that circulated at the end of the 60s?”
“I—I’ve heard of it. Don’t know much about it. You know me, Grandpa. I’ve always hated all that crap.”
“It’s not crap.”
She released a small, nervous titter. “Oh, Grandpa. Don’t be silly.”
“Bailey, I’ll tell you what I remember about my childhood. My teens. My early twenties.”
“A white room.”
“That’s what I remember. A white room. Bare walls. The odd visitor. Doctors. Tutors. Men and women in dark suits. I never knew anyone’s names. But I remember overhearing conversations between them. Talking about Paul McCartney, about him being in a car crash with some lady called Rita. Obviously they saw no need to be particularly tight-lipped about anything.”
“Because they were going to rewrite my memory. I was going to become Paul McCartney.”
Sighing, Bailey stood up. “Grandpa, I’m going to go and get Nancy.”
“No. There isn’t much time. I could be dead tomorrow.”
“Bailey, I’m not going to use that clichéd line you always hear in movies and say, ‘I know this sounds crazy.’ Because none of it does. Not to me. I know there are people out there who operate from the shadows, secretly manipulating our lives. I know because I spent the first twenty-four years of my life with them.”
Bailey sat back down. She could tell he was getting agitated. “So these people, they—they rewrote your memory?”
“Well, they tried.” Her grandfather’s voice seemed to grow coarser, more broken, as he spoke. It was difficult to imagine he was once a great singer.
“It never worked, the memory rewrite. Not properly. I remember, they did it and I had some of Paul’s memories. Enough to pass their little tests before they released me. But I still had all of my own, too. I still remembered everything they’d done, everything they’d said.”
Bailey humoured him. “What did you do?”
“I went to meet the others. George, John, Ringo. They were recording with Paul—the real Paul—at Abbey Road Studios that night, the night of the crash. Apparently Paul had an argument with John and stormed out. I told them everything—as much as I knew at that point anyway. They thought I was mad.”
Well that didn’t surprise Bailey.
“I encouraged them to investigate. They were Paul’s friends, so they did. And while the people who did this had tried to hide all the evidence, they couldn’t hide everything. We were able to track down this Rita woman. Rita Northam. She was a meter maid—what we called a female traffic warden in those days. She was reluctant at first, said she’d been threatened into silence. When we agreed not to go public, she told us about the crash, how Paul had spotted her on his way home and offered her a lift. She blamed herself, wondered if she’d distracted Paul from the road. George, John and Ringo were devastated.”
“Are you two all right in here?” said Nancy from the bedroom doorway.
Her grandfather’s grave face loosened as he shifted his gaze to Nancy. His eyebrows bobbed and a smile formed on his thin, blue-grey lips. “Yes, my darling. Fine.”
“Would either of you like tea? Bailey, you look chilly.”
“No, thank you,” her grandfather answered for her. “We won’t be long.”
When Nancy turned and started in the direction of the staircase, her grandfather whispered, his grim frown re-formed, “Go and close the door.”
Bailey did as asked, before returning to her chair by her grandfather’s bed.
“I don’t want her to find out like this,” he said. “I will tell her. But I want to make sure it’s all properly recorded first.”
“Grandpa, I really think—”
This time he simply ignored her and continued, “Nothing really happened after that until the ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy theory went public. That’s when they visited us. Men and women, dressed in black, like when I was a kid. Said they were from some department of the government that looked after ‘public feeling’. Said that conspiracy theories were a source of unrest, so they liked to investigate them.”
“Doesn’t sound particularly legit,” Bailey commented, still humouring him.
“Course not. It was bullshit. But they didn’t know the memory rewrite never worked. As far as they knew, I thought I was Paul.”
“So what did they do?”
“They interrogated us about the ‘clues’ about Paul’s death that people had been seeing on our album covers. On the Abbey Road cover—that picture of the four of us that was like a funeral procession, with me as the corpse. And the back cover, the girl in the blue dress— ‘Lovely Rita’—as we called her in the song. They asked us about the hidden metaphors people had been spotting in our lyrics. The secret messages in our songs that you could only hear if you played them backwards. Like at the end of I’m So Tired, you can hear ‘Paul is a dead man, miss him, miss him, miss him!’ when you play it backwards. We persuaded them that we’d heard the rumour back at the beginning of ’67, and thought it was amusing. So we deliberately inserted the clues as a joke.”
“So you actually did insert clues? That wasn’t just a paranoid assumption made by the conspiracy theorists?”
“Some of those clues were real, yes. Some were made up by the conspiracy theorists, but some were real. But John—he was the main one behind the clues—he wasn’t doing it as a joke. It was his way of dealing with it. He hated that we were covering it up. He wanted to somehow let the fans know the truth.”
“And did they believe you? These men and women in black? That it was just a joke?”
“I think so. They went away. The conspiracy theories died down. We heard nothing more of it. Until…”
He reached towards his bedside table, pulling open the top drawer and lifting out an envelope, his face creasing with pain as he did so.
“Here. Read it.”
He handed the envelope to Bailey. She scanned it briefly. It was addressed to Paul McCartney at an address she’d never heard of. Not a surprise. Her grandfather had lived in a lot of places.
She slipped the letter out of the envelope and read it:
I’m sorry, but I’ve had enough. I know we’ve all been living with this for a long time, but it’s wrong. I will not continue to defile the memory of our friend—the real Paul McCartney—any longer. It’s been coming between me and Yoko. She’s been pleading with me for years to tell the truth, and she’s right.
I’ve decided to put an end to this. It’s time everyone knew the truth. Not through guessing silly clues in our albums. It’s time people heard the full story of the night Paul died, and how we helped cover it up. I’ve been speaking to Rita. It’s been eating her alive for years too. We’re going to do it together. I’ve arranged for us to have a meeting with a journalist next week.
Please understand that I don’t blame you for any of this. I know there have been times when I made you feel like I did, and I’m sorry for that.
Let’s talk soon.
When Bailey looked up, a single tear was teetering on the brim of her grandfather’s lower left eyelid. When he blinked, the tear fell, rolling down his craggy cheek and into the corner of his mouth.
“There was no meeting with any journalist,” her grandfather said dismally. “I got that letter two days before John was shot dead outside the Dakota in New York.”
“You think they got to him?”
“No doubt in my mind. And they got to Rita too. She went missing shortly after John’s death. I tried contacting her.” Bailey could see that he was starting to break into sobs. “I went to see her. There—there was evidence of a break-in, but—”
A sudden clink and heavy thud startled the both of them. Paul flinched. Bailey jerked towards the sound. A vase of flowers, still intact, rolled on its side on the carpet, its water spilled in a growing pool around the rim and starting to seep into the pile.
Evidently, from the continued flailing of the curtains around the window sill where the vase had stood, a sharp draught through the partly open window was responsible. It was becoming increasingly grey and storm-like outside. Finally some rain was on the way.
Bailey lurched from her chair to pick up the vase and place it back on the window sill, closing the window as she did so. “I’ll go and get something to clean this up,” she said.
“No, it’s only water. We need to finish this.” Her grandfather’s breathing had quickened and each word fell off the edge of a breath. A start like that was the last thing his frail, failing body needed.
Bailey sat back down.
“Where was I?” he asked.
“Er—you were saying—you think they got to Carolyn—sorry, Rita.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but stopped. His thick, unkempt, grey eyebrows dipped low over his eyes.
“Carolyn? Where did you get Carolyn from?”
“Sorry—slip of the tongue.”
“No, but… Carolyn was her first name. She went by the name Rita, but that was actually her middle name. How could you know that?”
“Like I said, Grandpa. Slip of the tongue.”
He bent his emaciated body stiffly and awkwardly towards the bedside table, leaning over the Eccles Mark 4 voice recorder she had placed there.
“You haven’t recorded anything. This thing isn’t even switched on.”
Bailey’s heart thumped. A dry swallow lodged in her throat. “Oh, Grandpa. I’m so sorry.”
His face, drawn into a pointed frown, unfurled into a wide-eyed look of horror. “Oh my God…”
As he opened his mouth to cry out for Nancy, Bailey sprang forwards, swiped a pillow from next to him and plunged it over his face, forcing his head against the bed. She pressed down with both hands, till she could feel all the bones in his face. His arms flailed. His skeletal hands grasped her forearms in a futile attempt to pull her off, but his upper body strength was negligible. It was no more difficult than restraining a child.
When he stopped squirming and his arms fell limply at his sides, Bailey lifted the pillow and placed it back where it was. She fixed his dead stare, lowering his eyelids and closing his mouth so he looked asleep. Then she kissed his forehead, whispered, “I’m sorry,” took the recorder and left the room.
“Is he all right?” said Nancy, sitting with a cup of tea in the kitchen as Bailey entered to say goodbye.
“He fell asleep while he was talking to me,” said Bailey. “Bless him.”
Nancy uttered a faint gasp. “He isn’t—? You—you checked he was—?”
“He was still breathing when I left, yes. I’d leave him for a bit—let him rest. He seemed to get so exhausted just talking to me for a few minutes. But when he wakes up, tell him I said goodbye. And that I love him.”
Bailey departed. A fierce squall of rain-filled wind pelted her face and whipped her hair as she dashed towards the car. Once inside, she took out her phone and called her boss.
“What happened?” he asked.
“It was as you suspected, sir.”
“A deathbed confession?”
“Yes. Turns out he’s been deceiving us for years. The memory rewrite never worked. He always knew he wasn’t the real Paul McCartney.”
“Mmm. Thought as much. Well, despite Alyson Ramirez’s monumental fuck-up, at least we’ve kept history more or less intact. I trust you sorted it?”
“Yes, sir. He—” She felt a small tremor of emotion spiral up her throat. She swallowed, forcing it back down. “He won’t be telling anyone else.”
C.R. Berry is a British author with designs on building his own time machine. Till then, he’s making do with time travelling through his books. His other preoccupation is with mysteries, urban legends and conspiracy theories, which is why his forthcoming novel, Million Eyes, is a time travel/mystery/conspiracy mash-up. Think Doctor Who meets The Da Vinci Code meets 24. He’s also working on a series of loosely linked short stories set in the Million Eyes universe. Paul is one of those stories.
The Million Eyes short stories have also been published in Scribble, Tigershark and Metamorphose. His story in Scribble was voted 3rd prize winner of that issue. In 2014, he won 2nd prize with an unrelated story (about a turkey with mental health issues — yes, you read that right) in the To Hull and Back Humorous Short Story Competition.
You can follow C.R. Berry on his website (crberryauthor.wordpress.com) and get his take on government cover-ups, unsolved murders, UFOs, monsters, ghosts and curses. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook (@CRBerry1).