In Time: Part I
Note: This story was originally published by Allegory Magazine in August 2006
“You don’t get to have this one,” Lester told the city. He rattled the pills like dice in his hand then chased them down his throat with the last of the coffee. Lester squinted as the taste of the diner’s black-tar brew hit him. When his eyes opened there was a stranger staring at him from the far end of the counter.
Where’d he come from? Lester wondered, startled. Twenty years as a cop left him in the habit of scanning every face in a room, especially in that part of town. Anything less could be deadly. But somehow, he’d missed the stranger.
34 hours without so much as a nap, Lester told himself. He blamed the slip on the coffee, the speed, his half-century old mind, and it worried him. It meant he was not at his best, and he would have to be if he was going to reach down and pull a little boy from the maws of the city.
“Not this one, you son of bitch,” he repeated, and gathered up the case file he’d spread across the booth. When he looked up, the stranger was gone.
Lester looked around the diner, rattled more than he’d admit. Everything was as it should have been at 3:30 AM on a Tuesday morning. Phil the night cook had his head down on the counter, snoozing. Janet sat over by the register, reading one of her paperback romances. “Rocking Robin” played on her cheap, little, storm radio. The stranger was just gone.
“Losing my marbles,” he muttered and pushed it out of his mind. Lester had other worries, other mysteries to solve.
“It’s on the house, Detective,” Janet called to him when he was halfway out the door. She snapped her gum and turned the next page on her book.
It took Lester a second to understand. Irritated, he reached into his coat pocket for his wallet. Janet waved him off without even looking up from her book.
“I mean it, Detective. Get back out there and fight the good fight.”
The 40-year-old professional waitress leaned back in her chair and hooked her foot on a shelf below the register, the one they kept a sawed-off twelve gauge on. Janet, like most lifelong diner waitresses, could go from sugar-sweet to subtle sarcasm in the space of a heartbeat, and most days Lester had trouble telling one from the other.
“Thanks,” he said absently, having neither the time nor the inclination to sort out if he was being made fun of. He did have to go fight the good fight. Twelve hours earlier, the city had swallowed a boy named Clarence Turner whole, and Detective Lester Bradshaw would not stop until he got him back.
Lester opened the door to his unmarked Crown Vic and tossed the file on the dashboard. He was about to lower himself into the car when the shakes hit him. He’d been off the speed for years, and the medical grade amphetamine reintroduced itself to his system with a jolt that made Lester’s eyes rattle in their sockets. The tremor ran the length of his body and caused his hands to shake so severely that he dropped his keys. For a moment, Lester feared he might have overdosed. His imagination cast for him images of his shameful death by heart attack or stroke and leaving no one to save little Clarence.
Clutching his big hands into fists, Lester willed this body to obey him. The trembling subsided. He drew a deep, deep breath, and bent to pick up his keys. That was when he noticed the shadow of the man standing behind him.
Lester had his .38 out in a flash, his chemically enhanced reflexes wire-tight. He sighted down the length of the barrel at the stranger, and he was pleased by how steady he held it.
The speed’s leveling out.
“You got a problem I can solve for you, buddy?” Lester said to the stranger. His voice held authority, confidence, and anger in equal parts.
The stranger stepped to his side so that he was no longer backlit by the diner’s blue neon, and Lester got his first good look at the man.
The stranger wore a shapeless brown overcoat that had been in and out of fashion for more than a hundred years. Three or four days of beard growth shadowed his cheeks, the salt and pepper stubble matching a shock of silver running from the part in his oddly neat hair. Hispanic, Asian, Lester couldn’t make out his features in the poor light. In any case, his cop-eyes went right to the man’s hands and stayed there.
“I asked you a question, pal,” Lester said. He stepped away from the car to keep a bead on the still circling man. “There some reason you’re following me?”
“Yes,” the stranger said. The matter of fact tone in his voice lifted the hair on Lester’s neck. He started to back up, just a step to give himself some room from the weirdo, but his shoe brushed a rusted coat hanger. In the split second it took for him to look down and identify the obstruction, Lester felt the gun ripped clean from his hand.
Every knock, every fight, every call, every lesson learned in two decades of police work converged into one fact in Lester’s mind; if he did not do something in that very instant, he was a dead man.
His hand came around hard and fast, his well-worn blackjack on its way to breaking the small bones in the stranger’s hand. Impossibly, Lester missed. He caught a blow in his short ribs he never saw coming.
Backhanded, Lester swung for the stranger’s temple. The blackjack whipped through empty air. A knee to the groin; a sucker punch to the stomach; nothing Lester threw found a target.
During the two years prier to making detective, Lester Bradshaw served undercover with the city’s violent crime unit, doing what, among the rank and file of the department at least, was known as “decoy duty.” Lester would dress up like a lost tourist, wander into some of the city’s worst neighborhoods, and arrest the people trying to split his skull with varying lengths of pipe. He’d faced as many as five attackers at once. He was so good at decoy duty that the Chief withheld Lester’s promotion until he became so well known that no one tried to mug him anymore.
With all that experience augmented by the drugs coursing through his body, Lester should have made mashed potatoes out of any citizen in the city. Yet he still missed. When the stranger pounded a second hammer blow into his ribs, Lester dropped to one knee, knowing that he was beaten.
He spat and saw blood in it. The stranger stood over him, no longer attacking. Lester surreptitiously reached for the throw-down he wore in his ankle holster, but froze when he felt the cold barrel of his .38 pressed into the base of his skull.
“You drop a cop in this town, and the heat will burn you if it takes the whole damned department to do it,” Lester said, his voice steadier than it had a right to be.
“My name,” the stranger said, “is John Galloglass, Detective Bradshaw. I am someone… unlike anyone you have ever met. I am here to help.”
The dime-sized pressure on the back of Lester’s neck lifted. Slowly, he got to his feet. His midsection promised days of pain to come, if he lived that long. He turned to the stranger, this Galloglass who’d beaten him like an unloved child.
Gallowglass opened his hand and let the gun spin 90 degrees. He held it uselessly with one finger by the trigger guard. “I can help you find Clarence, detective.”
“What’d you say, you piece of shit? You know something about Clarence?” Anger welled up in Lester. His face twisted, and he bunched his legs and hands, ready to pounce on the stranger and choke the answers from him.
Gallowglass noticed, and, if possible, his bland face became even more expressionless.
“Watch,” he said. He took Lester’s gun by the barrel and flung it away.
Lester surged forward, but stopped at a word from the stranger.
“Watch,” Gallowglass repeated, and looked to where he’d tossed the gun. Five feet away, the gun hung suspended in the air above the parking lot asphalt. The blue neon around the diner, which had flickered for as long and Lester could remember, burned steadily. All around the two men, the city seemed frozen in time. Even the sound was gone. It was like stepping into a picture.
“What in the hell have you done?” Lester asked, hearing fear in his own voice for the first time in years.