<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

Flashlight Fable
Park Ethereal - Chapter 3

If you have never sat somewhere public and watched a City awaken, you should try it sometime. There are all the same ritual actions that you perform when you get out of bed and start your day; the same stretching of muscles as the doors are opened around the station with shuddering squeaks and chains removed from staircases and platforms with rattling viscous clicking sounds much like the liquid sound of a joint cracking.

Slowly, the people come. At first, they come for the station itself; Zaro's staff tiredly opening their shutters with yawns and waiting for the herd of commuters to pick them clean of coffee and pastries, the newspaper vendors setting out their stock and arranging the candy on their little shelves as if it made a difference, which I suppose means that it does. Coffee.

Getting up, I wandered across the Lobby through the thin but growing crowd. Ten minutes and one dollar and sixteen cents later, I had a cup of coffee and a croissant with which to break my fast, which I ate while wandering down Park Avenue towards the Twenties.

I was on the bench twenty-five minutes later. Waiting for the Man, I fell asleep.

There was no way of knowing how I would awaken, but I trusted to the craziness that had overtaken my life, and it did not fail. Officer Kelly shook me as he passed, and smiled into my bleary eyes.

"Top o' the mornin' to ye, me boy." He paused in his rounds to watch me sit upright and rub my face. "Any little thing new this day?"

"No." I yawned. "Well, maybe. I'm still not sure." I ran down, unsure of how to ask him, which caused him to examine me searchingly.

"Well, me bucko, what is it you'll be needin'? Bear in mind that a policeman's badge is his own, and designed to stop bullets from his precious heart, so if that's what you've got your eyes set on you can forget it." He smiled. I don't know where that came from.

Shaking my head, I found myself smiling. So help me, he was infectious. "No, Kelly. I need...I need a flashlight. For a while." I ran down, realizing how random it sounded. Kelly appeared not to notice.

"A torch, eh? And that's all? Here, and I thought you'd be wantin' me shooter, or some such." He grinned again, but it was overtop a layer of dead earnest. I looked at him as steadily as I was able.

"Just the light, Kelly. Please. I can't tell you why, yet, but I will when I can. I'll have it back to you in a day or so, max." I stopped, suddenly struck. "Did you really think I wanted the gun?" Kelly nodded, unsmiling now. "For...jesus, man, why? What would I want with a gun?"

He looked at me for a second, perhaps three, before answering. When he spoke, he made as if to put his hand on my shoulder, but did not, for reasons of his own. "Ye've got that look in yer eyes, lad. I see it too damn many times in a day, here; despair, fright, and I s'pose you'd call it impotence. Ye look like you're wantin' something to hold onto in the night, and that's always the look I see on some damn fool scared kid with a shooter in his shakin' hands." He was silent for a moment. Then he brightened, and slid his issue Maglite from its place on his belt and held it out. "'Course, ye didn't ask fer the damned thing, did ya, and y'were surprised when I thought you would. Maybe that's a good sign. Here, take this; cells are new, and I can get me spare at home."

I reached up and took the aircraft aluminum cylinder from him (a man clutched a saxophone to himself in shuddering salvation as he shivered underneath a bridge in the heart of New York) and slid it beneath my coat. I nodded wordlessly at Kelly, who didn't appear to be waiting for any. "Just don't brain anybody with it, see, and I won't have to ask nor answer any embarrassin' questions." He nodded back, and departed on his rounds, towards home, his spare flashlight, and maybe a kiss from Mrs. Kelly. I watched him go, with my hand on the cold hard thing over my heart, and wished for darkness.

I woke late in the afternoon, learning slowly to sleep when possible, to the whispering rush of a jetliner calling as it slid towards the safe aerie of JFK, a mystical place across the city where its kind visited our world briefly before returning to their own. The sun was dipping behind the buildings on Fifth Avenue as I sat up and shook myself. I was torn between waiting for Ellyn and trooping back up town to Track Twenty-Eight, and the choice was made for me when I tried to get up and yawned anew. I fell back down, and had time to wonder why I was sleeping so much before the blackness rushed in.

My gummy eyelids reluctantly parted again to show me a blurred picture of a streetlight and branches above my head. My hands hurt. I found that this was because I had a death grip on the Maglite, which was still clutched beneath my jacket, warm now with my body. I pictured its countless aluminum atoms spinning with the energy of the coffee and pastry of the morning as I unclenched my hands, painfully, and rubbed my eyes. Looking about, I saw a fair bit of traffic, and a look at the clock atop the Met Life tower told me that it was only ten-twenty. I sat up, and sniffed. The air was cold, crisp, and clear- I estimated it at around thirty degrees, maybe high twenties. I was shivering. Standing, I looked south and saw that the McDonalds at the south end of Madison was still open, and I still had - I checked - over six dollars left.

A couple of burgers, fries and a hot coffee later, I felt somewhat better than I had in a while. No pain anywhere, after a quick check, and I was reasonably warm. Eleven o'clock- not time yet. I lingered in the restaurant for as long as possible, and was finally shooed out at eleven-fifteen for closing. The attendant actually smiled apologetically at me as he asked me to go, and it would have been churlish not to smile back while exiting.

Steam was rising. I looked around, and the McDonalds behind me was dark and silent. Time hadn't passed, but the people had; no-one was in sight. I walked slowly back to the bench and sat, watching the steam rise in whorls of thermal oceans up into the heavier, colder air. The tank was still standing next to the curb on Twenty-Sixth street, its valve encrusted with ice. The hose leading down into the manhole nearby was scuffed from the passage of cars, but unbroken, and that manhole leaked no steam. I shuffled, and waited in the improbable silence, tapping my foot rhythmically to hear the sound in the suddenly silent City. I looked at the clock. Twelve thirty. I hadn't felt the hour pass, but there was movement out of the corner of my eye, and there she was, walking uptown with her hands in her pockets and her eyes on me, the half-smile still there. If she remembered our last meeting, she gave no sign. I watched as she passed, intently, and she stopped about ten feet past the bench, to look over her shoulder at me. I stood, and she turned to face me.

"Ellyn?" I whispered. The word twisted in the air between us, freezing into a linguistic ice and shattering against the buildings as she reached out a hand for me. There was a silence. Neither of us moved, and the buildings stopped breathing.

I stepped forward carefully. She didn't bolt, but waited, one mittened hand out towards me. I carefully slid the Maglite into my waistband, underneath my coat, and reached out my right hand for hers. They touched (shock of corporeality) at which her smile widened and she pulled lightly on my hand. She began to run uptown, with me running after her holding on to the dream as hard as I could. The steam pillars laughed, and danced wavily in the night. Twenty-Seventh was fast approaching, and I was reminded of a line from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that went and the boat shows no signs of slowing but the rowers keep on rowing although the danger must be growing

thermal shock of a steam plume

and we were through, looking at Twenty-Seventh street and Ellyn's hand clutched mine tightly, suddenly, although she wasn't looking at me but ahead and she screamed and I looked ahead of her and saw the two bright lights and the death's head wail as the steel bore down and she fell, still screaming, to the ground which shimmered and tore and knitted itself back together in the crazy-quilt pattern of the dirt and creosote and steel and asphalt of Madison Avenue.

I lay in the center of the street, panting heavily. There was no sign of life about me, other than the quiet <click-krunk> of the circuits changing the traffic lights in the intersection around me, patiently signaling to cars and people present in space but displaced in time who waited on the curb behind the lightspeed wall for time to start again and the City to wake. I rose shakily to my feet. The Maglite chafed against my stomach where it had rubbed skin as we ran. Turning in a circle, I glanced desperately around for the last piece of the puzzle, but the only answer was the laughing blink of the Don't Walk sign as it shook in silent mirth.

Damn. Back to the beginning. I staggered north, though, consumed with the feeling of having a new toy/book/film/secret, the feeling that there was something to do which I hadn't done before, and laughed to myself as I patted the cool hard nose of the Maglite. I looked back, several times, as I walked north on Madison, but there was only steam and pavement and then I was at around Thirtieth and the cars passing me seemed perfectly normal. I could have spun, and been shocked at the people and traffic and noise everywhere and how it had gotten there without my noticing, but it would have ruined the trick, so I stared at my feet and kept walking.

Grand Central. Central. The word was so very appealing, I figured. Central is always a place of control, a place of data, a place of answers. Grand? Capitalizes the A in Answers, makes me sure that it holds mine, the one that needs the bigger letter and shakes me gently in the night. I cut over to Park Avenue South at Thirty-Fifth, and I could see it waiting for me in the splendor of its floodlights and gold trim, the statue of Vanderbilt staring patiently at the flood of taxicabs that forever divided below his feet.

The Main Lobby was relatively quiet, with a few cops hanging about the periphery waiting for their own Central to call them away suddenly to a life of mayhem and death and domestic disputes. In the meantime, they sipped coffee and ate their donuts (it felt wrong, in my head, to spell the things the cops ate doughnuts. They weren't, not really; they were clichés disguised as pastries which the streetcart philosophers offered to the police with hidden sneers at their naiveté, and the police accepted with sneers of imagined superiority, straightening for the tenth time that hour their pistols from an imaginary tilt) and gossiped. The immense space muffled their voices as their eyes betrayed their alertness, darting everywhere except their partners during the conversations, waiting for It To Happen.

I shuffled through the middle of the room, and turned my head out of practice. He was there, his sax in his hand, but not playing. He was watching me intently, and I stopped and turned my body to face him across the sixty feet of floor that separated us. One eyebrow raised, and he seemed about to turn away. Pulling aside my jacket, I pulled the Maglite from within, eliciting sudden reflexive jerks from the cops across the room. His face was puzzled momentarily, then, as he recognized the object for what it was, a knowing smile appeared, and he nodded once at me, and once towards the tunnels before turning to his horn and calling forth the music.

I heard, faintly, one of the cops complaining that he'd spilled his coffee, and grumbling that he'd sure like to know what the fuck I was doing with a new Maglite anyhow, and how lucky I'd been that it wasn't a gun "...cause I was dialed in sure, man."

There was a train waiting at Track Twenty-Eight. When I entered through the arched doors from the main station, the dual tone sounded faintly though the open doors of the machine and they slid closed with a mechanical exuberance as the train shook itself in rousing, and slid out eagerly into the in-between night. I followed it at a slower pace, watching its red gaze vanish backwards around the first bend in the tracks ahead.

Signs of my presence were becoming evident around the door to the bolthole. There were slight footprints in the grime and gravel that surrounded the entrance. Frowning, I spent a few moments scuffing the area with one boot so as to at least de-emphasize human occupation, and entered. Closing the door, I dug through my rucksack for a few moments until I found a spare sock, with which I cleaned the lens of the Maglite, before climbing up the ladder to the corridors of the tunnels of the railroad of the City which had grabbed such a hold on my life.

The intersection was darker than it had been. This was traceable, after a few moments, to the fact that the eastern corridor was even darker than before. Several light bars had blown out between the intersection and the darkness, and the effect was to bring the inky world creeping closer to the lit area in which I stood. I glanced around once to ensure to myself that no one was about before drawing the Maglite and setting out east down the corridor.

Fifteen steps brought me to the edge of the darkness, and I pressed the rubber button on the Maglite to bring a blaze of whiteness harshly to life in the corridor. I rotated the front of the light to get a midsized cone, andcontinued down the corridor. Other than being dark, the corridor seemed perfectly normal, which was, in a way...disappointing, I suppose. "Right. Slime pools and Hollywood spiders and maybe a snake or five and of course three skeletons to round it off." I snorted as the words fled from me down the silent hall, and continued forward.

After about fifty steps, I was fairly sure I'd crossed the tunnels which were one level below me, and there was still nothing but black corridor ahead. I looked back, and saw the lighted intersection past an area of no detail and ink, and wondered for what was amazingly enough I believe the first time just what in the hell I thought I was doing down here.

That thought was enough to make me stop for a moment in wonder, and look carefully at the person that had asked the question. He sat accusingly at the corner of my mind, arms folded and an impatient look on his familiar face. His sclera weren't bruised, dammit. I realized at that moment that had I met myself before I met Ellyn, I might have looked something like the apparition in my personal mindspace, and not the grimmer, bleaker figure I saw when I called up the mental mirror that took the place of the flashlight-lit depths.

Shaking my head, I turned from the thought and took the first of the next steps down the tunnel. The next one came easier. They got even easier after that, and the light dwindled behind me to a breath of sparks before being smothered by the earth as the set was struck behind me in order to make room for the next act.

After a few yards, the tunnel turned. Very abruptly. It angled left, uptown as far as I could tell, at a greater than ninety degree angle, angling slightly back the way it had come. I shrugged once at the world, checked the flashlight which was thankfully not dimming as they always seem to do in movies (thank you Kelly) and continued on my way. The walls of the corridor were earthen, now, and the floor had changed from grating to alternating patches of concrete and earth some yards back, roughly where I figured I had passed over the eastern edge of the tunnels. The way was no longer straight; it twisted slightly in its travels, enough so that very quickly Icould only see about fifteen yards in either direction before the walls or ceiling or floor encroached on my line of sight with a subliminal bass chuckle.

I wondered idly where the fright was. I shouldn't have been able to walk down this road, even with a flashlight; the sane and stable person I think I once was would've shied away violently from the notion of following an unknown tunnel through the forbidden entry areas of underground Manhattan without at least an Uzi and a floodlight, and preferably a bevy of heavily armed comrades and several reams of maps. I laughed at the vision, and straightened an imaginary fedora and an Uzi whose sling had gotten annoyingly tilted to the left. Throwing my donut on the floor, I set forth once more, at a quicker pace, willing something to happen.

Something, in this case, turned out to be a narrowing of the tunnel. It was only fair to call it a tunnel now, its lines more rounded than square and most of its surfaces rough stone or earth, with only occasional patches of smooth stone or concrete covering deep trenches or other faults in the rock through which I was passing. The narrowing occurred when the left wall, up to this point indistinguishable from the right, or the floor for that matter, suddenly smoothed into a metal surface which angled right across the tunnel which turned to parallel it, but became no more than a crack through which I could pass sideways with care. I puzzled over the sudden change for a moment, then snapped my fingers (I've always wanted to do that. Next time, Eureka!, I promise) and slapped the wall with my hand. It gave out a slight ringing sound, which did not fade but increased and swelled into a voiceless roar as the train passed by probably feet from the other side of the wall.

I had come back up against the tunnels from the east side, having descended to their level though the numerous dips and rises in the tunnel's path. I continued along, and after a moment, looking ahead, realized I could see a faint light. I switched off the flashlight, and could see the familiar orange sodium glow of the tunnel lights shining through a gap in the wall.

Coming abreast with the gap, I found myself standing in a sort of manhole, which - I looked up, sure enough - was topped perhaps six feet above my head with a cap of Pittsburgh steel, the familiar shape of a New York City manhole cover. I looked around me, at the rough walls and the few pipes that passed through the space along the walls above my head, and atthe broken gap in the metal wall through which I could see rails. I ducked my head and passed through the obviously unintentional opening. Listening, I could hear nothing but the customary sounds of the city; the faint rush of traffic above me, and the ever-present rumble of trains and basement machinery that flows through the stone beneath Manhattan, blood through muscle.

After stepping through, I felt a breeze on me; a chilly breath which came from the breach in the wall. I moved away from the hole in experimentation; the draft flickered and stopped. Reaching my hand back towards the opening I could feel it still; a small backwater in the rush of air through the City. Smiling, feeling as though my lips were creaky from disuse, I turned downtown for the hell of it. I played the flashlight over the rails, curious at how different they looked in white light from their usual sodium orange-yellow shadows. Here a bright red soda can; there a blue bit of canvas, perhaps from some worker's bag- true yellow, although grimy; a painted bit of metal leaning idly against one of the ties. I reached for it, picked it up; it looked like the top of a paint can, well encrusted with rust and grime but still showing a color at the top which faint and hidden letters (I brushed away age) still proudly proclaimed to be Lilac Yellow.

Stooping, I placed it gently back in the place it had been, and was suddenly aware of a humming rumble. Turning my head sharply to look down the tunnel, I lost my balance, and fell onto one hand. Swearing, I regained my equilibrium and lifted my hands from the track bed, instinctively clutching the Maglite and a bit of cloth that my left hand had fallen upon. I could see the light beginning down the tunnel, and I stepped carefully off the track into the center of the tunnel, where there was a narrow pathway for maintenance. There was a deafening shriek of air forced through steel as the train rounded a bend not fifty feet from where I had been standing and dashed past, gaining speed in its race to clear City limits.

It is really, really, difficult to even think clearly when you are four feet from a speeding locomotive and its children; I'm sure being near Superman didn't have the same effect. Was he more powerful then? It's hard to say. I bowed my head to my knees to protect my eyes as the train passed, and when it had gone, lifted it carefully and leaned back between the pillars to look down the tunnel at the sad face of the rear car as it accelerated towards the Bronx.

Levering myself back up to my feet, I wiped my forehead clear of dust with my left hand, and realized I was still holding the black cloth that I had picked up. I smiled again, and gently pried it out of its matted caked shape. It was entirely covered in grime and looked like it had been immersed at least fifty-seven times; maybe in a swamp, come to think of it, but it was still black, and when I forced the folds apart the inside was relatively free of detritus. It had a band, in fact, and it-

In fact, as I fell to the ground again in a curiously detached way, the flashlight falling slowly to one side as I reached out my other hand to grip my treasure tightly and felt the earth slap the back of my legs and send a shock up my spine, it was a beret. A black one.

"No." The words came reluctantly, and sure didn't sound convincing. "Not possible." Weakening, my disbelief ran and hid under the bed as the name tag in the band turned over for my inspection, the Ellyn Santano faded and smeared but still legible. I closed my eyes and crushed the beret to me, still somehow able to smell the Chanel even though my mind told me there was no way any could remain after the years. I staggered blindly to my feet and stuffed the Maglite into my belt as I turned and began to stumble homewards.

The tunnel went by quickly. I found the door by running my right hand along the wall when I thought I was close; the tears wouldn't let me see the sign.

Collapsing next to my rucksack, I rested a beat and then removed the Maglite, balancing it carefully next to my other few belongings perhaps to see if I still could. It stood proudly, lens turned towards the ceiling, wobbling for a moment before coming to rest. The light next to it threw its shadow on the wall; a tower with a turret at the top, waiting for the lovers or enemies to live the tragedy on its battlements and find their peace in the fall. Fall from thetop of the shadow. Fall from the dark. Falling, falling, falling - I stopped abruptly as I realized that I was chanting aloud, and rubbed my eyes.

Here, in my now familiar world, I lifted my left hand, which still had a tight grip on the beret, and carefully opened it fully. It was torn in one place, were a fold had remained for too long; the fabric had given way as I pulled at it. I brushed it idly, a gasping sob escaping into the aether; some of the dirt came off. I couldn't really see it, though; I saw a beret, perhaps two weeks old, smelling gently of perfume, lying on the ground on Madison Avenue, waiting for a lost young man to find it and follow it...here?

The thought stopped me, and sat there waiting for me to follow. Here. Here was sitting in a dungeon with an impossibility in my hand and confusion in my soul. I had given her back the beret, hadn't I? I remembered doing so, sitting on the bench, in return for a smile. Was this the same one? It certainly looked like it had been sitting on those tracks longer than the day or so since that transaction. Of course, this is New York.

Of course. "Logically explainable, damn it." I enunciated carefully, and forced myself to stand and brush myself off. "Of course." I picked up the Maglite and felled the castle on the wall; the flashlight fit neatly back into my jacket and the castle fit neatly back into my dreams. "First things first. Maglite back to Kelly." I knew, somehow, that I wouldn't need the flashlight any more; I don't know how. Well, maybe I would need a flashlight, but not this one; the karma in it was used up, transferred, and its place in the puzzle was finished, locked in to spacetime. I had a sudden flash; computer games, I had once played computer games like this, with lines of text, where nothing was more than an intricate logic puzzle, and everything had a four- dimensional place where it fit in the game.

The memory, breaking through the wall as it did, staggered me for a moment, and I sat there furiously trying to squeeze it for more information, but as all the other fleeting memories I had experienced did, it faded back into milky obscurity. Pursuing it brought nothing more than a lined face from the scrunched eyebrows and a slight to moderate headache. I let it and my breath go, exhaling noisily as I leaned back against the wall to gather my strength for my errand. Feeling stronger after a few minutes, I climbed the ladder to the corridor to the world. Making my way south, I came to the equipment closet, and from there to the station, noting in passing the information booth that the clock atop it stated the world was at the four-seventeen A.M. point on its day.

It took until halfway down Park Avenue South to the park before my steps faltered. Kelly, it was quite likely, was asleep next to Mrs. Kelly, and I had no intention of waking him at this time of night. For some reason, I felt I couldn't go back to the bench with the beret; I felt that it would have the same ramifications as meeting your father during a temporal trip; suddenly entire chains of events and time would slip quickly and disappear like a loop when the string is pulled from both ends.

That left me in lower midtown with no place to go and only my jacket between my exothermic skin and what had become a very cold night indeed. I couldn't wake Kelly, I couldn't go to the bench- I compromised, huddling on the steps of Kelly's building until sleep overtook me.

Shivering, I awoke to a stream of verbal abuse, which, being in Spanish, I could not decipher other than by tone. Opening my eyes, I found myself staring at a small and highly agitated Hispanic gentleman who was bending over me. He looked as if he was trying to decide whether or not I was groggy enough for him to get away with kicking me. I was, I estimated about six inches taller than he standing up, and although I had grown somewhat thinner in my days on the street, I still had more meat on me than this man, who I guessed from his work gloves and large ring of keys was the super.

I scrambled away from him to a sitting position against the side of the building and held up my hands to ward off the flood of Spanish. It's a beautiful language, really; it's just a bit much to cope with when it's being fired at you with the speed and fury of a cannon. My tormentor seemed to realize that I wasn't responding due to a lack of understanding, so he helpfully switched to English in midstream- "...maricon fucking loser useless piece of shit no good filthy stupid diseased son of a whore, I oughta-" he broke off as I stood up slowly. By the time I had reached my feet and not incidentally my full height, he had run down entirely and had his hands on his hips. "And what the fuck do you think you're doing here anyway? Can you even fucking talk?"

A small spark of anger was sitting in the middle of my head, and part of me was lovingly fanning it with an outdated copy of the National Review. Self preservation was trying very hard to make sure I didn't look too closely at it by explaining in great detail the advantages this man had in this particular situation. Unfortunately, just as I was turning to mutter something apologetic and make my way off the stoop, my new friend unexpectedly whacked me across my face. I think he surprised even himself.

I just stood there, my plans for turning away completely shot and forgotten, and attempted to sort out what my reaction was going to be, and desperately hoping (I was past affecting the outcome) that it wasn't going to be catastrophic.

In for a penny, in for a pound; the super had decided that having hit me, the only way out of the situation was threats. "Yeah, who you gonna call? You gonna call a cop? Yeah? Don't even have a fuckin' driver's license, who they gonna listen to. You? Yeah. Right. Make me fuckin' laugh, scumbag..." The voice faded, although I could still see his lips moving. By main force, I forced my body to turn around and walk off the stoop, to turn and begin to walk up the block. I couldn't stop myself from turning my head to look at him, though, and the triumphant look of the vindicated coward was really almost too much to bear, but I put my gaze back to my shoes and began to walk faster before I did something really stupid.

"Shit, wimp-ass fuckin' beggar." He snorted, and turned to re-enter the building. I made it as far as the end of the block before the mains went and I started kicking some poor helpless mailbox for all I was worth, snarling essentially voiceless and wordless rage at it. Tears stained my jacket - "Fucking asshole as if he knows what it's like" - one of my hands was bleeding from the corner of the mailbox whose sharp edge smirked back at me just to add to the mad - "...and fuck him if he thinks he could get...get awaywith that if...if..." I ran down, unable to complete the sentence or the thought. New Yorkers had been steadily swerving around me, averting their eyes and their attentions in order to remain uninvolved. I found myself sitting against the mailbox cradling my wounded left hand which was bleeding all over my jacket. I looked at it in sniffling offhandedness. Skin cut; not bad, just messy. I swore once more with feeling and wiped my eyes. Looking back down the block I got slowly up and began the slow shuffle back towards the building, not wanting to miss Kelly.

When I reached the stoop once more, there was no one in the vestibule or lobby, so I sat on the curb in front of the building, facing away from it. I don't know, maybe I felt that not facing it would be less inviting to the super if he saw me; less of a challenge. I hadn't long to wait, though.

Four minutes later - I had been counting to calm myself down - the door banged open, and another torrent of Spanish began to pour over my shoulders. It felt like lead across my back, and as I insults began to get more and more personal from what little I could understand, I finally realized that there was nothing for it, I was going to hit him. As I stood up and turned about, ready to swing, I suddenly realized that there was someone between us. I barely managed to avoid clocking him, stumbling slightly off balance at the abortion of the act, and just then realized it was Kelly, in civvies, looking at me in a curious way with a strange look on his face. I realized I'd never seen Kelly angry, which was what this must be, and wondered in a brief cold electric flash of fear what I'd done to deserve it and whether just running would work.

When he saw I was in control, however, Kelly turned from me to face the super, still standing on the porch with a sneer on his face. I think he thought Kelly was going to roust me out. It was at this point I realized the brogue had to be false, as there was none of it in Kelly's voice when he spoke to the super.

"What the fuck do you think you're up to out here, hey? I got a friend waiting for me on the stoop, and you think you're John fucking Wayne defending the homestead? What, does he look all that dangerous?" The super's face had paled, now, and I savored it, locking it away in a mental Ziploc baggie for the days when I felt there was absolutely no justice in the world. He stammered some excuse, and began to inch back towards the building. Kelly followed him, still furious, apparently. "I could book you for assault for that, you stupid shit! Did you even bother to ask him who he was this time before starting in, or did that slip your mind this time too? Get the fuck inside before I tear your goddamn lungs out." Wow, he was serious, too.

The super staggered back into the vestibule before turning to flee, at which point Kelly instantly sagged with what I realized was laughter before turning toe in concern. "Are ye all right, me boy? Sakes, what happened to yer hand, man!" He had one hand on my shoulder and was sitting me down on the steps. I was laughing too hard to resist.

"Kelly, you're blown, man. Totally blown. No accent! Not a trace! Forget it, it's never going to work again, you may as well speak BBC Standard from here on in, 'cause I'm not gonna buy the Irish."

His grin returned. "Nah, nah, there's just times when ye hafta be sure that yer point's gettin' across, y'know? Now, what happened?"

Still laughing, I told him about my battle with the recalcitrant mailbox. He grinned, and held out a hand. "Come inside, I've got some bandage and alcohol that'll make ye wish ye had lost the hand."

The inside was as I remembered it. Spare yet home, with a sense of the Irish laugh within that Kelly spread so liberally over his beat. His beat, truly; his presence could be felt throughout the blocks of Manhattan that saw him wander purposefully by several times a day, his nightstick clutched behind his back in that ridiculous fashion that I had laughed over so many times before. He was right; the alcohol hurt like hell. The pain didn't though.

After we had finished, with my hand swaddled in cotton and carbon compounds and complex sugars, I pulled that Maglite from my jacket on the floor and handed it across to him. He nodded, taking it from me.

"Did ya find what y'were lookin' for, now?"

"I...don't know, Kelly. I found something. I don't think it's the final product. There's more story to write."

"Can ye tell a friend what it was? Or is that later in the story?"

"I think the full story will have to wait for the end. But I have another question." He nodded, apparently quite interested. "Aren't you late?" "He shook his head. "Nah. I'm on the four-to-midnight, as I'm sure you'd remember. Not always, to be sure, but today, at least. I was just on me way out to check up on a few little things that I like to keep tabs on. What's your question, eh?"

I held up a hand, thinking about how to phrase it. "Okay. Suppose I met...someone, it doesn't matter who. I don't know anything about this person except their name. I found their name because I found a beret they dropped, once, and gave it back to them. It's possible that something happened to them, either recently or in the past, that might be in a police report somewhere. Is that material open to the public, and can it be searched by name? I don't need to know where this person lives, I just want to know what happened to them, and when."

Kelly was silent for a moment. After that moment spent looking me hard in the eye, he turned away. He examined a shelf across the room while sitting slowly back in his chair. "Well." Finishing the slouch, he crossed his hands behind his head. "Well, it's not really public." His grin returned, deepened. "Of course, when a man's owed a few favors, as I happen ta be, I suppose it could be arranged. Besides, I haven't made detective yet; this looks ta be an early start. But," He continued, leaning forward, "Ye have ta promise two things."

I looked back steadily, biting back sudden desire to leave and tell him to forget it. I don't know why, really; I suppose I felt that letting him in on parts of the story diminished the rest. But I forged ahead. "What, Kelly?"

"This'll erase yer tab." He grinned again, fleetingly. "First, ye canna tell anyone I'm in on this." Fairly expected; I nodded. Second, ye have tapromise to tell me what it's all about when the time is right. I'll trust ye to be honest with yerself and me and let me know when that is. I don't think ye mean anyone harm, me boy, and if ye bend the rules in some small way I truly don't want to know. Wrestling with his wife and life is all a man needs without wrestling with his duty as well." This last was punctuated by a stern look. I nodded like my head was springmounted. "All right then. What's her name?"

"Ellyn Santano." I looked up. "Her?"

He laughed aloud. "Of course her, boyo. This kind of thing doesn't happen between ought but a man and a woman. I don't know what's going on, but I know the size of it, and it's got your life wrapped in snakes and silk, to the tune of keeping you from remembering your name." The intent look accompanied that small verbal grenade. I was brought up short.


"You heard me. Whatever's going on, what it's going to make of ye is more important that who you were. Whether it's important to you or to someone else, I don't know, but ye can be sure that it is."

"Kelly, who the hell are you?"

"I am he that stalks the nighttime airs, and binds the children fast, and feeds them songs of life and death to make their sleep disturb'd/ I am he who walks the ways of stone, and keeps the night without, to tread not on those who sleep within and leave them unperturbed."

My jaw dropped. I was so confused I didn't even know which way to jump, and brother, let me tell you I was considering it. Then came the Irish grin.

"Just kidding. I'm the son of a poor Irish cop and his poor Irish wife from down in wee Alphabet."

I left, shaking my head and wishing I knew what the hell was going on. Kelly seemed to have a fair idea, damn it, and it wasn't happening to him. Life isn't fair. Of course, that never seemed to stop me, and maybe it should, one of these days. I didn't see why I had to be the one to Figure It Out. I was struck by a sudden longing to be back on the bench, and to have been asleep when Ellyn first passed.

Of course, I wasn't even fooling myself anymore.

<--Uptime | Park Ethereal | Downtime-->

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