In Time for Christmas
by Kate Webster
"You play the hand you're dealt. I think the game's worthwhile." - CS Lewis
Some days it just didn't pay to be a cop.
Almost ten years on the Los Angeles Police Department and Pete Malloy still would freely admit that he couldn't see himself doing anything else, most days. He could even say he loved his job, on occasion. But there were always those watches that never seemed to end, where nothing went quite right and he'd just as soon be doing almost anything else. Days when joining the circus to hawk popcorn or clean up after the elephants didn't seem so far fetched an alternative. Days like today.
It was December 23rd, two days before Christmas.
Pete was almost certain that the holidays brought out the very worst in human nature. He started out each year with good intentions, optimistically resolving to see the best side of the hustle and bustle. Determined to concentrate on the giving and goodwill.
But invariably by mid-December he'd taken one too many tragic theft reports, refereed countless family squabbles and witnessed more than a few inauspicious examples of man's inhumanity to man. Keeping anything resembling Christmas spirit in the face of the greed and malicious nature of the human animal exhibited during the season was a hat trick he hadn't yet mastered.
Things had gotten so bad this year that the mere sound of Jingle Bells played over the outside speakers at the corner Christmas tree lot could shift the Grinch in his soul into over-drive. And to make matters worse, Pete's partner, Jim Reed, anticipating yet another magical Christmas filled with sugarplum moments with his young family, was redefining the word festive. By comparison Pete was nearly Bah-Hum-Bugging his way through the holidays.
Usually he let things roll off his back, taking the ups and downs of the job in stride. But somehow around the holidays there was a heightened expectation of humanity that made reality dismally disappointing.
He was just plain tired by twenty-two-hundred hours when they responded to an alarm call at the warehouse on the far side of their district. Woods and Brinkman arrived as back up and Sgt. MacDonald was on his way when they fanned out to cover the vast warehouse in the dark. Jim would enter from the north; a stairway on the outside of the building led to the second floor. Pete took the south side and headed into the three story structure on the ground floor.
He had been inching his way through the shadowy, cavernous building stacked with pallets filled with boxes and crates. The contents mattered little since it was too dark to read by the dim beam of his flashlight. The place smelled of mold and dust and Pete couldn't wait to be rid of it.
The unmistakable sound of gunfire pierced the silence at the far side of the warehouse and up one flight at least. Jim! That was the sector he'd assigned his partner to search. Pete took off at a sprint across the darkened room, the ray of his flashlight bobbing before him barely keeping him from plowing into a row of crates stacked floor to ceiling that suddenly appeared in his path.
Two more shots rang out, echoing in the vastness of the metal building. Pete stopped in mid step, and recalculated the location, then his legs began pumping again, making their way across the void between him and his partner. There was a stairway on that far end he had noted as he passed. That would lead him to the floor above, where Jim should be, hopefully alive and well.
"Pete!" It was Jim Reed's voice, no mistake.
Nearly out of breath, Pete found the bottom of the staircase in the dark. He prayed that Jim was unharmed and bounded up the steps, two at a time.
He stood over the crumpled body at the bottom of the stairway. Blood pooled beneath the blonde head as the wound gushed red. The eyes were fixed, staring lifelessly into vacant space. Kneeling beside the fallen officer, he searched for some signs of life. There appeared to be no pulse. No breath stirred the chest beneath that shiny oval badge and the nameplate that bore the block letters Malloy. He reached out, about to press two fingers against the heavily freckled neck, just above the dark blue of the uniform collar.
"Dead?" The single word hung in the air, belonging to no one. Yet someone had uttered it in the darkness. Someone he couldn't recall having been with them in the warehouse. The voice was unfamiliar.
"Yeah," he rose and turned to face the speaker. A grey-haired man with a friendly, wrinkled face and sparkling blue eyes stood next to him with a smile that seemed most inappropriate for the setting. The man was pudgy and soft, with a protruding belly that strained against the buttons of his shirt and fought the constraints of a worn leather belt on its last notch. He noted the stranger's clothing; a rumpled uniform in faded gray, sporting a patch on the sleeve that bore the words Universal Security in white letters on a field of blue.
He didn't remember hearing about any guards in the warehouse, but the details of the call were getting fuzzy in his mind. Actually, everything seemed a little hazy and unfocused at the moment. He couldn't put his finger on why, but something didn't feel quite right. A sort of woozy, wobbly sensation was quickly overtaking him.
"Maybe you better sit down," the elderly security guard offered, a steadying hand on the younger man's shoulder. The voice was gentle, with a hint of a brogue. "Some people get a little discombobulated at the outset."
"Death..." the old man smiled, imbuing the word with a joy not usually associated with the subject. "When it's sudden like this, it tends to jostle one a bit."
"I've been around death before," the officer defended, shrugging off the comforting hand of this weird stranger with a gruff motion.
"Being around it is vastly different from finding yourself smack dab in the middle of it, young man."
"I've been closer than you might think..." There was a tingling, disconcerting sensation that was starting to frighten him. "Who are you?"
"I really think you'd better have a seat before we get too far into the introductions," the old man chortled.
"I'd like to know who I'm talking to! And why you're here."
"I'm here...on your behalf, I suppose." the odd little man answered enigmatically. "And the name is Angus Fitzpatrick O'Shannessy, but you can call me Gus!"
"Well...Gus, I still don't understand what you're doing here."
"I've come to...fetch you, I guess is the best explanation."
"To be with you, at the end, and guide you, into the Hereafter."
"The Great Beyond, the Afterlife, Cloud Nine, Eternity, Heaven..."
"Gus..." he interrupted, letting the aggravation show in his voice.
"You're dead, Peter." The statement was abrupt and unvarnished, and there was no apology.
"I'm de- ...eh...how do you know my name?" Pete demanded.
"You didn't suppose they'd send me after you and not let me see your file did you now?" Gus shook his head, his eyes twinkling. "Officer Peter Joseph Malloy, LAPD nearly ten years now. Not a bad record either, fairly impressive for one who never made sergeant."
"Thirty-four last November fifteenth. Never married, no offspring, no siblings."
"Mother: Mary. Father: Timothy. Both deceased. Oh, your mother's going to be happy to see you...though perhaps she may think it a bit soon, but...what's done is done. It all works out in the end."
"Who sent you?"
"You ask a barrel full o' questions, lad. Most cops do, you know. Curiosity it is," he seemed to continue, unfazed by Pete's interruption and not particularly disposed to answer his question anytime soon. "Catholic, right? Well. That makes it a bit tricky since there's no priest available for last rights, but I wouldn't fret about it none. They're not as strict about such things up There as you might imagine."
"Gus!" Pete exploded.
"I'm right here, Peter. There's no need to shout. I'm not deaf."
"I'm trying to figure out what you're doing here and what's going on. And you're...babbling..."
"It's awfully soon. Perhaps you should just have a seat there and rest until you're steady on your feet again. You're sure to be feeling a bit tottery. We have plenty of time for explanations later. No need for hurry."
"What happened?" Pete was struggling to remain calm and keep a patient tone, but it was getting more and more difficult.
"You ran up those stairs a few minutes ago, right?"
"Straight up, into pitch black darkness. Not one thought for what might lie ahead."
"I heard my partner call to me...Jim..." Pete's face darkened with the realization that he'd momentarily forgotten his friend's welfare. He was confused and disoriented but to forget Jim was inexcusable.
"He's fine, son. Right as rain he is. At least until he gets a look at..." Gus looked down at the body sprawled on the floor. "Don't worry your head about Reed. Others will be there for him. At least today. But you, Peter my lad...well, you didn't fair so well this time."
"I sort of remember...running toward Jim's voice. And then, it's all a blank after that."
"Always like that with the sudden ones." Gus shook his head slowly but his eyes twinkled with something unspoken and blissfully secret.
"What is? What's going on? I want to know..."
"I told you." Gus smiled with infinite patience. "You're dead."
"I can't be dead, I'm standing here, big as life, talking to you, aren't I?"
"Aye, that you are, my lad. You are that. Talking a blue streak."
"Oh, I know you're feeling a bit out of sorts at the present, and you've had quite a shock, but even you ought to be able to work this one out."
"I suppose you're about to tell me that you're dead too?"
"Better than that, my boy," Gus grinned. "I'm an angel."
"You are." Pete replied with little sincerity.
"That's right," Gus drawled in something approximating Pete's own usual banter. The impromptu impression was disconcerting to say the least.
Pete stared at the body lying lifeless at his feet. The face was eerily familiar, though pale and frozen in an absurd expression of shock. The uniform was the same as the one he'd donned this morning. Badge number 744 was pinned to the chest next to the distinguished expert sharp shooter medal. And over the right pocket flap was a silver plate with Malloy engraved deeply. It made no sense, looking at himself like that, but by all evidence it was Pete Malloy there on the floor.
Pete suddenly felt dizzy. He grabbed for the banister and sank to a seat on the steps. "What happened?" His voice was thin and shaky. This time he was ready to listen.
"You ran up those stairs like you were playing half-back," Gus began as though he'd been waiting for a cue. "Full force...right into a scaffold that was left across the top of that stairway. Your head hit the business end of a spike protruding through the bottom of the beams. Made a pretty nasty gash what with all the force of you running headlong into it, so to speak." The words were blunt but there was something in Gus's tone that softened them and didn't seem at all insensitive or uncaring. Just matter of fact. Like the lines of a police report. No emotion.
"I'm...dead?" Pete nearly whispered, incredulous and stunned.
"Just like that?" Pete was staring at the body at his feet, still not able to assimilate the reality of what he had been told, or the results of what had happened.
"I know it's a bit of a shock," Gus said gently, laying a hand on Pete's shoulder. "But sometimes it happens that way. You didn't know what hit you, as they say."
"I ran into a board across the stairs?" Pete verified, his eyes not leaving the figure lying still before them.
"That scaffolding was a pretty substantial hunk of wood, Peter." Gus snickered. "And the nail was a hefty piece of iron."
"What a stupid...stupid way to die."
"You know of a particularly intelligent one?" Gus seated himself beside the younger man on the stairs.
"Is this all a joke to you?"
"I'm sorry, Peter, but where I'm from, this is of no great consequence. No different than a falling leaf or a melting snowflake."
"Well, you'll have to excuse me, but I take my death a little bit seriously."
"Completely understandable, I suppose, from your point of view. But as you go along, I think you might find yourself feeling differently about it. You're looking at it as an ending, but actually, it's just the beginning."
"Beginning of what?"
"You'd be surprised." Those blue eyes were dancing again, with unspoken secrets. "But there's time for that, later. You're not ready for that quite yet."
"A nail in a board?" Pete murmured.
"Don't fret about it, lad."
"I ran right into it..." his voice broke with a sob. "STUPID! Stupid...careless mistake."
"This is all pointless, my boy. What's done is done and can't be undone."
"I'm a cop. I figured I'd die getting shot or in a TA during a pursuit or something."
"You died on duty. What more did you want?"
"On duty," Pete spat. "Yeah, in a stupid, senseless accident."
"Doing your job. Running to your partner's aide. Heroic if you look at it that way. Though dead is dead in my experience. Doesn't much matter how it happened once it's done. Time to move on."
"This would have never happened if I hadn't been a cop."
"Accidents happen to everyone."
"What an idiotic way to go!"
"I'd prefer slipping away quietly in my sleep," Gus offered. "But that wouldn't have suited you either, I suppose."
"Bashing my own head in, against a scaffold in the dark?"
"You keep saying it like that, and I'm not going to be able to help myself. It's taking on a laughable quality now that it comes to it."
"Go ahead! Laugh! It's ridiculous!"
"Peter," Gus chided. "It makes no never mind. You're dead. And it wouldn't be any different if you'd taken a bullet, or fallen off a building. Nothing can change it or any part of your life now. It's past. Just accept it and let's get on with things. We've got a long journey ahead and none of this is getting us anywhere."
"What did you think, you just hang around looking at your poor dead body for eternity?"
"I...eh...I'm not ready to go yet."
"Well it's not the sort of thing you pack for, lad. We're not heading out for vacation. All you need is yourself, now let's get cracking.."
"Not just yet," he demanded. "You can't take me until I'm ready, can you?"
"Where'd you hear a thing like that?"
"It's true, isn't it?" He hadn't been sure, but Gus's reaction told him he was onto something.
"Well," Gus stammered. "I'm not going to force you against your will, not yet anyway."
"I thought so," Pete was trying to formulate a plan, though he wasn't clear on what he hoped to accomplish. But he liked the feeling of having some control over things, if only temporarily.
"They'll be coming soon," Gus said a little sadly.
"Your friends. They'll find you before long. We should go."
"No," Pete insisted again.
"You don't want to be here when they do, lad. Trust me, we don't want to have to witness that."
"And if I do want that?"
"It's your funeral, as they say down here." Gus shook his head. "But if you want my advice..."
"I don't." Pete was feeling stronger. The defiance was something to lean on, though he had a feeling it was far from a firm foundation. "I want to wait until they find...the body."
"Just remember, I warned you."
"Duly noted," Pete rested his elbows on his knees, his chin in his hands, waiting. A chill ran through him, like opening a door in winter. "Brrrr! What was that?" He clutched his arms about himself with a shudder.
"You'll get used to it. Just the wind blowing through you. It takes a while, but you'll adjust to not being solid."
Pete shivered again, but this time it wasn't from the cold.
"Pete!" Jim called in the darkness. He and Woods had apprehended two suspects on the second floor, after a short volley of bullets with no apparent injuries, but Jim wasn't sure if all the shooting had been in their area. It was a huge building and entirely possible that there were more than two subjects in the warehouse. Now that they had things under control on his level, he was concerned about Pete's quadrant. Brinkman had shown up as Woods was cuffing the second gunman, leaving his post outside when MacDonald relieved him upon his arrival on the scene. The only officer unaccounted for was Pete Malloy.
"Where was he?" Brinkman asked as he led the prisoners to the door.
"South part of the building, ground floor," Jim replied, trying to minimize his concerns. "I thought I heard something down there after the gunfire."
"I'll send Mac in when we get these two secured," Brinkman promised.
"Thanks, Brink!" Jim answered, turning to find Woods who had wandered in a northerly direction, flashing his light ahead of him as he went. Jim started checking the other side of the second floor, looking for a set of stairs to the lower level, using his own light as a guide.
"Over here, Jim," Woods yelled, his light like a beacon in the darkness. "There's a stairway against the wall."
"I see it," Jim called as he set off at a run, nearly tripping over a pallet on the floor in his eagerness. He beat Woods to the top of the stairs, despite the older man's head start.
"Whoa!" Woods grabbed for him, catching a bit of sleeve as Jim nearly tumbled head over heels. "That way is blocked off."
"What the heck?"
"Some kind of scaffolding," Woods replied after a closer examination with the light. "They were doing repairs from the looks of it. We'll have to find another way down."
"I don't think there is another way down, Jerry," Jim argued, his own light scanning the barrier. "Maybe we can move that...oh my God...Pete!"
"What?" Woods leaned way over the railing, trying to crane his neck to see what had made Jim gasp.
"It's Pete..." Jim started climbing down to the scaffold, but Woods snatched the back of his equipment belt and held him fast. "Jerry...he's hurt. He's lying at the bottom of the steps!"
"Who is?" MacDonald was breathless, obviously having run from the car when he heard that one of his men was missing in the dark expanse.
"Mac...Pete's lying down there...he's not moving," Jim's voice nearly failed him. "I can't see much, but I know it's him. We've got to get to him."
"We will, Reed. But I'm not losing you in the attempt. Let's use our heads."
"Jim..." the words were barely audible and filled with incredible sadness.
"I told you not to stay, Peter," Gus said without a hint of gloating. "You can't do anything to change what is about to happen."
"Just please not Jim."
"He's your partner. Of course he'll be the one to find you first. Isn't that how it was with Steve?"
"No...I mean, yes, it was. But not this time. Please."
"Would you rather it were Mac?" There was a kindness in the voice that belied the fatalism of the words. "You want to choose which of your friends gets to you first?"
"I don't want that in Jim's memory," Pete swallowed hard, wondering himself why he'd chosen to stay. "Can't we distract him?"
"You, my friend, are dead. You can't do anything but watch," Gus's smile was sympathetic.
Pete had so many questions about what had happened and what he faced next, but they could all wait until he saw to Jim's ordeal.
"Which is why I wanted us to be long away from here."
"I can't...but you." Pete knew he was grasping at straws, but it was all he had at the moment. "You're an angel, you said. Can't you do something?"
"You want me to trip him?" Gus laughed.
It was much too broad and merry a sound for the circumstances. Pete wondered how he did that with a body lying at their feet.
"What good would that do? Besides, it's not my job. I'm your guardian."
"Mine?" Pete frowned.
"Like I said before, Peter. I'm here on your behalf."
"Then does Jim have one? A guardian angel?" Pete remembered the numerous times his partner had narrowly escaped disaster and figured that was as good an explanation as any. "Can he keep Jim from finding me?"
"Here they come. Just remember this was your idea." Gus stepped to the side, leaning against the wall, his arms crossed over his broad chest, watching with an odd mixture of amusement and pain in his expression.
Pete heard hurried footsteps and saw the beams of three flashlights approaching in the darkness. Impulsively he moved to intercept the officers in their path. Bracing himself for the body slam of Jim's determined gait, Pete felt instead, a sudden tickling sensation and a feeling of breathlessness. He sensed his partner's presence more deeply than ever, and could almost hear his thoughts for an instant. Not surprisingly they were of Pete and the fear of what might have happened to him. Pete shuddered as Jim ran right through him. He looked to Gus, who merely watched, his eyes shining in the darkness.
"Pete!" The sound of Jim's cry pierced the darkness. He fell to one knee and searched for some sign of life.
"Jim," Mac's tone held the compassion of a man who had seen this all before.
Pete reached for his sergeant's arm, and shivered when his hand passed through MacDonald's solid form like so much smoke. Pete longed to touch them, to offer some comfort and support.
"He's..." Jim's voice broke with emotion.
"Go get an ambulance," Mac ordered of Jerry Woods. It took a moment and a tap on the shoulder from the sergeant to get him in motion. Shock hung in the air.
"Pete!" Jim moaned, the loss evident in his strangled cry. "What happened? Who did this to him?"
"Jim," Mac knelt beside the bereft young man, fighting the urge to put an arm around his shoulders.
"Mac! He's..." Jim's face contorted as he struggled against tears.
"Jim?" Pete lurched forward, reaching for his friend, but instead he got an armful of nothing. The scene before him dissolved as he felt strong hands pulling him backwards. He blinked at the sudden light, bathed in warm sunshine. Gus was there in this bright void, smiling sadly and shaking his head.
"Where?" Pete stammered, standing a bit unsteadily. "What did you do?"
"What I should have done from the beginning."
"Take me back!"
"I never should have let you stay in the first place. You're not meant to see that."
"He's in pain. I need to help him."
"You want to go back to haunt him? You're dead, Peter."
"Take me back!"
"You can't touch him and he can't see you or hear you."
"I don't want him to go through this."
"You should have thought of that before you went flying up those stairs in the dark."
"He called out for me..."
"And you had to go to his rescue, is that it? Always the cop. Always rushing to the aid of others."
"I guess it sounds stupid to you. Maybe it even seems that way to me - now."
"Regrets?" Gus snorted. "That's a little surprising, coming from you."
"Well, thirty-four is a little younger than I'd hoped."
"You've come close several times before this. Occupational hazard?"
"Yeah, well it's crossed my mind a time or two in the last few minutes. If I hadn't been a cop, maybe I'd still be alive." He closed his eyes, trying to block out the images that swam before them. Mac's drawn face, the sadness in his eyes. Jerry Woods looking forlorn, Brinkman quiet for once. And worst of all, his partner. Jim's tears broke Pete's heart. He wiped at his own eyes, not caring to disguise his sorrow.
"Peter, are you trying to single-handedly disprove the adage about no-tears-in-Heaven?"
"You wouldn't understand." There was much more sadness than volume in his tone.
"You aren't supposed to feel pain and loss here..." Gus sighed.
"I've got news for you."
"You're holding on, my boy. That's why."
"He's my partner," Pete gulped, surprised himself at how hard this was. "My friend."
"And he will grieve for you. But you're not supposed to grieve. You're going to someplace far better."
"In whose estimation?"
"Are things so wonderful here that you should leave with regret?"
"Seems to me you've been a regular Grinch the last few weeks. I'd think you'd be glad for a little change."
"Death?" Pete nearly choked, but got the word past the lump in his throat. "That's more than a little change!"
"There are better things ahead than what you leave behind.'"
Gus led the way as they began the trek along a mist-covered horizon. The blindingly white void had morphed so slowly that Pete hadn't noticed at first. Where there had been bright nothingness, he now saw layers of fluffy clouds, billows of fog and a golden staircase hanging from unseen supports. As a cop, Pete had climbed steps in Los Angeles that seemed to go straight up forever, but this one really did seem to never end. Appropriate, Pete mused, I died running up a flight of steps, so what do I do for eternity, but climb stairs!
"Oh, this just gets us to heaven," Gus replied, reading his mind yet again. "Eternity is much, much longer than you might imagine."
"That's what I'm afraid of."
"What saves a man is to take a step. Then another step," Gus mused.
"Oh, nothing…just something I read once."
They trudged on, Gus in the lead but only because Pete was hanging back, feeling unmotivated and uncooperative. The gap grew until there were more than fifteen steps between them, whereupon the angel stopped. Leaning over the gleaming banister he called down to his stubborn charge.
"You realize that any hope of pleading your case will require you to speak to my superiors, and they only deal face to face."
"Who said anything about pleading my case?" Pete retorted.
"So you don't want to watch while my badge is ripped from my rumpled excuse for a uniform and I'm drummed out of the force with all due disrespect and disgrace?" Gus smiled, repeating the cop's most recent thoughts word for angry word.
"That little parlor trick of yours is getting mighty annoying."
"The sooner we arrive at your final destination the quicker you'll be rid of me and my annoyances. So step lively, my boy. You've quite a ways to go."
"I thought the afterlife was one of eternal rest." Pete groused, picking up the pace just a bit.
"You've a lot of surprises in store."
The further up the staircase they climbed, the thicker the mist became. Pete soon became aware that he was actually moving through clouds that swirled around the flight of steps and even if he looked directly down at his feet, he couldn't see the treads beneath them as he made his way up and up the twisted golden ladder. He thought he should be feeling a little dizzy under the circumstances, and he was experiencing a bit of lightheadedness, but that he attributed to the entire ordeal and not just this visually impaired ghostly trek up the endlessly winding path.
After what was beginning to seem like eternity in itself, just when the isolation, the boredom of whiteness was becoming suffocating, they broke through the top…to yet more whiteness and dazzling light. Pete covered his eyes from the assault of brightness and beauty.
They appeared to be inside some sort of gargantuan structure, resembling the lobby of a government building, a grand and imposing room much larger than anything Pete had ever seen as an interior. Huge columns of something like marble, but brighter, burnished to a sheen beyond any polished stone on earth soared above his head, their massive circumferences gleaming as they rose straight up into the white clouds and bright cerulean of an open sky.
Pete observed that the ceiling was indeed the sky itself, though clearer blue and purer white than Los Angeles had witnessed in centuries, if ever. Yet all around the edges of the massive hall, stories above his head, an ornate crown molding framed the sky above, giving it the illusion of a masterful tableau. Only the gentle movement of the clouds proved otherwise.
Looking down he noticed the polished tile beneath his feet, reflecting like glass the moving skies above. The sight made him feel queasy and nearly lose his balance as he tried to take a step forward. He grabbed for the banister to keep from careening onto his face into what would have seemed a free fall through space.
Up and down had a frightening effect on his senses, so to get his bearings, he looked around to the sides of the room. The walls, if one could call such vast expanses that, glowed and made him blink from their luminous whiteness. Pete had never known there could be so many shades of white.
On either side of the grand hall stood identical banks of double golden doors. Above each set of doors was an ornate indicator dial, making them appear for all the world to be rows of elevators in some grand old hotel.
"Are those…?" Pete started to ask.
"Elevators, my boy," the angel replied. "Lifts they call them in England, I believe."
"And where do they go?"
"Oh…up…and down…mostly," Gus shrugged.
"They don't by any chance come up from where we came, do they?"
"Could be…some of them do. Yes, I believe so."
"They why did we just climb up all those stairs?
"Well, to get here, of course!" Gus chuckled, as though it had been the silliest question ever.
"But Gus…if we could have…wouldn't it have been better just to come up in one of the elevators?"
"It would have been quicker, that's for certain," the angel agreed. "More efficient, I suppose. Easier on the knees, that's for sure."
"Then why did we take the stairs?"
"You, my son," Gus slapped him firmly on the shoulder. "It's all about you."
"You needed a little time …to cool off."
"To what?" Pete's voice echoed in the huge empty hall.
"It didn't appear to do much good, I'll give you that. But it seemed a good idea at the time."
Pete turned away from Gus, his eyes sweeping the rows of elevators, and looking past them to the opposite end of the enormous room. Before him was a labyrinth of white velvet crowd-control ropes draped between golden stands in a seemingly endless maze. It filled the hopelessly unfillable expanse between them and the only other object in the prodigious room. At the furthermost end of this great hall stood a rather insignificant looking desk.
Everything around them, the walls, the moldings, the glistening floor, the columns that seemed to pierce the cloud-filled ceiling and go beyond it… everything was vast, elaborate, extravagant to the extreme. In contrast, the desk was plain, unadorned, utilitarian. Infinitesimal in comparison to its surroundings. Yet something about it commanded attention.
Pete attempted a step forward again, this time he avoided looking down and set his gaze on the simple white desk at the end of the long room. Nothing felt quite solid in the same way he was used to, but he thought he was growing a bit more accustomed to this strange state. His footsteps reverberated hollowly across the polished floor, but he refused to look down. Walking across what appeared to be open sky was just a bit more than he was ready to handle.
His confidence building, feeding on sheer will, he made his way to the side of the room and began to circumnavigate the rows and rows of velvet roping on the gleaming golden stands.
"Tsk tsk," he heard from behind him.
Pete turned to see Gus indicating that he should make his way through the ridiculous maze. Another look around the room assured him there was no one else in sight. He threw out his hands to attest to their being alone.
"Now's not the time to stop playing by the rules, my boy."
"There's nobody here!" Pete protested.
"There's always someone watching," Gus smiled slyly. He gestured for Pete to precede him as they entered the maze together.
After they'd wound their way through what Pete thought must be the longest labyrinth ever built, he noticed they weren't quite half way to the desk.
"Now I know why you need eternity up here," Pete groused. "This is a colossal waste of time, you know."
"Time…isn't exactly as you imagine it to be," Gus said with infinite patience.
Pete was pretty sure he'd lost all track of time, earthly or otherwise, when he finally found himself standing before the sought after white desk. From this vantage point, it appeared slightly larger than it had from the other end of the hall, but it still wasn't remarkable in any way. The top of the desk was completely clear except for a shiny silver sign that said Admissions and a glistening gold call bell, like the concierge desk of a hotel.
"Now what?" Pete shrugged.
"It's your eternity," Gus sighed. "You were the one in such an all-fired hurry."
"Ring the bell, my boy," Gus chuckled. "Ring the bell!"
Pete tapped the golden plunger and was surprised to hear the tiny sound it emitted. He wasn't sure what he'd been expecting but the ordinariness of the ring was a bit of a disappointment. He stood there in the silence that followed, trying not to focus on the absurdity of it all.
"Name?" A slight, balding man with thick spectacles and beady little dark eyes had appeared behind the desk without Pete's notice. He was dressed in a nondescript business suit, all in shades of white, his skinny tie a shinier version of the same non-color.
"Name..." he repeated when Pete hadn't responded quickly enough. There was the slightest bit of annoyance in his voice. It had a pinched quality to it.
"Name?" Pete repeated. "Don't you know my name?"
"Listen. I don't have time for games today. Either give me your name or step to the end of the line."
"What line? There is no line."
"Are you going to give me your name or do I need to call security?"
"Security? Up here?" Pete snorted. "Why the heck would you need security?"
"Peter, your language!" Gus cautioned.
"You'd be surprised how many people try to get by us," the angel at the desk replied in a condescending tone.
"Yeah, I'll bet they're just dying to get in," Pete quipped.
"I suppose you think that's the fist time I've heard that one," the officious angel replied tightly. "You would be wrong."
"Sorry. I couldn't resist," the officer shrugged.
"I'm still waiting for your name."
"Malloy," Gus spoke up.
"I thought you'd deserted me," Pete quipped.
"Never, my boy."
"What name again?"
"Malloy." Gus repeated. "M-A double-L O-Y. Peter Joseph."
"Sorry. We don't have anything on a Malloy."
"What? Pete frowned.
"Nothing on the admissions list."
"Didn't tell me I have to tip the maitre de, Gus."
"Nonsense." Gus approached the desk, his voice lowering in confidentiality. "He met with an untimely death in a darkened warehouse."
"I've got no warehouses today. I have a boating accident due in about twenty minutes. It's been a slow day."
"He was a police officer. It was while he was on duty."
"Gunshot? Well, why didn't you say so. Maybe it's filed under that. John Doe perhaps."
"John Doe?" Pete sputtered. "Somehow I always envisioned this to be a little more organized and efficient."
The thin angel behind the desk made an annoyed noise and fixed Pete with a glare.
"Stanley can be a little - officious at times," Gus whispered.
"Stanley?" Pete's brows peaked. "I thought..."
"Thought what?" Gus and Stanley arched an eyebrow each.
"Oh, nothing. I just thought it was St. Peter you met at the gate."
"Really?" Stanley dismissed. "I would have thought that misconception had been cleared up long ago."
"Then he isn't in charge?"
"Oh, he is in charge of admissions. And occasionally you'd find him here," Gus explained. "But he's on a fishing trip this week."
"Fishing? There's fishing...up here?"
"Are you kidding? St. Peter goes all the time."
"You know what Peter and the other apostles did when they were on earth...well, most of 'em anyway."
"Wandered around in the desert?"
"That was Moses," Gus sighed.
"I thought he was the one with the animals and the big boat."
"Noah!" Stanley corrected with disdain.
"I'm appalled at your ignorance of the Bible. Didn't you pay any attention to Sister Margaret?"
"I was joking about the ark," Pete quipped. "Moses was the one who killed the giant, right?"
"Peter," Gus shook his head, trying not to laugh. "That sense of humor is going to get you into trouble someday."
"Somehow I don't think I need to worry about that anymore," he shrugged. "So, what did the apostles do? Four-part harmony?"
"Fishermen! They were fishermen," Stanley exploded with impatience.
"You don't say?" Pete drawled, fully aware from the beginning.
"Yeah," Gus agreed. "We've got some of the greatest fishing in the world... Well ...better even."
"And I suppose you can go whenever you like?"
"Well, yeah...I mean...unless..."
"The guardians who have cops as charges...they eh...don't see much angling time."
"No, I s'pose not. Listen, I'm sorry to have cut into your fishing time and all, even though it was only one day and from what I can see, you didn't DO much that one day...but do you think we could get back to the point?"
"Sure," Gus shrugged.
"Thank you," Pete said with exaggerated patience.
"Don't mention it, son."
"What?" Gus's face was a study in innocence.
"What eh...was the point?"
Pete sighed, wishing he had a chair to throw himself into in frustration, when he noticed a large white club chair only a few feet from them. He would have sworn it hadn't been there moments before.
"Eh...Gus...could I see you a moment...alone," the thin spectacled angel beckoned.
"What's the hold up, Stanley?"
"Well, I did some checking and according to our records, Peter Joseph Malloy isn't due to arrive today. In fact, we aren't scheduled to see him for years."
"What?" Pete piped up.
"This is a private conversation," Stanley chided sharply.
"It's about me, isn't it? I think I have a right to know what's going on."
"Are we going to have trouble with this one?" the little man behind the desk sneered at Gus.
"He's a bit on the impatient side," Gus acknowledged.
"What were you saying about me not supposed to be here?"
"This is an administrative issue, Mr. Malloy," Stanley chided. "And considering your lack of status at this point, I'll thank you to stay out of things you couldn't possibly understand."
"I understood what you said about my not being on your lists. That means I don't belong here, so let's see about getting me where I do belong."
"Careful, Peter," Gus warned gently.
"I'm not hanging around here…for Eternity if I'm not supposed to have even been here in the first place!"
"No! Let's fix this now."
"Settle down," Gus soothed. "We'll get this straightened out. Of course you're not going …anywhere else."
"If I'm not supposed to be here...if I'm going...eh...somewhere else. I guess we might as well get it over with."
"Don't be so hasty there, Peter. We're not talking about a weekend in Hawaii. The alternative is..."
"If that's what's in store..." Malloy shrugged with resignation. So far he hadn't been all that impressed with this destination in comparison to the things he'd always heard. He figured that maybe the press for the other place hadn't been entirely accurate either.
"Listen to me. We've got a bit of a problem here, but it's not as bad as that!" Gus shushed in a loud whisper. "Just give me a moment to straighten this out."
"I can't admit him without the proper paperwork, Gus. You know the rules," Stanley clucked like a strict headmaster.
"What's the problem?" Pete insisted. "Where's the paperwork?"
"Mr. Malloy. We don't have an authorization for you..."
"Peter, let me handle this," Gus interrupted.
"Like you handled the warehouse? You'll forgive me if I'm lacking a certain element of faith in that area."
"Please watch what you say, Peter," Gus sighed. "We're not out of the woods yet."
"What do you mean, no authorization?" Malloy insisted.
"When someone is scheduled to arrive, we receive notification from the central office. Preparations are made and a messenger is sent to guide them." Stanley explained the orderly procedure as though conducting the kindergarten tour.
"Are you saying my room isn't made up yet? It's a housekeeping snafu?"
"I wish it were that simple," the bespectacled angel shook his balding head.
"So, what then?"
"You weren't expected," Stanley replied simply.
"Today. You weren't supposed to arrive today," Stanley looked almost sympathetic for a moment.
"I wasn't..." Pete's brow furrowed as he tried to make sense of all of this. If he was understanding the situation, he was about to lose his cool. "Are you saying I wasn't supposed to die in that warehouse?"
"I'm not able to discuss the details of your case at this time." Stanley returned his attention to the paperwork on his desk.
"Well when do you think we could chat?" Pete cracked, quickly losing control. "Because I don't know about you, but this is a subject of some interest to me."
"Mr. Malloy, there is no reason to get upset," Stanley looked over his spectacles.
"No reason? You tell me I died before I was supposed to...that my friends are back there grieving and blaming themselves...and you don't expect me to get upset?"
"Peter -" Gus tried to calm the outburst obviously about to happen.
"You!" Pete whirled around to face down the angel who'd brought him here, who by his own admission hadn't protected him when it counted. "This is all your fault! If you'd been on the job, I wouldn't be here right now."
"There's no call for that," Stanley chided with a superior air, coming around from behind the desk.
"I was a cop! Dammit, you'd think I'd get a better guardian angel than...this!"
"Really! That language is most inappropriate!" Stanley chided.
"Stay out of this," Pete warned the pompous angel. "I haven't even started on you yet."
"Well!" Stanley moved back behind the desk in a snit.
"Look at you!" Pete turned to Gus again, his eyes flashing. "You couldn't protect a boy scout helping an old lady crossing the street! You'd think a cop would deserve better."
"No. Explain this to me. How do I rate some pudgy, grey-headed security guard that looks like he's ready for retirement. Police work is a dangerous profession. Doesn't it just make sense..."
"Peter!" Gus's tone suddenly was commanding and not to be ignored. "Are you aware that you've worn out exactly five guardians since you joined the police force?"
"Five?" Stanley commented incredulously, his tone intimated that it might be some sort of record.
"Nobody wants the job of guarding a cop. They're always running into danger, toward the gunfire, putting themselves in harm's way. It's exhausting! Relentless! You were lucky to have one at all." Gus shook his head. "If I hadn't already been in trouble, I'd have turned down the assignment myself."
"Great!" Pete shrugged. "I got somebody who was on probation!"
"Mr. Malloy!" Stanley scolded.
"Peter, please," Gus pleaded, looking truly contrite, despite his chiding of Pete.
"I want to see someone in charge," Pete demanded.
"Peter, I admit, I might not have done the best job of protecting you..."
"One day on the job, and you blew it." Pete spat, trying to control his anger, but he couldn't get the scene back at the warehouse from his mind. "I'd say you're going to be back in trouble again for this one."
"But you're here now. And this isn't helping the situation."
"I want to talk to your superior." Pete insisted.
"Well, that would be the sergeant, and I'm afraid he is on a fishing trip right now."
"Same fishing trip?"
"It's a big boat," Gus nodded.
"Yeah," Pete shook his head, barely containing another outburst. "Then what about his superior? The lieutenant? Or captain, maybe?"
"It doesn't work quite like that up here," Gus explained patiently. "And since you're no longer on earth, since I've delivered you to the gate, technically you are no longer in my bailiwick."
"Well, whose jurisdiction do I fall in now?"
"He was a cop," Stanley chimed in "He'd have to see St. Michael."
"St. Michael it is then," Pete announced. "Get me Michael."
"It isn't that easy, Peter," Gus said.
"If you tell me he's on this fishing trip, I'm gonna..."
"No, it's just that..."
"Mr. Malloy. As you've already been told, my superior is away at the moment. And though your complaint with Gus here may fall in St. Michael's scope of influence, you are currently an administrative problem. Which comes back to me. And no one here is authorized to handle this situation at present. You'll simply have to wait."
"Peter," Gus began with a solicitous manner. "It really doesn't matter...the waiting. Not up here. You've got Eternity to fill. A little waiting..."
"I'm not waiting," Pete refused. "Send me back."
Stanley drew himself up as though the suggestion alone questioned the order of the universe. "That is impossible."
"Why?" the cop pushed.
"I don't have the authorization for that..." the clerical angel hedged.
"What are you authorized to do, anyway?" Pete snapped, at his wits end. He suddenly found himself hanging upside down by his feet, looking down through clouds into a endless void, a long, long way down.
"How's that?" Stanley brushed his hands together, looking most pleased with himself. Apparently under all that pomposity, he had a temper.
"Stanley," Gus intervened. "There's no need to get testy."
"He asked what I was authorized..."
"Nobody likes a show-off," Pete interrupted with a growl as he hung unceremoniously in midair.
"You asked..." the angel argued.
"Stanley," Gus chided with a mildly amused tone.
"He did ask..."
"Stanley!" the booming voice came from behind them all. Pete turned his head to try to get a glimpse of the person who originated such a massive sound, but all he could manage to take in was a brilliant light.
"Sorry, chief," Stanley sheepishly replied as he quickly righted Pete and slunk back behind his desk.
"Who's that?" Pete asked of Gus, as he adjusted his uniform and waited for the blood to leave his head.
But the only answer he was to receive was the sight of Gus's stubby finger to his lips. The light dissipated as quickly as it had come and the three were once again alone before the desk.
"You know it really isn't so bad up here - once you accept what's happened," Gus cajoled as they waited a safe distance away as Stanley continued his seemingly endless shuffling of papers.
"You'll understand if I don't take your word on that." Pete shook his head.
"For instance - you have all the time in the world for the things you used to call leisure. Just relax and enjoy it for a white and see if I'm not right."
"Is that why you were late when I needed help in the warehouse? All the time in the world?"
"I wasn't late," Gus pulled himself up as much as his paunchy middle would allow. "Actually, I apparently retrieved you ahead of schedule."
"Under the present circumstance, I'm not sure I'd be bragging about that."
"You weren't in need of my intervention to survive. I didn't fail to discharge my duties in that area."
"You didn't score, either," Pete groused. "I guess you have a different view of things up here. Time and outcome and all."
"We do tend to see the bigger picture," Gus agreed.
"Well, my bigger picture is that I wasn't supposed to be here for a long time. I had a lot of life left."
"Got a lot of livin' to do..." Gus sang the popular song, though none too well. Pete figured the stories of angel choirs were yet another misconception quickly dashed upon entry. That or at least his guardian would never have qualified at the auditions.
"You're really looking at this all wrong, you know Peter."
"How do you figure?" Pete sighed. "Years of my life were stolen. You're saying I shouldn't be upset?"
"Actually you should be thanking me."
"Yeah, that's going to happen."
"Just wait. In a little while you'll come around."
"Don't hold your breath."
"You like fishing, right?"
"Well, you've got time now. And all the fishing you could want. With some of the best fishermen of all time."
"And not just fishing. There are people you always wanted to meet. Questions you never got answered. Things you never got around to...and time to just relax."
"Sounds like the perfect retirement community. But I'm not ready to retire. And it wasn't my time."
"A slight change of plans. In the scheme of things, what are a few years one way or the other."
"They were my years. You'll excuse me if I'm not feeling quite as generous about them."
"I know you look at it as missed opportunities, but there is another side to it."
"I'm listening..." Pete crossed his arms across his chest. He might be willing to listen, considering he had little else to do at the moment, but he wasn't ready to accept anything.
"There's missed pain."
"That's a part of life, right?"
"Spoken like a man who's already forgotten that spike in his skull."
"Till you went and reminded me, yeah I had." Pete rubbed at the gash that had long since stopped oozing his life force.
"And had you lived, there would have been countless other hurts in life. Physical and emotional. You mortals are masters at causing suffering, your own most of all."
"Still, it would have been mine. I was supposed to do so much more."
"Regrets, Peter? There isn't any point now."
"And I'm sure he will be using the excuse that we took him too soon, before he could achieve his potential greatness. We'll be hearing that for all eternity, no doubt!" Stanley chimed in. Neither Pete or Gus had even noticed the officious angel's return.
"Any word?" Gus asked hopefully. Pete noticed his guardian's sincere tone and realized that despite words to the contrary, Gus just might be in his corner on this one after all.
"The Powers That Be are working on it. High level discussions. We haven't had a problem like this in a very long time." Stanley's smirk seemed to indicate that his previous annoyance had given way to amused fascination with the case.
"I'll be in hot water, I suppose." Gus sighed.
"Like a tea bag!" Stanley chirped. "But better water than brimstone. I do predict a severe case of writers cramp."
"I might as well start scribbling now."
"So what's going on?" Pete interrupted their office chatter. "When do you send me back?"
"Back?" Stanley's eyebrows nearly sprouted their own set of wings. "I don't see that happening!"
Gus's expression held more sympathy as he regarded his charge with a wistful smile. "I wouldn't get my hopes up, Peter. The Powers are benevolent, but the rules are clear, and never broken."
"I'll take my chances, seeing as it was your mistake."
"They aren't going to like this, Gus. It was hoped you would have talked him down by now. He should be resigned to his fate and grateful for whatever decision is forthcoming."
"Well, he's not resigned," Pete assured, his annoyance had simmered into anger. "And the only acceptable resolution is my immediate return."
"Peter, please!" Gus cringed. "Remember where you are and who you are."
"And who's mistake it was?" Pete challenged.
"I'm just saying that a little respect could go a long way. We are dealing with the Almighty One."
Pete thought a while, but couldn't find a snappy reply. In fact he was feeling fairly drained of fight, so he tossed himself onto the mysterious white chair and closed weary eyes.
Gus joined him after a whispered conversation with Stanley. "You were saying that our idea of time is different, Peter. Well you're right, in ways you couldn't imagine. Maybe you should just rest here a bit until we know more."
"Meanwhile...what's happening to me back there?"
"Your friends were with you when we left. Nothing's changed."
"My friends..." Pete swallowed hard. He'd been running on anger for the better part of...he wasn't sure how long, but the thought of Mac's sad eyes and Jim's ashen face made him feel queasy and weak. "My friends are..."
"Together," Gus nearly whispered. "Your friends are right where they should be at a time like this. That's one of the things you mortals do well."
Pete shut his eyes again, this time against the sting of hot tears. He felt powerless and sad but most of all lonely. He wanted to be near his comrades, to give and receive the comfort to which Gus alluded. But he was no longer a part of that.
When he opened his eyes, Gus wasn't beside him, in fact, he was quite alone. He looked around and realized that even Stanley had disappeared, and he had little doubt that was exactly how he had left the room, too. Pete stretched out in the chair, which was indeed quite comfortable. He hadn't noticed it before, but he was feeling a little tired. It had been a long night. He had no idea just how much time had passed since the warehouse, but it seemed it could well have been an eternity.
"Oh, Eternity is nothing like this short a time, Mr. Malloy." The voice came from behind the desk, and when he turned to look, he realized that Stanley was back again.
"I guess it's hard to tell time in Limbo," Pete replied, surprisingly less startled by the mind-reading now. Maybe it was true; you could adjust to anything.
"Limbo?" Stanley sputtered. "Is that where you thought you were? Well, no wonder you've been out of sorts. This is far from Limbo."
"What would you call it?"
"Heaven," Stanley shrugged. "Well, not technically, of course. It's sort of…the lobby, I guess. Reception, how's that."
"That's a matter of opinion, I suppose. And I guess in your case, it's been less so than usual. But you have to understand, we just can't admit people without the proper documentation."
"I 'spose not."
"Absolutely not!" Stanley continued the endless shuffling of paperwork. Pete honestly never saw where the papers came from nor where they went, but Stanley spent an inordinate amount of time moving them about on the otherwise empty desk.
"Uh, where's Gus?" Pete asked, out of boredom as much as anything.
"Gus…" the angel looked over his glasses with what seemed to be meant as a meaningful pause. "…is in conference…with his superiors."
There was a tone behind the words that made his implication clear. Gus was in trouble!
"What's going to happen?"
"To Gus? What's happening to him?"
"I told you, Mr. Malloy," Stanley said with an exaggerated patience that was clearly not. "He is in conference with his superiors."
"Yes, I got that," Pete nodded. "But what happens…in a case like this?"
"Clearly, Mr. Malloy, we are not in habit of having cases like this! Obviously, this is an aberration!"
"Okay," Pete inhaled slowly. "What happens…when an…angel…" he wasn't sure he'd get used to using that word any time soon. "…gets himself into…trouble, like this?"
"Most of us…don't!"
"Hmmm." Pete leaned back into the chair again, once more trying to make sense of the most bizarre night of his life…eh…death. He could hear Stanley silent behind the desk, save his constant shuffling of papers. "I guess everyone makes mistakes."
"Well, I mean, they wouldn't…banish him to…well…to…?"
"Mr. Malloy!" Stanley stood and came around the desk, speaking in a loud stage whisper. "We don't speak of such things! At least not here in Reception! Do I make myself clear?"
"So what will happen to him?"
"That isn't your concern," he shrugged. "Besides, I'd think you'd want them to punish him, after all your blustering before."
"I just want things put right. And I wouldn't mind being reassigned, someone more…suited. But I don't want any…revenge or anything. I suppose it isn't his fault entirely. He obviously was in over his head."
"Well, look at him! He had no business trying to guard a cop!"
"So, you think you're here because you were a cop?" Stanley asked quietly, now interested in this new arrival as more than just a quirk in his normally perfect system.
"I wouldn't have been in that warehouse if I wasn't."
"The warehouse was the problem then?" Stanley seemed interested in something behind the words. Very interested.
"I hate warehouses. Ever since..."
"I had the right idea back then..." Pete mused sadly. "I should have quit that night."
"When was that?"
"Almost two years ago. I had written my resignation, made arrangements with the captain. I even had plans as to what I'd do instead, well sort of."
"What happened to change your mind?"
"Who is ..."
"My partner," Pete saw Jim's ashen face once again at the scene at the bottom of a set of dark stairs. "I thought I could make a difference. What a joke! I'm the reason for his pain now. The same pain. Stupid!"
"So if you could go back, change the outcome and your destiny?"
"To that day. When you wanted to quit."
"You mean go ahead with the resignation?"
"If that's what you wish."
"But that was almost two years ago."
"Not an impossibility, at least not for us. And under the circumstances."
"Just like that?"
"Assuming we can get approval," Stanley shrugged.
"But you said…"
"We don't do it because there are rules against it. But this is sort of an out of the ordinary case."
"So…it's possible after all?"
"Technically, yes," the angel agreed.
Pete thought about Mac and Jerry, and his partner, Jim. Riding in that silent ambulance with a dead comrade, preparing for a funeral. Dealing with the aftermath, the nightmares, the guilt and pain that never went away. "What would change?"
"Everything. You'd no longer be a cop. That's what you want, right?"
"Yeah, I guess."
"So what were you planning to do?"
"I...eh...I always liked boats actually. The ocean, fishing. I'd looked into joining the Coast Guard."
"Wouldn't that be just another form of cop?"
"Yeah, I suppose so," Pete sighed. "Hopeless, huh? I had a friend who ran a sport fishing boat. I had talked to him that week about a job, he said he could use an extra hand."
"Fishing, eh?" the angel smiled. "Well, it's not my thing, but not a bad profession or avocation."
"So I could go back?"
"Well, normally I'd say 'no' right off the bat. But considering we did make a little error…"
"Gus made a big mistake!" Pete interrupted, leaning on his complaint again. "I was still alive!"
"Like I said," Stanley acknowledged. "Since we seem to be at least partially at fault, there might be room for something a little unorthodox as a remedy."
"If we got authorization, what moment would you want to go back to?"
"You mean, you wouldn't just send me back to the warehouse. To…tonight…at the bottom of those stairs?"
"Well, I was thinking that since you've been so upset. Maybe we could bend the rules a bit. Give you a chance to change something if you wanted…to make up for the…eh…inconvenience. You know?"
"That sounds promising."
"Now, it's all speculation at this point. I haven't gotten final clearance, but Gus and I were thinking it might be possible. Under the circumstances."
"Back to any time I wanted?"
"Within reason I suppose."
"What about…" Pete stopped for a moment. The glimmer of a plan was forming. Did he dare ask? He didn't dare not. "What about the…other warehouse?"
"The night…the night…Steve ….was….killed." Now that he had spoken it aloud, he knew two things: it was audacious…and it was all he really wanted.
Peter was starting to understand Eternity in ways his limited human brain had never imagined before. As he paced around the ornate lobby, or tried to relax in the extremely comfortable chair, he could feel the moments ticking away ever more slowly. Gus was still in conference; and having stood before his share of Internal Affairs investigations, shooting review boards and assorted dressings-down, Malloy couldn't help but wonder what getting called on the carpet in Heaven was like. He felt sympathy for his less-than-adequate guardian. And though he wasn't quite sure about how time moved up here, it seemed they'd been in there a very long, long time indeed.
And Stanley had left him alone after their brief discussion, to speak with his superiors and see if he could get the whole return to Earth scheme authorized. Stanley had seemed excited himself at the prospects, though that had been a puzzlement. But for himself, Pete couldn't remember hoping for an outcome more.
In truth, he had been unable to think of anything else since Stanley left. The chance to go back and fix something in his past was indeed tempting. But an opportunity to right such a wrong? Not to merely avenge his former partner's tragic and untimely death, something that even bringing his murderer to justice hadn't satisfied fully, but to prevent the calamity entirely? It was more than he'd ever dreamt possible. And as he waited to hear the decision of the Powers That Be, Pete realized he'd give anything to make it happen, now that he saw it as a possibility.
Not only did he recall that night in the warehouse with a clarity that even years hadn't dimmed, but he knew every detail of the case. He'd thought over that night hundreds of times since then and Pete was sure he knew just what had gone wrong, and how he'd change things to make it right, or at least, cause them to turn out differently. If nothing else, he'd send Steve to the quadrant he'd gone to that night, and take his own chances with the gunman. He'd wondered night after terrible nightmare if he might have seen something his younger, less-experienced partner hadn't. Worst case scenario: it would be he who took the bullet. A single cop, without a family to support, had to be a better trade than a young husband with a tiny baby. Besides, he was dead anyway. He had nothing to lose.
A door at the end of the long, broad white hall opened slowly. Pete almost flew off the soft white chair in anticipation. He tried to settle himself, to keep from looking quite so eager, standing at near attention as he waited for someone to emerge. He felt the throbbing of his heartbeat in his ears. But it wasn't Stanley who came through the golden door. It was Gus, looking even worse for wear than before. His virtually constant smile was missing. That didn't bode well. Or, maybe it did. If the Powers were angry at Gus for his foible maybe they would take pity on Pete's plight and give him his desire. And at that moment, he realized that's exactly what this preposterous proposition had become. An all consuming desire.
"Miss me?" Gus forced a smile for his charge as he neared the chair where Pete had been waiting.
"How'd it go?"
"Oh, got to face the music now and then, am I right?"
"What's the damage?"
"Hmmm," Gus shook his head slowly. "I can handle it, my boy. No worries."
"Well, it was your first day," Pete offered. He did feel a bit sorry for the old angel, despite his own inconvenience. And now that he had the hope of going back and making a wrong right, he was feeling ever more generous.
"Oh, he had a meeting," Pete replied, taking a seat again. Gus took the chair next to him, a chair which Pete was certain hadn't been there a moment before.
"What sort of meeting did he have now?" Gus saw through Pete's nonchalance.
"Something about sending me back," Pete supplied. "He said you'd talked about it."
"Oh, well, I don't know if that will fly or not, but I hope they can find some resolution. I feel badly about how things worked out for you, son," Gus sighed deeply,
The sound shocked Pete a little. He'd never thought of angels as having aches or troubles. "Well, maybe it will all turn out all right after all."
"You're sounding decidedly more upbeat than when I left."
"Am I?" Malloy faked innocence.
"Well, Mr. Malloy," Stanley hailed from behind them.
Pete turned to see that he was indeed just behind them, and he was pretty sure he should have been able to hear his approach. He'd be glad when he was back on Earth and those sorts of oddities stopped happening. How did anyone ever get used to this kind of craziness, people popping in and out, reading your mind, chairs just appearing from nowhere?
"I've got good news," Stanley announced followed by a long pause. "And bad news."
"Why did I know that was coming?" Pete swore under his breath.
"I suppose you want the good news first?"
"Well, I've spoken with my superiors, they were most sympathetic to your circumstances…"
"That's good of them."
"And they asked me to extend their apologies for not being available to deal with your situation personally, but it is the holidays and they are all quite busy. There are choir rehearsals and preparations, the Birthday party, on top of all the usual demands. I'm sure you can see their position."
"That's fine," Pete replied, not sure he wanted to deal with them personally. The two rather odd angels he found himself flanked by at the moment were about as much as he could handle. "I completely understand. What did they say?"
"I just told you…they wanted to extend their apologies…"
"I mean…about sending me back?"
"Oh, yes, that."
"You said there was good news?"
"Yes, well, the good news is that they are willing to authorize your return to Earth."
"Yes!" Pete hissed, clapping his hands with excited victory. "Well, when do I leave?"
"Mr. Malloy," Stanley stalled. "I'm afraid there is a problem however."
"Well, your requested destination was…rejected, I'm sorry to report."
"It seems there was concern that you had plans to change someone else's destiny."
"Damn right, I did!"
"Well! I did!" Pete confessed. "I wanted to go back and make something right!"
"Therein lies the problem."
"Why? You said whenever I wanted. You said you wanted to make up for the inconvenience!"
"I believe my exact words were…within reason…and apparently someone had a problem with that particular destination, because you had an agenda."
"Yes, I had an agenda. I wanted to save…" Pete stopped cold, seeing the looks he was getting from the two angels. One condemning and one compassionate. "I just wanted a chance to try to keep him from being killed. He was my partner! He was a young father! It wasn't fair what happened! Is that so terrible?"
"Commendable, my boy," Gus patted his shoulder gently.
"It isn't yours to change," Stanley stated coldly.
"Because…Mr. Malloy," Stanley drew himself up to his full height. "Perhaps he doesn't want to be saved. Perhaps that isn't in his plans. Maybe he likes it here. It has been known to happen, you know!"
"Perhaps it was you that you really wanted to save. Your grief."
Pete stared at the angel in silence for some time. Steve doesn't want to go back? Even though he left a wife and a baby and years of a life he enjoyed? The thought hadn't even crossed his mind that someone would prefer death. Prefer…this…to more of…what he couldn't wait to get back to. It was a daunting concept. As was the possibility of his own selfishness as a motive.
In all honesty, it would have been as much for himself as for anyone. He could dress it up with all the noble words he wanted. Truth was, not being able to keep safe the man he'd brought up from a rookie had left Pete with scars he'd been unable to heal, even years later. Working with Reed had taken some of the sting away, had kept him on the force and finally allowed him to open up to friendship with the young man he now called partner. But he would always mourn the loss he'd suffered that night. And despite the logic that there was nothing he could have done to prevent it, a part of Pete's heart would always say he was to blame.
"So what now?" Pete finally found his voice, around the lump of emotion he'd had to swallow.
"That's up to you, really."
"How do you figure?"
"Well, you can't be sent back to change your former partner's destiny, without his approval, of course. But you are free to choose another time and place, provided you're not attempting to bring anyone else back to life."
"I don't know…" he stopped, thrown by how set he'd been on his other plan. It had been foolhardy, he supposed, but he'd had to try. Had it been for his own comfort? He might never know for certain. Now he wasn't sure where or when he wanted to return.
"We could send you back to the warehouse, where Gus found you."
"I suppose so," Pete replied, still feeling the emptiness of his dashed hopes. "I just…"
"No guarantees, this time, of course."
"What does that mean?"
"You might be going back…just to end up here again. There's no way of knowing."
"I don't understand."
"You didn't die the last time. But going back…makes for a slightly different outcome, sometimes. There's no way of telling for certain."
"And if I don't choose to go back to the warehouse?"
"You said something about not being a cop. Changing your course…giving up the profession. Remember?"
"Yeah…" Pete thought a moment. Maybe he'd had the right idea all along. Two years ago he'd been determined to quit the force and make a change. He'd even written his resignation. "Maybe that would be best."
Suddenly he was in the locker room of Central Division. It was fifteen minutes until roll call, the place was full of officers dressing for the PM shift. It was quieter than usual, a tense hush hung over the place. There were small clusters of two or three officers, talking quietly, but there was definitely a somber mood to those gathered there. Pete knew most of the officers, but he noticed a few unknown faces. Young men, fresh out of the academy no doubt. New recruits.
Pete moved to his locker, as much instinct as a willful act. He opened the metal door and peered inside. A pair of white gloves lay on the shelf next to a folded paper. The sight of them sent Pete's mood into a nosedive. They had been there for several days, since the funeral. He hadn't the heart to take them home. His apartment was the one place with nothing that overtly reminded him of the partner he had lost. He wasn't sleeping as it was. Taking those items home wouldn't help matters any.
Pete slipped out of his jacket, an envelope dropping to the floor as he hung it on the hook. He bent to retrieve the white rectangle and stared at the writing on the front. It was his handwriting, but he felt disconnected to it somehow. It was addressed simply to the captain. Inside was a formal letter; his resignation. He'd written it himself, after hours and days of consideration, yet it still didn't feel real.
Val Moore stepped up to the locker next to Malloy's. Pete didn't so much hear or see the senior officer's approach as felt his presence. He acknowledged the lieutenant with a silent nod.
"Pete -" Moore smiled with sincerity but without mirth. "It's good to see you. After last night, I wasn't sure if you were coming."
"Just for tonight," Pete replied, placing the envelope with it's strange contents on the shelf, next to the gloves and the funeral program. Appropriate, he thought sadly.
"You won't talk it over, huh?" Val prodded gently as the two men continued to change into their uniforms. "I still think it's a mistake. Maybe we could talk about it?"
"It all got said last night," Pete noticed a tall, dark haired, lanky recruit at the next block of lockers, struggling with lining up his shooting medal on his uniform shirt. Kid hasn't learned to put the hardware on while it's still on the hanger, Pete mused. Somebody's got his work cut out for him.
"I think you're making a mistake, Pete. Seven years on the force...senior man on the watch."
"You've been assigned a new man tonight," Moore was saying when Pete's attention returned to his own locker and dressing for his final shift.
"Val, what's the point? I'm outta here after tonight. Put him with someone who's gonna be here for him."
"Name's Allen Thomas," Moore continued undaunted by Malloy's protest. "Thirty years old. Military police in 'Nam. Looks pretty good on paper. He'll be assigned to Brady when he gets back from vacation, but I thought it would do him good to ride with you tonight."
Pete let out a heavy sigh. There wasn't much point in fighting it. When Val Moore made up his mind, no argument would sway him.
The young recruit with the dark hair and piercing blue eyes came into view again. Pete found himself inexplicably watching the young man with interest. He was measuring the level of his tie bar with major concentration. Pete smile at the rookie's attention to detail.
"Who's that?' he asked Val as they knotted their own ties.
"Name's James Reed," Moore replied. "Twenty three years old. Probationer. Finished up in the top ten of his class, shooting four dollar money."
"They all do," Val chuckled.
"Who'd you put him with?"
"What's it matter to you?"
"Walters," Moore answered.
"Bill will do right by him," Pete agreed, feeling strangely interested in what happened to the tall young man.
"Uh, huh," Moore smiled, attaching the bar to his own tie. "Don't you want to know more about your own rookie?"
"I'm sure I'll learn more than I need to know in the first half hour."
All during roll call, Pete's attention was pulled to the tall, dark haired rookie. Pete overheard him talking to another of the recruits about his wife's pregnancy as they entered the room and he caught a brief exchange about a basketball game as he and Thomas were taking their seats in front.
After inspection, Pete saw the young man standing in the parking lot, looking a little lost. Walters has his hands full with this one he mused. Pete tapped the rookie on the shoulder and pointed him the direction of his training officer, standing alone by Adam-23.
"Hey, Malloy!" Walters called as Pete passed. "Wanna meet up for seven later?"
"Probably be too busy, Bill," he wasn't really in the mood for being sociable tonight. It was his last shift, he'd likely never see these people again. While the thought stung, the loss of friends he'd made over the last seven years, he was practical enough to realize they'd never really keep in touch. After all, it was memories he was trying to avoid. He'd put it all behind him with a resignation letter to the captain later tonight.
Thankfully Pete's partner for the evening wasn't much of a talker. Quiet suited Malloy's gloomy mood just fine tonight. The chatter usually associated with a new pairing was kept to a minimum. Pete quizzed Thomas on locations, radio procedure and how to handle each call they'd been assigned as they came up, but there where long intervals of silence and Malloy relished them. His thoughts weren't fit for sharing.
They met up with Walters and Reed on a couple of calls during the night, but Pete avoided a shared code seven when the radio dispatched them to an ambulance call. A baby had gotten tangled in a dry cleaner bag and stopped breathing. Pete sent his rookie charge to deal with the distraught parents while he administered CPR. The child wasn't responding and Pete's already heavy heart just couldn't take another failure, another death. He refused to give up, he'd keep at it until the ambulance crew arrived and pulled him off her. He willed the child to react, to breath, to live. Not for herself, or her heartbroken parents so much as for his own sanity. Something in his desperation got through. The little girl coughed and sputtered to life. She was breathing on her own as the ambulance's siren was heard on the approach.
Malloy should have felt satisfaction at the rescue. If not for him, a child would have died, a family been destroyed. But there was a pall over his final shift and Pete felt joy in nothing. He just kept watching the time, clicking off his last hours and minutes as a police officer. The end couldn't come soon enough.
He and Thomas spent their code seven talking about baseball. A safe subject that made for easy digestion and a quick thirty minutes. They were soon out on the streets and back to the quiet, as though the dinnertime conversation hadn't happened at all.
A call to the park for a disturbance brought most of the available units to the scene. Pete and his rookie found MacDonald and Moore and were assigned a sector near Walters and Reed. Malloy deployed his own charge to a tree just beyond them, then watched as Walters gave his young rookie instructions to stay close behind the two veterans. They waited, holed up behind various trees, cars and other barriers.
A shot rang out in the darkness. It came from the direction of where Pete had sent Thomas. From behind them the rookie started running towards the gunfire.
"Reed!" Walters called to him, but the kid just kept running.
Pete swore under his breath before taking off at a run after him. He caught up with the young man and pulled him roughly behind a tree. "You trying to get yourself killed?"
"I - I saw I could get behind 'em…"
"You stay put, ya hear?"
"Listen, kid - Reed is it? You do what you're told! And I heard Walters give you orders to stay behind us."
There was something in the look the young man gave him, something hauntingly familiar.
Another barrage of gunfire, aimed at the cluster of trees where they'd left Walters, interrupted Pete's lecture. They heard the shots connect with the trunk, sending chunks of wood flying, but Pete heard something else that made him sick. Bill Walters cried out in pain as one of the shots obviously hit its mark. A moment later, the rookie beside him was running towards his partner. More gunfire spattered across the expanse of darkness. Malloy launched himself after the recruit, barreling into him and knocking him to the ground.
He felt the hot sting of the bullet as it entered, piercing flesh and splintering bone, tearing muscle and severing veins.
Pete stood staring down at the body in the darkness. A crimson bloom had formed on the chest, visible even in the dim light of the street lamps. He had made himself a shield, protecting the young recruit who now knelt beside the lifeless form. A man he'd never met, whose name he couldn't recall. It was inconceivable, yet he had seen no other recourse. Pete remembered hearing the recruit say something about a wife and a baby on the way. Maybe that was what had driven him to put himself between the rookie and the bullet meant for him.
It had been mostly instinct, not a lot of thought had gone into the decision. Truth was, there hadn't been time to think. Now staring at the body sprawled on the ground, he realized that even without time or thought - there'd been some determined motivation behind the action.
"You didn't even know him," the voice said quietly from behind.
"The kid - you saved his life and you didn't even know him."
"I - I guess I didn't - but - "
"You gave your life for his."
"Didn't think about it."
"He's - married, gonna have a kid of his own. He's barely grown himself."
"He wasn't anything to you."
"He was - " Pete stopped, unsure of what he'd planned to say. "There was something - "
"I don't know. I kept thinking - I knew him. Something familiar."
"He looks sad," Pete sighed, watching the rookie kneeling over the dead body.
"No doubt. He watched you die. He isn't so young anymore."
"No -" Pete still didn't understand what he'd been feeling all night, but he had to know what happened to the recruit. "Gus - will he - will he be alright?'
"Not your concern, my boy. He never was."
"But - I'd like to know he's okay. He's got the potential to be a good cop."
"Maybe -? Things are different for him now. He doesn't have your guidance. Might make a big difference in the kind of cop he becomes."
"And his son?"
"He has a son…I…I don't know how I know…but I know he has a son."
"So you do remember?"
"Everything," Pete sighed. The memories he'd given up to come back were rushing in on him like the crash of the tide. "I guess I didn't get very far in coming back. Didn't change anything."
"You changed a lot, son."
"For the better?"
"Time will tell."
"I thought I wasn't supposed to remember anything."
"I remember you."
"Me? Of course you remember me…now."
"I think I remembered Reed - something about him anyway."
"Friendship. It's deeper than we ever imagine. It's possible something came through."
"Yeah," Pete squatted next to his pale, motionless body - staring into the still face.
"Come on, my boy. We've got a long trek ahead…"
"I didn't feel anything."
"The bullet. There was this quick, initial sting and then - nothing."
"You were lucky, Peter."
"No. I've been shot before. I know how it feels. I should have felt something. I don't even recall losing consciousness. It wasn't a head wound. There should have been some sensation as I…"
"You were gone before you knew what hit you."
"I didn't even feel the pain…the gasp for a final breath…nothing."
"Count your blessings - "
"Gus - "
"We're getting out of here this time, Peter."
"Mac's coming…and Moore."
"I said we're leaving."
"No - something's not right."
"You couldn't make any difference now - you're dead."
Pete rose slowly, watching the sergeant and lieutenant's somber approach. A siren pierced the quiet scene as Moore knelt beside the prone officer.
"I wish…" MacDonald said quietly.
"What is it Bill?" Moore asked in barely above a whisper.
"I just…I wish I'd gone with my gut and put him on the desk tonight," MacDonald sighed, joining the lieutenant on the ground, on the opposite side of the body.
"He wouldn't have wanted that." Moore shook his head, closing the staring, lifeless eyes with a gentle hand. "I wanted to put him with Reed. I thought the boy might spark something in Pete. Make him re-think…but this…this is beyond my worst fears."
The scene went blank, replaced by that blinding whiteness as before. "Gus!" Malloy yelled into the bright void the angel had pulled him into.
"You don't need to watch that. I told you before!"
"They're my friends!"
"You were leaving tonight. Quitting, despite their pleas to the contrary."
"Yeah…I was." Pete admitted sadly.
"We've got a lot of journey ahead, Peter. Let's get going."
"What happens to him?"
"Who? Lt. Moore?"
"No," Pete sucked in a breath. "He's a rock. And I'm just one of his officers. I'm not really worried about him."
"He seemed pretty broken up."
"He brought you along - I'm sure he never wanted to see you like that."
"Yeah," Pete acknowledged, suddenly feeling that he might have more sympathy for Val's current distress than he'd first realized. "I guess not."
"Though he was losing you anyway - tonight."
"You were quitting, weren't you?"
"Yeah - I was."
"Not much different. Giving up or getting yourself killed. Probably feels about the same to him. Well, step lively. We've got a long way to go."
"Gus - ?"
"What is it now, my boy?"
"The same night?"
"The same night I came back…I'm shot…that's pretty incredible."
"Hey - I wasn't the one who ran in front of a bullet."
"No," Pete inhaled and slowly exhaled, noticing the weary feeling that was enveloping him at the thought. "That would be me."
"After all the trouble we went to…"
"Last time it was up a flight of stairs…"
"No difference. I think I told you that last time. Dead is dead."
The same golden staircase stood only a few yards off, through a thickening white fog.
"Here we go again!"
"That we do, my boy." Gus chuckled as he headed off towards the steps.
"Hey, Gus," Pete called after him. "Where are those damned elevators?"
"Name?" Stanley asked, his head buried in a ream of papers.
"I was just here…" Pete replied, trying to get his attention.
"Your name?" the angel behind the desk insisted.
"It hasn't changed since I was here before."
"Young man, are you aware of just how many people get processed through this portal on a given day? How can I possibly be expected to remember…"
"How many people do you process twice?" Pete interrupted the officious angel who hadn't even looked up from his paperwork.
"Twice? That's not possible…" Stanley insisted.
"You'd think so, wouldn't you," Pete sighed.
The angel behind the desk finally looked up and adjusted his spectacles. A look of shock washed over his usually stoic features. "What are you doing here?"
"Gunshot wound," Gus spoke up.
"He died a hero," Gus bragged on his charge.
"Sent me back? Yes, I know." Pete replied. "Nobody's more torn up about it not working out than me."
"What was the name again?"
"Malloy," Pete replied, much less annoyed than he had been the first visit, though he couldn't have said why. "M-A-double L -O-Y."
"Oh, yes… that's right…let me just find you here on the…"
"Uh, gunshot, you say?"
"In the line of duty," Gus added, his buttons near bursting. "It was truly something to see."
"Gus…eh…I don't know how to tell you this…but…"
"Oh, no, not again!" Pete covered his face with this hands.
"He's not on the list."
"What?" Despite Pete's anticipation and previous experience, it wasn't easy to hear.
"That's impossible. He sacrificed himself for another…"
"I realize that, Gus…but…"
"Maybe that's the problem. Is Reed on the list?" Pete had perked up at bit with the thought that it could be a simple paperwork mistake. Even though the last such problem had been much less than simple. He wasn't sure how things like that worked, but he had stepped in front of a bullet clearly marked for someone else. Maybe that caused a glitch in the system.
"Reed…James A Reed."
"Nope. Not here."
"Stanley, he isn't going to…eh…he can't be! That's just not possible!" Gus insisted. "I mean, I know he wasn't always the most…the best…but he took a bullet for another person…that has to count for something."
"Let me check my records." Stanley busied himself looking through a number of thick volumes before returning to the desk in front of them. "Gus, we have a little problem."
"Now what?" Pete crossed his arms, becoming increasingly annoyed and just a bit concerned.
"It seems…that Mr. Malloy here…wasn't due today."
"Oh no, not again!"
"But he was shot!"
"Yes, yes he was," Stanley verified after checking his records again. "Apparently it wasn't fatal."
"Gus!" Pete exploded.
"Peter, how could anyone be expected to believe that you'd survive such a wound?"
"Again? You pulled me out before I died…AGAIN?!?"
"Pete, I didn't want you to suffer. Gunshot wounds can be really ugly." Gus sputtered.
"I know. I've been shot. I wasn't supposed to die!" Pete began the mantra from before.
"How could I know you'd survive."
"Did you ever once think of checking for a pulse?"
"Officer Malloy - there's no reason to shout!" Stanley reprimanded.
"Oh, really? Well we're back where we started because of his ineptitude. My friends are mourning a man who shouldn't be dead. I've lost even more years of my life - and all because you send a squeamish angel to guard a cop! I'm starting to think that incompetence runs deep around here!"
A clap of thunder stopped the tirade. Both angels bowed their heads and even Pete in his anger seemed awestruck.
"Pete, we obviously have a problem," Gus began after the reverberation had subsided. "But that sort of arrogance won't do any of us a bit of good!"
"Well, what do you expect? This is getting old - to say the least!"
"I'm sure it's unpleasant…" Stanley acknowledged.
"Oh, that doesn't even begin to describe this."
"But we'll get this straightened out."
"And just how do you propose we do that?"
"Well, we sent you back before…"
"Uh, Gus…that was a most unusual incident," Stanley warned. "I really don't see it happening again."
"The alternative seems to be me hanging around here until I do appear on the list, and from what Stanley here says - that won't be for a very long time. And despite the fact that time is different around these parts, I don't see that as a viable option."
"Just what are you proposing?"
"I'm not prepared to just hang around here."
"What if we got you an early admittance?" Stanley offered.
Pete looked from Stanley to Gus and back again.
"It would be nearly unprecedented."
"Nearly?" Pete snorted. "I'd like to interview the precedent myself!"
"Pete - that's a great offer," Gus smiled, slapping his charge on the back.
The officer shot a look at Gus that sobered his jubilance. "I'm sure this is a tremendous place and all - but you'll excuse me if I pass on early admission."
"That's the best I can do," Stanley crossed his arms in front of him.
"Well then you'd better get reinforcements, because I'm going back," Malloy squared off with the stubborn angel.
"Pete!" Gus intercepted.
"Gus…the whole point was to give me the chance to change things…to set right the mess you caused by snatching me from the jaws of death."
"Now, you're being overly dramatic." Stanley sniffed.
"My apologies, but not dying tends to do that to a person."
"Pete - I realize it looks like I made a mistake."
"Gus…there's a reason why it looks that way…because you did! And what a screw up it was!"
"Mr. Malloy! There is no call for such an outburst," Stanley scolded.
"I think I'm relatively calm, considering."
"What's done is done…and can't be undone," Gus shook his head.
"Well…you proved that one wrong before. Send me back and I'll take my chances."
"Pete…your wound was pretty bad…you might be permanently disabled," Gus clucked.
"I was alive!"
"Do you really want to go back to those odds?"
"I'm not staying around in limbo for decades!"
"I told you…" Stanley began.
"Yeah, I know…this isn't technically Limbo. But it's sure not Heaven!"
"Pete!" Gus gulped.
"Send me back," Malloy continued to insist. "Then I won't be upsetting you with my comments."
"That's not going to happen," Stanley insisted.
"Oh, I think you'll see my side of it before we're through."
"Threats?" Stanley looked over his glasses in the most challenging attitude someone who looked like him could approximate.
"If that's what works."
"Pete - " Gus pulled him aside gently. "I understand you're upset with me. And I can sympathize with what you've been through, but a certain amount of respect for where you are…"
"I'm up to here with this whole thing," Pete made a menacing motion with his hand at his own throat but the look in his eyes gave the gesture double meaning.
"To be expected, I suppose."
"Just send me back."
"To what? I'm sure they've already taken you to the morgue."
"But before…you said the funeral had taken place. Yet you were able to send me back…"
"To before the whole thing happened."
"Well, do it again"
"I don't think it matters…" Pete groaned. "As long as you don't snatch me before my time."
"You really looked like…"
"I know…I know. But Gus, I gotta tell ya…this is getting old really fast."
"So if we could send you back…" Stanley seemed to be mulling something over from behind his desk. "What would you want?"
"I don't know…my life back?"
"Seems sending you back to before you met Reed didn't help at all. You still found a way to let him cause your demise."
"Not my demise," Pete corrected. "I didn't die, remember. Gus took me too soon."
"Well, you got yourself shot…before you'd ever even met the kid," Gus summarized.
"Are you saying it was Reed's fault now?'
"Common denominator," Stanley shrugged.
"I was his partner for a coupla years without any adverse effects. I'd say there's another problem common to the scenarios."
"And that would be?" Gus asked.
"You gotta admit, before you came on the job, I seemed to be able to keep out of trouble pretty well."
"You had a cracker jack guardian apparently."
"No chance of getting him back, I don't suppose?"
"He's retired, Pete." Gus sounded incredibly sad. It was the first time Pete had heard the emotion from the often inappropriately upbeat angel. "You wore him out, son."
"Where is he now?"
"I just thought," Pete sighed, hitching a seat on the corner of a cloud. "He might have some answers."
"That's not a bad idea," Gus smiled, joining him on the fluffy surface. "Would you like to talk to him?"
"Is that possible?"
"Maybe. You want me to check on it?"
"How long will it take?"
"You're not going anywhere anytime soon. I think we've got the time."
"That's encouraging," the cop groused.
"Pete…I've told you…time is different up here. If they decide to send you back…. and that's some 'if'…anytime you spend here won't matter a bit."
"Oh, it matters."
"I know you're not going to give up on this, but I really think you're missing the point."
"This is paradise."
"This is the worst waiting room I've ever been in," Pete retorted.
"Actually, it's not half as bad as you're making it out to be…but you haven't even begun to understand what's in store."
"I don't mean to be ungrateful…but I've got time for this…when my life is over. Right now. I want to get back to that life. To what I'm meant to do."
"And nothing I say will talk you out of that?"
"I want my life back, Gus."
"And you want to see your former guardian?"
"Might be interesting."
"Might take the heat off me," the angel chuckled.
"With your superiors?"
"With you, my lad."
Pete looked at Gus with genuine sympathy for the first time since that moment they'd met in the warehouse. "What's he like?"
"My former guardian," Pete replied with patience he'd forgotten he had.
"You've had several…"
"So you said."
"But your last one? Quincy, it was."
"Quincy?" Pete's face screwed up in distaste. "Name doesn't instill much confidence."
"Oh, well, it means fifth and since he was your fifth guardian, I think it's rather appropriate."
"Everybody calls him Quinn."
"That's a little better."
"From someone who's name means rock I'm sure he'd be glad to know you approve. Speaking of appropriate nomenclatures!"
"Nothing, my hard-headed one."
"So, what does he look like?"
"You're really hung up on appearances, aren't you?"
"Just wondering if he looks more likely…"
"I wouldn't pick you out of a crowd as someone to keep me safe, Gus."
"Yeah," the angel sighed. "Well, now after you got done with him…Quinn's just a shadow of his former self."
"Pete, my boy, you wear body out! I can tell you that from my brief experience. But I'd heard the rumors. It isn't enough you're a cop but we'd sort of hoped you'd give up the road after a time…take a desk job…detectives…even the sergeant's exam? But not you! In the thick of it, you are!"
"Any chance I could meet this Quinn?"
"Perhaps," Gus mused. "He might be away at the moment. But he spends a lot of time playing Fates now, so there's a possibility I suppose."
"It's a card game." the angel explained. "Sort of like Poker. He's quite good at it. In fact, he's probably at the tournament right now, so seeing him may be a problem. I never mastered it. Quite popular with the retired guardians I hear and it passes the time."
"Speaking of that…"
"You were telling me about Quinn…"
"Aye, I was…Quinn was the fifth of your guardians. There was Tobias first, Toby was with ya from the beginning he was, from a wee babe. He saw you through scraped knees and bullies and hair brained stunts. Climbing trees and eating things you'd no business around."
"So what happened to him?" Pete sighed, realizing he was going to have to listen to the complete litany if he wanted to get to Quinn. There didn't seem to be anything else to occupy him at the moment anyway.
"He stuck with you until your first days on the force. You got in the middle of a gun battle your first night out!"
"And he bailed on me?"
"Peter! The fellow had been at your side all the while you were growing up. That had to be a harrowing experience, watching your beloved charge flying towards danger like that!"
"So he gave up?"
"Would you have expected your own dear mother to be able to watch that without being effected?"
"I would expect a little more…I don't know…bravery…commitment…stick-to-it-iveness from guardian angels."
"You're a hard man, Peter Malloy," Gus shook his head with a smile.
"And the others?"
"Well, there was Tobias…and then after him…was Aidan? Yes, Aidan. Born of fire. The Powers felt you needed someone a bit more…suited…to your profession, I suppose."
"So they do consider that, occasionally?"
"Occasionally," Gus chuckled, taking Pete's meaning, but not offense at it. "He was with you through your probation and a bit longer, I believe.."
"And what happened to him?"
"Oh dear, you want to full report, don't you?" Gus leaned back in his chair. "I'm not sure I'm the one should give it to you. I can barely recall all your guardians by name, my boy. Chapter and verse, you might be getting from someone younger, and less…incompetent."
They sat in silence for a while and Pete found himself wondering, but not about his former guardians. He couldn't get his mind off the friends he'd left in such a tragic state in the park.
"Where did Stanley get off to?" Malloy finally asked, standing when his silent reverie had gotten to be more than he could take sitting down. "We were talking …and then he just…"
"He's gone to see to something, lad."
"You are a curious one!"
"I thought we were talking about sending me back."
"That again?" Gus sighed. "Well, it isn't going to be easy to get you to accept this, I suppose. I should have known that from the beginning."
"I'm not supposed to be here yet, Gus. I want to go back."
"Let's at least make an informed decision this time out, shall we?" Stanley suggested, having appeared from out of the mists as though on cue. He had the look of a well-fed cat about him.
"Informed?" Pete's eyebrows arched as he tried to imagine what the angel had in mind.
"I think it might be prudent."
"What are you talking about now?"
"Stanley has a little…hobby." Gus began "Not so much secret…"
"Like you can keep anything a secret up here!" Stanley sneered.
"More like…unauthorized," Gus agreed.
"Unsanctioned…would be more precise," Stanley added categorically.
"Just don't blab it around and maybe he'll show you," Gus whispered.
"I won't breathe a word. Mostly because I've got no idea what you're talking about. Either of you!"
"Sending you back, Peter," Gus winked. "It's what you wanted, isn't it?"
"I think so," Malloy's brow furrowed. "Though I'm starting to wonder now, looking at the two of you."
"Well, Gus and I were discussing it and it seems reckless to just send you back, without having something to base it on."
"Base it on…?" Pete stopped himself. "Hey, wait a minute. When, exactly, were you and Gus discussing this? Because you've been in and out, but Gus has been with me the whole time, and I certainly didn't hear any discussion."
"It was a private conversation, Mr. Malloy."
"Private yes," Pete shook his head. "But when and where did it take place? I've been here the entire time!"
"You wouldn't understand," Stanley dismissed.
"I haven't the time," the uptight angel insisted.
"I thought time was different up here."
"You'd never understand. Not in a million years."
"Try me," Pete challenged.
"Peter, do you want to hear Stanley's proposal…or do you want to play this infantile game for eternity." Gus laughed. "Because personally, I could go either way."
Pete crossed his arms across his chest, beaten but not quite defeated. "Go on."
"Perhaps it would be best just to show him."
"I think you might be right." Gus smiled.
"Well somebody tell me or show me something!" Pete cried.
"Impatient sort, isn't he?" Stanley sniffed, leaning against his once again pristine desk, in no particular hurry.
"Oh, brother!" Pete sighed, about to toss himself back onto the cloud, odd as that might have seemed to him an hour before. But Gus took one arm and Stanley the other and they led him down a twisting corridor that seemed to never end. Pete watched as door after door was passed. None of them were marked by number or signage of any sort. All were the same non-color of white, set into identical white framework against an even whiter wall.
"You don't go in much for color up here, do you?" Pete observed as they rounded yet another interchangeable corner.
"I'm not sure what you mean," Stanley shrugged.
"All this…everything is white! I never knew there were so many shades of…white! It's a little, plain, don't you think?"
"Well, I just…I guess it isn't what I expected."
"And just what did you expect, Mr. Malloy?"
"Color?" Pete replied simply. "I just thought that, well, they talk about how beautiful it is here, and it's all very nice, but I just thought there'd be more…color."
"Hmmm," Stanley's mouth twisted with consideration. "Perhaps it's because he's not supposed to be here yet. The eyes haven't adjusted quite."
"Could be," Gus agreed, prodding his charge gently as they swept down the long circuitous hallway. "It's a shame you aren't enjoying the entire spectrum yet, Peter. But when you come back, to stay, maybe you'll see what the rest of us see."
"In more ways than one," Stanley asserted.
"Let's hope that's not for a long, long time, huh?"
"To each his own, I suppose."
"Where, exactly are you taking me?" Pete asked when he'd lost all track of which direction they had turned or just how many corners they'd traversed.
"You'll see when we get there," Stanley dismissed.
"Stanley, my man, you have a firm grasp on the obvious."
"Do you want my help, Mr. Malloy," Stanley's voice had an acidic tone. "Or shall we stop now?"
"I'm not sure I have enough information to make that decision," Pete replied diplomatically.
"Just try to keep up. Think you can manage that?"
"I'm right behind you."
The trio continued their contorted journey through the alabaster passageways until they came abruptly to a dead end. A door, a bit smaller than the others and a little less white, was set in the middle of the wall they faced.
"You really need to work on your patience, Peter." Gus clucked.
Stanley reached into his pocket and retrieved a golden hoop filled with dozens of keys. There were small ones and large, ornate, jeweled and hopelessly plain. Pete had never seen so many instruments of entry anywhere, not to mention all on the same ring. As he watched Stanley sort through the assortment, searching for the key to the door before them, Pete wondered two things. Why would someone need a key to a door in Heaven? What would be the purpose of locking something in a place of eternal bliss and ultimate goodness? And if all the doors were identical, which with the exception of the one they stood in front of now, seemed to be the norm, why would the keys all be so different?
"You shouldn't ask questions you wouldn't understand the answers for, Peter," Gus chided. "It's no wonder you have trouble relaxing and enjoying all of this!"
"Where I come from, it isn't polite to read minds," the cop responded, allowing his weariness to seep through again in the attempt at humor.
"Fortunately, you're not where you come from at present." Stanley observed, having selected a rather unremarkable little key. He slipped it into the lock and turned the nondescript golden handle. "Or you wouldn't be able to witness… this!" The angel threw out one arm in a flourish, indicating that he wished for Pete to precede them into the darkened room behind the little door.
Pete hesitated a moment, looking back and forth between the two strange beings he'd somehow come to consider normal in the last few…hours or days or whatever time had passed since his arrival. Then figuring he didn't have much to lose, being already dead and all, he stepped through the portal into the unknown.
The room appeared small, claustrophobically so considering the vast expanse of everything else Heavenly he'd experienced thus far. But as he moved further inside, he realized the room itself was quite large indeed, it was simply filled with a huge amount of…stuff.
Clockworks of every description lined the room…wheels and cogs, mainsprings, weights and belts, all in constant, independent yet somehow interconnected motion. Pendulums swung to and fro, bellows pulsed, dials with sweep hands spun. They were inside this massive works, surrounded by clicking and ticking, whirring, tapping, and tiny beats like some massive Rube Goldberg machine.
Miniscule drawers lined one wall of the clock room, hundreds…thousands of them, setting Pete's mind spinning as to their purposes and just what could be found inside each one. In the middle of the complicated contraption were a series of reels, spinning as though of their own volition. Loops of something shiny that resembled celluloid film slipped through the massive wheels in a silvery flash.
On another wall in the confusing clutter was one large round clock face, flickering with slivers of image, perhaps hundreds a minute. It was impossible to focus on the scenes, like dozens of movies run simultaneously on top of one another. Pete blinked against the chaos and averted his eyes before motion sickness set in.
He turned around in the center of the room, watching as the weights fell and were pulled up again by long, tightened cords, and wheels spun in counterpoint to each other, catching cogs and releasing them in a dizzying dance of precision and syncopation. He listened to the ticks and whirs, the chimes and bells that played their accompaniment in a clockwork symphony.
"What is this place?" the cop asked, trying to take it all in. "Is this how time is kept straight or something?"
"Time itself is an illusion, Mr. Malloy. One of your authors once said, This moment contains all moments. He came close to explaining the concept."
"You mean like the theory that everything is happening at once?"
"Something like that," Gus chuckled.
"At any rate, it is theoretically possible to send you back to any particular point in your history."
"Theoretically possible?" Pete's face wrinkled in confusion. "I thought you could do anything, up here."
"Well, like most things, there are regulations…" Gus explained.
"Restrictions…" Stanley interjected.
"And consequences." Gus warned.
"On Earth it is called quantum mechanics," Stanley began warming to his subject. He seemed to Pete, almost…human, when he spoke of his beloved hobby. "It's all governed by probabilities - an entity, you in this case, has numerous probable states. Uncertainty dictates that all properties and actions in the physical world are therefore non-deterministic to some degree."
"When exactly did I lose you, Mr. Malloy?"
"Fifth grade science I suppose," Pete sighed, running a hand through his hair.
"What?" Stanley shook his head. Now it was he who was confused.
"There was this really pretty blonde who sat in front of me and…"
"Ah, yes. Felicity Atwood. You certainly gave poor Miss Van Ness a hard time that year," Gus agreed.
"Who knew this would be important one day?"
"Who indeed." Stanley stared at them both over his thick glasses, tapping his foot lightly.
"Could you give this to me in English?" Malloy requested, his eyes squinting. He honestly was trying to grasp it all, on some level at least, though he'd rarely felt this out of his element before. And he wasn't sure, but he thought he detected just the hint of a headache coming on as his brain tried to take in just what it was they were telling him.
"Things are possible that you mortals haven't begun to dream of. I suppose that's about as simple as I can state things."
"And you don't really have to understand the theories behind it to use this contraption." Gus added.
"Contraption!? It is a quantum wave function modulator! " Stanley corrected
"You mentioned…restrictions…?" Pete asked warily. "And…consequences?"
"Well, yes. This is governed by probabilities. There are more entities involved than just you. Care is taken to insure that you do not change history in such a way as to prevent an event that is crucial to the outcome of…I've lost you again, haven't I?"
"Hmmm, some of this was laid out quite well in Rene Barjavel's Le Voyageur Imprudent. Well, at least a fair version of a portion of the theory. At any rate…as early as that."
"What do you read anyway, comic books?"
"The sports pages," Gus suggested.
"The Imprudent Traveler a novel published in 1943," Stanley continued. "He dealt rather deftly for the time with what came to be known as the Grandfather paradox."
"You obviously can't be allowed to go back and kill your own grandfather, thereby preventing you from being born…do you see my point?"
"I think so…I don't have a death wish, if that's what you're worried about." Pete sighed. "I just want to fix the mess I'm in from going back the first time."
"Well…this equipment was all designed to experiment in probabilities…in variables…in free will. You humans have it…and you certainly use it willy-nilly sometimes!"
"You….study us?" Pete asked. "That's a little…creepy."
"You don't think my watching you is…creepy…I hope," Gus asked quietly.
"Well you…you're a guardian, and…"
"Someone is always watching, Peter."
"Yeah, I know. But this guy…this is…"
"Science!" Stanley drew himself up proudly.
"Okay, so you study us…"
"Theoretical Ontology. I find it fascinating. "
"It's the study of being or existence …or in Stanley's case…the study of what might be…or might have been…if the variables had been different."
"Decisions Mr. Malloy. You humans are full of them…all the time…and each one has the potential to change your life! It's what makes Eternalism so incredibly challenging a discipline."
"Eternalism is the philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time. Time is just another dimension - like length or height - future events are already there and there is no objective flow of time. It is all quite subjective, actually."
"Like I said, Peter…" Gus interjected, noting Pete's rather glazed expression. "You don't need to understand the concepts fully to use this little gizmo Stanley's created."
"Suppose we try a demonstration. Perhaps that would make things clearer."
"You're sending me back again? In this thing?" Pete was suddenly on alert.
"My dear Mr. Malloy. This thing as you so indelicately put it, does not send you anywhere," Stanley explained with the patience one would give a two year old. "It will, however, show you, in a manner of speaking, what might, nay, what most likely, most logically would occur, given certain criteria."
"Time travel?" Pete surmised. "Jules Verne, H. G. Wells! Is that what all this is about?"
"A simplistic view of what I'm trying to explain, and a little too mythological for the realities we see here, but if that helps you to grapple with the essentials so that we can move on, that will do. Now, are you at all familiar with Einstein? Or am I going to have to simplify this explanation even further?"
"The theory of relativity," Pete nodded, trying hard not to rile under the angel's condescension. "I won't begin to pretend I understand it, but I'm familiar with the concept."
"Einstein's theory of relativity blew apart the previously held view of Newton's universe of absolute time and space into a multitude of space-time frames in which space and time were no longer neatly separable. Are you with me so far?"
"Let's just say that I am," Pete shrugged. "And see if I can keep up."
"Each time-space frame is connected to a specific observer."
"Everyone has their own reality?"
"Let's not get ahead of ourselves, Mr. Malloy. But for the sake of our demonstration to you, that's not a bad way to look at it. And each one of these observers has a unique clock." The strange little angel made his way to the vast wall of tiny drawers. "Let's see…Malloy….Ireland…County Offaly…1940's?…"
"I was born in California not Ireland, if that's what you're searching for," Pete offered.
"It is not," Stanley turned from his convoluted filing system a moment. "But thank you."
Pete gave a confused look towards Gus who was leaning against a tall filing cabinet with a most bemused expression.
"Quantum theory demands that we cease to see things as separate solid objects with definite locations in time and space…" Stanley continued his unfathomable explanation while searching the thousands of miniature compartments for what, Pete could only imagine.
"Stanley…" Gus attempted to catch his attention, but his search continued.
"This contraption of mine, produces a wave function of quantum superposition of all the possibilities." The rifling through drawers made him pause in his dissertation.
What?! Pete eyebrows nearly sprang off his forehead as he mouthed the word towards his guardian in the corner. Gus merely smiled sympathetically.
"Once observed by a macroscopic system, like a human, it collapses into a definite state…or reality in your words."
"Stanley…" Gus interrupted patiently. "Could this be what you're looking for?" He slid open a drawer no bigger than three inches wide and retrieved a shiny round object on a short length of chain. It looked for all the world, like a simple pocket watch.
"Let me see that…" the other angel took the watch and flipped it open. "Malloy, Peter Joseph…I believe it is! Yes…now, as I was saying…"
"You're welcome," Gus said softly.
"Normally, once observed, these wave functions cease their probable state and become…reality."
"Normally?" Pete's comically serious delivery actually made it sound as though he'd kept up with all the techno babble Stanley was spouting.
"Ahh, but there is where you are fortunate, Mr. Malloy, to have the ability, with this machine, to view numerous probable states, feed potential variables into the mix, and see…what has not been yet. The possible outcome of your actions."
"Did you get all that, my boy?" Gus asked, stifling laughter at Pete's pained expression of concentration.
"This thing shows the future?" Pete took a stab at it.
"A working knowledge of the concept, I believe," Stanley slipped the watch object into his pocket, seemingly satisfied. "I think we can begin!"
Moments later Pete sat on the stool before the huge round dial, watching as the scenes flickered around its circumference like hands on a normal clock. But as he focused, the hundreds of individual slices of time merged into one and the clock became a large round view screen, clearly displaying one single moving image.
As the machine clicked and whirred, the screen showed the outcome, or possible outcome of the scenario, and Pete realized that he was watching the days after the incident in the park, the night he'd recently left that flow of time by hurling himself in front of a bullet meant for Jim Reed.
He saw the locker room of Central Division, the officers he knew so well, and a few new faces that Pete recognized this time as the recruits that had joined their shift at the same time as Reed. Pete looked for his former partner in the busy exchange and found instead, his own locker, unopened, two down from Lt. Moore's. He watched the familiar routine as Moore finished knotting his tie and clipping it with a slim sliver tie clasp. The lieutenant closed the door to his own locker and laid a hand on the now empty one that had belonged to Malloy. His eyes fell shut. A moment later, Moore moved towards the door to the hallway and roll call, alone.
Pete closed his own eyes against a wave of pity and sadness, but only for a beat. He wanted to see Jim Reed.
The screen before him now showed the familiar rookie, at his locker laughing with Bill Stenzler. The two men were talking about a fishing reel, happily planning a trip for the weekend. Pete remembered the hoped-for outing with a pang of regret. It had been his protégé's first brush with death. The young officer had lost a close friend. Malloy had been there to help him through the horrific experience, having dealt with the emotions personally only weeks before. There might have even been a bit of healing for himself in the exercise.
Pete continued to watch the two young friends, blissfully ignorant of the day's coming tragedy, making plans that would never be. They were interrupted by Jerry Walters, rounding the corner of the lockers, he called to his rookie partner to hurry it up and not be late for roll call. He called…for Jim Reed!
Jim was now partnered with Walters…and the shootout that had originally killed Stenzler, the way that Pete remembered it…would it kill Reed instead?
Something held Pete fast, and would not let him speak. He sat paralyzed before the screen as he watched the scenes speed up, mesmerized, unable to tear his eyes from the horrific images. His friend and partner, gunned down only weeks after he'd received his badge.
Pete could recall every hideous instant of the event as he had lived it, seeing the fear and sadness extinguish something in his young friend's eager eyes. He didn't know Jim well before that shift. They'd only been riding together a short time. But the loss had become a bond, the first of many shared sorrows and joys that formed a strong friendship.
But the reminiscence that unfurled itself on the strange clock-face screen was twisted, like a nightmarish copy of reality, skewed by the characters being recast and out of place. In this hallucinogenic recollection Bill Stenzler was comforted by Sgt. MacDonald and Jerry Woods. And Jim Reed was now lying in a lifeless heap on the pavement, covered eventually by the compassion of a blanket.
Pete watched in anguish as Jean, pregnant, devastated and bitter, played the part of the widow in this misbegotten chronicle. As though it were his duty to bear witness to this mutilated recollection of what hadn't been before, what he had caused with his desire to alter history, Pete held on and suffered the shock of each fractured memoir.
But the sight of deeply polished wood draped with the bright colors of a flag made him retch. The warped rendition of reality flickered on and as he watched a pair of white gloves place the tri-folded symbol into the trembling hands of a widowed expectant mother, her eyes dead with pain and things unspeakable, something within Pete shattered.
"NO!" he was off the stool in a lunge toward the screen, which mercifully went blank. "That is not how it happened!" he sobbed. "I won't allow it to happen like that!"
"Peter!" Gus's voice was still and gentle in the frantic noise inside Pete's head.
"It is only a possibility, Mr. Malloy."
"It can't be!" Pete gasped. "Send me back, so it won't be!"
"Peter," Gus held firmly to his arm. "You mustn't allow your emotions to get the better of you."
"Send me back!"
"To what end?" Stanley asked the unvarnished question.
Millions of answers echoed in Pete's assaulted brain. To what end, indeed?
"Why don't you take a moment and compose yourself," Gus suggested after a silence had stretched out between them.
"We haven't got the time!" Pete's voice was hoarse with ire. "I can't let that be what happens."
"Mr. Malloy, do you remember what I told you, about wave functions and how this machine works?"
"You viewed this particular outcome, but you have not, technically witnessed it as yet."
"I…I don't …I don't think I understand."
"Uncertainty dictates that all properties and actions in the physical world are therefore non-deterministic to some degree."
"English!" Pete pleaded through a clenched jaw. "Please for the love of…"
"It isn't reality…yet," Stanley explained.
Gus was still standing beside Pete, now offering a glass of what appeared to be water and a concerned smile.
"I did that?" Pete asked the guardian quietly. "Going back, caused that?"
"Only a possible outcome, my boy," Gus soothed. "Just take a moment and we'll see about continuing."
"I don't think…"
"We can stop whenever you like, Mr. Malloy," Stanley's voice was clinical and flat. "We had hoped this would be of help."
"Help?" he gulped.
"In determining when you'd go back, or if you wanted to stay."
"I'm not staying…not like this…I'm not leaving Jim to that!"
"It is only one possibility."
"Selfish!" Pete groaned. "What was I thinking?"
"It was your life after all."
"This is Hell!"
"That's it, isn't it? I'm in Hell! Punished for my choice before…doomed to watch the consequences of every selfish act of my whole miserable life! This is Hell after all."
"It is nothing of the kind, Peter. Nothing has happened yet. That's what Stanley is telling you. Now please, just take a sip of this and calm down."
"I thought this would help him," Stanley whispered after Pete had taken the water glass and closed his eyes.
"And it will, Stanley, he just needs time to deal with what he saw."
"But he only saw a possibility."
"And we'll show him a few more, once he's had time to absorb it a bit."
"It was only one vector of possibility."
"Wh-what do you mean?"
"Don't fret so, Peter, give yourself a moment…"
"No, tell me what you're saying. Vector of possibility? What does that mean?"
"There are hundreds of possibilities, Mr. Malloy. For each decision made, there are many potential outcomes, each one a separate vector. Change the decision, and the flow of events changes, even slightly. You only viewed one possible future given the variables programmed."
"Then let's see the rest!"
"That…would be a lot of viewing," Stanley seemed a bit startled at the prospect.
"Well, we better get started."
"Peter…" Gus clucked.
"What? What is it now?"
"It isn't necessary to view all the possibilities." Stanley was fingering the shiny silver watch object. "This is more about you understanding that your choices have consequences. Giving you perspective. Making your decision more precise."
"So what DO we have to do…to change what I saw…so it doesn't happen? So it never happens."
"Peter," Gus smiled sadly. "Everyone dies. Your partner will die. That is inevitable."
"But not like that…not then! It didn't happen like that!"
"What you saw was a likely outcome of your decision to go back to that night and resign the force."
"And…?" Pete prodded when the silence was more than he could bear.
"And you may want to try a few different potential vectors before we send you back next time."
"Or, you may want to stay on here…" Gus suggested.
"I already said, I'm not letting that happen!" Pete pointed at the now blank screen accusingly.
"What you just saw, isn't necessarily what would have happened if your decision had been different that night. It only represented one possible outcome."
"So, would you like to see another possibility, or would you rather pick a different decision to change?" Gus asked gently.
Malloy considered a moment, taking another sip of the water Gus had brought him. His mouth felt like he'd swallowed the desert. He looked about the room as though to comfort himself that it had all been some sort of convincing illusion flashed upon a screen and nothing real at all.
Raising his glass, Pete finally answered, "I'd like something stronger than this!"
When he had shaken off the specters of the first revision of history, Pete demanded they try again. They stayed at it for what felt like hours, or days, entering variables and viewing the machine's constantly changing kaleidoscope of moments from the cop's recent past. A few times they let the machine continue to run, following that vector into a probable future, until Stanley ended the screening. Most of the time, Pete asked him to stop once he'd seen the moment he felt was important, the outcome he'd hoped would not come to disaster. There were a handful of disturbing possibilities Pete called to an abrupt halt.
"I don't understand!" Pete stated with frustration, sliding off the stool and pacing the cramped floor space within the works of the machine. "Every time I think I might have made a better decision, it turns out as bad or worse in the end."
"You're decisions are not the only variable, Mr. Malloy."
Pete scrubbed his face roughly with his hands. "Huh?"
"There are hundreds of variables, within each possible scenario we have tried so far…and thousands more starting points. And there are no guarantees as to any of the outcomes, because there are other people making their own decisions."
"Then what's the point to all of this?"
"So that you might make a more informed decision about going back," Stanley said.
"Or decide to stay," Gus added hopefully.
"And let things go the way they did…let Jim…no! That is NOT a possibility!"
"You were told things would change," Stanley explained patiently. "With every decision, things can come out differently."
"I thought you meant my life, not everyone else's!"
"Did you suppose you had no impact at all?"
"I didn't...nothing like that."
"You don't live in a vacuum, Peter," Gus sympathized.
"You made a change, in the interest of self-preservation. Completely understandable," Stanley agreed. "You were disillusioned. If your choice meant you weren't always there for your friends..."
"But wouldn't someone else be?"
"Sometimes. But there are bound to be times when no one was there...when you were key to the outcome."
"I can't allow this to happen," Pete insisted. "I can't let someone else suffer for my choices."
"Mr. Malloy, we haven't actually changed anything. We've only viewed some possible outcomes."
"Uh huh," Pete nodded, not really listening anymore.
"Have you made up your mind at all, my boy?"
"So what are you going to do?"
"I'm…" Pete stopped mid-word. "I'm going to take a walk."
"Where do you think you're going?" Stanley called after him as Pete headed out the door into the corridor. "Gus, we can't just let him…he can't be wandering…"
"Stanley," the old angel smiled his resignation. "Just let him be a while."
Pete didn't have a clue where he thought he was going, and once outside the strange clock room he remembered the previous disorientation he'd felt in the white hallway. But he had to do something or he'd blow into a billion pieces, of that he was sure. And taking a walk seemed the sanest recourse at present. But where did one go when no longer on solid ground? He wasn't even sure anymore where here was or if any of this was real.
As he walked, Pete thought about the images Stanley's odd machine had burned into his conscience as he viewed the possible outcome of his change of heart. More than just Pete turning in his resignation. And it hadn't just been his own or Jim Reed's life that might have drastically changed. Stanley had fast-forwarded, programming dozens of variables and produced some daunting scenarios. None had been particularly comforting.
The nightmare of Reed's death hadn't been the last disturbing new twist of fate the machine displayed. Ed Wells gunned down during a standoff, lying helpless on the lawn while half the watch tried to bring the situation to some safe conclusion and rescue their companion. Pete had recognized the day, but in his memory he and Jim had used their black and white to get the wounded officer to safety. In the vector of probability that Stanley's contraption showed, neither of them were there and Wells didn't survive.
Pete had watched while Sgt. Bill MacDonald faced an Internal Affairs investigation, alone and undefended, after an accidental traffic fatality. His job was far from all he lost. There had been criminal charges filed and without a supporting witness, Mac had gone to prison for vehicular homicide. To say he'd never be the same was unfairly inadequate. Nowhere was the vindication that Pete recalled happening for his friend.
A turn of a corner found Pete suddenly no longer in the white corridor. He didn't appear to be inside at all, but walking along a city street, silent and empty, but decidedly out of doors. The pavement beneath his feet sparkled and the sky was dark and full of stars. There was an other-worldliness to the buildings, generic, nondescript like blank canvases or a movie set before decoration. He noted that there were no windows or doors, only shapes of houses and buildings. With only a moment of hesitation, Pete continued his desultory march. It mattered little where he walked, he wasn't done by a mile.
He continued to think back on the night's puzzling experiment. When Pete had gotten his fill of watching what his resignation and possible resulting death may have caused, Stanley had changed everything, fed a completely different set of variables into the contraption and allowed it to speculate on what would happen if Pete went back to a different moment in time. Over and over they'd played with the facts and times and decisions. Pete had lost count of how just many.
Sometimes it seemed Pete's absence where he'd previously been present hadn't made a great deal of difference, or at least it wasn't immediately obvious how his contribution would have changed the outcome. And there were a few scenarios where his being there, changing some decision he'd since thought better of, seemed to have only made things worse.
Malloy came to a crossing in the road, and felt a wind picking up. There was a definite chill to the air and he could see his breath. He looked down both roads, wondering which one to take and for the briefest of moments the thought of how he would find his way back through this unfamiliar maze crossed his mind. He dismissed that concern, assuming his odd angel hosts would probably come to find him if he was gone very long. He noticed some of the buildings down one leg of the road seemed to have windows, and turned in that direction for no real reason more than curiosity. Most of the windows had no lights and he couldn't see anything inside, but there was just something more normal about the sight that he found comforting.
As he continued to walk, Pete decided he could cite a lot of things he'd like to go back and change. Mistakes and missteps, seemingly good ideas that worked out quite the opposite. He had never been one to waste much time on regrets, but he was human and there were certainly times he wished he'd been quicker, smarter or just plain less obtuse. He hadn't been permitted to change the outcome of his former partner's death in that warehouse years ago, but there had to be other events that might make a difference, even if it were on a smaller scale.
He remembered the night in Griffith park when he and Reed had stopped that camper and failed to wait for the radio to check for wants and warrants. They'd been taken hostage and nearly lost their lives over a simple lapse in procedure. It was something the both of them regretted, something they'd each paid for in their own very real ways. It hadn't meant someone's life or death, they'd both survived the ordeal, but a moment's bad decision had made for considerable remorse.
But if he changed that moment, what would be the fallout down the road? Who was to say that waiting would indeed have made the difference? It was the logical choice, sure, but if this machine of Stanley's had shown him anything, it was that all the Monday morning quarterbacking in the world didn't always come up with the right answer. There were too many other variables to know for certain. Yet Pete couldn't get out of his mind how tempting it was to try to make something right when he had that opportunity before him.
He'd come to what looked like a city square, the buildings were set in orderly fashion around a central clearing. These windows glowed with a welcoming light. He couldn't make out what was inside, but he thought he could see shapes moving in the warm luminosity. He pulled his uniform jacket closed against the cold. Soft while flakes of snow were falling and swirling about him in the air. As he shivered and moved determinedly forward, he thought he heard music.
Pete crossed the courtyard of the empty town, his the only footprints in the gathering snow. It was music. A strain of something old and familiar. No, not one strain, but two, three…there were several songs at once, yet what would normally have been a cacophony of noise, seemed to blend and harmonize. He heard instruments but couldn't give name to any one. And voices, though it was impossible to make out words they sang.
Pete suddenly felt very tired and heavy, like gravity had finally caught up with him in this strange environment. There was a bench directly in his path, so he gave in to the weariness and sat. It seemed there was even more music now, like the songs were a living, growing thing. Something about the sound tickled his memory, but stayed just out of his grasp. No matter.
He'd always felt pretty content with his life as it was. Nobody had a perfect one. There was the fact that, as things stood at the moment, he'd lived his entire life without having a family of his own. The confirmed bachelor had never made that a priority, but walking the empty streets of Heaven had him thinking of his life as something more past than future, and there stood the possibility that it was, in fact, over. Somehow, it felt a bit unfinished, not entirely for its shortness.
Out of the corner of his eye, he thought he saw figures walking, but when he turned to get a better look, there was nothing there. He'd gotten the impression of a group, together, jovial. However, where he was sure he'd seen them, the street was empty. The music was louder now and though a bit clearer, he still couldn't distinguish between what sounded like several different songs being played and sung at once. But far from disharmonious, the effect was hauntingly beautiful.
Again, there was a movement, this time to his left. Pete tempered his reaction, not wanting to telegraph his attention. The figures moved just out of his sight line. There were half a dozen, no more, groups of two or three. A large group of seven or more seemed to move in conjunction with the music as though dancing. And this time, he was certain he heard a sound other than the music. A joyous murmur. Mirth. But the moment he inclined his head to get more than a glimpse, they were gone. If they indeed were ever there at all.
Malloy sighed deeply and closed his eyes against the apparitions, sure he was nearing his breaking point. He'd just have to choose a moment, some watershed of his life, and make a different decision. Maybe if he chose something not directly related to his job, the consequences would be less dire.
There were women he had dated and the decisions to break up with them…what might have happened if he hadn't? He wondered how marrying one of them would have changed things. Sally, the pretty little blonde nurse he'd dated for quite a while. They'd seemed well suited. Or Cathy, who also worked as a nurse and cared enough to run a hotline on her time off. They had a lot in common and he respected her values. Donna, a great girl who was always a lot of fun and had certainly made it clear she was interested in becoming Mrs. Peter Malloy. He reflected on each of them, and dozens more that Jean Reed had put in his path in the last couple of years, speculating what life might have been like coming home to a family, trying to imagine each of them with kids.
"It's not so easy, is it?"
"Deciding…" It was Gus. Pete recognized the voice even though the angel had appeared from behind him, as usual. It didn't even seem to phase the cop anymore that he hadn't heard the approach. "Choosing when and how to change your life."
"No, it isn't."
Gus took a seat beside him on the bench. They sat that way, in silence for some time. It was Pete who finally broke the spell.
"I'd completely forgotten…"
"Forgotten what, my boy?"
"Christmas! What time of year it is."
"You've had your hands full."
"I didn't…well I guess I can't say I actually thought about it before, but I'd never have imagined you celebrate it here…in…eh…"
"Heaven, Peter. Despite your fears before, you aren't anywhere sinister."
"Well, I'm not technically in Heaven…"
"No, but in the neighborhood, you might say," Gus's eyes were twinkling. "You could decide to join us. Just say the word and Stanley will get that early admission application started."
"I still think I'll pass." Pete sighed and stretched his legs out. "So, what is that? Angel choirs?"
Gus listened for a moment. "Carolers, I think."
"Christmas carolers? Here?"
"You tell me," the angel chuckled. "It's your reality."
"Please, no more riddles. I'm tapped out."
"What did you go looking for, when you left us earlier, Pete?"
"This…walk…this…all of this…what are you seeking?"
"Are you saying I'm not really seeing…or hearing…any of this?"
"Well I hope you are, because I'd hate to be enjoying it alone."
"Gus?" But the angel only answered with more silence.
Pete watched the snowflakes falling gently, dancing in the wind and dropping onto the ground without a sound. It was peaceful. Beautiful. And all the while, he could hear the amalgamation of music in the distance.
"Christmas, huh?" The guardian finally said.
"That's what it seems like."
"It's nice, isn't it?"
"Not like I was particularly in the mood… back…home."
"That's putting it mildly!"
"So what is all this then?"
"I don't have the answers Peter, despite what you may have heard. But it's been my experience that we find what we seek. And from the way you barreled out of that room, and the all-fired determination of your journey here, I'd say you were definitely seeking something!"
"And this is all I could come up with, huh?"
"Christmas," Gus rolled the word around on his tongue. "Mean anything to you?"
Pete considered a long while, then shrugged. "I got nothing!"
"Oh, I wouldn't say that. Not by a long way, my boy. And I'll wager you'll find whatever it is you're chasing, eventually."
Pete turned to say something, but the thought died on his lips as he realized he was sitting on a park bench, in the middle of an unpopulated non-existent town full of amorphous buildings, listening to unseen carolers, in the snow…alone.
Curiouser and curiouser.
The music continued in the otherwise silent landscape, swirling around him with the dancing snowflakes. Somewhere just
out of sight, musicians and carolers performed, the sound a persistent reminder of the season and what he'd left behind.
And as he listened, the many voices and strains of music coalesced and he could make out the song this time. One seems to
hear, words of good cheer, from everywhere, filling the air… It was one of those repetitive melodies that got stuck in your
brain like it had a barb on it, and just wouldn't let go.
Gaily they ring, while people sing, songs of good cheer, Christmas is here….
He'd completely forgotten what day it was when he left his life as he'd known it and come to be on this surreal plane. Even when he'd first arrived, fresh from leaving his friends, he'd been concerned for the grief they were experiencing, but it hadn't dawned on him that when it happened it had been nearly Christmas Eve! That realization flooded him with a new set of thoughts and feelings.
Hark how the bells, sweet silver bells, all seem to say, throw cares away!
Pete knew all too well that the holidays could be difficult. What Gus had said about him being in a Christmas funk had been true enough. He'd let the job, the realities of a less than perfect world, the plight of the victims, disgust at the commercialism get the upper hand of the better angels of his soul. He also knew what a death a few minutes into Christmas Eve would mean to the officers back in that darkened warehouse. Talk about being stuck in your brain like a barb!
Christmas is here, bringing good cheer, to young and old, meek and the bold…
Pete stood, stomping his feet to get them warm. He couldn't just sit here, listening to carols and counting snowflakes. He had to get back! Somehow he'd have to figure the best time, the place and fix all this. To get everything back on track. Jim Reed wasn't going to have this one on his conscious every December the twenty-fourth!
Hark how the bells, from everywhere, filling the air…
He headed back the way he'd come, or as close to retracing his steps as he could possibly recall. On, on they send…On without end… The wind had picked up and he shivered against it's blast, rounding a corner now bright with lights from every window. Things didn't look the same as before, but the cop figured that made as much sense here as anything else he'd seen. On, on they send…On without end…
Around another corner, and he was back in the long white winding hallway. Pete wouldn't have been more surprised had he met with a big white rabbit with a pocket watch in his waistcoat. He no longer heard the music, but thought he could make out the distinctive whirring, ticking and chiming of Stanley's ineffable contraption. Sure enough, at the next turn, the hallway came to an abrupt halt before a much smaller door. Pete didn't realize until that moment and his sharp intake of air, that he'd been running the last bit. He'd nearly barreled right through the door!
Did he knock? Pete wasn't sure what the protocol was in this maddening maze, but he was resolute, he would end this and get back home.
The door opened, apparently on its own, because as the interior was revealed, Gus and Stanley were at the opposite end of the cluttered room in whispered conference. Stanley still clutched that small, strange watch object in his hand. The one that appeared to have some connection to Malloy.
"You've got to send me back!"
"I would have thought you would realize by now, it's not so easy to go back and change things." Stanley observed, looking over his glasses at the officer as though his arrival had been expected. "You can't always predict the precise outcome…because of the hundreds and millions of variables due to free will of all of the people involved and the intersecting of lives."
"I want to go back," Pete announced firmly.
"We sent you back…and you ended up here…again."
"But I didn't die. We're back where we started with this. I want another chance, to do it right this time."
"And what would that be?" Stanley continued, incessantly toying with the object he held. "How do you know?"
"Send me back to the warehouse. When Gus pulled me out too soon…the first time."
"There's just no pleasing you, is there? Stanley sighed.
'I'm not the one who's mistake caused the problem."
"I understand we had a mix-up, but..." Gus admitted.
"Send me back."
"Right now. Today. Just before the accident."
"And if you don't retain any knowledge gained here?" Stanley countered.
"I'll take my chances. You said I wasn't supposed to be here today. Sounds to me like I was meant to survive it."
"Like I said, I'll take my chances. It's my choice. My life."
"Send me back. I've decided. I want to be a cop. I want my life back. Just as it was."
"And if you die this time?" Stanley challenged.
"But I didn't die."
"You didn't die the last time. If we send you back, you give up the former outcome. It isn't your decision to live or die, only to go back to that point."
"Well, like I said, I'll take my chances."
"Why the change of heart?"
"It's funny. I guess in some way I always prided myself on somehow making a difference, you know? I never said it, and I probably would have denied it, but deep down…I think that's why anyone is a cop. To try to make things a little better."
"Agreed. But how will this change anything for the better?"
"It won't. It's exactly how things happened the first time. It's the one thing I can do that will change the outcome the least!" Pete chuckled. "Crazy, huh?"
"Not so crazy as you might imagine."
"I guess it's like you said, Gus…you guys up here do see the bigger picture."
"So you're willing to step into the unknown?"
"Isn't that what it means to be human?"
"Too bad you won't remember anything you've learned while you were here."
"Oh, I don't know. I think I'm looking forward to forgetting all this for a while." Pete thought a moment, fingering the dial on the machine before him. "Could I…just one more time?"
"That depends. What do you want to see?"
"Well, since I didn't die the first time, but you say that's a possibility. Could I see what would happen if I do this time?"
"To what end?"
"Curiosity?" Pete shrugged.
"Want to see your own funeral, eh?" Gus laughed. "Never thought of you as that sort, but I guess it's a tempting fantasy for most humans."
"It isn't the funeral I want to see…just…I just want to see…to make sure…"
"Briefly," Stanley finally allowed. "And remember…this is only a possibility. There will be hundreds of variables missing in the equation."
"But all of mine will be in it," Pete sighed with resignation. "And that's what counts."
"I'll set it up. Just a moment."
Pete paced the small space, suddenly feeling that irritating impatience again. Having made his decision, he was wanting to get on with things. But there was a question still in his mind, nagging at his resolve. How would Jim survive the loss that had almost been the end of Malloy, had made him want to give up? Somehow he needed to know that Reed would be all right. Then he was willing to give up all control and go back to whatever Fate held in store.
"Ready," Stanley announced finally. "But like I said before, there are no guarantees. We can't be certain we've programmed for all variables of every subject involved."
"Understood." Pete nodded, walking towards the view screen again. This time, despite his need to know, there was hesitation. His heart was beating double time; he could hear it in his ears.
A quiet grove of trees in a secluded section of the old cemetery filled the view screen. A simple black hearse, led by a single police motorcycle escort was followed by three LAPD black and whites, their lights blinking to a somber rhythm. A dozen officers in dress uniforms emerged, half of them headed for the back of the hearse. Pete recognized each of them as members of his watch. Slowly they slipped on white gloves as the back of the hearse was opened.
The unadorned steel grey casket was passed from hand to hand until all three pairs of officers held its weight. The sergeant gave a nearly inaudible order and the pall bearers began their sober march to the freshly dug earth. A small gathering of onlookers took their places silently as the flag-draped casket was lowered beside the open grave.
"May the soul of this faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace."
Pete watched as the final blessings were said over the body. Then a stoic-faced Jim Reed came forward and read a short eulogy. He spoke in modest words about Pete's life of service, dedication and friendship. He talked of sacrifice, duty and honor. It was mercifully brief. And though he made it through without losing his composure, his voice broke more than once and his hands shook a bit holding the overly-folded piece of paper.
There was silence after Jim's words. Reed and MacDonald approached the casket and began folding the flag. MacDonald held the tightly bound triangle a moment, one hand on top in a tender gesture, before handing it to the younger officer.
"For Jimmy," he said, emotion filling the few words. His blue eyes were shiny with unshed tears. Jim accepted the token and held in beneath his arm.
Lt. Moore stood and walked towards the two policemen, carrying a small box. He laid a hand squarely on Jim's shoulder and offered him the box. "I thought Pete's godson might like to have these." he said gently. "His nameplate and shooting brass."
Jim started to say something and then clamped his mouth in a thin line, nodding his acceptance.
The gathering dispersed slowly. Jean Reed joined her husband, slipping an arm supportively around his trim waist. Jim's leaning against her was almost imperceptible, but it didn't escape Pete's notice. He blinked back the emotion he was supposed to be well past this close to paradise.
"Not much of a send off," Stanley sniffed. "Not even a bagpiper."
"They did it exactly right," Pete smiled. "Perfect. And…I hate bagpipes."
"So, are we ready now?"
"I'd like to watch a bit longer."
"Why? What's to see?"
"Humor me," Pete drawled.
Stanley toyed with his controls, apparently the equivalent of hitting the fast forward button and they watched as Jim Reed took a week's vacation with Jean and Jimmy. Pete smiled as he saw Jim cavorting on the beach with the love of his life, building sand castles with his little son, sleeping in the sun and healing his broken heart.
They watched as Jim returned to duty, Mac pairing him with a transfer from Hollywood division, a married father of three who'd decided to return to patrol after a few years in vice. Pete heaved a huge sigh of relief as he watched the weeks and years fly past on the view screen, and saw his prodigy's career flourish. Reed took the investigator's exam a few months after the funeral, and passed, paving the way for his great success as a detective.
Another mélange of lightening fast images advanced them through Jim Reed's life and career. Then Stanley slowed the playback down again. There on the screen was a graduation ceremony at the academy. It was years later. Jim was there, much older, grey at the temples, crinkles around his eyes. He was introduced as a medal of valor winner, a part-time instructor at the academy and the chief of detectives for Central division.
His speech touched on the usual subjects, duty, dedication, teamwork. Jim mentioned someone who taught him something very important about how to be a cop. He never mentioned a name. Watching the screen, Pete felt humbled. He had a feeling he knew to whom Jim referred.
A more mature, slightly plumper Jean Reed caught up with her husband after the ceremony. They greeted one another with a quick kiss, but she squeezed his hand and he didn't let go. It was a gesture of support that spoke to the deep emotion that lay beneath Jim's words.
The young man who ran to join them, sported a crisp new LAPD uniform, and couldn't have been more a copy of his father. James Reed Jr. freshly graduated, had been in the honor guard. Excitedly he showed the two of them the results of his last shooting test; he'd made Distinguished Expert.
Jim was a little taken aback, he'd never broken that barrier himself, despite hours of target practice. His smile showed a father's pride, his words were sincere but reserved. The boy was now a man, after all.
"Dad, you know what this means?" Jimmy couldn't contain his excitement. "You promised if I ever made the grade that I could wear his medal."
Jean handed Jim Sr. a small white box she had in her purse.
"You were in on this?" her husband raised an eyebrow. "You knew?"
"When my men put their minds to something, there's no stopping them," she beamed. "Jimmy, your godfather would have been so proud…"
Mother and son headed for the car, but Jim stopped at the sidewalk, turned and looked down at a brick in the courtyard…with Malloy engraved in it.
Stanley stopped the playback.
"Satisfied?" he asked. "Or were you hoping they'd name a building for you?"
"I saw what I needed to," Pete mused. "He made it."
"That he did!" Gus agreed.
"I didn't…I didn't mean the rank…just that…Jim found his way through it."
"I didn't think he'd remember…"
"Probably fortified by his father and mother's stories," Stanley observed. "But you seem to have been a strong influence in his young life."
"I'd hoped he wouldn't…"
"That he wouldn't remember you?"
"I'd hoped he would do something other than becoming a cop."
"Really?" Gus laughed. "So is that why you gave him a remote control black and white for his first birthday?"
"He was too young for it…the gift was a joke…more for Jim than the baby…" Pete shook his head. "I never really wanted him to become a cop."
"Peter," Gus interrupted. "Never kid a kidder, huh?"
"I guess we both encourage his interest." Pete acknowledged. "He looks up to us."
"Wants to be just like you when he grows up."
"I guess we should be more careful. He should go to college. Be a doctor or something."
"So…?" Stanley tapped his foot.
"I'm ready," Pete shut down the screen. "I want to go back."
"No guarantees, Peter." Gus reminded gently but firmly.
"So you said." He looked from one to the other, for a moment trying to read their enigmatic expressions. "Well, what are you waiting for? Let's get on with it!"
Pete was suddenly plunged into utter and complete darkness.
It was impossible to see a thing in front of him, to even know where in front would be, or to make sense of any of the formless shapes that pressed in from every side. A moment of intense, paralyzing fear gripped at his heart. What had he asked for? Had his arrogance sent him much farther away than he could have imagined?
Coming to his senses slowly he felt the two objects he seized. The fingers of his right hand clutched the familiar contours of his service revolver, the cold steel somehow a comfort in his disorientation. In his left he cradled a hefty flashlight. Relief exhaled, he snapped on the light and looked about to get his bearings.
He was in the warehouse, despite momentary fears of a somewhat more dreadful locale. Pete shook off the ridiculous thoughts that had raised gooseflesh along his arms. Satisfied he was himself again, he inched his way through a shadowy, cavernous building stacked with pallets filled with boxes and crates. The place smelled of mold and dust and regardless of its preference to a more hellish, sulfurous destination he still couldn't wait to be well rid of it.
From the far side of the warehouse Pete heard the unmistakable sound of gunfire. It seemed to be coming from the floor above. That was the sector where he'd sent his partner to search. He took off at a run across the darkened room, the bouncing beam of his flashlight the only illumination in the midst of the make-shift aisles between the floor-to-ceiling stacks of crates.
Except for his own feet scuffling along the cement floor, the building was silent again. He hated that the element of surprise would be lost by his running steps, but he had to get to Jim. He'd seen a set of stairs on that side of the building when he passed a few minutes earlier. He'd take them up one flight and see the cause of that shot, and what effect it may have had.
Two more shots rang out, echoing in the vastness of the metal building. Pete stopped in mid step, listening for their location, making calculations based on years of experience. Sound traveled oddly in all this emptiness. When he'd satisfied himself that those steps were his best route, he took off again, his legs pumping wildly. He'd make his way across the void between him and his partner as fast as possible, trading stealth for speed. He'd get to Jim, alive and well.
"Pete!" Was that really Jim Reed's voice?
Nearly out of breath, Pete found the bottom of the staircase in the dark. He prayed that Jim was unharmed and bounded up the steps, two at a time. Then the darkness enveloped him again, this time…with a bone-shaking jolt.
Hurried footsteps echoed in the cavernous warehouse. The beams of three flashlights pierced the inky darkness as they danced along the walls and floor.
"Pete!" The sound of Jim's cry rang out in the hollow blackness like the inside of a bell tower. He fell to one knee and searched his fallen partner for some sign of life.
"Jim," Mac's tone held the compassion of a man who had seen this all before.
"He's..." Jim's voice broke with emotion.
"Go get an ambulance," Mac ordered of Jerry Woods. It took a moment and a tap on the shoulder from the sergeant to get him in motion. Shock hung in the air.
"Pete!" Jim moaned, the hint of loss evident in his strangled cry. "What happened? Who did this to him?"
"Jim," Mac's voice was sympathetic as he knelt beside the anquished young man, fighting the urge to put an arm around his shoulders.
"Mac! He's..." Jim's face contorted as he struggled against fear for his friend. "He's not breathing!"
"Let me…" the sergeant knelt beside the two partners, moving the one who was conscious gently aside. "Malloy…" There didn't appear to be any movement of his chest, no breath at all. MacDonald placed two fingers against the side of Pete's neck to check for a pulse. "Come on Pete…"
The cop's green eyes blinked once, twice.
Pete tried to move, but his chest felt like he was under a truck. He struggled to pull air into his lungs, but all he could manage was a desperate croak. He was dying! This time, he was going to die! "Send me back!" Pete demanded of the angel at his side. He'd made up his mind and regardless the outcome, despite the pain or the fear, which he hadn't really anticipated, he was going back.
"Give him some air, fellas," MacDonald's tone was part chuckle and great relief. "I think the fall knocked the wind out of him."
"Send me back!" Pete demanded of the angel at his side. He reached for a something that seemed to be preventing him, but his hand passed through it like a mist.
"Gus!" The last syllable had been audible to all.
"Come on back, Pete," a voice summoned. "It's a four. Just waiting for you to come around."
The voice was distant, but familiar. Pete tried to find it in the fog, fighting through the haze to get to the source. He saw lights, bobbing around him and a brighter one shone directly in his eyes. He blinked, once, twice and tried to move, to put a hand up against the luminous assault. He'd had about all the intense light he could take for one night.
"Send me back!" he finally managed, in a sputter as the air rushed back into his lungs. He winced as his chest cramped with the first painful inhale. "Gus!"
"Hey, partner, relax," Jim Reed soothed, a firm hand against Pete's breastbone insured he wasn't going anywhere just yet. "And it's Jim. You know me, don't you Pete?"
"Sure he knows you, Reed," MacDonald chided jovially. "What sort of nonsense is this, anyway. Sleeping on the job, Malloy?"
"Looks like you struck your head on something. Were you going up that staircase there? Huge beams blocking that way."
"Yeah," Pete settled back on something soft his partner had folded and placed beneath his head. "Guess I beaned myself pretty good."
"Well, we've got an ambulance on the way. We'll let them have a look at you before we move you."
"Get you to Central Receiving and checked out PDQ." Brinkman chuckled from behind another flashlight beam.
"Brink!" Pete moaned. "Could you get that thing outta my eyes!"
"I think he's gonna be fine, Reed," Mac quipped.
"Yeah," Jim Reed laughed, allowing the relief to flood over him. "That sounds like my partner alright!"
Pete squinted against the blistering light, raised both arms to cover his face against the assault of blazing whiteness. Come on, Brink! Give it a rest, huh? But the light, if anything, merely intensified. His heart began to race as he realized where he was…again!
So here it was, he had died after all.
The injuries must have been more severe than he or his friends had first thought. Even the paramedics had seemed to think he'd been lucky and both the position and velocity of the puncture wound were of only minor concern. But this unrelenting white vista proved them wrong.
To be honest, he felt a pang of regret. While he'd known death was a possibility, waking up to his friend's looks of relief had set him up to believe that he'd beaten the odds. And in truth, he hadn't been as willing to lay it all down and leave those friends behind as he'd put on for Heaven's benefit. The brief moment in their joyful midst made this solitary inevitability more jarring and the loss of their camaraderie an even crueler conclusion.
He remembered the scenes of the future that had played out on the clock-faced screen of Stanley's contraption: the simple funeral, and Jim Reed's resilient confidence and ultimate success, the brilliant career that awaited his godson.
Pete desperately held on to those thoughts, claimed them, as he braced for the shock of this reality he'd insisted upon.
After a time he looked around, expecting the no longer surprising approach of one or both of his angel friends. This time, it appeared he'd been left very much to his own devices. Pete searched the white horizon in vain for the winding golden staircase. He knew the way, he'd start the journey alone this time. Maybe he'd even be able to locate those elusive elevators. But after wandering around quite a while, he finally had to admit defeat. There was nothing here. Nothing at all, but vast, silent whiteness and more where that came from.
Perhaps this was all there was. He'd been trying so hard to go back to his life, and he hadn't really gotten much information on what it was he was spending such an effort to avoid. Perhaps this time it would be quite different because he really had died. He'd finally made Stanley's precious list! And it was Death after all. Wasn't it referred to as the Long Sleep? Oblivion? Just what had he expected?
But something wasn't quite right. If he were indeed, deceased; if this time they'd made no mistakes and he was in fact, terminated…well shouldn't he feel… peaceful? He could certainly attest to the fact that this time, it was different. That much was true. But instead of a sense of serenity and comfort, Pete was feeling more and more agitated.
He thought he saw a figure, moving nearby…close but not clear. It must be the messenger come to guide him out of this void. Finally! Because wherever he'd stumbled into, he wanted out! Maybe this was Purgatory, or the Limbo that he and Gus had argued about. Hopefully this being could help him find the way.
Gus! The thought of his odd, pudgy guardian almost made Pete homesick. He wasn't sure how long he'd been wandering around in this misty no-mans-land but he'd give anything to see that incompetent little Butinski about now. He'd give him a piece of his mind about leaving him alone this time around! A guardian was supposed to meet his charge at the time of death and see that they were delivered to Heaven safely. Malloy had been here before, and he knew how things were supposed to be run. This was just inexcusable!
Pete couldn't see who spoke, and though he couldn't quite place the voice, it was familiar somehow. And something about it shook him to the core.
"So you think this is Heaven, do you, Peter?"
"Who?" he felt strange speaking to someone he couldn't see. "Where are you?"
"There's a question on the table, Malloy! I suggest you deal with them one at a time, for you have a considerable lot to cover. A prodigious amount."
"I'd like to know who I'm addressing!" Pete demanded. It was a bluff, his officer presence stance, but it had worked when facing down gunman, completely unarmed. And frankly, it was all he had at the moment. "And where this is?"
"You aren't the one posing the questions. It would be in your best interest to answer what's asked of you." The voice didn't seem to be in the mood to quibble.
"Of course it's Heaven! I've been here before!"
"And just why should the likes of you be allowed inside Heaven?"
They had him there! One thing was certain, he was fresh out of reasons, having just watched so many of his foibles and frailties not to mention his flubs.
"Speak up boy! Time's a wasting!"
"Time?" This one he knew! "Time is an illusion!" His voice was strong, confident. It rang out in the white void.
"Poppycock!" the voice laughed, and the sound of it was something awesome and terrible. "What would you know about Time anyway?"
"Gus told me," Pete argued. They had to know Gus! He'd just been in serious trouble with the Powers That Be…and Pete had to assume that's who or what he was having this discourse with. Malloy had never liked name dropping, but under the circumstances, he'd use what he had.
"Who is Gus?"
"Gus! He's my guardian angel. He and Stanley…they showed me…his…well… this machine…and then they sent me back to Earth and now…"
"You can't be allowed to stay! You aren't fit for Heaven! You'll be cast out, do you hear me? Cast out!"
"Get Gus! He'll tell you…" Pete demanded of the being that was now at his side. He reached for that massive arm in the white sleeve, wrestling it like Jacob in the Old Testament. Something was horribly wrong this time and he had to find his way out of this. Somehow it had all gone awry. But the more he struggled, the more the massive being held him fast. And the worst of it was, he couldn't see the mountainous thing he battled. It was white, like his surroundings. As though it were a part of what encompassed him. All this achromatic oppression that held him fast, smothering him in its whiteness.
"Gus!" Pete summoned for help, continuing his defensive attack. But this time as he grabbed for the being, his hand passed through its white robes like a mist. "Send me back I want another chance! It isn't fair! Do you hear me?"
"I hear you, Pete." Jim Reed soothed, rising from the chair he'd pulled up to the side of Pete's bed.
"You've got to send me back, Gus!"
"Hey, partner, relax," Reed chuckled, lowering the side of the bedrail. "Nobody has to go anywhere. And it's Jim."
"Jim?" Pete's eyes fluttered as his hands continued to flail and grasp the covers that he'd managed to entangle himself in.
"Yeah. Your partner, remember me?" Jim's tone remained light, but his brow furrowed as he watched his friend cautiously.
"Officer Jim Reed?" Pete said slowly, the inflection definitely made it a question.
"Yeah, Officer Malloy. It's me. But that's Chief Inspector Reed to you."
"Chief Inspector?" Pete struggled to come fully awake.
"Yeah, that would make me your boss."
Pete frowned, reaching a hand up to rub his eyes. He felt the bandages and tried to piece together what had happened. The last thing he remembered was calling for Gus, and struggling with some enormous heavenly being, begging them to send him back. Things had been all messed up and he needed to get back home, desperately.
Jim was here. That was good. He'd at least been able to accomplish that. And he was alive himself, so he'd survived the accident in the warehouse. But the bandages were evidence that he hadn't avoided it altogether.
"You hit your head," Jim began the explanation. "But the docs say you'll be okay."
"We thought you'd been ambushed, but then they found a puncture in your hat, and blood on a big nail in the bottom of a scaffold at the top of those stairs."
"I ran into it," Pete muttered.
"I guess so. You fell down the steps afterwards. Knocked the wind outta you too. You had us pretty scared for a minute there."
"You're lucky you didn't break your neck." Mac added from the doorway. "You could have been killed."
"I was," Pete said quietly.
"Darn lucky," Mac affirmed.
"No, I mean it, Mac. I died."
"Huh?" Jim's face showed the surprise.
"What was that, Pete?" Mac asked, his voice level but the look he exchanged with Reed was one of growing alarm.
"I...eh..." Pete looked from one to the other of his friends and decided against a full confession at that particular moment. He was still feeling a bit shaky himself on the details. "Nothing… ...just...wait a minute. There's no rank of Chief Inspector."
"I think he's coming around, Sarge," Jim smiled in relief. His eyes still watched his partner with concern, but the slow exhale signaled a bit of reprieve.
"Why'd you say Chief Inspector?" Pete asked, what part of his forehead that was visible beneath the bandages wrinkled in confusion.
"Why'd you keep saying Chief Inspector Reed? I think you were asleep. I was just playing along."
"Oh," Pete rubbed at his bandages again, trying to sort out reality and apparently concussion-induced fantasy.
"Do you remember the accident, Pete?" Mac asked quietly. "Can you tell us what happened?"
"All I remember is what Gus told me, and the blood. I looked...like I was de---" his words drifted off again as he tried to focus on the swirling images he'd witnessed. Which ones had been real? "How's Jimmy?"
"Jimmy?" his partner questioned.
"Yeah. My godson," Pete bit off the word quickly. He wasn't certain it was true anymore. It was possible that everything hadn't gone as before. He still wasn't clear on how much of what he remembered had actually happened, or how much of what he thought he recalled of his history was clear and what was still a bit fuzzy. "You do have a son - named Jimmy?"
"Yeah," Jim smiled. "You godson's just fine, Pete. Probably driving his mother and grandparents crazy about now. You know how kids get this time of year. And before it makes me crazy, who's Gus?"
"And Billy?" Pete ignored the question for a moment, turning his attention to Mac who was leaning against the frame of the doorway.
"Son," Mac finished. "I know who you mean, but I don't understand..."
"Is he okay? That's all I'm asking."
"He's terrific!" Mac smiled. "He got that ten speed he'd been bugging us for, I'm sure he's thrilled. Why all the questions about kids?"
"Oh, nothing. Just trying to…get my bearings."
"You cracked that noggin of yours pretty good, it looks like." Mac approached the foot of the hospital bed, still watching his friend with apprehension. "Reed says you've been babbling all sorts of nonsense. Clocks and angels and time travel and…well, are you sure we shouldn't get the docs in here to check you out again? Maybe some more X-rays or something."
"I'm okay," Pete sighed, leaning his head back into the soft whiteness of the pillows that surrounded him. He grabbed for the edge of the sheets and blanket that his partner had been trying to put right, pulling them from the ersatz nursemaid's hands. "Reed!"
"You're wrapped up like a mummy in them, Pete! No wonder you kept trying to convince us you were dead!" Jim laughed, stubbornly continuing to smooth the linens. "I'm surprised you didn't say you were King Tut!"
"Reed! I said…" Pete flashed him a weak approximation of his usual threatening glare. "And don't touch them again! Now sit down before I call for the nurse's station and have security remove you both!"
Malloy had attempted to sit up in his struggle for the bedcoverings which gave him a brief view of the hallway outside his room. A man in a gray uniform with a patch on the sleeve, a blue field with Central Receiving Security in white letters, had walked past just as the partners' pillow fight ensued. His considerable middle strained against the buttons of his shirt and fought the constraints of a worn leather belt on it's last notch.
"Gus!" Pete hailed, before he'd realized what he'd done.
The man in the hallway turned to them, his eyebrows shot upwards to the gray hair on his forehead in obvious surprise. His face was broad and friendly, and lines crinkled at the corners of his sparkling blue eyes.
"Is that Gus?" Jim asked, the sheets and blankets momentarily forgotten.
"Is there a problem, sir?" the little man asked softly. There was a bit of a brogue to his mellow voice.
"What's your name?" Mac asked, trying not to make it sound like a demand.
"Clarence," the man replied simply. "I'm security here in the hospital. Is there something I can do for you?"
"Eh, no," Pete answered, after a stunned pause. "No, thank you, Clarence."
"Very well," the guard replied, turning to go.
Pete settled back into the pillows, freshly plumped by his insistent partner, finally beginning to accept that he had been dreaming.
"Well, I'd better get going," Mac began, heading for the door. "Mary's parents are coming for dinner."
"Thanks, Mac," Pete called weakly, still sorting out images in little mental piles of memory, fantasy and insanity.
"Yeah, and if you're sure you're feeling okay, Jean wanted me to pick up a couple of things on the way home, and the stores will be closing early, since it's Christmas Eve."
"Sure, partner," Pete sighed, closing his eyes a moment. He was relieved, and just a little…sad…at the prospect of this reality and what it meant to all he'd thought he experienced.
"I'll be here tomorrow, though."
"I said I'll be here tomorrow. We both will," Jim promised. "We'd bring Jimmy but they won't let him visit."
"Uh huh," Pete replied, his eyes still closed.
"And the doctor said they just want to observe you overnight. So you rest now."
"Sure, partner." Pete even felt a little sleepy, though he'd prefer not to dream again, just yet. He'd had enough of that to last a while.
"So if you're still doing okay in the morning, instead of just a visit, we could take you home. Christmas dinner at our house."
"Jim…go home!" Pete smiled, his eyes still closed. "And Merry Christmas!"
"Merry Christmas, Pete."
"Excuse me…" the voice was familiar, soft and accented.
"Yes?" Malloy replied, opening his eyes again when he realized that Jim must have finally obeyed his teasing order and left. It was that security guard again, standing just inside the doorway.
"I just wanted you to know," he began gently. "There will be some caroling in the halls tonight. I hope it won't disturb you."
"Personally, I've always liked Christmas carolers, don't you?"
"Merry Christmas, Peter."
The funny little man winked, then turned and walked away. He was humming something repetitive and familiar as he sauntered down the corridor.
Cest Fini or is it?
To our Editor, Cathy for maintaining a website thats the fans closest thing to new adventures with our favorite boys in blue, and for saying can you finish it in time for Christmas? <g>
To the usual suspects Messers Webb, Cinader, Milner and McCord for having fun with the Christmas eps we love to dust off every December (or July for that matter!) An homage to Messers Capra, Stewart, Dickens et al for the ubiquitous ghost story/guardian angel set up that has been revisited more times than we can count. With undying respect to CS Lewis, thanks to Sir Issac Newton, Albert Einstien, Erwin Schroedinger, Jules Verne, HG Wells, and apologies to Mae Wan Ho, author of The Entangled Universe Yes! Magazine Spring 2000
And Merry Christmas to all and to all a good shift!