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In 'Quantum Deadline,' Daedalus Howell explores alternative versions of Petaluma and himself

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The phone rang and the man trundled off through the maze of suits crowded on their racks like delicatessen salamis.

In the mirror, I was surprised at how relatively good I looked despite the night before. I outstretched my arms and the black coat opened crisply like an umbrella. I surmised from the inexpensive blend of polymers that the coat was waterproof.

The fat clothier brayed into the phone. His tone was heated. I entertained myself by maneuvering the hinged mirrors, flanking the one in the middle so that my reflection went from triplicate to infinite. This is how I used to kill time when my mother dragged me to department stores when I was a kid. For that matter, it's how I kept from losing my mind when my ex took me on forced marches through the junior's department whose trendy tops and shrinking bottoms she could still pull off in her thirties.

I began to entomb myself in the mirrors, creating hundreds of images of myself—rumpled, debauched but serviceably handsome to a certain type of woman. One whose standards have been systematically lowered by being born Gen X and coming of age under the sign of Slack.

An intruder entered my chamber of narcissism. A small quizzical face beamed back at me through the corner of the left mirror. It was a boy of about eleven with dark hair and a tailored blue suit with a badge on the pocket.

He shook his head. I straightened, reflexively, as if he'd caught me picking my nose. I turned from my personal Escher print and spied him standing outside the store window staring at me like I was a ghost or he was a ghost or . . . I couldn't take it.

I flipped him off.

I expected the kid to do the same back at me. Instead he shouted, "Down!" At least that's what it looked like he said. I couldn't hear him through the window. Besides, it sounded like a walnut had just been cracked upside my head. The mirror behind me shattered.

"You fuggin' asshole!" boomed through the coat shop, punctuated with another shot. This one sounded like a fist deep in a down pillow.

I was on the floor, belly down, atop saber-length shards of broken mirror. My knees had buckled autonomically. Was I shot? I rolled behind a rack and patted myself down. Not even a scratch from the glass. I looked up and saw my tailor clutching his gut.

"She's my wife!" the shooter said. His tone was one of defeat.

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Tweedle Dump kept the gun trained on his twin brother. Two thoughts crossed my mind simultaneously: (a) They should have incorporated some of this sibling rivalry shit into their TV commercials, and (b) Where was the kid? I belly-crawled to the coat rack as another shot rang through the shop. Tweedle Deep wheezed, "Fuck you too." I peeked through the size 34 slacks. He had a small pistol weighing in his pudgy hand. He dropped to his knees as his porcine twin glowered back, his white shirt now a rising tide of blood and bile.

"That's not going to come out," Tweedle Dump observed before also falling to his knees, his bulk jiggling like a massive water balloon. After a beat, both Gemelli twins collapsed onto the beige berber carpet in a puddle of oily, brown blood.

A store clerk with pasted-down hair wandered into the front door and calmly observed dead orcas draining on the floor. He called 911, but not before calling his girlfriend to tell her to stay in bed, because he was taking the day off. He looked at me and shook his head. "It was going to happen sooner or later. Lucky you didn't get hit. Them brothers was as blind as shit."

"I'm fine," I said as I unfolded back onto my feet. "There was a kid in the window, you see him?"

"I didn't see a kid. If he was here, he was gone when I got here. If he's a neighborhood kid this ain't nothing he hasn't seen before. Had the good sense to run," he said matter-of-factly. "Probably home doing instant replays on his video game machine."

When the police arrived, they cordoned off the crime scene with yellow tape until it looked like a cat's cradle. They took pictures and proceeded to fill paper cups with coffee from a large press pot.

"That press pot is the most important part of our forensics kit," explained Detective Shane. She was black, rounder than perhaps she cared to be and appeared young for her rank, which is to say, younger than me. "You put shit in it?"

I looked at her blankly and she handed me a cup of black coffee.

"So, you say there was a kid? Did he witness the shooting too?"

"I'm not sure. It all . . ."

"Happened so fast. I know. Bullets are like that. Well, we put a car out looking for him and no one's turned up. Should be in school anyway," she said.

I nodded and sipped the coffee. The detective watched me sip.

"It's good, isn't it?" she said proudly. Our department has the best coffee in the East Bay.

"What's your secret?"

"We give a fuck. That's all. You just gotta give a fuck." She folded up her notebook. "Listen, I've got your statement. You're not a suspect, the security cameras confirm that. I might need you to come down to the station later for more details, especially if the kid turns up, but otherwise, you're free to go."

"Does it matter that I'm a member of the media?" I asked for no good reason. Maybe I wanted to seem in the game—that I wasn't just a civilian. Shane gave me a once-over.

"In that jacket?" she quipped, then caught herself reflected in my eyes. "It's really that bad for you guys, isn't it?"

I nodded, "Just me." But I knew my luck was beginning to turn and that kid who should've been in school was part of it.

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