Fantastic Metropolis

A Möbius Trip

Daniel Pearlman

David squeezed his toy dog to his chest so hard its plastic eye popped off. He knew the fight between Mommy and Daddy would end very soon, like always. He wasn’t five any more. He was almost five and a half. He knew they would soon stop yelling and screaming and stop being angry and then they would hug each other and kiss and walk away to different rooms and Mommy would cry because she was happy, she always said.

“I can’t live in this neighborhood any more,” she said. “Everything’s going up, up, up!” She shook her hands in his face till they blurred, like when you vibrate a pencil between your fingers, but she didn’t hit him, David noted. “We have to get out of this damn St. Mark’s Place, maybe out of Manhattan altogether, back even to Brooklyn where the rents at least are a whole lot cheaper.”

“I know how you feel, Terry,” he said, “but they only raised our rent twelve percent this year, and besides — ”

“So what are you waiting for, a note from a lawyer saying ‘Sorry, you rent-controlled chiselers, the party’s over, we’re turning condo, and if you can’t put up \$80,000 cash then pack up and ship out’?”

“Stop being an alarmist. You’re cutting into my damn workday,” he shouted.

“Get the blinders off, George! ‘Gentrification,’ they call it. Who would believe that all this rock-and-roll scum that’s drifted into the area and turned it into a worse slum than it was before would attract all the Yuppies and jack up all the prices till you can’t get a lousy cup of coffee anymore for less than — ”

“Gimme a break, Terry, will you? I’ve even written about the punk rock plague: ‘PR is for Punk — ‘”

“Cut the self-congratulation, George. Your Village Voice article was dandy, and maybe you can gloat over the hate-letters they’ll print in response to it, but I’m just getting sicker by the minute, and while you bat your typewriter in that soundproof, air-conditioned office of yours, I sit thirty feet away and suck in the sweet sound of acid rock blaring at top volume through the windows from a dozen Third-World briefcases in the street down there, not to mention all the junkies and crazies screaming a flood of filth all day — ”

“I resent the implication that I’m hiding away from reality! You’ve been out of work for a few months, so all this is getting to you.”

“I’m just seeing the whole picture, George, while you crawl into your quiet cocoon and write.”

“I’ll be damned if you’re gonna put me down for my writing, Terry. This fiction of mine can be more real to me than my so-called life. It’s just as real as your reality.”

“I’m not putting you down.”

“My typewriter pays the rent!”

“Maybe,” she said now, her voice not angry now, “I want it to save my life. Maybe I’m just frustrated and disappointed and scared shitless.”

David stopped squeezing the broken dog. He advanced to the living room doorway and looked at them as they stood near the kitchen window close together with sunlight setting Mommy’s hair on fire and sparking off Daddy’s glasses as he took them off and put his arms around Mommy and she kissed him and they hugged, just as he knew it had to come out now that he was almost six years old.

Now he could have fun watching Daddy again through the little square window in his office door which was just low enough for him to peek through. He hoped it wouldn’t be long before Daddy would disappear again. The most fun was catching him just as he did it — pop! — like that, but he’d seen him actually do it only once. And later he’d be back again. But he’d never seen him actually come back. He’d have to be standing at the window all day long to be that lucky, but Mommy got terribly annoyed when she caught him gawking like that, so he stood there and watched only when she was in the bedroom reading or knitting or was in the kitchen cooking. Daddy didn’t mind his gawking. Never seemed to notice, even. But Mommy’d throw a fit, then try to play with him or read to him or, worse, take a stroll with him along the street that she hated so much because it was good for them both to stretch their legs and get some air. But out in the street she’d grab his hand too hard and tell him to watch out for the broken glass or the garbage and not to gawk at the punk rockers. Sometimes they’d gawk back at him, but not like a clown would. They were painted like clowns, but they didn’t have the red nose, and were lots skinnier, and most of the time didn’t smile at him.

Right now Daddy was talking to someone. Standing near his big wooden desk and jerking his hands around as he spoke. David couldn’t hear a word because the office was soundproof, and whoever he was talking to was invisible. It was very annoying sometimes but it was lots of fun just gawking.

George would occasionally interrupt their conversation to type down what Detective Merkouros was telling him. It was a tale much more bizarre than anything he could have whipped up on his own. “This dimension of yours — Plane 7, from our point of view — is still too dangerous for any of our governments to open up to tourism,” said Merkouros, a short, athletic man with hawkish features, plastered-down black hair, and a double-breasted suit with shoulder pads that made him look comically out of fashion — except, of course, in this part of Manhattan, where an eccentric had to work overtime to net a second glance. “It is enticing, to be sure, especially the sexual permissiveness. But even in that you go to disgusting excesses. In short, the environment is too full of ambiguities. A regular smorgasbord, but you can’t tell arsenic from sugar. Your criminal justice system, for example, is the most deadly farce in the entire multiverse.”

“You see permissiveness, we see diversity. Diversity has its pricetag,” George shrugged. “I’ll tell you what I think, Merkouros. I think that our Plane 7 is a mixture of all the dimensions. And guys like you simply can’t handle it.”

“Nonsense!” said Merkouros with a brusque sweep of the hand. “You pay too high a price. You live with too much fear. Your article in the Village Voice — very instructive, I might add — is an attempt to exorcise your fear. I find it psychologically most illuminating that in this plane your so-called ‘punk rock’ types resemble so closely our own permanently branded criminals, our imprisoned Stigmatics, as we call them. And by the way, you haven’t yet told me what you thought of your brief visit — to our prison, I mean.”

“Horrifying,” said George, shuddering. Convicted murderers were the least disfigured — shaved bald with a great X burnt into their foreheads as they awaited imminent and unappealable execution on Death Row. Then there were the lifers convicted of crimes such as rape or grand larceny. For each category of crime there was a distinctive facial branding. A rapist’s features were dyed an indelible white with red smears under the eyes and green streaks over the eyebrows; a triangle of red hair was left to adorn the partially scalped head. Even those sentenced to lesser terms bore their class stigmata: the arsonist, for example, with his yellow-dyed Mohican hairdo and the alternating red and yellow stripes fanning down the face from the inner corner of each eye. Even when expelled into society again, one did not cease paying for one’s misdeeds. No lack of clarity about who one was in Dimension One! “But I was impressed by the cleanliness of your city streets.”

“And the almost total lack of vehicular traffic?” Merkouros prompted.

“That too.”

“That’s just one of the things that makes transvection into this plane so damned dangerous,” sighed Merkouros. “Imagine one of us transvecting right in front of a speeding automobile. I myself depend on classified information, developed over many years, to know if a point of entry I am interested in is safe or not. And yet one still runs a risk.”

“You still haven’t made it clear why you’ve come to me,” said George, growing impatient. I know you’re looking for an escaped con, one of your ‘Stigmatics.’ And you think he’s found a perfect place to hide, to blend in with the punks right here in Plane 7. Okay. So what?”

“The point is that in a very short time, about one hour from now,” said the detective, looking at his watch, “an assassination attempt is going to be made upon me, by our escaped convict and an accomplice, right here in your apartment. … I apologize for the inconvenience,” Merkouros coughed, “but such is the case.”

“Now wait a minute,” said George, his hand sweeping downward in a gesture of flat dismissal. “I don’t mind being hospitable to a stranger in need, but I won’t be imposed upon either.”

“I would change things if I could,” Merkouros shrugged, his shoulderpads lurching upward toward his delicately chiseled ears.

“Just push some buttons on that belt contraption of yours,” George urged, “and shlep yourself off to Dimension 3 or 10 or where-the-hell-ever and nobody’ll find you in a million years.”

“If I did so,” said the detective, shaking his head, “you and your family would be sitting ducks.”

“I’ll take that chance.”

“I can’t let you,” said Merkouros, growing impatient. These denizens of the seventh plane slogged on endlessly with their self-paralyzing questions and doubts. No wonder they could regard their absurdly defective version of Hamlet as a masterpiece! “Why do you think I asked you about the rifle that you mentioned in your article?”

“My .30-.30? I’m glad you like it, but I’d better put it away before it gets us into trouble. I’m sure not doing any deer-hunting in this apartment, I can tell you.”

“Time is short,” warned Merkouros, glancing at the loaded weapon that the writer had proudly displayed then carefully balanced against the wall between the left end of his desk and the door of the open closet full of hunting gear, fishing tackle, and mounds of paperback books. “If you cooperate with me, Mr. Selbeam, there’s a good chance we’ll all get through this unharmed. The word ‘all’ includes your wife and child. I’m afraid they, too, are in mortal danger.”

“This is insane,” said George, looking from the detective to the rifle and back. “I don’t understand this assassination crap, and even if I believed you, you have no right to involve me and my family in your foreign cloak-and-dagger operations.”

“Not foreign,” Merkouros replied. “Very close to home. In fact, less than a micron’s distance from the opaque film surrounding your consciousness. But there’s no time for quibbling. What do you have to lose if you just do as I ask for the next hour? Nothing! And besides, I’m going to explain everything, and it is extremely important that you type it all down — again, for reasons I shall explain.” There is opacity and there is opacity! thought Merkouros. In Plane 7 it comes in double thicknesses. No wonder that in this Western-dominated allosphere transportation technology still ignores the fifth point of the five-pointed ancient Chinese compass — North, South, East, West, and Center. Transvection is through the Center! No matter, thought Merkouros. He must keep explanation to a minimum.

“Okay, okay,” George agreed, sitting down again at his typewriter. He would listen, type, then stop occasionally to comment or question. Merkouros didn’t particularly want to explain. He had to be prodded for vital detail — and he’d look angrily at his watch as he spat out the information requested. Just like a cop. Loved his job but hated the paperwork. Promised to make clear later why he couldn’t have just dictated to some gum-chewing office slave back at home HQ. “Okay. So somebody’s out to get you? So who? And why?”

Merkouros replied, with enormous confidence or outright arrogance (George couldn’t tell which), that catching or killing an escaped con was easy enough. He’d done it plenty of times. He wasn’t the highest rated detective on the force for nothing. The Commissioner had twice — or was it three times? — awarded him special commendations. The exact number of times didn’t matter. What mattered was doing one’s job. Anyway, tracking Momo Buglozu was only a part of what had brought him here. Momo was a highly accomplished specialist in two fields, bank robbery and rape. His facial stigmata, in the picture George had been shown, included not only the chalk-white background with red and green smears of the rapist, but a purple circle that ran from the nostrils around the chin; and the hair was red streaked with purple. It took very little time to figure out that Momo’s escape from the Top-Security Sector was an inside job. But as to who might have given him a boost? Every lead wound up in a blind alley. Never before had he been so stymied at place of origin. That fact alone, of course, spoke volumes that he had been too damn deaf to hear.

The bounty hunters took only four days, on the average, before turning in the escapee’s head for the standard reward. Why head? Because the body parts sold to the transplant mills pulled in twice the amount of the reward. Yes, he sometimes regretted staying on the force. As a bounty hunter he’d have been rich by now. His terminations got parceled out, by law, among the public assistance hospitals. But to return to the point: Momo hadn’t been found even after eight days of investigation. Everybody who could possibly be harboring him — under penalty of an equivalent term of imprisonment — had been checked out. His crossdimensional travel record had also been examined — minutely, by Merkouros himself — but if Momo had in desperation resorted to passportless plane-surfing, then in all likelihood he’d have been gaffed by now by the flesh-hungry boys at any one of a thousand co-op Transpol stations monitoring all official entry points in the thirteen known dimensions. What a burden on the monitoring stations! Not only did they oversee the welfare of legitimate tourists who’d been culture-prepped as a condition of passport issuance, but they also had to haul in — dead or alive — the crazies rich enough to own one of the newly miniaturized belt transvectors but not smart enough to play by the Interdimensional Rules of Passage. It had been much better when only five big corporations owned all the unwieldy equipment and you had to come to them for transvection. They’d get you your passport, prep you, lay out your itinerary, stick you in a group, and coordinate all comings and goings through Interplane Central. Now? Madness was on the rise. Sheer, undisciplined, individualistic madness.

But if Momo had got his hands on a belt transvector and managed to survive a “leap in the dark” after punching in some arbitrary coordinates — landing on his feet in spite of the considerable odds against it — then the computers at Interplane Central would after forty-eight hours have been smoking at the synapses. He’d have created a transplanar black hole. The whole fabric of the multiverse — the grandest and yet most delicate of all ecosystems — would be vibrating in a state of disequilibrium. That could be handled easily enough, simply by retrovecting an equivalent mass back from the plane identified as the locus of disturbance into Dim-One. But if Momo was successfully plane-hopping, then he had somewhere picked up this rather obscure technical datum and was slipping back and forth between Plane X and Plane One taking care not to stay as long as forty-eight hours at a stretch in X: not out of any tender consideration for the delicate fabric of the multiverse, mind you, but simply to avoid giving away which plane he’s hiding out in.

The accomplice? Yes, of course. His technical director, exactly. But to jump ahead would serve to explain nothing, Merkouros cautioned, casting another worried glance at his watch. He was determined to have typed down precisely in their logical-chronological order the steps by which he swiftly came to identify the whereabouts of Momo Buglozu.

David got bored watching Daddy just typing instead of disappearing again, so he snuggled into the cardboard box from the stereo that Mommy had let him place under the dining room table. He had made his own Vanishing Machine from the box by cutting a square hole in the bottom, like the window in Daddy’s door, and from this magic window he had a full view to the left of Mommy sitting knitting in the sun at the kitchen window, and he could also see through the open door of her and Daddy’s bedroom right in front of him. If he shifted the box to the right, he could look at Daddy’s door again, but that was too boring. If he could pull the box inside out and be surrounded by the printed sides, then he’d be outside, and they would all be inside and vanish when he put his hand over the hole. If Mommy had a Vanishing Machine she wouldn’t have to yell out the window to make the noise stop. She could just vanish it, like that!

“Will you cut that damn blaster!” she shouted, leaning out the window. “No? Then I’m calling the police.” She sat back and just stared at her knitting and made tight fists around the long silver needles because the thump-thump music got twice as loud. He knew she wouldn’t call the police because she always said that they never came when you needed them.

Merkouros fully expected that Division Chief Noigandres would take a cheap shot or two at him now that eight days had passed and he had not yet placed a red-and-purple-coiffed head on his desk. Noigandres could always be counted on for a snide remark about the hard-headed, go-by-the-book, linear mentality of the men on the force. He applauded the intuitive, the illogical, the ridiculous — as unproductive as such thinking tended to be — over the sound investigative procedures of which he, Merkouros, was master. No wonder that over the past twelve years, since Noigandres’s elevation to the chiefhood, the Division had come under increasing attack for bungling and inefficiency. Merkouros never caved in, never sucked up to him like the rest. Drudgery was his watchword. Imagination go hang! If to sniff out a clue meant a visit to every Transpol station in the whole dimensional continuum, then that’s what he was prepared to do.

The worst part of dealing with Noigandres was the routine meetings you had to have with him. His belittling Annual Reports were one thing; his tête-à-têtes were altogether another. Even his wife (Merkouros’s), ordinarily insensitive to the depth of his feelings, would notice his irritability after meetings with the Chief. But on the eighth day of Momo’s escape, a meeting took place far different from anything that Merkouros could ever have anticipated. The puffy face, the booze-empurpled nose (always purpler, it seemed, than at the last meeting), the watery blue eyes twinkling at you with disdainful superiority — the setting was the same. And when Merkouros vowed to check out every monitoring station in the continuum, the sneer he got back was the same. But this time two things happened that were different.

Number one, Noigandres did not pull his usual bureaucratic trick by having his secretary call in that Inspector Becker or Baker of Dim-3 or 12 had to see him right away and would he flash over — thereby leaving Detective Merkouros stewing in his office for a half hour at a time. “Transvect on your own time, not on mine!” he had often wanted to say, but iron discipline had taught him restraint, and the last thing he needed was a charge of insubordination. How often had he wished that the Chief would mistake his re-entry point and wind up with his head in the first-floor toilet as had happened to his departed and much-lamented predecessor! No such luck. But Merkouros did not take such treatment lying down. Master picklock that he was, he had learned to improve the time by snaking open the Chief’s desk drawers to speedread his latest unfiled memos and letters. (Once he had removed a few cartridges from Noigandres’s revolver — but Selbeam need not write up irrelevancies like that.) More to the point, he had once read a letter from the Commissioner to the Chief that referred to himself, Merkouros. The letter reproached Noigandres for an Annual Report which neglected to single out Merkouros for a Special Commendation. The Chief’s hunger for the limelight was legendary, but never before had the depth of his pettiness come home to the detective. And then there had been other communications which indicated the growing disenchantment of the Commissioner with the record of the Chief. So that these meetings Noigandres staged to show contempt for his subordinates could be quite profitable, as far as Merkouros was concerned.

The second thing that was different about this meeting? Ah, yes. (It made you nervous to see Merkouros always glancing at his watch.) Instead of ending as usual, with free advice on applying the Creative Imagination to policework — and here Noigandres would casually drop mention of a couple of lucky cases he had solved that had exalted him to his present hot-seat, — the meeting continued with a positive suggestion as to how the stumped detective could proceed and stop chasing his own tail. “Think!” said the Chief. “New York is all Buglozu’s ever known. If he is dimension-hopping he’ll stick to the New York sector in all and any of its thirteen allotypes. Since he’ll need cash, he’ll be engaged in crime. Bank-robbery first, maybe rape for dessert. Here,” he added magisterially, “are all the news items on rape and bank-heists that have appeared in all the New York papers from all thirteen allotypes over the last eight days. Search ‘em for clues and let me know in a couple days what you come up with.” And he dropped a stack of clippings three fingers thick into Merkouros’s lap.

Being one-upped at his trade was a first for the detective. He blushed and sat speechless. “Now get out!” snapped the Chief. Merkouros agonized. Why hadn’t he thought of this himself? Probably nothing would come out of it — but if something did? Then it would probably lead nowhere. But the worst of it, he confessed, was that he hoped nothing would come out of it. But Merkouros was a professional. He would renounce all pride for the sake of justice. As indeed he did. As the Chief even expected him to do. And like it or not, there was one item in the whole heap that merited immediate investigation. A New York Post story, four days old, from Plane 7. Here? Yes. Of course! A bank robbery in Manhattan by two gunmen got up in “punk rock” disguises, whatever that meant. The point that got his attention, however, was this: An elderly bank-guard claimed to have peeked up — though warned not to — from his face-down position on the floor, and to have seen the robbers vanish into thin air as soon as they stepped out into the street.

So I transvect my butt into 7, Merkouros went on, but wouldn’t you know I’d arrive just after the bank closes for the day? What do I do? To collect my jumbled thoughts, I walk up to a newsstand and browse through racks and stacks of periodicals with vaguely familiar titles and by sheer serendipity run across your article in the Village Voice. I speedread with fascination to discover the nature of your punk rock plague, clearly an allomorphic displacement of our own regular prison population, and I am disturbed by your tendency to take much too lightly the punk nihilism and propensity to violence. You are drowning, Sir, in the waste products of your indiscriminate tolerance! … Well, I look you up in the phone book, try various coins (a Plane 6 coin is luckily accepted), and you are kind enough to welcome me into your home without first demanding full explanations. Unfortunately, Selbeam, your skepticism seems only to increase with our familiarity, and that puts us now in a time-bind of a most serious sort. Anyway, imagine if you can how I felt as I walked along St. Mark’s Place and saw the refuse of our own jails vomited forth upon front stoops, doorways, the sidewalk, and your outdoor cafés. I must admit I rather nervously fingered my revolver as near-Momo look-alikes kept popping up all around me.

What directly follows you know, and I am still much impressed by your courage in accompanying me to my home dimension, the city jail, etcetera. And the following day — this afternoon, of course — you were to take me around to the various punk haunts in and near the Village, especially if any of the bank tellers recognized the mug-shot of Momo, which they did. What you don’t yet know is what happened at my meeting with Noigandres much earlier this afternoon, just after lunch.

Now just take this down as I’m telling… What is this manuscript here? My God, your desk is the most disorganized — which in fact may be most helpful to us now. A story about your son? Damon? I must ask you to lay a few pages from the top of that manuscript directly over this. Another few through the middle won’t hurt. Yes, I’ll explain. First Noigandres. Yes, of course he was pleased as I explained to him your punk phenomenon. He was already taking all the credit to himself, as though Momo’s head was already in his hands. His arrogance, snippiness, and condescension became so blatant that I was tempted to tell him to finish the case himself. He had reverted to type with a vengeance, it seemed. Even to pulling the old stunt again — disappearing to Plane Whatever on some grossly fabricated “emergency” clearly choreographed some time before between himself and his secretary. And the insult was all the more stinging since he knew I had no time to waste, that I had to check out witnesses at the bank, that I was then to visit you at about 3:30 to begin our foray through Manhattan. He even took unusually detailed notes, trying to look professionally responsible while at the same time aiming hammer blows at my ego.

Well, I had all the more reason to rummage through his desk when he left me dangling again like that. And what do I discover? First, a memo from the Commissioner lying there for about a month — still too hot to be filed — in which he is warned that he must prepare to be removed as Chief if, after a lengthy investigation, I, Detective Merkouros, am found fit to take over his post! Me! No wonder his sudden helpfulness, I thought. And his increased sarcasm. Had he written some blistering reply? I wondered. So I poked around some more, even opening a bottom drawer in which he normally only stashed junk. Some junk this time! Packages of banknotes labeled “counterfeit.” All crisp ten-dollar bills. I slipped one out from under its loose wrapper (evidently some had already been removed) and was amazed to find not counterfeit money, but some elaborately printed stage money — because the bills looked perfectly real except for the wrong face in the middle. The face of Hamilton. Alexander Hamilton. Not Burr, as it should be. But then I remembered from my recent casual reading into the American history of Plane 7 that it was Hamilton who got killed in the duel here, not Burr! Then what if it should turn out, when I checked back at the bank, that these bills were your own legal tender! Yes, you are beginning to understand. … I was appalled! If this checked out, then Noigandres had himself, through his high connections, arranged the escape of Buglozu in order to use him in an elaborate scheme whose object was to eliminate me. And in such a place that I was unlikely ever to be found. And if more proof had been needed, it was — not too surprisingly — right at hand. For behind the stash of currency was, of all things, a small set of face paints! Exactly. Yes, the accomplice.

And he was now in conference with Buglozu to finish me off, right here, at 3:30. Of course it’s no longer 3:30! Let me quickly finish. Type, type! Ah, if Noigandres could ever have appreciated how good a detective I really am! Well, when he returned from his rendezvous with you-know-who, he made two unusual demands. First, I should not take my weapon with me into Plane 7! He told me of some Sullivan law about concealed weapons, and that if I fell into the hands of your police, it might make a gigantic political mess — since I was here without the approval of your authorities — and that it might not be easy for me to get back. The coward! A sitting duck he wanted! Hurry, now — get this down. So I gave him the damn revolver. Yes. Your rifle’s what we’re depending on, I’m afraid. The second demand? Okay, quickly. He asked if I’d been keeping notes on the investigation to date. I lied and said yes, although I’d had no time for it yet. Turn them over to him, he ordered, together with all my ID. If anything happened to me there must be no tracing me back to my origin, and no implicating him, Noigandres, who after all had taken on the entire responsibility of wangling legal access for me to Plane 7. He wanted an untraceable corpse. Fine. And he was worried as hell that my “notes” might fall into the wrong hands and lead back along a trail that smelled of Buglozu and eventually him. These are my notes. Right. No, I absolutely refused to give him a scrap of paper. He threw a fit and pretended to be writing me down for disciplinary action. I didn’t give a damn.

No, just leave them right there, like that, mixed in with your innocent-looking story. Why? Because if they shoot first, I’m the first place they’ll look for them. And if they do get me, Mr. Selbeam, my lawyer has been instructed where to find me. And to search for a set of notes in your office. With your permission, of course. On the assumption that any of us is around to grant permission.

Oh yes, 3:30? On leaving the fiend’s office, I turned around casually and said I’d made a slight error in my itinerary. I was to be with you at five, not at 3:30. “Just a detail,” I said, “but you know my passion for accuracy.” It is precisely three minutes to five, Selbeam. At one minute to five, simply grab that rifle and stand here next to me.

Through the magic window he saw Mommy walk over to the kitchen door, reach for the lock, then draw back her hand again.

“Please hurry,” the man’s voice begged. “I’m Cranes from 3C, one flight above you. My phone doesn’t work. My wife is unconscious. If I don’t get an ambulance — ”

As soon as she opened, the two men jumped in. The one with the white face striped in red and green and purple threw a hand over Mommy’s mouth then twisted her around and held her so she couldn’t move her arms. The one with the blue face and black cheek splotches waved a gun around while he gently closed the door behind him. David shuddered. He wanted to scream but he could not find his voice. The scene would soon change, he knew. The men would disappear. The window would make them disappear. The man with the gun hunched down and started slinking into the dining room like a cat. He stuck close to the wall, right in front of David’s window, then sprang into the bedroom with his gun-hand in front of him and just as quickly leaped out again. Now he was heading toward the office. He couldn’t see him anymore because it was over to the right, but he heard the door hinges squeak and he knew the man was in the office. And he knew that Daddy had disappeared again because if he hadn’t disappeared he would have yelled at the man for bothering him while he was writing.

“Make a sound ‘n I’ll kill you,” said the man with the white face to Mommy. He had funny hair, all red and purple stripes. He took his hand off her mouth and started moving it around her chest. Mommy’s eyes were big and she was staring in David’s direction, but he was sure he was invisible. Noise came from Daddy’s office but it was only file drawers slamming around and maybe stuff that fell on the floor. The man with the white face had his hand on Mommy’s belly and was pushing his fingers between her legs. Mommy twisted but he slapped her hard then covered her mouth to stop her yelling, and then he tore her dress off. Soon they would stop fighting, but only Daddy ever kissed Mommy, David knew. Now the man shoved Mommy into the dining room. He wasn’t hurting her because if he was, Mommy would yell. And now he pushed her through the door into the bedroom. He didn’t close the door. “Have a good one!” said the other man, standing in the dining room and looking around as if he was looking for something.

“If there’s shooting to be done, I’ll do it myself,” George insisted. He was standing in a dimly lit, vacant loft whose coordinates matched those of his office in Plane 7.

“Don’t be a fool. You’ll endanger us all,” Merkouros objected.

“I’m a damn good skeet shooter,” George replied calmly. “What the hell are we waiting for?”

“We’re giving them exactly four minutes.”

“Why couldn’t we have just stood our ground?”

“It is we who need the element of surprise. Especially if it’s two weapons against one,” Merkouros added grimly, checking his watch. “When they fail to find either of us in the apartment, they will relax their guard.”

“What makes you think they showed up at precisely one minute after five?”

“Noigandres knows that I am a fanatically punctilious man. He, too, can be precise when it is in his own interest.”

“I warn you, Merkouros, if anything happens to Terry or the kid — ”

“One minute more. It’s now up to you, Selbeam. Lift your rifle into firing position, pointing towards your office door. When I say ‘zero,’ we re-enter. By now Noigandres is convinced that I’m not there. He has already stormed your office. It is now your wife and child who are in grave danger. Be swift and noiseless. Okay. Zero!

The white-faced man threw Mommy on the bed and jumped on top of her. The blue-faced man stood still in the dining room, just to the left of the bedroom door. David shivered. The man was now looking at him. “A kid!” he said. Now David knew he was no longer invisible. He knew he should not be looking into the bedroom, at Mommy and the man, and the other man was going to hit him. But he never did. A giant explosion made everything stop. The blue-faced man fell backwards. The other man rolled off Mommy and started to get up. His pants were sliding down and he pulled at them, but David couldn’t see the rest because there was another big explosion and someone stood in front of the bedroom door.

Merkouros held his breath. When he heard the second shot he sighed with relief. Re-entry could not have been more perfectly timed. Sports gear from the closet was strewn around the office floor. The papers on Selbeam’s desk had been only mildly disturbed, but folders full of manuscripts from the file cabinets had been scattered in every direction around the room. Noigandres must have assumed, quite logically, that wherever Merkouros was, his case-notes were with him. The Chief’s much-vaunted Imagination had not been Creative enough to guide him to the obvious — to the document right under his nose, as in Edgar Clemm Poe’s story “The Stolen Letter.” Now, thought Merkouros, it was the job of Interplane Central to spirit away the two bodies, but if they could not do so without gross violation of the Plane-7 sense of cosmic propriety, then an equivalent mass of any other dead matter would do. Official communication with Plane 7, if it should ever begin, would have to open up on a much more positive note.

Merkouros lifted the intact manuscript of his case-notes from beside Selbeam’s typewriter. With a little revision, they should do fine for a full report, he thought. The sooner he transvected now, the better. But first he must return those interleaved pages from the writer’s own manuscript. Could there have been any better disguise than a cover page — so innocent-seeming, so thoroughly deceptive — which began

David squeezed his toy dog to his chest so hard its plastic eye popped off.

Copyright © 1995 by Daniel Pearlman.