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The Face of Trouble by Stefon Mears - web cover

And now, the story…


I never know which face is mine.

In the crowd. In the mirror. I could be any of them. I could be you. And I might never know it.

I wake in the morning. Already a change. Last I recall I was a hospital orderly working the night shift in Nineteen Eighty-Six. I was a big guy then. Hefty, but with at least as much muscle as fat. But it’s morning this time, yellow sun high over the fir trees and snowy mountain peaks outside my cabin window.

The glass looks either cheap or old, little runnels of warp here and there.

Did I go backward again? No. I hear a heater click on, smell warmed dust entering the room. The window is caulked around the edges. The “log” cabin around me is façade.

The girl in the bed is real. Leggy. Dark skinned like me. Blonde. Probably not like me. Rare for this skin tone. She’s still asleep, sprawled in a silk nightdress and a mess of plaid flannel sheets. For some reason I don’t think she picked them out.

Did I?

I’m male this time, a wiry kind of skinny. And unlike the blonde, I sleep in the nude. Or at least I did last night. I dig through the chest of drawers (also faux log design) but no sign of a wallet. Not on the tree stump nightstand either. But I do find underwear, jeans and a plain white tee shirt that fit me. Plus some silkier underwear and shapelier clothes that probably fit her.

Frankly, I’d rather wear those. Men’s clothing is so plain and stolid. Boring. But my body is male again and I need to blend in.

The girl is good and bad news. Good because we’re obviously a couple. Neither of us cheating. Well, I suppose this could be a weekend away from our spouses or something, but at least neither of us is wearing a wedding ring. So probably not cheating.

That’s good. A couple of wake-ups ago I found out I was cheating on my husband because he walked in at, shall we say, an inopportune moment?

Hard to apologize when you don’t know the person yelling at you. Which is the bad part about the blonde. She’s going to expect me to know who she is, and where we are, and probably what our plans are for the day. You know, the typical things that most people take for granted. The kinds of things I never know.

Like my face. I could go look in the mirror above the dresser right now, if I wanted, but it wouldn’t do me any good. All I would see is my mission. And I’m not ready for that yet. Damn it, this time I want to get my legs under me before people start shooting at me.

Doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, but you’d be surprised how rarely it works out that way.

I finally find my wallet and a room key in a light, tan jacket, hanging on a wire hook in a small armoire. Must be summer in the mountains, because even the purple jacket next to mine is light. Two small roller suitcases on the floor, next to hiking boots and tennis shoes. Guess that tells me what the plan is for today.

Good way to spend a vacation. Wonder if I’ll ever get to find out.

Colorado driver’s license says my name is Jason Ogilvie. It’s got a birth date too, but that doesn’t do me much good when I don’t know what year it is. I do know that this guy was born after the last time I woke up. Which tells me nothing, really, but I always check.

You might think I could see my face in the driver’s license picture. Doesn’t work that way. I don’t see my mission, because the surface isn’t reflective, but all I do see where the face should be is what I call the “Traveler haze.” Like a cloud of green gas around the head of the host.

There’s cash in the wallet too, and two types of credit cards. Seems Mr. Ogilvie does pretty well for himself. He also carries a gym card and a couple of others with store names on them, but they don’t look like credit cards. Nothing that tells me who Mr. Ogilvie is. What he does. What his hobbies are.

Well, Mr. Ogilvie, I’ll try to get your body back to you in one piece. If it works that way. I don’t know what happens to the people who host me, after I leave.

“Come back to bed, Jason.” The blonde’s voice is smooth, sultry. “It’s too early for breakfast.”

“Be there in a second.” I pull on the sneakers and turn toward the front door. “I just want to pick up a paper.”

“Come on, Baby.” The words sound taunting more that teasing. They’re followed by a distinctive click. The hammer pulled back on a pistol. “I insist.”

I close my eyes and curse whatever fates managed to arrange this arrival. I open my eyes before I turn around, but I might as well not have bothered. I already know what I’m going to see, and I’m not disappointed.

The blonde is sitting up in bed, holding a forty-four caliber revolver in a steady, two-handed grip. Physically she looks fetching, like the cover of some old detective pulp. I got to read dozens of those on one long assignment. She’s even got a sinful smile going.

But none of that is the problem. The problem is the green haze of a Traveler I can see surrounding her head. The same way, no doubt, she can see it around mine. I can make out the smile, but that’s about it.

“Should have checked the mirror,” says the blonde. “Now you’ll die without even knowing your mission. Talk about a black mark on your record.”

“You could let me check now.” You could let me get next to that window too. “Just because we’re on opposite sides doesn’t mean–”

“Yes it does.”

She pulls the trigger.

 

#

 

I dive for the door. Too slow. The roar slams my eardrums. Bullet hits my shoulder like a meteorite. Spins me around. I hit the door jaw first, slide to the floor.

She’s on her feet now. Setting for another shot.

Still holding my wallet. I throw it at her face. Scramble out the door into a disaster: crowd. People pour into the light wooden hall, not all of them dressed. Screaming. Shouting. Looking everywhere. Pointing at me.

I push through them. Good hand first. My shoulder on fire, each stiff-arm to clear my path gets me flares of pain.

I run down a wide sweep of stairs, carpeted now. More loud confusion. People with nametags trying to get control. Parents wrestling with children. Angry faces. Scared faces. Crying faces. But I’m the one with napalm in his shoulder.

Must be why I’m crying too.

Instinct screams at me to run and hide. Get out of the building and find a private place to deal with the wound and find out what the hell I’m doing here. But that’s the wrong play. Blondie will be waiting outside. She didn’t chase me, so she must have gone out the window. No crowd that way. No questions.

It’s what I would have done.

She’s got a gun and information. I don’t even have a wallet.

I let some bald, obese manager lead me into a quiet room with a couch. The room smells like burnt coffee. I sit, trying not to jostle my arm while he hovers, bouncing foot to foot like he’s going to spring into action anytime now. I have my doubts. He’s sweating like this is the most action he’s seen in a year, maybe longer. He’s talking, but he’s not saying anything worth hearing.

Looks like a break room, now that I can look around. Round Formica table with cheap plastic chairs, refrigerator in the corner, coffee pot, and … is that a microwave? I think so. They’ve gotten small since my last wake-up.

Sitting still calls my attention to the lesser of my wounds: my jaw. Must have banged it pretty good on that door, because I can feel it now despite the burning pain from my left shoulder. I probably wrenched poor Jason’s back when I fell, too, which means it’s going to stiffen up the longer I’m sitting.

I have to get out of here.

The manager keeps chattering away, so I sigh and tune in, trying to ignore my pulsing pains, the blood all over my hands and arm and sticking my white shirt to my side.

“…because if this is a drug thing I demand that you let me know right now.”

“Wait, what? Drugs?” Is this guy serious?

Apparently.

“I’ve already called nine-one-one, and they’re sending the police as well as an ambulance. But I’m warning you right now, if this is about drugs or gangs–”

“Drugs? Gangs?” I say. “What, because I’m black?”

That pokes a hole in him. He tries straightening his atrocious tie, and that seems to give him back some of his courage, even if he looks sweatier and clammier than I am.

“I’m just saying that guests at Pinewood do not shoot one another. And that if you’re involved in something illegal–”

“DO YOU HAVE ANY ASPIRIN?”

Fat boy seems to remember I’m hurt and his bravado crumbles. “I’m so sorry. Of course. You’re the victim here. Just let me…”

He scurries out of the room and I lock the door behind him, my back complaining now with each step. Idiot probably thought of his private stash of aspirin in his desk drawer or something, and forgot that hotel will likely have some in a central location. Like, say, the break room. Not that I need the aspirin anyway. What I need is a few minutes to myself.

I lean back on the couch. My back and jaw are easy enough to ignore right now, so I focus on the pain in my shoulder. Really get to know its character: hot, yes, but with an icy interior, pulsing, ever pulsing with each beat of my speeding heart.

But I can slow my heartbeat down. Oh, yes. Slow it from a race with just a little more focus and intention, just a chance for my breaths to get deeper. Almost like every breath is pulling in from somewhere way deep in my torso, and slithering back out past the pain, isolating the pain, sectioning it off behind a wall where it can’t touch me.

My jaw unclenches. I hadn’t even realized I’d tightened it. That pain is gone too, but that doesn’t matter right now. Someone’s knocking on the door, but I don’t care. I just need to relax further, feel my arm and leg muscles grow slack, my neck and shoulder muscles grow limp, every inch of muscle in my body slowing down and easing to a nice relaxed state.

Pounding on the door now. Pounding like my heart was doing less than a minute ago. But not my heart. Mr. Jason Ogilvie’s heart. Sorry, Jason. I can’t do anything about that shoulder. Or your back. Or your jaw.

I feel worst about your shoulder. But help is on the way, and the bullet mostly grazed the muscle. It’ll hurt like hell for a while, and it will scar, but it won’t do any long term damage to you… You’ll … be just fine … at the gym … and I’ll find another … host….

I hear a key in the lock. I open my eyes.

I’m still in the break room. The manager throws the door open, framed in the doorway like some cartoon. Behind him I can see more people in nametags. Two guys in badges, too, and tan uniforms.

And I’m still stuck in the body of Mr. Jason Ogilvie.

 

#

 

Great. I still don’t know what’s going on and the cops are here. And me, covered in blood, lying on a couch in a room with the only exit blocked by anxious hotel workers. My deep state of mind is blown, but at least my shoulder’s stopped hurting.

Wait. My shoulder doesn’t hurt? That pain should have come roaring back by now. And my jaw. And my back…

“Why was that door locked?” barks the manager. Seems that having cops at his back makes him feel all tough and official.

“Because I hoped for a couple of minutes without more racist assumptions.” I let the words slur a little, like my wound is getting to me. The cops, both trim, clean-shaven types, push past Fat Boy, giving him accusatory glares as they pass.

“We’ll take it from here,” says the first cop, one hand encouraging the manager to leave and the other ready to close the door behind him. “Send in the paramedics as soon as they arrive.”

“I’m Officer Gutierrez,” says the other one to me. “My partner is Officer Jones.” He looks me over with sympathetic eyes while his partner brings me aspirin and a glass of water.

I don’t need the aspirin anymore, which worries me, but I have to play it off. Toss the bitter pills in my mouth. Shaky hand on the glass. That kind of thing. They give me room to swallow, Jones talking softly into his radio while Gutierrez writes in a notepad, looking around like the break room details matter to him.

Under the pretext of grabbing my shoulder, I let my finger prod the skin. Clean. Perfect. Not the skin of a man reporting his gunshot wound to the police.

Never had a wound heal before. But then I’ve never failed to dump a host before either. Did those bastards upgrade the tech and not tell me?

Word to the wise: never take a job involving time travel. No matter how much you need the money.

“So,” said Officer Gutierrez, apparently having given me all the space I’m going to get, “the paramedics are two minutes from here, but your shooter is still out there. Who shot you? Why? The more you tell us right now, the more we can help you.”

I so want to turn in the blonde. But I now have less than two minutes before medical professionals start asking why there’s a bullet hole in my bloody shirt, but no wound in my shoulder.

I clutch one hand to my mouth and burp out the word, “Bathroom!” I lurch to my feet and stumble for the door.

“Use the sink,” tries Gutierrez, but Jones has already opened the door for me. The manager and two of his cronies are waiting like they’ve got a turn for interrogation coming.

“Bathroom!” I burp again, and they part before me as I push past them. Damn near lose my footing, but it makes my stumbling walk more convincing. I hear footsteps behind me. Probably Officer Gutierrez, angry that I’ve left his controlled environment.

The bathroom is the small, stall-less kind. Locking door (thank God!), soapy air freshener, a toilet and a urinal. Floor sparkles like it’s never been soiled. One small window high above the toilet. I fake-cough a few times, painfully aware that I have no ready quantity of liquid to toss into the toilet for verisimilitude.

I don’t care anyway. The mirror above the sink is all that matters.

I look in the mirror and see the reflection of the bathroom around me. And in the center, I see a blacked out humanoid shape, with white text scrolling slowly up from the bottom: “You will go to the hotel restaurant in six hours, twenty-two minutes, thirty eight seconds.” That time continues to count down as I read. “You will hear a girl child start crying. When she does you are to say to her, GOTTA LEARN TO SOLVE YOUR OWN PROBLEMS, KID. You will memorize that exact phrase and repeat it without deviation. You will retain your current host until you do. – the Management.”

Seriously? That’s why I’m here? Some sage wisdom at a “random” moment that will play a key role in some important person’s development?

I’m not kidding. If anyone ever offers you a job that involves time travel, just say no. Not even once.

Anyway, the blonde may not have killed me with that gunshot, but she screwed me. There’s no way I can just walk into the restaurant tonight and speak my piece like Johnny Normal. Not with cops breathing down my neck and the whole hotel terrified at the sight of me.

I look at the mirror again, hoping for an update. The only thing different is the time, which keeps up its steady countdown.

A polite fist knocks five times on the door. Officer Gutierrez’s voice follows.

“Mr. Ogilvie? If you’re finished, we still need answers to those questions, and the paramedics are here to tend to your shoulder.” Trying to sound supportive. Like a friend. But I can hear the note of suspicion in his voice.

I’m not acting like a gunshot victim. And he knows it.

I look up at that small window above the toilet. Good thing you’re a skinny boy, Jason Ogilvie.

 

#

 

By the time that polite fist gets more urgent on the door I’m halfway out the window and psyching myself up for the six-foot drop. I land pretty good for a fugitive. Which is what I am now.

Never thought I’d wish I had a gunshot wound back. Freaking management probably think they’re doing me a favor.

Anyway, I’m on a dirt trail now, just outside the faux-log-cabin exterior. Apparently the whole hotel follows that motif, as though they used to make log cabins three stories tall. Lots of bushes and evergreens, so I head straight into them, praying I don’t catch myself on some kind of stinging nettle or poison oak or something equally offensive.

But I’m not a woodsman. My steps are heavy with the need to put distance between myself and a bunch of questions I can’t answer and a cell I don’t have time for. I break twigs and leaves with abandon, surprise a raccoon, and try to tell myself that the dozens of birdsongs all around me down out my ruckus.

But I know that’s a lie.

So I rush, and hope that by the time they can begin to follow I’ll have slowed down and doubled-back a few times, anything I can think of to throw them off the trail.

Somewhere out here is the blonde. And though the cops are after her too, in theory, I know she’s already holed up somewhere. Probably threw her off by going out the side the way I did. She was probably watching the front, and by the time she realizes I went a different way, she’ll have to contend with the cops. So I did myself that much good at least.

Except that she doesn’t need to hunt me.

That thought stops me, makes me lean against a redwood tree and take a break while I get my breath back. The air is clean. Crisp. I’d probably find it refreshing under other circumstances. But right now the air is only good for the oxygen it gives me.

No sounds of pursuit yet. That’s good. But that doesn’t help my mission. The blonde may not know what I’m supposed to do in that restaurant tonight, but I’d bet my bloody tee-shirt she knows where and when it will go down. All she has to do is hide herself away and wait for me.

She won’t even have to shoot me. All she’ll have to do is point and scream. The crowd will do the rest.

I have to take her out.

God, I hate this job.

I can’t say there’s anything I particularly enjoy about time travel. I mean, the novelty of the new eras and sights pales pretty quickly with the realization that you’re never comfortable with the technology. It’s never more advanced than I know how to use, but adapting to the local limitations takes time and can make you look like the one dunce who never learned how to use something everyone else takes for granted. Plus, you have to keep your mouth shut about tech, or you’ll end up asking about something they don’t have yet. God only knows what that would do.

But there’s nothing I hate more than killing for this job. The management decides what I’m doing with each wake-up, and they make it clear that my task is the most important thing in the world. It’s worth dying for. It’s worth killing for. They may even be right. For all I know, that little girl is going to grow up to be some world-changing scientist or politician. Whatever she becomes must be a big deal. I mean, someone sent another Traveler back to stop me, and that one went straight to lethal force.

But it’s not the Traveler that bugs me so much as the host. I can’t kill the Traveler without killing the host.

And that’s not right, damn it.

It’s not right that Jason Ogilvie has to either die or go up on a murder charge for the sake of my sacred fucking mission. It’s not right that the same is true for his girlfriend. These are human beings, with friends. Family. Lives. Futures of their own.

But not anymore. Those lives and futures just got bartered away for someone else’s. Someone the management considers more important. And those lives are shot all because that blonde pulled a trigger.

No.

All because they were unlucky enough to be hosts.

But letting my mind linger on this isn’t going to help me any. If I don’t complete my mission, then two lives have been ruined for nothing. And that’s not acceptable.

Time for the hunted to become the hunter.

 

#

 

But first, I wait.

The sun is high, but not yet at its apex, so it’s late morning. Not more than an hour has passed since I read my assignment, so I’ve got about five hours and some change before the big moment. At least Jason Ogilvie must be used to colder temperatures, because the slight nip in the air isn’t bothering me.

If cops call in a manhunt they’ll catch me. No doubt they’ve got some hunters and I’ve left a trail a mile wide. I’m sure of it, but I admit I can’t tell. I look back now and don’t see any signs of my passing. I’ve been trying to stay quiet and careful after that initial burst of distance. Looks like I’ve done a pretty good job. No snapped twigs or bent bushes that I can see. No obvious footprints, or line of crushed leaves. Nothing that would tell me that someone came this way

But I’m not the one I have to fool.

All right. What do I know? Jason’s girlfriend is playing host to a Traveler, with orders to stop me. Did the girlfriend already have a gun? Or has her Traveler been here long enough to acquire it?

Wait. Back in the chest of drawers I saw three more pairs of underwear next to three more pairs of socks (well, two each now that I was dressed), and the bottom drawer had two pairs of underwear that had been flung in, not stacked, along with two pairs of loose socks: dirty clothes. This was day three of a five day trip. Maybe four days, with a spare set of clothes in case of … oh, let’s just say blood stains.

Could I have gotten hold of a handgun in two days? Maybe. In the right place. In the right time. But that looked like a big gun in the blonde’s hands. Not the sort of gun that would go with the clothes I saw in her side of the dresser, much less the clutch purse hanging in the armoire.

So either the gun is Jason’s or the Traveler picked it up. I check Jason’s hands over: some callousing on the palm near the index finger. Just the place that forty-four might rub when fired. Probably Jason’s gun then. I pull the bloody tee-shirt free from my host’s chest and try to spot any tattoos. None.

Not in a gang then, probably. And the wallet had no police I.D., so either Jason is a Fed or a gun enthusiast or both. Doesn’t really matter, except that his shooting reflexes are likely to be good if I get his hands on a gun.

But I don’t have one right now. And the Blonde does.

Police and paramedics got here fast. That means that despite the rustic look of the hotel, we can’t be far from civilization. Still, all I’ve seen during my escape has been forest and mountain, so likely there’s only one reliable way up and down to civilization. And the police know I’m out here in my sneakers, with no jacket and no wallet, and a gunshot wound in my shoulder.

They don’t need to hunt me. They know I can’t get far. So no manhunt then.

Well, maybe a hunt for Blondie, since Officers Gutierrez and Jones know I’m not carrying a pistol and everyone and their brother had to have heard the gunshot. Whether they see me as an innocent who panicked and ran or a guy who’s guilty of something else, they know I’m not the shooter. Only one other occupant in the room, and if she went out the window the way I think she did, she left a trail. At least at first.

So. The police are probably looking for Blondie – and halfheartedly looking for me – and Blondie knows she has a good five hours before I make my move.

She’s likely to be worried about the locals. Not about me.

Good.

 

#

 

Just circling the hotel takes me a couple of hours. I first tried to start from where I was, but I’d doubled-back and drifted off of point enough times that I was pretty well lost, even though I didn’t know it.

Did I mention that I’m not a woodsman?

So I had to waste some time finding my way back toward the hotel first, but it was big enough and central enough that I didn’t have to get into sight of it to know where I was. Then I was able to sidle my way around from the back, where I started, to the far side from my ignominious exit.

Right now I’m tucked in the low branches of an oak tree, irritating more than a few squirrels if their barking is any indication. Moved a few birds too. But from here I can see the kitchen door. I’ve already seen some guy in white clothes and an apron carry out three loads of rubbish for the Dumpster a few feet from the swinging door.

Two young cops walked past a few minutes ago. If they gave the area more than a cursory check, I couldn’t tell.

A couple of old compact cars are parked on worn grass in the sixty feet or so of open space between the hotel and the start of the woods. I’m about twenty feet further into those woods and grateful for the seat.

I can smell grilled cheese, and my stomach reminds me frequently that Jason Ogilvie has not eaten anytime recently. Well, I’m sorry about that, Jason. Today you’re fasting.

I would love a glass of water though.

No time to think about…

Wait. I’m calm, or at least as calm as I’m going to get right now. I’m alone. Maybe I can’t jump hosts on this assignment, but maybe I can do more than heal my aches and pains.

I ease back against the rough trunk of the oak and begin. The slower heartbeat. The deeper breathing. All the little tricks that slide my mind to the point of disconnection from the body of Jason Ogilvie, even though I can’t push past that point. I can feel the tether now, like a piece of psychic elastic tying me to the body.

Last time I pushed at the tether, felt a snap and assumed I was snapping back into a new host. So I push at it again. Snap. And again. Snap. And again!

SNAP!

My eyes blink open.

I’m still in the body of Jason Ogilvie, still on the branch of the oak tree, and still waiting for the blonde to take up her position in the kind of place I would choose for an ambush. In fact, I don’t think anything’s changed. Even my tee shirt is still bloody and, let’s be honest, smelly.

Wait. I’m not hungry anymore. Or thirsty. Or even tired. Not that has possibilities. If only the gig were in the morning instead of this afternoon, I might be able to use that little trick to give me an edge on Blondie, say around two in the morning.

Oh, well. At least I’ll be fresh when we face off.

I’m in the right place. I’m sure of it. Good view of the hotel and the outside door closest to the restaurant. I can even see into the parking lot if I crane my head just right, but I don’t need to do that. I’m right above the cleanest vantage point for an armed person expecting to see someone try to sneak in the back door.

Based on the sun’s position, I’d say I have about three hours before this is all due to go down. Blondie will probably get here in two.

All I have to do now is wait.

 

#

 

Couldn’t be more than thirty minutes later when Blondie strolls up from the parking lot. Traveler haze around her head and a casual, barefoot saunter like she doesn’t have a care in the world. Pistol in one hand, can of gasoline in the other. The kind you might see attached to the back of a Jeep.

How did she get past the police carrying a pistol? What is she doing with that…

No.

Oh, no.

I scramble down the oak as fast as I can, jumping the last six feet or so. Rough landing this time. Twist my ankle. Cry out before I can stop myself.

She sees me.

I freeze, hands and one knee on the ground. I want to dive behind the oak but my arms won’t cooperate.

Blondie raises her gun hand…

…and waves?

No fast draw. No hail of bullets. She just raises her gun hand and gives me this little twisty wave like she’s the Queen of England or something. If the Queen of England waved with a forty-four. She turns and heads for the kitchen door.

In motion now I scrabble forward. Push up with my hands until my feet manage to hold me. My left ankle bitches as I rush at a limping lurch.

Blondie raises the gun. Hesitates. Must know that if she misses she calls the cops down on top of her.

The back door opens. Young white trash guy in white. Turns whiter than his clothes when he sees the gun. Screams.

I’m past the trees now, closing at a mad hobble.

Blondie pistol-whips White Trash. He falls back against the door frame, face bloody. Twisting away from her raised forty-four.

Burly guy in the doorway now. Stained kitchen whites. Mustaches down past his chin, gray as his hair.

Blondie’s shin finds his Special Place, turns his face red and sinks him like a lead weight.

I’m halfway across the open area now. Cops running in from the parking lot. Some idiot rookie with his gun drawn. Couple of vets behind him – Gutierrez one of them – yelling for everyone to hit the ground.

I dive. Eat grass and oily dirt.

Blondie opens fire.

I cover my head. Shots. So many gunshots. Each one a sledgehammer on my eardrums.

Screams.

Chaos.

I hate time travel.

 

#

 

It’s later now. I’m still in handcuffs, though even Gutierrez admits he can’t prove I’ve done anything wrong. Threatens to keep poor Jason Ogilvie overnight anyway. On suspicion. Or something. That part isn’t really clear to me. But apparently he has that power.

So I sit here in the back of an open ambulance with Officer Jones babysitting me. Every so often he asks why I ran. Oh, he phrases it differently each time, like telling me they would have protected me, or how they would have caught Sara – the name of Blondie’s poor host, who will be spending more than a single night in jail at the very least, after she comes out of intensive care – before any of this badness went down yadda yadda.

I just shrug each time. I’ve got nothing to say that he’ll understand anyway.

I don’t even know why I’m sitting in the back of the ambulance. They probably hope I’ll talk if they don’t throw me in the back of a squad car. The paramedics couldn’t find anything wrong, after they wrapped my ankle. They asked a few times about the bullet hole and the blood.

I just shrug at them too. Truth is I haven’t said a word. Let them blame that on shock.

At least half the guests are out here, milling about the parking lot. I think the police are checking the hotel for other possible “explosive devices.”

I’m just about to hold up my handcuffs again, trying to ask without words if Jones will take them off, when Gutierrez comes jogging up, one hand holding his tan hat and the other securing his firearm.

“Why the kitchen?” he says as soon as he comes to a stop.

I look up at him. My face is blank, as far as I can tell.

“Still not talking, huh? You know this isn’t helping you look innocent in all this.”

I blink.

“Fine. I want you to come take a look at something. Then you see if you find your tongue.” He hauls me up by my shoulder. I notice his baton/gun hand is free, just in case. “See if you still want to protect your girlfriend.”

I just shake my head, slow and sad, like I’m trying to say he’s got it all wrong. Which he does. Not that I can explain. I let him drag me past the gawkers, Jones on our tail. Gutierrez pushes us past the front door and into the lobby. More gawkers sweating the action, but some people just going about their day.

Maybe they aren’t checking for more explosives. Maybe people are just watching for the same reason they rubberneck at accidents.

Anyway, the manager and his two remoras fall into step, babbling something about the damage to the kitchen and who is going to pay for it. Gutierrez doesn’t answer. Jones follows his lead.

Me, I’ve started watching the crowd while they drag me past the staircase.

And into the restaurant.

There she is. A little girl crying at a table over by the kitchen door. Mother crouched down trying to hush her. Father sitting at the table, adjusting his napkin as though the whole scene is beneath him.

Gutierrez drags me closer, aiming for the kitchen door. Five steps away now.

My heartbeat kicks into overdrive. My breaths pant. Gutierrez raises an eyebrow, like he’s discovered something. Like he thinks I know what’s in the kitchen. Three steps.

“You know, don’t you, you bastard,” says Gutierrez. Two steps. “You’re responsible.”

“Hey!” I yell to get the family’s attention.

Gutierrez yanks me, trying to speed me past them, but I dig in my heels. My ankle screams in protest.

Then the girl looks at me.

“Gotta learn to solve your own problems, kid.”

SNAP goes the tether, yanking me out of the body of Jason Ogilvie. I never have a chance to see the girl react. To know if she understands my words, let alone my message.

I never have a chance to get poor Jason Ogilvie and his girlfriend out of their tight spot.

But right now I’m nowhere. Outside of space. Outside of time. This whole gig was only supposed to last an hour, my time. I’ve already done at least three years of work, relative time.

I hope my hour is up soon. I can’t stomach this job much longer.

I’m telling you. Never take a job in time travel.

<<<<>>>>

And if you missed the last few, you can get them here…

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