The Lorelei Signal
Written by John T, Biggs / Artwork by Lee Ann Barlow
A public place might stop most people from making a scene, but Margaret Dougherty wasn’t most people.
“I saw what I saw.” She ran the fingers through her red Irish hair and stared a warning across the restaurant at the girl she’d seen Johnny Crawford kissing only a moment ago. It was a good thing for all concerned that looks couldn’t actually kill.
Margaret found a crumb of stale bread left on the table by the last diners and popped it into her mouth. That made Johnny grimace. The new girlfriend too or was she his old girlfriend come back for another try. Either way, she was a nervous little thing. Margaret found another crumb, carried it to her lips on the tip of her finger and smiled. She’d broken that habit years ago, long before she learned it had a name. But today she felt the urge again to put things into her mouth that didn’t belong and chew away her frustrations just like she did when she was a little girl. Pica disorder sounded more sophisticated than it looked.
“Just talking,” Johnny said. “That’s all. And the kiss didn’t mean anything.”
He gave Margaret a full minute to agree. She watched his lips move as he counted the seconds.
Five minutes in the lady’s room is all it had taken for Margaret to lose her boyfriend. Five minutes, and when she came out, he was already in the process of giving her a meaningless kiss.
Part of a plan? Probably. He’d chosen AMELINE’S DINER after all. Margaret scanned the table for another tidbit. This one was a bit of colored paper, but she popped it into her mouth. “Let’s see, should I believe you or my own eyes.”
“Accidental meeting,” Johnny Crawford raised his right hand as if he were swearing an oath. “She said hello. What could I do?”
His tone was so reasonable Margaret wanted to murder him.
“The kiss was Erin’s idea.”
The girl had a name. That humanized her a little bit. Margaret wasn’t ready to do that, even though she completely understood Erin wasn’t the one who betrayed her. The girl had made Margaret Dougherty no promises. Come to think of it, neither had Johnny Crawford. The whole exclusive thing had been mostly an understanding.
Margaret found another crumb. The cleanliness standard of AMELINE’S DINER was definitely substandard—too much temptation for a recovering pica disorder victim on the fast track to a relapse. Nothing left to do but to storm out of the establishment. It would have been easier if Erin hadn’t strategically positioned herself in front of the only door—looking innocent, as if she had no idea Johnny Crawford belonged to Margaret Dougherty.
And maybe he didn’t. So, Margaret turned and walked the opposite direction, away from the girl and coincidently the public exit. By the time she figured out she’d already gone too far. Toward the bathrooms, where everything started, and turning around would look way too indecisive. She took a sharp turn toward the kitchen and dodged past another sign that said, EMPLOYEES ONLY, past authorized personnel who made a point of ignoring her as she pushed through the door. Margaret walked past sous chefs tending cast iron pans full of hot grease and pots of boiling water. She held her back straight, measured her steps, pushed her chest out, dared anyone to interfere as she headed for the exit.
“Missus.” A woman’s voice, authoritative, but made charming by the hint of an exotic accent.
“Wrong way, Missus. Lots of trouble outside that door.”
That was Margaret Dougherty alright, Wrong Way Missus, and Lots of trouble was a destination she knew well. Red letters on the door said, EMERGENCY EXIT, but she pushed it anyway, didn’t stop when an alarm bell rang. She let the door slam shut behind her as she stepped into the alley. No handle on outside side, no doorknob, no doorbell, no way back in.
“Big mistake.” A large man with ragged blond hair wearing a witch’s mask stood in the center of the boxed in alley between Margaret and the way out. He held a Louisville Slugger wooden baseball bat over one shoulder. He checked to make sure the logo was turned up and took a practice swing.
“My day for blocked escaped routes.” She smiled as if the masked man were in on an elaborate practical joke. “Didn’t mean to interrupt you.” She reached her hand into her purse hoping she’d find something that would give her some hope of getting away with her life.
“Lipstick, compact, house keys.” She named everything she touched and kept smiling while the masked man took a couple more practice swings.
“Nice bat,” she said. “Nice mask.” Trying her best to say something that would interest a masked man with a baseball bat in something besides murder.
“Big mistake.” The masked man had a voice like a talking bear. He took another practice swing, slow and steady as if he did this sort of thing all the time.
Margaret saw movement behind him, a young girl—twelve, maybe thirteen—wedged between a dumpster and a trash can. She held a nervous mid-sized Pitbull on a leash.
“Help me lady.” Her voice full of tears and adrenalin.
The dog took an ineffective practice lunge at the masked man and received a smack with the Louisville Slugger for his trouble.
Margaret pounded her fists against the door and cried for help. Surely someone would hear her.
Someone. Anyone. Even if it wasn’t Johnny Crawford. She was surprised to find that even under these circumstances her feelings could be hurt that he didn’t follow her to make sure she was all right. And she was definitely not all right.
“Get him Picasso!” The tween-girl had finally figured out her dog was a weapon. The animal with the artist’s name had his fierce growl down cold, but his lunges were half-hearted and the masked man hit him again.
“Leave that dog alone!” Margaret shouted. Probably running for the street would have been the smarter choice but she couldn’t watch the masked man hit the dog without speaking up.
“Big Mistake!” He turned toward her, took the time to run his fingers through the ragged blond haircut that didn’t match his witch’s mask at all.
Margaret searched through her purse some more. “Breath mints, chapstick, cell phone, ah yes.” She swept the phone out of her handbag and brushed her thumb across the fingerprint recognition sensor. Just as her home screen made its appearance the masked man swung his bat for real.
Numbness was something she hadn’t expected. A pins and needles sensation shot from her right hand to her elbow as her phone went flying.
The tween-girl ran past him, out of the alley but the dog stayed behind. “Picasso! Come on fellow.” She stood outside the alley coaxing her dog while the masked man swung for Margaret’s head.
She ducked, not quite far enough. The bat glanced off, hard enough to make her ears ring. She stepped toward the killer, which definitely felt like the wrong thing to do, and swung a right-handed roundhouse at the masked man’s face. The muscles in her hand were temporarily out of service. She couldn’t make a fist but her jumbled fingers poked through the eyeholes of his mask.
“Big Mistake!” He stepped backwards, swinging as he moved.
Margaret heard rather than felt the next collision with her head. She watched the world change colors like an old disco movie special effect.
The masked man towered over her. She didn’t remember falling, but that was the only explanation. He drew the bat back with both hands and would have killed her with the next swing if the dog hadn’t attacked.
“Picasso, no!” the tween-girl tried to call him off. What was she thinking?
The dog lunged at the masked man’s groin and ripped his pants. The bat clattered to the ground.
Margaret tried to cheer the animal on but all that came out of her mouth were blood, tooth fragments and an unintelligible jumble of something that sounded vaguely Slavic.
Police sirens echoed through the street. The masked man sprinted toward the tween-girl, stiff-armed her and loped across the sidewalk with the dog snapping at him.
The kitchen door opened. Margaret looked for Johnny Crawford but it wasn’t him. A tall, regal looking African American woman with an elaborate set of dreadlocks stepped into the alley. “This isn’t the first time you’ve gone the wrong way, is it Missus.” The accent might have been Caribbean, maybe French, perhaps a little bit of both. She lifted a necklace over her head and dangled it in front of Margaret. A thumb size crystal as clear as ice hung from the end of a slim gold chain.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” The woman slid the loop of gold chain over Margaret’s head. It felt like she’d been wearing it her whole life. “Maybe it will help you go the right way next time.”
Who are you? Margaret wanted to ask, but every part of her that would have made that possible was broken.
“My name’s Ameline, Missus. Like the restaurant.”
“Ameline,” Margaret repeated the name, perhaps the only word she could say with perfect clarity.
~ * ~
Johnny Crawford did not sign on for a brain-damaged girl who was legally blind and walked with a cane. Margaret understood that. She’d been waiting for him to break the news since her rehab began six months ago. It looked like this would be the day.
“Here we are sweetheart. This is AMELINE’S DINER.” The Uber driver held an iPad over the back seat and showed her where to finger-scrawl her signature.
“Twenty percent tip okay dear?” He’d alternated between sweetheart and dear all the way from the rehab center. Everyone felt entitled to call her that now that she was disabled.
Margaret said something as close to, “Fine,” as someone with missing teeth and a devastating loss of motor control could manage. She fumbled the door open and scrabbled onto the sidewalk but lost her balance quickly and leaned against the car. Her coordination would improve as the day progressed, but there was no use rushing things.
Johnny picked the restaurant as a meeting place. “Closure,” he called it. Margaret figured that was a buzz word he’d picked up from his new girlfriend. Erin was sensitive, according to him, and smart, two things Margaret wasn’t anymore.
There wasn’t likely to be anything like closure for Margaret after what the Louisville Slugger man had done to her. He hadn’t killed her, but he’d killed off the best parts of her and Johnny clearly didn’t want what was left.
A tall, dark blur emerged from the fog that was the front door. Female. Margaret could tell from the way she moved. Powerfully female, confidently female, maybe even arrogantly female, the way Margaret Dougherty liked to think she was before.
“Missus, you’re wearing the necklace. That’s good.”
The perfect posture, the regal face, and a jumble of dreadlocks that were a work of art pulled themselves together in Margaret’s mind—familiar in a way that didn’t quite make sense.
“I’m Ameline. You remember, don’t you?” The woman became the only focused part Margaret Dougherty’s world.
“Got something more for you, Missus.”
Margaret felt a circle of leather slide over her hand—a leash. Movement at the end of it almost pulled her over. A mid-sized Pitbull pushed his muzzle against her legs.
“This one belongs with you, Missus.”
“Picasso.” Margaret remembered the dog’s name. Her only ally in a battle she couldn’t win. The only one who came to help her when she had no chance. She kneeled on the sidewalk and embraced the dog even though she wasn’t sure she’d be able to get up again. “Did you get him, boy?” It didn’t matter to Picasso that her speech was twisted by brain damage. He wagged his tail and licked her face.
“Did you get the bad guy?” She knew he hadn’t. The man with the witch’s mask had gotten away, a little the worse for wear, but free to kill again. And he had, twice more during Margaret’s six months of rehab. “Next time, boy. We’ll get him next time.”
A shadow fell across her as she stroked the dog.
“I don’t think you can bring that animal in the restaurant.” Johnny Crawford extended a helping hand. He pulled her up like she was an inconvenient weight he wouldn’t have to carry much longer.
“Missus has a service dog now.” Ameline took her arm and pushed Johnny away.
“Service dog.” Margaret repeated the words fairly clearly. She and Ameline, and Picasso, her service dog, walked into the restaurant ahead of Johnny Crawford. She thought she saw Erin skulk out of her path but the restaurant crowd was a mass of mobile blurs.
Picasso was clear enough, getting clearer all the time, and Ameline looked like a Rastafarian queen completely in focus. Margaret’s traumatized brain was putting her world together again, just like her case worker promised.
Someone pulled a chair out for her, Johnny Crawford she supposed. She sat down as gently as she could and listened to Picasso’s tail thump on the floor beside her. She didn’t feel like popping crumbs into her mouth this time. Couldn’t find them on the table if she wanted to. Couldn’t pick them up with her fingers. Had no teeth to chew them and her swallowing muscles weren’t completely back on duty.
“You’ll always be special.” Johnny’s storytelling voice. He should have begun by saying, “once upon a time.”
“What we had together…” His blurry girlfriend moved closer, feeling safe in the mists that took the place of everything Margaret used to see. The girl’s hands made encouraging signals, like an emotional cheerleader urging Johnny Crawford to break things off.
“What we had together…” He stalled again, still running up against the unpleasant fact of abandoning his used-up girlfriend after no one else would ever want her. “Well, it was really…”
Margaret said, “It wasn’t all that great,” but it came out gibberish. “You can leave now,” she said louder and clearer but he still didn’t seem to get it, so she held her left hand out—the one that hadn’t been smashed with a Louisville Slugger. She made a fist and concentrated. She watched the blurry image of her middle finger flip up in his face.
“Really?” he said. “After everything.”
She didn’t have to read his lips, to know they were counting off the hours he’d spent with her in the hospital, in the rehab center waiting for the perfect moment to tell her it was over. She watched Johnny back away from her and take Erin’s hand.
Picasso pulled against his lead ready to take Margaret Dougherty’s part against the world even though there was nothing desirable about her any longer. He growled his best Pitbull threat as she turned her body so her upraised middle finger was clearly directed at the retreating couple.
“Well done Missus.”
Margaret didn’t know if Ameline had returned or if she had been standing beside her the whole time, but there she was, a bubble of clarity in a world that had lost its definition. The middle finger resisted her effort to lower it long after its purpose had expired.
Ameline massaged her shoulders until the cramped muscles relaxed. She kissed Margaret on the forehead and wrapped her fingers around the crystal pendant on the neckless she’d given her right after everything in the world went wrong.
“I’ll take you where you can tie your loose ends in a neat package if you want to, Missus?”
That didn’t make much sense, but at least it sounded encouraging. Margaret thought it over a few seconds before she answered. “Sure. What have I got to lose?” The clearest words she’d spoken in six months.
~ * ~
Margaret Dougherty wasn’t much of a mountain climber even before her injuries. Fortunately for her Jack Fork Mountain wasn’t much more than an ambitious hill. She alternated leaning on her cane and on Ameline and tried not to whine as they followed Picasso along a trail that almost didn’t exist.
“The destination’s worth the struggle, Missus,” Ameline promised, although she wasn’t very clear about where they were going or why. “A place where time gets slippery. a place where…” She shrugged instead of finishing and laughed at Picasso who’d met a raccoon he couldn’t bluff.
Margaret sat down on a deadfall to catch her breath while Ameline waxed philosophical and Picasso scouted. Truth was, she had no better place to be than a handicapped unfriendly path leading to a mystery in Jack Fork Mountain.
“You’ll leave your miseries behind when we get there, Missus.”
“And where might that be.” Margaret lilted her voice with a fake Irish accent she learned from her grandfather when she was a little girl. God knew why but it clarified her speech.
“Right there, Missus.” She pointed. “Picasso is showing you the way.”
The place where time gets slippery was a hole in a rock wall, mostly concealed by deadwood and a dense leafy vine Margaret hoped was Virginia Creeper and not poison ivy. “A cave?” Even the most theatrical Irish dialect couldn’t hide her disappointment.
“We’re prepared, Missus.” Ameline produced two LED flashlights from pockets that didn’t look capable of holding them. She handed one to Margaret and followed Picasso into the inhospitable looking hole. Judging from the echoes of the Pitbull’s barking it was much bigger inside than it looked from the entrance.
Margaret turned sideways and eased herself along the tunnel. Claustrophobia settled in as the passageway shrank but eventually it opened into a string of large caverns dripping with stalactites. Picasso ran ahead of the light dodging around formations, barking encouragement at his human companions.
“All the time in the world, Missus” Ameline called out. “No need to rush.” Tunnels branched to the left and right. The dog made his choices. There was nothing to do but follow.
“How will we find our way out?” Margaret leaned against a stalagmite shaped like a giant stalk of asparagus.
“Whatever I tell you, Missus, it will be a half-truth at best.” She played her light beam over cave formations. Even with her distorted vision Margaret could see they had unsettlingly human shapes.
“Think of them as counterweights, Missus. Something to keep things balanced.” She held her hands out as if she were comparing masses. “And these…” She brushed her light across the cave floor so the beam lit up crystals scattered over it. So many it looked like there had been a hail storm. Ameline plucked one from the damp stone floor and placed it in Margaret’s hand. “Like the one you wear around your neck, Missus. Squeeze it. Bend it.”
When she did, the interior of the crystal sparked.
“Piezoelectricity.” Margaret had studied the phenomenon long ago when her vision was clear and her brain processed complex ideas. Molecular bonds turned the energy of distortion into electric current. She put the crystal in her pocket.
“The gems help you find your way,” Ameline said. “But ideas pick your destination when you jump.”
“When you what?”
Ameline pointed her light beam down a crevice no more than a foot in front of them. Until that moment it had been impossible for Margaret to pick it out from the shadows and the darkness. The light disappeared into the chasm as if it were bottomless.
“This is the place, Missus. Time is slipperiest here.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
Picasso leaned his heavy Pitbull head over the void. He looked up at Margaret, his eyes green in the LED flashlight.
“No big guy.” She tried to step away but her legs wouldn’t follow orders.
The Pitbull looked into the void and whined the way TV dog-stars do when they want their people to follow.
“Bravery takes no more energy than cowardice, Missus, but it makes you feel so much stronger.”
Margaret forced her knees to bend enough to lower herself beside Picasso but she lost control of her arms. Her cane dropped into the chasm. Her flashlight tumbled out of her hand and flipped end over end, shrinking into a tiny flashing pinpoint of light before disappearing.
Picasso gave her a final look and a last whine before he dove into the pit. As he faded into the blackness crystals fell from the roof of the cavern and clattered on the cave floor. Margaret could feel them bouncing off her head and shoulders.
“He knows what to do, Missus.” Ameline said. “Remember where you want to go, and why.”
Margaret crawled to at the exact point where the dog jumped, still not sure what she meant to do. She dangled her feet over the edge of nothing and thought about the restaurant, the way it looked on the evening she encountered the Louisville Slugger killer, the evening she lost everything that made her life worthwhile and when it was perfectly clear in her mind she said, “What have I got to lose?” and pushed herself into the void.
Terror struck her like a flash of lighting, so powerful it swept everything else in the world aside but it only lasted for an instant, only long enough to close her eyes and open them again and then…
~ * ~
A public place might stop most people from making a scene, but Margaret Dougherty wasn’t most people.
“I saw what I saw.” She ran the fingers through her red Irish hair and stared a warning at the girl she’d seen Johnny Crawford kissing.
“Erin.” Margaret knew her name. How was that possible? She reached for a crumb of bread on the table but changed her mind because everything was so déjà vu it weirded her out.
“I haven’t got time for this right now.” Margaret was absolutely certain a man with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat was in the alley behind AMELINE’S DINER getting ready to murder a young girl and a Pitbull named Picasso. Call it a vision. Call it a premonition, or any of those things she’d never believed in. She stood up so fast her chair toppled to the floor. Johnny Crawford stood too. He backed away from her and looked at his new girlfriend.
“You’re scaring Erin.” He stepped in front of Margaret and spread his arms as if an unsolicited hug would put everything back on course, but if things got back on course something horrible would happen in the alley.
“There’s something I have to do.” Margaret was the voice of reason even if she made no sense.
Ameline stood in front of the kitchen door with her arms crossed. Margaret had gone that way before. Not again.
She dodged around Johnny Crawford, stepped on his foot—by accident mostly—gave him a shove—on purpose totally—and watched him fall into a table. Plates of food crashed to the floor, along with napkins, forks, and knives.
“Ah yes.” Margaret scooped a steak knife off the floor and made a couple of artistic passes, practicing for the battle to come.
The crystal pendant Ameline had given her bumped against her chest. She grasped it with her free hand—fingers working perfectly thank you very much. “Impossible.” She couldn’t have the crystal yet. That didn’t come until after she went into the alley. And she was going to be too late if she didn’t hurry.
Margaret speed-walked toward the front door of the restaurant with Erin in her path. Johnny’s new girlfriend stared at the steak knife and froze on the spot. She held her hands together as if pleading or praying, perhaps a little bit of both.
Someone shouted, “Call 911.”
Why hadn’t Margaret thought of that. She had her phone, didn’t she? The one the Louisville Slugger man hadn’t smashed yet. He wouldn’t smash it this time because things were changing. A quick shove and Erin landed on her bottom, which looked a bit larger than Margaret remembered.
Siren sounds filled the air, but they were too far away to stop the man in the witch’s mask from doing what he’d come to do. The alley seemed much further away than it had before, but Margaret moved quickly. She turned the corner in time to see the Louisville Slugger man smash his bat against the young girl’s head.
He ignored Margaret long enough to take his unconscious victim’s hand and remove a ring. He held it next to a crude gold necklace he wore around his neck. Souvenirs, something else she didn’t remember from the last time.
Picasso charged the murderer while Margaret watched. The dog tore at his leg until the killer’s bat scored a home run on the Pitbull’s head. A quick yip and Picasso fell onto his side.
“No!” Margaret hadn’t fixed things. Hadn’t made them better. But she still had the steak knife. She closed in on the murderer swinging the weapon overhand, point down as he brought the bat around and smashed her in the head. He swung a second time as she went down. She stayed conscious long enough to feel the weight of the bat strike her upper left arm, to hear the sound of the bone snapping, and to see the knife she’d plunged into the killer’s shoulder—long enough to watch him stand over her as the sirens grew louder, trying to decide if he had time to hit her one last time.
He’d have killed Margaret if he hadn’t seen a prize that appealed to him more than her death. He lifted the thin gold chain with the crystal pendant off her and put it on. He lifted his mask and kissed the crystal. “See you later, sweetheart.”
He pulled the knife out of his shoulder, tossed it aside, and walked away just as the police arrived. No one chased him.
~ * ~
Margaret Dougherty sat at her usual table at AMELINE’S DINER trying to figure out whether remembering things that hadn’t happened yet meant she was crazy. She stroked Picasso’s ears as the dog nuzzled his battered face against her legs. His tail thumped a spastic rhythm on the floor, two traumatic brain injury victims trying to sort through what was real and what was not.
She knew exactly when and where the killer would strike again. She’d studied all the details in newspapers while she recovered from a whole different set of injuries inflicted by the Louisville Slugger killer the first time around. Trouble was, the murder hadn’t happened yet and the newspaper wouldn’t come out until it did. For the third time in as many minutes she smoothed her XXL t-shirt over the pistol tucked in the waistband of her jeans.
“If he’s there it’s real, Picasso. Impossible or not.” She checked her phone and did some quick arithmetic. In forty-six minutes, she’d either put an end to the Louisville Slugger killer or confirm she’d lost her mind.
The lunch crowd was streaming in. Margaret ran her hand over the tabletop looking for something to feed her pica craving. Anything crunchy or shiny would sooth her nerves while she counted down the minutes.
“Big mistake!” She talked to herself a lot since the incident. Mostly she repeated what the killer said in both versions of her past. “See you later sweetheart!” Much too loud for the busy little restaurant.
Ameline interrupted her. “You’re scaring the customers, Missus.”
“Sorry.” Margaret’s dearest friend never chased her away, even during the busiest times. Her dearest friend? That was one more niggling problem. It felt like they’d known each other forever but…
“I forget sometimes.” Memory gaps were bad, but jumbles were worse. Did the teenager in the alley die or not? Margaret remembered it both ways. “Did I stab the Louisville Slugger man in the shoulder with a steak knife?”
A front page headline, above the fold said she did— HERO GIRL CONFRONTS SERIEL KILLER.
“I had a plan, didn’t I?” She ran her fingers over her pistol grip again and looked to her best friend.
Ameline answered with a smile.
“At least I’ve got my teeth this time. I can see as well as ever and walk with only the slightest wobble.” But things hadn’t gone so well for Picasso, or the girl who died at the killer’s hands.
“She lived the first time, didn’t she? If there was a first time, I mean.”
“Don’t think about the past so much, Missus Not till you’re finished with it.”
Margaret remembered dangling her legs over the edge of a chasm. She pushed herself off as if she were committing suicide. After that, nothing made sense.
“You’ll fix it, Missus.” Ameline said. “You’ll get it right.”
She checked her pistol once again, a six-shot nickel plated revolver purchased at a pawn shop by a girl who might be crazy. It scared Margaret to think about that even though she was the girl. Waiting was the worst part, especially when the moment of truth was so close.
“See you again sweetheart!” Still too loud. Margaret looked around the restaurant to see if people were staring. They were, of course. Staring at the girl with the crippled, nearly blind Pitbull and the strange ideas.
A tall man with ragged blond hair walked into AMELINE’S DINER. He scanned the room like he was searching for someone. His left arm hung in a sling.
“Injured.” Margaret’s left arm was in a cast. Broken humerus, a parting gift from a man she’d stabbed, a man who might wear his arm in a sling.
“Big mistake,” She quoted him as she eased herself up from the table and reached under her t-shirt.
“No, Missus. Think how easy it is to be wrong.”
Ameline’s words slowed Margaret, but what stopped her was Picasso. The dog stumbled out from under the table and bumped the big blond man with his heavy Pitbull head.
“Hey there, fella.” The man smiled. “Who’s a good boy?”
Would a killer do that?
He petted the dog, scratched behind his ears, laughed at the way Picasso’s tail wagged in an irregular rhythm that came with the trauma to his brain.
“Look at all the scars. What happened to you buddy?”
“The dog belongs to Missus,” Ameline said. “Her service dog.”
The big blond man looked doubtful.
“He keeps her from shooting innocent people,” she explained.
Margaret covered her pistol again, a little too slowly to keep the man from noticing. He looked at his watch and decided he didn’t have time for lunch after all. He gave Picasso a final pat and backed out the front door of AMELINE’S DINER without once taking his eyes off the girl with the XXL t-shirt and the Irish red hair.
“Sorry.” Margaret shouted an apology she hoped would stop him from calling the police.
“I won’t shoot random strangers,” she announced to the customers.
“Don’t have to,” she said more quietly. She stroked the grip of her pistol and reminded herself of the address and the time.
“See you later sweetheart.” That’s what the killer said. If her memories were correct he would see her again, but not the way he expected.
“Sometimes we remember things that used to be real, Missus, even when they aren’t any longer.” Ameline fit the loop of Picasso’s leash over Margaret’s right hand—her gun hand. She walked her to the door and pointed toward her destiny. “Time gets away from us, Missus. But there’s always more.”
Ameline knew what she meant to do and didn’t try to talk her out of it. That was encouraging, sort of. It was also troubling. Margaret checked her phone. She had less than five minutes to get to the Louisville Slugger killer’s next murder scene. Picasso pulled at the leash, as if he knew where they had to go and how fast they had to walk.
“He’ll either be there or he won’t,” she told the dog. “He’ll either be there or…” Margaret turned the corner and looked into the alley and saw the Louisville Slugger killer getting ready to commit murder in broad daylight. His back was turned to her but she could see the elastic band of his mask cutting a groove through his thick blond hair.
He shouted, “Big Mistake,” as if witnesses were the last thing on his mind.
He’d cornered his intended victim, another girl, taller than the last but not as tall as the killer. He held his baseball bat over his right shoulder, ready to end the girl’s life as soon as she satisfied his need to see her fear.
Margaret dropped Picasso’s leash and drew her pistol. The dog looked at her as if he had no idea what to do.
“Get him, boy.” A Pitbull would catch a murderer’s attention even if he was crippled and nearly blind. Picasso could make him turn around, make him move away from the girl so Margaret could shoot without hitting her.
“Go on Pic. Get him.” The dog staggered slowly toward the murderer, wagging his tail as if the two were old friends.
The masked man turned around, faced Margaret, held the bat in front of him, inspected it as if he’d never seen it before, then tossed it aside.
“My name is Tybalt,” he said for no logical reason.
His victim didn’t waste any time. She bolted out of the alley, away from the crazy masked man, away from her brain damaged savior and the crippled, nearly blind dog that couldn’t decide what to do.
Tybalt shrugged. He ran his hands over his chest, explored his necklace of murder souvenirs. There was Margaret’s crystal necklace, hanging with mementos from other attacks. His fingers settled on the pendant. He held it up so he could see it clearly and twisted it until a spark of light flashed inside it. He smiled, as if the piezoelectricity might power another escape.
He looked at her and said, “See you later, sweetheart,” as if it just occurred to him.
Margaret’s left arm was in a cast so she had to shoot single handed. That was okay, because the Louisville Slugger killer was so big she couldn’t miss. She pulled the trigger—jerked it really—way too clumsy to be accurate. The pistol jumped in her hand much more than she expected. It pulled her off target, but she kept firing. A target that big and so many bullets in the air, surely one would hit the mark. Counting was impossible so she kept pulling the trigger even when the gun stopped firing. Her ears rang. Her brain turned in circles as if she’d just stepped off a merry-go-round.
The Louisville Slugger killer stood in front of her, still alive, a blood stain growing on his left shoulder—the same one she’d stabbed. He poked at the bullet hole, inspected the blood as if it were a ketchup stain on his favorite shirt. He looked at Picasso and then at Margaret, still pulling the trigger on the empty gun.
“This is really strange,” he said as he walked past her.” Really strange.” He pulled his witch mask off and tossed it aside.
Margaret had to agree. The strangest thing about it was Picasso. He followed the killer away as if they were old friends. She watched big blond man get smaller as he walked down the street, Picasso staggering by his side. The killer stopped for a moment, turned around and studied her as if she were a specimen in the zoo, a formerly dangerous creature safely stored in an escape proof cage.
“Tybalt.” She thought that was a famous name, one she’d heard before, maybe in a movie or a play. She considered chasing him but only for a moment, because if she caught him, then what.
“Put the gun away, Missus.” Ameline was there, standing behind her like a corner man in the boxing matches her grandfather used to watch. Police sirens closed in from all directions, not close enough to see but getting louder as they tightened their circle around the gun-toting brain-damaged girl with the broken arm.
“It was real.” The pistol felt hot on Margaret’s skin as she slipped it behind her waistband. “All of it was real.”
“Everything is real until it changes, Missus.” Ameline led her across the street, not the way Tybalt and Picasso had gone. Not the opposite direction either.
“My car is parked this way, Missus. You know what we have to do now.”
“He was here.” The sirens were getting closer, so Margaret let Ameline lead her.
“You understand now, don’t you, Missus? What happens when you jump?”
Understand was too strong a word. Margaret thought about Jack Fork Mountain, the cave, the chasm, how it seemed like she should have died when she jumped but didn’t.
“Picasso?” That confused Margaret more than jumping into the past. The only living creature she could depend on had gone off with a serial murderer.
“It’s complicated, Missus. Every jump tangles things a little more. Especially when they all land you in the same few days.”
That sounded like advice but it didn’t tell her what to do.
“These things sort themselves in the end, Missus.”
“Will I recognize the end when I come to it?”
~ * ~
Ameline had nothing more to say until she parked in the shadow of Jack Fork Mountain almost two hours later. “It all starts here, Missus. Like it did before.” She pointed to narrow strip of naked dirt bordered by second growth hardwoods and underbrush.
“Different,” Margaret said. “Everything looks different.” Maybe because her eyes saw more clearly this time around. Maybe because Picasso didn’t jump out of the car and take the lead. Maybe because time never brought you to the same trail twice. This path was wider, easier.
Margaret Dougherty’s traumatized brain couldn’t process the mysteries of time. The best it could do was keep her goal in mind. “He’ll kill again if I don’t stop him.”
“He’s wearing my necklace.”
“He has Picasso.” The most confusing thing of all.
“He’s meant to find you, Missus. Soon, I think.”
Margaret was just paranoid enough to believe her. She stopped when they reached the tunnel entrance and looked down the mountain trail. She could see nothing but vegetation. She could hear nothing but woodland noises—trees creaking in the ever-present Oklahoma wind, Birdsongs in the foliage, the drum roll of a woodpecker mining for termites, a dog barking.
“It could be, Missus.” Ameline produced a pair of LED flashlights. Margaret wondered if she always carried them on the chance of a time travel opportunity.
The darkness inside the tunnel hadn’t changed. Neither had the tipped floor or the caverns full of formations that looked like a combination of architecture and magic. Half-formed faces peered out of stalactites and stalagmites; crystals sparkled as the LED light played over them. Bats hung from the ceiling.
“Here it is, Missus.” Ameline shined her light into the chasm. “Another chance to fix things.”
“He’s wearing the neckless you gave me,” Margaret said.
Ameline picked a crystal up and handed it to her. “Perhaps this one will help you find your way.”
“Will it go with me? When I jump?”
“There’s only one way to find out, Missus.”
“Yes.” Margaret closed her eyes as she stepped over the edge and when she opened them…she was looking through the eye holes of a cheap mask.
“Big Mistake!” Those words came out of her mouth, pushed by air from lungs that she controlled. Her voice had never sounded like that before.
Bear voice. Margaret looked down at the teenage girl cornered in front of her. She felt the weight of the Louisville Slugger baseball bat in her hands. Giant hands. She clenched them around the neck of the bat and marveled at their strength. One swing would kill the teenager whimpering before her and Margaret was surprised to find herself considering it.
She pushed thoughts of murder out of her head. It didn’t take much effort. The mental hold of the other person occupying this mind was fragile—weakened by trauma, physical and psychological.
A voice behind her said, “Get him boy. Go on, Pic, Get him.”
Margaret knew what she would see when she turned around. Picasso staggered toward her, wearing his doggy smile. The animal recognized her even hidden in a serial killer’s body. She held the bat in both the masked man’s hands, presented it as if it were a peace offering. She wanted to explain the circumstances to the version of herself holding a gun in a trembling right hand waiting for the opportunity to shoot. But Margaret inside the killer was still in a tug of war for control over his body. The best she could do was toss the bat aside and say, “My name is Tybalt.”
The crystals. The one she held when she jumped. The crystal necklace the killer wore. They were responsible for putting her inside him. She didn’t understand how, but she was certain of it.
The girl victim ran. Who could blame her?
Margaret knew what would happen next—what had already happened in this instant of time she’d experienced once before from a different point of view.
Tybalt twisted the crystal pendant on the necklace, smiled at the spark inside and said, “See you later sweetheart.” Those words took shape before Margaret could stop them. The pistol fired over and over, too fast to count. Bullets ricocheted against the alley walls. One struck Tybalt in the shoulder. A burning sensation cut through muscle. Numbness followed, spreading to the center of Tybalt’s back.
“This is really strange.” She took charge of killer’s body, made him walk away, timing his steps to match the sound of a revolver hammer striking spent cartridges. Picasso walked at his side, best friends the way only a dog can be best friends. The animal knew Margaret Dougherty was in charge of Tybalt’s body, at least for the moment. That might not last for long. She felt his presence growing stronger, pushing toward control. He turned the shared body around and stared at the other, Margaret still holding the gun. Ameline stood behind her, urging her to leave.
“Jack Fork Mountain.” The Margaret inside the killer’s mind spoke with his voice. “Jack Fork Mountain.” Where she and Tybalt had to go. Ameline would help her if there was any chance to free herself.
“You okay, Mister.” A young girl’s voice. “You’re bleeding.”
A girl with purple hair, perhaps sixteen, wearing rings on every finger. Tybalt’s personality stirred, like a crocodile rising to the surface of a murky pool. Thoughts bloomed in the shared mind—a broken body on the pavement, a handful of new rings strung on the souvenir necklace.
Picasso lunged at his calf, sank his Pitbull teeth to the bone and shook his head. The killer personality withdrew, leaving Margaret Dougherty to endure the pain. The dog pulled away as soon as she was back in charge.
“Don’t speak to strangers who could break your neck on a whim.” Tybalt’s bear voice sent her running. Margaret let him take charge again long enough to find his car.
“We’re going to Jack Fork Mountain,” She told him with his own voice. “You don’t want me inside your head any more than I want to be here.”
Tybalt saw the logic of her plan even if he didn’t understand it. What choice did he have?
~ * ~
Margaret shrank into the quietest part of Tybalt’s subconscious and let him follow Picasso up the mountain trail. The murderer had no idea how a woman got inside his mind, but he would dig her out with a spoon if he had to.
“Big Mistake.” His bear voice summarized his misogyny. His distorted thought process linked every bad thing that ever happened to him to women in general and to one woman in particular. His mother, naturally. Could the man be any more of a cliché?
Childhood fantasies? Margaret thought they must be. Every one of them seen through a young boy’s eyes, looking up at the woman who held his welfare in her hands and squeezed it until the juice dripped between her fingers. Her face was a nearly identical copy of the witch mask he wore to commit his murders, crooked nose, a wart on her chin, lips twisted into a smile completely devoid of joy. Did she really beat him like that? Memories of broomsticks broken across his back, of breathing through a broken nose, pleading for her to stop, promising he’d never make the “big mistake” again but without the slightest idea what he’d done. She twisted his arms until the bones fractured. She burned the soles of his feet with cigarettes, she sat him in a tub of scalding water…
Margaret didn’t believe a woman could do that to a child. But Tybalt believed it so strongly he knew it was true.
“Big mistake.” He stopped wondering how Margaret got inside him and was already planning his revenge.
“See you later sweetheart.” He wouldn’t bother trying to find Margaret Dougherty. His mind was too twisted by his past—real or imagined—to have concern for details. Any woman who crossed his path would do.
Picasso put his nose to the ground and staggered up the trail. A half hour later he stood at the opening to the cave barking, ducking in and out, doing everything a dog could do to coax a wounded murderer possessed by Margaret Dougherty.
Tybalt pushed through the Virginia Creeper that hung over the cave entrance. Once inside followed a beam of LED light pointed at him from a few yards deeper in the cave. Margaret had a pretty good idea who’d be holding that flashlight when they reached their destination.
“This way, Missus.”
Tybalt’s heart beat faster, not from fear but from desire. He’d set out to murder a female today. It might still be possible.
“Ameline,” Margaret called out in the murderer’s voice. She took charge of his legs, made him stop in his tracks, but couldn’t hold him long.
Picasso backed away, showed the killer his teeth, gave him a Pitbull growl that should have been impossible to ignore, but Tybalt took another step.
“Don’t let him get away from you, Missus.” Ameline couldn’t know exactly what happened but she knew enough. She knew Margaret was inside the killer’s mind, that she had been in control and could be again at least for a few seconds.
“It’s not so easy.” Margaret’s words in the bear voice. Tybalt’s rage intensified now that a woman was nearly within reach. Picasso slowed him down with a vicious bite to the Achilles tendon. The murderer went tumbling over stalagmites. Margaret tumbled with him. She felt only slightly less pain than he did.
“Crawl toward me Missus.” Ameline turned out her light.
The killer did his own crawling, fully in control of his body now that he was motivated by the potential for blood.
Picasso wasn’t hampered by the darkness. He lunged and bit the killer’s thighs, his arms, his face. Margaret screamed with the murder’s voice, shrill enough to be comical, but too painful to make her laugh.
“That’s good, Missus.” Ameline turned on her LED flashlight, directed the beam into Tybalt’s eyes.
When she took the light away, a yellow after image created a massive blind spot. At its edge, Margaret saw a knife in Ameline’s hand—a steak knife from the diner.
“A sharp blade took his mind off murder once, Missus.”
Tybalt stood up, ready to turn his hatred onto a single target. “Big Mistake.”
He had more to say, but Ameline drove the knife into his chest.
A lung. Margaret knew immediately. Painful, breathless, energy level in free fall.
“You can’t let him die with you inside him, Missus. Jump!”
“Where?” The bear voice was full of fluid.
Ameline picked a crystal up from the cave floor, pressed it into Margaret’s hand and shined her light on it. “Keep it close, Missus. Close as you can. It will help your spirit find it’s bearings.”
Tybalt’s mind relinquished control of his body. Soon, Margaret would have to do that too. She held the crystal in Ameline’s light and tried to form a thought that would take her somewhere safe. All she could think of was, “It’s pretty. It looks just like…”
She closed her eyes and jumped. When she opened them again she sat on a stone bench beside her grandfather in front of God’s Little Angle Memorial in McAlester, Oklahoma holding the crystal in her hand.
“Looks just like rock candy,” ten-year-old Margaret Dougherty said as she popped the crystal in her mouth and swallowed.”
“Maggy,” her grandfather shook his head. “That could poke a hole in your insides.”
God how she’d missed him.
“You’re too big to do things like that.” He gave her a hug, took her by the shoulders and turned her so she couldn’t look away. Lecture time.
“Too big,” Margaret repeated the words. Her grandfather was exactly right. She held her hands in front of her face, moved them away from her eyes then back toward them as if she were focusing a telescope. Her hands were tiny. She was tiny. The only thing not tiny about her was the spirit of a fully-grown Margaret Dougherty squeezed inside her ten-year-old body by the magic of a bottomless chasm inside a Jack Fork Mountain cave.
“Too big,” she said again, way too serious to suit her grandfather.
“What’s wrong Maggy?” She’d always hated that nickname.
“How long can I stay here?” She wanted to ask a lot of questions that would make no sense, not to her grandfather, not to anyone. Except for the boy standing behind the cement bench, a small boy wearing ragged clothing and a necklace—a thin gold chain with a crystal pendant. He held the crystal in his delicate fingers and gave it a twist. He smiled at the spark that flashed inside.
“Tybalt!” An angry voice. A woman’s voice called the boy’s name. She paced toward him in military length strides, marching down the seconds until she was close enough to do more than merely shout. “Big mistake!”
Margaret remembered that angry voice. She recognized the witch’s mask face from her time inside a killer’s mind. Blows wouldn’t be far behind. It didn’t matter who was watching. The woman stooped over and picked up a fallen branch. Big enough to break an arm, big enough to make a boy named Tybalt regret he’d ever been born.
Margaret felt her adult spirit pulling at the bonds that held it in a ten-year-old body where it didn’t belong. Was the boy’s spirit doing the same thing?
“No,” she said aloud without meaning to. His spirit never had a chance to grow. It was still small enough to fit inside that little body, and perhaps more capable of withstanding the kind of punishment his mother was preparing to deliver.
Tybalt froze in place, hopeless, waiting for whatever fate might bring him.
Tears blurred Margaret Dougherty’s eyes so she could hardly see the Pitbull mix who ran from behind the God’s Little Angle Memorial and stood beside Tybalt. Picasso? Could that be possible? She tried to call the dog’s name but holding onto her grown up spirit was all she could manage. What came out instead was a command. “Stop!” She pulled away from her grandfather and ran to the boy. She stood in front of Tybalt and faced the angry woman.
“No!” She held both hands in front of her as if they could ward off all the violence that was sure to come in a moment. Her hands were small, fragile, trembling with fear, but they would have to do.
“Big mistake!” The woman held the limb over her shoulder like it was a Louisville Slugger baseball bat. She drew the limb back preparing to deliver a devastating blow.
“Hold on there, lady.” Margaret’s grandfather bumped his body against Tybalt’s mother. He grabbed the limb from her hands as she scrambled to keep her balance.
“Big mistake!” She looked like she might throw herself at him, but he gripped the limb and held it over his shoulder.
“Up to you, lady.” He took a wind whistling swing that missed her head by inches.
The dog filled the air with a Pitbull growl like the ones Margaret would hear again a decade in the future.
Tybalt’s mother backed away.
Another wind whistling swing not as close as the last because the woman was running.
“I’m going to the cops,” she shouted as she passed God’s Little Angle Memorial.
Margaret felt dizzy. The world spun as her adult-spirit stretched the bonds holding it to her child-body.
“She probably will, too,” her grandfather said. “We’d better get while the getting’s good. You’d better come with us son. Your dog too, of course.”
Tybalt stood quietly for a moment. He threw his arms around Margaret and squeezed so hard her adult spirit almost popped loose. He removed the crystal necklace he’d brought with him from the future, placed it over her head and kissed her on the cheek. The spirit of grown-up Margaret Dougherty broke free. She didn’t have long to wonder where she would go.
~ * ~
A public place would stop most people from making a scene, but Margaret Dougherty wasn’t most people.
“I saw what I saw.” She ran her fingers through her red Irish hair and stared a warning across the restaurant at the girl she’d seen Johnny Crawford kissing only a moment ago. She found a crumb of stale bread left on the table by the last diners. She stared at it for a moment before she flicked it away. She ran her fingers across her chest, reassured herself the necklace Tybalt had given her was there.
“Sorry Johnny. I won’t make this hard.” He would think she was crazy for sure, but it really didn’t matter. Their relationship was doomed. At least it had been the last few times she’d sat at this table.
Erin walked toward her, slow and steady, the way races are won according to the childhood stories Margaret’s grandfather used to tell.
“No time to talk right now. There’s something I have to attend to.” She gave Johnny Crawford’s new girlfriend a wave and headed for the kitchen. Margaret walked through the door with the sign that said EMPLOYEES ONLY, past sous chefs tending cast iron pans full of hot grease and pots of boiling water. She held her back straight, measured her steps, pushed her chest out, dared anyone to interfere as she headed for the back door.
“Wrong way, Missus. Lots of trouble through that door.” Ameline, a total stranger who would become Margaret’s best friend and time-jump coach.
Lots of trouble, all right, but this time she’d be ready. Margaret shoved a sous chef aside and picked up a cast iron pan full of boiling grease. The handle was hot, but she could hold it long enough.
She pushed through the emergency exit and ignored the alarm that sounded as she stepped into the alley. There he was, just like the first time. The large man with a ragged blond haircut stood front of a diminutive girl who held a medium size Pitbull mix by a leash.
Margaret had it all worked out. She’d throw the boiling grease in the killer’s face, then put all her strength into swinging the pan. She wouldn’t miss. Couldn’t miss. No more murdered girls. No more brain damage. It all ended in this alley. “Tybalt. Step away from the girl.”
She didn’t expect him follow orders, but he was already turning around.
“Margaret?” The blond giant of a man wasn’t supposed to say that.
“How did you find out I was buying you a dog?” Where was his witch’s mask? Where was his Louisville Slugger baseball bat? Why was he holding a handful of bills—twenties, at least five of them. He gestured toward the Pitbull.
“Looks just like the old dog we had when we were kids,” Tybalt said. “Guess what his name is.”
“Picasso.” Margaret set the pan on top of a garbage can. And waited for her new, improved history to come back to her. Would it?
“How did you know that?” Tybalt paid the girl and walked Picasso to his new owner.
“It’s difficult to explain,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll try.”
John T. Biggs describes himself as a regional writer whose region is somewhere west of the Twilight Zone. His work blends speculative fiction with a literary style and frequently includes Native American mysticism. His short stories have been published in magazines and anthologies that vary from literary to young adult speculative fiction and everything in between. Some of these stories have won regional and national awards including Grand Prize in the Writers Digest 80th annual competition, third prize in the Lorian Hemingway short story contest, a Storyteller Magazine’s People’s Choice Award, and two OWFI Crème de la Crème Awards.
John has published four novels: Owl Dreams, Popsicle Styx (Oklahoma Book Award Finalist) Cherokee Ice (Oklahoma Book Award Finalist & OWFI Best Published Fiction Book of 2015), and Shiners (OWFI Best Published Fiction book of 2017) as well as a linked short story collection, Sacred Alarm Clock, which includes the OWFI Crème de la Crème winning story, “Twenty Percent Off”, and a series post-apocalyptic novellas, Clementine a song for the end of the world.