Metered Space

Chapter One

YOU CALLED THE WRONG GUY, JOHNSON," I SAID TO MY JANITOR. "I NEED A plumber, not a cop."

"He followed me up," Johnson said. He threw a vicious look at Sergeant Aplin. "Buddy Face here wanted me to let him inside. I say, not without a warrant. Told him to sit on the stairs and wait for you. Didn't sound happy about that. Ain't that true, Buddy Face?"

Aplin shrugged. "No harm in trying. How about a little chat, Meter?"

"Didn't you know, Aplin? I'm out of the PI business."

"Yeah, I heard you keep a low profile these days."

"That's right."

Johnson poked me in the shoulder.

"What?" I said to him.

"Got to check that pipe before I decide to call a plumber."

I unlocked my door and pushed it open. "You'd better fix it," I said. "That dripping is murder on my hangover."

Johnson slipped past me, and I followed him in. Aplin jammed his shoulder in the opening to stop me from closing the door in his face.

"Which hangover?" he said. "I hear you drink pretty steady these days."

"You seem to hear a lot of things about me."

"I get around."

"Good for you."

I walked to the kitchen and dropped my paper bags on the counter. The thick glass of a bottle poked out of the bottom of one bag wet from the rain. I rummaged through the other and extracted a package of Gitanes. I took my time unwrapping the cellophane then lit up. Beside me, Johnson mumbled and tapped the pipes under the sink.

I dragged the smoke deep into my lungs. "I'd invite you in," I said to Aplin, who'd followed me to the kitchen, "but it seems you've taken care of it yourself."

I blew the smoke through my nose. Aplin fanned the air in front of his face.

"God, that stinks."

"Stinkweed, dried dung, turd butts-I've heard them all, Aplin, so save your breath." I pulled the booze out of the bag and broke the seal. "Want a drink?"

"Ten in the morning is too damn early for me."

I opened a cabinet door but couldn't find a glass. I took a highball glass from the sink and examined it. It still had traces of beer foam around the rim and smelled vaguely sour. Otherwise, it looked fairly clean. I slopped Scotch into it.

"What's the verdict, Johnson?"

The janitor backed away on all fours then jumped up. "I can fix it," he said. "Got to get my tools, though."

"Come back tomorrow then."

"Can't, buddy. How 'bout later in the week?"

"Fine, fine." I waved him away. "Before Friday, at least, okay?"

"Sure thing."

I watched Johnson leave, took a drag of smoke, swallowed a mouthful of Scotch then turned back to Aplin. He'd walked into the living room.

"Jesus, Jack, you live in a fucking pigsty."

I looked around the room. Cigarette burns on the carpet. Beer cans on the TV. Wilted, rotten flowers in a vase. Dust everywhere.

I pushed a couple of empty pizza boxes off the couch and sat down. "What do you want, Aplin?"

He planted himself in front of me. His tall frame blocked the light from the ceiling fixture. A bit of his belly, covered with dark, fuzzy hair, poked between the gaping front of his shirt just above the belt. His cheap pants tightened over his thighs as he shoved a hand into his pocket. He rocked back and forth and rattled his change.

"Ten pounds of gelignite disappeared from Drummond's quarry yesterday."

"So?" I schooled my face into an impassive mask, even though I could feel my heartbeat accelerating.

"I thought you might have an idea who stole it."

"Does the RCMP make a point of harassing all PIs, or just me?"

"Come on, Meter, you know why I'm here."

"Why don't you refresh my memory?" I took a swallow of scotch and nearly choked on it. My hand shook, so I put the glass down on Annie's antique table. She'd brought it with her when she moved in. I stared at the top while I listened to Aplin.

"You know.gelignite-the same type of explosive that was used to blow up your girlfriend's lab."

"So you added two and two and came up with five."

"Let's just say I don't like coincidences. You're gone for two years. Nothing happens. The day after you come back to your apartment explosives disappear. You wouldn't have a little revenge in mind, would you, Meter?"

I got up and, pushing him out of my way, walked to the window. It was still raining, a cold, driving rain that whipped against the window with a solid sound like hail. It was one of those September days that announced winter's arrival with the next sunrise.

"Did you hear me, Meter?"

"Revenge, Aplin?" I laughed and turned to sneer at him. "On whom? There's no motive, no trace, no clues."

"You had two years to find out."

"Two years." I turned back to stare at the rain. "You know most of what I did during those two years?" When he didn't speak, I continued. "The night Annie died I lost it. The city cops found me bleeding beside her body, fighting anybody who got too close. They say I screamed until my voice gave out. Then I started again.

"I spent six months in a psych ward, Aplin. Tied up. Screaming. Totally nuts. All I wanted was to be with her and, God help me, I tried. When I calmed down enough, they released me. I came back here. You didn't know that, did you? But I found it just too hard without her, so I left again. Wandered for a while. Lived at my sister's until she kicked me out. I don't remember much of those days. Except that, everywhere I went, she was still dead."

I lit another Gitane, took a deep drag and exhaled slowly. The glass was fogged with my breath. I walked back to the couch and threw myself onto it. I let the silence thicken between us.

Aplin cleared his throat. "I'll." He coughed, avoided my eyes. He backed up a few steps then made his way to the door. "Keep us informed if you find out anything."

"That's not very likely."

I dismissed him as soon as he disappeared from my line of vision. The pain had sneaked its way back, the lingering pain of losing Annie that never faded completely, no matter what I did. I'd always thought I was impervious, the tough guy. Annie had flattened me in seconds.

The Byward Market steamed the night I met her. A sultry July night, perfect for lovers and muggers. I was looking for a guy who was cheating on his wife-a messy divorce case-when I saw a knockout package all wrapped in black standing on the corner of Dalhousie and George. She had a body to die for-long, well-muscled legs; hooters out to here and a delicate neck that supported the face of the Blessed Virgin.

The ladies had come out in force that night, and they'd used the excuse of the heat to peel off as much clothing as possible. The bombshell in black didn't fit. First of all, she wore a knee-length skirt. Secondly, she didn't wear makeup, cheap jewelry or high heels. And the look on her face.she was either very angry or very frightened but I couldn't tell which.

I wasn't the only one interested in her. From opposite sides of the street, two punks had seen her and were strutting in her direction. By the way they eyed each other and her, I had a hunch it might turn ugly so I decided to place myself on the lady's side. She misunderstood my intentions, thought I was trying to pick her up. As soon as I got close enough, she grabbed my lapels and yanked me close, so close I could see the black ice of her eyes under the street lamp and a little bit of green stuff between her two front teeth.

I was struggling to unclench her fists from my almost-new jacket when she lifted me from the sidewalk. My toes didn't even touch the concrete.

"You get away from me, you shit," she said in a rusty voice, her lips curled outward like a rabid dog's. "I'm not in the business and I'm not interested. Is that clear?"

I nodded. She dropped me.

In that lightning moment, I was a goner. Thirty seconds after I'd met her, I'd fallen in love with Annie.

That night, we ended up in my apartment. She stayed for three years. Then she was dead.

I walked to the counter and picked up the open bottle. This was a good day to polish it off.

* * *

I opened my eyes to utter darkness; in the flash second it took for me to come fully awake, I knew I wasn't in my apartment.

This darkness was like nothing I'd ever experienced. It was thick, closed, absorbing. Suffocating. My body floated, aware of its cells disconnecting from each other, as if they drifted in a vacuum but stayed together out of whimsy rather than choice.

Maybe I'm dead, I thought. But if I were dead, how could I think I was dead?

I'd always been certain that death would bring oblivion, but I still remembered everything. I remembered the pain. I remembered I'd lost the only thing worth living for. I remembered I'd wished I'd died for the past two interminable years. No such luck.

If I was alive then where the hell was I?

I couldn't see. Either the darkness totally surrounded me, or I'd gone blind from my last encounter with Grant's Scotch. I scrunched my eyes closed and opened them again. Spots of light danced in front of me then faded back to darkness.

I was lying on my back. Maybe. Where was up or down? I couldn't feel my arms or legs. I couldn't even move my head.

I breathed down my panic and tried to concentrate on the moments before I'd passed out. I'd sat in my apartment in front of the tube, packing it in like every other night. What was I watching? Preseason hockey game, that's right. Habs against the Leafs. The game had just started. I'd turned the sound off and put Rigoletto in my CD. The players danced to the opera tunes; the coaches sang the arias. Funniest thing I'd seen in a long time.

But I hadn't lost it. I didn't scream or break anything. Just got slowly drunk in my own sweet time.

I tried to move again. I could wriggle my fingers. I could curl my toes. Bend my knees a little. Turn my elbows out. I was definitely tied up. A vague memory of a white shape with two heads flashed through my brain. I couldn't be back in the psych ward at the Royal Ottawa, could I?

"Hey," I threw out to the dark in front of me, "anybody home?"

My voice fell flat, as if walls I couldn't see sucked in the sound. I squirmed and bucked. This had gone on long enough.

"Okay," I said through clenched teeth, "let me up, whoever you are, or I swear I'll mush your face as soon as I break free."

Sound ripped into me like a tidal wave pounding the shore. Screeches battered my body from all sides. I pulled on my restraints, my only thought to free my hands so I could shut out that godawful caterwauling.

This has to be a dream, I thought. Then: no way. My brain could never produce that kind of noise, even as a sick fancy brought on by too much alcohol. Which didn't answer my question-where the hell was I? More to the point, what did the noisemakers want from me?

I was swearing up a storm when the lights came on and the shrieks stopped. It took a few minutes for my eyes to adjust. Not that there was much to adjust to. With my head immobilized, I could only see a small portion of a plain white ceiling. I slid my eyeballs down to see my feet then to the sides as far as I could push them.

Unrelenting white.

I twisted and pulled. Wait a minute, I thought, something didn't feel right. What had happened to the croak in my voice, my proof of dutiful cigarette smoking and hard drinking? Come to think of it, where was my hangover? Apart from being tied up and mad about it, I felt great. Physically, at least.

"Please do not move, John Meter, it impedes your recovery," a high-pitched voice said.

I couldn't figure out where it came from; it hovered beside me, around me, through me.

"Jack," I said.

"Pardon me?"

"It's not John, it's Jack," I said more loudly. "What the hell did you do to me?"

"Our information indicates John as your given name. Why would we call you Jack?"

"Because it's my name, okay?" The guy was a moron. If it was a guy. "Where am I and what do you want?"

The Voice stayed silent. I thought it had left until I heard a rustle. "We brought you here because we need your services, Jack Meter. But first we had to repair you."

"Repair me? What am I, a toaster?" I yanked on whatever was holding me down. "Let me up, will you?"

"We cannot do that, Jack Meter."

"What did you do to me?"

"You were dying."

"Of course, I was dying, you moron-that was the whole point."

"You wished to die?"

"Give yourself an A-plus, bozo."

"This complicates matters." The Voice sounded worried. "We thought you would wish to repay a debt. This is the custom of your race, is it not?"

This situation, already strange at the outset, had degenerated into the bizarre. The Voice acted as if it didn't know much about my "race," as it put it, but claimed it had reversed years of abuse to my body. And it played the weirdest music I'd ever heard. I threw out a wild guess.

"The next thing you'll tell me is that I'm not on Earth anymore, right?"

"In a manner of speaking," The Voice said, "no. Yes."

All of a sudden, my restraints fell away. With a sigh of relief, I lifted my hands and rubbed my face-at least, they'd left me my beard. They'd also left me my clothes. I pushed myself up, even though I seemed to be lying on a cushion of nothing, and searched for The Voice.

As I watched, part of the white wall in front of me coalesced into a human form. It closely approximated a middle-aged human male, except that the features on the pink face were inverted, with a mouth on the forehead and eyes on the chin.

"You should have brushed up on human anatomy, bud." I pointed at my face. "You've got yours upside down."

The eyes on the chin looked sad and the head bobbed up and down. "Strange incidents have been occurring, Jack Meter. Strange incidents, indeed," The Voice, now The Body, said.

A chair materialized right under my knees. It pushed forward, and I plunked onto it. The Body used a similar one.

"My name is Trebor, of the world Thrittene," The Voice said. "Welcome."

I was staring at his forehead, trying to figure out how he could eat without the food coming out of his nose, when what he said sank in.

"Thrittene, eh? Personally, I don't care if you live on Mars or the moon. You can just return me where you found me, friend, and in the same condition I arrived in."

He stared at me from his chin, clearly puzzled. "Our research indicates that your race has a fear of death and disease. Is that not so?"

"It's because there's so much of it around," I said.

He pursed his mouth, and his forehead puckered. "Please explain the difference between you and the others."

Time to change the subject. No way would I spill my guts to an alien, if what he'd told me was the truth. Wait a minute-what the hell was I thinking? This setup had to be one huge practical joke. Or maybe I'd been kidnapped by a lunatic, and this whole proposition was all special effects. Then again, maybe I'd gotten out of the psych ward a little too fast.

One way or another, it was time to get out of there and get back to serious drinking.

"You said you needed my help. What for?"

Trebor accepted the switch of topics with a nod. "You are a detective, are you not?"

I snickered. "If you're looking for a PI, count me out. I haven't been in the business for two years."

Trebor's nose reddened and his chin turned positively bashful. "I have to confess that we tried to get someone more." He hesitated, and his eyes traveled around the empty room.

"More vertical?" I tried helpfully.

".conscious," he finished. "But yours was the only mind we could reach. We think this is because it was so."

"Pickled?"

".open." His forehead turned green. "We pulled you here, and we thought if we repaired you, you would be grateful enough that you would want to help us. You see, someone has stolen one of our Transworld Portals. We need you to recover it."

That last part did it. How could this weirdo think I'd buy a story like that? As far as I knew, science fiction was still that-fiction. I shrugged and looked at my white surroundings. This was one dull place. Whoever was yanking my chain was no interior designer.

"Okay, bud, let's cut the crap. Last I knew, there was only one world with people on it, and it's called Earth. This is a pretty expensive setup you have here. What do you really want?"

Trebor's face turned the color of chalk and started melting, along with his body. My chair turned into Jell-O, and I sank into it. I jumped to my feet and wheeled around just in time to see the chair change into another body with an inverted face. It looked exactly like the first one.

"We have not lied to you, Jack Meter," it said.

"Who the hell are you?" I said, at the same time looking for an exit. I backed into Trebor and sank into him, jerked out of his body and turned around again. This didn't feel like a joke anymore. I'd rather have lost my mind the old way.

"I am Trebor of Thrittene," the twin said. "Everything here, except you, is Trebor."

"Which part of you have I been sitting on?" I said, trying to figure out what kinds of booze I'd mixed to end up with the most loco dream I'd ever had.

Trebor looked at Trebor. "He does not believe us."

"Damn right, I don't. If you're from another world, how come I can understand you? How come you speak English?"

"You can't, and we don't," one of the Trebors said. "When we repaired you we also adapted your brain for telepathic transmission."

"Now I'm a radio tower."

"In essence, yes. Your brain is now able to connect with alien transmissions and decode them then interpret and present the signals to you in the form of human thoughts. The reverse happens when you communicate outward. Of course, we have tapped into an unused portion of your brain, so your normal functions are not affected."

I snapped my mouth shut. I understood all the words, but the combination didn't make sense.

"I don't have time for this," I said. I grabbed the throat of the Trebor closest to me. His neck instantly dissolved, and I held thin air. He wasn't there anymore. I looked down. The white floor was crawling up my legs. It swirled around me, and I felt myself sinking into it like into quicksand. I swore then patted my back pocket. My knife was still in it. I grabbed the handle, flipped the catch and sliced down. The entire room burst with a high-pitched keening that hurt my ears. The floor receded, and Trebor rose in front of me. He didn't look happy. I held the knife in front of me, unsure of what he was capable of doing. He lifted his arm, and the ground gave under me as if he'd pulled a rug. I fell on my back. I could see murder on his face.

Finally, I thought, I'll be free. I closed my eyes and hoped for a quick death.

©2005 M. D. Benoit

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