ENGEL

 

by John Jacobs

 

 

 

            Two men stood facing each other.  The tall, older man was Dr. T. H. Lawrence, Ph. D. in physics and senior technician.  The younger man, unshaven and with wilting complexion was Michael Engel, time traveler.  It took a sharp eye to realize that he was only in his twenties.  The harsh conditions of time travel had taken more than a few years off his life.  He had on an orange jumpsuit, standard issue, and shiny black combat boots.  And he was a pilot of sorts, but there was no elaborate, futuristic-looking time machine for him to ride in; he was it.  The select few who were chosen by Project Knight underwent extensive “modification”, whereby each one of them became a living, thinking, Temporal Transit Device—a time machine.  The actual mechanism was a genetic, chemical, and cybernetic one, a volatile mix of technologies whose end result was nothing less than the hyper-evolution of the human brain to a point far beyond normal functioning.  But it was the tiny, yet advanced computer residing in Michael’s temporal lobe that made it all work.  Neural-interface links with the computer allowed Michael to direct himself through time with remarkable precision.  Without it he was helpless.

            “XP501, why aren’t you in costume?” said Lawrence.

Michael said nothing.

            “The temporal cannon must fire at precisely five o’clock, otherwise you’ll miss your target,” said Lawrence.

            Michael man didn’t reply.

            “Goddamnit, XP501, are you even well enough to go through with this?”

            Michael looked back at him with deep blue, watery eyes.  He was perspiring slightly, despite the fact that they were standing in an air-conditioned hallway.

            “I want you to think about something, Professor, before you send me out there again,” said Michael.  “When you throw a stone into a pond it doesn’t just make ripples in the water; it makes ripples in time, as well.”

            “The ripples we’ve made here are small enough,” Lawrence replied coolly.

            “Not as small as you might think, Professor.  Most fish are frightened away when the stone hits the water, but some are drawn to it.  And God knows were not the only fish in the pond.”

            Dr. Lawrence looked at him, frowned, and pulled out a pad of paper from his lab coat.  “You need to be in costume,” the scientist began, skimming through the pages.  “Your attire must be suitable for this mission, because we’re sending you back in time again.  Actually, you’ll be going back in time and about sixty trillion quantums left of our timeline, which will land you in a parallel 1980’s.  Your target never existed in our time, so we don’t have any pictures of him.  You’ll find him easily enough though.  He’s practically drenched in lambda radiation.  Do you know what to do, XP501?”

            “Study him, but don’t interfere,” Michael replied.  “Whatever happens is meant to happen.”

            “That’s right, XP501.  Bring back as much data as you can—an analysis of his behavior, vital signs and scan results, even a sample of hair if possible—but be careful who sees you. After all, we don’t want to make any unnecessary ripples, do we?”

            “No, Professor.”

            “Good.  Now get dressed and get your carcass down to the temporal cannon before we miss our opportunity.”

            Michael turned to walk away but stopped short.

            “Professor?” he asked.

            “Yes?”

            “That one that went before me, the one that went rogue—XP455…”

            “Christine?  H-how do you know about her?” the old man stuttered.

            “I’ve seen her, Professor,” Michael said, grinning sickly at the man.  “I think she might be working for Him now.”

            “Who?  Who are you referring to?”

            “He doesn’t have a name.  At least not one that we can comprehend.  He exists in several different histories but, unlike us, all separate instances of him are really one and the same.  And he moves freely through time, because it is his element and he is comfortable in it.”

            “Who is he?  God?”

            “No, not God, but damn near.  He’s higher up on the tree of life than we are.”

            “I think I’ve heard enough,” Lawrence interrupted.

            “You don’t know what you’ve done here, Professor.  You people have opened up a Pandora’s box.”

            Michael glared at him, unabashed and unafraid.  Lawrence returned his gaze, but faltered.  There was something in the young man’s eyes that made him look away, a certain animalistic quality, a look of  hopeless, fearless desperation.  A look that said he had nothing to lose.  Lawrence had seen that look before.

            “I hear it talking to me sometimes,” said Michael.  “The implant, I hear it talking from inside my own brain.  It speaks in languages that aren’t human, but I can still understand it.  It wants to take control.  And the genes… you people did something to us that isn’t natural, that isn’t meant to be.”

            Lawrence’s eyes widened slightly, but he otherwise showed no visible reaction.  Michael stepped toward him, and the scientist stepped away, his back against the stainless-steel wall.

            “I know about the UFO,” said Michael.  “I know what you found down there, on the ocean floor.  You didn’t tell us just what we were getting into.”

            The old man’s jaw dropped slightly, but he quickly gathered himself together.  He crossed his arms and looked at Michael with a disciplinarian air.  After a minute of uncomfortable silence Michael looked away and sighed.

            “You should hurry up and get ready,” said Dr. Lawrence.  “Time is, after all, of the essence.”

            Michael laughed sarcastically as he walked away.

#

            Michael took a deep breath as the technicians in radiation suits strapped him to the table.  A massive, chrome-colored apparatus, morphologically similar to a telescope, moved into position above him, electric servos inside humming softly.  He looked up into the barrel of the temporal cannon as it slowly came to rest, pointing directly at his head.  A thin red guide laser shot out, painting a dot between his eyes.  An orange glow appeared deep inside as the machine warmed up, an ember burning at the heart of the steel monster.

            “T minus five minutes until launch,” said a male, monotone voice from the speakers around the room.

            “Cutting this one pretty close, huh?” said one of the technicians.

            Michael didn’t say anything.  Waiting was the worst part.  If anything ever went wrong it always happened in the last five minutes.

            “You know what you have to do, Michael,” said Dr. Lawrence over the intercom.  “Don’t let us down.”

            Michael took another deep breath, and waited for time to pass.  The figures in radiation suits carried on silently with the pre-launch ritual, like alien drones in the belly of a spaceship.  There was nothing more Michael could do other than lie there, and maybe try to quiet his thoughts.  Soon the horrible pain would come again, like an old friend long missed, but never forgotten.

            “T minus two minutes,” said the monotone voice.

            “Good luck, sir,” said one of the technicians.  “Have a good trip.”

            A door closed at one end of the room, and then Michael was alone, face to face with a soulless, uncaring beast of technology.

            “T minus sixty seconds.”

            The ember glowed brighter, the drone of the machine grew louder and louder, drowning out the voice from the speakers.  The lights around the room dimmed and the speakers began to hiss and crackle, but Michael didn’t notice.  He stared up into the barrel of the cannon, the heart of it glowing like a tiny star.

            First there was always the blinding light, then a distinct burning sensation, like falling into the sun.  It wasn’t Michael’s body that was burning though; it was his mind.  This was because of temporal friction, one of the perplexing problems the scientists faced.  The cannon propelled the travelers at an incredible velocity through parallel worlds, tearing through the delicate membranes that bound them together like a rock flung through a piece of paper.  It was why they’d lost so many, especially at the beginning.  It also explained why the ones that came back were so worn down, some of them on the verge of psychotic collapse.

            Those with a sense of humor sometimes referred to it as the Bad Trip, and with good reason.  While the experience was different for each of them, because each mind reacted differently as it slowly bled to death, for the most part it was a hallucinatory light show of vile fantasy mixed with tattered shreds of childhood memory.  That’s why the travelers tried so hard to forget their past—after a while there was no way to separate reality from creeping neuroses.

            I saw Mom, and she was standing in the living room with a strange man, or was it a clown?  And when they took my brother Timmy away they said he had cancer but I saw the demons.  They were all around his hospital bed, reaching for him, but Mom and Dad couldn’t see them.  And the doctor was a monster.  No, he wasn’t.  Was he?  But I saw his eyes and I knew.  He wanted to turn my brother into a monster too.  And I see him sometimes--Timmy--crawling out of the slime and he laughs at me.  He wants to bring me down there with him.

            There was no way to around it, no way to shut them out.  One traveler dropped acid before they shot him out of the cannon; he never came back from that one.  It was best to face up to the demons, reason with them if possible while there was still any ounce of sanity left. But they were always there, no matter what.  Even in their dreams.

            “Five, four, three, two, one…”

            The light grew unbearably bright.  Michael screamed inside.

#

            Michael opened his eyes.  He was lying on the ground between two brick walls, staring up at a thin strip of sky.  He didn’t know if he’d been dreaming or traveling again.  The voice of his brother was ringing in his head.  Come down there with me, Michael.

            “That’s not the Timmy I knew,” Michael said out loud.

            He got to his feet and dusted himself off.  Down a couple of yards the alley branched off in three directions, and there was music coming from one end.  An odd style it was, too; unlike anything he’d heard before.  Heavy guitar riffs with lots of distortion and high-pitched, girlish vocals.

            This is 1980’s hair metal, Michael thought to himself as he walked around toward the front of the building.  Listening to the music, he could vaguely make out some of the lyrics.

            “When you left me, baby,

             you tore my world apart,

             you’ve got me going now, baby,

             your love is like chains through my heart.”

            Still trying to recall his mission, still trying to sift through the backwash of thoughts swimming around in his head, he turned the corner.  There was a crowd of people in front of the building, girls mostly, wearing tight skirts or jeans, low cut shirts and high heels.  They all had the wild, frizzy hairdos Michael had seen in photographs.  The few men standing with them were unanimously dressed in stonewash denim.  Michael looked down, saw that his pants were of the same variety, and breathed a sigh of relief.  The guys down in wardrobe were usually pretty good with their research.

            From inside he could hear the voice of the singer above the roar of the crowd.  “Thank you all for coming this evening.  We are Bordello, from Los Angeles, California.”  The crowd cheered progressively louder as he named each member of the band.  “We have Nick Cobra on drums, Vince Savage on guitar, Mike Leslie on bass, and I’m your singer for the evening, Johnny Nemean.”  Michael felt the ground underneath him shake as the crowd inside went wild.

            I’m at a rock and roll concert, Michael thought to himself.

            “Hey blondie.”

            Michael looked around.

            “Yeah you, standing over there.”  One of the girls broke away from the crowd and walked toward him.  Some of the other girls whispered to each other and a couple of the men gave Michael dirty looks.  Michael caught a whiff of her perfume as she approached, and he had to restrain himself from making any visible expression.  The sweet, pungent odor reminded him that it’d been too long since he’d even touched a woman.  She was remarkably beautiful, with high cheekbones, sleek, sensuous curves, and emerald green eyes, though she had on too much makeup for his taste.

            “You look familiar,” said the girl, smacking her gum.  She blew a pink bubble and popped it with one finger, licking the goo off seductively.  “Were you at that party last weekend, down at Rick’s?”

            Michael looked at her doubtfully.  She couldn’t have been older than twenty.  “I seriously doubt it,” he replied.

            The girl smiled and looked Michael up and down.  “You a big Poison fan?” said the girl.

            Michael froze, tried to think of something to say.  Fortunately the girl kept talking.  “That’s a stupid question, I guess,” said the girl.  “I mean, you wouldn’t be wearing the shirt if you weren’t a fan.”

            Michael looked down at the green letters on his T-shirt, then looked back up at the girl.  “Yeah, of course,” he replied instinctively.  He grinned, trying not to look too nervous.  The girl didn’t seem to care.

            “Brett Michaels is a god,” said the girl.  “I want to have his baby.”

            Michael raised an eyebrow, but didn’t say anything.  The girl laughed.  “Yeah, you’re all about the music,” she said.  “You’ve got that look about you.  Is that why you were around back?”

            “Huh?” said Michael.

            “Trying to get backstage?  Get in the good word for your band?”

            “Uh, sure,” he replied.  Sometimes it was best to just smile and nod.

            “XP501?” said the girl.

            The blood froze in Michael’s veins, the color draining from his face.  A dozen different scenarios were going through his head, and none of them were good.  Red digital numbers flashed in his mind as he primed the computer in his brain for immediate flight.  He could shift out of there in a moment’s notice if the need arose, but without giving the computer enough time to calculate a destination there was no telling where he’d end up.

            “Is that your band?” said the girl.  Michael stopped and thought for a moment.  “You have that little tattoo on your arm,” she continued.  “I just kind of assumed it was the name of a band.”

            “Yeah,” said Michael, relieved.  He had to keep from laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of the situation.  The girl grinned slyly.

            “It sounds kind of new wave.  I’m sure you guys really rock, though.  You’ll have to give me a demo tape some time.”

            “I can do that,” said Michael.

            “I’m Valerie, by the way.”

            “Michael.”

            “Michael, huh?  Nice name,” she said, smiling.  She turned and walked back toward her friends.  Michael stood and watched her go.  She stopped halfway and turned around again.  “Are you coming or not, Michael?  You wanted to get backstage, right?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Then stick with me.  I’m no ordinary groupie; I have connections.  We just have to wait for a few more of my girlfriends to show up, okay?”

            “Sounds good,” said Michael, tailing behind her.  It was odd, he thought to himself, how these events seemed to work themselves out.  It was like he was being pulled along on an invisible leash, with slack to move around but still at the mercy of some higher power.

            He didn’t like to think too much about that, though.  To abandon the notion of freewill in the context of multi-dimensional time was a mind-boggling descent into the realm of meta-time theory, which even some of the top scientists working for Project Knight were afraid to explore.  In brief, laymen’s terms, the best way to describe it would be something like the following:

            Taking into consideration the complexities of lateral temporal movement, or more clearly stated, the fact that all side-effects of linear time travel had gone completely out the window--no longer any worry of time loops, catastrophic meetings with past selves, or earth-shattering modifications of history, since any alteration of the past or future simply spawned a new one--it seemed that science had finally dealt determinism a crippling blow.  For the first time in history (if it could even be called such anymore) the human being stood at the center of the universe, completely in control and unafraid of any consequence of its actions.  The time travelers were free to crush all the prehistoric insects they pleased or tamper with major historic events; hell, they could even assassinate key figures throughout the ages and it just didn’t matter, as long as the alterations happened along a parallel timeline.

            And so the scientists were naively content with their view of the universe as one giant padded room, with little to hurt themselves on and little to fear.  Until, of course, a series of discoveries came about that would cause them to reconsider their model, and ultimately put them back in their place.  One such discovery was the fact that completely unrelated events, which occurred on drastically different timelines, often still had a significant effect on each other:  assassinate Hitler in one past history, and he’ll reappear in a parallel future somewhere as an entirely different human being.  Like the old whack-a-mole game in a children’s arcade, actions in one area of time and space suddenly caused repercussions to pop up in another, and who was to say how or why.  Another discovery which shook their fragile model was the observation that as all timelines approached eternity, they tended to converge toward the same singular event, which they called Omega—The End.  The more they studied the future, the more it appeared that it really was written in stone, and there was a pattern to it after all--a difficult confession to make, and one that would haunt them again and again.

            After much debate and calculating and more debate, it was finally conceded that perhaps there was another layer to time.  Wasn’t it possible that all events that occurred in separate realities were somehow still connected to each other along a linear path?  If a certain time traveler stepped sideways through time into a parallel world, isn’t the actual journey an event, and if so, where in history is that event recorded?  What if the ever-growing web of sheer complexity in the universe, caused by the sudden explosion of time travelers bouncing all over the place, were really a well-designed plan, carefully laid out along this new dimension—meta-time.  Then it would seem that humanity is not the free-acting, independent force in the universe that it had originally imagined.  There is someone higher up pulling the strings after all.

#

            The hallway backstage reeked of body odor and pot.  Everywhere Michael stepped he had to push his way past groupies and fat roadies.  He was close, though; he could feel it.  A sensory implant in his brain, aided by intuition, warned him if he was approaching any significant events along the current and all neighboring timelines.  The device had an effective radius of five minutes, give or take a few, which was often ample time to take action.  His vision turned into black and white television as he switched into radiation signature mode.  He looked up at the ceiling.  There was a long row of green static standing out against the gray background--electromagnetic radiation from the conduit pipes running down the hallway.  Valerie knocked on a door up ahead and turned the knob.  Michael followed her inside.

            “Johnny!”

            “What’s happening, Val?” The singer sat reclining on a couch with a bottle of vodka in one hand, a joint in the other, and a blonde groupie on his lap.  “Who’s your friend?”

            “His name is Michael.  He’s in a band called XP501.”
            “Is that so, Michael?” the singer said, nodding to him.  “Interesting band name.  You been together for a while?”

            “A year or so,” said Michael, trying to recall as much as he could about the rock and roll subculture.

            “Looks like you’ve done your fair share of partying too, judging by the looks of you,” Johnny said with a drunk smile.  “Care for a hit?”

            “Yeah,” Michael said, reaching for the joint.  He took a drag and looked around.  Valerie was sitting with one of the other band members, her leg across his lap.  Oh well, she’d served her purpose.  Michael took another puff, coughed, and passed the joint back to the singer.  He didn’t want to get too trashed before he encountered the anomaly, otherwise he wouldn’t be able to interface with his implants properly.  And there was less than a minute to go.

            “Grab a drink and pull up a seat, Michael,” Johnny said, grinning wide as the groupie on his lap kissed his neck.  Michael cleared some cables off an amp and sat down.  A roadie handed him a beer.

            “You must be the creative talent in your band,” said Johnny. “You have that look about you.”

            “Yeah, I write a lot of the songs,” Michael replied.  Less than thirty seconds left.

            “That’s cool, man,” said Johnny.  “I see you’re into Poison, too.  We covered ‘Nothin but a Good Time’ tonight.  Did you catch the show?”

            Michael didn’t reply right away.  He was watching the door closely.  And then the anomaly entered the room.  It was like a humanoid figure of solid white light, blinding him through his radiation vision.  Fortunately everyone else was paying attention to the newcomers, and didn’t see Michael wince and cover his eyes.  They weren’t kidding about the target being saturated.  By the time Michael had switched back to normal vision Johnny was up from his seat, greeting the people that had come in, the groupie that was on his lap lying on the floor.

            “Hey, this is Jimmy,” said Johnny.  Everyone nodded to the teenager or raised their drink.  “He’s my cousin.”

            Interesting, thought Michael.  The anomaly is related to a famous 1980’s rock star.  That would explain the vibrations they picked up.

            He was a scrawny kid, with thin, bony arms.  His hair was long and stringy and probably didn’t get washed too much.  Michael eyed him closely.  The kid was obviously stoned out of his mind.

            “Good show, man,” the kid said, shaking Johnny’s hand.  “I got hit in the head with a pair of panties during ‘Love Like Chains.’”

            Johnny laughed.  “That’s why I wrote that one, Jim.”

            Michael blinked once in disbelief.  Nobody else caught it, because it’d happened so fast.  The kid actually winked out of time while he was talking to his cousin and then popped back in.

Christ, Michael thought to himself.  The kid’s shifting and he doesn’t even realize it.  Just then he felt a strong vibration, like a jolt of electricity, from both the sensors in his brain and gut instinct.  Something big was going to happen in about fifteen minutes.  Something up ahead was making a lot of waves, and it wasn’t natural.  But why?  Unless they were trying to draw attention to themselves, and that could only mean…

“It’s a trap,” Michael muttered to himself.  No one else heard him.  Goddamnit, he thought, how do I always get involved in this shit?  He felt inside his boot, made sure the .38 Luger (a souvenir from one of his trips) was in there, and walked over.  They were all sharing a bottle of Jack Daniel’s when he arrived.  Johnny nodded to him.

“Where’s the rest of your band, Michael?”

Michael shrugged his shoulders.

“That’s what I like about this guy,” Johnny laughed.  “You probably don’t even know how you got here, right?”

“Yeah, I just kinda woke up in the alley back there.” They all laughed.  Johnny passed him the bottle.  Michael took a big, hearty swig.

“There you go!” said Johnny.  He took a drag from his cigarette and lifted his drink.  “Gentlemen, here’s to drugs and broads and fucking rock and roll!”

Michael raised the bottle, toasted, and took another drink.  The red digits in his mind flickered.  At the rate he was going he’d barely be able to see straight in fifteen minutes, let alone face whatever was waiting for him.  The jaws of the trap were closing fast.  Michael looked at Jimmy, felt sorry for him.  He was just another dumb teenager.  He didn’t know anything about time travel or temporal-spatial anomalies--or rogue travelers.  He was probably in a band of his own, had some acne-faced girlfriend, and had a secret stash of weed somewhere in his room where his parents wouldn’t find it.  The typical adolescent thing.  What would he think if he knew that something was going to happen in just over ten minutes which involved him, something that would have serious repercussions throughout space-time?

“You play too?” Michael said to the teen.

“Yeah, I play guitar and sing.  What about you?”

“I’m trying to get something together right now.” Jim nodded, briefly glanced over at Johnny, who had stumbled drunkenly into a cluster of groupies, knocking some of them over.

“Can I bum a smoke?” said Jim.

“Yeah.” Michael pulled out a pack from his jeans and offered one to the kid.  Then he lit one for himself.  Jim took a drag and looked at Michael with bloodshot eyes.

“What did you say your name was?  Michael?”

“Yeah.”

Jim took another drag.  “Can I ask you something, Michael?”

“Sure.”

“What do you really do?”

Michael paused for a moment.  “What do you mean?” he replied.

“You look out of place, man.  It’s like you’re wearing a costume or something.”

Michael was getting nervous.  He didn’t like where the conversation was headed.  He had to hand it to him, though.  The kid was perceptive.

“Are you a cop?” said Jim.

“No, I’m not a cop,” said Michael.

“Then who are you and where are you from?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Michael half muttered under his breath.  He trailed off toward the end, realizing mid-sentence that he’d slipped up.  The kid was looking at him more seriously now than ever.

“What does that mean?” said Jim.

“Nothing.  I was just fucking around,” said Michael.  But it was too late.  The damage was done.

“I heard what you said,” said the teen.  “Are you from another planet or something?  A Russian spy?  What?”

Faces turned toward them.  “Is everything okay?” said Valerie, looking up from her place on the couch.  The jig was almost up.

“Just forget it,” said Michael, flustered.  He turned to walk away, talk to somebody else before the situation got out of hand, but a female voice stopped him.  It wasn’t Valerie this time, however.

“Michael.”

He reeled around, looked past the frozen expressions.  At the far end of the room stood a wrinkled excuse for a human being, pointing a gun directly at him.  At first glance she was an old woman in outlandish attire--teeth nearly all rotted out, wispy white hair, streaked with dull yellow, skin dripping off her body--but she was, in fact, only slightly older than Michael.  From the way she was dressed it looked like she just came out of the old west.

“XP455,” Michael said darkly.  “You’re here early.”

She spat a disgusting glob onto the floor and smiled a crooked smile.  “You know what the early bird gets,” she said, and cocked the hammer on the six-shooter.

“What the hell is going on here?” A thunderclap sounded in the room, and suddenly a fat bodyguard was lying crumpled on the floor in the doorway.  There followed a clicking sound as she cocked the hammer again.

“You know what I want,” said the woman, turning her warped face toward Jim.  “He has an interest in a certain anomaly.”

“Run, Jim,” Michael said very low.

“Huh?” said the teen.

“Goddamnit, run!” Michael dropped to the floor and reached for his boot in one fluid motion.  Another shot exploded from the six-shooter, shattering a bottle on the table in front of him.  Broken glass and liquor rained down on Michael’s head as he pointed the gun through the legs of the table.  He squeezed the trigger.

A shrill screech rang through the building.  Michael looked up above the table just in time to see the woman disappear.  The other people in the room were mannequins, frozen in contorted expressions of fear and disbelief.  But Jim was not among them.  Michael leapt over the table, knocking over bottles, ashtrays, a two-foot bong.  There were more roadies and bodyguards at the door, looking bewildered, but Michael pushed through them, brandishing the gun like a backstage pass.  A girl screamed as he pushed her aside, shoving through the people in the hallway, scanning the faces for Jim.  When he got to the steel crash doors he kicked them open and stumbled into the cool air.

A gun went off in the still night.  Michael gripped his stomach with his free hand, felt the warm blood washing over it, and dropped to his knees.  He should’ve known.  The woman was standing there, a mere ten yards away, blood dripping down her right leg from where Michael had shot her.  Apparently he’d hit her square in the thigh, because all her weight was shifted to her other leg.  She had Jim with her, her arm locked around his neck.  Jim looked both scared and confused, but at the same time defiant and understandably pissed off.  The woman pointed the gun at Michael and cocked the hammer.

“You drop that gun, Michael,” she said.  “Or I’ll blow your hand off first.”

Michael slowly set the gun down on the pavement.  He struggled to get to his feet, but only managed to put one foot flat on the ground.  Blood dripped onto the leg of his jeans, staining away the stonewash pattern.  He looked up into the barrel of the gun, like he’d done so many times before, face to face with the temporal cannon.  But this was it.  There was no coming back from this trip.

“See you in the history books,” the woman said triumphantly, with a little tinge of spite.  She smiled a toothless smile and nodded farewell to Michael, who continued to look directly at her.

But then there was a clicking noise, and suddenly Jim’s fist was buried deep inside the woman’s gut.  She gasped loudly and stumbled backward with a surprised look on her face.  The handle of a switchblade protruded from her stomach.

“You little fucker,” she said, staring wide-eyed at the boy.  She grasped the knife with one hand, pulled it out with a yelp, and pointed the gun at him.

“Michael, help!” screamed Jim.  The Luger was already in Michael’s hand, and he unloaded the rest of the clip.  The crooked figure of the rogue traveler dropped to the ground.

Michael let go of the gun and slouched down onto one elbow.  Jim ran over to him.

“What’s a nice kid like you doing packing a piece?” Michael laughed as the kid put his arm around him.

“I had it for a while.  Never thought I’d really need it, though.”

“The cops are going to be here soon, Jim.  You’d probably better tell them you don’t know what this is about.”

“I don’t.”

“Good, then don’t worry about it.” Michael put his head back onto the cement and closed his eyes.

“What about you?  Aren’t they going to toss you in the joint once you’re out of the hospital?”

“I’ll be gone by then.”

“How did you know she was coming after me?” said Jim.  “Were you sent to protect me?  Are you my guardian angel or something?”

Michael chuckled.  “I guess so, Jim.  That’s what my name means, you know—Engel.  It means Angel.”

“Man, this is some strange shit,” said Jim, just as an ambulance was pulling up.

Of course there’d be questions.  Throughout his hospital stay Michael would have to talk to detectives about the bizarre events of the evening, and the mysterious woman who they wouldn’t be able to identify.  In the end it didn’t matter what he told them, because they wouldn’t believe him anyway.  When he was well enough to go he’d have to pull his old Houdini act and shift out of there, hopefully without leaving too many loose ends, and then he’d begin his long journey home.  In the meantime he wasn’t going to worry too much.  After all, he needed the rest.