The monitors beeped. The machines gently whooshed. Together, they produced a steady rhythm of sound.
Beep-beep. Whoosh. Beep-beep. Whoosh.
It would have been hypnotizing, soothing, if the man listening to them had let them be.
To Harry Ioki, they were the stark sounds of failure. His failure. Every beep and every whoosh just drove home the fact that it was his fault his partner was lying near-death in a hospital bed.
'It should be me lying there,' he thought, not for the first time. 'It should be me '
The creaking of the door penetrated his dark thoughts, and Harry looked up.
"How is she?" Tom asked quietly once hed closed the door behind him.
Harry shook his head. "Same."
Tom nodded. He moved up to Hoffs bed, opposite Ioki, and looked down at Judy with a troubled gaze. He rested one hand on her forearm.
Harry noticed the dark red stains on Hansons white shirt cuffs. Blood. Judys blood. The splotches matched the red and green Christmas tie that hung, loosened, around Toms neck, the one hed worn to the Chapel party only five hours ago.
Harry shuddered. Some Christmas party
After a few seconds of silence, Hanson cleared his throat. "Justin Bowler died in surgery fifteen minutes ago," he said. He glanced at Harry, who had his jaw clenched.
"Good," Ioki muttered. At least they didnt have to worry about that scumbag anymore. Hed done enough damage already.
A rustle of clothing, and Tom was beside Harry. "You gonna be okay?"
"No." Blunt, but true.
There was a pause, and then a gentle: "Its not your fault, Harry."
Harry blinked back a few tears and said fiercely, "Isnt it? Isnt it, Tom? I was the one to recognize him first I was the one he was aiming at " He swallowed hard and continued in a whisper, "I froze. And, and Judy Dammit! If I had moved quicker, she wouldnt have had to push me out of the way!"
"Harry " A hand landed on Harrys shoulder
"No, Tom," he snapped, shrugging away from the brotherly touch and standing up. The rest of his words died on his lips when he saw the look in Hansons eyes. It was a look he was sure was in his own, should he bother to look in a mirror. He took a deep breath and tried to compose himself. "Look, Im sorry. I just, I just need to get some air."
Harry grabbed his jacket from the back of his chair, walked to the door, then looked back. "Youll come find me if anything changes?"
Hanson nodded. "Yeah, of course."
*** *** ***
Harry walked past the waiting room where everybody else sat waiting. He tried to ignore their concerned faces as they watched him stride across the linoleum floor to the bank of elevators.
Outside it was cold and wet. The falling snow was more like falling slush, and it melted immediately upon impact with the cement sidewalk and asphalt street. Harry pulled his jacket on and shoved his hands into the deep pockets.
The colored lights strung along the front of the hospital entrance depressed him even more, reminding him that tomorrow was Christmas. He thought of all the people eagerly anticipating the coming holiday. The children tucked snugly beneath their blankets waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. The merriness. The cheeriness.
His feet started walking, hoping to leave those thoughts behind. They followed him, though, down one street after another.
Judy had been excited about Christmas, had been looking forward to it. But it didnt look like shed get to exchange presents with them all, at midnight, like she had planned. Because somehow, in a room full of twenty cops, a vengeful lunatic with a .38 Chief Special had destroyed everything.
The thing was, Harry should have seen the man. Should have recognized him. He had been the arresting officer, after all, the one who had put Bowler behind bars. Should have acted faster But he hadnt been carrying his gun, hadnt thought hed need it at the party, and he would never forgive himself for that.
A car drove by, splashing water from the street onto Harrys pant legs. He grimaced, shaking one sodden leg. "Just great."
He came across a small park in-between two tall buildings. A cast iron bench sat beneath a lonely pine tree. Harry dropped sank down on it, somewhat protected from the falling slush by the hanging boughs. He rested his elbows on his thighs, and his face in his hands, and took a deep breath.
A few blocks away, the hospital chapels bells chimed twelve. The sound resounded through the eerily quiet night.
"Christmas," Ioki sighed, leaning his head on the back of the bench and closing his eyes. He wasnt looking forward to it. If Judy didnt make it He didnt know what hed do.
He wished hed never met Justin Bowler. Wished hed never arrested him. Then he never would have gone to the Chapel looking for revenge. Hell, he wished hed never been born .
He tried to picture what that would be like. Judy certainly wouldnt be in the hospital At this late hour, she would either be at home asleep or possibly still at the Chapel, celebrating.
'But at least shed be safe,' a small voice whispered.
"Got any spare change?"
Harry opened his eyes at the unexpected words. A man stood before him, hunched over against the wind. By his dress and overall scraggly appearance, Harry guessed that he was one of the citys many homeless.
"Uh, yeah." Harry straightened up from his slouch and dug into his coat pocket. "Its pretty cold out here, pal," he continued. "You might want to think about going to a shelter for the night."
"Youd think," the man agreed, somewhat wistfully. He accepted the ten-dollar bill Ioki handed him with a nod of thanks. "What about you, dont you have someplace to be? Its Christmas."
Harry hesitated, then said, "Yeah, I do. Id better get back, actually." He vacated the bench and, with an absent goodbye to the stranger, directed his steps back the way hed come.
*** *** ***
He walked past the soda machine and rounded the final corner, coming to a surprised halt. He had expected to see Doug or Tom or any one of the others still sprawled in their chairs, but the waiting room was empty. Where had they gone?
A second later, realization came, and Harry practically ran down the corridor, his wet shoes squeaking all the way. He threw open the door to Hoffs private room. "Judy?" Only she wasnt there, and neither were the others. An elderly woman occupied the rooms only bed; she appeared to be sound asleep.
Confused, he checked the number on the door. No, he hadnt made a mistake; this was Judys room.
Back in the corridor, Harry quickly scanned both directions. "Where is everybody?"
Two female nurses rounded the corner, talking and laughing. The topic of discussion was a disastrous date that one of the women had been on.
"Hey, excuse me," Harry called. The nurses didnt look up from their conversation. "Hey," he tried again, running towards them. "Wheres Judy Hoffs, the woman who was in 211?"
"Who?" the blonde nurse asked, Harrys question finally registering.
Harry pointed down the hall. "Room 211. Judy Hoffs, the police officer who was shot ." His voice trailed off as the nurses looked at each other in confusion.
"Mrs. Hill has been in 211 for the past two days, recovering from abdominal surgery," the redhead stated. "Are you sure youve got the right room?"
Harry waved his hand in frustration. "Yes, Im sure! My partner was just in there an hour ago I was in there, sitting with her."
The blonde shrugged, glancing uneasily between Harry and her friend. "Im sorry, sir. I dont know what to tell you. Why dont you ask at the desk?"
The women walked away, whispering, and Harry stared after them. "What the hell is going on?" he muttered to himself, turning around in a full circle and taking in the now-empty corridor.
"Shes not here."
Harry spun around. The man, the homeless man from the park. He leaned against one wall. He held a large sandwich in one hand and proceeded to pick onions out of it with the other. Satisfied that it was onion free, he took a healthy bite.
"What are you doing here?" Harry asked, surprised.
"They make the best turkey clubs at the cafeteria," the man said as he chewed, then added, "Like I said, your friends arent here."
His words finally sank in, and Harry took a menacing step forward. "What do you know about my friends? Where are they?" he demanded.
"I can show you." He finally looked up from his snack. "If youre interested."
*** *** ***
Outside once again, Harry kept one eye on his current companion and used the other to scan the parking lot. He didnt see Hansons Mustang or Fullers vehicle anywhere. 'Great,' he thought. 'No ride.'
"Cmon," the guy said, moving. Silently, Ioki asked himself just what the hell he thought he was doing. But, lured by the promise of answers, he reluctantly followed.
"Do you have a name or something?" Ioki asked, tired of thinking of him as the guy.
They wandered into a less populated area of the hospital parking lot. Phil stopped at one car, a new blue convertible with a white retractable top. He glanced around once, then tested the drivers side door; it was, surprisingly, unlocked.
"Hey!" Harry whispered loudly, looking around guiltily. "What do you think youre doing? This is stealing!"
"Relax, were just borrowing it."
Phil moved his arm to open the door, and Harry grabbed it roughly. "No," he said.
"Fine," Phil responded. "Then you go back inside and ask the receptionist about your friends. But I guarantee you theyre not in there."
"Well, how about you tell me where the hell they are, and why theyre not in the hospital like they were an hour ago? Im tired of all this mystery crap!"
"Theyre not in there," Phil began, pulling his arm out of Harrys grasp, "because your partner was never shot. She was never shot because that creep Bowler never crashed your Christmas party looking for you. And he never did that because you never arrested him, never became a cop. You, my friend, were never born." He straightened his tattered coat. "Satisfied?"
First there was a moment of incredulity, during which Ioki almost laughed outright. That was quickly replaced with suspicion. Harry held up a hand, took a step back, and shook his head in denial and disbelief. "Stop. Wait, right there. Youre nuts. What, you cant come up with a better story than that? Ive seen this movie."
"Yeah?" Phil cocked an eyebrow. "Then you know the drill."
*** *** ***
"I cant believe Im doing this," Harry muttered as he drove the "borrowed" convertible. "Grand theft auto. This is ridiculous."
"You missed the exit," said Phil.
Harry shot him a frustrated look and swung the car around in a u-turn.
Theyd been driving for about half an hour or so on the strangely empty highway, heading out of the city, past the railroad tracks and the warehouses. As Harry directed the car down the off ramp, he noticed that they were in the suburbs.
This particular piece of suburbia looked somewhat familiar: small parks of grass and trees, two-story brick houses, neatly cultivated hedges and flower bushes. Leafless trees dotted the yard. An occasional bush or window was decorated with colored strings of lights, splashes of cheer in the close darkness.
"Fuller lives here," Harry realized. "Or he did, anyway." He recalled the weekend he and the rest of the gang had helped the police captain move out of his house and into his new apartment in the city.
Phil remained silent.
Harry navigated the quiet streets and, without thinking about it, without needing to think about it, headed in the direction of Fullers old house.
"Why are we here?" he asked suddenly.
Phil shrugged. "You wished you were never born, remember?"
Harry stared at him for a second, then turned back to the road, rolling his eyes. "Oh, of course. That explains everything."
"I knew youd get it," the older man said, grinning widely. Then, looking out the rain-washed window, he said, "Up there."
The house was constructed of red brick and sturdy cedar; the latter appeared silvery-red in the backwash of Christmas lights.
The curtains of one large window were pulled open. White lace shears remained closed, but a gaily-decorated fir tree could be seen beyond the folds.
"But he doesnt live here anymore," Harry reasoned, even as he exited the car.
"Just follow me."
Phil started up the cement walkway. Ioki hesitated a few seconds, but, inevitably, his curiosity got the better of him. He reached Phil, who stood in front of the window. Light spilled onto the two men, and Harry scanned the street, positive that a neighbor would spot them and call the police.
Movement in his peripheral vision caught Iokis attention, and he turned to the window. "Its Fuller."
Peering through the lace, Harry could make out a cozy-looking living room. There was Fuller, wearing pajamas and a blue bathrobe. He held a steaming mug of something or other in one hand. The opposite hand was attached to his arm, of course, which was in turn wrapped around the shoulders of a smiling woman. His ex-wife, Harry realized, remembering the one picture he had ever seen of her. Only she didnt look so ex.
A young man, maybe twenty years old, came into the room then. 'That must be Kip.'
Harry glanced over at Phil. The man was gazing upon the scene with a regretful shake of his head. Trying to see what he saw, Harry once more looked inside. The family had begun to open presents. Kip walked over to the tree, to the window, and Harry ducked. Phil didnt move.
"Okay, Im confused," Harry whispered, turning to face his companion. "I thought the point of this was to show me how terrible things are without me around. Thats the way it was in the movie. But they look happy in there."
"Hmm," Phil responded. "They do, dont they?"
He turned away and walked across the sodden lawn towards the car. Harry threw one last glance at the view through the window, then followed, feeling hopelessly lost.
At the car, Phil said, "Adam wanted to be a cop since he was about ten, did you know that?"
Harry shook his head.
"Yup. Joined the force after college. But his wife, well, she never liked his job. Pestered him to resign. She left him when he wouldnt. A couple years later, though, he quit anyway. The two of them got back together. Shes happy. Hes trying to be."
"But I dont understand," Harry replied. "How " He shook his head in confusion. "How do I fit in?"
"In an indirect, roundabout way, your absence caused him to make some different choices," Phil explained.
Harry looked back at the house. Somehow, despite the cheerful lights, it looked lonely and sad.
*** *** ***
The windshield wipers swished-swished, clearing the glass the best they could of slushy rain. Harry shivered and turned the heat up full blast. Just the few minutes hed spent in front of Fullers window had left him soaked and thoroughly chilled.
He didnt know where they were headed next. He just followed Phils occasional directions. Phil, for the most part, was quiet, seemingly giving Harry some time to ruminate over the nights events.
That was fine with Harry. He needed time to ruminate.
Hed long ago come to the conclusion that he was dreaming that had to be it. This whole entire, bizarre scenario was a dream. Hed seen "Its A Wonderful Life" countless times; And it made sense that, it being Christmas, his subconscious would pull that particular movie from the recesses of his brain to examine expunge -- his guilt over Judys injury. Right?
Except, if he was dreaming, why did the water dripping down the back of his neck feel so wet and cold?
'Maybe you fell asleep in the park, Harry told himself. Youre sitting on that bench getting soaked through and through, and its being incorporated into your dream. That makes sense.'
Sure, that was it.
The windshield wipers swished-swished.
*** *** ***
The church was made of stone, and had probably been built at least fifty years ago. Block letters fixed to a squat, concrete and stone sign identified it as St. Matthews. Warm light filtered out through the stained glass windows, an invitation to passersby to come in and celebrate midnight Mass.
Inside the vestibule, Harry and Phil peered in at the throng of worshipers.
"Fifth row from the back, right hand side," Phil said.
"What?" said Harry, puzzled. "Therere people blocking the way."
Phil raised an eyebrow, pointing out the obvious solution to that.
Harry sighed and made his way along the back wall, making himself as unobtrusive as he could without looking suspicious. He knew from the nurses back at the hospital that he could be seen, so he remained casual as he counted off the pews.
Fifth from the rear, right hand side.
There was an empty space on the end nearest the wall, and Harry quietly slipped into it. He glanced around, and was startled to see Phil right next to him, standing in the aisle. He hadnt realized that the man had followed him. "Geez!" he whispered. "Sneak up on a guy why dontcha."
The woman to his left gave him an odd look, and Harry picked up a hymnal and pretended to sing along with the congregation.
Glancing down the pew to his left, Harry whispered from the corner of his mouth, "What am I -- ?" But he stopped when he found what he was supposed to see.
Doug Penhall was situated in the middle of the pew, an open hymnal in his hands, singing. He wore dark slacks and a colorful button down shirt. No tie. His hair was the same length, still hung over his brow in boyish unruliness.
All in all, he looked normal.
Beside him was Clavo, appearing freshly scrubbed and starched to the max.
"I didnt know Penhall was Catholic," he mused.
"Hes only here for Clavo," Phil finally said.
Harry continued to watch the pair, Penhall in particular. Despite the fact that he only saw Penhalls profile, Ioki could see frown lines around his friends mouth that hadnt previously existed.
Finally, he looked over at Phil, a question in his expression.
"This isnt a good Christmas for Doug," Phil said. "Its been a rough year Fullers resignation, the program in danger of being shut down Tom Judy Not to mention Marta. You know, the trip to El Salvador was a lot harder for him without Tom to help him through it." Phil shook his head sadly.
Harry shook his head, rewinding what hed just heard and playing it again. "Wait. Wait. Wait. Back up. What about Tom and Judy?"
"Tragic, really," said Phil.
"What is?" Harry hissed.
The woman next to him was staring at him again; she scooted over, placing a few more inches of space between them.
Frustrated, wanting answers, Ioki grabbed hold of Phils arm and quickly led him out into the empty vestibule.
"Now tell me, dammit! What happened to Tom, to Judy?" he demanded, shaking the older man. "Show me!" 'Oh, god,' he prayed. 'Dont let them be where I think they are.'
Phil pulled his arm out of Harrys grasp. "All right, all right. Chill."
Harry opened his mouth to say that he didnt want to chill, but he never got the chance.
*** *** ***
A disorienting moment later, Harry shook his head and staggered forward a step. "Whoa. Head rush."
"Yeah, you get used to it."
Realization settled over him. "Hey, whats the deal?" Harry demanded. "If you can just snap your fingers like that and zap us somewhere, whyd we even steal a car?!"
Phil shrugged somewhat sheepishly. "Sometimes a guys gotta take the long route, ya know? Take in some scenery. I dont get the chance very often."
The fact that it was too dark to see any possible scenery along the highway crossed Iokis mind, but it swiftly faded into unimportance when he saw their new surroundings.
Green, carefully manicured grass spread out for acres, divided by winding asphalt paths. Scatterings of large, shady weeping willows and cone-bearing pines dotted the lawns. Stone and marble slabs rose from the ground; swathed in shadows, they cast some strange ones of their own in the diluted glow of antique streetlamps.
A feeling of dread, as solid and uncomfortable as a hunk of ice, settled in the pit of his stomach.
"Oh no," Harry murmured. He turned to Phil and pleaded, "Come on, dont tell me theyre dead. Tom and Judy?" He spun on his heel, taking in the sight of innumerable headstones spread out among the silent landscape.
"Sorry, pal," Phil offered, a sympathetic look on his face. He gestured one-handedly to a gray sandstone plaque that was set, slightly raised, into the ground.
With rubbery knees, Harry approached the marker and knelt down before it on soggy grass. A wrought iron street lamp some twenty feet away allowed just enough light for him to read the words engraved onto the plaque:
Beloved Son, Friend, Partner
The date of death was only five months ago.
"Ah, geez," Ioki croaked out, placing one hand on the headstone. He asked, "How?"
"Did he die?" Phil supplied. Harry nodded. "It was that whole mess with that crazy girl, Quincy. Without you there to stop him, that bozo rent-a-cop shot him. Shattered his spine with the first bullet and shredded his heart with the second. He died on the operating table."
Harry shut his eyes tight against the horrible image that Phils words conjured. "God " A plea to wake up from this oh-so-realistic nightmare. He stood up, hesitated. "And Judy?"
"She died in a car accident a few months before Tom. Your birthday, actually, only you were never born. She shouldve turned south to pick you up at your place, but instead she turned north and was broad sided by a drunk driver." He added, "Her graves not far from here, if you want to see it?"
Harry shivered and mutely shook his head. He couldnt think of anything hed rather do less than see his partners name carved into a stone plaque like the one before which he knelt. It was so cold, so harsh, so final. It was something that he had, from time to time, had nightmares about.
And the events of just hours before had rudely thrust upon him the possibility of actually seeing those nightmares come true.
A sudden fear grabbed hold of him, a fear that, while he was wherever he was Judy had slipped away. Without giving him a chance to ask her to hold on, or to say goodbye.
"I want to go home," he demanded. "Ive had enough. Take me home."
"But were not done yet," said Phil. "Theres more to see "
"No, we are done." Harry threw his arms up in a gesture that encompassed the entire cemetery. "I dont want to see anymore -- Ive learned my lesson, or whatever this is supposed to be. Im sorry I ever wished I were never born. There are things I cant control; I realize that. Now take me home. Please."
He stepped forward and reached out a hand to grab hold of Phils shoulder, not sure what he would do but desperately wanting to get back to Judy, to the others. But he must have blinked, and when he opened his eyes again Phil was gone. His gathered momentum propelled him forward, and he staggered a few steps, clutching thin air.
The cemetery was gone, also. The trees, the headstones, all gone.
A quick, three-sixty degree spin revealed that he was back in the hospital parking lot. Standing next to a new, blue convertible with a white retractable top.
His relieved exhalation came out as a half laugh, half choke. He rubbed his hands over his face, wiping away as much water as he could.
It had stopped raining.
"A dream," he said, giddy. "Just a dream."
He mustve just lost track of time when he took his walk. Zoned out, had a sort of mental blackout, dreamed his weird little dream. The stress of the evening had gotten to him, he reasoned.
But how long was he gone? He looked at his watch. Almost three hours. Theyd be wondering where he was.
A smile split his face, and he raced across the parking lot, not caring that his splashing through puddles was leaving his legs wetter than their already soaked state.
He dashed through the entrance, down the hall, to the elevator. He fidgeted through the two seconds it took to reach the right floor, and then bounded across the checkered linoleum the instant the doors chimed open. He skidded to a stop at the waiting room. It was empty.
"No," he whispered in horror. Hed been so sure that this was real. So sure.
Harry spun around and saw Tom Hanson walking toward him, alive. A vision of a gray sandstone plaque passed through Harrys mind, and when Hanson was near enough he dragged him in for a relieved hug.
Surprised, not quite sure what was going on, Tom awkwardly patted Harry on the back. "Uh, Harry?"
"Yeah?" came Harrys voice, muffled by Hansons shirt.
"You, uh, wanna let me go? Youre getting me all wet."
Harry pulled away and grinned. "Sorry."
"Weve been looking all over for you. Whered you go?" Hanson asked, brow wrinkled
"I sort of went for a walk," Harry replied, as the two started down the hall. "A long walk. Hows Judy?" he continued worriedly.
Hanson grinned and draped an arm over his friends shoulder. "Shes gonna be fine, Har. Shes gonna be fine. Shes awake right now."
Harry sighed with relief at the good news. Hed been so afraid that shed died while he was off in la la land
They reached Room 211. Hanson held open the door, and Ioki went in first. Fuller and Penhall were there, as well as Hoffs parents.
"Ioki!" Penhall greeted.
Judy turned her head to smile at the newcomer. "Hey, Harry."
"Hey, yourself." He gently took hold of her hand. "Howre you doing?"
"Im all right." She looked him up and down. "Youre all wet. Have you been playing in the mud again?"
Perplexed, Harry looked down. Sure enough, there was mud and grass stains all over his lower pant legs. Almost as if, as if hed been kneeling in wet grass
He felt his jaw drop open and his eyes go wide.
"Harry? Whats wrong? Harry?"