Tyler turned, his throbbing face resting on Lula’s shoulder as she dabbed at his cheek with a bloodied handkerchief. He sat unbuckled in the backseat of a moving car
“You still pawing over him?” asked Rex in his clipped baritone.
“You want blood on your seats?” howled Lula.
Tyler turned to his right to find Rex seated next to him, a wide grin revealing teeth white enough to match his starched shirt.
“Well, if it ain’t Rip Van Winkle. You get blood on my seat, I’ll tear your face off.”
“It’s Faye you want, not this poor sap,” said Lula, handing Tyler the bloodied rag to keep his own face clean.
“Why you think I’m getting’ rid of him? It’s for me and you, and I’ll buy you a new mink to thank you for the head’s up.”
Tyler turned to Lula, but she averted her gaze. He should have known not to trust her.
“I don’t want no mink. You can let him go. Why are we getting’ mixed up in all this.”
“Because I’m a business man, sweet thing. Which you might understand if you could quit being sentimental for one goddamn second.”
Tyler was hoping the discussion would play out in his favor, but Lula’s silence was blatant capitulation.
“Though that shiner was personal for Joe, given the trouble you put us through and running off like that with that Cuban bitch who’s probably a Commie, now that I think about it.”
“I can still get you that money,” suggested Tyler, remembering that Rex was only handing him over for the reward.
Rex chuckled. “You don’t give up easy. I like that. But a deal’s a deal and the Hammer don’t take to business associates changing their minds.”
It was the first time Tyler heard the name Hammer. He thought he was being released to the Blue Knights.
“Besides,” continued Rex, “I heard you’ve been puttin’ the moves on my girl Faye.”
“I didn’t,” protested Tyler, remembering Fay’s hands on his face and her mouth to his.
Rex slapped Tyler’s face hard.
“She not good enough for you?” he bellowed.
“That’s enough Rex,” said Lula, as Tyler felt his face burn.
“I thought you said you’d do anything for me,” he asked her.
“I will,” she replied.
“Then shut your trap,” he fired back before turning to Tyler. “She’s my prize mare, or don’t you flatworlders know quality merchandise when you see it?”
“What are you gonna do with them?” asked Tyler.
“Put ‘em to work.”
“Laurel doesn’t work for you,” insisted Tyler, risking another slap.
“She does now,” answered Rex with a chuckle. “No stable’s complete without an exotic from another world.”
Tensed, Lula was once again averting her gaze, seething in silence.
“I can thank you for that,” continued Rex, giving Tyler an affectionate pat on the cheek. “But there are bridges made of money I don’t intend to burn.”
“They need you more than you need them,” declared Lula.
“And who takes care of my girls?” asked Rex playfully.
He was another collector of women, but Rex and Murdoch couldn’t have been more different, one who revealed too much and the other revealing nothing. Tyler wondered what Rex knew of Murdoch, and whether the right kind of information could prove himself too useful to surrender.
“Murdoch had her,” explained Tyler.
Anguish creased Rex’s face.
“What does he want now?” asked Rex, hands clenched into fists.
“We took her and he wants her back.”
“He might think he owns this city but he don’t own me.”
Tyler heard Rex’s labored breathing before Rex exploded with a clumsy volley of punches to the seat in front of him.
“What happens when he wants me too?” asked Lula, looking for some show of concern.
“He don’t want you,” he fired back. “But I know what he wants. You see why I got to keep in good with the local constabulary, Mr. Tyler. Russell Murdoch wants vice to take me down, but they don’t because they need me to keep their sins hush hush, and every man’s entitled to a little sin sometimes. Heck, even the upstanding Russell Murdoch’s probably the biggest sinner of them all, but even a sinner should know what’s his and what isn’t his, and he’s got no right taking my girls.”
Lula once again nursed a hurt, her fingers twitching as she readjusted her skirt.
“No one’ll back you up like me.”
“Don’t I know it,” said Rex before gazing out the window. “Hey stupid,” he yelled to the driver. “What you doin’ making a right when Rampart’s that way?”
“Sorry,” answered the driver as the car swerved a full on eighty, a tensed Rex struggling not to lose his temper.
“Can you drive, Mr. Tyler?” asked Rex.
“Yes,” answered Tyler, hoping for a reprieve.
“I could use a new driver. Too bad you’re worth so much to the powers that be. Ah, there it is. Down the street.
The car swerved again, Lula thrown against Tyler. Her mouth to his ear, she whispered. “Trial by triumvirate,” she said. “They can’t refuse you.”
Tyler turned to see if the other cars were following, but Laurel and Faye must have been taken to another location. So much for rescuing her, and so much for his own freedom.
The building housing the local police headquarters was underwhelming, but the police presence out front was imposing, with at least twenty officers in blue coats and caps awaiting Rex’s car as it pulled to the curb.
It took about five seconds for the driver to leave the front seat and open the rear door for Rex. No sooner had Tyler followed Rex outside than he was pushed to the ground, his face smashing the curb, and hands clasping his neck as manacles were clasped over his wrist. Once handcuffed, he was kicked and pulled to his feet, hands now behind his back. His head was still throbbing from the punch to the face and Rex’s hard slap.
Tyler caught Lula gazing at him from inside the car, but she quickly turned away.
“And my reward?” asked Rex.
A local captain, greying hair fringing his blue cap and epaulettes on his uniform, took Tyler by the arm.
“In due course,” answered the Captain. The other Blue Knights clustered around Tyler, forming a makeshift wall of blue.
“I was promised,” whined Rex.
“And you’ll get it once we confirm his identity.”
“He’s the flatworlder,” answered Rex, pointing at Tyler.
“So you say. But the Hammer has the final say.”
“I’ll wait,” said Rex, defiantly, his arms crossed.
A hand grabbed his other arm as someone pushed him from behind, feet kicking at his legs as he stumbled up the steps and into the police headquarters.
Hands pulled him up as other hands pushed him to the floor and dragged him from one room to another, smacking his face and kicking him in the back until he was thrown unceremoniously into an office, his face still dripping blood. He’d emerged from a gauntlet of abuse, only to find himself alone
Someone snorted loudly. He wasn’t alone.
“I’m waiting Mr. Tyler,” intoned a peremptory voice, loud and impatient. Tyler struggled to find his footing, his body bruised and tender.
An elegantly uniformed man in his late fifties, collar tight around his neck and eyes narrow with mistrust. If he didn’t blink, one might guess he was a wax figure for his surprising lack of movement.
As the man behind the desk gazed at an empty chair, Tyler took the hint and sat in it.
“First and last name?” asked the man.
“Tyler Hackett,” answered Tyler.
“I said first and last name, Mr. Tyler.”
“It’s not Mr. Tyler. It’s Mr. Hackett.”
The uniformed man glared before returning his gaze to a sheet of paper on his otherwise empty desk. The silence was unnerving.
“Identification?” asked the man.
“I don’t have any,” replied Tyler. “Have I been charged with anything?”
The man glared. “Where do you reside?” he asked.
Tyler hesitated before providing his grandmother’s address in Bunker Hill. He would deny being a flatworlder.
“Then what were you doing at Allah’s Garden?”
Tyler didn’t know how to answer the question without revealing too much.
“And what’s this place called?” asked the senior officer.
“Two Cities,” answered Tyler.
“Which resembles …” continued the officer, inviting Tyler to fill in the blank, as it were.
“Los Angeles,” said Tyler without thinking.
The officer grinned. “You know Los Angeles?”
“I’ve heard of it.”
“Only flatworlders tell tales of other worlds that don’t really exist. Or maybe you don’t really exist?”
Tyler didn’t know what to say. Was it possible that everything was imagined?
“So how did you get in here from Los Angeles?”
“I walked in,” he answered, careful not to be too specific about the entry point, lest he be forever blocked from leaving.
“You walked in?” asked the officer, cracking a smile.
“Yes,” said Tyler; although he wondered why flatworlders were feared if no one believed they came from another world.
“And why did you come here?” asked the officer.
“To find someone who didn’t belong here,” answered Tyler before realizing he may have jeopardized Laurel’s safety.
“And who’s that?”
“I never found her,” answered Tyler, lying. “I was going to take her back home.”
“So you came to rescue someone?” asked the officer.
“Did I do something wrong?” asked Tyler.
The officer stood up, his body more rotund than Tyler first expected, almost pear-shaped.
“You expect me to believe you don’t know why you’re here?” asked the officer.
“Is it because I’m not from here?”
“It’s because you want people to believe you’re from another world, the better to stir them up and the better to prompt law abiding citizens to criminality, vice and revolution.”
Tyler was too surprised by the accusation to fashion a reply.
“It’s what you flatworlders are,” continued the officer as he approached Tyler. “You claim that being an outsider means you don’t have to play by the rules, that you can adjust them to suit your purpose and that others can do the same.”
“I didn’t come here to change anything,” insisted Tyler.
“You came to rescue someone. What’s her name?”
“Russell Murdoch has her.”
The punch to the side of the head knocked Tyler from the chair to the floor.
“No lies,” roared the officer.
Tyler could feel his ears ringing, the beating of his heart hurried, and almost thunderous in volume.
“Laurel,” answered Tyler as the officer stood over him, triumphant over a fallen adversary.
“And you know Mr. Murdoch had her because you took her away, didn’t you?”
Tyler was still trying to recover his hearing when the officer kicked him hard in the lower back.
“I’ll answer your questions,” pleaded Tyler, feeling like a coward in the face of savagery. Wasn’t this the kind of self-righteous barbarism that prompted revolutions in the first place?
“I already know the answers,” said the officer, seating himself on his desk. “But every lie will cost you. Now where is this Laurel?”
“Rex took her,” answered Tyler, relieved to shift the pressure to someone else.
A moment of silence gave Tyler the opportunity to get his bearings. Using the chair to climb to his feet, he turned. There was a black and white photo on the wall of the officer and Murdoch shaking hands for a photo opp. What was the law then but a vehicle for men of influence and power?
“See that Mr. Regan surrenders her immediately,” said the officer to someone on the phone. “And give him a reminder that withholding information comes at a price and that dishonest informants are of no use to me.”
Tyler turned to face the officer as he hung up the phone. An open door revealed a name engraved on the door. “Commander Archibald Hammer” it read, which meant the officer glaring at him was none other than The Hammer himself.
“Would you like to go home?” asked The Hammer with a grin.
“Yes,” replied Tyler, suspecting The Hammer wasn’t all that dreadful, provided he didn’t catch someone in a lie; but that was just excusing the inexcusable.
The Hammer approached once again, Tyler readying himself for the perfunctory fist to the face. It was the customary violence that ensured that only a lunatic would risk challenging the order of things, and that order was built on coercion and fear.
“And take Laurel with you?” continued The Hammer, surprising Tyler by not hitting him.
Tyler nodded, retreating as The Hammer approached; and then the man stopped, examining Tyler before chuckling to himself.
“If it’s you, you don’t even realize it,” observed The Hammer.
“Realize what?” asked Tyler.
“That someone’s claiming to be Ozymandias and now I have a city overrun with all manner of bottom feeders, calling for a better future when all this scum wants is to heap that future with filth, though we’ll exterminate them first.”
“Mr. Murdoch called himself Ozymandias.”
The Hammer threw himself at Tyler, throwing him against the wall and pressing his hand to Tyler’s throat. Tyler couldn’t breathe.
“Ozymandias is a lie,” roared The Hammer, “and you’re a liar.”
The Hammer threw Tyler to the floor. Choking as he caught his breath, Tyler waited for The Hammer to follow up with a few well-aimed kicks, but nothing happened.
“The more you people try to turn the system on its head,” growled The Hammer, “the more firmly we’ll plant our feet on what is ours, not yours. I know how to fight people like you and I know how to win, because for all your talk about how people are too afraid to do what’s right, you’re just as afraid, afraid that you’ll die and that nothing will change; though when you realize that everything’s as it ought to be and that I’m here for good reason, knocking sense into miscreants like you, maybe you’ll realize how your mischief was all in vain. And don’t even think of disparaging a man like Russell Murdoch without asking yourself if you could do the same as he. He brings sanity and clarity to a world without a center to hold it together, though if you ask me, he’s that center and I’m happy for it. You would be too if you knew your own best interests, which you don’t and which is why you’re on my floor.”
But who was this Russell Murdoch who lured people with lies and then kept them prisoner. It was all Tyler could think about, though he was careful to keep his thoughts to himself
“A good thing you’ll have plenty of time to mull over your misdirected life in Twin Towers,” said The Hammer as he walked behind his desk and sat down.
Tyler could have imagined himself anywhere else, but how easy it was to forget his ability to shift time, and to believe himself like everyone else. This world never felt more painfully real and yet all he could imagine was waking up and forgetting it altogether. And yet he was supposed to remember. What was there to remember?