“There we go.”
“He’s still spacing.”
“Where am I?”
“You had a little knock on the head, buddy.”
“Jesus, a hospital?”
“It’s a whole lot better than a morgue. How many fingers?”
“Now how many?”
“Abby, would you kindly enter Einstein?”
“I was really hoping—”
“I know what time it is. We’re spread thin tonight. What’s your name?”
“Jeff Malmquist. Would you please tell me where I am and what I am doing here?”
“You banged your head.”
“I got shot?”
“Because you’re talking to me. But we’re worried the bullet took some of your memory with it. And you have to explain your clothes and your identification. You’re not in the system. How did you get across?”
“I snuck across.”
“Right. Your gun isn’t registered. Quite the anomaly.”
“The Gary cops gave it to me.”
“So I could protect myself getting back to Chicago.”
“You lost your gun?”
“What’s your address?”
“What year is it?”
“I don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“What do you mean you don’t know your address? It’s on your driver’s license.”
“That’s forty-five years ago.”
“What are you doing with a forty-five year old license?”
“I lost my new one. Just get me out of here, please.”
“I agree. I don’t want to deal with this. I’m discharging you.”
A nurse put Malmquist back into his clothes and rolled him to the hospital reception area in a wheelchair. They told him he needed to be confined to bed before undergoing what should be months of physical therapy. As he had no insurance, however, he was on his own. A church charity sponsored by the National Rifle Association had covered the cost of both his rescue and the operation—quite generously so considering he didn’t even have an identity—but that was it. He was turned over to an obese teenage boy armed with a FN P90 submachine gun on one shoulder and an AA-12 shotgun on the other. He helped Malmquist out of the wheelchair and slung his AK-47 over him. The latter was dazed and shaky but able to walk to the parking lot with the boy’s help.
“Who are you?”
“Yeah, I can see that. A nickname?”
“I’m to take you to the halfway house.”
“You work for the hospital?”
“It’s an after-school thing. I’m saving up for a Browning. Everybody at school is laughing at me because I don’t have one.”
“What’s a Browning?”
The boy looked at him squint-eyed. “You know, an M2 .50 caliber. The most famous gun in the world. Still in service since 1933. Only problem is it’s so big and heavy and expensive. Nowhere to use it. Unless I mount it on the back of a pickup. But I don’t have a pickup.”
“Aren’t these enough?”
“These guns? Don’t rub it in. I inherited them from my grandfather and can’t afford to get new ones.”
“Why do you need two?”
“Man, you sure are dumb. You need this one to blast the door open and this one to clear a room full of pedos.”
“I thought all the pedos are in New Gary.”
“What planet are you from? There’s pedos all around. Can’t take any chances. You hear all that shooting in the distance? That’s pedos.”
“They’re shooting? Or being shot at?”
“Wow. Excuse my ignorance. That gunshot really wiped some of my mind away. I need to learn about guns all over again.”
“Hey, do you want to go to Danny’s place? He might be willing to sell you some guns from his major fucking collection so you can get properly armed again.”
“Aren’t you supposed to take me to get some rest?”
“His place is on the way. You can go to the halfway house later. C’mon, let’s go.”
Slim’s car was a cross between a jeep and a golf cart. They drove south down Halsted Street to the Bridgeport neighbourhood, stopped at a house on West 26th and knocked on the door.
“666. What a curious number for a house address,” said Malmquist.
A boy with the face of a dead cherub opened the door and let them in.
“Hey, Danny, this guy just got out of the hospital and wants to see your guns,” said Slim.
“His gun collection? He can’t be more than ten years old,” said Malmquist.
“I’m twelve, you stupid fucking zombie moron,” squeaked the prepubescent. “Why is his head all bandaged up?”
“I had a head injury.”
Danny whipped a black box out of his back pocket, flicked it open and pointed it at Malmquist. “This is a Magpul FMG9 folding machine gun and now you’re going to have a face injury.”
Malmquist raised his hands.
“Just kiddin’ ya,” Danny laughed.
“Show him your Matador.”
Danny went down to his basement and came back up with a large tube-shaped object balanced over his shoulder, while carrying a rifle in his other hand.
“You see that house across the street?” said Danny. “This can punch a hole through the front wall and out through the back wall too. The pedo who lives there, he knows I’m watching him, so he never appears in his front window. But I just blow a few more holes and whamo! I can turn his house into an empty lot in a couple seconds. Now, you know what this is for, don’t you?”
“No, what’s it for?”
“What do you mean you don’t know what it’s for? Any idiot knows what it’s for.”
“Why should I know?’
“I’m asking you.”
“He’s injured, Danny, and has brain damage. Don’t hassle him. I wasn’t even supposed to take him here, but thought you might have an extra gun for him.”
“That piece of shit is all he has? Anyway, when the pedo is running out his backyard trying to escape, I pick him off with this, a KAC M110 sniper rifle. I can get him at night, too, with the night-vision scope.”
“A pedo lives there?”
“You bet. I know that cross-eyed look on their face all right. And then there’s—wait.”
He ran back down to the basement and came back with another weapon.
“Wow, what’s that?”
“This is for shooting around corners. The barrel swings around 180 degrees for shooting backwards too. Here I’ll show you. Stand behind me.”
“No, you can just tell me. How can you shoot backwards accurately?”
“It has tracking bullets.”
“What are those?”
“Are you from planet earth? You don’t even know what tracking bullets are? They have microchips in them. They’re programmed to change course in mid-air.”
“I’m afraid I could never afford one of these guns. I lost all my money and don’t even have any to eat now.”
“Hey, have you ever been to a restaurant?” said Slim. “There’s a new one that opened up down on 63rd Street called Munchees, the only one on the South Side. It’s awesome. We go there a lot. You wanna come?” He noticed the empty half-gallon ice cream carton on the kitchen table. “Oh, Danny’s already eaten lunch.”
“No, that was for breakfast. Let’s go. I wanna see the gang,” said Danny.
“Have I ever been to a restaurant? Of course. Everybody has—where I’m from. Where do you go to eat?” said Malmquist.
They looked at him as if he were still standing after they had blown him away with the Matador. “Everything is delivered,” said Slim. “Let’s go.”
Slim’s rump occupied the front seat on their way to Munchees, Danny and his guns and Malmquist in the back. To get there faster, Slim passed the cars in front by driving into the oncoming traffic lane.
The restaurant was like a mid twentieth-century diner. On one wall was a notice, “NO PEDOFILES ALLOWED.”
They ordered burgers and milkshakes. Some friends of theirs were there and they joined them.
“What do you call a confessional with a trap door?” said Jason the boy comedian. “Catholic daycare. What do they feed the children? Iced wafers.”
“Jason, we’re trying to eat.”
“How many pedos does it take to screw in a light bulb?”
“It depends on the size of the boy.”
Somebody farted. Danny blew his straw’s wrapper at Jason.
“What’s a pedophile’s vehicle of choice? Soft-back pervertible. What do you call a pedo that plays the violin?”
“Kiddie fiddler. Heard that one before,” said Slim.
Danny cocked his hand like a gun and aimed it at Malmquist, mouthing the word “Pow!”
“A pedo walks into a toy store and disappears,” Jason continued.
“Yeah, that’s it. Isn’t it funny?”
“Oh, I get it!” Danny burst out laughing, stood up and released some bullets from his FMG9 into the ceiling. The debris fell onto their table and their food as well. The customers stopped eating and turned around, hands gripping their guns.
“Fuck you, Danny! Look what you’ve done now.”
The owner pointed an AR-15 at him. “Now this is the last time. I told you many times to shape up, you triggerhappy brat. You shot your gun in my property before and you still haven’t compensated me for the damage. I’m calling the cops.”
“Call the cops on me. I don’t care,” said Danny. “We’re all out of here now and we won’t even pay for the lousy food, except meathead here. You’ll pay for us, won’t you meathead? You don’t have much choice, seeing as you can’t move very fast.”
“What’s the matter with you?” the owner asked Malmquist. “Danny shot you in the head?”
“He got shot in New Gary,” said Slim.
“What was he doing in New Gary?”
“They said he got shot just inside the Zone.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” said the owner. “How the hell did you get shot?”
“I indeed had a bullet removed from my brain.”
“How could we have shot you if you was one of us?” said Danny. He ripped off Malmquist’s head bandage. “I know what’s going on. This wasn’t no bullet. You had one of them secret operations done in New Gary to have your chip removed.”
“No. I really was shot.”
“Bullshit!” said Danny, as he and the owner trained their guns on him. “I knew he was a pedo at first sight, Slim. Back off, pedo, we’re turning you in.“ He spoke into his gun. “911? I’d like to report a pedophile. Citizen’s arrest….Yeah, I’m holding him here at Munchees….And the bounty?…But I have evidence….Okay, got it.”
The police promptly arrived and escorted the suspect away.
The neighborhood pedophile unit, or PU, occupied what at first looked like a warehouse were it not for the firetruck. Malmquist, in a red jumpsuit, was seated before two officers in jeans and blue T-shirts with the PU logo. Neatly spread out before him was the contents of his wallet: U.S. greenbacks from the early twenty-first century, an Illinois driver’s license, a Visa card, and loyalty cards for various supermarkets and cafés.
“How long have I been here?”
“You arrived yesterday. Don’t you remember? We put you under.”
“How could I remember if I was put under?”
“Why don’t you tell us about these items?” said the other cop.
“Before I answer any of your questions, would you kindly inform me why I’m in a fire station?”
“Oh? Do you find that unusual? No other government service is better equipped to handle emergencies.”
“Anyway, I thought there would be a distinction between different functions.”
“There are. That firetruck over there occupies Bay 1. Bays 2 and 3 are exclusively for new arrivals.”
“I don’t see too many new arrivals. I heard there was another million coming down the pipeline.”
“We have a hundred of these PU units in Chicago alone, as many again in the suburbs. Well, speak of the devil.”
A bay door opened and in flew an aircar. The occupants were a panicky old lady and a young child. Police officers raised their guns as they got out.”
“Put your hands up on the car,” they commanded the lady as they frisked her.
Other officers grabbed the child. “Where are they taking me, Grandma?”
“This is for your own protection now, little girl,” they told her.
“Granma!” she wailed.
“Well, if this isn’t the damndest outrage! I was flying my girl to my house to babysit her when the car disobeyed my instructions and took me to this fire station, of all places. Can you imagine that? Young men, I demand an explanation. This is most upsetting,” said the grandmother.
As they whisked her away an officer said, “You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you?”
The officers sitting before Malmquist returned to the business at hand and waited for his response.
“They’re from my wallet. What else am I suppose to say?”
“They didn’t do a very good job at concocting a convincing identity for you. Your namesake dates from forty-five years ago.”
“I am my namesake and I am from forty-five years ago.”
“We located his records in the archives—”
“Please, please, don’t tell me when I died.”
“You haven’t died. You’re still alive.”
“Then where am I?”
“We don’t know. We can’t find you anywhere. Put it this way. There are no records of your death. If that’s any relief. But what we can’t figure out is how they could slice out just enough of your medial temporal lobe to induce the precise amount of amnesia to make you forget your past prior to the operation and find and remove your nanochip, which is usually implanted in the frontal lobe.”
“Yeah, we were pretty heavy-handed back then, we have to admit,” said another. “Convicting so many surgeons on pedophilia charges and losing all that talent to New Gary.”
“So, Malmquist, maybe you can help us get to the bottom of this.”
“Get to the bottom of what?”
“We’re going to give you an opportunity to make things right and prove you’re not a pedophile.”
“I am not a pedophile. I never was.”
“We agree. But the burden of proof lies with you. You’re in the system now. Once you’re in the system, you don’t get out. Unless you happen to be of value to us.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Lead us to the people who helped you.”
“I remember nothing except finding myself in New Gary, winding up in the police station shortly thereafter, and then the firefight. I can’t help you with anything more than that, and if I tried you wouldn’t believe me.”
“Start at the beginning.”
“I’m a semiotics professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. It’s 2015. I was teaching a class and then—poof! I’m in Gary, Indiana. No, wait. I remember something else. After my class that day I went downtown to buy some clothing. Yes. I think I was in a changing room. And then—poof! Gone.”
“Now that your memory is improving, what’s your real name?”
“Jeff Malmquist. All this identification is mine. I can tell you my birth date on the driver’s license and the expiry date on my credit card. I can describe to you anything you want to know about the loyalty cards and their establishments.”
“What were you doing alone in the presence of minors?”
“The boy who turned you in, Danny. He said you were making suggestive motions with your hands and eyes when you were in his house. You wanted to go down into the basement with him.”
“He said what? I can’t believe that. I was brought there by a boy—another boy named Slim—who was supposed to escort me from the hospital directly to a halfway house. He was hired by the hospital to take me there to rest. Ask them. I never made it there. You can see how exhausted I am. I still have no idea what is going on.”
“As soon as you get back to New Gary, you’ll have lots of time to rest.”
“Oh, not that place again. Look, I have no home. No apartment except right here in Chicago.”
“We’ve checked out your address and nobody lives there now with your name. Not that we’re trying to comfort you, but you won’t have to meet yourself.” The cops sniggered.
“Where will I stay in New Gary?”
“Everything’s all settled for new arrivals. You’ll be given a residence and a job. Probably the gun factories. But in the meantime—”
“You can help us,” said the other cop. “If you lead us to the surgeons. All you have to do is go there. We’ll be watching you.”
“With a special tracking nanochip. It’s a pretty high-tech little thingamajig. Consider yourself lucky to have one.”
“Oh, no. You’re going to put one in me? The story goes I’ve just had one removed.”
“We put it back. The informant version.”
“The operation didn’t take long.”
“How is it different from the usual nanochip?”
“Those are passive. This is active.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’ll find out.”
Malmquist was kept overnight to recover from the operation. His clothes and wallet returned the next day, he was driven in a black van south down I-90, across the Chicago Skyway and another twenty miles to New Gary. As they approached, army vehicles were evident on the eastward stretch of the Indiana Toll Road. Snipers were planted at intervals along the expressway barrier facing the city. They pulled off the exit ramp to Highway 53 and Broadway and stopped at a military checkpoint. The police turned Malmquist over to an Indiana National Guardsman.
“Welcome back,” he smiled.
* * *