“Haidou dangzyu ngo,” she said.
“What’s going on? You’re putting me in a jail cell full of guns,” Malmquist said, grabbing her by the arm.
“Ng!” She pulled away.
“Wing-yee, please don’t leave me.”
She was already gone. The cell’s bright lighting dimmed and all that remained was the glare of a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling. It was a basement. Industrial steel shelving housed a comprehensive gun collection and stacks of ammunition. Dug out of one wall was a hole big enough for a person to go through. Malmquist went up the basement stairs and placed his ear against the door at the top. Fragments of a conversation were audible.
“….What’s bandage head’s name again? Heard he’s in the area….”
“….Set the sick fuck on fire….no trace….blow him away.”
“….Lemme get the….”
One of the voices grew louder and closer. “What’s he got to do with it, rectum face?”
“I didn’t mean that.”
“You stupid cum-eating dumster mouth feedbag fucktard!”
The door opened. From behind the stairway where he had hidden himself just in time, Malmquist could see someone’s legs trotting down through the steps. They stopped halfway, then headed back up.
On a table Malmquist recognized one of the guns, the Matador. He grabbed it along with a flashlight helmet also on the table and disappeared into the hole. He worked his way along the tunnel, which stretched as far as the light illuminated. When he heard the steps again he switched off the flashlight and pointed the gun at the entrance. He saw Danny pass by the hole and back again and heard him running up the stairs. Breathing a sigh of relief, Malmquist switched the helmet back on and proceeded down the tunnel, Matador in hand. A few minutes later he came up against a dirt wall where the digging had stopped. Exhausted, he extinguished the lamp and fell asleep.
A shovel punching through the wall jolted him awake. He scrambled for the Matador and the flashlight as the wall collapsed in a pile of dirt, revealing the man on the other side with the shovel. Both screamed, lurched backward and readied their guns.
“Back off, pedo! One move and you’re dead!”
“Who the fuck are you?”
“So it’s true. You guys are trying to invade my property!”
“You’re invading this property too.”
“I’m taking preemptive action against that boy pedo who’s been stalking my little girl. You must be his father. And you’re wearing a dress! You’re in it together. I swear one move and I’ll blow you the hell out of this tunnel!”
An AR-15 was poised mere inches from the Matador.
“Let me explain something, sir,” said Malmquist. “We can blow each other the hell out of this tunnel all right and you won’t be a father anymore. Is that what you want for your girl? And this gun will take out not only you but the foundation of your house as well.”
“What are you doing with an anti-tank weapon anyway?”
“It’s Danny’s collection. I stole it. Moreover, the commotion will bring Danny back down and he’s got enough weapons to start a revolution. If that happens and I’m still alive, I will have to take out Danny. We don’t want that, because the munitions packed in that little armory of his will blow up this house, the neighbors’ houses and this tunnel sky high. Let’s talk this out calmly.”
“How could you steal it if you’re his father?”
“Who said I was his father? Do I look like his father?”
“Then who are you?”
“Wait a minute. You’ve never seen Danny’s father?”
“Then how do you know he has a father?”
“You’re right. He could be an orphan. Orphans are born pedophiles.”
“He doesn’t have a mother?”
“I haven’t seen one.”
“So a twelve year-old is living here by himself?”
“I guess. How do you know he’s twelve?”
“He told me.”
“Ah, yes. Of course. I know all about you, Jeff Malmquist. You’re a wanted pedophile. You snuck into that boy’s house and abused him and now you’re trying to escape into mine! Don’t you even think about making a move. I’ve got my sights trained on you and the police are on the way.”
“How do you know my name? A second ago you thought I was Danny’s father.”
“Just got an update in my viewfinder. You’re notorious. And I get a bounty for capturing you, Jeff Malmquist.”
“I won’t deny it’s me. Now listen. If you trust me, I will explain how I found myself here. But first we need to get out of this tunnel where we are both currently in extreme danger if Danny comes back. Take me inside your house. I will prove to you I am innocent, and you will believe me. I will also show you how we can get rid of Danny for good — cleanly and without guns, and without either of us being implicated in his disappearance.” Malmquist set his weapon down behind him and held out his hand. “Deal?”
“How can you possibly do that?”
“Trust me. I am at your mercy. But wait. Don’t go calling the cops on me. All they will do is send me back to Indiana. Once I’m in New Gary, I’m safe.” He added pointedly, “I know how to get back to Chicago. Next time I won’t be coming round to help you out again. This is your only chance.”
“I told you the cops are already on their way.”
“No, they’re not.”
“All right. Turn your gun toward you and hand it to me. Slowly now.”
Malmquist crawled after the man down the tunnel and into his basement. They were greeted by his wife and daughter. “Oh, wonderful, Marvin, you’ve caught him,” said the wife. “My God, he’s wearing a dress!”
“Is it a real pedo, daddy? Is it? I’ve never seen one before.”
“One hundred percent grade-A pedo.” He handed his wife the Matador. “Here, honey, take this gun and watch him.”
“It’s not a dress but a tunic,” said Malmquist, dusting himself off.
The girl lifted the tunic, exposing Malmquist. “Oh, no, he’s naked underneath!” she squealed.
“Jesus,” spat the wife. “Look what you’ve brought in here, Marvin. He has to be apprehended and fast! Where’s the pedo cage?”
They ordered Malmquist into a cage barely large enough for him to squat in.
“Jesus, this is completely unnecessary. Would you all please calm down? By the time I’ve explained everything to you over dinner we’ll be great friends.”
“You’re delusional if you think we’re inviting you to dinner.”
“Fine. Sorry I asked. But you really have nothing to fear from me. I’m harmless. I have zero interest in your daughter. But I do have a lot to tell you guys. If you’re interested.”
“Can you tell us more about the boy pedo in that house?” asked the girl.
“Yeah, how did you get to know him?”
“Danny thinks you are a pedo who’s stalking him. Now, are you going to keep me in this cage or can we go upstairs where it’s more comfortable? No, wait — I can’t be seen from your front window or that’ll be the end of us. We’d better stay put here.”
The father was a fat white man with a pale face and a huge sandy blond afro, as if there was something fashionable about it. The wife had the aspect of a deeply aged teenager. The daughter looked about ten and wore a dress coincidentally not all that dissimilar from Malmquist’s tunic. She trained a Glock 22 on him, while the parents took seats across from him on folding chairs next to a card table.
“Okay,” said Malmquist. “I’m afraid I’m going to have to make a few upsetting points of clarification at the outset. Please bear with me. And stop pointing those guns at me.”
“How’d you sneak across? It’s impossible.”
“I’ll explain all that in due course. First, I am not a pedophile. I have been wrongly implicated. I was wrongly apprehended in Chicago and they put the nanochip in me even though I’m innocent. Second, believe it or not, most convicted ‘pedophiles’ in New Gary have been wrongly convicted. Third — ”
“Don’t believe a word of it, Marvin.”
“Third, this is not a dress but a man’s tunic from a gift shop in a fake Ancient Rome in China. It’s a replica of the tunics traditionally worn by slaves. I’m a slave there and my master bought it for me. It’s a magic tunic. It can be used to communicate and it enables me to be teleported back and forth between here and China. And I have another magic tunic which can teleport me fifty-five years into the future and two thousand years into the past.”
The three were laughing. “He’s a total basket case.”
“By the way, what’s that ridiculous outfit you’re wearing?” he asked the father. “A one-piece T-shirt for the whole body?”
“It’s a T-suit,” he said proudly.
“It looks like some toddler’s pajamas. Okay, do you want to know your future? This is what’s going to happen. In a few years, the USA will collapse into paranoia and anarchy. Everyone will suspect everyone else of being a pedophile and start shooting and killing each other indiscriminately. It looks like you and Danny are on the verge of doing so now. The Chinese, who are presently running this country — not sure if you already know that — will have had enough. They will take over and rid the USA of all the guns and the violence. In fact, they will rid the USA of the USA.”
“What?” The family stared.
“The entire Western Hemisphere is to be turned into a huge slave colony called AMSAR. The former USA will cease to exist and you will wake up one morning to discover you’re living in China. It will all take place quickly. By the time you’ve realized what’s happening you will already be slaves. Within a generation, everyone will be speaking Cantonese.”
“Over my dead body!”
“Marvin, relax. This is what pedos do. They’re wily and clever and know how to spin tales of deception to confuse us.”
“If you dare try to make a sudden move on my daughter while you’re distracting us — ”
“Don’t worry daddy, I’ve got him covered.”
“Are you crazy? How could I make a move on her in this fucking cage?”
“You can seduce her. Hey, wait a minute. If what you say is true that all our guns will be taken away, how can we protect ourselves? The pedos will soon overrun us. What will the Chinese do about all the pedos?”
“New Gary will be freed. That’s all I can tell you. And people will be judged on their capacity to love.”
“How did you sneak into Chicago?”
“I was teleported here.”
“I’m losing patience with your shenanigans. How did you really make it over here?”
“Let me prove to you this is a magic tunic. See, watch. I’m writing the words, ‘MELYNCHUK YOU THERE?’ on it. He’s the chief inspector in the New Gary Police Department. He knows I’m innocent and is watching out for me. He has one of these tunics too and he’ll respond as soon as he sees my message. I can’t promise he’ll write back immediately but he eventually will, if you’re patient. Oh, great, he’s there now. Look.”
They watched as words mysteriously traced themselves out on Malmquist’s tunic:
YES WHERE ARE YOU?
Malmquist replied: “TRAPPED IN CAGE IN FAMILY’S HOME IN CHICAGO. OPPOSITE 666 WEST 26TH.”
CAN YOU USE TUNIC TO ESCAPE?
“This is wild. I’m about to turn you in, and you’re turning yourself in,” said Marvin.
“Not exactly. Now watch me write ‘ZHANG IS BACK IN CHINA,'” he said as he spelled out the words vocally.
DELILAH POWER IS BACK TOO
“TELL MY CAPTORS NOT TO SHOOT ME.”
IS NOT DANGEROUS
“Did you pick up his profile, Marvin?” said the wife.
“Yeah, that’s his name. This messaging system of yours is pure jazz,” he said to Malmquist, lighting some cannabis.
“Now, can you let me out?”
“No. Where can I get one of those tunics? How does it work?”
“HOW DID DELILAH GET HOME? SHE HAD WRONG TUNIC,” Malmquist wrote back. He took the joint offered by Marvin. “We just write to each other. Next time I’m in fake Ancient Rome I’ll pick one up for you. What kind of bud is this? It has a skunky smell.”
“That’s what this is called? Skunk was going out of fashion back in 2015. It’s odd this stuff is still around. The dead animal smell.”
“Buds is buds,” said Marvin, his face relaxing for the first time.
“What the hell?” said Malmquist, when he noticed Melynchuk’s reply:
SHE FLEW BACK
“You still haven’t explained how it works,” Marvin said.
“There are two kinds of tunics, active and passive. This is a passive tunic. It’s used for sending and receiving messages — wow, is this shit ever strong. Weed strains have definitely increased in potency over the past half century. That’s why you guys are so paranoid about all this pedophilia shit — So anyway, active tunics are used for teleportation. Except that I can shift back and forth from China with this passive tunic, and the first time I didn’t have a tunic. Come to think of it, the first time I went to the future I didn’t have a tunic either.”
“Maybe you haven’t traveled anywhere, but the places have,” said the kid, as she took another toke on the joint.
“You let her smoke this shit?”
“You’ve always been in Chicago,” she added.
“I’ve already thought about that. Or I’m in all of these places at the same time. But in fact that’s not correct. Hard to explain. Especially as I don’t yet know how to control where I’m sent to next.”
CAME AND SEES
“What’s that all about?” said the wife, pointing to Malmquist’s tunic.
“It’s communicating in pedo code. We’ve been warned about these kinds of messages at school,” said the daughter.
“No. It means the inspector just went offline. When he’s offline the tunic shows random nonsense language.”
“It changed again.”
THE THING WHICH IT WANTS
TO DO FREELY IS ONLY DONE
“This is too cool,” said the father. “It’s like one of those AI poetry machines. Hey, maybe it’s code for where you’re going next.”
“I’ve thought about that too. But there’s no pattern to the language. Sometimes it’s grammatically correct nonsense, other times it’s just ungrammatical. Like what it’s saying now.”
SINCE WEARA BRAND
THE SPIRIT THAT WEARIT
“I’m a semiotician by profession,” Malmquist continued, “and even I can’t see any patterns or codes. What I do know is I can’t go back or forward in time with this tunic.”
“What about your other tunic? Does it show messages?”
“Where is it?” said the wife.
“I have two of them. Here in these pockets.”
“Can we see?”
Malmquist pulled one out of his pocket and gave it to the girl. “Don’t put it on or you’ll disappear and may never come back.”
“Will it send me to a pedo colony?”
“Didn’t you say you could help me get rid of that boy Danny? You could try putting the tunic on him,” said the father.
“That’s what I was getting at. But I don’t know where he’ll end up.”
“Hey, what if you wear the two different tunics at the same time?” said the kid.
“It doesn’t matter where he ends up. If you go together, you can steal his tunic so he’s stuck there forever and you just come back yourself,” said the father.
“How in the hell am I going to get him to put it on with all his guns?”
“We could lure him here and trap him and force him to put it on at gunpoint.”
“And what if nothing happens? What do we do next? You could be charged with kidnapping a child, and all of you will soon end up in New Gary yourselves.”
“Yeah, let’s go there. I’ve heard so much about it. I’m really curious,” exclaimed the girl.
“I can tell you one thing,” said Malmquist. “It feels safer there than here. Everyone’s unarmed.”
“Why does that feel safer?”
“I’ve just never understood the mentality of people like you that you only feel safe if you have a gun.”
“We need our gun for everything, even buying things.”
“We pay with our guns.”
“You mean, like, scanning a bar code?”
“You hold your gun up at the cashier and they hold theirs up and you ping each other.”
“You’ve got to be kidding.”
“It’s also a fashion statement. See my matching banana Colt revolvers,” said the wife, proudly tapping the pistols in her open-carry holster, whose handles resembled the fruit.
“I like your kid’s idea of wearing both tunics at the same time. But I don’t think it’s going to work. Let me try.”
Malmquist put on a travel tunic over the message tunic. “Nope, nothing.”
“It must be because you can’t see the writing now. The writing tunic needs to go on top,” said the kid.
“I can’t reverse them unless I strip naked.”
“Darling, you go on upstairs, now.”
“No! I want to watch,” said the daughter, stamping her feet. “I’ve already seen him naked anyway.”
“What’s that noise?” said Malmquist, glancing toward the tunnel. “I hear voices coming through.”
As the family peered into the tunnel, Malmquist switched the two tunics. When they turned around he was already gone.
* * *
Forthcoming (September 2017):
The Kitchens of Canton