Three police squad cars converged on them and the incongruous British phone booth that sat near the frozen Reservoir’s edge. Dozens upon dozens of people gathered as the policemen pushed back to form a perimeter around the scene.
Len and Jen stood at the edge of the cordon, talking numbly to a police officer. There was little that they knew.
“You come this way often?” the mustachioed officer asked pointblank, his New York accent drawling out the words.
Jen and Len exchanged looks before looking back at the cop.
“Yeah,” Jen offered.
“We walk through here between work and our apartment building,” Len added.
“Pennington Solutions, North 10th Avenue,” the young man said quickly.
“And, where you live?” the cop demanded.
“East 94th Street,” Jen said nervously.
“So, you walk through here frequently, then?” the policeman asked.
“Uh, yeah,” Len blurted, somewhat annoyed by being asked the same question twice.
The cop frowned at him. “Listen, buddy, I don’t need the attitude. You may be able to get away with that at the coffee shop, but this here is serious business here. Want me to haul you downtown?”
Len appeared sheepish. “No, sir.”
The policeman didn’t seem to buy it, but decided not to press the issue. “So, you two was walking along here and came upon this phone box? Ever seen that before?”
“No,” Len and Jen answered in unison.
“So, it was just here?” the officer said incredulously.
The couple looked each other in the eyes before turning back to their interrogator. “Yeah,” Len said, then pointed at the booth. “If it was here before, why doesn’t it have any snow on it?”
The officer was taken aback and turned around to look the box over, but quickly turned back, his eyes burning. “Listen, buddy, I’ll ask the questions here. Got it?”
“Uh, yeah,” Len muttered quietly, abashed by the bluntness of the statement.
The cop eyed him long and hard, then relented to resume his interrogation. “So, the two of you was just walking when this box appeared and that man came outta it?”
Jen shrugged her shoulders. “We didn’t see the box appear; we saw the guy stumble and came over to help him.”
“So, he stumbles and you rush over to him, then what?”
“He fell to the ground,” Len said blankly. “He was on the ground, dead.”
“He was dead?” the policeman repeated.
“Yeah,” Len said numbly. “He was just … I dunno, dead.”
“Did he say anything before he fell down?”
Jen piped up. “We weren’t that close, but I thought I heard something.”
“What was it?”
“I don’t know,” the young woman said irritably. “It wasn’t clear. I don’t know, maybe he was speaking Russian or something.”
“Russian, huh?” the officer scribbled a note into his pad. “And, you’re sure you never seen him before?”
“Yeah,” Jen replied, reaching out to take hold of Len’s arm. He seemed to have gone quiet suddenly. “Anything else?”
The cop looked across the open space his fellow officers had cleared and nodded at one of them before looking back at the young woman. “Don’t go nowhere. We might have more questions.”
Jen nodded defeatedly. “It’s awfully cold out. Can’t we go somewhere warm?”
“We’ll put you in one of the squads,” the cop said idly. “Might be a while anyhow.”
* * *
The ambulance arrived and the paramedics, coordinating with the police, let them take photographs of the body before lifting it onto a gurney and wheeling it back to the emergency vehicle, its lights flashing red and white back and forth across the snow-covered scene. After the paramedics slid the gurney into the back of the ambulance, they slammed the doors shut, got inside the cab and activated its siren. Slowly, the flashing lights retreated with the vehicle.
The ambulance crawled down the pedestrian path until it got to 85th Street, then took off at a rapid clip, hurtling eastbound around dozens of cars and setting off a chorus of car horns.
After turning south on Park Avenue, the ambulance turned at East 77th Street and pulled into a driveway along the towering gray-concrete building, Lenox Hill Hospital. The driver pulled the vehicle into the receiving bay, where a nurse had appeared. The driver and fellow paramedic got out of the ambulance, the driver opening both doors on the vehicle’s rear.
The statuesque brunette clutched a clipboard with both hands as she approached the ambulance. “The stiff from Central Park?”
“Yeah,” the driver replied with a come-hither look toward her. “Lucky bastard.”
“Louie!” she scolded him. “I’ve told you before, I have a boyfriend.”
The driver made kissing noises in her direction. “’Course you do. You get plenty of stiffies, don’t you?”
Chastity Galloway playfully punched him in the shoulder and Louie mock-cringed, holding his shoulder as if he were actually hurt.
“Hey, honey,” he said in a mocking tone.
“Don’t ‘hey, honey’ me, Louie,” Chastity replied. “Does you wife know you do this?”
“Know about it? She encourages it!” Louie scoffed. “Best broad I ever nailed. Glad I hooked her.”
“Really, Louie? ‘Broad’?” Chastity said in mock-reproach. “She must not know what she’s missing.”
Louie laughed a little louder than necessary. “I keep tellin’ ’er that, but she don’t seem to believe it.”
The driver helped his fellow paramedic lift the gurney out of the back of the ambulance. “You’re new boyfriend, honey?” he mocked as they rolled the sheet-covered body into the building.
“Just leave him there,” Chastity directed, pointing toward the wall opposite the doors that slid apart upon their approach.
“’Kay, boss,” Louie said with mock respect.
Chastity waited until the two men had pushed the gurney up against the corridor wall. “Okay, you two! Now, get outta here!”
“Plenty more where that came from,” Louie said offhandedly.
“I know,” she replied. “It’s New Year’s Eve, after all. Never a shortage of bodies on nights like this!”
Louie made kissing noise in her direction again. “You keep it up, Sweet-Tits!”
Chastity reflexively pulled the clipboard up across her chest, trying to hide her overly large breasts and only managing to squeeze them so that they spilled out over the sides of the clipboard. “Louie!” she groaned as the glass doors swished open and the two men left.
She blushed nonetheless, then shook her head in wonder. He did that all the time and she wondered whether he actually expected that routine to work on her. Or any woman for that matter. She forced the thought aside as she came to a halt next to the gurney that they’d just brought in. She’d simply written “Doe, John” on the top of the form, since the cops hadn’t found any identification on the body before they allowed Louie and Jorge to remove it from the scene.
Chastity lifted the sheet and looked down upon the handsome, slightly bloated face. There were a few streaks of gray in his hair, but it didn’t diminish the beauty she saw there. She smiled sadly and replaced the sheet. It was the worst part of her job, seeing people who seemed to be otherwise healthy, struck down in midlife.
She strode down the hall and around the corner, down another hallway and turned to an open door, which she knocked on.
A youngish middle-aged man with a mop of black hair, an angular nose and intense brown eyes beneath bushy black eyebrows turned to face her, from across the room. He stood at a stainless-steel laboratory table.
“Yes, Chastity!” he said brightly. “How may I be of service, m’lady?”
She smiled slyly at him. “Another case, Dan.”
“Another case?” he replied a little forlornly. “Did you just give me a case like an hour ago?”
Chastity schooled her face to look prim and proper, then nodded solemnly.
The mortician sidled over to her side and she tipped the clipboard forward, showing off her ample breasts. “Very important, I see!” he said lightly.
“The most important,” she flirted.
Dan pulled the clipboard from her hands, while staring at her chest, but then looked up, appearing quite serious. “Anyhow, Nurse Galloway,” he preambled, “it would be more appropriate if you addressed me as ‘Doctor’ while we’re at work.”
Chastity fluttered her eyelashes at him. “Anything you say, Doctor Duffy,” she replied smoothly.
He looked her over once more, then looked at the clipboard.
“John Doe?” he asked as he walked toward the door. “Don’t we have a better name for people like this? Something like, ‘Dead Fred’ or something?”
Galloway followed her boss — and boyfriend — out the door and into the corridor.
“Let’s get him onto the table and set up for the autopsy,” Duffy ordered.
“Yes, Doctor,” Chastity replied evenly, masking her amusement at his insistence at using his title, even though everyone in the department knew about them.
Their paths diverged, Chastity returning to get the gurney and Duffy off into the autopsy room. Moments later, Chastity rolled the gurney into the room and helped Dan, now having donned a surgical mask, move the body onto the cold metal tabletop. Once the body was settled into its proper place, the nurse excused herself and the mortician busied himself gathering tools. He piled one too many into his arms and a bone saw tumbled to the floor. After carefully depositing the other tools, Duffy returned to pick up the bone saw. With his back turned, he couldn’t see the movement on the table behind him.
It was slight. A fidget of a finger, but it was enough to see that the body had moved. When Dan turned back, he casually placed the bone saw on the Inspector’s abdomen, reaching across to put the saw’s plug into the outlet, then reached up for the microphone. He pressed the button on its side.
“This is Doctor Dan Duffy, doing the autopsy on a …” He riffled through the pages on the clipboard. “John Doe, deceased. Time is …” He spun around to look at the clock. “22:19 on the 31st of December 1999.”
Duffy did a quick examination of the body, feeling nothing but cold skin.
“No external signs of injury,” he said aloud. “I’ll have to open him up to determine cause of death.”
The doctor activated the bone saw with a grating whir. “Starting with a cut to the sternum,” he said to the microphone.
The doctor lowered the saw into place, beginning to cut through the skin, when the Inspector’s eyes flew open. Duffy yelped in surprise, throwing the bone saw into the air. It crashed to the floor on the other side of the table, while he slipped and fell to the ground with a grunt.
It took him a moment to recover, then got to his knees and peered slowly over the edge of the table. The Inspector’s head turned and his gray eyes looked upon the mortician. Dan Duffy fell back and scuttled away from the apparently not-dead body. “What the —?” he blurted.
It took another long moment, but he got to his feet and approached the table. The man’s head moved to follow him.
“You’re not dead!” Duffy said accusingly.
The Inspector worked his mouth, jaw and finally his vocal cords. “Not yet,” he said, his English accent obvious.
“You’re … you’re not from around here,” Duffy said, pulling his surgical mask away from his face.
The Inspector looked up at him, incredulous. “No, I’m not.”
Duffy looked at him in confusion. “But, I checked you. No pulse, no breath. You were dead.”
The Inspector’s lips turned up slightly in amusement. “I have no heart and don’t need to breathe.”
Dan stared, shocked.
“I know, a little much to handle,” the Infinity Knight said knowingly. “Especially since you thought I was dead.”
Duffy nodded nervously, but his mind was whirling with questions. “No heart? No lungs?” he asked, disoriented.
“No, no, I have lungs, I just don’t have to breath,” the man on the table responded. “Well, I do when I need to regulate my body temperature. Speaking of which, I’m cold!”
The Inspector’s body suddenly spasmed and he groaned in pain. Duffy jumped back, scared. The Infinity Knight settled down and gulped large breaths of air. He was clearly in agony.
Not used to working on live patients, Duffy stood at a distance, waiting to see what was going to happen next.
The Inspector grimaced at him. “I’m dying!” he blurted tersely.
Dan looked wide-eyed at him. “I can see that,” he said dumbly.
“Help … me!”
Duffy was still staring anxiously at the dying man. “How?” he demanded.
“Must …” the Inspector muttered between gritted teeth, “get … back.”
The mortician seemed to overcome his fear and stepped back to the table. “Get back? Back where?”
“DARSy,” the Inspector whispered, then went slack, falling back onto the table.
* * *
At that exact same moment, in snow-covered Central Park, a light came to life inside the DARSIT. At first, just a slight glow, it rapidly grew into an intensely blazing light that made it impossible to look at the ship. The light grew and grew, first enveloping the area around the Reservoir, then the entire park, turning everything into pure white light. The light blazed so brightly, it blotted out all other lights in the New York City metropolitan area as seen from space.
In an instant, the light disappeared, leaving the city in near darkness, the streetlights having shut off because of the intense light. And, the DARSIT sat there, darker than it had been before, a silent monument that would be ignored.
* * *
Chastity rushed into the room, harried. “What’s going on, Dan? What’s all the commotion?”
Duffy looked from the now-inert body to the nurse, appearing unnerved. “I … uh …” He paused and ran a hand through his hair. “He wasn’t quite dead. Now he is.”
Galloway looked uncomprehendingly at him. “He … what?”
Dan wiped his now moist hands on his surgical scrubs, then flung his hands out wildly. “He … he just died … again.”
Chastity frowned, not quite getting it. “But, he was dead when they brought him in.”
“Apparently not,” Duffy replied flatly. “Anyhow, he’s dead, done, gone.”
It was apparent that he was still ruffled by the incident, but tried to make it look like everything was fine. “Look, I have to get this autopsy done. I’ll call you if I need anything else,” he said earnestly.
The nurse gave him a reproving look, but he just turned his back on her and stepped back to the table. She opened her mouth to ask something, but decided against it as he replaced his surgical mask and picked up the bone saw, activating it again. She stood there for just a moment longer, then left.
Duffy turned off the saw and set it down. He wanted to make sure that the man on the table was, in fact, dead, before he tried cutting into him again. He lifted the arms and let them drop to the tabletop, then turned the man’s head. Finally, he carefully parted each set of eyelids. The gray eyes looked dead to him. He still felt wary, considering what had happened, but he decided to get on with the job anyhow.
“Okay, resuming cutting into the sternum,” he said absent-mindedly as he picked up the bone saw.
Before he could turn the tool back on, the Inspector’s eyes fluttered open again and a hand reached out and grabbed the mortician’s nearest wrist. Duffy’s immediate reaction was to pull his arm away, but the grip was too strong.
The doctor dropped the saw and used his other hand to pull at the hand that held him tight. Suddenly, there was an eerie red glow where the hand met his wrist and he felt his strength leaving him. He lowered himself to the floor, not realizing that both the man he was supposed to be autopsying and he himself were transforming. The Infinity Knight’s face rippled with red energy. Duffy’s body began to flesh out while the other man’s body shrunk. The old man’s grayish-brown hair thickened and turned black, while the mortician’s turned gray. The other man’s strong chin narrowed while his expanded.
The only thing he was aware of was the sapping of his energy and a gradual increase in pain. His irises paled to gray and he released a breath he wasn’t aware he was holding. He looked up and saw the face he was accustomed to seeing in the mirror, but it wasn’t a reflection, it was his own body, then he collapsed onto the tiled floor.
After a moment, the Inspector sat up on the metal table, cocked his head to one side, then the other to stretch his new neck. Then, he stretched his arms above his head and took a deep breath. Satisfied, he looked around the room, then down below the table on which he was situated. The body he had been so used to lay in a heap below him, the surgical scrubs on it stretched to the point of breaking. Something had gone wrong with the reincarnation.
He tried to recall what was happening, when he sensed something that he had never sensed before: a thumping in his chest. He placed his new, younger hands upon the left side of his chest. Thump-thump. There was a pause and it repeated. Thump-thump. He waited for it another time, just to confirm. After he felt it again, he smiled lopsidedly. He had a heart. It was an odd feeling, but somehow it felt right.
After a moment, he became aware of his voluminous clothing and hurriedly got the ill-fitting clothes off his old body and slipped into them. After rushing to re-dress his old body, he struggled to get it back onto the table before the nurse reappeared.
“Doctor?” Chastity asked uncertainly.
“Huh?” the Inspector said in a nasally voice with an American accent, spinning around to face her.
“Is something wrong?”
The Infinity Knight was suddenly flustered, but did his best to cover it up. “No! Why would you think that, Nurse?”
Galloway stepped further inside the room and looked appraisingly at him, a little disturbed by his sudden formality, despite their earlier talk. “You seem a little disheveled. What were you doing?”
“Oh, you know,” the Inspector replied aimlessly, desperately trying to straighten his scrubs. “Just doing … my job.”
Chastity looked dubious, then looked past the Inspector and saw that the body was in a much different position than it had been before. Fearing the worst, she bluntly asked, “Dan, exactly what were you doing with that body?”
The Infinity Knight quickly looked at his old body and back to Galloway, then decided if he had any chance of getting out of the situation, he’d have to divulge the truth. Hopefully, she would trust him enough to believe him. He walked right up to her, stopping less than a foot away.
He bent his head down so he could whisper directly into her ear. “Listen, something happened shouldn’t have …”
She pulled back, appalled. “I thought I knew you!” she said accusingly.
“No, no!” he said defensively. “It’s not what you think.” He paused, then it dawned on him what she thought he meant. “Oh, no! It’s not like that!” He pointed urgently at the body. “I didn’t … I mean …”
Chastity narrowed her eyes at him and slapped him. “You disgust me! To think that I was sleeping with a necrophiliac! And a gay one at that!”
The Inspector rubbed the cheek she’d slapped. “No, it isn’t like that,” he said desperately. “And, I’m not who you think I am.”
“Darned straight, you aren’t!” she rebutted, then turned to storm out.
He grabbed her arm and stopped her. She tried to fight him, then gave up and looked back at him. “What’s happened to you, Dan? What’s going on?”
The Inspector looked sheepishly toward her and released her arm. “I’m the Inspector,” he said earnestly. “I’m from the planet Kayaclasch. My ship, the DARSIT, landed here on Earth because of damage it suffered to its beryllium spheres. I’m just trying to find replacements, so I can go on about my life.”
Chastity looked at him blankly for a moment, then burst out laughing, quickly covering her mouth with her right hand. Once the laughing fit had passed, she looked at him, trying to appraise him. Finally, she shook her head.
“That is the biggest load of bullshit I’ve ever heard!” she declared pompously.
The Inspector’s face fell and she saw it happen.
“You’re serious?” she asked disbelievingly.
He shrugged and nodded awkwardly. “Yeah.”
“But, if you’re this … this ‘Inspector,’ what happened to Dan?” she demanded.
The Infinity Knight turned his head toward the body on the table. “Something happened when I took hold of his arm. I became him; he became me. It shouldn’t happen that way.”
Chastity was still unable to comprehend it. She shook her head again. “No,” she declared. “This is all just one of your jokes, Dan. People don’t just turn into other people. That’s science fiction!”
The Inspector looked saddened by the statement. If only she knew. If only he could tell her the truth. Or, better yet, show her. But, he knew he couldn’t. Besides, he had a mission to accomplish: getting new beryllium spheres.
Suddenly, he threw his head back and laughed loudly and awkwardly. Chastity, still uneasy about what she had just witnessed, stared at him in surprise.
“Okay, you got me,” he said, once the moment ended, and he stared at her. “It was all a joke. None of that is true. You know me, I’m always joking around!” He spread his arms out, hands up as if he were carrying a giant, invisible globe in them.
“What’s really going on?” she demanded suddenly.
The Inspector shrugged his shoulders and let his arms drop to his sides. “I tell you what,” he said with confidence he didn’t really feel. “Why don’t we talk it over later … say, over breakfast?”
Their eyes met again. She suddenly forgot what was bothering her and smiled. “Sure,” she said meekly.
“Yeah,” she said agreeably.
“Okay, see you at seven!” the Inspector said eagerly.
“Seven,” she repeated, smiling and backing out of the room.
Once she’d left the room, the Inspector straightened up his old body, now occupied by the late Doctor Dan Duffy. He glanced, a little disturbed, at the mountain of tools that the man had planned to use on him. He simply grabbed the white sheet that lay on the gurney and covered the body, ignoring the fact that the microphone was still recording.
He sneaked to the door, looked around the corner, not seeing anyone. So, he walked quickly down the hall to his right. He came to an intersection and turned left, hurrying. Without warning, a young black woman in a nurse’s uniform appeared from a doorway.
“Doctor Duffy? Is something wrong?” she asked.
The Inspector grinned easily at her. “No, just going for a spot of tea,” he said as he continued past her. “Carry on!”
The woman watched him, surprised by his breeziness, but decided that people could change and headed back down the hallway from which he came.