THE TIME BURGLAR

by Brad Stone

 

Pad, pad, pad, pad, pad, pad....

Footsteps. I hear them in a dream, rushing from behind, growing quicker and louder until....

"Hello, Berman!"

Someone grabs me from behind, throws me from the chair across a darkened room. I tumble over the marble floor, sleep yanked from my blinking eyes.

There's an unfamiliar voice, yelling. "Richard Berman. Born, August 8th, 1966. Address, 25 East Overlook, apartment 4G!"

A foot finds my abdomen, sinks so hard into my stomoch that my spine pops. I turn over, rolling away as I turn and desperately try to --

"Eyes: green! Height: six-foot-one"! He's on top of me, takes my hair and slams my head against the floor.

I hear a crack. Then a blood-rushing headache.

"Expiration date: July 1995." He's laughing now, puts his knee to my chest and his face into mine. "You won't need to worry about renewing!" he yells.

I can't see anything, just darkness, and a strange smell, like fruit. Now he's whispering: "You don't know who I am, eh Berman? I know who you are: a stupid guard who has made things very difficult." He turns, points upwards and through the grinding pain I can see it -- a glass partition, and behind it, the ancient Greek jewels I've been paid to protect every night for the last decade.

So it finally hits me: a burglar. Ten eventless years at the Museum of Natural Artifacts, and when it finally happens, I'm sleeping. Bad luck. But he's shaking his finger, pointing at me.

"Do you know who I am"? There's rage in his voice as he presses hard against me. "Do you know what you're dealing with?"

Then he straightens, takes something from a bag. I try to sit up and get a solid knee to the chin.

"Don't even." He's serious, panting hard." You've made everything complicated. I don't like to do this twice." Now he's pointing something at me, and in the thin light of the far hallway, I can make out the ominous shadow of a gun.

"Wa... Wait," I'm pleading, hands in the air. "I don't know you. I have a wife and kids -- "

"One kid" he says sharply. "I've seen the pictures, Berman."

Then he aims. I can't think, now nothing makes sense as the air explodes....

And he falls.

I blink. There's silence, a few nervous footsteps, and then the rattling, reassuring voice of Duckworth -- good old Jimmy Duckworth -- his gun held unsteadily in front of him.

* * *

We bring the body to the security office, turn on the lights. Jimmy brings me an ice pack, a chair, and calls the police.

Then we sit there, looking at him.

"You know him?" he asks.

I study his face, shake my head. "Never in my life," I stutter.

"He knew you," says Jimmy, pointing. "I caught the tale end of his rant. He wanted you, buddy." I look closer. Black pants and vest. Strange texture, it's rubbery. A dark, foreign face, unremarkable, save for a deep scar on his right cheek, shaped like a crescent moon. I've never met this man.

I lift my hand, it's still shaking hard and I shudder as it all starts to hit me.

"Easy," says Jimmy, putting his hand on my shoulder.

Looking up at his older, calmer face, I manage a "thank- you." He's been with the museum for thirty-five years, but he moved like a twenty year-old. "I was sleeping," I say, shaking my head.

Jimmy grins like its nothing. "I don't pack a gun for nothing," he winks. There are sirens in the background, then voices. They're getting louder, quicker, like footsteps in a dream.

"It's over," Jimmy says, rubbing my shoulder.

I believe him.

* * *

Pad, pad, pad, pad, pad, pad....

"One kid. I've seen the pictures, Berman."

I wake, panting. It was a nightmare and Shelley is turning over, moaning.

I wipe the sweat from my face and sit up. Two weeks of paid vacation and still a man with a crescent moon on his right cheek haunts my dreams. He knew too much and it doesn't make sense.

"Shelley," I say, nudging her. "Honey...."

She groans, turns to me. "Whazzit?"

"The photo albums -- none missing, right?"

She turns, pushes her dark, curly locks away from her eyes and pleads with me, "Ricky... we've been through this."

"But I have to go through it again. He knew so much..." I get up, start to pace the floor of our bedroom. "About Abby, my... birthday, our address...."

"Expiration date: July, 1997."

She sits up, speaks softly in a worried tone. "You've had a terrible experience. You can't expect it all to make sense."

I sigh. She's right of course, but I can't stop from leaning over my small, mahogany night table. Opening the drawer, I withdraw my wallet, sit on the bed and turn it over in my hands. I haven't lost it in years.

The pictures of Abby and Shelley are all recent. My driver's licenese is there, in front, smiling through a leather-boxed window. Expiration date: July, 1997. No, it doesn't make sense.

"I think its time," Shelley says, falling back onto the

pillows.

"For what?" I ask.

"For you to go back. To work."

* * *

"Nice to have you back, buddy." It's Jimmy in the security office, with a warm handshake and a smile as we're punching in for the night.

"Jimmy." The smiling old face, reassuring. "You saved my life."

"Forget it." He waves me off. "You would've done the same thing for me."

He walks me down the echoing marble floor of the east wing to Greece, and together we gaze past the glass partition at the treasures behind it. A golden goblet. Bracelets, dotted with the sculpted visages of gods. Sparkling silver necklaces.

And in the middle, the museum's prize, the Seleucid Fire Diamond, surrounded by a sphere of glass, suspended by a thin wire. A treasure from another millenium.

"Suppose he was after that?" I point.

"That's what the cops were saying," Jimmy answers. "They scoped the place pretty good."

I turn to look at my old friend. "Find anything?"

He shrugs. "They didn't tell me," he says. "It must have been fascinating, because they all wanted a look at the corpse."

We're silent for a second, then I point to the diamond. "If you stare at it long enough, you can see a flame inside."

"Strange stuff," Jimmy says. He's looking at me, concerned, then pulls a pistol from his vest and offers it to me. "You want this, Rick?"

I shake my head, stare at the diamond.

He thinks for a second, then chuckles. "Sweet dreams."

* * *

Pad, pad, pad, pad, pad, pad....

Two weeks later, I'm at work, perched in a chair and still can't shake the running feet from my dreams.

Pad, pad, pad...

But --

Pad, pad...

I'm not --

Pad....

-- sleeping.

I turn, too late, a fist catches me in the chin. I tumble backwards and above me is a towering shadow. It's lunging....

"Jimmy!" I yell. But there's a hand on my mouth, and a thundering voice: "Shut up!" It's familiar, I've heard it in nightmares of a scar-faced man. He comes at me, punching.

This time I'm ready, I throw my weight against him. We tumble along the cold, marble floor, towards the dim light of the hallway. A second later and I'm on top, I see the face, and on the right cheek, a crescent-moon scar.

I gasp.

Then this corpse -- this man who should be dead -- delivers a swift kick to the region between my legs. I groan, roll over. He stands up, produces a gun and points it. "Don't make me do this again," he says.

Half-paralyzed by fear, confusion like fog before my eyes, I put my hands slowly into the air as he aims....

But he's backing away, and in the thin light he's shaking. On his wounded face there's an unmistakable expression of... confusion.

And suddenly he turns, bends down to grab something lying on the floor, and then disappears into the darkness.

* * *

"Jimmy!" I rush into ancient Rome, hand on my aching groin.

Jimmy jumps to his feet, startled.

"What?" he yells, and I can see his eyes, heavy with sleep. I grab his shoulders. "He's back."

Jimmy looks at me incredulously. "Who?"

"The burglar!" I show him the red, throbbing wound on my head.

"Oh god," he says, and I lead him back.

But there's nothing. No trace of anyone. Jimmy's breathing hard, and I notice a look, curiousity mixed with doubt.

"I swear he was here."

Jimmy puts his hands on my shoulder. "Your burglar died four weeks ago, Rick. He's ashes by now. It's over."

"Then how the hell did I get this?" I say, pointing to my head. "You think I fell?" I breathe hard.

He looks at me, sadly.

I see what he's getting at, and over the throb of an impending headache, I'm unable to object.

"You're dreaming, buddy."

"I was awake," I say grimly.

Looking over at the fire diamond, he shrugs. "Why doesn't the burglar go for anything? I mean, except for you?"

He has a point, but only for a second. But there's the clear memory of a large man, retreating down the hall stopping only to stoop and pick up....

My hand flashes to my back pocket. I don't feel it.

My wallet.

It's gone.

* * *

"Will you at least see someone?" We're in bed, and Shelley's rubbing my head with an ice pack. She's dressed for work, I'm undressed to sleep.

Bad schedules.

"A doctor?"

"A... therapist," she whispers.

"Why would I make this up? A man with a scar on his right cheek attacked me. It's not something I'd want to imagine."

"But Ricky," she says softly. "How could it be the same guy?"

I don't answer, just shake my head. "He's dead, so it couldn't be, right?"

Shelley's eyes brighten.

"His brother?" I ask incredulously. "It seems far- fetched. And the same scar...."

"Maybe," Shelley says firmly, putting her delicate hand into mine. "Maybe you might have been --"

I cross my arms. "What? Sleeping?"

She pulls back. "Isn't it a possibility?" Her lips curl and she looks away.

I shake my head. "Unlikely. Since I haven't been sleeping at all, these days."

We're quiet.

"What about my wallet?" I ask, staring ahead. "My wallet is gone, you know. It's too late to make sense, but now he finally has it."

There's no answer and I turn to look at Shelley. My wife of sixteen years has a single tear, sneaking its way down her pale cheek.

* * *

I'm at work, thinking it over. The air is quiet and cold, and if I think hard I can hear his voice.

"Hello, Berman!"

A man with a scar on his right cheek comes to rob, he knows my whole life. He dies. So it ends.

"Who are you?"

But then he returns and knows nothing. He takes my wallet, doesn't even move for the fire diamond. Now, I'm no scientist, but there's something odd about two events....

Crack.

...that should be...

Schreeeek.

...reversed.

My head turns towards the sound, coming from the glass partition. And through the dull light I see him -- a burglar. Fitted in a black, rubbery suit, back turned. A tall, powerful figure. Familiar.

He's doing something to the glass.

My heart does its best impression of an arrest. I squelch it, slide my hand to my nightstick and wrap shaking fingers around the handle.

I stand up quietly.

It's hard to move silently on a marble floor, but I manage it. There's a light noise, like a drill, which I can barely perceive over the thumping of my heart, and then I'm right under him.

He's hovering in the air. Defying gravity. I don't think about it, poise the stick, take aim at his back, take a deep breath....

And he turns, drill in hand, too quick -- I jump back, reflexively.

"What!" he thunders, leaping off the glass. "It's you?"

There's a second to act, I move breathlessly, bringing the nightstick towards him in a cool arc. He ducks and it smashes against the partition. The wall shatters, sending pieces of glass gliding across the floor.

We both look down, then back at each other.

"Who are you?" I scream.

He says nothing, comes at me with his elbow. I try to move but he's too fast, catches me in the head. Then I'm on my back and he's kicking me.

"Going!... to Have!... to Learn!... to Stay!... Out!... of my Way!" He's screaming at me, digging into my side with a metal-tipped boot. "Don't make me do it again," he says, leaning over me. "I've wasted enough bullets on you."

There's hazy light from the hallway, and in it I see his eyes; they're dark and maddening. A square chin, a trembling upper lip.

And a smooth right cheek. Scarless.

"I'm going to go back," he's saying, arms pinning my chest," and take your fucking diamond...."

My left hand slips away, unobserved, and feels for something digging into my side. A shard of glass, from the shattered partition.

"...And if you disrupt me again," he spits, "you'll be the first human being in history to die twice. That's an honor I am very happy to bestow -- "

With all the fury I can muster, I scream, bringing the glass sharply into his face. He yells, lunges backwards with a hand covering his cheek.

I'm on my feet, diving for my nightstick, lying two yards away.

I spin, stick in hand, and he's standing straight, pain in his distorted face. He's in the light and moves his hand, growling, and reveals a deep, red gash on his right cheek. Shaped like a crescent moon. He points, shakes an unsteady finger. "We're not done." Then turns, sprints down the hallway.

I follow, screaming for Jimmy. But the burglar is too quick, dashing into Egypt, past Palestine and into the Ottoman.

Then suddenly I'm chasing nothing and stop to listen. There's deathly quiet in the museum, broken only by the faint cries of Jimmy, screaming my name. The burglar's vanished, like he didn't belong in the first place. And as I turn to leave I notice a smell.... like... lemons.

* * *

I know what it is that makes little kids scared of the dark. Figured it out on the way home. By myself, in the blackness of an early morning. My eleventh-grade physics teacher would be proud.

So I tell Shirley. It seems like a good idea at the time. I'm not thinking straight.

"He's from the future," I say, and she immediately starts to cry. "He comes back to steal the fire diamond. I get in the way. He comes back again, and again. But each attempt, he travels farther back in time."

"What?" she sobs, shaking her hands. "Ricky, what? What are you talking about?"

I'm too excited to do the smart thing and shut up. "His last time is my first. Jimmy stops him."

Shirley tries to say something, moves her mouth silently.

"It's good news," I plead, holding her. "He's dead. We just have to stop what ever he did before...."

"No," she says, pounding my chest. "Ricky, oh god."

"Don't you see?" I say. "A scar, then a wound? He knows me, then steals my wallet?"

Shirly turns away, but I can hear her, sniffling. And behind it, a voice in my head, repeating:

"I've wasted enough bullets on you."

Effect, then cause.

"You'll be the first human being in history to die twice. That's an honor I'd be more than happy to bestow -- "

Shirley is still weeping, pleading, shoving at me the name and number of some shrink. So I don't tell her.

I don't tell her I just realized I have a rendevous with death.

* * *

I wait, wide-eyed, for a time burglar. Two weeks slip by and he doesn't show. I spend them pacing, night- stick in hand, Jimmy's pistol in my pocket. Another man would defy fate, run away.

But I have one last meeting with a smooth-cheeked friend. He's never seen me before in his life.

But I know all about him.

He comes, finally, with the paaaad... paaaad... paaaad... of tippy-toes. I slip surreptiously into the darkness.

He glides up to the glass partition, stands for a long moment, staring deeply into the diamond. Waiting, perhaps looking for a flame. Then he slips on gloves. Bends and does something to his boots -- and rises into the air.

His hand disappears, emerges with the drill. I don't give him the chance.

"What year?" I ask, stepping into the thin light.

His head turns like a rocket, eyes burning as they catch the ominous shadow of a gun. "What --"

"What year did you come from," I say evenly, shrugging. "When in the future?"

He sinks to the ground, exhaling.

"I wouldn't move," I say, grinning. "You'd be the first human in history to die twice. And that's an honor I'm very happy to bestow."

He looks at me, slowly. Hands rise into the air.

* * *

And in a flash they come together, too quick, he presses something on one finger and disappears into a blinding, horrific light.

And when I force my eyes open he's gone. Unbelievable. Back to his own time. There's that sickly lemon smell, and a faint wisp of lingering smoke.

But it's not over. Can't be. Fate won't be cheated.

I let myself breathe and hear a click.

And spin around....

Blam.

A thundering gunshot echoes in the gallery.

I see a gun, hanging. And an arm attached to it. Emerging from a barely perceptible circle. Suspended in thin air.

Blam.

Connected to nothing. Emerging from... time. If they can do that, we've got no chance.

Blam.

Then I look down. Where my right knee should be, there's a gnarled mixture of pant and blood. There's a hole in my chest, too. And something near my wrist is trying to get my attention.

Blam.

Pain hits me like the heat from a furnace, as I heave towards the marble floor.

* * *

The first thing I see in the hospital is pale, beautiful Shelley, leaning over, graying locks pouring onto my chest. I'm in too much pain....

"Oh Ricky," she whispers.

"I'm here."

She puts her face next to mine and I feel the wetness of her tears. "The police will find your burglar," she says. "They've promised me."

I start to shake my head, but stop. Its not worth it. "They won't," is all I manage.

"Shhh. Get some sleep."

But I'm fighting sleep. Always have been. "I want to see Jimmy."

Her eyes suddenly lower. Lips curl. I know this woman too well.

"Is Jimmy -- "

Now she's crying again, eyes swollen. "They found you together," she whispers. "He was gone before they got there."

Jimmy. He tried to save me. But his gun was in my hand, full of bullets.

My chest feels like putty. "The diamond?"

"It was still there," Shelley says, sniffling. "The police think the burlgar will try again. So they're going to wait for him." She leans over. "I don't want you ever going back...."

I hold her hand, but stop talking. I think of Jimmy, trying to save me. And the logic of a time burglar, evading detection by travelling backwards through time. And two men, killing each other, months apart. Fate....

People keep telling me to get some sleep, but I can't. I just can't. *

 

Story copyright © 1995 Brad Stone <BStone@panix.com>.
Brad's story "
The Time Madam" was previously featured in Planet Magazine Issue #6.

Artwork copyright © 1995 Andrew G. McCann <andy@planetmag.com>

 


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