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Wrong Place, Wrong Time
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Brian Williams

Modern Fiction

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It was a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He’d only come in for a pint of milk. His downtown hotel, like all American hotels, had its own coffee maker in the room and, for once, the coffee they supplied to go with it was pretty decent. Decent enough for him to want to drink it with real milk and not “non-dairy creamer”, whatever bizarre concoction of vegetable fats that was. So, he’d popped out in search of a corner shop or supermarket to buy a pint of milk. He’d only gone a few blocks from the hotel, but it was obvious that he’d ended up in the wrong part of town. Although a seasoned traveller in America, this was one thing he still hadn’t really gotten his head around; the idea that you could walk two blocks and go from a perfectly respectable part of town to one where you really didn’t want to be.

However, he was here now and there was a corner shop. It was even on a corner, so he went in. The door made a harsh buzz as he opened it and the first thing he noticed was the cash desk in plain view of the door. The server, a man of middling years, looked him over from behind the strong, iron bars that protected him from whatever threats the shop might contain. The once-over only took a second and then the man went back to whatever he was doing.

The shop itself was small and sparse, the shelves half-stocked and the lighting poor. Even though it was a bright day outside, inside it was very dingy and he considered going straight back outside, but thought better of it. The sooner he got his milk and got back to the hotel, the better.

He’d just located the cooler at the back of the shop and picked out a pint of milk, struggling to make sense of the various options, fat contents and different-coloured packages, when he heard the door buzz again. From where he was, he couldn’t see the door, but he had a clear line-of-sight to the cash desk and presently a figure shuffled up to it. He took it to be a young man from the gait, the low-slung trousers and the hoodie pulled up over his head. The figure stopped, reached in his pocket and pulled out a gun.

He froze. If the hooded figure said anything to the man at the cash desk, he didn’t hear it. However, he must have made a noise himself, because the figure swung round to look at him, gun raised. He saw a dark face and a glint of white teeth beneath the hood and not much else in the dim light. He momentarily froze and the milk carton slipped out of his hand, landing with a loud plop on the floor. To the right of the hooded figure, he could see the man behind the cash desk slowly reaching down for something, eyes locked on the hooded figure. He had no idea if it was he that gave something away, perhaps his glance betraying the man, but the hooded figure suddenly turned back to the cash desk.

He had just enough time to see the man raising something from beneath the counter. It might have been a gun, or a crowbar, or a rolled-up newspaper for all he knew. The hooded figure stretched out an arm and thrust the gun between the bars. Suddenly there was a bright flash and a deafening Bang! The man in the cash desk seemed to fling himself backwards and disappeared from view, a red smear appearing on the wall behind where he had been standing.

It took him a few seconds to realise what had happened, by which time the hooded figure had turned to face him, gun levelled.

For the first time since he entered the shop, he spoke. “Hey, it’s okay.”

His voice sounded strange to him, distant somehow, as if it wasn’t his own. He also realised that his throat was dry. He swallowed, cleared his throat, all the time aware that the hooded figure was watching him.

“I only came in for a pint of milk.”

He indicated vaguely towards the floor where he thought the fallen carton might be.

“I didn’t see anything.”

The hooded figure seemed to consider this for a second or two before cocking its head to one side. He realised, with sudden horror, that he was going to be shot.

“Please!” he pleaded, willing with all his might that this was not to be.

Then something strange happened.

He saw the flash of the gun, saw its barrel buck upwards with the recoil, but he heard no sound. The bullet, expelled from the chamber, smeared to a halt like something out of a movie special effects studio. Then it just hung there, in midair, equidistant between them.

He became aware that his mouth was hanging open. The hooded figure stood stock still, gun pointing slightly upwards. The bullet hung in midair. What was going on?

He let out a sudden gasp, unaware that he had been holding his breath. His heart was racing and he felt dizzy. Forcing himself to relax, he became aware that the bullet, which he first thought was stationary, was in fact moving almost imperceptibly towards him. Without thinking, he stepped carefully to his left so that he was out of its trajectory.

What the hell was going on? Think, he told himself. Think. He watched the bullet as it continued inching along its course, spinning slowly on its axis as it did. Looking around, he could see nothing else that was moving. All he could hear was the sound of his own breathing.

Struck by sudden inspiration, he looked at his wrist-watch. It too was frozen. He stared at it for a good 10 seconds, but nothing, not even the second hand, moved.

Had he just frozen time? By his own strength of will, had he just frozen time? Well, he corrected himself as he watched the bullet’s snail-paced progress, not frozen, but slowed down by an incredible rate.

The engineer in him (he was an engineer by profession) was fascinated by this. He could freeze time! His mind was filled with questions. How? Had he always been able to do this? Was it localised? Did he actively have to concentrate to maintain it? How long could he keep time frozen?

This last question brought him up short as, in his imagination, he saw the bullet speed up and slam into the wall, the hooded figure turning towards him once again. Could he do it twice? What if it gave out and he couldn’t do it again?

Fear took hold of him and he began to sweat. He told himself not to panic. Stay calm, keep concentrating, he reminded himself. What should he do?

Perhaps, he thought, he could take the gun. He took a few tentative steps towards the hooded figure and then stopped. What if physical contact broke the effect? He saw himself grappling with the figure and recoiled a step or two. Perhaps best to just get out of there, call the police, let them deal with it. He edged carefully past the hooded figure, careful not to get too close, intending to head for the door. However, he caught sight of the cash desk. What about the man? He hesitated, then went over to the iron bars. Looking through them, he immediately regretted it. The man lay on his back on the floor, face gone, a large puddle of blood forming a halo around his head. It was too late to save him. He looked away, fighting an urge to vomit. Keeping his eyes on the hooded figure, he edged backwards towards the door, feeling for it with his outstretched hand. His fingers touched its hard surface and he groped blindly for the handle, all the time keeping his eyes locked on the hooded figure, fervently hoping that it would remain frozen. He was concentrating so hard that he could feel the sweat running down his forehead.

He found the handle and now a new fear emerged. Would opening the door break whatever force was holding time at a standstill? Up until now, he had changed nothing except his own position in the shop. Would opening the door fundamentally alter something?

Breathing hard, he waited for a few seconds, but no inspiration came to him. There was only one way to find out. It was either that or remain there with the killer until time returned to normal. Slowly, carefully, he tried the handle. Nothing happened. He tried again. Nothing. Fighting a growing sense of panic, he risked taking his eyes off the hooded figure and turned to the door. It was a straightforward

lever handle. He pushed it down, gently, but it didn’t budge. He tried again, harder this time, then, with mounting panic, he put his whole weight on it and slowly it began to move. What was going on? Something rang a bell in the back of his mind, something from his undergraduate lectures. Newton’s equations, Force and Work. Of course! It suddenly came to him. Work, energy expended, was a function of force, multiplied by time. Since he had slowed time down, he was only applying the force needed to open the door for a fraction of the time, hence the need to work harder! It all made sense and, relaxing a little, he heaved on the door. Slowly it began to creep open. He pulled harder, breathing heavily now, the sweat running freely down his back. He put his whole weight into it and the door crept open. Inch by inch it opened, each fraction bringing him a little closer to safety.

Eventually he felt it was wide enough and, giving up any hope of opening it fully, he tried to slip through the gap. He cursed as his belt caught on the door, but, putting his back against the door frame, he was able to free himself with a sharp heave and then he was out, tumbling into the street. He found himself outside in the fresh air, the bright light hurting his eyes. It took him a few seconds to adjust as he looked around. Everything seemed normal, except nothing was moving. There was another person frozen in mid-walk a little way along the street and two cars in the road, neither moving, their drivers frozen behind the wheel. And the silence was oppressive. Why so quiet? Then it came to him: the speed of sound being what it is, he would be moving faster than the sound waves themselves, which is probably why he could hear nothing. He wondered, idly, if he was causing a sonic boom.

He moved half a block down the street, revelling in his comparative freedom, before he came to stop. His fear and his exhaustion hit him all at once, his legs began to shake and he had to lean against a wall for fear of falling over. With a conscious effort, he relaxed, willed time to return to normal. With an imperceptible change, time speeded up and the world was back to normal. The person started walking, the cars began to move and back in the direction of the shop he heard what he thought was a gun shot.

He had made it! He was safe!

“Hey! Come and look at this!”

The clerk at the hotel desk called the doorman over, indicating the TV screen in the lobby. “That’s just a couple of blocks from here, isn’t it?”

“Yeah,” the doorman said, “that’s right. Convenience store on the corner. Turn the sound up, will ya?”

A serious-looking man in a suit was standing, addressing the camera, with the corner store in the background. Over his shoulder, white-suited men where wheeling what could have been a body out of the door on a stretcher. Along the bottom of the screen a red bar scrolled the message “Breaking news: two shot to death in neighbourhood robbery”.

“Details are sketchy, but the police say they were called to reports of a shooting just under 45 minutes ago,” the man was saying.

“Hey, I told you I heard sirens,” interrupted the doorman, but the desk clerk quickly hushed him. “There has been no official statement,” the man continued, “but sources tell me that the two dead are the store owner and an unidentified man who appears to have been a shopper, possibly a British tourist. The officer I spoke to said it looked like a classic case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Now, back to the studio."

© Brian Williams, 2012



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