Story 4

Little-known fact: Action-mystery is one of my all-time favorite genres to write.

As I was trying to create the characters for this story, a thought occurred to me. I already had a story about a pair of cops who occasionally deal with weird crap. So I decided that rather than build new characters for this tale, I'd pull them in and let you guys see a bit more of them. This led to me rereading my other cop story. It could maybe use a rewrite. And probably several more pages to flesh things out better.

But this isn't about that story. This is an entirely new story. Or maybe just a new chapter in these character's saga.

It was a lot of fun to write. I expect I'll see more of these two in the long run.


Outside Procedure

Terry inhaled deeply through his nose and exhaled slowly through his mouth. They always made this part look so easy in cop movies, but it never was in real life. Your heart pounded in your ears. Thoughts of the unknown tugged at the corners of your mind. The perp knew they were there. What if he was armed? They were always armed. What if he was waiting for them just on the other side of the door? Breathe in. Breathe out. Follow procedure.

“This is Detective Wilson of the Los Angeles Police Department,” he shouted. “We have a warrant for the arrest of Neil Billings, and we know you're in there. Open the door and come out with your hands up!”

He looked across the doorway. His partner, Bruce, shook his head. Billings wasn't coming out, and in the time it was taking them to follow procedure, he could be sneaking out the back door or setting up traps or.... Breathe in. This hadn't been standard procedure from the start. They had been asking questions at a neighbor's house when they saw him walk by. For a moment, they had locked eyes, and then Billings had taken off. Bruce and Terry had not hesitated to follow. Billings was an incredibly dangerous man. Breathe out.

They should have covered the exits and called for backup. First mistake. Too late now. If they didn't move quickly, that mistake might be their last.

Terry nodded toward the door. Bruce returned the nod. He stepped back from the door frame and kicked the door firmly just below the handle. There was a splintering sound as the lock gave way and the door swung open. Bruce held his gun ready and stepped into the house. Terry slid out of position to follow, but Bruce wasn't there anymore.

Terry kept his gun ready, eyes scanning. The living room stood before him. Bookcases lined the walls. An overstuffed couch and a coffee table sat in the middle of the room. A hallway led off to what looked like the dining room and kitchen. Stairs led to the upper floors on the left. A door to a closet or a bathroom was closed on the right. Nothing moved. There were no footprints on the carpet and no signs of life.

“Bruce?” said Terry softly. There was no answer. Cautiously, Terry stepped through the doorway.

He instinctively ducked his head and closed his eyes as he was hit by a blast of heat and light. When he opened them, the living room and the house were gone. Sand blew around him and the sun beat down overhead. A few feet away, Bruce was standing with a hand shielding his eyes, scanning the horizon.


The big man turned. “I was beginning to think you weren't coming, Terrence.” He grinned and gestured at the desert landscape around them. “I don't suppose you thought to bring water with you. Or maybe a plane to get us out of here.”

Terrence looked over his shoulder, expecting to see a door open onto an urban street, but all he saw was more sand. He waived a hand behind him experimentally, but all he felt was air. “Have you figured out where 'here' is?”

Bruce shrugged. “My hot-shot detective skills tell me it's a desert,” he said. “One of the sandy ones.”

“Good job, smart-ass. Any idea where Billings is?”

Bruce gestured at the ground with his gun. “Well, boss, one of the great things about sand is footprints are really easy to find in it. Barring that, if you squint over at that huge dust storm coming in, looks like there's some sort of civilization there. And I don't know much about dust storms, but I don't think standard-issue detective-style business suits over Kevlar are going to be much protection.”

“And the wind will blow away the footprints.”


Terry holstered his gun and headed off in the direction of the footprints. “Couldn't have done this without you, rookie.”

Bruce grinned wolfishly and holstered his gun. “Glad you finally see it my way, old man.”

By the time they reached the town, the winds had kicked up considerably. The sky overhead had turned from a blindingly clear blue to a dusty brown, and the footprints they had been following had disappeared as the sandy landscape began to shift like a gently rolling sea. Terry held his sleeve in front of his nose in a futile attempt to lessen the amount of sand he was breathing in. He and Bruce had considered taking off their jackets and using those, but decided against it in favor of keeping their shoulder holsters concealed. There were no procedures for what to do when one found one's self spontaneously in a desert, possibly in a foreign country, in the middle of a dust storm, but he was pretty sure asking for shelter while brandishing a gun wouldn't be very well-received. Not that looking like a pair of FBI agents was going to help much.

The village was surrounded by a wall of tightly-packed, sand-colored brick. A pair of heavy wooden doors stood in an archway, blocking the entrance.

“I don't think we're in Kansas anymore, Auntie Em,” said Bruce, then he broke into a fit of coughing.

Terry didn't respond. He walked up to the door and pounded on it with his fist. They needed to find shelter or they might not last through the storm. He pounded on it again.

There was a creek of hinges and a peephole slot opened. Dark eyes looked out. “Please, let us in,” said Terry, pushing aside the thought that the doorman probably couldn't understand a word he was saying. “We need to take shelter from the storm.”

The slot closed. Metal grated on metal, and one of the doors swung open just enough for the men to squeeze in. A man wrapped from head to toe in loose cloth stood behind the door, holding it against the wind. As soon as they were inside, he pushed it shut. The storm was hardly any better inside. The man motioned for them to follow and ducked inside a building built into the wall. Terry and Bruce exchanged glances, squinting at each other through the sand, then followed.

The man shut the door firmly behind them. Outside, the storm beat at the building, sand rasping against stone, making the heavy wood shutters on the windows rattle. Inside, the room was small and only lightly furnished. An arched hallway led away from the room, sloping gently with the curve of the town's wall. Two chairs sat at a heavy wooden table. A stone fireplace was nestled in one corner like some sort of huge bird's nest. A basin and a pitcher sat on a smaller table near a large ceramic jar. The man unwrapped the cloth from his face. He drew some water from the jar and poured it into the basin, then dipped a towel in and ran it over his hands and face. “You are not from here,” he said in clipped English.

“Hey, this guy's almost as good as me,” Bruce muttered as he brushed the sand from his shoulders.

Terry raised a hand to silence him. “No, we aren't,” he said.

The man nodded, apparently ignoring Bruce's comment. He rinsed the towel in the basin and handed it to Terry.

“Thank you for letting us in, “ Terry continued.

The man shrugged. He refilled the pitcher and began pouring water into a few ceramic cups. “Ba'atar said to make sure you were taken care of if you came. I am simply following his wishes.”

“Ba'atar?” asked Terry.

The man nodded and handed them each a cup. “He said if men in foreign clothes came, I was to offer them shelter until the storm had passed and he could meet with them. And here you are, so I have given you shelter.”

Terry tapped his fingers on his cup. “Who is this Ba'atar?” he asked. “How did he know we were coming?”

“Ba'atar is a wanderer who comes through here from time to time,” said the man, “usually when something has happened that we cannot fix. He said maybe some men had followed him through the doors between the worlds. Given your dress, I must think he meant you.”

Billings. Of course he had expected them. They had chased him right to his front door. But now what? There were no procedures for what to do when you spontaneously found yourself being held prisoner in a desert town in God only knew where. Breathe in. It was easier without the sand constantly blowing around him. Investigate. They still had their guns, and this man, at least, looked unarmed. Then again, Billings had killed four men without firing a single shot.

“You said he shows up when something happens that you can't fix,” he said. “What happened this time?”

The man swirled his cup gently and stared into its depths. “There were criminals, terrible men. He had tracked them here, and then he chased them beyond the doors.”

Terry and Bruce exchanged confused looks. “The doors between worlds?” asked Terry.

The man nodded. “Ba'atar holds the keys to the doors. It is how he comes here, even though most everyone else has forgotten our village exists.”

“Is that supposed to be a metaphor for something?” said Bruce.

The man's eyebrows crinkled up. “A what?”

“The doors between worlds,” said Bruce. “I mean, does that mean he has a jet or a car or something that can get us out of here?”

The man blinked in apparent confusion. “He holds the keys to the doors between worlds. Forgive me, I know little of the language beyond the doors. Perhaps the keys are called 'jet' or 'car' there?”

“I sure hope so,” said Bruce, “though usually the only thing we call keys is keys.”

This wasn't getting them anywhere. They may have been trapped, but this man at least seemed willing to provide them with information. And information could save their lives. Breathe out. Take a step back. Get a feel for your surroundings. “Where are we, anyway?'” he said. “Does this place have a name?”

“You are in the town of Al'eratish in the Desert of Forgotten Ways,” said the man.

“So... is that in, like, Africa, or the Middle-East?” said Bruce.

The man stared at him blankly.

Terry thought back to the house and the blast of heat that had met him when he stepped over the threshold. “No,” he said. “It's beyond the doors between worlds.”

“Christ, Terrence, not you, too.” Bruce sniffed at his cup, and Terry noticed he had not touched its contents. He didn't blame the younger man. One got suspicious of a lot of things when they were saddled with him as a partner. Bruce, unfortunately, seemed to get suspicious of all the wrong things.

“Those men your Ba'atar was chasing,” said Terry, “what was their crime?”

The man stared at the floor and said nothing for a long moment. Bruce tapped a foot impatiently, but Terry leaned back against the stone wall and waited. The man's eyes flicked to them and then back to the floor. “They showed up in the desert and asked for shelter, much like you did,” said the man. “Of course we took them in. There is little around here, and if one does not know the desert well, it will take their life without mercy. But they were not men like us, nor like we had seen before.”

“So their crime was being different?” said Bruce.

“Perhaps,” said the man. “Every man has a fire inside him, but the fire in these men was too great. It overflowed from them through their skin, and with it they scarred those who did not bend to their will and consumed those who dared to challenge them. Then Ba'atar came, and they fled through the doors. Until then, we had thought only Ba'atar had that skill.”

Bruce raised an eyebrow, then shook his head and rubbed his temples. “I know I'm going to regret asking this,” he said, “but how did this Ba'atar drive off men who could apparently turn themselves into fire?”

“Ba'atar is a man of many skills,” said the man. “He also has a great fire within. He has never used it to hurt any of our people, but he used that and his blades to drive them away.”

As Bruce groaned outwardly, Terry groaned inwardly. This was why he never got any promotions. Somehow or another, it was always the weird cases that ended up on his desk. And now he wouldn't just have to figure out how to explain being dropped into another world. He was also going to have to amend all his previous reports on this investigation to somehow account for people who could turn into fire.

Because those kinds of things totally flew with the Los Angeles police department.

“Is it too late for me to wake up and find this is all a dream?” said Bruce. “I want to go back to Kansas now, Auntie Em.”

“If you wish to go back, you will have to wait for Ba'atar,” said the man. “Unless you, too, hold the keys to the doors between worlds.”

Terry took another sip of his water and licked his lips. “Look, Mr.... I'm sorry, I don't know your name.”

“My name is Oton,” said the man. “I am the gatekeeper of Al'eratish.”

“Gatekeeper Oton,” said Terry. “Nice to meet you. I am detective Terrence Wilson, and this here is my partner, Bruce Sutter.” He swished the contents of his cup. “Oton, would you perhaps have something a bit stronger around here?”

Oton made a gesture Terry decided to take as apologetic and looked away. “We only have water in the gatehouse today,” he said.

“Pity,” said Terry. He really could use a stiff drink right now, even if drinking on the job was highly frowned upon. “Look, we know we're not really in a position to negotiate for things here,” he said, “but is there any chance we could get a little privacy for a bit?”

“Ba'atar was clear that you should not be treated as prisoners,” he said. “I shall retire to the other room, but please call me if you need anything further.”

With that, he bowed through the arched hallway and disappeared.

Terry pulled out the other chair at the table and sat down. Bruce was still rubbing his temples. “Well, hot shot,” said Terry, “it seems like we've got until the sand clears to figure out how we're going to get home and how we're going to successfully take into custody a man who is is these people's hero, a swordmaster, and can also become fire.”

The winds outside lessened from a howl to a hum, and Oton returned to the room. If he had overheard anything they had said, he gave no sign of it. Presently there was a knock on the door. Terry and Bruce jumped to their feet as Oton opened it.

The man who entered was garbed in loose, flowing cloths like the ones Oton wore, but his eyes were a sharp, almost unnaturally pale blue, and his face was unmistakable. A pair of short blades were strapped to the small of his back, in plain sight.

“Neil Billings,” said Terry.

Billings nodded. “I go by many names, but that is the one you would know me as.”

“I'm Detective Wilson and this is Detective Sutter. I suppose you know why we're here.”

Billings nodded again. “But I'm afraid I cannot let you take me into custody, detectives. I'm sorry your world got caught up in this, but I assure you I only did what I had to do. Those men I killed were not men as you know them, and their crimes spread across more worlds than just these two.”

“Oton told us a little about it. It seems all our investigations into deaths of civilians burnt and maimed beyond all recognition were for nothing,” said Terry. “Our world is just a bunch of innocents who got caught in the crosshairs of some sort of interdimensional battle.”

“Something like that,” said Billings.

Terry crossed his arms and paced across the room, keeping his breathing level. He was only going to get one chance at this. “Detective Sutter,” he said as he paced, “what is standard procedure in this situation?”

“Well, boss, usually I' think we'd-- holy shit!”

As Bruce spoke, several things happened very quickly. Terry reached the far wall and pivoted on his heel, pulling his gun out of its holster. Billings's eyes went wide and he reached behind him toward his blades. Terry leveled the gun at Billings and pulled the trigger. And Billings burst into flame.

Terry dropped the gun and held up his hands. Rapidly-warming steel pressed against his throat as waves of heat washed over him. Through the flames, Terry could see Bruce fumbling in his suit jacket for his gun. “Leave it, Bruce,” said Terry. “We're obviously well out of our jurisdiction.”

The pillar of fire before Terry shimmered and condensed. Billings stood before him again, blade still pressed to Terry’s neck. “What is the meaning of this, detective?” said Billings. “Answer quickly.”

Sweat beaded on his forehead that had nothing to do with the warm air still swirling around him. Breathe in. “Oton here said there's a fire that burns in every man's soul, and that yours was particularly great,” he said. “I just wanted to see if it was true.”

“Was it too difficult to simply ask?” said Billings.

“He also implied you used it to keep the peace and not to hurt innocents,” said Terry. “You'll forgive me if I was a bit skeptical of Oton's explanation. In our world, people don't usually turn into fire or jump through the doors of urban houses into the middle of deserts.”

Billings's cold eyes pierced his, but Terry stared back with a level gaze. Slowly, Billings lowered his blade and stepped away. Terry exhaled slowly through his nose. Behind Billings, Bruce stood with every muscle tensed like a startled cat, and Oton had pressed himself as deeply into the corner of the room as the stone would allow.

Billings sheathed his blade and Terry slowly bent to pick up his gun and put it back in its holster.

“I cannot let you take me into custody,” Billings repeated.

“As I said, this is out of our jurisdiction,” said Terry. “Right now we just need to get home and figure out our paperwork. Oton suggested you might be able to do something about that, too.”

“Of course,” said Billings. He turned to Oton, who had begun to crawl out of his corner. “You have a room we can use?”

Oton nodded and gestured down the hallway. “Second doorway,” he said. “No one uses that room anymore.”

“Be sure they continue that tradition at least until sunset,” said Billings. He started toward the hall, then stopped. “I'm sorry I could not come sooner, Oton. Do not let that room stand empty forever.”

He continued down the hall, and Terry and Bruce fell into step behind him. Terry cast a quick glance over his shoulder at Oton. The man was slumped in the corner, face buried in his hands.

“His son was one of the ones they killed,” Billings said softly.

They entered the room and Billings shut the door behind them.

“So,” said Bruce, “how does this work?” He still hadn't quite shaken off the shock from the scene earlier, but his voice, at least, was not shaking.

“You stand back,” said Billings. “I go first. You follow after. Quickly. The door will not stay open for long.”
With that, he pulled a book from the folds of his clothes and set it against the door, balancing it underneath with one hand. With his other hand he opened it, then flicked the pages. They began turning of their own accord, faster and faster, while Billings muttered under his breath in a strange tongue. Terry heard Bruce sigh in annoyance beside him. Terry said nothing, but stood and watched.

The book slammed shut and seemed to dissolve into the door. Billings lifted the latch and pushed it open. “Follow quickly,” he called over his shoulder.

“I hate magic,” said Bruce.

“Yeah, just wait til we get to the paperwork for this,” said Terry. He took a deep breath and stepped through the door.

The smell of smog and car exhaust assaulted his nostrils. He was standing in the middle of the street near Billings's house. Billings was already on the sidewalk dressed in plain clothes. A moment later, Bruce stepped out of nothing and blinked at the change of surroundings. Terry waved a hand at the space Bruce had stepped out from. There was nothing there.

“It only works one way,” called Billings. “And you might want to step out of the street.”

Terry and Bruce made their way over to the sidewalk.

“You are back in your world,” said Billings. “Now I must return to mine. Believe it or not, I have paperwork of my own to take care of.”

“Every world has its semantics,” said Terry.

Billings laughed softly. “Believe me, you have no idea,” he said.

He raised his hand in a small salute, then headed up to the door of his house. Again he removed a book from his clothes and performed the same strange ritual on the door. Then he opened it and stepped through.

“Well, it looks like we managed to track Billings to his house,” said Terry. “Care to put your hot shot detective skills to use and poke around a bit in it?”

Bruce had taken a seat on the curb and was dumping the sand out of his shoes. “I think I'm good for the day, boss.”

Terry nodded slowly. “Yeah, me too.” He kicked at Bruce as he walked by. “Common, rookie. That paperwork isn't going to rewrite itself.”

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