His ears were still ringing when he regained consciousness.
All he could remember was a blur of bright red, accompanied by a child’s voice chanting the same rhymes over and over again.
He felt awful. Someone in 2006 must have been messing with his medications again and he dreaded to discover the repercussions in his private little 1973. He swore to himself that, as soon as he woke up, he’d find those incompetent bastards and have their guts for garters.
The view of his surroundings started to unblur when his brown eyes met a pair of weary green ones.
“About bloody time you woke up, Gladys. Had enough of your beauty sleep?” muttered Gene wearing one of his usual gruff expressions. He was sitting cross-armed on a too-small plastic chair, camel coat across his lap and loafers propped up onto Sam’s hospital bed. “Took you five hours to come round, you lazy bastard. Don’t you know I got better things to do than watching you take a nap?”
“Piss off.” Sam squeezed his eyes shut, fending off a wave of nausea.
“Well, well. I gather by this oh-so-cheerful answer that my little Deputy Dawg is feeling better already.” Gene celebrated the moment with a smirk and a swig from one of his hipflasks.
“Am not. My head’s splitting.”
“Oh, stop sulking like a four-year old and consider yourself lucky your melon’s still attached to the higher end of your neck! Judging by the accident site, we all thought you’d become minced beef. Still, doc says you’ve only got concussion and a few scrapes, and who am I to argue with a quack?”
Sam stared at him, horrified. In his confused state, he didn’t know whether to regard such information as the truth of his predicament or as a pitiful lie Gene had come up with to spare him the shock of discovering how seriously he’d been hurt. In fact, there was an increasing awareness of dull pain in his chest and limbs, probably due to the morphine or some other medication wearing off.
He looked down to assess the extent of visible damage and was relieved to see that, apart for a bandaged wrist and a few abrasions, his body was still in one piece. He dared not raise his hospital gown in front of Gene to check the cuts and bruises whose presence he could feel under the covers, but the lack of specific intense pain told him they were nothing to worry about.
A nurse came in to check his vitals, pleased to see he’d finally regained consciousness, and asked a few routine questions to evaluate his condition. The results were encouraging. She took note of everything and left with the recommendation that he take his medicines and rest as much as possible. Sam let her go with the reassurance that he’d be a good boy and a smile he hoped didn’t appear too fake.
As soon as she’d closed the door behind her, the Guv produced a cigarette from his coat pocket and proceeded to light it, exhaling the first puff of smoke with a certain satisfaction. He’d probably waited hours before allowing himself this treat without risking being reprimanded by some nurse or sister, and Sam couldn’t help but roll his eyes, although the movement made his headache worse.
Suddenly, his mind was crossed by a memory from the previous night, when he’d tried - and failed - to keep his monsters at bay by shattering the TV screen with an empty bottle of whisky. The little blonde devil had appeared out of nowhere to tease him with her rhymes, gliding toward him with an outstretched hand. He’d taken refuge under his cot, feeling hopelessly trapped.
The next thing he remembered was waking up in hospital. Still hopeless, still trapped.
“The girl...,” he muttered angrily. “Must’ve been the bloody girl.”
“What girl? You took another witness bird to your flat without telling me? Bloody hell, can’t your skinny little todger ever rest?”
“Shut up, it’s not what you think. I only had a nightmare,” he retorted, hoping Gene would ask no more questions requiring embarrassing explanations. “God, I feel like shit. What the hell happened anyway? Was I hit by a truck?”
“Actually, it was more like a tonne of bricks, Sammy-boy.”
“What? As in an earthquake?”
“Nah. Gas leak in the flat above yours. Building came down in the explosion; caused a right bloody mess.” Gene dragged avidly from his cigarette, using a kidney-shaped basin as an ashtray, much to Sam’s disgust. “You know how these things go: man wakes early to earn a crust for his family, doesn’t realise the air smells funny, switches on the light and BOOM!, half the building’s blown to smithereens. Haven’t found all his pieces yet, poor sod. Neighbours thought the Russians had started World War Three.”
“One dead, six injured, you included - all patched up by now. Landlord’s unscathed, at least until the tenants find him and rip him limb from limb. Turns out the building was uninsured and people had been complaining about the state of the old pipes for ages.”
Sam shook his head in disbelief. “So much for abiding security measures and safety regulations. I hope the bastard rots in prison for the rest of his life.”
“I’ll make sure he does. Trust the Gene Genie on that.” He stubbed out the cigarette butt and shrugged on his camel coat, ready to go back to work.
“Well, Gladys. Seems like you’ll have to find another shithole where to live now. Just do me a favour, though: make sure you’re no longer concussed when you choose the new wallpaper, eh?”
“Can I please be discharged now? I’ve told you a dozen times I’m feeling fine.”
He started to button up the green shirt Gene had brought him from work, which was at least two sizes too big and clashed badly with Chris’ burgundy trousers, the only ones the Guv had been able to find which were close to Sam’s size. Ray had contributed with the ugliest of his ties, which Sam had promptly thrown into the nearest bin.
It was not until he’d reached the last buttonhole that he realised he’d done it up wrong and had to start again. Gene rolled his eyes and the elderly doctor looked at Sam sternly. Things were not looking good.
“Well, Mr Tyler. Given the circumstances, I don’t think...”
“It’s Detective Inspector Tyler, if you don’t mind.”
“Alright, Detective Inspector. The concussion you suffered was quite serious. Your eye-hand coordination and balance have been affected, although I’m sure you will regain their full use soon. You do not appear to be suffering any other physical symptoms beside a little disorientation, nevertheless you really should stay under observation for at least another 48 hours as a precautionary measure.”
He lifted a finger in front of Sam’s nose, asking him to follow its movement with his eyes, while Gene observed the scene from the back of the room, one hand in his coat pocket and the other drumming on the windowsill.
“I also read from your chart that you have no next of kin in Manchester and no-one to take care of you at home - or even a place to go back to, as it were - therefore I strongly recommend that you remain in our care for the time being.”
Sam groaned but didn’t retort, sensing that any further protest would be useless, if not counterproductive. Apparently, people here were as keen on doing things by the book as he was in CID, and he couldn’t really blame them for being professional, could he?
As the doctor left the room, Gene approached and fished out a Curly Wurly from a small paper bag half-hidden in his coat, proceeding to munch on it.
“What’s the problem between you and that quack, Tyler? You looked more nervous than a crocodile in a handbag factory.”
“I just want to get out of here,” he sighed and started to massage his temples. In spite of all the painkillers he’d been given, his headache had increased in intensity and showed no intention of disappearing any time soon.
“Looks like your hard head ain’t hard enough after all, Sammy-boy,” smirked Gene, ignoring the fact that his deputy was giving him the evil eye.
“Guv, you don’t understand. One more day in this hellhole and I’ll go insane!”
“Not that anyone would notice the difference,” Gene quipped matter-of-factly, licking chocolate off his fingers.
Sam played his last card and stole the bag with the other Curly Wurlies from Gene’s pocket, dangling it in front of him like a bait. “You know what, Guv? I’m sure you’d be able to persuade that stuck-up bastard, if only you applied yourself to it.”
“I know you want to go home, Dorothy, but do I look like the Wizard of Oz?” With a swift move, Gene snatched back his favourite chocolate bars and glared at him. “Besides, you don’t even have a place to kip.”
“Oh, don’t worry about my sleeping arrangements. I’ll come up with something, even if I have to get on my knees and beg Phyllis to let me sleep in one of those stinking cells at the station.”
Gene looked bemused. “You really that desperate, Tyler?”
“I said I’d go to Phyllis, what d’you think?”
“Sounds pretty desperate to me.”
“C’mon, Guv. I’ll buy you a bottle of the finest single malt if you get me out of this prison.”
The DCI seemed to ponder the offer for a second. “No.”
“Plus a Party Seven to wash it down.” Sam looked at his boss hopefully.
“You forgot the free pints & chasers at the Arms for a week, Sammy-boy. Can’t buy me for less, can you? That’s my last offer. Take it or leave it.”
“Alright, alright! You win.”
They shook hands to seal the deal and Sam breathed a sigh of relief.
“Pack your bags, Dorothy. The Gene Genie’s taking you home.”
He was curious to see Gene’s habitat for the first time and determined to do all he could to be a good guest. It was not any day that his boss decided to invite him over, let alone stay until he felt better and could go searching for a flat of his own.
“Wipe your feet before you enter, Tyler. Wouldn’t want the Missus to give us a bollocking for getting her precious floor all dirty, would we?”
“Course not, Guv. I’ll be very careful.”
Gene raised an eyebrow. “Concussion must be more serious than I thought. You’re actually agreeing with me for once.”
Margaret Hunt welcomed Sam with a warm smile that immediately made him feel at home. As soon as they shook hands, he got the impression that, as much as Gene was king of the jungle in CID, she was definitely queen of the house.
“Sam’s staying in the guest room,” the Guv told her. “Make sure he takes a nap and don’t disturb him: he’s disturbed enough already.”
She glared at her husband and scolded him for not informing her sooner.
“Yeah, yeah. Should have told you in advance an’ all, but it was a sudden decision. Just do it for me, eh? Keep an eye on the boy while I’m at work. Doc said to wake him up every two hours to make sure he hasn’t copped it.” He kissed her on the forehead and turned back the way he came from.
“I’m sorry for all the trouble,” Sam told Margaret when they were alone. “I tried to convince the Guv that I didn’t need a babysitter, but he’s as stubborn as a mule.”
“Tell me about it,” she smiled. “Gene is a force of nature. It’s hard to make him change his mind on things.”
As they climbed the stairs to the first floor, Sam told her about the explosion and the fact that he’d been left with nothing but his sore limbs. Even the clothes he was wearing were borrowed, and he joked that at least he wouldn’t waste much time unpacking.
She opened the door at the end of the corridor, revealing a sparsely furnished room overlooking the back garden. “Sorry it’s a bit dusty,” she apologised. “Your visit was unexpected and we hardly ever use this room, save when my mother comes to visit. Except she doesn’t very often, as she and Gene don’t get on too well... Anyway, the sheets are clean and there’s an extra pillow in the cupboard if you need it.”
“Thank you, Mrs Hunt. This is actually a lot better than my old flat.” Sam’s gaze immediately went to the plain light brown wallpaper and he couldn’t suppress a smile. The mere though of waking up without getting blinded by the old flower-patterned horror was a restoration for the soul.
He eased himself onto the bed, feeling exhausted. Maybe a little nap would help clear his mind.
“Sleep well,” said Margaret gently, and covered him with a blanket. “I’ll be down in the kitchen if you need me.”
Left alone in the small room, Sam concentrated on his breathing until he dozed off.
Margaret had told him he could watch TV in the living room while she finished cleaning the kitchen and put the kettle on, but he preferred to just sit back with his eyes closed, hoping his headache would subside and let him rest for a bit.
“Your head is a funny place, Sam,” said the girl in the red dress, materialising by his side. “It’s crowded with so many people, and yet you are so alone.”
He bolted from the couch as if he’d been hit by lightning, backing up as much as possible from her outstretched little hand. “L-Leave me alone! You don’t exist! Go away!” He cowered in a corner, heart pounding in his chest.
When he dared to look up again, she had disappeared. Taking a deep breath, he stood up shakily before dragging himself back to the couch.
The door creaked as Mrs Hunt entered the living room carrying a tray with tea and biscuits, which she placed onto the coffee table. Sam looked startled, but quickly composed himself.
“Was the TV on just a minute ago? I thought I heard voices in here,” she enquired, filling two gold-rimmed china cups with the steaming brew.
“Erm, no...,” he blushed. “I was just... well, it’s not important, really.”
He took a sip of tea, hoping the conversation would soon be diverted towards less awkward topics. She was eyeing him strangely, with a hint of compassion for what she probably believed was a mental condition. He winced. God only knew what Gene must have told her about him.
They exchanged a few words about his temporary adjustment and she promised to go through the boxes of Gene’s old clothes - from the days when he was younger and leaner and only had eyes for her, she commented with a smile - to see if she could find something that fit Sam until he could go and buy new ones for himself.
He thanked her politely, but inwardly cringed at the thought of garish sixties clothing, praying that Gene had not been one to wear mod trousers or patterned polyester shirts.
“Well, better get back to work now,” she said after a while. “Need to prepare dinner before Gene arrives. Will you be alright, here on your own?”
“Actually, I was thinking that perhaps I could do some cooking for you tonight. You know, to thank you for putting me up without notice and all.”
“Oh, Sam. It’s very nice of you, but you don’t have to. You’re here to recuperate, after all. Besides, there’s little in the fridge, since I didn’t have time to go to the shops today. Gene’s not fussy, though; I’m sure sausage and mash will do just fine.”
Sam looked positively horrified and followed her into the kitchen, hoping to avoid a cooking disaster.
“Erm... I’m sure that with a little effort we can put together something slightly better than that. Just give me an apron, flour, eggs and a few vegetables to chop, will you? By the way, have you got any herbs?”
- Are you sure about the results of this brain scan, Doctor Morgan?
- I’m afraid there can be no mistake, Mrs Tyler.
- I don’t understand. With all those tests you did, all those scans, why did nobody spot it sooner?
- At the time, what concerned us the most were the traumatic injuries connected to your son’s accident; we weren’t looking for any other ailments. Nevertheless, we believe its removal may result in an improvement of Sam’s general condition, maybe even wake him from his prolonged comatose state.
“What is it you’ve found now?” Sam pleaded, shaking the radio angrily. “C’mon... tell me, you bastards! Tell me what you’ve found!”
His questions were answered by static on every frequency, and he banged his fist against the wall in frustration. There was something going on in 2006, something important that could probably help him get back home. He had to find out what it was and work with the doctors to get back home. But how?
He suddenly felt nauseous, and barely made it to the toilet before his dinner came back to visit him once again.
He hugged porcelain for what felt like ages before regaining his breath, and hoped that the Hunts, who were asleep in the adjacent room, wouldn’t be woken by the noise. Slumped on the floor with his head between his legs, he dismissed the thought as unimportant and concentrated on trying to stop the world from spinning.
“Okay, okay. No need to bellow, Guv. I’ll be out in a minute.”
Looking in the mirror with an old-fashioned razor in one hand, Sam checked whether the morning shave was close enough and realised his face still looked ashen. He wondered whether it had been such a good idea to lie to the doctors and Gene about his condition.
Instead of getting better, in the past two days his headaches had been getting worse, and there were moments when he experienced double vision. Sometimes his head was filled with voices from 2006, and hearing his mother crying was pure torture.
Maybe it was just the concussion taking its toll, maybe he was close to waking up, or perhaps he was slowly going mad.
He splashed cold water on his face to clear his mind. Blood chilled in his veins as the little blond girl suddenly appeared behind his shoulders.
“We’re all mad here, Sam,” she said with her angelic smile. “Why do you want to leave this world? Don’t you feel at home with us?”
When he turned around to face her, she had already vanished.
“Oh, good morning, Sam,” smiled Margaret, who was busy with a pan on the stove. “Your tea is already on the counter. Would you like a Marmite toast to go with it? Or would you prefer something cooked, like Gene does?”
“Erm... nothing for me, thanks,” he replied sheepishly, trying not to hurt the resident cook’s feelings. “My stomach is not so good.”
“Oh, poor darling. Just help yourself to anything you fancy eating then, alright?”
“Thanks. Any chance of plain yoghurt or muesli?”, he joked. She looked at him quizzically. “Nevermind.”
He was reaching for an apple when an unexpected jolt of pain wracked his entire body and took his breath away. The mug fell from his hands and shattered in countless pieces, spilling tea everywhere as Sam made his acquaintance with the kitchen floor.
Margaret was at his side in a second. “Oh my God! Sam, are you alright?”
“Y-Yeah... It was only a dizzy spell... I’ll feel better in a minute...” There were voices in his head now, beeps and whooshes increasing in intensity and confusing him.
“Gene! Come quick, Sam’s collapsed,” said Margaret, hearing her husband coming down the stairs.
The Guv rushed to the kitchen and helped pull up his DI and sit him on a chair. “Oi, Tyler. Sam. Talk to me! What’s wrong with you?”
“Headache... getting worse. I thought.... thought I could control it, but... I-I just get these attacks, sometimes.”
“Why didn’t you tell us earlier, you daft sod? Must be the damn concussion. You’re as pale as white dog shit.” He turned to Margaret, who had tears in her eyes but hadn’t left Sam’s side. “Talk to him, keep him awake while I go get the car. Gotta take him to hospital to be checked out. How long’s he been like this?”
“About a minute, I think. We were just talking, drinking tea, and next thing he was on the floor clutching his head.”
“D-Don’t worry, Guv... It’s not like your wife poisoned me...,” said Sam through clenched teeth, trying to ease the tension in spite of the pain. “She makes the best tea, actually... Sorry about the mug... Hope it wasn't one of your favourites.”
“Shut it, Tyler. Save your strength to get to the car. Can you lift that bony arse of yours, or do I have to carry you like a nancy damsel in distress?”
“I think I can manage, thanks.” He stood up and took a deep breath, leaning on the table for support.
“Good boy. Let’s get going, then.”
Sam had barely walked two steps when everything went black.
- I’d do anything to have my son back. Please do all you can.
- The Gamma Knife is the only option we have. His body is too weak for any other kind of surgery.
- My Sam is a fighter. He’ll be strong enough.
Sam staggered out of his hospital room and walked down the corridor on unsteady legs, trying to get as far as possible from those incompetent quacks. All he knew was that he was about to undergo an operation in 2006 that might put an end to his problems and finally bring him home. He had to stay strong now, fight for his life, and undergoing a similar operation here was out of the question.
“I’m telling you for the last time, Guv, I’m not letting these butchers open up my skull like a melon, thank you very much!”
Gene was beside him in a second, a murderous look of his face. “They say there’s a blood clot in your brain and they need to get rid of it as soon as possible, so stop being such a jessie and let the doctors do their job!”
As they argued animatedly, several other patients and hospital staff gathered in the corridor to watch the two policemen’s heated debate.
“Gene, these idiots are basing their theory on a simple, primitive X-ray! What if it’s not a blood clot? What if it’s a tumour, or a cyst, and they go digging about in my brain looking for something that’s not there, with their happy-go-lucky seventies attitude, eh?!? Can you even begin to imagine the damage they could cause? A diagnosis like this should at least be backed up by an MRI or an HMRI, but guess what? They’ve not been invented yet! And yes, a simple CT could be useful too, but that’s probably still just a prototype in some posh hospital near London, while I’m stuck up here in bloody Manchester, surrounded by Jurassic machinery!”
“Tyler, I hope you do realise you’re talking gibberish. C’mon, stop arguing and do as you’re bloody told for once.”
As the younger man stopped to regain his breath, Gene grabbed him by the front of his hospital gown and pushed him into a nearby wheelchair, but didn’t realise until a few seconds later that Sam had taken his gun, which was now aimed at Gene’s head.
“Back off, Guv. Don’t make me do something I’ll regret.”
Sam stood up shakily, shoving the chair away and leaning against the wall for support. He needed Gene to help him, dammit, not treat him like a bloody lunatic. If only he could make him understand!
Everything was so confused now, sensations from 1973 and 2006 overlapping. He felt something cold being injected into his arm, a stinging liquid spreading through his body like a snake under his skin. But it wasn’t happening in this reality, he was experiencing something from 33 years in the future. His breathing started to become shallower, and he began to tear up.
“Must be the sedative... it’s beginning.” His eyes lost focus for a second, while he tried to listen to the voices in his head. “Yes, they’re starting. All this shit is gonna end soon.”
“You mean you’ve finally changed your mind, Tyler?” Gene asked with a hint of relief in his voice. “You’ll let them operate?”
“No, no... You don’t understand! I don’t mean here.” Tears of frustration were falling down his cheeks now, as he waved the gun around. “There’s no need to do anything here... They’re already taking care of me over there, and they’re doing it right now!”
“Alright, Sammy-boy. Gimme back my gun and let’s talk about it peacefully, just you and me. No need to scare the shit outta the other patients, eh?”
“It hurts, Gene...” he sighed, “It bloody hurts.”
Sam wiped his wet cheeks with the palm of his hand. “I can already feel the sedative; soon I won’t be able to feel anything at all. Gene, please! You have to promise that these quacks won’t touch me! They might break my connection with home, and if I still end up stuck here, I don’t wanna be a vegetable! Don’t you understand? You have to protect me!”
“Just gimme the gun, Sammy. C’mon.”
“I can hear them, the doctors, talking about football while comparing MRI and CAT scans... They’re using non-invasive surgery, you know... with a Gamma Knife, state-of-the-art technology! I just need to stay strong, let them work their magic, and it’ll be over soon.”
The DCI made a few steps further, his hands raised in a calming gesture. “Sam, listen to me. Those voices in your head, they ain’t real. Your reason’s impaired by the bloody mass that’s in your brain. No-one’s gonna call the funny farm because of that. I’ll make sure they don’t, you have my word. Just calm the hell down, alright? I’m gonna talk to the doctors, then we can sort this out.”
“No! No, Gene... Please, you have to listen to me... I just need some more time... I need to stay strong for the operation, because... because I’m sure that when it’s all over at home, everything will be fine here too, without these butchers digging around my brain with their giant knives!”
“What’s important now is that you hand me back that bloody gun. No quack’s gonna come near you until I say so.”
“If these bastards mess with me now, I may never be able to go home again! Just promise you won’t let them touch me... Gene, please!”
“Alright. Fine, I promise.” said the DCI gravely, extending one hand. “The gun now.”
Sam nodded and relaxed his arm. With one swift move, Gene grabbed the weapon and spun his DI around, pinning him against the wall. He then twisted Sam’s arms behind his back to keep him still while a nurse came over with a sedative.
“No! Gene, no!... You promised!... You bastard!... You promised...”
“I’m sorry, Sammy-boy,” Gene whispered in his ear. “Kept fingers crossed behind me back: promise doesn’t count. You’re gonna hate me for this, but it’s for your own damn good.”
Suddenly devoid of all his fighting energy, Sam started to sob uncontrollably. His thoughts were clouding. He couldn’t stay strong any more.
Within seconds, his body went limp in Gene’s arms.
He regained consciousness very slowly, after what seemed to be a thousand-year sleep. His limbs felt like lead and it was only with great effort that he managed to open his eyes.
A familiar face entered his field of vision and a tear escaped the corner of Sam’s eye.