A Girl in Time. (Chapters 3 and 4)

John Birmingham
Dec 2, 2016 · 19 min read
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It wasn’t a total disaster. Matt really was a good guy, and he made nothing of the awkward break between Georgia and Cady when he returned from the bathroom. They didn’t ask him to cover the extra check, though. Didn’t even mention it. Georgia slipped the waitress her corporate Amex.

“I’ll tell Bungie I was trying to recruit you,” she said in a discrete aside before Cady left. “They’d wet themselves if they thought there was a real chance you might work for them, or even consult. Their augmented reality guys are a bunch of ass-clowns.”

Cady agreed to meet up with Matt the following day. He wanted to watch her at work, but she said that would be as boring as watching him type up a story. Worse. She wrote in Swift, not English. Georgia suggested she take him on a tour of all the local software houses she’d been fired from before opening her own one-woman code shop and writing Murder City.

Done deal, they said. A date.

The three little girls and their dad left an hour before Cady. They weren’t hanging around for beers with BuzzFeed guy. The oldest of them stopped at the table and gave her a note.

“I drew you a picture of unicorns,” she said, without explanation.

“Unicorns are awesome,” Cady smiled, “and so are you. Thank you.”

“What was that about?” Matt asked, although he totally knew.

“She had the best kill streak of everyone in her kindergarten,” said Cady. “She just wanted to say thanks. Happens all the time.”

And it did. Not the kindergarten thing. That was an outrageous lie, which would probably read well in his final story. But it did happen that, on the rare occasions she left the apartment, she was sometimes recognized, and people did come up and tell her all about their latest hit or longest kill streak in the game. You saw people playing Murder City all the time. There had been think pieces about it. And hot takes. So many hot takes.

That was going to get more intense after Matt’s story ran on BuzzFeed. Two thousand words, he said. A major feature. The publicist she’d hired said she should get ready to do some TV after that. Maybe even the morning shows. Cady wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about that. Her idea of breakfast TV was Netflix with a microwave burrito lunch. But she knew her parents would be thrilled after years of trying to explain to their friends and neighbors what the hell it was she did for a living, and why she kept getting fired.

Her dad would probably start sending her VHS tapes of her appearances.

But it would sell more copies of the game.

She shivered inside her leather jacket and pulled the scarf tighter around her neck. She had an update she wanted to get ready by the end of the week, and she already knew she was going to work through the night on it. She had warned Matt not to come looking for her before lunch time.

The streets were much quieter on the way home. The rain had stopped, and the clouds had broken up in patches, letting through the light of a handful of the brightest stars. But only the brightest.

Her phone buzzed. A message from Georgia. Despite her earlier resolution that she would not stare at her screen while walking along the street like a phone-zombie, she pulled it out and read the series of blue bubbles as they popped up.


U know I only want the best 4U.

Cady, all artists r selfish and selfishness will take u a long way, but it won’t get u where u need 2b.

We only get there by helping each other 4 real.


The skull and flame emoji popped up, this time with Edvard Munch’s The Scream.


Die screaming in a fire.

Cady smiled before she could get angry again.

L8r, bitch.

Another canned response, but a genuine one. Georgia had been right. She’d been wrong too. There was a part of Cady that had honestly felt the pain of that dad in the restaurant. She knew what it was like to have to get through a whole week on a handful of carefully hoarded cash. She had no idea why he took those girls out to eat when he was so broke. But he had his reasons, and she was only trying to help.

Georgia was also right, though, because she’d known exactly what she was doing when she made a show of paying for their dinner.

She was making sure that Matt Aleveda got a good look at her being Robin Hood, or Cady from the hood or whatever. Taking money from the rich — and who was richer than Apple? — and giving it to three poor little girls sentenced to avocado sushi.

It was in that exquisitely awkward moment of self-realization, when she was dying on the inside at just how transparent and obnoxious she had been, that they came for her.


“I don’t like you walking the streets at night the way you do,” her mother said.

“Be in the world, not on your phone,” the aiki-jutsu guy at the self-defense class said.

“I’ll be fine,” Cady McCall had protested when Georgia and Matt insisted on walking her home after dinner. But they didn’t insist very hard. They had just ordered more drinks, and it was obvious where that was going. Her need to get back to the 0.1 update had finally got the better of her, and besides, she had all those self-defense classes and her trusty can of Mace, and it wasn’t like she was some retard who walked along the street, alone and lost in Facebook when she should have been “in the world.”

Was it?

The first she knew of the danger was when one of the men grabbed her arm. She did exactly the wrong thing, trying to pull away instead of going with the flow of the attack as she had been taught. Or to be more accurate, as she had been told, because she hadn’t been taught, had she? She had learned nothing.

She dropped the phone, and the screen shattered. Strangely and stupidly, that was what she cared about, a broken screen on a two-year-old phone, and not the man who had just grabbed her forearm and was dragging her into an alleyway.

She tried to scream, then.

Screaming was good, the self-defense instructor had told them. Screaming was a natural response to the horror of an attack, and you should not underestimate the horror, the pure, organic fear and loathing you would feel when another human being laid hands on you with hostile intent.

Use the fear, they said.

Scream, but scream with intent.

Turn it into a war cry. A fearsome shriek into the face of an attacker will stun him. Not for long, but it will interrupt the momentum of the attack just long enough for you to respond. It would disrupt him.

You work in digital, Cady. You should know all about disruption.

A war cry would take his balance.

They were very big on “taking balance” in the self-defense class. “Take a man’s balance, and you take ninety percent of his strength,” the instructor told them. He said this with the smooth confidence of somebody who knew themselves to be right.

Take his balance psychologically with a fierce kiai, the warrior’s shout. Take his balance physically with kuzushi; when he pulls, push. When he pushes, pull. Do not resist with strength. Meet hard with soft. Be water around the rock.

It was just a stupid campus self-defense class. Twelve weeks. But those twelve weeks were based on thousands of years of experience in the combat arts. It should have counted for something.

Maybe it would have, if any of the training had come back to her. Maybe if she’d kept up her training, like Georgia, who still attended classes three times a week.

But Cady hadn’t, and so none of it counted for shit. Not her twelve weeks of messing around in class. Not the millennia-long history of actual combat and intense training which underlay the ancient fighting art.

Cady screamed and seized up and struggled and fell to the ground, where her knees hit the edge of the gutter, and she lost even more of her balance, dragging the first man down on top of her.

A rush of images and sensations.

Pain in her knee.

More pain in her arm and shoulder as the man holding her wrenched them, hard.

Skin scraping off the back of her fingers on the wet surface of the road. The electric jangle of impact running up through her funny bone.

A harsh, unpleasant smell, like burning motor oil.


They said nothing to her. Made no threats. No demands. They didn’t even breathe heavily.

Crying pitiably, she tried to twist out of the grip on her right arm, but it was like trying to pull a limb out of a piece of farm machinery. More pain, and no sense at all that she could escape.

And then she was free.

She felt the nearness of some great impact, like a car hitting a tree down the street or a heavy load falling out of a high window and landing behind her. And then she could see the stars again, those few, lonely diamond points which managed to peer through the broken cloud cover and the glowing cloak of the city’s light dome.

It wasn’t silent then.

“Leave her alone, you sonsabitches.”

A man’s voice, a deep and rolling thunder in the night.

And then the dull, concussive pounding of fists on flesh.

They made some noise then, the two who had come for her. One cried out like an animal, a dog with its tail caught in a slamming door. The other grunted and snarled and said something she could not make out in the chaos and fury of the fight.

She was in a fight!

The realization struck her as a solid blow, solid enough to knock her from her feet had she not already been sitting on her ass in the gutter, curled into a ball as three men sailed into each other with fists and boots and elbows and knees.

And when it couldn’t get any worse, it did.

“Look out, girly!” the big voice called out, the one which had broken over her and her attackers like the opening thunderclap of a summer storm. “Knife!” he shouted.

And she did move then. She rolled away as best she could from the frenzy of three homicidal maniacs who seemed to be fighting over her.

A thought occurred to her, or maybe only the fragment of a thought, because it was small and broken, and it flew through her mind far too quickly for her to hold on to.

Did she do this?

Was this her fault? Something to do with the game? Murder City.

But it really wasn’t the most important thing right at that moment, was it? She let the question go as she rolled like a log out into the middle of the road.

Jesus Christ. She was gonna get run over.

But if she didn’t move, she was going to get cut.

With that little bit of distance, she could see what was happening for the first time, could finally start to arrange it into some sort of coherent form.

Two men versus one.

The duo looked like … well, like nothing and nobody. Unremarkable men, unremarkably dressed. One of them in a pair of jeans and a plain hoodie. The other in chinos and a Seattle Mariners rain slicker. You could stand behind them, waiting for a burger at Red Mill or Zippy’s, and two minutes later you wouldn’t be able to recall a thing about them.

Hell, they could have been sitting in the next booth over at sushi tonight.

The other guy, the cowboy, she thought because …

Because he looked like a goddamned cowboy.

Not the sort of heroic idiot who wades into a mugging out of some archaic sense of manly moral obligation. But an actual cowboy. With cows and stuff.

Of course he had no cows with him right now, but he was wearing a big hat.

A cowboy hat.

And a belt full of bullets. And a six-shooter at his waist. And his brown suede jacket looked like he’d cut and tanned the hide from one of those cows of his that she couldn’t see right then. And his jeans didn’t look fashionable, they just looked old and dirty.

And he smelled.

Like cattle dung, wet leather, stale sweat and cigarettes.

He was holding a knife.

Which was kind of weird, since he’d been the one who’d shouted the warning about a knife. But the other guys were also holding knives, so Cady supposed that made sense of a kind, although her head was swimming, and she wanted to vomit, and her vision was greying out at the edges.

Probably best not to take her word for what made sense at that moment.

The cowboy was holding a knife that looked big enough to carve up a bison. She wondered why he didn’t just shoot the two men, and then the entirely rational thought occurred to her that she wasn’t actually in a video game, and you couldn’t just go around shooting people.

Apparently sticking twelve inches of sharpened steel into them was perfectly acceptable, however, because she had no doubt this guy would do exactly that if he got the chance.

“No, don’t,” she said weakly.

They all ignored her.

Her would-be muggers —

If that’s all they were, Cady.

“I don’t like you walking the streets at night the way you do, Cady.”

— whatever they were. Mad fans. Muggers. Rapists. Whatever. They looked like they’d be cool putting a few holes into young Rooster Cogburn here with their own knives.

With their stilettos.

An assassin’s blade. Not like his.

She’d worked freelance on enough Ubisoft titles to know the difference.

They tried to circle around him, and she realized with renewed horror that they were still intent on getting to her. He seemed equally intent on not letting them.

Desperate to know what she’d got herself into, Cady asked in a high, keening voice, “Who are you? Why are you doing this?”

But nobody answered.

It wasn’t like the movies. There was no banter. No witty back-and-forth. Just three men with knives intent on killing each other.

She tried to scramble away from them on her butt.

Water soaked through the seat of her jeans.

It was weird that she noticed, but she did.

There was a quiet, drifting moment where the three men were obviously attempting to maneuver into the best position to attack or defend, and then the cowboy attacked.

She was so surprised she gave out a little, “Oh!”

He bellowed.

He roared.

Roared like a bear.

And he charged the man closest to Cady, slashing wildly at the air with that crazy, big-ass knife of his. Her eyes bulged, and then she scrunched them shut because everything was wrong. The knife wasn’t just cutting through the air; it was cutting through the man. It was inside the man.

Inside him!

Oh, God.

And the other guy was coming at her.

She scrambled to her feet, or tried to, but something slammed into her, driving her back down. Knocking all the air from her body. Cracking her head on the pavement.

Putting out the little diamond lights of the stars, but filling her head with hundreds more.

Just before the world turned black.


She awoke in a bed, but Cady knew she hadn’t dreamed it. She knew that before she knew where she was. Cady slipped from a nightmare, where tongueless dead men sliced at her with knives, into a waking panic. In a bed not her own.

Not a hospital bed either.

She opened her eyes and wanted, more than expected, to see her room, even though everything was wrong. Because everything was wrong.

And he was there. The cowboy.

The bed was an old single-size with a lumpy mattress, a thin, filthy blanket, and his coat for a pillow.

It smelled even worse than the blanket.

Her panic forced her upright, but nausea and dizziness dropped her right back down. A headache came riding in on the back end of that, a huge pain, sharp and dull all at the same time.

“Whoa there, missy. You took a mighty crack on that purdy little head of yours. Best you be lying still for a ways down the trail yet.”

He stood and took a small bowl from a wooden table.

“For if’n you need to be sick.”

Cady realized it was nearly as big as a punch bowl. It just looked small in his hands. She flinched away, and he nodded and set the porcelain bowl down carefully on the bed, where she could reach it. He stood over her — loomed over her, really — like a giant redwood, but made no other move in her direction.

“Had m’self knocked acock like that more’n once,” he said. “If’n yer eggs ain’t scrambled fer good by it, best thing is a sip of old Adam’s Ale and some gentle time in your roll.”

Cady stared at him, uncertain that she was hearing him clearly. He had a well-modulated voice, with an accent that sounded like a smooth blend of two or three old whiskies. But the whole effect was archaic, rather than charming.

He had not slept. She recognized the watery, red-rimmed eyes and the dark smudges beneath them as the badges worn by the all-night crew.

Her crew.

She recognized worry in those eyes, even fear. But there was no obvious threat to her in them. They seemed to look in on a kind, if troubled soul. His shirt cuffs, though, were stained with dried blood. He wore a waistcoat in a dark paisley design, and she thought she could make out a few drops of dried blood in the swirling patterns there, too. The knife was still at his hip, the giant blade he had slashed at and pushed into that other guy.

Cady had seen him run a man through with it.

And he wore a gun, and an old-fashioned belt strung with bullets like Chinese firecrackers.

And a hat.

Still with the hat.

“Oh, my pardon,” he said when he saw she was staring at it. He whipped off the Stetson — she supposed it was a Stetson because weren’t they all? — and held it to his heart as he sketched a small bow that reminded her of the way they had bowed to their instructor before those worthless self-defense classes.

The smug asshole taught them that at least, if nothing else of any use: how to bow.

The cowboy came up out of his bow and introduced himself.

“Deputy US Marshal Titanic Smith, ma’am.”

She was still staring at him. He was handsome under the grime, the unruly mustache, and three days’ worth of unshaven stubble, but the relief that flooded through her like a cool mountain stream when she heard the magic words, “Deputy US Marshal”, washed every other thought out of her head. Except for one.

“Titanic? Seriously?”

He seemed a little put out that she would ask.

“Christened John Titanic Smith, ma’am,” he said, “by the holy hand of Reverend Nolan in Purdue County. But I have found, as I made my way through the world, that many folks don’t cotton to dickering with a John Smith, so Titanic I am by reason of convenience.”

She shook her head … very … slowly. Her neck was stiff and the pain behind her eyeballs was ballooning out to fill her skull. She took in the room, but it gave her no reason to feel any better. A small, mean space, it was dark, with only one window, obscured by a curtain that looked to have been fashioned from a hessian sack. It filtered what little daylight could get through the grimy window glass. At first she thought the window had been painted over, like back at her apartment. But, no, it was just dirty.

Really, really dirty.

She could hear the city outside and wondered where she was and why she wasn’t in hospital. The whole deal was starting to creep her out; the peeling wallpaper, the smell of mold and damp and unwashed feet.

“Do you mind showing me your badge?” she asked and regretted it as soon as she spoke. If Smith was a psycho, she had just put him on the spot.

“You’re lying on it, ma’am,” he said.


She didn’t understand.

“My jacket,” he nodded at her. “Your pillow, such as it would be.”

“Oh, sorry,” she said, and reached around behind her, being careful not to turn her head too fast or to strain her neck muscles.

The coat was heavy and fashioned from brown suede. It would have been an oddly stylish choice for a cop, were it not for the stains and the stink. She heaved it around from behind her with some difficulty. Smith stepped forward to help.

“You’re all tangled up, ma’am,” he said. “Here, allow me.”

He took the coat and held it in front of her. Cady expected him to search the pockets for his wallet, but instead he pinched the shoulders as though he was a tailor displaying a dinner jacket for sale. She saw a large, slightly tarnished metal star pinned to a lapel. When she squinted, Smith held it so she could read the old fashioned typeface.


He gently folded the jacket and gave it back to her. Cady wasn’t sure she wanted to lie on that thing again. It smelled like the animal it had been cut from. But it was the only place to rest her head.

She gave up, replaced the coat behind her, and leaned back against the iron bedhead.

Time for a cut scene and some exposition.

“So, those guys. Who were they? And where are we? And why here? I should get to the ER. Get scans. I need to call my parents. And my publicist.”

She was starting to babble, her words running over each other. The marshal held up one giant hand and shook his head.

“Hang fire, there, missy.”

“My name is Cady, not Missy. Cady McCall.”

“All right, Miss McCall.”

She sighed forcefully, but let it go. The headache was getting worse.

“You’re safe,” Smith assured her. “That’s the first thing you need to know. And those varmints? I can’t rightly say who they were, although I am sadly familiar with the type. I will testify they meant to ventilate you with them Arkansas toothpicks.”

She started to WTF him, but Smith had already turned away and shuffled back to his chair by the window. It was more of small wooden stool, really, and it looked like it might collapse under his weight. The guy had to be six-and-a-half feet tall — he had to stoop to avoid scraping his head on the ceiling — and he was built like something out of Gears of War. But he also looked exhausted and … what?

Uncomfortable, she thought, with a glimmer of insight. He was reluctant to tell her something because he was embarrassed or self-conscious about it. Intuiting the source of his unease was enough to confirm it for her.

Marshal Smith was in some sort of trouble, and now, maybe, he’d dragged her into it.


“You could have shot those guys last night,” she said. “Raylan Givens would’ve shot them. They were armed. You’re a marshal.”

“Can’t say as I know this Givens feller, but I can set with that,” he replied in that weird, archaic way of his. “I’d have dug for my cannon, Miss McCall, ‘cepting that you were in my line of fire.”

He said it like “larn o’ far.”

“No sense to be putting a bad plum in you, were there?” he finished.

Wa thar?

“Are you from some backasswards part of Arkansas,” she said, “because man, your dialogue.”

“Purdue County, ma’am, as I did tell.”

Quiet fell between them, but it was not a companionable silence. Cady was waiting for him to explain what the hell was going on, and Smith seemed less inclined to explain anything the longer he went without doing so.

“You should take a sip or two of water,” he said, nodding at a chipped, ceramic mug on the small table next to her bed.

“You should tell me what the actual fuck is happening,” she replied.

Smith reared back as if struck.

“Don’t know that there’s a call for such language, young lady.”

She almost laughed then.

“Don’t “young lady” me, pardner. Under all that grime you’re not that much older than I am. But I’m getting older, fast, every minute I lie here listening to you. So give it up, Raylan. What’ve you got me into?”

He sucked at his mustache as if pained by the very question. It was a hell of a mustache. Some hipster barber probably toiled over the thing for an hour getting it just so. It seemed pretentious, even a little bizarre for a police officer, but then so was the hat and gun belt and even the silver star pinned so ostentatiously to his lapel.

Ooh, look at me, I’m a Federal Marshal.

Rather than answering her, Smith took out a pocket watch — another prop, another affectation — frowned at whatever he found there, and put it away. It struck Cady that she had no idea of the time. Could be early morning or late afternoon. She might have been out of it for a whole day and night. She looked at her watch. 12:40 p.m.


She was going to miss her BuzzFeed guy. He was probably looking for her right now, ringing her phone again and again.

Her broken phone, she remembered, and started casting around, searching anxiously under the covers, her eyes quickly scanning the small room. All of her shit was on that phone. She was an unperson without it.

Man, she hoped Smith had picked the thing up.

“My phone,” she said, a statement that was a question, too. His frown grew cavernous for a second, a deep rift valley between his eyes.

“Your … phone,” he said, as though trying out the word for the first time. “You dropped it.”

“Well, duh! Did you get it? All my contacts, my appointments. Fuck, my banking apps! I don’t have a PIN code on it.”

Again, the frown.

“Look,” she said, “my Touch ID was flakey ’cause of a salsa incident, so I turned it off. I know I should have put the PIN back on, but I’m only ever at home because I work all the time and …”

His head tilted to the side and nodded slowly like somebody who understood, but thought her an idiot. It was like talking with an especially slow child, except she was the slow one, and she was having trouble making herself understood.

“I’m sorry, Miss McCall. We didn’t have time. More of them came.”

“It’s Ms. Not Miss. And back the fuck up. More of them? More… of… them?”

“Afraid so, ma’am. We had to get gone quick.”

Her head was really pounding now, and she could feel a nervous twitch tugging at the corner of one eye.

“Enough,” she said harshly. Raising her voice sharpened the spike in her head, but it also felt so good on an existential level that she raised it some more. “You better start talking, Marshal, or I’ll be talking to your bosses when we get out of here, and to my Congressman, or woman, or whatever, and to the press right after that. Maybe even before. I know a guy at BuzzFeed you know. He’s doing a story on me right now, in fact. Do you even know who I am?”

She knew how much of a superdouche she sounded, but it felt good to let go, to lash out at this guy, even if he had saved her ass last night, because he hadn’t done much for her since, and to be honest, she was starting to freak the hell out.

“So, you tell me right now, mister. Where am I? And what time is it? I have places to be.”

Marshal Smith did a fair imitation of man backed into a corner. He blew out his stubbled cheeks, scuffed his boots on the bare wooden floor, and nervously reached for the stupid fob watch again.

He swallowed.

Amazingly, he looked a little like a man too frightened to speak. Instead, he reached into his back pocket, and took out a few thin sheets of folded newsprint. He unfolded the paper and appeared to read the front page, searching for something.

“You’re in London, Miss McCall. It’s a little before ten in the morning on November 9th, in the year of our Lord, 1888.”


A GIRL IN TIME is available now.

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