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I was in a bar in Ensenada, drinking a warm beer quickly and trying to remind myself that I hadn't murdered anyone, when my alarm clock caught up with me. Little bastard.
Housson's was jammed to the rafters and noisy as hell, and not just because everyone was talking very loudly. Two local alfalfa barons had come into the bar to celebrate some deal, perhaps a merging of their cash-crop-related dynasties, and an eight-piece mariachi band had joyfully latched on to them and settled in for the night. The rest of the bar was a Jackson Pollock of local color: seedy photographers trying to charge tourists for pictures, leather-faced ex-pats peering around the place like affronted owls, and Mexicans setting about getting drunk with commendable seriousness. Housson's looks like it was last redecorated forty years ago, by someone who had the more functional end of the Wild West in mind: dusty floorboards, walls painted with secondhand cigarette smoke, chairs stolen from some church hall. The only nod in the direction of decor is the fading sketches of ex-bartenders, renowned alcoholics, and similarly distinguished local characters that adorn the walls. One of these had already come crashing to the ground, the casualty of a bottle hurled by a disgruntled drunkard: All in all the atmosphere was just one step short of chaos.
I was tired and my head hurt, and I shouldn't have been there in the first place. I should have been out on the streets, or checking different bars, or even heading back to LA. Anywhere but here. She was nowhere to be seen, and as I hadn't had the time to go to a co-incidence dealer before I left LA, I didn't expect her to just wander in. I was still pretty confident the Chicago lead was a deliberate false trail, but didn't have any particularly good reason to believe she'd have run to Ensenada either. I was there just to drink beer and avoid the problem.
The older of the two businessmen looked like he consumed a fair amount of his alfalfa personally, but he'd obviously done a bit of singing in the distant past and was now working steadily through his repertoire, to the delight of the assembled henchmen and underlings. One of these, a slimy little turd I pegged as the accountant son-in-law of one of the principals, was busy eyeing up a group of young women who were cheerily clapping along at the next table. As I watched, I saw him signal to the non-singing baron, who turned and clocked the girls. His smile broadened to the kind of leer that would make a werewolf look bashful and charming; he beckoned the leader of the band over, more money already in his hand.
I was sitting to one side of a table crammed with tourists, the only seat that had been free when I'd entered over two hours before. The girls were red-faced from the day's sun, and fizzing with margarita-fueled bravado; the guys sipping their Pacificos sullenly and panning their eyes around the bar probably trying to work out which of the locals was going to come and try to steal their women first. I could have told them that it was much more likely to be another American, probably one of the boisterous frat rats who were in town for some damnfool motorcycle race, but I didn't know them and couldn't be bothered. In fact, they were getting on my nerves. The girls were dancing in their seats in that way people do when they're letting themselves off a very short leash, and the nearest one kept banging into my arm and causing me to spill beer and cigarette ash onto jeans that hadn't been that clean when I'd pulled them on two days earlier.
When I felt the tap on my shoulder, I turned irritably, expecting to see the waiter who was working that corner of the room. I like attentive service as much as the next man, but, Christ, there's a limit to how fast a man can drink. In my case that limit is pretty high, and yet this guy was still hassling me well before I'd finished each beer. It was good that the waiter was there, because the only way I could have gotten to the bar was with a chainsaw, but I felt he needed to calm down a little. I was in the middle of deciding to tell him to go away—or at least to do so after he'd brought me another drink—when I realized it wasn't him at all, but a fat American who looked like he'd killed a dirty sheep and glued it to his chin.
"Fella asking for you!" he shouted.
"Tell him to fuck off," I said. I didn't know anyone in En-senada, not anymore, and didn't wish to start making new acquaintances.
"Seems pretty insistent," the guy said, and jerked his thumb back toward the bar. I glanced in that direction, but there were far too many people in the way. "Little black fella, he is."
In those parts this could mean the guy was actually black, or an indigenous Mexican Indian. Didn't really make much difference—I still didn't want to talk to him—but it surprised me that my fellow countryman hadn't felt qualified himself to tell him to fuck off. The guy with the beard didn't look the type to run errands for ethnic majorities.
"Well, then tell him to fuck off politely," I snarled into a moment of relative quiet, and turned back to face the mariachi band.
They immediately and noisily embarked on yet another song, which sounded eerily identical to all the others. It couldn't be, though, because it got an even bigger cheer than usual, and the singing businessman clambered unsteadily onto a chair to give it his all. I took a sip of my beer, wishing the waiter would hurry up and hassle me again, and waited with grim anticipation for the alfalfa king to pitch headlong into the table of girls. That should be worth watching, I felt.
Then I became aware of a sound. It was quiet, and barely audible below the baying of voices and barking of trumpets, but it was getting louder.
"Told him, like you said," the American behind me boomed. "Didn't take it very well."
A beeping sound. Almost like ...
I closed my eyes.
"Hap Thompson!" a tinny voice squealed suddenly, cutting effortlessly through the noise in the bar. Then it went back to beeping, getting louder and louder, before sirening my name again. I tried to ignore it, but it wasn't going to go away. It never does.
Within a minute the beeping was so loud that the mariachi band began turning in my direction. Gradually the musicians stopped playing, the instruments fading out one by one as if their players were being serially dropped off a cliff. I swore viciously and ground my cigarette out in the overflowing ashtray. Heads turned, and a silence descended on the bar. The last person to shut up was the singing businessman. He was now standing weaving on the table with his arms outstretched. He would have looked quite like an opera singer had his face not been more reminiscent of a super-middleweight boxer who'd thrown too many fights.
Taking a deep breath, I turned.
A channel had cleared in the crowd behind me, and I could see straight to the bar. There, standing carefully so as to avoid the pools of spilt beer, was my alarm clock.
"Oh, hello," it said into the quiet. "Thought you hadn't heard me."
"What," I said, "the fuck do you want?"
"It's time to get up, Hap."
"I am up," I said. "I'm in a bar."
"Oh," said the clock, looking around. "So you are." It paused for a moment, before surging on. "But it's still time to get up. You can snooze me once more if you want, but you really ought to be out and about by half past nine."
"Look, you little bastard," I said, "I am up. It's a quarter past nine in the evening."
"No, it isn't."
"Yes it is. We've been through this."
"I have the time as nine-seventeen precisely. a.m." The clock angled itself so that I—and everyone else—could read its display clearly.
"You've always got the time as a.m.," I shouted, standing to point at it. "That's because you're broken, you useless piece of shit."
"Hey, man," protested one of the tourists at my table. "Little guy's only trying to do his job. No call for language like that." There was a low rumble of agreement from nearby tables.
"That's right," agreed the clock, two square inches of injured innocence on two spindly little legs. "Just trying to do my job, that's all. Let's see how you like it if I don't wake you up, huh? We know what happens then, don't we?"
"What?" asked a woman at the other side of the room, her eyes sorrowful. "Does he mistreat you?" With my jaw clamped firmly shut, I grabbed my cigarettes and lighter from the table and glared at the woman. She stared bravely back at me and sniffed. "He looks the type."
"He hits me. He even throws me out the window." This was greeted by low mutters from some quarters, and I decided it was time to go. "... of moving cars..."
The crowd stirred angrily. I considered telling them that having a broken a.m./p.m. indicator was the least of this clock's problems, that it was also prone, on a whim, to wake me up at regular intervals through the small hours and thus lose me a night's work, but decided it wasn't worth it. Trust the little bastard to catch up with me in the one bar in the world where people apparently cared about defective appliances. I pulled my jacket on and started shouldering my way through the people around me. A pathway opened up, lined with sullen faces, and I slunk toward the door, feeling incredibly embarrassed.
"Wait, Hap! Wait for me!"
At the sound of the clock's little feet landing on the ground, I picked up the pace and hurried out, past the pair of armed policemen moonlighting as guards in the passageway outside. I clanged through the swinging doors at the end, hoping one of them would whip back and catapult the machine back over the bar, and stomped out into the road.
It didn't work. The clock caught up with me, and ran by my side down the street with little puffing sounds of exertion. These were fake, I believed, little sampled lies. If it had managed to track me down from where I'd flung it out the window (for the last time) in San Diego, a quick sprint was hardly going to wind it.
"Thanks," I snarled, "Now everyone in that fucking bar knows my name." I swung a kick at it, but it dodged easily, feinting to one side and then scuttling back to face me.
"But that's nice," the clock said. "Maybe you'll make some new friends. See: Not only am I a useful timepiece, but I can help you achieve your socializing goals by bridging the gulf between souls in this topsy-turvy world of ours. Please stop throwing me away, Hap. I can help you!"
"No, you can't," I said, grinding to a halt. The night was dark, the street lit only by stuttering yellow lamps outside Ensenada's various bars, restaurants, and rat-hole motels, and I felt suddenly homesick and alone. I was in the wrong part of the wrong town, and I didn't even know why I was there. Someone else's guilt, my own paranoia, or just because it was where I always used to run. Maybe all three—and it didn't really matter. I had to find Laura Reynolds, who might not even be here, before I got shafted for something I hadn't done but remembered doing. Try explaining that to a clock.
"You've barely explored my organizer functions," the clock chimed, oblivious.
"I've already got an organizer."
"But I'm better! Just tell me your appointments, and I'll remind you with any one of twenty-five charming alarm sounds. Never forget an anniversary! Never be late for that important meeting! Never—"
This time the kick connected. With a fading yelp the clock sailed clean over a line of stores selling identical rows of cheap rugs and plaster busts of ET. By the time I was fifty yards down the street, the mariachi band was at full tilt again behind me, the businessman's voice soaring clear and true above it, the voice of a man who knew who he was and where he lived and what he was going home to.