What is it about the Kennedy assassination that continues to fascinate us decades later?
No one who was alive at the time, even if you were a toddler, as I was, can keep from thinking that things would have been different if John Kennedy hadn’t died that day. Usually, we imagine things would have turned out better. My first published story, “First Sight,” referenced JFK’s death. And I came back to it years later in Traveler, dancing up to, if not around, the opposite conclusion that Stephen King would later examine in “11/22/63.”
This Interlude from Traveler hints at ideas about how the Traveler-verse works that I return to in Traitor, the trilogy’s conclusion.
OFFICER BRIAN LOWE stood at the corner of Houston and Elm, shifting his weight from one foot to another.
The special noontime duty meant he wasn’t getting his lunch on time, and he tried to ignore the growling in his stomach while he waited for the presidential motorcade to approach his duty station.
His partner, Hopkins, was in their squad car a few dozen yards away. Hopkins’ head was bent over the two-way as he tried to follow the day’s action through the squawks and squelching of the extra-large duty shift overloading every frequency the department had.
“Couple of blocks,” Hopkins called.
Lowe nodded, sweeping his eyes back and forth across the crowd. Not that there was anything threatening about the throng of secretaries and businessmen lining the street. It was a big crowd, enjoying the unseasonably warm November day while waiting to catch a glimpse of the president and his wife as they slowly proceeded to his luncheon speech at the Trade Mart.
“Big day,” said a voice behind him.
Lowe turned to look into the smiling face of another patrolman. “Lowe, right?” asked the newcomer, extending his hand.
Lowe took it automatically. “Yeah,” he replied. He frowned, studying the other man. After ten years, he thought he knew everyone on the force, but although this guy looked familiar in some way, he certainly wasn’t someone Lowe could recall seeing around the station.
“Charlie Powell,” he supplied. “On loan from Austin for today. They, uh, told me to check in with you.”
“Ah, I see,” Lowe said. “Didn’t know they’d brought in any ringers. Pleasedtameetcha.”
“Likewise,” Powell shrugged. “You know how it is with the brass and the feds. Better to pull fifty cops off the streets than to admit to J. Edgar you need help from the feebs.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” chuckled Lowe. “Austin, eh?” Powell nodded.
“Ever work in Dallas before?”
Powell shook his head.
“That’s funny, because when you introduced yourself, for a second I thought I knew you.”
“Yeah.” Lowe had turned back to face the street, but kept the conversation going. “Have we met?”
“Don’t think so,” Powell replied slowly. “You get to Austin much?”
“Nah, it’s just that…” Lowe’s voice trailed off.
“Well, now that I think of it, there was a cadet named Powell, couple of classes behind me at the academy. He kinda looked like you.”
“Huh,” Powell said. “What happened to him?”
“Got shot on his first ride along, only time the force has ever lost a trainee. Stuck in my mind.”
“Ouch. Tough break.”
“That wasn’t me.”
Lowe smiled. “Guess not.” He swept the crowd again. “What’s your beat today?” He inclined his head toward the car. “Hopkins and I got this corner covered.”
“I drew the short straw,” Powell said. “Shortest you could possibly imagine.”
Lowe wasn’t really listening. His attention was distracted by the first motorcycles leading the parade, which had turned the corner a block away.
“Nothing,” Powell replied. “Just…uh, crowd control. Wander around, show the badge. From that little hill over there, I think.”
He pointed to a grassy spot where only a few people were gathered, despite a clear line of sight to the street. He turned to go.
“I better move on. Nice to meet ya.”
Lowe grunted in agreement, focused now on the convertible coming around the corner.
“Because sometimes the only way to keep disaster from happening,” Powell continued softly, “is to do the worst thing anyone can imagine.”
His shoulders slumped as he trudged up the hill.
Had Lowe been paying attention, he might have wondered how the pleasant, talkative officer with whom he’d passed the time now looked old and weighed down with doubt as he made his way through the crowd.
The escort cycles had dropped back to either side of the president’s limousine to keep the onlookers from crowding in the street. Four Secret Service agents perched on the running boards of the next car, joining Lowe in sweeping the crowd.
The president had passed Lowe’s station and he was starting to relax when he heard the shots. Three soft pops. Lowe’s eyes flashed to the president’s car, just in time to hear another crack, but this one came from nearby.
That little hill, just on the other side of the concrete pedestal.
All hell was breaking loose. The Secret Service guys leapt from the car and ran toward the president, who was slumped next to the other guy in the car—Lowe couldn’t remember which Texas politico it was. The first lady was screaming, blood all over her face and coat.
Lowe’s eyes swept the crowd of onlookers, attracted by a dark shape whipping around. He squinted and clearly saw the guy who had called himself Charlie Powell atop the hill, holstering his weapon.
Keeping the man in site, Lowe tore across the street, waving frantically at Hopkins. “Tom!” he cried. “Get up here! The shooter’s in the park!”
Hopkins waved him to silence as he ran up to the car, leaning down over the radio.
“…and it came from the Texas Book Depository…”
The rest of the message was lost in static as a half-dozen other radios all tried transmitting at once.
“No!” Lowe shouted. “There was a shot from over there!”
He pointed back toward the plaza. “There’s a guy. He said he was a cop, but…”
“Shut up, Brian,” Hopkins cut him off. “The shooter was in the book depository.” He pointed at the radio. “You heard ’em.”
“But…” Lowe looked back toward Powell, standing still as a stone as people rushed all around him, staring straight at Lowe.
“I’m telling you, Tom. Something’s not right. We need to go up and get that guy before he takes off.”
“Fine,” Hopkins replied. “Where is he?” “He’s right…” Lowe began.
What the hell?
“Where?” Hopkins demanded.
But Lowe didn’t answer.
In the chaos that followed, Tom Hopkins forgot all about this short exchange.
Lowe didn’t. But fortunately, it was never brought up in the dozens of interviews he endured—first by the feds, later by writers and journalists. He was by now eyeing his pension, and he had witnessed more than one career destroyed by saying the wrong thing to one of the conspiracy nuts. No way he was going to go down that road.
By the end of his life, Brian Lowe had pretty much convinced even himself that Charlie Powell had simply been a badge imported for the day, even though there was no Powell on the Austin roster.
And he worked equally hard to erase his own memory of the other thing he saw, just as he was turning to charge back up into the plaza— the figure in a police uniform that seemed to shimmer in the sunlight.
What he chose to remember was the view of the grassy knoll a second later.
Safely empty of anything remotely resembling a man with a badge.