Punishment for the Dead

I hate lies.

Life is a lie.

Therefore, I hate life.

But not so much so, anymore.  Not since I learnt the truth that makes my existence here just barely tolerable.

I had a family.  I had loved ones.  My father was a firefighter.  He died in the line of duty.  My mother was a nurse.  She was in the wrong place at the wrong time, and a bullet found its mark in her chest.  My brother was in college, track star and aspiring lawyer.  He was killed by a drunk driver.  Our neighborhood priest was my second-best friend for a while.  He was stricken by cancer, undiscovered until it was too late.

There have been others, as well.  All of them, the very best people I have ever known.  They were as warm, honest and selfless as people could be, always ready with a kind word and a helping hand.  And God took them all away before their time.

And then one day, I thought my time had come.

I didn't see the truck when it hit me.  Only when I was strolling down the sidewalk and happened to look up and saw it barrelling down the street.  I also happened to see the puppy that dashed across the road, and the little girl that was running after it.  I guess I went after her.

The next thing I knew, the world was white.  My nerves burnt with a white-hot flame, yet I was cold.  I fancy my eyes were open, but all I saw was a blank, eternal emptiness.  I heard sounds around me.  I thought they were human voices, but they swiftly faded into white noise.

And then the blessed white reached out to wrap me in its soothing embrace, and all of it was left behind.  I felt no longer seared, but warmed.  The empty sky had transformed itself into the purity of the heavens, and the sounds had changed from an annoying hum to a pleasant lullaby.

They came for me, my loved ones.  I felt their presence there, enfolding me, carrying me away to join them in a bright, glowing reunion.  I went so willingly with them, and for what seemed to be a short eternity, I knew peace, and joy, and happiness.

And then I woke to the buzz of the machines, and the sterile white of the hospital ceiling, and a dull, aching pain, and a terrible, terrible emptiness inside.

And then I knew.

This isn't life.

This is punishment for the dead.

Punishment for the Dead

As we stood there, cheek to cheek, I could feel his warm breath upon my clammy skin.  I found it strangely reassuring, and was quite reluctant to pull away from our tight embrace.  It was a funny thing, this being loved by another.  I had never really believed in love.  It was too nebulous, too fleeting, too open to interpretation.  I always felt that, all those things people do that they ascribe to love, they could always be attributed to some other cause.  Something more base, more crude, more selfish.

But now I pulled back so I could look love, a pure and selfless love, in the eye, and as I did, as I lost the heated pressure of his body, another warmth spread across my abdomen to take its place.  I left one arm around his waist, fingers tangled at the small of his back in the belt loop of his dark jeans.  My other hand fell to the gun resting between our bodies.  Its muzzle was slick with my blood.

The file landed on my desk one day.  I think I was a bit surprised.  There were, after all, others already assigned to the case.  The case was pretty low profile, or as low profile as something labeled a serial murder could get.  Rather than question the decision to hand it over to me, I flipped through the file.

Four murders so far.  Four in the last four months.   The reason they hadn't gotten much press at all was because they were all spectacularly normal.  Nothing flashy, nothing outrageous, nothing cruel.  Quite the opposite, actually.  The bodies were usually found with their limbs arranged in a state of peace, the black rose clutched in their hands the only real connection between them all.

I pulled out a copy of the card attached to the stem of the rose left with the first victim.

"Fear not what lies before you, for it is not death.  It is life."

I remember the day the priest died.  His eyes were so bright with unshed tears that I almost wanted to cry for him.  I sat by his side during the service, and paid more attention to my best friend than to the man droning on in the front of the room.  I hardly knew the man in the coffin, after all.

Duo did.  He knew him well.  And because he needed me with him, I was with him, wishing this terrible burden hadn't fallen upon my shoulders, yet taking it up willingly nevertheless.

I saw him grimacing slightly, the expression on his face halfway hidden by the sharp bangs falling over his downcast countenance, but I could see it from where I sat.  Curious, I listened more carefully to what was being said from the pulpit.  The minister was trying to convince us that the deceased was in a beautiful place now, that he was safe in the bosom of his loving god.

I don't think Duo liked that idea.

My eyes reached his, and in their sparkling depths I saw love and long-suffering, a silent joy and a muted sadness, all in equal proportions.  I felt a pain in my chest, but I attributed that to the bullet wound.  I think he nicked a lung.

"Go now in peace from this tiresome world, for you are free."  That was the second message.

The deaths were all carefully orchestrated.  They were all carried out with a precision meant to bring a swift or painless end.  They were all taken in their homes.  They were male and female, Roman Catholic and Buddhist, fourth-grade teacher and architect.  Just your everyday kind of people.  There were no connections between them, no dark secrets or illicit affairs.  They were completely clean.

And that's what got them killed.

"And rest be earned by he who lives by doing good."

He seemed a little different, after the accident....  It seems silly to call it an accident.  He did, after all, willfully throw himself in front of a moving vehicle in order to save a child's life.  She got out of it with a few scrapes and bruises.  He was out of it for four days.

I visited him every day while he was unconscious, and stayed with him as long as they would allow.  I didn't think he would want to wake up surrounded by strangers.  Nevertheless, I ended up missing his waking by half an hour.

When I finally got in to see him, after the doctors had finished their fussing, I was told he was "resting comfortably", and that if I absolutely had to see him, I was not to disturb him.

He didn't look all that comfortable to me.  His face had seemed so peaceful, nearly angelic while he was unconscious, and I was glad that he had found at least a temporary respite from all his sorrow.  Not that I wasn't glad to know he was okay.  But now that he was back with us, a faint frown turned down the corners of his mouth, and his eyes seemed closed just a little too tightly, giving him a sense of tension even as he slept.

I visited the guest shop, and bought him the scruffiest looking bear I could find.  The cute and fluffy ones were just too pink-sugary, beyond even his ability to enjoy through mockery.  I penned a short note directly onto the poor thing's flimsy hospital gown and dropped it off on his bedside table.

Last time I dropped by his house, he still had it on his bookshelf.

"Duo?" I asked, my voice a low rasp.

"I'm sorry," he whispered.

I didn't understand.  His eyes begged forgiveness, but I saw no remorse.  He believed in what he was doing.

It was raining.  A great day to stay indoors and laugh at all those poor fools who had to be outside.  We chased the looming gray of the great outdoors away with two mugs of hot cocoa, my halogen lamp that Duo insisted was a fire hazard, and the sound of the television.

He was channel surfing, an entirely Duo-like activity.  He never did like staying still for too long.  He flipped quickly past the cheesy children's shows, the ones with five youths dressed in tacky outfits valiantly engaged in an effort to save the world.  He lingered on the talk shows just long enough to figure out what they were discussing so he could make fun of them, and lament the sad state of society.  The judge shows, he figured, were just as bad as pro wrestling, and didn't give either a second thought.

The news caught his attention.  A morning jogger had accidentally strayed a little too close to the edge of the bluffs, and the edge of the cliff had crumbled down to meet the rocks below, taking him with it.

"Lucky bastard," he muttered to himself.  The channel flipped again.

We ended up watching Sesame Street.  It was brought to us by the letter 'D'.

"I read the psych profile on our killer.  What did you think?"

Barton raised an eloquent eyebrow at me.  "I think he's sick."

I returned his quiet gesture.  He picked it up from me, after all.  "He's a serial murderer, Barton.  What did you expect?  But then again, it does say he's probably the guy next door.  The guy you'd least expect."

He made a disgusted sound.  "If he killed the scum of society, sure, that I'd understand.  That'd be okay."

"We're cops, you know," I pointed out dryly.  "We aren't supposed to say things like that."

"Can it, Yuy," he glared at me.  "You know what I mean.  But this?  Deliberately killing off the nice guys?"

"The guys next door?  Hn.  What irony.  Maybe he'll do us a favor and off himself next."

"You're taking this awfully lightly, Yuy," he accused.

"And you're taking this awfully seriously, Barton.  You're just worried about your rich philanthropist boyfriend, aren't you?"  His glare intensified, and I knew I was right.  "Well, if it makes you feel any better, he's supposedly doing it because he believes it's the right thing to do.  Like he's doing them a favor or something, giving them death.  Not because he's got some sort of grudge or point to prove or anything."

"That's your idea of making me feel better?"

"I'm sorry I've been so selfish keeping you here.  I should have let you go a long time ago."

The apology was sincere, so sincere I almost forgave him before I even had any idea what he was talking about.

"I wonder what this guy's story is."

I glanced past the data on my monitor and over to my partner.  He was single handedly juggling the three clear rubber balls he kept on his desk for just this purpose.  He claimed it helped him think.  I think he was just goofing off.  "What do you mean?"

"I mean, what horribly inane thing happened to him to make him do what he's doing?  Was he abused as a child?  Did he have too many zits during puberty?  Did his girlfriend dump him?"   The little red lights inside the balls lit up on impact, their path tracing a crimson ring in the air.  They had the department logo printed on them, and were the kind of thing that got given out at career fairs and public relations picnics.

"You read what I read.  Someone he loved probably died and he snapped."  I shrugged.  I never really trusted those psych profiles.

"Hmpf.  My parents died when I was young; you don't see me going around killing people."

"Hn.  No one ever said serial killers think like everyone else."

"People die.  You deal with it and move on.  You don't deal with it by creating delusional belief systems.  What does he think he is?  Some sort of god?"

"You ever think about death, Heero?"

"Sometimes," I answered neutrally.  How could I explain, the only times I ever thought about it was in relation to him.   Either he brought it up, like now, or else someone else he knew had died.

"I do."  That came as no surprise.  How could he not?  Duo was always surrounded by death, one way or another.  It was frightening, yet... appropriate.  It was a part of who he was now, and there was no escape.  "And I wonder why."

"Things have to die, Duo."

"Yes, of course, but why some sooner than others?  What determines how long a person's got to live?"

"Nothing.  There are no Fates, no predestination.... You've got genetics, and then you've got environmental factors, and it's all just a roll of the dice from there."

He shook his head most vehemently.  "No.  That can't be it.  There has to be something more."

"Something... karmic?" I ventured.

"Karmic...," he pondered.

Two weeks later, and we were still no closer to solving the case than we had been when we had started.  The killer was just too good.  I stared at the inconspicuous file folder, leaving it closed upon my desk.  It had all been memorized, by now.  I spent the evening meditating upon death and its devices, and when my thoughts suddenly turned to my best friend, I was only surprised it had taken so long.  The first deaths I had ever known had been experienced vicariously through him.

"It's just that you're such a good person," he explained softly.  "And you mean so much to me.  You're the only one left....  But you deserve this.  I'm happy for you."

I had a suspicion the tears gathering in his eyes were not just the result of happiness.

He was reading the obituaries.  It was a lazy Sunday morning, pleasant and sunny, with just a touch of a breeze, and there he was again, skimming over the obituaries, right after the real estate section, just like he always did.

I asked him why he read the real estate section, once.  All of the property listed was usually for the next community over, the one with the ridiculously sumptuous homes.  Some of the estates down by the ocean even had their own putting greens in the back.  Duo didn't golf, and he certainly didn't have the means to partake of any such home.

"It gives me a sense of being near something I'll probably never be so lucky to attain," he answered.

I asked him why he read the obituaries.

He merely smiled and kept on reading.

The psych profile did, in fact, seem to indicate that our killer may have felt that he was following a calling, this business of dealing death, and that by taking on the role of an angel of death, he was simply performing as a single cog in the great machinery of life.

I sat down and wondered what sort of sentence the man would face, if or when we caught him.  He felt no remorse.  He felt he was doing right.  I supposed he would just be lumped in with the rest of the criminally insane.

But did he deserve that?  I was beginning to empathize with the fellow.  I didn't think he belonged with the ones who heard the sibilant whispers of Satan in their ears, or the ones who lured children into their homes to grind up their flesh and use them as fertilizer.

How wonderful it must be, to find one's vocation in life.   To believe something so strongly, and then to go forth and put those beliefs into action.  Even if it was something as grisly as a dealer of death.  But no, that was my own perception.  I've seen people suffer their own fair share of misery in this world.   Is death the only realm where such misery no longer exists?  Maybe he really was doing his victims a favor.

'We're cops, you know.  We aren't supposed to say things like that.'  My own words came echoing back to haunt me, and I shook the morbid thoughts from my head and got back to work.

"Death is the ultimate goal of our existence," he declared loudly, balancing easily on the short cement block wall that separated the sandbox from the rest of the playground at the local park.  It was late evening, and there were no innocent child's ears to listen.

"Why don't you disturb me, Duo?" I asked, only half jokingly.  It was a perfectly valid question, I thought.  Anyone who dwelt so heavily upon death could not be entirely healthy.  Anyone except Duo, perhaps.  For whatever reason, I didn't doubt Duo's sanity.  Maybe it was because I had known him for so long.   Maybe it was because I had a tendency to forgive him such thoughts, in light of his personal tragedies.

"Maybe it's because you know I'm right."

I couldn't shake it.  A bizarre intuitive leap was creeping its way into my consciousness, and there was nothing I could do to deny it.  The idea was farfetched and circumstantial, yet somehow, every time I dismissed it from my thoughts, it would rise up to challenge me only a little while later.

The bare facts of the case were displayed in all their dry, lifeless glory upon my monitor, an organized pattern in light gray, painted in electron ink against a black, phosphorescent page.  I was pretty much the only person in the department who preferred a dark background to the standard colors.  Duo was the one who got me started on it.  He didn't like staring at all that white, he said.

There he was again.  Even the most irrelevant thoughts kept leading me back to him.  But perhaps more importantly, even my thoughts relevant to the case kept leading back to him.

I pushed my chair abruptly back from my desk, startling my partner into looking up at me.  I grabbed my jacket off the back of my seat and shrugged it on.  "I have to go see a friend," I announced to him, and strode quickly out of the office.

I could feel his curious eyes on my retreating back, but he said nothing as I left.

I took my hand off the cooling metal and raised it to touch his cheek.  "What's wrong, Duo?" I asked.  I think I smeared a bit of blood on his face, but I don't think he cared.

He smiled a smile from the bottom of his heart, which meant it was both truly joyous and truly sad.  Only he could pull off something so contradictory and have it seem perfectly natural.   "Nothing," he said, lowering me carefully to the floor.  My fingers refused to cooperate with my command to release his belt loop, so they stayed where they were.  I resisted the urge to lay my head down upon his chest and rest, however, and sat stubbornly upright, ignoring the life that was steadily flowing out of me.  Instead, I looked him in the eye and willed him to continue.

He smiled that tainted smile again, and finished his thought.  "You're about to escape from this painful world, Heero.  What greater joy is there than that?"

A little while later and I stood upon his doorstep.  What was I doing here?  What if he was?  What was I going to do?  What was he up to?  Why did I even think he would be here?

I wanted to ring the doorbell.  Told myself firmly to do so, but my finger hovered just over the lit button.  I could picture my finger descending, I could hear the chimes in my head as if I had already brought my finger down, but I could not bring myself to complete the action.

So I aborted the attempt and tried another tack.  Reaching into my pocket, I unlocked the front door with the house key he had given me long ago.

"Escape...," I mused, the thought cut off by a cough I could not contain.  I could taste the blood in my mouth.  The taste of mortality was the taste of regret.  "But now I'm leaving you behind.  I'm sorry."

"Don't think that," he hushed me gently.  "Rest now.   You've earned it."

"And what about you, Duo?  When do you earn your rest?"

"I've been waiting."  He sat at the bottom of the staircase, setting aside his sketchpad as he spoke.

"Duo," I greeted amiably.  Was I right? I wondered, as I carefully closed and locked the door behind me.  I bent to remove my shoes.  He didn't like having to mop the floors very often.  "What I am doing here?"  I was looking at my footwear, but the question was directed towards my friend.

"I think you know that, or else you wouldn't be here."

"So I was right."  It was kind of nice, in a strange way.  I wouldn't have minded being wrong.  I was not so petty that I would wish my best friend were a killer, just so I could be proven correct.  But it was sort of nice to know that I hadn't been thinking things about him and suspecting things that just weren't true.  That I knew him so well that I had been able to jump to this conclusion.  And yet... "I don't understand."

"What?" he prompted calmly.

"Why you're doing this."

His face was strangely serious as he got up and casually straightened his clothes.  "I know something you don't, Heero."

"Oh?"  I stood to face him.

"This 'life'?" he said, indicating the world around him with a gesture of his hand.  "It's not life.  It's death.  And what we perceive as death?  That is the true life."

I leveled a purely bewildered look at him.

He chuckled.  "Sorry....  But I've seen the other side, Heero.  It's... paradise.  But if you're not worthy, you don't get to go there."

"Then where do you go?  Hell?"

"You come right back here.  This is hell we're in right now.  Well, maybe more of a purgatory of sorts.  We're stuck here until we get it right, and when we finally do, then death -- the right sort of death, you might say -- comes to take us away from this.  Death can be a beautiful thing, Heero."

"The other side.... Your accident?"

"Yes."  His eyes fell closed.  "I saw them.  Dad, Mom, Solo, everyone.  They came for me.... Do you know what it's like, to enjoy sheer bliss, only to be torn away from it?"  I didn't answer.  Such a question needed no answer.  He reopened his eyes, and his eyes came back hard.  "But at least I didn't come away from it empty-handed.  I came back with answers.  I finally figured out why all the best people I ever knew had to die."

"Because they were good."  Hn.  So the psych profiles were actually right, sometimes.  But they had been wrong about this other thing: it wasn't just someone close to Duo that had died.   Everyone close to Duo had died.  Everyone except me.

"Exactly.  They earned their brownie points, cashed them in, and got out of this miserable cycle."  He smiled, but it was laced with pain.  "Good for them."

"But they left you behind."

"I haven't earned my place among them."

"Is that what you're trying to do now?"

He wrapped his arms around himself, looking so forlorn I involuntarily took a few slow steps towards him.  "Death works through mortal devices, you know.  I was willing to be one.  I thought that... that maybe if I volunteered, then maybe... maybe it'd be enough, that maybe I'd get to see them again."  Are eyes the windows to the soul?  I looked into his and a shiver went running down my spine.  I was almost glad when he looked away and continued in his low, harsh whisper.  "But it's not.  Nothing I do is enough."

"Duo...."  I could find nothing else to say.  I used to think he was lucky.  Where all of the people he had known and loved had died, senselessly, heroically, tragically, Duo had managed to survive his brush with death.  I thought he had cheated the odds, this curse that seemed to follow him, and I was happy for him, that at least he might be able to live out his life to its full term.

I was so wrong.

His eyes turned suddenly back to meet mine once more.  "You haven't left me behind, Heero."  It was almost an accusation.

"No," I replied faintly, not knowing what he needed to hear.  "I haven't."  I wouldn't, not if I could help it.

"You're a good friend, Heero."  He took the last few steps and closed the distance between us, leaning his weight against me as if he could absorb my strength.  "You've always been a good friend, a good person all around.  Much too good to hang out with someone like me."

My arms crept up around him awkwardly.  "You shouldn't think like that, Duo.  You're my best friend."

"You're my best friend," he echoed softly, one arm reaching up to return the embrace.  "The only one who's still here for me.  Thank you.  So much."

'What are you doing!?' a voice in my head screamed.   'Arrest him!'

I ignored it.  This was bigger than my duty as an officer of the law.  This was about my best friend needing me.  And when I heard the familiar sound of a gun going off, and felt a pain tear through my chest an instant later, the voice seemed almost petulant.  'I told you so,' it pouted.

I ignored it.

He turned his eyes away from me and said nothing, but that was an answer in and of itself.

"Duo," I started.

"Don't worry about me, Heero.  You don't have to worry about me, or anything in this world, ever again."

"But I want to.  We're here, like this, right now, because I've always.... You said so yourself."  I was getting rather light-headed, and the thoughts were flying rampant through my mind in a haphazard fashion, but worrying about myself didn't quite occur to me.

"I suppose you have to, or else you just wouldn't be you anymore, would you?" he said, half fondly, half chidingly.  "God, I'll miss you."

"Then why...?"

He shook his head slightly, telling me without words that I didn't understand, not yet.  Gently, he pushed me down to lie flat upon the floor.  "Of course I'll miss you.  But you've earned your place in the great beyond now, and it's your time to go."

Alright, so he thought I was a good person, too good to be stranded in this painful world.  It might have made me all warm and fuzzy inside, if I hadn't been bleeding there already.  But no matter how much I appreciated the thought, I could still see the sorrow in his eyes, and I struggled to understand.  "You didn't have to be the one to send me off."

"I just want to see them again."

That sad, quiet wish was the key.  What would he give to be reunited with his loved ones?  His own happiness?  Helping strangers attain their final peace hadn't been enough.  Was letting go of the only person left to him his ultimate sacrifice?  Was this the price he was willing to pay to prove his worth to the powers that be?

So it seemed.

I knew what it was he needed from me, and I chose to grant it.  It was not a difficult decision to make.  We were best friends, after all.  I would free him from his pain, just as he sought to free me from mine.

"There is no blissful peace until one passes beyond the agony of life and death," said Buddha.  That had been the last message with the roses.  I was beginning to see the truth in that statement.  I had no idea that such clarity could come to a man at times like this.  It made me think I ought to try this near-death thing more often.

I managed to move my sluggish appendages and slowly reached for the gun he had left lying on the floor beside us.  He made no effort to stop me.  "Duo," I said, my fingers closing around the grip.  My voice was sounding more shallow than I remembered it.  Must have been all that blood starting to fill my lungs that was making it difficult for me to get a good breath.  "I understand now.  Thank you.  But I think your task here is done.  If I have earned this, then surely, so have you."

"Do you really think so, Heero?"  I wondered if that hint of despair in his voice had always been there.  I hoped not.   I wasn't all that oblivious, was I?

"I do.  Good friendship is a two-way street, you know.  How many others would do this?  How many others could go on, knowing the truth?  How many others could put another's happiness before his own, as you have?  You..."  I closed my eyes briefly, fighting for focus as the rest of my sentence slipped through my mental fingers.  "You know what you do.  How strong you must be, Duo...."

"Hardly that," he whispered.  "If I were strong, I would have been taken with the others.  Not kicked back out again."

I smiled faintly.  A chuckle would have brought the blood bubbling up my throat, and now just wasn't the time.  "You weren't kicked out of heaven, silly.  God, or Death, or whoever it is that runs this show, just needed you here for a little while longer.   But you're done now.  Really."

Sharpshooter cop that I was, I managed to raise the gun and point it at his heart, despite the hole in my chest.  It helped that I was at point blank range.  And it helped that he finally smiled again, and this one wasn't sad anymore.  "I knew I could count on you.  Thank you," he said, and I pulled the trigger.

He fell heavily on top of me, knocking the air and the blood from my lungs and starting a wet coughing fit that eventually subsided.  As I stared at the pattern of bumps and ridges on the blank ceiling, I suddenly remembered why he had given me a key to his house.  "What if something happens to me?" he had asked.  "You should be able to get in without having to break my windows or something."

The idea of death didn't faze me.  But for some reason, I found myself thinking like Duo.  The idea of our empty bodies lying here for who knows how long before someone found them just didn't appeal to me.  With a sigh that brought a tickle to my throat, I somehow managed to maneuver my hand into my pocket and reach my cellphone, fumbling with what I thought was the speed dial without bothering to take the phone out.

"Barton," I sort of heard over the line.

The tickle mutated into another long, unhealthy cough that I couldn't control.

"Hello?  Shit, Yuy?  Are you there?  Hello?  Answer me!  Yuy!"

The last thought I had before slipping into unconsciousness was that caller ID was a wonderful thing.

It was white.  A little colder than I had thought it would be, but not altogether unpleasant.  There was a buzz of sound in the background, and I closed my eyes to concentrate on it.  It slowly resolved itself into voices, and I turned toward them to follow.

When I opened my eyes again, there were shapes in the light.

"I'm coming," a familiar voice was saying to the others.   "But just give me a little bit, okay?"

"Duo?" I called out to him, a slight incredulity tinging my tone.  "You're finally here and now you're not ready to go?"

He whipped around with his hands on his hips, a well-recognized sign of exasperation that was belied by the wide grin on his face.  "I've been waiting," he said simply, and held his hand out to me.

I took it, and smiled when his comfortable warmth chased the chill away.

"To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise: for it is to think that we know what we do not know.   For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them: but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils.  And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?"

-- Socrates, from Plato's Apology of Socrates

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This piece of fiction is the intellectual property of the little turnip that could. The basis for this fic, i.e. Gundam Wing, Kyuuketsuki Miyu, et al., is the property of someone else. The author can be con tacted at jchew@myrealbox.com. This has been an entirely automated message. http://www.cs.hmc.edu/~jchew/misc/gw.html

last modified : 7/12/2004 21:56:14 PST