|At Days End
by Brian Eirik Coe
© Brian Eirik Coe -- all rights reserved
The sound of the buzzer pulled me out of a dream. I tried for a few moments to bring it back even as the vivid colors of the scene faded from my memory. Giving up, I reached out and slapped the snooze on the alarm and rolled over on my stomach.
I lay there listening to the sounds of my small home for what seemed like a long time. I heard the sounds of talking muffled by the walls and doors, a clink of metal on metal from the kitchen, the rattle of the ventilation fan over the stove, the muted sounds of the TV.
I sighed and smiled thinly. I'd miss those sounds when they were gone. It had been almost a month since Jon had moved his new family in with me, and it had been a good month. I enjoyed having all of them around, my life having been so lonely for so many years.
But my house was too small for the four of us, really. Grace slept in the living room on the pull out sofa-bed, and Jon and Maxine shared the tiny room that had once been my home office, that having been delegated to a corner of the living room for now.
I shook my head of those thoughts and looked quickly at the clock. I did a quick mental calculation and decided that I should have been out of bed fifteen minutes ago. Grunting, I tossed off the blankets and quickly stepped into my bathroom.
Ten minutes later, shaved and dressed, I gave myself a final check in the mirror. I adjusted my blue tie and straightened the color of my off white dress shirt. I ran the comb through my fur-like hair, careful to avoid the pointed ears, and stepped back for a moment. Satisfied, I grabbed my keys and made my way to the kitchen.
Even before I got there, I heard the whistle on the stove of the tea pot start. Maxine must have heard me in the shower and started it then. I saw Grace sitting tiredly at the table, slowly chewing her breakfast. Her long ears were drooped to the side of her head a bit, and she looked like she was about to fall asleep again. As I neared the kitchen, I saw her snuff once and look up in my direction. Her face brightened a little, "Good Morning·"
"Good morning to you, m'dear" I said with a smile. Maxine was just turning to great me herself, "And a good morning to you, too."
Her ears flicked a bit, "You're in a good mood this morning." She said. "Something going on today that you didn't tell us about?"
I shrugged, "Nothing more that usual. I've got a training rep coming in, though, to walk Paula through some of my equipment. If all goes well, she'll be up to speed by Friday."
Maxine frowned a bit at the mention of Paula. "Are you sure about this? I mean, Paula. . ."
I cut her off, "Maxine, I'm sure. She's not that person anymore. If I had any doubts, I wouldn't have hired her in the first place."
Paula was my new assistant, the first new assistant I'd had in almost fifteen years. I'd been getting busier and busier at my optometry office over the past several months. I'd finally broken down and been forced to hire a new assistant. Paula was a SCAB, a recent one. She'd caught the flu a little more that a year ago, and it had effected her from the waist down. She hobbled around with a cane, balancing on the hips and legs of a brown bear.
But, most important, she had all the qualifications I needed. She'd worked for medical doctors in the past, and even for an ophthalmologist for a couple of years. She knew the ropes. If only. . .
A yawn from behind me snapped me back. I turned to see a sleepy Jon. I frowned a bit. "Morning, Jon. Aren't you supposed to be at work?"
He shook his head slowly, "No, not until noon this morning. The maintenance staff at the paper is rewiring our floor, so they decided to give us a half day off." He yawned again, "But don't you have to be going?"
I glanced at the clock and silently cursed. "You're right. I need to run. If there isn't any traffic I'll only be about ten minutes late. You two still need me to sit with Grace tonight?"
Jon seemed to brighten at that, "Yeah, if you don't mind. Our reservations are at seven."
I nodded. Jon and Maxine had spent very little time alone together since they'd fell into each others lives at Christmas last month. They were planning a nice little trip on the town. "I'll be here, no problem." I said as I headed out the door.
Once in my car, I got into a mechanical mode. I turned the radio on to the all news station and tried to sort out my schedule for the day as I drove down the crowded highway.
The traffic reporter came on, "Traffic every seven minutes from WTNC. There's a pile-up involving a produce truck on the eastbound O'Neil expressway at Haven that's got the two and three lanes blocked, emergency vehicles are on the scene. There is a stalled car in the number two lane of the southbound Jefferson Tunnel, so be careful of that. We're getting late word of a structure fire in the downtown area that's got traffic tied up by emergency crews, but no location just yet. And it looks like someone dropped a crate of apples on the Ford Street on-ramp, so watch for that. It's a regular fruit salad out there today·"
I half tuned out the radio as they merged into an ad for a local fast food franchise. Nothing unusual about the morning, but at least it looked like it was a free and clear drive into work today. The only possible annoyance was the fire downtown, but even that was unlikely. My office was on the edge of the downtown district, really in the south side, so traffic would have to be a mess to delay me.
I glanced around at the cars around me. Sometimes, I managed to catch someone in a stare. It had bugged me for years. SCABS weren't all that uncommon, everyone had certainly seen at least one in there life, but people seemed to have a bit of morbid curiosity about a man with the ears of a raccoon. And my area of. . . infection was more limited than most.
True to form, my eyes locked momentarily with a well dressed young woman in an overpriced Swedish sedan. She suddenly seemed to find something incredibly interesting on her dashboard. I smiled in spite of myself. It was something of a game for me, and it was one that I was almost always the winner of. It was like these people thought that looking at a SCAB would make you one.
I was still smiling when I pulled my car into the parking garage a couple blocks from my office. I knew that I was in a rare good mood, one that I'd been in since I'd decided to hire Paula. She was a dynamo, that woman.
I pulled a patient summery from my case and started to read as I walked. It looked like a fairly average day. Eight scheduled patients, all but one a SCAB. Four of those were fairly typical, with either fully human or animal eyes. The others were more tricky, with partially changed eyes, or one eye of each. It made for interesting diagnosis.
I rounded the corner as I slipped the file back into my case and started fishing around my pocket for my office keys. I pulled them out and glanced at my watch. I was still ten minutes early. That would give me time to do a little paperwork before my first patient. . .
My thoughts stopped as I ran headlong into a man in a black raincoat. "Oh, excuse me. . . "
My voice trailed off as I realized that the man had bright yellow, reflective stripes on his coat, and was wearing a firefighters cap. He turned around and looked at me, stepping back a half step as he saw my ears. "Can't come through here, uh, sir."
My eyes slowly moved over his shoulder to the row of buildings. They drifted over the facade of the sporting goods store, the used bookstore. . .
My blood ran cold, and I could feel the fur growing down my face. My black leather case fell to the cement with a dull thud as my eyes settled on the burned out shell that had been my office.
The fire had been bad. Very bad. The ceiling had collapsed, crushing anything that hadn't already started to burn. Some of the internal walls still stood, a melted plastic frame display that had once sat in the front window was laying on the sidewalk.
It didn't take the investigator long to figure it out. A firebomb tossed through the bars over the plate glass window. They'd found traces of fuel all over the place. The police came and took statements. The fire department declared it out and left. I guess that the city would come later and declare the shell that was left condemned pretty soon.
All that, and it was only ten o'clock.
"Dr. Coe?" asked Paula, "Shouldn't we, uh, do something?"
I looked at her blankly. "What? I don't have another office. This was all I had. All I had. . ." My voice trailed off as I felt myself get choked up. I glanced around at the spectators all around me. Some were looking at the building with morbid curiosity. A lot were looking at me.
A lot were looking at me and smirking.
I carefully picked my way into the smoldering office. I had to go in and see what was left, but I also didn't want to give the onlookers the satisfaction of seeing me break down. Paula followed me in, gently supporting herself with her cane over the debris.
Once inside, I made my way to my exam room and found it completely destroyed, the exam chair looking like a charred modern art sculpture. There was more hope in the file room, though. My computer back ups were all stored in a fire safe, and they had survived. All I needed was a computer.
The one on the front desk was a puddle of plastic and silicon at the moment.
There was another fire safe in here somewhere, one with some important documents, but the collapsed ceiling had buried it. Paula and I were digging through looking for it when I heard a familiar voice shout, "Brian! Are you back there?"
I poked my head out from behind the charred partition to see Wanderer standing at the edge of what had been my front door. Sometimes it was hard to gauge the expression on his lupine features, but not this morning. He was clearly shocked by what he saw. "Are you okay?" he asked as he started walking over the debris toward me.
I nodded. "I'm fine. It happened before I got here this morning."
"What happened?" he asked. I noticed that he'd dropped any hint of his favored British accent.
"Looks like someone decided to put me out of business. I was firebombed."
For the first time, as I said that last three words, I realized what had happened.
I was firebombed.
Twenty years of practice, gone.
I was firebombed.
Fifteen years of fighting my way back after getting SCABS, gone.
I was firebombed.
My livelihood, gone.
I was firebombed.
It wasn't just a building and some equipment.
It was me.
It was all a part of me.
I was firebombed.
A tear started to form at the corner of my eye.
I hadn't cried in a long time.
I think that Wanderer sensed what was going through my head and he quickly led me to the rear of the building, away from the prying eyes of the crowd out front. Once out of sight, I crouched to the floor and first started sobbing.
Then I started slamming my fist into the wall.
"Why. . . The. . . Hell. . . Did. . . They. . . Do. . . This. . .To. . . Me. . .?"
I kept repeating the line over and over, punctuating each word by slamming my fist into the wall. After a few moments, I lost my human voice as my vocal cords were lost to my rapidly shirking form.
I lost my balance and fell backwards onto the floor. My hand hurt. I was exhausted.
"Finished?" Wanderer asked quietly with concern.
I shrugged non-committally. I couldn't speak at all, anyway.
"Do you have any idea who did this?", he asked.
I thought a second. The police had asked me the same thing, but in truth I didn't know. I'd been getting vague threats for years, a lot of SCABS do. Nothing, though, that I'd ever taken seriously. I eventually shook me head no.
He crouched down next to me and ran his fingers through the soot, letting it cling to his hand for a moment before he tilted it a little and let it fall to the floor. "We'll find out. Trust me."
Paula stepped from the remains of the file room. "Brian? I think I've found the other fire safe. Can you. . ." Her eyes locked with Wanderers, and her face drained of blood. She tried to step back, but bumped into the seared partition behind her. Without another word, she ducked back into the file room.
Wanderer, for his part, seemed even more stunned. His jaw had dropped the moment that their eyes met, and for a second I almost thought I heard a growl escape his throat. He turned back to me, and in a hushed, almost angry tone asked, "What is she doing here?"
I took a deep breath. I knew that I was in for a confrontation like this from several people. I'd already had one with Maxine. Another breath. I had hoped to let this information out a little more slowly. Another breath. I certainly didn't need to deal with this now of all times. Another breath. But looking at Wanderer, I knew that now was as good a time as any.
Calmed enough to reverse the creeping transformation to speak. "She's my new assistant." I let the sentence hang in the air.
"You hired Paula Packard as your new assistant? Paula Packard? What the hell were you thinking?"
I sighed, suddenly more calm than I had any right to be. I'd already gone over this a hundred times in my head. "Yes, I did. I hired her a couple weeks ago. She's got experience working in a doctors office. . ."
"She worked for Barnes for God's sake! She tried to get us all declared as sub-human. . ."
"She's got contacts in the medical industry. . ."
"She made sure that I wouldn't get hired for at least two jobs. . ."
"She's a SCAB."
"She. . .what?" he stammered. "What did you say?"
"She's a SCAB." I said simply.
He looked back to the entrance to the file room and back at me. He seemed to be thinking. "When? Was she always?"
I shook my head. "No, she contracted the flu about 18 months ago, and SCABS shortly after."
There was a long silence. "What possessed you to hire her, Brian? You had to know that you were asking for trouble."
I nodded. "Do you want me to be frank?" he nodded. "Good. I don't have the ability to hire someone that would only half work out. I needed a person that I could depend on to run my office. I needed someone that had experience. She was the only one that I could find that had all those qualifications and had worked in eye care before."
He looked me straight in the eye. "You could lose a lot of friends because of this."
I looked at him a long time. "Does that include you?"
He glanced around the ruble and shook his head. "No. I wouldn't be any better than she was if I abandoned you now. You say she's changed?"
I shrugged, "She seems to have."
He sighed and shot a dark look at the file room, where Paula was still huddled. "I'll believe it when I see it." A light bulb seemed to go off in his head and he quickly turned to me. "Have you thought that she might be involved in this?"
I frowned. "What?"
He moved his hands around my devastated office. "This! Have you considered that she might have been involved in this?"
"That's insane! She'd be throwing herself out of a job, because can guarantee that I won't be able to keep her on if I can't reopen fast."
He shook his head. "I didn't mean it like that. She was high up in Humans First, she was a confidant of Barnes. Now she's a SCAB. Don't you think that she'd be a target? That they'd make a point to make sure that her life is over? She goes to work for a SCAB doctor, and in no time his office burns down. Don't you see a connection here?"
I frowned. "I guess, but. . .what should I do about it?"
Wanderer shrugged. "Watch your back. Keep your eyes open. This may be random, or it's not. I don't know." He looked at his watch. "I'm sorry, but I have to go. Look, if there is anything I can do, let me know."
I forced a smile. "I'll be fine. I'll talk to you later."
He nodded and walked back out the front. He made a point not to look at Paula as he left.
I sighed heavily and then walked into the file room. Paula was curled up on the floor and crying. She didn't look up when I walked in, but whispered, "I didn't do this to you, Brian. Please believe me."
I sighed. She'd probably overheard the entire conversation. "I didn't think that you did."
"I hate the person I was then." she sobbed quietly.
"And so do they."
I nodded. "You knew that when you came to work for me. We both did."
"My God. All the lives I destroyed, all the pain I caused. . ." She looked at me in shock, realization of something in her eyes. "This is all my fault! If I hadn't been here. . ." Her voice trailed off as she pulled herself to her feet. Even with her altered hips and legs, she brushed past me quickly and started moving out of the office.
I followed. "Paula! Where are you going?"
She stopped and turned. "I'm dangerous!" she shouted. "Stay away from me before I destroy you too!" She ran out the broken front window, and disappeared into the crowd.
I leaned heavily against the remains of the reception desk and massaged my furred temples with my finger. The hourly chime toned on my watch and I glanced at it.
It had been a hell of a morning.
I didn't know what else to do. I'd never had something like this happen to me before. I'd lived in earthquake country for 25 years before moving east and had never lost a house. Now, in one night my business was gone.
My mind was blank. All I concentrated on was the sound of my scuffed shoes on the concrete as I walked through the city. I said nothing to anyone, but there was no one to talk with anyway. I never took my gaze off the sidewalk.
Perhaps an hour or so later, the shock began to wear off. I was able to accept the fact that my office was gone, that someone had deliberately decided to burn it to the ground.
Funny. When I thought about it, I think I would have felt better if it had been something I had done.
What do I do now? was the thought that eventually came to my mind.
That was when I had my next shocking realization of the day. I had no insurance. I didn't have the money to open another office.
I was busted. In one day, I was busted.
It had all been going so well.
I suddenly realized that I was looking at a familiar patch of sidewalk and glanced up. I was standing in front of the Blind Pig Gin Mill. Frowning, I looked at my watch and discovered that I'd been walking for almost three hours.
I sighed. There were only three places in this world gone insane that I felt comfortable, where I could be me with my guard down. First was my home, second was my office and third was here. But I didn't want to be here. I really just wanted to go home. But that meant another long walk to my car. If nothing else, I could use Donnie's phone to call a cab.
I walked through the door, my eyes slowly adjusted to the dim light. I wasn't surprised to see that the place was completely uncrowded, it was only about 3pm. The place didn't typically start to get busy for a few hours. I did see a few. Jack was plucking away at something on the piano, but it didn't sound up to his normal level of quality. I guessed that he was practicing something new. Donnie was behind the bar, bent down looking for something on a shelf behind the bar. Lisa was sitting at the bar herself, talking on Donnie's avocado green telephone.
She had abruptly looked up when the door opened and she frantically waved me over. As I approached, I heard her say, "He just walked in. I'll see you in a few·" She hung up and rushed across the bar, giving me a quick hug. "Brian! Where have you been? We've been looking for you!"
I shrugged as I sat heavily at the bar. I rubbed my partly furred face with my shaking hand. Funny, I hadn't noticed it shaking before. "Around. I've been. . .around. Donnie, can I have. . .God, I don't know. Something to calm me a bit?"
The massive bar owner nodded and slid across a cup of tea, which is what I usually ordered in here. I sighed, tempted to ask for something stronger, but stopped. I was more raccoon than normal, and the last thing I wanted to be today was a drunk raccoon. I took a sip of the tea and smiled gratefully. It actually felt good.
Lisa put her hand on my arm. "Are you okay, Brian?"
I looked at her a second, trying to decide if she was asking as a reporter or a friend. I quickly decided the question was just paranoia. "Physically? Yes. Financially? I'm ruined. Psychologically? I don't know. Just keep me away from sharp objects for a while." I meant it as a joke, gallows humor really. But it didn't come off like it. My tone was deadly serious. I wondered if I really did mean it.
Lisa forced a smile, recognizing the attempt at humor. "What did the police tell you?"
I shrugged. "That they'll probably never figure out who did this. That in all likelihood it was anti-SCAB violence. That I deserved it for trying to work in a world where SCABS aren't welcome."
She looked shocked. "A cop told you that?!"
"Not in so many words. You could see it in the guys eyes, though. The way that he stared at me, the speed at which they opened the scene. They took all of two hours to collect evidence. Two hours at the site of a major arson. You can't tell me that they would have been that fast if I wasn't a SCAB."
Lisa seemed to wince a little at my words. I sometimes forgot that she wasn't really one of us, no matter how hard she tried to understand. She'd heard all of our stories, she'd printed them. If any normal person in this city understood SCABS better, I'd be surprised. But I think that sometimes she didn't know as much as she thought she did.
We sat in an uncomfortable silence for a few seconds. Jack picked that moment to walk over. He tapped me on the shoulder and I turned to see his serious, mulish face. "You doing okay?"
I sighed. That was the third time I'd been asked that. "Jack, please. I've never walked in here and seen you not smiling. Well, correction, I've seen you passed out on occasion but at least you looked happy. I could use a little consistency today."
His expression changed instantly, "How's this?" he said with a familiar grin.
He jabbed his thumb at the piano. "Any requests?"
I smiled. Jack's moods sometimes were infectious. "I don't know. Somehow 'Great Balls of Fire' comes to mind."
He nodded. "I guess it would." Then he added with a grin, "I don't think that Donnie will let me toss the piano into the audience, though."
"That's okay." I smiled, "You don't sound like Jerry Lee Lewis anyway. I don't care what you play, actually. Just avoid dirges, please."
"Aw, and I just learned that Viking funeral march." He said with mock seriousness. "I'll just have to play it after you leave, I guess."
I shrugged, "Everyone will be thrilled, I'm sure."
Jack went back to the piano and started to play. The music in the background, I turned back to Lisa. "How'd you know about the fire, anyway?"
"I picked it off the scanner at the paper. I went to your office as soon as I heard, but you'd already left, I guess. We've been trying to find you ever since."
"Jon and Maxine were out looking for you. I called your house when I didn't find you at the office and got Maxine. I called Jon at the paper. When you didn't turn up at home, we started to get worried." She suddenly looked uncomfortable. She took a deep breath and asked. "Brian? Why did you hire Packard?"
I slumped a bit. At the moment, it seemed like a moot issue. "I thought that it seemed like a good idea at the time. She's not the same person she was."
"I know, she's a SCAB now, I understand. But even so, she is still a person with unsavory friends."
I snorted once in laughter. "Yeah, some friends. One of them offered to kill her when she started to become a SCAB. A couple others didn't exactly make it an offer. Her family abandoned her, she had no support at all. She couldn't even go to the shelters because she was afraid she'd be beaten, or worse."
"I'm surprised she didn't kill herself." Lisa mused quietly.
I set my mug down hard. "She didn't want to die, Lisa. None of us do. You think that I wanted this? That I didn't consider putting myself out of my misery at some point? I did, and so did Paula. But I had a support structure, I had more family stay by me than most, and I could go to a shelter if I had too. She didn't and couldn't. She found me at the right moment in her life, and I was her lifeline. . ."
My jaw dropped open and I looked at my watch. It was almost four. Paula had run out about noon. "Oh my God."
Lisa seemed at the edge of her seat. "What? Brian, what is it?"
I looked at her a second. "Oh my God, I was so stupid. I was so caught up in myself that I missed it."
Lisa was practically shouting now. "Damnit Brian, what is it?"
Jack abruptly stopped playing the piano. I looked at Lisa as my feet grew cold. "She's going to kill herself, if she hasn't already."
Lisa and I stared at each other for a couple of seconds while the thought sunk in: Paula Packard was going to kill herself.
I suppose there was a time when that news would have been greeted with cheers among some of the people I knew. Up to a time not so long ago, she was an avid fighter for what she termed "True Humanity". She'd tried to get SCABS tossed out of any profession she could, one at a time. She was presented as a member of the medical profession, despite the fact that she was no more than an office assistant, and members of an eager media ate it up.
Then, she dropped out of sight. Rumor was that she'd come down with the Martian Flu. A few months later, I heard, any inquiry about her through Councilman Barnes office was met with a stony silence.
They, of course, had suddenly never heard of her.
Truth be told, I'd forgotten all about her. There was always a new shrill voice to take the place of one who had fallen. I can't remember if I ever really thought about it. I was too busy rebuilding my practice. She never entered my mind.
At least, until three weeks ago, when she walked into my office looking for work.
She had come in answer to my ad. I couldn't pay much, and hadn't received many applications. She walked in from the cold January sun bundled up from head to foot and hobbling on her cane. In the other hand she clutched the newspaper ad. She had shakily sat down in one of my worn blue chairs while I finished up with a patient.
I introduced myself and asked how I could help her. She'd silently handed me her resume'. I remember only briefly pausing at the name, though it should have screamed out at me. I remember asking, "You seem qualified. Would you like to step back into my office and do an interview right now?"
She'd silently unwrapped her head, showing me for the first time in person the features that I'd seen on the TV screen already. It still didn't register with me just who she was, because the features I saw were not familiar. The woman on the TV had been confident, full of energy and self-righteousness. She'd had the vitality and the drive to take on anyone in the world.
The woman that I met in my office that day was beaten. Her eyes were hollow and filled with pain. When she moved, it was with a nervous tremble, the sign of a person used to watching their back. Her gaze tended to follow the line of the floor, like she was always looking for the object she'd trip over.
The realization of just who the woman was didn't come for another few minutes. When it finally came, I came close to throwing her out. Then she did something that surprised me.
In a way, it was a despicable thing to do. It was the thing I least expected. She launched into a confession that took her nearly an hour to complete. I have to admit that I didn't feel comfortable hearing some of the things that she confessed to, it seemed more the job of a priest. But I listened.
Three weeks later, I sat in a seedy bar in a bad neighborhood and realized that I may have heard her then, but I didn't listen.
I jumped from my stool and started out the door, with Lisa on my heels. "Brian! Where are you going?"
I stopped. I didn't have the faintest idea. I didn't know where she lived. That information was in my files, the files that were currently a heap of ash.
Salvation came in the form of a bloodhound with antlers that chose that moment to walk through the door, his family in tow. "Jon!" I yelled. "I need your help!"
I rushed over to the three of them as they altered their forms more human. "My God, Brian, are you all right?" Jon asked.
I nodded quickly. "I'm fine, I'm fine. I need your help, though."
Maxine looked concerned. "Anything. What can we do?"
I started pulling on my coat. "I think that Paula is going to kill herself. I need you to help me find her." Maxine started to say something, but I cut her off. "I don't have time to debate this with you. I know you don't like her, but I'd rather find her now and have another debate with you later!"
Maxine looked hurt. "I was just going to say that we should leave Grace here with Donnie."
A wave of embarrassment washed over me. I tried to say I was sorry, but all I could manage was a very raccoon chitter as emotion altered my throat. Maxine gave me a light hug. "Don't worry about it, Brian. It's been a bad day." She said simply.
With Grace safely in the charge of the caretaker of this little haven, the four of us ran out the door.
I found myself staring at the blackened ruin again. It already seemed like it had happened so long ago. Lisa stepped over and touched my arm. "Okay?" she asked quietly.
I nodded and sighed heavily. There was no use getting choked up again, what's done is done. You move on. Right now, there were bigger problems to deal with.
I heard Maxine through her vodor, Found it!
I moved over to her. "Are you sure?"
She and Jon nodded in unison. I know her scent, I think, but she's part bear, right? I nodded. That's the other scent. She went this way!
The two deer took off deeper into the south side, with Lisa and I close behind. The path was straight and direct. It seemed clear that where ever Paula ran off to after she left my office, she took a straight line there.
Like she had the location picked out.
As the sun began to set, we found ourselves at the edge of Stansfield Park. It wasn't the best of parks, situated at the edge of what wasn't the best of neighborhoods, but it had it's own special features. There were numerous trees and trails and small stream ran through the center of it that combined to make a very pretty setting in the middle of urban decay.
Jon and Maxine made a bee-line for a particular grove of trees. Then, at the edge, they stopped. Jon looked back at me. She's right there. he said quietly.
I nodded. The three of them didn't have to be asked to wait back here. We didn't know how close she was to the edge, and didn't want to put any more pressure on her than we had too. I looked between the trees, and in the dim light of the dusk I saw Paula sitting, slightly huddled, on a bench next to the stream.
I quietly and casually walked over to her. "Mind if I sit down?"
She looked up slowly, apparently having heard my approach. Her eyes were red and puffy from crying. She sobbed hard once, and nodded silently.
"It's not your fault, Paula. I never thought it was."
She sobbed quietly a few times. "Yes. It is."
I put my arm around her, "Paula, unless you threw the bomb, it's not your fault."
She suddenly looked me in the eye, her expression changing. "Who else could it be, Brian? Who else? If you'd never hired me. . ."
I cut her off. "Let's not go down that road. The future isn't written. I knew there were risks when I hired you, and I was willing to take them."
She shook her head. "You never understood the risks. If you had, you'd never have hired me." She rubbed her palms on her skirt. "I knew what could happen. Hell, I used to arrange this kind of thing. But I was so desperate. I needed a job so bad. . ." She coughed, a dry, hacking cough. "When he told me that you'd probably hire me. . ." She coughed again and I looked at her hand as she brought it away from her mouth.
It was covered in blood.
Shocked, I grabbed it and looked at her hand, then at her face. She had a small stream of blood running out of her nose, but she looked unhurt. "Paula," I asked urgently, "what did you do?"
She tried to smile weakly. "The world won't miss me..."
Frantic now, I fell to my knee in front of her and scanned the ground, a sickening feeling in my gut. I'd seen the bleeding before, once, one morning at the shelter. My hand came across the opaque orange bottle and I quickly read the label. "Damn." Haldistane, a common painkiller. It was empty. I shoved the bottle in my pocket and picked her up.
She protested weakly, but she found her arms hard to move. I shifted her weight in my arms and moved quickly over the hill. I yelled, "Jon! Get an ambulance!"
The EMS rescuer was hooking Paula up to his monitors while we sped down the street. I'd been forced to leave Jon, Maxine and Lisa behind, but I'd taken Lisa cellular phone with me. I still had the pill bottle with me, and I knew that I needed to make a call before the ambulance got to the hospital.
I dialed the number, two rings later I heard a click as a speaker phone was activated. "Derksen here." came a distracted voice.
"Bryan! I'm glad I caught you!"
The voice got more cheerful. "Brian! How's it going?"
I paused, a little caught off guard. "You haven't heard?"
"Heard what? I've been in the lab all day."
I sighed. "No time to explain, but I need you to call Bob. Tell him that one of his patients is on the way in. It's a Haldistane overdose."
I heard him mutter something below the pickup of the microphone. Then, "Okay, he's actually still here. Are you coming into this hospital?"
I glanced at the rescuer, who nodded once. "Yeah, we are. We'll be there in just a few minutes."
"Okay, we'll be down in emergency waiting. Who's the patient?"
I heard a surprised snort in the background.
"I'll see you two in a minute."
The exam table was surrounded by doctors and nurses. Save for Paula's bear-like feet at the end of the table, I couldn't see her. I looked over at Bryan and Bob. "Shouldn't you two be in there?"
Derksen shook his head. "These people are about the best in the city, Brian. They're primed to work like this. At the moment, I think we'd be in the way." He motioned for me to sit down on a chair behind the nurses station, which I gratefully did. "What happened?"
I sighed. I related the events of the morning. It was times like this I wish I had friends who had facial expressions. Between Jon, Bryan and Bob I could never tell what they were thinking.
Bob just shook his head mournfully. Bryan leaned against the nurses station. "God, I don't believe it. I thought we were beyond that stuff when Barnes dropped out of sight."
I shrugged weakly. "Apparently not." We sat in silence a few seconds before I connected a few things in my head. I looked back at Bob. "You've been treating her. After everything that she did, a lot of it to you, you were treating her?"
Bob merely nodded. He was a real enigma to me. We got along, I suppose I even considered him a friend, but we had never spoken. I'd certainly known of Bob for years. He was, and probably still was, the leading expert on SCABS in the world. I'd heard him speak on television, and even once in person some years ago.
But since I gotten to know him, he'd never said a word. Not to me, not to anyone. No one knew what to make of it, really. We knew that he'd had some medical problems lately, but no one knew the extent. So far as we could tell, at the least it rendered him mute.
I leaned back in the chair, tilting the front legs off the floor and closed my eyes. "You sent her to me, didn't you, Bob?"
I opened my eyes to see him nod, a little reluctantly.
"Why? Why didn't you tell me that you were going to do that?"
Bob looked at Bryan in mild desperation, who took over. "I think, Brian, that he didn't want you to hire her because of him, but because of her. Bob felt that she deserved a second chance. You were in a perfect position to offer that."
I shifted my gaze between the two of them, then settled on the roach. "You knew, too. I don't believe this." I said quietly.
Bryan seemed exasperated. "Brian, tell me the truth, if we'd have asked you, would you have hired her?"
I thought a second and then nodded.
"She didn't want that. Paula wanted to strike out on her own. We treated her physical ailments as best we could. She had to put her life in order."
"Why did she have a bottle of Haldistane?"
"She's been having problems with her nervous system not properly integrating the impulses between her changed and unchanged parts." said Derksen. "That, and she's had a problem with the bones of her lower back." He spread his four hands wide, "We didn't think she was a suicide risk."
I sighed heavily. "I wonder. . ." I closed my eyes and screwed up the courage to say what I had to say. "I wonder if she was right. Was it because of her? Did I lose my office because of her?"
Bob slowly nodded his massive head. I knew what that meant. It probably was.
A young doctor walked over with a chart. "Doctors? Packard is being transferred to ICU. She's stable for the moment." She handed Bryan a clipboard.
He flipped quickly though the pages. "What's her status?"
The doctor shrugged. "Not good. From what we can tell from her blood and tox screen, she's lost most or all of her liver functions. I think that her kidneys are damaged, but that might be a false reading. Haldistane poisoning sometimes does that." He sighed, "I'm most concerned about the blood in her respiratory system. Haldistane dilates the veins in the lungs as a side effect, and I think some of hers are ruptured. She's got a lot of damage there."
I stood up. "Can I speak to her?"
The doctor looked at me and then at Derksen, who nodded. He looked back at me and shook his head. "No. She's in a coma."
I stared at her silent form behind the thick glass of the ICU ward. Her body was covered in wires and tubes, some monitoring her failing liver, others feeding her oxygen and food. Her skin seemed a little gray, but it might have been the dim lighting in the room.
"What are her chances?" I asked Dr. Derksen, standing beside me.
There was a short pause. "I don't know. It's too early to tell. I can honestly say that I wouldn't count her out just yet, though. She's got a chance."
I leaned my head against the glass and closed my eyes. I felt a shudder go through me. If I had been just a little later...
A hand tugged gently at my shoulder. "Com'on Brian. We need to stand clear of the hallway. Let's head up to my office upstairs."
I meekly nodded my head and started to follow him down the hall.
"Can I get you a drink?"
I shifted a little on the sofa to make my tail more comfortable. "No thanks, Bryan. I don't think I need one right now."
"You don't mind if I..." he asked, hefting the bottle in the air.
I shook my head. "Go ahead."
He poured himself a drink and sat heavily in his chair. "Hell of a day."
"Tell me about it."
We sat in silence a little while. I'm not sure that Bryan knew what to say, and I didn't really feel like talking any more. I let my eyes wander around his office. I had to admit that I was impressed. I'd been here before, but never really looked at the array of awards on the walls. Most were related to his research in the Martian Flu and it's effects. I noted that a few predated that outbreak.
The door opened and Dr. Bob walked in. He nodded in my direction and walked over to Bryan, handing him a clipboard. Bryan took it and started reading. Then he glanced up at Bob. "Have you already read this?" He nodded once and then took a seat himself.
Bryan skimmed the document a little more. "It looks like there might be a small problem. It seems that Paula's family is here. At least, her older brother is. He wants to cut off life support."
My jaw dropped. "Can he do that?"
Bryan shook his head. "No. Not legally. Paula doesn't have a living will. At least, I don't think she does. She's your patient, Bob." He looked at the Shire doctor expectantly, who responded by shaking his head. "So he would have to get a power of attorney at the least. She's not brain dead, and she's breathing on her own. For that matter, other than some medical slight of hand we're doing to replace her liver functions, she's not really on life support anyway."
"You think that he'll still try, though."
Both doctors nodded. "Her family pretty much wrote her off as dead when she was infected. I'm actually a little surprised that her brother even bothered to come in."
I shook my head sadly. "What a family. She's not dead enough for them." I thought a second, "If she's going to pull through, how long do you think she'll be in the coma?"
"Once we get the Haldistane completely out of her system, we'll know better. It could be as early as morning, or she may never wake up."
"What are you going to do about her brother?"
"Well, he won't be allowed back into the ICU without an escort, but that's hospital policy anyway. Beyond that, there isn't much we really can do. He is her family, after all. As of yet, he hasn't done anything. Hopefully he won't."
"Is there anything that I can do?"
He shook his head, "No. It's up to Paula to bring herself back."
We sat in silence again. Bryan swirled his drink a little, then took a gulp. He set the glass down gently and leaned back a little. "Brian, I'm sorry for what happened. I think that we both are." He said indicating Bob. "We should have warned you that we were sending her over."
I looked back and forth between the two of them for a few seconds. From out of nowhere, the days frustrations welled up again. I'd been a body in motion for more than ten hours. My business was gone, my one employee had tried to kill herself, and I still smelled like soot. I wanted to take whoever had started this chain of events and run them trough the wringer.
But I didn't know who that was, and my only target were the two friends sitting across the room.
"Ah hell, this is as bad as what Paula did! I don't want people to go around and try to relieve some of the suffering on me. This is as much my fault as it is anyone's. Hell, it's more. I didn't prepare for something like this. I've been blissfully unaware of the world for most of my life, and I guess things are coming to roost."
I stood up off the couch and began pacing. "It's not your fault what happened, but I don't want pity from you two! Not from anyone! I've been on my own in this world a long time, and I'll be damned if I'll start dumping my mistakes and falls onto other people. And I'll be damned if I'll let people take them from me."
"Brian, we only want to help..." interjected Derksen.
"I don't want any help, and I don't need it. I'll be fine on my own." I kept pacing the room back and forth. Finally, I decided that I needed to get some air. I walked over to the door, "Look, I'm going to go home. I need to get some sleep. Call me if Paula wakes up." I left, slamming the door behind me.
By the time I got to the lobby, I already regretted what I had said.
I ran into Jon as I was leaving the hospital. He trotted up to me and forced himself into his slightly more human form. "How is she?" he asked.
I shrugged tiredly. "She's in a coma. It's hard to say, but we should know more by morning. Derksen thinks that we got her in time, though. Where's Maxine?"
"She went back to the Pig to pick up Grace. She'll meet us at home. Do you need to get your car?"
I nodded. "Yeah, it's still at the parking garage. Mind walking with me?"
"Naw, it's only a couple of miles. Can you give me a hand with my vodor, though?" he said as he went back to all fours. I clicked the expensive piece of computer hardware into place. Thanks. he said.
I nodded and silently started walking back in the direction of my car. Jon stayed beside me, but he didn't interrupt the silence. I had the impression that he was carefully watching me. In the short time we'd been re-aquatinted, this was about the foulest, darkest mood I'd been in.
The night had become very cold. I huddled in my relatively light overcoat to gain a little warmth. About the only thing I thought about the entire walk was what I was going to do the next day.
I kept drawing a blank.
I sighed, realizing that I needed to find a way to re-open as fast as I could. I supposed that I could try to get a loan from a bank...
A nudge from Jon brought me back to the present. "Huh? What is..."
He cut me off with a short snort from his nostrils. For some reason, he didn't want to say something out loud. He only quickened his pace a bit, and indicated for me to do the same.
That made me more than a little nervous. Jon claimed to have something of a sixth sense about things, that he could tell when something wasn't right. I knew that he trusted his instincts implicitly. And I trusted him. We both sped up a little, making it back to the car as fast as we could. Jon went back up on his hind legs and got into the passenger side. It was a good thing that he'd shed his antlers a couple weeks back or he'd have torn the cloth off the roof.
As I started up the engine, I asked, "What was it?"
He shrugged. "I do not know. I just know that something was out there, following us."
He seemed to be at a bit of a loss. He seemed to be searching for the words to describe it, but failing. He shook his head in frustration. "I'm sorry, I can't tell you more than that. I didn't really sense anything solid. It's more a feeling."
I put the car into gear and started back in the road to home. "Maybe it's nothing." I offered. "Just nerves. It has been a long day."
He nodded in agreement, but seemed distracted by it at the same time. We both let the matter drop. We drove most of the way home in silence, talking little beyond things like the weather or what to get Grace for her birthday next month. Jon did try and bring up the fire once, but I cut him off with some inane chatter. He didn't try to bring it back up.
We got to my house a little after nine o'clock. I looked at the glowing clock on my dashboard when a though hit me. I looked over at Jon, "You're night out with Maxine! Oh, jeez, I completely forgot! I was supposed to watch Grace. God, I'm sorry. I know you were looking forward to it."
He gave me a very serious look. "Trust me, neither Maxine or I gave it a second though. If there is one thing that I've learned in the last few months, Brian, it's that there is nothing more important that your friends. You've been there for me a lot already. It's about time that I returned the favor." He opened the car door and stepped out.
I followed him in, and found Maxine standing on the other side of the door, waiting expectantly. "How is she?"
I sighed. "It's touch and go. She's in a coma. Derksen said they'd know better by morning."
She put her hand on my shoulder. "I hope that she's okay, I really do." I searched her face for any sign of concealment, but found none. As much as she disliked the woman, she didn't want to see her dead.
I decided to change the subject. "Where's Grace?"
In answer, I heard the shuffling of her hooves on the carpet. I smiled as the fawn walked over and nuzzled me at the hip. I was still a little amazed how much she liked to be a normal deer. Unlike Jon, who was stuck that way for most of the day, she didn't have to be. It still wasn't unusual for her to sleep like that, imitating her adopted dad. I patted her lightly on the neck.
Maxine smiled and patted her daughter on the head. "Grace, go in and watch TV for a little while." She led me into the kitchen and sat me down at the table. "Brian, are you okay? Really?"
I sighed and forced a smile. "I'm fine, Maxine. Just a little stressed."
She leaned back a little. I saw the look in her eye and I knew that she'd shifted from just a friend to her councilor mode. She seemed to be considering something. "Okay, Brian. I want you to know that we're here for you."
I smiled and started to shrug off my jacket. "I know, Maxine. If I feel like it, I'll talk to you. It's just been a very long, very bad day." I stood up. "I'm just going to check my mail and then go to bed. I've got a busy day tomorrow."
I left Maxine at the table. I moved back into the living room and sat heavily in my desk chair. I clicked on my computer and started massaging my temples as it booted up. I felt another nuzzle and looked over to see Grace, her young eyes seemed full of concern. I forced a little smile. "Hi, Grace."
She started to climb up into my lap and I helped her up. She was really a little big for this, particularly since she insisted on staying a deer, but it was impossible to resist this child. I sometimes wondered if she had a bit of Flu induced charm.
I logged my computer into the server and started reading my mail. Most of it was the same old stuff. Several were from friends and patients concerned because of the fire. I filed most of them away to answer later when my mind wasn't fogged from exhaustion and worry, and I didn't have a deer fawn in my lap to hinder typing.
It was the last message that gave me a little pause. It was a simple note from Dr. Bob.
"Brian. I want to talk to you in the morning. Meet me at 9:00 AM at the hospital."
I frowned at the message. He wanted to talk to me? I wondered what he meant my that. I sighed and closed my eyes, leaning my head forward against the Graces warm neck. I guess I'd find out in the morning. I switched off the computer and patted Grace on the head. "Sorry, sweetheart, but I need to get up now."
She turned her head toward me. I swear I saw her lips turn up in a smile, and she made no effort to move. I smiled and grabbed her around the waist and neck, picking her up as I stood. I deposited her on the couch next to her mother. I kissed her on the head. "Good night." She licked me back in response.
I looked over at Maxine. "Where's Jon?"
"He's out back doing a little grazing. He didn't get much to eat today. Going to bed?"
I nodded. "Yeah. Maybe tomorrow will be better. Couldn't get any worse." I laughed grimly.
I tossed and turned for hours. I couldn't calm myself down enough. Alone, in the darkness of my room, I couldn't shake the doubts and worry. I tossed and turned as I tried to figure it all out. I kept watching the clock, as if the slowly progressing numbers would answer my questions.
I sighed and dragged myself out of bed.
I sat on the edge of the mattress in a sulk for a few minutes, then stood in the darkened room and stretched. I walked over to the dresser and leaned hard against it, examining my reflection in the mirror. In the light of the reflected moon, I saw the face of defeat.
I slowly ran my fingers through my hair, still trying to settle my mind down so I could sleep a little. Then something in the mirror caught my eye. I squinted and looked at the reflection a little more carefully. Something had caught my eye, but now I couldn't see it. I slowly skimmed the mirror, eventually settling my gaze on the reflection of the window across the room.
Something was sitting in the bushes in my backyard.
I froze in place and examined the image as carefully as I could. There wasn't much to see. In fact, the entire image could simply be a trick of light and shadow in those overgrown juniper bushes in the yard. I started to dismiss it as that when it moved.
Now, whatever it was, I could see the dim reflection of the moonlight off it's eyes. It was hard to see, but it was definitely there. I couldn't see much more detail than that. Just a slight outline of a shape in the bushes. Sitting.
I gradually unfroze myself and moved casually to the bathroom, out of sight of the window. I felt my knees get weak and I leaned hard against the counter. I closed my eyes and tried to settle my nerve a bit. When I opened them, I discovered that the anxiety had largely altered my head in my alternate raccoon form. Then a smile slowly crept across my face.
Maybe it was time to take charge.
I concentrated a bit and felt my form begin to shrink. I gritted my teeth against the sharp pain as muscles, bones and nerves passed through forms nature never intended. About thirty seconds later, I was sitting on my haunches on the bathroom floor. I looked myself over briefly, and would have grinned if my short muzzle would have allowed it.
I scooted across the floor to my closet, where my attic access was, and started climbing up the hanging clothes. I pushed the light piece of ceiling cover away and climbed in. I looked around the attic for a moment. I'd covered most of the floor with plywood some years ago so I could store stuff up here. But it wasn't the possessions that I was looking for anyway. There was something else. Something that no one else but I knew about.
I scurried across the plywood planks a bit and came to the end of the attic. I felt around for a second and found the metal catch. Releasing it, I unlocked the tiny trap door, and it opened easily.
I smirked. I'd put this in during a particularly violent anti-SCABS period almost ten years ago. It was a way out if I ever thought someone was in the house. I'd never had to use it, and had almost forgotten it was there. Now, it allowed me to get onto the roof without being seen.
I carefully picked my way across the wood shake shingles. There was a thin coating of ice over everything, making the going a little treacherous. I reaches the apex of the roof and carefully peeked my head over.
It was still in the bushes, waiting.
I sighed and ducked back below the roof. Now what? I though.
I hadn't planned all that far ahead. Then I realized that it might be unwise to confront whoever this was right now, but at least I might be able to get a look at them.
I picked my way across the roof again to the Douglas Fir tree in my front yard. I jumped onto an overhanging branch and made my way down the tree. Whoever this was almost certainly knew what I was, so I didn't want to give myself away. I quietly ran across the lawn and into the tree in my neighbors yard. From there, I climbed onto their roof, went to the rear of their house, and climbed into another tree, this one the Washington apple tree at the back of my yard. It was a roundabout way to do it, but now I was about as close as I could conceivably get without running across my own back lawn.
I slowly positioned myself in the bare branches of the tree and concentrated hard on the shadowy form in the bushes. He was keeping himself hidden well. Then I realized that from his position, he had a truly impressive view. He could see most of my house, the backyard, and he could actually see through the slats of the fence into the front. It's possible that he'd even seen me run across the front yard. He could see coming or going from the house, and he himself was nearly invisible, even if you were looking for him.
But who was he?
I have no idea how long I tried to make out his form before the moon moved across the sky enough for me to get a better look. As it did, I started to form a more clear picture in my mind of what I was seeing. As realization started to dawn, I felt my mouth start to hang open, the cold air of the night chilling my tongue.
The first realization was that this was a SCAB.
The second, I recognized him.
It was a face that I could never forget, the memory wasn't all that old. The first night I'd gone to the Blind Pig, I'd almost left when he had come in balanced on Wanderers shoulder. He'd been pepper sprayed, and I'd help treat him that night.
Now that howling, bleary eyed man and wolf hybrid was sitting calmly in my backyard.
When I first slipped out of my house, I had visions of myself confronting the person in the bushes. It could only be the person who burned my office. I wanted to take charge and beat the guy into a pulp before calling the police and having him arrested.
But this turn of events had me confused. A SCAB? Despite the Packard connection, it was still a shock. I had honestly not seriously considered the possibility. That one of the Lupine Boys might have been behind it was even more of a shock. They were a raucous bunch, to be sure, but all of them that I knew had hearts of gold.
At least, I thought so.
That it could have been someone that I'd helped was even more of a shock. I tried to think back, tired to remember if he'd been a patient in the last few weeks. I couldn't remember.
I moved further back down the branch and settled into a more secure spot. I knew I couldn't confront him, and I wouldn't be able to fall asleep anyway. Calling the police was a possibility, but something held me back. I had a doubt about all this. Something wasn't right.
I blew out a short breath from my nostrils and yawned. I was more tired that I cared to admit. I settled my head on my paws and kept my eyes glued on the wolf. I didn't know what he was planning, but I wanted to be ready with a surprise when it did.
I blearily opened my eyes. I instantly knew I was dreaming. I had to be. I was sitting in a tree in my backyard in my raccoon form.
I never did things like that.
I marveled at the detail in this dream, though. I couldn't remember the last time that I could actually feel the cold air or smell the wind. I uncurled my form and stretched a little. That feels good, I thought.
Then I froze, the memories of the night coming back. How long had I stared at the figure in the bushes? An hour? Two? It had been early morning when I first crept from my bedroom. Looking at the suns position, I suddenly realized that it must have been at least eight o'clock.
A quick look to the bushes reveled just what I expected. Nothing. He'd probably run off before dawn. I shuddered when I realized that he could have done anything he wanted to me had he found me asleep in this form.
Then I had a sickening realization. Suddenly in a panic, I raced down the side of the tree as fast as I could and straight toward the sliding glass window in the back of my house. I'd left a wolf in the backyard with a house full of deer, and not warned them.
I pressed my face against the glass and peered through, a feeling of relief washing over me. I saw Grace curled up on the sofa bed watching cartoons on the television. Maxine and Jon were both standing in the kitchen. He was talking on the phone and Maxine was impatiently tapping her fingers across the counter. I tapped at the window.
Grace looked up from the TV and in my direction. A smile shot across her face and she shouted, "Mommy!" pointing at me.
Maxine and Jon both looked up. Jon said something into the phone and hung up while Maxine raced across the living room. She threw open the door and said, "Brian! Where have you been? We've been looking for you for hours!"
I shrugged my furred shoulders and pointed at my throat. She sighed. "Sorry, I forgot you don't use vodors like that. Why don't you go put some clothes on. I'll get something for you to eat."
I nodded and ran quickly back to my room.
I checked my watch again as the traffic jam inched forward. My little campout had already let me oversleep, and now I was really late for my meeting with Dr. Bob.
I hated being late.
Jon and I had looked over the backyard after I filled them in on the nights events. He definitely smelled the traces of the guys scent from the spot that I watched him, so it wasn't my imagination. More than that, something clicked in his head. "This is the same person that followed us last night!" he had said.
I knew for sure that I wanted to talk to this guy now, but I didn't want to do it alone. I wanted to wait until we were both at the Pig. I also wanted to talk to Wanderer about this first. He was the closest thing that pack had to a leader. If something was going on, he either knew about it or could find out in a hurry.
I pulled my car into the hospital parking lot, over an hour late for my meeting. I jogged into the lobby and managed to grab an elevator up to the 7th floor, where his office was. When I got there, I found a short note on the door. Brian, I'm in Paula's room. 536. Bob.
Snatching the note off the door, I jogged down the two flights of stairs and quickly found the room. Bob leaning against the back wall of the private hospital room, his eyes closed. Paula was laying on the bed, still unmoving. The quiet hum of equipment filled the tiny room.
"Bob? How is she?" I asked quietly.
His eyes slowly came open. He probably hadn't slept much the night before. Then I realized that he was still wearing the same clothes. He had never left the hospital last night. He yawned and pointed at the door, indicating for me to close it. As I turned back, he handed me a clipboard.
I took it and started reading it over. I knew just enough general medicine to confuse myself reading some of this, but the basics were clear. Her blood pressure was low, her liver was almost non-functional and she was still in a coma.
I frowned and looked at him curiously. All he did was point at the stiff plastic chair on the other side of the room. I shrugged and walked over to it, sitting down heavily. By the time I'd turned around again, Bob was gone. In his place was his homely young son, Robby, draped in his fathers suit.
It took my mind a couple of seconds to make the connection. "Oh my God. You're Bob! Robby isn't your son, he's you! What...? How...?"
The child grinned a little and pulled another stiff chair over. "It's a long story, Brian. A long and twisted story. I think that you can figure out at least a little bit of it."
I stared at him dumbly, then another light clicked on. "Barnes. You were that kid on TV before the election. How did you pull that off?"
He smiled a little more, "Every magician needs to have a few secrets." Then his expression changed, becoming very serious for a face so young. "But I've had a lot of problems since then." he pointed at the clipboard. "I had to be like this to read that. To write on it, too. My equine side can't do it."
"Who else knows?" I asked, suddenly in a whisper.
"Derksen knows, and a few others. It's not common knowledge."
My eyebrows went up. "Wait a minute. You're a practicing physician. How can you do that, not read, and keep this a secret?"
He shrugged. "I haven't really been a physician for a long time. I've been a researcher for years. In the lab, I can slip into this form and do work without much problem, as long as I have an assistant I can trust. True, I still see the occasional patient, but my workload is light enough that I can manage. With help." He added after a short pause.
I leaned my head back against the wall. I knew what he was getting at. "I'm sorry about last night. I don't know what got into me."
Bob cinched up the now incredibly loose white coat. "Don't think about that. It was a bad day. I learned a long time ago not to hold people to a bad day." He pushed himself straight on the chair. "But I did want to talk to you about something. Do you mind me being honest with you?"
I smiled. "It seems like your doing that already. But go ahead."
"You're in trouble, serious trouble. I don't care if you want it, but you're going to get help."
I let my breath out slowly. "Bob, I'm sorry for how I acted last night, but I meant what I said. I don't want any help."
"I meant what I said, too. I don't care. You're going to get it." He sighed and closed his eyes, "How long did you go it alone?"
"Since the beginning. I've done pretty well, too."
He opened his eyes, nodding. "You did. But you're back to square one, and you've got people who want to help you. Not because they feel guilty. They want to help because they care about you."
"I know that. It's just... I don't know. I'm not used to accepting things graciously."
He cracked a smile. "Then it's about time you started. But we're not talking about something tangible. We are going to offer our help. Now, you can make this easy and go with it, or make it hard and we'll force help you." He grinned, "It's your choice."
I held up my hands in defeat, then I looked over at Paula. "How is she?"
The smile vanished. "No change. We've got the Haldistane out of her system, so she's out of the woods. She's lucky, In a way. Her kidneys and lungs are okay. But her liver is shot to hell."
"Can she get a transplant?"
Bob shook his head. "No. SCABS don't get them as a rule. It's almost impossible to find a donor. We'd have to find one who was as much bear as she is, and that's not easy."
I stood up and walked over to the bed. She looked so pitiful like this. Her skin ashen. "She almost did it. She would have done it. Because of me."
Bob walked to the other side of the bed. "Not because of you. In a twisted way, she thought she was doing it for you. There's a difference. Severe depression does that to people. She thought that you and the world would be better off without her."
I ran my fingers through her hair. "Why, Bob? Why did you start treating her? She tried to drive you out of medicine. Hell, out of the city."
He shrugged. "I don't think that she was ever as bad as we thought. A lot of what we saw was media spin by some of Barnes staff. True, she was a part of that staff, but she was really a mouthpiece." He leaned over and checked some of the monitoring equipment, "When she got SCABS, she panicked. I guess that I was the first person that she thought of. Regardless of what she said about me in the media, she knew I was the person to see."
I smiled. "You were the kind of kid that nursed injured birds back to health, weren't you?"
He smiled and nodded. "I'm a sucker for a hard luck case. It seems that you are, too." He looked up at the clock. "Visiting hours are about to start. We'd better get out of here before her brother comes in."
"He's coming to see her? I thought he wanted her dead."
Bob shook his head. "I don't know that he'll be here, but the duty nurse said that he indicated he'd come in as soon as he could. He still loves her, in his own sick and twisted way. He honestly thinks that she's better off."
"Maybe seeing her like this," I swept my hand over the monitors and IV's "will bring him to his senses."
Bob sighed grimly, "We can always hope. Let me slip into my older self and head upstairs. We, Derksen and I that is, have an idea to get you back on your feet." I watched in fascination as his form refilled out the clothes around his body. He adjusted the twists and knots in the cloth as he finished changing back and headed out the door with me on his heels.
Dr. Bob may be a world class researcher with more awards than I have socks, but he's a lousy judge of timing. We were about halfway down the hall when Mr. Harvey Packard rounded the corner, accompanied by an ICU nurse.
I didn't know Harvey Packard beyond a name and a general description. I assumed that Paula probably had pictures of her older brother, but she'd never shown them to me, and he had never entered my office. From what I did know about him, a card carrying member of "Humans First" and a man that wanted to cut off his own sisters life support, I'm not sure what I expected to see. A greasy man who looked and dressed like the stereotypical used car salesman? A man too handsome for words that somehow looked like he'd stepped off a "Hitler Youth" poster?
What I saw was a man who was totally non-descript. He could easily fit into a crowd and get lost. Average height, slightly heavier than average weight and a hairline retreating faster than Pickett at Gettysburg combined to make this guy look so normal that I actually almost didn't notice him as he came around the corner.
But Dr. Bob did see him, and did know him. I saw the slight hesitancy of his step as he saw the man round the corner, as if the good doctor wanted to find a place to stash his oversized form while this guy passed. That was my first indication that this guy was someone to notice. Bob turned his head to me and nodded ever so slightly in the approaching mans direction. That's when I realized who I was looking at.
Packard saw Bob almost instantly; He'd have had to be blind to miss him. His own step slowed as we approached. The look that he gave Bob was hard to read, and there seemed to be a lot of conflict under the surface. There was some hatred there, that was to be sure, but there was something... softer. It was a study in contrasts.
I felt a slight chill as that expression moved toward me. We were almost abreast when he apparently realized that I was there at all. At first, the look was relatively blank, like I wasn't really there. Then a light seemed to flash on behind his eyes.
That's when I realized that he knew who I was.
The four of us passed in the hallway only moments later. No words were spoken, no gestures made. The entire encounter lasted perhaps five or ten seconds. But somehow I knew that I'd be seeing him again.
"I know what you two are trying to do, but I can't accept this."
Bryan leaned back in his chair a little, his mandibles moving in frustration. Bob, for his part, was thrumming his child-like hands across the desk. "You are a hard man to help, Brian."
I shrugged. "You knew that when you set out to try. I appreciate what you are trying to do, but this isn't what I want. I never did."
I looked at the hastily prepared proposal again. It wasn't much, really, a job description, offered with no strings. Under it, I'd come to work for Bryan in his research department indefinitely.
Bryan sighed, "What is it? The money? The time? What? There is room for adjustment."
I laughed. "Bryan, you're offering me more money for less work that I've had in years. I'd have to be a fool to pass this up." I leaned over and slid the paper across his desk, "and I guess you can just call me a fool."
Bob seemed to consider a moment. "Then why won't you take it?"
"First of all, I'm not qualified to assist in a lab like this, and the both of you know it. I don't hold an MD, and frankly I'm too old to go back to school for one now. On top of that, if I had wanted to do research, I'd have done it years ago."
A look passed between Bob and Bryan. Bob shrugged and turned back to me. "I guess we didn't think about that. Are you sure that you won't consider it?"
I paused before I answered. I was passing up a chance to put myself on relative easy street. "I'm sure. It's not me. I fought long and hard to get where I was, to make a name for myself in a profession I loved. I don't really want to give up on it now. Not yet."
There was a chirp from the intercom on Bryan's desk. He reached over and pushed a button, "Yes?"
The clear voice of his assistant came through. "Dr. Derksen, Mr. Packard wants to speak to you."
Derksen cast a quick look at Bob, who was already shedding his human look for his more well known equine one. He pressed the button again, "Give us just a minute, Maria."
While Bob adjusted his clothes around his form, I stood. "I guess I should be going."
Bryan considered a moment. "No, why don't you stay. The least we can do is buy you lunch." He tapped his insectile hand on the desk a moment in thought, "Besides, don't you want to meet Packard?"
In truth, I didn't. My one brief meeting with the man chilled me. But curiosity got the better of me. "I suppose."
With Bob safely in his equine form, Bryan tapped the intercom again. "Maria, you can send him back." he clicked off the phone. "Brian, can you unlock the door?"
I reached over and flipped the lock just as he barreled through the door. I pulled my hand away in surprise as the edge of the door smacked it. He turned straight at Bob and Bryan with a defiant look on his face. "I want you two to know that I've gotten a lawyer. I'm going to get those machines disconnected if it takes ten years."
If Packard expected a rise out of the two doctors, he was disappointed. Bob, for his part, just stared at the man with a blank expression, his arms crossed across his chest. Bryan leaned back slightly in his chair, a move that made him look more at ease, even if it was actually uncomfortable. "Mr. Packard, in ten years, this coma will probably be a distant memory. There is every reason to believe that she'll be out of this..."
Packard pointed a finger accusingly, "Don't give me that! I don't believe you! You just want to bandy about her name, now that she has SCABS! You don't care if she's suffering, as long as she's alive!"
"Mr. Packard," said Bryan in a calm, controlled voice, "she is not suffering. She's not brain dead. In fact, even if I wanted too, I couldn't disconnect her from the machines. She has not met any legal definition of death that I have ever heard of."
It was clear that Packard wasn't really listening. He had his mind set. "She started suffering the moment she got the flu. If she'd been thinking clearer, it would never have gone this far in the first place. Why would anyone want to live like that?"
I stared at the back of his head, stunned. I couldn't figure out if he'd intentionally insulted the three of us, or if he really believe that. Bryan leaned forward in his desk a little, "When euthanasia of SCABS patients becomes common practice, I'll let you know. Until then, this conversation is over."
I didn't think that Packard was lost for words, but more that he had run out of things to say. He turned to leave, and his eyes fell on me again. He'd apparently not noticed me as he came through the door. "You should have just stayed out of her life, you freak." He hissed. With that, he stomped out the door.
The three of us looked at each other for a few seconds before I forced a smile. "Charming fellow. I'm sorry I didn't invite him to my last party."
Bryan nodded, "I'm sure that everyone would have loved him. I'm just not sure he'd survive the night. But, now you know what we have to deal with." Bryan tapped the intercom again, "Marie, can you come in here a minute?"
A few seconds later, a very pretty young woman came in, "Yes, Doctor?"
"We're headed out to lunch in a sec. Can you make sure that the ICU pages me if there is any change?"
"Will do. Anything else?"
"Uh, no. Just keep an eye on those samples we're running." Maria nodded and left. Bryan shifted his gaze to me. "Let's grab some lunch."
As much as I loved the place, I don't think anyone would claim that the food at the Blind Pig was good. It was edible, barely. But you didn't go to a place like this because you wanted a five course, four star meal. You went because you weren't stared at. You weren't relegated to a table in the back. Your waiter didn't drop the food on the table and run.
Instead, the three of us sat at a table near the back of the room by choice. We ordered lunch at chatted with each other and some of the others in the late lunch crowd. By this time, the word about my office had gotten around to just about everyone, and I had a lot of people give their condolences. It was like having a death in the family.
In a way, it was.
Through lunch, I kept looking over in the direction of the table of the Lupine Boys. There were a couple of them over there, but neither of the two that I wanted to talk to. Bob and Bryan eventually noticed my looks across the room. Bryan nodded in the direction of the table, "Waiting for someone?"
I tapped my fingers a second, deciding whether or not to involve them. Finally, I said, "Yeah, I am. I need to talk to Wanderer about something. It's.. it's not important."
Bob gave me a funny look and tapped me on the arm, then pointed to one of the darkened booths in the back. It was hard to make him out in the dim lights, but there was Wanderer, partly hidden by the heavy wooden partition between the booths. As my eyes fell on him, there was a jerk of motion. He'd been caught staring at me.
Now I was even more curious. I stood and picked up my Coke. "I need to talk to him. You mind?"
They both shook their head. Bryan asked, "Is something wrong?"
I shrugged as I started walking over, "I hope not."
I took a sip of my drink as I walked. Wanderer started tapping his foot nervously, and he seemed to be avoiding my gaze. It was almost like he was hoping I wouldn't notice him in the back. Eventually, it became clear even to him that I wasn't veering off, and he looked right at me. The worried expression on his face changed instantly into a broad grin, showing his obvious stage talents. He slipped easily into his best British accent, "If it isn't the good doctor. How are you this fine afternoon?"
I smiled thinly and slipped into the seat opposite him. "You can drop the act, I saw you before I came over. What's wrong?"
The smile didn't waver. "What do you mean? Nothings wrong."
"Come on. I'm serious. It's been a really bad couple of days, and I don't want to play games."
His expression went flat, and now he stared at his glass. "It's my fault, Brian. I wasn't thinking..."
I had a horrible suspicion what he was about to say, but I wanted him to say it. "What? What's your fault?"
He pulled at the fur on his arm, "Paula. If I hadn't said all those things right in front of her..."
This wasn't the confession that I'd feared. I cut him off, "Wait a minute. You think that what Paula did is your fault? Why?"
He sighed, "Everything that I said to you, I knew she could hear it. I didn't care at the time, I was mad. Surprised. My mouth was moving faster than my brain."
I closed my eyes and leaned my head back on the wooden partition. "Don't beat yourself up. Nobody saw it coming. I didn't. If anyone should have seen it, then it was me."
He shook his head, "You had a lot on your mind. You couldn't be expected to catch everything."
I looked him straight in the eye. "Just like you did. Look, I know that you're sorry, but you did mean what you said." He started to protest but I stopped him. "You didn't say anything that I didn't say to her when I first realized who she was. She expected it. Paula knew that she'd have to deal with it. She didn't expect to be treated well just because of what she was. She was hoping to build trust and recreate her reputation in some small way. There just wasn't time."
Wanderer shrugged sullenly, "How's she doing?"
"Our roach friend over there seems to think she'll do okay. She's not awake yet. But he thinks that she'll come out of it any time now." I thought a second. I needed to change the subject, but I didn't know how to do it nicely. "Wanderer? You remember the night that we met? The other wolf that you came in with that night?" I snapped my fingers a couple of times, trying to trigger the memory of his name, but failing.
He looked at me curiously. "Lupe? Uh, sure. What about him?"
"Do you know where he was last night?"
Wanderer looked at me curiously a second, then let out a large breath as his head fell forward, grinning. "Oh no, he didn't."
I stared at him, perplexed. "Didn't what?"
"He was following you last night, wasn't he? That's why you're asking about him, right?" he said, now grinning widely.
I nodded, not yet returning the smile. "He was. I found him in my backyard last night staring at my house. He scared the hell out of me!"
The smile faded a bit. "You mean he never even told you? Oh, of course, or you would be asking. He wanted to keep an eye on you after your place get hit. He feels like he owes you."
Despite the suspicions I carried when I sat down here, I didn't question Wanderers word. I'd never known him to lie to me. I felt a huge weight lifted from my shoulders, though. "Thank God it's only that. I thought that someone was after me. Why does he think he owes me?"
He took a few laps from his drink and looked up, "Because you helped him when he was hurting. Lupe's not the brightest guy I know, but he remembers what people do for him. I daresay that you have a friend for life. But I'll have him talk to you when I see him next."
I pondered that a moment. In all the time that I'd been coming here since that first night, I don't think I'd said more than "hello" to him. But he remembered a small act of kindness, and was willing to go to a great length to repay it.
I smiled and shook my head. There's hope for this world after all.
Wanderer glanced up, "Dr. Bob! Dr. Derksen! I haven't seen you two in a while. What have you been up too?"
I looked up to see both Bob and Bryan moving toward the table. Bob waved his hand in the air in some gesture that seemed to get across the idea of nothing special. Bryan's insectile expression never wavered, as if it could. "Oh, the same old stuff. Just scurrying around darkened kitchens at night. You?"
He bowed slightly in his seat, "I've been acting the part of the Big Bad Wolf of late."
I smiled, "On or off stage?"
"Well, a little of both." he grinned back.
Bryan tapped his cell phone on the table top a moment, "Brian, I think we'd better get back to the hospital."
My smile faded, "What is it? Is Paula awake?"
He shook his head. "No. It's her brother. The duty nurse from the ICU called me. She's getting worried about him."
"Has he tried something?" I asked as I stood up.
"Not yet, but Claire has been around a long time. She's got a real sixth sense about these things. We'd better go."
We were back at the hospital in just a few minutes, now with Wanderer in tow. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't convince him that it wasn't his fault what had happened. He wanted to see her, to apologize.
It seemed that guilt was flowing in abundance around the city the last few days.
The four of us came into the ICU ward to find the head nurse waiting. "Doctors! I'm glad to see you. I was about to call security. He's acting really odd."
Bryan took the clipboard as we passed, "Has she improved at all?"
"Her pressure is up, but she's still out."
Bryan paused near the door and turned to the rest of us. "Can you two wait out here. No offence, but he doesn't know you Wanderer, and he doesn't seem to like you, Brian."
Reluctantly, the two of us agreed and leaned against the wall near the door. It was one of those times I was glad to have these ears. As long as I pointed my head toward the door, I could hear the conversation.
I heard Bryan tell someone, "You can leave, now." Seconds later a young nurse stepped out of the room. "Mr. Packard. How are you this afternoon?"
There was a pause, "I want you two out of here and away from her. I want another doctor for her."
There was another pause, "You'll have to go to the hospital administration for that. He's her doctor of record." I assumed he meant Dr. Bob. "But it won't change anything. I can guarantee you that you'll never find a doctor at this hospital that will disconnect the hepatic bypass and nutrition of a woman with full brain activity who has been in a coma less that 24 hours."
The response was quick and angry, "Then I'll take her elsewhere."
"You can't. She's an intensive care patient, and she's not leaving without orders from the administration."
"Then I'll go to the administration." A few seconds later, Packard rushed out the door. He never looked left or right, but went straight to the elevator, got in and went down.
Wanderer and I looked at each other a second then walked into the room. Bryan was checking the monitors again while Bob ran his massive hand over her forehead gently.
Wanderer stopped at the door, looking more than a little sick. "Oh my God, what did I do?"
I took him by the arm, "We've been through this, it wasn't anything to do with you. Come in here and talk to her."
He took a few tentative steps forward. "But, she's..." his voice trailed off as he searched for the right word.
Bryan looked up from the monitors he was checking, "Sometimes coma patients can hear when people talk to them. Try it."
He finally came alongside Bob. "What do I say?"
I put my hand on hid shoulder. "Tell her the truth."
We all stood off to the side while he did just that. He never mentioned her past, the times that she had tried to do so much too all of us. I don't think that he really forgave her for what she'd done in her past, but he did feel genuinely bad for what he felt he had done.
He spent fifteen minutes by her bedside, quietly, poetically, talking.
An hour later, only Bob and I remained in the hospital room. Bryan had been called back to his lab to check on some time critical materials and Wanderer had gone home. Before he left, he made sure that he'd be called if she woke up. He wanted to talk to her when she could respond. That left the two of us, Bob leaning against the wall next to the window and me sitting in a chair at the foot of the bed.
Bob was forced to stay in his mute, equine form for the moment. It was the time for the shift change and rounds, and we couldn't be sure to be left alone. It would have been too difficult to explain a six year old child in the room. We could have gone up to his office, but neither of us really wanted to leave her side. Her pressure was continuing to rise, slowly. It was possible that she would wake up any moment. We settled into a waiting game, looking at the clock, the monitors and at each other.
An authoritative shout from down the hallway brought us back to the present. "Sir! Visiting hours are over! You can't..." the voice trailed off.
I looked at Bob who was looking back at me. I heard pounding steps from down the hall, coming closer. Curious, I started to stand up when the frame of Harvey Packard defiantly walked through the door.
But now he had a gun.
I was on my feet in a second, "What do you think..." I never got a chance to finish my question. He pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger one time.
I've heard people say that you can get shot and not feel the pain. For a split second, that was true. I felt my shoulder twist back and the bullet passed through. I lost my balance and sat heavily on the chair.
Bob started to move forward, but Packard stopped him. "Stand back, freak! I'm not letting you or that damn cockroach decide what happens to my sister!" He started hurriedly looking over the monitors and dials, apparently trying to decide which ones to turn off.
I could feel myself slipping. The combination of fear, anger and pain was beginning to force my transformation. I fought hard for control. "Packard, don't..." I managed to croak out.
He looked back at me with a wild look, "Shut up! I'll be happy to put you out of your misery, too!"
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Bob inching forward. I kept my gaze on Packard. "It won't work, Packard." I wheezed, "The only thing that you'll do by turning those off is turn off her liver functions. She won't die quickly, it'll be slow and painful."
He pulled back the hammer on the old pistol. "I told you to shut up. You're nothing but a worthless, lying SCAB. You people have this entire hospital wrapped around your finger. What gives you the right to force her to live like this? You'll do anything to keep her alive so you can use her. To sully her good name with your damned filth!"
I gritted my teeth against the searing pain in my shoulder, even as I started to feel it alter. "Nobody is exploiting her..." That's when my voice left me.
Things happened fast at that point. My voice abruptly altered to a very raccoon like chitter, which seemed to surprise Packard momentarily. Bob took that moment to make his move, tackling the crazed man before he knew what hit him. The gun went off one more time, shattering the window to the room. Three guys in security uniforms raced into the room and grabbed Packard.
The last thing that I remembered was letting go of the concentration and feeling my body flow away.
At least I wasn't dead.
That was my first thought as I slowly opened my eyes. I didn't know exactly what it was I was looking at, but I didn't think death looked like this.
Through half opened eyelids I tried to decipher what I saw. There seemed to be an opaque screen across my vision. Through it, I saw the vague outlines of colored lights and cables. Something clicked in my head, and I realized that I was looking through a thick sheet of clear plastic.
I groggily turned my eyes to the left and right, seeing walls of clear plastic on either side of me. I slowly realized that I was laying on my stomach in some sort of a crib. It was only then that I realized that I could see the small muzzle in my field of vision. I'd stayed a raccoon after getting shot.
I started to raise my head and tried to look around, but I felt a hand on the back of my neck. "You're awake." I heard a voice say simply. "Are you okay?"
I groggily nodded as I recognized the voice. It was Maxine.
I tried to turn my head to see her better, but I heard her voice again. "Shshshsh... Stay still. I need to let Dr. Derksen know that you're awake." The hand came off my head and she walked away.
My mind started to clear a little. I'd probably been given anesthesia at some point, and it was only now beginning to flush out of my system. There was a dull, throbbing pain in my left shoulder. I moved one of my clawed hands to my face and rubbed it lightly.
I heard footsteps behind me, and Maxine and Jon were now beside me. Jon lowered his face into my field of view, and I could see the concern etched in his eyes. "Are you okay?"
Wearily, I nodded. I wished that I could talk. I wanted to ask some questions. How long had I been out? How hurt was I? Most importantly, how was Paula?
I heard more footsteps into the room, and another voice. "He's awake?"
Jon looked toward the door and nodded as he stood. Now I saw Bryan kneel down on one side of me and Bob on the other. "Glad to see you're okay. I want to tell you right off to stay like that. I know that you probably want to make yourself human, but you're hooked up to about half the instruments in the ward at the moment. We'll at least need to take them off first."
He checked a few monitors and seemed satisfied, then turned back to me. "Well, first things first, you're going to be all right. It was pretty much a flesh wound. The bullet did nick your scapula, but we removed the bone fragment. We'll want to keep a close eye on that when you come back to human. Other than that, you'll be fine."
He paused. "Paula is awake."
That brought me to full wakefulness. I wanted to talk to her, but it would be tough right now. Bryan continued, "She wants to talk to you pretty badly. As soon as we get you disconnected, we'll be able to take you in."
An hour later, the crib I was sitting it was pushed into Paula's room. She was sitting up now, though her skin still slightly ashen. Despite being out for a couple of days, she looked like she hadn't slept in a month. She was still hooked up to some monitors, as well as the hepatic bypass device, but she was awake.
Bob brought the crib next to the bed and lowered it to put me at her level and left. She smiled at me, "Brian. I'm glad to see that you're all right, even if you are a bit fuzzier. They told me what happened."
"I'm sorry about what Harvey did. He was a good man, like I was, once." She sighed, "I told him a number of times that I'd rather be dead than live like this." she said as she swept her hand over her brown furred legs, "But that's easy to say when you don't have to actually face the end."
She sighed gently and reached a hand out, scratching the spot between my ears. "I'm sorry for what I put you, everyone, through." She chuckled a little, "It seems like everyone is blaming themselves for what I did. Dr. Bob, Derksen, that wolf from the other morning... what was his name? Wanderer. You. It's none of your faults, Brian."
Paula got a faraway look in her eyes. "The moment I saw your office, I knew that it was because of me. I didn't want to admit it, but what Wanderer said made me face facts. I think that I was already coming to that conclusion, it just came a little fast for me."
"I can't believe what I tried to do. If it wasn't for you, I wouldn't be alive. Thank you."
Not sure how to communicate like this, I nuzzled her hand gently. Then, still groggy from the anesthetic in my system, I fell asleep.
By the evening, I was human again, or at least as much as I could manage normally. The transformation had pulled the stitches out around my wound, but an intern expertly sutured them back up. At that point, I had to give a statement to the police about Packard. According to the detective in charge, he didn't regret what he'd done. In fact, he was angry that he'd been stopped.
The thought that he might have been behind the arson occurred to me, and I asked the detective about it. "Dr. Coe, if I had to put money on it, I'd say you're right. But we have no evidence. He may not have done it, or he could have hired it done. Unless we get a witness or he confesses, we'll never get a conviction. The fact is, most arsons are never solved with physical evidence alone."
That had been a frustrating realization, but I was heartened by the fact that he'd be spending a long time in jail for what we knew he'd done.
I stayed with Paula until the end of visiting hours. Bob let me know that she'd probably be able to leave the hospital in a week or two, but she'd probably spend the rest of her life on twice weekly liver treatments.
I still wanted her on my staff, or really as my staff, but at the moment I didn't have anyplace to practice. Who knew when that would happen, if ever.
Jon and Maxine were waiting downstairs with a cab. A couple of hours later, we were home.
Three nights later, I was sitting next to Grace in the living room watching an ancient Disney cartoon on the DVD player. Jon and Maxine, at my insistence, had gone out for their delayed night on the town. They deserved it.
I heard a knock at the door and answered it, finding Dr. Bob in his younger "Robby" form. I laughed, "Well, young man, what are you doing here?"
He smiled in return, "Just thought I'd drop by. Are you home alone?"
"No, I'm watching Grace. Jon and Maxine are out. Come in."
I led him into the living room. Grace's eyes lit up when she saw him, "Hi Robby!"
He walked over and rubbed the short hair between her ears, "Hi Grace, whatcha watching?" He said, mimicking the behavior that went with his young body.
"Bambi..." she said quietly.
Bob rolled his eyes and looked at me with a grin. "Whose bright idea was it to buy her Bambi?"
I laughed, "Don't blame me! Maxine said that she'd seen it about 50 times before all this happened. Now it's about all she watches."
We left Grace with the movie and went to the kitchen table. Bob fished something out of his pocket as he sat down and tossed it lightly to me. I held them up in my hands, finding a pair of dull silver keys. I looked at him questioningly. "What are these?"
"Don't tell me that you've never seen keys before." he said with a glint in his eye.
Now it was my turn to roll my eyes. "You know what I mean."
He leaned back, looking for all the world like a mischievous kid who'd just hidden a frog in the teachers coffee mug. "They're for your new office." he said simply.
I frowned and looked at the keys again, "What?"
His smile widened. "You may or may not realize it, but I own a number of properties around this city. One of them is the Shetland Shopping Center on Peach Street. The large key there is for the front door to unit 445-D, the small one for the back door. It's yours."
I looked at the keys again, and then started to hand them back. "I can't take these. It's too much."
He continued as if I hadn't said anything, "Wait until you see it. It's not much more than your old place, but it's in good shape. It was a chiropractor's office until three months ago, but she went bust. You can start moving in tomorrow if you'd like."
"Bob," I repeated, "It's too much! I can't take this!"
He gave me another mischievous look. "Quick question for you, Brian. What are you never supposed to do with a gift horse?"
Leaning back in the chair, I asked, "Look it in the mouth?"
"Bingo!" he exclaimed. "And since you're no dentist, I'm not going to have you start poking around my teeth. Besides that, if you try to refuse this, you'll have to look in Derksens mouth in the morning, and I can tell you that ain't pretty."
A twinge of emotion rolled through me, but I couldn't think of what to say. All I managed was a small, "Thank you." It seemed completely inadequate.
Bob just nodded his small head, "Anytime. I hate to give and run, but I need to get home. Look, why don't you meet my over at that place tomorrow at that office for lunch at noon? You'll need to fill out some paperwork, anyway."
Numbly, I nodded. "455-D Peach?"
"445. I'll see you at noon. I'll show myself out." he said as he slid off the kitchen chair and walked out the front door.
Still in a bit of a daze, I walked back to the couch and sat next to Grace. She'd slipped back into her fawn form again and adjusted herself to rest her head in my lap. She lay there quietly as I patted her on the neck. Soon, she drifted off to sleep.
After a while, I quietly stared at the keys. They glinted softly in the light of the television. Not for the first time, I thought about the roller coaster that had been the last few days. On that cool morning just a few days ago, I thought that I'd lost everything.
Now as I stared at the two pieces of dull metal, I realized what they meant. I hadn't lost everything.
I'd lost nothing.
An old saying said that no man was poor who had friends.
I closed my fingers slowly around the keys.
I was a very rich man.
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