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A Site for Sore Eyes
by Bob Stein
Bob Stein -- all rights reserved

"No, Ma'm. This isn't a joke. I am simply trying to get the price of a good used pho... Dammit!" Bob slammed the phone down, even though he'd already been hung up on. "Phoropter! Phoropter, phoropter, phoropter! It took me a half hour to figure out how to pronounce it without any front teeth, and now I can't get anyone to stay on the line long enough to say it!"

Paula turned away, managing to stifle all but a soft snort. Bryan didn't bother to hide his chuckle. "They just don't realize the market potential of kindergarten students." He grinned, and then had to dodge a pencil thrown by the 5 year-old in question.

"This is serious, you refugee from a roach motel!" Bob flopped back in the chair, frustrated. "I figure we have a few days left, maybe a week tops to locate some equipment. We both know that loans just aren't available for SCABS in Brian's situation. And as much as I'd like to just write a check, he isn't going to accept that much even as a personal loan. I had enough trouble getting him to take the office space!"

Bryan nodded. "I think we've pulled all the strings we can pull with the local banks. Besides, even you can't stroke a check for the amount of money we're talking about." He picked up a catalog and waved it at the boy. "Six thousand for a phoropter. Another five or ten thousand for stuff like keretometers, slit lamps, tonometer, and other basics. Hell, I can't even figure out what half this stuff is."

Sighing, Bob clasped his hands together and placed them behind his head. He was getting a harsh lesson in reality. Up to now, he hadn't realized how much his influence had dwindled in recent years. Oh, he could still get pretty much anything he needed for himself, and his personal finances were strong. Even his original SCABs form had retained most of his original social and professional status.

Then Barnes had come along. A murderer and rapist who knew how to turn fear and hatred into power. Unfortunately, retaliation for one of his more brutal crimes had given him the appearance of a young boy. A beautiful child with the soul of a monster. The public saw only the angelic face, not the evil behind it. Bad enough that they let him get away with murder, despite taped evidence. Barnes had almost become Mayor.

Conventional means had failed to stop the bastard's rise in popularity. So Bob had resorted to a risky plan. Transformed by the same SCAB who had regressed Barnes, he had gone to work in Humans First headquarters as a teenage boy, hoping to find something incriminating. When nothing had come of that, a secondary transformation in front of television cameras had made Barnes look like a SCABS victim himself.

The resulting furor had cost Barnes the election. However, the second transformation had left Bob stuck as a five year-old. The red hair and homely features he now had were due to the need for disguise afterwards. It wasn't until later that he had discovered the true price of defeating Barnes.

Two months later, to be exact. He'd reverted to an equine morph form, much like the humanoid Shire he had preferred before the Barnes mess. Except that he was more bestial in both form and thought. His voice was that of a real horse, and some alteration of mind prevented him from comprehending any form of written language. He was lucky to have the alternate form of a child. As 'Robbie,' he retained all adult knowledge and skills, plus the otherwise unavailable ability to communicate.

Not that it had been much use. He had kept his 5 year-old form a secret to all but a select few, hoping to avoid being connected with the Barnes incident. Dr. Bob had become a silent presence to most of his friends and colleagues. The one-sided conversations had gotten shorter, and less frequent, until now almost all he ever got was a nod and a smile.

The reclusive life he had led since then had cost him professional stature, as well as much of the political influence he once enjoyed. Worse, he'd been cut off from friends who he really treasured. It wasn't until now, when he was trying to help a friend, that he realized just how expensive his defeat of Barnes had been.

A knock on the door startled him out of his reverie. They were using Paula's hospital room as a makeshift office, and it was past visiting hours. Robbie shouldn't be here. Shifting slightly in the chair, he willed the transformation that turned a little boy into a huge Shire morph. When he was done, Paula nodded and then said "Come in!"

"Greetings from the Blind Pig!" The door swung open to reveal a large, shaggy, and familiar form.

Bob and Bryan both blinked in surprise when they recognized Jack DeMule. The big mule morph was rarely seen away from the Blind Pig's piano. He clomped over to Paula's bed and presented her with a bunch of white carnations. "For the lady." He bowed with reasonable grace.

Bryan snorted. "You been taking lessons from Wanderer?"

"Well, I figured she might be tired of looking at you two." Jack managed to convey a grin despite having a snout almost as pronounced as Bob's. "And I brought along a portable keyboard..."

Bob looked at Bryan in alarm as Jack rummaged around in a large bag, presumably for the instrument. The insect morph sighed and shook his head. "Uh, Jack? As much as I like your playing, I don't think the hospital staff would appreciate an impromptu concert at this time of night."

"Just a couple of old favorites. I got a song book right here." Jack pulled out a bright yellow paper booklet and waved it at the others. "How about a chorus of 'Those Old Autorefractor Blues?' Or, 'Mary Had a Little Tonometer?'" He tossed the book at Bob, who just barely managed to catch it between his hoof-like hands.

Although he couldn't understand the markings on the cover, Bob was sure this wasn't a collection of music. His puzzlement was picked up by Jack, thanks to the limited telepathy Bob had with other equines.

The mule morph practically beamed. "Page 6. I have the corner folded."

Bob fumbled with the booklet, trying to look as if he were reading the document. After a studying the meaningless symbols for a moment, he heard Bryan clear his throat loudly.

The insect morph was shaking his head. "It would probably help the illusion if you were holding it right side up."

A momentary fumbling to correct the mistake halted when Bob realized the jig was up. Jack was staring at him. Dammit! All the efforts to hide the extent of his problems undone by an upside-down book. With a very heartfelt sigh, he managed a shrug.

"Shit! I don't believe it!" Jack suddenly closed his eyes and held up his hands. "Please. Just a second while I remove my hooves from my mouth. Hard to believe that I could get both in there at the same time."

Oh, what the Hell. Bob shifted to Robbie before Jack opened his eyes again. "Gee, Mr. DeMule. I figured you got room for lots of hooves in that mouth."

It was worth giving up his other secret for Jack's reaction. The mule-morph's mouth fell fully open, and there was no mistaking the shock in his huge brown eyes. And for the first time since Bob had known him, Jack DeMule was speechless.

Bryan broke the resulting silence. "Bob, I think you should take a look at what our good friend here has brought us."

The yellow cover was no problem to read now. 'Federal Surplus Property Disposal Notice.' Flipping to the marked page, Bob scanned the columns of announcements. "Radar oscilloscopes? Geiger counters. Just what am I supposed to be lo..." His voice trailed off as he read a long listing near the bottom. "Holy shit! Paula, take a look at this!" He handed the booklet to her, and then stared at the still-silent piano player in amazement. "How did you come up with this?"

"You're Robbie." Jack hadn't quite caught up with the rest of the conversation.

Bob rolled his eyes and turned to Bryan. "See? I told you he'd notice."

"Oh my God!" Paula's gasp caught his attention. "It's all here. Occluders, near-point targets, slit lamps. They even list a corneal topographical mapper. If we had that, fitting all the different shape eyes we get would be simple!" The her face fell. "It's a sealed-bid auction. They won't open the bids for a month. And you have to buy the whole lot. Even at a fraction of the market value, that much equipment is.."


Now it was Bob, Bryan, and Paula's turn to gape. Jack grinned, displaying a massive set of teeth. "You heard me right. As of 1:30 this afternoon, that entire lot of equipment belongs to Brian E. Coe, Ophthalmologist and Gentleman Raccoon. All we have to do is pick it up."

Bob groped for the chair, relieved that he found it before his spindly legs gave out. "But how? We've been trying for days..."

"What? Did you think you were the only ones who wanted to help? Or that all I could do was tinkle on the ivories?" Jack paused for moment. "Oh, I won't follow that one up."

Bryan groaned, a noise echoed by Bob and Paula as they caught the reference.

"Anyway", Jack continued, "I used to be with NASA. And I still know a lot of people in the Government. One of them remembered seeing a the contents of a recently closed Air Force base being put up for auction. Including the infirmary."

Bob nodded, and then cocked his head. "You still haven't answered the million-dollar question. How come it's free?"

Jack grinned even wider. "That's the best part. Brian took care of that himself. With all those people he's helped over the years, human and SCABS alike. A lot of them couldn't afford to pay for his services, but that never stopped him. He's always been free with charity himself, no matter how much he hates to take it himself.

"Well, guess what? That qualified him for special consideration under the Services Provider Act. A little piece of legislation that allows Uncle Sam to give things like surplus equipment to clinics and social services organizations."

Paula looked at the flyer again. "How soon can we make arrangements? This base is a thousand miles away. We'll have to find a moving company or something."

"A waste of effort, my dear." Jack looked at the wall clock. "Our transport, courtesy of Zoomin Beings, is on the road as we speak."

Bob shook his head. "They're in on this too? Who else is involved?"

"Everyone." The big mule morph was obviously enjoying himself. "Zoomin Beings provided the driver and the muscle. The truck is on loan from a friend of Donnie's. And expenses were raised at a sumptuous $50-a-plate extravaganza held last night at the Blind Pig. Personally, I thought I should have gotten more than the standard hot dog and warm soda, especially since I was part of the entertainment."

"We've been brainstorming here for five days. If I'd known..."

"We did come up a little short. Then I publicly offered to do a whole evening of puns as the rest of the night's entertainment, and we ended up going over the mark in three minutes flat." Jack shook his head. "Some people have no appreciation of great humor."

"Have you told him?" Bryan had gotten the list from Paula, and was checking it over. "He's gonna be hard to deal with. Silly, stupid pride."

"We don't want him to know. Not until everything is here and set up." The mule morph sighed. "We don't know what condition the stuff is in. It could be perfect, or it could be rusted junk. There was no time to have anyone check it out. We are taking a gamble. And there's no point in getting his hopes up. Besides, it will be a lot harder to refuse if everything is ready to go."

Bob raised an eyebrow. "How are you going to keep a secret like that? I suspect he'd notice someone carrying a phoropter through the front door of his office."

Jack shrugged. "We're going to be keeping him busy for the next two days. He'll have so much activity going on around him, he'll get dizzy trying to sort it all out. And he doesn't come to the Blind Pig very often. The key will be keeping him away from the office from Thursday night until Friday afternoon. Luckily, we have a volunteer to handle that part."

"Who?" Bob felt a growing sense of doom.

The mule morph snorted and looked pointedly at him. "That will teach you to miss staff meetings."

"Excuse me? I'm looking for Dr. Coe."

Brian turned wearily towards the speaker, a high-degree rhesus monkey-morph. The small figure was wearing loose coveralls with a hole cut in the seat for its tail, and carried a large wooden case. "Sorry. I'm not open for business yet."

He felt stupid as soon as he said that. It was painfully obvious that nothing could possibly be going on. Other than boxes of salvaged files, some folding chairs, and the phone which had just been connected that morning, the office was as empty as it was the day Dr. Bob had handed him the keys.

"Didn't say I wanted my eyes checked. Just looking for Dr. Coe. I assume that's you?" At Brian's nod, the monkey pulled piece of paper from his left pocket and handed it to him.

Shetland Vision Clinic, Dr. Brian Eric Coe, Optometry/Opthamology. "What's this?" Brian gave the fellow a quizzical look. "I mean, this is my name, but what's this about a Shetland Vision Clinic?"

"That's what I'm supposed to paint on the window." The fellow stuck out a small, dark hand. "Matt Stackhouse. Lettering and custom sign work."

Brian sighed and took the offered hand. "Sorry. I can't afford anything right now. To be honest, about the only sign I see going up in that window is one saying Space Available."

Stackhouse wasn't fazed a bit. "Already paid for. Part of the lease, don't cha' know? The owner sent me to get this done, and as long as the spelling is right, I'll get to work."

Shrugging, Brian handed the paper back. "It's OK with me, then." He thought for a moment. "Could you make that Eirik? That's E-I-R-I-K. Might as well spell it right."

"Eirik it is, then." With a curt nod, Stackhouse went back outside and began setting up.

While he appreciated the gesture, Brian hated to see Dr. Bob wasting more of his money. A week and a half of pounding the streets, practically begging on hands and knees to every financial institution he could think of, had turned up nothing. Oh, he could get a small loan. Enough to buy one small piece of equipment, or maybe furnish the waiting room and office. But no one would advance him the kind of money it took to set up a new practice.

Ironically, his habit of paying cash was one of the strikes against him. Although what credit records he had were unmarred by even a late fee, he'd never taken out any big loans. And he had little to offer in the way of collateral.

More frustrating was the knowledge that he was considered a bad risk because of how he'd lost his original office. Never mind that the person suspected of fire-bombing the place was behind bars now. It just wasn't good business to make an unsecured loan to someone with such dangerous enemies.

"Dr. Coe?"

This time, the intruder was a pretty Norm female. She stuck out her hand and smiled. "My name is Paula. I was told you could help me out."

After a moment, Brian shook her hand and wrinkled his muzzle in puzzlement. "Help you out? I'm afraid I'm not in a position to hire anyone right now. And I already have an office manager."

"Right! Paula, just like me!" She beamed. "Look, I'm sorta on paid leave from a temp agency, and I really need to practice up on my data entry. One of the fellows at the Blind Pig said you might let me start rebuilding your records for you. It would be great experience for me, and I'm already getting a full paycheck from the office. No charge, and I'll stay quiet and out of the way."

Brian stared at the girl, feeling a little annoyed. "More charity from Dr. Bob? Look miss, I really appreciate the offer, but.."

"I don't know any Dr. Bob." The girl seemed not to notice his attitude. "A very nice actor named Wanderer sent me here. And he said to tell you that if you refused, he'd stand outside your door and do scenes from Shakespeare all day."

Thankful that his fur covered most of his blushing, Brian gestured towards the boxes stacked in the corner. "Sorry. If you really want to mess with this stuff, everything I could salvage is over there. But I don't have a computer."

"No problem." Paula reached into the large tote bag slung over one shoulder and pulled out a black box. "I have my laptop. All I need is an outlet and one of those folding chairs."

Brian's answer was cut off by a sudden rumbling from the back. Looking out in the alley, he saw two men throwing lumber off a truck, creating a pile behind his office. "Hey! What's all this stuff? You can't just dump things at my back door!."

One of the men looked over at him. "The guy behind the wheel is calling the shots. If you wanna argue with him, be my guest. But I wouldn't recommend it."

The two people working inside were enough of an assault on his pride. Working up some anger, Brian stormed towards the front of the truck. "Look, bud! Just who do you think you are? This isn't a trash dump!"

The door swung open as he approached, and a huge, and familiar-looking bull morph stepped out. Brian blinked. The barkeep from the Blind Pig. "Donnie?"

The minotaur nodded and scribbled something on a large writing tablet, which he handed to Brian. 'Sorry for the mess. I'll clean up when I am done.'

"Done?" This was like being in some sort of cartoon. Every time he turned around, something else was happening. "Just what are you supposed to be doing?"

Donnie took the pad back and scribbled some more. 'Building shelves in the storage closet. And framing the receptionist window. Using scrap from a store renovation.'

"You're a carpenter?" Brian noticed a well-equipped tool belt around the minotaur's thick waist. "I mean, I thought you ran the bar?"

A shorter scrawl this time. 'My hobby.'

Knowing it was a losing battle, Brian sighed and threw his hands up. "OK, OK. Build whatever you want." Then he stopped feeling ashamed. "I'm sorry. Look, I'm not really sure if I'm gonna be able to open at all. I really appreciate your kindness, but you might wait a few days. No point in wasting your efforts."

One last scribble on the pad. 'It's my effort.' Donnie reached into the cab of the truck to pull out a large toolbox. Then he went to the back of the truck and started helping the two men sort lumber.

Brian watched them for a few minutes. As much as he deeply appreciated what these people were doing, he couldn't help feeling bitter and even more depressed than before. It wasn't enough that his own life was crumbling around him. Now all of these people were throwing away time and effort trying help a doomed project.

Turning abruptly, he started walking along the alley. Kicking an occasional pebble or can, he didn't stop when he reached the other end of the shopping center. Or the next block. Lost in a maze of despair and frustration, he didn't really pay any attention to where he was going. He just needed to walk.

And then he stopped. Blinking, Brian caught the acrid stench of burned wood and plaster. He was standing in front of his old office. The door and windows had been boarded up, the building condemned by the Fire Commissioner. There was nothing but a blackened shell.

He remembered the first day he had seen the place. A little smaller than he wanted, and filthy from being empty for several years. But it was in a pretty good location, and he could afford it. Over the years, he had fixed things up a little at a time, remodeling the lab, and adding a bathroom. New carpet for the reception area, and then a drop-tile ceiling. And just a year ago, fixing up his small office with paneling and built-in bookshelves.

It was hard to explain his attachment to the place to anyone else. Maybe because it was his first office. Or because so much of his life had centered around it. His eyes stung, and he felt a tightness in his throat. And finally, he let himself cry. Not for the loss of his practice, or the despair that threatened to engulf him. These tears were for the old friend that lay in crumbling ruins before him, and all of the good times and dreams that had died with it.

It was late afternoon when Brian finally got back to the office. As he got closer, he was surprised to see several cars parked in front. And there seemed to be a lot of activity inside. There were rolls of carpet on the sidewalk, and some painting equipment.

"Watch it, buddy!" An otter morph blocked the door before he could go inside. "Don't touch none of de' woodwork, OK? Wet paint."

'Ollie! That's Dr. Coe!" The Norm girl - Paula - stuck her head out through a receptionist's window that had magically appeared since he had walked off. "Sorry, Dr. Coe. There's been so many folks popping in, we had to limit access."

Brian stared at the reception area. In the few hours he had been gone, the floor had been carpeted, the walls painted, and the receptionist's window not only framed, but fitted with sliding glass windows. The carpet was done in an attractive pattern edged with solid borders.

"I hope you don't mind the design." Paula grinned. "They got some remnants donated from a couple of carpet stores, but there wasn't enough to cover the area with one piece."

"They?" Brian felt a little faint, but managed to remain steady.

"Oh, I'm sorry. A couple of people showed up right after you left. An Ostrich and a Tiger-morph. They had the carpet with them, and I thought you knew about it. I think they're back in the main lab with the electrician."

"Electrician?" Dazed, he headed for the back. As he passed the office door, he saw three other people sitting around a large folding table. They were busily typing on laptop computers, and didn't even seem to notice the owner of the records they were restoring.

The two carpet-layers were easy to spot. As Brian walked in, they were measuring the corner wall. A low-degree equine morph was cutting a hole in the wall. He assumed it was the electrician.

"Um..." All three turned to look at him. "I'm Dr. Coe. What's all this about?"

The equine morph snorted. "I'm here covering Stein's ass, so to speak. Silly bugger. The electrical service in this place was way under standard. Especially with the demand all of your equipment will place on it. I've added another line, and a dozen outlets. And we had some lighting fixtures left over from the Wal-Mart remodeling. I'll be putting them in tomorrow."

"But I can't pay for any of this!" Brian felt the frustration building up again. "Why are you doing all this work? I don't even know you!"

"Brad Pitt. And please, no comments. I am NOT the actor." Pitt grinned. "I think he ended up as a gender morph. Anyway, now you know me. And as for payment, I'm responsible for maintenance of all the shopping centers. Preparation of facilities for the new tenant. It's all in your lease. So, if you don't object to my doing my job, I'll get back to it."

Unable to think of anything to say, Brian stared for a moment, and then began walking around the rest of the offices. The steady pounding of a hammer drew him to the back fitting area, where Donnie was nailing up a support. The storage closet was visible behind him, the walls now covered by sturdy, if plain-looking shelving. Despite his dark mood, Brain couldn't help admiring the work. The shelves were partitioned and set up just right for storing contacts, frames, and the various supplies an optometrist would stock. Too bad they were going to stay empty.

The steady pounding of the hammer had stopped, and he turned to see Donnie looking at him. Brian managed a smile. "Nice work in there. I wish it was going to be put to use."

Donnie looked at him a moment, and then slid his hammer into the tool belt around his waist. Then he pulled out the pen and tablet and wrote something which he handed to Brian.

'Giving up before you even get started?'

He crumpled the paper in his hand. "What the Hell do you know about it? You think that some carpet and paint, or fancy shelves in a closet will turn this place into an optometrist's office? I can't give exams without equipment, and I can't buy equipment without a loan. Dammit, there are drug dealers, pimps, and politicians driving cars that cost more than what I need to rebuild my business!"

The minotaur just stared at him impassively. Brian sagged against the wall, anger spent. "God, I'm sorry. You're here to help. Everyone is here to help. It's just so frustrating for me. It seems like everyone can do something constructive but me."

Snorting, Donnie put the pad back down and pulled out the hammer. Which he handed to Brian. He positioned the next brace and looked expectantly at the raccoon morph.

Brian hefted the tool in his hand. "I have the distinct feeling I've just been told to shut up and get to work." A smile began to form, this time for real. "OK, boss. Guess it's time I joined my own team." He took an offered nail and positioned it where Donnie pointed. Maybe this was what he needed. Start with something small. Pounding a nail in a wall. The hammer struck true, driving the fastener in with a single blow.

There were other possibilities. Maybe he could find a partner. He didn't like the idea of sharing a practice, but half was better than none. Brian positioned the next nail and drove it in. Perhaps his hopes and dreams hadn't been burned away by the fire. They'd been salvaged and kept alive by the people around him. A third nail went in easily. He grinned at Donnie, starting to feel some confidence building up again. Things were definitely getting b-

Everyone in the office was surprised to discover how varied and loud the language of an optometrist could be, especially when he was dancing around the room shaking his hand.

"Read me another story, Uncle Brian!" Bob made a valiant attempt to find something in keeping with 'Robbie's' age, and failing that, dragged up one of the comic books he'd had his unwilling babysitter read last night.

"Not right now, Robbie. Go play with your cars, or something." The raccoon morph looked exhausted and bedraggled. Bob was having to fight his own fatigue, after staying up all night making sure that his prisoner didn't escape. For that's what Brian was, whether he knew it or not.

It had all started with a phone call to the optometrist's office yesterday afternoon. Paula had been very convincing in her story about Dr. Bob's sudden emergency. Of course, she and Bryan were in no position to take care of Robbie, and Dr. Bob was depending on his good friend Dr. Coe to watch the boy for just one night.

If Brian had known Bob better, he'd have suspected something was up. Bob wasn't the kind of person to impose on others, and he certainly would never take advantage of someone like this. Even knowing the real story, he felt guilty about strong-arming the raccoon morph so blatantly.

He snuck a look at the mantle clock. Just after 11 a.m. Damn! At least 3 or 4 more hours to go. Worse, Bob had no idea if the equipment was going to be usable, or even if it had arrived at all.

Unfortunately, Brian also looked at the clock. "Uh, look Robbie. I really need to go over to my office. There are a lot of people fixing it up for me, and I want to at least visit. Why don't we go for a ride?"

"No!" 'Robbie' put on his ugliest pout. "Daddy will be home soon, and I'm not supposed to go anywhere with strangers."

This argument had already been fought once this morning. Brian had suggested going out for breakfast, and they had actually gotten almost to the Shetland shopping center before Bob had realized where they were. Only a tantrum of major proportions had turned them back short of the clinic.

Brian probably figured that Robbie was a Class A brat. To his credit, the raccoon morph maintained his cool. A tight-lipped, strained cool, to be sure. But he had yet to raise his voice or his hand.

His babysitter sighed wearily. "Whatever. Why don't you watch TV or something? I'll just call in." Bob started to protest, but realized a five year old could push only so far. It was up to whoever answered he phone at the clinic to maintain the ruse.

Scuffing dutifully into the back room, Bob turned on the TV loud enough for Brian to hear, and then snuck back into the living room. The raccoon morph was already talking to someone about being stuck here.

"Believe me, I'd rather be smelling paint fumes than dealing with this problem child. I tried to stop by this morning, and he threw a real screaming fit. Hard to believe Dr. Bob would have a kid this wild."

Bob flushed a little, but stayed hidden behind the sofa.

"Are you sure everything is OK? I feel terrible not being there." Brian sounded a little annoyed. "Dr. Bob was supposed to be back a couple of hours ago." He listened for a minute. "Yeah, I'm sure he's OK. Probably just got tied up." A sigh. "Well, tell Donnie my thumb is almost back to normal. I'll be over as soon as I can."

This was getting hard to deal with. Bob snuck back down the hall as Brian hung up. At first, keeping everything as a surprise sounded like fun, even logical. Now, with the good Dr. Coe getting more exhausted and frustrated by the moment, he might not be in a mood to appreciate what as being done for him.

He barely got seated before Brian came into the room. "Uh, Robbie? Did your dad tell you where he was going? Or leave any numbers?"

Biting his lip, Bob tried to sound cheerful. "No, Uncle Brian. I'm sure he'll be here real soon." He looked down. "I really sorry for being sorta rude. I didn't mean to yell or anything."

Coe gave him a soft smile. "It's OK, Robbie. I know it's hard having to stay with a stranger. And I haven't exactly been very good company, either."

"Look, Uncle Brian?" Bob sighed. "There's something I should tell you. I guess I should have been honest from the start. The truth is..." His confession was interrupted by the ringing of the phone.

Brian picked up the handset. "Dr. Stein's residence. Oh, good morning, Bryan." He nodded absently, and then looked over at Bob. "There might be a problem with that. Robbie, uh, doesn't think he should go out with strangers."

Bob perked up. Something was in the works. Talk about being saved by the bell. "Oh, that's OK, Uncle Brian! We can go out."

The raccoon morph gave him a strange look, probably trying to decide if murder of a five year-old was a possible option. Then he gave a long sigh. "Never mind. It seems that my little friend here wants to go out after all. We'll be at the hospital in about 30 minutes."

When Coe hung up, Bob pasted on what he hoped was an innocent smile. "Where are we going, Uncle Brian?"

"Bryan and Paula have permission to go out for a while, and they want to see my new office. Is that OK?" It was a testament to the quality of Bob's faked temper tantrums that Brian asked permission. Not that he took any comfort from his success. Bob nodded mutely, feeling even worse than before. He only hoped that the big surprise was worth the strain on his friendship with the gentle optometrist.

"It's a good location." Bryan shifted a bit, trying to get a comfortable position in the cramped back seat of Coe's car. Bob had no such problem. One minor benefit of his child form. "Good public transportation, and lots of parking."

"You've been there?" Brian sounded surprised.

"Well, not really. Bob was the only one of us who was mobile. But he told me a lot about it. Paula helped us figure out what kind of space you could use."

"Oh, don't go blaming me!" The woman looked a bit embarrassed. "All I really did was make sure there was room for a kitchenette and and a women's bathroom."

They all chuckled at that, but the conversation quickly faded into silence. After a few minutes, Bryan cleared his throat. "So, rough night?" Bob jabbed his elbow into his partner's side, but the jab was ignored. "Must be tough dealing with a rotten kid like this."

Paula's eyes widened, and she had to turn away from the driver to hide her snort of laughter. Brian got a little flustered. "Oh, he was fine. I'm just, well, tired."

"Yeah, right." Derksen wasn't going to let this drop, despite the bruising his ribs were taking. "Why do you think Bob couldn't get anyone else to sit for him? A regular little monster."

"Look, there's the shopping center!" Bob could just barely see the top of the sign, but he was anxious to derail this conversation.

Brian nodded and took the opportunity to change the topic. "I don't really know what has been done. There's been a bunch of people in and out. Of course, it's all pretty much just wrapping. No equipment or furniture yet."

The office looked dark and empty, and the parking spaces in front were empty. Coe couldn't hide his disappointment, despite putting on a show of cheerfulness. "You just can't find good help these days. The boss goes away, and they all run off. Well, you get what you pay for, right?"

Not knowing what to expect, Bob looked at Bryan and Paula for some sign. His co-conspirators simply shrugged noncommittally. Damn! He hated being kept out of the loop. Was the equipment damaged or unusable? Had everything fallen through?

They all climbed out and headed for the entrance. Bob admired the freshly-painted lettering on the window. Stackhouse had done a really nice job. Brian stopped long enough to trace the letters of his middle name. Then he inserted the key and opened the door.

They entered a fully-furnished waiting area. It was hard to tell who was more surprised, Brian or Bob. The optometrist was bewildered by the comfortable chairs and magazines neatly placed on tables. There were even plants placed around the room. Most of the things were slightly worn, but not so much that it looked cheap. It was as if the reception area had been there for years.

Bob was staring for a different reason. No party, no balloons, none of the noise and excitement he had expected. He felt his stomach knot. Damn. Something had gone wrong.

The receptionist's office was sparsely furnished with a desk and chair, and some filing cabinets. The computer perched on the desk was obviously old, but the screen saver on the monitor indicated it was fully functional. Paula pushed past them and entered her new domain as if it were familiar territory.

The raccoon morph walked slowly to the first examination room, Bryan and Bob close behind. Flicking on the light revealed the same somewhat worn, but functional look of a long-established practice. The chair had a few tears in the black vinyl, and only the military could have painted the cabinets and equipment stands such an ugly shade of light green. The two researchers didn't know what to look for, but it seemed to be pretty complete. There was even the ever-present eye chart tacked to the far wall.

The next room was the lab area, and Brian drew a sharp breath when he saw the equipment set up there. His slender fingers reached out slowly to touch some sort of diagnostic machine, as if he didn't believe his eyes.

"It needs a new power cord. We'll have it working tomorrow." Paula had come in behind them. "This is all they could set up right now, but the whole back room is full of more equipment. Some of it is junk, but I think we can salvage enough to outfit the other examination room."

She wrung her hands nervously. "Everyone wanted to have a big surprise party, but I asked them to have it at the Blind Pig tonight, instead. It seemed more important for you to get back to work as soon as possible."

"Back to work?" Brian's voice was a whisper.

Paula nodded. "You have about an hour before the first patient arrives. We have a light day today. Only three appointments. Best I could do on short notice. We should have more after the ad comes out." She held out a piece of paper. "Jack came up with the idea."

That should have been enough warning, but all three let out a collective groan when they read the neatly printed notice. 'The Shetland Vision Clinic. A Site for Sore Eyes.'

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