|This story is set in the Tales From the Blind Pig universe, in which an extraterrestrial disease called Martian
Flu has unusual effects on a significant number of its victims
-- Stein's Chronic Accelerated Biomorphic Syndrome, SCABS for
short. Among the most unusual is 'inanimorphism', in which sentient
existence endures beyond biological life...
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Phil Geusz
©2003 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
"I'm so sorry that this happened, Phil," Packrat said for about the seventh time that afternoon. "If I'd have even dreamed..."
I waved a dismissive forepaw at him. "It's not your fault. No one could have known."
"Yes," he answered. "But still..."
It was all so incredibly awkward. Packrat was a former Universal Motors coworker whom I'd known slightly before SCABS. He'd become famous at our plant for attending every auction in the region, bargain-hunting. Not that he ever used the stuff he bought. Or sold it for profit, either. Instead, it all ended up in his barns. The nickname fit, and fit well. Still, he was a decent enough guy. Otherwise, he would never have offered to sell me my old pre-Scabs belongings back, once he got word that I was out of the Colonies. There was nothing requiring him to offer me even one iota of consideration. He'd bought everything fair and square and legal.
I hop-stepped a little closer to my old stuff, and sniffed at a floor lamp curiously. It was simply amazing, what a little time and a change of viewpoint could do. The ugly thing didn't seem at all familiar, though Packrat assured me that it had once been mine. "I don't even recognize this," I admitted eventually.
"I'm not surprised," Scallion replied. He had traveled all the way from Maryland to visit with me for a week or two, and then had been kind enough to drive me out to Packrat's place in the country. I still couldn't really believe that he'd come all that way just to see me, him being so busy and all that. It was more than a little flattering. "My whole house seemed like a strange and dangerous place to me afterwards, too. Even though I grew up there. And I got to go back home almost right away. Now that all this time has passed..."
I nodded grimly. Fear and non-recognition of what should have been familiar was a SCABS phenomenon I'd encountered before in my counseling work, though never before had it been brought so directly home to me. "I don't know," I said slowly. "I really don't have very much space to keep anything."
"I'll store anything for you that want me to, Phil," Packrat said. "I feel so bad about this!"
I pressed my lips together and nodded again. Poor Packrat was going well out of his way for me, and I felt obligated to take some things even if I didn't need them. "How about my guns?" I asked impulsively. "I don't want them back; I couldn't even hold onto them anymore. But do you know who got them?"
Packrat frowned. "A dealer outbid me," he answered. "On the guns and reloading gear both. You had some real quality stuff, and he was smart enough to realize it. Who knows who he resold them to? Maybe I could dig up the records..."
I thought about my beloved forty-four, the one I'd spent so many hours sighting in just so, and which had seen me through the worst days of the epidemic. What stranger wielded it now? Did he or she truly appreciate just how accurate that gun was? How very special it was? "It's all right," I answered. "Not worth the trouble."
I nosed further into the pile, crawling down tiny passageways that Packrat himself could never navigate. As I did so, things began to connect for me. There were boxes and boxes of old books; the covers seemed very friendly and familiar even where I could not remember the titles. And my old coffee table, complete with soldering-iron burn, and my old hide-a-bed couch, and my battered dinette set. I'd never been much for spending money on furniture, I recalled, preferring to blow it on cars and guns instead. After all, no one ever spent any time at my place back then but me. I'd been a very lonely man, I remembered. Lonely, and increasingly cynical, and more than a little bit of a hermit.
Suddenly the walls of my little crawlspace were closing in on me, and I needed to get out and away from all of the memories. Quick as lightning I backed up until I came to a slightly wider place, then doubled back on myself...
...only to come face-to-face with Scallion, who had crawled in after me. Damnit, I hadn't wanted him in here with me; my stuff probably looked cheap and tawdry enough from the outside of the pile to someone with as much money as Scal had. Now on top of everything else, I was embarrassed. "Hello!" my friend said with a smile. "I thought that you might need some help." Then his brow furrowed, and he sniffed delicately at the air a couple of times. "Phil?" he asked worriedly. "Are you all right?"
I bared my teeth for an instant, then swallowed down my irritation. "It's nothing," I said flatly. "Nothing at all."
"Right," Scallion agreed, cocking his head to one side for a moment.
Sometimes I hated the fact that my scent was so easy to read. Some things deserved to be kept private. "It's nothing," I repeated. "Really. Let's finish looking this stuff over and get out of here."
"Right," the brown lop agreed flatly, looking away. One of the things I liked most about Scallion was that he knew when to stop asking questions. Or at least most of the time he did. "Good idea. Are there any particular heirlooms you'd like me to look for?"
"Hmm," I answered, considering. Until we'd arrived, I hadn't really believed Packrat's claims that he'd bought so many of my belongings. Clearly, however, he hadn't been exaggerating. "Most of the stuff I really cared about wasn't obvious," I explained after a time. "I tended to latch onto things that reminded me of people, or of special times in my life." Just then a flash of white plastic caught my eye, and my heart melted. "Like this little statue!" I exclaimed happily as I crawled under a chair and very carefully grasped the tiny Oriental man between my teeth. He was frozen in the act of battling an oversized octopus with his sword. Several of the monster's arms had already been severed, but it was still clearly putting up a terrible fight. "This is absolute junk, not worth a dime. But I'm so glad that I found it!"
Scallion slithered closer to me as I carefully exhumed the treasure and placed it on the floor for a more careful examination. Good! I hadn't put any tooth marks in it! "You're right," my friend agreed. "It doesn't look like much."
I smiled; Phlox's physical therapy on my face was bearing fruit at long last. "When I was little, I used to stare at this thing for hours and make up stories about it," I explained. "I used to ask myself why the man was mad at the octopus, or wonder if they could have worked things out another way. Stuff like that; I must have made up a thousand stories about the thing."
Scallion smiled. "The most beloved toys are always the simplest ones," he agreed. "All right, we're taking that home with us. Anything else?"
I looked about me and sighed. "Honestly, probably not. I can't use the furniture, not living where I do. There's no room. And it's not worth the hauling anyway."
"Nor the kitchen stuff," Scallion agreed sadly, nodding at the box of cheap silverware and cooking utensils. Only someone like Packrat would have bothered bidding on them. "How about the books?"
"I've already replaced most of the ones I really care about," I answered. "Though if you came across my high school year book or maybe my old copy of Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea, I'd take it home. I first read that book when I was maybe ten."
"Gotcha," Scallion agreed, burrowing into the book boxes. Meanwhile, I dug around the other piles a little and located an old knife that meant a lot to me, as well as a set of keys from my very first car. I placed them carefully aside, next to my plastic statue.
And that, it didn't take me long to decide, was all that I wanted. Except out, of course. I wanted out very badly indeed.
"Are you done already?" Scallion demanded as I made my way back to help him.
"I think so," I answered shortly. "Like I said, there's not much I can really use here."
Scallion looked at me suspiciously for a moment, then returned to his work. "Aha!" he declared in triumph after a minute or two. "What do we have here?" First Verne's undersea work, and then a matching and equally ancient edition of Around the World in Eighty Days emerged from the box. "Phileas Fogg, too! I suppose you'll be keeping that one as well?"
"Yeah," I answered with a smile, my mood once more changing as if a switch had been thrown. I was experiencing far too many emotions, far too quickly. It was unsettling. Looking back at my old life always had that effect on me. "I forgot I had it. I got both of them together for the same birthday."
"And here's the yearbook as well," Scallion said as he pulled it out of the box and added it to the little pile. "Are you sure there's nothing else? Nothing at all?"
I shook my head. "I just want to get out of here," I whispered, too quietly for Packrat to hear. "Please. I'm getting the creeps. This is... Too much."
At first Packrat refused to accept that I honestly didn't want any more of my old things. Nor would he take any money for the few items I'd decided to keep. "Hell, Phil!" he declared grandly, sweeping his arms wide. "Come back again if you want anything else. Someday I'm gonna hold me the biggest garage sale you ever saw, and make a fortune off of all this stuff. Until then, anything else you want, you just come and get it."
I smiled again. Packrat had been planning to hold his mammoth garage sale for at least twenty years that I knew of. It had been a running joke back at the plant. Instead of holding the sale, however, he spent all of his time buying more and more useless stuff. It was his nature to accumulate junk, pure and simple. And if it made him happy, who was I to argue? "Of course," I answered, extending a forepaw for him to shake. "Dan, I really, truly appreciate you looking me up."
He took my stubby limb without hesitation. "Like I said, I'd have called you sooner if I'd known."
"I'm sure you would have," I answered as he released my paw. "You've been a good --"
"Hey!" Scallion cried from outside. "Hey! What in the world is this thing doing here?"
Packrat and I turned as one; Scallion was pointing into another open barn, across the little alleyway. Our host bought rickety old barns at auctions too, then set them up his own property to use for storage. He must have had a dozen of the things jam-packed together on his single acre or so of land. "Oh!" Packrat declared, blushing slightly. He was standing closer to the door, and had an unobstructed view. "That's was Phil's too."
"That was Phil's?" Scallion demanded. "Phil, you son of a bitch! You never told me!"
My ears rose. What in the world?
"I'm so sorry," Packrat said, turning to me. "Remember how you told me that you don't drive anymore, when I first asked you to come out? I know how much you used to love driving; everyone who knew you did. After that, I didn't think that you'd want to be reminded..."
Suddenly I knew, and my eyes went wide. "You bought my sports car," I said. "Didn't you?"
Packrat looked down at the ground, then nodded.
"Son of a bitch!" I echoed, dropping to all fours and tearing at the ground with my hindclaws as I rushed over to where Scallion was staring openmouthed at my old roadster. It was the same make as his own sports car, though a far less expensive model.
"You never told me!" he repeated. "You've known about my car for weeks now. Months, even! And you haven't said a single damned word!"
"Well," I answered, "I did make a lot of suggestions to you about how to fix things, didn't I? Not that they did you any good; you're a far better mechanic than I am."
Scallion stamped his hindfoot and looked heavenward. "I thought you just knew a lot about old cars." Then he sighed and stepped forward to look over my old ride.
It was still in pretty good shape, I had to admit, though all four wheels were missing, replaced by cinder blocks. "I used to come out here and run it sometimes," Packrat explained. "But then one day it wouldn't fire up. I'm not much at fixing things, so I started to take it to pieces. When I had my garage sale I figured that I could sell it as parts. Then I found out that it wasn't even worth as much as I paid for it. Which wasn't much."
"Right," Scallion agreed absently as he ran his hand down the bright-orange hood, which was still smooth and sleek right up to where the windshield was missing. "Everyone thinks that these things are worth a fortune. But they aren't."
I nodded. "Too many of them still on the road," I agreed. "Which is why there's enough demand for parts that people still manufacture them. And, in turn, the steady parts supply ensures that few are ever retired."
Idly Scallion flipped the light switch; the high beams were on. They were a little dim, but steady. "Battery's still got a charge to it," he mused.
"I bought a new one three days before the rabbit-thing happened," I answered. "To take my mind off of the fact that I was almost out of the danger period."
Scallion snorted, then without asking permission opened the driver's door and climbed in. The next thing I knew, he was turning the engine over. "Rrrr! Rrrr! Rrrr!"
"It won't fire," Packrat said sadly. "It would be worth a lot more if it did."
Scallion tried several more times to start the car, then turned the key off and pressed his lips together in frustration. "It's probably bad gas," he opined.
"Maybe," I agreed. "Switch it back on, will you? But don't turn it over."
Scallion complied, and when he did I not only knew what was wrong, but why my friend hadn't caught it himself. It was very rare for me to put one over on a rabbit as sharp as Scallion, and suddenly I was all smiles. "Don't do anything!" I cried out. "Just leave everything exactly like it is. I'll be right back."
There was a lot more room under my car than I remembered; this was partly because the blocks sat considerably higher than the missing wheels and tires did, and partly because I was so much smaller nowadays. Still, everything was exactly where I remembered it, including the archaic, failure-prone mechanical fuel pump. For a moment or two I thought that maybe I'd outsmarted myself; once upon a time I'd have tapped the thing a few times with a wrench or the like. I couldn't grip such a tool anymore, however. For just one desperate moment I considered beating my head against the thing, then finally I rolled over on my belly and kicked the pump several times with my left hindpaw. Thump! Thump! Thump! Presently, the pump began to tick like an oversized watch. Scallion, I knew, had switched his car over to a more modern, silent unit. It was a common conversion, one my friend had apparently made so long ago that he'd forgotten about the noise he should have heard. The older type of pump tended to break down a lot, though it was often amenable to persuasion. I rather liked the old style; it was the kind of thing that gave a car character in my book. "All right," I said with more confidence than I felt. "Crank it over!"
"Rrrr! Rrrr! Rrrr!" my old car said. "Rrrr! Rrrr! Rrr... Baroom!"
Presently Scallion and I were huddled over the instrument panel, just like we so often did with his car, pointing at gauges and making observations.
"She's still smoking," my friend noted, looking back at the exhaust pipe. "How was the engine?"
"Fresh rebuild," I replied briefly. "It's just the old gas, I think." Then I pawed at the temperature gauge, which was rising alarmingly. "I think the thermostat is sticking, Scal. You'd better shut her down."
"Right," he agreed, turning the key. The sports car backfired twice, then suddenly the barn was wrapped in silence. It didn't last long, however.
"You son of a bitch!" Scallion declared again, pounding the dash for emphasis. "I can't believe that you never told me!"
"Thank you both so very much!" Packrat said. "I would have called a mechanic to come out, but..."
"...but mechanics don't make house calls on ancient English cars," I finished for him. "They're absolutely terrified of them. I ought to know."
"Would you believe he didn't tell me?" Scallion demanded of Packrat as I walked around my old pride and joy one last time, running my forepaws over the elegantly sculpted fenders. But I wasn't really listening to him. Even the exhaust still smelled beautiful, I decided, though in honesty I'd have wrinkled up my pink nose in disgust had a similar odor emanated from a London bus. Sometimes you just had to consider the source of such things. "He's supposed to be my friend, and he didn't even drop a hint! Would you believe it?"
It was a warm and sunny summer afternoon, and with the top down and the wind blowing in our ears it was probably inevitable that my friend and I spent most of the trip home reminiscing about my old car. I hadn't had it all that long before the rabbit-thing, but even in that short time it had generated many wonderful memories. "Everyone thinks it's worth a fortune," I observed. "Even Packrat back there. He's checked up on it, I'm sure, but I'd bet that he doesn't really believe what the books tell him. No one ever does, at first. But it's not a collector's item. They're far too common for that. Your car, now... That's another story."
Scallion grinned. He was very wealthy indeed compared to me, and too polite to make a point of it. "So," he asked eventually. "Why don't you buy it back?"
"Not many rabbit-Scabs can drive, you know," I pointed out. "You're incredibly lucky that way. I'm much too nervous."
"Hmm," Scal replied, turning towards me. "You don't look nervous to me. And we're mighty close to that semi up ahead." Just to emphasize his point, he pressed down on the gas pedal; instantly the little motor revved and we came closer still.
I winced a little and felt my right foot instinctively reaching for the brake pedal. "Scal!" I exclaimed. "This is no time for"
"Oh, rot and bother!" my friend exclaimed, mashing his foot the rest of the way down to the floor. The little car seemed to leap into action, roaring forward and swerving off to the left in response to Scal's expert direction. We ducked around one truck, cut across his front bumper, then passed a second on the right. Sports cars sit very low indeed; I had to strain my neck to look up into the cab of the second truck as we raced by, still accelerating. The driver wasn't angry, I noticed, or at least she certainly didn't look it. Instead, she was laughing and waving!
"See?" Scal said as he came off the throttle and slowed us down to a more normal pace. "You didn't scream, you didn't try and run off, you didn't duck down and hide. You're not panicky."
I opened my mouth, then closed it again. Yes, I'd reached for the brake pedal. But I'd done that as a human too, hadn't I? My heart wasn't even racing. Or at least not very much...
"Have you even tried to learn how to drive again?" Scallion demanded.
"No," I admitted. "Not at the Colonies, of course. And then the doctors..."
"Right," Scallion agreed. "The all-knowing, all-seeing doctors told you that you could never drive again. They told me that too, you know. I had to drive without a license for almost two years before I could finally get a doctor to certify me. And he probably never would have done it either, except that he's been in the same sports car club with me for nigh onto three decades. For years, he and I fought it out on the track. Once I Changed, my reflexes actually got better. It was a lot of fun when I was able to prove it to him in a way that he couldn't possibly deny. I totally and utterly waxed his ass, five times running." He turned and looked at me again, this time smiling slightly. "Tell me, Phil," he asked. "Have you ever panicked while you were actually in the process of running away from danger? It's natural to run after being panicked, so it follows that when you start off, you're already in a state a lot of the time. But once you were already running, did you ever lose control?"
"No," I admitted after a time. "Not that I ever recall. But --"
"And even if you are already panicked," Scallion overrode me. "Even if you are well and truly panicked, doesn't running clear your head faster than anything else? Even more than hiding?"
"Well... Yes, now that you mention it. But --"
"No buts!" Scal interrupted again, waving his hand emphatically. "It would be deadly to lose control while running away from danger; how can you possibly outwit whatever's chasing you if you're panicked? Mother Nature's smarter than that! Let me share a little secret with you, Phil. You're wired to drive now, more than ever before! It's just like running, only better! Trust me on this one. You'll never feel safer as a rabbit than you will when you're behind the wheel. Never!" His grin widened. "It only works for fast cars, of course. I used to own a big slowpoke of a van. That's what I tried to drive first, after the ear-and-tail thing. I figured that it would be safer. Wrong-o! I felt like a huge, lumbering target out where everyone could see me. But this little, tiny car..." He waggled the steering wheel slightly for emphasis, making the car rock slightly back and forth in a clear demonstration of its nimble responsiveness. "This is a proper rabbit's ride. Whee!" And suddenly we were veering madly from lane to lane once again, picking our way through the ever-denser traffic.
It was just as well that Scallion was in such a fast-moving mood as we drove back into town; I had an appointment at the Pig for early afternoon, and we'd surely have been late had I been riding with anyone else. As it was Scal pulled us up into a prime parking place with just a tiny little squeal of rubber, right on the top of the hour.
"So, who is this guy that you're going to see again?" Scal demanded as we climbed out of the old bucket seats.
"A client," I replied shortly. "Scallion, I know that you're on vacation. But I've still got work to do, and --"
"No problem!" the little brown lop answered, holding out his hands in a placating gesture. "I understand about privacy and all of that. But you said that this guy is a rabbit. I wondered if he might be a Downer."
I sighed. I'd first gotten to know Scallion through a lapine convention that had been scheduled here in town largely at the behest of the Watership Downers. The Downers were much more than just another SCABS support group; for many lapine Scabs outside the Colonies they were a way of life. The group even provided spiritual support to many. Everyone pretty much got to know everyone else among Downers; we rabbits tended to be poor secret-keepers. "Not that I know of," I answered. "Though I may suggest that he attend a Warren meeting if it seems like the right thing to do. I'm not even really sure why he wants to see me. Or why he wanted to meet at the bar instead of my office."
"Hmm," Scal replied. "Curiouser and curiouser. All right, though. I'll sit up by the bar and annoy Jubatus until you're through. Don't forget; we've got plans for tonight!"
I sighed. I'd gone out and done more recreational-type stuff with Scallion in the last week alone than in the previous year. Shortcake and General Patton, my companion rabbits, were growing resentful at my prolonged absences. My caseload was getting further and further behind. Even my letters to Phlox were behind schedule. I should have cancelled out and told Scallion no, should have kept my nose to the grindstone. But somehow, I could not. "Right," I heard my voice saying. "I won't forget."
"I'll consider that a promise," Scal replied with a grin as we stepped through the front door together. Then he headed over to the bar. "Jube!" I heard his voice ring out. "Hey, Jube! Don't make it bad!" I couldn't help but grin; Scal irritated the devil out of the big cat, I knew, but at the same time the two seemed to be quite close on a subliminal level. It was hard to explain. Probably it had a lot to do with Scallion's complete and total refusal to take himself or anyone else seriously.
My client was already seated in my favorite booth at the back of the bar, near the emergency exit. He was close to my own size, I noted as I sidled up, which made him just under average height for a mid-morph lapine. His rather short fur was gold in color along the spine, lightening to a sort of cream color along his flanks, or at least it did where I could see it under his rather expensive custom-tailored suit. The overall effect was most attractive. His legs and feet were digitigrade, and his hands as fully pawed as my own. I found myself wondering if he was quadrupedal or not. Somehow, I'd have to find a diplomatic way to ask. It was the kind of thing a career counselor genuinely needed to know. His ears perked up as I approached, and when he raised his eyes I saw that they were golden brown as well. Immediately he scrambled to his feet, and I learned that he wasn't quadrupedal after all. "Phil?" he asked tentatively.
"The very same," I replied, displaying my new smile and extending a forepaw, which my client touched with his own in a parody of a handshake. It was so nice to be able to smile! "And you must be Bugsy?"
"That'd be me!" he answered, smiling in turn. "And, before you ask, 'Bugsy' has been my nickname for years. Nice twist of fate, eh?"
"Heh!" I answered. "At least you look like you've adapted pretty thoroughly," I pointed out. "You move well, and your body looks reasonably functional. You're fairly attractive, even!"
He batted his eyes theatrically. "Oh, I bet you say that to all the boys!"
I looked away, blushing in my ear linings. "Forgive me. I didn't mean..."
Then Bugs was laughing. "Come on, already! I was joking!" He reached over and slapped my shoulder with his forepaw, then waved down Donnie. "Hey, barkeep!" he shouted. "What's this guy usually drink?"
"He's mute," I whispered.
"Oh," Bugsy said quietly to me. Then he raised his voice again. "Whatever it is, get him one. Or get him two, even, and a refill for me. Okay?"
Donnie waved a hoof in acknowledgement, and presently I was sipping at a Jack Strafford while my client drank something strong and whiskey-based, judging by the aroma. "Ahhh!" he said. "Nothing like a nice cold drink on a hot day."
"Indeed," I agreed, patiently waiting for Bugsy to get down to business. Most of the time, it was better to let the client get things started. Especially when they were as voluble and self-assured as was Bugsy.
The silence dragged on and on, until Bugs finally sighed and spoke again. "You're famous," he observed.
"Not really," I answered truthfully. "Not one person in a hundred thousand has ever heard of me, I'm sure. Yes, I've been on television a couple times, arguing against the Colonies as they exist today. But otherwise, I'm not famous at all."
"You've been on TV?" Bugsy asked, raising his eyebrows. "I didn't know that."
My ears perked up. "What did you mean, then?"
"You're the one that offed the Butcher," he said, smiling wide. "Helluva piece of work, that was. Believe me, note was taken in certain circles."
Suddenly my heart was pounding, my nostrils were dilated, and the delicious Strafford went sour in my mouth. "Butch?" I asked. "You're here because I 'offed' Butch the Blade?"
"The very one!" Bugsy agreed, saluting me with his drink. "Nasty character, he was." Bugsy shuddered in simulated terror, making his ears flop about ridiculously. "You did one hell of a number on him, especially given that he caught you completely by surprise."
My jaw dropped; it had been the most gut-wrenching horror of a night I'd ever known, so bad that it had damned near put me back in the Colonies.
"I know you didn't actually pull the trigger," Bugsy continued, anticipating that I'd been about to protest such. "But he was one dead motherfucker long before the cops finished him. Or so the story goes. And, I can assure you, he was one fucking big pain in the ass out of the way to those of us who had to, shall we say, compete against him." Once more he raised his drink, this time in a toast-like gesture. "Salute!"
Finally, by a major effort of will, I was able to close my mouth and swallow. The lump felt huge going down. "What is this all about?" I finally demanded. "Who are you, really? And why are you here?"
Bugsy smiled, but this time the expression was icy. "I'm in da mob!" he whispered. "Are you stupid or something? One day, me and the boys went out. We burned something. Capeesh?"
I did indeed 'capeesh', and the fact that I did must have showed in my scent. I was sitting across the booth from a 'made' man. The 'burned something' remark referred to a rather primitive brotherhood ritual. In other words, he'd 'made his bones', to the satisfaction of his fellow gangsters. And 'making bones' meant exactly what it sounded like.
Rabbits cannot lie to each other, not in person. Our noses are far too sensitive. My newest client was in fact a professional killer.
"Good boy!" Bugsy said, reaching out and patting me on the head as if I were a child. "Good, good boy! Not everyone would have known what I was talking about. Must have been that time in the union, eh? I read about you on your web page, you know." He smiled again. "That's why I wanted us to have our little visit out here in public, see? So's you wouldn't feel threatened, like. The last thing I want is for you to feel threatened. That's not what this is all about."
In point of fact, the UAW is a remarkably clean union; we members were very proud of the fact. I'd picked up the lingo from gangster films and books, a minor vice I'd once indulged regularly. However, I decided not to contradict him. "Then what is this all about?" I demanded, placing my paws on the table and leaning forward. "Tell me why I shouldn't get up and walk away from this table, right now. Or call for help, even. I can assure you, no matter how much 'heat' you're 'packing', there are Scabs here in this place right now who can outmatch you." I hated calling on my friends for help, as a general rule. But every rule had certain exceptions.
"Whoa, there, little guy!" Bugsy said, holding up his paws and shaking his head. "Whoa, there! I don't mean you any harm, none at all! And I'm not packing; hell, you've got forepaws just like I do. You know I can't use a gun. Or most anything else, either. I just want your help, is all! Like anyone else! I just picked you because I respect you, that's all. I'd heard of you, and I respect you!"
I pressed my lips together, then leaned forward and placed my chin on my paws. It was as assertive a gesture as I was capable of, any more. "You've got ten seconds," I said. "Explain to me, in full, why you are here."
Bugsy blinked, then blinked again.
"Nine seconds. Eight. Seven..."
"All right!" he interrupted me. "All right already. Quit with the counting, will ya? If you'll quit counting, I'll come clean. After all, that's what I'm really here for. To come clean. All of the way."
It was just as well that Bugsy had ordered me two drinks; by the time he was finished talking I'd finished them both, allowed him to buy me a third, and was feeling more than slightly tipsy. "So," I said at last. "You think that your Don has turned into an inanimorph. He's becoming more brutal and despotic all of the time. Less of a human being, in other words. You can't take the brutality any more. And you think your only way out is to turn state's evidence."
"Yeah," Bugsy replied, staring despondently into his own glass. "That's about the size of things, Phil." He winced. "Like I said, he had that one kid fried. In hot grease, like. And he hadn't done nothing wrong, not really. It didn't used to be like that. Only people who really deserved it got hammered. My boss is becoming less and less human all of the time. He's losing touch, I think."
I pressed my lips together in anger. The stories of violence and death and greed and corruption that I had just heard would haunt my dreams for years to come, I knew. And, even worse, Bugsy was sincere in his belief that his boss had become an inanimorph Scab in recent months. I didn't even want to think about what that possibility might entail. Slowly, I lowered my paw cup to the table and sighed. "I have to say this, Bugsy. You're a thug and a vicious criminal of the worst sort. I don't much care for the things you've done. And, I suspect, you haven't told me the half of it."
Bugs lowered his ears. "No," he said softly. "I haven't."
I nodded; at least he was leveling with me. That much I'd give him. "So, what exactly do you want from me, Bugs?" I asked. "That's the only thing I don't really understand. I'm just a career counselor, that's all. Hell, I bet you know more about who you ought to go talk to down at the FBI office than I do. What have I got to do with all of this?"
The golden-colored rabbit continued to stare down at the tabletop for a very long time. Finally, he swirled his drink around a bit and took a long, deep slug. Then he looked me directly in the eyes. "You're a rabbit, Phil," he answered as if it explained everything. "Just like me."
I nodded. "Yeah, I am. So?"
He wriggled his nose impatiently. "So, I figured you'd understand."
"Maybe I will," I answered. "And maybe I won't. Once you get done explaining, that is."
Bugs looked across the bar, to where Scallion was clowning with Wanderer and the dartboard. "That little lop over there. I heard him talking to that big, dangerous-looking cheetah on the way in. Friend of yours?"
I blinked, left totally adrift by the change of subject. "Yeah," I answered, there being no point in denying it. "A damned good friend."
"He's so lucky," Bugs continued, talking almost to himself now. "So damn lucky to be able to sass a predator that way. I sure as hell couldn't do that."
"Nor I," I answered honestly. In point of fact, I'd never exchanged more than a dozen words with Jubatus in the entire time I'd known him. He seemed like a nice enough guy, and all of that. Concerned about me, even; I could see right through his 'tough-guy' act. But still...
"Yet that little son of a bitch walks right up those damn meat-eating types and yells out an insult. Cocky little bastard, he is! Not that I'm putting him down, not at all. Like I said, I envy him."
Suddenly, I began to understand. "You're afraid to talk to the FBI, aren't you?"
Bugs returned his eyes to the tabletop. "Terrified," he said at long last. "I'd sooner go sink my teeth into yon cheetah's tail. Congrats, counselor! You got it in one." He sighed. "I haven't been able to go out and collect a debt in weeks. I Changed at home, you see. The mob doesn't exactly offer the world's best health insurance plan. No one officially knows that I've become a rabbit. Otherwise, I bet that they'd have locked me up long since. Hell, it took me five hours just to work up enough nerve to get on the bus to come here. Thanks for making this booth smell so friendly, by the way. I'd have left before you got here if it didn't smell like another bunny. I'd have had to."
I sighed and laid my chin in my paws. "Bugsy," I said after a while. "You are in a world of shit. You know that, right? Not only do the cops want you for more crimes that I even want to think about, but you're very likely to be committed to a lapine colony if you ever get found out. I presume that you have no visible means of support?"
"Not any that don't involve Burning Jimmy Vinson," Bugsy replied. "On the books, I'm a safety consultant for his limo company. Not that I know a damn thing about limo safety."
"And he's sure not gonna help you out," I agreed sadly. "Not once you start singing."
"Right," Bugsy agreed, nodding. "Burning Jimmy told me that he'd take care of me for the rest of my life once I turned into a rabbit. 'I'd'a done it if you'd had a stroke,' he told me, 'or cancer or anything like that. So why not SCABS?' He knows I can't service overdue loans any more. But he still wants me to carry messages and drugs and stuff. And... And..."
"And you can't," I offered. "Not now."
"No," Bugs replied, meeting my eyes once more. "Not anymore. I just can't. Everything's different. Jimmy's getting scarier and scarier. Like I said, that kid he fried... Phil, I had to watch. Everyone had to watch! And the smell!" His eyes went wide, and for just a moment I thought he was going to panic at the mere memory. Without thinking, I reached across and hugged Bugs; he was soft and clean-smelling, I learned.
Eventually, however, I had to break the embrace. "All right, Bugs," I said at long last. "Meet me back here tomorrow. Same time."
"You're gonna help me?" Bugs asked, his eyes widening.
"No," I answered. "I don't think that I really can help you. No one can. But I will try to help you help yourself."
Bugsy's session took a lot longer than planned, but it didn't prove to be too much of a problem. There were no clients scheduled for that evening. I'd promised Scallion that I'd go bowling with him sometime while he was in town; Bruno's Lanes, located not twenty miles from the Shelter, was world-famous for its Scab-friendly facilities and Scallion had been itching to try the place out. We headed that way just as soon as I was done with Bugsy. It was too late for me to make any phone calls on his behalf, anyway.
"Look at how big this place is!" Scallion exclaimed as we walked in from the parking lot. The establishment was packed, and we'd had to leave the car a long way out. It was a good thing that I'd made us reservations, or else we'd never have gotten a lane.
"It was already the biggest bowling alley in town before SCABS," I pointed out. "Seventy-two lanes. Now it's over a hundred."
"Wow!" Scallion exclaimed.
"All the new lanes are for Scabs," I continued. "Plus some of the old ones have been converted." Unfortunately, catering to the new clientele had caused some of Bruno's oldest and most loyal patrons to take their business elsewhere. Recreation was scarce for the Scab community, however, and the resulting new business had more than compensated for the loss of the old.
"So what kind of special alley do they have for us rabbity-types, Phil?" Scallion asked.
I shrugged. "Beats me," I answered.
Scallion cocked his head to one side. "You mean you've never bowled here?"
"Not in the past twenty years or so," I answered. "I wasn't much of a bowler even before the rabbit-thing."
Scal frowned. "I can't believe you, sometimes," he groused. "This place is one of the wonders of the world, for Scabs at least. It's been in the national and even world news a hundred times. Even if you don't bowl, didn't you ever even come and just look around?"
I sighed. "It's twenty miles from home," I explained slowly. "Twenty miles! And..."
Scal rolled his eyes. "And it's got bright lights. And there are big open areas, where it wouldn't be very easy to hide in a hurry. And you have to stand up out in front of everyone to bowl."
"Yes!" I replied. "That's it. Exactly! So you do understand."
"I understand that you've forgotten how to have any fun," Scallion replied shortly. "And, I also understand that you've simply got to get better. You're much too good at what you do to let the rabbit-thing ruin you, Phil. There are some very important things that need to be done, and you're perfect for them. If, that is, you can just quit being such an old fuddy-duddy."
There were a lot of things that I could have said back to Scal. I could have pointed out that his brain was obviously a lot less afflicted than my own; that was clearer and clearer to me every day. I could have asked him why he wasn't out leading the charge to reform the Colonies, given his own obvious qualifications and connections. I could have asked him what gave him the right to second-guess my lifestyle. I could have done any of these things, and been perfectly, totally justified in the asking. But then we stepped through the door, and my chance to speak out in my own defense was gone forever.
The lobby of Bruno's had been a bright, gaudy place even back when I'd been a bowler. Since then, however, it seemed to have grown ten times more obnoxious. There were light-flashing video games placed in every corner, and on such a busy night most of them were pinging and chirring and buzzing away, surrounded by little intermixed crowds of cheering Norms and Scabs. Every half-second or so, somewhere in the alley a bowling ball struck home amidst a flurry of flying pins, and my sensitive ears seemed to register every little sub-impact as the ball and pins and alley collided with each other in a dizzying display of Newtonian physics run amok. Instinctively, I squeezed up closer to Scallion...
...who seemed to be loving every second of it! "Wow!" he exclaimed again. "What a happening place!" Shrugging me off without even realizing what he was doing, Scal hop-stepped a little closer to the railing that separated the lobby from the alleys proper. "Look!" he exclaimed, pointing. "That horse just threw a strike!"
Sure enough, a big red 'x' lit up above an oversized alley just in front of us, and a big white Arabian mare was dancing an odd, stiff-legged sort of dance, first hopping up on her on her right hooves and then on her left. She was wearing a funny-looking basket on her muzzle, I noted. Clearly, its purpose was to allow her to roll the ball.
"This is so cool!" Scallion crooned, this time snugging up against me in pleasure. It was this that saved me from a panic attack, I think. Instinctively I glommed onto him and hugged just as tight as I could.
This time, Scal seemed to understand what was going on, and he let me hold on for a minute or two before gently pushing me away. "Are you all right now, Phil?" he asked.
It's thunder, I told my subconscious. All that terrible clamor is just thunder, a perfectly natural thunderstorm rolling across a nice, peaceful meadow. And, rather to my surprise, my subconscious swallowed the lie. My pulse rate began to drop, and as it did I felt much better. "I think so," I said finally.
"Good!" Scallion replied with a smile. "Because I want to go bowling, not sit around and snuggle! There's plenty of time for that later." And with that, he was off to the counter in a sort of lovable brown flash.
"Hey, Phil!" cried out a new voice, and too-suddenly I turned to face it. It was Rebecca Harding, a dark-brown cavie-morph I knew slightly from the Pig.
"Heya," I answered back, albeit a bit weakly. "How's the teeth-cleaning business?"
"Booming!" she replied confidently. "More Scabs every week to work on. Last month I went to school to learn how to float equines, believe it or not. And how's the counseling racket?"
"Not bad," I allowed. "I stay busy."
She shook her head and laughed. "And all the Norms say that SCABS has been a disaster for the economy. What do they know?"
Just then Scallion came hopping back up. "How do you spell your name again?" he asked in puzzlement. "They've got things all screwed up."
"Naturally," I replied. It was the normal course of things, for someone with a last name as difficult to deal with as mine was. I nodded at Rebecca. "Scallion, meet Rebecca Harding. Rebecca, meet Scallion. He's visiting from out of town." She was just about exactly Scallion's size, I noted. And just about his color as well. Though of course she didn't smell a bit like him.
They nodded and smiled at each other, then Rebecca spoke up. "You've got reservations, Phil? Aren't you guys the lucky ones! I was supposed to meet a date, who was supposed to make the reservations. But he..." She shrugged.
I winced. Nothing was worse than being stood up. Scallion raised his eyebrows, and I nodded. "Are you a regular here?" I asked, turning to Becky.
"Sort of," she answered with a half-shrug. "I'm not in a league. But I come in every couple of weeks."
"Great!" I answered. "And I suppose that Guinea pigs and rabbits bowl in the same lanes?"
She nodded. "We don't see many rabbits, of course. But, yes."
Scallion smiled, and then so did I. "Then, Madam," I said, presenting my arm, "perhaps you might consider teaching us two ignorant lapines exactly how this bowling thing is supposed to work for us Scab-types?"
* * *
I was rather surprised when our little group was sent to alley number twenty-seven, a full-sized lane. Indeed, the only detectable difference between our special Scab lane and a Norm lane was that someone had laid a layer of indoor-outdoor carpet over the approach area. This carpet was totally wrinkle-free, I noticed; walking on it felt almost stepping across a billiard table. Its purpose was to give our toe-claws purchase, I supposed, and perhaps to preserve the finish of the expensive tongue-and-groove work below. After all, there was no way that any of us were ever going to wear bowling shoes.
It was only on closer inspection that I detected other oddities. A wide variety of seats had been provided to accommodate anything up to a full-morph, for example. The bowling balls came in a huge variety of sizes. And, strangest of all, none of them had any holes in them.
"All right," Rebecca began after we got settled in. "This alley is for small, handless Scabs."
Scallion and I nodded. That was what we'd signed up for.
"This is where I bowl," Rebecca continued, "because my hands are too weak to swing a ball. Yours probably are, too, Scal." She didn't even mention my own forepaws, by way of politeness. "So, we push the ball across the carpet."
Suddenly everything made sense. "That's why there are no holes in the balls," I observed."
"Right," Becky agreed. "They used to use normal balls here, but then someone chipped a tooth." She smiled. "You guys go pick out your equipment. I bowl with an eight pounder, if that helps any."
In ten minutes, the three of us were bowling. It was amazing, really, a minor miracle in its own way. We weren't much good at it; it didn't take long at all for Scallion and I to recognize that it took considerable skill merely to push the ball in a straight line, much less a straight line headed towards the pins. I developed a method whereby I kept my head up and used my chest to drive a heavier ball at slower speed, while Becky and Scal both hunkered down and pushed smaller balls with their foreheads and noses. Only Rebecca broke a hundred that first game, she having practiced more.
We stopped several times for drinks and to socialize, and it became evident very soon that Scal and Becky had hit it off well indeed. Their eyes flashed as they told each other about themselves, and I was rather bemused at how they couldn't help but watch each other bowl.
It was nearly closing time when our third and last scheduled game rolled around. By then it was becoming clear that my 'heads up' technique wasn't working out as well as the method used by my partners. It was too late for me to change, however, or else I was too stubborn. I was still rolling about a hundred and ten, while Scal and Becky were slugging it out at about a one-forty pace. They were actually tied going into the tenth frame, and only Scallion's highly improbable resolution of a seven-ten split gave him the victory. I was feeling pretty good myself, despite my inglorious score. On that same tenth frame, I'd scored my only strike of the evening. It had come far too late to make me a contender, but it still felt wonderfully good indeed.
"What a night!" Becky gushed as I paid our tab at the main counter. The total came to remarkably little, I realized, considering how much fun we'd had. In fact, I hadn't had such a good night out with friends since visiting Phlox out in Iowa.
"Yeah," I agreed as I keyed my electronic password into the main computer terminal with a pencil in my mouth. We Scabs rarely carried wallets, and once again Bruno's had adapted magnificently. "I had a blast!" Then I turned around...
...to see that Scallion had his arm wrapped around Becky's waist. And that she was pressed tight up against him, smiling.
"Well," I said, feeling like the fifth wheel that I had in fact suddenly become. Becky couldn't see Scallion's face due to the angle; my friend took advantage of the fact to raise his eyebrows significantly. I nodded slightly in return. It was clear what was needed. "You know," I said slowly, "A main bus line runs right by here. I think I'll take it home."
Scal pressed his lips together, then his eyes lit up once more. He turned to Becky. "How did you get here?" he asked her.
"I rode my scooter," she answered, understanding immediately. "I have a spare helmet. It doesn't have ear-holes, but you're a lop. I think it'll fit."
"Right," Scallion answered, fingering a limp ear. "Usually, being a lop is a pain in the ass. Every once in a while, though, it comes in handy." Then he turned back to me. "Phil," he said, digging in a pocket. "You're one hell of a good friend. I don't let good friends ride the bus home." Then, with a flourish, he tossed his car keys to me. "I haven't loaned my car to anyone in over twenty years," he added. "Not that car, at least. Like I said, you're one hell of a good friend. Take her out for a romp, if you'd like. There's plenty of gas."
Instinctively I snatched the keys out of the air; they felt cold and metallic against my tongue. I wanted to speak, but by the time I spat the things out of my mouth Scallion was talking again. "Becky's invited me to her apartment," he explained unnecessarily. "I should be back at your place early tomorrow."
"Bye!" Becky agreed, her smile growing wider. Then, impulsively she reached out and kissed me on the nose. "You're a real sweetheart, Phil. Really, you are. Thanks for being so nice."
Then they were gone, arms still wrapped tightly around each other, and I was left standing there clumsily grasping Scallion's keys between my forepaws.
It wasn't fair, was all I could think as Scal and Becky strode away. It just wasn't fair at all! For a very long time I simply stood there and glared after the couple as they receded in the distance, and then I awkwardly flung the keys down to the lobby floor. "Damnation!" I said aloud. "Hell and damnation both!"
"Is everything all right, sir?" asked a concerned voice from behind the counter. It was the teenager who'd handled my bill. "Are you in need of some kind of help?"
I was mad; boiling mad, even. How dare Scallion try one of my own counseling tactics on me! But the young kid with the pleasant smile hadn't done anything to offend and so I forced my face to assume a calm, neutral demeanor. "No, thank you," I answered. "I've just got a problem with a friend." I paused, forcing myself to smile. Then a new thought struck me. "Wait, there is something you can help me with. Do you know when the last bus comes by?"
"It just did," the young man answered. "Mr. Taccata has been trying to get the city to schedule a later run, just after closing time. But the city says that they lose too much money whenever they try it." He smiled again. "Can I call you a cab?"
"Yeah," I decided after a long moment. "But wait a couple minutes, if you would, until I get back. I've got something I have to do first." Scallion and I had left the top down, it being a warm, beautiful night. The mechanism was identical to that on my old car; balky, in other words. Balky, poorly-designed, overly-complex and totally without merit. And that had been back when I'd had hands! What fun I was about to have!
* * *
"It must not ever rain in England," I murmured to myself for about the thousandth time as I stood with one hindfoot planted firmly in each bucket seat and the top about half-raised. "That's the only rational explanation." I'd had it more than half-raised at least a dozen times by then; indeed, at one point I'd had it fully up and the front edge latched into place. That had been on my first attempt, even. But once the top was latched in front, there was not enough slack to attach the multitude of varied snaps and fasteners at the back of the top, or at least there wasn't enough slack for me to do it with my teeth. Yet once I got the back fully fastened, I could not generate enough leverage with my clumsy appendages to latch the front down. It was maddening!
Lightning flickered across the sky just then, giving me a much-appreciated flash-image of the technical problem I was confronting. The bowling alley had closed mere minutes after I'd left the building, extinguishing all of the lights. On top of everything else, I was working in the dark. Then the thunder boomed out, much sooner after the lightning flash than had been the case even minutes ago.
I growled and mumbled filthy words about both Scallion and his damned fancy car as I went back to work, feeling my right toe-claws pierce the vinyl seat covering for the second time that night. Fortunately, Scallion's toe-claws often did the same thing; he would never notice a few more pinhole rips. One more time I wedged my forepaws under the weather-strip bar and pulled with all my might...
...to no avail whatsoever.
Thunder boomed. Lightning flashed. I cursed Scallion to the nethermost regions, employing deep, black auto-worker oaths. Then, as if in reply, a single fat raindrop plopped down on the windscreen. "God damn this shit!" I screamed. It had been years since I'd been so angry and frustrated. Literally years! "God damn this whole fucking world all to hell!"
A second raindrop plopped down beside the first, and then a cold gust of wind caught the half-raised top. Very gently, to the accompaniment of various pops as the snaps I had labored so hard and so long over undid themselves, the breeze lowered the ungrateful thing gently down into the fully retracted position.
Just exactly where I'd started.
"God damn it!" I screamed again to the world at large. "Why does this kind of shit always have to happen to me? Why do I get stuck with all the dirty work while people like Scallion have it so fucking good? Why does it rain on me, while he's out making love to a beautiful woman?"
The world didn't answer, of course, except to send a particularly powerful bolt of lightning down to ground itself somewhere not too terribly far away. The thunder roared out almost instantly, and then the rain picked up a little. It could honestly be said to be drizzling now, and soon things would be far worse. Angrily I sat down in the driver's seat and crossed my arms. There was room for me in the trunk, I figured, if all else failed. I could keep myself warm and dry, though Scallion's precious toy would get a terrible soaking. Idly I reached out and turned the key, bringing the radio to life.
"...severe thunderstorm warning," the scratchy voice was saying between bursts of static. "Expect heavy downpours, hail and damaging winds. Persons living in low-lying areas..."
Angrily I snapped the radio off. Hail! It was every car owner's worst nightmare, particularly for aficionados of the more delicate models like the one I was sitting in. A good hailstorm could wipe Scallion's car out entirely, I knew. I pictured it deeply dented and broken, with Scallion looking forlornly over the damage. For just a moment I snarled fiercely. That would be a sight, now wouldn't it? Fair payment indeed for what he'd done to me, stranding me out here in the parking lot like this!
"Plop-plop," the raindrops said insistently. "Plop-plop."
There was only one possible solution, much as it galled me to play Scal's game for him. Pressing my lips together, I reached down and tried to fasten the seat belt. It was set a bit too tight, but a few insistent pulls on the adjuster with my teeth took care of that. Then I reached out around the huge steering wheel with both forepaws and tugged the choke into position, just so. Scallion was lucky, I told myself, damned lucky indeed that I knew how to drive such an archaic vehicle. Almost no one did these days, and a novice would have been utterly lost. He was lucky that I was his friend, by God, not the other way around! My whiskers bristled angrily one last time, and then I forced myself to inhale, exhale, inhale slowly and calmly. What I was about to attempt was stupid and dangerous enough, I told myself. There was no need to let my anger make things worse. Then I made absolutely certain that the transmission was in neutral -- there were no safety interlocks whatsoever. Next I released the handbrake, the lot being almost perfectly level, and tried to remember if there was anything else I needed to do.
Not really, I decided.
The spring on the ignition switch was too heavy for my forepaws to overcome, with only the head of the key available to use for leverage. I had to bend down and turn it with my teeth in order to make contact.
"Rrr!" the car said, in a voice somewhat deeper than that of my own old car. That was natural enough; the engine was larger. "Rrrr, Rrrr, Rrrr... Baroom!"
The car shuddered and vibrated like a thing alive; it tended to idle a bit roughly until it began to warm up. Slowly I eased the choke out as the lightning continued to flash all around me, and the thunder began to remind me of the clamor of the bowling alley I'd left a seemingly infinite time earlier. The storm was going to be a bad one, all right. There wasn't a moment to lose!
The pedals were set up very close to perfectly for me, I quickly established by experimentation, and the mirrors, while a little off, were close enough as well. There was virtually no traffic out so late with such bad weather threatening, and I didn't figure to need to see behind me very much anyway. So, before I could lose my nerve, I pawed the transmission into first gear, gave the car a little gas, let out the clutch...
...and, much to my surprise, started off across the parking lot as smoothly as if I'd never missed a day behind the wheel in my life.
It was a bit awkward making sharp turns, I learned as I pulled out onto the main road, though the spokes in the big wheel helped out a lot. Scallion had very good hands indeed, the lucky bastard, but they were weak. So he'd adapted one of the Scabs-friendly servo-units to his steering system, making the wheel nice and easy to turn while not reducing the road feel one iota. It hadn't cost much, he'd explained to me proudly on the day he'd first showed his car off to me. Not much at all, to someone as wealthy as him.
Shifting to second was even easier than starting out had been, and then I was suddenly in third and accelerating onto the freeway. The storm was moving in quickly; only at interstate speeds could I possibly stay ahead of it. There was more traffic than I'd anticipated waiting for me at the top of the ramp, and someone in a minivan refused to budge even an inch to let me in. There wasn't time to really think about it; effortlessly I mashed the accelerator to the floor and darted out in front of the van, ignoring its futile little beep of protest. "It's my road too, you asshole!" I murmured to myself, still angry at the whole situation. "So share it!" Then I shifted into fourth, and was seemingly flying down the road.
It would have been a truly beautiful night for a drive, had I not still been feeling resentful at how Scallion had cornered me into doing something I hadn't wanted at all to do. Brilliant electrical arcs played from cloud to cloud and then to the ground in a fireworks display that rendered anything mere Man could create weak and pitiful by comparison. The thunder roared out its deep dull booms, and Scallion's car felt willing and eager under my paws. I turned the radio back on, switching from the news station we had left on earlier to one playing music.
I was almost halfway home before I caught myself humming along with the heavy-metal rock station that I'd tuned in to. It was amazing, really. I didn't know if it was the car, or being so incredibly pissed off that I could hardly stand myself. But whatever the reason, it was truly a night for miracles.
Once upon a time, heavy metal had been my very favorite kind of music. But I hadn't been able to listen to rock music without getting all nervous and twitchy since I couldn't remember when.
Morning came much, much too early, especially since I'd spent most of the night fighting with Scallion's top. I could have left the thing lowered, once I'd parked it in the nice covered garage spot that was reserved for me as a Shelter worker. I absolutely hated failure, however, and knew that I wouldn't be able to rest until I'd met the challenge of getting both ends locked into place at once. It rained and blew and hailed outside, but I hardly noticed the weather at all. Nothing mattered except successfully raising the top, a challenge which I did not meet until I finally gnawed up a couple of wire coat hangers and twisted them into special tools. I'd always been a remarkably stubborn son of a gun in some ways, I knew. The trait had proven to be a major boon in placing some of my more challenging clients, even. However, it had been a very long time indeed since I'd let something mechanical rattle my cage in such a way.
It had been well after four when I'd finally snapped the last snap into place, and Shortcake and General Patton were long since asleep. One of the other staffers had fed them and changed their hay, she informed me in a nice note, and I'd felt rather ashamed at waking them up as I crawled in with them to sleep. They hadn't seemed to mind, however; indeed, they were relieved to snuggle with someone familiar after such a traumatic night of lightning and thunder. Even a few weeks ago, I knew, I'd have spent the whole evening snugged up in a little ball with them, a little afraid myself of all of the noise. It was a testament to how deeply Scallion had pissed me off, I decided as I finally lost consciousness, that I'd been able to keep functioning so well in the middle of a storm.
Fortunately my morning schedule was a light one. I had only one client to meet with in person, and for a mere follow-up appointment at that. Edgar Barton was a rat-morph whom I'd helped get on at a cabinet factory, where things were going well. He was gruff and short-spoken by nature, but made a sincere effort to smile and thank me for my help regardless. Sincerity always counted for a lot with me, and I was feeling genuinely warm and fuzzy when he left. It was only nine-thirty, and I had until three before going back to see Bugsy. I sighed and laid my head down on my paws for a moment, then got to work.
The phone number I dialed was one I'd memorized long since. "Police Department," a familiar voice said. "Homicide Division."
"Hi, Dan!" I responded. "This is Phil, from the Pig. Is Ken in?"
"Phil!" Dan replied cheerily. "Always good to hear from you. No, Ken's not in. He's on sick leave, I fear."
I felt the smile fade from my face. "Nothing serious, I hope."
"Oh, no!" Dan replied heartily. "Not at all. But he'll be out for another couple weeks or so, most likely."
It was perhaps inevitable that if Phlox's physical therapy could give me the ability to smile, then conversely it would also make me able to frown. Every silver lining had its own particular associated cloud, it seemed. I scowled slightly. "Hmm. I need some advice, Dan. For a client. It's a fairly serious matter."
There was a long silence. Ken Bronski took his obligations to his fellow Scabs quite seriously, and I knew that Dan-Man was well aware of the fact. "You know," the young man replied eventually, "you're still Ken's SCABS counselor of record."
I blinked. I'd seen the detective maybe three times professionally, many months back. He hadn't needed help so much as someone to talk to. Since then we'd just been friends. "Really?"
"Really!" Dan answered. "I just checked. And Department policy allows me to give out personal information to medical professionals under these conditions."
"Or at least Department policy does after you're done twisting it into a pretzel," I replied, my smile evident in my voice.
"Whatever," Dan agreed modestly. "Ken's over at City Hospital, Phil. He's not sick, not at all. But the SCABS clinic there has requested his assistance full-time with a little project. He's rather embarrassed by it, but I'm sure you'll agree that he's doing the right thing." The young detective paused. "Phil, to be quite honest, I'm glad you called. Ken's been over there all alone for over a week now; I'm the only one he's let in so far. He needs to see a SCABS counselor again, I think. Or at least, he needs to see another friend he can trust to keep his mouth shut. There's not too many people he'd be willing to talk to just now, but I think that you're probably on the list."
I pressed my lips together and nodded. Ken was a very strange character, in many ways. A full-morph ostrich was just about the most ridiculous thing that a leading homicide detective could possibly have been transformed into, yet Ken had made a good adaptation. He'd done it, however, largely by ignoring the change as much as possible. He treated it as an inconvenience more than anything else. However, from time to time circumstances arose which absolutely forced Ken to directly acknowledge the non-human aspects of his new body, and when that happened, his blood-pressure skyrocketed and his temper grew short. Dan was right, I was willing to bet. If Ken was directly involved in a SCABS-related project, he probably did need to see me professionally. "All right," I agreed. "I'll head over there just as soon as I can catch a ride."
* * *
The SCABS ward at City hospital was its usual wild self when I arrived about noon. I'd had business there more than once, and had volunteered my help from time to time as well. Therefore, in theory at least, I should have known exactly what to expect. The problem, however, was that SCABS was never quite the same disease twice.
"Raaawr!" cried out the cheetah-morph in the barred room along the main hallway as I edged by, pressed trembling against the far wall of the corridor. The cheetah salivated and clawed at the air madly as I passed, its nostrils dilated wide by my delicious scent. "Raaawr! Raaawr!"
"He'd surely like a piece of you, wouldn't he?" helpfully asked some sort of delicate-looking flying insect-morph in another locked ward. His bars had been festooned with mosquito netting; my guess was he went full-morph and non-sentient periodically.
"I reckon," I answered briefly, trying to speak as little as possible. My one beef with City Hospital was that I had to pass through either the carnivore ward or the reptiles on the way in to deal with the herbivore types, my usual clientele. Of the two the reptiles gave me by far the worse case of the heebie-jeebies, thus my choice of route. There was a little waiting room just ahead on the left; I dropped to all fours and hopped there as quickly as possible, the cheetah still roaring and screaming in frustration behind me. God, didn't they ever feed him?
"Hey, Phil!" an orderly cried out as she swung by overhead, moving from light fixture to light fixture. Greta was a full-morph spider monkey, and had briefly been referred to me before finding employment here at the hospital on her own. Greta was the best sort of client; self-reliant, willing, and determined.
"Hi!" I answered her retreating back, pleased to encounter a friendly soul after the cheetah-thing. Then I ducked into the waiting room to hide under the Norm chairs for a while, until my heartbeat slowed a little. A mother and five children were sitting not too far away, the kids ranging from a particularly beautiful little girl of about three to a boy of fourteen or so. I'm not an eavesdropper by nature, but with ears like mine you often can't help but listen in.
"...wanted a motorbike so bad!" the boy was saying to the next oldest, a girl of about twelve. "If I can live without that, then you don't need to go to ballet camp."
She looked down, then dug her sneaker absently into the carpet. "I guess," she said slowly. "Daddy can't go back to work, after all. Not as a paving machine operator, at least."
The mother nodded. "Thank you, Bethany," she said, reaching over and squeezing her daughter's hand. "And thank you too, Jimmy. I love you both so much!" She hugged each of them, then her other kids as well, all except for the littlest. She was a real cutie, that one, blonde and blue-eyed and dressed in colorful playclothes and tights. "So it's settled," she declared. "We can save enough money to get by until Daddy gets through with his special counseling."
"Yay!" said the middle girl.
"But I don't want to go to special counseling!" the littlest girl wailed. "They all want to molest me, the cocksuckers! Every last one of them!" She pawed at her crotch. "This is what they want, all of them! This!"
I closed my eyes for a moment in pain as the nurses came rushing over. It was all over in a moment, the squalling little girl hauled away presumably to be sedated, while the mother and her kids huddled together and wept. I let them leave before emerging from my little hidey-hole. If there had been something I could do to help, I'd have offered. However, the problem lay far, far outside my specialty.
The nurses all waved as I stepped up to the floor station. "Phil!" the supervisor greeted me with a smile. "Long time no see!"
"Good to see you, Bart," I agreed, showing off my new smile.
"I read the magazine article," he replied. "We all did. You're doing good work, Phil. Keep it up!"
I blushed and looked down. "I have a friend on this floor," I said after a moment, turning the conversation back to business. "Detective Ken Bronski. I'm here to visit."
Bart nodded. "Ken's down in two-thirty-two," he answered, not even checking the floor records. "But he's not taking visitors. By his request."
"Right," I agreed. "But the matter is extremely urgent. Can you ask him if he'll see me?"
The head nurse pressed his lips together, then nodded. "I wouldn't do this for just anyone, Phil. Your word that it's really and truly important?"
"It involves both his job and mine," I replied honestly.
Bart thought about it a minute, then nodded. He knew what both Ken and I did for a living, and clearly guessed something fairly close to the truth. "Wait here; I'll be right back." In less than two minutes, he returned to the counter. "He'll see you," the nurse said. "In fact, he sounded a little relieved to hear that you were here. He's bound to be a little bored by now. I'm glad that he's finally letting his friends help him out a little."
I raised my eyebrows. "Bored?"
Another nurse nodded, then met Bart's eyes and looked away. Clearly, whatever the big secret was, every nurse on the floor had to know about it. "Bored," Bart agreed. "Or at least I'd be bored if it was me. But then again, I'm not a Scab."
My ears flicked inquiringly, but no one said a word. "Come on," Bart finally said, opening a little gate and stepping out into the hall. "It's time for someone to check on the patient anyway. It might as well be me."
* * *
Room two-thirty-two wasn't too terribly far away, though we had to pass the entrance to the salt-water species area to get there. A pod of slow-walking dolphins heading for the exercise tank blocked the hallway, and my hindpaws got wet from the drippings off of their soaked robes. Still, it wasn't long at all before we were standing just outside Ken's room.
"All right," Bart cautioned me before opening the door. "You're a professional. I respect that. But you're a rabbit, too. I feel obligated to offer you a word of caution."
I nodded, though in my heart I found it hard to picture Ken as being in any way dangerous.
"Mr. Bronski is not entirely himself," Bart explained. "Due to circumstances beyond his control, he's been placed in a situation where he's had to come completely face-to-face with his condition."
I nodded again.
"Detective Bronski has been a model Scab," Bart continued. "He's even been a genuine hero, under very difficult circumstances..." The nurse let his words trail off, then shook his head and sighed. "Hell, come in and see for yourself, Phil. It's hard to explain, otherwise. Just be careful until you know the score. All right?"
One last time, I nodded gently. "All right," I answered in a very quiet voice, though in fact I hadn't a clue.
The door wasn't locked, I saw, though it might as well have been since the knob was of a style that neither Ken nor I was equipped to deal with. Slowly Bart swung it open, and gestured me inside. Suddenly I felt frightened. "Ken?" I asked aloud instead of advancing. "Ken? It's Phil."
"Phil!" Ken roared out in his deep, crackling and so un-ostrichlike voice. "Come on in! I'm so glad you came by!"
He didn't sound dangerous, I decided. Indeed, he sounded just like his normal self. I looked up at Bart, who smiled reassuringly and waved me inside once more. Then I gulped and stepped through the door.
The detective's suite was a perfectly ordinary SCABS ward, I saw at once, though set up for a plains-dweller. The room was perhaps thirty feet square, many times the size of a Norm hospital unit, and the walls were painted to resemble endless seas of grass spotted with the occasional baobab tree here and there. There was a railroad tie lying across the entryway, holding back the three inches or so of soft sandy soil that had been placed on the floor. Ken was standing in just about the middle of the room, and his head bobbed from side to side with pleasure at the sight of me. "Phil!" he declared again. "Good to see you! Did you bring any beer?"
"Good to see you too, Ken," I agreed a little more quietly. There was nothing wrong with Ken that I could see, nothing at all. And indeed Dan-Man had told me that Ken wasn't sick. Yet, here he was, in the hospital. What in the world was going on? "Are you actually allowed beer?"
"Sure he is," Bart declared. "After all, he's not sick. Nor a prisoner. I'll send out for some just as soon as I'm done here." Moving very slowly, the nurse showed Ken both of his hands, one of them bearing a stethoscope. "It's time, Ken."
Suddenly, my friend seemed a stranger. He lowered his head and examined Bart suspiciously first with one beady eye, and then the other. Then he kicked angrily at the sand, and hissed like a goose. "Ssss! Sssss!"
The nurse stood his ground, though I suddenly found myself standing behind his legs. "It's all right, Ken," Bart said slowly. "We've done this a thousand times, now. I'll be in and out in a minute."
Ken shook his head violently, then beat his wings two or three times in a threat display.
"Ken!" Bart said forcefully. "Detective Bronski! We must do this!"
Finally Ken let his head droop and lowered his wings. "I'm sorry," he whispered. "So sorry."
"It's all right," Bart answered evenly. "It's so good of you to volunteer for this in the first place. It must be terribly hard on you. We all understand." Very slowly, keeping one eye on Ken, Bart made his way over to where my friend was standing...
...and gently, without quite touching him, shooed him away from the single oversized egg lying at his feet.
I'm afraid that my jaw must have dropped, because Ken scratched at the ground awkwardly. "It's not mine," he explained. "Really, I'm not a hen."
"But in nature male ostriches help take care of the nesting duties," Bart continued smoothly as he listened to the egg with his stethoscope.
"Right," Ken agreed, just a little too eagerly. "And this egg is just too special to lose! It was laid by a Scab patient who was pregnant when the Change hit her. But she died."
Suddenly, I began to understand. "I see," I said slowly.
"Ken here is the only full-morph ostrich Scab on the Eastern seaboard," Bart explained. "He's doing us a great service by helping us keep this egg in the most natural environment possible."
"The Department gave me a three-month medical leave," Ken explained. "I really miss work. But..." Once more, his eyes riveted themselves onto the egg. "Are you about through yet?" he asked Bart irritably.
"Yes, of course," the nurse replied in soothing tones as he stood up and backed away from the egg. "Everything's fine. The little ticker is purring away, just like it's supposed to." Slowly Bart eased away from the oversized embryo.
"Good!" Ken purred, immediately dropping his head down to examine the thing more closely. Very carefully he poked and prodded at it with his beak, lifting the egg slightly and rolling it about a little. "Very good!"
"The embryo is full-morph," Bart explained to me. "Though of course it was once fully human. We don't know if the chick is going to be sentient or not, though. SCABS is just so damn weird."
I nodded, still at a loss for words.
"We're doing all we can for it, just in case." He nodded at Ken. "There's not much of a body of experience to go by on this sort of thing, but we've found that in similar cases Scab foster-parents make for better success rates. Especially when they're as well-adapted as the Detective here."
I looked back at my friend, who was still poking and prodding ever-so-gently at his egg. He was obsessed with the thing, totally obsessed. "He spent some time with a fake egg in recovery," I whispered to Bart. Ken's hearing wasn't the sharpest in the world, I knew from experience. "Are you sure that this is a good idea?"
Bart frowned. "He doesn't remember me, but I was on his case. I haven't forgotten. And no, I'm not sure. I'm not sure about anything anymore. But I'm just a nurse, not a doc." He raised his voice. "One beer for Ken. Would you like one, Phil?"
I usually didn't drink beer, but didn't want to be unsociable. "Sure," I answered.
Bart smiled. "Two beers then, coming up! I'll send a runner down to the store on the corner." He turned back to Ken. "This one's running up quite a tab. It isn't often that we actually have a patient healthy enough to allow drinking."
Ken bobbed his head in a mock-smile. "My sick leave is paid. Have two beers, Phil, and let's toast the taxpayers together."
"No," I declined. "Just the one, I think. It's still early, and I've got a lot of work to do."
Bart smiled again, then bustled off down the corridor.
Fatherhood was apparently quite a compelling experience for Ken, even in the surrogate form; once he got started, he could speak of little else. "I've been thinking," he said as teased the last beakful of beer out of his mug."
"Yes?" I asked.
"Well... If this egg does hatch, the chick will imprint on me right away."
"Very likely," I agreed. "Sentient or not."
Ken nodded eagerly. "Uh-huh! And it would be far too cruel for me to just walk away from the poor little thing, now wouldn't it?"
I looked away. Like me, Ken had no children of his own. And, again like me, he felt the lack terribly sometimes. "I suppose it might," I allowed after a time. "Are there any blood relatives?"
"None that I think will make any trouble," Ken answered, far too optimistically in my view.
"Then you might just find yourself in the fatherhood business," I continued.
"Yeah!" Ken answered, hopping back and forth in a little joy-dance, and then making a little pirouette. "Isn't life wonderful?"
I sighed and looked down at the egg. It seemed such a plain, ordinary thing to be evoking such a reaction in my friend. "Ken," I said slowly. "You know that a lot of what you're feeling is coming from your new instincts."
"Yeah," he answered, still happy-dancing around the room. From the footprints I gathered that he did that a lot. "I know. But what the hell? How is what I'm feeling so very different from what human father feels? Isn't that instinctual, too?"
"Probably," I answered with a sigh, "Though it seems different somehow."
The big ostrich kicked up a little sand in sheer exhilaration, then went back to roll the egg around some more. "They showed me films of ostriches brooding," Ken explained, a little self-consciously. "But I didn't need them, not really. It all just sort of came naturally."
I nodded. Ken was a usually a very quiet person, the sort who sat around the back of conversations at the Pig and listened a lot. This was the most I'd ever seen him talk. "I'll probably have to move," he continued. "The schools are terrible where I'm at. Though I'll stay in town, of course. We have the best SCABS facilities in the world here. And the little one here is going to need them. The chick is full-morph, just like me." The big bird sighed. "And, of course, I'll probably have to give up Homicide. In fact, I might even have to give up police work entirely. The hours are just all wrong."
I blinked at that. Ken's job wasn't just his source of income. It was his very identity. He'd broken a major SCABS related case a few months back that had earned him not just a commendation, but also a nomination for the national Cop of the Year competition. His first wife had made him choose between his job and her, and in my opinion, Ken being Ken, he'd made the right choice. "Are you sure about that?" I asked slowly. "I mean, having a chick is wonderful, and all that. But there are limits --"
Suddenly the ostrich was staring me in the face, his eyes cold and hard. "That chick is my life," he declared flatly. "Nothing can be allowed to threaten its future. Nothing! Do you hear me?"
Slowly I eased back a little further from the egg, though I hadn't been all that close to it. "Ken," I said slowly. "Listen to yourself! Yes, it's natural that you should become protective of the egg. But --"
"But nothing!" Ken declared, spreading his wings slightly and matching me step for step as I backed off. Finally, as I neared the wall, he relaxed a little. "Phil," he said slowly. "I know that maybe I'm a little fixated. But you can't possibly imagine how wonderful all of this is!" He turned back to the egg and wagged his head back and forth in a smile analog. "For the first time in my life, Phil, I'm happy. And what do you think of that?"
I licked my lips nervously, then clawed up a little dirt myself before replying. "Ken," I said after a long time. "You're not just a client. You're a friend."
"A good friend," Ken replied, wagging his head once more. "A damned good friend."
I nodded and smiled slightly. "Yes," I answered him. "Damned good. And I'm so very glad that you're happy. But I don't believe that you're thinking clearly right now. For example, have you even considered that the natural father might have something to say about all of this?"
Ken looked away. "The bastard hasn't even come by to visit," he spat. "What a useless piece of crap!"
"How about the grandparents?" I asked gently.
My friend looked as if he'd eaten something sour. "They've been by a few times," he allowed. "They're not allowed in to see me in person, but there's a camera. I don't know why they don't let them in."
I knew, I was quite certain. "Just think about them a little, Ken. That's all I ask. They've got rights too."
Ken turned away and gently pecked at the egg a few more times, then turned back to face me. "All right, Phil," he said very softly. "I'll try. Though it's not easy."
"Good," I answered. "Thank you."
"No," Ken answered sincerely. "Thank you." He waved around the room with his wings. "This is so... crazy. And I can't talk to anyone, hardly." He waggled his head. "You're about the only one I know who doesn't scare me right now."
I smiled. Part of me wanted to hug the Detective and smooth things out the rest of the way with a nice snuggle-session, but the physiology was all against that. "Call me any time, Ken. Any time."
"I will," he answered, making yet another check of his egg. This time he rolled it about quite a little ways and walked a complete circle around it, making sure that the thing was all right from all possible angles. "So," he asked at last. "The nurse said that you had some official business with me."
I blinked, having totally forgotten about Bugs and his troubles. "It can wait," I decided. There was no point in talking to Ken while he was indisposed. "I'll see another cop."
Ken looked at me and tilted his head first one way, and then the other. "Phil," he said after a time. "You wouldn't have asked for me if you thought just any cop would do."
Well, I reasoned, maybe the distraction would do Ken some good. "Hmm. You see, I've got a most interesting new client," I began...
Half an hour later, I knew that I'd made quite an impression. Ken was ignoring his egg for as much as two minutes at a time while he listened to me repeat Bugsy's story. "Burning Jimmy Vinson," he mused eventually. "Burning Jimmy. God knows I'd like to slap a pair of cuffs on him. Every cop in the state would. Though he's not in my jurisdiction, thank heavens."
I nodded. "He seems like a real piece of work."
Ken snorted. "That's one way to put it." Then he paused and looked thoughtful. "If your rabbit-guy is legit, and he's willing to turn state's evidence, I think the FBI would be glad to hear from him."
"Right," I agreed. "But there's more."
Ken cocked his head inquiringly.
"Bugsy is hardly an expert on SCABS," I began slowly. "But he thinks Jimmy has become an inanimorph. That's why he's wanting out, Ken. He's scared of him, now."
Ken whistled a single long, low note. I hadn't known he could still do that. "So that's why you looked me up," he whispered. Then suddenly he was all over the egg again, delicately rolling and nudging it here and there for a very long time before turning back to face me. "Phil," he said slowly. "If there's an inanimorph involved, get out. Right now. Call the Feds, and get out. You have no idea..."
"Oh yes I do," I answered grimly. "I got drunk with Dr. Stein not long after you took on that serial killer case you never talk about." I looked down at the ground. "You're very brave, Ken."
The Detective sighed. "Not really. Just stupid and stubborn. Mostly stubborn." Then he looked me in the eye again. "If there's even the faintest possibility that Burning Jimmy has gone inanimorph, then you need to get out, Phil. Hell, for that matter you need to get out even if he isn't. He's dangerous. And meaner than hell."
"I plan on getting out," I answered sincerely. "Believe me, there's nothing I want more than out of this one. But I've accepted Bugsy as a client; after all, he does need to find a new profession due to SCABS, doesn't he? It's what I do."
Ken snorted again.
I smiled. "Well, anyway, once someone has become my client I have certain obligations. It's a matter of honor. I have to see this far enough through to make sure that Bugsy is going to be all right. I insist on that."
"Or?" Ken asked. "You insist on seeing things through, or what?"
I pressed my lips together. "If I can't assure myself that Bugsy is going to be treated right, then I won't turn him in. Bugsy isn't even really his name," I declared, perhaps a bit unconvincingly. "I'm well within my rights as a counselor here. I'm quite certain of it."
Ken kicked a little sand over his egg, then turned back to face me. "You're really serious, aren't you?" he said at last.
I nodded firmly.
The ostrich sighed. "We're two peas from the same pod, you and I. Stubborn as can be. There's no point in even trying to talk you out of it." For a moment he stared off into space, considering. Then suddenly he came to a decision. "All right, Phil," he said. "We'll do it your way. I'll call someone I know down at the FBI this afternoon, and have them leave a message on your machine. The message will have something in it that proves they've spoken to me first. Under no circumstances will you say one word to anyone else. There's crooked cops everywhere, even in the Feds. All right?"
I gulped. The danger of opening up to a dirty cop hadn't even crossed my mind. "All right. Thank you, Ken."
He shook his head. "Don't thank me," he answered. "Please don't. I may have just gotten you killed."
* * *
Scallion had come and gone when I got home. His scent was fresh on everything, and he had left one of his omnipresent car parts catalogs lying out on his side of the sleeping cage. Shortcake and General Patton both smelled a lot like Scallion too, I noticed right away, and faintly of rut and Rebecca Harding as well. The mix was deeply disturbing somehow, though it should not have been. After all, Scallion was a widower, and Rebecca was a free woman as well. But still, to smell that particular smell here, in my sleeping cage, was terribly wrong.
General Patton particularly smelled of Scallion, whish was natural enough. He was far and away the biggest snuggle-bunny of my two companion rabbits. However, he wanted to snuggle with me, too, which meant that he was constantly pressing Scallion's personal odor into my face. Time and again I gently shooed the General away, but like a bad penny he came right back every single time. There was no escape short of banishing him from the sleeping cage, which I was loath to do. After all, most of the time I really liked him.
For that matter, I mused while lying awake staring at the ceiling, most of the time I was pretty fond of Scallion, too. A little jealous, even, just like Bugsy had been the very first time he'd laid eyes on the little brown lop. All of us rabbits were envious, really. After all, if you were going to have to live as a rabbit, what about Scallion wasn't there to be jealous of? Rap-Scallion was his nickname among the Downers, and it fit all too perfectly. He was full of fun and mischief, was unfailingly polite, and enjoyed universal popularity. I'd never, ever met a rabbit who was more comfortable in his new skin. Scallion was generous, too; I still rather suspected that he'd footed most of the bill for the expensive new laptop that had made my life so much easier of late. His trick with the car last night had clearly been well-intentioned; even as I had cursed the raindrops I had recognized that. Yet I was angrier at Scallion than I had been at anyone in years. Indeed, I was even hurting the feelings of the dear, gentle General just because he smelled like Scallion...
...and Becky Harding. And sheer, animal rut.
Suddenly everything leapt into focus and, moaning, I rolled over and pushed my companions away once more. So that was what I was so angry about, I suddenly understood! And what I'd really been so angry about last night. That was what had hit me hard enough to make me gnash my jaws and bare my teeth in rage and transform Scallion's name into a curse. It was as simple as that! He was getting laid. I wasn't. And the rabbit part of me, which was usually so gentle and sweet and which had for the most part actually made me a better person, simply couldn't stand it. I was jealous, in every sense of the word. Jealous, jealous, jealous!
Angrily I rolled over onto my stomach, pressing the General away once more. So once more all of my problems were my own fault, I mused. It wasn't like I didn't have a doe of my own; not hardly! Phlox was writing me every day, sometimes more often than I could possibly answer her. Her son liked me as well, and her in-laws wanted me to move in full-time, tomorrow if I liked. I might just marry Phlox eventually, I knew. And if I did, I might very well live happily ever after. Becky was nothing compared to that; the whole thing was clearly a one-night stand on the part of both partners.
And yet... And yet... Here I was, all tense and angry once again at the very idea of Scallion and Becky in bed!
It was an alpha-thing, I realized suddenly. The whole thing was about Alphahood, at least in my own twisted, bestial hare-brain. It didn't have to make any sense; feelings rarely worked that way. I didn't really care a whit about Rebecca, save that she was a nice girl. The problem was that I didn't control Scallion, that I hadn't mashed his head into the ground rabbit-style and made him subservient to me. After that, he could make love to Becky all he wanted, so far as the lapine part of me was concerned.
But he would do so only with my permission.
"Aaargh!" I moaned aloud as I thrashed around in anger and self-loathing. General Patton finally got the idea and went and hid in a far corner, while Shortcake sniffed at me in confusion. This was the stupidest thing in the world! Here I was making a close friend for the first time in twenty years, and instead of feeling good about it I was spending my time gritting my teeth and picturing myself driving his face into the ground. Could I never be happy about anything? What kind of crazy monster had I turned into, anyway? Hell, I deserved to be in the Colonies. I was much a slave to my animal nature as Ken with his damned egg!
Just then the phone rang. My home and office shared the same line, both to save money and because it allowed me to work by myself whenever I needed to. "West Street Shelter," I said slowly. "Phil speaking."
"Hello." The voice was very deep and cold, I noted right off. "Is this the Phil who Ken Bronski referred me to?"
"Could be," I replied evasively. Suddenly my heart was beating just a little bit faster.
"Right," the voice answered. "I am Special Agent Hernando Da Silva. Ken and I have worked together on several rather sensitive cases." He paused. "I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him since SCABS, but I have heard about his condition, of course. However, I must say that even knowing what my colleague Ken has become I have considerable difficulty picturing him caring for an egg."
I closed my eyes and relaxed a little; it was not until I'd done so that I realized how tense I'd become. "All right," I agreed. "You're who you say you are." I paused, then gave in to a mischievous impulse. "Told you all about it, did he?"
"In infinite detail once he got going," Da Silva replied dryly. "I'm quite certain of your own bona fides, by the way. Though I admit that what Ken has told me seems rather far-fetched, I am quite prepared to accept the Detective's judgment of your character." He paused. "We need to meet in person. In a safe place. Soon."
"In a very safe place," I agreed.
"Ordinarily I'd suggest the Blind Pig Gin Mill," Da Silva continued. "However, I gather that you're well-known there. A pity."
"We could meet in the park just down the street," I suggested. "It's public and open."
"Right," the Special Agent agreed. "It's supposed to be a very pleasant day tomorrow. Are there any benches overlooking the playground?"
"There are indeed," I recalled. "What time?"
"I want to meet with you just as early as possible. My office is a couple of hours away, however. Would ten in the morning do?"
I closed my eyes and tried to remember what was in my appointment book, then recalled that I'd left the day completely free to spend with Scallion. "Ten will do just fine."
"Excellent!" Da Silva answered. "Ten it is." There was a short silence. "Ken says that he has warned you about the dangers of what you're trying to do. Is this correct?"
"Yes," I agreed after a moment.
"Good," he replied. "Then I don't need to caution you not to speak to another living soul about this. Not even your client."
And with that, the line went dead.
By the time I was done talking to the FBI man I had only a few minutes left before I was supposed to go meet Bugsy. I made use of the time to place a phone call to a laundry that was hiring on behalf of a client, but it proved to be a waste of time. The jobs had already been filled.
Scallion was already at the Pig when I arrived, rather to my surprise. He was sitting at a table right up in the front window, playing some kind of board game against a few members of Wanderer's pack. "Phil!" he cried out excitedly as I stepped in. "Come on over! You're gonna love this!"
I was still a couple minutes early, so I approached the canines as closely as I dared. The game board was a featureless blue hologram, I could see, save for an embedded coordinate grid. The pieces seemed to be tiny warships.
"It's a kriegspiel," one of Wan's wolves said.
"Naval war game," Scallion interpreted. "Very realistic." He pointed to the next booth, where several computers including Scal's own sticker-adorned machine were wired together. "Takes one hell of a lot of power to support, though."
"He keeps winning and winning and winning," complained one of the wolves, pointing to Scal. "I've never seen anything like it."
Scal grinned knowingly at me, while I tired to suppress my own smile. He was an ex-admiral in the real Navy and an Annapolis grad, though he never told anyone. Suddenly there was a series of popping sounds, and then a line of very realistic miniature explosions appeared along the side of one of the larger ships.
"Oh, no!" the first wolf said, closing his eyes in pain.
"I love Long Lances," Scallion answered, beaming. "The Japanese really knew their torpedoes, eh?"
"That was the Astoria!" another wolf moaned. "There's nothing to support the invasion convoy now!" Scowling, he turned around to check the networking connections. "No one could be that lucky! Not even a damn rabbit!" Scallion's grin merely widened, however. It had not been luck, and both he and I knew it.
I had to admit that I was fascinated. As Scallion well knew, naval history was a passion of mine. While I wasn't in his league, I'd probably make a fair fleet commander. But I had other business, and I wasn't about to sit down at a table full of predators in any event. "That looks really cool, Scal," I agreed. "But I've got an appointment in the back again. See you in a couple hours?"
My friend's smile faded somewhat, but he understood that my work was important. "Sure," he agreed. "I need a vice-admiral to help me show these pointy-teeth how it's done."
Suddenly I was smiling again. So they were predators; they clearly couldn't command a fleet worth a damn. "Let's play an Atlantic scenario," I suggested. "We could experiment with German wolf pack tactics, and see who can do better. Us, or them."
"Grrr!" complained one of the lupines.
"It's a date!" Scallion replied, delighted at the idea. "Assuming, that is, that our esteemed competitors have no other pressing business?"
Just then, there were more popping sounds, and a line of waterspouts appeared alongside a second ship; the New Orleans, I saw when I leaned over and squinted. The cruiser sank in seconds.
"Damn!" hissed a wolf. "He did it again! How did he know..."
"He's just lucky," I assured him over my shoulder as I hop-stepped towards the back of the bar, and as Scallion sat smiling smugly. "All of us rabbits are just as lucky as can be. It's the only reason we survive."
* * *
Bugsy wasn't there yet when I arrived back at my usual booth, which was perhaps to be expected since I was still ten minutes early. I ordered a Bloody Mary with no vodka, in deference to my shortage of shuteye, and sat down to wait.
Ten minutes passed, then twenty. Scallion's game was proceeding well, I could tell by listening. From time to time I heard the roaring engines of insect-like aircraft, punctuated by the popping of tiny firecrackers. For a time Wanderer's boys seemed to be making something of a comeback, judging by their cheering, but it was only temporary. Pretty soon there was nothing but silence coming from the lupine side of the bench, as the Imperial Japanese Navy, under Scallion's firm command, cleared the seas of Yankees once and for all.
A Vice-Admiral's job, he had offered me. Vice-Admiral...
Suddenly I was grinding my teeth in anger and frustration again. Dealing with Scallion was so damned difficult! It was like riding a roller-coaster, full of unsuspected emotional ups and downs. And what was worst of all, the problems were entirely my own damned fault! The little brown lop had been nothing but considerate and pleasant to me; even his one isolated 'pushy' action had been intended to help me deal with my problems. I'd done the same sort of thing for clients a thousand times. It was my own pride and ego that were getting in the way. My own rabbity ego, that wanted to bully and dominate! Part of me!
It was tragic, really. As a rabbit I seemed to thrive on pain and suffering and tragedy. Around them, I was an island of calm determination. But now that I was being offered friendship, when I was being given the chance to experience the good parts of being a member of gentle, loving lapine society, I was going to pieces!
Bugsy was all of half an hour late when I really began to start worrying about him, and forty minutes late before Donnie came over bearing a slip of paper. "Your friend called," it read. "He says thanks for trying, but it's hopeless. He won't be seeing you today."
Donnie stood and waited while I read and digested the note. Then I pressed my lips together and looked up at the big bovine. "Can you get the me phone number that this call came from?" I asked. "It may be very important."
He nodded, and walked away. Within a minute he was back with another slip of paper. On it was neatly written a ten-digit number. "Thanks," I answered, getting up from my table. "Thank you so very much."
The barkeep smiled slightly, then waved away my money when I tried to pay for the tomato juice. He was a sharp one, was Donnie. He could tell that I was having a bad day. Then, after he left I sat alone for a while longer, listening to Scallion and the Lupines rewrite history and drawing pointless little geometric shapes in the condensation from my glass with a foreclaw. Ken was right, I knew. Taking on Bugsy as a client was dangerous. Damned dangerous, even. The only smart thing for me to do was simply to cancel my meeting with Special Agent Da Silva and go play games with Scallion and the rest. No one would blame me at all if I did exactly that. Accepting so much risk was too much to expect out of anyone, least of all a rabbit. But damnit, Bugsy was a client! I'd never let a client quit on me yet. Not that easily, at least.
Suddenly I was gritting my teeth and mad as hell again. I was damned if I'd settle for second-best. I wasn't going to be a Vice-Admiral. Or at least I wasn't going to be one in my own heart, where it really mattered.
I might very well be turning into an asshole, I realized. But by God if I was going to be an asshole, I vowed, at least I'd be an asshole that got things done!
An hour later, I was riding down the highway in Scallion's sports car. I'd had to beg off the naval game, though it had looked like a lot of fun, and Scallion had cheerfully left with me. "So," I asked again. "Tell me what you're going to do."
"I'm going to drop you off three blocks away from the Thunderbird Bar and Grill," Scallion replied, clearly a little irritated that I didn't seem to trust him to remember his part. And, to be fair, this was certainly far from the most complex operational plan he'd ever dealt with. "Then I'm going to go over to the Bountiful Garden and wait for you. It you're not there in two hours, I call your friend Detective Bronski."
I nodded. "I hear the food is great at the Garden," I repeated once more. "It's run by a cervid Scab."
Scal nodded. "Right. Chinese food made by a deer-morph. I can hardly wait." His tone was less than enthusiastic. "Phil, I wish that you'd tell me..."
I shook my head firmly. "No," I answered flatly. "I can't." In point of fact, Bugsy had called me from the Thunderbird to cancel our appointment, and I wanted to look around on the off-chance that he might still be there. There was no way that I was going to get Scallion wrapped up in this mob business, no way. "I'm sorry, Scal. But if we traded places, you'd be telling me exactly the same thing. Trust me on this."
Scal sighed and turned once more to face the road. "I do trust you, Phil," he said after a very long time. "I really and truly do." A large insect struck the windshield with an audible smack, and Scallion regarded its mortal remains in distaste for a moment before continuing. "But there's something wrong, isn't there?"
I looked away.
"It's not just this one thing," my friend continued. "It's been the whole trip. You seem almost hostile to me, sometimes. We haven't even snuggled very much."
I nodded. "I know, Scal."
The lop turned towards me. "We're rabbits, Phil. Snuggling is important to us. It's what we do to communicate. When we don't snuggle, there's something wrong. Are you mad at me about something?" I thought for a minute about how to answer, but before I could Scallion was speaking again. "I've really liked and admired you for a long time, you know. I first heard about you through the Downers, then I checked out your website, and then I fixed things up so we'd be roommates at the big lapine meeting last year."
"I kind of suspected that you'd arranged that," I answered after a while.
"And then... And then you got me back together with my son! Do you have any idea of what that meant to me? Can you possibly imagine?"
I waved a paw dismissively. "I didn't do any such thing. That was bound to happen on its own."
"Like hell!" Scallion countered, his eyes flashing angrily. "Like goddamned hell it was going to happen on its own! You showed me that everything I've ever heard about you was true. You're one of the finest rabbits there is! Even your Downer initiation showed just how special you are. I took three weeks off just so I could spend more time with you, to maybe learn something from you and be more like you. And now you're mad at me, and I don't know why. Can you imagine how much that hurts?" He paused for a moment, and when he spoke again his voice sounded strangled, as if he were on the edge of tears. "Did I push too hard on the car? For God's sake, Phil, I was just trying to help!"
For a very long time I just sat there, staring down the road and yet seeing nothing. A carload of kids came by and passed us, children and parents alike waving gaily at the unusual sight of two rabbits riding in a sports car. Yet neither of us could find the energy to wave back. You could see the disappointment on their faces as they receded into the distance. "It's my fault," I said at last. The words were ugly and bitter, yet they were still more palatable than a lie would have been. "Every bit of this is my fault. No, you haven't pushed too hard, Scal. Not at all. It's me that's screwed up."
"Damnit!" Scal answered, striking the steering wheel a single frustrated blow. "So what is it, then? Tell me!"
I hadn't slept much the night before; reality seemed a little blurred and distant. "I can't," I whispered at last. "I want to. More than anything I want to. I've had more fun with you than I have with anyone for years. Even before SCABS. But I just can't."
"You just can't," Scallion repeated back after a time. "You just can't. Don't you trust me?"
I closed my eyes slowly. "With my life, Scallion," I answered. "With my life."
"Yeah," he answered sarcastically. "Sure, you trust me all right. But you can't tell me about your mystery client, and you can't tell me why you're mad at me. You also don't want to snuggle any more. Yeah, sure thing. You trust me all right." Suddenly our exit came up, and Scal literally tossed the little car into the curve. Down we raced to the surface streets below, tires squealing in protest.
And there still wasn't a damned thing I could say.
Predictably, the Thunderbird was located in a rough neighborhood. It was still nicer than the area around the Shelter, however, and there was plenty of cover about. Even better, there were almost no Scabs around, which meant that the only carnivore spoor came from domestic dogs and cats. Trying to be unobtrusive, and also trying not to think about my little chat with Scallion, I made my way from mailbox to parked car to covered doorway until, precisely three blocks later, I found myself in front of the Thunderbird Bar and Grill.
For a moment I stood in front of the big plate glass window and looked things over. The Thunderbird was a smaller place than I'd pictured, containing perhaps twenty tables. However, the bar itself was larger and more ornate than you'd usually find in such a dirty, ill-kept place. I rather suspected that it was a leftover from when the neighborhood had been a little more prosperous and the clientele a bit more genteel. The air all around the Thunderbird stank of burned grilled cheese, and altogether it was not the kind of place I wanted to be.
Suddenly the door was flung open energetically, and I almost leapt out of my skin. "...take care of it, Jimmy!" a suited man with a heavy five-o'clock shadow darkening his jaw was saying over his shoulder. "I'll take care of it real good!" He bustled on by literally without even seeing me.
There wasn't any special doorknob here like there was at the Pig to ease access for Scabs like me, nor was there any special doormat to provide traction for my hindpaws. It was now or never if I wanted to get in, I recognized as the door swung towards the shut position. Now or never!
But I didn't move a muscle as the door closed inches away from my nose. My feet might as well have been anchored in concrete. I was a rabbit, after all. Not a hero.
"Hey, Boots!" the suited man cried as he strode up to one of the several black luxury sedans lined up in front of the Thunderbird. He tapped the car's roof impatiently. "Hey, Boots! Wake up, will ya? We gotta make a run." Then the car door swung open from the inside, the man who'd walked past me slipped effortlessly into the passenger seat, and the vehicle roared off.
For just a moment longer I stood there frozen in place, and then I couldn't stand it any longer. In one fluid motion I dropped to all fours, raced across the sidewalk, and then dove headfirst into the trash can sitting on the street corner, my heart beating about a thousand times a minute. It took perhaps half an hour for me to calm myself down, the process hurried along by a decomposing ham and cheese sandwich that someone had discarded perhaps three days back. Eventually, however, my heart tired of its triphammer impersonation, and I was able to raise my head up far enough to look the situation over from a safer vantage point.
Sadly, half an hour hadn't changed the Thunderbird very much, or at least it hadn't changed enough for me to notice. Everything was just the same, save that the dive no longer stank of burned grilled cheese. Though, of course, the rotting sandwich at my feet might merely have been masking the odor.
Just then another black luxury car pulled up into the spot vacated by Boots and his friend, this one an expensive imported coupe. A slightly older man with a heavy scar on his left cheek got out and began to walk towards the door.
I gulped. In theory, this wasn't my last chance to get in. People would be coming and going all day. I knew, however, that if I chickened out again, I'd never enter the Thunderbird, and I'd never see Bugsy again. So, before I could really think things through, I popped out of the trash can and came up close behind the man walking across the sidewalk. He had rings on all of his fingers, I noticed immediately, each festooned with huge jewels of different colors. And he was wearing a heavy gold cuff link on each sleeve, as well.
"Heya, guys!" the man I was following said with an easy wave as he stepped into the air conditioning. "Tolliver! Gat! Boojums!" He paused, and I almost ran into the back of his legs. "Where's Jimmy?"
"In da back," a rather dull-looking man sporting a shiner answered him, jerking his thumb in the appropriate direction. "Doing business." Then his gaze shifted to me, and his eyes narrowed. One of his hands disappeared into a suit coat pocket, and suddenly his expression didn't look so dull after all. "Who's da rabbit?"
"What rabbit?" the ring-man asked, turning around.
I tried to speak, but couldn't. Then I worked my jaw, looked directly down at the ground, and forced the sound to come out. "I just want a drink," I answered, the words barely audible. "Isn't this a bar?"
There was a long silence. "Sure it's a bar!" a new voice said from the back. "Sure! The Thunderbird is just an ordinary, common bar! What else could it be?" I looked up. The new voice came from a surprisingly young-looking man with brilliant red hair and dead gray eyes. "Here!" the redhead said, slapping a barstool. "One of my best friends became a SCAB-bunny a few months back. Your money ain't no good here today, SCAB-bunny." He looked at the barkeep. "The bunny drinks free."
"Right, Boss," he agreed easily, wiping a glass. "What'll you have, rabbit?"
I pressed my lips together. A place like this wasn't likely to have carrot-juice in stock, or even a paw cup for me to drink from. That meant that I needed something easy to handle, both for my appendages and my stomach. Better to keep things simple, I decided. "I just want a beer," I said. "In a mug, if you've got one." Then I nodded to the red-head. "Thanks."
He smiled back, his cheeks flushing a vivid red. Apparently they performed this maneuver on the slightest excuse. "No problem, bunny rabbit!" he declared loudly. "Never let anyone say that Burning Jimmy Vinson is a bigot." Then he made an elaborate little bow, which I acknowledged with a nod. "Heya, Pete," he said, turning to the ring man. "Good to see ya! Come right on back to my office. I need to have a word with you."
"Right, Boss," Pete agreed, and then the two men were gone.
The beer wasn't quite as bad as I expected it be, though it wasn't worth much more than I'd paid for it. Nor was the Thunderbird much for atmosphere, I decided as I sipped at my drink and looked idly around. The two guards never seemed to take their eyes off of me for a second, I noticed, though they weren't in any way overtly threatening. The bartender seemed mostly interested in minding his own business. This was probably a healthy habit, considering. In any event, he clearly wasn't interested in making small talk. And, equally naturally, Jimmy's 'office' in the back was soundproofed very well indeed; I could not overhear a single word of what was transpiring back there, despite my oversized ears. I nursed my drink as well as I could without being obvious, ostentatiously lapping up the golden fluid in tiny sips rather than picking up the mug and drinking like a human, as I was in fact quite capable of doing given that the mug had a nice handle I could wedge a paw under. There was only about an inch of beer left when the door in back swung open.
"There he is!" Jimmy declared, pointing right at me. "See? I toldya so, didn't I? Another bunny, just like you!"
And there, standing at the mob boss' feet, was my client Bugsy.
For just a second our eyes met, and then in a flash of cream-colored motion my client was gone. "Hah!" roared Jimmy, looking at me. "My friend is afraid of you, rabbit."
I shrugged and tried to look cool and collected. "Whatever," I answered. Then I slurped down the last of my beer and hopped down from my barstool. "Thanks again for the beer, mister," I said, acknowledging the mob boss with a casual wave. "It was mighty decent of you." Then I headed across the lobby to the men's room.
These facilities were in even more decrepit shape than the Thunderbird itself, though clearly an effort was underway to keep the place clean. The old-style porcelain tile floor was deeply cracked in many places, as was one of the urinals. It was probably natural enough that a faint aura of rotting urine emanated from these cracks, seeing as how they would be impossible to wash out. In the barkeep's defense, however, I'd been in a lot worse. The offensive odor probably wasn't even detectable to a human nose.
There were three stalls in addition to the urinals, and I looked inside each one as I passed them by. The first two housed conventional toilets, but the third, as I hoped, contained a public-style disposable litterbox. I sniffed at it delicately; the thing reeked of Bugsy, naturally enough. A rabbit does not just utilize a litterbox for its designed functions; it's also where he goes when he's upset or traumatized. Very carefully I stepped inside and waited.
It wasn't thirty seconds before Bugsy came leaping in after me. "Jeez!" he whispered angrily, in tones so low that only our sensitive ears could make out the words. "Are you a fucking idiot, or what?"
"Are you my client, or not?" I countered, letting my own fears melt into anger.
"Goddamn!" Bugsy hissed, looking away. "Talk about sticking your head right into the lion's mouth! Will you please get the fuck out of here, and never come back?"
I looked Bugs straight in the eye. "Only if you can tell me that you really don't want out," I countered.
He was unable to meet my gaze. "Jeez!" he repeated. "You're gonna get us both killed!"
"Maybe," I answered. "Now, tell me that you really don't want out of all this."
Bugs closed his eyes. "I love it here," he answered finally. "Burning Jimmy is like a father to me. These other guys are my brothers. Now fucking leave, willya?"
Ostentatiously I sniffed at the air. "You're lying," I declared. "Aren't you?"
Bugsy closed his eyes and sighed. "I don't want to fuck up anyone else's life," he said after a long time. "Not ever again. That's not a lie."
"No," I agreed. "It's not. And that's the reason I came." I paused. "Bugsy, I'm making some arrangements on your behalf. But I need to know something. If I call you out of here, are you going to come? Or are you going to be 'afraid to get on the bus' again?"
He sat silent, staring at the litter under our feet.
"I've got to know, Bugs," I pressed, half-hoping he'd convince me that he wasn't strong enough to turn on his friends. That way I could go home, too. "Before I stick my neck out any further, I've got to know. Are you brave enough to come out?"
For a very long time Bugsy didn't look up. Then he drew an elaborate pattern in the litter with his hindpaw. "Yes," he answered in a small voice. "I think I am. Jimmy wants me to ride along on a hit, to prove to myself that I still can, he says." Then he looked up, and I saw just how full of pain his eyes really were. "I can't do it, Phil. Well, maybe I could do it, physically. But I just can't, if you know what I mean. It feels dirty and wrong. I don't want to be like that any more."
This time it was my turn to sigh and look down. "Welcome to the human race, Bugsy," I said at long last. "Welcome back to humanity, courtesy of SCABS." Then I reached over and hugged him. "I'll take care of everything," I promised. "It's the least I can do. Call me as soon as you're ready."
In truth, I hadn't thought that the Bountiful Garden would amount to much, any more than Scallion had. However, I was quite pleased to be proven wrong. From the moment I got out of my cab and walked in, my nostrils were delicately tickled by delicious odors. I inhaled once, then sort of drifted into the lobby on a pink cloud of ecstasy.
"Here!" Scallion called out as I entered the orientally-ornate dining room. Then he waved eagerly, just to be sure. "Here!"
The waitress smiled knowingly at me, and I grinned back. There were already three empty plates in front of my friend, and he was working on a fourth. At times, I would have been willing to bet that Scal could eat his own weight in good food. My friend had gotten us the best table in the house, too, right next to the fish tank. Goldfish are a tradition in Chinese restaurants, but this tank was very special indeed. It was globular, and perhaps seven feet across.
Inside this tank, a goldfish Scab literally danced to the quiet Oriental background music.
It was one of the most amazing things I'd ever seen. The fish-woman (her dance was definitely feminine) was a thing of incredible beauty in her own right, covered everywhere with shining golden scales and festooned with long, frilly fins. Slowly she swam back and forth in her tiny amphitheater, literally floating effortlessly as she twirled and kicked and dipped. It was as if a belly dancer had donned permanent veils, or a leaping ballerina had finally freed herself from gravity at long, long, last. The piscine's dance was joyful, erotic, sensuous. I'd never even imagined anything like it.
"Her name is Mona," Scallion whispered as I sat down across from him, clumsy because I would not take my eyes off of the spinning, graceful apparition in the oversized bowl. "The waitress told me."
"My God!" I whispered. "She's incredible!"
"Yes," Scallion agreed. "And the food is even better."
Presently the song ended. There was a smattering of applause from the Garden's patrons, and then Mona bowed and darted down through a pipe connected to the bottom of her little stage. "She'll be back later," Scal promised. "I've already checked. There's another show at nine."
I looked at the clock mounted above the men's room; it was only seven-thirty. But Scallion was right. Tired as I was, there was no doubt whatsoever in my mind that we were going to wait to see Mona dance again. "Right," I agreed.
Presently I was surrounded by steaming plates, the contents of which Scallion was only too happy to share with me. The food was absolutely delicious, and even the odor of the meat-containing dishes being eaten by the other customers wasn't enough to ruin my appetite. "What a wonderful place!" I said after gobbling down the last delicately spiced green bean from what had once been a generous portion indeed. "I can't believe that I've never come here before."
Scallion frowned. "You don't get out much, you know. I've rarely met such a stay-at-home. You haven't been anywhere, not even in your own home town."
I sighed and looked down at the table. I could either have things out with Scal, I decided, or not. For just a moment I thought things over, then decided to throw caution to the wind. "I'm a rabbit," I explained as if to a child. "I know that you're a rabbit, too. But you're incredibly lucky. Most of us can't get out very easily, don't like new places --"
"Can't drive," Scallion interrupted coldly.
"Can't drive," I agreed after a moment. "Scal, I can't drive either, you know."
"Really?" he asked, arching his brows theatrically. "And here I couldn't find a single new scratch on my car. A couple new toe-claw holes, yeah. But they were my own fault." He looked away. "Phil, I never meant to stick you with raising the top in a storm. That was too much. I am sorry about that part."
I snorted. "The weather prediction was for clear and warm. Don't sweat it. Besides, part of me enjoyed the challenge."
Scal relaxed a bit. Clearly, he was relieved. "I never would have figured you'd manage it," he said after a time. "I am so lucky not to have forepaws. Phil, sometimes I forget you do have them, you manage so well. I'm truly sorry."
I pressed my lips together. "Scal, it's not about the top. You're right, there's stress between us. Things are not working out as well as they could be. But it's my fault, not yours. Truly it is." I looked away. "I've had a wonderful time since you've come into town, Scal. I've been places I've never been, done things I didn't think I could do..." I sighed. "You're such a good guy, you know. You really are."
Scal toyed with a lettuce wrap for a moment, thinking. Then he looked up and met my eyes. "If it's not about the top, maybe it's about the driving?"
"Well," I began. "It wasn't exactly safe for you --"
"Wasn't safe my ass!" Scallion suddenly roared out, loudly enough that heads turned for several tables in every directions. "Phil for crying out loud! Anyone who knows you can see how much you used to love automobiles! Hell, they were your profession. And you still love them, deep down inside!" He leaned forward, placing both hands on the table for balance. "I'm no SCABS counselor, Phil, much though I'd like to be. But I'm not a goddamned fool, either. I've been judging people's character and abilities since I was put in charge of my first plebe barrack back at Canoe U! There wasn't any traffic last night, and knowing you like I do, I knew that you were as safe as snuggling."
Scallion's jaw was jutting out, I noticed, and his eyes were flashing angrily. His lips were pulled back, displaying his incisors even more prominently than usual. And I could take no more. Suddenly I was standing atop the table, my forepaws raised for combat. "God damn you!" I hissed. "God damn you, you arrogant, lucky, womanizing, rich, ring-knocking son of a bitch!"
Then, just as I was about to fall on Scal's head with all my weight in a quintessentially lapine dominance challenge, a very familiar voice spoke from behind me.
"Phil!" demanded Phlox. "Scallion! What in the world is going on here?"
Suddenly I froze, unable to move or speak. My God, what was she doing here?
"What's wrong?" Phlox asked again, apparently unable or unwilling to deduce the obvious, that I been just about to initiate a brawl with my best friend.
"I... Uh..." I replied. Then the enormity of what I had been about to do fell on me like a ton of bricks, and I dropped from the table to the floor and ran out of the restaurant just as fast as I possibly could.
There wasn't any point in going back inside, I decided after an hour or so had passed. There wasn't any point to that at all. I was huddled under a four-wheel-drive vehicle, feeling very lonely and miserable. Which I deserved, of course, after what I had done.
"You're not fit for decent company, Phil," I murmured to myself as the tears began to flow again. It was the third time. "You're not worthy of friends like Scallion and Phlox." If I just waited long enough, I decided, they would finally quit cruising the neighborhood looking for me, and I could catch a taxi home and go back to my old life, the one I'd been living before the Watership Downers, before the speaking tours, before Scallion's sports car and Phlox's son Justin.
The life where I sat home alone and miserable all of the time, but at least did not physically assault anyone whose only mistake was to like and care about someone like me.
Then the tears really started to flow, and finally I just couldn't hold it in any longer. I wailed like a rabbit who'd lost his doe, like a buck who'd lost his best friend, like a man who'd just thrown away the best things that life had ever dealt him. I wailed and wailed and wailed, not caring what predators I might attract and honestly rather hoping that a pack of dogs might come and end my eternal misery, or a Scab tiger perhaps, or an angry mob boss. I rolled over on my back, and exposed my throat to all comers. Anyone! I begged mentally. Anyone! Please come and help me the only way that I can possibly be helped!
"My God, he sounds bad," Phlox's voice observed from someplace very close. I started, then rolled over on all fours to run away yet again.
"He's been bad all week," Scallion observed from the other flank. I was surrounded! "Something's terribly wrong," he said angrily. "Terribly wrong! But he just won't tell me what!"
"He's a stubborn bastard," Phlox observed from even closer. "I've never met such a hard-headed rabbit in my life. Not many humans, either."
"That's his secret," Scallion observed. "He keeps winning for his clients because he simply refuses to lose. I've known officers like that. 'When the shooting starts, they call for the sons of bitches', one of them said. He won World War Two, or at least the Navy part of it. But officers like that are never very happy. Nor easy to live with."
There was a pair of rabbit feet on each side of me now. Scallion I could outrun at need; he tended to trip over his lop ears when making sharp turns. But Phlox was a fitness nut. I didn't stand a chance of getting away now.
"There's clearly something wrong," Phlox answered after a moment. "The Phil I know would never dream of hurting a fly. He's done a lot of good for a lot of people."
I sighed. They knew where I was; there wasn't any point in even trying to pretend any more. "Words are not enough," I said slowly. "Words do not even begin to be enough. But Scal, I am terribly, terribly sorry."
There was a long silence. "All right," he answered. There was pain in his voice, though, enough pain that I winced at the sound of it. My God, did he really care that much what I thought of him?
"Come on out, Phil," Phlox urged. Then she bent over, and I was looking into her face. She was beautiful, was Phlox, even when she was hurt and confused. "It's past time for running away."
* * *
It didn't take long for Scallion to find an empty stretch of highway, once Phlox and I got comfortable together in the passenger seat. Being so small could be quite an advantage, sometimes.
"...and so I decided to drop in for a couple days, once the conference was over," Phlox was explaining as we drove into the lonely darkness. "Kind of as a surprise. Scallion here told me where to meet you guys."
I nodded weakly; my head was pounding, and my eyes still burned from all the tears. "I see." Then, I smiled weakly. "Well, you sure as hell surprised me!"
Scallion snorted bitterly from the driver's seat; he'd said hardly a word since leaving the parking lot. Nor had I had much to say to him, either. What do you say to a man after nearly assaulting him for no good reason?
"Yes," Phlox replied archly, looking away from me. No one wanted to meet my eyes, it seemed. Not that I blamed them. Impulsively, Scallion turned right at a country intersection, and then we were cruising slowly down a blacktopped side road that seemed to run between eternal cornfields. A mile passed, then two, then five. Still the silence went on.
"I'm also sorry I didn't pay," I said finally. "I will, you know."
Scal waved the issue away with a forepaw, just a tiny bit too forcefully. "It's nothing," he muttered. "I'm rich. Remember?"
There wasn't anything I could say to that, not anything at all, though I could feel the hot blood flowing up into my face and ears. It was just as well that it was so dark; I had never been so embarrassed in my life.
"Not that being rich is all that bad a thing, mind you," Scal continued. "And I'll admit that I'm a womanizer too, nowadays. My wife is long dead. I'm also very lucky, as a rule. I might even admit to being a bit arrogant from time to time. In my opinion, I've earned the right to be a little arrogant." Then Scallion's voice broke. "But a ring-knocker? Phil, I never..."
My eyes closed slowly. The insult had indeed been uncalled-for, and had obviously cut deep. 'Ring-knocker' was a derogatory term for graduates of the various military academies who continually called attention to their special status. Ring-knockers felt superior to Reserve officers and the like, and often carefully called attention to the class rings which set them apart. They were generally stuck-up bastards in the other facets of their lives, too. I'd read about them many times while studying history.
No, Scallion had not deserved that one. Suddenly I was crying again.
"I'm so sorry!" I babbled. "So goddamned sorry that you wouldn't believe it."
"But why, Phil?" Phlox demanded. "Why did you do it?"
I looked off to the right, so no one could see my face. "Because I'm jealous," I answered eventually. "I've been green with envy since the minute I met Scal." Then I turned back towards the lop. "It's a measure of just how goddamned likable you are that I kept trying."
Scallion looked at me for a moment in disbelief, then turned back to the road. "You're jealous of me," he said slowly. "You are jealous of me."
I nodded miserably. "Uh-huh."
"And why?" he asked after a time.
"Your hands," I began. "Your driving. Your long family pedigree. And..." I gestured futilely. "Just who you are. You're the best-adapted rabbit I've ever met! And I've met plenty. Just how is it that you can be so goddamned happy?"
Scallion closed his eyes for a moment before replying. "Why fight it?" he asked. "I'm small and cute. Why shouldn't happy go along with that?"
"I've never been happy!" I raged, stamping on the old car's floorboards. "Never! And you know what's worst of all? It's my own fault! I didn't graduate college. Why? Because I was too big an asshole to finish school. I had people ask me to run for higher office all of the time back at Universal Motors. Yet I never did. I could have had scholarships out the yin-yang, but I said no."
"At every opportunity, you've always torpedoed yourself," Phlox said gently. "Phil, I've known this about you for months. It's hardly an uncommon syndrome."
I sighed. "I could have gone to West Point," I said to Scal. "But I didn't have the balls to see it through. You did." I paused. "Tell me, didn't you ever stop and think that my interest in all this military history was a bit unusual?"
"I did," Scal replied softly. "And I rather suspected."
God, were my inner workings that transparent? I shook my head slowly. "I'm a loser," I said slowly. "A might-have-been. I learned to accept that about myself a long time ago, though I never learned to love the taste. Then Scabs came, and I became an even bigger loser. In fact, I became such a big loser that I finally found the strength to stand up and challenge the whole thing in court."
"You won," Phlox pointed out gently.
"My lawyer won," I corrected her. "I just sort of rode along. Then I had to try and adapt to this ridiculous new life, and try and find something useful to do with my days, lest I go mad."
"More than useful," Scallion said softly.
I looked away. "I won't deny that I've done fairly well," I said slowly. "I've even helped a couple clients. Though not as many as people seem to think. Or as much." I sighed. "But, for the first time, I began to feel a little good about myself. And then, and then..."
Scal and Phlox both leaned forward.
"And then I met you two!" I wailed aloud. "I finally make friends, and who do I pick? An Olympic-class athlete and an Admiral! And now I'm just a loser again!"
Very slowly, Scal eased the car to the shoulder, where I sat and wept some more. Phlox kept tissue in her purse, thank heavens; otherwise I'd have been a terrible mess. "Like I told you, Scal, even before I lost my head. It's all my fault, all this tension between us. I'm an asshole, deep down. A loser and an asshole. I always was, you know, despite what people seem to think."
There were crickets chirping in the distance, and there must have been a pond very nearby because a single bullfrog was proclaiming his ardor over and over again into the night. Scallion had killed the engine, I suddenly realized, or else things would not have become so quiet.
"Do you know why I came to town?" Scallion asked at last. "It wasn't just to visit, you know."
I shook my head. "No, then."
"While you've been working, I've been looking for an apartment." He sighed. "Care to guess why?"
My mind wasn't working very well, or else I might have glimpsed the truth. "I don't know."
"Because I wanted to work with you, Phil. You're doing the most important work that I know of, that I can imagine, even. I'm not talking about just the career counseling, or even just about lapines and lapine colonies." He paused and looked directly into my eyes. "You're helping the human race cope with the strangest, most incredible challenge that's ever faced us in all our history, and you're doing so with almost nothing but your bare paws and pure chutzpah." For the first time since our fight, Scal reached over and touched me, his hand caressing my arm. "You're winning, Phil, even if you don't see it. Winning the most important fight there ever was. Do you have any idea of how envious I am of you?"
For a long, almost endless moment I stared into Scal's soft brown eyes. My chest began to tremble after a time, and then I could contain it no longer. Suddenly, I was giggling. "You're jealous of me?"
Scallion nodded guiltily. "Almost all rabbits are."
I turned to Phlox, who nodded soberly. "I love you," she said softly. "Someday I'm going to ask you to marry me. And even I am jealous of you, and of what you can do."
It was too much, just too damn much. The funniest thing I'd ever heard! "You... You..." I managed to stammer out. And then the laughter came in gales. Clumsily I released the door latch, and then doubled over and fell out of the car into the soft grass that fortunately awaited me there. "You... You..."
"Me," Phlox replied, now standing over me with her hands on her hips. "I couldn't do a thing with Justin, not in years. You not only fixed him up in three weeks, but fixed me up too in the process. I was hurting a lot worse than I ever knew." She looked away. "Frith alone knows how you do it."
I'd almost stopped laughing; now I was doubled over yet again and guffawing so hard that I feared I'd black out. Them, jealous of me! The loser asshole! Long minutes passed before I heard the bullfrog again; I didn't know if my lunatic hilarity had put him off, or if my own guffaws had merely drowned him out. "This is rich," I said at long last. "So incredibly rich!"
"No," Scallion contradicted me. Somewhere along the line he'd gotten out of the car and was standing next to me. "I'm rich. Remember?" He smiled, and offered a hand to help me up. For a moment I simply lay there and wondered at the sight, and then I reached out and let my friend pull me to my feet.
"Thank you," I said simply.
"Don't mention it," he answered, looking away. Then, very deliberately, he turned back and opened his arms in an invitation to hug.
I wanted to turn him down, not out of spite or anger or jealousy; those were all gone, long gone with the tears and the talk. But I wasn't worthy, not even close to worthy; couldn't he see that?
Yet how could I turn away?
Scallion was one of the sweetest-smelling bunnies I'd ever known, I remembered as soon as we began to snuggle and communicate rabbit-fashion, right there on the side of the road. And Phlox's scent was pretty special too, once she joined in. The sky turned and a bullfrog croaked and heat lightning flashed in the distance, but we three bunnies cared not. For what heed should we take of these trivial, transient things, when we had each other to hold and love and care about now and forevermore?
I was the first to wake up the next morning, despite being the shortest on sleep. I'd only gotten about six hours, maybe, but it was perhaps the most restful six hours I'd ever enjoyed in my life. For a little while I laid very quietly in my overcrowded sleeping cage, caressing General Patton's ears. Shortcake had been my very first companion rabbit, true enough. But the General was far and away the more sensitive to my moods and needs. He'd awakened the moment I did, curled up tight against my belly, and I smiled slightly as he pressed his head up against my forepaw for stroking. The General and Shortcake both really liked Scallion, and I'd been very pleased that they'd reacted even better to having Phlox in with us as well. I'd never known the General to either look or smell so content. What a wonderful little mob we made!
It was fortunate that I was the one sleeping closest to the door, though it was still quite an accomplishment to get out without waking anyone. Phlox had draped an arm around me, while Scal was all tied up in my legs. I couldn't quite recall just exactly how we'd made the decision to all come and sleep together back in my little room at the Shelter, though things had worked out very well indeed. For that matter, I couldn't remember a lot of what had taken place the night before, though from what I did recollect it was probably just as well. The human psyche tends to forget negative experiences, and it was just as well that I was apparently still human enough to share this happy trait.
Or else maybe rabbit psyches were designed that way too. Who could know?
At any rate, I felt better than I had in years for some reason as I silently ran a quick brush through my fur and nibbled at a hurried bit of breakfast. My clients had often said that they felt tremendously better after baring their souls and weeping in my office, I knew. Now I was learning firsthand that they had spoken the truth. I felt young and healthy and enthusiastic again, for the first time in months. It was a pity that I'd had to make such an utter ass of myself along the way. It was also a terrible shame that I'd never get to see Mona's whole dance routine. For there was no way on earth that I was ever going to show my face in the Bountiful Garden again after what I'd done there. No way in hell!
Just that quickly, my good mood evaporated. Angrily I pressed my lips together and examined myself in the mirror. I was a rather attractive rabbit, I had to admit. Certainly more attractive than I'd been as a human. Blue eyes were very rare among bunnies, though not unheard of, and the same was the case among Scabs.
I didn't look like a failure, I admitted to myself.
For a moment my eyes stung, and then I gritted my teeth and forced the tears to stop via sheer force of will. Maybe I had been a failure as a human, and maybe I hadn't, I had to acknowledge, looking at things objectively. It all depended on one's definition of success. But I wasn't a human anymore, and I didn't have to be either bound by my old decisions or weighed down by old baggage. When I looked into a client's eyes, all I saw was potential. Why should things be any different with me? Couldn't I be a client, too? Most of the stuff I'd left behind in Packrat's barn had been useless junk; even I had been able to see that. Except for a few precious nuggets, every bit of it had been trash that I was better off walking away from. Why shouldn't I make a clean sweep of who I was, as well? After all, I was trying to help Bugsy achieve exactly the same thing. I certainly thought him capable of making a fresh start despite his past, deep inside where it counted. Why couldn't I believe the same of myself?
I placed my forepaws on the tiny vanity table and sighed, leaning forwards. Scal and Phlox had been right, to an extent. I was a far better person than the man who I'd once been. I was doing good things, was trying to make the world a better place. What better new life could I possibly ask for?
Then I smiled slightly. There was the car, I mused, now rusting away under Packrat's dubious care. It had once been very precious to me, and perhaps could be again. All of my old life hadn't been so bad, after all. But dreaming about driving again was a waste of time, on a day when time was especially precious. I'd been damned lucky getting Scal's ride home in one piece, and I knew it. Or even worse, I might have gotten somebody hurt. Everyone knew that lapiform Scabs were too jumpy to drive, Scallion notwithstanding. Even Phlox only drove around her dad's farm, well off of the public roads.
* * *
It was almost nine-thirty when I left the Shelter to meet Detective Da Silva. Normally I hated walking the streets anywhere near the Shelter; the neighborhood was bad, and there were more and more Scab predator-types moving in all of the time. I'd once been attacked by a SCABS-tiger, and would probably never completely recover from the experience. Certainly, I remained totally aware of every bit of cover as I made my way slowly down the street towards my rendezvous.
Then a huge old car pulled up beside me and beeped its horn; it was Dr. Stein, in his antique Pontiac. "Heya, Phil!" he called out gleefully in his juvenile form. "Need a lift?"
I pressed my lips together in indecision; I'd chosen to walk to keep things as clandestine as possible. On the other hand, what did I have to lose? I'd already been recognized. So as soon as Bob swung the big passenger door open, I hopped on in. "Heya!" I greeted him with my still-new smile. "Thanks, but I'm only going a few blocks."
"To the Pig?" he asked, puzzled. "They're not open yet."
"No, down to the park. I just want to get some fresh air."
Bob nodded, accepting the white lie. "To the park, then," he said, dropping the Pontiac into gear and accelerating smoothly away. "That's some ride your new friend has," he added by way of making conversation. "Some ride indeed."
I nodded. "He loves it like a child," I agreed. "Tell you what. If you wanted to get to know Scallion, all you'd have to do is ask him about it. But be sure that you have a couple hours to kill first."
The man-child grinned. "I surely understand." Then we were at the park and it was time for me to hop out. "Isn't there anyone with you?" Bob asked, looking around with a frown. "I mean, I could stay and keep a lookout..."
"Thanks," I answered, smiling again as I opened the door and got out. "But it's broad daylight. I think I'll be okay."
"Right," Bob agreed, smiling again. "Catch you later!" Then he was off with a V-8 roar, grinning from ear to ear. He appreciated old cars too, I knew, perhaps even more than I did.
"Hi, Phil!" a cheery voice greeted me as I turned around to walk towards the playground. It was one of the Sleeper twins. "Hi, Phil!" the other echoed, and then Jon himself waved from almost the other side of the park. Damn! This was supposed to be a covert meet!
By the time I got to the playground, I'd met four other people I knew. One of them was an ex-client, who was absolutely delighted to see me. He sat down beside me on the park bench, and seemingly didn't want to leave. "...can't imagine how wonderful it is to be a lemur, now that I've changed how I look at things. I haven't had any trouble at all with my job; the boss says I'm doing as well now as I was when I was still a Norm. But you know what?"
"What?" I asked, smiling outwardly but seething inside.
"My sales numbers are better than ever!" the lemur crowed, hopping up and down in joy. "Better then ever! Now, how many SCAB shoe salesmen can say that?"
"Not many, I'm sure," I agreed, still gritting my teeth. Special Agent Da Silva was sitting two benches over, clearly waiting for me to lose my client. Yet what could I do?
Eventually Vincent tired of telling me about how platforms were making a big comeback at the expense of open-toes, and he called his kids in from the big sandbox and headed for home. One of the Sleeper kids started to run over, but rather hurriedly Da Silva got up and sat down next to me. "Good morning," he said formally.
"Good morning," I answered. "I'm very sorry about this, Agent Da Silva. I don't come here very often. It's been months, in fact. I never imagined --"
The FBI man shook his head and waved his hand, stopping me in mid-speech. "Never mind, never mind. It was not your fault. Next time perhaps we can do better. And please, call me Hernando."
"Right," I agreed. "I'm Phil."
The big, bulky man nodded. His hair was graying, I noticed, and his black eyes looked flat and dead. Somehow he seemed to project an aura of power about him; being near Da Silva made me feel very safe. Slowly and carefully he looked the park over, seemingly examining every single face. Then he nodded slightly and spoke to me. "We are free to talk," he declared. "Please, tell me once more everything you know about this 'Bugsy' person."
I nodded, then told the whole story once more as best I knew it, right up until when Bugs had missed his Pig appointment. "I was very worried about him," I explained, not really wanting to go on any further.
Hernando turned and looked at me, his cold gaze seeming to stare right through me. "I... I... I went to see him, sir."
The black eyes narrowed, then Da Silva nodded slowly. "Excellent," he said. "Not that you went, Phil. That was very, very foolish. But it is good that you told me the truth." He reached into his jacket and pulled out a photograph of me staring into the front window of the Thunderbird. "As you can see, we already have a considerable interest in Jimmy Vinson. In point of fact, we're not all that far from bringing him in. However, this inanimorph angle is something new. And dangerous." He paused. "You are a SCABS professional, Phil, as well as being a Martian Flu victim yourself. Still, I have to ask. Do you understand just how serious this situation can be?"
"Dr. Stein himself gave me a ride over here today," I replied evenly. "And Ken Bronski is a friend and client. I've heard the rumors about the fusion bomb in Tehran. And maybe a little more."
Da Silva looked away; clearly he was unhappy that a mere civilian should know as much as I did. "So. You were face to face with Vinson?"
I nodded. "Uh-huh. He bought me a beer."
The FBI man frowned. "Tell me. Tell me everything."
"There's not much I can say," I responded honestly. "I went in and ordered my drink. Burning Jimmy was there, and he paid for it. 'Let no one say that Jimmy Vinson is a bigot,' he said real loud. He's kind of ostentatious. Other than that, I only saw him again for a minute or two, when he pointed me out to Bugsy like I hoped he would." I told him about our conversation at the litterbox.
"Right," Da Silva agreed. "But did you see any sign that Vinson might be an inanimorph? Or any other kind of Powered Scab? For your information, he was very ill a few weeks back. We're not sure, but it just might have been the Flu."
I sighed. "Hernando," I explained, "I'm a retired auto worker who does counseling part time. I'm also a Scab, both a lapiform and, if you did not already know, a rather unusual form of chronomorph."
The Special Agent's eyebrows rose. "You're a chronomorph, too?"
I nodded. "Yes, in a minor league sort of way. But let's use that as an example. You've researched my background, I presume?"
"Yes," he answered. "Within the limitations of the short time I've had. I'm sure you understand. And you have a very nice web page, by the way. There's a lot there about the Colonies that I never knew about, to be completely honest. I spent more time there reading about them I should have."
I smiled. "Thank you. But my point is that, even though you've checked up on me and are sitting right next to me, you did not know that I'm a chronomorph. How, then, can you expect me or anyone else to walk into a bar and 'put the finger on', so to speak, an inanimorph?"
Da Silva frowned. "There are psychological indicators for inanimorphs," he pointed out. "They stem from experiencing such an inhuman, alien viewpoint."
"Right," I agreed. "And they take months and years to develop. Though," I added as an afterthought, "if someone were try and nail me down, I'd guess that Bugsy did have a point. Someone like Burning Jimmy, I would think, would probably become far crueler if he lost touch with life itself. And Bugsy claims that he has."
Da Silva frowned again. "Our information is not as good as we would like," he said slowly. "We didn't know he'd killed anyone recently, for example, until you reported your conversation to us." He paused. "One of Vinson's men is indeed missing, a young kid just like Bugsy described."
I sighed. "Then he really does want out."
"That's the nub of the issue, all right," my companion agreed. "I'll be completely honest with you, Phil. I'm fully empowered to offer your client a deal. I'll even throw in a government-paid lawyer; if you didn't know it, your friend Bugsy has spent every dime he ever made two months in advance. He'll get full immunity and the Witness Protection Program in exchange for spilling his guts."
I closed my eyes and sighed. The Program had its faults, I knew from my gangster books and movies. Still, an admitted murderer could hope for no better. "I'll advise him to take it," I said after a moment.
"Good," Da Silva agreed. "But there's more here. I've only been on this case for two months. Would you care to know why?"
Somehow, in my heart I already knew. "Why?"
"Because my predecessor disappeared," Hernando said flatly. "Vinson got to him somehow, and we don't have a clue as how it was done." He paused. "Frankly, I half-believe the inanimorph talk. It fits too well. FBI agents don't just simply disappear."
There was a long, long silence before I finally spoke again. "That does not necessarily mean that Vinson is an inanimorph," I replied slowly. "There are thousands of other perfectly reasonable explanations, I'm sure."
"Of course," Da Silve replied. "Agents are human too. We get careless." He paused, and seemed to come to some kind of decision. "Phil, you're a far better judge of SCAB rabbits than I'll ever be. Do you think that Bugsy will wear a wire for us?"
"No," I replied immediately. "He's on the very ragged edge of losing control. To be quite frank, he'll probably go psychotic if we don't get him into a lower-stress environment, pronto. If you lean on him, he'll just turn to jello on you. And be of no use to anyone."
Da Silva didn't like my answer at all, I could tell by the sour expression on his face. "All right," he agreed, bowing to the inevitable. "What about an inanimorph detector? Would he carry one of those up close to Vinson for me? He could keep it in his pocket. We'd disguise it as something else -- it would be totally convincing."
I blinked. An inanimorph detector? I couldn't even begin to imagine upon what principle such a device might work. But hey, I was just an auto worker and wanna-be counselor and SCABS ombudsman. "Probably not," I hedged.
"We need this very badly," Da Silva pressed. "I can provide a detector about, say, the size and weight of a pocket calculator -- the cheap, throwaway kind. In fact, we'll probably disguise it as one. Vinson is an incredibly violent and dangerous man, Phil. As a potential inanimorph, he's more dangerous still. Getting this detector up close to him could make a world of difference. It could save cops' lives. Don't let this thug's personal charm throw you."
"It won't," I replied flatly. "I despised the smug bastard from the moment I laid eyes on him." Then my eyes narrowed. Cop's lives, Da Silva had said. Cop's lives... "A calculator, you say?"
The Special Agent nodded brightly. "I swear it. I'll even make sure it works like it's supposed to."
"All right," I agreed, looking away. Bugsy had committed many crimes, after all. He had something to pay back, no matter how one looked at it. "I'll ask him, Hernando. Ask. If he says no, I won't push him. He's not up to that."
The Special Agent was all smiles. "Thank you, Phil!" he said. "Thank you so very much!" Then his face grew more serious. "I'm going to put a tail on you, with permission."
I've already got a tail, I almost answered in confusion before catching the real meaning. "All right," I agreed finally.
"You're going to receive every consideration and protection that it is in my power to grant," he continued. "You do understand that there is danger here for you, as well."
I nodded. "Yes. Ken explained."
"Good," Da Silva continued, relieved. "In the name of every cop who's ever had to deal with Burning Jimmy Vinson and his victims, I thank you for what you are doing. Your services will not be forgotten, inanimorph or no." He smiled at me, then gestured with his head to a nearby bench. "Do you see that woman?" he asked. "The one with the orange scarf."
I followed his gaze. "Yes."
"Good," he answered. "That's Julie. She works for me, and absolutely no one else. I'll have her drop off the detector sometime this afternoon. She'll be wearing that same scarf."
"Right," I agreed. "When and where?"
"She'll find you," Da Silva replied, rising to his feet. "From this minute on, you're covered."
I pressed my lips together. I'd agreed to being tailed, yes. Now that it had begun, however, it felt like being... chased. I wasn't so sure that I wanted others knowing where I was all of the time. But there it was. "Gotcha," I agreed at last. "She'll find me."
Then Da Silva smiled again and reached down to shake my paw. "Thank you again, Phil," he said. "You're a damned fine human being."
Scal and Phlox were up and moving when I got back home to my little closet, each of them grooming one of my companion rabbits. It's hard to explain grooming to non-furry types, just like it's impossible to explain snuggling to non-lapines. Neither function is in the least bit sexual, yet they are sensual in the extreme. Grooming is a pleasant experience for both groomer and groomee alike, and Shortcake in particular loved being brushed. Her eyes were absolutely sparkling under Scal's ministrations, and his own happy grin was a match for her mood. "Heya, Phil!" he declared as I slipped in through the pet door that I used to keep out larger folks. "Where've you been?"
"Working," I answered shortly. "And working up an appetite, too. Have you two eaten yet?"
"No," Phlox replied, restraining General Patton as he tried to leap off of her lap to come and greet me. "And I'm getting hungry."
"Me too!" Scal declared. "What's cooking down in the kitchen?"
The West Street Shelter, founded and run by my good friend Splendor, was more than just an outreach center for out-of-luck Scabs. It was a soup kitchen and doss for the homeless as well. We even had a few semi-permanent residents who'd been with us for many months, some even longer than me, simply because they had nowhere else to go. The kitchen was open all day and a good part of the night, and as live-in volunteer staff I was entitled to take my meals there. Phlox and Scallion were welcomed at the special 'staff' table in the back as well, even though they really shouldn't have been. Scal had made a sizeable donation a few months before, and everyone seemed to know about Phlox and I. Even as we sat and munched our kibble, I caught glimpses of the kitchen workers looking our way and smiling. By tonight, I reckoned, the rumor mill would have us secretly married already.
"So," I said eventually, looking at Scal. "You said something last night about wanting to go into career counseling for Scabs."
He nodded and smiled. "I'd like to, yes."
"All right," I agreed. "You certainly have a much better background for it than I do. And last winter that ecumenical group over in D.C. where I met your son was talking about putting together a clone of the West Street Shelter, including a counselor like me. My guess is that they haven't found anyone yet. It's not exactly a common specialty, you know."
Scal's eyes shone. "Really?" he asked.
I cocked my head to one side. Somehow, I still couldn't believe that he was serious. "It's very time-consuming work," I pointed out. "The success rate isn't all that high. To be quite honest with you, you'll make more in one afternoon doing your shipping consulting work than I earn all week long seeing my usually-broke clients."
"To hell with that," Scal replied. "I've already shut down my office, Phil. I'll never work out another containerization scheme so long as I live, with any luck at all." He paused. "Except for the Navy, of course. Sometimes they call. Usually when they do, it's important. That's different."
"Of course," I agreed. "Let's see. Licensure is a joke, these days. So many new specialties have been created so fast by the Flu that the regulatory bodies can't even begin to keep up. In this state, at least, so long as you work for free no license is required. I got by for a long time like that. Then the schools asked me for help, and things got a little complicated. I've got a minimal, very general form of certification now. Frankly, though, I didn't learn a damned thing in class." I paused. "With your background, I bet you'll be able to get the equivalent of what I have or higher overnight."
"Maybe," Scal agreed. "But like you said, the classes aren't going to help worth a damn. I've already looked over the syllabi. What I really want is to understudy you for a while. Maybe act as an assistant. To kind of get the hang of things." He looked away. "That is, if you'll have me."
I blinked. "Well, if that's what you really want..."
Then Phlox spoke up. "Phil, there's more. I'd like to get in on this, too."
I turned to face her, and she smiled prettily. "I'm already working with Scabs, of course," she continued smoothly. "As a physical therapist. It's important work, and I can't leave it. Plus there's the farm." She stopped smiling then, and I reached out and placed my arm around her. Her father was suffering from heart trouble, we both knew, and could die at any moment without warning. If and when he did, Phlox's help would be needed, and badly. Plus, of course, there were her children to think of. "So, I can't leave Iowa. But I was thinking. What if I was to help you with your speaking tours? Maybe even come along with you and help you cope? We worked really well together back home, you know. Mom and Dad still get calls for you almost every week. You're on the road what, about three months a year these days? I know the California trip is coming up soon."
I sighed and looked down. I wasn't looking forward to California, not at all. My Congressman sponsor wanted me to meet with Hollywood people, of all things! Talk about oil and water! I'd been putting it off and putting it off, and now I couldn't put it off any more. "In about five weeks," I agreed.
Phlox cocked her head to one side as she thought things through. She was very pretty when she did that, or at least I thought so. "Five weeks," she agreed. "That's plenty of time. Have you got your hotels lined up?"
"No," I moaned, knowing suddenly where the conversation was going. "I've been too busy to work on that."
"How about your schedule of appearances?" she asked.
"I've got a few dates penciled in..."
"Right," Phlox answered. "Just as I expected. Phil, you're trying to juggle too much work! And you're not spending enough time on yourself. Heck, you're not even well-groomed most of the time!" She reached out and pulled a sticky seed out of my fur -- I must have picked it up in the park. "I keep trying and trying and trying to tell you, and I know I'm not the only one."
That was true enough, I mused. Even Donnie back at the Pig had made his feelings clear on the issue of recreation. "Look," I said defensively. "I --"
"That's the problem," Scallion interrupted. "That's the problem, right there. 'I'." He looked away. "Phil, last night was bad. Very bad."
I closed my eyes and sighed. "I know, Scal. I know! I've apologized and --"
"You've apologized," he interrupted again. "You've apologized in full, and your apology has been accepted in full. In fact, I hate to dredge this issue back up. It's not a nice thing to do. But I have to."
"Scal's right," Phlox added. "Listen to him."
I turned back to the brown lop. "All right," I said. "I'm listening."
Scallion sighed, searching for words before beginning. "Okay," he finally said. "It's like this. Have you noticed Shortcake and the General avoiding you of late?"
I blinked. "Not for the last couple nights."
"No," Scallion said. "That doesn't count. You've been with me. That changes things, from their point of view."
"In that case... Well, yes."
"You talk in your sleep, Phil," Phlox explained gently. "About your clients. The ones that didn't work out, mostly. It's not very pleasant."
"Not very nice stuff at all," Scal continued. "You toss and turn and moan, too. Jeez! Listening to you gave me nightmares! And I thought I was tough. Hell, I am tough! How can you stand looking at all this pain every single day, all alone? You don't even talk to anyone about it. Except Shortcake and the General, in the middle of the night. No wonder they're scared!"
"You're pushing yourself too damned hard," Phlox continued. "I tried to tell you that in Iowa, and even arranged for you to take a week off. And, for a little while, you got better." She reached out and felt the tension in my shoulders; they ached all of the time, these days. "Now you're just as bad as ever. Worse, even. Already."
"We can't afford for you to break down, Phil," Scal said, his mouth now a hard, firm line save for where his lip was split. "You've made real progress on this speaking thing. You're getting into people's hearts and minds, whether you see it or not. I did some research this morning while you were gone. Did you know there's about four times as many news stories in the major media on the Colonies now as there were before you starting stumping?"
I blinked again. "Four times?"
"Four times!" Scal replied, nodding energetically. "Four! I graphed it out; there's little spikes in the count after every speaking tour of yours. Even though they don't mention you by name, you're having a definite effect." He paused and frowned darkly. "You're not going to try and claim coincidence now, are you?"
I wanted to, but could not. Scallion was a far better researcher than me, I suspected. And he wasn't the type to make a claim he couldn't back up, not when it was important. So I merely gulped instead.
"You're succeeding!" Phlox exclaimed, staring deeply into my eyes. "You're succeeding! And yet, at the same time you're trying to torpedo yourself. By overworking."
"You are not going to break down on us," Scal said determinedly. "You're just not! That is simply not an option. You can't get out that easily."
"Yet you're right, to a point," Phlox continued, running a single finger along my jawline. "The counseling work you do is very important. And, right now, there's no one else to do it. Probably, no one else can do it." Her eyes grew hard. "But you can accept a little help, can't you?"
It was hopeless, really. I was double-teamed. "All right!" I exclaimed, holding my paws up in surrender. "All right already! I'll admit I'm a bit overloaded. But what can I say? I'm a workaholic. I thrive on long hours."
Phlox's eyes grew harder still. Her father's words echoed through my mind. Never forget that my daughter is an Olympian, Phil, he'd once said to me. She's accustomed to getting what she wants. This was all her idea, I realized suddenly. Scal had gone along with it, maybe. But this whole thing, including even Scal's visit, had originated with my probably-someday fiancée. Suddenly, she turned to Scal and nodded.
He nodded back, then turned to me. "We want it to go further than that, Phil," he said softly, looking down. "We want to form a new Downer warren. One dedicated to helping other rabbits and for that matter helping all other Scabs. That way, maybe someday we can have a dozen of us working on healing up this poor, broken world. Maybe even hundreds. There's so much more to be done than you can ever do alone, Phil." Then he looked up at me. "We want you as Alpha."
* * *
"I don't think it sounds silly at all," Scal contradicted me perhaps twenty minutes later. "Harebell-rah. How about you, Phlox?"
"Not at all," she agreed firmly. "That way, he'd have to learn to delegate."
I sighed. My head hurt, the kibble in my belly wasn't digesting well, and I was very, very tired. The kitchen workers were still sneaking glances at us, and sometimes giggling. No one, absolutely no one, outside of the Downers had known that my initiation-name was Harebell. Until now. Soon, I was quite certain, everybody would know. "All right," I said at last, holding up a paw. "All right, already. I'll think about it. Is that good enough for you two?"
Their eyes met for a moment -- was that a wink I saw? "Sure, Phil," Phlox agreed in a near purr. "Think about it for a few days. Just let us help in the short term. All right?"
"All right," I agreed with a sigh. In truth, I thought Scal might make a damn good counselor; he was good at everything he tried, seemingly. And the idea of traveling with Phlox had a certain undeniable appeal, as well. "All right. You two win, on that part at least."
The co-conspirators smiled, then gave each other a high-five. "You know," Scal observed after a time. "I might point out that you're quite a difficult case, Phil. I feel like I ought to get extra credit for this."
I smiled. "Especially the part where I yelled at you," I allowed. "But consider that a lesson. If you insist on working with a client in a public place, expect public trouble."
"Noted," Scallion agreed with a smile, and then we hugged across the table again just because we could. We rabbits are like that, with close friends. Outsiders quickly became bored with watching us rub up against each other. That was their loss, however. Then it was Phlox's turn for a hug, and then...
"Well," I said, glancing up at the clock. "I have a two o'clock coming up fast with a lightly-altered giraffe, and then I've got to call a few grocery stores. One of my clients has become a hyena-morph. All of his experience is in groceries, you see. He's an expert with produce. But --"
"Yech!" Scallion answered, understanding instantly. "That hyena smell! He can't be around customers anymore."
"Right," I agreed. "Now, I figure that grocery stores have to have warehouses, right? Or something closely resembling a warehouse."
Scal's eyes lit up. "Perfect."
"I certainly hope so," I agreed. "Now, if you're going to sit in on my giraffe, Scal..." I began to rise to my feet.
No one else moved, however. "Phil," Phlox ordered. "Sit back down. There's one last thing we have to cover."
There was no doubt as to who the alpha-doe of the new warren was going to be, I thought to myself as my legs sort of collapsed under me. If there was a new warren. "I have fifteen minutes."
"No problem," Phlox said sweetly. "This ought to go quickly enough." Then her face became very serious indeed. "Phil, just who exactly is Bugsy? Who is Burning Jimmy Vinson? Why are you so terribly frightened of him? And what's all this about 'sticking your head in the lion's mouth'?"
Obviously, I'd said far more in my sleep than I'd ever dreamed. "I can't answer that," I said slowly, looking down at the table. "Honestly, I can't."
"Won't, you mean," Scallion groused, turning towards Phlox. "See? He's clammed up again already. He'll never really trust us."
"No!" I said urgently, before Phlox could reply. "It's not like that at all. I mean it. I really can't tell you!"
"Why?" Phlox demanded, looking at me coldly.
"Because I've made a promise," I answered. It sounded a bit lame even to my own ears, so I hurried on. "Not just any ordinary promise, either. There's lives at stake. And..." I took the plunge. "The FBI is involved."
Scal's eyebrows rose. "The Feds?"
"What on earth?" asked Phlox.
I closed my eyes, then opened them slowly. "I honestly can't tell you any more than that," I said. "It's already more than I should have. Except that I haven't done anything wrong, of course. This isn't about me; I just kind of got sucked in. And I also need to tell you two that I'm taking a small risk here. In fact, it might be a good idea if we didn't spend too much time together for a day or two."
Phlox and Scallion looked at each other again, this time doubtfully. "Phil?" Phlox finally asked, her voice rising with concern. "I know I'm not exactly the sharpest knife in the drawer, in some ways. But a guy named 'Burning Jimmy' doesn't sound like someone you really want to get involved with."
I sighed. "I'm not 'involved' with Jimmy Vinson," I tried to explain. "I --"
Then Scallion cut me off. "That rabbit client you met with day before yesterday!" he exclaimed suddenly. "He was dressed like a hood!"
Once more I closed my eyes. This time I didn't reopen them. "Scallion," I said slowly. "I'm not going to tell you if you've guessed correctly or not. However --"
"I was right!" he interrupted again excitedly, bouncing up and down in his chair. "I was right!"
"However," I continued, overriding him, "However, I am asking that both of you go get lost for the rest of the day. I shouldn't even have offered to let you start working with me today, Scal, now that I think about it. Not until all of this is over. It's all probably nothing, mind you. But why take chances?"
Phlox stared intently down at the table for a minute or two. She was a rabbit too, I reasoned. Surely she would take the logical approach and avoid needless danger?
But I was wrong. "Phil," she said slowly. "Hell will freeze solid and Satan will take up figure skating before I leave you alone for a minute, after what I've just heard. Not until you tell me this whole thing is over. Got it?"
I gulped. "But, Phlox! They're already keeping an eye on me. There's nothing you could possibly do to --"
"But nothing!" she countered angrily. Then her face softened. "Phil," she said softly. "Don't you understand that I love you?"
"And I'm not going anywhere either!" declared Scal, stamping his hindfoot in affirmation. "You're a warrenmate, Phil. And a damn good one at that. What would everyone say if I went and let you get killed all by yourself?"
* * *
"No wonder you've been so tensed up lately," Phlox muttered as she worked the kinks out of my shoulders. "Now everything makes sense."
I sighed and tried dutifully to relax. Phlox's timing was all off, of course; I'd only just met Bugsy shortly before. On the other hand I still wasn't going to tell her anything I could avoid saying, and it was easier to remain silent than try and make complex explanations. "Kind of," I answered vaguely. "Phlox, just let that drop for now, would you?"
"All right," she answered dutifully, still rubbing my shoulders. Phlox was a most gifted masseuse, I had to admit. She seemed to intuitively know just what parts needed rubbing most. "So, what's next?"
I closed my eyes and exhaled loudly. "Nothing!" I explained for perhaps the hundredth time. "Nothing at all. Eventually I'm going to get a phone call. When I do, I'll have to meet with someone privately --" Suddenly there was a knock at my door.
"Express courier," a female voice rang out. "Package for Mr... Mr... Mr..."
I sighed and rolled my eyes. "Coming," I answered. Phlox helped me up, and then I slipped out my little pet door. "I'm him," I said before my eyes had really refocused; Phlox's ministrations had nearly put me to sleep. Once I saw who it was, however, my lids snapped wide-open. It was Da Silva's assistant, her orange bandana conspicuously tucked into the breast pocket of her coveralls. "Sign here, sir," she said in bored tones, brandishing her clipboard.
"Right," I agreed, taking the pen in my teeth and trying to remain as blasé as I possibly could.
"Who's it from?" Phlox asked, suddenly at my elbow.
"City Hospital," the deliverywoman replied smoothly. "Mr... Uh, this man here left something there the other day. They're just sending it back."
"Right," I agreed smoothly, backing up the lie. "I bet it's my calculator. It's been missing. Hardly worth the delivery fee, to be honest. I'd have told them to trash it if they'd asked."
Da Silva's aide shrugged. "Whatever. It's a living." Then she was gone.
I let Phlox open the package for me, and sure enough there was a cheap, slightly battered calculator inside. Someone had done a truly outstanding job on it in a hurry, I could see. The thing was equipped with oversized keys, just like I'd have chosen for myself if I'd ever actually needed to do math in my job. 'Swenson Office Supplies', a little sticker on the device's front read. It was half-peeled off, and dirty where the adhesive gum was exposed. The thing looked incredibly authentic -- I actually bought my supplies at Swenson's, even. What a piece of work!
I slipped it into my pocket as if without a second thought. "Well," I said. "I'm glad to have it back, at least, even if the hospital could have used its money better elsewhere." I paused and sniffed at the air curiously. "Where's Scal?"
"Over in your office, surfing the net and making some calls. It's about the giraffe."
I nodded. Henry Dodson was a very typical blue-collar client. He'd been a landscaper before SCABS, but no longer had the manual dexterity to do that kind of work. There was a tree-trimming company I often placed clients with; Scal had asked permission to chase that possibility down, and I'd agreed gladly. My, but he was an eager-beaver!
"And then later we were thinking about maybe going to see a movie. Assuming that you want to come, of course."
I pressed my lips together. Part of me wanted to stay home by the phone and pace back and forth until Bugsy called. Even the unreconstructed workaholic side of me, however, recognized that my gangster client was unlikely to call outside of business hours. And if that did happen, he'd most likely leave a message with a time and place for a meet. It was what he'd done every time so far. Besides, Phlox wouldn't be in town forever. I honestly couldn't see where there was any danger involved in going to a movie. "Sure," I answered. "What do you want to see?"
It was most fortunate that my sometimes-masseuse disliked chick-flicks as much as Scal and I did; once our friend got back -- with a probable job offer for Henry Dodson! -- we settled on a foreign film set around the Battle of Lepanto. Only Scal really cared about Lepanto; it was a crucial naval battle both in terms of the ebb and flow of history (a major setback in the expansion of Islam) and tactically (a handful of advanced Venetian galleasses defeated a vast armada of more primitive galleys). However, there was little competition, so both Phlox and I pretended that we really wanted to see it too.
In short order, we were off and running. Lepanto wasn't being shown at a lot of theaters; we had to drive almost fifty miles to get to a place where it was being screened. Indeed, we were planning to get off at the same exit as we had the evening before to visit the Bountiful Garden, and only three exits away from the Thunderbird. I felt a little apprehensive about heading in that direction, but wrote it off to rabbit-nervousness. I was being tailed, after all. We waved and smiled to the kids in passing cars the whole way there; it felt good indeed to wave and smile and be with friends on a warm summer evening.
Then it happened. Someone in a sports car very similar to Scal's came roaring up alongside us. He waved, and we waved back. Predictably, the guy put his foot on the floor and, sure as sunrise, Scal followed suit.
"Hey!" I complained as we began roaring and weaving through traffic. "Hey!"
"It's all right, Phil!" Scal replied with a grin. "Neither of us are really pushing it all that hard. We're just having fun."
The other guy had a three car-length lead; he was careening just as crazily through traffic as we were. It was fun, all right. I had to agree there. And, to be honest, there really wasn't anything all that dangerous about it either, though if caught we'd likely have been ticketed. People who drive normal cars often do not realize how very much more capable a sports car is than, say, a family sedan. Lots of things that would have been dangerous as could be in a run-of-the-mill vehicle were child's play to a skilled driver with proper equipment.
But what about my tail? Could they keep up?
Scallion sensed more than saw a big opening coming up on the left; he downshifted into third and let the engine roar out its pleasure. Phlox was grinning from ear to ear, I noticed, as our driver effortlessly tossed our little car into the open lane and poured on the coal. Presently we were wheel to wheel with the other driver, who waved and smiled in a fun-loving sort of way as he opened up his own throttle.
I turned around in my seat and looked behind us, to see if perhaps a big government-issue sedan or a highway patrol car might be back there trying to catch up. There was indeed a black car driving erratically behind us, I noticed. The driver was weaving from lane to lane, and eventually pulled onto the shoulder and gunned it in a desperate attempt to close the distance. I felt a lot better at first.
Until I recognized the car as the one that someone called 'Boots' had been sleeping in, parked in front of the Thunderbird Bar and Grill.
Instantly I turned around to face forward and inhaled to speak. But Phlox beat me to it. "Oh!" she said pointing. "There's our exit!"
"Damn!" Scal cursed, frowning. Before I could react he slammed on the brakes, then slewed the little car hard to the right. In an instant, we were heading down the ramp.
"No!" I finally cried out. "No, Scal! We're being followed!" But by then it was too late. There was a little line of cars waiting for the light to change at the bottom of the ramp, and meekly Scal pulled us up to wait our turn. I could literally feel the big black sedan close up against our bumper.
"I'm not kidding around here," I said slowly. "Don't turn around and don't look in the mirror. All right?"
Phlox and Scal both nodded.
"I know the car that's behind us," I explained. "It belongs to Jimmy Vinson's people. And they were straining to keep up with you, Scal. They're following us."
Scal's eyes narrowed, though he didn't turn his head one millimeter. "I see."
"Maybe they're just following you, Phil," Phlox offered. "Maybe if we just keep driving they'll go away."
"Maybe," I agreed. "I can't think of much else to do, except for trying to stay out in public on the main roads."
"Gotcha," Scal agreed. "Stay on the main roads." Then the light changed, and Scal eased his powerful car ever so gently down onto the surface streets. We went through first one light, then a second and a third without anything happening. Then at the fourth Phlox finally became a little impatient.
"Are you sure this is the same car?" she asked dubiously. "I don't mind missing the movie. But are you sure?"
"Yes," I answered shortly. "And I didn't imagine it passing on the shoulder trying to keep up, either. The FBI is supposed to be keeping an eye on me, but I bet they got lost in the shuffle entirely. I don't see any sign of them anywhere."
Scal frowned. "Sorry," he said after a time.
"You didn't know," I reassured him. Then the light turned green, and we were on our way once more.
I wasn't particularly familiar with this area, and of course Scal and Phlox were from out of state. We didn't know where we were going; suddenly a bunch of cars all turned right without warning, leaving us almost alone with the sedan.
"Oh, shit," Scal whispered.
There were two black cars with us now, I suddenly realized; the second being the European luxury coupe owned by the man with all of the rings on his fingers. It surged forward suddenly and cut in front of us. Scal cursed and floorboarded the convertible, but then a third black vehicle appeared out of nowhere and slid in alongside us, cutting off his escape attempt.
"Jump the curb," I suggested, my throat nearly closed with panic. "Drive down the goddamned sidewalk if you have to. Just keep going!"
Scal nodded and tried exactly that, but the little car's tires weren't quite big enough. Instead of hopping up onto the curb, Scal's delicate wire wheels screeched and sparked as they skidded down the unforgiving concrete surface. He'd done thousands of dollars worth of damage to his vehicle, but it hadn't worked.
Suddenly the passenger-side window of the car alongside of us rolled down. "Hold it, bunny!" the man I'd seen leaving the Thunderbird to 'make a run' called out. "We've got a little business to conduct with your friend. Be a good bunny-boy, won't you?"
Scal's lips peeled back from his teeth, and he snarled in frustration. The sedans closing us in weighed two or three times what his little car did, and for that matter their engines were far more powerful. For perhaps the first time in his life, Scal was clearly wishing that he was driving something more conventional. Angrily he tried to jump the curb again, throwing up more sparks but still getting nowhere. Then he swung the nose of his own car out threateningly towards the sedan closing us in on the left. For just a moment the other driver instinctively slued away to avid the collision. But then, before Scallion could whip his far more nimble ride out into the open street, the sedan's driver slammed into the convertible's fender. Wham!
It wasn't even remotely a fair match. The long sports car fender, being designed for lightness more than anything else, crumpled up like paper, while the big black car was hardly scratched. "Pull over, bunny," the voice said again, this time more threateningly. "Pull over now." Suddenly a shotgun barrel was extending out of the window.
Scal had no choice, no choice at all. He stopped as ordered, and the big black cars stopped as well, never breaking formation. Nor did the shotgun barrel, only three or feet away, ever even waver. Otherwise, we'd certainly have made a run for it.
"All right," the cold voice continued from behind the big gun. "One at a time you bunnies get out and assume the position on the hood. The little brown one goes first." Scal, visibly trembling, did as he was told.
"Good bunny!" the voice encouraged. "All right, Boots. Lock him up."
The driver's side door opened then, and a huge meaty-looking gangster wearing a beige trench coat climbed out. There was a thin stubble of whiskers on his chin where he was overdue for a shave, I noticed, and one of his front teeth was missing. "Clop, clop, clop," his feet went when he walked, drawing attention to the big, black heavy work boots he wore with his suit. They were steel-toed, and reminded me of what I'd once worn on the assembly line. Good Lord, but they would hurt when propelled by a man so big and powerful!
Carefully, Boots pulled out a pair of handcuffs and snapped them tight on Scal's wrists. Then the shotgun barrel shifted to Phlox. "All right," the voice continued. "Now the dame."
Phlox's ear linings colored, and for a moment I thought she was going to try and make a fight of it. Then she sort of went limp and nodded. "It's not your fault, Phil," she whispered as she climbed out of the seat next to me. "We should have let you stay home." Presently she too was handcuffed.
"And you're last, Philly boy," the voice said. For just a moment I froze, unable to move. Then the gun swung towards Phlox. "All right, already! Get a move on, or I off the dame! Don't make me get personal, Rabbit. So far this is just business. Trust me, you want to keep it business."
I gulped, then stepped to the front of Scal's car and spread-eagled myself over the hood. The car was sitting cockeyed, I realized as Boots tried to cuff me. One of the tires had gone flat already, and the whole vehicle looked broken and forlorn. Boots worked and worked on me, until the man with the gun became impatient. "What's wrong?" he demanded.
"The rabbit ain't got no hands!" Boots whined. "I can't get the cuffs to stay tight. It ain't natural, I tell ya!"
"Shit!" the voice called out in frustration. "Just squeeze them on as tight as you can. He'll be in the trunk anyway. We gotta move. Someone could come along."
"Right!" Boots grunted, squeezing the restraints with all of his strength. It was incredibly painful; I could literally feel my radius and ulna flexing and remaining bent under the terrible pressure.
"Ah!" I cried out, seeing stars. "Ah! Ah! Ah!"
"Sorry," the man behind the gun said, though I could barely hear him over the red haze of pain from my mistreated wrists. He pulled the barrel in. "Put 'em in Pete's car with Bugsy," he ordered. "Then we'll go take care of business."
I don't quite recall how I ended up in the trunk with the other rabbits. The longer the handcuffs remained on, the worse the pain got. By the time they came to pick me up the things had become white-hot bands of agony around my wrists, and I was wailing blindly in pain. "For God's sake!" I remember Scallion crying out, "You're killing him!" But all he got for his trouble was Boots' footwear to the head. After that, Scal kept his mouth shut.
My wrists throbbed in agony, each pulse of pain exceeding that which came before. It went on seemingly forever; hours, I knew. I rolled and kicked and thrashed in response, bumping up first against Phlox and then Scal and then another limp, unmoving bunny who must have been Bugsy. I cursed and raved and screamed, it hurt so badly, over and over and over again as if my guts were being slow-roasted on hot irons. There was no respite at all, not even for a second. I'd never known such pain, not even after once being run over by a car!
It wasn't until my right cuff popped open so hard that it sounded almost like a gunshot in the confined space that I began to realize that even overtightened handcuffs should not have produced such terrible suffering. "Crack!" Then the second cuff did the same thing, and I was free! Instantly the pain faded away, as pain always did for me, and then I was sitting on the floor of the trunk in the darkness, breathing hard.
"What the hell?" Scallion asked. "What was that noise?"
"My cuffs," I whispered in awe. "Who'd have dreamed it?"
"What on earth are you talking about?" Phlox demanded urgently. "What about your cuffs?"
"I'm a chronomorph," I whispered. "How long have we been in here?"
"Hours, maybe," Scal answered. "We quit moving a long time ago. Jeez, I'm glad you're done screaming. Forgive me, but I thought I was going to go nuts."
I nodded slowly. "I'm a chronomorph," I answered again, feeling first one wrist and then the other with its opposite forepaw. "A self-healing chronomorph. The cuffs had distorted my bones, you see..."
Then Phlox got it. "Oh my God!" she whispered. "No wonder you screamed!"
"What?" demanded Scal, irritated to be the last one in the dark. "What happened?"
"Phil's bones were twisted," Phlox explained. "But they wanted to straighten themselves back up. Very, very badly, they wanted to."
"And with tremendous force," I added. "Trust me on that." I shook my head hard enough to make my ears flop around. "Sweet Jesus, but that hurt."
There was a long silence. "I still don't get it," the lop finally admitted.
"Phil's SCABS broke the cuffs, Scallion," she answered, almost reverently. "His chronomorphism, his body's tendency to revert back to form over a period of time, was stronger than steel. Literally stronger than steel."
There was a long silence. "Wow!" Scal said at last.
"Wow," Phlox agreed. Then she turned to me. "All right, you're free. Can you get either of us out of these things?"
I sighed. "Probably not," I admitted. "I'm still fully pawed, you know." I turned to the corner where Bugsy was laying. "Have you been able to check on our friend?"
"There's a big lump on the back of his head," Phlox said, her voice turning cold. "Someone snuck up and sapped him, I think. But he's still breathing."
"Right," I agreed. At least I knew now that Bugsy hadn't narked me out. Somehow, that made me feel a lot better. "Then there's probably not much we can do for him." I paused, trying to think. "Any idea of where we're at?"
"No," Scal said. "It's quiet outside, except that every once in a great while a car goes by. It's not very loud, like we're a long way from the street. Sometimes we hear footsteps, too. But not in a long time."
"All right," I agreed. "Then we're probably in a garage, or at the end of a driveway. Is there anything in here that we can use?"
"Cement blocks," Scal answered, kicking disgustedly at said items. "Probably meant to weigh down our bodies in a lake or river. Some rope, ditto. A tire iron. Jack. A bottle of motor oil. Spare tire. And some chewed up wires."
"Chewed up?" I asked.
"Yes," Phlox answered. "They go to the tail and brake lights. Scal thought of that. He was hoping we might get pulled over."
"Smart move," I said admiringly.
"Not smart enough," he answered darkly. "Look, Phil, I think you're right about not being able to get us unlocked. How about if --"
Just then, we heard a voice approaching. "...to bring them in. Everything's all set up and ready."
"Right, Boss!" another man answered. "I haven't heard a peep out of them in ages. That one finally quit screaming."
"Maybe he died," the first voice retorted. "If so, he's one lucky bastard."
I reached out and touched first Phlox and then Scal with my forepaw. "They're coming," I whispered. "I'm going for it. It's our only chance."
"Right," Scal said.
"I love you," whispered Phlox.
"I love you too, hon," I answered back, rather surprising myself. Then a key rasped into the trunk's lock and turned. I gathered my hindlegs under myself.
"They want the little brown one first," the voice right outside the now-cracked-open deck lid said. "Right?"
Thump-thump-thump-thump, my heart went as I waited. There would only be one opportunity.
"Right!" A more distant voice agreed. "He looked the most tender."
My eyes narrowed then, and my lips pulled back in a snarl. Scal was my friend! My mob-brother! One of mine! Then the deck lid swung open suddenly...
...and my hindlegs unleashed themselves like coiled springs. "Unh!" the hood said as the top of my head caught him right in the solar plexis. Instantly he doubled over in pain, while the recoil from the blow drove me back down into the luggage compartment.
"What?" an insistent voice demanded as footsteps approached rapidly. "What's wrong, Tolliver?"
"Unh!" Tolliver, as I presumed him to be, said again from the floor.
"Unh!" I agreed from the luggage compartment; the blow had knocked me almost as silly as my victim.
"You all right?" the voice asked again. I heard the slide of an automatic pistol rack itself, and the deadly sound galvanized me into motion. Instantly I was on my feet again, ready and waiting.
Hoods do not attend formal training in the handling of prisoners, as a rule. In this case the lack showed itself, and quite badly at that. Suddenly the second man's face was looming over the open lid, gun pointed carelessly in my general direction. I leapt once again, this time for the gun hand, and sank my long incisors into his wrist. "Ahh!" he cried out in a blood-curdling scream that must have been heard for miles, as I twisted my head this way and that, tearing tendons and ripping muscles until I heard the gun hit the floor. "Ahh!"
It wasn't until I knew for certain that the gun was gone that I had time to look around. We were in a garage, all right, probably the garage of an old commercial building judging by the size and dirt and layout. The big door was closed, but there was a side access door that had light streaming out of it. Even as I took it in, a gangster's head appeared there. "What?" he demanded. "What's wrong out here?"
"The bunnies are loose!" Tolliver called out from the floor.
"They fuckin' bite, too!" cried out the second man, whose name I still did not know.
There wasn't any time, I knew, just wasn't any time. I had to keep moving, had to keep taking the initiative if I wanted any of us to get out alive. The big door was closed, the side door was useless, hiding would only slow things down...
I didn't really think things through, not in any coherent way. Instead, I just hopped down to the floor, then swapped ends and with toeclaws skidding across the concrete headed for the driver's door of the car. It was closed, naturally. But the weather was nice, and so the window was open. I hopped through it effortlessly, even as the man in the doorway raised his gun. Good! The keys were in the ignition! All it took was a simple twist of the neck to get the car running; the thing was spanking new and of a brand noted for competent engineering. Clearly Pete had far better taste in automobiles than jewelry. A gunshot hurried me along, as I settled myself in and located the pedals under my toeclaws.
The second shot rang out just as I got settled in the seat; this one must have struck home relatively nearby after going through the back window, as the shock of its impact was very sharp. The third round was directed at the engine; almost magically a nearly half-inch hole appeared in the fender as I slammed Pete's sports coupe into gear and placed my foot all the way down on the floor. The engine roared like a demon despite being abused in this way, and the car surged forward so quickly that I don't believe the fourth shot even found a mark. The garage was an oversized one, and whoever had parked Pete's car had backed it fairly far in, so as to be close to the access door at the other end. I had maybe twenty feet in front of my bumper with which to gain momentum...
...before I struck the garage door like the end of the world and went roaring out onto the street beyond, scattering splinters and rollers and hinges far and wide as I went.
I was shaking pretty badly by the time I got to the end of the street. Absently I turned left at the first intersection, the luxurious leather-covered steering wheel spinning almost effortlessly under my forepaws, then left again. It was the middle of the night, and I was clearly somewhere in a city. There wasn't anyone out, nor any other moving cars. Mostly there was nothing to be seen but little storefront shops, some of them boarded up. Absently I raised the seat all of the way up with a careful foreclaw; it was well indeed that rabbits have proportionately longer legs than humans, or else my toes wouldn't have been able to reach the pedals any more.
I noticed movement in my rear-view mirror; it was my deck-lid opening up. Scal's head popped around the corner for a moment, meeting my eyes in the side mirror. His mouth opened in shock, and then something -- presumably Phlox -- yanked him back down to relative safety. My mind was swimming in a bath of adrenaline; I wasn't thinking clearly at all. I made another left, and then another...
...and found myself roaring right back down the street where I'd started from!
It was chaos; incredible, mindless chaos. There were suited hoods all over the place, piling into assorted black luxury cars. One of them was parked out on the street; Boots was trying to get in. My teeth bared themselves again, and I thought about what I'd heard about Scallion looking tender. Without even slightly reducing the pressure on the accelerator, I swung the big coupe over to the right and dragged my passenger door along the driver's side of the other car. Sparks flew, metal crunched, and I heard Boots scream as I passed by, even saw his mouth form an 'o' of surprise and pain. The impact knocked me into the steering column, but I recovered quickly enough to regain control before hitting anything else. My coupe swung drunkenly once to the left, again to the right, and then I was racing away once more.
When I looked back, a single booted lower leg was lying in the street. It wasn't attached to anything at all.
Before I'd gone four blocks there were two cars right on my bumper; presently I saw a flash and felt a slug strike home somewhere. I began jinking right and left at irregular intervals to throw off their aim, and kept my foot flat on the floor. The sedans were every bit as fast in a straight line as the coupe, I began to realize with a sickening feeling in my stomach. Maybe even a notch faster. And there was no place to turn!
"Thump, thump, thump!" I felt more than heard, coming from the back of the car. "Thump, thump, thump!" It was Scallion and Phlox, I realized. When I checked my side mirror Scal was looking right at me, his limp ears flapping ridiculously in the wind. He was shaking his head vigorously. What in the hell was that supposed to mean? Surely he didn't want me to stop!
Well, maybe he meant I should stop jinking? I held the car straight and steady for a moment...
...and then something went flying out of the trunk. It was a cement block! "Bam!" it went as it exploded against the front bumper of the car behind us, leaving a huge dent but seemingly doing no permanent damage. The car fell back for a moment, then surged forward once more. Someone fired a shot from it, though it seemed to miss. Then, somehow Phlox and Scal heaved out another block.
It missed too.
I shouldn't have been watching the duel so closely; I flashed by an intersection without turning before I even realized it was there. Then Scal heaved a third block -- their last one -- and missed again.
The spare tire was bolted down, I recalled, and so was the jack. There wasn't much left in the way of ammunition.
Apparently someone in the other cars had been keeping count too, because just then both sedans surged forward for all they were worth. Though I poured on all the coal there was, they walked up to me steadily. One of them stayed directly behind me, while the other tried to work its way up my driver's side, boxing me in. I slammed my left quarter into this second car a couple times, to no effect.
Just then, I glimpsed another object flying out of my trunk, this one much smaller and on a higher trajectory. It struck the windshield of the car following me, which suddenly fell back. What in the world? I wondered? Then it hit me. The oil! Scal and Phlox had thrown the oil!
Sure enough, the wipers were now operating on the car behind me, and someone was leaning out the passenger's side window trying to clear a place to see through. I frowned for a moment, calculating. Then inspiration struck home. Without any warning whatsoever, I took my foot off of the gas. The car running alongside me surged forward, then steadied down as a familiar shotgun barrel drew a bead. I slammed on the brakes, hard...
...the shotgun went off, its spread of pellets passing harmlessly over my hood...
...and the second car behind me, unable to see clearly and unwarned by my inoperative brake lights, slammed hard into my rear end.
Dear god! I thought as I was thrown into the steering column once again, this time much harder than before. Dear god! I certainly hoped that my mob-mates were braced! But there wasn't any time to worry about them; even if they were badly hurt their best chance of survival lay in my getting away just as quickly as I could.
I hit the gas hard once more as the car that had been alongside of me screeched to a halt in the middle of the street. I surged forward, roaring towards the sedan like a kamikaze. The driver panicked, as I'd hoped he would, and hit the gas as well. As soon as he did so, I slammed on the brakes once more, then worked the steering wheel with my forepaws. I horsed the big car around like it was part of me, and went racing past the sedan that had rear-ended me. Steam was pouring put of the thing, I noted, and all the air-bags had deployed.
I didn't think I needed to worry about that one any more.
In no time flat I was back to the intersection I'd missed the first time around; this time, I squealed around the corner, hanging on by my fingernails, and went racing up what proved to be a narrow alley. It went on and on for several blocks, and by the time I reached the end of the thing I had a plan. I didn't like that shotgun, not at all. Given time, it was just the thing that Vinson's men needed to do me in. I had to do something about it, and pronto. Once it was gone, I could go for help at leisure.
The alley ended at a 'T' intersection with a two-lane feeder street; the neighborhood was more residential here, I noted, though still rather old and broken-down. Maybe someone would call the police, I hoped. In the meantime, I made a hard left onto the feeder in clear sight of the car following me, which was less than halfway down the alley.
Then I laid on the brakes and waited.
It was all a matter of timing, I told myself as I sat and trembled in anticipation. All a matter of timing. I watched the reflections of the sedan's headlights, listened to the roar of its motor...
...and chose my moment. "Now!" I roared aloud as I backed towards the narrow entrance of the alley at full throttle, where my pursuer would soon have to pass. My car, not running so smoothly as it once had, responded with spirit nonetheless. Suddenly the sedan was right there, my battered trunk catching it in the far rear end. I was frightened at first that I'd missed; it had been intention to batter the thing square-on. As it happened, however, the rear-end impact proved far more deadly than the one I'd sought to deliver. The car had been turning left at high speed, and my blow on the inside of the turn caused the sedan to spin out and hit a concrete lamppost square-on.
The collision must have been audible for miles.
There wasn't much left of the sedan but twisted wreckage, I realized as I idled up close alongside it, and there was a lot of blood spread around the passenger side area. The driver was groaning, and the left-rear passenger was stunned out of his mind.
I don't know why I did it; probably because of what they'd had in mind for Scallion. Or else maybe I was a little punchy from all the minor collisions too. At any rate, I took a moment to lower the power-operated passenger side window. "Hey!" I cried out angrily. "Hey, Paisan! Can you hear me?"
The dazed passenger turned and nodded slightly.
"Listen up good then!" I said. "You tell Burning Jimmy that he ain't gonna fuck with my mob no more. You hear me pally-boy? It ain't 'fuck me' when that happens, see? It's fuck you!"
Then I hit the gas and roared off once more, feeling absurdly pleased with myself.
On the one hand, I needed to pull over as soon as I could to see if Phlox and Scal and Bugsy were all right. On the other, I'd left angry gentlemen with guns scattered all over who knew where, and really couldn't be sure when someone might take a shot at me. I could hear sirens, now that the shooting was hopefully all over. My car was dropping bits and pieces from time to time, I knew. Surely the first cop I came across would pull me over on suspicion of being involved in all of the fun and games. After careful consideration, I decided that this would be the safest bet as well as the quickest way to get Bugsy and whoever else to a hospital. So I just kept on driving, hoping to find a main road.
A cop found me before long, and I meekly pulled over to the curb. "Hernando Da Silva," I muttered to myself. After asking for help for the injured, the very first thing I intended to say was the Special Agent's name. "Hernando Da Silva..."
The cop's spotlight was dazzling; I couldn't see a thing out the back window. Presently an officer came up close alongside my car, gun drawn. "Let me see your hands," she ordered.
I complied. "There's at least one injured person in the trunk," I said. "A rabbit Scab like me. Please, call an ambulance."
"Get out of the vehicle," the woman replied flatly, not responding to my request. Well, I couldn't blame her, not really. I mean, things probably looked a lot different than they really were. Slowly I released the door latch, then got out as ordered.
"Spread-eagle!" she barked. "Now!"
My, but I was getting to know that position well tonight! "Please," I said again. "Call an ambulance. I don't know how bad things are back there. And I'm working with Special Agent Hernando Da Silva of the FBI. Him and Detective Ken Bronski," I added, figuring that dropping another name couldn't hurt. Bronski was locally by far the better known of the two, I was sure. It was the hero-thing.
"Right," the woman answered coldly, pressing her gun's muzzle to my neck. Then she trussed me up in a SCAB-restraint that closely resembled a strait-jacket. It was only when she had me fully laced up that I realized I could not hear a police radio in the alleged officer's car. "Run!" I said urgently. "Scal! Phlox! It's --"
Then something hit me hard, and I passed out.
I came to lying face-down on a floor made of tiny white tiles. There was a crack in the floor, I noted dully. It stank of urine.
"Phil?" a voice said gently. It was Phlox. "Phil?" Are you coming around?"
"Unhh?" I asked intelligently.
"Thank god," Scal murmured.
"Phil, I am so goddamned sorry," a new voice chimed in. It took me a moment to realize that it was Bugsy's. "I am so goddamned sorry!"
"It... s'alright," I slurred. My head felt like it was glued to the floor; sure enough, when I lifted it I heard a tearing sound. "Wha' happened?"
"They used the lights to blind us," Phlox answered. "When you warned us they already had us covered." Then she scowled. "It was the deliverywoman. I don't know how or why, but somehow that deliverywoman is working for them."
"Heh!" a new voice said, and I looked up. It was Burning Jimmy Vinson himself, though I saw two of him. Three, even, when the light was right. "So this is the gratitude I get for buying a rabbit a beer?"
I closed my eyes and sighed. "I wouldn't have accepted it, if I could have figured a way to turn you down. But you made me an offer I couldn't refuse."
"Heh!" Vinson answered again, stepping up close and rubbing my ear gently, just in front of the big knot on my skull. "I like this! A dead rabbit with a sense of humor."
"Beats being a dead rabbit without a sense of humor," Scallion observed cheerfully.
Vinson's eyebrows rose, then he chuckled again, his cheeks taking on a faint red flush. "True enough, I suppose. True enough." Then he turned to Phlox. "I bet you're squirmy in the sack."
"Try me," she replied sweetly, and I winced. It wasn't because I thought she was being unfaithful, not at all. Rather, I was picturing that bloody mess that her sharp claws, powered by Olympic-class muscles, could make.
"What a lively bunch!" Vinson said, laughing aloud. "What a fuckin' lively bunch! They say rabbits come in mobs, boys! Well, they sure know how to clown around like mobsters! Ya gotta give 'em that!" Then his face went hard, very hard, and he turned to Bugsy. "You tried to rat me out, you little fuck!"
Suddenly my client was a mound of trembling jello. "Please, Jimmy! Please! It was the fucking disease, I swear it!" He looked at me, then back at his ex-boss. "I was just afraid, Jimmy! I'm afraid all the time now!"
Jimmy's lips tightened. "SCABS ain't so fuckin' bad," he declared. "Or at least it ain't so bad as that." Then he turned back to me. "And you! You're carrying a fucking wire! A fucking wire! Here in my place!" The deliverywoman/FBI agent stepped forward, not meeting my eye. "Where is it?" Jimmy demanded.
"It's a calculator," she said softly. "It'll probably be on his person. Unless he's already given it to Bugsy."
"There ain't no radio in it, is there?" Jimmy demanded. "I've had a jammer on him most of the night, but when he got away..."
The woman shrugged. "Maybe. Most likely not. Da Silva doesn't talk much. Not like Fredericks did. I'm not even sure what kind of wire it might be."
Vinson frowned. "Well," he said after a while. "If he got out a message, he got out a message. I don't see no sea of Feds flooding the place, so I'm betting he didn't." He turned back to the dirty cop. "Bugsy didn't have it. None of us guys know how to open up that strait-jacket thingie. So why don't you take it off him for us?"
"You sold out," I whispered as the woman walked across the room and then came up behind me. "You sold out your honor, your country..."
Obviously my words struck home. "Shut up!" she cried, slapping my head right on top of the knot she'd put there. "You don't know anything about me, you little fuck! You couldn't possibly understand!"
"...your classmates," Scal continued for me while I laid and counted stars. "Your parents, your instructors --"
"Shut up!" she screamed, turning to him. By now she had retrieved the calculator and trussed me back up. In truth, the restraint had only barely been loosened. I'd never had a chance.
"Aw, let it go!" Jimmy shouted angrily. "He's gonna suffer plenty. They're all gonna suffer. So why the fuck let them get under your skin?" He reached out his hand, and the woman dropped the calculator into it. "Swenson's office supplies," he said musingly. "Hell, that's where I buy my stuff."
Suddenly I was laughing, though I didn't know why. Somehow, the image of Burning Jimmy Vinson standing in line behind me at Swenson's, both of us with our arms loaded with notebooks and reams of copying paper, seemed incredibly funny.
"You think it's funny, rabbit?" Vinson asked angrily. "You think it's funny that I buy shit at Swenson's? I'll show you funny, you little fuck!" He tossed the calculator aside, then looked over his shoulder. "Hey!" he called out. "Hey, Purvis! We're ready now! Bring it in."
There was a rumbling sound, and then I saw the last thing I'd have imagined. It was a man wearing a heavy rubber apron, trundling in a fifty-five gallon barrel of something-or-other. "You know what that is, rabbit?" he asked.
Bugsy began to whimper, but I ignored him. "No."
"It's fuckin' hilarious! I get tired of one kind of burning, I go to another. Otherwise a man gets predictable." He smiled. "It's hydrofluoric acid, that's what it is. God-awful shit. It'll etch glass. Imagine what it's gonna do to your eyeballs."
I could imagine well enough. I tried to find something to say, but nothing came to mind. Nothing at all.
"No muss, no fuss!" the mobster explained with a grin. "And best of all, no bodies! The guys like that. Don't you?"
"Sure, Boss!" one agreed, though he looked very pale to me.
"Right!" another agreed heartily, though both of his hands were shaking like leaves.
"Fuckin' A!" Jimmy responded enthusiastically. Then he turned to my client. "And Bugsy here liked it best of all. That's why I had it brought in special, just for him." He grinned. "You get to go first, oh once-beloved ex-associate of mine. One inch at a time."
I don't know why I did what I did. I'd been acting crazy all night. Maybe it was because Bugsy was my client, and I felt obligated towards him. Maybe it was because I already saw Phlox as my mate at some level. It might have been the driving-thing. Or, perhaps most likely of all, it was because of all the Alpha-talk I'd heard that morning. I was part-rabbit psychologically as well as physiologically, and conceivably therefore I felt obligated to try and defend my mob.
At any rate, I pushed off of the wall and drove myself at the acid barrel just as hard as I could. The barrel wasn't my choice of targets, mind you. It was merely what I happened to be pointed at. I just barely moved the thing; it rocked slightly away from me, then back...
...and spilled hydrofluoric acid all up and down my spine.
The pain was both instant and incredible, even worse then my naked bones trying to push through steel had been earlier in the night. The stuff poured right through the strait-jacket restraint, then through my fur, and then through my skin. I opened my mouth to scream, but the agony was so incredible that I simply could not make a sound. Instead, I merely lay there, my muscles locked in place.
Then the acid sloshed over again, this time on the other side of the barrel.
Right down Burning Jimmy's leg.
"Oh, shit!" he cried out, his eyes suddenly going wide. "Oh Jesus fucking god almighty! Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!"
No more acid spilled, which was just as well. I was dying, and I knew it, and still unable to move. Perhaps my spinal cord had already been eaten away?
But Jimmy could sure as hell still move! And he did exactly that, with great enthusiasm, kicking his leg around and flinging little droplets of acid all over his henchmen. "Oh shit! Oh shit! Oh shit!"
The tile I was laying on was very hard and cold, I knew, yet somehow it felt as soft as my sleeping cage back home. I laid my head down and rested it there, my nostrils right above a smelly crack. It didn't matter; the urine drowned out the far worse stench of Jimmy and I both melting. "Oh shit!" he was still screaming, his voice now up in the hysterical range. Though it seemed to be growing weaker. He was lying down too now, I could tell. With any luck at all, his bed was harder than mine.
"FBI!" a voice suddenly boomed out. It was Da Silva, though I couldn't imagine how he'd gotten there. I looked up, and it was the strangest thing. He seemed to be flowing out of the calculator I'd been carrying. And his gun seemed to be part of his right hand. Someone shot him in the forehead, but the bullet had no effect at all. In an instant, the wound was healed. Da Silva spat out two rounds in reply, and I heard a body slump to the floor. "FBI!" he repeated. "No one move! You're all under arrest." Then he turned to me. "For God's sake, someone drag that poor son of a bitch over to a sink and hose him down!"
I don't remember much after that, except for dreaming of a black rabbit and a cold, empty hutch.
City Hospital's SCABS ward was always a dreary place, I mused as I laid perfectly still in bed, whether you were a patient or just visiting. I'd been both in my time; overall I preferred visiting.
"...know all about your chronomorphism," Dr. Stein was saying. "And I also know there's some variation in your cycle. There's more going on with you than anyone knows, I think. And what I don't know, I don't trust." He stopped and looked me in the eye. "You really should have died last night. I don't have a clue as to why you didn't. Are you that damned eager to leave?"
I looked away. "I've got clients," I explained. "I've already taken a lot of time off this week."
Stein threw up his arms and looked heavenwards. "Tonight," he said at last. "I'll let you go tonight, if you insist. All right?"
"All right," I agreed meekly. For some reason, I was feeling very, very quiet.
"Good," the doctor agreed, shaking his mane. For some reason, he was back in horse form again. I could never quite figure out any rhyme or reason as to when or why he changed so often. "In the meantime, you have more visitors lined up outside than I have chairs to seat them in. Do you feel up to seeing them?"
I looked away again. In point of fact, physically I was fine. Every six hours or so my body rebuilt itself, reasserting its rabbity form. Generally, this was more an annoyance than anything else. It meant that I couldn't have corrective surgery done to give me false thumbs, for example. But apparently the trait had just saved my life. "Just a few," I said after a moment or two. "Doctor, I feel fine. But..."
Stein looked at me sharply, then sighed again. "All right," he agreed. "I'll send in the official visitors first, and then a few of the others. The press can go fly a kite." Then he turned on his heel and was gone.
There was a long wait while Bob got everything straightened out; clearly the media people didn't want to leave. I spend the time toying with a flower from the big arrangement that Dandelion Warren had sent. The blooms were edible, I knew, sweet and delicious. They had probably been selected for that very reason. Yet I wasn't hungry at all.
The first person in was Special Agent Da Silva. "Hello Hernando," I greeted him as he stepped across the threshold.
"Hi," he replied, carefully not meeting my eyes. There was another long, awkward silence, then he spoke again. "Look," he said. "I'm supposed to be here on official business. But I'm not, okay? We'll have reams of paperwork to fill out later. Technically, you're under arrest, though I'll have that straightened out in an hour or so. Like I said, though, that's not important. You've done nothing wrong, and you've got nothing to worry about. That's not why I'm here."
I sat silent, waiting.
Da Silva sighed, then looked out the window. "The fact is, Phil, I exceeded my limitations last night. I let things go on too long." He turned to me. "How much do you remember?"
"You're an inanimorph," I answered. "And a fairly powerful one, at that."
"Not terribly powerful," he replied. "Getting into the calculator form was about all that I could manage; it took me hours. And remember that I promised the calculator would work?"
"Well... I'm glad you never checked it. Square roots give me a terrible headache."
There was another long silence, and then Da Silva spoke again. "I saw the whole thing last night, you know. And I let things get worse and worse and worse." Finally, he turned and faced me, though it was clear that the effort cost him dearly. "You see, Vinson has plenty of money. The mob can hire the best lawyers in the game. They would have made mincemeat out of Bugsy on the stand by portraying him as a hysterical rabbit. They'd have broken him down and made him cower under his chair and spout nonsense."
I frowned. The image was likely enough.
"His testimony was useless to me from day one. For that matter, I really couldn't use anything from you, either. I had to get in and see for myself. Now I can get on the stand and say 'I saw Jimmy Vinson threaten to kill Bugsy Stiles'. Do you understand?"
I frowned. "Why didn't you find another way in? You could have become virtually anything."
He sighed. "I can only hold a given non-human form for a day or so. I needed to be sure that I was going in when something critical was going to happen." He paused. "To be quite frank, a man with my qualifications is rather busy, too. I have other cases just as urgent." Then he sighed again. "But still, it was no excuse. I risked the lives of you and your friends. Anyone could have broken their neck in that crazy car chase. Even an innocent bystander. I'm losing touch with what is real, just like all the other inanimorphs." His voice broke. "I'm going to have to turn in my badge. My judgment's shot. And I've come to say I'm sorry. I'm already dead, and I damn near killed you too in my recklessness."
Instantly I was sitting up, my paw on his shoulder. "Maybe," I told him. "Maybe. But maybe not. You're not the only one whose sense of reality has been shot all to hell by SCABS, you know. It's literally put physicists in the nuthouse."
His shoulder jumped under my paw; a single bitter syllable of laughter. "Yeah."
"Inanimorphism is the strangest manifestation of SCABS," I continued. "And the most psychologically disorienting. But chronomorphism is darned strange, too." I paused for a moment and shook my head. "When those cuffs came off... It was the first time I've ever really understood just how weird a creature I've become." I looked away. "I'm a freak, too. Not just non-human, but non-natural. And it's sunk into every molecule of my being. I can't escape it any more than you can."
Da Silva didn't move for a long time. Then he put his hand over my paw and squeezed it gently, just once. "Thank you," he said.
"No problem," I answered gently. "God knows what kind of futures you and I face. But at least let's face them together."
Another long quiet moment passed, then Da Silva straightened up. "Anyway," he said, pulling at his shirt and putting his professional face back on. "Anyway, Vinson is in custody, along with his men. The creep is going to lose that leg, you ought to know. My so-called 'assistant' is in the slam, too, trying to cut a deal. She won't get one. You have nothing to fear from that direction."
I nodded. "Is Vinson an inanimorph?" I asked.
"No," Da Silva answered. "Just an ordinary thug." He smiled. "The shrinks downstairs are treating Bugsy. He's terrified that Vinson is going to turn into a dust particle or something and come to get him."
I nodded. "That's natural enough, for a rabbit."
"Anyway, the current theory is that Bugsy, lacking proper counseling for his Change, transferred all of his latent fears onto his old boss. He simply imagined that Jimmy was growing more evil."
I shrugged. "Or else for the first time he developed a conscience," I answered. "Personally, I think that's it. Once he became less cold himself, he saw evil for what it truly was. And could no longer live with it."
Hernando blinked. "Maybe," he allowed. "Maybe." Then he rose to go. "At any rate Bugsy is going to walk, as promised, though it looks to me like he's Colony-bound. You've done nothing wrong either, and once the local cops are satisfied you can walk, too. Someone will come by in a few days with a big stack of paperwork, like I said. But other than that, we probably won't even ask you to testify."
"Good," I agreed. I had too much work to do to waste my life sitting in a courtroom, though I would have done it if truly needful. Then I met Da Silva's flat eyes one last time. "You're a good cop, Hernando. Yes, I think you let things go too far, because you wanted a good bust so much. But remember something."
"What?" he asked.
"Good cops screw up all the time. Even fully-human ones. We counselors screw up, too. That's what bars are for. And good friends."
Hernando looked stunned for a moment, then slowly raised his right hand in a mock-salute. "Thank you," he whispered.
"You're welcome," I replied. "Now go out there and catch some bad guys, instead of moping about the nature of reality. All right?"
Then he smiled, and was gone.
Bronski was the next one in, with Dan-Man at his side. "Hello, Phil," Ken said, and Dan nodded pleasantly. "You're in our custody, I'm informing you officially. I had to pull some mighty long strings to make that happen, too, I can assure you. So, do you want anything? Dancing girls? Booze?"
"A medal?" Dan added seriously.
I sighed and turned away. "Look," I said. "I didn't do anything..." Then I remembered something, and suddenly I realized that there was something terribly wrong. Ken's feathers were in a terrible state of disarray, and his eyes were dull and red. My stomach filled with ice, and I turned to Dan, who was standing slightly behind his boss.
A look of pain crossed Dan's face, then he looked away and shook his head. Clearly, the egg had failed to hatch.
"Anything you want, Phil!" Ken was saying, with what I now understood was a desperately false sense of joviality. "Anything!"
I want you to be happy, I didn't say. I want you to grow and have a chick and build new and better relationships than you ever have before in this strangely twisted new world, just like I was somehow doing, despite myself. Instead, I just asked to see Phlox and Scal, there being not one single damned thing I could say to take the edge off of Ken's terrible loss. Not then and there.
"Sure thing!" he said, bobbing his head back and forth with false energy. "But hey! Before I go, Dan's got something for you!"
Then Dan smiled too, and pulled a little card out of his suit jacket. "Here," he said. "I found this in your records, when the stupid brainless cops over on the other end of town were trying to pile up charges against you." The little bit of plastic landed face-up in front of me; it was my old, pre-SCABS driver's license. "You had a five-year license, freshly renewed. The thing doesn't expire for another week, wouldn't you know it? And they never revoked it. Probably since you were being committed anyway. Why bother?"
I stared down at my old face. "I... Uh..."
"Just renew it," Dan advised. "You won't even have to take the test over. Not now that the computer reads the way that it does. Did you know that cops are empowered to certify Scabs as drivers in this state? Specially trained ones, at least. Like me." He smiled smugly.
"Trust me," Ken answered. "If Dan says it's fixed, it's fixed. Least we could do, by way of thanking you." He bobbled his head again. "After last night, you aren't going to try and claim that you can't drive, are you?"
Then the cops were gone and Phlox and Scal burst in, carrying Shortcake and the General in their little travel cages. And presently the five of us were in my bed together, alone and unhampered by non-lapine eyes, cleansed via common peril of hidden jealousies and dark psychoses. We didn't speak a word, not one of us. After all, we were rabbits; we didn't need to.
We were one.
So instead of speaking, we snuggled and groomed the afternoon away together in blissful silence, munching sweet blossoms and loving one another in the very fullest of measure until the darkness finally came, and all of us were free to go on living and growing and bonding with one another forevermore.