|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. Some people see SCABs as a problem -- and some have exceptionally radical solutions for this perceived problem...
Go here for more information on the setting.
The Downward Spiral
by the TBP Round-Robin Collective
©2005 the TBP Round-Robin Collective -- all rights reserved
Christmas Nightmare (Chapter 2, part ii)
I was back,
back in the hospital,
back in the noise, the smell, the pain,
back in my own private hell.
Drowning in the noise,
assaulted by the stench of disease and detergents,
the very flavor of this place spiced with fear, pain and death.
Everything hurt. Each muscle, each bone, each sinew.
I was lying on my side, trying to turn on my back, looking at my hand...
- unable to move -
... when I saw the furred paw at the end of my... front leg?
Crying out in terror, pleading for help, for salvation, but...
- unable to speak -
... all that escaped my... lips..? was a high pitched whimper.
What had happened? How had I come here? Where was I!?
- unable to remember -
I lay there in disbelief, in shock, when I finally realized, something impossible -- incomprehensible -- must have happened.
My thoughts moved like molasses. Had I been drugged? Or were these my last moments as a sentient being? Cogito ergo sum. But was this still true, would it still be true, not trying to think...
- unable to think -
...of the unthinkable. Was this what would become of me...
I think not? Therefore I am... what?
Despair rose up all around me like water around a drowning man, floating, down, deeper. Seeing the last rays of light, of hope vanishing into an ever darkening blue above.
Not sure if there was going to be a bottom.
All I could do, was wait. Wait, until I hit bottom. Wait, 'til there was nothing left to wait for. Shutting my eyes for the inevitable. I suddenly heard voices, much deeper than they should be, but voices, human voices. Arguing, in front of my door. Concentrating hard, listening with all of my body...
"... I understand you find this hard to believe, since you came back to duty when most of the changes were already over. But that was a human being less than a week ago, so don't give me all that shit about 'dangerous beast'."
"I don't give a damn what it was. All I'm saying is that now, your 'human' patient has a tail, fur, claws and fangs to match. All the tests we ran, show that this is a full fledged, 100% Felis concolor, more commonly known as cougar, puma or mountain lion. No doubt about it."
"Whoa -- not so fast -- all we did was preliminary tests, electroencephalograms, some simple genetic testing."
"Well, they seem to show nothing human is left, but that --"
"-- is exactly my point. But let's say you're right; suppose there is some minuscule human part left. Would you want to live like that if you were in its place? And how would you make a living? Face it, that cat's got no chance at all out in the wild -- not in the winter, not when it's clueless about how to hunt and survive. So what's it going to do? I'll tell you what it's going to do: Kitty's gonna stay near places it knows about, near or in the cities, towns, villages. And how long do you think will it be before it runs into those living there, raiding garbage cans and worse, hunting for meat -- for fresh flesh. How long until it kills its first human? You want to let that monster of a cat loose near a school yard or a kindergarden?"
"No, of course not. But still you've got no right to kill it off, just because it's inconvenient to keep it! We have to find out what really happened."
"What really happened? You think we will ever know how something like that could possibly happen?"
"When you put it like that, I don't know. I really don't know..."
"We better find out if this is somehow contagious... and quick! We've only got one more iso-lab."
"Yes, damnit. You got any idea why Sandra went in there?"
"I think your girlfriend wanted to tell her 'kitty' that she found a nice new home for it at the local zoo. Guess what? Your 'harmless' patient clawed her for all the trouble she got."
"I think you're right. No sense in further delaying the inevitable. Give me the syringe; I'll do it."
"Revenge? That's hardly like you..."
"Not at all. With our only contamination full body suit clawed and torn, whoever goes in there has to be isolated just like Sandra. And as you said, we're likely going to need the rooms for patients. If I do it, I can take care of Sandra and we still only need one iso-lab for the both of us."
Blinded by the light from the corridor when the door opened, I shut my eyes. All I heard were footsteps, solemnly approaching. The scent of human, of determination, wafting towards me.
"Don't worry, kitty. This won't hurt. A short stab and it's over."
No, please, don't, I tried to scream. I am still me, still alive! However, tried was the operative word.
No matter how much I pleaded with my eyes -- no matter how much I tried to move, move away -- the figure in the shadow cast by the light pooling in from the door did not falter. With practiced efficiency, the deathly fluid was pulled...
And all I could do was to watch the light from the door, reflecting from the bottle of death, the glass of the syringe, the metal of the needle. At its tip, a tiny drop of death sparkled in the light.
"This will be for the better. Really, it is the best, the only solution. I am sorry." I heard his soothing words; the last words I would ever hear...
The needle descended.
Please, no! I tried to scream, but only a pitiful 'miau' escaped.
The pretty drop, sparkling at the tip, falling now, ever so slowly; turning, round and around; sending tiny specks of light out through the room.
Oh Lord, have mercy... was my last thought.
Diving towards my hind quarter,
With a jerk I woke up, screaming an ultrasonic "Noooooo!"
Just a dream. Just a dream. Just that old nightmare again.
Struggling to fully wake up, ignoring the pain all over my body, shutting my eyes to keep out the bright lights from above, I took a gasp of breath.
Not real. Not real. You are safe. You are still alive.
Calm down, I told myself. Then take a peek.
I was back,
back in the hospital,
back in the noise, the smell, the pain...
I stood on the bottom step of the staircase, looking at the mountain of gifts towering in front of the tree. Tugging at my robe belt, my feet carried down onto the cold floor. Each step shot pins into my feet until I successfully navigated onto the carpet.
Everyone else was already gathered, my parents drinking coffee and my sitter draped across the couch. I took a seat in the recliner near the front window, the cold chill from outside transferring through the glass onto the back of my neck. I hunched up my shoulders a bit, looking back and forth at everyone else.
No one moved.
I suppose I was a bit foolish, expecting to come down here with everything still occuring as normal. Usually we'd tear into our presents, but the air felt stale this morning. I rubbed my hands together, looking down at my palms.
"Stephen?" my mother suddenly asked. I lifted my head up to face her. "How are you feeling?"
My father and sister turned their eyes upon me, and I suddenly felt very small.
"I'm not sure," I managed to squeak out, my eyes rolling toward the floor. The room became an icy pit, and my whole body burned in the cold. I thought for sure that my home would be some sort of sanctuary from my emotions, but all it did was protect me from the outside world. Even in these familiar walls, my demons still got to me.
"Do you want to talk about it?" my father asked.
Oh, did I ever! More than anything else, I wanted for my parents to speak to me right now. To tell me those reassuring answers that parents are so good at giving you.
I nodded my head, and after a moment, my father got up from his chair. He waved his hand in a 'follow me' gesture, and headed out of the living room. I got up, walking past my sister and mother, the smell of Christmas being replaced quickly with the sterility of the kitchen.
My father propped himself against a counter, and I came to a stop in the center of the room.
"Son," he said. "I want you to understand that what you did isn't wrong. It's natural to feel that way -- you wouldn't be human if taking a life didn't affect you. But I want you to know, man to man, that you had every right to do what you did."
I bit my lip. "But... I killed someone, dad! I killed someone! I mean, it doesn't feel natural to me! I don't feel right inside!"
He stepped forward and put his hand on my shoulder. I tensed up -- this was an unusual gesture from him.
"I know how you feel, son. I really do. You know how I was a Marine during the Serbian conflicts, right? I wasn't much older than you when I took my first life... I was hurting inside. That feeling still comes back to me sometimes. But I was doing my duty as a soldier.
"You're a logical person, Steve. I know that, I know how you think. You want people to deal with their conflicts rationally, and that's commendable. But what I don't think you understand, at least not in a realistic sense, is that sometimes some people just can't be reasoned with, because they hate something so much it blinds their conscience.
"Son, what I'm saying is, sometimes when situations get to a certain degree, you have to react with force."
I knew he was right. Deep down, I did. But the nagging doubts remained on the surface.
"But I'm not the type of person who does that!" I said. "I don't even know why I went into that alley in the first place. I told someone else it was rage. That's true, but it doesn't seem like a good enough excuse! Not to kill somebody!"
My dad sighed. "Sometimes I think we've sheltered you a bit too much, Steve. Your mother and I. I'm not saying that what we did was bad... I just fear that sometimes you don't have a very realistic view of how the world works because we've protected you. You were born the year society collapsed, so you never got a chance to see how horrible the world was during that time. How horrible it still is in many places around the world. Because of that, I don't think you can comprehend just how dangerous some people really can be."
I broke in. "I understand brutality, dad. I've never known a world without SCABS , so I have no clue how it was before the Martian Flu came along. All I ever hear is reports about how terrible SCABs have it around the world, and it frightens me! It scares me to know the type of world I'm going out into every day. I just want to run and hide and wait until it's all over!"
He took his hand off my shoulder and looked me square in the face. "I understand how you feel. But you're a man now, and you will be going off into the world soon. Children hide from adversity -- but adults have to confront it head on. Otherwise they'll be afraid their whole life. You can't choose to avoid all conflicts, and sometimes you're going to have to stand up and fight for what you believe in.
"I'm not trying to be mean to you. I'm telling you this because I love you and I don't want you to hate yourself for what you did yesterday. That's the worst thing a human being can do, dwell on the past so much that it begins to kill them. I really want you to understand that there are going to be some people who hate you for what you did, either because they hate SCABs or because they have a misguided belief that taking a life is always wrong in every situation, and that you're just as bad as the people who were shooting. But you can't let them get to you. You don't have to try to make everyone love you. Just be happy with who you are."
I nodded. "I understand." Deep down, my demons were still there, gnawing at me, but I managed to shrink them down to a more manageable level. I suppose they always will be there, but I have to control them, not the other way around. I'm not proud of killing that man, but I told myself that as a human being I did the right thing in trying to help others.
Unfortunately, conflicts aren't as cut and dried as they are in the movies, and situations aren't always black-and-white. Life tends to be more morally ambiguous when it comes down to real situations. But now I really felt like I did the right thing. I still wish I hadn't killed the man, that he survived his wounds... but I don't feel bad about attacking him.
He was wrong to try to murder people. I was right to try to stop him.
It's as simple as that.
I'm sure God will forgive me for taking the man's life. I really do feel sorry about it, even if now I'm sure I did the right thing. I know the man upstairs understands these situations, and I hope he will take it into account that I didn't kill out of malice but instead out of self-defense.
My father smiled at me. "Okay. What do you want to do now?"
I managed a smile too. "Let's go open some presents."
The whole family tore through the wrappings, ribbons and paper flying about madly. Some clothes from mom, some books from dad. It could have been nothing but socks today and I'd still be happy. I smiled at the sight of my sis shrieking in excitement at a new leather jacket, and my mom and dad exchange hugs with their new jewelry and power tools, respectively. The whole house glowed with Yuletide excitement.
I opened an envelope from my sister to find some money inside. I looked at her, and she smiled.
"That's for whatever you want," she said. "I figured you'd spend it on books or something, but after yesterday, you may want to get some new clothes. For your other form, I mean."
I smiled. "Thanks. I may just do that."
We had dinner early that day, as we do every Christmas. After saying grace, we glanced about the spread in front of us. Turkey, ham, rolls, and salad -- we feasted like kings. Our dining table might as well have been a royal banquet hall, as far as we were concerned.
Family: It's one of the greatest blessings of all.
The phone rang, and I excused myself from the table. I grabbed the phone in the den to avoid disturbing the family.
"Yes, is this Steve Carson?" came a familiar sounding voice on the other line.
"This is he," I said, trying to place the voice.
"Mr. Carson, this is Lt. Hallsworth. Merry Christmas."
I blinked. "Merry Christmas to you, too," I replied, curious as to why he was calling.
"May I call you Steve?" he inquired politely. I told him he could, and he continued. "Steve, I would really like to meet with you again. It concerns the Blind Pig shootings. Would you be available to come see me tomorrow?"
"Um, sure," I said. "Do you want me to meet you at the station?"
His voice became a bit apprehensive. "Actually, the mood at the station isn't very good at the moment. A lot of officers are still freaked out about the shootings, and a few of the others are still sore about the Chief firing MacPherson last night. Even bigoted idiots have friends, it seems. It probably wouldn't be a good idea for you to come there."
I sighed and nodded. "I understand. Where would you prefer we meet?"
"Well, you can meet me at my apartment if that's all right with you. I'll be off duty tomorrow afternoon, and we can get together at, say, 4 o'clock?"
"Okay," I said with a shrug. "Sounds fine to me." I took down his address and some instructions on how to get there.
"You're not in trouble, I just want to get a few more things clear to help with our investigation," he said in a reassuring voice. "I know that you want the people responsible for these shootings brought to justice, right?"
"Yeah, that's no problem," I said. "If I can help stop this from happening again, then I'm all for it."
"That's how I feel," he said. I could tell he was smiling on the other end of the line. "Well, you go back to your family, you hear? And have a merry Christmas."
"You too," I responded, and then hung up the phone.
I was back,
back to the hospital...
Just not that hospital, luckily.
Don't get me wrong: Nothing like that did actually happen there, obviously. After all, I am still here to tell the tale. But it could have, and almost did... However, I really don't like to talk, or think, about it.
It's bad enough when I have those nightmares... But back to the present. You're probably asking yourself, how did I get here?
Well, so am I.
Last thing I remember, is one of those doggies -- oops, sorry -- one of those police officers with a similar condition as myself, just of the canine persuasion -- god I hate this politically incorrect... ok, ok I will just keep to the facts, no need to twist my ear and don't you dare to pull my tail. Where was I? Ah, yes. Back at the bar, groomed and ready to roll again. Well, not really, but you know what I mean.
Just got myself in position and propped up, when those two police officers stepped in, looking for the one responsible for the mess outside, hiding in here. It was obvious that they were nervous. How did I know? By the benefit of being a smart cat, i.e. learning other languages. So yes, I knew 'Canine' and a few other 'body-talks' as well, at least in the sense that I could read them. Speaking it, now there was the trouble. If I could 'speak' 'Canine' I wouldn't be so scared of them shooting me right where I stood.
Why? Because 'Feline' and 'Canine' happen to use the same signs, alas with completely different meanings. And as often in history, it's something as simple as miscommunication that can start a war. In any case, once they had come up close, their scent was also a dead give-away. Yep, they were scared.
Who could blame them? Fortunately for them, as most others, fighting scenes like the one outside are not a common sight around U.S. cities nowadays. Unfortunately for me, it was not something unfamiliar to me. Comes with the territory, when you work for the Critical Incidence Response Group.
But enough of those musings. What had happened? They walked up to me, hands on their guns, ready to draw. I'd played the cool cat, given them my I.D. card and asked for the officer in charge. All by the book. Bad Wolf had kept a watchful eye on me, and Good Doggy ran out to fetch his master. In the meantime Donnie had brought me my drink -- milk as ordered -- thankfully, not in the bowl stenciled 'Kitty', but in a high glass with a straw. It would have been really embarrassing if I'd had to lap up my drink out of a bowl right then. And not only because us pumas got this 'Milchbart' face -- that being German for a white mustache that one can acquire by drinking milk out of a mug. No, that would have seriously endangered the image I was aiming at with my little show.
Instead, I wrapped my muzzle around the straw, took a few sips out of my glass, all under the watchful gaze of Mr. Wolf Cop, when the door banged open again. The good dog and some other cop, human by the outline I saw in the door. When... yes when I felt my spine sag to the side and my field of vision went completely black. Last thing I remember was some screeching noise, like claws on a blackboard or wood. Uh, a sniff at my paws confirmed it, there was the smell of scratched wood. Shit; instinctually I must have tried to keep a hold on something, likely with claws out, probably the bar itself. What else do I remember? Some sounds, footsteps and a few garbled words. Then... nothing, until that stupid nightmare woke me up again.
Well, time to give yourself a physical. I could see, where they had stuck in the IV, there was the bandage that covered that stupid wound. A short sniff confirmed, no fresh blood. Good, I should be up and about in no time at all again, then. Unless some doctor was going to be extra careful and keep me here for an eternity and then some for observation. Screw them all.
Ok, so there are no extra holes, just a rather large set of bruises. They would likely last more than a week or so no matter what I did, without being in any way life-threatening. All in all, nothing serious to worry about, right? As long as it is hidden under the fur, there is no obvious reason for them to keep you here. Just act as if nothing is wrong and you might even get out today or latest tomorrow...
So the next step, naturally, was to give this body a good stretch, to make the blood flow and regain as much maneuverability as possible in a minimum of time. When you try to make a show of how well healed you are, it's no good to have to limp onto the stage.
Arrrgh, this hurts. Damn it, feels more like you got one single bruise and strain, all over your body from the tip of your tail to the tip of you muzzle. Hell and damnation! Ok, this isn't going to work, at least not right now. So here comes the backup plan.
Settling down in a more comfortable position, it was time for a grooming massage. Methodically I was working my fur, wincing under my breath whenever I worked on a particularly painful spot. There were interesting scents on my fur: Spilled milk, wolf, dog, human, deer? Damn it, now I realized that there was a hole in my body -- more precisely, a big huge vacuum where my stomach used to be.
I was hungry.
As if on cue I heard one of the hospital trolleys outside of my room; after some bang and clang of metal, the door opened and -- holy Moe -- one of the largest women I had ever seen waltzed in, in one hand she carried a large, and I mean really large, plate with cover.
"Ah, my hungry kitty. Looking forward for breakfast. Here we go."
"Miau!" was all I could say for surprise, her stature dwarfed me to the size of a house cat. With a flourish she set the plate down in front of me and withdrew the cover.
Beef. Large pieces of prime beef! I couldn't help myself. My benefactor had hardly time to withdraw her hand before I had the plate in between my paws, gobbling down the meat at a rate that -- I hate to admit it -- was probably better measured in pounds per second.
I was just about scraping the last tiny bits of food off the plate with my tongue when after the pleasant scent of raw meat a miasma waved past my muzzle.
That now poisonous liquid, a sign of a desire from a past life. Although even then, I had never liked the smell or taste of coffee when it had stood on some hot plate for hours.
"Quite a show you put on, Agent Cougar."
Great, just great. The boss of the local FBI HQ. Seems my so-called 'superior' feline senses had been a tiny bit too occupied to give me any sort of warning that he had entered my cage here. Yeah, now I recognized his cologne and human scent, the sound of those fake Italian leather shoes...
"Tell me: Is it just me, or do you also remember that a certain special agent was supposed to get well here and then fly to the FBI Rocky Mountain training facility to start his new job of pounding some sense into rookies this very morning?"
Uh oh -- his mocking friendliness didn't bode well for the rest of our 'little talk'. Setting up my best 'who me' mannerisms, I looked up from my plate and replied, "Good morning, chief! Just a little breakfast before I get on the plane. You know how lousy food service is on inter-state trips."
"You are not going anywhere!" he scolded me, venom dropping from every single word. "What were you thinking?"
"That it's better to travel with a full stomach?" I answered innocently, with my best 'little kitten' manners.
"You... pfaugh! I'm not talking about the way you just gorged yourself. Although frankly, the way you... gobbled up that meat, like an animal. Don't you have any manners? If the media showed that to the public, you'd be lucky if all we did was lock you in a cage and throw away the key!"
"Cage!? But... I didn't do anything! Certainly nothing wrong!?"
He glared down at me. "Four people dead, six seriously injured and the rest wounded. That's what you call 'doing nothing wrong'!? More of that 'nothing', and we won't need to worry about pissing off our allies -- because we won't have any left! It's not like there's any shortage of enemies already, considering what we do and how much of the taxpayers' valuable bucks our agents burn." More muttering to himself he continued, "Not that those bean counters haven't been searching for means to cut costs all along."
"Hey, I didn't kill anyone and only harmed those who have already proven their will to indiscriminately hurt others, for no other reason but that those others happen to look different from what they considered normal."
"Yeah, I know what you did," he admitted, calming down a bit. "And yes, by the book it was the right thing to do. It was also the worst thing you possibly could have done in that situation!"
"But... It was self-defense, as well as..!"
"Do you have any idea what's going on here? This isn't about a few SCABs and some booze-shop in a run-down area of town. The future, if not the lives, of millions of SCABs in the U.S. might be at stake. We've been following these hate groups for years now. It was only recently that we got wind that they're receiving funds and other support from people and groups that are very high up the Washington totem pole. Very influential people, who seem to have taken an interest in solving the 'SCAB problem', and all that it entails, their way. And if they can make a healthy profit while they're at it, they damn sure will. For these people, laws are hardly more than guidelines; if they become inconvenient they are either ignored, stepped around or changed."
"Hey, I just wanted to spend some quality time with some other --"
"And what about your team? The other guys and gals around here? Damn it, anyone could have taken you home if you were so damned set on getting boozed or coddled or... whatever it was that made you go there."
I hissed my displeasure. "Damn it, can't you understand that I am sick of being regarded as either a pet or mascot or some sort of live weapon, useful but too dangerous to be left unguarded?
"You are on sick leave, Cougar. Until further notice. You are not to leave this place for any reason, whatsoever. You are specifically not going to work, and definitely we can do without any further help by a meddling feline. Got that?"
"I didn't hear you!"
"Good. You stay here and let my boys do their job. And once the doctors are sure you're ready to travel, you will be on the next plane to your new job. I have no idea what nutcase at H.Q. came up with the idea that you're fit to teach new agents; as far as I'm concerned, the only way you'll help them learn anything is by serving as a bad example. And I'll bet you can do that just as well, whether you're a mountain lion or on display as a mounted lion."
How had he learned of that? "Hey! That was just a bit of a joke..."
"Yeah, I heard all about your deal. You might be looking forward to getting stuffed, but around here there's a bunch of people who would love to knock the stuffing out of you!"
"Chief? What..? I mean, I didn't..."
"Right, not something you'd know about. If you want my advice, don't watch the news. I'm sorry, didn't want to give you such a pounding, but the way things have gone this night..." He sighed. "Couldn't you have stayed out of it? Just once? Be part of the team, and not such a damned pain in the butt?"
"Sir, they had shotguns, pistols, and automatics. They'd already shot down someone for no other reason that he was there. No questions, no reasons, just shooting right out of the moving car --"
"Moving!? Damn it. Didn't know that... Well, in that case there really wasn't much else you could have done. Not by the book, anyway. Damn it, I just wish you SCABs weren't so fucking efficient at what you do, or so fucking determined to see it through. No scaredy-cats among you felines, huh? Well, it seems your fellow agents were right: You should get a medal for what you did. Mind you, there's some disagreement about whether it should be pinned to your chest, tagged to your ear, wrapped around your tail -- either with a ribbon or by making a knot into it -- or looped around your neck, very tightly. It was Agent Anderson who suggested using a chain for that, preferably the kind they use to anchor battleships."
"Anderson? Wasn't he the one with more than just a bit of Terrier..."
"Yes, excellent agent, working like a dog for the team. I just wish you two would have hit it off a bit better. I have no idea what it is between you cats and dogs, but he was really sorry what happened four weeks ago. I mean, Jesus, who would have thought those kidnappers had a fucking inanimorph on their side? Anyone could have overlooked him."
"Or oversmelled him. Yes, I know."
"Or that. However, it didn't help when he saw you being carried out on a stretcher, again. He'd been working his tail off on this case. Sleeping at HQ, sniffing out any lead we got. And you still managed to be there first. From his point of view he failed, again. He didn't get there first, he didn't protect the civilians, and you got wounded for his failure, again."
"Not a happy puppy, huh?"
"Not at all -- 'frothing mad' is more like it. If I didn't know better, I'd have had the doc check him for rabies."
"Tell him that I will make sure that he is the one to get shot next time. That should brighten up his mood."
"Hah! Not likely. Anyway, Agent Cougar, I don't want you to be seen wandering around by yourself. It looks as if someone has declared open season on SCABs, and especially on those that either can't defend themselves or can make a good show for just how dangerous some of you are. The media's having a field day. By rights they should be bitching about the assholes who started all this, these Human First wannabes or whatever hot-heads. But no, this week it's you SCABs that are to blame for everything."
Through all this, the boss hadn't actually smelled angry or afraid -- but now, fear did mark his scent. Fear, and concern. "Look, Cougar: The very last thing we need is another person killed by a SCAB -- doesn't matter if they really did it or if someone just believes they did it. This is a powder keg, understand? One spark, and everything blows up in our face. So you stay under cover and out of sight. We cleared it with the staff here; all they need to know is that you were transfered to another hospital for a CAT scan, and you got back this morning. Let's not make anyone here more nervous, or at least not enough to call in some reporters."
"You have no idea. Just get well and we'll have you out of this madhouse in no time at all. Then you can scare the wits out of some newbies out in the Rockies."
"Will do, Chief."
"Now, that would be a first."
"You actually doing as you were told," he said, while making for the door.
The last words my oversensitive ears picked up through the slammed-shut door were, "Damned cats..."
Sounded like I jumped out of the frying pan into the fire... Well, you needn't be a rocket-scientist to figure out that he was more of a dog person. When he hollered, he wanted to see action, not a vertical tail telling him to get lost. With a sigh I looked at my rear end. What can I say? Sometimes it just seemed to have a mind of his own. The important thing was to get valid information on what had happened and why. Then someone had to figure out who was behind this and -- even more important -- how to stop them.
With people like him in charge, the world was that much closer to be going to the dogs...
Now, which feline would ever let that happen?
The lion stood in his white robes at the door of the church greeting each member as they left the Christmas services. To the smaller children he gave a small package to take home and open at their Christmas feast. After the last of the people had left he walked back up the aisle, bowed to the altar and entered the sacristy.
"Father Ted," the deacon asked with some concern. "Are you okay? You don't look well."
"Just tired, Bob," I replied, slipping my chausible onto the hanger. "It was a very short night."
"Hmm... and that doesn't sit well with lions," he said, placing the vessels from the mass back in the cabinet. "You'd better go to the rectory and get some rest."
"Thankfully, I didn't inherit that part of the lion," I told him, truly grateful that I hadn't. "Even in my old body, I'd be in sad shape on only three hours of sleep. I'll get some rest right after I visit Reverend Bouchet."
"Yes, I heard about the shelter this morning," the deacon replied. "It's all over the news. They're saying it was set -- that's the only explanation for how it spread so fast. But... I can't believe anyone would do such a thing!"
"That's one of the reasons I want to talk to Reverend Bouchet," I said, hanging up the last of my robes. "I want to find out what really happened, and how we can help."
"Father Ken said we took in some of the survivors," Bob said. "Do you know how many died?"
"No more than you, I'd guess," I sighed, my ears falling at the thought of all the deaths. "The news is still citing nineteen missing. I pray that's wrong."
"As do I. If there's any way we can help you, just let me know," he called as I walked out the door.
At the rectory I stopped only long enough to grab a bite to eat, then got in my car and headed for the Episcopal church. When I arrived, there was still a number of emergency vehicles on the street. Smoke drifted upward from some parts of the old four-story brownstone that had been the shelter. As I got out of the car and walked toward the building, I could see the back had collapsed and nothing above the first floor remained intact. One of the news stations was still there, taking video and talking with some of the people who stood outside the safety lines set up by the police.
As the wind shifted, my leonine sense of smell revealed the distinctive scent of burnt flesh. This was something I'd already guessed, but would have just as soon done without my senses confirming for me. Images from my past blocked out the real world, and the horrors of that wicked time ripped at my soul...
How can man be so cruel? I asked myself, knowing I would get no answer. What evil could infect a person that they would burn others alive?
A sudden cold sensation brought me back to the present: My tail had sank into a puddle -- as ever, my emotional state was reflected by that appendage. I jerked it up and attempted to shake the freezing liquid from it. As I walked toward the front door of the rectory, I thought better of it and turned down the driveway next to the building. The housekeeper answered when I rang the back door bell.
"Father Ted," she said, her face revealing her obvious lack of sleep. "I'm so glad you're here."
"I came as soon as I could, Madeline," I said, stepping into the kitchen. "Is Rev. Bouchet in?"
"He's up in the office, finishing with another interview," she explained, somewhat scowling. "It's been nothing but one reporter after another today. Let me take your coat and I'll tell him you're here."
"Thank you, Maddy," I replied, shedding my heavy coat and handing it to the woman who disappeared down the hall.
Lost in my own thoughts, it seemed like it was only a matter of seconds before she returned.
"He'll be right with you," she said, then added, "Why don't you wait in the sitting room? You look like you could use a comfortable place to sit down."
"You're right," I answered, realizing all the more the magnitude of my fatigue, which my leonine appearance usually kept well hidden. I tried to make light of it by quipping, "I'll try not to snore."
Moving down the hallway, I could hear conversation coming from the pastor's office. I was just to the sitting room when the office door swung open and a reporter stepped out. I tried to slip by her unnoticed, but it was too late.
"Excuse me," she said, obviously directing her voice toward me. "Are you one of the displaced SCABs? Could we have a few words with you?"
"I'm not one of the shelter's residents," I corrected as her cameraman shouldered his equipment and prepared to begin taping. At that moment a very tired Rev. Bouchet came into the hall and to my rescue.
"This is Father Ted Colbert," the pastor explained. "He is a priest over at St. Francis and a friend."
"So you're the SCAB priest that runs the shelter over at St. Francis," she said, nudging her cameraman to start taping. The blinding light flooded my eyes, causing me to squint in pain as my pupils attempted to adjust. "Tell me, Mr. Colbert, does this attack make you fear for the safety of your shelter?"
"It's Father Colbert," Rev. Bouchet corrected from the side."
"Any time there is an attack like this on a facility that serves the victims of SCABS, I'm concerned," I replied, desperately trying to engage my brain to give an answer that was truthful but prudent. "I don't really see us changing too much of what we do at our shelter."
"So you will be making changes?" she asked, grabbing the ill-chosen words.
"I really can't say right now," I told her. "Certainly we will look at what would make us safer from a possible attack and make changes accordingly."
"So you believe this was an attack and not just an accident?" the reporter shot back.
"From what I've been told it was an attack," I replied -- and instantly regretted the statement. "From what little I know, the fire seemed to spread very rapidly. That's why so many people lost their lives."
"What about the faulty fire exits and deteriorated fire escape?" she exclaimed, seeking an answer to support her question. "Wouldn't that be more likely the cause of the deaths rather than an unlikely attack of some kind?"
Rev. Bouchet gave me a gesture not to allow the questioning to go down that road. I was still scrambling to get my mental feet under me, and did the best I could to derail the questioning.
"Well, with the other attacks that took place last night," I said, "I think it's natural for us to assume the shelter was also attacked."
"Were you at any of these attacks, as you call them?"
"I was at the Blind Pig," I began to explain but she cut me off.
"Were you injured in any way?"
"No," I replied but paused too long to be able to continue.
"Were you acquainted with any of those who were injured or killed?"
Killed? I thought to myself. To the best of my knowledge, no one except the attackers were killed. "No, I only treated a young lion who was wounded in the chest," I told her, making sure to leave little time for her to reply. "And I had never seen him before."
"You said he was also a lion," she stated, yet again grasping one of my own words and using it as she liked. "Is this common, that SCABs of the same species would treat each other? Is it an instinct, a drive to protect those of your own pride? That is how lions see their family and friends, isn't it?"
"Miss, I am an EMT as well as being a priest," I explained, desperately trying to keep my brain ahead of my mouth. "I responded to an MCI, a Mass Casualty Incident, and treated the person the officer in charge directed me to. That's all."
"Do you think that officer directed you to a SCAB for fear you might seek revenge for what was done at the bar?"
"Not at all," I said a little more forcefully than I should have or would have liked. "All of the wounded outside seemed to have been taken care of. I was simply assigned to the next victim."
"Earlier you said you treated a wounded lion," she said, jumping back to my earlier statement. "Did you feel you were in danger while you were at the bar?"
"The police had the scene under control," I answered finally feeling I had a safe reply that she couldn't twist. "They wouldn't have let any of us in if they felt there was any threat to our safety."
"If a human threatened you, would you use your claws and teeth to attack them?"
I stood there, my mouth open but no sound coming forth. I desperately tried to formulate a reply but my sleep deprived brain refused. After all that had happened, all I had seen, how could I answer? Certainly I would defend myself if attacked -- but I'd be a fool to tell her that. I was being baited, I knew that much. I needed to respond, but how? Thankfully, my friend eliminated my need to do so.
"Ms. Yordan, Father Colbert is a man of God," the pastor declared. "He would certainly not attack another person without cause. I think, just as with any of us, if he were attacked he would defend himself."
"That may be true, Pastor," the reporter replied as she glanced at the large paw-like hands SCABS had left me with. "But few of us are able to wield a handful of razors with simply a thought or crush a man's head in a single bite. That is the danger of SCABS, Reverend. What for us would be a simple action, for them, becomes a deadly assault."
I wanted to respond. I felt the need to rebuke these insinuations, but the fog of fatigue refused to lift. At least I had the good sense to keep my muzzle shut.
"Come on, Bob," she said, turning to her photographer, "We've got enough for this segment. Thank you, Rev. Bouchet, for the interview."
The pair exited without another word and the pastor closed the door.
"Ted, I'm so sorry you had to go through that," he said, his faced lined with concern. "Of all the reporters who have been here, she's definitely the last one I would have wanted you to run into."
"She certainly had her own agenda," I commented wearily. "I don't want to think about how that will all get edited together. I could possibly get another call from the bishop on this one."
"I doubt that," my friend replied. "They know how those reporters can twist things. Besides it's not as if he hasn't had his turn at the hands of Ms. Yordan."
"True," I said, recalling her attacks on the bishop for his handling of some church matters. But that wasn't why I had come here. I looked at my obviously beleaguered friend.
"How are you doing, Cy?" I asked, my feline features drawn back into an expression of concern.
"I'm tired," he began. "I'm so tired... from all of it. The deaths, the loss of the shelter, the attacks and threats. I know I have to be strong, rely on the Lord and allow Him to be my strength, but..."
His voice trailed off as he lowered his head and seemed on the verge of tears. I placed a hand gently on his shoulder and tried to comfort him.
"Cy, you've told me before that He doesn't give us anything we can't carry with His help," I started, nearly repeating the words he'd once said to me. "It's just a matter of our being able to open ourselves to that help. To be able to hand enough over to Him that we can pull ourselves up from our despair. I've seen you do it before -- and I know you have the faith to do it again."
"I know," he said, raising his head. "It's just that... I've never lost anyone who was under my care before. I don't mean like someone I visit, or who is in the hospital. I mean like those poor souls in the shelter."
"I've been there," I told him, remembering the pain I'd felt when it happened to me. "I know the road. I can walk with you. I think what you need most now is to get some rest."
"Thank you, my friend," he said, relaxing a bit. "I do need rest... but I also need to talk. Why don't we have Maddy make us something to drink? She's got some of that orange spice tea you like -- decaf, of course."
"Okay, but let's not make it too long," I told him. "Otherwise Maddy will be tucking us both in, right here in the sitting room."
"From what you said to the reporter," he said, moving toward the kitchen, "you had as long a night at the Pig as I did here."
"At the Pig, the Hospital and then settling your folks in at our shelter," I replied. "From everything I've heard, all of this took place at just about the same time."
Cy walked into the kitchen and asked the housekeeper to make two cups of tea. We than went into the sitting room and he began to tell me about the fire.
"I'd been asleep for a while when it all started," the pastor began. "I woke up with the phone ringing. It was Deb. She was screaming that there was a fire at the shelter. And they couldn't get out the doors on the first floor. I looked out my window and flames were already coming out of the first floor windows. She said they were going to try getting out by the fire escape on the second floor. I heard Hank telling people to move out onto the escape. There, there was this, this sound. I can't describe it... well... it sounded like metal scraping or something."
He sat there for a minute with his eyes fixed on the opposite wall. Then, shutting them, he lowered his head with a sign.
"There were screams and a lot of noise," he continued. "Then... the phone went dead."
"Did you call the fire department?" I asked.
"Yes, I did that as soon as the phone went dead," he replied as Maddy entered the room with our tea. "They said it had already been called in. The strange thing I found out later was that our alarm hadn't tripped. They had been called by cellphone."
"Was there an equipment failure?" I asked, knowing how extensive their system had been.
"I haven't had time to check with the company," he replied. "I'll probably do that tomorrow. I'll do it right after I get back from the hospital."
"Pastor Bouchet," Maddy said in a low voice. "I know it's not my place to speak, but you should let the vestry help you with some of that. You can't carry all this on your shoulders."
"She's right, Cy," I added. "You've got good people who can see to the nuts and bolts of this. You're going to have your hands full with the victims and their families."
"Yes, I suppose I could do that," he sighed, shaking his head. "They actually understand that type of thing better than I do, anyway."
"How many people were in the shelter that night?" I asked, somewhat fearful of the answer.
"We had... thirty-nine residents and five staff members," he said. "Normally we'd only have two staff members there, but the others wanted, to, be there, for when the children... opened their presents... in the morning."
At this point he broke down in tears. Maddy moved to his side as I leaned over and placed a hand on his shoulder.
"It's okay, Cy," I comforted him. "That's what God gave us tears for. When we can't express our grief any other way."
"It's... the children," he said through his tears. "We had, three, families there last night. We lost two children and a mother."
"I'm so sorry," I murmured, continuing to hold the shoulder of the weeping man. "Do you know how many got out?"
"Yes. The other four children got out with their parents," he began, raising his head and staring off into space. His eyes moved as if counting a line of people. "We got twenty-six residents and three staff out. Most of those who died, lived either on the first or fourth floor."
"Why so many on the fourth?" I pondered aloud but Cy took it as a question.
"They were the highest up when the fire escape collapsed," he said, drying his eyes and shaking his head. "Those who were trapped in the wreckage were killed when the back wall caved in."
"That's what killed the fire fighters as well," Maddy added.
"I hadn't realized any fire fighters were killed!" I gasped. "This has been a tragic day for everyone concerned."
The next question I feared to ask. But I needed to know as much as I felt Cy needed to say it.
"You said three staff members got out," I began, the words stumbling out of my mouth. "Who didn't make it?"
"Bill and Deb," he said, giving a sort of reverence to each name. "We're actually not sure about Deb and a couple of the residents. They still haven't found the bodies. But they were all near, or trapped in, the fire escape... when the wall fell."
At this he broke down once again. I knelt as best as my awkward feline feet would allow, so as to be on his level and hugged him. The tears flowed freely into my fur as Maddy rubbed his back. After several minutes I felt him lean back and so I released him but stayed crouched before the grieving pastor.
"Look, you need to get some rest," I told him. "If you need any respite, I can visit the people who are in the hospital. Do you know where they were taken?"
"About half of them aren't even in the city any more," he began, trying not to let his grief overwhelm him yet again. "They were taken to burn units."
"I can find out for you, Father," Maddy said. "I'll have to make a few calls, but I can get it to you later today."
"Thank you, Maddy," I answered. "I'll get to them... as soon as I can."
I looked at the other priest who was still drying his eyes. With my ears relaxed and a comforting smile on my muzzle, I took his hand and said, "Get some sleep. You've been through hell tonight, and unfortunately, it's not over. I'll be here if you need me, okay?"
He nodded and gave a weak smile.
"I'll be praying for you," I continued as I stood and released his hand. "We'll get through this. God will give us the strength we need to make it through."
I left the room with Maddy on my tail.
"He's taking this very hard," she said in almost a whisper.
"I know," I replied. "Those were his children. Every person who entered that building was a child for him to protect and care for. See to it that he gets some sleep."
"I will, Father," she said as I put on my coat. "But you be careful, too. From what the news is saying, it may not be safe for any of you to be on the streets at night."
"Thanks," I said. Knowing that a public exit was unwise, I'd returned to the kitchen, from which I'd originally entered the church. "I'll be careful."
I walked back to my car and exchanged my coat for my turnout gear and helmet, hoping this would allow me to get closer to the remains of the building. As I approached the cordoned-off area, a police officer stopped me. Thankfully, he did not allow my feline appearance to influence his judgment. After a brief exchange he allowed me to pass. Over the years I'd been to many fire scenes, but even that did not shield me from the feelings of walking about an all-too-familiar place. I approached the back where fire fighters continued to remove bricks and debris, searching for victims.
Suddenly a cry went up; they gathered around where a boot had been unearthed. Bricks were removed with as much speed as possible, each fire fighter hoping that by some miracle their comrade had survived the tons of brick he was buried under. An intact section of wall covered the fallen man's upper body.
"Get me the air chisel," barked the officer as two of his men attempted to physically remove the piece.
"Let me in," I said as I stepped into the debris field. "Make sure you've got something to brace this with if I can lift it."
"Who do you think you are, Superman?" the officer said before he saw my non-human features.
"No -- just someone with a body able to lift a few hundred pounds," I replied, grasping the piece of wall and letting my claws bite into its stony surface.
At first the broken masonry resisted -- but then I felt movement near my foot. I carefully shifted my weight and altered my direction of pull. With a grinding noise the section slid to the side a few inches and then lifted. The others quickly brought in bracing, and signaled me to release the piece. Once certain the bracing would hold, they moved into the hole and confirmed there was nothing that could be done for their fallen companion. With great care and reverence they began to remove the body.
That was when they discovered why the man had stayed.
Beneath him was the T-shirt clad body of a young woman who, in turn, was laid over a furry form. All three had been flattened like a fly beneath a swatter. The three were removed to some waiting stretchers and carefully placed in body bags.
"Was he Catholic?" I asked the officer in charge, gesturing toward the fireman's crushed body.
"Pat O'Brien? Yeah, about as Catholic as they come," he replied. "Why?"
In silence I pointed to the chaplain badge on the other side of my coat.
"You're, you're a priest?" was all the man was able to say as I moved forward and placed my hand on the fallen hero's head.
After a short prayer I made the sign of the cross and stepped over to the body of the young woman I'd recognized as soon as they lifted the man. Deb's body showed no outward signs of the trauma that had ended her life. Save for the dirt, she lay there as if in a peaceful sleep. I could feel the tears building in my eyes as I laid my hand on her head and repeated the prayers once again. Stepping back I moved onto the SCAB on the last stretcher. The fur covered most of her body and her face bore enough of a muzzle to stand out. As I repeated the ritual for her I wondered why she had been at the shelter. What's her story? Does she have family who will miss her? I removed my hand and left the questions unanswered as the black bag was zipped shut.
"Thank you, Father," the officer said as I started to leave. "Pat would have appreciated that. And thank you for the help."
"Glad I could be of service," I replied, my voice somewhat expressing the numbness I felt. "Occasionally this furry body of mine has some good uses."
He just nodded and returned to the gruesome work of searching for more bodies. For my part, I had to leave. I wasn't sure if it was the lack of sleep, the emotional drain, or what I'd just witnessed, but I needed to get home now. Placing my gear in the back of my car I slid into the seat, adjusted my tail and closed the door. For a long moment I simply sat there, the world outside my mind barely existing.
A red light flashed across my face as an ambulance slowly passed by, bringing me out of my trance. Slowly, almost mechanically, I started the car and drove back to my rectory. As I opened the door to my room I realized that I had no clear recollection of the return trip and thanked God for my safe return. A beep from the answering machine drew my attention. Thumbing the play button I recognized the number. Maddy had done her work quickly and a list of victims played for me to hear.
"I'll keep my promise tonight," I moaned to myself as I lay down on the bed. "Right now... this cat needs a nap."
I grabbed the alarm clock and set it to rouse me in four hours. It never made it back to the stand but lay by my side, marking the minutes until it would draw me back to a world that at present seemed to have gone mad.
He sat me down to talk to me
He looked me straight in the eyes
He said: "You're no son, you're no son of mine"...
The light slowly filtered in through the window shades, giving life to the blank room they sat me in. As I slowly lifted my eyelids, I saw a plain white ceiling greet me that is so typical of hospital rooms. "Whoa... last night must've been a killer..." I groaned; my head pulsed with each word, my back loudly echoing my head's complaint. What happened? I silently asked myself.
I reached for the remote and clicked on the television. News poured into the room, with its lone occupant. I looked up to see... my face and name on television! "Sources indicate that the shooting started when two vehicles pulled in down this street. One was a nondescript late model Ford Ranger, the other a panel van. Violence ensued as the gunmen opened fire upon this SCABS owned bar and restaurant 'The Blind Pig Gin Mill'. Among the injured is one Jonathan Practice, a local musician, and..."
I clicked off the machine, the silence welcome after such hot and harsh news. I couldn't believe my ears! Attack!? My blood pulsed in my veins, my head and back pain momentarily forgotten. Oh, how I would've welcomed head and back pain, compared to what happened next...
The phone broke the silence, the shrill beep of its ringer pulsing with the lights on the dial. I picked up the annoying, corded thing and hit the 'talk' button after a couple of tries. "I don't know who you are, but you've prolly got the wrong number," I groaned, my back crying out with each new word.
"I certainly hope I don't." The voice on the other end shook me to the core. Anger welled up within, a rage burning like a hot furnace boiled up inside me. It was all I could do to keep from screaming obscenities at the vile creature on the other end.
"How did you get this number?" I growled.
"Well, it wasn't easy. I ended calling every hospital in the city, first looking for your real name, then looking for the one you're going by now Johnny boy. You, ah, didn't really leave a forwarding number." The nervous chuckle in his voice betrayed the emotions that he was going through, and it only fueled my anger further.
"Yeah, well, it's not like you gave me a choice about that, did you, Dad!?"
I could hear the gasp, the intake of breath as if I'd just knifed him in the back. "Okay. I deserved that. I haven't been that good to you. Just... Son, try to understand, when I made that choice, it was out of anger. After your mother was killed by the flu, and you changed... it was just too much..."
"No. I understand perfectly, father. You made everything all too clear when you said 'you're no son of mine'."
I trembled, the emotions poured through my body as tears began to trickle down my cheeks. I could feel the change coming on, the pain in my back excruciating. But it could not equal the pain in my heart.
"How many nights, dad? Do you have any idea how many nights I stayed awake at night, crying, sleeping on the side of the road like a dog after you chased me out of town? Do you even want to know? 3 years, dad! 3 goddamn years of hell that I wouldn't even wish on you!
"You told me how little you cared, and now I'm telling you: You're not my father! Not any more. For all I care, you can go to hell, you bastard!"
I could hear him hang up the phone, the pain-filled cry he gave before doing so sent shivers up my spine. I threw the phone across the room, the cord tore free from its plastic casing to snap back and strike me in the face.
That was almost an hour ago. Still the tears didn't stop. I sat alone in the darkness, my anger and pain welling up within, and all I could think about is him. Just like I was that first night on the road, after he kicked me out, after I was run out of town. I sat shivering, wondering...
What did I ever do to him, for him to hate me so?
The day was cold and gray. A few wafts of dirty snow drifted down onto the street. In the distance cars could faintly be heard, and the faint wail of somebody singing. My phone had rung early that morning. It was the cops, not an unexpected call. Due to my SEAL experience and known expertise with explosives, I'd been asked to consult with them before. They were asking me again.
And so I was standing in front of the Blind Pig Bar and Grill, accompanied by Lieutenant Lancomb Jacobs. The air still stunk of the chemical residue of the materials I'd provided the terrorists last night, and the entire scene was marked off with swaying lines of police tape. Oddly, there was no crowd of gawkers watching the last wisps of smoke drift up from the wreckage of the truck.
The lieutenant shuffled some papers. "So... Mr. ah... Williams?"
I didn't look away from the remains and wiggled my hands a bit in the pockets of my heavy overcoat to get some circulation back. "Quite. You guys called me."
"Not my choice, Sir. You're on the standard list back at the precinct." He cleared his throat. "To be perfectly honest, I'd have preferred to keep it in the force, but--"
"Orders are orders."
He snorted and I could imagine a wry grin appearing on his face.
I coughed, and pulled my gloved hand out of my pocket and covered my mouth.
"Not feeling well, Mr. Williams?"
"Just a cold. 'Tis the season, as they say."
He snickered and lifted up the tape and motioned me under. Pulling out a kerchief I blew my nose and stopped beneath, my boots thudding on the cold pavement. I could hear his shoes behind me. "What did you put the fire out with?"
"Standard procedure is city water."
"Because it's cheap."
He let out a spot of laughter.
I stopped in front of the wreckage of the truck, and then I began walking around it.
The lieutenant's voice was a lot less cold now. "Any ideas?"
I snorted. If only he knew... "From the pattern of the explosion, I would guess the explosives went off even before being unloaded."
"Like a bomb."
"Idiots. You'd think terrorists would be better trained these days."
"They're not --"
Having finished my circle, I stopped in front of him. His hat was pulled tightly down, the flaps tied over his ears. His cheeks were as red as a ripe cherry and the mists from our exhaled breaths intermingled in a spot of warmth between us. "Cut the crap, Lieutenant. I know it, you know it. Don't worry -- in interviews I will use the politically correct terms 'suspect' and 'believe'."
He opened his mouth but I didn't give him a chance to continue.
"We both know what this is though. Criminals, even incompetent ones, don't drive around with trucks full of explosives. I'm cold and I've got some shopping to do still, so let me do my job."
"Yes, Sir..." His voice faded as he realized what he'd said.
"Do you have the on-scene report?"
I watched him struggle as he tried to regain his mask of police arrogance. "Umm... yes..."
"May I see it please, Lieutenant?"
Silently he handed it over. Out of the corner of my eyes I could see the other cops watching. One even looked like a giant ostrich? Hmph. SCABs on the police force -- what was this world coming to? I leafed through the report.
"It says here that the explosion was apparently set off by gunfire."
"Flames were orange-yellow. No tints of other colour? No odd smells?"
"It's in the report."
"Yes, it is. This'd be easier if there were some pictures to show me the shape of the explosion."
"We didn't get here until afterward. That's compiled from witnesses."
"Great..." I mumbled. One always had to keep up appearances. I coughed again. I hated winter, and I hated being sick. At least I knew it wasn't the Flu; I'd been in so many shitholes, and had been exposed so often, that there was no way it could be the Flu. After wiping my nose again I handed the clipboard back to the lieutenant and turned back to the wreckage of the truck. The wind was rising and whistling through my buzzcut and whipping my heavy coat around me.
I stepped forward, carefully putting my feet down in safe spots between bits of wreckage, until I reached a piece of sheet metal thrown off the truck by the explosion. Leaning down, I lifted it up with my gloved left hand. I ran my fingers through the dirt and snow piled beneath, forcing down another cough, until I found a small whitish powder. I picked up a few grains and held them to my nose and sniffed.
"Found something?" the Lieutenant asked.
I dropped the sheet which clanged on the pavement, stood up, turned, and very carefully walked towards him. "Got a sample bag?"
"I do... Whatcha got there?"
"I think you'll find they used mercury fulminate." I dropped most of the powder into the sample bag he was holding out and sniffed the residue on the fingers of my glove. "Sensitive to friction and impact. Fairly cheap and easy to manufacture at home. Based on the pattern of wreckage, I'd guess that the detonators were stored at the back of the truck. A shot knocked over a small box of the explosive, and the material that hit the floor of the truck got crushed by the material above it, causing detonation. I'd be very, very careful, as there are small clumps of unexploded material still around."
"Yes, sir. I'll make sure the get the explosives cleanup teams out here." The Lieutenant nodded and sealed the bag.
"If they'd had the decency to pack them properly," and if I'd been allowed to provide them with the proper containers, "there would have been no explosion."
"Mr. Williams, do you want to know what the lab finds?"
"Sure. Ten bucks says I'm right, though."
"Sorry, sir, not allowed to bet while on the job."
I coughed again, louder and longer this time. Damn flu...
"You sure you're all right? That sounds pretty bad."
"I'll be fine. I just need to get going."
"Thanks for your time then. It's nice when a citizen actually volunteers. Happens too rarely these days."
"I know, I know. Merry Christmas, Lieutenant."
"Merry Christmas, Mr. Williams."
If only he knew...
He held the ribbon up; I ducked under it and walked back to my car parked a short distance away. Blowing my nose again, I deactivated the alarms and unlocked the door.
A hot bath, that was all I needed. A hot bath, some rest, and I'd be as good as new. I decided to put off my report on the events until tomorrow -- the wait wouldn't hurt them.
When the fox-morph arrived, the lobby's lighting was nearly as bright as the noon sun outside. The fluorescent bulbs above gave the entire room a cold, stark look. Several people sat in the plastic chairs in the lobby, staring at the TV with quiet concentration. A few people looked at the lobby's new entrance and began to whisper quietly, giving this new SCAB mistrustful looks.
The fox-morph, Jason, didn't mind. He just shrugged his shoulders and stepped up to the plexiglas window, politely knocking to get the nurse's attention. "Can I help you?" she said through the microphone. The speaker somehow managed to wash her voice out even more, the end result sounding something between drugged human and intelligent machine.
"Yes," he politely began, running his fingers through the short orange fur at the top of his head. "I understand a Mr. Jonathan Practice was sent here after the attack..." The woman behind the glass didn't respond; she merely typed a few short keys on the key board.
After a short time, she replied, "Yes. Mr. Practice, he's a special case. Go up to the fourth floor and talk to the nurse at the nurses' station, please."
"Sure, but what room is he --"
"Up to the fourth floor and talk with the nurses' station!" She spit the last statement out with a bit of annoyance and venom, her eyes burning holes through the glass. Jason just nodded, his ears folded back in annoyance. He felt his blood boiling up a bit, but dared not reply in kind, lest his tongue get the best of him.
He stepped through the double doors and a different world greeted him.
Hustle and bustle could only describe what was going on. Several nurses chatted away at a nurses station, only pausing long enough to point in the direction of an elevator. Doctors jogged past him, the intercom calling them to this E.R. or that one. Another nurse walked by, wheeling a cart of needles and bottles.
All this commotion didn't startle Jason in the least. Wandering down the hall just a bit longer, soon the elevators made themselves known, the classic steel doors polished to a gleam by some anonymous janitor not too long ago.
Jason stepped out of the elevator, and the quiet tranquil scene of a patient ward greeted him. A couple of doctors stood by the nurses' station; Jason had to chuckle as they glanced over their shoulder and tried to lower their conversation to a near whisper, thinking that he wouldn't hear them.
"So this guy they bring in last night has cat's eyes," the first doctor said, glancing over towards Jason before continuing. "He'd been shot in the back. Get this -- the E. M. said he had fur and fangs before they brought him in!" The other doctor just shook his head in disgust. "So, anyway, we had to try three different pain meds before we finally got one that worked. I'm telling you, we should just send all of these freaks to Stein. Let their own kind work on 'em, huh?"
Jason was standing next to them now, his tail twitching every now and again as a mischievous vulpine look entered his eyes. "First off, its not cat's eyes that he has; its leopard's. Second, a lot of us 'freaks' have excellent hearing."
The doctor spun around at the sound of Jason's voice, a how dare you... look and shock mixing upon his face in one comical moment. Jason suppressed a chuckle as the doctor turned to his colleague and said "I'll talk to you later, Richard," and nearly ran off, embarrassment clearly showing on his face.
"Ignore him," Richard remarked "He's hated SCABs ever since his father died of the flu. How can I help you?"
"I'm looking for Jonathan Practice's room."
The doctor's eyes lit up in surprise at the name. "Finally! Please tell me you're a brother or something!"
"No -- I'm in his band, I'm a guitarist. Why? What's going on?"
"Jonathan had an upsetting call earlier. He nearly killed himself."
"Shh!" the doctor continued, waving his arms. "He's fine -- now. Thank goodness the nurse came in to change his I.V., or he could have succeeded. We've got him on suicide watch now. Anything else you'd like us to do?"
"Do you have a priest that stops by here or something?"
"Call 'em. He responds well to sympathetic clergy."
"He's in room 424. I'll get on the horn and see if I can't get ahold of Father Ted and get him down here."
Jason nodded his head, his ears folded back with concern. The hallway soon became a blur as he himself dashed down it, an orange streak passing by doctors and nurses. Soon he arrived at the door, a non-descript white door that portrayed none of the horrors Jason had running through his mind.
He gently pushed the door open, light spilling into the pitch black room. Darkness completely engulfed it, making it hard to see even with his vulpine vision. Movement caught his eye on the bed, then a pair of golden eyes shined up at him. "No I didn't do it. Not this time." Jon's voice held a hint of a grin in it as he looked back up at the ceiling. "Don't turn on the light, please."
Jason just nodded and walked into the room, grabbing a spare chair from near the wall. "What the hell happened?"
"He called," Jon grumbled. The anger in his voice had dwindled to simmering resentment, but what had replaced it was a heaping dose of despair. Jon sighed and looked the fox-morph in the eyes, his own shining in the dim light.
Jason stood up and patted his friend on the shoulder. "What'd he have to say?" He didn't know who the leopard-morph was referring to for a moment, but decided better than to ask when Jon was in this mood.
"He said it was to just say sorry. I think he wanted to visit."
"What'd you say?"
Jon snorted. "What do you think I said? I told him to go to hell! He had no right calling me! Especially after what he did to me. He had no right calling me his son." The anger welled back up into his voice. Jason could see the pain etched across his face as he looked up at him, even in the darkened room.
"Come on, let's get you a drink," Jason started, grabbing his shoulder.
"I don't want no fuckin drink," Jon snapped, acidly.
"You'll feel better --"
"I said I don't want a fuckin' drink! What are ya, deaf!?"
Jason's paw flew off his shoulder, almost as if it had been bitten. Jon's eyes welled over for a moment with apologetic tears, but no words passed his lips. Jason stared at him a minute or two. "Okay... I can see you need time to yourself. No prob, I understand that. But you better remember one thing: You got friends who care about you down there. We depend on you, Jon. So you better keep your act straight in here, and heal fast." Jon nodded, turning his face away as he did so. Considering how many times he'd done it in his life, Jon was never good at saying goodbye.
Jason stepped out of the room and lightly closed the door behind him. Walking over to the nurses' station one last time, he noticed a rather large nurse behind the counter. She held her dark blond hair behind herself, and carried her massive body with a gait that said she definitely knew how to handle herself. Her blue eyes held more spit and fire than what her large shoulders or waist seemed to be able to carry.
"Are you the nurse for Mr. Jon Practice?"
The nurse looked at him for a moment, then typed a few keys on the keyboard. "Why yes I am, at least for a little while. He seems to have given us some trouble over the past few hours."
"I'm gonna tell you something: Jon has had a very harsh life. That means he can fight. Because of what happened, he will fight if you let him. He'll also give up on himself. Don't let him do that!"
The nurse grinned at him, conveying a sense of purpose and determination. "Let me assure you, sir, that I am the best at what I do. Your friend Mr. Practice is in good hands; I have never lost a patient in my 20 years as a nurse. We've contacted the local priest. He's a SCAB too, and he's very good at what he does. I've seen nearly every practical joke and have been through the worst temper tantrums that even the most spoiled of people can give. He won't give me anything I haven't seen before."
The fox-morph cocked an ear in a smile and nodded to her, trying to smile with his lips to show his pleasure. She just chuckled at him and patted him on the shoulder, as his 'smile' looked more like a horse grinning than a human. Jason took her hand and gave her a vigorous shake. "You don't know how much he needs it right now. Thank you!"
He walked back down the hallway, his tail starting to wag a bit as his mood picked up some. Yes, Jon's emotional state was worse than ever... but at least he had someone strong-willed to watch him. Perhaps things wouldn't be so bad after all.
The trilling chirp of the small alarm drove consciousness back into my tired brain. I swung my arm over to the stand, groping for the annoying device. As the world forced itself back upon me, I became aware that the sound was coming from near my side. Reaching down to the bed my paw finally found the clock. Raising it into my sight I thumbed the switch and silence returned to the room. Looking at the dial I saw that is was indeed the time I had determined I should end my nap.
Oh, why does it seem like I just went to bed? I thought as I set the clock back on the stand and rolled to my feet.
Walking into my bathroom, I stared at my tired reflection in the mirror and let out a yawn that certainly would have frightened any number of my parishioners. I grabbed a brush and worked my mane back into its well-ordered form. Stepping back into the other room, I did a quick check of my clothing, and decided I'd best change into my cassock.
"Better to meet some of these people in a more traditional dress, seeing that many of them have never met me," I rumbled to myself as I changed.
I played back Maddy's message again, then jotted down the victims' names and the addresses of the hospitals they were in. A comparison of the list with the number of people who had been in the shelter confirmed the magnitude of this tragedy. I picked up my prayer book and headed for the car.
I'd purposely left Mercy Hospital for my last stop. I wanted to give as much time to the lion-morph, Methusaleh, as I could. While the others needed help and comfort, I felt being shot made him somewhat a priority.
By the time I got to Mercy Hospital, I'd seen a lot of suffering SCABs. Some I simply left a card with rather than waking them, but others shared with me the horror they had just lived through. There was no doubt in my mind, from what they told me, that the fire was a well-planned assault. Everyone said the same thing about the speed with which the fire had spread and the smell of gas in the air.
It seemed that Mercy had gotten a somewhat lower share of the victims. The list gave three Shelter residents, and one staff member. The first two I visited suffered only from smoke inhalation, and would most likely be discharged the next morning. As I entered the room of the third, I could clearly see she had not fared as well. She was a marmoset-morph; her arm was in a cast and the foot of her bed was tented, a clear indication of burns to her legs. She seemed asleep so I knocked softly. She turned her head to face me. Instantly her eyes and scent changed, reflecting her fear.
"Good evening, Joan," I greeted her with a calm voice. "I'm Father Ted Colbert. Rev. Bouchet asked me to stop by and visit you."
Her mouth moved but only animal sounds came forth.
"Do you mind if I come in?" I said, still smelling her fear. She shook her head and I stepped into the room, but stayed away from the bed.
"Joan, do you use a voder?" I asked, assuming she might not be able to speak.
"No," she whispered. "My throat is sore from the fire. I'm afraid I won't be much for conversation."
"I understand," I acknowledged, noting the label on the IV next to her. She was on heavy pain meds that I knew would also limit our ability to speak.
"I won't bother you for long," I reassured her. "I promised Rev. Bouchet I'd stop by and see how you were doing."
"Not very well, I'm afraid," she said. "It hurts, my whole body hurts."
"That's not uncommon with burns," I replied. "I take it your legs got burned."
"Yes, my legs, tail..." she explained, halting to clear her throat. "Not bad, they said, but they're not the ones with the burns."
I hadn't looked at the charts. However, if she was still at our hospital, she most likely had just first-degree burns, maybe some second-degree. Even so, she was right; they would hurt a great deal.
"Burns are always painful." I agreed. "How did you break your arm?"
"When I jumped out the window," she said, starting to cry. "I had to get out. The room was all on fire and the dog, he was burning. Oh God he was all on fire. It had splashed all over him and he was on fire."
She began to sob. I weighed whether to chance moving to her side or to keep my distance because of her fear. Seeing a box of tissues on the windowsill, I picked it up and offered it to her at arm's length. She looked up, eyes still flowing with tears and took some.
"I'm, I'm sorry pastor," she whispered, wiping her eyes. "I've just, I've never seen anyone burn alive. I can still smell it. I can hear his howls and screams. It was horrible!"
"It's all right, Joan," I comforted her. "It's over now, you don't have to think about it. You're safe here."
"Are we, pastor?" she whimpered. "Are any of us safe when norms do these types of things?"
I really didn't have an answer for her question but I knew the best thing was to give her reassurance that she was safe.
"The police have arrested some of the men who attacked us last night," I told her as I grouped all the attacks into one in my own mind. "I'm sure they'll find the others."
She nodded but kept softly whimpering, drawing forth yet another tissue from the box. I could still smell the scent of fear, but wasn't sure now if it was fear of me or of the attacks.
"Joan, I can assure you that nothing will happen to you while you're here," I told her. "We'll see that you have a safe place to go to once you're released."
"Thank you," she replied, not even looking at me.
"Is there anything I can do for you?" I asked, knowing the best thing for her now was rest.
"No," she answered, closing her eyes as tears still flowed down her cheeks.
"All right," I said, retreating a few steps. "Rev. Bouchet will be in tomorrow, I'm sure. You get some rest, and give them a call if you need anything."
She gave a weak nod and I left her alone with her pain and grief. This was one of the worst things about my change. I knew that she needed to be comforted, but I also knew that as a lion, I would not be the one to do it because of her instinctual fears.
I moved on to the last person on my list; Hank Van Cleve, the staff member that Rev. Bouchet had heard in the background when Deb called him, so I definitely wanted to talk with him. I knew he'd need some support, especially if he knew how many hadn't made it. He was in intensive care so I was certain he was in rough shape, but I wasn't sure how bad.
As I entered the room, he was laying back in the bed watching TV. This was some comfort to me for it meant his condition, while serious, was perhaps not life-threatening. It was when I saw his hands that I knew why he was in this unit. Both his hands were bandaged nearly to the elbow. Mercy Hospital had no burn unit, so all seriously burned patients would be in intensive care. As soon as he saw me his face brightened.
"Father Ted! What brings you here at this hour?" he asked, smiling faintly.
"I heard there was a staff member slacking off in here," I said in pure jest. Hank was one of the hardest workers I'd ever seen. "You didn't think I'd let you just lay around all day, did you?"
"I'm afraid that's all I'm going to be doing for a while," he said, holding up his hands. Then his face fell into a more somber expression.
"From what I see, I'd say you're right," I replied, eyeing the dressing on his hands. "How bad is it?"
For a moment Hank didn't answer. In my exhausted state, had I moved too quickly into the painful topic? Still, in matters like this Hank wouldn't mince words.
"They're really not sure," he finally said. "I did them pretty bad and I'm likely to lose some fingers. They won't really know until I get moved to a burn hospital."
I mentally winced at the reply. Hank's hands were his life. Sure, he'd been a shelter staff person as long as I had known him, but in his spare time he was an artist of no small skill. He had done some of the most impressive SCAB-based art I'd ever seen. Now... all that might be a thing of the past. Before I could answer he moved right onto the topic I knew he'd want to talk about.
"How many did we lose?" he asked, his face drawn back in an expression of resolve, clearly braced for the answer.
"As far as I know, thirteen died in the fire," I said with a sigh but continued to tell him the truth. "There are still a number in very bad shape, however. I wouldn't be surprised if we lose some more."
"I figured that, when they told me I'd be here until a bed cleared at one of the burn units," he said somberly. "The news said two staff members died. Who were they?"
I swallowed hard as I prepared to answer. I knew Deb's death would hit him hard.
"Bill didn't make it," I said, wishing I knew how to cushion the impact of the second name. "And, we just found Deb's body."
I could see him desperately holding back his tears at Deb's name. He nodded and with a sigh asked his next question.
"Was she still at the fire escape?"
"Yes We found her under the back wall. She'd been trying to protect one of the residents who was trapped when it collapsed."
"I couldn't get her to leave," he said, shaking his head, eyes watering. "I was in no condition to help her. The firemen dragged me off before I could convince her to let them rescue the girl. Did they get the girl free?"
"No, I'm afraid not," I told him, now holding back my own tears as I remembered my role in the recovery. "One of the firefighters died with them as well."
"Damn, it's all so senseless!" Hank said. "Who'd want to firebomb the shelter? What harm were we doing? Giving some poor people a place to sleep and get food. Who would hate them that much?"
"I don't know," I honestly replied.
"All I could think of was what my father told me about 'Nam," he continued. "He used to have these nightmares about the war... I got him to tell me about it one day. He told me about an attack where they'd called in an air strike. The planes dropped napalm. I've never seen him cry before, but as he told me about how the people in the village came running out all in flames..."
He stopped and did his best to suppress the tears but the dam had burst and there was no holding it back any longer. Sobbing he continued.
"Now I now know. I saw it myself. Whatever they threw into the room, it clung to anything it touched. Walls, chairs, clothing, fur; it didn't matter. It just hung there and burned. We couldn't get it off and couldn't put it out."
"Don't talk about it now," I counseled him. "We can deal with this later. I'll be here for you, I promise."
"No, no, that's what Dad did," the man answered, still sobbing. "He sealed it up and it ate away at him for years. I've got to talk or I'll never get it out of me."
I nodded and he continued.
"One of the rooms, the back one on the first floor, took the worst of it. I ran in, saw this dog-morph... burning from head to toe. There was at least one, maybe two others, who'd already fell to the floor, and a lemur-morph. I tried to put him out with a blanket, but the damn stuff just stuck to anything it touched. He jumped out the window and I got the others out of the room."
"That's how your hands got burned?" I asked, knowing the answer.
"Yes. I just hope some of them made it," he said with a look of pain and sadness that expressed the horror he had been through.
"I know the lemur did," I told him, hoping this would be a comfort to him. "I visited her just a few minutes ago."
"Oh, thank God we saved some of them," he sobbed. "How is she?"
"A broken arm, I think," I answered. "She's got some burns on her legs and tail, but she'll survive."
Before we could continue there was a knock at the door. Turning around I saw one of the nurses standing there.
"Mr. Van Cleve?" she asked.
I stepped aside so he could clearly see her.
"Yes," he replied, trying to rein in his tears.
"I'm afraid it's time for another treatment," she said, clearly sorry to inform him of this.
"Another appointment with the torturers, huh?" he said with a nod, then turned back to me. "I'm sorry -- I shouldn't say that. I know it's for my own good, but it hurts like the devil himself was telling them what to do."
"That's okay," I replied. "I've helped enough burn victims to know what you mean. Look, I'll check in with you again, later. Call me if there's anything I can do for you."
"A little hard to do that right now," he said, holding up one of his hands. It was only the faint smile that let me know he hadn't felt hurt by my common request, now impossible for him. "There is one thing you can do for me, though."
"What's that, Hank?" I asked.
"Say a mass for those that died in the fire," he replied as the nurse helped him from the bed. "After the hell they went through I'm sure they're in heaven, but... I just think they could use some prayers."
"I promise," I told him, amazed that in his own state he could make such a request. "And I'll say one for you and the survivors as well. Oh -- wait just a minute."
I reached into my pocket and drew out the sacramental oil. Knowing Hank was Catholic, I'd intended to give him the anointing of the sick, but with the interruption I had nearly forgotten. I dipped my thumb into the container and with the ritual prayers anointed him on the forehead. The ritual called for me to anoint his hands as well, but I knew this wasn't possible. God certainly wouldn't mind, I was sure. As Hank himself had said, he and all the burn victims had already suffered more than enough to win a good measure of God's mercy.
"Thank you, Father," he said as he sat down in the wheelchair and was pushed toward the door. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"Count on it," I replied as he disappeared down the hall.
I moved to the elevator and went down to the SCABS unit once again. I wanted to see how the young lion morph I had treated was doing, especially after the conversation with his father.
When I got to his room, I found the youth asleep. A glance at the monitors told me that he was doing well. My sensitive ears also told me his breathing was nearly normal. I walked into the room and looked at the canister next to the bed that the chest tube drained into. While it showed some blood, most of what I saw was clear fluid, a very good sign indeed.
He looked so peaceful, resting in the bed, it was hard to imagine the violence that had been visited upon him just a day ago. I pondered just how he had become a lion-morph, and what had caused his father to have the feelings about him that he did. I noticed a series of movements beneath the sheet; his tail was responding to some dream. I made the sign of the cross over him and on my stealthy feline feet made my way out of the room. My talk with him would have to wait until tomorrow. For now, rest was the best ministry that could be given to him. In fact, it was most likely the best thing for me, as well. Hopefully a good night's sleep would allow my mind to be clear enough to deal with the challenges that lay ahead of us all.
"Dear God," I murmured as I headed for my car. "Receive those who have died into your kingdom. Watch over those who must still suffer and give them the comfort you alone can give."
Little did I realize, as I said that prayer, how much more suffering we would all have to endure.