|This story is set in the Environmental Protection universe, in which unicorns (and other ancient myths) butt up against the modern world. Roger Harris had never been particularly concerned about the environment, but as he discovers after a near-fatal incident, just about any such sentiments can change...
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Equestrian Horse Wrangler
©2001 Equestrian Horse Wrangler -- all rights reserved
Roger Harris quietly mumbled to himself as he reached forward and gripped the doorknob. He clenched it in his hand for a few seconds before finally turning it. Entering the building, he tried to mentally compose himself before anyone saw him. The lobby looked bare, except for the secretary's desk. Roger gave the woman behind the desk a quick smile and waved as he fought to hide his disgust. The EPA, he thought to himself. I can't believe I'm actually working for the damn Environmental Protection Agency. If only someone else had made an offer...
He walked over and handed the secretary his credentials, mostly from his previous job at FEMA. He had loved that job, nice office, mostly desk work, great atmosphere overall. But then came the cutbacks and, as always, the guys with the least time in were the first to go. Five years, and it didn't mean a thing to those Washington bureaucrats.
After scanning the dossier, the secretary looked up and smiled. "I'll take you to meet Mr. Manchester."
Roger nodded politely in response, and followed her down the hall. She knocked on the very last door, and after a moment there was a yell from inside the room. She motioned with her hand for Roger to enter and he, in response, forced his lips into a another smile. No buzzer or intercom, he thought. What kind of backwater place is this? He shrugged it off, and opened the door.
"Welcome," said a man sitting in a chair behind a chrome and glass desk. Manchester wore a light gray business suit, contrasting against his short brown hair. He displayed a loud yellow tie around his neck with the picture of a whale on it. Roger guessed he couldn't be older than thirty-five.
"I'm so glad to have you aboard our team Mr. Harris," said the man. "My name is Louis Manchester, and I'm in charge of this operation."
"Nice to meet you Mr. Manchester," Roger responded. "From what I've read, you seem to be something of a cult hero around the community."
"Is that a fact? It's good to know we have any kind of a following. We don't get much support from the people downtown, let me tell you, but that's Republicans for you."
Ouch, thought Roger. "I'm sorry sir, but I'm a Republican."
"Oh," said Manchester, a little embarrassed. "You're kidding, right? Sorry about that, but most of the people who work here are Democrats, including myself. Usually it's the Republicans who favor industrial advancement at the risk of the environment, but its good to see that some members of the other party are interested in the planet's welfare."
Roger just smiled at that, rather crookedly.
"We have a pretty small office here," said Manchester, trying to change the subject as smoothly as possible. "Only five full-time workers besides myself. I'll introduce you to them if you like. They're all upstairs discussing what to do about that chemical spill upstream yesterday."
"Yes, I heard. It was just a few blocks from where I live. The river runs right by my house and I was planning on taking my son fishing there. Now we might not be able to go near it for a few weeks or even months."
"Well, perhaps we can remedy that for you," said Manchester with a smile.
They left the office, and Manchester led the way upstairs to the meeting room. Roger glanced around the halls and noticed that the tile floors looked worn out. The plaster on the walls and ceiling was cracked and in some places missing. Wonderful, he thought, but his expression gave away his feelings.
"We don't get too much funding, as you can see," said Manchester, noticing that Roger was observing the conditions of the facilities.
They opened the door to the conference room and were immediately greeted by a loud commotion. The room was full of people arguing, moving around and doing just about anything to become the center of attention. All of them were young, the oldest probably in her early forties. They stopped when they saw Manchester enter the chamber.
"Ladies and gentlemen," he said. "I'd like you to meet the latest addition to our local organization, Mr. Roger Harris."
They all welcomed Roger into the room and invited him to have a seat and join them, but before he sat down, Manchester motioned for him to remain standing. "Mr. Harris lives over in the neighborhood where the spill took place, so I'm sure you will all be willing to listen to any input he has to offer. But before we get to that, I'm sure that some introductions are in order."
Manchester walked over to the young man closest to him. "This in Richard Kempler, my second in command. If you need anything, just ask him."
Richard nodded his head, partially in agreement with Manchester, but also as a gesture of saying hello. Manchester moved to the next person. "This is Stacy Dietz. She's in charge of public relations."
"Hello," she said happily, extending her hand.
Roger took it and shook hands with her. "Nice to meet you." He tried to keep it from coming out mechanically.
Manchester placed his hands on the shoulders of a man and woman standing next to each other. "Arthur Martin and Rebecca Webber are our two field agents. They're always the first to investigate the site of an ecological disaster for the agency."
"It's a pleasure to have someone else aboard," said Arthur. "Maybe now I can get some extra sleep whenever one of these fiascoes takes place at night."
"As if you don't enjoy being near the action," teased Rebecca. "Don't mind him. Despite his comments, he is one of the best agents we have around."
Manchester rolled his eyes as if saying, "yeah right," and Roger just smiled as they made their way to the last person.
"And this is my wife, Gwen," Manchester said.
"Charmed," she said, with a heavy British accent.
"Nice to meet you, too," responded Roger, taken aback by her voice.
"Gwen's from Liverpool," explained Manchester. "She came over here about ten years --"
"Oh, don't bother him with my life story," Gwen blurted out bashfully.
"It's no bother ma'am," said Roger, earnestly. For some reason, there was something about the way she spoke that seemed to catch Roger off guard. It was almost... enchanting. He felt rather funny for a moment, but then snapped out of it.
"No, she's right," said Manchester. "We need to get to work."
The weeks passed by and Roger begrudgingly settled into his new job. It wasn't too different from his old job, and soon he had to admit to himself that it wasn't that bad. He had gotten to be good friends with everyone and they in turn were always helpful to him, even though he didn't want to be a fanatic about the environment like everyone else.
The river spill was cleaned up, soon enough, and Roger let his family come to see him at work. He could at least give them the impression that he really enjoyed his job. At times Jason, his eight-year-old son, would help around the office.
Jason did show an active interest in science and loved being out in nature, something that Roger noted must have been inherited from his wife's side of the family. A nice clean office was were Roger felt he did his best work, and the thought of working outside seemed unbearable to him.
But still, his son continued to join him at work and tried to find out as much as he could from Roger's coworkers. Manchester would joke to Roger that Jason was growing up to be a fine environmentalist. Roger tried really hard to laugh along with that. He really did.
Jason in turn would tell Roger about all the different things that Manchester had done, like the time he was able to help with the process of rejuvenating a large lake nearby that had been determined to be oxygen dead due to different companies dumping toxic waste in it. Or when he was able to keep a local species of bird from extinction because of recent deforestation in its habitat. Roger would just sit back in smile as Jason recanted the tales with relish, pretending as though he hadn't heard them from his coworkers already. Manchester himself was the only person who didn't brag about his accomplishments, and that made Roger respect him more. If there was one thing that Roger couldn't stand, it was narcissism.
One day, a call went out that there was another leak into the city's water, presumably from the petrochemical factory near Roger's house. Arthur and Rebecca were going out to check it out, and they asked Roger if he wanted to go along. He was a bit belligerent at first, trying to come up with some way to squirm out of it, but in the end, their persistence worked against him. After all, it is where I live, Roger tried to rationalize to himself after being talked into it. He was sure it was probably nothing, just like all of the other times he had been dragged from his desk.
When they arrived, Mayor Brian's spokesman was already at the scene telling journalists and reporters that the accident was just a small one and had already been contained. There was no reason to panic and that the river was going to be fine.
Arthur collected some samples from the river, and then carried them back to the van to run the tests while a gaggle of reporters waited outside the van for Arthur's results. Roger joined Rebecca as she went to ask the spokesman questions.
She smiled as she saw him walking with her, so she spoke candidly to him about the spokesman. "That's Tim Fine, one of Mayor Brian's stooges. He's always trying to protect this factory, because it's owned by the mayor's brother."
"I know the type," said Roger. "Paul Brian is the last person I want to be mayor. Men like him give my party a bad name."
Rebecca turned to him and looked into his eyes. "Why did you join our organization?"
"What?" That was an unexpected question, Roger thought to himself.
"I mean, you don't really seem that interested in the work. I'm not making any judgments, but I can tell by your actions that you're not working here because you want to."
Roger jumbled his words. "No, I... I mean..." Finally he just stopped and took a deep breath. There's no point trying to hide it now. "Yeah, you're right. I took this job because I got RIFed from my old job at FEMA and this was the only other position in town that was hiring someone with my skills."
Rebecca rubbed her hands. "That's okay. Maybe you'll find another job soon enough that you will like."
Roger started to sweep his foot across the dirt in front of him. "We just moved to this town a few weeks ago, right before I got this job. We can't just up and go. I..." He suddenly stopped in mid-sentence and his jaw failed to close completely. Roger's eyes bulged slightly as he caught sight of an object only ten feet away from him. Lying on the ground next to the river was a dead turtle. He walked away from Rebecca and hovered over it for a few moments. Its body was discolored and anemic, and its eyes had an otherworldly gaunt look in them.
"It's a shame, isn't it?" she asked as she walked over to join him.
Roger bit his lip. "Yeah," he finally replied. He hated to see dead animals, especially ones that looked as though they suffered. He looked over at the water in the river, and slowly a small, long overlooked presence deep inside of him began to fester. He didn't know where it came from or why it chose this moment to present itself, but it was there nonetheless. He had never really cared much for animals except for when he had to had to see their corpses, but then, this was the first time he ever saw one that had died so pitifully.
"What can we do to stop them?" he suddenly blurted out, his eyes scanning over to Fine, who was now finishing up his speech to the reporters.
A confused look came over Rebecca's face, but it was immediately replaced with a smile. "We can tell the public about the problem, and try to get a federal judge to slap the factory with an injunction. But that may not work."
Rebecca shrugged. "It's a big company, and the mayor has a lot of friends in high places. It might help to know that he and the governor were fraternity brothers at Yale." She motioned her head at the petrochemical plant. "He's managed to get his brother out of practically every lawsuit that has been brought against the company. And even if all that didn't matter, we're not exactly liked by our superiors all that much."
Now Roger was really confused. But before he could ask another question, Arthur came storming out of the van.
There was a disturbed look on his face as he gripped the flask containing the water samples in his hand. Roger noticed that Arthur gave Rebecca a glance that they must have shared many times, because she immediately nodded her head to show she understood.
The reporters also noticed the look, and signaled the camera crews over. "Mr. Martin, Mr. Martin, what did the tests show?" one man asked, holding out a mike.
Roger saw that Fine's expression had turned nervous as he, too, joined the crowd at the van.
"The preliminary tests show much higher, in fact dangerous levels of beta-caratryptoline, tri-oxy-hydrochlorides and sulfides. I have already notified the authorities to close this river as a chemical hazard, and to close the Brian plant as of now. We cannot afford to have any additional spills until this discharge has been contained."
"You can't do that," Fine was quick to point out.
"I just have," Arthur said with a shrug. "You can fight this in court if you wish, but tell Mr. Brian that the federal fines on this latest violation could be in the tens of millions of dollars and your refusal to cooperate in this matter could triple the fines."
"Are you going to throw a tantrum every time a few drops of waste spill into the river?"
"This isn't 'a few drops'," snapped Arthur. "This could pose a serious health threat if it isn't checked immediately. And it will be."
"Look," said Fine, letting Arthur's ultimatum roll off of him as if he was made of Teflon. "I represent the mayor and city council. Now if we say the river's all right, then the river's all right. Got it? You can tell all your liberal friends to quote me on that, too. Oh yeah, and tell that new guy, too. The 'conservative but still a tree-hugger' fellow. I'm on to him."
"Mr. Fine, then you would dispute the EPA's findings?"
"Our city is in its highest level of economic growth in decades, all thanks to this factory. People aren't going to care about the environment, or this so-called 'crisis' -- not as long as the cash keeps flowing in."
Roger looked incredulously at Fine. How can this man be so blatantly heartless?
Fine seemed to read Roger's expression perfectly. "Mr. Martin," he said, turning back to Arthur. "We both know that this will blow over eventually. Maybe Mayor Brian and the EPA can come to some kind of an understanding?"
Arthur remained blank faced. "Are you trying to bribe us?"
Fine shrugged, and added with a smile, "Think of it as a contribution. The mayor's way of saying he respects your work, even if it gets in his brother's way from time to time."
"If Louis Manchester was here, he would tell you what you could do with that money."
The smile on Fine's face evaporated. "Okay, fun and games are over. First of all, you don't have enough concentration of chemicals in the water to shut down the plant."
Arthur held up the test results to the cameras. "These say that I do. And this interview is certainly not helping Mayor Brian's image as a friend of the environment. I'm sure the mayor will agree with us, and the people of this city, that the health and well being of the people who live here is much more important that any temporary financial loss the closing of the plant will cause."
Fine looked at the red lights on the television cameras and nodded his head. "Of course, this spill will have to be re-evaluated and the matter will be dealt with immediately."
Arthur practically beamed in response. "Mayor Paul Brian and his spokesman, servants of the people."
After the story was all wrapped up and all the reporters began to file away, Arthur and Rebecca began to put up warning signs around the area. Roger just watched them idly for a few moments, and then glanced back over at the river. He slowly bit his bottom lip and then went to join them. Arthur and Rebecca managed to conceal a pair of smiles as they watched Roger help them out for the first time. It was almost as though his change marked a special occasion.
When they arrived back at the office, Arthur told everybody about Fine's remarks. Roger was especially steamed about them, but Manchester told him that they were typical coming from Brian's henchmen.
"Just the same," said Arthur to Roger, "make sure everyone in your community stays clear of that river for a while. The contamination levels were high in that area, despite what Fine would like the public to think. I wouldn't be surprised if a few dozen dead fish washed ashore tomorrow. This is just a drop in the bucket for them. We annoy them, pinch their wallets a little, but they go on doing the same thing year after year."
Roger nodded, and then turned back to Manchester. "Is what he said about us true? I mean, about us having no real power?"
Manchester just sighed. "There's a lot of red tape and other nonsense you have to work through in this job. Even if you get a judge to make a decision on a ruling, it still takes years before anything is really done. Plus, there are little ways around every rule. For instance, the factory in question buys up all of the surrounding facilities extra pollution credits so that is can put more harmful toxins in the air then it's allowed to expel -- and it's perfectly legal." Manchester briefly paused as he shifted his weight. "And yes, I'm not the most popular person with my superiors. They think that my views are unrealistic and the fact that I'm not willing to make compromises in certain situations seems to reflect badly on them."
Roger looked down at the ground for a second. "How do you deal with it? The crap from Washington, the mayor's attitude, the hopelessness of everything?"
Manchester felt the answer to that warranted a smile. "By not giving up hope. In the human race; in life in general." Gwen, who had been looking out the window, turned and gave him a smile. Roger noticed that it was a strange smile, not just an affectionate one, but closer showing unabashed pride in her husband. Maybe she was just as big a believer as Manchester was, Roger laughed to himself. Maybe even a bigger one.
The evening slowly descended on the town, darkening the neighborhoods and businesses. It was becoming quiet, and the night was almost still. It was one of Fine's favorite times.
He wandered around the outside of the petrochemical factory, accompanied by two burly associates. He slowly crossed his arms and whistled while awaiting his phone call. The two men winced their faces in disgust from the stench coming from the smoke stacks. Fine just shook his head and smirked.
He looked over his shoulder at the factory. "It's an acquired taste, gentlemen. You'll get used to the smell. Trust me, I know from experience."
The two men just sighed, shrugging as they accepted Fine's explanation. Fine, on the other hand, looked down at his cell phone, rolling it in his hand. It shouldn't be much longer now.
He and his men walked inside the building, which appeared deserted given the skeleton crew on the night shift. Fine walked over to the supervisor, who was standing next to a large valve. He gave the man a quick smile, and was greeted in return with a nod.
Fine's phone rang. He quickly flipped it open and turned it on. "This is Fine. Yes. Okay. So everything is taken care of? All right, good. Now? Yes sir. Enjoy your dinner, Mr. Mayor." He flicked the phone shut and used his palm to push down the antenna. The supervisor stared impatiently at him, awaiting his statement.
Fine gave a triumphant thumbs up. "The mayor just got off the phone with the judge. The EPA's order is going to stand pending further review so we have to get rid of the stuff tonight. The tree-huggers won't find any more pollutants here."
The supervisor just shook his head. "Manchester won't accept that."
"I know," Fine stated. "The mayor says it's okay to open the pipes. This will get Mr. Manchester off our backs," he added with a smirk.
"Are you sure it's safe to do it so soon? I mean, we just did it last night..."
"Don't worry, the mayor has a major inside tip that Rheinhardt Petrochemical Plant is going to be dumping their waste tonight up the river. The mayor has police stationed by the plant to catch them in the act. When we let ours out, the media will just pin it on them."
The supervisor placed his hands on the valve. "You're positive we'll get away with this?"
Fine took a moment to shoot the supervisor a facetious look. "We've learned our lesson about polluting. Didn't you hear me say so on TV?"
It was well beyond dusk when Roger arrived home. Still a little disappointed about the day, he grumbled to himself as he walked towards the front door. Yet he wanted to tell Claire and Jason about the personal change he had experienced that day. He had never been so convinced about something so quickly in all his life, so this would probably come as a major shock to his family. Hell, it already shocked me, Roger mused.
He had just barely made it in the house when his wife met him at the door.
"Roger!" she called, trying to keep her voice steady. "Was Jason with you today at the office?"
"I haven't seen him for hours. None of his friends know where he is, either. I thought maybe he might be with you, but I just called your office and Richard said that he hadn't seen him."
"What? Where was he going today??
"He went down by the river to try and catch crayfish, but that was hours ago. He's never been away this long."
"Wait a minute!" exclaimed Roger, breaking in. "Did you say he was by the river?"
"Yes. What's that got to do with it?"
"Didn't you know there was a spill there earlier today?"
"Yes, but Mayor Brian's spokesman was on TV saying that it wasn't anything serious, and that we could continue with any normal activities we would do around the river."
"Oh my God! You didn't see the rest of it?" asked Roger frantically. "Arthur said that the spill was much worse than that. I have to go up there now. If he was in that river, there no telling what he was exposed to."
Roger ran out of the house and hopped into his car. He peeled out of the driveway to the river. He knew exactly where Jason would be, since it was he who had showed Jason the best place to catch crayfish.
Back at the plant, Fine and his two associates marched away from the main facility. They stopped by a secluded lagoon in the back, where two large drainage pipes leaving the factory spewed out various translucent liquids. Once again the smell hit the two men, who now removed handkerchiefs from their pockets and placed them over their noses.
Fine turned to the men and nodded, satisfied that the waste was emptying in sufficient quantities. He was about to motion for them leave, when all of a sudden he heard a rustling from some nearby bushes accompanied by a low moaning. Probably just an animal, he told himself. Still, they had to check to be sure. There was still a risk that someone might see the toxic waste coming from the plant, and the mayor didn't pay Fine to be careless.
When Roger arrived at the river, he hopped out of his car, and began searching the riverbank. He didn't see anything, and there was no response to his calls.
Running back and forth around the area, Roger tried frantically to find his son, but there was no sign of him. Finally, he stopped for a moment and ran his hand over his face to wipe away the sweat, trying to think. He turned his head and caught sight of the petrochemical plant, only a few hundred yards in the distance. Hoping his son had gone any way but that way, he began to jog towards the plant, at a speed comfortable to both cover ground quickly and thoroughly check the area for any signs of Jason.
After a few moments, Roger started hearing moans coming from the woods in front of him, and he darted towards the sound. Just as he entered a small clearing, he froze in horror. Standing right in front of him were three men including Fine, who was holding Jason rather sloppily in his arms.
Roger's jaw dropped as he saw his son. The boy's skin was pale, and his eyes rolled back to show only the whites. Roger then looked up in disgust at Fine, who had just noticed the new arrival.
"What are you doing here?" demanded Roger as began marching over to claim his son.
Fine backed away as he answered. "I'm under orders from the mayor to make sure no one comes back here. You and your son are in the wrong place at the wrong time."
The two men with Fine suddenly lurched forward and grabbed Roger by his arms. He tried to squirm out of their hold, but both men were stronger then he was.
"Please, let me take my son to a doctor," pleaded Roger.
Fine looked at him like he was insane. "Let's have a little chat first. Now we have a very complicated situation right here. A sick boy, found near the plant that I just publicly declared to be clean, who just happens to be the son of an EPA analyst. I don't think that this will go over very well. Even our own supporters will desert us if this gets out. Now, you and I both know that can't happen."
"So what are you going to do?" asked Roger.
"I offered your friend Arthur a deal earlier today. He declined. Now I'm going to give you a shot. Tomorrow the Rheinhardt Petrochemical Plant upriver will get the blame for all the pollution in the water tonight. If you say you found your son over there, then I let you both walk. Otherwise, you both take a swim."
"You monster!" screamed Roger. He managed to get his right arm loose and swung it at other man to his left. The punch connected square in the center of the thug's face, dropping him to the ground. Roger instantly swung his arm back again, this time elbowing the other man in his forehead.
With both men dispatched, Roger charged at Fine in a mad rage. Panicked, Fine stepped forward and hurled the unconscious boy at Roger, knocking him to ground. Roger quickly examined his son, then hopped to his feet intent on bringing down Fine -- and almost walked directly into a gun.
Fine, having taken advantage of Roger's momentary distraction, had pulled out his private sidearm, a silenced .38 revolver. Roger froze in terror as Fine held him at gunpoint.
The silent standoff lasted only a few seconds before Fine took it on himself to start the conversation anew. "I've tried to reason with you. But now I have no choice." He quickly shook his gun hand back and forth to get Roger to look at it. "I guess the police just aren't going to find either of you now."
The quiet popping sound of the silenced gunshot was followed by a pain in Roger's abdomen. He looked down in shock as he watch blood pour from his body. Roger slowly tilted his head back up in disbelief as he looked at Fine, who returned the look with a cold expression on his face. Then, feeling his energy leave him, Roger's limp body fell backwards, hitting the ground next to his son with a loud thud.
By now, the two other men had regained their composure and were walking over to their superior. Fine just looked down at the two bodies in front of him. He saw that Roger was still twitching, and contemplated putting another bullet in him for good measure. He raised the pistol and aimed it at the EPA agent, but then slowly dropped his hand back down.
"He'll be dead in a few minutes," Fine said icily to his two minions. "No sense wasting another round." He twisted his head slightly to look at Jason. "The boy looks like he's almost gone, too."
One of the men gave the boy a light kick to see if he was alive. Jason's chest was still expanding every few seconds, but other then that there no other signs of life.
Fine looked up. "Yeah, I thought so. Nick, go get the car and bring it back here. We'll throw them in the trunk and find someplace quiet to bury their bodies."
The man who kicked Jason nodded, and turned around to make his way up to the front of the plant. Then he froze dead in his tracks.
Fine grimaced. "Nick, I meant today!"
Nick didn't even bother to turn around. "I thought I saw something moving around."
"Damn it!" Fine spat out. Nick moved towards the tree line, pulling a switchblade from his pocket. He pushed the release button letting the blade flick out, and stepped into the foliage, disappearing from Fine's sight. After a few seconds, there were brief sounds of a skirmish.
The scream that burst forth from the foliage sent chills down Fine's spine. He was frozen in terror as he watched Nick's limp body lifted into view above the tall bushes and tossed sideways like a rag doll, hitting the ground with a crunching noise.
Fine lifted his handgun and fired two rounds blindly into the forest. One hit a tree limb and sent bark flying, the other continued undisturbed. He waived his gun back and forth waiting for a target to appear while he used his free hand to wipe the sweat from his face.
His companion began to back away. Tensely, Fine held his shaking hands out, staring at them as he futilely tried to calm himself down. Giving up, his head darted back and forth, seeking somewhere he would be safe.
A crunching sound, like feet stomping on leaves, came from the forest and Fine again opened fire, sending a bullet in the direction from which he felt the noise originated. The footsteps accompanied with the sudden pop of the gun was all the excitement needed to spook the other man, who quickly spun and ran for his life.
Fine heard the commotion of his fleeing accomplish, and spun around in rage. "Joe! Get back here!"
But the man was in no mood to be ordered. He continued sprinting into the woods on the other side of the clearing, trying to put as much distance between himself and the scene as possible. Joe disappeared from sight, just as Nick had moments earlier. And just like with Nick, Fine was greeted with a piercing scream coming from his now unseen partner's direction.
Fine screamed himself and swung his gun arm around in a panicky half-arc. Panting loudly, he peered at the woods surrounding him. For a few seconds, there was silence and then, out of nowhere, he heard the sound of frogs croaking.
He spun his head towards the section of forest where Nick had vanished, and was surprised to see a yellow frog leap out. It looked at him with a confused expression, and then hopped away. Fine then spun back to where Joe had ran, and sure enough, there was a frog sitting over there. Incongruously, in the midst of his panic, he wondered if they were frogs or toads.
The crunching of leaves began to sound again, and Fine lifted his pistol towards the forest in front of him. He screamed out as he fired his last two bullets, praying he hit his target by shear luck. However, he was again greeted with the sound of tree bark exploding.
Two creatures burst forth from the woods on either side of him. It was too dark to make out exactly what they were, but they were definitely a light color and seemed to travel on four legs.
"What do you want?" Fine shrieked, not really expecting a response.
To his surprise, he got one. "We want you, Mr. Fine," said the one behind him. "We've come to give you what you deserve."
Fine spun his pistol around in his hand until he was holding the barrel. "You're going to have to kill me first!" He ran forward towards the creature in front of him, most likely the one who had attacked Nick, and raised his gun back behind his head, ready to slam it down on the creature's skull.
Almost as if it was trying to oblige him, the animal lowered its head. Fine, now only a yard from his target, began to swing his arm down to make contact -- and stopped dead in his tracks. His jaw dropped as he gasped in pain. He had just run full force into something sharp, impaling himself. Looking down in a stupor, he saw that the creature had something pointy extending from its forehead.
Fine slumped to the ground, looking up at the creature. He was waiting for the creature to finish him off, but instead it just stared down at him. Fine felt his body begin to constrict, and he screamed in fear as he saw blankets of hair sprout out all over his body.
Within seconds, he was burrowing out of his clothes and looking around at his surroundings. He stared at his hands in terror and swung his head around to take in his body. It was furry and ended in a tail. It only took him a second to realize that he now, somehow, impossibly -- a rat.
The other creature came up behind him and looked down at him. "We don't kill people, Mr. Fine. But sometimes, we let the punishment fit the crime. You were already a rat before, now your new form just compliments your personality."
Frightened, Fine scampered away into the woods. Once they were sure he was gone, the two animals spun around and faced Roger's and Jason's near-lifeless bodies. They looked at each other, and then quickly trotted over to the two humans.
Early the next morning, Roger regained consciousness, slowly. He found himself lying on the ground, but he felt weird. He didn't know how he had survived the gunshot, but he knew somehow that he was okay.
"Dad! Dad! Wake up!" Jason called out.
The funny thing was, it seemed that his ear had moved in the direction of Jason's voice. He finally got his eyes to open, and tried to look at his son, but something was wrong. He shook his head, blinked then stared in disbelief. Instead of his son lying in front of him, there was a colt with a single golden horn on its head. A... unicorn!?
"Dad, it's me," it said in Jason's voice. Roger tried to get up, but he felt like he weighed a ton. He turned around and looked at his body, and was rendered speechless.
Instead of his human frame, he was lying on the ground with the body of a white horse. He felt something growing out of his head, and after a moment of looking at Jason, realized what it was. A horn.
Something had transformed him and his son into unicorns.
"What happened?" asked Roger to his son.
"They helped us," said Jason, making a motion with his snout to the area behind Roger.
"You two are quite handsome," said a female voice from behind Roger. He knew who it belonged to with that heavy British accent.
"Gwen?" asked Roger, turning his head to see her. But instead of a human, he saw another unicorn standing a few feet from him.
"Really," she said. "You Americans are always so amazed when you see one of us. Back in England when I was young, the villagers saw unicorns everyday and thought nothing of it."
Another unicorn came out from behind the bushes and stood next to Gwen. "Don't pay her any mind," said the new unicorn. "I have to live with her." It was Manchester.
"Well, come along," said Gwen to Roger. "We can't have a beautiful animal such as yourself lying on the ground collecting dirt, can we?"
Roger tried to get up, but he could not figure out how to do it. He now had four legs, all with hooves at the end of them, and was not sure how to stand up properly.
"Like this dad," said Jason. He got up one leg at a time, starting with front feet then his rear. Roger watched Jason do this, and then mimicked his son's motions. Within a few moments, he had struggled to his feet, and stayed there. His legs were wobbly at first, and he had to spread his feet out in order to keep balance. But after a few moments, he got the hang of it.
"We showed your son how to get up while you were still out," said Manchester. "We wanted him to be standing for you when you woke up, but he insisted that he lay at your side."
"How did this happen?" asked Roger.
"We found you and your son unconscious over by the plant," said Gwen. "We came across Fine and his men right after they attacked you. When we finished with him, we came over to try and help you, but you were both nearly dead. This was the only way we could save your lives."
Roger was still shaken. "You -- killed Fine?"
Gwen smiled. "Tempting, but no; we don't kill. Instead, we taught him and his friends a lesson they won't ever forget. Now we have a few more animals to balance out the ones we lost yesterday to the plant's pollution. It's an old unicorn trick, but I find it works better than any other form of punishment."
Roger's lip quivered a bit, waiting for his two fellow coworkers to explain themselves.
Manchester, seeming to realize Roger's distress, suddenly spoke up. "You see Roger, Gwen had been alive for centuries before she came to the United States."
"Yes," she said, taking control of the story. "I was born in Northern England at the beginning of the Renaissance. Unicorns were starting to become very scarce, as we were running out of places to hide. We had to assume human forms most of the time to avoid being detected, and rely on our human friends to help us fit into society. It was about a century ago when I finally realized that my kind's days of romping freely in the wilderness were over, and that if I was to survive in the modern world I would have to completely blend in with the rest of society. One of my good friends, Melissa Haysworth, helped me create a human identity for myself. She was a file keeper working for the British government and was able to get me a birth certificate and other documents to hide my past. I chose a form that I was comfortable with, and she took care of the rest." Gwen stopped for a moment, and bit her bottom lip in a sorrowful gesture. "Sadly, she has long since passed on. But her children have helped me to continue inventing new lives whenever I needed one.
"After living a few centuries in Europe, I have to admit I was starting to get a bit of the wanderlust. I traveled the globe, occasionally bumping into one of my kind, but mostly remaining very lonely. About ten years ago, I came here to explore this land. Driven by some desire to see the 'new world', as the humans always called it. To unicorns, it's all one big world without boundaries or borders, but still we respect the right of humans to divide their property however they wish, as silly as it may seem to us.
"I came here with great expectations, and I was astonished by the beauty of this country. However, I also saw that it was being destroyed by industrialization. Everywhere I went I saw factories and power plants making terrible waste. I was so upset, I wanted to cry. It wasn't until I came to this town that I first heard of Louis Manchester and his valiant struggle to end pollution."
Roger looked cockeyed at Gwen. "Heard from who?"
"Oh, the squirrels, the birds..." she said with a smile. "We unicorns are regular Dr. Doolittles. We can speak to any animal and understand them. You can try it if you like." She motioned for him to look upward at some birds in a tree.
Roger gave them a quick glance, and then shifted his eyes back down to Gwen. "I'll take your word for it."
"Anyway," she continued. "I transformed myself into human form to go speak to him, but instead of us just talking, it was love at first sight." She shot her husband a coy little smirk, one which he unconditionally returned. "We got married, and on our honeymoon I showed him who I truly was."
Jason tilted his head towards Gwen. "Kind of like when Sabrina found out she was a witch in the first episode of her show."
"That's right," Gwen said with a smile. She then turned and faced her husband again. "I asked him if he would like to join me and become a unicorn too, and thankfully he agreed."
Manchester had a sheepish grin on his face, one that almost said 'Stop, you're embarrassing me.' Roger grinned at the sight, and then turned back to Gwen.
"And that's it?" Roger inquired, trying to clear it all up. "He just agreed and he became one?"
"That and a quick poke with my horn," said Gwen. "You see Roger, all the members of our chapter of the EPA are unicorns. We usually wait for a year to see if new employees are truly committed to cleaning up the environment. If they're still around we transform them, that is, if they want us to. But we thought that in you and your son's case we could make an exception, since you both were going to die if we didn't intervene."
Roger stood dumbfounded as he stared at the others. "So, what are my son and I supposed to do?"
"You see that dead tree over there?" asked Manchester, pointing his head over to the rotted remains of a tree. Roger nodded his head.
Gwen finished her husband's thought. "Go over to it and place your horn against the trunk."
Roger started walking, trying to get the pattern of moving his legs right. Once he got it down, he got to the tree in no time. He placed his horn against the trunk as instructed, and waited. He felt something inside of him tell him to do something. He concentrated on it, and then took a few steps back. The dead tree blossomed to life.
"Now do you understand what you are?" asked Gwen.
Roger nodded his head in amazement as he watched the tree's dead limbs fall off and be replaced with ones budding with leaves. His lower jaw slightly dropped as he stood there, frozen in amazement at what he had done.
Gwen trotted over next to him. She leaned forward and whispered in his ear, "Sometimes I wish I could just put my horn to the ground and cure the whole world, but even if every unicorn on earth got together we still couldn't muster up enough energy to make a significant dent in the problem. Yet by speaking out against pollution and fighting to reform laws dealing with it, you and I can make a difference."
Roger took a step back so he could look Gwen in her face. He slowly felt a smile form on his face. He gave her a quick nod to signal he agreed, and then looked over to his son. If Jason was to have a better world to live in, then it would have to start with people like Roger making a bold stand to say 'enough is enough'.
"Come on," said Manchester with a smile. "The others are waiting to see you two." He and Gwen led Roger and Jason further into the woods.
Roger twisted his head around and saw that some deer were following about twenty or so feet behind them. In the trees, birds and squirrels were hopping from branch to keep up with them.
"What's their problem?" Roger asked Gwen, alerting her to the animals that seemed to be tailing them.
"Oh, other animals always stay around us," said Gwen happily. "They feel safe whenever we're around. Go ahead and walk away from the rest of us and see what happens."
Roger looked at her for a second, and then made his way further and further to the left of the other unicorns. Sure enough, a few of the other animals broke from their own groups and started following him. He quickly moved back over to the rest of the group.
"Weird," said Roger.
Gwen shot him a grin. "That's sure to be a word you will become well acquainted with."
They finally reached a secluded grove inside the forest. Rebecca, Arthur, Stacy and Richard were already there in unicorn form, and galloped over happily to see the newest members of the herd. Jason proudly showed himself to the others, while Roger was a little more reserved, choosing to keep his distance.
Gwen noticed his uneasiness, and moved a few steps closer to him. "I hope that you're not angry with me for transforming you."
"No, not at all," replied Roger. "In fact, I just realized that I haven't even thanked you for saving our lives."
"Well," observed Gwen, "You deserve to be a unicorn. I could tell right off the bat. I wanted to change you from the first day, but Louis kept talking me out of it."
"Shame on you, Louis!" said Roger playfully to Manchester.
"Oh, hush up," laughed Manchester.
Rebecca looked over to Roger and gave him quick grin. She then addressed Gwen without turning her face. "We need to get back to town soon."
"Right," said Gwen. "Shall we do a group teleport, or shall we go individually?"
"What?" asked Roger.
"Group, since Roger doesn't seem to know how to do it yet," Manchester decided.
They all got in a circle, and Gwen closed her eyes, concentrating hard. Roger felt strange, and he saw everything around him start to change. In an instant they went from the woods to the office back in town.
"You'll learn how to do that by yourself in time," said Gwen. "But as for now, you better change back to human form."
Roger just concentrated on being human, and after a second changed back into human form. He was relieved that his clothes appeared on him as well.
"Your clothes get absorbed into you when you change," said Gwen. "They're kind of in limbo, waiting for you when you change back."
Roger nodded, and turned to see his son. Jason transformed back into human as well.
"I can't wait to tell my friends," Jason exclaimed ecstatically. "Tommy thinks he's so cool just because he rides a skateboard. Wait until I show him what I can do."
"Oh, no dear," admonished Gwen. "I'm afraid you can't tell anyone about this."
"Yes Jason," said Roger. "This is just going to have to be a secret. If anyone finds out about this we may all be in a lot of trouble."
Jason nodded his head reluctantly. It would be hard, but Roger knew that his son would keep silent.
"Well, we have to get started," said Richard.
"With what?" asked Roger.
"With what?" Richard fired back. "Do I have to remind you that a certain mayor tried to cover up a major discharge of toxic waste -- and that his henchman tried to kill you?"
Roger had forgotten about that, but the memory made him want to go over and impale the mayor on his horn.
"He probably thinks you're dead," noted Gwen. "Won't it be a nice surprise for him to find out that not only are you alive, but are also a creature that's sole purpose is to fight everything he stands for?"
That thought hadn't occurred to Roger, but he noticed that now he was more determined than ever to clean up the environment.
"That's your unicorn instinct kicking in," explained Gwen. Roger looked at her oddly for a second. How did she know what I was thinking?
"Sorry," she said. "We unicorns have a telepathic link with one another. I didn't mean to read your mind."
"No, no harm," agreed Roger. "Just try not to do it by accident."
"All right," said Gwen. "But I want you to know why we have that ability. We can hear another unicorn's cries for help more than one hundred miles away. If you ever need help, just call out and you can be sure that one of us will come to help you."
Roger tucked that information away for now, and then walked away from the others. He turned back into unicorn form for a moment, and then back to human, repeating the action several times.
"I'm getting the hang of this," said Roger.
"Good," said Manchester. "Well, let's get this show started. Mayor Brian thinks we're all a bunch of pushovers. Are we going to let him keep on poisoning our environment?"
A hearty "no" circled around the room.
"What are we, men or mice?" asked Manchester.
"We're unicorns, sir," said Richards with a smile.
"That's what I like to hear."
That's right, thought Roger. He wasn't sure what he had gotten into, but he knew the days ahead were going to be rough. He wanted to personally bring down Mayor Brian and his brother. It was going to be tough, but deep down he knew he was the right man, er, unicorn for the job.