|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. And in this world, adaptation is a way of life for everyone, SCAB and Norm alike...
Go here for more information on the setting.
by Phil Geusz
©2004 Phil Geusz -- all rights reserved
To Cubist, who has spent much time himself in the inner circles, patiently and good-naturedly editing my stories and making them better than I ever could have managed on my own. Thanks, Cubes!
"I'm just so glad to be along and getting out of the house," Mrs. Guildermann exclaimed over the perpetual mutter of the bus' big diesel engine. Her quills rustled slightly as she turned around in her seat to face me. "I haven't been outdoors in ages! Jeanette -- she's my second-cousin by marriage, you see, Fred's wife. You remember Fred, right? He's the architect, the one that started his own business out in Nebraska, of all places. Who wants to build anything important out there, anyhow? It's no wonder he's going broke! Anyway, Jeanette was saying just the other day that it's a shame how I never get out of the house anymore because of of SCABS. You always used to go out on all the senior trips, she said to me. You used to be on the go all the time. And now we never see you anymore except at reunions..."
I nodded politely, even though my eyes were more than half glazed over. Seven more hours to go, I reminded myself as the chartered tour bus wound its way through the Appalachians. Seven more hours, and then I could go hide in a nice quiet motel room far, far away from Margaret Guildermann and her seemingly endless supply of nieces, nephews and cousins. Tomorrow there would be speeches to make and meetings to attend. Saturday, we dozen Scabs would march on the capitol, waving signs and demanding better treatment for our institutionalized fellows. It had all been Congressman Carmike's idea, and a darned good one at that. So what if there were only a dozen of us? We'd get our fair share of media attention, looking like we did, and that was plenty enough to justify the whole exercise. Indeed, I already had an interview scheduled with a minor cable network.
But first, I had those seven hours to live through. If I could.
"...so why don't you ride along this time, she said to me. Why not ride along to the march? You'd at least be getting out."
I nodded again, then decided that something more was required. "We're very glad to have you," I repeated for perhaps the hundredth time. "It was most kind of you to come. I'm sure there are an awful lot of fellow Scabs in the Colonies who are grateful as well."
The porcupine-scab preened a little. "You know my Uncle Robert? Well, his son's sister-in-law's daughter is a gopher-mouse-morph. It's a terrible case; the poor girl's mind is totally gone, even though her body is even more human than mine. She's Colonized. And you know what? Robert never goes to visit her! Isn't that terrible?"
"Awful," I found myself agreeing, even though I rather sympathized with poor Uncle Robert. To me, the relationship in question seemed rather distant.
"Never!" Mrs. Guildermann stage-whispered. "Not even once!"
I raised my eyebrows, hoping that the expression would convey an adequate degree of outrage. Then, as my assailant inhaled to unleash another salvo, I saw my chance to escape. Scallion was making his way down the center aisle of the bus, swaying slightly with the vehicle's motion. "Excuse me," I interjected. "But my partner needs me. I'm afraid I have to go."
"Oh," Margaret replied, her voice suddenly flat and empty. "Yes, of course. But you'll be back?"
"I certainly hope so," I replied, suddenly grateful that Mrs. Guildermann wasn't a fellow lapine. I was lying through my teeth, something nearly impossible for one rabbit to successfully manage with another. Cross-species, however, I had a fair chance of getting away with it. Right at that moment I'd have sooner faced down Satan himself empty-pawed than sat down next to Margaret for even one more endless gossip-filled minute. Instantly I was on my feet, moving away from my tormentor just as quickly as I decently could.
"How's it going?" Scal asked, wrapping his arm around me as I came up alongside him. Scallion was a little on the touchy-huggy side, even for a rabbit. Which might have been surprising, considering his Navy-officer background. If however, you actually knew Scallion, it was no surprise at all. Nothing about him was standard-issue, or fit pre-existing notions. My friend had been working and living with me for a few months, intending to eventually open his own counseling office. I wasn't looking forward to him going, not at all. I'd never realized how terribly lonely I was, until he'd come along.
"Uncle Robert won't go visit his son's sister-in-law's daughter in the Colonies," I explained in very low tones. "Isn't it awful? He's a terrible, terrible person."
"Heh!" Scal replied, his single sharp bark of laughter a ray of sunshine amid the gloom that filled our bus' interior. It was after ten at night, and the moon was hidden behind thick winter clouds. "No wonder nobody else will sit back here."
I nodded sadly. "I can't wait to get to Washington, Scal. She'll have her own room. And so will we. A private one. With a door that closes, and everything! A door that doesn't have to be answered, even!"
My friend nodded and smiled, then grew more serious. "Phil, have you been watching the weather?"
"No," I answered. "The forecast was fine when we left."
"Not any more," the little brown lop muttered. "It's snowing up ahead. Snowing hard. If the truckers on the radio are to be believed, it's pretty bad already at the higher altitudes."
"Really?" I asked, feeling my face go sour. Snow? Just what we needed! "How bad?"
"Eight inches and still falling fast," Scallion answered. "Everyone has been caught flat-footed. The plows are only just now coming out. Those whose drivers can make it into work, that is." He paused and studied my face. "Want to come up front and talk to Alice?"
Alice was our driver. She was also some sort of herbivorous saurian-morph, and the very proud owner of her own motor-coach business. Like me, she'd once been Colonized. Her family had fought on her behalf, however, and she'd succeeded in making herself a new life despite all the obstacles that the Flu and Federal government had thrown in her way. Already, she was up to seven busses in her little line. Alice hadn't accepted a dime for driving us all to Washington. "You find some willing protestors," the determined saurian had declared five seconds after I'd explained what I was planning to do, "and I'll get them there. The trip is on me. I just want to march too."
I rather liked Alice. It was too bad that I'd only been able to recruit a dozen activists in the short time available. Somehow, I'd felt that I'd let her down a little, even though she'd never even hinted at it. "Yeah, Scal," I replied after a moment, looking down at the floorboards. "I probably should go speak with her."
My talkative porcupine had selected a seat in the very back of the bus, so as to be close to the bathroom. Most of the rest of our little group were clustered up in front near the driver, where they had been chatting companionably together for hours now, laughing and even singing a little from time to time. The sole exception was Mr. Guinness, a middle-aged Norm-looking man who never seemed to look up from his computer. "Hello!" I greeted him as Scallion and I passed, spreading my ears in as friendly a way as I could manage.
"Uh?" he asked, looking up and blinking. "Oh. Hi, Phil!" Then once more he was gone, already lost in the world of luminescent electrons as I passed by. I'd wondered several times why Martin had signed up for our little trip, though of course he was welcome. He never spoke to anyone about anything, it seemed. Then I was up front among the more social set, surrounded by smiles and laughter.
"What's up, Phil? How's it going, Phil? Heya, Phil!" Everyone seemed to be greeting me at once, and I took a tiny step backwards away from all the attention before the gentle pressure of Scal's hand forced me onward once more. I hated being the center of attention, especially when I wasn't ready for it. It made me feel... vulnerable.
"Hey, guys!" I responded, my voice barely audible over the engine noise. It seemed to be louder up here in front. Or else perhaps it was all the voices. "I hear we've got weather problems?"
"Bad ones!" Ned Drewson confirmed. He was a pigeon-morph, and though physically far more human than avian he still preferred a perch to a seat.
"It's an unexpected storm," Mrs. Chang agreed. She was a Norm, but her husband was currently living in the same lapine colony that I'd once spent a few months in. His mind was almost totally gone, and he probably didn't stand to benefit much from any of the reforms our group was pushing for; in truth, a clean cage, plenty of chew-toys and adequate exercise were all that really mattered to him anymore. But Mrs. Chang had come to march with us regardless, bless her. "I've been on the Internet. They're predicting a heavy snow-band with about eighteen inches of accumulation. Over ice."
"Where?" I asked, heart sinking. Somehow I already knew.
"We're going to have to go right through the middle of it," Scal declared.
"There's hardly any traffic at all coming the other way," Felicia observed. She was the only other rabbit along on our trip, besides Scallion and I. She'd just Changed recently, and had heard about our march through the Watership Downers lapiform support group. They'd referred her to me in my professional capacity as an employment counselor, too. Her file was still lying atop my desk back at the Shelter; Felicia had once worked in food service, but her brand-new fur coat had put an end to that. Health laws were health laws, after all, and hare in the soup was still hair in the soup. Felicia had become a very attractive rabbit, far more human than either Scal or I, and appeared to have escaped most instinct problems. Indeed, she dressed in a manner that practically demanded male attention, a very unusual habit when dealing with a transformation that left most victims terribly reluctant to seek out any kind of notice at all. I'd not only caught Scal taking a definite interest more than once, but had from time to time felt my own eyes drawn to the spectacle as well. Felicia was, well... In a word, she was stacked.
"Almost every single truck I've seen is just covered in snow," the attractive doe-woman continued. "I'm originally from Minneapolis, and back when I was learning to drive that's one of the things that my father taught me to look for."
"Your father was right," Alice agreed from the driver's seat. "Phil, we've got big problems here. I've been listening to the truckers talking on the radio, and they're saying that the State Patrol is about to close the highway fifty miles up ahead. We can't confirm that anywhere else, but I used to be a trucker and truckers know these things. You can take it to the bank. It's already snowing, off and on. Look, it's just started again!"
Indeed, suddenly there were flakes dancing in the headlight beams. Very big, fat flakes. Somehow, I didn't believe that the snow was going to stop this time. "Then we're going to have to lay over somewhere, I suppose. Whether we want to or not."
"Yup," Alice agreed, her voice oddly cheerful. "We're not going to make Washington for days, if at all."
"And the snow's already closed in behind us, too," my friend Ken Bronski pointed out. He was one of the best-known Homicide detectives on the force back home; being a full-morph ostrich tended to have that effect. For that matter, so did having a reputation for solving the most bizarre of Scab-related murders. "I don't think we can go back. Not through the mountains."
I pressed my lips together. "But... Everything's all scheduled. We have reservations!"
"We have a blizzard, too," Alice pointed out. "Plus, I have a responsibility for the safety of my passengers."
"There isn't going to be a march, Phil," Scallion explained. "In fact, there's not going to be much of anything happening in Washington for days. They're in for at least a foot too, the last I saw. Don't forget, I live there." He smiled. "Trust me; nothing is going to be happening. Nothing at all. The Congressman will understand."
I shook my head. "You're right, of course, both of you. We have to stop. But..." I wriggled my nose worriedly. "Our Washington rooms were already paid for. Some us aren't exactly rich. And then there's meals, and..."
"Don't sweat it," Alice interjected. "I've got insurance for this sort of thing; blizzards happen, you know. The rooms and meals are on Prudential United, so long as they're halfway reasonable. The big problem is going to be finding some vacancies to begin with; all the other travelers will be stopping, too."
"That's why we called you up here, Phil," Ken explained. "Before things have gotten too bad. We need to go grab us a block of rooms, and now."
I looked out into the headlights again. I'd been right; the snow showed no signs at all of letting up this time, and already the road's surface was turning white. "I agree," I said after a long moment.
"Good!" Alice exclaimed, sounding a bit relieved. Apparently she had expected me to make more of a fuss. "Two exits up there's a big motel complex of some kind; it's always lit up like the Fourth of July. I've driven by the thing a thousand times." She paused. "We're really out in the middle of nowhere, guys. If they don't have any rooms, I don't know what we're going to do."
It was almost half an hour before the lights Alice had spoken of finally loomed up out of the snow-filled darkness; by then the highway was well and truly covered. Several cars had been following us closely, trusting Alice's professional driving skills to warn them of potential trouble, and I was not surprised at all when they followed us tamely right up the off-ramp.
"Yup," the cheerful saurian noted. "It's time to pull over, all right. There's not a soul left out there." Though we could make out the garish lights clearly enough, the snow was already so heavy that we had practically pulled up into lot before we could decipher the letters.
"Fire Mountain Casino," the flashing words read. "The Loosest Slots Anywhere! Blackjack Dealt 24/7! Girls, Girls, Girls!"
"Any port in case of storm," Scallion reminded me as we carried our bags through the lobby and down the long hallway to our room.
"I suppose," I agreed reluctantly, bouncing up and down a little on my toes to shift the position of my backpack. Ned was still outside helping Alice unload the bus, and I felt guilty about being inside and warm already while they were still out getting snowed on. The truth was, however, that Scal was too small to be of much use. As for me, not only was I not all that much bigger than my friend, but I didn't have anything resembling functional hands either. It had been years now since I'd been able to do useful things like unload suitcases, yet I still felt guilty all of the time about not helping. "But... What a dump!"
"Yeah," Scal said drolly, nodding at a larger-than-usual crack in the corridor wall. The Fire Mountain Casino wasn't all that old; I'd have guessed five years, tops. Yet it was already going to seed. The décor clearly had once been a cheap imitation of Early Las Vegas Schmaltz, so cheap an imitation that already the plastic potted palms were missing most of their leaves, the burgundy-red carpets were badly worn and spotted with loathsome-looking stains, the paint on the room-doors was chipped, and the light fixtures were in many cases knocked askew or even missing. "I thought the gaming industry was supposed to be a very profitable one, Phil. Or so my broker keeps claiming."
"Done right, I suspect that it is. But what's to draw customers to a dump like this, way out in the middle of nowhere? Did you see how frantic the lady at the desk looked? I bet that she hasn't seen such a full house in years."
"Yeah," Scal answered, nodding. "Probably not. But at least the place was here; God only knows what might have happened if it hadn't been."
Room one-twenty-nine was the last on the right, located conveniently next to the elevator. As Scal fumbled with his key-card the cab raced by, squealing and rattling something terrible. Our eyes met wordlessly as both of us realized that, with sensitive lapine ears, we'd be awakened every single time that anyone in the hotel traveled from one floor to the other. Then the lock flashed green, and we were inside.
The Fire Mountain Casino might have been a wonderful place for blackjack at four in the morning, but there wasn't a Scab-friendly room in the place. Alice had appeared very angry about this as she waved her insurance card around while checking us all in, but the counter-lady hadn't been able to do anything more than shrug. "We don't have anything agin' your kind of folks," she'd explained. "Not at all! We understand that it's just a disease no one can help, and all of that. But we don't exactly cater to y'all, either. There ain't no profit in it, us bein' so far out." Then she'd looked at Ken for a moment, who was still standing out in the little space between the doors trying to shake the snow out of his plumage. "Truth be told, if'n I was y'all, I'd head on down the road a piece and try again. You're welcome enough here, mind you. But I can't say as most of you would be comfortable."
"Oh, we'll be fine!" Mrs. Guilderman had purred, looking around with a little smile on her face. "Just fine, I'm sure. Won't we?"
Alice had hissed to herself, then looked at me. "I could take us on down another exit or two..."
"Everything's booked up," a stranger in line behind us had stated. "Everything. Everywhere. Take it or leave it, will you? We're all waiting while you make up your mind."
And so we had taken it, barely in time. Once our group was checked in, there were only three rooms left for the seven parties remaining in line behind us to squabble over. Scal and I were sharing a double, just like we had planned on doing in Washington. The lights were off when the heavy door swung open...
...but a wave of stink washed over us instantly. "Eeew!" Scal complained, pinching his nose.
I felt my own muzzle wrinkle. "It's mildew," I said.
"Eeew!" Scal repeated, still holding his nose. "They must never rent this room out!"
Sure enough, we discovered that there was a noticeable layer of dust on everything, once we finally gave up on the inoperable light switch and felt our way inside to turn on a lamp. The room was freezing cold, as well. "I'll turn on the heat," I offered, stepping over to the control-box under the window. The flimsy metal lid opened fairly easily, once I managed to hook a clawtip in underneath. Slowly I manipulated the control knobs with my teeth, and the unit rumbled to life, steadily growing louder and louder. Our stink grew steadily worse as well; once I realized what was happening, I bent down and snapped the switch back off. "It's the heater. That's what's full of rot."
Scal wrinkled his nose again. "You're right," he answered after a moment. "Now the mildew smells burned."
The front desk didn't answer when we called, and clearly we weren't going to get another room in any case. With the staff so overloaded, they'd probably just laugh in our faces if we complained. So Scal squatted down by our heating unit and played with the multi-tool he always carried in his luggage, while I explored for us both. "The cold water doesn't work in the sink," I called out after nosing around for a while. "I didn't bother checking the tub. The hot side is just about boiling, though. There's no way we can drink it, unless we let it cool down first."
"I'll fill the ice bucket later," Scal suggested. "We can drink out of that. Anything else?"
"Yeah," I answered. "I found half a pizza in the chest of drawers; it's mummified. One of the beds smells like urine, and the other has about half its springs broken. I don't think the sheets on either one have been washed for a very long time, either. Both sets smell like horny Norms. Which one do you want?"
"The floor," he replied without the slightest hesitation. "Probably we can find something soft to sleep on somewhere, and share it. What else?"
The elevator cab roared by again, and I waited for it to pass so that I wouldn't have to raise my voice. "One of the windows won't quite close," I finished up, "though you might want to give it a try yourself, you having fingers and all that. How's the heater going?"
"Not bad," Scal replied, standing up and throwing the switch. The fan grew louder and louder once again, then the sound finally leveled off at something very reminiscent of a hand drill running at full power. "I've pulled the filter; it looks like the thing was getting wet every time it rained. If we open up the windows and let the room air out for a while, it might even be livable in here."
"Wow!" I exclaimed, spreading my arms wide and rolling my eyes. "O frabjous day! Livable!"
Scal laughed. "I've stayed in worse. For several weeks at a time, even."
My jaw dropped. "Really? When? Where? This I've got to hear!"
His smile grew wider. "I don't want to think about it. Another time, maybe." He raised his hands a little and let them flop down at his sides. "So. We're here. Now what?"
I pressed my lips together. "Check on the others, I guess. See what kind of terrible rooms they've got. Maybe get everyone together for a late-night dinner. What do you think?"
The little lop shrugged. "Sounds like a plan to me. I'll fight with the windows for a little while, then meet you down at the restaurant."
It didn't prove to be nearly so easy to reassemble my little flock as I'd imagined; indeed, the task proved to be totally impossible. Alice had carefully recorded everyone's room numbers on a piece of paper, then declared that we wouldn't be leaving at least until morning. "Go and have the best time that you can here," she'd urged everyone. "I'll be in the lobby at eleven tomorrow. Be ready to leave then, if the roads are up to it." Apparently, just about everyone had taken our driver's words to heart. Mr. Guinness was the first one I found in his room; predictably the blue glow of his laptop screen hovered spookily in the darkness behind him as he leaned out his door.
"Yes, Phil?" he asked politely.
"Hi," I replied, suddenly feeling a little awkward. I didn't really know Mr. Guinness; none of us did. "I'm trying to see who might be interested in getting together for a late dinner tonight. Some of us have special dietary needs, you see, and I thought we might wish to dine together."
Mr. Guinness stroked his chin thoughtfully. "Well," he replied after a very long time. "My dietary needs are quite ordinary. Nor am I particularly hungry." He smiled slightly, the first time I'd ever seen him do so. "And, I regret that I already have other plans. Nothing personal."
"Of course," I answered immediately, holding up my forepaws and backing away from the door. After all, the man was under no obligation to us whatsoever. "Of course! I just hope that you can find a good way to kill the evening."
His smile widened. "I'm quite sure that I will, thank you. None of this is your fault, Phil. Please don't be offended by the fact that I am a loner by nature. You're a good person trying to do good things, and I respect that. I only hope that your room is in better condition than mine. Goodnight." Then I was looking at a closed door.
This was only the first of many closed doors, as it happened. The Hippels, Mrs. Chang, even Alice were all out and about already. Where would they be going, so late at night?
The casino? Already?
I came to Ken's room last of all, and carefully raised my hair dryer in preparation to knock on his door. You can't make very much noise knocking with forepaws as soft as mine, and so it pays to come prepared. Even as I began my swing, however, Ken's door suddenly opened. The hair dryer slipped out of my uncertain grip as I tried to stop its forward motion, and went crashing down to the carpet. "Whoops!" Ken said in his deep, rough voice.
"Sorry," I replied in turn, bending down and fumbling with the awkward appliance. The hard, smooth plastic was very hard to hold onto; when I was actually drying myself with the thing I usually I just found a corner to wedge it in and then moved around in front of it as needed. Ken was even less gifted in the manual dexterity department than I was, however, so he merely stood and watched as I fumbled about.
"It's all right," Ken answered as I finally managed to pick up the obstinate dryer up off of the carpet. "What's up?"
"Well," I said slowly. "I was planning to try and put together a late group-dinner for everyone. But no one seems interested except Scal, and maybe you. Everyone else is out."
"Probably gambling," Ken observed.
"Probably," I agreed, the word leaving a bad taste in my mouth. Why did people like to gamble so very much, I wondered? Especially, why would a bunch of Scabs, many of whom I knew for a fact to have financial problems, gamble? Couldn't they do math?
"Well," Ken said slowly, looking away. "Then he turned to face me. "The truth is, Phil, I just finished eating. I can eat a lot of street food, you know, but a straight diet of it isn't good for me. So I brought seed and crop-stones in my luggage."
"I see," I answered, looking down. "Of course. You had no way of knowing."
Ken sighed. "I'd have waited, if you'd have let me know sooner." Then his eyes brightened strangely. "The bar here is open twenty-four hours a day, Phil. That's even better hours than the Pig! Would you like to come and have a drink or two with me after you eat?"
"Sure!" I answered, feeling a little better. Ken was one of my very favorite drinking buddies; he was full of strange stories and had met more interesting people than most of my other friends combined. In the sense that murderers could be considered 'interesting', that is.
"Great!" Ken said, bobbing his head up and down happily. "I haven't tied one on in much too long. Maybe this trip won't prove to be a total waste after all!"
Scallion was saving a place in line for us at the restaurant when I finally got there. "The window in our room still won't close," he observed gloomily. "Even with fingers. And this line hasn't moved an inch in fifteen minutes." In the background I was able to hear for the first time the merry jingling of slot machines; the eatery was located just outside the casino proper.
I shrugged. "It has to move eventually."
"Does it?" Scallion replied darkly. "I'm beginning to wonder."
Just then things broke loose a little bit, however, and the line lurched forward enough to carry us around a corner and bring the buffet-style interior into actual sight. Being herbivorous, rabbits not only have to eat more meals per day than humans, but also consume proportionately more food per meal to boot. Our bus had been scheduled to stop often enough to allow everyone time to eat, when needed. Things hadn't exactly worked out as planned, however. And, unlike Ken, Scal and I hadn't felt it necessary to bring our own rations. The two of us were hungry; damned hungry, even! And there, just a few feet away from where we stood, there waited three long tables of steaming-hot food, along with a dessert bar.
But where was the salad?
Neither Scallion nor I had the heart the ask the question aloud, though both of us were rising up on our toes and craning our necks from time to time as we waited, impelled by the rumbling in our bellies. "Please," I finally whispered. "Say it ain't so."
"It may be in the back," Scal replied after a long time, not in the slightest doubt as to what I was referring to.
"Maybe," I agreed doubtfully. "But if so, it's not very big. In fact, I don't smell anything good at all. Yeah, there's plenty of vegetables in there. But they're all cooked in butter and stuff." My stomach heaved a little at the thought of food that had been coated in grease.
"I don't smell anything very edible either," Scal replied. "But what else can we do but wait and see?"
"Nothing, I suppose," I sighed, forcing my feet back down flat on the floor and deliberately turning my back to the overcrowded smorgasbord. Surely there would be something good to eat in such a massive array of foodstuffs; there almost had to be.
"Excuse me," a kind voice said from behind us. "But I gather that you bunnies are pretty hungry?"
Scal and I both spun around together, eyes wide and, in my case at least, ears raised in alarm. Rabbits, even SCAB rabbits, are naturally quite nervous creatures, especially when out in public. "Y-yes?" Scal managed to stammer out.
The elderly woman in the wheelchair smiled. "I asked if you were hungry," she repeated.
I hated taking charity, even on such a petty level. The wheelchair lady was quite clearly not a woman of means; the cut of her clothing, the split seams on her purse, even the worn tires on her wheelchair all bespoke her poverty. I didn't want to take anything from someone who had less than I did, not at all! But still... My sense of pride warred with my empty stomach, and lost. "Ma'am," I replied, lowering my ears. "We are half starved to death."
"And how!" Scallion seconded.
"Well!" she declared, reaching for her handbag. "I might just have something in my purse then, for such cute and fluffy bunny rabbits!"
Scal's smile faltered a little, but neither of us turned away. We'd already sacrificed our dignity by then, just in the asking. Instead we waited silently as the old woman dug and dug through her belongings, eyes shining and faces expectant. Yes, I acknowledged to myself, the former USN Admiral and the self-made employment counselor had been reduced to begging like animals. The treat was worth it, however, when it finally came. Through some freak of providence, the old woman had been carrying dried banana wafers! If there was a more universally-beloved rabbit snack to be found anywhere in the universe, it remained undiscovered. Suddenly I was drooling, and so was Scal. "Please," I whispered as she fumbled with the bag, ears erect once more and gaze fixated on her every motion. "Please!"
Then she was feeding us each one wafer at a time; this made sense for me at least, given the physical limitations of my forepaws, so I didn't think much more about it. Indeed, I wasn't thinking about much of anything just then, save dried banana wafers! I'd downed half a dozen of the things before I realized what a show Scal and I must be putting on. Sure enough, when I regained my senses enough to look around, I saw that we'd drawn a crowd. "I used to keep pet rabbits back when I lived on Oak Street," our benefactor explained to the woman accompanying her; by scent and appearance, I judged, the two might well have been sisters. "Remember? I recognized the signs."
"I remember," the companion replied; she was smiling too, now. "I used to love those things. Why don't you get another?"
"I might," the first answered. "I just might."
The wheelchair lady had only been carrying a half-baggie of the goodies, and they didn't last very long at all. By the time the food was gone, however, the line had lurched forward again and we were only a few minutes from being seated. "Thank you," Scal declared when we were finished, both of us scrupulously ignoring the pointing adults and laughing children. "Thank you so very much. I think that you've just saved our lives!" I was a little more self-conscious than Scal, so I just stood beside him, smiling and nodding.
The old woman beamed back; it was clear that my friend and I had made her day, which made me feel a little better about what had just happened. I even managed to smile a little, something not normally easy for me. After all, I was never going to see these other people again. So why should I not play the part of the happy bunny rabbit for this poor cripple? "I started carrying 'nanners back when I kept bunnies," she declared smugly. "And I still do, 'cause I like 'em so much myself. Thank heavens they came in so handy!" Scal offered to buy her and her sister's dinner once we finally got in, an offer which left me fuming inside for not having thought of it myself. But the sisters declined.
Scal and I were seated a few moments later. There was a salad bar, it turned out, though it couldn't be ordered separately. Today's featured items seemed to be limp lettuce swimming in slimy water, overripe tomatoes, spoiled cottage cheese, and green peppers which were edible enough but would most certainly exact their full gastric revenge later. We ended up eating two platefuls apiece of the parsley garnishes spread out on the salad bar's ice. The meal was filling enough, if a little monotonous. Then I yawned and patted my belly. "I have had enough for one day," I declared. "It's bedtime."
My friend's eyebrows rose. "Didn't you say that you were meeting Ken over in the bar?" he asked.
I closed my eyes and sighed. "Yes," I admitted. "Though now I wish I hadn't set that up. I just want to go to bed."
Scal cocked his head to one side. "But... You haven't even been to the casino yet, Phil. Don't you want to go out and have some fun while we're here?"
I sighed and looked out over the gaming floor; our table had an excellent view of the video-poker section, where row after row of overweight men and women sat and stared fixedly at the electronic ghosts of cards. I shook my head sadly. "No," I answered. "I don't think so."
Scal's jaw dropped slightly, then he shook his own head. "All right," he declared, standing up and pushing his chair in. "All right. I give up. You can lead a rabbit to water, but you can't make him drink." He shook his head sadly once again. "Someday, though, you're going to do something with your life besides work all the time. Someday, you're going to go out and really break loose, or I'll die trying. In the meantime, though..." He stepped over and put his hand on my shoulder. "In the meantime, you've got a key-card and you're a big boy. You can take care of yourself. I'll see you later." Then he turned to face to the gaming floor, arms spread wide. "Wait right there, world! Poppa's a-coming to take over!"
The casino bar was located all the way on the other side of the gaming area, a good hundred yards away. Every single slot machine between me and my goal was in action, and customers were piled three-deep around the blackjack and craps tables. I picked my way through the masses very delicately, stopping at every aisle-intersection and carefully considering which route was least noisy and crowded. This was quite a challenge, given that gaming machines are perhaps among the least-subtle of mankind's many inventions. They bonged and chimed and flashed and spun with every drop of a coin. This was to keep the 'action' going, I knew, to make what was inevitably a losing experience feel rich and rewarding to the cash-cow customer. I'd read once that gambling seemed to appeal to the most elemental predatory instincts of a human. For one insane moment, when someone hit a jackpot just as I was passing by, I had to cower behind a plastic potted palm and wait for all the noise to go away. Even as I crouched there waiting for my heart-rate to stabilize, however, part of my mind worked out what a slot machine tailored to appeal to the lapiform Scab market might look like. There would be lots of clean soft fur for the customer to snuggle up against, I decided. There would be lots and lots of soft fur, and a little grille that emitted reassuring scents, and above all blessed silence instead of all the eternally damned chiming and beeping and bonging! How could Scal even stand this place, I wondered? He thought that gambling was fun? What was next for my friend, recreational acupuncture? Or would he go straight to whips and chains?
There was no clear divider between the bar and the rest of the gaming floor, though the background noise faded considerably as I crossed some sort of invisible line in the carpet. If anything, however, the bar was even more solidly packed than the casino proper. There were so many people drinking all at once that the odor of alcohol permeated the air, so that my nose continually burned a little. Most of the drinkers seemed to be truckers, stranded by the snowstorm, though there were quite a few locals in the crowd as well. The two distinct groups sat in separate little clusters, chatting and talking amiably among themselves. I looked around in vain for Ken, and had just about given up when I heard his raspy voice call out my name. "Phil! Oh, Phil! Over here!"
Fortunately I was able to get a fairly good bearing on the sound, even though I was far too short to make eye-contact with my friend. He was in the back of the establishment somewhere, I decided, probably the far back. Very carefully I threaded my way through the restless feet, looking up sometimes to meet the eyes of Norms who stared for a moment, then politely looked away. Once someone dribbled a little beer on my head, though it was certainly not on purpose. Other than this one incident, however, my trip was uneventful.
Ken was indeed in the back of the bar, I soon realized, and he'd performed a miracle. Somehow, he'd managed to save us a booth all to ourselves. He was kind of half-kneeling sideways on one of the benches, feet dangling ridiculously out into the aisle. It looked hideously uncomfortable, so uncomfortable in fact that I swore a silent oath to never again complain about a seat lacking a tailhole! But my friend and ex-client seemed happy enough. "Phil!" he greeted me warmly. "I was afraid that you weren't going to find me. But if I got up, even for a second..."
"Right," I agreed, hopping up onto the other seat. "What a crowd!"
"There was almost a fight a few minutes back," Ken observed. "Over which weather channel to watch."
I rolled my eyes. "Great!"
"They're terribly short-staffed," Ken continued. "I had a bar maid over here and... Hey! Here she is!"
"Hi!" a nearly-past-middle-aged woman in much too skimpy of an outfit greeted us. Short skirts and sheer nylons didn't go well with varicose veins, I decided, not very well at all. Still, she seemed cheerful enough, despite the terrible crowd. Very likely she was making more money tonight than she did in most months, which probably helped. And, there was a drink and a pitcher of beer on her tray. "We didn't have any carrot juice, just like I thought. So I brought your friend a Screwdriver instead. Will that be all right?"
Ken looked over at me, and I nodded. "Sure!" I usually drank a Jack Strafford, but who could afford to be choosy under the circumstances? Orange juice gave me heartburn, but then again so did parsley. I waited patiently as the waitress poured Ken's first beer for him, then sipped at my own drink. Suddenly I was choking and gagging; the thing was half vodka, or more. "Jesus!" I finally choked out, once I was done spluttering. "I've never had such a strong drink in my entire life!"
Ken bobbled his head, his own personal analog for laughter. "Casinos are like that, Phil. It's counter-intuitive, I know, because the alcohol is so expensive. But they make every dime back, and more. They do it so that you'll gamble more freely."
I licked my whiskers a little, trying unsuccessfully to make my nose stop burning. Then I leaned back in my seat, resolved not to touch another drop so long as I was trapped in this modern-day inner circle of hell. "I can see how that might work," I agreed, leaning back slightly in a deliberate effort to relax. "Too bad I don't like beer."
Ken shrugged. "Too bad indeed. It's the cheapest way to get drunk." I watched, fascinated, as the big bird dipped his head into the mug and ingested another beakful of the amber liquid. Then he looked skywards in an oddly graceful gesture, and suddenly a lump was traveling down his long, naked neck. It was a very torturous way to have to drink, I decided, though not a particularly slow one. There was already an empty pitcher on the table, and I suspected that Ken was responsible for it.
"So," I asked awkwardly. "How have you been?"
Ken shrugged, his stubby wings surprisingly eloquent. "About the same. Nothing ever changes. More cases. More bodies. More piece-of-crap perps trying to get ahead by offing someone." He sighed.
I nodded slowly. "It must be rough."
Ken laughed a single harsh "Ha!", then took another mouthful of beer. "Everyone knows how you feel about your clients, Phil. It's maybe the Pig's worst-kept secret. But when I investigate a murder, my 'client' is already dead, or they wouldn't need me. That's who I'm there for, is the victim. So that he or she can find justice, and maybe rest a little easier. But they're already dead! Usually in an unpleasant way, at that. Everything I deal with is dead. So, how do you think I've been?"
I wriggled my nose a little and turned away. Ken was on this trip because he was on leave of absence from the Department. Everyone at the Pig knew that. What everyone did not know was that his leave was involuntary. Ken was the brightest star on the entire force; ever since he'd taken down the Inanimorph Killer everyone in the Department had worshipped him like a god. But even gods had personal problems, it seemed. "I'm so sorry that you lost that chick, Ken," I said eventually. "So very, very sorry."
Now it was Ken's turn to look away, eyes still very hard and cold. "Yeah, well. It wasn't mine to start with, you know."
"You loved it like it was. Didn't you?"
There was a long, cold silence. "Yeah," Ken eventually admitted. For just an instant his wings sagged terribly, and his eyes lost their cold edge. It was not an improvement. "I did." Then once again he was drinking, taking one, two, three beakfuls as fast as he could. When he was done, his expression was harder than ever. "But it died. She died, rather. And dead is dead. I ought to know about 'dead', if anyone does."
I sighed, at a loss for words. Ken's counselor had called me a few days back, having found my name buried in his files. She was worried sick about her patient; he was growing more depressed by the day. "They should never have given him that egg to brood!" she had declared angrily at one point. "Never! It was too severe of a risk."
I'd sighed. "So you'd rather have put the poor thing in an incubator, where its odds of survival were even lower?"
"I don't know..." Her voice had sounded helpless.
"The egg gave Ken hope," I'd explained patiently. "I saw him with it once, if you didn't know. It was like he was lit up inside, alive and truly happy probably for the first time in his entire life. Sure, it was risky for him. A real gamble. And he lost, the poor bastard. But they had to try!"
"I suppose," the shrink had answered after a long silence. "All right, they had to try. But they should have called me in from day one."
"I agree." You had to give her that much.
"And..." She'd sighed. "Phil, have you got any idea what a bitch it is to work without any drugs? There isn't a single anti-depressant on the market approved for ostriches. What the hell am I supposed to do? The longer I keep him off work, the worse he gets!"
Suddenly Ken was talking again, and my mind returned to the present. "...just the way of things, I suppose," he was saying, though he didn't sound as if he really meant it. "Things we weren't meant to understand in this world, you know. Evil things, some of them." He shuddered, then took another gulp of beer. "Evil, evil..."
I pressed my lips together, and made my voice as soft as I could. "Ken..."
"I knew a cop once who lost it," my friend said eventually. "Thirty-year veteran. All the way, he lost it; a total nut job. You know what he told me? He said that a cop's life is like a nice clean white towel when he's young. But then he spends all of his days soaking up filth and vomit and ancient rotten shit out of every single gutter in the fucking universe. After a few years, it's no wonder that you're not so pure and clean anymore, or that the stains won't wash out. In time, you are the vomit and the vomit is you. There isn't any dividing line any more. And then, once you come to understand that much, you no longer care if there's a dividing line." He looked up at me, eyes pleading. "That's when you lose your soul."
I shook my head slowly. "Ken, I know you. You're not bad, or evil, or..."
Ken snapped his beak shut, hard; the sound was like a gunshot, and suddenly everyone in the bar was staring. "You have no idea what I've seen, Phil," he said, his voice just a little too loud. "No fucking idea at all. I've looked right down into the Pit, you know. Right down inside, and seen the face of Satan himself! On a Navy base, of all places." He looked down at the table. "Or maybe it was just the ultimate face of Death; I've never been able to decide which."
For a long moment, our eyes were locked across the table. He's lost it, a little voice whispered in my head. He's finally had too much. But somehow Ken's eyes didn't seem mad. Tortured and full of pain, yes. But not mad.
Maybe he was right, I told myself. Maybe he had looked straight down into the Pit. After all, I hadn't any idea of what Ken had seen, living the life that he did. If SCABS had done anything at all, it had established beyond a reasonable doubt that the universe was indeed stranger than we could possibly imagine. "Ken," I said again very gently, standing up an the seat so that I could reach a forepaw across the table and lay it on the part of Ken's body that most closely approximated a human shoulder. "Ken..."
A single tear ran down Ken's cheek, and then his eyes went cold and hard again. "No," he declared, stopping me in mid-motion. "No, Phil. Thank you more than you can ever know, but that's not the right answer. Not for this. Not for Death." He turned away. "And I'll not stain you with my vomit any more, either. My pathetic excuse for a life is my problem, not yours, and I won't have it getting you all filthy right alongside me."
"But, Ken..." My words were almost a sob. I could never, ever remember hearing anyone in so much pain before.
Ken shook his head vigorously, sending the single tear flying. Then he took another swig of beer. "I know what I need," he declared flatly. "And I'm going to get it, one way or another. It might as well be here, eh?"
My mouth dropped open. "Ken..."
Then the ostrich bobbled his head in false merriment. "Don't worry, Phil. I'm not gonna off myself, no matter what my shrink thinks. I'm not about to give Death a freebie, not after getting to know the bastard so damned well. He'll have to take me by force when the time comes, I'll be kicking and pecking all the way." Ken reached out with his beak and prodded gently at the root of my left ear, as if grooming me. "I'm just going to get very, very drunk. I promise. All right?"
"All right," I agreed, voice still a little doubtful.
"And I'm going to do it alone," he continued. "Nothing personal, but it's got to be that way. Inviting you here with me feeling like this was a bad idea; I can see that now. Please, forgive me? And let me drink alone tonight?"
I pressed my lips together. Part of me felt that it was very unwise to leave Ken by himself in the condition he was in. On the other hand... If it had been me asking a friend to be left alone to heal, then I'd have expected said friend to do as I wished. After all, I usually did my best healing alone, too. Finally I stood up and reached out my forepaw. "All right," I declared. "If that's the way that you want it, that's the way that it'll be."
"It is," Ken replied, pecking gently at my forefoot in a twisted Scab-mockery of a human handshake. "Thank you. You're a true friend."
"So are you," I replied, looking the big bird in the eye one last time. "And don't forget it."
"I won't," Ken replied soberly. "Never." He paused. "You don't have anything to worry about, you know. Honestly. No one does."
I nodded. "I know."
"Good," he answered simply. "So, go out and have a good time, Phil. You deserve it." Then he turned back to his beer.
I decided to head back to my room and get a little sleep, once I was done talking to Ken. In truth, I'd been up since not long after dawn getting things ready for the protest march and making sure that my clients would be okay on their own for a few days. Rabbits tend to sleep more than humans, and therefore I was all the more behind on my shuteye allotment. The casino floor was finally beginning to clear out a little, it being well after midnight. This also meant that the place wasn't quite so loud and noisy anymore; indeed, conditions were so much better that I actually walked upright like a human being across the casino this time, instead of scuttling furtively from cover to cover. This gave me time to look around a little.
The Fire Mountain Casino might have been run-down, but it certainly was a larger place than I might have expected to find out in the middle of nowhere. There were over a dozen rows of slots, artfully arranged in such a way that no aisle ran quite straight. It would be quite possible for a bemused person to literally lose his bearings among the slots, I figured, having very nearly done it myself. Alternatively, you could wander aimlessly for a surprisingly long time among the deceptive rows and still not see everything there was to see, still be surprised and delighted by new, undiscovered games. Right alongside the slot machines were the video poker units, each and every one still patronized by a red-eyed gambler despite the lateness of the hour. Across a larger aisle were the bigger, high-dollar games such as roulette, baccarat, and blackjack. I'd never actually seen anyone gamble at blackjack, I realized suddenly. Or not for more than penny-ante stakes, at least. So I decided to take a detour through the tables.
It was very easy to tell who was stranded by the weather and who had actually come to gamble, I decided after strolling past three tablefuls of eager players. The regulars carried themselves with an air of regal self-confidence, generally wore flashy clothing, and seemed to use a lot of gambling jargon. We weather-refugees, by contrast, tended to be a rather drab and colorless lot. I watched closely as a man drew to a seventeen, got a three, and then collected his winnings in triumph. I felt my split upper lip curl in disapproval; the man was either far luckier than he was smart, or else he had been counting cards very assiduously indeed. My money was on the former; his worn blue jeans and flannel shirt identified his as a traveler, not a regular customer. Everyone at the table cheered and patted the man on the back as he raked in his winnings; the pile of chips involved was a very large one indeed, including several of the royal-blue one-hundred-dollar tokens.
"Way to go, Glenn!" a voice cried out in a near-scream of triumph. "Way to go!"
I suppressed a strong urge to shake my head as I walked away. Glenn was almost certainly stupid and lucky, not a sharp 'player'. Drawing on seventeen was a sucker bet, one that paid off very rarely indeed. Couldn't anyone else in the universe besides me do simple math?
Next I watched the roulette wheel spin for a while, its gold-plated facets winking and sparkling in the eternally-bright casino lights. To my eyes at least, the big wheel appeared gaudy and over-decorated rather than sophisticated and glamorous. The Fire Mountain Casino had not bought the very finest in gaming equipment, I could see very clearly; the gold was flaking off of the wheel in places, exposing the base-metal underpinnings for anyone to see. Yet no one else seemed to even want to look; instead the tension increased palpably until all bets were placed, and then everyone's eyes were fixated on the magical silver ball as it whirred around the spinning wheel.
"Come on, red!" I heard a voice declare eagerly. "Red! Red! Red!"
"Double-zero!" a stranded traveler cried out. "Come double-zero!"
"Forty-nine!" someone very near me was whispering. "Please, Jesus! Forty-nine, forty-nine, oh God, please, forty nine..."
I shook my head again, this time walking away even before the ball found its slot. It was of no import to me who won or who lost, after all. What did really it matter, which random number was generated? Why was one better than another? Any self-respecting six-year-old would have spurned such a mindless game, bored silly in minutes. And yet these supposed adults, I knew, would likely be at it all night. I didn't have anything morally against gambling, I decided as I strolled over towards the craps tables. If someone wanted to spend their time and money that way, what business of mine was it to stop them? What truly offended me was the sheer tastelessness and mindlessness of it all. What self-respecting and supposedly intelligent human being, I asked myself, would lower themselves to --
"Phil!" Scallion called out joyously as I rounded a corner. "Phil! I knew you'd be out sooner or later!" My friend bounced joyously up and down on his toes. "Come on up and watch! I'm winning!"
"The Admiral is on a roll," declared the very buxom brunette who stood at Scal's left elbow. There was a very large crowd gathered to watch my friend, but she was tucked in extra-close.
"He's had three sevens running," added the inevitable matching blonde at my friend's right. "Ooh! I'm so excited!" Now she was bouncing up and down on her toes too, though in her case the six-inch heels helped considerably. "Come on, Admiral! Win one for me!"
Scal smiled, then pulled two chips out of his shirt pocket, handing one to each girl. "These are for luck!" he declared, placing the dice in the little cup and shaking them vigorously. The chips were royal blue, I noted as the women made them disappear almost instantaneously. This made me feel a little sad; clearly Scallion was buying his groupies. Then the dice came rushing out of the cup, and everyone at the table leaned forward slightly in anticipation. "Oooh!" two dozen voices groaned simultaneously as the number came up; I could not see what it was from my low viewpoint, but did not need to ask. Clearly, my friend had crapped out.
"I'm so sorry, Admiral!" a nearby manager sympathized. Clearly, he had stopped by to monitor the play of such high stakes. "May I offer you a drink on the house? For you and your whole party?"
Scallion smiled widely, hugging the brunette up close to him. She didn't resist, not at all. "Why, thank you!" he declared, clearly not at all upset by his loss. He looked from one woman to the other. "Screwdrivers okay?" he asked. They nodded, then he looked over at me. "Screwdriver? They don't have carrot juice. I asked."
"We will soon enough, by God!" the manager declared loudly. "When you come back, Admiral, I promise you'll be able to buy your favorite drink. I give you my word!" Then he turned to the nearest waitress. "Screwdrivers, Jeanette. You heard the Admiral!"
"How many?" she asked.
The manager's face turned dark. "Hell, how should I know? Get me a dozen! Just hurry!" Then he turned to me and studied my face appraisingly. "You know the Admiral, do you? Were you in the Navy too by chance?" he asked. Then, before I could answer he spoke again. "Would you like to buy some chips?" He snapped his fingers, and instantly a chip-girl was at my elbow.
"Perhaps five hundred to start?" she asked. "A thousand? Two?"
Then there was a redhead pressing up against my left side. "Rabbits are so lucky," she crooned. "And kinda sexy-looking too."
My mouth opened, closed, then re-opened again. I knew that Scallion was fairly rich by my standards; it was something I'd once felt terribly jealous about, and then had gotten over. Usually, though, he was a model of tactfulness on the subject; only his house and car were at all ostentatious, though neither terribly so. Yet here he was throwing around hundred-dollar chips like confetti! It was so unlike him, just as it was unlike Ken to be so dark and brooding. Was the whole world going insane?
Finally I raised my forepaw in a negative gesture to the chip-girl, who looked disappointed as she backed away; probably she'd been expecting a very generous tip. Then I looked up at the redhead who'd attached herself to me and shook my head gently. "I'm engaged," I explained, even though it wasn't quite true. "Sorry."
She took it better than the chip-girl had. "Aw!" she answered, smiling very prettily. "That's sweet! What a lucky girl! See you later, bunny!" Then she elbowed her way in closer to Scallion, while the blonde and brunette fumed.
"A friend of the Admiral is a friend of mine," the manager declared suddenly, holding out an extra-large screwdriver for me. I grasped it as best I could between my forepaws, and immediately the alcohol was burning my nose again.
"Come on, Phil!" Scallion was declaring from his perch at the head of the dice table. "Come on up here and take a turn! They'll let you go next!"
Deep down inside, I was more deeply torn than anyone else might have suspected. I liked Scal, liked him an awful lot, in fact. He'd put up with more garbage from me than anyone ever ought to have to take from a supposed buddy, and had remained my friend after a particularly ugly incident that probably would have caused anyone else to break things off. I'd never really understood what the little guy saw in me, any more than I could figure out what it was that kept Phlox calling me on the phone all of the time. I'd do almost anything to make Scal happy, almost anything at all. And, I had no moral objection to gambling. I could quite easily tap my bank account for a hundred or two; while I wasn't in anything like Scal's financial league, I was hardly broke.
"Are you an Admiral too?" the manager asked me again.
And then, finally, everything came together for me, and I truly understood what I was seeing. "I'm sorry," I finally answered my friend, looking up into his eyes. "Really and truly sorry. But it wouldn't be right for me to play here. I was just on my way to bed."
Scallion nodded and smiled. "That's all right, Phil," he answered. "I understand. I'll see you in the morning."
I nodded back, the corners of my mouth twitching as I tried to return the expression. "Go get 'em, Admiral Rap-Scallion!" I cried out, making a mock salute. If I hadn't already figured things out, I would have been utterly amazed at how easily my friend had let me go. Giving up ordinarily wasn't like him at all. But then, nothing about Scal just then seemed to be at all like the little happy-go-lucky lop I knew. So long as his chips held out, Scal would remain the center of attention; everyone's eyes were upon him, just as everyone's eyes must once have been when he had stood on the bridge of his flagship far out at sea and made his word law over hundreds of square miles of ocean. Scallion was the Admiral once again, cool and in charge, for one night only. Damn the cost, full speed ahead! It was no wonder that for once he'd let folks know who he'd once been, where normally he was so painfully secretive about his former life. It fit the pattern perfectly.
Scallion was living in the spotlight once more, his very own personal spotlight, bought and paid for with funds he'd come by honestly. And while he was a big enough person to be willing to share his moment with a good friend, it was all the better for him if he didn't have to make room on stage for anyone else at all. "Good night!" I called out one last time, waving. "Good night! Have a wonderful time!" I meant it; my friend deserved a wonderful time, for remaining bright and cheerful and decent inside after losing so much to SCABS. So what if he wanted to big-time it now and again? Wouldn't anyone, once they'd acquired the taste?
"You too, Phil!" Scal cried out. Somehow he seemed to realize that I'd understood, and our friendship had grown all the closer as a result. "Go find some fun, and quit working all the goddamned time! That's an order!"
"Aye-aye, sir," I replied, mock-saluting again. Then I carefully set my oversized, overly-potent drink down in the base of a potted palm, and threaded my way through the crowd towards the casino's exit.
It took me nine tries by actual count to get my key-card to work, and for once I believed that my difficulties had little or nothing to do with SCABS. The room still smelled like burning mildew when I entered, though it was at least warmer than it had been earlier. Scal had been kind enough to leave my backpack on one of the beds, the one with the broken springs. He'd also opened up his own luggage on the other bed, the urine-scented one, and had laid out a bunch of his sweatshirts on the floor. The resulting nest certainly looked more appealing than either bed to me. Scal was a good friend indeed, he was.
The room's main light switches hadn't worked right the first time we tried them, and after several full minutes of effort I determined that the lamps Scal had turned on for us were completely impossible to switch off with either teeth or forepaws. Finally, after abandoning the attempt, I simply laid down with the lights on, hoping that I was tired enough to sleep anyway.
Almost immediately, I began to sneeze.
It wasn't too terrible, at first. I'd sneeze a couple times, blow my nose, and then simply roll back over and try again to get to sleep. The elevator would come rumbling by, the icy wind would blow through the open window, and all of that would be tolerable, if terribly unpleasant. But then, just as I was dropping off, I'd begin sneezing again.
It was the mildew, my fatigue-dulled mind slowly began to realize. The roasted mildew! I was allergic to it! I rolled over again and again, trying to find a sleep-position that would allow my sinuses to drain on their own. There wasn't any, however, at least not that I could discover. Presently the tissues were gone, and I was using toilet paper to blow my nose, no longer even bothering to lay down between sneezing fits. There was no point in even trying; I was never going to fall asleep in this hellhole of a room. Never!
After an hour or more, I finally gave up. Sleepily clutching my roll of toilet paper to my chest, I went looking for a new lair to hole up in. There were chairs out in the lobby, I recalled, so first I headed that direction. When I got there, however, they were already all taken by what looked like a stranded family. Even the floor was mostly covered in sleeping people! I sneezed twice, and a voice from the floor moaned in despair. "Shit!" a woman's voice murmured. "Goddamn it!" Clearly, I'd awakened someone even more miserable than I was.
Moving just as quietly as I could, I backed out of the room and out into the hall. What was I going to do, I asked myself once a new sneezing fit had passed. What in God's name was I going to do? Give up on sleep entirely, and go back to the casino and its glitzy flashing lights? Go back to the bar and intrude on Ken, who had asked me for privacy and whose wishes I'd promised to honor? Or try to find another dark corner, and get at least a little shuteye if I could?
Hmm, I asked myself. It was now about two-thirty in the morning. Where in a crowded casino complex would I be least likely to find people at such an hour?
The hotel gym, I realized suddenly! The gym! I'd noticed signs pointing to it, out on the casino floor. Surely no one would be working out at such an unholy hour! Or even if they were, maybe I could find an empty steamroom or somesuch. A rabbit didn't require much in the way of a place to sleep, after all. I could curl up anyplace that was dark, private, and in which I felt safe and secure. What a brilliant plan!
There seemed to be almost as much binging and boinging and light-flashing as ever going on out on the gaming floor as ever when I made my re-appearance. I had to stop to sneeze six or eight times as I passed through, leaving my used tissues at the bases of palm trees for lack of any other receptacle. No one seemed to notice me this time, however. By this hour, every red-rimmed eye was firmly locked on flickering screens, spinning wheels, and turning cards. No one had a moment of attention to spare for a sinus-blocked bunny, and that was perfectly fine by me.
The gym was located just beyond the big keno parlor. I snuck along behind the long benches unseen, and then made my way down the little hallway, following the arrows. Everything seemed nice and quiet, once I'd put a couple of turns between my sensitive ears and the keno players, and by the time I pushed open the gymnasium door I was congratulating myself on my personal genius. There wasn't anyone back here, no one at all!
Or so it seemed until the door closed behind me.
"Uh! Uh! Uh!" I heard two urgent voices moaning in near unison, and suddenly I felt the linings of my ears flush deep-red. Oh-oh! I'd just interrupted something very private indeed! If my head had been totally clear, I'd have left the room instantly, hoping to escape before being noticed. As it was, however, I stood for a moment, staring stupidly off into space.
Suddenly, I recognized the voices.
"Ooooh!" Felicia moaned suddenly, and then my gaze was drawn to her as if by a magnet. Her eyes were rolling in sexual ecstasy, and her expressive ears were standing as straight and tall as giant redwoods. "Oooh! Oh God! Oh God!"
"It's all right," Alice our saurian driver crooned reassuringly from her position laying alongside her. "Sssss! It's all right, child.! Everything's truly right with the world, now." Then suddenly Felicia was staring at me, and so was Alice.
"I... I... I was just looking for a place to sleep!" I stammered. "My room, it's..."
Alice giggled. "It's all right, hon," she replied. "Accidents happen." She squeezed her partner a little, and Felicia grinned lewdly. "Especially when you have a taste for playing games in public places."
I didn't know what to say, not at all! "Well..." I answered, my ear-linings still hot and full of blood. Then something truly wise and profound finally occurred to me. "Good night!" I declared somberly.
"Good night, Phil," Alice answered for both of them, while Felicia smiled prettily. "Good night!" And then I was out of there so quickly that I truly didn't know where I was or what I was doing until I found myself wandering around the keno lounge.
"Phil!" a familiar voice called out; instinctively I turned towards it. "Phil! Over here!"
It was Mrs. Guildermann of the many relations, and groggily I walked towards her, still clutching my steadily-disappearing roll of toilet paper. I wasn't sneezing quite so often anymore, now that I was away from the mold. However, I would be sniffling for hours, if not days, to come. And my stuff! I realized suddenly. All of my luggage and most personal belongings would have to be washed, practically disinfected, even! What a dump this place was!
"Phil!" Mrs. Guildermann called out again, pointing at the open seat beside her. "Come here and play with me! This is such an exciting game!"
Blearily I sat down and blew my nose. This time there were no potted palms around to act as waste receptacles, so I just balled up my tissue and tossed it among the thousands of crushed, worthless keno cards that laid piled at my feet. My heavens! Didn't they ever clean this place up?
"It's so exciting!" Mrs. Guildermann was repeating even as I sniffled into my tissue. "You pick numbers, see? And then if enough of them match up, you win!" She bounced up and down her seat.
I nodded blearily, certain that my oversized eyes must now be as red as those of any hardened gambler. Perhaps I'd fit in a little better now? Somehow, I was beginning to doubt it.
The old woman grinned. "I've bought my cards, and in just a minute or two they'll read the numbers off. We'll see if I win! Next time you can buy some cards, too!"
I looked down at the little folding lap-tray in front of my seatmate; it was layered three-deep in expensive tickets. "I'll just watch you at first," I suggested. "Until I can figure this all out. It seems very complicated."
"Oh, it is!" she replied in a confidential whisper. "Very complicated indeed! There's all sorts of little bonus games and such; it would be terribly easy to throw away a winner. And then there's the skill part. You have to pick the right numbers, see? I use my nieces and nephew's birthdays."
"Right," I agreed, nodding sadly. "That seems like a good method to me."
"It is!" she assured me. "I won a hundred dollars at midnight!"
Hmm. The cards in front of her right now cost at least twenty-five dollars, I decided after a quick tally. She'd been playing a similar trayful of cards every fifteen minutes since what time, I wondered, in order to win her measly hundred bucks? The old woman wasn't rich like Scallion, I knew. Therefore, different rules applied. "Mrs. Guildermann," I began sadly. "Have you taken the time to --"
Suddenly the big board bonged in warning, and everyone except me leaned forward eagerly. A fancy graphic played, one featuring limousines and mansions and diamonds, and then a long series of numbers began to appear with agonizing slowness. "Fifty-four," Mrs Guildermann was murmuring intently. "Thirteen. Twenty-seven! Oh! That's little Darla! Twenty-seventh of February! Ninety-two..."
"Over there," I pointed out for her. She'd missed a bonus square with the numeral ninety-two in it.
"Oh!" she answered. "Thank you!"
By the time all was said and done, the elderly porcupine-morph had won five dollars return on her twenty-five dollar investment. Even worse, she would have missed winning the five if I hadn't pointed it out to her. "Mrs. Guildermann," I finally said when she came back from cashing in her winner and getting another trayful of tickets. "Have you really sat down and thought --"
"I bought you a ticket, Phil!" she exclaimed. "See? A five-dollar one, with my winnings!" She proudly folded down the tray in front of me, and laid the ticket on it. "I didn't know what numbers you might want, so I just had them do a random-pick."
I nodded, carefully swallowing the sigh that so badly wanted to explode from my chest. "Thank you," I answered, trying to make my words sound sincere even though there was nothing in the universe that I wanted less just then than to play a keno card.
"You're so welcome!' Mrs. Guildermann gushed. Then she was off again, talking about her worthless niece who was wasting her poor dead mother's inheritance on art school, of all things, while I sat in my uncomfortable seat among the heaps of discarded tickets, sniffling and wondering what in the name of all that was holy I was doing there playing the most boring game on Earth. Finally, after an eternity of inane chitchat -- Betty was drinking again, it seemed, on top of her not making child-support payments on time -- the big board bonged once more in precisely the same way as it had before, and after yet another glitzy graphics display the numbers began to roll. Idly I matched them up on my card as they scrolled by. Or didn't match them, rather. I had not a single hit, which was probably a much worse result than the statistical average.
"Oh, no!" Mrs. Guildermann complained. She hadn't won, either. "I was so sure that you'd be lucky, Phil! I was certain of it! I bet it's because you didn't pick your own numbers, ones that are special for you. Come on up with me this time --"
"No," I interrupted emphatically. "Thank you, but no. I really have to be going, you see."
Suddenly my seatmate looked lost. "But Phil! It's so much more fun when you're not alone!"
I didn't want to hurt Mrs. Guildermann. She was just a foolish old lady, after all. I pitied her more than anything else. But there was simply no way on Earth that I was going to sit with her and watch her waste money she couldn't afford to lose and listen to her eternal gossip, gossip, gossip. Certainly not while I was feeling so sick! So I hardened my heart, and shook my head despite the pain that was clearly evident on her face. "I'm sorry," I repeated. "But I was just passing through. I've got somewhere I need to be."
"I see," she finally capitulated gracefully. "Well... Good luck, Phil!"
"And to you, Mrs. Guidermann!" I replied sincerely. "And to you!"
After all, who could know? Maybe she might even win. I hoped so, even though there wasn't much chance of it. No one ever won at a casino in the long run.
Except for the owners, of course.
In truth, the only place I really needed to be was in bed, though I'd just about given up hope on that score. No matter where I went in this demonic establishment, it seemed, events conspired to make me feel acutely uncomfortable. Indeed, so far the only place I'd felt even halfway at home was in the bar. But Ken was there, of course, and he'd asked me to leave him alone for the night.
Unless he'd gone back to his room already, maybe? And how was I to know unless I went to look?
There was still a huge knot of admirers gathered around Scal, I could see as I sneaked by on all fours, trying not to be noticed. "Way to go, Admiral!" someone called out amidst a burst of cheering, and I felt my heart warm slightly despite the fog of fatigue. Well, at least my friend had won one bet!
The bar was still as crowded as ever when I crossed the invisible sound-line in the carpet once again, this time from another direction. Things didn't look much different from this new angle, however. The clientele was almost entirely male this late at night, and most of the patrons looked very drunk indeed. The worst-looking of the lot, I noted, were slumped over on barstools along the bar itself. The casino, not wanting to waste a single profit-opportunity, had built slot machines into the top surface of the bar. Even as I watched, dozens of heavily-intoxicated gamblers, most of them clearly too far gone to walk, fumbled and pawed at their chip-piles and fed token after token into the whirling, softly-beeping machines. Some of the players couldn't even hold up their heads anymore; these individuals half-lay with their faces plastered across the glass bartop, somehow still feeding in coins. The odor of vomit hung heavily in the air, and a bar attendant was wiping up a terrible mess at the end-machine nearest me, while two more casino employees held the responsible patron upright. "Feeling better now, Mr. Guinness?" asked one of the patient men, and suddenly I looked more closely. Sure enough, this sallow, pathetic, floundering creature was indeed Mr. Guinness, my computer-obsessed protest marcher! God in heaven!
I half-hopped over. "Martin!" I asked, looking up into his eyes. "Martin! Can you hear me?"
"Eeeerph," he mumbled.
"Do you know this gentleman?" asked one of the men holding Martin up.
I nodded at him, then tried again. "Martin, are you all right? Do you need a doctor?"
"Uuurgh," he replied, not seeming to realize that I was there. The man cleaning the bar finished, and Mr. Guinness reached out towards his empty seat. "Uuurgh!"
"Another boilermaker, then!" the barkeep replied cheerfully, tossing his soiled towel into the bin under the bar.
"Thannnn," Martin gurgled, half-smiling. The attendants looked expectantly at me, then I gave up and stepped out of the way so that Mr. Guinness could resume his play. The two employees sort of poured Martin back onto his stool; miraculously, he remained upright for a few seconds before planting his face on the bar like so many of the others. Next, even as I watched, his right hand fumbled about a bit, then found a chip and dropped it into the slot machine. Wheels spun, lights flashed, meaningless little symbols lined up in a sort of randomized arcane script; Martin didn't even seem to notice the result.
Then he reached for another chip, and another, and another...
I felt very sick at heart as I walked away from the bar, still clutching the toilet paper roll to my chest like a sort of talisman. Good God! What was happening to my little group of earnest protesters, anyway? These were good people, I knew, people who cared enough about their fellow man to put their own necks out on the line. And yet this place, it seemed, this horrid, horrid place with its pathetic rooms and flaking glitter and mindlessly flashing lights, was debasing their very souls! Were we humans such pathetically weak creatures at heart that we would crawl in our own filth for such false treasures as these?
I found myself wandering mindlessly around the bar, still in a mild state of shock and sneezing from time to time. There wasn't any place to go, I found myself realizing, no place that I could possibly hide. I was absolutely immersed in wickedness and lewdness and licentiousness, walking on the bottom of a deep ocean of filth and callous exploitation and, worst of all, dreams broken beyond all repair. This was what so many people called having fun, I asked myself? This was what so many people worked long, hard hours for? This was how people willingly spent their time and hard-earned money?
I wasn't too far away from the big TV screen when I started sneezing again. By then I'd been sneezing off and on for a very long time, so that each little explosion was akin to a sort of dull blow to my head. I was a little dazed by the time my fit had passed, all the more for having been so very tired to start with. It was almost as if I were living in my own little bubble of separate reality, experiencing the greater reality around me through some kind of filter.
Probably that's why I didn't notice serious trouble developing until it was far too late for me to run away.
There was a little knot of men standing around the television screen, most of them young and tough-looking. "I want to watch the sports channel!" one of them was complaining as I tried to ease by. "Come on, Mel! Let me change it!"
"Fuck you!" another responded. "It's just a bunch of goddamned reruns. We're gonna watch comedy!"
"Comedy my ass!" the first young man replied, leaping to his feet. "You've been hogging that damned thing for hours, now. And I'm getting sick of it!'
Suddenly the second man was standing as well. "I don't think I like your attitude!" he declared boldly, as I began to frantically search for a place to hide. There weren't any good places, however, so I scurried under a table that already had two ladies sitting at it. They didn't even notice me, everyone was so busy watching the upcoming fight.
Suddenly the first youngster pushed the second, and the contest was on. Fists flew, men cursed, and feet kicked in an absolute blur of motion. The TV-hog was getting the worst of it, I noted...
...until he reached into his waistband and pulled out something silver and glittery. "A knife!" one of my female tablemates screamed hysterically. "Oh my God! He's got a knife!"
The blade swept through a graceful overhand arc; I watched, fascinated, waiting for the weapon's bloody plunge into human flesh and bone. But before it could strike home, something yellow blurred past, kicking the knife upwards so hard that it stuck vibrating in the ceiling. I blinked as suddenly the bar went silent.
Now Ken was standing next to the combatants, eyes hard and red. It had been his foot that I'd seen knocking the blade away, I slowly realized. My friend's big, yellow bird-foot. "All right!" the ostrich ordered, indicating the TV hog with a nod of his head. "You! Get down on your stomach, now! I'm a cop."
For just a second, the former knife-wielder stood his ground, stunned. Then his eyes widened. "You, Big Bird? You're a cop?"
"I am," Ken affirmed. "Now, get down on your stomach, son. Or else I'll put you down."
This was exactly the wrong for Ken to say, I realized. For instead of complying, the young man's eyes narrowed. "Put me down?" he asked the three-hundred pound bull ostrich standing so ridiculously in front of him. "Put me down? You're going to put me down?"
"Uh-huh," Ken replied calmly. "If you make me, asswipe."
Once again, Ken had chosen to throw kerosene on the fire -- if this wasn't the most inflammatory possible choice of words, I didn't know what was. Now the punk was angrier than ever! "You've gotta be shitting me!" the young man declared, grinning at a friend. "You're a fuckin' bird! I've never --"
Then Ken was a blur of motion once again, spinning his ridiculously proportioned-body like a ballerina and delivering a kick at least as powerful as that of a full-grown mule. I winced at the impact; clearly my friend had broken the kid's jaw. Ken wasn't fooling around, I realized sickly. Something's going to happen, Ken had told me. It might as well happen here.
And, long ago, Ken had first been referred to me as a client due to a penchant for kicking the shit out of recalcitrant vending machines while clinically depressed from his then-recent transformation.
Suddenly I was very, very frightened.
"Lay down!" Ken ordered again, not even breathing hard. "Down!"
I never could quite say exactly what happened after that; suddenly a lethal-looking little snub-nosed revolver appeared out of nowhere, and then Ken was a blur once more. His first blow sent the weapon spinning off to who knew where, while his second took the weapon's handler full in the side of the head. "Oof!" the kid cried out, folding at the blow, and for a moment I truly believed that Ken had killed him.
But there was still a little life in the young man; he writhed and twisted under the flurry of blows that an enraged Ken rained down on the nearly-limp body, flinching away and trying to cover his most vulnerable parts and failing utterly in the attempt. "You little shit!" Ken hissed in an uglier voice than I'd ever heard come from his beak before as he kicked and raged. "You worthless little piece of shit! Try and pull a gun on me, will you? Fuck you! I'll cave your fucking head in, you miserable little..."
"Ken!" I cried out, hopping out from under the table. Bones were snapping with every blow now. The gun and Ken's unusual physical condition justified a lot of kicking -- after all, being who and what he was Ken could do nothing but kick the perp until he was helpless. These special circumstances, however, wouldn't protect my friend from a murder rap if he actually wasted the little prick, not at this point in the game. So far, he was fine, maybe a little over the line but mostly just an off-duty cop doing his job and trying to protect the lives of others as best as his condition allowed. But an inch further, just a single inch further... "Ken! For God's sake! It's over! Stop it! He's not worth it!"
Ken's head snapped up, and then he was staring at me. My guts froze at the sight of his blood-rimmed eyes; it looked more as if Ken had been weeping instead of fighting. "Ken," I made myself repeat. "He's not worth it! Book him, don't kill him! You're not a judge."
Ken shook his head then, snapping it back and forth at the end of his long neck like a whipcord. "Jesus!" he whispered to himself once he was done. "Jesus! What am I doing?" Then he shook his head a second time, and the old Ken I'd thought I'd known so well was back. "You!" he ordered a gaping bartender. "Go find that piece. Now! You're deputized." Then he turned to the casino manager who was running up. "You! Call the local police. Tell them there's been a fight, and that we need an ambulance as well. Plus, I need all the security guys you can spare, here and now." Then, finally, Ken turned to me. "Phil," he ordered. "Wait by the front door. When the cops come, let them know what's happened, and be sure to tell them that an out-of-jurisdiction officer has made a citizen's arrest. They need to know that, and you're the only one here I trust to tell them." Then he lowered his head slightly. "And... Thank you, Phil."
It was just as well that I stayed busy for the next few hours. First there were the cops and the statements, and then an endless time of waiting while Ken sat in a small windowless room with other police officers standing at the door. By a little after eight in the morning, however, Ken was free to go. The perp's condition had stabilized, and a general consensus had been reached that sometimes a cop's actions, by the very nature of things, had to be painted in shades of gray. Ken went back to his room around nine to try and catch a little sleep, while I borrowed a bar phone and began making cancellation calls to Washington. By ten I was finished with it all, and by eleven Alice had the bus pulled up out in front of the lobby to drive us back home.
"The secondary roads are still pretty much wasted," Alice explained to me as we sat and waited for the rest of our little group to show up. "But the main highways are fine. The plow crews really did a great night's work, according to the truckers."
I nodded, not quite meeting Alice's eyes. She seemed her usual bright and happy self this morning, I noticed, as if nothing had happened between us at all. Did she truly not care what I had stumbled into down in the hotel gym? It was possible, I supposed. Had she perhaps been male before SCABS, I wondered? Or was it something deeper? And why would anyone willingly take the risk of literally being caught with their pants down like that? It seemed so terribly undignified! I feared I might never understand.
Presently the rest of our group began to wander in, stumbling or weaving in most cases. Almost all of them were hanging their heads, and no one was talking to anyone. There would be no group sings on this trip, I reckoned. Martin Guinness was in particularly bad shape, though he looked far better than I might have expected. Probably his brand-new sunglasses had something to do with that; he wore them even while staring silently into his laptop. Ken seemed little the worse for his scuffle, though he was limping slightly now and kept his eyes low all of the time. Scallion, being Scallion, showed up with his redhead still in tow and the manager bowing and scraping ahead of them every step of the way. "Hey!" the manager called out when he saw the rest of us waiting, snapping his fingers to the lady behind the desk. "Hey, hey, hey! Get the Admiral's friends some doughnuts, will you? And some coffee, for God's sake! Is the orange juice plenty cold? It had better be! Any friend of the Admiral here gets world-class treatment, you hear? The very best we have, of everything!" Then he was gone.
Scallion kissed the redhead one last time, slipping her his remaining chips as he patted her on the behind. "Good night, Linda," he murmured with a smile, looking up at her with his oversized brown eyes. "It was really great."
"Good night, Scallion," she replied, her smile seeming less painted-on than usual. She toyed for a moment with one of his long limp ears, then pressed her lips together for an instant before speaking. "It really was great, you know." She fingered a hundred-dollar chip guiltily. "I mean..."
Scal nodded slightly. "I know, kid. Believe me, I know. But them's the breaks, and that's how the world really is. There's no sense fighting it." Then he smiled again. "Maybe I'll come back to see you sometime, eh? Wouldn't that be nice?"
"Oh, yes!" she crooned, suddenly alive and sexy and full of vigor again. Then her face softened a bit. "But next time..."
"Yes?" Scallion asked.
Linda stared down at her painted toenails for a moment before reaching a decision. "Next time, let's go out to dinner. Or a movie. Or anything, so long as it's far away from this place. Okay?"
Scal tilted his head slowly first one way, then the other. "Okay," he answered after a very long time. My friend sounded more than a little surprised. "Okay. We can do that, I guess. If you're sure that you really want to."
"I'm quite sure," Linda replied, her smile now a thing of true beauty. Their eyes locked for a long time, then the redhead bent down and kissed Scal on top of the head. "Good-bye, Scallion," she whispered. "You're the finest, nicest, most polite gentleman I ever met." Then she was gone.
Mrs. Guildermann was the last to arrive back at the bus; her face was deathly pale, I realized as she set down her luggage next to all the rest. Her quills hung limp and lifeless, and her hands were shaking noticeably as she poured herself a cup of coffee. How much had she lost, I found myself wondering? How long would she have to scrimp and save to make up for the pretty lights and the dozens or maybe even hundreds of wadded-up tickets probably still lying on the Keno lounge floor? I didn't know what to say, really, much less what to do. She'd sat and gambled it all away by her own choice, after all. No one had taken her money at gunpoint. She had no one to blame but herself, no one at all.
Yet I had to ask myself something. If the casino owners had to look Mrs. Guildermann in the eye every time they added up their quarterly balance sheets, if they had to personally meet each and every pathetic old woman whom they'd ruined with their sophisticated come-ons and breathlessly whispered lies, would they still have any love for the face they met in the mirror when they got out of bed every morning? I certainly wouldn't under those circumstances, I knew, and I had no respect for anyone who did. It was one thing to cater to the likes of Scal, who could afford to be a high roller, and another entirely to impoverish the old and helpless. But there was nothing to be done for it, I supposed. Every good thing in life could be perverted, and every blessing transformed into a vice. It was sort of a unique gift that we human beings had, ruining blessings. No other species on Earth was a tenth as good at it. Everyone, it seemed, had a terrible susceptibility to something or other engraved on their soul and just waiting to come roaring out at the first opportunity.
Everyone. Even the very best of people, like my little group of would-be marchers. And what did that say about the human race as a whole?
"Well," I said presently. Everyone had shown up, right on schedule. A few hours back, I'd have given tremendous odds against it. "I guess it's time to go."
"Yes," Alice agreed after a moment. "I suppose that it is." She sighed reluctantly, then picked up a pair of suitcases.
"I'll help!" Felicia offered eagerly, springing forward and taking another pair. Suddenly the professional career counselor in me came alive; Felicia was only mildly morphed; might she make a good tour-bus driver, I wondered, given proper training? After all, I just might know the right teacher...
Then all of us were moving out across the snowy ground and into the already warm and rumbling bus. Ken sat down in the fifth row, an area that had been empty on the way out, and I made it a point to sit down next to him. "Phil," he said after a brief moment. I --"
"You nothing," I countered. "I was there. I saw. I know. And you know too. Don't you?"
Ken looked down at his seat. "Yes," he admitted finally.
"I don't give a rat's ass for anyone that pulls a knife or gun in a public place," I continued remorselessly. "He deserved what he got, even though I'm convinced you egged him on. But if I hadn't stopped you..."
Ken looked out the window. "Right," he agreed, shaking his head. "I'm losing it, Phil. Maybe it's time for me to retire."
"Maybe," I agreed. "And maybe not. That's for you and your counselor to decide. When you tell her all about it." I paused for a long moment. "You are going to tell her all about it." My words were not a question.
"Yes," Ken replied, looking down at the floor again. "Of course. I'm not an animal, you know, even though I look like one."
I closed my eyes and sighed, thinking of all the wonderful things I knew of that Ken had done for the Scab community, both officially and unofficially. And what he'd done for me personally, for that matter. "Of course you're not, Ken. No one thinks that of you. No one!" Then, quite suddenly I sneezed again. "Damn it!" I raged, tearing the last few sheets off of my faithful roll of toilet paper. "I can't believe that the mold back in my room is still messing me up this bad!"
When I was done blowing my nose, Ken's eyes were wide. Very carefully he reached out, pulled something off of the bottom of my roll, and deposited it in my lap. "Look!" he said. "A chip!"
And sure enough, it was a lime-green twenty-dollar gambling token. Somewhere along the line, I'd picked it up totally by accident. Ken raised his head just as the bus door closed. "Stop!" he cried out. "Phil has a big chip that he forgot to cash in!"
Instantly the door was open again. "I don't know," I said. "Everyone's waiting..."
"Go ahead!" Scal urged. "We'll wait! It's not a very long ride home."
"Sure!" Alice declared, pointing. "See all those trucks in line to get out? They're already in front of us anyway; we're just about the last ones leaving. It won't matter a bit in the long run." She swung the door open again.
"Go on," Mrs. Guildermann urged. "Money is money, after all. Why throw it away? Cash it in."
I pressed my lips together, then decided that it wasn't wise to argue the issue. Mrs. Guildermann was right; twenty dollars, after all, was indeed twenty dollars. "I'll be right back," I declared. "Just as quick as I possibly can."
I'd never traveled directly from the lobby to the cashier's desk before, not in all my wanderings. This particular route through the casino labyrinth took me through a section of games I'd previously missed, slot machines featuring huge payoffs. "Win a Million Dollars!" one declared, while another promised a new custom home in the Pocono Islands. By then I was becoming fairly well inured to the obnoxious lights and noises emanating from the things; it took something really and truly garish to attract my attention.
Which was exactly what I found, just across from the cashier's desk.
It was the prize that caught my eye, a brand new car rotating slowly above the center of the machine. And not just any car, I noted immediately. Not just any car at all. It was a brand new two-seater convertible, retro-styled in Europe to faithfully reflect the lines of an old English sports car of the make that I so loved. This one was painted pearlescent white, with the extra-low sports suspension that allowed an aggressive driver to change directions in an eyeblink, the large V-8 engine that delivered a truly obscene power-to-weight ratio, and the big, round, sapphire-laser headlights that I knew were only a sales gimmick but which still looked so incredibly cool going down the road. Even now, as I watched the car slowly rotating, the oversized blue-tinted headlights were flashing off and on, off and on, off and on...
My mouth dropped open as I stood there gripping my chip and gaping at this most desirable of all prizes. What I could do with such a car! The places I could go! There would be no limits, no limits at all. I'd rediscovered my driving ability very recently, rediscovered the feeling of power and strength and freedom that being behind the wheel had once given me. It was damned easy to picture myself driving the coupe; like most newer cars, its wheel was equipped with sockets for removable forepaw-spokes. And, in another attempt by the manufacturer to adapt to the post-SCABS world, there was a tailhole waiting for me in the driver's seat. The engine's exhaust made a most wondrous rumble, I knew from the same ads; it was very pleasant indeed to picture myself stepping on the gas and literally roaring like a lion as I pulled away from some idiot who'd dared to cut me off, or swerving out around an annoying oldster in a car that couldn't get out of its own way, hammering down the interstate at an ungodly rate with my ears flapping in the wind, or flying through a series of intricate corners at five times the posted speed, like I'd done so often when I was young...
The game was a five-dollar play, and the slot was sized to accept any chip in the house. Flash-flash went the blue sapphire-laser headlamps, and vroom-vroom went the imaginary motor in my head. Oh, what a fine car this was, I told myself. This was destiny at work, to find a chip and then come across this machine. I was meant to gamble this chip, was meant to win what was literally the car of my dreams, meant to go out and challenge the other drivers, shoving aside everything and everyone in my way...
I had the chip wedged between my forepaws and halfway to the slot before I stopped myself. Do you really want this car? a little voice whispered into my right ear. Do you really want all the bills and hassles? Do you really want to try and park it in the neighborhood around the Shelter and the Pig? Do you want to have to wash it every time it rains, and then fly into a fit of rage at every new scratch and dent? Do you want to pay huge licensing fees, and probably pick up more than a few tickets as well? Hell, Phil, the voice continued, the damned tires cost eight hundred bucks apiece!
Most of all, do you really want to become the kind of arrogant adrenaline-junkie maniac that you'd surely turn into, given such a car? That just maybe you once were, and are better off having left behind?
But the lights! a voice countered in my left ear. The sapphire-laser lights! And the huge motor, and squat, powerful-looking back end! The look on Scallion's face when you stamp down on the gas pedal and leave his old classic like it's standing still... This is your car, Phil! Yours! Meant to be, meant to be, meant to be...
For a long moment I stood frozen in place, chip dangling over the waiting slot. A distant V-8 engine roared in my ears, and a little movie featuring an adoring Phlox cuddled up in the seat alongside me played itself out in front of my tired eyes. It would be damned nice to win the car, I knew, damned nice indeed.
But the cursed thing would ruin me. There was no doubt in my mind whatsoever on that score. I'd be swaggering around in nothing flat, putting on airs and sinking far too much of my time and budget and ego into something cold and unliving. In no time at all, I'd no longer own the car -- it would own me! Even if I won the big prize, I wouldn't be any happier than I was now. Quite probably the opposite, in fact. Such a car would be far more a burden than a boon. Therefore, it followed as clearly as night followed day, there was no possible way for me to win anything at all from this silly machine, not in any meaningful sense of the word. There was nothing that it could offer me that was good or wholesome or desirable. Nothing!
Or was there, I wondered? Was there maybe something after all that a gambling machine could do for me? Was it possible for me to truly win something worth the having? For the first time in many hours I felt a tiny smile tugging at the corners of my mouth.
Very carefully and deliberately, I placed the lime-green twenty-dollar token on top of the slot-machine's counter-like surface, turned my back on the flashing sapphire-laser headlights...
...and walked away with the biggest prize of all.