[tsat home] [#48] [stories]

Tlaloc's Curse:
In Every Life Rain Must Fall
by Wolfshadow
©2006 Wolfshadow -- all rights reserved

Sometimes life is a circus -- like now. That's okay, but I don't like it when I'm the star attraction. That goes double for when the acts come complete with flaming hoops for me to jump through. In the first ring, Doc Stein's got me tied to a rotating wheel while he throws new medical tests at me like knives. It's nice to have someone interested in you, but all this testing is becoming a tad repetitive. Plus, it's distracting me from the other, more pressing acts.

In the second ring, the aftermath of the whole Phelps incident is trying to steal the show. Even with Phelps involuntarily auditioning for Colonel Sanders' menu, there are still tons of debriefs and paperwork I have to go through. Sasha is missing out on this fun at the moment, however, due to circumstances beyond her control. I'd say she's the lucky one in this regard, if it wasn't for... Wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. That's the act in the center ring...

Anyway, the second ring: That's the high-wire, which is full of opportunities to fall off. It seems like everyone who is anyone in Washington wants our side of the whole Phelps story -- straight from the kitty's mouth, to paraphrase an old saying. In fact, it's gotten so bad that I'm on call any time some petty functionary to some elected money-grubbing windbag decides they need 'clarification' of some minute point. I don't mean to be so bitter, but from what I can figure out, they're mad that my wife and I chose this particular time to 'return from the dead'. Phelps himself may have been one clown short of a car-full, but he couldn't have done what he did without plenty of assistants... none of whom want their part in the mess to be made public. Let's just say that my and Sasha's 'triumphant return' dredged up old issues many had thought well buried.

Once the story of the Phelps thing got out -- and, inevitably, the fact that the government was actually going to make some restitution to us -- 'ladies, gentlemen and children of all ages' started coming out of the woodwork to demand a share of the gross receipts. Now Congress is dealing with the claims en masse, and as a consequence, Sasha and I got hit with a lot of new rules and regulations that we have to deal with. A subtle message came along with the new regulations. One misstep on this 'tight rope' of bureaucracy they've created, and Sasha and I might find our safety net missing. At least she doesn't have to deal with this mess, being locked in her dressing room and all, as she's playing the role of damsel in distress in the main attraction. Simply put: If I don't get my wife back, soon, the circus turns into a Quentin Tarantino movie.

One of the new regulations directly resulted in the main attraction. I probably shouldn't be so cranky; our case worker assures me that the officials and doctors are only trying to help. That's all well and good, but something about this whole scenario just doesn't smell right. In fact, it smells so bad I'm starting to get a real good education about what the guy who walks behind the elephants has to put up with.

The main event began with both of us getting a full psychological exam, 'thanks' to a Congresswoman who was put up to it by a Humans First lobbyist with lots of money. The exam was conducted by some conceited Lord High Muckity-Muck headshrinker who loves his work. As a result, because of a few dots on some paper, and a notion in that shrink's head that something is out of alignment with the answers my wife gave, I'm flying solo. Annoying? No shit, Sherlock.

What was that quack thinking? He must've got the test results mixed up. If anyone is about to go berserk, it's me, not Sasha! Especially with this damned nagging headache that showed up out of nowhere in its cute little clown car.

Despite what I think, the head clown said I passed his criteria for being able to cope with society. In fact, he said it was remarkable that I wasn't showing more signs of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, given the data he got from the F.B.I. and Doc Stein. No sooner had the words left his lips, but he ratcheted up the clown act and figuratively hit me in the face with a pie: It seems he has one 'little' concern that he needs me to come back and work out.

The snake oil salesman thinks I've got some kind of mental block going. Nothing antisocial, just something my subconscious doesn't want me to know about. He wants to see me again in two weeks to see if he can work whatever it is loose. A few minutes after he said this, bang, the first clown shoe hits me upside the head, and I start suffering from a persistent low-grade headache. Damn thing hangs on like velcro, and as an added bonus, it spikes when either the mental block thing, or my physical appearance come up.

As far as I can tell, the headache resulted from the stress brought on by my being overly self-conscious, since the clown implied that I still have 'issues'. Piled on this is stress from worrying about getting through all the little roadblocks my lion tamer/caseworker keeps throwing in my way.

Little did I know how large my stress load was to grow before I left his office. I only half listened to him yammer about why mental blocks happen; I was more concerned about my wife -- my absent wife, whom he said zip about. Once he was through with his sideshow barking, I pointed out his omission and asked how Sasha had done on his little exam. He just stared at me. I pressed. He said it was none of my business. Not in those exact words, mind you, but the euphemism of doctor/patient confidentiality means the same thing. It was all I could do to resist shoving his bulbous red clown nose down his throat.

Things went downhill from there. His refusal to tell me what was going on with my wife set off another alarm in my brain. Sir! Radar reports shoe number two incoming... and it's a big one! Struggling to maintain my composure, I decided to channel my anger into being obstinate instead. I tried harder to get an answer. He bluntly stated that my wife needed further evaluation, and that she would not be allowed out in public again until further notice.

Then he commended me for my obvious use of restraint, which turned out to be a delaying tactic. Sometime during our argument, he'd pressed a button summoning hospital security. Two burly rhino SCABs showed me out of his office, with a threat of dire consequences if I didn't leave the subject alone. Having no real proof that Bozo was lying, I played along -- and then tried to see what our case worker/animal handler could do.

The trip to the lion tamer's office didn't help much; this wasn't on anybody's schedule, so the almighty keeper of the appointment list ordered me to shut up and go home. All I got for my trouble was a 'special appointment' with my case worker.

So, I got to dwell on the situation for a while. Dropping in on the Pig helps -- the camaraderie, not the drinking -- but when I walk out, she's still gone. Thirty years is an awfully long time to grow attached to someone, just to have them yanked away... it's worse when you didn't even get to say good-bye. Oh, and that 'special appointment? My wonderful case worker basically told me to go take a long walk off a short pier. Care to guess what that did for my mental distress?

Grrr... I've got to quit being so morose. I want the best for Sasha, and my handler promised me the shrinks would give it to her. But they vanished her so damn fast -- it's hard not to think that something sinister is going on.

Why is this shrink so sure that Sasha is on the verge of snapping, and on top of that, in need of total isolation? I mean, she spent thirty years without harming anyone, except for self defense or to stop someone from being killed, okay? You'd think that'd be worth something. But no! A few honest answers to some fairly leading questions, and a few black dots on a piece of paper where some clinician doesn't think they ought to be equals quarantine from society. You gotta love the world we live in.

So, here I am. Stressed out, nagging headache and pretty much exhausted from Doc Stein's latest series of workouts. Oh, and now when the headache spikes, it's accompanied by a dizzy spell. A migraine symptom, the Doc informed me the first time it happened. Just lovely. I'm starting to think I should check if my warranty has expired.

As it is now, the headache even hangs on even during the post-workout highs from the endorphins my body puts out. The most annoying thing is that the headache spikes are especially bad when Doc Stein theorizes the mental block might have something to do with the adaptations my body makes. They seem to mimic those of other animals that are more suited to the activity I'm currently performing. No major changes, he says, just some minor overall restructuring of some muscle groups and a few bones, seemingly for better efficiency.

I'm not so sure he's right, but who am I to argue? The initial changes in question came after a series of sprints, and the resulting scans had him thinking I'd adopted some cheetah muscle structure. As a result of all this, he's now on some kick about my body undergoing temporary 'sympathetic evolution'. Even if Stein wasn't just muttering under his breath, trying to follow his deductive reasoning would be more than worth a headache. He also says the adaptations have become more numerous as the tests he puts me through get more demanding. Well... oh, what the hell. He's the SCABS expert, I'm just a SCAB.

As interesting as his findings are, I'm a lot more worried about the headache. See, I've had plenty of headaches from getting smacked upside the head. Otherwise? Forget it. So what's up with the long-lasting migraine now? Maybe if I'd taken some advanced human biology classes in college... nah... I'm an information addict, but not that much of one. Besides, all the 'useless' knowledge I have crammed in my brain might take offense to being in the same place with something that is actually pertinent.

And today, Doc Stein said I've developed a low grade fever to go with the headache. Right -- a fever... How does he know? I mean, does a multi-species SCAB even have a normal body temperature? "So many questions, so little time," is something the Doc keeps mumbling when he thinks I'm not listening... I'd have to agree with him there.

Maybe this latest round of tests will reveal something to ease his mind. The Doc ramped up his testing schedule soon after Sasha was taken from me -- to keep me occupied and out of trouble, he said. If he wasn't so engrossed with the 'increasing complexity of my adaptations', I might suspect some kind of conspiracy... Yeah, right. It looks like either he's on the verge of some sort of breakthrough, or he's a kid loose in a candy store -- with Stein, it can be hard to tell the difference. Whatever; he still won't tell me what's up, just that he "wants to be certain of his conclusions". Just swell. Like I needed anything else stressing me out.

So, to sum things up: The shrink is being secretive about Sasha, and now the cat has the Doc's tongue. My dogs are tired, the circus band and all the elephants are parading through my head, and the head clown is holding my wife hostage. What's next? Stein better come up with a more-effective diversion soon. I need something to distract me from the mess the elephants have left in the center ring.

Oooh! Look! Ranting! Hide the children!


Getting this train back on the rails, I did learn something yesterday that cleared up a few loose ends. I returned to my hotel room to find that someone -- damn if I can tell who -- snuck me a printed copy of Sasha's file from the shrink's computer. Someone may have thought they were doing me a favor, but with no clues to the data's provenance, how the hell can I be sure?

Assuming this data can be trusted, Dr. Chavous is extremely concerned. He's decided that Sasha is flirting with a major case of paranoia and he wants to stop things before they go too far. Her case is being referred to a 'certified private consultant'. Until a space in the consultant's schedule opens up, she is being quarantined in a 'nice, relaxing atmosphere'. If all goes well, they will send her back to me. If not, it's back for more therapy.

But things still don't feel right -- and not just because I'm clueless about where the file came from. All my handler told me was that Sasha needed to be away from me, and everyone else, for a while: Supposedly, the stress from the Phelps thing and trying to re-acclimate to the current state of affairs in the U.S. is getting to her. Decompression, not paranoia. Which is it? If they can't get their story straight, they might just find out what paranoia really looks like.

I wish people would realize that this nose on my face isn't just for looks, and that I am really keyed in on posture/body position, sound and smell now. Then again, maybe not... I don't want to make them better at lying to me. My case worker sure can't do it! I was getting mixed signals from her all through her speech; a rigidness to her stance, a subtle nervous lilt to her voice and... well... I can't describe it, but let's just say that you can actually smell someone lying. The closest I can come, at least in her case, is that her scent took on a sad mixture of remorse, wariness and a not-so-slight tinge of fear.

Anyway, I knew she wasn't telling the truth and really wasn't happy about it. That was a point in her favor. At least she seems to have a conscience. I will admit though, if I had less sensitive equipment, I probably would've bought her act.

The way I tongue-lashed her, she probably handed in her resignation soon after I left. I hope they videotaped the meeting like she said they were. Madre de Dios! If someone doesn't come clean soon, I'm not gonna care about my citizenship and all the other stuff. I'm her husband, damn it! I have the right to know what is going on! I have the right to see her...

Oops! More ranting. Sorry. I hope you didn't let the kids out of their hiding places too soon... Deep breaths... Find your happy place, as the case worker so quaintly put it... Repeatedly. Imagine her reaction when I growled at her that my happy place was with my wife; I actually couldn't smell her fear any more! And not only that, but she sympathized with me -- scent doesn't lie. Even so, the meeting was over.

The one piece of good news I've had lately is that Donnie's hired me for a few evenings a week. Without that small distraction, I might have decided to take matters into my own hands already. Donnie's current bouncer -- Jack DeMule, when you can get him away from the piano -- has decided that he needs a few nights off a week, and so Donnie asks me to fill in when Jack decides to take the night off.

Well... I think that diatribe covers the main points of the past few weeks. Sorry for all the sidetracks.

Currently, I'm sitting in one of Doc Stein's exam rooms. He's just sent me through the C.A.T. scan. Again. Third one this week. This time it was after one of the nastiest workouts I've ever endured: Running for over an hour straight, with forced sprints at random intervals. Then some rather involved reflex testing, including yet another bout with the flash grenades. I hope he hurries up and finds what he is looking for. All this testing with no visible results is only adding to my stress.

Oh great... here he comes with another needle. Probably wants another blood sample. It isn't as if he hasn't taken enough of those this week... He keeps having to throw them out, usually accompanied much cursing. Something about foreign DNA from an unknown source contaminating the samples. He's tried everything to figure out why, and to prevent more contamination, but the DNA still shows up, despite his best efforts.

"Drilling for more oil, Doc?"

"I'm going to try this one more time," he says. He's not masking his annoyance well enough to fool me. "I've kept everything in a secure, hyper-sterilized area, so there should be no contamination this time."

"I hope so. I'm getting a little sick of being a pincushion, even if it doesn't do much damage. Any new ideas about the headache?"

"No. No disease-inducing micro-organisms showed up in any of the earlier tests, not that they were totally conclusive with the contamination. Your immune system should handle any infections, anyway, so the cause can't be biological. In fact, it's starting to look like your symptoms may be psychosomatic, but I need a clean blood test to be sure. Let's get this over with..."

"Ow! Not so hard, Doc! I know you're frustrated with all that's been going on, but..."

"Ow? What do you mean, Ow? And I had to push that hard. You're more tense than I've seen you in a while, so it was quite a bit harder to get the needle in."

"Eh... You must have hit a nerve or something. And I'm tense because something is nagging at the back of my mind. Something doesn't feel right, the fever is actually becoming noticeable now that you added it to the list of symptoms, and the headache has risen a bit on the Richter Scale. Plus, my case worker is still giving me the runaround..."

"Get over it. The government isn't keeping Sasha from you out of spite. And, we'll deal with the fever and headache, once we know what's causing them. For all I know, it could be an allergy to something... There. The sample is drawn. Now if you want to head over to Lab 3, we can do a few jumping tests while my people analyze these samples."

A nurse opens the door and sticks her head in.

"Mr. Wolfshadow? There's a call for you at the nurse's station."

"Thanks. Mind if I answer it, Doc?"

"Sure. "Go ahead. I have to run these to the lab anyway."

"Okay, then. See you when you get back."

"If you aren't in Lab 3 in five minutes, I'll come get you," Doc Stein said sternly, waving his index finger at me for emphasis.

I head out to the hall, silently asking myself why he has me on the front burner, at the likely detriment to his other research. I mean, I've just got a headache and fever, right? This is worth putting me through the wringer multiple times over? "Maybe he's getting back at me for all I put him through up to now," I mumble to myself with a smile and a small shake of the head. Meanwhile, I've arrived -- the duty nurse picks up the phone and hits the 'on hold' button. On the phone is a hoarse-sounding Wanderer.


"Greetings and salutations, Wolfie," says Wanderer. "Donnie requests thy presence tonight. How soon may we anticipate your arrival?"

"I can be there in 30, if the Doc is through running me into the ground... I really hope he is. Today's workout has me homesick for basic training. I could use the rest."

"Well, Donnie informs me that he shall have some viands for you to dine upon to make up for any inconvenience this may cause."

"No problem. Let me clear things up with the Doc, and I'll be on my way."

"Most certainly; we shall see you anon. Oh, and have the good doctor give Hallan my best for a speedy recovery. He is missed."

"Sure thing. See you in a few."

I hang up. Wanderer sounds better tonight... See, about two weeks ago, Spot -- a Time-bending cheetahmorph whose real name's Jubatus -- lost it, big time; ripped up Wanderer and pounded this high-schooler, Hallan Myers. When Jube quit redecorating Wanderer's chest, the wolf needed stitches, and a wrap for his cracked ribs. Thing is, Jube also grabbed Wanderer's throat and crushed the windpipe a little. I still can't believe Spot freaked like that...

I'm not sure who I feel worse for: Wanderer, Myers, or Spot. The kid tried to play 'human shield' and got hammered for it. Hard. Blunt trauma to the abdomen at a velocity somewhere below Mach speed -- not fun. I'm not even sure I could take that kind of pounding... At least the cub's in good hands here at the hospital. I should probably find out how he's doing, for Wanderer's peace of mind, if nothing else.

As for Spot, he came out of it physically intact, but God knows what state his mind is in. From what Wanderer told me, the poor bastard's been living in hell since the 'Flu worked him over. Not wanting -- not daring -- to be friends with anyone, because you're terrified of what might happen if you lose control and run amok... What a horrible way to live. Not that he's the only one to have those feelings. There was a time once... No. Don't go there, Wolf. You've got too much to worry about now to bring up that faux pas...

"Wolfshadow? What's the matter? You look depressed," says Doc Stein, walking up from the direction of Lab 3.

"What? Oh... Hey, Doc. It's just... Jube going postal, you know? I really feel bad for the guy. There was a time that could've been me..." I ruefully shake my head. "Anyway, can we cut things short today? Donnie needs me to play enforcer at the Pig."

He considers for a moment. "Hmm... fine. Most of these physical tests are just confirming earlier findings anyway, and the lab work won't be done for a bit. Once that is done, I have to figure out what to do next with you. Let Donnie know I'll be over later for a drink or two and to check up on Wanderer, since he won't come here to let me do it. Not a word to Wanderer though. I want him there when I show up. Capice?"

"Right. How's the kid doing anyway? I'm sure there's a few at the bar who want to know."

"Hallan Myers? Things are looking up. He should be able to accept visitors now."

"It's too bad Jube seems to have fallen off the edge of the earth. It might do him some good to know that the kid's gonna be okay. Wouldn't mind having the same assurance for Spot, but short of a miracle..."

"My sources tell me that miracle may just be happening. He's getting high quality help. From everything I was able to find out, he is in the hands of someone with an excellent track record with these sorts of cases. We'll see how it goes."

"Yeah... I hope it goes as well as I keep being promised Sasha's case will go. Grr... Gotta love it when a psychologist decides to go power-mad and make judgments about people they haven't seen for more than five minutes..."

"I know Dr. Chavous by reputation. He's as good as they come, so I trust his opinion. Plus, I notice you aren't complaining about his clearing you."

"He didn't exactly 'clear' me. He still thinks I'm not telling him everything, if you can believe that."

"Of course I do; he thinks you don't even know what you're holding back. I agree, but I'm sure that between us we will find out. Otherwise, you're fine. Now head over to the Pig."

Great... my headache just spiked again. I gasp in pain and try not to stagger as the wave of dizziness, and even nausea this time, hits.

"Wolfie? You okay?"

"Yeah... The headache just spiked again. I've forgotten how annoying a migraine could be. It's subsiding now, though," I lie.

"As long as you're okay..." he says with obvious concern -- I'm not the only SCAB in the room you can't lie to.

"I'm fine," I say with a little more emphasis. "Let's just hope I don't have to throw too many drunks out. When do you want me back?"

"Monday -- but call me if the headache gets any worse. I'll see you at the bar later on."

"Great. See you in a bit."

I say goodbye to the nurses, and a couple kids who are long-term patients. They seem to like it when I read stories to them. Me, too; making these kids' days a little brighter is the one modicum of true peace I get at the moment. After I'm through with my 'rounds', I head out towards the bar.

The city doesn't seem as busy this evening. I guess the riot the Humans First jerks started still has people a bit gun-shy. That's okay. It means less bystanders if more of those thugs try to kill me again.

The first part of my trip goes quietly. There's a few people out enjoying the sunset; one or two greet me in a friendly manner, rather than nervously rushing behind their doors. Things might actually be getting better. That, or they've seen the news reports and have figured out I'm not going to eat them... Either way, I say "Hi" back, and the civility gives my spirits a much-appreciated boost.

Soon, though, I hit a seedier neighborhood; the streets get deserted. A condemned building, its front door ajar, does a good job at reminding me how alone I am without Sasha. I shake off the growing depression. I will not get morose, I promise myself. I don't want to ruin the usual good time at the Pig with my attitude. Time to put on a brave face, old boy.

I'm about halfway to the Pig, when the self-preservation thing kicks in; my hackles instinctively rise. Obvious threat: Two punks on the corner, blatantly not noticing me, and doing a really poor job at it. One guy's eyes are bugging out so far, it's a wonder they're still in his head.

I don't let on that I'm aware of 'em. Twenty feet further on, they start tailing me. Fine -- Professor Wolfshadow gets to teach another lesson in Reality. Today's subjects: Newton's laws of force and how better-than-human reflexes can make plans go awry. Good. I needed something to take my mind off the damn headache, and guess who's elected? Okay. From the looks of things, and a few snippets of their whispered conversation, thugs One and Two apparently think I'm a suitable target for a mugging. The big clue: They're arguing about whether I have enough money to be worth robbing.

Doubt they've got cojones enough to take me on by themselves. Well, if they keep at it, it won't matter how many friends they have. Suddenly there's a loud "Oof!", then the sound of a car alarm fills the evening air. One of the idiots was so fixated on me that he ran into a late-model Buick. Great... I'm getting mugged by the Two Stooges. No, the Stooges would be smart enough to play with someone their own size.

Why do these fools insist on coming after me? This is the third time since the Phelps thing. The first two were those stupid Humans First jerks; now it's these clumsy idiots who think I've got money, herding me to God knows what. "Grrrrrrrrr..." I really hate hurting people, but when they practically beg for it, what can I do? My two tails heard the growl; they back off a few feet. Good. The more space between me and them...

Okay. There's an alley up ahead with a fifteen-foot fence -- it's the only real cover for blocks, which is why I use it for a shortcut. I bet that's where the rest of the group is hiding and they plan to make their move there. There's enough assorted trash in there to limit the directions any thugs can attack from; it'd do the same for me -- if I were a normal person, that is. If these yutzes took those factors into consideration, at least one of them actually has a brain. That, and they must've had someone tailing me on earlier trips to figure out that I regularly use this alley. I'm going to have to find some other ways to the bar...

So, how do I turn this to my advantage? I see two ways to throw a wrench in their plans: Walk past the alley, or double back on the idiots behind me. Neither option is that good. Say I bypass the alley; these fools are gonna follow me, and if any of them have guns, they get free shots at my back. That's no good -- with my reflexes, they'll probably miss, and there's a decent chance of some innocent bystander getting tagged. Take out the two behind me? Maybe, but I don't know where their friends are. They might be able to get me while I'm concentrating on the ones I can see. Better to get them all in front of me somehow.

That leaves the 'backfire' option -- turn their little trap against them. Intriguing, but it does mean I'm probably gonna have to maim some of them, or worse. Still not fun, but at least it keeps the hurting to those who deserve it. Hmmm... I'll bet they're not expecting me to run. If I take off when I hit the corner, I could probably be over that fence before they can make their move...

Nah... Again, stray ricochets. Maybe head up to the roof..? Forget it, that way I'm asking them to shoot at the building I'm on -- loose bullets, again... Might as well confront them. Don't like getting shot at, but the way I heal, better me than a norm. What the hell, maybe word will get around not to mess with me. Hasn't happened yet, but at least I can hope...

Corner, now. Okay. I prepare to run, but the alley's more cluttered than I remember. Looks like somebody moved the trash around to block the middle, leaving only narrow gaps on either side. Their tactics are getting better, even if their mental capacity isn't. Maybe word is getting around: These guys must have been told that large open areas are my friend. Well, they'll learn that I have other 'friends' too.

About the time I decide those conveniently-stacked crates would make a dandy platform to jump to the fence, four more punks show their smug faces. Oooo... They think I'm trapped. Heh! These idiots don't realize just how far down the rabbit hole they are, do they? Oh, well... Like it or not, it looks like I'll have to show them. I smile broadly with confidence as their leader begins yapping. Showing fear is the last thing I want to do here.

"Hey, boys! Looks like a freak just wandered into the wrong part of town. This is human territory --"

Oh, great. More Humans First jerks. Am I now their cause celebre, or what? The leader smells... overconfident, with a side odor of fear that started soon after he got a full on look at me. Thank God, again, for this nose of mine.

"-- and you gotta pay us a toll to use it. I'd say five hundred bucks should cover it," he finishes with a bit less confidence than he started with.

Okay: High price right off the bat -- they're out for my head. Well, they won't get the money or my head, so they just wasted their evening, and maybe their lives. Enough of this. Maybe I can scare them off... That two-by-four leaning against the crate next to me should help. I pick it up and absentmindedly carve shavings off it with a claw while I stare fixedly at the leader. "And if I refuse?" I growl, as menacingly as I can. I punctuate the sentence with a loud snap as I break the lumber in half.

The smell of fear in the alley ratchets up a few notches, but the lead fool keeps yapping anyway. "Lookit that... the price just went up: Five hundred bucks to each of us. Fork it over, or the boys here will take it outta yer hide."

"Why do all you punks have to be so stupid?"

Their reply is a poorly-thrown knife -- which I easily dodge. One of the punks behind me isn't so lucky, though; the unintended target yelps with pain and begins cursing. "Damn it, you slimebag! Watch who you're throwin' at!"

I knew it: These guys are minor-leaguers at best. I should be on my way in five minutes or less.

"Playtime's over," I say, baring my claws. "Let's do this. I got a train to catch."

The four punks ready their weapons. The two in front of me pull out large knives; the third, probably the knife thrower, pulls a spike-studded baseball bat out from behind a crate. Leader Guy makes with his pre-arranged signal for the two behind me to attack, as the others start to move in from the front. The twits behind me spring forward, one rather reluctantly as he tries to use his hurt arm. Mercy me! Whatever shall I do?

I jump into the air. Thank God for the practice the Doc has been giving me with my reflexes, and all the exercise. As the two punks behind me blunder in, I clear their heads by a good five feet, flip over, and land behind them. They whip around to find me growling, claws waiting.

"Get the bastard!" That's Leader Guy, who pushes two goons towards me.

The guy with the bat wasn't ready for the shove -- he trips over a piece of metal sticking out of a trash pile, falls forward, and lands on his own weapon. Ow -- spikes in the chest -- that's gotta hurt. These jerks are doing my work for me. Not so confident now, the rest of the punks cautiously move toward me, the leader hanging well back.

I back out, street-ward. That gives me more room to move, and if a patrol car happens to drive by, I might be able to get out of this without killing all of them. At the mouth of the alley, the punk with the hurt arm makes his move: A clumsy knife-slash at my head. I grab, twist once, and dislocate his arm at the shoulder. I feel the bones of his wrist collapse in the process. He falls to the ground, screaming in pain.

Meanwhile, bug-eyes buries his knife in my thigh. I ignore it for now and kick him in the stomach, which he left open, then I grab him by his shirt and fling him down the alley. The head jerk was actually smiling smugly until his buddy skidded to a limp halt at his feet.

Regaining his composure, Leader Guy says: "Look, boys! The freak does bleed!" And then to me, "You should'a just given me the money." His sneer isn't as confident as it seems.

Whatever response he was expecting, my laugh wipes the look off his face. "You really don't know who you're dealing with, do you?" I say.

I pull the knife out of my leg and smile as the remaining healthy punks look on in shock. The wound heals quickly, making me only momentarily dizzy. Huh -- dizzy, from a minor wound like that? Weird... Shaking it off, I fling the knife at its owner, who is favoring his right arm, as he starts getting up. I'm not the greatest at throwing knives, but then I don't have to be. The hilt catches him in the groin just as he gets to his feet. He then keels over, whimpering, into the fetal position.

"Hey -- why didn't the poison work?" says one of the other punks. "Jimmy the Rat said it was a sure thing! The best he has!"

"It looks like your friend lied," I reply. Okay, that's why I got dizzy. Poison -- either it's one I've been hit with before, or their friend sold them a bill of goods.

"What are you guys standing around for? Kill him!" screams Leader Guy.

"How stupid you think I am!? You saw what he just did to Weasel and Crazy. And that healin' up shit ain't right either! The Rat showed me what the poison could do. He shoulda been down like that!" the thug says as he backs away, punctuating his point with a snap of his fingers. "If that didn't take him down, I don't know what will. I don't care how big a price is on this freak's head, my life ain't worth it!"

Smart guy. Now he takes off for the fence, climbs over and runs down the alley while the leader hurls curses and insults at his back. The smart thug is followed by one of the others... oh, bug-eyes is conscious again. His right arm looks useless, and the forearm is bloody. That exposed piece of bone says it's a compound fracture. No way he's getting over the fence in that condition. The other uninjured thug, who seemed to have been biding his time, shoves bug-eyes out of the way and hauls himself over the fence, leaving the leader there with his three wounded companions, who aren't much use.

Doesn't anyone call the cops around here? Oh, wait, I hear a car coming... slowly... Must be sneaking up. Knocking on the third cylinder... okay, it's my good friend Sergeant Stuart, whose favorite squad car does that. I just need to delay Leader Guy until Sarge gets here.

Leader Guy really stinks of fear now -- hell, it's almost overwhelming. He reaches for a concealed holster on his belt, under his sleeveless jacket; it looks like a semi-automatic. I crouch down to leap on him before he goes further. Guns are the last straw -- I'm taking this punk down, hard. He's damn sure not going to hit me, not unless he gets luckier than he deserves; but bullets don't stop when they miss the intended target. Some curious onlooker, however...

"I hope your medical insurance is paid up..." I growl as I ready myself to spring at him, claws extended.

"Wolf!" the familiar voice of Sgt. Stuart chimes in. "My backup's coming in about a minute, and there's another unit sealing off the other side of the alley now. Let us handle it!" Sirens fill the air from the far end of the alley as Sgt. Stuart, gun drawn, exits his car and moves for a better position to cover the punks.

Leader Guy just doesn't get it. He says, "At least I can put a bullet in your fat head before they put me in the hole! You can't survive that!" -- 'Can't survive'? Sheesh! Has this yutz ever used a gun before? -- "No one can!" and continues to reach for his belt.

The sight and sound of a police revolver being cocked stops the punk in his tracks. "Don't even think about it, boy!"

"Aw, Sarge, it was just getting interesting," I say. Hopefully, play-acting like I'm enjoying this will persuade this rabbit never to go back down this particular hole, ever again.

"You want to go downtown too, Wolf? Stand down, or I'll be forced to take you in."

"Fine. Whatever. These punks aren't worth it anyway. Those three on the ground need an ambulance, and there's a fourth trying to get over the fence down in the alley. Two more got away over the fence." I sheathe my claws, rise from my crouch, and walk over to the patrol car. My headache returns with a vengeance as I start to calm down.

Soon, the area is swarming with police and even a few paramedics. Once the area is secure, and the perps are either on their way to the hospital or jail, the cops get around to me. They take statements from me and a few witnesses that I had no clue were around. Things are looking up: A few of these people seem genuinely concerned about my health. After a quick once-over by the paramedics, one of the officers takes my statement, and then I head over to talk to Sgt. Stuart.

"Sarge. These guys mentioned a price on my head. We gotta figure out something to do about it or I'll have every greedy bastard in the city going after me. I don't want to have to keep fighting off packs of lowlifes."

Stuart nods; it's no surprise to him, I guess. "It figures you'd hear about that sometime. Don't worry, we got someone already looking into it. However, since these punks don't really have a chance in hell of doing anything permanent to you, how about we just let 'em keep coming? Might save us a lot of trouble."

I grimace. "No thanks, Sarge. I hate hurting and killing people, and you know it. I've already had too much practice..."

"Sheesh! Lighten up, will ya?"

Oh -- he's joking. This sort of thing is easy for him to laugh about... "Sorry, Sarge. Been under a lot of stress lately, what with all the B.S. going on."

"Yeah, well, like I said: Lighten up. Sasha'll be back before you know it! Then we go someplace for a beer, huh?"

"I hope you're right. And I'll look forward to that beer, even if it doesn't do much for me."

I head out to the Pig, taking the long way so as not to screw up the crime scene. I enter the bar to see Donnie with his arms folded and tapping one hoof on the floor. Otherwise, the bar is sparsely populated. The Lupine Boys are at their usual spot, and the mule -- yes, Jack de Mule -- is at the piano. There's no sign of Doc Stein, but it smells like he was here recently.

"Sorry I'm late. There was a little incident on the way here. Some thugs are now cooling their heels in jail or the hospital, depending on how close they got to me."

Donnie's attitude changes and he writes something out: [You okay?]

"Sure. Just another group of punks that wanted my head on a platter," I say, a bit too flippantly.

[As long as you're okay. There's a burger for you at the booth by the back room. It's probably cold.]

"Thanks. This won't be my first cold meal," I say with a smile.

I head over to the booth. Sure enough, a three-pound Bar Burger and fries are waiting for me. Looks like I'll have to get a snack on the way home... Before I even get the burger to my mouth, I can smell the jalapeño hot sauce and horseradish that have been liberally used on it. 'Cold', eh? That's just too funny. Nice one, Donnie.

Well, I can't disappoint whoever gave me the nuclear burger. Somebody went through a lot of trouble to set me up for this, so I might as well make them happy. I wolf down the burger in about 5 minutes, without taking a drink. Then I sit there for a little bit as the Lupines stare at me.

They seem to be waiting for something, Wanderer the most expectant of the group.

"Oh... Hot... Water..." I say with a smile on my face. "Nothing like Horseradish to clean out the sinuses." I then reach for the drink in front of me. It seems my coke is liberally dosed with Tabasco. Now I start to feel it. One or two 'spicy' things at a time I can take, having gotten used to Cajun and Mexican food, but three appears to be too much.

I leap from the booth and make a beeline toward the bathroom. As I open the door, the bucket full of water perched on top dumps over my head. The Lupines at the table erupt with laughter, and are quickly joined by DeMule and Doc Stein, who is now standing in the doorway of the pool room.

I take care of the business that sent me to the washroom... How the hell did they get a tub of water that big on the door? No matter; it's now bath time for some others in the room. "And it isn't even Saturday..." I say with a smile and walk over to the Lupine table, leaving a trail of water in my wake. I stop behind Wanderer, blocking him in.

"Good one. But somebody forgot I'm part canine too. And I hear that lion manes can trap a lot of water... right, Doc?"

Looks of realization and even panic cross a few faces as I liberally shake the water out of my mane; that clears the table. More laughs fill the room. As I stop shaking, I get hit with a bout of nausea and dizziness. God! The pressure is intense! Pain! The migraine has spiked... hard. I rush back to the restroom just in time to disgorge my dinner in a safe place. The nausea lessens afterward, but the dizziness and pressure get worse. Doc Stein rushes into the restroom.

"Wolf -- you okay?"

I shake my head. "Hurts... Dizzy..." The next thing I feel is the floor hitting my face. Then everything goes black.

Not dizzy. Pain gone. Not wound up. Feel good. Prrrrrrrrrrrrrrr... Wait... What happened? Why am I in a bed? What is that incessant beeping noise? I force my eyes open and find myself in a hospital room.

"What the -- !?"

"Oh, good. You're awake. Did you know that you snore?"

"Huh? Snore? What the hell is going on? Why am I not at the Pig?" I reply. Wow! I have one hell of a 'hangover'. I haven't felt like this since... oh, shit...

"The Doc brought you in here two days ago. Seemed quite put out, too. He thinks there's no way in heck you should be so sick; your healing ability shouldn't allow it. I haven't seen him so angry about not being able to explain something."

I turn my head to see a young, mid-degree lion-morph lying in a bed on the other side of the room. With his torso bandaged up.

"Hi, kid. You're Hallan Myers, right?"

Hallan rolls onto his side, quirking his whiskers in a feline smirk that he had to've learned from Jubatus. "Got it in one. And you must be Mr. Wolfshadow -- I saw the TV coverage of you once the news broke about your fight with that government guy. And with the pre-eminent SCABS doctor paying so much attention to you, you're making quite a name for yourself."

I sigh. "It goes with the territory, kid. You can't be as screwed up as I am genetically and not draw attention -- even to SCABs, I'm a freak. Anyway, do you think we can change the subject? Explaining my existence, with such a lack of information, gets trying after a while," I say tiredly.

Immediately feeling guilty, I wince and continue. "Hey... I apologize for being cranky. I've been under a lot of stress lately and I suddenly feel worse than I have in a long time. Also, I might have just jumped to a nasty conclusion on why I am here. How the he -- er, heck -- could I get the Flu, again?" I say as an obviously tired Dr. Stein enters the doorway. He looks like he hasn't seen a bed in days. Even his lab coat looks like it needs a rest.

"You couldn't," says the doc. "What makes you think otherwise?"

"The last time I felt like this, I woke up wearing a fur coat, fangs and claws. After that, I've been healthy as the proverbial horse -- no offense."

Stein winces at the pun. "Well, you're wrong, and you're not sick. Dr. Chavous was right: You were blocking on something -- and I found out what it was. Took a few more blood and tissue samples while you were unconscious. The aberrant genetics contaminating the samples came from you. You are a very strong polymorph. You'd have to be, to hold your current form for so long."

I give him a puzzled look. "What are you talking about, Doc? You already knew I could change form to jaguar, wolf and lion. What could I be blocking on concerning that? And what do you mean holding my current form? I'm not consciously holding anything. This is how I ended up."

"That's not what I meant. If I'm right about your test results, you should be able to assume any of a wide range of mammalian forms. That's the most parsimonious interpretation of the data I've been gathering. What you were blocking on was taking full advantage of this ability. Your body and part of your mind wanted to take advantage of these alternate forms to work more efficiently. Your sub-conscious mind, however, didn't.

"Dr. Chavous thinks you subconsciously saw any further changes as an attack on your humanity, so you fought them off. The alterations that accompanied physical activities, such as running, were what your sub-conscious would allow to make things easier on you. The fever and headache were likely the result of your abilities trying to force their way out. You just didn't notice until someone pointed out that you were mentally blocking. You collapsed when the mental block broke down, and your system jumped at the chance to take full advantage of your abilities."

"If it's true I was trying to fight off an attack on my humanity, why do I look like this? If this isn't an attack on it, I don't know what is..."

"How's your sex life?" the horse says, deadpan. Hallan tries, unsuccessfully, to hold back a bout of giggling.

"None of your damned business," I growl before I can stop myself. Then I realize he's not just being nosy, and his question has a point. After a bit of thought: "Huh... That would mean my sub-conscious thinks being a different species, is better than...

Stein raises his hand to stop me before I go any further, nods his head in the direction of Hallan, then says, "Most likely."

"So... I could become human if I wanted to?"

He shrugs. "Define 'human'. You're an animorph SCAB, and that hasn't changed. But your polymorph power may allow you to disguise it, with a form that's human to all outward appearances -- the data gives you a 40% chance of that."

"Let's just see, shall we?" I use the same technique I use to mentally shift myself to jaguar, but this time concentrate on being human. Nothing happens. "It's not working, Doc."

"Noted," he says as he scribbles on a datapad. "Now try horse."

"Let me get outta this bed first. That, and get these damned needles out of my arm. They might not react too well if I shift that radically..."

This time, it works. As does just about any other form I try -- Great Dane, bat, rabbit, yada yada yada. I try human a few more times; no such luck. I just keep changing back to my lion/wolf/jaguar form.

"I guess we can rule out you blocking on human, since everything else works, and Dr. Chavous felt that's what you were trying to protect. The multi-species chimera seems to be your baseline corpus now. Will that be a problem?"

"Not really, Doc. I may have been born human, but I don't think I would willingly remain in that form any more. I'm too attached to my ability to hear, smell and see above the human level to really go back. Hey... now that my brain is finally coming to terms with what you are saying, the 'hangover' is fading. Maybe this not being in denial is a good thing."

"It's healthier for you in the long run. With that being said, I hope you won't mind me putting you through a few more exams. I've got to find out if losing the mental block will have any effect on what sort of adaptations you can make."

"Sure thing, Doc! I'm not sure what I would do without your workout regimen. I might resort to getting fat and lazy in front of the TV, watching sports and trying to catch up on all the history I missed while I was in playing hide and seek with Phelps' thugs south of the border."

"Well, why don't we start with a systematic test to see how limited your form changes are? It might help you a bit to know just what you can and can't change into."

"You sure we have time to do that Doc? It could be a long list... And besides, you look like you need a rest."

"Let's start with one species per genus. If you can do one, chances are you can do the rest. And I am going to get a rest. I'll print up a list, then I'll have one of the interns run the video camera while you do your thing."

"Joy. More testing. Will it ever end?"

Hallan clears his throat loudly, lying back on his bed and staring irritatedly at the ceiling, a blush in his ears.

"As fascinating as all this is," he says with a sardonic frown, "Would you mind terribly talking about it a little more quietly?" and laughs harder than before.

"Oh... sorry, kid," I reply.

"Don't worry, mom talks about wound dressings over the phone... at the dinner table." He pauses for a moment, grimacing, and continues, "I was hoping to actually have some company for a while. It gets kind of lonely in here after visiting hours."

"That won't be a problem," replies Dr. Stein. "Visiting hours are dependent on the health of the patient around here, and you've recovered enough for them to be extended. You might even be able to go home by the end of the week, if things keep up."

Hallan smiled, his whiskers and ears both pricking forward. "Not that I don't appreciate your hard work at getting my insides sorted back into the right order, but that is the best news I've heard all month. I've had about all the hospital food and daytime TV that I can stand. And don't get me started on these gowns," he added with an open grin.

"I'll have one of the nurses call your mother. I'm sure she'll be glad for the news. Now I have to take this large pain in my posterior away from you. We don't need you picking up any of his bad habits."

"Gee, thanks Doc, ruin the kid's image of me why don't ya?" I reply, in tandem with Hallan's disappointed "awwww."

"Don't mention it. Now move! I won't get any answers while standing here."

"Later, kid. Maybe I'll swing by when the circus closes its tent for the night."

"Circus?" replies Hallan.

"Sorry... With things the way they are lately, I feel like I'm in the center ring. Believe me, when it comes to circuses, my life would give Ringling Brothers a run for its money." And then at Doc Stein's impatient urging I start to leave the room. I pause for a moment, trying -- successfully, hot damn! -- to make myself look like a bipedal German Shepherd animorph. I then say, "Let's get this dog and pony show on the road, shall we?" The resulting groans improved my spirits immensely. Doc Stein's expression changes from pain at the bad joke to shock as something clicks in his mind.

"Wait -- how the hell did you do that?"

"Do what, Doc?"

"That human-canine hybrid form!"

"What's the problem, Doc? I'm a multi-species polymorph; why shouldn't I be able to do combinations?"

"Wrong question. You can't turn human, so how can you adapt that species' physical traits? Your little pun might have added whole new directions to my studies. Thanks ever so much for making my life more complicated."

"That's my pleasure, Doc. Ruin my reputation, will you?" I say with a smile -- and more bravado than I really felt. Then I head down the hall for more time under Dr. Stein's microscope.

Four weeks...

I've been without her for four weeks, two days, six hours, forty-seven minutes, and sixteen point five seconds. No, I'm not obsessing -- why do you ask? It's even been over a week since I went off on my handler/case worker. While that actually resulted in my citizenship being returned, it wasn't for benevolent reasons. They had to do it, so they could put a restraining order on me to keep me away from her workplace, and that of Dr. Chavous. And now, the carrot of compensation has been put on hold, and if I don't behave, the stick gets shoved up someplace nasty. Joy. They kidnap my wife, even if it was in a quote, legal, unquote, way... and when I react, I'm the one who gets in trouble. If things keep going like this, I might give Jube a run for his money in the 'pent–up angst' department.

At least the headache is gone. And for some reason, most of the piled-on stress is gone, too. In fact, if it wasn't for the whole thing with Sasha, I would almost say I am the happiest I've been in years. I can even, joy of joys, sleep all night if I want to! And I even seem to have, finally, answered most, if not all of Doc's questions. He's cut my testing schedule way back. So much so, I'm considering asking if he can run me through a few marathons a week, just for old times' sake. No sense in my getting out of shape because his questions have decreased.

All of the down time between running, form shifting, and other physical activity that he has had me doing in the past five days has given me some time to plan out a new strategy to foil those idiots who keep attacking me. I'll run it by the Doc later for a second opinion, but here is the gist of it: If I don't look like myself while traveling, maybe I won't get attacked so often.

It's really very simple: If they have someone watching for me to enter or leave the hospital in order to follow me and set up an ambush, I can always leave in another SCAB form, thus fooling them into thinking I'm still in the building. Once I'm out of sight, I can then become something else -- say, a mutt of some sort -- and then head off to where I need to go. It's certainly going to add some annoyance to my day, but the extra effort is worth it if I don't have to kill, maim or injure idiots. I think I'll start doing that tonight, since I have to get to the Pig by 7:30 to play enforcer again. It'll be good to get back there; the last time I had a chance to drop in was over three weeks ago.

The Doc's had me running in different forms to see if my stamina and strength transfer from one form to another, and if any alterations happen to make my work more efficient like before. He has me in horse form now; he's looking at something in the data that just clicked for him. Oh look... he's coming back from his office... with a smile on his face in fact. He looks just like the proverbial cat that ate the proverbial canary.

"Okay... you can stop running and head to my office, after you cool down, that is."

I just look at him and whinny in annoyance.

"I'll explain why you have to cool down, if you really need me to, when you get to the office. And no practical jokes today. I need a break, and don't want to have to wait for you to assume a form we can have a conversation in." He turns to the intern who's been keeping an eye on me. "Make sure he does it. I don't want him distracted by cramps either."

I let out a sigh and slow down from a trot to a walk as the Doc heads back to his office. When the intern lets me off the treadmill, I force a change back to my normal form, get some clothes on, then head to the office with the intern in tow. I take my place on his couch and wait for about five minutes while the Doc finishes some paperwork and sends it off with the intern.

"If it's okay with you, Wolfie, I think we might be able to put all this testing to an end. Now that your mental block is gone and you can make full use of your abilities, almost all of the information I need has fallen into place. The only part that still bothers me is your adopting human characteristics without being able to become human, but, alas, that may be beyond my humble ability to discern. Be that as it may, as much as I might like your company, I have about a million other things to research and I really need my intern back."

"Anything you say, Doc -- but I'm going to miss all the workouts. Mind if I come back two or three times a week and use the equipment? If I don't get my three marathons on the treadmill in a week, I might go into withdrawal..." I say with a smile.

"I'll point you toward a SCAB-friendly gymnasium. And you can use the equipment, as long as you volunteer some time here. One or two of our younger long-term patients seem to have grown attached to you and the stories you tell; they'd be disappointed if you didn't show up. Plus, since you currently have no other obligations, such as employment, I would be happy if you volunteered to do some tutoring for them as well."

"Sure thing, Doc. It'll give me something to do. Besides, I'd miss a couple of the little urchins as well. And... Lord knows... I owe you a lot just for putting up with me. I do have to look for some sort of work, though, and a place to live."

"Hold it. You say you 'have to' look for work? I thought you were due some sort of reparations, what with the Phelps affair?"

"I wish. The Humans First idiots in Congress have pretty much nixed any compensation I might have expected for Phelps' use of the government to ruin my life, unless I want to fight it out in the courts. I'll be lucky if those bigots don't bill me for what little I've already been paid."

"Ah. Well, I can point you in the right direction for those issues when you get your wife back. For now, the hotel arrangement stands. As for your volunteering, you can start today by making your usual rounds in the children's ward. Now, you said you wanted to run something by me yesterday, but never got around to it. What was it?"

"Well, with all the down time between tests, I've had time to consider how I could avoid any more confrontations with the idiots who want the money on my head. I figured I could leave here as a different looking SCAB, find a nice quiet place to become a stray cat, dog or something, then wander my way to where I need to go. I hate having to hide that way, but if it keeps me healthy, and keeps me from having to take out more idiots..."

"Sounds like a plan -- but you should consider coming here in the same form you plan to leave in. It might raise a few suspicions if you keep coming in here but never leave..."

Oh. Damn... "Nice catch, Doc. Say, what if 'I' don't show up in the first place... no, wait, if I'm being watched in general, they're gonna see me change to that 'not-me' form. Damn! I want to keep the polymorph thing as secret as possible from them as well, so... sigh... Oh, well, I thought it was a good idea..."

The Doc shrugs. "It may not work well in day-to-day life, but it's an excellent tactic for a quick getaway," he says. "But since you don't have much to worry about, health-wise, why bother?"

"You make a good point. I just wish I could figure out some way not to be a target. I know they haven't come after me in a couple weeks, but that doesn't mean they aren't trying... Anyway, anything else you need to tell me before I go read to a few kids and head out to play bouncer?"

"You bet I do. One feline trait, the second voicebox, remains in all your forms, so you might be able to talk in your alternate forms, if you teach yourself to do so."

"Great... more voice lessons. And I thought the world would be safe from my blabbering when I became something that can't talk."

"The lessons won't be that bad. And besides: Being able to speak might keep you from getting killed if you're running around in animal form during hunting season, for example. I have some speech therapists on staff who are under-worked right now. When would you like to start?"

"If it isn't too much of a pain, I can start whenever. Probably be best to work some sessions in before my rounds, if that works."

The computer on the Doc's desk starts beeping. He looks at the screen and a look of surprise crosses his face.

"It's from your inanimorph friend, Terry. Dr. Chavous wants to see you. He's had the restraining order temporarily rescinded and wants you there at 10 tomorrow morning. You free?"

I blink, also surprised. What the heck does Terry have to do with -- oh, put a cork in it, Wolfie. I'll play along, but also be ready to fight if it's not the real thing... "As long as nothing unexpected comes up, and since I am no longer needed for your private amusement, I am, my liege," I say with a very poorly done British accent.

Doc Stein rolls his eyes. "Okay. Well, I'm done with you. Go see the kids, and have a quiet night at the Pig."

"I'll try. Oh, yeah: How's the Myers kid doing?"

"Quite well -- he even went back to school today. Happily, I might add."

"Great! Glad to hear it. Still nothing on Spot, I suppose?"

"Jubatus? Not a word."

"Oh, well. See ya later, Doc."

"You, too. Have Donnie set up a drink and a salad for me for about 8 pm."

"Certainly. Horseradish or no horseradish?" I ask with a grin.

"Don't you dare! That incident was Wanderer's idea. Besides," he returns my grin, "there are a few more tests I could run..."

"Okay Doc, okay... I get the point... sheesh..." and I walk out of his office whistling the theme song from Bridge Over the River Kwai. The Doc's laughter follows me down the hall.

Today, the trip to the Pig is uneventful -- maybe the idiots are learning. This is the first time Donnie's asked me to work since my stay in the hospital. With no unscheduled distractions, I arrive at the bar almost an hour early. I put in the Doc's order, purchase a large burger and a beer, and take my mug of liquid bread to a booth near the pool room. I may not get a buzz, but man, the taste is addicting... And Donnie has some nice British and German brands on tap...

DeMule is playing something I don't recognize on the piano, but it must be popular, because all the Lupine Boys except Wanderer are howling along with the tune. Wanderer, however, is wrapping up a tutoring session with Hallan: Sounds like world history from here -- the Magna Carta, and how it affected world society. Even with the caped wolf embellishing the events, Hallan looks a tad bored. Or is it pre-occupied? He looks at his watch.

"Is that what time it is!? Sorry, Wanderer," Hallan says as he stuffs his books into his backpack. "Mom wanted me home ten minutes ago for dinner."

"Indeed? Ah!" Wanderer replies, collecting himself. "No concerns, my young friend. Bon appetit."

Having rounded up all of his gear, Hallan quickly exits the booth, waves in my direction, then looks at Wanderer. "Later." He acknowledges the wave I give in return, then heads out the door quickly.

Wanderer heads over after a couple minutes spent picking up the props and books he was using. "Good Day, Wolfie. Everything is going as well as can be expected, I trust?"

"Sure," I reply. "I get to go listen to some new developments concerning why the government is keeping my wife from me in the morning. What could be better than that?" I force a smile.

"Ah! Mayhaps you will actually get good news this time. I hope that this is so."

"Me, too. Whatever Dr. Chavous wants to say, it's important enough for him to rescind the restraining order he has against me."

"Indeed? That is certainly good news! It shows he feels that the news isn't bad enough so he would have to fear for his health."

I laugh. "Trust you to see the bright side of things. Me, I'll start to feel better about things if he isn't surrounded by his bodyguards."

"Tsk! Thou'rt too morose, says I. Save your angst for matters that merit such."

"I can't promise anything, but I'll try. Thanks for trying to cheer me up," I say with an unforced smile this time.

"Think nothing of it," replies Wanderer as Donnie puts the burger and a new mug filled with beer in front of me. Wow! Look at that mound of fries on the plate! I wasn't expecting that. Wanderer continues with a smile, "Ah! It looks as if you, too, have planned to partake of a feast. I shall leave you to it!"

"You sure you don't want to stay? I'll buy you a beer..."

"My thanks for your kind offer, but I fear I cannot accept it. Our merry band of troubadours must needs practice, albeit our tutor is yet absent. Feel free to attend a performance, if ever you have the time." 

"Wait. Troubadours? You have a band?"

"Most certes, even if it hath been on hiatus for a while after our percussionist did leave us. We have a show forthcoming in a fortnight's time, and so we must needs ensure that all concerned are still on key," Wanderer says with a sly look at the lupine table. "I wish you a good repast, and hope the news on the morrow is better than you hope for."

"Thank you immensely. The way things have been going lately, I need all the help I can get."

His body language showing that he is disappointed that I am not as cheery as he would like, Wanderer grins at me anyway, tips his hat, then turns toward the Lupine table. "Let us adjourn, dear friends, to the hall where the others are waiting to serenade the night away!" Then he heads out the door with a flourish, followed by the rest of the Lupine Boys and one or two other patrons that I don't remember seeing before.

As I absent-mindedly consume the burger, and work on the second beer, I wonder: What could Dr. Chavous want to talk to me about, that's important enough to rescind the restraining order... even temporarily? I just about had myself convinced that the only reason could be that they were going to let her go, when the front door opens and Jubatus trots up to the bar --

-- hold on a second. It can't be -- but damn, he sure looks like... I blink, but nothing changes. Okay, that's just...

The beer must actually be having an effect; I'm seeing things. As far as the visuals are concerned, it's Spot, right down to that 'authentic Batman utility belt' impersonating a vest he always wore. But he's walking on all fours! Spot wouldn't be caught dead on all fours! And what's that around his neck? It looks like a high-end voder! Okay. That can't be Jubatus. Can it? But this cat looks like Spot... but he sure doesn't act like him... gaah! And he isn't 'blurring' his way around like Spot used to. This cat actually saunters over to the bar, picks a stool, flows into a standing position like he's got lots of practice, and gingerly sits down on it. Huh -- what do you want to bet he's protecting his back?

Naah... no way in Xibalba that's him. Jube would have zipped onto the stool before the door even had time to close. Besides, this guy is way too laid-back. Jubatus was a over-wound spring waiting to shatter, but this guy's body language would give a stereotypical California Surfer a run for his money. But, he's wearing that vest! I have yet to see anyone besides Spot wearing something like that. Eh... he isn't the only one who has a fetish for pockets and knick-knacks to fill them, I'm sure. That isn't enough evidence to prove anything, but who else could it be?

The newcomer orders a drink and surveys the room as Donnie puts it in front of him. Wow, that voder is a good one... So. He may have money like Spot. That doesn't mean much though. I'm sure lots of people are financially well off... Oh Hell, who am I kidding? Maybe he's got a rich friend, or is a tester working for the company. His gaze stops on me for a second and a look passes over his face like he knows some joke he isn't telling. He even smiled! Okay, Spot smiled a lot, but it was always a fake, plastic kind of smile -- and this guy is genuinely happy. That settles it: Whoever he is, he can't be Jubatus.

Great. I must've finished my snack while I was thinking. And, since I'm done, I have to get started keeping the peace, which doesn't include staring at the new patrons.

The evening is going smoothly, smoother than usual in fact. But that cheetah... he's been drawing my attention all night. Something's not right. It's nothing malicious, more like something I'm not quite getting. Kind of like a smell that, you know what it is, but the name doesn't want to leave the tip of your tongue. And he's more and more amused every time he looks at me...

His amusement is shared by Wanderer, who's returned from his choir practice. Grrr! They both look like the cat that swallowed the canary. Hmph. I'm glad I can be so entertaining...

Wow, can it be 11:00 already? Only an hour before DeMule, who apparently sleeps here, usually takes over and sends me home. Anyway, Spot's twin is getting ready to leave. He stands up, pulls a wallet out of one of his pockets and pays his tab with a smile on his face. Then he gives Donnie a tip and buys a round for the house!

As Donnie is pouring the drinks, the cheetah moseys -- Yes, moseys, for crying out loud! On all fours! That can't be Spot! So why are my instincts telling me that it is? Anyway -- the cat strolls over to my spot near the door. "Hi there, stranger! Do you know me?"

"No... Maybe... I..." Where the hell do I know that line from? Wait... Did he just quote an old credit card commercial? "Sorry. I didn't mean to concern you. You just remind me of someone who helped me out a bit, when I first showed up here. Nice enough fellow, after you got to know him. But he, unlike you, was a tad irascible, and wound up to beat all hell. Otherwise, you look exactly like him."

"Aha! That explains it," he says with a cheerful nod. "You've met my evil twin."

"Yeah, I... wait. You have an evil twin?" Evil twin? This is starting to sound like a Hallowe'en episode of The Simpsons...

"Sure thing! Just another of the many fine products offered by Neiman-Marcus. Would you like one?"

Neiman-Marcus -- what!? Okay, this guy has got to be messing with my head. In more ways than one, now. Gah! I feel like my brain is in a taffy machine! He cracks jokes just like Spot, looks like Spot and wears a vest like Spot, but... his attitude! Spot could never be this relaxed. Not unless some miracle happened. So why the hell is my brain trying to tell me otherwise?

If I weren't so pre-occupied with that damned meeting tomorrow, I would fight fire with fire... Oh, what the hell: "Sorry, I prefer L.L. Bean. Their products are more versatile for my outdoor lifestyle, and go through rigorous testing. Besides, I doubt they have any of my twins in stock. When I was made, they broke the mold, and I'm sure the world is thankful."

Man... that attempt at a comeback was lame. I really am out of practice in normal social situations. I guess thirty-odd years of running for your life really can screw up your social skills. Sasha could have done better in her sleep... The reminder that she isn't here hits me like a punch to the stomach... I try to cover up the look that must be on my face, but odds are that this guy caught it. I try to force a smile, but it doesn't quite work.

The cat's momentary look of concern makes me regret, again, being so morose. And my expression must have been a doozy. Wanderer is looking at me with major concern. Bet'cha he thinks something's going to set me off, reminiscent of Spot some weeks ago. Well, not to worry, my friend; I still have a good deal of control left. Anyway... time to steer this conversation to a better area.

Too late -- Spot 'Lite' chimes in: "Now what could cause such a look on as fine a night as this? Your dinner not agreeing with you? I have some Alka-seltzer in here somewhere... Or maybe some Rolaids. You know what they say -- R O L A I D S spells relief!" And his smile returns, bigger than ever.

He looks like Spot, he makes jokes like Spot, he knows ancient commercials like Spot... "No need, but thanks for the offer. It definitely isn't the food causing my angst. It's something more diabolical than that... Hopefully, it will at least get on the road to being solved tomorrow morning, but until then I get to stew about it." I try to do a poor imitation of Wanderer's accent to lighten the mood a little: "I wish not to burden you, or anyone else here with it, but I am sore afraid that I have already done so. Be that as it may... There is still one thing that vexes me that you could help with. To put it bluntly, my rational brain is telling me you aren't my acquaintance that I mentioned earlier, but my instincts are yelling otherwise. So I am trying to figure out why my instincts are being contradictory."

The cheetah taps his voder's controls, and his next words sound just like -- God help me -- Don Ameche doing Sigmund Freud: "So zer inztinctz are kontradiktory, hmm? Could zis perhaps haff somezing to do vizz your mutter?"

I roll my eyes and let out a small chuckle, "I might take back my earlier statement about your not being Jubatus. God, you're insufferable."

"Of course I'm insufferable! I'm a cat -- it's part of the job description!" he says with a broad grin.

"It is? Damn... I've been doing it wrong all these years!" I say with a grin that matches his. This time it's a bit more natural. I adopt the tone I'd take in one of my lectures to a class way back when. Let's see if I remember how to do it... "It must be that the wolf in me has muted that particular instinct. Also it seems your character is best described by a line in the old Rankin and Bass cartoon The Last Unicorn: In specific, the one where the cat, with a pirate accent of all things, says that no cat anywhere has ever given anyone a straight answer..."

"Hey, us cats always give straight answers," he replies. "It's not our fault that we live in a non-Euclidian Universe!" It takes my brain a moment to parse that statement; by the time I wince, he's talking again. "Now if you'll excuse me, I have a fence that I need to go 'sing' on." He grins again and saunters out the door, leaving me only slightly less confused. If that's Spot, and I guess I'm more convinced that it is, then he must have got his miracle. Good for him -- I'm glad someone had things work out for the best. Here's hoping that a little of that will rub off on me...

"The feline is gone, my friend," says Wanderer. "You can stop staring out the door after him." Gaah! The wolf just appeared next to me, as if out of nowhere, snapping me out of my brooding with a jolt.

Damn... I must be too pre-occupied for my own good, if he can sneak up on me like that. "What? Oh -- sorry. I wasn't staring after him. I was just thinking. I hope things work out soon... I'm getting rather too distracted for my own health if I can overlook a ham like you," I say with a smile.

Wanderer doesn't even bother to hide his look of concern this time. He even drops the accent. "You really are letting your wife's plight get to you, aren't you? That is decidedly unhealthy. Maybe you should go see someone about it. The Wolfie I know would have handled that situation much better, had he been in the right frame of mind."

"If the situation doesn't improve after what I find out in the meeting tomorrow morning, I might just follow your advice. Lord knows, I shouldn't be this depressed... Letting anyone sneak up on me is rare, and now I'm starting to misread people. I need some help, before I end up like Hamlet," and I smile my first genuine smile since dinner. "And I have no clue why I'm so depressed anyway... They're supposed to be actually giving me some information at this meeting, which is more than I've gotten in almost a month."

"That's the spirit!" the wolf says with a more upbeat tone. "And just to make it known, you aren't going as crazy as you think: That was Jubatus. And if such a boon may be bestowed on him, cannot you be in the running for one as well? Now... Donnie has asked me to send you home, since the patronage is so light tonight. Ol' Jack over there can handle things if necessary. Please, go home and get some sleep."

Yeah... Right... Sleep... Like that is any more probable tonight than it was last night... or for almost the last week in fact. I'll try, but with all the possible topics I could hear at that meeting tomorrow running laps through my head it could be tough. "If I can... Remind me to congratulate Spot on his recovery next time I see him, and thanks again for the kind words."

Wanderer smiles. "Congratulate Spot on his recovery the next time you see him."

Should've seen that coming... I roll my eyes and chuckle. "G'night Wanderer, Donnie, Jack." I wave to the few others still in the bar and head out to the hotel.

I step out the door and find it's raining. Great. They didn't forecast rain for tonight... Seems like the accuracy rate of the weathermen hasn't increased over the years. Guess kitty gets an extra shower tonight... About two blocks from the bar, I get the feeling that I'm being followed. I try to keep on walking like I don't notice, but it's hard to be non-challant when you're trying to find reflective surfaces to see behind you without turning your head. I catch a couple glimpses of 'something' flitting from shadow to shadow as I go... but not enough to prove that I'm not seeing things.

Well, my instincts are usually on the money, so someone has to be back there. And it's been a while since the Humans First twits have tried anything... I turn around to see if I can get a better bead on the guy following me. That's when something whizzes by my right ear, followed quickly by the dull POP of a 'silenced' firearm of some sort, likely a rifle. I've heard that sound too damn many times not to know what it is. You think a firearm can be made absolutely noiseless? Dream on, pal. Oh, sure, you can make 'em really quiet, at least to human ears, but they have yet to figure out how to make them silent. Just the sound of the bullet cutting through the air ends that argument --

A second POP follows as I dive for cover behind the closest car, and then a metallic ping as the bullet hits the car and a burning sensation as something grazes the back of my calf.

A second POP follows as I dive for cover behind the closest car; the round thuds into an empty trash can to my right. I come to a stop as a metallic ping of a third bullet hits the car, followed by a burning sensation as the bullet tears across the back of my calf after grazing the engine block.

I stifle a growl of pain as I look for better cover. A car is only 'concealment', especially when someone's using armor-piercing rounds. The engine's pretty solid, but there's a lot of empty space around it a bullet can pass through just fine. Okay -- there's a subway entrance down at the end of the block. Great... that's about 300 yards away, and on the other side of the street. While I'm not that concerned about my own health in this situation, that kind of distance gives the guy hunting me at least three more tries, meaning three more chances for spent rounds to hit something, or someone, else...

Okay, I need to figure out exactly where the shots are coming from. If this guy is an amateur, he might have left himself a blind spot I can take advantage of... There's a pickup across the street a bit closer to the subway entrance. Let's see how sharp this guy is. I bound out from behind the car, heading for the pickup, and scan the area behind me for the inevitable muzzle flash. There's two more muffled shots as I make my way across. The flashes, surprisingly enough, don't come from street level: The guy's on a roof, right at the end of the block where the street forms a T intersection.

The first bullet takes out the rear and front windows of the car I was hiding behind; the second ricochets off the pavement in front of me. The bullet fragments, and small pieces of it pepper my shins. I get behind the truck as a third shot goes through the fender and hits the engine block. Damn... this guy is good. I'm just a tad faster than he thought I was. I'll bet he won't make that mistake again... And he picked his nest well. He has me dead to rights anywhere on the street. I can't even change forms to confuse him, since he'll likely just shoot anything that moves, and ask questions later.

Great. What else did my little experiment tell me? Well, he's got a new type of high velocity round I haven't seen before. Gotta be new, the way it fragments on impact. Might even be explosive, if what it did to the road is any indication. And since the gun is so quiet, odds are that no one's heard anything, so nobody's calling the cops. Looks like I'm on my own.

I suppose I could change into a house cat; smaller target, plus a lot easier to find cover, even after he figures out what the hell is going on. But I'd have to lose my clothes and personal effects... no. That strategic card is too valuable. They probably know I'm a shifter, but not how powerful I am... Oh what the hell, I'm already half cat anyway. I just hope he'll give me time to finish changing...

There's nowhere to get naked without risking another shot, so I let myself shrink out of my pile of clothes as I shift form. Wow -- this change of perspective take a bit of getting used to... Next stop, over behind those trash cans...

I bound up onto the sidewalk and over to the cans. Wait -- no bullet this time -- maybe the trick worked? I move to a set of stairs leading up to an old brownstone; it's out of place on this street, bordered by old storefronts. No shots this time either. Time to move again.

I make it up to the building with no more shots fired... only to find a police cruiser at the back entrance, while another screeches to a halt in the front. Okay, something's up; I assume my normal form so I can talk to the cops. Suddenly I hear Terry's voice behind me: "It's all taken care of. Get your stuff and I'll escort you home."

I damn near jump out of my skin. "Don't sneak up on me like that, Terry! It's not healthy for either of us," I say with a smile. "Taken care of, huh? Mind filling me in as we go? And what the hell are you doing here? I wasn't supposed to see you until the meeting tomorrow." We head over to my clothes.

"I can't give you the whole story out here," Terry says. "But we've had someone, mostly me, following you since the last time you were attacked. Let's just say that someone's got a reason to be interested in you. Your death. isn't really on the agenda; that's just a side benefit, in your assailant's eyes. Anyway, I'll explain more in the morning."

"Joy," I mumble as I start gathering my stuff and getting dressed. "Now I've got something else to keep my mind racing all night. I just wish someone would tell me what the hell is going on! Keep me in the dark, and I might just end up doing something stupid. Like, say, give away the fact that I'm a world-class form-shifter... I can't believe I gave that info away for nothing."

"You didn't -- not to the FBI, at least. We've known about that for over a week now."

I shrug. "Right now, I'm not worried about you guys knowing, since you seem to have my best interests in mind. It's those idiots trying to kill me I worry about."

"Not a problem -- I've been able to fend off the hacking attempts on Dr. Stein's database, and the one I designed for the FBI office here is impenetrable."

"You sure about that? What if one of your co-workers with access to the files is on the take? No offense, but it has happened before... too damned many times to count..."

"Trust me," he says with a huge grin on his face. "You think your senses are a built-in lie detector, just imagine what mine are like! Now, let's get you home. Much better for you to get some sleep than to thrash around blindly and mess up the final phase of a delicate operation. A van will pick us up. in the morning, and you will be on your best behavior at the meeting. Understand?"

"Yeah, yeah, fine already. Sheesh! Like I've got a choice when an inanimorph with a hell of a lot of clout, and the legal authority to make my life hell, gives me an order..."

"Come on. It's not that bad, and you know it. I just need to insure that a certain mission doesn't crash and burn. You'll be much happier if it doesn't, so it's a win-win situation for us both!" he says with a smile.

I make with a disbelieving snort. "Whatever. You know, it pretty much sucks when getting enough information for things to make sense is considered a win. My impression of a win would be more along the lines of, say... having my wife back?" All Terry does is smile. I sigh. "Can you at least tell me what happened here? Or is that out of bounds, too?"

"With that brain of yours, you haven't figured it out for yourself yet?"

"Only in part. Those Humans First idiots have decided to get subtle -- no more frontal assaults. That, and they're actually still after me. That lull between attacks almost had me thinking they'd given up."

"That's correct, as far as it goes. I'll sum up what passed from the first shot to when I kept you from blundering into a crime scene. From your moves, and my perspective on the shots, I pegged the shooter's position a little before you. After that, taking him and his spotter out was a piece of cake."

"Then, I believe thanks are in order."

"No need -- it's part of the job. You should know that, given your stint in the military... On the bright side, you can be proud that you helped us get this guy and his companion off the street. We've been looking for these two for a long time now. It's rather mercenary for a couple of mild degree feline-morph SCABs to sell their services to Humans First, but whoever accused assassins of being honorable? And this isn't the first time they have done so. Now, I apologize, but everything else will have to wait until the morning. Now, since you're finished getting dressed..." Then the innie pulls a radio out of thin air -- show-off. "Unit 1, please send the van around for transport."

"Roger. Van en route."

Terry gives the 'mic' button a quick tap-and-release, then puts the radio back where it came from. The van arrives within three minutes, we get in, and head back to the hotel.

I can't believe I actually slept! I had no clue I was so damn tired. Or maybe Terry had something to do with it; after all, he did order me to sleep... When I finally woke up, Terry had some breakfast waiting. Not every innie would be that considerate of biological needs like food. We're back on the road, same van, after I feed my face. I try to strike up a conversation, but no dice. Getting anything out of Terry can be like trying to get a steak back from a Pit Bull when he doesn't want to give it up.

After a 20 minute drive through morning traffic, we get up on the interstate, and head south. "Hey... This isn't the way to Dr. Chavous' office..." I say in surprise.

"Right -- it's not," Terry says. "He'll meet us at our regional operations center. The facilities there are better for our purposes."

Oh, fucking joy -- Paranoia Alert! "Hold on there! Why do I need to see your operations center? The news isn't that bad... is it?"

"Not at all. The Op-Center has the communications equipment we need, and it's a hell of a lot more secure than the hospital. Capice? By the way, anything you see or hear at our destination is of the highest secrecy. I believe you are aware of the consequences if you divulge any information you don't have permission to release..."

"Yeah, yeah, don't worry. I have no wish to see the inside of Leavenworth or any other federal incarceration facility you might send me to."

"Good. Now, I need to pay attention to the radio traffic coming out of OPS. Why don't you enjoy the scenery? You might need to know how to find this place again," he says with a sly wink.

Joy. What makes him think I'll ever want to come back here? Well, I might as well enjoy the ride. If he's referring me to the scenery already, it's gonna be a long one.

Two hours later, we pull off the highway and then travel down progressively smaller roads, finally ending up at a gate with numerous guards in the modern version of what we used to call BDUs -- Battle Dress Uniform. Wow... things sure have changed since I was in the service. Those fatigues have a weird shimmer-effect, like they automatically blend to match the scenery. The sight triggers flashbacks to the movie Predator as we proceed through the gate and drive into what looks like a cave, and is an underground parking lot. Damn, it's huge!

Once we park, Terry says, "Okay, my friend: Let's go. If we hurry, we can catch the final arrests -- there's a certain asshole we want you to watch as he finally gets his due."

We get out of the van and practically run down the halls to a large conference room with the walls literally covered in huge flat-screen TVs. Two of the TVs are on at the moment; standing in front of them, looking on intently, is Dr. Chavous.

"Ah, good -- you made it," says Dr. Chavous. "What you are looking at, is a real time display of the attack on a compound in Wyoming, home to Phelps' benefactor and the current cause of a major government related headache. The individuals with the blue telemetry tags are our forces, most of them Martian Flu victims like yourself."

Okay... why does Dr. Chavous all of a sudden sound like a general rather than a Psych Doctor? It's almost as if -- "Oh. Shit!"

"What provoked that outburst, Mr. Wolfshadow? And please tone down the profanity... Everything is recorded here, just in case it's needed for evidence later."

"Sorry... I finally realized just how badly you guys have played me here."

"That can wait until after this operation is complete. For now, you should pay attention. Our forces are working their way through the compound of someone you might be interested in. I trust you recognize that Mr. Phelps was not the only Humans First bigot involved in our government?"

"Yeah. And?"

"In fact, he was fairly low on the totem pole. Phelps' handlers tolerated his personal vendetta against you, but only until they realized that it exposed a weakness in their organization -- a weakness that we fully exploited. Our current target saw an opportunity to kill several birds with one stone: In a single stroke, he could tie up some inconvenient loose ends; take out some of the better-known SCABS advocates; and dispose of some rivals within his organization."

"Hold it. If this guy knew you were on to him..."

'Chavous' nods. "Exactly. Until about a month ago, we didn't have a complete picture of his organization or its plans. That's where you and your wife come in."

"Me and my wife? What are you talking about?"

"Time enough for that after the show. It's just about over -- most of his guards are neutralized..."

"Whose guards?"

"You don't Need To Know," Chavous -- if that's really his name -- says. "Let's just say he owns enough real estate, businesses and politicians to make him a really big player."

At this point, two of the blue telemetry readings turn red as a force of eight attack three guards at the front door. "What's with the switching to red?"

"Unfortunately, that means two of our side are down. Their battle suits should keep them alive. Let's hope none of the telemetry goes black. Okay... Units have penetrated both the front and back entrances. The subject is being confronted now..."

Then the screen fills with a bright yellow light as the building explodes. As we stand there in shock, the yellow fades out to the dull red of fires on the infra-red display.

"Oh my god! He just..." I say in disbelief. "I hope that bastard rots in hell..." Then something else clicks. "Wait. My wife better not be there..."

"Better not be where, honey?"

Even through the metallic crackle of speakers, it was the most beautiful sound I have heard. I spin around to see where her voice is coming from. "Oh, good... you're in Mexi... wait..."" I say as I find a video screen displaying my wife standing in front of a building I had never hoped to see again in my life. All I can do is stammer for a moment as my brain tries to come to grips with everything that has happened in the last two minutes. I don't even notice the other video screens being turned off and Terry and 'Dr. Chavous' turning to look at me.

"What the hell are you doing there!?"

"You know where she is?" 'Dr. Chavous' asks.

"Damn right I know where she is! That place will be in my nightmares, probably until I die. You have no clue what I went through. I didn't even tell Doc Stein everything they did to me. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go get my wife. And don't expect a post card." Damn... I don't think I've been this angry... ever... These bastards...

Sasha could always read me like a book. Before I can turn around, she says, "Wolf, you calm yourself down right now! I don't want to have to visit my husband in Federal Prison. Understand!?"

"It's not that easy..."

"Honey, think about it. I'm someplace the people actually like us, and I have enough security from both those two, and the church, to make a President feel safe. Coming here will only make a bad situation worse. I'm fine and I'll be home in a couple days, if what I just heard is true. So calm down and give them a chance to explain why I'm here."

"Besides," Terry responds, "I think you forget where you are. Getting out could be a painful prospect."

Wrong thing to say,buddy... "No I haven't forgotten where I am. I could rampage my way out of here right now and no court would convict me. You take my wife from me with some bullshit story about her being on the verge of insanity and deem her a threat to society. You keep me from her, and even threaten me with every nasty thing in the book if I try to see her. Then you leave me hanging for a month while allowing idiots to try to kill me, and thus forcing me to maim, if not kill, them. This is followed by bringing me here to watch the asshole I should have been taking care of kill at least a squad of heroic young soldiers or agents or whatever they were, then you show me my wife is in the worst hell hole I know, and you expect me not to be furious?"

During this tirade, I remain focused on the screen, afraid that if I look away, even this image of her might disappear. Meanwhile, Sasha gasps at what she is hearing, and while a look of anger develops for Terry and 'Dr. Chavous', she looks back at me. "They did what!?"

"Will you please sit down?" says Terry. "Things will be much clearer if we explain --"

"Explain!? Explain what, exactly? Explain that you used me? Explain that you didn't trust me enough to do the right thing? Explain that you sent innocent young men and/or women to die doing something that I and my wife should have carried out, since we are the ones directly involved?"

"Will you calm down a moment and actually listen?" replies 'Dr. Chavous' with a look on his face like this time he will take no prisoners. "I admit, the way we went about this may have been a mistake, but it was the only way deemed possible at the time. Part of your exam in my office was to determine if you had the personality and mental strength to carry out this plan. Over one hundred lives were at stake, including yours, and we had to be sure we weren't putting anyone at greater risk. Your exam, while fine for public service, showed too many chaotic tendencies to safely allow you to participate, and your acting skills leave much to be desired."

"Besides," Terry butts in, "you talk too much."

'Chavous' ignores him. "We had to set up the cover story this way. We needed your help to find the information Phelps had his brother stash in the Hacienda where you were held prisoner. However, if both of you disappeared, our now-deceased quarry would have instantly been put on his guard. He was well aware of you and rationalized that if you knew that there was someone else behind Phelps, with your abilities, he wasn't safe. This is why he put the price on your head, and fronted those fools who attacked you. He figured that if you and your wife were kept busy defending yourselves, you couldn't come after him. If they actually succeeded in killing you both, so much the better. Since you were much better suited for the role you would play here, we decided on this cover story. Once he believed your wife was locked away in an institution, he had one less thing to worry about."

Terry chimes in, "We needed you to be able to play a part in convincing the target that your wife was really in bad mental shape. You're a terrible actor, but you wear your heart on your sleeve, as they say. The only way we could have you put on your best performance was to make you believe the cover story as well. We couldn't let you see her because she wasn't here. We are sorry for the mental anguish that this caused, but there was no other way."

"Sure there wasn't," I say sarcastically, even though my anger had gone down quite a few notches. "I could have pulled it off... if only for her sake."

"Maybe," replies Terry, "but not with the true, heartfelt emotion that was needed for the part. Be that as it may, the plan was a success. That particular cell of Humans First bigots is out of commission, and you saved over a hundred lives, if not more... A couple of the planned hits were to be made using explosives. The asshole planned to have thugs hit some of the more prominent pro-SCAB celebrities and Congresscritters, for obvious reasons. Then he'd blow up one or two of his own people and make it look like retaliation from a heretofore unknown SCAB terrorist group. Things were to expand from there with killings on both sides until the people our boy wanted out of the way were toast. He was also hoping to start a new civil war, just to cover his tracks further."

Chavous continues, "We only had about half the story before our boy changed the encryption system on his computer, thus blocking further access. From the information we gathered from Phelps' house, we learned of a way to access our boy's computer network and not have to worry about further encryption changes or setting off any alarms. The problem was, that information was Phelps brother's hands, and you know what happened to him. That's why we needed your wife for this, since she could search without any mental anguish clouding her judgment."

"My wife's part in this shouldn't have taken too long. Why the rest of the month layover?"

"Things have changed down there. It's harder to work down there without permission, so while your wife is entirely welcome in the country, her 'escort' had to have the proper clearances. After that, we couldn't very well have had her popping up here again without raising suspicions. Also, if things here went horribly wrong, she would be out of harm's way, which we all know is what you want anyway. Now that the operation is over, she should be back in a few days."

My wife responds in a 'take charge' voice almost as authoritative as 'Chavous': "And we can discuss this further then. I think I'll add a few more conditions to my future employment with both of your organizations. Right now, the satellite coverage is getting spotty and I want to talk to my husband in private."

Both Terry and 'Dr. Chavous' nod and leave the room.

About ten minutes later, the satellite coverage cuts out, and I exit into the hallway where Terry is waiting for me. 'Dr. Chavous' is nowhere to be seen.

"I hope you're not still angry at me," Terry says with a smile. "This was a Company op all the way, and even I have to listen to my superiors..."

"Well, I still don't like it, but I can understand the reasoning. And it worked -- keeping my wife healthy, maybe even made us less of a pair of walking targets. Any port in a storm, I guess..."

"Precisely. Oh, and don't be too hard on Chavous when we finish out the cover story at his office a couple days from now. His wife was leading the strike team and was about thirty seconds from entering the building when that bomb went off. They lost six good people and have three others on the way to the body shop. People they had over for barbeques, that sort of thing."

"Give him my condolences. Now do you mind answering something for me? Chavous kept including himself in the SCAB category during the conversation..."

"Let's just say he prefers to keep his abilities secret."

"Okay... Okay... I guess it really isn't my place to pry. I hope I can trust you both to do the same with mine..."

"Certainly. It wouldn't do to betray the trust of our prize recruits," he says with a wink. "Just remember that --"

I cut him off. "I know, I know, none of this information comes out of my big fat mouth until clearance is granted, if it ever is. And at the cover story meeting, I will be suitably overjoyed to get my wife back safe and sound, believe me. Anything else you need from me?"

"Well, I do have a proposition for you, if you're interested -- it might work out well for you both. Since your wife is working for us, how would you like to join her as a recon specialist? Your newly-expressed talents would work well in our group. It wouldn't even take up much of your time; we'd only need you in extreme cases, but you'd still fit in our payroll scheme. Even the Humans Firsters in Congress couldn't deny you that funding, since they have no clue our group exists..."

"What? Now you trust me not to blab?" I say with a smile.

"When you know that blabbing would put Sasha's life at risk? Yeah, I think so," he says with a matching smile. "Besides, wouldn't you feel better assisting her in her duties, rather than wondering where she is when she is in the field?"

"You've got a point. I was just hoping we could settle down after spending all this time on the run and living off paranoia."

"Oh, please," Terry says as he rolls his eyes. "You're too damned curious for your own good, and you know it! You couldn't last two weeks without getting your nose into something. If Doctor Stein hadn't kept you busy, you probably would have gotten yourself into a world of trouble, maybe even blown the operation."

At the mention of Stein's name, I get a bad feeling. "Hold it! Are you saying that you put him up to giving me all those tests?"

The innie grins. "Get real! You think the world's foremost SCABS expert needed any encouragement to work on you?" Well, now that he mentions it... "It was just lucky that his agenda worked so well with ours. Now, where were we? Right, your cover, especially concerning payment. You'll be salaried, of course. With hazard pay, I think. And a retainer, since you'll be on call 24/7..." And Terry starts to walk down the hall.

"What? Wait -- I haven't taken the job yet!"

"No, but you will. You know your wife needs you, and you won't rest unless you know she's safe. QED. Now, we can set you up in a small University we own outside of town --"

Grr! I hate being read like a book... "Hold it again. If I have to teach, how do we cover up my unexplained absences when I'm off doing missions for you?"

"Good point... Okay, you'll be a professor emeritus and a research fellow. That way, you only have to teach classes when you want to, and your periods of absence can be explained as research trips. You could even run a field school in Central America periodically... Want to hit the lottery? That would explain why you wouldn't want to be working full time. And it would also account for how you'll get set up with a house so fast. It will actually be provided by us, with all the security due your station."

"This all sounds almost too good to be true..."

"It's worth every penny. Who wouldn't want to have a pair like you two working for them? Especially with your abilities. Do we have a deal?"

"Fine. Just as long as no one gets the idea of using us as assassins, or anything along those lines."

"No 'wet work'," Terry agrees. "Fortunately, that isn't what this unit is about. You aren't the strike team; you're recon. All you do is get us the information we need."

"I guess I shouldn't have too many ethical dilemmas to sort through in that scenario. There a decent retirement plan?" I ask with a smile.

"Of course. Why wouldn't there be? It is a government job, after all..."

With that, we enter the parking garage and walk over to the van. The setting stirs up a memory of the final scene in Casablanca, minus the fog. Reaching out to shake Terry's hand, I say, "Terry, this looks like the beginning of a beautiful friendship," then climb in the van. He closes the door with a chuckle and sends the van on its merry way. I catnap on the way back to the hotel, knowing that instead of losing the girl forever, as in the movie, she'll be back soon.

Unbidden, a purr rises from my throat. Now that the world is as right as circumstances will allow, I can calmly wait for that return. The circus has finally rolled up its tent and left town.

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