The EMTs moved the gurney to the back of the auditorium. They were not there exclusively for Gary’s sake. It had been decided that, considering the weather conditions and the size of the crowd, it might be prudent to have medical personnel on hand. Dr. Carter, on the other hand, was there strictly for the sake of his patient. Because the gurney might, possibly, be needed elsewhere, they moved a chaise lounge in from the prop room and transferred Gary to that, situating it in the aisle near the back rows so that he faced the stage.
“How are you feeling?” Dr. Carter asked, sticking a thermometer in Gary’s mouth. He read the note Gary scribbled just before he checked the results. “You say ‘fine’,” he remarked. “But this says ‘lousy.’ Your fever’s climbing again. If it doesn’t come down soon, you could go into systemic shock or seizure. Before that happens, it‘s back to the hospital. No matter what.” He turned to one of the EMTs. “See if you can get some bags full of ice to set around him. Or snow. Get someone to go out and fill some plastic garbage bags with snow. Anything to get his temp down.”
“On my way, Doc.”
“Gary? Gary Hobson?”
Carter looked up to see a short, stocky woman with medium length dark blonde hair coming their way. She had a friendly, heart-shaped face and wide-set hazel eyes.
“Hi . . . Clare,” Gary croaked.
“No talking,” Carter admonished. He turned to the woman and introduced himself. “Are you a friend of Gary’s?”
“We’ve worked together . . . briefly,” she replied cryptically. “My name is Clare. I’m a professional psychic. I helped Gary locate a missing baby a couple of years ago. He claims he doesn’t have ‘The Gift’, but he always seems to know when trouble is about to start. What happened this time, slugger?” she asked
Before Gary could try to speak again, Carter quickly told her about his being trapped in the snow with a lost child. As he talked, Clare studied the feverish man with her ‘other’ sense wide open. She did not like what she saw. His aura was a mess. It showed her the healed damage to his spine and left leg, as well as all his other injuries. It also showed the damage to his spirit. She read a constant struggle between hope and despair, with despair currently coming out on top. She had a feeling that what the doctor was telling her was just the tip of the proverbial iceberg.
“You look like hell, Hobson,” she sighed. “Inside and out. Have you had any . . . spiritual counseling?” she asked.
Gary just shook his head as the EMT returned and started packing plastic bags filled with ice and snow around him. He scrawled another message and handed it to the psychic.
‘I’m not so sure God wants to hear from me right now,’ he’d written. ‘That’s part of why I’m here.’
She gave him a puzzled look in reply, so Gary scribbled some more.
‘Maybe, tonight, He’ll let me know something, one way or the other. Can’t hurt to try.’
“Sweetie,” she sighed, “you’ve got to have faith to hear God’s voice. Do you even believe in God? Seriously.”
Gary just shrugged. Or was it a shiver? With all the ice they were packing around him, it was hard to be sure.
At that moment, Lois and Bernie returned from the concession stand with hot coffee and pastries. Quick introductions were made as they all took their seats. Clare’s was in the last row, by choice. Her gift made it difficult to be comfortable in a crowd, yet she loved spiritual music. Sitting in the back row had proved to be an equitable compromise. In this case, it also gave her a good view of the man who had helped her come to terms with her abilities, even though he claimed to have no such powers of his own. She would have loved more time to get to know Gary’s parents, but the lights were beginning to dim. The concert was ready to begin.
“Welcome ladies and gentlemen,” the emcee began, “to the Greater Chicago Interfaith Concert. We are pleased to be able to present you with a marvelous selection of uplifting, spiritual music from some of the more prominent religions found in our fair city.”
The show started with a Jewish Cantor giving a solo performance. His voice was a very rich tenor that brought a depth and warmth to his songs that was so moving, even though she couldn’t understand a word of Hebrew.
The Cantor was followed by a succession of singers from various denominations, including Catholic, Protestant, Baptist, and several lesser known sects. Each performer, or group of performers, put their hearts and souls into each song or hymn. The result was one of the most spiritually moving experiences Clare had ever been privileged to be witness to. The only distressing part of the evening came whenever she looked over at Hobson.
The ailing man’s fever kept rising in spite of repeated applications of ice and the forcing of cool liquids. His pale features contrasted sharply with the dark stubble on the lower half of his face and the ruddiness of the frostbite. From where she sat, Clare could see that he kept slipping in and out of consciousness. The concern on Dr. Carter’s face was evident to anyone with eyes. Several times, he motioned for the EMTs, only for Gary to come to enough to gainsay his decision. ‘Just what is it that’s driving him?’ she wondered. Why was he so determined to stay?
Finally, the emcee stepped up to the mike and announced that Ms. Marissa Clark had requested to sing a special selection for a very special friend. As the blind woman was led up to the microphone, she gave the audience a grateful smile.
“This is for the man who inspired me to go beyond my limitations and reach for the stars,” she said to the audience. “Gary, this is in hopes that you find the peace you so desperately need.” The music began gently and built up to Marissa’s cue.
Blest are they, the poor in spirit theirs is the Kingdom of God;
Blest are they, full of sorrow, they shall be consoled!
Clare wished that her own voice were as rich and throaty as the young blind woman’s. And the song! It seemed to fit Gary so perfectly! He was certainly full of sorrow, from what she could see. And his spirit seemed at an all-time low. She vividly recalled the first time she had seen him, how he had come bursting into her séance to drag her and her client out before a gas leak killed them both.
Blest are they, the lowly ones, they shall inherit the earth;
Blest are they, who hunger and thirst, they shall have their fill!
It was almost as if the song were written for the ailing man. She remembered Hobson crawling around in that bus, trying to find a deadly mamba, one of the most poisonous snakes on earth, before it could bite a student on a field trip. And the way he had begged her to help him find that missing child, even after having been accused of stealing the child himself. He definitely had a hunger. No, a need. A need to stop bad things from happening and, failing that, at least to make them come out better.
Blest are they, who show mercy, mercy shall be theirs;
Blest are they, the pure of heart, they shall see God!
Clare recalled how angry the child’s father had been when Gary had shown up with herself in tow. Her new friend would’ve been well within his rights to just walk away and leave the parents to their misery. Not Gary. No, he begged them to let him and Clare help, as if finding this child was at least as important to him as it was to the parents. He had actually begged! How much more merciful or pure could one heart get?
Blest are they, who seek peace, they are the children of God;
Blest are they, who suffer in faith, the glory of God is theirs!
Well, Gary was certainly suffering, she told herself, glancing over at the feverish man. Strange. Earlier, he had been tossing fitfully, unable to get comfortable. Now he seemed to have settled down. In fact, he looked . . . peaceful.
Blest are you, who suffer hate, all because of me;
Rejoice and be glad, yours is the Kingdom, shine for all to see!
As Clare watched, astonished, Hobson seemed to . . . glow was the only word she could think of. A soft, ethereal light appeared to emanate from every pore of his body. His harsh, labored breathing seemed to be easing up. The red blotches of frostbite that stood out on his pale features were nowhere near as prominent as they had been just minutes before. Perhaps it was a trick of the lighting. That’s what it was, she decided. Ms. Clark had talked someone into shining a soft spotlight on Gary, making it look like the ‘Revelation’ scene on that TV show about angels.
Marissa’s voice rang out loud and clear as the choir joined in for the chorus:
Rejoice and be glad, blessed are you, holy are you;
Rejoice and be glad, yours is the Kingdom of God!
Rejoice and be glad, blessed are you, holy are you;
Rejoice and be glad, yours is the Kingdom of God!
The glow around her friend had increased to almost blinding intensity as the young black woman’s voice rang out through the hall. As the hymn neared its end, the light lowered until it once again seemed more within Gary than without. As the last note faded, so did the spectral illumination. Clare didn’t know who was in charge of that spotlight, but he had a master’s touch. As the auditorium echoed with thunderous applause, Clare crossed over to check on her friend. Gary no longer radiated heat like a small furnace and he seemed to have slipped into a peaceful doze. Instinctively, Clare reached out to stroke his cheek, amazed to see that he no longer showed any sign of the frostbite that had ravaged his features earlier. As her fingertips traced the line of his jaw, he opened mud-puddle green eyes to give her a questioning look.
“Did I miss ‘Rissa’s song?” he mumbled in a voice that no longer sounded quite so husky as it had before. It was still a little raspy, but not as painfully hoarse as it had been when he first spoke to her earlier that evening.
“You were awake when it started,” Dr. Carter told him. “Then you just . . . drifted off. You must’ve found it very relaxing.”
“Guess I did,” Gary murmured. “Feel better, anyway. Goin’ back soon?”
“To the hospital?” Lois asked. “As soon as these nice young men get you loaded up, sweetie. You do look better, though. Maybe this outing was good for you, after all.”
“You slept through the special effects,” Clare smiled at him.
Gary gave her another quizzical look. So did the others.
“You didn’t see it?” she asked. “The way they made that light seem to come from within Gary? How could you miss it? It was almost blinding near the end!”
“I’m sorry, Clare,” Bernie shrugged. “I didn’t see any lights except the ones on stage. Are you sure you didn’t imagine it?”
“Perhaps it was the stage lights reflecting on all that ice,” Clare murmured. ‘In a pig’s eye,’ she thought. Something was very odd, here.
Gary was sleeping soundly, once more, by the time he was loaded up in the ambulance. Clare politely refused Lois and Bernie’s offer of a ride home, then bid them goodnight. As they followed the gurney out the door, Clare gathered up her things and prepared to leave. On her way out, she spotted the emcee. On impulse, she ambled over and began telling him how much she had enjoyed the program.
“I was especially impressed by that lighting trick at the end,” she told him. “The way you singled out that one man for special attention. It was awe inspiring!”
“I’m sorry,” the man told her, “but I don’t know what you’re talking about. We didn’t use any lighting tricks tonight. Someone suggested it, but they were voted down. The only inspiration was supposed to come from the music.”
“And it was,” Clare hastened to say. “Truly inspirational. I can’t begin to tell you how moved I was.” She made a few more complimentary remarks, then hurried on her way. She knew what she saw, and she was absolutely positive that she had seen Gary Hobson glowing like a light bulb!
Dr. Carter stayed beside the stretcher as it was wheeled into Gary’s room. It took only a matter of seconds to transfer the sleepily stirring man back to bed. Thanking the departing EMTs, he turned to re-examine his patient. Well, technically Dr. Bishop’s patient, now. Still, John Carter felt a proprietary interest in this particular case.
Strange, Gary’s breathing seemed to have eased dramatically. Looking closer, Carter noticed that the sleeping man’s face was no longer flushed with fever. Nor did the frostbite seem as extensive as it had earlier. He carefully unwound the bandages from Gary’s hands. They, too, appeared to be healing well. Puzzled, he began checking Gary’s vital signs. Blood pressure was good. Pulse was strong and steady. Temperature was . . . was normal! It was 103° less than thirty minutes ago! A few bags of ice couldn’t have brought it down that fast!
Carter sat back in the recliner, unable to take his eyes off the peacefully sleeping man. Enigma upon enigma. ‘I should know by now,’ he mused. ‘Nothing about this man should surprise me anymore.’ Maybe he needed to talk to that Clare woman again.
Gary awakened the next morning feeling much better than he had in weeks. His face wasn’t burning and neither were his hands. Best of all, he found he could talk in an almost normal voice with very little discomfort. Lois and Bernie entered to find him sitting up in bed, his shaving gear laid out on the tray table next to a basin of warm water. The top of the table had been slid back to reveal a shaving mirror. He was just finishing up his attempts to get rid of almost a week’s growth of stubble.
“You still have a little lather right . . . here,” Lois said. Gary held still as she wiped the foam off the left side of his jaw. “Much better. Wow! You really look good today! How do you feel?”
“Pretty good.” he replied huskily. “Dr. Bishop and Dr. Carter both think I can go home tomorrow, if all my tests come back normal. Have you talked to Marissa today?”
“Um hmm,” Lois nodded. “She had a few things to take care of at the bar, then she’ll be over to see you herself.” She pulled up a chair and sat down. “I can’t get over how much better you look!”
Gary couldn’t suppress a tiny smile as his mother caressed his freshly shaven cheek. He was wondering when she would start the touching. Lois Hobson was a full-contact mom.
“I feel fine, Mom,” he told her. He averted his eyes, suddenly finding it hard to meet the love and joy that shone from her eyes. “Y-you know, I was just thinkin’. M-maybe that camp idea of Chuck’s wasn’t so bad. A little fresh air, sunshine . . . Wh-what could it hurt?” He risked a little sideways glance at his parents, almost afraid they were having second thoughts of their own.
“Oh, thank you, God!” Bernie sighed. “Your mother was half afraid you’d decided not to go,” he explained. “Chuck ‘n’ Jade are chompin’ at the bit to get you out there. Seems they have an opening coming up in just a few days and they were hopin’ to spend a little time with you before then.” He pulled an envelope from his inside pocket. “Merry Christmas.”
Gary carefully opened the envelope to find a first class ticket to Los Angeles. It was for a flight leaving the next day. ‘Wow’, Gary thought. ‘They must really want me out there!’ After weeks of feeling like the lowest life form on earth, it was all Gary could do not to break down and cry.
“And the insurance company finally came through on replacing your chair,” Lois told him. “It’s being delivered this afternoon. Oh! I almost forgot! Detective Winslow called. They caught those two men that mugged you. They were trying to use one of your credit cards this morning.”
“Th-that’s good,” Gary stammered, her mention of the blonde detective acting like a bucket of water to dampen his mood. No. Not Winslow, himself, but his partner. His last conversation with the fiery Italian still cut deeper than he liked to admit. No! He was not going to let one yesterday ruin the rest of his tomorrows, or even today. At least he now knew where he stood with her, so it was time to move on. “Tomorrow, huh?” he nodded, slapping the ticket against the palm of his other hand. “Th-that doesn’t leave us much time. I’ll get out of here just in time to go home and pack.” He was already regretting the time he had lost coming back to Chicago. Precious time he could have spent with people he cared about, who also cared about him.
“I know,” Lois grinned. She fished a deck of cards out of her purse. “Plenty of time for a few hands of bridge, though. We need the practice for a tournament next week.”
“You sound so much better!” Marissa exclaimed. “Last night you sounded like sandpaper, today . . . today you sound like silk.”
“Feels more like burlap,” Gary quipped, his voice still a little husky. “You were great last night. Sorry I fell asleep during that last song, though. Mom told me it was the best one in the whole show.”
“I don’t even know why I decided to do that one,” Marissa confessed. She was sitting in the chair beside his bed, his left hand clasped between both of hers. “To tell the truth, I don’t think I’ve ever heard it before, myself. It . . . it just came to me, and I felt compelled to sing it. When I went on, it just seemed natural to dedicate it to you.”
“I think I remember that much,” Gary sighed, “but the rest is kinda . . . hazy. Clare, that psychic I told you about, said she saw some . . . light, or something. I dunno. Things keep getting weirder and weirder.”
“Did you . . . did you feel anything . . . odd?” his friend asked.
Gary ran his right hand through his hair as he tried to think back to the night before. “That’s . . . that’s kinda hard to say. I was so sick last night . . . I guess I shouldn’t ‘ve gone, but I needed to go. You know what I mean? I really needed to be there. A-and it was more than keeping a promise, as important as that is. I don’t know how to . . . how to explain what I was feeling last night. Later, after they told me I fell asleep, I just felt . . . good. Real good.”
Marissa squeezed his hand and beamed a dazzling smile his way. “I’ll take my miracles any way I can get them, Gary Hobson,” she said. “And you’ve been one right after another.”
The door swung open, allowing Lois and Bernie to carry in a huge basket of bright orange lilies, and a spray of tiny white buds.
“This was waiting at the front desk for you,” Lois said. “No one saw the delivery boy, so we don’t know who sent it. Isn’t it beautiful? I wonder where they found pussy-willows and tiger lilies this time of year?”
Gary looked over at the windowsill, where a smugly smiling cat was staring back at him, idly flicking its tail. “Yeah,” he murmured. “I wonder.”
Gary stared out the window at the departing 747. It was so dark that, in just a short time, all he could see were the wing lights as the huge jetliner taxied into position. Slowly, it rolled ponderously down the runway, coming back into view as the nose wheel lifted from the tarmac. He watched as, like an ungainly bird, the bulky aircraft rose into the air, gradually growing smaller and smaller, until all he could see were the blinking wing lights.
It had been a long time since he had last flown anywhere. Since before Marcia had kicked him out. Before the paper had entered his life. How would it be, now? For one thing, he was flying first class, instead of tourist. How would that differ from his previous experience? And the chair . . . He looked down at his new wheelchair. It was identical to his old one in every way, except for the color. It was dark brown, instead of black. How would they handle the chair? Would they transfer him to a regular seat and stow it somewhere, or did they have someway to fasten it down? Gary peeled back the protective patch that covered the face of his watch and checked the time. It was after eleven. His flight wasn’t due to take off for another twenty-five minutes. It wasn’t a direct flight. They had a long lay over in Denver, for some reason, then on to The Coast, as Chuck called it. Taken all together, he would arrive in Los Angeles sometime around 6 AM. He hoped Chuck liked getting up early.
“You look nervous, hon,” Lois Hobson said from behind him. “What’s on your mind?”
“This camp, for one thing,” Gary admitted, still staring out the window. “They’re gonna want me to learn a lot of new things, which is no big deal. But Chuck said they have counseling sessions. They’ll want me to talk about . . . about my feelings. About fears and such, you know? I-I’m just not sure if I want to do that.”
From where she stood behind him, Lois bent down and wrapped her arms around her son, resting her chin on his right shoulder. “It’ll be okay,” she told him. “You can say pretty much whatever you want to these people. The odds of you seeing any of them again are pretty remote. What else is bothering you?”
Gary craned his head until he could plant a kiss on his mother’s cheek. “You’re spooky,” he told her, “you know that? I was just wondering if Chuck was really alright with . . . with this.” He gestured at the chair. “I mean, he says he’s okay, but . . . well, Chuck is . . . Chuck.”
“He’s also one of your best friends,” Lois reminded him. “If he isn’t okay with it, it won’t take him long to tell you. Then the two of you will work it out. Like always. Anything else?”
“Yeah,” Gary smiled, looking ahead and pulling her arms around him a little tighter. “I hope they can bolt this chair to the floor. One patch of turbulence and I could put a dent in their nice, shiny bulkheads.”
The loudspeakers announced Gary’s flight, saying that passengers with special needs would be loading first.
“That’s me,” Gary sighed. He looked over to where his dad was approaching with Marissa. She had one hand on his elbow, and the other on Riley’s harness. Bernie was trying to balance three cups of coffee, and one of hot cocoa. With marshmallows.
“Sorry it took so long,” Bernie sighed. “You would not believe the line for coffee this time of night. Here you go, kiddo.” He handed the cocoa to Gary. For some strange reason, Gary had been craving the chocolaty drink lately. “Didn’t we just hear them call your flight?”
“Yeah,” Gary replied, sipping at his cocoa. “I’m just about to board. You guys gonna be alright . . . with the paper, I mean.”
“We can handle it, son,” Lois promised him, giving her son one more squeeze before letting him go. “You just give Chuck and Jade our love, and kiss the twins for me.”
“And tell Chucko that he better not be a stranger,” Bernie said. “Those kids are practically family.”
“If you run into Denzel Washington,” Marissa teased him, “you’d better give him my number!” She let go of Bernie and Riley long enough to give her friend a big hug. “And come back safe, you hear me?”
“I’ll do my best,” Gary promised. He handed his cup to his mom as he spotted a flight attendant headed their way.
“We need to get you settled, Mr. Hobson,” she said with a smile. “If you’ll allow me?” She circled around behind her charge and grasped the chair handles.
“Sure,” Gary sighed. He hated other people taking control of his chair, but he had to admit that, sometimes, it was necessary. He turned to wave one last time to his folks. “I’ll call you in the morning,” he promised.
The flight attendant wheeled Gary into the first class lounge.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t be more comfortable down with the other passengers?” she asked.
“Positive,” Gary replied with a tiny smile that almost touched his eyes. “I’m really tired, and wouldn’t be good company. Is there someplace I can stretch out?”
“Of course, sir,” she told him. “I can help you onto the sofa, but you’ll have to remain upright until we’re airborne. Regulations,” she said by way of apology.
“No problem,” he grinned. “Just wake me up before we land. Oh! And you might want to warn the other passengers that I snore. And pretty loud, too, according to my friends.”
The flight attendant, who’s nametag identified her as Cindy, returned his smile and promised that anyone else who might wander up there would be duly warned.
Later, when the flight was well underway, Cindy was talking with another attendant about the ‘problem’ passenger she had been assigned to.
“I don’t know what they were so worried about,” she was saying. “He’s been no trouble at all. In fact, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. Hasn’t asked for anything but a blanket and an extra pillow.”
“Oh, that wasn’t what they were warning us about,” the other woman responded with a smile. “Captain Bailey said this is the man who saved his daughter. Stayed with her right through surgery, then disappeared before they could thank him. I don’t remember how the captain said they finally found out who he was, but he’s earned special treatment.”
Gary stirred fitfully as he dreamed, once more, of being trapped in rising snow. He couldn’t move, couldn’t . . . couldn’t breathe! With a strangled gasp, his eyes snapped open and he struggled to sit up. ‘God!’ he thought. ‘What is it with snow, all of a sudden?’ Seemed as if most of his dreams, lately, revolved around the frozen precipitation.
Oh, no! He looked down at the familiar orange shape draped across his legs. A copy of tomorrow’s Sun-Times lay in his lap.
“How did . . .? Never mind,” he murmured. “I don’t even want to think about how you got up here. I’m in a jet liner, for cryin’ out loud! You think I can fly this thing, or something?”
“Alright, already! Sheesh!” Gary snatched up the Paper, grumbling something about bossy felines. ‘Freak Snow Storm Downs Flight! No Survivors!’ the headline read. Alarmed, Gary scanned the article. A sudden, unpredicted blizzard hit Denver Airport just minutes before a plane inbound from Chicago was due to set down. Visibility was quickly reduced from 500 feet to zero, forcing the airport to turn away all flights. The inbound flight from Chicago, however, had already dumped its remaining fuel in preparation for a possible crash landing due to a landing gear malfunction, leaving them no such option. The poor visibility resulted in the plane overshooting the runway. There were no survivors.
Gary hit the call button. As good as her word, Cindy appeared within a few minutes.
“I need to see the captain,” he insisted. “Please! It’s urgent!”
“Are you ill, Mr. Hobson?” the young flight attendant asked in obvious concern.
“N-no. Nothing like that,” he assured her. “Just tell the captain I need to see him. Now, please! It’s a matter of life and death!” ‘Ours,’ he added to himself.
A few minutes later, Gary was relieved to see Amanda’s father enter the lounge.
“Cindy said it was urgent,” the pilot commented after greeting his daughter’s friend. He noticed the orange tabby curled up in Gary’s lap. The young man was stroking the cat in a distracted manner. “Nice cat. Is it yours?”
“Hmm? Oh, um, sorta. But, this really is urgent,” Gary told him. “We have to change our flight plan. Denver . . . W-we won’t be able to land there.”
Captain Bailey eyed his passenger strangely. He gingerly lowered himself onto the coffee table facing the sofa that Gary had been stretched out on just moments before. The pilot studied the man before him, taking in his pale features and nervous gestures. Hobson seemed genuinely apprehensive. No, frightened. The man was scared to death and trying hard not to show it.
“I need something more to go on than that,” the pilot told him. “Why can’t we land at Denver?”
“Be-because a warm air mass from the southeast is going to hit a . . . a cold front from the northwest,” was Gary’s quick reply. “The warm air is full of . . . of moisture. When it hits that cold front right over Denver, visibility is . . . .is gonna drop . . . like a rock. And it’ll happen just minutes before you dump your fuel. By the time you make your approach, you . . . you won’t be able to see the runway lights.”
“And you know this . . . how?” Captain Bailey asked skeptically. “And how do you know that we might need to dump our fuel?”
“The same way I knew Amanda needed surgery,” Gary replied in hushed tones. “The . . . the same way I knew she’d . . . she’d die if I didn’t do something.”
That got his attention! Captain Bailey sat back, his assessing gaze locked with Gary’s pleading one. He saw no deceit in those muddy green eyes, only an earnest desire . . . no, a need to be believed.
“We’re less than twenty minutes out of Denver,” he finally said, rising from his seat. “I’ll have the tower contact the weather service. If they confirm your . . . analysis, we’ll alter our destination.”
“If they don’t?”
“Then I have to proceed as planned,” the pilot told him as he headed for the door. “I’m sorry, Gary. That’s the best I can promise at this point.”
As the senior pilot passed close to his nervous passenger, Gary reached out a hand in supplication.
“Please,” he begged in a near whisper. “Don’t dump your fuel. Not until you absolutely have to. Please.”
“No promises, but I’ll hold off as long as I can. Now, you promise me something. Don’t go spreading this around. I don’t want my crew, or the other passengers alarmed needlessly.”
Gary sat back with a soul weary sigh. “Why do you think I asked for you to come here?” He nodded at the empty chair. “Because of that? Trust me, I don’t want a panic anymore than you do, but I’m not ready to die, either. Not anymore.”
“Call the tower,” Captain Bailey told his engineer as he resumed his seat. “I want the very latest weather report. Preferably one that’s less than an hour old.”
“No problem,” the younger man grinned. “Planning to get in a little R&R?”
“No,” Bailey replied, no humor in his voice. “I need to know if they’re tracking a warm front from the south.”
The engineer exchanged a startled look with the copilot before turning back to his captain. “How’d you know about that? They just called it in less than a minute ago. It’s slow moving, though, and shouldn’t be a problem.” He looked at his map. “In fact, it’s not due to hit that cold front until it’s somewhere in the vicinity of Boulder. Why?”
“No reason,” Bailey shrugged. No need to say anything. Hobson was probably just having a case of the jitters. Understandable considering all he had been through this past year. Still, he had known about Amanda . . . “Just in case we need to divert,” he cautioned, “let’s go over alternative landing sites.”
Puzzled the engineer checked his maps. “The next nearest, other than Boulder,” he finally said, “is near Colorado Springs. Their Municipal Airport can handle us.”
Captain Bailey glanced at the chronometer. That tail wind coming out of Minneapolis had put them almost fifteen minutes ahead of schedule. It wouldn’t hurt to throttle back . . . just a little.
Gary couldn’t keep his eyes off the Paper. No matter how badly he wanted to lay it aside, ignore it, his eyes kept drifting to that damning headline. From what Bailey had told him earlier, they should be making their approach any minute. ‘Please,’ he prayed. ‘Please let him listen. Don’t let all these people die because I wasn’t convincing enough! Please!’
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a familiar voice said over the PA. “This is your captain speaking. We have just been advised that Denver is under severe weather conditions. Our destination has been altered to Colorado Springs Municipal Airport. For those of you with connecting flights, there will be personnel on hand to help you make arrangements. Thank you.”
Leaning back with a relieved sigh, Gary once more glanced at the headline. ‘What?’ He snapped erect once more. ‘That can’t be! We changed . . .’
Rerouted Flight Downed By Freak Accident. Gary quickly read the new article. According to the Paper, an energy surge out of the nearby Cheyenne Mountain Complex would knock out power to Colorado Springs, the airport, and Peterson Air Force Base. As a result, the inbound passenger plane would collide with a military transport carrying munitions. Again, no survivors.
Cheyenne Mountain. Why was that name so . . . Jackson and O’Neill! That was the place where that . . . Ah, man! Was he going to get mixed up with that again? Gary hit the call button.
“I need to see the captain,” he said when Cindy appeared. “Now.”
The young barkeep was still sitting upright on the sofa, once again facing a skeptical Captain Bailey.
“You have to patch me through!” Gary insisted. “Trust me on this! If I don’t talk to someone in that mountain in the next few minutes, they’re gonna blackout an area of over a hundred square miles! Including the airport and the airbase! It’s gonna knock out backups and everything!”
“This is a top flight, military facility, Hobson,” the captain sighed. “It’s not like calling 911. You have to have some kind access code or password just to get past the switchboard.”
“You just get me through to the switchboard,” Gary told him. “Then leave the rest to me.”
Bailey rubbed his hand over his face in frustration. What did it take to get through to this guy?
“Why did you divert the flight?” Gary asked suddenly. Bailey just stared at him as understanding sank in. “I was right about that and I’m right about this,” Gary told him. “Trust me.”
A few minutes later, Gary was talking to Cheyenne Mountain.
“I need to speak to General George Hammond,” he was saying. “Yes, I know what time it is! And it’s running out! My access code is . . . is Gamma Hydra nine one seven six five. Password? Um, Roller Coaster. Thank you!” He drummed his fingers nervously as he waited for the call to be put through.
Off to one side, Bailey listened in amazement. Just who was this man his little girl was so taken with? And what was he into that required he be acquainted with high ranking military officers?
“General! Thank God! This is . . . You remember . . . ? That’s . . . No, this isn’t a secure line,” Gary sighed. He ran his free hand through his hair nervously as he listened to the man on the other end of the line. “Yes. I do know what time it is! Please, listen to me! Are you doing anything with . . . with the, um, that ‘thing’ tonight? Yes. That . . . that thing I, um, rode last year. Don’t do it. No. Don’t even send a . . . Don’t send anything. No, don’t do that, either. It’s bad. Really bad. No, I don’t know how . . . Just trust me. If you . . . proceed, there’s gonna be a power surge that’ll knock out power for more than a hundred square miles, causing two planes to collide, with no survivors, and a lot of other people will be injured by the debris. Where . . .? I’m . . . well, I’m calling from one of them.” Gary listened for a moment, then sat back with a relieved sigh. “Thank you,” he said, casting a furtive glance at the new headline. “Wh-what? But I have this friend meeting . . .” The next sigh was one of resignation. “Yes, sir. I’ll be . . . No. I haven’t . . . I won’t . . .” Gary glanced at his watch, then looked to the captain. “How long before we land?”
“Thirty minutes,” Captain Bailey assured him.
“Thirty minutes,” Gary relayed to the general. “Yessir. Just make sure it has a ramp. That’s right. A ramp. You’re a smart fella, General Hammond,” he replied with an ironic little smile. “I’m sure you’ll figure it out. See you then.” He pushed the disconnect button and handed the phone back to the pilot. “Everything’ll be okay, now,” he said. “The general wants to see me, though. Something tells me I’m not going to make my connection. Oh, um, would you do me one more favor, before we get there?”
“Sure,” Captain Bailey sighed. “Why not?”
“Is there anyway to check out the landing gear before we get there?”
Less than ten minutes after his flight touched down, safely, Gary was whisked aboard an Air Force transport copter and flown to a helipad just outside the Cheyenne Mountain Complex. An olive drab sedan was waiting to drive him the rest of the way to the Complex. Two familiar figures stepped out of the darkness as Gary was propelled forward by an airman, the orange tabby curled in his lap. The taller of the two men, Jack O’Neill, was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans topped by a brown leather flight jacket. His salt and pepper hair was covered only with an olive-drab baseball cap. The other man, Daniel Jackson, was slighter of build and had short, dark blonde hair and glasses, but his attire was similar to that worn by his companion. Both wore equally stunned expressions.
“The first one that says ‘sorry’,” Gary quipped, “in any context, is gonna get run over. And I mean that!”
“What the hell happened to you?” the older man asked incredulously.
“Changing a light bulb at the head of my stairs,” Gary shrugged. “The stepstool slipped, the wires ripped, zap, POW and now . . .” he held both hands out in an expressive gesture. “The new and not so improved Gary Hobson, at your service,” he added dryly. “How’ve you been, O’Neill? Dr. Jackson. You guys still riding that what’zit to wherever?”
“Two or three times a week,” the older man shrugged, pulling a hand out of his pocket to shake Gary‘s. “See you still have the fur ball. How does this affect your roller coaster?” he asked, indicating the chair.
“Makes it a little more . . . challenging,” Gary admitted. “Look, guys, it’s been a long night and I’ve got a friend who’ll be waiting for me at LAX in a few hours. Can we get this show on the road?”
“Oh, sure,” Daniel Jackson responded as he jerked his eyes away from the chair. This was, after all, still the same man who had saved his and Jack’s life last year. Not just once, either. “Do you need any help?”
“Just for leverage,” Gary shrugged. “If you can hold the chair steady, I can manage the rest.”
They soon had him situated in the back seat and his chair stowed in the trunk. O’Neill slid into the front seat with the driver, while Jackson shared the back with Gary.
“So!” O’Neill sighed loudly. “You heard anything from that other guy? What was his name? Foster. Cade Foster.”
“A card now and then,” Gary shrugged. “Or an e-mail from that friend of his. Shocked the crap out of me when I saw that special on him and . . . well. In his case, truth really is stranger than fiction.”
“You should talk,” Jackson murmured.
“Like wise,” Gary retorted with a wry grin. “Face it, guys. None of us leads anything close to a normal life. Don’t you wonder, sometimes, what it would be like? To come home to all the ‘family’ things everyone else takes for granted? A wife, kids, watching them grow up. PTA, Little League, their first crush. All that. Don’t you just . . . just wish . . .?”
“Almost every day,” Daniel and Jack sighed in unison.
“So, how are the Bulls looking for tonight’s game?” O’Neill asked, trying to lighten the mood. “How much should I bet?”
Gary stole a glance at the sports section and winced. “Save your money.”
General Hammond was better at hiding his shock than either Jackson or O’Neill. His only visible reaction as Gary was wheeled into the briefing room was a slightly straighter stance, and a resigned sigh.
“That explains the ramp,” was his only verbal comment on the subject. “I’ll not waste your time on platitudes, Mr. Hobson,” he continued. “The reason you’re here is, I have to explain to my superiors how a man flying 30,000 feet in the air was able to predict that a planet over 35,000 light years away was being subjected to an electromagnetic storm of global proportions.”
“S’cuse me?” Gary leaned forward in his chair. “Is that what was happening? How did you find out? I mean without opening the ‘Gate?”
“We sent a team through to an alternative site,” Major Samantha Carter replied as she stepped through the door. Her eyes were glued to a sheaf of papers as she spoke. “Hi, Mr. Hob . . .son. Oh.”
Gary looked at the general with a shrug. “I’ve been getting that a lot, lately.”
“I’ll just bet you have,” the officer grinned. At least the young man had kept his sense of humor intact. Although it couldn’t have been easy. “Anyway, we sent a probe through from that other site, and it was fried instantly. Sent a surge through the ‘Gate that knocked everyone off their feet and destroyed the monitoring equipment.”
“If we had proceeded according to protocol,” Major Carter added, quickly averting her eyes from that chair, “your prediction would have come true.”
“And I’d be dead,” Gary murmured with a barely suppressed shudder. ‘Again.’ “So, what else can I help you with?”
“You can tell us how you knew,” Major Carter replied. “You were on route to Denver, until the weather diverted your flight. I checked with the pilot. He said you had warned him of a blizzard even the National Weather Service didn’t see coming. Then you warned him of the impending blackout, without revealing anything about the Stargate.”
“Thank you for that, by the way,” Hammond told him.
“Your welcome,” Gary responded politely. “But you know I can’t tell you how I knew. We went all over that last time. I don’t need a bunch of bureaucrats breathing down my neck, telling me who to save and who to let die. I just can’t play that game.”
“Isn’t it . . . well, harder now?” Daniel wondered aloud. “I mean, how do you get to a rooftop to stop someone from jumping? Or pull someone from a fire?”
“Pray for a freight elevator,” Gary quipped. “And burn rubber. Seriously, I do have people helping me. Although only a few of them know where I get my information. The rest take it on faith.”
The door swung open at that moment to admit a tiny redhead and a huge black man with a curious golden emblem embedded in his forehead. Gary’s eyes widened at the sight. ‘That must’ve hurt!’
“Sorry to intrude, General,” the tiny woman apologized. “But Teal’c just told me that . . .oh, my God! What happened?”
“I get that a lot, too,” Gary sighed. “Nice to see you, Doc. Who’s your friend?”
“What? Oh, um, Teal’c, Gary Hobson. Gary, Teal’c. From the planet Chulak,” Dr. Janet Fraiser said by way of hurried introduction.
“Nice to meet you,” Gary said, shaking Teal’c’s hand. Gary rubbed his forehead, unable to take his eyes off that golden symbol. “That looks . . . painful.”
“It was,” Teal’c intoned.
“Very, I’m sure,“ Janet remarked. “Now, give. What happened?”
Gary was getting ready to give his abbreviated version when the general spoke up.
“That can wait for later,” the commanding officer cut in. “Right now, we need to get our stories straight.” He turned to Gary. “I can understand your reluctance to open yourself up to any kind of government scrutiny, but I have to have something to tell those same pettifogging pencil pushers! Throw me a bone of some kind!”
Gary drummed his fingers on his knee as he stared at the small group of people arrayed about the room. Behind General Hammond was a large plate glass window. From his current position, Gary couldn’t see below the level of the sill, but he was well aware of what lay beyond. Just a little over a year before, he was kidnapped and brought to this very facility by agents of an alien race that called itself the Gua. As part of a proposed treaty with another entity called Apophis, he was snuck into the base, and flung through the rippling vortex created by a large stone circle known as the Stargate. It had not been a fun ride.
“Is that golden clown still ticked at me?” he asked suddenly.
“Well,” Daniel murmured with a tiny grin, “he’s got a bounty on your head that’s equal to mine, if that tells you anything.”
“Really? How much?”
“I don’t know, exactly,” the young archaeologist shrugged. “But I’ve been assured it’s a lot more than a day’s rations.”
Gary shot Daniel a puzzled look, then turning back to the general, he said, “All I can tell you, sir, is that I wake up each morning knowing what’s gonna happen that day. That gives me less than twenty-four hours to change what needs changing. Sometimes a lot less. Most of the time, everything works out. Most of the time.”
“So how did this happen?” O’Neill asked, waving a hand in the general direction of Gary’s chair. “Didn’t you get any kind of warning?”
“Not a bit,” Gary replied ruefully, with a shake of his head. “Best I can figure, I wasn’t supposed to.”
“Well, that sucks!” O’Neill commented.
“General,” Dr. Fraiser spoke up, “I’d like to do a full work up on Mr. Hobson. Maybe we can help him in some way.”
“No, please,” Gary quickly told her. “Look, I appreciate the offer, and I do want to walk again. God, do I want to walk! But, anything you do I have to explain. I’ve been like this for six months, now. A few more months isn’t gonna kill me.”
“Are you sure you will get out of that chair so soon?” Janet asked in concern.
“Not really,” Gary shrugged, “but there’s no reason why I can’t. The damage to my spine is healed. My legs just haven’t got the message yet.”
“Then why not let me do a few tests?” the doctor persisted. “Maybe we can find something your own doctor can use.”
Gary rubbed the back of his head thoughtfully. A glance at the general just got him a slow nod of approval. Still hesitant, Gary looked down at the cat curled in his lap. It just looked back at him and purred. No objections there, apparently.
“Can you do what you want and still get me to LAX by six?” he asked. “My friend’ll have a fit if he has to pay an extra hour for parking.”
Two hours later, Gary was leaving the ‘medical wing’ with Dr. Fraiser when the klaxons started echoing throughout the base.
“What the heck is that?” Gary asked, looking around in alarm. “Are we under attack?”
Dr. Fraiser paused before answering.
“Incoming wormhole,” a disembodied voice announced. Seconds later, “Signal confirmed. It’s SG6.”
Janet smiled as she turned to her temporary patient. “That’s the team we sent to the alternate site,” she told him. “As you know, Stargate travel is pretty much one-way. Radio signals can go both ways but nothing else can. When we didn’t get a signal right away, we sent another probe through. That’s when they told us what had happened. Unfortunately, that surge also knocked out power to their ‘Gate. So we sent through . . .”
“Never mind,” Gary sighed. “That’s more than I need to know.” They continued on to the elevators, returning to the floor containing the briefing room. As they exited the conveyance, Gary thought he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. He turned his head slowly until he was looking down the corridor that led to the ‘Gate room. “Um, those fellas in the snake armor,” he mused aloud. “You don’t usually have a couple of ‘em wandering around loose, do you?”
“Serpent Warriors?” Janet snorted. “I should hope not!”
“Th-then I think you’d better sound another alarm,” Gary stammered, slowly backing up. “Cause there’s two of ‘em comin’ down the hall.”
Puzzled, Janet peered intently down the long corridor. It was brightly lit, allowing her to see all the way to the next corner. To her eyes, it appeared empty.
“That’s nothing to joke about, Gary,” she scolded.
“I’m not joking!” Gary hissed. “Two guys in snake armor, carrying those funny looking poles with the thingies on the end. The kind that blow holes in people? Can’t you see them? They’re less than ten feet away!”
Janet was beginning to wonder if she should have run a brain scan on him, when the cat that had remained by his side since he arrived gave out a low, rumbling growl. Glaring daggers in the same direction that Gary was staring, it lay its ears back and let loose with a hiss that left no room for doubt. There was something there! She lunged for the alarm, slapping it a split second before an energy bolt crackled through the spot she had just vacated. “Run!” she yelled as the klaxons once more sounded through the complex.
“I’m delusional, and the cat you believe?” Gary grumbled as he raced alongside the fleeing physician. The aforementioned feline had already disappeared around the distant corner.
“I’ll apologize later,” Fraiser snapped. “Move it!” Another blast gave additional urgency to her order.
They rounded the next corner, almost running over Major Carter and Daniel Jackson. Daniel was armed with an odd device shaped roughly like the letter Z. Carter was holding a wicked looking cannon with the biggest laser site Gary had ever seen.
Unarmed, Gary and the doctor ducked behind the two that were armed. Gary couldn’t see that the laser site on Carter’s weapon was going to be all that helpful. Instead of an intense red beam, it was more diffuse, like the beam from a flashlight. As it played over the two armored aliens, Gary seemed to see them more clearly, as if they were being brought into focus. As soon as they were fixed in the beam, Carter and Jackson both fired. A bolt of energy crackled from Daniel’s weapon, cascading over one of the intruders. He fell to the floor, twitching spasmodically.
The blast from Major Carter’s weapon was much more lethal. It tore through the other warrior like a hot knife through butter.
Gary sat back in his chair, stunned and sickened by the sudden violence. In his mind, he knew it had been necessary, that those two had been bent on destruction. Still . . . His musings were cut short by a low, throaty growl. Startled, he turned just in time to see a pair of huge, armored hands reaching for him. With a panicked cry, he tried to dodge the grasping appendages, but had no room left to maneuver. The hands grabbed the front of his jacket and Gary was hauled from his chair with no more effort than if he had been a small child. He found himself slung over a broad shoulder like a sack of potatoes as the big Jaffa turned and headed back for the ‘Gate room at a dead run.
To everyone else, it appeared that Gary was flying through the air backwards, with his derriere pointed at the ceiling. A position that Gary did not find at all amusing. He tried beating on the broad back with both fists clasped together, to little effect. He tried pulling at various catches, to no avail. Finally, Gary hit on one that retracted the headpiece back into the collar. What he saw was a dark skinned man of middle years, with a black tattoo similar to Teal’c’s. What he did was to twist around until he could clamp his teeth onto the warrior’s ear.
With a scream of pain and rage, the huge alien flung Gary as far as he could. Gary slammed into a wall less than ten feet away. Stunned, he slid to the floor as his assailant stalked toward him. The expression on his dark features boded ill for the hapless young man. Unable to escape, Gary could only lie there and wait for the next round. With a look of pure hatred, the alien reached down and grasped Gary’s jacket.
The air around them both crackled with energy as pain ran up and down every nerve in Gary’s body! Even his desensitized legs were not immune to some discomfort from the fire that coursed through his body! A brief burst of sound, and the writhing figure next to him fell still. Gary found himself wishing they would extend the same mercy to him. Gradually, the fire in his veins subsided to dull embers and Gary found that he could breathe again.
“Good God!” he gasped as anxious hands lifted him onto a stretcher. “What the hell was that?” He opened his eyes to see O’Neill grinning down at him, one of the oddly shaped pistols, like the one Daniel had been carrying, dangling loosely from one hand.
“This li’l ol’ thing?” the officer smirked. “We call it a zatgun. One shot knocks ’em down. Two knocks ’em dead. The third is for clean-up.”
“I don’t even want to know what that last remark meant,” Gary mumbled with a shudder. “Just, please, don’t ever do that again!”
“Funny, that’s what Danny said.”
“No residual damage from the zatgun,” Fraiser reported, after giving Gary another, even more thorough, ’going over.’ “Although your back is going to be one solid bruise. How do you feel?”
“Like my whole body is gonna be one solid bruise,” Gary sighed. With the doctor‘s help, he sat up and pulled his chair closer. “Can’t I just stop by and say ’Hi’ once in a while without you guys laying out these little surprises? What ever happened to sitting down to a nice cup of coffee and some quiet conversation?” He levered himself into the familiar conveyance with a sigh of relief.
“You came to the wrong place for that, my friend,” Janet laughed. “What I can’t figure is, why you were able to see those Jaffa, and we couldn’t! They had a cloaking device we’ve run into before, and thought we were prepared against. But, none of the alarms were tripped when they arrived.”
Gary squirmed uncomfortably as he considered his own theory. “Have you ever seen that movie with Bruce Willis and that Osment kid? The one that could see dead people?”
“The Sixth Sense? Sure,” Janet shrugged. “Loved it. Why?”
“Well, once in a while, I’ve . . . I mean, a couple of times . . . I have, too,” Gary finished with a rush. “J-just a few times, mind you. Nothing as weird as that kid was doing. A-and once they had what they came for, they were gone. Although one keeps coming back,” he murmured under his breath, thinking of the specter of Lucius Snow. “I think it has to do with this . . . whatever it is that lets me know what’s gonna happen each day. Does that make any sense?”
“Actually,” the tiny physician mused, “it does. We know from his reaction that your cat also saw the intruders. And I do apologize for doubting you. That was so . . . but you have to admit, it was so . . . out of the blue. I should know better than to dismiss anything odd around here.”
“Even me?” Gary grinned as he headed for the door.
“You? Why, Mr. Hobson,” she teased, “for this place, you’re absolutely normal. Now, let’s see about getting you a ride to Los Angeles. We don’t want to keep your friend waiting.”
“Hey, Gar! Buddy! Pal! Long time no see!” Chuck could be heard all along the concourse as he greeted his friend. “Man, it is great to see ya! Did you have a good flight? What was all that with the changes and delays ‘n’ such? You hungry? I can have Jade drop the kids off at the sitter’s, then she can meet us for breakfast, if you like.”
“It’s good to see you, too, Chuck,” Gary replied with a sleepy grin. “The flight was . . . okay, but I’m really tired. Could we take a rain check on breakfast? I’d rather get a little shuteye, if you don’t mind.” He mentally added a hot bath to his list of things to do. Dr. Fraiser was right. He was sore all over.
“Hey! No problemo, compadre,” Chuck grinned. “She’d kill me for getting her up this early, anyway.” He took a good look at his best friend. “From what your dad told me, I expected to see a lot more damage. I can’t tell you ever had frostbite. And he told me your heart stopped. Again. What’s up with that? You trying for ‘frequent dying miles’ or something?”
During this discourse, Gary was looking around nervously, making urgent shushing motions with his hands.
“Could you keep it down?” he hissed. “It’s not exactly something I want the whole world to know about! Please! I just want to go somewhere and sleep for a few hours.”
“Your wish, and all that,” Chuck shrugged. “Don’t sleep all day, though. We only have three days before I’m supposed to take you up to the camp. Jade and I don’t want to waste a minute!”
Gary followed his friend to the baggage carousel as they spoke. Looking up at the monitor, he noted the time. It was just a few minutes past six.
“How long will it take us to get to your place?” he sighed.
“Less than an hour,” Chuck told him. “We’ve got this little place right on the beach. It’s great. We got it cheap ‘cause some guy got ‘offed’ there. One of our neighbors is a doctor and his son. A police detective. He’s been mixed up in some weird stuff, murders and everything. You’ve gotta meet them. Mark and Steve Sloan. Great guys. They’re coming over for dinner tonight.”
“Tonight?” Gary winced as he snagged his solitary suitcase. “Why tonight?” The pet carrier with the cat was next. The moment Gary grabbed the case, he set the cat free. The orange tabby immediately curled up in his lap and went to sleep.
“Cause I promised Jade I’d introduce you to a cousin of hers.” Chuck at least had the good grace to look repentant. “And Steve is single, too. Just covering all my bases, Gar,” he added, hands up in a ’warding off trouble’ gesture. “Wait ’til you meet Dr. Sloan, though. He’s a riot.”
“Chuck,” Gary responded with a weary sigh, “I’ve just gotten out of the hospital for the third time in less than a year. Four, if you count that ER visit when I was mugged. The last person I want to meet, right now, is another doctor. Couldn’t you drop me at a motel, or something and just tell everyone I died?”
Chuck grabbed the handles of the wheelchair and headed for the entrance. “Sorry, Gar,” he replied with a grin. “In your case, that’s no excuse.”
“Jade has told me so little about you, Gary,” the pretty blonde was saying. “Just that you live in Chicago and run a bar. There has to be more to you than that!”
Gary just shrugged as he toyed with his dinner. “That pretty much covers it,” he replied with a shy grin, just glancing up briefly before turning his attention back to chasing down a wayward morsel of potato. “That and my therapy,” he amended. ‘And the cat,’ he silently added. ‘That cat takes up a lot of time.’ “I also get out, occasionally. There’s a park right on the lake I like to go to when the weather’s nice. Th-that pretty much sums it up. What about you, Crystal?”
“I’m trying to break into acting,” Jade’s cousin smiled. Gary couldn’t help noticing that she had a lovely smile. “Chuck has promised to introduce me to a few people while I’m here. Have you ever considered acting? You certainly have the looks for it.”
Gary suddenly found himself very interested in that potato. “Just a little amateur theater once,” he mumbled, as a slow flush crept up to his hairline. God! Were his ears red, too?
“Chuck tells us you’re quite the hero,” Dr. Sloan spoke up, taking a sip of his wine.
Gary looked up at his friend in alarm. “H-he said what?”
“I was telling them about you going in after that kid on the pier,” Chuck was quick to assure his friend. “How you kept him afloat until help could arrive.”
“Well, you almost died, Gar!” his friend snorted. “Don’t you think a little crowing is in order?”
Flustered, Gary was at a loss for words. At least Chuck hadn’t spilled anything that couldn’t be explained. Or had he? Just how much had his friend divulged to the Sloans?
“C-couldn’t let him drown,” he finally mumbled, head bowed to hide another blush. “J-just trying to do the right thing. Um, Chuck tells me you’re a police consultant, Dr. Sloan. Forensics?”
“You’re familiar with the field?” Dr. Sloan asked, amused at how quickly the young man acted to divert attention from himself. He launched into a lengthy, if not overly detailed, recount of one of his most recent cases. He tried to draw Gary out, finding himself curious about this secretive, and tragic, young man. Gary proved adept at turning the conversation onto any subject other than himself. The elderly physician was also impressed by Gary’s knowledge of forensics.
“You seem to be well informed in such a specialized field, for a bartender,” Steve commented dryly.
“I, um, I’ve had reason to look into it,” Gary shrugged. “O-on occasion.” God! Did every topic have to end up with a third degree? Or was it just his overly taut nerves that made it seem that way? “I have this. . . this friend back home,” he stammered nervously. “He’s a retired cop. Marion Crumb. He, um, he tends bar for me sometimes. Zeke, th-that’s what he likes to be called, um, he got me interested in . . . in forensics and police work.” ‘That and being dragged in for questioning umpteen dozen times,’ Gary thought to himself.
“Don’t be so modest, Gary,” Jade grinned. “You never did tell me how you came to be the one delivering twins in an elevator, while my husband was passed out in the corner.”
“Twins!” Mark Sloan repeated with a smile. “That must’ve been quite an experience!”
“I-it was just one of those ‘right time, right place’ kinda things,” Gary stammered. “Chuck has this thing about, well, body fluids. So, when I heard he was trapped in an elevator, with a woman in labor, it . . . it just seemed the right thing to do.”
“Tell me about what happened last Halloween,” Crystal urged. “Jade told me you were the one who killed that escaped fugitive. The one that broke into your home and tried to kill you. She said you were incredibly brave!”
Both Dr. Sloan and his son perked up at that. Chuck and Jade looked at the young actress-wannabe as if they would cheerfully strangle her on the spot. Gary had turned as white as a sheet.
“Really!” Dr. Sloan mused. “A home invasion?”
“S-something like that,” Gary murmured, finding he was no longer hungry. “Could you excuse me, please? It’s . . . It’s been a long day, and I think I could use some fresh air.” He backed away from the table and headed quickly for the deck.
As soon as he was out of earshot, Jade turned on her cousin.
“I only told you that because you recalled seeing the article in the paper,” she hissed through clenched teeth.
“I just asked if he was the same . . .” Crystal tried to defend herself.
“And I asked you not to bring it up!” Jade reminded her. “You have no idea what Gary’s been through since his accident. And, of all the things you could’ve talked about, you had to pick the one topic that almost pushed him over the edge!”
“It was that traumatic?” Dr. Sloan asked with concern.
“It was,” Chuck told them in rigid tones. He cast Crystal a withering look. “He was trapped under that bastard’s body for hours. He was paralyzed, wounded, and cuffed to his wheelchair. It took hours of reconstructive surgery to save his left hand, and he had a bullet wound in his right shoulder. When he went into the water to save that kid, he still had no feeling in that left hand, at all. And he almost drowned, himself. Then his heart stopped. The doctors said it was because his body was so cold from the water. That enough detail for you, Crystal? Or do you want to hear about how depressed he was for weeks after it happened because he felt he deserved what was happening to him? Deserved it for killing that . . . It took every one of us to finally convince him that his finger had never been on the damned trigger. If that’s not enough, how about the flashbacks and the nightmares? How about not being able to sleep in your own bed because of seeing that sick . . .?”
“That’s enough, Chuck,” Jade admonished. “I think they all get the picture.” She turned to the two men. “Gary’s a rare individual. He really cares about doing the right thing. No matter how much it may cost him, personally. And, lately, it’s cost him a lot.”
Chuck scooted his chair back and rose abruptly. “I’d better go see how he’s doing,” he said. “Excuse me.”
Crystal turned an apologetic gaze on her cousin.
“I’m so sorry, Jade,” she murmured. “I really didn’t mean to upset him! Most guys I know can’t wait to brag about how brave and manly they are. I just thought that, well, Gary was one of the few people I’d ever met who’d actually earned bragging rights.”
Jade cast a sorrowful look after the back of her retreating husband. “It’ll be okay,” she sighed. “Gary’s a very forgiving person. He’s also a very private person. Things like this, well, he’s easily embarrassed.”
“You make him sound like a saint,” Steve grumbled, taking a sip of his wine. “I’m sure he has some flaws!”
“Stubborn as a mule,” Jade smiled. “Hard-headed, opinionated, just the tiniest bit sexist. Just your typical male character flaws. Other than that, he has to be the nicest guy on the planet.”
Chuck caught up with Gary on the deck. His best friend was staring out at the ocean, the setting sun casting long shadows behind him. “You okay, Gar?” he asked quietly.
“Sure, Chuck,” Gary sighed. “I’m fine. Just . . .” he glanced down at his hands, “you know.”
Clasping his friend’s shoulder and giving it a gentle nudge, Chuck nodded. “Yeah. I know. Still having those dreams?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” Gary shrugged. “Not as much, though. I think . . . I think some part of me still wants to take the blame for what happened, even though I know it wasn’t my fault. It’s just . . . just that, sometimes, when I close my eyes, I can still see the look in his eyes when . . . or feel his . . . his heart . . . beating against mine,” he continued in a tight voice. “Th-the way it got faster and f-faster, and then just . . . quit. I-it’s not like I’ve never seen anyone die before, Chuck. There was M-Marley, Harry Hawkes, Hernandez, Jeremiah Mason, Earl Candy, Judge Romick, and let‘s not forget everyone‘s favorite ‘dog with a bone,’ Frank Scanlon. I couldn’t . . . couldn’t stop any of them from dying. So . . . so why should one more matter so much? Can you tell me that?” He was ashamed to feel moisture trickling down his cheek. Damn! When would that well go dry? “I’m sorry,” he sniffed, drying his eyes on his sleeve. “I’ve ruined your dinner.”
“Nah,” Chuck shrugged. “This is LA. It’s not ruined until we hit the six o’clock news. Then it’s free publicity. Besides, you’re tired. You got, what, two hours sleep on the plane? We should’ve scheduled this for tomorrow night, after you’d had some rest.” He studied his friend more closely, noted the dark smudges under his eyes. “You feel like coming in, now? Or you wanna watch the stars come out?”
Gary nodded, pivoting his chair around. He stopped in mid-turn, startled to see Dr. Sloan standing just inside the patio doors.
“I wanted to see if there was anything I could do,” he told them. “I didn’t mean to intrude. Are you going to be alright?”
“Sure,” Gary shrugged, his voice still a little husky. “I’m just tired. Tried to sleep earlier, but I can’t seem to close my eyes while the sun’s up.”
“Especially not with the twins crawling all over you,” Chuck grinned. “They seem to like you. Gar.”
“Feeling’s mutual,” the young barkeep replied with a shaky smile. “They’re great kids. So, um, let’s go back inside.” He looked up at his friend. “Didn’t you say there’s pecan pie for dessert? With butter?”
Chuck shook his head sadly. “How the hell do you stay so skinny piling on the cholesterol like that?” he asked.
“Jogging helps,” Gary said with a wry grin.
“Hardy-har-har,” Chuck snorted. He turned to his other guest. “See what I put up with? This is why I left Chicago. He never takes me seriously!”
“I thought it was the hundred thou you got from helping that old lady cross the street?” Gary smirked.
“Really?” Dr. Sloan grinned. “I thought you said you made that in the stock market?”
“Oh, for that you will pay,” Chuck told his friend. “You, me, in the park first thing in the morning. You better have an extra glob of butter, bucko, cause I’m gonna run your butt off!”
The next morning, after Gary beat a roller-bladed Chuck in a hundred-yard dash, he joined his friend and his family on a trip to the new Long Beach Aquarium. Later, Gary held the twins, one in each arm, while Jade and Chuck each took turns pushing the chair, like a stroller, around Venice. They enjoyed the scenery, the local crafts, and the friendly people. Then came a picnic lunch at the park. After which, it was back home and nap time for the babies.
Gary tucked the blanket around his namesake, marveling once more at his friend’s good fortune. Who would have figured that, of the two of them, it would be Chuck who ended up with ‘The Dream.’ The wife, kids, a house on the beach. No picket fence, but close enough. Chuck, the perennial bachelor, ended up with everything that Gary had ever wanted, and more. His friend, who had always dreamed of material wealth, now had everything that really mattered. While Gary had . . . what? ‘What do I have?’ Gary wondered. ‘McGinty’s, the Paper, the cat and . . . that’s it. My folks, Marissa, a few good friends, but no one to really share my life with. No child of my own to tuck in at night. Is it really fair for me to want that? With all the time I have to devote to the Paper, not being able to make plans, would it be fair to inflict that on a woman I loved? On innocent children?’
“A buck-fifty for your thoughts.”
Gary tore his eyes away from the sleeping children to give his friend a sad smile. “Isn’t that a little steep?”
“West Coast prices,” Chuck shrugged. “Whatcha thinkin’ about?”
“Nothing much,” Gary sighed. “Just that you’ve got to be one of the luckiest men alive.”
Chuck and Gary moved their conversation out to the deck. For a few minutes they sat there, just listening to the sound of the waves washing against the sandy shore as they sipped at their drinks. A lone gull drifted low over the waves, the setting sun reflecting off of its gleaming white wings.
“What’s it like?” Chuck asked suddenly.
“Hmm? What’s what like?” Gary mumbled drowsily. The rhythmic ebb and flow of the waves had almost lulled him to sleep.
“That,” Chuck replied, waving a hand at the chair. “What’s it like being . . . well . . . you know?”
Rousing from his comfort induced stupor, Gary half turned to face his friend. “No,” he said. “I don’t know. What’s on your mind, Chuck?”
“I was just wonderin’ . . . I mean, you seem to be . . . ‘okay’ with what’s happened,” his friend shrugged.
“Oh . . . you mean being . . . paraplegic,” Gary nodded. “It’s . . . well, it’s difficult to explain unless you can be a little more specific. There’s no pain, if that’s what you mean. No physical pain, anyway. Frustrating? Ho boy! You have no idea!”
“No kidding!” Chuck snorted. “Stairs must be a royal pain.”
“Most public places have ramps these days, Chuck,” the young barkeeper chuckled. “No, I mean . . . well . . . like I said, there’s no pain, but . . . there’s nothing else, either. It’s like shifting around two . . . sides of beef, or something. You never realize just how much your legs weigh until you have to move them by hand. And they’re just . . . dead weight. Then there’s the difference in the way people treat you. The way they look at you without wanting to see you. Or the way they try to avoid looking at you altogether. The way they stop treating you like a person and more like . . . like an object to be pitied. I don’t want pity, Chuck. I don’t need it. I-it’s demeaning. It makes people see me as being a cripple, not a man.”
“I think it’s natural for most of us to fall into that trap,” Chuck shrugged, taking a sip of his beer. “I mean, you see some poor schmuck go rolling by and you wonder how he ended up in that situation. Or someone like Marissa, being blind and all. Most of us want to help out, somehow. Make things a little easier, you know?”
“A little help is okay,” Gary sighed. “Even appreciated. But I’m not helpless. I can do a lot of things for myself. I can feed and dress myself. I don’t need help getting in or out of a tub if it has grab-bars or handrails. I can even cook, if things are set up like they are in my loft.” He paused to take a sip of his drink. “I’ll have to draw the line at skydiving, though.”
Chuck almost choked on his beer. “Skydiving! Wha . . . Oh, yeah! I can see you trying to get a parachute rigged for a chair!”
“That’s not it,” Gary chuckled, glad to have lightened the mood a little. “You can rig a ‘chute for just about anything. It’s heights, Chuck. I’m still not crazy about heights.” He took another sip of his beer, staring out at the setting sun once more. “It’s also a bear to get this thing through snow. What do ya think? Should I go with snow tires or all-weather radials?”
“Are we still talking about that chair?” Chuck asked.
“Sure,” Gary deadpanned. “I’m thinking of jazzing this baby up. Personally, I think the radials would look cool. Get ‘em with whitewalls, maybe put streamers on the handlebars, some racing stripes on the sides. Oh! What do ya think about a red flaming decal on the armrests?”
Chuck shook his head solemnly. “That would be a testament to bad taste.” he replied, keeping a straight face with difficulty. “I’d call it quits with the whitewalls.”
“Yeah. You‘re right,” Gary sighed. “The flames could be a bit much.” He set his empty bottle on the table. “Now, you tell me something.”
“Sure. Whatcha wanna know?”
“How does it feel to be a dad?”
Chuck’s face lit up like a beacon and he launched into a glowing account of the joys of fatherhood. Smiling, Gary sat back and let his friend talk, the subject safely diverted from himself once more. Besides, he loved hearing about the babies.
Steve Sloan looked up at the pair chatting away on the deck. At least Fishman was chatting. Hobson seemed to be content just to listen. Shaking his head, Steve waved at the two men and continued on down the beach to his dad’s house. Mark Sloan had invited Jesse and Amanda over for an early dinner, as this was one of the few days all of them were off at the same time. He arrived to find his father flipping steaks onto the grill.
“Checking out the new neighbors, Steve?” Dr. Jesse Travis asked as he helped set the table. Jesse was a very young man who appeared to be in his late twenties with sandy blonde hair. He barely came up to the taller man’s shoulder.
“Just one of them,” Steve replied. He took the drink offered by the pretty black pathologist. “Thanks, Amanda. Dad overheard them talking yesterday and ask me to check out some names this Hobson guy mentioned. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I found out!”
“Really?” Dr. Amanda Livingston asked, taking a seat at the table. “Such as?”
“Wait!” Dr. Sloan pleaded. He sprayed a little water on the flames before putting the last steak on the grill. He then pulled up a chair. “Okay, what did you find out? How did those men die and how was Gary involved?”
“First of all, you should all know about Savalas,” Steve began. “It was in all the papers last year.”
“My God, who could forget that,” Amanda replied with a shiver. “Imagine fighting for your life while a party is going on down stairs!”
“Or having to lie there with someone dying on top of you,” Jesse shuddered. “Gross! That poor guy must’ve freaked after that!”
“That ‘poor guy’ is sitting on that deck less than half a mile down the beach,” Steve told them. “He seems okay today, but last night, when Crystal brought it up, he went whiter than Dad’s hair.”
“Remember you said that when you get to be my age,” Mark chided his son. “What about the others?”
“Right. Starting with Marley,” Steve sighed. “Without a first name, I had to really dig to find out anything on him. The only one I could find that might fit is a J. T. Marley who was killed a few years ago by the Chicago PD. It was cross-referenced with Harry Hawkes and, of all people, President Tyson. It took a lot of digging, pulling in a few favors, and just out-right bribery, but I think I have the gist of the story on that, at least. Marley was an assassin in town to kill the president. He killed Hawkes, framed Gary for the murder, then set the poor guy up to take the blame when the assassination went down. Marley was shot right in front of Hobson and dropped dead at his feet. That was in November of ‘96.”
“I think I remember reading about Hawkes’ murder,” Mark murmured. “They never mentioned any of the rest of this.”
“That’s because the Secret Service didn’t want to admit that Marley used to be one of theirs,” Steve explained. “Swept it under the rug so fast the dust didn’t have time to settle. Hobson was cleared of all charges. Next is Hernandez, again no first name. But Hobson, and an Assistant State’s Attorney named Rachel Stone, were held hostage by a John Hernandez a few years ago. Hobson talked him into releasing Stone by offering to drive him out of the blockade. Which he did. Hobson was among the three witnesses when Hernandez was hit by a train. After saving the life of Stone’s son.”
“Who saved him?” Amanda asked, enthralled by the account. “Hernandez or Hobson?”
“Both, according to the boys. Where was I? Jeremiah Mason,” Steve sighed. “That one . . .” He shook his head sadly. “Hobson was trying to clear an apartment building that caught fire from a boiler explosion. The investigation later showed that there was no way anyone could’ve set the fire. The boiler room was locked, but, now get this, Hobson pulled the alarm five minutes before the explosion!”
“If he got everyone out,” Jesse asked, “then what happened to Mason?”
“This is where it gets even stranger,” Steve told him. “Hobson was down on the street with the tenants before the explosion actually occurred. Someone said he pulled a paper out of his pocket, looked at it, and ran back into the building. Apparently, Mason was some homeless guy sleeping on the roof. As Hobson was trying to get him across to another building, the old guy slips and falls. A Detective Armstrong said that Hobson was in shock when he arrived on the scene. Just staring at nothing, talking in this . . . numb sounding voice. A couple of days later, Hobson was almost killed himself when he chased a couple of kids out of this derelict building just seconds before it collapsed on top of him. They had already given up and put in the call for the coroner when they heard him calling for help.”
“He must’ve been unconscious the whole time,” Mark guessed. He failed to suppress a shudder as he imagined being buried alive. “For someone who attracts trouble the way he does, you’d think his name would have been in every paper in the country, after a while.”
“Hobson refuses to let himself be named,” Steve shrugged. “He’s so publicity shy it’s scary. Then we get to the incident where Hobson and Savalas first cross. The murder of that columnist, Frank Scanlon. Hobson was arrested and jailed for that, but managed to escape on the day he was taken to be arraigned. There was a Tri-state manhunt for him until another detective, Brigatti I think her name was, came up with the evidence against Savalas and some guy who’s name I can’t pronounce. Hobson, who was still on the run at the time, shows up just in time to keep Savalas from killing Armstrong and Brigatti. No one knows how he knew what was about to happen, but he was right in the nick of time.” He paused to take a sip of his beer. Talking was thirsty work.
“Next is Earl Candy, a good Samaritan type who was out taking food and blankets to homeless people during a severe snow storm. Hobson found him in a derelict building, a piece of a skylight sticking in him. Stayed with him until an ambulance was on its way, but had to leave before it got there. Candy told this to the EMTs. Hobson later shows up at the ER with a guy having a heart attack. Candy doesn’t make it, but his tissue is compatible with the heart attack victim. So he gets a much needed transplant, and Candy does one more good deed.”
“The ultimate ‘good deed’,” Amanda murmured.
“Okay, we’re down to the wire, here.” Steve continued. “Judge Romick. Hobson was seen being thrown out of this bar, called the Z Bar. Owned by a guy named Baylor who had been accused of murdering his girlfriend. The guy, Baylor, was trying to pick up this off-duty nurse. Hobson comes along, warns her what happened to the last girlfriend, and gets the crap beat out of him. A few minutes later, Baylor shoots Judge Romick who gets between him and the girl. Hobson recovers just in time to deck Baylor and get the gun away from him. Judge Romick died in his arms. It was on the night after Romick’s funeral that Hobson had the accident which put him in that wheelchair. Armstrong said the guy hasn’t had a decent break since. Hobson’s spent more time in the hospital than he has at home this past year.”
“Wow!” Jesse mumbled. “Talk about your hard luck stories!”
“No wonder he doesn’t like to talk about it,” Mark sighed. “Can you imagine the kind of nightmares he must be having?”
“Can you imagine what those steaks are gonna taste like if you let ‘em burn?” Jesse asked, pointing at the flames coming from the grill.
With a cry of alarm, Mark jumped up to tend to his cooking. The others sat back to talk about less serious topics.
Gary awoke the next morning, a little unsure of where he was. It took him a moment to recognize his surroundings. He was lying on the foldaway bed in Chuck’s den, the sound of the surf providing a soothing background noise. Occasionally, the haunting cry of a foraging seagull echoed through the early morning stillness. The sun was barely up, so why had he awakened?
‘Ah no!’ “I’m on vacation!” he moaned. “Chicago’s a coupla thousand miles away! I’m in a freakin’ wheelchair, for cryin’ out loud! My entire body feels like one solid bruise. Can’t you cut me a little slack?”
Propping himself up on his elbows with a resigned sigh, Gary glared down at the smugly purring feline curled up on his legs. A copy of the Los Angeles Times lay across his knees.
“At least you’re not leaving it at the door,” he murmured, reaching down for the periodical. “I’d have a heck of a time explaining this to Jade.”
He flipped it open to reveal a disturbing headline. ‘So what else is new?’ he mused. The picture accompanying the article was of a face he had met only recently.
‘Prominent Physician And Son Die In Freak Incident,’ the banner headline read. Gary quickly scanned the account of how Dr. Mark Sloan and his son, Police Detective Steven Sloan, died from the bite of a deadly Fer-de-lance. The venomous reptile had been stolen from an illegal private collection early that morning, but had escaped from the thief as he crossed Dr. Sloan’s property while making his escape. It was believed that the reptile may have entered through a loose seal around an air-conditioning conduit.
“Snakes,” Gary shuddered. “Who in their right mind would steal snakes?” He looked at his watch. Five thirty. The cat was giving him a running start, at least. The incident wasn’t due to happen for another hour. He struggled to sit up. Chuck had been unable to rent him an orthopedic bed for such a short time, or to provide him with a trapeze bar. Now, how was he going to do this? Chuck and Jade were still asleep. The twins had kept them up most of the night. Maybe the good doctor was already up? Gary reached for the phone book on the coffee table, quickly searching for the correct entry. Bingo!
Snatching up the phone from the table, Gary dialed the number. He let it ring for several minutes, to no avail. Either it was turned off, which he doubted, or Dr. Sloan was not home. Gary scanned the article a little further. There! It happened as he was returning home from a late night/early morning consult concerning one of his regular patients in the ER. Taking a quick glance at his watch, Gary noticed that he still had a little over thirty minutes to stop the incident.
Throwing a robe on over his sweatpants and t-shirt, Gary pulled his chair up from its position near the head of the bed and struggled into it. Minutes later, he was rolling down Chuck’s front walkway and onto the sidewalk. Dr. Sloan’s residence was just a little over a block away. If he hurried, he could get there just as Dr. Sloan was arriving home. As he swiftly propelled his chair along, he wondered about Dr. Sloan’s son, Steve. Where was he?
As Gary neared the doctor’s residence, he caught a glimpse of a distant stretch of beach. Steve was coming toward him in a steady jog, dressed in sweats and running shoes. ‘Good,‘ he thought to himself. ‘Maybe I can keep both of them out ‘til Animal Control gets here.’ He had put in the call just before he left Chuck‘s house. Gary also saw a darkly clad figure crawling around the side of the house, obviously searching for something. Crap! The damned snake must already be loose!
“Hey!” Gary yelled. Startled, the slender figure jumped up, preparing to run. Gary was ready for that. He hurled the football he had borrowed from Chuck’s display case, the same one that had been signed for him by Chicago Bears quarterback, Joe Damski, catching the fleeing trespasser right behind the ear.
Caching sight of the action, Steve increased his pace, arriving just as his father‘s car was coming into sight..
“Don’t go in the house!” Gary warned him.
“Why not?” Steve asked as he hauled a teenaged boy to his feet. “Did you see someone else?”
“Not ex . . . Dr. Sloan! Don’t go in!” he cried as the car disappeared into the garage. Afraid he had not been heard, Gary turned to Steve. “The kid stole a poisonous snake from some private collection a little ways up the beach,” he quickly explained. “It’s in your house now!”
“What?” Steve exclaimed, glancing towards the house, then back to Gary. “Are you sure? Did you see it?”
“Yes, I’m sure,” Gary snapped, “and no, I didn’t see it. Just, please, stop your dad before he gets bitten.”
“He’s right, man,” the boy gasped, struggling to get away. “It’s a Fer-de-lance. One of the deadliest snakes on the planet!”
Steve thrust the still struggling boy at Gary, who grabbed the young man’s wrist and twisted it firmly behind his back. The detective raced to the garage, stopping his father just as he was reaching for the door leading into the house. He quickly explained what Gary and the boy had told him.
“A Fer-de-lance!” he exclaimed, backing away from the door. “Who in their right mind . . .? Wait, Fred Caruthers,” he sighed. “That man is snake crazy! Drove his poor wife nuts before she left him. How did you know?”
“I didn’t,” Steve replied. “Gary did. He knocked some . . .”
“Hold still, will ya?”
Steve winced as he remembered that he had left Gary holding their prisoner. After grabbing a set of handcuffs from the glove compartment, detective and doctor returned to the front to find Gary lying on top of the loudly cursing youth. Steve cuffed the boy to the porch railing, then he and his father helped Gary back into his chair. As this was happening, the Animal Control van drove up. Dr. Sloan happily let the experts handle the retrieval of the deadly reptile.
As the hunt proceeded, the Sloans sat out front, plying Gary with questions. The young miscreant who had started it all kept grumbling about getting ‘taken out by a cripple with an arm like Doug Flutie.’
“So, how did you know?” Steve asked. “You said you didn’t actually see the snake. And how did you know it was from a private collection?”
“And how did Animal Control get here so fast?” Dr. Sloan asked.
“I, um, called ‘em before I left Chuck’s,” Gary admitted, squirming uncomfortably under their intense scrutiny. “I-I thought I heard this noise. It took me a while to, um, to get to the deck, but then I saw this kid coming out of th-the house down the street. Chuck . . . Chuck said this guy collects all these . . . these exotic reptiles. I-I have to be getting back, now,” he stammered. “Chuck and Jade, th-they’ll be getting up soon. I‘d better . . .”
“Wait!” Mark pleaded. “How did you know the boy had stolen a poisonous one? Are you psychic?”
“Wh-who, me?” Gary squeaked. “N-no. No, I just . . . sorta . . . figured . . .” He wished it wasn’t so hard to make a quick, graceful exit in a wheelchair. “Look, I really have to be getting back. This . . . this is my last day before we, um, have to drive up to that camp and-and there’s still a-a ton of things they want to show me. Plus I have to . . . to pack and, um, I gotta go. Bye.”
Gary spun his chair around and practically peeled rubber getting out of there.
“That is one strange young man,” Dr. Sloan remarked. He looked over to where the men from Animal Control were coming out with a writhing burlap bag. “Very strange.”
Steve bent to retrieve an object half-hidden in the grass near where the boy had been searching. He tossed it to his dad. Mark caught the football, turning it over in his hands to see that it was autographed.
“Maybe, we should return this,” he smiled.
Gary hurried back the way he had come, hoping to get back before his hosts woke up. ‘Too late,’ he sighed to himself. Chuck and Jade were coming out of the front door as he neared their driveway. Jade was obviously upset and Chuck was doing his best to placate her.
“Why would he have run out so . . .There you are!” Jade exclaimed. “Where have you been? When I got up to check on the twins and saw your bed empty, I thought . . . God! I don’t know what I thought!”
“I told you he’d be okay,” Chuck grinned. His smile vanished as he turned to his friend. “So where the hell were you, Gar? You scared the crap out of us!”
Gary bristled at their autocratic tone. He wasn’t a child, after all! He still didn’t like it when his real parents used that tone with him.
“I came out to get the paper,” he grumbled, giving Chuck a significant look. “You know. The paper? Anyway, I saw someone sneaking around that house down the road . . .”
“And you had to chase him, didn’t you?” Jade accused. “You couldn’t come in and call the police? You had to worry us half-to-death, instead? This is your last day, Gary. We‘d planned on leaving the children with Crystal while we went to San Diego.”
Gary was really getting irritated now. “I’m not a child, Jade,” he growled. “Please don’t talk to me like I was. I’m new to the neighborhood, remember? How was I to know he didn’t belong there? So, I followed him to Dr. Sloan’s place. As he crossed Dr. Sloan’s yard, he started acting funny. Like he’d dropped something. I yelled at him, he started to run, so I threw the . . . Oh, man!” he exclaimed, slapping his forehead in frustration. “I forgot the ball!”
The autographed football landed in his lap. Gary winced as he heard footsteps approaching from behind.
“You mean that one?” Steve Sloan asked, coming up behind the chair-bound man. “Quite an arm you’ve got, there, Hobson. Nailed that kid from almost fifty feet. Ever play pro?”
“N-not exactly,” Gary stammered. “Just that one game, right, Chuck?”
“Um, yeah, right,” Chuck squirmed. Jade was giving her husband a strange look. “That was when we met ‘Regular Joe’ Damski. Thanks for bringing it back, Steve.”
“Could we have a few words with Gary?” Mark Sloan asked as he, too, joined the group in Chuck and Jade’s front yard. Coming up from behind the chair, he placed a hand on each of Gary’s shoulders, giving them a tiny shake. “Alone?”
“No problem,” Jade smiled as she took her husband by the arm, tightly. “Chuck and I have a few things to discuss, also. Don’t we, dear?”
“S-sure thing, darling,” Chuck replied, giving his wife a nervous smile. “D-don’t be too long, Gar. Once Crystal gets here to baby-sit, we have to be ready to go.”
“I’ll . . . I’ll be right in,” Gary sighed. As his friends disappeared inside, Gary turned to face the Sloans.
“The story you told us just doesn’t quite match what you told them,” Steve observed. “You knew about the snake before you ever left the house, didn’t you?” When Gary turned his eyes away without answering, he continued. “We’ve dealt with psychics before, Gary. It’s not that big of a deal.”
“I’m not psychic!” Gary grumbled. “I got woke up by the noise, came out to investigate and get the paper. I saw the kid and followed him. The rest you know.”
“Then how did you know about the snake?” Dr. Sloan asked. “The boy said it was already in the bag before he left the house.”
Gary just stared down at his hands without saying anything.
“You saved my dad’s life, Gary,” Steve told the silent man. “I’m not trying to interrogate you. I just want to know how to word my report so my bosses don’t think I’m crazy.”
“Yeah, well, when you figure out how to do that,” Gary sighed, “let me know. I could use a few pointers.”
Go on to Installment 7
Return to Installment 5
Email the authors: Polgana54@cs.com