An hour later, the Sloans had checked into the Hilton, then returned with Gary to McGinty’s. The young tavern owner excused himself for a few minutes to make a phone call from his office.
“Hello? Is this Grace’s? I’m calling from the . . . the Department of Health,” Gary improvised on the spot. “Normally you get your seafood from . . . Yes, yes. No-no, there’s no problem with them, but you got a deal on some soft shelled crabs from . . . that’s the one! Y-yes. Well, we’ve gotten some complaints from a few of their other customers. It seems that their latest shipment was caught near a recent oil spill. Exactly! Yes, very sick. Now, without testing, we can’t say that your crabs are contaminated, but considering what something like that can do to your reputation . . . That’s what we thought, too. I really think that’s for the best, don’t you? Oh, no. Thank you. Thank you very much. Have a good day.”
Gary replaced the receiver on its cradle and sat back with an explosive sigh. That had gone easier than he’d expected. A glance at the paper confirmed that the headline had changed. It also showed that no new disasters had cropped up. Yet. The day was still young. Gary levered himself out of his desk chair with a painful grimace. Carter hadn’t been kidding when he said that bruise was going to hurt.
Mark and Steve were enjoying a plate of Buffalo wings and talking with Marissa when he limped back to their table. His partner looked up at the sound of his footsteps, favoring him with a disapproving frown.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed?” she asked. “I know Dr. Carter told you to stay off that leg.”
“And how would you . . .? Did you two . . .?” His guests shook their heads, mouths still full of chicken. “He called, didn’t he,” Gary sighed as he slid into his seat. “Doesn’t anyone think I have sense enough to t-take care of myself?” he asked in exasperation. “Are you guys gonna nursemaid me for the rest of my life?”
“No,” Marissa replied with a knowing smile. “We keep hoping you’ll outgrow the need to throw yourself in front of moving vehicles.”
“I didn’t . . . My cane slipped!” he protested. Gary turned to his two visitors. “You were there! You saw what happened! T-tell her!”
“He’s right, Ms. Clark,” Dr. Sloan confirmed, swallowing the spicy morsel. “The cane lost traction on the pavement when Gary tried to pull that gentleman back onto the sidewalk. It really wasn’t his fault.”
“It’s never his fault that he gets hurt,” Marissa sighed. “That doesn’t mean I have to sit here and like it when he does.” She took a sip of her coffee, setting the cup down carefully before she continued. “We almost lost you several times last year, Gary. As rough as that was on you physically, it was just as bad for us emotionally! It tore all of us apart to know that you were lying in that hospital bed, fighting for every breath. I had nightmares for months where we found you . . . found you too late.”
On impulse, Gary reached out and pulled his partner into a close embrace, his lips brushing her forehead in a chaste kiss.
“I guess I never took the t-time to see it from the flip side,” he apologized, giving her shoulders a gentle squeeze. “But I do t-try to be careful, Marissa. Honest.”
Dr. Sloan cleared his throat with a loud ‘ahem!’ “I take it you make a habit of taking risks,” he observed with a wry smile. “Is that how you ended up in that wheelchair?”
“No,” Gary grimaced as he released his hold on Marissa. “It was stupid. I fell down the s-stairs leading up to my loft. It was late, I was t-tired, and the light blew. Instead of w-waiting ‘til daylight, like I should have, I decided to change it right away. The stepstool broke and . . .” He finished by making a swooping gesture with his hand. “I d-don’t remember a whole lot after that.” he shrugged.
“I do,” Marissa shivered. “I remember every single time your heart stopped. Even when you were in the ambulance and Crumb was driving us to the hospital, I could feel it each time you . . . you died. I r-remember them telling us later, at the hospital, that . . . that they couldn’t bring you back. A part of me died with you that time. Then, when they told us you were still alive, I cried. Oh Gary, you have no idea what it was like to hear that someone you care about so much has risen from the dead! And then there was the vigil we all kept by your bedside, hoping to be there when you woke up. I remember the tears in your mother’s voice when she told us you . . . you couldn’t . . . couldn’t feel . . .”
Gary tried hard not to let the pain he felt at his partner’s little speech show on his face. He had known that everyone had been frightened for his sake, but to hear it put so . . . eloquently . . . He took a napkin and gently wiped a tear from her cheek. “It’s okay, Marissa,” he murmured. “It’s over now.” He glanced at the cane leaning against the wall near his chair and made a face. “M-mostly, anyway,” he added in a sour tone. That got a choked laugh and a tiny smile from his partner. “That’s better. Now, let’s see if J-Jake can scare us up something to eat. I’m starved.”
“If you get the Buffalo wings,” Marissa sniffed as she wiped at the corners of her eyes, “ask for the mild sauce. Jake’s on some kind of unholy crusade to give everyone in the city a chance to experience spontaneous combustion first hand. I honestly don’t know what’s gotten into that man lately. Ever since he found this cookbook of Middle Eastern recipes, his dishes have gotten positively volcanic!”
“Thanks for the warning,” Gary shuddered. “That’s all I n-need is for one of his entrees to burn a hole through me. I’ll have a talk with him later about t-toning it down. Lisa?” he said to the young waitress as she passed. “Could you just ask Jake to fix me a t-turkey club platter? And tell him no surprises,” he added hastily.
“You mind if I get the recipe for these hot wings?” Steve asked. “They’ll go over great at my restaurant.”
“You own a restaurant?” Gary asked, surprised. “I didn’t know that! What kind?”
“It’s a little place called Barbeque Bob’s,” Mark replied as Steve had just bitten into another chicken wing. “He and Jesse Travis run it together. It’s gotten to be a pretty popular spot.”
That got a lively discussion going on the ‘ins and outs’ of the restaurant business as compared to a sports bar. It also, thankfully, diverted the conversation away from Gary’s ‘extra curricular’ activities. They were able to enjoy their meal, a rare event in Gary’s case, and catch up on what was going on in each other’s lives.
“Dr. Fraiser needs to know how well you’re doing,” Dr. Sloan commented. “Have you called her lately?”
Gary shook his head as he sipped at his soft drink. “She c-called last week, though,” he replied. “W-wanted me to know she and some ffriends were going to be here for the ‘Blues Festival’ this year. Promised to look us up. You guys gonna be here?”
“We might,” Steve nodded. “I have some ‘off’ time coming.”
“Jesse and Amanda might like it, too,” Mark added, almost as an after thought. “If she can find someone to look after the children, that is.”
At that moment, Crystal came rushing in with Darlene in tow. They looked around, letting their eyes adjust from the bright sunlight outside before catching site of Gary’s party. The two women quickly crossed the room to his table.
“We just heard about your accident!” Darlene exclaimed anxiously. “Are you all right? Nothing broken? How bad were you hurt? Can you . . .?”
“Whoa!” Gary threw both hands up in a ‘warding off’ gesture. “One qu-question at a time, please! First of all, I’m fine. Just a few bruises. Nothing that’s gonna interfere with the rehearsal tomorrow night. Second, how did you find out so quick? It just happened a coupla hours ago.”
“Marion has a scanner,” the older woman reminded him. “He heard the description and what happened and just knew it had to be you. He called and told me I should find you and check it out. Are you sure you’re all right? No trouble walking or getting up and down?”
“I’m fine, honest,” Gary sighed. He quickly introduced her to the Sloan’s, who already knew Crystal, and explained about the play. “I get to play the v-victim,” he added with a wry smile. “Something Crumb feels I’m over qualified for.”
Steve shot his father an amused look. “I wonder what gave him that impression?”
Gary caught the looks passing between father and son, bristling slightly. “Oh, very funny,” he grumbled. “Ha-ha.”
Early the next morning, Gary dragged himself out of bed with a low groan. His leg felt as if it had been pulped, slammed against a brick wall a few times, then fed through a meat grinder. The day was getting off to a wonderful start.
He had to keep the Paper waiting a few minutes as he struggled to make his way to the door. For the first time in over a week, Gary had to use both canes. ‘I can’t let Mom ‘n’ Dad see me like this!’ he told himself. ‘They’ll be all over me!’
The cat was sitting patiently with one paw on the Sun-Times. The orange feline met his bleary-eyed gaze with a concerned ‘querr?’
“I’m okay,” Gary assured the furry messenger. “Just a little stiff. C’mon. Let’s get you fed.” He knelt down carefully to retrieve the periodical, straightening with a visible effort. Tucking the Paper under his arm, he followed the cat to the kitchenette.
As the cat scarfed down its breakfast, Gary skimmed the headlines. ‘Thank you, God,’ he thought with a mental sigh. It looked like a slow day. He had plenty of time for a hot soak and a leisurely breakfast before having to save Carl O’Rourke from two thugs at the racetrack.
“How’s the leg?” Steve asked as he took a seat across from his host.
“S’okay,” Gary shrugged. “A little stiff if I sit too long. How’d your seminar go today?”
“Wonderful!” Dr. Sloan replied with a grin. He slid into the seat to Gary’s left. “Your Police Department has a marvelous forensics lab. I was especially impressed with the medical examiner’s . . . Gary? Are you all . . .? Oh. Oh, my! I’m so sorry! I’d forgotten all about . . .!”
“Th-that’s okay, Dr. Sloan,” Gary stammered uneasily. All the color had drained from his face at mention of the ME. He tried to cover his reaction by digging into the bowl of chili in front of him. “Um, you . . . you guys should try some of this. I’m thinking of hiring this guy to cover for Jake while he’s on vacation next week. It’s on the house.”
That was all the encouragement the two Californians needed. Two steaming bowls were quickly brought out and set before his two guests.
“S-so, um, you . . . you’re enjoying your stay?” Gary asked nervously.
“You have a beautiful city, here,” Mark Sloan replied with an engaging smile. He was quick to take the hint. Any change in subject would be welcome. “It’s full of history and character. And the people have been wonderful. It‘s changed so much since I went to school here, yet it‘s stayed remarkably the same.” He took a taste of his chili, making appreciative noises. “This is good. Hire the man.”
“If you don’t,” Steve grinned, “I will. Ask him if he’s willing to relocate.”
“Not on your life,” Gary chuckled, beginning to relax. “Good help is a Godsend these days. So, what’re your plans for this afternoon?”
Steve paused to swallow a mouthful of chili before trying to speak. “I have a couple more classes, then we’re free for the day. Dad has to deliver a class on . . . what was it? ‘Medical History And How It Can Affect The . . .’”
“I get the picture,” Gary shuddered. “So you’ll be free for a couple of hours before supper? Have you been to the Navy Pier? It’s a great place to start, and has some of the best restaurants.” Not to mention that he had two ‘errands’ taking place there that evening.
“I’m beginning to understand Armstrong’s viewpoint,” Steve growled as he helped Gary out of the car. “I can’t believe you made that dive! And less than ten minutes after catching that kid on the Ferris wheel!”
“J-just an-nother d-day in the l-life,” Gary stammered, trying to suppress the shivers that ran through his body. The waters of Lake Michigan were still way too cold for him at this time of year. “Y-you ‘spected me t-to let the guy d-drown?”
“We were right there, Gary,” Mark sighed, bringing up the rear. He stepped up to adjust the blanket around the trembling man’s shoulders. “You could’ve asked for help.”
“S-sorry,” the younger man shrugged helplessly. “H-habit. N-not used to h-having b-back-up.”
As they made their way through the crowded bar, Gary just smiled and waved to the few patrons staring at them with slack-jawed amazement. The stairs were a real trial, but they finally got him into his loft. They soon had him stripped of his wet clothing, helping him get settled into the steaming waters of the Jacuzzi.
“God!” he sighed. “That f-feels great. Thanks, guys.”
Mark lowered himself to the edge of the tub, while Steve leaned against the open bathroom door. “You do things like this every day?” the older man asked with obvious concern.
“P-pretty much,” Gary admitted with a deprecating shrug. “T-today was k-kinda . . . slow.”
Father and son exchanged amused, rueful glances.
“I’m not sure I wanna be here when things get hot,” Steve murmured.
Gary slid a little deeper into the swirling waters with a sigh. “Me neither.”
“Now, Elaine,” Darlene instructed, “this is the scene where ’Vic’ confronts ‘Angelique’ with the prenuptial agreement. “Take it from ‘It was his lawyer’s idea.’ Marion, try not to scowl so much. You’re conducting an investigation, not an inquisition.”
“I’m not scowling!” the ex-cop grumbled.
“You’ve scared off three stray dogs and a wino hiding among the props, old boy,” Reggie quipped in his cultured tones. He held a hand up to one ear, as if listening intently. “And I do believe that rustling is the sound of the last rodent vacating the premises!”
The look Crumb turned on the smiling man would have soured every drop of milk in the ‘Dairy Belt.’ “I . . . was . . . not . . . scowling.”
“Crumb,” Gary chuckled, “when you frown hardened thugs run for cover. You scare the crap out of most of ‘em just by looking thoughtful.”
“It’s all those years you spent perfecting your investigative technique,” Mark Sloan spoke up from the second row of seats. “It’s hard to turn off thirty years of habit.”
“You mean I’m going to look like that when I retire?” Steve asked in mock horror. “That’s it! I’m handing in my resignation the minute we get back!”
Crumb looked around, his smoldering gaze flicking from one detractor to the next. Then he broke into a grin, shaking his head ruefully. “Awright! Awright! I’ll tone down the ‘heat.’ A little,” he promised. Glancing down at his watch, he scowled purposely. “It’s almost midnight. Past your bedtime, Hobson,” he growled.
The young barkeep shot him an indignant look. “S’cuse me?” Gary asked. “Since when do I have a curfew?”
“Since you got knocked back onto the ‘injured’ list the other day,” Darlene replied. “Marion’s right. You need to get off that leg and take it easy the rest of the night. We can work around your scenes for awhile before we call it a night ourselves.” She turned to Crystal. “Dear, would you mind calling him a taxi? The phone is on that wall over there, just above the ‘prop’ table.”
Steve had turned to whisper something to his father when Crumb mentioned the time. Glancing at his own watch, he stood as if to go. “I’ve got a car outside,” he told them. “If someone can give Dad a lift later, I can take you home. I need to be up early tomorrow, anyway,” he shrugged.
“Thanks,” Gary replied stubbornly, “but I think I’ll stick around ‘til everyone else leaves.”
Crystal favored her boss with a steady, speculative gaze. “Gary,” she said sweetly. “Could you come here just a moment?”
Puzzled, Gary levered himself upright with the help of his cane and tried to take a step forward. A quick move on Oscar’s part kept him from falling flat on his face. The young barkeep had spent so much time on his feet that night that, when he’d finally gotten a chance to sit down for a little while, his injured hip had stiffened up on him. He was barely able to move it at all!
“Whoa, Gary!” Oscar laughed quietly as he pulled Gary‘s left arm over his shoulders. At the same time he put his right arm around the other man‘s waist in a supportive embrace. “Easy, pal. I’ve got you.”
“That’s what I thought,” Crystal observed clinically. “Go home, boss man,” she told him. “Take a hot bath and get some rest. We won’t be getting to your next scene for a while anyway.”
Embarrassed, Gary nonetheless knew when he was licked. Or whipped, in this case. The moment he’d tried to move that leg, he had known they were right. To add to the indignity, he was forced to lean heavily on Oscar to make it to the side entrance, where Steve was pulling his rental car up. Gary let go of Oscar long enough to grasp the doorframe and ease himself into the passenger seat. He then had to take his injured leg in both hands to lift his foot over the sill. Thanking Oscar for his help, Gary sank back with a sigh as Steve put the car in gear.
“One of these days,” Gary grumbled, “I’m gonna go from sunrise to sunset without anything weird happening to me. And without ending up in the nearest trauma center.”
“Think you’ll live that long?’ Steve asked with a dry chuckle.
“Probably not,” Gary sighed. “But a guy can dream, can’t he?”
Steve just shook his head, a bemused grin lifting the corners of his mouth. His passenger was a true enigma. Gary claimed no psychic abilities. Yet, so far as the detective was able to determine, the younger man was constantly acting on ‘premonitions’ that were ten times more accurate than anything he had seen or heard on the ‘Psychic Hot-line.’
“So how do you do it?” Steve finally asked.
“Do what?” Gary mumbled tiredly. “Get hurt so much? That’s easy. I’m on a ‘karmic hit-list.’ Can’t go to the bathroom anymore without raising my insurance rates.”
“No,” the LA cop chuckled. “How do you get to all these accidents before they happen? How can you know when someone needs help? Do you have a crystal ball or something?”
Gary had been wondering when ‘the subject’ would come up. Now, if he could just come up with a plausible answer.
“Truthfully?” he sighed. “I-I don’t know. Seriously, I’m not psychic. I’ve never been psychic.” Gary kept his eyes on the darkened scenery flashing by his window as they drove. “I don’t know what I am anymore. I just know that I’m . . . I’m given a chance, every day, to make things right. To save lives, stop disasters, or just make someone’s life a little better than it could’ve been. Please don’t ask me again how I know, because it doesn’t make any sense. Just be satisfied that I do, and that I could help you and your dad because of it.”
“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth, huh?” Steve nodded. “I can understand that. How long have you been getting this information?”
Gary looked over at the blonde cop, the corner of his mouth turned up in wry amusement. “You don’t let up, do you?”
“I’m a cop, remember?” Steve replied with an easy smile. “I’m supposed to be nosy. Just answer the question, please. You know I can dig through your file and come up with a close guess.”
“So why don’t you?” Gary asked, playing along.
Steve just shrugged, saying, “It’s easier this way?”
“September of ‘96,” Gary chuckled. “That’s when it started. I have no idea as to why, or why I was chosen over anyone else.”
“You believe you were ‘chosen’ for this?” Steve asked. “That it wasn’t just . . . chance?”
“I know I was chosen,” Gary sighed. “That’s the hell of it. I just don’t know who does the choosing or what criteria they follow in making this choice. Or even how I came to their attention in the first place. And why am I telling you all this? I haven’t even told this stuff to the cops I know here!”
Steve pulled his rental car up to the curb in front of McGinty’s before answering. He got out of the vehicle, quickly circling around to help Gary lever himself to his feet. Slipping an arm under the younger man’s shoulders, Steve supported him in his limping shuffle to the front door.
“I’ve talked with that Armstrong fella a couple of times,” he replied. “About you. The words ‘crackpot’ and ‘delusional’ cropped up . . . a lot.”
“I’ll bet,” Gary grunted, trying to force his stiffening thigh into more flexibility. “Sounds like he was being his usual diplomatic self.”
“Yyeeah!” Steve nodded. He grasped the door handle, holding the portal open so Gary could enter first. “Anyway,” he continued in a lower voice, “I guess I’m willing to take things more at face value. ‘Weird’ isn’t just a word in Los Angeles. It’s a way of life.”
“Certainly describes mine,” Gary mumbled. “Hi, Mom! Business looks good to . . . night. Ho boy. I’m in trouble.”
Lois Hobson looked as if storm clouds would scatter before her wrath. “Gary Hobson!” she growled. “What is the meaning of this?”
“This?” Gary asked innocently, shooting Steve a quick glance. “Wh-what this? What’d I do?”
“Don’t give me that wide-eyed ‘butter-would-melt-in-my-mouth’ look,” she snapped. “You know darned well what I’m talking about. Just look at you! How could you go off to that rehearsal with your leg in that kind of shape? Do you want to spend another month on that walker? And why didn’t you tell your father and me about your accident in the first place? Why did we have to find out over a day after it happened? You could’ve called! We were just looking at a house, not on the other side of the moon. How can we help you if you insist on keeping us in the dark?”
Gary turned to Steve with a sigh. “You see what I have to put up with?” he asked in a plaintive voice. “Does your dad treat you like this?”
“No,” Steve grinned. “But then he comes from a long line of cops. Let’s get you upstairs and off that leg. Maybe a long, hot soak would be in order. Loosen up those bruised muscles.”
“That sounds good to me,” Gary agreed . . . a little too quickly. “That sound good to you, Mom? Good,” he added before she could answer. “That’s what I’ll do then. Just go on up and soak in the Jacuzzi for a while then hit the sack. Wonderful idea, Steve. G’night, Mom. Let’s go!” he added to Steve out of the corner of his mouth.
“This discussion isn’t finished, young man,” Lois replied ominously. “You still haven’t answered my questions.”
“Can’t it wait ‘til morning, Mom?” Gary pleaded. “I really am tired and this hurts like a son of gun. Please?”
Gary gave his mother a look of such misery, she found that she just could not hold on to her anger. This was, after all, her only child. It still frightened her how close she had come to losing him forever.
“Go,” she sighed. “I’ll bring you something for the pain in a few minutes.”
“Th-that’s okay,” Gary stammered, already feeling guilty. Of what, he had no idea. “It doesn’t hurt that much.”
“Oh? Is that why Detective Sloan is practically carrying you?” she asked in an arch tone. Lois waved them towards the back and the doors that eventually led to the stairs. “Go on. If you don’t mind helping him into the tub, Mr. Sloan, I’ll help him out of it.”
Gary’s eyes flared wide as his face reddened from his neck all the way to his hairline. “Mom!”
“Just kidding, dear,” Lois smiled impishly. “I’ll let your father help you. Now, go on. I’ll get you something to eat. Knowing you, supper was the last thing on your mind tonight.” With that she turned toward the kitchen, disappearing through the double doors.
The two men stood there for a moment, staring at the swinging doors. Then, with a chuckle and a shake of his head, Steve turned toward the office door with his limping burden.
“You must’ve had a lively childhood,” was his dry comment. “No such thing as a dull moment.”
“You have no idea,” Gary sighed. “You have absolutely no idea.”
The next morning dawned bright and beautiful. Gary rolled onto his back, arms extending in a lazy, luxurious stretch. The aroma of fresh coffee had gently stirred him to wakefulness. Glancing over at the clock, he saw that it still lacked a minute or two of being 6:30. ‘That’s strange,’ he thought. ‘The timer on the pot must’ve kicked in early. Have to check that.’
Thinking that he felt better than he had in weeks, Gary wondered if that hot soak last night might have relaxed him better than he had thought. For once he had gotten through an entire night without any dreams he could recall, either good or bad. With any luck, the episode with Savalas was finally behind him for good.
Just as the alarm sounded, followed within seconds by the familiar sounds from the hallway, Gary swung his legs off the side of the bed. He was immediately reminded why he shouldn’t have done that. Pain shot up his left leg as the sudden movement sent a violent protest through his stiff, sore muscles. ‘Oh, God!’ he thought. ‘Did I get hit by a taxi or a bus?’ Levering himself up with more effort than he had needed in weeks, Gary reached for his cane. ’It didn’t hurt this bad the morning after it happened!’ Leaning heavily on the aluminum support, he managed to limp painfully to the door. The cat stared up at him with a look that seemed to ask, ‘What took you so long?’
“Yesterday you were so concerned. Today it‘s business as usual?” he asked the orange feline who sat perched on tomorrow’s ‘Sun-Times.’ “Do you even care how much pain I’m in?”
The cat just looked at him and made a questioning noise that sounded suspiciously like ‘So?’ The orange tabby then stood, gave a long, languorous stretch, and sauntered into the room. With a sigh, Gary eased down carefully until he was able to grasp the paper. He was only able to accomplish this feat by keeping his stiffened left leg out behind him, most of his weight balanced on the right. Getting down was easy, if precarious. Getting up, however . . . He grasped the doorframe in near panic as he almost toppled over! By some miracle, he managed to pull himself upright without dropping the mystic periodical.
“No wonder I slept so good last night,” he grumbled as he hobbled over to the kitchenette. “You were trying to lull me into . . . what? A false sense of security? Were you setting me up just to knock me back down? Some friend.”
The orange tabby just sat by his food dish and eyed Gary dispassionately. He made no pretense of understanding what this odd human was babbling about. After all, he just delivered the darn thing. The silly human had been given almost a whole day to get over it! And why was his food dish still empty? The cat looked at the bowl, then back to Gary, making a faint questioning ‘querr?’
“Slave driver,” the irritated human murmured half under his breath. He hobbled painfully back to the kitchenette. “Just give me a minute.”
Gary popped the lid off a can of cat food, setting it down next to the dish. At first, the cat looked offended at this sloppy service. Then the aroma overcame his objections and the feline dug in with dainty abandon. Fancy Feast Chicken! His favorite!
Gary checked the timer on the coffee maker as he poured himself a cup. Someone had reset it to start brewing at 6:15 instead of 6:30. He usually preferred to shower before that first cup, not after. ‘Now who would mess with my coffeepot?’ he wondered. ‘And why?’ Then he recalled hearing his dad puttering around in the loft just before Bernie had helped him out of the Jacuzzi. Which meant he was probably on his way over to help Gary once more. ‘Oh, Lord!’
It took Gary a few minutes to get the tub ready, undress and slip into the swirling water. He had been in the water just long enough to start feeling relaxed when he heard a hesitant knock on his door.
“Back here, Dad,” the younger man called out. “I’m in the tub. C’mon back.”
Bernie Hobson poked his head around the bathroom door to see his son leaning nonchalantly back in the Jacuzzi, cup of coffee in one hand and the paper in the other.
“Your mother wanted me to see if you needed any help this morning,” the senior Hobson stated with a grin. “I guess you don’t. How’s the leg?”
“A little stiff,” Gary lied with a shrug. “Not too bad.” He kept his eyes glued to the paper, carefully avoiding his dad’s searching gaze.
“You wouldn’t lie to your old man, would you?”
This time Gary did look up, meeting his father’s gaze with an expression of pained surprise. He couldn’t quite pull it off.
“Hurt like a son-of-a-gun this morning, didn’t it,” Bernie nodded sagely. It was not phrased as a question. He sank down on the side of the tub as Gary nodded reluctantly. “Ya gotta let us help ya once in a while, kiddo,” he added. “That’s what parents do best.”
“I know that, Dad,” Gary sighed. “Honest. It’s just . . .”
“Feeling a little hemmed in?” Bernie asked. “Like a bird in a cage?”
“More like the last of an endangered species,” Gary grumbled. He cautiously lay the paper aside, careful to avoid getting the pages wet. “It’s not that I don’t appreciate your concerns,” he added in a more conciliatory tone. “And I know I’ve scared everyone half to death any number of times since the accident. But you guys can’t keep protecting me! And you can’t keep . . . chewing me out in front of other people for taking chances! I’m not a kid anymore, Dad. I’m a grown man, with grownup responsibilities.”
“That’s an understatement!” Bernie chuckled. Then his expression sobered as he considered his son’s words. “I take it your mom embarrassed you last night.”
“Oh, you have no idea!” Gary chuckled humorlessly. “I thought she was gonna ground me! Started snapping at me like I‘d just skipped class or something! In front of Steve, the staff, everyone! This is my home and my business! I have to face these same people everyday. I-I wanted to just . . . crawl into a hole and pull it in after me.”
The look Gary gave his gave his father was full of so much pain and bewilderment, the senior Hobson was hard pressed not to reach down and hug him. It was hard to resist the urge to tell his son that they would find some way to make it all better.
“Why does she do that to me, Dad?” he asked in a pained voice. “Why does she act as if I’ll never be able to look after myself? A-as if letting go of the apron strings will kill me?”
“If I could answer that question, kiddo,” Bernie sighed, “both of our lives would be a whole lot simpler. I can only guess that motherhood comes as a package deal. Once you have a kid, you can’t quit worryin’ about ‘em. It was just your luck to be an only child. If we’d been able to have a coupla more, maybe she wouldn’t ‘ve been so focused on you.” He glanced down at the roiling waters. “You soaked long enough? Or you plan on imitating a prune?”
“Hunh? Oh!” Gary gave his head a rough shake, jerking himself back to the present. “I guess I’m ready to get out.” He gave his dad a red-faced look. “Could you, um . . . ?” He made a little twirling motion with his hands.
“You don’t need my help?” Bernie grinned, secretly enjoying his son’s discomfort.
“Just asking!” Bernie chuckled as he turned around.
“If I do,” Gary groused, “I’ll be sure to ask. I promise.” A few minutes later, almost fully dressed, he held still as Bernie tied the laces on his left shoe. The right had presented no problems, but the left was still stiff and sore. “I honestly don’t think the taxi hit me hard enough to cause this,” Gary grumbled. “It must’ve happened when I hit the pavement. ”
“However it happened,” Bernie replied as he straightened up from his task, “that’s a hell of a bruise. Half your thigh looks like a bunch of grapes. I’m surprised we didn’t notice you limping more, yesterday. Does it still hurt to walk on it?”
“At first,” Gary admitted. “It’s okay after I’ve been moving around a while. The whirlpool helped. Honest, Dad. I’m fine. There’s not much going on with the Paper today. A little incident at the zoo, a traffic accident, and a couple of kids get shot stealing a car. I’m gonna be kinda busy this afternoon, but I should be limbered up by then,” he added with a shrug.
“You don’t . . .?” his dad began hopefully.
“Dad,” Gary sighed, “I can’t get back up to speed if I keep depending on everyone else to do my job. Not that I don’t appreciate all you and Mom ‘ve done,” he was quick to add. “You’ve just got to trust me to know my own limits. Especially when I overdo it. I have to keep ‘pushing the envelope’ or I’ll stagnate.”
Bernie eased down on the bed next to Gary with a sigh. “It’s because of those ‘limits’ that we worry so much, Gar,” he told his son. “They’re changing everyday. We never know how you’re gonna feel one day to the next! Are you up. Are you down. Do you need us or are we in the way! We never know unless you tell us. And you won’t tell us ‘cause you’re afraid of hurtin’ our feelings! You have got to talk to us, kiddo. You have to let us know what you need. That’s one of the reasons we got that apartment, so we can be here for ya.”
“I-I’ll keep that in mind, Dad” Gary replied with a sad little grin. He grasped his cane and levered himself to his feet. After a couple of minutes pacing back and forth, he could feel the stiffness begin to ease up. A little. “Well, I think I have time for a quick breakfast before I need to go to the zoo,” he said with a sidelong glance at his dad. “Would you ‘n’ Mom care to join me?” he asked hopefully.
Springing to his feet with a strength and energy that Gary envied, Bernie slipped an arm around his son’s shoulders. “I never turn down a free meal,” he said with a grin. “While we’re at it, maybe we can get your mom to loosen the apron strings a little.”
“God, I hope so,” Gary sighed. “They’re beginning to feel like a noose!”
“Why didn’t you tell me all this last night?” Lois Hobson grumbled as she pushed her half-eaten breakfast aside. “Instead, you let me go to bed feeling . . .”
“Like a concerned mom?” Gary finished for her, a tiny grin tugging at the corner of his mouth. He took a sip of his coffee, stalling for time as he considered his answer. “I didn’t want to cause a scene last night,” he finally told her. “Especially not in front of Steve. Honestly, Mom, I don’t expect you to stop worrying. As someone reminded me recently,” he added with a sidelong glance at his dad, “it comes with the territory. Just . . . don’t scold me like a child. Please? And stop waiting on me hand and foot. Let me stumble around on my own. I can’t . . . I’ll never get back on my feet if you two keep trying to do everything for me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate all you’ve done, everything you’ve given up for my sake, but what do I do when you’re not here for some reason? If I get used to leaning on others, then I’ll never be able stand on my own!”
Lois chewed daintily on her lower lip as she considered his impassioned plea. “I guess I forgot about that part,” she admitted ruefully. “We raised you to be a man, but it’s hard to let go of my little boy. Especially after everything that’s happened.”
“You don’t have to let go,” Bernie told her, gently covering her hand with his own. “Just don’t hold him so tight! Let the kid breathe!”
“Exactly!” Gary chimed in. “I’m not trying to shove you aside, just . . . just asking, no, begging. Begging you not to hold me back. Let me make mistakes. Let me stumble and fall a few times. How else am I ever going to learn what my limits are? And please, whatever else you do, please don’t scold me in front of my staff! It’s hard enough to keep their respect as it is!”
“Oh dear,” she sighed. “I did get a little rough last night, didn’t I?”
“Mom, you were two words away from grounding me last night,” Gary gently reminded her. “If I hadn’t already been headed that way, you would’ve sent me to my room! Without supper!”
“Go on! I wasn’t that bad! Was I?” she added uncertainly. Lois gazed down at the table as she recalled everything she had said the night before. Gary just sat back and watched her. “Umm, maybe you’re right. I was so angry that you hadn’t told me about your accident. I mean, we’re right across the street and we were the last to find out! Couldn’t you have just picked up a phone and told us?”
“I should have,” Gary admitted. “All I can say is, I’m sorry. I didn’t want to upset you with something that had already happened. It wasn’t like you could do anything about it after the fact.”
“True enough,” Bernie sighed. “Look, we’ll try to be less overbearing if you’ll try to keep us in the loop, so to speak. Don’t make us find out secondhand what’s happening to you. Deal?”
“Deal,” Gary quickly agreed. “Now, um, if you don’t mind, could I get a lift to the zoo? I have to stop an attendant from falling off a broken ladder and into the lion enclosure.”
“No problem,” Bernie shrugged. “I can drop you on my way to get the truck serviced. Sure you don’t need any help?”
“Pretty sure,” Gary assured them, struggling to his feet. He leaned heavily on his cane as he turned for the door. “If we hurry, I can get there before he even gets on the thing.”
Enrique Vasquez was unfolding the old wooden stepladder just as Gary arrived at the zoo. He quickly pointed out the crack in the upper rung that would have given way just as the zoo employee was reaching over to snag a bit of trash someone had tossed onto a tree limb. The man thanked Gary profusely and then went in search of another ladder. A few minutes later, Gary was in a cab and headed for his next destination.
Ted Waltham had been sitting in his blue Mercedes, waiting patiently at the traffic light for a chance to make a right hand turn. To his consternation, a dark-haired young man leaning heavily on an aluminum cane chose the moment just before the light changed to make his laborious journey across the street. Before the poor guy had taken six steps, a green BMW ran the light, just missing him by a hair. Apparently unnerved by the close call, the young man stumbled back to the curb. He shook his head sadly, and turned to go back the way he had come. The driver of the Mercedes paused only a moment before going on his way. Apparently the guy was alright. Still, it had been a close call . . . for both of them. If he had not had to wait for the other man to cross, that BMW would have creamed his Mercedes!
Gary was outwardly calm as he negotiated the few blocks toward his next task. Inside, he was still shaking. That had called for split second timing and he hadn’t been sure he could pull it off safely. If he had started too late, the Mercedes would still have been too far into the intersection to be missed. Too soon, and it would have been Gary who was struck! In his present condition he really needed to be more careful. Glancing down at the Paper, he saw that the headline had changed to something about a museum exhibit. A few blocks down, he could see the same car that had just missed him being pulled over by the Chicago PD. ‘Good,’ he thought to himself. ‘Maybe that joker will slow down for awhile.’
A few blocks later, he spotted the two boys he was there to save from themselves. Joey Iverson and Chris Jenkins were just looking to have some fun according to a third friend who had backed out at the last minute. Two thirteen-year-old boys trying to grow up too fast. They eyed him watchfully as he limped past them and up to the corner. He shot them a curious look, then glanced at his watch, as if waiting for someone. They weren’t going to do anything as long as a witness was close by. All he had to do was stand around looking bored until the owner of the car emerged from his meeting and drove off. Five minutes later, just enough time for the boys to have worked up the courage to try the door, if Gary had not been watching, a very angry man came storming into the parking lot. Paying his fee, the man stalked toward the car the boys were standing near as if he were looking for trouble. He glared daggers at the two boys, who quickly decided to be somewhere else. Baleful gray eyes watched them as they disappeared from view, then turned on the only other witness to his anger.
“What are you looking at?” he snarled.
“An accident waiting to happen if you don’t get a hold of yourself,” was Gary’s calm reply. “I take it you’re having a bad day?”
“What would you care what kind of day I’m having?” Eric Mason snapped. “And what business is it of yours, anyway?”
“None at all,” Gary shrugged. If he let it go like this, he feared that this guy could still end up as a headline. “You just look like you need to get a few things off your chest. I’m not going anywhere at the moment, and I’ve been told I’m a good listener. What have you got to lose?”
Twenty minutes later, a much calmer Eric Mason got into his car and drove off. He even offered the good Samaritan a ride. Knowing that Mason was going in the opposite direction of McGinty’s, Gary graciously declined. Looking at his watch, Gary headed for the nearest El station. With any luck he’d have time for a leisurely lunch before heading over to the Sun-Times to stop an accident in the presses.
“I just had to keep this rookie reporter from getting his jacket caught in the rollers,” Gary moaned. He settled back into the easy chair with a sigh. “Then I hopped a cab to the W-Washington/Wells Street El station and got there in plenty of time to stop T-Tiffany Masters from falling off the platform. She, of course, thought I was some kind of p-pervert and hit me with her purse. Next thing I know, I’m flat of my b-back with her on top of me. She’s getting ready t-to hit me again, but someone pulls her off. Seems he saw her f-foot start to slip, but was too far away to stop her. Anyway, he explained that I’d just saved her life, she apologized, and I made my usual graceful exit. Thanks, Mom.” He took the ice bag she held out to him and pressed it to his swollen jaw. “I think she was a karate instructor. Man! Could she h-hit!”
Bernie pulled the bag away long enough to get a good look at his son’s discolored face. “She sure laid one on you!” he observed with an appreciative whistle. “What happened to your eye?”
“Oh, that was later,” Gary mumbled. “After I escaped from the ‘karate queen,’ I had to hurry to make my connections to the Bronzeville station and got to Illinois Tech just in time to stop this first year student from getting electrocuted. For which, in his undying gratitude, he decked me for messing up his experiment. His instructor chews him out for sloppy procedure and he comes at me again for getting him in trouble. Only I’m already halfway out the door. I hobbled back to the El as fast as I c-could and came straight home. Th-that . . . that pretty much covers it.”
“Well,” Lois sighed, “you did say to let you stand or fall on your own. I just didn’t think you meant it quite so literally.”
“At the time, neither did I,” Gary sighed. He shifted the icepack so that it covered his black eye. “At least I didn’t cause anything else to crop up. The Paper doesn’t mention anything more threatening than a thunderstorm later tonight and there’s nothing I can do about the . . . Oh, man!”
“What?” both his parents chorused.
“Rehearsal! How can I show up for rehearsal looking like this?” he asked. “Crumb already thinks I’m an accident waiting to happen. And the others treat me like I’m gonna break if they look at me wrong. Showing up like this is not gonna help!”
“Well, I’m afraid you’re stuck,” Lois chuckled. “You’d better start thinking up a good excuse for those bruises, hon. Steve will be here to pick you up any minute.”
Bernie strolled to the front window and looked out. “Correction,” he said. “He just pulled up. Better think fast, kiddo.”
“They’re breaking out the props tonight,” Gary sighed miserably. “We’re rehearsing the scene where I first get shot.”
“Why does that little tidbit make me feel so nervous?” Lois wondered.
“Are you sure you’re up to this?” Steve wondered as he helped Gary out of the car. “You really don’t look so good. Maybe we could have Dad take a look at you.”
“I’m fine,” Gary insisted. He got a firm grasp on his cane and limped painfully to the theater door. “It looks worse than it feels.”
“That’s not very comforting,” the L.A. cop grinned. “You look like hell.”
Gary shot him a baleful look as he opened the side door. Steve, shocked to see the bruises, had demanded to know what had happened. The young bar owner had simply continued out the door, muttering something that sounded like, ‘I don’t wanna talk about it.’ “Thank you so much for your ast-tute observation, Detective Sloan,” he grumbled in a surly tone. “Seriously, Steve, I’m fine. It only hurts a little.”
“I might believe that if you didn’t sound like ‘Rocky‘s’ sparring partner,” Steve cracked. “Keep this up and they may have to recast your part.”
“Too late,” Gary sighed as he headed for the stage area. “Chris is my understudy. Hi, guys!”
“Hi, Gary. Steve,” Darlene greeted the two latecomers warmly. “Guess who showed up today? Just when we had almost given up trying to find a stage ma . . . Oh, my God! Gary! What happened to your face! Oh, you poor boy!”
Gary quickly found himself surrounded by his concerned cast mates and, to his astonishment, Bonnie Rousseau! Bonnie had been the reason many of them had met in the first place. She had been their acting coach and director/stage manager in a production of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ a couple of years before. Until another director had exposed her as a con artist. She had confessed everything to Gary, then the others, made full restitution to them and had gone on to stage manage their amateur play. Even without costumes, it had been a hit. Now she was back, having finally responded to their invitation to be part of Crumb’s mystery.
“You haven’t changed a bit,” she sighed, turning his face to the light for a better look. “It’s a good thing you run your own business.”
“Why’s that?” Gary asked.
“Because you’ll kill yourself before you win your first ‘Tony,’” she told him with a gentle smile. “What happened?”
“He doesn’t want to talk about it,” Steve remarked with a wry grin. “At least, that’s the answer I’ve been getting.”
“Let me take a look,” Dr. Sloan offered. He stepped up and grasped Gary’s chin in a firm, but gentle, grip. Turning the younger man’s face into the light, he examined the dark bruises closely. “You’ve been keeping ice on this?”
“As soon as I got home,” Gary assured the elderly physician. “And aspirin for the pain. Really, I’m okay. It looks a lot worse than it feels.”
“I’ll have to take your word on that,” Mark smiled. “Well, you’re doing all the right things for this kind of injury, but it wouldn’t hurt to take it easy for a while. You might want to skip rehearsal tonight.”
“Not a chance,” the young barkeeper replied, smiling carefully. The movement tugged painfully at his bruised facial muscles. “This is the first night we get to break out the props. You can’t ask me to miss out on that!”
They argued back and forth for several minutes, until Gary was able to convince them that he could say his lines and fall on command. They came up with an agreeable compromise when Oscar brought out a thick foam mat and laid it behind the desk. He carefully arranged it so that Gary’s fall was cushioned as much as possible.
“It’s not that we doubt you, Gary,” Bonnie assured him. “We just don’t want to see you get hurt anymore.”
“You think I wanted all these injuries?” Gary asked incredulously. “Do I look . . .? Never mind,” he sighed. “I’m not sure I wanna finish that question.”
“Why not?” Mark asked, a glint of amusement in his friendly blue eyes.
“Because I really don’t wanna hear the answer,” Gary told him. “Okay. The floor is padded. The gun is loaded with blanks. The ‘shooter’ is going to be at least ten or more feet away. Now, can we get down to business, or should I break out that football gear I saw in the prop room?”
“Ooo! That’s a good idea,” Darlene exclaimed. “The helmet, especially. Don’t you think so, Marion? Protect his poor face from . . .”
“Darlene!” Gary’s voice rose in protest. “C’mon, guys! Gimme a break, here!”
Darlene laughed, going up to her young friend and giving him a gentle hug. “Just teasing,” she told him. “We love to pick on you, dear. You’re so . . . so . . . “
“Pickable?” Gary supplied with a sad-eyed grin.
“Innocent,” Bonnie corrected him. She slipped an arm through his as she led him on stage, to his mark. “You are such a nice person,” she elaborated, “that you insist on finding good in everyone else. That’s one of the things we all love about you.”
Gary was beginning to blush furiously at the off-hand praise. He ducked his head to hide his rising color as he took his place behind the desk.
Three and a half hours later, Gary was beginning to regret his stubbornness. He had been up and down from behind the desk so often that his legs were beginning to feel like lead, and he’d been ‘shot at’ by everyone in the cast but Crumb and Crystal. It was Darlene’s idea that they would not reveal the ‘killer’s’ identity, even to the cast, until opening night. As a result, every ‘suspect’ had been required to read through the scene, then fire the gun in Gary’s general direction. Each of them had to practice until they were able to play the part with some conviction. The young ‘victim’ had grown to deeply appreciate the thick padding Oscar had found. He had hit the floor so many times that, even with the mat, he was beginning to feel the effects of the repeated impacts.
It was now Crystal’s turn to fire the heavy automatic. Oscar picked up the extra clip that had lain on the table since rehearsal began, snapping it into the pistol with an ominous click! For some reason, the sound made every hair on the back of Gary’s neck stand at attention. ‘Something is very wrong here,’ he thought. On an impulse, he looked at the Paper. He had laid it on the desk so that he would have something to do with his hands while the others were using him for target practice. Gary quickly scanned the headlines as the young actress prepared herself, shifting the gun from hand to hand. He tried to keep his expression neutral so no one would suspect what he was actually doing. There was nothing on the front page of any interest to him.
Crystal strode briskly onto the stage, the heavy pistol clutched nervously in both hands. She delivered her first line when he gave her a startled look, speaking her character’s name. As he stood, she lifted the gun until it was level with his heart. Gary threw both hands up in a defensive gesture as the pistol gave three flat cracks. On cue, he flung himself backwards and onto the mat.
“That was great, Crystal,” Bonnie said encouragingly. “I can see you’ve handled guns before, but you had it pointed all over the place. You have to at least aim it in Gary’s general direction. Let’s try this one more time.” She clapped her hands briskly. “Places! Places everyone!”
The feeling of apprehension was becoming almost unbearable as Gary took his place behind the desk. His hands shook slightly as he opened the Paper. There was nothing important on the next two pages. Again, he struggled to his feet as Crystal strode purposefully to her mark. His hand finished turning the page as he faced his young friend. Glancing down, his eyes widened as the small headline leaped off the page at him. How could he have missed that?
LOCAL BAR OWNER SLAIN IN FREAK SHOOTING ACCIDENT.
His head snapped up to meet the eyes of the young waitress, his own widening in alarm. As if from a distance, he heard himself say, ‘No! Don’t!’ As Crystal leveled the gun at her employer’s chest, he brought both hands up in the same gesture he had pantomimed so many times that night. This time, however, a panicked cry escaped his lips as he threw himself to his left. His cry was drowned out by the earsplitting roar of the gun. A sledgehammer blow struck him in the right shoulder, lifting him off his feet and spinning him halfway around before it knocked him into the ‘wall’ behind him. Gary was flung against the barrier, both of them falling with a crash onto the stage floor beyond. Dimly, he heard Crystal scream, the sound of the pistol striking the hard wood flooring. From somewhere, miles away, he heard the alarmed cries of his cast mates as they rushed to his aid. All this he was aware of as if it were happening to someone else.
There was no pain. Not yet. The shock of the impact had left his shoulder feeling numb, heavy. He was finding it hard to breathe. To focus. Blindly, Gary reached out with his left hand, trying to find something by which he could pull himself upright.
Crumb was the first to reach Gary. He ripped his jacket off and wadded it into a tight bundle, pressing it hard against the large crimson stain spreading down his young friend’s chest. Hobson was making faint grunting/mewling sounds of a nature the ex-cop had heard too many times before as his left hand clutched desperately at Crumb‘s shirtsleeve. His eyes, clear, alert and frightened at first, were beginning to glaze over as his blood soaked into Crumb’s jacket. A moment later, the hand fell away as Gary slipped deeper into shock.
“Keep that pressure steady,” Dr. Sloan urged. In spite of being in the third row, he and Steve had been less than three steps behind the big detective. He gently, but firmly probed the back of Gary’s shoulder. “No exit wound. Steve, call 911. Is there a first aid kit any . . . Good.” He took the plastic kit from Oscar and tore open a package marked ‘pressure bandage.’ He quickly removed crumb’s jacket, replacing it with the thick gauze pad. He then put the wadded up jacket back in place, instructing its owner to keep applying pressure. “Get some blankets,” he instructed Darlene and Sophie. “Or coats. Anything to keep him warm. He’s going into shock. Steve! Any word on that ambulance?”
“They’ll be here in five minutes,” his son assured him. “How bad is it?”
“I think the bullet hit an artery,” Mark murmured as he looked into Gary’s half-open eyes. The younger man’s pupils had dilated until the color of his eyes could not be seen. “Gary! Gary! Stay with us, son! Just hold on! Help is on the way.” The younger man gave a weak nod by way of reply, obviously fighting just to keep his eyes open.
The doctor glanced over to where Crystal and Bonnie were holding onto each other, staring at the grim tableau, unable to look away. He knew that they, too, would need help shortly. Right now they had to focus on the more immediate problem.
Gary’s breathing was coming in short, ragged gasps as the initial shock of the bullet’s impact wore off. He could feel the pain, now, but it was as if it were coming from a great distance. The firm pressure his friend was applying should have had every nerve screaming. Gary hardly felt it as his life’s blood soaked into the coarse material. Time became distorted as the young barkeep slid in and out of consciousness. He was only dimly aware of the new arrivals as they peeled off the saturated bandage, cutting away his shirt and faded denim jacket. The pressure returned as fresh bandages were applied to his now throbbing shoulder. A mask of some type was pressed over his mouth, forcing cool, pure oxygen into his laboring lungs. There was a brief, sharp pain in his left arm, then a sensation of warmth deep within the flesh of that appendage. The rest of him was cold. So cold. He must have managed to convey that information, because a blanket appeared from out of nowhere to cover the exposed areas of his chest.
He was aware of being lifted onto a softer surface, then nothing as his mind took the downward spiral into oblivion.
“I’ll stay with Gary,” Dr. Sloan told his son. He gestured at the two women huddled miserably off to the side. Crystal looked as if she were going to pass out. Bonnie did not appear to be in any better shape. “You might want to bring those two in to be looked at. Crystal, especially.” He looked over at Crumb who was still clutching his bloody jacket in both hands. The big ex-cop was staring after the retreating stretcher as if he were considering going with his younger friend. “Keep an eye on him, too.”
“Just look after your patient, Dad,” Steve replied. “I’ll take care of things here.” As his father hurried to catch up with the gurney, the blonde detective turned toward the two women who were still standing in the exact same spot.
Crystal looked as if she were on the verge of collapse. Her blue eyes stared straight ahead into the distance, but she wasn’t seeing anything but the spray of blood as the bullet had struck the all too vulnerable flesh of her friend’s shoulder. Her breath was coming in short, whimpering little gasps. Bonnie did not appear to be in much better shape as she tried to guide the distraught girl to a nearby chair.
“They were blanks,” Crystal was whimpering. “Just blanks! I-it shouldn’t ‘ve been that loud!” Her lovely features twisted into a painful grimace as tears streamed down her face. “I killed him! Ohmigod! Ohmigod! I’ve killed Gary!”
“He’s not dead,” Steve told her as he took her other arm. Between the two of them, they managed to get her into the chair. “You hit him in the shoulder, not the chest. People survive wounds like that all the time. Want to see my scars? Now, just sit right here a moment. Can someone get Ms. Rousseau a chair?”
As soon as both women were seated, still clutching desperately at each other, Steve bent to examine the gun. Slipping on a pair of latex gloves he had taken from the first aid kit, he picked up the still smoking weapon and ejected the clip. He knew this particular type of pistol held one in the chamber and seven more in the clip. Crystal had fired the gun four times. That left four. Steve popped the top bullet out of the clip and studied it carefully.
“What’ve ya got?”
Steve looked up to see Crumb kneeling down to look at the objects in the younger cop’s hands. He couldn’t help but notice that the older man was still holding his blood-soaked jacket. Wordlessly, Lieutenant Sloan held up his discovery.
It was not a blank. However much it looked like a blank cartridge, it was too heavy to be nothing more than a shell with a little powder and a cardboard plug. Someone had loaded the rest of the clip with live rounds.
He was first aware of the voices. They drifted in and out as he fought to locate the source of this intrusion. At times, he could almost understand what they were saying. Something about a severed artery and . . . something or other. More blood. Someone was calling for more blood. Why? He had plenty, didn’t he? What was that smell and why did he feel so heavy? So . . . tired? Confused, he tried to make sense of the voices. Shot? Who was shot? Why? When did . . .? His curiosity ebbed as the darkness closed in once more.
“How did live rounds get into that clip?” Crumb growled as he scrubbed at the blood on his hands. “The gun was a stupid prop! You never use live ammo in a theater prop! Any fool could tell ya that,” he added in a desultory tone. “Christ. It hasn’t even been a year since we found him, more dead than alive, on those blasted stairs.” He dried his hands on a paper towel, throwing it into the wastebasket with more force than was necessary. “I’m tired of washin’ that kid’s blood off my hands.”
“He’s hardly a kid,” Steve Sloan reminded him from his position by the door. “He’s thirty-five years old.”
“That’s still a kid in my book,” the ex-cop grumbled. “He’s way too young to have to go through this kinda crap. He’s a barkeep, for cryin’ out loud! A boy scout! A wide-eyed innocent! What’s he doin’ gettin’ shot twice in less than six months?”
Having no answer for the older man’s angry questions, Steve shook his head and looked over to where a forensics technician was dusting the prop table and everything on it for prints. The gun, clip, and remaining bullets were on their way the crime lab to undergo similar scrutiny. Darlene had taken Crystal and Bonnie to the hospital. Bonnie was badly shaken, feeling intense guilt over her insistence that the young actress fire the gun one more time. Crystal, however, was in shock. The last they had heard was that she had been sedated and kept for observation. Both of the older women had chosen to remain with her.
Oscar approached them from the direction of his office. “Your dad just called,” he told them, a relieved grin on his face. “Gary’s out of surgery and it looks good. Man! When I heard that shot, and saw him hit that backdrop, I just knew he was a goner!”
“That makes two of us,” Crumb sighed, relief washing over him like a wave. “I tell you, that kid’s gonna give me an ulcer. Did you see anyone near that table that shouldn’t ’ve been?”
“That’s hard to say, Crumb,” the theater manager sighed. “Everyone used that phone from time to time, even Gary. Oh, and someone’s been leavin’ the side door open. I usually keep it locked, but Gary and Crystal both told me it’s been open almost every time they’ve been here. Crystal said Gary kept pulling it shut, but it was cracked open a coupla times when they left, too.”
Crumb and Steve Sloan exchanged ominous glances. This was beginning to sound less and less like an ‘accident.’
“It was unlocked tonight,” Steve remarked grimly. “That’s how we came in.”
“What are you two lookin’ so grim about?” Paul Armstrong asked. He had been questioning the other cast members in a back room. “Did the hospital call?”
Steve quickly brought him up to-date on Gary’s condition, then had Oscar repeat what he had told them about the door.
“Does Gary have any enemies that you know of?” Steve asked. “Someone that hates him enough, or thinks they have a good enough reason to kill him?”
“It’s possible,” Armstrong sighed. “He’s helped put away a few real ‘hard-cases.’ Some involved in ‘organized’ crime. Even a couple of home grown terrorists.”
“He helped me get the drop on a guy torchin’ his own businesses a coupla weeks before his accident,” Crumb added thoughtfully. “Don’t know what he expected to do with that relic he pulled out of the wall, but it distracted the guy long enough for me to disarm ‘im. That bozo turned out to be pretty well ‘connected,’ too. He could’ve set up somethin’ like this. Even from prison.”
“And don’t forget that embezzler he and Miguel Diaz caught a few months before that,” the black detective nodded. “For such a nice guy, Hobson seems to tick off the worst kind of people.”
Voices again. And light. There was definitely light this time. Some of the voices sounded . . . familiar. It was hard to sort them out as they seemed to be talking in hushed whispers. Slowly his memory began to return, along with the pain that his mind had been trying to block out. Something had happened to him. Again.
A barely audible moan escaped his dry throat as his stomach began doing strange gymnastic thingies. Swallowing convulsively, he fought to control his rising gorge. The stale/sour taste in his mouth didn’t help matters at all.
Gradually, he was able to separate the low murmur into distinct, individual voices. There was his mom, wanting to know what had happened. Dr. Sloan(?) was telling her something, in a voice too low for him to make out clearly. There was that phrase again: ‘severed artery.’ Whose artery was severed, and how? Shot? Gunshot wound. They were still talking about someone who had been shot. Who was the poor stiff? Did he kn . . . oh.
Another, louder moan issued forth as the pain returned tenfold, along with his scattered memory. Gary’s eyelids fluttered as he tried to force them open. A cool, dry hand caressed his brow as he turned his head away from the bright light streaming in through the slats of the open blinds.
“Gary? Sweetie?” his mother crooned. “Time to wake up, honey. Gary, this is your mother talking. Don’t make me ask twice.” She sounded as if she were talking in an echo chamber.
“Right here, baby,” she told him. “How do you feel?”
“Oh, I know it does, sweetie,” Lois Hobson groaned in sympathy. “Can we get you something for the pain?”
“P-please?” he murmured. “F-feel . . . sick.”
“We’ll get you something for the nausea, too,” Dr. Sloan assured him. “Can you move your fingers for me? Just wiggle them a little bit.”
Obediently, Gary sent the message down his arm and prayed that it would reach the fingers he couldn’t feel. Apparently it did, because Dr. Sloan smiled and patted him gently on his good shoulder. A moment later, a nurse appeared in response to some unseen signal with a syringe in her hand. She quickly swabbed the IV port and inserted the needle. A few minutes later, the pain ebbed as a feeling of warm lassitude washed over Gary. He reached out to his mother with his good hand, suddenly afraid of the impending darkness.
Lois clutched his hand to her chest as a wide-eyed look of utter panic crossed his pale, almost bloodless features. Breathing rapidly, his eyes locked on hers as he fought against the steady pull of the painkiller.
“It’s okay, Gary,” she crooned soothingly to her only child. She wiped the sweat from his brow with a cool, damp cloth. “Your father and I will be right here when you wake up. Just get some rest now, and we can talk about this later.”
Like the obedient son that he was, Gary let his eyes close as the darkness pulled him under.
Lois fought back tears as she lowered herself into the chair next to his bed. This had an all too familiar feel to it. Another vigil over her sleeping son. Was it any wonder that she still treated him like a child . . . occasionally? Over the past year she had spent so many hours in just this sort of activity, or lack of it. This waiting. Waiting to see when, or if, her only offspring would open his eyes. Waiting to see if he would still recognize her, or if he had been injured so badly that his mind had been damaged, too. So far, they had been incredibly lucky.
She looked up as a hand fell onto her shoulder, giving it a gentle squeeze. Clear, baby blue eyes looked back from beneath a thick shock of white hair.
“He’s going to be all right,” Dr. Sloan assured her. “He knew who you were, and he could move his fingers. Two very good signs. He’s young, he’s strong and he’s tough as nails.”
“Are we talking about the same man, here?” Lois snorted. “The man who stopped traffic to let a family of ducks cross the street safely? The man who pulls poodles from storm drains and gets trapped in an abandoned theater because of a lost monkey? Gary ‘Mr. Heart of Stone’ Hobson?”
“One and the same,” Mark Sloan chuckled. “Did he really do all that?”
“Oh, yes,” Lois sighed. “All that, and a lot more. My son has a big heart, Dr. Sloan. He bleeds for the underdog in almost every situation. Sometimes literally.”
The sky beyond the blinds was still light, but it no longer shone directly across his face. Gary moaned softly, blinking a few times, trying to get his eyes to focus. Getting his mind to function would also be considered a plus. ‘Why’s it so hard to think,’ he wondered. After a moment’s concentration, he remembered that he was back in the hospital. Something . . . something about an artery. Severed artery. ‘That’s not good.’ He looked down at his left arm and the tubing that was firmly attached to it. Red. The IV tubing was red. Why was that? With considerable effort, his eyes followed the tube from his arm, to the IV pump and on up to a bag of thick, viscous red fluid. Blood. He was being given blood.
Closing his eyes again, Gary swallowed convulsively as he tried to block out the memories that came rushing back to the forefront of his mind. The theater. He had been rehearsing. The gun! Oh, God! The gun!
Eyes snapping open, Gary vented an inarticulate croak as he struggled to sit up. Strong hands gently, but firmly, held him down.
“Easy, Gar,” Bernie Hobson told his weakly struggling son. “Everything’s fine. Do you know where you are?”
“Hos . . . hospital,” Gary croaked, eyes darting about nervously. He spotted his mother asleep in a chair on the other side of the room. “H-how . . . long?”
“They brought you in last night,” his dad replied in a low, soft voice. “You lost a lot of blood, kiddo. Scared the hell out of everyone. Again.”
“S-sorry,” the younger man murmured. His eyes drifted shut, only to snap back open as the scene insisted on replaying itself behind his eyelids. “C-Crystal! She . . . Where is she? Is . . . Is she okay?”
Bernie sat back in his seat with a sigh. “She’s pretty shook up,” he sighed. “They had to keep her overnight. Doc Sloan thinks she’s gonna be okay, though. That Rousseau woman, too. She’s got a major case of the guilts because she insisted on another ‘run through.’ Doc thinks they might be able to go home today, though.”
“You, however,” his mother added with a loud yawn, “will be here for several days. At least!” She arched her back in a very ‘cat-like’ stretch before getting up to join her husband. “How do you feel, hon?”
“Hurts,” he mumbled softly. “Don’ un’er . . . understand. The headline w-wasn’t there . . . before. Why’d it ch-change? What . . . What’d I do?” His question held a heartbreaking note of hurt and betrayal.
“Gary!” Lois protested. “You can’t possibly think this is your fault!”
“Then whose?” he asked plaintively. “I ch-checked it . . . checked it before . . . before I left h-home. Twice. It w-wasn’t . . . wasn’t there. And it n-never ch-changes ‘less I . . . do s-something to m-make it . . .”
“Has the Paper ever been wrong before?” Bernie asked. “Told you to be somewhere for something that didn’t happen?”
“Oh! Remember when it got the time of death wrong on that reporter!” Lois added. “The one that . . . Gary? What’s . . . oh, dear.”
Gary had lost what little color he had left as her words stirred up hellish memories. Once more he recalled the condescending sneer as Frank Scanlon more or less threatened to drag out every skeleton he thought Gary might be hiding. That image was replaced almost immediately by the grim scene at the Cicero train yard when he had arrived just in time to hear the fatal shot. That had been his first meeting with Detective Aristotle Savalas. Gary’s eyes squeezed shut as he tried, in vain, to expunge the picture from his mind. All he succeeded in doing was to open the floodgates for the same images that had haunted his nightmares for months afterwards. Dark visions of flight, death . . . and despair.
‘God!’ he silently prayed, ‘when does it end?’
Lois gripped his hand tightly, brushing the hair from his brow with her free hand. He returned her grip with a fervor that frightened her. “I’m sorry, sweetie,“ she murmured gently. “I’m so sorry. I just meant to say that the Paper can only tell what the person writing the article knows. Maybe someone you saved yesterday was a reporter for the Sun-Times. Or at least connected with one somehow.”
It was all too much for Gary. His muddled mind just couldn’t wrap itself around such a crazy puzzle at that time. It was all he could do to focus on what they were saying. On the one hand, it could very well be that he needed to be where he was for a reason. The Paper often played that game with him. On the other . . . The Sun-Times had a lot of reporters. If one had not been able to cover the story, another would have. But considering the lateness of the hour, would another reporter have gotten the article in before the Paper was ‘put to bed?’ What was the truth here? Was he needed or just incredibly lucky?
Lois could see that Gary was not up to solving his dilemma. He was barely able to keep his eyes open. The younger Hobson was still pale and weak from both the shock to his system and the massive blood loss. Thinking was something he would have to save for another time.
“Let’s worry about all that later,” she suggested. “Don’t push yourself just yet.” She picked up a cup from his tray table, scooping out a spoonful of ice chips. She didn’t even have to ask him to open his mouth. ‘He must be parched,’ she thought as the frozen crystals slid past barely parted lips.
“Thanks,” he murmured. He grimaced slightly as the moisture trickled down his throat. “You’d think they could mix a li’l . . . li’l kool-aid in that, or somethin’,” he groused irritably. “An’thing to give it some . . . some taste.”
“Ah-ah!” Lois admonished her son. “You know what that anesthesia does to your stomach. Let’s not take any chances on reopening that wound.”
“How’s a li’l flavor gonna hurt anything?” Gary asked miserably.
“The sugar content,” his mother replied knowingly. “Sometimes it just takes a little bit to trigger a sort of . . . chain reaction.” She fed him another spoonful before setting the cup down. “That’s enough for now. Are you in a lot of pain?”
“Some,” he admitted reluctantly. “Not so bad if I don’t . . . don’t move . . . too much. Wh-when c’n I see Crystal? G-gotta tell ‘er . . . wasn’t her fault. Or Bonnie’s.”
“Tomorrow, maybe,” Bernie told his son. “One of us can go talk to ‘em, if you think it’ll help.”
“Please?” Gary murmured. His eyes were already growing heavy as his meager strength began to fade. “J-just tell ‘em I’m okay . . . an’ I know they didn’t . . .didn’t mean t’hurt me.” He blinked a few times, fighting the weakness of his own body, before finally drifting off to sleep.
With a weary sigh, Bernie headed for the door. “I’ll go see if I can find the girls,” he told his wife. “You’ll send for me when he wakes up again?”
“Of course, dear,” Lois sighed. “This is getting to be a habit, you know that? I’m beginning to have doubts that he‘s going to outlive me.” She turned her tearstained face back to the figure on the bed. “Go on. Crystal’s in 327. Last time I checked she was still sedated, but Ms. Rousseau was awake. That was an hour and a half ago.”
“Gotcha,” Bernie nodded. “I’ll be back in a few minutes.”
He found Crystal’s room with no trouble. The young actress was sitting up in bed, staring straight ahead at nothing, a look of abject misery on her lovely young features. Bonnie and Darlene sat on either side of her, trying to coax her into eating a few bites.
“How’s she doing?” Bernie asked as he quietly slipped into the room. “Can she hear us?”
“I can hear just fine,” the young woman murmured miserably. She still wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Is . . . is Gary . . .?”
“Gary’s gonna be fine,” he assured her. “He sent me to see how you were doing, sweetheart. He also wanted me to tell you that this wasn’t your fault. Either of you,” he added, looking straight at Bonnie Rousseau.
Crystal turned her head to meet his gaze, hope warring with despair on her youthful visage. “I-is that true? That he’s okay?” she asked, her eyes gleaming suspiciously. At Bernie’s solemn nod, the young woman buried her face in both hands and burst into tears. Darlene quickly gathered the younger woman into her arms, as Bonnie hugged herself and mumbled, over and over again, something that sounded like: ‘Thank you, dear Lord. Thank you!’
“Um, when you feel up to it,” Bernie murmured uncomfortably, “we’ll get you in to see him. He’s still a little weak ‘n’ tends to nod off in the middle of a conversation, but he really is okay. Chris, honey? Did you understand what I said? This wasn’t your fault. You didn’t put the live rounds in the clip. Neither did you, ma’am. Don’t let Gary see you like this. It’ll tear ‘im apart.”
“I-I won’t, Mr. Hobson,” Crystal sniffed, drying her eyes on her sheet. “I-I’m fine. Really. Could you t-tell him we’ll be up to see him soon? Tonight, maybe?”
“Sure thing, kiddo,” Bernie grinned. “He’ll be thrilled to see a friendly face.”
“Any word from Marion or Steve?” Darlene asked as she settled back in her chair. “Do they know how live ammunition did end up in that clip?”
“Nothing yet,” he sighed. “Lieutenant Armstrong called earlier to see how Gary was doing, but he didn’t have any news for us. They’ll be wantin’ to talk to the kid as soon as he’s able. I just don’t think Gar can tell ‘em anything. I mean, the kid hasn’t got an enemy in the world!”
“There’s, um, Baylor,” Gary murmured drowsily. “The . . . the guy who killed . . . Judge Romick, And wha’s his name, Corbel. Vincent Corbel, th-the renegade DA who was leak . . . leakin’ information to . . . to someone. Counterfeiters, Mulford a-and Smolski? Can’t remember. Savalas? No. No. H-he’s, um . . . D-did you ever find out who . . . who Ma . . . Mar . . .” ‘God!’ he thought fuzzily. ‘I can’t even say his name!’ Helplessly, he looked up to meet Crumbs understanding gaze. “Do . . . do you know who he worked for?”
“If they ever found out,” Crumb replied, realizing immediately whom Gary was referring to, “they never saw fit to tell me. I doubt those guys would stoop to revenge, though. No profit in it.”
Armstrong shot the retired veteran a puzzled look before resuming his interview. That these two shared a history, he was already well aware of. Apparently, not all of it was part of the public record. Or the local police record, for that matter. “That’s a start anyway,” he said. “Can you think of anyone else who might be holding a grudge?”
“Um, Scanlon,” was Gary’s surprising answer.
“The reporter?” Armstrong asked, confused. “But he’s . . .”
“N-no,” Gary quickly tried to correct the big detective. “B-business man. Um, the . . . Ricky Brown. He, um, he helped me catch the guy . . . the guy who-who framed Ricky Brown. F-for Thomas F-Fletcher’s murder. God! What . . . what was his name? Um, Winston something. Or something Winston.” He scrubbed at his face with his good hand, trying to rub away the desire to sleep. “Um, last year, th-the people who grabbed Dr. Jackson ‘n’ me. I-I, um, I don’t . . . don’t think all of them, um, w-were caught. I’m sorry. Tha’s all I can think of right now. S’tired.”
Armstrong flipped his notebook closed, sticking it into the inside pocket of his suit. “That’s enough for now, I suppose,” he said. “How do you feel?”
“Sleepy,” Gary murmured as his eyes drifted shut. “Can’t seemed t’ stay ‘wake ver’ long.” He blinked his eyes open with an obvious effort. “Meredith,” he mumbled, almost under his breath. “M-Meredith Carson. She was . . . was investigating, um, someone. Th-they . . . they tried t-to kill us. Sh-she works for, um, W-Washington Post now. I think. Harry Hawkes would . . . n-no, he’s gone, too.” This last was said in a near whisper as Gary drifted back into unconsciousness.
Lois pulled the covers up to her son’s chin, careful not to disturb his IV. “I had no idea he had so many enemies,” she murmured fearfully. “He’s never deliberately done anything to hurt anyone! How could so many people want him dead?”
“We don’t know that all, or any, of them do,” Armstrong told her honestly. “Oscar said that he’d taken all four clips out earlier that morning to load them. An old buddy of his had come by about that time, and the props were left unattended for about thirty minutes. He’s pretty sure that his friend was alone, but after hearing about the side door being open whenever Gary arrived for rehearsal . . . I have to wonder.”
Gary stirred fitfully, wincing when the movement sent a lance of pain through his injured shoulder. Behind closed lids his eyes darted from side to side, following images that only he could see. Soft moans issued from dry lips as he did battle with old, familiar demons.
“His doctor has ordered a stronger antibiotic,” Dr. Sloan assured Lois Hobson. “Considering Gary’s already weakened condition,” he added, “post-op infections were a strong possibility. How are you holding up?”
“I’m fine,” Lois sighed. She dipped the washcloth into the basin of cool water, wringing it almost dry before using it to wipe the beads of sweat from her son’s fevered brow. “I should be used to this by now,” she added in a tight, strained voice. “I mean, out of the last eleven months, he’s spent less than three on the outside. For the last five years he’s risked life and limb to help people. Even when he could barely move to do it. He’s put his personal life on hold for the sake of people who scream and yell at him, beat him to a pulp and make his life miserable. Now, someone tried to deliberately kill him. Why shouldn’t I be fine? I’m . . . just . . . ducky!” she sniffed, bitter tears streaming down her cheeks.
Mark Sloan gently pried the cloth from her hand, putting it into the basin as he pulled the sobbing woman’s face against his shoulder. “It’s okay,” he told her. “I’ve had to keep this same vigil a time or two. It’s never easy.”
“But your son’s a cop,” she sniffed, clinging to him for support. “You expect things like this.”
“Expect, yes,” Mark sighed. “Get used to, never. Each time, it’s like something is trying to tear the heart out of you. You start thinking . . . terrible things. Like revenge. You’d like nothing more than to find the person responsible and hurt them just as bad.” He looked around, puzzled, as he noticed someone missing. “Where’s your husband? I would’ve thought he’d be here with you.”
“Oh,” Lois sniffed, pulling out of his embrace. “H-he had to go take care of a-a few things. For Gary.”
“For Gary,” he repeated, understanding at once. “Can he do that? Pass on this . . . gift . . . to someone else?”
“It’s no gift,” she sighed, once more taking up the damp cloth. “But, yes, in a way. His father and I sort of . . . pinch-hit when he’s . . . W-we’ve had a lot of practice this past year. Gary’s the best at it, though. Not because he’s younger. And certainly not because he’s more able-bodied. It’s because . . . because he feels for other people so deeply. It’s like . . . like he feels their pain as if it were his own.”
Mark Sloan looked at the restlessly stirring man with a new understanding. “That’s not a quality you can teach your children,” he murmured softly. “Either they have it or they don’t. All we can do is nurture it. And you’ve done a wonderful job with him.”
The sliver of sky he could see beyond the window had grown dark the next time Gary opened his eyes. He stared at it, puzzled. Was it the same day, or had he slept around the clock? Feeling more than a little disoriented, Gary carefully turned his head to look around the quiet room. The eerie silence was broken only by the beeping of the monitor above his head. Was he alone, or did he hear soft breathing noises in the corner behind him? Cautiously shifting his position to see better, he couldn’t quite suppress a soft cry as pain seared his wounded shoulder.
“Gary?” A dim shadow separated itself from the darkness of the corner. “It’s me,” the soft voice whispered. “Crystal.”
“C-Crystal?” he stammered in a weak, almost inaudible whisper. “Y-you okay?”
The young woman chuckled in the darkness, her soft laughter living up to her name. “Your parents said that would be the first thing out of your mouth,” she replied. “I’m fine, Gary. What about you? How are you feeling?”
“M’okay,” he murmured. “Li’l . . . weak, b-but okay. Wh-what day is it?”
“You’ve been running a fever for the last three days,” she whispered. Her silhouetted form glanced over to where another shape occupied the other corner. “Bonnie’s still sleeping, I think. Oh, Gary! I’m so sorry! When I saw th-the blood and you . . . I’m so sorry! I never would’ve pointed that thing anywhere near you if I’d known . . .”
“You didn’t know,” Gary told her. “It’s not your fault. Or Bonnie’s. Don’t . . . don’t go blaming yourself . . . f-for something you didn’t do.” He closed his eyes briefly as a he fought a wave of dizziness. “I’m gonna be f-fine,” he assured her. “Not . . . not the f-first time, ya know. Ol’ p-pro . . . at this.” His eyes were already beginning to grow heavy. “Sorry,” he murmured drowsily. “Guess ‘m a li’l more tired ‘n I thought.”
“That’s okay, boss man,” Crystal sniffled. Was she crying? “We’ll be here when you wake up. Go back to sleep.”
Concerned by the tearful tone of her voice, Gary fought against the pull of a deeper darkness. “You . . . you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“I’m fine, Gary,” she promised him. “Now. Just shut your eyes and get some rest. You’ll probably have a ton of visitors tomorrow.”
“C’n hardly wait,” Gary murmured softly. A moment later, his rhythmic breathing told Crystal that he had finally given in to sleep.
“Crystal?” Bonnie Rousseau murmured sleepily. “Is he alright?”
The young actress softly stroked her friend’s cheek as she dabbed at her face with a tissue. “He’s fine,” she whispered huskily. “He’s just fine.”
There was a warm . . . tingly feeling in his wounded shoulder. A faint hum that bordered on the edge of audibility sounded somewhere above him. Slowly, Gary turned his head toward where he thought the noise was coming from. Blinking to bring sleep glazed eyes into focus, he was surprised to see a familiar face framed by short blonde hair. Eyes closed, she was holding a glowing disc in the palm of her hand. The soft yellowish/orange light seemed to penetrate straight to the deepest core of his pain. Still only half conscious, it took a moment for Gary to realize what the device was and what she was doing. He quickly brought his left hand up, jostling her arm and breaking her concentration.
“Are you crazy?” he hissed. “You . . . you shouldn’t be . . . be doing this!”
“It’s alright, son,” a deep voice replied. Gary turned his head a little further to see another familiar face. “Dr. Fraiser went over your chart before we did anything.”
“G-General?” Gary stammered. He almost didn’t recognize the Air Force officer in civilian clothes. Looking from the balding man to the blonde major, Gary tried to make sense of their presence in his hospital room. “Wh-what . . .?”
“You had a small pocket of infection that was resisting the medication,” Samantha Carter told him in a near whisper. “I was clearing it up before it could erode the nerve. How are you feeling?”
“B-better,” he assured her. Truthfully, he did feel better. The fever that had been burning inside him for the last few days was completely gone, and he no longer had the lingering queasiness that had been plaguing him each time he awoke. He spared a glance at the bandages that enveloped most of his chest. His right arm was buried under there, somewhere. “I w-would’ve thought you guys had m-more . . . important things t-to worry about.”
General George Hammond pulled a chair up closer to the bed and sat down before answering the implied question. Major Carter retreated to a corner of the room to lock the device away in her briefcase.
“Don’t underestimate your own importance, Mr. Hobson,” the general told him. “Just a little over a year ago you and Dr. Jackson were abducted on the orders of a rather . . . unusual faction. It’s true you only came to their attention when you kept saving my people, but the fact remains that you could still be in considerable danger from these villains. In the course of that little . . . adventure you were let . . . no, thrown into a project that is . . . not ready for public scrutiny. That alone could have put you in considerable danger.”
“Already, umph, figured that out,” Gary muttered, carefully levering himself to a more comfortable position. He fumbled for the bed controls for a moment, then raised the head of the bed so that he was able to see the rest of the room. Dr. Janet Fraiser was holding a whispered conference with Major Carter, consulting the medical chart in her hands as she spoke. “I, sorta, mentioned th-the incident to . . . to Detective Armstrong. Just reminded him of th-the actual kidnapping. Along with a-about half a dozen other i-incidents.” He couldn’t suppress a chuckle at the officer’s reaction. “Y-you think I c’n do . . . wh-what I do . . . without stepping on a f-few toes? I was getting b-beat up . . . long time before I met you guys.”
“I see,” the senior officer nodded. “So you think your shooting is more likely to be associated with one of these other incidents?”
“Yes,” Gary murmured, nodding. “Don’t know for sure, but I’d feel a lot . . . a lot better if that were the case. I’m having e-enough nightmares as it is.”
“Given your history,” Dr. Fraiser commented, giving him an impish grin, “I’m not surprised.” She pulled out a penlight, flashing it first in one eye, then the other. “How many times does this make? Seven? Eight?”
“Doesn’t count,” he replied, returning her smile. “Heart didn’t even stutter this time. Or so they tell me.”
“Daniel will be happy to hear that,” Samantha chuckled. “He’s confined to base until we know, for certain, that the two incidents aren’t related. We still haven’t located the men hired by your ‘friend,’ Kane. Or Mr. Kane, himself. It‘s like the man has dropped off the face of the Earth.”
Recalling the last conversation he’d had with Cade Foster, Gary could only nod and smile. She was a lot closer to the truth than he could safely say outside the Cheyenne Mountain Complex.
“I don’t think we have to worry about him anymore,” Gary murmured. He was beginning to feel tired, but not with the all-pervading weakness that had marked his previous awakenings. “I have it on good au-authority . . . th-that he’s not . . . not a problem anymore. What about . . . Golden Boy? Is he . . . is he still carryin’ a grudge?”
“Is he ever!” Hammond snorted. “That is one of the most single-minded . . . individuals I’ve ever encountered in my life. Seriously, Mr. Hobson, I’ve discussed this in as much detail as I dared with Detective Armstrong. He’s agreed to allow us to provide you with a couple of armed guards until we can determine one hundred percent that this was an accident.”
Gary tensed up at the mention of guards. As long as he was confined to the hospital, it was no big deal. Later, though, when he needed to move freely . . . that was another matter entirely.
“I-is that really necessary?” he asked. “I mean . . . I a-appreciate the offer and all, but . . .”
“It’s not negotiable,” the general told him in a tone that brooked no arguments. “Through no fault of your own, you’ve become privy to highly classified information, Mr. Hobson. Granted, you’ve never so much as mentioned it to another living soul and you were very circumspect when you prevented that incident over the Holidays last year. Still, someone could have targeted you to draw us out. Make us aware of just how vulnerable they perceive us to be.”
“I just don’t think that’s the case,” Gary sighed. “They’ll probably find that some live ammo got mixed in with the blanks by accident. Or-or that Oscar was given the wrong box at the gun shop. You’ll see. No one was out to deliberately hurt me, let alone kill me.”
Continue to Installment 3
Email the author: Polgana54@cs.com